Thursday 31 January 2013

A letter from Luang Prabang

The airport in Luang Prabang is still tiny, although it seems not for long, they are frantically building a huge international airport closeby which will bring huge numbers of people to this enchanting little city, already over loaded with visitors. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

We were staying in a new hotel about 15 mins outside the town, it was lovely really except that it was like the Marie Celeste, not another guest in sight, everyone seemed to vanish into town and not return until late at night.

The service was like Fawlty Towers with a long series of misunderstandings partly because virtually none of the staff spoke or even understood English. They had no map of the town ,no newspapers, they didn't seem to know where things were or what tour options there were available . On the way to the airport today ,we discovered from the handling company that the hotel is in fact owned by a Thai businessman and virtually all the staff are Thai, so it wasn't our imagination, they didn't actually know anything about Luang Prabang!

On the first evening,we got a tuc tuc (our favourite mode of transport) into town. A brand new one with brightly coloured stripes arrived driven by a super cool young guy with spiky hair and sneakers with bright red laces to match the tuc tuc. He took us to the night Market, this is a collection of close to a hundred stalls that set up along the main street at night by local tribal people selling all kinds of textiles, souvenirs, and handcrafts supposedly from Laos but much of it seems to be coming in from China now. Here and there are some lovely things so Tim whisked me out of there pretty smartly with lots of muttering about enough clutter!

We had a very good dinner on the veranda of a little restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet called Tamarind, lots of Lao dishes including crisps made from river weed which we saw being harvested next morning when we took a day trip in a covered flat bottomed boat along the Mekong.

There are lots of tiny vegetable gardens on the rich alluvial soil all along the river banks, higher up above the flood mark (between 20 and 30ft) there are little thatched bamboo and timber houses on stilts with verandas over looking the river.

The local river people fish and collect river weed off the stones along the rivers edge, it is washed and sundried and then made into a kind of crisp sprinkled with sesame seeds which they use to scoop up a variety of dips one of which includes buffalo skin, they seem frightfully keen on that, I saw lots for sale in the market.

There's a backdrop of hills and mountainous forest, here and there are temples half hidden by the trees and glimpses of the Buddhist monks in their saffron robes. Some of the temples are super ornate, beautifully gilded and decorative, others are very simple, accessed only by rickety bamboo bridges.

Our boat had really comfy seats with lots of distressed cushions unlike some of the boats that have recycled car seats and we've just passed a petrol station on a large barge. Around noon there were lots of children down by the rivers edge washing their buffalo and splashing in the rock pools. Later there are young Buddhist monks climbing trees and bathing in their robes, giggling and having fun like any young lads of their age... there are great photo ops everywhere!

On Thursday I decided to take a cooking class in a little school called Tamnak Lao that Rory recommended from his trip a couple of years ago. It started at 10 am with a Market tour, we arrived back to the school after 11 am with the ingredients.There were just four of us in the class, Tim had opted out so he could really chill if such a thing is possible in 30+ degrees!

Then the two teachers demonstrated a couple of dishes which we then cooked for lunch ,one was a Lao version of our Traditional salad with roasted peanuts and minced pork, the other a sticky rice noodles with vegetables and chicken called Feu Khua.

After a leisurely lunch we had another short demo, this time five dishes from which we could choose three each to cook, I totally loved a sticky aubergine dish with pork, Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo and a banana flower salad. We cooked in pairs, I was paired up with a very nice German chap from Munich called Gunter. Overall it was a very worthwhile day, and I should be able to reproduce several of the recipes easily.

Afterwards, I went back to the Marie Celeste for a swim , then back into town for dinner, we had a terrifically good meal at a restaurant away from the madding crowds in a hotel called Aspara overlooking the Khan-Luang Prabang river, a tributary of the Mekong. It was so good that we went back again today for lunch, last night we ate on the front porch but today we had a little table overlooking the river.

We had two absolutely delicious salads: prawn and green papaya salad with chilli and coconut dressing and dried beef salad with mint, coriander and lemongrass (I think it was buffalo). A third one with aubergine roasted cashew nuts, tomatoes, and tons of crispy garlic, was less successful.

We met the owner Ivan Scholtz from London and told him how much we loved his food and asked him for the recipe for the lentil soup... and the Massaman Curry from the night before! Guess what,  he gave them to me! It's always worth asking, the worse that can happen is they can say no! If I return to Luang I'll definitely stay there, it's a lovely chic hotel with staff who speak great English!

Friday 25 January 2013

Noma Pops Up in Shanagarry

On Saturday night in the autumn, two young chefs, both of whom had worked at Noma for several years created a wonderful menu in the spirit of Rene Redzepi's inspirational restaurant in Copenhagen.

Yannik and Louise Bannon arrived several days early with a totally open mind on what they would cook. As soon as they arrived they donned their wellies and headed out to the farm and gardens and into the greenhouses to find what tempting produce was still about available.

Next it was over to Ballycotton to have a chat with a local fisherman to check out the likelihood of spanking fresh fish, then they were off over to Ballynamona and Shanagarry strand to forage for seashore plants and seaweeds at low tide.

When they had checked all that out they were off to forage in the woods like a pair of excited kids in Hamleys at Christmas. It's not a great year for wild mushrooms but they found a few yellow legs, lots of wood sorrel and some myrtle berries.

Here's the magic menu they created.....

Louise is the baker, she made all the sourdough breads for dinner, in little individual timber "bread tins". We served it with virgin butter freshly churned from the cream of our three Jersey cows.

Cured pollack with sea lettuce and sea oak pods.
Plating up...
Popping a fresh myrtle berry onto the top of each Malt Puff, before they were coated in chocolate.

Monday 21 January 2013

Flinty Red in Bristol

Just had a really delicious lunch at a little neighbourhood restaurant in Bristol called Flinty Red. We'd been before earlier in the year and had not a mind-blowing lunch, a sort of ok one but I somehow felt we'd been unlucky and that it was essentially very good, so glad we gave it another go.

Today, we started with sugar cured trout with pickled lemon,a little plate of slivers of house cured organic fish and a dice of fresh tasting lemon preserve, delicious with the close textured dark sourdough bread and a tiny bowl of good extra virgin olive oil.

Next we shared another two small plates, I had a salad of buffalo mozzarella with rosemary farinata and black olives, I'm so into farinata (a sort of polenta pancake) since I discovered it at Terra Madre in Turin in October.

The torn mozzarella was tender and milky, a very delicious combination served in a non traditional way.

My friend had a perfect winter salad of Mimolette, chicory, pomegranate and coarsely chopped toasted almonds, sooo good, simple and fresh tasting.

Our middle course was a sharing plate of braised octopus with harissa, coriander and potato which I didn't love quite so much. If I'm not mistaken it was frozen and was mostly cuttlefish.

Our small main courses were also very good, I had a little roast quail, crispy skin but still deliciously pink and juicy inside on a base of chicory salad. Tim had slivers of seared onglet with mashed swede and black pepper, rare and gorgously beefy.

There is a huge revival of interest in this 'forgotten' cut of beef, it's cheap but I'm sure not for long now that so many chefs have rediscovered it.

Thank goodness the plates were small so I still room for pud, I can never resist affrogata (vanilla ice-cream with a shot of expresso) so I had to have that as well as a warm doughnut with maple syrup cream.

Flinty Reds cheeses come from La Fromagerie in London, so they are bound to be interesting and in top condition.

Today it was a mild pecorino Castagnolo and a Caprino di Riforano.

I had a glass of Manzanilla as aperitif

And a glass of a delicious bio-dynamic red wine from Haut Languedoc called Gravillas 2010.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

A weekend in Copenhagen

Foodies from all over the world are clamouring to get a table at Noma, Rene Redzepi's iconic restaurant in Copenhagen and brilliant though it is, it's certainly not the only reason to visit the Danish capital. One can have many memorable breakfasts, brunches, lunches, afternoon teas and dinner, but there never seems to be enough time to enjoy them all.

I had compiled a long wish list for a recent week end trip to Copenhagen.
Several restaurant including Relae and Herman in Tivoli were already booked up, but not being one to take no for an answer easily I thought it was worth a try to swing by at lunch time, after all the worst that could happen would still be NO but as luck would have it they had just had a cancellation at Hermans.

We had a fantastically good lunch. The first 'course' was two oyster leaves served on a little mound of empty oyster shells. This intriguing little plant Mertensia Maritimia tastes distantly of oysters, a little teaser at the beginning of the meal. The next three courses were oyster related, a cushion of oyster flavoured foam served on a flat pebble, this came with instructions to allow it to slide off the pebble into your mouth. It dissolved into a little pool of briny deliciousness, that was followed by a couple of oysters with smoked olive oil and pine flavoured granita served on a plate of seaweed and rocks with little sprigs of pine tucked in here and there.

Next up, oyster, veal, and sour cream served in a marrow bone - sublime! And on it went, frozen duck liver with cherries, meltingly tender fresh scallops with camomile jelly, crispy pigeon leg and confit with chestnut, tiny nasturtium leaves and trompettes de mort.

A plate of Danish farmhouse cheeses followed, Red Christian from Jutland. Trope Need Krondil, a hay cheese, and a blue cheese from Fyn, served with a little loaf of warm walnut bread with rose hip marmalade and chutney.

Several puddings and three cheeky petit fours signaled the end of the meal. Little branches of witch hazel and little squiggles of orange flavoured chocolate rolled in cocoa, a fun nibble and delicious. Next there were jet black marshmallows served on grey stones and finally a white chocolate 'quail egg' tucked into juniper branches. I forgot to count the courses, each was tiny and perfectly pitched, a celebration of Nordic seasonal ingredients with a mischevious, fun element running throughout.

Hans Kong is yet another brilliantly talented Danish chef, sadly since writing this post I've heard that Hermans has closed, watch out for this chefs next venture.

The new food Market Torvehallerne is worth a visit even if it is rather sanitized. There are lots of good things there but don't miss the pizza rolls called klapper.

On Saturday we took a taxi to Jaggerborggarde, this used to be a really dodgy area with junkies and drug dealers on every corner but now thanks to a conscious decision of the landlords it has become the hippest food street in Copenhagen.

Don't miss The Coffee Collective, really terrific freshly ground from single estates, when we were there, a group of baristtas from New York came in to enjoy and check out the Coffee. Close by the smell of freshly baked artisan breads and pasteries from Meyers Bakery had people quequing down the street.

I was also intrigued by Grod a tiny little cafe and shop that just sold porridge and lots of accompaniments, also on Jaggerborggard.

Ammanns, new take on smorgasbord is also worth seeking out, I loved it and hear that they have now opened in Manhattan.

Noma was completely brilliant and of course needs a whole blog to itself, can't wait to go back to Copenhagen where I actually got engaged in 1970, boy has the food improved since then!