Thursday, 30 May 2013

Guild of Food Writers Food blog of the Year 2013 award!

I was thrilled last night to win the Guild of Food Writers Food blog of the year award. I wore a tomato dress with a spaghetti vongole hat, both designed and made by Ruth Bennett.  I was given a sturdy egg-shaped glass vase engraved with my name. It was lovely to see the award lined up on a grand piano along with some of the other, very impressive winners, while Jay Rayner played the blues. 
Pic:  @idilsukan and @drawhq 

The wonderful Darina Allen of Ballymaloe cookery school won the lifetime achievement award. The book 'Jerusalem' won two awards, accepted by @samitamimi (like a mini version of his business partner Yotam Ottolenghi, they look like brothers) and veteran tv chef Ken Hom, who brought Asian cooking to British homes, won the best TV food broadcast award.

Restaurant Reviewer of the Year Award (Sponsored by Ferrarelle)
John Walsh for work published in The Independent magazine

New Media Award

Miriam Polunin Award for Work on Healthy Eating (Sponsored by Fish is the Dish by Seafish)
What to Eat? 10 Chewy Questions About Food by Hattie Ellis (Portobello Books)

Michael Smith Award for Work on British Food
Calf's Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of Food presented by Stefan Gates (Crocodile Media for BBC Four)

Kate Whiteman Award for Work on Food and Travel (Sponsored by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the State of Alaska)
Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Jeremy Round Award for Best First Book
The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander (Phaidon)

Food Magazine or Section of the Year Award (Sponsored by Tenderstem®)
Crumbs magazine, edited by Matt Bielby and Laura Rowe

Food Journalist of the Year Award
Noah May for work published in The Arbuturian

Food Broadcast of the Year Award
Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure presented by Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang (Keo Films for BBC Two)

Food Book of the Year Award
What to Eat? 10 Chewy Questions About Food by Hattie Ellis (Portobello Books)

Food Blog of the Year Award (Sponsored by British Lion Eggs)
Msmarmitelover ( by Kerstin Rodgers

Evelyn Rose Award for Cookery Journalist of the Year
Yotam Ottolenghi for work published in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine

Derek Cooper Award for Campaigning and Investigative Food Writing
Jay Rayner for work published in The Observer

Cookery Book of the Year Award (Sponsored by Thermomix)
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ebury Press)

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Forthcoming dates at The Underground Restaurant

A lot of catching up to do blog-wise for I've been on the run travelling in New Mexico, Old Mexico and Denmark over the last few weeks! These will be long, photo heavy blog posts so a quick shout out before that to remind readers that I have two interesting events coming up at The Underground Restaurant.

Firstly a collaboration this Friday night coming (31st May) with Rachelle Blondel, the seamstress and crafter who was behind the book Granny Chic (with Dottie Angel) and the blog Ted and Agnes. I've visited her a couple of times up on the Yorkshire Dales, once, to visit her secret tearoom The Secret Teacup. She makes the best jammie dodgers I've ever eaten. I hope she will make them again for this Friday!
So to celebrate her unique style, we are having a Granny Chic high tea, summer supper, in the evening, after work. Actual nan and grandads get a discount of £5! We want people to bring their craft projects with them: be it sewing, or knitting, crochet, embroidery, whatever you are working on.

There will be a groaning table including:
Cocktails in a jar
Hand pies
Smoked tomatoes
Warm potato salad with spring onions and sour cream
Blue cheese and creme fraiche quiche
Cheese board
Salad in a jar
Giant pavlovas
Salted caramels
Jammie Dodgers
Chocolate sprinkle sandwiches
Passion fruit curds

The quiche and potato salad are a testament to my English nan who was an abysmal cook. My mother and I being non-meat eaters, my nan grasped the introduction of ready-made quiches to the British supermarket with relief; finally she had something to feed us. She pickled produce from her garden every year but it was badly done, with poor ingredients. Nanny Stewart exemplified that make do and mend training from before and during the wars, but poverty and rationing ruined her taste buds.
The potato salad was made with salad cream not mayonnaise or sour cream. The butter leaf lettuce salad would have me peering at each leaf for slugs. 'Sandwich spread', that marvellously generic title for a mix of relish and salad cream was presented in the jar, unadorned, on the table, to be spread on a white bloomer loaf, sawn off in doorsteps while tucked under her elbow. (Actually sandwich spread has its own particular charms.)
Once, when I stayed at nan's after having my tonsils out, she offered to make me my favourite meal, spaghetti. I was horrified when it came covered in tomato ketchup. But she liked good food. She enjoyed my mum's foreign holiday influenced cooking. She just couldn't, for the life of her, reproduce it.
In other ways though she was the perfect grandmother, always carrying a large clasped handbag full of sweets, showing us how to knit, sew and crochet. In anthropology they now talk about the grandma gene, the mystery of why human females live past the menopause, surmising that this helped grandchildren to survive and improved their chances. Indeed, it has been seen that matrilineal tribes, where mothers and children stay in their maternal village, rather than moving to the mother in law's home, have enhanced childhood survival rates. More than half the calories eaten by children in extant hunter-gatherer tribes (how anthropologists study early humans) have been provided by grandmothers.
So let's celebrate the grandmother! It seems we wouldn't be here without them.

Tickets: £35
Feel free to dress up as your nan!
Discounts for grannies:

Then another Underground comedy night with Josie Long (who recently appeared on Have I got news for you?) on June 10th. This time the theme is Dr Who. Whovians will enjoy a Doctor Who based menu, with items from classic Who and new Who.
My daughter will play Clara.
Also performing will be Viv Groskop.
Tickets £40 book here:

Friday, 17 May 2013

My top travel tips

(This piece has no apostrophes. Because I cant find how to do them on a Mexican keyboard. It took me two days to find out how to do @ (FYI: AltGr, Q, 2)

Ive been a travel addict for many years now. Its funny, my parents love travelling and used to take us (me, my brother and sister) on foreign holidays when we were young and I hated it. I wanted to stay in England like my friends. In fact, on one amazing weekend we were allowed to go to Butlins holidays camp. We loved the pool, the food, the chalet, the games, that everybody spoke English, and the best, the fact we could go to the restaurant without our parents and be served.
My mum and dad kept insisting on going to France, Spain, Italy, Austria and Switzerland (my dad is a skiing nut). They even bought a thick stone-walled cottage in France, very cheap, in a tiny hamlet. Bo-ring. Every holiday the two day drive, the cleaning of the cobwebs, the same neighbours (Jean-Claude and Marie-Ange).
Of course, these trips turned out to be formative experiences and very influential on me. My daughter is half-French for starters.
It took me a while to get into backpacking: my first trip to India I was so ignorant I took my typical holiday clothes, including a mini skirt. I didnt even possess a backpack! I didnt know that there were cool travel guides like Lonely Planet. I went trekking in Tibet in flip flops, with my belongings in a plastic carrier bag, no tent, no sleeping mat, and a thin rented nylon sleeping bag. But I was young and strong and got through it fine. Later, going more hard-core, I turned into a bit of a budget travel wanker: I did South America for a year on $8 a day. Including everything. I was proud of travelling cheap, haggling non-stop to pay local prices. Doing it so cheap meant I missed out on some great experiences: the Galapagos, Easter Island and Antartica. I wish Id just spent the money, bunged it on my credit card. But, by roughing it, I also experienced things I would never otherwise have seen. I always hitched, mostly stayed with locals or camped, did things very slowly, covered the continent inch by inch on the road. You get a feel for a place that way.

Over the years Ive upgraded my style. I now love a proper hotel, a taxi, a wheely suitcase, a chocolate on the pillow and a few nice outfits when travelling. Its good to mix it up however, to be prepared to slum it again from time to time. No posh hotel can replace camping at the foot of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina for instance, hearing shards of electric blue ice carve off into the water all night, a dangerous thrill from which I could have died. (Campers have perished there and its not recommended)

So here a few things that I have learnt. These are more directed towards the budget traveller, which I still am, unless I get a press freebie. Please add your tips as Im sure Ive forgotten things!


1) Take flip flops. You will need them in dodgy showers and for the beach. They are light and waterproof and cheap.
2) Ive recently been converted to the film star like glamour of the eye mask. It does help you sleep.
3) Take a hat. I always forget and end up buying a new hat every trip. Useful for sun and cold.
4) Take a thin thermal underwear top to use as a sweater. They are light and dry easily while keeping your warm and not using much baggage space.
5) If you are a woman, take a mid-length skirt. Skirts are great on long bus journeys such as the one I took down the Peruvian coast, hours of driving through flat desert. On pee stops I noticed that the Peruvian Indians had no problem, huddling together and squatting, knowing that their modesty was protected in front of the male bus passengers by their large gathered skirts. I, on the other hand, was trying to find a small hillock behind which I could wriggle down my jeans and relieve myself. In the end, bus driver getting impatient, I thought the hell with this and didn{t care if everyone saw my naked arse.
6) I dont pack towels, I pack a sarong, which can be used to dry yourself, to lie on at the beach, as a scarf, head protection, for modesty say, in a church. The possibilities are endless.
7) Always put your swimming costume in your hand baggage. Unless you are of conventional size, that will be hard to replace if your baggage is lost. While you are waiting for your clothes, at least you can swim!


8) Be aware that some medicins make you photo sensitive, you burn more easily.
9) Always pack your vital medicines in your hand baggage.
10) I like to pack zinc oxide cream. For chafing thighs (sweaty!) and sun protection. Also talcum powder is a life saver, for the thighs again and the swollen feet in new sandals.
11) I carry salt and garlic. The salt is useful for electrolites if you get dehydrated plus you have seasoning for your picnics. Ditto garlic but that can also be used as an antiseptic, when rubbed on a small wound.
12) Hydrate! At altitude, in the sun, everywhere! Really important to drink enough water. Recently I was in New Mexico which is so hot and dry, I literally couldnt drink enough. I would wake up several times in the night, woken by thirst. Watch out for ice in drinks if in a place with dodgy water.


13) Carry an adaptor for your electrical goods such as an ipad, iphone or camera charger. Travel has changed so much. Nowadays even the most impoverished backpacker is booking everything through the internet with either or They are reading Trip Advisor reviews rather than carrying the Lonely Planet guide. They are emailing or facebooking as opposed to having mail forwarded to Post Restante. (Oh I loved that, going to Kathmandu Post Office and rifling through the rs in the index cards to see if an airmail envelope had arrived for me). Email is not the same. Nor are the travellers for that matter. I feel travellers have become less interesting generally. Its all gap year students on drinking binges.

14) Sometimes do the tour. When youve arrived, tired but excited and want to get a feel for the place, it{s a good idea to fork out the money for the tour. Today for instance, I took two trains and a collectivo (small bus) to visit a place, Xochimilco, where brightly coloured barges float down a Mexican canal. It was fascinating. But it took ages to get there and back, under my own steam, in the heat. I had to haggle with the boat guy. I probably spent 400 pesos. The tour would have been 500 pesos, including all travel from the hostel where I am staying, the boat, and a trip to Frida Kahlos house. Who is the smarter travelller here?

15) Book a decent hotel for the first night while you get your bearings. The good thing about hostels though is if you are a lone traveller, you get to meet other people. I quite like sleeping in dorms. Hostels do sometimes have private rooms however.

16) Write things down, dont just rely on emails. You want your flight info, your medical insurance details, your home address, passport number, credit card numbers, written on the front page of your notebook (a pen and paper one that is) NOT just floating in the ether. Stuff gets lost and stolen. You need hard copies. Remember that not everywhere has internet even if they say they do.

17) I suffer with swelling ankles on planes nowadays. I wear compression socks and take a diuretic for a long haul flight. I drink lots of water. All this helps prevent monster ankles in todays niggardly seating allowances.

18) Try not to sit at the back of the bus. The suspension is always worse, especially in very poor countries and on winding roads. Plus it means you are near the toilets which smell and sometimes overflow. I always book for the front. This means you can see if the driver is crazy/asleep or if there are bandits boarding (you can hide your stuff)

19) Most importantly, use your instincts. If it feels wrong, it is. It can be odd to be rude when repelling that friendly local who gives you the creeps. But you are abroad and vulnerable, your gut instincts, if you listen to them, will save you every time.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Indian fry bread in New Mexico

Indians make me nervous. Native American Indians I mean. They don't like us much and they don't hide it. They don't want anything to do with the white man. Half of me can't blame them, after all the white man did, basically, exterminate them. The other half of me feels uncomfortable around them and irritated with their secrecy and stand-offish attitude.
The reservation at Taos is one of the oldest, dating from when William the Conqueror invaded England. The structure, made from adobe, ochre mud and straw, with contrasting turquoise painted doors, is built for defence: you can only access the rooms from the roof, via ladders, which are drawn up in case of attack. There is no electricity or running water other than the bubbling river than runs through it. It's beautiful: snowy mountains in the background, periwinkle blue skies and terracotta landscapes.

The people that live there are part of the Pueblo Indians who are agrarian rather than the hunter-gatherer type tribes such as the feared Comanches. Pueblo Indians were skilled at growing in the dry arid conditions in the high plains of the United States of America. They developed the permaculture growing technique known as 'Three sisters' where corn, beans and squash are grown intertwined.
You pay an entry fee to get into the pueblo, fair enough, and a fee per camera or cell phone, again fair enough, but a wearisome wariness sets in when a native Indian woman asks for two dollars to take a picture of her fire... on top of the camera fee.
Today, however, American native Indians are not being wiped out by Western bound homesteaders (effectively squatters on the move pushing from the crowded East coast, opening up trails across the arid lands) but by their diets: they are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed diabetic as the white man. They are also four times as likely to be alcoholic.
Sage grows everywhere. It is tied together in bundles and used for smudging, which is used in Native American ceremonies to repel evil spirits.

Yeast bread and tarts with pastry tops

35 bread oven and a 55 bread oven
The day I visited Taos Pueblo they were preparing for a feast. The adobe ovens, some can bake 35 loaves, others as much as 55 loaves in a single bake, were bring fired up. Fragrant spiced cedar wood is used "about an armful" until the temperature reaches 325f explained Rosie, the baker. Once at the correct heat, the loaves, prune and cherry tarts (thinner than a pie but with a pastry top) take only around 15 to 30 minutes to bake. I felt fortunate to visit on this day, to witness this bake off. One of the things that surprised me is that there are no Native American Indian restaurants in New Mexico.

Antoinette in her kitchen. She uses the money earnt to send her daughter to college.

A popular Native American snack is Indian Fry Bread, a kind of flattened crispy doughnut, deep fried and served sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and honey. Delicious, in moderation. Antoinette serves the fry bread and Indian tea (the contents of which she was either ignorant of or refused to divulge, always hard to tell as there are so many secrets within their culture) in her front room, in the corner of which burns a slow, hard wood fire.
Fry Bread
- 450g (3cups) of plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1 tablespoon of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 180g (1 1/4 cup) of warm water
- corn or vegetable oil for frying
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour the warm water into the centre. With your hands, start working the mixture together. Sprinkle flour on a clean work surface and turn the dough out and knead lightly. The dough should be soft and moist but not too sticky. Roll the dough into a log about 3 inches wide. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
Cut the rested dough into 8 pieces and roll each into a ball. Using your hands stretch each piece into a thin flat disk. Antoinette made this look very easy but it requires some pizza making skill. Poke a little hole in the middle. Stack your flat dough on top of one another, dusting flour between each piece.
In a saucepan or deep fat fryer, pour in about 10 cms/ 4 inches of frying oil and heat over medium high heat. To test the temperature of the oil, throw in a little piece of dough, it should start to bubble immediately and see if it floats once fried.
Then start to fry your Indian fry breads, making sure you turn them over once one side is lightly golden. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and or, if you have a really sweet tooth, some good quality honey.You can also do a savoury version with beans and cheese.
                                                              Antoinette's living room
I met Paul Jones, a husky voiced cockney from Islington, imagine Adam Faith incongruously playing the part of an Indian in a Western, selling hand-carved flutes in Taos. This, he was taught, by a Native American Indian man who he met on his travels around the States. Now he is married to a Native American Indian woman and they live on the Picarus reservation nearby "they call it 'Pick your arse'". Most couples on the reservation do not marry, relationships are fluid. Paul and his wife have five mixed race kids, none of whom have visited England yet. If Paul's wife dies or they separate, Paul would be obliged to leave the reservation but his kids can stay. It took him a long time, four years at least, just to be acknowledged by the others on the reservation. "Mind you, they don't talk much" said Paul "especially when eating. The Indian man doesn't talk when he eats. Nor do I now".
Cedar wood, freely available near the pueblo.

Currently I'm reading 'Empire of the summer moon: Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history' by S.C. Gwynne. I also recommend the Navajo tribal police books by Tony Hillerman.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Top 10 annoying things at dinner parties

I recently presented a piece on entertaining for BBC 2's Food and Drink programme. Statistics, the BBC said, proved that entertaining is becoming more popular and that people who entertain are happier.
But today I got an email, new research, saying that the dining table itself is disappearing from homes: one third of British people only eat there a few times a year. Only 5% eat every meal at the dining table.
I have to admit, being from a small, one mum, one kid, family, my daughter and I tended to eat more like Cher and her daughters in 'Mermaids' rather than all around a table, Waltons style. And now she's left home for uni, I'll often eat alone at the computer. My keyboard is covered in crumbs, and I have a salt shaker and a bottle of chilli sauce positioned handily next to the mouse.
But the way forward for 'society', that thing that Margaret Thatcher said didn't exist,  is maintaining some kind of communal eating: people do still enjoy inviting others to eat. Having a dinner table is not essential, you can eat around a coffee table or on the floor, the most important thing is to share.
But there is a downside and I mention my top ten bugbears here:

1) Seating position:
I recently went to a dinner where I was sat in the middle of a long table seating 30. This, as this witty graphic shows, is considered the optimum position at a dinner party. You get to be part of the conversation and not have to shout down the table. The downside is you could end up with people either side who don't want to talk to you and who speak to the person on the other side for the duration of the dinner.
My problem is I'm deaf in one ear, so I always sit on the end. This means you tend to be limited to talking to one person next to you or, if the table is narrow enough, opposite.
The aforementioned dinner party was so noisy that I could hardly hear what my opposite number was saying. The guy on my left was mostly talking to the guy on the other side and the lady on my right was a lovely girl from Weighwatchers magazine. I must admit, I did think, why have they sat me next to her, izzit cos I'm fat? She must get that all the time.
I had to tell her straight off: "I'm afraid you are on my wrong side so it'll be hard to talk to you". I wasn't willing to wrench my neck around for the duration of the meal, which I have done at various social occasions. It is painful, looks weird, and makes me irritable.
2) Small talk.
Small talk is no trivial matter: it takes skill and discipline. It is never very personal.  You must keep conversation very general 'how was your journey' and the subject matter can end quite quickly. Stay upbeat.
This is how not to do it: at the Hidden Kitchen supper club in Paris, I asked the opposite couple, American tourists: "So what do you do?"
"We run a camp for dying children."
How do you small-talk that? Fortunately I can go straight in, being actually rather terrible at small talk.
I'm into Big talk, Deep talk. I'd be crap at being a member of the royal family, I don't know how they can stand it.
Small talk can be that 80s career-orientated conversation starter: "What do you do?" It's such a cliche and smacks overly of networking. What they are really saying is: "Are you helpful to my career and shall I waste any more time on you?"
If small talk is the baby slopes, possibly at the just arrived, standing up and having a drink then ideally one progresses, by the time you've sat down, onto the next stage: medium talk. Hopefully you should have found some topics of common ground. If things are going well, people start bringing out the anecdotes, carefully shined and guaranteed to make people laugh.
During the anecdote you can sit back and analyse the state of play within relationships around the table: is the partner constantly adding to the story? supporting the teller? Or are they sniping, saying, that didn't happen like that. Another difficulty is the child-sabotaged anecdote: "Mummy you are lying, the man didn't say that".
Although I'm bad at small talk, I hate silence. I can talk for Britain. I feel the responsibility to liven up the room, even if it means I have to resort to being rude, which I frequently do, just to gee people up.
3)Not getting invited back
Why do you think I started a supper club? It was because no one ever invited me. I have a dinner party gene: I need to entertain, to be a feeder. I've come to realise that in life, there are dinner party givers and dinner party takers. The takers just can't hack it. It's not personal. Move on. Don't expect an invite back.
4) Being single.
The world of dinner parties is complicated and even hurtful if you are single, divorced or widowed. When hosting, you don't have that extra co-host to make it easier. For single people, it's much harder work. As a guest, the single person are less likely to be invited in the first place.
As a single mum, forget it, NO ONE will ever invite you. You are poison. You are bottom of the food chain unless you are freakishly young and hot and maybe not even then. You will either steal the hostesses husband (dream on) or sit there being poor and unsmug. Who needs that at their dinner? Single dads on the other hand are still exotic enough to be invited out.
Socially, the world is geared towards couples but at the same time, there are less and less couples. No wonder many people surrender and say it's cheaper to go out.
5) When they've changed their mind about making an effort.
 You've worn your best dress and brought a good bottle of wine. But they've already eaten. Yes this happened to my sister. She arrived and the couple said we've eaten but we'll warm something up for you. You can eat it there on that table. Then the husband looked at the bottle and said, "I never drink anything under 11 quid." He was a Northern businessman, who had recently earnt a lot of money. My sister snapped back, "You noov" (nouveau riche).
6) The man opts out.
Men, especially if many of the guests are the wifes mates, often can't be bothered to contribute socially. Or, classic male behaviour: they broadcast their views, then, once satisfied, fall asleep on the sofa.
7) Lateness:
The invite said 8 for 8.30 but it's more like 9 before you get the first canape even. This is often the case with 'sophisticated' young people who are doing it on a weeknight after work and basically did the shopping at Marks & Sparks on the way home.
This is especially awful if you are a mother and are used to eating with your children at about 6pm. (I had a snack before I went. I still like eating at 6pm, nursery time.) Also bad for hypoglycemics and people with diabetes who can become violently ravenous and irritable if not fed promptly. Fights can start. 
8) Pretentious food: which the host has decided to do that dish they saw on Masterchef, attempt quenelles, smears or vertical stacking for the first time, or go for one of the more unusual flavour combos they found in their Christmas copy of Flavoursaurus. Cue polite expressions if it hasn't gone exactly to plan.
9) Underseasoned or terrible food:
Pass the salt. Really. Please please please salt your food adequately while cooking. Please.
On the terrible front: I went to a really nice couple's house in Bristol for dinner. The guy had constantly been praising his wife's cooking: "She's the best. A smashing cook.Wait until you try". Myself and French partner of the time sat down and were treated to cook-chill food, Iceland-style lasagnes, all horribly sugary and processed.
"Great stuff, eh?", crooned the husband. We sat, murmuring politely, trying to hide it under our forks. Oh well, at least he loves his wife. Funnily enough never saw them after that though.
10) Crappy wine:
You pay out for a nice bottle which they slip into the drinks cabinet and feed you their awful plonk. Meanies. I once invited an American girl on a visit to London to dinner at my parents. I was howling with embarrassment when she brought the rest of a bottle of rose, like a quarter left, and handed it to them. Call me bourgeois but I felt terrible. Especially when my parents, with impeccable manners, did not even bat an eyelid and got out their best bottles to share.

What is your dinner party pet hate? Where do you like to sit? Do you like 'cheffy' food or comfort food? What time do you like to eat? Please let me know in the comments.....