Wednesday 21 May 2014

CiCi-CoCo Cookery School

Location: Cuddington, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP18, UK

One wet Wednesday a couple of months ago, I arrived at a gorgeous little stone cottage, in a village on the outskirts of Aylesbury. The cottage itself turned out to be quite the tardis - opening out into a modern glass and steel kitchen extension, overlooking beautifully manicured lawns. Greeting me on a homely wooden table was a delicious ricotta and almond cake, flanked on either side by a bottle of San Pellegrino and a big bunch of Tulips - not the toughest of days then!

So what was the reason for this escape from my usual chaos of nappies and play groups? A cookery class at CiCi-CoCo Cookery School, to which I had kindly been invited by Giuliana - the lady behind CiCi-CoCo and its wonderful lasagne!

If you've visited Vale Harvest Market in the past, or ventured to Selfridges Food Hall, then you may be familiar with CiCi-CoCo already. Residing in Cuddington in Buckinghamshire, Giuliana originates from much sunnier climes, specifically Friuli Venezia Giulia in the north of Italy. Having built a business selling Italian meals and pasta, picking up a few awards along the way, Giuliana branched out into cookery classes - lucky for me, as it meant I got to spend a few pleasant hours with good people and good food.

Over the course of the next three hours I, along with three other students (one young couple whose places were purchased as a gift, plus a returning student), assisted in the preparation of a two course Italian meal, centred around the 'Flavours of the Italian Alps' - a  sumptuous polenta starter of Toc' in Braide (the farmer sauce), followed by an Oxford wild venison, pork, mushroom and Sud Tirol speck ragu baked with Socchievina mountain style polenta. Not quite diet food, but then when is diet food ever this good?

A slice of cake and a cuppa was the perfect ice breaker and start to the course, then pinnies on, hands washed and on with the cooking. Baked polenta and the ragu to start with, wonderfully high quality ingredients all laid out awaiting our attention. We chopped, we chatted, we tasted, we drank more coffee; I even picked up a few tips along the way (add some milk to your ragu - sounds a bit odd but leads to a wonderfully rich and creamy).

Once the ragu was simmering and the polenta was in the oven, we moved on to our wickedly naughty starter - think full fat milk, polenta, butter, cream and cheese, topped of with sautéed mushrooms - absolutely delicious. Rich, smooth, silky... bordering on sensual, this would be well received at any dinner party or restaurant. Once we'd all ooh'd and ahh'd over the soft polenta it was time to move on to the baked version, this time with that wonderful rich ragu. Served up with braised cabbage and bacon, the ragu and mountain style polenta was earthy, heart-hugging, home cooking; great for a large family gathering or meal with friends.

With the cookery class done, I was somewhat hesitant to leave the cool calm of Giuliana's kitchen; she'd been a warm host, a patient teacher and an oasis of calm amidst a sea of life's usual to-do lists, chores and toddler negotiations. I'd met some great people, talked a lot about food, eaten well and added a few extra dishes to my personal repertoire - not a bad way to spend a morning!

If you've previously purchased some of Giuliana's fab lasagne (count me in, I loved the venison & chestnut version), then you'll be sad to hear she is no longer selling them. But, if you're interested in attending one of her cookery classes then you'll be very happy to hear Giuliana will be focussing her efforts here, with a selection of interesting classes coming up. And, if you're a home-leaving student in need a repertoire of meals to cook yourself, or the parent or grandparent of one, then Giuliana's 'Cooking for College' classes will definitely be of interest.

Here's a list of CiCi-CoCo's upcoming classes (do check the website for further events):

06/06/2014 – Friday 10-3
Tyringham Hall: £95
Italian lunch 2. 
Summer in Tuscany: family lunch al fresco. Traditional recipes form the Tuscan hills using local and seasonal ingredients to taste for lunch. Perfect with a good bottle of Chianti in the wonderful setting of Tyringham hall.

17/06/2014 Tuesday 10-3
Beam Cottage: £65
Quattro pasta 3: Summer feast!
Summer’s here. Enjoy making pasta for lunches, in salads with the best local seasonal produce, meats and cheeses.

29/06/2014 Sunday 10-3
Sandy Lane Farm: £95
Italian lunch 3. 
A Sicilian family feast! 
Using all the beautiful ingredients from the farm you will cook and eat a three courses Sicilian style lunch with a refreshing glass of wine. 

A series of fun, hands-on courses to equip first-time home-leavers with the knowledge and skills to cook simple, delicious and nutritious meals on a student budget
Session 1: The Famous Five. The five classic pasta sauces: Authentic Ragu’ alla Bolognese, Carbonara, Spicy Sausage & Chilli, Puttanesca and Neopolitan Meatball Ragu’.
Session 2: Kitchen Parties
Session 3: Quick Street Food.
Aug 6th, 12th & 14th. 10-2pm (ish) inc lunch.
£75 per session; 2 for £135; or 3 part course for £200

CiCi CoCo
Twitter: @cicicocokitchen
Facebook: @CiCiCoCoKitchen

I was invited as a guest of CiCi CoCo Cookery School

Sunday 11 May 2014

Restaurant Review - 1855

Location: Oxford Castle, 6 New Road, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 1AY, UK

The true test of a restaurant's customer service has to be in it's ability to handle a customer complaint. Serve me up an undercooked sausage then tell me it's meant to be cooked like that, I'll be livid; but apologise unreservedly and bring me a perfectly cooked banger, all is forgiven. So when faced with a rather unusual complaint from me on a recent visit, I was hugely impressed that the team at 1855 were unflappable, apologetic and quick to address the issue.

Having visited 1855 for its launch last December, I'd been meaning to return for ages, but what with one thing or another, it had taken me a while to get back there. With the promise of tasty dishes on the menu, Ue coffee at the bar and free wifi, I was pleased to be returning for a spot of blogging and a lunch meeting.

With an hour or so to spare before my meeting, I grabbed a seat in front of the glass-fronted wine bar bistro to crack on with some writing, with a little 'people watching' thrown in for good measure. Great coffee, quiet setting, hospitable staff - all going well so far. My companion (Katy) joined me a little later, ordering a house selection of three cheeses (£11.50), possibly easier for mid-meeting eating than my confit duck requested (£8.95), but arguably less enticing.

That's not a knife, THIS is a knife!
House three cheeses with hand made biscuits & quince jelly

Confit Duck with salad and sourdough

The cheese selection arrived accompanied by handmade biscuits and quince jelly, Katy happily nibbling away, showing all the signs of being satisfied with an agreeable plate of food. The confit duck arrived soft-skinned, served alongside sourdough, a tomato confit and salad leaves. Whilst some may have expected a crispy skin to their duck, I was less bothered - not a fan of fat on meat it was swiftly removed. Skin aside, the duck was delicious; simple but elegant, rich and silky, I could've eaten it several times over. While this may be one of the larger dishes on the menu, with most of the dishes being more like bar snacks, it still remains light - leaving plenty of room to partake in a glass of vino or several. On this occasion I wasn't drinking, so won't discuss the wines other than to say each one sampled on launch night impressed (and ask MrF, I'm really quite difficult to please with wine).

Still going well. That is until I found we'd not been dining alone.

With at least two thirds of the duck eaten, I found a little 'guest' which had seemingly been confit'd along with the duck, attached to the bone. On alerting a waitress quietly to the unfortunate woodlouse, she promptly whisked my plate away with a sincere apology, offering to remove both meals from our bill. General Manager, Alistair, then followed afterwards to apologise. As far as complaint handling goes, this has to be pretty textbook - no excuses, no deliberations, no doubt, just sincere apologies and removal of the food from the bill. Downright good customer service.

Now, I must say, this particular complaint was a highly unusual experience for me, and not one I expect 1855 had encountered before either. Had they handled the issue poorly, I would have gone away fuming, not wishing to return. In the end, I went away feeling happy to revisit, maybe even ordering the same dish (minus the added seasoning). Goes to show what a good customer service can do; and, to be fair, if you were ever going to eat a woodlouse then confit seems a great way to do it!

Overall score: 6 (7 without the added 'guest')

1855 provided the following comment in response:
Following this incident of the 'guest' in the duck, we... removed the remaining stock as a precaution. Each of these Confit of Duck have since been checked and nothing untoward was found... ...followed back through our hygiene procedures and at no stage could the foreign body have entered the system in either the bar or our kitchen... ...contacted our local supplier and provided details for the original supplier, we await their response. We see no reason for the issue arising at our local supplier.
 It seems from the position of the foreign item that it was within the body of meat prior to cooking. This most probably occurred during the original packaging of the duck. We work to the highest possible standards at all times through our preparation, cooking and customer service. Once again we apologise for this unusual and unfortunate incident.
4 Oxford Castle
New Road
Twitter: @1855oxford
Facebook: @1855
Phone: 01865 247217

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Foodie Overhaul

Location: Oxford, UK
Every now and then, life gets just a little more complicated and a little more hectic - you add little hobby here, a new exercise routine there, a couple of extra projects and, before you know it, you suddenly realise you can't juggle any more.

Two kids, two websites, a fledgling business, a household to manage AND a residents' committee brought me to just that point. Thankfully though, I've recognised it before it drove me totally insane.

So, time to prioritise. You'll see a few minor changes to Foodie, while I'm busily squirrelling away on Bitten Oxford, but hopefully it will mean improvements for both.

Foodie will continue, as my ongoing hunt for great food - be that in recipe books, at home, on holiday, round the corner... wherever I find it. The Foodie Events Guides will stop (sorry if you were enjoying these), and the Foodie Events Calendar will eventually relocate to Bitten as part of Bitten Events, promoting lots of wonderful food-based things do to locally.

I'll continue publishing restaurants reviews here on Foodie, along with my Top Picks and search for #OxSundayBest. The #OxTweatUp events will all be organised by Bitten, so do make sure you sign up to the Newsletter to keep up to date with upcoming events.

In the meantime stay tuned for reviews of 1855, The Wandering Kitchen and CiCi-CoCo Cookery School, plus food travel features on Suffolk and London street food.

Foodie x
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