Sourdough crackers

Sourdough crackers
Anyone who is bitten by the sourdough bug will at some point find themselves wondering what to do with surplus starter. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find out about sourdough crackers. They are a brilliant way of using up a large surplus, easy to make, and delicious. Especially good served with cheese. You can vary the flavourings; whatever takes your fancy. Chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped nuts, herbs and spices, cheese …

Note, the starter doesn’t need to be active for this recipe. I accumulate my spare starter in a jar in the fridge over a period of a week or so. If you’ve kept it longer, do check its acidity and health before use. Also, I’m assuming your starter is equal weights of flour and water.
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Mango millefeuille

Loosely based on a tapa served in a bar on the Costa Tropical, where mangoes are a popular crop. A ripe, freshly picked mango is a wonderful thing, best served simply. It works really well with soft cheese. The original was stacked millefeuille fashion with goat’s cheese and liberally sprinkled with coarsely grated Parmesan (not a good idea, it swamped the other ingredients). You can either stack or arrange on a plate as here, whatever takes your fancy. We actually like it with Philadelphia, in which guise it could almost be a dessert, but soft sheep’s cheese would work very well too. You can buy reduced balsamic vinegar in Lidl, otherwise it can be made by boiling down (cheap!) balsamic to reduce by 50%. We sometimes use miel de caña instead, which is a type of molasses, a byproduct of cane sugar production.

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Clementine jam

Clementine jam

I had a large bag of impulse-bought clementines to use up — they didn’t taste that great raw, but they turned out to make a very good jam. I’m calling it jam rather than marmalade because you don’t get a clear syrup with small strips of peel suspended in it; instead it has a thicker, more jammy texture, but still with the tang of marmalade thanks to the peel. It’s also a lot less work than marmalade.

I adapted this from a recipe on French cookery site Cuisine Actuelle. I liked the idea of keeping the peel on some of the fruit and peeling the rest. I didn’t though think it was a good idea to simply halve the unpeeled clementines — you’d end up with massive pieces of peel in the jam, hardly toast-friendly.

This amount will make about two to three 375 g jars. I wouldn’t make a much larger quantity than this, as it’s always difficult to get a set with a large volume. It’s best to choose clementines with as few pips as possible.
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Gougères, little domes of cheese-flavoured choux pastry, are a classic accompaniment for a glass or two of wine. Offering them to guests makes it seem that you’ve gone to a lot of trouble — and you have. But the actual processes involved are quite straightforward. I got this recipe from a professional chef on the choux pastry course I went on recently. Unusually, it includes crumbled roquefort as well as gruyère. It’s a good addition — it gives them an extra sharp tang, while the “blueness” is undetectable.

This recipe makes a lot of gougères — about 40. You could always halve it but a) they are very moreish, and b) they freeze pretty well. Just pop the frozen gougères in a pre-heated oven for 5-10 minutes and they will be as good as new. They are best still just warm, but if you’ve prepared them in advance (without freezing) you can again crisp them up briefly in the oven before serving. Or, if you don’t want that many gougères, split the dough in half before adding the cheese and use half to make profiteroles, choux à la crème, or chouquettes.
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Crème mousseline

Choux buns filled with crème mousseline

Yesterday I attended a half-day patisserie workshop based around choux pastry. In the course of it, we made some crème mousseline to fill our choux buns. This was a new one for me: it’s basically crème pâtissière with an unfeasibly large amount of butter beaten into it, resulting in a cream that is both airy and rich, and will not collapse under load. It’s apparently the basis for such treats as fraisiers and tropéziennes. Useful as a filling because its firmness means it won’t squelch out or drip when cut or bitten into. But it is very, very calorific, so special occasions only!

Best used on the day it’s made; it will go solid if refrigerated for more than a couple of hours because of all the butter. Apparently that can make it go grainy, but this can be fixed by putting it in the bowl of a stand mixer, starting the whisk at high speed, and then gently and briefly warming the outside of the bowl with a blowtorch (this is clearly a standard technique as our chef/instructor did this when the butter was too hard!). You could make this without a stand mixer (people obviously did in the past) but it’s a lot of work: much vigorous beating required.

The recipe below makes a massive amount, enough to fill at least 15 choux buns.
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Cheat’s hummus

This isn’t really hummus, because it doesn’t have oil or tahini in it. But if you’re trying to cut down on fat intake, it’s not a bad substitute, and it is very quick and easy to make using a jar of chickpeas and a few other ingredients you’re likely to have on hand. It’s part of our campaign for healthier nibbles to eat with aperos; we have it with raw carrot sticks, but you can use other vehicles of your choice, including pitta bread of course.

Words of advice:

  • Use a Spanish brand of chickpeas if you possibly can, they are just better. Jars are generally better than cans for some reason.
  • Lack of tahini and oil means you have to really ramp up the spices and garlic to stop it being bland. Don’t take my quantities as gospel — taste and adjust as you like.
  • This makes a lot; I hope it freezes well because that’s what I’ve done with half of it. It will keep for a few days in the fridge.

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Café de Paris butter

This is a killer condiment which I’m sure will enhance all sorts of things. It was invented in Geneva, presumably at the Café de Paris, and I believe its original use was for steak. I used it to liven up some frozen cooked lobster, a task it performed admirably. I’m planning to use the leftovers on some grilled mussels for tapas. You can of course freeze leftovers in handy-sized chunks.

The list of ingredients is long, but many of them are items you have on hand anyway (at least, I do). And with a food processor it’s quick to put together. I’ve listed the herbs I used, but you can vary them according to what you have on hand/what you like. If using on steak, a teaspoon of mustard might be a nice addition. Whatever you use it for, the idea is to put it on your chosen food in slices about 50mm thick, and then grill it for a few minutes to melt and brown it.
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L’Auberge du Vieux Puits, Fontjoncouse: restaurant review

La Montagne d'Alaric

Living in the back of beyond in rural France means that you have a Michelin 3-star restaurant within 30 minutes’ drive. But not along broad, straight roads. Nope, get ready to thread your way along narrow, winding roads through classic Corbières scenery: gorges with streaks of pale rock interspersed with the deep green of holm oak, Aleppo pines and broom. Lower down, the gnarled fingers of pruned vines grasp at empty air. Be ready to pull over at the narrow bridges if you see something coming the other way. As you get nearer the restaurant, the reassuring signs are more numerous: yes, it really is up this hill, round this bend, through this gorge. You imagine the Japanese tourists who have vowed to point-score every 3-star restaurant in France thinking, “But it can’t be up here!” Later I laughed at a Trip Advisor review claiming that you need to be a rally driver to get there. No, these are normal back-country roads that locals drive along every day to get to work.

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You arrive in the village and find the gates, decorated with giant metal fish skeletons and tongue-in-cheek sardine-can lids rolled back around their keys. Hmm, somehow the style of this metalwork looks familiar, and inside we recognise the work of Robert Cros, a sculptor from a neighbouring village: giant bent nails, catapults, light-switches with correspondingly giant price tags. The restaurant has got bigger since we were last there 10 years ago, gobbling up the eponymous well that used to stand in the courtyard, now under glass in the bar area. Another TripAdvisor laugh: a Parisian, after slagging off the food, appears to claim that “quelconque” villages in the Aude populated only by peasants and with inadequate car parks shouldn’t be allowed to have smart restaurants; they should be in a place that is more “historique et exceptionnel”. Paris, presumably.
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Book Review: A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain by Paul Richardson

This book is based on a deep knowledge of everyday life in Spain, which shines through most notably in the chapters on rural life (the author lives on a smallholding in Extremadura). He does a good job of explaining the differences between regions; and Spain is above all a country of very diverse regions. I liked the organisation too, starting on the coast, then going inland to rural Spain, and finally visiting cities. Some chapters were very evocative — the one about Asturias immediately made me want to visit — though it’s clear that the author knows some regions of Spain much better than others. I was a little disappointed in its thin coverage of the Basque country, basically dwelling on San Sebastian and haute cuisine.

In fact, there’s a little too much emphasis on haute cuisine and meticulous accounts of meals in Michelin-starred restaurants, where the chef just happens to be on hand to present him with his very own menú degustación and a friendly chat. Not that these aren’t important — you can hardly write a book about food culture in Spain and not mention Ferran Adria and Martin Beresategui – but they don’t reflect the food world of most Spaniards. His views are at times a little rosy — or else stretching the truth. On several occasions he arrives in a strange town, selects a restaurant apparently at random, and has a wonderful lunch. In real life, this Would Not Happen. At least, it would occasionally, but you would be bound to stumble into one of the majority of indifferent Spanish restaurants and have a terrible, if cheap, meal. It’s obvious he’d done research beforehand — he’s a food journalist for heaven’s sake — so why not say so?

Ferran Adria has it right: “People accuse me of lowering standards: ‘It’s your fault there are so many young kids trying to do modern food, and doing it badly.’ Maybe, but isn’t it much worse that there are millions of tortillas and paellas all over the country that are cooked so badly? Ordinary food in Spain is in a much worse state than haute cuisine, and that’s a fact.”

For me the key feature of Spanish food is that Spain was virtually a third-world country in terms of living standards until about the 1970s. So it’s hardly surprising that food was cheap and filling, the stuff of poverty. There was no Spanish tradition of haute cuisine as there was in France — which is why the Basque chefs looked to France for their inspiration:

More than anything, the cooking of rural Spain is a collective response to the realities of climate, weather, organised religion … and, above all, the need to provide the body with the calories needed for hard physical work. (p 97)

I was surprised that Richardson didn’t mention the culture of the menú del día in Spain. I’m sure I read somewhere that Franco instituted it to ensure that manual workers had a large, nutritious meal at lunchtime, and it must have played a large part in maintaining the dead hands of tradition and cheap stodge that still weigh heavily on Spanish restaurant food outside the rarefied temples of gastronomy. But it was interesting to read about the revolution that started in San Sebastian on the death of Franco, asserting Basque identity through modern riffs on traditional food, and then spread through the country. He makes it clear too that it’s no accident that the most creative and adventurous chefs are from the rich provinces of the Basque country and Catalonia, both with easy access to mountains and sea, and with richer culinary heritages because of their voyaging past.

Further interesting facts: I knew that the Reyes Católicos were responsible for the Spanish obsession with pork, promoting it because it was a good way of winkling out closet Jews and Moors. But I hadn’t heard that in the 1950s, as part of a deal with the Americans over military bases, the Spanish government imported millions of litres of American rapeseed oil. Spaniards weren’t going to let go of their aceite de oliva without a fight, so in order to shift the imported oil a publicity campaign was started to convince them that olive oil was thoroughly unhealthy. Consumption plummeted until the scandal of the contaminated vegetable oil in the early 1980s that killed over a thousand people and persuaded the Spanish to switch back to the home-produced stuff.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it — it’s a great read for foodies planning to travel to Spain and wanting to understand more about the country and its culture. He even has a list of recommended restaurants, if your wallet will stretch to them.

A week at Cook in France

Spinning sugar

“But you already know how to cook,” said friends when I told them I was going on a 5-day cooking course, “and you already live in France. So why go to Cook in France?” Well, I’d been following Jim on Twitter for ages because of his sense of humour and lovely pictures of food. So when he tweeted a late availability discount for his first course of the year, my fingers zinged towards the mouse and fired off an email. A week later, I was there.


One thing Jim’s otherwise informative website doesn’t prepare you for is what a beautiful place Bombel is — romantic honey-coloured stone buildings on top of a hill reached up a winding country lane, surrounded by acres of lawn and with fabulous views over the rolling Dordogne countryside. Guest accommodation is on the ground floor of two converted barns facing each other across a courtyard. Cooking is done in an airy, well-equipped kitchen on the first floor of one of the barns: there was ample space here for our group of nine. We were a mixed bunch, including a chocolatier, two majors, a tank procurer, a psychotherapist, and a custom lift manufacturer. But what we did have in common was an ability to get excited over things like perfect poached eggs, basil ice cream, fancy kitchen gadgets, and playing with pans of boiling sugar. On the first evening there was a babble of conversation over the welcome meal cooked and served by Jim and his wife Lucy. We didn’t even flag when Jim told us we’d have to reproduce this splendid meal on Friday, we just poured ourselves some more wine.

The next morning we found ourselves around the large kitchen work surface, faced with 9 spankingly fresh sea bass and 9 very sharp knives. Jim expertly filleted one to show us how it is done, demonstrating every stage from the initial cut to pulling out the pin bones with tweezers, then literally hand-held those of us who were a bit wobbly when we tackled our own. Thanks to him we ended up with eighteen perfect fillets, and in my case at least enough confidence to try it at home.

sea bass with sauce gribiche

Each day basically revolves around cooking the evening’s two-course dinner (plus lunch on a couple of days). One of the things that most impressed me was how well-planned the menus were, each designed to include several transferable skills, such as the aforementioned fish filleting, which can be applied to any round fish. With the sea bass we had sauce gribiche — “tartare with knobs on” in Jim’s words. This gave us an opportunity to make mayonnaise three different ways (food processor, electric whisk, by hand) and compare the results, and to do some “cheffy chopping” of the other ingredients.

Tarte Tatin, Liz style

Even dishes I’d done many times before, such as Tarte Tatin, demonstrated by Jim’s assistant Liz, could be eye-opening. I think my rustic tatin is pretty good, but I was bowled over by the elegance of hers: a perfect, glossy, mahogany coloured disc met my eyes when I turned mine out. I’ll definitely be incorporating her techniques in future; the extra work is worth it. And Jim’s instant method of making custard (used as an ice cream base) is a surefire winner.

Poached eggs as they should be

Jim’s also a goldmine of professional cheffy tips, things you never find explained properly in cookbooks. Perfect poached eggs, cooked in advance and reheated when needed, are now within my grasp, along with real fish stock, fantastically concentrated duck gravy, membrane-free orange segments, nifty tricks for making perfect pastry discs, and much more. I think everyone learnt something; one of my favourite moments was Tony’s “Wow!” as he beat egg whites for the first time ever, producing a silky smooth Italian meringue. And it was fun too, especially the afternoon we spent messing about with hot sugar, producing golden domes, tuiles, and springs. So 80s, but fun to do once in a while.

Most of these techniques were used to produce dishes that showcase classic French flavours presented in a stylish modern way, with Jim giving lots of tips on presentation. Everything here is within the reach of a keen home cook: no fancy equipment needed, but you can if you want turn out dishes that wouldn’t look out of place in a fancy restaurant. Some things were ridiculously simple: we all loved the baked camembert with rustic croutons, which is literally 10 minutes’ hands-on work. Likewise the fougasse, which made me ask myself why I always think it’s too much bother to do.


Our last day was dedicated to reproducing the three-course meal Jim had cooked for our welcome dinner on Monday: chilled tomato and fennel soup, duck confit with peas and pommes dauphinoises, and an elaborate dessert of deconstructed lemon meringue pie with ice cream, red fruit jelly, and the spun sugar tuiles we’d had a riotous time making on Wednesday afternoon.

roasted tomato and fennel soup in shot glass

I’ve never made duck confit from scratch before and probably never will again, since I live in a land of easily available duck confit, but it was a learning experience. And making the pommes dauphinoises gave me an “I want one of those” moment when I used a mandoline for the first time — what a lovely bit of kit! The soup we’d so enjoyed on the first evening turns out to be a doddle to make: prepare a herb-infused ragout of roasted tomato, fennel, onion and orange, which is a great dish in its own right, then liquidise, mouli, and finally sieve to get the perfect smooth texture.

For dessert, perfect cylinders of trembling lemon curd perched on crisp pastry disks and finished with a blowtorch, served with the lemon and black pepper ice cream we’d invented a few days earlier, were just superb: total silence descended as we ate them. Although with due respect to Jim, I’ll make conventional crunchy meringues, not Italian ones, the next time I do it.

deconstructed lemon meringue tart with lemon & black pepper ice cream

We weren’t tied to the kitchen sink all the time; there were always a couple of hours free during the day to chill by the pool (or in it, very chilly indeed!), go for walks, or just sit on the lawn and read. On Wednesday Jim and Lucy took us to the market in the beautiful medieval town of Sarlat, a 20-minute drive away. I might be blasé about French markets, but this is quite different from our cheap and cheerful local market: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a concentration of foie gras and truffles in one place, and the array of locally produced spring vegetables was inspiring.

making lemon curd

Before I went, I wasn’t sure how I’d take to doing nothing but cook for a week. But having nothing else to do makes it a lot easier than rushing around cooking a meal after a day’s work, and then there was the thrill of cooking a perfect poached egg, or grinding up boiled sweets in the Magimix and feeding them into the candy floss machine (verdict: revolting). We were on our feet most of the time, but there were plenty of breaks, and of course you’re on holiday; you’re free to drop out of a session if you want. Given that I normally spend days alone with my computer, I found spending so much time with other people quite intense, so it was nice to have some space to wander off alone and recharge. And the fact that the only Internet access was via dialup was very effective at removing the temptation to check up on work.

spring vegetable salad with orange and walnut oil vinaigrette

I must have been inspired, because when I got back the first thing we did was invite 8 people round for lunch on Easter Monday. Menu: Jim’s lovely spring vegetable salad with poached eggs and orange and walnut oil vinaigrette; roast leg of lamb with pommes dauphinoises and tomato and fennel ragout; and strawberries and cream.

Jim’s tips for preparing things in advance so that you need only assemble them at the last minute proved invaluable, especially for the eggs. And the roast lamb, cooked using Jim’s half-hour cooking method, was fabulous — I have no doubt I’ll always do it like that from now on. I’ve never had a guest take photos of the food at my table before, and lunch ended up lasting till 8:30 pm; testimony to its success!

Photogenic tarte tatin