Showing posts from 2019

Spices, St Nicholas and gingerbread men

How St Nicholas became our modern Santa Claus is fairly well known but worth revisiting very briefly. German immigration into the northern USA brought tales of the generous saint, leaving gifts of sweets and other treats in the shoes of good children on the morning of his feast (6th December). In time, these tales were conflated with the English figure of Father Christmas, dressed in green and crowned with holly, ruling over the festivities of the Christmas season. His bishop's mitre has over time been replaced with a hood and his white vestments traded for festive red, some say as a marketing tool for a certain American drinks manufacturer.

The association between St Nicholas and children is particularly strong in the area of west-central Europe that became Lotharingia when the Carolingian Empire was divided in 855. The area stretched from Flanders and Holland in the north to Lorraine in the south. Although the peoples that lived in this territory lacked any kind of linguistic o…

Baking for Christmas

Yes, I've used the 'C' word, and it's not even half way through November! Baking, though, won't wait. Christmas inevitably involves a lot of hospitality for us, so early preparation is key if I'm going to enjoy the festivities.

Many of my favourite recipes have been handed from one friend to another, one generation to the next and are recorded on old envelopes and bits of paper stuffed into the back of an old cookbook. I love the stories and memories that go with them and I'm making a point of collecting them into a book to give to my next generation when they're old enough. They may have to get used to my habit of swinging from metric to imperial measures and back again, though. I'm of that age group who were taught using both, and, although I'm equally comfortable with each, I struggle to convert from one to the other. I just use the version I've been given.

Cakes and Puddings

I always make my own puddings. Once you've had a home-made …

Falling in love again - a weekend in Nice

This time last year, I wrote about living in France as a young man and discovering aperitif culture. ( I wrote how it was something very different from what I was used to at home and that I have tried to make the aperitif pause before dinner a feature of my own life.

In the last few years, I've travelled more regularly in Italy and other countries. I've had a couple of short breaks in Paris, but that's all. With those breaks being so short, I've spoken very little French and not taken time to find really good restaurants, the way I have in other countries.

For much of that same time, it would be also fair to say that French cuisine has taken a break from leading the world. The really exciting restaurants have been over the Pyrenees, in Catalunya and Basque Spain. Restaurants in Scandinavia have been getting better and better, too, delivering exciting flavours by using traditional techniques of preserva…

Exciting Developments for Whisky and Gin

A few months ago, I wrote about our visit to The Lakes Distillery and my fascination with the approach their Whiskymaker takes to maturing and blending whisky. You can read that post here:

I was contacted again by the Lakes Distillery to inform me that their first widely available single malt whisky has been released. The whisky has been named The Whiskymaker's Reserve No1, the first in a series of limited releases showing off the skills of Dhavall Gandhi, the whiskymaker whose approach so fascinated me in the summer. Since the communication from The Lakes also offered a sample for tasting and review, I couldn't resist accepting!

If you follow me on Twitter, you will have read my impressions the evening I opened the bottle. Having said in August that The One was not my style of whisky, preferring as I do a more peaty taste, I was expecting to be a bit underwhelmed. That was not to be the case at all. The Whiskyma…

Wines from Yorkshire

Although the British have been importing wines, off and on, from the time of the Roman Empire, wine drinking has been the preserve of the wealthy for much of that history. From the late 1970s, a number of wine merchants set out to change that, first by introducing sweeter, German wines, then fruity New World wines, until we were drinking so much that the UK is now the biggest importer of wines in the world. It's surprising, too, how quickly we have taken to wine growing. Historians will shout out that those Romans planted vines in the first century, but you wouldn't call it a significant industry, and it was more or less confined to the southern parts of what is now England. Today, more and more land is being cultivated for vines, as the English and Welsh discover what can be achieved with the right grape varieties and careful viticulture. Scotland and Northern Ireland have not yet produced wine on an economically viable scale. I've written about Welsh wines in the past (

Great Game (and an Edwardian revival)

One of the great advantages of living in a town such as Harrogate is having ready access to amazing produce. For a small town, it still boasts plenty specialist grocers and delis, independent fishmongers, butchers and greengrocers. One thing I rarely buy, though, is game birds. The thing is, when you live in a rural area, it doesn't take long to make friends who shoot. I've lost track of the times I've arrived home from work to find something dead hanging off the back door, and I've had to teach myself to pluck, gut and clean various birds and small mammals. Mercifully, I'm not squeamish! If I know someone's going out, I might put a request in, but you never know what's coming back. Pheasants are common, but I've also had mallard, teal, pochard, partridge, rabbit and hare.

In the UK, at least, game cookery has become associated with the upper classes and country houses, and I do think it has suffered from a degree of inverse-snobbery about that. The re…

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…