Sake sommeliery at Harrods

Published on BespokeRSVP on 30th April 2012:

sake sommelier at Harrods wine shop

Sake, that illusive Japanese drink which, despite its increasing popularity in restaurants and elsewhere, remains a bit of a mystery to the public.

For one, there is often misconceptions about what it is. Despite the fact that basic versions are now widely available in supermarkets, it is still often mistakenly called Japanese rice wine. In reality, the process of making sake is more like that of beer – the starch in rice must be converted to sugars before it can be fermented using yeast. And in Japan, the establishments which make sake are called breweries.

Then there is the matter of how to drink sake. Should you have it warm or cold? And how does this then affect that food you might have with it? After all, sake is reported to have completely different characteristics on the palate compared to the nose.

Luckily these, and other intricate matters, are covered in the first and only sake sommelier course in the UK. Held in the private room of Harrod’s wine shop, the course is run by the Sake Sommelier Association and offers an introduction to the history of sake, its making and its characteristics. Although the course is only intended as an introduction, you do get a serious overview of everything. Particularly useful, perhaps, is the classification of sake – a very confusing matter when you realise there are names for every variation!

sake sommelier at Harrods wine shop

Theory aside, you will also get to sample a few sakes from different categories and at different temperatures – everything from super polished to slightly aged. The tasting is tutored and with specially designed glasses by Riedel as well as more traditional glassware so you leave with a great set of tasting notes and ideas on how to match particular sakes with food. And as you leave, you will receive a sake sommelier certificate too. Just think, a newly qualified sake sommelier in just one session.

Interview with Heinz Beck

Published on BespokeRSVP on 20th March 2012:

After a delightful meal at Apsleys, Heinz Beck kindly spent some time answering some questions about himself, his restaurant and his food

Why and how did you become a chef?

When I was younger I always dreamed of being an artist, my father however had other ideas and rather I studied Economics or something similar. I rebelled and decided to employ my artistic vein through cooking.

Where do you get the inspiration for your dishes?

I strongly believe and try to instil in all my students that you cannot draw inspiration from just one specific thing or product. It is important to open up your mind and draw inspiration from everything around you: people, architecture, seasons etc. This way you will not remain limited and it will allow you to change and progress. There is a large palette of ideas available and you can draw inspiration from everything at every moment. Returning to my love of art, I believe this philosophy draws parallels with the ‘Bottega Rennais Centos’ from the Renaissance period. I try to recreate this in my kitchens.

Was it unexpected that Apsleys received a Michelin star so soon after opening?

I was not expecting it so quickly but was of course very pleased and proud of the achievement. From the beginning I ensured I was constantly present to cultivate its growth and quick development. I still ensure to visit the restaurant regularly as it was a big commitment for me to open a second restaurant and important for me to do it well.

What are your views or feelings towards the young generation of chefs these days? Are they motivated by success or more by money and fame?

If you want to become a chef from a young age, you have to be motivated by passion and possess a natural talent because this is the only way you can achieve success at the highest level. It is a very demanding and tough job and only if you dedicate your life to it will you reach the top. If you are only motivated by fame and money I would advise you against becoming a chef and to find another profession as only a very small handful become famous out of thousands of chefs and it is important to understand this.

What qualities do you look for in young chefs?

Passion, talent, humility, cleanliness and tidiness in every aspect, precision, persistence, energy,enthusiasm and resilience.

Who would be your perfect dinner guests and what would you cook for them?

I consider every guest to be the perfect guest and am therefore always looking forward to the next guest.

If you could choose any chef to cook for you – who would it be and why?

Massimiliano Blasone, my Executive Chef at Apsleys, and that is why I trust him to oversee my London restaurant when I am not there.

What is your favourite comfort food?

Arancini Siciliani, traditional Sicilian street food that consists of a ball of saffron rice filled with Bolognese sauce and fried in crispy breadcrumbs.

What does 2012 hold for you and your restaurants? Can we expect more openings?

In times of economic difficulties I believe it is important to invest and concentrate on developing and renewing your existing restaurants. It is important to never make the mistake of making cuts during these times as your regular clientèle will not accept it. Instead, use all your resources to improve your product, the customers will appreciate it, be loyal, and respect that you are truthful to your standards.

Apsleys – Like a Dream

Published on BespokeRSVP on 20th March 2012:

Scallops and asparagus at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

The Lanesborough Hotel is one of those sharp imposing buildings that, if you were a tourist, you would almost be too afraid to enter. Its markings are so understated that, in the most part, it’s only identifiable by the lines of Rolls Royce that pull up outside. But this five star hotel houses Heinz Beck’s first restaurant outside of Italy, the Michelin starred Apsleys.

Heinz Beck has been the Executive Chef of La Pergola since 1994, the only three Michelin starred establishment in Rome, as well as the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that he was one of the most revered chefs in Europe.

You might think that with a three Michelin starred restaurant to look after, Apsleys would be neglected; but you would be wrong. In fact, Beck travels to Apsleys once a month to cook in the kitchens so that he knows all the food produced is of the same high standards. Perhaps that is why Apsleys gained its first Michelin star just five months after it opened in 2009.

It was with great pleasure, therefore, when Charlotte and I dined at Apsleys.

Duck tortelli with black truffle at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

The evening started with a round of champagne and the bubbles clearly went to my head when I made the terrible mistake of not following my heart where food was concerned. While my scallops and asparagus satisfied the health angel perched on my shoulder, it didn’t quite hit the spot the way that Charlotte’s foie gras terrine with smoked apple and amaretti did. I guess I was not quite ready to stop the winter indulgence to embrace that taste of spring. An additional veal terrine croquette appeased me a little, but the next three courses did so much better.

When it came to Primi, there were no arguments – it had to be the tortelli with duck and black truffle. There are probably two ingredients that I dream of in my sleep, foie gras and truffle. It was too late for the foie gras but the truffle was certainly not going to escape. Its delicate earthy notes melted onto my palate all too soon.

Fillet beef with red wine at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

The Secondi came in the form of fillet beef cooked in red wine and Segovia suckling pig, essentially a texture of pork. Impressive flavours again but also the fact that a lot of thought has clearly been put into the nutrition of the dish. Instead of having a side of greens, the vegetables are fancifully displayed on the plate with the meat. If you dined here five days a week, you would probably still maintain your appetite, health and figure, I imagine. Well, if you didn’t indulge from their fine cheese trolley that is. I certainly would not say no to the offer of trying.

Chocolate soufflé with vanilla tahiti and raspberry at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

But that’s just wishful thinking, inspiring my dessert choice: Dream – an amalgamation of chocolate, dehydrated fruit, ices, glitter and all things nice. The alternative was a chocolate soufflé with vanilla Tahiti; rich, warm and chocolatey.

I know I have not made a mention of the wines but that’s because of the complexity of the wine situation. Apsleys’ enomatic system means that there is quite a selection available by the glass. While I am happy to explore my wines, especially the whites with a big dosage of minerality, Charlotte is a little less inclined. But kudos to our sommelier who expertly matched wines to our food and took into consideration my request for interesting pours. The Italian selection featured 2009 Cantina Terlano ‘Quarz’ Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Franz Haas Pinot Nero, 2009 Tosca d’Amlerita Chardonnay, 2009 Pio Cesare barbera, 2006 Castello del Terriccio ‘Tassinaia’, 2008 Tenyta Sette Ponti “Orma”, 2008 Brigaldora Recioto della Valpolicella classico and Franz Haas Moscato Rosa 2009. The Moscato Rosa was a particularly considered choice given that, in the most part, dessert wines tend to be, in my mind anyway, white or fortified. This heady red matched my dessert, well, like a dream.

At the end of the meal, with the petit fours and coffee, came Heinz Beck himself – a shy man who was much happier in the kitchen and talking about food than himself. But after four impressive courses, plus a few extras, we were happily in awe.

Travels with Chefs, a postcard from Cornwall

Published on BespokeRSVP on 5th March 2012:

My trips to Cornwall have always been about seaside escapades. Everything from kiting in St Ives to surfing in Newquay where the days are filled with blissful freedom and glorious sun – fabulous escapism from London life. So I was rather surprised to learn that you can stalk wild deer in this Southern-most county. But stalking is exactly what I did on my most recent trip to Cornwall.

Red Hunter wellies in Cornwall

The journey down was certainly not in the usual Bespoke fashion – a slow trundle in a Grumpie’s Pie van that had recently carried crates of fresh fish. But let us assume for a moment, however, that it was all for reasons of authenticity. After all, I was visiting the “Cornwall in your kitchen” producers with Matt Chatfield who supplied some of London’s best restaurants, including The Ledbury and Roganic. Meeting Charlotte and I in Cornwall were the Chefs (James Lowe, Young Turks; Tom Adams, Pittcue Co; Carl Clarke, Hix Restaurants; Jack Stein, Rick Stein Restaurants etc) all looking to push boundaries.

Arriving very fashionably late at around 3am, I was most disappointed to find that the chef crew had all gone to bed. I thought they were known for their hardcore partying antics though I suppose having to be up barely an hour later to go stalking is a fairly good excuse for an early night. And almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, it was back up against the headrest of the car – we were on our way to shoot Bambi.

Venison sausage breakfast in Cornwall

Turns out, sitting on top of a tree, encapsulated in five layers of thermals and still being chilled to the core, is not that fun. Especially when there’s no deer in sight, despite perfect conditions, and the gun merrily working its tease. In fact, trudging through a field at breaking dawn and trying not to get knocked over by a gun of equal height was about as exciting as it got. Well, except perhaps when I was scaling the great heights of my tree perch and thinking that I was going to fall out and die.

Did I mention I have a bad case of vertigo?

This, it seems, was the nature of the cull – unpredictable. But venison was found at last in the huntsman’s breakfast. Freshly cooked sausages, made by our shoot host and mystery man Deer Jon of Cornish Game, sandwiched in white loaf and doused with ketchup was sublime antidote to the freeze. I could’ve killed for an Earl Grey to go with it.

It was enough sustenance to for us reach Keveral Organic Farm where our guide Sean O’Neil led us round the plots and polytunnels. February in the UK is not known for its particular warmth and the land wasn’t exactly forthcoming with its emerald sheen. But somehow, amongst what looked like plots of bramble and barren polytunnels, O’Neil uncovered shoots of green, leaves with pink sheen and even edible flowers. Endlessly, he exuded knowledge about the plants that he nurtured and asked us to taste where mini taste-bud explosions ensued. A foraged box was plundered.

Andy Atkinson of Cornish Orchard Cider in Cornwall

In the final hours of the sunlight, we were back on the Cornish hills to catch a glimpse of those wild beasts. A stiff drink in a solitary stone build and gentle musings over notable international restaurants later, hunger lured us back to civilisation. But not before, at last, spotting the first roes and then the stags. Six ethereal creatures making a slow amble across the plane, stopping, occasionally, to graze. Too far to shoot but too close not to be in awe, it left us empty handed with a sense of achievement.Our afternoon was then rewarded with a visit to Westnorth Manor Farm (owned by the Duchy of Cornwall) where we met Cornish Orchards’ cider-maker Andy Atkinson. Still sweet, still dry, sparkling sweet, sparkling dry and a few fruity ones – Cornish Orchards Cider made them all using a blend of English apples. And honey and cider vinegar too. A swift tour and tasting around the cider press left us with yet more tantalising goodies.

Hung venison in Cornwall

Back in the kitchens of Deer Jon, all the pieces fell into place. While he demonstrated the butchery of a roe that he had already culled and hung in his workshop outside, inside was a hive of activity. Filleted fish and live lobster had arrived from Fish for Thought, even more vegetables came from Keveral Farm, honey from Cornish Orchards Cider was on the table and of course venison was being carved out. With more than a handful of chefs at the AGA and a few bottles of vino, a feast came together slowly, organically, but surely. I imagine this would be what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got up to in the early years of River Cottage.

After the briefest of visits to Philip Warren and Son to peruse their meat and grab a cheeky pasty the following morning, it was back in the kitchens for a fry up before the journey back to London. Watching the supermarket bought “bacon” fizzle and foam in the pan as if sprinkled with sherbet, the point of provenance becomes poignantly clear.

All that getting up early and sitting out in the cold, all the hard work, experience forged knowledge and passion of these producers, it all goes towards the quality of the final product. And in the end, whether it’s a rustic feast knocked together on a whim or a fine fare at the tables of London’s best restaurants, the food is only as good as the quality of the ingredients that goes into it, irrespective of skill. And that’s something often overlooked when you chow down on your scrupulously intricate plate of food in cosy warmth.

Franciacorta: A different perspective on our favourite bubbles

Published on BespokeRSVP on 14th February 2012:

When you think about sparkling wines and Italy, Prosecco will no doubt be the first thing which comes to mind. But for fine Italian bubbles, you should really look to Franciacorta.

Franciacorta, a wine region in Lombardy just south of Lake Iseo, is a place whose still wines have been noted in history by the likes of Virgil and Pliny the Elder for its exceptional quality. But in recent times, it is their sparkling wines which have brought the region back in vogue.

Wines of the region were only denominated as Franciacorta in 1957, when winemaker Guido Berlucchi released a still white wine called Pinot di Franciacorta. Then in 1961, with the help of Franco Ziliani, Berlucchi produced a sample 3,000 bottles of sparkling wines. The wines, produced via metodo classico (the same method as champagne), gained instant popularity and flew out of the Berlucchi cellars. The following year, production was increased to some 20,000 and has been steadily increasing since.

Standards of Franciacorta have always been maintained though. And in 1995, Franciacorta was awarded the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status as an indication of its superior quality.

These days, a handful of Franciacorta producers lay claim to an output of around 13 million bottles – only a tiny fraction compared to Champagne. But just like Champagne, it is the only Italian wine which doesn’t need to declare its appellation on the label.

The pedigree all looks very good on paper but what does it taste like?

Charcuterie and Franciacorta wine glass at Dego, London

In conversations and tastings with the sommeliers at the very Italian Amaranto and Degò, the feedback has always been very positive. The little known sparkling wine, hidden like an Italian secret, has quality that’s comparable to that of Champagne but at a snip of the price. And elsewhere, including in the likes of award winning journal The World of Fine Wine, the consensus is in agreement – Franciacorta is a more than worthy contender on the platform of sparkling wines.

I invited Tom Harrow of WineChap to Vini Italiani, a South Kensington wine shop specialising in Italian wines, for a tasting of Franciacorta. One of the owners, Matteo Berlucchi, is in fact a member of the Franciacorta making family Fratelli Berlucchi so bubbles were certainly in their veins.

Harrow, already familiar with Franciacorta, was immediately happy to declare 2012 as the year for it. I was inclined to agree.

Franciacorta at Vini Italiani

We tasted the Brut 25 NV Fratelli Berlucchi, Brut NV Il Mosnel, Prima Cuvee Brut NV Monte Rossa, Brut Rose Millesimato 2007 Fratelli Berlucchi, Pas Dose Riserva “QDE” 2004 Il Mosnel and Dosage Zero 2006 Ca’ del Bosco. Each had its distinct characteristic, minerality and a rich butteriness that the average Prosecco simply cannot comprehend. And fruit too, was surprisingly prominent.

Harrow, I think, was rather captured by their structure. The Dosage Zero 2006 Ca’ del Bosco, he says, would happily rest for a few more years before maturity. Generally finding pink to be a deterrent, I actually quite fancied the Brut Rose Millesimato 2007 Fratelli Berlucchi for drinking right now (Valentine’s Day in particular). All in all, a rather tasty afternoon’s work.

Of course that is not to say that this relatively young wine is comparable to the finest Champagnes, which by its very nature is in a superior category. But as Harrow rightly said, to compare Franciacorta with anything else simply doesn’t do it justice – it is unlike anything else on the market. And for something which has only been in production for a relatively short time, Franciacorta is already very good and has great potential to grow. Besides, a different interpretation of our favourite drink is never a bad thing