If there’s one thing I hardly ever do, it’s watch sport. So you may well ask what I was doing scrumming my way onto a train to Twickenham last Saturday at noon, surrounded by men with funny hats and (apparently) an interest in other men’s odd-shaped balls. Well, it’s a long story, and as is usual in my life, it has to do with food!
Passionate Cook Johanna and I had got together a couple of months ago and kicked around the idea of having a food blogger get-together here in London. I mean, San Francisco bloggers seem to see a lot of each others and Perth bloggers regularly meet up, and here we are living in the culinary capital of the western world and nobody had so far suggested that we try to get together. Part of it might be the curious Londoner lack of enthusiasm for travelling long distances just for dinner (case in point – how much easier is it to persuade people to meet you in town for drinks after work rather than persuade them to come round to your house for dinner??), but in light of the international flavour of our food blogging community, we decided we could probably take a chance and organise a gathering. Which is how I found myself jammed onto a train with a bunch of people in rugby shirts and funny hats, heading for Twickenham last Saturday. I made it to Johanna’s in one piece where Jo had dragged herself off her sickbed to welcome us into her home. (There had been a nervous moment the evening before when she wasn’t sure she would feel up to it and the guests were confronted with the prospect of having to travel to the Far East (!!) to get to my house…).
Over the next hour or so, the following fellow-bloggers joined us:
Andrew of Spittoon – our only wine blogger and the only thorn amongst the roses, so to speak (!); Meg of Though Small, It is Tasty (the blog formerly known as Lets Eat with Meg and Ted :-P), who travelled all the way from Dublin to join us; and Jenni of Pertelote, who lives only one London postcode away from me, so we’re practically neighbours 🙂
Across the table we have Johanna on the left, comparing camera kit with Keiko of Nordljus who is as delicate and sweet in real life as her gorgeous desserts are on her blog; and Cecile of English Patis, another blogger who lives a little way out of London and stoically braved the vagaries of weekend timetables and engineering works on British Rail to join us.
After a glass of bubbly in the garden getting to know each other, we were all seated in Jo’s beautiful conservatory dining area for the start of the feast. Andrew was kind enough to arrange for some wines for our gathering, courtesy of Decanter Wines. Now I have met the charming Krystyna and Jim Monks who run Decanter at the independent wine merchants fair last May – they specialise in Spanish wines and their enthusiasm for both Spain and its wines is very infectious. If anybody should be trusted to select the right wines to sample with tapas/antipasti, it should most certainly be these two! And they were off to a good start with the Bohigas Cava Brut NV that we were sipping in the garden with morcillas and caprese cocktail sticks – full tasting notes on this and the other wines are available at the end of this post.
So what do food bloggers cook when they get together? Well, Jo and I had decreed the theme to be tapas/antipasti as this would probably be the least stressful way to feed lots of people, which opened the door to anything from cured meats to salads, to breads and cheeses – sounds like my kind of menu!! Here’s the complete menu (and a somewhat incomplete photographic record! Must have been the wine…)
Johanna made skewers of baby vine tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and mozzarella balls marinated in balsamic vinegar, plus blanched asparagus spears wrapped in Parma ham. The “caprese on a stick” skewers definitely win the prize for “most photogenic food of the day” – check out all these snaps!
Meg obviously did not have the luxury of her own kitchen to cook in, seeing as she was just on a flying visit from Dublin. Instead, she brought a delicious selection of artisinal breads from Brighton.
Jenni made a big and very attractive bowl of tuna and chickpea salad with roasted red peppers and paprika. This had the most intriguing smoky flavour that we eventually (after some debate) ascribed to the particular type of paprika. She also brought along some fab little morcilla sausages from Brindisa – oh wow! Never had these before but will certainly be having them again! (No pics I’m afraid 🙁 But you can see them both in the pic of the table at the beginning of this post.)
Cecile made a terrine of goat’s cheese (which Jo’s daughter promptly re-named ghost cheese – it’s a long story!!), pesto, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes which proved extremely popular, as well as empanadas filled with chicken, pork, raisins and egg – a really interesting combination of tastes that worked really well with the red wine.
I made a carpaccio of zucchini with pecorino shavings and capers (as served at our whole salmon barbecue last summer), as well as a big bowl of marinated mushrooms – my sister-in-law Paola’s recipe – both of which were deliciously garlicky but light and fresh. Lots of dressing to be mopped up with the bread!
And then Keiko wowed us all with not one, not two, but three desserts! Individual chocolate pots with a cake base; tiramisu with home-made sponge cake instead of ladyfinger biscuits (as used by the rest of us mere mortals…!) and truly the best crème brulee I have ever tasted. It struck the right balance between wobbly egginess and crispy caramel bittersweetness, while the vanilla tasted of real pods, not bottled essence. Sublime.
A very special treat for me was the wine Johanna produced from her personal cellar to sip with the desserts. First up was a bottle of Tokaji Aszu, the legendary Hungarian dessert wine. Not many people are familiar with this wine and some may even think that Tokaji is a generic term for dessert wine. In fact, Tokaji is an appelation in Hungary’s Tokaji-Hegyalja (Tokaji hills) region about 120 miles north of Budapest, making a number of wines but known chiefly for the sweet botrytised Aszu wines. The original meaning of the Hungarian word aszú was “dried”, but it came to be associated with a type of wine made with botrytised (i.e. dried) grapes. The grapes which are planted (Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Harslevelu or Tokaji Muscat)are all late ripeners and the harvest takes placein three stages. One harvest is conducted by hand in vineyards where over half the grapes are botrytis affected – the botrytis-affected berries are selected and stored separately. A second harvest takes plac in vineyards with a lower proportion of botrytis-affected grapes, and here botrytised and healthy grapes are harvested and mixed together; and a third harvests only healty grapes. THe Aszu wines are made using a combination of the first and second harvests. In years where conditions do not favour the development of botrytis, no Aszu wines can be made. And for those of you who have checked out the label, the puttony number is based on the content of sugar and sugar-free extract in the mature wine. Aszú ranges from 3 puttonyos to 6 puttonyos, with a further category called Aszú-Eszencia representing wines above 6 puttonyos – so at 5 puttonyos our example was in the sweeter range.
The other special treat that Jo brought out was a bottle of German Eiswein (you will also find Austrian examples, and a Canadian version called icewine). This is another dessert wine, but one made in a very different way. It generally describes a sweet white wine pressed from grapes that have been frozen solid at the time of picking – in Germany the grapes must be harvested at between -8° and -10° Celsius. Now grape juice contains ripe sugar and some acidity, plus various concentrated flavours and properties, all in solution in water. Water freezes at a higher temperature than grape juice so that when the frozen grapes are crushed the ice remains solid, while the concentrated extract of the juice flows from the press. This sticky concentrate is then fermented rather slowly to produce a rich, golden, sweet and exquisitely flavoured icewine or eiswein, which has a relatively low alcohol content. It made for a very interesting comparison to taste these two highly sought after yet very different dessert wines at one sitting – thanks again Jo! And see my tasting notes below if you are interested.
And so the afternoon slipped past. We all learned something (who Pertelote is, that Meg is soon to be Dr Meg, tips on wine, tips on photography, how to handle a lovely, heavy ship’s decanter, who has the oldest blog there and what inspired each of us to start blogging) and made some new friends.
The best for me was to be surrounded by people who, as soon as the food was put on the table, all reached for their cameras and started snapping away – nobody rolled their eyes, asked why anyone would want to photograph food, or asked me to explain (again!) what a blog is! Bliss!! We were joined at the end of the meal by Jo’s husband and two charming children, the eldest of whom mixes a mean espresso, and the youngest of whom loves (at 16 months) feeding decadent desserts to women he’s just met. He’s going to be a heartbreaker…!
Everybody finally started making a move homeward after 4 hours of non-stop eating, drinking, photographing and discussing of FOOD! An afternoon well-spent I would say – thanks to all of you for your delicious food and wine and your stimulating company. Plans are afoot for a picnic in July – hopefully on the banks of the Thames at the Henley regatta where there will be candy for the mouth as well as candy for the eye in the form of loads and loads of men in lycra!
Hmm, so maybe I’m not so averse to watching sport after all. (Wo)Man cannot live by bread alone!
SHAVED ZUCCHINI SALAD (serves 4)
4 large zucchini
For the dressing:
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
salt and milled black pepper to taste
Parmesan shavings (I substituted Pecorino)
chopped flat-leaf parsley
Choose fairly large baby marrows. Using a vegetable peeler, slice the marrows lengthwise into ribbons. Turn onto a platter and pour over the dressing. Regrigerate for an hour or two if possible. To serve, top with shavings of Parmesan and a sprinkle of parsley.
MARINATED MUSHROOMS (serves 4-6)
500g button/closed cup mushrooms
3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
finely grated rind and juice of a small lemon
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
2-3 tsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
pinch of grated fresh nutmeg
Wash and slice the mushrooms thinly. Blanch in boiling water for a few minutes until slightly softened. Mix all the other ingredients together in a flat, shallow bowl. Drain the mushrooms and add to the sauce in the bowl. Leave in the fridge to marinate overnight. Before serving, add salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste.
And for the benefit of the winos amongst my readership, here are my complete tasting notes on what we drank. All are from Decanter Wines, unless otherwise indicated. A tiny word of warning – the notes get progressively more sketchy as we move twards the dessert wines!!
Bohigas Cava Brut NV (Catalunya, Spain) – 11,5% alc., blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada
C – pale gold, lively mousse
P – not very yeasty, crisp mousse. Fruitier than a French champagne but possibly showing some signs of bottle age? For the price I would have expected more.
Bodegas Farina Colegiata Rosado 2003 (Catalunya, Spain) 12.5% alc., 100% Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo)
C – beautiful deep rose with orange hints at the edges
N – burnt caramel, delicious
P – off-dry, lots of sweet berry fruits up front (strawberries?). Hints of vanilla and caramel on the long finish. Delicious! And stood up amazingly well to the capers in my zucchini carpaccio – a moutful taken directly after eating a caper seemed to yield a new depth of sweet flavour, rather than being spoiled by the saltiness. This was my favourite wine of the day.
Michel Gendrier Cuvee Francois 1er 2000 (Loire, France) 12% alc. 100% Romorantin
C – pale straw
N – plasticky, kerosene, like a South African Weisser Riesling
P – High acid, hardly any fruit. Not particularly pleasant to drink on its own but softened slightly with food. Still, there are better deals around for £10!
*Matahiwi Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Wairarapa, New Zealand) 12% alc. 100% Sauvignon Blanc
C – very pale, greenish hints?
N – powerful nose. Green, vegetal, grassy – possibly some asparagus? Definitely no gooseberries here!
P – Fruity – pineapple in particular. A big wine that stood up well to the garlic and vinegar dressing on the zucchini and mushrooms. Very pleasant.
*Burgans Albarino (Rias Baixas, Spain) 12.5% alc., 100% Albarino
C – pale straw
N – crisp, pleasant nose. Green apples.
P – Creamy mouthfeel and a slight prickle on the tongue, which reinfoced the green apple scents on the nose. Lovely fresh wine which also paired well with the chickpea and tuna salad.
Virasa Vinicola Cerro Bercial Reserva 1999 (Utiel Requena, Spain) 13% alc., Tempranillo and Bobal grapes
C – Very deep garnet, almost opaque
N – Lovely complex smokey nose with hints of blackberry/plum jam
P – Delicious jammy fruit and smokiness. Very balaced tannins and good structure. Cocoa powder and dark chocolate on the finish. Medium bodied, medium long finish.
**Tokaji Aszu 1997, 11.5% alc., 5 puttonyos
C – golden amber, beautiful
N – Absolutely delicious – dried peaches and apricots, burnt caramel
P – As on the nose – apricots and caramel with a good atructure – not cloying. Lovely long finish. Delicious!!
**Eiswein (Maybe Jo can supply details – I didn’t note down anything!!)
C – pale straw, much lighter than the Tokaji
N – sultanas and honey
P – sweet dessert pears (pear drops, I’m told!!) with a good acid balance. Far less syrupy than the Tokaji. Lovely long finish of spicy stewed apples
* from Oddbins
** from Johanna’s cellar