Going Tonkotsu Crazy

25 May

A couple of Christmases ago, I got the boy the gift of sushi lessons for us both. It was one of those gifts that we could enjoy together – which basically means I like presents that I get something out of too. Luckily, it works both ways. This has become somewhat of a tradition between us with him buying me things he knows we’ll both like (comedy tickets) and me dragging him to the symphony (which he has now come to love).

But the sushi lessons are one of those gifts that have really stuck with us. We went a bit sushi-making mad for a while but unlike a gift which is used once in the holidays and then put away for years (foot spa anyone?) this one kept on giving.

Since then, I’ve continued learning about Japanese cuisine and have found myself cooking dishes from this country at home more frequently. So, when I was recently asked to come down to the Japan Centre – a fantastic Japanese food store on the south end of Regent Street in London where I have gone for years to get my Japanese ingredients – to learn how to make Tonkotsu noodle soup, I jumped at the chance to add a new recipe to my repertoire.

Tonkotsu is a type of Ramen made with a rich pork bone broth rather than a more typical miso or chicken stock base. It is popular in the southern-most part of Japan: Kyushu.

Nariaki Kanazawa – the advertising and product PR manager – told me the dish has only become popular in more northern spots like Tokyo in recent years. It wasn’t until he went to university near Kyushu that he even discovered it.

“I was shocked. I didn’t know what they had given me. It wasn’t soya [miso] Ramen!” he said, laughing.

The dish is eaten any time of the day but is very popular with businessmen and late night drinkers who procure it from street stalls.

“It’s more commonly eaten by men because of the rich flavour and fatty meats,” he told me.

Rich flavour? Fatty meat? That sounded right up my street! Once Nariaki told me this, I was ready to get stuck in and headed straight behind the counter to see how it is assembled.

The spicy beef Tonkotsu soup I tried is made from a notebook page full of ingredients, which include: yuzu paste (a spicy, fermented sauce made from the Japanese yuzu orange), chilli sauce, sesame lemon sauce, white miso paste, egg noodles, a chicken and pork stock (to which the Tonkotsu – or creamy pork bone broth – is added at a rate of 10 parts stock to 1 part broth), wakame (edible seaweed), spring onions, bean sprouts, red ginger, fungus and BBQ pork. Now, if that’s not a cure for too much drinking, I don’t know what is!

The dish was steaming when it got to my table. But I couldn’t help but plow into it – noodle soup (in all its forms) is one of my long-time favourite foods.

And what a treat it was. The soup was delectably rich – and far preferable to a standard miso broth. It was creamy, slightly fatty and had a sweet edge from the miso paste that was diluted by the chilli bite. The saltiness of the seaweed and sharp tang of the ginger were welcome additions. So many parts of my palate were bursting at once that it would have looked like one of those light-up dance move games people play in arcades if anyone could have seen it under a telescope. The team at the Japan Centre had looked a bit dubious when I said I would have a large portion. I think I did myself proud.

It’s not only me that likes it, apparently. Nariaki told me they’ve increased soup sales from about 20 portions a lunch hour to 50 since the Tonkotsu appeared on the menu six months ago. Whether that was PR speak, I won’t know but I can imagine why someone would love it. I’m just glad to add something so pleasurable to my growing Japanese food recipe book!

Jacob’s Creek cools things down for summer

22 May

Naomi Watts: the cool face of Cool Harvest.

As the sun begins to poke its friendly head out from the clouds once more and the air loses its characteristic nip (finally!) I almost always find myself drinking more white wine than red. And while I still enjoy a glass of the rouge, a crisp blanc goes a long way to quenching an unending thirst garnered from long days lazing about in the heat.

Recently, I tested out the new Cool Harvest range from Jacob’s Creek. The wines – which include a Shiraz Rosé, Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc – were originally released in Australia when that country was moving into its spring/summer season last September.

Heading up the launch was the effervescently stunning Naomi Watts – with whom a lucky winner recently went on a picnic here in London, all for “liking” the company’s Facebook page. Ah, the power of social media!

The idea behind the wines reminds me a wee bit of the Canadian ice wine practice – though, this one is done at much warmer temperatures than the below freezing climes the ice wine grapes are picked at. The Cool Harvest vintage is made by choosing grapes which naturally grow in cooler climates in Australia (mostly South Australian regions such as Langhorne Creek, Adelaide Hills and Padthaway), before picking them at the coolest time of the night and fermenting them at very low temperatures. A slight bit of carbonation is added at the end to keep them even crisper – something I didn’t realise at first and which made me question why on earth my Sauvignon Blanc had bubbles! The wines are also much lower in alcohol than what we’re becoming used to seeing on the shelves – at a range of 9.5% to 11%, they’re actually quite a relief from the super strength whites that I find give me a horrid headache the next day (something I rarely experience with reds of the same ABV).

The company says it wanted to create a bright, crisp and exceedingly refreshing drink after hearing back from consumers saying that was what they were after in a white or rosé wine.

So, did it succeed?

My favourite of the three I tried (see photo above) was the Vermentino. This is not a grape I can say I am that familiar with. This is normally found in Italian wine and it had hints of freshly squeezed lemon, honey, acacia flowers and pineapples. The slight sparkle did oomph up the crispy bite and it definitely went the quickest.

The Sauvignon Blanc, meanwhile, was enjoyable but nothing to write home about from my perspective, though I did like the hints of passionfruit on the palate.

Finally, the Shiraz Rosé was probably the biggest surprise for me. I rarely drink rosés finding them sickly sweet and without any substance. And, while this wasn’t dry enough for my taste, it did provide a lovely, rich fresh strawberry flavour on the aftertaste that made me want to take sip after sip. It was like eating a bunch of boozy strawberries (like when you put them in Champers and they absorb the bubbles). I would love to experiment with this by adding it and strawberries to a gelatine and making a tasty jelly. Or to pair it with a strawberry, balsamic and spinach salad, which I think would perfectly offset the sweetness. But, unfortunately for this exact second, I’ve drunk it all!

The wines are an interesting concept and remind me that summer is finally close at hand. As the warm climes drift over Londontown, I will be looking out for these in my local grocers to drink with some fresh crisp salads in the waning sun. Pleasurable all around…

Jacob’s Creek Cool Harvest wines are available at Tesco, Ocado and Sainsbury’s for £8.49.

A hotel to call a home

18 May

“You must be freezing! Come in and get warm. We’re so impressed with you ladies!”

So cooed the lovely Katie Young as myself and two other ladies who I’d been canoeing with down the Scottish River Spey in the snow (yes, snow – find out more about that exciting journey on Miss Whisky, here) entered the lovely, warm safekeeping of her hotel’s lobby.

Katie and her husband David own The Cross Hotel in Kingussie, a small town in the Speyside region of Scotland. It is one of those places in which you instantly feel at home – whether waterlogged and freezing or not.

My room – a light-tartan and cream covered oasis – was situated with a view of the rustling River Gynack outside. Each of the eight rooms comes with the regular amenities (bath, shower, hairdryer, kettle) with the added sweet touches of a pile of books to curl up with and a CD player featuring local, Scottish bands.

Nicola (a blogger from the Whisky Boys) and I relax after our long canoeing journey.

But, the Cross – whilst being a lovely hotel – is most renowned for its food and wine list. In fact, it’s actually considered a “restaurant with rooms”. The hotel won the Imbibe award for the best Scottish wine list in 2010 and it’s no wonder why, with nearly 300 offerings on the menu that have a price cap of £75 (not something you see everyday), plus an incredible selection of half bottles and “interesting” aperitifs such as Floc de Gascogne, an Armagnac and grape juice which comes from la famille Deche in France. The restaurant – which sits in an effortlessly relaxing space with a huge open fireplace, big beams and stone walls – is also highly rated, and as we moved from one delectable course to another, it all made sense.

I started with a tart and salty sardine, asparagas and tomato dish, before moving on to the melt-in-your-mouth tender beef with red cabbage, tatties and carrots. We finished on a pillow-soft pavlova with rhubarb compote on the side.

And maybe it was the long day’s canoe journey, or the beautiful wines we tried, but all in all The Cross proved to be an understated place that more people should know about. The owners obviously care about the space and put a lot of time and effort into choosing the wine lists and making sure the food being served is locally sourced and good for the environment. I can only hope I am lucky enough to return to one day and stay a bit longer. It is a hotel to call a home.

For more information on The Cross Hotel, its rates, restaurant and location, head here.

Highland Adventure: Duisdale House

6 May

I wake to see the boy plug in the small kettle, stretch and wander to the thickly curtained windows. As he opens them, white light filters in, the grey day trespassing on my barely fading dreams.

“Snow,” he says.

“Hmmm?” I mumble, still not coherent enough to move from the comfort of the oversized four-poster bed.

“Snow…there’s snow everywhere,” he responds.

Padding over to the window I see he’s right; the snow is not a figment of his imagination but a real, freezing, crystalline reality.

Shivering, I head straight back to bed unimpressed with the scene outside, despite its eerily quiet beauty.

The night before, we’d arrived at the classy Duisdale House, a former hunting lodge constructed in 1865. The graveled drive – more accustomed to Mercedes and Beemers – gave way to our little Ford Fiesta and before we’d even turned the engine off, the effervescent David was at our door to relieve us of our bags and usher us in from the nippy air.

Duisdale House, in warmer climes...

The hotel sits near the village of Duisdale, appropriate enough. Set in 38 acres, it exudes country charm and modernity in equal measure. When Anne Gracie and Ken Gunn bought it in 2007 they had to start from scratch: new electrics, plumbing, decor, furnishings – the whole lot.

“We wanted to establish somewhere really nice that would offer facilities that we wanted when we went somewhere ourselves,” Anne told me.

That is just what they have done. After the renovation, the space has been transformed into a place perfect for anyone wanting to escape hectic city life for a while.

“And we deliberately steered away from stags heads and tartan. A lot of people have designed their hotels that way but many haven’t been updated so they began to look tired and stuck in a time warp,” she added.

In our room spacious room, the aforementioned four-poster elicited a squeal from yours truly before a hot cup of tea and hammering shower pulled the tiredness from my limbs after a day’s hectic driving.

That evening a stunning meal awaited us. Anne told me the idea was always to focus on local, sustainably sourced foods. They use a small company called Food Link, which delivers food to hotels that’s been grown on the Isle of Skye. And, while each dish is dainty, Anne said they never want to lose sight of back to basics cooking.

“We always have to keep watching out to see what is current without losing our sight on basic, good, well cooked food. If the technique is right you can dress it up and put little touches on it that are young and new,” she said.

A starter of assorted hot and cold smoked salmon with beetroot for me, and juicy pigeon for the boy was followed by the “best steak” the boy has ever had – high praise indeed. We finished with the cheese board, a scrumptious outing of five creamy delights.

Knowing an early morning wake-up call awaited, we headed to bed to get some much-needed shut eye after what seemed like an unending day.

Snow-capped mountains in the distance at the waterfront access of Duisdale House.

The next morning we awoke to snow, and news that the mountainous drive back to Inverness was not very welcoming.

After a brisk walk to the waterfront to inhale some last fresh breaths of Isle of Skye air, and a tummy-filling scrumptious breakfast, we hopped in the car earlier than planned, sad to leave the beautiful surroundings and admit our Highland adventure was coming to a close.

A snowing, blowing, frightful mountain drive followed – cars drove slowly while snow trucks cleared the mounds of fluffy flakes that now dominated the previously green scene. Despite this, like most routes in Scotland, it was sublime. The sun peeked out from the clouds every once in a while, just long enough to show the shimmer of snow in full glory.

By the time we entered Inverness, we had just enough time to drop off the car and head for our train. It had been an adventure like no other.

Thank you to Duisdale House for hosting the boy and I. For more information on the hotel, visit: http://www.duisdale.com

Highland Adventure: Applecross to Skye

2 May

How peaceful it must be to be a Highland cow munching away on a cliff top with no realisation of just how deadly a slip off the edge would be. Although the photo does not illustrate this, behind them is not a gentle rolling hill but a vertical plunge to the Loch. Unfortunately, I am not like the Highland cow – instead, I am horrendously fearful of horrendously edged drops.

This was highlighted wholeheartedly as the boy and I made our way around the Applecross Road, which runs around the Applecross Peninsula. Seen as one of the most dramatic roads in Scotland, the single-track route takes drivers 2000 feet up the side of a mountain. Complete with “passing points” every few dozen metres, the road is winding, narrow and terrifying to those (like me) who are petrified of cliffs.

As such, I spent most of the 45 minutes as we inched along the route clenching desperately to the car’s seat, heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Oh, to be an unaware Highland cow.

Despite this, the route is incredible. After you climb to the top through the ever-increasing mist and fog, you snake your way back down and glimpse the spreading loch in front…it’s hard not to be mesmerised.

Through the mist and rain, the loch appears below the snaking roads.

When finally we emerged from the mountain’s grip, we continued on our way to the Isle of Skye. We had a distillery to visit!

As we drove through the small town Kyle of Lochalsh I saw the Skye Bridge illuminated in the crisp sunlight. Finally the fog had cleared and the arcing structure gleamed enticingly. Crossing over Loch Alsh, we could see for miles into the picturesque distance: mountains, shimmering azure water and gently moving boats. At the top of the bridge’s arc, the whole of the windscreen was filled with this image, eliminating any of the bridge’s structure so it almost felt like we were floating. I’ve never become quite so worked up over a bridge. But maybe it was just the final release of emotion after the terrifying drive.

Entering onto Skye is like finding yourself in the middle of an alien planet. Mars-like red earth contrasts with sharp-edged grey stones. The winding roads seem almost out of place, as if they’ve been rudely carved into this beast of a landscape.

An hour of driving later and we reached our destination: Talisker distillery at Carbost. There we were meeting Mark Lochhead, the distillery manager.

Mark has worked for Talisker for just over three years and been in the industry for 25. After a quick cuppa and chat, he took us around the distillery, showing us the whole process in detail, from mashing, to fermentation and distillation in the beautiful, copper stills.

The distillery brings in its barley pre-malted from Glen Ord, just north of Inverness. From there, everything is done on site. During our visit, the mashing and fermentation tubs weren’t in use, due to a water shortage from the springs at Hock Hill.

“I’ve got everyone doing rain-dances,” said Mark.

In the distillation room, we saw the oddly shaped stills, which are the only ones in Scotland to have a U-bend at the top, which increases the amount of copper contact the liquid has during distillation, and creates a lighter flavour in the whisky.

Finally, we stopped off at the cask warehouse, in which a proportion of the Talisker stock is housed for aging.

It was the boy’s first visit to a distillery and learning about the process from one end to the other was eye-opening, he said – a fact which I recommend anyone curious about whisky to take on board. Once you know about the process, it’s easier to become fascinated with the final product. The distillery, which is owned by Diageo, gets an astounding 55,000 visitors a year and will soon be expanding its visitors centre to keep up with demand so definitely check it out if you get the chance.

After the tour, we headed back up to Mark’s office to taste some Talisker drams – well, let me correct that. I tasted some stellar drams – the boy had a wee sip of a couple because he was driving.

We started with the new make spirit (the natural spirit before it is aged in oak barrels). It was briney, with hints of olives and fleshy fruit on the nose, and cigarettes, sweat and rubber on the palate.

Next was the creamy butterscotch smelling 10 year old. In the mouth was a delicious lemony and Werther’s Original flavour.

Then came the 18-year old: a long-time favourite of many whisky drinkers and a dram that is often sold out everywhere. This was slightly thicker on the nose, with deeper scents of caramel and fudge, while on the palate was an earthy, oily sweet taste with a hint of candied orange. Stunning!

The final dram was the 25-year old, which was much sharper: lemon and peat on the nose, and salt, sea, brine, almonds and smoke on the palate. One of my favourites.

The boy tried the 18-year old and, to my great joy, said he “finally got whisky” when he tasted it.

With a triumphant finish to the day, we said our goodbyes and headed back from where we came to the east side of the Isle of Skye, finally arriving at our next luxurious hotel: Duisdale House. But more on that later…

In part 4, the boy and I drown our tiredness in a four course meal and the luxuriousness of Duisdale House and navigate our way back to Inverness in the snow.

Highland Adventure: The Torridon

29 Apr

“I don’t want to leave,” I whined to the boy as I looked at the purple hued mountains that had finally cleared of mist.

“C’mon,” he said, grabbing my hand and nearly dragging me along the pavement due to my feet having firmly frozen themselves to the tarmac.

The Torridon Hotel at Loch Torridon

The day before we’d arrived at The Torridon hotel, which sits at the base of Loch Torridon in the far west of Scotland. A former stately home, the space has been converted into one of the most blissful places I have ever rested my head.

With crackling fires that beckon you in from the cold, to cosy drawing rooms filled with chess sets and walls lined with whisky, the Torridon exudes a certain level of relaxed opulence I have yet to find elsewhere in my travels.

The warming entrance with smoky, crackling fireplace.

In our room, which looked out onto the vast mountain landscape, was a bed so plush and high, I had to do a little leap up to get onto it. In the bathroom, a roll-top bath and REN products awaited to warm my bones, chilled from the feisty Highland air.

The view from our room at The Torridon

After settling in, we – like every guest – were treated to some lovely hot coffee and shortcake in the comfort of the drawing room. Tastefully decorated and holding on to a certain “classic” charm, the room is a welcome space to sit back in the large leather chairs and look out onto the manicured and misty gardens out front.

Coffee & delicious delights awaited us in the drawing room.

The Torridon has 58 acres at its disposal, which include long walking paths, gardens and a lochside boating launch. The boy and I put on our walking shoes and headed around the squelchy paths, taking in the fresh air so uncommonly found in Londontown. A kitchen garden, filled to the brim with various herbs, spices and veggies, was reassuring: everything that can be grown for the food served at the hotel’s AA three Rosette restaurant will be. That includes the friendly, shaggy highland cattle which munch happily nearby, not knowing their fate but at least allowed to roam and be as natural as any creature should be if it’s going to be eaten. There is a separate inn onsite which includes a pub. As it was Sunday, the boy and I stopped in for a swift pre-dinner pint – a perfect remedy after all that muddy trekking.

A Highland Cattle soft toy in our room - just as cute as the real version!

But the final and, potentially, most rewarding part of the evening came with dinner: five courses of delectable delights starting with the sweetest mini eggs benedict amuse-bouche and a starter of creamy, sweet almond soup. A starter of handmade, juicy lobster and crab ravioli, and mains of tender guinea fowl and the best sea bass fillet I’ve ever had, followed.

The delicate yet fully flavoured food of the Torridon.

After dinner, over a raucous game of chess and a cheese platter, I sat back and thought about the day – how far we’d traveled in the rain and how warm I felt now. I can truly say, the stress had completely left me by this point and I think it was the most relaxed I’d felt in months.

Chess and cheese: my kind of night!

Next time, I become shaky with nerves over the bends along the Applecross Way, feel weepy at the sight of the Isle of Skye Bridge, try some amazing Talisker whisky and land at another delightful hotel…

Thank you to the Torridon for hosting the boy and I. For more information on the hotel, its activities and rates, visit: http://www.thetorridon.com

Highland Adventure: Monster Hunting

26 Apr

“Don’t go onto the moors,” quipped the boy in hysterical voice as we drove through a particularly craggy area of northwest Scotland.

Rolling my eyes to look confident, I quickly looked out the car window to see if there were any boogeymen following us.

“We’re not in Yorkshire m’dear,” I responded once clear we were not being tracked.

You see, northern Scotland has this effect. It’s misty and rocky, slightly desolate and, in our experience, often grey. But, like Ireland, it has a certain appeal in its darkness.

We’d arrived in the Highlands the night before having stopped off in Inverness after a very long train journey up from London. The town was lovely – quaint and proudly Scottish, with a compact castle sitting atop the hill and the crystal clear River Ness running through.

The view of Inverness Castle from our room at the Columba Hotel

But, being keen to get into the countryside, we headed off early the next day to see just what this part of Britain had to offer.

Driving south along the B852 we took the less-touristy way around Loch Ness, determined as we were to find some monsters. If you’re in this area, skip the west side of the Loch (with its wider road and hoards of traffic) and opt for the thin, winding road along the east side of the Loch. It’s quieter and the road rises into the hills, allowing a dramatic views from up high.

A grey day over Loch Ness

After driving back up the west side of the Loch (which one must do to connect to the direct route west) we were taken through more beige and rusty red landscapes, along slim roads where one must pull into small passing points constantly. For those not raised in the UK and who are used to wide highways for most of your driving, this will probably raise a few hairs on the back of your neck – more so even than the thought of a monster wandering by. I’ll never get used to having to reverse on a roadway when another car comes careening around a corner and there isn’t enough room for both vehicles!

But, even with the fear, it was beautiful. Loch after shimmering loch appeared from out of nowhere, wedged between rolling hills and mountains still topped with fresh snow. Even looking at the scenes made me chilly and I suddenly understood better why the Scots love their whisky so much.

Mizzle was the order of the day in the Highlands.

And so, what better way to finish off a chilly drive, than to arrive at a hidden lochside turreted villa that rises out of seemingly nowhere? Surely, nothing…

Next time, the boy and I pet our dinner, squelch in the mud and discover a stunning Highland hotel…

A Fem “ale” Society

16 Apr

I’m going to let you in on a secret.

Ready?

Okay…shhhh…

There’s a secret society. Of women. Who love beer!

Its name: Dea Latis.

How cool is that?

Now, I suppose I shouldn’t say it’s a secret society. It’s, well, not. But ever since I saw that Simpson’s episode about a gazillion years ago during which Homer finds out about the Stonecutters, I’ve always wanted to be a part of one.

So, when I found out about Dea Latis, I did a little squeal of excitement.

The group was formed in 2010 and is named after the Celtic goddess of beer and water. Its mission: to bring beer back to women and change their perceptions about the drink.

For someone who spends much of her time trying to goad her girlfriends into trying whisky, this appeals to me ten-fold!

Co-founder Ros Shiel says she got into beer when she took on a PR role at the British Beer & Pub Association and went on a beer appreciation course.

“ It really opened my eyes to the wonderful world of beer – until then I had, like many women, been of the opinion that beer was either brown/flat or yellow/gassy and both were wildly fattening! I remember the IPA was a revelation, and so was the cherry beer with dark chocolate,” she told me.

Dea Latis: a women's only beer drinking society. How cool!

The group now has 60 members, made up of female brewers, pub operators, marketing and PR people, and beer writers and bloggers, amongst others. It aims to put on at least two themed events per year (such as a beer and chocolate matching, which is where I discovered the group) and a talk with a woman in the beer industry. Everything is done on a volunteer basis, on limited funds, so the more people that discover it, the more events will happen.

Ros says she hopes more women will give it a go, but adds it’s hard in a country where much of the beer marketing is targeted at men.“It’s true that beer, in the UK certainly – does have a pretty blokey image: advertising’s all about men watching sport or other male bonding stuff, beer brands all sponsor men’s sports like football/rugby.

“[Also] the pint glass is a big turnoff for a lot of women, so we’re keen to see smaller, more elegant glasses become more widely used and indeed that is starting to happen.”

Co-founder Ros Shiel speaks during the beer & chocolate tasting.

There is also the “beer belly” issue, which means most women shy away from beer because of worries over weight. Ros counters: “Beer has fewer calories than wine, measure for like measure. Drunk in moderation, beer isn’t fattening.”

And while she doesn’t expect the whole industry to change overnight, she’s happy at least putting it out there that women love (or can come to love) all the amazing qualities that beer has to offer.

“I think if we can just get more women to consider drinking beer more often, and get more brewers to consider women in the way they market their beers, we’ll have done what we set out to achieve,” she concludes.

Want to get involved ladies? Memberships cost £40 a year and information can be found here.

A Blacksmith & a Toffeemaker walk into a pub…

10 Apr

The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker

Since moving to London, I have come to love the random names of pubs across this country. The“Bunch of Carrots”; “Dirty Dicks”; and “The Dog and Duck” all spring to mind.

So, when an email came through inviting me to check out a new, quirky pub on St John Street, between Angel and Farringdon, I was immediately taken by the name.

Called The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker after a song by former British singer-songwriter Jack Thackray, the pub is run by two young chaps – Marc Dalla Riva and Matt Rix. The former, a chef, and the latter, an events guru, love the place so much they even make upstairs their home.

While the interior has been redesigned with a Hoxton-ish interior (light colours, modular ’60s furniture, quirky vintage feel) the space manages to avoid being trendy and pretentious by feeling comfortable and laid-back. The aim is to create a place that gets back to the roots of what makes a great pub: good food, good drinks and good people. The pair are focused on providing a roster of impeccable British gins (things like Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Sipsmith and Sacred Gin) and a selection of high quality whiskies, such as The Balvenie, Laphroaig, Macallan and Auchentoshan, at some of the most reasonable prices I’ve seen in London. The pub also offers up real ales and is hoping to do more with British wine.

The pub's chic but cosy interior

It helps that both Marc and Matt are almost jumpy with a childlike enthusiasm for their new space, despite the long hours that go into running the place each week. They came up with the idea for the venture whilst travelling in the States. It developed over many pints and Marc says they couldn’t be happier with the way things are going. He also says their plan had always been to avoid being a “gastro pub” by focusing on high-quality drinks with food accompaniments.

A pork pie waits to be devoured

“The food was always designed to complement the drinks, rather than the other way around,” he adds.

This was partly because he didn’t want to be stuck in a kitchen 18 hours a day – like many chefs find themselves – but also because he wanted to do something a bit different. As such, the bar area features a beautifully streamlined deli counter with sumptuous looking pork pies, scotch eggs and potted duck and pickles.

“People like to see what they’re eating and it encourages people to eat,” says Marc.

There is also a limited selection of mains like burgers and lamb hot pots, in case one finds the gin going to her head. Ingredients are sourced as locally as possible from places like Smithfield market and organic vegetable growers in Kent.

The decision to move away from the “gastro-pub” tag was also because the team didn’t personally like that style.

“We decided it was the formality and, airs and graces that we didn’t like. We love pub culture and find the idea of a ‘gastro-pub’ detracts from that,” says Matt.

“The last thing I wanted was linen napkins,” adds Marc, laughing. “At the end of the day, you can feel relaxed. And you know the owners are happy.”

The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker is located at 292-294 St John Street. For more information about the pub, its events or more, visit the website here or follow the team on Twitter: @BlacksmithPub

Finding Nespresso Necessary

29 Mar

My weeks of late, have looked a bit like this: get up, write, find time to eat, write more, dash to meetings and a whisky event before a quick sleep and then a repetition of the cycle. Last week I tried 38 whiskies (I write about the stuff; I’m not an alcoholic). I drank lots of water in between, but it was a bit epic.

Now, do not get me wrong – I am not complaining in the least. Every once in a while the boy and I even get a chance to indulge in an episode or two of The Wire (to which we are addicted). I love it (the schedule, and The Wire, that is) and would have it no other way. But, after the first week of this, not only was I developing black circles around my eyes, but a greater need for caffeine.

Nespresso pods sit, waiting to be devoured by me, myself and I.

So, when the team at Nespresso mentioned to me they were launching a new espresso, well, I was down there as fast as my feet would march me (I’ve also taken to walking most places since the weather has improved – this is partially due to the fact I had about as much exercise this winter as a hibernating bear).

And what was the launch all about?

Well, every so often the development team brings out a new flavour of espresso. This time around, it is featuring Naora, made from Colombian Castillo Arabica beans.

Now, I’m sure you’re just thinking: so what? A new coffee pod?

Well, what was interesting about this blend was this: the new coffee has been made using (what Nespresso says) is a first-time technique. Working with the Federation of Colombian Coffee growers and inspired by wine-making techniques, the coffee cherries have been left to grow for as long as possible on the branch. These are then picked and the “late-harvest” bean is extracted to be dried for coffee production.

Company coffee expert, Jonathon Sims, said the decision to try out this experiment was based around the fact customers’ palates are changing.

“People want to try different flavours,” he told me, while I nodded and chugged down as much espresso as seemed polite in the company of others.So, what did I think of Naora? Well, I’ll be honest – it wasn’t my favourite. The stuff I chugged was mostly the Kazaar, another special edition release. I found Naora to be extremely acidic on its own, despite Nespresso only categorising it as having a “juicy acidity”. There is a slight sweetness and light bitterness, so it will appeal to those who don’t love really bitter beans. But, for me, it wasn’t a winner.

The new Pixie, featuring side panels made from recycled capsules.

What was intriguing though, was just how much effort goes into making those little coffee pods. Johnathon told me that “much how a master chef comes up with things for the coming season, we’re thinking two years ahead.”

As such, if you own a Nespresso machine, Naora is worth trying just to experience the sheer effort that went into the planning and experimentation around leaving the coffee cherries on the tree until the last possible minute.

And as for me, I’ll be the one you see standing outside of the company’s new capsule-crazy, modern-art styled flagship store, opening on Regent Street in July. I’ve heard there is a tasting counter and I might just make it my “go-to” stop in between meetings.

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