You know, I hadn't noticed the ambiguity of the headline until I wrote it. You can leave it as it stands (which was the intention for this less-than-comprehensive look back at 2010) or add a word or two to add your own slant: that was the year that was... "brilliant", for example. Or "crap". Or "delicious". Or "the year we sacrificed logic to be ruled by a spam-faced fascist robot" but hey, that's what I seethe over in the pub, not what this blog is about.
As far as this final post goes - the 69th of the year? How did THAT happen? - the focus is, of course, not on political opinions coming out of my mouth but lovely food and drink that went in. There was, inevitably, quite a lot of it: some good, some bad, some indifferent. The latter two we'll ignore in the name of positivity so, without further ado - or comments about our pauper-goading PM - here's a Top Ten (sort of) of 2010.
As with the X Factor, I'm not going for any particular order here except for the number one slot and there will be some honourable mentions along the way. There are also a few things that very nearly made it - Mrs L's Victoria Sponge for one, not to mention Mrs L's porter bread - The thing that's struck me most as I compiled this list is how simple the food is. Yes, there's some considerable patience and flair involved in getting the relevant dishes to the plate, from the time and effort involved in producing great ingredients to the assembling of said ingredients, but the actual dishes? There was a point this list included two soups, three risottos, two sandwiches, three pieces of meat and something with Bird's Custard. To paraphrase the bald one, cooking really doesn't get simpler than that.
To start then, a risotto. July saw me - luckily and happily - ensconced in the delightful South Tyrol for a few days. As well as being one of the loveliest groups of people it's been my pleasure to go away with, it was three days and nights of wonderful scenery and even better food. The area is host to something like 14 Michelin stars and we did three of them. There were many dishes that could have made it into this list - the amazing pizzas on the first night, the polenta, potato and cheese dish we were served up a mountain, a plate of superb speck on a balcony as the sun slowly set, the risotto at the very odd silent meal - but the dish I keep thinking back to was part of the final meal at Norbert Niederkofler's St Hubertus restaurant: risotto with dwarf pine needed and smoked breast of guinea fowl. As he showed us later, the risotto is cooked over a wood-fired stove as he believes that gentler heat works wonders. It does. A dish of glorious textures, magnificent flavours - fresh, warming, smoky - and a combination I've never had before. Mr Niederkofler I salute you.
Meat next I think. While first experienced in 2009, I ventured back to Norbiton's Roz-Ana twice this year, mainly for one dish: the lamb chops. I really cannot recommend them highly enough. Massive flavours, big spicing but still that lambiness shines through. Bugger it. I think I have to pop back in January. Who's in?
Somewhat inevitably, Mooli's are my next highlight. While it might look like I'm doing their PR, I'm really not. I just like Mat and Sam enormously - two of the hardest working men in food - and love the food. The fact that I have a quote in the toilets is just the icing on the cake. I always knew they'd make it to this list, my problem was for which single dish? After, ahem, extensive research, I think I've got it, that single distilled moment of perfect Mooliness. It's not, as you might suspect, the goat, although that's an excellent sandwich. It's not the zingy, hangover curing, all-is-right-with-the-world carbohydrate joy of the "secret" under-the-counter chat Mooli. It's not the sinus-clearing, lip-smacking recent addition of chick pea. Ladies and gents I give you... the final, marvellously messy mouthful of a paneer Mooli. And if I can ever bear to wait for a few seconds when I eat it, I might even take a picture.
Another sandwich next and a homemade one and, undoubtedly, the easiest thing here to recreate. If anyone needed proof that keeping it simple and using the best possible ingredients was the key to culinary happiness then they should have popped over the other Saturday. After a morning of local errands and supermarketing, we were ravenous by the time we got home. In the bag was a carton of Burford Brown eggs and a good, crusty, still warm baguette. In the fridge, some Denhay bacon. Ten minutes later after some hot pan action, we had our feet up, cups of tea steaming in front of us, and the golden, yolk-dripping joys of the perfect egg and bacon buttie. I did think about taking a photo at the time but the belly overruled that decision.
Keeping with the breakfast theme, February saw me in Texas for two fantastic weeks for a couple of features and, as a by-product, a lot of blogging. A lot of award-nominated blogging as it happens but that's not important right now. He says, smugly. Anyway, Texas was a knockout in terms of people, places and platefuls. Friends, family and regular readers will know my tastes often tend towards the spicy and Texas, with its obvious Mexican influences, satisfied that addiction with ease. As well as providing the single hottest chili I've ever eaten, it reacquainted me with that breakfast of champions, Huevos Rancheros, the best example of which came at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. Cheers chaps.
I've long argued that the joy of food isn't just about what's on the plate. The setting, the circumstances, the company all play their part and nowhere was this better illustrated than on a beach in Kent in September. After an excellent day foraging, appetites were already running rampant: there's nothing like fresh air and exercise to make you feel you deserve a good meal. Dinner was spectacular though, from the deep-fried dangerous delights of sea weed (woks of hot oil and open fires add a certain amount of adrenaline to any appetiser), through the sea bass main course to the best pudding of the year: apple and plum crumble cooked on open flame. Yes, it was a little charred, yes, the fruit was a little sharper than you would ideally like and yes, the custard had a slight (but delicious) smoky edge. But it's still my favourite, most memorable pudding of the year.
Travel and food played a big part in 2010. Hopefully that's a pattern that will repeat in 2011 with a couple of big trips slowly shaping up, subject to commissions kicking in but, even if it doesn't, I can't complain after trips to Abu Dhabi, Texas, Italy, Greece and Rotterdam. Each had some options for this list: as well as the aforementioned Huevos Rancheros and risotto, the Hakkasan in Abu Dhabi and the herring in Rotterdam were certainly in contention. While there's more to come from Texas, Greece had to get a look in thanks to the lovely Maria Elia. She was cooking as part of the Sani Resort's Gourmet Food Festival - a resort / festival I'd recommend wholeheartedly - and, with a single shotglass of chilled tomato, peach and ginger soup, forced her way high into this list. Sweet but with a mouthwatering edge of umami and a lip-tingling bite of chili, it stopped us all in our tracks. I attempted to recreate it myself with some success, but would suggest seeking out anything Maria's doing on the offchance this soup will be part of the menu. I understand she may have her own place in London next year. As soon as I've finished typing, I shall be crossing my fingers...
Risotto make its final appearance now. In any other year, the odd but brilliant combination of maple syrup and bone marrow would have secured its place on this list but something had to go and, after tasting the truffle risotto at Gauthier just before Christmas, Italian eccentricity was always going to be the fall guy. Cooking doesn't get much more elaborate yet simple than truffle risotto, a basic dish flavoured with that most exclusive of fungi but, done well, one that has been known to bring me to tears. The first time that happened was at Chez Nico. Yes, I know that sounds deeply pretentious but sometimes food will do that, sneaking up and getting all Ratatouille on your arse. The risotto at Gauthier had damn near the same effect.
Home stretch now, chaps, and more meat. While the Roast burger nearly made it on (and the roast potato option is now on the menu), ditto Hawksmoor's crack-like Kimchi burger, the beef that blew me away the most in 2010 was a piece of ribeye in Goodman. As well as being my first "normal" meal at Goodman, after the fun of John Cadieux's In n Out tribute burger, a brilliant afternoon eating at a table in the kitchen and the unforgettable afternoon eating 100 day aged steak with Simon Majumdar, it was another confirmation that quality ingredients simply cooked are all you need. Mid-dinner I turned to my companion as another effortless slice of ribeye fell to the plate and commented that this was either the best piece of steak I've ever eaten or the best steak knife I've ever used. We decided it was probably a combination of the two.
And so, finally, to the genuine number one, the single best thing I've eaten this year. And that thing was... soup. Typically, it's perhaps the least photogenic of anything else I'm discussing so you will have to take my word for it. That, or make it, given that the chef very graciously gives away many of his secrets at his excellent website. The chef in question is Dallas legend Dean Fearing. The soup is his "Tortilla Soup with South of the Border flavors". The result is more flavour, texture and spice than I thought it possible to squeeze into an inch or so of liquid. If I had three wishes right now, one of them would be a bowl of this - or at least a commission from a friendly newspaper or magazine to go back and cook this dish with the man himself. Words cannot do this bowl of wonderfulness justice, but my mouth is watering at a Niagara-like rate as I remember those fleeting spoonfuls in what was undoubtedly the best dinner I had this year.
So that, my fellow food-lovers, was 2010 and here's to a Happy New Year. Your own reminiscences are of course welcome - not least as they might well inspire my own food memories of 2011...