Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dordogne: Part 1

A classic Renault 4 in Tremolat
We spent last week in the sleepy limestone village of Paunat in the Dordogne region of France. We travelled down by train which is a very civilised way of getting there, even if it did include a bit of a sprint to get across Paris to make our connection after our Eurostar was delayed by 45 minutes.

We spent the week doing very little which was just what the doctor had ordered after a pretty hectic time at work and the house project sucking up any remaining hours.

Our first full day was a Sunday and we followed the Dordogne to the market town of St Cyprien. I cleverly forgot to take any pictures of the market, but I was pleased to tick off the classic French market experience on our first morning. It is probably pretty touristy in season, and while there were still quite a few foreigners like us around, the majority of customers were locals. One stall selling only goats cheese had the longest queue of locals in the market so I randomly joined it and bought a round of cheese that I enjoyed for the rest of the week. My favourite purchase though was a couple of duck saucisson that I nibbled on during the rest of the week.
St Cyprien
After the market we climbed up through the village to the church for a quick look around before returning to our gîtes to while away the afternoon by the pool.

For dinner that evening I bbq'd a whole chicken we'd bought in the market. As well as a bag of charcoal, I found a bag of vine cuttings in the house which I added to the fire as well. The vine branches were pretty aromatic to say the least and the smoky smell lingered on the terrace for the rest of the week.

The only downside of our picture box village was the lack of a boulangerie so on the Monday morning Becks and I headed across to Sainte-Alvere before breakfast to pick up some fresh bread. It was Sainte-Alvere's turn to have a, much smaller, market that morning and they were just setting up as we pulled into the village. We had a quick look round the stalls and noticed that many of them were the same as those we'd seen the day before so we didn't stick around for the market to start.

Later in the week I learnt that Sainte-Alvere has France's largest truffle auctions during the truffle season, something I'd love to see if I was in the area at the right time.
Becks by the Dordogne in Trémolat
Later that afternoon Becks and I went to visit another local village, Trémolat. It was another unbelievably quiet picture box village. We headed first into the church which had an amazing echo from the high roof. Becks was a bit embarrassed by my singing, but I'm pretty sure the locals outside loved it.

After the church we headed down towards the river. To get to the Dordogne we headed slightly out of town and cut down a track to a riverside campsite. The weather was a glorious 25 - 30 degrees, and it struck me as the perfect time for a holiday, but the campsite was totally deserted with every pitch empty. It was very odd.

We walked along the river towards the bridge you can see in the background of the photo above. However, when we got there we couldn't find a way back into the village. We tried a footpath under the bridge, but were beaten back by nettles. So instead ended up climbing over a barbed wire fence to get out of the campsite.

As we jumped the fence we were spotted by a local man. I was momentarily concerned that we'd get into trouble, but we had in fact disturbed a cyclist who'd pulled off the main road to have a 'comfort' break. And with that lovely image, our first two days in France came to an end!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Restaurant Review: Taberna El Panduro, Seville

Pollo al curry con guacamole
Our final meal in Spain was at the Taberna El Panduro a busy little wine bar we'd spotted a couple of days before. The bar was busy when we walked in, but thankfully they managed to squeeze us in with a couple of stools at the bar.

We were recommended a couple of glasses of wine from the chalk. With all of the wines available by the glass, and around the €3.00 - €3.50 mark, they were excellent value for the quality.

Following the advice of our walking guide to order from the top of the tapas menu, as it is usually their speciality, we ordered the Pollo al curry con guacamole. Chicken curry was a dish we'd seen on quite a few menus during the week, but this was our first time ordering it. The chicken tasted like the curry powder I bought in Oz, and was satisfyingly familiar.

El Panduro was a fantastic last meal to our time in Spain and somewhere that I'd definitely return to next time I'm in Seville.

Cremoso de arroz verde - the green came from wild garlic

Parrillada veduras

Costillo de cerdo confitada

Torta de queso

Taberna El Panduro
Calle Doña María Coronel, 17
954 04 57 51

Monday, 8 September 2014

Restaurant Review: Rox Burger, Lewisham

The ROX Burger selection
Dinning at Taste Inn a few weeks ago we couldn't help but notice ROX Burger next door. On a road dominated by rather drab looking chicken shops, Chinese takeaways and Indian grocery stores, ROX Burger stands out with its clean look and uncluttered window. Exhausted from moving house we headed to ROX Burger last week for some guilt free fast food.

Deserving of a beer, our friendly host sold us on an organic Czech larger Celia. It was a clean and crisp tasting drop, although I thought serving the beer with a jam jar was a little unnecessary. Lewisham should do its own thing rather than simply following a hipster craze.

I ordered the Rox Classic (£5.50) and we shared a serving of the Rox Fries (£3.00). The parmesan and oregano chips were easily enough for the two of us. My burger came in a brioche bun and was served with cheese, lettuce and Rox mayo. While my burger was good, it didn't hit the heights of Burger Bear, my current No 1 burger. The pattie wasn't a succulent as I'd hoped, being cooked over the advertised medium and could have done with more seasoning.

The fact that regeneration is coming to Lewisham is obvious for everyone to see, but it is a bold entrepreneur that seeks to be one of the first people to ride that trend. Good luck to the owners of ROX Burger and I hope Lewisham gets a few more places like it. I hope to be back to try the chorizo I saw heading to a couple of neighbouring tables.

ROX Burger
82 Lee High Road
SE13 5PT
Rox Burger on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Radical Geometry @ Royal Academy

Photograph of Jesús Soto's Nylon Cube by Benedict Johnson, courtesy of the Royal Academy

A couple of Fridays ago I was invited to the splendid Latin Takeover event at the Royal Academy. It was a night of music, dancing, mojitos out in the courtyard and the Radical Geometry exhibition inside.

When I think of modern art, I immediately think of European and North American artists like Picasso, Mondrian and Lichtenstein. I suspect like most people, South American artists from the same era haven't entered my horizon before.

The evening started with a short talk from the Royal Acamdemy's Head of Learning about the exhibition. She illuminated us as to how South American artists from the early and mid Twentieth Century were inspired by European artists, and also reacting to the cultural change which were going on in their own countries at the time.

The compact exhibition is centred around artists from Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, with a room dedicated to each country. The Venezuelan room was my favourite with Jesús Soto's Nylon Cube at its centre. Blue, black and silver painted strands of fishing wire hang vertically in a cube, revealing different shapes as you walked around it. It is one of those pieces that you need to experience for yourself to fully appreciate. Seeing a photo just doesn't do it justice (although I've included one above to give you a taster).

As we left the Academy there were lots of people outside enjoying live music, a dance class and mojitos in the in the late evening sunshine.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Restaurant Review: conTenedor, Seville

Onion flowers
On the penultimate night of our stay in Seville we had diner at conTenedor. The highly rated restaurant is touted as a good example of modern Seville dining and recommended by the owner of the apartment we were staying in.

The menu had a big focus on biodynamic wines and organic ingredients. With boxes of fresh ingredients on display, chefs working in an open kitchen and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs in the dining room, it felt like the type of place that was appealing to the Seville hipster crowd.

My favourite dish of the evening was the arroz con pato (€13). Cooked rice was then fried until crispy giving a lovely crunch and texture. The rice was accompanied by chicken, thyme and swirls of a punchy sauce. I also remember the tarta chocolate (€5.50) that we shared for dessert.

I enjoyed our diner at conTenedor, but I was expecting a bit more from one of Seville's 'top' restaurants. The vibe was a little different to other places we'd eaten in Spain, but the food was at the same (good) level as many of the other places we'd eaten. At €57 for two it certainly didn't break the bank, but was higher than the €35 level we'd usually been paying.

Arroz con pato



Tarta chocolate

Calle San Luis, 50

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Restaurant Review: Sylvan Oak, Earlsfield

Rabbit Loin with Rabbit Leg Pastille
The staff beamed as we walked into Sylvan Oak for dinner. All of the guests were being greeted warmly, but as they took our names, our welcome became extra bright due to a surprise I'd organised for later in the evening. But first it was time to take a look at the menus.

We were given some warm homemade bread, fragrant with fennel seeds, and olives to snack on while we looked at the menus. There were lots of appealing options on the relatively compact menu, containing six mains and five starters and puddings. We both decided to skip starters and head straight for the main courses.

I had the Rabbit Loin and Bacon with Rabbit Leg Pastille, Mustard & Honey Glazed Chantelle Carrots. The rabbit loin came topped with a piece of black pudding that was full of flaovur and not too rich. The rabbit leg came wrapped in filo pastry that also hid some couscous inside.

The dish looked great and streaks of mustard hiding under the jus added a bite to the whole dish. I would have enjoyed a bit more mustard and a little pot on the side would have gone down well.
Harissa Roast South Down Lamb Rump
Becks chose the Harissa Roast South Down Lamb Rump with Crushed Pea, Goats Cheese & Potato Millefeuille, Aubergine & Spicy Tomato Sauce. I thought it could have been a brave combination of flavours as both harissa and goats cheese can dominate a dish. I shouldn't have been surprised to find that they were both spot on, with the mellow harissa providing a gentle warmth and the goats cheese adding a creamy dimension.

Our mains were accompanied by a couple of glasses of the Minervois La Touge from Chateau Maris, which was a great recommendation from the wine list.
Hot Chocolate Fondant with Vanilla Ice Cream
I wanted to make an occasion out of giving Becks her engagement ring now that it had been re-sized and she could wear it for the first time. I got in touch with the restaurant a couple of days before our visit and asked them to help create a special dessert which they did brilliantly.

There wasn't quite the same reaction as when I originally proposed, but I am happy to report the answer hadn't changed!
Rhubard cheesecake
My dessert was the dish of the evening, the Rhubarb Cheesecake with an Assortment of Rhubarb Delight. The rhubarb cheesecake was topped with a rhubarb jelly and pieces of stewed rhubarb, all with a rhubarb ice cream on the side.

The service throughout the evening was friendly, knowledgeable and excellent conspirators in helping me organise a little surprise. At £30 for two courses and £36 for three I also think it represents great value for the standard of food and service that you get.

Sylvan Oak
560 Garratt Lane
SW17 0NY
Sylvan Oak on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 24 August 2014

East Sussex Weekend: Bodiam Castle, Smallhythe Place and a proposal!

Bodiam Castle
Having missed a few opportunities to propose on the Saturday, Sunday had to be the day. I knew that if I left it unplanned, as I had done the day before, the day might slip away and it could be a service station on the M20 in the way back to London at the end of the day.

Deciding that a service station might not be the most romantic venue I resolved to propose before we left the B&B that morning. I woke an hour before Becks and it was a restless time waiting for her to wake.

The proposal itself passed in a bit of a blur. I thought Becks would have been expecting it (I hadn't been thinking of much else all weekend), but it seemed to be a genuine surprise with Becks only working out what was going on when I said her name. There were tears, joy and a yes!

We decided that the first people we should tell were our parents, so spent the whole day keeping the most amazing secret to ourselves.
First photo as an engaged couple
Once we'd checked out of the B&B (Did you enjoy your stay? Yes, we got engaged!) we headed down the hill to Bodiam Castle. Already bustling with tourists on a hot summers day, the ruined castle is a popular attraction with kids.

We spent around an hour looking round the castle and climbing up a couple of the towers to see views from the roof of the local countryside. East Sussex was looking glorious in the sunshine with golden tinged fields, oast houses and the river Rother all within view.
Inside Bodiam Castle
Having sampled a carafe of English wine the previous night we decided that it might be fun to visit and English vineyard while we were in the middle of a prime growing area. We headed across to one of the best known vineyards Chapel Down.

We were a little disappointed by Chapel Down. There were no grapes in sight of the visitors central and the shop had the feeling of a generic deli. Their wines weren't particularly prominent when you walked in and much of the produce wasn't local either (we spotted flour from near my parents in Oxfordshire).

After a quick spin round the shop we walked down the hill to our second National Trust property of the day, Smallhythe Place. The Sixteenth century house was originally built by a ship builder, but was most famously owned by Ellen Terry an actress (I'd never heard of) from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Smallhythe Place
We joined the garden tour shortly after arriving and had an interest walk round the garden where we were told about the history of the house and Ellen Terry as a person. Part way through the tour the heavens opened and we had to shelter under a tree in the orchard for a while.

After a the garden tour, rather than go back to the house, we decided to visit the next door church which was having a flower festival. Hungry, we had a late lunch in a marquee which had been set up next to the church before going inside to look at the flowers.

It was the five hundredth anniversary of a major five in Smallhythe and the flowers had been done in vibrant reds and yellows in reflection of the fire. It was an excellent display for such a small church.

We completed our visit to the church with a slice of cake / dessert back in the marquee. As the heavens opened once again we decided to end our rather special weekend in East Sussex and head back to London.