Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Who Said Romance was Dead?

Whoever said that C and A are not romantic?  Not us.  Our 'romantic' dinner date (the first in a while) turned out to be somewhat unorthodox.  As it happened, we had quite a lot to celebrate; C had just won a big new contract and A had discovered that he wasn't quite as incompetent at his job as he had previously thought.

The plan was simple: go into the West End, have a nice dinner in a stylish establishment, meander around the docklands and head home.  We failed at all four.

Having struggled to come to an agreement on a type of cuisine, and A refusing the usual fallback of Italian, we ended up with our second fallback option and mutual fave, Middle Eastern.  After a not insignificant detour and blisters all round, we found ourselves dining off formica at Al Arez on the Edgware Road. As a brief aside, the gaudy website bears testimony to the decor, but not the quality of the food. It was all quite eventful: firstly A, who is often taken as having Middle Eastern heritage, was handed the Ramadan timetable (which he does not need) when he asked for the menu.  Then, the meal was unexpectedly interrupted by the Libyan Olympic Team Leader (proudly displaying his Official Lanyard), who had a loud altercation with the owner of the restaurant concerning the number of seats he felt appropriate for a man of his importance (in essence, he wanted an extra seat for his ego, times three).

Ramadan confusion finally cleared up
Nonetheless, the food itself was excellent - dare we say some of the best Lebanese we've had in a while. Our mezze was varied and flavoursome, with particular highlights including the baba ganoush, the lamb samboussek and the falafel, which A wolfed down after C had eaten her fill (the old problem of eyes and stomachs came up).  A also introduced C to labneh, a kind of curdled yoghurt spiced with sumac, herbs and olive oil, peculiar to Palestine, Israel and Lebanon - an unusual taste but incredibly moreish. If there was a down side (apart from the display of Libyan-Lebanese diplomatic relations), it was that there was rather too much olive oil on everything.  After finishing our mains, we were getting ready to leave when we were gifted a plate of baklava.  We like to think this is customary, but suspect it might have been on account of the Libyans. It was a nice touch all the same.  All in all though, Al Arez is a sound choice if you're on the Edgware Road and after somewhere authentic and pleasingly affordable. Too much food and a round of non-alcoholic drinks came in at £15 a head.

From Libya with love

Pity that the romantic dinner went down the tubes.

(We also apologise for the quality of the photos - it wasn't quite the sort of place to pull out the SLR)

Saturday, 28 July 2012

You Do Get Good Stuff in the Provinces

While C and I are Londoners to the core, we do get dragged away from the City from time to time. I was taken away from the hum of the City as two uni friends married this weekend at an idyllic spot in the Cotswolds.  On the way to the thirteenth century church I found myself with an hour to kill in Stroud. Despite my metropolitan prejudices, I was rather charmed by this little town on the edge of the West Country, and was particularly pleased to find out that it has an award-winning farmers market.

On a sunny Saturday, the market was teeming with people, locals and non-locals, noshing on the produce which comes from the local area. As I had time on my hands, I took the opportunity to sample some of the offerings and got chatting to some of the producers. One of the most unusual people I met was the owner and resident oenologogist of an English winery based in Malmesbury. The chap had excellent patter: he waxed lyrical about the health benefits of the odd glass of wine and could discuss the different varieties, climate and soil types of the area at length. In any event, his shtick was on the money and he convinced me to part with a few pounds for a bottle of the wonderfully named Noah's Ark, a blend of Bacchus, Schönburger and Seyval varietals. The wine is a pleasantly dry, works well as an aperitif and by the taste of it is best drunk young. If you see a bottle get hold of it while you can as there is unlikely to be a 2012 vintage. The exceptionally wet summer has apparently done for this summer's crop of grapes.

While C was not able to accompany me on escapade, she didn't come away empty handed. She is now the proud owner of an aromatic herby Wiltshire brie. It should feed her cheese addiction for all of half a day...
Wiltshire Brie (actual size)

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Bike and Wine in Mendoza

As I came to the end of my stint as a publisher, I took some time out to travel and rode around a good chunk of Latin America on the long distance buses.  It was an experience I will never forget, and the tales I have from the carretera could (and did) fill an entire notebook.  Alongside the amazing people that I met, the food on the trip was also something quite special.  Mendoza in particular was astonishing: it was here that I had some of the best culinary experiences of my life, which have left me with a love for yerba mate (about which I will almost certainly post at length another time), huge steaks and malbec.

Malbec is an interesting variety of grape. Originally a French variety, it never achieved real popularity in the Old World (although you do find it in some French wines such as Cahors).  By contrast, it is immensely popular in Argentina: it's more or less the national grape and the high altitude vineyards near Mendoza produce some of the best wines in the whole of the Americas. Best drunk young within a few years of bottling, these light, ruby coloured reds make a great accompaniment to an English summer meal, or to a classic Argentine asado.

The Wine Cellars
The typical way for backpackers to experience Mendoza wine is to rent bikes and pedal around the local wineries, stopping for tours and tastings along the route.  Being a keen cyclist, I was interested to explore this particular option but as I am the last of the great drinkers, I barely made it beyond the first stop at the Bodega Di Tommaso. The winery is a splendid nineteenth century place which offers tasting sessions in English and Castilian.  Still run by members of the same family who set the place up in 1869, they produce a small number of excellent, and award winning, wines which rarely leave the country.  Beyond the domestic market, a few hundred bottles are shipped to Michigan every year and that's about it.

Though I am an unapologetic fan of malbec generally (as I am with some other rather unpopular grapes such as riesling), these wines really are a treat: fruity, light and silky smooth.  Even the cheap Di Tommaso wine is rather drinkable, and disappears down the hatch rather more rapidly than you expect.  The better bottles such as the higher end Crianza and Roble Premium are pretty complex offerings given how young you drink them.  You don't just have to take my word for it: I did the tour with a Frenchman and a German from the Rheinhessen wine region. In keeping with local tradition, neither really had been exposed to much New World wine, but they were rather impressed by what was on offer.  Whether this was to do with the fact that the wines pack some punch at 13-14% ABV I will never know...

A Frenchman discovers that it's not always about Old World Wines

If you ever see a bottle of Di Tommaso's stuff on sale, snap it up as it really is excellent. In the UK though, you are more likely to see bottles from the bigger wineries in the region such as Norton or Terrazas, which are well worth trying out if you've never sampled malbec before.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Best Blowfish and Other Stories

C had never been to Borough Market and A lives around the corner, so he took the opportunity to take her down and we had a practice taking photos of some of the foodstuffs on sale.  Here are a few of the best results...

Fish Stalls:

Cheese Stalls (C's addiction was sated for a time):

Sweeties (both A and C have a vociferous inner child):

A used to live in Germany and couldn't resist this wickedly Teutonic offering:

Friday, 13 July 2012


Want to read a little more about C and her work as a freelance writer and social media type?
Read below...