Saturday, 25 August 2012

Tuscany Now - A Competition

I am entering a competition by Tuscany Now and we have to answer a question and post this answer on our blog.  The question is:- What is our favourite element of Tuscany? The prize is a stay for two in one of their villas in Tuscany.  

What is there not to love about Tuscany? Basically for me it was very hard to pin point my favourite elements.  But I thought I would list a few below:-

1. The happy feeling you get a you look around the countryside

2. The clean images everywhere - the undulating countryside

3. The fantastic cities:- Florence, the birthblace of the Renaissance, famous culture and history (Leoardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo) yet a vibrant city, friendly city today.

4. The Duomo (cathederal in most cities - Florence and Pisa for example)

5. Vibrant and alive street markets - we walked for hours around the markets of Florence heading to a local restaurant for refreshment between bargain hunting.

6. Food markets - only the freshest and seasonable ingredients for the Tuscan table - home or restaurant.

7. Definitely the food, the freshness and simplicity of it. Seasonal and imaginative yet enduringly simple.
But most of all:-

8. Stopping off for a refreshing Prosecco, staying for lunch, more Prosecco, and even more Prosecco and just watching the world go by from the comfort of a local streetside seat!

These are some of the things that I love about Tuscany but they are also things I love about Italy in general.  The people, the scenery, the culture, the food - the absolute Italian-ness!!!

All photos courtesy of Google images

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Vanilla for Bloggers - Bake with Eric Lanlard

When I was invited to attend a blogger's event in South London recently I jumped at the chance. Was it because it was put on by Neilsen-Massey the vanilla experts or was it the chance to meet and work with Eric Lanlard, well known pastry chef (patissier), author and bakery owner!  Would you believe me if I said both??

Vanilla is one of those things whereby just the smell of it sends you back to childhood memories of coming home after school to freshly baked cookies.  But never as a child did I give a thought to where it came from or how.  Vanilla was originally grown in Mexico but now the best is grown on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.  It is the fruit of an orchid and is harvested looking like long green beans.  The curing and processing turns it into the dark brown/black wrinkly pods we buy in our supermarkets.

Nielsen-Massey have been making vanilla extract on a commercial scale since 1907 using a cold extraction process at their processing plant in Illinois, USA to slowly and gently draw out the delilcate and distinctive flavour from the vanilla beans.

On our arrival at Cake Boy, Eric Lanlard's cookery school, bakery and cafe we were offered some cold, fizzy to drink which was extremely welcome on a hot humid August day and a selection of mini canapes and mini desserts that Eric had created for us, each one using vanilla in some way.

Eric Lanlard welcomed us and told us how he had become interested (slightly obsessed) with baking as a young boy living in his native France and how we spent years working for the Roux Brothers.

Eric then told us all about his discovery and love of Nielsen-Massey vanilla and his trip around the processing plant in Illinois.  We tried vanilla extract and vanilla paste (both available at most supermarkets) and were shown the difference in a cheap vanilla pod bought in a jar under a well know brand label and a Nielsen-Massey who produce rich, plump and sweet smelling vanilla pods.

After this Eric drew us closer to his work station and made a typical french cake, called a Fraisier because of the fresh strawberries used). During the demonstration Eric gave us lots of hints and tips such as making sure your eggs and butter are both at room temperature.  Then giving great attention to detail he assembled the Frasier which looked absolutely deliscious and extremely beautiful.

Beautiful strawberries from Kent

great attention to detail

the finished cake!!

I brought my copy of Eric's new book 'Tart It Up' with me and Eric was kind enough to sign it for me.


At the end of the event we were given a goodie bag filled with everything we would need to make a fine cake similar to the Fraisier and then Baking Mad (joint sponsor of the event) issued us with a challenge! Bake a cake using the ingredients in our goodie bag, blog about the cake and Eric Lanlard will read our blog, comment on it and then we will be judged by Eric to find a winner!  No pressure at all.

Some of the ingredients we will be using in our cake challenge

Do keep an eye on my blog to see the cake I submit for the challenge (it will be before the final date of 01 October 2012).  Better get started so I think I will infuse all my sugars with vanilla. Wish me luck!!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Brasserie Blanc - Restaurant Review

St Albans is becoming very popular with celebrity restauranteers and the latest newcomer to the block is Raymond Blanc.  Brasserie Blanc opens in St Albans on Verulam Road on Saturday 18 August 2012 and in anticipation of the opening they held a series of preview meals and invited locals to try it out, thus giving the staff plenty of real time and hands on training.

I was luck enough to be invited to enjoy a complementary meal with a friend with only drinks to pay for.  We were offered a lunchtime slot at 12:15 and considering the last celebrity restaurant pre-opening meal I attended was packed and poorly staffed I was hoping to be surprised this time.

When my friend and I got there there were only a couple of other tables seated and every 20-25 minutes another table of diners arrived.  Staggering the seating like this meant that the staff were able to look after us very well indeed. The style was very brasserie with long lines of tables, long bar and open view kitchen but was very contemorary and uncluttered.

The overall impression when we arrived was very welcoming and the staff were friendly, happy and eager to look after us.  I asked if I could take photos and proceeded to document our visit.

We were encouraged to try things on the menu by our waitress, Star, who proceeded to look after us very well.  The a la carte menu changes with each season. We tried the selection of nibbles - fresh bread and butter, olives, tapenade, balsamic reduction and a saffron mayonnaise.

and each ordered a starter.  I had the Hot Smoked Loch Duart Salmon, pickled cucumber and horseradish cream

and Val had Crispy Goat's Cheese Parcel, French Beans and Tomato Chutney. The tomato chutnes was rich and homemade and would make a lovely chutney to buy to take home in the future!

The starters ranged in price from £4.95 to £8.50 and side dishes from £3.10 to £3.75 and the Maman Blanc's Miscellany of Salads was £6.90 however this would make a great starter for two with some fresh bread.

Main courses were chosen from a very varied list (prices from £9.50 to £18.20) including a pasta dish, toulouse sausage mash and onion gravy, grilled scallop skewer through the list of fine steaks including Chateaubriand for two (£52.00).  I chose the olive Stuffed Chicken, Yellow Beans, Roast Tomato Sauce

and Val had Beef Stroganoff and Pilaf Rice.

We both enjoyed our main courses and even though we felt full at this stage were encouraged to try the dessert menu by our waitress!  I had the Chocolate Crumble - crispy chocolate biscuits and three layers of chocolateness to satisfy and sweet tooth

and Val had the Merangue with seasonal fresh fruit and homemade vanilla ice cream.

Our total bill came to just over £74.00 but as we were invited to a complementary meal we only paid £3.10 each for our drinks! 

We were not in a hurry and had a very leisurely lunch and were there just over two hours. I would certainly return to Brasserie Blanc and think it would make a great place for a special night out or the group of five girls (including myself) who eat out locally every couple of months.

I also suggested to the manager that it would be a great venue for a St Albans Blogger get together and they jumped at the suggestion.  I received an e-mail the next day thanking me for my visit and looking forward to my return visit.  I like that!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Charbonnel et Walker - Blogger Event

Last Thursday night I attended a blogger event at Carbonnel et Walker's Old Bond Street store.  Lovely to step into an air conditioned environment but the evening got better and better.  We were offered a glass of sparkling rose and a white chocolate truffel as we arrived.

A quick history of Charbonnel and Walker established in 1875 by Madame Charbonnel and Mrs Walker was given to us by the store manager including royal mistress rumours concerning the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Mme Charbonnel!

Mme Charbonnel used only fine, dark chocolate couverture which resulted in the finest texture giving an absolute silky smoothness on the palate.  This tradition is continued today with supreme quality achieved by using only the finest ingredients.  All their chocolates are hand finished and the truffles are hand rolled still.

Press clippings and photos from a bygone age
The drink was flowing and we were offered as many of these lovely beauties as we wanted, as well as white chocolate truffles and beautiful offerings from behind the cabinet.

Chocolate inside and out!
Dark chocolate with violet centres
Truffles along with two sumptious chocolate cakes (one dark and one white chocolate), peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies and chocolate inspired cupcakes.

Eating my cupcake once I got home with a coffee!
A yummy cocktail served in jam jars (very 'in' at the moment) and a goodie bag to take home completed the evening's immersion in chocolate heaven.

White rum with coconut and pineapple juice cocktail
You can visit Charbonnel et Walker on Twitter , Facebook  or buy online

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Visit Denmark

There is a part of Denmark in the UK at the moment.  St Katherine's Dock near Tower Bridge on the River Thames in London has been invaded by The Vikings! But they come in peace and they bring bacon.

125 years ago the first schooner left Copenhagen Denmark laden with bacon bound for the UK and it was the first of many shipments. This started our love affair with Danish bacon and continues today with Britain being the largest importer of bacon from Denmark followed by China.

Visit Denmark has put on a great chance to sample some of the interesting and indeed great tasting things about their country. For two weeks you can try their favourite Danish hot dog, visit a real Summer House and taste freshly made bread, board a replica of a real Viking ship and immerse yourself in Danish culture first hand.

I was invited along with a group of other bloggers to experience the finest that Denmark has to offer by visiting St Katherine's Dock last Tuesday.  There was a unit housing the Danish equivalent to ITV - TV2 who were covering the Olympics and they had a huge screen TV in the square and whilst we were there Denmark were competing in handball and suddenly the square was filled with Danes, both expats and visitors all cheering for their home team.

First of all we were treated to some steak and chips and it was explained to us by the chef of the evening how the beef was grass fed which helped to keep it tender (corn is not a natural food for beef and is harder for them to digest and you end up with tougher meet), how the marbling of the fat was important to the taste but I just know it tasted delicious! It was cooked a bit too rare for my personal preference but it proved to be so tender you could have cut it with a fork.  The creamy bernaise sauce on top was the perfect accomaniement. I even learned a trick or two how to make the perfect chip.

Following that we walked to the Summer House a beautiful exhibition of Danish design where we met Marie-Louise Risgaard who baked the freshly made bread sticks that we were offered along with a platter of things to dip into and a refreshing beer to go with it (Probably the most refreshing beer!)

Next a quick visit to a real Viking boat with oars and sails just as the origingal it was fashioned from 30 years ago.  An original viking barge was found in a fjiord 30 years ago and even though it was in rough condition it was possible to recreate it as close to the original as possible.

On the way back to the group I stopped off at the Hans Christian Andersen hut and entered into the spirit of the evening by having a Danish flag painted on the side of my face! You are never too old you know!

Our penultimate stop was at the Danish hot dog stand where we tried a traditional hot dog with all the sauces they would recommend for the perfect taste experience. Our hosts were very excited to know if we liked their favourite snack. And there was a resounding positive feedback!

And finally we stepped on board the schooner Maja for some traditional bacon and beer! Sounds like a good idea to me. This schooner left Denmark on the 4th of July 2012 laden with all the bacon and meat they would need for this festival and also a consignment of beer brewed especially for the imagination celebrations.  The beer, Skonnertol, comes in two strengths 4.8% and 8.0%!  We were offered a taste of these beers but as they were in limited supply not a whole bottle.  (There was of course loads of Carlsberg to drink!)

However I did manage to be offered a bottle of each of the beers to take home and cook something with them and then blog about the results!  I am thinking of a thick end of belly of pork marinated and then slow cooked - any suggestions? Keep checking back here to see what I come up with.