Recipe: Autumn in a jar – Spicy plum and fig chutney

Jar of plum and  fig chutney.
Chutney, ready for maturing.
OK, we shall get all the autumnal food writing/blogging clichés out of the way, right from the outset. The equinox is definitely marking the turn of the seasons. From the long, dry(ish) summer we move to the soft, mellow months of autumn (fall, as it is sometimes called). There is mist in the morning, a nip in the air of an evening, the crunch of fallen leaves under foot, and trees hang heavy with sweet, plump fruit…

Oh to hell with blinkin’ cliché avoidance, I love autumn! It’s that bit of the annual cycle when it almost seems like nature does home delivery. Around every corner things are ripening or coming back into season. For those who like to cook with seasonal food, the available larder undergoes a veritable explosion of flavoursome produce. Sweet, ozone-tinged native oysters, the subtly gamey flavour of the first roast pheasant of the season, and the sugary tartness of soft fruit, they all compete for the food-lover’s attention. Yeah, yeah that’s probably a complete middle-class foodie cliché, but…

Lovely home-grown plums
Smashing plums.
There is no denying this has been a bumper year for fruit of all kinds, especially the soft fruit that excels in Scotland. The delayed spring, followed by a pretty decent summer has resulted in a bumper crop of raspberries, brambles (blackberries), currants and plums. Ripe – clichéd pun intended – for cooking and preserving. Sadly, the drying green (wee patch of garden) to the rear of Scrumptious Scran Towers is not blessed with fruit trees. Yet I am fortunate that some friends of mine abandoned Edinburgh earlier this year, to renovate a property in the city’s rural hinterland. And in the lovely garden that adjoins their house are some impressive fruit trees. We are talking amazing plums!

So, how delighted was I to be offered a punnet – well actually a couple of kilos in a posh carrier bag – of lovely looking, fragrant fruit? “Very”, is the answer. They might have been of the “Victoria” variety, to be honest, I’m no expert. That they tasted “amazing” – yes, another cliché – is beyond argument. Lovely as the fruit was, there was too much for two of us to consume before the plums went past their best. Preservation was the answer. As I don’t have a very sweet tooth, plum jam really wasn’t in the running. A chutney, however, that would mature for a couple of months and be prefect to serve with cheese and cold cuts during the festive season. Oh, yes please.

Plum and figs stewing in vinegar and spices.
Cooking chutney.
So, combining the tasty plums with a few left over figs that I didn’t use in a pudding when my parents recently paid me a visit, I present to you my spicy plum and fig chutney. Mixing the fruit with sour sherry vinegar, Demerara sugar, a blend of spices typical of Spain and North Africa, together with a chilli zing and a good glug of rich Pedro Ximénez sherry, this is pickle has a smashing combination of flavours. Left for a couple of months to mature, the chutney will make an ideal accompaniment to cheese or cold cuts of meat. And by way of a thank you to the lovely friends who supplied the plums – a few jars will be winging their way to you soon.

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Brew Lab - Great coffee, good food, but trouble is a-brewing…

Brew Lab coffee machine.
Coffee syphon action (courtesy of Brew Lab website).
It’s a horribly wet Wednesday morning. I am en route to a training course, so my normal morning work routine – coffee from my usual supplier, and maybe a pastry – is totally out of the window. I need caffeine before I am imparted with the secrets of writing a killer CV. And I need it NOW!

Fortunately, I’m in the very centre of Edinburgh’s university quarter. This means I have time to swing by the achingly cool speciality coffee shop that is Brew Lab (6-8 College Street, EH8 9AA) to pick up a latte, prior to the commencement of my morning’s instruction. This would be my second visit to Brew Lab this week. Later in the day, a lunchtime meeting there with a colleague will be my third. As you will find, like a decaying radioactive element (well it is called Brew “Lab”), each visit will have diminishing returns.

Located in a two conjoined, traditional former shops, Brew Lab serves a fantastic range of artisan coffees. And I really emphasise that they are fantastic. The bar brews two rotating single origin coffees every day, as well as its own custom espresso blend. As you enter the venue the “business” area has an intentional scientific influence. There is a coffee menu on the wall behind the baristas that resembles the periodic table. As well as a very high-end espresso machine – located on a facsimile of a lab bench – punters have options to have their java delivered by intriguing methods of distillation. It gave me flashbacks to biochemistry 101. Beyond the ordering section, the seating area takes distressed to the extreme. There is stripped back chic and then there is “are the builders still here?” chic. Not unpleasant, though.

My first visit to Brew Lab on Monday this week was great. A beautiful flat white accompanied great banter with a food-writing colleague.  The coffee was some of the best I have tasted.  This morning, I was in a rush for a takeaway. No real queue at the “lab”, just a chap in front buying a dozen pastries. But whilst waiting to be served, witnessing an ongoing chat between baristas about how sweet the coffee is, before my order is taken, is not a great start. Neither is being informed that the coffee is “so sweet, it doesn’t need sugar”. That’s my choice. I do not wish to enter a debate about it.  It did have a natural sweetness, but after a couple of sips - once I left the shop - it became apparent that a wee pinch of sugar was needed to meet my personal taste.

Feature Article: Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight – celebrating Scotland’s fabulous larder

Scottish Food Fortnight Logo.
I have a soft spot for September. It marks the start of autumn – surprisingly, my favourite season. The weather in Scotland at this time of year can be glorious – if a little chilly – with clear skies producing a beautiful quality of light. And September also signals an abundance of great food. Many fruit and vegetables - brambles, apples, squash, leeks etc. - become ripe for the harvest, and game – such as pheasant – comes into season.

It’s appropriate then that September is the month when two weeks are given over to celebrating all that is great in terms of Scotland’s culinary produce, in the form of Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight. First established in 2009, this year’s Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight runs until 22 September and features nearly 230 events across Scotland. It brings producers, retailers and the public together in a range of activities that explore some of our nation’s familiar – and less familiar – culinary traditions and success stories.

Although I’m writing about the fortnight as it draws to a close, there are still a plethora of events taking place between now and Sunday, and to find out what is happening near you there is a handy “Search for an Event” facility available on the initiative's website:

http://www.scottishfoodanddrinkfortnight.co.uk/events/events-2013.

I shall be doing my bit to support Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight by posting about the fantastic spicy chutney I made last week, using some amazingly tasty plums sourced from my friend’s garden (this should be on the blog before the weekend). I’m also planning to cook with some wonderful Scottish game over the weekend, and hopefully the results will good enough to warrant a write up here, too.

Scotland produces some brilliant food and drink. Our lamb and beef are world beating. We grow some incredible fruit and vegetables. Scottish produces superlative, award-winning cheeses. Our seas team with an abundance of wonderful seafood. And we are world renowned for our beer, whisky and gin, as well as some fine non-alcoholic beverages. With all this on offer, it’s only right to be celebrating Scotland’s bountiful larder.

Bite Magazine review: A delicious date with The Edinburgh Larder Bistro

Chocolate & lavender torte with coffee jelly.
Chocolate & lavender torte with coffee jelly.
My third review for Bite Magazine is now published on Bite's website and in the September print edition of the magazine.  This month, JML and I paid a second visit to The Edinburgh Larder Bistro, to find out if a recent refurbishment and appointment of a new head chef had made a difference to this classy Scottish eatery.  A taster of the article is printed below, and you can read the full version on Bite Magazine's website.

A delicious date with The Edinburgh Larder Bistro

Second dates can be intriguing; a chance to confirm or dispel first impressions. So a couple of months on from a great first visit to The Edinburgh Larder Bistro I was keen to dine there again, not least because it has recently had a refurbishment and change of head chef.

This West End basement restaurant now has a more “nouveau rustic” feel, combining white-washed walls with tastefully weathered furniture, and trendy wicker fittings. Seated in the airy conservatory space beyond the main dining area, we were, however, pleased to see that the menu remained packed with the seasonal, locally-sourced, sometimes foraged ingredients that are the bistro’s trademark.

JML chose to open with squid with black pudding, gooseberry syrup, pickled carrots and Arran leaves (£5.95) – a great combination of seafood and meaty flavours, well balanced by acid gooseberry and sour/sharp pickle. My rabbit loin, potato purée, barley, green leaf sauce and cider butter (£6.50) comprised two moist chunks of tasty meat atop an invitingly creamy base, surrounded by pools of tangy sauce and pearls of verdant pesto. Both starters were very well composed and beautifully presented, though somewhat tepid. The wine choice of a bottle of dry, grapefruity picpoul de pinet (£20) matched them well.

Read the full review at: http://bit.ly/17Wt5R3

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: The spice is right – Mother India’s Café

Mother India's Cafe montage.
Mother India's fare (courtesy of their website). 
I suppose I am what might be termed as a ‘honourary’ Scot. I’ve lived the majority of my life north of the border, and am hitched to a “Weegie”. My vocabulary is now littered with Scots phrases – an overcast morning isn’t “dull”, but rather “gey dreich”. Yet listen carefully and there is sometimes still a wee hint in my voice betraying that I originally hail from the UK’s Curry Capital. Not Glasgow (obviously), nor Bradford, Manchester or London’s Brick Lane. For by birth, I am a Brummie.

I adore Asian food, and I think my growing up in a city where a substantial proportion of the population can trace its heritage to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh has much to do with this. I went to school in a part of Birmingham that was blessed with a plethora of Asian-run shops and eateries. I still have vivid memories of walking past these, taking in the sights of the (then) weird, yet wonderful-looking, fruit and vegetables displayed outside grocers’ shops and the amazing smells of cooking spices as they emanated from restaurants.

Last weekend, with my parents visiting from Birmingham, I was keen to show them that great Indian cooking isn’t only the preserve of the city of my birth. And in Edinburgh there is no finer place to demonstrate this than Mother India’s Café. Located just off “The Bridges” on Infirmary Street (EH1 1LT) this has been an incredibly popular restaurant since its opening five years ago. Even at 6.30pm on a Friday the main dining area was packed, so we were shown to our table in the restaurant’s basement, which was thankfully was not dark and dingy as some subterranean eateries can be. No clichéd flock wallpaper or piped sitar music to be found here though, oh no - just modern, minimalist furniture complementing the white-washed walls, which are adorned with arty photos portraying life across the Indian sub-continent.

Equally refreshing is the restaurant’s menu. Mother India’s Café serves an Indian take on tapas – sometimes also referred to as tiffin. Their a la carte menu features a staggering 42 dishes, as well as daily specials and accompaniments such as various forms of bread and rice. Non-meat eaters are very well served, as nearly half the dishes available are either vegetarian or vegan. As recommended by the restaurant, we decided to order five or six dishes between us, accompanied by a couple of portions of naan bread and basmati rice. The very courteous waiting staff obviously know the menu inside out, as they were immediately able to suggest something suitable for my Mother, who doesn’t have a particular soft spot for dishes heavy on chilli.

Whilst our mains were being cooked, we were served the ubiquitous poppadums accompanied by some very tasty (and I suspect home-made) pickles and chutneys, variously washed down with warm, cinnamon-infused chai and cool Kingfisher larger. Our curry “tapas” duly arrived in short order, together with substantial naans and steaming fluffy rice. All dishes looked vibrant, being presented in their miniature balti dishes and casserole pots.

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Hanging out (and on) at The Espy

Espy-Windows
View from 'The Espy'
It is possible to have too much of a good thing, Edinburgh’s annual jamboree of festivals being a case in point. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the buzz of my home city in August. But after a month packed with music, comedy and drama (which also resulted in my being floored by a thespian-vectored germ, leading to the lack of recent updates on Scrumptious Scran) the time comes to give central Edinburgh a swerve and head for the coast. Accordingly, last Saturday lunchtime JML and I treated ourselves to a wee trip to Portobello.

In terms of Porty’s eateries, you really can’t get more “on the coast” than The Espy (its name being an abbreviation for “the esplanade”). Situated on the ground floor of a grand Victorian tenement located on the corner of Bath Street and the Promenade, it’s almost possible to order a pint at the horseshoe bar whilst dangling one’s feet in the waters of the Forth. During the summer months the pub has tables set up on the prom, yet as the day was bright but a little too breezy we decided to try and secure a space in the ample dining room, but still with great views to the beach.

Even though we were relatively late for lunch – arriving at 2pm – the pub was packed and we were only able to bag our spot on condition that we vacated within an hour and a half. JML and I were ravenous, so this would not a problem, well at least I thought not…

Dips-&-Bread-2
Dips and flatbread
Waiting for our beers to arrive, I reacquainted myself with The Espy’s interior. The place has that shabby chic vibe that now seems to be common to a number of Edinburgh’s more popular boozers, such as Boda and The Roseleaf, except that The Espy compliments this with surfing paraphernalia and Australian iconography. Altogether, the place has a welcoming, family-friendly feel.

Two chilled pints of San Miguel promptly arrived, together with a jug of iced water – a nice touch to get the latter both free and without request – and the waiter took our food order. Now we have dined at The Espy a few times before, and the place’s regular menu provides a very decent range of burgers and less standard pub-grub, such as plates of mezze to share. Yet on this occasion we both chose from the comprehensive menu of daily specials; JML combining a trio of Mediterranean dips and warm flatbread, together with another, intriguing, starter of pork and prawn cakes; and yours truly deciding upon the slow-roast pork loin, black pudding, apple and leek mash, with a cider gravy.

Our order duly dispatched to the kitchen, we quaffed our drinks, perused the papers, and waited for our food to appear. Then oddly, five minutes later, another member of waiting staff appeared to take our order, only to be informed this had already been done. Further sipping of drinks, reading of newspapers and waiting followed. Then even more waiting, until after some 30 minutes it became apparent that tables seated after ours were now being served their food. When I tried to attract someone’s attention to question this there was a mysterious dearth of front-of-house staff in our section of the dining area, resulting in my having to get up and accost the Maître d’ to find out if our order had indeed reached the kitchen.

Pork-&-Prawn-Cakes-2
Pork & prawn cakes
Thankfully, our grub landed on our table a few minutes later, accompanied by apologies for its tardiness. And as to the food itself, well this ranged from “very good” to “not bad”. JML’s pork and prawn cakes were delicious, with the meat and seafood flavours running in harmony with those of lemongrass, chili, coriander and a smidgeon of peanut. The salad that accompanied these Asian-inspired morsels was decently put together and well dressed. The Mediterranean dips were also very tasty, with a creamy harissa being a particular stand out, and the mountain of flatbread that came with these was warm, fresh and moist. My slow roast pork and black pudding was succulent and tasty, and was well balanced by the cider sauce and chunks of caramelised apple. The bed of mash on which this lay was a wee bit of a let-down, however, as it could have done with fewer lumps and a bit more butter through it.