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.
Our main courses - stir-fried Iberico pork, Wu-han style cod, Red Lantern crab and braised beef with ginger and black vinegar - were all excellent, but the highlight had to be the crab. We were presented with a huge wooden basket, shaped like a lantern, filled with papery dark-red dried chillies, among which nestled several deep-fried soft shell crabs, tender and sweet in the centre with a crunchy, salty exterior. The beef was also gorgeous, meltingly tender with an addictive sweet-sour sauce, while the cod was lusciously fresh and buttery. Desserts aren't usually the highlight of a Chinese meal, but Hutong do a wonderful blueberry cheesecake, delicate and mousse-like, as well as a stunning guava sorbet that is a perfect end to a rich meal and which I can't wait to replicate at home. We also tried the glutinous dumplings with apple and cinnamon and sesame, which were more of a snack than a dessert but still interesting. Then came champagne, coffee, and finally - after wandering around enjoying the view (or, in my case, feeling my palms sweat as I peered out over London so far, far beneath my feet), we left that little slice of China to venture back out into the city.
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...
4. Picking my own.
My boyfriend pointed out the other day that, in the last three weeks, I've spent over £50 at the PYO farm. This horrified me to my very core. However, I do have quite a lot to show for it: a freezer packed with homemade strawberry frozen yoghurt; frozen gooseberries and blackcurrants to be showcased in crumbles and cheesecakes throughout the year; three bottles of homemade fruit vinegar (blackcurrant; raspberry and redcurrant; gooseberry); and a body that is surely healthier having gorged daily on antioxidant-rich berries for weeks. Pick your own is definitely cheaper than buying in the supermarket, kilo for kilo, but the temptation to fill huge punnets to the brim is high, so you probably end up spending more overall. Still, I think the hugely tactile and pleasurable experience of picking downy, velvety raspberries from their canes, stripping bouncy currants from their stalks or attempting to avoid thorns while reaching for a particularly plump gooseberry is one not to be missed, and a wonderful summer day out. If you have a glut of strawberries or raspberries, I'd recommend making frozen yoghurt: simply macerate the fruit in sugar, then put in a blender with some good yoghurt, a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice, then churn in an ice cream maker. It's the best way to preserve the freshness of those berries, which disappears after a day or so in the fridge. Gooseberries and currants freeze very well, though, so just wash and dry them then freeze in bags to use in baking or jam making at a later date.
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.