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Gordon Ramsay's Taste of Christmas

The Taste Company (or whatever they're called) organized one of my favorite yearly events: Taste of London. This year, they've branched out into their first Taste of Christmas at Excel, a direct competitor to the BBC Good Food Show. I went on Saturday with fjm and C., through a hall of artificial, falling snow, to explore it.

When they called it "Gordon Ramsay's Taste of Christmas", they weren't kidding. It really was a Gordon Ramsay show. Enormous booths giving out samplers of G&T mixed with Gordon's, as advertised by Ramsay. Half of the 8 restaurants available for sampling were Ramsay properties. The pseudo-pub in the back corner was Ramsay-branded. There were Ramsay book-signings for Ramsay books. There were enormous photos of the celebrity chef. Every admission ticket came with a ticket for the Ramsay cooking demonstration show. This months' Restaurant magazine tells me he's the world's best-paid chef. No wonder, with all that sponsorship and his face all over the place. He's an industry. Gordon Ramsay Holdings is growing about as fast as Pizza Express, apparently.

We'd reserved tickets for the first cooking show of the day in a giant amphitheatre, capable of holding approximately 2500 people. It was practicaly an arena, with multiple large screens to help with viewing the ads and the demonstration. With the help of an oddball, guitar-playing crowd-rouser/wine advice giver, and a sidekick from one of his t.v. shows, Ramsay tossed giant inflatable Christmas puddings at the audience, ran around energetically, and cooked three good-looking dishes I would happily try at home. Eight audience members were up on stage to sample an apple-parsnip-celery soup; duck breast on caramelized endive and brussel sprouts fried with duck fat and ground almonds; and a pear and frangipane tart. Thanks indirectly to the final competition trivia questions, and directly to fjm, I have learned that English minestrone is a special dish, not to be confused with Italian minestrone. It was all bizarre, embarassing, and highly entertaining in turns.

The high-end restaurant samplers are my primary lure to Taste of London. Taste of Christmas offered a meager 8 restaurants to sample, all of whose booths were massively be-queued. I started with a warming and comforting pumpkin velouté with parmesan toast from the York & Albany booth; the slow-cooked pork belly with savoy cabbage, pumpkin purée, mint and caper juice from Simpsons had too many flavors, but was, at heart, robust and pleasant. (See also my Simpsons story, posted the other day.)

My sampling highlight was my third and last dish, from Maze, coconut pannacotta with mango and black olive caramel. Each element worked its magic, although the overall dish was halfway between a granita and a milk pudding in consistency and coldness. The black olive caramel added a lovely bit of piquant saltiness which contrasted beautifully with the small doses of summer-sweet mango. It was worth waiting in the very long line to obtain. Alas, not all the restaurants on the menu were purveying their wares every day, so no chestnut tagliatelle with wild mushrooms from Zafferano for me.

The rest of the event was comprised of hundreds of booths, primarily selling food and drinks, but secondarily selling non-food present-like objects. Around the edges were other cooking demonstrations. Throughout were lavish numbers of free samples of foods and drinks. We wandered around nibbling on cheese and nuts and sips of wine and rum and vodka.

Other notes:
  • The men representing Waitrose were handing out mince pies. I asked them to tell me about them. They said they were mince pies. (Brand? Variety? Details, please, we're at a food show!)

  • A choir of Swedish angels, appropriately topped with be-candled wreaths and apparently advertising Volvos, sang the Santa Lucia song. I only know it in Italian, so it was slightly surprising to find it comes in other languages.

  • This month's Restaurant magazine included a mention of Purbeck's new quince sorbet. As someone who has a quince tag on LJ, this caught my attention and I went over to their booth in the hopes of trying it. Alas, they had not come with their sorbets, but I can recommend their Christmas pudding ice cream, made with finely-ground real Christmas puddings. It has all the rich complexity of the pudding, but isn't a heavy-handed ice cream. It would still work well with other flavors and sauces.

No question, but I prefer Taste of London to this, but I'd consider going back, ideally on a more off-peak day when, by early afternoon, the corridors aren't choked with solid masses of humanity.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 9th, 2008 11:07 pm (UTC)
There wouldn't happen to be a recipe for that frangipane tart, would there? Frangipane tart is my nemesis, my white whale, my will-o-the-wisp! I keep looking for a good recipe, and ending up with concrete and pear soup :(
Dec. 9th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
Yes! The wonders of an accompanying program book, handed to us in a bag on the way out along with a bottle of water and a bottle of lager. On page 76, the recipe (along with a Volvo ad).

I have not eaten this, so can only vouch for its appearance. Also, it's a "rustic" tart, baked on an oven tray, not in a pie dish.

Pear and Frangipane Tart (Serves 4-6)


300g ready-made puff pastry
1 egg yolk, beaten with 2 tsp water, to glaze
2 large or 3 medium ripe pears

Sugar syrup:
50g caster sugar
50ml water
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
juice of 1 lemon

75g butter, softened to room temperature
75g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
75g ground almonds
2 tbsp plain flour
1 1/2 tsp amaretto

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about the thickness of a one pound coin, and use a 20 cm round cake tin as a guide to cut out a neat circle. Transfer the pastry to a baking sheet, then lightly score a 1.5-2cm edge round it. Brush the rim with the egg wash to glaze, then chill while you prepare the filling. Place all the ingredients for the sugar syrup in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat and simmer for 10 minutes until thickened slightly, then leave to cool.

Meanwhile, beat together the butter and sugar for the frangipane. Slowly add the egg, mixing until fully incorporated. Add the almonds and flour and fold through. Finally, mix in the amaretto. Let the mixture stand for 5 minutes. Peel the pears, and then cut each in half lengthways. Remove the cores with a small spoon or a melon baller and discard. Cut each pear lengthways into thing slices, place in a large bowl and pour over the cooked sugar syrup. Leave them to macerate for a few minutes while you preheat the oven to 190 degrees C/Gas 5, using the conventional setting. (It is best not to use a fan oven for this recipe.)

Spread a layer of frangipane evenly over the pastry round, leaving the glazed rim clear. Drain the pears, dab dry with kitchen paper, then arrange on top in a concentric circle. Sift over a little icing sugar. Bake until the pears are tender and the filling is golden brown and set; about 35-45 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and leave to cool slightly. If you like, brush over the pears with the remaining syrup.
Dec. 10th, 2008 02:09 pm (UTC)
What is frangipani when it's not a flower?
Dec. 10th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
Frangipane is a French almond paste, used in a variety of ways, usually sweet, such as filling for a cake or pastry. I had to look up the flower! And now I know they're spelled differently - but only the last letter.

Fascinating - here's what the OED hypothesizes about their origins:
[a. F. frangipane, said to be from Frangipani, the name of the inventor.]

And for the earliest use of the flower's name:
1842 Curtis's Bot. Mag. LXVIII. 3952 It is from this circumstance [the white juice], probably, that the French call the species of this Genus ‘Franchipanier’, Franchipane being coagulated milk.]
Dec. 9th, 2008 11:41 pm (UTC)
I suspect they weren't angels, but Santa Lucia and her attendants. Though if they all had candles then they were all dressed as Santa Lucia which is a bit wrong and something started only recently in the interests of equality (because otherwise all the little girls who didn't get chosen might feel bad...)

Sweden is indeed one of the few places that celebrates the 13 December as a holiday, and the reasons behind it, should one choose to look into it, are rather arbitrary (and as recent as the 1800s) as are the traditions and symbology involved. My personal theory is that the Protestant Christmas failed to absorb enough local tradition that another wintertime holiday was needed.
Dec. 9th, 2008 11:47 pm (UTC)
How useful you are! You're right, only one of them had the wreath; the others, however, I'm quite sure, were wearing golden halos. (Now I wish I'd taken photos to be sure!) They were all in white with gold sashes at their waists.

I've long been fond - if ignorant - about Santa Lucia, since my undergraduate friend SmithKatie celebrated her day every year. Also, I like candles.
Dec. 9th, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
Looking around at photos - I bet you're right all all counts. I read head wreaths (without candles) as halos, whatever it was they looked like.
Dec. 10th, 2008 06:42 am (UTC)
The panna cotta dish intrigues me--I don't like olives, but you make it sound like it worked in the dish. Hmmm.

I used to work seasonally in a store called The Viking House, which specialized in all things Scandinavian. A Swedish Christmas CD was often on repeat in December, and the only song that I remember (possibly because it was the only one with a phrase I understood) was "Santa Lucia." I still find myself humming the song sometimes.
Dec. 10th, 2008 11:15 pm (UTC)
It was a really lovely use of olives, both sweet and salty, and used delicately as a seasoning rather than for bulk at all.
Dec. 10th, 2008 08:27 am (UTC)
So what constitutes an English minestrone? I think the Italian version is a pasta soup with whatever vegetables and meat is to hand, but I could be wrong!
Dec. 10th, 2008 11:14 pm (UTC)
It must have pasta in it when it's an English minestrone. In Italy, it must have vegetables - it's a hearty vegetable soup. Rice or pasta are usual too, but it doesn't have to be pasta. Potato cubes are good too. Meat is by no means required for the Italian version; I don't know if it's required for the English one. Perhaps it is?
Dec. 11th, 2008 08:25 am (UTC)
My local veggie restaurant does a good soup they call a minestrone. It's pasta, tomato based with lots of veg.
Dec. 10th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC)
Um, was there a recipe for the black olive caramel etc? If you can be bothered typing it out...? *is intrigued*
Dec. 10th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, no. The only Maze recipe is Slow-cooked chicken with smoked mussel and brown bread sauce (from the Maze Cookbook), which is not at all the same thing (obviously).

However it's made, I suspect it involves skinning them, simmering them extensively before purée'ing, and a fair amount of sugar to make it into a caramel. Plus salt for seasoning - I would use larger flaked salt in a recreation attempt, I think.

Write to Maze and ask? I'd love to know too.
Dec. 15th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)
I was one of the lucky ones plucked from the crowd! It was my 30th birthday too.. Food was awesome. managed to recreate the apple-parsnip-chestnut soup the other night, wow. Had reservations at maze that night, ate at nobu instead as he'd already cooked for me that day;)
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