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A bit of fizz at lunchtime -tasting Nino Franco Proseccos at Hawksmoor Air

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

His name is on the bottle- class

The thing that makes Prosecco such a strong contender for lunchtime drinking is, oxymoronically, its lack of strength. At an average ABV of 10% it’s perfectly possible to drink the stuff for hours on end and still not need helping out of the restaurant afterwards. This is a rather good thing as the stairs at Hawksmoor Air are the sort ready to trip up anyone whose vision and depth perception have become impaired,  I actually fell up them when arriving..

Not being a fan of steak or burgers, they’re okay but monoglottal (© AA Gill) I had actually come to meet Primo Franco, patriarch of Nino Franco Spumanti, a Prosecco producer founded in 1919 in Valdobbiadene at the foot of the Prealps in the Venetian region, by his ancestor Antonio.

There was also the big lure of seafood on a menu created by Mitch Tonks, who is to the Guardian and Observer what Mark Hix is to the Independent. The fact is that seafood and Prosecco is a cosy symbiotic relationship, and as Primo had brought with him examples of his product, the best thing to do was tuck in while he talked

First out of the trap was his Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut, served up with Queenie scallops  fried in a light batter and with lashings of tartar sauce, plus scallops on the shell roasted with white port and garlic. The queenies were a trifle over shadowed by the batter, but the scallops on the shell were magnificent. The coral had crisped slightly, which was good, and the main meat was butter soft and drenched in the pungent garlic sauce.

Turning Japanese

Here the Prosecco’s creaminess echoed that of the scallop and notes of apple added a slight astringency to offset the richness.  Primo explained between mouthfuls that since he took over in 1982, he had invested heavily in more modern production techniques and set his sights on a more premium product than the simple country wine it had been. Far greater care was now taken over every aspect of production: from grapes to fermentation and all the way to marketing.

Lobster bites were next and better than I expected, not usually finding lobster all that exciting myself -the shellfish equivalent of fillet steak i.e. pricier than its flavour justifies. A jug of melted butter to pour over was ridiculously luxurious though and it was a very good lobster, even better though was the Brixham crab on toast supported by great gobbets of thick mayonnaise. The only downer here being the occasional tooth-threatening shell fragment that had slipped through the net.The Prosecco up at the oke this time was Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano 2010 a fruit packed heavy hitter that had the structure and long finish to help the crab scuttle down a treat. The fizz, which lasted a long time in the glass, cleansing the palate like a benign pressure washer.

I’d heard a bit about Hawksmoor’s Turbot, cut into thick strips and grilled over charcoal, and what I’d heard was right. This was an excellent bit of fish, ‘bloody’ excellent as female bloggers like to say. The firm meat of turbot can happily take the intense heat of a grill more usually employed in searing steaks, and the resulting smoke really punched in flavour. Served like this turbot takes on the grandness of monkfish, but for a lot less. Janssons Temptation served alongside didn’t do it for me – it had anchovies instead of pickled sprats – and was more a buzz kill than a temptation.

Dead soldiers

The Triple Cooked chips were overcooked; this mania for triple cooking chips has to stop – it’s no substitute for Properly Cooked. The buttered greens though were just as I like them, barely cooked at all. For this last main Primo brought out his big guns; Grave di Stecca Brut and Primo Franco 2013. I loved the former’s steely dryness that soon mellowed to a smooth aftertaste with peachy overtones while the Primo Franco from the high hillside Glera grapes was a tad too sweet for my taste, a result perhaps of 30 grams per litre residual sugar compared to 10g in the Rustico.

Finally, and with a plum and Bramley apple pie of heart-warming simplicity, came Superiore di Cartizze 2012 a wine with pronounced minerality, in fact Primo pulled some sample stones he’d picked up from the steeply sloped, high altitude vineyard  from his pocket and explained that this hard, slatey material makes up large parts of his terroir.

Prosecco really is much more than Poor Man’s Champagne, not least because of the varieties available. Nino Franco may not be widely available here yet, but as I floated back down the staircase I could only think that when it is, it’s going to be a winner.

Links to importers here do not guarantee that the particular vintage mentioned is available. Hawksmoor Air serves Nino Franco Proseccos.

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Where Chefs Eat- A guide to chefs’ favourite restaurants

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

A serious book

Who Will Buy the book Where Chefs Eat? The foodie equivalent of the people that buy Wisdens and Bradshaws perhaps, or the people that buy those Schott Miscellanies, the design of the latter being rather a strong influence here. In fact it’s a shame this book came out post Xmas as its sales could have been high in the pre Xmas week from desperate people grabbing it off the ‘take-one’ display in the mistaken belief that it was a humour book suitable for Uncle Bob.

But the book has sold very well anyway, at one point even outselling The Hairy Dieters, which must have caused some expletives from the biker boys ‘oop north. It could be considered a rather poncy southerner kind of concept this kind of thing, after all.

Over 400 chefs worldwide were asked eight key questions about restaurants – ones they wish they’d opened, the best for breakfast, late night eating, high end dining and so on. The returned forms were presumably converted into punch cards and fed into one of those giant IBM computers, the kind that features large tape reels rotating first one way and then another, and with a weighty thump the book emerged out of the rear end.

So how do you use it? Well not in the way you might expect, by looking up somewhere you’re going to and seeing what places the enlisted chefs recommend, as there is no actual index by city or town. Instead you need to look up the country section, then look at the country map, and from the map identify any pages that will be of use. Some cities do get their own dedicated entry in the index, Barcelona for example, but others you might think might deserve special billing, such as Rome, don’t.

There is an index by restaurant name but perhaps if you already knew the name you wouldn’t need a chef to help you discover it? The real value must be for the restaurant owners quickly flipping through the book, desperate to see if they’ve been included, before the shop assistant catches them.

There is an index by chefs which is more useful, as they are the stars here after all, and having negotiated the search and found that a restaurant is rated highly by Chef XXX, you can then easily find out just who Chef XXX actually is. Chef twitchers meanwhile can go straight to their top of the pops chef names and compile a restaurant list to let them to follow in chef’s sainted clogs.

Of course few normal people, when pressed, can actually name even five working chefs and odds are they would mostly think of Ramsay, who isn’t in the book and Blumenthal who is, despite being more of a James May of food these days. But if you’ve heard of Harald Wohlfahrt, ‘in 2005 he was awarded the German Order of Merit’ then you can now find out what he likes for breakfast.

Some selected restaurants, like the chefs, are given short summaries, ‘Why not make a meal of it and stay the night as this restaurant has rooms?’ cheekily suggests one. Indeed and why not avail yourself of the well-stocked minibar while you’re at it? It is however good to know that De Pastorale ‘is one of the more famous restaurants in Belgium’ as, rather like famous Belgians, it’s often rather hard to think of any at all when put on the spot. This could be crucial information if you ever compete on Pointless or actually, and obviously inexplicably, do find yourself in Belgium.

The book also exists as an iPhone and iPad app and that would seem the best medium for it as it’s presumably searchable by keywords. It also means that it can be updated easily because restaurants, and indeed chefs, have a habit of disappearing or just falling out of fashion almost overnight. You wouldn’t want to arrive at the legendary De Pastorale only to find it had been turned into a mobile phone shop with chef now serving up Unlimited Text contracts.

This guide is perfect for those given to food fantasising – compiling gastro trips and dreaming culinary dreams. If you’re a restaurant spotter, don’t believe in Michelin stars, take critics’ recommendations with a large pinch of salt, or simply don’t like taking chances, then Where Chefs Eat should be Just What You’ve Been Waiting For.

{ISBN:0714865419}

Clockjack, Soho

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

14 Denman Street, Soho, London W1D 7HJ www.clockjackoven.com

It’s a wind up

Walk through any French outdoor market and you’ll find someone selling spit-roasted chickens from what looks like a modified fairground ride. These machines cook chooks twenty or thirty at at a time, rotating in a hypnotic synchronised dance as they slowly acquire a deep, golden crispy tan.

Walk through any English ASDA and you’ll see much the same thing; golden chickens with tasty promise. So if French itinerant traders can do it, and the green fleece of ASDA can do it, why can’t Clockjack?

The first thing that made J and I, both of us bird fanciers, twitch was the sight of the cooked  birds suspended in a glass case rather like museum exhibits and with the deathly pallor of a Streatham crackhead – pasty, ill-looking and worth reporting to the police. From across the room you could see the skin had all the crispiness of a wet flannel. We debated leaving there and then but decided that maybe these weren’t  the chickens we’d be eating. God knows what made us think that, blind optimism probably.

Seated at the clearly expensive wooden bar and perched unsteadily on natty stools, we were treated to the sight of a server plucking one of the fowl exhibits from its mausoleum and taking it to bits with poultry shears just inches from our noses. The smell of chicken fat was overpowering, the spectacle unappetising. If it were my restaurant I’d have the chickens dismantled well away from the punters’ gaze and done with noisy theatrical clean blows from a cleaver, not the squelchy sound of shears.

The room could certainly do with some livening up because at lunchtime it was mostly empty. No sounds, no atmosphere just the sight of the Brittany chickens morosely roosting and no doubt wondering what they had done to deserve such a fate. The rotisserie didn’t even have any chickens in it, just naked gas flames wastefully jetting into nothing and warming us globally.

We ate a whole chicken in ten pieces for £17.95 served with a selection of sauces shamelessly squirted into their bowls from plastic bottles behind the bar. Yes it happens in every restaurant, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but why not do it out of the customers’ sight for heaven’s sake?

The chicken skin was, as we guessed it would be, terrible. Greasy, lank and tasteless. Fit only to be peeled off like a soggy condom and as quickly discarded. The unseasoned meat was moist, verging on wet, and tasted of not much at all, not even chicken. The menu boasts that Clockjack’s marinade is a special secret recipe. The secret may possibly be that it’s just tap water.

We gamely ate it anyway; it was lukewarm but it was at least safely cooked through. The sauces were okay if you like synthetic tasting sauces – the chilli sauce was wussy and the Caesar was definitely not fit for an emperor. The chips were decently crispy but they tasted of fish for some reason, perhaps the oil needed changing, or maybe the bloke in charge of the fryer did.

And off we went, having paid £35 for a bird that didn’t fly, some so-so chips and two bottles of beer. For that money we could have done a lot better almost anywhere else in Soho.

This trendy fowl-up may get some innocents flocking in to spend their money, but it shouldn’t get the real bird spotters in a flap. The next time I fancy roast chicken I’ll wait until Sunday and cook my own, or go to ASDA and get one of theirs. At least I know it’ll be roasted right instead of being totally clocked..

Enter the rhubarb triangle

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

No false modesty here

‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.

‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell.  ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’

There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about.

The weigh in

We’re all on safari in the heart of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, the area of West Yorkshire where rhubarb is king, a top seasonal crop appreciated  by savvy chefs all over the UK. Each morning the forced rhubarb from here is picked and sent out by fast trains to discerning buyers across the country, including Harrods, where it fetches a high price.

I’ve tagged along with the pensioners’ day trip to the Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm to find out a bit more about a vegetable (often mistakenly classed as a fruit) that rather blighted my younger days. My father, like so many dads back then, always grew rhubarb on his allotment and it appeared, stewed and covered in claggy custard, every weekend during its season, the sour oxalic acid coating my teenage teeth and haunting my dreams.

It wasn’t of course quality rhubarb like this. Before ushering us into the ghostly sheds Janet, a fourth generation rhubarb grower, treats us to the history and practice of rhubarb growing, especially forcing.  Grown in the UK since 1870 and originally from Siberia, it’s a vegetable rich in flavour as well as having a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system and one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. There are even claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.

Listen carefully

Back in the day amateur growers like my father would place a bucket over the dormant rhubarb ‘crowns’ in winter so that when the shoots emerged in the spring they would be starved of light and blanched, so producing a lighter coloured stem and a more delicate flavour. After that initial first flush, the bucket would come off and we would then eat ordinary rhubarb until the longed for day when the bitter oxalic acid became finally too strong and it was time to let the plant get on with storing energy in its roots for the next year.

It’s this stored energy Janet explains, that the professional growers harness to create an even more delicate crop than blanched rhubarb; the famous Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Late in the year, once they’ve suffered the crucial cold spell they need to break their dormancy, the two or three year old rhubarb crowns are dug up from their fields to go into dark heated sheds where, seduced by the cosy warmth into thinking that Spring has sprung, they begin to quickly grow.

in the pink

With no light to photosynthesise by the emerging shoots have to call on that stored energy in their roots, which is enough to give them their remarkable growth spurt and to produce their uniquely tender and highly sought after delicate champagne pink stems. Once the growth is over, the exhausted crowns are chopped up and recycled back onto the land.

Not so long ago there were nearly 200 rhubarb growers at work in the triangle, but today there are less than twelve. It’s a shrinkage caused by the availability to the consumer of more tempting exotic fruits, by the increasing lack of the necessary cold autumns, the absence of ‘shoddy’, a cheap by-product of the woolen industry traditionally used as fertiliser, and the decline of the local coal mining industry that gave these sheds their relatively cheap source of heating.

Today bought-in fertiliser and expensive propane are what fuel the rhubarb’s growth and so drives up growers’ costs and the price to us in the shops. And then there are the cheaper, but far inferior, imports from Holland and Turkey to contend with.

£2.50 a packet at source

Traditional growers such as Janet hear the rumours of their industry’s imminent demise but believe the future is actually assured. As she explains, new varieties can adjust for the warmer autumns while modern insulation techniques now make the sheds cheaper to heat. As for the foreign imports, in 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) granted local forced rhubarb the same protected name status enjoyed by products such as champagne and Parma ham. Now no producers of rhubarb outside the West Yorkshire triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield can now pass off their forced rhubarb as the real thing. Hooray for DEFRA.

That night in London we cook the bunch of Janet’s forced rhubarb that I carefully carried all the way back to town. We make a simple but classic rhubarb crumble and the flavour is delicate, sour-sweet and delicious and, although Dad can’t see me because he’s now on the big allotment in the sky, I raise a custard-coated spoon in tribute to his taste; he was right all along, rhubarb really is rather excellent.

Visit Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm

Find rhubarb recipes