Fish Market restaurant, London

16B, New Street London EC2M 4TR www.fishmarket-restaurant.co.uk

The D & D restaurants are all a bit different in style, but all seem to aim at being somewhere to rely on, whether it’s towards the high end at Cog d’Argent or a little bit touristy like the Butlers Wharf Chop House.  Fish Market seems to be swimming right in the middle.

Occupying a part of the last of Devonshire Square’s ancient spice and storage warehouses to be converted, Fish Market is one of the more recent additions to the D & D portfolio of restaurants. There are at least twenty five of these in London, which must make them one of the most successful groups around, that is if you don’t count all the burger bandwagons.

It’s nicely placed to catch people passing down the lane to Devonshire Square’s main entrance and offers a menu that navigates unsurprisingly toward the fish side. But if you wanted a steak you wouldn’t have sat down in the first place.

Some rather steep stairs; there is a lift for the differently abled, lead from the patio to the main room which is decked out in a way that may resemble a trawler’s dining room, if I knew what one looked like. It’s certainly semi-industrial, as befits an old warehouse, and thankfully does not have any nets on the wall containing badly painted wooden fish or glass floats.

We decided to sit on the terrace though. D&D have covered this in large umbrellas, figuring not unreasonably that rain is never far away. This is fine but the clouds have gathered a bit and together with the black umbrellas have drained so much light from the area that I can’t even see J across the table, let alone the menu. The clouds soon move on though and it becomes visible.

There’s rather a lot to choose from and to make matters more difficult, there’s a specials board too. The latter is a good idea as fish availability can change so rapidly, but even so it’s from the main menu that we decide to eat with its range from fish finger sandwiches to a big old seafood (s) platter.

Salt and pepper squid, roast garlic and chilli catches my eye. It’s a dish I love, and while I know it won’t be as good as you get in Vietnamese restaurants, I want it still. As it turns out, and turns up, this isn’t a bad stab at all with the squid crispy and a decent mayonnaise to dunk it in. The bit that fails is the chili, instead of being fresh it’s semi dried and gets caught in the teeth. It doesn’t deliver the crunch and burn it should.

J has the Kedgeree Scotch egg, toasted almond and rocket salad which he reckons is fine, the egg golden and not grey and the fish assertive but not looking for a fight. It’s a good dish for this kind of place, reasonably filling, reasonably just behind the trend and reasonably priced.

We’re trying hard to not have battered cod and chips for mains, as it seems everyone else already is, but it looks so good resistance is getting a bit futile. Ever mindful of my svelte figure I do something odd and order steamed haddock. Now steamed fish is something that forever cries out ‘hospital food’ to me, but the mention of a poached egg on top drugs me into ordering it.

It’s much better than expected; the very fresh fillet has been curled onto its side to give it more plate appeal and the steaming has plumped it like a hospital pillow. When the perfectly cooked egg breaks over it there are good mouthfuls to be had with silky, subtle chives in a cream lapping at the base. I actually feel pretty virtuous eating it, not a feeling one normally gets in a restaurant.

J has also beaten the battered cod craving but has cheated by going for roast cod instead. It’s a mighty hunk of fish with the skin fried before it went into the oven so it has a good golden glow and crispness. Pea puree has been ‘skidded’ onto  the plate, which makes it look as if the fish only narrowly avoided shooting off the far side, but pea and cod go together well that this slightly retro presented dish is no car crash.

New potatoes for J and chips for me, the latter to undo any good work that eating healthily steamed fish has done. Not bad chips either, not as crispy as they could be despite being fashionably thrice cooked, but very edible nonetheless. When did chip shops ever serve crisp chips anyway?

And so to pud, but in fact we didn’t have any. Sometimes even we feel a little full. Verdict? No nonsense, sound cooking and well-priced especially the set menu. It feels a bit like a chain place and it isn’t fine dining, but it’s still smart and relaxed. It’s busy and certainly suits local office workers and those on lower budgets who don’t want to go somewhere where they have to eat artery-busting blogfood. Overall Fish Market maintains D&D’s rep for getting it right and being reliable and I make it my catch of the week.

Photographs from D&D website

elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food at Somerset House

I never ate at elBulli; I’d hazard a guess you never did either. The clientele seemed to be almost exclusively food writers for glossy consumer magazines and the trade press. And yet you almost certainly have eaten something inspired by a dish or technique that originated at elBulli. Like Vivien Westwood dresses, few people actually wear them but they do wear the clothes that derive from them.

elBulli wasn’t always a gourmet Mecca (by the way if you want to have real food cred you should know it’s pronounced El Buwee). Back in the 1960s it was just a bar serving drinks for patrons of the local golf course and run by a German, but a German with characteristically, a master plan.

He wanted a great restaurant and he hired good people and in 1984 Ferran Adrià, until then just one of the staff, was promoted to joint chef and the elBulli story began proper. It was a story that would lead to domination of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards.

Adrià would perhaps be still winning except he chose to close, perhaps recognising that everyone gets knocked off their perch eventually and it’s always best to jump. Nowadays the cooking of Scandinavia tends to dominate those awards, with the focus not so much on the laboratory as what chef can find in a skip or under a stone. Fashion in food is fickle and journalists need new things to be the first to discover and champion.

But with this major London exhibition, Adrià has his place in history assured. His maxim of creativity, not copying, can be seen in its gestation and finally its triumph as you wander through the rooms, with food becoming a concept and experience.

The way elBulli is talked about can all be a bit pretentious but anyone who has sat through Adrià’s conversation, he always says far too much and in far too long bursts for the translator to ever keep up, knows that he has more of a sense of humour than the curators of this show are prepared to admit, although they do include Matt Groening’s, the creator of The Simpsons, portrait of Adrià which raises a much needed laugh.

The artefacts from elBulli are in glass cases, as if they were flint headed arrows from the Bronze Age. Kitchen tools like Pacojet are exhibited, but as you can buy such things in the shops, their value comes from where they have been. And did those hands in ancient times walk these machines?

You can see elBulli’s collection of plasticine ‘food’, used to design the presentation and to be referred to for consistency. The strange and wonderful serving plates which, placed under glass and without food, begin to have the rather macabre look of instruments from a Victorian hospital.

It’s a well curated, imaginatively laid out exhibition with excellent use of audio visual. The sombre lighting and the glass cases however can make you forget that this is actually about food, something which should be joyous and flooded with light and laughter.

This can be remedied by going afterwards to the terrace where you can drink the beer of one of the sponsors, Estrella, who have teamed up with Ferran and brother Albert to have their recipes on the side of 4 packs of bottles of Estrella Damm.

It seems an extraordinary tie up, one that if done by Gordon Ramsay would earn him hisses and boos from the food community, but in this case they seem to be politely averting their gaze. Adrià still has a lot of clout and is rumoured to have a new restaurant in the pipeline and no one wants to be on the black list for that.

elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food runs at Somerset House until 29 September 2013

Daily 10.00-18.00 (last entry 17.15), until 21.00 Thursdays (last entry 20.15)except 26 Sept
Embankment Galleries West, South Wing
£10 (£8 concessions), £5 on Mondays (excluding Bank Holidays)

The Dysart Arms

135 Petersham Rd  Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AA www.thedysartarms.co.uk

I’ve walked past the Dysart Arms lots of times over the years on my way to Petersham Nursery, not that I’d go to that place now, not since Skye Gyngell left. Her long face looking out of the kitchen window like a disconsolate horse was never very cheering but the food was always interesting, if hellishly overpriced. Now it’s just hellishly overpriced..

The Dysart Arms is an old arts and crafts style pub that’s a pub no longer. Like so many it found it couldn’t survive on beer alone and so has changed hands and gone gourmet. A resulting internal refurb suffers a bit from the curse of Farrow & Ball, but they’ve resisted the temptation to paint absolutely everything cream. This means that it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in branch of Daylesford Organic, a place that sends me into a frenzy of hatred even just thinking about it.

Large flagstones, naked wood tables, grand fireplaces and original leaded windows all create a feeling of cosiness. To add to the happiness  the sun is streaming in ‘like butterscotch’ (thank you Joni)  while the staff are breezing efficiently about and helping me chase wasps back out the window as I have a pathetic fear of wasps. The set menu is a very reasonable £19.95 for three courses, but we’ve heard head chef  Kenneth Culhane is a bit good, a Roux scholar no less, so we hit the a la carte to see if the kitchen can cut it.

Little pre-nibbles that are, in young people’s eyes as naff as napkins and cutlery, are quite excellent, as is the soda bread. We wolf these down and wait for starters proper which immediately set our happy bells ringing when they arrive.

My veal sweetbread is exquisitely cooked, a little crusty on the outside and billowing on the inside. A black truffle vinaigrette blows heavenly wafts across the palate, while fresh almonds deliver a contrapuntal punch. The juices are dribbled and smeared, which again some people dislike seeing but remains the best way of making plates look good while spreading flavours around.

P has scallops, perhaps not on the surface an exciting choice but the squid ink dumplings, are clever and texturally interesting and deliver a colour contrast while the scallops themselves are well seared, plump and fresh. An insolia veloute comes as foam, again a bit old hat for some but it does deliver the flavours very efficiently to the taste buds even if it isn’t fashionable.

Service is relaxed but they know which dishes we are having, this may seem oxymoronic but  it’s surprising how many good restaurants still do the embarrassing plate shuffle at table when all it takes is a decent memory, or even a piece of paper, to get it right first time.

P’s main is a visual stunner, so much so that  I feel compelled to get the camera out again, but we are in a spot that’s clear of other customers and I am quick as a flash (without a flash).

The iridescent green of the herbal kaffir lime and green chilli sauce is hallucinogenic and sets off the beautifully crisped stone bass on its bed of sweet and nutty celeriac very well. P reports that the whole dish tastes sublime; so it’s not all presentation there is real method at work here as well, but then of course you’d expect no less from anyone who’s been in spatula range of a Roux.

My Wiltshire Heritage beef had been treated with loving respect so as to be properly pink and well rested. With this kind of quality ingredient you really just have to exercise old fashioned skill and resist the temptation to rush.

With my expert eye I quickly identified beetroot on the plate, then checking the menu discovered it was in fact heritage carrot, carrots once always being purple until the comparatively recent orange variety took over. Cut into disks and batons the carrot had the sweetness of old that got rather bred out along with the colour and so was captivating. The flavour of the meat set against the miso mustard sauce, rather an inspired sauce I felt, and the dusty sourness of sumac, one of my favourite spices was excellent.

As with my starter I was drinking the recommended bottled beer not wine, in this case a Goose Island IPA, and it was a revelation just how enjoyable a craft beer can be with well-crafted food. The joy of being able to take a good swallow, and not just sip, can’t be overstated.

We shared a Valrhona Jivra chocolate and praline bar partnered with fashionable salted caramel ice cream and grue de caco for dessert. I am not much for sweet things and I don’t really ‘get’ salted caramel, but this was again an elegant and enjoyable dish. Even better was the selection of cheeses, small but perfectly chosen and perfectly ripe.

Days before going to the Dysart Arms I was referring to it as the Dyson Arms. God knows why, because, as we found, it certainly doesn’t suck. See what I did there? Ah comedy. Seriously though, best lunch of the year, hands down.

Mango Tree and Pan Chai at Harrods

87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7XL  www.harrods.com

‘That fish is extremely rare, those three are on the endangered list and this one here is extinct as of ten minutes ago.’ The man itemising the fish on our sushi/sashimi platter didn’t really say that, but with the cost of the board coming in at £120 for two it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if he had.

You don’t eat cheap in Harrods Food Halls; from steaks to sashimi the prices make your eyes water and the water isn’t cheap either. It’s the kind of spending excess that makes dreadlocked white kids put wheelie bins through the windows of banks before heading off to pay £11 for a gourmet burger.

Looking at the menus at both Mango Tree, and its partner opposite Pan Chai, there is nothing that could be called averagely priced and yet at both places not only is every stool occupied there are people patiently queuing for their chance to whip out their wads. They are mostly tourists, many are Chinese and all are obviously not short of a bob or two.

It’s an unusual spot to have lunch, the Harrods Food Hall. It’s always a frantically busy place and there are no tables at almost all the food outlets, instead you eat at a bar. Why don’t people wander off to find somewhere cheaper, less crowded in the area? The answer is probably to do with comfort zones. Well-heeled tourists feel safe in Harrods, whereas walking the mean streets of Knightsbridge might feel a bit edgy.

There is no point moaning about the prices though; after all if you can’t afford to pay you shouldn’t have sat down. So J and I barely turn a hair when at Mango Tree we find six dim sum priced at £30 (including a bowl of Tom Yum soup), instead we just adopt an insouciant pose and raise our glasses of £15 champagne to two girls who are eyeing us up as possible sugar daddies. Luckily they cannot see my TK Max trainers.

Is the food any good? Well chef in charge for MT Harrods and Pan Chai is Ian Pengelley, who is also chef at the gigantic Gilgamesh in Camden, and he’s a seasoned Western Thai pro. I’ve always liked his food and style and here he has a top team and a budget for the best ingredients.

The Tom Yum soup is rich and fiery just as it should be, four plump prawns are playing submarines at the bottom and shimeji mushrooms are patrolling the surface. I’ve had lots of Tom Yums and this is as good as the best I’ve had, at least in the UK. Coughing on the chilli does not help with our insouciant poses, though.

The dim sum, a plate of fried and plate of steamed are very good, although I am no expert on dim sum.  I know what I like and let somebody else count the pleats. From the steamed selection the foie gras and scallop is quite divine and the prawn and chive also excellent.

We eat everything in two bites each, dunking in the soy sauce in between to eke out the pleasure. From the fried selection I especially like the juicy prawn entwined in a bird’s nest of fried noodle, the mix of crunch and yielding flesh is perfect. Duck spring roll is rich and filling and the taro and chicken croquette also stood out.

Over at Pan Chai dry ice is steaming away on our fish platter and you half expect a bloke playing a twin-necked guitar to appear out of it. The sushi and sashimi are all beautifully ‘plated’ and while I soon lose track of what is actually on the platter the menu reminds me: Foie gras, sea urchin, salmon, tuna belly, sea bass, tuna, salmon roe, grilled eel, jumbo sweet shrimp, scallop, yellow tail, tamago and  spicy salmon roll. The fresh wasabi is just hot enough to spike without making my nose explode.

Each chopstick tweezered piece demands slow contemplation, as you are metaphorically sucking on a £5 note. Service is discreet yet cheerful which is can’t be easy as some of the rich diners act very brusquely indeed.

You can if you want eat a bit cheaper at both places with some menu savvy, although don’t go for the Wagyu beef curry unless you have £60 to spare.

And while some will say you can get cheaper, and arguably better, versions of all this in Soho, well the answer is of course you probably can but that’s really not the point. Just about everything in Harrods costs more than it would anywhere else; it’s not Bluewater after all.

If you have a burning desire to spend some serious cash in what must be the most iconic store in the world, and you want to get something very decent and decadent for your money, then pull up a stool at either Mango Tree or Pan Chai and adopt a happy smile

Hens just wanna have fun

Nick Harman visits a Happy Egg Co farm to see if the hens are really smiling. Al Stuart takes pictures of birds.

There are just a few chickens to be seen in the area outside the hut at the Happy Eggs Co Bulbourne Farm in Tring, Hertfordshire. The farmer Jean-Paul (JP) Michalski reckons it’s because it’s too hot for them to come out, but it might just be because they’re camera shy.

They’ve had a lot of visiting journalists recently. Happy Eggs Co, owned and monitored by Noble Foods, are keen to show just how contented their chickens are and have been issuing invites to the press left, right and centre. So the 14,000 strong chook flock, housed in huts spaced across the 120 acre farm could be excused for having a ‘want to be alone’ moment.

Now of course serious food journalists would spurn such invitations, preferring to drop in totally unannounced or come over the wire at night dressed as anarchists. Well the first option wasn’t really practical for us and the second we dismissed because neither I nor the photographer wanted to get our noses pierced.

So there is the suspicion that, rather like a care home for the elderly warned of an imminent inspection, the managers have sent the moaners and troublemakers off for the day and shoved all the dead bodies into a locked room out of sight.

That’s cynical though. On this brilliant sunny day, the chickens we see do indeed seem very happy, although chickens tend to have a rather malignant expression at the best of times. Those that have braved the 30 degree plus heat outside are making contented ‘book book’ noises and drumming on the toes of our boots with their beaks like Gene Krupa after too much coffee.

‘All these young trees will soon grow to provide lots of lovely shade for them,’ says JP talking about the wild pear and other fruit trees planted in profusion about the shed area. The hen sheds, which resemble something out of Tenko, are themselves large and airy and are regularly dragged, literally, to new locations to give the hens pastures new to peck about in.

Novelty is important to chickens apparently, they are inquisitive creatures JP says, and this explains why structures normally seen in a kids’ playground are dotted about the hens’ large open areas. Chickens it seems, are girls who just wanna have fun.

Each morning the sides of the sheds are flung open and, when it isn’t so very hot, a tsunami of feathers floods out as the hens eagerly get outside to begin their day pecking at the ground, dust bathing and playing with the toys. Research has shown that bored, unhappy hens don’t just have a lower quality of life, they also lay less good eggs too.

In the sheds the smell is, well actually there is very little smell at all thanks to a grating that lets the droppings naturally fall away from the hens’ laying and sleeping areas. The hens are free to come and go as they please all day long and the hut design means that fresh air constantly passes in and up to exit through the top vents so making it pleasantly cool and breezy despite the sun beating on the roof.

The eggs the hens lay here in the semi shade roll gently to the back of the laying area where a small conveyor belt trundles them outside to be placed in boxes. It’s all very calm and the chickens are as docile as family pets; cheerfully nibbling at feed and taking water from the constant supply fed to their small beak-activated drippers.

JP picks up random chickens and strokes them, which they seem to enjoy, and he explains that he can tell the health of the hens from such inspections.  Hens apparently peck at each other when stressed so the feathers look bad and they would not be amenable to being picked up if they weren’t happy.

Of course the elephant in the hen house is what happens when the hens’ laying days are over? Well as you’ve probably guessed they are not given a lethal injection and full military honours burial in a plot overlooking the setting sun, but sold for meat to the far east.

The average life expectancy of a laying hen is fourteen months, when in fact they could live for over fourteen years, but old chickens do not lay satisfactory eggs for the supermarket buyers. JP does try and find the hens a life after lay, but with so many chickens becoming redundant all the time, only a small percentage can ever be rehomed.

Rather sad but the art of farming is one mixing pragmatism with decency. Happy Egg Co farms, as far as we could tell and were shown, are doing everything they can to ensure their hens are properly and ethically treated and the result is better eggs for everyone.

So pay the extra pence for Happy Eggs Co eggs when you’re next out shopping and see if you can taste the difference. Maybe you’ll end up happier too.

This article first appeared on Foodepedia

Streatham Festival Family Day

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Streatham Festival Family Day, a set on Flickr.

Categories: Uncategorized

Lounge Lover, Shoreditch

Art love

Lounge Lover is not a restaurant, the restaurant, Les Trois Garcons, is next door. This means that you’d best not turn up hungry because, frankly, you’re going to leave hungry too and quite possibly succumb to the lure of the chippy on the way home.

But of course you can tell this by looking at the menu; the food occupies two pages and the cocktail list about fourteen so you don’t have to be a genius to see where the focus lies. This place is a lounge, that non-U word for a sitting room, and here the idea is to relax on the gloriously mismatched but oh so desirable furniture and take on board a few drinks.

While doing this you can marvel at the decoration, everything from old French grandfather clocks to a rhino’s head stuffed and mounted and shot in mid roar – what do Rhinos need those enormous teeth for? Aren’t they vegetarians?

In general Lounge Lover looks like the interior of Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann’s mind, a riot of camp, colour and devil may care eccentricity with small private rooms tucked exotically away off the main drag. As my pal A says, and he’s been around, ‘notice how everything is portable? If this place ever went under about the only thing they’d have to leave for the receivers is the paint on the walls.

That’s unlikely to happen, the three chaps who own this, the restaurant, the coffee shop nearby and a chateau hotel in France, know what they’re doing. They set up Les Trois Garcons and Lounge Lover back when this area was a bit dodgy; now the locals are generally richer than the customers. But there is much more competition too, in what was a bit of a food and drink wasteland you can find any number of cool hangouts for the new media types.

Lounge Lover still impresses though, a place to slide into at night for some drinks and nibbles and the nibbles are what we are here for. Even so we order cocktails – after ten minutes hopeless gazing I end up just picking at random, perhaps subliminally influenced by its name ‘A bit on the side’. Why can’t they just number cocktails? I remember the shame of ordering a ‘Slow comfortable screw up against the wall’ back in the 80s and it doesn’t get any better as you get older.

So to the food, the nibble menu’s divided up into raw, cured, fried and sweet and so we take a punt on Codfish ceviche with Swedish marinade, seeing as how ceviche is still fashionable and I like it anyway. It comes on crispy endive leaves and is as good as ceviche gets. The Swedish marinade is a bit of a mystery, what would Swedes use? Crispbreads? But overall we find they slip down fast and easy.

A trio of burgers appear next. Now I’m no fan of burgers, not when so many are bigger than your head and a sloppy mess, but mini ones I can get along with. Duck and cucumber archad, Venison & lingonberry

Madonna sat here, apparently

Aged rump and foie gras are the act here served in mini brioche buns. Again brioche buns are usually very horrid things to serve a full sized burger in, but here their sweetness balances the meats well. It’s not safe to say too much about foie gras, there are a lot of people out there who are simply gagging to stuff up anyone who dares say they like it, but it was good. Best burger is the venison, the berry being classic accompaniment. I have no idea what archad is, sorry.

Sweet potato fries come with a bi curious dip of crème fraiche and chilli sauce, these fries are really rather good and a welcome change from potato chips whether thrice fried or not, while a bowl of battered squid with cumin, red chilli and fresh lime zap is a bit odd as the squid isn’t battered at all. However it is well cooked otherwise, as soft as a politician’s handshake as pliant as one of their policies. The zap lives up to its name and makes me cough. We order more cocktails, try to look sophisticated and order Shoashin braised pork belly with

Nordic apple plunge. The plunge is a kind of applesauce, but full marks for its name, which sounds far more exciting. The belly is taut as a six-pack, the collagens well broken down. It has enough chewiness to make it interesting to chew and applesauce and pork is a no brainer success.

It’s getting a bit dark and LL’ s real clientele are showing up, party people; you can tell the place comes into its own as the night gets old. But we are actually old so we order fresh hot donuts with three dipping sugars dill, cardamom and cinnamon and prepare to leave. The donuts are squidgy and small, which suits us fine, and the cardamom makes an unusual contrast to the sugary sweetness, almost rendering the doughnuts savoury.

We are still a bit peckish but make it home without kebabbing it. Lounge Lover is not a restaurant but the food isn’t bar food either, it’s a place for classy supper post fun and it’s certainly somewhere different and pleasant to put your feet up for a while.

The Sage Tea Maker designed by Heston Blumenthal

Don’t call it a kettle

You’d think that a thing like a kettle would be beyond improvement; it boils water and that’s all it does and all it needs to do. Of course you can make a kettle look more stylish, and there are some fancy examples out there, but the invention of the cordless kettle was probably the last innovation to come along since the first kettles that turned themselves off.

Actually in our household when I was growing up the self-cancelling kettle was a thing of wonder, we’d switch it on just to see if it really would turn itself off and, when it did, turn and soundlessly gape at each other in wonder. You have to remember of course there were only three TV channels back then so kids had to find amusement where they could.

So kettles can’t be improved? Well yes they can, stick Heston Blumenthal in front of one and he’s immediately thinking ‘what if’ and the result of such thinking is the Sage Tea Maker

The clue is in the name, we saw one demo’d, along with a bunch of other Sage products designed by Heston, a few weeks back, and although all the gadgets were very interesting, the Tea Maker piqued our interest most so we asked for a loaner to review.

The first thing you notice is that it’s heavy. The German glass is quality, as it needs to be with a £199 price tag.  It is of course cordless and the base station has a brushed steel look and is liberally bestowed with LCD display, buttons and lights. You don’t just turn this thing on, you programme it.

There is a simple plan here. Different teas require different brew times and different water temperatures. The Tea Maker sorts the latter out by having a thermostatic switch in the jug. At 100C (for black tea) the switch goes and the water stops boiling. Then comes the bit which will have new generations of small boys enthralled, the stainless steel tea basket filled with loose tea lowers itself into the water as if by magic, but in fact by hidden magnets, and sits there brewing for the pre-set time (strong, medium or weak).

At the end of that time, the basket rises back up again slowly and impressively. Your tea is ready and a ‘ping’ alerts you, that’s if you weren’t already sitting with your nose pressed to the glass breathlessly watching. The machine can be programmed to ‘keep warm’ so that even if you do wander off  and come back a few minutes later the tea will still be hot and can’t be over brewed as the tea leaves are out of the water.

The way we were

The Tea Maker has presets for perfectly brewed green tea, white tea, infusions etc. and can be custom programmed to your own preferences if, that is, you think you know better than Heston.

It also has a ‘boil water only’ pre-set so you can use it as a normal kettle. Perhaps best of all the Sage Tea Maker has a built in clock so you can set the thing up before bedtime and wake up to freshly brewed, non-stewed, piping hot tea. Now that’s progress on the old Teasmade idea.

If we had any criticisms it would be that black tea actually ends up a bit too hot, scalding in fact as it has no chance to cool down, and the stainless steel basket stains pretty much immediately with tannin and needs constant scrubbing to keep it looking nice. Oh and did we mention that the Tea Maker costs £199?

But these are minor gripes to the person that is a true tea fan and has the money to spare to indulge their passion. The Tea Maker’s build quality, as well as its cleverness, justifies the price tag just about and if there’s nothing on the telly you can always have fun making some tea.

Buy it at Lakeland, Amazon or John Lewis

Walking with sheep

A 180 km trek is nothing to the sheep of the Lot Valley during their annual Transhumance. Nick Harman pulls on his boots and falls in behind

‘They aren’t moutons, they are brebis,’ explains shepherd Frédéric Lestang in the heavily accented, semi-patois French of the Lot valley. As we talk his dogs fall back through our legs and chase along any straggler ‘ewes’ from the 700 strong flock we’re driving down a narrow stone-walled path. The ewes pack together tightly as the walls funnel them in but they maintain their pace, clearly happy to be on the move.

Which is just as well as they’ve just begun a journey of fifteen days, one which will see them leave behind their winter pastures in the Lot valley and ascend 180 kilometres to the dormant volcanic slopes of the Cantal. Here fresh grass and wild flowers watered by the melted snow will feed them summer long while their pasture back in the Lot burns away in the heat. Frederic himself will live in a ski lodge alongside his flock until late August before they all descend in time for the ewes to give birth to their lambs, the ‘product’ that makes the money.

Behind us is a motley crew of walkers of all ages, skipping as they try to avoid the natural waste products dropped by the flock ahead of them. This is the Transhumance 2013, a sustainable and ancient practice newly restored to life that anyone can join in with for a morning, a day or even the whole fifteen day journey.

We’d left our initial starting place, the little village of Espedaillac, to the sound of accordions and long speeches and fuelled by wine, beer and chunks of barbecued lamb. The brebis had surged out of their pen like a woolly tsunami, all baa’ing loudly and clanking the bells they wear. Brilliant late afternoon sunlight soon replaced the earlier clouds and we began to regret wearing so many clothes as the walking became more demanding.

Each stage of the transhumance is calculated to be about right for an averagely healthy person as well as for the brebis and each ends with a welcome party in the village stop. After eating and drinking a coach is provided to take the walkers back to their cars. All walkers can book a stage ahead of time and be helped with a selection of B&B, hotels and gites.

The Transhumance project has only been running a few years but already it’s a great success, an example of how different government, tourist and agricultural groups can work together to create an event that is good for everyone and is great fun too. I spoke with village mayors along the route, as a well as with shepherds and fellow walkers, and the mood was consistently upbeat; one couple had even come all the way from Colorado, USA to take part.

Walkers can take time out from the stages whenever they want to visit the remarkable medieval towns and villages dotted all over the Lot. Places such as St Cirque La Popie, a town perched as if contemplating suicide over a steep drop into the Lot valley below, its streets and small shops populated by self-professed artists. Andre Breton had a house here and the views he had down into the valley are giddying, as no doubt were the surrealist friends who came to visit him.

Also nearby is Figeac, another of the transhumance stops, with more lanes snaking past houses built back in the distant past. But if all this antiquity gets a bit much though there is the Champollion museum, a modern masterpiece created from the shell of the house where the man who cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone was born.

Everywhere in the region you can eat well; this is the land of duck, saffron, cheese and in season, gorgeous truffles and ceps. I started my mornings with the local Rocamadour goats cheese drizzled with honey, a treat only to be enjoyed in the region as it’s best eaten at just six days old and doesn’t travel.

But I certainly travelled and after a few pleasant hours of walking on that first evening, taking in lungful’s of clear air filled with the aroma of emerging leafy growth, wild garlic and herbs, we crested a rise and suddenly we were on the edge of a drop with a view that had me stepping back involuntarily. Far down below us we could see the monastery of a village, shrunk to train set size by the distance.

‘That’s where we spend the night,’ said Frederic as the flock began the almost vertical descent down string-thin paths used for centuries by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The path was soon churned up by the sheep ahead and we found ourselves careering downhill  slightly out of control, boots sliding on boulders as round as marbles, frantically waving our arms and grabbing onto trees, as well as each other, to remain upright.

After fifteen minutes we landed, marching proudly behind what I was now beginning to consider ‘our flock’ and delivering hearty ‘bonsoirs’ to French villagers as they emerged from their houses in the gathering twilight to see us pass by. The younger ones gawked in amazement and the old ‘mamies’ and ‘papies’ smiled broadly, no doubt remembering seeing the transhumance back in their youth.

In the monastery grounds a traditional band had struck up old songs, the barbecue was grilling lamb and chicken and stalls were serving  the local delicacy ‘pastis’, a  saffron pastry not the drink, which was being quickly sold to hungry walkers. I sat myself down gratefully on a bench by a trestle table and greedily filled my plate with lamb chops, their fat crispy and rich and the meat beautifully pink and moist.

A large plastic cup of red wine from Cahors to the south made it a meal that was the equal of anything I’ve eaten anywhere. Sometimes the meal that you’ve earned with your muscles tastes better than anything else in the world.

I rested my weary legs, felt healthier than I had in an age and began looking forward to getting back to my hotel, and then next morning after a good breakfast with that goats cheese figuring strongly, getting back on the trail and walking behind the brilliant brebis once more.

The Transhumance will take place again next year  www.transhumance.info/participez/

Thanks to www.tourisme-lot.com and  www.valleedulot.com for their invaluable help

 This piece appears on Foodepedia

A bite on the ocean wave

Cruise ships can have a bit of a dodgy rep when it comes to food, but P&O’s Azura has plenty to make even fastidious foodies fall in love. Nick Harman waddles up the gangplank

It’s not the first time I’ve eaten Indian food with the sensation that the room’s moving up and down, but it’s the first time that it really is. I’m in Sindhu,  Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar’s restaurant at sea, a fine dining palace on top of Azura, one of the world’s largest cruise ships.

The mysterious Isle of Wight

Azura had sailed earlier from Southampton and, even before the sun had set over the Isle of Wight, I was nosing about Sindhu to see how it was possible to create true Michelin star Indian dining on the ocean wave.

The decor certainly looks the part; dark woods, sumptuous booths and the aromas from the kitchen, or as we salty sea dogs say, the galley redolent of fine dining. With grills going and even a tandoori oven, the kitchen looks like any other professional Indian kitchen, except for the extra lips and edges needed to stop pans sliding around in any rough seas.

Guess who?

Normally Atul leaves Sindhu in the very capable hands of its head chef, but he’d left his Mayfair restaurant Benares and Saturday Kitchen and all the other commitments of a Michelin starred chef, to personally come aboard as part of P&O’s food and wine themed cruise from Southampton to the Mediterranean and back. When he flew home in four days’ time, having conducted a master class, a visit to a Spanish fish market and a Q&A session with passengers televised for the whole ship, Eric Lanlard of Channel 4 Baking Mad fame would come on board to demonstrate fine patisserie and after him wine expert and bow tie aficionado Olly Smith.

Full steam astern

Food features heavily on cruise ships of course; in fact one old cruising hand told me that the smarter ladies bring along extra dress sizes to allow for the inevitable expansion as they sail along. Few cruise companies take it quite as seriously as P&O though. On Azura, along with Sindhu, there are two more fine dining restaurants as well as the more standard buffets, grills and pizza places. Everyday good food is included in the cost of the ticket, but if you want to dine in places like Sindhu a small extra charge is made on each visit. For Sindhu it’s £15 and gets you appetiser, pre pudding and petits fours into the undoubted bargain.

The first night we left our cabin with, amazingly, an actual balcony, to try out The Glass House. Here Olly Smith selected wines are by the bottle or by the glass, courtesy of the clever Inotec inert gas system that keeps the wine fresh. The decor was modern and stylish and the ship stabilised so well that the only clue we were off the coast of France was the almost imperceptible movement under our feet. The ship sails slowly, not to save fuel but to keep things smooth, and Azura moves through the sea like a block of flats on castors. Bad sailors have no worries here and we tucked into a cool Modern European menu with gusto before wobbling off to sample the wide choice of entertainment on offer shipwide.

Chef in action

Next day was a cooking Masterclass with Atul himself. Softly spoken, self-deprecating and witty, Atul enthralled his audience as, with us looking on closely, he cooked some signature dishes, answered questions about himself and his career and gave lots of cooking tips before serving a memorable lunch of spider crab, tandoori chicken and sea bass that was as good as anything I’ve ever eaten in his main restaurant in Berkeley Square.

It wasn’t the last we’d see of Atul though, a day later docked in the Galician port of La Coruna, a group of us joined him on a visit to a Spanish fish and vegetable market, followed by a delicious lunch in a stylish restaurant overlooking the harbour, a meal so good we only just made it back to the ship before it sailed, earning us all a good natured rebuke from the captain over the ship’s tannoy.

Seventeen is another of Azura’s special restaurants, one where old style fine dining rules. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone do crepes suzette at table and the leaping flames made me fear for my black tie outfit – Azura likes to have the occasional formal evening and dressing up like Bond is all part of the fun. Seventeen’s menu and style is knowingly old-school but none the worse for that.

Days in harbours are followed by days at sea and as we crept closer to the Mediterranean, the skies lightened and before long the swimming pools were filling up and the suntan lotion was being sloshed about. There’s plenty to do on board, but a highlight each afternoon is the inclusive afternoon tea as good as any London hotel’s and served in high formal style in the main restaurant.

Bird watching

The good natured staff, mostly from the Far East, probably wondered what it was all about but served us dainty sandwiches and guilty pleasure cakes, with the genuine friendliness and good nature that characterised all the staff on board. After tea there’s only one clever thing to do and that’s either slump out around the adults’ only pool at the stern or doze in front of the giant Seascreen cinema that dominates the larger family deck area.

We were getting pretty used to the sea going lifestyle by now, one that requires you to do nothing more strenuous than walk the long corridors to your cabin, or if you’re feeling guilty about all that eating, to take the stairs – Azura’s lifts serve a mind-boggling 16 decks in all.

We tried the inclusive buffet one lunchtime, fearing the worst, but it was really rather good offering something for all tastes and plenty of it, and as soon as one section threatened to get low, more freshly prepared food was on its way.  Breakfasts too were epic, you could eat a dainty breakfast of fruit juice, croissants and compote, or you could load your plate with a Full English that was dangerously good with proper bacon and sausages, and not those strange frankfurtery things that foreigners seem feel are what Brits want to eat.

Market day

We could only spare three days of this 15 day voyage and so debarked at Gibraltar for a flight home. The plane takes off from a runway that crosses a main road and so the traffic has to stop, and as we recovered from the surreal sight of accelerating past waiting cars, the plane banked over and we could see the Azura, finally docked next to something even larger; the Rock of Gibraltar.

We envied the passengers going the whole way to Monaco, Italy and around the Med; with Eric Lanlard next and then Olly Smith, because the sun was only going to get hotter and the food was only going to get even more deliciously and waistline threateningly tempting.

See Eric Lanlard’s video

P& Cruises will be running a 28 day food and wine themed cruise in November 2013 on the Azura’s sister ship Adonia. Chefs on board will include Eric Lanlard with more to be announced. Prices start from £2,399 per person from Southampton. To find out more visit www.pocruises.com

P&O ship Ventura sails on August 18th for the Meditteranean. The price of £999 per person includes inside cabin, meals and entertainment. To find out more visit www.pocruises.com