Cheese and Wine Festival, London April 2012

It was cold, wet, and miserable. I was completely inappropriately dressed having come straight from my running group (via post-run brunch). Yet I still made my way to the Cheese and Wine Festival outside the Southbank Centre. The lure of sampling cheese was just too great.

I’d purposefully not eaten after my run in anticipation of this event, so my first objective was lunch. While there were a number of options available it was Le Marmotte that won my custom. Or more specifically, it was Le diot patate raclette that was available at this stall. This was saucisson cooked in a red wine and onions gravy served on boiled potatoes with mixed pickles and topped with melted raclette cheese. The pickles were baby pickled onions and cornichons, which suited me well as I have a bit of a thing for cornichons at the moment. The gravy was rich and sweet and these flavours had permeated the saucisson well. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the potatoes which, without any additional seasoning, had a really strong flavour. In sum, the saucisson was delicious, so was the traditional raclette. However the combination of the two in one dish didn’t work for me. It would have worked better as a main and a side.

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I reluctantly left some of the potatoes in order to leave room for further sampling. Also I’d spotted Arancini Brothers, which claimed to produce the best risotto balls. They were available in wraps, with ratatouille or as a number of balls with chutney or garlic mayonnaise. I showed restraint and chose two arancini with garlic mayonnaise. I didn’t like the sauce, too much mayonnaise, not enough garlic. However the arancini were delicious. I bit through a beautiful crisp golden exterior to a perfectly soft risotto strongly seasoned with herbs, stock and a little cheese, I believe. I need a broader basis of comparison before declaring them the best, but I will confirm that they were really good!

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My hunger satiated, I moved on to sampling the wares available. The Bath Soft Cheese Company had some lovely cheeses available. The blue cheese was good, but not the best that I had the good fortune to same. The Wyfe of Bath was very good. Really lovely texture and taste. However the soft cheese was the star. It’s developed in accordance with a rediscovered 19th century recipe. I expected it to be quite subtle so was surprised by how strong the flavour was. It’s so soft that the texture is like that of a very ripe Brie. Absolutely delicious!

Speaking of brie, there was one that I tried and it gave me a particular moment of delight. It was perfectly ripe and oozy, despite the horrendous weather. Placing it on my tongue I first registered the fantastic rich taste. Then I had this little nigglling sense of familiarity. The vendor was La Fromagerie, and I quickly realised that I was for a while a regular customer at their shop in Islington and so was already highly familiar with the delights of their Brie!

Flavours of Spain had some interesting offerings available. I didn’t like the manchego, of which I am usually such a fan. I think I’ve been ruined by my experience at Divisa Blanca Taberna. However, I had an incredibly intriguing experience in sampling the chocolate and olive pesto by Belluga. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It was a savoury chocolate, or perhaps it just used unsweetened cocoa. There wasn’t a distinct olive taste, but the texture was that of finely chopped olives. Very unusual.

Now I’ve never been a fan of Comte. I’ve always found that the texture is too rubbery and the flavour unpleasantly tangy. However the Borough Cheese Company won me over with it’s Comte which had been aged for 13 months. It had a medium hard texture and an undertone of almost sweetness to it. Really nice. One of the vended explained that it’s only the younger comtes that have the rubberiness, and from about six months ageing the texture changes. Really good to talk to someone who clearly understands their product.

This contrasted greatly with the staff at The Flour Station, where they were unable to tell me which type of flour a bread was made with and instead directed me to a booklet on the table (happily, I correctly guessed that it was rye). Still the bread was good. More than good. I love the fruit bread made with apricots and raisins. The bread was soft flavoursome and full of fruit.it was this bread that I’d been trying to learn more about. Might have to try a rye adaptation with my own recipe. There was also a really interesting olive levain. What I found unusual was the extent to which the flavour of he olives had permeated the bread. Personally I think I prefer a stronger bread taste to contrast with the olives. Still it was an impressive feat to have been able to create such uniformity of taste.

Mootown offered a really lovely Stilton. I loved the way the flavour came in layers. I was offered my first try of Caerphilly. For me it was a bit too acidic to be pleasant, but this is probably a reflection of this type of cheese rather than its quality. I was intrigued by the welsh cakes on sale and actually bought some of these to try later. I realise that they are not traditionally eaten with cheese but I was encouraged to do so.

Happily, I’d also succumbed to the delice de bourguinon at The Cheese-board. This was an incredibly soft and oozy cheese that had a surprisingly but incredibly enjoyable saltiness too it. That night for dinner I spread my welsh cakes with the delice do bourguinon and went to a very happy place. The richness of the cheese and the particular saltiness contrasted perfectly with the sweetness of the swollen sultanas. Might have to make some welsh cakes for myself so I can have that again.

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Mercado San Miguel

I do a lot of self-catering when I’m travelling because it’s cheaper and healthier. I’m not talking about elaborate meals, just picnic-style eating. It does result in fewer opportunities to try local cuisine each trip, but on the other hand it also means I can afford more holidays, and therefore a greater variety of culinary experiences. Hey, it works for me.

In this vein, one of my first stops when is arrived in Madrid was Mercado de San Miguel, having read that it was a great place to pick up fresh produce. This is the disadvantage of using a five year old guide book. Things change, although in this case it was definitely an improvement. The market has evolved into an array of stalls offering tapas to eat there are take away, with only some vendors continuing to offer elements of traditional market sales. It’s even possible to buy wine by a bottle or glass to accompany your meal.

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Mercado San Miguel is an indoor market set up with large standing-height tables (although some chairs are available) to allow diners to eat in relative comfort and minimise food spillage. I arrived at lunchtime and it was absolute chaos. I was absolutely overwhelmed with sensory stimulation. So much wonderful food. Clearly this was a place to eat in Madrid.

However, I was there with a purpose in mind and kept to it, although I was sorely tempted to stray into eating my way through the entire market. I picked up some gorgeous gourre noire goats cheese, a beautiful crusty loaf of bread from Horno San Onofre, delicious but pricey Iberian ham from Mas and some fruit. Unfortunately, it’s not permitted to choose you own fruit in Spain so I found out my peaches were under-ripe when I tried them the next morning.

This experience led me to the conclusion that Mercado de San Miguel is more of a place to eat than shop. I soon returned for a lunchtime feast. It was difficult to know where to start and for a while I just wandered around taking in all that was on offer. Eventually I settled at El Pescado Original this was bar style eating with an array of exotic fish and seafood tapas on display. Although tempted by a slice of tuna-filled potato and spinach tortilla, I decided to try an interesting looking scallop dish. This turned out to be a creamy mixture of cooked mushrooms and scallop that had been topped with breadcrumbs and lightly grilled. It was all so decadent I forgot to take photos!

My next port of call was Va Alacena del Victor Montes. It was a tiny little cart-like store selling varieties of freshly cooked croquettes. I decided to be quite traditional and opted for one of the cheese and one of the chorizo croquettes. They were sublime! Golden crunchy exterior followed my a smooth rich flavoursome filling. Just yummy!

Next I headed to Paella y Olé for, surprise surprise, paella. Diners can choose from a tapas portion or a racionnes sized serving. It usually has three paellas one offer, but one had sold out. Left with choice between meat and mixed seafood paella i opted for the latter, particularly because it had just finished being prepared. Naturally I asked for a tapas-sized serving and at £3.50 this was an absolute bargain as it was a sufficient amount of food to have been a meal in and of itself. It was also delicious. The rice was strongly flavoured with fish stock and bright yellow from the use of saffron. The paella was peppered with mussels, fish and mange tout. More of these ingredients would have been nice but at that price scantness was to be expected.

By this point I was full, which was a shame because there were so many other options I wanted to try. However my taste buds demanded a little piece of chocolate just to finish off the meal. I returned to Horno San Onofre and, spoiled for choice, I eventually elected to try the caracas de chocolate. I can only describe this as a wafer of dark chocolate with crunchy bits throughout it. Whatever. It was delicious, which is the most important thing.

With so many options left to try I couldn’t help but return for another sitting. This time I started at La Casa del Bacalao, which offered an array of seafood tapas on medium sized melba toasts. With my love of octopus I couldn’t help but start with a Pulpo. My other choice was Foie Gras de Bacalao.

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The Pulpo was good but it was the Foie Gras de Bacalao that was the star. It had the same silken texture of foie gras de canard but of course it tasted like fish. Although this description doesn’t do the tapas justice, the flavour was deep, rich, and unlike any fish dish I’d eaten before. It was so good I had to have another. This time I selected a marinated bacalao in olive oil and dill. I also grabbed another cheeky cheese croquette from Va Alacena del Victor Montes.

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The foie gras was just as good the second time around (unlike the croquette which was unfortunately slightly cold), and it provided a really interesting contrast to the marinated bacalao. Where the former had such a strong taste, the flavour of the latter was very subtle, with the olive oil and dill gently enhancing and complimenting the flesh perfectly.

Lastly, I went to El Yantar de Ayer, which I had been salivating over since the first time I came to Mercado San Miguel. The pictures below explain why.

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With such magnificent combinations of antipasti on offer making a selection was incredibly difficult. However, I finally settled on a small olive with ham and cheese, and a skewer of olives, peppers, octopus, and pickled onion. Both were delicious!

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So if you’re looking for basic food ingredients, head down to Mercado de la Cerbado just down from La Latina station. If you want an amazing and affordable tapas experience, then Mercado San Miguel is the place to go.

Meek and Wild

Heading home this evening we noticed that a new fishmonger, Meek and Wild was having a bit of a launch party. We lingered around the front window blatantly snooping and were soon invited inside. Free alcohol is always a good way to get people into a new store. Great produce is the way to make sure people return as customers. Meek and Wild had both.

We were treated to an array of seafood and seafood products. Fresh oysters were shucked in front of us and served with a red wine vinegar and shallot dressing or a cucumber pickle made by one of the staff. The cucumber pickle was really interesting, and surprisingly good. It complimented the oyster while emphasising the cucumber as a flavour in its own right. Apparently the recipe was created by one of the staff members. I unfortunately missed out on the cold smoked salmon, but the hot smoked salmon was delicious. Very gentle, subtle flavourings. The smoked mackerel was really good and there was a mackerel pate available that was to die for. I will genuinely be heading back there tomorrow to buy some. I also really enjoyed the taramasalata, which usually I find a little wrong. This one had a gentle seafood flavour that almost had a sweetness to it.

I was very excited to see that they had sourced Arbroath smokies. Having read and heard so much about the unique flavour of this smoked haddock and seen how difficult it is to obtain in London, I was excited to indulge my palate in this new flavour. My conclusion is that it is definitely a positive development that these are now so readily available. Another interesting product was the smoked sprats. I was encouraged to eat them whole. That’s head, tail and everything in between. They had a surprisingly subtle flavour (as opposed to “fishy” fish like mackerel) and eating the bones created a pleasant contrast in texture with the meat. I’ve no idea how to cook with them (tapas maybe) but this might be something I need to investigate.

Overall I was impressed by the products I sampled at Meek and Wild and will certainly be returning as a customer. I feel some seafood recipe experimentation coming on!