Making mini meringues Tuesday, Feb 18 2014 

Making meringues can seem really scary. They look so beautiful; surely they can’t be easy?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABelieve it or not, they are.

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It can be messy, but that’s all part of the fun.

I used Rachel Khoo’s recipe for French meringues, which is arguably the method best known to home cooks, where egg whites are whipped until stiff, with a bit of lemon juice added at the start, and sugar added gradually as you whip. An electric hand whisk is essential for this. If you have a good one (I use a Kenwood) then the mix will be ready in moments. To create these delicate shapes, I used a Pampered Chef decorating bottle and star nozzle. You really do need a piping bag or similar for times like this – it makes your life much easier, especially when you’re making large numbers (just two egg whites made 40-60 of these tiny meringues).

I then sprinkled half the meringues with Rachel Khoo’s praline recipe. Hint: buy pre-skinned hazelnuts. I didn’t even make the full amount of praline and was already cursing at the time it took to skin them (they are nowhere NEAR as easy to skin as, say, almonds). You then mix the skinned hazelnuts with caramel, which you make on the stove by melting sugar with a little water and NOT MOVING THE PAN while waiting for it to turn runny and dark (use a sugar thermometer if it helps you). Pour the nut caramel onto a baking sheet, and then once it’s cold, blitz it to granules in a food processor. Even only making a quarter of the amount of praline meant we had loads left over for another day; it would make a great topping for ice-cream, for example. I then sprinkled half the meringues with praline and left the rest plain. (Rachel Khoo sandwiches hers together with a mixture of praline and butter to create Chaumontais Kisses, but this didn’t appeal to me.)

They then had to sit in the oven for two or three hours at a low temperature, including being left to cool in the switched-off oven with the door ajar. This takes time, but not necessarily your time: you can of course go off and do other things while you’re waiting for them to be ready (like washing up your mixer and piping nozzles…!). I couldn’t have been happier with them: they were crisp and dry on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside, just the way I like them. They are compulsively moreish, completely worth the effort, and make a perfect gift for your Valentine at any time of year. Bisous!

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Ferret food from…France Friday, Jan 3 2014 

Naturally, with him indoors being French, French food is an influence in our household (and indeed our lives). French food is often thought of as being difficult, and sometimes it is: you just have to look in a pâtisserie window to know that it’s true. However, it can also have a delightful simplicity that means anyone can cook French food at home.

So what are some of my favourites? Here’s a list of my top 5 savoury (and, OK, my top 5 sweet) French foods:

  • Bavette à la sauce au poivre. Bavette is simply a flank steak cooked simply and quickly, served with a white pepper sauce made with green peppercorns, beef stock, cream, and cornstarch. Simply fry the steak for 3 minutes on each side, in a mixture of butter and olive oil. Serve with homemade frites 🙂  Popular in French bistros and homes alike.
  • Galettes. Galettes are savoury pancakes, normally made with buckwheat flour (which makes them thicker than crêpes). Try to make them yourself at home, or watch them be made in front of your eyes in moments on just about any Parisian street. The almost infinite range of toppings available means galettes are suitable for just about any taste or dietary requirement.
  • Moules-frites. Mussels steamed in stock and white wine, with just onions and seasoning for extra flavour, is an originally Belgian dish that’s now ridiculously popular in France. So not French, but what many people think of when they think of French food. Chips and/or bread obligatory for mopping up the sauce. Other flavour combinations are also available, but the classic mentioned above is the most popular without doubt. One of my best moments ever was eating this with my sister outside in France only for an accordionist to come along the road playing his instrument, thus fulfilling all possible clichés. Can be prepared at home, but is time-consuming. Eat it in a restaurant and think about the poor sous-chef in the kitchen who’s had to spend hours scrubbing all of the beards off the mussels.
  • Confit de canard. Originating in south-west France, confit de canard is made by cooking duck legs in duck fat for two hours, before it is canned and preserved using yet more duck fat. Scooping it out of the tin and into an oven-dish makes for near-instant dinner. Serve with potatoes (fried in duck fat, bien sûr), and keep the rest of the duck fat for future use. Confit de canard also features in another French favourite, cassoulet, in which it’s served with cannellini beans, sausages, and a rich sauce.
  • Boeuf bourgignon. This hearty French beef stew is perfect for winter and couldn’t be easier. It just needs some long, slow cooking and a little lovin’ (hey, you could even sing to it if you felt so inclined). Get a good Burgundy red wine to drink alongside it and serve with gratin dauphinois if you’re feeling especially naughty).

(The French in-laws also nominated blanquette de veau (a ragout made with veal, which is not browned during the cooking process), raclette – melted cheese served with potatoes and cold cuts of meat – and quiche lorraine. I particularly endorse the raclette mention at this time of year!

In terms of sweet treats, things get even trickier, but I’ve finally narrowed it down to the following:

  • Pain au raisin. Some people love croissants or pain au chocolat in the morning, but my personal favourite is the pain au raisin. Hey, you can even convince yourself that you’re getting one of your five a day with this classic French pastry (as you can with my runner-up, the chausson aux pommes).
  • Crêpes. It’s perhaps a little unfair to include this, given the inclusion of its savoury sister (the galette) above. Nevertheless, it remains an incredibly adaptable, fun dish to make and eat whether you’re at home or away, with endless possibilities regardless of your tastes. I always enjoy a crêpe suzette: a pancake served with oranges, butter, and sugar, and flamed with Grand Marnier.
  • Millefeuille. At a serious pastry crossroads with this one. Millefeuilles have been popular in France for centuries thanks to their textural contrast of crunchy puff pastry and luxurious crême pâtissière, but have only begun to gain popularity in the UK more recently, perhaps thanks to national food competitions like Masterchef and The Great British Bake Off. The mispronunciation of ‘millefeuille’ on British television is a constant bugbear! Thankfully, this isn’t a problem in France (where it’s pronounced mee-fur-y [with the y pronounced as a single letter, sounding like the y at the start of ‘yacht’]). Fêted for its impressive appearance and the numerous complex techniques involved, it’s a dessert for special occasions. Eclairs are a more prosaic pastry treat that I also love, made with choux pastry and filled with pastry cream. Tarte tatin also gets a mention for being generally yummy and for giving you that rollercoaster feeling in your stomach when you try to turn it out of the dish.
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMacarons. Not to be confused with macaroons (the British coconut cake), macarons are delicate delights that are difficult to get right. Their pastel colours are always appealing and suit several occasions, from tea-time to weddings. While it seems relatively easy to make a macaron look acceptable, getting the texture right is far harder (as we’ll see in Ferret Food and Wines’ macaron face-off this year). A good macaron should be crunchy yet yielding, with an ever-so-slightly chewy centre. Definitely should not be powdery or biscuity, and the cream centre shouldn’t overwhelm the macaron.
  • Café gourmand. The best solution ever if you’re indecisive when it comes to desserts. Rather than having to choose a whole dessert, many French establishments are happy to serve you 3 mini ones alongside your coffee. These can include mini marshmallows, mendiants (chocolates embedded with nuts and dried fruit), mini sponge cakes…the list is actually endless. This endlessness means that when you’re making café gourmand at home, you can make your mini desserts according to the needs of your guests, according to the wines you’re serving, and according to the rest of your menu’s theme. (One of the best I made, I think, was a mini apricot cake, a mini honey and hazelnut sweet, and a baby apricot sorbet.) GENIUS. and OH SO CUTE.

Feel free to express your outrage at any of the fabulous French dishes you think I’ve missed out in the comments below :p

Restaurant Review: Gauthier Soho, London Sunday, Dec 29 2013 

During one of our recent stays at Club Quarters’ Trafalgar Square location, we were looking for a convenient spot to dine after a matinée concert and cheeky visit to Fortnum and Mason. Having been unable to get through the door of the fêted Covent Garden restaurant Clos Maggiore, we had made a reservation at Gauthier Soho, which is conveniently located a short walk from the hotel.

The uniqueness of the restaurant is apparent even before you’ve stepped through the door: dressed up as a glamorous London residence, it has a shiny black front door not unlike that of Number 10 Downing Street, and you have to ring the doorbell in order to gain entry, which all adds to the sense of occasion that is at times lost these days when dining out. This is nicely combined with a warm yet professional welcome from the overwhelmingly French staff, who continued this demeanour throughout the night’s service.

There are several options in terms of dining at Gauthier (à la carte; 3 courses, 4 courses, 5 courses; 7-course tasting menu…), but these are all presented in a clear manner both orally and in writing. This is made even more impressive thanks to the excellent (albeit expensive) wine list that complements it. As well as a range of bottles to suit every taste, wine by the glass is also available – we enjoyed a wonderful Barbera, which is a slightly carbonated red wine due to the unique maceration process involved in making it. It combines fresh fruity flavours with ashy, mineralised ones, which suited our hearty main course well (more of which later). We also had a glass each of Sauternes and Jurançon with our desserts, which balanced botrytis and freshness pleasingly.

Gauthier’s seven-course, £70 tasting menu appears tempting and of good value, but even three courses (which we opted for at £40 a head) still makes for a plentiful feast. The restaurant’s use of seasonal ingredients and its formal French finish arguably makes it a more affordable “Manoir-lite” which makes you feel like you’ve had a quality meal with plenty of wow-factor while not making the meal the centre of your day. To begin, there were canapés, consisting firstly of delicate cheese straws, and secondly of colourful tomato jelly on mini bruschette, offering appropriate contrasts in texture, and an idea of the quality of flavour to come. But before our starter there was also an amuse-bouche, in the form of a truffle and mushroom raviolo on squash purée. Suffice it to say that this was worthy of a whole bowlful by itself, heightening the anticipation of your meal even further.

One side of the table had chosen an apple and pancetta salad, which was served with appropriately autumnal vegetables (celeriac and marrow), as well as an aged vinegar dressing. The other side of the table took soup to new heights thanks to the head chef”s chestnut and pheasant concoction. While the aniseed infusion perhaps could have had a more intense flavour, the pink liver that it came with was a perfect complement, and the crispy onion rings and leaves added great textural adventure. In terms of the main course, the wild duck served two ways proved tempting, but ultimately two plates of the Highland venison were ordered, to no regret. Served with pears poached in red wine, caramelised pumpkin, and truffle and celeriac purée, the tannic flavours intermingled playfully with the sweetness of the pear, pumpkin and celeriac, and were given added depth by the earthiness of the truffle. As for the venison itself, it came cooked to perfection (even though I had forgotten what “à point” was in English when asked how I would like my meat cooked), thus leaving us sorry that it was gone once we had cleaned our plates (it is a testament to the portion sizes and the lightness of the food that we did not feel as stuffed as a Christmas turkey).

The dessert menu offered a host of temptations to celebrate the festive season indulgently. While the dark chocolate mousse with crunchy praline was a serious contender, as were the refreshing-sounding blackberry, rose and pineapple sorbets, in the end one meal was completed with the restaurant’s “mandarine givrée”: a frozen mandarin orange that has been hollowed out and then refilled with the mandarin segments, before being served with extra segments, edible flowers, orange jelly, and a chocolate orange stick. While the shortbread in the description was conspicuous by its absence, and the tarragon could have made itself more obvious, the flavours, textures and temperatures combined to make a refreshing, low-fat, festive and original finish to the meal. On the other side of the table was another delight: a pear millefeuille served with cider ice cream, which again proved fruity, refreshing, contrasting and original.

To end our meal, disappointing coffee was served with far superior petits fours: a cherry marshmallow, a chocolate financier, and even a mini mince pie (whose wafer-thin pastry, full flavours and highly diminutive size all proved notable). This epitomised the beautiful harmonisation of French and English traditions that Gauthier Soho is producing in its kitchen – and is just one of several reasons why we would go back (regardless of the circa £150 bill for two).

21 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AF

Telephone: 020 7494 3111

www.gauthiersoho.co.uk

Restaurant Review: La Coupole, Paris Sunday, Nov 3 2013 

Paris is inextricably linked with a host of writers and artists that have passed into legend: creatives from Edith Piaf to Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso to Josephine Baker, have taken pleasure in the city of light and used it as their inspiration. La Coupole is no exception: this Art Deco restaurant, in the unassuming location of the fourteenth arrondissement, has seen all of these famous faces and more meet and romance under its roof. Today it continues to welcome locals and tourists alike – although despite the place’s eminence, it remains surprisingly easy to get a table (alright, so October isn’t exactly high season – but still). So is this ease of reservation a bad omen? Has La Coupole, after years of basking in its legendary status, finally succumbed to a rut of mediocre food and overpriced drink, and bitten the dust?

Not at all. It’s evident that there are many local businessmen who visit the establishment regularly, judging from the welcome accorded to them by staff, and regular local visitors are always a good sign. However, newcomers are certainly not frozen out either: we too were greeted warmly, despite my mother blatantly being a tourist, me being 20 minutes late, and us ordering nothing more exotic than tap water to drink. On the whole, this was most unFrench but most pleasant.

Very French, however, was the food. Having plumped for the two-course €30 menu, we began with a classic of a main course: a beauty of a Hereford steak, served with chips and Béarnaise sauce. Cooked to perfection (we asked for medium rare, and that was what we got), the meat was beautifully tender and flavourful, with a wonderful crust serving to contrast the Béarnaise sauce in both flavour and texture. This dish also represented exceptional value for money: if we had ordered it à la carte, it would have cost €25 by itself.

Dessert, equally, did not disappoint: while my mother ordered the dessert of the day (a layered pistachio and raspberry concoction), I went for another French classic: a fondant pudding made with Guanaja chocolate, served with salted caramel ice cream. While texture-wise it was a little dry (with my opinion likely being influenced by the most wonderful chocolate fondant recipe I have found, by London-based chocolatier Paul A Young), the flavours were undoubtedly supreme.

Staff were swift and courteous throughout proceedings, which was impressive given the size of the place, which has hundreds of covers. We did, however, have time to admire the art adorning the walls and ceilings of La Coupole. While some Art Deco features have been kept, such as the rectangular golden columns, there is also a fair amount of graffiti-style modern art on the walls, which doesn’t appear to be of as good quality and detracts from the venue’s 1920s history. Nevertheless, the surroundings are magnificent, and as far from red-and-black restaurant clichés as you can get.

While some might consider a price tag in the region of €60 for two people as being a little expensive for lunch, you without doubt get value for money: excellent food, bustling surroundings (even on a weekday lunchtime in low season), a unique taste of history, and yes – even efficient and friendly service. Now THERE’S something I never thought I’d say in Paris. Wonder if Hemingway would agree…

102 boulevard de Montparnasse, 75014 Paris

www.lacoupole-paris.com

The French foires aux vins Saturday, Sep 7 2013 

Despite the name, evocative of the medieval splendour of long forgotten trade fairs, the foires aux vins actually take place yearly in French supermarkets. Again, forget any clichés you may have in mind about French people leisurely doing their weekly shop at a bustling market, for supermarkets are in fact very successful (the term “hypermarket” was even coined in France). They are where the vast majority of French people shop.

French supermarkets are therefore very powerful and demanding with their suppliers, which has caused concern and anger amongst them, especially as the customer is not always the winner. The foires aux vins, however, offer a good occasion to take advantage of the supermarkets’ bargaining power as well as, in this particular year, of the slow down in Asian markets. Plummeting sales to Asia have apparently left a few suppliers with a lot of wine on their hands, which they are keen to discreetly get rid of. But enough talking: ferret has managed to get its paws on the catalogue for the foire aux vins at Carrefour Calais and would like to share a few potential good buys with you. In ferret’s opinion, it is best to focus on Bordeaux wines, as they are usually well represented due to the large quantities produced by even the most famous properties (as opposed to Burgundy).

(Red unless otherwise indicated)198190

Prestige buys

  • Saint Julien Château Gloria 2009 €29.90, £25.57 – not for early drinking though
  • Pessac-Léognan Château Carbonnieux white 2011 €24.90, £21.29 – a good introduction to the brilliant Pessac whites. Drink from 2015 over 10 years.
  • Pessac-Léognan Château Carbonnieux 2011 €23.90, £20.45 – also a good introduction to refined Pessac reds. Drink from 2017.

Value for money

  • Haut-Médoc Citran 2011 €11.50, £9.83. Excellent value for a wine that will drink until the beginning of the next decade.

And plenty of other wines: look out in particular for the 2009 and 2010 Bordeaux vintages.

  • Carrefour Calais
  • Avenue Guynemer
  • 62100 CALAIS

Foire au vins from 11th September to 6th October 2013

The wines of the Rhône Valley Monday, Aug 26 2013 

rhonevAlthough very small by comparison with, say, California, the Rhône valley, stretching in the South-East quarter of France from the south of Lyon to the south of Avignon, is home to a great variety of wine. For a start, one can distinguish between the northern Rhône valley – Lyon to Valence – and the southern Rhône valley (Montélimar to Avignon). Wines made in the former are more subtle and lower in alcohol than their southern counterparts.

Understanding the hierarchy

Basically there is a three-tier hierarchy of Rhône valley wines.

  • the Côtes du Rhône: the most basic level, with the least stringent rules in terms of location and output. This does not necessarily mean low quality: the red Côtes du Rhône from Emmanuel Reynaud (Château des Tours) and Jamet are among the most enjoyable, best value for money wines that I know.
  • the Côtes du Rhône village: here the rules go up a notch, and in some cases producers are allowed to mention a particular place name, meaning that the wine must come from a designated area. Both Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages are usually from the southern Rhône valley, although there are noticeable exceptions in the north (the Jamet Côtes du Rhône being a prime example).
  • the appellations: supposedly the top level, they have to come from a designated area renowned for its particular climatic and soil conditions (the terroir). Northern Rhône valley: Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Péray, Cornas. Southern Rhône valley: Châteauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Tavel.

Some to try

I recommend you try at least one Condrieu, a wonderfully aromatic wine made from the Viognier grape. Grown on very steep slopes south of Lyon, it has unique aromas of tropical fruits with a savoury finish. Sadly they are not cheap ( Waitrose offers 2011 Condrieu from reliable producer Guigal at £32.99 a bottle).

Looking at my favourite retailer’s wine catalogue, I would also recommend trying the 2011 Saint-Péray from Les Vins de Vienne (£14.99 from Waitrose)  or the 2011 Côtes du Rhône Villages La Redonne 2011 from Jean-Luc Colombo (£12.99), which should be a good introduction to northern whites.

Regarding red wines, try getting your hands on some 2010 Crozes-Hermitage for fruit-packed flavours.

Flavour fortnight, Scottish style Thursday, Aug 15 2013 

 

While staying at the French inlaws’ place this summer, and taking advantage of their TV (we don’t have one…everything we watch is online, baby), we enjoyed a most entertaining travel programme about Scotland (part of a series named Fourchette et sac à dos, or Fork and Backpack in English, or Gimme a fookin fork and let me deal with this in Scottish). In this, French TV presenter Julie Andrieu, who seemed most concerned about the state of her hair while on potentially messy activities (such as fishing), did a whistle-stop tour of all the Scottish clichés, including eating haggis and deep-fried Mars Bars, listening to readings of Robert Burns poetry, and attending the Highland Games. The culinary aspects of the experience attracted mixed reviews from the presenter: perhaps unsurprisingly, the haggis and fish and chips got a big thumbs up while the deep-fried Mars Bar got a big thumbs down (she didn’t even finish it…wimp).

But there’s more to Scottish cuisine than animal innards and fast-tracks to the emergency room. At the end of August, south-west Scotland will start its Flavour Fortnight – a food festival featuring artisan producers and hands-on foodie experiences. Commencing on August 31st and running until September 15th, the festival promises to feature everything from foraging to farmers’ markets. There should be something to suit all tastes and honour all traditions: a cider-making course with the country’s only traditional cider-maker will undoubtedly be a highlight.

With food festivals frequently centering on London and the south-east, this is a great chance for Scots to get involved in something just as good (and maybe even better!) on their own doorstep. I’d definitely be on the case of the Great Scottish Tablet hunt if it were me. OCH AYE.

Les cakes du Jaffa Friday, Jul 12 2013 

(I know I seem to spend an awful lot of time blogging about cake and other such non-foods. I am aware that this blog is not called ferretcakeandcookies.wordpress.com. I will try to blog about some proper food soon. Promise!)

Expats often spend time hunting out the silliest little things to remind them of home, even when we are dead busy integrating into life in our new country. Hey – I speak the language every day, shop in my new country’s supermarkets, pay taxes, and even rebuff advances from my new country’s men. I’m sure you’ll cut me a little slack for wanting some Jaffa Cakes every once in a while.

Happily, when it comes to said Jaffa Cakes, I don’t need to spend time ferreting out the dead expensive real thing, because the French already have their own:

These, children, are French Jaffa Cakes. They may be made by LU and not McVities. They may have the suspicious-looking “L’original” on the box. HOWEVER, I can assure you that they are basically one and the same. They certainly taste the same. There are also many supermarket spinoffs which are even cheaper, such as these (which I don’t buy too often…at all…*cough*):

Saving me a whole €0.46. YEAH.

The only problem I have with French Jaffa Cakes is that they come in too many flavours. To me the Jaffa Cake is a classic that is not to be messed with. It has already been shamelessly copied by the French after being invented nearly 100 years ago in the UK. I don’t mind the shameless copying. However, I do mind the messing. There is no real reason for “Jaffa Cakes” to come in such ungodly variants as cherry and white chocolate (this one is, for some reason, insanely popular in France), raspberry, strawberry, pear, and lemon. Even if they may taste nice (although I can promise you’ll never see the cherry and white chocolate love child ever passing my lips), they are just not Jaffa Cakes. The perfect marriage of bitter orange and dark chocolate is simply not to be trifled with. (Or caked with. WHATEVER.)

Nevertheless, in spite of this deviation, I can feel a dedicated LU spinoff post coming on at some point. Their biscuits are just damned lovely. In the meantime, I shall just sit here and carry on dreaming of Jaffa Cakes (French or otherwise)…and marvelling at those who have dared to try and make their own.

Food TV Review: Exploring China Thursday, Aug 23 2012 

“You can have this,” my mum said during my last visit, sending a Ching-He Huang cookery book my way. “I hardly use it.”

Her loss is my gain, as I have not only been enjoying Ching’s recipes lately, heading to the depths of Paris’ 13th arrondissement in search of the trickier ingredients from the city’s Chinatown, but also enjoying her latest TV series, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, which I partly started watching due to recognising her name. Alongside the formidable grandaddy of Chinese cuisine in the West, Ken Hom, she has been exploring China’s different regional specialities, from picking tea in Yunnan to getting rained on in Sichuan.

Now that we’re three-quarters of the way through the series, it seems a good time to step back and analyse what they’ve accomplished. Have Ken and Ching, so far, achieved what they set out to do? As far as I can tell, their aim was to present a geographical cross-section of Chinese cuisine, recognising what each province has in common as well as what makes each place special. To my mind this has been achieved as far as is possible in what is only a four-hour series (the final episode will be aired on Sunday, with all of the others available for catch-up on iPlayer until September 2nd), and in that time they’ve crossed the country, from Beijing in the north-east, to Yunnan in the south (where China borders Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), and, lately, to the western Kashgar, which bears more similarity to neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan than to much of what we perceive to be Chinese. This has given an eye-opening view of just how diverse a country China is, showing tea-pickers, restaurateurs and halal butchers from all walks of life, demonstrating almost every conceivable type of cuisine.

However, Ching and Ken don’t just aim to break down China into digestible chunks. They also slip in a bit of history, allowing us to realise how phenomena such as the Silk Road and the Cultural Revolution have permeated every aspect of Chinese life, including its food. To this end, they as chefs try to understand the cuisine further, and come up with their own versions, hoping to innovate while still respecting and upholding tradition. In doing this, they repeatedly win the approval of their hosts – even if at times this approval comes Chinese-style (where “quite good” or “not bad” seems to be the equivalent of the American “fantastic”).

Ching and Ken also have personal reasons for undertaking this epic road trip. Having been born of Chinese parents, but raised variously in Chicago, South Africa, and the UK, they have a clearly keen and authentic interest in reconnecting with their roots. Speaking the language and cooking the food is one thing – but it’s perhaps another to be able to do that in the places and with the people where these traditions originated. Viewers have a feeling that for them, this is a genuinely personal journey – and this is bound to culminate in a truly emotive finale on Sunday night.

But what do the viewers gain? As well as giving these two talented chefs exposure, the programme educates in a really enthralling way. Not only are we given historical insight into this fascinating country in a non-patronising manner, we are also inspired to get into our kitchens, cook its food, and perhaps even visit it ourselves one day.

For us, the series has also had a perhaps unintended side effect: in the Chinese’s sometimes surly manner, suspicion of visitors and reluctance to compliment, and in the cuisine’s love of all bits of the animal and lashings of garlic, we in fact saw something that was intrinsically French.

Chain Review: Langan’s Brasserie Saturday, Aug 18 2012 

Having experienced a shoddy breakfast during our early-morning get-up at the hotel we were staying at in northern France, by the time we’d driven to Calais and got on the ferry to set sail for England we were keen to refuel. We therefore decided on the Langan’s Brasserie option, which has since evolved to cover several branches on board P&O ferries as well as locations scattered throughout west London.

Even if our breakfast in France had been poor, I had ultimately already eaten (cereal and bread) so did not want much. I therefore ordered a rack of toast and enjoyed the complimentary orange juice that was served to every customer and turned out to be of very high quality. My husband plumped for the brasserie’s fuller breakfast option: this offered a starter, full cooked breakfast and additional drink for £13. He ordered a pot of tea as his drink, which I promptly stole. He then went on to feast on porridge and a full English, which consisted of egg, sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, mushrooms, and bubble and squeak. As if that wasn’t enough, for your £13 you also get a generous basket of mini bread rolls and pastries served with butter, honey and different types of jam. This was all filling, satisfying, and generally really hit the spot. The portions were large and you could easily do as we did – share one £13 breakfast menu and then order extras if needed. Service throughout this experience was discreet (sometimes too discreet as the staff were not always prompt), friendly, and overall added a touch of class to proceedings.

We were therefore keen to take refuge there again from the ferry’s hustle and bustle during our return crossing about 10 days later. On this occasion it was around tea-time, and unfortunately we had a very different experience. Staff were standoffish almost to the point of being rude when they discovered we weren’t going to be wanting a full meal (and who does want a full meal at 4pm – seriously?) – and in any case it’s not as if they had customers bashing down the door wanting full meals ahead of us, as we along with another party were the only customers in the restaurant (which was a large venue with plenty of covers).

When we did come to order, we had difficulty choosing, as we had hoped for something more along the lines of afternoon tea, which it appears that Langan’s does not offer. Trying to order something remotely appropriate to tea-time, I ended up ordering a cheese plate while my husband ordered a bowl of strawberries and cream (both of these dishes, by the way, turned out to be mediocre and not to the standard of the breakfast we’d enjoyed the previous week). We also then ordered tea, because the weather was miserable and we fancied it. This (I admit) somewhat unconventional order raised a few eyebrows with the staff, but I was not impressed by their reaction, having worked in the service industry previously and knowing that no matter what a customer does, says, or orders (unless you get into the territory of hitting and swearing etc) it is your job to comply and be as polite to them as to any other customer. This did not seem to be a priority at Langan’s on this particular day, where we also heard them make an uncalled-for comment relating to members of the other party’s clothes (I admit they were dressed ridiculously for the venue, but again, this is not staff’s business; they are paying customers like any other). As a result of these reactions, and the generally slow service that followed (despite, again, the fact that the restaurant was practically empty), we were keener to leave as soon as possible, rather than lingering and enjoying the food (as during the first visit).

It seems to me, as someone who used to visit Langan’s aboard P&O Ferries regularly as a child and remembers queues stretching out the door (you used to have to reserve a time for later in the sailing and come back if you weren’t quick enough to get a table at the start), that their reputation has gone downhill in the intervening years. Service and food are inconsistent, and can prove either very good or truly terrible. Langan’s projects a very good image through the presentation of its menus and restaurants, and indeed through its competitive pricing, but at time lets itself down through average food and lacklustre service. It’s possible that its London restaurants provide a sparklier experience, and that indeed the P&O branches vary according to who is running them (meaning perhaps that we got lucky on one day and not on another). However, as a result of the second experience we now feel that we cannot rely upon them adequately for the welcome and high quality promised by the brand. We are now convinced that P&O’s club lounge – which, at £12 per person, promises champagne, tea, coffee and soft drinks included in the price, along with luxurious facilities (which we have now seen, as we went to inquire about the service immediately upon leaving Langan’s), newspapers and snacks. We’ll know what to do next time – and I almost feel sorry for Langan’s that their service is now so inconsistent and has gone downhill in this way.

http://www.langansrestaurants.co.uk/brasserie.html

Langan’s London locations can be found here: http://www.langansrestaurants.co.uk/booking.html

for information about Langan’s Brasserie on the Dover-Calais route, follow this link:http://www.poferries.com/tourist/content/pages/template/onboard_dover_-_calais_langans_brasserie_onboard_-_the_brasserie_DOCA.htm

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