Wednesday, 29 February 2012

My dinner with Gabriel: Vinoteca

mackerel ceviche

"I always think nobody fancies me", I say breathlessly to Gabriel as I arrive, slightly late, at Vinoteca in Clerkenwell. He'd already ordered a plate of anchovies, or were they sardines? They were larger than anchovies. I grab some good bread from the basket, ramming it greedily into the white china inkwell of bright green olive oil, speckled with salt and pepper.
"But it's not true", I gulp "loads of people fancy me". Gabriel's face looks delighted, he is about to enjoy this.
"I realised this as I got off at Farringdon", I continue, pointing to the cheapest Prosecco on the menu and ordering a glass from the waiter. "Every moment, walking around, men are looking at me, in the eyes, and I, literally within the space of a blink of an eyelid, reject them." I look at Gabriel, wondering if he is following me. He nods, urging me on. "They look, I look away. It happens endlessly, these tiny signals, so infinitesimal they are almost unconscious. We are all doing it, all day, we aren't even aware of it." I pause. "Do you know what I mean?" I look at my friend.
"Yes", says Gabriel.
"Once", I'm inspired now, "I read an article, in the Mail I think, that a woman writer dressed up as a man for the day. She had expert help, a makeup artist, so it was convincing. She wrote that her abiding feeling was how lonely it is to be a man, how as a man you are not allowed to look at anyone."
Gabriel looked confused. I explain.
"A look from a man means two things: confrontation or a come on. A woman can look at anyone anytime and nobody worries."
"They have to worry about giving out the wrong signal", says Gabriel.
"Of course. But a woman's glance is never perceived as threatening."
"Would you go for it?", asks Gabriel eagerly, his blue eyes sparkling. (He's an actor and a Tory. I didn't even know that this particular combination was permitted. Aren't all luvvies left wing?)
I'm amazed that he can be so crass. "You mean?"
"Would you take one of these guys up on it? If they looked at you and you liked. Would you... go off with them?"
"No. Plus they are all hideous. There are lots of men who fancy me but they are all unattractive", I state. The waiter comes up and talks about the Prosecco, saying some guff about less bubbles than usual.
"Prosecco can be too bubbly", suggests Gabriel. He often lies about food and drink.
"Hmm", I frown. When it arrives, it's flat. It's flat yellow Prosecco. That's why it's so cheap. I once bought flat Prosecco by mistake via online shopping. Prosecco is pointless without bubbles. I also order salsify soup and fried artichoke salad. Gabriel only orders mackerel ceviche. I think he's a bit broke.
I say, "We can share".
The waiter leaves: "Have you seen Shame?" muses Gabriel.
"A bit. I fell asleep. Everyone says he's got a massive willy."
"Do you remember the bit on the train, where he's staring at the girl." Gabriel looks up then down to the right, meaning he's using his memory. "I'm doing that a lot at the moment. Since I split up with my girlfriend, I'm not know."
"Right", I nod.
"So I can't stop thinking about it. I look at girls on the tube."
I briefly flash back to my old boyfriend, the French squatter/cross-dressing lumberjack. He used to look at girls on the North London line. In front of me. It was deliberate torture. Once we got on the train to Hackney together. Inevitably, two stops later he dumped me. Momentarily I'd had enough of the abuse, I stood up and shouted down the carriage to the other passengers: 'Help, help I'm being dumped HELP me, I'm being emotionally mugged'. He looked shocked, then smiled. We were back on. It was a relationship during which I had to be on my toes creatively.
salsify soup

The steaming soup materialises in front of me. It has almonds and raisins sprinkled from a height, a large chef's pinch, in the centre. It's too hot to eat. When I do sip the thick magnolia paste, I can't taste the salsify but the garnish helps.
My salad has thin slices of confit red onion, a good contrast with the slightly bitter leaves of the salad and oily fried artichoke hearts.
Gabriel's mackerel ceviche is carved carpaccio style, almost transparent, the red slices going grey, cooked by the lime but refreshed by the red chillis and samphire dotted around. I have to stop myself from eating all of it.
I'm on my second glass of the flat Prosecco. I have a meeting later about vegetarian sausages, I will be drunk.


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Secret Garden Club potato dinner

Chocolate Potato Cake with chocolate dipped potato crisp on top
Chocolate Potato Cake with chocolate dipped potato crisp on top
Chase's Potato vodka
(Sorry, had already drunk the cocktail by the time I photographed this.) But...this is Chase's Potato vodka. We did a taste test of good grain vodka and potato vodka; the latter was so much smoother.
Golden wonder, Orla, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy, Mayan Gold, Pink Fir apple, potatoes
Golden wonder, Orla, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy, Mayan Gold, Pink Fir apple. Am I the only person that didn't know Golden Wonder crisps were named after the variety of potato?
Aligot and truffade on the Aga
Aligot and truffade on the Aga. 
folding and stretching the aligot to get the right texture
You have to keep folding and stretching the aligot to get the right texture.  
Secret Garden Club potato dinner
You can't eat enough potatoes...
Sunday was dedicated to the humble spud. This new world vegetable has only been part of our diet for the last 400 years. I spent a few weeks living as a Tudor a decade ago, and it was extraordinary how much food that we regard as an ordinary part of our diet...tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco were absent.
I made aligot, truffade, multi-coloured chips, a potato vodka cocktail and finally a chocolate potato cake topped with chocolate dipped crisps. The BBC came along to film, it will be broadcast next Saturday on the Breakfast news in a segment about Pop Up businesses. The crew couldn't stop eating the chocolate dipped crisps!
My next potato based dinner is on the 12th of May where I'll be using Jersey Royals book here:

Upcoming dates:

March 17th: Caribbean cookery with Guardian food writer Catherine Phipps who worked as a chef in the Caribbean. £40
Secret Garden Club: March 18th : Take up smoking! due to the popularity of the last smoking event, here's another workshop and smoked tea. £60
Book here:

Spuds you like

We were filmed by the BBC on Sunday. Zia, in her nervousness, forgot to get her wellies on. She doesn't always garden in Kurt Geiger heels! Watch us next Sunday on BBC breakfast news talking about potatoes and Pop ups!
Zia Mays  The Secret Garden Club
Zia Mays
 The Secret Garden Club met on Sunday February 26th to discuss potatoes - including a look at heritage varieties, some tips on growing in restricted space and how to raise a successful crop out in the open ground. The afternoon began with a potato vodka cocktail garnished with potato crisps before moving out into the garden.
I'm afraid I drank it before I could take the picture! But revelation! Potato vodka is soo much smoother than grain vodka. I bought Chase, the only potato vodka available in the UK. 
There are something like 450-500 varieties grown in the UK, but only a few of these ever make it into the shops. To find some of the more unusual potatoes, you’ll need to look online for mail order suppliers, at Farmers’ Markets … or grow them yourself. 
Clockwise from top right: Golden wonder, Orla, Salad Blue, Highland Burgundy, Mayan Gold, Pink Fir apple (centre left). 

On Sunday, we looked at some heritage varieties all grown in the UK, but generally only available to grow or from specialist suppliers such as Carrolls.
  • Highland Burgundy – a close relative of ancient South American potatoes, but this particular strain was probably cultivated around 80 years ago.
  • Mayan Gold – these have been bred specifically in Scotland from an ancient Peruvian potato, Solanum phureja.
  • Salad Blue – the deep blue colour comes from anthocyanins in the flesh. Bred by the Victorians in Scotland
  • Golden Wonder – a very floury maincrop potato. Great for baking and chips … and used to make potato crisps!
  • Pink Fir Apple – originally imported into Britain in 1850 and bred for its fine flavour. Unusually, it’s a maincrop potato which boils well and is great for salads. 
Here they are cut up: amazing colours!
    Potato jargon
    Terms like waxy and floury refer to the texture of the potato. Waxy potatoes have the texture you associate with new potatoes and potatoes in salad. Floury is that fluffiness you get inside baking and roasted potatoes when cooked.
    These textures are determined by the water content of the potato. A high water content makes for a waxy spud. High dry matter makes the potato floury, and floury potatoes are generally not good for boiling: they will break down in the pan.
    A common complaint of potato growers is that the potatoes break down in the pan when they boil them, even if they are Charlottes, or another salad type. The likelihood is that the growing conditions were just too dry – they didn’t get watered often enough.
    The terms 1st Early, 2nd Early and Maincrop are often used to describe seed potatoes and  simply refer to the amount of time take to mature.
    • First early potatoes produce usable tubers in 100-110 days after planting;
    • Second earlies in 110-120 days;
    • Early maincrops after 120-125 days;
    • Maincrops produce tubers after 125-140 days.
    So, for example, you can plant early potatoes in late summer in order to have freshly dug new potatoes on Christmas Day. They are still early potatoes, regardless of the type of year they are planted.
    There’s no doubt that growing potatoes in the open ground, whether a garden bed or an allotment, takes up a lot of space. And a lot of space is usually something the urban gardener doesn’t have. 
    However, you don’t have to grow them in the open ground at all. You can grow potatoes in a container. Because of the way in which potatoes are looked after while they’re growing, the best type of container to use is a strong sack … or indeed, a bin liner.
    You might have seen advertisements in the Sunday magazines for special potato sacks, but you don’t need them. A nice strong black binbag will do. Or a compost bag, so long as it has that black lining inside. The black lining is to keep the light out, so that the potatoes inside don’t go green.
    Growing potatoes in a binliner container
    Growing in a container
    The potatoes we planted in the compost bags on Sunday are a variety called Lady Christl and they are my favourite new potato. They are always ready nice and early, they have beautiful, unblemished yellow skins and creamy white flesh. The potato is firm with a delicate nutty flavour and they make a delicious salad.
    When we planted them, the Lady Christl potatoes had little shoots emerging. This means the  potatoes have been chitted, ie, stored in a light cool place so that the shoots develop. Note, a light cool place. If you want to store potatoes for eating, keep them in the dark. If you want to store them before planting, keep them in the light.
    It’s not essential to chit potatoes but it does get them off to a head start in the ground. It also helps you when you’re planting them out as you can see where the shoots will develop and plant them the right way up.
    Each compost bag will take three seed potatoes, seed potatoes being the starter which will grow into new potato plants. From each seed potato you should be able to harvest around eight or nine eating potatoes.
    It’s not just the space-saving aspect: there are lots of advantages to growing potatoes in a container:
    • Less hard work – no digging;
    • Portability 1 – if you get a bad weather warning (eg, frost) when the plants are young and tender, you can move them indoors/under cover;
    • Portability 2 – you can place the bags more or less wherever you like.
    • Less risk of disease – your purpose-bought compost shouldn’t be harbouring blight spores, eelworms or any other nasties;
    • You don’t need to dig out the potatoes with a fork or spade, so there is little or no chance of damaging the spuds when harvesting;
    • Gardeners often miss very small potatoes and leave them in the ground over winter. By growing them in a bag you can ensure you harvest your entire crop.

    1) The first thing to do is to put about three inches of compost in the bottom of the bag, spread evenly. Make it easier for yourself by rolling the sides of the bag down so that your bag is about six inches tall. You’ll want the sides rolled down anyway after you plant the potatoes – if you keep the bags at full height your potatoes will never see the sun and they won’t grow.
    2) Next you want to take a sharpened pencil or sharp stick and make some drainage holes in the bottom of your potato bag. This is very important – you do not want waterlogged potatoes.  They will rot, and they will stink while they’re doing it.
    So, make about 5-6 drainage holes at the foot of each bag.
    3) Now place three potatoes into the bag. Space them out evenly.
    Always use seed potatoes, ie, bought from a nursery or garden centre specifically for growing. Seed potatoes should be guaranteed free from viruses, which culinary potatoes won’t be. Potatoes in the shops may have been sprayed with a shoot suppressant.
    Potatoes in the shops may not have been grown in the UK and so may not be well adapted to grow here. Many, if not most, of the seed potatoes grown in the UK come from Scotland and are bred to grow well in our conditions.
    4) The potatoes should go into the sack with the chits uppermost.
    potato shoots growing above the ground to grab some sunlight for the plant
    Yup, see them little roots... they go upwards, those will be the shoots growing above the ground to grab some sunlight for the plant.
    You can grow potatoes without chitting them first but they take longer to get going. You can also cut seed potatoes up into divisions each with its own little chit and plant them individually, but you do get bigger plants and more potatoes by planting the whole spud, chits and all.
    5) Once the potatoes are in, cover them with more compost: aim to have a layer of compost  about 2-3 inches thick over the chits.
    6) Finally, water them lightly. They don’t need to be soaked. Check that water is seeping out of the drainage holes.
    7) Put the potato bag outside somewhere light and somewhere reasonably sheltered.
    You’ll need to bring the bag inside if a frost is forecast. It’s not unusual to get frost in March in London; much more unusual in April, although we’ve had late frosts in each of the last two years.
    8) After about 2-3 weeks you’ll see the dark green leaves poking up through the soil surface. Once the leaves are about 3-4 inches above the surface of the compost, add more compost to the bag, until the green tops are only just visible above the soil surface.
    You’ll probably need to starting unroll the sides to accommodate the new compost as well. This is an ongoing process. Every time the plant grows so that you have about 3-4 inches of stem and leaves above the surface, unroll the sides a little more and add more compost.
    If it rains a couple of times a week, you probably won’t need to water them. But do check your compost: if it’s very dry, then water it. Make sure any excess water is running out through those drainage holes. If it rains a lot and you put your hand in and the compost is sodden, move the bag under cover for a few days to let it dry out a bit.
    These are early potatoes, so will take about 100-110 days to reach maturity.
    So, in about mid-June, you can put on a pair of gloves and stick your hand into the compost. If the lumps are still tiny, leave them longer. If you can feel that you have big potatoes, start harvesting.
    Other signs are also useful: once the potato plant is flowering you can try digging up some spuds, or your deep green foliage might start turning yellowy and begin to wilt.
    The best way to harvest here is simply to up-end the bag on to a surface and pick out the potatoes. Put the rest of the plant on the compost heap and spread the compost on your garden beds.
    You can store your potatoes for quite some time. Don’t put them in the fridge (that will turn the starch in the potatoes to sugar), but do put them somewhere cool, dry and dark. If you keep them out on a rack they will go green, and they will start to sprout. Neither of these is any good for eating.
    Growing in the open ground
    However, there are good reasons why you might want to grow potatoes in the open ground, if you're lucky enough to have the space.
    • You will get higher yields, ie, more potatoes, from a plant grown in a proper bed.
    • They need less looking after – no fiddling around with bags.
    • A potato bed is more attractive than having plastic compost sacks around the place.

    There is also a well-known maxim among gardeners that potatoes help to break up your soil. They’re a popular choice for growing in new territory for that reason. I have my own thoughts on this. I don’t think it’s the potatoes that break up the soil at all. I think it’s you, the gardener. Growing potatoes here in the open ground involves hard manual labour.
    • You have to dig a trench. You add organic matter, or fertiliser, maybe.
    • You earth up several times.
    • You dig deep again to harvest the potatoes.

    So, yes, potatoes are a great crop for breaking up the soil. But it won’t happen by magic. It will be your hard effort that does the work.
    One extra benefit of growing potatoes in new ground, though, is that they have big leaves and plenty of them, which makes for a good natural weed suppressant. Weeds tend not to grow underneath.
    The first step is to dig a trench. Anywhere from 3 to 8 inches deep, say about five inches is best.
    You might like to add some potato fertiliser to the bottom of the trench. It may well help to increase the yield. Fertiliser formulated for potatoes will be high in nitrogen, so any nitrogen-rich fertiliser will do fine. Incidentally, potatoes like slightly acid soil. If you’re gardening in London and you have heavy clay soil, you should be fine, as clay tends to be slightly acid itself.
    The potatoes we planted on Sunday were Pink Fir Apples. This is a maincrop potato, and normally you would plant maincrops in April, and start harvesting in August or September. Planted this early, they will need some protection against cold. 
    Lay your potatoes, chits uppermost at the bottom of the trench. The potatoes should be 12-18 inches apart and the rows should be spaced 2ft apart. Water lightly.
    Cover carefully with soil. Ideally you want to finish off with a little ridge where the plant will emerge – your first piece of earthing up (it also helps you to remember where the plant is as it takes about 3-4 weeks for the shoots to appear above ground).
    Once the plant has two sets of leaves, start earthing up. Earthing up involves drawing, with a hoe, soil from the area between the rows to cover most of the stem of the growing plant. Earthing up encourages the plant to produce more tubers and keeps them in the dark. The developing potatoes will turn green if exposed to the light, and the green bits are poisonous. To get a good crop of healthy potatoes, keep them dark and undercover.
    In practice, earthing up isn’t essential if you have other ways of keeping potatoes under cover. Mulching the crop with grass cuttings is one way to keep the potatoes that developing dark and it’s much less strenuous than earthing up. This is also practical because the potato plants are growing as the same as your lawn starts growing, so you will have a weekly supply of grass cuttings just when you need them.
    Potato problems
    Potatoes grown in open ground are also more susceptible to diseases and disorders.
    • Blight
    • Eelworms
    • Wireworms, slugs
    • Frost damage
    Blight is probably the most common problem. It’s a fungus-like organism, which first shows up as brown patches on leaves and blackening of the stems. If you catch it very early and remove and burn the affected material you may be able to stop it from spreading down to the tubers underground.
    Blight is prevalent in summer, from about July onwards, and will spread when it’s cloudy and humid – as it often is in July. If you grow potatoes in a garden and there aren’t many other potato growers nearby you may escape blight altogether – although beware as it’s the same organism that attacks tomatoes, so you also need to have no tomato growers in the vicinity. On an allotment it can spread like wildfire.
    But there are preventative measures. Early potatoes should be ready by the end of June so should avoid blight altogether. Constant checking and removal of any blotched leaves will help check the spread.
    There are also blight-resistant varieties of potatoes, notably Sarpo. Sarpo Mira is well thought of – again, not a variety you’ll find in the shops but a good one to grow.
    Potato eelworm
    You might also get potato eelworm cysts. You dig up the crop and instead of potatoes you have tiny white or yellow cysts on the underground stems. There’s no chemical treatment available: practise good crop rotation. Eelworms don’t move much so just because they’re in one bed doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in the next-door bed. Again, grow only earlies. They’ll be ready to harvest before the eelworm reaches the harmful phase of its life cycle. There are some resistant varieties: try Sante.
    Wireworms and slugs
    Wireworms will drill thin holes in your potatoes. They are thought to be a problem mainly when you grow on new ground, so constant cultivation should reduce wireworm attacks.
    Slugs are more likely to be a problem if you leave the potatoes in the ground only digging them up when you need them. Try lifting and storing the crop all at once.
    If slugs are a big problem, apply a nematode solution on the patch before you plant the potatoes.
    Frost damage
    Another potential problem which should be taken into account is frost damage – potato plants are vulnerable to frost and so can be affected by a late frost. There was one very late frost in London in May in 2010 – wiped out my early potatoes, and this year, I lost 2-3 plants to a mild frost in April.
    That April the maincrop potatoes were still underground and hadn’t yet sprouted. They were fine. It was only the earlies which were affected.
    Having said all this about hard work and diseases and problems, I’ve made growing potatoes sound like very hard work, and it’s true that they do require a  certain amount of physical effort to grow outdoors.
    But of all the problems I’ve outlined above, late frost is the only one I’ve ever personally suffered from.
    And of course if you grow in a container, these problems shouldn’t arise at all.

    potatoes in egg cartons

    Saturday, 25 February 2012

    Fry up

    Talking to a friend, a divorced dad with a teenage daughter, who he takes out for lunch every Saturday. He's a foodie so he takes her to nice places, this time the latest rave in restaurants.
    His teenage daughter groaned. Where do you want to go then? He asked.
    I'd love a fry up... she said.
    He took her to a greasy spoon. "I've never seen anyone enjoy their food so much", he said of his daughter. "She loved the sausages, beans, toast, fried eggs. Her mum won't let her eat fry ups."
    My girl, the teen, said "Well duh. Who wants to go to posh restaurants? All that experimental food. Plus we have a limited diet, us teenagers, we don't want to eat interesting food."
    "What about posh restaurants that aren't experimental?" I ask.
    "That's why I like The Gilbert Scott. That's where I want to go for my 18th. It's great. It's simple. You don't have to think about the food. You don't have to look at it. No droplets."
    She walks off, to listen to Radio 6 ("6 music!"), to serve herself another plate of pasta, to add another post to Tumblr.

    Menu for tomorrows potato Secret Garden Club

    Sweet potato cocktail (if this sounds bizarre, remember that vodka is often made from potatoes)

    Red, white and blue chips. (A diamond jubilee tribute in potato form)

    Aligot (French potato dish from the Auvergne. With Tomme. Divinely stretchy and cheesy)

    Truffade (served in a cast iron pan. Lovely crunchy bits at the bottom)

    Chocolate Potato Cake

    Still tickets left for tomorrow, book here:
    £45 for workshop and meal.

    The BBC are coming to film tomorrow too!

    Thursday, 23 February 2012

    Competition: Flea Market Chic

    Last summer, photographer Simon Brown (also famous for his photographs of Airstream caravans) and his gorgeous wife, the stylist and interiors blogger Liz Bauwens came over to shoot my house for a book Flea Market Chic (CICO books) by Liz Bauwens and Alexandra Campbell. It's one of a beautiful series of books on interior design and style, all of which I covet. It was interesting to see an interiors shoot in action and I felt very flattered that I was chosen. We used romantically blousy blooms from my favourite florist Achillea Flowers in Mill Lane. I love the ideas in the book, and it's thrifty message is just right for now. You don't need money to have a stylish home.
    Now the book is published, I'm offering my readers a chance to win a copy. All you have to do is like my facebook page and put a comment describing your favourite flea market find.  You can even upload a picture to the facebook page if you want to show us what you found!
    Best comment and best find wins the book!

    interior design kitchen
     Somebody else's lovely home here
     A view of my kitchen msmarmitelover
     A view of my kitchen
    pantry of msmarmitelover interior
    my 'pantry'

    Wednesday, 22 February 2012

    Red, white and blue - the amazing variety of heritage potatoes

    Highland Burgundy, Salad Blue, Mayan Gold, Golden Wonder and Pink Fir Apple. Potatoes supplied by Carrolls, apart from the Pink Fir Apples
    Clockwise from the top: Highland Burgundy, Salad Blue, Mayan Gold, Golden Wonder and Pink Fir Apple. Potatoes supplied by Carrolls, apart from the Pink Fir Apples, which are the 'model's own', as they say.

    Why bother to grow potatoes, you might wonder, when they are readily available in the shops all the year round and relatively inexpensive.

    Well, aside from the obvious reasons - knowing the provenance of your potato, knowing that they haven't been sprayed indiscriminately, the wonderful just-dug-up taste of new potatoes out of the ground - growing your own enables you to explore the many different types of potato you can grow easily here in the UK.

    The types of potato stocked in the shops and supermarket barely scratch the surface of what's available. There are something like 450 varieties of potato grown in this country alone. Types such as Kestrel, Desiree and Romano are prevalent in the shops because they are so versatile and are equally happy to be chipped, roasted, mashed or baked. For salad potatoes, you would be forgiven for imagining that Jersey Royals and Charlottes were the only types in existence.

    In fact, potatoes come in all different shapes and sizes, from the long and knobbly Pink Fir Apple, to the tiny round Whitchhills. Their flesh has different textures, from waxy new potatoes, such as Lady Christl, for salad, to fluffy insides, like Golden Wonder, ideal for baking. (Golden Wonder is, needless to say, the variety used to make a certain type of potato crisp.) They also come in different colours, as the photo above shows. British bred potatoes tend to be white or creamy fleshed, while South American (also Spanish) potatoes are much more yellow in colour. But potatoes can also come in surprising colours: dark indigo blue, or crimson, for example.

    I've been tasting some of the more unusual varieties in advance of the Secret Garden Club afternoon on potatoes this Sunday. I first roasted each of the varieties here with a little olive oil and salt for 30 minutes at 200 degrees C. Next, I cut a second batch into chips and fried them in vegetable oil for around 12 minutes.

     roast potatoes 

    • Golden Wonder - very soft and fluffy flesh - in a good way. Would make soft pillow-like mash.
    • Mayan Gold - more like a new potato, nutty flavour. Mayan Gold is a new variety, bred in Scotland from an ancient Peruvian strain, Solanum phureja
    • Salad Blue - I fancy I can taste the blue: that very slightly iodine note you get in red cabbage and beetroot, but I'm not doing this blind, so I could just be suggestible.
    • Highland Burgundy - the least flavoursome, which is disappointing as they are probably the most attractive to look at. Texture is almost fudgy and taste is bland.
    • Pink Fir Apple - an old favourite. A waxy new potato texture (not so pronounced at this time of year) and light nutty taste. They roast beautifully, especially if you leave the skins on and let them crisp up with salt.
    Come to the Secret Garden Club on Sunday to join in our heritage potato taste test, along with tips on growing potatoes, ideas for growing them in a (very) restricted space, and MsMarmiteLover's inspirational potato-themed feast to finish off the afternoon.

    This Sunday, a potato workshop with aligot

    This Sunday, Zia Mays will be giving a workshop on all the different kinds of potatoes you can grow: from earlies to lates, russets to purples and whites, in gardens or allotments or even on balconies, followed by a meal at The Underground Restaurant. I'll be cooking one of my favourite French potato dishes...aligot. 
    Book here:

    Aligot: in this Auvergne regional French potato dish the potatoes are not sautéed as in Truffade but mashed. It lines your stomach like a four-tog duvet against the winter cold.
    Mashed potato doesn't really cover it as a description: although the potatoes are mashed, combined with a local cheese... a fresh 'Tomme'. You work the potato and other ingredients together until it's stretchy. It's known rather romantically in France as the 'ribbon of friendship'.
    In Aubrac and Aurillac (where they have an annual street theatre festival) it's sold in the market place in huge cast iron frying pans or deep pots, lifting it again and again, displaying it's gaping trails of cheese...

    Here is the recipe:

    1 kilo of floury potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
    2 crushed cloves of garlic, peeled
    100g of butter
    400g of fresh Tomme cheese, cut into small slices (leave it out of the fridge for at least two hours before using); up the proportion of cheese if you like it really stretchy!
    200g of thick creme fraiche

    Salt and Pepper to season

    Boil the potatoes in salted water with the garlic cloves for 15 -20 minutes.  When cooked, take out the garlic cloves.
    Put the potatoes through a ricer (better than a masher as it stops the potatoes becoming too glutinous).
    Keep back a little of the cooking water to obtain the correct consistency. Aligot is all about texture, it really depends on the type of potatoes you use too. It must not be too liquid or too stiff.
    Then progressively add the butter, creme fraiche, cheese over a simmering flame. You must whip the ingredients together with a wooden spoon energetically, working it back and forth to aerate the mixture.
    You season and can add some more crushed garlic at the end.
    My pictures don't really do justice to this dish, I should have shown the elastic quality of the cheese but only had one set of hands!

    Hand carved wooden spoons by Terence McSweeney.

    Tuesday, 21 February 2012

    Travel: a Nice day

    Revitalising warmth, golden light, Italianate architecture, rich old people with tanned faces and coiffed white hair, big sunglasses, proper lunch....can you visit the South of France for just one day?  bmi are running flights to Nice for £94 return (economy) and £159 return (business). The advantages of business class, are the comfy wait in the VIP lounge and free food and drink on the plane. But seats are roomy and spacious even in economy. I took the early morning flight from Heathrow, arriving in the centre of Nice just in time for midday lunch and returned via the 8.50pm flight to London landing at 10.35pm. This gives you a decent whack of time just to soak up a little vitamin D, visit the market, eat and shop. I also had a cookery lesson at Nice's only cooking school L'Atelier Gastronomique via (the teacher Aude speaks good English). It's the perfect cure for those last heel-dragging weeks of the British winter. 

    'Nice' biscuit cutter beach photo
     I bought a 'Nice' biscuit cutter in the market. But I can't find a recipe... anybody know how to make them?
    Sun kissed arches france
    Sun kissed arches

    The market is open on Mondays 'Cours Saleya' in nice
     The market is open on Mondays 'Cours Saleya'
    Vintage schoolbooks. I love French stationery
     Vintage schoolbooks. I love French stationery.
    Charming 1960s plates
     Charming 60s plates
    Les couverts, french cutlery
     Les couverts
     'Fèves' in the shape of kings for the galette des rois (a typical Epiphany to Mardi Gras cake)
     'Fèves' in the shape of kings for the galette des rois (a typical Epiphany to Mardi Gras cake)
    White 'fèves' which means beans.
     White 'fèves' which means beans. You can see some of them are in the shape of beans. If you find one in the slice of 'galette des rois' then you are 'king' for the day.
    Giant fabric backed retro posters 
    gold with the Cote D'Azure
     I associate gold with the Cote D'Azure, glinting expensively from the bronzed wrinkled skin of retirees and criminals. 
    pretty enamel jug
     A pretty enamel jug
     Designer labels
    Vintage 'Kelly' Hermès bags
     Vintage 'Kelly' Hermès bags. Only £2.5k each. 'On peut discuter le prix?' said the stallholder. 'Er no we can't', I said backing away. They were beautiful though, shiny soft leather like ancient doctor's bags.
    Copper moulds for jellies, aluminium fruit shaped moulds for ice cream and chocolates
     Copper moulds for jellies, aluminium fruit shaped moulds for ice cream and chocolates. These were very expensive, upwards of 30 euros for the small ones. 
     Modern Interiors magazine
    Enormous spaghetti poster
     Enormous spaghetti poster.
     Vintage nightgowns.
     Vintage nightgowns.
    torchons or tea towels
    'Pre-loved' torchons or tea towels. But these were très chèr, at 12 euros each, normally they are around 5 to 7 euros each.
     Looking at silver
    lunch in france, market stall
    One thing I love about French life is the seriousness with which lunch at 'midi' is taken. It's more than food, it's a sacred ritual. Even if you are running a market stall, you down tools, set up a table, get out 'les couverts', the plates and glasses, and have lunch right there. This couple had sole with poireaux (leeks) in a truffle sauce. You don't get that dahn Petticoat Lane.
     Another stall holder lunch.
    Une petite salade verte, lasagne, baguette.
    Baguette, salade avec des radis, un peu de chevre...suivi par? 
     Un gratin...
     Olive trees against the dusky sunset pink of the Municipal theatre.
    La vannerie, a shop specialising in basketry where the lady inside is caning chairs.
     French cookbooks on a sunlit pegboard window display
     Cuisine Nicoise: many original shop fronts in the Old town.
     Cuisine Nicoise: many original shop fronts in the Old town.
    Savon de Marseille, olive oil and lavender soaps
     Savon de Marseille, olive oil and lavender soaps, typical of the South of France.
     Ochre buildings and cerulean skies.
     Ochre buildings and cerulean skies.
     Menu chained up against a lace curtained restaurant window. A regional speciality is 'Socca', chickpea flour crepes.
     Menu chained up against a lace curtained restaurant window. A regional speciality is 'Socca', chickpea flour crepes.
     Terracotta washed walls, sea green painted wooden shutters and gold glass lettering in a patisserie.
     Terracotta washed walls, sea green painted wooden shutters and gold glass lettering in a patisserie.

    Atelier Gastronomique chef Aude

    Atelier Gastronomique, which chef Aude started six years ago. I learnt a great deal from her. She's knowledgeable about the science behind cooking too. We made a menu:

    Butternut squash cappuccino soup with Parmesan wafer
    Salmon filet in 'feuilles de Brick' (a North African filo style pastry available in most shops in France) with leeks in saffron sauce

    Aude recommended cutting leeks and carrots at an angle, this makes them cook quicker so that even the dark green leaves of the leeks are tender.
    Feuilles de Brick are thicker and sweeter than filo pastry but added texture and interest to the salmon parcels. 

    to make tomato roses
     We learnt to make tomato roses. This reminded me of that game in which you peel an apple or orange all in one piece, throw it into the air and the shape it makes when it falls is the first letter of the name of your 'true love'. Wonder if it works with tomatoes too... well they are 'pommes d'amour'
    Parmesan tuile
     A Parmesan tuile, lacy like a golden chewy snowflake. Aude suggests grating Parmesan into a frying pan, flattening it into a circle and cooking it until it melts. Turn off the heat, let it cool, then peel off carefully. She prefers to do this on the stovetop rather than the oven, to prevent burning.
    Tomato roses
     Tomato roses
    Butternut squash 'cappuccino' with nutmeg foam
    Butternut squash 'cappuccino' with nutmeg foam 
    Salmon wrapped in feuilles de brick
     Salmon wrapped in feuilles de brick. Oil the feuille (leaf) slightly, then you then fry them. When the feuille is golden, the fish is cooked.


    I flew to Nice with bmi, British Midland International, who fly directly between London Heathrow and Nice. Flights are twice daily for Monday to Saturday flights, and a daily service on a Sunday. Economy fares are available from £94 return, and business class fares are available from £159 return including all taxes and charges Flying in business class allows the glamour to begin at Heathrow. Relax in Terminal One’s newest lounge and once on board enjoy a guaranteed aisle or window seat, a three-course meal and your choice of drinks. For more information visit

    Cookery Classes:

    Here is the link to the cookery class I took on Monday with details of the class and pricing (runs Mon,Wed,Thurs,Fri):

    Cookery class with market visit included which runs on Tuesdays: