Sunday, 31 July 2011

Review: Beas of Bloomsbury

Beas of Bloomsbury Afternoon Tea
My wife has been hassling me to take her to afternoon tea for months.  Its not something I generally spend my week lusting over - my tastes tend to lean towards the savoury and a whole meal of desserts always seems unbalanced to me somehow.

I admit to having had a great time at Pret a Portea at the Berkeley a couple of years ago - but you're talking about £50 a head and even though its a great experience it is far too expensive to repeat on a regular interval.

As it turns out I have been following Beas of Bloomsbury for some time on Twitter and on occasion have teased my wife with the resultant food porn. Given we were going to subsequently walk down to Borough Market, it seemed a great opportunity to check out their venue near St. Pauls and chill out over some nice cakes and a pot of tea before walking along the South Bank.  Quite surprisingly this area was actually buzzing and all the shops were open which is unusual for The City on a Saturday afternoon.

Beas of Bloomsbury is located in the new development at Cheapside called One New Change.  Many voices called it a carbunkle of an ugly building facing the classic architecture of St. Pauls cathedral but I actually thought it fitted in quite nicely with the surrounding area.  A neighbour of Jamie Oliver's much-maligned Barbecoa restaurant, Beas of Bloomsbury itself is a marvel of design, skillfully wrapped around a corner of the building to make the best use of the available space.

Swiftly seated we were passed the extensive Tea menu from which I chose my favourite - an Assam and my wife chose a pot of Rooibos tea.  Before the tea and cakes arrived we were delivered a set of sandwiches; ham and briee, and goats cheese and carrot which were perfectly acceptable preparation for what was to come without overshadowing the main event.

The rest of the platter includes two scones with jam and cream, a selection of brownies, cakes and meringues and finally two cupcakes which from memory were Raspberry and Chocolate, and Red Velvet.

The brownies were particularly good but the stars of the show were the cupcakes which my dining companion insisted were split absolutely equally. I always feel the desire to practically inhale cupcakes but these were particularly good examples and I did force myself to take it slowly!

All of this came to only £15/head which is great value for something different of a weekend.  With a great, central location and with great food and good value I think we will be back soon - and it may become the regular outing that the cost of other Afternoon Teas precludes.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Recipe: Sourdough Bread

Meet Sidney!  Sidney is a new family pet that needs nurturing and feeding but provides us with a yummy reward once a week or so.  Sidney is technically not singular though - in reality he (or they) is a symbiotic ecosystem consisting of yeast and lactobacillus bacteria.

Sourdough Starter

Sidney is a sourdough starter - a combination of flour and water left to ferment.   Its how we all used to eat leavened bread before a byproduct of the brewing industry called Barm and subsequently industrially produced yeast allowed us to take shortcuts.  

I have to say - it is a massive faff.  The end-result is particularly satisfying but you really need to start thinking about making this bread 2 days before you need it.  

Recipe for Sourdough

1.  Make a starter.

First Mix 100g of Strong Bread Flour with enough warm water in a bowl to make a thick batter (like pancake batter).  I used Wholemeal Bread Flour.  Give it a good whisk with a whisk or fork then cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place.

Keep checking it every few hours - you should see the magic begin to happen.  The yeast that lives in the flour will start to create some bubbles.  For me this took about 12 hours but it could be quicker - or even longer for some starters.  It all depends on the environment of your kitchen.

Next whisk in another 100g of Strong Bread Flour and enough cold water to maintain the consistency.  Every day for at least 1 week you need to throw away half the starter and add 100g of Bread Flour and enough water to keep the consistency consistent. 

After a week it should smell quite sour (but not unpleasant).  I even used to find a layer of brown liquid on top - this is called Hooch and can be stirred back in.  At this point you COULD put the starter in the fridge - once a week it needs to be taken out and 'fed' - including spending 24 hours at room temperature.

2.  Making the dough

The morning of the day before you want a loaf combine 100ml of your starter with 250g Strong White Bread Flour (organic if possible) and 275-300ml of warm water.  This is called a 'sponge'

Cover with clingfilm and leave all-day.  It should be seriously bubbling by the evening.

The morning

The evening - definitely fermenting

Now you need to add 300g of Strong White Bread Flour to the sponge and mash everything together with your hands - you're looking for the dough to be slimy to the touch so more water may be required.

Flour a surface and knead the dough for a good 10 minutes.

When you've kneaded out any lumps and dough feels quite smooth and silky then place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with clingfilm.  Leave overnight.

Dough pre-rise.

Risen dough

The following morning that dough should have risen/expanded considerably.  Now you want to knock the dough back by vigorously punching it to get rid of the air.

Shape the dough into a round ball and place it into a bowl lined with a floured tea-towel.

Pre-heat your oven to 80c then open the door for 30 seconds.  Place the bowl into the oven for 3 hours and close the door.

Dough after secondary rise

Baking the loaf.

Preheat a backing tray in an oven to 250c or as high as it will go.  When it hits temperature place a roasting dish of boiling water on the bottom of the oven to create the humid atmosphere you need.  At the same time remove the backing sheet, apply a liberal sprinkling of flour and dump your dough upside-down onto it.

I didn't do this but its worth scoring the top fo the dough with a bread knife so it cracks gracefully!

Let it bake for 15 mins at 250c followed by 25 minutes at 200c, allow to cool then slice and enjoy.  Sourdough last considerably longer than most bread before going mouldy or stale.  In fact I have just enjoyed the last two slices for breakfast 6 days later.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

My Cocktail Hobby and Cocktails for Men #1: The Martini

Tools of the Trade
I was bought a cocktail mixer for christmas which was a bit of a surprise.  I like the odd cocktail but as a card-carrying member of CAMRA it was beer that was my tipple of choice.

In the cold, depressing months of January I discovered an old Cocktail book my wife bought nearly ten years ago and began to devour the history and culture that surrounded the invention of the cocktail in America in the 19th Century.  It didn't hurt that suddenly prohibition-era speak-easies became all the rage in London at places like The Experimental Cocktail Club and Purl.

I quickly began trying all sorts of recipes - helped by the fact that my wife doesn't really like anything that really tastes of spirits hence the requirement to make 2 at a time.  Every trip to Waitrose became just that little bit more expensive when that extra bottle of Vermouth or Cointreau snuck into the shopping basket.  Six months later I now have a pretty well stocked cocktail cabinet which is a significant investment in both time and money!  Luckily there are some items that you go through quickly and some that last for months - its mainly the base spirits like Vodka, Gin, Bourbon, Brandy and White and Dark Rum that go quickly (or even more quickly if my father gets to them - and he drinks them neat...)

I recommend a good read of the 12 Bottle Bar website if you're looking to build up a cabinet - although you may have to adapt your bottles based on what you can find in your local supermarket.  If you want to go on a quest then I do recommend Gerry's on Old Compton Street which is a veritable treasure trove.  I had to go here to find Orange Bitters for instance.

Over time though I began to realise that I was gravitating towards the real classics; the Martini, the Manhattan, the Sazerac.  It was these pre-1930's flavours that really rocked my boat - especially anything with the addition of Bitters.

So onto the Martini - my aperitif of choice these days.   There are two main ingredients; Gin and Vermouth although the Vodka Martini is also popular.  Something you can live your life by though is that Gin is almost always better than Vodka :-)

I take my Martini dry - which means Dry Vermouth.  This seems to make the Gin sing more than a Perfect Martini (mix of dry and sweet vermouth).  I also take my Martini stirred not shaken (the distinction seems to be both aesthetic and to do with the level of dilution from the icecubes).  The key thing is to ensure that the glass and the liquid are both ice-cold.

Some people take their Martini so dry that only the ice get seasoned (otherwise known as an In-and-Out Martini).  On a whim I had a go.

Recipe for an In-and-Out Martini.

  • Fill Martini Glass with Ice and pour over a good dash of Dry Vermouth.  This 'seasons' the ice.

Vermouth-seasoned ice.
  • Fill an Old-Fashioned Glass with 4 or 5 icecubes and pour in 2 shots or 50ml of gin.
  • Stir the gin glass for a quick count of 100
  • Throw out(!) the 'vermouth-y' ice and strain the contents of the Old-Fashioned Glass into the the Martini Glass
  • Garnish with either a Cocktail Olive or peel a small amount of skin from a Lemon and drop into the glass.  Make sure to squeeze the lemon peel so you get to the oil locked inside.

An In-and-Out Martini

Verdict:  Not my cup-of-tea.  Gin-heavy with not much added by the Vermouth although I suppose if all you want to taste is the Gin then this might rock your world.

I'm going to stick with my favourite method - I'm afraid I do like to taste the Vermouth.

Recipe for a Dry Martini, stirred-not-shaken.

  • Fill a Martini glass with Ice and Water and leave to chill

  • Pour 50ml or 2 shots of Gin, 3/4 of a shot of Dry Vermouth and a dash of Orange Bitters into an Old-Fashioned Glass.  You can omit the bitters if you don't have them but I like the herby edge it gives the drink.
  • Add 4 or 5 icecubes to the glass and stir for a quick count of 100.
  • Throw the ice and water in the martini glass away and strain the contents of the Old-Fashioned glass into the Martini glass.
  • Garnish with squeezed lemon peel.
Dry Martini
It's also worth mentioning the gin I've started using.  Sipsmiths is a microdistillery launched in the last few years in London - the first new distillery in 189 years in the capital.  Given that London dry Gin is part of our heritage and this is a great example of the type I strongly encourage you to hunt it down and give it a go (I found it in Waitrose)

Sipsmith London Dry Gin

Saturday, 16 July 2011

RHS Garden, Wisley

Severe cabin fever in January and unfamiliarly with our new surroundings in Surrey led to a bought of googling to find somewhere to get some fresh air.  The Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley seemed to pop up as good suggestion and given that its just a quick 20 minute blast down the A3 I thought a visit would be in order.  Subsequently I was told that it was one of my late Grandmother's favourite places in the world which added a degree of magic for me.

For those of you based in London I'd suggest Wisley is well worth a visit - its not quite on the scale of Kew Gardens but its not far off (its the second-most visited garden in the UK).  Within the last few years they've also put up a new Glasshouse with temperate, desert and tropical zones.  In early January the gardens were looking barren - however the RHS runs an annual Butterfly show in the Glasshouse which gave my wife the perfect chance to test out the new zoom lens on her DSLR.

Wisley Glasshouse

A further visit on an absolutely scorching day in April showed the gardens and the flowers in their spring glory.  I think many plants were out particularly early because of the fantastic weather we had in Spring - its a shame it hasn't continued into Summer (yet).

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Review: Pitt Cue BBQ Company and Other stuff

Oops - no new posts for a while but I do have a couple of ideas I'm working on :-)

Its worth mentioning my Tumblr Account for those of you that use that service - I'm dumping a few microposts in there that might evolve into full posts in the future.

A good example is the below. Pitt Cue BBQ company is based under Hungerford Bridge near Waterloo for the summer and would be worth a full review if only the entire food blogging world had not got there first and taken a decent camera instead of relying on an old Iphone.

I heard of it via posts from Food Stories , Cheese and Biscuits and Hollow Legs which you should definitely read for more detail.

My thoughts? I tried a Pabst Blue Ribbon (£4) due to all the hipster references in US Media (its popularity is based on its 'authenticity' and blue-collar connotations). It tastes like Bud Light.

Much, much better was the Kernel Pale Ale (£4) that I could enjoy for its hoppy-taste and lack of counter-cultural pretension.

Pickleback shots and beer at Pitt Cue
A Pickleback, hipster beer and complementary pork scratchings
A Pickleback is a shot of whisky followed by a shot of pickle juice. The sweetness of the pickle juice does actually take the edge of the whisky and complement the flavours better than I expected. Its just a bit of fun really though like a Tequila Slammer. See my Pickleback face below!

My pickleback face
Pickleback face!

I grabbed myself a box of Pulled Pork, pickles and BBQ beans with a nice hunk of Sourdough (£7). Excellent stuff, nice and simple, well-executed and worth the trip if you're commuting into/out of Waterloo or wandering along the South Bank.

Pulled Pork at Pitt Cue

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Outdoor Spaces in Elmbridge

I like little more in life than setting off for a nice long hike - but sometimes I just want a quick blast of fresh air in my lungs.  This is what my parents refer to as a 'blow-through' and typically as children this involved a trip to the coast or some kind of National Trust Garden.

When I lived in Tooting my go-to place was Battersea Park. It had landscaped areas, lawns and the Peace Mile along the river to enjoy as well a number of nice little lunch options nearby.

Since moving to Walton-on-Thames we've been trying to explore the local area a bit (in between building flat-pack furniture) but seeing as we are around 2 miles from the Thames we're actually spent a bit of time at West End and the Esher Commons as well as Hersham Riverside Park.

West End is actually the 'west end' of Esher although since it has its own Wikipedia entry I'm happy to refer to it as it is.  Its a small village surrounding a cricket square and pond with a half decent pub called The Prince of Wales and a cracking Garden Centre, Pick-you-own farm and farm-shop at Garsons.  This area can be damp as the water table is quite high due to West End being criss-crossed with little streams and ponds (and backing onto the River Mole)

Esher Commons

After my bout of Swine Flu between Christmas and New Year it was to West-End and the Esher Commons that I was dragged after a week of not leaving the house.  There is a great map and leaflet for this area that be downloaded directly from the Council website but actually in truth you would benefit from an Ordinance Survey map of the area if possible (although we went in January hence the unseasonal pictures - the lack of people contributed to us feeling a little lost)

There is an interesting route which takes you alongside the River Mole called The Ledges.  From here you have an unusual elevated view of the river for quite some distance before you cut back down from West End Common to Esher Common.

Fungus at West End Common

Preserved by snow?

The Ledges, West End Common

A tenuous grip on the land

Esher Common itself is dominated by Black Pond - a surprisingly remote-looking body of water if you can manage to filter out the noise of the nearby A3.  There is an easy access trail from the road near Claremont Landscape Gardens with a number of explanatory signs.

Black Pond, Esher Common

A festive tree on Esher Common

More fungus - Esher Common

This is a very well maintained and landscaped space and particularly good value if you are already a National Trust Member.  If you are not it will set you back about £6 each for an hours stroll.

This seemed a particular favourite for families with young children picnic-ing by the lake.

View from above the Amphitheatre

Belvedere Tower

Hersham Riverside Park.

The easiest access here is behind the Waitrose carpark in the village centre.  While this is a very short walk (its not a 'destination'), it is very convenient and surprisingly peaceful.