How excited was I when I found out my sister Stephanie was coming to England for a business trip? And how double excited was I to learn she was staying a few extra days to hang out with me on the farm?
It’s really hard to believe she was only here a week. Like all of our adventures, be it at home, on a road trip in California, or on a holiday in New Orleans, we manage to pack in huge amounts of activity, lots of which involves food. At one point during our trip, on yet another grocery expedition, I asked her, “what would happen if we lived together?”
“Weigh 500 pounds,” she laughed.
But would we? This is where I start feeling grateful for the distance. I probably spend way more quality time with my sister now than ever before, simply because we really take advantage of the brief time we have together. And of course, the fact that she had a very successful work trip, coupled with completing her MBA, added to the necessary celebration that came with her arrival.
I find that visits like these are best summarised in a series of lists. So here a few long-winded lists from our food adventures, followed by some trip notes. And if you’re not burnt out after reading all of that, check out the epic photoset on Flickr.
Foodie People and Places We Visited
- The Weighbridge Inn, home of the famous two-in-one pies, and my latest restaurant review assignment for Food Mag (free lunch score!)
- Arbutus Restaurant in London for a three course pre-theatre meal deal prior to Phantom of the Opera
- Arabica in Borough Market for falafel
- Wine Pantry at Borough Market for some terrific English white wine
- Neils Yard Diary at Borough Market for some cheese tasting and a wedge of Spenwood Ewe’s Cheese
- Mario and Francesco Prati’s Tartufaia Truffles at Borough Market, one of the ingredients in our ravioli trifecta
- Rave Coffee for a fantastic tour, chat and flat white with owner Rob
- Shipton Mill for chestnut flour, another ingredient for our chestnut pasta
- Wiltshire Chilli Farm at Malmesbury Farmer’s Market for purple jalapenos, a key ingredient for giardiniera; also picked up some chilli jam, cranberry chilli chutney and mango hot sauce the guy’s a good salesman!
- Demuths Restaurant in Bath for a pre-Thermae Bath Spa lunch, punctuated by Homewood Cheeses’ fantastic pickled ewes milk cheese, served in a watermelon salad
Food We Cooked
- Chestnut Pasta 1 – Our first attempt, using a recipe made with chestnut flour. Not quite right. A good pasta, but it didn’t have the same dark quality or nuttiness as Pian di Martes.
- Chestnut Pasta 2 – Our second attempt, using a recipe that used chestnut puree and whole wheat flour. Closer in colour, but not the right texture. In fact, it was a bit of a mush.
- Homemade Ricotta – Made this on multiple occasions during the visit, particularly for the chestnut pasta.
- Blackberry & Plum Jam – Roughly followed technique in my Book of Preserving by Sonia Allison (just 1p on Amazon!). Cut sugar by 32%. Used 590g fruit, half blackberries half plums (by weight), 400g caster sugar, squeeze of lemon juice, spoonful of water worked really well. Set like a dream. Could go even less sugar next time. Wonder how long it will keep.
- Roast figs in Filo Pastry – Another Stephanie masterpiece. These were delicious with creme fraiche and a drizzle of honey and pistachio.
- English muffins – Made with 25% Shipton Mill organic wholemeal and 75% No 4. flour. They were REALLY easy and turned out like a dream, smelling so delicious! A couple revelations were the whipped egg white in the recipe, and baking them on a stove top. Stephanie packed a few to bring home; Mom claims they “were the best I EVER tasted…. loved them!”
- Hollandaise – Stephanie makes the most terrific “blender hollandaise”. A good excuse for her to experience the Vitamix!
- Pickled jalapenos – Stephanie sent Monica the recipe and it demanded we turn some of my Wiltshire Chilli Farm purple jalapeno haul into pickled jalapenos. The recipe was intriguing, with garlic, bay leaf, and pink peppercorn. I used a mix of pink and black peppercorns which added a nice effect. Their flavour seems to be improving with age, with the bay leaf really coming through (pleasantly).
- Pita Bread – Made with wholemeal flour instead of my usual spelt.
- Tabbouleh – Monica forgot the mint, but it was still good. Made with curly parsley on Stephanie’s suggestion. Good call it makes for a nice, fluffy tabbouleh.
- Baked falafel – These were really good; we both agreed we’d make them again.
- Tzatziki – We made this with Total 0% fat Greek yogurt and agreed it would have been better with full fat. But once we had it slathered on falafel with a bunch of other goodies, we didn’t mind the fat freeness, and really enjoyed its dilly goodness.
- Hummus – Stephanie made this and we both agreed it was pretty darn good the ground cumin really added a special flavour that we would definitely use again.
- Giardiniera – Made with Wiltshire Chilli Farm’s purple jalapenos and fresh oregano which we reckon made a difference. Only complaint: could have been spicier.
- Vanilla Ice cream – Used half cream, half whole milk (instead of all cream), which was noticeably less rich than normal ice cream, but nice with the uber rich chocolate lava cake.
- Chocolate Lava Cakes – Stephanie’s masterpiece; I’d never had this before and it was a delight with the vanilla ice cream and blackberry plum jam. We had to use 70% chocolate because we couldn’t find 60% as called for; this may have accounted for the not-so-flowy lava effect from the chocolate center. Still fantastic.
- Zucchini Bread – Used 350g sugar instead of the 450g that was called for. Made this on the morning of Stephanie’s departure for her to take on the plane (had to cool the loaf in a rack on the car en route to the airport). Mom said the bread is “amazing, just the right amount of sweetness” but she may just have been being nice.
New Food Experiences and Learnings
- Making homemade pasta, specifically, chestnut pasta, a food we’re trying to perfect after a delicious pasta dish had at Pian di Marte agriturismo during our Italy trip in November 2010. After two so-so attempts with recipes found on the internet, Stephanie finally asked Pian di Marte how they did on their Facebook page. Turns out, the recipe has been on Pian di Marte’s blog all along: Tagliatelle con farina di castagne, zucca e salsiccia. Note to self: if looking for a recipe based on a meal had in a foreign country, search for the recipe in that country’s language!
- Uchiki kuri (aka “red onion”) squash is damn good roasted, firm and nutty, less sweet than butternut
- Granny Smith is the best apple for a cheese plate (over Jazz, Golden Delicious, and Royal Gala; also pear).
- Crispy shallots are really good, especially in a butter and sage sauce, and especially served with homemade chestnut ravioli.
- English muffins are cooked on a pan (not in the oven).
- Black truffles are really really potent (we already knew this, but it took eating them in chestnut pasta ravioli to really understand how potent they are).
- Swaledale cheese, a new cheese to Stephanie and a mutual favourite amongst the many cheese we tried throughout the week (including Homewood Cheeses’ pickled ewes cheese, Spenwood sheep’s cheese, good ol’ Waitrose strong cheddar and an impulsively purchased Cornish Yarg).
- Poached egg in soup is a nice idea. Had this with a potato soup at Arbutus. Very nice.
- Truffle oil isn’t necessarily made with truffles; some are made using synthetic chemicals (an abomination!). Stephanie clued me into this after I was telling her about how awesome white truffle oil is (“smell it!”). Eluminating article in New York Times: Hocus-Pocus, and a Beaker of Truffles.
- Stephanie’s first flat white, expertly prepared by Rob at Rave Coffee.
- Speaking of Rave Coffee, I also learned a ton from Rob about home roasting and coffee in general. For example, I’ve probably been roasting my coffee too hot. I need to try lowering the temperature and extending the roasting process (which currently takes about 5-7 minutes; Rob’s takes 12-14).
- We like “crisp” white wines. Lesson courtesy of Arbutus, who asked if we liked “crisp”, “dry” or “sweet” white wines when we asked for a recommendation to go with our starter of potato and garlic soup with soft poached egg and chestnut mushrooms. Not really sure of the difference, we said “crisp” because it sounded best. It also seemed to taste best too. Our introduction was a Picpoul de Pinet, which became a mainstay of our booze drinking throughout the week.
- English wines have a very unique flavour that both mystifies and pleases us. Lesson courtesy of Wine Pantry, who very generously let us taste loads of wine during our brief stop after Borough Market.
- Russian kale, a new ingredient for Stephanie, which she spotted at Malmesbury Farmer’s market. Intrigued, we bought a bunch and I cooked it up the best way I knew how: with olive oil and shallots, served with a poached egg.
- Phyllo pastry, another new ingredient for Stephanie, who mastered the art while making delicious roasted figs in phyllo pastry.
- Ristretto does not contain milk, and is also not a recommended purchase from Costa Coffee at Heathrow Airport.
- Stephanie’s first “Cauliflower Cheese”, had as part of the epic two-in-one pie lunch at The Weighbridge Inn. She agreed that the dish had potential, but wasn’t sure if she was witnessing its best execution.
The trip had two phases: 1) the work-enforced/school-enforced mostly-moderate first phase, and 2) the post-work/post-school food-and-booze-celebration phase.
Tue 23 Aug:
Stephanie arrives in the AM. Lunch: two-in-one pies at The Weighbridge Inn (one of my restaurant review assignments from Food Mag). Massive bowls of starchy vegetables, pastry, cauliflower cheese and cream. Food coma. Nap for Stephanie (“I am the cauliflower, this bed is the cheese. We were meant to be together.”). Tomato soup for dinner. School and work. Started scheming chestnut pasta (discussion of umami ensued). Stephanie stayed up super duper late for her final presentation at 2:30am. Unfortunately, “final” wasn’t so final when one student didn’t show up and she had to finish completing her work on Thursday.
Wed 24 Aug
Crepes for breakfast. Then to Cirencester for haircuts, various errands (Boots, picture framers, etc). A fairly lame coffee at Jessie’s Bistro, however, we needed the stop to further mull over… chestnut pasta? Plans? Monica was jotting down a grocery list while Stephanie perused Monica’s citizenship application. Then we dropped it at the post office. Woosh! Leftover tomato soup and veggies for lunch. Bread baking. More napping. Stephanie talks in her sleep (“What are you…you’re not a grown up.”). More school and work. “If it’s good put it in” frittata dinner with roast pink fir potatoes. More chestnut pasta scheming – the ravioli trifecta was born.
Thu 25 Aug:
To London in the morning. Stephanie’s first meeting with Mark / CPW. A bit of waiting around at weird Royal Hotel. Then Mark meeting at cafe that smelled like piss. While Stephanie met with Mark / CPW, Monica took a really long tube and bus ride to Kennington. Later, met Stephanie at EAT (“their branding is strange”) on Avery Row near Bond Street Tube, then walked to dinner at Arbutus. Had a swift half at Dog & Duck (Aspall Cider for Stephanie – the start of her cider binge – and Skirmshander IPA for Monica). Big toast to job well done then 3-course fixed-price (£18.95) pre-theatre meal at Arbutus (Michelin star!). Here we discover our love for crisp white wines and the novelty of putting a poached egg in soup. The only disappointment was the pathetic sliver of comte that came for dessert. Then, Phantom of the Opera. Great show. Waited around for autographs. Talked to Raoul and some people from Manchester. After the theatre, went back to our host’s who told us funny stories about some show he filmed with a kangeroo (“we went through a lot of kennies that day”). Monica went to bed. Stephanie stayed up really late finishing school work. Then she was DONE. Later she said her thoughts when she finished were… “oh god i’m not going to get a lot of sleep tonight”. Then… “who cares.”
Fri 26 Aug:
The morning after. To the office. More planning and scheming via a vast array of Skype messages and hyperlinks. Massages (that never came to be). Ravioli fillings. White wine (Monica learns of Picpoul de Pinet via Twitter). Stephanie wanted to find some interesting mushrooms. Then Monica mentioned falafel. So a plan to go to Borough Market post work-meeting was hatched. Our boss comes along. We all take the bus. We eat falafel (which inspires a mutual desire to make our own as part of a massive Mediterranean feast). Our boss buys cheesecake. We say our farewells. Stephanie and Monica go shopping. We try some uber salty saffron Pecorino. We buy some peppery pecorino. We find fancy mushrooms, but they don’t feel right. We find black truffles, they feel better, especially after the guy nails our ravioli idea (black truffle, ricotta, mashed potato for binding, a splash of truffle oil). We buy a tiny jar of black truffles for £9.50. We wander around. We go to Neils Yard Dairy and buy some Spenwood sheeps’ milk cheese, made with vegetable rennet in Berkshire, “close textured and smooth with rich, nutty, juicy and long-lasting flavours”. We decide we are done. We go to the Market Pub for beer and cider: perfection. Stephanie is happy with how everything went, but admits and is enjoying her trip so far, except… “I wasn’t such a fan of the work.” Then on the way to the train station we discover the Wine Pantry – seller of English wines, who Monica spoke to on Twitter but couldn’t find in the market. They are super friendly, let us taste all sorts of wines and we buy 3 bottles. We catch the train home. We decide we have energy to go to Waitrose. We buy lots of food and drink for the weekend. We go home. We make negronies and a cheese plate. We eat poached eggs with sauteed chard and toast for dinner, with a glass of crisp white Picpoul de Pinet. Early night.
Sat 27 Aug:
Big chestnut pasta day and morning of food hunting, starting with Rave Coffee at 10am where we meet “Rob” who is awesome and makes a terrific flat white. Learn lots and go home with a massive amount of coffee beans. Then we go to Shipton Mill for Chestnut Flour and buy some herbs from a little boy on the side of the road along the way (rosemary and sage). Then we go to Malmesbury Farmer’s Market to buy jalapenos from the Wiltshire Chili Co. Monica tastes the mango chutney and says “this reminds me of….” Olive man finishes her sentence for her: “mango?” Ha ha. The chilli guy is an awesome salesman and Monica ends up spending 10 quid on chutneys. She also spends 10 quid on a metric arse-ton of purple jalapenos. The farmer’s market is piddly, but the organic veg stall has a pumpkin-like object (which is actually an uchiki kuri squash). We also buy some russian kale, shallots and a green pepper. Otherwise, Malmesbury is opposite of “bomb” so we get the eff out of there for a lunch that is basically a redo of dinner from the previous night, but with russian kale. Stephanie loves Monica’s wholemeal sourdough bread which makes Monica beam. We then get to work on chestnut pasta. Roasting pumpkin. Making ricotta. Making fillings. Making pasta dough. Drinking wine (more Picpoul). Eating Monica’s sourdough bread with olive oil, balsamic, parmesan and fresh ricotta. Stephanie also tries a meantime raspberry ale – not bad. We dine at a very civilised 8pm (we were well organised and not very drunk) on our ravioli trifecta: 1) red onion ‘uchiki kuri’ squash, 2) truffle, potato and ricotta, 3) ricotta and rosemary. All served with a shallot and sage butter sauce, garnished with pine nuts and parmesan. The pasta isn’t quite right, but it’s decent. The whole thing is very surreal. Lots of work. But the truffle is intense. We’re not sure what to make of it. We’re happy, but dumbfounded.
Sun 28 Aug:
(AKA “The day everything was closed, Lucy ate the Swaledale and Monica and Stephanie made a big drunken mess.”) Stephanie FINALLY has a sleep in until something like 11:30am. Which is just as well because nothing is open in England on a Sunday. Monica makes a random lunch of leftovers – chilli, potatoes, uchiki kuri squash, salad. We thought we saw a sign about a Cirencester beer festival, but couldn’t find any info online. So we go to Ciren and find all the thrift stores closed. All we could do was run a Boots errand, then go to Tesco for a few necessities for the evening. Lots of stuff is “Reduced to clear” and we end up buying silly things like “Cornish Yarg”, peppadews, and garlic-stuffed olives (Stephanie convinces Monica that she should just throw away the jar of olives she finds vile, but continues to eat out of some weird anti-food-waste thing). On the drive back a well-dressed but scared-looking woman with a large bag flags us down and asks where the train station is. “There is no train station in Ciren,” I seemed to say in a pseudo-Texas accent. “Gotta go to Kemble, want a lift?” She gets in the car, we drive ten feet and she tells us to stop and wait a moment. She gets out of the car. This is when we realise her panic isn’t over a train; it’s over some guy with whom apparently had an altercation with. The guy comes to the car, collects her bag and apologies, “she’s coming with me.” The woman waves her apologies from a pickup truck on the side of the road. The rest of the way back, Stephanie and I devise theories about the drama, deciding that the woman was probably in an abusive relationship and hadn’t truly committed to leaving the situation. That choice was hers; we did all that we could. Now on to home and food. The plan was to make eggs florentine. Earlier, we researched how to make English muffins. This became Monica’s job; Stephanie’s was hollandaise. Along the way, we had a cheese plate, and lots of booze (cider AND negronis? And that was before wine with dinner and port with… another cheese plate), and things got really messy. Somehow, English muffins got made, a process that amazed us both in its stove-top cooking method. A stray cat who was totally pregs got in and ate the wedge of Swaledale while we weren’t looking (we named her “Lucy” – the cat, not the Swaledale). We learned that The Wiltshire Chilli Farm’s cranberry kick chutney is exceptional with Neil’s Yard Spenwood Ewe’s cheese. We eventually cobbled together our eggs benedict at 9pm. The hollandaise was exceptional. The english muffins smelled like a dream (thank you Shipton Mill). And then, another cheese plate. With port?!
Mon 29 Aug:
Woke up to the aftermath. Booze bottles everywhere. The only thing to do was to make giardiniera and go grocery shopping again (it took us quite a while to remember what our lunch idea was, which we envisaged the night before during our drunken revelry, but when it came to us we felt like geniuses – it was all about eating something easy that wouldn’t detract from our planned Mediterranean feast, but with leftovers that would go with dinner, and that would enable the use of mayonnaise (I have some really tasty Riverford mayonnaise at the moment) – halloumi sandwich for the win). Then the Med feast inspired by last Friday’s falafel. The menu: baked falafel, pita bread, hummus, tabbouleh, roasted onions, raw veg, Wiltshire Chilli Farm’s chilli jam (not as spectacular with falafel as claimed), pickled jalapenos, tzatziki, giardiniera. Somehow we brought it all together by 7:30pm. Why did our eggs benedict take so long? For dessert, figs in phyllo pastry with honey, pistachio and creme fraiche, envisaged by Stephanie, executed perfectly. The best part: watching Stephanie delicately portion out pistachios for each fig, and dropping them into the figs one by one.
Tues 30 Aug:
Stephanie’s last full day in town. Had a fairly relaxed morning chillaxing. Stephanie challenged me to make blackberry and plum jam in the hour we had before we were due to leave for Bath. So I did. And it was awesome. Then we went to Bath. Along the way we kiboshed our plan to go to Bristol in the evening for dinner and a puppet show. Instead, we’d re-attempt chestnut pasta, this time w/ chestnut puree, and make an awesome dessert. But we’d need a recipe. Which meant we needed wifi. But first… Lunch at Demuths. “Thoughtful” bread (sourdough, wholemeal, and beetroot) with “artisan butter”; Watermelon and baked Homewood ewes cheese salad with cherry tomatoes, spring onion, pumpkin seeds and an oregano & honey dressing (awesome); Haloumi and new potato salad with salsa verde and green beans. We found Wifi just outside of Demuths on the corner at the Huntsman (“I can see why the waitress wouldn’t want to come to this pub”). We also had beer and a cider, and found recipes for lava cake and zucchini bread. Then to the thermae bath spa for a steam and the rooftop pools. (Thanks to our London host for the vouchers.) Then long drive home via Waitrose for the long awaited chestnut puree, plus some other goodies to make dinner happen. Home. So many lasts. Our last negronis. Our last aperitifs. Wish I took more pics of the evening. The pasta was anticlimactic. Something went wrong. Our dough was too doughy. Pian di Marte needs to step up with their recipe (later we realise their recipe has been on the web the whole time – silly us, we should have been searching in Italian). But the lava cake was awesome. Kinda like a souffle. Perfection with the vanilla ice cream and “smear” of blackberry/plum jam. And a bit of port (Random thought: I wonder if the dark chocolate made it less lava-y?) It was a late night but a great night, and we had some good chats about things that ultimately made it worth coming home over going to Bristol and sitting in silence at a puppet show. Will we regret our indulgences of the week? I hope not. The passing of work and school stress seems good reason to celebrate … yes, even for five days in a row. Not to mention the spirit of the visit itself, which doesn’t happen very often at all. Perhaps the rule should be, we encourage good behaviour when we’re apart, and celebration when together? We both agree that the food extravaganzas are awesome, but it’s probably time to get back on track.
Wed 31 Aug:
Fond farewell. Early start at 5:15am. Monica rose to Stephanie’s challenge and made zucchini bread. Also packed Stephanie some plane food, and some leftover Mediterranean feast food for the car (somehow it felt right for breakfast). The morning of departure is always a little chaotic, but some of the best chats happen during this time. It’s all very reflective (as we continue to question how the hell this chestnut pasta is made). And for us, a bit absent minded (Stephanie forgot her wallet). Our last hurrah was a coffee at Costa, where Stephanie learned that a “ristretto” is not what she thought it was.
Big thanks to Stephanie for coming to stay and making this such an awesome week. Thanks also to all the people and places who filled our trip with such amazing food, drink, meals, outings and steam baths!
Want more? Check out the Flickr Photoset from Stephanie’s trip to England.