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Friday, 27 May 2016

Life is Like A Box of Chocolates - The Chocolate Mill MK review

At the end of last year I came across The Chocolate Mill MK - a company hand making beautiful chocolate truffles right here in Crownhill in Milton Keynes. It all looked very impressive, professional and tempting. So, when I was asked to put together a local food and drink hamper for LoveMK Day in April, I contacted Steve Mills, the man behind The Chocolate Mill, and asked if he would be happy to donate some chocolates for the hamper. He said yes and a few days later I had a couple of beautiful boxes of chocolates in my hand.

What many people don't know is that in my other life I run a personalised and customised sticker business. This came about from figuring out how to print on labels for my jams. This was way back in the days when my girls were babies and I found myself using my new found skills to create reward stickers for them. And from there a whole other business blossomed, with stickers for every possible special occasion, rewards, teachers, businesses and charities.

Anyway, having looked at Steve's little boxes of chocs I couldn't help wondering if I could help him tweak his labels a little to give them a more professional look that also ticked all the trading standard boxes. Steve was happy to hear my suggestions and a few weeks later I found myself printing labels for his chocolates.

I feel Steve is a man after my own heart who likes to experiment in the kitchen and is forever trying out new flavours. Indeed, he recently ran a competition to ask people to come up with some new flavours. From this Jolly Roger's Key Lime Truffles were born. His partner Cameron has also made a suggestion that led to the creation of Cameron's Cookie Dough Truffles, and even Steve's mum has inspired the new Linda's Peppermint Truffles. Indeed, having spent a couple of hours creating labels for the business, I can say that currently Steve offers 16 different truffle flavours ranging from the original Milk Chocolate Truffle, through some inspired by cocktails to others utilising the zing of citrus fruit. I suspect more will be added to his range in the future.

It is very hard to input tasty sounding chocolate flavour combinations into a computer and not find yourself craving chocolate so I was pleased when Steve said he would bring me over a selection of his chocolates when he came to collect his labels to thank me for my efforts. So once again I found myself in possession of two beautiful little boxes of chocolates. This time I didn't have to virtuously abstain but instead I could fully indulge. Ironically these selection boxes were unlabeled so I didn't know for sure which chocolates I had. A bit of a Forrest Gump moment... except, of course, I was by this point fully familiar with the descriptions and ingredients for each one so I could work out which was which.

It's funny how popular you become when holding a box of chocolates and I suddenly found the rest of the family wanting to share the sofa with me. To be honest I didn't really want to share but it is the way of the world that a mother will always share so I got a chopping board and a sharp knife and ate chocolates in a way I have eaten them before; slicing each one into pieces and then paying proper attention to each mouthful. With my willing assistants on hand, I felt like we were judges on GBBO Creme de la Creme or something!

The first bite of any food is with the eyes and I do find Steve's chocolate really beautiful and tempting to look at. Where often a box of chocolates is an assortment of brown tones, these have bright shades of yellow, green and red and accents of edible glitter. The outside is a shell of properly tempered chocolate the gives way to the knife or teeth with a satisfying snap and inside the filling is soft and smooth. As for the flavours, these were a surprising mixed bag. There were a couple I wasn't keen on but then again I don't think I have ever eaten from a selection box of chocolates and liked every flavour. Then there were others that I could easily have eaten more of and others I loved. From the selection I tried I was surprised to find that I particularly liked the White Chocolate and Lemon Truffles, Linda's Peppermint Truffles and the Lime Cream Truffles. My daughters' favourites were the White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles and Cameron's Cookie Dough Truffles. There are a few other flavours on his list that weren't in the boxes so I will be keen to try some of those the next time I see him. He's booked in for a table at the Artisan Food Fair at Galleon Wharf on 12th June and as I have a table there too this seems like a good opportunity to taste some more. If you get a chance, I suggest you come along and see which flavours take your fancy too... you never know what you're going to get!

Saturday, 21 May 2016

A meal at the Bell and Bear

Being interested, as I am, in local food and drink, it is hard to ignore the Bell and Bear in Emberton. This pub, run by Jon and Sophie, has been championing local food and drink for years now and for the last two years has won the "Best Use of Local Produce" category in the Milton Keynes Food and Leisure Awards. It would be hard to imagine anywhere else winning this award if up against The Bell and Bear because they really do work very hard to utilise the very best of local food and drink.

I can't remember if it was Laurence from Virtual Orchard or Dan from Concrete Cow Brewery that first pointed me in the direction of Jon's pub. The Bell and Bear stock both Laurence's cider and Dan's beer, amongst their collection of local alcoholic beverages. Indeed, only this week they celebrated their 1000th different real ale. When I met Jon a few years ago he explained about his passion for all things local, how he sourced the ingredients for his restaurant as locally as possible and how some of it was even supplied by enthusiastic locals from the village. Even the bread is baked daily by Gareth from Amazing Grains just a few miles away in Olney. That's not just local, that's "micro-local". Take a look at their website to see their acknowledgements to their trusted local suppliers.

This week I ended up in a twitter conversation with a bunch of other local foodies who were suggesting a meet up for a meal at The Bell & Bear on Thursday. Eating out midweek hadn't been in my plans for the week but this was a tempting proposal - the combination of conversation with other local food enthusiasts and a chance to sample the menu at The Bell & Bear. So with a bit of juggling and family negotiations, off I went.

It is an easy drive out of Milton Keynes to Emberton and the pub is just a few metres inside the village. The entrance to the car park is a little tricky to spot when you are driving and it is a tight fit between the old buildings to the back of the pub but there was plenty of parking space available. I entered the pub via the front door that took me straight into the small restaurant area. This is a small space with just a few tables so it is recommended that you book a table if you want to eat. I could see our table set for 8 but no one else around yet so I went through into the bar area to wait there. At the bar I spotted Gareth, clearly a comfortable regular as well as supplier of bread.

I met with Bob from The Good Times Cafe and we were soon joined by Matt from OMG Hot dog, Gordon from Urban Grilla, Franzi from MK Biergarten, and Mr Fitz. Now assembled, we went through to the restaurant and made ourselves comfortable. Jon came out to greet us and put some faces to names for those he had not previously met.

Our meal started unexpectedly with a shot glass of tomato soup compliments of the house. I have spent a great deal of time processing tomatoes one way or another but I have never tasted another tomato soup with such as depth of flavour. I'm guessing there was quite an array of other ingredients behind it but the overall experience was tasty tomato.

Next came our starter. I had opted for the beef and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The beef was amazingly tender and complemented beautifully by the watercress and homegrown nasturtium leaves and the other blobs of flavour on the plate. My favourite bit, however, were the delicious shallot rings. I have recently finished watching the latest series of Master Chef and this plate of food looked like something John and Gregg would enjoy tucking into.

I had lamb for my main course and once again I was served a beautifully presented plate of food. The serving staff, by the way, were excellent: polite and helpful but not overly fussy. By this point we had been joined by Niraj, not a food producer but an enthusiastic local food customer. During the main I was engaged in some intense foodie conversations with Niraj and Mr Fitz and I confess I did not give the food my full attention but nonetheless, I particularly remember enjoying the tender lamb, stacked on a bed of mash, some roasted leeks, wild mushrooms and a tasty gravy. I'm a huge gravy fan and this one (probably not called gravy but a "jus" or a "reduction" or something) was tasty but I would have liked more of it.

At the end of the main course a couple of the guests needed to leave and I thought for just a moment as to whether I was done or if I wanted to stay for dessert but it wasn't a difficult decision to stay. The chocolate option sounded divine but my attention was drawn to the poached peach. This was duly served, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, some raspberries, toasted almonds and honey. The ice-cream was so tasty I would have been happy with just that but the warm peach was a dream too. Opposite, Bob enjoyed the chocolate option and next to me Gordon tucked into a selection of cheeses, washed down with a half of Woughton Orchard cider.

Everyone who knows me knows that I like to cook and I can produce some fine tasting food. Sometimes when I go out to eat I find myself thinking I could have cooked it better myself or at least done it at a fraction of the price. However, after a meal at The Bell and Bear that was not what I was thinking at all. It's a bit like being able to paint your own fingernails but knowing the difference between that and a professional manicure.  I came away feeling properly pampered.

All in all a very enjoyable evening. The company was good and it was nice to be able to drone on about local food without the audience tiring of the subject, and the location and food was just perfect too. So if you fancy indulging in some top quality food, where every ingredient has been carefully sourced and considered then I can't recommend the Bell and Bear more highly. There is no where else quite like it.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Affamato Pizza - Better than Papa Johns!

Pizza is one of my favourite foods and I don't think I'm alone in that. Sometimes when I am helping my daughter do her paper round delivering the Milton Keynes Citizen, the front and pages are plastered in massive pictures of pepperoni pizza in a Dominoes Pizza advert. By the time we get back, my daughter and I are salivating and wishing we were getting a takeout for dinner. As it happens, we don't get takeout pizzas very often. As someone who can make pizza starting from flour and yeast, I know that with a bit of effort we can be sitting down to a freshly cooked, tailor-made pizza whenever the mood takes us. However, I am not naive enough to appreciate that home-made pizza, however delicious and bespoke, is not the same as having a takeout. For my girls it is like being forced to make do with Gola trainers when all their friends have Nike. But on top of that, I can't emulate the flavour of a pizza cooked in a proper pizza oven and, you know, sometimes I too just want to slop on the sofa in my pyjamas, eating food that someone else has cooked out of cardboard box.

Sometimes when I am at an event selling my jams and chutneys we are fortunate enough to be sharing our day with someone making authentic pizzas. With this temptation close by it is only logical that we would succumb to pizza for our lunch. We are fortunate in Milton Keynes to have several local companies in operation and the ones that spring to mind are:

Janet's Authenic Pizza,

Stu's Oven,

and Upton Smokery

Janet's Authentic Pizza and Stu's Oven are both mobile businesses that turn up at events or can be hired for functions, and Upton Smokery open their pizza kitchen only occasionally each month. So, as lovely as these pizzas are, it is not something you can purchase on some random occasion when your have been tormented by the picture of a pepperoni pizza advert for an hour. There is a certain irony that Stu's house is on our paper round and that I shove this pizza advert through his letterbox too.

So, on the rare occasions that we do decide to get a takeout pizza we have in the past resorted to a well known brand. Despite the adverts, we usually opt for a Papa John's pizza takeout rather than Dominoes. It is easy enough to place an order online and there is no denying that we enjoy the pizzas that are delivered. Indeed, a Papa Johns pizza delivery and a sleepover were what my daughter requested as her birthday treat last year. We also had one for lunch last year on Fathers Day when Steve's two eldest children came over to make his day special. His eldest daughter is a vegan and she was able to order a vegan pizza and some dough balls with garlic dip. Discovering that the garlic dip was vegan surprised me so I read the ingredients on it and discovered it was actually a whole bunch of not particularly pleasant sounding artificial ingredients that quite put me off it. Here they are: Soybean oil, water, salt, vegetable mono & diglycerides, garlic, natural flavours, soy lechithin, lactic acid, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium EDTA, citric acid, beta carotene, vitamin A palmitate, Mmmm, tasty!

It was with great delight that I recently came across a new pizza delivery company in Milton Keynes. Affamato are based in Bletchley and offer an authentic pizza delivery service every day of the week to postcodes MK1 through to MK10. Pleased to see that I was in the delivery area I investigated further and soon decided I needed to try them out.

Excitedly I told my daughters that we would be getting a takeout pizza this week. This pleased them but when I went on to explain that we would be ordering from Affamato and not Papa John the mood changed and my eldest daughter got quite grumpy about it. This was followed by about half and hour of pleading and persuasion and complaints about me and my insistence of eating local and artisan food whenever possible like this was some sort of mental problem I have. Ahh, teenagers, you've gotta love 'em! However, I was not going to budge on this one so I threw out the ultimate threat, "Look, either we get a takeout from Affamato or I'm just going to make the pizza myself." That did it, end of whinging.

I think what caused the fuss in the first place was that my daughter is a cautious eater and she was worried that she wouldn't find a combination of toppings that she liked. She need not have worried as Affamato offer a "design a pizza" service where you can select any combination of toppings yourself from their list of 30 possibles (I noted, for future reference, that vegan cheese was one of them). And what is particularly refreshing about this is that the price stays the same regardless of what combination or how many toppings you choose. Having explained this to my daughter she was back on board and was soon excitedly designing her pizza.

In the end we ordered between the three of us, a 12" pizza, a 18" pizza and two sides. This worked out as a 12" meal deal with two sides for £16.99 and the 18" half/half pizza also for £16.99, so £33.98, which is comparable to what you would expect from a larger chain, except our pizzas had a total of 13 toppings between them. I'm no expert on pizza takeaways but nduja calebrese, roasted courgettes and asparagus don't sound like ingredients readily offered at the chains.

Once ordered it brought up a clock on my screen, counting down from 1 hour to show my expected pizza delivery time. So, there was time for me to jump in the shower and get into my pyjamas before it arrived. As it happened, before I had even got upstairs they had rung me up to query something about my order so I knew they were already processing the order. The clock was still estimating 40 minutes until delivery when the guy rang my doorbell. That was impressive service and I was glad it had only been a quick shower!

Soon we were tucking into our bespoke pizzas, one daughter enjoying her meat loaded half of the her enormous pizza, and the other chomping away at her vegetable laden half. We had mozzarella sticks and dough balls too with some sort of garlic dip. The dip didn't have any ingredient information on it but it tasted lovely - like a smooth and creamy mayonnaise with garlic and herbs in it - so that was a hit with me.

We did our best to eat the lot but were defeated so the leftovers have gone into the fridge for another day. Sated and happy on the sofa, I asked my daughters what they thought. Without hesitation they said it had been delicious and, to my pleasure, my eldest even said it was better than Papa Johns. In her world I don't think you could get a higher compliment! So next time we are being tempted by the sight of pepperoni pizza adverts and I don't feel like cooking, ironically it will be Affamato reaping the benefits of that particular advertising campaign.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

I Just Haven't Met The Right Beer Yet

Last week was #LoveMK Day and DestinationMK asked me to create a hamper of artisan food and drink products. I'm pleased to say that after putting out the word for what I was trying to do, I was soon being contacted by the local food and drink producers with offers of products to go into the hamper. On the day itself I was able to hand over a very impressive hamper to DestinationMK and later that same day it was won by a very lucky man. I hope he enjoyed all his goodies.

One of the first people to contact me with an offer of a hamper donation was Datis from Bucks Star Brewery. Since its opening in the summer of 2015, I have been aware of the existence of Bucks Star Brewery but not really had any direct contact with Datis or his company. We met, briefly, for the first time in February at the MK Feast at Bradwell Abbey and I have been pointing people in the direction of the monthly Beer Clubs held there for a few months now. However, I don't generally drink alcohol and don't actually like beer so I didn't really feel the need to rush on over and find out what this new brewery is all about. Mainly I use ale in cooking, it being a key ingredient in my Red Tomato & Ale Chutney and my home-made Steak and Ale pies. Dan's Concrete Cow Brewery beer has always met my requirements in this regard.

None the less, it was lovely for Datis to offer a donation to the hamper so I quickly made arrangements to go up to the brewery on the Tuesday of last week. However, ahead of that, on the Friday before, I saw on Facebook that the factory unit attached to Bucks Star was on fire. This unit, of all things, was a business that makes wooden toys and furniture. It was nothing short of a miracle that the fire brigade managed to stop the fire spreading and taking out the whole parade of units. Bucks Star was saved... but not unharmed.

On Monday I emailed Datis to check to see if he was still able to donate to the hamper. It would have been completely understandable for him to say no but instead he said that it would still be possible. So, on the Tuesday as planned, I drove up there with Steve, We found Datis outside, his hands in rubber gloves and a mask over his nose and mouth, deeply involved in the clean up.  He removed his gloves to shake my hand and, removing his mask, he greeted me with a welcoming smile. As we approached the unit we quickly saw the layer of black soot that lay all over the floor... and the walls... and presumably everything else inside the unit. The smell of burning still hung in the air. I asked Datis about the damaged caused and he said it had taken out the lights and, of course, had produced the evident smoke damage.

Presently, Datis retreated inside to collect a donation for the hamper and returned with a glass engraved with the Bucks Star branding that he had freshly washed. I like the logo for Bucks Star. It looks like the familiar evolution of man from ape to human but ends with a man drinking beer. I guess this is where we are in our evolutionary history right now. I'm not sure that man drinking beer represents the pinnacle of human achievement but if he is a connoisseur of real artisan ale rather than a mindless Strong Brew guzzler then maybe that's OK.

Next Datis emerged from the brewery with a carrier of his bottles of cloudy artisan beer. He suggested I put a couple of bottles in the hamper and kept some for myself to try. Next to me Steve laughed and said, "Well, as Hazel is teetotal, I will enjoy that."

I don't really like being referred to as "teetotal". It is true that nothing more than about half a glass of wine has past my lips since my daughter was born 13 years ago but the term "teetotal" sounds so... hmmm... fanatical, like someone with strong religious, moral or health reasons for not drinking. I just don't like the taste much and I hate the fuzzy feeling in my head, and, if I'm honest, I'm just a bit rubbish at it. Half a glass of wine later and you will probably find me snoozing gently in the corner rather than being the life and soul of the party. I felt I needed to explain this to Datis lest he should jump to conclusions about my principles.

"I'm not teetotal," I said, "I just don't like the taste very much."

"Ah," he said, undaunted, "that is because you haven't tried the right beer yet."

I laughed. It sounded like someone struggling to find a suitable boyfriend who just "hadn't found the right man yet."

But this was a smooth response and I actually felt tempted to try the beer even though beer has got to be one of the worst tasting alcoholic beverages I ever encounter. I remember, having tried a shandy on a summer holiday in France as a kid and finding it revolting, that my mum had said it was an acquired taste. I couldn't imagine why anyone would ever go to the trouble of "acquiring" a taste for it. And indeed, over the years I have never felt the need to acquire a taste for it. Dan, has, every now and then, poured me a taster of his latest brew for me to try. I don't know whether he just forgets that I don't like beer or whether he too thinks I will one day find a beer I like the flavour of or eventually I'll get a taste for it as my mother suggested. Being handed a glass of his latest proud creation to try, it would be rude to hand it back without tasting it so I always give it a go.  The smell of beer is always intriguing to me and I can genuinely smell a whole collection of different aromas in there, often the fruity notes that Dan talks about, like the fruity promise of a good cider. But then I taste it and... yee gawds! it is awful. Nothing but a massive hit of bitterness like crunching on an aspirin.

I think it is unlikely that Bucks Star Beer will be any different but Datis goes on to explain that because it is made using organic grains, it is unfiltered and has no added sugar or artificial carbonate, it tastes different from the commercial beers he assumes have put me off in the past. He says that older people say it tastes like beer used to taste. Again Steve laughs and says that at his age he will be in a good position to judge that.

Datis is apologetic about the state of the cardboard carrier and suggests that he clean the bottles for us before he hands them over. Steve says he had quite enough to clean so let us worry about that. We talk a bit more about the clean up and insurance. Datis says that he could get cleaners in by claiming on his insurance but he didn't know how long that would take so he was just getting stuck in to get it cleaned up and to get back into business as soon as possible. I could not help but admire him for that attitude. As we left, he put his face mask and gloves back on and returned to the massive task ahead of him.

With the hamper successfully delivered, we were left with some beer to try so Steve opened a bottle. He had almost finished it before I came into the kitchen and asked if I could have a taste. Knowing my dislike for the stuff, this surprised Steve but I felt I ought to test out Datis's theory that I just hadn't tried the right beer yet. I started with a sniff and found it fairly straightforward. No particularly fruity notes but it did take me back to hot summer holidays with my parents as a kid. Then I tasted it... and actually it tasted very much like it smelt. Like... er... beer. Steve described it to me as well balanced, quite fruity, not too sweet and not too hoppy. He liked the relatively low 4% alcohol content too. Well, I didn't get any of that but nor did I get that horrible bitter taste that makes me want to rip out my tongue and give it a good scrubbing. So, maybe this is good tasting beer or maybe I'm just a little further along the line of acquiring a taste for it.