The spirit of Cognac

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Cognac Summit the drink of summer 2009

 

Before you read this, you might want to mix yourself a drink:

Cognac Summit

Put a piece of lime zest and four thin strips of fresh ginger into a glass. Pour in 2cl of Cognac VSOP. Press lightly 2 to 3 times with the aid of a drumstick (I think my translation may leave something to be desired here, for those with better skills than the dictionary, the word was un pilon).

Half fill the glass with ice cubes, stir for 5 seconds with a spoon. Add another 2cl of Cognac. Add 6cl of lemonade and a piece of cucumber peel. Stir for 5 seconds and serve straightaway.

Now, I am not sure if that is a good use of Cognac or not, but it is the drink of the season from the Cognac trade association! And what an association it is, with some of the most famous names in the spirits trade involved! If you want to give the foodie in your life a trip to remember, without breaking the bank, then I suggest a long weekend in Cognac and working your way round a few of the houses.

Within easy reach from the UK with a number of the cheap airlines, you can fly into La Rochelle or Bordeaux and be in Cognac in a couple of hours if you rent a car. You can almost smell the Cognac in the air as soon as you arrive. As with whisky, they refer to the amount they lose into the atmosphere as the angels’ share.

My favourite tour, particularly with children, is Hennessy, if only because it involves a short boat trip from their modern looking HQ on the town side of the river to the warehouses on the other. There are tours in English, and you will need to book in advance. There are amazing barrels of Cognac from centuries and centuries ago, which you can only imagine how valuable they are, or what the flavours will be like.

Of course, the foodie will be interested in the whole process from start to finish, and also the many evolutions of design of bottles. The good news is there is a tasting at the end of it all! For the nominated driver, there is grape juice, for everyone else there is Cognac of varying qualities, depending on how expensive you wanted to make your trip. The basic trip ticket involves a very acceptable Cognac (this is Hennessy after all) but you can upgrade to something you may never get to buy a bottle of.

But don’t just go and do the visit and leave, as the town itself is glorious. If you fancy an overnight stay, then I would recommend the Hotel Heritage, and even if you’re not staying for the night then I would go for lunch. When the weather is great, then you sit outside on a very pretty courtyard, covered with wisteria, and needless to say have a very relaxed lunch. For little foodies, there is a children’s menu, but don’t go expecting the regular jambon frites option, more likely to be steak and chips.

The rooms are charming, warm and cosy, in feel rather than overbearing temperature, and the bar has a great choice of all drinks, not just Cognac. But as with most drinks, and food, there is something to be said about drinking Cognac in the town of which it bears the name, and generally just enjoying the whole atmosphere.

Cognac makes a great base for exploring the area, or just for a getaway with a difference. If you are flying back through La Rochelle, try and make time to visit the market, which is open every day except Sunday. It is exactly the kind of French food market every foodie dreams of, and is definitely worth the detour.

If you want more background knowledge on Cognac before you go then either check out the official Cognac site, or I enjoy the posts over on Bibendum.

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Salt of the earth

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Panning for salt on the Ile de Ré

 

Moving on from bread, and probably because I am writing overlooking salt marshes, I thought today was a good day to think about this most basic of ingredients, without which most cooking would be an awful lot less flavoursome!

Of course salt has been completely demonised in recent times, leading many people to leave it out completely, leaving dishes bland and lacking in oomph. Like all things, it’s a question of balance!

If I was at home in England, then it would be Maldon Salt all the way, but we are just a few miles from Ile de Ré, which is famous for its salts. Grey Sea Salt is only harvested between late June and early September, with the colour coming from the clay from which the salt pans are made. These are what give the salt its distinctive flavour, making it great for all kinds of cooking, particularly if you wanted to add an extra dimension to something like a salt crusted whole sea bass.

Fleur de Sel is an altogether more delicate creature, skimmed from the surface of the pans, so giving it the pure white colour. This is much better for seasoning food at the table, but for me it is best put to use combined with caramel. Round here, this can be in caramel toffee format, but my favourite is when it’s blended into ice cream. The salty sweet combinaton is just divine. You can also buy jars of spread, which make something incredibly indulgent of a morning croissant.

Round here, I could pick these up in any of the local shops, and will no doubt be importing a quantity back. In the UK, look for it in good delis, and Natoora also offer Fleur de Sel from Guerande online.

I have yet to track down a UK source of the jars of caramel, but will keep looking. If you’re in France this summer, even with the state of the pound versus the euro, it’s worth bringing a jar back. It’s an absolute pairing made in heaven when mixed with apple, so is a great gift of foodie quality that’s absolutely worth the cupboard space. And of course, if you mixed the apple, caramel and cognac…well that’s a weeks worth of desserts in three ingredients!

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More make it yourself kits

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Panasonic Breadmaker - for the best smells a kitchen can emit!

 

After the cheese making kit, I began to think of the other essentials that you could make yourself, and the things that make it easier.

Starting with the basics really, and bread. And we would not be without our Panasonic Bread Maker. The SD255 is one of the most hardworking gadgets in our kitchen, probably second only to the kettle.

The smell of baking bread is one of the best smells in the world, there really is nothing like it. And this little machine turns out great loaves, sometimes very quickly, often overnight. It can add in fruit and nuts, it even copes with gluten free flours. Although sadly even it can’t magic them into a loaf that is like real bread!

And we don’t buy pizzas much any more. Just knock up the dough in this and then create away! With a great tomato base (normally onion, garlic and passata cooked down a bit) your imagination can run riot, limited only to what’s in your fridge or store cupboard. It’s a great activity with kids, and all happens before they can get bored with the idea. From prep to table in under an hour, perfect timespan for cooking with kids.

And of course you don’t need to be limited to plain old white flour. I love the huge variety on offer at The Flourbin, and am still working through my last order. I got a bit carried away, but there are so many different flours you end up wanting to try them all!

And if you need some other inspiration for recipes, then I would recommend Fresh Bread in the Morning, and Bread Machine Magic. More bread than even a French bakery might stock!

Truly money well spent, and each loaf costs less than 50p to make. You won’t get a bread that quality for that cost at the supermarket, so really it’s a cost saving machine, but one that is not dull and will fill  your house with the delightful smell of warm bread. Just don’t time a loaf to cook as you’re going to bed! You won’t be able to sleep!

UPDATE – sadly The Flourbin is no longer trading, great loss

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The Saturday Session – pack a picnic

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Always time for a picnic

 

We’ll be on our way through France when this is published, having already completed a fairly long drive down to Portsmouth to catch the ferry. Which means either running the gauntlet of British service stations, not to mention needing a second mortgage, or taking your own.

Guess which we went for for the first half of the trip?

So for today’s Saturday session, I’ve looked out for some great, interesting picnic food. After scanning quite a few, I came across an amazing selection on The British Larder. This is like foodie picnic heaven, but a lot is also very practical. Although possibly the frozen broad bean creme fraiche might not be!

If I had my choice, I would go for the Beetroot Tart Tatin, the Sesame Toasted Basmati Rice and Broad Bean Salad, Green Chilli Chicken Won Tons, and then following on with Chocolate Salami and the Gooseberry Polenta Slice. Heavenly!

So go on, make a picnic about so much more than picnic eggs and damp sandwiches!

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The Friday Five – great French cookbooks

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This week’s Friday Five has a particularly Gallic flavour, as by now our housesitters (aka Gran & Gramps) will have moved in to tend the house and garden, and we’ll be en route to France. Which of course means two weeks of over-indulging in great food and wine. Although given the exchange rate, we may be cooking a lot more of it ourselves!

 

french provincial cooking

 

1. French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David – a legendary cookery book, but with great recipes that have stood the test of time. Every home should have a copy.

2. Rick Stein’s French Odyssey – this is still one of my favourite Rick Stein’s series, if only out of pure jealousy at the trip he did on the two boats. And the cooking isn’t bad either!

3. Ripailles – a new book, but almost worth it for the photography alone, which is just stunning. Not just French cooking, but the whole way of life, and from simple everyday cooking through to grand dishes. Great stuff.

4. Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson – a little more niche, but definitely tastes of France. I once went to a restaurant in Paris that was all about pork. It was the most amazing meal, and I’ve never found the place again. I’ll have to content myself with cooking from this. But if anyone knows of a little restaurant in the 7eme then let me know!

5. Paris Boulangerie-Patisserie: Recipes from Thirteen Outstanding French Bakeries – seems only right to finish with a book dominated by sweet stuff! It’s one of the great joys of being in France to me. There’s also good bread recipes and things like savoury tarts, so you could make a whole meal out of this book.

So we’ll be enjoying our French escape, with more foodie tales and ideas to follow! Just the drive down the coast to contend with first!

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Is this a good foodie birthday gift?

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Cheese Making Kit

 

Sorry for public service announcement first but Charla, if you’re reading this, stop now! Step away from the page please.

Because we’re going to debate the merits of the cheesemaking kit that’s winging its way to you tomorrow, with love.

I’ve never tried making my own cheese. Plenty of yoghurt and sour cream, but only from gone off dairy products. So I’m amazed to see how many kits there are, and for so many different types of cheese. Moorlands Cheesemakers seem to have all the things you could ever possibly need, in kit form or just the individual bits you might need.

Cheese won’t come much fresher than making your own, even better if you’ve got access to really fresh milk, of any description. I think it’s not a bad foodie gift for any occasion, although perhaps not as a main gift. There could be some good additions you could make as well, just to make it extra special. FoodFullStop brings together some really good cheese providers, like The Cheese Shed and Cropwell Bishop Creamery. My choices would be a Cropwell Bishop mini Stilton and a Dorset Cheese Selection from The Cheese Shed.

If you want a really impressive looking cheese gift, not to mention enough to kep you going for a little while, then have a look at the cheese towers over at London Fine Foods. I rather like the sound of the Westminster Abbey Tower, particularly the Oxford Blue. They also have some amazing gourmet cheeses, such as the Black Truffle Moliterno,which sounds fantastic. And maybe some quince jelly, just to top things off.

So, maybe this gift isn’t shaping up so bad after all! And perfect for a credit crunch gift as you get to create something you might normally buy.

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Blood oranges, the next big thing?

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I was looking at the prizewinners of the 2009 Sofi winners at the National Fancy Food Show in New York last week. Firstly, why can’t we have a Fancy Food Show, loving the name! Secondly, in case you didn’t know, a Sofi is awarded for specialty outstanding food innovation. Now you know.

 

Blood orange marmalade

 

There are 33 categories, but sadly many of the winners don’t seem to get shipped to the UK at the moment. What I found interesting was that 3 category winners had blood orange as their lead ingredient. There was the Blood Orange Marmalade from Sarabeth’s Kitchen, the fresh squeezed blood orange juice from Aliseo, and my favourite is the Caramelized Onion and Blood Orange Confit from Brickstone Fine Foods.

So, you could buy your foodie some blood orange goodies, then my suggestions would be the Blood Orange Marmalade from Daylesford Organics. As it says on the tin, not only tasty but organic too. I think the juice is out of season right now, but you could buy the Organic Blood Orange and Mandarin Presse or Cordial from Belvoir Fruit Farms.

I’ve drawn a blank on the confit, but you could have a go at making your own. I can’t even find a recipe with all the ingredients, but this one looks like you could convert it when you get the juice.

So, get them ahead of the trend curve, and look at for blood orange flavours trickling through into the delis and foodshops. And this is a trend that’s worth pursuing, as blood oranges do taste amazing, even if it is a very short season.

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Not flailing around for a good meal

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The Plough & Flail at Mobberley

I’ve been on a bit of a great North run around over the past two days, which involved an overnight stay in Sale. And dinner at the Plough & Flail in Mobberley. One of those places that is pretty hard to find, but very much worth the effort.

It has all the cues of gastro pub, which can be good or bad. Too many times, there seem to be places that think just slapping up some Farrow & Ball paint makes them a gastro pub. All style, no substance. Not this place. It was one of those menus where you could have ordered everything and anything.

There was everything from great fish to great comfort food. I went for a homemade steak and onion pie, with fabulous hand cut chips, not to mention something described as sticky red cabbage, which was delicious.  Not sure what recipe they used, but there’s one here on the BBC Good Food website that sounds like it would be close.

It’s very close to Tatton Park, so a good stopping point if you are going to an event like the RHS Flower Show in a couple of weeks time. I would suggest whenever you go that you book. We were there at 7pm on a Monday night, and it seemed to have a good amount of tables occupied. There is plenty of outside space as well, but I would imagine it would be packed on a Sunday lunchtime. The food would make it worthwhile though.

If it’s too busy, you could always go and visit the alpacas next door!

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Inspired by Roger Federer

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For a nostalgic 70s night in

 

Don’t panic, this is not a post about how to get as fit and strong as Roger. Which probably doesn’t involve eating cake. No, it was more that I decided I would write a post based on foodie gifts inspired by the winner’s nationality.

Of course, having written about great American recipes yesterday, there was no bias in this household, but lets just say I’m pleased to be thinking about foodie gifts inspired by Switzerland.

Well, possibly. I mean, what’s the first thing that springs to mind?

Toblerone. Hardly a gastronomic delight, but obligatory if you are passing through any airport duty free shop any time soon. You could always convert it into cheesecake.

No, my favourite contribution to the world of gourmet delights is the fondue. Beloved of 70s dinner parties, hijacked by chocolate, and kitsch beyond compare, there is nothing to beat a night around the fondue. In fact, it was a Christmas Eve tradition in our household. No, we’re not Swiss, just kitsch. So, as we may be heading into another winter of discontent in a very 70s style, now may be the time to get one in for your loved one.

Of course, it’s not terribly healthy with all that cheese, but all that gruyere and emmental is just so fabulous. And you’ll need to get great bread too. I have a very 70s looking cookbook too, which is chock full of all kinds of suggestions. I’m not a big fan of the boiling oil version, just call it an aversion to mixing boiling oil and small children.

If you want healthy, not to mention a step up the foodie ladder, then it would have to be Shabu Shabu, which is the healthier Japanese version. Meaning swish swish, you cook very thinly sliced Kobe beef in broth, and serve it with rice and vegetables. It is quite fun, it’s very tasty if you can get great quality beef (buy the best you can afford if you can’t find Kobe). If you’re in London, you can try it at Mitsukoshi.(UPDATE, sadly Mitsukoshi is now closed)

And for more foodie brownie points, then how about some Swiss wine? Nick Dobson apparently has the widest range of Swiss wine in the UK, and it’s certainly not one you see on wine lists very often. There is great rarity value then in serving up one these, and there are some good mixed cases for a trial tasting.

Now, where did I put that Toblerone?

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Bring back afternoon tea

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What Sunday afternoons are made for

 

Not all of us can afford, or want to go to, tea somewhere posh, but that doesn’t mean we should miss out. Afternoon tea is one of my favourite meals (it’s right up there with breakfast. And lunch), and we had a lovely one with friends today. Which is a great excuse for baking! This is my Victoria sponge from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Family Cookbook, the one where you have to weigh the eggs!

Odd instruction, but tasty results!

So to foodies everywhere, I say flex those baking muscles and treat everyone to tea! Bring back one of the things we do best, with fabulous regional variations, throughout the UK, which is why it’s mimicked around the world. Bake and be proud!

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