1. Hutong, the Shard. I won a meal at Hutong after taking part in the Cote de Rhone Chinese takeaway blogger challenge a few months ago. Last weekend, we made the (for me, stricken by vertigo, terrifying) journey high up the Shard to indulge in a leisurely four-hour, multi-course lunch in the gorgeous surroundings of Hutong. Resplendent with red lanterns, carved wood and ornate ironwork, you feel like you're eating lunch in old Shanghai or Hong Kong. We started with a pot of jasmine tea and some beautiful, delicate dim sum (crab; lobster; vegetable and bamboo; wagyu beef puffs; scallop and pumpkin; and some unusual dumpling parcels filled with a savoury, delicious meat broth that were unlike anything I've ever tasted before). Next came crispy duck, carved ceremoniously at the table, its lacquered skin sliced through like butter and placed in neat, glistening rows on a plate for us to enjoy with pancakes and hoi sin. The cocktails were incredible, presented like little glass-held meals in themselves, decorated lavishly with fresh herbs and fruit and bursting with unusual aromatic Eastern flavours.
Many thanks to Sopexa for the wonderful meal and whole dining experience.
2. Decadent Decaf coffee. I received a sample of this a couple of weeks ago; launched at the London Coffee Festival in April, it aims to challenge the general assumption that decaf coffee is barely worth drinking. For someone like me, who reacts badly (read: neurotically and quiveringly) to even small doses of caffeine, this is a sorry state of affairs, so I was glad to hear that some effort was finally being put into making decent decaf. From the same people who produce the lovely Sea Island coffee (which I mentioned around a year ago on this blog), Decadent Decaf is all about sourcing quality coffee blends, rather than trying to cut corners by extracting caffeine using chemicals and making up for this expensive process by using cheaper beans. Decadent Decaf uses the Swiss water process, which is a lot gentler on the bean, and starts with a high quality coffee product. I tried the Kenyan AA blend (the range comprises Indonesian, Costa Rican and Ethiopian coffee too), and although I don't normally like cafetiere coffee (I prefer espresso), a cafetiere of this was rather delicious, full-bodied and rich with none of that sad, watery flatness you sometimes get with decaf coffee. I'd be keen to see how the espresso blend compares to a normal espresso, too. Let's hope coffee shops around the country start serving this to fellow caffeine-avoiders like myself.
3. Growing my own. As I write this, the Yorkshire rain is steadily streaming down upon the dramatic, spiked leaves of a single courgette plant, sitting on the outskirts of the lawn, leaning slightly under the weight of seven or eight bright yellow, finger-sized fruits, some with gorgeous funnel-shaped flowers still intact. It's also running freely off the glossy, wrinkled leaves of nine Swiss chard plants, almost ready for picking and making into a feta and pine nut pie. It drips in droves off the huge, umbrella-sized leaves of two rhubarb plants, different varieties purchased at this year's and 2013's Wakefield Rhubarb Festivals which shot up foot-long, thick pink stalks before I could say 'crumble'. It runs down the slender stalks of a lemongrass plant, which has responded happily to my assiduous watering by sending up delicate new shoots, and gently shakes the leaves of a huge bunch of grapefruit mint, the leaves of which have been an incredible addition to all the south east Asian food emerging from my kitchen this summer. The droplets land occasionally on big pots of rocket, cabbage, salad leaves and radish, sheltered from the rain's full pelt by a tree, and gently sway the stalks of parsley, lemon thyme, oregano and basil. Purple French beans hang like silky, coiled slugs from the stalks of a single plant, awaiting harvest, while the blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes stand nude and bereft of fruit picked several weeks ago. In the greenhouse, gnarled green peppers ripen slowly on the plant, while green tomatoes grow rapidly from day to day, and two different varieties of chilli wait patiently to be picked. Sweetcorn shoots, bearing a single drop of morning dew, are awaiting planting out in the garden, and indoors there are pots of lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil, cucamelon, bergamot, dill, kaffir lime, pandan and lime basil.
I only started gardening about three months ago, but already I've enjoyed bowls of home-grown salad - so much more peppery and flavoursome than anything from the shops - stir-fries enriched with home-grown chillies, a breakfast peach cobbler fragrant with lemon thyme from the garden, and a handful or two of home-grown gooseberries in my crumbles. I can't wait for the next few weeks, when everything starts to ripen and I can gorge myself on sweet tomatoes and courgettes, sweetcorn and radishes. Growing your own is wonderful not just from a self-sufficiency point of view, and because everything tastes better, but the act of nurturing and cultivating a plant from seed is the ultimate in low-cost stress-relief. Of course, once my gigantic apple tree starts to drop ripe apples at the rate of fifty a day come autumn, I might find that stress starts to rise again...
5. Broad beans. Picked, actually, from the PYO farm (it's not all strawberries, you know), these beauties are one of the most satisfying ingredients to cook in summer. I love squeezing them from their furry pods, reminding me of a harvest song we used to sing when I was in primary school, featuring the line 'broad beans are sleeping in a blankety bed'. Wake them up from their blankety bed, then, blanch them briefly in boiling water then slip off the outer skin of each bean (takes a few minutes and I normally wouldn't bother, but the taste is much better and the texture much nicer - less bitter and more crunchy), then do what I did last week: toss them with boiled new potatoes (I used some given to me by a friend, that she grew herself, and they were delicious), chargrilled marinated artichoke hearts, slices of parma ham (or fried bacon/chorizo), chopped parsley and a dressing of olive oil, Dijon mustard and white wine vinegar. Only a few ingredients, but one of the best summery, satisfying, flavoursome meals I've had in a long time.