Category: food

A pinch of art and a large dose of love

“Cuisine is a few grams of passion, a spoonful of technique, a pinch of art and a large dose of love”

When chef Eric Bendel wrote this, he clearly meant it. His restaurant is in the middle of nowhere, well actually right bang in the middle of France in Bruères-Allichamp. We were driving South and found that all the hotels in Bourges were full. A short drive on an empty route départementale and we were grateful to find a small hotel along the Cher river. Les Tilleuls isn’t the prettiest of hotels, rather a long 60’s wooden affair.

No credit card or passport were asked, what a delight and oh so rare these days. Our rooms were clean and comfortable although sound proofing is probably not high on the list. The big surprise came when we sat down for dinner. The menu is a short list of about nine items that change fortnightly and you choose how many you want. Children just get smaller portions, no fish and chips to be found anywhere.

When I read Eric’s poem I figured we should be in for a treat. When I read the menu, it was definitely an artist talking. Proof was definitely not just in the pudding. It started with not one ‘mise en bouche’ but two: three verrines each of cress, celery and cucumber gazpachos followed by crayfish with a courgette soup topped with herring caviar, all beautifully presented.

It’s one of those menus some people find pompous. Verrines are pretty little glasses filled with soups or layered puddings. Gaspacho is after all a cold soup. Yes it’s nouvelle cuisine if that means a pleasure for the eye and yes there were foamy additions to perfectly balanced plates. Last time I had a meal that made me feel like a child again was when I ate at Les Ambassadeurs, the Crillon’s restaurant in Paris. Proper posh with a stool for my handbag. Jean-François Piège was in the kitchen, I was scribbling notes for a magazine. This time, I was with my family, paying my way. Seeing my children get all excited by beautifully presented plates and happily discover new tastes was a joy.

Laure has done a great job decorating the restaurant, husband Eric clearly cares passionately about his work, attention to detail is faultless; although I must admit there were only two tables that night, being mid-week and off holiday. At around £60 per person for four properly crafted courses including nice wine, aperitifs and digestifs, we got an evening that we will remember for a long time. The joy of the unexpected, the subtlety of tastes, the fun of new discoveries; the love did show.

Some call it professionalism. That’s not enough. The passion has to be translated to provide a memorable experience.

I can still taste the mini pistachio rice pudding with strawberry cream and poppy mousse.

Thank you Bourges for being full that day.

Hotel restaurant Les Tilleuls

Foraging with the Wild Garlic Masterchef

Nettle soup followed by a poached breast of chicken wrapped in wild garlic leaf and wild garlic pesto could sound a bit weird. Then again, when it comes at the end of a foraging day, it not only makes sense it demonstrates what it’s all about. But is it tasty and worth the effort?

There’s much talk about foraging these days but let’s face it, however good a reference book is, it is not conducive to go out there and find out on your own. I prefer a hands on approach so I booked a foraging day with Masterchef winner Mat Follas. Nine of us met at the Wild Garlic restaurant and were greeted with a coffee before we set off on our walk towards the woods.

We took a lane I have walked many times. I had noticed these pretty little purple flowers but never knew they were called Ground Ivy let alone that I could eat them. Most people will know these (unlike this French townie) and want to get rid of them on their lawn. It spreads like mint, in fact it rather tastes like it. Jack-by-the-hedge (or Garlic mustard), the good old nettle, hogweed and wild garlic can also be found in abundance in many places.

Theo, who helps Mat on his foraging days was an absolute mine of information. Once people got over his tattoos and his ‘traveller status’, we quickly realised he is a sharing kind of guy and knows his stuff. He pointed out that many of the plants we now consider weed or that grow in our hedges were in fact imported by the Romans for eating purposes. Nettle soup is not such a novel idea after all. Of course we can’t eat all the leaves we come across, it may be on private land or a dog may have marked them as his territory.

The point of wild food foraging is to use common sense. Whilst wild food is very much what spices Mat’s cooking, it does not mean that he forages anything that is not abundant. He may have to supplant it with some home grown version as he feeds rather more than a family of four but many people can find new tastes for their salads or greens in their back garden if not in the woods.

The seaside was a revelation for me. I have walked along our gorgeous beaches many a time, avoiding treading on those purple and green thick leaved, wavy looking plants. Look closer. It must be a cousin of the broccoli, only sweeter. These lovely balloon like tiny white and pink flowers? Pick a few Sea Campions (and leave plenty) and garnish your salads.

So back in Beaminster, what was the food like… The nettle soup, presented in a mini saucepan was light, fresh and surprisingly tasty. The wild garlic flower on the side not only looked pretty, it gave a little kick and balanced the starter perfectly. The poached chicken breast that followed was wrapped in a wild garlic leaf with a wild garlic pesto and was totally succulent. I will try this at home although I doubt it will taste the same. New potatoes and a spoonful of horse radish ice cream completed the main course. I don’t normally like horse radish as I find it too strong but this was subtle and spiced the chicken surprisingly well. Pudding? A rather tidy berry Mess. Got the girls Oh’ing when it arrived and kept us quiet for once.

We were a rather chatty kind of group. Friendly forager wannabes met a kiwi chef and a traveller to learn about the British wild food in the middle of what used to be a Norman town. That tickled my fancy. Mat and Theo were a fitting combination of forager and chef who obviously love their food (Theo’s mother was trained by French chef extraordinaire Bocuse) and are willing to share their passion. We weren’t prompted to give Theo a round of applause when he left us to our lunch to get back to his kids nor did we feign our appreciation when we thanked Mat for a fun and instructive day. The beautiful surroundings were the cherry on the cake or in this case, a wild garlic flower on the nettle soup.

Bull Hotel, relax… you’re in Bridport

As you drive into town, you can’t miss the dark blue 17th century Inn with a gold Bull overlooking the pavement. A Bridport artist gilded that Bull, old fashioned way; she works on the St Michael trading estate. I like that about the place. The meat comes from the butcher next door, the apple juice at breakfast is from a farm down the road, the amazing beds from a company whose impressive showroom is just outside Bridport.

I’ve been a few times for cheap and cheerful lunches (they have a ‘crunch lunch’ for a fiver which is great value for money) and once for a friend’s 40th which was a great laugh. I was curious to know what an overnight stay would be like and thought a night without the kids would be a great idea…

And it was. The bed was wonderfully comfortable (although ours did creak a bit but hey) egyptian linen and all, the Neal’s Yard bottles were bathroom size (no nasty plastic throwaway stuff) and we loved the mixture of old and new. Philip Starck lighting worked well with a french inspired Toile de Jouy wallpaper and plain chocolate walls with a silver tinge. Taste is very personal and if you like twee, you might want to find somewhere else. If you like bold statements and smile at quirkiness this should be down your road.

Supper? Well, we liked. Went for a sharing evening all the way with a Côte de boeuf and a cheese platter. The meat was tender in the middle yet crusty and black on the outside, sliced onto a wooden tray laden with hand cut chips, crispy yet not fatty, oversized sweet and crunchy onion rings, a large mushroom and some rocket salad. There was also a tomato each. I don’t understand tasteless tomatoes in winter (southern french pompous palate probably) so I gave mine a miss. It went back with the herbed butter which was unnecessary. The meat was succulent and did not need any addition. It did not need any more salt either, if you’re one of these add salt before tasting, beware.

The cheese platter was a good selection of local fare, from the famous Blue Vinney (which I love) to the Dorset Red (delicious if you like smokey) via a Somerset Brie and of course a farmhouse Cheddar. The husband liked the chutney which tasted too much like curry for my liking. He also loved the pudding of raspberry soufflé which was a bit too sugary for me but then I’m more of a savoury kinda girl.

There’s been a fair few reviews on Bridport’s Bull Hotel since they opened. They appeal to the growing number of people who have moved back into the area after a London stint or time elsewhere, as well as visitors who want comfort and a certain amount of luxury in a relaxed, modern atmosphere. Think affordable Babington House and you won’t be far wrong.

la guerre des fromages?

Les Français sont plutôt fiers de leurs 365 fromages. Et pourtant, tout requinqués de leurs retrouvailles avec la bonne bouffe, les British me disent qu’ils ont plus de fromages que nous. Amusant que Churchill ait trouvé la France ingouvernable avec ses 300 fromages puisque les cousins outre-Manche se vantent maintenant de 700 fromages

Contrairement à l’opinion française, il n’y a donc pas que deux fromages en Grande-Bretagne. Le Cheddar et le Stilton ont de nombreux cousins et rien que dans le Sud-Ouest anglais où je vis, les amoureux de fromage ont de quoi se régaler. Quelques exemples pour mettre l’eau à la bouche.

Un bon Cheddar de ferme (West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, pas celui des supermarchés à base de lait pasteurisé qui ressemble a du plastique et n’a pas de goût) est un peu comme notre Cantal: jeune il est tendre et doux et plus il est affiné plus les saveurs sont intenses. Extra Mature et vous y trouverez des cristaux, il laisse un après gout qui peut donner des frissons tellement il est intense, pas pour tout le monde. J’adore, en petite dose.

Un de mes préférés c’est le Dorset Blue Vinney. Comme son nom l’indique, c’est un bleu.  A base de lait de vache dont la crème a été enlevée pour le beurre, il n’est pas aussi fort que son cousin Stilton au lait pasteurisé. A mis chemin entre fondant et friable il peut être comparé au bleu d’Auvergne. Le Dorset Red est un fromage fumé à pâte dure, bien que plus moelleux qu’un Cheddar fermier. Red de nom il est plutôt orange que rouge, son goût et son arôme sont particulièrement fumés.

Juste au nord dans le Somerset, ils font des bries (British Brie bien sur) qui n’ont rien à envier à la Normandie, même si j’imagine que les cousins normands ne seront pas forcément d’accord. Il faut goûter pour se faire une idée. Des deux cotés de la Manche, il y en a des bons et des médiocres… En Cornouailles, ils font le Cornish Yarg dont la croute gris vert est formée grâce à une enveloppe d’orties posées à la main. Le coeur est assez friable mais la couche extérieure est crémeuse et la croute se mange. Son nom n’a rien de Celte mais est le verlan de la famille Gray qui l’a créé au 13eme siècle.

Et ça ce n’est que dans mon coin, sans chercher les petites fermes qui -comme chez nous- font leurs fromages en petites quantités et sans publicité dont je n’ai jamais entendu parler. Comme de nombreuses tommes ou fourmes au fin fond de l’Auvergne ou des Alpes.

Un chose qu’il faut savoir c’est que les Anglais mangent leurs fromages avec des biscuits et après le dessert. Je vous raconte tout ça dans mon prochain billet.

£6 for 2 decent lunches on Dorset’s Coast

When the husband discovered this little hotel down the road with a nice Cellar Wine Bar that do lunch for £6 per couple, I thought we’ve got to give it a try. I was expecting soggy vegs and microwaved mush. I was wrong.

The Manor Hotel in West Bexington is an attractive stone building with a veranda and a cellar turned into a Wine Bar. A few steps from Chesil Beach on the Dorset Jurassic Coast, it’s the kind of place I’d happily spend a quiet weekend.

We ordered a fish pie and a shepherds pie and fifteen minutes later we had a couple of piping hot meals with crunchy vegs, just as I like them. My fish pie had decent pieces of fish and sliced potatoes on top in a tasty creamy sauce. Husband’s shepherds pie was equally enjoyable and a good portion for lunch. I mean if that’s not great value for money, what is?

They also have an evening menu “eat as much as you like for £8.50”. Normally I stay away from the principle of eating as much as I like. It sounds like gluttony and conjures up cheap produce. But with this lunch in mind and with a bouillabaisse of local seafood on the menu as well as local squid with chilli, ginger and garlic (husband’s vote), I will have to try. Their neighbours, the Michaud family are famous in the chilli world for growing the Dorset Naga -hottest chilli in the world, allegedly- but that’s not the one they use for the squid. Thankfully.

Being a cold and wet winter day, I must admit we were the only ones there this lunchtime but the fire was going and the atmosphere of the place was friendly and warm. Just one annoying thing, they insisted on putting the noisy dishwasher on whilst we were eating (and even chatting to the landlady at the bar) which surely could have waited half an hour. But hey. Husband kind of felt guilty at spending so little, so he had 2 drinks and some peanuts to make up for it. Which took us to the grand total of £12.

Looks like West Bexington is going to see us more often this winter, just around lunchtime.

Super rapport qualité-prix dans le Dorset

Repas de midi pour deux £6. Oui, £6 soit 3 + 3.

Le midi, comme je suis devenue Anglaise, je me contente souvent d’un sandwich mais quand mon mari m’a dit qu’il avait découvert un petit hôtel resto près de la plage qui font un repas de midi pour 6 livres par couple, bien sur il a fallu aller goûter. J’imaginais déjà des légumes surcuit et de la purée au micro-ondes. Ben j’avais tord.

Le Manor Hotel à West Bexington est un hôtel agréable, en pierres locales, avec une véranda et un bar à vins en sous sol. A quelques pas de la plage de Chesil sur la Côte Jurassique du Dorset, c’est le genre d’endroit où il fait bon passer un weekend tranquille.

Nous avons commandé un ‘hachis Parmentier’ (avec de la viande d’agneau) et une tourte de poissons (avec des pommes de terre). Simple, bien cuit, sans léser sur le poisson, chaud à point avec des légumes frais et croquants. Portions juste assez pour ne pas partir avec la faim sans se goinfrer (souvent un problème en Angleterre). Etonnant. Cote rapport qualité prix, franchement difficile de faire mieux.

Ils ont également un menu ‘buffet’ ou l’on peut manger tant qu’on veut pour £8.50 certains soirs (il faut réserver). Ça me fait toujours un peu peur ce genre de proposition mais leur bouillabaisse de poissons du coin me tente et mon mari voudrait goûter à leur calmar cuisiné avec du piment, gingembre et ail. Il va falloir retourner. Leurs voisins, les Michaud, sont d’ailleurs très connus dans le monde du piment car ils cultivent un des piments les plus forts du monde le Dorset Naga. N’ayez crainte, ce n’est pas celui qui accompagne le calmar.

J’avoue que nous étions les seuls dans le resto aujourd’hui, mais bon c’est l’hiver, milieu de semaine et il pleuviotait. Pour autant l’atmosphère était sympa, la cheminée nous a réchauffés. Le seul truc que j’ai pas compris c’est pourquoi ils ont pas attendu pour allumer leur lave-vaisselle qui faisait un boucan pas possible. Mais bon.

En bon Anglais, mon mari a culpabilisé et s’est vu obliger d’acheter 2 boissons plutôt qu’une et même un paquet de cacahuètes en apéritif. Coût total: £12.

Je crois que West Bexington viennent d’acquérir des nouveaux visiteurs pour le midi…

Eat Dorset Food Fair

Have just returned from the Eat Dorset food fair and I am still salivating. Foodie heaven on my doorstep. Literally. The fair is in the grounds of Parnham House in Beaminster, so I should have walked but decided not to. I knew I would have too many bags to carry back.

I started by watching Lesley Waters demonstrating an appetising menu: bread filled with dried figs and black pepper, pheasant terrine, chunky apple marmalade, seared venison with roasted beetroots and potatoes…

It’s such a good idea to have chefs demonstrating the produce sold on site because it entices you to try new things. Lesley is brilliant, she really embraces the whole local food phenomenon that has grown in this country in the last decade and runs with it. She uses these local suppliers for her school near Dorchester, so whilst a cynic would say that she gets a good deal from them, I say she’s chosen to live and work down here for a reason: because there is so much choice of tasty local food.

So filled with new ideas I had to go and choose what to spend my money on. Not an easy task. This was not a fair filled with grannies and their marmalades or other chutneys. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve bought a few chutneys from grannies in my time but today I was after real local stuff to fill my fridge with and the tricky bit was to choose wisely. Today I wanted something new.

Lesley showed us how to marinate some feta cheese. Really simple, very mouth watering. Thing is, Woolsery are not allowed to call their cheese feta because this is Dorset not Greece. Why they’ve decided to call it Fiesta though is a quandary. The big softie or ‘Woolsery’s crumblie’ would have spoken more to me but what do I know! All the same, I still bought some and will stuff it into a jar with some good olive oil; haven’t decided which herbs to use yet but I can’t wait to eat it with a baked potato or with some pasta since it won’t last until next Summer for a salad.

Another show stopper for me was the Real Boar company. Despite my brother-in-law being a wild boar hunter near St-Tropez I had never tried boar salami. It hits the taste buds strongly as you’d expect but leaves a lingering subtle taste of red wine and for some reason made me think of blue cheese, although you will not find any Blue Vinney in it.  The texture is fine and silky, it melts in your mouth and is utterly delicious. I subsequently found out that they supply the George Cinq -the man heard the French accent so he impressed me with the Parisian Palace first- but also Jamie Oliver. Well, I’m not surprised. If I had a restaurant, I would find a way to put it on the menu. In the meanwhile, I am thinking dinner party.

Now we have two ‘big’ names in Dorset that export abroad and have cleverly marketed their ethos through to their packaging: Dorset Cereals and Clipper Tea. Big bold designs for scrumptious products. Clipper are actually based in Beaminster and their fair trade tea in unbleached tea bags has been my favourite cuppa since my mother in law introduced me to them when they took over the Numatic factory some years back. As for Dorset Cereals they had a special offer on, so despite my “New Stuff’ policy I could not resist a bargain; plus I ended up with lots of little freebies. Don’t you love freebies?

Honey was something I was keen to find. My kids love it but try as I may to find English honey in the supermarket all I could find is utter nonsense. I don’t want honey that’s flown from New Zealand. I know we have a problem with bees dying everywhere but why does the honey have to fly from the other side of the world to land on my doorstep? Even worse, the cheaper brands are from ‘mixed sources within the EU’. Where has this honey been before it went into the jar, let alone on my kids’ toasts? What a joy to find honey from Hugh and Gillian Land who have hives near Sherborne. I should have bought more than one jar.

Another foodie find was Rapeseed oil from the The Seed Company. My Mediterranean roots make me reach for the olive oil before I’ve even thought about cooking, so I have placed the new thin bottle by the cooker so I don’t forget to use it. Apparently it can burn to a much higher temperature than olive oil, let’s see if I can be convinced to use an oil that is as expensive as the thick green cold pressed nectar. Last time I tried a new oil for cooking it promised to have carotin in it which is supposed to be good for you, it looked orange but when I fried it, my whole house stank of fish. Can’t remember the name of it, probably because my brain is worried I might buy it again by mistake. I have a better feeling about Rapeseed though. Could be the nice little green canvas bag they gave me to carry my bottle. Another freebie.

It wasn’t all food though. There were some beeswax stuff -makes sense since there were honey suppliers- and seeds from Peppers by Post. These guys also grow chilli. We bought a plant from them a few months back. What a winner. It stands proud at the end of the kitchen table near the window and it has produced dozens of chillies -purple, white, yellow, orange and red ones. The whole family loves looking after the plant and it is still growing in October. I am chief waterer though. For five pounds, that was the best investment in spices we’ve ever made! Another non foodie stand well worth a visit is Green Drawers. It’s the most eclectic stand there. Interesting eco products, cushions with hand woven covers or made from prints from a local artist -Liz Summerville; and those bags like my Mum used to have to go shopping with when I was a kid. They look like posh and bright onion sacks with a handle. If you can remember before the plastic bag days that is. I love them, bought a bright pink one to leave at the bottom of my handbag. And yes, I filled it with organic sausages, bacon and chipolatas from Sydling Brook Farm.

Must be off now, there’s some cooking to be done.