Thursday, 25 February 2010

Flying the flag at breakfast

The issue of food miles is a sticky one – just as we’re all abandoning Kenyan green beans for British ones, some clever dick points out that the intensive farming behind British beans might actually mean they’re more carbon-heavy than the air freighted ones.

Of course, there's so much more to consider if you're trying to be an informed consumer - sustainability, local sourcing, carbon emissions and waste all come into play.

Thankfully, when it comes to breakfast, it's a bit less complicated - good job too given we've only just got ourselves out of bed. We all want to support British farming and breakfast ticks that box nicely.

Britain has a long history of dairy farming, as well as producing world-beating oats, wheat and barley, and of course, pork and eggs.

It’s comforting then to know, that putting together an all-British breakfast might not require a large cheque and a visit to a farmer’s market, fun though that is.

This all-British breakfast, pictured above, set my Saturday off to a cracking start. British organic chipolata pork sausages, seasoned just right, rich flavourful eggs, crusty white bread crisped up on the Aga toasting grill and meaty outdoor bred dry cure bacon, baked in the Aga ‘til it’s crispy with a dollop of Whole Earth Organic Tomato Ketchup (okay, so I strayed off the British path with this one, but it is a cracking ketchup).

The meats, bread and eggs were all from M&S, which has been making a lot of noise of late about its products – it claims to be the only high street retailer that can guarantee that all of its bacon, sausages and eggs are British.

That really is something to shout about - no doubt there are significant costs and complications in sourcing consistent products for such as large retailer from a number of British producers, but it is worth it. Brings a whole new meaning to your Saturday morning Full English... or perhaps that should be British.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Best granolas: Dorset Cereals chocolate granola

Not since I was in knee high to a grasshopper have I considered chocolate a normal breakfast. I grew up eating Coco Pops for breakfast, turning them into chewy crispy cakes for tea, and fighting over the only box of them in the Kelloggs Variety Pack.

Of course, holidays are an exception - pain au chocolat, hot chocolate and Nutella on French bread are de rigeur across the Channel, but back home you can’t go eating chocolate for breakfast every day, just like you can’t get your bed sheets changed or wear new socks every day – some things are just for special occasions (or once a week in the case of the sheets...).

As for how to have chocolate at breakfast, oh let me count the ways... there’s five of them here, from muffins, to chocolate gravy, in my favourite chocolate breakfast recipes post from last year last year.

And now, there’s another one. Those wonderful souls at Dorset Cereals have made a Coco Pops for grown ups, except this bowl of chocolately goodness (no respect to Coco and his pals at Kelloggs) actually tastes of proper chocolate.

Take a moment before diving the spoon into Dorset’s Chocolate Granola and Macadamia Nuts to smell it – 70% cocoa solids Fairtrade goodness. Oh, and the taste isn’t bad either. Clusters of crunchy oats, nuts, barley and seeds with just the right amount of sugar so the wholesomeness of the other ingredients still come through.

The sugar content surprised me. I compared it to Perfekt’s Naturally Gluten-Free Organic Granola, which is sweetened with agave nectar alone, and the Dorset has 22.5g of sugars per 100g of cereal versus 14g per 100g in the Perfekt (Shreddies, for example is 15.5g and Coco Pops is 35g).

Given the relative sweetness and indulgence of the Dorset Cereals granola, it’s not as sinful as one might expect.

There is another flavour - just Chocolate. It’s got the same nutty texture and rich chocolate, but has quite a strong hint of coconut (10%), which is bliss for the Bounty crowd but might not rub well if you’re a hater.

Personally, I prefer the chocolate and macadamia. I’ve sprinkling it on more virtuous mueslis and granolas to add a bit of sweetness. It was also lovely on top of steaming porridge before I hit the park on Saturday, and I even had it with warm milk on a particularly glacial February morning last week.

It doesn’t turn the milk chocolatey... so it might not pass the toddler breakfast test, but it does pass rule number 36 of Michael Pollan’s new Food Rules. He of Slow Food fame says that fun though slurping chocolate-coloured milk out of a bowl is, or perhaps it’s Muesli Lover who says that, one shouldn’t eat cereals that change the colour of the milk. It means higher processing, and a longer chain from field to spoon.

The fact that these particular oats have gone via the chocolate plantation on their way to the spoon might not appease Mr Pollan, but it’s indulged the Muesli Lover in some breakfast nostalgia and put chocolate back on the breakfast menu. And boy have we missed it.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

New-look Starbucks, same old coffee

Starbucks is testing a new look, opening cafes with an individual feel and less blatant branding.

It's the mega chain's fight back against the independents; the Lantana's, Flat White's and Wild and Wood's, in the case of London.

Tiny, cute, unique coffee shops are stealing discerning customers from the chains (albeit in a trickle rather than a tidal wave), but the big guys want to crush the competition before word gets out.

In London, it's started a few minutes from Oxford Circus tube.

The sign outside the new-look Starbucks on Conduit Street is brown and white and says "Starbucks Fresh Roasted Coffee" not just "Starbucks Coffee" like the old green and white signs.

But it's unmistakably Starbucks, that curious mermaid issuing her siren calls to the caffeine deficient.

Inside, the racing green palette has been stripped bare to give way to browns and creams with plenty of wood, faux distressed wood and leather, with vintage travel posters of the chain's many coffee sources - Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea among them.

There's also lashings of blatant messages about sustainability and general worthiness.

I'd hoped there might be something different on the menu - perhaps some locally-sourced bakery goods, but the barrister assured me it was the same menu, just better looking, with a playful toss of his hair.

This joshing continued with cheeky badinage between staff and customer - perhaps this is corporate policy - an effected "neighbourhood vibe". It seemed to be going down well - one customer hugged the barrister who found his hat, although the parents with the buggy who came in after me were less impressed due to an absence of high chairs.

One change I did like was the addition of an Italian-style espresso bar, which was duly being lent upon by a couple of suited chaps in a hurry.

Another addition to this, and other branches, is the flat white coffee (£2.25).

It's the antipodean coffee that has been gaining popularity in the afore-mentioned independents.

A creamier version of a cappuccino, it is rich coffee topped with a foamy milk that's smoother than a cappuccino, almost like the bubbles are finer, so it's a denser, rich foam, usually patterned with a New Zealand fern motif.

Beyond the creamy top of the Starbucks flat white and its sorry, misshapen fern, I found it was the same watery, bitter, burnt coffee underneath. I wanted a nutty, spiced rich coffee to contrast with the smooth creamy foam, but was disappointed.

Independents, you have nothing to fear. I won't be going back.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Organic Grasshopper Porridge taste test

A food writer friend gave me a pot of organic Grasshopper Porridge to try for the Muesli Lover blog. After turning up my nose at a product that charges £1.99 for something that costs a few pence to make at home, I was pleasantly surprised.

This is a breakfast pot for when you're on the run (or at least when there's a kettle handy and you're on the run...).

I tried the cinnamon and raisin organic instant porridge (it also comes in coconut and date and chocolate). The instructions advise you fill with boiling water, wait, then eat.

I filled the pot right up to the "runny" level on the "Thick-o-meter" (yes, it's all very Innocent cutesy packaging speak).

It was too runny - with a good half inch or so of liquid sitting on the top. The pot advises you wait five minutes, but I'd recommend 10 minutes - the porridge got better, and more creamy, as I ate it.

The taste was good - just the right amount of cinnamon and chunky oats. Sadly the raisins sunk to the bottom of my overly soggy porridge so the sweetness from them came only in the last two mouthfuls.

My verdict? Better than expected on the taste front - the cinnamon saved it from being bland and the serving size was perfect. I ate it mid-afternoon as a snack. At 208 calories a pot, it offers a good sustained energy boost with little fat. But I'm not sure I could bring myself to pay £1.99 a go.

You can buy it at Waitrose and among other shops.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A Lebanese breakfast in north London

Comptoir Libanais was one of my favourite London openings last year. The Lebanese restaurant, now a four-strong chain, offered Beirut cafe food in fresh, young surroundings.

Its sights are set on bringing Lebanese cuisine to a wider audience, offering a kind of Levantine Carluccios, with bright, clean colourful interiors and an enticing product range of fresh and store cupboard ingredients.

The vision came from Tony Kitous, who owns Pasha and Levant, more traditional Lebanese restaurants in London (read an interview and his biog from Caterer and Hotelkeeper last year).

The latest Comptoir opening is in the 02 centre on Finchley Road, a venue that owes most of its dining traffic to the cinema in the same building.

Judging by the number of diners at Nando's and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Comptoir has some work to do to persuade this audience to part with their familiar burger and chicken dishes, particularly at breakfast, when I visited.

I hope they do - because breakfast is wonderful. Dishes use the same gentle spices and perfumed flavours like rosewater and thyme, which feature in the meat and tagine dishes, but with one foot firmly in a French boulangerie.

The zaatar croissant (£1.50) was wonderfully flaky (pastries and breads are produced at Comptoir HQ then baked on site) and dusted inside and out with the zaatar herb mix of thyme, sesame and sumac (slightly sour, tangy spice made from crushed berries of the sumac bush). The herbs offered a fresh, taste bud tingly contrast to the buttery pastry.

An alternative is a halloumi croissant (£1.80), generously stuffed and moreish, or you can have the same squeaky cheese ladening a man'oucha (savoury flatbread) for £2.85.

If that's a little too indulgent, a low-fat and high protein alternative is the foul medamas (£3.30 for small; £5.50 for large). The crushed broad bean dip may not sound like an obvious breakfast choice, but it is delicious. Chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, delicate spices, fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil make for a delicately seasoned and wholesome tasting dish that you want to dive into the the accompanying pitta bread.

To drink, there's a juice/smoothie dilemma. The apple, cucumber and mint juice (£2.70) was fresh and had just the right mint kick, but the strawberry and rosewater smoothie (£2.95) was the winner. Wonderfully perfumed with delicate rosewater and made with frozen yoghurt for a cool, smooth texture.

A purist would opt for ayran (£2.25), a slightly salted drinking yoghurt that's drunk all over the Levantine and is surprisingly refreshing, but an acquired taste.

Finish with a coffee (sadly Lebanese coffee is yet to make it onto the menu, although at this time perhaps a cappuccino is better), or a peppermint tea made with fresh mint and rose-scented water, so you don't have to pile in the sugar to offset the bitterness of the mint.

The experience is only added to by the jangle of world music and the bright decor in shanty town shades - silver and red metal chairs sit on a patchwork of mismatched tiles, and cutlery stands up in oversized harissa tins.

The experience is fresh and uplifting, a cracking alternative if your usual breakfast treat is a muffin and latte at Starbucks.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Why I hate breakfast in bed

No doubt there will be hints dropped, hints taken, and hints ignored this weekend over breakfast in bed. The practice has become almost a byword for indulgence, yet for me that couldn't be further from the case.

OK, so it would raise a sweet smile, seeing a loved one, be it a partner or pyjama-clad child presenting you, bleary eyed and bed-headed with a tray bearing your favourite breakfast and a tulip drooping from a vase.

But then, the practical kicks in, and boring though that sounds, eating must be practical to be enjoyable, and ultimately, indulgent.

Firstly, I've got one word for you: crumbs (although to that I'd add: stains, smudges, spills...)

Starting Valentines with a croissant, coffee and a newspaper in bed may seem like bliss, but ending it lying in a pastry basket of assorted crumbs and stains is about as romantic as fleece pyjamas.

Then there's the issue of balancing the tray on an unlevel duvet - once it's stable, there's no moving a muscle.

Thirdly, there's a limit to what you can eat. The angle at which you're sat means cereal equals milk down your front, likewise with scrambled egg or any runny egg. Meanwhile, anything that requires a knife and fork is too awkward to eat off your own lap - it's just not luxurious.

Even drinking tea, coffee, or perhaps Buck's Fizz, is fraught with difficulty. Lean over to rest the receptacle on the side table and you'll return to a sloppy tray of goodies that tipped over when you did.

If you want to make a romantic gesture then firstly, why wait until the rest of the world's making corny gestures, and secondly, spice up breakfast. A heart-shaped cookie cutter will cut toast, shape a fried egg or leave icing sugar in a heart on top of pancakes.

A dollop of heart-shaped strawberry jam on porridge is sweet enough - it doesn't have to be expensive.

Now, by all means, I'm not suggesting that food and the bedroom is a no-no. Three words for you there: strawberries, melted chocolate...

But when it comes to breakfast, stick with a table and chair, it's an age-old set-up that does the job exceptionally well.

Photo credit: Tsand's 'Fun wit. bacon' Flickr stream

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Recipe: Jamie Oliver’s bircher muesli (or pukkolla)

The sight of bircher muesli on a hotel breakfast buffet table makes my heart skip, but I’ve never managed to recreate it successfully at home.

I think, in part, it might be because hotel bircher muesli has dollops of cream and/or sugar in it. Delicious, but too indulgent for every day.

Determined not to succumb to a calorific alternative, I’ve vowed to find a tasty alternative to hotel bircher muesli.

A number of blogs and forums rave about Jamie’s recipe from his The Return of the Naked Chef cookbook, so here goes:

Ingredients (makes around 4-7 portions)

8 large handfuls of organic rolled oats
2 large handfuls of ground bran
1 handful of chopped dried apricots
1 handful of chopped dried dates
1 handful of crumbled walnuts
1 handful of smashed or shopped almonds, hazelnuts or brazil nuts
milk (or soya/almond/oat milk) to cover
1/2 crunchy apple per portion, washed and unpeeled

Put oats and bran into a large Tupperware with apricots, dates and any other soft fruit (I added dried cranberries). Add the walnuts, almonds, any other nuts and seeds. This mixture will keep for up to two months in an airtight container.

The night before you want to eat your pukkolla, put two portions of the oat mixture into a bowl and cover with the milk, grate in half an apple per person and stir immediately to keep apple from discolouring. I’ve also read in forums about people adding nutmeg and cinnamon at this stage. Place in the fridge overnight.

When you’re ready to eat it, slice or mash half a banana per person, stir into the soggy oats and add honey to taste. Serve with a dollop of yogurt and some fresh mixed berries.
The result? Delicious - and worthy of a posh hotel breakfast buffet table. I used plenty of milk because I like it quite sloppy, and with just a teaspoon of honey added it was sweet enough.

The ground bran added some fineness to the texture and the nuts some crunch.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

A skier's breakfast

I don't need an excuse to have a big breakfast, but when I'm skiing, it's an excuse to have a really big breakfast.

This healthy looking bowl hides some serious energy-boosting bits beneath the fruit - nutty Lovedean granola and a steaming dollop of porridge beneath it.

If it's a really big ski day ahead, round off with a chunk of French stick bought at the boulangerie just moments before, spread with nut butter, thick set honey or jam. That's if a croissant or pain au chocolat hasn't taken your fancy.

Devour, stretch, click into bindings. Hit the slopes.