Saturday, 30 April 2011

On the road: Leeds, Kennilworth and Dorset

  • Next weekend, immediately after The Underground Night Market on May 6th which I hope you will all be attending, I am travelling up to Leeds to visit my good friend Lynn Hill who runs My Secret Tea Room and The Clandestine Cake Club. I will also give a short talk and book signing at the Magic Plate Spinners Brunch in Leeds, on May 8th, more details here. 
  • Also in May, I am giving a cooking demonstration and signing books at the Kennilworth Food Festival near Warwick on May 14th. More details here.
  • At the end of July The Underground Restaurant is going on the road to Camp Bestival in Dorset, where we will be doing three sittings a day every day of the festival. Book your seats here: adults £37 children £20

Don't forget the Foraging meal that I am doing with Nick Weston, who lived in a tree house for a year and wrote about it here on May 13th, where Isabelle Legeron 'that Crazy French Woman' will accompany the foraged menu with a Natural wine tasting, a wholly different experience from your usual fine wine tasting. Tickets for that are £40 including the wine tasting and are available here. I'm hoping we will have this meal in the garden and do some of the cooking on the bonfire.
My next post will talk more about the stalls and events at The Underground Night Market which happens in just a week's time...get your tickets now

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Red, White and Blue: a Royal Wedding Menu


Kir Royale
Buttermilk blinis with caviar

Asparagus (the King's vegetable) mimosa

Quenelles with brill and lobster sauce
Her Majesty's cheeses: Montgomery's cheddar, Cashel Blue, Waterloo (sheep), Port Salut and Republican goat from Childerswickbury. Duchy Originals rosemary oatcakes and bread.

A selection of desserts:
Charlotte Royale
Bombe Glacée 1981
William's cake
Red, White and Blue cake

Bombe Glacée with edible gold and silver

 Chocolate and raspberry Charlotte Royale

 Staff gazing on as His Royal Hotness Gary Robinson preps. As Prince Charles' former head chef, he was a consultant on the Royal Wedding Reception Menu.

Plating up by candlelight 

Helped by Gary Robinson, former chef to HRH Prince Charles, now Executive Chef at the British Embassy in Washington DC.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Clink Prison Restaurant

I always joked that if I were raided by the police for running The Underground Restaurant then I'd have to start a prison pop up. Last year I visited Her Majesty's Prison High Down, located on the outskirts of South London in Sutton, Surrey. I've never been to a jail in Britain before.
My only previous prison visit was near Cuzco in Peru; I went because I'd heard that the prisoners made chess sets of the Spaniards versus the Incas. The Cuzco prison was an experience never to be forgotten: once inside there is no security, you are on your own with the prisoners. The prison is laid out like a a dark Disneyland; a microcosm of Peruvian society minus the women and children. Our self-appointed guide, a limping young man who tried to sell us some home-made wrist ties, took us to 'his place',  a squalid and druggy urban section in high rise flats. 
Other parts of the prison resembled a Peruvian village; folksy huts and men weaving from large looms in the open air. The most interesting area was the low-rise concrete block, covered with graffiti and wall art depicting Marx, Lenin and Chairman Mao, where the 'Senderos Luminosos' or Shining Path revolutionaries lived. These political prisoners were, during the time of my visit (1989), reported to be killing tourists around the country. These men stuck together, separate from the rest of the prison, considering themselves a cut above the merely criminal. It was very hard to talk to them. Every question was answered with a glassy-eyed impenetrable political rant. The men I talked to said the media reports of revolutionaries killing tourists was untrue; that it was bandits, but the government preferred to blame it on them. "We have no interest in killing tourists" one claimed. The wall of dogma only broke down when I asked the leader if he missed his family. His eyes filled with tears, his voice dropped "Yes I do. They live far away, they can't visit". They had no idea how long they would be in prison as mostly they were held without trial.
Outside H.M.High Down was a 'visitor's centre' where entire families, women with babies in pushchairs, hung about. Somehow this shocked me, you forget that men in prison have children who must be traumatised by their fathers' incarceration.
My purpose was to visit a restaurant, The Clink, part of a project for retraining prisoners, teaching them to cook, hopefully leading to a career and employment in the hospitality industry once they have done their time.
I have no pictures. Well I did but I was forced to delete them on the way out by a troop of prison guards who were standing over me and watching me do it. I wasn't even allowed to keep a photo of the entrance or my security pass 'H.M.High Down' because, as the guard explained "this information could be used for escape purposes or to copy the security pass". 
Passing a sign saying "Security (today's date): High Alert', I was led through the grey and sober prison buildings up to the heavily bolted and padded door of the restaurant. The contrast inside was like the passage from black and white to colour in the Wizard of Oz: a sleek, modern, discreetly lit and designed restaurant. Polite waiters sit you down on the comfortable banquettes, you are offered menus and water. You could be in any Michelin starred restaurant. Looking more closely however, there are differences: the cutlery is plastic, there is no alcohol and the wait staff are all male. As much as possible is sourced from within High Down and other prisons creating a self-sufficient circle of enterprise. The furniture is made by HM Frankland, the fruit juice is supplied direct from Colombia by ex-cocaine farmers, while the vegetables are grown by the prisoners on 'farm' duty, in poly tunnels.
I talked to Kate Ruby, the passionate coordinator of this programme, about the importance of food on behaviour. Good nutrition improves mental health and many inmates have never had a good diet, coming from difficult backgrounds. A whopping 87% of the prison population has drug problems. The exception, diet-wise, perhaps, being those of Caribbean descent, whose mothers tend to cook good food from scratch. Many of the kitchen staff are black.
Head Chef Al Crisci, who was awarded an MBE for his pioneering work at The Clink, sat with us and explained the provenance of the ingredients, they buy fresh fish from the fisherman at Selsea for instance.
"The prisoners make everything" he declared proudly "even Christmas pudding".
As a working environment for a civilian, it's strange for Al to live without a mobile phone: they are strictly disallowed at The Clink in case a prisoner gets hold of one.
I started with a well seasoned tomato and red pepper soup, some freshly baked bread with butter. For the main course I had the Grilled Catch of The Day, a perfectly cooked Dover sole with Caribbean style vegetables and baby roasted potatoes which only cost £6. The prices are incredibly cheap for the quality of the food. The pudding consisted of a trio of desserts, including a witty take on miniature toffee apples, the equal to any fine dining restaurant.
I was sat with a group of people. Conversation ranged from our jobs to other prisons, including 'celebrity' convicts, with a mention of where Soham murderer Ian Huntley was held. One of my dining companions, an older lady, was an official visitor. She was very posh and genteel but had compassion towards the prisoners:
 "Any of us could be in this position" she explained "I always feel, there but for the grace of god go I".
Al accompanied me to the outside, and confessed that there was resistance to The Clink from some of the prison officers, the old argument of punishment versus rehabilitation. Is The Clink a soft option? Al pointed to the fact that many prisoners re offend, because they can't find a job on the outside. There obviously has to be a great deal of trust, because a kitchen inevitably is a dangerous place, with fire and knives. It's a earned privilege to work at The Clink restaurant. Those who show special interest in food while working at the ordinary prison canteen, can apply for the programme. The hospitality industry is chronically and perpetually short staffed, so this is ideal training with a strong possibility of subsequent employment, always a difficulty for 'ex-cons'.

Support The Clink project here. Trainees need employment, mentoring and further training while the charity needs money and kitchen equipment. Hopefully this valuable project will roll out to other prisons. 

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter brunch under the lilac tree

 hot cross buns...
More hot cross buns...

More hot cross buns...

 hot cross buns with rhubarb compote
...spread with homemade rhubarb compote and extra salty butter...

It was my dad's birthday: here he is being kissed by his old friend Lyn who used to work on Nationwide and knew Fanny Craddock. Fanny was gripping TV but incredibly difficult to work with, he said. His wife Val Lewis has written a book about Ship's Cats through the ages from Nelson's moggie to Churchills.

baked eggs
Baked eggs with double cream and truffle salt. I also served a large bowl of dyed red quails eggs, marbled with tamarind and soy sauce,  and tea eggs alongside a selection of unusual salts (bamboo, sulphuric, umeboshi, black, pyramid, lemon, chocolate).

tart fine
A tarte fine, adapted from Tom Aiken's book 'Easy'. This is such an easy, fresh, impressive recipe. I used goat's cheese and parmesan as well as the gruyere specified; I also substituted asparagus with purple sprouting broccoli. The sorrel, tarragon and white pepper added new flavours. 

easter lunch under the lilac tree
It was such a beautiful day, eating and drinking under my lilac tree which is in bloom.

Salted chocolate tart.
Salted chocolate tart.

Everybody toasting my dad, my book, Easter, seasonal food and good living.

One guest enjoyed himself a great deal.

linn soderstrom
This is Linn who runs a supper club in Sweden. I love her vintage jacket. Isn't she beautiful?

matzoh bread
It's also the Jewish Passover so I made a matzoh bread dessert adapted from David Liebowitz's blog. During Passover, you must clean your house of all flour and yeasted products. You cannot use anything fermented or 'risen'. 

chocolate matzoh
I was a bit dubious about this recipe but it was absolutely delicious.

Linn brought over an Easter drink from Sweden: 'Flaggpunsch' made from Arrack.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Tea eggs and hot anarchist buns

dyed tea eggs
Bottom three eggs are onion dyed with their shells on.

hot anarchist buns

It's Easter, time for eggs in all their forms, chocolate amongst them. On Sunday I'm hosting an underground brunch with Easter Egg hunt.

Hot cross buns
Baked eggs with truffle salt
Tarte fine
A grown up chocolate dessert

Book here £25

I've been playing about with eggs, that pagan symbol for spring, dying them different ways. Michel Roux's book 'Eggs' is a great resource. In China tea eggs are a popular street snack: you boil eggs, then lightly crack the shells and simmer them in tea with a little salt for an hour. Once the shells are off, the white eggs have a tinted tea marbled surface. You can also do this with food colouring, soy sauce or orange juice to obtain different colours.
I also dyed eggs with soaked onion skins which stains the shells; in Russia they do this with herbs.
Here is a link to the method.

dying eggs with onion skins

I made hot cross buns from Gin and Crumpets recipe, except I substituted mixed peel and dried fruit for raisins. Another tweak to her recipe: I piped on the crosses rather than spooned them. Leave the cross dough to set for a while, it will give a stronger line. I also thought 'why stick to crosses?' and did some with symbols for Anarchy, Venus and the peace sign.
Have fun this Easter...

eggs with vanilla
I'm storing eggs with vanilla for Sunday, which will penetrate through the shells just as truffles do.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Secret Garden Club

 Vintage gardening magazines

 Vintage French seed packets

I've neglected it for the last two years... my rambling tangled patch of green. When I moved here in 2000, I couldn't believe my luck, a decent sized South-West facing garden in London which was mine, all mine. The kids next door had pulled down a section of wall in the corner and started a fire in the bird bath, there was a half moon area of Japanese knotweed, bindweed climbing the walls, brambles and thickets of Michaelmas daisies.
One side strained a high brick wall and on the other an oak fence. Sections underneath the balcony were full of junk and large green slugs. My mother and I spent days pulling out the rubbish, hacking down the grass and weeds. Every evening we sat exhausted next to the bonfire. My hands became claws from repeated use of the secateurs.
Gradually underneath the six foot high weeds, emerged an old fashioned garden, roses gone wild, a lilac tree, pink Clematis Montana, white scented Viburnum, red Camellia, periwinkle blue Ceanothus, fraises des bois, throngs of bluebells in bleu marine, mauve and white; followed by clouds of Forget-me-not. There were even a few 1950's gardening magazines left in the shed.
I became addicted to gardening. I couldn't leave it alone. On a Saturday night, when I was supposed to be meeting friends, I'd look up, filthy and sunburnt, at the darkening sky, and realise that I was too late. I wore gardening clogs all the time, my feet turned into Hobbit's paws. Despite my horror of slugs, snails and worms, I didn't wear gloves, I was unstoppable. I dug and dug to remove the knotweed, developing an irrational hatred of anything that resembled bamboo. I tamed and nagged and nurtured. Neighbours looking down from neighbouring houses stopped me in the street to congratulate me. I spent (wasted?) more money on the garden than I did on the house.
I had fantasies of a cottage garden, I frittered gold on Delphiniums, only feeding the slugs. I made so many mistakes. I learnt what worked, and what didn't. Mine is a woodland garden. This area used to be a farm orchard. Pear trees stand either side.
The rickety shed was replaced, unfortunately sacrificing the wisteria, just about to flower for the first time after seven years. My French squatter boyfriend and I spent three months building a new one out of recycled materials, fitting in a log burning stove, a bed and a worktop. He also built me a firebath out of brick. You fill it with water, light a fire underneath, and abracadabra! an outside bath under the stars.
A cast iron arch was set into the ground, a rambling not climbing rose, which flowers spectacularly once a year, sprawled around.
I have grown vegetables: tomatoes were a success, aubergines a failure. Also, Borlotti beans, pink, purple and speckled before cooking, a surprise grown from mystery seedlings bought at a Nottingham windmill. Small crops of potatoes, enough for only one or two meals, were achieved.
Now with the help of Glamorous Gardener and tutor Scarlett Cannon,* vegetable growing will start in earnest. We have set up a gardening club: learn how to grow fabulous vegetables and herbs from seed, two hours tuition, followed by high tea at The Underground Restaurant.

First in a series of day courses: May 15th, book here

*i-D cover star, 80s face

I'm growing British runner beans in lovely cedar scented seed's a how to.

Adventures in food: World's 50 best restaurants

 Gizzi Erskine

Bunking in to places must be in my genes. My dad, a journalist, was an expert at it. Arriving at the Olympics without a press pass, he spotted that the official armband was bright yellow. He promptly bought a pair of Marigold rubber gloves, cut them up and fashioned some kind of official looking lettering, which did the trick, he managed to slide past security.
So lovely readers, on Monday I went for tea with the stylish TV chef and author Gizzi Erskine. She suggested meeting at the W hotel in Leicester Square. Worth going to just for the lobby... reminded me of the Ace hotel in New York. Tea soon morphed into cocktails, Gizzi mentioned she was invited to the opening of the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards at the Guildhall, and suddenly we'd hatched a plan in which I would bunk in.

A taxi ride later, I'm nervously striding through the medieval sand coloured stone paved square of the Guildhall in the city. The architectural glory of the 12th century site, both outside and inside, is a treat to behold. Milling outside was everybody who is anybody in food, le tout Londres and le tout Denmark.
Sarah Canet, PR for the event, came up to me with a steely but polite gaze saying through gritted teeth: "This is your first time here isn't it?"
"Yes it is", I replied brightly. Damn, I thought, I hope she doesn't grass me up.

So I air kissed Nuno Mendes of Viajante, Ravinder Bhogal, Richard Vines, Xanthe Clay, Richard Johnson, Bruce Palling and other luminaries of the food world. Few, if any, bloggers were invited: The Wine Chap was wearing a burgundy coloured suit and Douglas Blyde hissed about having to travel up to Hampshire to borrow a sick old ladies' unused invitation. No, this was strictly olde worlde meeja.
As Gizzi and Jay Rayner strode towards the door, I tried to follow in their slipstream, muttering to Jay Rayner that I wasn't invited. He stopped in his tracks and said "Sorry I can't help you" while reversing rapidly. As one of the presenters, I guess my confession put him in a difficult position.

The door Nazi looked carefully down her list, 'I'm afraid you are not here'. But then didn't allow Gizzi in either, didn't recognise her, didn't recognise anyone. Gizzi whirled around and, with the aplomb of a seasoned night club jibber, said 'Lets try the press entrance' where bizarrely, I was let in and she wasn't.
Head down, I wended my way to the great hall where they were serving drinks and canapés: the champagne was in magnums and the canapes were tucked into mini savoury icecream cones threaded into black perspex trays. The servers seemed to be buckling under the weight. Inside, Jay Rayner did a double take and said "I never thought I'd see you again. Well done, I'm impressed. Where is Gizzi?"
"Gizzi is stuck outside, can you help her?", which made him laugh even more as he ran out to get her.
The Noma team wore Viking helmets with horns; typical Danes, they are enormous, while head chef René Redzepi is tiny. Heston is small too. (Yay for short chefs!) I got talking to Noma's sommelier.

"So what kind of drink do you serve? ... Beer? ... Loganberry juice?", I asked him.
"Wine. The food is locally foraged but the drink is international", he replied.
"What about vodka?"
"We cannot serve vodka. The food at Noma is small and delicate. Vodka is 40º proof. A small glass of that with each course and our customers will all be very drunk"
I'm afraid, dear reader, after 3 glasses of champagne, I wouldn't let it rest at that...
"Water? You could serve local water?"
"No." he was starting to look irritated "the drink is wine, it goes with the food. But the wine comes from cold parts of Europe". He moved away.

These awards tend to value a certain style of food: 'Modernist Fayne Dining'. I was most interested that there were restaurants on the list from Mexico and Peru. But I imagine they are cooking Noma-style food, droplets and shavings, served asymmetrically on a plate, but this time with tequila and cactus, or guinea pig and Pisco.
I'm not sure what to think about the special prize for 'Best woman chef' won by Anne Sophie Pic, whose restaurant was number 74 on the list. It seems a little patronising. It remains a fact that top women chefs are still a rarity in a world where long hours and evening service preclude those who have primary responsibility for rearing children. Maybe positive discrimination is the way to go... women-only lists are the reason we now have more female MPs in parliament. It doesn't look like things will change anytime soon as Bruce Palling's ten upcoming chefs' list for the Wall Street Journal features only men.

Ultimately it's really rather absurd to have a top 50 list for restaurants, how can you compare food in that way? It makes such a difference to the chosen restaurants: I met Claude Bosi, whose restaurant, Hibiscus in London, last year achieved 49th place. Bookings rose, he told me. This year Hibiscus moved up the rankings to 43. Last year, when Noma won the number one spot for the first time, they received 100,000 requests for bookings overnight. 

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Ravinder Bhogal's a genius

I once had the privilege of having dinner at her house. Beautiful table settings and extraordinary food. Have you seen the lovely photos she and her team did of me?

Here is the rest of her piece on Condé Nast Traveller....

Friday, 15 April 2011

Chez Bruce

Best parmesan biscuits ever.
My pick of this meal: asparagus with crab butter. Ambrosia.
 Watermelon, goat's cheese and watercress salad. Ok.
 Roast cod with roast vegetables, spinach and mash. Lovely roast veg. 
 Skate with clams and asparagus and saffron. I would have preferred the skate roasted. But good flavours.
 Sour sweet passion fruit icecream. A highlight. Butter pecan icecream, meh!
 Cinnamon doughnut, apple sauce, vanilla icecream, dribble of toffee sauce: fantastic. Are doughnuts the new black? 
Chocolate fondant with almonds. Nice but bit ordinaire compared to the other puds.
Afterwards...the best shortbread biscuits evah! And free refill of expresso without asking.

Chef Bruce Poole has a book out soon.
Bloody Wandsworth. All very nice with it's sweet air next to the common but a nightmare to get to for the tube-dependent North Londoner.

Chez Bruce
2 Bellevue Road
London SW17 7EG
020 8672 0114

Bill for two £95 including two glasses of wine, coffee and three puddings.