Damsons and meringues

I’ve got a real lust for damsons at the moment, can’t get enough of them. I wish I could forage them easily, but wandering around Shropshire it seems as though every last damson tree is pretty much in someone’s garden and of course they pick the ripe ones for themselves. I would too! If you know (and love) damsons already then you’ll understand. If you haven’t paid much attention to them, I’ll try and explain. They’re like tiny plums, and tried raw they are indescribably tart and unloving. Damsons come to life when cooked, having a bold and unique flavour that is herbal, hedgerow and fruity all rolled together. I can’t think of any fruit I like better stewed.

But as usual I also can’t help fiddling. You’ll know of cardamoms, but may not have encountered black cardamoms. They are like the evil twin of the familiar green cardamom, giving a very dark and smoky version of the exotic cardamom flavour. So I like to squash a couple of black cardamom pods and add them to my damsoms, with half a stick of cinnamon and perhaps a couple of star anise before simmering them with a splash of madeira and a couple of big dessert spoonfuls of sugar (or honey) for about twenty minutes.

This compote adds immense character to yogurt or porridge for breakfast, or ice cream for pudding. In this case it makes a brilliant combination with soft meringues and some crème fraiche.

Damsons and soft meringues (serves 4)

Punnet of damsons
4 tbsp madeira
2 tbsp honey
3 black cardamoms
½ stick cinnamon
1 star anise
2 large egg whites
90g caster sugar
4 tbsp crème fraiche
  1. Put the damsons, madeira, honey, cardamoms, cinnamon and star anise in a small pan and bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes or so
  2. Pre-heat the over to 150C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper
  3. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks in a clean bowl, then whisk in the sugar a dessert spoon at a time. Finally whisk in 1 tbsp of the liquid from the stewed damsons
  4. Scoop dessert spoons of the meringue mix onto the baking sheet. Pop into the oven and immediately turn it down to 140C
  5. Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the oven off and leave the meringues in for at least three hours
  6. Meanwhile get your fingers filthy digging through the damsons to remove all the stones. It’s that or just warn your diners to eat carefully and spit ’em all out!
  7. Serve by spooning some damsons into a bowl, then adding a couple of meringues, then more damsons and a spoonful of crème fraiche.
  8. Enjoy!

Review: Lumière, Cheltenham

Something trivial bugged me about our lunch at Lumière in Cheltenham. Bear with me, there is arithmetic. We arrived intending to have the lunch menu (£22 two courses, £26 three courses) but the a la carte menu was so full of intrigue that we splashed out (£42 two courses, £47 three courses). And of course we had dessert. Maureen decided she fancied one of the desserts from the lunch menu though.

When I got the bill I was surprised to find our meal set out as “1 x 3 course a la carte £47, 1 x 2 course a la carte £42, 1 x lunch dessert £8”. You see what I mean?

Oh come off it, you’re saying, don’t quibble over four quid! But as other bloggers have pointed out, our memories of a restaurant are (perhaps unfairly) formed by our final impression of the place, especially the bill. And given that my lunch at Lumière was essentially excellent, that little spot of unfairness on the bill (perhaps unfairly) sticks in my head. Some chef will have to explain to me why pairing a lunch menu dessert with an a la carte lunch should double its cost?

We did have a delicious lunch, though. While studying the menu we enjoyed pork crackling that dissolved with a salty-sweet fizzle on the tongue, and tiny savoury scones slathered with a truffled cream cheese. I’d have cheerfully demolished a plate of those.

My starter was a lesson in how to keep scallops interesting. The scallops were perfect, with great caramelisation. They were accompanied with generous blobs of puree richly spiced with anise and orange, with delicate crisps of cumin caramel, and with pieces of salty pork belly cooked down to scrunchy. Scallops want punch, and that’s what they get here. Maureen’s starter was essentially an elegant riff on paella; a fishy piece of mullet, juicy mussels and cockles, on saffron orzo. Jolly tasty but nothing especially bouncy or exciting; I’d have really enjoyed it as a main course.

Maureen’s venison main course was essentially faultless. Too many times I choose venison and find myself wondering why I didn’t just pick the beef. This darling piece of deer was fantastic produce, a great reminder of why I really ought to pick venison more often. It melted, and yet had bite. The quince was excellent, the licquoric-y sauce done with just the right delicacy. I kept up my surf-and-turf theme for main course: halibut with oxtail arancini. Lovely piece of fish, very savoury oxtail arancini. The accompanying red cabbage was boldly spiced and brought the whole dish together, along with dark wine-red salsify and white pickled onions.

“Shipwrecked cheesecake” was the odd name of my dessert. It was very, very good though. Caramely tubes filled with a creamy custard that was not overtly sweet at all. No idea what cheese went into it! The accompanying cider gel was tart and very drunken, exactly capturing the kind of farmhouse cider that makes red-nosed west country folk exclaim “Oo-aaaar!” This along with the apple and blackberry textures made for a perfectly judged and not over-sweet pud. Maureen’s dessert was perhaps the least great dish of the day, a small glass cup filled with somewhat grainy chocolate crème brulee that had been jollied up with the addition of popping candy, served with marshmallows that had a powerful passionfruit flavour but were too dense. They were superfluous, except to make the dish look like a cup of hot chocolate, which shouldn’t really be an end in itself.

All in all, an excellent lunch with every dish bar one faultlessly executed. Service is friendly and relaxing, the dining room is smart, light and airy, though admittedly I’ll have blurred it in with a dozen other similar places within a month. The wine list is weighted towards the expensive, only two whites under £35. I think that at £47 for three courses a la carte the food is priced about right for the sheer quality.

Definitely a great choice if you’re looking for a fine meal in Cheltenham.

See? I’m not bitter about the bill.

Review: Euclid Hall, Denver

Luckily I had low culinary expectations for our trip to Yellowstone National Park and the wild west states surrounding it. There were some appalling lows, however. My teeth can still recall chewing doggedly through a chunk of “slow cooked bison” that required more mastication to choke down than a cowboy hat, while across the table my family enjoyed all their main courses between lukewarm and cold. This was in the grand Old Faithful Inn. Even the phrase “log cabin on steroids” cannot do justice to its wooden immensity. Though “wooden immensity” would do for that bison joint.

Of course, I can’t really level this at America. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find the captive tourist audience being taken for an appetite-crushing ride in all the restaurants and cafes serving them. Here’s an Australian example. It’s cynical and depressing; “Hey, these people can’t go anywhere else if they want food! What’s more, they’re never going to be repeat custom! Let’s serve them crap and charge through the nose!”

Mind you, outside the National Parks we still ended up plodding through a humdrum and predictably protein-rich diet of steak, burger and things-with-cheese-in. Apparently Americans don’t think a sandwich is complete unless there’s some cheese in there. But… in a salmon burger? Salmon with cheese?

I found one sandwich new to me that I loved; the French Dip. This is a sandwich stuffed with thinly sliced roast beef and served with a pot of meaty jus on the side. To dip the sandwich in as you eat it, duh! Menus invariably made me smile with the redundant phrasing “served with au jus” and one waitress endearingly said it was “served with au jus gravy”. Served with with gravy gravy? Pedantic semantics aside, it’s a brilliant idea. If I was doing it myself I would have cooked the beef pink. Oh, and I’d have left out the slice of cheese. Eww.

Yes, small town cooking can be good, but as everything is essentially some combination of bread, beef, bacon, cheese, chicken, fries, tomato and lettuce it can get a bit same-y. So it was a genuine delight on our very final day to be back in Denver and stumble upon Euclid Hall.

Just go to their website and look at the menu, I really don’t have to say any more. If it makes you drool uncontrollably then you and I have similar tastes. The only question you have to ask is, does it taste as good as it reads?


One of the simplest joys was a hop-infused pickle. Just an accompaniment really, but the dryly herbal hop flavour coming with a bit of juicy gherkin was excellent. Their bone marrow on toast wasn’t quite up to St John, but the tangy sherry gravy it came with soaked very well into the sourdough toast and tasted divine. Pad Thai pig’s

ear is one of the only times I’ve seen pig’s ear used for anything other than crispy snacking. It worked very well and looked every inch the plate of Bangkok street food. I can’t say I tasted it and thought immediately of Pad Thai, but I can say it was deliciously spiced. I picked out the chicken and waffle as a comparison with our recent Duck and Waffle experience, but it was an entirely refined version of the dish: a breaded chicken mousseline on a potato waffle, with a peppery bechamel that made me think of bread sauce at Christmas, along with a maple syrup gastrique. Delicious. As was the sashimi of kampachi, served on cubes of watermelon and topped with huge mustard seeds glistening with mustard oil as a ‘mustard caviar’. Pow.

So if you’re ever in Denver, consider this a recommendation. And pack a cooler box full of goodies if you’re going to Yellowstone!

Review: Roganic, Marylebone

By now Roganic has been pretty much reviewed by everyone. If it wasn’t enough that whispers of Simon Rogan’s inventive cooking in his far-flung Cumbrian kitchen have been leaking down to the smoke for a few years, he then appeared on Great British Menu and uniquely got all four of his courses into the final. I was almost surprised to get a lunch table with less than a week’s notice.

I was lucky enough to enjoy Simon’s food at L’Enclume in Cumbria four years back. Yes, I discovered him before he was famous. Pity I only thought to start food blogging a year ago! That meal was instantly my favourite ever, so I was trying to hold my expectations in check for Roganic.

The first thing you notice on arrival is that this is definitely a pop-up restaurant. We were casting around for the front door, because the only obvious way in would be pretty much straight onto a table of diners. But so it is, just a low Scandinavian sideboard denoting the reception area. The dining room is very simply furnished, and if I was to aim any kind of criticism at Roganic it would be that someone booking here expecting an £80 menu to guarantee a magical and romantic evening might be disappointed at their surroundings and table. But hey, it says pop-up on the website so caveat emptor. The food is marvellous.

We did plump for the 10 course menu, so I’m going to focus on highlights. Every plate was beautiful, like a little culinary jewel, and every plate included something you might have never tasted before or at least very seldom. Calamint? Coal oil? Pennyroyal? Sea purslane?

The absolute star was mid-way through what was a remarkably light meal. Slivers of raw mackerel on a vivid green swirl of lovage cream, with some lightly pickled red onion and dressed with coal oil. The spanking bright celery flavour of the lovage worked beautifully with the slippery and chewsome bits of fish, while the completely original tang of coal oil elevated what was already lovely into the realm of bug-eyed awe. Remember the scent of coal tar soap? This was the taste. Without the soap. Obviously.

Of the desserts, my favourite was surprisingly not the Great British Menu-winning poached pears with sweet cheese ice cream – which was a delicious and aetherial ending – but the first dessert, a piece of cherry cake. The cake was moist and rich, paired with a dollop of tangy goat’s milk cream, some perfect plump cherries and a few little sprigs of pennyroyal. This wild mint sings as bright and clear on the tongue as a blackbird on a winter morning in the Lake District, and it lifted every mouthful of the more-ish cake.

Simon’s use of herbs is perhaps the single most outstanding element of his cooking. These days you aren’t a top-drawer chef unless you can throw some foraged ingredients on your menu. Yet very often I find myself nodding appropriately at the inclusion of hedgerow greenery on a dish despite either failing to detect any interesting flavour at all or finding myself tasting it and thinking “okay, worthy, but I can see why it isn’t cultivated any more”. But the unusual herbs on show today were often the single pure notes that made the whole dish sing: my hat off to pennyroyal, celery-cress, calamint and anise hyssop.

If you’re a city slicker and unlikely to venture as far as Cumbria, you should get to Roganic before it ends its two year run. There’s even a £29 lunch menu with starters and dessert from the tasting menus, which I’d suggest is brilliant value. The tasting menus are bang on the money for some memorable cooking from the stable of one best chefs currently working in the UK. If I’m making comparisons, there’s less theatre but more inventive components than Heston’s Fat Duck, and there’s less presentational flair but more frankly delicious dishes than Rene’s Noma. Yes, Simon Rogan is definitely in that league.

Review: Gessler at Daquise, Kensington

Gessler at Daquise is an old-school Polish restaurant just by South Kensington tube. In every detail the experience has been conceived to get you reminiscing fondly about your years in Eastern Europe, even if you’ve never been on so much as a weekend break to Prague. It’s a Marmite restaurant; you’ll love it or loathe it, depending on your mood and preference, so all I can do is describe the show and leave you to decide.

They’ve taken over a long-established place called Daquise that was obviously slowly falling into disrepair. I say obviously because they have deliberately not renovated, leaving the paint blistering and lumps of plaster missing higher up on the walls. An old dumb waiter remains in situ, with the scuff marks of decades but still in use as the kitchens lie beneath us. This knowing tattiness extends to the dining experience, as chefs in distinctly non-uniform whites trundle into the dining room to serve you your food out of a collection of

battered and gnarled pots and pans that look like they’ve been gathered from a variety of Youth Hostel and student kitchens. It’s nostalgia for a time and place you never actually experienced, and it works so well I’ve got to applaud.

So what about the food? Authentic, most definitely. Hearty, meaty, warming, Polish fayre. We only stopped for main courses. Maureen’s beef roulade stuffed with pickles was a dark piece of meat with a slow cooked paprika-y earthiness to it, served up in a pool of gravy with buckwheat and beetroot. Our friends had, respectively, a decent steak served with fried onions, mash and cooked-to-extinction beans, and a rather anaemic half a chicken with lemon gloop and a big pot of chickeny broth on the side. I went for veal brains scrambled up with

egg and scattered liberally with dill, and a side of beetroot; huge chunks of it with a horseradish cream poured over. To top it off we did exactly what you’d do on a weekend trip to Eastern Europe; four glasses of the house red, drinkable plonk in those loveably cheap round wine glasses that I hadn’t realised were still being made.

I loved the experience, but then I like Marmite. I do have to agree with others around the table, the food was good but fairly rustic. If you boil your beans for half-an-hour you can’t claim to be doing any more than turning out typical regional cooking. At around £17 for a typical main course that makes it rather expensive as a dining proposition. Whether it’s good value for you would very much depend on whether you’re yearning for a taste and an experience of someone else’s beloved motherland.