Friday, 30 March 2012

Fitzbillies, Cambridge

Guardianistas, Tweeters and East Anglian locals are probably all too aware of the recent plight and rehabilitation of Fitzbillies Bakery in Cambridge. For those uninitiated few, Stephen Fry, Cambridge alumnus, tweeted early last year that, after 90 years, Fitzbillies was to close its doors for the last time. Food writer Tim Haywood's wife, herself a Cambridge native, made an appointment to view the Grade II listed bun shop and the rest, as they say, is history (for anyone looking for a bit more than a potted overview you can read all about it here).

On our recent jaunt to East Anglia, Fitzbillies was high at the top of the list. Working to a tight eating schedule that would allow us to consume the most amount of calories in the shortest time possible, we managed to squeeze in a tea-time visit before our early dinner at the Cambridge Chop House(Fitzbillies also offers more substantial meals and snacks at lunchtime and a proper dinner menu at weekends).

And I'm very glad we did. There is possibly nothing more civilised, or more British than eating buns and drinking tea at four in the afternoon. The place was crammed with a eclectic mixture of parents treating their children, tourists, grannys and students. I sat, greatly entertained as the table of undergraduates next to us were emptying all their pockets for shrapnel to pay the bill while the mother on our other side chided her son for losing yet another back door key.

The bane of photographers everywhere; the laminated menu.

The selections of buns, cakes and fancies at Fitzbillies is comfortingly old school. It rather reminded me of a coffee shop (long since turned into a trendy South African deli) in next town to where I grew up. They, for reasons I can't quite fathom, also sold marbles as well as refreshments, and we would sometimes be taken there as a treat after school to spend our pocket money or to eat toasted cheese sandwiches garnished with cress (everything served there was garnished with cress).

Here you've got all the classic tea time treats and a few unfamiliar items, including a Duke of Cambridge cake. After enquiring what this might be, and being given a long and detailed explanation (a sort of chocolate biscuit cake, I believe), by our friendly waiter, he promptly announced they didn't actually have any left. Ah well, luckily everything else sounded just as good.

Due to our imminent dinner date at our tasty tea time spread was a little on the restrained side; a pot of Earl Grey for myself, cappuccino for the Ewing and a chocolate eclair and coffee choux bun to share.

The Ewing and I (unsurprisingly) argued over which bun was best; I championed the coffee choux number while she liked the chocolate eclair. For my money the eclair was decent, if unspectacular. There was plenty of freshly whipped cream filling (a little too much for me) but the chocolate topping was slightly lacklustre and I found the choux pastry a little dry.

The coffee choux bun was much more to my liking; pastry that was perfectly crisp on the outside  while fluffy and soft within, and oodles of thick, sticky coffee icing that cut through the rich mountain of cream heaped in up the middle.

While our tea time visit was a real treat, it all paled into significance when we came to breakfast the following morning. It's not possible to visit Fitzbillies without sampling one of their legendary Chelsea buns, laid out on syrup-soaked trays in the window. If eating cakes in the afternoon feels slightly illicit, waking up to a great, sticky, currant laden Chelsea bun has got to rank as one of life's greatest guilty pleasures. 

If such an indulgent experience wasn't enough in itself our hotel was on the route of the Cambridge half marathon that was taking place that morning. While tucked up in our bed, washing down mouthfuls of bun down with mugs of tea we had a prime view of the runners staggering towards the finish at Midsummer Common. I didn't know whether to feel smug or lardy.

The real point of this story, which meanders much like the Cam, is that you MUST EAT THIS BUN. It doesn't matter how you get hold of one; beg, borrow, steal, hitch a lift, punt up triver or order online, it is utterly imperative you experience at least one of these in a lifetime. I could try and describe the experience, but mere words are useless when faced with such ooey, gooey, syrup-laden deliciousness. Each coil of buttery dough is a hefty weight of sugar, spices and dried fruit, yet I could have easily eaten a boxful. This is a proper old- fashioned bun of the highest order, and one that would be such a shame to lose from our British bakeries in favour of more cup cakes and muffins.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Macaron & On & On...

The macaron can be pretty much summed up by the message on the Pierre Hermé box above; Les incontournables de Paris, or for those lacking in the local lingo like me, the attraction of Paris. Unlike our rather weighty, dense coconut macaroons (complete with neon cherry), the similarly monikered French number is a picture of refinement; a light, meringue and ground almond based confectionery, sandwiched together with ganache, jam or buttercream.

Although not quite as ubiquitous as the cupcake (their delicate nature and difficulty in getting just right being a barrier to their total takeover) the last few years have seen a world-wide macaron explosion. Despite their global popularity and now being available almost everywhere the true home of the macaron is Paris, and when in Rome...

First up was a this bright pink box of Gerard Mulot goodies. Not on my initial hit list, we stumbled upon his shop while taking a walk down by St Sulpice in the 6e. I'm not usually a fan of the fancy and delicate, but there is something quite beguiling about a well made macaron, and the heaping pyramids of brightly coloured treats soon tempted us inside.

I must confess pretty much total ignorance in macaron related matters, but I enjoyed these neon jewels. Out of the trio we tasted these were the lightest, crispest and most almondy tasting, with the best balance between filling and shell. Despite their rather lurid appearance the flavours, although fresh, were quite subtle. My favourite was the simple chocolate, left for a couple of days after purchasing to get nicely gooey and squidgy in the centre. The orange and cinnamon and passionfruit and basil above were more delicate than their name and lurid colours suggest and went down a treat.

As well macaron there were exquisite displays of pastries, chocolates and pies, as well as a bakery area at the end of the shop selling fresh baguettes, tartine and sandwiches. The slice of tuna, semi dried tomato and dill tart we bought to eat later was utterly magnificent.
Next stop was Pierre Hermé in Saint-Germain-des-Prés for a Sunday morning snack. If Ladurée are the sage old lady of the macaron world then Pierre Hermé is the enfant terrible, experimenting with wild and challenging flavour combinations and helping reinvent the gerbet for the 21st century.

After starting his career at the tender age of 14 with acclaimed pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre, Hermé went to work at Fauchon, before helping Ladurée with their expansion in the late nineties and then branching out alone a year later. Hermé is now considered one of the world's best, if not the best, macaron maker.

 Inside the Hermé Empire. A small, sleek space and must see for any serious pastry lover.

Pierre Hermé - Les Incontournables de Paris Macaron Collection.

The Hermé macaron were a little bigger heftier than the others we tried, no bad thing in my book. They they have been criticised by some connoisseurs for being too ganache heavy, but overall I preferred the substantial amount of filling in these to the more delicate versions we sampled. They also looked impossibly beautiful; a mixture of bright and pastel colours with an extra touch of iridescent glitter for extra lustre. The muli-coloured mandarin and olive oil and extra sparkly Ispahan (rose lychee and raspberry) were especially charming.

I enjoyed all of these beauties, with special mentions for the Mogador, a passionfruit and milk chocolate number; the Mosiac, a pistachio, cinnamon and morello cherry confection that was rich and rich with a fruity centre, and an especially tart and bright tasting Cassis. We also tried one flavoured with girolles, luckily the earthy mushroom taste was rather faint!

The Pierre Hermé Ispahan collection: A stunning selection of macaron, gateaux and choux pastry with raspberries, lychee and rose petals.

And finally the home to the Gerbet or Paris macaron, the  Saint-Germain branch of Ladurée, at the opposite end of Rue Bonaparte from the Hermé shop. Although the invention of the original macaron is disputed the first double-deckered gerbet was created in 1930in  Ladurée's Rue Royale bakery by Ladurée's cousin, Pierre Desfontaines.

They have since expanded their empire but still remain one of, if not the most, famous macaron purveyors, and sell over fifteen thousand of Desfontaines' inventions every day.

 The pyramids of pretty pastel macaron at Ladurée.

A selection of Ladurée pastries including (second left) a cassis and chestnut Mont-Blanc created for their 150 anniversary and (third left) some of their famous Ladurée Religieuses, cakes resembling a nun's habit.
The macaron were the most traditional and elegant looking of the lot. Their gentle pastel hues evoked a more genteel age, ladies in white gloves sipping afternoon tea and indulging in a sweet treat or three. Anyway, I digress.... These little gems were sweet and simple; the pistachio was buttery and nutty, the salted caramel sweet and rich (although a little too cloying for me) and the rose gently scented without being sickly. If you want a classic box of treats to take home for your grandmother then this is definitely the place to go.

The Ladurée flavour I was most excited to try to was the Réglisse, or licorice. Despite it's menacing, black carapace I found the flavour to be somewhat insipid, a bit of a disappointment. Better were the pear and chestnut combo, both fruity and nutty, and a special limited edition Tsumori Chisato cherry blossom flavour which managed to capture the essence of spring perfectly within its sugar shell.

So what have we learnt overall? Well, macaron are not for the cost conscious  amongst us. These little morsels averaged out at a couple of Euros per bite. (obviously you could get twice as much value if you didn't pop them all in you mouth at once....) Despite the hefty price tag for such a small and delicate morsel I think they're worth it not for the craft and care invested in each mouthful. They also last surprisingly well; although the box informs you to eat them within three day (not usually a problem) a backlog of comestibles meant I didn't eat some of these until over a week after my return. I'm actually not sure I didn't enjoy them a little more after they had been sitting around for a while.

And for the best macaron in my tastings? They all had different strengths and weaknesses, but for me the Hermé efforts stole the show. I liked the robustness of them, found the fillings generous and the flavours quirky and fun. I also loved the appearance, striking a nice balance between the old and the new. Although there was a clear winner for me all three macaron were delicious in their own right and I would certainly recommend and afternoon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés if you want to find out for yourself. Just don't forget you wallet and an elasticated waistband if you really want to do the gerbet justice.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Au Pied Du Cochon, Les Halles

A weekend of being unintentionally parsimonious at mealtimes (thanks to some very decent menu options and sticking to good old plonk to drink) I realised we'd actually spent more money on macaron and chocolates than 'proper' food. Seeking to rectify the situation we jumped in a cab and took a trip into the bowels of Les Halles for Sunday lunch.

Au Pied Du Cochon was our destination; a legendary brasserie that first opened its doors in 1947, and has never closed them since. For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year they have been churning out huge plates of porcine parts, seafood and soups for the night owls and early birds of the city. Known for their piggie treats, including la temptation de St-Antoine (an unholy sounding trilogy of snout, tail and toes), andouillettes and rognon, even the front door handles are in the shape of trotters.

First up came some baguette and a little dish of confiture de cochon, a soft and fatty pork spread that was quickly slathered on the crisp bread and devoured with an indecent haste.

I started with l'escargot. Honestly, snails don't really do it for me, but as I was having an attack of bravado I thought I'd order some anyway. The molluscs I've eaten before have more resembled sweaty rubber bands or gristly nose-pickings than something worth savouring, but these were rather good. Admittedly half the fun came from gripping the shells with the tongs and prising the slippery curls of meat out like a mad surgeon, and nothing doused in garlic butter can really taste that bad, but I did rather enjoy chomping these down with a few chunks of crusty bread.

The Ewing picked the famed onion soup, reportedly one of the best in town. It came topped with a thick raft of molten cheese, and bread and an appetising fug of wine and onions steamed up when she broke through the crust with her spoon. This was an exemplary potage, ideal for a cold and windy afternoon; the stock was deep and sweet, with the edge of the alcohol cutting the richness of the cheese.

The eponymous pied du cochon in all its grizzly glory. Before bringing the dish our waiter came with a side plate for the bones, and to be honest I might have just dumped the whole trotter straight on it; by the time I had picked through all the blubber, bone chips and toe nails there was barely a shred of meat left. Although the salty, crispy breadcrumbs gave a bit of texture the whole thing was amusingly and gelationously awful. Not to be deterred I ate my token side salad and greatly enjoyed the chips dipped in to the thickest, richest Bearnaise sauce I have ever encountered. Certainly an experience, but not one I'm in any hurry to repeat.

The Ewing indulged in a little seafood action with this, rather magnificent, fruit de mer. As well as three different type of oyster there was crevette grise, two types of clam, winkles, prawns and the dreaded bulot, or whelk. The last time the Ewing ate whelks we were for breakfast, served on a floating Chinese restaurant in the Docklands of London. Doused in a viscous satay sauce, it's a morning she has barely recovered from.

Manfully she put her prejudice aside and tucked in, even quite enjoying them and their smaller cousin the winkle. The oysters and clams were very good, but my absolute favourite were the brown shrimps, which I devoured in handfuls, shells, whiskers and all.

If my previous two course had been a little outre, the pud my was a nailed on classic; profiteroles with ice cream and a hot chocolate sauce. When I was growing up my mum would make these for her 'grown up' dinner parties, and I would always manage to sneak down from my bedroom to nab a few. As she now refuses my pleas to make them again I take any opportunity to get them when I can.

These were real beauties; the choux pastry had little shards of praline giving an extra crunch and the ice cream was perfectly smooth and creamy. The highlight by far was when the waiter placed the naked pastry buns in front of me and doused the whole plate in a river of molten bitter chocolate, leaving the half-full jug by my side. I could already feel the Ewing's jealous gaze from across the table.

Luckily she was equally impressed by her pud, an apple sorbet with a generous shot of calvados, served with crêpes dentelle. Despite the first few mouthfuls being fierce with apple brandy it soon mellowed into a refreshing and light desert. The sorbet was particularly nice, having a slightly creamy, fluffy texture, just like the centre of a baked apple, and topped with a decent sprinkle of cinnamon.

With a very friendly waiter (who insisted in taking photos of us inelegantly eating our crustaceans) and a lively rugby crowd (it was a Six Nations weekend in Paris) our afternoon went by in a happy, greasy, sticky blur. Although the trademark dish was a rather inedible pile of bones and blubber, it was still fun to try. And after persuading the Ewing that a moderately priced vin blanc would be just as good as the top rate sancerre she was coveting, even the bill was a (fairly) pleasant surprise.

Go for the soup, the shellfish and the choux buns, say non to the trotter (unless your keen on cartildge and crunchy bits) and you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Manger à Montmartre: Moulin de la Galette & Chartier

So, a honeymoon in Paris: two people deeply in love, add the most romantic city in the world and what could possibly go wrong? Well, if you're lost in Monmartre on a Saturday, scaling steep stairs along with every other tourist in the city, and it's been a long time since breakfast some of the romance quickly rubs off. Luckily the Ewing had lots of patience, and a map. And despite it being for her that we were enduring the torture of street artists and chancers trying to sell us keyrings of the Eiffel Tower, she quickly located a couple of restaurants in the guidebook that were close by.

The one we both fancied was back down the hill, a prospect neither of us was particularly relishing, but she assured me the second choice would be just as good. When we rounded the corner to be greeted by a building with a wooden windmill sticking out the top and a tour party taking pictures outside, my heart sank. I suddenly had visions of some awful 'cabaret' themed tourist trap, full of dancers with big dresses, and big prices to match. I briefly considered one of the take away hot dogs being scoffed by tour parties all around us, but the Ewing's patience wasn't going to last so we decided to give it a punt.

Luckily it was all very civilised and quite normal inside. A bright and modern dining room full of groups en famile and a smattering of tourists enjoying some fortification before braving the crowds at the top of Monmartre. Despite being the site of one of the only remaining windmills in Monmartre the only commerical nod to its history are the water glasses, that can be bought as a set to take home.

Looking to grab a quick bite we chose the good value menu, skipping a starter and both choosing the confit duck as a main. Being rather too easily persuaded (and this before we had made any inroads to our carafe of wine) decided we'd better keep our sugar levels up by ordering the lemon tart with blackberry sorbet to finish.

The duck confit; a wonderfully crisp-skinned and juicy leg served with a ragout of impossibly cute as a button baby mushrooms and bacon; slices of sweet root veg, including carrot and turnip and candy-coloured beetroot; and a stunning Dauphinois potato, imbued with a sweet garlic flavour that haunts me still (luckily not literally, or I don't think our marriage would have lasted much past the honeymoon...). All finally topped off with an impossibly decadent fois gras cream sauce that lulled me into a gentle canard coma.

I was impressed with the simplicity and care taken in cooking all the different elements of the dish so perfectly. This was a dish of rich and strongly flavoured ingredients, but a deft touch in the kitchen meant and all the individual elements shone through while still marrying into a delicious whole.

Desert was a lemon meringue tart with a blackcurrant sorbet and coulis. Wow. It may not be an exaggeration to say that this was one of, if not the best, thing I ate on our trip. The tart au citron was wonderfully lip-puckering, with a perfectly crisp, buttery pastry base, while the meringue topping was like eating the lightest, smoothest sugar cloud.

I'll confess now; I'm not normally a huge fan of meringue (even, whisper it, the Ewing's legendary pavlova). While I appreciate that, when made well, it can have a gooey marshmallow centre and a wonderful, sweet chewiness, all too often it is chalky and brittle, or worse, resembles lumpy, watery shaving foam. God only knows how they had made this so etherally light, smooth and moreish, but I was utterly and completely in love. Ok the sorbet may have been a little grainy, and the unseasonal fruit an irrelevance to eat around, but the tart was utterly masterful. A proper pudding well worth forgoing the funiculaire for.

After the delights of our lunch we felt rejuvenated enough to face the crowds for an afternoon at the Sacré-Cœur. But the call of dinner's never too far away, and after our sightseeing I persuaded the Ewing to walk through the 9e to Restaurant Bullion Chartier. Chartier first open its doors in 1896, and this Parisian fin-de-siècle gem is now monument to cheap classics, served by waiters in traditional white shirts and black waistcoats.

They don't take reservations, and so arriving early or off hours is your best bet, especially at the weekend. This approach can also have its down side, as witnessed by our waiter showing us to our table, and then promptly disappearing to mop the bathroom floor for the next twenty minutes. Early hiccups aside we soon got stuck in to a bottle of red and soaked up the atmosphere, elbow to elbow with our new tablemates (unless you're in a large group expect to share).

The Ewing chose the risiulously priced celriac remoulade (€2.50), a delightful tangle of shredded veg mixed with a mayonaise dressing perfectly balanced between creamy and tart. It may not be much of a looker, but this was a perfect appetite whetter for the rich food ahead.

While my frisee aux lardons may look a little uninspiring, the bowl it was served in must have contained half a pound of crispy bacon, bolstered by the most magnificent, crispy baguette croutons. The whole thing was pepped up with the sort of simple mustard vinaigrette that the French are so good at.

My Pavé de coeur , a cut so beloved of French bistros. Essentially the heart of the rump steak, this is a nice, chunky bit of meat with the good ratio of softness to chew. Cooked nicely rare, well seasoned and served with a creamy peppercorn sauce and frites, for me there's not much that would improve upon such classic simplicity. The fact that every other person there seemed to be eating the same thing shows I'm not alone.

The Ewing originally picked the bavette with a shallot sauce and frites, but as they had just run out, the waiter suggested substituting the entrecôte. A much thinner cut, it was also served nicely saignant, with the sauce giving a little punch to cut through the richness of the meat and fried potatoes.

Despite the gluttony displayed over the last 24 hours there was no way I was leaving without pudding. The Ewing gamely ploughed through the Mont Blanc, a rich dish of sweetened vanilla and chestnut puree, topped with a billowing mountain of cream, while I plumped for the baba au rhum.

Thankfully they've banned smoking indoors, as a naked flame anywhere in the vicinity of this would have resulted in a catastrophic fireball, unseen since Michael Jackson's ill fated Pepsi commercial. A rich, yeasted cake doused in a hugely alcoholic rum and sugar syrup and served with yet more pillows of fresh cream, needless to say it was fabulous.

The bill is still chalked up on the paper table cloth before you leave. An old fashioned touch, with old fahioned prices to match. While it may not be haute cuisine, Chartier is a solid place for a simple dinner, and judging by the huge crowds forming outside as we left, still just as popular for those looking to save a few pennies or seeking a piece of the old Paris.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Polidor, Odéon

Polidor, previously known as The Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor, after the cream deserts they served, like lots of cafes and restaurants in the Latin Quarter, is steeped in a rich history. Founded in 1845, it's said to have been a favourite of André Gide, Joyce, Kerouac, Miller and Hemmingway (where wasn't?), even making an appearance in Woody Allen's latest film 'Midnight in Paris'.

The last time I visited Paris was on a trip my aunt, where we spent a fabulous few days eating, drinking and pounding the streets of the city. We came here for the first lunch of our visit, and liked it so much that we ended up coming back a couple of days later. I bored The Ewing so thoroughly with stories about how wonderful it was before our trip that it soon made it onto the 'banned subjects' list.

Not to be deterred, I devised an itinerary that cleverly meant we would be in the Odéon neighbourhood on our first morning in France. Cunning. Being as the Ewing is easily lead when it comes to meal times, happily agreeing to visit if it would mean I would finally shut up and she could finally eat something, we soon found ourselves tucked up in a corner table, making inroads into a bottle of house red.

Luckily she was instantly charmed by the friendly waiter and classic dark wooden tables, mirrored walls, and red and white checked tablecloths (although less so with the "legendary" bathrooms, unchanged for decades and certainly not an experience for the faint-hearted). While the place is firmly on the tourist trail plenty of locals still lunch here too, and the cuisine is still firmly rooted in 19th century, with bistro classics such as snails, steak and ice cream sundaes.

Firstly, apologies for the slightly dodgy photos; I could blame the romantic French lighting, but in truth the vin rouge may also have had something to do with it. We both started with the fois gras from the Landais. When the unadorned slab of butter-topped liver arrived it reminded me why I love French food so much; simplicity and saturated fat. Accompanied by nothing more than a few crisp roundels of baguette and another glass of wine it was a little slice of perfection.

While Proust may have had his madeline moment I've got Polidor's hachis parmentier; served here as the plat du jour on Tuesday and Friday. When I first ate this with my aunt, sitting elbow to elbow with penniless French students eating steak tartare et frites and smoking Gaulioses, life seemed quite perfect. When I think back to that day it's easy to imagine rose-tinted nostalgia (and yet more red wine) clouded my memory, but sitting here in the same room, surrounded by the same mixture of scruffy academics and map-wielding tourists, it's somehow even more poignant than I remembered it.

The pie was exactly how I remembered it too. Rich chopped beef topped with glorious clouds of burnished potato. A handful of mustardy salad leaves helped mop up the gravy.

The Ewing chose the duck confit, served with a great heap of sweet and sour choucroute. The duck shredded apart into a glorious tangle of crisp, rich meat, while the cabbage provided an astringent counterpoint. Why on earth don't the Brits eat more duck legs (Aside from the fact the French have probably snaffled them all)? They're cheap, simple to cook and utterly delicious.

Apparently Polidor has one of Paris' better tarte tatins, not being an expert I must confess I found it a little bland. Both the base and apple layer were rather duvet-like, instead of being light and crisp, and the whole thing was desperately lacking hot pockets of buttery caramel. Served sans accompaniments it all became a little dry and cloying.

Adding a dolllop of the Ewing's rather decadent Caramel Liégeois to my tart helped make the whole thing far more palatable. On it's own the huge tower of rich caramel ice cream, bitter caramel sauce and sweet cream was pretty special, but combined with the piping hot apple and pastry it became quite brilliant. The Ewing, not renowned for her sharing nature when it comes to the sweet stuff, generously let me dig in.

Some memories are best left untarnished, some are best forgotten. Luckily my Gallic shepherd's pie was an experience well worth revisiting.