Thursday, 1 September 2011

Yountville Wineries

Napa is beautiful. We meant to go last year as part of our great USA food honeymoon tour, but we couldn't afford the time that it would take to really enjoy this part of the world. Wine tasting in the states is a real pleasure.
 The wineries we went to were all customer friendly and most had impressive tasting rooms. So, there wasn't much mystique behind them and you never felt like you were discovering a hidden gem, but I'm on holiday and I want things to be as easy as possible. I also recognise that a lot of people will baulk at the idea of a paying $10-20 dollars for a tasting, but the pleasure we gained from talking to these wine makers for 30 minutes and tasting wines we could only taste in that region is worth the price in my opinion. Two for one offers, and shared tastings make the price even easier to handle. Most of the time the tasting fee was waived when we bought a bottle anyway. 

Walking along roads between wineries you are surrounded by grapes and views of grape covered hills

It's a good idea to keep an eye on the path in front of you when walking in California

Here are some of our favourite vineyards in and around Yountville
Goosecross, for their Chenin Blanc and our new friend Jose, the Richard Corrigan lookalike

Steltzner for their lovely pinot and the Sonoma info/gossip! 

Girard Winery for their world class single vineyard cabernet sauvignons.

Robert Sinskey for brilliant pinots, their casual elegance, their friendly and informed knowledge

Other worthy mentions go to Hill Family

A special mention should go to Hope and Grace wines for their refreshing Riesling and their huge floppy tasting room dog.

We had a very relaxing time in Yountville. The emphasis on wine is infectious but be warned, these canny wineries know how to make you feel like you are getting a bargain even though you are shelling  out a lot more money for a bottle that you might back home. In a lot of cases this is price is justified, with very small productions of excellent quality, single vineyard bottles, which you simply cannot outside the state let alone in the UK. 

After a few days in Napa we travelled to the quite different Sonoma. More on that to come.

Yountville Keller Quadrilogy

Hidden sixty miles north of San Francisco deep in the beautiful Napa valley, Yountville is a strange place, barely a town, that seems like it only exists because of a few top class wineries and the restaurants of the chef, Thomas Keller.  

It draws food and wine lovers from afar with the promise of good wine, great food and  if they are very lucky a sniff of a reservation at Keller's flagship The French Laundry
We had more than a sniff. We had waited on hold on the booking line with baited breath, we had confirmed exactly 72 hours before we drove through the California countryside to this picturesque toytown.  The day we arrived we had a leisurely wander through the extensive French Laundry gardens where all of the produce for the restaurants is grown.

But it wasn't time to eat there yet.  The first meal was at Ad Hoc - a restaurant that isn't really supposed to exist.

Ad Hoc serves a fixed menu which changes daily. You only find out what you are going to eat when you turn up (or if you sneakily check online like I did). A bright and bustling room, with chalkboard menus and casually dressed servers leads to a very relaxed atmosphere where you can kick back and enjoy the robust food at your own pace. 

The menu looked great - No sign of the famous Ad Hoc fried chicken but this was more than made up for with the smoked beef short ribs. We opted not to have the additional fish and chips course which turned out to be a wise choice. Keller's legendary obsession with finesse is left at the door here with big, homely style cooking and this set menu without the extra course was plenty for us.   
I'm sorry to say that the photos we took of this and the other meals are of poor quality and I have opted to leave them out. But I can tell you that Ad Hoc left a lasting impression. Finesse might not be the name of the game here but quality certainly is. The salad was a refreshing selection of the best the gardens had to offer. The single short rib, smoked in the back garden, was huge, meaty and deliciously infused with the hickory smoke. Plenty of meat for the two of us and served with a sweet and crunchy maque choux, a first for me. 
The cheddar cheese was good, one of the best cheeses we had whilst in the USA, but even though matured for fives years it still didn't seem to have the depth of flavour of a Somerset farmhouse cheddar.
The monkey bread for dessert was wonderful. Tearing off the sticky, brioche-like lumps of pudding finished us off for the evening. 

I was delighted to see Blue Apron Ale on the beer list - a beer made by Brooklyn Brewery exclusively for the Keller Group. Always a sucker for an exclusive beer I had to have it. Named after the uniform worn by the cooks before service starts, it's a Belgian strong ale weighing in at 7.2% and brewed by head brewer Garret Oliver specifically to go with food. It has a lively carbonation and a nose reminiscent of the best Belgian ales of this type. It is a rich beer with notes of chocolate, liquorice and even a little pipe tobacco balanced with dried fruit, plums and caramel. I had the whole 750mL bottle to myself while Claire had the well matched wine pairing.
We had a very entertaining time time at Ad Hoc and for those seeking a more accessible Keller experience this charming restaurant is a must. 

The following evenings meal was at Bouchon.

I won't lie, we had done a fair bit of wine tasting this day and although I remember the meal being good I am a little hazy on the details. 
All of the bread served at the Keller restaurants is made at the Bouchon Bakery and very nice it is too. 

And what was this on the beer menu? It's only another exclusive beer, this time brewed by one of my favourite US breweries, Russian River. A superb example of a pilsner, refreshing and spicy, with Russian River's typical generosity with hops. I should have had a pint.
We shared a selection of local charcuterie , followed by Veal with grilled lettuce for me and steak frites for she. A little behind trend, I have decided that grilled lettuce is the future so I asked for an extra portion. Service was a little slow; I received my pilsner with my starter and the extra lettuce after I had finished my main/entree. But in my post wine-tasting fuzz I can't remember caring that much. 


As is so often the way in the states, the generosity of the portions left us with scant room for dessert. Even so we shared this, which I think was a brownie type dessert with a fresh milk ice cream on top. It's times like this that I wish I took notes. A satisfying meal but not up to the standard of the meals we had in Bouchon Las Vegas last year

Right next door to Bouchon Bistro is Bouchon Bakery. We stopped in there a few times for breakfast and lunch. In keeping with its surroundings it is an expensive but high quality establishment. Luckily for the locals there is a far more reasonable deli attached to the local market, but if you want a patisserie treat or a quality cup of coffee then you can treat yourself here.

It's like being in Bordeaux!

The Main Event : The French Laundry
We were very careful the day we went to the French laundry. We knew we had a marathon event that evening so we avoided too much midday wine and we denied ourselves the complementary cookies and cheese at our hotel. 

It was time for Mr Keller to bring on the finesse.
Nine courses with extras. From the classic salmon cornets to the prettiest chocolates, the whole thing is a leisurely blur of refined excess. The superb waiting staff brought us Caviar and Oysters, Lobster, sous vide beef with a poached quails egg. All extravagance was there for a reason and of the highest quality, but how much can one man take? Even though it was a perfectly paced meal it still forced me to take a breather in the beautiful candlelit garden to cool off. Damn their jacket only policy.
The only disappointment for me was the composed cheese course. A deep fried tomme de savoie which tasted more like something from a Czech fast food cart. In my opinion, if a cheese is worth importing from France to the best restaurant in California then you bloody well don't deep fry it! 
Composed cheese courses, pah!  

These chocolates were a work of art. Before I ate them. 

One last mention should go to the caramelised macadamias. Our lovely waiter brought us two more bags of these to take away after I he saw me popping them like pills. Indeed, these are so addictive that they have been renamed Crackadamias. A name I will be submitting to Chef Keller for him to use on his menu if he wishes. Finesse!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


The view from our hotel

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Adnams First Rate Gin Review

I've written before about my fondness for Adnams beers and I was pleased to see that they were one of the sponsors of the Beer Bloggers Conference.

It was during a the registration session, whilst tasting some excellent Tally Ho!, that I got talking to the Sean Clark, Head of Web, about Adnams' new distillery. To expand the company's already wide range of beverages into the world of spirits is appealing and exciting one for me and the way that Adnams are doing this seems like a natural progression. The starting spirit is distilled from beer and then redistilled with the botanicals. Sean kindly sent me a bottle of the the premuim gin of the range, First Rate Gin, to taste. I have heard that an Adnams Ale Eau de vie is on the way and I will be getting a bottle of that to try when it's available.

So let's review this gin.

The 50cL bottle has a great design and I think Adnams are going for "Coastal Quality" with the colour scheme here. The sturdy tube with it's copper lettering makes it a handsome addition to our Spirit Fireplace.

The botanicals used in the distillation are:

Juniper Berries
Orris Root
Coriander seed
Cardamom Pod
Hibiscus Flower
Sweet Orange Peel
Lemon Peel
Cassia Bark
Vanilla Pod
Anjelica Root
Fennel Seed
Caraway Seed
Liquorice Root

It comes in at a strong 48% ABV so it's definitely a night gin1.

Own its own

On the nose there's a little hairspray and a lot of juniper and pine forest. Some aniseed comes also through. It's very smooth to drink with floral and slightly vegetal flavours. There is a citrussy sweetness which gives way to the subtle herbal notes. It is very subtle and at this point I'm concerned that it won't stand up to mixers or cocktails.

 Gin & Tonic

We used "Naturally Light" Fevertree Tonic Water for this and the gin struggled a little at first. When we ginned them up a bit more the herby and grassiness came through nicely.However it won't be replacing my normal gin choice for G & T because I think it's too subtle.

Tom Collins
 Our first attempt at a Tom Collins with any gin and it's a very nice drink. Again the gin was a bit lost in the mix. What did come though in terms of juniper and spices worked well with the lemon but really not enough flavour power to shine properly.

 For the Martini I consulted David at Summer Fruit Cup (a great blog which should always be consulted on matters gin) and came to the simple recipe.

Four parts gin to one part Dolin Chamberry Dry Vermouth and an olive.

Wowsers, my first ever martini and the gin shines.The soft flavours of the Dolin complement the gin's own botanicals very nicely. When this gin is allowed to come through its subtle flavour makes sense and in combination with the clean and understated bitterness of the Dolin, what appeared as muddled and dull flavours before, stand out with an understated savouriness.

I liked the martini so much that I followed it up with a version of the martini I have dubbed the Dirty Capertini. Instead of an olive I used three Maltese capers and a splash of the pickling brine. As the caper flavour infuses into the drink it becomes something very special. Try it, you might like it.

So in conclusion, I would say that the Adnams First Rate Gin is good for a strong G&T, very good for sipping and great in a Martini. It's too subtle for most cocktails but in it's own right a fine drink.

Many thanks to Gin and Crumpets and Summer Fruit Cup for inspiration for my first gin review. Also thanks to Sean at Adnams for the gin.

1. Day or night gin is a category used by another great gin blog, Gin and Crumpets.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Sunday, 5 June 2011

River Cottage Cakes - Somerset Cider Cake

Last week I decided to treat myself. I'd seen the most recent River Cottage handbook in Waterstones, and despite owning some great baking books already (my favourite being this one), this one had some new recipes I've not seen before, so I went for it. I asked Sam to pick a recipe to try first, and after first going for Coffee and Walnut Cake, and then Toffee Apple Cake he finally settled on the Somerset Cider Cake. I used Sheppeys Dabinett cider, a medium sparkling cider. The cake is made with the cider, cider-soaked raisins, and a mixture of wholewheat and plain flour.  It has a sweet hazelnut topping, which sadly sank into the middle of the cake when cooking - I'm not sure what went wrong here, but the cake mix was wetter than I'd expected so maybe I accidentally added too much cider. It smelt great whilst cooking, and was very tasty, although I'm not sure whether I got much of a cider flavour from it. I'd been dubious about the hazelnut topping thinking it was too much extra sugar, but as the cake isn't that sweet the hazelnut topping gave it a much deeper flavour, without being overly sugary.

Update: 6 days later and the cake still tastes great, and has kept incredibly well in terms of freshness.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Star beer lists in London

There has been a big push by breweries and beer lovers in recent years to promote beer and food matching and rightly so. During the meals and the food matching session at the Beer Bloggers Conference it really struck me how well some of the beer and food matches worked and I think it is worth the beer world making a bigger deal about this.

However it is an interesting phenomenon that in many restaurants that have achieved the pinnacle of culinary achievements that their beer lists are terrible. In restaurants where you can experience amazing dishes of the finest ingredients, conjured up by the most talented chefs and accompanied by the most expensive wines in the world that the best you can expect in the way of beer is a bottle of Stella Artois or a pint of Guinness. It is unfathomable that in 2011 that most UK restaurants haven't noticed the explosion of sophisticated beers available from the UK, and the rest of the world. Of course it would be unfair to paint all UK restaurants with the same brush and it is certainly not the case in the US where some of the top restaurants take their beer list very seriously.

I have decided on a new policy when it comes to beer in restaurants. I will always ask what beers are available, commend a good list and lament the bad, and if they have a beer I like I will order it. I urge any beer lovers who read this blog to do the same.

So in this spirit here is my top five list of restaurants around London for beer lists.

Byron Burger- various branches in London
It was in Byron burger that I tasted my first ever Brooklyn Lager. A beer that partially set the course of our honeymoon trip across America. Just this week Byron Burger have announced their craft beer summer and they have carefully put together an impressive list of ten craft beers from the UK, US and Australia which is available in all of their branches. All of this was done with the knowledgeable advice of Mark Dredge from Pencil and Spoon. Some real proof there of the influence of beer bloggers. I am very pleased to see two London breweries on the list with both The Kernel and Camden breweries

Albert's Table - Croydon
I love Albert's Table because of it's excellent bistro style food. I love it even more because they have a nice little beer list. When I was there they stocked some Sam Adams, Sam Smiths, Worthington's White Shield and Veltins. The chef and owner Joby Wells say he tries to keep a good small range of mostly UK beers. This gets Albert's Table on my list.

Roast - London
What a pleasure is was to open Roast's bar menu and see that their whole range of beers that are brewed exclusively for the restaurant by Whitstable brewery in Kent. It's a nice selection with a stout, an IPA, a wheat beer and a pilsner. I think it's very good for beer to see restaurants working with breweries in this way.

Corrigan's - London
The food at Corrigan's is huge. Huge on flavour and often huge in size. They have a well selected wine list and a talent filled cocktail bar. But their beer list isn't great, They make this list because last year they started a beer and burgers menu available at the bar. This food combination wasn't snobbery but a careful matching. Veal Burger with smoked bone marrow was matched with Goose Island IPA, a hand ground beef burger with Brooklyn Lager and a venison burger with Hobgoblin. Last time I visited the beers were still available. Good work Mr Corrigan.

Le Gavroche - London
Michel Roux Jr was voted beer drinker of the year in 2007 by the parliamentary beer group. This was mostly because he has embraced beer and food matching. The Roux's flagship restaurant, Le Gavroche, has an extensive beer list and Roux and his sommelier have said that beer is the perfect match for some of the restaurant's dishes. I haven't eaten at Le Gavroche yet but I am assured that the restaurant truly deserves its reputation. We will visit one day.

Honourable mentions:
St John Hotel and Magdalen are stocking Kernel beers, a sign that quality will win over restaurants to the cause.
I almost forgot Canteen. The four restaurant chain serve a good range of of British beer in bottle, from white shield to Hopback stout,  and draught Meantime. Very good.

The new restaurant from Marcus Wareing, The Gilbert Scott, has some Camden town and Meantime beers, I'll be checking this out next month so expect a full report.

I hear that Pearl also have a good list which I will update you on if they get back to me.

Outside London, Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons has a good list and I hear Aubergine in Marlow is doing its bit. Nathan Outlaw's restaurant has done a lot of beer and food matching recently with Stuart Howe from Sharps brewery.

In and out of London there are are plenty of restaurants pushing forward with exciting beer lists. So please encourage them, buy a beer, ask them for advice and congratulate them if they do a good job.

Where have you had a good beer in a restaurant tell me in the comments and I will add it to the list.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Beer Blogger's Conference: Fuller's Tour and Lunch

Last weekend I attended the inaugural European Beer Bloggers Conference and what a weekend it was. I was left exhausted but inspired and enthused. One of the highlights of this weekend for me was always going to be the visit to Fuller's brewery in Chiswick. I already admire Fuller’s for maintaining quality in their core range of flagship beers while at the same time keeping us beer geeks excited with the Past Masters, Vintage and Brewer’s Reserve ranges. In fact it was in the past year that their new IPA, Bengal Lancer, reconfirmed my long-standing friendship with Fullers. It’s now a staple purchase which often sneaks its way into my grocery basket.

So it was with some excitement that we approached the impressive Griffin Brewery in Chiswick. We were greeted by the Head Brewer, John Keeling, with a welcoming talk. It was an interesting introduction to Fuller's which impressed with the dedication to innovate and and stay relevant.To highlight this point he mentioned Fuller's collaboration with Marble brewery from Manchester, a beer I am itching to taste. He was stopped by Derek Prentice, Fuller's brewing manager, to avoid overlap between their two talks. But it wasn't before John mentioned the cask of Brewers Reserve No.1 which we had all clocked on our way in. It seemed my hopes of a special tasting were with good founding and I knew we were in for a treat that afternoon.

A tour of the brewery followed which is a fascinating mix of old and new. Some beautiful original mash tuns, coppers and fermenters juxtaposed with shiny stainless vessels the size of houses.

I would advise anyone who has the opportunity to visit this historic brewery, the tour is very interesting.

After the tour we made our way back to the Hock Cellar where laid on for us was the meal of the conference. Not only was the food outstanding but the beers that were poured for us were of exceptional quality. Derek Prentice gave a presentation on the ageing effect on beer while we tasted the following beers.

The past masters range are based on old beers from the Fuller's recipe book. The XX strong ale is based on a recipe from 1891 which is matured for three months before bottling. It is a satisfying beer but without the subtlety of others of this strength. I will probably end up repeating myself but there is a lot of dried fruit and deep rich malt. Refreshing hops from
The comparison of the two vintage ales was a very good example of how ageing under the right circumstances can lead to something special. The 2000 was much deeper in flavour with rich sherry and dried fruit notes. the 2010 had a similar flavour profile but without the intensity and, not surprisingly, the aged characters of the 2000

The two brewers reserves were another kettle of fish. The ageing in cask had given them some sourness but also an incredible depth. I wish I could taste these again on their own, I didn't feel like I appreciated them fully after all the other beers we tasted that day.
The meal was prepared by Fuller's executive chef who develops all the food for the Fuller's pubs
We started with excellent fresh asparagus, soft boiled eggs and ham which was matched with my favourite Bengal Lancer
Next up was the full English roast experience. Roast rib of beef with yorkshires, roast spuds and cauliflower cheese. The beef was roasted in a combination oven (I think) to medium rare it was beautifully tender with a rich seam of fat running through it. one of the best Sunday lunches I've ever had. The advice from Derek was to drink it with the Brewers reserve but I think any of the beers from the presentation would have gone well with the beef.
Pudding was strawberries and cream with some rich crumbly shortbread. I'd love the recipe for that shortbread, it was a winner.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Fuller's and the Beer Bloggers conference organisers for this afternoon of beery fun. It was a truly educational day and I think was worth the entry fee for the conference on it's own. We were also given a goody bag of the beers we had drunk to take home with us.

I tweeted the following towards the end of the visit.