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Sticky toffee pudding

“It’s a funny thing about English diners. They’ll let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don’t f**k with their puddings, which is my thinking exactly. All the dessert entries were for gooey dishes with good English names.”
Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (1995)

I like to bake but my dessert repertoire is, I’m sad to say, a little limited. One dessert item I have always wanted to have a go at making but never have is a favourite of mine that is indeed gooey (and stodgy, and sweet) and has a good English name: Sticky toffee pudding.

If I’m dining out and fancy going for a dessert item that doesn’t involve the cheeseboard (my usual option), then chances are I will opt for the sticky toffee pudding. Our local pub does a really good one!

Yesterday, Allison and I had some friends round for dinner and we decided that we would make sticky toffee pudding for the dessert. There are various different recipes out there, and we used one from the BBC’s Olive magazine which would apparently require “a little effort”. The main benefit of this particular recipe was that the pudding required baking rather than steaming, which I for one didn’t fancy doing. Plus, we had most of the ingredients already.

It required pitted dates (150g), butter (65g), dark brown sugar (175g), eggs (two) and self-raising flour (225g) for the sponge, and double cream (600ml), caster sugar (350g) and more butter (90g) for the toffee sauce.

The dates had to be simmered for 15 minutes first, during which I found out that the ones we have are not pitted. Pits removed, the dates were whizzed in the food-processor and left to cool while I made the sponge.

The recipe gave me the option of using a food processor for this too but I opted to do it by hand. Creaming the butter and the sugar was easy enough, as was adding the eggs and folding in the flour (“with a large metal spoon”), followed by the date purée.

Now for the baking tin. The recipe required a tin measuring “15x12cm (6cm deep)”, which we don’t actually own. A baking tin of slightly similar dimensions (longer but less wide) sufficed, and was duly greased and lined with greaseproof paper.

With the sponge in the oven (50-60 minutes at 180ºC), I got to work on the toffee sauce. This involved boiling half the cream with the butter and sugar for ten minutes, then whisking in the rest of the cream as it cooled. Quite frankly, the amount of toffee sauce that resulted looked like being way too much for our pudding.

Next came the tricky part as the newly-baked sponge had to be cut horizontally into four layers. It had also risen quite a bit and looked rather well-done on the top, so I took the opportunity to take the crispy bits off the top. This gave us the chance to sample the sponge and sauce combination. A couple of tastes were sufficient to convince both of us that we were onto a winner.

The layers of the sponge were reassembled in the tin, with sauce going between the layers so that the sponge could soak it up like, well, a sponge.

This much we did in advance. The final part, reheating the whole thing (15-20 minutes, same temperature as before), took place after the main course. It was served with extra sauce (there was too much) and ice cream.

Was it everything I’d wanted it to be? Yes. Was it delicious? Yes. Would I make it again? Absolutely!



James Hunt was before my time. When I started to pay attention to Formula One, he was a witty and rather dry commentator who served as a pretty good brake for Murray Walker’s high-octane enthusiasm, even though he seemed to have it in for the otherwise innocuous Riccardo Patrese.

It was a bit later that I found out that he’d won the world championship in one of the most exciting seasons in the history of F1. In a sense, James Hunt was very much a 1970s sort of hero; a larger-than-life character who smoked like a chimney, boozed into the wee small hours, didn’t give a damn about dress codes and was as famous for his exploits in bed as he was for his driving – which was of the devil-may-care variety.

Recently, interest in his rivalry with Niki Lauda has been revived by the movie Rush which has appealed to people far beyond the relatively small group of F1 fans – no small feat, as F1 doesn’t have a very good track record (no pun intended) when it’s made into movies and that’s before you take into account the obvious fact that it has little appeal to the American market. I’d been looking forward to this film for months, and last Tuesday I went to see it.

The team behind this film are writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard, who have previously been responsible for making a political interview into a very good movie (Frost/Nixon). What they have done with Rush is to turn an exciting sporting rivalry (albeit one of limited appeal) into a truly electric cinematic experience.

In my opinion, the setting is as responsible for this as the Hunt-Lauda rivalry. On one level, the 1970s were an exciting time for F1. Technology was being pushed to limits that are seen as highly innovative even now – this was the era of ground effect, Tyrell’s six-wheeler (which can be seen in the film) and the Brabham fan car, all of which are illegal nowadays. TV was also starting to get involved in a bigger way than before; the title-deciding Japanese Grand Prix of 1976 was the first to be broadcast around the world via satellite, and the BBC’s coverage of F1 – complete with the ever-excitable Walker and the iconic theme tune (Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain) properly got going two years later.

But there was a darker side, and that was the ever-present risk of danger at appallingly high levels that simply aren’t acceptable nowadays. Just a couple of minutes of looking at old footage on YouTube or on programmes about the history of F1 that occasionally get shown on BBC4 will show you cars running four abreast, big crashes and near-primitive safety standards – think  poorly-equipped and under-trained marshals, and everyone smoking in the pit lane mere feet from all that high-octane petrol. Even at the time, people were calling for change, and not just any people but multiple world champions like Jackie Stewart, who knew at first-hand what the risks were and stuck his neck out by protesting against them.

Hunt and his contemporaries were well aware that whenever they lined up on the grid, there was a very real chance that not all of them would be alive by the end of the race; in the world of F1, it had been thus for as long as the sport had existed (although it would soon change) and goes some way towards explaining the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality of drivers like, well, Hunt himself – who lost his appetite for F1 following the death of his friend Ronnie Petersen at Monza in 1978 (for which he blamed Patrese, which explains his later commentary-box antagonism towards the Italian).

That’s before you get to the circuits, some of which just hadn’t evolved over the years as the cars had got bigger and faster. The most notorious was the truly terrifying old Nürburgring, a fourteen-mile circuit in the Eifel mountains of western Germany with more corners than anyone could remember. The ‘Green Hell’, as Stewart himself called it, was a throwback to the 1930s with much of the circuit not being protected by crash barriers and marshals being non-existent for most of the route. There were blind crests where the cars momentarily took off, bits that were dangerously narrow and such was its length that choosing between wet and dry tyres was impossible as parts of the circuit could be waterlogged while other bits were dry (a point emphasised in the film).

At the centre of Rush is the German Grand Prix at this circuit – a pivotal point in the season. It was at this race that Lauda, having failed to get the race cancelled on safety grounds, suffered an horrific near-fatal accident when his car spun and burst into flames. He had to be dragged from his car by four fellow-drivers (who, unlike the marshals, wore fire-proof clothing), and was then airlifted to a hospital where his injuries were so severe that a priest gave him the last rites. The circuit was never used in F1 again. Miraculously, Lauda was back racing six weeks later, and the battle for the championship went down to the last race of the season, in Japan.

As you’ve probably guessed, I really enjoyed Rush. The use of restored and replica 1970s F1 cars, filmed at some of the circuits that were actually used in the 1976 season, was spot-on. The lead actors have done a great job. Chris Hemsworth brilliantly plays Hunt as a fun-loving a party animal who lives life to the full, while Daniel Brühl has done a great job in revealing the vulnerability of Niki Lauda that existed beneath the cold, calculating surface (heck, he even looks a bit like Lauda did before his accident). In real life, Hunt and Lauda were good friends despite their differences but it suits the film’s narrative to portray them as rivals – although the film does reveal a sense of camaraderie between them, as evidenced by the scene where Hunt beats up a journalist for insulting Lauda and the closing scenes.

OK, so there were a few parts of the story that didn’t fit with the historical record – for example, it wasn’t really Lauda who dobbed the McLaren team to the stewards after Hunt won the Spanish Grand Prix, and Hunt is shown as having not been disqualified after winning the British Grand Prix. I guess that that iconic shot at Brands Hatch where the two cars disappear behind some trees with Lauda in front, only to emerge with Hunt in the lead, was too good an image to sully with another disqualification argument.

I’m usually the first person to pick up on historical inaccuracies in films but, do you know what? In Rush, they didn’t matter.

The film really was that good.



“The problem with vegetarians is that they’re eating my food’s food.” Christian Stevenson, a.k.a. ‘DJ BBQ’, as quoted at Meatopia, London, 7th September 2013

Yesterday, we went to the Docklands – Tobacco Dock down Shadwell way to be precise – for Meatopia, which promised to be a carnivorous experience to remember. Meatopia, which as the name suggests is a foodie festival concerning all things meat-related – has been going for nine years in the USA (it was founded by the food writer Joshua Ozersky) but this was the first time it had come to London. I expected good things. Many good things.

On entering, we were greeted by a lot of smoke. The old warehouses of Tobacco Dock are partly covered, and with a couple-of-dozen barbecues on the go (one of Meatopia’s principal guarantees is that all of the meat served is cooked with wood or hardwood charcoal, no butane, propane etc allowed), the atmosphere was smoky to say the least. I got the distinct impression that the organisers hadn’t thought everything through – but it could’ve been worse, I’ve been to foodie events in parks that have been wash-outs thanks to the weather, and at least we were on solid ground here.

Glimpses of foodie heroes could be seen; Fergus Henderson was there, and Daniel Young (no relation) of Burger Monday fame was on the stage for an early Q&A session, while Jay Rayner seemed to have adopted an almost-furtive pose in a flat cap. My sometime butchery tutor Nathan Mills was on hand too, helping out on the main stand (a.k.a. ‘The Cutting Room’).

We started with a coffee; not just any coffee but a blend of Ethiopian, Brazilian and Kenyan coffee courtesy of Climpson Estates. Now I used to be the kind of philistine who would deliberately ask for Nescafe when I went into a branch of Starbucks or Costa Coffee, but in recent years I have come to appreciate good coffee and I am particularly fond of Ethiopian coffee, probably a direct result of having travelled in that country. My yardstick nowadays is that if it’s good enough, you don’t need to add milk and this blend passed that test with flying colours.

Following that, we split up to sample what we wanted to sample of the various barbecue stands that were giving off that tantalising smoky smell.

Tayyabs, the legendary Pakistani curry-house in Whitechapel, was doing their Chargrilled Lamb Chops (“marinated overnight using a 40 year old secret recipe”), which I passed on the grounds that I last dined there, and had the lamb chops among other things, less than a month ago and I was looking for something different at Meatopia.

Which was why I made a beeline for the St John barbecue, and not just because they did not appear to have much of a queue (although God only knows why). St John being St John, they’d gone for an offal offering of Ox Heart Bun. I wanted to start my culinary experience of Meatopia by having something I would not normally eat, and ox heart definitely falls into this category. The heart, so the man on the stall told me, had been marinated for 36 hours in a garlic and balsamic mixture before being grilled, and then allowed to stand in its own juices. I’m not much of a balsamic fan, but the meat stood out against all the flavour to create a wonderful eating experience.

Next up was the Wild Game Company. Now I happened to be walking past this stall when Andy, the kilt-clad head honcho of this most Scottish of meat ventures, came over and said hello to my dad. They knew each other from Broadway Market in Hackney, where until recently Dad sold the finest Cheshire cheese a couple of stalls along from the Wild Game people. When Allison and I stood in for Dad on the stall, we did spend some of our takings on their venison! Andy’s people were offering Venison Steak Frites with a spicy mayonnaise, and venison as part of steak-frites was a new one on me, so I went for it. It was lovely – my only critique is that I’d’ve liked more venison!

My next objective was to get a drink. Beer was courtesy of the Meantime Brewing Company, the Greenwich-based microbrewery who do a great Pale Ale, and their lager’s not so bad either (I say this as a dedicated real ale drinker).

The highlight of the day was without a shadow of a doubt the butchery demonstration by Dario Cecchini, the legendary butcher of Panzano whose restaurants Allison and I have visited on more than one occasion. To Dario, butchery is not a job but a way of life, and via his wife (who’s American; she did the translating), he espoused his philosophy on life – as he put it, “a story of hunger, intelligence and know-how” in which the butcher, who is the “most delicate link in the chain of food”, is at the centre of the community he serves. This was impressive enough, but this man did this while butchering a pig half-carcass and giving out information on what to do with the trotters (in Tuscany one can apparently be used to feed ten people) and the head (head cheese, a.k.a. brawn). With Dario as with Fergus Henderson, whom he hailed as a culinary hero, nothing is wasted.

The centrepiece of Dario’s demonstration was the porchetta, the central cut of the pig that starts four ribs down from the head. After deboning it with ease, this was rubbed with salt (not just any old salt but his own finely-ground herb-infused salt), fennel pollen (which represents summer, thus making this dish a combination of the seasons given that in Tuscany pork is representative of winter because that’s when the pigs are usually butchered) and rosemary (a symbol of “peace, and the love of good food”). It’s then rolled and roasted.

Apparently, porchetta thus cooked was served up to a summit between Orthodox and Catholic religious bigwigs in Florence in the early fifteenth century, and on tasting it one of the Orthodox delegation declared it to be ‘aristos’, which in Greek means ‘the best’. According to Dario, although this did not manage to resolve the Great Schism, it did lead to six years of peace between the two rival factions of Christianity! To this day, this dish is still called arista alla Fiorentina in Tuscany in honour of this feast.

While he’d been doing this, a ready-prepared porchetta joint had been roasting away, and this was cut up for us punters. Allison managed to get hold of some, and it was lovely, the herb combination combining very well with the pork.

The only problem was with the suggested wine pairing with this amazing dish. One of the sponsors was Casillero del Diablo, and although I have nothing against South American wines (they're lovely, honest!) I did think that saying that arista alla Fiorentina is best paired with a wine that happens to have their label on the bottle was a bit of a cop-out. Personally, I can think of nothing other than Chianti as the perfect accompaniment to anything Dario Cecchini serves up. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

Dario was followed on the main stage by another cookery demo, this time concerning beef that had been cured using salt from the Himalayas. My one-time tutor was on hand to cut the T-bone joints for the barbecue, courtesy of another of Meatopia’s sponsors (and who else but a barbecue company would you expect to sponsor this meat-fest?). 

The resulting meat was truly one of the best examples of barbecued steak I’ve ever tasted, although I could only get a couple of pieces from when they handed out samples to the crowd.

By late afternoon, some of the stalls were running low or running out of their food, causing long queues at the stalls that were left as punters were still hungry and keen to offload their ‘meatbucks’ tickets. Some people, and I’d not care to name names, evidently had not planned for the number of people who did show up. A lesson for future events here, I think. To their credit, Shake Shack had a plan B which consitsted of pork sausage to replace the sold-out pork belly, topped with an American cheese sauce and chopped cherry peppers. Now that is a topping I’d like to replicate.

But the biggest queue of them all was for Almost Famous’s Run BMC Burger, “a chuck, marrow and brisket patty with BBQ salt n pepper pretzel beef rib, pork cracking, crumbled beef monster munch [yes, really], peppercorn mustard cream mayo and a tangy beef stock beer BBQ jus dip”. 

We queued, and queued. And stayed in the queue. We saw them send someone to stand at the back of the queue to stop anyone else from joining it. One of us went to get more drinks, which led to a longer trip than expected as some of the bars had apparently ran out of drinks! We saw the smoke from the barbecue.

We sent one of our party to the front to ascertain that there were still enough burgers left (there were). Allison contacted Daniel Young on Twitter to check if the burger was worth the wait. We befriended the people next to us in the line, who shared the bounty of their goodie-bags (including a very quaffable Chilean merlot).

Then, after two minutes short of two hours, we made it to the front and were rewarded with our burgers. Anticipation, already running at record levels, was heightened by our bearing witness to the preparation line. We’d certainly earned them!

The burgers were, by the way, delicious. London does have a bit of a gourmet burger scene going on at the moment, and these were up there with the best.

After savouring our burgers, we took in the post-prandial atmosphere – the smell of the barbecue pervading throughout, and the ska band on stage adding to an end-of-the-party atmosphere – before heading off into the London night.

All in all, this was an event to be remembered and I’m very glad we went. Although there were a few teething troubles that are no doubt due to this being Meatopia’s first event in this country, I fully expect that Meatopia will return, and that these little problems will have been sorted out when it does so.



It’s a general rule of thumb that anywhere that UNESCO has deigned to classify as a World Heritage Site is usually worth a visit. There are currently 981 of these places in the world, and a quick calculation has shown that so far in 2013 Allison and I have visited seven of them.

One such place is Saint-Émilion, a small town in France located just over 20 miles north-east of Bordeaux which we visited while staying with friends in that part of the world a couple of weeks ago. It boasts narrow cobbled streets leading up to a Romanesque church which dominates the skyline of the town, which is all very picturesque but what draws people to the place is what’s produced in the vineyards around the town. For Saint-Émilion is, along with Graves, Pomerol and the Médoc, one of the principal vin rouge-producing areas of Bordeaux, itself one of the most famous wine-producing regions in a country renowned for its wine.

It’s been its own appelation d'origine controlée (AOC) – meaning that the wine produced there can be labelled as being from Saint-Émilion in particular rather than the Bordeaux region in general, and that any wine produced elsewhere cannot have the words ‘Saint-Émilion’ on the label – for decades, it has even had its own distinct system of classifying its wine (of which more later).

On a scorching hot day, we had lunch and then walked around the town, dropping in on a couple of wine shops to sample what it is that makes Saint-Émilion so famous. Wine shops in these places, easily spotted by their displays of oversize wine bottles, boxes and the occasional barrel by the door, tend to offer free samples of the local product, but only to people who give off the impression that they’re actually considering buying the wine. Or, more likely, ones that have no other customers when you walk in; there’s nothing worse than going into one of these places and finding that the only shop assistant is concentrating all of his efforts on a couple who can’t decide which wine to buy (by the case, if you please). If you want to sample the wine and find out a bit about it, an empty wine shop is what you want.

We eventually found such an outlet located just down from the main square (the one with the church) and persuaded the shop assistant, who introduced himself as Benoit, that we were interested in sampling his wares.

The château in question was called Petit-Gravet, and it wasn’t long before Benoit was pouring us each a glass of the 2010 vintage to sample.

Benoit proved to be highly informative about the vineyard, and also gave us some pointers about which vintage we should buy. This, apparently, was dependent on what we wanted to do with the wine as each year’s vintage is different (all down to how the weather affected the grapes and the terroir). If we were after a wine to lay down for a few years, then the 2010 which we’d just sampled was recommended; 2010 was, it seems, a very good year and the best wines of that vintage need to be laid down for up to 15 years in order to be fully appreciated! The same, it seems, is true of the 2005 vintage.

The long-term potential of these will only be realised in a couple of decades. In the shop, evidence of the potential could be seen on a shelf bearing wines from great Bordeaux vintages of the past, retailing for hundreds of euros. I gingerly touched one of the bottles, but was afraid to lift it up for fear of dropping it. Such things are best left alone.

I suspect that Benoit must have realised that we weren’t there for a wine that we could lay down in a cellar that we don’t have. However, if we were after a wine to drink now, then the 2007 would be more to our liking – the wine of that year being an early drinking vintage; evidently, the château’s people had decided, presumably after a couple of tasting sessions, that this was not a vintage that was expected to improve much with any more age (what criteria do they use to decide this, I wonder – and, more to the point, how do I get that job?!).

As it happens, a wine that we could drink with our dinner that evening was exactly what we were looking for, so I bought a bottle of the ’07.

The fact that the bottles for Château Petit-Gravet bear the words grand cru (‘great growth’) was very encouraging, as even I know that this is meant to designate the superiority of a particular vineyard and/or terroir and that the wines from said vineyard have to have been properly assessed before those words can go on the label. But alas, or even zut alors! In the Saint-Émilion AOC it’s the lowest on the classification system, which rather confusingly is different from the classification systems for everywhere else (including the rest of Bordeaux). Controversy over recent Saint-Émilion classifications – complete with accusations of skulduggery on the part of the people chosen to do the tasting – hasn’t helped either.  

But this is mere detail. At the end of the day, wine from a place like Saint-Émilion that hasn’t been deemed to be of the highest quality is still going to be pretty damned good at the very least. Rather than get bogged down in details, I decided to just enjoy the wine – which was full of flavour, smooth and above all delicious.