It’s a savoury recipe! We all know what that means. Winter, or as it shall henceforth be known, the ‘anti-food-blogging season’, is over, and with its welcome departure come lengthy summer evenings, with the sun still high enough in the sky to guarantee reasonable photo opportunities for one’s dinner. People often ask me why I chose to move to Denmark, and although my usual response is a raised eyebrow and the simple statement ‘er, they offered me money’, I think I might now answer by pointing out the excellent food photography conditions provided by the languid, almost never-ending Scandinavian twilight.Read More
The other day, I bought a bunch of candy beetroots from my local market. I’ve never seen them there before, and because they are one of the prettiest ingredients you can buy, I snapped them up eagerly. ‘Have you tried these candy beetroot things?’ the lady behind the stall asked me. She was making polite conversation, but probably got more than she bargained for. Instead of a casual ‘yes, they’re great’, I proceeded not only to tell her all the best recipes for candy beetroot, but also the correct methods of cooking it so as to preserve its unique coloration (steaming in foil), the best utensils for the job (mandoline), and its Italian name (chioggia).Read More
‘Sometimes simple is good’, my boyfriend intoned while eating this. Although I would put most of my cooking under the ‘simple’ bracket, the ninety minutes or so it inevitably takes me to make a meal every night might suggest otherwise. While I don’t begrudge any time spent in the kitchen, I think I do have a tendency to eschew the overly simple out of some kind of strange culinary logic whereby a meal only tastes good if you’ve spent ages faffing around over it and it contains at least three separate components. This fifteen-minute pasta dish has proved me wrong.Read More
Who needs E numbers and artificial colourings when you have the splendid, radiant palette of Mother Nature? Think of the vivid hot pink of a slender stalk of early season rhubarb, or the luscious magenta of a heavy, ripe raspberry; picture the coral, pearly inside of a freshly cut fig or the eye-popping green of a blanched broccoli stalk. These colours are something for the cook to get excited about; they make preparing a meal as much of a joy as eating it. It’s rather ironic that the slogan ‘taste the rainbow’ was adopted by Skittles to sell their sweets, whose artificial colours are a sorry simulacrum of the spectrum real food has to offer.Read More
1. Caramelised peach, grilled chorizo, avocado and almond salad. I wasn't going to blog about this, but then I took some sad-looking things out of the fridge, did a bit of cookery magic, chucked them into a bowl with a liberal dousing of vinaigrette (made using some delicious hazelnut mustard that I bought from a deli in France), took a bite, and started scribbling furiously in my recipe notebook. I love using peaches in savoury recipes (particularly when they're starting to wrinkle and look a bit unappetising...), and they go amazingly well with any kind of salty, cured animal product - prosciutto is a classic, but chorizo also works wonders, I discovered. Crisp up some thick slices of chorizo in a frying pan, brown some almonds in the brick-red oil it releases, throw in the peaches briefly to caramelise, then toss it all with some salad leaves, cubed avocado, thinly sliced red onion (mixed with a little cider vinegar for a few minutes to take the edge off it) and the aforementioned dressing (mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, seasoning). It looks a treat and is an incredible medley of flavours and textures. This is the kind of salad that you feed people who think they don't like salad. It's great for your health and happiness, without being worthy. Speaking of not being worthy, this brings me on to number two...Read More
"I think I'm going to smoke something this weekend!" I announced excitedly to my friends last week. There were raised brows and quizzical looks. As probably the most straight-laced person in the entire universe, someone who has never in her life been properly drunk, stayed up all night, got in trouble at school, inhaled a cigarette or toyed with the boundaries of the law, someone who would much rather have a quiet evening in with friends and go to bed at 10pm than attend a party or - heaven forbid - a club, someone who is, let's face it, boringly calm and neurotic and ripe for a career as a cat lady, their surprise at my suggestion of forthcoming tobacco/illegal substance consumption is perhaps unsurprising.Read More
My arrival in Indonesia was not under the most pleasant circumstances. My plane from Borneo was delayed for nine hours, leaving me stranded at (probably) Malaysia’s tiniest airport after all the shops shut with nothing to eat except for the complementary KFC offered by the AirAsia team when it became clear that, despite the assurances of the man in uniform waiting at the gate that the plane was ‘not delayed’ (he maintained this brave pretence for a good three hours after the time when the plane was supposed to have taken off), the plane was clearly not taking us anywhere anytime soon. I made friends with three very funny Malaysian boys who coaxed me intro trying some of their KFC and found my reluctance absolutely hilarious. I had to cave, after about seven hours. I was expecting this crossing over into the dark side to be sinfully delicious, to initiate me into the guilty pleasures of fast food that I have, for so long, abstemiously avoided. In actual fact, I ate the withered, flabby, tasteless chicken burger in dismay, finding it tasted of very little except the hard-to-place ubiquitous flavour of mass-produced spongy carbs and soggy batter.Read More
Before I even go into the wild and wonderful merits of this beautiful dish, let’s just revel for a second in the fact that it’s called ‘amok’. Apparently this is simply a Cambodian term for cooking a curry in banana leaves, but I don’t think we use the word ‘amok’ enough in English and so let’s take a moment and think about how we can incorporate it more into our lives.
Good. Now you’ve done that, let me tell you about the beautiful amok.Read More
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.Read More
Few people seem to know what to do with a persimmon. In fact, most people I know have never encountered them before. They’ll either hear me mention one and say ‘what’s that?’, or they’ll glance over at it in the fruit bowl and look confused. I can kind of understand why: persimmons do resemble large, squat orange tomatoes, so seeing them nestled there amongst the bananas, apples and pears might seem a little odd (even though the tomato is, of course, technically a fruit). I explain the unique qualities of this fine fruit, tell them how good it is in a variety of dishes…and then of course they say ‘Oh right’ and promptly forget, assuming this is another of my mad fruit whims to be humoured and then quickly disregarded.Read More
Among several recipe instructions that are guaranteed to make my blood boil is the phrase ‘brown the meatballs on all sides’.
Now, I know a qualification in mathematics is not an essential requirement for the amateur or professional chef, or indeed the humble recipe writer. But it doesn’t take Archimedes to figure out that meatballs are, in fact, spherical. This means that firstly, they do not actually have sides, and, secondly, the act of browning them entirely over their total surface area is logistically impossible.Read More
Have you ever tried whitecurrants? I bet you haven't.
Even I, until today, had never tried whitecurrants, and I've tried a lot of weird and obscure fruits and vegetables. I bet you go your entire life without ever seeing whitecurrants in the supermarket or market; in fact, you may never see them in the flesh at all, unless you're lucky enough to spend a lovely couple of hours at a pick your own farm that has them (and even then, space is usually devoted to the more popular red and black varieties). Or, of course, unless you're lucky enough to have a PhD supervisor who frequently bestows her home-grown fruit and veg on you.
She referred to them as 'a challenge', and it's not hard to see why. You can't exactly pick up a cookbook and find a selection of recipes for whitecurrants. The only recipes I've ever seen are in a tiny chapter devoted to the fruit in Nigel Slater's Tender Part II. Even there, he remarks upon the sourness of the currants and therefore their difficulty as happy bedfellows with other ingredients. There is, though, a luscious-looking whitecurrant tart that I have my eye on, with a ginger biscuit crust and a fromage frais and cheese filling.
We don't really seem to 'get' currants in the UK. You can sometimes find them at markets and supermarkets in summer, but only for a very brief period of time, and no one really seems to know what to do with them. They do present a problem, being fiddly to remove from their stalks and, to some tastes, unpleasantly sour. The trick, I find, is to couple them with sweeter fruits: redcurrants are lovely with peaches, for example, or strawberries, and blackcurrants work well with apricots, pears and apples. If you're looking for a reliable supply of these treasures, pick your own farms are probably your best bet, or growing your own (or, as I did, accidentally but conveniently choosing as your supervisor someone who grows their own).
Whitecurrants, though, are the most elusive of the lot. While redcurrants can be found, fairly reliably, in the summer, and blackcurrants do usually make an appearance in some supermarkets, whitecurrants are just not cool in the world of currants, apparently. Maybe it's their lack of bright colour, unlikely to catch the capricious eye of the passing supermarket shopper. Maybe it's their intense sourness, an acquired taste. Maybe it's a vicious circle: the less we see these currants, the less we know what to do with them, therefore the less likely we are to buy them.
So why bother with these little globes of sourness? Because, as you can see, they are totally gorgeous to look at. Up close, they have an eerie translucency to them; you can just make out the seeds inside, while the skins have a pearlescent sheen. They are not really white, but myriad shades of cream, jade, beige, almost giving off a muted glow as they sit in a bowl, waiting to be made use of. They really do look like a string of culinary pearls, begging to adorn your food in the way you might use pomegranate seeds or dried cherries. And food, in my opinion, should be adorned. Even if it's just a scattering of bright herbs, it can make all the difference.
Given their sourness, whitecurrants need to be paired with something very sweet - my thoughts initially turned to cheesecake and meringue. However, I then considered their potential in savoury recipes. Sour ingredients - those that spring to mind are gooseberries and rhubarb - are often combined with fatty meat or oily fish, their astringency used to balance the richness of the protein. Always one to go for oily fish over pretty much any form of meat, I just had to choose the best oily fish of all: mackerel.
The sour nip of a whitecurrant works perfectly with the moist, rich, crispy-edged flesh of a seared mackerel. The combination is unusual and refreshing, surprising with every mouthful. To make the mackerel even more flavoursome against the currants, I coated the fillets in a mixture of lemon salt (I'd really recommend this if you don't have any; it's just salt mixed with dried and ground lemon peel, and you can get it from JustIngredients online) and smoked paprika. It's an incredibly flavoursome, moreish combination: smoky and salty with an addictive tang from lemon. I think I might always cook mackerel in this way now; it works with so many accompaniments, and it really brings out the intense character of the fish.
To go alongside, a salad of whitecurrants and lentils. This is basically taken from Nigel Slater's Tender, where he suggests serving it with the leftovers of a roast. It works so well with my mackerel idea, though, that I don't think you could find a better combination. The lentils are nutty and earthy, a pleasant canvas for the other dancing flavours, while the burst of sour juice from a currant peppers each mouthful. There is freshness and zip from masses of shredded parsley and mint, and finally that gorgeous, succulent, crispy-skinned spiced mackerel.
If you can't get whitecurrants, you could make this with redcurrants, or pomegranate seeds, or even dried sour cherries or raisins at a push. If you don't like or have mackerel, use trout or salmon, or go the meat route - smoked chicken, sausages, roast pork, lamb and game will all work well. If you're vegetarian, try it with some crumbled goat's cheese and toasted walnuts or pecans. Either way, you'll be rewarded with a simple but beautiful plate of food, packed with nourishing and delicious vibrant flavours.
And, of course, garnished with a string of pearls.
A big thank you to Trev for the gift of whitecurrants - I hope you approve of what I did with them!
Smoky spiced mackerel with whitecurrant and lentil salad (serves 4):
- 400g puy lentils
- Sea salt
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- A small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- A small bunch of mint, finely chopped
- 200g whitecurrants (or redcurrants if you can't find whitecurrants), stalks removed
- 4 mackerel, filleted (to get 8 fillets)
- 3 tsp lemon salt
- 3 tsp smoked paprika
- Olive oil, for cooking
Cook the lentils in plenty of boiling, salted water for about 15 minutes until tender but still nutty. Drain and return to the pan. Mix the olive oil and vinegar with a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, then stir into the lentils while still warm, along with the herbs. Allow to cool a little, then gently stir in the whitecurrants. Check the seasoning - lentils need quite a lot of salt to make them sing.
For the mackerel, dry the fillets on kitchen towel. Mix together the lemon salt, paprika and some black pepper, then spread over the fillets. Heat a glug of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, then sear the mackerel on both sides over a high heat for about 2 minutes each side (you may need to do this in batches if your pan isn't big enough). Serve on top of the lentil salad, garnished with a little extra parsley.
You're going to be seeing a lot of avocado recipes on this blog in the foreseeable future. For the next year, I'll be receiving fortnightly baskets of the fruit to experiment with in the kitchen (I'll be talking a bit more about why in a future post). Before I even start on the potential of avocados in the kitchen, though, let me suggest another unexpected use for this beautiful fruit. You may not have realised, but suddenly becoming an ambassador for avocados gets you a surprising number of friends. I have yet to meet anyone in my close social circle who has not, upon hearing my news, promptly and enthusiastically declared themselves a lover of avocados and hinted that they would be willing guinea pigs for any recipe development. Extra friendship points to those who have recommended favourite avocado recipes, and über bonus points to those whose list of avocado recipes included ice cream. You are people after my own heart.
So there you have it. Nutritional powerhouses, definitely; delicious and versatile, yes...but avocados are also a quick and easy enhancer for your social life.
However, avocados do have one serious inadequacy in terms of their culinary usage: they are possibly the least spontaneous ingredient ever. One does not simply decide one day to whip up an avocado salad that evening. Recipes involving avocado need notice: time for you to buy your 'perfectly ripe' specimens from the supermarket, discover they are sour and rock hard, and then postpone your plans for a week or so until the fruit has softened into creamy, buttery jade goodness. By which point all the other ingredients you bought will probably have gone off, so you'll need to start again.
Incidentally, the same rule applies to mangoes. The two fruits are often used together by unrealistic recipe writers who, irritatingly, do not adjust the 'prep time' for their recipes in order to add a week or so's 'ripening time'.
Receiving fortnightly baskets of perfectly ripe avocados is a luxury I do not intend to take for granted. I am very excited to be able to experiment with an ingredient I love but don't get to enjoy enough. My experience with avocados is fairly limited to guacamole, chicken, bacon and avocado salad, and a favourite dish of orzo pasta with broccoli pesto and avocado. I have big plans for these beauties, so watch this space.
This recipe is, if you'll believe it, something I dreamed up on the spur of the moment and 'threw together' in a slightly haphazard fashion. Inspired by some beautiful wild Alaskan salmon that I picked up on special offer, and which seemed too good to ruin with any sort of cooking whatsoever, I decided to serve it as sashimi. Too lazy to bother rolling sushi, I decided to pile all the components of sushi into a bowl: salmon, toasted sesame seeds (I also use nigella seeds when I make sushi, because I love their strong earthy flavour), pickled ginger, cucumber, a sauce of soy and wasabi, and sushi rice mixed with vinegar, sugar and salt. The rice is delicious when freshly cooked and still slightly warm - a completely different taste and texture experience to when it has firmed up and is tightly rolled in seaweed.
I love sushi rolls that feature avocado, in delicious creamy contrast with the tangy rice and the subtly sweet fish (often crab or salmon), so topped my sushi bowl with ripe avocado, mashed with smoked salt and lime juice to bring out its flavour, plus a heavy-handed dose of fresh mint, which might sound unusual with Japanese flavours but works very well - you could, however, use coriander to equally good effect. I also added some cooked soya beans, because one of my favourite Japanese dishes is one of the simplest: sweet, salty steamed edamame beans, fresh from the pods.
I was expecting this to be tasty, but I wasn't quite prepared for how ridiculously delicious it was. Raw fish sometimes lacks flavour, but this salmon was utterly gorgeous, soft but still with that delicious salmon richness. It was the most beautiful coral colour, too, possessing none of those fatty white stripes you get with farmed salmon. The rice was soft and tangy, the seeds nutty and crunchy, while the beans and cucumber added a delicious fresh crunch. The mashed avocado really does make this dish, though, providing a nice bridge between the crunchy ingredients and the sticky rice, the hint of lime sharpening everything up. The tangy pickled ginger and salty soy is essential, making the whole thing moreish and addictive.
This makes me want to throw away my sushi-rolling mat. Why bother, when you can just throw everything into a bowl? It's quick to put together, looks absolutely stunning, and is incredibly healthy (although maybe less so when you consider it's so good that you'll want a second helping).
Sushi bowl with salmon sashimi, avocado, lime, edamame and pickled ginger (serves 2):
- 200g sushi rice
- 320ml water
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 ripe avocado
- Juice of half a lime
- 1/2 tsp flaky sea salt (I used smoked salt)
- A handful of fresh mint or coriander, finely chopped
- 200g Alaskan salmon, very fresh
- A quarter of a cucumber, finely diced
- A couple of handfuls of cooked soya beans or broad beans
- Pickled ginger (from oriental shops or large supermarkets)
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds and/or nigella seeds
- Soy sauce
First, cook the rice. Rinse it three or four times then drain. Place in a pan with the water, cover with a lid, bring to the boil then reduce the heat to very low. Cook for 15 minutes, without removing the lid or disturbing the pan. Meanwhile, mix together the rice vinegar, caster sugar and salt. Halve the avocado, remove the stone, then scoop the flesh into a bowl. Roughly mash, using a fork, with the lime juice, salt and chopped mint or coriander. Set aside.
Once the rice is cooked and has absorbed all the water, stir in the vinegar mixture while still warm. Divide the rice between two bowls. Very finely slice the salmon using a sharp knife, then add to the rice. Spoon the avocado mixture on top. Scatter over the cucumber, soya beans, and some pickled ginger, then sprinkle with the seeds. Mix together a little soy sauce and wasabi, then drizzle this over the bowl and serve immediately.
“Oh right. Are you going for work then?”
“No, just for fun.”
“Oh, OK. So you have family or something out there?”
“No, nothing like that, I’m just going for a holiday.”
“Oh…so like, is it something to do with your PhD?”
My recent trip to Iceland seems to have perplexed more than a few people. I’ve been asked all of the above, plus a few more questions, as people attempt to determine the logical reason for my heading off to somewhere that’s a little bit off the mainstream tourist radar. Or perhaps they were just trying to grasp a rational motive for my jetting off to the frozen north just as York was beginning to heat up and become bathed in radiant sunshine.
I have to admit, I wondered the same thing myself as I stepped off the plane to gusts of freezing wind and stinging sleet, to skies greyer than a naval warship and a landscape bleaker than a morning without breakfast. On the bus ride to our hotel, I marvelled at the expanse of uniform moss, scrub and black soil, at the formidable-looking waves licking the rugged shore around us. I huddled into my goose-down jacket, which I had put away for the summer in York and had had to retrieve for the trip, adjusted my sheepskin earmuffs and braced myself for the cold days ahead.
Cold they were, and miserable at times, but this is a country that doesn’t need sunshine and balmy evenings to bring its magic to the fore. Yes, Iceland looks beautiful in the bright, clear morning sunshine (we were lucky enough to glimpse a few hours of it the morning we left), when the snow-covered mountains radiate a frosty grandeur and the sky and sea blend together in one uniform shade of blinding azure; but it is equally splendid, and somehow seems more comfortable, when its massive natural wonders and geographical marvels are silhouetted against a muted backdrop of greys and browns, hazes of drizzle, assaulting gusts of wind.
“In Iceland there’s no such thing as weather,” our taxi driver told us, “just examples.” This is a country hardened towards extremes of temperature and the capricious whims of mother nature, who, with a tendency towards hyperbole, has shaped its marvellous, and at times surreal, landscape.
We spent three days in Reykjavik, the adorably compact capital. An aerial view of the city presents you with something that more resembles a model town, perhaps built out of lego, than anything real. The houses are all painted in bright pastel shades, colours you might associate with a row of beach huts rather than dwellings built to withstand the cold and rain. Arriving in the city in the grey damp, they were a welcome burst of brightness.
Reykjavik, for me, was a curious mix of seaside down and ski resort. A few minutes takes you from the centre of town – straight streets, Parisian and Danish-style cafes, modern shops selling clothes, homeware, books, all of it exuding smart Scandinavian chic – to the harbour, where fishing boats sit idly in front of the glorified huts that house some of the city’s best restaurants, and the sweet scent of fresh seafood lingers in the air. You are cradled on two sides by mountains, lurking dappled grey across the distant sea. You stroll past ice cream cafes, shop windows filled with thick fur and wool garments, trendy bars and coffee shops, restaurants advertising their ocean-based fare. The centre of the city is tiny, easily explored in a few hours. Step into one of the uber-cool cafes and you could be in mainland Europe; step outside, and the freezing May weather reminds you that you are not.
“We’re not cool enough to be here,” was a niggling feeling frequently voiced over our three-night trip. It’s hard to be any more eloquent about it: Reykjavik is just cool. Every café or bar we visited exuded the same kind of aura: vintage, quirky, eccentric. They were often decorated with an assortment of kitsch or vintage so random it was hard to believe the place hadn’t just accumulated its décor over centuries of use. One café we visited twice was decked out like a Russian grandmother’s living room, all yellow-green chintz armchairs, old-fashioned floral still lifes on the wall and ornate gold frames. Another was brimming with retro toys – dolls, figurines, clocks, pages from books – voluminous spider plants and tables pasted with quirky adverts from old newspapers. We sat there and consumed two absolutely gigantic wedges of cake – a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream icing, and a ‘New York cheesecake’ so claggy and sweet I almost needed a spade to scrape it off the roof of my mouth afterwards. One night we ate dinner at an achingly trendy youth hostel, housed in an old biscuit factory. Empty bird cages dangled from the dilapidated ceiling, one metallic wall was devoted to the arranging of magnetic letters by guests into rude words, a corner was given over to an enormous bookcase, and old-fashioned maps of the country were fixed, resplendent in vintage frames, to the wall. Although we did have the misfortune to spot a Subway, this is a city that has yet to fall prey to the plague that is the chain store: it’s all about those quirky little independent places, the kind you always dream of finding on holiday. They’re not a myth perpetuated by travel guides – they’re just all in Iceland.
Our exploration of Reykjavik began with a coffee in the aforementioned Russian grandmother’s café. Icelandic coffee is excellent. It reminds me of Italian coffee: strong, not very milky, cappuccinos served in small cups, not the ridiculous vats you get over here. They are predominantly coffee, rather than froth – probably what you’d call a small latte over here, in terms of lack of frothiness. I don’t drink coffee very much, but found myself craving at least one a day in Iceland. Partly because I was utterly exhausted from our exploring activities, but also because it tasted so damn good. The best came from what I think is a local chain of coffee shops, ‘Te & Kaffi’, which has several branches in the city. They also sell an adorable range of brightly coloured teapots, and some exciting-sounding bags of Chinese and Japanese teas, as well as some Icelandic herbal tea that claimed to be useful for treating a variety of ailments.
Pleasantly surprised by the coffee, we sought dinner at a restaurant I’d read good things about on the internet, Tapashusid (translation: Tapas house). When I tell you that this is a sort of Spanish/Icelandic fusion restaurant, I expect your scepticism. I was somewhat confused too, and a little apprehensive. Even more so when I ordered the six-course ‘Taste of Iceland’ menu for nearly £40 – disappointment is so much more bitter when you’ve paid forty pounds for it. It was a risk.
Instead, I spent around two hours devouring what was probably one of the best meals of my life. This place utterly astounded me. Inside it was informal-looking, again blessed with the vintage Midas touch that seems to have left no corner of Reykjavik unaffected – we sat in a little corner near a wall plastered with retro record covers. Blackboards over the bar proclaimed the specials, as well as a hilarious guide as to how the steaks are cooked (“Blue: still mooing”; “Well done: ORDER CHICKEN”). We were served by a series of effervescent and charming waiters, who occasionally paused to join in with the resident female flamenco dancer. All this, you would think, would probably not be the setting for incredible food. A quick glance at the menu, though – bacon wrapped monkfish with bacon-wrapped dates; minke whale steak with teriyaki sauce, smoked apple, apple puree and mushrooms; smoky mushroom tortilla; salt cod, langoustine, bacon and egg foam – did tell me that I was unlikely to be receiving a bowl of sub-standard paella and a few calamari rings.
The food here was heart-stoppingly beautiful. Probably some of the prettiest food I’ve been served since my last trip to the Michelin-starred Yorke Arms. My first dish was a small plate of rare guillemot breast, apple puree, smoked apple pieces, mushrooms and a red wine jus. I’d obviously never tried guillemot before, but it was gorgeous – like very dark, very gamey pigeon, but beautifully tender. Game and apple is a new combination to me, but it was stupidly good, the whole thing held together by an underlying smokeyness; I’m not sure whether it came from the meat, the apple or the jus, but it was so good.
Next, slow-cooked Arctic char, which looks and tastes rather like trout. This was accompanied by pickles, dill, a very creamy, Hollandaise-like sauce, and a little green savoury meringue. I knew then that the rest of this food was going to be good. There’s something about a savoury meringue sitting on top of your fish course that kind of implies subsequent sophistication. This was a lovely plateful; you can’t really go wrong with oily fish and dill.
Next up, a wooden board sporting food that was a complete work of art. There were two dishes perched atop this: first, wafer-thin slices of pale pink lamb carpaccio, a little spoonful of lamb tartare, cubes of red and gold beetroot, a thin shard of crispbread, and a golden ribbon of parsnip puree. I’ve never tried raw lamb before, but this was lovely – fatty enough to give it a lovely silky mouthfeel, but still possessing that sweet lamb flavour. The parsnip (I normally hate them, but this was quite tasty) and beetroot helped to cut the richness of the meat.
On the other side of the board, a dark and interesting assortment of cured minke whale, blueberry coulis, halved bulbous blueberries, mustard, a red wine jus and a drizzle of teriyaki sauce.
Now, I’m just going to take a step back for a second, because I can tell you that without a doubt there is going to be some holier-than-thou person, somewhere, who will read that I ate whale and decide to lecture me on the grotesque ethical implications of my gastronomic choices. So I’ll pre-empt you with some honesty: I admit that I had no idea about the controversy surrounding whale-fishing in Iceland. This is unusual for me, as I’m generally pretty clued-up on unethical food practices the world over – shark fin soup in China/Japan, foie gras in France (I refuse to touch the stuff; I think it’s appalling, sick, and it doesn’t even taste that nice), weasel coffee in south-east Asia; snake-heart vodka in Vietnam; battery farming (particularly pork, which many people seem to forget about) in the UK and Europe. For some reason, the whaling issue had slipped under my ethical radar, and I tucked in without really understanding the implications. Having read a bit more since I returned home, I’m actually not entirely sure where I stand on the whaling debate. However, the single whale dish that I ate in my trip to Iceland, which will probably comprise the entirety of the whale I eat in my entire life, is probably not going to tip the balance either way. Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, but I’m going to make no apologies for my one-off consumption of this controversial product.
And also, unfortunately, I cannot lie. It was bloody delicious. My minke whale came cured, meaning it had a firm texture and deeply gamey flavour. We also ordered, though, a dish of minke whale steak, served very rare with a similar flavour combination to my cured dish – apple puree, teriyaki sauce, red wine jus. This was a total revelation, both the meat and the flavour combination. It was like the tenderest, most juicy, melting fillet steak you’ll ever eat. Combining teriyaki, red wine, mushrooms, apple and game is something I’d never considered before, but something I now cannot wait to try. Obviously it won’t be with whale when I try it –I’m thinking more along the lines of venison, grouse or pigeon, and whale is illegal in the UK – but I can’t wait. It’s one of those combinations you can’t imagine until you taste it, and it was ridiculously good. Just take my word for it, and then hop over to Iceland so you can try the real deal.
There was a small wait for the main courses – yes, I know, those were only the starters – so I nibbled on some of the restaurant’s excellent foccacia, which they serve with olive oil to dip, and a little bowl of crushed salted spiced peanuts. Another flavour revelation – dipping oiled foccacia into crushed peanuts is DELICIOUS. Something I must try soon in my own kitchen. I’m glad I didn’t eat too much of this, though, because my main courses – all two of them – arrived, and they were pretty generous.
First, lamb rib-eye (a cut I’ve never heard of in relation to lamb, and which I suspect goes under another name here), which was the best lamb I’ve ever had. It was juicy and pink in the centre, smoky on the outside from the grill, succulent and sweet and fabulous. Lamb is a big thing in Iceland – much more so than beef. This came with ‘cauliflower couscous’, which I recently saw on MasterChef so was excited to try, a mustard sauce, a dark jus, and grilled oyster mushrooms. It was a carnivore’s delight, everything you want a plate of steak to be – juicy, salty, rich, meaty, robustly flavoured.
The other dish was equally substantial and robust – a mini decorative saucepan filled with ridiculously gorgeous chunks of salt cod – firmer, sweeter and saltier than normal cod – juicy langoustines, crispy bacon, and topped with an ‘egg foam’ which was basically a gooey, rich, thick hollandaise. This was finished with crunchy breadcrumbs for texture, and was the kind of thing I would eat for breakfast every day if I didn’t mind being obese. I loved the way the restaurant had struck a balance between delicately presented, beautiful food, and the kind of mouthwatering moreish flavours that you actually want to stuff yourself with. The other dishes we tried – the monkfish with dates and bacon, deep-fried langoustines, smoky mushroom fajita – were also in this vein; surprising flavour combinations that made you wonder why you don’t eat them every day, because they are so damn good.
Also fabulous were a dish of bacon-wrapped monkfish, roasted peppers, and bacon-wrapped dates, a plate of deep-fried langoustines, crispy and sweet and delectable, and a smoky mushroom fajita - deeply flavoured, intense mushrooms on a tortilla with tangy cheese.
Dessert was a struggle. You know how sometimes you worry about tasting menus, thinking they’ll present you with a thimbleful of each dish and leave you desperate for a piece of toast when you get home? This left me desperate for a Roman-style feather when I got home (note: this is a joke and I do not, in fact, support bulimia as an easy way to alleviate that feeling of self-disgust that accompanies a session of wild, intense, unmediated gorging). However, my dessert was sensibly light and pretty, and didn’t make me want to cry and run away in grotesque repletion when it arrived.
It consisted of a thin slab of moist carrot cake, a carrot sorbet (surprisingly good – I think it had a hefty dose of orange in there, because it was sweet and fruity and tasted very little of carrot), and a parfait of ‘skyr’. Skyr is an Icelandic cheese, made in a similar way to Middle Eastern labneh – by straining yoghurt until firm and tangy. Its pairing alongside the carrot cake made sense – it was basically a fancy version of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. The dessert was sprinkled with tiny, plump, marigold orange buckthorn berries, something I’ve always wanted to try since they were used on Great British Menu a few years ago. They are deeply sour, but also quite fruity, a very pleasant addition to the mellow cake/cheese combination. We also had an ‘Oreo pudding’, which was a chocolate mousse (pronounced ‘chocolate mouse’ by our waiter, which made us smile), blueberry compote, crunchy oreo crumbs, and a ball of ice cream. It was the total antithesis of my elegant dessert, trashy and obvious and in-your-face, but in a totally delicious way.
And that was my introduction to Icelandic cuisine. I have a sneaking suspicion that Icelanders do not eat like this on a daily basis, but it set the tone for a trip of excellent restaurant meals. This, at Tapashusid, was by far the best. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny, both for the temporary gratification it afforded me and also for the ideas it has given me for use in my own kitchen.
Speaking of money – Iceland is expensive. Probably not much more so than London, but it is hard to spend under about £50 a day, and if you want to do the kind of things you should do when visiting this unique country – ride horses, visit the Blue Lagoon, go on boat trips, see the geographical wonders – you will have to spend even more. It is possible to eat cheaply if you’re not bothered about sampling some of the gastronomic delights of Reykjavik – there are some fast food places and cafes selling sandwiches – but the good food comes at a price. Luckily, you don’t have to pay that much to get something delicious, as some of my other restaurant visits will show.
Barely hungry from the gluttony of the night before, I woke the next morning and forced myself to partake in our hotel breakfast – what a hardship. We stayed at the Leifur Eriksson hotel, in what I like to call the ‘penthouse suite’ but what was actually an absolutely tiny attic room on the top floor barely large enough for two people to stand up in without concussing themselves. It was cosy, that’s for sure. That aside, the hotel was perfectly pleasant, and breakfast was a bit of a highlight. In the corner of the breakfast room stood an arresting contraption: a waffle maker, with two hot plates, completely black and encrusted from years of use, smoking and perfuming the entire hotel with the sweet candyfloss scent of freshly made waffles. Next to it sat a big bowl of pale, thick batter, and a ladle.
I am baffled as to why the hotel hadn’t put up some instructions next to the waffle maker. In the three mornings I was there, at least two people had what can only be described as a complete waffle fail. There’s a knack to making waffles, you see – firstly, spray the plate with non-stick oil spray. Secondly, put enough batter – more than you would think – in, otherwise it won’t form a proper waffle and will just stick to each side. Thirdly and crucially, be patient. If you lift up the lid too soon, the waffle will pull apart and you’ll just have batter stuck to each side, impossible to remove (the staff were not happy – there was an audible tut as they set to work with a knife attempting to deal with the consequences of one guest’s waffle ineptitude). Fortunately, I managed to perfect this complex and elusive art very quickly, meaning we had perfect waffles for breakfast each morning. They were fabulous – thick, doughy, crispy on the outside, and subtly sweet and buttery. On top, generous dollops of blueberry jam – actually, I think it was bilberry, or wild blueberry – which was delicious but had the unfortunate side effect of giving me a bright blue tongue that no amount of toothpaste/toothbrushing could shift.
Our first full day took us out of the city into the forbidding landscape. We began by riding Icelandic horses through the lava fields, in all their bleak, rugged glory. The terrain is unchanging around here – earthy green moss and scrub, punctuated by dark black roads of cooled lava, the imposing mountains ever-present in the background. It wasn’t the most scenic, particularly given the steely skies, but this was more than compensated for by the fun I had riding my horse. His name in Icelandic translated as ‘little man’, and he was indeed tiny – like a slightly overgrown Shetland pony, a beautiful tan colour with the most gorgeous thick, sandy mane. I feel we bonded early on, as I led him by the bridle out of the stable – he kept nuzzling me with vigour. Later I discovered that he was just trying to use me as a scratching post. Oh well.
Most of the people in our large group had never ridden before, so we walked at a steady pace in single file through the lava fields. I soon felt slightly frustrated by this, as I could tell my little horse was eager to go a bit faster (or maybe it was just that his legs were about half as long as the other horses’, so he had to trot to keep up with their walk), so I joined the ‘fast group’ for experienced riders. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ‘experienced rider’ – that implies a degree of confidence that I do not have, my recent experiences with horses involving falling off or them bolting - but I figured I’d take the chance, and am so glad I did. I had a fantastic time, riding through the countryside, my little horse keen and fast but also very well-behaved.
My guide told me all about Icelandic horses, which was fascinating. There is a complete import ban on Icelandic horses to preserve the purity of the breed. When the horses go abroad to compete in international competitions, so strict are the rules that they can never return to Iceland, and must be sold in the country of the competition. This isn’t so bad if they’ve won, my guide explained, as they’ll fetch a good price – but the worst situation is when the rider has an excellent horse, but for some reason he doesn’t perform so well in competition, meaning the rider has lost both his horse and won’t even receive adequate financial compensation for his loss. Foreigners are also not allowed to bring used horse equipment into Iceland – hats, bridles, et cetera – or at least not without it being heavily sterilised first. They don’t vaccinate their horses, she explained, so their immune systems are quite susceptible to diseases that can be carried on used equipment.
The riding style is very different, too, to what I am used to. For instance, riders don’t rise during the trot – they stay sitting on the horse. This makes for an extremely bouncy but definitely less exhausting ride; it was slightly alarming at first, as I was convinced I was going to fall off, but I soon got used to relaxing and moving with the horse. The Icelandic horse also has a different set of gaits: tölt is faster than a walk but slower than a canter, and it is also very smooth for the rider. My guide was telling me that sometimes competitions are held where the rider holds a pint of beer for the duration of the ride, the aim being not to spill any, and then they must drink the remainder upon returning from the ride. There is also ‘flying gait’, which is faster than a gallop and so-called because in between strides the horse appears to be flying through the air; many horses aren’t trained to do this, though, because it’s exhausting for the horse and rider. I was certainly quite tired after my brisk and bouncy outing on my beautiful Icelandic horse, which was lucky because we were going to spend the afternoon steaming luxuriantly in a hot outdoor bath.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions. It’s easy to see why – with weather so changeable and a landscape so bleak, there is unmatchable relief to be had from sinking slowly into mineral-rich waters the temperature of a very hot bath, the result of geothermal activity, while the brisk Icelandic air whips your face. I say ‘sinking slowly’, but this is really just a romanticised notion. Because, in fact, you’ll dive frantically and in a clumsy, ungainly fashion into those waters: not only do you have to make your way from the changing rooms to the outdoor lagoon clad in nothing but your swimsuit, but they make you shower before you do it, meaning even the slightest tremor of Icelandic wind feels like someone has pressed an ice pack to your skin. Once in the lagoon, however, sweet relief is to be found. It really is hot, not the shiver-inducing lukewarm temperature of most UK outdoor swimming pools that claim to be heated. In fact, in some places the currents are almost scalding, and your otherwise relaxing dip in the lagoon is certainly likely to be punctuated by a few high-pitched shrieks every now and again, as one of these scorching currents wafts casually into an unsuspecting bather.
The water is milky, completely opaque and with a curious iridescence; it almost glows, particularly when the skies are so grey and flat. Thick steam rolls off the surface in waves. There is a smell of egg-like sulphur in the air (another thing about Iceland – the tap water smells of boiled eggs, making brushing your teeth an interesting sensory experience). Depending on which part of the lagoon you are in, you’ll either be standing on crunchy gravel-like sand, or sinking into thick mud that oozes creepily between your toes. It’s quite something, though, to sit there, face and neck exposed to the harshness of the elements (it started raining during our visit) while the rest of your body luxuriates in the delicious warmth. The high mineral content of the water is apparently very good for your skin, though leaves a horrible chalky residue that requires two showers to remove. As you sit and warmly repose, you’re surrounded by rocky outcrops that you can perch on. There is nothing else to see, for miles around – the lagoon lies in the middle of nowhere, a surprising beacon of blue among the dark rocky landscape. It’s hard to believe this is a totally natural phenomenon.
Horse riding and the lagoon left me absolutely starving. That night, we visited somewhere a little more budget-friendly for dinner, and weren’t disappointed. Icelandic Fish & Chips is a small café/restaurant near the harbour (choosing where to eat in Reykjavik is easy, because all the recommended eateries are approximately one hundred metres away from each other, so you can quite easily scout them all out in a ten minute session before making that all-important decision). You’d barely notice it if it weren’t for the sign above the wooden door that you have to open gingerly, peering around to see if the place is actually open – it’s hard to tell from the window. Inside is a very simple restaurant with a small bar and more blackboard notices on the walls. The premise behind this place is, as you might expect, fish and chips – but done well, and made a little unusual by their choice of accompaniments.
A lot of thought has gone into the food at this ‘organic bistro’, as they like to call it. The fish is coated with a batter made from spelt flour, because it crisps up better in the fryer and is better for you, being a more complex carbohydrate. They serve the fish with oven-roasted potato wedges, which are a little healthier than chips, and come in various options – plan, garlic, rosemary, for example. They fry their fish in rapeseed oil, high in omega 3. The fish is always fresh, the menu changing depending on what has been delivered that day. You are encouraged to choose a salad to accompany your fish, which range from simple greens to an elaborate combination of mango, red pepper, toasted coconut, spinach and olive oil. Finally, you can choose from a range of ‘skyronnes’: flavoured dips made from skyr, with flavours like truffle & tarragon, ginger & wasabi, lime & coriander. This is a far cry from the greasy, lard-scented chippies of the UK; not a wooden fork or piece of newspaper in sight.
We both had the fried Icelandic cod with plain potato wedges, the aforementioned mango salad, and a lime and coriander skyronne to accompany it. It was exactly what I needed after a hard day’s exertion (OK, sitting in the lagoon wasn’t really difficult, but it was certainly appetite-provoking): indulgent because of the superbly crispy fish batter and the sweet, succulent cod, but still nourishing and satisfying because of the zingy, flavoursome salad and well-seasoned potato wedges. It probably didn’t need the dip, but it was tasty all the same. I’d also been eyeing up a delicious-sounding combination of fried ling (a firm white fish), orange and black olive salad and rosemary potatoes; we didn’t have time to return, but I bet it would have been delicious. Our plates were about £14 each, which isn’t cheap but they were filling and very well done.
A quick aside: one of the things I really liked about Iceland was that every single café and restaurant had a table with jugs of water and glasses for you to help yourself – no need to ask for tap water and risk a sneer. Similarly, everywhere seemed to have free wifi (even the tourist buses), and public toilets are widespread. In these three respects, it is a world away from continental Europe.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the long daylight – the sun didn’t set until around 11pm when we were there; it’s even later in high summer. There is something quite disorientating and surreal about emerging from a long restaurant meal at 9.30pm to bright daylight, or settling down to sleep for the night while there is still light sky outside the window. Icelandic people must get so much done at this time of year. I did feel a bit bad that we didn’t do much to make the most of the longer light, but I was exhausted after all the food and activity.
Our second and last full day saw us taking in the Golden Circle, a 300km loop of some of Iceland’s best geographical attractions, by coach tour. We drove through the mountains, gloomy and imposing in the overcast light of day, through ‘no man’s land’, the area between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, past dark green fields and black lava, past rocky hills and snowy mountains that are apparently the homes of elves. There were no animals in sight other than the Icelandic horses. Our guide told us that you can look at an Icelandic horse to tell the direction of the bad weather – they face away from the wind and rain. Given that Icelandic lamb is supposed to be a delicacy, I thought it strange that I didn’t see a single sheep on my trip.
Before we actually visited any of the geographical marvels, we stopped at a ‘greenhouse town’ on the way, so-called because farmers use the high geothermal activity in these areas to power greenhouses and supply Iceland with exotic fruit and vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise be producible. This particular greenhouse grew tomatoes. The owner explained that the water comes out of the ground at 95C in this area, the heat of which is channelled into the greenhouse system. The tomatoes are watered with the same water that people drink – because, he explained, a tomato is about 90% water, it makes sense to use good-quality water to grow the crop, as that quality will be reflected in the final product. The lights in the greenhouse are on 14-17 hours a day, and the plants grow 25cm each week – they have to be suspended from the ceiling on strings so they don’t droop with the weight of the fruit. The transition from a flowering plant to a red tomato takes about eight weeks. One aspect of the process I found fascinating was the pollination – bees are shipped in from Holland to perfom this careful task. Two boxes containing 60 female working bees arrive at the greenhouse each week.
The greenhouse had a little café, which was offering mugs of tomato soup. I mention this because of something I loved – each table had a huge basil plant on it, with a pair of scissors strapped to its pot. The idea being that you would get a mug of soup and snip your own basil to garnish it. It was the simplest idea but so lovely; I hope it catches on in cafes at home. Think of the possibilities – chopping your own coriander to adorn a curry; snipping your own parsley or dill to scatter over your seafood; tearing off delicate leaves of thyme to season your Sunday roast.
After this somewhat random first stop, we were taken to Gullfoss waterfall, first step on the Golden Circle itinerary. This absolutely gigantic waterfall formation appears startlingly smack bang in the middle of an otherwise fairly featureless landscape: green scrub, black soil, mountains in the distance. The sheer force of the water as it plummets over the various crests of the waterfall is astounding, as was the force of the freezing wind as we walked along paths hugging the edge of the cliff to get closer to this watery spectacle. I’ve seen waterfalls before, but none on this colossal scale. At one point a company tried to privatise the waterfall and use it for hydroelectric power, but the idea caused storms of protest and since then Gullfoss is protected for public enjoyment. Apparently there is a saying in Iceland: if someone suggests something completely inane or ridiculous, the common response is, ‘And then what? Sell Gullfoss?’
Next, we visited the Geysir hot spring area. With its gloomy, rugged, earthy landscape awash in white smoke emanating from the ground, this reminded me of the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings. The air is thick with the smell of sulphur, while a walk through this geothermally active area sees you alternately exposed to the cold Icelandic air and bathed in hot steam droplets as the vapour pours off the ground into your face.
Along the way there are small pools, some of them mini geysers, bubbling rampantly and sending hot spray into the air. The main attraction, though, is Strokkur, the famous geyser, apparently active for over 10,000 years, that erupts every few minutes to raptures of delight from the crowds inevitably gathered around its circumference, cameras poised to capture the moment.
Every so often, the innocuous-looking, calm blue pool that is Strokkur suddenly vents a colossal bubble, followed by a gigantic blast of boiling water – at least twenty feet high – that is no less surprising for being expected. At one point some of the crowd had to run backwards as the hot water, carried by the wind, descended upon their heads. The force with which it erupts, and the height, is really quite remarkable, particularly as it returns so quickly to a lake of placid blue calm, only an occasional bubble signifying the colossal geothermal activity occurring within those depths. Apparently only 100m down into the geyser, the temperature is 200C. It’s definitely a ‘look but don’t touch’ kind of attraction.
We stopped for lunch and a break from the assaulting rain at the tourist café which, as might be expected, was hideously overpriced – I objected to paying £12 for soup and some bread, so had an egg sandwich. Oddly, the omnipresent smell of sulphur had actually given me serious cravings for eggs, rather than – as might be more expected – a complete aversion. A small highlight, though, was a piece of apple tart. This seemed to basically combine everyone’s dessert fantasies into one: a pastry case, filled with custard and cooked apples, topped with crumble and drizzled with caramel. It did have that slightly soggy mass-produced taste to it, like something from an Ikea café, but it was pleasantly sweet and tasty all the same – just what we needed after hiking up the hills around the Geysir area and getting absolutely covered in quicksand-like thick red mud.
Finally, we visited Thingvellir National Park, home to Iceland’s parliament from 930 to 1262, which incorporated the geography of the place into its proceedings: speeches were held around the Logberg (Law Rock), while transgressors were executed in the Drowning Pool, a small lake at the foot of the rocks. Here you can actually see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates pulling apart, and witness the gulf between them. The area is rocky and hilly, with gorgeous views of Lake Thingvallavatn (formed by a retreating glacier) and the surrounding mountains; it was how I imagined the Norwegian Fjords would look.
On our way back, our guide told us something fascinating about the Icelandic language (words of which it is possible to recognise from my brief dalliance with Old English during my Masters). During the 18th century, a movement was started in the country to remove as many foreign words as possible from the language, and create a new vocabulary that would adapt the Icelandic language to new concepts, rather than imposing foreign words. For example, the computer: it was decided (for some reason) that a computer can see into the future, and that it works with numbers. Thus the Icelandic for computer is a portmanteau of tala (number) and völva (female prophetess): tölva. I’d heard something of this before, when someone once told me that the Icelandic for ‘coathanger’ literally translates as ‘wooden shoulders’. I love the idea that there is actually a committee dedicated to coining new words for modern concepts out of this ancient language.
Dinner that night needed to be substantial, given our day trekking around in the wind and rain. This was achieved in the best possible way by a trip to Sæmundur i Sparifötunum, the restaurant of Kex Hostel (the one discussed above, with the birdcages). Though the menu offered some tempting options – fried plaice with pickled lemons, burned butter and almonds; fried and glazed turkey with mushrooms and bacon; lamb meatballs – it had to be the burger, which promised local free-range beef, Icelandic cheese, caramelised onion mayonnaise, and potato wedges with cumin mayonnaise. It was probably the best burger I’ve ever eaten, everything you want a burger to be. The bun was robust enough to hold the burger without tearing, nicely toasted on top for a little texture. The meat was rich and deeply flavoured, the cheese tangy and creamy, the mayonnaise holding everything together. The potato wedges were just insane. They were the crispiest things I think I’ve ever eaten, seasoned beautifully, and the cumin mayonnaise was just an inspired idea. This was proper big, hearty comfort food, but taken to the pinnacle of perfection – much like the fish and chips of the night before. Not bad value at £14, either – probably what you’d pay in a London gastropub. Plus you could help yourself to very nice bread and butter, so there was no danger of us leaving hungry.
Afterwards (still daylight!), we went to a little ice cream café, Eldur and Is, where I had a crêpe with bananas and pecan caramel ice cream. The menu pointed out that the crêpes were made with spelt flour. This seems to be a bit of a thing in Iceland – several menus had mentioned spelt chocolate cake, while Icelandic Fish and Chips used spelt in their batter. I don’t know if maybe the flour is cheaper there than ordinary white flour, or they’re just more health conscious. Either way, the crêpe was tasty.
While I was eating it, I watched the man behind the counter dip a huge Mr Whippy-style ice cream on a cone – the ice cream must have been standing at least six inches high – upside down into a vat of molten chocolate sauce. How the structural integrity of this calorific creation was maintained I do not know; it was quite remarkable to watch. The dessert of choice in Iceland, crêpes and ice cream aside, seems to be a mousse of skyr served with various fruit compotes, chocolate, or nuts. I didn’t try this, though, as I’m not a big fan of creamy desserts – I like them to have a little more texture (read: stodge).
On our final morning, we got up early to head out on a boat and watch puffins. This was immensely exciting, as there are few things funnier to observe than a puffin. They look so out of proportion, with their huge coloured beaks and their little wings, flapping desperately in the air as if struggling to stay airborne. We visited an island home to thousands of them; there are around 10 million in Iceland. Our guide told us a little about these birds: their black backs and white bellies provide camouflage while underwater – if something is above the puffin looking down, it sees only the dark of the water; if below and looking up, it sees the white of the sun shining down on the water. This is true for a lot of ocean animals – fish and whales included. I’d never thought about this before – why fish have light bellies and dark backs – and found it fascinating. Puffins can dive to 40 metres underwater, and they mate for life, somehow carving out little holes in the side of islands in which to rear their young – they have only one baby at a time. The babies are called – wait for it – pufflings, which is possibly the most adorable thing I have ever heard. Sadly we were too early in the year to see any pufflings, but it was a very enjoyable morning spent upon the boat watching these funny creatures through binoculars.
Incidentally, the weather finally brightened up for our final few hours in the country. This was how I’d imagined Iceland to look – completely clear frosty blue sky, bright ocean, majestic snowy mountains in the background. It was beautiful, and a completely different experience strolling the town with the warmth of the sun on our faces.
My final meal is worth mentioning, largely because it presented me with the opportunity to try fermented shark. Innocuous enough, the shark was served in small cubes – resembling ceviche – in a little ramekin. It was pale, white and firm. The first few seconds were fairly pleasant. There was a light, sweet taste; a firm, meaty texture, reminiscent of good sashimi. I was rather enjoying it, until a rancid wave of searing ammonia hit my palate, stinging the roof of my mouth and engulfing my sinuses with its acrid tang.
Fermented shark is definitely not the ideal introduction to Icelandic cuisine. When fresh, the Greenland shark is actually poisonous due to its high urea content. After being buried in gravel, pressed with heavy rocks for six to twelve weeks and then cured for several months, however, it is miraculously transformed into a local delicacy, something that can be eaten. Whether it should be, of course, is another matter. Newcomers to this unusual foodstuff are advised to hold their nose, as the shark packs a hefty aromatic punch of ammonia, exuding an aroma that I can only describe as a cross between toilet cleaner and strong cheese. I’m normally pretty adventurous with food, but fermented shark can go on my ‘never eating again’ list, alongside andouillette, a French sausage made from the colon of a pig and tasting exactly like the colon of a pig.
This gastronomic adventure took place at Café Loki, a lovely little venue about twenty metres away from our hotel and right in front of Hallgrimskirkja church, the largest church in Iceland and an imposing, modernist building that reminded me a little of Minas Tirith (more Lord of the Rings similarities here…I wonder if Tolkein ever visited Iceland).
The café was light and airy, and offered an array of Icelandic dishes as well as more standard fare, like bagels and cake. I went for a plate of Icelandic specialities, which included the aforementioned shark. Other than that, though, it was very tasty indeed – I had rye bread topped with smoked trout and cottage cheese, rye bread topped with a delicious mixture of herring, potato, cheese, chives and onion (which looked like scrambled egg but tasted, deliciously, like a fish pie), and – my favourite – rye flatbread topped with butter and smoked lamb. This appeared in various places on my travels, and is really satisfying – the bread is dense and squidgy with a nutty flavour, while the butter is creamy and the lamb subtly sweet and smoky. I also tried dried fish, which you’re supposed to spread with butter and eat, but this was a bit odd – the fish was indeed very dry, so quite difficult to eat and a bit of a strange experience. At least it wasn’t fermented, though.
And that was it – a whirlwind tour around a remarkable country, with plenty of opportunities for eating along the way; a journey home fuelled by fermented shark. There is a lot I wish we’d had time to do – whale watching, snorkelling (the water is the clearest in the world, you can see for up to 100 metres), more horse riding, trekking – but I think I got a fairly good feeling for the place. It was so different to anywhere I’d visited before – normally my holiday destinations are substantially hotter and more tropical than the UK – and presented me with things I’d never seen before.
Perhaps it was rather a strange holiday destination, but Iceland is certainly somewhere you should visit at some point in your life, if only for the way it presents you with the unexpected and the marvellous every day. It’s geography taken to the extreme, and experiencing the culture that has been shaped from that rugged landscape and hostile climate is certainly an adventure. More than all that, though, the food is excellent – exciting, unusual, revelatory, and often beautiful.
Sometimes, you just have a bit of a brainwave in the kitchen. A sudden spark of inspiration, filling you thrillingly with the utmost conviction that yes, these two ingredients are just made for each other, or that wow, that would be the perfect cooking method for this particular thing, or that yes, it is completely a good idea to alter such and such a recipe in a certain way to make something new and wonderful. These are wonderful little moments of insight, familiar no doubt to anyone who is lucky enough to indulge in the creative process as a hobby or even as a career path. I only wish I had as many moments of revelation during my PhD work as I do during my kitchen hours.
Perhaps this is okay, though - convenient, even. Nature, observing that I am spending my working hours grappling with ridiculously abstract concepts, horrifically complex academic treatises and a general nebulous mass of incoherent ideas, kindly decides to make everything come together and make sense in at least one area of my life. And let's be honest, if there's one time when you want everything to make sense, it's when eating is involved. Far more important than academic matters.
A bowl of kumquats had been providing me with a source of anxiety for a couple of weeks.
(This, in my world, is a totally normal sentence.)
Seriously, though. I was wracking my brains to decide what to do with them. Although I could have made this delightful kumquat and vanilla cheesecake again, I figured I should branch out a bit. I thought about an upside-down cake, but it never materialised. I wanted to use them in a savoury dish, given my penchant for fruit in savoury food, but the ideas weren't really flowing.
While I pondered, there they sat in their little punnet, looking totally inconspicuous in an orange, bulbous sort of way, until I realized that a couple at the bottom of the pile had turned blue and furry, and were thus polluting and infecting the rest with their mouldy pestilence.
Thus began a battle against time, to save the kumquats before that tragic disease of the blue furry coat spread throughout their ranks and decimated the lot.
Gosh, it was stressful.
Kumquats aren't the most common of ingredients. I reckon many of you won't ever have tried them. They look like little elongated oranges, with a firm shiny skin. Their flavour is intensely refreshing, quite sharp and sour but with a really strong citrus hit. They are a powerful little ingredient, and need something quite strong (or sweet/creamy, hence the cheesecake) to balance them out.
I'd been pondering various uses: in salads, as a compote alongside meat (they're quite good with venison), as a compote on top of porridge...until one day, I don't even remember why or how, I suddenly had the brainwave to roast them with some wedges of fennel and serve them with fish.
I can't really tell you why I thought this would be a good idea. I guess it started because I love the combination of fennel and fish. I usually just shave it wafer-thin and serve it as a salad, but I thought its aniseedy crunchiness would be wonderful roasted into soft, melting, sugary tenderness in the oven. I thought roasting the kumquats would concentrate their intense citrus flavour and also soften them a little, as they're quite hard and crunchy when raw. I figured the whole lot - sweet, fresh, crunchy, sour - would pair very well with the rich oiliness of cooked salmon.
I could have complicated this recipe quite a lot. Added some wedges of cooked beetroot, maybe. Some grains or pulses to bulk it out a bit. More herbs. Some toasted pine nuts for crunch. Wilted spinach for greenery. All of these would be excellent additions, I'm sure, but for once I wanted to keep it simple. Just salmon, fennel, kumquats, and mint. Fresh mint works very well with fennel and with citrus, and here it is perfect, giving a lovely freshness to the roasted vegetable and fruit medley.
I sprinkled the kumquats and fennel with a little sugar and drizzled them with oil before roasted them for half an hour or so. Their edges scorch and become burnished and caramelised, while they soften and become more concentrated in flavour, much sweeter and almost melting in texture. Tossed with salt, pepper and fresh mint, they are absolutely delicious.
Finally, a drizzle of some fabulous bergamot-infused olive oil from this wonderful range of infused olive oils that I've mentioned before (see this chocolate and mandarin olive oil cake). If you've never tried bergamot before (apart from maybe in Earl Grey tea), it's fantastic - incredibly zesty and fresh, rather like a cross between a lime, lemon and grapefruit. This oil really packs a punch - it was the first time I'd used it, and I couldn't believe the amount of flavour it brought to the salad, combining really well with the rich fish and the zesty kumquats. If you don't have bergamot oil, though, you could just add a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lime.
This is an incredibly simple recipe, but it is unusual and delicious. The roasted fennel and kumquats with the mint and bergamot oil would make a fabulous side dish to accompany most things: chicken, fish (particularly trout, mackerel and salmon), pork and grilled halloumi cheese would all work wonderfully with it. As it's quite sweet, it works very well with rich things that need a little taming, like oily fish or cheese. It's a real riot of fresh, zingy flavours, yet warm and comforting at the same time from the soft caramelised fennel. I'm pretty proud of this ingredient combination, as it's not one I've ever seen before but it just works so well.
A perfect way to use up an anxiety-inducing bowl of maturing kumquats.
Salmon with roasted kumquats and fennel (serves 2):
- 1 large bulb of fennel, sliced into wedges
- 12 kumquats, halved
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- A few sprigs of fresh mint, leaves finely chopped
- 2 fillets ready-cooked salmon
- 2 tbsp bergamot-infused olive oil (optional - you could also use lemon-infused oil, or just olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice)
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Place the fennel and kumquats in a baking dish and drizzle over a little olive oil. Scatter with salt, pepper and sprinkle with the sugar. Toss together. Roast for around 30 minutes, until starting to scorch and caramelise, and the fennel is tender.
Divide the fennel and kumquats between two plates. Sprinkle with the mint and flake over the pieces of salmon. Finally, drizzle with the bergamot oil and serve.
For those of us who can't afford those tempting 'winter sun' breaks at this time of year (a notion I generally hate and associate with terrifying mental images of lobster-red English bodies splayed out on the Costa del Vomit), there is a much easier way to capture a little of that summer cheer on cold, rainy days: cook your way to it. In the market the other day, I was transfixed by the sheer brightness and colour of the fruit and vegetable displays: vibrant glossy red and yellow peppers; jewel-like cranberries; luminous citrus globes; vivid, feathery fennel; bulbous gleaming aubergines; hot pink shards of rhubarb; marigold, bulgingly ripe persimmons; dusky pink lychees...it's probably the most colourful and inviting I've seen the market all year, and it seemed very fitting that all this wonderful fruit and veg (admittedly, most of it imported), bursting with colour and flavour, appears at the time of year when we most desperately need it.
Inspired by a lovely box of goodies I received recently from Belazu, producers of Mediterranean and North African ingredients (I especially love their preserved lemons), I've come up with a recipe that will bring a little Moroccan sunshine into your life. It uses mangoes, which is obviously not very Moroccan, but these sweet cubes of golden fruit are exactly what both your eyes and your tastebuds need during the winter. They're paired with sardine fillets, used a lot in Moroccan cooking, although these ones have been smoked, rather like haddock. They sound unusual, but I found them in my local Tesco, and would definitely recommend them if you can find them. While normal sardines will work perfectly well for this recipe too, the smokiness definitely adds a lovely savoury edge.
I've used barley couscous from Belazu, which is exactly like ordinary couscous except with a lovely nutty flavour and slightly firmer texture. I've also used their rose harissa paste, which is a blend of over 40 herbs and spices with a beautiful deep red colour and intense spicy flavour. I went through a phase in my second year of university of putting harissa on practically everything, and I have a feeling I might be tempted that way again. It adds a great earthy kick to whatever you put it on - it's great rubbed over fish or meat before grilling, but it's also good stirred into couscous, as I've done here.
To the harissa couscous I've added chopped spinach and cubes of juicy ripe mango. The sweetness of the mango counteracts the spiciness of the harissa paste, and also works very well with the rich oily flesh of the sardines. I've rubbed the sardine fillets with ras-el-hanout, a Moroccan spice mix whose Arabic name means 'head of the shop', indicating the tradition whereby the mixture featured the best spices the seller had to offer. There's no set recipe for this, and different brands all have different mixtures, but generally they include cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, chilli, coriander, cumin, pepper, turmeric, and rose petals. You can buy ras-el-hanout in most delis and supermarkets now.
The spices really enhance the deep flavour of the smoky sardine flesh, which is perfect with the sweet, juicy mango cubes and the spicy kick from the harissa couscous. All the dish needs is a scattering of toasted flaked almonds, for crunch and a deep toasty flavour, and a dollop of yoghurt, to cool everything down. It's nutritious, filling and satisfying, and the perfect recipe to transport you to sunnier climes.
Smoked sardines with harissa mango couscous (serves 2):
- 180g barley couscous
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tsp rose harissa (or more if you like it hot!)
- 2 large handfuls baby spinach
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 medium mango, peeled, stoned and cut into 1cm cubes
- 3 tsp ras-el-hanout spice mix
- 6 smoked/unsmoked sardine fillets (this would also work with mackerel)
- Olive oil
- 2 tbsp flaked almonds or pine nuts, toasted in a hot pan or under the grill
- Greek yoghurt, to serve
Put the couscous in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover it by around 1cm. Put a plate over the top of the bowl and set aside.
Meanwhile, wilt the spinach either in a large frying pan or by microwaving it in a bowl for a minute on high heat. Chop it finely. When the couscous has absorbed all the water, after around 5-10 minutes, stir in the rose harissa and some seasoning. Add the spinach, herbs and mango, and set aside.
Rub the ras-el-hanout over both sides of the sardine fillets. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and get it quite hot. Add the sardines, skin side down first, and cook for a couple of minutes on each side. Divide the mango couscous between two plates, then put the cooked sardines on top. Scatter over the flaked almonds and serve with a dollop of yoghurt on each plate.
This salad that showcases everything special and beautiful about our British autumn produce. It also uses my absolute favourite fish, mackerel, smothered in warm and aromatic spices and fried until crispy. This sits on a bed of tangy, crunchy, flavoursome salad that is also stunning to look at, using beautiful tangles of ivory fennel and apple, slivers of bold pink beetroot and sparkling pomegranate seeds. Just looking at it will make you feel warm and nourished, and every mouthful is an absolute treat to eat.
While not your stereotypical autumn comfort food - piping hot, featuring both meat and potatoes and generally various shades of brown - I sometimes think there is comfort to be had, in the frost of autumn, in vibrant flavours that wake your tastebuds up from their stew-induced stupor.
You can't think of British autumn produce without thinking of apples. I'm especially aware of their existence now that I have an apple tree in my garden, laden with bulbous blushing fruits ready to drop at the slightest breath of wind. I've been donning my wellies and heading into the long grass on a weekly basis to collect the windfalls. It always makes me sad when I find one too bruised or worm-eaten to be gastronomically viable, as it seems such a waste. Still, I try and do what I can to ensure they don't all become food for the lawn and the worms. This month has seen an apple and blackberry pie, an apple, date and cranberry crumble, a delicious apple and blackberry baked oatmeal for breakfast, and a wonderful quince and apple compote that I've been eating over cinnamon-enriched porridge studded with blackberries.
When they're not baked into a tart-sweet froth and nestled juicily under a buttery crust, apples have a lot of savoury potential in the kitchen too, particularly when coupled with other autumn ingredients - they're delicious in a casserole with pork, sausages or pheasant, or roasted in wedges with some potatoes to serve alongside a roast. I also love them thinly sliced in a sharp salad to accompany richer ingredients; their crispness and sweetness is always welcome, particularly when encased in a tangy mustard dressing.
Fennel is something I pretty much always have in the fridge. I can't resist a salad of thinly sliced fennel (I actually bought a mandolin just for this purpose) tossed in grain mustard, olive oil, herbs and salt. It goes with pretty much anything - meat, fish or cheese - and is infinitely adaptable, working with a huge variety of other fruit, herbs and veg. I usually add pomegranate seeds - their sweetness works well against the aniseed tang of the fennel - and sliced pear, which is a delicious contrast in texture, tending to be soft and melting against the crunch of the fennel strands. Here I've used apples, but pears would work well too. Fennel also goes very well with orange.
Also, a little cook's tip for you - don't try slicing a ripe pear on a mandolin, unless you want to be hunting around in your salad for the tip of your middle finger.
If you're not a big fan of the aniseedy crunch of fennel, try caramelising it in butter and a little brown sugar before using it in a recipe. It might have you converted. I love using it in any recipes involving fish, where its fresh, light flavour is a perfect complement. Fennel seeds are also a hugely underrated ingredient, working incredibly well with tomatoes, pork, fish, cheese and anything in need of a little herbal note.
Beetroot is something I always mean to eat more of, but fail to. I think it's because I can find it quite sickly. I absolutely cannot stomach those dark purple globes that come ready cooked and peeled in the supermarket - they have a disgusting squidgy texture and vile sickly flavour that makes me gag. Don't even get me started on the pickled stuff.
However, raw beetroot sliced into wedges, tossed in oil and liberal seasoning, then roasted until tender and caramelised, is a beautiful thing. One of my favourite ways to eat it is in this beetroot, carrot, orange and mackerel salad. It goes really well with mackerel, providing a sweet earthiness to counteract the rich flavour of the fish. It also works well with apple, being similarly crisp and sweet.
Raw beetroot isn't something I've eaten a lot of, but when I found these gorgeous candy and golden beetroot in the supermarket I knew I didn't want to roast them and risk marring their stunning colours. Instead I decided to slice them wafer-thin (again using my trusty mandolin, and risking the tips of my fingers with every stroke) to add another layer of crunch to my salad. They were just so pretty. I tend to wax lyrical about the beauty of fruit and veg at the best of times, but these really were incredibly beautiful. Why would you ever buy that pre-cooked vacuum-packed (or worse, vinegar-soaked) stuff when you could get some of these globes of gorgeous goodness? (To use a Nigella-esque phrase).
I also like how they are called 'candy' beetroot, which conjures up images of lurid sweet shop jars and neon sherbet, somehow making the beetroot more appealing. Maybe it's a clever marketing ploy. If so, I fell for it.
Speaking of beetroot and candy, I've always been intrigued by the use of beetroot in chocolate cakes and brownies. Think carrot in carrot cakes - the vegetable adds a moisture and subtle sweetness, and apparently its earthiness goes very well with chocolate. Something on the 'to try' list.
Also, another bonus of these beetroot varieties - they don't stain your fingers nearly as badly as traditional beetroot, nor bleed horribly into the other salad ingredients, which is always sad.
Pomegranatesare everywhere at this time of year; they are, to me, the Christmas fruit (along with clementines). There's very little I won't scatter a load of pomegranate seeds over - their snap of juiciness is always welcome, as is their jewel-like appearance. Here they add a delicious bite to the salad, and a little freshness to counteract the strong flavours of the mackerel.
Finally, the mackerel. While perhaps not as obviously autumnal as something like pheasant or venison, mackerel is the perfect partner for a lot of autumn fruit and veg. It's very healthy, very quick and easy to cook, and you can throw all sorts of strong flavours at it without it blinking an eye (well, I'd hope not anyway - if your mackerel is blinking then your fishmonger probably isn't doing his job properly). Mackerel is one of those fish that is generally better cooked as fillets - you can roast a whole one, but because it's quite oily the skin doesn't really crisp up properly, and it's all a bit flabby. Go for a nice big fillet, which will sizzle deliciously in the pan, its skin becoming burnished and crispy while the oily flesh stays wonderfully moist and meaty.
Here I've covered it in turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes, mixed with a little oil to make a spice rub. This gives it a gorgeous aromatic crust, and the spicy flavours work so well with the oily flesh of the fish. It goes into a very hot pan to allow the skin to crisp up, and then is ready to serve alongside the salad.
I really love this dish. The salad, with its lemon and mustard dressing, is tangy, crunchy and fresh, which is perfect to sit alongside the spicy, oily fish. It's also cooling against the rather assertive heat of the chilli flakes, resulting in little explosions of sweet/spicy/sour flavour in your mouth as you eat it. It takes everything that is great about British produce at this time of year, and uses those ingredients in a slightly unusual, and exciting, way. If you're sceptical about raw veg, don't be - it really works.
If you wanted to, you could swap the fish for chicken or pork, or to make it vegetarian use thick slices of griddled halloumi. It's super-nutritious - by the end you'll have had all of your five-a-day!
Spiced mackerel with apple, fennel and beetroot salad (serves 2):
- 2 mackerel, filleted
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- A generous pinch of chilli flakes
- Olive oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 tsp wholegrain mustard (I used Tracklements horseradish mustard)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 large eating apples (I used Cox)
- 1 small bulb fennel
- 2 small beetroot (about the size of a golf ball)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- A few sprigs lemon or normal thyme, leaves picked
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- A large handful of pea shoots, rocket or watercress
First, make the spice rub. Mix together the turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli flakes with some salt and pepper, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub this all over the mackerel fillets, on both sides. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together a generous glug (around 2-3 tbsp) of olive oil with the lemon juice, mustard, and some salt and pepper. Cut the apples into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice. Add these to the bowl. Using a mandolin, slice the fennel and the beetroot wafer-thin and add these to the bowl (or use a very sharp knife and try and slice as thinly as possible). Add the parsley, thyme leaves and pomegranate seeds, then toss together well. Divide between two plates or bowls and top with the pea shoots/rocket/watercress.
Get a non-stick frying pan very hot. Add a little olive oil, then use some kitchen paper to rub it evenly over the pan. Press the mackerel fillets into the pan, skin-side down. They should sizzle. Cook for around 3 minutes, or until the underside of the fish is nearly opaque. Flip over and cook for another minute. You may need to do this in batches if all the fillets won't fit in the pan at once.
Place two mackerel fillets on top of each plate of salad, then serve immediately.
Today has been the perfect day for avoiding gluten. After the dismal monsoons of the last couple of months, Cambridge has suddenly been blessed with sunshine. Not just any sunshine; this sunshine has returned with a vengeance, angry at being barred by miserable and threatening clouds for weeks on end and ready to show the citizens of this humble town what it's made of. With the result that the weather is swelteringly hot, and therefore it's completely impossible to entertain the notion of eating very much at all. It's definitely not a day to be craving a huge, freshly baked loaf of gluten-packed bread.
I had breakfast before it got properly hot, though, so my usual bowl of porridge didn't seem out of place. To be fair, I still eat porridge even in the height of summer, because it's delicious and the perfect blanket for all that ripe and ready summer fruit around at the moment. I still had some rhubarb left over from yesterday, so I had that on top with a large handful of raspberries and blueberries, both of which go deliciously well with rhubarb.
For lunch, I decided to try out some gluten-free pasta. In a pasta salad, though, to be eaten just warm or cold, rather than a hot, steaming plate of carbs. They are not the thing when you are hot and steaming yourself. I was intrigued to see if it tasted any different to normal pasta, being made with maize and rice flour instead of standard flour. It certainly looked the same in the packet.
I wanted a vaguely creamy sauce for my pasta salad, something with a generous kick of mustard to spice it up when eaten cold from the fridge. I get very specific cravings when it comes to pasta, you see. Then I needed some protein to bulk it out. Chicken, tuna or smoked mackerel would have been wonderful, but there was some smoked trout on offer in Waitrose, so I decided to use that. I also wanted a lot of nice green veg, for a bit of contrast and to make it a vaguely healthy option. Peas and broad beans work well in pasta salads, and go very well with trout. Finally, I added a couple of chopped hard-boiled eggs. I don't know if this is weird or not. I love eggs with smoked fish, but I don't know if that's a normal thing. But hey, it's my salad, so in they went. Plus eggs are good for you.
To this I added a dressing made with cream cheese, creme fraiche, lemon juice, salt and pepper, a huge amount of lemon thyme leaves (my favourite herb, and delicious with fish and anything creamy) and two heaped teaspoons of mustard. Not just any mustard - Tracklements horseradish mustard, from back in July last year when I went on an exciting tour of their mustard factory and received enough free mustard to last several years (literally - I've only used two jars out of six, and that's taken me an entire twelve months). Horseradish is normally perceived as solely reserved for beef, but actually it partners very well with rich smoked fish, particularly trout and mackerel.
Incidentally, I received a very nice email from Becky at Tracklements today, who informs me that all their products (apart from the Fruity Brown Sauce and the Beer Mustard) are gluten-free, and recommends stirring one of their chutneys into a bowl of quinoa or carmargue rice, adding some leftover chicken or lamb and some sultanas, and digging in for a wonderful gluten-free plateful. That's definitely something I'll have to try.
The result of my pasta experiment was a deliciously comforting plateful full of fresh flavours - crunchy, slightly bitter broad beans, sweet peas, the rich trout and eggs, plus the zingy lemony dressing that manages to be creamy and soothing yet sharp and exciting at the same time.
But I know what you really want to know is: does gluten-free pasta taste the same as normal pasta?
Yes! Yes it does! I have to admit I couldn't tell the difference at all while eating it. Perhaps if you ate it dressed with nothing more than good olive oil and seasoning, and were a connoisseur, you might be sharp enough to spot the difference, but I really didn't notice, and seeing as I usually like my pasta laden with other lovely things, it's certainly good enough for me.
Great news for gluten-free dieters everywhere.
To celebrate, here's a jaunty little video of me making the pasta salad.
After a banana, tea and medjool date snack (a repeat of yesterday), I went to my usual Tuesday kickboxing class. I noticed a huge improvement in my energy levels from last week, when I could barely lift my arms and legs and just felt horribly sluggish. This time I was bursting with energy and had a really great class. I don't know if it's the gluten-free diet or just coincidence, but I've certainly noticed only positive effects so far. It was doubly surprising given I spent most of today asleep in the sun, which isn't exactly great for boosting energy levels.
For dinner, I made a wonderful salad which I will be giving a proper dedicated post soon in the future, because it was just that good. Suffice to say that my mum had a few bites, then said: "If this is what being gluten-free is like, then I'm all for it."
It's a salad of smoked prosciutto, feta cheese, grilled peaches, green beans and rocket. Sounds an unlikely combination, but tastes like summer on a plate and is utterly wonderful. A perfect example of how a gluten-free diet can lead to the most imaginative and delicious recipe creations.
Creamy smoked trout pasta salad (serves 3-4):
250g short pasta shapes, gluten-free if necessary (I used fusilli)
2 large eggs, at room temperature (so they don't crack when boiling)
A large handful each of frozen peas and broad beans
150g light cream cheese
1 heaped tbsp creme fraiche
2 tsp wholegrain mustard
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and black pepper
A few sprigs lemon thyme
2 tsp olive oil
125g smoked trout fillets
Fresh herbs, to serve (optional)
Put the pasta on to cook in a large pot of boiling salted water, adding the eggs to the water. After 6 minutes, remove the eggs and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Add the peas and broad beans to the pasta, wait for the water to come back to the boil, then cook for 3-4 minutes (make sure the pasta doesn't overcook; this timing should end up with it just right). Peel and dice the eggs and set aside.
Mix together the cream cheese, creme fraiche, mustard, lemon juice, a generous amount of pepper and the leaves of the lemon thyme sprigs in a small bowl. Taste and check the seasoning - it should be quite sharp and lemony.
When the pasta and peas/beans are cooked, drain them, reserving a small cup of cooking water. Return them to their pan, then add the cream sauce. Stir together well, adding the olive oil and a little of the cooking water to loosen the sauce if necessary, then flake the trout into the pasta and stir again. Check the seasoning - you might want more lemon juice or mustard. Add the chopped eggs and stir together again. Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with fresh herbs, if you like (dill, basil, parsley and lemon thyme all work well).
One thing especially impressed itself upon my mind during this, my second day of eating gluten-free (for day one and the reason behind this gluten-free challenge, click here). That is:how incredibly hard it is to find food on the go that doesn't contain gluten. It seems that the pesky thing lurks everywhere, in the most unexpected and surprising places. Nor is its presence particularly well-labelled. To be on a truly gluten-free diet is exhausting, especially when it comes to grabbing a 'quick' lunch from a supermarket; it requires the constant checking of labels and analysing of ingredients, plus the inevitable and tragic disappointment of finding that basically everything you want to eat is cruelly denied you.
For breakfast today, I had a bowl of gluten-free porridge with some rhubarb compote and fresh blackberries. It was delicious; I love the combination of comforting, creamy porridge laced with the potent tang of stewed rhubarb, and the juicy burst of sweet blackberries.
I didn't have much time between doing various errands and starting work in the early afternoon. I definitely didn't have time to make something gluten-free for lunch, mainly because I wanted something a bit healthier than a gluten-free bread roll filled with whatever was in the fridge, which consisted of mostly cheese. So, naturally, I went to M&S on the way to work, my destination of choice for packaged salads, sandwiches and the like because they generally seem much more inviting than cheap and horrible Tesco varieties. Yeah, that's my excuse. Actually it's just because I'm painfully middle class, and never more so than when it comes to food.
My gaze hovered over all the attractive options, and I came pretty close to picking a few up before I realised: couscous, bulgur wheat, pasta salads were all out of the equation. Never mind, I thought, there are a couple of nice-looking quinoa salads, and I know quinoa is gluten-free. One check of the label, however, boldly informed me 'Contains: Wheat, Gluten'. Where this could possibly be in a salad of quinoa, feta and vegetables, I'm not quite sure.
I went for sushi, one of my favourites. The components of sushi are normally pretty basic: rice, sugar, salt, vinegar, fish. So how on earth could the label tell me that there was gluten involved? I assume because of the soy sauce; perhaps you didn't know this, but soy sauce contains wheat.
I was even more shocked, though, when I picked up a salad of edamame beans and sugar snap peas to discover that it contained gluten. Where was the gluten hiding?! Seriously? It was just vegetables! I can only assume that the little pot of dressing provided contained soy sauce or something, but I didn't want to eat a pot of vegetables without anything to season them. The same went for various other salads: mixed bean, Greek...all of them innocently concealing gluten.
I genuinely found this quite surprising, and it also gave me a great deal of sympathy for coeliacs and those wildly allergic to wheat or gluten. There was nothing on the M&S shelf proclaiming itself to be gluten-free; I imagine for such sufferers, finding lunch on the go is a tiresome and frequently fruitless guessing game.
Fortunately - and this was a real stroke of luck - it happened that my favourite M&S salad, one I discovered recently and can't get enough of - didn't contain gluten.
It's a salad of wild rice, lentils, aubergine, peppers and celery with a garlicky dressing. Doesn't sound that great, and definitely doesn't look particularly appetising, being mostly beige and slimy-looking, but it tastes fantastic - sharp and garlicky, creamy from the roasted aubergine and nutty from the lentils and rice. It probably made my day discovering that I was allowed to eat this. I sat outside in the sun and devoured it with a plastic spoon, then had a delicious ripe white nectarine afterwards.
Ripe nectarines are a rare thing, to be treasured when one can get their hands upon them.
The M&S salad was not very filling, however. Especially not when one has been undertaking the tiring job of teaching fourteen rowdy 16-18 year olds for the afternoon. I had a banana and a medjool date (the fattest, stickiest, most toffee-like dates you'll ever eat, which is why I only had one - they're very satisfying) with a cup of tea (these dates have to be consumed with a hot beverage, to melt the sugar off your teeth!), before I went for a pretty gruelling run in the sweltering heat.
Can I tell you a secret? It wasn't as good as the run I went for two weeks ago, which was fuelled by a substantial afternoon tea featuring scones, jam, clotted cream and a huge amount of caffeinated tea. In that respect, I don't think the gluten-free diet has given me a manic burst of energy all of a sudden, but the kind of energy one gets from floury scones is probably the bad kind that will give you a huge sugar low an hour or so later...I was just clever enough to go for a run before that low hit, while I was still high as a kite. I imagine the gluten-free kind of energy is more sustainable and keeps you going for a longer period of time. I still ran seven kilometres, so am not doing too badly without any gluten to sustain me.
Dinner this evening is an example of how - fortunately - some of the most delicious meals are naturally gluten-free. Instead of viewing a gluten-free diet as all about everything you can't have, it seems logical to me to embrace it, to find new and more exciting ways of filling yourself up than by simply gorging a vat of bread or pasta. To me, it seems about much more than simply swapping your bread or pasta for a gluten-free variety, which is a perfectly viable option but seems somewhat lazy and unimaginative.
Instead, I'm thinking about meals that are delicious, and coincidentally naturally lacking in any form of wheat whatsoever. These are the ones I'll be sharing over the next few days. You'll be amazed at how tasty some dishes are, despite the lack of a gluten factor. I tried a recipe from Diana Henry's Food From Plenty, for sea bream cooked Spanish-style. It's one that I've always skipped over before because it just looked too simple. I tend to shy away from simple recipes, favouring more unusual flavour combinations and ingredients. I'm now going to have to rethink my entire philosophy, because this was fantastic.
Sea beam, gutted and scaled (they were on offer in Tesco), baked in the oven under a thick blanket of breadcrumbs, smoked paprika, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. The olive oil and the paprika mingle to form a pungent, aromatic, shockingly scarlet oil that permeates and infuses the fish with its deliciously rich, smoky flavour - think chorizo but without the meat. The lemon juice adds tang, the garlic depth, while the breadcrumbs turn crispy in places and soggy in others, saturated with oily, smoky juices. The fish flesh remains deliciously moist, its creamy texture the perfect balance to the assertive bread topping.
I used gluten-free bread to make the crumbs, naturally. To be honest, I think that was all it was good for - the loaf had the texture of dry sponge. However, I did receive it in the post on Thursday, so it is probably just old, a result of my neglect. It would have been fine toasted, though, and I'm sure gluten-free loaves are much nicer when fresh.
I served this fish with boiled potatoes (yay for gluten-free carbs) and a lovely little salad of chargrilled courgettes, broad beans, green beans and basil, dressed with garlic olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. It was the perfect green and crunchy partner to soak up all the delicious sweet and smoky juices from the fish. Such a simple meal, but one that is much more than the sum of its parts, and is a perfect recipe for a balmy summer evening.
It's now late, and I'm probably heading to bed soon. I feel pretty good - nicely exhausted from running, and wonderfully nourished from my lovely vegetable-heavy dinner. Much better than if I'd eaten a giant bowl of pasta or similar, I'm sure.
Spanish-style sea bream (serves 4):
(Barely adapted from 'Food From Plenty', by Diana Henry)
- 4 sea bream, gutted and scaled
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 50g breadcrumbs (gluten-free if necessary)
- 5 tsp smoked paprika
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Lightly oil a baking dish. Rub olive oil over the fish, inside and out, then season well. Lay in a single layer on the oven dish. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze over half the lemon.
Mix together the breadcrumbs, garlic and paprika, and season well. Spoon this over the top of the fish, then squeeze over the remaining lemon and drizzle over some more olive oil.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then sprinkle over the parsley. Bake for another 5 minutes, or until the fish is opaque and flakes easily away from the bone at its thickest part.
Serve with a salad (perhaps some green and broad beans) and some boiled new potatoes.
Britain. You need to eat more sardines.
In this current age of austerity, economic climate, blah blah blah, when food prices are continually rising, supermarkets are trying to pull the wool over our eyes by proffering multibuy offers that actually involve spending more, and there is barely a single source of protein available that doesn't carry a heavy cost both literally and in terms of animal welfare, I honestly believe the solution lies in the humble sardine.
I went to the fish counter the other day and asked for five sardines. The woman behind the counter scooped up their plump, shimmering bodies and dropped them on the scales to weigh them. I could barely believe my ears when she told me that those five beautiful specimens, plump, meaty and very decently sized, were going to cost me a grand total of £1.60.
Therein lies the first major bonus of sardine consumption. It's cheap. I make that 32p a sardine, and given that two or perhaps three will quite adequately feed a normal adult (I've been known to eat four at a time), you're not exactly breaking the bank.
The second pro is of course the nutritional benefit. Sardines are one of those much-heralded 'oily fish' that we all know are hugely good for you. Or if you don't know, then have you been living in a cave? Get out there and ingest some omega oils before you waste away and die.
If only they weren't given such an unfortunate branding...calling anything 'oily' is hardly going to get people flocking up to put it in their mouths. I think maybe "firm-textured deliciously rich and meaty fish" might be a better tagline, but it's not quite as easy to cram onto packaging labels.
Thirdly, they're ethical. Sardines are one of the few sustainable fish species left to us now. Eat them with a clear conscience, and let your cod live out its happy life under the sea rather than meeting a speedy and ignominious end encased in batter and served on a piece of newspaper.
The fourth plus point of sardines, and oily fish in general, becomes apparent when you get them into the kitchen. There you can assault them with your entire arsenal of flavourings and spices, and they'll just sit back meekly and let you get on with it. These are tough creatures; I can't think of a single ingredient that an oily fish couldn't stand up to. These are fish you'd want on your side if you were ever getting a fish army together. Which, let's face it, is probably unlikely, but I thought I'd just mention it in case the occasion ever arises and you're stuck choosing between a mackerel and a monkfish. Monkfish may look impressive and threatening, with their hideous faces, gaping mouths and creepy spines, but the cool and unassuming mackerel will always win.
I literally have no idea what I am talking about. Back to the sardines.
There you have it: I can't think of a reason not to enjoy these lovely fish. They're so cheap, so ethical, so versatile and so good for you.
And please, to those of you who whine about all the little bones, I really, really don't have time for you. Nothing annoys me more than people who complain and say they don't eat fish because of the bones. Jesus, get over yourself. Take the five minutes to pick out the bones and just man up.
Here's a lovely way to eat sardines. Their skins are rubbed with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper, ground cumin and sumac (a lemony Middle Eastern spice, but you could use lemon zest if you can't find it). They're grilled until crispy. Then they're served on a bed of vibrant, fresh, zingy, citrussy salad. It has wafer-thin slices of crunchy raw fennel, for that aniseed bite that works so well with our oily friends. It has curls of red onion, to add savoury depth. It has a handful of fragrant mint, for freshness, and lemon juice, for zingy bite. Finally, it has thin segments of pink grapefruit to deliver a punch of zesty flavour that works so well with the creamy flesh of the fish.
The salad on its own is lovely, but it needs something rich to mellow all those vibrant flavours. Mackerel would work beautifully - either fresh or smoked. Spicy chicken could be an excellent substitute if you're one of the above annoying fish-bone-haters. Even a tangy cheese like goat's cheese or feta, or slices of grilled halloumi, could replace the sardines.
But, given my highly cogent and persuasive argument above, why would you want to replace the sardines? They are the answer to Britain's problems, and possibly the world's.
Grilled spiced sardines with fennel and grapefruit salad (serves 2):
- 1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced on a mandolin
- 1/2 a red onion, thinly sliced on a mandolin
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A small bunch of fresh mint, leaves picked
- Juice of half a lemon
- Two pink grapefruits
- 5 sardines, filleted (yes, the ones in the photo are whole, but only because my fishmonger apparently misheard 'filleted' as 'gutted' - if using whole ones whack them under the grill rather than pan-fry)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp sumac
- A couple of handfuls of spinach, rocket, watercress, or a mixture
First, make the salad. Mix together the thinly sliced fennel and red onion with the lemon juice and a good glug of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add the mint, and toss together well. Use a sharp serrated knife to cut the skin off the grapefruits, then cut in between the pith all around the grapefruit to release the segments. Add these to the salad and toss gently to mix.
Rub the sardine fillets with olive oil and season with the cumin, sumac and some salt and pepper. Get a non-stick pan very hot and cook the sardines, skin side down, for a couple of minutes until crispy, then flip over and cook for another minute.
Divide the spinach/rocket/watercress between two plates and top with the grapefruit salad. Place five sardine fillets on each plate and serve.