Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Goodbye, Summer

Alas, summer is over. Gone are the days of sunshine beating on your brow, the smell of cut grass tickling your nostrils, skipping to work in short skirts and flip flops. This, of course, being London means that we had maybe a couple of weeks of this weather, but one must grateful for what we did get.

Last weekend saw blue skies, wispy clouds and the sun peeked out; like summer's wave goodbye to us. I do love autumn and all the rich shades of colour it brings, but waking up and getting home while it's dark depresses me. Which is why when I woke up on Sunday and flung the blinds back to be greeted by sunshine, I hauled my housemate's ass out of bed, frog-marched her down to Sainsburys, and got all the goods for what might be our last barbeque of the year.

As there was just the two of us, I thought the best way to go would be a big hunk of meat and a couple of salads. 800gr of bone-in Aberdeen Angus rib was purchased, along with some leaves and knobbly new potatoes to make up our lunch. As a little starter, I steamed up some white asparagus, part of a birthday hamper I received from my mates. This was simply dressed with a healthy glob of butter and a generous grinding of salt. A fruity Pimms cocktail kept us company while we waited for the coals to do its thing.

The steak was left out at room temperature, and half an hour before it was slapped on the barbeque, I lightly dusted both sides with salt. Now, some people say not to salt meat until the very last moment otherwise it draws the juices out, but I seem to recall Dos Hermanos recommending this on Twitter. We tried it at a previous barbeque and it worked beautifully so I shouted "to hell with convention!" (as the housemate looked on, alarmed) and it got a good salting.

A mere 5 - 7 minutes on each side on a properly flaming grill, and it was left to rest on a chopping board. I batted wasps away while the housemate squealed. I paced up and down the balcony. We all know the importance of resting meat, but this was maddening. To console myself I got stuck into the potato salad with gusto. Finally, a good 15 minutes had passed and I refused to wait any longer. The steak was sliced, revealing a deliciously ruby red core, and served onto our plates. Floppy curly lettuce leaves were lightly dressed with heady truffle oil, also from aforementioned hamper, and a barbequed, buttered portabella mushroom completed the plate. We munched in near silence, aside from the odd "mmooh myff god this is good" and "uuugghhhhh is there more? Chomp chomp".

I couldn't have asked for a better farewell-to-summer barbeque. When finished, we pushed our plates away, lay back and had a proper mid-afternoon snooze, safe in the knowledge that our corn on the cob were steaming away under the lid of the barbeque in their leaves, ready for us to slather with more butter and eat once we arose from our little siesta.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Sweet Chilli Jam

This year, given that we have a sizeable baclony, I decided to try and grow my own vegetables. I bought a mains-heated propagator, planted some seeds, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. A few months later after getting my hands dirty in transporting seedlings into pots, long finger-sized cayenne chillis started appearing. Little round green cherry tomatoes popped up and ripened to a golden yellow. Most recently, bulbous aubergines have popped out of the purple flowers, making me squeal with excitement. Sadly the courgette plant withered and died a slow death. Nevertheless, I was a pleased plant mother.

As I have about 7 or 8 chilli plants, I have had an abundant crop. They haven't all turned red at once and I worried if they would at all. Slowly but surely, they did. A batch of them have been drying on the windowsill as their withered bodies would make great curry pastes but I didn't want to put these, that I picked this morning, in the fridge or freezer to use as and when; I felt they should take a more centre stage. I had a recipe for sweet chilli sauce saved up, which I thought would be the perfect way to use these, especially as it keeps for a good 2 or 3 months. I also threw in some fresh green peppercorns I had in a lovely hamper my friends put together for me as a birthday present which made it look really pretty.

Sweet Chilli Jam

10 or 11 cayenne chillis (use milder ones if you don't want it too spicy)
2 cloves of garlic
2" piece of ginger
200gr jam sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp fish sauce
220ml cider vinegar
110ml water
1 1/2 tbsp arrowroot powder, slackened with water
A few fresh green peppercorns (optional)

Chop and deseed the chillies (I did half deseeded, half not as I like it hot). Finely mince the garlic and the ginger. Throw this minus the arrowroot in a food processor and blitz to a paste. This also works in a mortar and pestle (I don't have a food processor). Add the whole lot to a saucepan and simmer for 20 - 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the slackened arrowroot to thicken the mixture. Sterilize an airtight jar and add the jam to the jar. Leave to cool completely, then put the lid on.

I've just had a taste of the jam and it is super hot, tangy and sweet at the same time. Just how I like it. If you have less of a palate for spicy foods, use less hot chillis or reduce the number of chillis you use or it might make you cry. This would go really well with spring rolls, squid, to dip wedges in... all sorts really.

Friday, 25 September 2009

More South East Love - Le Querce

Last night I managed to cross off another restaurant on my ever-growing 'must try' list. This was Le Querce, an Italian restaurant just two stops away from me in Honor Oak Park. Ben from London Food & Drink wrote a great review on it recently which got it on the list in the first place, so when a friend of mine suggested we visit, I was game. It didn't bother him that he's been three times in the last two weeks.

Approaching the restaurant, you may be forgiven for not giving it a second glace. Inside, the decor is basic but homely and I liked the giant bulb of garlic that decorated our table. We were given slightly tatty menus which were quite short, and our charming waitress reeled off a list of starters, pizzas and mains from the specials board. While supping on a Sardinian lager that I forget the name of, I found it really difficult to choose. I knew I wanted a pasta dish, but there were many dishes I also wanted too so that in the end it took me a good 10 or 15 minutes to finally make my mind up. I had a rather exasperated companion.

My (rather poorly photographed) starter arrived , ravioli with ricotta and sage butter. The pasta was stuffed with greens and creamy cheese, and the butter sauce was rich with a subtle hint of sage and grated Parmesan on top. I never usually order pasta in restaurants as there are usually more interesting options, but I was really glad I did here. The home-made pasta was silky and perfectly cooked, and the well seasoned filling was delicious. I could have easily polished off a bucket of this. We were given some lovely fresh loose-crumbed bread to accompany it and I mopped up any remaining sage butter greedily. We were off to a good start.

Calves liver with baby onions, sage & spinach

For my main, I went for the double sage option and had the calves liver, cooked medium served with baby onions, sage and spinach. I've only had calves liver once before at Locanda Locatelli and the portion was so enormous that it turned out to be a bit of a struggle. I can happily report this wasn't the case here; the slices of liver were buttery on the inside and the portion size just right. I would have liked a few more of the caramelised baby onions though, as their sweetness went really well with the liver. Again, this was greedily mopped up with some more bread.

Being such a rich dish, by this time I was pretty stuffed. However, the ice creams are something of a speciality at Le Querce. The long list of ice creams or sorbets includes onion or garlic ice cream, pear & Pernod sorbet, apple & black pepper ice cream. We went for a scoop of chilli ice cream, a scoop of aubergine and a scoop of the strawberry and balsamic sorbet. The aubergine ice cream, greyish in colour didn't taste of much but the chilli was really surprising. It was almond flavoured, and once the cold ice cream got warmer in the mouth, you got a real chilli kick. The strawberry balsamic was also delicious and really moreish. While we were chatting to the owner about how the chilli ice cream is made, he told us that he thought the most successful sorbet is the strawberry, chilli and blue curaco and presented us with a scoop of it; he was right, of course, and this combined our two favourite flavours.

The bill in total came to £75 including a bottle of Prosecco and a couple of beers, which I thought was really good value given the quality of the cooking and the service - the waiting staff were all really friendly and personable. Whilst I wouldn't recommend you hike across London to visit if you lived in, say North West London, it's a great neighbourhood restaurant for us South East dwellers and somewhere I'll definitely return.

Le Querce

66 Brockley Rise,
London SE23 1LN

Tel: 020 86903761

Monday, 21 September 2009

Paul A. Young

I have to admit, when I was invited to a bloggers' tasting at Paul A. Young in Islington, I was hesitant. I'm not a huge fan of chocolate, and I can usually take it or leave it as I prefer salty snacks. In the end, I decided to go as I figured that if anyone could change my mind, this was the man to do so as his chocolate is so highly regarded.

The shop is small, decorated in purple and it smelled deliciously of warm chocolate. After a quick lesson on how to taste chocolate (minimal chewing, some deep breathing, letting it melt on the tongue), we cracked on with the tasting. We tasted chocolate of different cocoa percentages from three main chocolate producers; Valrhona, Amedei and Michel Cluizel. Interestingly, I learned that cocoa butter is the most epensive ingredient in chocolate making. Also, chocolate from beans grown on the Ivory Coast have a slight hint of coconut about it, whereas Madagascan chocolate is more fruity. The more fermented the cocoa beans are, the more sour tang you get from tasting it.

The first chocolate to kick us off was one of my favourites; 40% Valrhona Jivara milk chocolate. It was wonderfully rich with hints of caramel and had a slight malty flavour to it. On the other end of the spectrum, I physically recoiled and screwed my face up on tasting the 100% manjari pate Madagascan Valrhona; it was over-whelmingly strong (as one might expect from 100%) but also sour to the point of bitter. Other attendees liked it though. Another favourite of mine was the 75% Amedei 9, made from cocoa beans from 9 different plantations. This had a velvet-like mouthfeel, and the smoky yet balanced flavours lingered pleasantly.

By this point, I had realised that Paul is an extremely passionate man, and puts a lot of thought into his chocolates. He refuses to use any machinery, tempering his chocolate on marble instead and all the chocolates he makes are made using high-quality ingredients. There are no hydrogenated fats used (...don't get him started on palm oil...) nor glucose syrups. The truffles he makes, each and every one by hand, will only last 7 days. You've got to really admire someone who goes to all that trouble, when others get away with using machines.

At the end of the evening, Paul gave us some of his truffles to try. We started off with this seasonal truffle, port & Stilton. He had wanted to just use Stilton, but discovered that the mould growing on the cheese tended to make the truffles explode, and had to add port to prevent this from happening. It was no great loss to add the port, as I felt they went very well together. I really enjoyed this, it was startling and made you sit up and pay attention. Next, we had one of Paul's award-winning sea-salted caramels. After my first bite into it, I fell in love. It was stunning. I wanted to be alone with it. Lastly, a Marmite truffle was scoffed up easily too. I had expected it's innards to be thick and viscous, but they were pleasantly light. As a Marmite lover, this went down all too easily.

After a quick tour round the kitchen, we were on our way, armed with a goody bag. I stepped into the night with a glow about me and a bounce in my step; glad to have discovered something that I had previously thought lost to me.

Paul A. Young

33 Camden Passage
N1 8EA

Tel/Fax: 020 7424 5750

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Onion, Anchovy & Spinach Quiche

One of my most favourite pasta dishes is onion and anchovy spaghetti. It's so beautifully simple; onions, sweated down until almost a mush for 45 minutes, and then milk-soaked tinned anchovy fillets added until broken down and emulsified with a little of the milk to make a sauce. A liberal handful of parsley and lots of black pepper complete the dish. It's extremely moreish and I eat it at least once every two weeks.

In a fit of experimentation, I thought that this would be quite fitting for a quiche filling, as anchovy goes well with eggs (as I've recently discovered with soft boiled eggs and anchovy soliders). My fridge was teeming with vibrant green, sturdy and leafy bundles of spinach I'd picked up from the market; none of this shrinking, watery stuff so this also went in. For my first attempt at quiche, I thought it was a really good effort. The filling wasn't overly eggy and was baked until just set so it stayed soft and creamy. The subtle anchovy flavour was complimented with the iron-rich spinach and the sweet onions.

Onion, Anchovy & Spinach Quiche

Serves 6

For the filling:

3 large white onions, sliced finely
6 anchovy fillets
A large handful of choppedflat leaf parsley
2 generous handfuls of spinach
2 eggs
285ml double cream
Plenty of black pepper
Parmesan (optional)

For the pastry:

280gr plain flour
140gr very cold butter, cut into cubes

Heat some oil in a non stick frying pan and add the onions. Fry on a low eat, stirring occasionally until they become very soft. This will take about half an hour - 45 minutes. Chop the anchovies up and add to the onions, frying them until they dissolve a little. Then add the spinach andfry until wilted. There shouldn't be too much moisture in the pan. Set to one side.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celcius. To make the pastry,
tip the flour and butter into a bowl, then rub together with your fingertips until completely mixed and crumbly. Add 8 tbsp cold water, then bring everything together with your hands until just combined. Roll into a ball, dust a work surface and a rolling pin with flour and roll out to about 5cm bigger than your quiche case (mine was 25cm). Pick it up by rolling it over the rolling pin and lay into your case. Using a ball of scrap pastry, gently push the pastry into the grooves of the tin. Prick the base with a fork, then lay a greaseproof sheet of paper over it and fill with baking beans. Blind bake for at least 25 - 30 minutes.

Next, whisk the eggs and cream together and then add to the onion mixture and the parsley. Add a touch of salt and lots of black pepper and mix together thoroughly. Add this to the quiche case, top with some grated Parmesan, and bake for 20 - 25 minutes until golden and set. Leave to cool in the case, trim the edges of the pastry and eat warm or cold - I preferred it warm.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Macmillan Coffee Morning

A good friend of mine works for Macmillan Cancer Support, and she asked me if I fancied getting involved in a campaign of theirs, called Macmillan Coffee Morning. The idea is to either bake or buy some cakes, invite your friends over or bring them to work, have a coffee, eat some cake and make a small donation to Macmillan. The official date for this is Friday 25th September, but you can really do it whenever you like. I agreed to do it with some trepidation; after all, I'm not much of a baker. Nevertheless, I thought this would be a good learning curve, and all for a good cause too.

I picked Saturday 12th September to host the coffee morning at my flat. As I was inviting friends from all over London, I didn't want to choose a Sunday as more likely than not, there would be transport issues. With this in mind, I took the Friday previous to it off work, and a friend and I set about baking some cakes.

As we started baking, we realised that perhaps 4 cakes wouldn't be enough for 16 or so people. I wanted to have a decent variety of cakes even if it did mean leftovers, so we added another two to the list. The trusted blueberry cake got jazzed up with using raspberries as well in the mix. Next up, seeing as it was a coffee theme, we decided upon a Irish coffee meringue roulade, taken from Rachel Allen's 'Bake'. The coffee-scented meringue was made on the Friday, with the boozy filling of whiskey, coffee and whipped cream rolled into it last minute on the Saturday.

It looks like a bit of a car crash - or some sort of ancient rock, but interestingly it was the first one to get scoffed up. Probably the booze.

Other favourites were this pear and almond cake. I had the recipe saved on my laptop for a while, but I have no idea where it's from. If anyone knows, then let me know and I'll credit them.

Pear and almond cake

Serves 6

175g unsalted butter, softened
125g caster sugar, plus 1 tbsp
3 pears, firm but not too hard, peeled, cored and quartered - we used William pears
2 eggs
75g ground almonds
75g self-raising flour

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Grease a 20cm diameter, springform cake tin and line the base with baking parchment.

Put a frying pan over a medium heat and add 25g of the butter. When it's sizzling, add a tablespoon of sugar and stir until it dissolves. Add the pear quarters and fry in the buttery caramel for five to 10 minutes, until they start to brown and soften (the time taken will vary greatly, depending on how ripe the pears are). Put to one side to cool a little.

Put the remaining butter and sugar in a mixing bowl and cream together until light and fluffy. Beat in the two eggs, one at a time. Tip the ground almonds into the cake batter, then sift in the self-raising flour and fold in gently. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin. Arrange the pieces of pear on top of the cake. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until a skewer pushed into the centre comes out clean. Place the tin on a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or cold.

Lemon drizzle cake was given a bit of a makeover with the addition of poppy seeds, and it was nice and tangy. On holiday earlier this year, two of my friends made a Victoria sponge with orange cream which worked beautifully, so we modified this one so taking inspiration from that by sandwiching it with lemon curd and cream whipped with orange zest to give it a fruity twist. Lastly, a flourless chocolate cake was fudgy, rich and dense. Given it was the only chocolate on offer, I was surprised that it was the least popular. Perhaps something to do with our dusting of icing sugar, which was a bit of a botch job as we'd added too much and then had to brush some off.

No party is complete without some sausage rolls, and these were expertly made by Helen using puff pastry. To 10 sausages-worth of meat we added the zest of a lemon, a hefty pinch or two of chilli, and a handful of finely chopped parsley, which gave them a kick and a lift. Brushed with egg, these were deicious warm out of the oven and were all eaten. Similarly, we made some Parmesan straws and some anchovy straws, also out of puff pastry. These were pretty simple to make but were so delicious - how could they not be, with all that umami. The anchovy ones were my favourite and delivered a mouth-watering, salty hit.

While we were baking on Friday, I had a last minute panic that there wouldn't be enough savoury food so, having a look through the fridge, decided to do a Stilton, spinach and roasted red pepper quiche. Rather rustic-looking, as I snapped off the pastry sides rather impatiently but this, served cold, also went down extremely well and there wasn't a scrap left.

When it came to Saturday morning, I was racked with nerves. I'd asked people to come round at 2pm, but there was still so much to do - like sandwiching the sponge together, decorating the chocolate cake, rolling the meringue. Not to mention tidying the flat and making it all look presentable. I ran into a couple of hitches; the coffee mugs promised to me and the actual coffee itself failed to materialise. I had a little panic, and then as I was basking out in the morning sun, I had a brainwave. It was too hot for coffee - I'd make iced Irish coffees instead. My blender does have an ice-crushing mode, after all. Another thing that failed for us was when we tried to make pork scratchings with sheets of pig skin bought from Morrisons, specifically for this purpose. It just didn't work out under the grill or shallow fried, and we were too scared to deep fry it. So it went in the freezer. If anyone has any suggestions of what to do with about half a kilo of pork skin, let me know.

We nervously watched the clock and put the finishing touches on to everything and everyone started to arrive. Our 6.5 hours worth of baking, stressing out and general hard work paid off; we had a fantastic day in the sunshine of my balcony, eating cake and between us we managed to raise £175 (including donations of two friends who couldn't make it).

I would really recommend doing a coffee morning yourself. We all had a great time catching up, and it gave us an excuse to binge on cake all in the name of charity. Of course, you don't need to go to as much trouble; you can buy the cakes, or get each friend to bring a cake, whatever really. Do let me know if you do a coffee morning of your own; leave me a comment or email me.

A full Flickr set is here and if you do your own Coffee Morning, please take photos, upload them to Flickr and add them to this group so we can all have a nose at the lovely cakes you've baked or bought. A couple of people have asked me where to donate if they wanted to, so I have set up a Just Giving page, here.

So now, a thank you to all my lovely friends who turned up and donated generously. In particular, a huge thank you to Helen for being my baking buddy for a marathon 7 hours, and without which I'd be a nervous, under-prepared wreck. Given that I've never hosted a party of this size, it was invaluable having her there. Another thank you goes to Gin & Crumpets for lending me cake stands and cake slices.

Finally, a big thank-you-I-love-you to the good people at Kitchenaid. They contacted me and donated me The Beast to help us out with our baking; without it our cakes would have been miserable shadows of what they were.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Not-So-Soft Pretzels

Honey & Cinnamon Pretzels

I used to live with a girl who loved pretzels so much that a friend of hers knitted her a pretzel shape out of orange wool. I too love pretzels (and by this I mean big doughy ones rather than the small crisp ones, though being a member of Salty Snacks Anonymous naturally I like them a lot too) but it's not easy to buy them. There's a branch of Auntie Ann's Soft Pretzels in Croydon, but a 40 minute round trip is a bit drastic to satisfy a craving.

Last Sunday while I didn't have any plans, I decided to try and make my own . I consulted 'Bake' by Rachel Allen, and lo and behold - a pretzel recipe jumped forth. As with all bread recipes, it was quite a lengthy one as you need to wait to prove the dough.

Soft Pretzels

Makes 10 - 14

450g strong white flour, sifted
150gr strong brown flour, sifted
1 level tsp fast acting yeast
2 tbsp soft light brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp vegetable oil
375ml warm water

For the bicarb solution:
75gr bicarbonate of soda
1 litre of water

Mix the two flours, salt, sugar and yeast in a large bowl (or in my case, the bowl of my mixer). Mix the oil into the water in a measuring jug, and turn the mixer on with the dough hook (or mixing by hand), adding the water and oil solution as you go, until you get a soft dough. Add more water or flour where necessary to ensure it's not too dry or sticky. Knead for 10 minutes, place the dough in an oiled bowl and allow to rise to double, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees Celcius. Punch back the dough and knead on a lightly floured surface and then divide it into 10 - 14 balls, each weighing about 100gr. Line a baking tray with parchment. Roll each ball into a sausage shape the thickness of a pencil and then roll it as per this video. Allow to rise for a further 20 minutes.

Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan and dissolve the bicarb in it. Leave it on a simmer and add each pretzel, no more than 3 at a time, to poach for 30 seconds each side. Remove and place on the baking trays. Sprinkle with rock salt, poppy seeds or sesame seeds and bake for 8 - 10 minutes, cooling them on wire racks. Alternatively, bake them plain and then brush with butter melted with sugar, honey and cinnamon.

Several things happened while the pretzels were being made. We got hungry, and so scarfed a whole load of quiche and were a bit full. Then, just as we were doing the poaching / baking, I pulled a plate out of the shelf and one fell out. I tried to catch it, but as it broke a piece jumped up and sliced my thumb open, resulting in much blood, a bit of squealing, and general chaos. So therefore I don't blame Rachel Allen when I say the pretzels were just ok. Truth be told, they were pretty tough and chewy, which is not what I want out of a pretzel. I believe this may be down to over poaching of the pretzel. Or pehaps it was over-kneaded? The recipe specifies 10 minutes by hand, but doesn't say for a mixer. One other problem might have been the inclusion of brown flour which perhaps made them a bit heavier.

I have no idea; I'm an ignoramous when it comes to bread. Either way, when I try it again, I'll be halving the recipe; 10 - 14 pretzels is far too many. Any uneaten ones made a good door stop though.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

John Torode's Chicken and Other Birds

Chicken is my least favourite meat. I like it, of course; but I think there are much tastier meats out there. Pork tops this list. When Quadrille Publishing asked me if I'd like to review this cookbook, I said yes as I could do with more interesting chicken recipes. Besides which, it also involves other birds, such as pigeon, pheasant and partridge which I've had minimal experience of cooking.

The book has beautifully styled photos which are drool-worthy. Torode writes well, in a no-nonsense, straight-forward fashion and given that his last book was simply titled 'Beef', he gives the impression that he knows his meat. There's no flowery language here. It's split into chapters including soups, curries, barbeque and roasts, and helpfully it also includes a step by step guide on how to joint a chicken, something I've always been too daunted to try myself. I haven't quite got round to it yet, but it's a good cost saving trick as you'll get more for your money by buying chickens whole. In addition to this, there's an extensive list detailing the different birds, as well as when the game seasons begin and end; a very handy guide. I didn't even know there was an edible bird called Ptarmigan until I read this. There is also a little blurbs dotted here and there, such as detailing how best to carve a roast chicken, and a method to cook duck breasts. I for one didn't know that you should start them off skin side down in a cold pan.

I decided to try out the Chicken Kiev, especially as it's billed as 'the perfect recipe'. My picture is decidedly more... rustic than that of the photo in the book, but it was pretty damn good. Garlicky, lemon-scented butter burst forth from the crisply coated chicken supreme, lubricating the mash that accompanied it. I made a right mess of the kitchen what with the double egg and flour dipping but it made sure that the pocket of buttery goodness was well encased, something that us cooks mortally fear will go wrong and end up as a big puddle in the baking tray. The chicken, having been fried and finished off in the oven, was perfectly cooked and moist throughout.

I've already bookmarked several recipes to try, such as game terrine, devilled chicken livers and pigeon and bacon with sweetcorn fritters. There's also a list of game dealers which is where I'll be going to pick up some grouse, a bird I've heard talked much about and haven't yet had the opportunity to try. This book is perfect for anyone like me, who wants to try cooking new birds.

There is, however, one recipe which I definitely won't be trying - 'spaghetti with curried chicken balls'. It sounds like every kind of wrong... so maybe I should give it a go.

Released 4th September, priced £20

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A Day in Paris

You may have seen all over the blogosphere that quite a few bloggers went on a day trip to Lille, courtesy of Eurostar, arranged by their PR, We Are Social. I was invited, but you can imagine how much my heart sank when I saw that the date they had decided on was the same weekend I had a friend coming to visit. I was pretty gutted.

So a few days later, when they asked me if I wanted to go on my own Little Break to either Paris, Lille or Brussels, I gave a little squeal of excitement and bounced up and down in my chair. I chose Paris, having only been there once before when I was dragged around the place on my art A Level trip. Back then, a gaggle of over-excited 17 year old girls are predisposed to guzzle down 3 Euro bottles of plonk and in the ensuing hangover, I didn't feel as if I really embraced the experience. We did something crazy like 700 galleries in 2 days (yes, I exaggerate; but only a bit) and the over-riding memory is one of exhaustion.

The premise of Little Break, Big Difference is that you can travel to either Paris, Lille or Brussels from £59 return for October. Not only that, but you get a seat in Leisure Select, where they serve you a meal and drinks, including Champagne on the way home. This really takes the chore out of travelling; the check-in and passport control for Eurostar is much quicker than at an airport, and you actually get leg room.

I decided just to go for the day, and that I would do Paris on a budget. Rather, it wasn't so much a decision I made, but one that was forced upon me, considering my folorn bank account. I skidded towards the Eurostar gates with barely a minute to spare, and a friend and I set off on our little break.

Of course, food is always at the forefront of my mind, so I did a little cursory research into cheap bistros to lunch at. I didn't want to plan too much, as it can sometimes take away the adventure aspect of the trip, but with a vague idea in mind we headed off in search of the Eiffel Tower.

It was a speedy ascent up the stairs to begin with, and then as my smoker's lungs started to heave a little, I turned to my friend. Her face was white. "Mate, I think I'm going to vom". I laughed, until I realised she did look a bit peaky. Little did either of us know that her dislike of heights was actually vertigo. We had a long way to go until we reached the first platform. We were rewarded with a pretty good view or two.

We began the much slower ascent to the second level. We had only the thought of getting to the top in our heads now. Her face grew ever more worried and I refrained from telling her that the people down below looked like ants. I myself lost balance and had a good ol' wobble.

Alas, ths is as high as we went. We bought tickets thinking that they'd take us all the way to the top, but when we got to the second stage they tried to charge us again and we balked, favouring to get the lift down to safe ground.

All this clambering up stairs really got our appetites up, and by the time we found Le Repaire de Cartouche, it was 1:30pm, we'd been up for 8 hours, and we were pretty famished. We entered into a dark and busy dining room, with tables packed closely together and squeezed into our seats. We had specifically chosen this bistro because of it's 14 Euro lunch menu. With a choice of 4 starters to choose from and two mains, I went for the 'Salade Escarolle avec Mimmosa' which was just that; leaves well dressed into a fruity olive oil, topped with hard boiled egg pushed through a sieve.

Across the other side of the table, the 'Terrine de Campagne' was a hearty slice and sat atop a salad of herbs. I was jealous, even if I did get to eat half of it, as it was the better of the two. For mains, a pan-fried slice of cod with a caper butter sauce was over-salted, but otherwise a good solid dish. We washed all this down with a bottle of Côteaux d’Aix en Provence rosé which was light and refreshing, and helped take the edge off the embarrassment of being stared at quite openly by our fellow diners. We were taking pictures of the food, after all.

After settling the bill, we emerged into the street, blinking as if we'd just exited the cinema. We waddled towards to Pompidou Centre and had a good look around:

After a cheeky Leffe, we then strolled down the banks of the Seine, to the Louvre.

We didn't much fancy going inside and were rapidly running out of time, and so we decided to jump on the Metro to the Champs-Élysées.

It was high time for another drink and some nibbles and so we attempted to go to Racines, a wine bar recommended by Time Out. It was supposedly hidden down this eerily quiet alley way, but it seems to have closed down as we walked round it twice and couldn't find it.

Somewhat dejected, we decided to plonk ourselves down at a nearby bar for an eye-watering 8 Euro beer. Ouch. By this time our 5am wake-ups were starting to get the better of us. We stared off into space, cigarettes dangling between fingers, barely able to string a sentence together. Food bloggers need regular feeding, otherwise this is what becomes of us.

Not to be beaten, we decided to go back to Le Gare du Nord, to see if we could find anything there. Somewhat apprehensively we asked a nice lady in the pharmacy if she could recommend anywhere to eat; she replied enthusiastically. The little restaurant was empty save two or three tables, but it looked homely. After we ordered our four course menu (the only available), we realised there was no way we could finish it in the 50 minutes it was until our train to take us home. The waiter agreed to let us have just a starter and a main.

The rillettes of rabbit was huge. Accompanied by a basket of bread and a pot or gherkins, I was pretty full when I finished this. The tender meat was generously seasoned, and the acidity of the gherkins cut through the richness well.

We scoffed our starters down, and waited impatiently for the main. The clock ticked by slowly and I wondered if we would be stranded in Paris, having missed the last train home. Our mains arrived shortly after, and this beef dish was delicious; the consommé was delicately spiced with star anise and the pieces of fennel added to the aniseed aroma. The beef was tender and slightly gelatinous. I scoffed it down in 10 minutes flat. We slapped down the very last of our Euros, finished off the dregs of our beers and legged it for our train.

Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the restaurant. If it helps, it's opposite a pharmacy around the corner from a wedding dress shop by Le Gare du Nord.

Thankfully, we made it. We were exhausted, full and more than a little sleepy. It was a long day - I left the house at 6am and got home at 11:30pm - but well worth it. I spent exactly 100 Euros, which was the budget I was hoping for. While sipping on the complimentary Champagne on the way home, we mused over the day's events; we'd crammed a lot in. Perhaps we could have been more organised, since we did do a bit of a zig zag around the city, but we're not really that type of people and our way had suited us fine.

So there you have it - a whirlwind tour of Paris. Whilst I would recommend staying a bit longer if you wanted to actually go into the museums and galleries, we had a brilliant time having a good walk around and taking in the sights. And no, we did not go to Ladurée or Pierre Hermé for macarons. We didn't have cakes or pastries; neither of us have a sweet tooth and it didn't appeal.

For the full Flickr set, including Helen's fear face, click here.