Category Archives: hl

London 2007

Borough Market
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

It’s three years since I was last in Britain and I was curious to see what might have changed in the food scene. I’ve tried to keep up, reading the Observer Food Monthly as often as possible (I prefer the paper version rather than just browsing articles online) and paying attention to discussions on eGullet. It wasn’t hard to miss the popularity of gastropubs, the growth of decent chocolatiers, and the burgeoning enthusiasm for organics. (I last lived in Britain at the turn of the millenium and saw the beginnings of the organic boom there.) Below are some observational tidbits.

Organics and markets

Daylesford Organic

A fairly new chain of organic lifestyle stores in the UK (not to be confused with a grower in Australia). The emphasis at Daylesford Organic is primarily on food, but they also stock other items (homewares). I visited the store in Pimlico – a large store over three floors, with very clean, minimalist appearance (polished stone surfaces, pale timber, white white white). The ground floor contained an eatery (absolutely bustling on a Saturday morning) and fresh produce, while upstairs were honeys, oils and other edibilia, plus homewares. It won’t come as a surprise to you that the prices were, well, hhhhigh… which is not to disparage the impressive range of products.

At the back left of the ground floor were refrigerated displays of dairy and other products, including some very pretty gull eggs. A lady was carefully filling a six-egg carton. As she walked past me, I asked her what she would use them for.

‘Oh they make a wonderful omelette,’ she said. ‘The flavour is lovely. Though probably not enough to justify the expense.’

I wandered over to the cabinet and finally saw the price tag. GBP 3.50 (A$8.75) per egg.

Pimlico Road Farmers’ Market

Opposite Daylesford Organic is an island of concrete and trees. This is Orange Square, the site for the weekly Saturday farmers market. A modest market, with approximately 20 stalls. (The London Farmers’ Markets website lists 42 vendors, but this is a far cry from the number there on my visit.) Juice is a popular item. Fresh, variety-specific apple and pear juices. Some meat and cheese stalls, bread, flowers and veg. The produce was interesting and generally of good quality, but not all stall-holders were able to answer (fairly basic) questions about their produce.

Markets require planning and control, so there are often quotas on how many competing stalls there can be. The rather perverse result is that some stall-holders sell ‘unauthorised’ wares under the counter.

Marylebone Farmers’ Market

This one is a Sunday market. Definitely larger than Pimlico’s, there are about 40 stalls. Produce variety is slightly greater, though I saw more ready-to-eat food here than at Pimlico. Some overlap in vendors between the two markets, which probably shouldn’t be surprising.
Marylebone Farmers
The greatest happiness came with the discovery of a stall selling unpasteurised milk. Descriptions of fresh (raw) milk often talk about the warmth and creaminess of the milk. Unfortunately, I find warm milk quite vile, so the thought of warm, thick, tasty milk has never been a marketing success in my books. Thank goodness the Grove Farm Hollesley Bay Dairy were offering tastings, chilled. The milk was, well, not at all vile. Not special either. Just nice, cold milk with more cream. We bought a bottle.
Real milk
Look at the cream
Close by, on Moxon Street, is the London butcher and charcuterer The Ginger Pig, renowned for raising their own livestock, thus controlling the entire foodchain for most of the products they sell. They also have a refreshingly blunt philosophy about this process:

We need to move on from our obsession with the word ‘organic’, which is now less about product than about lifestyle. From planting the seed to harvesting the crop, from breeding the animal to feeding it and slaughtering, we oversee the whole process. We’re not selling a lifestyle. We’re selling food. (Read more)

A few doors up from The Ginger Pig is La Fromagerie, a grocer and café with an impressive cheese room. The website has numerous pictures that give a good feel for the place, and a great cheese search engine. Sensibly, the number of people permitted into the cheese room was limited. The café space was bustling and the food smelt good. Although the appearance of La Fromagerie and Daylesford Organic are very different (earthy, rustic modern vs stark modern), I’d say the clientele is fairly similar.
La Fromagerie London

Borough Market

I’ve heard far too many people rave about Borough Market. It seems to be a writer’s duty to mention it with enthusiasm (if the number of mentions in articles, interviews and live talks is anything to go by). While living in London about six years ago (as the market’s popularity was on the rise, thanks in no small part to Jamie Oliver), I went to Borough Market twice. It was not impressive for someone used to Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market.

I had resolved to give the place a third chance. So many years had passed and people were still enthusing. Maybe something had changed. I went.
Borough Market views
Six years ago I found Borough Market to have a disproportionate number of takeaway food stalls and not enough produce for real people. Sure, you could buy Austrian jams for wildly inflated prices (perhaps three times the retail price in Austria) and organic chocolate truffles for a cool GBP 100 (A$250) per kg (if memory serves me right), but this wasn’t a market for the everyman/woman.
Borough Market French cheesemonger
I was so happy to see a number of well-stocked cheesemongers with knowledgeable, engaging staff offering liberal tastings. The same could be said for some of the charcuterers. The initial impression was of a more accessible, interesting market than previously. However, it still lacks the feeling of lively competition and practical purpose that makes real everyday markets atmospheric. There are relatively few vegetable stalls or butchers (quite a lot of cryovac produce too). (If my impression is wrong, please correct me.) There are quite a few boutique producers but many show a too-strong tendency to head down the cute-expensive path. At least I found some absolutely delicious fudge from Burnt Sugar — if you have the chance, try their ginger or sea salt varieties!
Burnt Sugar fudge
You still get the feeling at this market that cooked food dominates. There is a real thronging of people to buy lunch or snacks, and searching the internet reveals more comments about ready-to-eat food than produce at Borough Market. The atmosphere at this market is good and on a warm day is vibrant. But despite the pleasant experience with the cheesemongers (and I’m sure there are other gems in the market), I don’t feel it’s a place for people who love food and cooking without trendy pretence – it seems very much a reflection of food-as-lifestyle.
Borough Market crowd

Supermarkets

British supermarkets differ greatly from Australian ones. Ready-meals take up whole refrigerator aisles. Environmentally suspect packaged portions dominate in lines that Australians would expect to find loose at the deli counter. Conversely, the quality of unpackaged meat at the butcher’s counter is miles ahead of that in Australia. Dairy sections have an excellent range of cheeses. The quality of in-house bakery lines is generally better too, and there is more diversity and quality in the cakes and patisserie lines sold. (Let’s face it, in-house bakery/patisserie lines in Australian supermarkets are mostly aimed about one millimetre above garbage.) British supermarkets have a greater range of baking ingredients and, increasingly, the quality of fruit and veg should shame the Australian giants, Coles and Woolworths/Safeway (and the price difference between the two countries for fresh produce is much, much smaller than it was a decade ago). Before you think I’m on a love-in with Sainsbury and Tesco, I assure you that the presence of more basic multicuisine ingredients (from tofu to kaffir lime leaves) in Australian supermarkets and the generally more friendly and efficient service (yes, even if your Safeway only has seemingly-vapid sixteen-year-olds on the tills) is enough for me to embrace Coles and Safeway.
Sainsbury baguette and flower holder
An interesting development at Sainsbury and M&S (and, presumably, Tesco and Waitrose) was the greatly increased detail in labelling. The bag for the potatoes showed the variety, which farmer/producer grew them and where. The same was the case for the bacon I bought. This is impressive, catering to the burgeoning demand for information on provenance. In Australia this is still primarily a point of discussion about meat, if at all. Imagine asking your supermarket assistant where the bacon was from! Australians aren’t yet (hopefully never) as scared of food as the British seem to be – in Britain there is more reason, given the BSE and foot-and-mouth scares, the presence of salmonella in poultry, a very strong animal rights lobby, and (broadly) a loss of understanding of food during the twentieth century. If enthusiasm for this kind of labelling were to rise in Australia, it would require a radical change in the food industry, challenging large, faceless producers and suppliers and introducing a public accountability that the supermarkets and many others would be distinctly uncomfortable with.
Detailed food labels 1
Detailed food labels 2
Detailed food labels 3

Dodgy food

Of course, you can’t expect everything on the British food scene to change overnight (or in a decade, say). There are still patisseries in Soho serving outrageously priced little choux pastries filled with chocolate cream. The cream is that cheap-bastard favourite: crème pâtissière with lots of cornflour and little (if any) egg. GBP 4.00 (A$10.00). The establishment (like so many others everywhere) is in most of the guidebooks and presumably survives on past glory and the gullibility of guidebook readers (I’m sure we’ve all fallen for these places many a time).

And on a starkly different wavelength, Harrods is now an outlet for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Krispy Kreme at Harrods

Goodbye

The Tube
I came over all warm and fuzzy as the beautifully calming Voice on The Tube announced ‘This … is Waterloo.’ She’s new since last I was there. Much nicer than the ‘Pleasemindthegapbetweenthetrainandtheplatform’ man. My Eurostar train awaited.

– DM
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

Greed, business and bookselling

Australian book retail chain Angus & Robertson (A&R) has got itself in the poo. The mainstream media (Fairfax) ran stories briefly (08 August) about A&R attempting to screw its suppliers by demanding payments to cover their ‘gap’ in profitability. To put it more clearly, Angus & Robertson is using the same sort of approach that Australian supermarkets have to the products they carry — ‘pay us to stock your product or go away’. More detail can be found in an article at Crikey (subscription). Suppliers/publishers who don’t yield enough volume profit for the bookseller retailer are being billed for large sums in order to obtain the right to continue to supply the retailer.

I’ve heard that a representative of A&R stood up at the Australian Booksellers’ Association conference a few weeks back and said something to the effect of ‘we aren’t a bookseller, we’re a retailer’ and more about profits and products. So there we have it.

Two of the suppliers mentioned in media coverage are Tower Books and Thames & Hudson. They are prominent in areas such as architecture, art, design, some literature and more (including many French-published food titles). If A&R loses Tower Books (and they seem to have, given the correspondence between them) one would assume that no Taschen books will be available from A&R (Taschen do all sorts of popular books on art and artists, design, culture and photography) as Tower is the Australian supplier. The same is the case for DC Comics. And Thames & Hudson has an impressive catalogue of titles in similar areas. It would seem that A&R doesn’t deserve anyone’s business if they think selling books is about extorting money from suppliers and only giving consumers whatever A&R deems massively profitable enough to bother with.

UPDATE: A nice description of A&R’s greed and various parts of the correspondence can be found at Lightbulb

– DM

Review – Botanical, by Paul Wilson

Botanical front cover

Botanical: Inside the iconic brasserie. Recipes by Paul Wilson. Photography by William Meppem. (2007: Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne.) RRP AUD 85

Overview: An impressive ‘chef’s book’ by respected Melbourne chef Paul Wilson, Botanical is both a serious cookbook and a self-congratulatory piece about the restaurant (the Botanical). Intended for serious home cooks or other chefs, this is perhaps the first local heavy-duty ‘chef’s book’ Australia has seen, with recipes often encompassing many steps and long lists of ingredients. (It’s possible Tetsuya competes in detail — I haven’t been able to look at a copy to compare.)

Botanical photography 1

Good bits: The recipes are interesting and span an impressive range. Emphasis is placed on local ingredients. Excellent design and photography. Another feather in the hat of the publishers Hardie Grant.

Recipe examples: wood-roasted calamari with chorizo sausage, olives and smoked paprika; gingerbread hotcakes with caramelised pineapple; slow-roasted beef blade over organic baby beetroots with red wine and beetroot sauce; grapefruit tart with sauternes jelly.

Botanical photography 4Botanical photography 3

Bad bits: One clanger: the ‘Conversions’ page (p18) lists a tablespoon as being 15ml, which it definitely isn’t in Australia (20ml). The publishers assure me that the error will be fixed in the next print run. Australians can ignore the typo, while overseas readers will just find some things a little underflavoured.

I feel the book needed tighter editing. The introduction, history of the restaurant, etc, are overly long and a touch repetitive, reading too much like a piece of untempered self-congratulation. Chris Lucas (the owner former owner) gets to write a recommendation of Riedel glassware in the section on wine and that seems out of place in this sort of volume.

A set of ingredient notes makes clear that flat-leaf parsley is the variety to be used in all recipes, but then every recipe with parsley re-states that it is ‘flat-leaf parsley’, making the original note unnecessary.

Wilson’s passion for the best produce is admirable, but comments like ‘make a worthwhile investment by buying real buffalo milk mozzarella’ overlook the fact that the variable quality of Australian mozzarella (shaggy moo or normal moo) can make it an extremely bad investment on some days. Commentary on the recipes is also too loose sometimes.

Botanical photography 2

Comments: Most of my negatives are unimportant when it comes to the cooking itself, thankfully. It’s about time we saw a local book of this calibre in Australia! It won’t be for everyone (because of the ambition it requires), and it certainly reflects Paul Wilson’s style — solid classical cookery with modern flourishes, complex restaurant dishes, frequent nods to cuisines of the Mediterranean, and an affection for quail eggs, truffles and local seafood. This is an attractive large-format volume (almost 30x30cm) and I dread to think how many people will use it as a coffee table piece rather than actually cooking from it.

– DM

Links:

to order Botanical, by Paul Wilson Books for Cooks AU | Amazon UK

Chocolate 2007 – London

L'Artisan du Chocolat
[This is the first article about travel. Others: London/UK, Paris.]

I was in the mood for cocoa bean product. I set off with a sheaf of addresses under my arm. Chocolate from here to eternity. Well, Melbourne to London, Paris and Lyon, more like. I knew there would be ups and downs; disappointments and cries of delight. I wasn't sure where (or if) I would find satisfaction.

This is the first instalment of my Chocolate 2007. What I ate in London. It wasn't all from London, but it was all English. Well, it was all sold by English producers.

Later instalments will cover other places, and I'll add links to those articles.

I do not pretend to have the experience and vocabulary to adequately analyse the flavour profiles of chocolates. Nonetheless, I have a good nose, eat a hell of a lot of chocolate, and endeavour to describe things in a way which gives some idea of why I like or dislike a product.

LONDON

Hotel Chocolat | Prestat | Charbonnel & Walker | Montezuma’s | L’Artisan du Chocolat

Last time I lived in London, people seemed to talk about Leonidas and Godiva at the luxury end, Charbonnel & Walker and Prestat too, and Thorntons as some sort of non-supermarket mid-range special thing. By 'people' I mean 'the general populace'. There might have been other purveyors. Indeed, The Chocolate Society has been around for over fifteen years. At that time, Charbonnel & Walker and Prestat were both beyond my means, while Thorntons was officially banned from my household because of the very sweet, gritty nature of many of its products. I don't consider British Cadbury to be chocolate in any meaningful sense (indeed, I'd rather eat my toenails), so I'll leave that there.

Hotel Chocolat

My London friends live, in 2007, around the corner from a new purveyor. Hotel Chocolat. Although I trust my friends' taste implicitly, my eating-Britain track record meant that I ventured into this 'Hotel' with scepticism. Unfounded scepticism, for Hotel Chocolat really is quite impressive as a chocolate retailer. Hotel Chocolat is a retail brand associated with both a long-standing mail-order product, The Chocolate Tasting Club, and now a surprising number of shopfronts. There is a certain British tackiness to having a producer of good chocolate in a so-common-in-Britain chain format, and their very skillful marketing adds to this big-business impression (a number of British foodbloggers received tasting samples in the mail at Easter, for instance. And I'm jealous).

Hotel Chocolat - shop
Source: Hotel Chocolat

The brand is clearly pitched at a broad, self-indulgent market, as the products range from fairly gimmicky through to seriously well thought out blocks of single estate chocolate (GBP 4.25/75g). There are lots of pralines (bonbons), numerous coloured and flavoured blocks, and a rather dizzying range of simpler blocks of chocolates (GBP 2.90/100g). The prices are within typical ranges for this sort of retailer.

Hotel Chocolat - pretty block
Source: Hotel Chocolat

With such an ambitious range there is a reasonable danger that the focus on quality is lost, even with a large producer. Consider that the single estate 'Purist' range alone contains thirteen different bars, four of which are flavoured. Indeed, I’ve read that some of Hotel Chocolat's products are sourced from other European producers, including the German company Coppeneur, so there is even more scope for variability in product.

With the exception of a truffle with gritty couverture, I was quite happy with what I tried: three standard bars (Venezuela 43%, 72% and Ginger, Ebony (72%) and Orange) and a number of the pralines. All of these were good for their price bracket. Not exceptional, but clearly better than the mostly mundane 'luxury' products of many major chocolate manufacturers (Lindt, Nestlé, etc). Perhaps a little overpriced in comparison to the excellent Belgian brands Dolfin and Café Tasse which are generally around the EUR 3.00 mark for 70-85g. Hotel Chocolat is probably pitched below the main consumer focus of those two brands.

I also tried one 'Purist' bar — the Milk 62%. Many people regard this as an impossibility when I first tell them: how do you make a milk chocolate with 62% cocoa solids? You reduce the sugar content. This block had min. 19% milk solids. It was bitter but with a touch of creaminess — an unfamiliar combination in block form, perhaps more familiar if presented as a truffle. It's made from a Trinitario bean grown on volcanic soil in St Lucia. I would assume that the soil is in part responsible for the rather unusual flavour profile of this chocolate, with a dry and initially cold profile, gradually bringing out black tea leaves, cocoa and a touch of orange perhaps. Not really something I need to revisit. And especially at the price.

Despite my feeling of commercial overreach and slight overpricing, I would welcome it if something like Hotel Chocolat made a foray into Australia. As it stands, Australia is suffering from a gaping hole in the middle of the chocolate market. More about that in a later article in this series. (I'll add the link to that when it appears on the site.)

Charbonnel & Walker, Prestat

Two long-standing chocolate purveyors in London are Charbonnel & Walker (henceforth 'Ch&W') and Prestat. Both present their wares in attractive packaging reminiscent of decades long past and vie for a monied, snobbish market. The brands were a surprise component of the redesigned David Jones foodhalls in Melbourne and Sydney a few years ago, with that retailer's own bonus markup to make the prices even more unrealistic.

Located in the Piccadilly Arcade, a stone's throw from HRH Prince Charles's digs at Clarence House, Prestat has a small old-fashioned arcade shop. The selection of loose chocolates was more modest than I expected. An attempt at conversation with the sales assistant wasn't a failure, but any enlightenment about brand differentiation (interested tourist wanting to know how Prestat and Ch&W differ) was not forthcoming, as the Prestat assistant claimed never to have tried any of Ch&W's wares. These little revelations (whether as truth or marketing rubbish) just piss me off. Little better than a sports coach who doesn't know anything about another team's players, claims of ignorance of a close competitor's product smack of mediocrity.

I permitted the assistant to guide me to a handful of chocolates — three 'customer favourites'. Double mint: very dark mint-flavoured couverture with a firm mint fondant with pasty mouthfeel. Coffee mint: firm fondant, milky coffee flavour. Banoffee: Sweeeeeet. Banana and caramel. Kiddiefood. Violet cream: quite firm (not hard) fondant, somewhat violetty.

No reason to return. Old-fashioned is good, but why pay the price for too-firm, pasty fondant?

Onwards to Charbonnel & Walker, whose main shop is also in an arcade, the Royal Arcade, in Mayfair (a little northwest of Prestat, in other words). Ch&W have a somewhat more modern-refined air than Prestat, but the packaging is designed to evoke a similar era. They have a wider range of boxed and loose chocolates and associated products. The sales assistant was charming, but largely unknowledgable about anything beyond Ch&W's product. She freely volunteered that she had no knowledge of chocolate until 'just recently' when she joined the company. Marvellous. I had nothing against her, but certainly wonder about a company at this level which doesn't train its staff to converse intelligently about the basics of chocolate (and I wasn't being demanding). I found I wasn't interested enough in Ch&W's range to warrant a purchase beyond a violet cream. The fondant was rather firm and the violet clean. Slightly more incentive to return to Ch&W than to Prestat, but the feeling of snob-value pricing is too great.

Montezuma's

A relatively new kid on the chocolate block, Montezuma's has a shop in the new buildings at the western end of Old Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool Street Station. It appears to be pitched as a 'fresh young thing' with a touch of cheeky hipness and a definite philosophy, as reflected in the text on their website. The firm is based in West Sussex.

Montezuma's

A small range of pralines sports exciting-sounding flavours and cute names (Scurvy, Irish Tipple, Fitzroy). Montezuma's chocolate bars are also novel: peppermint and vanilla, nutmeg, and more.

Staff were young and friendly, but I didn't get the feeling that there'd be any intelligent choco-talk. I might be doing them an injustice.

The chocolates were, broadly, enjoyable. The truffle centres were sometimes clearly and cleanly flavoured, though the vanilla one in particular seemed underendowed. Scurvy is stunningly fruity and perfumed, and reminded me clearly of a Fry's Five Centre Bar (for those who know/knew them). Two of the bars I tried were good: Orange and Geranium (73% cocoa solids) was brightly floral (a little heavy at first), while the Milk Chocolate: The Dark Side (54%, organic) showed warm cocoa notes, with strong hints of chocolate ice-cream and cake. Nice melt and good thick mouthfeel. Alas, one bar really disappointed: Strawberry and Sweet Paprika was distinctly anodyne. A fruity sweetness and the occasional minute piece of strawberry were the sole non-chocolate elements of this bar. The sweet paprika was indiscernible by four tasters. I can't understand how a manufacturer can produce such a dud next to a range of good stuff. Nonetheless, at GBP 1.85-2.20/100g for the bars, the best items in the range are very well priced. The truffles are about GBP 3.00/100g which is also good, though I'd need to try more of the range to be convinced of the value. Choose carefully and you'll be happy.

L'Artisan du Chocolat

Getting serious now. L'Artisan du Chocolat is probably the UK's most prominent serious quality chocolate brand at present. They make their own couverture and have a strong reputation for very fine pralines and other products.

L'Artisan du Chocolat

Notwithstanding the seven-year-old child nagging his mama to buy 'another' bag of Tasties at GBP 5.50 for 150g (what the rest of the world would call Smarties, though that is, of course, a trademark of Nestlé), the shop in Lower Sloane Street wasn't as dauntingly exclusive as I had feared, and the aroma and display of chocolates was seductive. The pralines take the (increasingly common) form of uniform filled rectangles with an identifying pattern on the upper surface, and cost between GBP 5 and 10 per 100g, depending on how you buy them.

The pralines (all from the 'Couture' range) were rather variable, though clearly all of a much more impressive standard than any of the previously mentioned producers and with a lovely ganache. Still, it was odd that my sample ranged from the bold and fruity Rose, clearly evoking Turkish Delight rosiness, to the almost absent Lavender. In between were Moroccan Mint (mild and hard to characterise), Violet (so delicate as to disappoint), Madong (smoky and interesting), Green Cardamom (delightful), Tobacco (intriguingly hot and fruity, reminiscent of chewing tobacco).

Another product, the Liquid Salted Caramels, has received a good deal of praise in Britain. They were good, but by no means earth-shatteringly amazing. I think the novelty of a chocolate ball with a runny caramel centre perhaps seduces people too readily.

If I had the ready cash, I would make L'Artisan du Chocolat one of my regular haunts — by choosing the successful varieties for my palate I could happily grow squidgy on this producer's diverse range of yummies.

And finally

Alas, I arrived on the wrong day to sample Paul A Young's wares in Camden Passage. The shop was closed. Very sad, as I'd been building up to this final tasting before moving on to Paris. C'est la vie and all that. There will, I hope, be another opportunity.

– DM

[This is the first article about travel. Others: London/UK, Paris.]

Amazon tastes bad

Some wonderful internet services rely on so-called ‘intelligent systems’ to keep you interested and stimulated. They guess your preferences, guide your choices, point you towards new (and lucrative) potential purchases. Perhaps the most famous such system is TiVo. Unknown in Australia except by technogeeks, TiVo is a US device that predicts which programs you will want to watch on telly. You tell it what you like (or don’t) and lo! your diet of CSI and Alias spreads like a crimewave. Your TiVo personal digital video recorder saves every imaginable analytical crime series that your 300 channels can throw at you. Your partner suffers nightmares for months thereafter.

If telly isn’t your thing, how about intelligent audio streaming? A service like Pandora lets you customise ‘stations’ of musical styles, and as the reasonably-empowered listener, you get to tell Pandora what you feel about each song it plays. It will even tell you why it chose a particular song for you. Very bright! You can discover that an affection for Santana’s Maria Maria goes hand in hand with an attraction to Craig ‘how-many-times-can-I-mention-my-name’ David. Or that loving John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air (which I do) makes you a candidate listener of Roger Wakefield. Wrong wrong wrong. Although opening Pandora’s box can cause a few surprises, you can at least berate Pandora by telling it not to play that awful track again! Nonetheless, I find myself unable to train the dear gal to play music which I regard as in some way genre-sharing with Savage Garden. Chris de Berg? Gimme a break.

TiVo is said to be a little harder to control than Pandora. If you dislike cowboy movies, there is anecdotal evidence that you might face a barage of arthouse films and a dancepartyness of Queer As Folk episodes. Realigning one’s sexual orientation with TiVo might be some sinister social experiment, but the ‘intelligence’ in the system clearly doesn’t understand that not every straight boy aspires to be John Wayne. The amusing or dissonant effect of this sort of ‘recommender system’ (as they’re called in the trade) was first highlighted in an article by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 and has become quite famous.

Notwithstanding my minor tussles with Pandora, I haven’t had to contend with any serious distorting effects of a recommender system. Until yesterday.

Amazon thinks I have a sense of humour and would buy a book by Victoria Beckham (once ‘Posh Spice’ of the Spice Girls pop group). Let me revise that. Amazon.co.uk thinks I have a taste for quirky humorous books, and thinks I should buy popular fiction, and thinks I would like a book by Victoria Beckham. So, so wrong.

The good news? This affliction probably isn’t permanent. Because I know the culprit. It’s Jamie Oliver. All I had done was give a ranking to his new tome (Cook with Jamie). Suddenly I’m meant to want a book about why penguins’ feet don’t freeze. Amazon suggests I buy Ian Rankin and John Grisham too. Ha! The only near-hit is Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. And then there’s that book by Mrs Beckham. If it were one written by her hubbie I’d be camping out front of my local bookshop in an instant.

So, Jamie has buggered up my Amazon recommendations. I’m not talking about the ‘Customers who bought this item also bought’ section. Amazon customers can also view a ‘Recommendations for you’ page that develops as a result of your previous purchases, views and wishlist. Should I unrate Jamie? I might yet want to buy a Jamie book at some point (there is, however, no historical precedent). I faced a similar dilemma when a high rating of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice resulted in a few too-hands-on titles about building brick ovens and the like.

I should explain that I use Amazon almost exclusively to surf the food/cooking category. It’s a great way to keep abreast of new books (sometimes slow to reach Terra Australis), find old or unexpectedly interesting tomes, or even to buy the occasional item. Who’d have guessed? Anyway, the effect of surfing within a limited domain is that the recommendations are usually fairly acceptable. Sometimes Amazon gets a little too enthusiastic about Japanese or Persian cooking, but I can deal with it, and there was once a nasty incident when I told it I owned a book on butchery, but we won’t go there.

I’ve been looking a little more closely at the recommendations. The situation seems quite grave. A few deviant food books have also crept in. Apparently Allegra’s Colour Cookbook, Sophie Conran’s Pies and Mary Berry’s Christmas Collection are worthy of my attention. Is there happyjuice in my cordial? This isn’t Jamie’s fault.

An unlikely pair of culprits have been identified. On the one hand we have Bill Granger (Every Day). I knew there was something wrong when a guy can smile that much. And on the other is the Rose Bakery of Paris (Breakfast, Lunch and Tea). By rating these I’ve been thrown into the lifestyle end of the bookshop. I’m having visions of Donna Hay spinning spaghetti into neat little nests. Should I cook with Marie Claire? Is it time to redecorate? Do I need a makeover? If collaborative filtering (the process of predicting interests based on a range of people’s preference patterns) does this to me then I don’t want to be a team player!

Whether you’ve got £20 to spend in Top Shop or £2,000 to spend at Gucci, looking good isn’t about money, it’s about style, and style never goes out of fashion.

I wonder if the rest of Victoria’s book is as rich in insightful aphorisms. With a title more like a C-grade porno than a fashion aid, That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between (Hardcover) is not going to fulfil me culinarily. It strikes me that I’ve viewed the page for this masterpiece twice already and Amazon’s recommender system has no doubt recorded that fact for posterity. I expect the clever algorithms are now irreparably biased in pink. Am I doomed to How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl’s Guide to Everything when next I visit the ‘Recommendations for you’ page?

– DM

Links:

Cook with Jamie Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
The God Delusion Amazon US | Amazon UK
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Allegra’s Colour Cookbook Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Sophie Conran’s Pies Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Mary Berry’s Christmas Collection Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Every Day Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Breakfast, Lunch and Tea Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Donna Hay Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Marie Claire Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between (Hardcover) Amazon UK
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Searingly sour citrus tart

Lemon tart with flavoured stripes

The bag of lemons stared at me. Days turned to weeks. They greeted me every morning with an admonishing, jaundiced glare. ‘Use us!’ Weeks turned to months. Gradually the glare turned to a grey and furry myopia. ‘Save us!’ cried the survivors, still resembling a primary colour, though showing not-so-premature signs of ageing.

Permit me a moment of immodesty: I’m a dab hand at lemon tart. And this seemed a suitable tribute to the bag of surviving citrus. I dithered over the best sacrificial form: creamy, well rounded, mellow and tangy lemon tart (as in so many Australian cafés), or eggy, curdy lemon tart (Ã la tarte au citron), with its characteristic intensity and flavour explosion?

My recipe search led me to an untried candidate: the tartelettes au citron in Camille Le Foll’s Modern French Classics (a brick of a book, nicely presented and not bad recipes). Happy to try a new variant on the theme, I unpacked the ingredients and prepared to weigh and measure.

Juice of 3 lemons

I hate that. Really. Big lemons? Small lemons? Modest lemons? Gnarly lemons? Mine were small and past their prime. It seemed prudent to increase the arbitrary lemonicity to four. And I wasn’t scared of pushing the boundary of tang. A real zinger of a tart would be fun.

I made the curd, mixing happily, watching the syrup take on that yolky, glossy, slightly translucent character. I let it cool and tasted it. The curd was simultaneously sweet and strikingly sour. Not excessive, but by no means shy.

The pastry was rolled and shaped and rested. The tarts filled, baked and then removed from the oven, gently bubbling.

Tasting time approached. I decided to try Tart One au nature. Ka-bam! Not-shy had become oh-my-god-my-eyes-are-watering. I’m brave. A tart can’t slay me. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was bold. But after consuming about two thirds of it, I noticed a certain apprehension before each new mouthful. A mild burning could be felt in my throat. What monster had I created?

Lemon tart cooling in pan

Frightened, but also a little proud, I shared my searingly sour tarts around. The victims were at times tougher than I, though most agreed that some whipped cream would be nice as an accompaniment. The recipe below should yield a distinctly tart tart, but as lemons vary, so will the acidity. If you are one of these sour-mouthed dessert lovers, you could experiment — but I’d strongly recommend following the quantities in this recipe for the first attempt.

– DM

Links:

Camille le Foll: Modern French Classics Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK

Recipe:

 

Searingly Sour Citrus Tarts

 
  Source: adapted from Camille Le Fol: Modern French Classics (Hachette Illustrated, 2004)

Yield: 4

 
  Ingredients  
220 g sweet shortcrust pastry
200 ml lemon juice
20 ml
(1 tbsp (AU))
lemon zest – chopped finely
250 g sugar
4 eggs
35 g butter
100 g unsalted butter – softened
  icing sugar– for dusting
equipment: six 12cm tartlet pans – preferably non-stick with loose bases
  1. If you are making the pastry yourself, let it rest in the fridge before rolling it out. Divide the pastry into six equal pieces. Gently shape each piece into a rough ball and then roll out to a thin circle, large enough to fit inside the tartlet pan.
  2. Line each tartlet pan. Trim the edges so that the pastry is level with the top of the pan rim. Rest the pans in the fridge.
  3. Combine the lemon zest, eggs and sugar in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the mixture thickens. This can take up to 15 minutes.
  4. Strain the resulting mixture (lemon curd) in order to remove the zest. (Not essential, but improves the texture.)
  5. Stir in the butter in small batches, then add the lemon juice and combine well. Leave to cool.
  6. Preheat the oven to 160°C (lower for convection oven).
  7. Place the tartlet pans on a metal baking tray. Fill each tartlet with curd to about 5 mm below the rim.
  8. Place the tray in the oven and bake for 20-30 mins, until a pale golden colour (the curd will be bubbling around the edges). Remove from the oven briefly. Dust with icing sugar and then return to the oven for another 5 mins.
  9. SERVING NOTE: The sourness will vary depending on the lemons; such is nature. If you have achieved searing sourness, I found the best accompaniments were: whipped cream, sweetened whipped cream with roasted hazelnuts, a light dusting of alkalised (Dutch process) cocoa with cream, or perhaps a coffee syrup.

Burn your hot cross! It’s time for something Swedish

ready to eat

Think of Easter and food, and you probably get images of chocolate eggs and hot cross buns. How about a change from the mundane? A diversion from arguments about peel-or-no-peel in the hot cross buns or whether people expressing affection for chocolate hot cross buns should be crucified?

I’ve never seen these in Australia (though I’m sure there’ll be some expats cooking them for family and friends), so get ready for another sweet surprise before Easter. Scrumptious little buns from Sweden — edible ones, not those of some tennis player. Known as semlor or fastlagsbullar, these babies are fairly simple to make and much too easy to eat. After spending five winters in southern Sweden, I can assure you I had had ample opportunities for detailed examination of the product (also known as gorging oneself).

Officially, they’re a pre-Lenten delight, which of course means that you shouldn’t eat them in the 40 days before Easter. More precisely, they should only be eaten during Shrovetide: Monday in southernmost Sweden (home of the term fastlagsbullar), and Shrove Tuesday elsewhere.

The astute reader will have noticed that I’m writing about these buns much too late. It’s almost Good Friday. However, few Swedes have qualms about consuming semlor anytime between the beginning of January (just like Easter eggs, they appear earlier every year) and Easter, so why quibble about religious tradition?

The basic concept: Cardamom, cream, marzipan; all in a sweet bread. They’re an institution across Sweden, with annual competitions to find the best baker, and frequent discussions about who has good ones for how much. There’s little talk of varieties or flavours, because the only common variations on this traditional item are what to do with the marzipan, whether to add extra almonds, and how to eat them. I have, however, seen recent mention (in Swedish) of chocolate semlor and ones filled with raspberry jam. Sacrilege! Crucifixion?

freshly baked

The buns (semla and bulle just refer to types of bun in Swedish) are made from an enriched yeast dough.

Semlor filled and ready to eat

Purists will actually take a little bread from the centre of the bun, crumble it, and mix it with the marzipan before filling the bun. Some bakers add flaked or crushed almonds to the cream, others garnish the top of the bun. The basic model requires that the buns be dusted with icing sugar. Cardamom is usually added to the bread, but can (unconventionally) be added to the marzipan. Don’t even think of omitting the cardamom from the recipe!

cream filled

The decision about how many buns a recipe will make is rather individual. I’ve seen a recipe where 375gm of flour makes 20 buns, but another where 500g of flour only makes 12! Yum. The recipe printed here strikes a balance between indigestion and petit-fours.

The dough for the buns sometimes includes the following, but these ingredients aren’t essential and some can be hard to find here: ground almond and bitter almond, ammonium carbonate (E503a: a raising agent rarely used in Australia), and Swedish quark (‘Kesella’, 10% fat). It’s also useful to know that the marzipan we can get here has a rather low almond content (about 30%), whereas Scandinavian ‘almond paste’ is usually 50% almonds (and appropriate for this recipe).

Finally, a little comment on how to eat a semla/fastlagsbulle. If you enjoy snorting cream, then feel free to stick your nose into the cream as it squidges out. The more conventional reader might be interested to know that semlor of the type described are only about 100-150 years old, and the main precursor to these is an enriched bun served in a pool of warm milk. This is how some people continue to eat the newer variant. Whatever you do, remember that one is never enough and three is generally a tad piggy.

burp - all gone

– DM

This is a revised version of an article which was first published in The Age (Epicure), Melbourne, on 08 Apr 2003.

 

Semlor
(Swedish Lenten Buns)

 
  Source: Duncan Markham
Yield: 8
 
  Buns  
200 g plain flour
35 g sugar
0.5 tsp ground cardamom
0.5 tsp salt
ca 14 g dried yeast (instant)
35 g butter
ca 100 ml milk
1 egg – lightly beaten
  Filling  
4 tsp milk
150 g marzipan – grated
200 ml whipping cream
1.5 tsp icing sugar (pure)
  1. Mix the flour, sugar, cardamom and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the yeast.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the milk. Cool the liquid to lukewarm. Add 2/3 of the beaten egg.
  3. Pour the liquid into the bowl. Slowly mix the dry and wet ingredients, then knead this dough until soft, smooth and elastic. Add a little extra milk if necessary. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place until doubled in size (60-90 mins).
  4. Knead the dough lightly, then divide it into eight equal pieces. Form each piece into a round bun. Place the buns on a greased/non-stick baking tray, ca 5 cm apart. Cover and leave in a warm place to prove until doubled in size (60-90 mins).
  5. Preheat the oven to 230°C (lower for convection oven). Lightly brush the tops of the buns with the leftover egg.
  6. Bake for 7-10 mins, until deep golden brown. Take care not to burn them (it can happen quickly). Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
  7. With a very sharp knife, horizontally slice off the top quarter of each bun and put to one side. Using a fork, scrape out about two teaspoons of bread from the middle of each bun and place this in a small bowl.
  8. Mash this bread with the milk for the filling. Add the marzipan and mix to a fairly smooth paste. Place a liberal tablespoon of filling in the middle of each bun.
  9. Now whip the cream until it holds its shape well but isn’t completely stiff. Pipe or dollop the cream over the filling.
  10. Lightly place the top of each bun on top of the cream and push down gently, just enough to squidge the cream to the edge of the bun. Dust the lid with icing sugar.
  11. Best eaten with a cup of coffee or in a bowl of warm milk. Store in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.