Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Cheesy old fritters - a very admirable recipe

Cheese fritters seem something of an anathema to a land where the Breville toastie and cheddar on toast with a dash of Lea & Perrins rule supreme but on the continent (especially in Central Europe) you cannot move for a plethora of different preparations of fried cheese. 

I remember first sampling cheese fritters on a rather drunken trip to Prague alongside a crisp pint of Pilsner and the delicious/unsettling delights of a pickled sausage which a fat fingered old crone plucked from a large jar of brine and served with half a raw Spanish onion and black bread. 

However, as regards the below recipe, I took inspiration from my recent holiday to Alsace (France) where I was served the most wonderfully pungent Munster croquettes at the fabulous Hotel Schwendi, served alongside a simple green salad and some finely chopped beetroot. It was fabulous, but I fear that this recipe lacks the refinement that they brought to their preparation.

Sadly you cannot get Munster of that quality over here so I have used the ever reliable Gouda for my take, however that is not to say you cannot experiment with other cheeses. Dare I say it but Port Salut makes a very tasty croquette when used! I think melted cheese oozing from a crisp golden coating a rather sensual dish  - the perfect starter for a romantic meal for two! 

As at the fantastic Hotel Schwendi, the best thing to serve with these little parcels of pleasure with a chilled glass of Alsatian wine such as a fragrant Gerwurztraminer or a crisp Pinot Gris. 

(Serves 2 as a starter/snack or 1 for a light lunch)

For the fritters

4 medium slices of Gouda (or similar cheese)  
2 handfuls dried breadcrumbs
2 tbsp flour for dredging  
Salt and Pepper
1 large egg, beaten  
250ml sunflower oil

For the beetroot

1 large, cooked beetroot
Dash of white wine vinegar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of caster sugar
Pinch of nutmeg

For the salad 

1 large handful of lambs lettuce  
1 tbsp French Vinaigrette 
  1. Prepare the cheese fritters by taking each slice, dusting in flour, dipping in beaten egg and rolling in breadcrumbs. 
  2. Chill for 30 minutes. Repeat the latter two stages once more. Set aside
  3. Mince the beetroot with two sharp knives and combine in a bowl with  the vinegar, nutmeg, caster sugar and salt 
  4. pour the oil into a wok and heat on a high flame until hot enough to fry (you should be able to do this intuitively without the need of a thermometer). 
  5. Place the fritters carefully in the oil using a slotted ladle and fry on each side for about 30 seconds, turning with two forks. 
  6. Drain on some kitchen paper. dress the lambs lettuce and place in the centre of a white plate, surrounding with a few carefully place mounds of the beetroot, top with the hot fritters and season with salt and pepper. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

If I don’t take a chance... August (1986) by Eric Clapton

By 1986 Eric Clapton was in need of a comeback, he’d had a number in his career but this was different. Much like the late Robert Palmer he had stumbled in 1983 with the brilliant, but critically panned, Money and Cigarettes (1983) which had featured such blues luminaries as Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (formerly of Booker T & the MG’s and latterly of the Blues Brothers Band)  and Ry Cooder performing an album of throwbacks and standards - sadly the markets weren’t biting as horror of horrors it was also a sizable commercial failure. It was back to the drawing boards and, like many other artists from the 70s he decided to embrace the technology and rhythms of the 80s pop scene. 

His first foray, Behind the Sun (1985), I would hazard, was something of an experiment or a dabble if you will... despite being produced by Phil Collins and featuring a stellar cast it just wasn’t a very good record (at least to my mind). But then in 1986, everything came together for one of his most bravura, upbeat and admittedly period pieces August (1986). Once again, using the production, drumming and arranging skills of Phil Collins and Tom Dowd (Rod Stewart) and a crack team of session musicians which feature Michael Jackson’s keyboardist Greg Phillinghanes, the Brecker Brothers and Nathan East Clapton recorded one of my favourite albums of this vintage year of music. 

Whilst not as musically polished as the classics from this year such as So by Peter Gabriel, Graceland by Paul Simon or Back in the High Life  by Steve Winwood, it is a carefree set by a group of consummate and expert musicians who were out to record a hit record, and they were not unrewarded. Whilst, like his previous album, it was regarded disdainfully by critics it was to become his most commercially successful album, driven largely by the opening track ‘It’s in the way that you use it’ which had featured on the blockbuster sequel to ‘The Hustler’, ‘The Colour of Money. This is not to say that the rest of the album is a dud by any means, and, whilst it might not be mentioned on any ‘greatest’ lists the tracks are listenable, addictive, well played and well produced. 

Overlooking the opening hit, which, as a number of critics point out is incongruous with the rest of the album, the second track, Run, co-written by the legendary Motown composer Lamont Dozier has a lustrous opening hook (almost Nile Rodgers in quality) backed with a driving horn section and some very admirable percussion from Collins - incidentally it also contains some of Clapton’s best vocals of his career. 

Everyone in the mid 80s clamoured to do a duet with Tina Turner and here the album does not disappoint with a hard driving, sassy number ‘Tearing us apart’ featuring harsh vocals from Clapton and Tina Turner’s idiosyncratic voice, making up for Clapton’s short-falling in this area as well as some brilliant synth work from Greg Phillinganes (who is excellent throughout the album). This would prove to be a real concert favourite throughout the extensive touring of the album between 1986-1987. 

The Robert Cray penned ‘Bad Influence’ is the next track and one of my real favourites on the album, especially for the awesome saxophone solo from the late Michael Brecker and the trumpet support from Randy Brecker. It has a great rhythm, tempo and structure and I am surprised that it was not released as one of the singles from the album it’s so catchy, even if it is something that might not have sounded in keeping with the club tracks that were gaining so much airplay during this period. 

The drum machine led ‘Walk Away’ is anthemic, subdued and sounds like something that might appear near the closing credits of Miami Vice. It is a little synth for my liking and doesn’t really play to Clapton’s strengths. It has a real Collins stamp on it and sounds like it could have been placed on his, frankly, overrated But Seriously... (1989) album. ‘Hung up on your’ love is frantic, slightly derivative from Dire Straits, but perfectly okay nothing more although the chorus is quite enjoyable. 

Next comes my favourite song on the whole album, and one that enjoyed a substantial amount of airplay on my student radio show (Raiders of the Lost Charts, 2007-2008). It is an exultant, upbeat number full of brass and backing vocals and bridged by one of Clapton’s popiest, but ever-so-great solos which he was known to lend as a guest artist yet had never really appeared on one of his own records. I cannot speak highly enough of this track, it always brings a smile to my face when I am down and is full of subtle nuances that make for a great record. It is a track that I defy anyone who hates the rest of this album not to like! 

Track 8, ‘Hold on’ is a rather uninspiring anthem that sounds like it was left over from a Collins session for his blockbuster No Jacket Required (1985) and can be skirted over quickly, followed by heavy rocker, ‘Miss you’ which once again, whilst a perfectly good track is more filler than killer. Luckily this is more than made up for by a classic Clapton track, ‘Holy Mother’, which would become something of a concert favourite and probably the most musically accomplished cut on the album. The track harks back the golden age, to albums like Boulevard 461 and Slowhand, it has wonderful backing vocals and that signature wailing guitar that Eric is so famous for. 

‘Behind the Mask’ comes next, the only hit single from the album, a cover of a song originally recorded by Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1979, with additional lyrics by Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones (the song was recorded during the artist’s Thriller sessions but never made it on to the album). It must be admitted, as was pointed out to me on Twitter by @matthewsydney, that it sounds somewhat dated but this doesn’t stop it being a cracker of a track which will have you - like Clapton - asking the question ‘Who do you love?’. 

The last number, ‘Grand Illusion’ is a throwaway, and to my mind should not have been includes as the ending of ‘Behind the Mask’ provides a natural point at which to close the album, especially on a rousing note!

 As stated above, whilst this album will never be up in anyone’s top 20 list (except perhaps mine), it certainly isn’t as bad as the critics will have you believe and contains some of Clapton’s finest solos, most exultant moments and easily the most danceable tunes of his long and varied career... so what are you waiting for, take a chance and find out for yourself. 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

An incredible meal... a tale of The Alsace part 2

Sometimes you have meals which are truly forgettable, others which are so memorable that their flavours nostalgically linger on the taste buds and conjure up wonderful images when recalled. The meal that I am about to recount to you certainly falls into that category. 

It was the second day of the trip, and I wanted to go and see a little bit of the famed viticulture of the area so, hopping into the car we whizzed down to the village of Lapoutrie, famed for the production of potent fruit brandies. The Eau de Vie museum was an eccentric mix of copper clad machines, hundreds of liqueur bottles from around the world and assorted barware, from ashtrays to absinthe glasses, followed by an extensive tasting of the museum's homemade wares in the shop. It was jam-packed with a vast array of different flavours, starting with the well known Mirabelle and going right through to more eccentric flavours like pine-nut or gentian (alpine violet) root. After a number of different samples, 3 bottles of house-produced 'Rene de Miscault' richer and £50 poorer it was time to move onto the renowned town of Kayserberg, a stop on the world famous Route de Vins.

The tourist books had depicted Kayserberg as a beautiful city - an idyll surrounded by vineyards in the shadow of The Vosges and the birth place of humanitarian and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer. I have to say though, for all it's hype I was slightly disappointed, although tasting rooms abounded, the whole place was a tourist trap with each shop offering Kugelhopf (the regional cake) moulds, toy storks (the regional bird) and acid-etched riesling glasses. There were, admittedly some pretty buildings but so many were populated by restaurants fronted by gaudy signs giving examples of specialities like bakehoefe (three meat stew with potatoes), Choucroute Garni (Sauerkraut topped with cured pork and sausages) and Bouche a la Reine (Vol au vent stuffed with sweetbreads and mushrooms bound in a white sauce) - not what two gastronomic gourmands (opposed to gourmets) were looking for on this occasion. Then inspiration came to mind.

My father, who never fails to meet new people on holiday, had got talking that morning to a fellow guest at the hotel - the one other UK tourist in the area - who had been coming to the region for 12 years (for an annual MG rally). Thankfully he asked that most important of questions, 'where's the best place to eat out here?' almost instantly came the response, 'The Hotel Schwendi!'

It was situated in a village in close proximity of our previous destination - I say no more you will have to find it for yourselves, if you are intrepid enough. Where Kayserberg had been the hive of activity this little town, on the edge of a vast ridge of vineyards was like something from the Old West, deserted, dusty and with the sound of trickling water (from a sluice) ever present. Perhaps a Frenchified version of Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef would suddenly pop out of the woodwork and standoff against each other, but nothing. A lone old gent sat on a bench in the sunlight, nodding sagely to himself over a walking stick and swallows chirruped around the Eves of the houses. We suddenly came upon a quintessential French Square with obligatory outdoor seating and sun umbrellas, we were at the Hotel Schwendi.

The buxom Angelique (as we found out her name was) ushered us to put table in the main restaurant of the hotel and placed a plate of bacon and walnut cake in front of us and went to get the menu. Usually I dislike cake but this had a lovely bready texture with the deliciously smokey taste, a perfect start to the meal when washed down with a flute of the local - and excellent - Cremant d'Alsace.

On first glance at the menu we decided that this was going to be a no-holds-barred lunch, the plethora of well considered combinations was something to be seen... and very rich. But we decided to go the whole hog and opt for the full works!

The wines on offer at the restaurant were from the estate of the same family who run the establishment (Shille-Gisie) and we chose to match each of our courses with the most appropriate wine from their cellar as the list was large and we, I fear, we're too ignorant at that early stage of the trip to pair the wines to dishes ourselves!

Our starters came, mine were two croquettes of Munster cheese, one young, one older and evidently washed in a marc of some kind. It was served simply with a punchy green salad and a beetroot vinaigrette. It was paired with a Pinot Gris. The melting, pungent cheese oozed lovingly out of its parcel as I cut into it and the crunch of the fried crumb coupled with the crunchiness of the salad was glorious, cut through by the slight acidity of the wine. It was a simple but well defined plate. My father had a slice of the homemade foie gras, pressed from the lobe, it had a most beautiful texture and coupled with the 'premier cru' gerwurtztraminer it was a triumph. 

Onto our main courses, I really hit the jackpot with the most spectacular quail, ballontined with sweetbreads and served on braised celery, with b├ęchamel croquettes and a Riesling sauce. It was, in a word, incredible. Both a feat for the eyes and a sensation for the palate, each mouthful was glorious an left you wanting a little more. The finesse and technique of the dish was something so seldom seen these days that it made my heart sing just to see them executed as they were there.

My father tucked into a delicious (I had a little taste) fish stew comprising of delicately cooked cod, scallops, and other fish flavoured with a mild curry sauce and topped with an amusing piece of pastry shaped like a fish or a phallus, I'm not sure which! Again all this was washed down with a glass of their excellent Riesling. 

I needed a rest by the cheese course and forwent this luxury, but my dining companion had other ideas and ordered a taste of the local offerings. The two lesser known examples on the plate (both heralding from the valley) were pas mal, but the Munster was top notch, a symphony of taste. This was paired against a rare fish indeed, and one you would never see in the UK, the Alasatian Pinot Noir! Never acknowledged to be the finest wine, the one we ordered at Schwendi was a very pleasant little number, now-way near up in the leagues of neighbouring Burgundy and far-off Bordeaux but a great drop none-the-less.

My dinner companion suggested that we decamped outside for our puddings and a glass of plum eau de vie from the renowned maker Gilbert Holl of Ribeauville. Pudding was an ever-so-smooth honey parfait on a pistachio base accompanied by stewed pears and a caramel sauce, nicely topped off with a brandy snap tuile. It was rich but cooling, the perfect pudding for a balmy summer's afternoon. 

We finished the meal with a very well appointed Montecristo Edmundo more eau de vie and strong black coffee, decadence to the full! And there we sat for most of the afternoon taking in the wonderful weather as sparrows hopped around our feet searching for crumbs. On could not ask for more.

We returned to the Hotel Schwendi on our last day, but I will cover that equally memorable meal in my next post, which focuses on the second half of the trip, spent in the valley, just south of Colmar.