30 November 2009

Island Life

Anyone who's met me will know where I stand on the (ongoing / endless) disclosure debate, so I'm not going to get into it now. Mind you, I'm a little upset that I wasn't even asked to plug Douwe Egberts...

Never mind. In the spirit of the mood, perhaps I should point out that my trip to Cyprus wasn't me, a backpack and a list of interesting local foodstuffs I had to try. It was a properly organised press trip for a handful of journalists and I was there because I had a commission from one of my outlets. In the meantime though, paid or not, I figured it was worth a bit of a blog not least because it's one of the prettiest places I've ever seen with water so clear it takes your breath away.

There's a real honesty to Cypriot food that, happily, we got to experience a lot during our whistlestop journey around the island. Press trips are so often about "the best" that they frequently take you to the higher end restaurants. That's not a complaint, obviously, and I've never knowingly turned down a Michelin star, but so often that definition of "the best" means "identikit dining experience" and you could be anywhere. While there were a couple of those meals, for the most part we hit little (and not so little) taverns all across the island for more straightforward Cypriot eating - with very pleasing results.

You'd be pushed to tell the difference between a Cypriot meze and A N Other meze but no matter: this is simple, straightforward, robust and enjoyable eating and you can never have too much of that.

Lamb, obviously, featured heavily although one of the stand outs for me was a goat kleftiko. We watched as the chef chiselled off the clay sealing the oven, opened the door and removed the joint that had been gently cooking away on carob leaves for most of the day. The result was meat that slipped off the bone with a satisfying, gentle "whump" and a flavour that resembled the richness of mutton. The slow-roasted potatoes were also a little bit good.

Rabbit stifado, with joyously sweet braised onions, was another highlight

and I can't talk Cyprus without mentioning halloumi, of course. This will probably get a post in its own right shortly, having watched someone make the cheese by hand, in a little room on their farm, but it's remarkable how something so bland can be so addictive when it's grilled.

Trahana was also a revelation. This is a soup made with balls of yoghurt-soaked wheat which have been left to try in the sun. These can then be stored for weeks before being thrown into a pan with a boiling chicken. The resulting sharp, milky stock finished with a squeeze of lemon juice - and what lemon juice! - is trahana. While the dish itself may be tricky to recreate in the UK (you need about five days of continual sunshine to dry the wheat so, yeah, we're kinda screwed), it was a good reminder that decent lemon juice can lift so many flavours.

Perhaps my favourite meal though was the seafood meze. A beautifully meaty grouper, a plate of beautifully fried red mullet, creamy taramasalata plus, of course, the inevitable beans, punchy olives and vibrant, crunchy Greek-by-any-other-name salad. Amazing what sunshine can do to vegetables and fruit: you really could live happily on the tomatoes and bread.

And that brings me to my favourite food moment of the trip. After a morning watching the making of boureki - in this instance, little sweetened cheese and cinnamon ravioli-like parcels -

we were taken to the local olive press, via the sight of a wizened olive picker combing his way through the branches of a tree.

The olive press is a beautiful community idea. Anyone who grows olives brings them to the site. They get their harvest weighed, washed, crushed and pressed, before filling a variety of containers with their own olive oil. Instead of something like seven or eight Euros a litre, the growers pay 10 cents a kilo (plus a small share of the resulting oil) and, in most cases, take away all the olive oil they'll need for the year.

The smell, as you can imagine, was amazing: green, peppery, vibrant, the sort of aroma that strokes away almost imperceptibly at the taste buds. At the point I realised I was hungry, our host appeared with a plate of toast.

The bread was dusted with sesame seeds, perfectly grilled, then drizzled with local olive oil and a generous squeeze of lemon and then sprinkled with rock salt. Simple, satisfying perfection.

15 November 2009

The Comeback Kings

As any fule kno, this country is scattered with hidden restaurant gems. Admittedly the concentration gets better as you approach the larger major cities and there are still vast swathes of the UK where "locally sourced" means "we picked it up at Iceland this morning". But it is getting better and, happily, my latest discovery Roz-Ana is only a little removed from the centre of London and a relatively short stroll from Norbiton station.

I was invited down by Oni Banurji, one of the owners and a friend of a friend. The message I received was that they reckoned a high proportion of Kingston / Norbiton locals were commuters and, as such, have probably had experience of more original, more upscale Indian cuisine al Tamarind or Veeraswamy et al. Why not, therefore, give them a similar smart and modern experience on their doorstep?

My local mate, the curry-addicted Pete, put it more succinctly. "Roz-Ana? It's a very good curry house, far more upmarket than your regular place but not up its own arse."

While Oni's comments are more likely to make it onto the posters, Pete also had a point. This is Indian cuisine elevated by excellent ingredients, a classy well lit setting, a decent little wine list and, most of all, by an exceptionally talented kitchen team - executive chef Deepinder Sondhi, formerly of Chor Bizzarre, Sitaaray and Tamarai, and Satya Jena, formerly of assorted five star hotels across India, Tamarind and Imli. I commented recently that Imli had gone substantially downhill. I think I've just found out why...

Roz-Ana translates as "come back every day" in Hindi. That works as both their philosphy and a neat summary of diner reaction. I recently went to Tamarind with my editor from 1 Degree and we had an excellent lunch that rattled, without any great effort, past the £200 mark. It was superb but value for money? Debatable. We ate like kings at Roz-Ana, with four starters, four mains, lots of bread, the best damn Dal Makhani I've had for many a year and some excellent, well-matched Pinot Noir and two puddings and only just broke the £100 barrier. Value for money? Hell yes. We only achieved that through blatant piggery. Had we been sensible, we could have brought lunch in at £30 a head and still have taken a doggy bag home.

Starters were beautifully presented, an artistic flourish before the more "family style" mains. Pete got quite poetic - Indian food'll do that to Pete - describing the starters as "summer - all light and clean" while the mains "gave way to autumn, with more robust portions and spicing."

So, the highlights. Seared scallops with lotus root crisps were exquisite

ditto coconut soft shell crab and Shahi salmon: the latter, in particular, was soft, moist, perfectly spiced and deceptively robust.

But then there were the lamb chops. I like Tayyabs' lamb chops, really I do, but these? So much more meaty, so much more tender, so lip-fizzingly spicy. When I get to this year's inevitable top ten dishes consumed, these bad boys will be up there.

On the main front, the breads - particularly the seeded sour dough naan - and the Dal could have kept me very happy. But the whole lambshank?

The Goan prawn curry? Both were superb. Even so, they were possibly trumped by the crackling-topped Pork Belly Vinha d'alhos (reminiscent of Simon Majumdar's excellent Portuguese-inspired recipe)

and... fanfare please: the Chicken Tikka Masala.

Sorry if that's made you splutter, and I'm fully expecting a backlash / the rescinding of any foodie rights I've earned over the years but let me finish. The dish is actually billed as Chicken Tikka Laphroaig Masala as Deepinder finishes the dish with a flambee of that bordering-on-the-medicinal Islay classic. You're left with a smokiness, an underlying peatiness that takes this often flabby Anglicised dish and shows its full potential. Come back everyday? With the promise of a couple of lambchops and a Laphroaig Tikka, I probably would if I lived any closer.

Even the puddings, generally never a strong point with Indian restaurants, impressed. Chocolate samosas - like chocolate fondant encased in the lightest of pastry - oozed comfortingly across the plate (with the Malibu cream adding a neat, charmingly retro counterpoint) but were just overshadowed by the Darjeeling Creme Brulee.

I usually subscribe to the "don't bugger about with it" school of thought re brulees, but this was a pleasing twist, although it took the accompanying cardamom cookies to really kick it into orbit.

Interestingly, as Oni had earlier promised, even with our quantity of ordering, there's a lightness to the food that doesn't leave you feeling sluggish. We wandered away replete and re-energised, our tongues still giddy with excitment.

A one word summary? GO.

4-8 Kingston Hill
Kingston upon Thames
Surrey KT2 7NH
Tel: 020 8546 6388

9 November 2009

Up The Apples & Pears

There is, it seems a basic rule of thumb when it comes to food and drink. Small and artisan = good. Big and mass-produced = bad. I'm as guilty as anyone of making this assumption although I really should know better. Having judged at the Great Taste Awards this year, there is a lot of proof out there that, actually, thousands of small artisan producers wouldn't know a decent product if it fell on them.

I particularly remember a pie that looked astonishing and tasted of nothing. The person who produced it had brought it in specifically to make sure that the judges got the best out of it, and issued very specific instructions on how it should be cut and served. It looked fabulous: thick, crusty, generous layers of meats and apricots and stuff that, together, should have worked. It tasted of nothing. It might, as the label stated, count "love" as one of its ingredients (no, really) but they should take the love out and slap in some decent ingredients instead. Besides, is it just my schoolboy sense of humour, or does everybody get the same slightly unnerving mental image about adding love to a pie?

I recently had further proof that mass-produced is not inherently evil with a trip to Magners. One of the huge drinks successes of recent years, Magners Cider has become about as ubiquitous as a drink can be. While I'm not convinced by the "over ice" thing - because watering down isn't exactly what I'm looking for with an alcoholic beverage - it's a decent product: good apple flavour, not sickly sweet and not too mad on the alcohol front. Had you asked me to compare it to some tiny cider maker's scrumpy, I'd have probably done the "expected" foodie thing and sided with the small producer because hey, small = passionate and mass production = evil, right?

Ask me now though, and I'd probably go with the Magners. It's not, as some have suggested, corporate brainwashing. It's because actually, a lot of scrumpy-style cider isn't particularly pleasant. It's like the old Sam Smith's joke: it's cooking cider. Magners has done well because it's a pleasant drink and, actually, their philosophy isn't so different from your common-or-garden artisan producer.

It was, basically, a fascinating trip. We started at the original "factory", a slightly ramshackle arrangement in a little side street in Clonmel. Apples were delivered to the apple yard, pressed, and the juice placed in large maturing vats where the natural yeasts in the apples mean the juice will ferment for a year or more. Fruit juice, yeast, time: as our guides explained, cider is really apple wine.

Since those 1930s origins though, the company has expanded somewhat. The original site is now a curiosity, with the new multi-acred site outside Clonmel the real hub. However, while it's been expanded to a vast scale - we're talking vats containing millions of gallons - the principles are exactly the same. What you get in a bottle of Magners now is essentially the same as you'd have got back in the day.

And I mean that quite literally. A PhD student spent a number of years looking at thre original vats and isolating hundreds of different yeasts that had developed over time, studying what they brought to the cider, from colour to flavour. They've now grown six strains of yeast from these original samples which are used to make the cider. The rest - apple juice and time - is as it's always been.

It was a fascinating day, from now knowing the answer to the question "what does 30 tonnes of apples falling into a pit sound like?"

to watching the quite brilliant bottling and packing machines do their thing.
Remember those "through the round window" clips on Playschool? It was like one of those only real. I also got the chance to try Magners as it came through the filtering process at a whopping 11%.

The verdict? That's the point you realise it is apple wine.

Another enlightening moment came with a direct comparison with Kopparberg. I've had a lot of cider-drinking friends tell me that this "premium" Swedish product is the real McCoy. It really isn't. It's made from concentrated apple juice and tastes like pear drops, oh and that premium label? Doesn't mean a thing. You can call it whatever you want, within reason.

The Koppaberg, for the record, is the insipid looking one on the left.

Most interesting? Watching the Magners staff interact. Everyone seemed to know each other, and everyone seemed genuinely connected to and passionate about the product. Two guys even came out of retirement to show us the original site. One of them had even helped build the original vats and was a friend of the original Mr Magner. It might be a huge venture these days but that small scale passion is still very evident.