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Neal’s Yard Dairy in London

Disneyland is often called ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’.
I don’t know about that.

For me, Neal’s Yard Dairy is that place.

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I’d been anxious (well, more than anxious, practically hysterical) to visit them in London ever since I first tasted their cheeses, which are imported by my gal-pals Peggy Smith and Sue Conley at Cowgirl Creamery in the San Francisco bay area.

Neal’s Yard Dairy has been making cheese since 1979. The founder, Randolph Hodgson stated the cheesemaking operation in London’s Covent Garden. On their web site, he states “We didn’t know what we were doing and so we gave the customers a taste of everything and asked them what they thought.”

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And indeed, I was a bit startled when I inquired about a cheese and the affable salesperson (who wear knee-high white rubber boots and other cheesemaking garb) grabbed a knife, plucked off a nice slab, and handed it to me. When I wasn’t sure (yes, really), he repeated the process with several of the other cheddars (someone once asked why in France they don’t give tastes freely, and a French friend replied, with a bit of derision, and perhaps sadness, “That wouldn’t be ‘correct’.”

(Incongruously, the fellow who helped me at Neal’s Yard was French. Maybe he should come back and start a new trend?)

When I entered Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden, there were huge rounds of cheddar piled way, way up high.

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And Neal’s Yard cheddars are the best in the world.
The exteriors are covered with dark, dusky rind, but when cut open, the interior is revealed. The cheeses are a sunny, golden yellow, often with little streaks of blue mold running through. Dry and crumbly, they left an indelible sharpness when eaten.

My favorite was the Westcombe Cheddar which was well-aged and had a sweet-sharpness that I knew would be fabulous. And it was.

I think I tasted every cheese in the shop, at their suggestion, and I waddled out with lots of wedges of English cheese to bring home and savor. The best blue, I think, was Harbourne Blue, a rather crumbly sort of cheese, yet soft and tangy. I purchased a stack (well, actually about 7 stacks) of oatcakes which are the perfect vehicle for the blue cheese.

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I also loved the slightly dry Gorwydd Caerphilly. Even though I could barely wrap my tounge around the name, the cheese went down quite well. Both cheese, including the Harbourne Blue, I’ve been enjoying with a salad every day since I got home.

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On Saturday at Borough Market, across the Thames, locals line up outside Neal’s Yard for freshly-grilled cheese sandwiches made with Montgomery’s Cheddar, finely diced red onions, and heated on a griddle between pain Poîlane. The other option (which I passed on…how can I pass up a perfect grilled cheese sandwich?) was raclette. Ok, it was an easy decision: My fingers were so frozen that I didn’t think I could wield a fork properly and was afraid that most of it would end up on the ground. The sandwich was the prudent option. I would hate to waste a single, delicious morsel.

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Raclette is often made over an open fire. The ritual is a big, sexy affair. A huge slab of cheese is heated until super-hot and bubbling, then the hot, gooey stuff is shaved over a plate of sliced potatoes and gherkins (or cornichons, but it’s a relief to me typing in English and not having to code everything in HTML, so I’m using gherkins today.)

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I also brought back several blocks of Montgomery Farmhouse Butter, which boasts a whopping 85% butterfat (I think. I was in a butterfat-induced haze by that point.) I thought it would be tasty when spread over a warm, toasted crumpet, and sure enough, I was right. I ran out of crumpets at home before I ran out of butter and will have to make a batch to finish off the buttery block. I guess I wasn’t spreading on enough butter?

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If you’re interested in learning more about Neal’s Yard, I urge you to visit their website, which is full of excellent information and lots of terrific photos of the cheesemaking operations.

In the United States, Neal’s Yard cheeses are available at Cowgirl Creamery and Central Market stores. If your local cheeseshop carries any of their cheeses, don’t hesitate to bring a slab or two home.

You won’t be disappointed. Just make sure to pick up plenty of oatcakes, and perhaps some crumpets, as well.

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Neal’s Yard Dairy
17 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden
and
6 Park Street, Borough Market
London

London Called…So I Went!

With the Eurostar, London is just a 2 ½ hour train from the Paris gare du Nord. Why wouldn’t you go for a weekend? I guess I could think of a million reasons why I haven’t been to London but none are very compelling. When an email from some friends who live in Hawaii announced they were coming for the weekend (which involved several flight across multiple time zones), I couldn’t come up with an excuse not to go and meet them.

People (myself included) often wonder why Europeans don’t travel more outside of their country (in fact, just a slim minority of Americans have passports) when Italy, Spain, and London are just a hop, skip, and a jump across the frontière.

So I found myself speeding Chunnel-ward for the weekend. In winter, London is bone-chilling cold. Truly. I was surprised it was so much colder than Paris. An icy-blast of wind ripped through whatever layers of clothing I was bundled up in. Another surprise was the cost of most things. A trip on the Tube was a startling 3 pounds (about $5). And although England is a nation of beer drinkers, most pubs only had French or Belgian beers.

Except for one woman I had a tangle with at Monmouth Coffee (who shall remain faceless and nameless…although the nice woman there gave me my coffee for free because the other woman was so nasty), the Brits were chipper, friendly, and witty. At the astounding Borough Market, the cheery vendors braving the cold were happy to chat and offer tastes. I had a cream scone, stocked up on cheese (more in a future post), and my first gooey Treacle Tart from &Clark’s, Sally Clark’s bakery that was deliciously sweet. Of course, I loved it.

And my dinner at Fergus Henderson’s restaurant St. John was great fun, a wonderful place. Instead of heaping on the pretense like so many other well-known restaurants, the room is block-white with pegs on the wall, like meat hooks, for hanging your coat. They’re the sole decoration in the sparse room which I believe was formerly a butcher shop as well.

We started with a big platter of rock-hard bones brimming with warm marrow, accompanied by warm grilled sourdough bread, coarse grey salt, and a garlicky parsley salad. Another salad was Shaved, Dried Venison Liver with Radishes, Capers, Soft-Cooked Egg, sauced with a warm mustardy dressing and that was followed by my main course of roasted Pintade, Guinea Fowl, with Braised Cabbage and Salt-Roasted Potatoes. Dessert was a Warm Treacle Cake for 2 that was big enough for 8 and tasted like an upsidedown cake without the fruit. It was served with a large pitcher of warm creme anglaise. We also had a decent, but unexceptional Date Cake with Spiced Ice Cream and Hot Caramel Sauce. A scoop of just-churned Chocolate Ice Cream with an unusual red dessert wine (whose name escapes me) was a nice finish to the meal, and it was all quite lovely.

Here’s some of the other things I found to eat in London:

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The Brits sure like their bacon, at Borough Market.
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I didn’t know what this was since the box doesn’t have much information. When I asked, I was told, “It’s a big block of sugar, covered with chocolate.”
Sounds good to me! And indeed it was. In fact, it was so delicous, I bought a few more to take home. As you can see, it’s like a big peppermint pattie. I’m going to crumble one into my next batch of brownies, if there’s any left.

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Is it almost Easter?
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This is Luis, who spends all day at Borough market slicing ham as thin as possible. He offered me a taste of the two he was working on that day and if you’ve never had real Spanish ham, it’s really incredible and puts all other hams out of business. The best is made from pigs which feed on wild acorns so the ham takes on a deliciously nutty flavor because of that. Food blogger Joanne, who I met up with, along with Jeanne, bought several slices for her lucky dinner guests that evening.

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I don’t know how they got the brownies to stack so tall, but they didn’t believe me when I requested the extra-large one, located near the bottom. My friend bought one, but neglected to share it with me so I’ll never know if they’re as good as the young bakers said they were. Still, that’s quite a tower.

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Sam, please explain your people.
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Apparently a good plate of Fish and Chips is rarely found in London. You need to travel to the smaller villages, I’ve heard. However in London we got a list of a few good spots, including North Sea Fish Restaurant (7-8 Leigh Street). Our taxi driver knew the address well, so we assumed that was a good sign. And we were right. It was great. A huge piece of cod and fries, accompanied by malt vinegar and homemade tartar sauce, enlivened with horseradish and capers.

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That’s an awful lot of beef fat, don’t you think?
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At the chic Harvey Nichol’s store near Hyde Park, I scanned the chocolate aisle looking for new taste treats. I passed on this one.

LA is a Helluva Place

Way back when, hotelier Leona Helmsley was charged with tax evasion and she became Public Enemy #1. A clever ad campaign lured guests back with the line…

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“Say what you want, she runs a helluva place!”

That’s the way I feel about Los Angeles.
I don’t know why, but I used to harbor suspicions about the place, that it was all just a big phony façade.

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But a peek underneath that glittery surface, like Jessica and Nick’s marriage, and you’ll find there’s more going on beneath that slick exterior than you might imagine.

Aside from the gorgeous fruits and vegetables available in markets, there’s terrific restaurants, easy parking, the World’s Best Movie Theatre (which also has freshly-made caramel corn), abundant sunshine, and some of the best examples of facelifts gone wrong to gawk at (Skip the Polo Lounge…the Whole Foods across the street from The Grove is by far the best place to get a closer look.) But the real LA, to me, is found in the juxtaposition of incredible wealth and over-the-top excess, just next to small Mexican food joints, and chest implants (on both men and women) so big they’re in another zip code.

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And smack dab in the center of LA is the old Farmer’s Market. You’ll find old-fashioned ice cream parlors, candymakers pouring and slicing giant slabs of hot toffee, powerful mixers grinding deep-fried salty peanuts into peanut butter, and jovial butchers with a rather fine sense of humor.

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But the best attraction at the market is the Loteria Grill. Tiny Mexican women, barely able to reach the griddle, spend hours chatting and patting out fresh corn tortillas, tossing them on the hot grill, then piling on savory fillings such as cochinita pibil, or pulled pork with pickeled red onions.

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My dining companions had the most beautiful plate of stuffed chilis I’d ever seen…

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Unfortunately, I hate chiles (when cooked, they taste like acrid, wet cardboard to me), but I was convinced to have a bite of the filling, which was a mix of pork and almonds. It was very, very good, but I was getting full since I almost I single-handedly polished off a jumbo platter of chips and guacamole.

And like the crowded freeways, there’s lots of directions to go for something sweet…

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Nibbling some crisp, buttery almond toffee, my friend Anne and I, took her big ‘ol Cadillac out for a spin in search of more.

Our first stop was boule.
Since I needed permission from the manager to take photos (permission denied!), I had to take our stash outside to give you a look.

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But our first impression, before going in, was the place seemed to have a patina of something foggy on it. The ultra-modern interior perhaps needed a good Windex-ing.
Few of the sleek chocolates looked interesting; most were painted with edible colorings and the contemporary fruit tartlets failed to excite. The dude serving us was very nice and offered samples of the ice creams, such as Cocoa Nib (good, but the custard needed more oomph0, Caramel-Cardamom (nice), and bitter Chocolate Sorbet (a bit grainy.)

My fascination, of course, was with les macarons

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I liked the dense, creamy chocolate macaron the best, and had high hopes for the Pecan Pie, but the taste was no improvement over the real thing…so why bother? I ordered an espresso, which seemed to confuse everyone behind the counter. One little cup was made, then was passed around amongst the staff, while they discussed at length whether it was right or not.
It didn’t give me much confidence. (Pet peeve #85: Espresso not served immediately after it’s made.)

We then took a ride over to a Mateo’s ice cream shop, where we were literally dazzled by the selection of ice creams and fresh fruit ices our south-of-the-border neighbors come up with. In spite of all the weird crap that people are calling food these days, I’ll bet you’ve never seen…

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Although the flavor was faint (perhaps thankfully?) I think it would be intriguing paired with sweet, juicy-ripe strawberries. I tried the Cajeta ice cream made from caramelized goat milk and a scoop of cafe con leche. There was also Queso (cheese) and Guanabana (or, cherimoya…which I had an regrettable experience with on a trip to Mexico some time back and was not to eager to, um, re-taste it, since I tasted it for several days after the trip…if you know what I mean.)

The last stop was in Beverly Hills to sample some treats from Sherry Yard, the pastry chef at Spago.

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Sherry’s one of the brightest lights in the pastry world and never fails to impress me when the dessert is presented. On my last visit, she sent out tiny chocolates filled with a gelée of Concord Grapes. There was also a Huckleberry Custard that showcased the intensity of the tiny, powerfully rich berries that was memorable. When I stepped in the kitchen, Sherry was crushing peppermint sticks and wearing a pink chef’s coat in support of Cook For the Cure. When I asked where she got it, she described how she filled her hot tub with pink dye… tossed her chef’s coats in, then turned the jets on!

I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind doing that.

Except someone from LA.

Loteria Grill
6333 West 3rd Street

Mateo’s
4222 West Pico Boulevard

boule
420 North La Cienega Boulevard

Santa Monica Farmer’s Market

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Tiny little heads of cauliflower, no bigger than a dolls-head. These were the most colorful I’d ever seen in magnificent shades of vivid purple and deep orange.

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Although America is known as the land of HUGE food, these tiny baby carrots are tender and very sweet. My first week as a cook at Chez Panisse, I spent a few hours peeling a case of them…only to discover later they were going to be blended up and made into soup!

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The actresses (and wannabes) trolling around Hollywood aren’t the only things nicely stacked in LA…

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Potatoes

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These are Improved Meyer lemons. The original Meyer lemons were disease-prone so they were re-hybridized, hence the name Improved Meyer lemon. They’re often mistakenly called a cross between an orange and a Eureka lemon since they’re as sweet, juicy, and aromatic as an orange, but with a lemony tang. But they’re not.

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Beautiful winter squash

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Stinging Nettles, which have lots of tiny prickers…ne touchez pas!

For more information on the market, visit the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market web site.

Winter in SoCal

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Sonoma County

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Just a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Sonoma County is a gorgeous winemaking region about an hour north (unless you’re me and have a horrible sense of direction and get lost…then it will take longer.)
But once you arrive, you’ll find that Sonoma boasts world-class cheesemakers like Ig Vella who makes Sonoma Dry Jack, a hard grating cheese whose exterior is rubbed with cocoa powder for ripening. There’s Craig Ponsford’s Artisan Bakery too, which won the Best Baguette in, gulp, Paris…of all places.
As you can imagine, that was quite an upset!

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The last of the persimmons, barely hanging on the tree.

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It isn’t California without Caesar Salad. But bread and butter alongside? Trés americain!

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This is ‘French’?
I’ve never seen taffy in France…or a goofy mug like that either.

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Just-harvested olives, to be pressed into California extra-virgin olive oil.

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Lucky plants…
Even they get chocolate too!

Seattle, con’t…

In case you’d like to read a first person account of my Holiday Chocolate Baking class in Seattle, Gluten-Free Girl came by to visit and posted about it at her site

And Sam posted about my class (and proposal) at Becks & Posh in San Francisco as well.

Seems like I’m leaving a few broken hearts in my wake!

Seattle

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