22 April 2015

Review : The Balmer Lawn Hotel, Brockenhurst

I'm sure you are all aware that when I find something good, I like to spread the word so that other people can also enjoy that good thing.

Well, recently we went to the Balmer Lawn Hotel for a lunch to celebrate my parents' 61st wedding anniversary and my Mum's birthday.  Thank goodness, we were in anything but a hurry when we attended this lovely hotel as the service was attentive, but regrettably slow.  However, we weren't pressurised for time and had written out the entire afternoon for the adventure so the long wait in between courses wasn't a problem.  That aside, if you find yourself in the New Forest and looking for somewhere a little bit special, a little bit country house with ponies on the front lawn in which to stay, lunch or dine - the Balmer Lawn Hotel (Tel. 01590 421066) is an excellent choice.  However, I must point out that this review is purely of the restaurant and does not take in any of the accommodation or spa facilities.

The Hotel is in a beautiful position and has recently been renovated, so the paintwork and decoration is both tasteful and delightfully clean.  Apart from these huge positives, the very great strength of the Balmer Lawn is its staff who are attentive, charming and extremely helpful.  Not once were we made to feel uncomfortable or unsure - and as a disabled person in a wheelchair, that is something of a rarity!

We congregated in the spacious lounge and nobody turned a hair as we re-arranged the comfy chairs and coffee tables to accommodate our rather large party.  Everyone enjoyed a pre-lunch drink from the bar in the lounge before adjourning to the dining hall, passing through the splendidly wood panelled reception on the way.

The dining hall is a lovely room with plenty of space for a large party and lots of lovely natural light from the gallery of large windows.

The meal itself was decreed to be extremely good by the entire party, although I had some slight issues with my meal.  However, being a self-confessed foodie of long standing, I have to admit that I am a very hard person to please.  Owing to the transient nature of menu items, it is very probable that by the time you get there the menu items I chose would have been changed as the Hotel endeavours to capitalise on local and seasonal produce.

I can, however, recommend their fish cookery as being quite superb - but we will get to that as we go along.

We enjoyed some good quality bread of two types along with a tasty olive oil with goat's curd and pink peppercorns as we pondered the menu and made our choices.

I chose the ham hock terrine with piccalilli as my starter.  It arrived on a wooden board and I have to admit that I am so over food on wooden boards.  Just put my food on a plate, why don't you?  They are easy to clean, look beautiful and are far less likely to harbour bacteria as they age.  I would also contest the title of "terrine", as presentation-wise, it was much more of a skinless sausage than it was ever a terrine.  Regrettably, it was also lacking in any discernible flavour other than that of the ham.  I could see that herbs and perhaps celery had been used in the preparation of the meat - they just weren't demonstrating their presence by way of flavour.

The multigrain toast was delicious, however with four pieces of toast but three pieces of terrine, one had to be cautious in eking out each mouthful.  I can't help thinking that four pieces of terrine would have been an improvement, or three pieces of toast - one or the other!  A marked lack across all the starters that involved bread or toast, was any involvement of butter.  The piccalilli did a grand job of lubricating each mouthful, but a little butter would have definitely have helped.  For all that though, the starter was very acceptable and I dare say the majority would have been happy enough.

Our son chose the Seafood Platter for his starter, which proved to be quite outstanding although the portion size was perhaps better suited to a main course or sharing platter.  However, with two types of mackerel, prawns, brown shrimp, two types of salmon and cockles, along with two sauces and a choice of two types of bread - quite stunning! - he was a tiny bit gleeful and more than man enough for the job.  Once again, however, this was presented on a wooden board and the appetising presentation deteriorated rapidly once the two sauces came into play.

Hubby's choice of starter was the Rosary goat's cheese with beetroot and pickled vegetable salad, which he was thoroughly enamoured with.  He loved the fresh flavour of the goat's cheese, which suited the sweet, earthy beetroot carpaccio beautifully and very definitely appreciated that the pickled carrot had been pickled in a different style of vinaigrette to that used on the beetroot.  A small point, but one which made such a difference.

I apologise for not catching a photograph of everyone's choices, by the way.  I do attempt to be discrete when photographing restaurant food, so that accounts for the lack of a full photographic record.  However, I'm fortunate in having a foodie-in-training in our son, who also took photographs of his food, which I'm using - so thank you son & heir!

The fillet of Sea Bream with crushed new potatoes, spinach and sauce vierge was an easy choice for my main course.  The fish was cooked to delicate, moist, golden perfection and utterly delicious.  The sheer quality of the fish cookery was slightly let down, however, by the greasiness of the crushed new potatoes which although buttery, when coupled with buttery spinach, proved a butter too far.  Perhaps chef was making up for the lack of butter in the starter, who knows!  My advice would be to increase the quantity of the sauce vierge that is on the plate, or reduce the quantity of butter used, as I very definitely needed that sharpness of the sauce vierge to cut through the cloying butteriness and there just wasn't enough.  However, I am being incredibly picky here - I can imagine that again, the majority of people would be extremely happy with this dish.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to change "extremely happy" to "ecstatic", now would it?

My husband had the beer battered fish and chips with tartare sauce and crushed peas and as he has the same at every location possible, is something of a fish and chip gourmet.  The dish served at the Balmer Lawn was quite probably the best fish and chips he has ever tasted from a venue in Dorset - which considering his previous favourite was The Three Tuns at Bransgore - is quite an accolade.  The real surprise with this dish, however, were the crushed peas!  The pea flavour was as fresh as a daisy, with buttery undertones and a lightness that spoke of mint, or lemon (or both!).  Just scrummy.

Our son, predictably, chose the sirloin steak and was disappointed to find his served more of a medium than medium rare, as is his normal choice and indeed what he asked for.  However, he was very content with both the flavour and texture, not to mention jolly impressed by the big chunky chips that accompanied the steak.

My extremely naughty and indulgent choice for dessert was the chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce and hazelnut ice cream.  The brownie came served hot, which just increased the yum factor by many and the hazelnut ice cream was divine.  The chocolate sauce was a joke, taking the form of a paintbrushed smudge across the plate that is really no use to man nor beast except to add colour, so don't expect much from that!  However, the brownie and icecream more than made up for the lack of sauce, so don't be put off!

All this was in stark contrast to the interesting and enticing sounding home made waffle with hot cherries and vanilla ice cream - my hubby's choice - which turned out to be just a dry waffle with just five embarrassed looking cherries and no sauce!  Nice enough, but my gosh what a missed opportunity to create something luscious.

For all that I have been universally critical of the food, you have to remember that the food is my focus.  I know how to cook the majority of these dishes and appreciate it when a chef has obviously gone the extra mile - plus can spot when the chef has stopped short.  The whole of the party professed themselves extremely pleased with their meals (with the exception of the dry waffle/embarrassed cherry combination).  The criticism I have offered makes the difference between a meal being - as it was - great, or being outstanding.

For the prices of each dish (as at April 2015) - ranging from around £7 (ham hock terrine) to £20 (sirloin steak) - served in a genteel, quality establishment in such beautiful surroundings, I think the Balmer Lawn Hotel did very well.  If the restaurant facilities could just speed up the delivery of each course, there would be little to complain about.  A three quarters of an hour wait between main course and dessert, really is pushing it however.  We fully appreciated that with a wedding to cater for at the same time as our lunch, no doubt the kitchen was busy - but really, don't accept a booking if you can't deliver what you are offering.

So, make sure you have loads of time in hand when you book to eat in the Balmer Lawn - a leisurely meal with friends to talk to, is definitely the way to go.

21 April 2015

Forget onion jam - here comes Rhubarb & Apple Relish!

This is one of those recipes that has jumped the queue of recipes waiting to come to you, just because it is SO good.

With rhubarb leaping out of the ground in abundance (well, it is in our garden), you might be looking for something new to do with it - and this relish is a thing of rare beauty that deserves to be made.

My hubby is going through a bit of a purple patch with regard to cooking at the moment.  He's bored rigid with cooking dinners, but interesting little challenges like making a relish out of our gorgeous rhubarb still have the capacity to fire him up.  We were discussing what to eat for the week (also known as "making the menu plan") and had decided to go for a Ploughman's Lunch (or Ploughman's Dinner, as it shall be).  Now of course, a Ploughman's requires some tasty pickle or another.  "Perhaps piccalilli?", said hubby.  "Or, or - rhubarb chutney!" he amended, with obvious keenness.

Well that was it.  He was out in the garden, laying waste to the nearest rhubarb, before I could say "great idea!".

The end result is truly one of those pickles/preserves that you taste at a Farmer's Market and think "I'll never be able to afford some of that", before finding out that a small jar costs about a million quid.  Here, you wind up with about four times the amount, for a fraction of the price.  I think that probably, the most expensive item was either the sugar, vinegar or ginger (presuming you've got the rhubarb in the garden already), but if you've a well stocked larder you may well find that you can come up with the ingredients without a trip to the shops.

The relish is jammy, dark and sticky with a most delicious crunch from the mustard seeds and a delightful warmth from the chilli.  The rhubarb flavour is very definitely right up there and is supported by the tart apple.  As I said to hubby, I'll have mine on my ice cream please!

In fact, we've tried it on chicken sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, cheese with biscuits, tinned mackerel, off a teaspoon and of course as part of the aforesaid Ploughman's.  In every context it has been flipping gorgeous.

I have no Cook's Notes for you, as there are so few instructions - just put it all in a pot and cook - there is very little that can go wrong!  Just don't overheat it and allow it to burn.

Oh and incidentally, if you're wondering what makes it a relish instead of a chutney, a relish is a chutney that isn't made to be able to store for long periods.  For this little lovely to be a relish is absolutely 100% appropriate, as I doubt it is going to stay in our fridge for very long at all. 

RHUBARB & APPLE RELISH  (Makes a large (12oz) jar or around 2 cups)


250g rhubarb, chopped into 1 inch chunks
250g soft dark brown sugar
125ml good quality cider vinegar (Aspall's is great)
200g Granny Smith apple, peeled and cut into half inch chunks
100g onion, chopped
20g stem or crystallised ginger, finely chopped
50g sultanas
1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
half a tsp of sea salt
a pinch of dried red chilli flakes - to taste
pinch of ground cloves
half a tsp of allspice
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg.


1.  Put everything in a non-reactive saucepan.  Bring to a simmer.  Simmer for 1 hour - stirring regularly - until the relish is good and thick.

2.  Pour into a sterilised jar (or jars), seal and leave to cool.

Refrigerate, the relish will keep for approximately 1 month.

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3 April 2015

Really Lemony Lemon Sponge Birthday Cake

This year was my mum's 80th birthday.  Now I know you're not supposed to broadcast a lady's age, but there comes a time when it is to be celebrated rather than hidden - and I reckon that 80 is that time.

My mum's birthday has been the source of some amusement and confusion over the years, because it arrives so quickly after Christmas - the 6th January - and she'd got fed up with having a Chrisbirthday.  One year we even tried delaying her birthday until May.  Of course, we all forgot and she didn't get a birthday at all that year.  Ooops.

In order to make a fuss of her, this year I decided to lay on an afternoon tea with every little tasty morsel in flavours that she would like and in sizes that would mean both her and my Dad could sample a little bit of everything.  As I know only to well, the older you get the smaller your capacity for tasty morsels becomes!

So we had a lovely tea, which consisted of Emmenthal & Bacon Quichelets, egg mayonnaise & cress sandwiches, Bavarian ham & wholegrain mustard sandwiches, a tiny salad in a leaf and almond & raspberry biscuits.  All of which were delicious and all of which led up to the piece de resistance - the lemon sponge birthday cake.

For one of my Dad's birthdays, I had made a big, butch, manly chocolate & beetroot cake which went down very well.  However, I needed something a lot more ladylike and refined.  I pondered on coffee cake, as I know she makes a wonderful coffee and walnut cake - but I doubted that mine would be able to compete and anyway, I felt it would be better to make something that wasn't "usual" for her.

Lemon top right being the interloper in the bunch!
Just that week, we'd bought some fantastic Sicilian lemons for use in drinks and I'd been able to sample how sweet and juicy they were.  This, naturally, brought the idea of the lemon sponge to the fore.  The Sicilian lemons would be perfect, as they were huge - so would provide a good quantity of lemon zest, they were as sweet as a dessert fruit and the intensity of the lemon aroma and zing was just incredible.  It just so happened that I also had a little bottle of Sicilian Lemon concentrate in the baking cupboard.  I felt sure that with a lemon curd filling, the cake would be perfect.

For the last 15 years or more, whenever I've been required to produce a sponge cake, I've used Delia Smith's All In One Sponge recipe.  I've made coconut versions, chocolate, lemon, coffee - just about every combination you could think of, so I didn't have to look very far for a tried and tested recipe.

However, this was an 80th birthday cake - so a dash of icing sugar on the top with a few sprinkles just wasn't going to cut it.  I needed to think up something a bit better as regards decoration.

So what do you think?  I reckon I thought up something a bit better than icing sugar and sprinkles.  *wink*

Now this was the very first time I had ever used fondant icing on anything - much less a very important birthday cake.

I made the cake the day before and kept it overnight in a freezer bag so as to ensure it didn't dry out at all.

The day before the tea party, I set to with fondant icing, apricot jam and lemon curd.  Well, the lemon curd bit was easy enough - a nice thick covering on top of one sponge and then delicately lay the second on top.  So far so good.

Next, was painting the surface and sides with watered down apricot jam - enough to help the fondant icing to stick nicely.

Then because the colour of the base icing was white, I spent a good ten minutes or so cleaning up every single little cake crumb (and sponge cakes are very good at shedding cake crumbs) from the working surface.

The leaves are finished, now for the flowers!
This next was the bit that I was the most nervous about, as I knew I had just one go at getting it right.  I had to roll the icing out (which it does very well, no arguing at all) to a shape that would easily cover the cake without any holes or gaps and make sure it didn't crack on the way from worktop to cake.  Deep breaths.  Well, it went perfectly.  As per the instructions, I draped the icing over the rolling pin and with a quick but steady "whoop!", whooped it over and flump - on top it went and couldn't have been better.  It sat perfectly (and without any militant crumbs to break the pristine whiteness), covered beautifully and I was able to trim it up so easily.  I don't really know what I was worried about.  *wink*

The next job was to smooth and stroke the white icing, so as to gain a slightly shiny surface rather than the matte one that is natural for the icing.  That took another ten minutes or so and a clean pastry brush certainly helped with removing the loose sugar grains.

All that was left was to cut out the leaves (easy done, with a set of differently sized icing cutters) and flowers (ditto), marble the icing with green food colouring and cut out more leaves, paint the plain coloured leaves (yes, every one was painted with food colour) in different shades and patterns and form some of the leaves (the ones to go on top) into distorted shapes so as to give the leaf trail some movement.

I used lemon juice to wet each leaf and flower before settling them into place on the cake.  Well, why turn down the opportunity to get a little more lemon flavour in there?  The icing is flavoured with vanilla naturally, so there was no clash in flavours.

The whole process of filling and decorating the cake took around three hours, all in all.  Every minute spent was worth it though.  If it wasn't for the fact that we'd all be shaped like bowling balls, I would make many more cakes that require extensive decoration!

I love how the cake looked when it was finished.  If I've ever been proud of something I've created, it was this.  Mum looked suitably impressed and happy with it when we produced it along with a truly appalling rendition of "Happy Birthday To You" and I hope its prettiness helped to smooth over the worst of the singing.

As for the recipe, I have set it out below as there are a couple of little baking variations to Delia's original recipe and if you want a REALLY lemony lemon sponge, you might want to follow along.

I haven't detailed the decoration in the recipe as you can serve the sponge very successfully with just a sprinkle of icing sugar on top.  You could even drizzle some lemon syrup over it once you've filled it - and some dairy cream would be delicious in the middle with the lemon curd if you're feeling summery too.  The world is your oyster with this sponge cake recipe, it really is that forgiving!  For dessert or with a cup of tea, it will do the lot.

Now, in an enormous departure for Rhubarb & Ginger - and as an indication of just how pleased I was with this cake - I took a 365 degree video of it.  Feel free to gasp in awe and exclaim in admiration, I'll hear you!

REALLY LEMONY LEMON SPONGE CAKE   (serves 6-12 depending on size of slice!)

Ingredients :

175g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 large eggs
175g caster sugar
175g softened unsalted butter
the zest of 1 large lemon
the juice of half a large lemon
1 tsp Sicilian lemon extract
4-5 tbsp lemon curd.

Method :

1.  Take a very large mixing bowl. Measure out the flour and baking powder and using a sieve, sift into the bowl.

2.  Now simply add all the other ingredients (apart from the lemon curd, which is for the filling) to the bowl and whisk everything together until you have a smooth, well-combined mixture.  Provided the butter is good and soft, this shouldn't take longer than a couple of minutes.

3.  You should have a soft mixture that is of dropping consistency.  If it seems a little too stiff, you can always add some more lemon juice or a tablespoonful of warm water to mobilise it a bit.

4.  Divide the mixture between two eight inch (20cm) tins that have a piece of greaseproof paper or cooking parchment covering the base of each and that have been lightly buttered.  Level out the surface but leave a very slight dip in the centre to prevent the cake from crowning too much as it rises.  Place on the centre shelf of a pre-heated oven at 170degC/325degF/Gas 3. It will take 30-35 minutes to cook – but don't open the oven door to check it until 25 minutes have elapsed.

5.  You will know when the cakes are done, by touching the centre of the cake lightly.  If your finger leaves no impression - and the cake springs back - it is cooked.

6.  Leave the cakes to cool slightly on a cooling rack, before removing them from their tins.  Leave them sat upon the paper layer, on the cooling rack, to cool completely.

7.  Once utterly cold, carefully remove the paper layer and decide which is to be the bottom layer and which the top.  Place the bottom layer onto your cake plate top surface down.  Coat the cake in the lemon curd - generously - and carefully lay the second cake on top.

8.  You are now free to decorate the cake in whichever way you feel appropriate!

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