Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A pig feast

In our early 20's, when mortgages, serious jobs, and raising a family were unfathomable, and money could be spent frivolously, Jon and I hot-footed it to Bali to celebrate our engagement.

I found this picture (excuse the poor quality) in an old photo album crammed carelessly with hundreds of loose memories, and wanted to share it with fellow food lovers: it was a bacchanalian pig feast, a thunder clap for the senses, and an eye opener for my thus far uncultivated palate. Here began my now dedicated love of all things porcine.

We met a wonderful man called Wayan in our first week. Born and brought up in Bali, he worked as a chauffeur for tourists, ferrying them around the island in his trusty 4x4. He took us to see a few sights and told us about his life on the island, the woeful state of governance etc ... but this post is about pig, not politics.

Special occasions in Bali are often celebrated with the roasting of a young pig on a spit. Wayan was celebrating, and invited us to join in the feast (known locally as nasi guling).

The first thing we saw when we arrived at his home in the woods late morning, besides children chasing chickens, was the pig, freshly slaughtered, being pulled off a pick-up truck. It was swiftly hung upside down by a hook on the outside of a wooden kitchen hut. Its throat was cut immediately, and the beast's blood poured copiously into a bucket placed on the ground below its head. Blood collected and set aside, the stomach was slit, and the pig's intestines and organs were removed. With awe, we watched as the organs were diced, spiced (I wish I'd asked which spices they used), and the intestines repeatedly rinsed and cleaned out, stuffed tightly and deftly with the spiced offal, and knotted at each end.

The pig had by now been impaled on a long wooden stick, and was being turned slowly by hand over a smoky fire of coconut husks and wood. The intestine 'sausage', easily two meters long, was wrapped loosely around each end of the stick to cook slowly alongside the pig.

Meanwhile, the women of the family were in the kitchen hut, a basic structure with two thin clay walls, a basic frame, and corrugated iron roof (needless to say, there was no running water or electricity). As the pig approached readiness - after 2-3 hours - they set to work preparing the salad: blood, mixed with freshly grated coconut and more spices (you'll find an approximation of its ingredients here).

We vividly remember squeezing into their main living area with the rest of the family and guests, the pig laid out on a blue plastic sheet in front of us. With everyone squatting or sitting on the floor, sharp knives were handed around, and we all dug in. Sweet, moist, smoky meat, and sublime crackling rendered us speechless (the soft cheek meat was a delicacy all of its own). As did the intestine sausages, such as I have never tasted since - succulent and rich with offal, they had taken on the same sweet smoke flavours as the pork.

I dreaded tasting the blood 'salad', but knew I must. I grabbed a handful. It was a revelation: sweet, fresh, and delicately spiced, with a kick of chilli heat. I devoured the lot.

Needless to say, the centrepiece of our wedding feast at the Hollybush pub in Hampstead 5 years later was a suckling pig. Not sure the guests would have smiled for the pictures if we'd offered them blood salad ...

Monday, 22 August 2011

At Home: Scones

I tore this wonderful Dan Lepard recipe for vanilla almond scones from the Guardian Weekend magazine a few weeks ago. They are perfectly simple, and incredibly moreish.

This was my second attempt, by the way. First attempt, I weighed out the dry ingredients the night before, then plainly forgot the next day that I had only half the dry ingredients (for half the quantity of scones), and added the full quantity of wet ingredients. Needless to say, this batter was not going to transform itself into delectable scones. Lesson learnt.

They will keep for a day or two in an airtight plastic container, but why would you want to? Eat them fresh with lashings of cream and your favourite jam. The following tips and and recipe are stolen verbatim from the magazine, except I used buttermilk instead of yogurt, and left out the almonds:

- Keep the dough soft, pat it gently, keep it thick.
- When cutting, do so swiftly and straight down without twisting.
- Bake in a very hot oven, to give you the tallest scones possible.
- They are best eaten as soon as they're warm, with butter or cream, as you prefer.

400g plain flour, plus a little extra
3 tsp baking powder
tsp salt
50g unsalted butter, slightly chilled
225ml natural yogurt or buttermilk (I used buttermilk, readily available from large supermarkets)
3 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp caster sugar
75ml double cream
1 egg, beaten

Spoon the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl, and toss with a fork. Cut the chilled butter into cubes, then rub into the flour mixture until only the odd flake remains visible.

Stir the buttermilk with the vanilla extract, caster sugar, and cream, then tip this into the flour bowl and combine until the mixture barely forms a smooth dough. Flour a patch of worktop, scoop the dough on to it and tap it out to 3-4cm high - you want it quite thick because you want a good lift from the scones.

Line a tray with nonstick paper. Cut scones from the dough using a round, 6cm cutter, and place them 3-4cm apart on the tray. Brush the tops with beaten egg, and bake at 220C/200 fan/Gas 7 for 12-14 minutes, until lightly brown on top.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

At Home: Wild Plum Jam

I discovered this tree in my father's back garden in rural Norfolk. He claims it's a Cambridge Wild Plum, but my research proved fruitless (ha), and no such variety could be found. They are much like damsons - a tart, wild plum. I gathered as much fruit as I could carry, using Charlie's stacking cups as vessels, and hurried the fruit back to London.

This jam recipe is as simple as they come. If you regularly make jam, you don't need it, but I'm not a seasoned jam-maker, and always appreciate some guidance. So I read up, and am offering it out to you, my dear readers.
  • 900g (2lb) barely ripe wild plums/damsons
  • 900g (2lb) preserving/caster sugar
Don't bother washing the plums. If they are wild, and above ground level, you can be pretty confident they'll be free of any nasties. But do check them over, discarding any that have succumbed to rot or hungry bugs. Slit the plums with a knife. This will allow the stones to float to the surface during cooking so that they can be easily removed with a slotted spoon.

Place a small plate in the freezer, to test the jam for set later on.

Wash 4 x 450g jam jars, including lids, in warm soapy water (or your dishwasher). Place the jars in a warm oven (160C/Gas 3) for 8-10 minutes to dry, along with a heatproof bowl holding the sugar. Turn off the oven. Boil the lids separately for 5 minutes, and leave to drain on a clean tea towel.

Put the fruit in a preserving/aluminium pan with 150ml water. Bring to a simmer over a low heat, and cook for 20 minutes until the fruit has broken down. Add the warmed sugar. Shake the pan gently to disperse the sugar. As soon as the sugar has dissolved (this will take about 10 minutes of gentle simmering), increase the heat and boil the jam rapidly for 10 minutes. Skim off the stones as they float to the surface. After 10 minutes of boiling, remove from the heat and test for setting point:

Put a teaspoon of jam on the cold plate, leave for 10 seconds, then push it gently with your finger. If a crinkly skin has formed, then it is ready. If not, continue to boil for another 5 minutes and test it again.

Be careful not to boil the jam for too long, for danger of turning it into fruity caramel.

When the jam is ready, carefully pour into the warm jars. Seal with tight-fitting lids. Allow to cool completely before labelling and storing.

Serve with homemade scones and clotted cream (or butter - whatever rocks your boat). My scone recipe is a simple Dan Lepard gem, published in the Guardian a few weeks ago. I'll post the recipe in the next day or two.

Happy preserving!

Bistrot Bruno Loubet

I must admit, until Bistrot Bruno Loubet opened to great hoo-hah and frenzy last Spring, I hadn't heard of Bruno. My weakness for French bistro food is undeniable, and it's invariably the kind of food I cook for friends, but mention the man and I drew a blank.

After spending his formative years under the tutelage of Pierre Koffman and Raymond Blanc, it transpires he made rather a name for himself in the Nineties with Bistro Bruno and L'Odeon in London, achieving a Michelin star at the Four Seasons Inn on the Park, where he was Head Chef, before hot-footing it to Oz.

Two years after his return to the UK, his eponymous restaurant in Clerkenwell has established itself confidently among its high-end neighbours (St John, The Modern Pantry, Moro, and Vinoteca all sit within five minutes of Bruno's front door). The room, a large high-ceiling softly-lit space on the ground floor of the trendy Zetter hotel (I have a vague memory of being devastatingly drunk at a rooftop party here, years back: swanky rooms, in case you're wondering), is crammed with chattering media 30-somethings. The contented buzz put me and LT immediately at ease. With a wall-hugging table we were free to people-watch and settle down for a preprandial drink*.

The menu was measured, imaginative, and seasonal. I had been expecting a larger selection of dishes (maybe more than one soup, and some charcuterie), but each course (7/8 dishes for each) read well, particularly the starters and mains. The appearance of fusion flavours amidst the savoury bistro classics was a tell-tale sign of his decade in Brisbane (yuzu and miso in particular). The desserts looked indulgent, certainly, but sounded a little too familiar: apple tart, chocolate mousse, ice cream, cheeses. They have also not come off terribly well in recent write-ups.

With a carafe of sherbety French white (I forget which - too busy thinking about the food) delivered promptly by our lovely waiter, we considered and chose:
The vegetarian antipasti was a stunning starter. Beautiful to look at and just as artful on the palate. It was hard to detect the Parmesan, but I didn't miss it. Generous, too, for £7.

LT's salmon tartare was equally easy on the eye. Hardly French bistro, but apparently delightful and refreshing, the fish being top rate.

The rabbit 'tournedos' were the highlight of the evening for me. Succulent, tender rabbit meat wrapped tightly in bacon, filled with soft rabbit sweetbreads and accompanied by earthy artichoke with a dark rich jus, and a verdant and piquant lovage pesto. A highly accomplished dish.

LT didn't seem quite so keen on her grilled asparagus main. This was her first taste of a duck egg, and she had been expecting to be able to differentiate it from a hen's. She was left wanting, though the asparagus (seasonal? hmm) was delicately cooked and generously plated. Maybe not a dish to return for.

Overall, I loved the place. The atmosphere was convivial, and the food crowd-pleasing with signs of brilliance. Keen pricing pulls it to the top 10 of London restaurants for me. Go, you won't regret it (if you see oxtail on the menu, try it - Bruno's signature dish, apparently).

* We were late for our booking so set out straight for the restaurant, but if you have time, squeeze in a few drinks at the new Zetter Townhouse's cocktail bar, opposite the restaurant.

Pic credit: EwanM

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