Literally panna cotta

This is ridiculously simple and I feel a bit of a fraud offering it up as a “recipe”. But one of my best friends has never ordered panna cotta in a restaurant in the last five years, and the reason given is: “because it won’t be as good as yours”. High praise indeed!

Except this isn’t really, truly a classic Panna Cotta. There is no gelatine in it. Instead you just cook the cream for much, much longer until it is thick enough to semi-set when chilled. “Panna cotta” is just Italian for “cooked cream” and so really this recipe is more panna cotta than a proper Panna Cotta is! The result is indulgently rich, quite close to white chocolate parfait, and really needs to be served with a tangy coulis of some kind to cut the power of the cream.


Oh! And before I scribble it down, I have to say this isn’t my recipe. I found it years ago on the old website of Mr Underhills, Shaun Hill’s lovely restaurant in Ludlow. That website has long gone and so I can’t link back to the original.

Rich panna cotta (serves 2)

284ml double cream
1 level dessert spoon caster sugar
½ vanilla pod, split
  1. Pour the cream in a small pan, with the vanilla pod and sugar. Bring to a simmer
  2. Simmer for 15-25 minutes, basically until the cream has reduced by about a third (tip: keep the cream carton and you can pour it in to see how much it has reduced)
  3. Pour into little cups or ramekins, stick in the fridge to chill

Seeeeeeee? Too easy. Just increase the cream, sugar and vanilla if you want to make more. As I say, you really need to top this with a coulis; two handfuls of raspberries, a squirt of lemon juice and a spoonful of sugar, simmer for 5 minutes then pass through a sieve – that’ll do it.

Muddy Michelin waters

My most unusual Michelin-starred meal must be Tim Ho Wan, a tiny restaurant tucked away in a backwater neighbourhood of Kowloon, Hong Kong. They seated about thirty, shoulder to shoulder in a room no bigger than my lounge, with décor to remind you of your local Chinese takeaway several thousand miles away. We had a feast of very good dim sum, were out the door in just over an hour, and the meal was about £12 for two including bottomless jasmine tea.

What the heck? Where’s my amuse bouche?

It helps if you actually take some time to read how Michelin define their own star ratings. One star indicates a “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-star ranking represents “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. There’s nothing here about the whiteness of the linen, the number of waiters hovering per diner, or whether your napkin will be folded neatly on the table for you if you disappear to the loo. Michelin are steadfast about this: stars are given for the cooking; quality, consistency, inventiveness, ingredients, value for money. Yes, value for money. That is, in theory at least, how a cupboard-sized dim sum joint in Kowloon can score a Michelin star.

Which might also explain how the Pony & Trap in rural Somerset has scored a Michelin star, or the Hand & Flowers has become the first pub in Britain with two Michelin stars. This acclamation seems to have particularly divided people. As one irate Frenchman pointed out rather sarcastically (check his comment below this blog for the full rant), the toilets even have “lovely plastic flowers…..a must have in a 2 Michelin Star rated place”! He’s clearly missing the point. It’s all about the food, right?

Or is it? Why do people consistently associate Michelin stars with a particular formula of elegant super-processed cuisine, silver service and serene white linen dining rooms (with fresh flowers in the toilet, dammit)? Well, presumably because for a very long time that was about the only sort of establishment that delivered the kind of food to merit a Michelin star.

So should we not applaud the fact that Michelin is trying to discard this twentieth century image and award stars quite deliberately (it seems to me) to dining establishments that focus on delivering quality cooking at a specific price-point rather than a blinkered fine dining formula?

I’m not going to applaud it. Let me set out my argument.

At the end of the day, restaurants are not chasing Michelin stars. No. They’re chasing money. Restaurants are businesses. The Michelin star, with its venerable history in the echelons of fine dining, attracts a moneyed clientèle willing to pay handsomely for a particular dining experience. This experience includes being looked after brilliantly, sitting in a refined dining space, eating food that has obviously had immense care and attention lavished on it, and splashing out on a bottle of vintage champagne if the occasion warrants. For most, this is special occasion dining; a wedding anniversary, a family birthday, or a lavish weekend break. It’s the restaurant that chooses to combine silver service and white linen with the Michelin-style food, because that’s what their target demographic wants and expects. History tells them so.

The Michelin star may be awarded for excellence in cooking, but it is used by people as a way of quickly identifying a complete special occasion; food, service and ambience.

To my mind, Michelin are just muddying the waters and confusing the punters by giving out stars to jolly good pubs or tasty dim sum joints. They should accept the position that the history of fine dining has put them in and continue to use the three Michelin stars to identify the highest levels of fine dining. And no, that doesn’t just mean French haute cuisine. It should be obvious today that anything from Japanese to Nordic inspired cooking can deliver a meal fit for a fine dining splurge. For delicious food in a different settings or price point, why not expand and emphasise the Bib Gourmand rosette, let’s say to three levels, in order to reward and acclaim brilliance elsewhere in the realms of eating out?

Referring again back to their own definitions: one star indicates a “very good cuisine in its category”, a two-star ranking represents “excellent cuisine, worth a detour,” and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. These stars should shine above the doors of destination restaurants. People plan entire weekend breaks around a trip to Le Manoir or The Kitchin. I don’t care how brilliant the burgers at MEATLiquor, or how splendid the simple cooking at The Green Cafe in Ludlow, no-one is going to build a weekend break around a visit there.

Michelin stars have a place. Had a place. Michelin is in danger of terminally confusing their punters if they pay too much attention to people who moan about the “Michelin formula” and so try to spread their three star system across the entire gamut of eating establishments. Keep the stars focussed. Keep them for those special occasion meals where you can ooh and aah over the cleverness of the amuses bouche, tinkle your myriad of silvered cutlery along the line of various wine glasses and have your napkin neatly folded by a team of dashing waiters when you pop to the loo.

Keep the stars where they belong. I’ll use them if I want a refined dining experience. I’ll happily look elsewhere for more down-to-earth but equally delicious food.

Postscript! Of course, it may simply be that Michelin is an imperfect, biased and disjointed organisation with overworked staff and inexact standards that regularly gets things wrong but has good PR. And so it may also be the case that the Hand & Flowers isn’t even worth two stars for its food, leaving aside the plasticity of it’s bathroom bouquet. I couldn’t tell you, I last ate there before they won a single star and had a great gastropub meal. Certainly the dim sum at Tim Ho Wan was no better than those at the splendid but unawarded Maxim’s Palace on the other side of Victoria Harbour. And I was personally disgusted this year that La Becasse lost its Michelin star for no reason I can see. If nothing else, the red guide always gives restaurant lovers something to talk about!

Kedgeree and egg rage

I had a fit of food rage today, a wee glimpse of the kind of stress that causes top chefs to bawl out their sous and spank their commis with ladles. Well, I managed to screw up boiling a couple of eggs for gawd’s sake! As Maureen so poignantly put it on Twitter: “should you be writing a food blog?”

I always use hard-boiled eggs for kedgeree, but I thought this time it would be nice if the yolk was still a tiny bit squishy. You know, just perfect. I’ve no idea how I got the timing wrong. Stupid water was probably boiling at under 100C or something! You know, like it does sometimes. Ahem. Anyway, the stupid egg just would not peel, even the tiniest bit of shell came off with a huge lump of white. The yolk was totally liquid, burst in the struggle and poured all over my hand. The second egg was exactly the same, of course. I gave an inarticulate scream of rage and flung it full-tilt at the sink. Massive, massive splatter. Everywhere.

So I took a deep breath, boiled two more eggs properly, and the kedgeree was delicious anyway.

As a complete aside, if you’re going to soft-boil eggs you probably want to use older ones, perhaps a couple of weeks. Really fresh eggs is what causes sticking-to-the-shell issues.

Kedgeree (serves 2)

1 piece smoked haddock
3 tbsp whisky
2 bay leaves
1 onion
2 eggs
80g rice
½ tsp turmeric
2 small tomatoes
tabasco sauce
3 tbsp cream
25g butter
black pepper
fresh parsley
  1. Buy as much fish as you’d have for an ordinary fish supper. Get a big frying pan on the hob, put in the bay leaves, whisky and a cup-or-so of water.
  2. Slice the onion, then toss the top and tail of it into the pan along with a couple of slices and bring it to a simmer. Poach the fish, covered, until it is gently cooked through. I find it is between 6 and 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile hard-boil the eggs, then set them aside.
  4. Now that the fish is done, cook the rice using the water leftover from the fish poaching along with half of the turmeric. You may need to top up the water if it’s not enough.
  5. While the rice cooks, peel and chop the eggs. Also flake the smoked haddock, getting rid of the skin and any bones you find. Fingers are definitely the best for finding bones.
  6. When the rice is nearly done, start gently frying the onion in a knob of butter. As it softens, add the rest of the turmeric and a good lot of ground black pepper.
  7. Finally, add the sliced tomato. After a minute more, add back the fish, the egg and the rice. A dash of tabasco sauce, the cream, the butter. Mix everything, then put the lid on and leave for two minutes.
  8. Serve hot, garnished with chopped parsley.

You shouldn’t need to use salt, as the smoked haddock provides plenty, but check your seasoning of course just in case. We usually have this for supper with absolutely nothing else, but it’s good with soft white buttered bread, or with some black pudding on the side.

Review: Green Cafe, Ludlow

It’s terribly inconsiderate of The Green Cafe to close throughout January. Who said they could have a holiday? I want lunch!

I want the best chicken liver pate ever created, with crispy bits of French stick toast and the most fruity and punchy fig chutney to cut the savoury meatiness perfectly. I want a bowl of smoked coley chowder with bacon and mussels, where all the flavours are so perfectly balanced it’s like a tightrope walker on a unicycle spinning eight plates blindfolded, in a bowl. Cream, shallots, parsley, bacon and fish have never sung together better. I want melting potato gnocchi with a palate-pleasing rich ragu made with Italian pork and fennel sausage. I want…

Okay, perhaps what I really need is a bit of perspective.

The Green Cafe is a cafe after all, and they serve light lunches and sweet treats from late morning until around about 4:30. They’re tucked away down beside the tumbling river Teme, below the quintessential market town of Ludlow. This is a real and deserved use of the word “quintessential” but I’ll save Ludlow for another day. The spot by the river is idyllic, and they manage to tuck about 20 covers inside a tiny dining room with another 10 or so outside when it’s not as bloody cold as it is now. It can feel a little squished on busy days, when the tables near the door are hobson’s choice and not a great choice in inclement weather with people trooping in and out. But hey, it’s a cafe.

So you wouldn’t come here for a romantic three course dinner. You would come here to have a couple of plates of deceptively simple lunch, all using local ingredients in season and washed down with a thoughtfully organised list of drinks including a few wines. Nothing on the menu runs over £9.00, from memory.

Service is perfect: friendly and warm, nothing is too much trouble. Cakes are good too.

What’s with the “deceptively simple” though? Well, everything I’ve ever enjoyed here has been as perfectly balanced as that chowder, seasoning spot-on and flavours bouncing neatly off one another. Chef Clive Davis has a magic touch, and it’s a surprise (and a pleasure) that he chooses to express himself with this, the humble light lunch, rather than following the obvious route for a palate of his calibre into the airy realms of fine dining.

If you’ve come to Ludlow for a foodie weekend, including a slap-up meal at one of the two renowned restaurants in town, you’d be doing yourself a grave disservice if you didn’t squeeze in lunch at The Green Cafe. Hands down my favourite cafe, anywhere. Be warned: you should definitely phone a day ahead to book.

Foodie spending

How much do I spend on food? This post was inspired by the first post of an interesting new blogger, The Skint Foodie, who has pointed up the nonsense of most government statistics on the subject of how much households spend on food. Apparently the most affluent 20% of us spend £38 per person per week on food and drink. Haha! HahahaHAhaHAHAha! One thing I’m pretty certain is that the most affluent 20% go out for at least one meal per week, with wine, which would suggest that they must spend the rest of the week rummaging through dustbins.

Anyway, we can laugh at government statistics all day. How much do I spend on food?

I’ve got a great advantage in answering this question. In 2010 we set off travelling around the world for a year (and blogged it), and this meant keeping a daily budget of absolutely

every darn thing we bought. It didn’t prove onorous, taking less than 5 minutes a day, and was instructive. Even if we ended up over-budget. Once we got home it just seemed natural to continue the habit, so I’ve got a record of our spending over the last six months. Not right down to the last bacon rasher, I do tend to just put “Butcher, £8.40”, but I certainly know how much we’ve spent on food.

It’s a lot. Actually, it’s the biggest part of our weekly spend by a long way.

So I ought to cover our eating habits in brief. Living in Ludlow, we’re surrounded by great local food shops; in consequence, I go to Tesco for exactly two things: loo rolls and chopped tomatoes. We eat well at home, but everything is cooked from ingredients; no ready-meals or cooking sauces. I like to buy good things, too. We only drink filter coffee, only fresh local juices, good quality chocolate, artisan cheese, you get the idea.

Eating out. Nothing like as often as when we lived in London! However, there’s probably one big (>£80 per person) meal every month, plus one or two other dining occasions lower down the price range. Of course there are also plenty of times when we’re out and need lunch, or dinner, or breakfast, or just a coffee. We’re foodies, so we don’t stop off at Pizza Hut or McDonalds. Maybe once a month we have a takeaway. And don’t forget that just because Christmas is special, doesn’t mean it gets excluded from the budget.

And so we come to the big figures. Over the last six months our average weekly spend per person (for a household of two) was…
£37 on groceries (excluding booze)
£6 on booze for the home
£41 on general eating out & takeaways
£61 on fine dining
Grand total: £145 per week on food and drink, each.

In context, our total weekly spend per person on everything except household bills is £330.

So food is where nearly half of our money goes. And I pulled out the booze deliberately to show it wasn’t going on bottles of old claret! In my defence, eating is probably my favourite pastime. But I’m only 10 stone, so it’s quality rather than quantity here. Recalling our eating habits back in London, this would easily have pushed over £200 each per week and the weighting would have been much more towards eating out.

Conclusions?

  • The Skint Foodie, aiming for £40 per week himself, is definitely a skint foodie
  • The office of national statistics couldn’t count its own buttocks with both hands
  • Food is a stupendously important part of our life and spending
  • If we ever needed to cut back, a moratorium on fine dining would be the best idea

I’d love to hear what other people spend weekly on food, and how it compares. Because I’m nosey. I do think it’s a useful exercise, but only if you try it over a few months. A trip to the Fat Duck will seriously skew your eating-out figure but it would be invalid to exclude it, just as the week before Christmas will skew the grocery (and booze!) figures but would be equally wrong to exclude.

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