Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Afternoon Tea at Netherstowe House 19th February 2016

Reviewed by Dee

Our 2016 Afternoon Tea trail kicked off with a visit to Netherstowe House, located near to Lichfield down a leafy lane just off a main road.  The signs appear quickly, so visitors would be well advised to look out for them while traveling along the A5192.  We hadn’t heard of it before so I decided to check up on the history of the venue.
It was built in the Twelfth Century, and was used first as a mill, then a domestic residence before being converted just over five years ago into the hotel and restaurant that it is now.

The venue was chosen for us as Jay had been given an afternoon tea voucher as a Christmas present.  We had been looking forward to it for a while as our last afternoon tea was back in August of last year (click here for details).  We originally wanted to book for Sunday 21st February but it was full, suggesting that it must be a popular choice.

We were welcomed on arrival by uniformed staff, who showed us to a lounge area, where we waited while our table was prepared.  Inside, the venue was decked out in an early 1900s style, featuring lots of old fashioned pictures, hats, umbrellas and something called a Fitzroy Storm Glass, which Jay got very excited about.

While waiting in the lounge, we were handed drinks menus which included a number of wines, spirits and cocktails.  In keeping with the interior d├ęcor the menus were decorated in an elegant Art Deco style. 

The cocktails proved too tempting to resist, and we chose a couple of non-alcoholic options, namely an English Rose and a Heavenly Days.  The first certainly lived up to its name, being a sherberty sweet mixture of lemonade and rose water garnished with dried rose petals.  The second was a far subtler mix of grenadine, sparkling water and hazelnut syrup.  We shared the cocktails between the two of us and enjoyed both of them very much.  They provided a great start to the afternoon.

Once our table was ready we were led from the lounge through a winding corridor, off which were several smaller rooms where the afternoon teas were served.  The venue looked to be doing a brisk trade, and there were already two other parties of guests in the room where our table was.

The venue offers a number of afternoon tea menus, including an ‘English Country Garden’ themed menu featuring cakes served in flower pots, which the party on the table next to ours had ordered.  We chose the Traditional menu though.

The tea menu offered all of the familiar favourites, plus a range of flowering green teas which were served in heatproof glasses.  I chose Darjeeling while Jay went for Earl Grey.  Our teas were loose leaf rather than bags, and arrived in transparent tea pots.  Refills were offered at no extra cost but we found one pot each to be plenty.

The food was served on the traditional three-tier stand with cakes at the top, scones in the middle and sandwiches at the bottom.  In addition, a pair of lemon possets were served in a bowl containing lemon-scented dry ice, which fortunately we were just able to catch on camera before it disappeared.

The sandwiches were Egg Mayonnaise, Chicken Caesar, Ham & Mustard, Cheese & Tomato and Smoked Salmon on an Oatcake Biscuit.  The Chicken Caesar was probably our favourite, with its rich garlic sauce, but we also enjoyed the smoked salmon and oatcake biscuit.  There was a nice variety in presentation, with some sandwiches arriving as small brown bread triangles and others as white fingers.

The scones were small in size, and there were two of the fruited variety and two plain.  We were surprised to be asked if we wanted clotted cream with them;  I wonder if anyone has ever turned this offer down?  Initially we thought the scones were too small as we’re both big scone fans, but later we were grateful as we would have been over faced if we’d had larger ones.  They were well baked, being nice and crumbly without disintegrating as soon as a knife touched them.  Small jars of Tiptree Strawberry Jam were served with the scones and they were accompanied on the middle tier by small square of syrupy yet very lightly textured pineapple upside down cake garnished with a raspberry.

All of the cakes on the top tier were of a high quality, and consisted of a Lemon Macaron, Chocolate Delice and a Rolled Chocolate Sponge filled with White Chocolate Mousse.
We tucked into the Lemon Possets just before the cakes, and loved the layered effect created with extra soft meringue with singed top, sweet strawberry jam in the middle and the sharp, tangy lemon cream at the bottom.
I’m not a huge lover of macarons.  I see them as style over content and more about colour than taste but this one was pleasant enough.  It had a slight bite to the outside with a soft inside and exceptionally light lemon cream filling..
The Delice was served topped with banana cream, so I had to remove this and add it to mine before Jay would touch it.  Once that was sorted, we both enjoyed the combination of velvety, rich, dark chocolate and crunchy biscuit.
Finally the Sponge/Mousse Roll was a light but creamy sweet treat with small bits of white chocolate left in to add a small variation in texture.

The total cost of food, tea and cocktails was just shy of £50, which we both felt was very reasonable.  We liked the venue a lot, and felt well looked after by the polite and friendly staff.

In conclusion, we had a very enjoyable afternoon and would happily visit again.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

An Experiment in Beer Ageing

Jay - The idea for this project came from an article in a CAMRA magazine about aging beers and we both agreed that it was something we should try out. A quick internet search revealed not a great deal beyond “try the stronger ones”. So that’s what we did. As you can imagine, having to take a trip to Stirchley Wines and Spirits and Cotteridge Wines was a total hardship (!)

Beer #1:  Lemon Cello IPA
Brewery:  Siren Craft Brew
Tasting Notes said:  “This is a truly different beer. The concept was to develop the flavour and mouthfeel of Limoncello and fuse with the carbonation and lemony hop hit of an IPA. Using pale and wheat malts, the base beer goes through a 24 hour sour process to add to the tartness of the beer. Tons of lemon zest and juice are added to the boil along with all the citrusy lemony hops available”
One day after purchase, Jay said:  Dry and hoppy aroma with the slightest hint of citrus. First taste is hops then a blast of citrus acidity but more lime and grapefruit than lemon
One day after purchase, Dee said:  Rich gold, deceptively drinkable given its strength. The hops were balanced with a strong citrus flavour.
One year after purchase, Jay said: Very tart first taste and still citrusy but not the WOOOOOOO citrus it was last year. Aging has definitely mellowed the beer looking over last year’s notes
One year after purchase, Dee said: A rich copper hue with a grapefruit / hops / autumny aroma. Slightly sour, tangy taste.
Would we age it again? Dee says yes, I’m not so sure. Was it a good beer after waiting a year? Oh yes, definitely. Was it a better beer after waiting for a year? Possibly not.

Beer #2:  Wildebeest
Brewery:  Wild Beer Co.
Tasting Notes said:  “Ideal for contemplation and speculation, this is the liquid equivalent of the lotus position. Our Imperial espresso chocolate vanilla stout, Wildebeest is a judicious selection of pale and dark malts to which is added the highest quality Valrhona cocoa nibs and freshly roasted Columbian coffee. Best enjoyed sipped from your favourite brandy snifter, while sitting comfortably in a plush armchair, preferably next to a roaring fire.”
One day after purchase, Jay said: Poured deep chestnut. Coffee on the nose, almost Pedro Ximenez flavour. Roaring fire, leather wingback chairs…
One day after purchase, Dee said:  Almost smokey, maple cured bacon. A thick, treacly taste and quite sweet. Imagine a mixture of treacle and golden syrup. Needs no accompaniment.
One year after purchase, Jay said:  Still great but absolutely no change over the year (and that’s no bad thing)
One year after purchase, Dee said:  treacle, dark chocolate and a hint of espresso. Smooth, velvety and sweet.
Would we age it again? No, no need to (although good to know it keeps so well!)

Beer #3:  De Passie
Brewery:  Ilkley Brewery
Tasting Notes said:  “We invited two of Europe's most kick-ass brewers to come and brew a kick-ass beer with us. Packed full of Dutch passion, as well as buckets of fresh passionfruit, this Imperial White IPA will take you to the edge and back. Tart in all the right places, and with a warming finish. "The Passion" is a continental collaboration with Rooie Dop and Oersoep Breweries.”
One day after purchase, Jay said: A golden colour with lots of bubbles. A light brew compared to some of the others in this experiment. There was a hint of fruit on the nose but that didn’t really come through in the taste. A summers evening in a beer garden with all being well with the world.
One day after purchase, Dee said:  Sour aroma with a rich gold colour. A rich malty IPA with only a hint of passionfruit. A nice strongly flavoured drink.
One year after purchase, Jay said: Not a lot of aroma, hint of perfume (marshmallow perhaps?) and the first taste is a big hit of hops. Don’t think there has been much of a change over the year.
One year after purchase, Dee said: A slightly sour / citrusy aroma and a bitter taste
Would we age it again? No. Still a great ale though.

Beer #4:  Cherry Scotch Ale
Tasting Notes said:  oops! the bottle was recycled before we realised there wasn’t a great deal about this brewery on the internet! The bottle DID say that the beer would “age beautifully” though..
One day after purchase, Jay said: Dark brown ale (was expecting hints of red). Fizzy with a hint of treacle. Hint of cherry as an aftertaste. Proper boozer pub after a day out in the countryside.
One day after purchase, Dee said:  Sourness carried through into the taste which was strong and spicy.
One year after purchase, Jay said: Fizzy! Definitely smoother than last year but mellowing rather than mellowed.
One year after purchase, Dee said: Dark mahogany colour. Hint of cherry but lots of other flavours dancing round. Bit of an acquired taste.
Would we age it again? Definitely. Would keep it for longer next time though.

Thoughts and next steps..
Jay - It would have been interesting to have a “young” bottle of each ale to contrast the aged ale with.

We will definitely have a go at aging beers again but I think we’ll buy 3 bottles this time – one to try straight away, one to keep for a year and one to keep for longer (like the Cherry Scotch Ale).  The geek in me wants to know why the tastes change, what the reactions are that are taking place. I’m going to do a bit more finding out to see what guidance and tips there are out there too.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Veganuary: Dee’s Evaluation

It’s been nearly two weeks since Veganuary officially ended, and I think enough time has now passed to enable me to write a summary of how it went and how we’ve been getting on since.

First though, I’d like to share a Q&A that we took part in with fellow food blogger Cate, who was also taking part in Veganuary and hosted an online chat about it with the food blogging community.  The chat took place on 28th January, towards the end of Week Four, and covers a number of Veganuary related issues.  I’ve listed the responses I gave at the time, together with updates where appropriate. 

What is the best Vegan eat you’ve discovered on your Veganuary adventure?  This could be a restaurant meal, a recipe or a new snack
The best at the time of the chat was the amazing salad of Apple, celeriac, quinoa and coriander in a vinaigrette dressing, but my favourite was the red pepper Pisaladiere that we made over the final weekend.  Both dishes are pictured in the blog entry covering weeks three and four.

Did you cheat? No fibbing.  As readers of my blog already know, I had a big lapse this weekend…
Nope; we erred on the side of caution if we were unsure about anything. We also did dry January.

Vegans get a rough ride on the internet.  How do you feel about the way plant based eaters are portrayed now that you’ve been one temporarily?
I've not mentioned it much in case I got bombarded with scientific questions that I wouldn't have been able to answer.  I did write ups about the food for the blog but kept away from on-line discussions.

At some point this month you’ve looked at your plate and thought ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ Tell us what was on that plate
Our scrambled tofu was a complete disaster and looked so bad we couldn't photograph it out of pure shame.  It tasted ok though.  This was part of the Vegan fry-up that we made in Week Two.  Looking back at the blog entry, I’d described it as being ‘not the most photogenic of meals’, which was a bit of an understatement to be fair, but the taste was more important, and we have made it a few times and certainly will do again.  I think the problem with the tofu was that we’d overcooked it and overstirred it, turning it into a puree.  Anyway, that’s enough about that.

Will you be doing Veganuary again next year?  What might you do differently?
We may do, but we may also do a vegan week or two during the year, probably with some Summer salads.

We also posed some questions of our own at the start of Veganuary, so it is now time to revisit them;

Would we start craving meat and dairy products, and no doubt alcohol, as the month proceeded? 
This was one of my biggest concerns at the outset, but proved to be less of a struggle than I thought.  I occasionally missed many of the simple non-vegan things like a cup of breakfast tea with milk in it, fish and chips, a bacon sandwich, and a slice of cake.  I’m sure that vegan alternatives for all of these exist, but I didn’t set enough time aside to research them.

Would we feel hungry all the time?
No.  There was plenty of bread and other carbs included in our diet that kept us happily full.

Was it all about expensive, esoteric ingredients requiring complex preparations?
The cost of the weekly shop ended up being about the same, but we still have plenty of meals in the freezer, so what we bought and made has gone a lot further.
Many of the ingredients were new to us but once we’d started using them there was nothing that we felt intimidated by.  In terms of availability, Holland and Barrett and the Vegan Store outside Birmingham were both a big help.
A few of the recipes had long lists of ingredients, but as Yotam Ottolenghi fans, that didn’t put us off, and none of the processes were complex.  In fact I enjoyed making the larger scale recipes stage by stage.

How did we proceed if we used something that we later learned was not vegan?
As mentioned previously, we were extremely careful to ensure that this didn’t happen.  If we were in any doubt about something, we assumed that it was not vegan.  A good example of this was truffle oil.  I treated it in the same way as honey; that is to say it wouldn’t be possible to produce it without the use of animals, so I decided to class it as a non-vegan product.

What did we enjoy most about Veganuary?
It was like learning a whole new approach to cooking, with a change of focus that I found refreshing.  Also, I enjoy making sauces, relishes and other condiments, and vegan cooking seemed full of these.  In the end they became pretty much essential for me.  With the help of some great recipe books, we were able to prepare some tasty and filling meals without the need for either meat or dairy products.

What did we enjoy least about Veganuary?
The checking of everything, to make sure that it was vegan was stressful, especially in the early stages.
Sometimes the limited options regarding eating out, and especially nipping up the road to the chippy or ordering a takeaway was frustrating.  Yes, it would probably have been possible to sort out something that was vegan, but we decided in the end that we would be better off preparing our meals at home.  That said, on the Monday after the end of Veganuary, I called in to an Indian takeaway and ordered a couple of vegetable based dishes cooked in oil rather than ghee and they were able to do that without any problems.

What were the biggest challenges?
Undoubtedly the biggest challenge was the constant checking of what food and drink was vegan and what wasn’t gave us both a real headache, especially at the outset, though it got easier after the first shopping trip.  We found Sainsbury’s to be particularly good at labelling of their vegan products.  Holland and Barrett and of course the Vegan Store just outside Birmingham City Centre were best for the lesser known ingredients.

What is our diet like now?
I’ve had some non-vegan food and drink in the past couple of weeks, but have not felt any great urge to return to eating meat or dairy products.  Our freezer has enough vegan food to keep us going for a while, and there are lots more recipes that I want to try out.
I still need to find vegan replacements to most meats and fish, followed by the veganising of non-vegan recipes, but I now have the flexibility to do this at my own pace.
Dining out remains a challenge, as I knew it would, but there are plenty of specialist eateries that I haven’t visited yet so I am looking forward to that.
Plant milk has almost completely replaced dairy milk, though we’re still looking for the best non-dairy milk to use in a good old cup of tea.  We’ve been having problems with it separating, but Almond milk seems to be working best at the moment.
I’d like to be able to give a more conclusive answer as to what my diet will be like in the future, but I still feel as though I am in transition.  There are places still to visit and recipes still to try.

Veganuary may be over but my involvement with vegan cooking isn’t.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Veganuary: Weeks Three and Four

Apologies for the delay in posting this update.

Many of the lunches and teas in the final two weeks of Veganuary consisted of leftovers from the first two weeks’ meals, and we still have a fairly full freezer now, so instead of just listing the contents of every single meal we had in weeks three and four, and risk too much repetition, I’ll just cover the new ones.

We cooked mainly from Lee Watson’s ‘Peace and Parsnips’ and Yotam Ottolenghi's 'Plenty More', both of which provided a wealth of great sounding recipes to try.  The latter is vegetarian rather than vegan, but our chosen recipes were converted without any problems.

The first, from ‘Plenty More’ was an Aubergine Pahi; a dish of Sri Lankan origin consisting of stewed aubergine, onion and peppers, spiced with vinegar, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.  It was packed with flavour and the dry roasted peanuts that we used for a garnish worked well with it.  As can be seen in the picture below, we served it on a home-made flatbread which I made with a mixture of white and Khorasan flours and flavoured with carom seeds.

The second wasn’t quite so successful.  We wanted to have a go at making a vegan burger, and were inspired by a feature on the Hareburger; a vegetarian burger sold on Ipanema beach.  It was made with soya mince, spices and eggs.  We used egg replacer instead of the eggs, but soon found out that it wasn't a replacement for holding burger patty mixtures together.  We pressed on though and managed to make an edible mixture in the size of a burger patty, but it was fragile in the extreme and didn’t withstand even the slightest pressure.  It tasted nice though and we will be trying it again with some different ingredients to bind the mixture together.  We served the burgers in home-made buns, with olives, marinated artichokes and a tomato cucumber and sweetcorn salsa.

The next featured meal was a vegan meze which consisted of a mixture of shop-bought and home-made dishes.  The main feature was a fantastic potato dish called Batata Harra.  This was another recipe from 'Plenty More' and was similar to patatas bravas but red peppers rather than tomatoes were mixed in with the potatoes, along with chilli flakes, coriander and lemon juice.  The rest of the meze was made up of broccoli with tahini sauce, falafels, tomato and cucumber salad and celery and carrot crudities with a selection of dips; olive oil and balsamic vinegar, hummus and red pepper and walnut dip.  There was plenty of this left over, so fed us amply for a tea and a couple of lunches afterwards. 

We mentioned Burns Night in our introductory post, and posed the question of whether or not it would be possible to prepare a vegan and teetotal Burns Supper.
I am pleased to say that yes, indeed we were able to pull it off in fine style, using a very good quality vegan haggis from Macsween.  Yes we could have had a go at making our own but we saw the ready-made one while we were gathering in our supplies ready for the start of Veganuary so decided to go for it.  We were delighted to discover that HP Sauce is vegan.  Not a traditional condiment for Burns Night but it goes seriously well with haggis.
Whisky would have been nice, but we substituted it with a nice glass of strongly spiced ginger drink.

After the heavy tea of haggis, neeps and tatties, it was time for something lighter for lunch the next day, so we turned again to ‘Plenty More’ and made up a fresh salad of apple, quinoa, celeriac, red onion and coriander in a vinaigrette dressing.  There were a couple of suggested servings for the salad; one with a garnish of walnuts and another with a wintry stew, but we served ours with flatbreads and hummus which worked equally well.

The final three recipes all came from ‘Peace and Parsnips’ and I am pleased to say that all of them were a pleasure to prepare and eat.

First up was a vegan take on Cauliflower cheese.  The ‘cheese’ sauce was made with ground cashews, turmeric and soya milk and while it was less pungent than dairy cheese, it still had plenty of flavour.

For the penultimate recipe we went for a vegan pissaladiere which used red peppers in place of anchovies.  We’d made a version of this before and enjoyed it, but this recipe also included a vegan version of parmesan cheese made from pine nuts, which was a great new discovery.  Although it was only used as a garnish it fitted into the category of little things that would be missed a lot if they weren’t about. 

The final recipe was a Mexican Pastor Pie, which was a vegan-style spiced shepherd’s pie.  It consisted of a layer of vegetables, spices and tofu beneath a topping of mashed potatoes and a final garnish of red peppers and coriander.  We didn’t scale down the quantities listed in the recipe, so were left with enough servings for several more meals.  The potato toppings made the dish quite a filling one, and the Pico de Gallo that we served alongside it added a bit of freshness to the heavier texture of the pie.

That was the final meal we prepared as part of our official Veganuary pledge.  We successfully followed a vegan diet for a whole month, but that's not the end of it.  We still plan to share our evaluation and thoughts for the future, but I've rambled on enough for now, so stay tuned for further updates…