Friday, 3 July 2009

A Tweeter's Tale

On a sunny Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago I found myself heading along the towpath from Camden Lock in the direction of Regent's Park in search of the good ship Finale - the Guardian's Word of Mouth Taste of London festival fringe (or #tastefringe in twitter speak) HQ for the weekend. Armed with a Guardian press pass, my camera and an empty tummy (I even skipped breakfast for the occasion), the plan was to descend on Taste of London to eat and drink the day away, all the while reporting 'on the hoof' to anyone who cared to read my 'tweets'.

For those of you uninitiated into the world of twitter, it's a social networking and mini-blogging service through which people keep in touch by giving updates (or tweets) of 140 characters or less. It's highly addictive.

So I set forth, along with my comrades, to Regent's Park to fulfill my mission of eating. Lots. Completely altruistic on my behalf! I did it all for the lovely people at the Guardian of course...

Bearing in mind I ate for about 5 hours pretty much non-stop, I would bore you to tears if I repeated it here. So instead, here's a potted version of my day as a journalist. You can read more about my escapades gate-crashing the chef's kitchens in my piece for the Guardian's Word of Mouth here.

First stop was Launceston Place with it's 'taste of the seaside'. The potted devilled brown shrimp and crab which was served in a seashell on a bed of pebbles was one of my favourite dishes of the day. The rest had a lot to live up to! It was rich and unctuous - the small serving was just perfect. They are really passionate about presentation and the emotions you feel not just from eating but from the whole experience.

Dessert came in the form of the rhubarb ice cream which you may have seen on the great British Menu when Tristan Welch's suped-up Mr Whippy machine was causing him some serious grief. I nipped behind the counter to see take a closer look at it in action. Apparently (or so I am told) it's not like a normal Mr Whippy machine, oh no, this is a super duper ice cream machine. I'm not quite sure why, but it did churn out a perfect rhubarb ice cream whilst I snapped away - perfectly tangy rhubarb which went zing on my tongue. The real deal comes with custard ice cream and crumble topping too, but according to gastrogeek who had one, it was a touch on the too-creamy-not-so-amazing side.

There were a couple of things, looking back on the day, which were a touch out of the ordinary. The first was the order in which I ate. A normal meal will go something along the lines of savoury, savoury, sweet. Depending on where you are from, there could be post-sweet savoury in the form of cheese, or not. It was therefore a tad unusual to switch between sweet and savoury depending on what was served next. It is entirely possible that this had a bearing on which dishes I liked more than others - can you really pick up the subtlety of crab after eating rhubarb ice cream?

The second, although unusual certainly in Western society, was actually rather natural and humbling. From the outset, I shared dishes with my fellow tweeters (the chocolate sensation at L'Atelier de Joel Robouchon springs to mind) but it wasn't until later in the afternoon, sat around a big table in front of L'Anima with gastrogeek, moreteavicar, Tim Hayward and Francesco Mazzei, that I realised that fuelled with our desire to taste the food, we were not only digging in and sharing the food, we were also sharing our cutlery. And why not?

As well as being packed full of great restaurants, there were also producers, some of whom were ever so friendly and (more importantly) ginger. We received a little tweet from Paul A. Young offering free chocolates to bloggers and tweeters so we headed off on a little jaunt over to Paul's feast for the chocolate lovers' eyes stand for a chocolate tasting. Oh boy! I had never even heard about Paul's chocolates before, let alone tasted them. I did the polite thing though, I held back from the smash and grab on the free samples and snooped around taking a few photos of my eating companions for the day (gastrogeek and moreteavicar), chatting to Paul about his chocolates and about his lovely gingerness. Then, when the temptation overwhelmed me I went straight in for the kill with a pecan praline... Nothing I can say will do this (or, by the sight of moreteavicar weak at the knees as he bit into his salted caramel) justice so you'll have to go and buy some to see for yourselves.

Paul suggested Bryn Williams at Oddette's, which serves good British food, might be a good next stop. Well, what he said was, go and speak to Bryn, mention me and he'll give you some grub. Sure enough, a friendly Bryn (looking more than a little worse for wear, water in hand and clearly suffering from the excesses of the previous day!) doled out plate after plate of his fine simple food. As gastrogeek snuck away to a corner to devour her lamb (which she professed to being pretty amazing) I tucked into a plate of simple fresh crab. A good helping of both brown and white crab meat. Was that my third crab dish of the day? The menus seemed to be rather crab-centric.

One of my favourite desserts of the day came in the form of Bryn's simple lemon posset with strawberries and basil was great, proper summer stuff. It's just cream, sugar and lemon juice, simplicity itself and made by a friendly, approachable, great chef. So good it was gone before I'd taken a photo!

It was about then that I did a spot of kitchen-crashing again to take a peek at what was going on behind the scenes at Theo Randall's place. Theo was all smiles, but didn't have time to stop and chat, so I squeezed myself into a little gap alongside the 'pass' and chatted to him as he kept his beady eye on a couple of dozen scallops with chillis and datterini tomatoes and two pans of pasta on the hob. No mean feat in the sweltering heat in there. What a lovely man!

Theo is passionate about his ingredients - had I not been busy snapping away as he cooked and chatted I'm sure I could have written a short thesis on the origins, flavours and uniqueness of the datterini tomato. His kitchen style was calm and collected. There was a sense of ease in everything he did and, maybe I caught them at a good time (if mid-lunchtime rush can ever be a good time), but it was simple methodical clockwork in there. None of the shouting and swearing that TV programmes would have us believe is the norm. It was whilst I was chatting to Suse (the editor of the Guardian's Word of Mouth) over a glass of red back at the good ship Finale and recounting the best bits of day that this experience transformed itself into my piece for the Word of Mouth.

The scallops were pretty damn fine!

One place I was keen to try after Michele Caggiane at Galvin at Windows recommended it to me as one of his favourite two Italian restaurants in London, was L'Anima. Who could miss Francesco Mazzei bounding around and chatting to customers in front of the L'Anima stand? His energy and enthusiasm was contagious and soon we were seated, prosecco poured and the dishes began to arrive. We'd hardly started eating and Tim Hayward was raving about how good the food was.

My particular favourite was the Frisella with tomato and mozzarella. This wasn't any run of the mill tomato and mozzarella salad... It was probably the finest mozzarella I have ever tasted, milky, soft, melt in your mouth, piled with tomatoes, onions and basil on top of Puglian ring shaped bread. It sounds simple and it is. Good, honest, hearty food. The sort of food I'd be eating every day if I had such wonderful ingredients.

Two other fantastic puds which are worth a mention are the strawberry and hibiscus bellini with a warm strawberry and vanilla doughnut from The Ledbury and the raspberries with fromage frais mousse and verbena granite from Pied-a-Terre. Both were light and summery but had a twist that set them apart - the hibiscus in the bellini and the verbena granite. Genius.

Finally, when we thought we could eat no more, moreteavicar whisked us off to Viennese bakery Demel’s for sacher torte. By this point I really had no room left whatsoever, but after watching them carefully prepare the next batch - coating the sponge in apricot, mixing the chocolate, pouring the molten chocolate over the sponge - I had to have a taste at least!

I meandered back to #tastefringe HQ sated, exhausted and pondering on the life of a tweeting reporter.

You can see the rest of my photos from the day here.

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