Category Archives: Breakfast

Turning pages at Pepper Trail

We are at the stunning Pepper Trail retreat, a 200 acre coffee, tea and spice plantation in northern Kerala. From the moment you drive through the retreat’s gates one is enveloped in a cacophonous hush. Days begin with the sounds of morning dew crashing into leaves, and end with songs of a thousand birds. Time stands still, even as the plantation breathes new life into each day.

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Anand Jayan is a third generation plantation owner and welcomes each visitor as if we were guests to his home. From personalising every single meal and guided tours of his gardens, to offers of coracle rides in their private reservoir – he spoilt us rotten. No request was too outrageous and we were especially looking forward to a cooking class arranged with the plantation’s cook. Mani has been with the family for over two decades and is now the keeper of their several culinary secrets.

I was chopping smoked kodampuli for Mani’s fish curry when WhatsApp pinged his message of rejection. Decades of being turned down doesn’t seem to be practice enough and my eyes pricked with an all too familiar emotion… or perhaps it was the red chilli tadka being prepared for our jackfruit thoran. I was grateful to be standing in a kitchen full of distractions – Mani’s Malayalam cooking class translated into English by Anand’s mother, the vague recollection that kodampuli is often mistaken for kokum, and the desperate need not to cry in front of my younger sister.

The irony of being rejected whilst at one of the most romantic hotels I’ve been to was not lost on me. And so, as I walked up to our treehouse, balancing myself on a ramp that meandered through the tops of enormous jackfruit trees, I swore not to succumb to the seduction of self-pity.

We spent languid days not turning a single page of the several books we thought we would need, only sitting up for the delicious meals that arrived at regular intervals. We feasted on heavenly breakfasts of idiappams and stew, puttu, kadala kari and fried bananas; lunches and dinners of kodampuli fish curry, olan, mezhukkupuratti, and appams and curry; and tea time always included banana fritters and surprisingly awful filter coffee. And needless to say, everything featured coconut. (See end of the post for descriptions of these meals.)

We only managed to drag ourselves away from the plantation’s serenity and steaming plates of food for a few hours. And only to buy some smoked kodampuli and mountains of banana chips. Anand drove us into Sultan Bathery, the erstwhile dumping ground for Tipu Sultan’s artillery. It’s a small town by any standards – we were told that stores began selling ice cream only a few years ago – but large-hearted enough to string new year decorations between temples and mosques. And tolerant enough for the morning azaan to give way to temple bells even as traffic quietened around the churches.

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It was only on the drive back to Calicut airport did I allow myself the luxury of self-reflection. About the kind of pain I was willing to accept in my life. None, you say? Then surely the only alternative is an even more painful ‘what if’. Like not turning the page of a book because I may not like how it ends? As always the Dalai Lama comes to my rescue – seek passionately, let go lightly he says. And let’s keep turning those pages.

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We ate very well…

Idiappam: also called string hoppers in Sri Lanka is a breakfast favourite and a snack. Noodles made from rice flour, and served with sweetened coconut milk or meat/chicken stew. The earliest mention of this food was in the 5th century Perumpanuru as a snack sold on the seashore.

Puttu and kadala kari: A traditional breakfast item for the original warrior class of Kerala, the Nairs. Bamboo-steamed rice and coconut served with a curry of black chickpeas.

Kodampuli: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/02/spice-hunting-kodampuli-gambodge-malabar-tamarind-kokum.html

Olan: A Nair dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk.

Mezhukkupuratti: a delicious vegetable stir fry, always cooked in coconut oil. Ours was a mix of plantains and green beans.

Appam: rice pancake traditionally eaten with meat stew by Syrians and the mixed vegetable dish, aviyal, by the Nairs and Nampoothiris.

(Source for all historical food facts: KT Achaya)

 

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Filed under Breakfast, Coffee, Cooking class, Foodie adventures, Home-style, Hotel, India, Indian, Kerala, Outdoor dining, South Indian, Vegetarian

At the Chapel. A weekend for one

I’ve travelled on my own a lot. Buenos Aires, New York, Rome, Lucknow have all been solo adventures; each trip planned in excruciating detail down to where I would have my 4pm coffee and post dinner stroll. Bruton was different. The street I live on in London is possibly longer than the distance between the start and end milestones of this quaint village in Somerset. And save for long walks, an occasional cheddar cheese farm and a country outpost of a city art gallery there is little else to “do”. 

I packed my tablet with several movies, carried as many books as clothes, and took along more newspapers for this long weekend than I usually read in a month. I’m a city girl. What was I doing spending my birthday on my own in the middle of nowhere? Mad. 

Cold and windswept, I walked into At the Chapel in Bruton. Welcomed by muddy gumboots leaning cosily against each other, wafts of freshly baked bread, and the warmest smile I’ve been gifted in the longest time, I knew I had just made one of the better decisions of my life. Charlie swept me into the beautiful atrium restaurant, where I would return like a homing pigeon for the next three days.

  

   

I don’t make New Year resolutions, I never begin diets on a Monday… so the only way I can describe what happened in Bruton is ‘revelations’: 

Where you come from matters 

I imagine Somerset is beautiful in every season, but especially scenic as spring takes hold of its rolling hills and bustling coastline. A short drive from Bruton is Tom Calver’s Westcombe farm, where 280 cows graze their days away in lush fields, less than a mile from the dairy (something about not wanting to disturb the milk’s molecules with too much travel). A small group of men make this award-winning cheese by hand, carefully slapping and turning the cheese until it’s ready for a long sleep in the cave. Tom could have turned the family dairy into a “business”. Instead, he chose tradition. His commitment to artisan techniques has resulted in the best Cheddar anyone will ever taste.

 

Where you are going matters too

Beginning with my first skinny, dry cappuccino, At the Chapel got everything right. And whatever they didn’t, they corrected with smiles so wide, and hearts so warm that I struggle to name any flaws in my stay. I was lucky to meet owners Catherine Butler and Ahmed Sidki who first bought this now fabulous restaurant, bakery, wine shop and hotel to convert into their home. Instead what they ended up doing was create a home for everyone who walks through their doors. A home with gorgeous bedrooms, outstanding pizza, and a team of inn keepers who look after you even before you realise you need looking after.  

 

Where you are matters most 

I have not stood still for a while. Always looking back and looking forward, I lost sight of the ground right beneath my feet. I weep for the loves I have lost, for the life that may never come my way. I weep a lot. The love and warmth at At the Chapel brushed away my tears long enough for me to realise that I am already surrounded by old friends and new strangers who love me today, now. Where I am, matters the most.

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 This is how I spent my weekend in Bruton:

  • Stayed At the Chapel in a lovely room (£150) with South-facing views of The Dovecote (and not once felt the need to hide behind my collection of books and movies). Each hotel guest wakes up to a warm croissant left outside the door first thing in the morning. Best I’ve ever tasted.

     

  • Walked through muddy fields to the fantastic Hauser & Wirth gallery. 
  • Roth Bar & Grill makes a decent Negroni with the longest orange peel I have seen. I don’t recommend the food.
  • Spent all other meal times at At the Chapel.
  • Visited Westcombe Dairy and came back with a truck load of Tom Calver’s Caerphilly, Cheddar and Ricotta. Sipped on the local brew – Fresh by Wild Beer Co.
  • Walked to The Dovecote.
  • Promised myself to return to Bruton. Soon.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Breakfast, British, Cheese, Cocktails, Coffee, Hotel, Hotel restaurant, Pizza, Travelogue

Game changer. La Folie

When a young chef is promoted at a Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the leading hotels of the world, the last thing one expects them do is resign. That is exactly what happened when Sanjana Patel was asked to take charge of the chocolaterie at Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. She says, “If I could get promoted there, then why couldn’t I start my own?” And so began the inspiration for pâtisserie La Folie which will open its doors in Bombay’s Kala Ghoda art precinct next week.

A highly skilled chocolatière, Sanjana’s resume lists the who’s who of the French pastry world – Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi, Pierre Hermé, Emmanuel Ryon and Jean-Charles Rochoux to name a few. Determined not to let trend come in the way of tradition, La Folie hopes the strength of its savoir-faire will snap Bombay out of its dessert cloud darkened by the likes of hotel pastry shops, red velvet cupcakes and endless macaron shops. In advance of its launch, Sanjana and her team of all-but-one female chefs took me on a tour of their kitchen, with plenty of stops for dessert.

IMG_5354First up is ‘Tart Folie Passion’ (Rs. 165), light-as-air, the dessert surprised me with the avalanche of flavours in each mouthful. The tartness in this seemingly simple passion fruit cream tart is beautifully balanced with the sweeter flavours of apricot. For added texture, the dessert is decorated with orange crumble-topped profiteroles. I reluctantly moved on to a Mille Feuille. La Folie’s ‘1000 Leaves’ (Rs. 245) served with figs is an honest tribute to the classic French dessert.

Sanjana rues how chocolate-mad Bombay is. I predict that her ‘100% Chocolat’ (Rs. 235), which I tasted next, will go a long way in deepening this craze. It is a decadent tower of chocolate custard, dark Venezuelan chocolate mousse and crispy praline feuilletine (thin flakes) blanketed in a dense chocolate fondant.

While working with Pierre Hermé she learnt how French pastry could survive in tropical climates. This training has come in good use as she begins operations in muggy Bombay. Not one to adapt traditional recipes for the sake of trend, Sanjana has made one innovation that will have the city’s vegetarians jumping for joy. Borrowing from the principles of molecular gastronomy, Sanjana has created several eggless desserts without compromising on taste or texture. The 100% vegetarian ‘Infinite Caramel’ (Rs. 215) is a layered wonder of milk chocolate mousse, caramel sea salt cream & a hazelnut praline crumble base.

The La Folie macaron flavours are a welcome change from the usual fare of coffee and passion fruit crowding pastry counters. The tastemaker in Sanjana comes to the fore with a macaron list ranging from blackcurrant and violet ganache, lemon grass and basil, to paan and gulkand. At Rs. 75 each, are they more expensive than any other in the city? Yes. Are they better? Most definitely. I first tasted a yuzu (Japanese lemon) macaron, followed by the caramel sea salt flavour and was left overwhelmed with their burst of pure flavours. Next up was a pop rock candy macaron oozing with childhood nostalgia, bubblegum marshmallow cream, and a strawberry jelly centre.

For smaller bites of enchantment, La Folie offers an assortment of caramel, ganache and praline chocolates (Rs. 175 for four) made from single origin Criollo beans from the same growers in Venezuela and Ecuador who sends Alain Ducasse his cocoa beans. The truffles and pralines are made by Sanjana each night, once all her chefs have gone home. “There are some secrets that I am not ready to share with anyone,” she smiles.

In addition to the desserts, petit fours, macarons and artisan chocolates, La Folie will also offer a selection of drinks that will include teas, traditional whipped hot chocolate, single-origin coffees and fruit juices.

The experience of a La Folie dessert begins from the moment you set your eyes on one. And with the exception of a cream too dense for the delicate Mille Feuille, the La Folie desserts I tasted were faultless. With not a cronut in sight La Folie makes its stand on desserts very clear. Still, as it starts finding its groove, I wonder if those prices won’t come down a bit. Then again, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise—because otherwise, I would be too tempted to start every mornings with a freshly baked croissant (Rs. 110-125) and spend my weekends devouring their Tarte Tatin (Rs. 325 and served with hand-churned Tahiti vanilla ice cream).

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IMG_5401This review was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 25th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Coffee, Dessert, French, Patisserie

B. Merwan’s mawa cake. How the Bombay cupcake survived

The year 1981 saw the release of Manmohan Desai blockbuster Naseeb. While most may remember it for Amitabh Bachchan’s cage fighting, Kim’s lip reading talent and Hema Malini’s pink boa, I will always associate the film with the beginning of a love affair with the mawa cake. The cake that travelled from the streets of Bombay, through a cake fight in a five star hotel kitchen, and hand delivered by an airline pilot to a casino in London, had to be a special one.

Mawa cakes, the soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they opened in Bombay and Poona in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hundred years later, Bombay’s mawa cake still travels from the city’s Irani cafés to The Big Smoke and is savoured by the likes of celebrated Parsi chef Cyrus Todiwala, OBE. “The B. Merwan family bakes the best mawa cakes ever. In fact we have three mini ones in our freezer right now,” shares Todiwala.

B. Merwan & Co. recently celebrated a century of serving patrons an affordable breakfast and delicious mawa cakes; and also announced that March 2014 would be the last time this would happen.

Just as the very first Irani café in India has never been identified with any certainty, the origins of the mawa cake too are shrouded in mystery. Dan Sheffield, a lecturer at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, researched three old texts for any references to the cake: 17th-century Gujarati Zartoshtnamu (The Book of Zarathustra), Persian-language Khulāsat al-Maʼkūlāt va’l-Mashrūbāt (The Essence of Edibles and Potables), and Parsi cookbook Vividhvani published in 1903. He says of Vividhvani, “By this time Bombay Parsi cuisine had already been very anglicized. The book, which is around 1500 pages, has recipes for 57 varieties of cake ranging from coffee cake and cherry cake to things with exotic names like Cake Napoleon, Chantilly Cake, Cake Baqirkhani, etc., but still no mawa cake.

Irani cafes opened during an interesting time. On the one hand, the city’s “respectable” members still preferred to dine in private clubs or at home, and on the other, the large number of itinerant male workers flooding the city, living away from their families and home cooking, created a market for inexpensive dining. Irani cafés like Kayani, Ideal and B. Merwan sold them hundreds of cups of tea every day; and with that, mawa cakes and khari biscuits.

Almost every Irani bakery in the country claims bragging rights for its invention. However, the café most inextricably linked with mawa cakes is Grant Road’s B. Merwan.

Cyrus Todiwala is convinced that the cake was a B. Merwan brainchild: “In the early 1900s our milk was not pasteurised, neither was refrigeration available. Milk had to be boiled over and over again to stop it from going off in our heat and humidity. This boiling created an automatic mawa and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created one of the most significant tea time cakes Bombay has ever known.

It’s a believable story. But there are others too…

The second spate of Irani Zoroastrians that fled from the Islamic Qajar regime were mainly bakers, sweet makers and café owners. It is believed that this is when the mawa cake inspiration came to Mumbai along with a host of other Irani delicacies. Parsi food specialist Katy’s Kitchen’s Kurush Dalal is convinced that the mawa cake is an adaptation of the traditional Zoroastrians tea cake kumas. “The Irani refugees were not very educated but knew how to bake. They modified their traditional kumas with local ingredients – khoya and cardamom – to make the mawa cake,” he says.

There are still other stories that inform us of mawa cakes being just a clever twist on the homely sponge cake. When Sheriar Irani’s grandfather started Pune’s first Irani bakery, the legendary Royal Bakery, he experimented with new flavours for a sponge cake until he hit upon the perfect recipe and called it the mawa cake. “The British soldiers stationed in the cantonment came to buy my grandfather’s cakes after their daily exercise. Even today we sell almost 70 kilos of mawa cake every day. But the recipe is a secret,  whispers Irani.

Irrespective of how and who created the mawa cake, by the early 1920s, more locals than ever before were enjoying this treat from Irani bakeries. Up until now bakeries were restricted to British cantonments, but the Iranis began to serve no fuss food in a no fuss setting, bringing hitherto considered extravagances within easy reach of the public.

Even as Irani café’s and bakeries fight for survival in a culinary landscape that doesn’t have the patience for, nor an interest in languid brun-maska-chais, the mawa cake manages to hold its own on counters crowded with cronut-esque creations. Modern bakery Theobroma’s Kamal Messman spent her childhood eating B. Merwan’s mawa cakes. “That is what inspired me to make my own,” Messman shares. “I sell several mawa cakes every day even now.”

Unconfirmed reports even suggest that the trains would stop longer at the Grand Road station so that passengers could get their daily fix of mawa cake.

As Bombay became Mumbai and macaroons replace mawa cakes, the city must brace itself for the death of yet another institution. When it downs its shutters on March 31st, B. Merwan & Co. will also declare the end of an era. It isn’t often that just a whiff of something has the power to evoke a generation of memories; that a humble cake has the power to command queues for a hundred years. It isn’t often that the closure of one café would end so much living – of its owners, its bakers, its city.

It is possible that Mumbai will once again see an invention with the ability to summon such nostalgia; but until then, we must learn to live without its most famous buttery mawa cakes, loaded with cardamom and charisma of a disappearing time.

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Mawa Cake in Mint Lounge

This story was commissioned by the newspaper Mint Lounge and was first published by them on 18th January 2013. The edited version of the article can be read here.

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Filed under Bombay, Breakfast, Cafe, Cupcake, India, Indian, Parsi

To brunch, with love

He left me…” I cry.

Bastard.” said the well meaning friend/parent/sibling.

The first and last time I received a Valentine’s Day anything was when I was 17. Since then I have been in several relationships and as they broke, Hallmark’s most nauseating “holiday” lost its romance for me. The annual appearance of red lingerie in shop windows and Menus for Two at restaurants fills me with irritation – for the stores, the chefs, but mostly for the men who broke my heart.

Each time a relationship ended I was in self-pity heaven and hating them just helped me continue feeling sorry for myself. J Krishnamurti said it best: “So what you are really saying is, ‘As long as you belong to me I love you but the moment you don’t I begin to hate you. As long as I can rely on you to satisfy my demands, sexual and otherwise, I love you, but the moment you cease to supply what I want I don’t like you.’

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Today I am giving up making them wrong. And what better way to bring them back into my happy memories than with a luscious brunch?

Read my blog for One Minute London where, in preparation for Valentine’s Day I revisit three restaurants (Providores, Dishoom & Workshop Coffee Co.) and three romances: http://www.oneminutelondon.com/blog-valentines-day/

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Filed under Aussie, Breakfast, Brunch, Coffee, Indian, London, Tapas

Great expectations

I’ve often admonished my mother for putting people in boxes: He’s gay, must be artistic. She likes eating out, must be a foodie. He’s gujju, must be vegetarian.

I’m too harsh. I choose to ignore that maybe she needs these boxes to manage her expectations. Far too often we are told not to expect anything of anyone; apparently, we cause our own heartache by expecting the next person to behave a certain way.

I expect to be included in my childhood friend’s wedding. She expects the vows she made that day to stay true forever. My sister expects me to have answers to all her questions. I expect my new crush to notice me.

So what happens when this doesn’t happen? When a marriage ends in divorce; when siblings don’t stand up for each other just because they are related; when a star chef’s new menu doesn’t dazzle you. What then?

Nopi (for North of Piccadilly) has received only good reviews. Even those who hated it, loved it. I was SO excited about Sunday lunch at Ottolenghi’s new restaurant in Soho. Having spent many happy meals at his kitchen in Islington, I was glad for something closer to home. Gold lamps reflect brightly off the whitewashed and tiled walls, the furniture is simple and waiters, smiley… Nopi’s dining room is like summer.

I started with a North African breakfast dish – Shakshuka – poached eggs with red pepper and tomato (£8.50). The eggs were okay – the tomato was too tart and eggs not eggy enough for me. I moved on to a Kingfish carpaccio with a spice rub (£10). This is an oily fish and really did not need the generous drizzle of olive oil. I couldn’t finish this overpriced dish except for the salad and samphire decorating the plate. I was beginning to lose hope… and ordered a cocktail to help lift the spirits on my table. The grapefruit and lychee cooler with vodka, and mint was clearly the wrong choice. I paid £10 for what mostly tasted of grapefruit juice and lime.

This is not what I expected. I had all but lost hope and then saw burrata on the menu.  Burrata would have to be on my Top 3 cheese list, and Nopi serves it with blood orange and coriander (£12). This Israeli-born chef has single-handedly changed the way I eat vegetarian food – and this dish reminded me exactly why. Finally, a dish that is pitch perfect! Just as I started to smile at my plate again a surly manager asked me to put my camera away. I ordered dessert (sultana financiers with brandy cream (£6.50), but it was too late. Nopi had let me down.

Or did I let myself down by expecting so much from one meal? Should I want less? Concede more? I don’t know the answer yet. What I do know is that my sister’s expectations of me have made me a better sibling. Her expectations of what she wanted for herself have made her a stronger woman. My expectations from a friendship has given my friend the confidence to make demands of me. For now, I want to wait for those moments when not only does someone meet my expectations; they surpass them. I have great expectations.

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Filed under Breakfast, Brunch, London, Mediterranean, Restaurant, Soho London, Tapas

Mirror, mirror

The mornings before winter decided to ice London’s sidewalks I would walk to work. The highlight of my brisk 30-minute commute was pounding the sidewalk, drenched in the aroma of fresh coffee, outside Caffe l’Angolo Bianco. In the 18 months that I have sometimes walked down Crawford Street I never stopped for a cup. Until today.

The deli is no bigger than a largeish bedroom. Two counters and four round tables squeeze into one half of the room; a deli counter in the other half. The walls are lined with boxes of Panettone Verdi, Panettone Venezia, Il Panettone Bauli, Cantuccini alla Mandorla… in honour of Christmas. I ordered a cappuccino and a tomato-avocado-mozzarella sandwich and settled in for the morning.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was the only stranger in the room. The Italian owner knew everyone else. She asked after the gay couple’s sick dog; the soccer kid’s mum (out shopping while dad played dad); she asked the old man how he was coping after his wife’s death. For the first time that I can remember, a restaurant was more like a family’s living room and I, the gatecrasher to this party.

I order another cappuccino; I didn’t really want another but I also didn’t want to leave this family just yet. A gentle energy connected everyone in the deli and the temptation to be included was too sweet to ignore. A few more unwanted cappuccinos and several more interesting stories make me think of another party I’ve gatecrashed: London. I do a bloody good job of pretending to have settled in but no matter how well I know the streets, how much I love the X Factor, or how used to the weather I get, London will always be someone else’s city. Things changed a few months ago. The miracle of Facebook reconnected me with myself.

I found Shakha, Sailaja and Sree Lakshmi in London. Deepa, Sharmeen and Chanveen in the US. Shairi and Anuja in Bombay. They are mirrors I lost a long time ago. Today, when I stand before these mirrors they show me my reflection before life changed it, for better and for worse. I don’t just get to see what I want to see, but I see all that I am too scared, proud or hesitant to look for; the good, the bad, but especially the good.

London will never be home but through these friends from school a little bit of home is now with me in London. Being able to unhesitatingly ask a friend if she wants to meet “this evening” as opposed to “three weeks from Friday (if nothing else comes up)” is a joyous relief. And when I ask for an opinion, I know I will get nothing but kind honesty.

Its finally time to leave Caffe l’Angolo Bianco. Just as I reached for the door the lady of the house walked up to me and reached for my hand. She placed a cookie in my palm and said, “You will like it. Now come again, okay?”

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Filed under Breakfast, Cafe, Coffee, Deli, Italian, London