Category Archives: General Information

The “Willy Wonka” of chocolate is thriving…

It was great to recently catch up with Damian Allsop the chocolatier that was until early 2013 located in Tunbridge Wells. He moved back to Spain with his Spanish partner Anna and took up residence in the town of Girona.

His chocolate business struggled to continue and a short period of his own restaurant in the centre of the town was also despite great reviews thwarted by circumstances beyond his control.

Damian has had a tough time of it and his story is a fascinating one. Some 15 plus years ago he had a nasty self-induced accident that resulted in him breaking both his feet,  a result of  falling from a second floor balcony.

It seems amazing to think how he has bounced back but much is to be credited to his stalwart partner Anna. Anyway after he folded his chocolate business and the restaurant business he was approached by his old bosses in Girona the “Roca” family. Their 3 star Michelin restaurant empire has become his current “lifeline”.IMG_8891

He is tasked with making all the chocolates for the restaurant and banqueting as well as making some of the centre piece cakes for big banqueting functions. Using all his old pastry skills learnt over the past 25 plus years. Plus his amazing and much respected chocolate making skills.

IMG_8887Well the last few months has seen some interesting developments in his journey that will I am sure bring a new chapter for them. He is now classed as just the chocolatier for the “Roca Empire” introducing a range of seasonally changing chocolates for the business every 3-4 months.

EastermonaHe has just had a busy Easter period producing some moulded chocolate monkeys over 300 of them in just under 2 weeks… it was a last minute task he was given and one he says he will not repeat next year without a bit more forward planning!.

But more exciting is the plans ahead… The Roca Empire is expanding and it would seem pivotal in all of this is Damian’s skills as he is looking to develop a “bean to bar” business for them in an ethical and sustainable way. There will be a chocolate factory in central Girona and some boutique hotel rooms that will also be chocolate themed.

So hopefully by next Easter a weekend trip to the city will have a chocolate overload and be the best way to indulge those chocolate fixes.

Just remember you heard about it here first!

On “yer bike” coffee…

We are showcasing a fledgling company with our next dinner when it comes to our coffee service at the end of the meal.

The brain child of Maidstone Boys Grammar School  6th Former Dan Westby, he has been a big fan of coffee for a number of years. After much internet searching along with a loan from the bank of “Mum & Dad” he set himself  up with a coffee bean roasting machine.

Dan has thought through the whole business he has set up from the very clever name to the whole structure and set up. Velo Coffee is designed to be sustainable by selling their roasted beans at local farmers market in Bearsted each month to then being hand delivered by bike as that is Dan’s second passion.

So after much research and some clever branding Velo Coffee was born and Dan now sources his bean choice with the help of his customers and effectively small batch roasts to order the coffee to ensure the maximum freshness.

His current choice of bean is from Rwanda , and precisely Gashonga a small region close to the Congo and Burundi.

This “Red Bourbon” Variety is hand-picked  by smallholders at 1600 plus meters above sea level in ideal growing conditions that is then fermented and dried at the “Gashonga Station”.  He describes them as having a Chocolate & Brown Sugar flavour with a citrus acidity and a syrupy mouth feel.

Dan will normally buy 30kg of the chosen green beans  that he will then roast to order in batches of 250g at a time – a process he will do at last minute before delivery by bike to ensure they are at their optimal freshness. He will then also grind the beans for the desired method of brew. A finer grind for the filter method and a coarser grind for a Cafetiere or “French press”

The smell is evocative as the beans roast in circa 12 minutes and Dan brewed me a fresh cup on my visit to his set up that illustrated well the citrus notes of the light roasted bean that when drank black and without sugar was a perfect way to appreciate his passion.

He has promised to be on hand each night to talk about his business and the way it operates from his monthly stall at Bearsted farmers market to the subscription service that he offers to local residents where he delivers a freshly roasted pack by bike or for those further afield he will also send by Royal Mail.

For someone so young it is an enterprise to be admired and what is so evident is the passion he shows for the product – the care and attention to detail from the branding to processes involved is to be commended. I trust you will come and support him at our next dinner.

Velo Coffee Co – www.velocoffeeco.co.uk

Facebook – velocoffeeco  

Twitter – @velocoffeeco

Instagram  @velocoffeeco

A Wong with Hom…

Now that heading sounds a bit weird I know but all will be revealed…

I am for my sins a graduate from what is now Oxford Brookes School of Hospitality Management (Was Oxford Polytechnic in my days!) at Oxford Brookes University.

I am also actively involved with their Alumni Association and get to go to assorted functions and events their Oxford Gastronomica organise throughout the year.

Well recently one of their esteemed ambassadors was in the UK for Chinese New Year and he was hosting a luncheon at A Wong a much lauded and on trend Chinese eaterie in Wilton Street Nr Victoria Station London. Ken Hom was in town and well I needed little persuasion to book my place at a lunch he was hosting at Andrew Wong’s gaffe!

It was quite an intimate affair with some two dozen diners ensconced in the basement bar of this restaurant. An introduction to the proceedings by head of School Donald Sloan was followed by a few words from Chef Patron Andrew Wong who informed us we were lucky to have him there as he wife was scheduled to have her baby that very day but in fact ended up having their baby on Christmas Day!

Any way we settled down to a real feast with firstly some Dim Sum style starters appeared –  Sui Mai and Har Gau as steamed dumplings. Then a plate of crispy prawn filled Wan Tuns and a Mushroom spring roll coated in Vermicelli… very delicate but also very tasty. The steamed dim sum had some great embellishment The Sui Mai with crispy Pork crackling and the Har Gao with some delicate citrus foam.

Then came a whole steamed Dover Sole – zingy fresh and expertly removed from the bone and garnished with the trinity (garlic, ginger & spring onion) Some lusciously pink prawns with a crispy fried garlic and spring onion topping were beautifully sweet tasting – shame it was only one prawn each!

Next came a Crispy Duck course that had some wonderfully novel twists on the standard restaurant serving. A paint brush came standing up in a shot glass ready to paint the steamed pancake with the Hoisin sauce. The normal cucumber and spring onion garnish was added to by small slivers of smoked duck and then some crispy fried pieces of dried bean curd. It was a clever and well thought out addition that gave the whole dish a new flavour dimension and texture.

Once the duck was cleared away we then had a slight pause before rice bowls arrived and then a plethora of main dishes. First a seared beef dish described as Yunnan Seared 40 day aged beef with mint chilli and lemon grass. (It got demolished before I could take a picture!) A masterful combination that had a real zing and freshness to it with quite an after kick to it.

A bowl of Singapore Noodles then arrived along with stir fried market Chinese greens. Then a really unctuous slow braised pork belly with lotus root and then another bowl arrived with Gang Bao Chicken with roasted Peanuts and a good chilli kick and then apparently a classic new years dish of a rice noodle cake with a bean sprouts. This was a real classic of flavour combinations and textures that was soft and chewy – in fact it was a bit of a “Marmite” dish amongst the other diners but I have to say I loved it.

To complete the meal once all was cleared away wooden boards arrived laden with what looked like little white peaches. These were in fact what could be described as one of Mr Wong’s signature dishes.  The recent Jay Rayner review on the establishment describes the dessert as possibly the best current dessert in London at the moment! It was I have to say quite honestly an amazing dessert. A crispy base to the dumpling that had a gorgeous duck egg based custard  hidden inside a soft delicate casing that beautifully oozed out of the bun as you bit into it!

This was a truly magnificent meal to celebrate Chinese New Year and the company of Mr Hom was equally welcome.  I am in awe of Mr Wong and now am keen to go back… I am celebrating a significant birthday this year and am already trying to plan as many return visits as I can.

My long time friend Chef Kam Po But who has guest cooked a couple of times with me is one I want to eat here with as I know he appreciates Andrew Wong’s talents and knows him well. If anyone wants to join me and But as this is very much a must visit establishment! Please just let me know and I will add you to the list! (You will have to pay your own way though!)

You can tell I enjoyed myself and when I finally left at nearly 5;30pm you just now when it has been a great lunch as much as great company!

Gong Hay Fat Choy

Covert Cook School… it’s back

When we launched “Covert Cook School” in the autumn of 2015 we were not sure what was the best format to pursue.

We feel now the best way forward is to structure the lessons to suit you. We are flexible on dates and the format the class will take… all we ask for is you choose the style of class you have that will then dictate the size of the class so the  number of friends or acquaintances you come with.

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If you want a one to one lesson that is fine – if you want it hands on then we ask for just two attendees. If you want just a demo class then four people is the ideal number.

We will then discuss the content of your lesson and tailor it to what you want to learn. It can be tricks of the trade or perhaps something more complex and involved.  Just remember the lesson will be bespoke to you.

To book your own Covert Cook School please complete the form below or go to the Covert Cook School dedicated page.

Hawker House – Street Feast London

 

I had been made aware of Hawker House by fellow supper club operator Sprig of London who had recently attended the venue and was excited to know more about it.

Having just completed an outside event with “The Hands” Julia we got talking about taking our respective off spring up to London for the evening to see the Christmas lights and soak up some festive spirit.

I suggested a detour to take a look at this much talked about concept. Street Feast London – it is a street food concept that brings together a group of food retailers producing an eclectic mix of food under one roof. The parent company behind it all are London Union a partnership of Henry Dimbelby (of Leon Restaurants fame) and Jonathan Downey the initial instigator of the Street Feast concept.

Hawker House is an unassuming old warehouse located behind the Surrey Quays retail park close to Canada Water – it is marked by a fire brazier entrance area and an illuminated sign leading down to the security manned front doors that led you through some black curtains into a dimly lit walkway and opened into a buzzing cavernous warehouse.

Friendly cheerful hosts greet you and ask for your hand to then ink stamp you with the Hawker House logo and you enter into a wide open space filled with long trestle style tables and chairs in the middle and then round the edges of the space there are the assorted food vendors. The space is divided between two main areas and a staircase leads up to an area with assorted bar/drink vendors. It is a massive area and full of urban character with cleverly lit areas and  graffiti clad walls. I could best describe it all as grunge chic and the vibrant atmosphere makes it all rather special .

It is however the food on offer here that is the star… the assorted traders are rotated among their other sites and I found the first visit here is really not enough to sample the full delights on offer and had to go back the following week as there were others I wanted to sample.

Highlights for me were Meat Hook – wood fired grilled beef topped with a fiery chimichurra sauce,  a Chuck Burger freshly grilled burger knocks your average burger into the sidelines but for me the Yum Bun stall was one I kept going back to. The Smokestak was another concept that had me gravitating towards it… I am drooling just thinking about them again. White Men Can’t Jerk and Mother Clucker to name just another two of the traders could tempt you!

The food offer is what for me was so exciting – the place might be a bit trendy for the local hipsters and drinkers it is however the food that made me want to make the 60 mile round trip again the following week!

In fact when it all reopens at the end of this month I will be dreaming up an excuse to go again ! If you want to sample some amazing street food then I can thoroughly recommend it all. The excesses of the festive period will be forgotten by the time it all starts up again!

 

2016 Dates…

Happy New Year…

chocs

We have had a hectic festive period and are now recovering from a 1200 mile trip to Switzerland between Xmas and New Year to visit friends and stock up on Mrs HC’s chocolate supplies.

We have now just released some of the dates and themes for our 2016 events.

Do take a look here.

We will be revealing more details soon but our first event at the end of January will be what we have named a sausage fest – we will be serving up cured salamis and for the main course a classic Choucroute with smoked sausages. Menu just in the final stages of tweaking.

February will be the return of a couple of Fondue nights and then we will have yet to be confirmed dates a return visit of Chef But and we will also be taking Hari Covert to foreign shores with a pop up planned in Switzerland at some stage during 2016.

We will be doing a charity alfresco theme in July that will take “Underground Dining” to new heights.

So there will be plenty to keep us busy during the coming year. We hope you will also come and join us.

Please keep watching this space for all the latest news…

Waste… and just lazy behaviour?

waste1The recent BBC programme “Hugh’s War on Waste” with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that aired recently highlighting the problems of food waste was a fascinating look into how we have become.

I recognised so many traits of people I know that will buy excessive food and then have to throw it out or they will only buy perfectly formed produce because they have become so conditioned. Do not get me started on Organic and the such like!

I always remember once going through my mothers store cupboard and finding jars of jam, tins of food etc that were years out of date. She was of the “war rationing” generation that horded food and just hated waste. We have cultural differences as well – we see people in our French village going out each day buying the produce and food they need for that day.

I have had a chef training and I feel I am pretty good at ensuring I use every bit of produce I buy and I like to also think I am pretty canny with my purchasing and try to buy what is in season. Local is good but can for me also be limiting… e.g. I love a Barbary Duck Breast so will purchase when I am in France and import or source an Asian ingredient I require when a local cannot be substituted.

Hugh’s programme highlighted the public’s so called desire for perfect fruit and veg with tonnes of parsnips being rejected by supermarkets as they were marked with small blemishes or were the wrong sizes! Madness and irresponsible for all parties involved. Intermarche the French supermarket chain actually have a cheaper section of Fruit and Veg that are seconds or misshapen. It requires the public to demand their produce is not sanitized to the extent it currently is.

What is worse is this “Best Before Date” people now think if it is gone beyond this it is dangerous and should be thrown. I was also equally annoyed by the way people stored their opened produce in the fridge in the same packets and unwrapped – open to cross contamination and spoiling.

I get through copious quantities of large commercial rolls of cling lidl sealerfilm quite quickly as I am constantly wrapping and storing using this or my £25 Lidl purchase of a small vacuum machine with rolls of
plastic bags as an invaluable piece of kit for me as I freeze or wrap gluts in bags till they get used.

For me it is all in the planning, rotation and knowing what is in your fridge, freezers and storage cupboards so that it gets used. It is simple kitchen management and what annoys me most is when someone takes something from the fridge and then puts it back unwrapped (if already wrapped and not in the same place it was taken from) It might sound like a case of OCD but for me it is about sound management. Ask any good professional chef and he would agree.

The public needs to up its game on many fronts and our supermarkets need to change its policies with regards to what it sees as acceptable standards.

Rant over… any comments are welcome.

Parental Control…

I was with Mrs HC in my local cinema the other night and we were eating in a Pizza restaurant before going to see the latest Bond picture.

kids2Now it was our first visit to the said restaurant part of a small independent chain and we did not know what to expect. It was fairly early evening and on arrival there were quite a few children eating with their parents.

We sat down on our allotted table with a mother and two young hyperactive  girls located on an adjacent table. In fact when we inspected the room there were possibly 90% of the tables with one or more adults and a plethora of children (well it was the half term holiday)

The menu was a classic pizzeria style menu in the Pizza Express mould. There was also a  fairly hefty children’s section that was well thought out and exciting for our little ones and all reasonably priced.

However it was the lack of parental control by certain Yummy Mummy’s that galled me most. Children misbehaving and running round the place is dangerous as drinks are carried to the tables along with hot food, one group of boys played up and down the staircase and lift to this first floor restaurant. All this time the parents just sat there and ignored them. One mother just seemed to be bored and playing on her phone!

kids1One more elderly lady (a granny perhaps) was sitting with two young children who were impeccably behaved through out, and a young girl on the next table to us with a school friend when they left the table to go to the toilet did rather boisterously run down the stairs and their Mother turned to us and remarked “when will they learn”!

Perhaps you might think me a grumpy old fart  for making such comments but if you delve deeper into the restaurant scene and what the public expect and how they behave in our eating establishments then you would understand my dismay.

There was recently a very well crafted article in the Guardian when critic Jay Rayner commented about children’s menus. I could not agree more with him… we are culturally backward when it comes to eating out with children. What is more children should be taught how to behave in a restaurant what ever its style or purpose from a very early age.

I have very fond memories of eating in a Michelin starred restaurant in France when a primary school class of 4 & 5 year olds were bought into the restaurant and sat down to try some foie gras, snails, caviar, Steak tartare and high quality chocolate to educate their taste buds and palates.

Our meal was good and the film was very impressive it was however the lack of parental control of their young ones that had a  great deal to answer for. One can live in hope…

Five Guys vs Byron Hamburgers…

Me and the DD were at Bluewater with Mrs HC the other week and we decided to give the burger joint of Five Guys a try out. Me and little miss HC rather like a good burger and are big fans of Byron Burgers… So we thought this one would be worth a trial.

IMG_8122 (1)The main difference is they are best described as a self serve establishment but their burgers are somewhat more high class than your McDonalds or Burger King.

The concept is very simple… Small or Large Burgers (two meat patties) and then any combination of 15 assorted fillings!

They claim there are over 250,00 possible ways to order a Five Guys Burger, they only use fresh ground beef and there are no freezers in any of their locations… They even listed in the Bluewater place where the farm was that provided their potatoes (A farm in Sufflok) plus they only fry in peanut oil.

Menu
Menu

You make your choice and pay at a till and then move along the open to view kitchen area to a pick up point and watch the burger being assembled and then pick it up when your order is called. The place was packed and our wait was really no more than six to seven minutes. Plenty of theatre as they assembled the orders and you helped yourself to your ordered drink and could go back for a free refill if required.

Byron
Byron Burgers

Overall the burger was a good juicy one and the chosen garnish was generous… for me the Fries were really good, very crispy and well seasoned. In fact overall we were impressed and the meal cost circa £20 so certainly more than the McDonalds genre… Better than Gourmet Burger Kitchen but for us we still like Byron Burgers… they are all very individual in style but with their friendly table service they win for hands down for me and little Miss HC.

Worth a visit to both if you enjoy a burger!

Five Guys

Byron Hamburgers

All about the service…

Well during the past few months I have had quite a few eating out experiences of both a good and bad nature.  Having made a living out of restaurant reviewing in the past as both an “Egon Ronay Guides” inspector and also an “AA Guides” patch inspector my tastes have developed to appreciate firstly much simpler food where the ingredients provenance takes centre stage.

I have however begun to appreciate far more the service proffered by an establishment as also being an integral part of the whole experience.

I recently found myself for a few days in the West Country and we had a rather posh afternoon tea at a newly opened 5 star hotel – the Afternoon Tea served was £30 a head and whilst generous in proportion was not so memorable for the quality of the offer. Firstly sandwiches when delivered did not match the menu description and the chefs predilection for tomato in them was rather overzealous.

Scones whilst home-made were stodgy and stale, jam and cream was however generous. Cakes and pastries were pretty unimaginative and amateurish – a tartlette case filled with meringue needed the citric base to compensate for the sweetness. A chocolate cake and a caramel mille feuille were also nothing special and the only saving grace was the fresh fruit tartlette.

An apfel strudel with vanilla sauce was also out of place as a tea time treat – more in keeping as a restaurant dessert was also soggy and not in the least bit dainty!

The only saving was friendly and concerned service from a young but professional team of staff who held it all together and helped redeem the food quality misgivings.

A couple of days later we then had a meal in the depths of Cornwall at an establishment in a very busy and bustling coastal town that is dominated by a certain celebrity chef.

We went to his “Bistro” operation for a dinner. It was a return visit since we had had a memorable lunch some nine years earlier. Whilst the food was spot on and highlighted well the great produce on offer from fresh local scallops served with a truffle butter to an amazing combination of John Dory, Grilled Baby Leeks, Soft Boiled Egg and shaved Parmesan  cheese that was an enlightening combination. It was however the service we had that was more memorable. Young staff were engaging, sociable and efficient throughout so much so it was refreshing to watch and made the evening all the more memorable!

The day afterwards at a seaside Cafe we visited for a traditional Cornish clotted cream tea there was a slightly annoying pre-order system at a bar counter and then your order was delivered to your chosen table. Not ideal, but acceptable except what annoys me more is waiting staff who walk past a laden table of a previous occupants detritus that is not cleared by them… somewhat all to apparent at this canal side eatery that whilst popular lacked the slickness of the previous nights dinner.

My other pet hate is the “Nandos” concept of sitting at a table and then being made to go to a till to order and pre pay – My disabled wife has been discriminated before with this concept  and forced to send our young daughter to order and pay. A visit to chain of burger restaurants using such a format was underwhelming and confirmed my favourite style of this eatery is the “poetically named group” found all over London who has continually delivered great service and a very consistent product in each of their places. My daughter is now hooked on them as are all of her school friends.

Whilst eating with friends at one of Mr Raymond White’s bustling restaurants a mistake to our dessert order was handled with great aplomb and apologetic efficiency that left us impressed with the establishment and happy to return at a future date as opposed to a negative and disgruntled attitude!

Our visit to a wonderful restaurant with rooms in deepest north Devon owned and operated by friends admittedly was made more special by the service proffered that was concerned, measured and efficient throughout our visit. From the welcome cup of tea on arrival to a coffee served in the lounge whilst writing up a report to a sumptuous dinner and well cooked breakfast reminded us how committed you need to be to be hospitable and successful. This couple have now done some 15 plus years in their own business and just one look at the positive and glowing feed back on their trip advisor rating speaks volumes for their dedicated professionalism. I am not surprised they are trying to now sell up and take things a little bit easier as they work long hours and very hard to maintain their loyal and appreciative guests! I wish I had the energy and money to invest in their truly lovely place. I thoroughly recommend a visit to see how it should be done.

Whilst the food is important the service can make or break the experience and the rise in popularity of TripAdvisor hated by many a chef in my mind when you read between the lines is a useful tool to ensure you do not waste your money!

I can thoroughly recommend the following as they provided some truly memorable meals and service over the past few months… I will not bore you with the not so good!

St Petrocs Bistro

Blagdon Manor

Byron Burgers

Restaurant Aquar’aile