Gin o’clock Tuesday, Aug 20 2013 

It’s like Pimm’s o’clock, but with gin.

Keeper is not a big gin and tonic fan. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for a sneaky G&T, particularly on slightly stressful budget airline journeys – or, like today, right after being forced to spend an hour with a speeding metal box on wheels and a bunch of homicidal maniacs (yep, you’ve guessed it – learning to drive in France is no picnic!).

So naturally I was looking forward to trying this:

A little bit more expensive than normal gin at something approaching £18 a bottle, I was swayed by the potentially seductive flavourings of Earl Grey tea and lemon in my G & T. Surely that bergamot twist would provide something different in my drink – plus, I’m a sucker for exclusivity, and the fact that this is only available at Waitrose and formulated specially by one of Britain’s top chefs…well, who could resist?

Sadly, I should have done. It’s not that it doesn’t taste nice. It does. BUT IT JUST TASTES LIKE NORMAL GIN.

Yesterday I tried it as a simple one-shot, one-unit measure (that’s 25ml) mixed with 100ml-125ml of tonic, and was underwhelmed. So today I upped the measure of gin slightly to 30ml (just under what you get in the pub apparently), thinking maybe I just hadn’t been cavalier enough with the alcohol. However, this too was to no avail – and frankly, if it is any different, I don’t really want to have to keep upping the measure just to find this out, or (worse maybe) to have to drink it straight up. Firstly, as mentioned, this gin doesn’t come cheap, and secondly, a 25ml shot is already one unit of alcohol. Women are only supposed to drink 12 units a week, and while I’m confident that I rarely (if ever) exceed this, I don’t want to start upping my tolerance again (at uni I built up quite a high tolerance and it got me nowhere good). Plus, I’m trying to lose weight again, and while this may happen naturally a bit when I return to work in 2 weeks’ time, I somehow don’t think you’re supposed to cancel out the 300 calories you just burnt off at the gym with repeated G&T tastings. (For what it’s worth, 35ml of gin contains about 70 calories.)

So all in all a disappointment. I’ll just have to set my sights on my next alcoholic adventures – a bottle of port with the family at Christmas…!


Restaurant Review: The Royal Oak Paley Street, Maidenhead Saturday, Nov 10 2012 

Before I moved to France, I lived in Bray, a tiny village described on French television as being “in the heart of the English countryside”. This description is not really believeable, as it’s right next to an unassuming town called Maidenhead. This town looks like just about any other slightly grubby town in Britain, with its high street featuring such retail monoliths as McDonalds, Ernest Jones, and Wilkinsons (as well as a truckload of empty shopfronts).

However, there is one thing that makes this area different to others in the UK, and that’s its unusually high density of Michelin-starred restaurants. In Bray you have the Waterside Inn (owned by the Roux brothers) and The Fat Duck – and Heston Blumenthal’s other restaurant, a gastropub named The Hind’s Head, has also been awarded its first Michelin star recently. This intense concentration of high-quality restaurants, beautiful riverside location and proximity to London also ensures the presence of a number of celebrity residents, including Uri Geller and Rolf Harris – and another of those notable denizens has opened his own restaurant in a bid to match the culinary opportunities already available.

Television presenter Michael Parkinson opened The Royal Oak in 2001 with his son Nick, and it has gradually crept up the rankings to obtain a Michelin star itself. Naturally, we were keen to visit, and were lucky enough to spot the man himself during our lunch (he dines there most days, so this was likely not an improbable occurrence, but still).

So did the experience match our expectations? Traditional decor and impeccable service was combined with a whole host of tempting choices, with us both plumping for the 2 courses for £25 option (even though we probably could have stuffed more in thanks to the glittering list of temptations on offer). Having fallen in love with the humble Scotch egg, it was painful for my husband to pass up Parky’s version, and I would have loved a starter (in retrospect, I should have gone for this). However, costs here could rack up extremely quickly: 3 courses cost £30, so with wine, water and coffee, you could easily end up paying £100 for 2 people even at lunchtime.

As a starter, my better half opted for the Fried River Exe Sand Eels, which were tiny and came deep fried in batter. These were stood up vertically in a tiny dish and came with mayonnaise in a diminutive dipping bowl. Although fried, these weren’t greasy at all, proving light and delicate and making an unusual starter.

For the main course, we both chose the Devonshire duck breast, which came with caramelised endive and an impossibly creamy celeriac purée. Served with hazelnuts and the meat’s roasting juices, this was definitely a traditional roast with a twist. A range of side orders were also available, but we decided against these, and didn’t feel any the worse off: the duck was cooked to perfection, with the whole ensemble being packed with flavour and presented divinely.

We matched this with two glasses of red wine, which proved decent value for money at £7.40 for a mature Bordeaux (Château Arnauld, 2005) and a young whippersnapper from Argentina (Malbec, 2011). These delivered on flavour and had had a chance to develop before arriving at the table so that we wouldn’t miss out on their possible nuances.

The most disappointing aspect was arguably the dessert: I chose the Cambridge Burnt Cream, and it sounds naïve now, but I had been expecting something more than what was essentially just an ordinary crème brûlée. While tasty, it lacked the innovation of the previous courses, and in fact, this was true of the whole dessert menu, with perhaps the only exception being the greengage tart. From this point of view (and the fact that we did go for coffee and petits fours afterwards, which were superb), I think a starter would have been preferable – if I were to return, the wild rabbit lasagne, Cornish lobster linguine or wood pigeon salad would all be highly desirable dishes.

We would definitely return, in spite of the expense, for the mix of innovation, cosiness, tradition, quality, good service, and general Englishness – although we would advise going for the starter/main combination to profit the most from the experience, steering clear of the slightly duller desserts. However, I’d say that Heston and Michel definitely need to watch their backs.

The Royal Oak, Paley Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3JN

01628 620541

I scream, you scream… Thursday, Jul 26 2012 

Due to spending part of my summer in the south of France, I have been eating ice cream and sorbet pretty much twice a day at the moment (well, wouldn’t you in 40°C heat?! Diet’s on the cards for September, promise…).

I love ice cream anyway and could pretty much eat it constantly (twice a day? Pah. I’ve been known to send off whole tubs of Carte d’Or, Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs in one sitting). The main thing for me now, though, is branching out into trying weirder and more wonderful flavours. Just recently I’ve sampled nougat ice cream, lavender ice cream, and poppy ice cream, as well as marvelling at the presence of (but not actually trying) nut ice cream and marshmallow ice cream. (For the record, the nougat ice cream tasted relatively little like nougat, the varieties of lavender ice cream I’ve tried range from the luridly purple to the strictly natural, and the poppy ice cream tasted surprisingly fruity.)

But what of my favourite classic flavours? I have loved stracciatella ever since I first visited Italy at age 12, and mint chocolate chip is another long-standing favourite of mine. Coffee and caramel variants are also weaknesses of mine, but to be honest I’ve not yet met an ice cream I don’t like.

EXCEPT…chocolate. Yep, you heard me right. This stems from a summer holiday as a child where all the meals were included, and so, being eight and five years old at the time, my sister and I did the only thing that any normal child would do: we had chocolate ice cream for dessert every night for two weeks. That about did me for life and even now I would eat chocolate ice cream if given it, but would never deliberately choose it. (Strangely, chocolate-covered ice creams, such as Magnums, are OK – but only those which aren’t chocolate on the inside too.) For this reason, I’m also not that fond of Neapolitan ice cream, despite not having anything specific against the strawberry and vanilla flavours.

In addition, you will never see me eating any ice cream containing banana (I really, really hate banana).

In terms of more ‘modern’ ice cream flavours, Ben and Jerry’s has to be the king here (although I’ve not yet tasted Heston Blumenthal’s famous bacon and egg variant), and I’m very partial to their cookie dough flavour. Many people probably think it’s disgusting, but I just love it for its sweetness, variation in texture, and its combination of two things I love – cookies and ice cream – in one single pot. I’ve not yet spotted their Cake Batter flavour, but suspect I would adore it for the same reasons. Ben and Jerry’s Strawberry Cheesecake flavour is also highly palatable, and in spite of the saccharine variety of flavours, it’s actually (believe it or not) very good quality ice cream: while many other manufacturers (Carte d’Or and Nestlé to name but a few) are known to pump loads of air into their ice cream so that you get as little as 500g of ice cream per litre, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream comes from milk and cream from family farms, uses Fairtrade ingredients, and is certainly not pimped using extra air. (Remember to always check the bottom of the pack! The gram and millilitre content is always clearly listed and the closer the numbers are to each other, the better.)

So all that remains, it seems, is flavours I’d like to try but haven’t yet. I’ve already listed a few above in my paragraph of Ben and Jerry’s worship. And luckily, thanks to spending part of my summer in an artisanal ice cream and sorbet hotspot (the Ardèche region of France is full of small firms making their own premium ices), there’s probably some out there that I haven’t even thought of yet. But I also have a few ideas of my own. For instance, I have a recipe for pine nut ice cream I’ve never used (husband needs to buy me an ice cream maker, hint). I’ve also heard of yam and coconut ice cream being sold in Singapore that sounds strangely appealing. Los Angeles (perhaps unsurprisingly) seems to have a wide variety of wacky ice cream bars, serving flavours like coffee and Guinness and chocolate & wasabi, which I’d do a lot to get my furry little mitts on. And, of course, there’s a raft of mileage in fresh herbs and spices…basil ice cream, rosemary ice cream, cardamom and ginger ice cream…

JESUS I really need an ice cream maker.

The Hind’s Head (2) Monday, Jul 25 2011 

I have reviewed the Hind’s Head before, so to do so again arguably seems like a bit of a cheat, especially given that this area of Britain is truly a culinary epicentre (why review the same place again when there is so much more left to visit?). But I review again not without good reason. On my last visit, it was lunchtime and the service seemed haphazard despite there only being 3 of us. On this occasion we were a party of 8, and it was evening, so I was expecting a different experience all round (except, hopefully, for the quality of the food).

Thankfully there was not a shade of disappointment, the whole thing going off without a hitch (well, apart from the triple-fried chips not being available due to something about the quality or type of the potatoes at this time of year not being suitable).

The traditional British pies and puddings (steak and kidney; chicken and mushroom) served went down a treat all round the table, and the wine chosen to go with it all (a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile) was equally agreeable, although your best bet off the list is probably any Old World wine under £35. But the star of the show on this occasion was the desserts. Faced with a choice from the set menu of Banana Eton Mess versus the mysterious Quaking Pudding, the French contingent went for the latter. This mediaeval confection is best described as being like an English pannacotta, although perhaps not as firm. It’s called a “quaking pudding”, according to the information card that was brought with it, due to the fact that it “quakes and shakes like a jelly when it is served”. An unusual end to any meal!

However, as someone who ordered off the à la carte menu, I went for, on the recommendation of my sister, who had had it before, the equally intriguing Chocolate Wine Slush, and then proceeded to make myself look like a total piglet as I vacuumed it up. While my sister continued to poke daintily at its yumminess with a spoon, I had time to read the information that came with it. Chocolate wine was considered an aphrodisiac in the 18th century, and the chef has put his own modern twist on this by turning it into a shot glass of red wine slushy (the earliest recipe dates from 1694, and is a mousse-like granita known as scomigilia di ciocolatte, FYI). It came with the finest, most delicate slice of millionaire’s shortbread you have ever seen, topped with a flake of gold leaf.

My relationship with millionaire’s shortbread is a bit of a love-hate one; I see it and think “ooh, that looks nice” and then eat it and feel sick. This, however, has a level of refinement previously unknown to this humble dish, being thin and with an intensely concentrated flavour, rather than being over-sickly slabs. Truly, this, combined with the Chocolate Wine Slush, could be my Last Supper dessert and I would die HAPPY.

But perhaps more valuable to the Hind’s Head than my own assessment is the impression made on our French guests (of which two had never been abroad, let alone to England, and of which one could count the number of her UK visits on one hand). The two UK ‘virgins’ happily enjoyed every aspect of the British foodie experience, from the Hind’s Head food to the full English breakfast served at our home the morning after; my sister-in-law went one better, though, and claimed that the food at the Hind’s Head had ‘restored her faith in British cuisine’. CASE. CLOSED.

The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AB

tel: 01628 626151

The chocolate of the stars: Valrhona Saturday, Jun 4 2011 

As far as I’m concerned, if it’s good enough for the great Heston Blumenthal to use in his recipes (which he does), it’s definitely good enough for any home cook. Furthermore, it’s almost certainly among France’s best-kept secrets, despite having an international presence.

Founded in 1922, the shop and factory in the company’s birthplace of Tain l’Hermitage aim for and attract a curious mixture of tourists and world-class chefs: in spite of its Godiva-style price tags, the brand is one of the world’s foremost chocolate-makers, making ‘vintage’ chocolates from one single year of harvest from plantations in Madagascar, Trinidad and Venezuela.

Its dark chocolate is intense without being bitter, while its milk chocolate, too, has depth without being sickly. The range available is also staggering, providing something to suit every taste: as well as traditional dark and milk chocolates, there are ganaches and truffles, dark-chocolate enrobed slivers of orange peel, and chocolates flavoured with warm spices for those wanting something not only excellent, but a little bit different as well.

Even if you don’t want to splash out, you can still enjoy a Valrhona treat, with hot chocolate and chocolate sauce both coming in at under £10 (the latter under £5). If you visit the shop in Tain, you can also try before you buy, minimising the risk of wasting your cash. However, don’t make a spectacle of yourself by treating the shop like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

If you can’t make it to Tain, fear not – plenty of boutiques, online and in London, sell the stuff, so that all of your gastronomic needs can be met. Lamentably, I don’t work for them, and nor have I been sent any for free (…yet…), so I have to content myself with only occasional tastes of it (unless I feel like paying the Printemps’ extortionate prices in Paris). Probably better for my waistline all round, though.