Grenada: Chocolate in the Caribbean

Grenada: Chocolate in the Caribbean

Originally published in CityAM on 3rd May 2016.

Sitting outside the front of the Spice Island Beach Resort I asked a young bellman where he would go to get the best food on the island of Grenada. He smiled, his eyes glazed over and he described how his mother makes the local porridge called tanya log. “She puts bay leaves and nutmeg into the porridge and stirs until the mixture thickens.”

He mimicked scooping it out of a bowl with his fingers. “Hmm, it is just simple food, you know, but it warms you.”

I had travelled to this island on the southern tip of the Grenadine Archipelago in search of an authentic taste of the Caribbean and I had found a man who might help me get the experience I was looking for.

Grenada is often referred to as the Island of Spice. Its main export crops have traditionally been nutmeg and mace. Historically Europeans believed that nutmeg had the power to ward off viruses like the common cold; they even thought that it could prevent the bubonic plague. As a result the spice has, at times, been worth more than its weight in gold.

More recently it is Grenada’s cocoa trees that have been sparkling. A boom in the trend for ‘bean to bar’ chocolate making has delivered entrepreneurs from the US and the UK to the Caribbean islands searching not for beaches and rum, but for world class cocoa, gilded by the chocolate tasters with awards and medals.

The craft chocolate industry is unlike other highly sought after delicacies. Imagine a world in which France made no wine, exporting all its grapes elsewhere to be bottled in huge steel vats. Imagine a wine producer marketing their product as ‘vine to bottle’, and that being unusual.

This is the reality for chocolate. Most cocoa growing countries don’t make any chocolate, and most chocolate you will buy in our shops will contain a mix of cocoa, bought for its low-price alone. The concept of terroir, so lauded amongst oenophiles, is lost in the mix.

Grenadian chocolate is different – The Grenada Chocolate Company, started by the late Mott Green in 1999, has been producing ‘tree to bar’ chocolate on the island since 1999 and has attracted significant acclaim. Remarkably, by keeping the processing and packaging of chocolate within Grenada, Green established the first and only chocolate-making company in a cocoa-producing country.

Working with small cocoa farmers and demanding that all his cocoa was certified organic, Green was able to control the quality of cocoa beans he bought, increase price paid to the farmer and crucially remove the best chocolate from the government supported cocoa cooperatives that still sell in bulk to the mass market chocolate producers. It was a simple idea that allowed the quality of Grenada’s cocoa to be recognised internationally.

The craft chocolate industry has taken note and among the cruise ship tourists visiting the factory’s outlet at the Belmont Estate are a steady stream of new wave ‘bean to bar’ chocolatiers, coming here as a sort of pilgrimage to the sustainable, ethical, quality driven operation that the Grenada Chocolate Company has come to represent.

I drove up to visit the factory from my base at the impeccable Spice Island Resort. The location ticks every magical desert island box; palm trees, white sand, clear blue seas – check. The hotel is both close to the airport and sits right on the quiet end of the spectacular Grand Anse beach.

The southern tip of the island is the ideal place to stay, and such short transfers to incredible beaches are increasingly rare. Any concern over an extra hour flight time from a stopover in St Lucia will evaporate when you realise you’ll be by the pool with cocktail in hand within half an hour of hitting the tarmac.

If the south is the place to relax, the north of the island, with its lush rainforests and rugged coastline is the place to explore.

I suggest heading up the winding roads above picturesque capital St George’s then heading east and inland to cut across the island. You’ll wind towards The Belmont Estate to see and buy that chocolate, and then carry on to the River Antoine Rum Distillery.

Here, the flavour takes a back seat because at 150 proof (75 per cent alcohol) the rum bottled at River Antoine is hard to enjoy. Like liquid bleach, lighter fluid and tear gas, it’s also illegal to carry on an aeroplane. The tour of the buildings (unchanged since 1785) is well worth doing even if the tasting session at the end is guaranteed to leave you speechless.

On another day I stuck to the coast road out of St George and passed colourful roadside rum shacks with knockout views (stop for a beer, a Ting, or a barbecued ear of corn at Charlie’s Bar) before coming into the seaside towns of Victoria and Gouyave.

If you’re on the island on the last Saturday of the month then Victoria hosts the Sunset City Food Festival. The food loving bellman at the Spice Island resort tells me is the best place to get the full flavour of the island. He insists you try the tanya log, fresh sour sop ice-cream and punches topped with grated nutmeg.

The Friday fish fry at Gouyave is also worth a visit. Starting around 6pm and ending late it’s slightly rougher around the edges than the more tourist focussed events of some of the bigger Caribbean islands but the locals will be there and the steel drums will be playing. Grenadians like their rum, so be prepared for a lively time and plenty of dancing. Have a good browse of the stands before diving in – don’t miss the jerked marlin, fry jacks, and of course some beers to wash it all down. (It’s probably worth hiring a driver for this one!)

If street food’s not your thing then most of the resorts and hotels on Grenada have more formal restaurants attached. The beach-side Oliver’s Restaurant at the Spice Island resort is widely touted as the pick of the bunch but the meals I ate there were slightly dumbed-down in a way that hotel food often is.

If you stick to island specialities – the headily spiced soft blood sausage with eggs at breakfast and homemade nutmeg ice cream in the heat of the afternoon stick in the memory – you should eat very well.

The restaurants and the roadside rum-shacks may not be attracting the accolades of the Michelin inspectors any time soon; but the chance to combine golden beaches, guaranteed sunshine and medal-winning chocolate makes Grenada well worth a culinary diversion.

KOJAWAN

KOJAWAN

Originally published in CityAM on 26th April 2016.

I have, over the years, learnt to read the restaurant warning signs. There is an inverse relationship between the height of a meal and its value. Has the restaurant got a view? Careful. Need to take a lift? Alarm bells. Cable car? ABORT, ABORT! Generally, hotels don’t fare much better, and art galleries are a certain dud.

Kojawan, a new venture by Bjorn Van Der (Greenhouse, La Noisette, Eastside Inn) and Omar Romero (Rhodes Twenty Four, Rosewood), is on the 23rd floor of the Hilton Metropole Hotel. It’s their version of an Izakaya. a Japanese gastro-pub in the West London sky. You get to the restaurant by wandering through the hotel lobby and taking a lift. They have art, specially made, on the walls.

Everything I had read about Kojawan confused me. The name itself – an awkward portmanteau of Korea, Japan and Taiwan – didn’t make much sense. Its location, on a roundabout at the end of the Edgware Road, didn’t make sense.

And the descriptions in the PR bumf: “A relaxed drinking and dining space-age art gallery with a zany futuristic vibe” that dishes up “imaginative Asian-fusion snacks and drinks served in a space-age hotel setting with panoramic views” were so nonsensical I wanted to go full Godzilla on London and all the ridiculous concept restaurants within it.

So, expecting something overpriced and underwhelming, I make sure we arrive early enough to see the sunset over London – at least there will be a view to enjoy. As the sun dips below the horizon, the sky fades from blue through pink, and the room seems to launch itself gently into the night. The atmosphere and the buzz of the city outside creeps in and I realise I’m enjoying myself.

Bar snacks include strips of Korean Fried Chicken served with ‘K-chup’ and a buttery hollandaise so thick I have to bypass my desire for a long life to finish it. Crispy sesame wafers come with a warm chilli pork dipping sauce that gently tickles the back of the throat.

Cocktails are carefully made and presented in a way that’s fun, without being gimmicky. We drink an Astro Pussy (a boozy rice milkshake) from a Maneki-Neko – a lucky, waving porcelain cat – and a Nikironi (a classy Japanese play on a negroni) cooled by an asteroid made of ice.

We move to the dining room for more of the same. From the raw bar the cobia blue sashimi served with wafer slices of breakfast radish and a citrus soy dressing is as bright and modern as the surroundings.

A generous pile of deeply charred octopus from the grill, smothered in smoky red pepper oil comes alive with a squeeze of lemon; its link to Asian-fusion is unclear, but the taste is irrefutable. Beef cheek with chilli, ginger and sesame, cooked long and slow, holds form just enough not to yield under the pressure from eager chopsticks. A plate of various styles of kimchi includes cabbage, pineapple and baby cucumber but will, I’m told, change with the seasons.

A fusion twist on spaghetti vongole sees fat udon noodles paired with clams, Parmesan and fish flakes that appear to dance under the hot pot lid. It’s delicious – as satisfying as any version of the Italian original.

We finish with PanTako – fluffy pancakes filled with white chocolate, berries and crispy coconut – which could be a meal on its own, but shared between two it rounds things off nicely. Our waiter’s invitation to get stuck in with our hands is fitting – this is a pudding to pick up and chomp.

There are a few dud moments. A stone bass poke feels clumsy, with too much rice, and falls flat against the brightness of everything else, and curling a frozen lime topping onto the only beer you serve seems a strange way to run a pub, Izakaya in-the sky or otherwise.

Service is excellent. Everyone seems genuinely happy to be involved, which they’ll claim, I think, is down to an end-to-end commitment to sustainability. If I remember rightly, the staff have been grown offshore in organic farms then shipped over on ice from Peru, the fish on the raw bar are paid a living wage, and there is, consequently, no service charge expected (unless you want to slap down some cash, in which case they’ll take it).

Kojawan is a confusing sky-high retro-futuristic art-gallery in a hotel with a view – but it’s fun and it’s fairly priced and that’s good for London. For the first time in my restaurant-going memory, I took the lift down and left on a high.

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe, SE1

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe, SE1

Originally published in CityAM on 17 November 2015

The times they are a changin’ down on Bermondsey Street. One of the finest Italian kitchens in London and a long-time standard bearer of transpontine dining, is set to close before Christmas. Rising rent prices have reportedly forced the closure. The arrival of Fulham Shore-owned Franco Manca further points to an area of London commanding increasingly high rents.

This has led to an inevitable land-grab. The latest reclaimed space to open its doors is The Bermondsey Yard Cafe. Occupying a former car park at the very north end of the street, the entrance is tucked round the back of a building and is, when I first tried to visit, not particularly welcoming.

I swung open the heavy iron gate and found the door. Behind it was someone looking at a laptop. I asked if I could eat.

“No, we’re closed,” she said.

“It’s just that your Facebook page, your sign outside and your website say you’re open.”

“Ah. Yeah, sorry, we’re closed.”

It’s a rough start, for sure, but everyone deserves a second chance. So I went back for lunch a week later and this time they were miraculously open. The menu is slightly different from what I expected – things arranged on toast, things arranged on boards – there’s little to order that requires more than a quick squizz under a salamander. It’s very much a cafe, rather than a dining, concept. There is no sign of the splashes of colour or the cosy booths described online. It’s a stark, cold, industrial space, all bare brick, painted concrete floor and a sweeping wooden bar.

The charcuterie board I ended up with beheld beautifully arranged meats served with lightly-grilled artichoke hearts and sharp, caper berries. A pistachio cookie, pomegranate and chopped date trifle sounds good, but failed to meet expectations. A biscuit topped with cream does not a trifle make.

But there remained enough hope for me to try again in the evening. The menu, now slightly closer to that advertised on the web and outside, is still a little disjointed and we find it difficult to put together a coherent meal. Apart from a soup of the day (red lentil, not ordered) little fits the bill as a starter.

We shared some padron peppers and an assembly of butternut squash, ricotta and hazelnuts. The peppers lack the blistered blackness that makes them sing, the three thick wedges of squash are blackened on the outside and raw within. The cooking of a pumpkin softens the flesh, caramelises the sugars and allows Americans to push it into a pie for pudding but we needed a knife to carve into it.

A minute steak was topped with a whole roasted shallot and lay over two Stilton croquettes; three good things that would have been more impressive had they not been clumsily piled on top of each other.

We also try a venison tagliata, perfectly-cooked and sliced thin, that is fanned across a king-size bed of red mustard frills and blanketed with Parmesan. It’s nice, in parts, but it doesn’t work as a main course.

A flourless chocolate rosewater cake with milk ice cream and blackberries starts to lift the spirits and a plate of cheeses from Neal’s Yard is generous, served French-style, with decent bread from Flour Station.

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe is an interesting space, with its outside space and DJ booth, has potential to be a great venue, especially when it simply assembles great local ingredients.

But it fails to shine next to other great Bermondsey restaurants like José, Village East, and Casse-Croûte, who continue to thrive, serving authentically dazzling food at reasonable prices.

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe is a curious, spacious, diversion from a host of more brilliant, intimate restaurants down the road, meaning it’s a sign of the times rather than the start of a trend.

Hoppers, W1

Hoppers, W1

Originally published in CityAM on 4 November 2015

Sometimes I want to sit down in a restaurant, eat and be gone. Sometimes I want to move in, stay for a while, invite friends, meet the restaurant’s parents, marry the place and have a baby.

If I were to marry a restaurant, though, a more sensible betrothal would be to one of Hoppers’ siblings Trishna or Gymkhana – also owned by real-life siblings Karam, Jyotin and Sunaina Sethi – which are both mature, classy establishments with Michelin stars.

Hoppers is young and a little more casual. Focusing on Sri Lankan and South Indian cooking, it sits back on Frith Street in the building formerly occupied by Koya. Staff wear maroon polo shirts, the sound system plays indian electro-pop, and cane backed office chairs complete the chuck-me-a-tinny clubhouse vibe that’s so different from Trishna you have to question its lineage.

The waiter introduced me to the menu, and a furtive glance at the soft drinks list had me come over all light headed. A black pepper cream soda was crisp and refreshing, delicately balanced with spice and vanilla. They zhuzh it up in a soda stream out back. The sweetness is dialled right down: it is grown up but nostalgic. The curry leaf buttermilk is just as good. At this point – just seven minutes in – my pulse was already raised and my pupils dilated. I turned over the menu to look at the food.

“Give me everything. All of it at once.” I gasped breathlessly at the waiter. I checked myself and took a moment. Jumping out at me from amongst the mutton rolls and duck roti was chicken heart chukka, a fragrant dry-fry of tender meat, onions and sweet cherry tomatoes. Perfect poppers to compliment those drinks.

For a long time the finest dish containing bone marrow was to be found at St John. A slice of its toasted sourdough, spread with blobs of marrow – such rich reward for all that digging – topped with parsley and shallots, and sprinkled with salt was the thing of legend. Much imitated, never bettered. Until now.

Bonemarrow varuval roti. Roll it around your mouth; just saying it prepares you for the fun to come. Three half bones, stacked, and smothered in a masala sauce. Unless you are with unusually polite company I recommend ditching the marrow spoon and diving in face first. Scoop up what you can from the hollow with your tongue and nibble any remaining meat from the ends. Dip your flakey, buttery dosa deep into the sauce, shut your eyes, lick your fingers, sigh. It is glorious, messy work. There’s a wet wipe for after.

If you don’t want to peak too early, order this dish at the end, and that’s not to belittle the rest of the menu.

The eponymous hoppers are the main event. Similar to the more common dosa (also served here), hoppers are a fermented rice and coconut pancake, shaped like a deep sided bowl. At the bottom of my egg hopper sits a fried egg, its yolk a deep, oozy orange. The accompanying sambals – coconutty fish, coriander and caramelised onion – are best scooped up with the bowl’s crispy edges.

You can spoon your curry in at the end, or just eat it the same way, picking it up with the hopper dough. Either way it’s delicious. The dark, caramelised meat of the black pork kari is rich and sweet and fiery.

The dessert menu is just as alluring. I had to avoid the love cake for fear of a broken heart and instead cooled down with roasted rice kulfi. Served in a sundae bowl with green pandan jelly, the juicy flesh of rambutan fruit and slippery balls of pink tapioca might not be everyone’s cup of chai.

Please, come here with friends. Try everything. You might not meet a restaurant this good again. For the record, I kept the menu. I’m going to take it home, hang it beside my bed and kiss it before I go to sleep at night.

I am struggling for negatives, can you tell? You can’t book. Does that matter? There are likely to be queues. Long ones. The length of a test match, not a one-day game. But with flavours as sublime as a Sangakkara cover drive, I can guarantee the food-baby you’ll have together will be worth waiting in line for.

Lobos Tapas, SE1

Lobos Tapas, SE1

Originally published in CityAM on 15 September 2015

Somewhere under London Bridge station, tucked beneath the tracks, is a winding tunnel of a tapas bar. It is the kind of space that further down the line in Bermondsey or Peckham would be full of car parts, or craft beer, or both. Here it houses Lobos – a restaurant from four Brindisa alumni that focuses on the acorn-snaffling iberico pig.

The pedigree is good, and the location, so close to Borough Market, means that ingredients can be sourced from the best suppliers. With their alma mater just around the corner and the esteemed Pizzaro, Jose and Bar Tozino all within hunting distance, this isn’t an area with a shortage of places to get a Spanish fix.

On Friday night Lobos hums with chatter and the upstairs restaurant is packed to its corrugated iron rafters. It’s grungy and cool enough to distance itself from the increasingly sanitised tourist trappings of Borough Market. Surprisingly, it retains its charm when I return for a lunchtime visit. The warm glow of the filament light bulbs (compulsory in any new restaurant) and the gentle rolling of trains overhead maintain an impressively buzzy atmosphere for a close-to-empty restaurant.

Lobos translates as ‘wolves’ in Spanish, and the lupine theme is taken a little too seriously. A wolf’s head hangs over the door, an electric sign reads “Devouring Meat”, a chalkboard is adorned with a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s The Law for The Wolves, and the team (without a hint of irony) call themselves The Pack. I half expect to see Michael J Fox behind the bar opening beers with his teeth.

Working down the menu from top to bottom, we stop briefly at the appetizers to share a solid example of pan con tomate before attacking the tapas and the meat sections. There’s not a lot that’s new on the tapas list, but it comes as expected: direct and, crucially, correct. The tortilla, served in its own small pan, doesn’t quite wobble on arrival but a fork inserted through the centre reveals a sticky tangle of onions in egg. The accompanying aioli has a nose-banging punch of garlic that mellows as the grassiness of a very good olive oil takes over.

The crispy coatings of dinky croquetas hide an intense béchamel flecked with ham, chorizo and smoked bacon. They carry that deep musty flavour that can only come from curing, ageing or offal. Bite the top off one and tease out the inside; it’s the porcine equivalent of sucking out the head of a prawn.

And to the meat: with six different options of pig available it would be churlish not to take the iberico pork selection. Fillet, secreto and presa are served with trintxat potatoes, mojo chips and roasted peppers respectively.

The fillet and presa are served daringly, brilliantly rare. Everything is sprinkled liberally with salt. The mojo sauce served with the secreto – a tender strip of meat from between the shoulder and the loin – is so mean, green and howling with garlic that I feel a little cheated to have only crisps (they’re definitely not chips) to enjoy it with. Mojo like this deserves to be held up against something more robust – a few Canarian potatoes, in the traditional style, maybe. I try a herb crusted lamb rack at lunch, but the soft, nutty presa plays too strongly in the memory and the lamb doesn’t come close.

As you may have realised, this is not food for the faint hearted, and indeed you’d do well to find anything on the menu for a vegetarian. It’s not priced gently either. Ploughing through tapas this tasty comes at a premium – get carried away and the bill could bite you. At Jose you can get away with dropping in for a nibble and a glass of fino; it’s that kind of place. But here the atmosphere and the service (attentive and full of Hispanic charm) encourages you to settle in for the long haul, order another round of cocktails and, perhaps, regret it in the morning.

The team at Lobos serve food that is powerful, assertive and has real clarity. It doesn’t need to be improved with the needless garnishes of wolfy-buzz-words that litter the walls and the menu. This pack should stick together and let the food speak for itself. The wolves that are boldest and bravest should be judged by their tapas alone.

April in Corfu

April in Corfu

April in Corfu

It is Easter time in Corfu and ‘the season’ is months away. The resorts are closed and beach-bars abandoned, rusting umbrella stands line up along the shore. There are no reps and no happy hours, no teenage party goers looking for a good time.

Shuttered shops are battered by a sandy wind that rips the gloss from cars, signs and all-inclusive dreams. The beach resorts are the battle scarred front-line of an island that is exposed to nature during the winter, and Europe’s low budget hedonists in the Summer.

As a front-line of defence these part-time towns do a remarkable job. For beyond the run-down strips, southern Corfu offers an incredible bounty of culture, nature and charm that will warm the souls of anyone in a pair of walking boots.

In April the island comes alive with sounds, sights and smells that stir the birds and encourage the flowers into bloom. During Easter week stay in the small fishing village of Boukari and make a trip south on foot to the working fishing port of Petriti where boats come come in daily. Overlooking the harbour is the old village of Korakades, now mostly ruins, but worth exploring for its tumbledown houses overrun with wisteria.

Those who hike north along the coast and climb the hill to Chlomos will be rewarded with breathtaking views and traditional houses nestled on steep mountain lanes. It is in the hilltop villages that the Corfiot warmth is most keenly felt – everyone will wish you good morning and many will want to chat more.

Easter weekend in Corfu begins on Good Friday as whole villages gather to process through the streets, chanting and carrying candles to mourn the death of Jesus on the cross. On Saturday at 11am clay pots are thrown from the windows of houses on every street and the roads explode with fragments of clay. At midnight, as Easter Sunday is welcomed, fireworks are let off across the island.

In the morning the intoxicating smell of lamb roasting on the spit lures families home to their villages to celebrate in a day of feasting and tradition. Head to the nearest town and buy a portion from one of the local sellers with their trucks laden with the crisp meat, but be quick, like the bloom of the flowers in the fields, it won’t last long.

Entry into National Geographic Traveller Travel Writing contest, April 2015

Holiday in Arrieta – Reviewed

Holiday in Arrieta – Reviewed

THE GOOD

El Amanacer

We ate at El Amanecer twice in our week in Arrieta and it is easy to see why this simple restaurant is wildly popular. The service is friendly, the food is hearty, prices are modest, and atmosphere is convivial.

Service is efficient, to the point of intimidating, which is understandable when the staff need to turn tables in the busy summer months. On a quiet Sunday in December the efficiency was a little over the top. That said, my OTT ordering was quickly put in check by the waiter who rightly insisted we downsize and order less than half of what I asked for. The kind of service that instantly warms me to a restaurant.

Bread, mojos, gambas al ajillo, gambas a la plancha were all excellent. A fish of the day, presented whole and grilled, was cooked accurately but severely let down by an abundance of scales.

Scales are good in a music lesson, as Left back for Liverpool in the 90s, but never in a fish dish.

The jug of house wine at 7 Euro a litre was cold and sinkable in the way that wine on holiday always is. The coffee was strong and cheap.

Scaling aside El Amanacer is a great experience, and well worth a visit if you are in the area, or happen to be stuck in one of the dreary Lanzarote resorts and want some kind of “authentic” escape.

THE BAD

Los Pescaditos

We visited Los Pescaditos on a whim after a few beers that had built up a resistance to cooking that centred on the dread of washing up.

I left Los Pescaditos with a bad taste in my mouth, somewhere between mud and regret, that would return on me periodically throughout the holiday.

I should have trusted my instincts when, asking for a table on the terrace, we were refused as it was too busy. Despite their being plenty of tables laying empty. We ordered prawns and sardines and were eventually thankful that they arrived with some potatoes – edible at least.

Grilled sardines aren’t hard to execute, but it does require the presence sardines that were caught this century. I’m not sure where Los Pescaditos gets its fish, but i’d be surprised if it was the sea. I doubt the mouse Jerry would have had the malice to impart these sad fishies on the bad cat Tom.

To describe the prawns as wooly would be an insult to a sheep who is, at the end of the day, just trying to stay warm. Wrapping a few cotton buds in duct tape would have produced a meal of superior taste that would have been just as easy to peel.

A salad garnish was, at best, innovative, I doubt the thick cut raw onion salad will catch on in London any time soon.

Don’t go there. Do the washing up instead. Even if you don’t have a sink, or a water supply, or a cloth and the food is stuck to everything in the most horrendous way. Just do the washing up instead.