Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

What to make of a Hong Kong celebrity chef who has tattooed the words Devil Chef on his arm in Chinese, calls his molecular style of cuisine ‘X-treme’ and gives his dishes names like Sex on the Beach. I’d be inclined to call him a tosser, especially as his real name is Alvin.

Alvin Leung, Devil Chef

However, Alvin ‘Devil Chef ‘Leung has two Michelin stars, which means he’s not to be written off lightly. His restaurant Bo Innovation is a celebrity hangout and he’s about to open in London. So when the Hong Kong Tourism Board offered to host me at his very expensive restaurant a few weeks ago, I was happy to give it a go.

It was a degustation menu. I think I’m alone in this, but I don’t really like tasting menus. It’s frustrating when you get a little plate of something that’s really intriguing and it’s gone in one forkful. By the end of the evening I’ve had so many of these little tastes it all turns into a gastronomic blur. I can never remember what I’ve eaten. The thing is, the ‘dego menu’, as it’s called in Auckland, demands concentration. It’s serious eating. And so is molecular gastronomy, which is why the two always seem to go hand in hand.

Anyway. What I did like about Alvin’s food was the wit. It didn’t take itself too seriously and neither did he. (I like to think he was being ironic when he joined us at the table to smoke an ostentatious cigar which he kept re-lighting with a crème brulée torch.)

We tasted our way through 15 courses of X-treme Chinese : ponzu cloud, oyster tea, sandalwood smoke, truffled beef tendon and my favourite: molecular xiao long bao. This was a riff on the famous Shanghai soup dumpling: it was presented as a wobbly liquid sphere that burst in the mouth with an explosion of porkiness.

It was a great menu. I even took notes so I wouldn’t forget it. Unfortunately I lost my notebook soon after so I’m grasping to remember the details, but there is one dish I won’t forget: Sex on the Beach. I shudder to recall it.

Sex on the Beach was an off-the-menu extra. It consisted of a ginger crumb ‘sand’ over which was draped an edible condom. The condom was a slippery pink – made of some sort of starch – and inside there was a blob of something white, sweet and viscous. I know it was sweet because I ate it. I nearly gagged, but I ate it. I can remember vividly what it looked like but I can hardly remember the taste – just gingery sand, something sweet and something gelatinous.


Sex on the Beach in Hong Kong

I’ve eaten some strange things in my time; duck tongues, ox penis, even a pan-fried huhu bug, but this really was challenging. It was a case of mind over matter. No matter that the base ingredients were quite ordinary, my mind recoiled and it really was hard to swallow.

It turns out this is a signature dish. The devil chef told us he launched it at an event in Milan. Serving up condoms in a Catholic country was quite a brave thing to do, I thought. He said the Italians loved it. Now, it’s part of his Chef’s Table Menu at Bo Innovation. It’s signed off with a pink ribbon and he donates the proceeds to the Aids Foundation. That’s clever.

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Seasonal Faire

Is there a food writer out there that doesn’t urge us to eat ‘seasonal and local’? The universality of the theme in cookbooks and magazines, and on television and radio, make it sound like some sort of foodie trend rather than the natural way of feeding ourselves.

It’s true we did need reminding. Somewhere along the way we lost touch with the natural scheme of things. Seduced by the availability of fresh produce all year round – grapes from California, green beans from Africa – it was easy to eat with no regard to seasonality or country of origin. But I think we’ve got the message.

We get it again in the introduction to Laura Faire’s book Now is the Season, but I like the way she presents it – “not rocket science” – and I like the slightly ironic way she acknowledges herself as “one of a crowd of cooks, gardeners and food writers who have been banging the seasonal drum since the 1970s…”

And then with that out of the way she stops banging on and lets the recipes do the talking. The book is divided into seasons, each one prefaced with a garden calendar because she’s not just a cook she’s also a gardener. She knows what to plant and when to pick it, and because she eats what she grows she’s probably a locavore too. Happily, she’s not a vegetarian; there are some lovely cuts of meat and fish slipped in between the freshly picked greens and bottled fruits.

So I do love this book. But I have to admit, I didn’t expect to. When I first saw Laura Faire’s column in the Sunday Star Times I thought – here we go, another blonde gardener/cook who looks terrific in gumboots. But I’ve been completely won over by her down-to-earth cookbook. It’s beautifully photographed by Kieran Scott who goes close up on the food and the garden. I love the full-page photograph of what I assume to be Faire’s own hands, grubby from the garden with dirt under the nails, opening a pod of broad beans. It’s simple and honest, and it sets the theme for the book.

Each recipe relies on a few fresh tasting ingredients; there’s nothing complicated but there are some lovely combinations. Grapefruit Marmalade Crème Brulée strikes me as a really good idea. I’ll certainly make the Warm Duck and Black Grape Salad; I like the sound of Goat’s Cheese with Lemon and Sage and I’m prepared to try the odd sounding Cauliflower and Cinnamon Soup becasue Faire says it’s her own “emergency dinner party fall-back”.

There are lots of recipes using easy to grow vegetables like kale and jerusalem artichokes, and there are some useful gardening tips, but you don’t need to have a vege plot to use this book. Apart from one or two things like quince and green garlic, the ingredients are readily bought. I only grow a few things myself – tomatoes in the porch and herbs in what was our old sandpit – but I was thrilled to find a couple of recipes for sorrel, which grows like a weed in my patch. I’ve made the sorrel pesto; it’s really tasty and because it’s not cooked it doesn’t lose its bright colour, which is always a problem with sorrel.

I’m embarrassed to say how many cookbooks I own and I’m ashamed to say how little I cook from most of them, but this one is already bristling with little post-it markers, a sure sign I’ll be using it heaps – through summer, autumn, winter and spring.


Now is the Season, Laura Faire
Published by New Holland

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Biddy Fraser-Davies

I first met Biddy Fraser-Davies back in 2005 when I wrote about her for Cuisine magazine and produced a farming feature for Radio New Zealand. In those days she’d just started producing cheese on her farmlet and no one had heard of her or her much-loved cow, Gwendolyn. She was a real find, great talent with a no-nonsense approach and a cheerful eccentricity that fit her as comfortably as her bright pink crocs. Since then she’s starred on Country Calendar and been written up by numerous magazines and newspapers. Biddy and her milking cows – currently Sally and Molly – are the poster girls of the artisan cheese movement, and, as befits their celebrity status, they’ve just released their own DVD.

It’s called Farmhouse Cheese Making: an instructional DVD showing how Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese is produced. It features Molly the cow on the cover and stars Biddy the dairymaid in apron and boots.  A self-taught cheesemaker, she begins by admitting it took her a full year of trial and error to achieve the consistently good cheeses she sells today. The DVD aims to help others short track the learning process. Together with the comprehensive cow-to-cheese manual, which can be found on the Cwmglyn Farm website, it’s an excellent introduction to the cheesemaker’s craft.

Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese

I learned how to make cheese by attending a class run by Katherine Mowbray. Her courses are very good and I often refer to her book but what I like about Biddy’s DVD is that you can re-run it again and again. So if you can’t recall how firm the curds should be before you cut them, you can replay the episode.

Fresh Curds

Biddy demonstrates the semi hard, naturally rinded farmhouse cheese she produces herself, but the process is similar for most of the cheeses you’re likely to make. Factors like the type of milk, the culture and temperature all play their part but once you have the feel for the basic technique you can adapt it to recipes for soft white-moulded brie or pungent washed-rind cheeses like Pont l’Eveque.

I’m not sure if Biddy has ever been a teacher but I reckon she’s a natural. She manages to cover the technical stuff while making the whole process look as easy as it is – once you know the pitfalls. Listen carefully when she says: “Now this is important…” and you’ll avoid the mistakes that most of us make.

Homemade Cheese Press

Her own small cheesery is purpose-built and licensed for commercial production but much of her equipment has been adapted from every-day utensils – coffee filters are used to strain the milk and a perforated pasta cooker stands in for a cheese mould. Tips like this demystify the process and make the point that cheese making doesn’t have to be expensive.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned – and Biddy emphasises this again and again – it’s that you really do have to be super hygienic. The last lot of cheese Dan and I made got infected with blue mould and I’ve had nasty pink spots ruin the virginal bloom of an otherwise perfect goat camembert. But most of the time we get it right and sometimes our little cheeses are good enough to photograph.

A memorable goats' milk 'camembert' style cheese

Farmhouse Cheese Making: An Instructional DVD costs $40 plus postage. Details on Cwmglyn Farm website: www.modelrailway.co.nz

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