Archive for Cheese

Networking nightmares

In my last employed job almost everyone’s role included some networking, the success of which was measured not against the potential benefits of making the connection but against the length of time (the longer, the more impressive), the venue (if a Michelin star was involved, all the better) and the wealth of the guest (Times Rich List members preferred). I still remember the black look thrown at me by the chief executive when I declined to join him for some “hobnobbing with four millionaires” at a celebrity chef’s restaurant.

Yes, of course I built strong relationships with the organisation’s members and, no, my answer wasn’t driven by arrogance. I needed the time more than I needed to support his ego boost.

When I went freelance I decided to liberate myself from networking lunches believing that, with so many independent cafés a short walk from my front door, mid-morning or mid-afternoon hour-long sessions over a cup of delicious coffee would be more productive.

Inevitably, freelancers desperate for work have to network wherever and whenever – and compromise (what, me?) has to be faced.

Well-known organisations (chambers of commerce, BNI) tend to meet at breakfast which, for anyone who washes their hair every morning, means a five-thirty alarm call for a seven o’clock sharp start. Business gained by me (I gave them all a good go)? None – probably because my “one minute to win it” was spoken in tongues, the only language I can manage after a short night.

So I was thrilled when I discovered a couple of networking groups which deliberately avoided power breakfasts. Recognising how women prefer to work, they met in the evening over high-class nibbles and drinks. Business gained there? None. Be warned. If you admit to having organised anything, you will be roped in … I seldom networked for me; I networked for the group.

Out of the blue an email invited me to the launch of a new group.  In my town and for women. We met … over lunch (yes, yes, but it was informal and infrequent – monthly – and it worked). Business gained? A sizeable commission at the second meeting on the back of which I gained another through which I got a third – and the first came back for more.

Four years later, it happened again. An email bounced in announcing a new networking group. Several emails followed – from friends, all asking if I’d heard about it and would I be going. Held in a local restaurant, the cost brought two drinks and a range of nibbles. Will I go again? Despite it being at lunchtime, the buzz was energising and the potential – well, who knows, but some useful contacts were made. It’s time to eat not lunch but my words.

Eating my words (drinks party small eats)

No recipe for this one. No photograph either (I forgot to get out my camera). I hope you can picture the scene …

  1. Mini croques monsieur – three-bite rectangles, slightly burnished from a very buttery frying, with a generous dollop of proper creamy béchamel sauce wobbling on the top
  2. Blinis, lavishly buttered when warm, with smoked salmon and a sprinkling of lumpfish roe (I’d have added a coffee spoon drop of crème fraiche and a snip of chives)
  3. Tiny pastry cups of an unidentifiable veggie mix with raw onion (why raw onion when trying to make a good impression is the priority?)
  4. Rounds of fried bread (yet more more butter) with a generous twirl of rare beef on top (they never reached me, stuck in the centre of the room with much of the food passing round the edges)
  5. Small choux pastry lozenges filled with cream and drizzled with melted chocolate (easy to scoff, as many did though not savoury-toothed me)
  6. Slivers of flaky pastry with slices of strawberry layered above crème patissière (very hard to pick up and eat, leaving many with sticky fingers and gloopy lips).

My mother called this sort of food “small eats”. I find the term so much more reassuring, and wholesome, than “canapés”.

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When work is snatched by play

It’s the Real Food Festival and I’m off, following my taste buds, with Gill Thomas who is the brainchild behind the Chiswick Food and Drink Festival. She is testing the potential for a full-blown festival in 2011 by organising a smaller food and crafts fair before Christmas, so we were on the hunt for local (to us) producers or specialist, one-off products that would appeal to west London’s greedy foodies.

Why was I there? Keen to work with restaurants and food businesses I was on the hunt for clients. So, this was genuine work. Until my stomach – and greed – took over. Yes, I came home with a heap of business cards and as many good intentions but I’d spent more time sidetracking myself when there was good tasting to be done (as well as, sadly, when it fell a bit short of expectations).

Attending trade fairs or exhibitions is part of every freelancer’s life. Going with a sense of purpose – and achieving it – requires planning. And that means arriving early to scour through the exhibition guide, marking the stalls you want to visit on the map and planning your route through the hall – and then doing that first, before your feet start complaining. Indulging yourself visiting stalls for personal purposes is a reward served best as afters.

If only I could do as I say. When the subject of your work is your passion, the passion can overwhelm the work. Resisting the urge to stop on my journey to taste and taste again proved hard, especially as it was all presented to me on a plate. I lost focus; I gained weight.

I waddled out well after lunch – annoyingly having forgotten to buy one thing that really grabbed my tongue by the throat – a silky olive oil from Tuscany made by Suzie Alexander. She didn’t lose focus and now lives the dream having moved from St Margaret’s (just across the river from Richmond) to buy an olive grove in Val di Chiana (near Siena) where she is surrounded by other family-run smallholdings making artisan products. She had brought with her the local Pecorino cheese which even had non-cheese loving Gill declaring it delicious. Depending on the season she might also bring farro (spelt) flour, lentils and chick peas, Prosciutto, saffron, truffles and sweet treats such as panforte. You see how I get sidetracked?

So, on this very untypical day, snitching my way round the Earls Court exhibition centre (wood shavings on the floor, livestock in pens – all very Good Life), this was my lunch …

Snatching snitches at the Real Food Festival (Cholesterol and calories)

  • thin mini-slices of ciabatta steeped in Secolare olive oil from a grove of mature olive trees, some of which are hundreds of years old, and a nibble of Pecorino: Suzie’s Yard (www.suziesyard.co.uk)
  • tiny slivers of Organic milk chocolate infused with cardamom made by Hove-based Holly Caulfield. Holly is also an artist and designed the gorgeous packaging which she makes up herself. She produces 100 bars of chocolate a day, one flavour at a time, and golly, Holly, was it good: Chocoholly (www.chocoholly.com).
  • small cubes of Winterdale cheddar, plain and smoked, made by hand from Fresian cows’ milk by the farmers who own the herd. The milk goes straight from the cow to the cheese vat in under 20 minutes which makes the Betts family the nearest farmers to London who make cheese from their own cows’ milk – instead of what most cheesemakers do: use milk bought from other farmers. Not only that … the cheese is matured on their farm in an underground cave deep in the chalky soil of the North Downs in Kent, giving it a rich, nutty and long-lasting flavour. It was obvious to me why it was a gold World Cheese Awards winner in 2009: Winterdale (www.winterdale.co.uk).
  • curls of smoked sirloin steak (unusual and delicious, giving bresaola a run for its money) and smoked salmon (gloriously mild, moist and moreish), a knob of smoked Cropwell Bishop stilton and a drizzle of smoked olive oil (delicious as a marinade or for dipping, too strong as a dressing in my view). The steak was moist and the smoking subtle; it could easily feature in another lunch on these pages. They also produce smoked garlic, but had run out by the time we reached their stall: The Artisan Smokehouse (www.artisansmokehouse.co.uk).
  • smears of pickles, chutneys and sauces on tiny bits of cream cracker, zinging round my mouth and, in the case of the Scotch Bonnet chutneys, bringing tears to my eyes. The sweet lime chutney was a delight – nothing like a lime pickle, more like a tangy, spicy marmalade. I’d met their maker, Chris Smith aka The Pickle Man, about six months’ ago when having a coffee in Munson’s in Ealing with a foodie friend; he was at the table next to ours and, intrigued by our non-stop talk about food, joined in, giving us each a jar of Brinjal pickle to try. Everything he, son of St John and Dolly Smith whose names are on the labels, produces (to his grandmother’s original recipes) is authentic and far better than any other pickle I’ve ever tried: St John and Dolly Smith’s pickles and chutneys (www.thepickleman.co.uk).
  • a sip of Sipsmith gin and barley vodka – all the way from Hammersmith where it is distilled in a copper-pot still called Prudence. Look out for it in the smartest hotel bars in London: Sipsmith (www.sipsmith.com).

Showing great self-control (by not eating the brochures or packaging).

Snitching was what we did as a family, when no one was looking. In the days of having a larder, there was usually something hanging around just waiting to be snitched – the remains of a roast or a steak and kidney pud, one of my mother’s legendary beef curries, cold roast potatoes, carrots or marrow in a white sauce, gravy, sprouts sprinkled with buttery toasted almond flakes left in the pan after the trout meunière had been devoured. And then there was the snitch box – an old Quality Street tin with “Snitch Box” stuck on the front, a Dymo label willingly punched by me aged about nine (and I still have it – the tin and the Dymo kit). We never knew what my mother had left for us but it was always worth the anticipation.

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Chicory with Roquefort and walnuts

It’s another appallingly environmentally-irresponsible day. I’m in a quandary. It seems impossible to support my local independent shops and limit my impact on the environment.

This recipe works well with ripe, juicy English pears – but I’m supposed to keep my sugar intake down and I broke that rule earlier this week with the Alphonsos. So Dutch chicory it is. I could use English stilton but the silkiness, and slight sweetness, of Roquefort lifts the glory of this dish into the stratosphere. At least it’s only travelled from France to Mortimer & Bennett. Walnuts? Bought from my local health food store, they’ve come all the way from Argentina. I will try to do better next week.

If you are in your fifties or older, you’ll have had these delicious mouthfuls hundreds of times, as a dinner party starter or drinks party nibble. It’s still useful for both but, as I don’t currently give dinner or drinks parties, lunch is where I slot it in. Infrequently (because of the cheese-cholesterol concern and as my nutritionist might be reading this).

I’ve tried variations on a theme. Feta doesn’t work ever, not even with pears – it’s too one-dimensional and dry. Stilton works better with pears than with chicory – the mix creating a better salt-sweet balance. Dolcelatte, Picos blue, Gorgonzola, Saint Agur, Fourme d’Ambert, Cheshire blue, Bleu d’Auvergne … anything blue and sticky will do. Including the late and very lamented (by me) Lymeswold, derided as the Blue Nun of cheeses but of which I was particularly fond.

The disadvantage of serving this at girly lunches (they happen rarely, but they do happen) is that everyone always says how wonderful it is, they ask if I’ve ever served it as a starter – and then go off and replicate it. In my mother’s day, recipes were only passed on (or pinched) on the understanding that the recipient (or thief) would never serve it to someone in the originator’s circle. No such rules apply these days. Which is why it’s my personal indulgence. It’s perfect for sitting in the shade in the garden on a sunny evening, a drink in the other hand. If only I had a bit of outdoors.

Perfection on a plate

One head of chicory

2 ozs or so of Roquefort (or other strong blue cheese)

Four walnut halves

Avocado oil (or olive oil or walnut oil)

  1. Separate six chicory leaves (or as many as your hunger dictates)
  2. Cut the Roquefort into small chunks (many recipes say crumble it but I find it’s too sticky, even for a finger-licker like me)
  3. Chop the walnuts into small chunks
  4. Dot the chicory leaves with the Roquefort and chopped walnuts
  5. Drizzle your choice of oil along each leaf

Yes, I've overloaded the leaves and, oops, was a bit heavy-handed with the avocado oil.

I ate them with my fingers. And ended up making more.

The very best avocado oil, in my view, comes from Chile. A Chilean networking colleague of mine was going to import it and invited me round for a taste test. We tasted blind and both preferred the organic extra virgin version, which is what I used today. It’s golden, thick and very full-flavoured – but all of them were better than the widely available Californian version which is thin, pale and watery. The New Zealand version is marginally better. But if you can find Chilean, I urge you to buy it.

I suppose this all adds up to another bunion on my carbon footprint.

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Quick smoked mackerel pâté with a seasonal twist and added memories

I love this time of year. Looking over gardens below my top floor flat, my world glistens with the pale pinks and soft whites of magnolia, cherry and apple blossom, and clematis. I take the long route to the High Road, specifically to walk past other people’s front gardens.

It’s also Alphonso mango time – so I take the even longer route home past my wonderful greengrocer, A&G on Turnham Green Terrace (where they know me as Alphonso Jo). Grown only in Bombay, I can’t look out on Alphonso mango trees here but I remember walking past one, its branches glinting with golden yellow fruit in the pre-monsoon sun, on the way to the park with my ayah, Mary.

By far the smallest mango, the Alphonso’s lack of stature is more than compensated for by its huge flavour. Intensely perfumed, sweet and creamy, its juicy flesh is the colour of 24ct gold and its stone almost free of hair (though floss is useful if you suck it as dry as I do). Called the queen of mangoes, once you’ve had one, no other is worth bothering with.

Something else not worth bothering with after you’ve had the real thing is vacuum-packed smoked mackerel. When I discovered whole smoked mackerel straight from the smokery, at my excellent fishmonger (Covent Garden Fishmongers, next to A&G), Phil said I’d never eat any other. And I never have. Moist, soft, smooth, subtly smoked and not even slightly stridently fishy, it’s a silk versus cotton no-brainer. One fish feeds three to four so, as I don’t have a freezer, I need to think of things to do with it to ring the changes.

Today’s late lunch

1 fillet of a fishmonger’s smoked mackerel

1 tbsp of Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche if you aren’t worried about your fat intake)

Half a lime

Black pepper

Cayenne pepper

One Alphonso mango

Half a red chilli

Bunch of watercress

Olive oil

  1. Holding the mango upright on its curved edge, slice down about an inch in, against the flat central stone. Turn it round and slice down the other side. Cut across the skin surrounding the centre section then peel it away gently, sucking off the fruit as you peel. Cut away chunks of mango from the stone or … let’s be realistic, slurp it off noisily, breathing in its heavily perfumed scent as rivers of golden juice trickle down your fingers. This is no time for manners; it’s a sensuous moment to be shared only with yourself.
  2. Back in the real world, run the rounded tip of a knife through the fruit in the cut-away sides, carving down to (but not through) the skin from top to bottom in strips about 1cm wide. Do the same to cut across the strips creating squares. Scoop out the squares and put them in a bowl.
  3. Finely chop the chilli. Gently mix with the mango and a light squeeze of lime juice.
  4. Roughly mash the smoked mackerel with the Quark (or cream cheese or crème fraîche), adding black pepper to taste. Slacken it slightly with a squeeze of lime juice (not too much, add it a tsp at a time so you don’t mask the flavour of the fish).
  5. Dollop the pâté on a plate and sprinkle with cayenne pepper (this is for looks, not heat – there’s plenty of that in the chilli). Add the mango salsa and decorate with generous sprigs of watercress drizzled with olive oil.

Learning not to be purist about Alphonso mangoes

I’m normally purist about Alphonso mangoes, eating them just as they are. When I take them to friends who say they’ll put them into a smoothie I look horror struck and lurch into lecturing. But this boxful has been disappointing; every mango has been partly bad and I’ve picked my way around to find enough to chunk. And then I discovered it was heavenly with the pâté. Apologies to everyone who’s experienced my ‘you must not sully an Alphonso’ tirade. Though I do think shoving them in a smoothie is a step too far.

As the last mouthful of mango salsa slid into my mouth I realised that, because Icelandic volcanic dust has brought air freight to a halt, Alphonsos will be stuck, and rotting, in Bombay – and the livelihoods of the pickers and packers will be at risk. I know buying them is bad for my carbon footprint but my guilt is balanced by the fact that I’m helping (I hope) some of the poorest and most exploited people in the world – in my home town. Let’s hope flights resume soon, not just to satisfy my Alphonso addiction.

(Interesting napkin ring? It’s an Indian toe ring – purely decorative and, yes, from my childhood.)

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Avocado, anchovy and Parmesan salad

I’ve borrowed this recipe (slightly adapted) from Mark Hix, whose column in The Independent magazine is one of my favourite things about Saturdays. I’ve loved his column from the start but I still miss Simon Hopkinson’s weekly words. I had a huge thrill when he (Simon) walked past me in Chiswick’s Waitrose, not long after it opened.  Annoyingly, I was already in the queue for the check-out so I couldn’t trail him to inspect his food-shopping habits. I haven’t spotted Mark Hix out and about anywhere but I have been within a couple of yards of Gordon Ramsay (cheering him along during a marathon a few London marathons ago; he looked at me in astonishment when I, astonishing myself, heard myself shouting “Go, Gordon. Go!”).

Mark recommends Pecorino romano; Parmesan is in second place on his list. As I’m addicted to cheese (and recently gave it up, as a daily diet) I thought I’d be more at risk of eating the whole chunk of Pecorino and that I might just nibble at the Parmesan, exercising what passes for self-control with me.  Plus my fantastic deli (Mortimer & Bennett) sells Parmesan already wrapped in bits so I could choose a small bit and feel very smug. I set off – another lovely day, blossom everywhere, students relaxing on the green, no smoke tracks in the sky, a bit more volcano dust on my car (apparently it fell in Chiswick over the weekend) and came a cropper. No Pecorino romano.

You see my problem? I set off for Parmesan and my will power doesn’t even last the four minute walk. “But we do have Pecorino Sardo,” said the French girl behind the counter (whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I still don’t know). “What’s the difference?” I asked, as I noticed that Pecorino is a ewe’s milk cheese and so not as bad for me as cow’s milk Parmesan. I discovered that romano is the  hardest of the Pecorinos; sardo comes next followed by Toscano and Siciliano, the softest and milkiest.  “Perhaps I could have a taste,” I heard myself say, increasing my calorie intake before deciding on the one that was recommended first. And then a remarkable thing happened. The wire cutter slipped, the slice was smaller than I’d asked for, I was offered a bigger piece – and I said no thank you.

Lunch

Half an avocado (ripe, obviously)

Three or four slivers of anchovy in olive oil (I buy them in jars)

25g Parmesan (or Pecorino romano, if you have willpower)

Walnut oil

An oatcake

  1. Run a knife through the avocado flesh from side to side in strips, cutting down to but not through the skin. Carefully scoop out the slices with a teaspoon. Scrape any remaining flesh from the peel and eat (no one’s looking). My mother told me that her mother called this “cook’s perks”. It applies to the oysters of a chicken (or turkey), too. Arrange the avocado pieces on a plate.
  2. Chop the anchovy fillets into chunks and dot them over the avocado.
  3. Flake the Parmesan (I used a veg peeler) and scatter it over the avocado and anchovy.
  4. Drizzle with walnut oil (enough to moisten it, not create a slick).
  5. The oatcake adds a bit of bulk and slow energy-releasing carbs for afternoon energy.

Can you spot the avocado underneath the cheese?

It was divine – a satisfyingly flavourful mix of sweet, salt, cream, crunch, subtle, strong all in balance. The dreaminess of the avocado came through the powerpacked anchovy; the dry crunch of the Pecorino added contrasting texture (crisply salty romano would be even better); the oil gave it a nuance of nuttiness. It didn’t need the oatcake.

And there’s still some Pecorino in the fridge. For the moment.

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