Monday, 18 November 2013

TerraVin - entrepreneurs encourage wine innovation in traditional New Zealand

Here is an article I wrote for The London Foodie on how British entrepreneurs are investing in New Zealand wine and the new innovative winemakers who are stretching conventions.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Humble ingredients given the 2 Michelin star treatment

For chef Norbert Niederkofler it is all about the ingredients. And terroirs, the land and environment where they are nurtured. So, simple ingredients like potatoes become stars, rolled in vegetable ash for an extra flavour punch and sourdugh bread that is past its best is sauteed in beer to give it a new lease of life as a malty, crunchy topping.

Norbert Nierderkofler runs the Restaurant St Hubertus at the remote but magical Hotel Rosa Alpina high up in the Dolomites in the northern most region of Italy. It is the perfect getaway, winter or summer, for food and wine lovers - the region of South Tyrol has 26 Michelin stars and makes some of the highest awarded wines in Italy. Recently Chef Niederkofler was in London offering a taste of his clean and refined cooking accompanied by wines from the region.

The canapes set the scene for things to come and brought the forests of the Dolomite hills to a corner of Covent Garden. A tiny veal tartare sandwich was served with a shot of pine resin and a sweet/savoury hazelnut puree. Whichever order one ate it in, it gave a rounded performance of soft and crisp, umami and bitter.

And then followed a truly stunning starter. Evoking the frozen beauty of clean glacial riverbanks, the plate sparkled with snow made from dehydrated olive oil and curls of the freshest fish from the lakes of the Alto Adige region. It all tasted so pure I felt cleansed of my reckless burger/cocktail binges, which had gone from being occasional treats to diet staples of late.

The Sylvaner Kuenhof which accompanied was light and fresh and allowed the delicate flavours of the dish to shine through. Sylvaner is probably Germany's most ubiquitous white grape and some of the wines produced from it are truly heinous. But, here on the slopes of northernmost Italy, the wine gets enough warm sunshine to ripen and really show its bright, floral notes. This wine is made with as little human intervention as possible - a delicate pressing and maturation on the lees.


Char from the clean waters of this pristine area is a key ingredient for the many Michelin starred chefs plying their noble trade in these parts. For our next dish, it was delicately cooked at low temperature to preserve the delicate flavour and texture of the fish. Bacon and mushroom provided crunch while the bright green celery sauce was lively and fresh. 

Beetroot gnocchi which followed was sauteed in butter and served up straight from an enormous copper pan by Chef Niederkofler. Jewel-coloured gnocchi was stuffed with creamed red and white radishes and infused with a good hit of horseradish. The 'beer soil' I mentioned earlier gave the dish crunch.

And to go with it, possibly one of the finest Pinot Neros I have ever tasted - Trattman DOC 2010 from the small but highly regarded Girlan winery located between Caldaro and Bolzano, Alto Adige's most important wine towns. Ripe cherries, an incredible bouquet of berry fruits and well balanced tannins make this a real quaffer of a wine. It's not cheap though, so may be best savoured over dinner.

The food and wine of the Alto Adige region of Italy are a real revelation to the uninitiated - a blend of two cultures and ways of cooking. Part German precision and part Italian passion; it means fresh, high quality ingredients lavished with care, generosity and a sprinkling of charm. 

And a perfect time to experience this charm is during the ski season when 'Slope Food' events will be taking place for the first time - think street food but eaten on the go while enjoying the slopes. But this is no raclette or hotdog pitstop. There will be Michelin starred chefs creating their perfect finger food to accompany snowy pursuits. There is also the Wine Safari and the Gourmet Safari, where ski huts throughout the area will be featuring Michelin starred delights; basically a ski-in-ski-out gourmet fest, accompanied by local wines and cheeses,. 

For more information on the gourmet and wine events this winter in Italy's Aldo Adige region visit 

Wines from this part of Italy are available in many restaurants with good wine lists throughout the UK but have yet to make much impact on high street wine retailers' shelves. Bibendum has a good selection 

Monday, 23 September 2013

London Restaurant Festival is bigger and better this year

It's time once more for London's biggest celebration of restaurants and eating out. From the 3rd to the 21st of October restaurants throughout the city will be offering specially priced meals and opportunities to try some of the best cooking in the capital. With around 350 restaurants taking part in the event there is something for everyone, from dim sum to a Sunday roast.

LRF has been going since 2009 and has steadily grown each year as more innovative ways of enjoying eating out in London have been explored. This year the Tapas Tour is back, where £50 gets you tapas from trusted stalwarts Fernandez & Wells and Copita as well as newcomer Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, which brings the Michelin starred San Sebastian wonder to these shores.

New this year are the Cicchetti Trail and the Japanese Journey. Both follow the same format as the Tapas Tour, with £50 for cicchetti from the likes of Polpo, Massimo, Theo Randall and Mele e Pere.

The Japanese Journey is the one I am really looking forward to, with yakitori from Bincho Soho, noodles from Shoryu and tonkotsu from, er, Tonkotsu.

And more Japanese fun is in store at Bafta in Piccadilly where Jonathan Ross will be introducing an unique viewing of his favourite film - Studio Ghibli's charming animation 'Spirited Away'. After watching the film munching on gourmet popcorn you get to enjoy a leisurely dinner in the company of Wossy himself.

You can also simply enjoy a specially priced LRF deal at restaurants throughout London. For just £10 there are 2 courses at Clockjack Oven or lunch at Banana Tree. £25 gets you 3 courses at STK or lunch at La Porte des Indes. And stretch to £45 and you can dine at The Ritz. Get your Graze passport and you even get a drink thrown into the bargain.

Tickets are selling fast and the Sunday Best lunch experiences with Angela Hartnett, Mark Sargeant and new foodie phenomenon Marianne Lumb are already sold out.

Get the details at

All photos courtesy of the London Restaurant Festival

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Le vrai Sud de France

Mention the South of France and our minds turn to mega-yachts, the Cannes Festival and the excesses of the holidaying super-rich. Or to the endless lavender fields of Provence where many of us have spent a week making idle plans of packing up our dreary UK lives and moving to a dilapidated Provencal farmhouse to make wine and lavender-based skincare products.

But there is another South of France that relatively few of us Brits venture to. Curving from Perpignan near the Spanish coast to Montpellier, the region's capital, is an awe-inspiring stretch of history, diverse landscapes and culture that is well loved by French holidaymakers. Languedoc-Roussillon gets 300 days of sunshine a year and has a sweeping coastline of sheltered coves and bays. It is France's largest wine region with the country's oldest vines and some of its best produce.

Why am I waxing lyrical about the region? Well, last Saturday the Sud de France tourism board hosted a festival on London's South Bank to bring us Brits closer to the region. Purveyors of fine wine, cheese, delicate little cakes that only the French can make and other delights lined the southern bank of the Thames while Gallic DJ Gilles Peterson spun tunes and the sun shone in a convincingly Mediterranean fashion.

There were wine masterclasses from Robersons Wines of Kensington where we learnt how the innovative Languedoc-Rousillon region is leading the way in producing biodynamic and natural wines. They tasted good, too.

Sud de France is a well known French wine growing region. In fact it is the world's largest. But these days things have moved further towards quality, rather than quantity, as many producers have upped their game to achieve AOC status. The region still produces more wine than either Australia or South Africa. Some of the wines us Brits love most come from Languedoc-Rousillon, whose 25 appellations stretch from the Rhone to the Pyrenees. Minervois, Corbieres and Fitou produce some great reds while Costieres de Nimes has vineyards dating back to Roman times. Banyuls is another well-known area, producing deep and rich dessert wines on the slopes of the Catalan Pyrenees.

The region is rich in other produce too. There is rice from the Camargue, black truffles from the Gard region and charcuterie from acorn and chestnut fed pigs in the Herault area. At the festival we enjoyed a taste of the local produce. I loved the pulled duck confit from The Frenchie and Cassoulet by Market Quarter of Borough Market. 

And with some great looking hotels and gites in the region, I found myself checking flights on Ryanair on the bus home. When this endless summer does come to an end, as it must, I am going to need the promise of some sun and fun to get through those cold, drizzly and short Autumn days. 

For more information about the Sud de France region visit

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Smokey Tails - Hackney

Hackney Wick is not a bad choice for going out. You can fall out of Hackney Wick overground station straight into a bar. There aren't a huge amount of places to choose from, but definitely enough for a good night out. Especially if you want your fun outside, preferably along a canal. While the views are not quite Venetian, the crowd is fun and the vibe is right.

The latest addition to the scene is pop-up barbecue and cocktails joint Smokey Tails. A wooden structure built up against the canal with a large, partially covered terrace, it's around until October. The Crate Brewery, however, is permanent and has great craft brews and pizzas with a large canal-side area.

The cocktails at Smokey Tails are your standard fare from Summer Cups to Sours but the barbecue is worth the trip. 

Ribs have been slow-smoked before being thrown on the barbie and doused in sauce. The sauces are well balanced and allegedly made from old family recipies - one of the founders is from southern USA.

There is also the ubiquitous Pulled Pork in a bun, which I didn't try but looked good - glistening with the right amount of fat and juiciness.

The Wings here are exceptional - moist and falling off the bone and anointed in either barbecue or buffalo sauce, the latter of which was the perfect balance between hot and sour. 

As long as the weather holds up, there's meat on the grill and the decks are spinning, this is a good choice for a raucous Saturday night or a chilled Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Grain Store - Loubet does casual fusion in Kings Cross

Last year I lived in a lovely Georgian building between two great London restaurants - Bistrot Bruno Loubet and The Modern Pantry. I loved them both and often spent hours and hard earned cash swooning over their food. While very different in style, provenance and flavours, both restaurants served up the kind of food you want to eat - exciting, refreshing, comforting and delicious.

And now, I wonder if their close proximity facilitated some sort of molecular exchange, a fusion of foodie DNA. Or, did Bruno Loubet stand at the large windows of his restaurant gazing across the square at The Modern Pantry and, somehow, subliminal messages about fusion cooking and exotic ingredients wafted on the breeze into his subconscious? Whatever may have happened, there is no denying that Loubet's new enterprise, Grain Store, has similarities to the cooking of Anna Hansen at The Modern Pantry. And, from the vantage point of my Clerkenwell home, my theory seems feasible. Of course, Loubet has spent time working wonders down under. And Grain Store is yet another collaboration with the founders of Moro, whose commitment to North African flavours may have rubbed off. Whatever the reason, Grain Store is one of the most interesting restaurants to have opened lately, among a huge list of hasbeens and wannabes that have made up a large portion of this year's many openings.

Grain Store has two USPs; the humble vegetable will play a starring role, with meat as the co-star. And that there is still much more innovation and creative development left in the world of cocktail making. Tony Conigliaro is in charge of drinks, continuing this successful collaboration from my other neighbour that nearly caused my financial ruin - the Zetter Townhouse. The cocktails and other libations at Grain Store are rather special, even by today's standards where it has become commonplace for bars to make their own bitters and cocktails come aged in oak casks. The Granary Martini is an astonishing distillation of mustard seeds in vodka mixed with dry vermouth (presumably house-made) which would make the ideal accompaniment to roast beef. Other savoury cocktails include Cedar Wood Lemonade combining Fino sherry aged in cedar with lemon juice - refreshing, long and satisfyingly woody - and Pumpkin & Maple Syrup Bellini made with home-made pumpkin puree and 'de-sugared' maple syrup. 

And then there are the Greco/Roman wines. Smoked or infused with herbs, this picks up an ancient practise of flavouring wine - not unlike mulled wine but more subtle and served at room temperature. Even the non-alcoholic drinks on the menu have been given a molecular twist, such as Hay & Grass Water or even Silver Water which combines silver tip tea with cassis and water. 

After drinks on the sunny terrace overlooking the transformed Kings Cross goods yards, we moved to a table inside to eat. It is an interesting space, with tall, uncovered ceilings and shards of sunlight cutting across the open-plan kitchen. There are tables of different heights to break up the sound and kitchen annexes posted around the dining room - the pastry counter was next to the bar, looking more like a DJ's de-constructed decks. It is informal by Loubet's standards; again it has an antipodean insouciance which contrasts starkly with the starchy white of Loubet's bistrot down the road.

To start I had the Potato & Rye Bread, Seaweed Butter, Oyster and Borage leaves. The seaweed butter was a salty, umami treat but overpowered the oyster leaves, drowning out their subtle oystery flavour.

Chilled clear Lobster 'Bloody Mary' was a salad of plump lobster and heritage tomatoes over which was poured a reduction of vodka infused tomato liquor - very, very good but very small, although there was a generous amount of lobster.

The mains may challenge hardened carnivores. Chilli con Veggies with Brown Rice sounded a bit too like my mother's attempts at healthy food back in the '80s, while Vegetable Paella, Garlic & Tomato Snails seemed almost pointless, although I don't know this as I was not tempted to try it. I did, however, try the Buttermilk & Caraway Braised Cauliflower, Wood Baked Onions, Devilled Duck Heart - the meat components of any dish always appear at the end. This was really a dish of two parts; the duck hearts devilled and coated in a wine-based jus while the cauliflower nestled in its own pot in a thin, yoghurty sauce with too much caraway for my liking. I couldn't help wishing the duck hearts had come atop a creamy mound of mash instead.

The mash was present in Spiced Mash, Mint Pickled Cucumber, Raw Pinktop Turnips, Broad Beans, Confit Lamb Belly. Here again, the spicing of the mash fought against the soft, meaty flavour of the lamb and won. The lamb belly was beautifully cooked and tasted lovely once I had scraped off the mash. The crisp turnips and young broad beans were more successfully paired with the mashed potato and so I enjoyed them separately.

Reading this now, my review does not sound all that complimentary, but that is not the intention. I would definitely go back to Grain Store and try more of the dishes on offer. There is more to this restaurant than one visit can unveil and I am pretty sure it is worth the perseverance. And, as prices are surprisingly keen for cooking of this standard, an impromptu pit-stop when next in the area (may need to plan ahead at weekends) is definitely on the cards.

Starters from £3 to £6 although the Lobster Bloody Mary is £10
Mains from £10 to £14

Grain Store: Granary Square, 1-3 Stable Street, King's Cross, N1C 4AB

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Michelin starred innovation in South Tyrol

WhereRestaurant Sissi by Andrea Fenoglio, Via G, Galilei 44 - I-39012 Merano

I don't know why South Tyrol, in the far north of Italy, has disproportionately high number of Michelin stars - both for its geographic area and for its population. There must be something about the place that incites such dedication to creating and serving superlative food. I like to think this is because South Tyrol engenders the perfect combination - a passion and commitment to food that is truly Italian, blended with a more Germanic desire for precision and perfectionism. Whatever the reason, it is a great region made notable for its superb restaurants and its excellent produce. 

Merano is small city in South Tyrol (or Alto Adige, as it is known to the Italian speaking inhabitants and Sud Tirol to its German speakers) traversed by the Adige river and made famous in the 19th century as a thermal resort. Empress Sissi of Austria led the fashionable elite to Merano to take the waters and indulge in some fine wining and dining. Nowadays, one of the best spots for the latter is the Michelin starred Restaurant Sissi, owned by chef proprietor Andrea Fenoglio. Chef Andrea has been practising his craft in Merano for over twenty years and is something of a celebrity in the area.

On the evening of our visit on a balmy July evening, the sky was beginning to close in and we could hear distant rumblings of a storm. Inside the restaurant, the windows were thrown open and the tables were generously spaced, allowing for convivial conversation, rather than the hushed constraint and thinly veiled eavesdropping common in many starry establishments (a recent meal at the Villa Cipriani in Asolo would have been just that had it not been for the loud American who was in a mood to share and whose voice carried all the way across the valley to nearby Monte Grappa)

Anyway, to the food. We had a tasting menu of five courses, the price of which I do not know because, rather prosaically, the 'ladies' menu' did not contain any prices. Slightly worrying when it comes time to hand over the credit card at the end of the meal. But, before then, there was much to savour and enjoy. The parade of amuses bouche began with a very clever Liquid Pizza, which was a truly memorable tomato reduction with an olive oil and basil float. Perched on the edge of the glass sat a cube of mozzarella dusted with oregano.

Next was an egg yolk, delivered on a Chinese soup spoon. It turned out to be a spherified Bagna Cauda, an intense blend of sweet peppers, anchovies and capers. The perfect appetite awakener.

For my starter I went for the quartet of Antipasti, which turned out to be a sizeable tray loaded with four large starter portions. There was the Tonno di Gallina, which is the most brilliant invention in ages. For years I have been trying to justify my undying passion for tuna tinned in olive oil, in spite of everything I know about the sea's rapidly dwindling tuna stocks. And here was the answer, guilt-free. Chef Andrea had taken the choicest chunks of chicken and marinated them for three days in olive oil before canning the meat. The result was as near as dammit to the real thing. Sandwich shops around the world should do this immediately and the tuna crisis could be over in a flash.

This quartet of starters was very difficult to photograph so I hope my written descriptions will do them proper justice.

 The Tris di Bacala was salt cod done three ways with a brandade, cartillage of cod in a parsley pesto and the swim bladder (commonly referred to as tripe) which was cooked beautifully and resembled thick, chewy noodles - rich, salty and nutty.Tataki of Wild Boar came with wild mushrooms and a zippy vinaigrette and the final dish was a generous serving of slices of raw salmon wrapped around salad leaves and topped with salmon roe and bottarga.

My partner in gluttony had Chanterelles with Egg, Zucchini and Black Truffle which was a remarkable dish of earthy mushrooms topped with an 'egg yolk' which turned out to be an egg yolk, covered with a layer of hollandaise and cooked sous vide which burst open and cascaded over the mushrooms in the most satisfying manner.

The primi again used the finest ingredients to created bold flavours. A Cauliflower Cream Soup was grounded with saffron and made luxurious with thick slices of succulent scallop and a squid ink croquant.

Spaghetti with Sicilian Prawns was surprisingly served chilled, the pasta clinging to an intense tomato sauce. Sicilian prawns are always a delight, both for their crimson veining and their crisp, fresh burst of flavour. Personally, I would have preferred this dish warm as the flavours would have been more marked and less claggy. The deep fried prawn shell cut through the richness and provided texture.

Main courses included local game from the surrounding hillsides, chock full of wild boar and deer from nearby forests and free ranging cattle. South Tyrol is renowned for the quality of its dairy products and a glance around the lush pastures, interlaced with vineyards, explains why. Veal Sweetbreads were perfectly cooked so they were yielding but still retained a bite, anointed with a rich Marsala sauce and topped with local white asparagus.

Shoulder of Salt Marsh Lamb with Pistachio Crumb (possibly the only dish not locally sourced) was slow-cooked at low temperature to retain the earthy, herby flavours of the meat and was a joy to eat. The pistachio coating gave an interesting crunch while the timbale of vegetables was unremarkable.

South Tyrol is a slightly disorienting but overall successful fusion of Italian and Germanic cultures. Gnocchi is comfortably served alongside Spaetzle and Gelato with Apple Strudel. For a Michelin-starred pre-dessert in this region, chefs need look no further than the ubiquitous Apple Strudel as it is crying out to be deconstructed, re-imagined and reincarnated. At Restaurant Sissi, Chef Andrea took the essence of the flavours and captured them in a sphere, serving a stick of sugar-coated pastry alongside with a dusting of cinnamon. This was possibly the best strudel I have ever had as it got around the issue of soggy warm pastry which has lost its bite through close mingling with the cooked apple.

We closed with a bright and zesty dessert which was the perfect end to a rich meal - Lemon, Vanilla and Ricotta Ice cream with Kumquat and Preserved Lemons. The sharp flavours of the kumquat and lemons worked magic with the fresh, delicate and slightly salty ricotta ice cream. A drizzle of grassy olive oil brought the dish together. I loved it.

What we drank: After a chilled glass of Prosecco with our amuses bouche, we settled for the 2009 Campill from Pranzegg, made by a young artisan winemaker from nearby Bolzano. The blend was 95% Santa Maddelena (also known as Schiava or Vernatsch) with another local variety called Lagrein and Barbera making up the remainder. Santa Maddalena is a delicate grape, not unlike Pinot Noir, and there are increasing numbers of winemakers in the region creating extremely good wines with it. Another development in the highly regarded wine regions of South Tyrol is how winemakers are trying to breathe new life into the much maligned Lagrein, a robust but fruity red that was traditionally used as a blending wine.

The Campill was a fine wine with balance and great finesse and its slight spiciness came through very well served lightly chilled, as Santa Maddalenas often are. So, of course, we had two of them.

Over coffee and petits fours we watched as the heavens opened and blinding flashes of lightening criss-crossed the sky. As we waited out the storm, Chef Andrea proudly presented us with a dram of Italy's first single malt. Made by Puni in the foothills of the nearby Alps, this whisky has only just been released. It has not been aged in casks and so remains in its clear, unaltered form. I am no whisky aficionado but it seemed to go down well. A matured whisky, aged in Sicilian Marsala casks will be released in 2015.

Restaurant Sissi by Andrea Fenoglio takes the finest ingredients of the region and creates dishes that satisfy and excite, blending the two indigenous cuisines artfully with some clever and well-judged borrowing from around the world. The service was efficient and friendly and the atmosphere relaxed. 

Merano and the surrounding region of South Tyrol are simply stunning and surprisingly lacking in British tourists. This was my second visit in a year and it won't be long before I am back in the area again.

For more information on South Tyrol check out the tourism website