Flavours of Autumn

Autumn is my favourite time of the year for cooking and entertaining. I love to cook with wild mushrooms, orchard fruits, game birds and nuts. Autumn flowers may be hard to come by, but squashes, pumpkins and displays of golden foliage can bring great beauty to your table. Now's the time to let go of my preference for white linen and reach for the cinnamon-red tablecloth, or even a deep brown one.

I've been thinking about the flavours I particularly associate with autumn and how we might bring them to the aperitif table. I'll look at four flavours in particular: smoke, apples, pears and blackberries.

Smoked foods of all descriptions make for delicious aperitif nibbles. Simple cubes of smoked cheddar cheese are lovely with a sweet white wine. Look for something with a hint of apple, like a late harvest chenin blanc. Don't ever be afraid of serving a sweet wine as an aperitif. As well as wine, port, Madeira and sherry can all bring a touch of sophistication before d…

Cocktail Originals

We often think of the 1920s as the heyday of cocktail drinking. This is partly because the prohibition of the manufacture, sale and possession of alcohol in the USA, from 1917 to 1933, drove many wealthy Americans to seek refreshment in the hotels and restaurants of the European capitals. The strength of mixed drinks, and their endless variations of flavour and colour, seemed to fit with the mood of cities rediscovering joy after the horrors of the Great War. The leisured classes relished the fun and frivolity of cocktails and could afford to patronise bars that employed expert cocktail waiters, who were starting to be feted as celebrities.

 That's not where cocktails began, though. The earliest known evidence of the word being used to refer to alcohol comes from the Balance and Columbian Repository, a New York newspaper, when the editor answered the question "What is a cocktail?" thus:
     "Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar,…

Menu planning - a summer series (3)

We don't think of our food culture in western Europe as having been influenced by Russia, but without it we wouldn't have chefs in tall hats, pre-dinner drinks & nibbles or dining in a series of courses. If you've been following this series about menu-planning, you'll know that this style of dining is known as service russe - Russian service.

When the Tsars established their capital at St Petersburg, they made a conscious determination to look westward to Europe. Catherine the Great, in particular, brought in western aesthetics in art and design and western ideas about education and government. She introduced the practice of speaking French at the Imperial court, since French was the most popular language among European diplomats at the time, and brought over French cooks to work at court. Very quickly, it became very fashionable to employ a French cook, bringing French flair to the vast resources the Russian empire brought to the capital. The Russian Orthodox Chu…

A Distillery Visit

Over the years, I've visited a few whisky distilleries. The highlands and islands of Scotland, in particular, are home to many distilleries, set in beautiful surroundings, which have seen commercial advantages to receiving visitors. Until this year, I hadn't been inside a gin distillery, though, and I thought it about time I rectified that. (Pardon the pun.) 

As luck would have it, I discovered the Lakes Distillery, through their exceptionally clean-tasting gin. Then I discovered that they are open to tourists and even have a bistro on site. Perfect. We booked ourselves in for a distillery tour - and lunch in the Bistro - on the way home from a weekend away. We were blessed with a quiet day and the wisdom to book a morning tour. Not only did this provide us with an ideal aperitif before lunch, it meant we had the tour guide to ourselves. We could ask trivial questions, probing questions, follow tangents and cause our guide a giggle, all without worrying about how it came acr…

Menu planning - a summer series (2)

A few weeks ago, I started to look at how to plan a good dinner for friends. I drew attention to the fact that serving food as a sequence of single dishes is a relatively recent phenomenon. I want to look this time at the alternative to that: service fran├žaise - laying everything out together. It's what you do for one-course feats, table-suppers, tapas, meze, smorgasbords and sharing dinners.

This type of dinner is becoming more popular again as hosts and friends alike hanker after less formality in their entertainments. There's something particularly sociable in passing serving dishes around the table, dibbing in as something interesting passes, and discussing with the diners 'over there' what they have worth trying at their end. For the cook, this type of service has the advantage of all the work being finished: you can sit down with everyone else and relax, knowing there's nothing that'll call you away from the table - short of a wine refill - until it's…

American Classics

This week marked 243 years since the English-speaking colonists on the American continent declared themselves independent of the British crown and organised themselves into a new nation. Whichever side of the Atlantic we live (or the Pacific, for that matter), whatever our tastes in cinema or music, whatever we think of this or that figure in American politics, culture or history, we still have much to admire in the USA, with its high, founding ideals of individual liberty, just government and responsible citizenship. For those of us with a taste for mixed drinks, July is a time to raise a toast to the United States for the gift of the cocktail.

There is evidence from as far back as 1806 of mixed drinks being called "cocktails," and an answer in a newspaper column to a request for a definition of the word gives a recipe for a spirit mixed with sugar, water and Angostura bitters. That seems to have fallen out of favour for a while, and by the 1860s, bars were selling Dutch ge…

Menu Planning - a summer series (1)

I have given hundreds of dinner parties over the years, and I've come to love the planning stage. In my experience, the planning is the time of exciting fantasies about what you might cook, who you could invite and how your table will look. It's the most creative stage, full of possibilities. It's also the stage, when you start to hone down the ideas into concrete plans, that ensures your event will be a success - an enjoyable time for all.

Have you noticed how often people roll their eyes and sigh in mock exasperation whenever they say the words "dinner party?" For English people in particular, it seems to have become synonymous with social unease, moments of stress and panic in the kitchen, and generalised anxiety about whether you're getting it "right" (whatever that is).

I think that's a pity. There should be few more pleasant experiences than sharing food among friends. It's been said thousands of times, but I'll point it out again…