Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Gin Club Birmingham – Langtons Gin Tasting Evening at Loki Wine 21st January 2015

We were very excited to hear of the launch of Gin Club Birmingham, and the announcement of their inaugural event, featuring a presentation and tastings of products from Langtons Gin, based in the Lake District.  Link to Web Site
The event sold out, so we were pleased to have booked tickets in advance.

The event was held upstairs in Loki Wine, in Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade, and there were about thirty people in attendance.  The venue was divided into two smaller rooms, with about half the attendees seated in each.  This necessitated two separate presentations; one to each group.  This wasn’t too much of a problem as everyone seemed to share our excitement at the launch of a new venture, and hosting it in a wine shop helped things along nicely.

Gin Club Birmingham was formed in late 2014, and the evening was hosted by one of its founder members, Tom Hayes.  Tom was a good host, who took the time to talk to all of the attendees, some of whom he knew already but others, like us, who he was meeting for the first time.

Prior the start of the presentations, glasses of gin and bottles of tonic water were handed round, and as we were in the second group, we had to wait for the first presentation to end before trying it.  However, we passed the time quite pleasantly by enjoying a sample of a rather fine Lebanese Rose wine.

The presentation was delivered by Craig Macdonald, UK Brand Ambassador for Langtons Gin, who talked about the history and philosophy of Langtons, as well as the unique selling points of its products.

Langtons is the oldest of three gin distilleries in Cumbria, and their aim is to create a Lakeland style of gin, distinct from the more widely known London dry gins.  To achieve this, they take the water for their flagship ‘No1’ Gin from a source beneath the mighty Skiddaw, one of the largest mountains in the Lake District.  Craig explained that the purity of this water has a positive effect on the gin, and at 60 per cent of its make-up, is an important component.  The Langtons recipe for the botanicals includes juniper berries from both Cumbria and Tuscany, with a lower overall quantity used than in London gins, allowing the other ingredients such as cinnamon, coriander seeds and seasoned oak bark, to shine through.

Gin Number 1:  Langtons No1 
We tasted the No1 gin in its neat form first.  As Craig had said, there was less of a hit of juniper than in other gins, and although it still packed a punch, it also included a sweet, spicy aftertaste.  We then enjoyed it with Fever Tree tonic, the best on the market in my view, with ice and a slice of lemon.

Gin Number 2:  Damson
The second sample was of Langtons Damson Gin.  This was produced in a limited quantity, and was originally intended to be used as an ingredient for the sauce in a rippled ice cream (now how great would that have been?) as well as a drink, but due to the amount produced, it was decided to proceed with the drink only.  This was again served in its neat form and with a tonic.  Its taste was more fruity than sweet, and at 28 per cent had a much lower alcohol content than the No1 Gin.  It went extremely well with the elderflower tonic with which it was served, and we made a note of this for future purchases.  Assuming that they make some more, of course.

By this point, conversation had started to flow with the drinks and there was a lively yet friendly atmosphere.  The final drink of the evening was a cocktail called a ‘Bees Knees’.  I should apologise at this point for not including a photo of it.  We finished drinking it before we realised that we should have photographed it first.  It was served in a cocktail glass and was yellow coloured and cloudy, and very good.  For anyone interested, the recipe is;

Bees Knees Cocktail
50 per cent Langtons No1 gin
25 per cent honey syrup
25 per cent lemon juice
-Combine all the above ingredients with some crushed ice in a cocktail shaker, shake, strain and serve in a cocktail glass.

Easy to make; ingredients readily accessible; What’s not to love?  The recipe is based on a ‘Gin Sour’ cocktail, which includes egg whites and angostura bitters.  We’ll certainly be making it again.

At the end of the evening there was a chance to purchase bottles of the gin that we had been sampling and both types looked to be selling well.  We bought a bottle of the No1 Gin which of course we enjoyed a glass from when we got home.

We enjoyed the first Gin Club Birmingham event very much and are looking forward to news of the next one.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Review of Four Chipotle Beers

Dee:  “This review arose from a visit to the beer shop to find a drink or two to accompany the sausage chilli stew that we had lined up for tea.  We spotted the Mayan beer first and, after browsing the other beers, found another chipotle beer, then another, then another, and the tasting session was quickly arranged. 
Not all of the beers had chilli flavour, or the distinctive smokiness, but I am pleased to say that all four were of very good quality.  All were winners, and we would happily drink any of them again.  So here they are.  Cheers!"

Beer 1:  The Mayan
Tasting Notes said:  “Inspired by an ancient Mayan recipe and brewed with Chipotle chillies, chocolate malt and real chocolate, this extraordinary stout is velvety smooth, bittersweet, and has a subtle, smoky fire in its belly.  The time has come to put yourself to the ultimate test; dare you take on….The Mayan?!””.
Dee said:  “Big initial hit of chocolatey aromas.  Nice dark colour.  A good, strong stout, despite it having the lowest strength of the four beers we chose.  Heavy on the dark chocolate with only a slight hint of chilli to finish.”
Jay said:  “Creamy chocolate aroma.  Same tasting with a dry finish.  Luscious”

Beer 2:  Fire
 Weird Beard Brew Co.
Tasting Notes said:  “Is that chilli you smell?  Are you getting a little tingle on the tongue as you drink this beer?  Everything is better with the addition of chilli!  Surely it is an unwritten rule and undeniable truth (well, except for those who don’t like chilli) Then yes, this beer does contain chilli and it is also a Rauchbier, the style of beer that has put Bamberg, Germany on the beer map.  Made with 100% Beechwood smoked malt, a few small additions of Apollo and Magnum hops, and then fermented with a nice lager yeast…then it had the healthy addition of a kilo of smoked chipotles in the fermenter (the burn is subtle.  It creeps up a little but won’t blow your head off).”.
Dee said:  “Golden colour with a sweet and smoky aroma, which was carried through into the taste.  It reminded me of the super smoky German Schlenkerla beers, but this had a much lighter overall texture”.
Jay said:  “Ooooooh, bonfire.  Big beautiful burning bonfire.  And that was the predominant flavour.  There may have been chilli burn but I couldn't find it on top of the burn from the sausage stew we'd just eaten.”

Beer 3:  Dragon Tips
Tasting Notes said:  “Stout brewed with actual bacon, maple and chipotle.”
Dee said:  “Poured like engine oil.  Didn’t get the promised maple or bacon flavours, but it was a strong, rich and bitter drink which delivered a punch in a velvet glove.”
Jay said:  “I don’t think I can add anything to what Dee said.  Yes, I liked it a lot.”

Beer 4:  Chocolate Sombrero
Tasting Notes said:  “Roasted dark malts plus extra chocolate malts plus ancho chile plus cinnamon plus vanilla extract plus a chocolate loving, beer drinking, Clown Shoes wearing, multi-limbed, gorgeous and glorious Mexican wrestler on the label. That’s the recipe for a Chocolate Sombrero!”.
Dee said:  “Black with a light coffee coloured head.  Lots of chocolate in the aroma and a smooth texture to the taste.  No smoke or heat but that didn’t matter.  A good chocolate stout.  Highly quaffable considering its 9% strength.”
Jay said:  “I did get a bit of spice from this.”

Friday, 23 January 2015

V for Vanuatu

Dee:  “In our quest to cook meals from lesser-known cuisines, our biggest discovery has been those of the Pacific Islands.  We have discovered a fascinating East-West fusion which has developed and taken on an identity of its own, with the skill of mixing sweet and savoury flavours together to create distinctive and memorable dishes which are definitely worthy of revisiting.  As we near the end of our 26 cuisines, we now arrive at our final Pacific destination: Vanuatu. 
The use of fruit and peanuts in both savoury and sweet dishes was quite significant in the cuisine of Vanuatu, and coconut milk also featured extensively.  We were lucky to find a great on-line resource containing a large number of recipes, which showcased a cuisine based on quality of ingredients and cooking by feeling rather than rigid specifications of times and temperatures.  As I have grown in confidence when cooking at home, I have grown to appreciate recipes of this type, allowing me to judge for myself when a dish is ready.
With all of this in mind, I was keen to get started.”

Starter:  Sweet Vegetables
Dee:  “Onions, vegetables and mango cooked in coconut milk.  It sounded like a disaster waiting to happen but turned out to be something of a revelation.  The key I think to making this dish work was in selecting the right vegetables.  The recipe wasn’t specific, so I went for delicate and slightly sweet tasting vegetables which I felt would bridge the gap between the mango and onion rather than trying to steal the show on their own.  I went for carrot, sugar snap peas and baby corn, which had the advantage of adding colour, texture and visual appeal to the dish as a whole.  Also they weren’t too strong or bitter tasting.  I started by slow cooking the onions until they were just starting to caramelise, then added the vegetables, followed by the coconut milk and continued cooking, though not for too long as I didn’t want the vegetables to lose their crunch.  I then turned off the heat, stirred in the sliced mangoes and made sure they were warmed through just before serving.  I didn’t want to cook the mangoes as they would have turned into mush and ruined the dish.  It turned out just as I wanted it.  Looking a little like a stir-fry, but with a totally unique taste.  Creaminess from the coconut milk, a savoury hint from the onions and vegetables and swwetness and fruitiness from the mangoes.  Superb fusion on a plate.”

Main:  Indian Curry
Dee:  “This was a simple curry made from onions, garlic, ginger, chilli tomato, curry paste and chicken, all cooked in coconut milk.  I found the secret to be in the slow cooking, which allowed the flavours to infuse.  The finished curry was strongly flavoured, without being too hot or too sweet.  I decided to leave out the potato and pumpkin, as I was happy that the curry was progressing nicely enough without them.  They would be fine to serve on their own as a side dish though.  In our haste to try out the finished curry we forgot to garnish it with the crushed peanuts, but fortunately there is enough of it left over for lunch tomorrow, so we’ll add the garnish then.”

Dessert:  Peanut Butter Candy
Dee:  “A lot of the desserts from Vanuatu included banana, which Jay is totally averse to, but as luck would have it, this one featured peanut butter, which is one of my great loves.  I’ve used it in both sweet and savoury dishes to great effect, so was confident that this would be a recipe to revisit if I could get it right.  Prior to preparing it I was imagining that it was going to be something like peanut brittle, which required careful timing and constant monitoring of the sugar thermometer.  To be honest I approached the recipe with a degree of trepidation, but my love of peanut butter drove me onwards.  The recipe stated that the sugar/milk/peanut butter mixture should be boiled for five minutes only before being poured into a cake tin to cool.  I was a little nervous about this so cooked mine for a bit longer.  I then poured it into a brownie tin, where it spread more thinly and consequently cooled more quickly.  What I had produced reminded me a lot of Kendal Mint Cake in texture, but with an unmistakeable peanut flavour.  We both loved it and quickly wrapped half of it up in case we started nibbling on it later.”

Soundtrack:  Various Artists – Vanuatu: The Music Tradition of West Futuna
Dee:  “This album presented a collection of spiritual sounding songs, with minimal musical accompaniment.  Where musical instruments were featured, they were principally drums, percussion and occasional guitar.  The songs were in a number of different styles, including folk songs, rhythmic chants, and Christian hymns.
As with the last few musical choices, this was another great accompaniment to tonight’s meal.”

Next week:  W for Western Sahara

Thursday, 22 January 2015

U for Uruguay

Dee:  “Our first venture into the cuisine of Uruguay was also our first new cuisine to sample in South America.  We’ve cooked meals based on the cuisines of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina before, and Uruguay turned out to have some similarities with the latter two.  It is very much a meat based cuisine, and Uruguayan beef enjoys a reputation of being of very high quality.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have the facilities, or the weather (at the moment anyway) to attempt to recreate a Uruguayan Asado, or barbeque, but we did manage to prepare a giant Chivito sandwich, containing a steak and various other ingredients which are described in more detail below.
The dishes we selected were all great tasting and we’ve certainly been inspired to look into cooking more Uruguayan meals in the future.”

Starter:  Tuna Empanadas 
Home devised recipe
Dee:  “Empanadas are enjoyed throughout Central and South America, and are more commonly filled with meat, but as our main course was going to contain a large amount of meat, I decided instead to go for a version with tuna.  I’ve had deep fried empanadas before, but decided to make a baked version instead, as I wanted to lighten them a little.  I made a dough from flour, sausage fat, salt, a little butter and a little water, and chilled it before rolling it out and cutting it into the round shapes from which I made the individual pastries.  The dough turned out pretty much how I wanted it to be, like a thinner version of shortcrust pastry.
For the filling I used flaked tuna, chopped green pepper, spring onions and a few peas.  The flavour was not intense, which was ok, as they were the starter of something much bigger…”

Main:  Chivito
Home devised recipe
Dee:  “I haven’t included a recipe link for the National sandwich, or to more accurately describe it, meal-in-a-bun of Uruguay, as there are countless variations possible.  Basically it is a soft white bun which is split and filled with steak, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and any number of additional toppings such as olives, gherkins, chopped peppers etc, and finally Salsa Golf, which, although originating in Argentina, is also enjoyed in Uruguay.  This is a sauce made from a base of mixed tomato ketchup and mayonnaise, with various additional ingredients added, in our case a little sherry vinegar and the resting juices from the steak. 
And if that wasn’t enough, we served our chivito with its traditional accompaniments:  a side of the famous Ensaladilla Russa or Russian salad, which arrived in Uruguay via Spanish and Italian immigrants, and fried potatoes.”

To Drink:  Yerba Mate
Dee:  “Yerba Mate is the national drink of Uruguay, and turned out to be a love it or hate it type of drink.  Jay took one sip of it and couldn’t get on with it at all, wheras I was quite fond of it.  It’s not easy to describe the taste, as it is a drink in its own right rather than being a type of tea or coffee.  It reminded me of green tea but had a much more earthy and almost grassy taste to it.  Sugar and/or lime juice can be added to it, but I preferred to drink it as it was.  Traditionally it is served in a fashioned gourd and drunk through a specially fashioned straw, called a bombilla, which also acts as a sieve.  We didn’t drink ours in this way though, as we didn’t want to pay out for specialised drinking utensils in case we never used them again.  As it turned out, it was fine as it was, for me anyway.”

Dessert:  Alfajores
Dee:  “What a treat these are.  Small sandwiches of delicious sweet shortbread with Dulce de Leche in between them.  We’ve had them before, but as soon as we saw that they were enjoyed in Uruguay, we just had to serve them up for dessert.  We halved the quantities quoted in the recipe but still only had room for one and a half alfajores each.  There just wasn’t very much room left for dessert after the mighty chivito, even after waiting quite a while between the two courses.  However, that meant we could enjoy them the next day.
Although Dulce de Leche is available ready-made, it is also possible to make it at home.  I do enjoy this, but it’s important to point out that it is definitely a labour of love.  It is time consuming and requires constant attention.  First, there is repeated rapidly frothing boiling milk to contend with, and after that, prolonged stirring of the mixture to stop it sticking and burning.  Finally, some experience is required to know when it is ready.  Through perseverance though will come great reward, and after making it for this recipe, I now have enough of it to serve with pancakes and stir into my winter porridge.”

Soundtrack:  Jaime Roos - Contrasena
Dee:  “This album, from 2000, was an upbeat collection of contemporary Uruguayan folk style songs, with hints of radio friendly pop, rock and jazz.  The vocals were accompanied by upfront guitars, occasional piano and complex rhythms, reminiscent in some sections of samba beats.
The production was clean and slick, making it highly suitable as an accompaniment to our meal.”

Next week we’re returning to the Pacific Islands:  V for Vanuatu

Monday, 19 January 2015

Dee Reviews Science Afternoon Tea at The Ampersand Hotel 18th January 2015

We don’t usually enjoy afternoon teas on two successive weekends, but the Science Afternoon Tea at London’s Ampersand Hotel was only running between 29th December and 6th February, so we had to grab the opportunity while we could.

The hotel is situated near to the South Kensington underground station, near to the Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum and, it turned out, on the edge of a bustling food and restaurant district.  There were a few great looking small delicatessens that I wanted to call into, but because of time constraints, and the fact that I didn’t want to be carrying bags full of purchases into the hotel, had to restrict myself to window shopping.

About a week or so before our visit, I made the booking online, which was nicely straightforward and user friendly. 

On arrival, we were shown to our table in the hotel drawing room.  We were seated in spacious low chairs at a similarly low table.  The drawing room was decorated in a bright and colourful mix of old and new styles, and a relaxed atmosphere was projected by the grey shirt and Levi jeans clad staff and the bossa nova and smooth jazz playing in the background.  Business appeared brisk, as there were at least 5 other parties also enjoying afternoon tea.  Around half were enjoying the same Science special as us, with the rest opting for the traditional option.

There was a choice of about eight loose leaf teas on offer, and I chose the Afternoon blend, which tasted pretty much the same as an English breakfast tea, while Jay enjoyed a pot of Earl Grey.  We were pleased to be offered refills as the pots delivered a little more than 2 cups each.

The food was served on a traditional 3-tier stand, with sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle and patisserie on top.  It was the patisserie that showcased the ‘science’ aspect of the afternoon tea, so was rightly given pride of place on the top tier.  Some venues aren’t keen on their food and drink being photographed, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.  In fact, the staff obliged customers by pouring hot water over dry ice which had been placed among the patisserie at the point of service, in order to maximise opportunities to capture the dramatic smoking effect.  We took several shots but the best is shown at the start of the review.

The sandwiches were served in the style of a French gougere, with rich, buttery round buns arranged in a circle, rather than the more traditional finger sandwiches.  My favourite was the rich, creamy and subtly spiced coronation chicken, but the ham and sauce gribiche, and generously filled smoked salmon sandwiches were also very good.  My only criticism of the entire offering was with the chutney that accompanied the cheese sandwich.  Although it was a little on the sweet side for my taste, it needed to counteract the strong tasting cheese, but the consistency was too runny, causing it to drip out of the sandwich, and also causing the dreaded ‘soggy bottom’ effect.

We took a little while to decide whether to go for the scones or the patisserie next, but in the end decided on the latter, as we figured that the scones possessed more staying power.

After the small white chocolate dinosaurs (Jay’s was a Stegosaurus and mine was a Brontosaurus in case you were wondering), we went for the pistachio macarons with chocolate filling that was accompanied by a pipette filled with a rich red cherry coulis.  This turned out to be one of the highlights overall, as it was packed with flavour and the macaron provided a perfect combination of initial crunch giving way to a soft chewiness.  There was just the right amount of coulis in the pipette to provide a fruity bite to the macaron without overpowering it.
Next we moved on to the impressive looking planet cake, made from two different coloured sponge cake batters which enclosed a small amount of jam and cream filling, spliced with a disc of white chocolate which represented the planet’s ‘ring’.  A mini-masterpiece in cake making and presentation, though taste-wise it was far subtler than it appeared.
This was followed by a turquoise coloured miniature shot of citrus juice, served in a tiny beaker and flask.  I wasn’t at all sure what it was going to taste like so was pleasantly surprised by the huge sweet fruity hit that it delivered.  We followed this with a second pair of chocolate dinosaurs (same types as before), in a rich dark chocolate this time.
We'd been saving the biggest cake on the patisserie tier until last: The volcano cake was constructed from several layers of differently flavoured mousses and very thinly sliced sponge cake, and finished off with a small amount of red fruit sauce to represent lava.  As with the planet cake, the flavours here were more subtle than I was expecting, even though the mousses were quite thick in texture.

Moving down to the middle tier, the scones were of superb quality.  The white chocolate scone was for me another highlight of the entire set.  Texture-wise they were just right.  They held their shape well when split and coated with the jam and clotted cream.  They had a light glaze on the outside which was a plus in terms of presentation and added a slight crunch with the first bite.  There was just the right amount of clotted cream served with them to finish our Science Afternoon Tea on a very positive note.

Experimentation in any form carries with it an element of risk, and with themed afternoon teas, that is style over content.  However, I am pleased to say that with their Science Afternoon Tea, the Ampersand Hotel managed to strike a balance between innovation and respect for what remains a much loved tradition.

After the scones and our second pot of tea, we were well and truly full.  The final bill came to £77.50, which included a 12.5% service charge.  We didn’t object to paying this, as we were very happy with the service.  The staff were polite and professional without being over-fussy.

The Science Afternoon Tea is only running for a couple more weeks so there’s not much time left to book, but we are more than happy to recommend it.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

T for Tonga

Dee:  “Our sampling of Tongan cuisine was our second venture into the flavours of the Pacific Islands.  As with our first, sampling the cuisine of Hawaii, we didn’t know a thing about what Tongan food would be like before we started researching it.  What emerged was a fascinating mix of ingredients and cooking styles with both ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ influences.  Some of the ingredients were difficult to source, for example banana leaves and taro roots, but we found several promising recipes which used more readily available ingredients.  The menu we settled on felt more representative of modern Tonga than the old culture but hopefully we have managed to maintain the Tongan national identity.”

Fish and Potato fritters
Dee:  “Rather than deep frying these fritters, we cooked them first in the frying pan, and finished them off in the oven.  They contained quite a lot of potato which did smother the taste of the fish somewhat, but we liked the light fluffy texture, which made a welcome change from the more familiar firmer type of fritter.  As recommended in the recipe, we served them with a fruity chilli sauce and tartare sauce, both of which were shop bought.  Yes, it would have been nice to have made the sauces ourselves but I wasn’t able to find any Tongan recipes for them.”

Tongan Chop Suey
Dee:  “The origins of chop suey are, it turns out, widely disputed and make quite an interesting read.  The Tongan version is known as Sapasui and is somewhat different to the better known Chinese version.  It includes corned beef, which it turns out is a popular ingredient in Tongan cuisine.  The other main difference is in the use of vermicelli noodles rather than bean sprouts.
We loved this dish.  The corned beef was fried until it turned crispy and we were spot on with the cooking of the noodles, which took on the colour and flavour of the soy sauce really well.  It was very filling, and we are looking forward to enjoying it again tomorrow.”

Watermelon O’Tai (Watermelon Smoothie)
Dee:  “This is actually a drink but we enjoyed it as a dessert and ate it with spoons.  It was simple to prepare and did not involve any cooking.  The delicate flavour of the watermelon held its own alongside the stronger flavoured coconut and lemon juice.  It was a nice touch to serve it authentically, in a hollowed out half of baby watermelon.
We were going to make a Fruit Salad with Tonga Toast as a bonus dessert, as it appeared frequently as I was researching Tongan cuisine, but we were a bit too full from the first two courses so decided to stick with just the watermelon o’tai.  Basically Tonga Toast is a huge chunk of bread which is stuffed with banana, then deep fried and coated with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.  We were going to serve it with a fruit salad of mango, pineapple and papaya but it would have been too much.

Soundtrack:  Various Artists – Chants from the Kingdom of Tonga
Dee:  “This interesting compilation consisted some quite distinct types of songs.  My favourites turned out to be the more traditional sounding songs, consisting of vocals and minimal instrumentation, mainly from drums and percussion.  A couple of tracks featured the famous Tongan nose flute, and my favourite track on the album, the Utete Mouth Harps of ‘Eua.  There were vocal only songs, and others with the singers accompanied by ukulele and banjo.  There were sounds of splashing water on several tracks, which suggested that they were recorded on a boat.
The songs in the main sounded quite happy in nature, and for the most part were sung by an assembled choir of both male and female voices.  The singing reminded me a little of American Gospel music but was slower in tempo.
Towards the end of the album was a suite of three pieces which had been given a more slick and modern production, sounding almost ethereal in parts, while still retaining the traditional sound
It was, on the whole, one of those ‘feel good’ albums.  Very evocative of sunny South Pacific islands and a great accompaniment to tonight’s meal.”

Next week:  U for Uruguay

Afternoon Tea at Moor Hall Hotel, 10th January 2015

For our first afternoon tea of 2015, we stayed fairly close to home and visited Moor Hall Hotel in the Four Oaks suburb of Birmingham.  We hadn’t been to the hotel before and liked the look of it from the web site.

I phoned to make a booking a few days before, and was impressed by the politeness and professionalism of the staff.  They didn’t push the champagne option either, which was good.

The hotel building, and its grounds, looked picturesque but sadly it was a little too cold to explore.

Once inside, we were greeted by another polite receptionist who directed us to the rooms where afternoon tea was being served.  However, we had to attract the attention of one of the staff in order to be shown to our seats.  Once seated, the service was good, with polite staff who were happy to refill the pots of teas, and checked with us at the half way point to make sure that there were no problems.

The room where we were seated looked to be decorated in a late Victorian style, with lots of wood panelling and patterned wallpaper and curtains.  There were several other parties also enjoying afternoon tea and the hotel looked to be enjoying a brisk trade.

There was a choice of about 6 different teas, including the Hotel’s own blend.  Three were black teas, one green and two fruit-based.  I opted for the Hotel’s own blend, which was a subtle, smooth breakfast tea.  Jay went for the Earl Grey.  Both teas were loose leaf and arrived with a strainer each.  A detail which some venues miss.  There was a little too much tea in both pots, which resulted in some very strong tastes at the bottom, but the quality of the teas were good.

The food was served on a traditional 3 tier stand, with the top two tiers given a dusting of icing sugar.  This was fine on the cakes, but less so on the lid of the jam jar.

There were five different flavours of finger sandwiches: ham, egg mayonnaise, charred cucumber, smoked salmon and grated cheese.  All tasted good, with the charred cucumber being a hit with both of us.  In addition, the sandwiches were garnished with a salad and accompanied by another speciality of the Hotel: The Brummie scone.  This was a light buttery bacon scone, like a Brummie bacon cake but smoother and lighter.  We both liked the scone very much and may well bake a batch for ourselves at some point.

On the next tier up were miniature cupcakes, macarons and chocolate ├ęclairs.  The macaron was sadly a bit of a disappointment as it was a little too dense in texture and was lacking in flavour, as well as having only a meagre amount of filling.  The ├ęclair was far better, with a delicious cream filling and light choux pastry.  The cupcakes too were good quality, with a cream cheese flavoured icing and a filling of lemon jam inside the cake itself.

On the top tier were the scones and seasonal fruit tarts.  Seasonal in this case was mincemeat, which of course brought back memories of Christmas and felt incongruous so soon after the end of the festive season.  It was ok, but there should really have been a different flavour of fruit tart.  The scones were much better, just the right size and held together well when they were split.  They were accompanied by clotted cream and a small jar of tiptree strawberry jam.

Portion sizes were about right, and we left feeling pleasantly full.  The price, at £16 each, was perfectly reasonable so we are happy to recommend the hotel to anyone considering a visit.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

S for South Korea

Dee:  “Of all the cuisines we have explored so far, I’ve found that of South Korea to be the most challenging.  Many of the recipes I researched contained highly specialised ingredients which I’d never heard of before.  Of course, that’s the whole point with this blog, and with hindsight, I probably should have started my preparations earlier, but there is also a cost implication.  I had no idea how often I’d be cooking South Korean food, and could be spending money on potentially expensive ingredients which I’d only use once or would deteriorate before I used them again.  However, I managed to find some workable recipes, mostly on the excellent SBS food channel web site, which is based in Australia, and a recipe I already had from a Jamie Oliver cook book.  I was happy that the recipes I selected did the cuisine justice while also using readily accessible ingredients.
I quickly discovered that South Korea has a distinct culinary identity, with regional variations, as specialised as those of nearby China and Japan, but is far less well known, at least in England.  I have a vague recollection of seeing Kimchi, perhaps the best known South Korean dish here, on a menu in a Wagamama restaurant, but apart from that, the cuisine was completely new to me.
After finishing the meal I’m glad we selected this cuisine as it’s certainly piqued our interest to explore it further.  A visit to Birmingham’s Topokki Restaurant could be on the cards.”

Sweet Potato Vermicelli and Beef Stir-Fry (Japchae)
Dee:  “We made a slight change from the published recipe here by cooking the noodles separately and serving them as bed, before adding the rest of the ingredients.  We weren’t able to source sweet potato noodles so used rice vermicelli instead, and we weren’t sure it would stand up to being stir fried.  The thinly sliced beef retained the flavour of the marinade nicely, and the toasted sesame seeds made for a nice tasty garnish.  I also liked the addition of the spinach, which I hadn’t seen used in a stir fry before.  If I was to cook this again, I think I would retain the water that was used for rehydrating the dried mushrooms, and add it to the cooking water for the noodles to give them a bit more flavour or perhaps to loosen the stir fry sauce, but it was still a great stir fry as it was.”

Bonus Dish:  Cabbage and Celery Salad
Recipe adapted from one in ‘Jamie’s America’ by Jamie Oliver
Dee: “I’ve included this as a bonus dish because it’s not an authentic South Korean recipe.  It’s my adaptation of Jamie Oliver’s adaptation of Kimchi, a South Korean salad created from fermented cabbage and seasonings.  However, what I produced was certainly in-keeping with the stir fry which we served it with.  I used a mixture of finely chopped cabbage and celery, rather than just cabbage on its own, which I first cooked until soft and then left to marinate for several hours in a mixture of sesame oil, garlic ginger, salt, pepper, vinegar and chilli.  The finished product had a soft texture with strong flavours, both sweet and savoury in equal measures.  It wasn’t overly hot despite having about four dried chillies in it, and as Jamie recommends, it would make a great relish on a burger or sandwich.  As luck would have it, there’s enough of it left over to allow us to use it for just that.”

Sweet Pancakes with Persimmon Punch (Hotteok with Sujeonggwa)
Dee:  “What a great discovery these were.  The Persimmon Punch (Sujeonggwa) was sweet, silky and smooth, with a big hit of cinnamon (and we only used one cinnamon stick for half the recipe rather than the suggested 6) and only the slightest hint of ginger.  The persimmon slices and pine nuts added two different textures making the whole thing into a sort of dessert mocktail.
The pancakes (Hotteok) were described as street food served in winter, so ticked both boxes for me as I love street food recipes and we’re still in the depths of winter as I write this blog entry.  These yeasted pancakes were made from a sticky dough rather than a thin batter, and had a texture similar to tiny flatbreads with a sweet filling, cooked in a hot pan.  The dough was quite tricky to work with but once I’d oiled my hands I managed to bring it under control and was able to form the pancakes.  The filling, made from a mixture of sugar, cinnamon and toasted nuts really made the pancakes into sweet treats.  The published recipe for both the pancakes and the punch were for ten servings so we made half.  It was difficult not eating all the pancakes, but somehow we managed to save enough for another day, with plenty of the punch left too.”

Soundtrack:  Beautiful Rivers and Mountains; The Psychedelic Rock sound of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun 1958-1974
Dee:  “This sounded to me like the sound of a thriving underground scene and effortlessly mixed elements of pop, rock and jazz into a collection of songs which had both freeform and structured melodies.  It didn’t particularly go hand in hand with the meal but it didn’t really matter.  The musicianship was first class, and although very much rooted in the decades in which it was recorded, the songs retain a nice vintage quality.  There are tracks from a number of artists who Shin Joong Hyun worked with over the course of his career as well as from the man himself.  There were many great tracks on the album so it was difficult to pick a favourite, but I particularly enjoyed Jang Hyun’s garage rock-like ‘pushing through the fog’ and the 10 minute title track, a huge sweeping keyboard and acoustic guitar led musical journey.  Further reading up on Shin Joong Hyun revealed that he is viewed as South Korea’s godfather of rock and, at the height of his career, was held in the same esteem as Jimi Hendrix and Brian Wilson.  Acclaim indeed.”

Next week it’s off to the South Pacific:  T for Tonga

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Scottish Themed Feast for New Years Eve 31st December 2014

Dee:  “We wanted to cook a Scottish themed meal for our New Year’s Eve meal, and my initial plans were for venison with whisky sauce and neeps and tatties, followed by black bun.  However, after further planning, it changed quite a bit. 
We realised that Burns Night was coming up and I was keen to cook another Scottish meal for that, so postponed the whisky sauce and neeps and tatties for then.  We kept the venison, which we needed a sauce for, so decided to use some of the cranberry gin which we had left over from Christmas.  We’d seen a chef using sloe gin for a sauce with venison, so wanted to experiment with our cranberry gin to see if the two would make a good match.
The starter was easy to organise as I have two oatcake biscuit recipes to try, so used one version here, with the other to follow on Burns night.
We decided to leave the black bun as we’d only just finished a heavy-duty Christmas cake so didn’t want to overdo things with another dense fruity bake.  We both love shortbread so quickly agreed on that instead.
We wanted to sample some Scottish craft beers with the meal, but there were less of them available than we expected.  However, we found three promising looking brews, with a Scottish Ale brewed in Belgium, which we classed as a bonus beer.
A nice single malt highland whisky, which I’d been given for Christmas, rounded off the night in style.
The accompanying music wasn’t Scottish so I won’t write about it here, but we have plenty of good tunes lined up for Burns Night”.

To Eat:  A Scottish New Year’s Eve Feast

Starter:  Scottish Oatcake Biscuits with a choice of topping
Recipe from ‘Bread’ by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
Dee:  “This was the first time I’d made my own Scottish Oatcake biscuits, so I was a little nervous about a baking disaster but fortunately they turned out fine.  The dough, made from oatmeal, fat, salt and water was very crumbly and wouldn’t form the flat discs I wanted until I approached it with wet hands.  Once in the hot pan however, the task became easier, although a steady hand was required as the finished biscuits were still quite brittle.  I topped mine with some smoked salmon, while Jay went for some left over Chutney from Christmas.  A simple salad of shredded lettuce dressed with rosemary and garlic vinegar and whisky smoked salt completed the starter plates.  This was a great starter with small portions of fairly delicate flavours, which didn’t over-face us before the main course was ready.
We have another oatcake biscuit recipe to try out, so will be trying that one out for Burns Night on 25th January.”

Main Course:  Roast Venison with Cranberry Gin Sauce and Clapshot
Dee:  “We used the recipe in the link above as a starting point, but modified it a bit in order to fit with what we had in mind.  We didn’t marinate the meat, but coated it in a mixture of goose fat, orange zest and juice, chopped rosemary and salt & pepper.  We inserted rosemary sprigs into cuts made in the meat as specified by the recipe, and roasted the swede and potato that we were going to use for the clapshot in the same roasting tin.  We made the sauce separately by reducing down some cranberry gin mixed with a little of the leftover coating mixture for the meat.  Then when the meat came out of the oven and had rested, we added the cooking liquid and resting juices and reduced that down to finish the sauce.  We made the clapshot by mashing together the roasted potato and sweded and finally added salt & pepper and finely chopped green parts of a couple of spring onions, as the chives in our garden were too tough last time we tried them a few weeks ago.
We were both very happy with the way the main course turned out.  The meat was good and tender with just the right amount of pink, the clapshot tasted all the better for the infusion of the roasting juices, and the sauce was strong, silky and fruity.”

Dessert:  Scottish Shortbread
Recipe adapted from one in an old Sainsbury’s magazine
Dee:  “We only baked a small amount of shortbread, enough for the two of us, as any larger quantity would have been eaten up far too quickly, and found a recipe in an old issue of Sainsbury’s magazine for ‘Victorian Shortbread’ which was easily scaled down.  The recipe called for egg, which we decided to leave out, and also rice flour, for which we substituted semolina.  I was faced with my second crumbly dough of the evening, but managed to gain control of this one without increasing any of the quantities or adding any further ingredients.  The finished product was tasty enough, with the expected crumbly, ‘melt in the mouth’ texture, but if I was to bake it again I would add more butter and perhaps a little more sugar as it wasn’t quite as sweet as the other shortbreads I’ve tried before.  We enjoyed our shortbread with a glass of Glenmorangie Highland Single Malt Whisky in some seriously heavy whisky tumblers which we’d bought earlier in the day.”

To Drink:  A selection of Scottish Craft Beers

Beer 1:  Red Kite Ale
Tasting Notes said:  “A soaring amber ale with a perfect balance of citrus and malt.  As the name suggests, this amber ale lifts the spirits by infusing classic British hops with a malty backbone to create this medium bodied thirst quencher. It's the perfect year-round beer - refreshing in summer and satisfying in winter.
A corker with a winter vegetable soup and equally at home when sharing your mouth with a Glenmorangie 18-year-old malt”.
Dee said:  “Chestnut Brown colour, and very subtle on nose and palate, with hints of fruits and toasted nuts.  A very nice accompaniment to our delicate starters”.
Jay said:  “Like this one a lot.  Good drinking strength”.

Beer 2:  Tornado
Tasting Notes said:  “Open a bottle of Tornado and get blown away by the natural power of the Citra hop. Crafted with a robust malt character to compliment the tropical fruit and resinous pine of the Citra hop”.
Dee said:  “Sharp and strong tasting IPA with sweet citrus notes.  Again, ideally matched with the main course that it accompanied”.
Jay said:  “Clean, refreshing and citrusy”.

Beer 3:  Alba Scots Pine Ale
Tasting Notes said:  “A traditional Highland recipe, popular in Northern Scotland until the end of the 19th Century. This "triple" style ale is spiced with sprigs of spruce and pine, harvested in the spring and brewed with only a small token handful of hops . Break out the goblets and pour with abandon. Rich, tawny and best enjoyed at Room temperature”.
Dee said:  “Rich, golden colour, with a completely unexpected hit of floral and berry-like flavours.  We enjoyed this straight after the main course, which worked very well, as I would definitely recommend this beer as one which needs no accompaniment.  The distinctive flavours are such that it is best enjoyed on its own”.
Jay said:  “Sweet ale with a very unusual aftertaste.  Need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it, as I would be with lambic beer, cider or Pimms.

Bonus Beer:  Gordon Finest Scotch Ale 
(This is actually a Belgian Beer so, for the purposes of this review, it’s included it as a ‘bonus’ beer)
Tasting Notes said:  “Born in the luminous moors in an environment of untamed lochs and haunted Scottish castles, the ale Gordon Finest Scotch is so generous that it is willingly shared. Its white, unctuous foam, in total contrast with the dark brown elixir, is a pleasure for the palate. The connoisseur fraternity will recognise the authentic Scotch : the soul of the Scottish Highlands.
Gordon Finest Scotch, the original Scotch for more than a century !
Taste-wise …
Gordon Finest Scotch’s promising bouquet tells no lies. The bitterness brought by its aromatic hops combines with its sweet flavour of distinctive roast malt, a mixture bringing an irresistible warmth with so many elements shimmering on the palate. It leaves a full-bodied, sweet finish”.
Dee said:  “Conker brown body with a very light beige head that quickly subsided.  Taste was of strong toffee with a lingering sweetness”.

Jay said:  “Burnt sugar.  More burnt sugar.  Good though”.