When I was a child, I used to collect the Michelin ‘I-spy’ books. These were little pocket guides to various aspects of the natural world – birds, flowers, rock formations – that gave detailed and illustrated overviews of the various things you might encounter within these genres, and a handy checklist for you to tick off whenever you’d seen one. While the guide to exotic frogs remained largely unticked during family holidays to rainy National Trust properties throughout the UK, I had largely more success ticking off fossils, plant and bird life, getting incredibly excited when I encountered a new bird species or tree that I could proudly tick off as ‘done’. It’s a habit I’ve retained in adulthood with countries of the world, although unfortunately this is a far more expensive hobby than ticking off different types of fern.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, because it struck me that one could so easily write a handy checklist on the theme of the ‘British summer’. You get the idea: a useful collection of components that, combined, constitute this most elusive and sought-after of times, and that you can tick off as the mercury starts to rise from June to September. Spotted a hailstorm or flash flood in May? Summer is nearly here! Being forced to eat warm, squashed strawberries from the punnet at every impromptu ‘picnic’ in June? Definitely getting tropical. Pasty flesh gratuitously on display in the park in July? It must be a scorcher.
Such a checklist should comprise all of the following:
- Barbecue implements moved to the front aisles of the supermarket
- Signs up on the tube advising people to carry a bottle of water
- Gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants on sale at the supermarket
- The Great British Bake Off on television
- Topless men parading their scarlet sun-scorched flesh around
- Goosepimpled flesh on those who brave the unpredictable climes in a maxidress
- A direct positive correlation between the ambient temperature and how many sausages and beefburgers the shops have sold out of
- Someone bemoaning that the countdown to Christmas has begun
- People with their legs out who really shouldn’t have their legs out.
- Ditto feet.
- Strange new fashion trends
- The word ‘heatwave’ in newspaper headlines
And, finally: the all-pervading presence at parties of a certain British gin-based cocktail involving lemonade, mint, cucumber and a variety of fruits, often served far too sweet and lukewarm in plastic cups with an unappetizing brown froth coagulating on the top.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has an aversion to this oh-so-British summer beverage of choice. I find it far too sweet and sickly, and am not a huge fan of putting mushy fruit in the bottom of my cup whatever I’m drinking. Summer, for me, means either gin and tonics (pure and simple), or a gorgeous chilled glass of white wine. White wine makes far more sense in summer, I think, than sickly cocktails: its crisp dryness is a beautiful foil for all those rich, vibrant dishes we like to whip up on the barbecue as soon as the sun comes out. For me, the sight of a glass of pale gold wine, condensation beading on the outside, and the thought of what crisp, dry, refreshing pleasures lie within, can’t really be beaten.
With that in mind, I was thrilled to be asked to take part in the
Chablis Blogger Challenge for 2014
, tasked to design recipes that would work perfectly with a glass of Chablis for the summer months. My mission here: to convert advocates of sickly-sweet summer cocktails to the much more subtle and sophisticated delights of a crisp glass of Chablis. With this in mind, I’ve designed a three-course summer menu based around all the elements you’d find in our classic British summer cocktail: mint, cucumber, strawberries, apple, lemon, orange and gin. Instead of being left to stagnate tragically in their brown sugary bath, though, these ingredients are treated with love and care, used to enhance a range of light, fresh, zesty summer dishes that are perfect for both indoor and al fresco eating, and all work beautifully with Chablis wine. No soggy cucumber slices or flaccid mint leaves here.
The two wines in question are the Domaine Servin 2012 and the Pascal Bouchard 2012. Both are classic examples of Chablis, with the characteristic flinty finish and refreshing crisp dryness. I found the Bouchard slightly lighter and sweeter, with subtle lemon and floral notes, while the Servin was crisper with more of a citrus tang and slightly more body to it. Chablis is an excellent all-round white for pairing with food – it’s fairly light and fresh, so won’t overpower your dishes. It’s particularly good with light cheeses, seafood and white meats, although you can basically drink it with anything – I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Chablis a few years ago, touring the vineyards and eating some of the fabulous local food, and I can confirm that I tasted nothing which wouldn’t be washed down well by a glass of the stuff.*
*Apart from andouillette, which is a sausage made from the colon of a pig and tastes like a sausage made from the colon of a pig. Sorry, die-hard aficionados of local cuisine…this is the only thing I’ve ever had to spit out while eating.
To start, then: oranges are the star. Not a slice suspended in a drink, but the fragrant zest grated in soft, aromatic curls into a pan of melted butter, then used to baste plump, sweet scallops. The scallops are caramelized and burnished on each side, juicy and tender in the centre, and cosseted with luscious orange-infused butter and a hint of coriander. You should never do very much to a scallop in the kitchen: they’re best simply pan-fried in butter, but here the orange provides a delicate, fragrant lift that works beautifully with their subtle sweet flesh.
Normally I’d recommend a particular wine to match each dish, but both Chablis wines worked equally well with this lovely summer starter. It’s quite rich, given the butter and the meaty scallops, so you need the flinty, mineral finish of Chablis to cut through all that, and both wines perform the job very well. This is just such a gorgeous dish to serve at an al fresco dinner party: it’s elegant, almost no work at all, and an absolute pleasure to eat. If you’re feeling rich, buy more scallops and have it as a main course with a side salad and some good bread to mop up the buttery juices.
Next, we rescue cucumber, apple and mint and turn them into a crunchy, zingy summer salad with some finely shredded fennel, a dollop of tangy mustard and a spritz of lemon juice. Good on its own or with any rich ingredient – most meats, fish and cheeses (a bit like Chablis in that respect!) – this here is a wildly successful partner to the most beautiful, succulent fillet of salmon you’ll ever eat in your life. It’s marinated in maple syrup and dark soy sauce, seared to crisp it up, then baked in the oven in this luscious, sticky mixture. The caramel notes of the glaze and its colour remind me of the syrupy-sweetness of the cocktail I’m trying to deconstruct, but infinitely better. Salmon is quite an oily, buttery, rich fish, and combined with the maple and soy glaze you have something that is almost butterscotch-scented, but in a deeply moreish savoury way – it’s not too sweet, just addictive enough. You’ll want to mop up every last drop of that glaze with the crisp salad: the tangy sweetness of the apple, mild crunch of cucumber and freshness of mint are a perfect counterpoint to all that treacly maple flavour.
Although the salad cuts through that unctuous salmon nicely, the crisp bite of Chablis lifts everything and turns this into a real treat dish. Again, both wines would work very well, but I had a slight preference for the Servin, which was slightly bolder and more assertive, with a little more body to counteract the richness of the fish. Serve it very chilled with the just-baked, piping hot, syrupy salmon.
Finally, lemon, gin and strawberries are given centre stage in a very rich, moist, buttery summer cake that is as good warm with a dollop of ice cream for pudding as it is served alongside a very British pot of tea. This is an absolute beast of a cake, packed with bolstering almonds and polenta, which also has the bonus of being gluten-free. It has a very moist, buttery crumb, rippled with lemon zest and juice. Then, though, we take strawberries and macerate them in gin, lemon and sugar. Gin is underrated in the kitchen: it has all sorts of beautiful aromatics at work that can really heighten the flavour of certain foods. The strawberries are scattered over the cake batter where they sink and collapse in the heat of the oven, strewing their sweet, perfumed juice throughout the crumb. A sprinkling of toasted pistachios stops everything from being too sweet, and adds a pleasant crunch.
I think the Bouchard is best to accompany this, as it’s slightly lighter and sweeter than the Servin. The beauty of this cake is that it isn’t too sweet; rather, it’s dense and buttery and crumbly, perfect against the flinty mineral notes of the Chablis. If you still have some wine in your glass after the salmon (and if not, pour some more!), there’s no need to quaff it quickly before dessert arrives, as a little Chablis with this cake is a very pleasant way to end the meal, on a fresh, bright, citrus note.
These ingredients are all, undoubtedly, classic components of the British summer food checklist, and can be transformed into so much more than soggy dice at the bottom of a plastic cup, given a bit of thought. This is a beautifully balanced summer menu, with plenty of citrus and freshness to brighten the palate. The colours are bold and vibrant, the flavours and light and aromatic, and it's easy to put together for a crowd or just for two. It's a great complement to these two excellent bottles of Chablis, either of which would pair well with the rich components - butter, scallops, salmon - and complement the citrus undertones of the menu. While many of you no doubt retain a preference for our favourite British summer cocktail, I hope this might persuade you to branch out and try a crisp Chablis as the beverage of choice for your next summer gathering. Add it to your own personal summer checklist.
Thanks to Sopexa for inviting me to take part in the challenge.
Seared scallops in orange-infused butter (serves 2):
- Ten small or six large scallops
- Salt and pepper
- 30g butter
- Zest of an orange
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Coriander leaves, to garnish
Heat the butter in a small saucepan until melted, then add the orange zest. Turn the heat off and leave to infuse for a few minutes.
Pat the scallops dry with kitchen towel, then season well with salt and pepper. When ready to cook, spoon a couple of tablespoons of the infused butter into a frying pan and add the oil. Sear the scallops on a high heat for a couple of minutes on each side, spooning over the melted butter as you go to baste them, then divide between two plates. Spoon over a little of the infused butter from the saucepan, then garnish with coriander. Serve immediately.
Maple-glazed salmon with apple, fennel, cucumber and mint salad (serves 2):
- 40ml maple syrup
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- Salt and pepper
- 2 salmon fillets, skin on or off
- 1 tbsp rapeseed oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp wholegrain mustard
- Salt and pepper
- 1 bulb of fennel
- Half a cucumber
- 1 granny smith apple
- A small bunch of mint, leaves picked
First, marinate the salmon. Mix together the maple syrup, soy, garlic and some salt and pepper in a shallow dish, then add the salmon and coat well in the mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour, turning occasionally.
To assemble the salad, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, salt and pepper. Finely slice the fennel using a sharp knife or a mandolin. Halve the cucumber lengthways and scoop out the seeds, then cut into thin slivers. Cut the apple into thin matchsticks. Toss with the dressing, then shred the mint leaves and toss these in too. Taste and check the seasoning – you may want a little more lemon juice or salt.
To cook the salmon, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Heat the rapeseed oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat, then sear the salmon (remove it from the marinade but reserve the marinade) for a minute on both sides if it is skinless, or just on the skin side if the fillets have the skin on. Put the salmon in an ovenproof dish, spoon over the marinade, and cook for around 8 minutes or until the salmon is still a little pink in the middle (this will depend on the thickness of the fillets). Serve the salmon with the salad, with the glaze spooned over.
Lemon and pistachio polenta cake with gin-macerated strawberries [gluten-free] (serves 10):
- 300g strawberries, hulled and halved
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- 1 tbsp gin
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 220g soft butter
- 220g golden caster sugar
- 200g ground almonds
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 eggs
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- Zest of 2 lemons
- Juice of half a lemon
- 110g polenta
- Pinch of salt
- 4 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped
First, put the strawberries in a bowl and toss with the lemon juice, gin and caster sugar. Set aside. Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin.
In an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on a high speed until thick and creamy. Add the almonds and vanilla extract, then beat for a couple more minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each, then fold in the baking powder, lemon juice and zest, polenta and salt.
Pour into the prepared tin. Scatter the strawberries over the top, followed by the pistachios. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until the cake is firm with only the slightest wobble. Allow to cool in the tin then remove and serve.