Monday 31 December 2007


We've just spent 9 days in Switzerland. Stunning weather - 7 of those days were clear blue skies and sunshine, beaming down on snow and ice - but not really a high point on my culinary calendar. Had a few memorable meals: the bratwurst and rosti in the picture was everything you want from bratwurst and rosti; had a really delicious cheese fondue with slices of porcini mushroom in it in Geneva; had an extraordinary garlic and white wine soup followed by an enormous steak cooked on a hot stone in Wengen. But generally it has to be said that the food was pedestrian.

We were on half-board at the hotel, and I think that was a mistake. It meant we felt like we were wasting money to eat elsewhere, but the food at the hotel wasn't all that good. The "Gala Christmas Banquet" on Christmas Eve was a case in point.

Amuse Bouche
This was created by someone who doesn't understand the point of an amuse bouche. It is supposed to be a tiny, delicate mouthful to excite the palate and give an indication of the virtuoso cooking to come. In this case, it was a large triangle of soggy white toast, piled with pale green "avocado" puree that tasted of cream cheese and onion powder, surmounted by half a wrinkled cherry tomato.

Beef Carpaccio
The carpaccio had been plated so long before that it had fused to the plate, and could hardly be scraped up.

Carrot-ginger soup
A reasonable soup. Couldn't taste the carrot for the maggi seasoning and cream, but it was a pleasant enough puree.

Fishrolls with salmon on white sauce
A slab of white fish, a slice of smoked salmon, rolled up and served, as they say, on white sauce. Also prepared long enough in advance to give nice, withered edges to the fish.

Plum sorbet
Really good, although I think serving a sorbet in between courses numbs the palate and ruins your wine.

Back of calf with cepecreamsauce beside Williampotatoes and filled tomatoes
OK, so English was not the first language of the person who wrote the menus. A very small piece of tender, slow-cooked meat - possibly veal - smothered in a mushroom sauce that tasted like Heinz cream of mushroom soup and had no obvious porcini flavour. Williampotatoes turned out to be pear-shaped nuggets of reconstituted powdered potatoes, crumbed and fried. The half tomato was filled with mealy, mushy peas.

Filled roasted apple beside warm vanillasauce with marzipan, raisin, vanilla pudding
Baked apple on Christmas-appropriate lumpy custard. Filled with half a teaspoon more custard. No sign of marzipan, raisin or vanilla pudding.

Still, it was better than our final meal of vealbreast stuffed with a block of spam.

Sunday 9 December 2007

New Year's Eve

Clearly, I am jumping the gun. All the magazines are featuring Christmas cooking and I am sidestepping that and heading straight to New Year's Eve. You see, we are going away for Christmas, so I will have little or no say in what we eat for Christmas. But we are back late on the 29th and intend to stay home and eat something delicious to celebrate the New Year.

The tricky thing is, of course, that we will be left with very little time to shop for ingredients. So my feeling is that I order something fab over the internet and have it delivered before we go away, stick it in the deepfreeze and come home with nothing to worry about other than fresh veg and post-holiday laundry. My husband thinks that we will discover an amazing specialty on our holiday and will want to reproduce it for NYE, but I am not convinced.

Someone was telling me about smoked swordfish carpaccio, that they had in Venice. I think that would make a heavenly starter, simply with lemon and olive oil and maybe a little rocket. You can get smoked swordfish from Derimon Smokery in Wales, which would be quite an easy option. On the other hand, they also do smoked goose breasts, so I could replicate the smoked goose carpaccio I had in Florence... but I think seafood in some form would be a better starter. I'd love potted shrimps of course, but bizarrely my husband doesn't adore them the way I do. Either swordfish or shrimps would be lovely with champagne.

As the main event, I was vacillating between the Heal Farm multiple gamebird roast and a stuffed whole pheasant from Donald Russell, but I seem to have wavered for too long and the game bird roast is no longer on the Heal Farm site. So pheasant it will be! I think with puy lentils and chestnuts, and buttered cabbage on the side. My husband put in a vote for a roast rack of venison, so I might order one of them as well, to leave options open.

For pudding I am in no real doubt. The December Delicious magazine contains the recipe for the gorgeous muscat caramel custard I had at 32 Great Queen St a couple of months ago, so I intend to make that, with whatever pudding wine we intend to have with it. I might buy one of the intense Australian liqueur muscats, which would really sing with the dark caramel. As a slightly lighter option though, I am toying with the idea of making a muscat pannacotta using the method I learned in Florence instead. But the texture of the caramel custard was so good it would be a shame to miss it.

Friday 7 December 2007

The trouble with texture

This is not a review of the new restaurant, Texture. It is just a pathetic whimper about how texture is no substitute for taste!

Last night, we went to a French wine tasting dinner at our local pub. Interestingly, all 4 wines on offer were red. Unfortunately, I have a heavy cold and couldn't actually pick wine from water by smell.

As a first course we could either have baked camembert in a box with crusty bread shared between 2 people, or a classic French onion soup. The cheese had a lovely creamy texture, and my husband said it was very pungent. The bread let it down - white and fluffy, not a bit crusty or countrified. The wine was a Chinon, quite thin and a very light red colour. Apparently it is quite good chilled as an aperitif.

Then there was beef bourguinonne with mash and veg. The beef was lovely - very tender and quite juicy - but there was no bacon or little onions in the sauce (so I think my way is better). The mash had just enough texture to it to be reassuring that it wasn't Deb (which I think is called Smash in this country); the veg (mange tout) were perfectly balanced between crisp and floppy. The wine was made from 100% pinot noir. A little more substantial on the palate than the previous one, but I was still getting nothing from it. My husband was diving into it, which leads me to believe that it was a very delicate wine. It certainly wasn't puckering my mouth the way the massive tannin-y shiraz I like does.

I think the kitchen made an error of judgement now, and decided to serve the pudding before the cheese. So out came what they called a pear tarte tatin and I would have called a fine tart. It really wasn't caramelly enough to be a tarte renverse; the pears were only lightly cooked and showed no sign of being upside down. But the pastry was short and flakey and the creme anglais on the side was the thickest custard I've ever seen without the aid of cornflour. There was a definite change in the wine served with this. I could feel much more of a syrupy texture and a blunt sugar hit on my tongue.

Going back to cheese was a bit odd. What I would have judged to be quite a young, chalky goats cheese tasted as mild as butter and I decided there was no point even trying the others. The wine felt thin again after the dessert wine and had a definitely acid edge. Since sauternes is so nice with blue cheese, I would have thought staying with sweet wines and maybe bringing out a fortified for the last course would have been a better move.

So, a very pleasant evening of textures with no flavour at all. Makes me wonder what on earth the pleasantly spicy kofta I'd had for lunch tasted like!


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