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Cafe W, Waterstones, Piccadilly


Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly is one of my favourite bookshops. It is also the largest bookshop in Europe spread over six enormous floors in an Art Deco building dating from the 1930s. The building is Grade 1 listed due to its innovative design and from 1936-1999 was the home of Simpson’s store, the largest menswear store in Britain at the time. I remember going there often with my parents as a child and later as an adult.

I first wandered into this Waterstones by chance a few years ago when in the area and was delighted to find the most amazing travel section in the basement. As someone who loves to travel and always likes to take with me not just guide books, but other books set in my destination – whether novels or non-fiction – Waterstones’ layout in this department is perfect. Set out by countries and also subsections of different kinds of travel, you can’t fail to be inspired or find something that matches your travel plans, and it’s quite hard to walk out without a book in tow.

I’ve always noted the café at the far end of the travel section of the store but have never been there at a time when I wanted a coffee or snack. However, last week I was again in the area, browsing the bookshelves before meeting a friend for an early evening meal and then theatre, and I decided to stop for a coffee. It was a very good coffee so last night, when looking for somewhere to have a snack before heading to the Royal Academy of Arts, where I was to begin a 10-week course on ‘Food in Art History’, I decided to go back to Waterstones and their Café W.

It’s a very ‘bookshop-y’ café. Books line the walls and some fill boxes on the table. You are bound to find some bookish entertainment to look at with your coffee. I sat at a large communal table but there were smaller tables, and in one area armchairs and low coffee tables. Some people were busy on their computers while others chatted to friends or simply read quietly while they ate and drank.

Another thing I noted when there last week was that food came from the Balthazar bakery in Covent Garden, which was impressive. I asked about this yesterday and was told that some did, while some came from other sources, like Peyton & Byrne. A blackboard behind the counter also declared they offered cheese boards with cheese from the famous, and nearby, Paxton & Whitfield.


I wanted a snack, not a meal, so chose a ‘sandwich’ (panini-like) of pesto, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. They asked if I wanted it heated and I said, Yes, please, but only lightly. I don’t like UK-style panini which are invariably squashed inside a toaster so they come out looking like they’ve been run over by a truck, so hot they burn your mouth, and there’s no longer anything identifiable in the filling as it’s been so abused. The Italians don’t serve panini like that! And neither, it seems, do Cafè W. My panino was one of the closest I’ve come to the genuine Italian version.

It was really delicious; wonderful. A very simple ‘meal’ but an excellent one. I drank some cloudy apple juice with it. Then I decided to have coffee and cake too. I went back to the counter and ordered a cortado and chose a small carrot cake.

The coffee, again, was excellent; small and strong, just as a cortado should be. The cake light and delicious. The staff were friendly, clearing my panino plate and then asking when passing by soon after if I liked my coffee.

Now, I’m quite accustomed to getting completely ripped off when buying coffee, sandwiches and pastries in central London. Prices for an indifferent coffee and croissant can be eye-watering. Thus it came as a very pleasant surprise to find Café W’s prices great value. The panino was £4.95, the juice £2.50, coffee £2.30 and the cake £3.50. Not only good value but far better food than at some familiar chain cafés nearby. Café W is a great place to go for a coffee or snack even if you don’t want to buy a book but are in the area. It’s a haven of peace from the chaotic bustle of Piccadilly Circus just outside. There was just a gentle hum from people quietly talking and a wonderful sense of calm. Open from 9.00am to 9.30pm every day (12-5pm on Sundays), it couldn’t be more convenient. But go with time to browse the bookshop too. And there’s a full series of events on all year: author talks, book launches, even writing classes (click here). Really, you could almost live in Waterstones Piccadilly … in fact, many of the people in the café looked so at home, maybe they do!

Cafe W Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant review: Woodlands, Soho

fullsizeoutput_1a91I was meeting my friend Louise at the Harold Pinter Theatre to see a new production of Pinter’s play, The Birthday Party, which has just opened with a stellar cast including Toby Jones, Stephen Mangan and Zoe Wanamaker. We wanted to eat first but the question was – where? The theatre is in Panton Street which runs between Haymarket and Leicester Square; a bustling hub of central London. There are hundreds of restaurants, mostly chains, nearby; the challenge is to find something a bit different. We went into Yori, a Korean restaurant, right next door to the theatre first but it was full. So we crossed the road to Woodlands – directly opposite. Louise had been there before and remembered it being good.

Woodlands is a vegetarian Indian restaurant serving mainly food from southern India. It’s a very simple place; definitely no frills.

This too was busy and looked full as we went in but fortunately there was one free table close to the door – from which we had a perfect view of the queue into the theatre as it got close to the time for the play to begin.

With limited time we decided to order quickly and catch up on each other’s news once food was on its way. We both chose dosas. Dosas are a South Indian crepe made from fermented batter. There was a choice: Rice & lentil dosa; Rava dosa made with crispy semolina (for which you had to add 15-20 minutes wait time which we couldn’t risk); Ragi dosa made with millet grain; and Perarettu dosa made with green lentils, chilli and ginger. There were also Uthappams, a thick pancake-like dosa. All dosas are accompanied with Sambar (lentil dipping sauce) and freshly made chutney.

Louise chose a Ragi dosa filled with potato, onion, red chutney and butter spinach (£9.50). My choice was a Perarettu dosa filled with mushroom masala (£9.50).

I put the accompaniments to the side and opened up the dosa to reveal the mushroom filling.

I’ve only had dosas once before, as street food at a festival. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the accompanying sauces but in the end dipped the drier bits of dosa into them; the lentil dipping sauce was so delicious I ate it by the spoonful! The dosa had a good taste, was nicely light, almost crispy at the edges, and the mushroom masala filling lovely; quite spicy but not overly so. The red dipping sauce was hot though. It was in essence a very simple meal; a perfect light supper to eat early evening before going to the theatre. There were plenty of other choices if we’d had longer or were hungrier: chaat (starters), vegetable curries, hot street snacks, a variety of Indian breads, and desserts.

We both drank Vedett, an Indian pale ale, with our dosas (£4 for 33cl).

The service wasn’t perfect – our beer was slow to come and after a few minutes a passing waiter (I think the guy in charge) looked at our table and asked if we’d ordered, so there was some attention to what was going on. Overall it was fine and friendly. It was certainly a good find for going to the Harold Pinter Theatre (which I’ve now been to a few times). As for the play, it was brilliant.

Woodlands Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Roasted Welsh Salt Marsh Lamb with Persillade

I bought the lamb from Armstrong’s Family Butchers in St Margaret’s, Twickenham. Family butchers are sadly an endangered species now and rarely found. There is no longer a butcher in the centre of Twickenham, none in Richmond. Of course you can find butcher counters in the supermarkets, but it’s not the same. You’ll find butcher stalls in the Twickenham Farmers’ Market, but even those don’t satisfy the delight of going into a ‘proper’ butcher as they’re only there on Saturday mornings. A ‘proper’ butcher is someone you get to know; they get to know you and what you like; they have a wide and excellent range of produce and will happily and knowledgeably give advice and prepare meat in just the way you want. I think I may have to make the journey to St Margaret’s more often. It’s not far away, just the other side of Twickenham and just about walkable. In fact, I used to live here and Armstrong’s long ago was Mr Frisby’s butchers where I used to shop when my children were small. It’s just a little off my usual track now but I passed it a few weeks ago after meeting a friend in St Margaret’s and noticed the Welsh salt marsh lamb in the window and thought I must go back another time to buy some. As you can see from the photos below they have a wide range of excellent goods, not just meat, and were very friendly and helpful.



The reason I particularly noted the Welsh salt marsh lamb was because it was served at my son’s wedding meal, in Wales, in 2010. I’d not been aware of it before but it was wonderful. My daughter-in-law Lyndsey is Welsh so I thought as they were coming to Sunday lunch it would be nice to cook this. I was also going for an ‘almost’ French theme. I know ‘Welsh’ doesn’t immediately equate with ‘French’ but what I wanted was to cook a simple meal in a French style to go with the Galette des Rois I’d bought in Paul Bakery – a day late for Twelfth Night but certainly not to be missed (click here for more on the galette).

Armstrong’s salt marsh lamb comes from Monmouthshire in South Wales. Just as the name suggests, the lambs are grazed on salt marshes, feeding on plants like samphire, sea lavender and sorrel, which are rich in minerals and iodine. Despite the name, the lamb isn’t salty but has a wonderful distinctive flavour and is very tender. It has only become popular here in recent years but has been prized by the French for a long time where it is known as l’agneau pré-salé.

I decided to cook the lamb – a half leg – very simply with just some seasoning of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. I wanted to celebrate its flavour. However, just to add a frisson of excitement, something a little special, I thought I’d make some persillade to accompany it. Persillade is a French parsley and garlic sauce. I decided to add some fresh mint as well, since I was serving lamb. I roasted some potatoes to go with it, adding some fresh rosemary from the garden to the roasting dish, and I also served some French beans dressed with a little olive oil and squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

The lamb went into a hot oven (220C/ Fan 200/Gas 7) to seal it and the oven immediately turned down to 180C/Fan 160/Gas 4. It weighed about 1kg (just over 2lb) so on the basis that lamb is cooked for 20 minutes per pound plus another 20 minutes, I cooked it for 1 hour. I then took it out and covered it in foil to rest for another quarter of an hour.

While the lamb was cooking I prepared the potatoes to go into the oven, parboiling them first, then coating in olive oil and adding the rosemary and some seasoning.


I put them in the oven about half an hour after the lamb went in and once the lamb came out, moved them further up to brown more while the meat rested.

I also made the persillade while the meat cooked. You can make this without the mint, if you prefer, and leftovers are great with other meats, fish or even potatoes. Just put, covered, in the fridge and use within a few days.


  • small bunch of parsley, stalks removed
  • leaves only from a few sprigs of fresh mint
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • juice 1 lemon and zest of ½ lemon
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (and maybe more)
  • salt and pepper

Put all the ingredients into a food processor and process. But it’s best to ‘pulse’ and keep an eye on it. You don’t want a smooth paste, just the ingredients finely chopped. Taste to check whether you want more lemon juice or seasoning. Use more olive oil if necessary to get to the consistency you want.

Once everything was under way we sat down to a few nibbles – all bought, nothing made – with some French saucisson, French cornichons, caperberries, olives and marinated baby tomatoes. I also bought a lovely French baguette from Paul to go with it. The beautiful white heart dishes are from The White Company and were part of my Christmas present from daughter Nicola.


I made a little gravy from the juices from the roasted meat, bubbling them up with some turkey stock (from Christmas!) and a dash of Madeira.

Then Jonathan carved the meat straight onto warm plates with some of the persillade on top while I put everything else out on the table so people could help themselves to vegetables and gravy. The half leg was the perfect size for 3 adults and one meat-eating toddler – nearly 3-year-old Freddie.

The lamb was gorgeous. It was wonderfully tender and truly has a fantastic and special taste. I really recommend you try Welsh salt marsh lamb if you can get some!

TV Review: Rome Unpacked


Since Sicily Unpacked came to our screens in 2012, art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli have been unpacking their bags all over Italy, giving us an insight into the food, art and history of wherever they travel. The various series over the years have strongly appealed to me as food, art and, of course, travel, are great passions of mine – hence the blog (Travel Gourmet!) and also my dip into a little bit of art sharing of late. Two more genial and well-informed guides would be hard to find. Both top of the game in their respective areas, what is particularly appealing about watching them is their passion, not only for their own specialist area but the other’s. They feed well off each other: Giorgio’s response to the art Andrew shows him can be just as insightful; Andrew’s knowledge of food and clear delight in being the beneficiary of Giorgio’s cooking makes us all wish we were there too. They come across as friends; friends who like to holiday together, and it’s a huge pleasure being a witness to their adventures. The mood is relaxed, full of laughter, full of awe at both food and art. And in the gentlest of ways is quite educational. In short, the ‘Unpackeds’ are wonderful TV. However, I’ve never felt until tonight that any quite matched that first one in Sicily, but now Rome has won their hearts and passion and the first episode in this new series was an absolute delight.

I know a lot of lovely Italians and one thing I’ve learnt is that the country’s unification back in 19th century (a period ending in 1871) has never completely wiped out the rivalries of the different regions. And it’s a rivalry that can cause passions and tensions to arise whenever food is discussed. Italians are invariably passionate about food and particularly of their own region. Beware of showing small cannoli from northern Italy to a Sicilian; talking pizza when both a Roman and Neopolitan are in your midst. It struck me that Andrew and Giorgio devoting a whole series (albeit only 2 episodes) to Rome on its own could spark a revolution. I hope they’ve got Naples, Milan and other major cities on their future list …

Rome is big. I once spent 5 weeks there and have been back many times, but it would be hard to say ‘I know’ it. How could one possibly cram the art and food of Rome into just one 60-minute episode? To be honest, how on earth are they going to do it in two!

The ‘largeness’ of Rome isn’t just about its geographical size. Graham-Dixon tells us straight away that ‘to understand Rome’ you have to understand its people, their driving force; they are larger than life, passionate … and, unpredictable.  This boldness, this needing to be seen, bursts out in the art and food too. The two travellers go in search of the artist Caravaggio, Andrew’s specialist subject. Has any artist been bolder, more passionate, rebellious and dramatic than Caravaggio? Then of course there’s the completely over-the-top Vittorio Emanuelle II monument on Piazza Venezia, which our two travellers seem to find as ridiculous as many others, but you can’t miss it; you can’t ignore it.

How on earth did they manage to visit the Capitoline Hill and stand in Michelangelo’s magnificent Piazza del Campidolgio on their own? Where were all the people? Where were the crowds as they stood in front of the Trevi Fountain? They just about resisted throwing a coin in but instead did a wonderful segue into Federico Fellini’s glorious film from 1960, La Dolce Vita,  and we get a short glimpse of the beautiful Antia Ekberg jumping in the fountain closely followed by Marcello Mastroianni.

Of course there was fabulous food too. Giorgio walking through the markets, Andrew close at hand, sorting through the fresh produce: a perfect romanesco broccoli, a fantastically large fresh skate. Then in the kitchen Giorgio, almost bursting with his enthusiasm and passion, cooks the most glorious fish stew. And of course we all envied Andrew. Wouldn’t we all love to have Giorgio cook for us.

In a restaurant, a chef who Giorgio says makes the best Spaghetti Carbonara in the world shows us how it’s truly made. No bacon, no cream, but absolutely some guanciale – cured pig’s cheek – and thought to be essential for an authentic Carbonara.

What a great treat the programme was. And oh my, how much it made me want to return to Rome … it’s been nearly 6 years since I’ve been there and now I need to go back and follow in Giorgio and Andrew’s footsteps.



Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, Soho


The Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho is one of the most iconic music venues in London. Since 1976 this small and intimate basement setting has hosted thousands of world-renowned jazz artists, including Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, Jamie Cullum and Gregory Porter, as well as encouraging emerging artists. It has won many awards and was named ‘Venue of the Year’ in both 2015 and 2016 by London Lifestyle Awards.

When Peter Boizot founded Pizza Express in 1965, opening his first restaurant in Wardour Street, Soho, it was revolutionary. After enjoying pizza in Italy, he brought back a pizza oven from Naples and a pizzaiolo (specialist pizza chef) from Sicily and introduced Italian pizza to London. Now there are 470 restaurants in UK and 100 overseas.

In this age of the fashionable artisan pizza with places like Pizza Pilgrims and Franco Manca, amongst many others, opening across UK, it’s easy to forget quite how special Pizza Express was. It really was the nearest you’d get to an authentic Italian pizza for a long, long time. Now that I can get wonderful pizza made by Italians just a few minutes walk away from my home in Twickenham at Masaniello and Ruben’s Bakehouse, I have to say that the Pizza Express pizza has lost a bit of its shine for me but I haven’t forgotten its heritage. But then I’m old enough to remember when it was ‘the’ place to go!

I didn’t think I’d been to the Soho jazz club before but had a vague memory of eating in the upstairs restaurant back in my pre-children publishing days and talking about there sometimes being jazz downstairs; now there’s jazz every night. The jazz club was one of those places I’d always meant to go to but never made it. Thus when my friend Linda told me that the well-known American tenor saxophonist, Scott Hamilton, was playing at the Soho venue this first week of January, and would I like to go with her and George, then I was very excited. George plays saxophone and it’s always a delight to hear him practising when I’m staying with them at their Spanish home as I’ve always loved the sound. He introduced me to Scott Hamilton’s music a couple of years ago and I liked it so much I’ve bought three CDs since then, which I play a lot.

A table was booked. Linda’s brother and his wife, who I know, came too and thus five of us settled down for an evening of sparkling jazz last night – and, of course, some pizza!

The basement area is quite small and this intimacy is, for me, a perfect setting for jazz. Doors opened at 7.00pm and the music was due to begin at 8.30. Thus we had plenty of time to eat first. The menu is the standard Pizza Express one. We ordered a plate of antipasti and some dough balls to share; wine and some Pellegrino water.

We didn’t actually all have pizza: Linda and her brother had salads. I chose Soho65 – a pizza obviously dedicated to the chain’s roots, though quite modern in its approach with fresh rocket on top of a base of tomato sauce, mozzarella and black olives, dressed with olive oil.

We’d finished eating by the time the music began. The already low lights were further lowered and we were almost in darkness. Scott Hamilton plays here a lot and has a regular UK support group of musicians with John Pearce on piano, Dave Green on bass and Steve Brown on drums. Born on Rhode Island in 1954, Hamilton began playing at venues there in the 1970s before moving to New York. He toured with Benny Goodman and accompanied singer Rosemary Clooney. By the ’80s he’d formed his own quintet and started touring the world. He’s still touring, regularly going to Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan and Italy as well as Spain where George had seen him before. Hamilton plays classic jazz including old standards as well as originals. The quartet’s latest album is Dean Street Nights.

We had a good view from our table and it was really great to be so close to such a fabulous musician in a crowd of like-minded jazz enthusiasts.

They played for about an hour and then took a short break. Hamilton sat at the bar at the far end of the room with a ‘helper’ who was selling some of the CDs. The saxophonist was very friendly, chatting away to everyone in a relaxed way and that made the experience all the more special. I bought a couple more CDs to add to my collection.

The quartet played on well past the official finishing time, but this is jazz, this informality, this sense of some friends gathered to enjoy some fabulous music but this time with one of the world’s greats to play for us. It had been a wonderful evening and I’m now full of enthusiasm to head back to the Pizza Express Jazz Club very soon!

For more details of the jazz club – click here. There are also venues in Chelsea, Holborn, Maidstone and Birmingham. For more about Scott Hamilton – click here.

Pizza Express Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

New Year’s Eve Dinner at Masaniello


When I knew that my lovely friends Linda and George would be in London for Christmas, visiting from Spain where they live, and staying with me for a few nights over new year, I suggested we went to Masaniello for a new year’s eve dinner. It was an obvious choice for me: Masaniello has become a firm favourite, from meeting friends there for dinner or lunch, celebrating my birthday there in April with family (10 of us), to my son and daughter-in-law going there for their wedding anniversary. And really, it just has to be grandson Freddie’s favourite place: what nearly three year old isn’t going to love fabulous pizza and ice cream and friendly staff who will high-five him and make him feel welcome in a way that only Italians can to a toddler in a restaurant! Masaniello also has the wonderful advantage of being an easy walk from my house – no need to rely on public transport or worry about drinking on New Year’s Eve.

When I went in to book a table a couple of weeks ago I saw co-owner/head chef Livio who was enthusiastic about the special set menu he was planning for the evening. He was clearly going to pull out all the stops to make this dinner something special. And he certainly did. It was really wonderful.

When we arrived and sat down, we found the evening’s menu was wrapped festively in red ribbon, and we were also given the usual wine list.


Straight away, a glass of Aperol spritz arrived with some fried pizza dough balls. This was perfect to sip and nibble on while we decided what to eat.


There were four choices for both starter and main course and three desserts. It was truly hard to choose as I could have happily eaten everything and it all sounded so good, I didn’t know what to have. Should it be the ‘Carpaccio di Manzo’ – thinly sliced seared beef fillet platter – or ‘Homemade ravioli filled with wild mushrooms & burrata served with red wine, shallots and chestnut sauce’? In the end, based on my main choice, I went for ‘Burrata Cremosa’ – burrata with warm green pea soup, semi dried cherry tomatoes, croutons and hazelnuts’.

It looked beautiful. Masaniello always serve excellent burrata so I knew it would be a particularly good one, but the soup was so delicious and made a wonderful accompaniment. Linda and George chose the same starter: ‘Gamberoni Imperiali’ – gently fried king prawns with prawn bisque and crunchy vegetables.

This looked fantastic too and they said the prawns were delicious and the bisque excellent.

Oh it was so hard to choose the main but in the end I went for ‘Homemade chestnut pappardelle pasta with braised wild hare ragu, Parmesan and red wine’. I’d not eaten hare before and because Masaniello’s slow cooked beef ragu on their ‘usual’ menu (although it changes regularly) is one of the best I’ve ever had, I couldn’t resist trying this one and I was intrigued by the idea of making the pasta from chestnut flour. It all worked brilliantly. Linda asked if the ragu was gamey and it wasn’t, but was something a bit special and different for a special meal.

Linda’s choice was ‘Filetto di Rombo’ – pan fried turbot fillet with spinach, heritage baby vegetables, mussels and aqua pazza (light fish broth) salsa’. This too looked very good, was beautifully presented, and she enjoyed it a lot.

George meanwhile chose ‘Tagliolini all’astice’ – homemade thin long pasta with Canadian lobster, cherry tomatoes, garlic, chilli and parsley.

When he turned the lobster over it was easy to access the succulent meat and he really enjoyed it.

We were expecting dessert next and then weirdly, just as I had the thought that I should later tease Livio about not offering the Italian traditional new year’s eve dish of cotechino and lentils, the waitress brought little plates that she put before us and said she was about to serve some. Cotechino is a sausage made from all pig’s parts (perhaps akin to the Scots serving haggis) – for more about the sausage and an Italian new year’s eve meal, click here.

A dish was put in the centre for us to help ourselves. We were feeling quite full by this time so took only small portions. The ‘sausage’ was wonderfully soft and tasty but quite strong tasting – meaty – so I wouldn’t have wanted to eat a lot or have had it as my main dish. However, I thought it was a delightful idea of Livio’s to serve it and there were a lot of Italians in the restaurant so cries of excitement were thrown up around us when they saw what was coming.

I’ve written before about the excellence of Masaniello’s service, always friendly, helpful staff and wonderfully efficient. Despite it being busy last night, the restaurant filled with excited people as 2018 drew near, the standard never faltered and everything came with a smile. Did we want our desserts straight away or to wait a bit, our waitress asked. It was so good she thought to ask us and we said we’d wait a bit. When we were ready, my ‘Pastiera Napolenta’ – wheat and ricotta cheese tart served warm with cinnamon ice cream – looked very inviting and was delicious. The heavenly softness of the filling with the crisp pastry was a delight to eat, the cinnamon ice cream a perfect accompaniment.

There was a pistachio tiramisu on offer, but both Linda and George chose ‘Sorbetto al Panettone’ – homemade panettone and prosecco sorbet.

I’d expected the panettone to come separately but it was part of the sorbet and apparently very delicious. It certainly looked like a fun dessert in the tall flutes for the end of a special meal.

I was the only one to want a coffee. We’d also shared a bottle of wine through the meal. Wine starts at very reasonable prices in Masaniello from £14.50 for a bottle of Sangiovese to the most expensive at £42.95 for Valpolicella Ripasso. We drank a Nero d’Avola from Sicily for £15.95 and it was very good. We also had some sparkling Pellegrino water. The set menu was £49.50 a head, which included all food and the welcoming Aperol spritz.

It was after 11pm when we finished; we’d arrived at 8. We’d eaten at a gentle, relaxed pace and the meal had been really special, the atmosphere lively and perfect for a new year’s eve celebration. We decided however to head back to my house for midnight and to watch the London fireworks on TV with a glass of fizz to welcome in 2018. It had been a great way to say goodbye to the old year and welcome in the next!

A very happy, healthy and peaceful 2018 to all my readers. I’m always appreciative of your support, your likes and comments, which makes writing this blog, a great passion of mine, all the more rewarding and wonderful.

Masaniello Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chocolate Roulade with Sweet Chestnut Cream & Fresh Cherries


I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas. Mine was spread over two lovely days, a fairly quiet Christmas Day itself with son Jonathan, his wife and two little boys. Jonathan, an excellent cook, made us a lunch of perfectly grilled steak on his gas barbecue and opened a fabulous bottle of Bordeaux wine to go with it. Boxing Day was our traditional Christmas meal when my daughter Nicola and her wife Rachael arrived from Worcestershire to join us, and my brother Adam came with his daughter Clara and son Leo. A turkey was cooked, a sausage meat stuffing made, potatoes roasted, Brussels sprouts cooked with chestnuts and shallots, mince pies baked and a traditional Christmas pudding steamed. Nine of us, including not-quite-three Freddie, sat round the table for lunch. Like most families we kept things fairly traditional; sometimes there’s comfort in tradition, just as there’s comfort and joy in having a family gathered together round a table.

While many of our traditions are much like other families we have an important couple of our own. The first is that for as long as I can remember we’ve eaten panettone on Christmas morning with our coffee as we open presents. This year I bought it from our fabulous local Italian deli, Corto Deli.

We buy two now as some of us like traditional panettone with citrus fruit and raisins but my two daughters-in-law don’t like raisins so we buy a chocolate version too. My Italian teacher Fabio saw them and said Loison were one of the best makes; then Loison was voted top in Observer Food Monthly‘s test of Christmas foods.

The second tradition is to make an alternative dessert for the non-raisin eaters. And this year I kept to the chocolate theme and made a chocolate roulade – Roulade au Chocolat. The decision to make a roulade came about from seeing all the traditional Christmas chocolate logs in bakeries. Well, I thought, I can make one (well, similar!) of my own. And I remembered the roulade I used to make frequently, although I hadn’t made it for years. The recipe is in an old book, published in 1979. Pudding and Desserts by Carolyn McCrum was I book I commissioned and edited when I was an editor at Methuen and working on lots of cookery books. It’s therefore quite special to me and the recipe simple but wonderfully reliable – and, most importantly, delicious.

I used to fill the roulade simply with slightly sweetened cream and maybe some raspberries. I’d sprinkle cocoa powder over the top before rolling it, as Carolyn suggests. But for our Christmas meal I decided to fill it with chestnut purée, folded into whipped cream, and drizzle over melted chocolate to decorate rather than use cocoa powder. I considered putting cherries in it, as I used to do raspberries, but wasn’t sure about the firmer texture of the fruit with the soft, light chocolate sponge. However, cherries are such a classic combination with chocolate sponge and cream – Black Forest Gâteau, of course – I decided to serve fresh cherries with it.

Chocolate Roulade

  • 100g dark (at least 70% cocoa) chocolate
  • 2 tablespoon espresso
  • 3 large eggs
  • 100g caster sugar

To serve:

  • 200g unsweetened chestnut purée
  • 275ml double cream
  • a little icing sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
  • 100g each of white and dark chocolate
  • a punnet of dark cherries


Put the chocolate in a small basin over simmering water with the coffee, not allowing the bottom of the basin to touch the water. Leave to melt, stirring occasionally. Don’t stir a lot or it will thicken the chocolate too much.


Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks with the sugar until thick and pale. Whisk the egg whites until stiff.


Add the melted chocolate to the egg mixture and combine.


Slowly and very gently fold in the stiff egg whites.


Butter a baking tray (about 34cm x 24cm). Line it with baking parchment and butter the paper. Pour the chocolate mixture over it and spread as gently as you can.

Place in a preheated (180C/Fan 160/Gas 4 oven for 15 minutes or until a sharp knife stuck into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven.

Cover loosely in a damp tea cloth (wrung out as dry as you can manage). Leave for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Break up the chestnut purée and mash with a fork.


Whip the cream with a couple of teaspoons icing sugar and the vanilla paste until starting to thicken but don’t whip too much as the mixture will thicken later.


Pour the whipped cream into the chestnut purée and whisk together. Check taste to see if you want more sugar.


Lay a sheet of clean greaseproof paper over the top of the chocolate sponge. Carefully tip over. Peel the baking parchment lining very carefully from the bottom of the sponge.


Put the chestnut cream on top and spread over, almost to the edges.


Now for the slightly tricky bit! To fold the roulade up, turn it so it’s longwise on facing you. Fold over the greaseproof paper and start to slowly fold over, pushing from the back gently so that it folds into a roll.

Carefully transfer to a serving dish (as you can see from this my only suitable one was decorated with fish – presumably not intended for chocolate roulade! But then I was feeding family and it really didn’t matter).


Melt the white chocolate in the same way as for the sponge. Add a splash of water instead of coffee. You want a pouring consistency. Then melt the dark chocolate in the same way.


Drizzle first the white chocolate and then the dark chocolate over the roulade from a bit of a height. Surround the roulade with the cherries.

It looked terrific; as special as it was supposed to for a special Christmas meal with my family.

Cut thick slices to serve and put a few of the cherries with it.

It was really delicious. Not surprisingly some people wanted this as well as Christmas pudding. Well, it was Christmas! And we all like to indulge. The roulade would however also make a great dessert for anytime, served with other fruit if you prefer. It’s really easy to make but you’re rewarded with a special-looking dessert that will impress friends and taste absolutely chocolatey gorgeous.

Ribollita – Tuscan Bean, Bread & Black Cabbage Soup

430E489C-F430-44F3-B03D-FAC73BEAE7A1It might seem crazy to be making a thick, hearty soup in the midst of Christmas madness, but I have the advantage that I’m not actually ‘doing’ Christmas until Boxing Day. It all came about because I couldn’t resist buying a bundle of cavolo nero (black cabbage) at the farmers’ market yesterday, where I’d gone to buy Brussels sprouts for the Christmas meal. I love cavolo nero and will cook it just as a vegetable with a meal, but it always makes me think of Ribollita, the wonderful Tuscan soup that’s a meal in itself.

The Tuscans are fabulous at creating great ways of using up stale bread, and soup is one of the ways they do it, Ribollita in the winter and Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), which I ate in Florence in the summer; also Panzanella (bread and tomato salad). I didn’t actually have stale bread; I had a gorgeous fresh sourdough from my local Italian bakery, but that wasn’t a good enough reason for putting off making the soup.

Ribollita isn’t an exact recipe. A bit of research gave me two entirely different looking soups from Nigel Slater (a red soup) to Jamie Oliver’s green soup. It’s basically a leftovers soup – leftover bread and leftover vegetables – but fairly standard are the inclusion of cavolo nero, beans and, of course, the bread. Both Nigel and Jamie added tomatoes too, in the form of a can of tomatoes, which I went with too. ‘Ribollita’ means ‘reboiled’ and the soup is traditionally made in advance, best eaten a day after cooking, and may be topped up with extra leftovers over days. This reminds me of visiting one of my authors in Italy in the late 1970s. I was editing lots of cookery books and visited Robin Howe, a prolific and well-respected cookery writer of the time, while holidaying in Italy. She and her husband lived in Liguria, with glorious views across the Mediterranean from their hillside apartment, and I stayed for a couple of days. I remember her adding leftovers to the soup simmering on her stove and being slightly uncertain about a soup that may have been started a few days before and constantly reheated and added to. But it tasted delicious – and I came to understand it was very Italian!


I stripped the leaves from my bunch of cavolo nero. Jamie adds the stalks, finely sliced, but I decided against that. Put them in a big bowl of water to wash and remove any grit, drain well and then slice fairly finely.


Chop 1 large onion, 2 medium carrots and 1 stalk of celery. Try to chop fairly evenly as the soup isn’t blended and it will look nicer if the vegetables are much the same size. Gently cook the mixture in some extra virgin olive oil in a large pan. Cook for about 20 minutes until soft but not browned, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. The careful cooking of your soffrito is the base of a good flavour for your soup. Once it has softened, add 1 large clove of garlic, crushed.


Stir and cook for another minute or two, then tip in 1 x 400g tin of plum tomatoes.


Stir to combine and then tip in 1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans (drained), add a couple of bay leaves, season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix together and then put a lid on the pan and cook gently for about 20 minutes.


Cut 2 thick slices from a sourdough loaf (if you don’t have this, just a good loaf – but supermarket sliced bread really won’t do!). Break the bread into smallish pieces and add to the soup. Stir in.


Now tip in the sliced cavolo nero. It will look like far too much but it soon wilts down. Stir round until it’s mixed and add some water (or vegetable stock) so that the vegetables are almost, but not quite, covered.


Bring to a simmer and cook gently for about half an hour.

Remove the bay leaves and check the seasoning. Thin it down a little if necessary, but remember it’s supposed to be very thick – more like a stew than a soup. Now it’s ready. If you can possibly resist eating it until the next day, it will taste all the better for 24 hours maturing.

To serve, spoon into a bowl and grate over a generous amount of Parmesan. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the top. You could serve extra bread on the side, but it doesn’t really need it with the bread soaked into the soup.

I ate some straight away. It hadn’t been my intention for supper but I couldn’t resist it! And it tasted so wonderful that if it’s even better tomorrow, then great. Tomorrow will be a fairly quiet Christmas Day with my son and his family (though possibly not that quiet if almost-3-year old Freddie gets very excited about the presents under the Christmas tree), with Jonathan cooking steak for our meal. Then more family arrive on Boxing Day, which will see 9 of us enjoying the traditional Christmas meal of turkey and Christmas pudding.

A very happy Christmas to you all!

Happy Christmas!


Happy Christmas!

Buon Natale!

Joyeux Noel!

Feliz Navidad!

Frohe Weihnachten!

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Kala Christougenna!


Wishing you a very happy Christmas

and all good wishes for 2018!

Bridge Theatre & St John Bakery


The journey to Bridge Theatre last night was a bit of a mission, travelling from the furtherest south west corner of London, where I live, to Tower Bridge. I thought taking the Underground from Richmond to Tower Hill and walking across the bridge to the theatre, visible on the other side, was a good plan.

I hadn’t taken into account what a nightmare it is exiting Tower Hill station – confirmed by friend Elsa when I met up with her at the theatre and not a case of me being particularly stupid about finding my way out of Underground stations! Nor how painfully slow the journey would be. It took me an hour and a half door to door, though did give me some wonderful views of the Tower of London as I walked past and the undoubted delight of walking across the beautiful Tower Bridge itself, after which the theatre is named.

A better route home turned out to be the Tube from London Bridge to Waterloo and a fast train back to Twickenham, which had me home in a more acceptable hour.

I tell you all this not as a long whine about my journey on a damp December evening, but more as an expression of how brave it is to open a major new London theatre in this part of London, far away from its traditional theatreland in the West End. When I lived, long ago, in nearby Islington, the area was almost local to me, but full then of crumbling warehouses and it was, to be honest, quite seedy. Now it’s grown rather posh, the new City Hall, just a little way along the river front from the theatre, spawning a large amount of regeneration with glass-encased modern buildings, restaurants and a glittering – Hays – galleria; not quite Milan but impressive, if full, it seemed as we walked through it, of mainly the usual chain restaurants.

But what of the theatre itself, not to mention its current play, Young Marx? If the location is full of contradiction – on the plus side its proximity to two of the country’s most iconic buildings, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge – and amazing views, but against it the distance from the centre of town, the theatre itself and its current play has also been greeted with differing opinions. Even amongst just my group of friends I’ve heard the theatre described as impressive to soulless; the play ‘brilliant’ to ‘disappointing’. Thus I went along with a very open mind. What would I think?

Well for me there’s nothing soulless about the bright, high-ceilinged foyer; even new, it offers a warm, welcoming place to meet friends and have a drink or bite to eat before a play. Elsa and I even discussed that it would be a great place to meet someone for coffee or lunch during the day.

The theatre itself reminded me a large version of the National’s Dorfman Theatre – its smaller more avantgarde theatre. While the Dorfman seats just 450 people, the Bridge seats 900.

The theatre is the brain child of Nicholas Hytner, former artistic director at the National Theatre, and colleague from there, Nick Starr. It’s big and bold and offers a stage that looks flexible enough for either classics or experimentation; though the emphasis will apparently be on producing new plays. The seats are padded and roomy (unlike the uncomfortable squash in some old London theatres). It’s a functional theatre rather than a plush and beautiful one. I liked it.

So too did I like the play. It was nowhere near as funny as Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s previous One Man, Two Guvnors at the National. It seemed a slightly pale imitation, for much of the humour and the farce-like stage direction was reminiscent of that fabulous play from 2011. Young Marx, as the title suggests, follows the young Karl Marx when he arrives in London, an exile from his native Germany. Living in poverty, bad-tempered, constantly drunk, unkind to his long-suffering wife, he is saved by Engels who frequently bails him out – once literally from jail – and eventually finances his writings. It’s a story that could be grim but is told with a humour that makes it a very entertaining evening – somewhat instructive as I didn’t really know much about the young Marx – and excellently staged and acted, the brilliant Rory Kinear playing Marx. I felt rather caught between the differing opinions of it I’d heard: I enjoyed it, was engaged and entertained but I couldn’t in all honesty say it was ‘brilliant’; I wouldn’t say – as I said of One Man Two Guvnors – that ‘you really have to see it’ to anyone.

I’d also had differing opinions of the food – snacks rather than meals, provided by the well-respected St John Bakery. I’d been told it was bad and expensive; I’d heard the cakes were amazing. I thought it was simply OK and actually not expensive for London. And the glass of wine I had was infinitely superior to the rather awful wine they sell by the glass at the National.

The menu is small; this is a bar-café not a restaurant, with a few tables and some stools at various bars around the foyer. We felt with better planning they could have offered more seating. The menu offers a couple of salads as vegetarian options, along with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, but much of the menu reflects Fergus Henderson’s love of meat and offal: potted pork, a neck lamb stew, roast meat sandwiches. There’s cheese too, with raisin bread, or Lancashire cheese that comes with his signature Eccles cake (which I ate at their branch in Maltby St Market once). It’s all very English, apart from the offer of (definitely French) warm madeleines to order for the interval. We forgot about that until too late so I don’t know how they are. I did wonder if it was a theatrical ode to Proust; a little touch of drama for the interval.

I chose ‘Roast Beef with Horseradish’ in ‘St John Long Crust’ – which by any other name is a baguette. It came at £7.80. You order and pay for food at one end of the bar, with drinks, and collect it at the other end.

I guess it’s hard for a roast beef baguette to look great but I felt a slight disappointment that it was literally that – just beef and a smear of horseradish sauce with a token flurry of green inside that certainly couldn’t be classed as ‘salad’. The beef was quite well done, not beautifully rare as I like it; the bread quite chewy. It tasted OK but I’d probably choose to eat at one of the many restaurants nearby another time.

Elsa seemed happier with her ‘Potted Pork’ and said it was very nice.


We didn’t have cakes, not because of how they looked but more that we just didn’t want to and time was moving fast towards the start time of the play. A friend told me the pastries were amazing so maybe they taste more exciting than they look.

It would be interesting to go at breakfast time when they offer granola and freshly made pastries with coffee. I could be swayed by a delicious flaky croissant and excellent flat white. But overall it just wasn’t very exciting food. One can get fabulous sandwiches now, with exciting, creative fillings, and the Bridge café’s were plain boring.