Tuesday, March 16, 2010

London's first sherry bar: Bar Pepito

I am a sucker for invitations; launch parties, red carpet, front row - hey, even back row - and I'm there. It's partly because of an ingrained over-achiever ticklist I can't seem to shake, but also an insatiable curiousity. I like to know what's going on and I love learning new things. I realised last year you can't say yes to everything (without physical and mental health sufferance!) so I have started to be more selective. Before this starts sounding too much like some kind of dating profile, the point is that two weeks ago I got an invitation that was far too tempting: the pre-launch party for London's first sherry bar, Bar Pepito. It's a joint project between Bar Camino (of which it now completes the courtyard in Kings Cross) and Gonzalez Byass, who own the Tio Pepe and Pedro Ximenez brands.

I first encountered the masterminds behind this new adventure at their sherry exploration event last Summer where Ollie kindly let me tag along as his +1. It was here that I discovered sherry was good for more than just trifle and teeny crystal glasses for Granny at Christmas.

Andrew from Gonzalez Byass and I have been chatting since then about a port, sherry and chocolate tasting that we're going to run this year (let me know if you're interested!) and have run the first of our practise sessions (read: we sat down and ate lots of chocolate and drank lots of good wine and called it research! Hey, we took notes!). I figured this was as good an excuse as any to get more familiar with the wines.

Walking into the tiny room that is Bar Pepito is like stepping into Spain. Andrew and his colleagues spent a week exploring Spain and visiting their vineyards hijacking authentic memorabilia, tiles and prints to decorate the room (not bad fir a week's work!). This includes an incredible picture of Picasso with a bottle of Tio Pepe and the table tops are barrel lids from genuine sherry barrels.

It was great to catch up with Andrew and Martin from GB and Richard and his team from Bar Camino (and now Bar Pepito), a really inspiring bunch. The sherry flowed all evening and even the staff felt like we were in a small, family-owned tapas bar in Spain; they weren't Spanish but the knew the sherries intimately and did an impressive job of taking people through the journey from the dry Tio Pepe (the wine with thelowest sugar content in the world - great for the lack of calories, people) to the raisiny, far too moreish Pedro Ximenez (completely at the other end of the scale). There were tapas but we weren't too be distracted from the drinking, though what we saw come into other people's hands looked delicious - manchego, jamon carved from the leg at the bar. It was a mistake to forgo this as there's not much around in Kings Cross at midnight (when we left to find food). Bar Simmons (another funky small bar nearby) do let you order delivery to the bar though (just in case you're ever in the same position...).

It properly opens this Friday night. I'm sure it will be consistently crowded, but that's part of the fun, right?

Friday, February 26, 2010

My foodie family - styling and lamingtons.

OK, I think we gathered from my previous post that my family is not actually particularly foodie. Though whenever I visit Melbourne my brother and I always go out to at least one really good restaurant and he now has three kids who are proving to be quite fond of food.

Before I elaborate, my littlest niece would like to say hello to her adoring fans (check out that Queen wave!):

I ended up with tons of photos of her in her high chair - the place where she was most often found still enough to capture, and happy as well.

So now I have two nieces and a nephew who are into food (quite literally in Lila's case!) and I was excited to discover my nephew shaping up to be a food stylist in the making. I remember cooking with him and his sister years ago (they were 2 and 4 at the time) and he showed considerably more aptitude and patience for it than his otherwise more coordinated older sister. On this visit, when he noticed me taking pictures of food he offered up his own meals, styling first a hot chocolate at Cuppa Cottage (very cute little bakery in Sandringham with yummy cakes and savoury pastries - I spotted the Ottolenghi cookbook and some of the recipes oin the cabinet). By the end of my trip he was carefully plating up his BBQ and salad for my approval. Gorgeous!

Hot chocolate before and after Tom's handiwork.

I only cooked once with the kids, lamingtons at their request. Between the three of us we managed to coat the whole kitchen and ourselves with chocolate icing and coconut. Fortunately we made them straight from the pool in our swimming costumes but the kids still had to wipe their feet before they could even leave the kitchen. Great fun but allow an hour for clean up afterwards! To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of lamingtons (or vegemite - see, I am English!), but they are quintessentially Australian and must be tried. Anzac biscuits, however, are scrumptious, but frankly the lamington adventure didn't really encourage me to bake with them again, especially when the sun was shining outside!

The recipe we used:

I didn't eat out much in Australia but a post on the few places I did go plus the chocolate scene are on the way....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Homemade Tartare Sauce

I'm writing this post from my mother's computer in her classroom. She brought me in to meet her class and now that I've been introduced and I have bragged about how I have the coolest job in the world (ah, something about being inside a room papered with Times Tables and the alphabet has my maturity regressing to pre-adolescence), I've been tasked with getting cashback on the netbook she generously bought for me (thanks, mum!), as she sits on the carpet and helps her charges learn to tell the time. Being a school, all of the decent websites are blocked so I can't access Gmail, Twitter or Facebook to find out what's going on in the world. For whatever reason, blogger has not been blocked so, now that I've printed the requisite form, I feel free to whitter away the time. Unfortunately my half-written posts and pictures are not on this pc so instead of backtracking over the more interesting events I've not yet written about from the past few months, I just thought I'd say a brief hello to the world and a quick comment on regressing and food in the back of beyond.

I learnt how to cook out of necessity. I prepared a dish to go alongside my mum's chips (my mum makes the best chips) earlier this week. If you've ever seen The Castle, the reaction I got for courgettes and cannellini beans with garlic, parsley and lemon, was almost exactly like Daryl's response to everything his wife cooked:
"What's this, love?"
"Aw, that's just sponge cake, love, it came out of a packet."
"Wow. You're amazing. I am the luckiest man in the world to have a wife that can cook like this."
These are not exact quotes. It's been a while since I watched it and, yes, you really have to watch it to get it.

Anyways, they were suitably impressed that I'd managed to make something out of the next-to-nothing in the cupboards. It's flattering, but frustrating. I have informed my dear mother that I need to go to the supermarket on the way back from school. "What for?" Um... because there are no other meals I can make out of what's in the cupboards and from the vegie garden. At least, not enough to feed five people a coherent meal that will fill them up. Cousin and his lovely wife are heading down from Sydney and I want to be able to feed them and the baby-on-the-way. Plus I want to be able to make a birthday cake with unsalted butter, not margarine.

Last night my dad took my mum and I out for her birthday dinner. I was tempted to offer to cook but didn't want to rain on his parade. So we went to dine at the pub with the balcony and beautiful view. The menu options were typical of an Australian pub: Chicken Schnitzel, Chicken Parmagiana, Steak, Reef and Turf, Calamari, Fish & Chips and Seafood Basket.

The Fish and Chips were described as "beer-battered, locally-caught gummy shark served with chips, salad, homemade tartare sauce and a wedge of lemon". Oh how I wish I could get the picture from my iphone to plug in here so you could see the plate with its two plastic servings of Masterfoods' tartare sauce, and no lemon. When I asked for lemon I was told there wasn't any. I asked behind the bar and managed to get a few water-logged slices. The chips began their life as frozen oven-fries. No surprise we decided not to stay for dessert. We went home and they had a few of the Charbonnel et Walker truffles I bought for her. I had Milo. Definitely regressing. :-)

Ah well, at least the scenery was pretty!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Lex Eat... the best fish pie ever

After my dalliance into underground restaurants last Summer with an afternoon tea at Ms Marmite Lover's (in conjunction with Lavender Bakery) I'd been keen to try more of London's supperclubs but was too busy (read: slack) to get around to it. I did look into organising a private party last December but gave up and hosted my own mince pies and mulled wine evening at home. Most of my friends were keen though so when I saw that Alexis of Lex Eat was starting up her own supper club I booked a table of ten and then sent a blanket email to the people who'd attended the mince pie evening. The places were quickly snapped up.

The gorgeous Lex and her equally gorgeous partner Y put on a fabulous evening. It was exactly everything that, in my mind, supperclubs should be: delicious, homecooked food, friendly hosts and a cosy, jovial atmosphere. They have a gorgeous flat perfect for the number of people there (18, I think) and everything ran incredibly smoothly, from being greeted at the door and having our coats taken and hung up and immediately offered a glass of delicious sparkling to the end of the evening having cabs home booked for us. The only negative was that going with such a large group meant I barely spoke to all the people I knew, let alone the other lovely people, and I think that is one of the nicest part about these home restaurants.

I'll let the pictures tell you more about the evening:

funky table decorations

delicious homemade tortellini and pesto

the BEST fish pie I've ever tasted. flaky pastry and rich, creamy filling with smoked haddock and cod; the potato on the side was fabulous too.

a pre-dessert of coconut and lime sorbet - very special

a plate of 3 desserts (I was very happy!): lemon cheesecake, turkish delight and brownie.

The Turkish Delight was polarising amongst our group. Some thought it was the most amazing thing ever and others hated it. I was definitely in the former. It was original and delicately flavoured and the Persian fairy floss (candy floss) was a great addition (not to mention very pretty!).

Congrats and thanks to Lex for a fantastic evening and best of luck for the rest of them! I'm booked for Fernandez and Leluu in February and thinking I might have to get to one a month in 2010... Suggestions welcome!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Divine Divine Divine Chocolate Cocktails

It was a couple of months ago now that I crossed paths with Mathilde Of Mathilde's cuisine and she mentioned a Divine chocolate cocktail evening that she had revently attended. "um, sorry, a what cocktail evening?!". Thankfully she informed me that they had mentioned having another one and if they did she would tell them to invite me. Phew.

Mathilde is a girl of her word. Last December I was cordially invites to attend a Divine Chocolate Cocktail evening. Now, anyone who has been on a chocolate tour will know I prefer to eat my chocolate than drink it, and I was on unfortunately on antibiotics this particular evening. But I had to try at least one (and then a LOT of the chocolate truffles). There were two cocktails on offer and I opted for the berry version over the coffee option, and it really was Divine. I was so tempted to drink more. It somehow managed just the right blend of chocolate with the fruit and the alcohol to be easy to drink but still chocolatey enough to know there was chocolate in it. Slightly reminiscent of the icy chocolate drink L'Artisan make in the Summer (and actually a little like the one from Godiva too, though Artisan may be upset for me including them both in the same sentence!). Apparently the Sanderson is going to keep them on their menu. Hooray. I'll definitely be back in the Summer.

I had obviously heard of Divine before this evening but I had never made a special effort to taste their chocolate or learn more. It's my understanding that really fine quality chocolate requires a close relationship with the grower where they do get paid a premium for making the effort to grow quality beans. Therefore, I patted myself on the back for choosing superb chocolate where the farmers did get paid enough too. The reality is not everyone will choose to spend as much on chocolate as I do and it is fantastic that there is a company that is going to extended lengths to make sure that everyone who helps to get the chocolate in our hands is justly compensated for their efforts. What surprised me particularly in tasting the truffles made by David, Divine's account manger but also a former chef, was just how good they were. Incredibly moreish. A little secret I learnt that evening was that some other chocolate companies that sell bars in our supermarkets add cocoa back into their blend because they believe people expect the bitterness in 70% chocolate. Divine don't do this and thus have a smoother tasting chocolate that's pretty darn good for a high street brand. The people in the company are pretty lovely too. Not to mention you can eat it and feel good about helping the families who helped to produce it.

Earl Grey and White Chocolate with a dash of Tequila.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Goodbye 2009

I will remember it mostly as the year of eating. Ah...

I set a goal at the beginning of the year to eat in at least three Michelin starred restaurants. During two weeks in September I ate in six.

Never let it be said that goals cannot be achieved!

I haven't worked out yet what the total for the year is. It truly was an amazing year of eating. I was quick to learn that Michelin did not necessarily mean delicious, nor did lack of mean that it wouldn't be a fabulous meal. The Michelin mission was punctuated in October with the ultimate pilgrimage El Bulli. No, I still haven't blogged about it (I will), but it was an incredible experience that I am still thanking the lovely Trissa in Sydney for allowing me to go in her place.

Petit Fours at El Bulli: Just for 2 of us. I've been carrying this picture on my BlackBerry and showing anyone and everyone. Being presented with this (17 different types of chocolate!) was a definite highlight of 2010 ;-) .

I've been pretty irregular at blogging this year, ditto for newsletters to people who have signed up at Chocolate Ecstasy Tours. I would love to do more of both in 2010 but I know better than to make promises about that! I will be making resolutions, but one of the things I have learnt in the last few years is to focus on doing fewer things well, and then move onto the other stuff.

2009 was a year I went to the cinema just once, but I managed the ballet, concerts, theatre, comedy, opera, a music festival, Wimbledon, the polo and lots of eating. How cultured.

2009 was also a year I attended 4 Weddings, and a Funeral. There was a second funeral, but I didn't make it to the other hemisphere for that one.

All but one of those five events was family-centred. Strange for me, when it seems that as I get older, and especially living so far from my immediate family, it is friends, and extended relatives, who are stepping into the breach of my immediate family's physical distance. I feel so fortunate to have so many amazing relationships here in London. It is most definitely home.

I am very much looking forward to visiting my immediate family, and my other home again in just four weeks. It's especially exciting as this will also be my first full week off since November 2008. Working full time and running tours on many weekend days, and fitting in emails and bookkeeping around all that... it's been a long, but incredibly satisfying year.

Apart from the weddings in Bahrain and Serbia and a long weekend in Morocco, the only travel I managed in 2009 was with work (to be fair, these were lovely trips to Scotland, Ireland, Jersey and Spain). 2010 will be the year I travel more (she says, ambitiously). I am starting with this break in Oz in February and over Easter I'm heading to Madagascar to visit Chocolate Plantations. (Excited!)

2009 was definitely a year of change. The end of a relationship, moving house and postcode, resignation for a new job for 2010... I'm blessed to be able to walk away from all of that with excellent friendships. And I am looking forward to more adventures in 2010!

On the business side, there are four exciting things planned for Chocolate Ecstasy Tours this year:

1. A BRAND NEW website for www.chocolateecstasytours.com. Complete with new logos! The site will be live by Easter (hopefully sooner!)

2. The first International Chocolate Ecstasy Tour! In November I'll be organising a trip to Grenada and St Lucia. We'll visit plantations and factories and also have free time for the beach and mountains. If you're interested in joining me please email me at tours [at] chocolateecstasytours.com

3. Blind Chocolate Tasting as a Charity Fundraiser for Sense UK. To be held in May/June. More details to come!

4. A new walking tour in the Notting Hill area. I'm hoping this will get off the ground (well, on the ground!) in March. Watch this space...

In other exciting news I have finally set up a Facebook Fan page for Chocolate Ecstasy Tours. I'd love it if you joined!

Wishing you a year full of love, joy, good health, laughter, adventures and great chocolate!


Monday, December 21, 2009

Chocolate for Charity

One of the best things about running my own business is that I can help out charities by offering something of value for auctions and raffles.

And one of the nicest things about using Twitter is feeling the sense of community and charity that exists amongst the other food enthusiasts: bloggers, journalists, small business owners, restaurants and PR people. So many big-hearted people who have donated their time and the fruits of their labour to help other people over the last few months (and more, I'm sure). The world is a better place because of these people.

A few weeks ago I attended the amazing Blaggers' Banquet organised by Niamh, Kavey, Sig and many, many others. Having organised and managed events in a former life I was impressed when the first meeting for this event was just 2 1/2 weeks ahead of the actual date. There were so many people at that first meeting all ready to volunteer that we realised not everyone would actually be able to help on the night, or we wouldn't be able to fit the punters! I was convinced the night would sell out and as well as volunteering to help I bought the first pair of tickets, thinking I was absolutely going to make sure I was there, somehow, and if I was needed to help I'd sell or give the tickets to someone else. As it happened I couldn't find anyone free on the evening and we already had one server for every six people, plus an abundance of other helpers so I was privileged to be able to dine at the Banquet. It was inspiring how everyone pulled together to make an incredible evening that raised thousands of pounds for Action Against Hunger on the night and through the ebay auction that is still going on here.

It was a wonderful evening held at Hawksmoor London who kindly donated the space. You can read more about it on @Tehbus's blog and Fiona Beckett's blog and Wahaca's blog. The food was incredible, the company interesting and entertaining and @TimHayward's auctioneering skills were superb.

Since then, two weeks ago I was alerted to Menu for Hope, another food blogger organised mission to raise money to help relieve world hunger via World Food Program, headed by David Lebovitz in Paris and Chez Pim in San Francisco. Menu for Hope is now in its fourth year and both this and Blaggers' Banquet take a huge amount of totally voluntary time from wonderful people and so I wanted to give something more special than just a pair of tickets for a Chocolate Ecstasy Tour. At the Blaggers' Banquet Craig Linton won a private Chelsea chocolate tour and you have the chance to do the same via Menu for Hope. It's valid until the end of September 2010 and I will be the guide for you and three friends. All the money raised goes to World Food Program. There are tons of other amazing prizes and they have already raised more than $12,000! Dig deep, people.

More exciting for me on a personal level, I had a wonderful meeting last week with Sense, a charity that supports Deaf & Blind people. Not long after I first arrived in the UK I was accosted by one of the charity people on the street. In these early days in London I didn't realise the done thing was to smile and walk past quickly. When I heard what the charity was for it touched a nerve and despite the fact that I didn;t have a job yet I decided to sign up to give £6 a month. I read Helen Keller's book when I was really small and, for me, it was incredibly inspirational. A tale that can't help but make you overwhelmingly grateful for everything you have. Her most-repeated quote is one that drives most of my decisions: "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

I digress. When Celia from Sense contacted me, instead of just asking for a donation as so many charities do, she proposed we collaborate to raise money and awareness. So much more powerful. I am so excited from our meeting. We brainstormed a plan for a blindfolded chocolate tasting in May 2010. I'll be donating my time and I hope some chocolatiers will donate chocolates for the event and everything we raise from selling tickets and auctioning chocolates will go towards support for deaf and blind people in the UK. What a great way to raise money and also increase empathy. Watch this space!

I'll leave you with two other quotes from Helen Keller I found that I think are pretty poignant and relevant:

"It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing."

and one, more hopeful, that epitomises everything all of the wonderful blogger and Twitter community have been doing:

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."

In case I don't get a chance to update this again in the next few days: Merry Christmas, everyone. xx