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Cafe St Honore  is a French restaurant, tucked away in a back street of Edinburgh. It has been around for a while so it must be doing something right. We’ve been there before many years ago but it was a night of a major international football match and, to be honest, the staff were not really focused on their work.

I was reminded of Cafe St Honore by a recent review so decided to go there for a family birthday meal. It was a Monday night so not the busiest night of the week but I guess about half the tables were occupied.

The decor is very French – none of your minimalism here – mirrors, wine racks, etc. The menu is certainly not French but Scottish with a French influence. They focus on using local produce and certainly some dishes that I’ve never seen in France. No smears or dots of this and that thank goodness. The lighting is low (not great for photography but iPhones are remarkably good in low light) but very atmospheric.

I started with crispy lamb belly, which is shredded lamb formed into a rissole. It was superb. Others had cheese tart, scallops and smoked haddock but actually I think I got the best of the bunch.

Crispy Lamb Belly

Crispy Lamb Belly

My main course was Perthshire venison haunch with red cabbage and black pudding. Like the starter, it was superb – perfectly cooked rare venison, intensely rich cabbage and crispy black pudding.

Perthshire venison, red cabbage and black pudding

Perthshire venison, red cabbage and black pudding

And there was no nonsense about miniature portions – as you would expect in a French bistro, the portions were substantial and we were too full for pudding. I was sorry to miss the new season Rhubarb crumble.

I’d certainly recommend Cafe St Honore – good service, great food and I think on a busier evening, the atmosphere would be buzzing. Not too expensive either- about £30 each for food.

Fondue is fun food

In my adult lifetime, the food landscape in Britain has changed remarkably. Britain’s reputation for bad food was totally justified in the 1970s but since then improvements have been incredible and the quality of food in restaurants and shops has dramatically improved.

Food is now taken seriously but sometimes I think that the seriousness is overdone and we’ve lost sight of the fact the the pleasure of eating does not just depend on the quality of the food but also on the environment and the company. In short, if we are having fun, we can enjoy pretty ordinary food.

Fondue is an example of fun food – no-one (I hope) would ever eat a fondue on their own. It’s an Abigail’s Party, 1970s dish which is impossible to eat in a dignified way. But, with the right company in the right environment, it’s really great.

Petit Paris is a small French restaurant in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh and, I guess to liven up quiet Monday nights, arrange fondue nights periodically during the winter. For £20 each, you get a plate of charcuterie as a starter, a cheese fondue and a tart as a pudding. Five of us went along last night to one of these evening.

The decor in the Petit Paris is stereotypical French – lots of old signs etc. In fact, it’s more French I think than any restaurant in France that I’ve been in.

Petit Paris interior

Petit Paris interior

I forgot to photograph the charcuterie but it was reasonable quality and a good introduction to the main act – the fondue. This was a large pan of melted cheese and wine with a bucket of bread cubes for dipping.

Cheese fondue

Cheese fondue

As I said, it’s not the most elegant dish for diners but it is damn tasty. We overdosed on cheese.

Eating fondue

Eating fondue

We drank very drinkable house wine in tumblers which seems to be the norm here. It suited the fondue and the ambiance.

A tumbler of wine

A tumbler of wine

The tarte du jour was a pear and almond tart with a little bit of creme anglaise.  It went well and was a great finish to the meal.

Pear and almond tart

Pear and almond tart

The restaurant was full with almost everyone having fondue and enjoying themselves, laughing as bits were dropped in the fondue, on the table and as cheese dribbled onto trousers and skirts. Thoroughly recommended – you will not leave hungry.

Making marmalade

We have made marmalade in January since the 1980s. The first time I made it, I followed the standard recipe, which involved peeling Seville oranges, chopping the peel then all sort of faffing around boiling the marmalade.

 
Marmalade oranges

Marmalade oranges

 

Then I decided to try a simpler approach where I softened the oranges, removed the seeds then blitzed everything in the food processor. This worked, set easily and we have used it ever since. It’s good. We like it quite tart, much less than commercial marmalades.

 
3 kg Seville oranges
3 lemons
3 kg sugar (you don’t need special jam sugar)
 

Wash the oranges, place in a large pan with the lemons and cover with water. Boil till the oranges are soft – about an hour or so. You should have some water left in the pan. Leave to cool. Remove the seeds, retain, then roughly chop the peel and pulp. Blitz in a processor with a bit of water to loosen the mix – you need about a mug and a half  of water per kilo of oranges. If you don’t have enough water left from the initial softening, top it up from the tap. Sieve the seeds and pulp to get some of the pulp off – this is boring so give up when you get sick of it.  Add the sugar and if the mix is very stiff, add a bit more water. Bring to the boil then boil for about 20 minutes. Put a bit on a plate and cool. If it sticks when you tip the plate, it has thickened enough. If not, boil for a few more minutes.

 
The finished product

The finished product

 
 
 

Two Edinburgh bistros

As you can infer from the title of this blog, I like bistro-style food – simple, uncluttered food without smears of this, drops of that and time amounts of vegetables artfully arranged on the plate.

So, I was delighted to have the chance to try two Edinburgh bistros that were new to me this week. Bistro Moderne in Stockbridge and Bistro Provence in Leith.

Bistro Moderne  is a spin-off from Mark Greenaway’s fancier restaurant in Central Edinburgh. It claims to be taking “the classic French concept and revitalising it with the imaginative dishes”.  Greenaway has a great reputation and we were looking forward to the experience.

The evening didn’t start well. There was a mix-up with tables and we had to wait a bit to get this sorted but eventually all was OK. It’s a short menu as you would expect (menu here) and I started with tempura soft-shell crab. This was absolutely delicious – beautifully cooked with a superb mayonnaise.

Tempura soft-shell crab

Tempura soft-shell crab

I followed this with the 11-hour belly pork, which I surmise was slow cooked for 11 hours. My daughter Jane loved hers but I thought it was actually a bit dry – all of the fat had been rendered out of it. My wife had the chicken which she pronounced to be superb.

11-hour belly pork

11-hour belly pork

We had a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet and it worked out about £30 each. Good meal, good atmosphere but the portions, especially of the main course, were quite small – not what I would expect from a bistro. And it was a bit fussy – yes, update the bistro classics but there’s no need for the chefs to show off how they can make artful arrangements.

 

The following day, we had a family lunch in Bistro Provence in Leith. This is on the same site as the much-loved Daniel’s Bistro and it’s good to see that it’s still a bistro – albeit with Provencal rather than Alsacien food.

Again the menu is short (menu here) and I started with grilled mackerel with celeriac. Mackerel is one of my favourite fish and this didn’t disappoint – nicely cooked and the textures of the fish and the celeriac really complemented each other.

Grilled mackerel with celeriac

Grilled mackerel with celeriac

My main course was a bistro classic – toulouse sausages with mash. The sausages were fabulous – really meaty with just the right amount of herbs. Personally, a prefer a less pureed mash but that’s not the french style.

Toulouse sausages

Toulouse sausages

Pudding was another  classic – prune and almond tart with vanilla ice cream. I rarely eat puddings but I have a weakness for French tarts and this one was a good example.

Prune and almond start with vanilla ice cream

Prune and almond start with vanilla ice cream

We drank a bottle of house red and a couple of glasses of house white and lunch worked out about £20 each.

Objectively, the food here wasn’t as fine as in Bistro Moderne.  I enjoyed the food in Bisto Moderne and I admire the skill of the chefs but I actually preferred the simpler approach in Bistro Provence. I’d be happy to go back to either of them but if you want a French experience, go to Leith.

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14th November 2014

Many years ago I made my own bread. It was OK although it tended to be a bit heavy and it’s fair to say that I never really mastered the process. Then kids came along and between them and work and all manner of other things I had no time and bread making stopped for more than 30 years.

I was recently at a short cookery course at Nick Nairn’s Cook School where we were served absolutely delicious soda bread and, now I have a bit more time, I resolved to try this.

It’s a very simple recipe – 175g of plain and 175 g of wholemeal flour, 280 ml of buttermilk, 1/2 tsp of salt and bicarbonate of soda and 1/4 tsp of baking powder. Essentially, you mix this all together till you get a ball of moist dough and bake it at 180 degrees C. for 30 minutes.

My first attempt at soda bread

My first attempt at soda bread

Which is sort of what I did. Unfortunately, when I started we were almost out of plain flour so I ended up with 1/3 plain white flour and 2/3 wholemeal flour. But my dough didn’t seem that moist and I had to work it a bit to keep it together (we were warned not to over-work the dough as this led to a heavy loaf – but what does ‘over-work’ actually mean.

Anyway, I baked it for a few minutes more than the recommended time. And it was OK – but not nearly as nice as the one we were served. It was quite dense and heavy and needed a bit more salt. Fresh warm bread always tastes good so we ate it but it definitely needs work.

I’m going to record my experiences with this recipe in this post and update it each time I make another version. I guess I should only change one thing at a time to see what the critical elements are but I may actually be a bit more instinctive of this. Factors that may make a difference are types and amounts of flour, amount of liquid, amount of dough handling and amount of bicarbonate of soda. We shall see.

Soda bread – Take 2

So I tried again – I changed more than one thing, which is not really scientific, but what the hell. This time, I used equal amounts of white and wholemeal flour and I added about 30ml of milk as well as 300 ml of buttermilk. This meant I had a wetter dough which didn’t need anything like as much handling to stick together.

I baked it for 30 minutes and it ended up with a much lighter crumb. It still wasn’t quite as light as the one we tried at the Cook School so more experimentation is needed. I’ll try upping the amount of raising agent next.

Another attempt at soda bread

Another attempt at soda bread

27th November

A third try at soda bread and this time I’m happy with it. I added a bit more of the raising agents and baked it for 5 minutes longer. I’m convinced that this is a recipe you have to experiment with as I think there’s quite a lot of variability in the different types of flour available. The recipe that worked for me is:

175 g plain white flour  1/2 tsp baking powder
175g wholemeal flour  3/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
300ml buttermilk 3/4 tsp salt
40ml milk

Mix everything together to make quite a wet dough. Shape into a round, without kneading the dough, and cut a cross in the top, cutting about halfway through the round. Leave to rest for 5 minutes (just enough time to clear up) and bake for 35 minutes at 180 degrees. Total prep time from start to oven, 15 minutes.

Soda bread and homemade broth

Soda bread and homemade broth

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Hornblowers, Gourdon

Gourdon is a fishing village in the north-east of Scotland just south of Inverbervie. Like all such villages it is a mixture of picturesque and industrial but its a characterful place on the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail. I read recently that the local fish restaurant, Hornblowers, was a runner-up in the ‘Best Cheap Eats’ category in the Observer Food Monthly awards so choosing somewhere for lunch was a no-brainer.
Hornblowers, Gourdon

Hornblowers, Gourdon

Hornblowers was and still is a fish and chip shop but they have an upstairs restaurant with a slightly posher and more extensive menu.  We went there just after it opened about 10 past 12 and expected it to be empty. It was half-full with most of the remaining table reserved. Fortunately, there were still a couple of tables free so we were in.
Fish soup

Fish soup

The menu was quite short (good thing) with many of the  dishes from the downstairs menu. The fish and chips looked fabulous but we had bought hake from the local shop for our evening meal so decided on something lighter. I started with the fish soup – always a good quality indicator in my experience. It was rich and flavoursome and a bargain at £3.95.
Omelette Gourdon Bennett

Omelette Gourdon Bennett

I then decided to try the Omelette Gourdon Bennet – their take on the classic Omelette Arnold Bennet. This is an omelette with smoked haddock and cream. I’d never had this before so didn’t really know what to expect but I love smoked haddock and omelettes so was confident I’d like it. And I did – delicate smoked fish which did not overwhelm the egg.
I drank excellent BrewDog low-alcohol beer as I wrote about in this post. My wife had a glass of the house Sauvignon Blanc, which she said was above average for a house wine.
Hornblowers is a worthy recipient of the OFM award – the food was great value, service was good as was the atmosphere on a Friday lunchtime. Go there if you are anywhere near but make sure that you book.

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The law in Scotland is changing shortly so that the allowed blood alcohol level for drivers will be significantly reduced. In practice, this means if you drive, you don’t drink. This  makes sense but for folks like me who don’t really like sweet drinks, especially with food, it poses a bit of a problem. At the moment, if we go out for a pub lunch, I have a couple of half pints of beer with my food but that will have to stop.

The alternative to soft drinks is low-alcohol beer but my experience with these drinks has not been good. In fact, they have been universally vile – looking like and tasting like badger’s piss (this is an assumption – I have never actually seen or drunk badger’s piss).
Brewdog's Nanny State beer

Brewdog’s Nanny State beer

Last week, we had lunch in Hornblowers in Gourdon (review coming later) and they had some ‘Nanny State’ – Brewdog’s version of a low-alcohol beer. Brewdog is a brewery in the NE of Scotland that cleverly market  themselves as a ‘punk brewery’ – challenging the craft beer status quo and brewing different beer. In essence, they have the Spinal Tap approach to beer – take a taste, and turn it up to 11. I don’t much like their normal brews – tastes and alcohol are exaggerated and I think they lack subtlety.

But this works fantastically well with low-alcohol beer. Brewdog’s Nanny State is hoppy with bags of flavour – there is the inevitable thinness that you get when you take the alcohol out but compared to the normal low-alcohol stuff, this is in a different league. I’m not sure how widely this is available but for sure it’s what I’ll be drinking when driving if I can.

All cooks have failures now and again but most don’t write about them. This is sort of understandable but learning from mistakes is pretty important so I’m going to write about things that went wrong as well as things that went right.

We grew runner beans this year and had far too many of them. We ate lots of greens, we froze them and, finally, we got sick of them. So, eventually, I just left them on the plants and they grew big and beany. Clearing the plants for the winter, there were lots of pods full of beans so I decided to try cooking the beans themselves.

Raw pink and black runner beans

Raw pink and black runner beans

It was quite a lot of effort to get them out of the pods – in retrospect, I think I should have let them dry off a bit, although as it transpired, I won’t be doing them again. I ended up with a bowlful of very attractive looking beans – the smaller ones were pink and the larger ones, mottled pink and black.

I had no idea how long to cook them for. I wondered if they were like red kidney beans, which are poisonous when raw so I thought I should boiled them for at least 10 minutes to get rid of any toxins. In fact, it didn’t take much longer for them to be soft.

Grey cooked runner beans

Grey cooked runner beans

Well, they tasted OK but they really didn’t look good. The colour had come out of them and they were a dirty grey colour. I wondered about various treatments – in tomato sauce or with garlic but whatever you do, grey food is simply unappetising. I knew perfectly well what the reaction would be if I served them to my family so I took this as a learning experience and put them in the bin.

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Bacon sandwich

My lunchtime bacon sandwich

A gratuitous photo of today’s lunch – posted just because it looks yummy.

Two slices of lightly toasted bread, 4 rashers of bacon, a  smear of butter and some tomato ketchup.

I am told by an unreliable source that bacon sandwiches are the single most common reason for carnivores who have become vegetarians to lapse.

Cooking with wine

I have always been sceptical of recipes that recommend specific (and often expensive) bottles of wine for cooking. There are so many possible variations in recipes and ingredient quality that I am not at all convinced that most people could tell the difference. Maybe a more expensive one might change the flavour slightly but if you use large rather than small cloves of garlic, this could change it even more. It’s also the case that heat is likely to drive off at least some of the subtle flavours of more expensive wine.

Sainsbury's House Montepulciano

Sainsbury’s House Montepulciano

Therefore, I have always worked on the general principle that using cheaper wines for cooking is fine, so long as they are drinkable. Recently, as a red cooking wine we’ve gone for a supermarket wine from Sainsbury’s – Sainsbury’s House Montepulciano (£4.75). We’ve tried a few wines in this range for cooking and drinking – some are OK, others are pretty grim but the Italian reds seem to be the best.  For once, it tastes as it says on the bottle, plum and blackberry fruits, with a little bit of tannin.

We used about 1/4 bottle in making a meat sauce for lasagne and it turned out pretty well. In our house, opened wine is a temptation that is rarely resisted. So, we drank the rest of the bottle with the lasagne on the last warm evening before autumn finally arrived. Definitely not a subtle wine but it went well with the pasta.

Lasagne

Lasagne

There have been several articles published on comparative tests with cheap and expensive wines for cooking such as this one in the New York Times  and this one in Epicurious. They don’t come out with the same conclusions but even when they found a difference, they questioned whether it was worth the extra costs for ‘good wine’.

Disclaimer:  This wasn’t a freebie from Sainsburys. Paid for by me.

PS 1:  In looking for articles about using cheap wine in cooking, I discovered that it is possible to buy such a thing as cooking wine which apparently has added salt. I’d never heard of this – it strikes me as a very bad idea as I suspect the taste is vile.

PS 2: I am told that both Aldi and Lidl have good reasonably-priced red wines. We don’t have these stores near where we live so I have never tried them. But I’m sure that it’s worth an experiment.

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