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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A little Festive Reading

Around this time of year lots of reviews of books appear. The difference with my favourites of the year are that they are not review copies, each has been bought and they are, well thumbed, on my shelves and used on a regular basis.


As a keen cook and supporter of local businesses, including my own small bakery, each of them has had a direct impact on my life, and whilst food related they are an eclectic connection and all well worth a read.
My Cookbook of the year is Master It by Rory O'Connell.

One of the founders and teachers at Ballymaloe Cookery School, Rory is consummately skilled, as evidenced by his lengthy period cooking with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and much loved by students at Ballymaloe. You can hear Rory through the pages, his dry humour such as his desperation at the current cup cake craze.

Each chapter is like having a private lesson with Rory, and you emerge a much better cook. I love this book and regularly turn to it.

Having trained at Ballymaloe with Rory and Darina Allen a natural choice for me is 30 Years at Ballymaloe.

The book does what it says on the tin, celebrating 30 years of the world renowned school, detailing much of its history, from conception to the current day. Of course there are some classic recipes as taught to students but also 100 new ones. Previous Alumni are mentioned and the book has recipes by some of them. A must for former students and anyone who wants to understand what makes the 'Ballymaloe Bubble' and what makes Ballymaloe an iconic school.

My third book is another cookery book, entirely within the concept of this blog in that it is based on local and seasonal foods.
The Ethicurean Cookbook is from the eponymous restaurant just outside Bristol. Much of the produce used is from their own Victorian Walled Garden, the garden that inspired the establishment of the restaurant. Taking you through the year starting with Winter a large selection of recipes celebrates all that is local and seasonal including some stunning drinks!
 When I left Ballymaloe I put some of my new found, or improved skills to use and set up my own micro-bakery producing breads made without any additives. I use recipes garnered from some great bakers but when in doubt I fall back upon Jeffrey Hamelman.
A winner of the Baguette D'Or the first edition of this book sold out world wide and was only available at hugely inflated prices second hand. Luckily the second edition was published this year and is much more reasonably priced. The recipes are given in Bakers Percentages, industrial quantities and most importantly for the home baker. I love this manual, written for professionals but easily read and understood by the amateur. One of my best selling breads is Vermont Sourdough from the book which I make with a Sourdough Starter that I got from Declan Ryan of Arbutus Bread.
Regular readers of the blog will know that I greatly admire Clonmel based butcher Pat Whelan, a definite Master Butcher whose knowledge of his craft and willingness to share that knowledge is much to be admired.
Pat has produced THE book about Beef in The Irish Beef Book.
Pat writes about the reasons behind becoming a butcher and how great beef should be raised, slaughtered, hung and prepared with great respect for the animal. He then goes on to deliver some terrific recipes, again for the home cook, with co writer Katy McGuinness, beautifully illustrated with photographs. I was privileged to be in Dublin for the launch last month and the buzz amongst those attending was amazing. If you ever cook beef, or know someone who does you need this book.
Pat, as I am sure you know is a farmer as well as a butcher and is championing Wagyu Beef in Ireland, Farming is the basis of all food production, let's be honest no farmers no food. So would you marry a farmer?
That is the question posed by Lorna Sixsmith in her book of the same name.

An interesting mix of fact, social history and very funny anecdotes from her own life married to a farmer, the book was actually crowd funded and without sufficient interest it would never have been published. Luckily for us there was great interest and a delightful little gem is amongst us. Amongst the advice for would be farmers wives is get a good sports bra, needed for chasing cows!
So having read the book Would I Marry a Farmer? If Mrs K did not exist I would be seeking a woman with a few acres and a milk quota.
My final book of the year, and a very nice stocking filler for Christmas is Ian Crofton's A Curious History of food.
Chronologically organised, it's a collection of snippets and obscure facts about food such as Alfred The Great banning the consumption of any Ox that had gored someone to death. The beast would instead be stoned to death.
Both interesting and intriguing this light hearted volume is ideal to dip into when you have a few minutes and will both increase your knowledge of obscure food facts and give you a good laugh.
So there you have it, my favourite books of the year, and all ones I would recommend for your reading, and cooking pleasure.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Zesty food, locally sourced

It has always been a principle of Local and Great that I concentrate on local producers, wherever I happen to be, and avoid writing about large companies and chain outlets.

However, I was intrigued to hear that a major chain Marriott Hotels were proposing to establish new menus based on local, seasonal and organic food. More intriguingly they were doing so in conjunction with River Cottage. Though Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is well on the way to becoming a brand in his own right, there is no doubt that he is a champion of good and seasonal food.

So could this work?

The project is undergoing a six month evaluation before being rolled out across the UK Marriott chain, Cardiff and Hollins Hall in Yorkshire are  the first hotels to go online with the menu in their  Zest Restaurants.

Offered the chance to try the menu I went along with a fair degree of scepticism, how local, how seasonal and how organic, genuine commitment or corporate hype?

As a launch event, the chef and Marriott management would be available for discussion and I aimed to get to the heart of the concept.

First impressions were positive the restaurant has a mission statement to source over 80% of ingredients within 60 miles. A large board displayed the suppliers, many of them well known to me, but how many were actually known to the chef?

The chefs, led by Anthony Barnes, who has spent much of his career in South Wales, starting in Chepstow, had been trained at River Cottage Headquarters to deliver local and seasonal dishes.

(L-R) Executive Chef Cardiff Marriott Anthony Barnes, Chef Tutor Gary Richmond River Cottage, Executive Chef Hollins Hall Gary Armitage
On speaking to Anthony it was immediately obvious that he had met with the suppliers, and on their own ground not in a boardroom somewhere. Talking about Ty Mawr he spoke of bouncing over the fields in Phillip's ancient Range Rover to sample vegetables fresh from the ground, an experience I have had in the past, and of meeting Odin the immense but soft Rottweiler.
Clearly here was a team who would be seeking to achieve the aim of producing food from local suppliers and who knew them.
So to the food, the menu is relatively short and that is a good thing, a few dishes 5 starters, 6 mains and 5 desserts with 5 sides. Better to concentrate of a few dishes and do them well than have lots to choose from and anticipate several to be pre-chilled and warmed through in the kitchen. Ingredients of the quality used deserve to be treated well and not unnecessarily over worked.
We chose a Parsley Salad with Crab and a soft boiled egg that was long on flavour and set the tone for a good meal and a Smoked Venison, which came as a carpaccio with Crispy Garlic, Pickled Mushrooms and Winter Leaves. The Venison was from the Welsh Venison Centre just outside Brecon.

Mains were Pulled Slade Farm Pork with a Semolina Pave, think Polenta, Salsa Verde and Carrots - of the rainbow variety, and Slade Farm Lamb with Smashed Celeriac Chilli and Thyme. Sadly the photo of the Lamb was not fit for inclusion but Janet loved the Lamb.

Sides of Honey Glazed Carrots and some more Smashed Celeriac made for a strong meal. Janet was pleased that the chilli was a background taste and did not overpower the dish.

Desserts of Panna Cotta with a spiced Apricot and crisp Biscotti and  an Orange and Almond Pudding with Red Wine Pear and Vanilla Ice Cream finished a very good meal. The milk for the Panna Cotta and the Ice Cream was fro Welsh Organic Milk suppliers Calon Wen and both were made in house.

So what did we make of Zest? On our visit it was clear that the mission statement was met in full and that there was  a strong commitment to developing local menus for all the UK hotels in the Marriott chain.

Hopefully the trial will prove a success and the River Cottage menus will roll out in the months to come.

Zest is in the Marriott Cardiff.


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