Monday, 28 August 2017

Cooking with Booze: Vermouth Braised Fennel with Butter & Parmesan

Ah, Monday... So begins another week.

I don’t know about you, but my Monday’s are usually filled with good intentions. Be it hard work, health or housecleaning, having a ‘fresh start’ on a Monday, where you can wipe your slate clean if needs be, gives you enough positivity to see you through to Friday.

Don’t worry; I’m not going all spiritual or preachy on you. Sometimes a good intention could simply be to shake up your weekly routine, to try something new, or to make the effort to cook something completely different for dinner one night. Hell, why not combine the three! (You can see where I’m going with this can’t you?)

We featured Contratto Vermouth ages ago, but I'm still a fan, and I thought that I should attempt to do something other than just drink them. Madness, I know, but being quite a keen cook, I went on the hunt for a vermouth-y recipe to tackle. Now, as it was mid-week, I didn’t want to slave over the stove for hours on end after work, so it had to be something pretty straightforward.

A bit of Googling uncovered a Simon Hopkinson recipe that took my fancy; Vermouth Braised Fennel with Butter and Parmesan. I tweaked it a teeny bit, but although it technically takes just over an hour, it’s easy peasy, and leaving it to do its thing in the oven means you can get on with whatever else you need to do.

So, faaaaabulous fennel! Its aniseed flavour can split opinions, and eating it raw is totally different to eating it cooked. Cooking it transforms it from a crunchy celery-like bulb, to a soft, supple, and liquorice-sweet vegetable. Braising it in vermouth deepens its flavour, and although it adds sweetness, the butter and parmesan make sure there’s a salty savoury stamp on it. It’s delicious.

Simon Hopkinson tells us that this dish is a perfect partner to roast lamb, yes please, but it is also a great veggie dish on its own. In which case, I’d put some carbs with it, some lentils or pearl barley cooked in stock (that’s what I did, with a nice salad), pasta tossed in olive oil and parmesan, or even some polenta. Alternatively, fennel is often paired with fish, so a chunky piece of white fish – modestly seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon – would probably do it too.

And what to drink with it? Well, if you’re going down the lamb route, then maybe re-read Laura’s Easter post on what to drink with roast lamb, and probably plump for Chianti. For everything else, it really depends on what you’re putting with the fennel, whether it will be the main attraction or not. You could keep it Italian with a dry white, perhaps a Soave, or even venture to Riesling and Chardonnay territories...

Whatever you choose, just make sure your good intention this week is to bloody enjoy it!

Vermouth Braised Fennel with Butter & Parmesan

(serves 2 as a side dish)


  • 1 large fennel bulb (approx 350-400g) trimmed, halved, trimmings reserved
  • 25g butter
  • salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp dry vermouth
  • a generous splash pastis (optional, alternatively add more dry vermouth)
  • 30g parmesan (or similar vegetarian hard cheese), grated, plus extra for serving

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C.
  2. Melt the butter in a casserole dish over a low heat (or use any ovenproof pan with a lid). Place the fennel into the butter cut-side down, and scatter around the trimmings. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and crank up the heat.
  3. Add the vermouth and pastis (or more vermouth). Cover with a sheet of foil loosely pressed down on the vegetables, and put the lid on top. Place into the oven to cook for 30 minutes.
  4. Remove the dish from the oven and turn the fennel halves over. Add a splash of water if it’s looking a little dry. Re-cover and return to the oven to cook for a further 30 minutes, or until very tender when poked with a knife.
  5. Preheat the grill to high. Remove the fennel from the dish, place in a shallow oven-proof dish cut-side up, cover with foil and place in the bottom of the oven while you make the sauce.
  6. Pour the trimmings and cooking juices through a fine sieve suspended over a small pan. Warm through and add two thirds of the parmesan. Blend with a hand blender until it’s a smooth and creamy consistency.
  7. Spoon the mixture over the fennel, sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and place under the grill. Cook until the surface is pale golden-brown, the parmesan should be just bubbling around the edges.
  8. Serve with an extra grating of parmesan if you wish.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Productos del Marco: Bringing the best produce from Jerez, Spain, to the UK

One of my favourite things about going on holiday is being able to pick up food, and of course alcohol, that I know I’d never be able to find anywhere in the UK.

I usually bring things home in my suitcase, and then hold on to them for ages as I know it’ll be highly unlikely that I’ll get my hands on the products again.

However, a new online business, Productos del Marco, set up by Cardiffian Graeme Hooper, could change that, at least if you’re looking for products from El Marco del Jerez, Spain.

Graeme first visited Jerez de la Frontera in Spain around a decade ago. He saw a Lipizzaner horse display in Cardiff, and traced it back to the pure-bred Andalucian horse. This led him to Jerez, which is home to the Real Escuela de Arte Equestrian (Royal School for Equestrian Art), and he fell in love with the place. He now visits four or five times a year.

During his many visits over the years, he met plenty of local people, and discovered more about the amazing food and drink culture in Jerez. Of course, that included sherry.

“I didn’t know Jerez existed ten years ago, and now I don’t really go anywhere else. It’s a very undiscovered area,” Graeme said.

Having wanted to start an e-commerce business for a while, and now having a new passion, the mix seemed obvious. Graeme met with two friends in Jerez – Antonio and Joanna – who had previously owned a boutique hotel in the town, and they were keen to get on board, along with his friend David Mitchell back in Cardiff.

“I bumped into Antonio and told him I’d had a few ideas about importing products into the UK… next thing he’s parked outside my door and we’re driving around the countryside finding amazing products,” Graeme said.

Graeme speaks candidly about the products he is selling, and the potential difficulties. “While sherry is fairly well developed in London now, I think it’ll take a while to get into the provinces.”

Productos del Marco

All the products sold on Productos del Marco come from the sherry triangle called El Marco de Jerez, between Jerez de la Frontera, SanlĂșcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The company currently sells sherry, brandy, sherry vinegar, wines, oils, charcuterie, cured cheeses, cured fish products from Barbate, chocolates from Cadiz, salt (which comes from a hole in the ground and is used by many of Spain’s top restaurants), and hand crafted Andalucian pottery.

And they’re not stopping there. Graeme is looking to expand Productos del Marco’s offering in the next few months with rare breed Retinto beef, Iberian pork, organic honey, and orange dessert wines. “It’s slightly further west of the area, but they make wine from oranges. It’s very unusual.”

The business in purely online, and sells to the public, and to delis and restaurants across the UK.

Sherry – so much more than Harvey’s Bristol Cream

If you have no idea where to start with sherry, our post takes you through each of the different types of sherry, and how it's produced.

I’ve asked a few people recently whether they like sherry, and most people referenced their grandmas at some point in the conversation.

Graeme said, “With sherry, it’s almost trying to get people to ignore what their brain is telling them. They think it’s super creamy and sweet, and are surprised when it’s bone dry. Unless it’s Pedro Ximenez of course.

“If people get through that first sip, and stick with it, within two or three glasses, their whole opinion will change.

“It’s an extremely good value product when you think about the work that goes into it. If you’re buying three bottles of wine for a tenner, you’re basically getting the wine for free and all you’re paying is duty and taxes… what are you drinking when it’s £3.20 a bottle?”

For someone that hasn’t got into sherry before, Graeme recommends starting with Manzanilla. “The lightest, coldest one you can get your hands on. Bowl of olives. Summer evening. Ease yourself in.”

Graeme changes his sherries with the seasons: Fino and Manzanilla in summer, Amontillado in autumn, and Oloroso in winter. “Those flavours and conditions go with what you’re tasting.” I would add that you have to add a Pedro Ximenez to your Christmas booze list, as it tastes like the best Christmas pudding ever!

And if you’re looking for an ideal sherry and food pairing, keep it simple. “On a sunny evening, you can’t beat sitting there with a glass of Fino eating some cured pork,” Graeme suggested.

The products

Graeme sent me a range of his products to try from Productos del Marco. Fortunately we had some nice weather in which to enjoy them too. Just like being in Jerez right? 

Unfortunately I don’t currently have a garden (the joys of renting down south), so took the Alhocen Chardonnay down to the park like the classy girl I am. The wine is fermented and aged for four months in French oak barrels, and a further four months in the bottle before being sold. I thought it was perfect for summer. You get a bit of the oak on the nose, along with grapefruit and apricot, and that stays in the mouth, too. Some people seem to still be a bit funny about Chardonnay at the moment (after it had its big moment a few years ago), but I think it’s completely rubbish and they’d likely really love this.
And of course, the sherry. I got into sherry a good few years ago, but like Graeme said, it took me a few attempts.

I roasted some almonds with sea salt and smoked paprika, and fried some padron peppers with sea salt, and drizzled with olive oil. I had these alongside the anchovy fillets, and tuna Graeme had sent, and the delicious cheese. Graeme said the majority of the region makes cured goats’ cheese, which is a slightly acquired taste. I loved it, and my friend who hates goats’ cheese tucked in (it might have been that I said it was sheep cheese... sorry). It’s very tangy, but neither the cheese or the sherry struggles to stand up to the other. The Fino went especially well with the queso semicurado pasteurizado, and the spicier one (which is coated with pimento) with the Amontillado.

And I finished all that off with a snifter of Fernando de Castilla solera gran reserva brandy de Jerez. It's a very, very good quality Spanish brandy made using the traditional method. It's matured in oak barrels previously used to make sherry, too. You get that hint of oak on the nose, but it's also very clean and elegant. It's not harsh at all, very fruity, and elegant, with a long finish.

Unless I get myself over to Jerez, or to one of a handful of very good Spanish restaurants in London, I know I won't be able to get hold of products like these, so it's great to see that Graeme has got my back. Although after trying all this, and reading about Tim's recent trip to the sherry triangle, I'm already looking at flights...

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Exploring the Sherry Triangle with Genuine Andalusia

If you've been following my posts for a while, you may have picked up that I have developed a passion for all-things sherry. I freely admit that up until a couple of years ago, I would have been a little bit sniffy about the idea of sherry - it was something that older people drank, wasn't it? I am not afraid to admit when I am wrong, and when it comes to sherry I was very wrong. Fortunately I have been able to put this right over the last couple of years; in particular through going to a couple of sherry-tasting masterclasses by Beltran Domecq at the annual Wines of Spain tasting, but also through visiting the sherry-producing area as I am lucky to have a sister-in-law who lives in the area.

At the end of June we paid a visit to this sister-in-law and had an absolutely splendid time (including visiting a 2* restaurant in the area which you can read about here), in particular spending a day with a travel-company that she works with called "Genuine Andalusia", who specialise in bespoke tours for people with a focus on uncovering hidden gems and putting you in contact with real Andalusian people and businesses. One of Genuine Andalusia's areas of particular expertise is their sherry tours, so we were very keen to get along and check out what they had to offer.

Visiting small-scale producers

We started our trip with a real treat, we visited a small-scale producer by the name of Domingo whose vineyards are in the Macharnudo Pago (think sub-appellations) of Jerez. Domingo's family own a relatively sizeable set of vineyards, most of which produces grapes that go in to a local co-operative who produce sherries on their behalf (thus sharing the cost of production between a larger group of people). In recent times Domingo has started keeping some of his grapes for his own production and has started his own small-batch solera system, which allows him to produce  a little of his own sherry as a project. Now, you can't buy Domingo's products as he doesn't sell any bottles, this is purely for his own enjoyment.  

We started our visit with a walk through Domingo's vineyards. He took us around the site and explained how the different vineyards are laid out differently according to the topography of the particular site - for instance the best sites are laid out in what is termed the "royal layout" with a vertical orientation (perpendicular to the hill) with a wide-enough gap between the vines to allow horses to go through; manual intervention is preferred on Domingo's sites to mechanical (even though hand-picking costs five times as much as mechanical). The abundance of grapes on the vines as you explored really served to show how well these vines were being tended to, even in the punishing Andalusian summer sun and it was very evident that Domingo was exceedingly proud of these vines.

After the vineyards we were taken to Domingo's small bodega on the site, which contained his solera systems producing sherries and sherry vinegar. Domingo explained to us a little bit of the solera system and how we used it to make his wines, then we got into the important business of the day - tasting his wines! We tried several Fino-style sherries along with a couple of darker, oloroso-style sherries. The Finos were unlike any sherry that I had tried before, the second a young Palo Cortado style sherry had juicy Amalfi lemon notes; if you served this to my blind I would have sworn that it was a Mosel Riesling! After this we tried another Fino that was slightly cloudier, but again had surprising floral and tropical fruit notes on the nose; this one had more "heat" on the palate, reminding you that it was a sherry and hence had a decent whack of alcohol to it. The Olorosos were similarly interesting with the second of these being my favourite, it was a light caramel colour, with a pleasingly exotic nose; on the palate it was beautifully sweet with touches of caramel and dried fruits to it, but there was also an intriguing savoury side to the wine which added balance on the long finish. Very impressive!

Along with these beautiful wines, Domingo (or more accurately Domingo's mother) prepared a delicious lunch, which was certainly needed as Domingo is a generous pourer and there were no spittoons! We had some local beans, a tuna and potato salad (slathered with local olive oil) and, of course, those fantastic Spanish tomatoes - which every time I taste them make a more and more convincing case of the need to move to Spain.

Domingo only takes visitors that have been organised through Genuine Andalusia, but this was a really fantastic opportunity to meet a producer (especially a small-scale one who is basically having to do everything himself) and learn about the realities of sherry production.

You can see that this is a real passion for Domingo and this really comes through in everything that he does.

From small-scale to LARGE-SCALE!

After visiting a small-scale, local producer it was time to check out one of the big boys - we headed to Jerez de la Frontera to go to Bodegas Tradicion, one of the most famous sherry producers in the Triangle. We were treated to a private tour by Genuine Andalusia's Diana who took us around the Bodegas starting with their very impressive art gallery, which featured some very interesting art works (the family who own Bodegas Tradicion made a lot of their money in dealing in art), including a lot of middle-age and early modern European religious paintings and artifacts. My favourite was this picture of a bullfighter by J. Jimenez Aranda (below left) - this guy just oozes attitude. We also saw some small pieces by a very young (I think he was 10 or so) Pablo Picasso depicting that favourite Andalusian activity of bull-fighting (below right).

After the gallery we started exploring the Bodegas' cellars, which were vast and labyrinthine and really served to illustrate the scale of their production versus a small producer like Domingo. I am always reminded of a cathedral when I visit Bodegas, the buildings are so tall but there is a stillness and a sense of timeless tranquility within. Perhaps this translates itself to the reverence that wine-lovers treat their beloved wines with (or maybe I'm taking this analogy a bit far...!).

The Wines

After exploring the Bodegas for a little while, it was time for the main event - to taste their wines! We made our way to a tastefully decorated and rather comfortable study, where Diana led us on a tasting (as you can see below).

We started with the Fino Tradicion which had a properly sherry nose with a slight salinity to it. On tasting it was fresh with again a slight saltiness to it. There was some citrus fruit acidity (lemon), which gave it a pleasing elegance and brightness.

Next up was a VORS Amontillado. Most of the sherries from Bodegas Tradicion that we tasted fall into the "VORS" categorisation, which means "Very Old and Rare Sherries", i.e. the wine has received at least 30 years of ageing on average (I say on average because of the nature of the solera system). This wine had a very interesting nose which I noted smelled like "glue and pineapple"...! On tasting, however, this wine came into its own - it had tremendous breadth to it with a touch of woodiness, combined with a juiciness and had a tremendous complexity to it.

We continued our tasting with a VORS Palo Cortado which had a slight sweetness to it, which reminded me of butterscotch. On tasting it had a taste that reminded me of salted cashews - that's got to be a good thing, right?! This was a beautiful wine, which I bought a bottle of because it was so good (although it wasn't cheap at €70 a bottle).

Moving on up (as Heather Small from "M People" would say), we next tried a VORS Oloroso which had a more perfumed (but less complex) nose than the previous wine. I found this to be an interesting wine, but didn't quite hit the heights of the previous wine in terms of complexity or profundity.

Time to move on to the sweet stuff! First up we tried their VOS Cream (which is made from 70% Oloroso and 30% PX), which was full of delicious butterscotch and hazelnut aromas. On the palate the texture was very full-bodied, the wine really coats your mouth nicely. The tasting notes are of bright, tropical fruits, with a decently long finish. It wasn't overly complex, but it was certainly a pleasing tasting experience.

Last up on our tasting flight was the VOS PX. This went even deeper on the nose with rich coffee, burnt caramel and some herbal notes. Once more on the mouth there was a luxuriating mouth feel to the wine with some delicious chocolate and coffee notes that went deeper than the previous wine. The last wine was more of a crowd-pleaser, but this was a real purists wine - it  showed the depth and complexity that a good PX can have. A beautiful way to finish a lovely tasting.


As you can probably tell we had an absolutely brilliant day with Genuine Andalusia - I can certainly recommend their services if you are looking to organise a trip to the Sherry Triangle. They can adapt their tours to your particular requirements and would be happy to discuss these with you. You can contact the team by emailing them at:

I must say a huge gracias to Ivan and Diana from Genuine Andalusia for organising a wonderful day for my wife and I - we had a great time.

Disclaimer: I did not pay for this tour as it was gifted to me. Nonetheless, the opinions contained within this article are my true opinions and were not swayed by the hospitality offered.  

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Mixologist's Garden: a botanically-brilliant cocktail infographic from Bloom&Wild

Floral cocktails are all over the place at the moment. Whether it's frozen orchids in ice balls, pretty edible accompaniments floating on the top of your G+T, or any number of 'English Garden'-esque drinks, you'll struggle to avoid them in a cocktail bar.

My most recent experience of flowers in cocktails was at The Gibson - an amazing cocktail bar/experience in London - and the first drink I had came with a mysterious Electric Daisy I was told to eat first. I don't know if any of you have experienced Szechuan peppercorns before, but this was like that, in flower form. It's quite hard to describe, but your entire mouth and lips go tingly and numb at the same time. It's not painful, it's just a very weird thing to experience. I'm probably not selling it well here am I? Try it once. It's not like anything else.

Anyway, Bloom&Wild,  the lovely postal flower company, have been busy making a floral cocktail infographic for all your floral cocktail needs. You can find it below featuring tips and tricks to make a floral cocktail, ten flowers you can use for cocktails, and four cocktail recipes to try. 

Your path to botanical brilliance starts right here. 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Amazing Flavoured Cocktail Glass Rimmers

Okay, stop sniggering at the back. I know I said rimmers, but there's no need to... okay, it is quite funny.

Cocktails look great when the rim of the glass is coated in delicious sugars or salt. They also add to the flavour, and when they're colourful it's even better!

But have you ever bought flavoured sugars to add the perfect extra hint of something delicious to your finished cocktail? They're out there, people, and I am all over them. You would not BELIEVE the number of show-off points you get at parties for these bad boys.

A good place to start is Steenberg's who make lovely organic sugars. They have their own website which sells the sugars a few pence cheaper, but if you factor in delivery they're actually cheaper on Amazon. That said - at £3.50 per 200g plus £3.99 delivery - they're still not exactly inexpensive, but for special occasions they really are the best.

Imagine using rose sugar with a Turkish delight martini? Or adding lavender sugar to the rim of a champagne cocktail? Heaven. Then there's cinnamon sugar (Christmas, yay!), lemon sugar (oh hi, lemon drop!) and vanilla, which will really pimp up a pornstar martini.

And there's an absolute gem from the States: Chicago-based Deli Cove Spices from my beloved Etsy. They do a huge range of flavours and colours, but here are a few favourites:

Coconut flavoured sugar. Oh boy.

Honey flavoured sugar. It'll have you buzzing. Sorry.

Toasted marshmallow flavoured sugar. HEAVEN.

Sugar with pink and red hearts! Think of the Valentine's Day points, lads!

More seasonal now: wedding cake flavour. I have no idea whether this will be amazing or a bit gross, but I still want some.

Pumpkin pie spice flavour. I know we don't have Thanksgiving in the UK, but HALLOWEEN cocktails, anyone?

Lastly, and possibly my personal fave: candy cane flavoured sugar! All minty and sweet and making me want to drink bright red cocktails and sing jingle bells RIGHT NOW. In the middle of summer. Yeah, well.

They're all £5.14 with £10.82 shipping (crikey, I know!), but I'm treating myself...

Which flavour would you pick?