Le Serre Nuove – Thoughts from Glasshouses

Food Stories and Recollections

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Gascon Tales

France is a nation of mass contradictions. On one hand, you learn about the classical idea of the republic: liberty, fraternity, equality – but how does that idea transcend the image of French Identity? I wrote my post-graduate thesis on the emergence of French Identity during the period of the Third Republic leading up to the First World War, and one of key theories behind it, as per many French Historians (like Graham Robb or Eugene Weber), is that peasants became Frenchman: A nation of regions that during the 19th century developed one identity, based heavily on a perceived notion of what ‘Frenchness’ should be as it modernized and industrialized. There are quirks to this, and you see that in the distinction of the Bordelaise, but the overarching feeling is one of an imposed identity.

So what has all this got to do with food? Well, I ask the question in the context of whether we are going through a renaissance in French food. With the ever-increasing number of new french restaurants opening up, with a focus on classical rather than haute cuisine, they are starting to  dominate the scene again and not least with the reappearance of one of Britain’s greatest (French) chefs, Pierre Koffman. His restaurant is described as ‘hearty, robust, seasonal food, influenced by Pierre’s Gascon heritage’, but still French. Is it both? Can it be both?

The one thing that was the most abiding memory of my recent visit to Koffman’s was the  sense of satisfaction. I knew what I had just eaten had no intention of trying to dazzle me, it just wanted to satisfy me in a way only simple good cooking can. This is Gascon cooking. As PK is reported to have said, “It is done at its very best if its been done all your life”; the love of food and the appreciation and respect of the traditions and nature of the region.

Between my wife and I we had the foie gras, crab, roast partridge and rabbit. Each dish smacked of simplicity yet was truly delicious. It is hard to really describe the food more than that, because I was having far too much fun. Sorry. Mildly tipsy and just enjoying myself.  Gratification to a degree I rarely experience. The dishes were traditional and elegant, and did not possess the tricks and traits that you associate with Michelin star cooking, allowing them to speak for themselves.  Gascon’s like to consider Foie Gras a local specialty as their main produce is duck, chicken and geese. Indeed there is a website that claims “The method of pouring the grain down the necks of the birds is something that only the British have a problem with”! Whilst I think that is a little bit of a contentious point, the delicacy of the dish, along with the quality of the foie gras and the brioche toast, made it seem anything but pâté on bread.

Apple PieFor dessert, we had a Gascon Apple Pie, and a Caramelised floating island (‘Oeuf À La Neige Caramélisé’). There is a slightly blurry picture of the Apple Pie to the right. The story goes that every now and again PK works the pastry station. If its true, then it may explain why I enjoyed my pie so much. The Armagnec (a product of origin of Gascony) gave the apples such a little hit of spice, and the sugar of the pastry was so soft and something reminiscent of, actually, I cannot compare it to anything, because it was like nothing I have had before. Even in France. My wife’s carmaelised floating island, a giant macaroon with the most syrupy custard sauce, was exquisite, and they rounded off the evening in the best way.

I cannot remember the last time I had such a good time eating out, because the overriding memory was of a fun evening eating fantastic food. Can it be beaten? I don’t necessarily think that is the point. It is rustic, peasant food from Gascony. It will warm the cockles and give you immense satisfaction and let you simply enjoy yourself. Sometimes there is nothing better.

And I found nothing French about it.

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Brief footnote: Pierre Koffman is famous for his pig trotters, which are still available at Koffman’s. Please check out this recipe if you want to have a go: Trotters

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Log fires and Seafood – The Three Chimneys

Probably one of my favourite places in the whole world is the Isle of Skye. It is a mystical place. Rugged, wind-swept, beautiful and enchanting that often lifts me onto a different emotional plain. Sometimes you really don’t know what is on your doorstep. That was certainly true when I first went there, because there are elements to it that really blew me away, like going to Florence for the first time or walking along the Inca trail and stumbling upon Machu Picchu, and seeing landscapes in their natural beauty. The Three Chimneys is nestled in a village whose population would not even fill the restaurant – with a view overlooking the sea, the surroundings wild, bleak and sparse.

Yet, despite the location, you have a venue in the Three Chimneys that has been known to receive traveling visitors to the helipad (i.e. the patch of grass opposite) for lunch and a reputation that belies its rural out-posting. Its reputation built upon the local seafood that surrounds the isle, all of which identified on the menu with the landing site for the catch. The traditional stone croft cottage has been transformed and is now incredibly intimate, to a degree that you are almost dining with the table next to you. A very reasonable wine list, heavy on white wine, led us into a white Burgundy from Nuits Saint George. I had conflicting thoughts about the menu, (unbalanced maybe?), but I was there to eat the seafood: Hake, skate and razor clams to start, halibut and squid to follow.

Gigha Halibut, Squid, Fennel. Caviar sauce.

I have always been a bit skeptical of taking pictures of restaurant food, however beautiful it is (I am more in the Giles Cohen school), and I would probably annoy my wife exponentially by getting out my DSLR: filters, flashes, tripods and all. But in honour to all you bloggers that do, there is a little photo to the right (done with my iphone).

It was a dish that typified our experience. Some parts phenomenal, some parts average. The squid was overcooked and not particularly enjoyable whilst the potatoes did not really bring anything to the dish against the fennel or the sauce. That said however, the gigha halibut was absolutely fabulous. It alone was worth the entry fee (if you had one). I probably do not have the linguistic capabilities to really express my delight at how good it was and how much I enjoyed it. With the caviar sauce, it was simply sensational. The anise and slight nuttiness of the fennel was also not too overpowering and added subtlety. That alone would have been sufficient for me. It was a BIG portion. My starter, equally, was the same. The hake was fabulous, as were the clams, but I struggled against the saffron potatoes and I could not taste the skate. My wife really enjoyed her partridge starter, but her monkfish in Ayrshire bacon was very salty (which may in part be of course due to the nature of the bacon). The scallop accompaniment however, made the dish. As soft and delicate as you can get.

The deserts, the warm almond cake and the dark chocolate mousse with ginger, were both excellent, although the ginger was served separately so balancing the flavours proved problematic. The sommelier was suitably impressed by my wife’s origami with the napkins (she turns it into a chicken) that he gave us some complimentary dessert wines which was a nice touch, and typified the excellent service. The Three Chimneys is renowned for its marmalade soufflé, and judging by fellow diners’ reactions it was proving to a massive hit. It was pertinent to wash everything down with a Talisker, and all its smokey goodness.

Walking out of the restaurant the view is simply stunning, and if you hit it at the right time of year the sunset phenomenal. This is what contributes to the magic that is the Three Chimneys. The food is good, but there are elements you would not expect if it was in say, London. Ironically it has been outstripped by Kinloch Lodge (which has been awarded a Michelin Star, and dining there really does feel like you are enjoying dinner in Laird MacDonald’s house) as THE location restaurant within Skye. That competition can only be a good thing, because it will help drive the Three Chimneys on it bigger and better things. I will remember that Halibut for a long while; next time you hope everything is as good.

We slowly drove back down the single track lane back to our apartment, to a wonderful log fire and yet another night-cap. The raw majestic qualities of Skye will never fail to dazzle me.

Crustaceans and Crabshakk

Is there anything more delectable that lobster? My mind was cast by the story of  3.4 KG lobster that was caught in the Forth, (http://news.scotsman.com/scotland/Now-that39s-pot-luck.6584570.jp) and auctioned at my local fishmongers, Armstrong’s in Stockbridge, recently. In my haste, I completely forgot to go down and check it out, maybe even bid, but I was through in Glasgow on the Friday and lobster cravings gave way to thinking of the tiny chaos of Crabshakk.

It’s been open for nearly two years and received quite a lot of press attention last year for its stripped back approach to shellfish. I first ventured there for lunch about a year ago, and I was intrigued to see how it had changed. There is no doubt there will be things that won’t be for everybody: it is incredibly crammed (if you get a table by the fire it’s about half the size of single school desk), and the menu is not extensive (although you can get a steak – or fish suppers if you don’t like shellfish), but its creates the sort of buzz and hustle and bustle that is more Bleecker Street than Argyle Street.

Whenever my dad would take me to the pub growing up I always wanted a bag of Scampi Fries. I had no idea what they were, but they were incredibly tangy in flavour, and moreish. They smelled fishy, but I didn’t taste like it and the were way better than cheese and onion crisps. I had soon moved on to the breaded variety at the chippie, as I hated soggy fried fish (still do), and still didn’t know what ‘Scampi’ was and only knew it by association. Dublin prawns was what my dad would call them (always forgetting the bay part), but I never had a real Langoustines until I moved to Scotland. The dramatic rise in their popularity (from revenues of about £68m in 2002 to £200m this year), due in part to their the supposed stock levels and the environmental impact of overfishing, has seen them become almost ubiquitous in menus.

I lost count of the amount they served me (12 I believe). They were all perfectly cooked, lightly grilled and coated in garlic butter. Even in Paris, it is supposedly acceptable that you use your hands to take the meat out of the shell, and use the finger bowl, and it is certainly the way you are expected to do it here. It’s just impossible not to get shells everywhere. I know people who like to suck the brains out like crayfish, and I doubt it would be frowned upon, but that’s not something for me. I really don’t like the mess. It goes with the territory, and if you do order these things you should tolerate it. But that can be forgiven. I think I could still be there given how succulent they were. The crab cakes too, were small perfectly formed, no potato filler, just white crab meat and tender and delicate. I probably soured the event by washing it all down with Italian lager; it didn’t add anything, and is just quite boring. Sides too were pointless, unless you needed a carb fix.

The freshness and quality of the produce used is second to none; Crabshakk lets them speak for themselves with the minimum of fuss. By and large they had maintained the standards that they had set last year. Crabshakk may be awkward and cramped, and can feel like a roadside diner (no doubt it is the point), but it is certainly worth it.

A Night at Marcus Wareing’s

“One of the most opulent events of my life.” I was exactly 29 years and 364 days old. I was at the place where I had always wanted to go. Of all the ‘celebrity’ chefs, M.W.’s was the one that I wanted to go to the most. My wife tried to surprise me, but I have a habit of guessing and I eventually got it out of her a month before hand. I think too, when he had his much written about fallout with Gordon Ramsay, my desire to go there increased further as you finally saw him stand on his own two feet and really, hopefully, take him to the next level and the 3rd star.

So an evening of a 7 course tasting menu to look forward and the perfect way to see out your twenties. We were staying at the hotel, and I was drinking Champagne from about half four, so I was getting a bit exuberant before we even went down for dinner. My wife too, insists on eating early so the table booked for 6.00. As you would expect, there was no limit on the time you could have your table for, and walking into the (bar one other table) empty restaurant in the semi-daylight, really reiterated the exquisite interior.

A delightful amuse-bouche led us into the first course of Foie Gras, Cherries, Tea and Caramelised Milk. The smokey fragrance of the lapsang tea led into a delectable foie gras, touched with a sweetness from the milk and light acidity of the cherries. Sometimes foie gras has such a umami effect and this was such a delightful dish. It was almost too much too soon as the crab, mackerel, pear, chargrilled bread and hazlenut that followed could not live up to it. At this point, I have to note the fabulous wine we had. The New Greenhouse from Ornellaia. This ‘baby’ Ornellaia was fantastic – a 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot blend – soft and supple with great spice and fruit. I find it quite American in style, and very silky. The wine list had some really quirky numbers and I do not always get to see this fabulous wine, the Ornellaia, on many menus. All the more so because it was the last one they had!

Proceeded by quail, smoked white beans, with a toast foam, which really was like beans on toast, it disappointed slightly as the beans were too overpowering and lost the flavour of the quail. It was an intriguing twist but too sweet. And again, the scallops with red wine, morels, and parley were very good but there were times when the parsley just overpowered the dish.

I was at this point slightly confused. There was no question that the evening was superb, yet I became confused about the food. Was I being let down, or were my expectation levels unrealistic? The whole evening had come down to the beef, wild garlic, and snails. Umami. I began to purr like a kitten. I forgave everything. This was what I had come for.

Everything had finally started to catch up with me, and the arctic roll, with blackberry and chocolate (not to the mention the bonbon tolley – which in itself is a treat to behold), were enjoyed but not savoured, despite the stunning intensity of flavour.

I knew my wife wanted to call it quits so the Talisker was the final call. Even though it was a fabulous evening, and the technicality and excellence of the cooking were in parts breathtaking, it wasn’t completely faultless.

I would have no hesitation in going back; in the end it was everything I had hoped for.

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