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.  

  

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The first instalment of my Cambridge Newspaper Columns

http://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/columns/0034665-culinary-dreamin-ad-hoc-interviews.html

Chocolate and more Chocolates

I’ve realised that if I actually want to commercialise my chocolates (watch this space) I probably should stop giving tips about how to make them. So here is some pure food porn of the chocolates I’ve been making. I’ve been getting a bit excited about making themed choocolates recently so apologies about how pretentious they might seem.

 

Dr Faustus – Chilli, Lime, Salted Caramel

 
 

Coconut Creme – Coconut ganache, toasted coconut, orange jelly, coffee ganache

 
Both made for the occasion of the book launch of The Tragick history of Henry Fowst by Griselda Heppel.

 

The Ella Fitzgerald Collection – It’s Alright with Me and Georgia on my Mind

 
It’s Alright with Me – Salted Caramels

Georgia on my Mind – Peach ganache, raspberry coulis, orange liqueur jelly

 

Part of the Noel Coward Collection – Don’t lets be beastly to the Germans

 
Noel Coward Collection

Don’t Lets be beastly to the Germans – Marzipan, Brandy Soaked Figs, Almond Ganache smothered in white chocolate.

I’ve been to a marvellous party – Honey and Ginger Caramel and Honeycomb covered in milk chocolate.

The Stately homes of England – Layers of blackberry ganache, lemon ganache in a milk chocolate cup, sprinkled with shortbread.

Cambridge hot spots: a few reviews

I may call myself a food blogger, but I am shamefully bad at what food bloggers are meant to do, write reviews. You know, the archetypal wanker who takes out their phone at the dinner table and snaps a quick pic of everyone’s food before anyone is allowed to touch it. That used to be me! But recently I’ve been mostly posting recipes, a much more egotistical version of food blogging. So I’ve decided to cover a few staples of the Cambridge culinary scene. Some of the places I would be most likely to frequent when socialising, with the exception of the. Maypole pub, I don’t think it needs much more endorsement as I am probably single handedly financing it.

Catesby’s

Ok so shameful plug, this is where I work. But they do have a fantastic Welsh Rarebit which generally keeps regulars coming back time again. Their simplistic approach to lunch is perfect for when you are craving a light classic lunch and the homemade cakes are a welcome change from the manufactured coffee shop chains. Plus I’ve heard the service is excellent. 

Bills

Bills is a staple for breakfast whenever the parents are in town and they rarely fail to disappoint. I particularly recommend their vegetarian breakfast. It’s unusual to be able to find a veggie version that doesn’t just disappoint or try to replace meat with weak vegetarian versions, in Bills the meaty elements are replaced with tasty humours and guacamole, making it better ( in my eyes) than the original. Another highlight on the Bills menu are their cocktails. Not the first place you would think for a pre dinner drink but they have a modest menu of a mix of classics and more unusual cocktails. I highly recommend the Bramble Mojito, which (despite its bright purple appearance) packs a punch and carries a strong blackberry flavour without being too sweet (a fault happy hour cocktails often carry…). Of course when you have a drink there, you cannot fail but accompany it with some giant spicy tortilla chips, guacamole, tzatziki and salsa. The German Gal and I are addicted. So. Much so that I am ashamed to say on one particularly decadent occasion, we had one plate each to accompany our bramble mojitos… Crunchy, mildly spicy, giant, fried pieces if tortilla dipped in so creamy-you-won’t-believe-it’s-yoghurt tzatziki is fast becoming my idea of heaven. The one thing I have been let down on my Bills unfortunately is the main event, which seems a shame. When I went there for dinner with my family my chicken leg in a cremy sweetcorn sauce was tasty, but a meagre portion for £15 with no vegetables and barely any actual meat on the bone. Likewise when I came and had the chicken skewers with couscous salad and pitta on another occasion, the couscous salad was dry and lacked flavour. Maybe I’m just choosing the wrong things, especially when they get other things on their menu so right. 

 

Bills’s vegetarian breakfast

 
Cote

Cote is the posh dinner out for the Cambridge student, whether it’s date night, extravagent birthday dinner or parents in town. I recently went with a group of girl friends to celebrate the German gal coming back from Germany for the weekend. One of the main things that always confuses me about Cote is their insistence upon serving water in weighted bottles, which, whilst pretty, never seem to hold much water and also mean that you constantly forget you’ve run out of water as they always feel full. Cote usually get the food right though. They do a decently priced set lunch/ early evening which offers three courses for £11.90 or 2 for £9.90, one lunch there I had a buttery, sweet crumble with melt in the mouth vanilla ice cream oozing creaminess on the top.  

Apple Crumble

Back to the girls dinner.since Cote is ostensibly a french restaurant, I decided to go for the traditional cassoulet dish. I was not disappointed. There were large chunks of melting meat, especially the on-the-bone lamb fillet, and a thick comforting tomato sauce, full of punchy, meaty provencale flavours. My only criticism was that the pork belly was too fatty and would have benefitted from being roasted or flash fried before being added to the cassoulet so that you weren’t just faced with lumps of fat but scored morsels of flavour. The Queen soprano had opted for the Cote staple, pan fried steak with their signature chips, whilst there are many good steak houses in Cambridge (the best has to be Cau, closely followed by  Cambridge Chophouse) Cote definetly wins the price for simplicity and flavour. Their steak doesn’t apologise for being flash fried, medium rare as the Parisians like it and with the ultimate french fries, think as moreish as McDonalds after a night out, if they used less chemicals, less saltand gave you a real napkin. All in all with Cote, you know what you’re getting. They do classical french well, a chain that doesn’t feel like a chain. Having said that, they rarely change their menu which can mean that you feel a tad bored after the 5th visit in so many years.

 

Cassoulet

Steak and Chips

  

Jamie’s Pizzeria

I made a sneaky visit to Jamie’s pizzeria with an old friend when they came into town. Zizzi’s had failed me on a Saturday night, but the 17seater pizzeria upstairs in. Jamie ‘so was practically empty. It was a shame. It’s not outrageously expensive, it has a simple menu in the vibe of a rustic Italian trattoria and has decent wine served in short wine glasses in an eclectic fashion. Admittedly the pizzeria is tucked away upstairs and can be intimidating with the intimacy of the setting, but it more than makes up for it with some of the best tomato sauce I’ve tasted in a chain italian restaurant. The pizza base is that thin, scorched crisp bread variety which I last had at the pizza show in Rome.  ( literally what it sounds like, a five course pizza tasting menu for €10 – I love the italians the tomato sauce carried an incredibly punchy tomato flavour, I dispersed with dollops of half melted mozzarella for the authentic rustic Italian meal. This pizzeria lacks the finesse and diversity of the pizza express pizza but it is way more authentic and dare I say it, much more tasty. 

 

Pepperoni Pizza

 
Stickybeaks

Finally the to go venue for the yummy mummies of Cambridge. Stickybeaks is the ultimate kitsch home-made style cafe. The sort of place that students playing ladies who lunch would aspire to go. Which is exactly where the anthropologist professor,  Labours secret weapon and I went, in a break from choir rehearsals. (Admittedly it was more because we wanted a different scene to the monotonous chains of pret and Eat than we aspired or had the time to be ladies that lunch but you get the idea). It’s the sort of place where you share tables, newspapers and food magazines are offered as a courtesy and iced coffees are served in tumblers. However despite the fact Stickybeaks could very well adhere to this cutesie vibe and overcompensate with the food, the simple salads and warming treats (such as the sumptuous sausage roll, thick tortilla or layered coconut granola pot) are well made and fairly priced. We were never talking subway prices but you have to be be willing to give independent cafe a bit more, plus the ambience. My Chorizo and egg salad is the main reason I include Stickybeaks on the list, well worth the money, the salad was flavoursome, eggs cooked to order to perfection and served with crunchy croutons for a filling (healthy feeling ) lunch.  

 

Wine: The classy way to get drunk.

I’ve never been a scientist. As my mother will tell you, I managed to get through my physics GCSE through a mixture of learning the text book and sheer luck. I’m sure my A-levels of Ancient Greek, Latin and Music (which of course I use all the time in everyday life…..) have something to do with the creative side of cooking, but one thing I never expected to find so fascinating was the science behind cooking. From the moment I discovered that some vague memory about how osmosis worked could actually be usefully applied when boiling potatoes, using osmosis to infuse the potatoes with flavour before mashing, I was hooked. It’s not just the science of food that has interested me recently, but I’ve been finding out a lot about wine as well. While I’m not going to be able to spill out all the information I accumulated about wine over a qualification i did this summer in one blog post, and it is almost impossible to understand how different wines taste unless you taste a lot of similar wines one after the other, there are a few things that might surprise you. For anyone who declares I only like Chardonnay; Chardonnay tastes completely different based on the climate – citrusy, fresh in a cool climate, tropical and rich in a warm climate. Red wine can only be made with red grapes but white can be made with both (as long as the red skins are removed). The colour (tannins) are in the skin. Italian wines are almost certainly high in acidity, it’s just how the Italians like it. If a wine says Grand Cru on it, the wine is one of the best, but Special Reserve technically has no guarantee of a good wine. Generally a grape that produces high tannin wine (thick skins e.g Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) will be better when it is aged and the tannins softened, but thinner skinned grapes (Merlot, Grenache, Pinot Noir) can be drunk earlier. And that is why I always drink Merlot in a pub. I could probably go on like this all day, proper wine geek.

In terms of wine/food pairings – there are a few rules: (If you do one of these courses you get given a handy card you can carry with you – which of course I use all the time…..)

 

While overkilling the wine geekery in a conversation with my friend, Madam Jojo,  she insisted that I design a wine tasting for her and some friends to put my skills to the test. Here is the menu, a little bit about what they taste like and the dishes I matched them with… on that note Majestic Wine were fantastic, great value, delivered to the house for free and huge selection.

Lindauer Special Reserve Blanc de Blancs
Sparkling White New Zealand, 100% Chardonnay, Butter, Biscuit, lemon
Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2012, Vocoret
White Burgundy, 100% Chardonnay, citrus, green apple, minerality

Smoked Salmon, Crab Salad, Fennel, Apple, Avocado, Sourdough Bread

Marquis de Pennautier Chardonnay ‘Terroirs d’Altitude’, 2012 Pays D’oc
Southern France White, 100% Chardonnay, stone and tropical fruits, cloves
Château Tour du Haut Moulin, 2007, Cru Bourgeoise, Haut Medoc
Red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Merlot/Cab blend, blackberry, spice, smooth tannins

Spicy Black Beans, Bacon, Confit Potato, Creme Fraiche, Toasted Almonds

Matsu El Recio 2012, Toro
Intense Red, 100% Tempranillo, coffee beans, chocolate, overripe plums, smooth tannins
Royal Tokaji Late Harvest, 2012
Hungarian dessert wine, ripe peach, apricots, nectarine, high acidity so not cloying on palate

Orange Cream, Basil Jelly, Honey toasted oatmeal

  

  

Feastin

The benefits of singing in a choir may not be immediately obvious to those who don’t. There are the weekly hours you have to put in, the pressure of daily performance, the taking care of your voice. But for those in the know, it is all about the free food and drink: in this case, a decadent 6 course meal with rather nice wine in return for providing some musical entertainment. This is a once-in-a-term occurrence, but when the opportunity comes along we grab it with both hands.
So there we are, all dolled-up to the nines, the Fellows in gowns with red ribbons (for no apparent reason) – classic Cambridge madness. Following the champagne reception, and many photos, we traipsed into Hall. Caius’ food doesn’t usually wow me, but in this case it was rather different…

We started with a smoked chicken salad, mango purée and mango pieces. Whilst not a classic combination, it is certainly a modern favourite and was executed well. The chicken was tender, and the mango was not too sweet. Full marks for presentation to a college that normally serves their Formal Hall meals with a selection of sauce sachets on the table.

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Next we were treated to a delicious pan-fried white fish. I am not entirely sure which type of fish, as for some reason only known to Cauis they insist upon putting the menu in French, for those of us who aren’t multi-lingual – this means guesswork). Unfortunately the fish was served with a vanilla and orange cream. This was just too sweet for the delicate fish and resulted in the whole dish tasting rather like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

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Surprisingly my favourite course was the palate cleanser of Mojito sorbet. While admittedly it possibly would have been better as a dessert, it was minty and sweet and refreshing. There wasn’t much of an alcohol kick to it, but I’m not sure we necessarily needed it by that point…

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For the main course, what else but a nice cut of beef. Sadly this was a little over-cooked: not awful, but I’m afraid not great. However the potatoes, classic new potato roasties, were delicious.

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Following this I believe we did a bit of singing, but that wasn’t really what I was there for. It was a shame that the dessert wasn’t anywhere near as good as previous feast desserts, which have mostly been some sort of variation on a Black Forest gateau. This was just a thick and overly-sweet fig jam in a pastry case with sugary cream on top. I was not the only one not to finish it. (There comes a point where even I can’t eat much more!)

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You would have thought that would be the end of the meal, however it wouldn’t be a feast if there weren’t more courses than sense. Following some cheerful Wood madrigals, (Charles Wood, GCC 1889-1924), we launched into the cheese course, accompanied by claret, muscat and port. Luckily this is always my least favourite course, as I did not really want to eat much more by this point. Not only am I not a big fan of cheese – Sacre Bleu! – but also I find dessert wines just too cloying and sweet. A glass of port is alright, but any more than that is too much for me. This is why I have learnt to like whisky: my new after-dinner drink of choice.

So that was us quite literally singing for our supper. I think the overall message is that when every course has a sweet component, culminating in a sickly dessert, I would prescribe a low-sugar diet!

The House Party

It is sadly an altogether too rare delight that my housemates and I manage to be in the house all at the same time of an evening. Despite the fact we have lived together for the past 4 months, we very rarely seem to manage to all be there at the same time. This may have something to do with the fact that I work during the day, Mark Francis works during the evening and Clare Balding works whenever she can/has to. When we do find ourselves in the house together, it is usually either early in the morning standing in our bedroom doorways clad in dressing gowns for a quick 10 min chat, or occasionally at about midnight, when we all traipse in from our various social activities to share the gossip we know about those still at the university. Hence the fact that a dinner together is practically unheard of. When we discovered we all happened not to have prior social commitments on the same evening, that evening became a social occasion in itself. I hit up Aldi, Clare Balding brought the Prosecco and Mark Francis brought… himself. We decided we would make one course each: CB the starter, myself the main and MF the dessert. I feel each course reflected our different cooking styles…

We began with a classic combination of melon, prosciutto, Parmesan, rocket and balsamic. It was delicious. Sometimes just combining good quality ingredients together is all you need to make a really good dish. (Plus look how pretty it is!)

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I, of course, went to the other extreme: simplicity was not the aim in my dish. I made lamb neck fillets with a harissa pine nut crust, roasted veg and raisin-studded couscous, a thickened tagine-style sauce, sautéed spinach and a mint raita.

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The highlight of the meal was inevitably the pizza, sorry, ‘pudding’. Unfortunately by this point the novelty of cooking had worn off, and we were all more interested in watching Christmas adverts on YouTube and listening to 100 year old recordings of castrati sounding incredibly bad. Mark Francis did his best though, and made beautiful looking (slightly pizza-esque) individual strawberry tarte tatins with grated white chocolate. These managed to be not too sweet and full of luscious strawberry flavour: like a fruit-filled strawberry ice cream. However he was too impatient to actually wait for the tarts to cook… As Mary Berry would say (and I know my housemates are fans) the tarts most definitely had rather soggy bottoms.

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Chocolate Poem

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless (although those of you who are good with word games may realise what her name is), who recently had a birthday party. As a gift, I turned up with a box of chocolates made up of chocolates forming an acrostic spelling of her name.

Irish Coffee

Mango, Lime and Sea Salt Caramel

Olive and Strawberry

Elsewhere on my blog you can find exact instructions on how to make ganache and caramels etc. But here are a few tips on constructing flavour combinations and using fruit in your chocolates.

When I put together a box of chocolates there are three things I always consider. 1) how I can use a balance of white, dark and milk (I feel this means you cover most people’s taste preferences), 2) having a mixture of textures and flavours in each bite (never just one per chocolate), and 3) how all the chocolates relate to one other in the box. Like creating a dish, I like chocolates in a collection to compliment each other. Other things I like to start with are classic combinations, such as sea salt and caramel, and then think about ways to pimp them up. The idea is that not only is each box better than buying one from a shop, as being homemade no two are the same; but also that they are simply more exciting then something you would buy at Thorntons. (Having said this, as a devotee of Lindt Sea Salt Dark Chocolate bars, I do agree that sometimes a little bit of simplicity just hits the spot.) I know some people feel that homemade chocolates should be made with high quality chocolate, but I think if the flavours are vibrant then any chocolate works fine. So long as the dark chocolate is at least 75% cocoa content, it doesn’t really matter about the other two. A little cost-saving tip!

I think I may have been inspired by my recent trip to a Brazilian fruit market (see Brazil Baby, I’m in Miami Bitch) because my first thought for the letter M was Mango and Lime. As followers of my blog know, I have recently moved to a house virtually next-door to an Aldi. This means I have the luxury of using exotic fruits in my food whilst still working to a budget. I think one of the things that makes homemade chocolates special is the fact that they can use real fruit rather than extracts. To make the caramel, I pulverised mango and simmered the pulp with lime and chilli, before straining and adding to sugar and continuing to make my usual salted caramel. It meant that it was a thinner consistency than my usual caramel, and was lighter in colour. This would probably work for most fruit caramels. I poured the caramel into a white chocolate shell: usually I wouldn’t put these two together as I find the combination too sickly-sweet, but the chilli and lime here off-sets the sweetness.

For the Irish coffee, I went with a whisky gel and an espresso ganache. Already powerful flavours, so I put them with milk chocolate, providing the sugar that completes the ‘drug triumvirate’ (alcohol, caffeine and sugar) in all the best things: affogatos, Irish coffees, jäger bombs….

The third flavour achieved something which I’ve wanted to try for ages: savoury with chocolate. Black olive caramel (again pulverised, like fruit, with a pinch of salt) and a sweet strawberry ganache. Using strawberry purée helped the chocolates pack a flavourful punch. These were then smothered in dark chocolate, and dipped in crumbled almonds to add texture.

I don’t like to say these chocolates encapsulate their namesake as I feel it would be rude to insinuate she was either over caffeinated, spicy or alternative. But I feel she appreciated the comedic effort in the word-play of the names.

Brazil baby, I’m in Miami bitch

Where to start. I am very lucky as a singer to be given the opportunity to go on the most exciting tours to the most exciting places. Sometimes you can’t quite believe that you get to visit these places for free. Admittedly you have to sing for your supper but I’m sure any singer would tell you that if you don’t love to sing you probably shouldn’t be in a choir. As oppose to being an instrumentalist, as a singer, tour can really hit your instrument hard, what with the late nights, alcohol, air conditioning, travelling, and in this case sightreading. I’m certainly not complaining that my first task as a member of Cauis College Choir, Cambridge was a trip to Brazil, although I won’t deny it was pretty daunting plunging head first into a choir that was already fully formed as the one new member. However if you’re going to get to know people there is no better way than a small contained space flying through the air for 18hours where people are getting less and less aware of which time zone they’re in let alone sleeping. At least you’re all as disorientated at this point as each other. In fact my whole experience was made a lot easier by the fact that I was probably constantly bouncing around during the tour, dosed up with caffeine in a bid to stay awake. This was not just because Brazilians (and In São PAolo in particular) make the best coffee, but also we needed it what with the 2 overnight coach rides to and from Rio, the fact we never got a chance to recover from the first set of flights until we hit the second and necessity to stay up each night drinking Caipirinhas.

Incidentally Caipirinhas were my first Brazilian discovery. Caipirinhas are a cocktail made from crushed limes, sugar and the local alcoholic spirit, Cachaca, a spirit made from distilled sugar cane in a similar way to rum. The main difference between rum and cachaca is that cachaca is made from sugarcane juice whereas rum is made from the by product of sugarcane, molasses, so tends to be stronger usually and ages better. There is no better thing to drink in Brazil, this cocktail encapsulates the Rio laid back lifestyle. The best way to drink it is on Ipanema beach as the sun goes down while switching between dancing in a free Zumba class and swimming in the sea, which incidentally we did. However Caipirinhas are not just a one trick pony. On our first night in Brazil we were thrown a huge barbecue ( this may have also contributed to the necessity for caffeine consumption) where a batman would make us any type of Caipirinha that we liked, ranging from tangerine and chilli to passion fruit and ginger, made not just from cachaca (which I stuck to) but also gin, sake, vodka, anything we liked.

It was at this barbecue that we gained our first experience of the abundance of salty goodness that is Brazilian cuisine. I may have had a huge lunch complete with chocolate. Are but that wasn’t going to stop me digging into the griddled halloumi, blackened and bubbling, the melting slices of rare beef, dipped in an addictive breadcrumb like farofa (fried cassava flour), the crime de Milho (sweetcorn cream stuff) or the bite size salty morsels, chicken hearts (I kid you not these delicious). Then of course there were the puddings which I am ashamed to say I barely made a dent in. While I tried the stuff of heaven, coconut ice cream, and the suffocatingly sweet brigadoo (condensed milk and chocolate truffles) I failed to try any of the array of cakes or passion fruit tart. I believe I missed out on half the savoury dishes I didn’t even see, take me back!

This wasn’t the only time we would be presented with an array of new and exciting foods which somehow seem to surpass all British food in flavour. On our first day sightseeing in São Paolo we were taken to Mercado Municipal, a food market on supreme scale
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I had not even heard of half the fruit on the stalls, let alone tasted or seen them before
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I’m not entirely sure how they make money considering every time we passed a store we were given pieces of fruit, salted cod, Viagra (wasabi covered peanuts) for free but presumably they were trying to entice us even if we didn’t buy anything. Having said that one of the Irish men on the way into the centre had bought dates that tasted something along the lines of cake mix, I kid you not. I recommend travelling to São Paolo for those dates.

The next foodie experience (other than the time out choirmaster turned on a mostly unbreakfasted crowd to suggest we skip lunch, whereupon we started debating who we would eat first if it came down to it) was the staple meal for the next three days of tour. We turned up at the university (which had already been on strike for 3 months) and were given rice, beans, salad, chicken or beef. We guzzled it down gratefully having not slept the night before and were expected to go straight into an interactive Brazilian workshop. Little were we to know we be give this meal for once a day for the subsequent meals for the remainder of tour, oh well, it was free food. Having said this, grey beans, salad, salty chicken and chips are not necessarily a food of choice, the frozen yoghurt at the canteen, however, was above par and served with fruit almost forcing you to be healthy.

Our trip could not have ended in a stranger way. We ended up on Miami beach…. For the day….
Having said that, the Americans know how to cook. We arrived and most of us( ok mostly just me) were excited for a 3 course brunch however Miami was apparently deserted, or maybe that was just the area we were in. But I am Not kidding when we eventually found brunch, it was GREAT . Not only do Americans understand the importance of an iPhone charger at every venue, but the pancakes,eggs, Mexican eggs, smoothies, coffee and acai( a type of berry) were amazing, I won’t even get started on the maxi version of a sundae (small if you are American). Miami is not just for the food I hear though. I didn’t have a bad time at the beach, it may even be worth it for the white beaches and bath temperature waters, but then I’m a foodie, what would I know.
I cannot wait to get back to Brazil, although maybe to try a slightly more varied version of the food. The extremes of amazing food and mediocre food (never bad) is worth exploring. Plus I notice a niche in the market for condensed milk chocolates and more coffee in England. So much strong coffee. Five Cups a day in England don’t even cut it.

Dinner with the man upstairs

My family, as you may have realised, are not like other families. Not many families live in a school. We have access to many exciting sports facilities….for those under the height of 5ft, a large library complete with spinning wheel (no idea why)… containing books suitable for those aged 5-13 and of course access to kitchens enabling catering for large numbers….but they would have to eat in the school canteen. Of course it’s not just the school that makes my family ‘special’, the inability to sit still, workaholicism and constant need for all four of us to simultaneously talk over one another is probably our defining feature. So I shouldn’t really have been surprised that upon being welcomed home from a 2week tour and a journey home that totalled roughly 13hours I would not be encouraged to rest, but instead be informed that I would be attending dinner in the man who lives upstairs’ apartment for a meet and greet with some new colleagues of my father’s. I cannot believe how successful I was in staying awake during this meal, but it probably had something to do with how tasty the food was. Whilst I try not to review my friend’s cooking for fear of either offending them or inflating their ego too much, I was so impressed with the balance of the meal (and the very nice wine with it) I thought I’d describe what we ate.

The reason the dinner party worked so well was that the man who lives upstairs let the ingredients speak for themselves, always advocated in my book. We started with toasted sourdough bread, topped with broad beans, muddled with mint, a hint of garlic and lemon. This dish really let the broad beans shine, in fact my only criticism would be that it lacked a little seasoning but that may be because I have a palate for strong flavours. To be honest the only change is I would have served it sprinkled with a few crumbs of goats cheese, this would have dulled the occasional strong raw garlic flavour, but otherwise very fresh tasting and delicious.

The main was so good. I could not refuse seconds. One of my biggest weaknesses is chorizo. I always feel you can’t go wrong when slow roasting. But as someone who wouldn’t choose pork on a menu, this slow roasted pork with beans and chorizo was exceptional. Not spicy or overpowering just rich in meaty, salty, flavours with the meat that melted in the mouth and comforting butter bean texture. (The biggest compliment I could give was eating second portions of this as I had practically lived off a diet of beans for the past two weeks in Brazil and was pretty sick of them by then). This was served with pots of dauphinoise, always a winner, but I was deeply satisfied that the texture was right and the dauphinoise were full of flavour. People can always forget to flavour side dishes. I had to forgo second portions of the potatoes as I wasn’t really sure what meal I was eating, having had what felt like 4 dinners and 2 breakfasts in the past 48hours.

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The dessert was thankfully fairly light after the hearty main. A sort of blackberry marscapone custard served with Andretti biscuits. The best thing about this dish was that the sweetness and richness of the custard was off set by the tangibles and freshness of the whole blackberries studding the dish. Blackberries picked fresh…..from waitrose. This final dish really sent me to sleep and I excused myself to try and regain about 4days of lost sleep. Full marks for a well balanced and flavoursome meal!

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