Raising the Spirits

9 Oct

Before we had our new kitchen installed earlier this year we took all the bottles of spirits and liqueurs from on top of the cupboards and stashed them in the shed. Many of these were things we’d brought back from our travels; the sort of thing you try once and think is quite nice (until you get home) or something you spot at the airport as you’re trying to spend the last of your foreign currency.

The other day we went Mexican, not just your fajitas Mexican but ‘proper Mexican’ with all the trimmings: this Mexican feast would only be complete with margaritas. Himself was dispatched into the shed to find some silver tequila and returned with half a dozen other bottles he’d found on the exhibition. Among them was an unopened bottle of Kvint, a cognac that comes from Transdniestr, a unofficial republic inside Moldova. Tiraspol, the capital of this little country that no other country recognises (not even Russia which partly bankrolls it), is at the same time utterly bizarre and brilliantly fun. On our final night we and some other travelers were treated to a night on the town Transdniestr style, finishing up with a bottle of Kvint. We picked up a bottle on our way to the dilapidated bus station as we left the country, feeling a little the worse for wear, the following morning. Kvint can’t be bought in the UK, in fact at the time we visited Transdniestr it wasn’t available outside Transdniestr and the former Soviet Union countries. According the the Kvint website it’s now available in China. Seven years later I’ve never had the heart to open our bottle. It was such a fantastic trip that it feels like by opening that bottle the memories might start to fade.

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This last week I’ve really been missing Slovenia. We’ve only been back in the UK a week but during our last trip out there we made progress towards our permanent move which made it even more difficult to leave. It finally feels that we are on the last leg. Happily a kind gift from Oliver at Lovenia went some way to lifting my spirits. I mentioned Viljamovka in a previous post: it’s a pear spirit that has a whole pear in the bottom of the bottle (though you can also buy a bottle ‘sans pear’). There are a few different brands but Lovenia is selling Prior Viljamovka, generally regarded as the most prestigious brand.

There’s not a lot of ‘English’ food I miss in Slovenia but there are occasions when I need a particular ingredient and struggle to find it. Why can’t Slovenians have double or single cream like we do? Even the American tags of heavy and light would be a help. But, no, in Slovenia the chiller is packed with twenty different types of dairy and non dairy cream and naturally I will choose the wrong one. What I love about Viljamovka is that it is distinctly Slovenian but it’s most important ingredient is English through and through. Viljamovka uses Williams pears; the variety was first cultivated in London in the 1750s, in the Borough of Hounslow to be exact. Val Bott’s beautifully illustrated blog on gardening in London between 1650 and 1850 gives a fascinating insight into Williams’s work.

Rather cleverly Lovenia decided on Hack & Veldt. a cafe-deli in Turnham Green, almost exactly the site of the Chiswick Nursery where Richard Williams did his work, for the UK launch of Viljamovka. It’s also now in Carvosso’s, the Roebuck and the Lamb Brewery, all of which are only a few footsteps from where the Williams pear was first grown. A little further east in Earls Court the wonderful Evans & Peel Detective Agency (styled as a ‘speakeasy’) is serving not only Viljamovka but a range of other Slovenian and Serbian spirits and liqueurs too.

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With a bottle of Viljamovka to enjoy coming back to the UK doesn’t feel quite as bad. For as long the bottle lasts anyway: it’s a bit more-ish, sweet but with just enough tang and with that warming spirit kick without making you reel.

Now, is the sun over the yardarm yet?

With thanks to Lovenia for helping banish the blues; you can also find them on Facebook here

Slovenian Olive Oil – No Longer a Secret

2 Oct

Back in the 1980s a Sunday lunch with my family was not complete without a bottle of Ljutomer Riesling. Since then the gastronomic produce of Slovenia has made little impact on the international culinary scene but that looks set to change. This is partly due to the likes of Oliver Muldoon whose company Lovenia is introducing UK restaurants and bars to some of the excellent products available. Oliver isn’t alone: Piran Salt, produced in salt flats on the country’s Adriatic coast, is now available to buy from Selfridges and is also used in Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, while Waitrose has been selling Puklavec & Friends Sauvignon Blanc in its stores, a crisp white wine from Styria in eastern Slovenia for a couple of years now.

When I first started visiting Slovenia in 2004 it didn’t take me long to notice that the Slovenians, particularly in the east of the country, love their pumpkin seed oil. In late summer and early autumn you’ll see fields of broken up pumpkins, already plundered for their seeds which are put through a press for the oil to be extracted. The oil is used to dress salads, to coat pasta and even as a delicious topping for ice cream.

It occasionally crossed my mind that Slovenians weren’t producing olive oil. It seemed to me that the hot dry western part of the country would be perfect for growing olives: this region is well known for its delicious air dried hams and rich red wines so it seemed natural that olives would also be growing there. It turns out I was wrong: olive oil is produced in Slovenia and very good it is too.

Vanja Dujc’s excellent olive oils (as well as associated products such as jars of dried tomatoes or goats’ cheese in oil) can be bought directly from his olive farm or from ‘Kraševka, domaca trgovina’ a shop in the heart of Ljubljana, but the oil is now available to customers in the UK.

I was delighted to receive a bottle of Vanja Dujc’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil Couvee to try. Vanja and his family have been producing olive oil near Portoroz on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast since the 1980s. Fearing the the Yugoslav economy might one day collapse, the forward thinking Vanja bought up some land and planted six hundred olive trees, though he admits that at the time he knew almost nothing about olives or how to grow them. The very next winter all the trees froze to death but, unperturbed, Vanja planted more; today there are over one thousand trees on the farm. In 2000 he decided to give up his day job and concentrate on the olives full time. Clearly that decision paid off because in 2003 he received international acclaim by being awarded a ‘Grand Mention Diploma’ at the Sol festival in Verona. Now the whole family are involved and the oils they produce continue to win awards at competitions held all over the world.

Just as it has in wine, ‘couvee’ (sometimes spelled ‘cuvee’) has a couple of meanings when it comes to olive oil. It can mean a product of particularly high quality, and it can refer to a product that is blended from a number oils. In this case both definitions apply. This particular oil is blended from oils made from about 16 different olive varieties. The result is a uniquely distinctive oil which tastes delicious.

There’s a lot of talk about types of olive oil and what you should and shouldn’t use them for. Many people say that extra virgin should only be used for dressing salads and for drizzling to finish a plate but this is a myth and extra virgin is a great choice for many dishes. If you choose an olive oil they way you should choose a wine for cooking you’ll not go wrong. Too many people make the mistake of thinking you can throw any old plonk into a ragu but truthfully the better your wine, the better your dish will taste: the same goes for olive oil and for this reason you should know what you oil tastes like before you start using it.

Vanja Dujc Extra Virgin Couvee is the most beautiful colour: a bright yellow-green that looks refreshing and vibrant. The aroma is crisp and clean, slightly pungent with distinctly grassy tones and a hint of basil.

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The oil tastes quite bitter initially but then mellows out and becomes less pungent and more refreshingly ‘green’. It has pronounced flavours of herbs, but blended rather than individually distinct. The flavour also reminded me a little of artichokes which inspired me to drizzle little over a tapas plate of roasted artichokes; the result was delicious.

The slightly lower smoking point of extra virgin olive oil is frequently cited as a reason for not cooking with it. For shallow frying or sauteeing you’re never going to reach the smoking point so extra virgin is as suitable as any other cooking oil (with the exception of coconut oil which has a really high smoking temperature). With this in mind I was happy to try Vanja Dujc’s oil in some old favourites. I wanted to try it first in a dish that would highlight a quality olive oil and I chose to make a simple bruschetta, drizzling some olive oil onto some small slices of crusty bread and then griddling to slightly char it. After getting it crisp on both sides I piled it with a mixture of finely chopped red onion, tomatoes and black olives and a little white wine vinegar, and topped it with a good drizzle of Vanja’s oil. The combination of the raw oil on the topping and the slightly toasted oil on the bread was very good and the cooked oil was still recognisable as Vanja’s oil.

I’ve also used the oil when making a green risotto packed with green vegetables and plenty of fresh herbs. It’s dishes like this that best complement this extra virgin couvee olive oil because they echo the fresh green characteristics of the oil. It also works a treat when making light summer vegetable soups.

Having seen how many rewards Vanja Dujc has won for his olive oils I was expecting a quality product and I was not disappointed. This is connoisseur quality. Everything from the packaging (it comes in a smart little bottle with a little pouring lip, which is turn is presented in a simple but pretty box) to the taste is top notch.

At present it’s only available wholesale and the exact price can be obtained from http://www.lovenia.co.uk. Lovenia has been meeting with retailers with a view to making Vanja Dujc’s products more widely available in the UK. In the meantime if you cook a lot and you have friends and family members that also like to cook and enjoy using quality ingredients you could always get together and buy in bulk. If you know a retailer that would be interested in selling these products I am sure that Oliver would be happy to hear from you.

First Fruit Harvest

29 Sep

I always wanted to own a little house with grapevines. I never really believed that I would though, so when our search for a new home arrived at a little yellow house with grapevines in the back garden I knew we had found the place. It helped that we viewed the house in mid September when the vines were heavy with dark purple grapes, beautiful plump fruit that had a vaguely floral scent and tasted like blackcurrants.

Alas that year’s grapes went to waste as we didn’t complete on the house until January. As our September trip visit approached this year I was excited at the prospect of our first grape harvest but also a little apprehensive because we hadn’t done anything to prepare the vines for the next season. I was relieved then when we arrived to find our vines groaning under the weight of an abundance of fat purple grapes.

The variety is ‘Jurka’, also known as Blau Frankisch. The grapes are common in the eastern part of Slovenia but are also cultivated in Croatia, Germany, Austria and in some of the wine growing regions of Hungary where it is used to make the famous “bulls’ blood” wine.  Jurka grapes are a bit special to Mariborians because this is the grape variety of the ‘Stara trta’ – reputedly the oldest producing grapevine in the world – which grows on a handsome old house on the north bank of the Drava.

This year we only had time to pick a few of the grapes and make grape juice. The process is simple: place quickly rinsed grapes in a large pan and using a potato masher (or the back of a ladle) crush to release the juice but do not make a puree. Then gently heat the grapes for ten minutes, crushing  a little more if it goes a bit ‘clumpy’ (ours never did). Strain through a sieve, or through a muslin cloth, and into a jug. Once cooled pour into sterilised bottles. It’ll keep a few days in the fridge.

 Our First Homemade Grapejuice

As well as the grapes we also had a healthy crop of kiwi fruit. The kiwi isn’t native to Slovenia of course but the climate suits the kiwi very nicely and increasing numbers of Slovenes are adding a kiwi vine to their collection of fruit bearing garden plants. We picked our kiwis and packed them in newspaper. Kept in a cool, dark place, I’m told, they’ll be fine all through the winter: they’ll give us some much needed sunshine and vitamin C during the months of endless snow. Sadly this year most of our apples fell before we had a chance to get them into crates for the cellar; next year we’ll be better prepared.

Kiwis growing on the vine

My friend Lily dropped by with a a gift – a bottle of schnapps made from plums from her garden. Usually some of the fruit is left whole in the bottom of the bottle: these alcohol drenched berries are taste great but are virtually guaranteed to leave you with a sore head the following morning.

As well as plums there are brandies made from cherries, blackcurrants and even hazelnuts but it is perhaps the one made from pears that is the most impressive – certainly in terms of appearance. Viljamovka is a traditional spirit from Yugoslavia and it has a whole pear in the bottom of the bottle. It gets its name from the Williams pear which, as it happens, is 200 years old this year. To celebrate this milestone, Lovenia, a specialist supplier of some of Slovenia’s excellent food and drinks, is bringing Viljamovka to the UK.  Check out Lovenia’s Facebook page to find out where you can try this excellent spirit.

It started with a cake

9 Sep

IMG_1937It didn’t really start with a cake, not this one anyway. It started long before the cake but it seems like a good place to start. This blog follows my recently rejuvenated cooking life through recipes, ingredients and other food experiences. There’ll be posts from my travels, especially as my partner and I move closer to our new life in Slovenia, photographs of my culinary efforts and reviews and reports from restaurants, food events and innovative food producers. Comments and suggestions are most welcome.

So the cake that starts things off – a cinnamon and apricot cake made from spelt flour (recipe in the October 2013 edition of the BBC Good Food magazine). The recipe called for a 20 cm cake tin: I had 18 cm or 22 cm and went for the bigger size hence my cake isn’t as tall as it should be. Spelt flour can make a quite dense bake and while this cake is  substantial, it is moist because it uses yoghurt and olive oil as well as plenty of apricots. The cinnamon gives it a lovely warm flavour and a slightly autumnal aroma when it comes out of the oven.