Tuesday 3 November 2015

Coffee Club: Inverness Coffee Roasting Co.

Origin: Inverness Coffee Roasting Company
Coffee: Sumatra Mandheling, Indonesia
Price (per 250g): £8.70  (incl. delivery)

This one was one of my picks, faced with an enormous list of coffee roasters in the UK and being unsure what to plump for, I plumped for the thrill of obscurity over reviews, and picked the United Kingdom's most northerly roaster.

What turned up was dark.  Deep, dark and punchy.  Almost too much so.  David and I were OK with it.  Not the best, but not the worst either.  I slightly felt that it had too much in common with the likes of instant coffee, or the cheap stuff you get out of paper filters in American diners.  It just felt over cooked.

But the others hated it.  Jono described it thusly (and, for all the Cyber Nats out there desperate to take me to town for these comments, they are his precise words and I take no responsibility for that): "This coffee is Alex Salmond – Scottish, simplistic, aggressive and leaves a bitter aftertaste. It may, however, suit its target market... This coffee's journey from Scotland to England suggests we are not Better Together."

Emily simply described it as "soil" and refused to be drawn any further, other than to give it a measly 3 out of 10.

Score: 4/10

PS: One other small gripe: I ordered cafetiere ground, and got whole beans.  Bit of a pain, that.  Not cool.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Coffee Club: Drop Coffee Roasters

Origin: Drop Coffee Roasters (Sweden), purchased at Prufrock Coffee
Coffee: Bourbon from Epiphany Muhirwa, Rwanda
Price (per 250g): £10.00

Let's start with the most important thing: This coffee is beautifully packaged.  The picture hardly does it justice, really – it has a whole look-feel that is just perfect for artisan coffee.  It was purchased from a café on Leather Lane, which is in the City of London but was described by one panellist as "the most Shoreditch place round here, I love it".  These words, whilst aimed at Leather Lane, perfectly describe the way this coffee has been put together, and indeed the café it was purchased from.

The initial hit is chocolate.  Drop Coffee's tasting notes say white chocolate, but I disagree – this is a Green & Black's standard milk chocolate – bitter, but still creamy and a hint sweeter than plain chocolate. Then there's a hit of nuts, like the scent and taste of chocolate coated almonds.    And digestive biscuits in there too.  The taste has a general acidity, which loses some points in my book (but gains them elsewhere), starting with red berries before merging into grapefruit.  But there is a lingering darkness that suggests it's perhaps a more full bodied cup than it first appears.  Finally, there is a definite bitter tang and an almost husky mouth-feel that wasn't keen on.

Jono was positive (in his usual style): "It's nice. The box is nice, the strength is nice, the biscuity aroma is nice, the depth is nice, the Belgian chocolatey aftertaste is nice. It depends what one thinks about things that are nice. It's nice to be nice."  Emily was similarly keen, noting "sweet toasted almonds, earthy undertones and an orangey twang at the end."

But this is another coffee that's travelled from afar, and paid the price (literally) for doing so.  At £40 per kilo, it's pricey and I'm just not sure good enough to warrant that price.

Score: 6/10

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Coffee Club: Thuong Hang (cat poop coffee)

Coffee: Not sure, but supposedly kopi luwak
Origin: Vietnam - bought by a colleague's mum whilst on vacation
Price (per 250g): Not sure.  Expensive.

In a sense, I can hardly say how excited I was to try this coffee.  Kopi luwak is, without doubt, one of the most well know, exclusive, talked about luxury coffees in the work.  It's also amongst the world's most expensive coffees, as it has to be consumed by the Asian palm civet (known locally as a 'luwak') and then excreted (known colloquially as 'pooped out') before being gathered, roasted, ground, brewed and drunk.  Needless to say, this makes for some pretty funky coffee.  It also makes for a coffee that has Veblen good status – i.e. whose value is almost only generated by being valuable.  This shit (pardon the pun) is expensive.

The thing is, it's also a bit rank.  Sorry, but it is.

The smell of the beans is (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) almost, but not quite, entirely unlike coffee.  It smells of something else, something artificial.  Pink wafers.  You remember those?  It smells of pink wafers – something which, once I had suggested it to the panel, everyone agreed on.  Once brewed this smell fades slightly but remains, pungent and lingering, annihilating much else.  But in the background there is something else, a distinctly earthy smell, vegetal - dare I say, like manure.  And there, too, is a treacle or unrefined sugar odour and a hint of something industrial, like rubber tyres.

The first thing you notice on drinking it, however, is the texture – not the taste.  This is an oily coffee – very smooth, but like Singaporean Kopi O, where the beans are roasted in margarine and sugar.  And it's thicker than normal coffee, even though it's been brewed with a cafetiere like everything else we've tried.  And it is black.  Jet black.  And dark.  All at once.

The taste is naturally quite sweet, but still with the bitter after tones we expect from coffee.  The biscuit flavour – and the pink wafer flavour – is still very much there.  There's also toasted almonds.  Does it taste of coffee?  I can hardly remember what coffee tastes like right now.  It's coffee, Jim, but not as we know it.  And not, I'm afraid, in a good way.

Score: 2/10

Caveat: Kopi luwak is really controversial, and with good reason.  What started as a coffee made from droppings found on the jungle floor is now an enormous industry.  Part of the justification for using coffee that's been pooped out by a civet cat is that the beastie is (supposedly) very discerning about what berries it eats, eschewing all but the ripest and brightest.  In a sense, therefore, luwak droppings are supposed to represent the very best of the best beans.  However, in the modern age and to keep up with enormous demand, luwaks are now kept in battery cages and force fed cheap beans that are then harvested.  SO (a) there's a pretty bad ethical thing going on here; and (b) the selective nature of luwak coffee is lost entirely.  So in summary what I guess I'm saying is that we just don’t know if what we've been drinking is any good at all.  So I am on the hunt for some ethically sourced luwak coffee that is affordable to see if it's any different and, if so, what's behind the buzz.

Monday 24 August 2015

Alcoholic Architecture

Back at school there was a rumour that if you snorted tequila you’d get much drunker much quicker but wouldn’t be sick and wouldn’t get a hangover.  I remember a guy called Ian trying it at a house party once with a bottle of Jose Cuervo, throwing up a lot shortly afterwards and looking decidedly ropey in the morning.  To be frank, I don’t think it was the nasally ingested liquor that did for Ian, I think it was more likely the Foster’s six pack from a local off licence and that he’d downed on an empty stomach as soon as he’d arrived and the half bottle of Lambrini he’d sunk over the next half hour with the girl he was trying to get off with.  But anyway, I digress – that was the first time I recall being (un)reliably informed that ingesting alcohol other than through your gob would have the desired, inebriating effect. 

It was also, until very recently, the last – and that comes as no surprise.  However, a couple of weeks ago an email dropped into my inbox informing me that someone else was giving this concept a go.
Of course, it was the chaps behind Bompas & Parr – whose projects range from a jelly version of Heathrow Terminal 5 to a cityscape of lost London architecture made out of biscuits by way of a Parliamentary Waffle House and a glow-in-the dark Cornetto – that are spearheading this.

Their latest project is called Alcoholic Architecture.  I am not entirely sure how to describe it – other than a room full of gin. 

I’ll explain.

Alcoholic Architecture is based in the former Banana Store restaurant (and, indeed, store) near Borough Market.  Avid readers of this blog may recall it as the location of my stag party, oddly enough, which is alas no more. 

Book your tickets (hurry to get the last few) and get there on time.  For health and sobriety reasons you are limited to an hour in the room (which actually works out as a lot less) so don’t be late.

A funny monk shows you inside, and you work your way into the belly of the building, through spookily lit and gothic-ly decorated corridors.

Soon you find yourself in the bar, having first donned a plastic mac.  Trust me, this is essential – you will get very damp otherwise. 

The drinks are rather predictably unpredictable.  I opted first for a Mystery Mead, a combination of mead (surprise surprise), antica formula, sweet vermouth, honey, lemon and rhubarb bitters.  Greg went for a gin and tonic, because he’s a little Tory like that – except here it’s made with frankincense-smoked gin (although it tasted, apparently, like a G&T).

Then you make your way into ‘the room’ - or cloud as they would (quite justifiably) have it.  This is the main attraction of the night. 

And cloudy it is.

Basically, it is a room full of gin.  By which I mean literally full of gin and tonic – a G&T mist, to be precise, made from Beefeater gin, concentrated tonic and spring water.  It’s then turned magically into a thick fog and pumped, in enormous volumes, into a small room.

It’s incredibly thick.  It’s sort of what I imagine old the London smogs that people talked about were like.  The room is – actually, I have no real idea how big the room is.  There seemed to be a lot of people in there, but there was no way of judging how long it was from one end to another because you cannot see from one end to another.  The fog is so thick, in fact, that you struggle to make out the big light installations at the other end of the room – the light itself becoming obscured by the mix. 

It’s a surreal experience.  No real concept of time or space or sound.  It’s pretty cool.

It’s also pretty damn tasty.  The idea is that you ingest the cocktail through your nose, mouth, lungs and – yes – the mucus coating of your eyeballs.  Your eyeballs.  This is eyeball-ingested booze.  But honestly, as you are there breathing it in you cannot avoid the taste.  It’s pretty tempting to start sucking it down, in fact, particularly once you get near the booze vent at the far end of the room.

We also had other drinks over the course of the night. 

I drank the Blasphemy to Nature – a cocktail of Buckfast (ahhh, Buckie – takes me straight back to Edinburgh University…), yellow chartreuse, lemon and egg white.  This was lovely – somehow strangely like a herbaceous, spiced old fashioned – but not really.  Very good.  Greg had the Monk-y Business, a sort of daiquiri made with Old Monk Rum that left it tasting very sweet – almost toffee-like.

And, to finish off, a couple of shots.  Whilst Greg went for the whiskey based shots, mine was a mix of Campari and Frangelico – so bitter liqueur and hazelnuts, a superb (if innovative) combination.

As a word of warning, you do not get the advertised hour – not even close – as you don’t get into the bar, let alone the fog room, until about ten / fifteen minutes after the hour you’ve booked, and the call for last orders in about twenty minutes before the end of the booking – and you’re bundled our pretty sharpish after that, so in all it’s about 40 minutes.  Still, I’m not sure you need much longer that, to be honest.  And, crucially, it’s a great, fun and different thing to do.  Genuine innovation in an age of ubiquitous bars performing the same tricks to the same tunes.  Well done, chaps. 

I would definitely recommend giving this one a try.  Just remember to do as the sign says...

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Gizzi Erskine's Healthy Appetite

So, I have a new book.  Let me tell you how I got it.
Let me try to paint a little picture.
Last week, I found myself in a restaurant – well, more of a pub – up in Islington, with GrubsterGirl.  We were there as part of a book launch for a new tome generated by a celebrity chef, which is all very well and good and exciting.  As we were sat, waiting for the first course to appear, someone from the kitchen came over to talk to GG about an allergy issue – basically a message had not been passed from front of house to the kitchen that GG has a mild nut allergy. 
It was quite a squeeze in said pub and, due to the way the tables were arranged, I had my back to the chef who was talking to us and it would have been a pain to turn around.  Anyway, it was GG’s conversation and she was handling it.  No need to get involved.
However, I can hear that the chef talking to us is obviously pretty worried – who wouldn’t be worried about cooking for someone suffering nut allergies, mild or not – and is bending over backwards to try to deal with the situation.
And slowly it dawns on me.  We are here for Gizzi Erskine’s book launch.  We are having supper cooked for us by the author of that book.  The person talking to us from the kitchen must therefore be…
I twizzle myself round in my chair, awkwardly, to look up at the person towering above me.  It is.  It’s Gizzi frickin’ Erskine.  And she’s talking to my wife about how she’s going to tailor-make a meal for her, with no warning.
Call me some loser fanboy if you like, I don’t care – that’s pretty damn cool.
So where are we again?  The Draper’s Arms, that’s where, in deepest darkest Islington, near Angel.  It’s actually a very nice pub, in very nice little residential streets.  Gizzi Erskine has a new book out, called Gizzi’s Healthy Appetite, and we managed (through pure fluke, I might add – this is no sponsored post) to bag a couple of seats at a meal she was cooking to showcase some of the highlights.

Note to self: Biscuits with my face / book (which I have never written) printed on them = Ultra Cool.

But enough mucking around, we came for the food so here it is.

First course was a sort of appetiser course.  First dish out was walnut bagna cauda.

Bagna cauda, for those of you who don’t already know what it is (okay, I too had to look it up) is a Piedmontese dish – a sort of warm dip often eaten like a fondue.  In this instance it was served with crudités (always reminds me of the line in The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard: "Crudités! Perfect title for a pornographic revue.") which were made from wonderfully fresh, high quality veg.  I thought this dish was absolutely amazing – I was a bit concerned that it would taste a bit like the walnut equivalent of peanut butter (if there is such a thing) but not even remotely.  The fact that it was warm really added something as well.  Rich and more-ish.  Very nice.

Then we were presented with little bowls of stuff.  Dill, peeled baby prawns, pickles and a boiled egg, quartered. 

Minutes later jugs of bright purply-pink ooze appeared and we were asked to fill our bowls.  Which we dutifully did.

This was chłodnik.

What, you don’t know what chłodnik is either?  Dear oh dear.  I’ll tell you.  It’s a soup.  Specifically, it’s a Polish soup made with beetroots and buttermilk, served cold.  It’s also bloody delicious.  Looking at the recipe in the book, it seems pretty simple too and is wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer’s night.  Actually, flicking through the recipe book last night I was thinking: there's a lot here I want to make.  Chłodnik is just one of those things.

Next course was a medley of three dishes, everything arriving at the table on large plates to be eaten ‘family style’ as they say in the United States. 

The first to arrive was Thai roast duck with watermelon salad. 

It’s difficult (nay, impossible, says I) not to like this dish.  I bloody love watermelon salad, so it basically boded well from the start, but this was executed perfectly.  I loved the effect of sweet, refreshing watermelon balancing out the rich, fatty duck.  I’ve always liked duck with fruit sauce but always erred for sharp fruits, such as redcurrants.  I would never have thought of using sweet fruit but it worked an absolute treat.

Next out was crispy chicken with spiralized vegetable noodle salad and satay sauce.

GrubsterGirl got her special food mountain plate, due to her allergies, which was pretty sweet.

Very good, the noodle salad nicely dressed to pair well with the crispy chicken.  Great satay sauce. 

Then the ceviche.

OK, I admit it, this is a completely awful picture.  Sorry about that.  Basically, I missed this coming out (too busy stuffing my face with the first two excellent dishes) and by the time it got round to me the dish had basically be destroyed.  Which is a shame because, from other pictures I’ve seen, it was pretty good looking. 

Fortunately, there are some dishes you cannot spoil with bad looks.  This was one.  I bloody loved this.  The raw fish was marinated in yuzu, sesame and kumquat (finally answering a question I have been asking all my life – what are those little orange things for, other than making rank Corfiot liqueurs?).  Also in there was sweetcorn and avocado in there too and it was topped with coriander, basically making sure that all of my favourite flavours were mixed up into this one, fantastic dish.  I will be making this at home, for sure. 

So that was the first course, top marks.

Now onto the mains. 

Merguez shepherd’s pie…

…and fish stew.

Starting with the fish stew.  Very nice, if not my favourite dish of the day (but then, I’m not a huge fish eater).  A medley of fish, including some beautifully tender and tasty baby squid and some clams.  The sauce was basically the very traditional bouillabaisse Provençal (flavoured with fennel and saffron), which goes so well with fish and brings out all those salty, seafoody flavours.  There was also orzo (little, rice-like pasta) in there too, although to be honest it was a bit lost on me.

Then the Shepherd’s pie.  I have to be honest, at the time I was not really sure what makes this particularly ‘merguez’.  I thought merguez were those spicy sausages you get in Morocco (in fact, I know they are, having eaten them there).  But who cares, it was still pretty damn tasty - and, having checked, the stuffing is a mix of slow roasted lamb shoulder and merguez sausages. 

The topping was an interesting choice - cauliflower mash.  Now, if I’m honest, this doesn’t have the same consistency and unctuous-ness (Is that a word? It is now.) that good old mash has – it’s a bit looser, a bit less rich and starchy.  But it still works – and not just that, it’s still good.  In fact, it’s a much healthier yet still tasty equivalent.  Think semi-skimmed rather than full-fat milk – ok, sure, it’s not got the same wow factor, but it’s basically just as nice with much less fat.

By now, we were feeling pretty well fed.  There were a few words spoken, and Gizzi made a little speech talking about the food and what the book was trying to achieve – healthy eating without all the fad diets.  I thought she’d managed that quite well, with what I think sounds a fairly sensible approach – little changes and big flavours, which is a much  more manageable attitude. 
Then she said something great:  “It’s all been healthy… well, except for dessert.”


So, yes, pudding was pretty dirty.  In a good way.

Waffles, topped with roasted bananas, pineapple jam, and a chilli and honey butter.  The bananas were cooked ‘Foster’, which means flambéed with butter and sugar, which is just brilliant.  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m sure, I generally don’t go in for hot puddings, preferring a scoop or two of sorbet at the end of a big meal.  But I am more than happy to make an exception for a dish like this.  The hot, caramelly bananas , with their sticky sweetness and background sharp twang that they take on when cooked, transported me back to the cadet camps and bonfire nights of my youth.  This was decadence in a pudding. 

What a meal.  At the end each diner was given a copy of the book, signed by the author and head chef. 

Meeting Gizzi (again?) was pretty cool.  Turns out, she’s a really lovely person.  They say don’t meet your heroes and I think it’s too often true.  That's not true of Gizzi – she's warm, friendly and welcoming.  Which is a lovely way to end a meal.

So yes, I have a new book.  And that was the story of how I got it.

It’s signed and everything.