Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Great Juniper Hunt

A friend of mine is going through a phase of liking gin and tonics - the more exotic, the better. He is enthused by G & Ts served with cucumber, strawberry, and whatever else the creative barperson can think of. But the definitive additive is juniper berries. He'd discovered this before Christmas and (as a dude who knows his way around food shops and markets), I promised to get him some. Well, it wasn't unlike the experience of trying to buy a goose - blank looks, shrugged shoulders, etc. We discovered that the bars that had the berries had been given them by their gin suppliers. So I asked my son to get some in London and smuggle them through Customs. He drew a blank too.

And so the matter was quietly laid to rest, until yesterday. I'd delivered the final batch of pies to The Lock Inn for their Burn's Night Pie Night (a stonking success, by the way), and had a couple of hours to kill before the event started. I got myself a haircut, and then wandered up and down Calle Fuencarral in Malasaña, possibly by most favourite street in Madrid. And I happened upon a newly-opened shop called Tiger. I think this is a Scandiwegian chain, but I've never come across it before. I was enchanted. They have lots of really stupid little stuff, but it's all quite well designed and very cheap (a combination of two of my favourite things). They have toys, gifts, cosmetics and bathroom stuff, toys for geeks, general household stuff and KITCHEN STUFF! I got myself a stupid little battery-operated 'milk foamer' which I think will be good for beating eggs and milk for my pie glaze, and then I saw the rack of herbs and spices. And would you believe it, bags of juniper berries. Only €2!

So my mate finally got his Christmas present.

Friday, 21 January 2011

That Chain Letter Thing

Seabee nominated me to do this. Apparently half the world's population will die* if I don't.

*Timescale not specified.

1. If you blog anonymously, are you happy with this? If you aren't anonymous, do you wish you started out anonymously so that you could be anonymous now?
I began blogging in Dubai at about the same time as Secret Dubai Diary, and also with a bit of a critical edge. I had no illusions that anonymity would offer me any kind of protection if anyone really wanted to track me down, but I was never convinced that free speech was allowed (actually it *is* allowed, as long as it doesn't offend anybody important). Here in Spain, there is much more freedom, and I think my identity is quite well-known. I know it might be sensible to try to hide my identity, given that some of my business clients and associates might be worried by some of my scribblings (although I make it a rule NEVER to write about anybody who puts food on my table), but it's probably too late now.

2. Describe an incident that describes your stubborn side.
I don't think I have a stubborn side, except for doing things that I know are bad for me.

3. What do you see when you really look at yourself in the mirror?
Bits of  bristly chin that I missed with the razor. Frequently very bad hair.

4. What is your favourite summer cold drink?

5. When you take time for yourself, what do you do?

6. Is there something that you still want to accomplish in your life?
Make enough money so I could retire if I felt like it.

7. When you attended school, were you the class clown, the class overachiever, the shy person or always ditching?
I was the brainy kid who could spell 'encyclopaedia'. What's 'ditching'?

8. If you close your eyes and want to visualize a very poignant moment in your life, what do you see.
I don't need to close my eyes, but there are certain places around Madrid that I associate with my Daddy-In-Law that we visited together before he passed away.

9. Is it easy for you to share your true self in your blog, or are you more comfortable writing posts about other people and events?
There's an awful lot of me in my blog - it amazes me that anybody could be interested in reading it.

10. If you had the choice to sit down and read a book or talk on the phone, which would you do and why?
Read a book. I actually hate talking on the phone. It always feels like such an intrusion. And I have an old-school attitude instilled in the days when phone calls were very expensive and companies I worked for wanted to keep the bills down - so if you couldn't say what you needed to say in 3 minutes or less, you were in trouble.

Now I have to nominate 3 other folks, so let's have Jayne With A Why, Sandlander and LeftBanker

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Cooking With Molecules

I've mentioned my brief forays into Molecular Gastronomy, but haven't posted any of my stunning successes yet. Mainly because there haven't been any. If you read the blogs of people who dabble in this stuff, it seems the first thing everyone wants to try is Spherification, and I'm no exception. The basic idea is to create blobs of intensely-flavoured liquid encapsulated in a gel skin that melts when you eat it, leaving a 'taste explosion' in your mouth. The classic example of this technique is Ferran Adriá's olive. It looks like an olive, but tastes more olivey than any real olive ever could. It's also possible to make small spheres of your liquid, and they look like caviar.

The basic idea is to add a gelling agent (sodium alginate) to your strongly-flavoured liquid, and then carefully drop spoonfuls or droplets from a syringe into a bath of calcium carbonate dissolved in water. When the alginate meets the CC, it sets into a gel. So a skin is instantly formed on the outside, leaving the inside liquid, well, liquid. You only leave your blobs in the CC for 1-3 minutes (depending on their size) and then you take them out, rinse in cold water, dry on a paper towel and serve (or throw in the bin, in my case).

We had a load of apples and pears left over from Christmas, so I pulped them and then made a consommé of them using the gelatine freeze-thaw method. This technique requires you to melt some bloomed gelatine into your liquid and then freeze it overnight. When it's frozen, you place it in a filter paper (or cheesecloth) inside a strainer over a bowl and leave it in the fridge for 2-3 days until the liquid has melted and dripped through the filter. The gelatine forms a kind of web that grabs hold of all the solids, while allowing the liquid to drip through into the bowl. The resulting liquid is perfectly clear, with all the flavour and colour of the original goop.

I made some 'caviar' of apples and pears, and also some bigger drops, a bit like small grapes. I showed one to MamaDuck, who freaked out a bit and said she would never eat it (so no apple sauce gel blobs for her tonight!). Some of the early attempts looked like tiny fetuses, most of the bigger blobs were malformed with extra mini-blobs or tails stuck to them, but the caviar looked good.

The main problem I have with spherification is getting the right proportion of chemicals in the solutions. The quantities required are quite tiny (like 1.5 grams), and I have no way of accurately measuring such tiny amounts. My digital scales claim to be able to weigh increments of 1g, but really, they don't. So I need to get hold of some scientific scales, but haven't been able to find any yet.

On a related note, I've been getting a fed up with the unreliability of gelatine for the jelly in my pork pies. Sometimes it's difficult to inject enough jelly into the pies, and sometimes the bloody stuff just won't set. I tried an experiment a few months ago where I poured liquid jelly into the pie case before baking, but it just soaked into the pastry and the meat.

So I've been looking at Agar Agar. This substance is extracted from seaweed (so it's suitable for veggies), and has some interesting properties. The ones I'm interested in are the gelling point and the melting point. For a 2% solution of agar agar, these are 38 and 89 degrees C. And the temperature at which minced pork can be declared cooked is 71C, so in theory I could wrap the meat in a sheet of set agar agar jelly and bake it without it melting. Now that would be a super-terrific thing if I could do it. If it worked, I could also put a blob of set jelly inside my albondigas (meatballs) to reduce their density and give a zing of something different in the middle - it doesn't have to be meat-flavoured, even, it could be apple-flavoured. Nom nom.

I'm rambling. Today I went off in search of agar agar. I know I could get this from Manuel Riesgo behind Gran Vía, but I didn't want to go into the centre. I found some powdered agar agar in a local health-food shop, but at €6 a spoonful I thought it was a bit overpriced. But I did notice it came from China and that gave me an idea. There's a street in our barrio that's like a mini Chinatown, so I went up there. The first shop I went to is so jam-packed with stock that there's no room for customers, but I asked them about it and they pointed me at HP Sauce and cans of corned beef (obviously as a gweilo-guiri, what else could I want?). The next one I tried was much better. It was actually big enough to accommodate the massive range of stuff they sell and still leave room for customers. Nice. They did have agar agar, but only in 1-kilo packs about the size of a cushion. I asked them if they had smaller packs, and the guy disappeared upstairs and came back with a 42g pack for €1.40. Marvellous. It's a terrific shop, actually, packed full of mysterious stuff. They have a section at the back that has everything you need to set up a Chinese restaurant - woks by the million, crockery, sizzler plates, cook's clothes, cleavers, knives, chopsticks. And I also noticed they had 1-kilo jars of whole black peppercorns for €6, and stuff like Schezuan pepper salt and other exotica at insanely-low prices. I'll definitely be back there next week.

Anyway, gotta dash, got to play with my agar agar.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Christmas and That

First of all, Happy New Year to you all: let's hope it's a good 'un, despite all evidence to the contrary. And apologies for the lack of posting - the pie biz went insane in December (I must have sold 400-500 mince pies!), and then it was Christmas, and now the web biz has gone crazy. Moan, moan, whinge, whinge.

Our Christmas kicked off about a week early when we had our traditional mince pies, mulled wine and carol singing bash. 30-40 people crammed themselves into our little flat, and a great time was had by all.

The Offspring visited us for a lovely week. His departure from Heathrow on the 22nd was touch and go right until the plane's wheels left the tarmac (you may remember Heathrow Airport's astonishment and total failure to cope with a bit of snow and ice since the previous Saturday).

I treated Offspring to a tour of all the local supermarkets, trying to find Brussels sprouts, but picking up several tons of other stuff on the way. Because he's young and fit, I made him carry all the stuff, and he began eyeing old ladies' shopping trolleys with envy. I said I was willing to buy one (and I really do need one now, with the amount of flour and meat I buy now for the pies), as long as it was tartan-free. Don't get me wrong: tartan looks great on kilts and bagpipes, but for God's sake, why do shopping trolley manufacturers think it looks good on their products? Anyway, we managed to find a plain one in a funky purple, and so it was purchased.

On Christmas Eve we went to the movies to see Little Fockers. I'm not thrilled by the Focker movies - I find the humour a little too crude for my refined and snobbish tastes, but MamaDuck and the Offspring enjoyed it, so that was okay.

Parsnips are pretty much like Unobtainium in Madrid (I have seen them as part of a cocido vegetable mix at Lidl, but that involves, like, going into Lidl). Brussels sprouts were pretty thin on the ground too - a tour of five local supermarkets produced one packet of frozen ones, but then I spotted fresh ones in a fruit and veg shop nearby, so I got some of those too. I don't normally go a bundle on sprouts, but this year I did this recipe from Gordon Ramsay, and they were very good indeed.

I fancied having a goose for Christmas dinner this (last, 2010) year, but it was not to be. Enquiries at poultry stalls in the local market had me wondering if 'oca' meant 'stoat' or 'raccoon', rather than 'goose' as my dictionary told me, such was the bewildered response from the stallholders. Even having a friend enquire of the poulterer he's used for 20 years (and who did once manage to get my friend a goose, although it turns out it was 10 years ago now) drew a blank. So, no goose for us, and I didn't fancy cochinillo (suckling pig), so it was the ever-reliable turkey.

The one I got turned out to be a bit too big for our oven, so I ended up having to roast it without its legs and parson's nose. But the seven of us enjoyed it, and we've been eating the leftovers for the past week. All gone now, thankfully.

As a surprise, I'd bought us all tickets for a circus on Boxing Day. It was the first show of the day, 12 noon. Imagine my joy when I awoke at 5 to 12. I was all for forgetting about it, but MamaDuck woke like a shot, forced tea down us in record time, got us into a taxi and had us strolling into the big top at 12.15, just as the show was starting. And it was very, very good. It's owned by Teresa Rabal - not a name I'd ever heard of, but speaking to a Spanish friend the other day, she's what kids of several generations grew up on (possibly the singing equivalent of John Noakes and Valerie Singleton to Brit kids). A bit of a legend, in other words.

The Offspring left on the 28th, and after we'd seen him off at the airport we got the new 24-hour airport bus service and finished up at Cibeles. We had lunch at the James Joyce pub and when we came out I noticed that the queue for the Belén (Nativity scene) at Nuestra Señora de Communiciones (formerly the main Post Office, now the Municipality HQ) was very short. We joined it, and we were inside in about ten minutes. I'd suspected that this year's Belén would be a small and disappointing affair, what with Spain being bankrupt and that, but it wasn't. It was enormous and splendid - the best I've ever seen. After that we went for a wander in Retiro Park, where we saw a red squirrel wandering around a lawn, and as the sun set we went to look at the marvellous Christmas lights on Calle Serrano.

We had an elaborate plan for New Year's Eve. We were going to wander up to the Plaza de Castilla, from where we might be able to see some fireworks. But at about 11.30 we decided not to do that. So we stayed home and watched it on the telly. I picked out the best 24 grapes that we had (silly Spanish tradition - eat one grape for each bong of the midnight bells and you'll have good luck for the next year), and dug out the cava flutes. One of MamaDuck's brothers Skyped us from the UK at ten to midnight, and stayed with us until New Year arrived in the Canaries (and the UK, of course) an hour later. Great fun, and an unexpected pleasure. We stayed up for an hour or two after that, watching old clips of Spanish stars doing their stuff - one of them was a young Teresa Rabal!

In the following days I tried to do some work, but my heart wasn't in it. The Christmas season in Spain doesn't end until the Magic Kings have been - they come on the evening of 5th Jan and the kids wake up to get their presents on the 6th. We toyed with the idea of taking the stepladder and watching the main parade on the Paseo de la Castellana, but MamaDuck came home from wherever she'd been with the idea that there would be a Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos on Calle Bravo Murillo, a very short walk from where we live. So we went to that one instead (I hadn't realised before, but many of the outlying barrios of Madrid have their own parades) - it was a much smaller affair, but it did mean we actually got some of the sweets that they throw from the floats, and we got to see Teresa Rabal yet again on the Circus's float.

So there ya go. Another magical Madrid festive season, only slightly ruined by the introduction of a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants. Sales of outdoor heaters are rocketing, apparently.

¡Feliz Año a todos!