Arcimboldo’s Summer

Arcimboldo’s Summer
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) was the master of these pre-surrealist paintings of figures formed of grouped objects (not always food).

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Bargain Comté Alert (the Green Bell Tolls)

I love the French Alpine cheese Comté — you can impress your friends by pronouncing correctly: "con-tay"... yes, as if it was spelled with an "n" not an "m". It has a nutty sweetness and a very agreeable texture somewhere between hard and soft. (I'm trying to avoid the word "rubbery".)

Comté is a form of Gruyere. Indeed, the lowest grade is just sold as Gruyere. But the superior stuff is called Comté, and the top quality is indicated by a green bell on the label. Always look for the green bell!

Until recently, the best deal on green bell Comté I'd encountered was available at Waitrose. Their mature Comté normally sells at £16 per kilo. But if you have a "My Waitrose" and you make it one of your regular picks — yes, if you're willing to jump through all those hoops — you can get 20% off, bringing the price down to £12.80 a kilo. Not bad at all, for the real stuff.

As I say, Waitrose was reigning champion. But today I was in Lidl, snooping around (one of my vices) and I discovered, trembling with cheese-hunter's excitement, that they had a Comté, also green bell, which was on special at £1.69 per pack. The packs are 170 grams, so my advanced command of mathematics tells me it's just a shade under ten quid per kilo.

And you may well want to buy a kilo. The Lidl Comté is just excellent. It has a lovely blend of sweetness and citrus sharpness which gives it almost a lemon curd flavour. I recommend it highly, and at that price it's unbeatable. Buy now.

Even when the price goes back up, to £1.99 a pack, that still puts it ahead of Waitrose, at under £12 per kilo.

(The Lidl image is from here. The Waitrose image is from there.)

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Heston's Chocolate Christmas Cake

Appealingly packaged, this cake looks like it’s going to deliver a mind blowing (and waistline bursting) blast of pure chocolate. In fact, it’s a fruit cake covered with a layer of chocolate icing. 

The chocolate icing is perfectly okay, though nothing to write home about, while the fruit cake is boring. It has some unusual spicy notes, which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant — and which don’t save the fruit cake from dullness. Altogether, this festive dessert is ho-hum rather than ho-ho-ho, especially given its enticing packaging. 

I bought this as a post-Christmas markdown, for a quarter of its original price, and I was very disappointed. If I’d paid the full price (£15) I would have been seething, and indeed would probably have demanded a refund. Given that this is the "Improved Recipe" gawd knows what the original was like.

Once again, Heston at Waitrose proves hit and miss.

(Image credits: The pack shot is from Ocado. The shot outside the pack is also from there.)

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Heston's Prawn Cocktail

Aha. Another offering from the mad scientist of the gourmet kitchen. An old fashioned prawn cocktail made using Canadian cold water Pandalus borealis prawns. 

Well, it tastes like a prawn cocktail all right. And it really is old fashioned — in the best sense — and honest. Very traditional. Notably sweet, but it’s a fresh creamy sweetness and not cloying. A nice residual tang of spice. I’m increasingly impressed. But then I did get it for 79p instead of £3.99...

I guess the main thing I'd say about it is that it doesn't have that nasty downturn in taste which you get from something made with artificial ingredients, like a synthetic sweetener.

It is like a good home made prawn cocktail. Which leads us to the inevitable question. It costs four quid, so why not make it yourself? (Assuming you have the time.) You can even use Heston's own recipe, which is available here

Incidentally, the prawns are caught using what is called a Demersal otter trawl. There are certain environmental problems with this kind of fishing, which you can read about here.

On the whole, from now on I don't think I'll be buying prawns caught in this way, if I can avoid it. Sorry, Heston.

(Image credit: the pack shot is, of course, from Waitrose's website.)

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Cotton Candy Grapes

These delicious little devils have an unusual, refreshing sweetness and — yes — they actually do taste like cotton candy. In the summer they were all over the supermarkets and you could buy them everywhere, always at a premium price compared to other grapes. But there were some competitive deals available, and they were worth searching out.

Apparently these grapes were developed in California from the Lambrusca variety. Thank you, California. The first supermarket to introduce them to the UK was Sainsbury's. Thank you, Sainsbury's. Keep up the great work.

But then these tasty little rascals vanished from the shelves and I began to fret that I'd seen the last of them. I kept searching, despondently, to no avail. Other high-end grape varieties, like Sable, had been exposed as the boring impostors they were. It was cotton candy grapes or nothing. Or, rather, it was cotton candy grapes or whatever grapes were available in Sainsbury's Basics range (often excellent, though constantly varying and unpredictable) for £1.25 per 500g.

Then yesterday our little cotton candy friends reappeared. I saw some at Waitrose. They were pricey — £2.50 for 300g — but I snatched them up. A few minutes later I found them in Marks & Spencer at a much better price: £2 for 400g, provided you bought two or more packs.

I bought three. Just as well because the Waitrose ones didn't survive long after I got home; my Sardinian neighbour, who'd also been mourning their absence, helped me demolish the punnet. In fact, he ate most of them, the scoundrel.

I'd highly recommend these if you haven't tried them. If you have, you're probably already addicted.

As I've indicated the current best deal is from Marks & Sparks. These ones are Brazilian, taste great, and are disappearing from my refrigerator even as I write these words...

(Picture credits: the Waitrose pack shot is from here. The rather more attractive Sainsbury's one from here, where you can read more about the variety. Thanks, chaps.)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Banana Bread with Chocolate

I became fed up with the bananas in my kitchen spoiling before I could eat them, so for the first time in my life I've begun baking banana bread — just to use up the little yellow devils. (Actually, by the time I get around to dealing with them, they're mottled black and brown little devils.) I went through a large number of recipes before I found one that I thought was suitable, and then I tweaked it until I was happy with it.

Result? Banana bread dining pleasure. But the other day I had a devilish little impulse to tweak the recipe again by adding chocolate chips to it. However, being my snobbish self, I wasn't about to settle for any old standard chocolate chips... Instead, I went off in search of a suitably high end gourmet alternative.

And, to my delight, I found the perfect product right away — on the shelves of my little local Sainsbury's (Putney). There beside the mundane mainstream choc chips were these 70% cocoa Belgian dark chocolate beauties. Absolutely superb, and they worked brilliantly in the recipe. (As a more health-conscious alternative you can use organic sultanas, also delicious.)

I was really pleased that Sainsbury's had exactly the ingredient I needed, and the resulting loaf that emerged warm and fragrant from the oven is absolutely the Rolls Royce of banana breads. Here is the Betty Crocker recipe I use, although NB — I reduce the amount of sugar from two cups to half a cup (!). The result is still perfectly sweet and you'll live longer... And be able to enjoy more banana bread.

(Image credit: thank you My Supermarket for the pack shot.)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Nuñez de Prado Olive Oil

Nuñez de Prado is a legendary Spanish organic extra virgin olive oil which has long been a favourite of mine. It's lovely stuff and it only has one drawback — okay, two. The first is the red sealing wax you get as a kind of cap on the cork in the half litre bottle, which is a bit messy to remove. The second is the cost. It's a premium product, and has a commensurate price tag.

Well, Marks & Spencer has dispensed with both of these objections. Since they're selling the oil in one litre tins the whole sealing wax issue is a non-issue. And the litre tins are — astonishingly — selling for about the same price as I used to pay for a half litre bottle.

Consequently, I bought some Nuñez de Prado for the first time in years, and now I'm stockpiling the stuff from my local M&S. Such a great offer is bound to vanish like the too-good-to-be-true dream that it is. So, let's make the most of it while we can.

I did a little taste comparison when I opened my first tin (i now own several) of Nuñez de Prado. I put it up against Ecoato, which is another Spanish organic oil, similar in colour and packaged in similar livery, right down to the red sealing wax (imitation is the sincerest, etc...). 

Ecoato is a nice extra virgin olive oil. It has the buttery character of a Spanish oil, but with the slightly throat-burning finish of an Italian specimen. Perfectly fine. But then I tried the Nuñez de Prado.

Straight out of the tin the Nuñez de Prado was stunning. There was an immediate, complex burst of flavours and fragrances. I experienced apples, almonds and a whiff of fresh growing lavender.

Tremendous stuff, and available at an amazing price. Buy as many tins as you can carry.

(Image credits. I searched long and hard for an image of Nuñez de Prado oilve oil in the litre tin at a Marks & Spence website, but could find none. Indeed if you go to the M&S site and search for "olive oil" you are told there is no such product. Anyway, I eventually borrowed the pic from another food blog, Frolic 72 where it's reviewed. It's a nice little blog even if they do think Nuñez de Prado is a Sicilian oil. The 500ml Nuñez de Prado bottle image is from Brindisa. And the Ecoato picture is from Kuzzina, although the bottle I actually have features a somewhat different (older?) label design.)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Tesco Sweet Emerald Tomatoes

The search continues for edible tomatoes. Oh, there's no trouble finding tomatoes that look beautiful, but as I've bemoaned before, they generally have all the flavour of wet tissue paper. 

So when I saw Tesco's Finest Sweet Emerald (you have to laugh at these names) green tomatoes on special, I thought I'd give them a whirl. Even though they are green.

I've bought speciality tomatoes before, including ones which claimed to be deliciously sweet. And, more often than not, I've been disappointed. But not this time. These tomatoes have an excellent flavour and, yes, considerable sweetness. I'm accustomed to using tomatoes to provide a bit of bright (red) colour to dishes, sliced on top as decoration as much as an additional vegetable. So using green tomatoes required a bit of a rethink. 

I found they were at their best served thinly sliced on top of a nice chunk of smoked salmon in an open sandwich. (Mmm, I'm making myself hungry just thinking about it... Is it time for lunch yet?) But I'm sure you'll find plenty of uses for these Sweet Emeralds.

They're not cheap, but at least they are an example of a product that  actually does what it says on the label.

(Image credits: Both shots are from Tesco's own site.)