Category: Food

Basqueing in the late summer sun

Basqueing in the late summer sun

This blog has decamped to France, so you are now reading Une Petite Vie Francaise or something like that. No doubt I’ve got the gender wrong and I’m certainly lacking a cedilla because I can’t find it on this computer keyboard. Sticklers among you will now be saying well that’s very nice for some, but what has this got to do with London which is supposed to be the blog’s USP. The answer to that perfectly reasonable question is not much, barely anything, but not absolutely nothing if I’m allowed to veer off into the double negative.

We are staying in Biarritz which is set deep in the heart of Basque Country. I know it’s Basque Country because I’ve discovered a desert called Gateau Basque. This is a pleasant cake-like thing made from ground almonds (probably) and in the case of the one I’m wading through right now, is stuffed with cherry jam. It may not be up there with the great French dishes such as Bouillabaisse or coq au vin but I seem to be able to eat it quite happily for breakfast, then as a desert for lunch and supper. Say what you like about Gateau Basque, it’s versatile.

Biarritz was once popular with the Beau Monde who came here to gamble and party, particularly in the early part of the last century. There is still a grand casino, large Art Deco hotels and wide sandy beaches which are now sought after by surfers rather than the crowned heads of Europe.

Come the sixties the better weather in Nice and the attraction of Brigitte Bardot and her ilk meant the money moved a little further South East to the Mediterranean and away from the more stormy pleasures of the Atlantic seaboard.

Miremont Biarritz
Miremont Café Biarritz

For breakfast we ventured, en famille, to a rather grand cafe called the Miremont. On the outside window there is a photograph of King Alfonso XIII visiting the Miremont with his ‘young’ wife. I’m not fully boned up on Alfonso V13, nor entirely sure which country benefited from his beneficent rule, but it looks to me like this might be Mrs King II, or the younger trophy wife.

The maitre d’, told us proudly that Biarritz was once the ‘Queen of resorts and the resort of Kings’ and that it was once said that at teatime there were ‘fewer pastries than Queens and fewer rum babas that Grand Dukes’.

Well the Preens are not easily intimidated, so barging a few Barons out of the way and treading a couple of Earls underfoot, we made our way to our table. The thing about mixing with The Quality is that it doesn’t come cheap. The creamy rich cafe au lait came in at €5.90 a pop while the croissants were a bank busting €2.20 and the daughter’s orange juice or fruit presse was €6.60. But Grand Dukes don’t complain about l’addition and neither do the Preens when the food is this yummy.

The Miremont prides itself on its ‘cosy charm and grand style’ which is a tricky combination to pull off. As we are leaving the maitre d’, who the daughter described rather unfairly as an old goat (vielle chevre), told us that King Edward VII, used to stay every year at the Hotel De Palais, while ‘remaining faithful to the Miremont’s confections’ and of course remained faithful to the wife who cost him the throne. We were also shown the Royal Coat of Arms that was bestowed on the Miremont by Queen Victoria who apparently used to send Albert down to pick up the buns.

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Green-fingered Mrs Preen is responsible for a bumper crop in our modest market garden this year. I guess the industrial strength sunshine may have helped a bit too.

Favourable Spring weather, meant the tomato plants went in early and as you can see from the pictures, we are overwhelmed by the little beauties.

The cucumber plant we call the chicken plant; it lays a new cucumber every day. They sprout so fast, I swear you can see them growing.

Peppers are tricky in our temperate climate and we are only growing them this year because we were gifted a free plant, but as we now live in what seems like Southern California rather than Southern London we have four incubating.

We are growing broad beans following a project management cock up at the highest level. Mrs Preen meant to order runner beans, but because of an administrative error scored broad beans instead. Now I love a broad bean as much as the next man, but they are tricky to grow and are suffering as they went unwatered for a week while we were away. The poor loves seem to be bouncing back, but broadly speaking, there’s not much bean action.

The only ne’er-do-well, lazy backsliders in our garden are the strawberry plants. Beautiful, healthy looking specimens they may be, but totally unencumbered by any fruit. Shape up strawberries, or you’ll be ripped up by the roots. It’s survival of the fittest round our way.

Shop Local

Shop Local

Our neighbourhood is fenced in by Brixton Road, Clapham Road, South Lambeth Road and Wandsworth Road all of which fetch up either at Oval or Vauxhall. Lots of roads, but no Hight Street; no banks and no big destination stores, but what we do have are great independent shops.

Use ‘em or lose ‘em may be a cliché, but when it comes to retail it’s quite literally true. Shop local because if you don’t, what do you get? More boarded up buildings, more chicken nugget boutiques and yet more bookies. That’s a future we can do without.

So here are three local shops for your consideration: Max & Melia, Blissett’s and Mimi’s Deli. I took a stroll round to all three and asked the owners why people should pay them a visit.

Max & Melia

  • 16 Clapham Rd SW9 0JG
  • Opening Hours
  • Tuesday to Thursday: 1030am-7pm
  • Friday and Saturday: 1030am-6pm
  • Monday and Sunday: Closed

Max & Melia is a gift shop; go in for a card and pick up a present. The owners have a terrific eye for quirky gifts, so while there are plenty of scented candles, greetings cards, and a rather fine Queen & Corgi salt and pepper set, you will also discover ‘shabby chic’ antiques. The owners scour auctions and markets for the unusual and idiosyncratic. They don’t claim to be antique experts, but they buy what they love, and they know what their customers want.

M&M opened its doors in November 2012 and originally intended selling furniture and other bigger homeware items, but customers started calling it the Little Oval Gift Shop, so that’s what it became.

Maxine, one of the owners, makes the point that what they offer is personal service. Come in a few times and you’ll be greeted by name, made to feel welcome and offered informed suggestions as to what you might want to buy.

The shop has just won a prestigious award. Battling against other top independent outlets from across London they received a Greats Award and were named ‘Independent Gift Retailer of the Year’.

They are dog-friendly (they own two), they have goods from all over the world, but they are on our doorstep so: think global and shop local.

Blissett’s

  • 32 Brixton Road SW9 6BU
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Friday: 8.30am-5.30pm
  • Saturday: 8.30am-4pm
  • Sunday: Closed

Google Blissett’s hardware store and the reviews are spot on:

  • Super helpful staff, good range of stock and fair prices.
  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff and an Aladdin’s cave of fantastic products.
  • Excellent DIY shop with very helpful staff.

Blissett’s is no new kid on the block. It was a building firm after the war employing some 27 men and was bought by the current owners’ Dad in 1981, who decided to retain the name but turn it into a builder’s merchant.

When asked why people should visit their shop, personal service and advice was again high on the agenda. While they still supply builders, many of their customers are now householders doing DIY. I can vouch for this as over the years I’ve sought their advice and products. My wife thinks I’m best at DNY (Do Nothing Yourself) but with their help, I struggle on.

Interestingly, they mentioned that many of their customers don’t have cars and so won’t venture farther afield to say B&Q but would rather use Blissett’s because it’s convenient and just a walk away.

They have a wide range of products which they claim are often cheaper than when sold over the internet and if a customer wants something they don’t have in stock they do their best to have it for them the next day.

Mimi’s Deli

  • 2 Brixton Rd SW9 6BU 
  • Opening Hours
  • Monday to Saturday 8am-5.30pm
  • Sunday 9am-3pm

Mimi’s has just been spruced up with some rather slinky designs of an elegant woman (is it Mimi?) drinking coffee. Any why wouldn’t she, the coffee is great in this extremely popular family run shop that is both deli and café.

Pop in for lunch or pick up something to take home. In our house their home-made pesto Genovese combined with their fiery chili pasta is always a winner. And my daughter wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention their legendary cannoli.

The café seats 20 people and is ideal for lunch with all the food being prepared in their downstairs kitchen. There’s a full menu every day which includes Italian classics such as pasta and pesto, lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese.

The shop has been a deli for more than thirty years with the present owners taking over in 2009. The financial crash saw off most of our specialist food stores so it’s a delight that Mimi’s has survived and thrived. As with the other shops I visited they pride themselves on giving their customers ‘that special, extra attention that you don’t get from chain stores’.

Mimi’s Deli: It’s our little bit of Italy on the Brixton Road.

You may already use these fine, welcoming establishments, but don’t leave it too long until your next visit.

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

There are restaurant premises on Clapham Road close to Oval tube that have seen many manifestations and make-overs. In our 18 years of living in the neighbourhood it’s been: The Lavender, Oval Lounge and now we have a new eatery: 24 The Oval.

The new owners took possession of the property at the back end of last year and we all expected it to be open for the busy Christmas period, this didn’t happen. The place obviously took a long time to refurb and only opened earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time but finally got around to it when Mrs Preen and I visited last Wednesday.

I walk past the restaurant most days with the dog on the way to Kennington Park and had checked the menu. I was concerned it all looked a little pricey, certainly more so than the previous incarnations I’ve mentioned, plus I wasn’t seeing many patrons.

So, I was surprised when I called to make a booking for 8pm to be told there was nothing available until later in the evening. On our arrival I couldn’t have been more wrong about the lack of punters, the place was heaving.

The long refurbishment must have more to do with the kitchens and the elements not on display as the interior doesn’t look so different. It’s all pleasantly woody with flowers and plants giving it a charming country kitchen atmosphere. Strangely the music was very loud and given all the reflective surfaces of glass and wood, conversation proved a little difficult, but almost as soon as we’d sat down someone dialled down the sounds and chat commenced.

One their website 24 style their approach as ‘old fashioned, modern British cooking’. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the menu is gratifyingly small and there were many dishes I would have been happy to order. While we were waiting, we were brought a yummy cheese fondue with savoury choux buns as a taster.

Deciding not to go for starters, my wife ordered the Roasted Skate, Jerusalem Artichokes and Rainbow Chard (£16). I opted for the very fishy mix of BBQ Monkfish, Smoked Mussels, Salsify and Seaweed (19). I’m not going to come on like a MasterChef judge and give you chapter and verse as to what was right and wrong with the dishes, largely because that’s way beyond me, but I will say both dishes were consumed with gusto and pronounced excellent.

Just one caveat, while the last thing we wanted were huge US-style portions, both dishes were a little on the small side. The Skate wing was more the size of a budgerigar wing; perhaps portion control could ease up a bit.

I had Treacle Tart and Ice Cream to finish, because I’m incapable of not ordering treacle tart if it’s on the menu.

Add in three glasses of house red wine (perfectly drinkable) a side order of Triple Cooked Chips and the bill came to a pretty reasonable £69.

A couple of other things to add: My wife is Coeliac and has to have a gluten free diet, this was speedily arranged with no fuss. There is a Tasting Menu which comes in at £38.50 per person, but best of all 24 is a dog friendly establishment.  A large silver haired mutt of indeterminate breed sat behind us beneath its owner’s table.

This looks like a really welcome addition to our neighbourhood which is not blessed with many fine eateries. A return visit to 24 is definitely on the cards, but next time with Bucket.

Nicking Milk

Nicking Milk

In March we started getting milk delivered to our door the old-fashioned way, in glass bottles. Just trying to do our (micro) bit in the war against plastic. Now some little bastards are nicking it right off our door step.

Milk & More deliver in the early hours and as the More would suggest they go beyond just moo juice. On Friday we ordered their Breakfast Bundle which includes eggs, bacon, juice and two pints. At first, we thought the delivery hadn’t been made but no, it was looted.

Today we ordered one pint of full-fat and one semi-skimmed. Both bottles, drained of milk, were left on the wall in front of our house as a big fuck you to our family.

I’ve cancelled all orders until we find some sort of secure delivery box. So, thanks to those hard bastards who nick milk (#massivelegends) we don’t get our milk, Milk & More lose orders and we go back to buying plastic.

Update 1: Milk & More have refunded the cost of our Breakfast Bundle. #goodguys

Update 2: An old friend reminded me of the 1970s milk ad: ‘Watch out there’s a Humphrey about’. It was a bit of nonsense from Unigate about someone trying to snaffle your pinta. They even got Muhammad Ali on board. 

Recipe corner: Jim’s Kickin’ Chicken

Recipe corner: Jim’s Kickin’ Chicken

When it comes to cooking, I’m not really an improviser, not a jazz cook, I don’t slosh in a bit of this and a bit of that to see what culinary delight might occur, I just do what Jamie Oliver says. If I don’t, the result will likely be a congealed mess stuck to the bottom of a pan.

A few years ago, I was given the Heston Blumenthal cook book; it was like doing GCSE chemistry and about as much fun. And what is the point of cooking chips three times?

But on Tuesday of this week, there was revolution in the air. I actually made up a dish. The wife had said, there’s some chicken thighs and a couple of courgettes in the fridge, see what you can rustle up. So, I did and it was not a complete coq-up. Certain members of the family (the daughter) who are not slow to criticise dad, went so far as to say it was quite good.

With that kind of full-throated endorsement ringing in my ears I thought I’d share this ground- breaking concoction with you.

So here it is: Jim’s Kickin’ Chicken

The ingredients:

  • Chicken thighs 500 grams
  • 2 courgettes
  • Can of tomatoes (not sliced)
  • Half an onion
  • Harissa Paste
  • Plain Yoghurt
  • Fresh coriander
  • Basmati rice 250 grams

First up, scoop some harissa paste into a largish glass bowl. I wasn’t paying much attention here, so how much harissa paste I’m not sure – let’s say a couple of good dollops. Open the yogurt pot and ladle in a similar amount and mix thoroughly with the harissa. Now put the chicken in among the gloop and smear all over. This is quite messy but acts as a good moisturiser if your skin is a little dry.

Pour a squirt of olive oil into a frying pan and braise (is that the right word?) the chicken thighs; this should take three or four minutes. Don’t make the pan too hot, otherwise the chicken and its gloop will burn. Once done take the chicken thighs out of the pan and put them where the dog can’t get at them.

Get the frying pan going again – hang on I’ve forgotten to tell you to put the oven on, so do that now to say 175 degrees, no idea what that would be if you were using gas. Once the olive all in the pan is spitting a bit, slice in half an onion, cook for five minutes and then add the sliced courgette and then cook for another five. Don’t slice the courgettes too thin or they’ll turn to mush.

Now you need a lidded pot that you can put in the oven, I’m thinking stew pot here. Put the chicken in the pot along with the onions, courgettes and all the gloop, add the tin of toms and half a can of water. Season with pepper and salt and heat it all up on the stove.

I once heard Jamie Oliver say that sliced canned tomatoes were very bitter and it was better to always use unsliced. I have no idea if this is true, but I follow this rule religiously and actually look down on people who buy sliced tomatoes.

Once all the ingredients in the pot are hot (perhaps you can see the liquid bubbling a bit) give it all a good stir, pop on the lid and ram it in the oven. Leave it there for around an hour, stirring occasionally. (Don’t let it dry out, perhaps it might be better to cook for slightly longer at 150 degrees. Look I’m not the expert here)

By now you will be getting hungry so put on the basmati rice, this is the stuff that doesn’t take too long to cook. Chop up the coriander, take the pot out of the oven and sprinkle the chopped coriander over the contents, giving a final stir and checking whether you need more salt. Dish up and graciously accept the praise that your guests will be heaping upon you as they heap second helpings on to their plates.

Of course, I have a sneaking suspicion that when I try this dish again it will all turn to ashes, but we live in hope. Do let me know how you get on.

Asian food is everywhere, but there’s something missing

Asian food is everywhere, but there’s something missing

Asian food is everywhere in London with Thai Green Curry fast replacing Chicken Tikka Masala as our national dish. Ten years ago, we didn’t know our Pho from our Tom Yum, now your local pub probably has them on the menu.

I lived in Thailand for 8 years and love cooking Thai food, but frankly what passes for Thai food in the UK is often industrially produced rubbish with a lot of it not really Thai, but an unlovely mix of Thai, Chinese and Malaysian cooking. What is sold as Pad Thai is often just a gloopy mess. Part of the problem is that restaurants find it hard to source all the essential Thai ingredients. Thai aubergines are not so easy to come by in London town.

One small London restaurant chain that does quite a reasonable Som Tam or papaya salad is Rosa’s Thai Café. (Som Tam is the benchmark dish for me, if they get that right I’m in) I’ve been to their restaurants in Spitalfields, Soho and Brixton and while not perfect, their food is recognisably Thai. Try their pork grapou, som tam and gai ped met ma muang or chicken and cashew nuts.

If you fancy a try at cooking Thai then most supermarkets carry the essentials:  fish sauce, galangal, lemon grass and green curry paste. It’s also worth a trip to the Longdan supermarket on Kingsland Road, which specialises in ingredients from all over Asia and the Orient. They even have Thai aubergines on occasions. It’s open on a Sunday so you can combine a visit to Columbia Road flower market.

I also highly recommend all Blue Elephant products, particularly their Massaman curry paste. These are now available in the UK.

So what’s missing? Well there’s one essential element of Thai, Cambodian and Laos cuisine, that hasn’t made it over here: fried bugs. Stroll past Asian street-food sellers and there’s usually a wok full of deep-fried crickets, grasshoppers, worms and beetles. For some reason we are quite happy to eat prawns, which are just aquatic bugs but not so keen on eating their land-based brothers. Asian’s enjoy these delicacies as a snack food combined with a beer rather in the way we eat nuts or crisps with a chilled lager.

I have a feeling it’s going to be an uphill struggle to make these snacks popular here, but in many ways, they should be. As we attempt to feed an ever growing world population, bugs have a lot going for them. They are full of protein with little fat or calories, are easy and cheap to raise and require little technology to do so. They are a far more sustainable food source than livestock, which accounts for nearly a fifth of all green-house gas emissions, plus they’ll eat almost anything.

Still not convinced? Westerners find bugs hard to swallow, but would you eat an energy bar made with extracted bug protein? The people at Eat Grub clearly hope you will and are out to convince you that bugs are a sustainable, nutritious and above all delicious source of food.

But if bug related food is not your thing, go and buy a pack of Blue Elephant Thai green curry paste, some strips of chicken, jasmine rice, a bottle of fish sauce, substitute peas for Thai aubergines and you’ll have a feast of your hands.

The best Thai food in London is often served at our house, but I’m afraid we don’t have room for you all.