Lyon: A food and walking odyssey

It's rare I ever feel compelled to write up my holidays. If I'm honest, it feels a little like the 21st century equivalent of inviting people over to view slides. But Lyon. Wow, Lyon. Lyon was fantastic. Not just for its beauty, but also for the food. Especially for the food. Here, then, is how I attempted to walk off several three course meals over three days, and probably failed. More pictures to come when I get round to downloading them off my phone. I'm also a genuinely terrible photographer. ***

"You might want to avoid three courses for lunch," says my friend Danni on our first day in Lyon. Danni has already been in Lyon for a week and had already experimented with several of the city's eateries. The bouchon lined up for tonight, we are warned, will leave very little spare room in our stomachs so, after much deliberating we eschewed the €16 menu at the restaurant next to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere and went for a salmon roll at the little cafe nearby instead. It was an excellent call. By the end of the night, we were struggling to make the short walk across the Rhone to our respective hotels and I'm convinced it played no small part in my inability to get up at a sensible time the next day.

Day one

Even at just under three days, Lyon offers a lot any visitor, especially if you enjoy traveling on foot for most places. Traversing the two rivers the city sits on is a daily pleasure, while Vieux Lyon (the old city) and Fourviere Hill, which we climbed on the first day, are stunning. The view from Fourviere over the city is well worth the short hike, while the Basilique Notre-Dame is impressive, although it's easy to see why some think it overdone. Me, I'm quite a fan of slightly OTT churches, so I was perfectly content.

The amphitheatres were fun, and gave a good account of what entertainment was like in Roman days. The two in close proximity felt like their version of a multiplex. You could have the full man seven gladiator brawl in the larger of the two, while the second next door would probably be showing something like man versus toad, in whatever the Roman version of subtitles were, naturally.

Equally fun was the Museum of Miniatures and Film Design. The miniatures were impressive in the level of artistic detail (although three floors was perhaps pushing it), but the film design materials were a giddy ride through the behind-the-scenes aspects of cinema. After walking through several sets from Perfume (possibly more enjoyable than the film itself, although I recognise I'm in a minority here), the exhibits did have the feel of a slightly random collection. But then if I'd manage to acquire the spaceship from Event Horizon, a lifesize Gizmo puppet and a prosthetic head of Dana Scully, I'd probably want to show them off as well.

Even more enjoyable was the ice-cream shop a few doors down from the Museum I failed to note the name of. I enjoyed the Gingerbread ice cream so much, I returned the next day for another selection. The white chocolate and coconut sorbets were particular highlights, although tomato and basil sorbet was more than a little confusing. I probably ate them in the wrong order, as the latter was somewhat like iced Gazpacho.

But all this was just a warm up for Monday night's bouchon, the traditional Lyonnaise hostelry. I've no idea if Cafe de Federations was one of the handful of properly certified bouchons, but it is up there with one of the most enjoyable meals I've ever eaten. Sitting down the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Rue du Major Martin, the bouchon is as Lyonnaise as you can imagine: gingham tablecloths and a cosy setting, with carafes of Cotes du Rhone €9 a bottle.

There is no menu at Cafe de Federations, or at least not until your third course. By which stage, you're already halfway to slipping into a food high that you'll agree to anything. Had you asked me to sign over the deeds to my house, I'd have signed without a thought, my mouth still salivating at the prospect of stewed pig's cheeks. Note to those undertaking charity fun runs: this is an excellent time to ask for sponsorship.

To start, we were presented with a small bowl of poached egg in broth. This lasted a little longer than the time taken to poach the egg and any residual from the bowl was mopped up with bread. Next up was a Salad Lyonnaise, accompanied by lentils and wild boar terrine. I may have overdone this course a little, which was probably largely to blame for my stagger back to the hotel. The wild boar terrine especially.

For course three, the main, we were offered a choice. While I was tempted by the calves' head, I took a recommendation and plumped for the aforementioned pigs' cheeks.

That brief pause was a little more salivation. Apologies. It was delicious. Many, many hours of stewing went into those cheeks, which were so tender they fell apart in my mouth, while the stew itself packed a meaty kick. The black pudding and apple was equally stunning, with the pudding the consistency of a pate.

Cheeses were a pleasant selection, with the mild goat's cheese proving a real winner, and the range of textures an excellent journey through Lyonnaise fromage, although the local speciality of cheese rind melted into a pate was an acquired taste that none of us had quite acquired.

To round off, the chestnut cake was light and fluffy and the perfect finish to five courses over the course of around three hours and countless bottles of wine. And the price for these five course? A mere €25. You'd be lucky to just get one cheese for that price in some Islington gastropubs. Content, we waddled into the night.

Day two

Tuesday got off to an inauspicious start. After a day, our iPhones finally worked out they were in France, so we assumed we'd slept in until 10.30am, and panicked, rushed out of the hotel sans breakfast to fit in some sightseeing, not realising we had an hour more that we realised. I've had more productive tourist mornings.

To rectify, there was only one solution: lunch. L'Aile ou la Cuisse in the city centre close to the Chamber of Commerce wasn't quite a Cafe de Federations but at €16 for a main and a dessert, you can't really complain. Especially when that gets you a giant pork chop with roast potatoes. When I say giant, I mean covering the whole plate giant. That was one serious piece of meat, and tasty too. The chicken, at a euro cheaper, was smaller but the skin was deliciously garlicky.

Where this restaurant really excelled, though, was the puddings. Pineapple tart was lovely and sharp, but couldn't hold a torch to an orgasmically light and fluffy dark chocolate mousse and a perfect creme brulee, with a top that cracked open, satisfyingly, like an egg when tapped.

As lunches go, this set us up nicely for the afternoon's walking tour of Lyon. €10 for an audio guide may seem a tad pricey, especially given the recent price of the lunch, but is easily one of the best things you can do, preferably on the first day you arrive. The audio guide is very detailed and gives you a mixture of history and practical tips. Without this, we would never have discovered the series of traboules in Lyon's old city - passes between houses that include some pretty impressive architecture.

The whole tour of the old city took around 90 minutes, although we were pretty quick (allowing time for a sorbet stop en route). You could easily spent an hour or so more and then move onto the Croix Rousse tour, which we skipped due to a lack of time. Foot was by far the best way to explore Lyon over our three day visit and these walking tours are probably the perfect way to start getting yourself orientated.

The evening meal was less a meal and more of a picnic, albeit one that wouldn't have been out of place accompanied by a glass of fizz. Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse is a food paradise in the Part Dieu district. Originally a market, this is now a series of stalls, shops and small restaurants serving seriously high quality food. It's not necessarily cheap, but there are some seriously good value nibbles to be had. Assuming you can tear yourself away from the mouth watering selections of jamon, fromage and patisserie, that is.

We went for a selection of salads, some potato cakes and a tomato tart, plus an incredible macaroon cake for dessert. Altogether, this bounty for dinner came in at just €20 for two of  us. The only shame is there's no park in the immediate vicinity to sit and eat. C'est la vie.

Evening was a short walk to Lyon Auditorium to hear the National Orchestra of Lyon and three choirs from Washington, Lyon and London (the latter containing our friend Danni - our main purpose for traveling to France) perform Berlioz's Requiem. Berlioz isn't a composer I'm overly familiar with, but the performance was fantastic, and the three choirs produced some truly spine-tingling moments. Afterwards Danni informed us she'd never experienced such a standing ovation, which gives you an idea of just how good the concert was.

Day three

With plenty of time to pack in food and sightseeing before our mid-afternoon flight, the morning was taken up with a trip to Parc de la Tete d'Or and Lyon's free zoo. I'm still blown away that this is free and anybody can wander into this very public area. Apart from a couple of enclosures that seemed a bit small, this is an excellent attraction, especially if you're traveling on a budget with children, and a perfect way to spend a sunny day. The park the zoo sits is is quite beautiful and I could have happily spent the day walking around the botanic gardens and snoozing by the very peaceful lake.

But with a flight to catch, it seemed logical to stop by Les Halles, given its proximity to Part Dieu station, and test out one of the sit down restaurants - and the one we chose I utterly forgot to note down the name of. What I can tell you is that it was a toss up between this and Cafe de Federations for my best meal, although to try and compare them is somewhat like comparing oranges and clementines. One is a traditional bouchon, the other some seriously impressive technical cooking.

Escargots were near-drowned at the back of their shells in herby garlic butter and were absolutely delicious. Every last piece of bread was used to mop up any drops of the butter. Gazpacho soup was fresh and danced on the tongue. This was a mere warm up for the mains.

Shark fillet was cooked to perfection and fell apart in the mouth. Duck on a bed of potato and carrots with a creamy sauce was mind-blowing. Tender and pink in the middle and just the right level of crispiness on the skin. All three simple elements combined together produced something quite special that wouldn't have been out of place in some of London's more exclusive gastronomic experience. Yeah, I'm still fantasizing about the duck now and it's been three days.

At €17 for lunch with a carafe at €9, this was fantastic value and the food and service was so good you could ignore you were at the far end of a hall in what could be a slightly soulless venue. Although no restaurant opposite the macaroon cake patisserie would ever suffer from that problem - one glance and you're transported to a magical world of cake and fruit. With a giant version of the macaroon cake on display, it would have been remiss not to check if it was up to the standard of its smaller cousin. I'm happy to report it there were no problems and I could have easily eaten a second. Or a third.

Three days in Lyon then, with some of the best food I've eaten that doesn't break the bank. Make sure you bring some good walking shoes and clothes with plenty of room for expansion as, no matter how hard you plan to try to go "food neutral" and walk off your meals, you'll do well to avoid a food baby. My diet for the rest of the month is essentially salad. Possibly Lyonnaise.

 

Random recipe: Lamb and squash stew

This time of year is meant to be a time when bloggers look back at the past 12 months and look ahead to the rest of the year, or at least share their resolutions. The former I'll do at some point, but the latter I don't really bother with, apart from a vague commitment to cook more in 2011, and this one is a good start to the year. It's adapted from a lamb casserole recipe I found online. Is it a casserole or a stew? Frankly, who cares. It's perfect for this time of year when all you want to do is hibernate. Better still, wait for a crisp, sunny day, set this cooking, go for a walk then warm up with a delicious and healthy-ish meal ready and waiting.

It's a one-pot dish, so takes up very little washing up, and is supremely easy to put together. This serves two - if you're cooking for four, you won't need to increase the stock or tomatoes by much.

You'll need:

250g-300g lamb neck fillet, diced 1 medium onion, diced 1 medium carrot, chopped 1 small leek 1 clove garlic, finely chopped or crushed 1 small butternut squash, cubed with seeds removed 400ml lamb or vegetable stock a handful of frozen peas 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 tbsp mint, chopped flour salt pepper Vegetable oil

Method

Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 6 / 180 C. Put your squash on an ovenproof tray, cover with olive oil and quickly roast for 10 mins to soften them up.

Roll your lamb fillets in flour so they're lightly dusted. Heat the oil in a casserole or ovenproof pan or dish and brown off the meat on both sides. Take out of the pan and put to one side.

Put the onion, carrot, leak and squash into the casserole and slowly cook for about 7-10 mins or until the onion is lightly golden. Add the cinnamon and cook for another minute.

Put the lamb back into the pot and add the chopped tomatoes and stock. Stir the ingredients together, bring to the boil and season to taste with the salt and pepper.

Cover the pot and put into the oven. Cook for around 1 hour and 20 minutes, when you'll want to add the peas and stir the mint into the pot. Return to the oven and cook for a further ten minutes. Remove and give it a couple of minutes to cool down before serving.

And that's the recipe. Very simple - the only hassle is peeling and cubing the squash. Other than that, it only takes about 10 minutes to prepare and is comfort food in a dish. There's no pictures of this, sadly, as it smelt far too good and I was hungry.

Interspersed with social media and journalism thoughts, I'll probably be posting a few more recipes this year, if you're ok with that. I may also be looking for guinea pigs to test out future recipes on - don't all shout at once...

Food over football

England be darned. After four straight days of non-stop football, combined with an uneasy feeling that despite my prediction of a win Algeria would provide difficult opponents, it was time to indulge a different passion: food. Months ago I'd been offered a VIP ticket to the Taste of London food festival and nothing - not even England v Algeria - was going to stop my inner foodie running riot. I suspect I may be one of the few people on Twitter lavishing praise on what I experienced that Friday evening.

And, yes, because I like blogging about food - and have been cooking a lot recently as well (prawn massala curry and a delicious moussaka have been particular highlights) - all I really want to do is make a few notes on tonight's food.

Sadly, because I'm an idiot, I forgot my camera. So no pictures.

Easily the best thing sampled was Mennula's handmade egg maccheroni with braised shoulder of Scottish lamb, pecorino and summer truffle. I can still taste it now and, despite being stuffed, could happily wolf down another plate.

Perhaps it's because Italy is still a recent memory in my mind, but this was sensational. The pasta was as good as I've had anywhere and the lamb was so tender it melted into the maccheroni and onto my tongue, while the truffle just rounded everything off. What's more, this was a simple dish with bold flavours that I could imagine tucking into at a decent trattoria. Delicious.

Following close behind was The Modern Pantry's garlic snails with chorizo mash. Frankly, it would have taken some extremely hard work for me to dislike this dish. The snails were perfectly cooked and the garlic sauce slowly seeped into the meaty mash. A complete winner, and one I might try to do myself at some point.

If you're talking desserts, then the torta al cioccolato con crema di mascarpone from Theo Randall was the kind of gooey chocolate heaven that makes sharing seem like a chore. We were practically snatching the pot from each other to lick out every last drop. And I'm not generally a dessert man.

Predictably Gaucho's Argentinian black angus sirlon with humitas chimichurri was exactly what you'd expect from a Gaucho's steak. Tender, grilled to perfection and bursting with meaty goodness. The chimchurri was a nice addition, with a crisp, fresh corn taste that nicely offset the heavier meat. Definitely one of the best steaks I've had over the last year.

The Cinnamon Club's spice crushed bream with masala mash and tomato lemon sauce was the first dish we tried and set the evening up nicely. The flavours were light and playful, while the mash tingled in the mouth and complemented the fish perfectly. It was a delicious concoction, albeit one that would get outshone as the evening went on.

I enjoyed Awana's Malaysian slow-cooked beef curry with coconut milk a lot, and there was a nice delicateness to the dish (plus it was easily the largest portion of the evening). But given other offerings on show, it trailed down into 'quite nice' on the list of dishes tried. A good quality curry, for sure, and no doubt a decent meal but it didn't have the same spark as, say The Cinnamon Club's dish. Not that it was in any way bad. I'd have happily polished it off in the restaurant with no complaints.

Bringing up the end of savoury dishes was the pan-roasted scallop with sardine pie and cauliflower puree from The Grill at The Dorchester. It wasn't that this dish was bad, but I probably expected a little more given the restaurant's reputation. There was nothing wrong with the perfectly done scallop nor the pie. Both were nice. But they didn't quite sit together as a dish and I've had many more interesting meals involving scallops than this one.

Finally, the biggest disappointment was Asia de Cuba's Mexican doughnuts with butterscotch sauce and mojito sorbet. Perhaps the cold rain didn't help the rather nice sorbet aspect, but the whole dish was a bit nothing. The butterscotch barely made an appearance while the doughnuts were... doughnuts. Nice street food, I suppose, the kind of thing you'd buy on a whim from a trader on the South Bank. Given everything else we'd eaten, it just didn't do anything for me, which is why we made a bee-line for Theo Randall's for a second dessert.

Sadly, stomachs and funds running low meant there was no chance to try L'Anima's rabbit Siciliana, a delicious sounding Stargezer monkfish green pea aubergine and corn curry from Busaba Eathai, and Colony's half shell grilled scallops with chilli, garlic and yuzu butter.

I'm now heading to bed a happy man and, in what's possibly an omen, my Sky Plus box decided not to work meaning I can't watch England's draw with Algeria. Clearly the food gods have decided there's no point in spoiling my night.

Three courses. Six people. Oh fuck

What, all five of you who read this might be entitled to ask, have I been getting up to while not blogging. The answer largely involves eating. More of that to possibly follow, but one of those nights of eating involved something I've never tried before: cooking a three course meal. For six people. On my own. The terror! Actually, the evening went rather well and, as it's Christmas, I thought I'd share what I cooked on here. There should have been photos, but I've left my USB cable at home. Anyway, I was so busy getting the main ready, I forgot to take pictures of it.

Starter: Spicy parsnip soup

The perfect dish for a cold winter's evening. The garam masala gives it a nice warm flavour without overpowering the vegetable, and can be served to this who don't like their food too spicy.

You will need:

1 decent size onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed or chopped

A small knob or pinch or ginger

1 tablespoon garam masala

5-6 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped

Olive oil

Butter

1 litre stock - chicken or vegetable is fine

1/2 litre of milk

Put a decent glug of olive oil and a knob of butter into a large saucepan and let the butter melt. Throw in the onion, garlic, ginger and garam masala and lightly fry until lightly brown and covered in the buttery, spicy mixture. Then add the parsnip (be careful not to cut the chunks too big) and make sure this is also covered in the mixture (about a couple of minutes).

Pour in the milk and the stock and a dash of salt and pepper (if you want to be fancy you can add coriander at this point) to season. Bring to the boil, then cover and let it simmer for around half an hour. Check if the parsnips are cooked through by sliding a knife in them.

Liquidise your mixture and return to the heat, and season to your taste. If you want to make it extra special, cut a few slices of crusty bread, top with Mexicana cheese and grill for a couple of minutes, then put in bread and cheese into the soup once you've served it up.

Main course: Slow cooked beef in Guinness with mustard and gruyere mash

A brilliantly easy dish to prepare that makes about 10 minutes to put together and can be left while you go off for a walk. Or, in my case, down the pub to watch football before coming back to make the mash. Yes, it's that easy you can do it after a couple of pints. You'll probably need to get the silverside from your local butcher. It won't be cheap but it WILL taste amazing.

You will need:

1.5kg Silverside of beef

150g bacon lardons

2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

2 medium / small onions, peeled and chopped

You can add your own vegetables at this stage as well. I used a leek in this, but sprouts, kale, or any other veg that takes your fancy would work equally as well.

1 can of Guinness

Worcester Sauce

Thyme or coriander, chopped

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Tie up your beef (you can get your butcher to do this) and season the surface. Preheat the oven to Gas mark 1 (140 C I think). Get a large oveproof casserole dish, turn the heat up on the hob, throw in a dash of olive oil and brown the meat all over for a couple of minutes. Take the meat out of the dish and put to one side.

Put the lardons in the dish and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the carrots and onion (and other veg) and gently cook for a few minutes until the onion is turning soft and brown. Put the beef back in the dish and give it a good move around in there.

Add the Guinness and a dash of Worcester Sauce and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and put it into the oven for a couple of hours minimum. Take the lid off and leave the dish in for another hour, minimum. Make sure you check and turn the meat occasionally to ensure it browns all over.

When you take the meat out, you can use the Guinness and juices to make a tasty gravy. Remember to cut the string off and to give the meat time to settle, then get carving.

But first, you'll need to make the mash and for that you will need:

6-12 potatoes, depending on size of potatoes and hunger of guests

Lots of butter

Milk

Salt and pepper

English wholegrain mustard

Gruyere cheese (other cheese works as well. I just happened to have Gruyere to hand.

Peel and cut your potatoes. Put in a saucepan, cover with water (add a dash of salt), bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover with a lid and let it simmer for around 20 minutes. Check if the potatoes are cooked by sliding a knife into them. If it easily goes all the way through, you're ready to get mashing.

Before you take your potatoes off the heat, grate your Gruyere or snap bits off so you've got lots of small chunks. Get your mashing implement and mash your potato down. Return to the heat and add a small dash of milk and lots of butter, as you want to get your mash nice and buttery (I tend to use James Martin's advice and put in as much butter as you think you need, then a little bit more). Thrown in the cheese and 1-2 tablespoons of mustard plus the salt and pepper to season and keep mashing until you you've got a lovely creamy cheesy mustardy mash. Serve at one with the beef, vegetables and anything else you want (peas, etc).

Pudding: Zuppa Inglese

Possibly one of the easiest puddings in the world to make! You can prepare this the night before and worry about the main course the next day. If you can't find vanilla custard, you can always use normal custard and throw in a dash of vanilla flavouring. For the brandy, the only stuff I had to hand was peach brandy, which worked well. You could also use Tia Maria (or both) and the cognac isn't essential - really the nearest to what you have to hand works pretty well.

For the layers, if you want it really chocolatey, ignore the instruction to put some of the custard to one side and melt the chocolate into all of it. The coloured layers are purely for aesthetic reasons.

You will need:

1 litre pre-made vanilla custard

1 round sponge cake

1 cup of espresso (or good quality coffee)

150g (or one and a half slabs) of Green & Black's dark chocolate

1 teaspoon brandy or Tia Maria

1 teaspoon Cognac (optional)

Cocoa powder

Put aside around 1/4 to 1/3 of the custard. Heat the rest in a saucepan and melt in most of the chocolate. Take off the heat once everything's melted into a dark chocolate custard. Meanwhile, in a cup, mix together the espresso, brandy or Tia Maria and cognac.

Get a reasonable size bowl and spoon half the remaining vanilla custard in. You'll then need to cut up the sponge cake and cover the custard with a layer of sponge. Brush the sponge with the alcoholic espresso mixture to ensure it remains moist. Repeat the layering but with the chocolate mixture. You should go chocolate custard, sponge, moisten. The last layer should be the remaining vanilla custard.

Put the trifle into the fridge and leave to cool overnight Just before serving, grate the remaining chocolate. Dust with cocoa powder and sprinkle with the grated chocolate.

So, that's it. Three easy, non-too-time-consuming and delicious courses. You've got plenty of time between each t make your house look amazing. Or watch football.

And a word of warning: it's impossible to have just one helping of the trifle.

Enjoy!

More posts about buildings and food

Or rather, just food. S managed to get a few picture of the amazing dishes at Pearl before I gobbled them down. We didn't get any pictures of the interior. We were too busy eating.

duck

This was the duck breast with watermelon feta, peanuts and satay sauce. The flavour combinations were perfect and the watermelon refreshed the palate while letting the duck do its work on the tastebuds.

Monkfish

The duck was a nice warm up for the best course - roast monkfish with caramelised chicken wings, artichoke gnocchi, girolles  and baby artichokes. I may have already got to work on this by the time the picture was taken.

It may not look much, but boy did it pack a flavour punch. The chicken wing was a playful addition and added even more depth to the monkfish, not that any was needed. If I could only ever eat one dish in my life again, this would be a serious contender.

The lamb course was largely demolished before we thought to take a photo. And the hazlenut chocolate parfait certainly didn't hang around long enough for the thought of a photo to even enter our minds. Both of these courses melted into the mouth and produced satisfied groans of pleasure.

I'm drooling just thinking of them now. Good job I'm not hungry, otherwise I'd be raiding the pantry instead of writing this.

Having a good old wine

Imagine you've got a brand to sell. You've only got a limited amount of stock, but are going up against around 20,000 other products, all of which are only slightly different to your own. On top of that, it's quite difficult to get it stocked in major retailers, who pick a few different brands and often drop prices far lower than you can go. Oh, and the majority of people aren't really sure what the differences are between the different brands. Sounds like a bit of a problem, doesn't it? And, if truth be told, it's probably not massively differnt from the issues facing the wine industry in this day and age.

It's the reason that Rob MacIntosh from The Wine Conversation is a great proponent of taking wine into the social media arena and energising the conversation to raise awareness of the different types of wine.

It's also the reason why he sponsored the December London Blogger meetup, where he told the assembled crowd of the challenges facing the wine industry and why they need to engage in social media outlets.

When you think about it, this approach makes sense. Wine enthusiasts, as Becky notes, are equally as excitable and as obsessive as, say, music fans.

But while there's plenty of huge music sites and blogs, Rob told the assembled crowd that the wine blogging community is, in relative terms, still very small.

It's a huge challenge facing Rob, other wine ethusiasts, and small vineyards that produce some excellent wines. But social media is an excellent way of getting the message out there. Where there's a niche, there's a community. And where there's a community, you'll get curious bystanders.

With review sites and sharing among the forefront of Web 2.0, if the formula is right, there's no reason why searching for a good wine to unwind with or to go well with your Sunday roast shouldn't be as simple as finding a good restaurant via Google.

It's one of the reasons the London blogger meetups are such a good evening. As well as an opportunity to meetup with other bloggers - familiar and not so familiar faces - it always provides food (and drink) for thought.

And, of course, there's always plenty of drink. In this case, wine.

Rob had arranged a wine-tasting session after the talk, with a great variety to try. Sadly, I had no notebook and can't remember the exact labels of them, but the Rioja was excellent and the Riesling went down a treat as well.

I also had a brief chat with Rob about UK wines - still shunned in some quarters. Me, I was converted after trying a rose from the Yearlstone Vineyard in Devon.

Again, it was another fantastic night and I ended up having a few more glasses than planned, but it was great to chat to Becky "You're not leaving yet" McMichael, Chris Reed (who took more notes than me on the wines), Jaz Cummins and Wadds. Another great night, and I know what to bring to the dinner table for Christmas this year.

Why I love autumn

The days may be drawing in, and the temperature's dropping, but rather than planning on hibernating for a few months, I really look forward to autumn. Why? Easy. It's probably my favourite season for cooking. Autumn (and winter, but winter's not as pretty. And doesn't have my birthday in it) is a great excuse to start making comfort food for those cold, darkening nights. It's a great excuse to get working in the kitchen for an evening, getting a bunch of friends would and warm yourself up with good food and conversation.

Soups are the obvious point to start. Nothing's better than a hearty broth with some crusty bread after a long day at work. Tomato and butterbean is one of my favourites, while it's nice and simple to whip some salsify and shallots into a quick soup. Chick pea, spinach and pasta soup with a dash of nutmeg is a filling concoction that acts like a food comfort blanket.

But by far and away my favourite is the squash family. Pumpkins, butternut squashes and vegetable spaghetti all make excellent, flavoursome soups that act as a real warmer. Soups take so little effort as well and you generally only need your chosen veg, onions, stock and whatever herbs or spices you're throwing into the mix.

But the squash family isn't just soup-er - they make a great side dish, or full meal for vegetarians. I particularly like halving them, scooping out the seeds and sticking a garlic clove in the hole, brushing with olive oil, throw a bit of rosemary on top, then leave to roast for a bit. Take out when soft, mash together with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper, scoop back into the skins, coat with honey and a drop of gooseberry oil and putting back in to bake for another half an hour. Meat eaters can add bacon or lamb to the stuffing. Whatever, the result is comforting and exceedingly filling.

In fact, roasting squash is so simple, it's hard to go wrong. Even a roast squash lasagne takes minimum of effort for maximum taste. I know hardened carnivores who've kept coming back for the squash version as opposed to a meat lasagne.

You can even take that classic spring/summer dish - the risotto - and make it much more comforting by swopping your mushrooms and peas for roast pumpkin.

For meat eaters, now's the time to truly indulge in those bold and brassy stews and roasts for a cold weekend. Don't forgot the essential autumn/winter veg accompaniment - the mash. Make your potatoes as buttery as you like, or simply swop for the delicious taste of mashed swede (with plenty of pepper). And no Sunday roast is complete without a few browned parsnips sitting alongside.

Be sure to make room for dessert though, and autumn isn't just about veg. It's a time when fruit gets a lot more serious. Apples, in particular, are brilliant at this time of year and there's nothing more comforting than the sight of a warm apple cobbler coming out of the oven. If you're lucky enough to have any rhubarb still left over from the end of the summer, stick it together with the apples in a crumble.

Apple pie is always a safe bet, or alternatively you could stew them with some sugar and sultanas. And while we're on apples, although we're not talking puddings here, try using cider instead of white wine in some dishes. Bollocks to the summery commercial ciders - what you want now is a proper country scrumpy.

Poached pears with figs are another treat, while if you get the chance to head to the countryside, make sure you take a bag and fill it with blackberries. These are one of my favourite fruits and it's hard to resist not to eat them before you get home to stick into a crumble, or blend and pour over icecream. And, frankly, there's nothing more autumnal than a good bramble jelly.

I've already stepped up my efforts in the kitchen over the past couple of weeks and, as the winds turn colder, I'll be more inclined to spend some some reacquainting myself with some old cooking favourites.

I genuinely couldn't care what the weather's doing outside. If it's cold and wet, I'll cook. If we get some glorious autumn sunshine at the weekends, I'll put in something that can slowly bake while I head out and kick through the leaves.

October, November - it's good to have you back.