*I have moved! Please find all my food writing and information about my latest venture over on my new site www.11oclockclub.co.uk*
Since National Work Life week in September, I’ve been reflecting on how I juggle my busy work and home lives. Maintaining this balance means making time to pursue my hobbies, exercise and see friends. Of course, food is also a big factor in my work-life balance: taking a break for lunch, cooking a nutritious dinner and, most importantly, beginning the day with a healthy breakfast. Research shows that breakfast not only provides important vitamins and minerals, but also helps people control their weight, improves cognitive function and boosts energy levels.
Yet James McMaster, CEO of healthy new cereal Nutribix, tells me that 60% of people skip breakfast at least once a week. He believes that this is partly down to tired, uninspiring cereal choices. Described as a “sexy weetabix”, Nutribix aims to shake up our cereal aisles with fashionable, nutritious ingredients and flavours. Think coconut, honey and sorghum. Never heard of it? Me neither. Apparently this “hero grain” is one of the world’s most important cereal crops and is both in antioxidants and, happily for those with coeliac disease, gluten free.
Of course, none of this really matters if the cereal doesn’t taste great – luckily it does. My sweet tooth leads me away from the lower sugar, gluten free version towards the Gold and Grains, which contains honey and coconut. As the name suggests, Gold and Grains contains a wider variety of grains – oats, wheat, rye and rice as well as the staple sorghum – to give it a depth of flavour and a lovely crunch. It’s not quite revolutionary, but it is pretty darn good.
Best of all, Nutribix is versatile. Anna Barnett, fashionista and ‘feeder’ turned food writer, has created some new recipes for transforming your cereal into a more varied, interesting breakfast:
- Granola – crumble the cereal, add your favourite seeds, nuts and dried fruit, sprinkle liberally with maple syrup, stir and pop in the oven for 10-15 minutes.
- Smoothie – blend with frozen berries, fresh spinach, dried figs/dates for sweetness and milk of your choice.
- Winter Warmer – roast seasonal fruit with honey, thyme and black pepper, then serve with the cereal and a mound of thick Greek yogurt.
“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone” – John Steinbeck
Steinbeck writes that on the narrow, corkscrew wrote to Positano he and his wife “lay clutched in each other’s arms, weeping hysterically”. We, too, watch with trepidation as the local buses knock into wing mirrors and slice apart signs. Yet with each hairpin turn the Amalfi seascape opens up before us and, at last, we reach a small bay where azure waters break upon a pebbled beach and multi-coloured, sun-bleached houses cling to the cliffs. Positano. This town may famously attract affluent tourists but it becomes quickly apparent that the local community does not measure wealth in terms of money. Instead, people here treasure family and food. Such simple values ensure that Positano has remained a haven largely untroubled by the demands of frenetic, modern lifestyles.
Here are my recommendations for the perfect retreat:
Above the top of the stack upon stack of houses that comprise Positano, you will find the small village of Monterpertuso. Five minutes further along a wooded track lies Colle Dell’ara, a serene guesthouse set among expansive gardens of sun-sweet tomatoes and lemons the size of melons. There is no need for air con because Clean, sparse rooms are cooled by the breeze that sighs through large wooden shutters. Below, the long terrace offers a view that rolls out over Positano and away, away down the Amalfi coast. Colle Dell’ara is a simple, sustainable home where even the wifi password, one of modernity’s few intrusions, reminds you to take life slowly.
The terrace is the focal point of guesthouse life. In the mornings, it is here that we eat a breakfast of homemade cake and fresh fruit; in the evenings, we drink house liqueurs looking out at the lights of little coastal towns. It is on the terrace, too, that our hosts serve guests a dinner made entirely with produce from their gardens. Our glasses refill with Lacryma Christi, a gentle, stone fruit-flavoured white from the slopes of Vesuvius, and we enjoy four starters before the main course arrives: spaghetti cooked in lemon-infused water and stirred through with local provolone cheese. The pasta is fragrant, delicate and, like all life at Colle Dell’arra, reminds us that the simple things are often unsurpassed.
The lauded La Tagliata in Monterpertuso has sadly turned from authentic, family-run trattoria to a business enterprise intent on seating as many tourists as possible. Instead, try Il Ritrovo down the road, which retains its family atmosphere. Inside, the walls are piled with wine bottles and an open kitchens offers a sight of remarkably calm chefs, but for romance be sure to request a table outside on the candlelit, curtain-draped terrace with coastal views. Start with complimentary processco and tasters – perhaps bruschetta or parmigiana – followed by antipasti and an excellent house red. Stay for the soft, handmade pasta with borlotti beans and truffles or the substantial seafood stew. Share a tiramisu for dessert.
The people of Positano may enjoy their food, but they need the fuel for climbing the steep steps that one faces on even the shortest journey. The most famous walking route in the area is the Sentiero Degli Dei, or Path of the Gods, named for its position on the edge of a precipice high above the Tyrrhenian sea. The uneven path can be unforgiving on your legs, but the scramble is more than worth it for the spectacular panoramic view. You can do the route in either direction – we hiked from Nocelle to Bomerano, took the thousand steps down to lovely little Praiano and caught the bus back to Positano for a pizza. Good walking shoes, water and a camera are essential – not to mention a well-deserved ice-cream at the end!
What could be better after a long, stressful day than a visit to a bakery? Perhaps only visiting the bakery for a course in crafting baked goods of your own. In my case, the bakery was London’s Bread Ahead and the course was croissant making.
The Bread Ahead staff welcome each class member with tea and brownies, before ushering us to our places at a long workbench. The group is of reassuringly mixed abilities, from experienced bakers fresh out of the afternoon’s doughnut lesson to those who have never made a dough before. And me, who sits somewhere in the middle. We bond over our mutual love of eating.
Aidan Chapman, an experienced baker who goes by the name of ‘Dough Anarchist’, begins the workshop promptly at six and we are armed with aprons, rolling pins and copious amounts of butter. To fit a three-day process into three hours, there are some ‘Blue Peter moments’ and shortcuts, but the course provides an excellent overview of three main stages of croissant craft: making a dough, lamination and shaping. The class also touches on how to transform our dough into an increasingly sinful series of pain au chocolat, pain au raisin and twice baked almond croissants.
As we work, Aidan explains the importance of traditional bread making methods that use just a few, natural ingredients and a long fermentation process to create a soft, digestible wheat. By contrast, a cheap, long-life supermarket loaf contains high levels of salt, fat, sugar and yeast that are difficult to digest. For croissants, real butter and, again, a lengthy fermentation process is the key. We learn that the clues when seeking a real croissant are price (around £2.50) and shape: croissants made with butter tend to be straight, whilst those made with margarine are curved.
When levels of anticipation have reached fever pitch, the moment arrives to taste our croissants. Despite the time constraints, not to mention the class’s clumsiest member (me!) dropping their dough, the croissants are perfect. Crisp, flakey crusts break apart to reveal soft, gently steaming layers. There is no need for butter, just a dollop of slightly tart jam. As I travel home, the scent of 18 freshly baked pastries bursts from their paper bag and fills the tube carriage. I fend off envious glances with a smug smile and the knowledge that I will be popular at home and in the office.
Poco is well known for its mission to source and cook food consciously, with care and thrift. The 100% seasonal, organic produce comes predominantly from community projects, farms and artisan producers within 100 miles and everything is recycled or composted to reduce waste. Yet it’s not until you visit Poco, set up by ethical eating pioneer Tom Hunt, that you appreciate how its mission statement translates into delicious, original flavours. Several years ago, I enjoyed a trip to the original branch in Bristol, which fits snugly among the independent businesses and the liberal, progressive community of Stoke’s Croft. So how would it fare the transition from Bristol to Broadway Market?
Poco’s sustainable ethos is reflected in the decor: LED lighting, clay-based paints and reclaimed timbers. English hardwood tables are adorned with simple sprigs of flowers and oil-burning candles that flicker gently in the hum of diners. It is a place where friends gather to share a meal, yet singles feel comfortable to eat alone with a book. We are welcomed by a personable waiter, who evidently understands the thin line between attentive and intrusive, and settle in with London beer and European wine. There are also seasonal cocktails designed and foraged for by co-owner Ben Pryor, who sips cider at the bar before wandering round to chat to customers. Considering it is still in its first week, Poco exudes a remarkably relaxed professionalism.
From Tom Hunt and his team in the bustling open kitchen come wave after wave of tapas dishes, each a miniature masterclass in how to balance flavour and texture. There are broad beans two ways: a crisp-shelled broad bean falafel with a soft, steaming centre and a lemony broad bean puree, intensified by the sour shock of pickled turnip. Sweetcorn and nutty spelt fritters leap in the sweet heat of English chilli jam, before being steadied by the fresh crunch of a coriander and spring onion garnish. The deep, mellow spices of merguez sausages sing from beneath a cascade of mild, earthy lentils, burnt shallot and cooling labneh. Only a dish of creamed corn and girolles is one-dimensional and needs a fresher, lighter flavour to lift it from its enveloping soft sweetness.
The pièce de resistance, cod’s head, arrives to squeals of protest from our (adult) neighbour that it is “looking at her”. Truth be told, it prompts a little squeamishness from us too. Yet, with its classic pairing of lemon, thyme and fennel, the meat from the gills and neck is tender and flavoursome. This dish embodies the Poco philosophy of economical nose-to-tail (or leaf to root) cooking that reminds us how divorced we are from our food’s origins and how delicious the ingredients we discard can be. And, in this way, we finish our meal with food for thought.
On a weekday, I eat my breakfast ‘al-desko’ to ease the pain of answering emails. When the weekend arrives, however, breakfast can be given the time and attention it deserves. If I’m lucky, I’ll be visiting an Australian or New Zealand-inspired café. Indeed, over the last ten years London has learned much from the influx of Antipodean café culture with its focus on freshly roasted coffee, fresh food and friendly, independent business. Antipodeans understand the importance of a good breakfast.
One such Australian establishment is Daisy Green, which sells hearty, healthy food from their vintage van, hole in the wall coffee shops, and three cafés. Upstairs at their Portman Village home, a counter of lamingtons, brownies, cakes, granola, yogurt and fruit offers myriad mix-and-match options to the takeaway crowd. Below, an Alice in Wonderland style seating area awaits: giant rabbit heads, oversize eggs, fake flowers suspended from the ceiling and piles of bananas (more on bananas later…) There is no sign of the exposed brickwork or spartan furniture that has come to characterise cool London cafes, and Daisy Green feels all the more comfortable for it.
Those seeking something substantial might order the Bondi, a full English lightened by chilli pesto and avocado. Shakshuka oozing soft yolks and sweet tomato sauce arrives with a heap of sourdough for dipping. Less indulgent, but equally tempting, is poached egg teetering a-top a stack of brocoli and corn fritters. Avoiding anything rich that might re-appear during my half marathon the following day, I settled for quinoa and oat bircher muesli. The quinoa added a delicate crunch, but it lacked the light creaminess that is typical of the best bircher.
If you really want to treat yourself and induce serious food envy amongst your fellow diners, you must order the award winning banana bread sandwich. Two lightly toasted slabs of banana bread with a spectacularly gooey centre, sandwiched together by enough honeyed mascarpone to cause concern for your blood pressure. A smattering of berries helps a little to cut through the richness. I was unable to resist polishing off the leftovers of a hungover friend and can confirm that it is one deliciously decadent sandwich.
We practically polished our plates and lingered over Monmouth coffee until lunch.
Don’t be fooled by the rusty corrugated-iron fronting, Berber & Q is a polished operation where North African and Middle Eastern flavours meet North East London cool. At 6:30 we get some of the first seats, but by 7 the long wooden tables are full and by 7:30 a queue has formed. Fez hat lampshades cast a glow over the white-tiled bar, which stretches along the length of the restaurant towards an open kitchen. Behind, shelves are stacked with premium spirits, kilner bottles of exotic syrups, battered tins and toys, tea lights fluttering in jars, and bowls of citrus fruit.
Once glance at the tempting menu tells us that narrowing down our order will be a struggle, so we take our time over excellent cocktails. The ‘Lebaneeza’ of saffron-infused rum, grapefruit, demarara syrup and mint is fruity without being overly-sweet. An old-fashioned makes us feel like Don Draper, though the addition of date syrup and candied orange would have been less familiar to a ‘50s ad-man. Elsewhere, classic spirits are mixed with sumac, pomegranate, Clement shrub, baharat and pistachio.
After negotiating between our favoured dishes, we finally place an order. Meat dishes are typical of the North African ethnic group for which this restaurant is named, the Berbers. Lamb machoui is brushed with paprika and cumin butter, spit-roasted and shredded into tender strips with crisp, caramelised coating. Merguez sausages blush with harissa and sumac, their juices soaking into a fluffy pillow of pitta. Joojeh chicken thighs and smoked short rib glazed with date syrup are added to our list for next time. When topped with cumin salt and a sparing spoonful of toum (garlic sauce), then rolled in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs, these hearty cuts of meat are transformed into something delicate.
Surprisingly for a grill house, the meat – though delicious – plays second fiddle to the vegetarian mezze. Rising majestically from a thick pool of tahini and molasses, there is sweet, nutty cauliflower shawarma brightened by fresh pomegranate seeds and fragrant rose petals. Earthy beetroot with salty whipped feta, peppery dill and saffron-candied orange makes for a beguiling combination of textures and flavours. Even hummus, pedestrian elsewhere, is exceptional: each mouthful is laden with tahini and speckled with crispy chickpeas, before the light dressing of chilli oil and parsley cuts through its richness.
All that’s left to do is mop up the leftover sauces with another warm pitta, pay your dues, and leave with a very satisfied smile.
*Photographs courtesy of Fraser Communications*