Monthly Archives: March 2013

the danger lurking in every flapjack…

…is that we’re killing off archetypal childhood foods with adult concern.

Today, an Essex school banned “triangular shaped flapjacks” after a child was hurt by one in a food fight. The county council stressed that it was a school decision and that catering staff had been asked to only cut square or rectangular shaped flapjacks in future.

Yes, I know, rectangles and squares have more corners than triangles.

But that’s beside the point, for now. Whatever item you throw across a school canteen, be it flapjacks, forks or kitchen roll, there is a possibility someone will get hurt. But why blame the food? The innocent, oaty-goodness of a golden syrup-drenched flapjack can do no harm, except perhaps to your arteries.

We are becoming a culture of over-legalisation, insurance and suing, instead of really wondering why a food fight was occurring in an Essex school at all? And why a child felt compelled to throw something as healthy (yes, it can be as part of a balanced diet) and delicious as a flapjack. I commend the school for serving them at all; it’s great to hear of homemade (I assume they are since the staff are cutting them) baked goods being served up for lunch.

Who cares what shape the flapjacks are? Let’s get the kids in the kitchens making them themselves and taking them home, not flinging them at each other. As for the child that got hurt, well, remember the 10-second rule and get your prize!

Another crumbly decision:

  • Michael Gove, in 2011, was forbidden by security from taking his wife’s homemade flapjacks into a Cabinet meeting as they posed a security risk


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How not to be Viennese

The Vienna Coffee House: 74 Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3LW

I’m not expecting great things in the centre of Manchester from a Viennese coffee shop. I am, however, expecting the basics of good food, service and, above all, good coffee.

The service was good, if a little casual and over-friendly. The menus suggest you look in the counter to choose a cake or pastry, though the shiny icing-clad dry sponges may not appeal, while wobbling cheesecakes and wonky meringue-topped creations raised an eyebrow or two. The Chinese tourists, however, were suitably impressed and gazed for roughly ten minutes longer.

The decor is plain and quite homely: posters and old pictures are plastered to the walls while a twisting staircase takes you up to a second floor. A couple of the tables are surrounded by brown leather sofas, and it certainly seemed to be a popular place to spend an hour or two chatting, for kids to do homework, or for tourists to treat themselves.

There are plenty of offers from lunchtime sandwiches to afternoon tea and since it was 4pm we thought we might try the latter out. A hot drink and piece of cake for £3.99, described as “spoil yourself.” The Einspanner was described as a double mocha served whipped cream and a wafer. The large mug was half filled with a cheap whipped cream and there was no wafer. Once I had waded through the sweet bland mass of white stuff, I came to a double shot of fairly good-quality coffee – dark and rich, if you like your coffee that way – before I found a puddle of un-dissolved chocolate coagulating at the bottom. There was also a cherry, and not a fresh one either, more a glace-type one for baking, which I suspect came from somebody making a mistake and making the Fiaker drink (which was meant to be topped with a maraschino cherry.) Disappointing.

Anyway, onto the cake. I opted for carrot cake, it being the least manufactured-looking of the choices. The sponge was too dry but the flavour was good, studded with grated carrots and pecans. The topping was sweet and light and, while thick, was not too overbearing. More successful than the drink but not overly impressive.

The staff meant well and perhaps we went on an off-day. However, there is no sign of the Viennese quality coffee or the carefully crafted delicacies you can find in their cafes. The lingering of the customers though? Well, I think you’d find that it any coffee shop.

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Piccolino: the small Italian with a big secret

Piccolino: 8 Clarence Street, Manchester, M2 4DW

When the staff speak Italian at an Italian restaurant in Manchester, you can reasonably begin to hope for good things. At Piccolino your wishes will come true.

We were whisked through the lively upper floor of the restaurant down to the mezzanine-style half away from the bar. Fear not, the atmosphere is no less, simply quieter. Our waiter, Macheal, was immediately likeable and certainly fulfilled his promise of being able to define anything on the menu as well as being able to give accurate recommendations for choices.

Speaking of choice you will be spoilt for it. The menu is vast but without seeming too much for the kitchen to handle. There are some typical Italian starters you might find at any restaurant including bruschetta and king prawns, but also ravioli, chicken liver and mussels. Mains come in the form of pastas, pizzas and a delectable selection of meat and fish and some rather special sides too. While you peruse at your leisure, (and argue over who will be having what so as to try the greatest number of dishes possible!) bread is served: two types, a sweet brioche and a crusty white, with a dipping well of garlic oil. It was complimentary, charming and very tasty. Bread boards can also be purchased as nibbles.

For starters, we opted for calamari fritti and roast butternut squash ravioli. The calamari was, in fried batter terms, divine. Thick (yes thick! no corner cutting here on produce!) rings of squid were encrusted with a light, non-greasy batter. The slow roast garlic mayonnaise had a pungent aftertaste and was a wonderful thick dip. Meanwhile, the ravioli did not disappoint. Four fat squares stuffed with a velvety butternut squash puree, seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. The plate was scattered with hazelnuts and amaretti biscuits, all finished in a smooth sage and jersey butter. It delivered on texture and flavour, mixing smooth and crunchy and combining sweetness and nuttiness.

Mains came soon after. The special of lemon sole actually hadn’t been de-boned as promised. However, Machael noticed before even we did, and scooped away our other main and side dishes to keep them warm while our fish was de-boned beside our table in, I must say, a very professional manner. When all our food had been re-delivered, we got stuck in. The lemon sole was fine and tender, the accompanying lemon oil beautifully light. Hand-cut chips were fat and fluffy while the insalata della casa was a generous serving of house salad with a light and fragrant dressing. From the meat menu, pollo ai funghi was a perfectly cooked chicken breast, halved across a bed of rich garlic cream. Three types of mushrooms, oyster, chestnut and portobello, brought a sweet, chewy nuttiness and earthiness to counter the cream while the gnocchi was thick but soft, both hearty yet airy at the same time. Pattatine fritte were as fries should be! Slender and irregular, tossed with a good pinch of sea salt, a bowlful was just not enough! Verdure arrosto consisted of roast pepper, aubergine, courgette and red onion. All recognisable without having been drowned in oil and the flavours were strong and woody.

No dessert was not an option. Tortina al ciccolato was a sizeable chocolate fondant, smothered in chocolate sauce and oozing a rich, bitter chocolate blood from its heart. It could have been slightly hotter but the sponge was melt-in-the-mouth, the chocolate dark as it should be. It doesn’t stop there, not with Piccolino! A scoop of salted caramel ice-cream certainly lived up to its name more than any of the same kind that I have ever tasted. Sweet caramel, undercurrents of sea-salt and the binding embrace of thick cream: it was all there. It was a little too melted when it arrived but still forming a scoop so I think, thanks to the heat of the fondant, it can be forgiven. Not such a sweet-tooth? Try the torta limone: a generous wedge of lemon polenta cake with a moreish grainy texture and a sting of lemon. Real marscapone cream (no thank-you Mr Whippy) and a blob of blueberry compote. Dessert, only lighter!

We felt at one point that a rather rowdy table of 10 could have been asked by management to tone it down a little; our end of the restaurant was having a hard time talking and listening thanks to the cackles of laughter resonating around the room, but we understand that staff are often at pains to do this to any party and I would not put it down to Piccolino fault at all. The atmosphere is fresh, vibrant and, well, whatever you want it to be, the staff endeavour to do it.

We weren’t rushed out, despite the growing business of the restaurant and neither did we feel imposed upon to buy more. Piccolino staff deserved the 12% tip on a bill of £93 for two, including 2 glasses of wine and 2 soft drinks. Piccolino siblings can be found in 21 locations, including York, Sheffield, London, Chester and Birmingham. Go on, its name may mean small, but it delivers big.

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the sun has gone but lunch will still come around…

Bring something for lunch to look forward toDSC_0001 

The cold weather may be back but feel warm inside with a wedge of Spanish omelette for lunch!

This recipe serves 4 big wedges but it’s easy to halve/double and great for keeping for cold lunches or a relaxed brunch at the weekend

You will need:

  • 4 slices bacon (whichever type you like best!)
  • 100g new potatoes
  • 6 medium eggs
  • 25g spring onions
  • 150g pepper (about 1 bell pepper)DSC_0003
  • 50g spinach
  • 30g cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper to season

Get omelett-ing!

  1. Get the bacon onto the grill until cooked through
  2. While the bacon is on, slice the potatoes and place in boiling water for 10 minutes
  3. Crack the eggs into a large jug, removing any egg shell. Whisk with a fork until combined
  4. Chop the spring onions, pepper and tear up the spinach. Add to egg mix
  5. Drain potatoes and add to jug
  6. Chop up bacon and add to jug
  7. Season contents of jug with salt and pepper
  8. Heat a few sprays of sunflower oil in a flat frying pan until hot. Pour in the egg mixture for roughly 5 minutes until the bottom is set but the top is still a little wobbly.
  9. While it’s cooking, grate the cheese
  10. Scatter the cheese on top and flash under a hot grill for about 3-5 minutes until golden-brown or until the top is set.
  11. Serve hot from the pan or leave to cool before slicing and serving

Want a variation?

  • try chopped herbs or spices in step 7. Harissa paste, pesto and chives all work well
  • try a different cheese such as Gruyere or goat’s cheese
  • play around with different vegetables such as courgettes, tomatoes and different meats like ham and chorizo

Serve with a rocket and tomato salad with a touch of salt or balsamic vinegar and soak up the sunshine!

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month-of-March muffins

That’s it! Spring is coming and it’s time to shed your sniffles and sofa comforts for some sunshine and nutritious food. But hey, we can still have muffins, right?? So here are oats, dried apricots and nuts to get you out there and shining!DSC_0003

You will need:

  • 175g self-raising flour
  • 50g oats
  • 175g light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda
  • 1/4 cup plain or vanilla yogurt
  • 150ml semi-skimmed milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (if you used vanilla yogurt you can skip this)
  • 6 tbsp oil
  • 175g dried apricots
  • 85g pecans

Get baking!

  1. Heat oven to 200 degrees (fan 180) or gas mark 6.
  2. Place flour, oats, sugar, cinnamon and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl. Mix together using your fingers, rubbing the ingredients together
  3. Briskly whisk yogurt, milk, vanilla extract and oil with a fork or small whisk until combined.
  4. Add the yogurt mix to the dry ingredients and briefly mix with a spoon until just combined
  5. Chop dried apricots and pecans and add to the other mix
  6. Mix all ingredients
  7. Line muffin tray with 6-8 cases and fill to the brim
  8. Place in oven for 20-25 minutes until firm, golden-brown and risen. You can serve them hot or cold so enjoy!
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a night-club with a surprisingly slick kitchen

Mendoza: 30 High St, Town Centre, Aylesbury HP20 1SF


Mendoza is a cafe/bar located on Aylesbury’s high street. The single waiter was welcoming, if slightly fawning and, at times, inept, but apart from a couple sharing drinks, our party of two was the only one in. The decor is modern and trendy, as you might expect for a social bar and night club. Blacks, creams, fake marble and wide-planked wood: it catches the eye at first but once you take a closer look, there are cracks between the tiles and the materials are cheap. However, the thought and effort is there and it makes for a pleasant atmosphere.

The menu is one of spectacular value. Covering burgers, pizzas, pastas and sharer plates, as well as a fabulous selection of hot and cold salads, Mendoza covers every person from the after-school comers with hungry children, groups of friends wanting quick cheap eats to try and share around to couples wanting something slightly more special but at a low price and with a relaxed mood.

Potato skins was a great sharer plate with four different toppings, each one with four skins each. The skins were actually potato wedges glistening in oil and leaving a nice dipping portion of it swirling on the plate too, just in case you fancy licking up a little more. The chilli topping was a richly-flavoured beef and bean mix that was great partner to the sour cream topping. This was a little overpowering when slathered over the wedges but had a great kick from added chives. The bacon and cheese topping was unnecessarily oily again and the cheese quickly became rubbery and bland. The bacon, however, was cooked well. The final topping of roast vegetables was less of a success; the vegetables were soggy and bland with no seasoning.

The mains come in generous portions, though don’t think you’ll be offered a knife and fork. It’s Aylesbury – you must get those yourself! That aside, the food was good. The blue burger was a beast of a bun with an equally sized thick patty, perfectly cooked medium-rare. Topped with a flat mushroom and blue cheese, the flavour packed a punch and the cheese oozed out as my partner dug in, all fingers and teeth. The salad was fresh, colourful and plentiful but the chips let the side down. We were glad to see they were hand-cut but they were also soggy and slightly over-done.

The Mendoza Salad comes with “everything a salad can have!” Hot chicken and bacon scattered amongst fresh salad leaves, peppers, sweetcorn and onion. There’s a selection of dressings but my lemon vinegar choice was a little oily. The salad was out of a bag but fresh and bright and the chicken and bacon was a great addition.

You get what you pay for here, if not a little more. The bill came to roughly £25, including 2 diet cokes and a tea. Portions are ample and sharers are fun, even if the quality fluctuates from dish to dish. I can’t promise you what happens when the night club takes over but at least you won’t go hungry! A friendly, filling destination for casual lunches and dinners – a pleasant surprise.

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why can’t my chicken be British?

british_chickenI’m a British citizen who buys British milk, bread made from British wheat and eggs from British hens. So why can’t all the chicken I buy be British?

It’s a promise that the general director of Tesco, Philip Clarke, made within the last couple of days: to bring meat production closer to home and to work more closely with British farmers. Sainsburys too, has agreed to double the amount of British food sold in stores by 2020. Even before this, in early February, UK poultry suppliers voiced concerns over higher-welfare policies and inflating food prices. In the midst of the “horsegate” scandal our food is coming under more testing and it’s sourcing under closer scrutiny. Could you really tell the difference between a British chicken and a Lithuanian chicken? And why does it matter? Why should we be supporting British chickens?

The latter two questions are easy to answer. The positive testing of horsemeat in beefburgers has clearly shown the problems of not onl poorly-tracked importations but also a supply chain that is under pressure from demand for low prices and a lack of accountability. British farmers need supporting as they are increasingly squeezed by retailers manipulation of the supply chain in order to satisfy our calls for ever-lower prices. As for the chickens, well, many countries don’t meet with the level of welfare that the UK  insists upon and neither it is always sustainable farming. That is not to say that all British farming is without problems, but it is certainly picked up on a lot more.

Clarke’s announcement that Tesco will only sell British chicken by July 2013 was welcomed by the Scottish National Union of Famers’ President, Nigel Miller, but the poultry chairman, Duncan Priestner, called for Clarke to commit to pay producers a fair price, just as Clarke promised he would ensure prices for consumers would not rise. 43% of 1,000 people polled would like to buy more products traced from British farms but the idealistic is not always practical.

Why has it taken so long?

  1. Cost – Clarke is right when he says that it is unfair to raise consumer prices when households are already being squeezed in every direction. Farmers produce chicken in the UK at a density of 39kg/m2 whereas European farmers often produce at 42kg/m2. While this may not seem like such a big difference it can be the decider between profit and loss. The cost of chicken feed, especially in relation to the controversial GM feed, is also rising with inflation and detrimental to farmers.
  2. Reproduction – there’s a concern that Britain cannot sustain its chicken consumption – the most popular meat in the UK. It’s predicted that there will be 9 billion people to feed by 2050 and with increasing urbanisation, agriculture is seriously under threat.

Why should we do it?

  1. Health – If cost is a problem, we should simply focus on quality and not quantity. If it means eating a little less meat and instead, more cheaper vegetables to bulk out meals, what’s the problem? This idea is supported by campaigns such as Meat Free Mondays and a tastier cut of meat is far more enjoyable than slabs of grimy chicken.
  2. Morally better – locally grown chicken is not transported or subject to welfare standards that may be below the UK’s level.
  3. Environmental – think of all those air-miles, oil for ferries and lorries polluting the air. Think of the billions of pounds of damage foreign lorries do to our roads which don’t pay tax to repair it. By eating better, we’re also combatting climate change and thinking more about future generations.
  4. Traceable – a simpler supply chain, fewer middle-men and people held responsible. A supply chain that is transparent and safe and fair for all involved. It sounds idealistic doesn’t it? But where do you think butchers, bakers and greengrocers got, (and some still do!) all their products?

Of course, the question that comes to mind is, but how do we know it’s British? Well, there’ve been moves there too. Tesco committed to shorter supply chains that are more traceable and farmers also called for the complex system to be overhauled.

I’m not suggesting that we hark back to traisping up and down the high-street to four different shops for our weekly groceries, though I do suggest you try it because it’s actually quite fun, cheap and certainly an eye-opener when you get home with hardly any plastics, cellophane and lists of ingredients you’ve never heard of. The food is often fresher, more colourful (in the appropiate way that an orange is orange, not a smartie is blue) and the meat, well, a lot of it’s British.

So, would you choose British over global? Or is our meat market permanently established on the international stage?

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Les Cretes: “The Peaks” deserves its place on the piste

Les Cretes: Les Cretes piste, Les Menuires, France

What more can you want after a hard morning on the ski slopes than a warm and welcoming traditional chalet restaurant? OK, a burning log fire yes, but we did get a table next to the stove and the rustic wooden benches and tables are not all that’s charming about this delightful little restaurant.

Situated just above St. Martin de Bellville on the Les Cretes piste, Les Cretes restaurant is one of the oldest in the area and a popular favourite with the locals. It’s often very busy and is seemingly divided into a more formal restaurant area and a more relaxed bar-type area (still with tables) for quicker dining or drinks. You can reserve tables (and I do suggest it!) but, like us, you may be in luck. While the owner said she had no room, a sympathetic waiter took pity and ushered us through to the bar-area where a small 3-seater table seemed to be waiting for us.

Our waiter, Philippe, told us he was known as the bad waiter, for always giving into guests, but who can blame him for wanting to attract custom? The menu is nothing extensive but compromises some of the most traditional aspects of Savoyard cuisine. There are also daily specials which Philippe rattled off to us and explained in his best English, though we were none much wiser!

The tartiflette was a great bubbling dish of potatoes, bacon and onions topped with a crust of melted cheese. Bursting with filling and flavour, it was delicious slathered on the bread served to the table, and a true example of traditional cuisine. One of the specials was pork and lentils, compromising three types of pork – some were a little fatty though this is, again, typical – and it was simply lovely. The other special was croute Savoyard (Savoyard bake) – a little like a souffle but on a bread base. The bread hadn’t soaked up the souffle mixture enough so was still too separate from the rest of the dish but the souffle mix was deliciously cheesy and rich.

No dessert menus here, instead just another quick description from Philippe. Apple Tart was the common choice and came as a neat round tart piled high with stewed apple flavoured with cinnamon and caramel. The pastry was some of the best I’ve tasted: deep brown in colour and crunchy without difficulty. The apples melted under your teeth, the caramel adding sweetness while the cinnamon warmed and added that extra spice. Wonderful!

The downside? It is, of course, pricey. Like any mountain restaurant Les Cretes knows you have little else to go to when hunger calls and a restaurant this good can certainly get away with pushing up its prices. The experience is, however, delightful and given how great you feel after your meal, the price is certainly not much more than the self-service bar offering you pale frankfurters and floppy fries.

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