Amaretti biscuits – solace for the coffee geeks

I am always seeking the perfect biscuit to accompany coffee and amaretti always come out on top as the ultimate combination, whether your preference is cappuccino, espresso, flat white or americano. I have made several batches of these particular amaretti biscuits over the festive period. The recipe comes from the delightfully delicious Ottolenghi cookbook. It did not mention in the recipe that they evaporate if left unsupervised for even short lengths of time, but every time I turn my back they are gone!

This is a very simple and easy recipe that is a refreshing change from the traditional amaretti.  These have a perfect zesty twist, are crunchy on the outside and slightly gooey in the middle.  I replaced the sour cherries cited in the recipe with dried cranberries.  This is only coincidentally seasonal since I had no sour cherries.

Cranberry Amaretti

Ingredients

180g ground almonds

120g caster sugar

grated zest of a lemon

3 drops of natural almond extract

pinch of salt

60g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

2 free range egg whites

2 tsp honey

icing sugar for rolling

Preheat oven to 170C

Makes about 20 amaretti

KitchenAid - a delight after the absence of a mixer following the demise of my grandmother's1960's Kenwood Chef that I inherited.

KitchenAid – a delight after the absence of a mixer following the demise of my grandmother’s 1960’s Kenwood Chef.

Method

  • Put the almonds, sugar, lemon zest, almond extract and salt in a bowl and mix.
  • Beat the egg whites and honey to what Yotam calls soft meringue consistency.  I beat them until moderately stiff as they fold in and hold more air with a slightly firm consistency. Beating the egg whites can be done by hand or using a food mixer, which I used. (my new KitchenAid – Christmas present to self after the recent demise of my Kenwood Chef).
  • Fold the egg mix gently into the dry ingredients to form a soft paste.
  • Take a small amount of mix and roll in your hand and then in some icing sugar before placing on silicone/parchment on a baking sheet.  I rolled these to the size a bit smaller than a walnut, otherwise they are too big to cook sufficiently inside.
  • Bake for 12 minutes, let them cool and indulge.

Cranberry amaretti

Cranberry amaretti

The (temporary) demise of fine coffee 

Something that strikes fear in the heart of any coffee geek is the loss of the beloved daily dose of quality espresso and cappuccino.  We are both geeks that find it impossible to live without at least a few quality shots per day.  Someone recently asked me if I had to live without red wine or coffee, which would it be.  I would ditch the wine without question, as would The Man Named Sous.  So, you can probably tell, our appreciation of coffee is serious.

We have fantastic, so-called ‘Prosumer’ machine, an Izzo Alex Duetto II, Italian engineered, a dual boiler machine with tight temperature and pressure control to provide consistently excellent shots. It also has stunning Italian styling, as one would expect.  Hold on, I need to go back a phrase or two. Italian engineering.  This is essentially where the problem lies.

I do not want to suggest that sometimes such products can be style over substance – this is certainly not the case for our much-loved coffee machine, but the experiences we have had with this machine are a stark reminder of the ‘temperamental’ nature of Italian engineered goods, in our experience.  I am thinking principally of a beautiful Ducati 851 sports motorbike owned by The Man Named Sous.

The Ducati looked and sounded wonderful – bright red eye-candy, an elegant and slick single-seater, compared with my equivalently pointy (but reliable and faster) Japanese brute (a Kawasaki ZXR 750). The problem was, the electrics on the Ducati never worked for more than one run. Lights and dials failed regularly, and with no reserve tank (very practical) and no odometer, each journey distance had to be calculated out to make sure there was enough fuel to get home. The electrical issues with our Alex Duetto II make it only slightly more reliable than the Ducati 851, although at least you won’t have to push it home.

Alex Duetto II Review

Alex Duetto II, the Ducati 851 of coffee makers?

Our Alex Duetto II, the Ducati 851 of coffee makers?

The machine is well crafted and made of heavy grade mirror finish stainless steel, inside and out. It is manually operated with a lever, which is a bit more interactive than a push button electronic set up.  It also allows simultaneous use of the steam wand while pouring a shot, thanks to the double boiler, a feature that very few home machines have.  The steam wand produces a powerful jet of steam so milk frothing takes a bit of practice to get it under control and to produce the desired microfoam. The machine has a water reservoir or can be plumbed in.

However, despite its good looks and flawless coffee production performance, alas, we have had a few issues with the electronics of our Alex Duetto.  A failed PID unit (this key component does all the temperature/pressure control) after about 18 months, fortunately within guarantee this was replaced by Bella Barista, the company who we bought the machine from.  At Christmas 2011, the temperature probe failed, so we had no coffee until the part was ordered after the holiday.  On Christmas morning just past, a similar fault has occurred, which we suspect also to be a result of the probe failing, so again, we are in an espresso desert until there is time to resolve the issue.

Diagnostics for this machine would not be possible without the engineering background of The Man Named Sous who has capably and confidently found each fault, removed the faulty part and discussed technical solutions with Bella Barista, who have offered a great service throughout.  We are very fortunate to have this skill in the house because sending the machine back for repair would be very costly – it weighs a mammoth 35kg.  I’m not sure how the average punter copes with maintaining this machine if living a remote area. The machine was also a serious investment and the current Alex Duetto IV model costs about £1900 – and that’s before investing in an equivalent quality grinder.

It took several months of committed research by The Man Named Sous as he indulged in his passion for techno-geekery, weighing up the pros and cons of just about every available machine on the market before settling for the Izzo. There is no doubt in our minds that we chose the best machine on the market for home use.  Despite these niggling issues, owning the machine is a delight, and judging by other reviews, I think we have been a bit unlucky and very few issues have been cited.

Although it makes producing a good shot as easy as it could be at home, it took about a year to really get to grips with producing A1 quality espressos and cappuccinos, taking into account grind adjustments and the differences in different coffee varieties and blends, moisture content of batches of beans, etc. We have had very helpful tips from the staff at Artisan Roast, Bella Barista and have found really invaluable online demonstrations to help us get it right.

We currently buy freshly roasted beans sent mail order, 1-2 days post-roasting.  We usually opt for single source but also like to try blends.  The plan is to start roasting our own green beans and experimenting with our own blends later this year, but we need a shed to accommodate a roaster – not something you want to do in the house, but can’t wait to start experimenting with roasting.

Amaretti and cappucino - when the Alex Duetto was opertaing smoothly.

Amaretti and cappuccino – when the Alex Duetto was operating smoothly.

Festive Fiery chocolate truffles – with Tequila?

I have just returned home having been away for 10 days or so on a pre-Christmas  circumnavigation of Scotland, visiting family and friends, As ever, we try to cram in a lot (possibly too much) while we are away, including the inevitable Christmas shopping. It has a plus side at this time of year when we have the excuse to indulge in luxury items from the likes of Valvona and Crolla and Mellis Cheese shop in Edinburgh. We managed to squeeze in an overnight and some fine dining at the Michelin starred The Peat Inn, Cupar (to be reviewed in due course), and I roamed the Stirling foothills trying to find the right farm to collect our bronze free range turkey for Christmas dinner.

Good to be back home after so much frenetic activity of an extraordinary sort, although the temperature in the house of 9C has taken some time to get to a balmy 19C. Festivities are upon us, the tree is up, at last, and some amaretti biscuits are in the oven.  The view from the kitchen window at 1600 hours yesterday served to remind me just what a big sky Uist has (I just don’t notice it in quite the same way on the mainland), and how I missed the tranquility of home.

View from our kitchen window - temple, sunset, sheep

View from our kitchen window – temple, sunset, sheep

As ever, while visiting my parents, my mum came up with some fine recipes – a casserole of pork cheeks with prunes, a refreshing lime parfait, which it might have been good to consume after her chilli chocolate truffles.

What better indulgent delight to make in our cold house than my mum’s Fiery Chocolate Truffles?  Even better, they are festively sparkly too!

I was limbering up for a weekend of indulgence in Glasgow, including tequila tasting at Lupe Pintos Mexican deli in Glasgow, a gig and curry, so what better way than with chilli inspired petits fours. I plan to make these again with a dash of tequila. Mi dios están calientes – perfecto! Gracias mamá!

Fiery Chocolate Truffles

Not subtle, but I do love a big chilli hit and many chocolate and chilli concoctions don’t deliver and have left me disappointed with a view that the combination is a little over-rated.  I re-evaluate my thoughts in light of this recipe.  Cuidadoso – adjust the amount of chilli powder to your palate.

Ingredients

200ml double cream

200g dark chocolate (70%)

25g butter

1tsp hot chilli powder (less, if your palate dictates)

dash of cognac or tequilia

edible glitter/cocoa powder to dust

Method

  • Bring cream to the boil and allow to cool slightly while melting the chocolate and butter in a Bain Marie.
  • Add the chilli powder to the melted chocolate and butter.
  • Pour the cream over the chocolate and butter mix and beat until well combined.  Add a splash of cognac – or tequilia – my choice for the next batch.
  • Chill before rolling into small truffles.  Coat in cocoa or alternative festive coating of your choice.  These will keep for about a week stored in the fridge.

Fiery chocolate truffles

Tequila tasting – Lupe Pintos Deli, Glasgow

I must admit, my knowledge of tequila is limited to only a few facts; it is produced from agave, a succulent plant native of Mexico, parts of southern USA, Central and South America that is pollinated exclusively by bats; tequila never contains a ‘worm’ (it is actually a moth larva), but mescal traditionally does come “con gusano” (with worm).

My experience of drinking tequila is even more limited and essentially stereotypical of many who, with youthful exuberance, overindulge in uncouth slammers with masses of salt and lime and vow never to touch the stuff again thereafter.

Digression warning – Recollections of Ecuador

The last time I drank it was over 10 years ago in a bar in Quito, Ecuador, in slammer form, shortly before our student contingent realised the bar we were frequenting was also a brothel.  Here, I must confess to a propensity for stumbling upon brothels in Ecuador.

After spending 2 months working in pristine cloud forest further west in the shadow of the Andes, myself and a friend had been joined by a jet-lagged Man Named Sous and we three decided to take a trip to to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, a rainforest reserve of note for it’s unique combination of biodiversity in the north east Oriente region, in Sucumbayos Province. It is close to the border of both Columbia and Peru.

After an 8 hour slow bus ride from Quito snaking lower down towards the tributaries of the Amazon along hair-raising hairpins of mountainous roads, accompanied by the usual blaring salsa music of choice on such bus journeys across the country (copious Tijuana horns mandatory), we arrived at Lago Agrio, the capital of the province in the evening, just after dark.

Lago Agrio (officially called Nueva Loja but this name is never used) had the definite feel of a frontier town, which it is, being only 20 miles from the Columbian border. It is a key area of oil exploitation in Ecuador, so its position close to the Columbian Border results in a mixed bag of occupants.  These consist of oil workers and locals as well as a smattering of Colombian guerrillas and drug smugglers.  Definately a place to keep your head down.

There’s not a lot to recommend for the tourist here, save for it being the gateway to one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. A polite description of the place would be unkempt.  Threatening would be more accurate. Quickly taking stock of the atmosphere of the place, us three very obvious Gringos opted to walk right up the middle of the main drag, very much being watched from the shadows of doorways of the many seedy looking bars, grills (agouti is a favourite grill meat here) – and brothels. We found a hotel and hid for the night before meeting with our tour guides in the morning.

A lorry took us and some American tourists along tracks cut throught the rainforest to make way for the oil pipelines originally installed by Texaco (beginning in the mid 1960’s) to access oil reserves in the area. We were shocked and distressed at the extent of the destruction of what was primary rainforest as we passed for hours through many miles of cleared forest, the lorry snaking along the route of the oil pipeline towards the entrance to Cuabeno National Park.

This year, Chevron (who now own Texaco’s interests in the region) were fined by Ecuadorian courts to the tune of $19 billion in compensation for environmental damage relating to its operations in the Lago Agrio area after a long battle with local indigenous people and settlers.  Serious pollution from oil spills and deforestation due to clearing for access roads, exploration, and production activities over 30 years resulted in one of the largest such fines handed out to date.

Leaving the oil fields and tracks behind, we were confronted with the dichotomy of immersion into pristine primary rainforest.  We then entered dug-out canoes and spent several hours travelling deep into the rainforest, spending a week at a makeshift camp next to one of the many lagunas along the Cuyabeno River.

Cloud forest had done little to prepare me for the breath-taking array of spectacular wildlife and plantlife on show, as we made our way along the river involuntarily shouting out observations to each other,  Anaconda! Macaws! Caimen! Dolphins! Morphos! (butterflies – huge irridescent blue dinner plates).

This culminated in a moment of utter euphoria for me when I saw my first hoatzin.  I had been obsessed with this enigmatic bird since I was a child.  I knew this gregarious species were found in the Oriente’s riverine forests, but never imagined I would see one, in fact, they were ubiquitous along the river.

The fascination for me stemmed from comparisons of the anatomical features the hoatzin superficially shares with one of the earliest known birds – Archaeopteryx (from whence the obsession stemmed – essentially a lizard with feathers – every child loves dinosaurs). Hoatzin chicks have two claws on each wing which help it grip branches and clamber. This is the feature that has led the species to be compared to Archaeopteryx, information I gleaned from David Attenborough’s marvellous ‘Life on Earth’ series which has fantastic footage of both adult and young hoatzins. I was smitten by this series and became a budding 8 year old zoologist. I received the book accompanying the series from my parents. It was a much treasured possession for many years, notably for hoatzin references.

The taxonomy/phylogeny of the species is subject to much contention, and the species looks evey bit as confusing as it’s DNA suggests. It is pheasant-sized with a crest, blue featherless face and red iris with a lumbering, ungainly flight and a call consisting of hisses, wheezes, grunts and groans. It is also exclusively vegetarian, having a digestive system more akin to a ruminant than a bird. An evolutionary quandary indeed.

The engimatic Hoatzin

The engimatic Hoatzin.  Copyright: 2000 Bill Rydell

At 100% humidity being right on the equator and accompanied by the dense vegetation of the forest canopy that almost obiterated light, the atmosphere within the forest was oppressive, especially at night when the calls of birds, mammals and insects reached an almost deafening crescendo.  We went on night walks around the camp which were fascinating with marsupials, monkeys, owls and weird and wonderful insects in close proximity – not to mention caimen along the laguna shore, tightly lined up like yachts in a marina, eyes shimmering in our torchlights. I though how easy it would be to get lost and was reminded of the astonishing account Benedict Allen gave in his book ‘Mad White Giant’ of his first solo expedition in the Brazilian Amazon when he did get lost. The trip almost killed him and he was in part saved by eating his dog.

After our spending a week taking in these wonders (I passed hours watching leaf cutter ants purposefully going about their caste chores), we and the rest of the group reluctantly headed back to Lago Agrio.  It was evening again and we did not relish a night there.  Against our better judgement, we took the risky night bus (strickly warned against in the guidebooks due to risk of kidnap near the Columbian border).  The view of our fellow American travellers was safety in numbers – we all get on the night bus.  My view was somewhat different when I envisaged the delight of guerillas as they realised they had the bounty of not one or two but ten foreign hostages.

In any event, bus internal lights dimmed, the salsa cranked up again to the max, we headed back to Quito.  A couple of hours later, the bus was stopped and a few bods in fatigues walked on with rifles, took everyone’s passports and papers and frog-marched us off the bus.  I was reasonably certain these were Ecuadorian officials, but had a stash of dollars to hand, just in case – bribes were not uncommon. We walked through a check point where an officer barked a few questions at us in Spanish and returned our passports.  We got back on the bus, no harm done, save for the shattered nerves of a few tourists.

We were very relieved to arrive in Quito, albeit in the middle of the night.  The same Americans we were travelling with (who suggested we take the night bus – we should have known better) took us to a hostel they knew would accept us in the middle the night.  ‘It’s great’ they said, ‘only $3 a night’.  Yes, but it quickly became apparent it also had a sideline as a brothel.  We left the hostel very early next morning.  It was called the Happy Volcano. ‘Nuff said….

Tequila – at last!

The tequila tasting session may have brought back vivid memories of Ecuador, but just as importantly, it made me re-evaluate my feelings about drinking tequila.  I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I saw 11 bottles of tequila lined up for the tasting.  This was especially since I don’t drink neat spirits.  In fact, I rarely drink them at all save for the occasional gin or Zubrowka (Bison Grass) vodka and tonic.

Tequila tasting with superb host and

Tequila tasting with superb host and botanas

I needn’t have been concerned, particularly given that the shots were served with a fine range of mexican botanas, all made in house, including cornbread, tortilla, meatballs, salsa (and chips, of course).  We also had fresh fruit with tajin – ground chilli and lime salt, a first for us and delicious and a perfect match for the tequila.

Tajin  - perfect with fruit and tequila

Tajin – perfect with fruit and tequila

This deli really is fantastic, not least because it is the only place in Scotland where you possibly hope to try an extensive range of tequilas. The owner of the deli took us through the history of tequila.  The Spanish Conquistadors began distilling from the agave plant, after being introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, reputedly when their brandy supplies ran out.  Tequila can only be called so if it produced in the state of Jalisco and we discussed it’s provenance relative to the more variable quality mescal.

Our chosen tequila - Herradura

Our chosen tequila – Herradura

I was surprised by the variability of available brands. Two categories exist; mixtos (no less than 51% agave) and 100% agave. it is bottled in one of five categories.  These include Blanco or Plata (white, unaged, usually bottled straight after distillation), Resposado (rested – aged for a minimum of 2 months, but less than 1 year in oak barrels and Anejo (aged – 1 to 3 years in barrels).

The 100% agave blancos have the most distinctively agave flavours, as one might expect, and it was these (smooth) examples I preferred – the aged Resposado and Anejo had an edge that was too reminicient of whisky for my liking.

My preference was for a smooth grassy, peppery flavour, hence I chose to buy the fine quality Herradura (£32). I would highly recommend these tastings at Lupe Pintos as you will get no better insight into tequila in Scotland.  You will also learn the secret to making the perfect margarita, which was way more potent, delicious and authentic than those from your average cocktail bar.

Devin Townsend – ABC, Sauchiehall Street

No weekend would be complete without a good gig.  The Man Named Sous and I were very regular gig goers when we lived in central Scotland and it is regrettable (although I’m sure our hearing has benefitted) that we do now have to be much more selective and can only attend a few a year, so they have to count.  However, a Devin Townsend gig should not be missed. If extreme music is your thing, at least.

Hevy Devy has been prolific since his days from Strapping Young Lad to the present and his output is ever changing but the quality remains undiminished.  Yes, it is essentially metal, with the influence of grindcore and industrial metal such as the supporting act, Fear Factory (great support – heaviness went down well with the crowd), but it also includes elements of Zappa and pop rock. He is in fact unique and in a genre all of his own.  His music is intelligent and crammed with ideas and is usually ornate, can be dense, over-the-top, complex, brutal and challenging as well as beautiful, uplifting and humourous. I would say, it’s also probably not everyone’s cup of tea – some of it isn’t that accessible and can be exhausting to listen to.  Importantly, he is a great live performer with an amazing voice and a great rapor with the audience.  I was delighted that the encore included ‘Deep Peace’ from arguably his Magnum Opus ‘Terria’.  A fitting end to a tremendous gig.

Devin Townsend - indefinable extreme music without boundaries

Devin Townsend – indefinable extreme music without boundaries

Random subject matter aside, normal service may be resumed for the next post. Probably.

Best wishes for the festive period.  I think it’s time to begin over-indulging….

Edinburgh: A quartet of reviews – breakfast, lunch and dinner x 2

I have just returned from a short work-related trip to Edinburgh, which meant spending Monday and Tuesday evenings in our illustrious capital. With one eye on quality and the other on maximum gain for my gelter, I had a quick location-based web search the night before to seek out some well reviewed city centre eating options around the area I was staying (Waterloo Place).

Of course, it’s not possible to fly direct from Benbecula to Edinburgh, so I had to first fly to Glasgow.  The flight was a tad bumpy on the descent. The small Saab prop creaked as a result of pitching, rolling and yawing in the crosswind. Not even Margaret Atwood could distract me from the buffeting as we passed through squally showers. This was primarily because it was literally impossible to read while being thrown around at the mercy of the turbulent conditions. I was attempting to re-visit the first two books of the Oryx and Crake trilogy in preparation for the third, Maddaddam, to be published in 2013, according to Atwood on Twitter.

Safely planted on the tarmac in a driech Glasgow, by the time I caught the shuttle bus to the city centre and then train to Edinburgh, my stomach had recovered enough to seek out food.

Breakfast – Broughton Delicatessen, Barony Street

I had by choice opted for room only at my hotel.  I am not a fan of cooked breakfasts and the cost for hotel breakfasts is very high if you only want a bowl of muesli. Being in the city centre, it seemed more fun to check out Trip Advisor and go on a local foraging expedition.  Broughton Delicatessen also has the added advantage of being very close to Edinburgh’s best coffee shop, Artisan Roast.

I arrived pretty much bang on the 8am opening time as I had to get across the city centre in time for a meeting and knew I needed time to dodge the tram chaos.  Staff were faced with their first customer of the day, and were ready to go.  The coffee machine was already warmed up.  I ordered Broughton deli granola, served with greek yoghurt and fruit compote and an americano.  Disappointingly, they were out of fruit compote but offered me bananas and blueberries as substitutes.  I don’t like bananas but opted for the blueberries.

It was a pretty huge bowl with a high yoghurt to granola ratio.  The yoghurt was very good quality, thick, rich and acidic.  The granola had plenty honey flavour but I just didn’t feel there was enough of it to balance against the volume of yoghurt.  The blueberries were fine, but no substitute for a fruit compote which would have added moisture, sweetness and made the bowl complete. Had there not been a compote deficit, the £3.95 price tag would have been fine.  This would not deter me from returning.  The ingredients in the chiller looked appealingly fresh and high quality as did the advertised selection of rolls and salads. I need to return to revisit the compote if nothing else.

An added benefit was walking across the road for a cappuccino courtesy of the wonderful Artisan Roast.  I tried a take away this time and was not disappointed, as it was presented and tasted as per a sit-in cup and kept me going as I dodged my way along the tram mess and chaos of Queen’s Street toward the west end.

Good news for Artisan Roast is that today they have received a much deserved accolade as best cafe in the UK, so well done to the knowledgeable and passionate staff therein.

Lunch – The Edinburgh Larder, Blackfriar’s Street

This unassuming deli, with a reputation for fresh seasonal Scottish produce sits at the top of Blackfriar’s Street, a stones throw from The Royal Mile.   Once you have made it past all the kilted, bagpiping haggisy whisky-ness and tartan tat that accost you on approach from The Royal Mile, the atmosphere within is honest and relaxed.

Amazingly, and perhaps fortuitously, despite its proximity to The Royal Mile, this deli does not appear to particularly attract tourists. Tourists seem to exhibit the legionary behaviour of army ants, raiding en masse, focussing their column raid along the Royal Mile with all the urgency of a legion that has just scented its next meal of haggis and neeps.

The place wasn’t too busy, so I sat myself at a table, had a look at a couple of specials marked on the blackboard and tried to catch the eye of the staff, however, I did eventually have to get up and ask for a menu at the counter.  The male behind it was engrossed in texting on his mobile and hadn’t noticed me come in.

I asked for a menu and about the availability of the specials.  I got a very blank look and then a ‘sorry, err, um, pardon?’ I instantly recognised that this well-heeled Hugh Laurie pre-House chap was not coping with my perfectly polite but local (well, central Scotland) accent.  This has happened to me once or twice in London, but it is rare. Ironically, I never had trouble being understood while working and living abroad, in fact many of my Portuguese friends developed my accent while speaking English!  I would have liked to have seen him exposed to the Glesgae banter….

Having repeated my questions (painfully) slowly,  ‘Can-I-have-a-menu-please?’ and ‘Are-the specials-still-available?’ We seemed to be getting somewhere and I retreated to my table to await the menu.  I’m not sure if Hugh was then trying to avoid me, but another employee was sent over with the menu.  He approached with all the stealth of a ninja.  Steely and silent.  Perhaps more alarmingly, it was a very ‘Smell of Reeves and Mortimer’ Lloyd Grossman Masterchef style approach (minus the cutlery for fingers). Without uttering a sound, he laid a menu in front of me on the table and retreated to the safety of his counter.

Although the menu was a bit grubby, dog-eared and faded, the contents were appealing.  Phew!  Although, having glanced at the menu online in advance, the prices were somewhat out of synch with those online i.e. it was on average about a quarter more expensive than the website suggested. This is a small but important point because it has been hailed in the past as a reasonably cheap, good value place to eat, but at current prices, I would describe it as being reasonable value, not cheap.

I ordered a leek, potato and black pudding soup from the daily specials board and a half sandwich billed on the menu as ‘homemade smoked fish pate of the day’.  I had to again go to the counter to order, and qualified the fish in question was salmon.

Service was quick.  The soup was piping hot, rich, creamy and well seasoned with some nice chunky pieces of leek at the bottom and with a thin puck of black pudding  floating on top.  The sandwich consisted of very fresh malted granary bread with a perfect crust.  The filling however, was not pate as described but rather large chunks of smoked salmon on a spread of mayonnaise, a selection of fresh peppery leaves and some fresh dill. OK, clearly not pate, but it was very tasty so I happily ate it without raising the issue with the staff.  They should, however, have advised me it wasn’t pate today. At £6.50,  I think this light lunch was reasonable value.

Before leaving, I wanted to find out where they sourced their smoked salmon.  After repeating my question ‘Where-do-you-source-the smoked salmon-in-your-sandwiches?’ very slowly to Hugh, turns out he didn’t know, but The Ninja did.  Creelers (of Edinburgh, I assume).  I later found out online that Creelers in turn source their salmon from the Loch Duart salmon farming company, which coincidentally has operations around the Uists.   When it comes to Scottish farmed salmon, it’s a small world…

Dinner 1 – Howie’s, Waterloo Place

I chose Howie’s for 3 reasons. I had eaten in the Victoria Street restaurant on several occasions and enjoyed it (although admittedly this was probably over 10 years ago now). The menu was appealing and the early evening menu looked very good value.  Finally, it was convenient being right next to my hotel.

The place was quiet when I arrived, with only one or two tables occupied.  I was in time to eat and leave by 7.30pm, a requirement of the early dining menu which was my choice.  Two courses were offered for £14.95.  Service was efficient and staff attentive.  I was advised that there would be a supplement for the rib-eye steak as a main and also that there was a special of roast pheasant (also with a supplement). I was offered tap water which came in a jug with ice, which was good. It was really quite dark inside, with most light being emitted from the tealights on the tables.  After squinting at the menu I ordered cullen skink as a starter and it arrived very promptly.

It was a good-sized portion and came with what was described as artisan bread.  The bread was OK, perhaps a bit nondescript. The skink was only just hot enough to eat, a fraction of a degree colder and I would have had to send it back.  The texture was good with each piece of smoked fish (species undescribed in the menu) chunky and identifiable, likewise potatoes and leeks. The broth was thick enough but it did lack a bit of seasoning and the general depth of flavour and smokiness I would normally associate with cullen skink – the element that makes the dish so comforting and appealing.

On to my main course billed as ‘venison leg steak with fondant potato, seasonal greens, juniper and bramble sauce.’  Choosing venison in a restaurant has been the subject of much discussion between myself and The Man Named Sous. As our most consumed red meat at home, we have become adept at cooking it and more importantly, serving it just the way we prefer it. As a result, I have been advised many times over ‘Just don’t be tempted to order it, you will be disappointed’.  Yet knowing this while staring at the menu didn’t stop me from doing so.  It wasn’t sheer devilment that made my choice.  There was a lure I couldn’t resist – the offer of fondant potato.  I’m not a huge lover of potato, but a good pomme fondant is a wickedly decadent triumph.

A very high plate of food was presented with a substantial sea of surrounding gravy.  In the gloom, I was trying to figure out what was going on the plate because I couldn’t see the pomme fondant, which made my heart skip a beat.  I deconstructed the tower.  It was topped with curly carrot shavings, which I assume had been deep-fried, but they were a bit soft.  Underneath a substantial layer of several slices of venison leg meat sprawled.  Lying somewhere between the venison and carrots was some kale, a pleasant surprise.  Finally, pushing the veg and meat off the tower, I revealed the pomme fondant.  It was gargantuan and I very quickly became  suspicious that this was an imposter masquerading as my dream tattie dish.

Venison tower deconstructed in the dark with pomme conglomerate

A quick prod with my fork revealed the stark reality.  I tried not to visibly recoil.  This was not as described but a conglomerate of several potatoes set into a ring or formed into a cake.  Crushed potato cake would be a better and more accurate description.  I am not a fan of crushed potatoes and I felt robbed. Pomme fondant should be made of one single piece of sculpted potato. That aside, some pieces were cold and a bit hard and the whole potato component was underseasoned.

Moving onto better things, I tried the venison. The portion was very generous and it was nicely cooked overall being rare and tender. The flavour was good and although the species was not identified on the menu, I assumed it was red deer (confirmed later by my server who checked with the kitchen as she did not know). Unfortunately, there was a bit of sinew around the edges of a couple of slices, which was a pity. It was a little insipid around the edges too and would have benefitted from a bit more browning and seasoning.

Unfortunately, the juniper and bramble sauce was disappointing. Texturally, it appeared to have had a thickening agent added late in the sauce-making process as it was gloopy and may account for the lack of depth of flavour and seasoning.  I regularly use both juniper and/or bramble in game sauces and I know it can be difficult to get the right balance as both can overpower.  In this case, neither did.  There was no hint of juniper infusion and only the slightest tang of fruit acidity that I presume came from bramble. It was a mere pale spectre of the powerful winey hedgerow berry flavour I anticipated.

I felt quite sorry for Howie’s, and myself as I didn’t expect disappointment and it would be unfair to assume my experience is representative, given the generally favourable reviews on Trip Advisor.  If you want value for money, good service and you are not fussed on attention to detail, Howie’s may be an acceptable choice.  Sadly the let down of the faux pomme fondant and my familiarity with venison meant high expectations were unfulfilled. It was always going to be an uphill struggle for this dish to deliver in these circumstances.  Next time I will heed the advice and chose something else.

Dinner II – Mother India’s Cafe, Infirmary Street

I have been meaning to visit the Edinburgh cafe for a while.  How fortuitous it was and delighted was I when a colleague suggested our team go for a meal there after work. The Man Named Sous was less impressed with my plans as he had wanted to eat here last time we were in Edinburgh and I suggested somewhere else.  I have therefore committed to going to the Glasgow cafe with him in December. I promise.  What a hardship!

The restaurant offers tapas style Indian food and has a longer established sister cafe in Glasgow which has a formidable reputation for great food.

I arrived with an advanced party of 4, the rest of our group of twelve arriving in dribs and drabs.  This did not phase staff and our table was ready.  Staff were attentive and gave us the options of drinks, poppadums or starting to order while we waited.  Eventually, with everyone present, we ordered and despite the bombardment of information, staff coped impeccably with our orders. Service was swift without feeling rushed.

A long list of dishes are available with plenty veggie options and a daily special on the menu.  It is suggested that 4-6 dishes are shared between 2 people. With over 40 dishes on the menu, it was difficult to choose. Two of us opted to share and ordered 4 dishes between us as well as a portion of rice and a nan, which was the perfect amount for us.  The food arrived promptly and was piping hot.

Our order consisted of spiced haddock baked with punjabi spices, lamb saag (i.e. with spinach – hot!), chilli king prawns and the Tuesday special, vegetable thali.  Each dish was full of great contrasts of aromatic and pungent spices, plenty chilli and fresh herbs.

I had forgotten just how good Indian food can be and it was also incredibly good value at £16 each, including poppadums and chutneys and a drink each. Having always headed for the nearby excellent vegetarian Indian restaurant Kalpna previously, I have now doubled my Indian options in Edinburgh. I can’t wait to use the excuse of a promise to The Man Named Sous to visit the Glasgow Mother India’s cafe soon.

Homeward bound, eventually

After a quick pre- and post-work whizz around Edinburgh, time to return home.  Never anything but eventful, problems with planes meant my flight was delayed at Glasgow to accommodate some stranded passengers bound for Islay. Good old Loganair.  Can you imagine a budget airline re-routing a plane because passengers would have to wait another 4 hours for the next one?  Not on your life. So it was, our Benbecula-bound plane stopped off at Islay on the way.  A novel experience indeed.  Not least when we landed in Islay for the crew to discover one of the Benbecula passengers was missing and was thought to have got off the plane at Islay.

After much sniggering from the remaining Benbecula-bound passengers and a security check and baggage search taking 45 minutes, it turned out the passenger had not actually got on the plane at Glasgow. Stringent security?! The big bonus was that it was a beautiful cloudless morning over the Inner Hebrides and we had wonderful views of the Paps of Jura as well as Coll and Tiree, so the extra hour and a half on the journey provided much more than just the novelty of sitting on the tarmac at Islay.

Review: Artisan Roast – coffee paradise island in a sea of caffeine mediocrity

Artisan Roast, Broughton Street, Edinburgh 

One of the most challenging issues we face when leaving home for a trip is the wrench away from our beloved Izzo Alex Duetto II espresso machine. Discovering Artisan Roast has been delightful and is a great coffee comfort blanket for the wilderness days of enforced separation from our Izzo. Also with a cafe in Glasgow, we are secure in the knowledge that Artisan Roast will provide us with great coffee both east and west in central Scotland.

I need never endure the mass marketed non-taxpaying high street caffeine juggernauts with their multi-litre-buckets of insipid latte et al.  All this courtesy of the American model.  The words of Bill Hicks still resonate today; ‘Would you like 32 ounce or large?!’ I want to drink coffee, not drown in it.

The Artisan Roast cappuccino – archetypal coffee perfection

In both the Glasgow and Edinburgh Broughton Street shops, staff are eager to engage in discussions about coffee and genuinely care about the quality of each cup produced. Discussions have included helpful hints and tips from staff about pour to get the elusive foam emulsion that gives each cappuccino its distinctive mouthfeel. Artisan Roast master this in every cup and we have been fortunate to enhance our cappuccinos at home too, thanks to their advice.

There is usually a choice of single origin beans and a blend on offer, depending on what is currently in the grinder hoppers.  First I tried the blend, usually on offer for anyone coming in that asks for ‘a coffee’ – Janszoon espresso blend.  This contains Sumatran Mandeheling and Brazil Cooxupe. It offers a balanced, rich flavour, almost chocolatey.  The fruity element brought by the Brazilian beans only truly reveals itself in an espresso, as we found out when we took a pack of the beans home to try. This coffee is versatile and will stand up well whatever you cup of choice is, be it flat white or Americano.

I then had the Terrazu la Trinidad Costa Rican single origin bean in an espresso. This was described at breakfast in a cup, and it certainly lived up to the description, having a strong citrus tang and sweet edge.  This coffee, in my opinion, would not accommodate milk well but was a surprising, refreshing and distinctive espresso.

Chatting to the enthusiastic staff, we also discovered that Artisan Roast are developing their business and have employed baristas to push the quality of their roasts and blends to new levels.  A new website is being developed and this will include an online store.  An exciting prospect for me since I buy beans online.

Finally, we were offered an AeroPress coffee to try. One of the staff happened to be experimenting with the product. The AeroPress uses manual pressure to push finely ground coffee through a micro-filter, which is supposed to produce a smooth tasting coffee.  The coffee produced (on this occasion at least) had a delicate flavour and almost a tea-like quality.  This product may suit the home user who wants a quick and cheap solution to produce a quality cup of coffee.

AeroPress, picture courtesy of the AeroPress website

BBC Good Food Show Scotland 2012 – was it really?

I have just returned from a mainland excursion.  As usual, we try to cram in as much as we can and this was no exception.  A week’s trip included a visit to the BBC Good Food Show Scotland at the SECC, Glasgow, reviewed below. More of the other visitations another time.

BBC Good Food Show Scotland, SECC Glasgow 19-21 October 2012

I am a Good Food Show virgin and the promise of discovering new suppliers of fine quality Scottish produce was a draw I could not resist.  I went on the Friday, anticipating it would be a bit quieter than the weekend days, and it wasn’t too bad, no enochlophobia or elbows in the face.

The entry cost was £17.50 each (discount for OAPs, under 17 free), so this plus a car parking charge of £6 meant it wasn’t a cheap day out, so my expectations were perhaps too high.

There were in the region of 170 producer’s stalls in the hall.  A proportion (at least a third) were not specific to Scotland but no doubt tour the circuit as the Good Food Show brand moves around different UK venues. These included wine merchants, book sellers, supermarket stalls and a disappointingly small number of companies marketing their kitchen gadgets – something I had hoped would be better represented at this show designed primarily to attract food lovers and home cooks.

Although there was plenty to sample, I could not conceal my disappointment and indeed dismay that a high proportion of the stalls products were pre-prepared, albeit often good enough quality products.  To be fair, I think my disappointment stemmed from my perhaps unrealistic expectation that the event would feature artisan producers of the best of Scottish/British cheese and dairy, charcuterie, etc, which is probably much more of a niche market. The cost of this generic event would also no doubt be prohibitive for many of the small producers I was looking for. The array of cheese exhibitors on display sums this up.  Only 6 cheese companies were represented and most shocking of all, only one of these was from Scotland.

So, there was plenty preserves and chutneys, condiments, dips and marinades to take home, if you were so inclined, which I was not.  The inexplicable vogue for cupcakes is still not on the slide, and everywhere I turned there was a display of garish (aka pretty to some) cupcake creations. In order to satiate our nations sweet tooth even further, there was a range of inordinately sweet rums, vodkas and liqueurs.  Toffee seemed to be the flavour of promotional choice.

Despite these quite personal disappointments, I was pleased to see the promotional focus on Love Food Hate Waste in the showguide catalogue. The stage for the campaign was also drawing a lot of interest all day.

As ever, the culture of celebrity was central and the show certainly ticked the boxes on that front, if that’s your bag.  Book signings and cookery displays by celebs attracted big crowds and I get the impression it is a major part of the pulling power of the show.  I deliberately side-stepped all celebrity events, so it wouldn’t be valid for me to comment on their worth or otherwise.

Scottish cold pressed rapeseed oil taste test

The highlight of the show for me was the chance to taste test cold pressed Scottish rapeseed oil.  At least 5 producers were represented.  I must admit, I always reach for the olive oil first and have been slow to convert to the more recent trend to use this oil.  However, it is a Scottish product with all the health benefits of olive oil and more appropriate to use in some recipes and dressings, so I have been using it.

I tried Stark Rapeseed oil produced from crops in Arran. I liked the oil, but the flavour did not sing out, possibly due to the nonabsorbent grissini offered to dip. Two oils stood ahead of the rest: Cullisse Highland rapeseed oil based in Tain and Supernature rapeseed oil, produced from crops in the Lothians.

I decided to have another taste test at home, including the oil I have been using (as this was what was to hand last time I needed it from the supermarket) – Macintosh of Glendaveny (Aberdeenshire).  Described as extra virgin, I had decided this oil was at best nondescript. In fairness, I wanted to put it up against the other two.

I set up a blind tasting for The Man Named Sous – I had a bit of a cold so my palate could not be entirely trusted. Each was tasted using our standard wholemeal loaf to dip. Results summarised below:

1st – Winner –  Cullisse Highland Rapeseed Oil

I saw this at the show and noticed the very appealing packaging was, in part, selling this product, with purchasers commenting on the ‘lovely bottle’ and it would ‘make a nice present’. Packaging did not interest me and in fact, made me more cynical about the virtues of the flavours within.

However, you get a double-whammy with this oil – great packaging and more importantly, outstanding flavour.  This oil is everything a rapeseed oil should deliver in terms of flavour.  The smell exudes freshness and hints at the flavour, reminiscent of a combination of freshly podded young peas and grass with a subtle aftertaste of red skinned peanuts.

A ‘Oh wow’ from The Man Named Sous in our taste test, number one in the blind test for him and also my favourite. Will be saved for recipes where I want the fresh punch of rapeseed oil to come through. Packing is a unique design compared with other Scottish rapeseed oils seen; classy, unfussy and timeless. It has the bonus of a pourer under the cork bottle top. Nice touch for a first class product which has made me see rapeseed oil in a new light. I am a convert and will think twice before my habitual reach for the olive oil…

2nd – Runner up – Supernature rapeseed oil

This oil stood up very well to our winner and offered a similar distinctive pea-nutty flavour. We were unanimous in deciding it should be runner-up. The flavour was more subtle than Cullisse, but this did not detract from the quality of the oil.  It would suit recipes where the strong personality of Cullisse is not required and where it therefore may dominate a little too much.

As testament to our confidence in the flavour of this oil, I bought a 2.5 litre container.  At £15, this represented excellent value for a quality rapeseed oil. Smaller quantities are packaged in a long, thin bottle much like the Macintosh of Glendaveny shown in the photo.  In fact, most rapeseed oils we saw were in this bottle design so it may be harder for their products to attract attention in the way the packaging of Cullisse does.

3rd – Wooden spoon – Macintosh of Glendaveny

I’m afraid this oil accounts for my previous lacklustre interest in rapeseed oils.  This was qualified during our taste test.  This oil was not only outclassed by the other two by some way, but was genuinely awful.  It tasted like vegetable oil that had been previously used to fry fish and had a definite fishy aftertaste. Comment from The Man Named Sous was ‘Euggghhhh!’ Unlike the other two oils tasted, it had no smell whatsoever – not even a faintly fishy one.

To be entirely fair to this product, we suspect there is something very seriously wrong with the batch that this bottle came from.  We checked and it was in date and being stored as per the instructions.  Interestingly, the label also reads ‘Slight variations in our oil’s colour and flavour may occur’ – No shit!.  We also tasted it at the show and it was not outstanding, but did have some of the qualities of the other two that at least told you it was rapeseed. The label states it won a ‘Great taste gold 2011’ award  so our bottle can’t possibly be representative of the product, one hopes!