Celebrating Sakura at Sake no Hana

The cherry blossom or sakura is much revered in Japan. Each spring, as the pretty pink flowers engulf cherry trees throughout the Japanese islands, the evening news includes a blossom report, tagging the towns and cities where the blossoms have appeared, until the entire map of Japan, from Okinawa in the south to Hokkaido in the far north, is blushed entirely in pink. It’s traditional to hold blossom parties beneath flowering cherry trees, snacking on sushi and swilling sake in celebration of nature’s beauty. This year, the sakura party reached London.

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Sake no Hana, Hakkasan Group’s Japanese restaurant in St James’, threw a sakura bash this year in its downstairs bar. Walking up St James’ Street there was a waft of cherry blossom, leading us by the nose to the venue which was filled with branches of soft, pink blooms, courtesy of florist, Veevers Carter. The scent was that of Floris‘s Cherry Blossom fragrance, developed for the Japanese market but readily available here, an eau de parfum with a heart note of cherry blossom.

Inside, a pair of kimono-wrapped musicians twanged their instruments in one corner, creating an authentic, Japanese atmosphere. In rhythm with the music, the bartenders barely had time to stop shaking between pours, such was the demand of thirsty guests.

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Sake no Hana has developed various limited edition offerings for sakura, including the Violet Risshun, their signature cocktail for the season. It’s made by blending two parts: the first, presented in a carafe, contains Jinzu gin, chartreuse, grapefruit and lemon juices, shiso syrup and Burlesque bitters; the second component arrives in a jug, containing maraschino cherry liqueur (but, of course), Belsazar rose vermouth, cranberry and lemon juices. The carafe’s contents are green, representing the onset of spring, whilst the pink of the jug’s contents signifies the season’s peak. One starts by drinking from the carafe, then one might sip a little of the jug’s liquid, later stirring both together to create an altogether new, third drink.

Other sakura specials at Sake no Hana include: the Sakura Gozen, a Bento Box accompanied by white miso soup and sesame spinach, containing sashimi, nigiri and maki, together with the Sakura cocktail; the sweet Cotton Cheesecake, served with cherries, cream cheese and cherry sorbet; Sakura tea, made with the leaves of cherry trees, and the Sakura Macaron, with cherry blossom tea ganache, pictured below.

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In the crush of cherry blossom-chasers I didn’t have much room to photograph the nibbles circulating about the bar, but I can say that the sushi was so good that it spawned the idea of popping upstairs to the restaurant for dinner.

Before succumbing to that temptation, my husband and I spent time with three gentlemen who’d earlier performed a sake barrel-opening ceremony. They were a delight to meet, offering to photograph us, hammer in hand, pretending to open the barrel ourselves. Here is a picture of Mr Hiroyuki Ito, the General Manager for the Takara Shuzo Co., behind the barrel, from where he and his colleagues served small tumblers of a cool, smooth Junmai sake called Sho Chiku Bai Gokai Chokara. It was so refreshing that we went back for more. Twice over. Meanwhile, Mr Ito, along with his colleague, Mr Motoki Nagaoka, and the Sales Manager for Tazaki Foods, Mr Masa Ando, explained the significance of sake barrel-openings. They’re reserved for special occasions such as weddings, naming ceremonies and company openings, not to mention sakura celebrations, such as this.

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Hunger beckoned, so off we set, stopping to thank Alix Pickard, the ever-smiling PR Manager for Hakkasan Group, for her kind invitation. We’d enjoyed our little taster of Japan and so set off up the escalator for more.

*Note 1: Sakura at Sake no Hana is being celebrated from 20 April to 20 June, Monday to Saturday. During this time, the limited edition menu offerings are available in the bar and at the sushi counter.

**Note 2: to be in to win some sakura goodies, upload your photos of springtime blossoms and flowers to Instagram, using the hashtag #sakura2015 Photos will be displayed on the Sake no Hana website. Some of mine are already there!

Sake no Hana

23 St James’ Street, London, SW1 1HA         reservations@sakenohana.com          Tel +44 207 925 8988

instagram.com/sakenohanalondon               facebook.com/sakenohana                  @sakenohana

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

This is a post specifically for a couple of wanderlusting pals who are about to set off to France for a deserved break. On their itinerary is  Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, capital of the marshy region called the Camargue.

Driving south on the D570 from Arles, the land is flat and green. As hotels begin to punctuate the roadside, so do the horses for which this area is known, white or pale grey with wild manes. They’re not necessarily visible in the fields about, but will definitely be there at one of the many riding schools, tethered and saddled and ready to carry the next group of tourists who fancy a spot of equestrianism.

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We’ve visited the Camargue twice now. On our first visit, the Mas where we stayed was run by a family of Camargue horse breeders, who arranged for us to go on an authentic trek in a properly rural area by the Little Rhône. We had to venture with our guide into some quite desolate marshland, locate and catch our horses and tack them up ourselves. I preferred this by far to the alternative of taking a tired, over-ridden horse from one of the roadside ‘schools’. We fed foals and watched birdlife from our saddles, waved at real cowboys acquainted with our guide and trotted along the river as pleasure boats cruised past at their leisure. I can recommend asking around for one of these treks if horses are your thing. Avoid the tourist trap tours. You’ll be able to spot them a mile off because they’re so obvious and the horses look bored and sleepy.

Along this main route into Saintes-Maries are a couple of really good places to eat, in hotels called Mas, after the word for farmhouse or ranch. Some Mas have converted their main house and stables or out-buildings into hotel rooms. The one we stayed in, the Mas de Calabrun, is reached via the D85A, a country road peeling off to the left of the D570, roughly halfway down to Saintes-Maries. It’s quiet, but for the horses braying in a field out the back, and the vege patch is something to be admired. You don’t have to stay here to enjoy their set menu dinners (roughly €30.00 for three courses, excluding drinks), but make sure to book as seating is limited and the food is a subject of local conversation. Using Camarguais ingredients and produce from that vegetable garden I mentioned earlier, their chef de cuisine creates a culinary tribute to the region. Bull meat, or taureau, is a staple around here, so expect to see it on most menus, including at the Mas de Calabrun. However, if you have an overload of bull meat, which is possible in these carnivorous parts, or if you simply don’t like it, ask for an alternative at the time of booking. Most restaurants will arrange this without too much fuss.

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Another good restaurant set in a hotel on the D570 is the Auberge Cavaliere du Pont des Bannes. Surrounded by ponds, horses and little white cabins, it’s a pretty place to dine, but the prices are pretty steep. If you feel like splurging in style, this is a solid option. You may have to pay for it, but the food is excellent.

Wherever you dine, especially if it’s on a terrace or in the proximity of horses, be sure to wear insect repellent and preferably long trousers. Mosquitoes abound in the Camargue. If you’re unlucky and get bitten, remember that toothpaste is an unusual but effective salve; Eight Hour Cream also works well until you can find a pharmacy for bite cream.

In Saintes-Maries proper, at first glance it’s a regular, French seaside resort, with the requisite shops flaunting multi-coloured inflatable toys and beach towels. There’s a bull arena for anyone curious about watching bulls run and perform (bull-fighting tends to be non-bloody here, but I’d advise double-checking) and an ample beach for sun-worshippers, of whom there are plenty in holiday season. Do note that if you go to the beach the public loos (on my last visit, at least) are absolutely filthy. Be prepared and take a pack of tissues. You’ll probably want your Euro back (they’re those paid conveniences with the automatic doors). I found it was a better bet to run up to one of the beachfront bars for a quick drink and subsequent relief. At least their facilities showed signs of having been cleaned in recent days.

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Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is named for three saints named Mary (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe) who, as legend has it, crossed the Med from Alexandria to France following the crucifixion of Christ, landing at this point in the Camargue. Some say that a servant, Sara, accompanied them. A dark-skinned woman, she is the subject of an annual religious festival, to which gypsies or Roma flock in huge numbers. In the centre of town is a large church, the crypt of which contains a statue of Sara. Gypsies are drawn to her and congregate around the church, trying to sell little flowers and the like to tourists. They can be quite persistent. If they annoy you, say nothing and move on, eyes forward. Eventually they’ll give up and move onto softer prey.

There’s a main pedestrianised drag , the rue Victor Hugo, running up from the beachfront to the church square. Here you’ll find lots of takeaway food options: baguettes and local fare, lots and lots of ice cream. Apart from the ice cream, which is hard to get wrong, this isn’t the place for inspiring food. Try the little streets to the side, where you’ll find restaurants serving taureau (naturellement!) and planchas, or hot platters of food that’s fun to share. Avoid the paella, go for the fish. It’s always fresh in these parts and tends to be a reliable option. For something a bit different there’s a little Breton crêperie called Chez Fanneù tucked away behind the church. The savoury crêpes are proper buckwheat, or sarrasin galette variety, made hot to order and folded square. You can also get proper Breton cider here: a good, inexpensive option when refuelling is required.

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Slightly away from town, along the sea front on the corner of rue Léon Gambetta, is the Brûleur de Loups. This is a pleasant restaurant with a slightly retro feel. A long-established eatery in Saintes-Maries, we enjoyed our evening here, with its slightly nineties-style food and old-fashioned service. It gets solid reviews from the French, some of whom liken dining at Le Brûleur to eating in one’s grandmother’s kitchen. It’s better than that, but then French grannies tend to be a touch more Escoffier than ready-meal, so it’s probably a fair assessment. The restaurant serves good seafood and (wait for it) taureau and benefits from lovely sea views.

Aigues-Mortes, meaning dead algae, is an interesting walled-town a short drive cross-country from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Parking outside the medieval walls, with small mountains of blinding-white salt behind, entry to this town is by foot, through one of the ancient gates. It’s pretty, boutique-y and has plenty of interest for French history buffs. The views from the ramparts are worth the climb, but this is not why I mention Aigues-Mortes; I had one of my favourite ever French meals here at a restaurant called Le Minos.

Restaurant Le Minos sits on the main square at the centre of Aigues-Mortes, a busy area in summertime, with myriad eateries skirting the perimeter. A lot of these places have large laminated photos of their offerings – a sure sign of tourist magnets. We looked for somewhere  more authentic, gravitating towards Le Minos and succumbing to the charms of its white-haired, smiling proprietor. I started this lunch with carpaccio of swordfish – garnished only with a sprinkling of Camarguais salt and a squeeze of lemon juice, this was cool and slippery in the best possible way after a morning spent on horseback under a searing sun. (Yes, I still stank of horse during lunch. Belated apologies to our neighbours.) Then I moved onto the main course: rouille des poulpes. Oh, my sainted pantalon! The white-haired man was right. ‘If you like octopus, you’ll LOVE this,’ he told me with a wink. I do love octopus, and this was some of the most unexpectedly sublime octopus I’ve ever had the fortune to eat.

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Rouille to me until now had meant the spicy red sauce that’s stirred into soupe de poissons in France. Rouille des poulpes is more of a casserole, comprising chunks of tender octopus and dice of pillow-soft potato in a creamy sauce with just a touch of mustard. Several times a week I think back to this meal, no joke. It’s stayed with me and one day I vow to return to Aigues-Mortes just to revisit Le Minos and its marvellous octopus rouille. HIGHLY recommended. Apparently the steack-frites is also good, but hey-ho, it’s not rouille des poulpes. You can get steack-frites almost anywhere.

On leaving the Camargue, it’s tempting to do so with a bagful of local products – the salt, the rice, herbs. Maybe a small horse. With the exception of the latter item, most large UK supermarkets stock Camarguais salt and rice, so you needn’t lose baggage space on these items. And if you’re tempted to buy some colourful espadrilles, check them carefully for Made in China stickers. The cheapest ones are no longer French.

So, mes amis, I wish you a safe and happy journey. Enjoy the sea air which will make you sleep well, and the local produce which will help you to eat well.

Bon voyage!

Useful addresses:

The Mas de Calabrun, route D85A, Route de Cacharel, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, TEL +33 4 90 97 82 21

Auberge Cavalière du Pont des Bannes, Route d’Arles D570, 13460 Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer TEL +33 4 90 97 88 88

Chez Fanneù, 6 Place des Remparts, 13460 Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer TEL +33 4 90 97 87 39

Brûleur de Loups, 9 rue Léon Gambetta, 13460 Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer TEL +33 4 90 97 83 31

Restaurant Le Minos, 7 Place Saint Louis, 30220 Aigues-Mortes TEL +33 4 66 53 83 24

Post script:

Market day in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is Monday, with the addition of Fridays during the summer months.

Watch out for cowboys driving bulls from outlying fields to the arena in town. Streets will be closed when this happens. It’s quite a sight – worth asking if this will happen during your visit so you can watch the spectacle.

 

 

 

 

ANZAC Day 2015 – Lest we forget

ANZAC DAY, 25 April annually. A public holiday in New Zealand and Australia. The anniversary of the start of the first campaign of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in the First World War, at Gallipoli, in the Dardanelles. Massive casualties were sustained.

I have a strong lineage. It isn’t aristocratic or regal, but blue collar and enduring. When the British Empire was at its height, my maternal forebears were shipped off to New Zealand, to populate that far corner of the world and build it from scratch. They blew gorges through hillsides and made roads and fought wars to protect it. There was no free pass once out in the colonies. Wherever they were, they continued to fight, as was then their duty, for the Mother Country, England, then still referred to as ‘Home’. As time passed, the settlers’ families continued to support the Empire, though the younger generations may never have seen England for themselves.

In one branch of my New Zealand family there were five eligible lads at the time of the First World War. They all volunteered. Two had only just made it back from the Boer War. Those two fought again.

Of the five who went to war, only two made it home to New Zealand. One fell at Gallipoli; the others in France. We have the trench diary of one – a young man’s random thoughts as he faced an uncertain future, surrounded by mud and muck and death.

Tragic is a frustratingly small word when describing the loss of youth on the battlefields of the First World War. As one of the survivors said to his mother, my great, great grandmother: ‘Mum, the wrong ones came back.’ He wasn’t referring to good or bad in the trenches; rather the fact that his better brothers had perished whilst the livelier ones, perhaps the ones with a bit more backchat, survived.

To remember our family’s sacrifice and those of other ANZAC families, both then and since, my brother and I went to the ANZAC dawn parade in London this year, held at the Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner. 25 April, 2015 marked a hundred years since our ancestors and many other good, young Australian and New Zealand folk (nurses included) began to perish during that particularly barbaric war. They had bayonets to skewer their rivals. Gases were used, to an unfortunately great effect on both sides. As many crossed the battle line in the attempt to gain ground for their side, it was in the knowledge that they probably would not come back. I have no words for such courage. Only one of the three brothers mentioned here was married before he went to war; the others were too young. Not one of the three had children. One of the brothers had wanted to serve God and become a priest. He got to meet his maker much sooner than anticipated, the irony of which escapes no one in our family.

Here are some photos from the dawn service on Anzac Day, 2015:

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From top to bottom: The Wellington Arch before dawn;  later, as the sun began to rise

No 1. London;  Piccadilly was closed to traffic, reminding me of some sort of post-apocalyptic film set

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The Australian War Memorial was both sombre and clever. The grey granite wall was covered in place names. The large names are places around the globe where Australians have fought; the small ones in the background are the Australian hometowns of the military personnel.

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Wreaths laid at the base of the Australian War Memorial (top) and a figure from the Royal Artillery Monument which had been moved for the day to lie directly before the Wellington Arch.

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After the ceremony there was a Maori tribute at the New Zealand War Memorial, but we couldn’t see much, apart from this fetching lad in his grass skirt and feather cloak.

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The soldier above was lovely to speak with. He’s been seconded to a UK regiment and was excited to be in the UK. ‘I feel honoured to serve at the ANZAC Day ceremony,’ he told us from beneath his Lemon Squeezer. The Lemon Squeezer is a hat worn by all ranks of the New Zealand Army on formal occasions. It’s been around since 1916.

In the middle photo, representatives of the Australian, English and New Zealand military lower their flags to half-mast in honour of the dead.

Finally, a moment of quiet reflection before the Australian War Memorial.

Back in NZ, the proportion of young men killed in action affected an entire generation. We knew not one, but two sets of sisters who cohabited until their final days, as fiancés and eligible husbands were removed from the population in such a way that marriageable women no longer had a sure chance of finding a match. The male population had been decimated. It took generations to recover, just in time for the Second World War, but that’s another story…

Clubbing in the Daytime with Tonino Lamborghini

Lamborghini. One distinctive, Italian surname, loaded with imagery of style and speed and fast, rich playboys and girls. When I think Lamborghini I see a sunshine-yellow sports car sweeping up to park outside Monte Carlo’s Hermitage Hotel, the driver dripping in Brioni threads. It’s the sort of car with a dynasty behind it, founded in 1963 by Ferruccio Lamborghini, whose son, Tonino Lamborghini has more recently created a name for himself away from the automotive arena: Tonino has moved into luxury accessories, including hyper-luxe smartphones, humidors, leather goods and (wait for it) VODKA.

And so it was that a few weeks ago I was invited to the Westbury Hotel, here in London, to try the exclusive vodka by Tonino Lamborghini, heir to the automotive dynasty. I say I was invited to the Westbury, as I was expecting a cocktail demo somewhere like the Polo Bar, but quite unexpectedly we ended up underground, at the club for IT people called Number 41.

Apart from our two hosts and an award-winning barman, there were just two of us scribes on the plush red seats at a private table that usually commands quite a sum in whole-bottle orders to reserve. It was mid-week, mid-afternoon and there we were, sipping on cocktails in an empty nightclub, talking about Signor Lamborghini Junior’s foray into distillery. Random, yes, but how fun.

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A few facts about Tonino Lamborghini vodka for you:

  • it has a high-quality base of Eastern European cereals, sourced primarily in the Balkans and Slovakia
  • the harvest is subject to rigorous quality control to eliminate impurities
  • the distilling process raises the quality of the starch content, creating an extremely clear alcohol
  • Franciacorta spring water, known for its low mineral content, is added to lower the alcohol content to the commercial degree of 40% (Franciacorta is in the Italian region of Brescia)

Angular, tall and slightly tapered, I found the Tonino Lamborghini vodka bottle before us to be very masculine in form, almost like a glass representation of a male torso. Add the Raging Bull insignia and it’s hardly a bottle you’d offer your usual dame, but as a gift for a man-about-town it makes perfect sense. Not that many people have this in their liquor cabinet, simply because you won’t find it at just any old offy. Primarily marketed to exclusive nightspots, (the likes of No. 41, Beauchamp Bar, Dstrkt and Funky Buddha in London), there are currently only a couple of places to purchase Tonino Lamborghini as a regular consumer – and they’re online.

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Back to the tasting and a shot of the stuff straight-up preceded cocktails. Tonino Lamborghini has a pleasantly full palate for a vodka – but at close to £60.00 a bottle retail, it’d be odd if it didn’t taste superior. What I found special about Tonino Lamborghini was the smooth, crystal finish, as voddy aficionados would call it. It’s utterly refreshing, like letting your mouth take a dip in that pure, Franciacorta spring water after a sweaty hike around Mount Orfano.

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One can’t possibly go clubbing in the day-time without a cocktail or two. Cue the resident mixologist, who shook us all up with Tonino-based cocktails.

The Passion Fruit Martini smacked of the Garden of Eden on a Pacific island, a glassful of the tropics, although the overriding taste of fruit made it hard to sense the quality of the product being promoted to us. A Dirty Martini allowed the vodka to take centre-stage. Beneath the spotlight it performed very well, indeed. Yes, it must be said that in spite of its recent appearance on the luxury drinks circuit, Tonino Lamborghini vodka has a self-assuredness to it that belies its youth.

After a couple of martinis and a shot, I now felt quite the Jane Bond, ready to take on the Piccadilly Line in rush hour and any villain it might throw at me. If that’s what clubbing in the daytime does to a girl, then I must try to do it more often.

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For further information on Tonino Lamborghini vodka, please contact Jessica or Leah at JPR Media Group:

www.jprmediagroup.com

Twitter and Instagram: @JPRMediaGroup

Room Service for Sanity at the Hotel Santa Catalina

 

‘Twas the night before holiday

and in our mad house

the Crev was a-slumbering,

no sign of our mouse.

The packing was finished,

a taxi arranged,

all was quite organised,

but that would soon change.

The quiet was shattered

by panic above:

‘The Crev’s being sick!’

cried Papa, ‘the poor love.’

So that’s how our Easter break started

this year –

with projectile vomit

glued to our hair.

True enough, that’s exactly how our Easter holiday began: with our toddling daughter being sick through the night. After many pyjama changes, dunks in the bath and emergency loads of washing being done in the wee hours, we managed a few hours sleep. On waking, the Crev was promptly sick, yet again. We cancelled the cab. We spoke with NHS Direct (waste of time). We sat on the phone trying to enquire about cancelling or postponing our flight. After a good twenty minutes we still hadn’t reached a human operator and the Crev seemed to rally, so we gritted our teeth and set off for the airport.

It’s a four-hour flight to Gran Canaria from London. For much of the first two hours, our brave little girl was either sitting with uncharacteristic calm or retching up the few sips of water that she managed from time to time. Eventually, and much to our relief, she slept, taking us to our destination with little trouble. Once there, she seemed fine, interested in her new surroundings, if still a bit too quiet to be true. The following morning, when she started vomiting water again, we took her to an emergency clinic near our hotel in Las Palmas.

This is where the EHIC card gets all my praise. Because we travel so much in Europe, I registered the Crev for her very own EHIC card as soon as she was born. (It’s the card that provides reciprocal state health care for member states of the EU.) At the emergency clinic we were processed quickly and seen within about twenty minutes. Not bad. The doctor did a thorough check, taking at least another twenty minutes – much longer than your usual GP visit in the UK – pronouncing a stomach virus. He prescribed medicine before placing us under hotel arrest for the next six hours. ‘If she still can’t keep anything down after that, take her to the children’s ward at the hospital and we’ll care for her for 24 hours to prevent dehydration.’ Like the embarrassingly emotional mother that I can sometimes be, I cried, but not because the bill was eye-watering; there wasn’t one. The EHIC card covered everything.

Back at the hotel we spent a worrying afternoon monitoring liquid intake and counting doses of meds. Fortunately, the Hotel Santa Catalina was one of those historical establishments with big, old-fashioned rooms, so we had plenty of space for our period of incarceration. We parents, having developed quite an appetite through the stress of the morning, salvaged our sanity with ROOM SERVICE.

For a late lunch we splurged on a triple-deck club sandwich each, with fries. Not bad for €9.00 a head. Room service elsewhere can do a lot more damage than that for a simple club. At first glance I thought I’d never finish mine, but I underestimated my hunger. Every last bit disappeared. It was also very, very tasty.

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That kept us going until well into the evening, when, after a siesta and more unappetising feeding attempts, subsequent purges and clean-ups we decided to dial for dinner. Wow. What a treat.

Corn-fed Iberian ham,

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with Pan tomaca,

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a generous Caesar salad for Monsieur, and an excellent mixed salad for me, deconstructed enough so I could mix it myself,

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and for The French Carnivore, grilled veal tenderloin.

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A half-bottle of decent vino rosado and some water completed our feast. Here’s what our mini-banquet looked like:

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Meanwhile, the medication had started to work on our wee one, although it would be a good few days yet before she was back to her normal, active, babbling self. Through the decent hotel room service we were able to not just get nourishment, but do so knowing that we could jump up from the table as many times as were necessary to tend to her. For the record: we were up and down A LOT.

My thanks must go to the Hotel Santa Catalina staff, who, unasked, but noticing that the babe was unwell, fetched camomile tea and honey to soothe the Crev’s aggravated throat, and who were nothing but attentive and kind in helping us to cope with our ailing toddler.

Useful links:

EHIC – European Health Insurance Card

Hotel Santa Catalina, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria

DFDS Seaways Best Travel Food & Drink Blogger 2014

DFDS

The DFDS Seaways folk have made my week. They’ve nominated me in the Best Food and Travel Blogger category of their awards for the best bloggers of 2014. Woo hoo! The voting page is a work of art, worth visiting for the colourful, wanderlust-inspiring images alone. There I am, in the little green circle above. I’m up against some serious competition and am currently coming last in the votes tally, yet I’m still absolutely chuffed to bits.

When I started this blog in 2008 it was to create a place where I could celebrate the wonders of the world, its people and food. At the time I was newly engaged, yet with quite a lot of stress in other areas of my life. Epicurienne became a tonic for the less enjoyable times, where I could write about all the things I love – mainly food and travel, but also funny experiences and life-changers like getting married, losing my father and becoming a mum.

One of the best things about blogging must be the people I’ve met along the way. Some are fellow bloggers and writers, others work in PR, marketing and social media; I’ve encountered both renowned chefs and humble street hawkers, explored different ways of eating, visited the lesser-known parts of well-known places and found commonality wherever the blog has taken me.

For these reasons, and more, being recognised for doing something I thoroughly enjoy is truly uplifting.

Here’s to you DFDS Seaways! Thank you for the nomination.

If you’d like to check out all the categories and/ or vote, please click here.

http://www.dfdsseaways.co.uk/Documents/dfds-blogger/categories/index.html

Chinese New Year at Hakkasan

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Rose Petal Martini

The Year of the Sheep is already blooming for me. Not only have I devoured a ten-course New Year’s menu at Hakkasan Group’s HKK in the City, I have also been spoiled with another multi-course extravaganza at Hakkasan’s flagship restaurant in Hanway Place. Even better, we were there for Chinese New Year’s Eve. Oh, count me a million bouncing lambs, the evening was incredible.

My review of HKK went on almost as long as the Great Wall, so I’m going to make this one a bit easier to dribble over.

COCKTAILS

The Hanway Place Hakkasan boasts a bar that could almost be a liquid encyclopedia of the best alcohol on Planet Earth. There are distinct sections for whiskys, vodkas, fortified wines, spirits of international provenance, gins, rums and many more. Choosing what to drink from their extensive menu takes time. What did I dive into first? A Hakkasan signature cocktail called the Smoky Negroni. Sipping this was like sniffing a humidor of the very best cigars one can find, stirring the scent around with some twelve year-old Suntory whisky, a touch of plum sake, a dash of Campari and some Italian vermouth. Ooooch, I liked it. This was a good way to start the evening. It reminded me of my dear, late great uncle’s pipes. Delicious.

Next (yes, I was naughty enough to indulge in a second cocktail) was the Rose Petal Martini. Adorned with a single dark pink petal, this one was a step into a rose garden, heady with scent. The martini tasted as a rose might smell, yet with kicks of Hendrick’s gin, lychee liqueur, parfait amour and peach bitters attached. The rose syrup content was obvious, but the petal floating atop was a decorative reminder of the key flavour to be enjoyed here. An absolute winner cocktail.

WINE

As we settled into our table tucked away in a quiet corner, the sommelier appeared to guide us through the wine list. After much deliberation we ordered a bottle of Portuguese Vinho Verde from Cazas Novas (the Avesso grape variety). This proved an excellent match to the nine courses about to land before us, with a suitably festive, almost bubbly sensation to each refreshing mouthful.

STARTERS

To celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve Hakkasan put on a signature menu, costing a lucky £88.88 per person. The nine course event started with three dishes:

First, a steamer basket appeared with Hakkasan’s famous soft-wrap dim sum. Hakkasan’s chefs excel in this department. I’ve eaten dim sum all over the globe, but none quite so perfectly executed as Hakkasan’s. The nearest rivals in my little black book of edibles would be thousands of kilometres away in Sydney’s Chinatown in Australia. The fillings tonight? Prawn, scallop, Chinese chive. Some whole, some in softer, paste form, all cheek-swelling orbs of goodness. I could easily visit Hakkasan for their dim sum dumplings alone.

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Hakkasan dim sum

Next, the Spicy Lamb Lupin Wrap, borne of the Year of the Sheep. The wrap sliced into many small rounds, each mouthful warm to the tongue, the meat dissolving easily into a warming haze of Chinese spice.

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Spicy Lamb Lupin Wrap

Just when we though the lamb was a star upon the night sky of Hakkasan starters, along came the Golden Fried Soft Shell Crab. I have to say that soft shell crab has long featured on my death row menu.  So delicate, yet softly crunchy, with that ozone of Neptune’s lair. I love love love it. Somehow I encouraged my husband to eat more lamb, whilst I tucked into the crab. How strategic can I be, when faced with a favourite foodstuff?  Like Sun Tzu on the battlefield, I’d say. My wiles worked; I got more juicy crustacean. Hot. Spicy. Crunchy. WONderful.

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Golden Fried Soft Shell Crab

MAIN COURSES

Our mains arrived as a cluster of five. The Spicy Prawn with Lily Bulb and Almond was very good, but the vegetarian dish of Lily Bulb with Garlic Shoot was so unexpectedly tasty that it surpassed the little pink curvy things for once. They’re like the bulbs of large spring onions, only more delicate, with less of an attack on the tongue. What’s more, they’re good for high blood pressure, insomnia and heart disease; something that more of us would eat on a regular basis if they weren’t so niche a veg. Note to self: visit Chinatown and source lily bulbs. If not available, offer to clean the woks at Hakkasan for a week to earn some.

The stir-fry black pepper rib eye beef was braised into the next century. It fell apart into soft, delectable morsels that somehow disappeared once in the mouth, amid a deep, merlot flavour. No unnecessary fat. No wibbly bits. Just mouthfuls of divine. Enough said.

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Stir Fry Black Pepper Rib Eye Beef, Stir Fry Lily Bulb and Garlic Shoot

Then we tucked into the Grilled Chilean Sea Bass in Honey. Aaaah. It was like a slightly sweeter version of black miso cod. Flaking away from the fork with ease, it blended well with the last plate on our mains menu: Abalone and Dry Scallop Fried Rice.

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Abalone and Dry Scallop Fried Rice with Spicy Prawn and Chilean Seabass

I grew up in New Zealand, where there is an abundance of big, fat abalone, which we call Paua. On the international market it sells for a fortune. Start thinking of offloading a small organ for cash and you get the picture. Around the world, abalone can differ. It might be big, dark and fat, as you get downunder, or a smaller, paler variety, as the Italians harvest. The Hakkasan fried rice with abalone was something I will always remember. The slightly chewy flesh and vaguely salty nature of the dice of abalone sprinkled throughout the rice brought me back to the Southern Hemisphere. In my opinion, this was the highlight of the entire menu. A Kiwi in London, familiar with many things Chinese, celebrating Chinese New Year, and EATING ABALONE. Woo hoo! Life is good.

DESSERT

If the above hadn’t been good enough to wow my discerning buds of taste, the next and final dish would. A plastic tree arrived at our table, with kumquats hanging from its branches. Or were they? At first glance they looked like kumquats (small, orange, round) but the fruit had been squirrelled away inside spheres of chocolate, then coated with orange to resemble the fruit. As the tree sat between us on the table, another tree had been painted on our plates and dressed with chocolate, caramelised macadamia nuts and rocks of cocoa. Creative, sweet, light and fun. Then, in case we weren’t getting quite enough kumquat, our waitress encouraged us to try the Kumquatcha, a Chinese New Year cocktail, containing Germana cachaça (a Brazilian white rum), Campari for colour, kumquats and lime. It tasted like very grown up fruit cordial with a touch of the tropical and plenty of sweet citrus taste.

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Kumquat Wishing Tree

As we downed our Kumquatchas and stripped the standing tree of its small, orange fruit, we wrote wishes for the New Year on red and gold cards, hanging them alongside quite a collection of our fellow diners’ desires. This was a unique way to end a magical evening at Hakkasan and welcome in the Year of the Sheep. Long will it remain in my memory.

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New Year’s Wishes

**I dined as a guest of Hakkasan Group. The views expressed here are my own.

Hakkasan

8 Hanway Place, London, W1T 1HD

reservations@hakkasan.com

hakkasan.com

 

 

 

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Celebrating the Year of the Sheep at HKK, PART II

hkk hakkasan dishes

Jasmine tea smoked poussin

Moving on from the previous five courses in our ten course culinary tour of China at HKK, we would now try jasmine tea smoked poussin. The Anhui area, located inland from Shanghai, is known for its tea and wild herbs, both of which were incorporated into this recipe, along with more black truffle, creating a dish that was of the land in both content and taste. Even better than the supple bird meat was its liquid partner: the Dewazakura brewery’s Izumi Judan or Tenth Degree sake from Japan’s Yamagata region. This was a cold, dry sake, with such a smooth, refreshing effect on my mouth that it felt like silk slinking down my throat.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Braised King soy Wagyu beef with Merlot

Sorry to see the last of the sake disappear from my glass, we started the seventh course: braised soy Wagyu beef with Merlot. This was served as a single small cube drenched in a rich red wine reduction. The beef fell apart on first exploratory nibble, a sign of successful braising, and the sauce made me want to lick every last smidgen off my fork as a five year-old might with chocolate cake. We had just demolished our example of Zhe cuisine from the Zheziang province bordering the East China Sea to the south of Shanghai.

The wine paired with this and the final savoury course was a Château Simone red blend from Provence.  It was a little light for the beef, which was dense with flavour and required something full-bodied to counteract this, however, where the meat somewhat eclipsed it, the Château Simone did great work with the Szechuan char-grilled New Zealand scampi.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Szechuan char-grilled New Zealand scampi

Here was the dish I’d been looking forward to all evening: New Zealand seafood; a taste of home. Faithful to my imagination the scampi was luscious on a plate. Served with Ma La sauce, which is based on Szechuan pepper but also contains dry chilli, ginger and sesame paste, this is a taste that I will be attempting to replicate at home. Szechuan pepper is commonly used in the region of the same name in south-western China and can produce a numbing effect on the mouth when eaten, but in my case there was no tongue-tingling to speak of; just a thoroughly pleasant warmth as prepared to journey on to the land of Chinese things sweet.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Trio of dark chocolate dumplings with yuzu and ginger infusion

The penultimate dish on our culinary tour arrived in a covered bowl: three little white balls whose benign appearance bore no resemblance to what hid within. Before we could resume and consume our waiter poured a yuzu and ginger infusion over the Lilliputian dumplings. Then, ready for a sugar hit I bit into the first sphere, which oozed with chocolate lava. Wu Lei Wong Ka has been to China. This, the first of two desserts, incorporated two classic matches with the chocolate: citrus and ginger, contributing tastes at once tart and hot. It was Chef Tong’s first nod to the Chinese New Year, as the tradition of dim sum forms a key component of any celebratory meal. The second nod would come with the final stop on our trip, where that woolly wonder, the sheep, would finally take her bow.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Here was the sheep’s milk mousse, pandan curd and caramelized puff rice. This was an unusual mix of tart softness, with the welcome crunch of Rice Bubbles. Go, sheep! This blend of textures had a cleansing effect to the end of the tour, whilst giving the sheep its overdue reverence within the menu: saving the best for last. The pairing for the sugary end to our tour was a Moscato d’Asti – as pleasantly bubbly as the puff rice, with a subtle sweetness. What a pleasant end to a whirl about China and its regions.

My husband and I were now by no means stuffed to the gunnels; merely happily satisfied. The entire evening had given us a gustatory experience, whilst educating us in the various culinary regions of China. What a combo! We talked about our courses all the way home.

And so, to you all, HAPPY (CHINESE) NEW YEAR! GONG XI FA CAI! I wish you all the best for a happy and prosperous Year of the Sheep.

Huge thanks to Chef Tong Chee Hwee and all the staff of HKK, both during our meal, when they fielded my numerous queries with patient knowledge, and also after the fact, when I needed to double-check some kitchen ingredients and methods. People: you are the BEST at your game. Keep going.

HKK

88 Worship Street, Broadgate Quarter, London EC2A 2BE

reservations@hkklondon.com

http://www.hkklondon.com

@HKKlondon

I was a guest of Hakkasan Group and the views expressed in this post are my own.

See the first post here:  

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Celebrating the Year of the Sheep at HKK, PART I

Raise the red lantern, for it’s nearly time to welcome in the Chinese New Year. February 19 will see the dawn of the Year of the Sheep, an animal known in China for being calm and kind, qualities attributed to people born under this sign. At London restaurant HKK, part of the Hakkasan stable, Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee has masterminded a tasting menu to welcome in the New Year; ten courses that transport the diner across eight regions of the land of the Great Wall, creating a culinary tour of a variety of Chinese cuisines, no passport required.

Recently I received an e-mail that cracked open like a fortune cookie filled with promise: might I be interested in reviewing Chef Tong’s New Year menu? As the Chinese might say, yao, xie xie, YES, thank you, I very much would. And so, with my wine advisor (read: husband) on one arm, I set off to Broadgate in the City of London to eat my way through China without leaving the country.

For anyone familiar with Hakkasan’s Hanway Street flagship restaurant or Bruton Street sister, the décor at HKK couldn’t be further from the chic Shanghai Bund feel of its siblings. At first glance this interior is devoid of anything that might indicate an Asiatic influence. Diaphanous curtains shroud the main dining room in silver, the tables following the perimeter, with a large serving island at the nucleus of the space. Until the menus arrived we could have been dining under just about any flag, such is the simplicity of the interior.

hkk hakkasan dishes

The Yáng Walker

The menus for this jaunt about China came in a red wrapper, emblazoned with a golden sheep worthy of Jason and accompanied by a colourful hand-painted version to keep, the work of artist, Louise Morgan.

The first treat to manifest was a cocktail named the Yáng Walker, a delightful few fruity gulps of Johnny Walker combined with plum wine, grapefruit and lemon juices and a good splash of Dah Chu Chiew, a type of Chinese grain-based spirit, Baijiu, which has existed now for over five millennia. Thankfully, it arrived in a small measure because this was a cocktail that in quantity could be most dangerous indeed. Exotic, strong, tropical, delicious.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Marinated Duke of Berkshire pork with Osmanthus wine jelly

The appetiser appeared with a glass of Stepp Pinot Noir from Pfalz in Germany, our first pairing wine. Our taste buds would be whet by small cubes of diced pork set in a Chinese wine jelly, arranged with fragrant leaves, tiny mounds of grated ginger and slivers of radish. I confess I’m not a huge fan of aspics and savoury jellies, but I will say that the pork was well-flavoured and the garnish so fresh and hot and cool in small but equal parts that, for me, it was the garnish that became the star of this dish. The tour had begun; we’d just passed through the Jiangsu Province and experienced Su cuisine, where meat is often infused with wine, creating a sweet result.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Cherry wood roasted Peking duck

No Chinese banquet would be complete without the presence of Peking duck. Out came the chef in his whites, carrying a duck that looked like a well-oiled, long-term resident of Florida, such was the perfect bronzage. We were invited to watch the chef carve the bird at the serving island. There, we learned that the duck had been marinated in five spice and vinegar before a lazy hanging and roasting over cherry wood. Our plates were smeared with hoi sin sauce and a wedge of breast set upon it, followed by a triangle of crispy skin and a small pancake, prepared for us in the traditional manner with cucumber and spring onion, duck and a touch more hoisin. Back at the table, this duck was a smoky-sweet taste bomb of tender meat, which, although a case of gilding the lily, we were then encouraged to dip into a little bit of sugar and the plum sauce on the plate. Concerning the crispy skin – my goodness, it was so scoffable that HKK should sell little bags of this as a snack for gourmands on the go. Cellar-side, the German Pinot Noir married well with the duck, smacking of New World style whilst bursting with an Old World cherry flavour, the perfect twin for the cherry wood tang in the duck.

Ooh, là. Time for another mini-cocktail. This time called the Bitter Fortune. Bitter would relate to the Aperol within it, a spirit popular in the famous Spritz of Venice, which can often taste like cough medicine. On this occasion it was mixed with Tanqueray 10 gin and grape and grapefruit juices, with a sliver of star fruit floating on the surface. The Bitter Fortune made Aperol work for me. Like the Yáng Walker, it smacked of far-flung places and Somerset Maugham short stories, and yet, unlike its name, this tipple was far from bitter.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Dim sum trilogy

The Bitter Fortune was matched with two more dishes on our tour: the dim sum trilogy and a soup poetically named Monk Jumps Over the Wall.

The dim sum appeared in a trio of colour, accompanied by a small dish of soy sauce and a paintbrush with which to daub the morsels. The crab pouffe was my favourite – light and warm and softly salty. My resident wine guru preferred the prawn dim sum – blushed pink with goji berry; a tasty variation on the ever-popular har gau, but less insipid than most in appearance, courtesy of the goji. The green dim sum contained chicken and black truffle – an unexpectedly European taste in the midst of a Chinese meal, yet properly fungal, as anything containing that culinary black gold should be. The dim sum had whisked us off to its place of conception: the region of Guangdong, with its Yue cuisine, all hailing from the proximity of the South China Sea, where seafood is a staple for local folk. I think I could live there.

Where to next?

It was time for soup, this time from the south-eastern Fujian province, where Min cuisine reigns supreme.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Monk Jumps Over the Wall

As my partner in taste crime put it, the true delight of HKK’s food is its presentation. The chefs here aren’t simply cooks; they are artistes. Our stoneware bowls arrived with lids, on top of which sat traditional Chinese soup spoons laden with glass noodles and goji berries. We stirred the noodles and berries into the soup – a mild broth swimming with abalone, porcini and sea cucumber. The legend goes that a nomadic, vegetarian monk once jumped a wall to eat this soup, such was its enticing aroma, thereby taking an unexpected sabbatical from his vegetarianism.

hkk hakkasan dishes

Pan-grilled Chilean sea bass in Sha Cha sauce

Having somewhat Neptunian taste buds I was looking forward to the sea bass in Sha Cha sauce, a North Chinese condiment containing garlic, chilli, brill fish and dried shrimp. This was soft and subtle, like the wallflower at the dance. Good, certainly, but mild when sat alongside its more robust neighbours. However, the wine match for this dish, a Ramey Chardonnay from California’s Russian River region, exuded fruit and spice, with a Lazarus effect on this otherwise quiet plate of food. The sea bass came to life with this tipple tickling our tongues.  I could happily have taken a case of this Chardonnay home for culinary resurrection purposes, not to mention the guilty pleasures stash.

We’re now halfway through the tour, with five destinations under our tightening belts and five yet to reach. We will travel through yet more Chinese regions and their flavours in the second part of this post.

HKK

88 Worship Street, Broadgate Quarter, London EC2A 2BE

reservations@hkklondon.com

@HKKlondon

www.hkklondon.com

The 2015 Culinary Journey through China menu is £98.00. The Wine pairing menu is an additional £58.00.

Images courtesy of Hakkasan Group.

I was a guest of HKK for the purposes of reviewing their Chinese New Year culinary tour menu. The views expressed here are my own.

 

 

Nice Pecks!

Happy-pecks

Our kitchen calendar is usually filled with scenes of far-off places, inspiring our future travels or triggering memories of those we’ve visited in the past. This year, it’s a bit different. The Happy Egg Co crew kindly sent me a Nice Pecks cockerel calendar, so we have cocks in the kitchen for once.

This is the third in the cockerel calendar series, created (as they say) to offer visual stimuli to their egg-laying girls, who live out their lives without the company of cockerels because the eggs they lay, destined for shop and supermarket shelves all over the country, are unfertilised.  The idea is that a bit of eye candy can’t possibly do their chooks any harm and may even stimulate a bit of extra output.

The 2015 calendar is a bit of a hoot, with its theme being touted as the EGG-streme edition. Each of the twelve featured cockerels is pictured practising one egg-streme sport or another. Pictured above we see Mister January, aka Eddie ‘the Rooster’ Edwards, a Light Brahma variety. Being a Kiwi I’m rather fond of Sir Egg-mund Hillary, pictured (natch) atop Everest as the appropriate pin-up for February – the month of New Zealand’s national holiday, Waitangi Day. There’s an Ayam Cemani breed known as David Peck-ham, pictured in his footie boots, and flick through to June to find none other than Sir Bradley Chick-ins proudly perching on the handlebars of a rather slick racing bike.

There’s a lot of humour in this calendar and along with handy egg-based recipes at the bottom of each month it’s already a hit in our household. Quite egg-cellent, to be sure.

If you’re a chicken-lover and would like to see some egg-stremely fine cockerels strutting their stuff on your kitchen wall, visit the Happy Egg Co Facebook page here or tweet the team @thehappyeggco

For further information on the Happy Egg Co, visit their site www.thehappyegg.co.uk

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