Full of flavour

From time to time I hear of a restaurant or a chef and make a mental note to go and eat there one day.  I’ve been meaning to try the Bistrot Saveurs in Castres for some time now and I finally managed to eat there last week, when I went on a day out with friends!!

Castres is about one and a half hours by car from Saint-Chinian –  a beautiful drive through lush countryside!  It’s a town that once was very prosperous through its textile, paper and tannery industries.  A walk around the town will have you enthralled by the beautiful buildings along the river Agout and the renaissance mansions of the rich and nobles of bygone days.  All that is for another post – the prime purpose of my recent visit was food! 🙂

The Bistrot Saveur is close to the centre of Castres.  Actually, most things are close to the town centre – Castres is eminently walkable!

The kitchen is presided over by Simon Scott, who has worked in prestigious London establishments such as the Ritz Hotel, where he was sous chef, and the Savoy Hotel, where he was head chef!  The dining room reflects the food which is contemporary and elegant.

Here’s a look at one of the menus:

And here is some of the food – the nibbles that accompanied our drinks:

The lollipops were made with parmesan and spices, the little dishes contained marinated fish with citrus fruit and pomegranate seeds, and the macarons were filled with a black curry cream.  All really yummy and a hint of what was to come.

All four of us ordered the Menu Saveurs, which is the restaurant’s lunchtime menu.  Since there were two choices for each course, we did manage to have all the dishes on the menu brought to our table 🙂

Here’s one of the starters – Pollack prepared like gravadlax, served on a bed of spinach mousse and accompanied by crispy vegetables and leaves and raz-el-hanout sorbet.  Raz-el-hanout is a North African spice blend and it gave a wonderful flavour to the sorbet.

The second starter was equally delicious – it was very much inspired by local ingredients.  If the first starter was mer (as in sea), the second starter was decidedly terre (as in land)!  Beautifully cooked puy lentils, topped with a samosa filled with black pudding, an egg cooked at 63 degrees Centigrade, and ice cream made with fresh goat’s cheese.

For my main course, I ordered the puff pastry topped chicken and mushroom, which was served with a puree of topinambour (Jerusalem artichokes), as well as a mixture of delicious winter vegetables (carrots, Brussel sprouts, Chinese artichoke, baby potatoes).  The portion size was absolutely perfect and the flavours were amazing!

The second main course on the menu was grilled sea bass filet on a sweet potato puree, served with chick peas, cooked ‘red meat’ radishes, and a shellfish reduction.  I only had a little bite to taste but I would have been just as happy having this dish for my main course as the chicken – I can’t really say which I preferred, both were delicious!

I opted for cheese to finish my meal – a selection of Mr Marty’s sheep’s cheeses, accompanied by walnuts and quince pate.  I don’t know who Mr Marty is, but his cheeses were very tasty!!

My dining companions all opted for the chef’s take on tarte tatin: beautifully caramelised apples atop a crispy speculoos (gingerbread) crust, topped with raspberry sorbet.

We ended this great meal with coffee and some wonderful pistachio financier cakes (they were very small), which were still warm from the oven!

The menu, including a glass of wine and coffee was absolutely fantastic value at 25 Euros per person.  I feel that I’ll be going to Castres again before too long and I’ll make sure to take more photographs of the town then, for another blog post!

If you want to eat at Bistrot Saveurs, be sure to book a table – the restaurant gets very busy.  You can find the website here.

So cheesy!!

Do you remember the time when fondue was all the rage??  It must have been in the dim and distant 70’s and 80’s when fondue seemed to be so sophisticated and entertaining!  And then somehow fondue fell from favour, and all those fondue sets and special plates were put at the back of some cupboard and more or less forgotten about.  That was pretty much everywhere except in Switzerland, where cheese fondue is very much part of the national identity!!

I’ve just had friends from Switzerland staying in Saint-Chinian, and we had a cheese fondue one evening.  It brought back many happy memories, so I thought you might enjoy reading about it.  In the French language, the word fundu means melted, so that is where cheese fondue got its name from.

For those of you who have never encountered fondue or a fondue set, there is a stand with a small spirit burner, on which is set the fondue pot.  There is an almost infinite variation of possible combinations as to shape and size, and these days electric fondue sets are also available!

Here are the ingredients we used for our cheese fondue:

We had to have Swiss gruyere and Swiss Emmental cheeses – the French versions of these cheeses were not an option for my Swiss friends!!  Luckily, the cheeses were easily found in the area!  We also used a dry white wine (Riesling in this case), Kirsch eau de vie, and corn starch.

To accompany the fondue, we had carrots, broccoli, small new potatoes, apples, pears, and bread – all for dipping into the melted cheese.  And we also had a mixed salad to accompany the fondue.

The cheese was cut into manageable chunks and then grated on the big holes of a box grater.

The carrots and the broccoli were lightly steamed, the potatoes boiled until just cooked, and the bread, apples and pears cut into bite-size chunks.

The stand for the fondue pot was set up in the centre of the table.  The stand would usually sit on a metal tray to protect the table, but my metal tray appears to have gone astray – perhaps it is at the back of some cupboard, somewhere??  The ceramic dish was a good substitute.

To make the fondue, the wine was heated in a casserole with some sliced garlic.

Once it reached boiling point, the cheese was added a handful at a time, whilst constantly stirring.

The cheese soon started to melt – to begin with it looked a bit lumpy!

Before too long it started to come together into a smooth and creamy cheese and wine stew!

At that point a mixture of corn starch and kirsch eau de vie (mixed until there were no lumps) was added to homogenise it further, and to add flavour.  After another couple of minutes the mixture was ready to be transferred to the fondue pot, which had been warmed with boiling water (otherwise the cheese would have cooled too much).  Note: fondue is normally cooked in the pot that it is served in.  Unfortunately, my fondue pot was not compatible with the cooker, so the fondue had to be transferred.

Below is the fondue in the pot, ready to be brought to the table.  The top was sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg!

We were all set to go!!

Everyone put a selection of goodies on their plates, and then we were ready to dip and enjoy the fondue!

It was absolutely delicious!!  Thank you to Thekla, Jean and Ueli for sharing this with me!!

Here’s the printable recipe:

Cheese Fondue

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

400 g Swiss Emmental cheese
200 g Swiss gruyere cheese (Greyezer)
400 ml dry white wine
1 – 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 teasp corn starch
2 tbsp kirsch eau de vie
freshly grated nutmeg

For dipping, prepare all or some of the following:
French bread (preferably day old), cut into bite-size cubes, each cube with some crust
Small new potatoes, carrots, broccoli, steamed/cooked until just tender
Apples and pears, etc. cut into bite-size pieces

Grate the cheese.  Mix the corn starch and the kirsch until there are no lumps. Heat wine and garlic in your fondue pot and when at boiling point add cheese a handful at a time whilst stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.  When the cheese is completely melted and the mixture starts to bubble add the corn starch and kirsch mixture, stir well for a couple of minutes, then bring to the table and put on your fondue stand.  

When dipping, make sure that you keep the cheese mixture moving!

Note: If possible, use a heat diffuser mat under your fondue pot once it is on the stand.  That way the cheese mixture is less likely to scorch at the bottom of the pot.

Winter is a perfect time for eating cheese fondue – what are you waiting for??

Bonne annee

At this time of year in France, when you see someone for the first time after New Year’s Eve, it is customary to exchange new year’s greetings. So, without further ado:

Bonne annee, bonne sante, meilleurs voeux to you all!!

This greeting is usually accompanied by a kiss on each cheek, not a real kiss but kind of touching cheeks and making the appropriate noise.  So please feel yourself virtually kissed!!

The new year’s greetings go on until the end of January!

Soon after Christmas, the galettes des rois or Epiphany cakes make an appearance in the shops and bakeries.  The tradition of the cake is closely tied to the three kings who came to Bethlehem bringing myrrh, gold and frankincense to baby Jesus.

Epiphany cakes come in one of two shapes:  there is the flat galette des rois, a frangipane filled puff pastry confection, or a ring shaped cake made with brioche dough which is often called a royaume and is decorated with sugar and/or with glacé fruit.  That same ring-shaped cake can also be found filled with cream!!

Common to all varieties is the fact that a favour is baked into them.  In olden days, the favour would have been a feve, a dried fava bean.  In France the favour is still called a feve and it is usually a tiny porcelain figure (watch your teeth!!).  Whoever finds the feve in their piece of cake is crowned king for the day.  Whenever you buy an Epiphany cake in any bakery or shop, a small cardboard crown is always part of the purchase!

Another tradition attached to the eating of the Epiphany cake concerns the dividing of the cake.  The youngest person usually sits under the dining table.  The cake is then cut into pieces, and the person under the table then calls out the name of the person who is to have the piece which has just been cut.

If you’re tempted to make your own galette des rois, have a look at this article where I give the recipe.

So, here’s to the start of the new year – let’s hope it’s a good one for all of us!!

The photographs for this post were taken at La Gourmandise bakery in Saint-Chinian.  Thank you, Carole!!

Keepers

My own definition of a keeper is a place I’m going to keep in my address book, somewhere I’ll want to go back to again!  The two restaurants in this article both fall into that category!!

On a recent visit to Montpellier, I had wanted to have lunch at L’Heure Bleue, an antiques store cum restaurant cum tearoom on Rue de la Carbonnerie.  The last time I had been to L’Heure Bleue was a few years ago.  I had fond memories of it’s cozy and kitsch decor and the delicious food!  The concept was fun – everything in the restaurant was for sale: the tables, the chairs, the china, literally anything around you could be bought and taken home, if you so wished.  When I pushed the door open on my most recent visit, there was none of the usual hum, and nobody was seated at the tables.  Perhaps I was a little too early?  Alas I was too late!  When I asked about having lunch, the owner said that they had stopped serving food about a year ago. 😦  He could see how disappointed I was (he probably was too), and suggested that I try another Salon de The just around the corner – L’Appart’The.  So off I went, down Rue de la Carbonnerie, turning right into Rue de l’Aiguillerie, and finally left into Rue Glaize.  I was so pleased when I spotted L’Appart’The, that I almost went flying when I missed a step outside the restaurant!   😲

There were tables outside the restaurant, and even though it was a nice and sunny day, it felt a little too cool for me to be sitting outside.  Inside, the dining room was small but bright, with a lovely warm feel to it.  There was space for only eight persons at four tables for two.  A counter at one end of the room separated the kitchen from the dining room, and allowed me to watch the chef preparing the dishes.  There were already some people seated and I felt a little too self-conscious to take photographs.

The menu was very simple: a choice of three starters, two main courses, and four desserts.  My dining companion and I both opted to have the fresh ravioli for our starters.  The ravioli were filled with mountain (raw cured) ham and curd cheese, and served with a creamy sauce.  The ravioli were very delicious!

For his main course, my dining companion chose the slowly braised pork chop:

I had the roast beef:

Both of the main courses were delicious!  What we really liked was that for once there was a good amount of vegetables on the plates – that happens so rarely in restaurants in France.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and totally appropriate for the season: turnips, carrots, cabbage, sweet potato and regular potato.

From the five desserts on the menu I chose the apple tart:

and my companion chose the apricot dessert with a caramelized top:

Both desserts were very yummy!!  When I came to pay the bill at the counter (the menus were 25,50 Euros for three courses), I saw that there was a second room to the side, which was set up as a lounge with sofas, armchairs and coffee tables – very cozy and perfect for afternoon tea!


I came across another “find” recently on a visit to Capestang.  Again, I wasn’t able to go to the restaurant I had hoped to go to, which was La Galiniere.  I had timed my trip badly, it was the day off for the restaurant.  I knew that there were several restaurants around the main square in Capestang, so I walked there and had a look.  Le Caveau de la Place looked interesting and there were a couple of people outside, enjoying a drink in the sunshine, so I decided to give it a whirl.

The word caveau usually denotes a wine cellar where you can sample and buy wine. The interior of the restaurant made the wines a prominent feature:

The lunchtime menu was simple and straightforward – three courses, no choice of dishes, but what was on offer suited me fine.  The first course consisted of deep-fried squid nuggets with a little green salad.  The batter around the squid was very well seasoned, and the olive oil on the salad was wonderfully tasty.  The portion was very generous, almost a meal in itself!


For the main course there was blanquette de veau, veal in a creamy sauce with carrots and mushrooms, and accompanied by a creamy risotto.  The veal was lovely and tender, and oh-so-tasty!!

Dessert came in the form of a lemon meringue tart – not home-made I’m guessing, but good all the same!

To go with the food, I had a glass of white wine from Domaine Saint-Georges d’Ibry, a winery near Abeilhan.  In the photo below, the white wine was the bottle in the centre.

The three-course lunch with a (very generous) glass of wine came to €17.80 – great value!

When I arrived back in Saint-Chinian there was a rainbow on the horizon – if you look carefully, you’ll be able make out the start of a second rainbow.  Just perfect!! 🙂

Cherry Celebration

Since the cherry season has started and the cherry festival in Mons-la-Trivalle will be taking place this Sunday, June 2, 2019, I thought it appropriate to share this post from a few years ago.  Details of this year’s cherry festival can be found on the website of the Mairie of Mons-la-Trivalle.  I do hope you’ll enjoy your fill of delicious cherries!!


The cherry harvest is in full swing right now, and to celebrate it, the village of Mons-la-Trivalle holds a cherry festival each year, at the beginning of June.  Cherries are grown all over the Languedoc region, but they seem to especially thrive in some areas.  The upper valley of the River Orb is one of these areas, and if you go for a drive at the right time during spring, you’ll see the most amazing sights of trees, white with cherry blossoms!  Later on you’ll see stalls set up by the roadside, selling cherries :).

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The growing season for cherries is pretty short.  From mid to late May, locally grown cherries start to make an appearance in our weekly farmers market.

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The first of the crop are usually quite expensive, but as the season gets under way the prices drop.  Cherries can never be a cheap fruit though: each cherry has to be carefully picked by hand, and that takes time!

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I arrived at the “Fete de la Cerise” just after lunchtime – parking was well signposted, and the view from the car park (up the hill from where the fete was taking place) was spectacular!

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Walking down the road to the village, the cherry trees I passed were heavy with fruit, and the sun was shining – what could be better??

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When I got to the fete I made a beeline for the flea market; there I found a very good selection of all things bric-a-brac, and fell in love with a bentwood armchair – more on that later :)!

The “cherry market” was great too – although, since I was relatively late, the cherries were not as much in abundance as they had been in the morning. But there were enough for me to snap pictures of, and to buy.  I had it in mind to make a Clafoutis, a dessert traditionally made with cherries.  The selection of stalls was excellent, colourful ceramics vying with equally colourful baskets, and there were plants, and hats and of course food!!  I couldn’t resist the French Fries from the Belgian food stand :)!

Entertainment was provided for all ages:  Donkeys would take children for a ride, there was a gyroscope, a stilt-walker, and then there was a corner where a number of games had been set up!  I decided to try a game called Quarto, where wooden pieces are placed on a board, with the aim of forming a line where either the colour, height, shape, or top of the pieces match.  The interesting part is that you chose the piece which your opponent has to put down on the board.  Can’t be that difficult, I thought, and promptly lost the first two games :(, but then I won the third 😀 !

The cherry theme was in evidence everywhere!  Even the members of the roaming drum band had decorated their drums, and in some cases themselves, with cherries!

After all the exertions in the market, I had an ice cream and a glass of water in the local cafe.  From where I was sitting I had a great view of the bentwood armchair – it just kept calling to me.  In the end I simply had to go and take another look at it, and guess what – I came away with the chair in my hands :).  The seat needs re-caning, but the price was good and the shape just so beautiful!

Once I’d gotten my chair home (luckily it fit into the car!), I made the cherry clafoutis.  It’s a very simple dessert: cherries baked in a kind of pancake batter.  Originally from the Limousin, clafoutis is now popular all over the south.  Over the years I’ve tried a number of different recipes and methods, and I’ve now hit on one which I like best.

Cherry Clafoutis

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

500 g cherries
125 ml milk
60 ml cream (single or whipping)
2 eggs
50 g sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp kirsch
butter for greasing

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.  Butter a round or square oven-proof dish, just large enough to hold your fruit in a single layer;  I used a 23×23 cm sized ceramic dish for this recipe.

Wash your cherries and decide on whether or not you want to stone them – I’m not sure whether cooking the cherries with their stones adds any flavour, so when I have enough time I will stone them.

In a bowl mix the flour and sugar, then add the cream, milk, kirsch and eggs and stir with a wire whisk until combined.  Leave the batter to rest for 10 minutes; stir briefly, then pour over the cherries and bake for 30 – 35 minutes.  The exact cooking time may vary depending on your oven, but the clafoutis is cooked when it starts getting puffed around the edges and is no longer wobbly in the centre.

Serve warm or at room temperature.  If serving to children you can omit the kirsch and add a drop (but only one drop!) of almond essence.  You can make this a day ahead, in which case you cover the dish with clingfilm once it’s cooled enough not to melt the clingfilm, and put it in the fridge right away.  Ensure you let it come to room temperature before serving.

Ciao Bella

Last week I got together with friends to cook Italian food.  Unfortunately, our hosts had received some horribly upsetting news just a few days prior to our get together — they’d lost a very dear friend in dreadful circumstances!  I had met that friend on several occasions and I remember her very fondly, so I would like to dedicate this post to Vivian Hart.

Our menu was as follows:

  • Cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers
  • Caponata
  • Rosemary and olive oil focaccia
  • Spinach and ricotta gnocchi
  • Chicken with agrodolce sauce

If the list of dishes sounds ambitious, we did have a few things to nibble on while we were cooking!  And although it sounds like a lot of work, there were five pairs of hands to do the preparing and cooking, and I find that Italian food is not as labour intensive as say North African cuisines — that is apart from home made pasta!

The cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers were very straightforward to prepare.  The trimmed whole peppers were roasted until soft and starting to brown.

Once they were cool enough, a slit was cut into the side of each pepper, and they were stuffed with a mixture of goat’s cheese, mozzarella and basil.  Here they are, ready to go into the oven again:

We served the peppers with a few spears of cooked asparagus, which had been drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parmesan shavings.

Together with a campari spritz (campari, prosecco, sparkling water, slice of orange) this was a perfect appetizer!!

The recipe for the caponata came from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book – if you don’t have your own copy already, I would warmly recommend that you buy that book – it’s absolutely packed with good recipes AND good writing!

I have previously written about making caponata — you can find my recipe via this link.

Essentially, caponata is a stew made with onions, aubergines (eggplant), celery, tomatoes, olives and capers.  The results will vary, depending on the recipe and method you use — there are many, many variations of the recipe out there!

We served the caponata with home made rosemary and olive oil focaccia — a typical Italian flatbread.  Here is the dough, already shaped and after it had risen a second time:

Here is the dough with the “dimples”, which are simply made by pressing the fingertips into the dough, and with the rosemary olive oil drizzled over:

… and 20 minutes later, fresh from the oven: 🙂

The fresh focaccia was delicious in combination with the caponata:

The recipe for the spinach and ricotta gnocchi involved a fair bit of chopping, but once that was done the dough was fairly quick and straightforward to prepare.

The dough was shaped into walnut-sized balls which were refrigerated for 30 minutes or more before being boiled.

The finished gnocchi were delicious!  A regular portion consists of 8-9 gnocchi.  I knew that we still had our main course to eat, so I held back a little! 🙂

The recipe for chicken with agrodolce sauce came from the olive magazine website, as did the focaccia recipe.  Once all the ingredients had been prepared, the cooking was very quick!

The chicken escalopes were dipped in flour and browned on both sides:

Next, the vegetables (onion, celery and tomatoes) were stir fried:

After the vinegar and sugar had been added to the vegetables, the escalopes were returned to the pan and cooked for a few minutes together with the vegetables:

The whole cooking process took no more than 15 minutes and the resulting main course was scrumptious!

We finished our meal with some fresh cherries and strawberries, and more reminiscences of our dear departed friend.

Hot and cross

Since today is Good Friday, I thought I should  write about Hot Cross Buns for today’s post.  I looked at recipes in several cookery books:  Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Angela Piper’s The Archers’ Cookbook, and Reader’s Digest’s Farmhouse Cookery: Recipes from a Country Kitchen.  For good measure, I also looked at Felicity Cloake’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns on the Guardian website.

The origins of the hot cross bun are somewhat hazy – Elizabeth David has not a great deal to say about the history, and other articles on the subject don’t offer much more.  During Elizabethan times a law was passed forbidding the sale of spice buns except at funerals, on Good Friday and at Christmas.  Elizabeth David does not relate whether the spice buns sold on Good Fridays in Elizabethan times had a cross on them, but she’s fairly categorical in her dismissal of putting a cross on the buns in pastry or with candied peel as “unnecessary fiddling work”.  I do love her no-nonsense style of writing!!

I also love Elizabeth David’s sweet spice mixture, which she gives in her book.  It consists of two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns or allspice berries, one part cinnamon bark, one part cloves and one part dried ginger root.  I mis-read the recipe, or perhaps wanted to, and added white peppercorns AND allspice berries! 🙂

My new kitchen scales seem to be fairly precise, so I weighed the nutmeg and used that weight as the basis for the other spices.  My small electric coffee grinder did a great job of reducing the spices to a fine powder.  The smell of the ground spices was divine and filled the whole kitchen!

Once I had studied the recipes on my kitchen table very carefully, I decided to use the proportions of Felicity Cloake’s recipe, but with some modifications.  In her recipe, the milk is heated and left to infuse with the spices – I used Elizabeth David’s spice mix and added it to the flour.  Instead of regular white wheat flour, I used Type 130 spelt flour, which is not quite white but not quite wholemeal either.  Felicity Cloake’s recipe also had the highest amount of currants, so I reduced their weight a little, to 125g.  Other than that, I followed the ingredients of her recipe.

I made the dough at lunchtime, so it could have a slow rise during the afternoon.  After the initial mixing I let the dough sit for five minutes so that the flour could absorb the liquid.  After that “hydration” period, the dough was still a little too soft for my liking, so I kneaded in an additional three tablespoons of flour.  Then I covered the bowl with a lid and let the yeast cells do their work!

At the end of the afternoon, the dough was well risen and had a lovely aroma!  The partially deflated dough looked like this, you can see lots of air bubbles around the edges:

The currants and mixed peel were kneaded into the dough after it was deflated.

Then it was time to portion out the dough.  I weighed the entire dough and then divided it into 16 individual portions, weighing about 70g each.

I shaped the pieces of dough into balls and flattened them slightly.  Once I had my two baking trays filled with the buns, I used my dough scraper to cut a cross into eight of the buns – pushing the straight side of the dough scraper right through and effectively cutting the buns into quarters.  As the dough was quite soft, the cuts ‘healed’ up again but stayed visible.  On the other eight buns I used a knife to cut a cross into the top of each bun.

Whilst I was doing the shaping of the buns, I had turned on my oven on the defrost setting, which warms to 50 degrees – perfect for proofing yeast dough.  Once the buns were shaped, I turned off the oven and put the trays in.  It was just a little warmer than in my kitchen, and produced beautifully risen buns within 30 minutes.

Once the buns were risen enough, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of plain flour and some water into a stiff-ish paste and put it into a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle.  Then I piped crossing lines on the buns.  I had prepared some egg-wash to brush the buns with before piping on the cross, but forgot to do that – oh no!!

Some of the buns which I had cut with the dough scraper did not get a cross piped on – I had run out of the mixture. 😦

I put the trays into the cold oven and turned it on to 200 degrees centigrade.  With yeast dough, I have found that starting with a cold oven can produce wonderful “oven spring”, as the yeast goes into overdrive before being killed off by the heat.  After 10 minutes the buns had puffed up nicely and were starting to brown.  I removed one baking sheet at a time and brushed the buns with egg wash, before putting them in the oven again.  After a further 10 minutes the buns were fully cooked and there was the most beautiful smell permeating the whole house!!  If only this could be a scratch-and-sniff post!!

Traditionally, the buns should be brushed with a sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven.  I have done this in the past, but I found that it makes the buns sticky and doesn’t add much more than that, so I gave it a miss this time.

What special foods will you be eating this Easter?