Monday, 12 December 2011

Bacon and Sage Wrapped Pheasant with Delicious Roast Veg

A Student's Christmas Dinner

This is a properly student friendly Christmas dinner. That is to say, it's not a traditional Christmas dinner; not the whole nine yards. No, your mum will be cooking that for you on the 25th. But why not have a simple alternative with your flat mates to celebrate the end of the deadline rush and the close of yet another (or maybe your first) splendid term at university?

I've swapped Turkey for a smaller, but equally – if not more – delicious bird here: Pheasant. Pheasants are in abundance at this time of year; it'sthe height of the game season, so you shouldn't have to pay more than a fiver for the whole thing. The roast vegetables recipe is pretty much fool proof and is one that I've used again and again since I first learnt it. Gently roast, crispy skinned, melt-in-the-mouth in the middle, and beautifully aromatic from the rosemary, these veggies are almost as indulgent as chocolate. Almost.

Finally, all of this happens in one dish, and once in the oven you simply have to wait for it to roast, so it really is quite stress free.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Buy Tomorrow's Telegraph!

Here's a little story from my sister-blog on tomorrow's delicious Christmas Food and Drink special supplement, free with the Daily Telegraph:

Do go and buy yourself a copy, and let me know what you think of the article!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Good Artist

Matthew Ecclestone, or 'The Cake' as he is known amongst his close associates, has been a pal of mine for almost 10 years now. He is currently studying fine art at undergraduate level, but as it turns out he can wield a whisk just as well as the brush. We both love food and cooking, so I thought why not have him do a recipe for this humble blog here? It would save me the work too, I thought. As it turned out, I had to do all the writing, photos and editing, so it didn't save me too much in the end. But writing and photos is what blogging is all about, right?

Anyway, rather than baking a cake, The Cake decided to make an adaptation of Simon Hopkinson's Baked pappardelle with pancetta and porcini from The Good Cook. All initial guilt at making Matt cook whilst I stood around watching and taking pictures et cetera was instantly forgotten the second I sunk my teeth into this luxuriously indulgent dish. Deeply golden baked cheese gently cloaks a world of velvety, creamy pasta, earthy, rich porcini mushrooms, and salty bacon. I salivate as I write.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Bodum Travel Press Review

Whilst on work experience with Dominic and Rose Prince recently, I was struck by the power people such as these can have. Rose, you see, writes a weekly column for the Telegraph called Tried and Tested, in which different food and kitchenware products are tested and written about. For this week, she was writing about drink warmers and flasks. She asked me to have a browse of the world wide web and see what I could find in the way of useful/innovative/functional drinks warmers, which I did.

One of the ones I found was the Bodum Coffee Travel Press. Rose thought it was good, so I called Bodum's press people, explained what we were doing, and that was it. The next very day, sent by courier and at absolutely no cost, said Travel Press arrived at the Prince household. Just like that. £27 worth of kit arriving next day for nowt.

Come the end of the day, Rose offered me the Bodum to take home and test, which I happily did. The following is the result of that very test.

The Concept

The concept of the Bodum Travel Press is simple but ingenious. It's a flask and a cafetiere at once, so the idea is that you can brew fresh coffee (and tea) whilst out and about, meaning you'll never again have to suffer the perils of instant coffee in a flask when on the go. It also comes with a free extra lid without a press, meaning you can use it as an ordinary flask.

The Design

The Travel Press is certainly something for the eye to behold. The shiny stainless steel body will hold 350ml liquid (about 1 ½ mugs worth) and is finished with an eye-catching rubber grip, available in six different colours and emblazoned with the sleek Bodum logo. The lid comes in a matching colour too. I cannot lie, I did feel pretty cool sitting on the 170 towards Victoria with my bright red and stainless steel Bodum.

The Performance

So far so good. Unfortunately though, this is where things start to go downhill a bit. You see, the concept of brewing fresh coffee or tea on the go is great, but in practise, unless you like your morning caffeine kick black and sugarless, it doesn't really work. Once you have pushed the plunger down, there is a tiny hole through which you must tip your milk/cream and sugar. Doing this on a stationary surface requires a sniper's accuracy in itself, let alone when in a car, train or bus. And of course, unless you wait until you are at your destination, this design also means that you would have to bring milk and sugar with you in your bag/glove box, which is slightly less than convenient. 

Finally, once you have added your 'condiments' (for want of a better word) how do you mix them (as you cannot stir)? Shake the Bodum, I fear, is the only answer. Do it gently though; I discovered, at the cost of a magazine and the cleanliness of my bag, that the lid is not watertight and will leak if turned on its side.

It seemed to me that the best way to use this flask is to brew fresh coffee in a cafetiere at home, add your milk and sugar there, and then just use the normal lid. But that kind of defeats the object, doesn't it?

The Verdict

A fantastic concept that sadly falls short of glory, unless you like your tea and coffee black and sugarless. It still looks great and works well as a normal flask though, but the leak is unforgivable.


Saturday, 10 September 2011

Crab and Chilli Linguine

The first time I tried this dish was at the Lugger restaurant in the cosy fishing village of Porthleven in Cornwall. It was an instant hit, and so, a year later, I went about recreating it in my own home, purely by guessing the ingredients and their quantities that this rich and creamy pasta dish necessitates. Obviously, then, this version isn't identical to the one I tried at said Lugger, but I think that's all part of the fun. It's really easy and quick, is cheap, and tastes (nearly) as good as the original. I urge you to give it a go.

Time: 25 mins (You can do it in 20 or less though)
Cost: £1.25 per person (approx)
Serves: 2


- 210g linguine
- 1 x 43g dressed crab meat
- 1 red chilli
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 lemon
- 100ml single cream
- A sploosh white wine (your choice, I used Echo Valley California Chardonnay)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Chopped parsley


1) First of all get a pan of about a litre of salted water on the boil. Be generous with the salt. Put a deep frying pan/wok on a medium heat.

2) Peel and slice the garlic gloves. If, like me, you don't like it too hot, cut the chilli lengthways and remove the top, then get rid of the seeds. Leave them if you do have a preference for extra heat. Chop the chilli small.

3) Once the water is boiling, add the linguine to the saucepan. Add a lug (about 1-2 tbsp) of olive oil to the wok, and chuck in the garlic and chilli.

4) Once the garlic is turning golden, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the wok, then add the crab meat and mix it in. Add a good sploosh (65ml-ish?) of white wine and then stir in the cream.

5) Once the linguine is cooked, or preferably very nearly cooked, remove from the heat, drain most of the cooking water (reserving a couple of splashes or more) and then add to the wok, with the reserved cooking water.

6) Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix everything together thoroughly.

7) Serve with a salad, or on its own. Garnish with some chopped fresh or dried parsley and a further drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Indulge.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Porthleven, Cornwall

A guide to one of Cornwall's quaintest fishing villages

Cornwall has long been a popular destination for British holiday makers and it is easy to see why. Simply put, it is because Cornwall is its own country; it doesn't really feel British. It's like someone has got a slice of the Mediterranean and dumped it unceremoniously on the corner of Britain that faces the Atlantic Ocean. With white-washed cottages, yucca trees, sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, it is easily passable as part of the Med and clear that it is no accident that this corner of the Blighty is facing, and closest to, the Caribbean. Cornwall even has a flag and its own language, if you really need any further evidence of its independence.

Recently I found myself spending a week in the cosy cove of Porthleven, near Helston, and had quite an unexpected fill of foodie delights. Here follows a small guide to said treasures that can be found in and around Porthleven.

The Corner Deli

This little deli, located in Fore Street, is a foodie's delight, offering everything from jams, pickles, chutneys, olives, teas, artisan cheeses, oils and much, much more within its confined walls. You can also get a cuppa tea or coffee whilst you're there, and it even boasts a wood-fired oven, which is responsible for cooking their extensive menu of reasonably priced pizzas. The intoxicating smell of wood smoke as you go for an evening stroll will get you eventually, and when it does you'll find yourself eating the most delicious and authentic Italian-style pizzas. The real McCoy. The staff are friendly and helpful too.

Yarg Cheese

Yarg is an artisan Cornish cheese from Lynher Dairies. The deli offered two varieties: Garlic Yarg and the traditional Nettle Yarg (the cheese is wrapped in nettle leaves). I opted for the traditional. The flavour was mild, milky and creamy, like a Wensleydale but slightly less crumbly. It also had a slight but distinct grassy/floral/meadow flavour which was accentuated by the nettles. Yum.

Quayside Fishmongers

The Quayside Fishmongers on Fore Street sell more than just fish, but the fish is what we came for. The fish is freshly caught by boats that bring it into Porthleven harbour, so the produce has virtually no road miles on it. When we were there they had a special offer on Mackerel (Hugh would be pleased!) at £4.98 per kilo, but it was the salmon which I was after, which was a more expensive £17.50 per kilo. The beautiful fish was filleted in front of us by the friendly and helpful staff, and tasted simply sublime. And that's an understatement.

The Lugger

Restaurant prices in Porthleven are around the same as London prices, but then I guess they have to make the most of the tourist season. The Lugger offers a largely seafood orientated menu, with a few meat and one vegetarian option (but who honestly comes to Cornwall to eat chicken anyway?).

Water was freely given with the wine when asked for, and a basket of fresh white bread and butter was given too. The wine was nice (I'm no connoisseur, evidently) but it was rather warm. I ordered a crab ravioli starter (£5.50), which consisted of hand-picked Porthleven crab in hand-made ravioli with a citrus butter and tomato salsa. For mains I had brill with a red wine and wild mushroom sauce served with Cornish new potatoes (£15.00). The brill was well cooked, though a little bland. The red wine sauce was tasty despite its watery consistency. Neither of the two courses were as good as the crab and chilli linguine which I had here last year, which was spectacularly delicious (£13.75). My friends seemed very pleased with their battered line-caught pollock, home-made chips and tartare sauce, which was great value at £10.50.

Wooden Hand Brewery – Cornish Buccaneer and Mutiny

The Cornish town of Truro is responsible for the Wooden Hand Brewery, whose beers I bought from that Corner Deli. The Cornish Mutiny was a cloudy, deep sunburnt orange/rusty brown colour, which was reflected in the rich malty flavour, though none too harsh or bitter. It was fairly similar to some dark Belgian beers I've tried (chiefly, Grimbergen) and thus less distinctive than its brother, the less-aggressively titled Buccaneer. This was lighter in colour, though still characterised by a beautiful deep golden hue. Fruity, crisp, bitter-sweet and refreshing, it was delicious. £2.30/500ml.

The Horse and Jockey Bakery

You'd be forgiven for thinking, when entering the bakery and encountering its incredibly sparse/non-existent interior, that either you'd stepped back a few decades, or the produce might be of dubious quality. Either way, you'd be wrong. The fresh bread and rolls were amazing, and the confectionery and pastries were mammoth in size and luscious in flavour. There's a huge variety of Cornish Pasties to be had too. We went for the traditional one, which again was an epic portion that easily served as a whole meal.

1 Commercial Road, Helston, Cornwall TR13 9JD
01326 562324

The Harbour Inn

If you want to soak up the vibes on a warm summer's evening, this is the place to go. Sit out on the harbour-side benches with a refreshing pint and simply lap up the pleasant buzz that only a place like this can provide.

That Cove

Finally, if you walk past the Ship Inn, and carry on that road, you'll find a path leading to Rinsey Head. Follow the path for a couple of minutes, and, by a memorial, there are some shady steps leading down to a beautiful and peaceful little cove. A great place simply to sit and think, and enjoy your surroundings. Even better, have a BBQ there and watch the sun set. Belissimo. Just keep an eye on the tide.

This little guide is in no way exhaustive: there are plenty of other restaurants and pubs in Porthleven, as well as another bakery, another deli, a market and a fishing trip that have all yet to be tried. This is just a sample of what I was fortunate enough to enjoy.

The 'Greek' pizza from the Corner Deli - fantabulous.

Only in Cornwall would you find a crab Drive-Thru...

The path towards 'that cove'. Bliss.

Have you been to Porthleven? Did you find this guide helpful or informative at all? Thoughts? Let me know!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Simply Roasted Veg with Spiced Couscous

I know. Unbelievable, isn't it? After seemingly many months and innumerable paragraphs of ludicrous stories and half-baked opinions, I'm finally posting a solitary recipe, with not an anecdote in sight. The only thing I have to say about this one is that it is ridiculously – almost stupidly – simple. It's not going to win anyone any Michelin Stars, but is just perfect for after a hard day's work (yes, even students encounter those at times) or when you simply can't be bothered to put much effort in. What's more, it tastes rather good and is really quite healthy to boot. Bravo!

Serves: 2
Time: 20 mins prep, 20 in the oven.
Cost: £1.93 each (approx)


- 2 onions
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 peppers (I used one of each colour, which looked very bright and cheery!)
- 4 tomatoes
- 120g couscous
- Spices of choice (I used ground cumin, cinnamon & chilli flakes)
- Salt, pepper and olive oil (best quality, if possible)


1) Pre-heat your oven to 200oC. Peel the garlic cloves and chop them in half. Peel the onions, quarter them, and then pull the quarters in half (pulling the inner layers away from the outers with your hands).

2) Chop the peppers into largish chunks, discarding the central stem and seeds.

3) Halve the tomatoes.

4) Put all the veg into a roasting tin, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt, pepper and herbs if you wish. Put it in the oven for 20 mins.

5) About 7 minutes before the veg are done, put the couscous in a small (cereal sized) bowl and put a kettle on the boil. Once boiled, pour the water over the couscous so it just covers it, and then cover the bowl with clingfilm.

6) After 5 mins or so, uncover the couscous and and season with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and the spices to taste (no more than a teaspoon of the spices should suffice). Mix the seasonings in with a fork.

7) Plate everything up (remove the garlic before consumption, if you wish)!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Taste of London - 16/06/11

Probably the only time you'll ever get Michelin starred food for a fiver and served on a paper plate...

I will confess now that I got off to a bad start. It was pouring with rain, I was very tired, and feeling under the (poor) weather. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the comfort and warmth of my flat. But the tickets had been paid for, so I wasn't about to waste the £25 entry fee. My initial views of the Taste of London Festival, therefore, may be a little jaded, and for that reason I will abandon any futile attempts at objectivity (something that doesn't really exist anyway) from the off.

When I first arrived at a rainy Regents Park, I discovered that my fears were correct. When browsing the Taste of London website, I had a strange, sneaking suspicion, that the main clientèle could end up being, well, a little oiky. It was just a thought, but amazing as it sounded, the idea of Michelin star restaurants, Pimms, plenty of champagne bars, and ridiculously priced VIP tickets seemed to smell of certain income brackets. And so there I was, standing in the rain bitterly observing the yummy-mummy, bleached-blonde, wannabe-wags, with their Burberry umbrellas and Louis Vuitton handbags, who'd no doubt borrowed their husband's Range Rovers (Vogue edition) to get here, and paid for their shiny VIP tickets with said husbands' much abused credit cards.

Enough grumpy cynicism. After a while the rain stopped and the sun emerged, and I started to enjoy myself. There were hundreds of tents, stalls and gazebos, with everything from bars and small producers, to cookery schools and of course the great restaurants themselves. Pleasant live music in the form of local Jazz bands were playing too, giving the event a fête-like atmosphere. Jazz bands, local produce, white gazebo's and rain sodden grass – how much more typically British and fête-like could it get?

Anyway, in order to not turn this report into a thesis, and in a bid to retain some legibility, I shall proceed to publish here my notes of the foods I tried from the various restaurants, and whether or not they lived up to expectations:

Le Gavroche

Dish: Ballotine of chicken, pickled mushrooms and truffle dressing.

Nice, garlic-y, prominent truffle flavour but really nothing amazing. I was expecting some kind of epiphany having heard the way people talk about Le Gavroche, but was a little disappointed. It was a nice surprise, though, to walk to into the gazebo and find myself face to face with Monsieur Roux Jr himself! Not as scary as he is portrayed on MasterChef.

Rating: 3/5

Club Gascon

Dish: Black salmon and celeriac remoulade

The salmon was unbelievably soft, but the flavour was so delicate that is was almost non-existent – especially when paired with the bitter celeriac remoulade. It was nice though, and a generous portion too.

Rating: 3.6/5


Dish: Burrata D'Andria and smoked purple aubergines
I had been quite excited about this one. The burrata (a creamy mozzarella) was tasty, and its creaminess was complimented brilliantly when paired with the sweet chutney. The other part was a bit strange, perhaps too cold, but nice when mixed with the rest.

Rating: 3.6/5

Asia De Cuba

Dish: Mexican doughnuts – sweet brioche doughnuts, rolled in cinnamon sugar and filled with butterscotch sauce, served with a mojito sorbet

The dish description sounded tempting and proved to live up to expectations. This was the second best portion of food I had this day. The miniature doughnut balls were warm, sugary and lightly spiced with cinnamon whilst the mojito sorbet was deliciously refreshing. They both worked together surprisingly well to create a tasty, comforting and refreshing dessert. The woman who served me kindly turned a blind eye to the fact that I was two crowns (Taste currency, value £1) short too.

Rating: 4.7/5

Kai Mayfair

Dish: Barbequed Soy and Honey Marinated Lamb – Spiced with shallots, garlic and coriander.

This Michelin starred Chinese restaurant definitely served the best dish of the day. The lamb was succulent and tender, and almost as soft as a marshmallow. When accompanied with the sauce, the flavour was simply outstanding. It was the one dish that made me make a mental note to definitely go and visit their restaurant in the near future. Their luminous green wasabi prawn dish was something of a sight to behold too.

Rating: 4.9/5

A few snaps...

Michel Roux Jr and one of his fans

Kai's incredible wasabi prawns. Has to be seen to be believed!

Tom Aikens & Jay Rayner in the AEG Taste Theatre

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The MasterChef Cook School Experience (feat. Video & Recipe)


Today I made mayonnaise for the first time. Nothing special about that. It was a Miso Mayonnaise, though. Still not exactly headline worthy. What was unique about this though, was the fact that it was made in front of a good two hundred blood-thirsty spectators at the BBC Good Food Show Summer.

The fact that it was my first attempt must have shown, too. “Jason doesn't look like the sort of person who's made a mayonnaise before,” said the Cook School host, Andi Peters, in a somewhat patronizing tone. “You have had mayonnaise before though, right? Does yours usually have a Hellmann's sticker on it though?”

“More like Sainsbury's Basics,” I (truthfully) replied.

When looking at the GFS timetable back in early May, I decided that I wanted to do the MasterChef Cook School as it sounded like a potentially good experience. I was split between booking it with my old man-crush, Dhruv, or with the 2011 champion, Tim Anderson. In the end I picked Tim, as I liked his wacky, 'mad professor', and optimistic approach.

It seemed like a great idea at the time, but by the time I was hurrying towards the MasterChef Experience theatre on Wednesday morning, feeling flustered and a little unwell, I wasn't so sure anymore. As I approached, through one of the great, crowded hangars that constitute the NEC, I realised that the small niggling fear in the back of my mind was indeed correct; I would be cooking on the MC Experience stage in front of a large crowd. Great.

The blood-thirsty crowd watched hungrily.

Upon entering the 'back stage' room I was warmly welcomed and offered free cakes, quiche and drink (all courtesy of Sainsbury's), though I was none too hungry at this stage. There were only three other participants present (including one with a broken arm), all who seemed notably more relaxed than me. “This is the recipe we're doing,” announced a middle-aged Mancunian in a stripy polo shirt. I glanced over his shoulder at the GFS Recipe Collection & Guide 2011 to see a recipe for rainbow trout with steamed vegetables, daikon julienne, miso mayonnaise, and a ponzu beurre noisette. It consisted of 24 ingredients. I gulped, now even less comfortable than before, and dashed out to get my own copy of the recipe for a bit of last minute revision.

After what seemed like an age, Tim was introduced and interviewed (see the video below), and then Andi Peters asked the crowd to give a warm welcome to the cookery students. Hearing the muffled voices and clapping from the backstage room, and then walking out onto the brightly lit stage, I felt like something from Gladiator – a bizarre and humorous thought considering the reality that I had simply paid to cook some fish on a stage.

Last year's MC Champ, Dhruv.

The good news was that we each had an assistant, a catering college student who would prove to be invaluable (I am much indebted to that girl!). The bad news was that we only had half an hour, and I am a very slow cook at the best of times. I'm also a messy cook, and the work surface looked a state before I had even started thanks to all the ingredients and equipment.

Fortunately, the cooking went reasonably well. It was a bit of a struggle as I had to try and keep up with Tim, which meant turning round to see what he was doing and listening to what he was saying whilst trying to cook the recipe at the same time. My chopping was all over the place, I managed to knock a pot and some spoons onto the floor, and my 'steamed' vegetables were somewhat charred, but we got there in the end; getting the ingredients plated in the nick of time – in true MasterChef style.

Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment I forgot to photograph my plate, but I certainly enjoyed eating it. The fish, miso mayo and the beurre noisette were particularly delicious.

Overall then, it was a very worthwhile experience. Not only did you get the experience of cooking one of Tim's dishes alongside him, but you also got to enjoy eating it – a dish that would have cost a fair whack at a restaurant. You also got to keep the MasterChef apron and towel as well. Considering the aprons were being sold for £15 each, the fact that the whole affair only cost £20 makes it very good value for money and truly worthwhile. It definitely goes down as one of the cooking highlights of my life.

Oh, and as an added bonus, Andi Peters gave me a bottle of Sainsbury's Basics washing up liquid as a result of my basics joke. How touching!

Oh, and here's a little video I put together from the show featuring an interview with Tim. Hope you like it!:

BBC Good Food Show Summer 2011 feat. Tim Anderson Interview from Jason Wain on Vimeo. (Thanks to Jannic for the Fraiche Food jingle!)

Pan-Fried Trout with Miso Mayonnaise, Steamed Vegetables and a Ponzu Beurre Noisette

It has been far too long since I last posted a recipe, so I thought it would be nice to do a somewhat simplified, slightly more accessible version of Tim's recipe here. Admittedly, when making this at home, I managed to make a fair amount of mess and also burned the fish whilst pan-frying – unforgivable I know!

Serves: 2
Time: 1 hour?
Cost: £3.10 per serving (approx)


2 trout fillets (approx 100 – 200g)
20g butter
1 ½ tsp vegetable oil (or preferably rapeseed, if you have it)

For the Miso Mayonnaise:

2 egg yolks
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp white miso
150ml vegetable oil (or rapeseed)

For the Ponzu Beurre Noisette

50g butter
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 ½ tsp caster sugar

For the vegetables:

10 asparagus spears
5 baby corn
6 radishes


1) For the miso mayonnaise, set a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Whisk the egg yolks, rice vinegar and miso together in that bowl. Drizzle the oil in very slowly – add too much and your mayo will split. Keep adding until you have the desired mayo consistency (you don't have to use all the oil), then season with salt and white pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and leave the bowl on the pan to keep warm.

2) For the steamed vegetables, prepare the veg by washing, chopping the baby corn in half length ways, chopping the tips off the radishes, and cutting the asparagus so that the heads are roughly the same length of the corn.

3) Cook the veg for 6 minutes in a steamer until tender. Alternatively, as we did at the show, put a knob of butter in a largish pan, put the veg in and a lid on top. Jiggle the pan every now and then to ensure the veg don't catch and cook them over a low-medium heat until tender.

4) For the ponzu beurre noisette, melt the butter in a pan. When the butter has melted and started to go pale brown, add the soy sauce and rice vinegar. Sprinkle over the caster sugar, stirring continuously. Keep warm over a very low heat.

5) Finally, for the fish, season the trout with salt and pepper (on the skinless side). Melt the butter and oil in a pan over a high heat. Add the trout fillets, skin side down and cook for two minutes. Turn and cook for a further 2 minutes (or until done). Remove from the heat and peel and discard the skin. If properly cooked, the skin should peel off easily.

6) To serve, spoon and streak some miso mayo onto your plate and partially cover with a trout fillet. Arrange the vegetables on the side and drizzle with the ponzu beurre noisette. Enjoy!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Love Story near Fair Verona - Part 2

Day 3

Following on from Part 1...

This was the day I had been most looking forward to: Venice. Getting there required a 6:00 start, and after catching a bus with the school kids to Rovereto (they were noticeably more calm and quiet than the mouthy lot on my old school bus), we caught a train to Verona, changed train there, and finally arrived in Venezia Saint Lucia station at 11:00.

Thankfully, it was a sunny day, and it was very hot at that. There we were with our raincoats and bright yellow brollies in the blazing sunshine, looking like the Thompsons from TinTin. For a start we simply wandered around the allies not far from the station. People often complain about the tourists in Venice, but here there were virtually none, and we were left to explore the magical network of alleys, bridges and canals in an almost spooky quietness. It is very difficult to describe, but there is something truly magical about Venice; the labyrinth of ancient buildings and the alleys between them is something we could have explored for hours. We also noted, and wondered, how ancient crumbling buildings manage to look so strikingly beautiful and magnificent here, yet in suburban London they make you want to vomit. Strange.

Why can't they look this good in suburban London?

After lunch (Cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta), we headed to the Vaporetto port, and after much confusion and back and forth-ing concerning which jetty we were meant to leave from, we hopped on the tourist-crammed boat and off we went down the Grand Canal. This was thoroughly enjoyable, and was a great way to get to see much of the great sites and architecture from the water. We alighted at San Marco's square, the true tourist trap of Venice. Indeed, it was absolutely jam packed with tourists and merchandising. After walking round here for a bit, laughing at the prices in the cafe's (€8.50 for a Cappuccino, anyone?) we stopped at one of the many Gelateria's for some well deserved ice cream. There were many, many, flavours to choose from, and I eventually settled for a scoop of melon and a scoop of cookie. The melon was light and refreshing but not as luxuriously indulgent as the cookie variety.

After a while we began to walk back up the streets that run parallel to the Grand Canal towards the station. Our old friend Mr Thunder was approaching again, and as the first spots of rain fell, we were suddenly glad to have been lumbered with our umbrellas all day.

Spaghetti al Nero - Cuttlefish and its respective ink sauce create a unique aesthetic, not to mention flavour.

I was keen to get some authentic Venetian food, and managed to find it, after seemingly endless menu reading and debating, at a cosy little Trattoria called Da Gianni. Here I enjoyed a dish of Spaghetti al Nero – a spaghetti dish with cuttle fish and cuttlefish ink sauce. The cuttle fish itself was quite rubbery, but the sauce was rich and almost mushroom-ish. I (greedily) had secondo of Scaloppine Pizzaiola, as I had enjoyed the sample of Ben's so much yesterday, and this proved to be well worth it too. I was chuffed to have finally had some local, authentic cuisine.

Afterwards, we headed towards the station where we began the long journey home, leaving Venice basking in the beautiful evening sunlight.

The Italians take their pasta very seriously.

Day 4

We were both knackered from the previous few days, so decided to take today a little more easily and spent it exploring Torbole. In the evening, both tired of reading similar menus over and over and over again, we decided to go for something different and headed to the Tex Mex restaurant up in neighbouring Nago. It was something I never envisioned doing before I came; going for a Mexican in Italy, but we both somehow felt like it.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions too. Firstly, the restaurant had got the styling and atmosphere just right: every lampshade was a cowboy hat, there was a giant bull's head on the wall, empty beer bottles lined the shelves, everything was tightly packed and brightly coloured, and the whole place felt like a bar/saloon. The music too was also classic mexican/latin style with a bit of country thrown in for good measure.

Then there was the food itself: both of us decided to go for the classic Burrito which was generous in size and came with a portion of chips and salad. For dessert we both had a hot tortilla wrap, coated in Nutella and served with a ridiculous amount of whipped cream. It might not be something you would see on MasterChef, but it was very tasty.

Finally there was the price. On our table when we arrived was tortilla crisps with two dips, then the friendly waiters came with two small hot tortilla wraps, and finally they gave us a shot of some sort of refreshing berry flavoured drink. We worried that all these extra goodies would be added to the bill, but when we asked for it (Il conto, per favore) it was all included. Now that's what I call service.

Tex Mex - a great meal and the source of my gastronomic confusion.

So I left Tex Mex admittedly feeling a little gastronomically confused. I had come to Italy expecting to be blown away by the Italian food (everyone I had spoken to before hand, foodie and non-foodie alike, had told me that the food was great in Italy) and yet somehow, two of the best meals of the trip had been the 10 minute one cooked in our flat and the Mexican one at the end of the holiday. Life is full of surprises I guess.

Day 5

As I left the Tex Mex, I remember thinking that it would make a good ending to the blog post; an interesting twist with which to end the trip. Alas, little did I know that our adventures were far from over, but I shall not go into the details now. I shan't go in to the fact that the train going to Verona was actually going from Verona, how we ended up going in the wrong direction for an hour and a half before discovering that we were indeed headed for Munich and not Verona.

I shan't go in to the stress of lugging a 26kg bike bag, 10kg suitcase and backpack through stations, trains, onto buses and through airports. I shan't go into the details of missing our flight, sitting miserably on the airport, dragging all our luggage on an airport trolley down a deserted road and through a little village (to the great bemusement of the locals) to a B&B. And I shan't describe the details of how we still, after spending all day on the airport, managed to almost miss our second flight home (hint: it involves poor organisation on the airport staff's part and lots of very pushy people).

No, all you need to know is that we eventually made it home and learnt some important lessons from our trip. The lessons include:

  • Don't bother trying to save money. As a result, we not only made life extremely difficult for ourselves (dragging the huge bike bags everywhere, the stress of making trains, holding up the public etc), we also lost a whole day and a lot of money. In trying to save about €40 we lost about £203. Each.
  • Things don't always go the way you expect. Deal with it.
  • Plan carefully, but go with the flow. Accept the situation and circumstances and ride the wave.
  • The smallest wrong decision or mistake can have the largest of consequences.
  • Always bring a spare pair of socks.
  • You'll get there in the end...

So, what now? This was a fantastic and much enjoyed trip in which we achieved many of our goals: we did some biking, went to new places, met different people, had a fantastic day in Venice, ate like pigs, and made it home in one piece.

But gastronomically, it leaves me two options: Go back to Italy (perhaps further south) and try and find its foodie core, or simply cook my way through my copy of Jamie's Italy and see if I can find it through that. I have a sneaking suspicion that the latter might be cheaper and more accessible, so for the moment that is what I will have to do. Looks like the MasterChef challenge may have to be put on hold...

PS - What are your experiences of Italy?

A quick thanks too, to our hosts at Residence Toblini, who did a great job of looking after us clueless tourists! And thanks too, to the fantastic couple at Ai Due Volti for providing an excellent B&B on that disastrous day!

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Love Story in Fair Verona - Part 1

Well, not exactly. Near Verona, would be more accurate; Torbole, Lake Garda, to be precise. And the love story? Not really, not like that famous one based in Verona (Jomeo and Roulette, wasn’t it?).

No, this love story was an unusual one and took a rather odd shape. It began several months before we (my brother and I) even left for Italy; it was a kind of blind love that was born and nurtured through whispers and stories, through a trip to an authentic Italian restaurant, through food, and through a book written by a man from Essex.

The trip was also the result of love; of a love for travel, of a somewhat neglected and flaky love for mountain biking, of a love for mountains, of a love for exploration, and, of course, of a love for food. Lots of loves, lots of confusion, a lack of time and not enough money. Much debate, noise and arm waving later (that, I hear, is the Italian way) and we arrived at a conclusion: 5 days at Lake Garda, which should theoretically cover all of the above criteria.

Perhaps not really a love story in fair Verona at all then, I must confess, but probably more engaging than a title of ‘My First Trip to Italy’.

As it so happened there, probably could have been many titles to this excursion, including ‘Two Greedy English Men’, ‘Idiots Abroad’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber’. It certainly was an interesting holiday, in which many things turned out differently to what we expected. As this is a food blog though, I will try not to bore you with too many details and keep to the culinary side of things.

Much of the day before we travelled was spent planning and packing, largely due to the fact that we were taking our bikes with us, which meant that they had to be stripped of the majority of their parts and wrapped in bubble wrap. We didn’t realise at this point that the bikes and their bags were to be the bane of the trip, but, as we often said, that was ‘all part of the fun’. The flight went well and before we knew it we had arrived in a less-than-fair Verona: as soon as we arrived the thick black clouds opened, followed by torrential rain and an impressive thunderstorm; weather that was to become characteristic of the holiday.

When we arrived in Torbole (pronounced tor-bol-ay, in a rhythmic fashion) it was still raining heavily, so we decided to have dinner at a Pizzeria a few minutes away from our accommodation, rather than find anything authentic. Still, in an attempt to be slightly authentic I ordered a ‘Lago di Garda’ pizza – topped with asparagus, egg and Grana. It was nice.

The next day, the morning was spent setting the bikes up, shopping for food etc. After lunch we ordered a bike uplift up one of the mountains to one of the downhill courses. It had rained heavily again during the morning. The uplift guy, Luca, asked us if we still wanted to go ahead with the uplift as the course could be really dodgy in the wet. Might as well, we said. We’d brought the bikes all this way after all. He openly laughed at this, in a ‘you crazy fools’ kind of manner, and off we went, instilled with confidence from our new local friend. Not.

Dinner at home: ironically one of the best meals of the trip.

The course, to be brief, could be defined in two words: rocky horror. It was extremely steep and often narrow, and made up entirely from rocks, the majority larger than a man’s head, which were iced off with a wet, slippery sheen. Worse, as we began to pick our way down, a thunderstorm began heading towards us from the south. Being up on a mountain with lovely metal bicycles in a thunderstorm is never a good thing. So we proceeded with haste. Some of the course was ace, admittedly, but a lot of the time it was a case of fighting for control over the steep, wet, rocky descent. Make a mistake, pitch yourself over the bars, and it would be broken bones and/or ribs for sure, and a punctured lung if you were unlucky. Thankfully, we made it back safely; buzzing, unharmed, but completely soaked.

Ironically in the evening the sun came out, and what a difference it made. We ate dinner at home; a very simple meal of prosciutto filled tortellini with tomato sauce and a mixed leaf salad with olives, cherry tomatoes, lemon juice and local extra virgin olive oil. We also bought a bottle of the cheapest wine in the supermarket, Rubicaia Sangiovese di Romagna. Funnily enough, both the meal and the wine were absolutely delicious, and eaten on the balcony in the evening sun, they made for one of the best meals of the trip.

Day 2

We met Luca at 9:30 where he picked us and a bunch of German’s up, to take us to Mt. Altissimo. As we began the hour long ascent Luca popped a CD into the player, and off we went to a soundtrack of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. I explained how difficult the track was yesterday to Luca. “Yeah, it is pretty technical,” he said “But I think the Mt. Altissimo tour is even more technical.” Suddenly the soundtrack came across as strangely ironic.

Onwards and upwards we went, the ribbon of tarmac that was the road endlessly snaking up higher and higher until we had left the tree line well behind. I made a mental note to revisit these roads one day in a Lamborghini. Eventually, we came to a stop, now to the soundtrack of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck (again, ironic). Luca had advised us to bring warm clothes, and we could now see why. It was eight degrees Celsius up here, with a strong, biting wind and more-or-less horizontal rain. He saw my flimsy hoody and reacted with that laugh again.

You know you're high up when you've got snow in June and are looking down on other mountain peaks.

But now the worst bit was coming – we were currently at 1600 vertical meters, and now had a 400 vertical meter, hour long climb to the start of the course, which began at 2073 meters. The push, up a winding rocky road, resulted in a strange cocktail of emotions and feelings. On the one hand you were hot and sweating from lugging the 20kg bike up the poorly surfaced road, whilst on the other you were freezing cold from the constant buffeting of wind and icy pellets of rain. You were also frustrated and tired from the seemingly never ending struggle that just went on and on, and at the same time you were in constant awe at the views. Looking down at peaks isn’t something you often do outside of an aeroplane. And then added to the mixture there was a sense of amusement at the epic yet foolhardy nature of this whole episode, that was being experienced and endured simply for the pleasure of riding a bicycle down the other side.

By the time we reached the top (there was snow on the mountainside at this point) we were rewarded with a solitary building that was a snack bar and café, where I had lunch in the form of a slice of Amaretto and ricotta crumble cake with a cappuccino. This was definitely the most memorable lunch I’ve had for a while; it was delicious, and very readily received.

One of the most welcome and warmly received Cappuccinos I've ever had.

To cut a long story short, the descent was, as Luca had warned, more technical. Rocky horror all over again. But this time from 2000 meters. Add getting lost once, some ridiculously rapid road riding and lots more rain, and we arrived (to my surprise) in one piece back in Torbole, absolutely saturated and muddy.

However, we weren’t going to let that put an end to our fun. The authors of the Mountain Biking Europe guide had recommended a restaurant in the nearby town of Bardolino, called Al Commercio, and I really wanted to check it out. A few hours later and we were on the bus to Bardolino (in wet shoes with no socks).

As it turned out, Al Commercio was a cute Trattoria, exactly the sort of authentic eatery I had been hoping for. The menu was extensive and featured some interesting options such as colt steak and donkey ragu. I eventually chose the Tagliatelle con Ragu di Coniglio (rabbit ragu with tagliatelle) whilst Ben went for the Scallopine alla Pizzaiola (escalopes with a pizzaiola dressing). The rabbit was ragu was indeed very nice, though I was surprised how similar the rabbit was in flavour to chicken. Interestingly, the tagliettelle wasn’t particularly ‘al dente’ either (not that I minded!) which is something I had heard the Italians were very fussy about.

Al Commercio - A homely Trattoria with an extensive menu.

I tried a bit of Ben’s escalopes too, and these were very delicious. The dressing was (I think) tomato, oregano and olive oil based, and was subtly backed by flavours of chilli and garlic. It complimented the tender salty meat and olives perfectly. Yum! For dessert we both had a Cioccolato con Crema Pasticcera e liquore Aurum. A bit of a mouthful – the name that is! It was a chocolate fondant with a thin and light chocolate, vanilla and almond liquor custard, and it was immensely rich and delicious. Overall it made for a nice meal in a lovely restaurant, and not too pricey either. Unfortunately the taxi back to Torbole cost more than double the meal…

Part 2 coming soon, featuring more chaos, a day in Venice (beautiful city or overrated tourist trap?) and a surprising gastronomic end to our trip.

Ciao for now!

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Pantiles Food Festival - Review

It was during late February, whilst idly trawling the web in search of a news story, that I stumbled upon the press release for the Pantiles Food Festival. In a matter of minutes I had greedily consumed said press release and knew that I need look no further for my news story.

In what seemed like no time at all later, the news story deadline was long forgotten and the food festival was upon us. It began on the Friday evening, where Richard Phillips, head chef of Thackeray's (amongst other things), opened the festival with a screening of Babette's Feast and a glass of red in the Pantiles' Corn Exchange.

Unfortunately, due to a work experience placement, I couldn't make the Friday, but by Saturday morning I was back in Tunbridge Wells and raring to go. As it turned out, it was a beautiful day. Upon approaching the Pantiles I was greeted firstly with smells: smells of fresh fish, smells of herbs and spices, smells of food. It seemed that the marketing and PR for the event had been a success: I don't think I've ever seen the Pantiles so busy as it was then. Market stalls and consumers crammed every inch of those tiles which are so often so painfully empty.

There were stalls selling every edible delight imaginable, from fresh fish, meat and cheeses, to breads, jams, chutneys, chocolates, fudges, to ciders and beers, to olives, oils and curries... the list goes on. Best of all, of course, was that there were plenty of free samples to try. The highlights of which, for me, were lemon infused rapeseed oil (subtle and aromatic), pink cider, and watermelon jam. I think that businesses that don't offer free samples do miss out here – it seems to me that you are so much more likely to buy a product if you've had the chance to taste it first.

As well as the stalls, there were live cookery demonstrations on the bandstand from various chefs from local pubs and restaurants, as well as talks with different people. The talk I was keen to attend was with Sue Ashworth, a food writer and stylist with over 20 books to her name. By the time I actually found the building where her talk was taking place I was ten minutes late. There was no one in the room besides two ladies at the front, so I approached them and it turned out to be Sue Ashworth and a friend. Bizarrely enough, I was the only person to turn up to her talk, so she wasn't going to go ahead with it any more.

Now why no one at all, in the absolutely heaving Pantiles, would be interested to hear the tales of a seasoned freelance food writer and stylist seemed a little odd to me. As a result, however, I had a really nice one-to-one chat with her in which I heard a few of her tales from in the industry and was given helpful and sound advice concerning food writing and photography. “Never give up; never, never give up, because you'll get there in the end” was her number one top-tip.

Overall, I think it would be fair to say (possibly because I missed the Friday), that the event was more of a glorified market than a food festival. There weren't any of the street performers or entertainers that were mentioned in the press release, and perhaps a little live music could have spruced things up a little. But that's not to put the event down, because it was very good: beautiful weather, a fantastic turnout, and a great atmosphere made for a really enjoyable experience.

Happily, according to Richard Simm, Chair of the Association of Pantiles Traders, the Pantiles Food Festival is to become an annual event, one which will only get better with every year. Roll on next year, I say.

There were plenty of local heroes, such as the chaps from Sankey's here.

If you can see past the stripes, check out them lovely pies.

Crowds. A surprisingly rare site at The Pantiles.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Borough Market

A lesson on customer service, leaking wallets and a mini invention test.

Most people know of the equipment that corner shops have invested in; the high pitched squeal employed specifically to rid the area around the shop of ASBO-totting yoofs – you know, the hooded type that turn up on BMXs and in modified Vauxhall Corsa's. Borough Market has invested in something similar, but this is a drug. Everyone who swaggers in through its gilded gates is unwittingly hit by the invisible vapour, which penetrates a part of the brain which controls how one spends one's money. It unlocks this mechanism and thus metaphorically creates a rather gaping hole in your wallet, which results in the severe leakage of money.

At least that is what it seems like.

I had never been to the market until last week. My friend Susie had often praised its virtues, and had ensured me that I would love it, so I took her word for it, organised the trip, and off we went.

My first impressions of the place were somewhat overwhelming. Aside from the constant stream of delivery vans and large amounts of building works, there was so much to see that we must have walked round three or four times before making any decision as to what to buy. There was so much on offer that it is pointless to list it, but in brief there was a vast array of meats, fishes, vegetables, breads, cakes, pastries, oils, beers and much, much more. Some things were much more expensive than at supermarkets (usually a reflection of their quality or extravagence), and some actually a fair bit cheaper (3 avocados for one pound, anyone?).

My first good impression of customer service of the day was at an Italian stall called La Tua Pasta. Whilst musing over the choices of fresh tortellini, I was intrigued by the wild boar variety, but wasn't quite sure what boar tasted like. Before you knew it, one of the two running the stall ripped open a pack, chucked a couple in a pan of boiling water (and threw in a couple of pumpkin ones for good measure too), put them on a plate, drizzled with olive oil and a smattering of parmesan, and gave them to us. Considering they're worth about 64p each, this was pretty generous. And the boar, as it turned out, was delicious. Some more chit-chat and advice later (concerning the intriguing squid-ink, white crab and mascarpone tortellini – selling for £9.50 a pack), and I was seven pounds down and one pack of wild boar tortellini up. Aside from the fact that it was delicious, the duo's friendliness and helpfulness were one of the key reasons I wanted to buy from them.

After a while we decided to have a coffee break and headed to the Pret across the road, which was where we encountered our second experience of exemplary service. The guy behind the till was really, almost unsually, friendly and chatty, which was nice enough in itself. But it was the fact that he offered me a coffee on the house that had me amazed. I've never had that experience before, and it was that which made us both agree to go to the same Pret again whenever we're in the vicinity. Being kind and friendly gets you customers – if only all businesses would work that out.

After much more meandering, a pit stop at the hole in the wall to refuel the thirsty wallet, temptations, purchases, and the testing of many olive oils, we departed with some bags full of healthy goodness.

First stop was lunch at Susie's, by Susie. Tortellini filled with beetroot and ricotta was the order of the day, topped with a delicious basil olive oil, and complemented by an avocado salad and some rosemary and salt focaccia bread. Eaten outside in the sun, this made for an exceedingly pleasant experience; the best lunch I've had in a while.

Doing an 'invention test' style dinner before going to the market sounded like a good idea. However, once I was there, there was so much choice and endless possibilities that it became a rather difficult task. In the end though, I decided to go for something simple (and not particularly inventive, if I'm honest): baked cod on roasted potato slices with vine roasted cherry tomatoes. In the event of cooking it I did actually get the timings all wrong, causing some wasted time and frustration, but that's only to be expected of amateur intuition I guess. I enjoyed the meal with a glass of Meantime Chocolate beer (also bought at the market, of course!), which was rather delicious, though the chocolate was barely noticeable. Anyway, here's the correct timing version:

Baked Cod on Roasted Potato Slices with Vine Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Serves: 1 (easily doubled)


Cost: £4.00 (approx)


  • 1 fillet of cod (200g approx)

  • 1 large potato

  • About 6 cherry tomatoes (on the vine)

  • salt and black pepper

  • lemon juice

  • Best extra virgin olive oil (I used basil oil)

  • dried rosemary


  1. Preheat your oven to 220c and get a pan of salted water on the boil. Peel your potato and then cut in half down the middle. Slice the halves in semi-circle like discs, about 0.5 – 1cm thick. Par-boil them in the salted water for 5 minutes.

  2. Next, remove from the heat and drain off the water, and let the potatoes steam dry for a minute or so. Now place them into a roasting try, avoiding having them on top of each other. Drizzle with the olive oil and then season with salt, pepper and the rosemary. Place into the oven, and cook for 20 minutes

  3. Lay your fish fillet on a chopping board and generously season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil (and a little rosemary, if you like). Turn it over and season the other side.

  4. After the potatoes have been cooking for 15 minutes, place the cherry tomatoes onto an oven tray and season with a little salt and pepper and some olive oil, and then place in the oven.

  5. Once the 20 minutes are up, turn the temperature down to 190c and place your cod, skin side down, on the oven tray next to the cherry tomatoes. Cook for twenty minutes, and then serve.

So there we have it, the Borough Market experience. A thoroughly enjoyable one it was, and well worth it. I would definitely recommend it to any foodie, or simply anyone who wishes to get some seasonal produce that can be cheaper and fresher than that of the supermarkets. My two pieces of advice are: 1) Don't go on a Saturday – apparently you can hardly move it is so busy. And 2), come prepared to lose a fair wedge of hard earned dough in return for some exquisite delicacies. Oh, and finally, don't forget to visit the friendly Italians at La Tua Pasta, and the Pret just outside the market!

A few photos: