The names James, Le Saint James

High on a hill, Le Saint James Hotel in Bordeaux offers unique style, fantastic views, superb food and a cookery school as well. 

IMG_3154We started calling it the ‘Le Saint James Bond’ moment, the moment after waking up that I pressed the button to raise the blind at the end of our bed.

With a cheerful whirr all four meters or so of blind would creep upward to slowly reveal a 180 degree view of Bordeaux spread out to the west below. The early light shining onto the taller buildings the cars with their headlights on, blue lights of emergency services silently and purposefully charging down the autoroutes. Magical.

IMG_3350The room, like all the rooms at the Le Saint James Hotel, is designed around the bed and the bed is designed around the view. Up here in the village of Bouliac, known unsurprisingly as the Balcony of Bordeaux, everyone gets a good view but lucky guests in their beds have the best view of all. Continue reading

Pepper Big

Down in ‘Fannet’ food has taken a space age turn. Nick Harman visits the UK’s biggest greenhouse complex to find how our red, yellow and green peppers are produced.

pepmainI can’t get rid of it; ‘This is Planet Earth’ by Duran Duran keeps looping around my brain as we wait for security clearance to enter the world of Thanet Earth. Damn those catchy 80s popsters and their irresistible ‘hooks’.

I soon lose the beat though as we round a corner and I get my first sight of the massive greenhouses covering the rough equivalent of four Heathrow terminals, or 40 football pitches if that helps. Very, very big, is perhaps the best way of putting it.

IMG_2437Before the greenhouses fell to earth all this land in Thanet, the bit of the UK that includes Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, grew brassicas – cauliflowers mostly -which apparently ‘smelt a fair bit.’

Now four clean, bright and odour-free greenhouses occupy the space instead. They stand on compacted earth with as little concrete as possible used in their construction. This is what modern farming looks like; efficient, virtually waste-free, ecologically as sound as possible and with no mud or muck about. Continue reading

Blessed are the cheesemakers

DSC_1185Up early in the morning  to walk through dappled light to the dairy that’s nestled by a babbling brook. The cheese makers’ life? Well not exactly, as Nick Harman finds out

‘I don’t like getting up too early, so I don’t,’ says Philip Wilton  of Wildes Cheese leading me into his dairy. Outside far from being a vista of green fields and rolling hills, the view is of grey skies glowering over the streets of North London, as well as the bulk of Spurs’ football stadium just down the road.

‘You should have seen this place when I took it on,’ adds Philip as we wet our shoe soles in antiseptic and put on white coats, ‘it was a right mess.’ Actually he uses a stronger description; his cheerful conversation is peppered with expletives. He has created a proper dairy, three fully fitted out rooms, in a tiny unit on an anonymous industrial estate, a dairy so small you couldn’t swing a kitten in it, much less a cat. Continue reading

Tasting the Tapa De Ancho in Gaucho, London

Gaucho_Swallow_street_0071Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather differerent. Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t the kind of place you’d want to take Morrissey for a snack.

Always nicely dark inside, you fall over the furniture a lot until your eyes adjust, it also benefits from an excellent Argentinian wine list. At a time when one rather suspected South America was dumping their inferior wines on the UK, the wine list at Gaucho was and remains a taste of what’sreally available if you know where to look. Continue reading

Tacks for the memory – going for grub in Gothenburg

A mastery of Swedish, gained from watching TV crime dramas, means Nick Harman is well prepared for a great food weekend in Gothenburg

I’m using it all the time since arriving in Sweden; ‘tack’ means ‘thanks’ in English. It’s the only Swedish word that TV has taught me and it’s coming in handy as I try to eat in as many places in Gothenburg as I can.

There is great food to be found all over when wandering the streets of Sweden’s second city, just under two hours flight from the UK. No longer is it all about the herring and the meatballs, although those are still done very well. Continue reading

Ashdown Park Hotel – step back and step out in style

Country houses are all the rage, what with Downton making us sigh with longing. Nick Harman gets a fix of old school class at Ashdown Park Hotel

With a flourish the waiters whip off the cloches to reveal the meal beneath, a sight not seen in London since barrage balloons wobbled in the sky and Evelyn Waugh wobbled out of Whites. You can only imagine what some metropolitan critics would make of this; gleefully sharpen their pencils in preparation for stabbing the restaurant through the heart, no doubt.

Things are done differently in the country though, they hunt things, they kill and mostly eat the things they hunt, they are comfortable with corduroy and welly boots and mud. Here atAshdown Park Hotel and Country Club part of the sameElite Hotels Group as The Grand Eastbourne.  some things are still done pretty much as they would have been done thirty years ago. Continue reading

Lost in the rhubarb triangle

Hidden in darkened sheds, Yorkshire folk are messing about with nature. Nick Harman goes to the Rhubarb Triangle to shine a probing light on an age-old practice

‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.

‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell.  ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’

IMG_9363There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about. Continue reading

The arctic flavours of Finnish Lapland

The man gave out a rather unnerving cry, one that was quickly swallowed by the deep snow and the dense forest. Then there was nothing, just the total and profound silence you become used to in the sparsely populated Finnish tundra.

A grey shape caught my eye, then another and another and suddenly reindeer were everywhere, emerging like a flash mob. They surrounded our camp fire nuzzling their heads at us like friendly cows, their antlers clacking as they occasionally bumped into each other. We threw them moss gathered back in the autumn and, using their flat feet as snowshoes, they cheerfully crossed snow that we would have sunk into to gather their free feast.

I now felt bad about the reindeer tongue I knew was going to be eating later. Not as bad as I felt about the bear meat I pan fried earlier. The reindeer rack though was delicious; I couldn’t feel anything about that except the desire to eat some more. Continue reading

The Passion of Plaimont. Wonderful wines in South West France

The bids are coming in thick and fast and the French auctioneer is sweeping his fringe out of his eyes with one hand and waving his gavel about with the other as he struggles to keep up. A thousand euros bid soon becomes two thousand and then ‘best of order’ has to be asked for as it hits €3000 and the crowd gasps Gallicly in astonishment.

At €3200 the hammer finally comes down and Didier Vinazza, a man who rather resembles Father Dougal in a Gascon beret is surrounded by congratulations. He’s just sold a quarter barrel of his best Pacherenc for the equivalent of over €50 a bottle. More in fact, when you consider the American buyer now has to pay the commission, the bottling, labelling and the shipping costs on top. An expensive sixty bottles of wine but definitely worth it for such nectar and the money that’s been raised will be going to good works around the area. ‘I took a risk harvesting in late November but I knew my pebbly clay terroir would be good for the Petit Manseng grapes and they were exceptional,’ he says above the din. Continue reading

The beautiful game – hunting for food in Southern England

It’s 6 a.m. It’s dark, it’s freezing and I’m perched halfway up a tree with an armed man at my side. Somewhere out there wild deer are beginning to wake up and, with any luck, one is destined to be dinner. Venison is just one of the natural, organic and free-range meats we wastefully ignore in this country. We explore more of what game has got going for it.

‘It all looks rather different in the dark,’ says Barry apologetically as we once again, and with great difficulty, back our way out of a dense thicket, boots crunching on the heavily frosted grass. He may be a fully licensed and highly skilled deer manager, but he’s not so good at finding his own ‘high seat’ at 6 a.m.

A high seat is a platform up a tree from where wild deer are shot . The idea is that, owing to the angle, any misses will go into the ground and not into the nearest town. To get up to the seat, which we do eventually find, you clamber up a simple ladder with the rifle over your shoulder and as quietly as you possibly can. ‘Deer are crepuscular’, Barry whispers as we sit aloft trying to see into the pitch black and with our toes freezing off in the minus 2 degrees temperature. Continue reading