A week in Malta


A week in Malta

Let me start by saying this is a personal view of our family trip to Malta in October 2012, and by no means a definitive guide.

We wanted a week in the sun during the autumn half term. We didn’t want to stray into a possible war zone, or for it to be full of British ham, egg & chips and we wanted the journey to be straightforward as we have 2 young children and it was their first trip abroad.

Working through a short list of ideas; Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, the island of Malta leapt out. With a little research (5 minutes) and a heavily reduced Villa price from ‘James Villa Holidays’ our week away was booked.

Overall impression of Malta ... some of the most amazing European architecture I’ve ever seen particularly the city of Valetta, the history of the Knights of St. John and their reign over Malta for 200’ish years makes for an extraordinary history. This was followed by an accidental take-over by Britain to boot the French out and they ended up staying 150 years until 1964. The architecture is southern European with Arabic place names and British phone boxes, 3-pin plugs and driving on the left hand side of the road (and of course, they all speak English, often with a disconcerting British regional accent).
As you drive around you pass numerous early 1980’s Ford Escorts and Morris Marinas, all in perfect condition, it starts freaking you out after a while. The whole country feels like it’s 1980 again, electricity failures, bad internet connectivity, 7up signs (or is that just the Mediterranean?).
We were disappointed in the beaches and facilities for children but they were very welcome in the restaurants. We eat at a wonderful Maltese restaurant called ?, the food was Maltese, a fusion of European, Mediterranean and  Middle Eastern influences. The service was great, the food was great, the children ate the food ... it was a wonderful evening out. To balance that, we also went to a Chinese restaurant local to the town we were staying in, it was dire, bad service, bad food, but the children eat everything ... they love Chinese.
It was, however, a safe, friendly, warm and pleasant place to be from the moment we got off the plane, at no time did we feel unsafe or harassed ... as a country, for a first overseas trip for our family, it was a good choice.

What the children thought
The children thought it was great. It was their first time in an aeroplane, first time swimming in the sea, first time abroad, first time on a coach (transfer to/from the airport at Gatwick), first time having their own swimming pool to play in, ... They took all of it in their stride and had their horizons expanded.

Highlights
Amazing architecture built by the Knights of St. John; lovely, welcoming, relaxed people; easy transport links between UK and Malta; hot, sunny weather; the Britishness of so many things makes things seem familiar. We learnt about history we didn’t have a clue about before which surprised and delighted us.

Sights of Valetta
















Lowlights
Shockingly bad roads, full of pot holes and a total lack of adherence to driving rules, if there are any, although it’s done in a very non-assertive way. Crowded, very few usable beaches ... the coastline is very rocky, the local habit of shooting birds is disconcerting when, as happened to us, they start shooting just above the beach. Really scruffy rental car (booked through James Villas), boot wouldn’t open, petrol cover lock broken open and a €35 petrol charge for €20 ½ tank worth of petrol when we arrived to collect it.

Things to see and do
Valetta, the 3 Cities and Mdina
9/10
The rest ... not so good, few shops, beaches or sights
4/10

Beaches
We found one good beach but down an steep uneven track of broken concrete and bird shooting 200m away, all other beaches were either rocky drop offs or beside a busy road
2/10

Food
OK ... mish mash of cuisines and nothing really stood out. Lots of british favourites in shops. A few very good restaurants
6/10

Getting about by car
There seems to be an awful lot of buses, so we’re assuming that public transport is good and regular.
Signage is poor, driving is difficult with all the pot holes, it has the highest accident rate in Europe, tailgating and blind overtaking but it’s all done with such good humour you can’t be offended.
4/10

Accommodation
Expected a bit better from James Villas, tired, bits broken and a night without electricity due to poor wiring but spacious, clean and a lovely pool . Frustrating to not be allowed into the house till 4pm, six hours after arrival but have to be out by 10am on departure day
6/10

Overall rating
6/10

Will we be coming back ?
Unlikely

It lacks that something special that would keep us coming back for more, we’ll probably risk mangling our Italian and go to Sicily or Sardinia next time. Although, I’d make a special day trip to see Valetta again.

Dinner at Le Chateaubriand and more

This isn't meant to be a detailed review. A week's break beckoned and a couple of fellow, foodie and motorbike loving mates and I came up with the idea of trying Le Chateaubriand for dinner. Matt of Maison Mattmoo and Justin of the superb Town Mill Cheesemonger in nearby Lyme Regis and I headed out early Monday morning, Justin and I meeting in a McD's carpark at 5:15 am before heading to the ferry, a couple of hours down the motorway and we're tucking into Moules in Honfleur after meeting up with Matt ... well worth a stop !

A few hours further on and squinting at my iphone's GPS we're heading towards the Arc De Triomphe ... and the one roundabout I've always wanted to go around on a bike (in a slightly massochistic way) ! I pushed my way through in a somewhat assertive way on the Harley and blasted down the Champs-Élysées with Matt and about 50 scooters in tow (Justin rides in a far more mannered way and we met him at the hotel) ... absolutely brilliant fun !

Paris Tuesday consisted of a visit to Dehillerin ... amazing kitchen bits shop ... I managed to control my urge to buy everything in sight ! Then a couple of amazing cheese shops, Androuet being the main one, they also have a branch and restaurant in London.

And so to Dinner. We'd tried to book but it was full so we were there on the off chance we could blag a table and there was a whisper that a second booking was available ... we rocked up about 8:30 and found what looked like a cafe, busy but certainly didn't give the appearance of the 9th best restaurant in the western world and the best in France ( S.Pelligrino 50 best restaurants in the world) ... it was casual, open to the road, a bar you could stand at and order a drink ... wooden unmatched tables and chairs. Could we get a table ? "Come back at 9:30"

We returned, queued for an hour with mostly American students who'd never heard of the restaurant as far as I could tell, and finally sat down.
If your name's not on the list you're not getting in before me !

The menu was a single sheet of paper, no options, we had smokers near us outside the restaurant and people staring as we ate ...

The food is mostly un cooked raw foods, wild plants, edible flowers and seafood, which reflects the tiny kitchen they serve from.

But ... I have to honestly say it was one of the best meals I've ever eaten, no contest. When Matt had originally suggested the trip he said he thought it'd be up my street ... absolutely it was. The flavours are intense, the food is surprisingly simple, the perfection of flavours was just heaven for me. It is food as I'd love to be able to serve and absolutely inspirational ... I will remember it for a long time and definitely return.

More photos to be added:

Elderflower Tempura and Elderflower Cordial

Elderflower is just starting to appear, early this year. A simple way to cook flowers is in a tempura batter. I had intended to make the tempura with champagne but after trying decided to have a go with some sparkling elderflower cordial as the champagne overpowered the elderflower.
Elderflower is highly aromatic, something like 80% of our taste comes from aroma so very important to find a way to keep the lovely aroma through the cooking.

Elderflower Tempura 
Ingredients:
3-4 heads of Elderflowers, pick when the flowers are fully formed and deeply fragrant
1/4 Cup Cornflour
1/2 Cup Plain Flour
1 Egg White (use a good free range egg, I recommend Happy Eggs)
1/2 Cup chilled Sparkling Elderflower Cordial (recipe below)
pinch of fine salt

Vegetable oil to fry

Method
Whisk the egg white till stiff peaks form, add the cordial then fold in the sifted flour, the batter mix should be wet, consistency of single cream.

Heat the oil to approx 180C (one of the best investments you can make is a good cooking thermometer)

Drag small 'branches' of elderflower through the batter and place gently in the oil, drop the elderflower away from yourself to avoid splashes
Cook for approximately 30 seconds before turning over and cook the other side for 30 seconds

I like it served with fresh strawberries, but try with fresh whipped cream or ice cream.


Elderflower cordial

Ingredients
:
1.5 l water
1 kg of caster sugar
20 large elderflower heads
4 lemons
50g of citric acid

Method:
Bring water and sugar to simmer, stir to dissolve the sugar, leave to cool
Add the citric acid, Lemon juice and zest, elderflowers
Leave in a fridge for 72hr
Strain (I use a clean 'J' cloth in a sieve).
Simmer till reduced by 2/3 in volume then store in sanitised glass bottles
To make up mix with soda water to taste, I prefer about 20% cordial

DIY Sous Vide Waterbath

I've been asked a number of times how I made my Sous Vide waterbath. Its pretty simple to make one really, a sous vide bath is a hot water bath and an accurate temperature controller. You can buy a ready made one that incorporates all the elements in one package, or seperate the controller which enables you to use different equipment.

For day to day sous vide I use an Auber Sous Vide controller. This controller switches the output based on the temperature setting. Its an American controller but works on 240V so just needs a plug change for UK use. I then use a jug cord on the output side with a socket fitted to plug my 'bath' into. It also costs about £100.


This enables me to use any analog controlled (ie a switching not digital controller) setup, most wet Bain Maries, simple electric hot plates, soup kettles and slow cookers will work. All you have to do is plug the bath into the output of the controller, set the temperature higher than required, place the probe in the water then set the actual temperature on the controller ... done !

The benefit of this setup is I can use all manner of equipment, a fish or beef consomme as an overnight stock at 70 or 85C respectively in a regular stockpot sat on an electric ring or set the bain marie at 52C for slow cooking skirt steak ... in restaurant service 52C perfectly conditions steak in 15min to a warmed through medium rare, requiring a simple browning in a pan to serve.

A couple of tips ... from experience ... put a pie rack or a plate on the bottom of the bath so not to get 'burns' from the heating element directly underneath, when cooking for extended periods cover the bath to minimise water loss ...

For lots and lots more sous vide applications and information the best I've found is here ... Sous vide index

Kai We Care - popup restaurant for NZ quake

Twitter is an amazing and powerful tool for our times. I've seen statements like this said a number of times but hadn't realised till Monday night how true this can be.

One single tweet from me and approx 300 replies came flooding in within a few minutes.

A short conversation with Dave Ahern aka @corkgourmetguy, a blogger and fellow 'mature' newby chef … went along the lines of (and I'm paraphrasing):
  • D You doing anything for NZ Earthquake ?
  • M Running an auction for dinner/overnight, not sure what else to do
  • D Popup restaurant ?
  • M Too far from London and not enough time to handle as much as I want to, keep asking if anyone is so I can help out
  • D I run events for a living (or did), how about it? We could do a 30 cover dinner with our contacts alone
  • M Why not? I'll ask twitter and see what feedback I get

matkiwi Mat Follas
It's been suggested a popup fundraiser restaurant for nz earthquake ... London ... 4 or 5th April ... thoughts? Volunteers? Location?

What a response ! Literally hundreds of people offered their help immediately and lots more offering services and goodies.

Thank you all so much … I can't say that enough

So its starting to take shape.

Kai we care
Kai = Māori for food ... the name is a pun on Kiwi care ...
@KaiWeCare is the twitter account
The website (just starting) http://kaiwecare.weebly.com/

This is now somewhat bigger than envisiged (that's English understatement for you)

We have a whole bunch of seriously good chefs including Michelin starred on board to run a course each. Some you might know and some will be better known to chefs and their local communities. It will be great to get a few TV faces on board but just as fun for us to experience some of the lesser well known but exceptional chefs we have in the UK. For example we will have the lovely Lisa Faulkner (Celeb Masterchef winner) and the less well known Michelin starred Russell Brown from Sienna down here in Dorset. There's a few from Masterchef and The Restaurant on board and a whole bunch of exceptional chefs, more to come.

Harass your favourite chefs to offer to help, its a Monday so most of them will be available ! The best chefs we can get will make this an amazing event and help with the right ticket and auction prices … this is a fundraiser first and foremost, but we all want it to be an evening to be remembered too.

Lots of wine offers, great ! I'm thinking a wine company per course to sponser and a few special bottles for the Auction

Auction prizes: a number of meals, training courses and wines … please keep them coming !

Bloggers and twitters I need your help to sell tickets, We will need to source ingredients free or at cost and lots and lots of publicity so we can maximise ticket sales and auction values. I know you'll help and please bear with us as the above is all the planning we've been able to do so far.

Importantly:

Date:                                        4 April - put this in your diary now please !
(as a nice antidote to Mothers day it has been said ...)

Location                                   London
(several sites probable/possible at the moment, looking for size, kitchen and locations, hopefully finalize asap but please do suggest more)

Tickets                                     £ to be agreed (suggestions?)

Sale method                             Ebay or direct from the email account 

Numbers                                  100 planned

Who's doing what ? In rough terms I'm organising the chefs, Dave the location and auction and John running the twitter and email accounts and day to day … conveniently he has arranged to be unemployed while we're organising the event

Please retweet/email/blog/copy this letter and let your friends and family know.

More to come soon

Mat