Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Wee Dram at the Salt Bar

Yet again, those Qype gurus have come up aces with another memorable gathering. This time it was another topic close to our hearts (and stomachs): a Burns Night/Talisker whisky tasting event at Salt Bar on Edgeware Road.

I still remember my first Burns night only 2 months into my move to the UK. We were living in Aberfoyle, a picture postcard town nestled in the Trossachs. The Burns night we attended was in a nearby town, Gartmore. We had just moved to the area so didn't know anyone, and, just like the unspoken cafeteria rules in school we found ourselves marooned off all the 'popular' tables. Our dining partners looked to be the elders of the town. They seemed amused at the lesbian couple, one of which was American. Nevertheless, we made the best of our situation and settled in for the meal. Oh, that was the other incongruity - we were still vegetarian! Luckily they had veggie haggis, but that definitely added another mark to our otherness that night. I got to experience the whole 'performance', from piping in the haggis, the various addresses and then a round robin of people reciting his poems from heart. Needless to say, most of the people who knew the poems from heart happened to be sitting at our table!

We've had various Burns celebrations since, and now this year's to add.

We arrived at the bar before they sent the piper out to bring in the stragglers. While the rest of attendees were arriving we were treated to a Manhattan with Talisker of course. I had a very interesting conversation with the barman about the recent shortages of Angosturra bitters, in fact he was using his own stock and said imports in were stopped until April/May this year. I wonder if we'll start seeing eBay auctions of Angosturra bitters. And does anyone out there in the interweb know why there's a shortage?

There was lots of friendly milling about. We met Billy who told us about his specialty glass collection -- basically a glass specifically matched to it's contents. We met Ian who also is a whisky aficionado and we met the fellow behind He didn't seem so tired about the evening though.

I had a great conversation with Clark McGinn, a Burns specialist who gave the crowd a great overview of the poet, his life, and his lasting influence today. The bar area was decorated with gorse bushes that had Burns poems tied to the branches. This was a nod to Burns own practice of analog blogging during his time.

The first whisky we tasted was a Talisker 10 year old. Our tasting was led by Colin Dunn. He took us through the procedure step by step: first cup the top of the glass with one hand and swirl the contents to get the aromas circulating. second, take a good long sniff and let the taste permeate. third, take a SIP and swirl the contents in your mouth for a 10-second count. fourth, and final: swallow and experience the follow through. I found with this one that by the time I had swallowed my gums and tongue were tingling. I did taste that salty mermaid's kiss that you find in Islay malts though and was looking forward the next. This first whisky was paired with a canape of smoked salmon. The fattyness of the salmon helped to smooth out the edge of the whisky.

The second whisky was Talisker Distillers Edition. A much smoother, headier taste that, per Colin's instructions was meant to be held in your mouth for 15 seconds before swallowing. Another note about the space: there was a small table set up with the three whiskies and behind the bottles were apothecary jars of the various flavour notes each whisky displays. I remember for the second whisky the jar was full of dates. This whisky was accompanied by haggis, neeps and tatties, and yes, Clarke did the full address, spearing the haggis with his knife.

Our third and final whisky was Talisker 57-deg. For me this was the highlight of the evening, especially paired with the chocolate mousse.

After the tasting we had more milling about. I picked up on the Billy thread and had conversation with Colin about the glass shape used during the tasting. As expected it's all about concentrating aromas and flavours to build a lasting experience. His explanation included a scenario with Robert De Niro in a hotel room, but I'll spare the details.

At the bar we admired the extensive whisky selection on offer. I never would have expected such a great collection. We spoke to the manager about his collection and noted they were selling Salt Bar labelled bottles from their own casks. The food features lots of Scottish sourced ingredients, from Salmon to Aberdeen Angus steaks. Needless to say we'll be back for a lengthier tasting and a bite to eat.

And to preserve our memories of the evening we were each given a goodie bag that contained a half bottle of Talisker, a Talisker etched tumbler and a personalised hand calligraphed note book.

Thank you Qype, Salt Bar and Talisker for a great evening.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Carnitas, Chilli and Cakes at Brixton Village Market

This past Saturday, Kels and I participated in the January Tasting Day sponsored by Spacemakers to celebrate and showcase the diversity of food offerings at the Brixton Village Market. There was definitely a festive feeling and, by chance we ended up hosting a few conversations about the pros and cons of such an event in our space. Dougald from Spacemakers has summed up some of the range of feedback he got in the spacemakers blog here.

We were given an empty unit for the day to transform into our very own food shop. Kit Boyd, another market resident, generously offered to hang some of his work to brighten up the space, Mexican Dia de los Muertos bunting was hung outside, tables were set up, a bain marie and hot plate turned on and...we were in business!

Not having done an event like this before I was unsure of how much to make so i settled for double batches of Carnitas which were served in tacos and bowls of Black bean veggie chili. For the sweet tooths I made Apple cinnamon cake and Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. By the end of the day we had sold out of the chili and sold off one and a half cakes as well as most of the carnitas.

The best thing about eating a carnita is how you customise it to your taste. For our customers we offered lime wedges, sour cream, grated mature cheddar cheese, salsa de jitomate verde (green tomato salsa), chopped coriander leaves and chopped onion. I had also made a batch of red tomato salsa but left it in the fridge!

It was exciting to have customers and see them try the food first-hand. Overall the response was positive and I think as result I've caught Taco Truck Fever. I'm going to have to do some more research on the subject, maybe a trip or two to Mexico is on the cards so I can learn from the experts. Who knows??

**Special thanks goes to Julia and Dougald of Spacemakers for getting us the unit; Neil for logistical help on the day and Yvette for lending us her catering equipment.

Carnitas (from Diana Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico)
the recipe below is for one batch of carnitas

3 pounds pork shoulder (ask your butcher to bone and skin it but to leave as much fat on the meat as possible)
1.5 tsp salt

1. cut the pork into 2-inch x 3/4 inch pieces.
2. put the pork in a large pot and add the salt and enough water to barely cover the meat.
3. bring to the boil and continue cooking over medium heat until most of the water has evaporated.
4. turn the heat down a notch and continue cooking the pork until the fat starts to render and the pork turn brown and crispy. if the pork doesn't have a lot of fat you may need to use lard to get the desired crispy consistency.
5. serve on warmed corn tortillas with your choice of garnish.

Monday, 4 January 2010

A Pilgrimage to La Cuchara + Santo Tomas Feria

This past Christmas we decided to celebrate with my parents who live in St. Jean de Luz in the Basque region of France. It's beautfiul there, with the edges of the Pyrenees in the background and the Atlantic coast in the foreground. And it was great to kick back and spend some quality time with them as well.

st jean de luz boats

However, one of the biggest draws is the prospect of hopping across the border to San Sebastian. Everytime we're in that part of the world we make to sure to spend at least an afternoon there trawling the pintxo bars in the Old Town.

This time we decided to give ourselves maximum opportunity to indulge and booked into a hotel so that we could have lunch, a nap, and do it all over again for dinner and wouldn't have to worry about dragging ourselves back to France on the EuskoTren. And we decided that for lunch we'd concentrate on working our way through as much of the menu at our favourite pintxo bar, La Cuchara de San Telmo instead of wandering around.

There was a bit of panic when we got to Calle 31 de Agosto. We were momentarily convinced that they had replaced La Cuchara with public toilets. But a further wander down the street revealed our destination. We claimed a corner of the crowded bar and started ordering dishes in pairs.

First up, 2 beers to quench our thirst, accompanied by Magret and Scallop. These were followed in close succession by Pigs Ear and Bacalao; which were followed by Beef Cheeks and Goats Cheese, which culminated in Octopus and ???. I can't remember! It's a blur of perfect maillard technique, great flavour combinations and an experience that left both of us reeling.

After leaving La Cuchara we poked our heads into Gandarias and had a pintxo of gulas, and then over to a new place called A Fuega Negro. They have a fantastic cookbook done comic book stylee which I now wish i had bought.

We had to revive ourselves with some sunshine and a brisk walk along the beach followed by visceral snooze. Finally made it back to the hotel for what was meant to be a couple hour siesta. But we couldn't muster the energy or (gasp!) appetite for another round. I'm ashamed to say that the planned evening of gastronomic excess turned out to be nothing more than drinking copious amounts of Vichy Catalan and pale attempts to venture out.

Never fear, the next day after checking out of the hotel we noticed groups of Basque looking people making their way to the town centre. Lots of traditional costumes, and as we got nearer to the crowds the unmistakable smell of grilled chistorras.

There was stall after stall selling artisanal products, from cheese, to pacharan, to charcuterie. Interspersed between the small stalls were larger ones that had an assembly line of women and men making Talo which is a kind of corn crepe. These were served stuffed with grilled chistorra and were a delight to eat.

We had to drag ourselves back to the EuskoTren, leaving the revellers behind until our next visit.

Friday, 1 January 2010

2009 Round-Up

This has been a year filled with lots of food discoveries, whether eating out in London, meeting new friends through other food blogs or simply trying new dishes out at home. Rather than list them all, we've put together this collage of all the photos we posted in TWMF in 2009.

Roll over the snapshots to zoom in and click to see a larger photo.