Luscombe organic Devon cider Sunday, Oct 2 2011 

We bought this excellent cider at Dart’s Farm near Exeter. It is a typical cider from Devon, made without preservatives or chemicals.

We enjoyed it with sausages cooked in cider (a good old Delia Smith recipe), a classic match, as well as, more unusually, duck cooked with cider. It proves the gastronomic qualities of this cider, with a nice fruit matched by a lovely mineral character.

Needless to say, it also proved a great match for cheddar.

 

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Restaurant review: Les Olivades Saturday, Jul 30 2011 

I tried this restaurant recently to have lunch with a colleague. It is conveniently located just across the road from the French ministry of health, also within chauffeured distance of various organisations: the German ambassador to the Unesco was entertaining there on the day we went.

I watched the restaurant fill after an early arrival and a warm welcome. When my colleague arrived, he went for an 18 euro formule including a starter and a dish of pasta, while I settled for a 35 euro menu with a starter, a main and a dessert. Our starters (a carrot soup for both of us) arrived quickly, although I might have expected appetizers of some sort for this kind of price. I then had a beef tartare: the meat was really nice, if a little bit too peppery, but the sautéed potatoes served with it were frankly too scant to make a really good impression. Dessert was also fairly acceptable (strawberry soup with ice cream) but at the end of this meal, I really felt the asking price was far too high.

My verdict: for this kind of money, I think you are entitled to a little bit more creativity, which we got in expensive London (along with better ingredients and service).

41 avenue de Ségur 75007 Paris

Sherry Saturday, Jul 9 2011 

Intrigued by recent articles on Jancis Robinson’s excellent website, I decided to try Spanish sherries. I also thought they would be a good match for summery food, especially a pork pie recipe I had my eye on.

Here is the pork pie, which was rather time-consuming but fun to make, and also very good to eat.

Below the pie is a Piedra Luenga organic fino from Bodegas Robles (about 10 euros for 50cl at Lavinia). Although not technically a Sherry (it is made in a similar fashion and also in Andalucia), it provided an excellent match for the pie, as well as for paella and Ossau-Iraty cheese.

More recently, we also had the pleasure to sample this excellent dry amontillado sherry from Waitrose (about £9), smuggled by Ferret. It was really similar in taste to the Piedra Luenga (nutty aromas, savoury finish) and provided a good match for mushroom risotto and even sardines. We also tried it with cheddar, but the pairing was not as successful as others we have tried.

Maybe a Rivesaltes would have been a better match, like this 21 year old Rivesaltes from Domaine de Rancy, shown here in excellent company.

On the whole, I often find these little-known “fortified” wines provide excellent value for money, offering lingering, complex flavours.

Restaurant review: Cosy Sunday, May 22 2011 

A satisfied customer, we should have him stuffed“.

Although I am happy to confirm ferret is fine, Basil Fawlty’s words rang true after my last experience at this restaurant, located 26 rue Mont Thabor in central Paris.

I had been there before and I must admit it can serve acceptable food at reasonable (by Parisian standards) prices. This probably led me to feel a bit cocky and expect, foolhardily, to be treated like a customer, even like a loyal one.

For if England has moved on since the pre-Thatcher years of bland prawn cocktails, France, in some areas, prefers to cling to an idealised past that never really existed.

But let me tell you my experience at this point. It was getting late and I wanted to be back at the office at 2 to catch a conference call. By the time we settled in our seats and ordered at 1:30 (beef carpaccio and chips in my case), I was still under the illusion I was going to make it.  By 2 I had finished my plate but still no sign of the chips. At this point I decided to leave to listen to the call in a quieter place and left some change on the table for my companions to settle the bill.

When they returned to the office later, they told me my misadventure had caused a stir. Indeed, one of them had dared to ask for a reduction on my behalf, to compensate for the missing chips. Apparently the reaction was in proportion to his offensive behaviour. He was told surlily I was supposed to ask for the chips (but still got some refund I should point out). My colleagues made their case even more serious by trying to pay with cards (a major offence under a ridiculously high amount in most French restaurants,  15€ usually).  I also believe it was implied we would not be welcome there anymore, for, despite being French, we had failed to understand they were doing us a favour by allowing us to set foot in their establishment.

This incident reminded me of a similar one, a few years ago in Normandy. We had been to a restaurant that boasted a few quality labels but were really disappointed with the food (some of which appeared to have been frozen). Back home, I wrote to one of these labels to voice my disappointment. A few weeks later, I got a very angry letter from the restaurateur himself (the label had passed on my details to him!) explaining to me how wrong I was and how bad a customer I was. Plainly, I should have realised the huge favour (again) they did to us. I wish I had kept this letter, for it encapsulated a lot of the things that are wrong with many restaurants in this country.

But why, you ask me? Isn’t France renowned abroad for its fresh produce, its traditional restaurants at reasonable prices?

I’m afraid a few things have changed: prices have gone up a lot for a start. You used to be able to experience a four-course, gastronomic meal in a provincial restaurant for as little as 200 francs (about 30 euros). Now you would probably be expected to fork out 40 to 60 euros for that.

I appreciate living standards and expectations have improved since then. It was probably more acceptable for restaurateurs back then to struggle until their 50s before they could leave for a sunny retirement. Now I think people expect more, and sooner – and who could blame them for that when you look around?

Another factor for high prices might be the cost of labour in France, and especially the total taxation of labour costs (at 49.3%, it is now the highest in the world), or the shorter working week (even though the impact is difficult to assess).

But the most relevant answer might be found in culture, and especially in, as General de Gaulle, that finest observer of French minds, pointed out, a long tradition of yearning for equality while coveting privilege. Add to this the low regard of French people for service jobs (French customers can often be as rude or dismissive with waiters, especially young women) and I think you have the ingredients for the little role play that is performed over and over in many French restaurants.

Off the beaten wine track with Ferret Tuesday, May 3 2011 

With the wine world expecting Bordeaux 2010 primeur prices to stay stratospheric and in line of a recent experiment at the Edinburgh Science Festival (See here for example), the price of wine is more than ever in question.

Ferrets being inquisitive creatures, Ferret has searched wine cellars for affordable wines. Here’s what he has found for you (we even got him to pose next to some of his trophies).

We start with a personal favourite, this 2003 Brézème from Jean-Marie Lombard. Brézème is a rare example in French wine of an AOC wine (this is AOC Côte du Rhône) that is allowed to display an appelation-like name without being a “village”. Here, with this Bresemus cuvée, we have a full-bodied syrah wine, reminiscent of a Côte Rôtie. Jean-Marie Lombard also makes other fine wines including the cuvée du Grand Chène.

Ferret has found 2007 Bresemus online for €27.90 a bottle.

We stay in the Côtes-du-Rhône region with this lovely 2006 red from the Château des Tours, made by Emmanuel Reynayd of Rayas fame. Fortunately, this does not command Rayas prices and will charm you with the fineness of its tanins (no bombast here) and its strawberryish flavours.

This should be available between €13 and €20 a bottle online.

An article about value for money wine needs to include a Languedoc-Roussillon wine: I remember being stunned by the freshness and depth of Eric Laguerre’s white, I thought I was tasting an Hermitage. His red wine is very nice too.

Have a look at the website here: http://www.domainelaguerre.com/. Both red and white “Le Ciste” cuvées are available at around 13 euros.

If you want the best from the Rhône and Bordeaux worlds, then this Cabernet-Syrah from domaine Les Creisses should be able to offer it. I must admit I was not entirely won over by this wine but this is certainly a very fine red that might taste even better in a few years.

You should find this wine around 25 euros.

Finally, a superb wine from a little-know region, Jura. Producer Stéphane Tissot, a firm believer in the notion of terroir, makes several cuvées, reds and whites in this mountainous region. Last time I enjoyed a Chardonnay so much, it was twice the price. I hope you will be able to enjoy its lovely spiciness too.

Visit the website here: http://www.stephane-tissot.com/.

€19 from Caves de Marly.

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