You know it’s summer in London when:
- you can barely walk ten steps in Waterloo Station on a Saturday morning without bumping into ten women in vertiginous heels and fascinators
- everyone starts to complain about the heat after spending the previous 9 months complaining about the cold
- you can barely walk ten steps in the city after 5pm without having to sidestep a large crowd of jolly suited and booted peeps drinking beer on a pavement outside a pub
- the main product display at every supermarket features Pimms and lemonade
- trains are full of girls who look like aspiring models in denim shorts, Wellington boots and fringed suede jackets, en route to summer music festivals
- you can experience Mediterranean dry heat on Monday; tropical rainstorms on Tuesday, wild winds on Wednesday, thunderstorms on Thursday, fine weather on Friday and… hailstorms on Saturday.
Another dead giveaway is the fact that every foodie in London and surrounds marks their calendar for 5 days in June and heads up to Regents Park for the annual Taste London festival. Taste started back in 2004 when the inaugural event was held at Somerset House but it was so successful that it moved to roomier Regent’s Park the following year and has remained there ever since as a London summer fixture. It has also spawned a family of Taste festivals around the world, including Taste of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Sydney, Melbourne, Milan and Dubai to name but a few. It’s a hub for like-minded people who are passionate about good food and drink, and a showcase of foodie excellence in every sphere from producers to chefs, restaurants, foodie travel, and retailers. I have previously written about my top tips for visiting Taste London, but today’s post is a look back my highlights of the Taste of London 2015 festival, sponsored for the first time this year by AEG.
1. The AEG Let’s Taste live cook-along and Taste Theatre
As befits a headline sponsor, AEG had a fairly big chunk of real estate at the festival which it filled with a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen where both the Let’s Taste live cook-along experience and the Taste Theatre demos took place.. I had the great pleasure of attending one of the cook-along sessions with Kathy Slack and was very impressed with the gorgeous induction hobs that they gave us to play with . I love their instant heat and the ability to control the heat so precisely – either at high temperatures (e.g. for stir=-frying) or at low temperatures (e.g. for simmering stews or soups). They also have a nifty “Stop+Go” function which at the touch of a button reduces all zones to a ‘keep warm’ setting if cooking is interrupted. When you return to cooking, pressing the Stop+Go button remembers the previously selected temperature setting and you can go straight back to cooking where you left off. I also loved the smooth glass top that would be a breeze to keep clean – definitely one to ask Santa for! We made a delicious and flavourful dish of lightly pickled rhubarb and pan fried mackerel fillets on beetroot which was both tasty and healthy. I also had a demo of AEG’s Pro-Combi Sous Vide oven which combines the benefits of sous vide cooking with those of traditional baking, roasting and grilling, plus a built-in vacuum sealer. Santa baby…??
2. Celebrity Cruises speciality restaurants sampler menu
Taste of London just would not be the same without the Celebrity Cruises stand – the last time I visited Taste, we had their delectable sushi lollipops and this time they had recreated their famous Lawn Club’s on-board lawns as a venue for a very special tasting menu from three of their speciality restaurants. After a glass of rosé to welcome me, Rosana and May, we seated ourselves at the bar counter and started our feast. First up were Qsine‘s signature Spring rolls (one with meat and one vegetarian) served with coleslaw and an utterly adorable little squeeze bottle of homemade truffled ketchup. The rolls were wonderful: crunchy, packed with filling and flavour; and served in Qsine’s signature funky style in little wire coils, and the truffled ketchup was so good I asked if I could take the remainder of my bottle home with me. It was paired with Punk IPA beer which provided a perfectly balanced clean flavour to complement the smoke, spicy rolls. This was followed by Blu‘s blackened Ahi tuna with forbidden rice and baby bok choy, paired with Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc. And finally came Luminae‘s lamb loin with a tangy yoghurt dressing (as delicious as it was pretty), which was paired with with the same delightful Chateau D’Esclans Whispering Angel rosé that we had enjoyed upon arrival. It was an impressive showcase of the kind of cooking guests can expect on a Celebrity cruise and a reminder of how much I enjoyed my experience on board the Celebrity Reflection.
3. Trying signature dishes from London’s top restaurants
One of the best things about Taste of London is the sheer number of high-end restaurants that operate stands there, offering the chance to sample some of their iconic and best dishes for under a tenner. In the space of one afternoon you can easily experience the cooking of half a dozen top chefs – and that’s exactly what I did. First up was a visit to the Jose Pizarro stand for a plate of their gorgeous, silky Cinco Jotas Spanish Jabugo ham, expertly carved in front of your eyes.
Next up we visited the Roka stand. Despite having been meaning to visit the restaurant for the longest time, I have yet to get round to it and visiting the stand made me more determined than ever. Not only were they attracting a crowd with the incredible smells coming from their outdoor robata grill, but there was also such a great buzz with all the grill hands shouting “hei!” in unison as each order came in. I sampled the black cod and crayfish gyoza which were quite heavenly – plump and packed with fresh seafood flavour. I’ll be back!
From fish, it seemed logical to progress to something a little more meaty so we headed for one of my favourite restaurants in London: The Ember Yard. A sister restaurant to Salt Yard, Dehesa and the Opera Tavern, it specialises in charcuterie and cooking over charcoal, so once again we were greeted by insanely delicious smells of grilling meat upon arrival. I could not resist their iconic Iberico pork and foie gras slider, a flavour bomb packed with decadent porky goodness and served with some of the best crispy onion rings I have ever tasted. Bliss.
From there I visited the stand another of my favourite London restaurants – Club Gascon, chef Pascal Aussignac’s Michelin-starred restaurant focusing on the cuisine of South-Western France. The region is renowned for its foie gras, so naturally I chose something containing it: a foie gras and strawberry tartine. It’s probably not a combination that I would usually choose, but having had foie gras served with a pink grapefruit jelly that blew me away at Club Gascon’s sister restaurant Cigalon, I was willing to suspend my disbelief! The substantial slab of foie gras came served between two wafers and topped with a macerated chopped strawberries and although not my favourite match for foie, the combination was pretty good and the foie was plentiful and excellent. The only puzzling element to this dish was the addition of chopped fraise tagada candy (super-sweet Haribo candy made to look vaguely like strawberries) – I found the taste way too artificially sweet and discarded most of the candy.
Back to the seafood next as I wandered over to Aqua Kyoto, part of the international Aqua group that includes many properties in Hong Kong (including the Aqua Luna red-sailed junk on which I sailed in Hong Kong) and both Hutong and Aqua Shard in London). The item which caught my eye was one for which I developed a taste at Nobu: the spicy tempura rock shrimp – and I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed! The batter was light and perfectly crispy, coated in just enough spicy sauce to lend flavour but not make the batter soggy, and encasing plump and succulent shrimp. I could have eaten an entire bucket – it was that good!
After fish comes meat, right? 😉 Another restaurant that I have been hearing a lot about but have not yet visited is Kurobuta, a Japanese restaurant that turns all notions of Japan being all about neat little plates of tempura and sushi on their heads. Australian chef and owner Scott Hallsworth takes his cue from the culture of izakaya Japanese drinking dens where the food served is packed with strident, umami-rich flavours and is messy and satisfying rather than beautifully presented and delicate. I had heard reports of how good the BBQ pork belly in steamed buns with spicy peanut soy was, hence my decision to try one, and it is hard to put into words just how good they were. Imagine every texture you ever wanted in your mouth, from pillowy soft buns, to meaty pork, to crunchy peanuts, overlaid with lashings of smoky barbecue and miso, and you start coming close. But beware – I suspect they are addictive!
Last but not least, I turned my attention to all things sweet and took my last crowns off to purchase a sure thing. I have previously written about my meal at Tredwell’s, the less formal Covent Garden restaurant of Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing. Although I enjoyed the entire meal, the stand-out dish for me was their homemade salted caramel soft-serve ice cream, so when I saw it on the Taste menu, I could not resist. The ice-cream combines the traditional texture of soft-serve with the very grown-up flavour of salted caramel with an excellent depth of flavour – and of course the honeycomb topping provides the perfect crunchy finishing touch.
4. Trying some surprising new (and not so new) products
Another great aspect of Taste is the number of producers and merchants who showcase their wares there every year. It’s a fabulous place both to launch new products and to remind customers of old favourites. The total and utter surprise of the festival for me was the Lituanica stand. I’ve known about Lithuanian supermarket Lituanica for years as I live quite close to one in London and although we have visited once or twice, it’s not somewhere we regularly shop. Still, the name and large stand caught my eye and so I wandered over to see what they had on offer. Although living slap bang in the middle of possibly the UK’s largest Lithuanian community, I have a very tenuous grasp on what their cuisine might be like. As it turns out, there is a massive tradition of cured pork and of cheese – everything I sampled was delicious (if not exactly health-conscious!). I was also given a taste of a favourite Lithuanian snack: pieces of rye bread deep-fried until crispy and then served as you would crisps – sinfully delicious. I also tried an extraordinary sweet snack called kohuke – a traditional sweet treat popular in the Baltic states made of freshly pressed curd flavoured with ingredients such as sugar, fruit or poppyseed. The ones I had were rather fancy, flavoured with cherry and coated in dark Belgian chocolates, but I was amazed at how delicious they were. Definitely planning a trip to Lituanica to seek them out! I also stopped by the Menabrea beer stand where I had been promised that there would be beer gelato… and so there was! It’s a really unusual taste – not sweet but less aggressively hopsy than an actual beer – but once you get used to it I found it refreshingly unsweet and rather pleasant. We also tried some generous samples of Portlebay, gourmet popcorn made with love and care in Devon. Often, flavoured popcorn can taste a little artificial, but these flavours were outstanding – I particularly liked the chilli and lime flavour and will definitely be seeking out stockists.
5. Enjoying some liquid refreshment
Man cannot live by food alone, of course, and Taste of London this year provided ample opportunity to wet one’s whistle, so to speak. I started off my visit with a quick trip to the VIP area where one of my favourite Champagne houses, Laurent-Perrier were the exclusive Champagne suppliers. A quick restorative glass of their excellent bubbles set me up rather nicely for the day! If Champagne is not your bag, there were plenty of cute little dolce vita-style mobile prosecco bars dotted around the festival, serving flutes of fizz to enjoy al fresco. And of course, no summer festival is complete these days without an Aperol spritz. I was also pleased to see a new South African wine distributor at Taste by the name of Hof’s Wines (nothing to do with The Hoff!). This young company focuses on sourcing quality wines from undiscovered South African wineries and wine regions for exclusive distribution to restaurants, hotels and private clients in the U.K. and further afield. Definitely one to watch. And for lovers of the hard stuff, there was a Balvenie whisky tasting on offer, contrasting three different whiskies from their range of Speyside Single Malts; or perhaps a chance to relax with a Sipsmith gin G&T in hand as you watched the passing parade. Cheers till next year, Taste of London!
NEED TO KNOW:
Taste of London takes place over 5 days every June in Regent’s Park. There are 2 x 4 hour session on the middle three days and 1 x 4 hour session on the first and last days. 2015 prices were as follows: Standard tickets (£16-27 depending on day) include entry to the festival only. Premium tickets (£33-44) – include entry to the festival plus £20 worth of Crowns. VIP tickets (£52-70) include entry to the festival, access to VIP Lounge, a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne, a recipe book and £20 worth of Crowns. New for 2015 was the Taste Lovers Ticket which includes discounted entry to the festival for two sessions, one which must be on Wednesday or Thursday. A smaller Taste of London event takes place this year from 19-22 November at Tobacco Dock – for full details, see the Taste of London website.
For another perspective on Tate of London 2015, check out my friend Rosana’s post.
DISCLOSURE: I attended this event as a guest of AEG but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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