Tag Archives: restaurants

Wild Pink Thyme

It’s About Thyme

A memory of an idyllic French lunch, with a recipe, first published in the US magazine Barbecue and Beverage.

The drink arrived in a gigantic stemmed glass shaped like a cross between a bell and an old-fashioned hurricane lamp. As pale gold as straw, yet with a slight greenish tinge, it was garnished with pink flowered stems and smelled of summer – Mediterranean summer.

The scene was a long time ago, but the memory is still fresh and green. In honour of my friend’s birthday we had travelled, in early summer, to a famous restaurant overlooking a hazy valley in Provence, in the south of France.

We were seated at a table in the shade with just the right, artful amount of sunlight filtering down through the fingered leaves of a massive fig tree.  A small wedding party, chattering and laughing at a table for ten or twelve were the only other patrons. At an open grill in the corner, a chef turned a roast on a spit using a brush of rosemary branches to baste it with olive oil. The same breeze that ruffled the turquoise waters of the swimming pool carried the scent across to us.

In the spirit of celebration, we ordered the somewhat expensive  aperitif de la maison – the house cocktail – which was served to us in huge glasses.

“What’s in it?” I asked the waiter.

“It’s made of white wine, Madame,” he said. But that didn’t begin to describe the taste which brought to mind honey bees and wild flowers and the spikey scent of the garrigue – the sun baked scrub country on the western edge of the region.

White wine in a glassAfter the first sip, I tried to discover the mystery of its taste yet again. “What is it flavoured with? What makes it taste so vibrantly green?”

“Ah, Madame,” the waiter replied, with great seriousness, “That is the secret of Monsieur le Patron.”

When he left, a member of the wedding party leaned over. “You like?” she smiled. “It is, here, a most famous and traditional aperitif.  The secret is the serpolet.

“What is that…in English?”

The woman’s brow creased as she struggled to find the perfect word. “So…you know it is like…lawn…yes, lawn.”

She had mistranslated the French word herbe (which can in fact mean grass) and for years I thought this wonderful drink was made from grass. Much later, I discovered that serpolet is, in fact, wild mountain thyme.

Thyme, native to the western Mediterranean, grows in its wild (serpolet) and cultivated (thyme) forms throughout Provence.  Walking across a field you will crush it underfoot, releasing its evocative scent, a key element in the famous herbes de Provence. In addition to this refreshing  and unusually perfumed drink, local cooks use fresh thyme as a robust and versatile herb for the barbecue. Scattered on hot coals, the woody branches produce a smoke-scented flavour that is wonderful for grilled meat, fish or chicken.  A generous handful of branches stuffed into a bottle of quality olive oil makes an excellent base for a marinade or homemade mayonnaise.  New potatoes take on a continental dimension when roasted with thyme.

French thyme (thymus vulgaris), cultivated from wild Provencal thyme, is reputed to be the best of the approximately 100 varieties of the plant. It has larger leaves, more essential oils and a stronger, sweeter flavour  than English thyme.  In Provence, cooks pick a few sprigs from the garden as needed to preserve the strong, fresh taste until just before use.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to grow in most temperate gardens. Seeds for French thyme can be ordered online from a wide range of suppliers.

We first tasted a version of this drink at the then Michelin 3-star L’Oustau de Baumanière under the ramparts of Les Baux-de-Provence. The late, legendary chef, Raymond Thuilier, who founded the restaurant and the hotel Le Baumanière still presided over the kitchen. This recipe, similar to the one we sampled, was given to me by a French traiteur who made it for her own catering shop.

Coupe Serpolet

Recipe

4-6 servings

  • 1 liter of dry white wine
  • 6-10 branches of fresh, pink-flowering thyme (preferably in bloom), washed but left on the branch.
  • 3 tablespoons of honey (more or less to taste)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 quart covered glass or ceramic container (don’t use metal)

Spread the thyme branches in the base of a one-and-a-half to two-quart non-reactive container. Pour in all the white wine. Cover and soak for 15 days in a cool (but not refrigerated) spot.

Line a sieve with one layer of clean, dampened cheesecloth or muslin, Strain the wine through it and into a glass bowl, squeezing as much juice as possible out of the thyme branches. Discard the branches.

Wash and dry the container, making sure any soap residue is gone.

Warm honey until it reaches a thin consistency. Add the honey to the wine infusion; mix well and return to the container. Cover and allow to age for one month in a cool (but not refrigerated) place.

Serve straight or over ice in a roomy, bowl-shaped glass, garnished with a sprig of flowering thyme.

Featured photo above by Philip Goddard, ccl

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Everyone is beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone - even if the food is gaspingly expensive.

Everyone is Beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse

I had enjoyed a small personal victory and wanted to treat myself to a very nice lunch. The Marylebone area – particularly between Marylebone High Street and Baker Street is full of nice little places. 

But somehow as I walked through the side streets towards Baker Street Tube, my ultimate destination, nothing really struck my fancy.  

Then I arrived at what appeared to be a garden terrace. An attendent manned the entrance. He was wearing a suit and tie and he was beautiful. There was no sign as far as I could see.

“Is this a restaurant?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“What kind of food do you serve?”

“Portuguese.”

“Where is the entrance?” I still didn’t see any sign, any obvious way in or any menu posted discretely on an outside wall,as required by law in London

“Right this way,” he said, and ushered me into the garden. I still didn’t know where I was.

Eventually, a hostess offered to find me a seat inside (the garden was nearly full except for the bits of  it that would soon be rained on). She was tall, slim and dressed in a fabulous two piece number in a dark leafy green. She was beautiful.

Inside, the restaurant was packed and buzzing. Another hostess, in a similarly designerish outfit, all in blue (also beautiful) offered me a seat at the bar. I hate sitting on bar stools but eventually she found me a seat at a sort of banquette with high single tables, facing the bar. The bartender and wine steward were beautifully dressed and beautiful (as you can see in the picture above). 

It was only when someone finally handed me a menu, that I realized I had randomly stumbled into the Chiltern Firehouse, once one of London’s hottest celebrity haunts. The restaurant, with its kitchen “curated” by Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, has cooled down some since the virtual hysteria of its opening months in 2014. But, people still wait weeks to book this place, and there I was settling in, by accident, after a Wednesday afternoon stroll.

All around me, beautiful people were tucking into gorgeous looking food. Nips, tucks and tans as far as the eye could see. And when my food finally arrived, it was absolutely beautiful to look at too.

Did I mention that everyone – and everything – is beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse.

I ate a salad of heritage tomatoes with strawberries, a slice of sourdough bread, an omelet of crabmeat and lobster (pictured here) that was the strangest looking omelet with the oddest texture that I’ve ever eaten. It was delicious and I am very curious to know how it was made but I hope I’m not offending the chef when I say it did not satisfy my desire for a nice, tender, eggy omelet. It was something else entirely. 

Lobster, crab and shiso leaves decorate the strangest omelet I've ever eaten, at the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone, London.
Lobster, crab and shiso leaves decorate the strange, mysterious looking omelet at the Chiltern Firehouse.©Ferne Arfin 2017

Oh, and I did treat myself to a glass of Ruinart NV champagne – well I did say I was celebrating.

And with a black coffee to finish, and the 15% tip, the price of my special lunch of omelet, salad and champagne came to an eye-watering £79.93. 

Was it worth it? Well, it was a very nice lunch but I think if you have to ask about value for money, this probably isn’t your kind of place. I’m not actually sure when it will next be mine.

The Nitty Gritty

The restaurant and attached boutique hotel are owned by André Balasz who also owns the legendary Chateau  Marmont in Hollywood, The Mercer in New York’s Soho,  the Sunset Beach on Shelter Island and Standard hotels around America.

  • The Chiltern Firehouse
  • 1 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1U 7PA
  • Telephone +44 020 7073 7676
  • Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Saturday and Sunday for brunch. Check the restaurant website for opening times which vary from day to day.

While you’re thinking about food and drink, check out how a hot new gourmet restaurant in Paris lays on the charm and style without the intimidation in this review of Coretta’s at Paris Unlocked.