Friday, 30 December 2016

Yucatan/Mexican food: Holbox food festival

The next series of articles is angled around my trip to Mexico in November. I'm a big fan of Mexican food, which is infinitely more interesting and regional than its heavy, beany, cheesy cousin Tex Mex that Europeans are routinely served in chain restaurants. This is my fourth trip to Mexico, this time centering on the Yucatan area...

I travelled to Holbox, a small island off Cancun, during the supermoon, which hovered over the proceedings like a big ball of backlit concrete. The journey on Air France was horrific: 11 hours in a windowless window seat, cramped, the vegetarian meal ordered non-existent, having to climb over two others to get to the toilet. I actually think flights this bad, open provocations to air rage, should be illegal. We all arrived in a foul mood, and exhausted journalists snarling at one another is not a pretty sight.

But after a two-hour ride along a dirt road to the northern tip of Yucatan and a refreshing boat trip from Chiquila port, bouncing over dark frothing sea, the island itself is postcard perfect: turquoise seas, bright hammocks, houses with painted murals in orange, aqua, coral and pink, doors with corn husk crucifixes to ward off 'brujas', witches. Holbox is, as yet, fairly unspoilt by big business tourism. Much of the island remains wild. You get around via beach buggy or bicycle.
November, the low season before the December rush, feted the fifth consecutive year of the Holbox Gastronomic food festival, which takes place on the beach. Tables and chairs, adorned with multi-coloured chilli sauces lined up like fiery soldiers, stud the centre of a large marquee. The organiser, Denise de Kalafe, is a former musician and there is a large stage: plenty of money had been spent on the music.
Around the edges are stalls set up by local restaurateurs. The festival takes place every night for three nights. It's best to attend after the mosquito madness of dusk. Each evening has a theme, whereby the chefs devise intricate dishes featuring the following ingredients: octopus, prawns or lobster. Demonstrating each chef's craft, stalls are laden with carved melons, breads in the shape of fishes, sculpted pineapples, brightly coloured peppers hewn into star shapes, anthropomorphic octopus cheerfully squatting on platters.

The system, rather like Taste of London, is that you buy vouchers to 'spend' at the stalls.
Culinary highlights included:
  • Pan dulce by Hotel Las Nubes. The hotel makes its own bread from scratch: the lightest puffy rolls filled with cream cheese, airy doughnuts brushed daintily with sugar.
  • Somewhere out the back in the darkness, a small stall offered scorching cigarillos filled with potato hot out of the fryer.
  • Flor del Desierto Sotol from Chihuahua, the local equivalent to tequila. (Here is a post on the difference between Sotol and Tequila.) The owner had three types of Sotol, all made from the same cactus. One made in the hills, one in the valley and one with added rattlesnake poison in a black bottle. The hilltop liquor was rough, filling your mouth with a stinging sandy mouth feel that felt like it was stripping the enamel off your teeth. The valley Sotol was smooth, and the rattlesnake version, an idea they got from Chinese merchants in Cuidad Juarez, didn't taste any different. 

Like Taste of London, the restaurant owners spend a great deal of money bringing the staff, setting up the equipment and ordering the ingredients. They rarely break even. I felt sorry for the accomplished French chef Benjamin Ferra y Castell who had come from Du Mexique restaurant in Cancun. The weeping owner Sonya Grimond, a mournfully beautiful dark-eyed woman with long curly eyelashes and a glossy black film of dramatic hair, explained to me after the festival that this was her first event without her husband, a French chef from Lyon, Alain Grimond, who had died a year previously. She and the new chef hired a hotel kitchen to prepare 2,000 portions of foie gras, as they were given to believe that they should have 400 to sell each night. They sold 39. The rest was chucked. It wouldn't keep in the heat. Her offering was too haute for this audience.
A singer, Noelia, who was 'big' 20 years ago, dispensed with the expensive stage and belted (no auto-tune) her old hits while drifting from table to table. Fans clasped her and took selfies and she managed to sing without so much as a bum note, trailed by a silvery spotlight. A complete pro. 

This food festival is a great opportunity to get chatting to the people of Holbox, it has the feel of a French 'fete du village'. Locals, entire Mayan families, dressed up in their finery and sat receptively at tables. The food at the festival tended to be Mexican and European fusion, some stalls featured for instance Italian ingredients which would be more of interest to local people than tourists. Each year however, a different region in Mexico is invited as a guest cuisine, this year it was the prosperous state of Colima who shared drinks and dishes from the Pacific coast. They were also one of the few stalls to have a meat free option of tacos.

I visited the Holbox Gastronomic Festival as a guest of the Mexican Tourist Board. It takes place in October/November every year. Fly direct to Cancun then travel on to Holbox. More info hereI stayed at Casa Iguana hotel and the luxury Las Nubes hotel. There are also cheaper options, such as hostels. Take cash, a hat, sun screen and insect repellent. 

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Mexi Xmas dinner 2016

This year, slightly bored of traditional Christmas foods, my family, who are all good cooks and gourmands, decided to make a Mexican Scandinavian meal. In the end it became more Mexican - a sort of Mexi hygge. Here are some of the highlights. Above my Rosca de Reyes for pudding. 

Roast parsnips, purple sweet potatoes, oca with thyme, lime and salt. Before and After.

Cream cheese stuffed dates

Going a bit scandi here: pickled herring with beetroot on rye.


I ended up dipping these in the guac.

Niece Florian's rarebit quails scotch egg. Brilliant.

Antique silver numbers for our glasses. Woe betide anyone who loses theirs.

After canapés and champagne we decided to go out in the street near my parent's place in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, and do a photo session. Clearly I'd enjoyed the drinks.

Anyone who has ever made this knows it takes forever. Especially peeling the skin off the walnuts to make the sauce. Chile en Nogada, a Mexican feast day dish.

Bernie my sister in law made the turkey: spatchcocked with achiote, sour orange juice and zest, chipotle. 

The finest cheeseboard known to mankind.

The Transylvanian bark cheese, henceforth known as 'elephants foot' as in 'pass the elephants foot one'.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Chicory & goats' cheese gratin recipe and drinking rosé in winter

chicory and goats cheese gratin

Provencale rosé is very drinkable: pale, fruity and not too strong. It is usually seen as a girl's drink (is it just the colour?), but everyone enjoys it in summer. The Switzerland of wines, rosé marks neutral territory for red and white wine drinkers. Who doesn't like rosé?

We don't drink rosé in winter, which is odd when you think about it. We will happily quaff white wine, champagne and even pink champagne, all of which are served cold. Yet rosé is invariably associated with summer - light, gluggable wines that go with salads, barbecues, fish and vegetables. 

I say there is no reason we should not drink rosé in winter. I've even made mulled wine with it!

5 food pairings for rosé in winter:

  • Canapés, as an aperitif
  • Fish, especially salmon (smoked or fresh)
  • Cheese boards and cheesy dishes
  • Winter salads
  • Dessert - anything with red fruit, berries, e.g. a pavlova with cream and raspberries, or stewed fruit with cinnamon and star anise

Chicory and goats' cheese gratin

We don't eat much chicory in the UK. In France, 'endives' are very popular and found piled up cheaply in the supermarkets. The ivory and chartreuse bud-shaped green is forced (i.e. grown in the dark) to ensure that the leaves are pale and tender. The flavour is crisp and slightly bitter. (Bitter foods are good for you, but cooking lessens the bitterness.) 

If using in salad, I like to pair chicory with blue cheese, walnuts and a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. The French bake it with béchamel sauce, each shoot wrapped in ham. This is a vegetarian tweak on baked endives. 

Tip: You can also use red chicory or endives, sometimes called radicchio. These work just as well.

Serves 2 to 4

Baking dish 20 x 15cm


4 or 5 chicory tips, root trimmed and cut in half lengthways
100g butter (unsalted)
50g flour
1tbsp mustard
250g full fat milk 
Salt and pepper
220g goats' cheese (roulade-style), 1cm-wide slices
50g parmesan, grated
Handful of breadcrumbs

  1. Preheat your oven to 180ºC. 
  2. Grease the baking dish with half the butter and lay the chicory halves inside it. Cover the dish with foil, then bake for 20 minutes or until tender.
  3. In the meantime, make the béchamel. Using a good quality saucepan, melt the rest of the butter on a low heat. Add the flour and, using a wooden spoon, start to stir vigorouslyAdd the mustard and add the milk gradually, a bit at a time. Keep stirring so that the 'roux' (the flour and butter) absorb the liquid. (If there are any lumps, use a whisk to eliminate them). Keep doing this until all the milk is absorbed and you have a thick white sauce. Season to taste.
  4. Remove the chicory from the oven and remove the foil (but don't get rid of it). Toss the chicory to make sure they aren't stuck to the bottom. Line them up and pour the béchamel sauce over the chicory. Add the rounds of goats' cheese to the top of the dish, spreading them evenly. Add the parmesan and the breadcrumbs. Replace the foil and bake in the oven for 10 minutes.
  5. Finally, remove the foil and bake or grill the dish for another 10 minutes so that it browns. Serve hot.

chicory and goats cheese gratin

I created this wintery gratin recipe for Provence wines UK. Served with a green salad and some crusty bread, it's a wonderfully warming lunch or dinner.

Here are a list of wines that I tasted, all of which match very well with the dish:

·         Château de Berne, Grande Récolte, 2014 - £9.99 or £8.99 Mix Six price, Majestic
·         Chateau du Galoupet, Cru Classé, 2015 - £10.95, The Wine Society
·         Domaine Sainte Lucie, MiP Classic, 2015 - £12.50 or £11.50 Mix Six price, Lea and Sandeman
·         Mirabeau, Pure, 2015 - £12.99, Waitrose
·         Château La Gordonne, Verité du Terroir, 2015 - £9.99 until 3rd January 2017 (RRP £15), Ocado
·         Manon, 2015 - £9, Tesco
·         M de MINUTY, 2015 - £11.99 or £9.99, Mix Six price, Majestic

chicory and goats cheese gratin

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Chilaquiles, or nachos for breakfast

chilaquiles rojos

chilaquiles rojos

On my recent trip to Mexico, I discovered something called chilaquiles on a breakfast menu. Let's not beat around the bush - these are a version of nachos, but ones that you are allowed to have in the morning. I grew addicted.

They come with either a red or green sauce. The red sauce is with 'jitomate' (red tomatoes) and the green is based on tomatillos. You can also have them topped with chicken or eggs. My recipe is vegetarian, so pink pickled onions and avocado slices are my topping suggestions.

This is a simplified version of the chilaquiles rojos, as tomatillos are difficult to get hold of in the UK. I'm a savoury girl in the morning. I like Marmite rather than jam, cheese on toast rather than French toast. I reckon this recipe would make a fantastic New Year's Day brunch paired with a hangover-curing, post-NYE Bloody Mary.

I was asked to create this recipe for Tabasco, which comes in a variety of flavours nowadays: the classic red; habanero; chipotle; and (my favourite) the green version. I actually keep a bottle of this in my handbag. 'I've got hot sauce in my bag, swag.' (Although apparently Beyoncé's hot sauce is actually a euphemism for a baseball batWhatevs.)

Substitutions for authentic Mexican ingredients: it's hard to get hold of 'queso fresco' (although you can from Gringa Dairy), so I've used cheddar. You can, if you wish, skip the tortilla frying and use ready-made tortilla chips, though I think that would be a bit of a shame. There is nothing like a freshly fried tortilla chip!

chilaquiles rojos

Chilaquiles Rojos

Serves 2

Pink pickled onions
1 large red onion, finely sliced
150ml white wine vinegar
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp salt
A few juniper berries

For the sauce:
4 fresh tomatoes, halved
1 red onion, quartered
1 large clove of garlic
2 large ancho peppers, deseeded, stalk removed, split open
1/2 tsp salt

For the chips:
4 corn tortillas, each cut into 6 to 8 triangles
Corn oil for frying

For the topping:
100g cheddar or queso fresco or ricotta salata, grated or crumbled
50ml of single cream
A handful of fresh coriander leaves
Green Tabasco, liberally applied
Half a lime
1 ripe avocado, sliced

Make the pink pickled onions by combining all the ingredients in a glass jar/bowl/jug and leaving for a few hours or overnight.

Note: Dry roasting is a way of charring ingredients by placing them in a hot frying pan (ideally cast iron) without oil.

First dry roast the tomatoes, onion and garlic. Set aside or in a blender.
Dry roast the ancho peppers - just 1 minute each side.
Put the ancho peppers into a heatproof bowl or jug and pour over boiling water until covered. Leave to soak for 10 minutes, then remove and place in a blender with the rest of the ingredients.
Blend with a little of the soaking water and the salt.
Meanwhile, using a deep frying pan or deep fryer, fry the tortillas until golden and crispy.
Prepare the rest of the ingredients so you have them to hand.
Pour the sauce into a frying pan and simmer.
Take a large shallow dish and pour some of the sauce in the bottom.
Start layering the tortilla chips on top of the sauce. Pour more sauce around the chips.
Add the cheese.
Grill or microwave for a couple of minutes until the cheese is melted.
Drizzle the cream on top, adding the coriander leaves and the Tabasco sauce.
Serve with lime wedges and slices of avocado.
Add the pink pickled onions if you wish.

chilaquiles rojos

This recipe was commissioned by Tabasco UK. This wasn't compromising my principles at all, cos I really like Tabasco sauce. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Where to go in Bordeaux according to France's top food blogger

Anne Lataillade of Papilles et Pupilles in her home town of Bordeaux
la place de la bourse, bordeaux, france
La Place de la Bourse
Cannelés in copper moulds
Canelés in copper moulds
Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux.
Bordeaux city gates, one of several. This is Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux.
Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux.
where barrels were kept,  Bordeaux.
Wall with imprint of stored barrels, Bordeaux

Over a decado ago, Anne Lataillade was a stay-at-home mum looking after two young children, both of whom had severe food allergies. She surfed the net, searching in vain for recipes she could feed them. This led to Anne starting her pioneering food blog in 2005. Today Anne is one of France's top food bloggers, getting around 3 million views per month. Her site, Papilles et Pupilles (eyelids and taste buds is the rather clumsy sounding translation), was voted best culinary blog by Elle magazine in 2008, and she does a weekly radio show on France Bleu Gironde. Anne lives in a tall house in the centre of Bordeaux, so everything in the newly refurbished city is within walking distance.

Bordeaux has undergone a transformation recently, thanks to Mayor Alain Juppé, the liberal, pro-immigration member of Les Republicains. Formerly a sooty decrepit town, where eighteenth-century squares were used as parking lots and industrial buildings obscured the river, there is now a clear view of the banks of the Garonne with splendid public art sculptures. The river is so deep and wide, ocean liners moor next to the town and visitors can take boat trips both up and down stream.

Bordeaux is the largest Unesco World Heritage site. Its historic town centre has been cleaned, and the beautiful old gates can now be seen. A lethally silent tramway has been built. As you walk through the grand streets (only a little of the original medieval city remains) that so inspired Baron Haussman, who brought a similar aesthetic to Paris, the characteristic pale coral light of western France illuminates the blond stone, the huge city gates, the lengthy shopping streets. Coppery lamps hang high, while starlings flock to the trees that colonnade the airy public squares.

Bordeaux is renowned for three eminent men of letters: Montaigne, Montesquieu and Mauriac. Montaigne (1533-1592) was a philosopher and writer, influential in child education and psychology. Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a lawyer, who wrote about the importance of separation of state and church. Mauriac (1913-1970) was a novelist, playwright and poet, who won the Nobel prize for literature. His best-known work is probably Thérèse Desqueyroux, about an unhappy wife living in Les Landes who tried to poison her husband. (I remember being shocked when I read the novel, that Therèse addressed her husband with the formal 'vous', apparently normal amongst the bourgeoisie at the time.)

It is fascinating to visit. Here are my top picks of what to drink, eat and see. I was aided by Anne Lataillade, who kindly gave me her 'carnet d'adresses', her address book of recommendations.


Bordeaux is a wine city. Even if you don't get around to visiting local chateaux, you must visit the following places.
Cité du Vin: I've been here twice and I could go again. Reserve at least half a day for this interactive museum of wine, which only opened in 2016. Even kids would love it. The architecture itself is worth a look; the idea is that it resembles a glass containing swirling wine.


Bordeaux boasts one of the best wine shops in the world, 'L'intendant'. It is dominated by a spiral staircase through its central core. As you ascend the stairs, the concentric walls are packed with wine bottles. The higher you go, the more expensive and rarer the wines. A 1937 Chateau Yquem is worth almost 8,000 euros. On the very top floor are the large bottles - magnums, jeroboams and imperials.

The Urban wine trail in Bordeaux
Check out the Bar à Vin du CIVB, Le Wine Bar, the Cité du Vin, Wine more Time, where you can both buy and taste wine.

Saint-James' mushroom guy. Ceps picked that morning.


Bordeaux's food is meat-heavy with duck and game. As a pescetarian, I found it difficult to eat out; despite the proximity to the sea as they don't eat very much fish. Here are a few options recommended by Anne.

Saint-James Bouliac

This Michelin-starred restaurant is Anne's favourite in Bordeaux, and I can see why. The chef Nicolas Magie knows his flavours, skilfully combining new ingredients (e.g. yuzu, now being grown in France) with traditional Bordelais cuisine. Saint-James also comprises a hotel and cookery school. The rooms with a view, where the outside and interior are organically intertwined, overlook a private vineyard that only produces 500 bottles a year. Located in romantically rustic village Bouliac, on the outskirts of the city, I learnt how to make proper French-style mashed potatoes (1:1 ratio of butter to potato) and canelés in the cooking school (recipes to come).

Chef Magie did try, without success, to convert me to liking beetroot, although I must say the food he cooked for me was truly fine. We did have a feisty conversation about vegetarianism. "The truth is we only get three vegetarians a month," explained the manager. I can see that it doesn't make commercial sense right now. It's a chicken and egg situation (or tofu and soybean?) - people don't demand good meat-free food because they don't think it exists and it doesn't exist because people do not ask for it.

La Tupina

If you eat meat, this is a must-visit. If you don't, forget it. Literally everything is cooked in goose fat, over a wood fire. It is one of the most famous restaurants in Bordeaux.


A new restaurant, only a year old, facing the river; the chef Felix Clerc cooks adventurous and beautifully presented local cuisine with Asian influences.


Usually restaurants with a great view aren't very good, but Anne assures me that this is worth a visit.
Maison du Pata Negra, tapas bar, bordeaux

Maison du Pata Negra

There are nice places to eat at Le Marché des Capuchins, including this tapas bar with Spanish/Basque cuisine. Pintxos are priced by stick colour.

Chez Jean Mi

Oyster bar with both indoor and outdoor seating. Packed on a Saturday lunchtime.

Papy fait de la resistance

Unfortunately it was closed on our visit but Anne particularly recommended this fixed menu restaurant, where everything is made in-house.


Marché des Capucins

Anne took me round to her favourite producers and stalls. Watch out for piment d'espelette, the orange pepper grown in the Basque region. Keep it in the fridge so that it retains its colour and bite.
The thin green piment doux, which are used to make Piperade, a Basque dish popular in Bordeaux.
The cream made freshly at La Ronde des Fromages stall was heavenly - the best I've ever tasted.
Her herb guy, everything a euro per bunch.
A 'couronne' of bread at a stall outside. In Bordeaux, a kind of corn bread with piment d'espelette is popular.
In September I bought 'wet' new season walnuts.
Bordeaux is next to the sea, so they do sell good fish. Les délices de la Mer stall.
There is a massive battle as to who makes the best Canelés de Bordeaux. This stall, Panier Delice, does a good job. The ideal canelé is crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside and brushed with bees wax.

Outside the market:

Fromagerie DeruelleAnne's favourite cheese shop
Bread shop La Fabrique. Superb chewy sourdough bread.
Canelé shop. Le Boulanger de l'hotel de ville was recommended by a Bordeaux tour guide.
Best ice cream: La maison du glacier
Best spice shop: Dock des epices
Best tea shop: Tamatebako

Other shopping

Moulds: go copper or go home. Copper is frighteningly expensive, but it produces the most 'croustillant' canelés. You can also buy rubber moulds in the shape, though it's not the same. I bought one for 22 euros. Yes, just one, as that was all I could afford, at a local kitchenware shop. You might as well buy them on the internet because the exchange rate is so bad for us right now.


UtopiaA cafe and cinema in a church. This is a popular hang out in Bordeaux. Stained glass and movies.
Water Mirror fountain next to the river Garonne was designed by landscape artist Michel Carojou. Great spot for photography and fun to play with.
You will notice bronze bas reliefs on pedestals in the centre of town. These are maps for the blind with braille instructions. They can feel landmarks.
The opera house in Bordeaux is worth visiting. It was designed by Victor Louis in the eighteenth century. He realised that going to the opera was more about society eyeing each other up than the actual theatre, so he designed a vast foyer with pillars perfect for pre-show gossip.
Bordeaux is on the pilgrim's route to Santiago de la Compostella. These brass studs with the shell symbol, la coquille Saint Jacques, are embedded in roads, marking the path. 
The court house: this was designed by Richard Rogers. Obviously inspired by the region, it amusingly looks like several wine barrels. Each 'court' is in a separate wooden wine barrel.
Take the tram: quiet and cheap. 1.5 euro per trip.
Take the boat: travel up the Garonne to Blaye, on the right bank.
The light, the trees, the water, the shops, the hipsters with their man buns (called 'catogans' in French), the lycéens flirting and smoking after school - everything. Take a walking tour.
Lycéens, autumn, Bordeaux.

I visited Bordeaux twice this autumn, first courtesy of the CIVB, and secondly, courtesy of the hotel Saint-James. Find out more about their rates and deals here.