Wine cathedrals and wondrous wheeled adventures

Up in the Terra Alta in Northern Spain, they have an almost religious reverence for white Grenache and a building to prove it. I cycle the Greenway to discover more

Sunset over the mountains

‘I’m not much of a cyclist,’ I tell the man fitting me out with my bike and helmet. To be honest, and I keep this to myself, the last time I rode a bike it had gears labelled Sturmey Archer and my short trousers had name labels.

‘That’s okay,’ he replies, ‘it’s all downhill from here.’ ‘Story of my life’, I think, as I try to get onto the saddle in a dignified manner. I fail and the bike shoots backwards and I make contact with the crossbar in a painful way.

The old railway station

We’re at the Horta de Sant Joan train station in the Terra Alta Tarragona province  in Catalonia, or Catalunya if you wish to be politically more (or less) correct.

It’s a small and very pretty town on a hill, inhabited for many, many centuries, and also a place where Picasso used to hang out.

There was once a single-track railway line that ran up to here created by republican prisoners of the war in 1942. Continue reading

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A Magical Marzipan Xmas In Lubeck

If you’re looking for a fabulous Xmas market, they don’t get much better than Lübeck in Germany. And what’s more, you get to eat the best marzipan in the world.

Serious Cake Action

‘Does it get busy in here at Christmas?” I ask indistinctly between mouthfuls of cake. My neighbour pauses in the task of putting away his own massive Torte Niederegger to reply, ‘well, put it this way, last year I came here to meet a client and it literally took me over half an hour to get through the crowds and get upstairs!’

We’re talking, and eating, in the J.G.Niederegger shop and cafe in the medieval Hanseatic port of Lübeck, often called the ‘“Venice of the Baltic”

Forget the diet

All around us locals and tourists alike are gleefully shovelling down some of the most impressive cakes I’ve ever seen, each one it seems heavily laden with fruits and creams, and nearly all featuring plenty of marzipan. And there’s a good reason for that. Continue reading

Delta Force

The eco-conscious Ebre Delta in Tarragona is unlike any other part of Spain. I took a few days to explore the rice, the food, the wine and even the sake.

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Paella is taken very seriously in the paddy fields

‘In a few square kilometres, I can find everything I need to eat,’ says local legend Senor Polet, as his friend stirs an enormous paella in the kitchen.

Outside the ancient house, a barraca style that’s typical of the area, the paddyfields of the Ebre Delta stretch away, stopping only at the base of the distant mountains in one direction and the nearby Mediterranean sea in the other. Continue reading

Tack For The Memory. Sweden On A Plate

Forget fika, there’s more to Swedish gastronomy than coffee and buns. Nick takes the plane north to dig down into the food-rich region of Jämtland Härjedalen

Frozen lake near Östersund Sweden

The Sound Of Silence

It takes two airplanes to get to Östersund, the capital and only city in Jämtland Härjedalen. The final descent out of a clear blue sky reveals a countryside that seems more lakes than land, with the lakes still frozen in April and blanketed in thick snow.

The melt is beginning though and soon the locals will put away their skis, the area is famous for its skiing, and begin to cycle and hike through their forests and fields. The Swedish here love to be outdoors whatever the weather.

And they love to eat well, the region is dotted with over 200 artisan food and drink producers, as well as restaurants and chefs that take inspiration and ingredients from the land and water around them.  Self-sufficiency is real here, not a fashion.

Frozen lake near Östersund Sweden

The Frozen North

Östersund on the edge of Lake Storsjön is a lively, friendly place and geographically it’s celebrated as the very centre of Sweden. The bars and restaurants don’t compete for business, they share it and as I move around the town I find the same faces –  bartenders, chefs, shop owners and local food entrepreneurs lall waving cheerfully as they slip and slide on the snow.

All that Jazz

A cocktail in Jazzkoket in Östersund Sweden

Drink it or wear it?

In the centre of this centre of Sweden is Jazzköket, which means ‘Jazz Cuisine’ in English. Tucked away in a hidden courtyard, its open kitchen radiates heat and bonhomie and, typically for Sweden, there are all ages enjoying its eclectic interior design and delicious food.

From the bakery in the cellar comes out superb sourdough and chefs cook with beef from mountain cows, as well as ‘Fangsten’, which means whatever seafood has been caught and brought to them that day.

A bartender making a cocktail in Jazzkoket in Östersund Sweden

A Swedish Hipster?

Across the courtyard is a cellar bar, where the team create esoteric cocktails based on local ingredients and invite guests to choose their own music from a stash of vinyl in the corner.

Having a browse, I find the oeuvre of Saxon features strongly, Swedish men may all look like Hoxton hipsters but they do like ‘the metal’ all the same.

The hip bartender makes up a selection of cocktails for me to try, including a marvellous one made with moss and a food dish whose name is tongue twister, but with its salty fish roe totally blows me away with its depths of flavours and sheer Swedishness.

a dish of salmon, potato, carrot and dill at Lilla Saluhallen

It doesn’t get much more Swedish

Although for a classic Swedish lunch you’d be hard pressed to find better than the salmon, potato, carrot and dill I happily eat at Lilla Saluhallen later, a delicatessen and casual restaurant combined and run by the partner of the man who runs the Jazzkoket bar.

The menu board at Lilla Saluhallen in Sweden

It was all Greek to me

In her well-stocked shop of local produce, I taste some superb cheeses that came from Oviken Ost,a nearby dairy that makes its artisan cheeses from cows and sheep with the milk either from their own herd or sourced locally.

So, good was the cheese that I have to meet the makers, so I drive up to the dairy in blazing sunshine and blue skies that belie the 5C temperature outside.

A cheesemaker in the dairy at Oviken Ost Sweden

Say Cheese

‘We couldn’t get the sheep’s milk we wanted at first,’ I’m told as I am shown around, ‘so we began crossing Nordic ewes with purebred East Friesian dairy rams’. They have over 90 acres and 200 hectares of managed forest around them and the whole dairy here is eco-friendly with heat coming from a wood chip boiler that uses wood from their forest. The cheese they make is so good it’s served at Magnus Faviken’s restaurant not far away, as well as at Noma.

Cheese platter in Sweden

Delicious on crispbread

The milk is left unpasteurised to get every bit of the flavour out and the cheeses, which range from hard to soft, are a real treat. This is how cheese ought to taste all the time.

Pork matters

‘They look like Rastafarian pigs,’ laughs the chef at Slaktarn i Östersund AB, ‘they have long furry coats’.  I’m looking down at perhaps the finest pork chop I have ever seen on a plate.

As thick as an old phone book, it’s perfectly cooked and simply served with crisp apple shards and local artisan beers Jämtlands Steamer and Jämtlands India Pale Ale. Here with the latter they know better than to overhop and create refreshing brews that are balanced and very drinkable.

A pork chop in Sweden

Chop chop

The guys at Slaktarn i Östersund AB are young men driven by a desire for proper meat.  The animals come from local farmers who all focus on providing natural lives for their animals, all grown to proper maturity and fed naturally from what the animals themselves choose to eat as they wander about freely.

The soil is monitored for organic quality and slaughter is carried out to the most humane methods, with the meat then aged slowly and carefully. The result is meat selected by all the best shops and restaurants in the area. And yes, that includes that place Faviken again.

Ice age

Nick Harman fishing on a frozen lake in Sweden

The smallest fishing rod ever

Of course, if you really want to get fresh food, you need to catch it yourself. Which is why the next day I find myself lying face down in the snow peering into a metre-deep hole we’ve just drilled through the lake ice.

Ice drilling in Sweden

Just a few more feet to go

A thirty minutes ride as passenger, and for a glorious fifteen minutes as a driver, on a powerful snowmobile with local hotel owner and mountain rescue expert Richard, has brought me out to the middle of a giant lake where the guides brew our coffee on fires made from scavenged wood and proffer slices of cured reindeer to keep us fed until the fish bite.

Nick Harman fishing on a frozen lake in Sweden

Not dead, just fishing

The rod is tiny, I look like a garden gnome. I can see the fish when I peer down, but they don’t want to be caught. We pack up and motor to a restaurant a few kilometres away deep in the Sami, the indigenous peoples, land.

The restaurant Hävvi in Glen is part of the Tossåsens Sami village in the Oviken mountains 50 km from Östersund and chef Elaine is married into a Sami family. The Sami people have lived from, and with, nature since time began and sustainability is their natural way of life.

A large bearskin pinned to the ceiling suggests that their attitude to nature is also pragmatic.

We eat Sami appetisers, a platter of smoked and cured reindeer components – heart, tongue, liver, that sort of thing – and then smoked mountain char, sea buckthorn, fried angelica, mayonnaise with apple vinegar, roasted bone marrow, fried fish skin and cloudberries, a plate redolent of this part of Sweden.

Chef Elaine at Hävvi in Glen Sweden

Plating up the Elk’s nose

Then it’s tempered suovas with slow baked swede, spring vegetables, blueberries and creamed black chanterelle mushrooms and crispy elknose. Suovas is dry-salted meat smoked by the Sami over an open fire.

Crispy elknose is like pork scratchings, but a great deal tastier and we end with a palate cleansing sorbet made from cloudberries and sea buckthorn. It’s a meal that anywhere else would be served surrounded by pomposity, pretentiousness and with chef posing at the pass. Here Elaine just cooks the food she likes to eat, and it is excellent.

Drinking songs

Bottles of snaps at the Buustamon hotel Sweden

Snaps

The sound of singing is loud in the basement of the Buustamon hotel and we’ve only had a few drinks. Helan Går, roughly Chug It Down, is one song being belted out and I wish I could join in.

Snapsvisor (drinking songs) are popular with all ages and classes in Sweden and where better to get the tonsils twitching then in a distillery?

The exterior of of the Buustamon hotel Sweden

Where the Spirits live

Snaps is a shot of aquavit, an ingrained part of Swedish culture and in this charming hotel and farm, halfway up Areskutan and accessible only by a bumpy but fun ride in a snowcat, they make their own –  all the way from the mash to the bottle labels. Beautiful freshwater, lingonberries, elderflower and all kinds of local herbs and spices are used between spring and autumn, any other time the water is frozen solid, to make their range of snaps – Arevodka, Buustasup, and Hojt.

Cured meat platter on a lake in Sweden

Snow snacks

It took them a long time to get the distilling permit under Sweden’s somewhat draconian alcohol laws, and rather bizarrely you still can’t actually buy a bottle at the hotel. No matter, I wobble up the stairs to the restaurant to a superb dinner of local produce in the wood heavy dining room.

Jämtland Härjedalen has certainly left me singing inside my head, with its wonderful people, food, drink and of course fabulous scenery. This amazing region is a place I could very happily call home and I can’t wait to come back again.

Chef in Sweden

The foraging chef

Big takt (thanks) to:

The Jämtland Härjedalen Tourist Board

Visit Sweden

www.Jht.se

www.Adventuresweden.com

Buustamon Hotel

Copperhill Mountain Lodge

www.are.se

Wikners i Persåsen Hotel

The Unbeatable Barley of Holkham

Barley is indispensable to brewing and for the best brews only the best barley will do. Nick visits the Earl of Leicester’s Holkham Estate to see how they grow the finest barley for the varied beers of Marston’s Brewery.

Holkham Hall

Holkham Hall. Palladian Perfection

‘We listen out for geese at night, you wake up sweating’. Holkham Farm Manager James Beamish is telling me in his wonderful Norfolk accent how natural predators such as geese can undo months of work. The flying pests can eat a lot of barley and in a very short time.

It’s a natural hazard they have to deal with at Holkham, the massive estate of the Earl of Leicester made up of 10,000 hectares of farmed land of which 1000 acres are are give over to game, pasture and conservation.

Rotating, not standing still

At Holkham they use the crop rotation system created back in the late 18th Century by the Earl’s ancestor Coke of Norfolk, which is basically swapping crop after crop through the year to make best use of the land and naturally increase productivity.

Barley grains

Barely a tiny percent of all the Barley

Back then it was four crops, now it’s six including potatoes, sugar beet and of course barley. Coke’s name by the way is pronounced Cook, ‘so it is!’ says James, who ends most of his statements with this rather charming second-affirmative, presumably a local dialect.

Holkham Farm Manager James Beamish

Holkham Farm Manager James Beamish, so it is

Crop rotation, when done properly alongside other organic techniques, reduces the need for artificial fertiliser and pesticides. It feeds the soil and puts it in balance so as to cut disease, build nutrients, and grow yields all in a natural un-forced manner.

As we drink warming mugs of home-made ‘Horlicks’ (made from farm barley) Director of Farming Poul Hoveson explains that when he first arrived on the estate the roads and lanes were swimming in the run off of artificially-applied nitrates, while the soil itself looked barren and sad. Not anymore. Careful, sensitive stewardship of the land has made it very productive and one of their special crops is the Flagon variety of barley.

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Bringing in the barley

Field to Fork

You never tyre of a good pun

It’s special because here in Norfolk, where frosts are virtually unheard of, they can grow this winter barley ensuring supply to their biggest customer Marston’s Brewery who have been at the brewing game since 1834 and work closely with the barley growers. Malt which comes from barley is indispensable to brewing, the barley is dampened until it begins to produce tiny sprouts then gently kilned for an alluring ‘Horlicks-like flavou.

The sugars of the barley feed the yeast that creates the alcohol in the beer, as well as delivering the flavours. It’s a massive operation with the barley stored in huge hangars after harvest. The unwanted parts of the plant are fed into two giant anaerobic digesters, ‘basically enormous cows’ stomachs,’ says Paul, that convert it all into methane gas which is sold to the national grid. All very green.

The estate he’s in

Estate Sign

Green Is Good

Management of the estate in an ecologically sound way is important to the 4th Earl who pops up, rather like Ralph from the Fast Show, in videos playing in the fascinating Farm to Fork exhibition at his ancestral home Holkham Hall, a beautiful mansion at Wells Next The Sea.

Much of the land on the estate is set aside for wild growth to encourage birds, insects and small creatures who all help defend against pests. Larger animals such as cows are chosen by breed to graze on suitable land for their needs and the sheep are also the ‘Golden Hoof’ of ancient times; their movement, and their bowel movements, all helping to naturally till the earth and fertilise it. And when the mechanical plough is needed, it digs very shallowly to preserve the soil structure.

Shooting off to lunch

It’s all rather fascinating but what about some beer? We head off to an old shooting lodge called The Temple in the Holkham woods near to the Hall to have a spot of lunch and some liquid refreshment as Marston’s brewer Callum Turner has turned up with a lot of samples.

Pigeon Pie

Pie eyed, not legless

Two small batch beers from the Marston’s DE14 nano brew kit are served up with Chef Michael Chamberlain from The Victoria Inn’s venison sausage and pigeon pie in front of a toasty-warm wood burner.  Freekeh and pomegranate molasses beer is an interesting one, freekeh being an ancient form of grain picked while still green. The molasses adds a sweetness that works with the game meat.

Molasses Beer

Not your everyday beer

Similarly effective is a second beer made from smoked wheat and honey, which tastes rather like mead. Neither perhaps will ever get to mass-market, but are examples of Marston’s constant desire to experiment and innovate in order to excite the nation’s beer enthusiasts.

Sand and sea

We decamp to beautiful Holkham Beach, where Gwyneth Paltrow once ambled in the film Shakespeare In Love and where locals hint that you can occasionally see Her Other Majesty, Elizabeth II, walking the dogs. It’s stunning and kept that way by the Holkham Estate’s careful management so that it’s a paradise for dog walkers, birds and for bird watchers or twitchers as they’re known.

Holkham Beach

Wide skied and not legless

I’m a bit twitchy myself, thirsting for some more Marston’s, so we crack some bottles of Marston’s EPA (English Pale Ale) a light, citrusy, beer that’s very refreshing, although perhaps not best drunk in the freezing dusk wind that’s now storming inland. We head back to the nearby Victoria Inn for some cold beer in a warm bar with a beer-matched dinner to follow.

Marstons EPA

Naturally Chilled

The Victoria Inn sits just at the gates of Holkham Nature Reserve and the beach, a perfect place to stay any time of year. Inside it’s all roaring fires and classic country hotel charm largely unchanged in feel since it was built in 1837. The window in my room looked like it was still the Victorian original.

In the kitchen Chef Michael uses fish and shellfish from the north Norfolk coast, beef from Holkham farms, lamb and pork from farm tenants, wild game from the family shoot, and today venison from the estate’s herd of Fallow Deer.

We start with a pike terrine with fennel, warm potato salad with winter barley-malt bread and chef’s Honey beer bread, all with that other Norfolk famous product, mustard.

 

Pike Terrine

Don’t tell ’em Pike!

I’ve always found pike to be a terribly bony fish, as well as a rather terrifying one, but this dish shows its solid, meaty, side. It’s paired with more of that hoppy Marston’s EPA,  English hops, by the way, so that’s good for a post Brexit pint, and Marston’s 61 Deep which uses American and Australian hops.

The 61 Deep gets its name from the depth of the well at the Marston Brewery; it’s fruity and floral and works best when drunk after a forkful of food laden with that fiery mustard dressing. A beer to drink with anything spicy – Mexican Indian, Thai, you know the drill.

Second up are Marston’s Pedigree and Marston’s Old Empire IPA . Most beer drinkers know Pedigree, it’s sold on draft all over the place, but the Old Empire may be new. It is actually very old recipe, the beer that fuelled the Empire now faithfully recreated for the modern world where Britannia no longer rules the waves.

Venison Dish

Deer but not Dear

Both beers went well with roasted loin and braised haunch of venison, turnip dauphinoise, kale and redcurrant jus, the loin well cooked, i.e. pretty rare. I preferred the IPA for its complexity, Pedigree is fine by the pint but for me it’s not a dining beer.

And so to dessert with the barley appearing in a barley pudding with along with a ginger malt crunch biscuit, doughnut muffin and a malt milkshake. This was washed down with Marston’s Pearl Jet Stout, and Marston’s Cherry Head.

Dessert at The Victoria Inn

Just Desserts

The latter’s label promises a cherry stout with hints of chocolate malt and Black Forest gateau and there was definitely cherry there, but it wasn’t to my taste. The pearl jet stout was more my thing, a bitter-sweet experience that helped the sugars go down a treat.

And what a treat it was to sample Marston’s Beers at the place their barley comes from and see how modern farming needn’t be destructive or unsustainable, just as long as you listen out for the honking of geese.

Thanks to:
The Holkham Estate www.holkham.co.uk

Marston’s Brewery www.marstons.co.uk

The Victoria Inn, Holkham, Wells-next-the-Sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get ready for the Guernsey Food Festival

Proud and passionate, the Guernsey people have more than a beautiful island to showcase. The ten-day festival in September is one any keen foodie should be heading out to. Nick gets a preview.

Rock Samphire. Free food

Rock Samphire. Free food

It’s salty and citrusy, juicy and crunchy, it’s plentiful and it’s free. I’m eating a handful of rock samphire that I’ve plucked from the ground not twenty feet from the road and it’s delicious.

The sea is the larder

The sea is the larder

Unlike the samphire you find in the fishmongers, this Guernsey rock samphire is much fresher and almost needs no cooking at all.

I stick some in my pocket to nibble on as I watch the local kestrels hovering effortlessly on the wind, keenly scanning the ground for their own free food to appear.

As the car weaves inland through the narrow lanes on this small island, toward a goat farm I’m off to visit, another form of foraged food reveals itself, the Hedge Veg. Continue reading

Digging Badger Beer At The Brewery

What’s black and white and drunk all over? Badger Beer. Nick digs deep at the Dorset Brewery to unearth some of their award-winning secrets.

badger-7427

Short sighted people are catered for

“The naturally occurring water we pump up for the beer could be easily sold as quality bottled water, but that would be such a terrible waste!”

Mark Woodhouse, current representative of the family that has run Hall & Woodhouse for seven generations, chuckles amiably. Next to him his Head Brewer Toby Heasman smiles too, he’s probably heard that one before. Continue reading