December 27th last year was a Saturday, one of the few market days sitting between Christmas and Boxing Days festivities and New Years’ entertaining opportunities. I was mingling among the crowd that stood three-deep in front of the counter in Neal’s Yard Dairy, a well-known London purveyor of mostly farmhouse (read not mass produced) English cheeses.
“Mummy, there is NO cheese from Norfolk!” charged my then seven-year-old, indignant in her posh English accent. She was examining a map of England hanging on the wall, its overlay outlining the origin of most of what Neal’s Yard had on offer. She was right. No cheese had been sourced from the bump of Britain that sits northeast of London and is surrounded by the North Sea.
Heads turned in her direction. An American woman commented on both the little English girl’s enunciation and her interest in her country’s cheese landscape. Little did she know that Eliza was born in central Pennsylvania. The accent was a recent acquisition to help her blend in at her new school in Norwich (the county seat of Norfolk).
Mummy's London cheese crawl partner
But she does know a bit about British cheeses, she’d already been to the national cheese festival twice and was no stranger to Cheddar and Cheshire or Stilton and Shropshire Blue, all of which frequented our family’s cheese board.
The British have at their disposal more than 700 uniquely-named cheeses produced within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That tally doesn’t include the French varieties so readily available from the other side of the Channel Tunnel. A few of those — like Mrs. Temple’s Norfolk Dapple and Binham Blue — do indeed come from Norfolk, they just didn’t make the Neal’s Yard map. Norfolk’s flat farmland and rocky coastline are better known by its compatriots for strawberries, potatoes and Cromer crab.
Last summer when I embarked on a London Cheese Shop crawl –the goal was to visit eight venues in two days to locate the best and the brightest cheeses in the city – Eliza tagged along.
Each of the London cheese shop we called upon clearly has its own persona.
Paxton and Whitfield
with its perfectly coiffed seasonal window boxes as dressing has stood on the same spot in Pall Mall for over 200 years and holds the Royal Warrant as the sole cheese purveyor to the queen. (Her favorite is reportedly made-to-order Mull of Kintyre cheddar, but the clerk told me he can’t sell that particular Scottish highland blend to anyone but Her Royal Majesty.)
A younger upstart called La Fromagerie in Marylebone displays its product in a pristine glass-enclosed room at exactly 14.7 degrees Celsius and 69 percent humidity and holds itself in very high regard as the perfect setting to buy cheese. Jeroboams, a friendly neighborhood place near Holland Park offers up its cheese with all complementary picnic fare necessary for an outing in the park should the weather permit. And La Cave a Fromage, a French-inspired establishment near the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington serves a French red calibrated to match the six cheese samples laid out on a piece of a slate for your pleasure.
All of the cheese mongers interviewed for this post tell me that they stock the most variety of cheese during the holidays, some even admitting to a 25 percent increase in inventory. So if you are lucky enough to be a cheese lover in London this holiday season, I’ve pulled together this list of eight cheese shops you should not miss! But if you happen to be there at other points in the year, no worries, there is still plenty of cheese to choose from.
These shops are listed in the order we visited them. They are loosely grouped geographically as we traveled between the shops on foot, using the London Underground system wherever possible.
Paxton and Whitfield
93 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JE
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9.30am – 6.00pm. (Longer hours during the holidays)
Atmosphere: Tightly packed shop with the cheese counter running the length of one side and an assortment of posh cheese board additions – like sweet and sour chutneys, fig jams and water crackers — in floor to ceiling shelves on the other. Knowledgeable staff members in white coats and grey aprons are readily available to assist.
Cheese sources: 100-125 cheeses from Britain and Europe
Top sellers: Montgomery Cheddar, Stilton (especially at Christmas), Brie and Gorgonzola Dolce
Unique cheeses on offer: Sussex Blue (a creamy British Blue with a hard rind) and Mahon (a tangy Spanish cow’s milk cheese washed in pimento and olive oil)
Nearest Tube stop: Green Park
2-6 Moxon Street, London W1U 4EW*
Hours: Monday – Friday 8.00am-7.30pm; Saturday 9.00am-7.00pm; Sunday 10.00am-6.00pm.
Atmosphere: You are led into this cheese shop through a corridor lined with wooden crates of organic veggies, mesh carrier bag displays, freshly baked goods, cartons of happy chicken and quail eggs and bags of colored pasta and legumes of all shapes and sizes. The obvious question is: Where’s the cheese?
It’s in the cheese room, silly. Everything from giant wheels of Montgomery Cheddar and Holland’s best Gouda to delicate French goat cheeses in logs, crottins and herbed domes, sit in this pristine glass cage, pressurized for humidity and controlled for temperature to owner Patricia Michelson’s exact specifications. The cheese is well presented on thigh-high wooden tables and shelves that climb the wall to a height that puts a crook in your neck if you follow the view too closely. It’s beautiful, a canvas of cheese.
Cheese sources: Soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, hard and blue cheese made from buffalo’s, cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk in Austria, England, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland or Wales.
Top sellers: Cheddars and French goat cheeses
Nearest Tube stop: Baker Street, Bond Street or Regent’s Park
*La Fromagerie still operates a shop at its original location at 30 Highbury Park, London N5 2AA.
96 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 3RB*
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8.00am-8.00pm; Saturday, 8.30am-7.00pm; Sunday, 10.00am-6.00pm.
Atmosphere: There is no pretense in the presentation of this corner grocery styled shop. Well, there may be a little bit of pretense in thinking that home-sick Americans might be willing to pay outrageous sums for the comforts of home, take the box of Lucky Charms that carried a sticker price of almost 10 pounds! But the cheese was laid out methodically in a single grocery case as you walk in the door. There was not a large quantity of each variety, but there was a large variety of cheese from which to choose. But you would likely only need a little bit of cheese to go with all the other great things – like olives, cornichons and a selection of interesting sliced to order cured meats — to accompany it.
Cheese sources: A very respectable selection of about 100 cheeses from all over the UK and Europe.
Top sellers: Hard blue cheeses and soft, fresh ones.
Nearest Tube stop: Holland Park
*While there are a total of 10 Jeroboams outlets around the city, this is the flagship shop.
La Cave a Fromage
24-25 Cromwell Place, London SW7 2LD
Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 10.00am-7.00pm; Thursday-Saturday, 10.00am-9.00pm; Sunday 11.00am-5.00pm
Atmosphere: The retail business carried out in this glass fronted shop is swift and steady. Owners Eric Charriaux and Amnon Paldi have finely tuned their stock through years of experience with both French suppliers and the London high-end restaurants they’ve serviced since 1999 from their Premier Cheese depots. They know what their customers want for their own cheese boards. But it’s when you sit down on a dark wooden stool at one of the high butcher-block tables and are presented with a slate of cheese (picked because they are at their peak when you are there) and a glass of red wine to match, that you realize the true genius of the place.
Cheese sources: Stock ranges from 150 to 200 cheeses, mainly France and England
Top sellers: French goat cheeses in the spring and hearty, hard cheeses in winter.
Nearest Tube stop: South Kensington
Rippon Cheese Store
Rippon Cheese Stores
26 Upper Tachbrook Street, London SW1V 1SW
Hours: Closed until December 31st. Open for normal trading on January 4, 2010.
Atmosphere: When I visited this shop its owners were doing business a few doors down from its usual address as the permanent store was being renovated. The point of the renovation was to make the shop as conducive to maturing and cutting cheese as any cheese monger in the city. The new old location is now open for a mixed commercial and retail business that offers over 450 cheeses from all over Europe.
Top sellers: Customers are “absolutely mad” for cheddar, Stilton and brie from September to March says owner Karen Rippon.
Unique cheeses on offer: Barkham Blue from Two Hoots Creamery– voted Britain’s top cheese in 2008; and, Marcaire, an alternative to brie that comes from Alsace.
Nearest Tube stop: Victoria
45 Tachbrook St, London SW1V 2LZ
Hours: Monday-Saturday 8:00am to 11:00pm; Sunday 9:00am to 10:00pm
Atmosphere: Gatronomica, the company, is a well-known Italian food importer. In addition to its original wholesale business, Gastronomica readily avails its wonderful supply of Italian wines, cheeses, cured meats, pastas, grissinis, olives and olive oils to the masses at stalls located in London’s Borough, Broadway and Whitecross Street Markets and in café settings in the Pimlico and Wapping neighborhoods and in the city of Manchester.
Under its inviting tomato red awning, Gatronomica Pimlico stands as an Italian deli, dripping with subdued class and relaxed style. Its open floor plan is chock full of thick, dark wooden tables to the left side and cases of its raw goods on offer to the right. Old wine racks line the walls above the tables and chalkboards listing fully of assembled and cooked combinations adorn the wall over the cheese cases. You can pop in here for a half dozen slices of tuna carpaccio to serve at your dinner party, or assemble a personal cheese plate to eat while you sip a glass of Borolo on site.
Cheese sources: Italian, of course. More than two dozen at a time are on offer, everything from Paglierina (a semi-soft, mild ewe’s milk cheese from Piedmont) to Raschera (a cow’s milk cheese from the Alpine area of Cuneo) to Caprino Fresco Alta Longa (a soft goat, also from Cuneo).
Unique cheeses on offer: Pecorina di Fossa – which is buried for 3 months in Umbrian soil to mature.
Nearest Tube stop: Victoria
Cheese at Leadenhall Market
4-5 Leadenhall Market, London EC3V 1LR
Hours: Monday-Tuesday: 9.00am – 5.00pm; Wednesday: 9.00am – 6.00pm; Thursday-Friday: 9.00am – 8.00pm
Atmosphere: Brimming, well-labeled cheese cases on the inside with café tables on the outside in the Victorian covered market where you can sit and sip something with your cheese and charcuterie, served by staff who can all talk very sensibly about cheese.
Cheese sources: 100-150 international, unpasteurized cheeses
Top sellers: Stilton, cheddar and Golden Cross goat cheese
Unique cheeses on offer: A brie with truffles from Normandy and a 22-month old Comte reserve.
Nearest Tube stop: Monument Station
Neal’s Yard Dairy
17 Shorts Gardens London WC2H 9AT (Covent Garden)
Hours: Monday – Thursday, 11.00am to 7.00pm; Friday – Saturday, 10.00am to 7.00pm
6 Park Street London SE1 9AB (Borough Market)
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9.00am to 6.00pm; Saturday, 8.00am to 5.00pm.
Atmosphere: OK, I have to admit that I’ve cheated. But I had to list both Neal’s Yard venues because you really should absolutely go to both. The original (the one in Covent Garden) is in cramped hallway of a space with cheese housed on every available (sanitary suitable, of course) surface, staff skillfully maneuvering behind the counter to get to the customers and the cheese in equal measure. You can taste anything as long as the folks in the line streaming out the door behind you don’t get too agitated.
The Borough Market site has wide open spaces in comparison, with plenty of room for customers to browse for both cheese (which is kept appropriately humidified by a serious of exposed pipes that carry water to a trickling shower-like spigots that drip into whiskey barrels in the corners of the shops) and various other dairy sundries like full fat cream and farmhouse butter.
Cheese sources: There are 76-80 cheeses, mostly from the British Isles, with an occasional visitor from France, Italy or Greece and one lone American, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw milk artisanal cheese from Wisconsin.
Top sellers: The Montgomery Cheddar, the Somerset raw milk cheese which Neal’s Yard has certainly help put on the international cheese map.
Nearest Tube stop: Covent Garden (for original site); London Bridge (for Borough Market site).
Has “gourmet” become a dirty word? One that embodies an impossibly flaky upper crust that is almost impossible for the common cook to reproduce in her own kitchen?
The second to last issue of Gourmet magazine
That’s one way to view today’s announcement that Condé Nast has decided to close down the iconic food magazine, Gourmet. Due to persistently declining advertising revenue, the publisher had to pick between this glossy lovely and its more accessible sister publication, Bon Appetit. The reason, according to Condé Nast chief executive Charles H. Townsend, Bon Appetit simply makes money for the company, mainly because more people read it.
Thousands of bloggers writing from everywhere out in the ether are lamenting Gourmet’s demise and praying for its second coming. Last I checked the Tweets on the subject were coming in at rate of about 160 per minute. I, too, will miss the delicious photos and the interesting tidbits about restaurants (in which I’m not likely to dine) and ingredients (which I can only hope to purchase with the help of the Internet, FedEx Next Day service, and an overdraft.)
I’ve read Gourmet and aspired to its loftiness in my kitchen since I first started cooking on my own 20 years ago. But I do have to cop to a momentary lapse in my subscription. It was the spring of 2001, we’d just bought our first house, my husband moved from graduate student to junior professor teaching a three-times-weekly 8:30AM class, and my second child had made her grand entrance. For six months, Gourmet didn’t even make it out of its protective plastic mailing wrapper, in spite of the fact that we’d redone our kitchen in hopes of great food being produced there. So I didn’t renew my subscription when it ran out that December.
It just didn’t fit. Not into my struggle-with-the-family/work-juggle lifestyle. Not into the retail establishments within striking distance of my home, and certainly, not with the simple but good food my family, friends and I were enjoying at home at the time.
As my kids got old enough to feed themselves without requiring a bath at every meal, and I found that I had more time to think about the upper echelons of the food atmosphere, I reinstated my subscription to Gourmet. I absolutely loved the information in it, but again, in the spirit of true confessions, I only tried one or two of the recipes per issue on my own. That is a rate the pales in comparison to the several other food magazines I frequent regularly.
At a panel discussion last Saturday on the future of food writing I attended in the Berkshires, the venerable Alfred A. Knopf editor Judith Jones — whose roster of cookbook authors includes the likes of Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Jacques Pepin and Madhur Jaffri – put her finger on this fact of life. As she said, “We have to face that the easiest way to roast a chicken is to Google it.”
The audience of self-proclaimed “foodies” packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the yet-to-be converted stable on Edith Wharton’s Lenox, Massachusetts, estate got the joke. But Jones went on to make her larger point.
While pleased to see that Americans have finally shed their Puritan attitude toward food and are openly talking about it at a fast and furious clip in the wide open space of the Internet, Jones would only attest that there is “more writing about food” available today, pointedly refusing to say that there is more good writing about food out there. Jones lamented the over-emphasis on high-end restaurants and celebrity chefs and lack of attention to what’s really happening with cooking in America. “Food writing has got to get back to what people [in America] are doing right in their own kitchens,” said Jones.
Another panel member, Amanda Hesser, recently left her 10-year post as a New York Times food editor (she’s still a contributor, thankfully) to work on a web-based project called Food52 where she and collaborator Merrill Stubbs are trying to meld what American cooks are doing in their kitchens with what they are doing on the Web.
Hesser and Stubbs solicit topical recipes from Web readers, pit them against each other in subscriber-determined contests, and promise to print the winning dishes in the food world’s first crowd-sourced cookbook after the 52 weeks.
The idea for Food52 came out of Hesser’s five-year project to pull the best recipes published by The New York Times, ever. That’s a lot of recipes to sort through and in addition to combing the paper’s archives, Hesser solicited help from readers.
“Many of the recipes that people pointed to came from home cooks originally. There is something about home cooking that always clicks with people because they have to be both inventive and practical,” said Hesser.
Food52, Hesser contends, brings together the phenomenon of a Web community that can make anything – in this case recipes — “come alive” with instantaneous comments about personal successes (and luscious photos, for that required multi-media draw) and suggested improvements with the personal attachment that most cooks have with their cookbooks.
Kim Severson, a food writer with The New York Times also sitting on Saturday’s panel, contended that while recipes are a indeed a big draw, food writing can still be all over the map, which, in fact, it’s got to be for our own good.
“Food is so much part of our daily conversation” said Severson, pointing to non-edible areas like setting food policy, understanding the economics of food, and infiltrating the huge number of community groups rising up around sustainability issues.
“At some point in this food chain you need news journalism happening. In depth, New York Times-type of journalism,” said Severson, who cheekily ended most of her comments that evening with a reminder that folks should always purchase a daily newspaper.
The one lone panel member talking about rising advertising revenue streams was Amanda Kludt, the sole editor of Eater.com, a 4-year-old site that homes in on any and all gossip about New York’s every changing restaurant scene. She said Eater.com – which just last week opened virtual shops in several other major cities in the United States to yap about the restaurants in those cities – gets 50,000 hits a day, which is double the traffic it saw last year at this time.
Klundt, who compiles a minimum of 12 posts a day herself, but only spend about 20 minutes writing each one, said she would not want to see paid food writers and restaurant critics and the traditional mediums that deliver that content to disappear. “We need these aggregators or we wouldn’t have anything to write about either,” said Klundt.
Severson ended the session, by saying, only half tongue in cheek, “Don’t forget to buy your newspaper tomorrow. And if you know anyone who is under 30, buy them a subscription for Christmas.” That’s good advice, seeing as it’s too late to buy them Gourmet.
I was in the fourth grade when the pediatrician first said the word “diet” to my face. I was fairly certain my mild mannered mother was going to punch him, hard, for saying that word in my presence at such a tender age. But in spite of the she lion sentiment (which she didn’t actually act upon, of course), she couldn’t really soften the underlying medical message. Cut back on the carbs, kid.
So for 33 years I’ve generally stuck to the only-one-starch-on-the-plate-at-any-given-time rule. That is, unless we’re talking about putting a few breadcrumbs in my pasta, and then I bend that tenet just a bit. Adding good quality (ussually homemade) bread crumbs to a simple pasta sauce is a common Italian trick for achieving the right counterpoint of texture, taste and color to a simple sauce.
Crumbs added as the crunchy counterpoint
In the south of Italy, there is a dish in honor of Saint Joseph, where the breadcrumbs (which represent the shavings from Joseph’s carpenter’s plane) combine with butter, sugar and cinnamon for a sweet bite. Up north, the crumbs commonly run with just butter, garlic and cheese.
Last week I had one of those nights when a pantry pasta dish was going to have to do, because every marketing opportunity passed me by that day. I always have pasta and garlic and bread crumbs in the cupboard and that night I happened to have an acorn squash from my CSA box and some pine nuts in the freezer. The combination, I think, is worth sharing.
Penne with squash and breadcrumbs
Acorn or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch squares (I used my melonballer to dig the squash out of the skin for a bit of variety and because I think it’s an underrated tool!)
12 small garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup of breadcrumbs (mine came from an aging bagette)
1/4 cup butter (more if you don’t need to watch the cholesterol)
¼ pine nuts, toasted
1 lb penne
1 cup of reserved pasta water
½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1. Place squash pieces and peeled garlic in baking dish, mix with about a tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste and roast in a 400 degree oven until they are tender (about 20-30 minutes). Remove from the oven and set aside.
2.) Put pasta water to boil and cook pasta according al dente guidelines. Remember to reserve the pasta water as you need this for the sauce.
3.) Place breadcrumbs in a large, high-sided sauté pan (you are going to add all the other ingredients to this pan, so make sure it’s large enough). Keep a medium flame under the breadcrumbs until they start to pick up some color.
4.) Once the breadcrumbs are brown, turn down the heat and add the butter.
5.) When butter is melted, add the pine nuts and a pinch of cinnamon and the reserved pasta water.
6.) Cook the sauce actively for a few minutes letting it reduce slightly. Then add the cooked pasta, squash and garlic. Stir constantly and cook until almost all of the water is absorbed by the pasta.
7.) Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Serve immediately.
Last night I did battle with a 50-pound box of local, organic tomatoes.
And I won.
An email circulated by the director of the CSA share program to which I subscribe — shameless plug for the Dickinson College Farm here – explained that a bumper tomato crop made it possible for her to offer them at the bargain rate of 50 pounds for $30.
I didn’t quite have an adequate mental picture of what 50 pounds of tomatoes looked like then. But I do now and I can attest that it’s a lot of tomatoes.
The big ones went into the sauce with some garlic and basil that is still cooking down at the lowest temperature my oven will allow. The medium sized ones were peeled and canned whole, put up for use at a later date in yet to be determined ways.
And the small ones got split into two camps: those going into the fresh salsa I’ll serve with margaritas tonight, and those lucky enough to be transformed into my favorite summer treat: slow roasted tomatoes.
Adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking from years ago, the end product is supposed to go really well when mixed into pasta and used in salads when you want a mid-winter reminder of summer. But mine never make it into a jar, because I pick them off the pan until they are all gone and I buy a baguette to sop up the tinted oil they were cooked in. So if you want some of these babies, you’ll need to make them yourself.
Slow roasted tomatoes
(Makes: As many as you want!)
Smallish tomatoes, halved with seeds removed
Garlic, peeled and cut in decently sized slivers, enough for each tomato to get one
Fresh thyme, leaves pulled from the stems for the most part, leaving the top bits together is fine
Freshly ground pepper
Fairly good olive oil
- Set your oven to 300 degrees (I use the convection roasting setting on mine, which helps cut overall roasting time a tad, and helps with the caramelization process.)
- Line a baking sheet with tin foil
- Lay the tomatoes on the tray, skin side down, leaving a bit of room between them
- Place a sliver of garlic in each tomato (I take care not to put any garlic outside of the tomatoes as it tends to burn and gives the oil a bitter tinge.)
- Sprinkle the thyme, salt and pepper liberally over the tomatoes
- Pour a generous amount of olive oil over the tomatoes, making sure that there is an ample amount on the bottom of the pan as well
- Roast until the tomatoes are collapsed and a bit darkened around the edges (This obviously depends on how big your tomatoes are. But it’s not a quick process, so plan on at least 90 minutes of roasting time.)
My friend Ellen assures me that I am not necessarily a freak just because having all my jars of dried herbs and spices stored in matching containers makes me really, really happy. They sit neatly in my cupboard on stadium seating-like shelves in identical glass jars with neat, white lids. Alphabetized, of course.
I’m lucky, she said, because having an organized spice collection is a luxury afforded to very few because home cooks generally acquire herbs and spices piecemeal as new recipes require them. Of course, Ellen’s comment came immediately after I reviewed – and validated — her revised system for filing recipes pulled from disparate cooking magazines. So you could make the argument that we’re codependent freaks in our necessity to have our culinary ducks all sitting in neat little rows. That said, I’m running with the luxury theme.
This particular extravagance was born out of necessity. We moved back to the US (Central Pennsylvania, to be more precise) after a two-year stint in England to a completely bare pantry. So after I purchased what I considered to be the bare necessities (kosher salt, black peppercorns, olive oil, a big jar of Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar), I moved onto making a list of spices I wanted on hand for one future dish or another. That list topped up at 24 seasonings.
I’ve been known to frequent the Spice House site (http://www.thespicehouse.com/) and the Penzys Spices catalogue (all spices purchased here are packed in bay leaves!) when I’ve needed a particularly interesting spicy ingredient (and will do again, I am sure), but those outlets would have certainly broken the bank for this expansive venture. Even buying grocery store brand bottles was going run me between $4 and $6 a pop, and some of those popped in pretty large quantities that would likely lose some of their zing before I got to the bottom of the jars.
So the trick, then, was going to be getting all the spices I wanted, in small enough quantities so they added the right flavor when I got around to using them.
Enter my local health food store, Appalachian Whole Foods (100 West High Street, Carlisle, 717-241-6982), which sells Frontier Natural Products Co-op (http://www.frontiercoop.com/products/bulk.php) spices in bulk. There I was able to buy everything from bay leaves to turmeric in applicable quantities for the reasonable sum of $21.18. A quick side trip to the local kitchen supply store yielded the necessary jars for $.99 each.
So for the grand total of $44.94, I am a freakishly happy – and very well outfitted – home cook.
September 14th, 2009 in
I think that in our zeal to get at really good food, we may be minding our manners in a way that usurps our ability to laugh with our mouths full. If the iconic food writer Ruth Reichl can laugh at herself while wearing a leopard-skin roller derby getup (http://www.gourmet.com/food/video/2009/04/ruth_goes_undercover), let her staff snicker along side her as she transforms herself into an Amy Winehouse impersonator, and liken her own tongue to that of Gene Simmons fame in front of a half a million Gourmet.com visitors, then we all certainly have a ton to learn to learn from her regarding taking ourselves and our food way too seriously for our own good. Seriously, folks, this gets to the root of good food. Does it make you smile?
I don’t think we eat enough smoked fish.
Occasionally, it might appear in a picnic basket in between a baguette and the brie, or on your Sunday morning bagel if you’re lucky, or maybe passed in mousse form on a cracker at a high-end function.
But why isn’t it part of our week-night meal repertoire? It’s easy (you just take it out of the package), it’s healthy (mainly made with fish high in good Omega-3 fats and low in calories), it’s got a pretty decent shelf life (I’m told you can freeze the stuff), and it’s really, really tasty.
I’ve gotten hooked on this hot-smoked salmon the fishmonger down the street sells me, weekly. The “hot” here doesn’t mean spice, it’s the temperature at which the smoking process occurs (about 180 degrees Fahrenheit), which fully cooks the fish, giving it a light pink silken texture with a smokey finish. I use it in maki rolls, in scrambled eggs, and in my daughter’s lunchbox.
Soba meets smoked salmon in a salad
But on Monday night I had the distinct pleasure of having a more delicate smoked trout, paired with nutty buckwheat noodles and peppery pea shoots. A mirin- and soy sauce-based dressing sealed the deal.
This combination was certainly not my brainchild. I happened to be out exploring the west end of Glasgow, Scotland, as part of an all-too-infrequent long weekend away with husband and without kids, and it was served to me at a fabulous fish place called Two Fat Ladies. There is no relation to the Food Network TV show by the same name, I am afraid (I loved Clarissa and Jennifer and their Thunderbird!). The two particular ladies I’m talking about arise from the number 88, which is both the restaurant’s original address on Dumbarton Road, as well as what a seasoned Bingo caller yells out when that same number pops up.
But I digress, back to the smoked fish. It was such a great combination, that I had to do what all imposters do, try to recreate it. What follows is my best shot.
Soba and smoked fish salad
(Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main course)
- Juice of half a lemon
- 2 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1.5 Tbsp mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
- 1 tsp finely grated ginger
- 1 tsp sugar
- .5 tsp toasted sesame oil
- 2-3 Tbsp warm water
- 8 oz (about 250 grams) Soba noodles
- 3-4 oz (about 100 grams) Washed pea shoots
- 4-5 oz (about 125 grams) Hot-smoked trout or salmon
- Prepare the soba noodles as directed on package. Rinse with cold water. Set aside.
- Whisk together lemon juice, soy sauce, mirin, ginger, sugar and sesame oil. Add water to desired strength.
- Divide noodles into wide bowls or onto medium-sized plates. Pour about one tablespoon of dressing over the noodles and mix well.
- Divide pea shoots into bowls and mix with the dressed noodles.
- Break the fish into bite-sized pieces on top of the salad.
- Drizzle the remaining dressing over the completed salad and serve immediately.
PS. Like any good food marriage, there are always plenty more where that came from. The New York Times ran a piece on smoked trout, soba noodles and spinach in a broth back in April. I’m just waiting for a rainy day to try that one out.
July 1st, 2009 in
, Home cooking
| tags: Fish
, pea shoots
, smoked fish
The Walpole Arms
in Itteringham is a picture-perfect English village pub with its flowering hanging baskets, ancient interior with those low, fat beams you take pains to avoid head on, and more than half-dozen cask ales sitting at cellar temperature. But, it’s in the middle of a field, in the middle of Norfolk and it’s nearly the middle of the June.
Given our coordinates, the buffalo mozzarella on the menu must surely be an imposter. The delicate, fresh taste and creamy give of the real stuff would not have suffered the rigors of refrigerated travel from southern Italy to East Anglia very well.
“What are the chances the mozzarella di bufala flew in from Rome this morning?” queried Pamela, one of my regular Friday pub lunch companions, her fluent Italian rolling over that sentence.
Whitebait in the raw
“Get the whitebait,” I advised, these tiny baby herring eaten in their face-to-tailfin entirety, while most likely frozen, had a good chance of being both local and authentic. I don’t touch the little things due to their evident eyeballs, but the ruling majority at the table crunched on the fried delicacy until they saw the white of the bottom of the paper cones they were served in.
In spite of the whitebait eyeball distraction, the food memory trap had been tripped. It went unerringly to real mozzarella di bufala, conjuring up my first fresh taste of the byproduct of the mighty bovine that used to wallow in the unhealthy swampland around Rome (most are now raised on farms, thriving in cleaner water, of which they need an ample supply because they don’t have any sweat glands).
Water buffalo, well, in the water
I flashed back to June 2007 when we’d swung through the Volpetti Testaccio (deli lovers, cheer here!) on the way out of Rome headed toward Umbria and a week of relaxing with food at the Colle delle Querce villa near Todi. We dropped close to three hundred Euros on aged and cured sundries, and I was so smitten with the earthy smell of the coiling links of Salsiccette di cinghiale (wild boar salame: try it!) in the bundle, that I didn’t really pay all that much notice to the porcelain balls of jiggly white softness nestled in layers of brine, plastic, paper and Styrofoam that my friend Joel had expertly nestled into the back of the rented Volkswagon for safe transport up into the hills.
I didn’t take much notice of the mozzarella di bufala, that is, until we had dinner. I can still see the local tomatoes and the basil we’d picked from the kitchen garden sitting on the plate. But I can still taste the cheese.
As my culinary luck would have it, my renewed fixation on authentic mozzarella di bufala experience met up with London’s Obika Mozzarella Bar last Tuesday. There, on Oxford Street, the genuine article had indeed been flown in that morning – just as it does every other day of every week.
Yes, I most definitely had to climb down off my “buy local” high horse. Not to mention having to venture out of my down-to-earth style comfort zone because the restaurant is located in the “super brands” section (Gucci doesn’t actually manufacture a size 12, do they?) of the posh Selfridges department store in the heart of London’s luxury retail strip. (There are also Obika locations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, Kuwait City, New York and Tokyo if you happen to be closer to one of those outlets). But I managed to put aside both the guilt and the gilt. And as the pale, skinny mannequins sporting runway fashions from Stella McCartney and Chloe looked on – enviously, I’d like to think — I sat down in my waistbandless dress with my friend Victoria (also flown in, but she’s from the US) and said “Bring on the cheese!”
La Grandi Degustazioni di Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP (minus a few bites, sorry) from Obika in London
Obika has an extensive menu of dishes that only include mozzarella as one ingredient in the mix, but we went native, opting for the tasting plate comprising five, disparately crafted water buffalo cheeses in the raw. It’s called La Grandi Degustazioni di Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP. Yes, this delicacy has a Protected Origin Denomination (DOP) pedigree from the Italian government. But that distinction didn’t force us to stand on ceremony. We were like kids with a new kitchen chemistry set.
The opening bufala ball hailed from Paestum (located on a wide plain that runs along the Gulf of Salerno). We ate it first because it was the mildest traditional presentation of the bunch. Fresh mozzarella takes on a ball formation because after the milk is curdled and separated from its whey and placed in hot water where the cheese maker hand kneads it into a smooth paste, the maker lops off individual pieces with his hands before soaking them in brine.
We dutifully tasted it naked. But then took an almost school-girl pleasure in experimenting with how its musky smell, sack of a somewhat resistant skin and slightly porous, elastic insides mixed with the other enhancing chemicals we had at our disposal – EVOO, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, white and nutted bread, and the greens, olives and tomatoes sparsely scattered on the plate.
Armed to the teeth with balsamic and EVOO
We were aiming each time at the perfect bite. The nutty bread dabbed softly in balsamic and then topped with this cheese was the magic mix for me.
Victoria was partial to the Pontina varietal (produced in the marshes in the Lazio region of Italy) which was an identical twin in appearance but offered up a bit more tang in taste. With the Pontina, the perfect nibble involved a leaf of baby spinach, a cured olive and a drizzle of the restaurant’s own brand of olive oil, which gave the combination a considerable kick.
The Affumicata is smoked. It’s got a brown-about-the-edges look to it and a waffle bottom indentation to prove it served its time in the smoker. The remarkable thing about this aromatic cheese is that when you cut into it, the pearly white innards common to its milder cousins is still there. When you taste it, the smoke lingers on the roof of your mouth, sort of like when smoke hangs on the kitchen ceiling when you are searing a roast. This cheese stood alone: nothing in our arsenal married very well with it. And it required a bit of bread to clear the air from your palate.
One of the cheeses on the tray that veered from the spherical was the Stracciatella, which we both at first thought was a gelato flavor (same spelling, but different meaning when applied to cheese. Here it means water buffalo milk cottage cheese that has a consistency of really soft, runny scrambled eggs and a clear, fresh taste.) Only a bit of black pepper needed to be applied here.
The small bowl of ricotta – which was a bit drier and more mealy than the cow’s milk version I am used to — was the last to go. Perhaps because we were in the mood for a bit of dessert spurred on by the gelato confusion, we both agreed this cheese could do with a bit of sweetening up, perhaps with some of that lovely lemon honey they produce a bit further south down the boot of Italy.
Now full (and almost as round as our lunch!), we staggered back to the busy shopping precinct. Victoria went on to Heathrow to head home, and I set a course for the next stop on my Cheese Crawl through London (stay tuned!). The mozzarella, we left in the care of the ever-vigilant Selfridge’s mannequins (I’d like to think they come to life after hours and nip a bit of the good stuff) – ready to be replaced by the next day’s batch. Mozzarella di bufala, like fashion, has to stay fresh.
The summer solstice will certainly bring much celebratory fervor to the fields in and around Stonehenge and Avebury this weekend. But June 21st also marks a very sad day for those of us eating in Britain. It is the final day English asparagus growers take to their mounded fields to cut the stalks that have graciously graced our tables since mid-April.
Andy Allen, the newly elected head of the British Asparagus Growers’ Association presides over 170 acres of asparagus fields at Portwood Farm in Great Ellingham, Norfolk. He explains that the start of the British asparagus season can vary by location – the soil has to hit 10 degrees Celsius before the crowns will peek out of the soil, one by one. Farmers can also push for an earlier growth through the use of polythene covers, which help make soil artificially warmer.
But the season’s stop date doesn’t change.
British Asparagus Growers’ Association president Andy Allen demonstrates how to properly cut one of the last spears of the season using a specially modified knife, also produced on his Norfolk farm.
Having the final harvest coincide with the longest day of the year does indeed give a symbolic nod to the sun gods. It can’t really hurt to stay in their good graces if you’re in agriculture, right? But Allen explains that the driving force for the truncated season, which is adhered to by growers across the country, is to ensure that next year’s crop will be as tasty as this year’s.
“Every day you extend your yield means you’re depleting the potential for next year,” said Allen.
The sign warning asparagus eaters of the final harvest stands at the side of the drive leading up to the Portwood Farm in Great Ellingham, Norfolk, England.
After Sunday, growers across the country will allow the spears to rise above the 22-centimeter level at which they are typically cut for eating so that they can transform into ferny stalks that catch as much sunlight as possible. Then, after a little photosynthetic magic, the plant will sock away all the regenerative nutrients necessary to do it all over again next spring.
Norfolk asparagus is widely revered as the best of its breed in the nation. Allen explains that its taste is bumped up a notch by the fact that it grows very, very slowly here in East Anglia where the soil is heavy, the rains frequent and the temperatures consistently low. “All those things combine to intensify the flavor when it is ready to be cut,” said Allen.
Allen prefers to eat his Asparagus steamed with a bit of butter or a dollop of Hollandaise.
Seeing as he gave me a bunch when I visited his farm this morning, I needed to cook some for lunch for me and my husband – also called Andy. Broadening on Allen’s basic asparagus and hollandaise theme (Maille makes a perfectly lovely one in a jar if you don’t want to risk having your own sauce separate), I poached some local eggs and plated those three ingredients with some hot-smoked salmon.
A lunch that is close to the soil and the sea
It was a good combination of ooze, salt and crunch. I’ll have to make it again before Sunday.
If my stomach rumbles and I happen to be alone, then I’ll likely take the opportunity to consume some of that cardboard-like cereal which comprises 90 percent of my recommended daily allowance of fiber and just let the wind blow as it wills. But if I’m hungry, and I really want to eat for pleasure, then I fundamentally believe that no meal should start until the chairs around the table are as full as the plates on top of it.
I don’t typically dine with celebrity chefs, prominent thinkers of food thought, or marketeers who drive what is hot and what is not in the culinary world. I make my kids eat dinner with their parents every school night. My husband and I try a new restaurant Fridays at noon. Food is paramount at any extended family gathering. And Saturday night dinner parties and long, Sunday lunches in the garden with friends are the mainstays of my social calendar.
I do eat with pretty normal, interesting people who love food of all shapes and sizes. And for large spans of these dinner hours, conversation centers on what’s on the table — where it came from, who influenced it, how it was prepared and whether it compares to past successes and failures.
This running blog will attempt to convey some of the more interesting points made about food by the people I’ve met while eating it.