It’s raining gin; exploring demijohn, the liquid deli

I don’t think I felt a more at home then when in the liquid deli DemiJohn. I mean it’s got everything; from sumptuously fruity elderflower vinegar, to dangerously moorish Seville orange gin. Somewhere round about in the middle they round the whole thing off with so-smooth-it-could-be-fruit-juice olive oil and balsamic vinegar so flavoursome, sweet, intense that it costs £500/l, and trying a spoonful I can see why. Put it this way, you would not drizzle this over your bog standard toasted veg, this deserves, Parma ham, chunks of crumbling Parmesan, slow sun dried tomatoes (the posh kind) or perfectly ripe plump red strawberries. All this in a quirky shop in Oxford’s self styled independent hub on the border of town and the more edgy Jericho; Little Clarendon Street. You would be forgiven for assuming this is a one off, struggling business, but no. You can also buy their remarkable rhubarb vodka in a few shops all over the country, York, Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as Oxford. But we’re not talking some corporate chain here. Ex-army captain Angus Ferguson ostensibly runs the show from rural Scotland but in reality he is very much the life and soul of the party, at the heart of every shop, happy to serve customers, incite his employees and nth use about his products which he is clearly passionate about. In fact ut was his idea to throw the Little Clarendon street party which I attended and demijohn was certainly the centre of the party, if it wasn’t for the abysmal British weather I fully expect students and tourists alike (normally bitter enemies) might even have come together dancing in the streets to the sounds of various musical acts discovered by Angus for the event, from Acapella to hard rock (minus the cafe). As I walked off down the street at the end of the day merrily holding a cocktail invented after a recent challenge to the nearby duke of Cambridge cocktail bar my mind was running with ideas to use the raspberry vinegar in a kale salad dressing or the marmalady gin in a cocktail, or even the gooseberry vinegar in a cocktail! One thing is for sure, demijohn is an inspiring place, maybe it was the intoxicatingly depth of the fruity flavours or just the enthusiasm of Angus and his team, I shall certainly be returning to stock up for my kitchen/ cocktail cupboard and I urge you to pop in and do the same, you won’t regret it. It’s worth noting you can buy online too! http://www.demijohn.co.uk

  

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Mayday! Mayday!

I don’t know if you realise but in Oxford May Day is a big deal. I mean really big. We temporarily shed our old school – 14th century – eccentric reputation and go more old school 9th century pagan bat shit crazy. I’m talking brass bands in the streets, madrigals from Magdalen tower at 6am, Morris dancing in fancy dress and of course in the time honoured British tradition; drinking from dawn (although does it count if you never really stopped)…. I’m almost disappointed I didn’t join in this year. Then again being an old lady who survives on the minimum amount of sleep during the week, getting up at my usual time (6am) seemed a little unnecessary. Besides apparently in the modern age you don’t even need to be there to join in the festivities, the madrigals from magdalen college were live streamed on Facebook. I could enjoy them from my cosy bed a couple of hours later. However considering I was awoken by my father at 6.15am and informed we were going to breakfast to at least pretend we’d been joining the throngs in the streets, against my better judgement I was thrust into the bizarre dream world that is May Day morning. It’s like still that feeling after a crazy party which went on till dawn. Even if you weren’t drinking the night before. It feels like everyone is either still drunk, or on the cusp of a hangover. You can drink before 8am, calories don’t matter and the more you look like you haven’t slept, the better. What a beautiful may morning it was. The sun was out, the brass band was playing, everyone was smiling and I was heading to an free, albeit early, breakfast. What a disappointment. I didn’t mention the down side to this glorious Oxford only holiday. The restaurants know everyone will want breakfast. They know everyone will pay a bomb and seemingly not care what they’re eating. But I’m afraid I’m not everyone. Maybe it’s just me, but when I order smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in a restaurant I usually expect toast or something with it, especially at £8.50. Even worse when I asked for toast they said they weren’t doing bread today. I couldn’t tell whether it was a veiled attempt to encourage me onto a low carb diet or just a cheapskate restaurant trying to conceal the fact they’d run out of a staple of the breakfast menu on one of there busiest breakfast services in the year. Either way Quod was in my bad books. Especially because I don’t get treated to breakfast out often. Heck during the week most meals are a mixture of tasting as I cook and apples, munched sporadically through the day.This rant is mostly culminating in an explanation of why I felt a craving for such a ridiculously hipster lunch. I’m mostly ironically disparaging to the Instagram gurus obsessed with avocado and kale and cashew nut cheese. But secretly, I’m one of them. I’m probably the only person who genuinely really likes kale but it’s really tasty and it feels like your eating your way to the elixir of youth, which can’t be a bad thing. Maybe I’m just hanging out with students too much but feeling world weary and old at 23 can’t be a good thing. So here’s my recipe for avocado, marmite and smoked salmon toast with kale and purple sprouting broccoli salad, walnut and maple dressing. #notnigella #iknownigelladidarecipeforthisandgotridiculedmaybeimjustasbad #healthguru #deliciouslymeta #ironic #dontjudgemebecauseimgreen #marmitegoeswitheverything

1 avocado

1 slice toast (preferably sourdough)

Marmite

Chilli flakes

Smoked salmon

Kale

Walnut oil

Rice wine vinegar

Sea salt

Maple syrup

Purple sprouting broccoli

It’s simple to be honest, but oh so delicious. Just toast the bread. Blanch the broccoli in boiling and refresh in cold water. Combine 3 parts walnut oil to 1 part rice wine vinegar and season to taste with sea salt and maple. Pour over kale and microwave for 1 min. Add broccoli. Top bread with a thin layer of marmite, avocado and smoked salmon. Eat.

I know you don’t really need a recipe but you’ll get over it. Some people like to follow instructions and if you follow these you get a damn good meal. I’d call it brunch, but I already had breakfast…

Perfectionism; it’s time for a change. Mourning Benoit Violier.

In today’s paper there was a sad story. It was about the suicide of a Michelin starred chef, Benoit Violier, head chef of the ‘worlds best restaurant’: Restaurant De L’Hotel De Ville Crissier-Suisse in Switzerland. The man who had reached the pinnacle of success in the culinary world. The 44 year old had it all; a successful restaurant, a beautiful wife, a young son, so why did he end it? Because as a chef you are the only artist whose legacy is destroyed or made by a masterpiece that is demolished within minutes of creation. You are only as good as your last dish.

Imagine if Da Vinci could only be a success if he produced copy after copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ to order within 15mins of each other. Or if Mozart was written off as a failure because he messed up bar.74 of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ the 20th time he performed it despite working a 90hr week. Or even if Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, whilst an accolade, simply meant that he was expected to nail every take he did on his next film first time, whilst conveying the emotion of his performance in ‘The Theory of Everything’. And on top of that, everyone on the film set took a picture and immediately tweeted the achievement or demie of that single take. Welcome to the world of the professional chef. Everyone is an expert in food, because everyone eats. They know what they like,  they know what they don’t, they tell you when it’s overcooked, undercooked, over seasoned, not what they ordered and they discredit that business and livelihood you built up over years in a single line on Twitter, Instagram, a newspaper. I’m pretty sure Justin Bieber would not have brushed off his bad performance at last week’s O2 arena gig if he’d lost his Grammys based on that one show. 

Of course it is a chef’s lot. We buy into the lifestyle when we enter the industry. Chefs understand the risks, the pressure, the work. I’ve seen first hand chefs come in at 6am on their day off because a late shipment of beef meant it hadn’t been prepped for that evening’s service. More worryingly I’ve seen a chef’s hand shaking when he comes back from the bathroom having just snorted cocaine because he was surviving on 2-3hours sleep and I’ve smelt vodka surreptitiously snuck in to the kitchen in water bottles. Arethe extremes what makes a good chef? 

I can’t say I’ve ever felt the pressures that Benoit Violier faced but I know what it’s like to feel like a failure. When you’ve cooked a steak a hundred times and this time you misjudge medium rare. When you’ve seasoned a sauce to perfection and this time you’ve forgotten you’re adding bacon so it’s over salted. I’ve come from a long line of pressurising environments; from a high achieving school to Cambridge, no matter what the teachers said my perfectionism meant, almost always, second best didn’t feel good enough. Whilst perfectionism in the industry is an issue that needs to be addressed, today’s sobering news is forcing me at least to reassess my own attitude. I’m at cookery school to learn, if I already knew everything there would be no point in paying the fees. The highest bar is always the one we set ourselves so you’re never going to be a success if you set up it at an impossible height. The same is probably true of Benoit Violier. Yes he had expectations to fill but at the end of the day it’s just food. All of us chefs would do well to remember that, it’s not worth dying for.

The Oxo restaurant: midweek meal

I have a strict rule of thumb since I’ve started cookery school; no late nights/drinking during the week. Since I am commuting from Oxfrd to London on a daily basis I can’t afford to get tired or turn up hungover while wielding a knife. But then again rules are made to be broken, and what a way to break my rule. Remember the amazing dinner at Le Manoir I blogged about a few weeks ago? Le me refresh your memory. 7 course tasting menu, fantastic conversation, caught up with Raymond Blanc?  Well when the same line up invited me out for dinner again at the OXO tower in London I wasn’t going to turn it  down. 

    
 I have been to the OXO tower once before, but not to eat. Since my sister moved to a London we’ve gone out of our way to find fun, quirky things to do in London together, preferably cheap, in order to spend time together (apparently my scintillating conversation isn’t enough….) one of our favourite things to do is a treasure hunt . We might both be suffering from Peter Pan syndrome but there is just something about walking around and discovering London (new for us Oxford-folks) through a series of cryptic clues sent to your phone. http://www.inthehiddencity.com/london-treasure-hunt/ I sound like I advertise for them, I don’t (I wish, maybe I should….please let me!! ) go anyway. One of our hunts we ended up on the top of the OXO tower. I can’t exaggerate the view enough. It is phenomenal. You can see the entire line the river, St Paul’s, the Shard, Buckingham palace, and guess what, it’s even better at night. 

  I arrived 15 minutes early and twiddled by thumbs at the bar. Normally I am never so impolite (although seriously- who really believes you should never be on time for a dinner party, clearly someone who has never cooked a dinner party) but storm Jonas was raging outside and I was cold. So consequently I stared at the view for 15 minutes. I probably could’ve stared at it for 30mins and it would’ve still been as mesmerising. I know we go to restaurants for the food, but actually for me (a major foodie) if the atmosphere isn’t there, the restaurant falls short. On the other hand, if the restaurant has amazing atmosphere I might forgive it a few food points. It might have been necessary here, but I can’t complain, I lucked out. I started with a melting salmon confit on a sweet potato pancake, beetroot and horseradish cream; other table dishes included the addictive salty langoustines with garlic butter and a platter of duck for two with Jerusalem artichokes and gingerbread. 

  Then. What a main course. I reluctantly agreed to share the Chateaubriand, just to help out a fellow foodie. It was cooked perfectly, a dark pink centre, complemented by melting buttered girrolle mushrooms and an intense beef jus. The Gruyere cheese mash was also something special. I apologise for not getting a photo, I was too busy savouring the meal. My only complaint would be that the carrots, while beautifully presented as whole baby carrots complete with tops, were hard as rocks, a little hard to eat. Unfortunately the Venison Wellington (shared by one set of father/son) fell short. Restaurants really ought say if they include such a dominant flavoured blue cheese in a dish. The beef fillet with cauliflower and walnut dressing promised a lot but seemed a little dull and small for its price. Again the vegetarian at the table commented that whilst ok, her butternut squash dish was nothing special, a shame when vegetarianism is being explored in such an exciting way at other restaurants currently. 

 Despite being rather full from the main, my pudding stomach was fairly excited by the array of desserts. So of course we decided to split a few. The Rhubarb mousse, gin sorbet and earl grey meringues boasted some impressive flavour in the meringues, less so with the sorbet (honourable mention to the octopus inspired presentation plate). The lemon meringue pie and cardamon ice cream melted in the mouth and the chocolate plate lived up to its reputation. It was rich (probably a good thing we were sharing) but the smoked white chocolate mousse alone was worth it. Finally a quick mention about the drinks. Well worth a try is the martini menu. A perfect martini should be ice cold, but not watery, biting and either salty or faintly sweet and the Oxo tower had something for everything on the spectrum. I enjoyed tantalisingly labelled 1953 or the Vesper (yes I do think I’m James Bond) gin, vodka and aromatised wine with a lemon twist, shaken not stirred. I could easily come back just for the view and another martini. The Atmosphere gets a 9 from me, the food a solid 7, the drinks push up to an 8 and the company is always a 10. 

Twas the Season: The Gingerbread house

I know this is a little late but as christmas is my favourite time of year I can be indulged into stretching out the festive season. I can come up with more excuses. Feel free to take your pick: I’ve been busy as cookery school has just started, I’m feeling grumpy because of the cold weather and I’m rebelling against the usual view of January as the month of abstinence. 

The Gingerbread house my friend and I made might just be the antithesis of abstinence. I believe we covered most of the major food groups: chocolate, toffees, marshmallows, sweets and of course plain old sugar. Even the centre of the house contained a hidden treat of all the sweets leftover, the windows were boiled sweets and the ‘snow’ was marshmallow frosting. Of course this wasn’t so much a cookery session but rather a challenge in architectural design. Using an adhesive icing, similar to the consistency of superglue we gingerly (excuse the pun), tried to join together pieces of gingerbread meticulously measured with rulers and templates – and still then we didn’t get them straight….. -. I’m not sure whether the icing had drunk some of the mulled wine we were enjoying as we put this together but it was definetly touch and go for a bit as we held it together whilst it dry. The chimney was definitely drunk.  However it was all worth it. Other than an excuse to dance around the kitchen to christmas music (hghlights included Buble’s album and ‘Christmas goes Baroque’) whilst consuming excessive amounts of sugar there was actually a more targeted purpose. 

Throwing myself into my short lived career as a babysitter this autumn wasn’t as smooth sailing as I hoped. Babysitting in sixth form had been a doddle. The children were generally old enough to practically take care/amuse themselves or they were asleep in bed and I watched tv. However, try amusing a 3 year old for the whole afternoon and you will begin to understand why nannying is so well paid. There is only a certain amount of ‘lets pretend’ game situations I can enact. So I decided to approach babysitting with ales son plan approach. We made cards, went to see the ducks and of course my personal favourite; cooking. Turns out the three year old is rather keen on it too. Plus she is excellent at washing up. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a three year old, standing on a chair in marigolds singing her own washing up song. So with Christmas approaching we embarked on our most ambitious at; the gingerbread house, along with her older sister. We baked it, she got bored and watched CBeebies while I cut it out and then we all decorated. Out it this way. Some sides were decorated by the 3 year old, some by the 11 year old and some by the 23 year old….but it stuck together and we were rather proud of our efforts are more than a little intoxicated by sugar. The next day I receive a text from the parents of said children asking for a photo. They explained that they had misunderstood the purpose of the house and eaten it… The 11 year old hadn’t spoken to them for a day. All in all I couldn’t have found a more deserving recipient of the house my friend and I made, the kids faces were probably what Christmas is all about. Can’t wait till next year now.

   
    
 

TCS Column no.2: Misogyny in the Kitchen

I’ve been very lucky in life. I am fully committed to the feminist cause, but I’ve never felt able to be that vocal on the subject as I personally have never really experienced discrimination. With a mother and a sister who are both wildly successful from pure hard work, I’ve never felt that I couldn’t achieve whatever I set my mind to. But the restaurant industry has given me a taste of what it’s like to be put down because of your gender. As one 35 year old man eloquently put it when referring to a mistake he had attributed to me which had actually been made by a female co-worker “well they’re all pretty much the same”.Every kitchen I’ve worked in has had a disproportionate number of women and they’ve mostly worked in the dessert kitchen. I get it, tattoos, knives, muscles; cooking is a macho world. Having said this I have also had some really positive experiences of turning the stereotype on its head. For example it was quite something when, having volunteered my ipod as background music to prep work, the chefs chose The Marriage of Figaro Overture. It can be the most satisfying feeling in the world when you prove yourself to a bunch of mildly patronising men and prove that women can be strong, capable and innovative in the kitchen. But it’s sad that these positive experiences are overwhelmed by cases of a few men trying to prove they are the biggest bullies in the kitchen. It shouldn’t be the case in some of the top Michelin starred restaurants in England. One place I worked had a dangerously discriminative atmosphere. A small group of chefs undermining the women in the kitchen rippled through to influence other chefs, porters and waiters. It was little surprise that during my short time there 1 female chef walked out, another gave her notice and the last woman left was new that week.

No wonder that internationally there are over 100 Michelin starred male chefs and just 6 female. This is often put down to anti-social hours being hard to balance with family life, but as the reported 92% increase in the UK of female NEDs in just the past three months shows (Forbes, June 2015), that isn’t what has been holding women back. For a man to show weakness in this industry is a failure; for a woman, it’s career suicide. Luckily women are fighting back. As the Old Boys Club ‘The Savoy Grill’ hires its first female head chef in its 126 history, most kitchens are learning the hard way that women are here to stay. But it’s a shame that in the 21st century, a few restaurants remain a bullying and sexist environment.

Le Manoir: The Guest Experience.

I often realise how lucky I am with my family. When I read the articles about ‘preparing’ for Christmas where others talk about throwing ornaments, seating plans and drinking to mask uncle Alfred’s stories, I thank god that my family are rather good company. I have in the past lamented the fact my family are not large enough for my Christmas spread and how much I need some teenage boys to wolf down the 11 side dishes I provide. It is a very small, first world problem I face in my family, but then again not many people have 8 in the extended relations category. Let me introduce them. There’s my grandad, this 93 year old world traveller can proudly claim that he recently flaunted an 80years or over ban on a submarine exhibit (swinging through the port holes), travelled on the train down to visit us on his own and gleefully was in charge of twister spinning last Christmas which got more and moreI agitative as he abandoned the spinner. On the other side of the family is the 93 year old, mildly racist grandma, who recent asked my (happily married) mother if she had a nice young man, said to me ‘you look really good, it’s good you’ve lost a bit of weight, I’m sure it will help you find a boyfriend’ and whilst in hospital for a hip replacement ‘ are you alright? Why am I in bed when it’s you who needs a hip replacement?. There is my aunt and One Direction/Justin Bieber loving cousin. Then we have my mother, fiercely intelligent but constantly busy, my father, with a headmaster’s presence which makes you think he’s a lot taller than his 5″10 height and my sister who is living the city life with a job in property – I still have no idea what she actually does…-.

So it’s rather nice to catch up with more distant relations who we don’t see at christmas and realise that I’m lucky that even my over-extended family are extremely good company. I was not going to turn down the opportunity to go to Le Manoir Quatre Saisons with my grandma’s sister’s grandson and his family. They do do things rather well at Le Manoir. It is the little details, from the fairy light lit drive and impeccable valet service (they even retrieved my bag from the car) to the perfect decor, dietary tailored menus and exemplary level of attention – neither too much nor too little-. I may have got a bit excited when we arrived because Le Manoir is my old stomping ground and first experience of working in a professional kitchen. My time at Le Manoir inspired the realisation I actually wanted a career in food and I haven’t looked back, well except the following year when I went back to do more experience…  

I could waffle on for ages about the perfect gin martinis I had pre dinner and the beautifully presented canapés but let’s cut to the chase of the 7 course tasting menu. Our first surprise was the selection of bread on offer. I wish I could remember all the different types but highlights included sun dried tomato ciabatta, pecan and raisin and the intriguing beer and mashed potato bread which the couple of foodies around the table decided to try. Surprisingly light and moreish it has been added to the list of things to attempt. 

 

Butternut Squash Soup

 
Our first course was the best butternut squash soup you have ever tasted, displaying what Le Manoir does impeccably, highlighting the flavours of the natural ingredients. It was accompanied by a perfectly cooked scallop and blue cheese garnished crouton, which I actually enjoyed despite my normal dislike of blue cheese. The courses just improved with the next being a highlight. A melting salmon confit, topped with a little caviar to enhance the flavour and accompanied with a little potato salad and lemon, apple and cucumber to compliment rather than overwhelm. Then came a perfectly poached duck egg in a round ball (hitting my attempts far far far out of the water) with wild mushroom tea. I’m scraping the barrel for criticisms but I will say I would’ve preferred a slightly richer mushroom flavour in the broth and possibly an individual teapot the customer could pour themselves just to add a little theatre. This is possibly the only area some other restaurants have the edge on Le Manoir. My personal favourite is Midsummer House in Cambridge which for me finds a great balance between the theatricality of The Fat Duck and the simple flavours of Le Manoir.  

Salmon Confit

Poached Egg

 Anyhoo. The next course was, I believe, my favourite, – which when I looked at the menu I wouldn’t have said – but the subtle flavours of cucumber against a poached brill fillet, scallop and a little kick of wasabi was literally heaven in bowl. It was at this point I regretted earlier getting excited about wine after some phenomenal champagne and letting slip about my wine course last summer; as the pressure was on to pick a perfect more floral white. Luckily even the non-white wine drinker enjoyed it, dodged a bullet there. Next was the venison, thin slices of perfectly rare meat with a simple red wine jus and potato cake topped with caviar again, a surprise addition. Another unusual garnish was the chicory leaves and microherbs adding a fresh burst of colour and texture, lifting the dish from a traditional venison, blackberry or like combo, giving Le Manoir the edge.  

 

Venison

 
I would usually judge a restaurant on its desserts as from experience it is sometimes where restaurants try and cut corners, failing to hire specialist pastry chefs. But having been behind the scenes I knew Le Manoir had one of the most exciting pastry kitchens I’ve ever seen. Think Willy Wonka’s workshop. There is a rumour the pastry chef at Le Manoir is judging the upcoming professional take on Great British Bake off and I don’t doubt it, desserts are a serious business at Le Manoir. They didn’t mess around with dessert no.1. It promised apple and it delivered an overwhelmingly intense flavour of apple, unmarred by any others. Layers of compressed apples matched with a highly distinctive apple sorbet which we all agreed we could probably have had a bowl of on its own. The meal ended in style with a beautiful chocolate and coffee concoction. A praline layer, chocolate ganache, coffee ice cream, even gold leaf and espresso mousse gave an intense hit. Oh and then Raymond Blanc came over to the table to say hi. Even gave me some advice about my chocolate making ambitions, but that would be telling. Not a bad end to the  night.

 

Chocolate, Espresso Delice

 Le Manoir excels at stripping food back to ingredients, generally favouring to streamline one or two flavours rather than wacky combinations or too many. Some chefs should take note of the cooking style: sometimes simplicity is best; the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. What an evening. Good Food, Good Wine, Great Company. As my uncle said, we should live our lives through experiences and I will be dining out (pardon the pun) on and remembering this one for a very long time.