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Restaurant Review: Northcote

As one of the best restaurants in the north-west for the past two decades, Northcote’s inevitably achieved some great things over the years. Yet head and shoulders above all its accolades, its 3 AA rosettes, the Michelin star it’s held since 1996, the brace of Great British Menu victories, was one day in February 2009, when the restaurant tenderly took my Michelin virginity and a certain special someone took leave of her senses and agreed to my proposal of marriage.

Now, one of these events is obviously not as important as the other but nevertheless it was the reason why we were paying our third visit to the Ribble Valley’s finest – what better way to celebrate a first wedding anniversary than a return to the place of our engagement?*

We went on our one-night gourmet break at the end of July, now dab hands at getting the most out of the experience after the two previous stays. We got a deluxe room with a view of the garden so we could see the chefs picking the produce we’d be eating that night. We made time to admire the great menus that bedeck the walls of the corridors and lounge, and I remembered to take a picture of the really interesting one.** We relaxed in the bar and enjoyed free botanical drinks in our room and made damn sure we didn’t go for lunch at the curryhouse down the road again.***

Northcote’s gardens, as seen from the window of our room

“The really interesting one” – menu from Joël Robuchon’s legendary Jamin, May 1993

By the time we went down to the lounge for pre-meal champagne and canapés, we were well set for a wonderful evening. As ever, Northcote didn’t disappoint.

The canapés were two: a rich tartare of dexter beef and an exquisite florette of cauliflower, perfectly tempura’d. I’d always thought cauliflower an insipid vegetable – this buttery little morsel sort of blew my mind.

We finished the Louis Roederer Brut Premier and made our way to the dining room, so much lighter and smarter and comfier than on our first visit 42 months before. An amuse-bouche of beetroot and goat’s cheese was a casual delight; ice cream in a sea of foam, fresh and clean. My wife’s amuse was a similar palate cleanser, a play on the theme of melon: sorbet floating on soup.

Beetroot Amuse-Bouche

Melon Amuse-Bouche

Bread arrived and I feasted. Butter was a fine companion but the olive oil with black treacle was special. A wicked Lancashire cheese roll awakened feelings previously reserved for The Ledbury’s bacon and onion brioche and Northcote’s own roast onion bread was almost as good. More came with the starter, an accompaniment to hand cut raw dexter, white radish, garden sorel and a quail’s egg yolk. I got marrowbone toast with caper butter, a delicious, crispy soldier of salt that married well with the beautiful plate of food. My wife got toast topped with cured scallops, which was infinitely, infinitely better.

Bread

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel

Marrowbone Toast

Tail and claw of west coast lobster followed, carefully cooked and served in winning tandem with scorched leeks. Caviar, real and fake, added a classical sparkle to the dish though I was less convinced by the potato gel, which had a slightly bitter, chemical taste.

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

Chilled tomato soup with slow-cooked watermelon, sheep’s curd, avocado and peppers took us on a surprise – and in my case, unwelcome – trip to Mexico; a journey through flavours I don’t particularly like. Yet bizarrely this was perhaps the most impressive part of the meal, each element dazzling in its purity. So sweet was the tomato, so fresh was the melon, you’d think you were sat in the Med.

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado

Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

A side of stone-baked garlic flatbread helped to link it with the main course, lamb loin and breast with elephant garlic, pressed potatoes and marjoram. This was one stunning piece of meat away from being a lovely dish though the new season Yorkshire lamb didn’t quite deliver, the loin lacking succulence, the flavours somewhat overpowered by the herbs.

Loin of New Season’s Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

My meal ended with what appeared to be a basic construction of malt wafers and stout ice cream but which broke open to unleash the most incredible, velvety blackcurrant coulis. A small swipe of liquorice added subtle depth but really this was all about the home-grown blackcurrants, the quality of which made the dessert into an utter joy.

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

I was enjoying my pudding too much to try my wife’s but she loved hers as well: thyme meringue with lemon curd, celery sorbet and celeriac. It was probably her favourite course of the day, tomato soup aside.

Thyme Meringue, Lemon Curd, Celery Sorbet, Celeriac

We returned to the lounge to finish up, tea with petits fours. I had the house’s take on a Crunchie, a chocolate truffle and an excellent mini Eccles cake. My wife had her own honeycomb and a jelly made from champagne. A fine brandy capped it all off.

Petits Fours

Petits Fours

The full menu along with wine pairing is below:

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GOURMET MENU

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel, Marrowbone Toast

Clos Mireille, Domaines Ott, Côtes de Provence, France, 2010

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

Chardonnay, Neudorf, Nelson, New Zealand, 2010

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado, Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

Loin of New Seasons Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

Gran Reserva 904, La Rioja Alta, Spain, 1998

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

Elysium, Black Musat, Andrew Quady, California, USA, 2010

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This was another excellent meal at Northcote, probably the best we’ve had there. Service was as good as ever and the breakfasts seem to keep getting better too.

Following my second visit I suggested I probably wouldn’t return for an overnight stay again as I’m keen to explore other places. Having broken that vow once and had such a fantastic time, I think I’m going to have to keep breaking it, at least every few years or so.

Northcote’s a special place, special to me personally and just special full stop. I look forward to going back.

 
Northcote Manor on Urbanspoon

 

Food: 20/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 8.5/10

Overall score: 75/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)

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*Erm, that’s “not as important” from the perspective of a food blog… yes, that’s definitely what I mean…

We were actually boring a member of staff with the story as he took us up to our room and he said that only a few weeks earlier they’d had a proposal and the woman spent the rest of her meal on the phone breaking the news to friends and family. I had the good sense to propose beforehand – wouldn’t want any distractions from the food now, would I?

**I’m not a big fan of my first proper write-up of Northcote but I do go into some detail about the menus so it’s worth checking out if that’s your thing.

***If you’re feeling a bit peckish and think you’ll just walk into Langho for a bite to eat, don’t. You’ll end up at this Indian restaurant and you’ll hate yourself for it. Stay in your room, bite the bullet and fork out for room service instead. It will be worth it.

Hamper Review: Forman and Field

As a food blogger, even one as insignificant as me, PR firms are always lining up to give you something free in exchange for publicity.

More often than not what I get offered is crap. Only a few weeks ago I said “no thank you” to representatives of a well-known, cheap food brand, whose most popular product I blame for a spectacular bout of food poisoning suffered last year.

Perhaps they misunderstood where I was coming from with Foods To Try Before You Die, read it as some sort of cuisine-themed suicide note. “We’ve made him violently ill before so he’ll love this!”

At the very least I’m certain they hadn’t bothered to read any of my posts. I know not every item on The List fits into the luxury category but the lack of budget ready meals really should’ve been a clue. Economy supermarket is not the undiscovered niche I’m looking for.

So I must say it was refreshing to be asked to review a hamper by the folks at gourmet food retailer Forman and Field, a company much more in-keeping with the quality focus of my blog. I hadn’t tried any of their wares before but I had been on their website and liked what I saw. Indeed, in the early days of The List, when it was basically just an offline Word document with pictures, porchetta was listed as an item solely off the back of seeing it on Forman and Field’s site. I thought it looked awesome so on there it went.*

Thus when I was asked to review one of the company’s hampers my answer was a bit of a no-brainer. “Why yes. Yes I would.”

I was a little surprised by the quality of everything as I rummaged through the picnic basket. I’d expected luxury but I hadn’t expected the very best. Cheese (Stichelton, Innes Log, Berkswell and Ardrahan) was from Neal’s Yard, a supplier of Michelin-starred restaurants up and down the country. Smoked salmon was from H. Forman & Son**, a century-old pioneering producer, as reputable as you can find. The pork pie was Mrs King’s, arguably the finest Melton Mowbray in existence.

I couldn’t wait to dig in.

The banana bread was the first to go, scoffed down with a mug of tea. Moist and flavourful with a faultless crumb, it was a WI award winner if ever there was one. A similarly good chocolate brownie, the greatest pork pie I’ve ever had and some cheese in immaculate condition followed. It was a strong start.

The next day I tried Paul Wayne Gregory’s tea-infused chocolates and they were what you’d expect from an award-winning chocolatier: texturally perfect. The lapsang souchong wasn’t really to my tastes and the Earl Grey flavour was perhaps too subtle but the jasmine in the middle was “just right”. My wife made the obvious Goldilocks joke.

Potted lobster was enjoyable on rye bread toast though, if I’m honest, I expected a little more from it. They weren’t stingy with the lobster and there was nothing wrong with the cooking but I spent the entire time wishing it was potted shrimp instead. Given my favourite shellfish-based spread is much cheaper, I don’t see why anyone would bother buying this.

Regardless, I’d say the Alderton ham was perhaps the only bit that was sub-par. It was very nice ham, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be confident I could take a 20-minute walk down the road and find something better. I genuinely couldn’t say that about anything else – certainly not the smoked salmon. The London cure was up there with the best I’ve tasted; the wild vastly superior. I took to Twitter to say I’d never eaten anything better in my own home, and I wasn’t lying. It was divine.

Afterwards I had the lemon curd, which was never going to compete, but was excellent nonetheless. I made it into a little tart with a base of crushed digestive biscuits and later vowed that I should eat lemon curd more often. It was delicious.

Here’s what was in the box, with pictures.

Genuine Wild and London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon (H. Forman & Son)

London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon

Wild Smoked Scottish Salmon

Potted Lobster (Forman & Field)

Chocolate Brownie and Banana Bread (Forman & Field)***

Lemon Curd (Forman & Field)

Hand Carved Ham (Alderton Ham)

Pure Indulgence Chocolates (Paul Wayne Gregory)

Tea-infused chocolates (left to right): Earl Grey, jasmine, lapsang souchong

Pork Pie (Mrs King’s)

Selection of Dairy Cheeses (Neal’s Yard)

Innes Log – unpasteurised goat’s milk

Berkswell – unpasteurised sheep’s milk

Stichelton – unpasteurised cow’s milk

Ardrahan – pasteurised cow’s milk

Overall I was very impressed with the hamper sent to me by Forman and Field. The food was all extremely high-end and I think it’d be difficult to find better quality in your local area, even at specialist shops or farmers’ markets. Certainly assembling produce this good on your own would take a lot of time.

One thing that’s put me off buying food online in the past is concern over freshness. How many days before this was posted was it packed? Is it going to be stale or past its best? I’d look on something like Maldon Rock oysters as pure food poisoning bait, and why pay for a stomach bug when there’s a company out there willing to send me one for free?

But I think, based on the evidence of the cheese (the biggest freshness test), I would trust Forman and Field to send me just about anything. Apparently cut on the same day the hamper was posted, it was in better condition than any cheese I’ve had outside a Michelin star restaurant.

And I can’t praise it much higher than that.

Visit Forman and Field

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*As you can see, I eventually took porchetta off The List when I decided to make it exclusively about food that I’d genuinely be disappointed not to try in my lifetime, rather than just stuff that I liked the look of. But I would still like to try it.

**H. Forman & Son is linked to Forman and Field, so I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by that one.

***I forgot to take a picture of the chocolate brownie. Sorry.

 

Food #12: Victorian mince pies

Everyone thinks Victorian mince pies sound nice until you tell them what they actually are. I’m not sure what it is about the word ‘Victorian’ that does it but it makes boring old mince pies into bouncy-castle-style thrill-fests for those who hear the name.

Almost every conversation I’ve had about them has gone the same way. You see that bright-eyed excitement as they take their shoes off and prepare to enter the inflatable moshpit, their little minds teeming with the possibilities created by PVC, air and violent children. They couldn’t be any more in their element, desperate to jump on in there and enjoy what is no doubt going to be the ‘funnest’ day of their lives.

And then you, being an utter bastard, take out a big pin and pop their dreams.*

(I’m only exaggerating a little bit.)

“Ooooh, Victorian mince pies sound lovely! How are they different from normal ones?”

“Well, they’re exactly the same really. The only difference is that the mincemeat contains real meat.”

“Oh… that sounds disgusting! Ewww!!”

And they look at you like you’ve just raped their world and you wish you’d never mentioned them in the first place.

Fortunately for me, not everyone reacts in the same way. When I declared that I’d be ticking this particular item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list over Christmas, my good friend Andy volunteered to help taste test. Wives were drafted in** and the stage was set for a food I’ve been eager to try for as long as I can remember.

Mincemeat with real meat

There are various recipes for Victorian mince pies out there – some using lamb, some using beef. Mine, a sirloin steak variety, was written 160 years ago by the fabulously-named Mrs Rundle, and you can read it here (or watch the video).

Now, in my head, a Victorian mince pie would be exactly the same as a normal mince pie, except instead of currants you’d have beef mince. That this mixture sounds so bizarre and revolting is what made me put it on The List in the first place – it’s the sort of interesting experience I feel I have to try.

So imagine my raging disappointment when I realised after all these years that the amount of beef in this thing could be measured in quantities of bugger all. A 450g steak seems decent enough until you see the recipe also calls for 450g of sugar, and 450g of suet, and 4 large apples, and 1.35kg of currants, and a whole host of similarly heavy ingredients. For every pound of beef in the mix, there were eight or nine pounds of everything else!

When the mixture was cooked down and ready to be put into the pastry, my wife came into the kitchen and asked whether I’d put the meat in yet. She couldn’t even see it for how little there was in there. And there were no other clues to the presence of real meat either. The mix smelled beautiful – a purer fragrance of Christmas you will not find – but there were no beefy odours emanating from the pot. It was just the standard aroma of mincemeat.

By the time the pies had been through the oven and we sat down to eat them, I was starting to think we wouldn’t even be able to taste the steak at all. I’m still wondering whether I made up the fact that I could.

Mince pies with real meat

The mince pies were excellent, as good as any others I’ve made from scratch. They tasted exactly like normal mince pies with just a couple of tiny differences, the first of which was so subtle it might well have been a figment of my imagination.

There was a hint of extra richness in there which I’ve not come across in a mince pie before. My tastebuds couldn’t pick it out specifically, but they just had this little flavour tone running through them that I couldn’t match up to anything other than the steak. “You’re clutching at straws” read the expression on everyone else’s face when I suggested this was the case, but I stand by it.

Less debatable was the difference in texture. The meat had been finely chopped but of course it doesn’t break down like the fruit does, so every couple of bites I’d come across a little chewy lump of beef. This was reasonably pleasant although it added little more than novelty to the dish. Certainly, it could’ve easily done without it.

And really, that was it. Nothing amazing, nothing disgusting, nothing particularly different at all. The only significant impact the inclusion of steak had was on the bill, which it more or less trebled.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Verdict: A waste of time and money, though if ignore the steak part, the rest of the recipe’s well worth following.

NEXT UP: Rose veal

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*It’s important to note that, on occasion, I have been accused of having an overactive imagination.

**I should specify that’s ‘our’ wives, as opposed to a selection of random married women. I imagine I would have got into some trouble if the latter scenario had transpired, and no doubt I would’ve had to go through the bouncy castle story all over again.

Food #11 continued: Valrhona chocolate

Click here to read Part 1 of this Valrhona chocolate post.

There were no fat old ladies this time around; no suspicious shop assistants either. There was no long deliberation process by a scruffy man.

As I walked back into the Harvey Nichols food section I knew precisely which chocolate bar I wanted and I’d had my hair cut. That’s 200 words of preamble saved through research and an £8 trip to the barbers.

I’d been tempted by the El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% on my first visit; held it up against the other Valrhona bars and mmmd and ahhhd. The packaging was good, the blurb was great. It looked so much better than the chocolate I actually bought and the price suggested it was too, approx £6.50 for 75g versus £3.99 for 70g.

I swooned at the idea of a ‘vintage’. Of course it’s a gimmick but like any good one it still appeals once you’ve seen right through it. There are few meaningless words capable of stirring up such irrational feelings of lust.

El Pedregal was left on the shelf on the first Valrhona buying trip simply because I was being cheap and wanted to try three different bars instead of two. Having read a couple of decent reviews of it online, there was no question of that happening again. Valrhona’s champion had been chosen and it was time to put it to the test.

Valrhona El Pedregal 64% Dark Chocolate

The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage was a much more conventional-looking bar than the others I’d tried previously, and classily dressed. Appearances matter with ‘luxury’ items and between the smart exterior and golden foil wrapper, it all looked reassuringly expensive.

Chocolate lovers bang on about snap and smell, and to my novice ears and nose there were no letdowns here either. The aroma was strong and spicy; attractive in a way that makes you want to actually eat the bar rather than keep sniffing it.* The audible thunk it gave when I broke off a piece was as rich and assured as that of a car door.**

And the taste was complex and interesting. With every chew came a different wave of flavours – dried fruits, coffee and liquorice, to name a few – all complemented by a wonderful melting texture, far superior to that of any other bar I’ve had.

The different flavours kept coming for several seconds after I’d swallowed. It wasn’t a Dom Pérignon-level epic finish, but impressive nonetheless for a bar of chocolate. I certainly didn’t expect it to linger so well.

Yet, for all the intriguing things going on with the El Pedregal as the taste continued to develop in my mouth, I found myself waiting for one crucial component that never arrived. The key element I needed before I could declare Valrhona chocolate a winner:

Pleasure.

It’s difficult, but the best way I can think to describe it is to imagine you work in a highly specialised industry where it’s important to keep up to date with the latest trends. Something big happens, so you set aside some time and read all about it. It’s interesting in a professional sense – you lap it up because change is always exciting relative to the general mundanity of your job.

But outside of work you don’t read about it, you don’t talk about it, you carry on as if nothing has happened. And you do this because there’s no enjoyment to be had. Without the context of your employment, it’s too boring to mention.

And that’s just how the Valrhona El Pedregal 2011 Vintage was for me. It’s undoubtedly a very fine bar of chocolate and it was fun to try in the sense of ticking an item of my Foods To Try Before You Die list. But in the sense of everything else, it was really, really dull. If I didn’t know I was going to write about it, I’d probably have forgotten the details along with those of the lesser Valrhona bars.

It’s sad but I think that’s probably it now for me and straight chocolate. I’m still open to ‘chocolates’ (as in ‘a box of’) but I definitely can’t imagine spending good money on a high-end bar again – Valrhona or otherwise. I just don’t seem to get them, and can’t seem to take any enjoyment from eating them, so what’s the point in buying them at all?

It’s possible I may come back to this in years’ time, as my palate develops and different flavours become more appealing to my tastebuds. But right now, you can forget about foods to try before I die – chocolate is a food I could quite happily never try again.

Verdict: No recommendation

NEXT UP: Victorian mince pie

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*This is unlike a lot of brandies, and also Tic Tacs, where the aroma rather than the taste comes across as the main event.

**A slightly groan-inducing image, perhaps, but one that I can’t seem to shake. I find it amazing how much effort goes into ensuring a car door makes the right sort of sound when it closes. Left to their own devices, you’d get quite a tinny noise when slamming a metal door shut, which isn’t something people associate with safety and security. So they engineer the doors specially to make a more robust sound which people are more comfortable with.

I’m sure Valrhona don’t spend millions on this like the car industry does, but the sound the chocolate makes when it breaks is clearly an important consideration when they go through the tempering process.

Foods To Try Before The Radio

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen that I was on BBC Radio Manchester (95.1FM) this week, giving a live interview about my Foods To Try Before You Die list on Heather Stott’s show.

If you live in the UK, you can listen to it here – it should be available until May 9th. I was on Wednesday’s episode (02/05/2012) and my five-minute piece with Matt White is about 2hrs 40mins in.

It was a lot of fun doing this and hopefully I can go back on in the not too distant future and give an update on some of the foods I’ve been trying and what new things have been catching my eye.

Items from my list that get mentioned this time around include Chicken Cooked in a Pig’s Bladder, Potted Shrimp, Goose, Capon and Steak Tartare!

Food #11: Valrhona chocolate

“What is he doing?” the fat old lady probably thought as she past the scruffy bearded bloke for the third time. He’d been stood in the same spot in the confectionary aisle for well over ten minutes, forcing her to turn sideways and squeeze her ample frame through as she waddled around the shop filling her basket.

She wasn’t alone in noticing – or scowling at – the man, who kept picking things up, staring at them, then putting them back again. The Harvey Nichols staff were peering over too, undoubtedly trying to make sure that nothing fishy was going on, and wondering whether he was ever going to buy anything.

After a while one of them decided enough was enough; let’s see what this fella’s up to, said the steely look in her eye.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?”

“No, I’m fine thank you,” was the reply. “I’m just really struggling to make up my mind!”

Satisfied that he was neither loony nor thief, the assistant went back to her till and the scruff’s gaze returned to the rows and rows of Valrhona chocolate that had him so entranced.

It was another five minutes before a decision was made.

Valrhona Chocolate Logo

Founded in 1922 in a district to the south of Lyon, Valrhona’s generally considered to be one of the best chocolate manufacturers on the planet. Its products are used in some of the finest restaurants in the world to create some of the finest puddings in the world, including the legendary chocolate croustillant at Le Louis XV in Monaco.

Plenty of Michelin-starred places wield the Valrhona name as if it’s the ultimate in quality. Make a dessert using chocolate from another manufacturer and it will simply appear on the menu as a ‘chocolate dessert’; make it with Valrhona and all of a sudden it becomes a ‘Valrhona chocolate dessert’.

Valrhona Chocolate Dessert on Northcote Manor menu

An example of a ‘Valrhona’ chocolate dessert from the menu of Michelin-starred Northcote Manor. The typo’s slightly unfortunate, but it still makes my point.

More than any other, it seems, Valrhona’s a brand that chefs are proud to show off.*

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest chocolate fan, but given the widespread veneration for Valrhona, I couldn’t help but place it on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. Annoyingly, what I hadn’t really thought about until I stood there agonising over a shelf in Harvey Nichols was whether a standard chocolate bar could be a true representation of what’s so good about this company’s products.** And, if it could be, which one should I choose?

I eventually decided the best I could do was just buy a range of bars and rate the lot.

Valrhona Guanaja, Manjari and Albinao chocolate bars

I’ve had a couple of underwhelming experiences as I’ve worked my way through The List over the last year or so, but the Guanaja, 70% really dropped the bar to a new low. It looked and smelled the part, even had a texture that wouldn’t be amiss in chocolate of real quality. But the flavour was virtually non-existent; in depth terms, flatter than a witch’s tit. All I could make out amid the dry, nothing taste of cardboard was a single bitter tone – cheap and unpleasant.

“Don’t worry, you’re not missing anything,” I told my dairy sensitive wife, who’d been very jealous about me conducting a taste test in which she couldn’t partake. “Fucking Bournville’s better than this.”

With a sense of dread starting to set in, I moved on to the Manjari, 64% – a significant improvement in the taste department, although still remarkably unimpressive. If it was Taste the Difference, you’d think Sainsbury’s had lowered their standards – that’s about the level we’re talking here.

Valrhona Grand Cru Abinao 85% Dark Chocolate

Finally I turned to the Albinao, 85%, praying that it’d be the chocolate bar to make all that agonising worth it; to make the £12 or so I’d spent worth it. This was even better still – about as good as a bog standard bar from Green and Black’s.

Oh god what a waste of time. What a waste of money! How little I’m describing each bar is testament to their quality. They were just immensely bland and forgettable; overpriced and an embarrassment to the supposedly prestigious Valrhona name.

I started writing up a blog post to lament the experience; to express my disappointment at Valrhona’s rubbish offering. I got about half way through my vitriolic rant before deciding something wasn’t quite right.

I figured that even if chocolate bars aren’t their main strength, a company as well-regarded as Valrhona can’t be all crap. Perhaps I just got unlucky with the bars I chose? Maybe my palate just wasn’t in the mood that week?

After some thought, I decided I’d give Valrhona chocolate one last chance at redemption. I’d go back to Harvey Nichols, buy another bar and see if it couldn’t change my mind.

The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% was picked as the company’s final champion.

Valrhona El Pedregal 64% Dark Chocolate

TO BE CONTINUED…

Click here to read Part 2 of this Valrhona chocolate post.

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*I had to laugh when a few days after writing this paragraph I received the menu for a friend’s wedding which listed this as a dessert option:

Deluxe chocolate dessert with brownie, Valrhona chocolate mousse, vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate coated strawberry.

I picked a fresh berry pudding instead.

**I have very loose rules about trying to be fair which you can read in my FAQ.

Food #10: Oysters

Raw oysters

Oysters (note: this image is purely for illustrative purposes and is not of the oysters I talk about below)

When I set about planning a week in London last year, oysters were as prominent a part of my plans as Michelin stars. I figured I’d get off the train at Euston, hop on over to St Pancras and the St Pancras Grand, crack open a bottle of champagne and tip a dozen bivalve molluscs down my throat.

It didn’t matter that I’d never had oysters before and might not like them, it just sounded like a good idea.

As plans changed and I realised it’d be a stretch to go to the St Pancras Grand on day one, I decided I’d get my first taste of oysters while on a trip to Borough Market instead. The Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House was earmarked. It looked like a lot of fun.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find space in my schedule to go to Borough Market either. By the time I had time for some oyster chugging, it was the end of the week. Homesick, overeating and rich food sick, I decided to give it a miss. My first oyster experience would have to wait.

I eventually ticked this item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list a couple of months later – completely unplanned – at Manchester’s Smoak, a restaurant known more for its steak than its seafood. I’d spent most of the day at a whisky tasting and was pretty damn drunk by the time I arrived. Not really in the mood for oysters, my wife and I ordered just half a dozen between us. What followed next was, I felt, quite profound.*

The Cornish oysters arrived in a ridiculously oversized bucket, so full of ice I half-expected to see a polar bear roaming amongst it. Lemon quarters, shallot vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco were shoved in alongside.

I looked down at the oysters and they glared back at me – huge albino slugs, trodden into jagged shells, threatening to come alive at any moment. I was John Hurt, staring on the eggs of aliens, at risk of one bursting open and attaching itself to my face.

Oysters didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I was dreading the first tip; steeling myself for something truly horrific. I’ve never hesitated with food before, but I had the same feeling with this that I have when someone places a shot of tequila in front of me.** It wasn’t going to taste nice; afterwards I might have to fight the urge to vomit.

My wife cracked one down her throat, and I decided I should stop being such a pussy and followed suit.

A salty tang of seawater filled my mouth and I gave the mollusc a couple of chews. The texture was as anticipated – a combination of raw gristle and jellied mucous. The flavour was that of brine.

Swallowing was unpleasant – like chugging down a big ball of snot – however, there were no feelings of nausea after; I simply felt incredibly underwhelmed.

“Seriously, that was it?!”

Some people love oysters, worship them, can’t get enough. I’d expected that if that wasn’t me, I’d have to be the antithesis – hate oysters, revile them, can’t get away quick enough. But I had no opinion either way. I just didn’t get it.

I tried another oyster with a squeeze of lemon and some shallot vinegar. This was better because it didn’t just taste of salty water, but it still felt like there was no point in me eating it. It was doing nothing for me at all.

The last oyster I had with a dash of Tabasco. The sauce jarred with the ocean taste and I wished I’d just stuck with the lemon instead. Again, I didn’t understand.

At Smoak that evening, for the first time in my life, I’d eaten something and been totally bewildered as to why anybody bothers to eat it. Just what is the appeal of this giant bogey that tastes like the sea? It’s not that it was revolting or anything like that. It was just banal.

I appreciate that these were probably far from the best oysters available. I can also see how you might be able to get some enjoyment from the way oysters are consumed. However, I cannot at all envisage how people take pleasure from the actual eating.

I don’t plan to try them again.

Verdict: I can’t possibly recommend oysters based on my experience, but maybe you could try them and tell me what I seem to be missing.

NEXT UP: Valrhona chocolate

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*How profound I might have found any of this had I not spent all afternoon knocking back drams is up for debate.

**Tequila and I were once great friends. When I was 18 years old, we were as close as close could be. For seven months, we partied together relentlessly. Salt and lime were shunned – we wanted nothing to come between us. But after a while tequila began to turn on me. The taste of her started to make me feel sick, then the smell of her started to make me feel sick. Once the mere thought of her made me want to vomit, I decided we could no longer see each other. People I know who don’t understand our past will occasionally bring her along to parties. When this happens I just need to grit my teeth, choke back the chunder, and get on with it.

Food #9: Confit de Canard

Duck confit jar

Confit de Canard smells.*

It pongs like the arsehole of a rabid badger, which has been mysteriously coated with ghee.

[Insert your own Brian May jokes here.]

Tipping it from its jar, pulling a face like Alan Rickman sniffing kippers, I decided it was probably the second worst edible food stuff I’d ever whiffed.**

“I hope it smells better once it’s cooked,” said my wife.

“I hope we don’t get botulism,” was my reply.

We’d bought the duck confit from The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury the same day we picked up this little lot

From top left: 2006 Tesco Finest Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, Confit de Canard, 2007 Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009 Codorniu Cava, Black Bread, Southport Potted Shrimps, Focolare Italian Ham, Bresaola, Foie Gras de Canard Entier, Posciutto di Parma, Margerita Olive Bread, Wild Boar Salami, Sausage and Black Pudding Roll, Truffle Salami

…and were so full when the time came to eat it, we decided to simply have it on its own rather than as part of a full meal.

Before I inflicted the noxious odour on my poor nose, I had to melt the preservative duck fat by placing the closed jar in a pan of boiling water. Once done, I removed the duck legs from the gloop, placed them in a roasting tin and poured the fat back over the top.

It smelt much better after 20 minutes cooking in a hot oven. In fact it smelt bloody marvellous.

I found myself thinking of the Waterside Inn and the scent of its eternally-roasting ducks – an aroma so heady I couldn’t help but open the door to my room every ten minutes just so I could breathe it in.

Duck confit cooking in the oven

The first taste was a big wow. When you eat as much terrible takeaway crispy duck as I do, it’s easy to forget what a properly-cooked leg should taste like, and the flavours here were leagues away from even my highest expectations. A jucier and more succulent piece of duck I have never had.

But it was to get better. A lot better, in fact. I’d heard people say that the best bit about duck confit is the crispy skin, but there was nothing crispy at all about the gelatinous membrane on these legs, which had all the gluey consistency of watered spunk.

Cooked duck confit

I’m not particularly shy about what I eat, but this looked disgusting so I scraped it off and moved it to the edge of the plate. Lost in the bird’s moist flesh, I’d completely forgotten about it until my wife piped up to ask me if I’d tried the meat with the fat yet.

“You definitely should,” she urged. “It’s amazing.”

And amazing it was. Again my mind went back to a great meal, this time at Hibiscus, when I had duck foie gras for the first time. The flavour of the confit dish was just so much more potent with the fat involved; an intense ducky taste, light years beyond that of your pan-fried breast and other standard duck fare.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the confit wasn’t as good as the foie gras at Hibiscus or the whole-roast duck at the Waterside Inn. If you tasted them one after another, you’d think I was insane; these two limbs, which had spent god knows how long basting inside a spreadable heart attack, would not compare.

But the greatness of the duck confit – from the moment it was in the oven to the last ounce of meat I picked off the bone – was that it was good enough to help me relive a small portion of these incredible experiences in my own home, for a fraction of the cost, and with a minimal amount of effort.

There was nothing revolutionary about it; nothing that I’d I miss if I didn’t eat it again for as long as I live. But I will eat confit de canard again, definitely. I’ll eat it again, and again, and again and again.

Why? Because it was easy. And – more importantly – it was absolutely delicious.

Verdict: Recommended

NEXT UP: Raw Oysters

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*I should probably say, for any new readers, that this is one of my Foods To Try Before You Die. I would normally mention this in the main text, but I forgot, so here you go!

**Without a bit of badger rectum added to it, ghee smells far worse.

Foods To Try Before 2013

I have plans for 2012. I have plans that involve a new passport, trips to Belfast and Bangor, and London and Paris; plans that must be executed before a bun appears in my wife’s proverbial oven, forcing them all to be put on hold.

My plans will see me scratch the itches left over from 2011 and tick the boxes I thought by now I might’ve already ticked. They should take me on a fabulous roller-coaster ride of flavours, textures and aromas, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

My plans will see me cross many more items off my list of Foods To Try Before You Die.* It is my greatest hope that they will see me eat the meal of a lifetime.

These are my restaurant plans for 2012:

Manchester

Aumbry

The River Restaurant at The Lowry Hotel

Belfast

Deanes

London

Koffmann’s

Ledbury

Paris

Le Meurice

The dining room at Le Meurice, Paris

And these are the Foods To Try Before You Die I’ve got my eye most closely on:

Abalone

Capon

Éclair au Chocolat [from Jacques Genin]

Goose

Icewine

Macaroons [from Ladurée]

Macaroons [from Pierre Hermé]

Omelette Arnold Bennett

Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Sweetbreads & Morels [at Koffmann’s, London]

Rose Veal

Roast Rib of Beef

Salt-Baked Fish

Tarte au Citron [from Jacques Genin]

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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*My apologies for neglecting the primary focus of this blog in the last few weeks. As you’ll have seen, a killer Japanese restaurant, end of year lists and Christmas have been taking centre stage in my mind. I haven’t completely forgotten about The List though. I’ve been adding new items to it as ever – it’s now up to 66 – and another of my plans will see me recap the eating of these four bad boys in the coming weeks:

Food #9: Confit de Canard

Food #10: Raw Oysters

Food #11: Valrhona Chocolate

Food #12: Victorian Mince Pie

Best of 2011: Restaurant Dish of the Year

As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.

TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

  1. Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.

I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.

I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.

2.      Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]

3.      Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

4.      Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]

Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)

 5.      Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).

I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.

It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)

6.      Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]

7.      Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

8.      Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]

9.      Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

 10.      Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]

This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)

1.      Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]

2.      Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]

Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.

3.      Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]

When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.

Eccles cakes wedding cake, Slattery's

My Eccles cake wedding cake, or as Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier described it: "Brilliant croque en bouche a l'Anglaise."

4.      Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]

5.      Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]

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