I admit that I love olive oil. I am no expert and my knowledge is minimal, but as a grower of fine italian tomatoes, that time in late summer when I can sit on the patio, slice the richest red orb into delicate slices and splash them with golden-green oil, cornish sea salt and fresh ground pepper, is a priceless moment.
I was overjoyed to discover, therefore, that an old radio pal got herself into the oil business some years ago without me even noticing!
Natalie Wheen is one of those priceless people that if you don’t enjoy the experience, it is your fault for sitting in the wrong room. I worked with her on an arts review program played out on Concorde, loosely based on a radio 4 format. It was a delicate collection of personalities; the dulcet tones of Paul Vaughan held the program together, the truly wonderful Sheridan Morely trod the boards and dear Natalie massacred any classical performance that was not up to the mark. It was the highlight of my month, to be honest all those years ago, and I miss it to this day.
Well, about 15 or so years ago, she and a friend acquired a greek property complete with olive groves and over the years they have built a flourishing olive oil business, organic, award winning and I am completely jealous. They now have two groves and Natalie is more likely to be seen entertaining the delighted crowds at a food festival than heard beating up some poor, overworked quartet.
This cannot be a review as I have not yet tasted the output from their groves on Lesvos, but I surely hope to and when I do, I will report back – promise!
The people around the mediterranean know what makes a good party. They know the ingredients, the method, what is required and what should happen. They understand that a party only becomes a trues success if it is centred around an event and an entertainment. They have also worked out that the best entertainment, the best event is food.
There is nothing more boring, more mundane and more of a mood killer than the standard British buffet. This abomination, this complete insult to everything that is good about food has been given far too long a life; it should have been kicked out of the house many decades ago because it is, without doubt, a total party pooper. Since when does a party take on life and joy by the addition of three bowls of crisps, an anemic cold rice dish, a preprocessed slop of egg and salad cream on a pappy roll and those horrendous fake scandinavian tasteless prawn rings?
Compare that to Tapas. Tapas is a rolling adventure that originates in the tiny, local bars of rural spain. These small family run concerns often only have one chef, so Tapas does not happen all at once, it rolls out bit by hot, delicious bit over an entire evening. Every few minutes, platefuls of delicious mouthfulls of food appear on the bar or a large serving table, to be gobbled up enthusiastically by the combined greediness of a crowd constantly hungry for more. The bar may have music and fun and lots of Spanish beer and wine, but it is the food, the Tapas and its imaginative creator that sets the mood and keeps the party going.
This makes it perfect for a party at home, of course since you do not need to have everything ready at once. Indeed, it is far better that you don’t. That does not make it easy – this is hard work – but it makes it a lot of fun. Here is the trick of doing it.
Spend a couple of weeks looking up what you want to cook, taking into account your guests likes and dislikes (Try and invite people who really love food – those who prefer prawn rings should fall off your christmas card list). This is fun in itself; finding the sites with the most genuine advice and recipes and translating that into what you can buy locally. Make sure you have far more dishes ready that you are actually going to make. Don’t worry about variety or whether the food clashes; you want that to happen. The guests need to be surprised, so go as mad as you want/can, have fun and just make sure it is rich, luscious and leaves your guests hungry.
Shop just the day before, as usual, and remember that on the day of the cook you are going to spend THE WHOLE DAY doing it, so if there are any bits that you can prepare the night before to marinate, go for it and get a good nights sleep. There are some set ingredients you will use that you must have – herbs (parsley and oregano), peppers, chorizo, goats cheese, Manchego (hard sheep’s cheese), paprika, garlic, chilli and loads of olive oil.
Most of the cooking will be done the actual night of the party and continuously throughout the party, so during the day you need to create little bags of pre-prepared ingredients ready to go. Somethings you can get halfway done. For instance, Tortilla (Spanish omelette) is based on slow fried potatoes, so get those done earlier so you can do the tortilla much easier. If things need tomato sauce bases (like meat balls) get those cooked and ready to warm an mix in. Get all your peppers stuffed and your squids, get your shell fish cleaned and prepared and fillet your fish. You know the drill.
You will use lots of serving dishes. Remember, this is a spectacular, so no matching. You can use metal baking tins, pottery dishes, old victorian bits, tin foil, baskets – the more variation the better. Nothing formal – rural is the name of the game, this is village fare that has become trendy; honour its origins.
Face it, you will be knackered by the end of the night so think about kidnapping a couple of guests to help you with a little bit of waiting and doing things like sticking cocktail sticks in things. Have fun, buy your selves some really big, proper butcher’s aprons and put on bandanas – it looks right and keeps hair out of the food.
When you bring out dishes, don’t do it quietly. Never expect a good party to run itself – you are the chef, you are in charge and it is your responsibility to make the entire thing an event. Announce each dish, explain what it is and really go for the ooh’s and ahhs and hopefully some applause. You should be showing off like mad – You and Your food ARE the party!
Trust me – if you really break your back, really go for it, people will talk about it for years. People are so expectant of crisps and prawn rings that they won’t know what hit them – they will love it.
So, I did one of these last night for eleven people. The cost of the ingredients came to around £90 and I was on my feet from eight in the morning when I put my dough on, till the early hours. Today I am shattered, but everyone had a great time. Here is what I dished up, more or less:
Toasts with olive oil and roasted veg
Mini spare ribs
Cold tomatoes stuffed with onion, olives and grated Manchego
Long thin pickled peppers
Warm olives with warm olive oil, lemon and goats cheese#
Deep fried sprats till crunchy
chicken kebabs – little ones in the middle of huge wooden skewers
Tortilla with potato and peppers
Roasted dates wrapped in pancetta
Potatoes deep fried and served with a tomato sauce and home made mayonnaise
Baked quails eggs with serrano ham and cheese
Sardine fillets cooked on toasts with lemon and olive oil and chilli
Tiny Meatballs (found in EVERY tapas bar)
Plate full of marinated anchovies
Big bowl of olives
Squid stuffed with rice and tuna
Peppers stuffed with salmon and potato (traditionally done with salt cod, but the salmon was cheap)
Bowl of dates, nuts and chillis
Baby closed mushrooms fried with sherry
Rice cooked with saffron and herbs served in cup-cake cases
Chorizo cooked in a little wine
grilled mackerel fillets
Peppers and Serrano ham tossed in hot oil and lots of oregano
And a couple of more I forget now that I made up as I went along.
The Spanish have a saying, “Me casa es su casa.” My house is your house. Prove it by giving your guests an evening they will remember.
A small collection of village folk arrived at the residence today for a luncheon. Well, in my own way, I felt this mostly Christian band could do with some good and honest Jewish sustenance, so Salt Beef would be the main event.
Where I was brought up many of our neighbours were Jewish, mostly from families who had emigrated to this country arriving in the East End of London. Salt Beef was very much a part of their culture and when I visited with my friends, it seemed to be a regular event at lunch.
Now, I have to admit that I did not do the brining myself this time round as our butchers, Parrott Bros in Whitchurch, Bucks have a briner and were happy to do the job. They are also the proud owners of the famous, award winning Beechmoor Herd of Aberdeen Angus, so their beef is well worth trying.
However, I thoroughly recommend you do brine your own – it really is pretty easy and there are recipes everywhere.
So, onto the lunch.
I picked up the beef from its three week soak in the briner at the weekend, and at eight this morning, started cooking it in a large pot, completely covered with water and with added carrots, celery, a whole head of garlic, tablespoon of pepper corns, a teaspoon of nutmeg, some coriander seeds, an onion, and 3 red beetroot.
That lot cooked for four hours at a gently rolling simmer. I served it up hot together with Rye bread I made yesterday and pickled cucumber that we made a couple of months ago – a really, fresh tasting pickle with lots of spices in it.
It went down well, even if the genteel village folk insisted in eating it with a knife and fork. Well, except the one lady from Ohio, who took one look at the fare and shoved a huge pile of beef between two slices of rye, complete with mustard and pickle and sat there happily munching through the lot. Now, that was a lady who knows her salt beef!
But however you eat it, do eat it! In the UK we have mangled the wonderful salt beef into tins of less than interesting corned beef and seemed to have forgotten this low cost but truly wonderful meal made from brisket. It doesn’t even need to be the best beef around! This will make a meal out of just about anything.
So, don’t let the trendy London media types in Soho be the only ones to eat great hot piles of beef and mustard, go buy a brisket and get brining! You will love it.
This is a gentle but warming dish for those who do not want to get stuffed, but want a rich taste to last the evening. It only takes about ten minutes to prepare and 20 to 30 minutes to cook and so is ideal for a working day.
You can vary the ingredients, to be honest, even moving it away from the East Asian influence I have here. The most important idea is that this is fish steamed in the oven over stock and served on a bed of cooked cabbage.
Ingredients for two people
2 fillets of fresh smoked haddock
400 mil fish stock
2 tablespoons coconut cream
1 stick lemon grass
1 thumb size of fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic
3 spring onions
1/4 bulb of fennel
2 lime leaves
big handful green cabbage
small handful french beans
ground nut oil
Fist of coriander
Good chilli powder
How to do it
The haddock will be steamed in an oven. So, take a small roasting tin or pan and cover it with thickly sliced fennel bulb and the carrots. Slice up the lemon grass very thinly and scatter over the top. Chop up the ginger and 2 of the garlic cloves and scatter this over too. Finely chop up the stalks of the coriander, keeping the leaf for later, and scatter this over. Tear up the lime leaves and add them. Add the coconut cream and the stock.
Stir it all up and then gather the carrot and fennel in the middle. Lay the fillets of haddock on top and then cook in an oven for around 20-30 minutes at 200 degrees C.
While that is cooking, finely chop the cabbage, the other cloves of garlic and the spring onions. Stir fry them with the beans in a little ground nut oil, salting to taste and adding chilli powder so it has a gentle heat. Do not cook this too hot or the cabbage will catch and it will be inedible! Just get a little toastiness to it.
In a separate saucepan, poach a couple of eggs.
Pile the cabbage in the middle of two large bows. Place the carrots and fennel on top and then the fish. Ladle the stock out round the edge. Top with an egg and chopped coriander.
And that is your lot. Quick, easy, warming and delicious. Healthy too!
Why do retailers produce incredibly high calorie food?
Well, it is simple really. They know that modern society loves over the top food and they know that high calorie food eaten on a regular basis makes us hungrier both physically and psychologically. So, why not? As a retailer you would be stupid to worry about health issues in case they got in the way of fat profits. After all, tobacco companies have been trading on that ideal for years.
In the race to be more gross than anyone else, enter Hungry Horse, a chain of pub restaurants in the UK owned by the old Green King brewery. The chain has been going since 1995 and serves value offerings – a sort of modern, fast food version of a gastro pub.
They have imported an idea from the US of multi layered burger sandwiched between two glazed doughnut rings and come up with a product that kicks in at 1900 plus calories – that is more than the entire daily allowance for a female and pretty much all of it for a male. It is 500 calories more than my current diet!
According to the BBC, Mel Wakeman, senior lecturer in Applied Physiology at Birmingham City University, said: “To me, this is simply ludicrous and irresponsible. I am no killjoy but why is this sort of food available?”
But this is not about being irresponsible. That makes it sound like they are not really bothered about whether something is fattening or not. Of course they care. They know well that the selling of this kind of food over a couple of generations has made us hungrier, greedier, perhaps, and more likely to buy more. This kind of food makes a fortune and Hungry Horse are jumping on a well known bandwagon.
They go further too – one of their dishes clocks up over 3000 calories.
Hungry Horse themselves make the point that they cater for a range of tastes and appetites and print the nutritional information on the menu.
However true that might be, no business sells something because they don’t think they can make a profit out of it. They do it because they see pound signs. That is the only reason they are selling this lump of fat, sugar and salt.
Drink slowly, but drink thoughtfully – that is how to enjoy the finest coffee
(Me, about two minutes ago)
Years ago, around 1997 I think, I had the privilege to record old man Illy in our studios in London. Ernesto, would that have been his name?
Today, I set up my coffee machine in my small studio at home (I am a composer these days) and made myself a wonderful Espresso – Illy, of course. It took me back to that interview.
Illy was accompanied by two young women and he was absolutely wicked, in a charming, mischievous way. But we did chat about coffee, something I am very passionate about. His English was dreadful, as I remember it, but one of the young ladies (who I think may have been a daughter or granddaughter) worked hard to keep up with the translating between the jokes.
He is among several people who have come to the studio and, though the work was simple, impressed me with their wit. Another was Michael Anderson, director of films such as the Dam Busters, Around the World in 80 days and Logans Run. I spent a week with him recording extra dialogue for his last film, The New Adventures of Pinocchio with Warwick Davis and Martin Landau. He sat in the studio, content to let me direct and just fill our week with wonderful stories from an incredible career – most of them completely unrepeatable. I also had a memorable couple of days with Alessandro Alessandroni. He wrote some music for Toby Russell, son of Ken, for a modern day marshal arts sequel of the famous Trinity spaghetti western films. Alessandro was another full of stories, and since I am also a musician, we quickly fell into swapping stories and jokes that completely alienated dear Toby and the producers. Oops! We did have a lot of fun, however.
Back to Illy, the old man really believed in the purity of good coffee and told me that whatever coffee I drank in any part of the world, always make sure it was an honest product. (And make sure it was Illy because he needed the cash!) He wasn’t exactly flattering about coffee in the UK and even less flattering about the growing chains like Starbucks. He pointed out that there was far more to coffee than what it looked like or how slick the barista was.
I agree. Back in the day, I used to buy coffee from the Algerian Coffee Shop in Old Compton Street, London. They did a special blend which I adored and I miss greatly since I moved out of London. But, Illy is good and now I have my machine up and running right next to my desk, I will continue to drink slowly, but thoughtfully and enjoy every sip.
So, tonight, I made myself a second cup and took a photo of it while I was at it – this cup is dedicated to that wicked Old Man Illy who died back in 2008 – it was an honour to meet him and talk about coffee.