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Archive for December, 2009

Cooking up Christmas Dinner

Some time ago I put up the menu for what I had planned for Christmas dinner on my blog. You would think with all that notice to myself I would have not been rushing around at the last minute buying ingredients and realising I had forgotten things. Well, to a point I didn’t. It went a lot smoother that I thought it would. The weekend before Christmas I started preparing, down the shops getting any ingredients that would last and making the stuffing for the Christmas Stuffed Apples.

So the Sunday before Christmas with glass of Baileys by my side I started the real prep. Grating the Bramley apple, just the one, not 4 like I had bought. Well I wasn’t sure once you grated them how much apple you got. The raisins, currents and shopped prunes go in with some muscavado sugar and suet. At this point it was smelling Christmassy but the best was yet to come, a spoonful of mixed spice and a couple of cinnamon. Mmmmmmm the smell as I mixed it up conjured up mince pies and then a good measure of rum and brandy goes in. Man it smelt good. Mixed up some more and then into the fridge to mature for a week.

That was it for a few days apart from buying some more ingredients. Time to make the Onion & Cider soup I think on the 23rd. No French onions anywhere so I get a mixture of sweet and strong onions, that was fun chopping those up, at least it was just into slices. I fry them off gently then let them soften in their own juices. Meanwhile the soup stock is started. Oh know, why didn’t I read the recipe before. I have to make a roux. I hear so many horror stories about this. Okay my first ever attempt, Weigh out the butter and flour, melting the butter, time to add the flour. I hesitate, double check whisk is at hand. Is the cider ready to pour on top once the roux is done? Okay no getting away from it must add the flour before I burn the butter. In it goes, whisking away, it’s working, it’s actually working. The roux goes nutty brown and the cider goes on. More intense whisking……… no lumps. I start smiling. Right add the beef stock now and we’re half way there. Oh, another problem, I don’t have a pot big enough for all the stock. Hmmm, ah Mr mixing bowl come here. I actually put the stock in the mixing bowl and add the cider/roux mix to it. Give it a good stir and fill the pan up again with this soup mix. As it reduced I added from the mixing bowl. FInally the stock is of the consistency I need and the onions are soft so the rest of the cider goes in to boil them off. Oh look, half a pint of cider left. Chef needs another drink I think. I leave all this to cool and then to chill until needed on the day. I did check it before and corrected the seasoning, it tastes good even without the finishes touches.

Later I decide to make the sorbet. La Trou Gascon, an Armagnac sorbet. White wine, Armagnac, sugar, water and liquid glucose. How much more simple can you get. I cook of the sugar syrup and add the alcohol and allow to cool. In the freezer and checking a little later I start to worry about the alcohol volume as it’s very liquid. No problem, it’ll freeze overnight. So on Christmas Eve I drop the Wife off to work and get the last minute things like salad oh and peppercorns (how did I run out of those?), goose fat (how was I going to roast those potatoes?) and onions and spices to boil my ham – nothing essential then!

Christmas Eve brings more Bailey’s and prepping. Peeling veg and par boiling, leaving in cold water overnight. I wanted to enjoy Christmas Day and spend as little in the kitchen as possible. Anyone who spends Christmas morning peeling veg must be mad. It will last and believe me, tastes just as good. I check the sorbet, damn, still not frozen. I look at the recipe again – oops – didn’t add enough water so i add some more and mix it in. Checking again later it’s icing up nicely – phew. Oh and having a lick of the spoon after I mixed it up it tastes great. All that#s left is to make the stuffing. Two types this year, both with sausage meat and then adding chestnut & mushroom to one and sage & onion to the other. Quick and easy and able to go in the fridge overnight before cooking on the day.

So the big day. I wake at 2 a.m. wondering if I have got everything I need. I sleep. I wake at half 2. and so on until I decide to go to another room before my Wife kills me for waking her up constantly. I manage an hour’s sleep and at half 6 I’m more interested in opening presents (I am still a kid at 37). I go back to bed and coax my Wife into opening the presents in our stocking. Great stuff, the usual, socks, sweets, chocolate coins and some very cool Guinness memorabilia. By this time it’s half 7 and I’m hungry so downstairs ready for breakfast, putting the turkey in while I’m there. I whip up some scrambled egg, my recipe, no milk, eggs, butter and once cooking, a dollop of mayo and don’t forget to season. Some smoked salmon and think cut bacon finish it off. Helped down by Wolf Blass Yellow Label sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay with an English blackcurrant Cassis.

Presents are opened and I run into the kitchen. Checking the turkey which has been in for two hours now. My Norfolk Black Turkey, only delivered a few days ago and looking great. A quick basting and oven shut again to carry on cooking. It took just under 5 hours in the end with great crispy skin, clear juices running out. I only prepared it by covering with butter and then layering bacon over the butter, covering in foil. Then with an hour left I removed the foil and bacon. The turkey comes out and rests. Goose fat heating up in the same pan the turkey was cooked ready for the potatoes, par boiled the day before. Veg goes in, spouts just need heating up.

Onion & Cider Soup

Cider is poured on the table with the veg almost done so we can sit down to the soup. I heat this up, letting it simmer for a few minutes. Whisking up an egg yoke with some creme fraiche I also put a part baked baguette, sliced, under the grill in the oven, drizzled with some olive oil. It browns up nicely and some grated gruyere cheese goes on top. Something’s missing…… what? I can’t think to the egg mix goes on the bottom of the dish and the soup is poured on top and then the bread on top. We sit, we eat. Wow, fresh and fruity from the cider. The onions so soft and sweet. Just realised, I forgot to mix calvados into the egg and creme fraiche. Oh well, too late now but it doesn’t take anything away from the flavour. Bowls are soon empty, a nice light start, the cider is pretty amazing. A French one (yes French, I didn’t think they done cider), light, slightly sweet, reminded me of an Aspell’s type of cider.

We take a break now, as the main finishes off cooking and I make the gravy. At last I have made a gravy using pan juices and stock and amazingly no lumps. I am quite surprised as every time I have tried this it’s turned out lumpy. Turkey carved and veg placed on the warmed plates. My home made stuffing added on top of the turkey and we’re away. This course served up with a Pinot Noir from New Zealand, Villa Maria 2008. Pinot Noir was a suggestion from the great Olly Smith and he got it spot on. The Norfolk Black is more gamey than most turkey and a red goes so well with it.

We take a longer break for now having polished off the dinner and we open the white wine, a Chateau Neuf du Pape white. Such a creamy white and so smooth. I find it strange describing a white as smooth and can find no other word really. Damn, we forgot the sorbet between starter and main, so we have it now as still wanting a break. This is an Armagnac sorbet, another Le Gavroche recipe and contains a lot fo alcohol. It is just simply divine.

Meanwhile the apples, now stuffed are in the oven.They only take 20 minutes and the smell is soon getting us hungry. I pull the apples out and they’re nicely caramalised from the icing sugar, I deglaze the roasting tin with some brandy and pour it over the apples, a rum cream on the side too. A bit of icing sugar for presentation and to the table. For those who find Christmas pudding too rich, this is perfect. The stuffing is rich and fruity and with the Cox apple around it adding a freshness to clean your pallet as you go. We all pour some run sauce over the top for our alcohol fuelled pudding. Helped down with a dessert wine, just a muscadet but one that I found not as sweet as most.

We sit stuffed. A success I think, especially as I ate everything also. It was a fairly easy day, as little time spent in the kitchen as possible so I was not flustered or stressed. Able to enjoy the meal as much as everyone else. The one rule I always go by whether making Christmas dinner or holding a dinner party of any sort is, prepare as much as you can the day before, if not longer before. You can then talk to your friends, enjoy the day and best of all, enjoy the food you have just cooked.

I didn’t want to overload this post any more by putting exact recipes on here. If you’d like more details please let me know on the contact page and I will email you. For the starter,desert and sorbet you can actually get these all from the Le Gavroche cookbook.

Happy New Year to you all.

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Christmas is upon us.

The turkey has got fat

There’ll be loads of leftovers

What do we do with that?

 

Turkey stuffing sandwiches

With a bit of cranberry sauce

Turkey with piccalilli

For another course.

 

Get some spices out

To have a Turkey curry

Get the sauce from a jar

If you’re in a hurry.

 

Pastry, cream & mushrooms

The starting of a pie.

Another turkey sandwich

This time on rye.

 

Brussels, potatoes & onion

Turkey with bubble & squeak

You need to keep on eating

Can’t have you getting weak.

 

Turkey souffle, turkey omelette

Or even turkey flan

With so much left over

You really need a plan

 

Just look in the cupboard

See what you have got

You can make  anything with turkey

Try it, cold or hot.

 

Turkey sorbet or ice cream

Turkey with wild rice

Turkey with fried egg on top

Doesn’t that sound nice.

 

Turkey croque monsieur

Ah oui s’il vous plaît

Iced turkey profitteroles

Served on a sleigh.

 

The list is never-ending

There’s so much you can do

What will I be making? you ask.

Sorry, I haven’t a clue.

 

 

 

 

 

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A while back, months in fact, we arranged a Christmas dinner for the family as my Brother & his girlfriend are spending Christmas in Australia this year. A lot of planning went into this, who’s cooking what etc and with new cookbook in hand I decided to go Le Gavroche Style. I happily volunteered for the starter and amuse bouche and insanely agreed to make a desert. Meanwhile, my Mum would do the main course. I thought this was fair as I could do some simple dishes and to an extent I was correct.

The menu was this:

Amuse Bouche Vegetables a la Greque Sloe Gin & Rhubarb Sorbet in mini cones. Starter Pan fired Sea Bass, Caramelised Garlic & Shallots and Parsnip Puree Main Course Roast Turkey, Roast Beef with all the trimmings. Desert Bitter Chocolate Tart with Orange Marmalade Sauce and Clotted Cream Ice Cream

I started two weeks ago, making the sorbet. This was difficult as I chose an out of season ingredient and yes I cheated using tinned rhubarb. You ask any of the guests if they could tell and they wouldn’t be able to tell you. The recipe is on here already so if you want to know how it’s made just have a read. It went down a storm, looks so cool in the tiny cones. I served the sorbet first as an aperitif of sorts. On the table were the amuse bouche spoons with the vegetables. This is straight out of the Le Gavroche cookbook and is very easy to make. It takes about 15 mins to make plus the prep. Baby onions, button mushrooms, cauliflower florets and turnip. Sweat them off for a bit in a good glug of olive oil. Add white wine and water (half and half) to cover, thyme, garlic, bouquet garni of thyme, white pepper, rosemary, garlic & saffron. Cook for about 10 mins so veg is crunchy and leave to cool. Arrange on the spoons making sure you have some of the basil and saffron.

Everyone sat round the table now and the starter was basically ready. Sea Bass takes so little time you can cook it as everyone takes their seat. I caramelised the garlic cloves and shallots before, laving them in the pan and just heat up while cooking the Bass. The parsnip puree I’d made earlier with parsnips, hot milk and seasoning. Left it in a pan and again just heated it up as I cooked the fish. I was even able to sit with everyone as they tucked into amuse bouche number 2. Some

Vegetables a la Greque

 worried looks as they saw a spoonful of veg, turning to mmmmms and surprised looks as to how tasty it was. I run round the counter to the kitchen, half a fillet each as we were doing a big main. Oil on the fish (remember that tip, It is a fish saver), hot pan and skin side down, seasoning the flesh. The fish cooks through in a few minutes and the skin goes nice a crispy. Warmed plates on the counter and the parsnip goes on in the middle of each, making a little well to put the garlic and shallots in. The fresh cooked bass sits on top, the star of the show. During this I had to avoid my mum who was busy preparing the main, making sure things are getting cooked and will be on time. Everyone tucks in and it seems to be over so quickly as it’s wolfed down, the sweet parsnip being a great accompaniment to the fish. The garlic now subtle (remember to boil it off for a few mins before frying it, same goes for the shallots to soften them up) just brushing over the tongue without invading the flavour of the tender meat. A success to my new cookbook as another Le Gavroche inspired dish is gobbled up.

The main follows. Roast turkey looking tender and succulent with a joint of beef perfectly roasted, still pink in the middle. We put on the plates the meat, potatoes (Mums always make such good roast pots), pigs in blankets and serve with dishes of green beans, sprouts (some with chestnuts), braised red cabbage and carrots. Not forgetting the gravy and cranberry sauce. So how do you put that together without taking up too much social time when your guests are there? Potatoes, peeled and par boiled the day before, kept in cold water. Bean boiled off earlier so just about ready, heated by frying up in a pan, adding salt & pepper adding a fried flavour to them and a nice alternative to a veg I sometimes feel can be a bit bland. Everything else was just in the oven, taking turns. Sprouts were boiled as we forgot to put the steamer on. The cabbage we have to admit was a Marks & Spencer’s ready prepared. Now I think I make a pretty mean braised cabbage and have to say it was tasty so a pat on the back for M&S. Drink if flowing now, people look pretty stuffed with plates once piled high, now empty.

The Tart Before the Collapse

My tart meanwhile is in the utility room and looking worryingly wobbly. Pastry cooked to perfection, and the orange sauce now cooled and looking nice and gloopy. The clotted cream ice cream a last minute addition following disaster a few nights before. I originally wanted to serve this with a whisky ice cream, however for the first time ever I curdled my custard. I get the dishes, put a line of sauce on each, the ice cream goes on and then I cut into the tart. I may be okay. I lift up. No I’m not okay, in fact I lift up some pastry with, what really is, a chocolate sauce on top. I tell the crowd that we have a New York cheesecake in reserve in the fridge and they tell me in unison to serve up and let them try. It tastes amazing and it’s just the appearance which lets it down. Me, not being a desert person, can’t stop eating it, no matter how stuffed I am. I must apologise to Michel Roux Jnr here for not quite reaching his standard (well who can?). I gather thought hat people snuck back in the kitchen to finish the tattered remains of the tart. The cheese and biscuits are laid out and the meal as such is at an end.

A cheer goes up to the cooks and whilst I feel quite pleased with the comments I can not help but think about the tart. What did I do wrong? My wife’s response….. practice! Well being the chocoholic she is, she would say that. Now comes the best part about being one of the cooks. No one expects you to clean up. Boy did I make a mess, 2 frying pans, 3 saucepans, a mixer, a whisk, several spatulas, many knives, a chopping board or two, 3 dishes to put prepared veg in and 2 measuring jugs. I’m sure if I thought about it I could have used more.

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For the second of my Christmas dinners this year I have been asked to make some amuse bouche, starter & desert. The first of the amuse bouche has been made and the recipe follows. There is a bit of a tale as to how this all started though. Originally I was going to make a sorbet as a pallet cleanser between the starter and main course. Then while shopping in Oil & Vinegar one day I came across some amuse bouche cones, yes tiny ice cream cones. So the cogs start turning so I thought how about a sorbet in them instead of ice cream and as they’re being served before the meal, an apéritif is in order. Many of our family like gin & tonic so it seemed like the ideal option, however we fond this has been done before so I twitted out for ideas. My good friend @EssexGourmet suggested sloe gin. Hmmmmmm, getting interesting but I wanted to add another twist and there is was on the web, a recipe for sloe gin & rhubarb ice cream. They would be my flavours.

So this is how we get to the sloe gin & rhubarb sorbet and before anyone pipes up with “rhubarb is out of season”, yes I know. So here’s the recipe:

500 ml Water

500 grams Caster sugar

50ml liquid glucose

1 standard tin rhubarb (I would have used fresh, however the results are great so this is good for out of season).

250 ml Sloe Gin. (this is not meant for children)

Pour the rhubarb including the juice into a pan and heat for about 15 mins,rhubarb should be very broken down, heat should not be too high so it is just simmering. While this is cooking, pour the water into a pan and add the sugar and glucose. Heat gently until dissolved then bring to the boil. Allow to boil for about 3 minutes. Once boiled, bring of the heat.

Once the rhubarb is broken down enough (fresh would obviously take longer) pour through a sieve into a bowl and squeeze the rhubarb so you get as much juice as possible. I got about 250 ml of liquid from this. Once you have all the juice, pour it into the sugar water mix and continue to leave to cool. You can add the sloe gin at any time, I let it cool a little so not to cook too much of the alcohol out.

Once cooled, taste the mixture to allow for your taste of gin. If you have an ice cream maker you can pour it in and churn that way, however I’d only advise this if you have one that freezes while it mixes. I put my mix in the freezer as this recipe is designed to make a very soft sorbet, almost like crushed ice. If you want  a harder sorbet, reduce the liquid or alcohol content. You could also try the method of using egg whites instead of liquid glucose. You can find recipes like this all over the web.

I made this quite late so left the sorbet to freeze overnight and it is of such a texture I can still churn it in the tub to stop the gin and alcohol separating. The above has made about 3/4 litres. As you go to taste, the first thing that hits you is the fruity aroma, a fresh hit of juniper and rhubarb. The taste rolling over the tongue is of sloe gin and then you realise there’s something else there as the rhubarb. It’s almost like a fruit burst in your mouth. Sweet, refreshing and just a slight edge telling you this is a sorbet for adults.

If you try this, I hope you enjoy it. I will find out the real results on Saturday. So I raise a sorbet and say cheers!

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A Taste to Feast Upon

I feel like reciting the Wham song ‘Last Christmas’ when I talk about Taste of Christmas. Maybe I should explain. We went last year to the taste of Gordon, sorry Christmas. Excitedly setting off for what we thought would be a great day out and a world of culinary treats. It started well, queuing up with fake snow falling on us, so it starts…….’Last Christmas I gave you my heart’. We fell in love with the even there and then, such a fantastic entrance and you were filled with that warm Christmas feeling. So the next line ‘But the very next day you gave it away’. It was more like the same day. While there were some great moments; meeting Jason Atherton and talking about duck, seeing Sarge (Chef Mark Sargeant) flying across the crowd like a ungamely fairy, the event just didn’t fully deliver. Main comments, it was too crowded, not nearly enough restaurants or food stalls and, as much as I like Gordon Ramsey, it was all about him.

So it would be no surprise to hear that we had decided not to go this year, initially anyway. We go to the Taste of London also so up ops the newsletter in my inbox and I have a read. Sounds quite good but we still decided we weren’t going. We arrange for the Mother-in-law to visit before Christmas and what to do what to do? Let’s look again att heat Taste event. Oh no, Bentley’s are going to be there, Benares are there, Olly Smith (someone I hope I can now call a friend) is going to be there. Even better, up pops a special offer for VIP tickets. So minds changed and off we pop.

There we were at the front of the queue (again). We waited excitedly for the doors to open as we knew Olly would be singing for us. Now you will all know that Mr Keith Floyd passed away this year, a sad moment of 2009. Olly sang a tribute to Keith and it was very in keeping with Keith’s nature and humour. We salute you Mr Floyd and Olly done you proud.

We are released and I thought. Coats handed in, and we’re off. Ginger beer tasting first, well why not. Thank you Crabbies, it’s lovely and I love the fact it is actual beer so has alcohol. A few more tastings (all on an empty stomach) and food is on my mind. We head to the nearest row of restaurants and Bentley’s is there so no guessing where I go. Breakfast became Oysters Rockefeller. Silky smooth oysters flavoured with Pernod and a few other things (I really must start carrying a note-book around with me). A very good start and we wander up tot he next few restaurants as Roast is calling with Devils on Horseback. Not for me though, my dad and mum-in-law had those. Now a good tip for anyone going to roast, wear an Arsenal top as Lawrence Keogh is a fan. My Dad, ready to go to the match after Taste was handed a free dish by the man himself. Now I’m usually the blagger in the family so shows where I must get it from.

My wife headed over to The Modern Pantry for Roast Duke of Berkshire Pork belly with sweet potato & fenugreek mash. I tried a bit of this, never having had Fenugreek before. The pork was tender, crackling was smashing and the mash light, creamy and fresh. I’ve just looked up fenugreek on google, I’m hoping my man breasts do not grow. Look it up and you’ll know why I say that. Meanwhile, I went over to Benares for Masala fish, spiced sea bash and warm potato salad. Lightly spiced and again fresh with coriander coming through, The sea bass perfect with a lovely crispy skin and so lightly spice you keep the flavour fo the fish.

We decided drinks were in order next so off we went for some vodka and wine tasting with a quick stop at the Mersea Island Vineyard & Brewery for beer and more oysters for me. A light beer and even from a plastic glass it tasted good. The Mersea oysters were good, getting a mix of rock and wild oysters. Bentley’s should think about these as well as the Maldon & Colchester ones (big up the local oysters).

 Drinks tasters went down well, spending some time around the Italian and French stands. Having just had a big delivery of wine we didn’t really need any so I just got a bottle of Domaine de Barroubia Muscat De St-Jean de Minervois. A light desert wine, not as sweet as some and actually went down well after I had just drunk that beer. A unsual match there.

Club Gascon's Roast Duck Hen

So onto the rest of the food. We went to Club Gascon, a place I have never really considered to go to but maybe because it has never been on my radar than a conscious effort to avoid it. They win my award for best total menu on the day. It was close though as Bentley’s and Benares were excellent too, however I have eaten at those two restaurants so I knew some of the food already. We had everything from Club Gascon. Sautéed foie gras popcorn which you have to try sometime as it’s an amazing combination, winning over the pop corn hater that is my wife. Then roast duck hen, pumpkin & papaya puree with stuffing. The duck was quite rare, so tender, a plastic knife easily slicing through it. Finishing there with the Gascon mess, cream (amazing cream), meringue and prunes steeped in brandy, truly a mouthgasm.

Benares Iconic Tandoori Lamb Chop

I later went back to Benares for the Tandoori lamb chop with feta salad. I kept delaying this choice, thinking “feta? with indian food?” Atul, you’re a genius. The light salad complemented the spices in the lamb so well. Now has anyone noticed that I seem to be doing most of the eating here. Well I did and I;m not ashamed to admit that. Three more dishes to go and everyone else stopped at this point. Next on my agenda was to try something from Waitrose’s Menu and so I went for the Venison mince-pie and the Jury (the Simon Jury – get it?) is still out on that. The venison was nice, the pastry was nice, the idea of the parsnip and chocolate whip and then currants, I’m just not sure. I ate it all but it was maybe just too alien to me.

  So we went to the VIP enclosure for some more bubbly and beer on the house, Kastyle Premier Cure. To be honest I wouldn’t drink the beer unless it was free. It’s just not got enough depth of flavour and I won’t be mean and compare it to a British ale. Even compared to something like Amstel, San Miguel or any other quality lager, it just doesn’t stand up to them. On the way we stopped off at the British Cassis stand and picked up some blackcurrant cassis for adding to the sparkling wine on Christmas morning.  

Grand Lobster & Seafood Cocktail from St Pancras Grand

We checked our crowns and I still had enough for two more dishes so off I plodded to St Pancras Grand for the Grand Lobster and seafood cocktail. I’m sure there was crab and crayfish in there with it, ingredients tasted so fresh and the cocktail sauce was exquisite. I finished off with more oysters, fresh from Bentleys this time, Maldon oysters with Bentleys vinegar & shallot dressing. The perfect way to finish my feast for the day.  

Oysters at Bentleys

We bumped into Olly Smith a few times and I have to give him another shout out. The man is a great presenter at these shows and so hard-working. So friendly and always a real gent. Many a glass has been raised to Mr Smith whether it be a wine glass, champagne glass or pint mug. So we picked up some bacon and cheese, some lovely crystal glasses and decanter, Oval Vodka (amazing stuff, the only Vodka I could drink neat) and finally some Green & Blacks chocolate before we headed home.A great day, great company again and some fo the best food. Taste – you learnt from last year and improved so much. You once again have my heart and this time you can keep it.

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I didn’t really know where to start with the post in that I will try not to bore you with the details that don’t involve food. The weekend arrived with rain, cold and no heating. Yes the boiler broke down, just as we’re about to welcome my mother-in-law down for a Christmas meal and we have a busy weekend planned. It’s not all bad as we have an emersion heater so there is a little hot water. Luckily we had also booked a table at our local pub, The Alma, for dinner.

We go to the Alma several times a year and it’s one place I am never disappointed with. So consistent with service and quality of food. Tonight was a set menu with a fairly limited choice which I could happily of eaten in any combination. Five of us went and for starters I had a prawn and crayfish cocktail with a lime and chilli dressing. It was fresh and the seafood was juicy and succulent. The chilli was a hint and just added a zing to what was basically a prawn cocktail. I have said this before, a little addition can make a big difference. I was enjoying my starter so much I actually forgot to ask everyone how there’s was so please accept my apologies for not having a clue as to how the trio of melon and the smoked salmon went down. Be assured all plates went back empty.

During the interlude between starter and main, I must tell you about the decor in the Alma. As you walk through the pub, it seems fairly traditional, a nice wooden bar can be seen from the front door, leather sofas and big wooden tables adorn the front room. Through the back to the restaurant you are greeted by a low lit room covered in mirrors or varying designs. You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve entered a mirror showroom. It lends itself to cosy and intimate surroundings.

The main courses arrived, three of us going for rib eye steak and the other two both having traditional roast turkey. The steak was quite easily one of the best I have had for a while. They were served medium rare and you almost didn’t need a steak knife as you sliced easily through the tender meat. After a few mouthfuls I realised I’d only eaten the steak so far and my chips, tomato and green beans lay there looking unwanted as they watched me devour this juicy steak. A mushroom and garlic sauce was poured over the steak and I was pleasantly surprised. I am a bit of a traditionalist with steak and usually have it naked, just grilled and a bit of black pepper. Not usually one for having a sauce with it. The sauce was so light though it took nothing away from the steak, in fact it added another dimension, especially as the garlic was not overpowering. The beans were cooked just how I like them, big chunky chips to soak up that sauce and a nicely grilled tomato. A classic combination, a real crowd pleaser. Again there were clear plates all round, the turkey rapidly disappearing except for all the veg but that was only because there was so much of it. I did ask about the turkey and whilst it was very good, it was felt the parsnips could have done with a bit more roasting. The sprouts were perfect.

The drink was flowing nicely at this point and I, forgetting someone was driving over ordered on the wine so I done the right thing and bravely dug into a bottle of red, well two-thirds of it anyway. I plumped for Argento Malbec. I thought of steak and red wine so that was the easy bit. I then remembered I’d read the Wine Gang’s newsletter and a Malbec won one of their awards so thought i’d give one a try. It is deep and fiery, what you expect from South America really.

Desserts were 2 christmas puddings which disappeared very quickly. Two Baileys cheesecakes to which my wife’s response is yummmm yummm yummmmmm. I think that means she liked it. She did then say it was very smooth and rich. I, not being a dessert person really, went for Stilton and fruit chutney. I have only been eating Stilton for about three years now having acquired the taste. The Alma’s Stilton had a strong flavour and was so creamy. I find a lot of blue cheeses can be harsh on the tongue and this was not the case here, it flowed down and even though full, I couldn’t help resist a few more bites. Having some red wine left helped too, it partnered the cheese as well as it did the steak.

So with some more empty plates, apart from some cheese, well again there was a lot of it, the bill arrived and having already paid a £25 deposit I will still pleased by the value. £28 a head including the deposit and tip. Well worth it, a great night of good food, drink and, most importantly, good company. I would suggest The Alma to anyone passing through or living in the Chelmsford area. So in the spirit of the meal, Merry Christmas one and all.

Visit www.thealma.info for more deails.

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Witham’s hidden gem

Anyone who knows Witham well will wonder why I am talking about a hidden gem as the jewel I found is bang on the main road going through it. The thing is, Witham is a small town so it’s a case of having to know it’s there. So I’ll get to the subject, Holts Butcher, Essex Butcher of the Year 2009. A real butchers with a steak selection that includes more than some rump and sirloin. A butchers that has pheasant and partridge without having to pre-order it in. Rabbit sitting in the chilled counter with the rest of the game.

Tonight was their tasting night and what a tasty treat it is. I’m writing this post having just polished off a Cornish pasty and tomato & cheese Quiche. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pasty filled quite so much and to top it off, it had only come out of the oven a few minutes before purchase. The potato had a bite to it without being undercooked and there was just the right amount of spice to give you a warm tongue as you savour the buttery pastry and minced beef.

Other tasters on offer were a selection of hams. The old-fashioned being particularly flavoursome, a real cooked gammon flavour with a great coating which I have to admit I forgot to ask what it was although it tasted fruity with a hint of spice. The cooked beef was a perfect slice, lean and I would say just overdone to my liking but still a strong meaty flavour that only roast beef can bring. Even though it didn’t look rare, it tasted like it.

As I was driving I opted for the alcohol free mulled wine and almost forgot there was no alcohol in it. More fruity than most mulled wines and the balance of spices was excellent. I find too many mulled wines are all about the spice and end up being a bit hit of heat at the back of the throat that actually leaves you wanting a glass of water rather than another glass of wine. So Holts, well done on that.

I tasted Mull of Kintyre cheese for the first time ever and having been a real English cheese champion for some time I could be converted. I usually go British on most foods, however, with cheese I have always loved English makes. Cheddar from cheddar, Stilton from Stilton, Brie from Somerset. Okay I know, Brie is technically a French cheese. Somerset do make some excellent varieties. The Mull of Kintyre is my kind of cheese. Not too strong with the flavour being smooth and not too rough on the throat as some strong cheddars can be.

Knowing I had to get home I decided to call it a night, well after I’d been to the meat counter. Leaving the shop with two of the pasties, a piece of Quiche, belly of pork, lamb neck fillet, minced steak and Holts own Old Spot pork sausages. Now I love sausages and feel that a good sausage needs to be treated with respect so it will be a good old sausage sandwich at the weekend. No onion gravy swallowing the flavour, just bread and sausage. You can’t beat it.

So if you’re passing Witham, see  a Wimpy and think to yourself “I’ll give this place a miss”, slow down, look for Holts and halt.

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