Monday, 29 June 2009

Dreams are free; what about chickens?

Should bloggers accept freebies in exchange for reviews?

This is question being discussed on many a UK food blog at the moment and it looks like most of us are in agreement - yes to freebies with a number of provisos:-

* Free products or services do not guarantee a positive review; this should be made clear to the person/ organisation providing the freebie.
* The blogger should disclose that they received the product or service for free in the resulting blog post.
* The blogger should do their best to assess and write about the product or service as objectively as possible.

To that, I add the following:-

* Rather than accepting freebies indiscriminately, it is best to stick to products and services that the blogger would genuinely consider purchasing and which fit well with the everyday content of their blog.

Abel & Cole
Abel & Cole's PR people have been busy bees indeed having recently approached a broad assortment of UK food bloggers asking whether we'd like to review Abel & Cole products. Many of you will no doubt have read several of the resulting blog posts already.

Certainly, Pete and I are the target audience for such a scheme to have organic food produce delivered directly to our door. Only recently we purchased a box of organic meats from The Well Hung Meat Company and are planning to trial other similar suppliers before deciding which one, if any, to place an ongoing order with. Infact, we're so much the target audience that we were long term paying customers in the past. We stopped buying from Abel & Cole because of repeated quality issues with the produce we received.

I explained this to the PR and said that, provided A & C were ok with my having been a customer before, I'd be willing to receive fruit and veg, to assess whether the quality issues we experienced previously are a thing of the past. But that I'd be far more interested in trialling their free-range and organic meat products, given how this fits into what I'm exploring at the moment.

Back when we first ordered a veg box, several years ago, there weren't that many companies delivering such produce to London addresses. For us, one of the things that drew us to A &C's over their competitors, was the flexibility of their Dislikes list. Instead of being able to list only 2 or 3 things we didn't want to receive, A & C allowed us to provide a list of up to 20 things not to send. On the surface this sounds like a lot but their full list numbers in the hundreds which puts a mere 20 blocks into perspective. So I logged in with the new ID and password provided. The interface has improved since I was a paying customer and it's even easier to specify items you don't want to receive (for the next order only or ever) and even what you particularly like and would be happy to receive often.

I also provided information on where the box could be left if we were not home, together with a comment that at least one of is working from home most days, so please ring the bell.

The first black mark came when we discovered the box had been delivered on Friday morning without ringing the bell and left in the specified place in our side alley. With four people in the house, two of whom were awake pretty early, not to mention one of the loudest bell ringers known to man, this was disappointing.

Still, I was excited to see what we'd been sent. Safe in the cool embrace of a polystyrene box and nestled within ice packs was my free-range chicken with giblets. Weighing in at 1.9 kilos, 300 grams over the specified weight, the meat appeared dense and nicely coloured and went straight into the fridge to be cooked over the weekend.

My chicken!

As it happened, the contents of the last week's medium mixed organic fruit & veg box corresponded with a number of items on my dislike list so there were a few swap outs.

Altogether we have: apples, carrots, green cabbage, jersey royal potatoes, a punnet of nectarines, spring onions, a mango, mushrooms and two large bags of spinach.

The fruit seems to be in good condition, assuming the mango and the nectarines ripen properly. The apples feel a touch softer than I'd like, but at least they aren't wrinkly, as occured in the past.

For some reason, I got two huge portions of spinach, which, given the aged yellowing appearance of a few of the leaves, is probably going to lead to wastage. The leaves are picked much larger than I prefer too - to the extent that I didn't even recognise them as spinach until I checked the contents list on the side of the box!

The potatoes, mushrooms and spring onions looked fine.

The worst items in the box were the carrots. These were so old they were rubbery. One was already broken in half and the rest I could bend almost double without snapping! Comparing this with a carrot we pulled up from our garden the same day, these were clearly not remotely fresh, nor had they been well stored.

Slow Cooker Chicken
I posted about borrowing my mum's slow cooker before deciding whether to buy our own. Our greatest success came with cooking a whole chicken over several hours. What I particularly liked, as well as the succulence of the meat, was the large quantity of excellent stock and leftover meat, which we used for a number of additional meals. As mum's slow cooker has long since been returned, we finally bought our own on Saturday, ready to cook the chicken on Sunday.

As the carrots were so unappealing, I decided to relegate them to stock making duties - scrubbed and chopped, with manky bits discarded, they went into the bottom of the pot. With them I threw in a small onion, peeled and quartered, a few bay leaves and then the chicken itself. (Giblets put aside in the fridge). Over this I poured water and half a bottle of white wine. After an hour and a half on high, I turned the slow cooker down to low for the next 5 hours.

In the slow cooker

Cooked this way, the chicken becomes so incredibly soft and tender that, no matter how careful you are, it disintegrates as you lift it out of the pot. Pete plonked the resulting pieces into a large dish and I picked and pulled every last scrap of meat away from the carcass while he sieved the utterly delicious stock into a container for the freezer. The meat was enough for four portions (for the two of us) of which one was set aside for dinner that evening, another for the next evening and the rest into the freezer as well.

Given the heat of the day (not to mention a large lunch at our local Italian) we decided to keep it light. For dinner we made a simple salad, similar to one I posted about last week. Chopped raw sugarsnaps, thinly sliced red onion, halved cherry tomatoes and coriander leaves with the addition of the soft, shredded chicken meat. All mixed with a simple dressing of olive oil, cider vinegar and honey. Delicious!

The finished chicken salad

And for dessert, while Pete had some fresh fruit, I went for a savoury of fried chicken heart and chicken liver. Absolutely delicious!

Using the same carrots and onions, I threw in the chicken carcass and skin plus the bird's neck and covered with more water and the rest of the bottle of white wine. Left to cook overnight, a second stock was produced. Before I tried this, I would have been convinced that the second stock would be weak and insipid but, having done this three times now, I can assure you that it's still full of flavour.

We'll be using this second stock, some of the chicken meat and the spring onions from the box to make a simple, delicious and filling risotto for our Monday night dinner.

So far, it's top marks on the quality of their meat, but a detention for the quality of some of the fruit and veg. I'll report on the risotto later in the week and let you know how the rest of the fruit and veg are soon.


Saturday, 27 June 2009

One for Me... One for You...

Regular readers may remember my delight at attending the launch evening for Artisan du Chocolat's new Westbourne Grove store. As well as treating myself to a box of 30 delicious Couture Collection chocolates I was also given an additional box of 12 as a parting gift. It didn't take me long to work my way through the majority of those 42 squares of goodness.

Read on for my review of the chocolates and don't miss the fantastic competition to win your own box of Artisan du Chocolat goodness!

Kavey Eats Chocolate!

KEY: (x) Not keen (o) Nice (*) Special (**) Phenomenal!

Orange (*)
This one reminded me of an orange cream, the kind you find in chocolate box selections. But that’s no bad thing as it was elevated to another level by use of good quality dark chocolate and a clean orange flavour.

Lumi (x)
Like the Jasmine, the limey flavour of lumi was too subtle for me to detect and the ganache too sweet for me to enjoy as a general chocolate.

Lemon & Thyme (*)
The thyme came through more strongly than the lemon giving this chocolate a strangely savoury flavour. Quite unusual and I really liked it.

Banana & Thyme (**)
The banana hit me first and then my tongue detected a hint of thyme moments later. Less savoury than the Lemon & Thyme combination but just as unusual.

Honey (*)
A lovely strong honey flavour came through clear as a bell in the ganache. Lovely!

Jasmine Tea (x)
Like the Early Grey, I just couldn’t discern the Jasmine flavour. In this case, I found the paler ganache filling too sweet to recommend this one.

Rose (*)
The flavour of turkish delight! And since I adore turkish delight, this one worked for me!

Violet (*)
A wonderfully flowery violet flavour, tastes more natural than the flavour one more commonly encounters in cheap violet confectionary. Combines nicely with the chocolate.

Earl Grey
Although I enjoyed the rich, velvety smooth, intense chocolate I couldn’t detect the early grey tea flavour. I’d class this one as a good general truffly chocolate rather than a flavoured one.

Lapsang Souchong (*)
This one really packed a punch when it came to smokiness which was pretty unique. More woody than tea to me but I rather liked it.

Verbena (**)
The lemony citrus flavour crashed through and the combination of sweet and sharp was fabulous!

Moroccan Mint (*)
Although I enjoyed this chocolate, the mint tasted of peppermint essence rather than fresh mint. Clean, refreshing and tasty though I prefer Gorvett & Stone’s mint truffles with their fresh herby flavour.

Basil & Lime (o)
The hint of basil was completely overwhelmed by lime. As a lime chocolate it was great but for basil, I’d recommend Paul A Young’s fresh basil truffles.

Lavender (o)
A lovely dark ganache with a slightly too subtle lavender flavour. I could only just discern it and that may have been because I was looking for it. That said, the chocolate itself was so good I couldn’t fail to enjoy this one.

Tobacco (**)
Having read that this one was developed in response to a request from Heston Blumenthal, I was intrigued before I even tasted it. And, even though I am an ex-smoker, I had no idea what to expect. What I got was a fabulous and unfamiliar sweet flavour followed by a real kick at the back of the throat, akin to chilli heat but not quite the same. An interesting aftertaste came through once the chocolate had gone and I was sucking every last molecule of flavour. Unique, fascinating, tasty and packed a kick. What more could one ask for?

Sea Salted Caramel (o)
A soft fudgey interior with a nice flavour, though not as salty as Artisan du Chocolat’s famous liquid salted caramels, which is a shame as I love those! But definitely a great choice for fans of fudge.

Coffee & Star Anise (x)
I’m very likely biased by my dislike of aniseed but for me, any coffee taste that might have been present was masked by the strong anise flavours. Aniseed fans would love this.

Ginger (*)
A great fresh ginger taste (rather than the crystallised ginger taste that’s more common in confectionary). Refreshing though would like to taste some of ginger’s fiery heat coming through.

Green Cardamom (**)
At first the cardamom flavour seemed too subtle but suddenly broke through the chocolate and tingled my tastebuds. I think cardamom and chocolate is a great combination. If you like this, you’ll probably also like Kshocolat’s orange and cardamom chocolate bar.

Black Cardamom (x)
Given that black cardamom is usually a stronger, rougher flavour I expected this one to come through as clearly as it’s more delicate green relation. Sadly, I couldn’t much taste it but enjoyed this as a good general choocolate.

Coriander Praline (**)
A fantastic praline chocolate with a smooth cocoa shell surroudning a wonderfully light and crunchy praline with chewy bit that stick dissolutely to your teeth, taking you back to childhood delights! One of my favourites.

House praline (**)
Clearly I’m rather a big fan of the pralines. This one was also fantastic with the characteristic light texture combining crunchy and chewy in perfect balance.

Feuillantine (**)
This is one of the chocolates I tried in the shop, on the opening night, and I absolutely loved it. As with the two pralines I describe above, a fantastic texture combination and wonderful taste. Just perfect!

There were also several flavours that were not available on the day of my visit that are very intriguing - I'll have to wait until my next visit to taste (and feedback on) flavours such as Bramley Apple, Red Wine, Tonka, Marzipan, Marzipan & Rosemary, Sesame, Fig & Walnut Nougat and Raspberry Nougat.

Want to try Artisan du Chocolat's Couture Collection for yourself?

I'm delighted to be able to offer a box of 12 Couture Collection chocolates to one lucky reader of Kavey Eats! And to make sure you get to enjoy my personal favourites, your box will contain two each of Banana & Thyme, Tobacco, Green Cardamom, Coriander Praline, Feuillantine and Verbena.*

*If any of these are unavailable on the day your box is assembled Artisan du Chocolat will substitute others from the Couture Collection.

To enter this fantastic competition, just leave a comment at the end of this post before midnight July 14th. Please include your name and email address (so I can contact the winner for their postal address). This competition is open to UK-based readers only.

A winner will be selected randomly from all comments received by the deadline. The prize will be sent out by Artisan du Chocolat directly to the winner.


Courage & Stupidity: A fine line!

I'm not sure whether I should be feeling excited, optimistic and confident or panicked, depressed and terrified.

Along with several of my fellow UK food bloggers, I've signed up to host a stall at the Covent Garden Real Food Market. This market is selling food and drink delights to locals and tourists alike, every Thursday through to the 24th September. My date is the 27th August!

This collaboration between bloggers and market organisers is the brainchild of Julia Parsons, author of renowned A Slice of Cherry Pie and founder of the UK Food Bloggers Association.

Chris Dreyfus from More Tea Vicar has set a high standard for the rest of us to follow. Read the Independent's article on the stall, here.

And on the 27th August, just before the busiest bank holiday weekend of the year, it's my turn!

Wish me luck!


Friday, 26 June 2009

Garden Bounties: Sugarsnap Pea Salad

Eating our first home-grown sugarsnap pea seconds after picking it was quite a thrill. That was two weeks ago and we harvested about 12 pods and munched our way through them as we picked. A week later, just before leaving for France, we picked another 15 or so. They never made it into the house either! Delicious, sweet, crunchy and full of flavour, peas eaten just after picking are a world away from those you buy in the shops. Even to those of us who've been growing our own vegetables for several years, they are a revelation!

So when we got back from France on Saturday night I rushed outside to see how our plot was doing. Thanks to our neighbours, who kindly performed watering duties, everything was looking vigorous and healthy and there were dozens of sugarsnaps hanging heavily from the plants.

On Sunday I went out and harvested them, noticing eagerly that the regular pea plants next to them are now covered in flowers and should be producing fruit soon. This bowl of sugarsnaps actually made it into the kitchen (and weighed in at a satisfying 290 grams).

I decided to make them into a simple salad for lunch and this is what I came up with:

Crunchy Sugarsnap Salad

Raw sugarsnap peas, chopped
Raw red onion, finely sliced and separated into strands
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Coriander leaves
Home-made dressing (extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar and honey to taste)

  • Prepare ingredients just before you want to serve the salad.

  • Mix well in large bowl to evenly coat all ingredients in dressing.

This made an absolutely delicious, filling and healthy lunch, all the more satisfying for being based on an ingredient we grew ourselves.


Thursday, 25 June 2009

Vive La France!

I am a travel snob, I admit it.

I adore France but, in most of our many trips there over the years, I have avoided Brittany; put off by it's reputation as the Chianti of France - Brittanyshire, as it were. Instead I've spent many, many happy trips exploring regions including Limousin, Poitou-Charentes, Champagne, Picardie, Burgundy (Bourgogne), Aquitaine, Auvergne and, my favourites, Centre & Pays de La Loire. And of course, Paris, but I that's almost a separate country, isn't it? ;) These regions are by no means undiscovered by us canny Brits but we haven' t reached critical mass and I've encountered and interacted predominantly with French people. And that's the crux of my snobbiness; I don't just visit France for nice weather and good food (though the latter is, of course, rather important to a glutton like me) but for France itself - it's people and their culture/ way of life.

So when a friend invited Pete and I to spend a week staying with her (and a few other friends) in her parents' holiday home in a tiny hamlet near La Roche Bernard in Morbihan, on the southern coast of Brittany, I confess that I hesitated a few seconds before overcoming my prejudiced snobbiness and shouting out a loud "Yes, please!"

Macarons on sale in Guerande shop window

And, as you could no doubt have predicted, we had a marvellous time! I can't say Brittany equalled my very favourite areas (thus far) but it did offer a charming holiday base and we enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing week. And it wasn't overrun with "us lot" either!

As we took our own car and crossed via the Eurotunnel, I booked an overnight at the lovely Chateau de Monhoudou on our way down to Brittany. We were upgraded to a beautiful blue room with two bathrooms (one with jacuzzi bath and big window out over the grounds and the other a tiled wetroom shower in the corner turret). We ate dinner in the chateau that night - all very pleasant but the one dish that blew me away was the Vicomtesse's h0me-made walnut tart with rum. She kindly shared her recipe and I'll be blogging it here in due course!

Chateau de Monhoudou

Food wise we cooked several evenings meals in the house. We had a great BBQ on the patio on which we cooked fresh fish, meat and veg from local markets and supermarkets. Fresh sardines were fabulous, so too were the wonderful merguez sausages we couldn't resist having more than once plus various burgers and chops. Courgettes and peppers were lovely on the BBQ too. We also did meals such as a French chicken, mushroom, shallots, creme fraiche and beer casserole type thing and a roast beef dinner too. Oh and lots of baking - one of the guys is also into his baking so between us we made cookies, cakes and macaroons not to mention vast quantities of banoffee (and a little appoffee variation). I also gorged on beautifully ripe pêches plates (flat peaches). Oh and we bought lots of cheese which we enjoyed during each meal in the house, though I was surprised at how little cheese is produced locally given their fantastic dairy herds. One cheese I'd not had before but really liked was Normanville, made in the Pays d’Auge area of Normandy.

Piriac market

Market in La Roche-Bernard

We also ate a few meals out during the week. Pete and I each had a savoury galette at Hotel Crêperie Roc Maria in Guerande before heading to Le Croisic for a dessert crêpe at Crêperie Le Relais Du Duc De L'Aiguillon (who, according to their menu, use only organic flour for their crêpes/ galettes). Our dessert choices here were particularly good - mine filled with cooked banana and a rich dark chocolate sauce and Pete's with a lemon cream. All 6 of us had savoury and sweet options at a creperie in La Roche Bernard though I won't name that one - the two of us who picked the (tasty) galettes with boudin noir and pommes caramelise had severe stomach upsets that afternoon/ evening and one of the others had a milder upset too.

Crêperie goodness (in Geurande and Le Croisic)

All 6 of us enjoyed a pleasant meal at a restaurant I thought was called La Panoramique but which the receipt lists as Le Relais de La Roche. It's situated by the tall bridge across from from La Roche Bernard and enjoys stunning views down over the harbour full of moored yachts, the cafes and restaurants on the harbourside, the rocks that give the town it's name and the beautiful green countryside. Although we had a charming evening I'd rate the restaurant as good rather than excellent. My starter langoustines were overcooked resulting in overly mushy meat. The tagliatelle served with my scallop and prawn main was also very overcooked though the scallops themselves were superb. And my baked alaska (called a norwegian omelette) was so-so. Steaks enjoyed by some of the group were good but a chocolate mousse was too grainy in texture, though the taste was fine. Service was friendly and prices reasonable, at approximately 30 Euros per head.

Le Relais de La Roche

My friend's parents had left a list of recommended restaurants, one of which was described as a pork specialist providing large portions of tasty food, popular with locals and white van drivers - and with a name like Chez Monsieur Cochon we couldn't resist! We headed over to nearby Herbignac and, by the time we came back, we could hardly move! With most starters priced at 5 Euros and most mains at 10 Euros (with a small selection of dishes priced at roughly double) the enormous and tasty dishes here are certainly fantastic value. A number of us had the Salade Berger which consisted of chicken livers braised in red wine, lardons and salad. Others went for the leek and lardon tart - a generous slice served with salad. And the other starter ordered was a huge salad topped with goat's cheese topped with honey and sitting on toasts. All three of these dishes were plenty large enough to be eaten on their own for lunch and were, frankly, way too big for starters! For mains we had grilled ham, an artisanal sausage with mash and marinaded belly pork. Again, portions were huge. The belly pork was delicious, cooked until the meat was beautifully soft and basted in a flavoursome marinade but two out of three of us who ordered it didn't come close to clearing our plates. Not one of us had space for dessert though our waitress assured us that many customers do indeed manage a starter, main and dessert each! The main grill on which many of the meats are cooked opens into the restaurant so diners can watch the chef at work, if they wish. Our bill came to less than 20 Euros a head, though we didn't have many drinks between us. One nice touch I noted was when one of our party ordered a bottle of red wine, a Cahors which was listed among 3 "house" reds priced at 10 Euros a bottle. Our waitress explained that they were out of this wine but instead of referring back to the other two house reds, offered another more expensive Cahors from the main wine menu for the same price as the house version. In the end, this place impressed me for a number of reasons: great food at great prices, genuinely friendly and helpful service with great customer service and an interesting range of pork dishes (plus a few non-pork dishes as well). It serves as a nice balance to the more refined side of French cuisine that can sometimes garner most the attention.

Pete and I ventured out exploring a little more than the rest of the gang and hence we found ourselves in Vannes for lunch one day. One particular restaurant, La Table des Gourmets, listed in the my guide book was backed up with a strong recommendation from a fellow member of an online travel board who'd shared a review of a fine meal she and her husband had enjoyed there. Unfortunately, when we got to the address provided we found a new restaurant in it's place, Restaurant Les Remparts. The menu looked good so we decided to give it a try anyway. As well as enjoying a delicious, beautifully presented meal, we also chatted to the owner who was performing a front of house role. I'll be posting a review of the restaurant in a separate blog post, soon.

One aspect of our visit that I did find disappointing was the lack of small, local food and drink producers open for visits, tastings and direct purchase. I was met with puzzled surprise at the three tourist offices where I asked for help on this, though one kind lady did invest some considerable time in searching (pretty unsuccessfully) for possibilities. What's more, it was clear that this was not a request they encountered regularly, if at all. Although I quickly became aware that there are few local cheese producers, I had expected to be able to find and visit makers of Breton cider, chouchenn (a mead-like drink, based on cider), salted caramel and salted caramel sweets, local speciality cakes and biscuits... But unlike other regions in France, such producers neither open their doors on an individual basis, nor have they organised together to offer food and drink tourist routes or lists. Infact, the only such producers we came across were those selling their wares in Rochefort-sur-Terre, which was home to an impressive range of artisans selling hand-made woven baskets and bags, decorative wooden bellows, Breton cakes and biscuits, candles and paintings. We also enjoyed the opportunity to taste and buy local honeys at La Maison de l'Abeilles (the house of bees) in La Roche Bernard.


Luckily, I still get a kick from shopping in French supermarkets and brought home such diverse goodies as basil-flavoured oil, salted caramel sweets, brioche and madeleines, flour, blackberry cream liqueur, chouchenn, sweet Breton cider, dry bubbly for my sister and some Port for my cooking ingredients cupboard, biscuits like jaffa cakes but filled with raspberry instead of orange jelly, orange tic-tacs (why do we only sell orange mixed with lime in the UK?) and a box of Mon Cheri chocolates for naughty me! With all of that and a few boxes of wine not to mention four peoples' luggage, our poor car was very heavily laden for the voyage home indeed!

I'll be running a competition to win a jar of Breton salted caramel sweets in a few weeks so do subscribe to my blog feed to make sure you don't miss your chance to win!