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Budapest is full of courtyards, beautiful corners hidden in plain sight and joining magnificence with a bit of romantic decay. I am a sucker for this kind of architectural detail and when a tenant arrived and took an old lift up to one of the upper floors, I imagined living in such dubious splendour. The courtyard was typical of our Budapest trip – although we certainly enjoyed the fancy restaurants and the famously splendid buildings, the best parts were the slightly down-at-heel places and the simpler eateries. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we uncovered insider’s secrets or got totally off the touristed paths. We were only in the city for a few days and Mama Lemur quite reasonably has less relish for trekking down alleys than I do. If we turned off the main trails, it wasn’t by far. Still, it’s an illustration of how easy it is to find moments of quiet beauty in this city, as well, as it turned out, of sublime meaty enjoyment. Read the rest of this entry »

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One of the advantages of being a food blogger is that friends often give delicious food-related gifts, and  the most wonderful version of this is getting out-of-the-blue home-made giftage. The other day I came into my office to find a tiny, beautiful jar of homemade hot sauce made by my multi-talented colleague Ukelele Lady. She’s a huge chili head and has taken to making hot sauces as a bit of a cottage industry. This one is called Ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb and is of course made with cherry bomb chilies. They’re not the hottest but they’ve got a lovely sweet flavour. I couldn’t resist sticking a pinky into the jar and tasting it, and I immediately thought the sweetness would go well with the char of a steak.

So I made something very simple. I wok-seared some thin steaks, then used the beef fat in the work to stir-fry bok choy and red pepper with garlic, soy sauce and a touch of Shaoxing wine. I got both the meat and the bok choi nicely charred with wok hei, then added a good dollop of ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb. It was delicious and made us extremely happy to have such generous and warm-hearted friends. Sharing the chili love – hurrah!

At the Brighton Fiery Foods Festival, I made the acquaintance of Jenny Song, entrepreneur and killer Sichuan cook from Chengdu. Jenny and her partner John run China Spice, a company that imports peppercorns, chilies and other traditional foods from Chengdu to the UK. The stall was doing a brisk business with eager customers trying out John’s claim that their Sichuan peppercorns put what we currently have in the UK to shame. John explains that the peppercorn business shares some tricks with importers of certain less legal products: the real peppercorns are cut with the cheaper, tasteless shells of other bushes and often dyed to look the part. Morevoer, even the real peppercorns we see tend to have hard black seeds inside – a pain to dig out – whereas well-picked peppercorns will be almost seed-free. The proof of the peppercorn is in the tasting and I cheerfully agreed to eat one – just one – peppercorn. It was astonishing. You start with the expected citrusty notes and numbing sensation, but these familiar experiences are just the beginning of a several-minute sensory play that includes fizzing and a dreamy feeling that’s actually a bit like being on drugs. In the nicest possible way. John was dead on: these are like tasting Neapolitan bufala mozzarella for the first time when you’ve only ever had string cheese. Read the rest of this entry »

By the time Mr Lemur and I hit Saigon on our tour of Southern Vietnam, you might think we’d have been all marketed out, but Ben Thanh market revitalised us. At first it felt a bit unwieldy with lots of stalls selling cheap clothes, fake plastic fruit and assorted tschotschkes, not to mention the Viet ladies who have no problem whatsoever grabbing you and pushing you aside if you are in their way. (Seriously, they make little old Italian ladies seem reticent.) But we soon warmed to the cheery rudeness of the atmosphere and enjoyed a pretty good pork chop bun for breakfast. Since we were nearing the end of our time in Asia, I felt justified in attempting a bit of food shopping. While it was sadly not feasible to carry home any of the pickled fish I enjoyed in Chau Doc, it did seem reasonable to pick up some dried shrimp and spices. Ben Thanh had some lovely looking shrimp stalls where I’m fairly certain I was ripped off, and pushy coffee vendors who clearly dealt with tourists a lot. But the spice stall was not set up for tourism and, as you can see above, its proprietor was just a little daunting. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lemurs have left behind the architectural overload of Rome and we're spending a week with good friends K and L in the countryside of Lazio. We're in the village of Sutri, not far from the city but offering a whole other experience of Italian life. We're doing some serious relaxing here, with twice daily trips to the fruit lady, the baker and the salumeria being our most strenuous activities. This is the view from our roof terrace as the sun goes down – as Anthony Bourdain likes to say, this does not suck.

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My green-fingered cousin sent me some rhubarb in the mail. When I saw her last week in Edinburgh, she offered to pop some of her bumper crop in the post for me but I didn’t quite believe she would do it. Next thing I knew, a large brown paper envelope was plopping through the door, filled with healthy stalks of rhubarb. I’m a big fan of this maligned fruit, in large measure because of the spectacular rhubarb pies my grandmother used to make. My nana was a great baker and her pastry was short, buttery, but not sweet. It was a great match for rhubarb, which she sweetened with mildly horrifying handfuls of sugar. The resulting pie set me up for a lifetime of rhubarb love but it’s not an everyday dish.

I’ve done a rhubarb compote before on the blog, but this is a neat technique that Lemur friend K shared, which he got (in some fashion lost in the midst of time) from iconic cookbook editor and writer Judith Jones. Here, the rhubarb pieces don’t break down but keep their shape and colour, while their liquid turns into a delicious ruby syrup. It’s very simple, but I had never done it this way before and it really is a cut above your regular compote.

Rhubarb compote

Start the day before you want to eat your compote. Slice the rhubarb into inch long chunks, put in a large bowl and sprinkle on as much sugar as you usually like (hint, more than seems initially reasonable, less than a Scottish grandmother would add).

Leave to sit overnight. The next morning, you’ll find the rhubarb has released a bunch of liquid.

Pour the whole lot into a pan and heat over a medium-high heat till boiling. Turn the heat down to medium and cook the rhubarb for about five minutes. If you are relatively gentle you’ll find the rhubarb keeps its shape and doesn’t break down as in a normal compote. It will also cook very quickly.

Remove the rhubarb carefully with a spider and reduce the remaining liquid to a thick pink-red syrup.

Pour the syrup over the rhubarb and enjoy with yoghurt and granola for breakfast, or with cake or on ice cream.

I’ve been on a bit of a spelt kick lately. I know some of you will be nodding enthusiastically and others grimacing and preparing to click away. Spelt has a bit of a bad rap as cardboard-like health food and that honestly hasn’t been helped by any of the mealy and disgusting spelt bread I’ve eaten in my time. But you know I don’t  like ‘health food’ – I do like food that is healthy but deliciousness is my main motivation and spelt (whisper it) is pretty darn tasty. I found this brand, Amisa, in our local international food store, and not only is it organic but it is dried over beechwood, which gives it a slightly smoky flavour.

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On my last trip to my lovely local butcher, they had some exciting looking bits of lamb loin – not the big roasting cut you most often see in the UK, but more like a pork loin; just the very tender central strip of meat. When I asked about it, the butcher told me they were from this season’s spring lambs. Yes, admittedly, these are those super adorable little lambs that go sproing all across the South Downs. So cute and so tasty. I generally prefer meat with a bit more flavour than a loin but at this time of year, it’s really worth making the most of the delicacy and super-soft texture of spring lamb. In the spirit of terroir, I decided to cook the meat with the local Sussex peas that are also coming into the shops at this time of year, and to finish the dish I picked up some sheep’s milk yoghurt. I grant you, there’s something slightly perverse about the combination. It seems a bit like those Asian ‘mother and child’ dishes of eggs stuffed back into the bodies of their roasting mothers, or maybe it’s just that it’s so very treyf. Regardless, I liked the idea of using tangy sheep’s milk yoghurt alongside sweet peas and pan-roasted lamb. Read the rest of this entry »

The last time I went into my awesome local chili store Chili Pepper Pete’s, I discovered a new ingredient: green Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve only ever seen red ones before so I asked the guy behind the desk what was up with the green ones. This was definitely the right question as it unlocked exactly the type of conversation you dream of having with your local food purveyor. He told me not only what they are (young unripe peppercorns) but how they source them in Sichuan province and how they’re used there in different dishes. Turns out one of the owners is married to a woman from there and, as he rather smugly told me, he doesn’t go to any of our local Sichuan restaurants as he gets really great Sichuan food cooked for him nightly. (I kid, he was lovely. I’m just jealous…) Naturally I bought a bag of the little wonders and then had to spend some time figuring out what to make to bring out their ‘greener’ flavour.

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When we were in Vietnam, there were rambutans everywhere. The Mekong delta is bursting with fruit and we were there during high rambutan season. As we cycled through the villages around Vinh Long, rambutan trees hung over the road and in each driveway there was a woman selling baskets of the fruit. At the floating market in Cai Be, a little motorboat stacked high with rambutans zipped past us, spraying water in a hurry to sell the latest harvest. And the fruit themselves were juicy and sweet, with more filling and less pit than I’m used to at home. Plus, the skin came away easily from the flesh, making them much nicer to eat. Knowing my interest in food, our guide Anh took us to an orchard where the trees are grafted and grown. Although fruit trees grow like weeds in the Mekong, the orchards develop the best varieties.

Back home, I was excited to see a pack of rambutans in an Asian supermarket in London’s Chinatown. They were relatively big fruit and they made me happy just to see them piled up in a bowl in the dining room. I’m a sucker for foods that remind me of Vietnam. I ended up taking them around to Lemur friends JD and M as a gift, and while they were sweet and tasty, the skin stuck a bit too much to the flesh for ideal snacking. This is probably the inevitable difference between fruit that are local and plentiful and import varieties that have come halfway across the world. Regardless, rambutans are so vibrant and evocative, I’ll no doubt buy them again when I come across them…

 

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