Jerusalem artichoke soup

Prepare the croutons! Dig out the gas masks! Roast the hazelnuts! For it is Jerusalem Artichoke season once more, and the knobbly little uglies are back in my local greengrocer. All hail the mighty Jerusalem Artichoke!

What do you mean, you don’t know what I’m talking about? Next time you’re in a greengrocer, or maybe a larger supermarket, look for a box of knobbly little thingamies with maybe a few hairy roots left on them. No, leave that big thingamy along, that’s a celeriac. I’m talking smaller, the size of a small potato. They might be brownish or purplish, and might well be dirty. Now buy some. And hopefully you’ve just bought some Jerusalem Artichokes instead of iris rhizomes.

What you can do with your purchase is cook up the most amazingly earthy, smoky, autumnal soup that you could imagine. There is no flavour quite like these fellas, although truffles and beetroot exist in the same sort of head-space. They’re like… well, imagine walking along a canalside on a foggy day in late autumn, kicking up piles of spotty red and gold maple leaves, while somewhere nearby an old duffer has a bonfire going in his allotment. That’s what Jerusalem Artichokes taste like.

I was so delighted when I first found them a few years back. Now I look forward to this time every year. And lo the bells shall ring with the cheerful flatulence of Jerusalem Artichoke season!

Er… yes. Maureen seems immune, but most of us mere mortals will discover a jolly buoyant sensation a few hours after a dish of these odd roots. Just so you know. Hope I haven’t put you off.

Jerusalem artichoke soup

5-6 Jerusalem artichokes
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 pint chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper

Makes two big bowls, or four starters

  1. Peel your artichokes. This can be a fun game in itself if you have the really knobbly ones! Roughly chop them
  2. Sauté the onion and celery in butter for a few minutes, then add the artichokes and garlic and sauté for a few minutes more
  3. Pour in the stock, add the bay leaf, season with salt and pepper, and leave to simmer covered for 30 minutes or until the artichokes totally fall apart when you prod them
  4. Blend it smooth, you’re done!
  5. Well, okay, you can also add a dollop of cream or crème fraiche at the blending stage to make it creamier, and when you serve it you can drizzle some good olive oil on, or even better some truffle oil. I also like to add chopped-up roasted hazelnuts. This time I also added a cooked beetroot with the stock, and that worked really well. Oh, and for decoration there’s also the funky thing you can do with dried apple slices! What you do is peel an apple then cut really thin slices using a mandolin or a big knife, then pop them on greaseproof paper in the oven at about 70C so they just dry out over an hour or two, and you end up with crispy little apple rings that are very nice perched on the edge of the bowl like lemon slices on a cocktail. And this time I tried the same with super-thin slices of onion, which also worked. Er… is this still a bulletpoint?

Pumpkin soup

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in earnest here in the UK. Each year a few people decide to have a fancy dress party, and of course most kids get to troop around their immediate neighbourhood in shop-bought costumes asking (usually nicely) for sweets. And various things that happen every week anyway get to be horror themed this week, just like The Simpsons.

Still, I always carve a pumpkin. It’s my one observance, a restrained outlet for my creative juices when I’d rather be up on a rain-washed heath with a coven of sexy witches engaged in some serious blood-letting in the name of Hecate. Did I say that out loud?

This year I’ve gone trad, with an ugly face. My favourite ever was the tiger from a couple of years back. The secret weapon is a scalpel. You can get some pretty fine detail done with one of them. Don’t ask me why I have a scalpel, I can’t remember. Nor where the blood stains came from.

And of course once you’ve hollowed out your pumpkin you might have up to a kilogram of sweet flesh to deal with. Pumpkin soup time! But if you’re bored with pumpkin soup, I can totally recommend Nigel Slater’s recipe for a Pumpkin Scone. It’s excellent, and totally fitting for a brightly cold or miserably rainy evening at the end of October.

Of course, even after this we still had enough left for pumpkin soup! I like it spicy…

Spiced pumpkin soup
500g pumpkin flesh
1 small onion, roughly diced
1 small apple, cored and chopped into chunks
3 cloves garlic, skin on
1 pint vegetable stock
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp cumin seeds, dry-fried
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 of a habanero chilli (or less if you don’t like spicy, or just omit)

  1. Put the pumpkin bits in a roasting tray, stick the garlic cloves and apple amongst them, pour on a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then roast at 160C for 20-30 mins. Basically, don’t let much of the pumpkin go black.
  2. Fry the onion in butter for a few minutes, then throw in the pumpkin, apple and the garlic flesh (squeezed out of the cloves like toothpaste!).
  3. Add the stock, the cinnamon, the chilli and the thyme. Simmer for 20 minutes or so – longer is fine.
  4. Blend! Serve in a bowl, sprinkled with cumin seeds.

I had some spare blue goat cheese, and this also worked very well crumbled on top.

Review: Victor’s at Schloss Berg, Germany

Arriving at Schloss Berg just after dark in a taxi was a slightly surreal experience. We were expecting an old German castle with high pointed turrets and perhaps a couple of floppy grey weimaraners lounging on the stone steps. Instead we passed a brightly lit sign welcoming us to “Schloss Berg Casino” and then arrived at an enormous car park in front of a modern building with a glass pyramid on the roof, glowing with rainbow coloured lights. Disconcerting, although it turned out that the old castle remained intact behind this brassy add-on, and our dining room had proper old timbers holding up the ceiling. There was even a suit of armour in the basement by the toilets.

There were lots of lovely touches at Victor’s which all helped polish the third star. I’m remembering… stylish ceramic butter knives, interesting knobbly plates that looked like they were made from the shells of exotic sea creatures, olive oil we dripped onto our bread with a pipette, comfy swivel chairs to sit in. It’s a tiny dining room, only 34 covers, and very convivial. Service was restrained but extremely attentive throughout the meal, with all the immense attention to detail you would expect at 3 stars. Some details did hit the wrong note for me: after our main course the crumbs were cleared from our table, but since two of us had (gasp) created marks on the tablecloth that couldn’t be brushed off, we had a fresh white napkin placed over our part of the table. I felt like a naughty child. Of course, at the end of the meal I dipped the bill in my uneaten petit-four and then tipped my water glass over, so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too offended.

Food! There’s a lot to get through.


We had a few different canapés, including a crispy breaded riceball with a splendid flavour of brined olives and a cornet filled with smoked eel cream and topped with a red blob of steak tartare. Then no less than three proper pre-starters, which are charmingly called ‘greetings’ at Victor’s and were almost large enough to be a starter in other restaurants. The first was a collection of three little riffs on the theme of carrots. The idea horrified Maureen, who hates the little orange devils, but in fact they were delightful. Albeit also as a reminder that the main purpose of carrot is to be covered by other flavours (cumin, coriander, apple and miso among others here). The next greeting was a trio of crab and a real bucket of textures; wobbly crab jelly, crispy breaded crab ball, unctuous crab ‘tartare’, scrunchy toasted seeds, tingly apple sorbet, crunchy cucumber package and a soft cheesy mousse beneath it all. Perfect. The final greeting was a stunning chestnut soup liberally topped with sliced alba truffles, served piping hot so the truffle scent envelopes your whole headspace. This soup was so rich it was actually obscene. In a good way.

Starters ‘n’ fish

On with the proper courses. I liked the way the waitress actually called it that: ‘here is your first proper course…’ Anyway, it was foie gras. Sorry, goose liver. Chilled goose liver wrapped in a thin layer of carrot(!) and seaweed, surrounded by a little mushroom ragout with pearls of frozen foie gras and a vinaigrette of Japanese lemon. This ragout was brilliant, and to be honest I could have done with only one of the three pillars of goose liver provided. Not a criticism of the dish, just that I’ve personally become bored with chilled goose liver.

Next up was a huge scallop, perfectly cooked, surrounded by various constructions of butternut squash; thin discs, blobs, coins and tiny cylinders filled with purée. There was a nice foamy beurre blanc to bring it together, but to my palate it lacked the tarragon flavour promised. The second seafood was a piece of John Dory, again beautifully cooked, crusted with nuts and topped with a crispy bit of skin. It came with four flavours; blobs of sour Japanese lemon, blobs of sweet potato, a tiny quenelle of salty anchovy relish and a puddle of spicy ginger oil. These came together as designed, more than the sum of their parts, the ginger just warm enough to be noted rather than overpowering the fish. It’s a brave chef that pairs ginger with fish. But I guess for me this dish was more courageous than clever; he pulled it off, but did he really need to?

Main course

I have to confess that by the main course we were all stuffed. The meal was just too big. Of course we didn’t have to eat everything, but it’s hard to know how large a meal will end up being when you’re still in the early stages. Anyway. Three tablets of sturdy back beef, cooked medium, along with a slender piece of slow-cooked rib with a lovely crust. These were accompanied by delightful baby roasted onions, a crispy breaded ball of onion and a couple of blobs of over-salted grey-brown mulch. This was described as Japanese aubergine, but I can do without novelty if the result is unappealing in texture, colour and seasoning. Very good beef, but as a construction this dish was unbalanced in my opinion and one component was poor.

And to finish
Pre-dessert was a spiffy re-constructed apricot with chocolate mousse and different elements of green tea; very delicious on the eye and in the mouth. This was followed by more for dessert, an artistic presentation of chocolate with hidden passionfruit elements that came together very nicely indeed. It was good and surprisingly light. Chef Christian Bau has a very deft touch with chocolate. And the petit-fours were the finest and most extensive selection I have ever been presented with, just a pity I couldn’t find the tiniest corner of space to stuff them all into. I did my best.

Concluding words

I left thinking that perhaps Christian Bau is more naturally a pâtissière than anything else. His plates are always beautiful, he seems to have a natural affinity for sweet flavours, and the strongest dishes were definitely the desserts, petit-fours and ‘greetings’. For my palate, he wasn’t as balanced in putting together tastes and textures on a main dish; not enough to bite into, not enough punch. Surely 3-star meals don’t have to appeal chiefly to elderly ladies with wobbly dentures?

But what the heck. We had just the kind of over-the-top fine dining experience you would hope to have at a 3 Michelin star venue, and the food gave us lots to talk about over the two superlative Mosel Rieslings we enjoyed with the meal (one was a 1975, the oldest table wine I’ve ever drunk and yet a mere £80). We’d have enjoyed it more if we’d been given less, though.

Wine-tasting in the Mosel

The high point of any wine-tasting trip for me is finding an unexpected gem. In Champagne this took the form of a cosy bar in Epernay which showcased small makers who produce far too little of their wonderful champagnes to ever be exported outside France, heck, outside Champagne. In Burgundy it was a little wine cellar that we hadn’t picked during our internet research but just happened to like the look of while driving past. Here in the Mosel it was a glass of Riesling we had with lunch that led to a conversation with the waitress, which led to directions to a little village totally off the main “Mosel wine route”, which led to us stopping at a tiny winery we would have driven past a dozen times without thinking it might be (a) open or (b) worth stopping at. The winery is Steffen-Prum and their 2010 ‘Lesurus’ Riesling Spätlese is really jolly good for 6.90 Euros a bottle. I’m hoping it’ll keep and improve after a few years.

Wine wander along the Mosel
We’re in Germany for just under three days, with our good friends Tim and Vanessa. The Mosel valley is a splendid place for a wine-tasting weekend. I can’t compare it to a British landscape, we simply don’t have river valleys on this grand scale. For mile after mile the broad Mosel winds between high hills. The lower slopes are clothed in vineyards, the hilltops covered in trees. This morning a white

autumnal mist was slowly lifting as we drove downriver, the landscape romanced by a hazy bronze sunshine. Every couple of kilometres a handsome Germanic village dominated by a tall spired church hove into view, although frustratingly most of the wine cellars seemed to be closed. On a flippin’ Saturday! We assumed it was because this was still grape-picking season, and the owners were all far more interested in bringing home their livelihood for the next year. The real reason was far more properly German: the rules state that a winery can only open to the public for a total of four months in any year, and so it looks like we just picked a somewhat drier patch. We learned this at Mönchhof, a wine estate that was hosting a private tasting and vineyard visit, but who very kindly let us come in and have a slurp. Their Rieslings were among the finest I’ve tasted, and we repaid their kindness by buying the odd bottle or three.

Old assumptions
This is actually my first ever visit to Germany, perhaps surprising given I’ve visited France, Spain and Italy at least four times each. For some reason I never developed a romantic view of the country, expecting dull townscapes much like Britain and a lot of factories. Plus, of course, my stomach plays a big part in deciding where to travel and nothing I thought I knew about German cuisine inspired me. All I had been told was to expect lots of sausages, lots of potatoes and lots of sauerkraut. And so eventually it was my proclivity for the great Rieslings of the Mosel that finally got me over here.

It turns out that the towns are beautiful and the food is good, so as usual I’m proved wrong on all counts. Trier, our base for the weekend, is a small city but heaving with majestic old buildings. It just happens to be the oldest city in Germany with the greatest collection of Roman ruins anywhere north of the Alps. More pleasing still are the picturesque (yes, dammit, picturesque – I don’t care if I sound like a tourist brochure, there’s no more accurate word) medieval towns we have stopped off at on our meanders down the Mosel and up the Saar. I reckon Visit Britain would kill to have a couple of towns like Bernkastel and Saarburg to advertise.

And to soak up the wine…

We’ve had some yummy food as well, although there has been a certain ‘heartiness’ to most of it. Who could be unhappy with a plate of chanterelles fried with onions and bacon, accompanied by a heap of buttery sliced potatoes? Well, someone watching their weight might be a bit unhappy. Especially if their previous meal was a plate of blood sausage, onions, apples and fried potatoes… and their next meal was thick lamb chumps with boulangère potatoes and bacon-wrapped beans. You get the picture. My adjectives for local Mosel cuisine are: hearty, savoury, simple, tasty, rustic. Tonight should be a little different, as we’re dining at Victor’s Restaurant, Schloss Berg, possessed of 3 Michelin stars. I’ll save that for another post.

German wine. It’s a bit technical

Back to the wines. I’m no expert on wines, and so I’ve learned an immense amount about Riesling over the course of this weekend. The wines are rated according to sugar levels in the must, going from lowest to highest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese. By default this translates to the sweetness of the final wine, but for Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese the winemaker may choose to ferment more off the sugar and get a drier wine. So you get these terms coming into play: trocken = dry, halbtrocken = half-dry, feinherb = off-dry. From our experience this weekend, a Kabinett or an Auslese with the description ‘trocken’ will be pretty much as dry as familiar ‘dry white wines’ from pubs back home. Whereas on their own the Kabinett will be off-dry, a Spätlese definitely medium and an Auslese really sweet. Now, all this is true of young wines, and in fact we found most makers and wine bars tended to offer 1 to 3 year old wines. But these Rieslings can be aged for years and years, which results in them gaining lots more complexity and also drying out to varying degrees. We found a good winebar last night where we could try various Rieslings from about 2003 onwards and thus test this idea. It’s true, although I have to admit we didn’t actually find any truly great examples.

So, although I’m not confident enough to start rating and recommending particular wines, I’d definitely recommend a wine-tasting trip to the Mosel. It was pretty darn cold in late October and fewer wineries were open, so you might want to pick a different time to come! Then again, the leaves were turning and the chanterelles were in season so I suppose October had its compensations. Happy days.

This is posted a few days after it was written. Well, wine-tasting is hard work. And we got through 43 Rieslings in 3 days – hoo-rah!

Review: Lambs, Stratford-upon-Avon

This Sunday lunch was a great antidote to last Sunday’s lunch. We were in Stratford-upon-Avon for the day but having done no research were picking lunch randomly from the multifarious eateries the town is blessed with.

We didn’t pick entirely randomly: Lambs had both Hardens and Michelin stickers on the door, though not a star I should hasten to add. Anyway, here’s a quick review.

They’ve made good use of the old Tudor building, plenty of period charm inside and appropriate décor to keep it contemporary. It’s a style I like, though it is so common now as to be cliché. Service was attentive and friendly; they asked me if I’d like my roast beef pink or cooked through, and even asked me whether I wanted my beer cold or at room temperature. That’s more than I expect from a price-point of around £14 for a main course!

Maureen went for a smoked haddock fishcake with spinach, poached egg and hollandaise. This was generous in size and essentially looked and tasted exactly as you would want it to. If I’m really being mean, the hollandaise could have been a little tangier. I had the roast beef, beautifully pink in the middle. It was quite a spread, with a puffy yorkshire pudding, slow-roasted shallot, crunchy roast potatoes and cauliflower cheese sharing the plate with the beef, roasted baby carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl with some cabbage, and a condiment plate of horseradish, mustard and extra gravy. The horseradish tasted freshly grated. From the beef right through all the veggies, it was one of the best roasts I’ve had and a reasonable £13.50.

So, if you find yourself looking for a Sunday lunch in Stratford-upon-Avon and are daunted by the enormous spread of pubs and restaurants in the town, several of which will doubtless be crappy pack-in-the-tourist places, I can at least offer you one you should be able to trust.

Multifarious is a big word, and I want to repeat it just to make sure you all spotted me using it back in the first paragraph. Just like many words in this wonderful English language it does have a specific and worthwhile meaning. It means: many and varied. Not just many, but many and varied. Throw it into a conversation near you, today!