My ‘treize desserts’ Saturday, Nov 11 2017 

A French tradition around Christmas time is that of the 13 desserts, or treize desserts. It originated in Provence and is popular across the south of France, with each dessert representing Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. They are eaten typically between Christmas Eve and December 27th. As one with a massive sweet tooth I had pictured trays laden with cakes – but this isn’t the reality.

While the exact composition of the thirteen desserts varies between locales, they most festively and usually consist of the following (the majority of the below being named by my French husband as essential):

  • The quatre mendiants, or ‘four beggars’, representing four monastic orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites): namely raisins, walnuts/hazelnuts, dried figs, and almonds.
  • Dates, representing the foods of the region where Christ lived and died
  • Two kinds of nougat, symbolising good and evil (one black, one white)
  • Oranges/tangerines, and other fresh fruit (apples, pears, winter melon and grapes included)
  • Câlissons d’Aix – small diamond-shaped cakes made from almonds and marzipan
  • Biscuits made with cumin and fennel seeds
  • Pâte de coing, or quince paste (basically like posh Fruit Pastilles)
  • Candied Provençal fruits
  • Pain d’épices, or gingerbread
  • Pompes à l’huile, a sweet brioche made with orange flower water and olive oil

Other more obscure references include the bugnes and oreillettes (fried pastries in the shape of bow ties) as well as biscotti-type cookies – but as mentioned, these are highly regional and some estimates have the number of variants on the 13 desserts at around 55 varieties. Some Anglophone sources also include the Yule log on this list, but this would not be a very French inclusion in the 13 desserts – although you do see it in pâtisseries in the runup to Christmas.

At any rate, as a general cake-lover it can be a bit of a let-down to have the treize desserts realised as a plateful of dried nuts and fruits. For breakfast? Sure. As a snack? No problem. But for dessert? Not so much.

So my French husband challenged me to name what my 13 desserts would be. As someone holding dual French-British nationality now (yay!), I wouldn’t ditch everything from the French list, but would also include a few seasonal English innovations.

My French list would therefore consist of the following items:

  1. biscotti, known in some French regions as biscotins
  2. câlissons
  3. pâte de fruits
  4. pain d’épices
  5. nougat (both kinds, of course!)
  6. fruits confits
  7. orange or tangerine (for symbolic value and as a refreshing palate cleanser)
  8. dates
  9. raisins
  10. almonds
  11. walnuts/hazelnuts
  12. dried figs (all for their symbolic value – although I am loath to include the figs as I don’t much like them!)
  13. cumin and fennel seed biscuits

My ‘alternative’ list, however, would consist of the following:

  1. orange (also traditional in the UK)
  2. sugar mouse (what you often get in your stocking in England)
  3. chocolate orange or chocolate coin (ditto!)
  4. mini Christmas cake
  5. mini mince pie
  6. Turkish delight (perfectly reminiscent of Narnia’s snowy landscapes, as evoked by CS Lewis)
  7. alcoholic truffle of some kind
  8. mini panettone (for my love of Italy)
  9. mini candy cane (seen often on Anglo Christmas trees)
  10. borstplaat (a close relative of Scottish tablet), to celebrate my recent move to the Netherlands (it’s often eaten at the time of Sinterklaas)
  11. kruidnoten (another Dutch Sinterklaas confection, rather like hard amaretti. They also come covered with chocolate, optionally)
  12. Lebkuchen – spiced German Christmas biscuits. No cultural or sentimental reasons attached to these ones – I just love them!

Have already made and eaten Christmas cake here, and will soon make Christmas pudding once the delivery of suet arrives. How are your Christmas culinary preparations going? Feel free to leave a comment!

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Restaurant review: Convivial, Washington DC Sunday, Nov 5 2017 

This blog’s 2013 visit to Mintwood Place, in Washington DC, is so seared on the memory in multisensory terms that it barely seems possible for it to have been four years ago.  Now head chef Cédric Maupillier has widened the scope of his offerings even further with Convivial, an American café with French flair located in an up-and-coming area, within easy reach of the centre, about 10-15 mins from Gallery Place.

In true American style it is quite large, with three rooms serving diners. Nevertheless, there is sufficient space between tables, so that nobody feels hemmed in.

img_2383

Maryland blue crab roll

Ferret Food and Wines dined twice at Convivial recently, so has sampled a variety of menu options. The first visit commenced with a fresh-tasting pulled turkey leg, served with spiced pecan and cranberry to pull off that Thanksgiving flavour. This was followed by the Maryland blue crab roll sandwich, which incorporated authentic flavours, locally-sourced ingredients, and generous portions, as well as a variety of textures (thanks, crispy fries).

The second visit was compliments of the chef, so included some items that were possibly off-menu. The evening kicked off with an amuse-bouche: one containing smoked fish, potato and cream, which gave a balanced result in terms of both flavour and texture, and the other containing lamb with celeriac remoulade, which proved a creative combination. Both were served on a blini-style toast.

The pickled rockfish added a herby, zesty, slightly vinegary flavour to proceedings, before heading back to a more distinctly French tradition: beef tartare with a melt-in-the-mouth texture, contrasted by the crispy potato with which it was served. Carb lovers definitely aren’t short of options here: the second course menu has plenty of them, and there is fresh fougasse aplenty to accompany all savoury courses, served in paper sleeves à la française.

This is definitely needed to mop up every last drop of the wonderful (and equally French) bouillabaisse, which contains as a minimum daurade, prawn, mussel, catfish and octopus, resulting in a fresh soup which is rich in flavour without being heavy. It’s also brilliantly seasoned, which is true of all of Convivial’s dishes.

Next up was the delightfully tender pork and beans, with all elements of the dish being cooked to perfection, the beans retaining their shape without falling to mush. Finally on the savoury front came the ravioli with niçoise beef and chard, which turned out to be an excellent combination, and arguably the most successful dish overall (jointly with the bouillabaisse) for how the ingredients worked together.

On both occasions, the meal was completed by the Bartlett Pear Shortcake, which perhaps contrary to expectation, is not too heavy a way to finish a meal, and is complemented delightfully by crunchy roasted praline-style almonds. The dessert menu in general offers a good mix of French and American options and touches, although the American dishes are arguably more attractive to someone more used to French cuisine. It’s also a very creative menu that puts twists on the classics, with sticky toffee pudding with maple ice cream, Key Lime and speculoos pie, and vanilla crème brûlée with black meringue all sounding tempting.

The wine list consists entirely of French and American wines, in keeping with Convivial’s theme. There are many decent options available by the glass, even if the bottles are more interesting or adventurous. Nevertheless, FFW was pleased by the glasses of Californian Pinot and Sauvignon. The meal can also be rounded off by Convivial’s good coffee.

Overall, Convivial is a triumphant addition to DC’s food scene. FFW will definitely be back. A la prochaine!

http://www.convivialdc.com/

Spiller and Tait wins Great Taste Award 2017 Tuesday, Oct 17 2017 

Every year, the prestigious Great Taste Awards are given out by the Guild of Fine Food. Limited in number, it’s always heartening to see small independent businesses being rewarded for their hard work and high-quality produce.

81jj26ctrgl-_sy445_Among these this year is Spiller and Tait, a tiny coffee roastery located in Devon. After one year in this extremely competitive environment, they have already proved themselves by becoming one of Amazon UK’s top-selling coffees.

This has been further endorsed by their reception of the Great Taste Award for their Signature Blend Coffee, which received one star. Furthermore, alongside only 164 other products in the country, they have received the prestigious three-star rating for their matcha tea, which was only launched after months of extensive tea tastings from numerous areas of Japan. Judges praised the depth of its “pure flavour” and balance between sweetness and bitterness

The awards are decided upon by over 500 top palates, which this year included Gill Meller (author of and Martha Collison (of Bake Off fame), as well as food buyers from Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges. Other recipients of three-star awards included products from Gail’s Artisan Bakery, Flora Tea Group, and Masons Yorkshire Gin.

As an Exeter University graduate I’m naturally biased in favour of Spiller and Tait’s Devonian heritage – but I’m a big fan of the Great Taste Awards in general, as they’re a terrific boost to artisanal brands. Well done to all!

For more information:

https://greattasteawards.co.uk/

https://www.spillerandtait.co.uk/

National Tea Day 2017 Friday, Apr 21 2017 

green-tea-alamy-largeYou’d think making tea was a simple business – millions of us (especially the Brits) do it daily.

However, we’ve all had that moment where we’ve overbrewed it, put in too much milk, or ended up with that disgusting film on the top.

So in commemoration of National Tea Day on April 21st, here’s a few tips from Sebastian Pole, medical herbalist and author of ‘Cleanse Nature and Restore With Herbal Tea’. The guidelines don’t just apply to herbal teas if you’re not into that – you should also heed the advice for other commonly-consumed teas, including the good old standard English Breakfast.

  • Filter your water – to avoid that aforementioned disgusting filmy layer!
  • Don’t overboil your water – this also contributes to that filmy effect, upsets the balance between the tannins, oils and amino acids in the tea, and can even burn the tea leaves. To prevent this, only boil the amount of water you actually need, and ideally use a kettle that can tell you the exact temperature the water has boiled to (the ideal temperature will vary for different teas, with guiding temperatures below).

Green teas: 80-85°Ccup-of-green-tea-with-leaves

Oolongs: 85-90°C

Black teas: 95°C

  • Use freshly drawn water – this will prevent buildup of salts and nitrates.
  • Infuse the tea for the correct length of time – check the package or consult your retailer.
  • Use a sturdy teapot to keep your tea warm. You can even buy teacup lids to stop valuable volatile oils from evaporating while you drink aromatic herb teas.

My top 5 teas

Redbush/rooibos – it’s like a classic black tea, but has an even smoother, rounder flavour, and best of all, it’s caffeine-free for those trying not to overdo it.

Lapsang Souchong – a beautiful, intense, smoky tea that wows anyone who smells it for the first time. (They usually then subsequently try it, and love it!)

6040_1_1_Marie Antoinette tea by Ladurée – the famous Parisian macaron company also has its own blend of tea named after Marie Antoinette. The rose petals and honey add a natural, delicate sweetness to the black teas used for the base.

Lemon, ginger and echinacea – Whittard used to do a brilliant combination of all three of these, but sadly have stopped doing so. Brilliant stuff for when you are feeling a bit peaky or just a bit sleepy. You could probably make your own lemon, ginger and echinacea blend using the raw materials, and lemon/ginger blends are still widely available.

English Breakfast – It may be common, but it’s also a classic. I’ve tried having my breakfast with Earl Grey or with green tea (both teas I enjoy also), but it just doesn’t work for me. Strong, reliable, and an excellent foil to whatever hangover cure or cookies you happen to be consuming at the time.

Ferret Food Monthly: October 2016 Wednesday, Oct 12 2016 

Reviving Ferret Food Monthly after a loooooooooooong hiatus…

Connected cup brings drinks

A little alcohol-based news for you now! Malibu has invented a cup that will enable you to order more drinks without ever leaving the dancefloor. Say bye-bye to the bar queue and twist the base of the cup to have your drink brought straight to you. An industry first, the Malibu Coco-nect cup (shaped, predictably, like a coconut) uses wifi and RFID technology to send drinks orders to the bar and pinpoint your location. Once the order has been accepted, a light at the bottom of the vessel changes colour, and when your drink is ready, the base of the cup flashes to let the server know where you are once they are in the vicinity. Ten prototype cups were trialled this summer with the system set to be rolled out further in 2017 – meaning that you’ll never have to miss a moment of the fun. To watch a video of the cup in action, click here.

cacao-picSweet like chocolate

In other news, chocolate actually burns fat now. Yes, really. We’ve known for a while now that high-cacao chocolate is good for you (at least 70% cocoa solids) and this just adds one more benefit to the list. According to Callum Melly of BodyIn8.com, cacao is rich in flavanols and polyphenols, which can prevent cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of stroke, improve circulation, reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol and prevent hardening of the arteries. Drinking hot cacao before a meal helps us to consume fewer calories during the day and leads to a natural calorie deficit and weight loss. Furthermore, cacao contains MAO inhibitors which can suppress your appetite. To get the maximum benefits, try cacao nibs or even 100% cacao chocolate. If nothing else, cacao is rich in anandamide (for a sense of euphoria), phenethylamine (endorphin trigger and aphrodisiac), and magnesium (to protect against osteoporosis and diabetes as well as lowering blood pressure), and can even boost serotonin levels (for stress relief). So by all accounts – come, fill the cup!

All aboard the Pasta Express! Wednesday, Aug 3 2016 

Yes, you read that right. PASTA Express. Pizza Express have branched out to bring you your favourite pizza toppings in pasta form:

IMG_3187 (2)

All made from free range egg pasta, these delightful little parcels offer something for everyone, whether they love the American Hot (which, with its pepperoni and hot pepper, is truly HOT), or the cooler flavours of our favourite, the Pollo Ad Astra, which combines chicken and peppadew to create a sweet result.

Those with a hotter palate will perhaps be a little disappointed by the Sloppy Giuseppe, which lacks a little punch. However, there’s even something for your vegetarian friends thanks to the addition of the margherita tortellini to the range.

 

Pizza Express suggests serving these with their patented dough balls – but for a healthier option, we found that you could easily make one two-person pack serve three by eating it with a sumptuous side salad. But no matter what your chosen accompaniment is, the Pasta Express is ready to board and is heading straight for summer. Buon appetito!

Al fresco with Ristorante Tuesday, Jul 26 2016 

ristorante-pizza-mozzarella-pizza-und-snacksFerret Food and Wines was kindly sent two FREE (count em! FREE!) pizzas by Ristorante’s PR – perfect for al fresco dining now that the weather has warmed up a shade. Whether you choose to eat them with your hands or a knife and fork, you can enjoy them under the sun, whether sat around a table on your classy decking, or casually stood up in the garden – even the kids could eat them with their hands while playing.

So firstly I tested the classic Mozzarella pizza: an acid test in anyone’s book. Nowhere to hide with this one! Happily the crust stays nice and crunchy, meaning it won’t cover your hands with melted cheese while you’re stood up admiring the garden’s flowers, and just in general makes for a nicer eating experience. However, the topping stays moist, making for a win-win situation (not to mention the fact that it takes a mere 10-12 minutes to cook). This combination also makes for a good thickness: not brittle, while not being overly doughy or chewy. This also adds to the sophistication factor. There’s plenty of flavour in this one too – not just thanks to the tomatoes, pesto (even if this could be more evenly distributed across the pizza) and mozzarella cheese, but also thanks to the extra (albeit nontraditional) Edam that’s also been sneaked in there.

risto-calzonepngDepth, variation or subtlety of flavour was arguably something that was lacking, though, in the brand’s new Calzone, even though it combines ham, salami, cheese, and tomato. The overriding flavour was the tomato sauce, which is comforting and present in decent quantities – but this is perhaps not evenly distributed throughout the calzone (which we divided into 3), with other diners reporting greater amounts of cheese. The salami also dominates over the ham, as it just generally has a stronger flavour. Again, however, the crust remained crunchy, offering pleasant contrast to the gooier filling, and the handy size means that you could forsake cutlery easily. It does take longer to cook though (more like 30-35 minutes) – so some patience is required!

However, despite these minor criticisms, at £1.66 each, they’re excellent value for money, offering texture, flavour, comfort, and sophistication – perfect for al fresco dining this summer.

Ferret Food From…Germany Saturday, Oct 24 2015 

It’s not that I have spent a great deal of time in Germany. In fact, right now I’m only in the middle of a work trip to Berlin, meaning a lot more time is spent in conference rooms on laptops than out and about. Before this, I only took one weekend trip to Germany, and passed through it briefly during road trips, so all in all, I’ve barely scratched the surface – hardly helped by my general pursuit of the French language, and subsequent greater interest in Francophone countries. So why a food feature on Germany?

I only studied German for two years at school, before dropping it in favour of French. I’d been exposed to French for much longer, and German just felt harder, with the neuter in particular causing more problems than I felt it was worth. But then I went to university to study Classics, which naturally included Latin – and once you’ve studied Latin intensely for a few years, your openmindedness towards things like the neuter is increased, and it doesn’t seem so tricky anymore. So I feel I owe it to Germany to take more of an interest in its language and culture. Plus, German food seems to have drawn the short straw in terms of international reputation when compared to its nearest rivals: Spain! France! Italy! In the hope of debunking this a little, I hereby list, in the tradition of my Ferret Food From France post, my top 5 savoury and top 5 sweet foods from Germany:

  • currywurst

    Currywurst. It’s stodgy, covered in ketchup, completely unsophisticated, and I love it. It’s basically traditional German sausage, sliced thickly, drenched in spicy tomato sauce, and served with French fries. So bad, and yet so good.

  • Bratkartoffeln. Everyone loves fried potatoes, bacon, and fried onions, right? Well, imagine all three of these IN ONE DISH. That’s Bratkartoffeln. The potatoes soak up all of the bacon fat too, so it’s rich and flavourful (and probably quite unhealthy. BUT SHUSH.).
  • Hendl. Whole grilled chicken, marinated with pepper and other spices. What’s not to like?
  • Hasenpfeffer. A stew made from marinated rabbit.
  • Sauerbraten. A beef pot roast, basically, made with vinegar, water, spices and seasonings. A toss-up between this and Pfefferpothast (a peppered beef stew) for my final entry. It’s true that Germany is not a great place for vegetarians! But it’s the kind of food I like: wholesome, filling, and great for cold days.

And as for the desserts, it gets even better! My top 5:

  • lebkuchenLebküchen! Basically gingerbread, but done up oh so prettily, particularly at Christmas (see image, right). Comes in a variety of regional types – it can be dusted with sugar, covered in chocolate, studded with dried fruits… *drools* Dominostein is a worthy related mention: chocolate covered Lebkuchen with a jam and marzipan filling.
  • Stollen. A spiced, slightly bready cake dough mixed with marzipan and dried fruits, and then rolled into a log shape before being baked. Dusted with sugar before serving.
  • Prinzregententorte. A cake consisting of at least six very thin layers of sponge, alternating with chocolate and cream. Like a French Opéra cake or Hungarian Dobostorte, this one is a regal classic.
  • Zwetschgenkuchen. A plum cake. YUMMY.
  • Bratapfel. Quite simply, baked apples. One of your five a day, and so simple to recreate at home – everyone’s a winner!

Doughnuts also get an honourable mention. They are VERY popular here, whether in the form of the Berliner (a basic jam doughnut), Kreple (traditional doughnuts from the Silesia region), or simply the fact that Dunkin’ Donuts has many outlets in Germany. I popped in out of curiosity yesterday (no Dunkin’ Donuts in France!) and suffice it to say that a showdown post pitting them against Krispy Kremes will be coming shortly.

In short, though, donuts aside, I’m not sure that Germany deserves its slightly lower reputation for its cuisine. And with winter drawing in, it’s a perfect time to try out a few recipes to see you through the colder weather.

Restaurant Review: Bistrot Chez Rémy, Disneyland Paris Wednesday, Oct 21 2015 

The more cynical would assume that everything at Disneyland Paris is a rip-off, and truthfully, before visiting the Bistrot de Rémy at the Walt Disney Studios section of Disneyland Paris, I was expecting the same story again: overpriced, low-quality food in a place filled with screaming kids. Everyone’s dream, right?!

Either way, you have to book to get into this place – it gets booked up fast, and you can’t just walk in. (Tried it once. Failed.) It’s true that the picturesque setting appeals – it’s on the Place Gusteau, which also houses the Ratatouille ride and shop, and is convincingly set-dressed to replicate a traditional Parisian square. With cobbled streets, gilt-edged canopies over the restaurant door, authentic-looking road signs, and the massive Gusteau sign from the Ratatouille ride smiling down benevolently, it’s all very sweet.

Inside is a bit more chaotic. It’s true that there are vast cushy banquettes made of red leather to sit on while you wait, and plenty of Ratatouille memorabilia from the films adorning the walls for you to look at. However, even once you have given your name to the concierge and they’ve located your reservation, you still have to wait an inordinately long time to be seated, which leads to a backlog of families waiting and the subsequent generation of families’ worth of noise, making it difficult for wait staff to be heard when they do come to call your name. Add to this people walking in without reservations and taking a while to establish that they won’t be getting in without one, and you have one hot mess. They *really* need to streamline this whole process significantly.

IMG_2154Once you’re in, though, things look up considerably as you’re firstly struck by the creativity of the whole place. Seats really are made out of mock bottlecaps, the lights really are giant fairy lights, there are huge drinks parasols everywhere, and enormous plates form the partitions between booths, to name just a few touches. You really feel like you have stepped onto the set of the film and the overall feel is magical indeed. If you request a window seat when you book, you’ll also be lucky enough to see the Ratatouille ride (rat-shaped carriages galore!) gliding by as you eat.

The staff are also excellent – encouraging you to take pictures, providing exemplary service (even when you send food back, as a friend of mine did when the steak was not cooked to his liking), and even cracking the odd joke.

IMG_2152But what of the food itself? I’m happy to report that it, too, is of high quality. There are two choices of menu, and within that, two choices per course. The salad is made with fresh ingredients that in no way look tired or subpar, and the dressing is well-made, bringing the lively mixture of colours (lettuce, carrot, beetroot and tomato) together with zest. I’ve only sampled the steak for my main course so far (yes, I’ve been twice this year…!), but generally speaking it comes cooked to your liking, and is a good, tender cut of meat for your money. The pepper sauce is perhaps a little strong, but comes in generous portions – easily enough for your steak and your chips (which are perfect, for what it’s worth – crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle). Furthermore, it wouldn’t be the Ratatouille restaurant if it didn’t come with the signature dish – and this portion of ratatouille is full of flavour, and offers a variety of textures so that you don’t feel like you’re eating mush. On the frivolous side, it also comes with a tiny little plastic Rémy chip fork for you to take home with you 🙂

IMG_2156On the dessert front, you can go for cheese (which actually looks very nice by the way – a ficelle baguette served with a variety of cheeses and a pleasing-looking chutney), but as I have a sweet tooth, I have gone for the apple tart both times, which is about the size of my own face and comes with a stick of chocolate and plenty of custard. No regrets!

Your menu also includes bottled water (your choice of brand, or just tap water if you prefer), and you may also wish to sample the Lanson champagne made especially for the restaurant, which is light, effervescent, and again, of equally high quality. Failing that, you can go for the house red or house white, which are comparable in standard to that found in any genuine Parisian bistro. Coffee is decent too – and I say that as someone who has a machine at home which grinds the beans for them.

So atmosphere: tick. Food: tick. But what about the price? So far I’ve found that the €40 Emile menu (starter, main course, dessert and drink) more than suits my needs in terms of quality and quantity – you don’t pay a lot less in some of the buffet places at Disneyland Paris, and the €40 for three courses and a drink even compares very favourably to a standard Parisian bistrot. I’d even say you get better service at the Bistrot Chez Remy than in the city of light itself – the servers are friendly and swift.

I’d said to myself before going for the first time that if I didn’t think the €40 menu was good enough quality that I’d switch up to the €60 Gusteau menu for better food (the menu includes foie gras and premium cuts of meat and fish), but so far this hasn’t been necessary given the scope of choice even within the Emile menu. If you don’t want to eat that much, you can order à la carte (even though this is worse value) or try the two-course menus (Linguini, €46, or Remy, €30 – neither of which include drinks). There’s also a children’s menu that’s a frankly bargainous €17 for 3 courses and a drink.

On the whole, this might be one of the most magical and best value places to eat at Disney. Book your seat now – and go on, have some Disney-branded champagne while you’re at it, as you pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

More Bake Off love Sunday, Oct 5 2014 

After a long hiatus, I’m back, drooling over the latest series of The Great British Bake Off. Specifically this latest episode, which saw contestants making baklava:

rose baklavaI’m loving the idea of Luis’ rose and barberry baklava (pictured above). Not to mention Chetna’s masala chai versions, which fit in perfectly with the arrival of autumn, the season of spices (just don’t get me started on the deliciousness of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte):

masala chai baklavaComing soon will be more autumn adventures, including lunch at the Fat Duck before its temporary move to Australia, macaroons at Ladurée in Paris, and afternoon tea at the Connaught, so stay tuned 🙂

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