Is matcha the new superfood trend?

Published on Foodepedia on 21st August 2011:

I was recently invited to sample some matcha flavoured frozen yoghurt by the owners of Lalani & Co, a major importer of the Japanese green tea powder. It was introduced to me as the latest superfood trend to sweep the UK because it contains more antioxidants than regular green tea, is low in caffeine and also contains vitamins and minerals.

The truth is, I already knew about the frozen yoghurt and had seen matcha being sold at food festivals as far back as five years ago, and at specialist shops for even longer. But I wanted to learn more about the process of producing matcha from its importers: how it’s transformed from the tea leaves to the green powder form that it’s sold in and of course the traditional Japanese tea ceremony during which it is served.

Well, I learnt that the process is long and intricate with an output rate of just 30g of tea an hour. The high grade tea leaves are grown under the shade in order to concentrate the chlorophyll and amino acids in the leaves. The best leaves are then picked, de-veined and stone-milled between two granite slabs to produce the fine green powder. Because of the friction in the milling process, the production must be extremely slow in order to prevent the powder from burning.

Traditionally, matcha is consumed as part of a long Japanese tea ceremony where hot water is whisked into the green tea powder using a bamboo brush. These days in the UK, it is readily available from specialist tea retailers in its powdered form for you to try at home. I was surprised to learn that my favourite coffee merchants, H.R. Higgins, have started stocking them too.

In fact, it’s widely available in drinks such as lattes and smoothies on the high street but is also often used to flavour iced desserts and chocolate. The likes of Modern Pantry and Bougie Macaron are using matcha in scones, meringues and macarons. It has even appeared as an ingredient on this year’s MasterChef.

While popularity of matcha has certainly grown considerably over the past few years, perhaps with the exception of drinks, its use has been primarily for flavour rather than its health benefits. But with matcha used as an ingredient in confectionery, the resulting product may not be healthy at all. In fact, any health benefits could be cancelled out altogether by other unhealthy ingredients.

So the question is, is matcha the new superfood trend or should we just recognise it as an “exotic new flavour”?

Summer puddings workshop at Leiths

Published on Foodepedia on 22nd June 2011:

Strawberry champagne jelly at Leiths

The frequent interval of rain and shine over the last couple of months has been fostering in me a sense of perpetual spring. The smallest hints of summer are constantly and rapidly snatched away by morose clouds bearing melancholic rain. There’s no denying that we are in the month of June, but those thundery showers have certainly put a dampener on things.

The unpredictable weather hasn’t stopped Leiths from putting on a summer puddings workshop though, and for a sweet tooth like mine, the offer to attend was never going to be met with much resistance. So there I was on a surprisingly sunny Saturday morning, a large collection of Tupperware in tow, arriving to attend the workshop led by Maxine Clark.

Maxine, or Max as she likes to be called, is the co-author of the Leiths Meat Bible. She’s been with the school for some 20 years but still oozes with enthusiasm. In fact, she says that she can lead an entire workshop just on jelly combinations and given the number of ideas she freely disseminates in the space of five minutes, you can believe her too.

After gathering in the library with coffee and pastries, Max introduces the workshop menu to the group in the airy teaching kitchen. It’s a trio of desserts we were making: rose petal and raspberry meringues with raspberry compote and framboise mascarpone, sparkling Champagne and strawberry jellies with elderflower cream and cherry tartlets with Black Forest sauce. I want to say berry good but that will probably raise a few groans.

Berry meringue at LeithsThe dessert selection doesn’t read like much work but when Max starts talking about the methodology and the techniques involved, it begins to feel a little daunting. The meringues in particular appear to be laden with a multitude of sins that seem daunting even for someone who enjoys making lemon meringue pies by hand. There’s lots of things that I had never considered like if you start whisking the egg whites and then leave them, they will never turn into meringues when you come back. Or if you over-whisk your eggs white, the meringues will similarly fail.

And despite it being just three desserts, when you consider the sauces and creams as accompaniments, there seems to be a million steps between the raw ingredients and the finished products. It’s reassuring to be given a schedule to follow as well as the recipes, and that’s all part of the hand holding at a Leiths’ course. We do have a little luxury though – all the ingredients had been weighed out for us ahead of the class and there’s no washing up afterwards.

Chocolate tart at LeithsEven though it’s not the first dessert on the list, we start with soaking the gelatine leaves so that the champagne and strawberry jelly has time to set. Then over the course of the workshop we whisk through the meringues and roll over the pastry shells until, at last, there’s the final frenzy of whipping and stirring to finish all the accompanying sauces and creams. Generous glasses of dessert wine are poured as we put the finishing touches to the desserts.

The only way of describing the end of the course is a satisfying relief – when everything comes together and there’s nothing more to do but enjoy. Well, aside from meticulously packing everything up in assorted Tupperware and carrying the whole load home.

For a full list of Leiths courses, visit their website at www.leiths.com

Discovering Turning Leaf colours

Published on Foodepedia on 25th May 2011:

Californian winemakers Turning Leaf have recently launched their “Discover the Colour” campaign to present their portfolio of five wines as expressions of colour. To be precise, Turning Leaf’s oenologist Stephanie Edge has teamed up with Dutch chef Esther Röling to create a new series of colourful recipes designed to match the Turning Leaf wines throughout the seasons. I was invited to sample their selection of wines and some of the summery dishes to match.

The concept itself is quite interesting. When you start thinking about wines, there seems to be only red and white. But as you explore the different grapes and regions, you soon realise that there are a lot of different shades within the spectrum of red and white with subtle nuances of flavour and aroma.

The five Turning Leaf wines, a mixture of red and white, make great everyday wines but when matched with the vibrant dishes, they really do evoke colour. Esther was on hand to cook up three dishes for us and it was easy to see the colours on the plate.

The first dish we tried was a pan fried mackerel with lime oil, fennel and green apple salad. It was a really summery recipe, with lots of green ingredients, matched to their fruity Pinot Grigio. The next dish we had, red mullet with Moroccan couscous, was more golden. It signified a change in the season, moving towards the autumnal. The second wine was a fuller bodied Chardonnay which was almost richly caramel in taste. Despite both being white wines, the colours they have been portrayed are very different and it definitely echoes their different characteristics.

Then it was on to the portfolio of reds.

The Pinot Noir stepped up first and was matched with a pan-fried quail with purple beetroot, which we didn’t get to try. The wine is said to be filled with dark cherry and raspberry flavours and the purple beetroot certainly matches those colours well. The final dish that we sampled was a beef carpaccio with rye bread crumb, designed for the Cabernet Sauvignon. The beef lended plenty of support for the full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and the two together created a ruby red illusion. The last wine in the portfolio was a Zinfandel, matched with a wintry slow-cooked veal with winter vegetable purée. Zinfandel is probably generally better known in rosés but in this case it was a red wine, which with the matched dish should give that orange glow of late autumn and early winter.

And that makes the complete portfolio of Turning Leaf wines – Pinot Grigio (green), Chardonnay (golden), Pinot Noir (purple), Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Zinfandel (orange). All that’s left was to finish the last of the colourful food, enjoy the wine before heading home to try the recipe myself.

For more information about Turning Leaf wines and to see these and more recipes, visit www.turningleaf.com