Friday, 19 December 2008

Darling clementines

A clementine is so much more than just a stocking filler.

Easy peeling small citrus fruits are in their prime right now and make a refreshing antioxidant-rich snack during the feasting of Christmas as they tend to contain even more vitamin C than oranges, tangerines and satsumas.

Try segments in a winter salad with either goat’s cheese or grilled chicken, with rocket, shallots and walnuts.

Shaun Hill, chef at the Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny, in Wales makes a steamed Clementine pudding using baking powder rather than suet to keep the dish lighter.

Jamie Oliver adds clementine zest along with cranberries and sweet chestnuts to his mince pie mix and Allegra McEvedy creates a pithy Byzantine salad out of thinly sliced clementine segments, pistachio halva and pomegranate seeds with a splash of orange blossom water and runny honey – delicious served with Greek yoghurt.

Or simply savour a juicy clementine with a classic German Riesling such as a 2003 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Auslese, Saarburg (£13;; £13).

Monday, 15 December 2008

Shabby chicory

An antidote to the saccharine excess of the Christmas table, chicory’s crunchy, bitter leaves are not to everyone’s taste.

Chicory is more popular on the Continent where it is commonly known as witloof (from white leaf) and in the US, where it is called Belgian endive. The French even have a museum dedicated to the vegetable in Orchies, in the Calais region.

The commercially-grown vegetable has a pure white colour because the roots sprout in complete darkness but other varieties have a burgundy flush.

Citrus fruits, such as grapefruit and orange, work as a natural foil to the zesty bite of chicory leaves in a winter salad. The leaf also matches well with strong cheeses such as Roquefort or gorgonzola and can be poached, braised, stir-fried or baked and served with bacon, ham and pheasant. The website has scores of recipes using chicory in an audacious range of global dishes.

A raw chicory salad needs a dry, crisp acidic white wine such as a Soave or Lugana from Italy. The 2007 Soave Classico, Ronca (£3.98, Asda) is a bargain bottle made from hand-harvested garganega and trebbiano grapes, with a fresh, unoaked citrus palate.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Pershore plum festival

The Worcestershire town of Pershore champions its plums throughout August with a month-long festival, concluding with a plum fayre on August Bank Holiday.

The festival starts today with a market and the crowning of a plum princess. There’s also a touring heritage exhibition tracing the history of plums in the area and a plenty of plum varieties to savour, including Pershore Purples, Yellow Eggs and Emblems, as well as trees to grow your own.
Pershore began its association with plums in 1833 when a pub landlord found wild plums growing in a nearby wood. The Pershore Egg variety was developed and, because of its high pectin content, soon became the basis of much commercially sold jam in the UK.

Homegrown seasonal plums are a prize worth relishing fresh from the tree but local butchers also use their famous fruit to make the Pershore “plum” sausage using pork, spring onion, ginger and plum puree.

The town’s Abbey Tea Rooms has a range of plum-themed dishes on the menu such as homemade plum charlotte and a savoury roasted plum tart made with courgettes, peppers and topped with stilton all available with a plum flavoured black loose leaf tea.

Finally, eyes peeled for Churchfield Farmhouse plum ice cream at the farmers’ market on the August bank holiday. It’s a regional rival to the country’s only asparagus ice cream made by Spot Loggins on a nearby Evesham dairy farm.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


In these climate-changing times, the home-grown English fruit bowl gets more exotic each year. Apricots join grapes, walnuts and blueberries as the latest hot-weather crop cultivated on these shores.

The majority of apricots are still imported to the UK from the US and Europe, but there are a number of small producers in Southern England.

A member of the peach family, the apricot is a small golden-orange fruit with velvety skin and juicy flesh. They are at their peak in July so catch them why you can – although you’ll be hard pushed to find English ’cots, the lack of steady sunshine and February frosts when the plants flower have all but zapped this year’s yield.

The longer the fruit is allowed to ripen on the tree the more sweet its flavour. Note, contrary to the supermarket trend of selling “ripen-at-home” punnets of bullet-hard fruit, apricots don’t mature once picked. But you can always halve and poach under-ripe fruits in a little dessert wine and vanilla or bake with a splash of orange juice, zest and a drizzle of honey.

Apricots are delicious hot and gooey in pastries and custard tarts, and are a good match with chocolate and almonds or served alongside roast pork with the ripe fruit and spicy notes of a 2006 Heartland Viognier Pinot Gris from Oz available in Selfridges (£20.50; 0207 318 2375;

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Cherry aid for Britain

Saturday (July 19) is the first British Cherry Day, a rallying cry to get the cherry out of a jam and back on top. In the past 50 years England has lost 90 per cent of its cherry orchards and now imports about 95 per cent of its cherries.

Organised cherry orchards were a Tudor invention, but the Romans brought the first cherry trees to Britain from Persia. It is said that you can trace old Roman roads by the wild cherry trees that grew up from the stones spat out by legions as the marched across the country.

Backed by chefs such as Raymond Blanc and Mark Hix, Cherry Aid - the campaign not the medicinal coloured pop – aims to get everyone to bite into at least one home-grown cherry this year and help save traditional orchards.

Cherries are delicious eaten fresh or dipped in melted chocolate. Kent’s Simply Ice Cream makes an ice cream from local cherries (01233 720922) and Mrs Huddleston sells a luxury black cherry and cranberry preserve with kirsch (01296 712005). Carr Taylor’s rose-red cherry wine (£4.95; mixes well with brandy or vodka and can be added to desserts or gravy when serving duck.

At Borough Market in London, try specially-made Cherry Down Cheese from the Kent Cheese Co and Sillfield Farm’s wild boar and cherry pie.
The Ludlow Food Centre in Shropshire will be selling traditional variety cherries and cherry ice cream.
Several cherry orchards are open this weekend in Kent, including the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale which will be hosting cookery demonstrations, tastings and walks. For information on cherry-themed events around the country and a guide to where to pick and buy fresh cherries visit

Fennel for beginners

People are puzzled by fennel. It’s the mystery guest of organic boxes and the vegetable about which we most commonly cry: “How on earth do I use this?”.

Bulbous Florence fennel has a distinctive aniseed flavour and can be eaten cooked (trimmed, cut into quarters and braised or roasted) or raw when its flavour is more pronounced.

Shave it thinly into salads or as a contrasting crunch added to fish in ceviche. Soak strips in lemon juice and olive oil and serve with roasted fish or simply tossed with orange segments.

The folk at Riverford organic vegetable boxes ( suggest tips on how to use fennel for its consumers. Recipes from its new book and website include aniseedy cabbage soup, fennel baked with Parmesan and pork with braised fennel.

Fennel’s fresh bite teams up well with dry Italian wines such as a Lugana Soraighe 2005 (£9.35;, made from Trebbiano grapes in the area between Lombardy and Veneto. It’s a delicate white with fresh but not overpowering acidity, great with fish.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Chinese food, British ingredients

Chinese food gets a bit of a boost this month as an appetiser for the Beijing Olympics with two new TV series and books.

Ching-He Huang, a delicate new face among the grizzled mugs of celebrity chefs, has recast Chinese food as an msg-free blend of the traditional and modern. She uses seasonal pak choi grown in the Fenlands, fresh chillies from Chorley and even soy sauce brewed in Wales.

Gold-medal TV dinners she recommends for the Games (for viewers not athletes) include steamed sea bass in hot beer and ginger lime, refreshingly chilled drunken chicken soaked in Mijiu rice wine or gin or vodka, and the gloriously named and alcohol-free Empress Dowager Cixi’s longevity peach pudding. Chinese Food Made Easy is on Mondays on BBC2; watch exclusive videos at

Later in the month Gary Rhodes packs his wok for China where he guzzles snake bladders as he masters regional dishes, including pockmarked grandmother’s bean curd, to cook for a banquet back home (UKTV Food 28 July).

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Petal power blooms in kitchens

Petal power is blooming in British restaurant kitchens. For a splash of vivid colour, silky texture and exotic aroma, flowers are hard to beat. And they’re seasonal and often local to boot.

At a recent Slow Food workshop, held at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey, head chef Skye Gyngell arranged a three-course floral menu featuring figs with goats’ cheese, ricotta, Parma ham and rose syrup; grilled quail with sour cherries, toasted walnuts and ras el-hanout (a, North African blend of crushed dried Damask rose petals and spices), and violet meringues with English strawberries and cream.

At this week’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (, the Growing Tastes kitchen garden, designed by Michael Balston, features three types of edible flowers: Asian hemerocallis, or day lilies, which add a sweet crunch to stir fries or can be steamed like French beans; British nasturtiums which, like marigolds and violets, can be scattered in salads or used to garnish dishes and, from the Mediterranean, the intense blue flower of borage, which is popular in Pimm’s and cocktails. Look out for more floral cuisine in the Growing Tastes cookery theatre.

As a general rule the flowers of vegetables and herbs are safe to eat but some flowers are toxic. In Britain, nasturtiums, marigolds and violets are scattered in salads or used to garnish dishes. Avoid petals that have been sprayed with chemical pesticides and discard the petal’s white base which has a bitter taste.

Dried rose petals mixed with cumin seeds and nutmeg can be rubbed into game or lamb and added to couscous for a fragrant flavour.

Spoon sweet violet confit or rose petal jam into Greek yoghurt or rice pudding and drizzle rose syrup over cakes and pastries.

Petals can also be added to blended teas. Try delicate white tea with rose as a palate cleanser, or black Ceylon tea with violets.

If the back garden fails you, Secretts Farm in Surrey has a range of edible flowers (01483 520500;
While most regions pick a weekend to celebrate their local food, Hampshire settles on a whole month. Highlights for this weekend include Lavender Lust, a chance to see this pale violet plant more commonly associated with the bathroom distilled at Hartley Park and indulge in the farm’s lavender biscuits and cup cakes decorated with lavender water ice.
At home try apricot and lavender compote with crème brulee or Greek yoghurt. The lavender adds a perfumed twist to the sharp sweetness of apricots.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

How to eat an artichoke

The globe artichoke appears exotic but is actually harvested in England from late June.

The fist-sized thistle-like heads of the vegetable are best prepared raw and then cooked, but speedy supper this isn’t.

The freshest artichokes, like flowers, are the more tightly closed, bud-shaped ones that are heavy for their size.

The leaves have a subtle flavour and the heart is a just reward for all the patient preparation - trimming spiky leaves, removing the fibrous choke at its core and boiling until tender (20 to 45 minutes).

Once done, pull off the leaves while still warm and dip in hollandaise, lemon butter, mayonnaise, or vinaigrette.

Jamie Oliver makes a vibrant artichoke, pink grapefruit, frisee and pecorino salad; the River Café, in west London, may well have spaghetti with artichoke pesto on the menu at this time of year, and the Roux brothers go to town and serve upside crowns with chopped smoked salmon, crème fraiche and caviar in the hollow.

Can’t be bothered? Carluccio’s ( sells jars of chargrilled artichokes in olive oil which add instant class to an antipasto of deli meats, pasta or salad.

It’s been said that artichokes have a way of making wines taste sweeter. So choose very dry wines with high acidity. Go British with Ridgeview Bloomsbury Merret 2004, from West Sussex (£19.99, Waitrose). It’s a pared down, dry fizz with lively citrus fruit and a toasty note.

Castroville, in California, is the self-proclaimed world, hmm, heart of artichokes. The small town hosts an annual artichoke festival and has a restaurant, the Giant Artichoke, shaped like an oversized artichoke that serves the local speciality steamed, sautéed, french-fried, pickled, poached, and so on.

Just one elderflower cornetto

The current chilly spell will suit the first tasting of a ‘canal flavoured’ ice cream tomorrow made with foraged ingredients in honour of London’s first gelato vendor, Carlo Gatti.

Gatti is credited with being Britain’s first ice cream man, cutting ice from the Regent’s Canal to make the Italian dessert available to all classes of Londoners in his café, which he opened in Holborn in 1849.

As part of the London Festival of Architecture, British Waterways has teamed up with award-winning eco-restaurant The Waterhouse, run by green chef Arthur Potts Dawson, to serve an elderflower ice from within a 19th-century ice well, a series of which were built along the canal to store ice transported from Norway, keeping it in its frozen form before the invention of the freezer.

Potts Dawson says: “It’s a great chance to celebrate the history of a British culinary phenomenon that has its roots on the canal. Foraging for a local ingredient to base an ice cream flavour on was an enjoyable challenge for us."

The elderflower flavour ice has been added to the menu at the Waterhouse and will also be available to taste on the canal as part of a series of events inviting visitors to gain a fresh outlook on the canal’s environment, and discover new aspects of the 200 year-old transport network.

On Sunday 6 July, an actor impersonating Carlo Gatti will be walking the towpath telling visitors all about his business ventures, which included bringing 400 tons of Norwegian ice by canal to New Wharf Road. The London Canal Museum, that is open for free on the day, will have talks on the ice trade and ice wells.

For more information about the event, including timings, ticket details and prices, visit or

For further information on the London Festival of Architecture visit

Friday, 27 June 2008

Eco tips for summer kitchen

Most folk are unaware that this week has been Food Waste Awareness Week. Britain’s throw-away food habit produces £10 billion of food waste each year or enough grub at dinnertime to feed 19 million people.

A key reason for the waste is a lack of leftover know-how. Inspired exotic buys such as Thai spices, pak choi and mangoes often end up in the bin rather than on the dinner table and too many home cooks are slaves to sell-by-dates.

In her new book, How Green are my Wellies? (Eden Project, £14.99), The Times’ Eco Worrier Anna Shepard shares a few tips for frugal but delicious seasonal fare.

Save the woody bottom bits of asparagus stalks to drop into a stock for summer soups thickened with leftover mashed potato; whiz tough broad beans in a blender with garlic and a splash of olive oil to make a dip, or boil them and mash with rosemary, garlic and oil. Blend prolific garden rocket with pine nuts, parmesan and oil to make pesto sauce.

Remember that fresh fish fillets hold up well for three days in the fridge, and use spices and handfuls of herbs to pep up surplus ingredients. Finally, make jams and pickles from summer’s abundance of vegetables and berries and freeze any excess for later in the year.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The rise of the "Glasto-pub"

There was a time when the only sustenance at music festivals was a soggy heap of chow mein washed down with scrumpy.

These days, the food corner of any festival field worth its salt is more likely to resemble a farmers’ market than a greasy takeaway. The best of the food is wholesome and imaginative with stalls offering a range of gourmet fare from organic ostrich burgers with homemade redcurrant relish to Loch Fyne oysters, and seasonal berry smoothies.

At Glastonbury, which starts tomorrow, the Goan Seafood Company serves a breakfast kedgeree made with fish caught freshly from Mevagissey in Cornwall, while the Splendid Chicken “Glasto-pub” has free-range Moroccan tagines and there are hot smoked mackerel wraps from Hall’s Dorset Smokery.

The soulful Manic Organic Café and Tiny Tea Tent please the veggie crowd with homemade cakes, speciality teas and sparkling elderflower and wild nettle cordial.

For a handy main meal “to go” Pure Pie’s coconutty Thai pie and Pieminster’s Chicken of Aragon (laced with tarragon) are worth seeking out.

For liquid refreshment it’s all aboard the double decker cider bus for local hero Julian Temperley’s Burrow Hill Somerset cider which Laura in the festival office describes as “flat and pokey (as it should be) with no chemical fizzy crap”. Spot on. His Kingston Black is a bottle fermented sparkling Cider made by traditional method and is just about as good as cider gets.

Standon Calling, in Hertfordshire (Aug 1-3), has the pick of stalls from Borough Market, and Lovebox, in London’s Victoria Park (July 19-20), has its own farmers’ market.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Courgette flowers

Seasonal courgettes are one of the most versatile of the summer squashes. They are delicious cut lengthways, brushed in garlic oil, char-grilled and served with feta, peas and mint, or sliced in a courgette and Manchego frittata.

But it is their golden flowers that are prized by chefs. If you see these at a greengrocers or farmers' market, snap them up. Female flowers come with a mini courgette attached and male ones with a small stalk. The flowers don’t last so are best bought and cooked on the same day.

Stuff the flowers with batons of buffalo mozzarella, parsley and anchovies and shallow fry. At Salt Yard restaurant, in London (020 7637 0657;, they serve courgette flowers filled with Monte Enebro goat's cheese, drizzled in honey, lightly battered and fried with the vegetable still attached.

These tapas-style dishes work well with a Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana (£10.50; Jeroboams: 020 7288 8850). This single-vineyard aged Manzanilla has a crisp but well rounded flavour that complements the sweet oiliness of the dish.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

This season's seasonal menu at Ascot

Royal Ascot runs this week and if one is lucky enough to be in the Parade Ring hospitality restaurant here’s a sneak preview of the menu that’ll be served to 50,000 privileged punters over the five day meeting.

Sodexo may serve basic grub in hospitals and schools but the prestige end of its business is attuned to current trends. The coffee is fair-trade, the eggs in the sandwiches free-range and the cheeseboard has an all-British line up: Isle of Mull Cheddar, Win Green, Dunsyre Blue and Rosary Ash.

The main menu features seasonal foods, some of which have been locally sourced. Starters include dressed Cornish crab with avocado and bloody Mary ice cream, and poached English asparagus with pea panacotta and gazpacho verdi.

The seafood bouillabaisse comes with sea-salty samphire; the roast fillet of Scottish beef with a wild nettle risotto, and the double rib lamb cutlet is sprinkled with rosemary flowers. Clearly someone at Sodexo has been watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Spring.

A good bet to drink with the wild strawberry and pink champagne terrine is a rich, new rosé champagne from Bollinger (Berry Bros & Rudd, £55), six years in the making, and launched at Ascot 2008. Made from 60 per cent pinot noir it has delicate aromas of ripe red fruits.

Berry Bros: 0870 900 4300;

Talk and (balsamic) vinegar

Slow Food London continues its series of original events with a balsamic vinegar tasting at the Natural Kitchen, in London’s Marylebone (

Expert taster Manlio Guidetti grew up among the acetaie (sets of vinegar barrels) of Modena, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, and can spot a watery caramel-boosted fake a mile off, and tell you how to do so, too.

An excellent balsamic vinegar should be very well balanced in sweetness and acidity; not too dense but relatively fluid, and have a Guinness colour with a deep gold hue that is still transparent on a white plate.

Two good buys are a three-year-old Bellei at £4.10 for 250ml and a 12-year old 100ml bottle by Acetaia Sereni for £20 (Orrery Epicerie, Marylebone; 0207 616 8036).

The tasting will demonstrate how to use different ages and styles of balsamic vinegar with various foods.

For example, use a couple of drops of aged balsamic vinegar instead of sugar to marinate strawberries or fresh figs and melon and then serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

It’s officially the last week for asparagus in Britain so griddle some while you can and serve it with parmesan shavings, and tiny splashes of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

In Emilia Romagna eight-to-ten-year old balsamic vinegars are used to “pepper” simple regional dishes such as shelled broad beans with thin slices of pecorino; or to draw out some of the sweetness from the cured fat in an antipasto of San Daniele ham and Felinetto salami.

Murray’s in Clevedon, Somerset, recommends a ruby-red sparkling Lambrusco, Picol Ross from small producer Paolo Rinaldini (£10; 01275 341222). It’s a summer-friendly wine, best served chilled, with a hint of violet on the nose and sweet blackberry on the palate. Its acidic edge helps to slice through Emilia’s hearty cuisine.

Britain's new super berries

Around midsummer berries reign supreme in the seasonal fruit kingdom. The sweetly perfumed English strawberry may be king, but gooseberries are approaching their best towards the end of June and tayberries, a Scottish hybrid of the blackberry and the raspberry are ripening, too.

Gooseberries are tart and green early season but soften in taste and texture over summer. Use in crumbles or pies, poach then purée to make the classic fool, ice cream, or a tangy sauce for rich roasts like pork or oily fish such as mackerel.

Purple tayberries can be a touch sharp but work well, like blackberries and raspberries, in summer pudding, pies, sorbet, or in fruit sauces, jams and jellies.

There are now rivals to these traditional soft fruits. Growers of the new aronia berry (or chokeberry) on a farm in Angus, in Scotland, claim that it’s a “super berry” with more antioxidants than blueberries and cranberries. It’s available in juices and smoothies at Juice Almighty bar in Edinburgh (0131 220 6879).

And if you can’t decide between a punnet of strawberries or raspberries then Waitrose has the answer. Dutch-grown Strasberries originate from a wild strawberry breed but are smaller with darker seeds, hence the link to raspberries. Try them dipped in melted dark chocolate.

To match the tart-sweet balance of a creamy gooseberry and elderflower fool try a Coteaux du Layon from the Loire Valley. Yapp Brothers in Mere, Wiltshire (01747 860423), has a Château la Tomaze 1995 (£18.50) made from 100 per cent chenin blanc grapes. It’s a golden wine with unctuous raisin fruit and subtle honey and mineral flavours.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Fruitful year for farm shops

Farmers’ markets might have been at the vanguard of the good food movement in the past decade but a dozen stalls once a month in the town square is no longer satisfying our craving for farm-fresh local produce.

The farm shop has been around for years but is now smartening up its act. More than 234 farm shops have opened in the past year making it the fastest growing retail sector in the UK, a report showed last week.

Many have an authentic on-farm location, are open seven days a week and stock more than just free-range meat and freshly unearthed vegetables (expect peas, broad beans, gooseberries, strawberries and lettuce at this time of year).

Trailblazing farm shops such as the one in Occombe in Devon, Goldy’s in Dorset or Farndon Fields in Leicestershire offer homemade ready meals and ice cream and sell frozen peas, beans and raspberries bagged from last year’s harvest.

Most have a range of local wine, beers and cider. Middle Farm Shop, in East Sussex (01323 815043), sells a 100 per cent Pinot Noir (£11) from nearby Bookers Vineyard. It’s a quaffable cherry tasting red that marries well with the farm’s own chorizo.

Friday, 6 June 2008

California: destination food and drink

“Welcome to California: Land of Wine and Food” reads the state’s tourist advertising campaign. And for once it’s no exaggeration.

If any region in the US lives up to such a title – simple yet proud - then it has to be the Golden State. It may not be the meatiest swath of the US, but Salinas is known as the “salad bowl of the nation” and the Central Valley as the “nation’s fruit basket”. Note, too, that it’s “wine” before “food” in the tag, after all 90 per cent of America’s wine is produced there at more than 2,700 wineries.

What’s more, global culinary trends start there. Take farmers’ markets, independent farms and gardens growing specialty produce, eco-gastronomy and Slow Food. California has led the way, too, in producing an abundant range of affordable organic, locally grown produce.

California Cuisine comprises two key ingredients. The dynamic, ethnic diversity in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, with their international cuisine and world-class chefs, work side by side with the region’s agricultural producers. (Gordon Ramsay will have to be on his best seasonal behaviour when he expands his restaurant empire to LA in June.)

Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse is considered the pioneer of this fusion of world cooking styles with the freshest local ingredients.

“When my friends and I opened Chez Panisse in 1971 we thought of ourselves as agents of seduction whose mission it was to change the way people ate,” says Waters.

“We soon discovered that the best tasting food came from local farmers, ranchers, foragers and fishermen who were committed to sound and sustainable practices.”

Given the favourable climate – both literal and political - some restaurants even grow their own produce. The Parkway Grill in Pasadena has its own organic herb and vegetable garden, and at Zazu, a gourmet roadhouse restaurant in Santa Rosa, plenty of the menu comes fresh from the adjoining farm.

In typically enlightened Californian fashion, this concern to connect the pleasure of eating out with support of the local agricultural community has spawned a new West Coast concept: “locavores”. The aim is to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100-mile radius of where one lives or is staying.

“It’s simple: we all realise that virtually anything can grow in California and we have a whole culture built around growing, buying and eating it,” says Napa Valley vintner Pat Kuleto of Kuleto Estate Winery.

To get a taste of locavore living, Market Foray tours in Santa Barbara show culinary tourists how to shop, buy and eat like a true local (

Otherwise, check out the piles of freshly unearthed vegetables at Wednesday’s giant farmers’ market in Santa Monica. Or the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a sprawling showcase for seasonal food and specialist cheeses, chocolates, breads, olive oils and wines. Break for lunch at Charles Phan’s nouveau-Vietnamese restaurant, the Slanted Door, whose menu makes artful use of the market’s bounty.

In fact, San Francisco has more Pan-Asian cafés than you can shake a chopstick at, plus destination eateries like The French Laundry, Jewish delis and some of the best Italian restaurants in the States. Just for fun, try celebrity spotting - between mouthfuls of an organic bison burger with rocket and homemade peach relish - at the Hollywood farmers’ market on Sundays.

Out on the road in the surrounding counties it’s not hard to find the idyllic landscape portrayed in the movie Sideways, filmed in Santa Barbara County: roadside stalls piled high with peaches the size of baseballs, bucolic farm-to-fork banqueting in the fields of a vineyard toasted with a glass of one of California’s big reds.

Over the years, food capitals have sprouted up across the state each known for different specialties: Garlic in Gilroy (there’s a festival in July); raw milk dairy produce and artisan cheeses in Tulare, including Bill Boersma’s award-winning Bravo Farms Cheddars; artichokes in Castroville; honeybees in Palo Cedro and horseradish in Tulelake.

Brilliant yellow mustard plants bloom each year between poppies and grape vines in Napa Valley’s vineyards, signalling the start of the annual Mustard Festival (; while Stockton hosts an Asparagus Festival in April (, and San Francisco Bay celebrates its Zinfandel Festival in January.

California has optimum wine-growing conditions. “The Mediterranean climate brings a coolness from the ocean while the interior has steady warm weather which consistently ripens grapes; at least eight or nine years out of ten you have a shot at making some of the best wine you’ve ever made,” says Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards at Cupertino.

Napa Valley, some 50 miles to the north of San Francisco, and Sonoma Valley bordering the ocean stretch of Northern California, are just two of the state’s numerous wine regions. As a rule of thumb – to which there are exceptions – the smaller producers often offer more character, memorable wines and less generic tasting bars than their corporate counterparts that line the wine trail highways.

The ivy-clad Hess Collection in Napa combines a winery with a
modern art museum built by the Swiss multimillionaire Donald Hess. Visitors can browse works by Frank Stella and Francis Bacon interspersed with views of fermentation tanks. If the art is depressingly expensive console yourself with a $10 tasting of four wines. The mountain cabarnets excel.

Go to the “Land of Wine and Food” and you probably will, as Governor Arnie propounds at the end of the promotional video, “be back”. If only to visit the restaurant or taste the vintage that you didn’t get round to on a first visit.

For more information:

Thursday, 5 June 2008

5 steps to the perfect cup of tea...

Tea connoisseur Don Mei tells me how to make the perfect cup of tea:

1. Take a purple clay pot - considered the best material for its high porosity that absorbs the flavour of the tea in the pot itself.

2. Pour hot water over all the cups and tea pot to bring them to a warm temperature.

3. Put loose tea in the pot and fill it with hot water (85C if delicate green or white tea; 100C boiling if red or black tea). Discard the water. This is called "washing the tea". The Chinese do not drink the first infusion. This process opens up the tea - unfurls the dragon. It is a good time to smell the aroma of the tea.

4. Pour in more water. Allow it to steep for 1.5 to 2 minutes.

5. Decant the pot into another vessel so that the tea is of an even strength throughout. Left in the teapot it is weak at the top and strong at the bottom where the leaves sit.

Tea is the new wine

If your idea of tea and food matching stops and starts with dunking a Digestive in a scalding mug of Tetley then a new exhibition may change that.

A small but informative exhibition on Chinese tea opens today (Weds) at Asia House in New Cavendish Street, London W1 at the start of a national tour (0207 7303 5454, £4). As well as tracing the 3,000 year-old history of tea there are displays of types of tea and exquisite porcelain tea sets.

A temporary outlet of Camden’s Chinalife tea mixology bar offers fresh brews to sample from its stock of more than 70 teas. Try jasmine tea with goji berries that plump up in the cup, popcorn tea, a green tea from Zhejiang province with roast brown rice, or a seasonal iced tea with jasmine, elderflower and mint. All go well with yam flour cookies.

“Tea is now rightly being treated like wine, with serious tea lists in hotels and restaurants that note harvests and vintage. Like wine the microclimate, soil, picking, processing and storage are all vital parts of the production of tea. It is a gourmet beverage that pairs well with all types of food,” says Don Mei, tea connoisseur and creative director of Chinalife (0207 307 5447).

For summertime, he recommends a chrysanthemum tea for its cooling and anti-inflammatory properties. Its delicate fragrant notes partner seafood dim sum or counteract the spiciness of fish with chilli.

The Tea Centre at Tregothnan in Cornwall offers a range of tea tastings and tutoring days (see previous blog; 01872 520000). Earl Grey and Cornish Yarg any one?

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Britain's new breed of "bar chefs" mix seasonal cocktails

People are becoming better informed about eating seasonal food but it’s a trickier proposition to drink seasonally, especially where alcohol is concerned.

This is where the summer cocktail comes into its own and mixologists or “bar chefs” are shaking up the scene with ingredients sourced at farmers’ markets.

Drinks are being embellished with mint leaves and edible flowers and infused with elderflower essence and crushed strawberries. They look beautiful, taste even better and presumably leave a clearer eco-conscience than having opted for the cocktail that uses tinned lychees flown in from China.

London’s award-winning Canteen (0845 686 1122) restaurants have a new cocktail list created by drinks’ pioneer Tony Conigliaro. Its Great British Bar offers prosecco Bellinis made with seasonal purees such as strawberry, raspberry or apple with lavender. A Rhubarb Collins has been reworked to create a refreshing pre-dinner drink using gin and lemon with a twist of rhubarb, and the Twinkle is a champagne cocktail with a floral elderflower note.

Canteen’s head chef Cass Titcombe says: “You can experiment with all sorts of berries and homegrown herbs such as mint and basil. Whizz the ripe fruit and and a few torn leaves in the blender and add dry prosecco.”

When the Vyse Room opens at Stoke Place manor in Buckinghamshire (01753 534 790 ) next week its drinks’ list will feature seasonal punches (summer cup garnished with borage) and cocktails made using herbs and flowers grown in the Capability Brown designed grounds. A gooseberry and lemon thyme Bellini adds a citrus bite to picnic favourites such as smoked salmon sandwiches or barbecued mackerel, says Nick Strangeway, cocktail consultant at Stoke Place.

Get fresh wet and smoked fish from Steve Hatt in Islington (020 7226 3963) or from the fish counter downstairs at Wholefoods, in Kensington (0207 368 4500). Both buy from day boats and are committed to sutainable fishing.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Pea shoots not rocket science

Move over mizuna and rocket. There’s a new salad leaf in the pack. If we’re to believe the hype, pea shoots will be cropping up everywhere this summer - at barbecues, in Pimm’s, even on the hats of ladies at Ascot - as this season’s favourite leafy garnish.

Pea shoots are the tender leaves of the traditional garden pea plant harvested after just two weeks when the plant is less than a foot tall. Grown in natural sunlight from April to October on Mullens Farm in Wiltshire, the plants have crunchy stems and delicate leaves, like watercress, and taste of freshly shucked peas.

Skye Gyngell is serving them at her delightful Petersham Nurseries restaurant in Richmond, London, with just about everything from crab cakes to roast pork belly. They work well, too, whizzed in a smoky bacon soup or crushed up in bubble and squeak.

Wine will depend on what the pea shoots are garnishing. A good match, particularly with seafood starters, is an Iona Sauvignon Blanc (Waitrose, £9.49) from South Africa. It’s a classic cool-climate white with a wonderfully aromatic nose showing fine mineral notes, hints of herbs and a touch of gooseberry fruit. On the palate it complements well the intense, fresh flavour of the delicate pea shoot leaves.

The brains behind pea shoots is the marketing team at Vitacress (turnover £70 million) who regularly scout for fresh ideas among the kitchens of California. Basically, an age-old allotment secret has been washed in spring water and repackaged for selected supermarkets. Very tasty but it’s not, err, rocket science.

Monday, 26 May 2008

A Cornish brew - England's only estate tea

The South West is the home of the cream tea and it can now be enjoyed at a whole host of locations in the region with a truly English cuppa.

England’s first tea estate at Tregothnan, in Cornwall, takes advantage of the mild climate and humidity to grow Chinese and Indian leaf tea which is hand-picked from April to October and blended with other exotic leaves to make four different varieties (Classic, Afternoon, Earl Grey and Green).

The tea plantation is the idea of the estate owner, the Honourable Evelyn Boscawen. Cultivation began nine years ago and has been increasingly bearing fruit since 2005. Last year produced just under a tonne of tea.

“We can’t compete with the Tropics but the conditions are similar to those for a high-altitude, slow growing tea like Darjeeling,” says Jonathon Jones, garden director at Tregothnan.

Following in the footsteps of specialty tea shops in London, such as Tea Smith in Spitalfields and Tea Palace in Notting Hill, the estate is now offering day-long tea tasting courses run by expert tutors Tim Clifton and Jane Pettigrew.

“We drink 165 million cups a day in the UK and don’t think about it much. Like wine, each tea is distinctive, has regional varieties and there are stacks of myths,” says Jones.

The estate also makes an iced Earl Grey tea using its own well water and a range of new herbal infusions, including Manuka Bush, a tea popular with the Maori people in New Zealand.

“What could be more English than tea grown on English soil,” says Jones, who claims that Tregothnan has been “doing sustainability” since 1335 when it came into the hands of Boscawen’s ancestors.

Of the 80 or so places serving a Tregothnan brew in Devon and Cornwall, Jones recommends a cream tea at Charlotte’s Tea House in Truro or Greys Dining Room in Totnes, Devon.

So is coffee next?

“I won’t rule it out. We could grow it indoors. But it’s not as English as tea.”

For more information on Tregothnan estate: (01872 520007;

The English Riviera Cream Tea Festival runs from April 18-23:

A taste of Manchester's food scene

Historically, articles about eating out in Northern England written by London-based journalists have fallen into two categories. The first portrays it as grim up north and a decade behind London in culinary terms; while the second claims that no one eats out anyway for that would be an expensive diversion from the serious business of getting glammed up for a night of high-octane drinking.

It’s true you won’t find a Michelin starred establishment in Manchester city centre – the nearest was Juniper in Altrincham until that closed down last month. But according to Alison Seagrave, head chef at the Second Floor restaurant and brasserie at Harvey Nichols, in Exchange Square, there’s ample Michelin-star standard food to be had, some of it at sub-capital prices.

“Foodwise, Manchester used to be years behind London but we’ve caught up lately in terms of choice and reliable local suppliers. To win a star you have to set that as a goal. It’s judged on many different criteria from the service to the cooking and some of our dishes are Michelin star in all but name,” says Seagrave.

In her restaurant, the slow cooked fillet of Cheshire beef Rossini and the playful sweetshop inspired desserts explain why Seagrave was chosen as Chef of the Year at the 2007 Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards.

“Beef fillet always sells well, even if you serve it with weird ingredients,” she says. “But then so does our corned beef hash served with a fried egg and brown sauce. It’s comfort food basically.” Food to be scoffed not scoffed at.

On the brasserie menu at seven quid a pop is a mini hotpot served in a souffle dish and accompanied by finely shredded pickled red cabbage. It looks good and tastes even better.
“I’ll often have one of these for my tea,” says Seagrave.

She rates the new Michael Caines restaurant that opened at the ABode Manchester hotel on Piccadilly in March and the River Restaurant at the Lowry hotel in Salford – now under a new chef - in the same stellar category as her own restaurant.

Caines, who already holds two stars for his flagship Gidleigh Park in Devon, is on a mission to bring a Michelin star to Manchester. His contemporary British menu (best-end of Herdwick lamb and honey-roast Goosnargh duckling) features international touches (the slow poached sea bass comes with a Thai puree and lemongrass foam) and is keen on the best regional ingredients. A clever lunchtime grazing concept allows diners to taste three mini dishes from the a la carte menu for under a tenner.

According to Manchester’s most-read food and drink blogger Sarah Hartley ( the city doesn’t have big destination restaurants like London, partly because there’s not a sizeable over-50s spend at the weekend. The “Silver diners” prefer to eat out in the neighbourhood restaurants in leafy West Didsbury and Chorlton or further afield in Cheshire and Lancashire.

For more casual dining in town Sam’s Chophouse is a perennial favourite with its cosy basement glow and Great British seasonal menu.

For feel-good refuelling between shops and sights Love Saves the Day, a deli beneath a railway arch at the south end of Deansgate, lives up to the expectations of its flashing neon “sexy food” sign out front. On the menu are home-cooked meatballs, lamb shanks, salads, its own pickles and beer – a North West Fine Food winner last year – plus monthly tastings including, in May, artisan honey and vegetarian black pudding.

Local lunchtime institution Shlurp! is tucked away beneath an office block just off Albert Square. From a tiny canteen, its walls garlanded with awards and glowing reviews, it serves soups from gazpacho to thick mushy pea and lamb kofta with mint raita – Manchester in a bowl. And how’s this for a sandwich of the day? Fresh sardines roasted in garlic and olive oil.

Another lunchtime classic is This ‘n’ That on Soap Street in the trendy Northern Quarter whose “rice and three” (curries) is part of the local furniture as testified by its cult-like Facebook group. Fans swear it’s the best food for under a fiver in Britain.

The garish, student-crawling Curry Mile is part of Manchester’s culinary fabric but a bit of a lottery. Hartley recommends the Punjab for its interesting range of vegetarian dishes and its low-style old-school ambience. In Chinatown she opts for Red Chilli over Yang Sing for the adventurous Cantonese dishes on the a la carte menu.

Finally, for a pre-dinner drink take the exclusive lift to the 23rd floor of the Hilton at Deansgate. The lanky Beetham Tower that houses the hotel has its fair share of opponents but the views from the Cloud 23 bar are unparalleled and the cocktails pretty good. Try an Ena Sparkles as you seek out Coronation Street below.