Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Rose tea ice

The palate cleanser is a ritual of ours. We always serve something slushy between mains and dessert. In truth I have no idea why. I'm sure someone (probably a Frenchman) has concocted a justification but it's evades me now. Something dainty and chilled consumed with a teeny-tiny spoon does seem to help the stomach contract - probably just a placebo, but a pleasant one.

It began with Pineapple and lime ice. Then came the much more complex Green Tea Ice with hints of citrus and bourbon. Occasionally it's a tangy orange sorbet. This one was a result of our 2017 Indian trip. It's also the easiest. If you can make a cup of sweet tea, you can make this... if you can get hold of the brew. 'Everyday ingredients made differently' is our mantra, well this is rose tea. It ain't everyday unless you live in the mist-fall* Mountains of Kerala. It's doubtless available via Amazon but that rather spoils my attempt at mystique.

This was purchased in bulk (six tins) at the Munnar Tea Museum. It has working machinery (and not enough safety guards for my liking) walking you through tea from bush to dryers to rollers to bag.

Rose tea is a traditional digestif so it seemed like a good choice for a palate cleanser. It also contains antioxidants like quercetin and ellagic acid. Anyone? It has a good blend of aroma and mouth drying tannins. However, I wanted more rose flavour so I also added some dried petals. These are available from Indian supermarkets or online. The colour you see is entirely natural too.

The Munnar Tea Museum
Floral-ity in cooking must be approached with considerable caution. It's a short walk through the nose garden of delicate lavender, rose or violet to Nan's knicker drawer, or worse, a tumble into the under sink area of detergents and air freshners. For that reason, I avoided rose-water. I wanted neither Turkish Delight nor medicinal pastilles. The rose here is all natural, in petal form.

Full disclosure, this does not appeal to some. Even in this frozen form I've had guests tell me it's too perfumed. But that's the exact reason others like it.

One surprising thing I learned about tea bushes is they are in fact very old and very small trees; bonsai, if you like. They only want the new tips so it's easier to keep the plants dwarf. Every one of the millions of trees are carefully hand trimmed. On the landscape this looks magnificent. Mile after mile of deep green, corduroy hills; tea thickets interspersed with tall, lean, silver grey Eucalyptus for shade.

*Mist-fall? Before my copy checker chides me (hello Ming), here's the evidence. I walked out of our plantation hotel early one morning to see this, cascading down the Western Ghats.

Rose Tea Ice
Makes 2 litres

In a large jug or bowl, add 40g of rose tea to two litres of just boiled water. Don't add more than this. Your tea will be bitter. Stir in 500g of caster sugar. Keep stirring to dissolve. Taste. you might want more sugar. Remember freezing reduces our perception of sweetness. Add a big handful (such precision) of dried rose petals and stir. Cover with clingfilm and leave for an hour. No more, don't want stewed tea.

Strain the tea through a sieve into a clip-lock plastic box. Chill in the fridge and then freeze overnight. Shake vigorously every few hours to encourage those crystals. The sugar will prevent it freezing block solid.

To serve, scrape with a fork into small glasses.

Tea picking in Kerala. I believe this is destined for Tetley.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Dulce de leche ice cream (with raspberries)

Dulce de leche ice cream on a bed of chocolate crumb, shortbread biscuit, freeze dried raspberries,
fresh raspberries and raspberry gel.

I need to apply my raspberry gel more evenly. In fact, I need a thicker gel.

"This is the best dessert I've eaten."
"What? Today?"

I'm not good with compliments, which is handy as I'm rarely over-burdened by them. I usually swat them away with fairly bad grace and an explication of either pathological politeness or simple drunkenness on the part of my guest. But... I've experienced versions of the above exchange three times in one week now. I have a hit on my hands.

Before I'm accused of the humblebrag ("Looks like they're giving awards to anyone these days." Tweeted a BAFTA winning writer friend of mine once.) I readily and unashamedly acknowledge this ice cream is very good. But the combination with raspberries seems to hit many people right in their limbic system. I didn't expect that.

It's September. Scottish raspberries are at their best now. That helps a lot. To my mind, raspberries pick up where summer strawberries leave off. Try and find the freshest, least mushed pack that you can. Buy them the day you plan to eat them and leave them out of the fridge. Raspberries have the essential tartness that foils the sweetness of the dulce de leche ice cream so well.

Which brings us onto... dulce de leche? It's a Spanish phrase which means milk sweet. It's made by boiling condensed milk, sealed, still in its tin.  Forget water into wine; this is milk into toffee. It feels like some rich magic, milk transformed into caramel. I've not yet tired of pulling back the lid to reveal the transformation.

I know I keep claiming to be a British cook but hey it's only a name. Condensed milk is hardly exotic.

Some important tips:
Remove the labels or the paper and glue may gum up your cookware.
Lie the tins on their sides or bubbles will form under the lips and will clatter for the duration. 
Make several in one go. The contents will keep for years.
Most importantly: use plenty of water and ensure the tins are never in danger of being exposed to the air. Yes, they could pop.
Let the cans cool to room temperature before you open them, as a face spray of boiling toffee may spoil your day.

Simmer for three hours and the thin, white, sweet milk becomes a thick, toffee like substance tasting of caramel and vanilla. It's wonderful stuff. You may even wonder, while you sit with a just opened tin and a finger, why anyone would bother taking things any further? And in Spain and South America it's often used for dunking churros (deep fried batter sticks) or mixed with banana to make banana cream pie. Well, stay your hand and pull on your apron. Home made DdL ice cream is a revelation.

Yes you do. You know you do. You know you will.

Dulce de Leche ice cream
DdL cream
Makes about one litre

Stand one 397g tin of DdL in a jug of warm water. This makes it easier to deal with. Whisk 200ml of double cream to soft peaks. Now whisk in the DdL. This produces, unsurprisingly, a creamy soft dulce de leche that could be chilled and eaten as a mousse. It is intensely sweet though. Put this to one side.

Make some plain ice cream base using my usual quick custard technique but with the following ingredients: 250ml milk, 100g caster sugar, four egg yolks. You'll need to read the link.

Instead of adding cream in the final stages, add the DdL mix. Chill, then churn in your ice cream maker.

To assemble the dessert...
I made little moulds of ice cream using some silicone muffin bakeware. Easier to pour in just churned soft ice cream and freeze the mould on a metal baking tray. To release the ice cream pour a little boiling water into the tray and around the mould to allow the ice cream to just soften. Then pour off the water and invert the mould onto the tray. Your ice cream blobs should pop out like cakes. You could, of course, just scoop it out of a tub.

On top of the ice cream I placed a thin shortbread biscuit covered in freeze-dried raspberry bits.  Around the plate I placed fresh raspberries doused with raspberry gel.

The gel is made by adding equal weights of frozen raspberries with sugar in a glass bowl bain marie. Gently steam the two together for half an hour over simmering water. I use frozen raspberries, not only because they are much cheaper but you get a better flavour from the already slightly dehydrated fruit. Now sieve the sauce and bring to the boil with a tea spoon of agar agar ((vegetarian gelatine - available in all supermarkets. No idea why is it is twice named?). Allow to cool to a gel.

Each ice cream pat sits of a bed of mixed biscuit crumb and finely blitzed dark chocolate. This was to add bitterness  crunch and contrast. It also stops the ice cream from sliding across the plate in transit from kitchen to guest. The crumb is made of all the shortbread dough that doesn't make it into the final biscuit.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Pesto crackers

I haven't blogged much recently. Sorry. Does it need an apology? If you have to ask...

I think one of the reasons is I'm less and less engaged with recipes. It's now a case of making stuff up and then constantly modifying. This means I'm less inclined to save the details. After five years of cooking, if not commercially, then fairly seriously, I'm at the point where I have enough experience to bring together ingredients to achieve my desired result. Well... sometimes.

I'm also sure now that what people need to learn is not recipes but techniques. You know the stuff about not giving some bloke a fish, but teaching him to (presumably, if you're an agri-multinational you then charge him for river access, rod licence and a bait permit)? Yeah, that. Know how to cook and you don't really need a recipe. Much better than following instructions without instinct.

So is this a recipe? Yes. Of course it is. I'll just get on with it while you chant 'hypocrite'.

As it was summer (kinda) I was serving lots of salad based starters: marinated courgettes, heritage tomatoes, crab and shaved fennel. All good but all lacking some textural contrast; some crunch. This cracker was the outcome of that lack. I often serve it in shards, stuck into cheese mousse (as below) but increasingly it was fun just to put a whole, uncut cracker in the middle of the table and let guests snap off what they wanted. Goes well with a smooth, light cheese such as a mild goat or especially ricotta; as a more cultured crouton. Obviously it's great with tomatoes. It works as a snack with drinks too; baked thicker and cut into small pieces.

I'm trying to find some British dairy based product to serve with it as so far it's all French or Italian. Phillip and Keith, the Tottenham whey wizards of Wildes Cheese (our local producers) have promised me a taste of something they call Young Brian. I'll let you know. (Loved the Roux film, chaps. "Don't you light those fires with me!")

Big Pesto Cracker/Biscuit.
Makes a big thin one about 45x25cm or a smaller fatter one

Mix in a bowl, 200g plain flour with a big grind of black pepper, pinch of cayenne, 40g finely grated parmesan, a big bunch of basil, very finely cut (at least one supermarket packet). Perhaps some parsley too. Better if you can find the pots of Greek Basil which seems more punchy and less wet when cut.

To this mix add 50ml of olive oil and slowly, slowly, just enough cold water to bring the mix together to make a dough. The amount will vary, depending on how much basil you used. You don't need to knead anything. Just ball it up to resemble something that will tolerate rolling later.

Wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Roll between two sheets of kitchen silicone or baking paper. Flour the top of the dough first to make it easier to remove the top sheet. Roll out to around 45x25cm, about big enough to fill a full size oven baking tray. It should be less than the thickness of a pound coin. Or not. Look, thicker works too but will take longer, slower baking.

Before you bake, prick holes all over with a fork or, better still, a pastry pricker (looks like something you buy in a BDSM shop). This stops random bubbles forming. Finally, add a high handed but sparse sprinkle of sea salt, not table salt. This looks attractive and adds another punch and crunch.
Sub or dom?

If you want to make shaped crackers I tend to bake the dough halfway then remove and cut shapes or just slice into squares with a long knife. Doing it this way avoids any drag with knives or cutters than can shame the shape. Place back into the oven to finish.

For thin crackers you need about 15 minutes at 200°C. For thick maybe 25 at 180°C. The important thing is to take them out when they SMELL cooked. They should be golden brown with darkening edges. You might want to turn the tray at the mid point to even out the bake. All ovens have weird air flows, with some sides hotter than others. The higher the bake, the more crunch and flavour but leave them too long and you'll have bitter biscuits.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Raspberry sorbet

Do you know how hard it is to photograph sorbet? It melts for a start. You want a nice outdoor shot in the sun. But the summer sun is hot it turns out. Sorbet is also sticky so I line up a shot and then I notice the red thumbprint marring the glass. And it melts. I still can't make a quenelle so I'm using an ice cream scoop to make perfect spheres, that then adhere to the scoop despite me dipping it in hot water, so the perfect sphere deforms on its way into the bowl. And then it melts. It's melty.

The colour's fantastic though, isn't it? There's an intensity of flavour too that is simply absent from commercial tubs.

Photographing sorbet is much harder than making it. We seem to have a glut of well flavoured fruit this summer (2017): peaches, nectarines, strawberries, raspberries, plums; all gorgeous. So juicy I have to eat them with a tea towel in my lap.  British cherries of course still taste of almost nothing sadly. If anyone knows otherwise, please leave a comment below.

Sorbet, aside from being the perfect end to a summer dinner, is also a great way of using up bruised or over-ripe fruit. I buy up piles of 'sell by' punnets that slosh around the shelves this time of year.

Sorbet is fruit pulp and sugar, churned while freezing. Simple. The only issue is the amount of sugar. Too little and it's tart; too much and aside from the diabetes, it won't freeze. Commercial mixes are measured with a sugar refractometer but I use an egg instead. Yup, an egg. It's a density floaty test thing. Details here. (If you click on the link, notice how poor their sorbet photo is too. It melts you see. Ha. Culinary schadenfreude.)

This recipe makes a lot. No point faffing about with trivial amounts when dealing with something that's frozen for a living.

Raspberry Sorbet
Makes about two litres.

Put 1.5kg of ripe British raspberries in a thick pot. Thick so you don't get hotspots that catch and burn. Add 400g of caster sugar, two tablespoons of water, one 140g tube of glucose syrup (helps the texture) and the zest of a lemon. Keep the lemon, you'll probably want the juice later. Put a lid on or cover with foil. Let it sit like this for an hour or so until the sugar starts to make the raspberries weep their juices.

Slowly heat this mix. You don't need to boil it. You want to soften the fruit to destruction while dissolving the sugars. Taste when done. Don't take my word for it. Recipes are just blueprints. You still have to monitor the constriction and make your own decisions (Belinda!). Your ingredients will not be the same as mine when I wrote this. I may have had very sweet raspberries. Who knows. You may need some more sweetness. Add sugar and dissolve. Taste. You may think it needs some acidity (probably). A zing of lemon juice. 

The mix needs to be strained through a sieve. There are lots of seeds. You don't want the seeds. Push the mix through with the back of a ladle or the 'big spoon' that all kitchens seem to have acquired (never bought). Avoid using wooden spoons - unless you enjoy sawdust sorbet. Do this in batches, emptying out your seed pile occasionally. I haven't yet found a use for raspberry seeds and I hate throwing food away. If you know one, leave a comment.

The mix should be slightly too sweet. Now that's a rubbish direction I know, akin to the 'don't over work the mix' instructions. Freezing food makes it taste less sweet so get it as you like it then add a little more sugar.

Chill this mix for a few hours, typically overnight, and then churn in your machine. You might think about throwing in some whole fruit too. Once churned this needs another overnight freeze before serving.

Next, I'm making some strawberry ice cream. I'll link this up once written.

Another poor shot. This is halfway through plating up a dessert of glazed peaches with raspberries, rose meringues and (missing) polenta biscuits and raspberry syrup.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

A tale of two Lemon Meringue Pies

"I do like a bit of goo," said John. "Gooey meringue."
"Lemon meringue tart?" I asked. I was keen to improve my own.

This is a tale of two tarts. Or should that be 'pies'? I think any difference there was, semantic or actual, has long since receded past the point of meaning and is now only useful to start an argument in the pub.

For John's birthday, I wanted to really 'goo' it up so went for the chef's favourite: Italian meringue. I did another for my mate Mahan; old skool, with French meringue, gently baked for a golden crust.

Which is best? Will you fall for the age old clickbait of asking a question at the start?

A successful LMP is all about contrast, of flavour and texture. Sweet, crisp pastry filled with a semi set lemon custard filling, almost puckingerly sharp and crowned with light, fluffy, so sweet meringue with a crisp, toasted top. For both I used a sweet shortcrust pastry; my usual Roux recipe. For the filling I knew I didn't want to use cornflour, wanting to avoid that gelatinous thing. 
That'll be a lemon

I'd made Serious Eats lemon bars last year and really liked the texture and tang. This would be the starting point for my custard. That recipe also makes a point of sieving the lemon zest. Some recipes don't do this and I have no idea why. I'm not partial to picking what may as well be bits of inert yellow plastic out of my teeth. Mind, worse than that is not using zest at all. That really confounds me. You might as well use battery acid (not really) for all the lemon flavour the juice bestows. Bizarre.

Although thought of as a British classic, pretty much every Western nation claims a pudding of lemon custard with pastry as its own; the French, Swiss and Americans especially.

I want to share this recipe with you I found on the fascinating Foodtimeline website. It's from England, possibly East Sussex, 1769.

A Lemon PuddingBlanch and beat eight ounces of Jordan almonds with orange flower water. Add to them half a pound of cold butter, the yolks of ten eggs, the juice of a large lemon, half the rind grated fine, work them in a marble mortar or wooden basin till they look white and light. Lay a good puff paste pretty thin in the bottom of a china dish and pour in your pudding. It will take half an hour baking.
- The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald

Isn't that fantastic? What I love about old recipes is that time and place fall away and you are just talking to someone who cares about their food. I understand this recipe exactly. It makes perfect sense and sounds delicious; perhaps even modern! Food is eternal, as is a cook's pride. I'm recently returned from Kerala in South India where I had many fabulous, stimulating conversations with chefs. Language and culture matter little when you're discussing recipes. The world is one kitchen.

[Takes off Kaftan and Lennon glasses.]

I'll take the recipe up to the meringue mark and then split off, Italy one way, France the other. Puts us somewhere in the Alps I think.

Lemon Meringue Tart
Serves 10

Pastry base

Made in a 23cm tart tin with sides of about 3cm. A removable base is very useful.

For the base make a sweet shortcrust pastry. I use a food processor to pulse everything together. Blend 250g plain flour, 100g icing sugar, sifted and pinch of salt with 100g unsalted butter cubes,  until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Gradually pulse in 2 eggs, beaten. When the mix begins to come together, gather into a ball, remove from the machine and knead a few times until it is smooth. Flatten into a round, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for an hour. if you don't relax the dough your pastry will shrink. You don't want this. It's also much easier to roll a cold dough.

Once relaxed, roll out the pastry until it's a few inches bigger than your tin. Drape the pastry over the tin and gently ease it up to allow it to drop to the bottom of the tin. Don't squidge it in, it will thin and tear. Carefully push the pastry into the corners (to ensure a nice sharp shape) and leave an overhang of around 1cm. Cutting with a scissors if necessary. Repair any holes with additional pastry. Prick all over with a fork, including the sides, to prevent the pastry bubble rising. Place the tin in the fridge for another half hour. 

Place the tin on a baking tray. This makes it much easier to handle and you don't risk knocking chunks off the delicate crust. Blind bake (I use ceramic beans in scrunched up baking paper) for 20 mins at 180°C.

The finished case with eggwashed interior.
Carefully remove the baking beans. And now while the pastry is still warm and pliable, using a rolling pin, roll across the hung over pastry edge, pressing down to cut a perfect edge. You will need to rotate the tin and roll a few times to get a clean cut.

I much prefer this technique to sawing away with a blade as invariably crispy bits fly off.

Eggwash the insides of the pastry (one egg with a little milk) and return to the oven for around another 20 minutes. You want a deep gold colour. The eggwash makes the pastry a little more water resistant and so helps keep the case crispy when you add the custard. 

Let the tart cool before you add the custard. I tend to keep mine in the tin until just before serving.

Lemon custard filling
Use a good, heavy pan. You don't want hot spots scrambling your eggs.

Pastry case filled with thick lemon custard
In the pan mix: 70g of cubed unsalted butter, 3 large eggs, 135g egg yolks (about 8 large eggs) 400g caster sugar
Pinch of salt, 
310g lemon juice, from about 8 large unwaxed lemons. Into this zest 10g of zest (probably four lemons).

You can do this traditionally which takes FOREVER, or you can use my custard technique. Use a food thermometer. Over a medium heat bring the mix to around 65°C - you will start to see boil bubbles forming at the sides of the pan - and then stir constantly until it starts to thicken at around 78°C. Immediately chill the pan in cold water - the sink is fine. 

Sieve the mix into a jug. You'll need to push it through with the back of a spoon or ladle. This removes any zest and bits of solidified egg that would otherwise marr the mouth feel.

Pour the custard into the pastry case, cover with foil or paper and chill until needed but not more than a few hours.

Which Meringue? The Mont Dolent of decisions.

French or Italian. Up to you.

French is 'traditional' and as it's baked gives you the crunchy topping. It won't keep long though so has to be made just before serving.

Italian, made by whisking whites with a hot sugar syrup keeps for days in the fridge but can't be baked. No crispy crown but a much creamier texture. Italian is safe for pregnant people too as it is completely cooked.

You might want to refer to my egg white whisking guide.

Oh, I weigh my egg whites now. Not only because I usually have a container full in the fridge but also because eggs vary so much in size.

Whisk 240g of eggwhite (*about* 6 large eggs) to firm peak stage in a very clean bowl. Incrementally add 300g of caster sugar and continue to whisk fast until the mix is super white shiny and firm. It should not feel grainy between your fingers. If it does, the sugar can leach out during cooking which means soggy things underneath.

The general rule with French btw, is 50g of sugar per large egg white.

Pipe directly onto the chilled lemon pie custard or just pile on and freeform with a fork. Bake immediately for 40 mins at 150°C until the meringue is crusting. The egg white insulates the custard underneath so don't worry too much about that melting.

Finished with French

Good layering and the meringue still very light and fluffy

This is different to French that you may be more familiar with. Italian meringue has a creamier texture than French, needs no further cooking and is stable for hours. French will dissolve back to egg and sugar after ten minutes or so. Italian meringue is made by adding a 120°C sugar syrup to whisked egg whites and continuing to whisk.

Here I took 240g of egg white (about six large egg) and added a syrup made from: 6 tablespoons of water, 360g caster sugar and three teaspoons of glucose syrup which helps prevent sugar crystallisation. 

Bring the egg white mix to soft peaks and then dribble in the hot syrup. And yes, this means knowing how long the whites will take and the syrup to heat. Experience is all here. You then continue to whisk until the meringue cools to room temperature. Without an electric mixer you'll need biceps of Thor (or perhaps Ganesh - ha). I used a tip from the always brilliant seriouseats.com website and rubbed a slice of lemon around the bowl first. The acidity helps stabilise the egg whites while you whisk.

You can now store the meringue until needed. I tend to keep mine in these disposable blue piping bags, clipped at either end.

Pipe the meringue and for extra flavour and showmanship, toast lightly with a blow torch, holding the flame at right angles to colour the edges.

Finished with Italian

Of the two. the Italian looks better but I might prefer the French for it crunch. Sadly I have no pictures of the Italian tart's interior. I gave the slicing job to John (of the goo, if you remember) and... well, I shouldn't have. My fault. It had been a long, merry night and the servings were a little deconstructed. Deconstructed like it had been dropped from a passing plane. No one seemed to mind.

Monday, 1 May 2017

English Asparagus

It's the season of silky green shoots, purple spears and stinky pee*. The name comes from the Persian meaning a 'sprout'. I'm always slightly surprised that I like asparagus; visually it resonates with childhood horrors of sulphurous brussels and stalky cabbage. But it is completely unrelated to the brassica family, being much closer to alliums, so like it I do. It has a taste like no other vegetable and works with almost any meat or fish.

Griddled, charred asparagus
I remember eating it barely blanched, basted with butter, in my friend Judith's little wooden conservatory in Suffolk. One of those food memories. It wasn't the first time I'd eaten it but it was the best. Just hooked from her garden, trimmed and plunged into boiling water until just bendy. A pat of cold butter and a light crunching of sea salt. Superb. if your veg is this fresh, don't eat it any other way.

If it comes via Mr Sainsbury or one of his friends, my other prep is to griddle it hot and fast and then let it wilt with more butter and salt. Maybe a couple of minutes either side, depending obviously on thickness. Don't be scared to really char it; this brings a sweetness along with other flavour elements. 

No need to do all that snapping to trim, that Mr Oliver popularised a few years back. You lose far too much of the edible stem for a start. Just knife off anything woody and centre split stems thicker than your thumb.

I never bother with the expensive 'fine' asparagus and certainly never buy just 'tips'. They're always far too expensive. Buy the real deal, trim the tips if you insist and then with the stems make soup or maybe a tart with ricotta.

In the supper club, I tend to blanch it until just wilting; literally two minutes in boiling water, before placing and storing in ice water. Just before service, place on a baking tray with some butter and gently reheat for maybe five minutes in a very low oven; no more than 90°C.

*Despite research, it seems no one yet knows what causes that distinctive aroma that graces the bathroom after dinner.

Asparagus and ricotta tart with pea shoots in a lemon dressing


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Kerala - part one

The state of Kerala
We'd ordered some lightly battered vegetable pakoras, fish curry and local parotta (paratha) bread. It was to be a languorous lunch hour; everything stultified by the thick, heavy midday heat. Nothing moved, apart from the small, eye blink geckos. From the trees of coconut and tamarind came the wonderfully tuneless meanderings of a Malabar Whistling Thrush. Cows belonging to the farm, sat silently in the dust, testing the shade. Not so far away the Arabian sea crashed into the coast; a sound not unlike an urban rush hour. But London was far, far away.

We were sat inland in the lunch shack; still with the sea breeze; the beach just visible. I pulled my damp back out of chair and supped my refreshing lime and mint drink. It was now in the mid 30s with humidity high. Walking was like wading, in sun soup.

The waitress approaches (smiling of course) stunning and serene (and seemingly without sweat glands) in a green and gold saree. She puts a plate on our table. A little something to start the meal. 
"What is it?" We ask.
"It's focaccia with some masala butter." She said, indicating the small buns and the swirl of tan fat, already melting. It's from chef.
Is chef Italian?
"Roy? No. He's from Alleppy I think."

Kerala, in the very south west of India, is full of contrast and suprises. I mean that figuratively, literally, ideologically. It's the richest state in India and run by a communist government so there are hammer and sickle flags everywhere. The towns are plastered with gaudy, modern, angular advertising often with LED and neon. The countryside is an almost constant green but as artificial as the many roadside hoardings for cement and aluminium sheeting. Concrete and cladding? Kerala, you see, as we were told many times, is a 'happening state'. In every ten metres of street, someone is building new.

The land is so diverse too. You can move from blue backwaters to scorching red coastal plains and be in the clouds within hours, cool and dewy among the tea trees, eucalyptus and silver oaks. 3000m up and ten degrees down with brief but wonderful torrential rain.

Tea plantations. Destined for Tetley - no really.
The waitress brings the lunch dishes, clears up the crumbs.
"How was the bread?"
"Fine." I lied.
"Not fine?" She corrected. Cutting straight to it.
"It's tasty enough..." I hoped that was enough.
"But it's not focaccia. Not even close. Sorry."
"Oh. I will tell chef." She almost leaves. A finger trails the table. "What was wrong?"
"The structure mainly. I think the flour's too low in gluten. There's not enough salt and they haven't use olive oil; at least, not that I could taste."
She contemplates me. "I'm sure chef will want to discuss this."
I explain hastily that I am not Italian, not even a professional cook but I have made focaccia hundreds of time. I wonder just how chef Roy will take my criticism.

Banana flowers, okra and tiny aubergines in Munnar market.

Sidebar: the principle language of Kerala is Maylalam, a very ancient Tamil tongue from the Dravidic family. The oldest spoken language in the world, I was told. Some of the dishes we tried we know only by their Malayalam names and by hasty napkin transliteration from patient cooks and waiting staff. So my descriptions will doubtless be fraught with errors.

This was the last two days of our 'once in a lifetime' holiday (such a depressing term) and we were at the Marari Beach resort. I'd been skeptical. A beach resort? But I have never felt so happy to be anywhere. If I had to design my own Valhalla, it would be this. It was gorgeous, with well appointed spotlessly clean villas; spa pools; an empty beach, outdoor eating under plaited palm leaf; fat white people in teeny-weeny bikini and budgie smugglers (not me!) You know the gig. I was very reluctant to leave. And no, they haven't sponsored me - I wish!

Me trying and failing to make the local bread with chef Sreeja
Notice how overexposed the outside is only feet away. So much light.

Spiced Prawns on (badly made) paratha
Drumstick curry
vegetable 'wedding' curry
But there was a farm attached, the resort was largely self sufficient. A two minute walk from your room finds you in a perfect half kilometre square of amazing edible fecundity, thick with scent. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of well tended plants. At the centre is an outdoor kitchen, modern and well equipped, and a long, solid, marble table for ten. You can wander the garden with a chef, picking vegetables and spices (did you catch that? You can pick SPICES) under guidance and then cook a three dish meal in the middle, along with locally caught fish and seafood.

Wandering, wide eyed, I recognised some after our ten day trek - cinnamon, nutmeg, banana, tomatoes, pepper, coconut, mango, courgette, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, allspice, clove. Lower down, thickets of cardamom, tea, coffee, curry leaf, lemon grass and hibiscus. Root around and you'll soon find ginger, galangal and turmeric. But there were many I'd not heard of: snake gourd, jack fruit, kokum, drumstick, amazing purple banana flowers. I could spend a happy eternity here. So long as the air-con was working, at least.

Sreeja's selection of spices. The teapot contains coconut milk of course
To the left is an 'uruli' the traditional heavy iron cooking pot.
One the last day I spent a brilliant, laughter filled couple of hours with chef Sreeja (one of three women chefs in the kitchen, she informed me). She looked perturbed when I said I'd already made the classic Kerala fish curry a few times but I'd love to try making the local bread. It's spelt 'paratha' but pronounced 'PoRoTa'. I'd wondered about its distinctive texture. Sreeja crinkled her nose but reached for the phone. Within minutes and with the calm, reassured efficiency we'd experienced for our whole stay, things moved. Dough arrived.

This is what Paratha is meant to look like - a texture unlike any other bread I've eaten. Mine didn't. After kneading the leavened dough you roll it into strips, roll the strips up and then flatten it. You then pan fry the dough and while still warm you bash the bejeezus out of it. This is a technique that looks deceptively simple, like oh, you know, kneading a decent sourdough or drawing a cartoon, that very quickly reveals the limitation of both your perception and your ability. This was not something I was going to master in a single morning.

Chef Roy did pitch up later, while I was at another cooking class. He looked very formal in his starched whites and high toque hat. "A problem with the focaccia?" He asks politely. But of course he'd not come to quibble or defend but to question. He quickly rescued me from my embarrassment. We discussed the problems he faces now they've banned (because of the bleach) high gluten, white US flour. He has to add gluten in powder form. I've not heard of this technique and I imagine it's fraught with technical problems. Olive oil is very expensive. We had a fantastic discussion comparing bread making notes.

Breakfast uttapam
One thing I wasn't expecting was how keen the Kerala chefs were to talk about 'European' cooking. Sreeja looked through this blog (I mean the entire thing) and was very interested in my cauliflower purée. She'd been asked to prepare a menu by the head chef and was keen to bring in some different dishes. I'm going to email her and find out how it went.

Tree tomato. Tastes like Kiwi
Some of the stand out dishes for me were the simplest - such as the bread. So often the case. Breakfast was one of my favourite meals. Freshest fruit bowls of mango, pineapple, tree tomatoes and melon followed by a spicy uttapam with coriander leaf, tomatoes, chillies and onion. Uttapam is a version of appam, a thick pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk, often served with a lentil sambar and a coconut chutney. Coconut is everywhere in Kerala cooking. The name literally means 'land of the coconut'.

Fish and seafood was obviously a major feature, Kerala being a coastal state. We enjoyed a kingfish 'Thora' (hard Th), a dry dish made with kingfish, grated coconut and purple spinach which confers an unusual pink colouring.

My favourite dish - well two - were served when I didn't have my decent camera to hand so the pictures look terrible. One of deep fried, honeyed cauliflower florets and the other of spiced paneer. I'm afraid even the names escaped me. I keep posting the pictures in here and then cutting them; they look so awful I'm finally omitting them. Food photographed badly is an offence. 

King fish thora
It's taken me ages to write this blog and I'm not happy with this really. I've left out so much. It will take several instalments. I have hundreds of pictures. (Yay! Holiday snaps!) I think I was defeated by the variety of my experiences and the complexity of my reactions. History, language, food, plants, people, places, geography all intersect.

Many people who have been to India often use the exact same phrase on our return: it's an 'assault on the senses'. I understand the sentiment but 'assault' suggests of violence or pain. Arriving in India is more like entering a party on a very hot summer's day where twenty fabulously interesting people, different appearance and character, all talk to you at once.

There's so much more. The amazing bushes of giant bamboo; the driving; roadside snacks of crushed sugar cane and lime; the fearless macaques; the unbelievable level of service; the lack of stomach upsets, beggars and mosquito bites; the Western Ghats. Too much. I must go back.

Finally this. Driving back from a tutored spice walk in a forest near Kumily we saw this Tamil temple procession. I've never included video before (and boy, is Blogger bad at it) but this was worth the effort.