Aside from the opportunity to hone my writing skills, rant about things that are important or repellent to me, invent new and exciting ways of using ingredients, and challenge myself to come up with new synonyms for "OMGYUMZZZ", one of my favourite things about being a food blogger is that it gives me the chance to try things that I'd never normally consider.
A couple of weeks ago I was very kindly invited by Rémy Martin, producer of fine champagne cognacs, to attend the Oxford Foodies Festival and enjoy a complimentary Coeur de Cognac at their Signature Lounge. Having never to my knowledge imbibed cognac before, I was more than a little intrigued, and pleased by the added bonus that I'd have an excuse to return to my beloved Oxford. Yes, dear readers, I am no longer at Oxford University, surrounded by dreaming spires and glorious revelry, talented minds and meaningful conversation, historic sandstone and ornate libraries. Instead, I have had to make the miserable journey home to...er...Cambridge.
I don't know if the Foodies Festival is an annual event, but I've certainly never heard of it in my four years at Oxford. This could, of course, be due to the fact that I was never in Oxford during the late summer, instead enjoying my shockingly lengthy three-month break that I always attempted to justify to people by emphasising how damn hard I worked for the three eight-week terms (and I did actually work pretty hard, although if you read this blog and don't know me you would be forgiven for thinking that all I did was bake, eat large amounts of fruit, and procure obscure meat and fish products from the Covered Market with which to experiment. While occasionally throwing a dissertation together).
I have to say, after I remained in Oxford a month longer than usual into the summer this year, I am now extremely glad that I never had the opportunity to experience summer among the dreaming spires. It is absolutely impossible to do anything without having some sort of encounter with a hapless tourist that will leave you entertaining murderous fantasies involving sharpened mortar boards. They are everywhere. They are, in fact, worse than wasps, that other bane of the summer months. They swarm around Broad Street, wandering into cycle lanes brandishing expensive cameras, taking photos of insignificant everyday objects, or jumping straight out in front of you while you're on a bike, trying to get a snapshot of an "archetypal Oxford student" (criteria: young, intelligent gleam in the eye, deep in thought, preferably a glasses-wearer, ideally holding a book, riding a bike and wearing a scholars' gown - I'm sure if they manage to get a snap of someone filling all those criteria at once they get extra points among their tourist friends - it's probably some sort of game).
You can spot said tourists from miles away, either by their fluorescent matching backpacks and the fact they move in herds like wildebeests, from their 'Oxford University' hoodies (which, needless to say, no one actually attending Oxford University would ever touch with a ten foot bargepole) and plastic bags bearing the Bodleian Library logo, from their highly conspicuous stalking of anyone on a bike or wearing a gown, from their natural habitat right in the middle of the pavement in front of some important landmark making a peace sign, or from the fact that they're about to meet certain death underneath a large bus because they're too busy standing in middle of the road taking a photo of a traffic light to notice.
I am a little ashamed to admit that sometimes I wish buses wouldn't stop for people standing in the middle of the road.
And so, readers, this is why it is a good thing I have never remained in Oxford for the summer vacation. Fortunately, the Foodies Festival took place outside the city centre in South Parks, and involved a large, green open space where large hordes of people wouldn't have been a problem. There was not a fluorescent backpack in sight, nor an Oxford University hoodie. Instead, I entered the festival to be greeted by droves of stalls and vans proffering their wares, the smell of roasting animal flesh, and laughably cold and grey weather. The giant red Pimms tent with its banners proclaiming "PIMMS O'CLOCK" and its swathes of picnic blankets on the floor (presumably for lounging nonchalantly on, Pimms in hand, clad in cricket jumper) seemed a cruel and ironic joke. As did the sheer amount of ice cream on offer.
Typical English summer weather aside, however, I had a great time. The only other food festival I've attended was the Real Food Festival in London (three years in a row, which I think makes me qualified to term myself a 'foodie' - but I won't, because I loathe and detest that word, possibly even more than I loathe and detest tourists). I realised, wandering around Oxford's offering, that once you've attended a few food festivals, they tend to all blend into one.
The majority of stalls sell olive oil and balsamic vinegar. These usually have some form of dried ingredient adorning them, preferably some fat, handsome heads of purple garlic or some wrinkled, glossy chillies. Sometimes there is parmesan. Sometimes there is ham. If there are both, even better. There are usually plenty of stalls selling chutney/relish, all slightly different but all generally tasting of the same thing, as most chutneys do (I long ago learned to stop buying chutney just because I liked the sound of the ingredients - it took me a fair few uneaten purchases to realise that "rhubarb and ginger", "apricot and cinnamon" or "plum and raisin" are things that are only delicious when not doused in vinegar and simmered for hours into a brown mush to accompany cold meats). There are lots of retailers offering organic meat boxes, or just tempting, succulent burgers, sausages and steaks. There are always a few wine, ale and cider stalls, but I never bother with those because I don't really drink.
Then you get the sweet treats - cupcakes, cookies, whoopie pies (please, can someone explain to me what one of these actually is? I have never tried one and whenever I hear the term I think of whoopie cushions and practical jokes, which doesn't really put me in an eating frame of mind). There weren't as many cupcakes here as at the Real Food Festival (probably a good thing, as I find them intensely boring), but instead there were two different stalls selling baklava. For me, comparing a cupcake to baklava is like comparing Ewan McGregor to Johnny Depp. Both very nice and easy on the eye, but it's only the latter that will make you weak at the knees, salivating slightly. It's possibly the most delicious thing on earth (baklava, I mean, not Johnny Depp. Although...)
After that, you get the occasional gem, like a stall selling pouches of pure alphonso mango purée for use in cooking or smoothies (a delicious idea, but I couldn't quite bring myself to part with the amount they were charging), or some really beautiful hand-crafted wooden chopping boards (ditto), or a weird and wonderful selection of wild meats (springbok, ostrich, buffalo, wildebeest or zebra burger, anyone?) or a wide range of venison cuts vacuum-packed and ready to take away (venison sausages? Yes please), or a stall selling the most exquisite potted crab (butter and seafood? A complete diet).
There are also the stalls selling food to eat there and then. This is often extortionately priced, because they can get away with it - where else are you going to eat? Man cannot live on dried garlic and balsamic vinegar alone. There was a wide range to choose from - Thai noodles, various paellas, sausage rolls, crab sandwiches, burgers derived from half of Africa's wildlife, hog roast, jerk chicken, Moroccan couscous. The paellas did look immensely tempting, huge vats of glistening, marigold-coloured rice bursting with luscious pieces of chicken or seafood. Then again the whole hog with its blistered crackling and juicy pink meat also whetted my appetite. In fact, it all did. Why my boyfriend and I had decided to have a late breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs (or even breakfast at all), I do not know, but it didn't take very long after we entered the festival to start thinking about lunch.
I don't mean to sound jaded. I love food festivals, even if I have sampled approximately a million different balsamic vinegar and olive oil combinations in my lifetime. I procured an exciting bottle of garlic salt from a stall dedicated to the stuff, with chunky golden flakes of dried garlic in among the sea salt crystals. I adore garlic salt; it's an amazing way to perk up almost any ingredient - two of my favourite ways are to rub it on the skin of a chicken before roasting, or to toss oiled potato wedges with garlic salt before cooking in the oven. I've now discovered that it's also brilliant on scrambled eggs.
I bought some very good value venison sausages from some amiable Scottish gentlemen who had driven all the way from Scotland just to be at the festival. They were flipping some incredible-smelling venison burgers on a sizzling griddle. My boyfriend was hooked and devoured one soon after - it was juicy, gamey and delicious, a startling scarlet in the centre. I spent approximately half an hour agonising over the choice between a crab sandwich or a lamb wrap for my lunch, eventually opting for the latter and then, inevitably, wishing I'd gone for the former, after I ended up with a puddle of yoghurt sauce and redcurrant jelly in my lap. We then had some absolutely delicious lemon sorbet and rum and raisin ice cream, and a gorgeous piece of sticky, syrupy baklava that made me remember why I managed to eat five huge pieces of the stuff on my first night in Istanbul and then spend the next couple of hours in a sugar coma.
I had one of those terrifying "I'm turning into my mother" moments when I asked my boyfriend if I could go and look at the plant stall. I'm glad I did, though, because I spent a happy five minutes exclaiming about all the different varieties of herbs on offer. I'd heard of such exotic things as pineapple sage, chocolate mint and lemon verbena before, but I'd never had the chance to actually see or smell them. I probably looked a bit weird as I shuffled guiltily between the plants, rubbing leaves between my finger and thumb and inhaling deeply. It may sound obvious, but pineapple sage actually smells like pineapple. Who'd have thought that was even possible?
As if that wasn't excitement enough, there was also pineapple mint! Lavender mint! Moroccan mint! African blue basil! Plus - can you believe it - tangerine sage and blackcurrant sage. It was almost as if someone had been given two hats, one with the names of herbs in and the other with the names of fruit in, and they'd just pulled one from each at random and written it on a sign to put on the plants. If only I hadn't had to trek back to Cambridge on the train, I'd have bought one of every plant. I can only begin to imagine the culinary possibilities of herbs that smell and taste like fruit. Lemon verbena is one that I really want to experiment with; it reminds me a little of lemon thyme, with that gorgeous, slightly astringent citrus aroma. I imagine it would be incredible in an ice cream.
Finally, sated with various red meats and frozen dairy, we headed to the Rémy Martin Signature Lounge. Here we were treated to a glass of Coeur de Cognac. Rémy Martin are the world leader in fine champagne cognacs, and the Coeur de Cognac is a blend of eaux-de-vie pressed from grapes grown in Grande and Petite Champagne. The eaux-de-vie are slowly distilled before being aged, to produce a fruity cognac with an apricot flavour. Keen to dispel the illusion that cognac is the preserve of old men clad in slippers and smoking cigars, Rémy Martin are offering Coeur de Cognac as an alternative to dessert wine.
In order to experience this, we were offered the cognac over ice alongside a 'petite delice' created by Rémy Martin's executive chef. This comprised a blackcurrant marshmallow, a square of raspberry jelly, and a delicious pistachio biscuit.
It was a momentous occasion: the loss of my marshmallow virginity. Yes, I know. I've never eaten a marshmallow. Here's another bombshell: I only tried ketchup for the first time three weeks ago. Off you go now, tutting about how crazy I am, wondering why on earth you read my recipes because I'm clearly not qualified to tell you what to eat if I've never tried one of the staple foodstuffs of our civilisation. It's somewhat amusing to my boyfriend, who understands my aversion to certain foods because they are not "real". It's the reason I don't like fizzy drinks, sweets, or anything remotely processed. Unless you can dig it out of the ground or kill it, treat it with a couple of basic processes and then serve it, I won't eat it. Marshmallows are not real. I don't really understand them. However, I made an exception for this marshmallow as it was designed by a top chef, and was also flavoured with blackcurrants. I like blackcurrants. They are real.
The reason the cognac is served over ice, we were told, is to take away some of the harsh heat of the alcohol, to avoid that burning feeling in the throat as you swallow it. It also releases some of the essential oils in the cognac to maximise its flavour (you could see them swirling about in the glass, like a heat haze on a road in summer).
I'm no expert on liqueurs of any sort, let along cognac, but I did enjoy the pairing of the drink with the 'petite delice'. Had I sampled it on its own, I think I would have found it too strong and overpowering, as I rarely drink and am definitely unaccustomed to anything stronger than wine. However, with something quite sugary to take the edge off, it was quite palatable. I also liked the idea of serving it over ice to remove that burning feeling which, unaccustomed to such things, I tend to find rather unpleasant. It had a lovely aromatic, fruity flavour and a beautiful rich amber colour. I could see the Coeur de Cognac working alongside some sort of dessert, perhaps on an occasion where your average dessert wine would prove too sweet. It certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of pairing stronger alcohol with confectionary, though I think I'd need a few more tasting sessions before I became quite accustomed to the strength of the stuff.
I had a great day. Thanks to Rémy Martin and Joanne from House PR for inviting me to the festival.