The title might be somewhat misleading, because this month’s tea of the month is not one tea, but rather a whole world of teas, ever expanding. It’s such a simple yet wonderful idea that I almost wish I’d had it first. Tea Tourist send a selection box of six loose-leaf teas every month, supplied in taster-sized portions (in a letterbox-friendly container). They source the finest and most unusual teas from suppliers around the world, introducing tea lovers to new and interesting varieties which they can then order direct from the suppliers themselves, usually with a discount for being a Tea Tourist customer. The company has been running since March 2016 and already seem to have become a huge success, with their trademark blue boxes and hot air balloon insignia all over social media.Read More
Whenever I read about someone enjoying their porridge plain, ‘with just water and salt’, a small part of me withers and dies quietly inside. It is often, apparently, meant to seem like a badge of honour (specifically, a sort of Spartan-cum-Northern honour): look how I shun the decadent trappings of modern culinary life in favour of my abstemious bowlful of gruel; look how little I require to achieve true happiness. While I am undoubtedly envious – imagine how much simpler one’s entire existence must be if one is sated by just oats and salt – I can’t help but think of all the opportunities that are closed down by that Puritan preference for a no-nonsense breakfast bowl.Read More
I’ve decided to dedicate a small corner of my blog to a passion that occupies a large corner of my heart: tea. From now on, each month I’ll feature a different favourite tea (or tea company), with the aim of introducing other tea obsessives like myself to exciting and unusual blends. Given that I now have three separate shelves devoted to my tea collection in my apartment, and a further shelf in my office at work, I also consider this a means of unburdening myself slightly of my ever-growing tea knowledge. I hope you love my suggestions and that they inspire you to seek out new brews from all over the world. To kick off, we have the True Tea Club, with their exciting tea subscription boxes. It’s exactly as it sounds: a fabulous collection of innovative blends delivered directly to your door on a monthly basis.Read More
I have recently been forced to come to terms with the true extent of my tea obsession. The necessity of moving my worldly possessions across Europe in the back of a van recently has thrown into sharp relief several things I already suspected, but was vehemently denying: I have too many clothes, cookbooks and plates; I hoard convenient ‘travel size’ toiletries; there are too many odds and ends of bread in my freezer. I didn’t quite realise how out of hand my love of tea had become until I found myself packing my collection into not one but three boxes. Recent trips to India and Japan have hardly helped, adding at least twelve more items to the collection, and I was also recently sent some wonderful samples from the kind people at Bluebird Tea and Tea Shirt to broaden my extensive repertoire. Nothing makes me sadder than a person for whom ‘a cup of tea’ signifies simply a mug of tannic black brew adulterated with milk and sugar. The world of tea is expansive and glorious, so I’m going to share some of my favourites in the hope that I may turn you too into a ridiculous tea lady like myself. Or, at least, encourage you to try something new and exciting. The tea I drink on any particular occasion depends a lot on the time of day, my mental and physical state at the time, the particular type of tea that appeals, whether I want it to be on the sweet or savoury side, whether I need caffeine or decaf, et cetera. So here’s a tea menu for all hours and all moods. You can order most of these online, and many are available both as loose leaf teas or teabags.Read More
1. Abundance and preserving. It’s that time of year again: the regular thud of apples falling off heavily-laden boughs onto my lawn; the triffid-like majesty of two thriving rhubarb plants; the first swelling of aubergines and cucumbers on their stalks in the greenhouse, and the flourishing of herbs - lemon verbena, grapefruit mint, Thai basil, oregano, lavender…The markets are full of beautiful rosy Victoria plums and blooming jade greengages, the last of summer’s peaches and downy apricots, and jewel-like berries in abundance. At times like these, I love nothing more than to dust off my jam pan and start preserving for the autumn and winter (although admittedly I make far more preserves than I can ever get through alone, and give away around 80% of what I produce, but that’s part of the joy too). Favourite recipes at the moment include Diana Henry’s plum, orange and cardamom jam, greengage and honey compote (this freezes well for use on winter porridge), and my own spiced apple and date jam, or rhubarb, vanilla and cardamom jam. If you have an apple glut, try making flavoured jellies for sweet and savoury food: my two favourites are festive apple jelly and lemon verbena jelly. For more luscious jam ideas, see Diana Henry’s beautiful book Salt Sugar Smoke – the apricot and lavender jam is also excellent.Read More
One thing I get asked for a lot, as a result of this blog, is advice on student cooking. Fortunately it has been quite a long time since I had to endure the pitfalls of a student kitchen (people leaving the freezer open overnight, using my pans and leaving them full of rancid oil for days, teatowels covered in unthinkable stains…), but university definitely provided my formative years in terms of becoming a cook and food writer. Learning to cook properly as a student is a rite of passage, in my opinion, one that may be a little challenging but is infinitely rewarding and joyful. Better still, it’s a great social skill to have up your sleeve; few things impress your student peers more than a home-cooked feast. You’ll also save money, eat more healthily and gain a new creative hobby into the bargain. So this month I’m working in partnership with Steamer Trading Cookshop, one of my favourite small independent retailers, to offer some advice on essential kit for your first student kitchen (and no, it doesn’t include novelty shot glasses or cocktail shakers…but it should obviously include a huge bowl of avocados and some key cookbooks - see above...)Read More
‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,’ wrote Henry James. If you’re planning on heading to the Royal York Hotel for afternoon tea, however, I’d allow a little longer than James’s allotted hour – you’ll certainly want to linger.
Served in a high-ceilinged, opulent lounge (the ‘Garden Room’) decorated in cream and slate grey, with quirky equestrian-themed touches, the Royal York afternoon tea would certainly have impressed Henry James, and will delight even the most sophisticated fans of this decadent meal. The hotel clearly understand that there should be something ceremonial about afternoon tea – although the meal was invented as an ingenious and practical way of filling the hunger gap between lunch and dinner, it has grown into a symbol of luxury and refined British cuisine. This couldn’t be clearer at the Royal York, where your tea arrives in stages on fine china and a towering platter and you are made to feel like minor royalty. The lounge is light and airy and, despite the views of the garden being somewhat marred by the car park, is a fabulous place to while away an hour or two while revelling in the understated luxury of the hotel, set in the heart of beautiful York. The staff are friendly and attentive, and each stage of the meal is an absolute treat.Read More
1. Health food paradise at the new Holland & Barrett More store in York. I was recently invited to the opening of Holland & Barrett’s palatial new store in the centre of York. I’ve long been a fan of the brand for their organic dried fruit, nuts and muesli mixes, and for their supply of esoteric health ingredients from around the world (they were probably stocking quinoa and tahini way before Ottolenghi emerged on the scene). The new store is a bright, vibrant space filled with all sorts of healthy treats, from nut butters to smoked tofu to their huge range of ‘free-from’ products. However, the expansion means there’s also space for a selection of beauty and makeup counters brimming with natural products to make you lovely on the outside as well as the inside. I had great fun creating my own body scrub at the Beauty Kitchen stall, using a delicious-smelling array of natural ingredients (my personal combination involved bitter orange, Epsom salts, and a zingy lemongrass oil), and enjoying a 60-second manicure with the same nourishing combination, leaving my hands gloriously soft and fragrant.Read More
This post combines two things I don’t normally care about: tailoring blog recipes to specific seasonal food-related occasions, and Valentine’s Day. You won’t find me whipping up treats for National Tempura Day, National Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day or World Tripe Day (if you needed proof that these ‘food days’ are just the farcical inventions of bored and desperate PR companies and marketing boards, there it is: World Tripe Day), because there is apparently some silly culinary designation for every single day of the year now, so by that logic I would never ever be able to make a spontaneous decision regarding what I cook. I can also take or leave Valentine’s Day, and it certainly doesn’t inspire me with culinary ambition (if I see one more hackneyed recipe feature telling me that I must serve oysters and fillet steak on the special day, I might find a decidedly more violent use for my oyster knife).Read More
Once, when I was studying at Oxford, I found myself staring blankly at the ready meal aisle of M&S for over an hour. I’d come down with some horrible bug and was feeling exhausted and sorry for myself. Convinced I had no energy to cook, I thought that once, just this once, I would ‘treat myself’ to a nice ready meal. Except it turned out to be not such a treat after all. They all looked so soulless and tragic in their sterile little boxes, the portions stingy, the ingredients congealed, with the kind of matt, pallid hue that only a flimsy black microwaveable box can bestow. They all had unnecessarily unpronounceable ingredients in them. They were all far too expensive to justify their meagre contents. Paralysed with indecision, probably exacerbated by my increasingly ill and fuzzy mental state, I stood there for over an hour, wandering the aisles, trying to find something I fancied, trying to justify spending five pounds on a tiny tub of ravioli that I was convinced would only leave me hungrier, trying to urge myself to just get over it and stop being so precious about what I was going to have for dinner (I have urged myself to do this on a daily basis for nearly a decade now, incidentally - it never works).Read More
The time has come to update my ‘Where to Eat in Yorkshire’ list (for the original post, see here). I’ve continued to eat my way around this fabulous county and its diverse culinary influences since moving here in 2012, and every now and again stumble upon a gem that simply has to make it onto this blog. Here are a few new recommendations, ranging from a quirky meatball restaurant to a Spanish tapas bar, and including two of my favourite rustic pubs with some of the best gastropub food (and roaring fires!) in the country.Read More
Turtle Bay has perfected that nonchalant, ‘artfully distressed’ look so beloved by chain restaurants and hipster bars these days, and given it a thoroughly Caribbean slant. Bare light bulbs surrounded by bright multicoloured cages illuminate the warehouse-style ceilings and the tables bedecked with multiple varieties of hot sauce. Bob Marley posters line the walls, and expanses of bare brick are graffitied with the Red Stripe logo and other red-yellow-and-green homages to the West Indies. Signs above the open kitchen proclaim it to be the ‘Jerk Centre’ and ‘Hot hot hot’, while the numerous jars of apricot jam that festoon the central bar hint at the popularity of the ‘Jammin’ cocktail, a blend of white rum, apricot liqueur, mint, ginger, lemon, apple juice and the aforementioned jam. If you’re anything like me, the sight of another bare lightbulb in a restaurant or coffee shop is likely to induce an attack of ennui, but fortunately Turtle Bay’s menu is fresh, lively and exciting, with food to match (although those bulbs don't do wonders for food photography, so apologies for the grainy pictures).Read More
One of my best ever memories, food-related and more generally, is of the lunch I ate after finishing my Finals exams at Oxford. I emerged, blinking confusedly, from the dark, imposing exam hall into a haze of summer sunlight, to be scattered with confetti and presented with champagne bottles (strictly no drinking from them in the street, though, as I soon found out when a surly Proctor made a beeline for me) by my friends. Slightly dazed, my head still reeling with quotations from Thomas More and Philip Sidney, I sat down to a lovely summer lunch at one of my favourite restaurants in Oxford. Attached to the hotel near my college, it was an understatedly glamorous establishment, offering beautifully presented fine-dining style food at reasonable prices, and the place I would always go for a treat, either with visiting parents or that momentous occasion of exam completion. I credit the success of that lunch largely to the restaurant, and it still remains in my mind to this day.Read More
I was prepared to like the Biltmore Bar & Grill before I tasted the food. Their upstairs dining area is a wonderful indoor garden, a lovely sprawling array of potted plants, small trees and dark foliage. While I love dining al fresco at home, the pleasure of sipping wine and eating a meal surrounded by blooming flora is always slightly undermined by the fact that all I can think about is how much needs weeding, or pruning, or repotting, or how much the lawn needs mowing, or how much that hedge really needs to come down, or how the apple tree is any minute now going to start hurling its fruit at the garden with a vengeance and that no amount of apple crumbles will even begin to deal with its prolific bounty…you see how it goes. At the Biltmore’s aptly-named ‘Garden Grill’, no such worries could intrude upon my eating experience. Instead, I got to enjoy the somewhat eclectic décor (there are two big white sculptures of deer wearing sunglasses in front of a huge, wall-length drinks cabinet, a curtain of rushing water behind the bar and chairs and sofas upholstered in plush velour) without worry, preferably while taking it in over a cocktail from the extensive menu – the Bellinis are lovely, as is the bourbon-based ‘Old Fashioned’.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
1. Apricots. Although you can buy these almost year-round in the supermarket, the fruits that start to emerge on the shelves in late May have something special about them. They're plumper, softer, promising jammy ripeness and mild sweetness, and they seem to glow more brightly orange than the pale, bullet-hard, woolly varieties that grace the shops in winter. I think there are few things more beautiful than a downy, ripe apricot, its honeyed skin blushed and dappled with sienna, glowing like a beacon in the hand. In summer, I like to pile them into a pale blue or white bowl and marvel at their beauty on the worktop. Briefly, anyway, before I get to work turning them into luscious desserts like this apricot and almond custard tart. For the next few months I reckon I'll eat at least a punnet of these beautiful fruits every week, either in desserts or baked with honey and cardamom into a luscious marigold compote to spoon over hot porridge and scatter with blackberries or blueberries.Read More
1. Southern Italian wine dinner at the Chequers Inn.
Last week I ventured out into the Yorkshire countryside on a snowy night to attend the first southern Italian wine dinner at the Chequers Inn, Bilton-in-Ainsty. This lovely, cosy pub is tucked away in a small village on the way to Wetherby and was offering a fabulous five-course menu complete with matching wines from the lesser-known southern regions of Italy. A platter of goat’s cheese fritters rescued us from the outside chill, along with delicate morsels of fig wrapped in parma ham and asparagus wrapped in leeks. Why have I never considered deep-frying balls of goat’s cheese before? They tasted like creamy, gooey clouds of joy.Read More
1. Hutong, the Shard.
I won a meal at Hutong after taking part in the Cote de Rhone Chinese takeaway blogger challenge a few months ago. Last weekend, we made the (for me, stricken by vertigo, terrifying) journey high up the Shard to indulge in a leisurely four-hour, multi-course lunch in the gorgeous surroundings of Hutong. Resplendent with red lanterns, carved wood and ornate ironwork, you feel like you're eating lunch in old Shanghai or Hong Kong. We started with a pot of jasmine tea and some beautiful, delicate dim sum (crab; lobster; vegetable and bamboo; wagyu beef puffs; scallop and pumpkin; and some unusual dumpling parcels filled with a savoury, delicious meat broth that were unlike anything I've ever tasted before). Next came crispy duck, carved ceremoniously at the table, its lacquered skin sliced through like butter and placed in neat, glistening rows on a plate for us to enjoy with pancakes and hoi sin. The cocktails were incredible, presented like little glass-held meals in themselves, decorated lavishly with fresh herbs and fruit and bursting with unusual aromatic Eastern flavours.Read More
1. Central American food.
I spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica and Nicaragua this April, and although the prospect of rice and beans for every meal did start to get a little tedious (never before have I found myself going out for a pizza while abroad somewhere that isn't Italy...oh the shame), I am a fan of this simple yet hearty, wholesome, bolstering combination of ingredients. Rice and beans (all the better if fried with a little spice), fried plantain (sweeter and more caramelised in Costa Rica, like bananas, while crispier and more starchy in Nicaragua, like potato cakes), tortillas (soft and nutty, unlike the pallid flavourless things we buy in packets over here), and some form of protein: eggs for breakfast; fish, steak or chicken for lunch. You might also get some fresh cheese and/or avocado if you're lucky, and pico de gallo: a tangy relish of ripe tomatoes, onions and coriander. Perfect for breakfast and lunch, though I did crave a bit more variety for dinner. Luckily, there was ceviche to satisfy that requirement.Read More
A couple of weeks ago, I escaped the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden for a brief but deliciously enlightening adventure into Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Condesa is a little wine and tapas bar, tucked away amidst other more imposing pubs and chain restaurants in this ever-heaving district of London. Blink and you'd miss it, so make sure you keep your eyes wide open as you walk past, because it would be a sad thing if you did miss out on the delights Condesa has to offer (not least of which is Daniel, the rather charming owner).
I was expecting a large restaurant, so was surprised to find myself in a small and rustic-looking wine bar. You can perch at the bar on stools and read off the menu and wine list written on a large blackboard across the wall, or sit at small tables dotted along the side of the room. The place definitely has atmosphere for being so small; everyone around us seemed to be having a great time, and there's a really laid-back feel to everything. It's a proper Spanish tapas bar, not an English restaurant attempting to take some of those elements and enlarge and commercialise them. This is evident from the extensive list of wines written on the board, from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Mexico and France; it's obvious that the food and wine are of equal importance at Condesa.
It's a bit of a treat for wine lovers, particularly with Daniel's expert knowledge to recommend wines to match the food. We started with an Amontillado sherry, which with its sweet, honeyed tones was the prefect thing to whet the appetite before the food commenced. We also sampled a range of Mexican wines, which I found very intriguing, having never tasted wine from that part of the world before. A sweet but crisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc, Daniel explained, gains its sweetness from the salty sea breeze that perfumes the grapes, lending them a distinctly honeyed aftertaste.
Condesa offers big, bold, vibrant food, yet also food that demonstrates a huge amount of skill and care in the blending of flavours and textures. The specials board changes every two days, and ingredients are carefully sourced from Mexico, Spain and local suppliers, with emphasis on quality and authenticity. There's a separate lunch and dinner menu, the former featuring bocadillos (home-made sandwiches), with fillings such as pulled pork, chicken chipotle, jamon serrano with olive oil, and goat's cheese with cranberry sauce, all costing around £5-6. The latter showcases a range of Spanish and Mexican classics, such as charcuterie, ceviche, tostadas and quesadillas.
If you're looking for fancy, artistically-presented restaurant food, with foams and garnishes and the like, go somewhere else. This is the kind of food I really love to eat, the kind that makes me fail to see the point in Michelin-starred places: it's hearty, generous, but also perfectly balanced to deliver a really exciting taste experience. There's meat and cheese. Toasted bread. Olives. Chilli. Beautiful fresh fish and seafood. I really cannot think of what more a person could want.
My favourite dish was the pork pibil sliders, beautiful soft buns filled with slow-cooked pork shoulder that had been marinated in anatto seeds, orange, lime and grapefruit, lending the meat an incredibly rich, salty, tangy flavour. It was served with a tomatillo dip, which was an amazing blend of spicy and cooling at the same time - ice cold yet tingly on the tongue, the perfect zingy complement to the rich meat.
Another favourite, and one which I think epitomises the food at Condesa, is the charcuterie board. Daniel explained the provenance and production process of everything on the plate, which featured - among other delicacies - the famous Iberico ham, which was slightly sweet and salty and melt-in-the-mouth rich. My favourite, though, was the mojama - dried tuna, served drizzled with olive oil and almonds. This is like nothing I've ever tasted - it's basically tuna, cured in the same way you would meat. The result is an incredible concentration of its sea-sweet saltiness, perfectly offset by the grassy oil and the toasty almonds.
We also tried a delicious Manchego; Daniel explained that he had sampled a nine-month old cheese, but thought it would be too dry for local taste, so chose a six-month specimen instead. It was perfect, delivering that sweet grainy taste I love so much about manchego. You can't serve manchego without membrillo, quince paste, which was also excellent. We also had two different types of olives - manzanilla, and guirdillo, which were slightly spicy.
The Mexican dishes on the menu were probably the most exciting. A ceviche of tuna, with lime, olive oil and agave, had an incredible soft, melting texture, but still retained that subtle flavour of the sea, lifted by the zing of the citrus, perfectly 'cooked' cubes of delicate tuna keeping their shape and flavour. Served on top of a crisp tostada, which balanced out the sharp citrus with a deep, buttery toastiness, it was utterly gorgeous - the kind of fresh-tasting food I could eat all day.
In the same vein and equally wonderful were the prawn tostadas. On top of corn tostadas (baked not fried), sat a fabulous medley of prawns fried with onions, leeks, red cabbage. The prawns were beautifully fresh and sweet, almost buttery in flavour, with a lip-tingling hint of spice. What really made the dish was the habañero mayonnaise, which lent a delicious creamy texture and spice to the whole thing. What I especially loved, though, was that the sweet prawns weren't overpowered by this assertive layering of flavours.
In a similar category to the pork sliders - that of sheer, unadulterated, carnivorous joy - are the braised pigs' cheeks. It's no secret that I love pigs' cheeks, economical morsels of meat that braise down into succulent melting goodness. These were cooked in a mixture of PX sherry, bay leaf, leek, onion, carrot, and served on roast potatoes. I have to say that after the other vibrant, zingy flavours we'd eaten, I found these a little bit on the bland side, but I think that may have been simply because everything else was just so zingy, spicy and delicious. A plate of these on their own would, I'm sure, satisfy any ardent meat cravings. The cheeks were deliciously tender and the sauce rich, thick and meaty.
The ultimate in crowd-pleasing dishes, though, is the corn truffle quesadilla. Both this and the pigs' cheeks were originally on the specials menu, Daniel told us, but they proved so popular that he's decided to put them permanently on the menu. You can't really go wrong with crisp, toasted tortillas sandwiched around melting cheese and earthy, salty, rich corn truffle (a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn and has a similar deep flavour to Italian truffles). The combination of textures is so satisfying, as is the gooey richness of the melting cheese and deeply savoury truffle within. This is proper comfort food, at a different end of the scale to the vibrant ceviche and tostadas - I would recommend having all of them, to experience the delightful differences in flavour and texture.
To finish, we devoured a plate of exceptional cheeses: Manchego, Valdeon (a Spanish blue cheese from Leon), and Murcia al vino (a goat's milk cheese, the rind of which is washed with red wine during maturation). The Murcia was soft and creamy with that unmistakeable goat milk tang; the Valdeon also deliciously creamy with an assertive blue cheese sharpness. These came with membrillo and fig jam, the latter absolutely wonderful with the Valdeon. To wash all this down, a glass of Crema sherry, which is aged for longer than the other sherries on the menu and as a result is darker and sweeter; it's a great match for the tangy cheese.
The eating experience at Condesa is just as a tapas bar should be - portions are small enough to order a few and make for satisfying sharing, but large enough that you don't feel cheated and have to order out of your price range in order to fill up. The prices are reasonable, too - charcuterie plates range from £5-11, meat dishes around £5-6, fish dishes between £8-11, while salads are around £4-6.
Condesa was genuinely one of the best restaurant experiences I've had in a while. I loved the informality of the place, the friendliness of the staff, the buzzing atmosphere, the delicious wines. Most of all, of course, I loved the vibrant food, which I found truly exciting, a really refreshing change from the standard things you find in restaurants all the time now. I would urge anyone feeling slightly jaded by the generic restaurant scene to go along and let Daniel surprise them with his fabulous and expertly-judged food and wine; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
(Also, apologies for the slightly dodgy photos - my camera is useless in dim lighting so I had to use my iPhone, which isn't much better...)
Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Condesa. Many thanks to Lucy for arranging the evening and to Daniel and his staff for being such excellent hosts.