Sunday, 30 April 2017

Judging at the Great Taste Awards and visiting Hovis Hill

The Guild of Fine Foods created in 1995, instituted the Great Taste awards, which you may have seen in the form of a large round black sticker on various food products. The Great Taste Awards, a kind of 'oscars' of the food world, takes place in London and Gillingham, Dorset. Last week I went down to Gillingham to do some judging myself.

Each year, 450 experts take part with morning and afternoon sessions of around 2 to 3 hours. Each session consists of 6 tables with 3 or 4 judges (chosen from the food world and comprising deli owners, chefs, food writers, producers, cheesemongers and some keen amateurs who have applied) plus 2 'referral' tables with 2 judges each.  Over a morning session you try around 24 products, plus up to a dozen others which require a second opinion from other tables. The foods range from cheese to jars of preserves, chutneys, ready meals, ice creams, biscuits, cereals, breads, meats, chocolates, marshmallows, smoked salmon, cakes, cooked eggs and milk. Some tables like to alternate savoury with sweet, others prefer to start with savouries then end with sweet foods. All of the tables leave any chilli products until the end, in order not to perturb their taste buds. In between tastes, you sip water or nibble on some crisp apple slices.

To one side is a kitchen where a troop of chefs cook the food according to instructions, to see whether they are accurate. Judges regularly receive foil-covered platters with a joint of sizzling beef or a leg of pork complete with searing hot crackling. Hot foods take priority. As a non-meat eater, I wouldn't taste any meat products, leaving that up to my fellow judges. However I had expertise in other areas - vegan foods, and special ingredients of which I have particular knowledge such as mastiha, a resin from the Greek pistachio tree on the island of Chios.

I spoke to one of the head judges, a horticulturalist called Tim who does all 49 days of the judging. I mentioned that I liked chilli.
"You are very welcome then as many of our British judges are sensitive to chilli," he replied.
At one end of the room is a high table, literally taller than all the other tables, on which sit two judges, like tennis umpires.

The marking is thus:
One star: Simply delicious.
Two stars: Outstanding.
Three stars: Exquisite. Wow! Taste that.

Products that get zero or one star are referred to the 'referral' table where it is double-checked. Extreme care is taken to make sure that every product gets a fair go.

As the day goes on, it is delightful to be with other foodies, concentrating and analysing flavour and taste. "This has bitterness on the nose, and an undercurrent of sour with a trailing back note of sweet" is an example of the sort of chat. It's quite a tiring process, really intense. The tasting is 'blind': we are discouraged from peeking beneath coverings to see labels, the embossed names of chocolate brands are scratched off and food is served in plain covers. Judges are asked to imagine that the producer (of the product you are tasting) is sitting at the table with you and we are expected to spend at least 4 to 6 minutes on each product.

A judge at each table writes tasting notes on a computer. Start off with the positive. Describe the appearance. Even if it tastes bad, it might look pleasant.  Describe the smell. Describe the texture: is it crunchy? Is it sticky? How does it feel in the mouth? How long does the taste last? The words 'uneven distribution' take on significance. Woe betide the chocolate chip cookie that has all the chocolate chips clustered in one part of the cookie. We sniff, we nibble, we poke, we spread. We ask the kitchen for things to help us judge. I asked for a small glass of milk in which to scoop the dry muesli. You can ask for salt.

Every table has a wheel of flavours from flowery to fruity to woody and so on, very similar to the book 'The Flavour Thesaurus'.

We are encouraged to be constructive with criticism. Even if the product does not get any stars, we make suggestions: 'improve the quality of the nuts' or 'add a little salt' or 'this rose-scented spice mix does not actually taste of rose' or 'where are the poppy seeds' about a biscuit that is described as possessing this ingredient.  You can suggest more acidity, fat, sugar, spice.

Descriptions of products are often pretentious: everything is hand-done: 'hand stirred' 'hand cooked' 'hand flavoured'; all butter, meat, cream and milk is 'grass-fed' or 'pedigree'; quite pedestrian items are readily described as 'unique', 'authentic', 'expertly infused'.
"Usually the more high-flown the description, the more disappointing the product," sniffed one judge.
Every so often a jolly gentleman with an occasionally disapproving glare (when I was 15 minutes late one morning or when I asked if I could tweet) called Nick comes out to the middle of the floor and congratulates us judges on finding a new 3 star product. We all applaud when this happens. We feel ownership, to some extent, of the products' success.

Over one afternoon there was a record-breaking 6 three star products. Last year 130 products were acclaimed as three star. Only a few become part of the World's Top 50 food and drink products.

Despite our expertise, it's generally very clear what is good and what is bad. Sometimes it's hard to describe, but that is the nature of this job. Why is this pistachio ice cream superb, a three starrer, and this other one, also nice, but somehow without star quality. The differences are minuscule but at the same time astoundingly obvious.


On the way to Dorset, I dropped off my copper pans to be retinned at Sherwood Tinning (more about this in an upcoming blog post), then drove to the Grosvenor Arms in Shaftesbury village where I would be staying.

Wandering around I noticed an enormous loaf of bread in a metal and fibreglass effigy outside the church. Only later did I discover that this was in front of a famous cobbled hill, Gold Hill, also known as 'Hovis Hill' where 'Britain's most popular television ad' was filmed in 1973 by a young director Ridley Scott.

I'd always assumed the ad took place in Yorkshire because the voice over had a broad accent. It was a sepia tinged film of a cloth capped boy pushing his bike up a steep hill, delivering Hovis.

Here is a recent photo of the same hill:

Hovis Hill

Friday, 14 April 2017

Easter pinata cake recipe

Easter pinata cake

Easter pinata cake

Easter pinata cake

Coming up to Easter, I want to use eggs. Eggs are so useful and versatile. They bind, they expand, they emulsify. They come in two parts, yolk and white, can be eaten raw or cooked, can be used in sweet or savoury recipes. Eggs were used by medieval painters, tempera, as paint. The shells can be used around plants to deter pests.
This Easter I've created an egg chocolate 'pinata' cake (which can easily double as a birthday cake). For the cake I've used duck eggs, higher in fat and 50% larger, promising a beautifully light risen sponge.

Easter piñata cake recipe

3 x 20cm sandwich tins
A cutter (between 5-8 cms in diameter)


For the cake:
250g salted butter, room temperature
385g caster sugar
6 duck eggs (9 hen eggs)
5tbsp cocoa powder
335g self-raising flour
4 tbsp milk

Frosting and filling:
350ml double cream
150g white chocolate
350g salted butter, room temperature
1tsp vanilla paste
550g icing sugar
328g pack of mini eggs (or sweets/chocolate eggs of your choice)

Preheat tthe oven to 180Cº
Prepare your sandwich tins (buttering or using a cake spray release). If you only have two, you will have to make the cakes in two stages.
Beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy.
Scrape down the sides of your bowl then add the eggs one by one, combining between each addition.
Add the cocoa powder.
Add half the self-raising flour, stir in. Then add the second half.
Lastly add the milk.
Beat lightly.
Divide the mixture evenly between the tins.
Bake for 30 minutes or until springy to the touch. You can also insert a skewer, if it comes out clean, the cake is baked.
Leave the cakes to cool in their tins on a rack.
Meanwhile make the filling.
Heat the cream in a small pan.
Put the white chocolate into a heat proof bowl.
Add the warm cream to the white chocolate and stir.
In another bowl or stand mixer, beat the butter, vanilla and icing sugar until fluffy.
Pour the cream/white chocolate into the the butter mixture. Combine and let it cool.

To assemble the cake:
Using a cookie cutter, cut out the centre of two of the sandwich layers.
Place the 1st cut-out layer on a flat plate or cake stand and, using a palette knife, spread the frosting over the top.
Place the 2nd cut-out layer on top of the first cake.
Fill with the mini eggs until level with the top of the 2nd cake layer.
Frost the top of the 2nd layer and place the 3rd cake layer on top.
Then apply a crumb coat, which is a thin layer of base frosting, all over the cake, starting with the sides so that you can turn it around while holding the top.
Chill the cake in the fridge for 10 minutes or so.
Then with a palette knife, thickly spread another layer of frosting.
Decorate the top with more mini eggs if desired.

My next supper club celebrates Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican fiesta on the 5th of May. Tickets £40
<<Book here>>

Monday, 10 April 2017

1970s mushroom pasta recipe

mushroom, cream and sherry spaghetti

I rather like filing - the satisfying illusion that you can organise and control your life. It appeals to the librarian in me. 
I've done less filing of late. My computer desktop is a creative mess, full of screen shots and mood boards and folders. A subject that consumes me is how to organise my massive collection of cookbooks? By colour coding, the alphabet, by size or by subject? What do you do?
I did buy a dymo label maker and spent a contented weekend polishing, rationalising and marking my spice collection: I'm keen to 'file' my food.
On my desktop I have an excel document where I tried to list every single vinegar ever but then my daughter said I was weird and it would be a boring blog post. Somewhere I have a citrus family tree table too. I'm interested in systems and relationships. Filing makes this clearer. 
With this in mind, I've organised the whole of pasta and its sauces into five 'families'. 

1) Tomato - includes napoletana, bolognese, amatriciana, puttanesca and arabiata
2) Creamy - includes smoked salmon with crème fraîche, macaroni cheese, cacio e pepe, alfredo
3) Herby - includes pesto or greens such as orecchiette with cime de rapa
4) Fishy - includes vongole, tuna
5) Mushroom/truffle

Here, in my latest piece for winetrust100, I talk about the wines that match with pasta. Like with pizza, you match to the sauce: tomato sauces need red wine, creamy and fishy favours white wine. Mushroomy-truffley sauces can go either way: a light red such as a pinot noir or a full-bodied white.
Looking at the picture above, it looks a bit old fashioned, like something from the Super Cook magazine series I used to collect as a child. Mushrooms and curly parsley are so 1970s. But be assured that this dish was one of the most delicious things I've made in ages. 
You can replace the sherry with white wine but what I love about sherry is that you can keep the bottle for years, just using a little at a time, rather than opening a whole bottle of wine which will oxidise in a couple of days. If you are drinking by yourself, you don't want to spoil a good bottle of wine.

Mushroom, cream and sherry spaghetti recipe

Serves 2 people 2 servings each

300g of good quality 11 minute spaghetti
50g butter, salted or unsalted
2tbsp olive oil
200g organic button mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
a generous splash of dry sherry (fino)
350ml creme fraiche or double cream
Pepper (I used white)
A few sprigs of curly parsley

  • Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted boiling water for 9 minutes. (Please use a large enough pan. It's one of my bugbears, people squeezing spaghetti into too-small-pans. Likewise salad in too-small-bowls. Why? Just why. You can't toss a salad in a teacup). 
  • In the meantime, take a large sauteuse (deep frying pan) or medium sized saucepan and start the sauce. (It needs to be big enough to add the spaghetti to it).
  • Melt the butter, add the olive oil and fry the mushrooms for a few minutes. I used button mushrooms but use any mushroom you like. James Wong says Portobello mushrooms contains twice the amount of chitin, an immune boosting fibre.
  • Add the garlic, stir, and the sherry, fry for one minute.
  • Add the cream.
  • Drain the pasta and add to the sauce. 
  • Season then add parsley.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Eating my feelings - a recipe for Piperade Basque

Piperade Basque

Piperade Basque - piment d'espelette

Since my visits to Bordeaux last year, I've been regularly using 'piment d'espelette', an orange pepper grown in the Basque region of France and Spain. One of the most popular dishes that uses this uniquely European pepper is Piperade.

I haven't been posting much in March, because of legal problems with my house (again). For years I was a frustrated and unhappy leaseholder dealing with freeholders who charged huge bills and never repaired anything. Now I'm a broke and despairing freeholder. I love my flat - I think this is a special building filled with creative hospitable energy, the perfect location for a supper club. I love to open it up to others, to share my beautiful flat and garden. I'm an Aquarian; I think communally.

But the rest of the leaseholders here are buy-to-let landlords. One of them owes myself and the other joint freeholder £50k in back service charges and legal costs. It's a nightmare. She's been making money out of her flat for years but won't pay towards communal electricity, buildings insurance, quite basic stuff. 

I understand why buy-to-let became so popular. It seemed a good replacement for the disappearing pension system (my dad lost a great deal of his pension with Equitable Life, which was touted as a sure bet). But it's a menace for those of us who use our properties as that old fashioned concept - an actual home. I'm that rare thing, a Londoner from London who lives in London. I love my city. I'm invested in my community. It's not just a profitable safety deposit box to me.

All last week I had no water in my bathroom because one of the leaseholders who owes us money did some dodgy plumbing in her flat. She doesn't live here, so she doesn't care if she affects her neighbours.

It's really difficult to summon up the energy and joy to write and cook when your safe space, your home, is a battleground. Greedy landlords who want to make money but not pay their way. As a freelancer without a regular salary, holiday or sickness pay, times like this are very tough. But I'm not giving in. I never give up; I'm constitutionally unable to give in. I will keep fighting.

Anyway make this. It's good. You can replace the green pepper with green chillis if you like a bit of heat.

Piperade Basque Recipe

Piperade Basque

Serves 2

30ml of olive oil
1 large onion, finely sliced
2 red peppers, sliced into thin strips
1 green pepper, sliced into thin strips
6 large tomatoes, diced
3 garlic cloves
A sprig of Thyme
3 bay leaves
Piment d'espelette

Heat the oil and soften the onions until golden.
Add the peppers.
Add the tomatoes, garlic, thyme and bay.
Add the salt and pepper.
Cook on low for 30 minutes.
Serve as a side or with eggs, rice or pasta.