Friday, 31 August 2012

Yerba Mate

About a month ago I promised to write a post on yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay): one of the things I developed a serious love for while I was in Argentina.  This mildly caffeinated, tea-like drink is popular all over the Southern Cone and has become a bit of an institution when A and C have friends over.

Traditional Mate Kettle, Calabaza and Bombilla in Patagonia
There is a whole ritual surrounding the drinking of the stuff, particularly in the River Plate region (Uruguay and Argentina): in Buenos Aires and Montevideo you always see folks carrying their little flasks around, drinking their mate and chilling out in the sun. The traditional cimarrón preparation involves half filling a gourd with yerba, adding hot but not boiling water incrementally over several refills and drinking out of a filtered metal straw called a bombilla.  The gourds themselves can be works of art, with traditional ones being made of calabaza (pumpkin) skins which are sometimes intricately carved. There is also a social aspect to the drink as you share the gourd and bombilla with your friends.  The finer points of mate etiquette are too complex to go into, but almost every aspect is regulated, from sucking the gourd dry to which direction you pass it around in.

The flavour is something of an acquired taste. It has something of green tea about it mixed with a smokey flavour similar to a good Cuban cigar.  While many norteños go to the Southern Cone, try mate and don't like it, weeks of travel with an Argentine hardened me to the flavour and it's now one of my favourite things to drink, competing even with coffee (for which I have some serious love).  One of the best aspects is that the drink is not too strong on stimulants and the 'lift' isn't followed by a 'crash' in quite the same way as coffee; whether this is to do with the stimulant itself or the prolonged method of drinking mate, I don't know, but it helps me concentrate of an afternoon if needs be.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Real Men (and C) Eat Pizza

C and A like any excuse for a meal out and yesterday provided a perfect opportunity: A had just received good news from work and took the chance to drag C out.  After assessing a couple of wildly named options around Clerkenwell, we plumped for a place which had piqued our interest before, but which we'd not yet tried out.  Along the Clerkenwell Road, between all the media types' offices, is the Real Man Pizza Company (a warning about the link: if you use it, turn your speakers down. When you open it, nu-metal blares out at top volume). The place is a curious blend of Manx and Italian influences which seemed too inventive a local not to write about.

Traditional Manx fare
The idea of The Real Man Pizza Company is to take simple fresh ingredients from the Isle of Man and Italy and to create a welcoming trattoria mixing the two cuisines.  The result is quite inventive: scallops or British chillis on pizzas, Isle of Man queenies and crabs with linguine and lots of Isle of Man beers.  As we understand it, the place takes freshness pretty seriously, making their pasta daily on site. The decor on the inside is plain but sleek, with wooden benches and bright clean lines making for a pleasant communal atmosphere. The maitre d', a flamboyant gentleman with an impossibly strong Italian accent, adds considerably to the atmosphere too.

The object of C's food envy

Not knowing about the pasta when we ordered, we both went for pizzas. Both of us are believers that simpler is better with Italian food: being able to do the basics well is a good measure of an Italian restaurant. With that in mind, A opted for a calzone and C for a margarita made with mozzarella di bufala.

C's choice: cheese geometry

In all, the food was good, although not stellar. As usual, A polished off his pizza in record time but found the Calzone to be a touch light on the cheese.  While it was clear from the consistency that the sauce was made up fresh on site, the sweetness in the tomatoes was almost overpowering and the pizza was generally a little light on the herbs and seasoning.   C was unable to finish her pizza but had good things to say: the sweetness of the tomato sauce was complemented by the basil and the richness of the buffalo cheese in what was a very balanced dish.  We cannot comment on either starters or desserts as we were not hungry enough for either, but there are some tempting things on the menu in this respect. We were particularly interested in the chocolate pizza, which sounded very cool and comes in 7"and 11" sizes (the latter being for the really hardcore chocoholics - even C, in her quest for The Best Chocolate in the World, couldn't face it).

To wrap up, the Real Man Pizza Company is certainly a novel experience; after all, it's not every day that you see Manx and Italian fusion food. Whether it quite works is another matter - it's rather too clearly geared towards London's hipster and creative community -  but the joint is certainly worth a look and represents good value for money.  If you are serious about your Italian food, however, this place is possibly not for you. If you know your eats in Clerkenwell there are better options out there - our favourite Italian joint is only a stones throw away.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Middle Eastern Book Club

In that uniquely English way, A is a member of a book club and recently it was A's turn to host.  After deliberation about menu choices, A plumped for what was essentially a Middle Eastern lunch: home-made hummus, tabouleh, spiced lentil salad and some baked marinaded chicken served with laffa bread.

Lentils and laffah
A has been making these sorts of foods for as long as he can remember.  While A usually cooks by numbers, measuring everything out obsessively to the last gram, he made pretty much everything up to taste this time. C commented that his hummus and tabouleh were too good keep to himself so here is a brief exposition of the methods used to make them.

Hummus in the making (not enough oil here)

For the hummus, start with a pile of lemons, a few cloves of crushed garlic, a bottle of olive oil, a jar of light tahini, a can of chickpeas and a blender. Put the chickpeas in the blender and start whizzing, adding everything else to taste. When it comes to hummus production, there are two basic rules: be sparing with the tahini and be generous with the oil.  Too much tahini makes the hummus bitter, whereas too little oil makes the texture sandy and dry.  Once happy with the consistency and flavour, garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of cumin powder and a few whole chickpeas (though this time A forgot to keep any back).

The finished hummus
Tabouleh is equally simple: take some cooked couscous, Israeli cousous or bulgur wheat and add several handfuls of rough chopped parsley, zataar (a kind of middle eastern spice blend fairly widely available - A gets his in a Polish supermarket near his parents' place in north London), sumac (this is quite easy to find - for example Bart Spices sell some and it should be available in any large supermarket), a few chili flakes (optional - A believes that a little mild chili is a flavour enhancer), olive oil, salt and pepper.  Some people like lots of parsley, but A doesn't like hunting around for the grain.  The only subtle bit is getting the balance of the spices right: you can be quite liberal with zataar but overdo the sumac and the tabouleh becomes rather too tart; underdo it, and the salad won't have that authentic Middle Eastern tang.

Hummus and Tabouleh

The real trick is to play around, keep tasting and enjoy the process. Get your hands dirty too: oil, parsley and spices feel rather pleasant between your fingers.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Corpus Christi in Cuenca

Along with the Bike and Wine in Mendoza, the other major culinary experience of my trip was in Cuenca in Ecuador which during Corpus Christi becomes a delight for those who like street parties.  While Corpus Christi is celebrated all over Catholic South America, Cuenca goes all out: people spill into the streets, making the most of the cool winter afternoons and thronging through the squares and alleys of the area around the Plaza de Armas.

Cuenca's cathedral: a World Heritage Sight

The attractions of this time of year are threefold. First, this is primarily a religious festival which celebrates the solemnity of the blood and body of Christ.  Ecuador is a Catholic country and this festival is taken seriously: the sky blue cathedral is full to bursting on every day of the week long celebration.

Sweets and cookies (no additives here)

Second, people come for the food: if you have a sweet tooth, Cuenca becomes a dangerous place.  The streets of the old town are lined with stalls selling sweets and pastries for the entire week.   For a Brit, used to monochrome (and relative lack of food colouring) the place is a kaleidoscope.  I spent the entire week eating my way through the pastries.

Ecuadorian doughnuts (with added wasp protein)

Latin Churros (unlike in Spain, they come filled with dulce de leche)

The final thing people come to see is the fireworks.  Each evening, the locals build towers of scaffolding on the plaza de armas. These scaffolds are covered in fireworks, which are fired off after mass.  At points this can become quite extreme: for example, one night the locals brought out the 'vaca loca' (mad cow). This papier maché cow helmet comes with two cannons, one in each horn.  The costume is one by a man, his friends load rockets into the horns, and the wearer lets the fireworks off into the crowd.  Sadly I have no photos of these nocturnal japes, but it was too dangerous to take the SLR out: nighttime crowds and ordinance are a heady cocktail and Ecuador can be rough in places.

A local, just chillin'

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Forget Love, I'd Rather Fall in Chocolate!

It’s no secret that C, being afflicted with an insatiable sweet tooth, is a massive chocoholic. Her fascination started with Dairy Milk chocolate buttons as a child, developed into a teenage obsession with Lindt chocolate that’s never quite gone away, and has since matured into a passion for discovering as many different kinds of chocolate as possible in her 20s. 

Her commitment to seeking out The Best Chocolate In The World is, it has to be said, admirably tireless; and so it was with this dedication (and an innately greedy disposition) that C took it upon herself to visit The Chocolate Festival recently.

Following unconventional 'romantic' dinner date with A the week before, C begins to rethink her outlook on life

Rococo organic drinking chocolate - highly recommended by C

Setting up camp on London’s Southbank Centre over a few days, the festival is a celebration of chocolate in all its glorious forms – rows and rows of stalls are stocked with truffles, pralines, cakes, biscuits, whoopie pies, macaroons, chocolate fountains, shortbreads, lollies, cakepops, bars, buttons, slices hot chocolates and more, in an uncanny resemblance to C’s conception of heaven.  

What’s evident after spending just five minutes here is that there’s certainly more to chocolate than simple slabs of the stuff – but if you’re after that you can get it here too, in large quantities and in every conceivable flavour. 
Old favourites like orange or mint sit alongside up-and-coming choices like milk chocolate and rose or dark chocolate and chili, while rarer varieties like white chocolate and cardamom, pear and anise and banana and passionfruit fly the flag for the more interesting offerings – albeit reserved for us rather more hardcore chocaholics.

C’s preference was, somewhat predictably, chocolate and lemon truffles (along with the sweet tooth, she has a conflicting but similarly incorrigible obsession with anything lemon). The 70% Peruvian dark chocolate and sour lemon worked perfectly and was melt-in-the-mouth good - a sign of high quality chocolate. At £25 per box, though, it was sadly a little out of the average shopper's price range.
Childhood favourites, updated
Divine chocolate brownies
Some unusual chocolate flavour combinations
It’s not all just about eating at The Chocolate Festival, though; there’s a lot of looking to do, too. Noted chocolate industry royalty such as William Curley, Damian Allsop and Paul Wayne Gregory run masterclasses and exhibitions (the latter chocolatier’s being particularly good, displaying of seriously impressive chocolate artistry with a 3ft chocolate steam train that almost looked too good to eat).
And as for C’s illustrious hunt for The Best Chocolate In The World? It was here that she first discovered Original Beans, an organisation which not only provides one of the widest and best organic ranges of chocolate she’s ever sampled but is also wholeheartedly dedicated to cacao tree and forest conservation. More to follow in an upcoming post – but suffice it to say that, after years of searching, it’s a real contender for the coveted title...



Thursday, 2 August 2012

You do Get Good Stuff in the Provinces (Part II)

As mentioned in a previous post, A ventured out of London and into the Gloucestershire countryside recently for the weekend (an impressive feat for someone who thinks anywhere south of the M25 is France and anywhere west the Atlantic Ocean). Overcoming his London city boy preconceptions, A found himself completely charmed by the West Country - helped, he confessed, by his discovery of an award-winning farmer's market in the town where he stayed.

A was charmed by the food and wine on offer that he decided to bring C back some highlights to sample herself: she was very kindly gifted with a bottle of English counties regional wine and some herb-infused Wiltshire brie. (There was originally talk of some home-baked cookies for C too, but A - with his well-concealed but voracious sweet tooth - failed to mention these again, leading C to the assumption that they were scoffed on the journey back...)

After an uninspired but pleasant meal at a chain the other night, then, we came home for a cheese and wine-themed dessert courtesy of the West Country. C took the chance to mess around with macro lenses and mood lighting and took a few pics - the brie lent itself particularly well to this style of photography, although it didn't look this perfectly complete for too long once she'd had a first try!

With her cheese addiction sated for another week (or, more realistically, day), C decided that the cheese and wine were both too good not to write a few words about. With all the creaminess, soft texture and hard rind that a brie should have, the added flavours of the herbs infused throughout was incredibly moreish.

The wine was also very palatable; fairly dry and with a bit of a tang, it had an almost musty aftertaste - which was a lot more appealing than it sounds. Albeit not the best bottle of wine that A and C had ever tasted, it was imminently drinkable and very enjoyable - especially accompanied with the herb-infused brie. C, who much to A's despair always factors the design of wine bottles' labels into her overall judgement, was also particularly pleased with this offering, featuring a sketch of the market cross at Malmesbury:


All in all, both gifts provided A and C with a very pleasant cheese and wine evening, and a refreshing twist on the more standard bries and white wines you'll usually find here in London. You do get good stuff in the provinces, after all...