Monday, 14 December 2009

The blogger leading the blogger

Food bloggers are usually elusive creatures. They come into the café, sit quietly, intently observe their surroundings, take photos of everything that is put in front of them, then retreat to their computers where they blog about their experience, letting their opinions be known to the entire world under some clever nom de plume (like say, Scrambling Eggs). The first I learn of their visit is when I stumble across their blog (if googling “Lantana cafe review” constitutes stumbling) by which time they are long gone and I unsuccessfully try to put a face to the blogger based on what they have written. You can guarantee if you forget someone’s side of bacon, or sit them on a wobbly chair, they will be a god damn food blogger.

Herein lies the frustration for restaurateurs. Unlike many well established restaurant reviewers like Fay Maschler, Giles Coren, AA Gill and Jay Rayner, who can be spotted immediately thanks to the photographs published beside their reviews, food bloggers are able to preserve their anonymity with the best disguises in the world. They look like IT programmers, graphic designers, students and accountants because often this is what they are from 9 to 5. By night and on the weekend they are bloggers, finding a creative outlet through the keyboard and connecting with other people who share their passion for food.

While food bloggers may not have the culinary expertise or writing skills of professional food critics, their ability to dine anonymously and receive non-sycophantic treatment gives their experience as an average diner an authenticity that well known restaurant reviewers have lost. Ruth Reichel, when she was the restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, famously wrote 2 reviews of a well known French Restaurant in New York. One was how she was treated when they did recognise her and the other when they didn’t because she was in disguise. The difference was enormous and demonstrated that restaurant reviewers’ experience of a restaurant is not necessarily authentic or useful to the average punter who is not going to receive special treatment.

So I was quite surprised the other day when one food blogger, known only to me as Catty, asked to do a video interview with me for her blog.

What? In the open? Face to face? At last, I got to meet one of these bloggers who will never be able to dine anonymously at Lantana again.

Funnily enough, since Catty posted this video on her blog I can now spot food bloggers more easily because they’re the ones ordering and photographing baked eggs.

Photo courtesy of Tummyrumble.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cafe's: Dens of innovation OR Starbucks: where it went wrong

The other night I went to hear Brian Eno and Steven Johnson give a talk at the ICA about technical innovation. Of all the things I thought I would learn that night, I did not expect to discover that I am in fact facilitating innovation. I am providing the environment and the drug for new ideas to flourish.

The legacy of coffee houses as connective hubs and incubators of innovation goes back to the 17th century. After the Great Fire of 1666 while the Royal Exchange was being rebuilt, coffee houses became de facto trading houses (one of which became Lloyds of London). People from all walks of life would sit at communal tables and talk, sharing ideas and engaging in political and intellectual debate. And unlike taverns, which for centuries had been the place to socialise and do business, the drug being abused at coffee houses was a stimulant rather than a depressant - much more conducive to innovation.

When I worked on innovation policy in my public service days it always felt a bit trite to suggest that putting a café in the foyer of shared office spaces would encourage entrepreneurs from different disciplines to meet, exchange ideas, collaborate and innovate.

But now I see it first hand everyday with our regulars and customers at Lantana. From the organised meetings like Cwoffee (a changing collection of planners and ad people who meet fortnightly), to the freelancers and start ups who use Lantana as a temporary office space (hey Moolis), to the workers in the areas (predominantly in creative industries like advertising, media, restaurants and design) who come to Lantana for a coffee or lunch break, there is constant networking, animated conversation and information exchange. Customers discuss bands and the news with the staff and strangers start talking to each other in the queue as they wait for takeaway coffee or as they sit together at communal tables. There’s a creative buzz - fuelled by caffeine.

And this leads me to Starbucks. Which is what I originally wanted to write a blog post about as for some time I’ve been thinking about it’s ‘demise’ and what it means for cafes in general. It is easy to say that Starbucks is suffering because it serves crap coffee and isn’t cool. But there has to be more to it than that. Doesn’t there? There is plenty of crap served in this town in uncool places and they are still doing business as usual.

What is interesting is that over the past year or so while Starbucks has been feeling the squeeze, London has seen a number of new independent cafes emerge and prosper.

Two of the three ‘underperforming’ Starbucks stores that have closed in London are in very close proximity to two of these independent cafes – Taylor St Baristas near Spitalfield Markets and us, Lantana in Fitzrovia.

Sure, this could be a coincidence but even Starbucks is not so quick to dismiss their small indie competitors with plans to ‘debrand’ some of the Starbucks stores to make them feel less homogenous and bland.

This proliferation of independent cafes is being labelled the third wave of coffee, which, as Gwilym Davies, current World Barista Champion is quoted as saying, is ”all very uncorporate”. Its about passion, freshness, sourcing the best coffee beans and extracting the best flavour.

I agree, it is about the coffee, but more importantly, its about the coffee house culture that independents create. With their eclectic furnishings, unpolished finish and other idiosyncracies they provide environments which are creative, quirky and unique. They reflect the peculiarities and passions of the owner and the local community.

Taste of Bitter Love near Columbia Rd Flower Market

Tina We Salute You in Dalston keep track of their loyal customers on their cafe wall
This is why it all went wrong for Starbucks. They reduced coffee to a commodity and forgot about their customers and the coffee house culture. Carloyn Steel said it well in her book Hungry City “Starbucks outlets are stage sets, designed by marketing executives thousands of miles away to appeal to our fantasy metro-chic lifestyles. Add a mouse with big ears, and you might as well be drinking in Disneyland.”

Long live good coffee and the dens of innovation.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The international language of gastronomy

Ah C'est bon vacance en France.

How could it not be? Cocooned in a tiny medieval village in the Perigord region of Southwest France, it was 6 days of eating and sleeping, a castle here, a glass of vin de Cahors there, eating, sleeping, eating, eating, eating, sleeping, eating, eating, eating...

With such amazing gastronomic inspiration surrounding me in the boucheries


and even on the roadsideries

I couldn't resist spending some of my holiday doing a little cooking too.

Buying ingredients at the markets and in the shops was fairly unproblematic (and entertaining for the locals) using my basic French with lots of pointing and miming - flapping my arms and slapping my bottom for various cuts of meat. But one day my charades a francais failed me and a request for speck was met with a blank look from the butcher.

How do you say speck in french? "Jambon fume?" "Jambon avec sel?" Apparently not. I was starting to get a little stressed as a queue of customers was forming behind me so in a desperate plea I said "pour coq au vin!"

"Ahhhh lardons!" was the relieved chorus from the other customers as the butcher produced a magnificent slab of fatty bacon. The woman behind me then proceeded to instruct me to cut thick slices: "epais- non fine pour coq au vin". I was patted on the back and wished "bonne chance" as I left the shop. I hope I did the residents of Monpazier proud with my 3 course menu a la Perigord.

Grilled goat's cheese with honeyed walnuts for entree

Coq au vin (avec lardons) for plat principal

and Monpazier Mess for dessert

One thing I won't miss about France is the coffee.

Quelle merde. An opportunity for La Lantana en Perigord?

Recipe for Coq au Vin (Serves 6)

6 chicken pieces (leg and breast pieces)
200g speck cut into thick slices
2 cloves garlic crushed
50ml brandy or cognac
1/4 cup plain flour
200g eschalots
1 tablespoons castor sugar
50g butter
1+1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
450g button mushrooms

2 x 750ml bottles shiraz or burgandy
2 carrots sliced
1 onion sliced
3 cloves garlic crushed
12 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
8 sprigs thyme

Combine all marinade ingredients, add chicken, cover and marinate in fridge overnight.

Remove chicken from marinade, pat dry with paper towels.

Strain marinade into saucepan (reserve marinade), bring to boil, then strain.
Heat large casserole over medium heat, add speck and cook for 8 minutes until speck is golden. Drain on paper towels. In same pan, brown chicken in batches. Remove from pan.

Add reserved solids and crushed garlic to pan and stir ocassionally for 8 minutes. Add brandy and ignite with a match, then stir in flour. Gradually add marinade, return chicken to pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 1 and a half hours until chicken is very tender.

Meanwhile place eschalots in a pan with castor sugar, 20g butter, 125ml water and a large pinch of salt. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce to low and simmer until liquid is nearly all evaporated and syrupy and onions are lightly golden. Heat remaining 30g butter and oil in large fry pan, dd mushrooms and cook, tossing for 3 minutes until golden. Season.

To serve, stir speck, onions, mushrooms and steamed baby carrots into coq au vin and scatter with parsley.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Head Chef Lisa's story: From little crumbs, big crumbs grow

A week ago Shelagh, our manager, boss, and part owner asked me to write a chef profile about myself. How indulgent I thought. So here goes, my wonderful five minutes of fame.

Firstly let me introduce myself. My name is Lisa Creigh, a chef from Newcastle N.S.W. Australia. I have been cooking professionally for 12 years now. I am 29 and love it as much as I did that first day. My days in the kitchen however go right back...

Lisa's early days in the kitchen crumbing fish. She's never lost her love of crumbing.
Since the age of four I have been in the kitchen, under my mum’s feet. I was the youngest of six and never went to play group. Instead, my mum (who was a stay at home mother spending many hours in the kitchen, aka domestic goddess) and I would spend many hours together cooking up a storm to impress my father and elder brothers and sisters. I would crush cookies, crumb fish, whisk eggs, and sift flour (the way you used to by putting the flour in the can and cranking the handle). If ever I was in the way, flour and warm water would be mixed together in a bowl to form a dough by my mother and I would happily sit at the table and play quietly until I would be needed again. Mum would tell me stories of my Nan being a great cook, how she could do all of her baking “by feel”, in other words a squeeze of the dough, a flick of the wrist, a pinch of this and a dash of that and it would all come together beautifully. All I remember is Nan’s amazing roast dinner on the farm.

Growing up, food was always a part of me. I tried my first oyster mornay at the age of eight. It made my older brother squirm. I loved it. My dad and I would go out fishing on his boat and we would have it fresh for dinner that night. I was ordering three courses from a very early age whenever we went out for a meal. It usually went something like deep fried Camembert with cranberry sauce, chicken breast stuffed and wrapped in proscuitto, and can you believe, chocolate fudge cake for dessert. Yum! Now can someone please roll me out the door.

This love of being in the heart of the kitchen (the place were everyone gathers to share stories, indulge, and create) has carried right through my schooling to a professional level. Studying Hospitality in my senior years during high school pushed me forward towards the all powerful chef certificate, or should I say chef ticket (insert cheesy grin). A ticket to experiencing great food and wine, cultures, people, and places. The biggest influence in my training came from a Melbourne Chef, Robert Brown, working for him in Newcastle. His training was hard discipline, but with a great understanding of ingredients, flavours, and a creativity ahead of others in my hometown. At the time it was modern Australian, (predominately seafood with Asian influences). It was privilege to train under Robert.

At the age of 20 I had my qualifications, got a working visa and went to Canada, to the mountain-tops of Whistler B.C. I worked at a Golf Club with Gerry Brandon (a brilliant chef) for the summer, and at La Rua restaurant (no. two for fine dining in Whistler that year) for the winter. I was in charge of the Garde manger section, preparing and serving delicious duck confit and cranberry parcels, Foie gras with chanterelle mushrooms, and other delicate morsels of goodness. After my part was done I would go over and volunteer with the friendly pastry chefs, learning all of their amazing dessert tricks. I would do the kitchen’s fish mongering as well, sometimes filleting Halibut almost as big as myself. Serving 350 covers a night fine dinning, while snowboarding in to work. Yes life was amazing. Since I was 14 it was my goal to be a chef in Canada by the time I was 21. I did it.

After that I landed back in Sydney starting afresh again, staying in fine dining a little while, then made a move to Riminis cafe and bar; an establishment with a very creative Head chef, Alec Bird, who had a few awards under his belt, best café etc. It was here that the next level of Sous chef came along for me. In the kitchen you are many things, sometimes teacher, counselor, creative cook, health and safety chief, caffeine addict. From that point food took me to Brisbane, Q.L.D, back to Newcastle, fine dining, shelling 3kg of fresh crab for hand made linguini to delicious breakfasts at amazing cafes.

Then the opportunity came for me to be Head chef at a soon to be Gastro Style pub called the Albion Hotel. Finally the chance for it to be mine! Well this job at the Albion Hotel was the chance of a life time. I was able to experience a kitchen from scratch, from plumbing, 3 faze power plugs, buying equipment and crockery, to a menu that was all mine. Mind you, we had inherited a lot of old grease so I scrubbed the place for three days solid to remove the grease before one lovely vegetable was allowed to come into the kitchen. Within six months the establishment was booming. We found it hard to keep up, but keep up we did with a few more recruits.

This gave me the opportunity to come to London and to Europe and its wonderful produce. When I read Shelagh’s ad on Gumtree for the position to start up Lantana as Head chef, I was so excited. Shelagh is a dedicated food lover and epicurist just like me. She has established a place that prides itself on great coffee, fresh seasonal produce, making everything in house and being as eco- friendly as possible including all of our suppliers. I knew this was the job for me.

First of all I love breakfast, always have. It’s the start of a new day and we want that start to be the best it can be. The toast all buttery soft and hot, the eggs warm and sexy, running all over the place (of course that is if you like it like that), and the smell and taste of English bacon, one of my top loves of England. Thank you H.G Walters which was my local butcher, and now Lantana’s. La Fromagerie’s incredible cheeses...and let’s not forget the coffee… amazing. There is so much to love about this great little café.

But my role could not be performed with out my team in the kitchen Megan Noonan ( Sous Chef aka Baking Goddess), Becky Davy, and Slimane. Thanks for all your endless hard work.

Lisa and sous chef Megan, Lantana's own Statler and Waldorf.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Winners are grinners

Thank you to everyone who helped us become TimeOut's

Slightly skew wiff victory shot using the self timer

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Coffee Out: Copenhagen

When I went to Copenhagen a couple of weekends ago it seemed I’d arrived in a magical land where everything runs efficiently, people are happy and suntanned, the footpaths are paved with bicycles instead of dog turd,

the architecture is stunning,

and a handsome Prince turned an Australian called Mary into a Princess.

What would the coffee be like in this fairy tale kingdom?

The first thing that struck me after London was the absence of the big coffee chains. For some reason Starbucks has not made it further than the airport in Copenhagen. Baresso looks like the Danish equivalent but they are far outnumbered by independent cafes.

I was expecting great things but unfortunately a good coffee isn't as easy to find as ridiculously friendly people are in Copenhagen. I did manage to track down a couple of little café gems thanks to recommendations on this website and the trusty Wallpaper City Guide.

Sweet Treat, Sankt Annæ Gade 3A

Sweet Treat serves a macchiato in a designer crinkled porcelain cup- love the Danish.

Estate Coffee, Gammel Kongevej 1, which feels a bit like a coffee chain

with its pictures of coffee plants on the wall,

but actually serves a really good coffee.

Estate's piccolo

Saving the best until last, Granola, Værnedamsvej 5

where I drooled over the 1930s industrial furniture and the beautiful spacious shop counter... but not granola which they don't have on the menu. Odd. Obviously I need to be a bit more lateral.

Granola's double macchiato

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Part 3 Lantanalicious: The CafeCommons initiative

Welcome to the final in a series of three posts looking at how Lantana can explicitly and implicitly share some of the information Shelagh gathered while researching and setting up the cafe. Otherwise known as the CafeCommons initiative.

Since starting this short series I* have come across GreenXchange; a similar initiative from Nike and Best Buy. GreenXchange is, at this stage, an intention from these companies to release into the public domain data, documents and practices that can help companies operate more sustainably. They are making them available to the world to use by releasing them under a ScienceCommons license (a derivation of the very interesting CreativeCommons).

While cynics may view Nike’s involvement as a self interested PR exercise, as with XBRL that I mentioned in post one, I think GreenXchange is a harbinger of the move towards transparency that the recent financial fiasco and the ongoing environmental debacle is going to force organizations to embrace.

The last post was an example of explicit sharing; we asked Shelagh a series of questions on the issue of food sourcing with the benefit being that the answers to the same three questions could be compared across a number of interview subjects. In this post we introduce you to the Lantana Online database of useful web sites, or our Delicious bookmarks.

(Note to the uninitiated: Delicious is a social bookmarking service. The bookmarking bit: you can bookmark sites that are of interest to you and tag them with your own usefully descriptive words that will help you to find them later. The social bit: these bookmarks can be searched by every Delicious user and users can subscribe to each others’ bookmark collections. There are a few other social elements to the service but go and try it to get the real deal on it.

So please take a look and if you like what you see, join our network.

The author's Delicious bookmarks can be found here.

*Leo Ryan works as a digital planner, helping businesses to optimise their use of social media technologies. He is also known as big red vis a vis me, little red.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Part 2 Lantanalicious: The three good food questions

This is the second in a series of three posts in which we* try to share some of the information that has been gathered as a part of the research to establish Lantana.

In this post, Shelagh answers three questions regarding sourcing 'good' food for Lantana. The idea is that by asking three questions in a repeatable format we can ask others the same questions and so build up a set of answers that can be compared and contrasted. Hopefully this information will be of use to others attempting to set up independent food businesses.

1. What is your good food philosophy?

Shelagh pointed out that there are a number of very good reasons for embracing a 'good food' approach to running a cafe; for the customers, for your conscience, for the planet. But there are so many variables that, if you're going to consistently adhere to an approach, you actually need an underlying philosophy that can guide you through the myriad suppliers, environmental considerations and customer demands.

Shelagh's main concern is to provide food which tastes as delicious as it possibly can. For her this means sourcing food which is in season and, depending on the particular ingredient, free range, and organic. Her secondary concern is the general ethics surrounding the production and procurement of the food. This then demands decisions to be made. For example, should she use organic produce if that also means high food miles or should she prefer the local but non organic produce?

The end result is that Shelagh tends to favour local, fair trade, free range and high welfare produce and is less concerned with whether it is organic, or certified 'organic'. Having said that, for certain items such as milk, Shelagh insists on organic because she believes it tastes so much better than non-organic.

London Dairies doing the morning milk run with their electric van.
2. What has informed that philosophy?

Shelagh joined the London Food Link's Ethical Eats group and through them went to some talks, met like minded operators and actually met some primary producers including farmers, bakers and butchers.

Some of the members of the Ethical Eats group on a farm visit
In meeting these producers and suppliers Shelagh got to see exactly how they work, the quality of their produce and their methods of production. She also got an understanding of their business values and was then able to make decisions about using specific suppliers. For instance, she chose a butcher who sources meat from small farmers who practice traditional, high welfare farming methods. While the animals are organically fed and naturally reared, the meat is not always certified ‘organic’ as many small producers are not able to meet the high costs and standards involved in the organic certification process. Some of the compromises the farmers have to make may disqualify their meat from being labeled organic, however, it doesn't compromise the quality of the product as far as Shelagh is concerned.

3. Why do you follow that philosophy?

The aim of Lantana is to differentiate on quality. Shelagh believes that using local, seasonal, naturally reared and free range produce results in better tasting and more interesting food in that you have to be inventive, working with what ingredients are in season. Also, as a small independent business owner herself, she wants to support other small specialist businesses who share the same values, are passionate about their product and give a personalised service.

Next week we're going to take a look at some of the links that Shelagh recorded as apart of her research and that have been collected on the Lantana delicious bookmarks page.

*This post is written by Leo Ryan who works as a digital planner, helping businesses to optimise their use of social media technologies.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Part 1 Lantanalicious: Its nice to share

Shelagh has asked me* to write a guest blog on something that interests me and that will be of interest to you, her readers. So I'm going to attempt a small experiment to do with explicit and implicit data. No wait...bear with me; food data.

In the wake of all of the financial and environment shenanigans of the recent past we have seen the development of a number of innovations in information transparency. I'm particularly interested in the development of XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) which essentially allows for the easy extraction of vital financial information from enormous and dense financial documents by 'tagging' key pieces of data. If you're still awake and interested in reading more; there's a very tidy overview here.

If the XBRL tags were applied universally to all financial documents, say all SEC filings, then anyone would be able to search across all of the annual reports of every listed company for a specific piece of information. So the process of tracking down quite detailed and specific information from thousands of companies buried deep inside complex documents becomes as simple as using Google search.

To think about the potential of this initiative just imagine that Parliamentarians' expenses were all released in a tagged and easily searchable format. In seconds any member of the public could see what was claimed for in any category: search: "Moat". Or more usefully :"Maintenance"

But that's looking at ways of making available information that perhaps the owners are reluctant to share. What about the reverse; when we have information that we think is useful, important and that we actively want to share? What kinds of ways can we use systems such as tagging to make our information more available?

And so my experiment.

Watching Shelagh develop the idea and the reality of Lantana it is obvious that she has done a lot of research. And in particular she has done lots of research around the area of good food: ethically and sustainably produced, organic and locally sourced, fair trade, delicious food. Quite a quagmire to navigate and perhaps one that, now she has invested her time, she can help others to understand.

So in the interests of promoting good food we're going to make that research available in two formats.

1. Explicit: I'm going to ask her for her top 3 things she's learnt about sourcing 'good' food for a small independent cafe, in the hope that the information will be of use to others attempting the same. We'll just put these in a blog post here. But the clever thing we're going to do here is to start a regular format, sort like the Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire. So next time we interview someone form the world of good food for Scrambling Eggs we can use the same format and then start to compare and contrast the answers. Fun, no?

2. Implicit: we're going to share the Lanatana page for useful links. These can be found here.

For those of you who haven't used Delicious its simply an online bookmarking service, but at its most rich and useful, its a directory of what people find interesting (online). The user saves a page they want to retrieve later (yes I know that's bookmarking) but the user can also add a series of tags to make it easier to find the page and to group it with other pages that are similar in some way. Because your bookmarks can be made public, Delicious can show you not just the pages that you have saved and tagged as 'recipes', 'cajun', shrimp', but also all of the other pages that other users have saved with these same tags.

To be continued...

*Leo Ryan works as a digital planner, helping businesses to optimise their use of social media technologies. He is also my big brother.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Monday, 3 August 2009

Fused and confused

Last week we decided it was time to acknowledge the season the English refer to as summer and introduce some new dishes onto the menu.

English people often ask me whether Lantana’s menu is Australian and I don’t really know how to answer them. I am Australian, our chef is Australian and the food on our menu is very typical of the food you find in cafes in Australia. But what is Australian cuisine?

In countries like Italy, France, India and China, cooking is a cultural institution where recipes are passed down from generation to generation and remain authentic and virtually unaltered for hundreds of years. This is not the case in Australia, or at least not in my family, where I was fed a varied diet of spaghetti bolognese, stir fries, and curries as my mother and father experimented with new recipes that they were learning from cookbooks and magazines rather than their mothers.

The Australian diet has constantly evolved in response to the arrival of different migrant groups: the British followed by the Chinese, Italians, Vietnamese, Greeks, Turkish, Indians, Thais and so on. The cuisines of our migrants met the same fate as the migrants themselves; thrown into the soup pot called Australian multiculturalism and confidently blended together. One of the legacies of this assimilation immigration policy is Australian cuisine.

Today, breakfast at a café in Australia could include miso porridge, a scrambled egg burrito, french toast with labne and orange blossom syrup or toasted pide with vegemite. Chefs and food writers created the label ‘fusion cuisine’ to describe this eclectic approach to cooking which, while well intended, can sometimes be more confused than fused.

The finest exemplar of Australia’s confusion cuisine is the chiko roll where we took a centuries old dish, the Chinese egg roll, and gave it the assimilation treatment. The result?

A greasy deep-fried chewy spring roll filled with mushy vegetables and mutton that has become a national icon; immortalized in the movie Puberty Blues where a surfer tells his girlfriend to “Get me a chiko roll…and don’t take any bites on the way back”.

Which brings me back to the summer menu at Lantana. I think the best way to describe it is Australian multicultural confusion cuisine at its most delicious.


Brioche french toast w caramelised plums and berries served w pistachio ricotta

Grilled haloumi, mushrooms with herb pesto, poached egg, sautéed spinach, and roast tomatoes served w sourdough toast

Thai beef salad

But perhaps the most quintessentially Australian item on the menu is the steak sandwich with sliced beetroot. I don’t know whether you’d call that fusion cuisine or just pure genius.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The curious incident of the fiddleheads that arrived frozen in a bag

The other day one of our regulars, a French Canadian who had just returned from a holiday in Quebec, came to the counter and propositioned me with a bag of fiddleheads.

Qu'est que c’est?

Fiddleheads or têtes de violon: the unfurled heads of Ostrich ferns which grow in the forests of Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.

These strange looking edible fronds are not cultivated so are only available for a short time in early spring when they are picked over a period of two weeks after which time they unfurl and become inedible. Foragers must only take three of the five to nine fronds produced by each plant as harvesting more than three can kill the plant.

I surmised that fiddleheads are a highly prized delicacy and I felt honoured to be offered a small bag of them which had been bought at an organic food market in Quebec, blanched, then vacuum sealed and frozen before being flown back to London and delivered into my novice hands.

After researching how to cook fiddleheads, noting nervously that cooking them incorrectly can result in food poisoning, I put the frozen bag into boiling water for about 7 minutes then sauteed them in butter and finished them with a squeeze of lemon juice.

The verdict? They tasted like a cross between asparagus and spinach and were much more palatable than the real fiddle I tortured my neighbours with for years.