Sunday, 31 January 2010

Asador Etxebarri part one - La Comida

By day four of my trip I had already eaten one of the all time greatest meals of my entire life. The place was Asador Etxebarri, which simply means 'new house restaurant', and the food almost universally comes a la brasa, from the grill.

This was no chance visit, however. The virtues of Asador Etxebarri have been extolled by everyone from global taste makers, such as Time Magazine and OFM, to the lowliest of amateur food bloggers - not least me! In fact, I had heard and read so many incredible things about this restaurant, that it alone played a big part in me choosing the Basque Country as the starting point for my travels.

Having arranged to discuss the principles and approach of Asador Etxebarri with sous chef Lennox Hastie (head Chef Bittor Arguinzoniz doesn't like interviews, and doesn't speak English anyway), after I'd eaten, I was lucky enough to be given an insightful and in depth tour of the place, including the wood store, filtration tanks, where live fish are kept, the prep kitchen, and of course, la brasa.

The full feature will follow in part two of this post, but for now, it's time for the food. I had intended to be brief in my descriptions, but it appears that gastro-hyperbole has since got the better of me. It's obviously my sub-conscious forcing me to relive this meal in full. And what a meal it was...

An amuse bouche of supa de calabraza, or pumpkin soup. Smooth, light, and gentle. A little knock at the door of the taste buds, just make sure they're home and ready to receive visitors.

A second appetiser of jamon iberico. The sliver of toast underneath the jamon crisp from the grill and just warm enough to release the sweet, nutty flavours of the fat. This dish thankfully keeps my tally of jamon per day at 100%.

Bonbón de mantequilla casera. Smoked handmade butter, truffle shavings, and little bread crumb 'snow flakes'. The butter itself is unsalted, although the dish is seasoned with crushed sea salt and, believe it or not, ash. The butter has a deeply smoky flavour which seems to intensify as it moves from the front to the back of your mouth. It's rich, indulgent, and utterly divine. So good, in fact, I ordered seconds. 

Gambas de Palamós a la brasa. A single prawn, perfectly grilled. A pinch of salt. And that's it. These prawns actually come form a little fishing village on the East coast of Spain, where they're fished from a shelf so deep, that when the pots are brought up, the change in pressure causes the prawn's brains and wot-not (I'm not being very technical, here, I realise) to instantly implode. For the prawn, it's a tough way to go, but the result for the lucky diner, is much more pleasurable. When you pull it's head off, you are met by splurge of sea green prawn juice that taste so good you just have to slurp it all up. I found myself sucking on it's legs, tail, antenna and eye balls just to make sure I didn't miss a single drop. The plump, firm meat beneath the shell is also just about as good as you're going to get.

Berberechos a la brasa. Just the subtlest of smoky notes in the cockles themselves, with a kind of vinaigrette made from it's own juices and the tiniest amount of grapefruit. Shellfish cooking at it's most simplistic best.

Iranian Beluga caviar, again, a la brasa. Now, apparently, it's a heaneous crime against gastronomy to even think about warming caviar, let alone putting it on top of a grill. In actual fact, Bittor and Lennox experimented with this dish for months before finding a suitable method of cooking... A mesh-based pan is lined with seaweed, then laid over smouldering nuggets of applewood, and covered. The caviar steams and smokes for just long enough to get it up to blood temperature. The feeling of tiny warm fish eggs popping in your mouth really is something special.

Pulpolitos a la brasa. Tiny, perfectly tender baby octopus, no bigger than a thumb nail. Squid ink reduction. A sweet / sour, almost Chinese-style sliver of baby onion. A sticky, tangy onion marmalade to balance the salty flavour. Seaweed. Despite there being absolutely nothing on the plate that shouldn't absolutely be there, this is was one of the more complex dishes.

Yema de huevo a la brasa con trufa negra. Slices of black Perigord truffle, which had an almost overwhelming 'woodland' flavour, until you mixed them with the grilled egg which lay underneath. To complete this earthy dish, at the base there was a spoonful of potato puree, sitting in it's own stock. As the yolk ran down into the juices, everything suddenly came together. Never has potato water tasted so good.

Bacalao a la brasa. In my limited experience, I have so far been distinctly underwhelmed by salt cod. This dish, however, certainly raised the bar. Despite having been grilled, the fish was moist and juicy, and the flesh was somehow still translucent. On it's own, it was easily the best salt cod I've ever tasted (I don't claim to have tasted much), but when eaten with the butter sauce, and a slice of the smoked pimiento pepper, it made for a faultlessly balanced combination.

Chistorra a la brasa. This time of year is chorizo-making time, and the beginnings of the batch, where the smallest part of the lower intestine is used as the casing is, in these parts, known as the chistorra. Often, chorizo is made using a mix of offcuts and fat from any old porker that's to hand, before being seasoned with paprika. There's nothing wrong with this, although at Asador Etxebarri, where they make their own chorizo, they do things slightly differently. Instead of using lean meat and adding fat, they choose cuts which are fatty already. The cut in question is the cachucha - or the head - from none other than the famed Iberian black pig. Now that's my kind of chorizo... Instead of using paprika powder, they also dry their own pimiento peppers when they have an abundance in summer, before re-soaking them in winter and using the flesh to give a far more subtle pepper flavour. It's served somewhere between raw and very, very rare, with a couple of tiny bread sticks, and guess what? It tasted completely amazing.

Chuleta de vaca a la brasa. The finest Galician Blonde beef steak, hung for at least four weeks, trimmed of most of the fat, grilled until charred on the outside, yet rare-as-you-like deep, dark red on the inside, served on the bone, with nothing more than a bit of rock salt as a garnish. The thing that sets the Galician Blonde meat apart from a lot of the meat we're used to is it's age. The cattle are bred for working the fields, and that's exactly what they do for at least the first eight years of their lives. After that, they go into retirement, and spend the next six years or more living the easy life, getting fattened up ready for their eventual fate on the dinner table. In the UK, cows for eating are sent to slaughter at around three years, if they're lucky. In North America, they're a lot younger. The Galician way means the cow gets a good life, the farmer gets his field ploughed, and we get a steak that's got the perfect combination of strong flavours from the work out, and marbling from the leisure time. In researching my visit to Asador Etxebarri, I read an awful lot about this steak, and expected very big things. I can honestly say it was without doubt, by far and away, no word of a lie, the most incredible piece of meat I've ever sunk my jaws into. Out of this world.

Infusión de fruitos silvestres con helado de queso. The sweetness of the wild fruits, less a puree, and more a syrup, just on the softer side of tart. Creamy, almost sour cheese ice cream, gradually fusing with the wild fruit flavours as it melted. Clean and lip-smackingly fresh. There could not be a better dish to follow that steak... I'm running out of superlatives here, but with this, I think they found perfection.

Torrija con helado de leche reducida. If the meal hasn't done so already, this dish confirms Bittor's status as a genius. The torrija is a Basque speciality – a kind of warm custard cake – brilliantly executed, but in my book it could only play a supporting role to it's accompaniment on the plate - a singular quinnell of smoked milk ice cream. The deep, rich, intensely smoky flavour literally blew my taste buds. “Unreal” I muttered to myself as I came to, having been in a daze since the first mouthful.

Café y madelines. Despite having eaten a thirteen course menu degustacion, plus an extra portion of smoked butter, and two very large pieces of bread, there was nothing stopping me here. Soft, moist, buttery and delicious. I forgot to ask how you cook a madelin on the grill, however. Which must mean that I have an excuse to go back.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Menu del dia

I'm currently in Vitoria, el capital del Pais Vasco, home of el Gobierno Vasco, and the centre of the Euskadi political movement. Whilst the new town feels like a dated relic of the post-Franco years, the Casco Medieval, or historic old town, hums with the kind of energy that only the fuzz bass of blaring nationalist rock, bar-fulls of body-pierced, dreadlocked youth, and extremely liberal use of spray cans can bring. It's the political workhorse to Bilbao's cultural peacock.

Although the energy at the moment, I have to say, is somewhat lacking. It's nearly five pm, and the city is still shut down for it's extended lunch break. I'm not surprised when they feed you like this, however. For lunch I had a tapa of crab with aliolli, a first course of brocoli con refrito jamon y pasas (steamed broccoli with finely sliced fried ham and raisins, dressed in a kind of thin salsa verde - definitely one for the scrap book), then carilleras de ternera rellenas de foie (slow-cooked neck of beef, 'stuffed' with chicken liver pate, and served with an amazing red wine gravy - if you were served it on Sunday with roast beef and Yorkshires it would probably make you weep). Finally, queso y membrillo and a slice of pastel frio (Spanish Viennetta, basically). That lot, for eleven and a half euros, and you get wine too... I was expecting a glass full, they gave una bottella! No wonder the city needs three hours to recover from it's collective food coma!

So I might as well sit it out until Vitoria gets going again. Besides, tomorrow I'm going to interview the chefs at famed Basque gastro-pilgrimage point, Asador Etxebarri, and I have research to do. Not to mention a third of a bottle of vino to polish off.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Ham is where the heart is

I remember the day like it was yesterday. The kind of barmy late September afternoon that makes you forget winter ever existed. It was a Thursday, around 3pm, and I'd engineered a 'meeting' that allowed me to skip work for the rest of the day in favour of a trip to Borough Market. I'd gone in search of Mediterranean produce for a feast I was cooking the following day, inspired by a week long stage at Moro.

Clutching a loaf of the perfect sourdough for my Moroccan bread salad starter, I headed to Brindisa to sample their fine selection of jamon. I stood at the counter, five legs of dark, glistening meat in front of me, the ham carver behind them, carefully trimming off inviting little slivers.

I chatted to the carver as he sliced, discussing the characteristics of each ham, each of them with a distinct, nutty flavour. Each of them entirely unique. He told me about how the pata negra or black pigs roam in a dense woodland area, almost the size of Wales. He told me how they graze on acorns that fall from the oak trees, some of them over two thousand years old. He told me about the animal husbandry, the farmers who tend to the them, and how when the men go out to bring the pigs in for slaughter, they sometimes don't return for days. He told me about the curing process, the air drying, sometimes for 24 months or more, and how the subtle climactic differences brought about by the geography of the curing houses has such a profound effect on the finished product. I stood there and listened for at least half an hour, completely and utterly compelled.

In front of me lay some of the finest examples of jamon iberico in the country, if not the world. A meat that is intrinsically related to it's surroundings – a true product of nature, enhanced by craft skills that haven't changed for generations, plus the investment of a lot of time, effort, and love. I left the shop with a few slices of sweet, nutty Extramadura de Bellota, a couple of pots of ham fat, a bag of iberico bones, and a very big smile on my face.

The jamon itself went down a treat the following evening. I used it in a pre-dinner tapa, on toast smeared with a little roast garlic puree, still just warm enough to melt the fat from the jamon as it lay on top. The bones, however, lasted a lot longer... The carver advised me to keep them in the freezer, using a chunk at a time to make rich, deeply flavoured stock. In fact, those humble bones contain so much flavour, you can use each one again and again – three times at least, if you're lucky. They made their mark on many a meal; With lentils in a thick, comforting winter soup; In a braise with a smoked ham hock and white beans, for one of the most flavoursome - and cheap – Sunday dinners I've had in a long time; Added to caramelised onions for an Iberian take on the classic French onion soup; and in a rich, hearty, and supremely unctuous Basque-style chicken stew. And they're still going... I even gave away the final - unused - bones as leaving gifts. (You lucky boys!)

It's funny how little acts sometimes make such a big impression... Who would have thought a bag of pig bones could change the course of my life forever? With each and every meal I made with them, I thought more and more about the process that brought about these incredible flavours. I suppose you could say I developed something of an obsession with jamon, or at least a very strong desire to find out more.

And so yesterday, I left London for Spain, where I'll be living for the foreseeable future, in search of the finest jamon in the land! As I type, I'm sat in a pintxo bar in the casco viejo de Bilbao, an array of gastronomic treats in front of me, and a glass of vino tinto at my side. Over the coming months, I will eat my way through Pais Vasco, Austurias and then Galicia, before heading south to Extramadura, where the black pigs roam free, and so shall I...

Spanish onion soup

My Iberian take on the French bistro classic. This is a dish for the patient cook – the key is in caramelising the onions for as long as possible. Up to an hour on a very low heat is ideal, and in fact works perfectly, as you can boil up the stock at the same time. Pour yourself a couple of glasses of Madeira whilst you wait, and it will fly by.

For the stock

a Jamon Iberico bone (or other pig bone – ask your butcher)

a couple of carrots, peeled and sliced in half

a couple of sticks of celery, cut into chunks

an onion, skinned and sliced in half

a couple of bay leaves

half a dozen black pepper corns

For the soup

a knob of butter or a couple of chunks jamon fat

olive oil

white or Spanish onions – two or three per person, finely sliced

garlic – a small clove per person, chopped

thyme – the leaves of a sprig or two person

balsamic vinegar

bay leaves

salt and pepper

Madeira, sherry, or fino (alternatively you can use white wine) – a good slug per person

ham stock – half a pint per person

lentils – a handful per person (optional)

First, make the stock: Put all the ingredients into a large pot, and cover with cold water. Cover, bring to the boil, and simmer for at least an hour and a half. Make sure the bone remains completely submerged.

Whilst this stock bubbles away, slice your onions. Heat the oil and butter (or ham fat) in a large pan. Add the onions when the butter begins to colour, or the fat has rendered and is beginning to smoke. Cook on a medium heat for a few minutes until they begin to soften. Add the garlic, thyme, and bay leaves, and season with salt, which helps extract water from the onions. Add the balsamic, and stir until it evaporates. The sugar will help the caramelisation. Turn the heat down and continue to cook over a low heat for as long as possible – at least 30 minutes, if not an hour. The onions should reduce in size by a third or more, and become a dark caramel colour.

Strain the stock of all the veg, bones and aromatics. If you like, you can fish out the carrots and celery and chop them finely to add to the soup. At this stage, for a heartier, more filling soup, you can add a handful of lentils per person and cook for another 20 minutes until the lentils are tender. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Alternatively, heat through for ten minutes and serve with a slice of toasted baguette, rubbed with garlic, and topped with melted manchego, cheddar, parmesan, or other hard cheese, and a sprinkling of thyme.

Chicken and ham stew

This stew is extremely tasty, wholesome, and warming. A great alternative to Sunday roast. The best results come from a smoked ham hock, but any smoked pork - such as bacon, pancetta, or even chorizo – will be great.

Enough for four and some leftovers

1 litre ham stock, as before

olive oil

a couple of chunks jamon fat (optional)

a ham hock (or a couple of chorizo sausages, sliced into chunks, or six slices of smoked bacon or pancetta, cut into pieces)

6 chicken thighs

salt and pepper

a glass red wine

2 onions, sliced

2-3 cloves garlic, sliced

a heaped teaspoon harissa paste

2 bay leaves

6 sun-dried tomatoes, cut into pieces

black olives, pitted

basmati rice (about 3 mugs full)

one tin of tomatoes or a couple of handfuls of chopped fresh tomatoes

If using a ham hock, put it in a pan with cold water, bring up to the boil, take off the heat immediately, then rinse. This gets rid of the excess salt. Simmer the ham in the stock for 45 minutes, making sure it remains covered. Remove from the stock, and keep the stock warm on a low heat whilst you trim away any fat from the hock, then pick the meat off the bone. Keep to one side.

Heat a little oil in a large sauce pan or casserole, along with the jamon fat if using. If using chorizo, bacon or pancetta, add to the pan, and brown. When the pork is beginning to colour, add the chicken pieces, and brown on all sides, seasoning as you go. Remove and put to one side on a warm plate. Add the glass of wine, stir and reduce, in order to release the flavours from the pan.

Add the onions and cook for a couple of minutes until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes, then the harissa, bay leaves, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. Add the rice, and stir so everything is coated. Return the chicken, ham, or chorizo / bacon / pancetta to the pan, then the tomatoes and stock. All the rice and chicken should be just covered in liquid. Bring to the boil, then simmer for on the stove top for 45 minutes with the slightly ajar, or cook in the oven on a medium heat for in a covered casserole for 30 minutes, before removing the lid and cooking for another 15 minutes, so the dish begins to form a slight crust on the top.

Serve with lots of steamed greens, and a glass of Rioja

Monday, 25 January 2010

Cosmic Chilli

Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, my Cosmic Chilli has caused quite a stir since it was first unleashed on the world, or my friends at least, in September 2008. Despite what you might expect from the name, I didn't substitute the oregano for another potent green herb... It does, in fact, get its moniker from the fact that it was first made - and immortalised - at the Cosmic Loft, which is of course now sadly defunct.

The basis of my recipe is taken from the River Cottage Meat book, where the pre-amble tells the reader of the chilli's origins as a kitchen sink-style stew, where left overs and off-cuts are chucked into the pot, flavoured with chilli and paprika, and bulked out with pulses and legumes, in order to feed whole gangs of hungry farmers. As with many other dishes that began to appear with increasing regularity at home and on restaurant menus over the passed 30 years or so, 

chilli con carne is in fact an anglicised – or more likely americanized - bastardisation of a number of Central American dishes, softened and refined for the western pallet. Still, that doesn't mean it's not a great all rounder, both to prepare, and more importantly, to eat!

The inclusion of chorizo in the dish is the master stroke of genius. As well as giving texture, it also adds immeasurable depth of flavour, both from the smoky paprika, juicy pig fat, and caramelisation of the meat as it sizzles in the bottom of the empty pan. The other 'secret' ingredient is maple syrup. Not only does the sweetness allow you to be more liberal with the chilli, cumin, and paprika, there's also a subtle hint of nuttiness, which seems to bring all the rich, meaty flavours together.

Finally, the thing about this chilli is the longer it has to sit, the better. If you can, make it the day before you need it, then leave it covered over night. Just re-heat gently for half an hour before it's time to serve. This leaves you plenty of time on the day to get the accompaniments together: sour cream, maybe with some lemon juice and cucumber stirred through it; some fresh, zingy salsa; a robust salad of finely sliced red cabbage and beetroot, grated carrot, chopped spring onion, lime juice, and plenty of mint and coriander. Finally, a huge bowl of guacamole, which is, of course, completely mandatory...

Serves at least 15

The general rule here is that you should work to something in region of 80-100g of meat per person. You can ramp up all the other vegetables, beans and pulses as you like, in order to make the dish go further.

Olive oil

300g chorizo, sliced into small chunks

450g pork, diced into irregular pieces, somewhere between half a one centimetre in size

750g minced beef

6-8 medium onions, finely chopped

2-3 large carrots, peeled and finely chopped

2-3 large celery sticks, finely chopped

6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

4-8 chillies, de-seeded and finely chopped

a heaped tsp dried oregano

a tsp chilli powder (you can always add more later)

a tsp ground cumin

a tsp smoked paprika

a couple of bay leaves

6-8 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced

6-8 red peppers, de-seeded and sliced (optional)

6-8 fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped (optional)

a few potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped (optional)

3 400g tins of chopped tomato

a tbsp concentrated tomato puree

a tbsp maple syrup (or dark brown sugar, such as muscovado)

a litre good quality beef stock

3-4 400g tins of kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 400g tins of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Salt and pepper

A bunch of coriander, roughly chopped, to serve

In your largest pot, gently heat a dash of olive oil over a medium high heat, then add the chorizo and pork. Fry for a few minutes, turning occasionally so the meat browns, and the cut sides of the chorizo are beginning to caramelise. Remove and put to one side. Add the beef to the pan, and fry in the remaining oil until browned. Remove and set aside. Try to retain some of the meaty oil and juice in the pan. Add a dash more olive oil if you need to. Turn the heat down slightly.

Add the onions and fry for five minutes or so until translucent. Add the carrots and celery and fry for another few minutes, before adding the chilli, garlic, oregano, chilli powder, cumin, paprika, bay leaves and sun-dried tomatoes (as well as the peppers, potatoes, and fresh tomato if you're using them). Stir and cook out for another few minutes, making sure nothing catches on the bottom of the pan. Add the meats and their juices. Stir well – everything should be coated in the herby, spicy juices. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the tinned tomato, tomato puree, maple syrup, and hot beef stock. Stir thoroughly, and check the seasoning and spice. Cover and leave to simmer for at least one hour at the absolute minimum, ideally more like three or four. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. If you're cooking it for a really long time, add a glass of water if it ever begins to look too dry. If you're cooking it for a shorter time, you may want to boil it a bit harder for a while to help the sauce reduce.

If you can, turn off the heat and leave covered over night. This will allow all the ingredients to muddle together and create that wonderful rounded flavour.

Nearly there... If you haven't done so already, it's definitely time to get on the margaritas. Add the kidney beans and chickpeas (if using) and bring back to the simmer. Cook gently for another 30 minutes. Check the seasoning once again, stir in the chopped coriander and serve immediately.  

Sunday, 24 January 2010

My final feast

Since the summer, we've celebrated local, seasonal, sustainable food at Mudchute Kitchen in our series of Farmyard Feasts. We've honoured Mudchute City Farm's own Tamworth pigs and rare breed lamb, served up platefuls of pumpkin on Hallowe'en, held a midweek South American Fejoida fiesta, Friday night fish supper, a huge christmas ham, and had a lot of fun in the process... 

On the menu tonight, the flavours were rooted firmly North of the border, in celebration of Burns Night. The starter was cullen skink, made with home-smoked haddock, and served with wood-roast garlic crostini. Amazing flavours. 

Main course was haggis, bashed neaps and tatties, and watercress dressed in home-made rasberry vinegar. The haggis tasted so good it made me pity every vegetarian I've ever met... You people really are missing out! 

Dessert was blood orange jelly, with Caledonian cream, Mudchute granola, and home-made candied peel. The jelly and cream were sozzled in Scotch, so if there are any typos, I blame the whiksy.

This isn't really my final Feast - how could I stay away? - but it is my last for a little while. I won't be here, but the feasting will continue, and next up it's the turn of the Mudchute Farm cows to play the starring role. Check for details. 

So for now, I'll leave things in Philippa's capable hands... She's taught me more than I could possibly imagine, and been a complete inspiration. Thanks also to all the bright, committed and incredibly passionate staff at Mudchute Kitchen, you really are a special bunch. 

Finally, and most importantly, thanks to everyone who's come along to the Feasts and dined with us. We hope you've enjoyed them as much as we have! 

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Under the skin of St John Bread & Wine

Regular readers will already know I'm a huge fan of St John and it's sister restaurant Bread & Wine. Having recently met Bread & Wine head chef, James Lowe, I felt compelled to find out more... Their excellent bacon sandwiches had whet my appetite, but in reality they don't even scratch the surface of this modern British institution. 

Having just completed a week-long stage working at Bread & Wine, I've certainly had chance to experience their nose to tail philosophy first hand. Even speaking as a certified carnivore, however, some of the tasks I undertook were definitely not for the faint hearted.

Much of my time was spent downstairs in the prep kitchen, a clinical, windowless, fluoro-lit basement – all white tiles and stainless steel – where the only sound is the humming of the fridges, the the whirring of thermo-mixers, and the regular grating rasp of hack saw blade on animal bone.

Whilst dishes are finished upstairs in the open kitchen, in full view of the restaurant, it's downstairs where the bulk of the work takes place. I was lucky enough to get my hands dirty with plenty of meaty tasks; prepping chicken gizzards, pheasant hearts and mallard legs for confit; breaking down a whole side of mutton into roasting and braising joints; boning out pork shoulders; making 'blood cake', the St John take on black pudding, served with duck eggs or bacon; braising and slicing pigs ears, which are then deep fried and tossed with dandelion and rocket leaves; and playing my part in the making of a bona fide St John classic, ox heart (above) with watercress and pickled walnuts. The huge hearts first have to be trimmed of the fat, sinew, fibres and capillaries, before being sliced so finely, that on a few occasions I came extremely close to making sashimi out of my fingers. The slices are then marinated over night in garlic, thyme, olive oil and pickled walnut vinegar, before being grilled for a matter of seconds over white-hot coals. Finally, they're tossed with watercress leaves and finely chopped pickled walnut pieces and served up to the hoards of salivating offalite diners. The preparation is long and quite laborious, but the end result is utterly delightful.

This method of using cheap or irregular cuts and ingredients, which are subsequently transformed over long periods of relatively labour intensive preparation, seems to be almost universally replicated throughout the menu. Many dishes take 48 hours or more to prepare. First jointing, filleting, boning and trimming. Then salting overnight or brining for days. Then braising or confit-ing for anything up to eight hours. Finally dishes are assembled and finished over the grill, in a gravy, or by pan frying. Almost every single dish on the menu contains at least some components that are cooked in the low oven, permanently set to 110 degrees, for many hours at a time. “Slow and low, man,” as the other stage chef said to me on day one, in his West Coast American drawl, “it's the St John way”.

Faggots, made from rare-breed Middlewhite pork. The key to the flavour is in the ratio of offal to meat to back fat, balanced with a subtle blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

Mallard: Crown for roasting, hearts & lungs for pan frying, legs for confit... One bird, three methods.

Oven ready squirrels, which will be braised, picked, and served in a broth with white beans. Guess what... They taste a bit like chicken.

It wasn't an entirely carnivorous week, however. I made piccalilli, swede cake, pickled cucumber, fennel soup, turnip puree, horseradish sauce and their incredible tomato ketchup, the recipe for which I may or may not divulge on these pages sometime soon. Aside from that, there was always veg to prepare, and I lost count of the number of bucket loads of onions I chopped over the week – a task that is obviously de rigour for the new boy in any kitchen.

But it wouldn't have been St John if I'd not come face to face with a decapitated pig or three. At Bread & Wine pigs heads are skinned, braised in pig stock (always pig stock, never ham or pork stock), then rolled, sliced into discs, bread crumbed (or painéed) then deep fried. Alternatively, the cheeks are removed after braising, along with the adjoining cushion of fat, before being pan fried and served with a salad of chicory, roast red onion and capers dressed in a lip-smacking, mustardy vinaigrette. Very rich, but again, delicious.

I'd be lying if said I didn't get a kick out of the preparation... There's just nothing quite like slicing a dead animal's face of before breakfast. As we set about our task on the morning of day three, the softly-spoken soux chef turned to me, pig's head in one hand, butchers knife in the other, and said “the ears I don't mind, the snout I don't mind, the tongue I don't mind... It's those blue eyes I can't handle. They get me every time.” I look across as he makes the first incision, a macabre grin spreading across his face.

If you're squeamish, you should probably look away now.



So the nose to tail philosophy is no myth - almost nothing on any animal goes to waste. If the offal and off cuts aren't brined or confit-ed they're used in salads, stocks or soups. Butchery is a very important part of life in the kitchen at St John Bread & Wine. Not only is a whole carcass more cost efficient than buying in four legs or shoulders, it also means the chefs can keep a closer eye on the quality and provenance of the meat, and forces them to be more inventive in their menu creation, ensuring every last shred is put to good use.

I'm standing at the butcher's bench with the second chef, a half-butchered shoulder of pork in front of us. “It's good for chefs to be dealing with meat like this,” he says, “we're lucky to be able to do so on such a regular basis”. I feel like there's a subtext to what he's saying; that the butchery means the chefs retain a closer connection with, and a greater responsibility for the animals they're cooking. With a final twist, he pops the pig's joint out of it's ball socket, stabs a meat hook through the flesh and hangs the shank on the rack in front of us. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I can certainly see the appeal... And I think I might just be hooked too.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Burns night at Mudchute Kitchen

The first Farmyard Feast of the year... And since it falls on the 24th January, the evening is dedicated to all things Scottish, and particularly Mr Robert Burns

On the menu: 

Cullen skink
Haggis, neeps and tatties
Caledonian cream 
BYO Irn Bru

Full details on the Mudchute Kitchen website.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

James Lowe on the best bacon sandwich in London

It's a bright December morning, crisp and clear; the kind that smacks you on both cheeks the moment you step out of the front door. Winter sun swathes Spitalfields in the kind of low light that gives everything a sheen of pure, brilliant white, catching on your breath as it all but crystallises with each exhalation, and turning every car windscreen into a beacon so bright it could guide wise men to Bethlehem.

It's quiet outside, and it feels like Commercial Street has yet to come to life this morning. But as I arrive at my destination, I find a hive of activity. A morning's graft in the kitchen is already well underway. It's 8.30am, and there is business to attend to – business in the shape of a bacon sandwich – the best in London, at that.

I'm by no means the first to write about what makes a good bacon sandwich. Many before me have debated the merits of grilling versus frying, at home versus the local greasy spoon, red sauce or brown, white bread or (controversially) wholemeal... There's even a scientific formula which explains exactly how to make one, according to Leeds University.

But scientific formula or not, in my opinion the debate is already over, for there is one establishment which has succeeded in creating by far and away the best example of a bacon sandwich that I've ever tasted. And for that reason, this morning I'm at St John Bread & Wine, where I have arranged to meet Head Chef, James Lowe to discuss the matter over a cup of tea and one of their outstanding bacon sandwiches.

This will be my fourth Bread & Wine bacon sandwich. The first was an opportunistic visit at 11.01am. The kitchen had officially shut for family breakfast, and I almost didn't get anything. As I ordered without looking at the menu I must have momentarily bonded with the chef at the grill over a shared love of sizzling pork. Thank god, I just about squeezed it. The second was just before heading to Stansted to embark on a culinary tour of Bordeaux. We ate very well on that trip, but nothing came close to breakfast on day one. The third was with two friends, as fuel for a meeting about the logo for this very blog. What better stimulus for three men who love to eat? So, I know full well what to expect from my breakfast this morning, but even so, I feel a flutter of excitement which I put down to more than just my tummy rumbling.

I take a seat at the side of the stark, minimalist dining room, in anticipation of the head chef's arrival. A distinct, almost industrial hum emanates from the kitchen, audible above the clink of metal on metal, as pots and pans are shifted from stove top to surface, knives are sharpened, and trays full of plump, crusty loaves are turned out on to their cooling racks. The whole of the restaurant is filled with the scent of freshly baked bread, still hot from the oven.

Behind the pass, there are half a dozen white-coated chefs with heads down, busily prepping their stations for the day to come. They all look so studious that I'm almost surprised when one of the chefs emerges from the kitchen, strides purposefully towards my table, and takes a seat. “You're here to talk about the bacon sandwich”, he says, more as a statement than a question. Lowe has barely introduced himself before launching into a thorough and passionate description of not just the sandwich in question, but his thoughts on what breakfast is all about, his approach to cooking, and a concise history of his career, influences and inspirations. Everything he says is backed by the kind of enthusiasm that shows love for what he is doing, even when discussing such a modest dish. But he's direct and to the point – there's a sense that he will say this only once – as you would expect from the head of such a well regarded kitchen.

Our conversation is punctuated only by the flitting to and fro of the waiting staff, and the occasional comings and goings of delivery men with trolleys stacked so high it's as if there's a Christmas banquet booking for the five thousand.

All the peripheral activity is soon forgotten once breakfast arrives, however. A sandwich almost big enough to fill a dinner plate: Two huge slabs of perfectly toasted bread, crisp on one side, slathered in butter on the other. Thick folds of char-grilled bacon nestled in between. A generous bowlful of smooth, deep red ketchup. A pot of loose leaf tea, getting stronger with every second that passes. If only every day began this way.

The first bight has everything; the crispy outer layer of toasted bread, light, open-textured dough underneath; moist, juicy bacon, soft and plump in parts, charred and caramelised in others; fruity, tangy ketchup that explodes in the mouth. All at once it's salty, sweet, meaty, smooth, crispy, spongy, soft, slightly – unapologetically - greasy, and completely, utterly delightful. The perfect combination of textures and flavours. Who needs molecular gastronomy?

But perhaps this bacon sandwich bears closer relation to molecular gastronomy than you might at first think. James Lowe started his career at La Trompette in Chiswick, before going on to work at The Fat Duck. Despite the paired down style at Bread & Wine, The Fat Duck is still a big influence on Lowe's cooking today. The menu has been meticulously constructed with each dish having been obsessively tested, re-tested, and tested again – just to make absolutely sure. Every ingredient and method that is used in his kitchen, even in dishes as simple as the bacon sarnie, are subject to just as much scrutiny as anything he ever created at The Fat Duck. He tells me, for example, about occasions when ten or more rashers of bacon, each from different cuts, cures and breeds have been lined up against one another for side by side testing, to ensure the finished product reaches absolute perfection.

This exactitude is a direct influence of his time under Heston Blumenthal, an exactitude which according to James is side-stepped all too willingly in many a professional kitchen. Too many London chefs forego precision in their cooking, he says, giving the excuse that their cramped working environments, quick turnover of covers, and scarce resources leave little time for concentrating on the minutiae of detail, each and every time. This goes hand in hand, he says, with London kitchens generally being anti-technology.

High technology, particularly of the sort that one would associate with the Fat Duck, seems at odds with the old English-influenced dishes that are served at both St John and sister restaurant Bread & Wine. But in actual fact, it is the technology that allows for more measured and cared for cooking methods, such as the roast leg of mutton, which is cooked at exactly 100 degrees C – not a percentile more or less – for upwards of six hours, until the meat literally falls off the bone.

Clearly The Fat Duck is not the only influence here, however. Before he started at Bread & Wine, Lowe spent time at the River Cafe – a standard bearer in the resurgence of top restaurants focusing on market-influenced, seasonal produce. He's keen to tell me on a number of occasions that he doesn't like to “play around with things” too much. He'd rather let better ingredients come across more clearly on the plate. His cooking relies on simple, considered flavour exchanges, highlighting what occurs naturally, not masking existing flavours with unnecessary new ones. “It's a tastier way of eating”, as he puts it. And I couldn't agree more.

This approach can certainly been seen, and more importantly tasted, in the bacon sandwich. Much effort has gone into getting each element absolutely right: “I've tried more bacon for our sandwiches than I can possibly begin to remember” - well, it's a hard life, James - “and you quickly come to realise that the best bacon for the breakfast table is not necessarily the best bacon for the sandwich”. The bacon in question is from rare breed Old Spot pigs, from Butts Farm in Cirencester. It's tank cured and unsmoked - a relatively modern method which purists may curl their tails at – but Lowe insists that it is the brining, which gives their bacon it's irresistable moist-yet-charred characteristics. Tank curing means the pork retains more natural liquid in the curing process than a more traditional dry cure, and the delicate salt / sugar solution in the brine brings out far more flavour on the char grill.

The bread is a classic yeast-risen sandwich tin white, baked on site everyday. Almost all of the other breads they bake at Bread & Wine are sourdough leavans, but its vital for Lowe that the bread for the bacon sandwiches tastes just like white bread should: “A big part of this dish is nostalgia” he says, “it has to taste like all of the best bacon sandwiches you've ever had in your life... And I guess I have a lot to compare against, as I've virtually lived on them for three meals a day, seven days a week, at some points”.

And the ketchup? How nostalgic can this sandwich really be if the ketchup isn't Heinz? “I had originally said we would use Heinz, but we tried this recipe for the sauce and immediately that was it. In fact, it's the only thing about the sandwich which hasn't ever changed.” It certainly works - a simple concoction of tomato, onion, apple and spices – fruity, zingy, subtly aromatic, and when compared with standard shop-bought ketchups, much more natural, and infinitely more flavoursome. The perfect complement to a faultless bacon sandwich.

It's good to know that such a humble dish gets due care and attention in such a revered kitchen. “I just think breakfast is such an important meal... When I finish my breakfast I want to feel completely satisfied. I hope you do too...” And this morning, James, I most certainly do.