So today I’m off to the Colombian Embassy for lunch. The embassy is in one of the most beautiful parts of London – Chester Square in Belgravia. So first, a bit of history. Chester Square is one of three garden squares built by the Grosvenor family when they developed the main part of Belgravia in the 19th century. The better houses were said to be in the other two squares – Eaton and Belgrave and the plan was to provide second rank kind of houses in Chester Square (planned in 1828).
Seriously, these are magnificent four or five-storey houses all looking towards the private central garden area. It’s impossible to imagine how different London life was then – with one family having the power and finances to develop all this splendour .
Chester Square has had its share of famous residents through history, including poet Matthew Arnold, Mary Shelley, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. Chelsea Football Club owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (said to be the second richest person it the UK) now lives here – you’re getting the picture, this is some exclusive neighbourhood.
I was very excited to have the opportunity to see Chester Square from the inside (and yes, it was as lovely as I’d imagined). And even better, there was going to be cooking and eating involved as I learned about a cuisine I had very little knowledge of. So on to Colombia and its food.
Colombia is an incredibly diverse country with five clear geographical regions and a wide range of influences from the different cultures which make up its population. This of course manifests itself in the food with the peoples of Spain, Africa, China, the Middle East, Germany and the Caribbean all clamouring to make their mark on the cuisine.
The diet includes a lot of meat though in the coastal areas fish and seafood is bountiful. And the range of fruit available is mind blowing – quite a few I’d never even heard of. We tucked into a banquet, seated under sparkling chandeliers in the magnificent dining room overlooking the square.
I’ve included a couple of recipes that were shared with me, in case you feel like experimenting with Colombian cuisine – I’d highly recommend it.
We started off with these delicious fritters served with a chilli sauce.
Potatoes are big in Colombia (another reason to love the food) and this is a traditional chicken and potato soup. It has three types of potatoes in it! I also love that they can add avocado to just about anything. If you can’t get all the ingredients, improvise and taste to make the soup to your liking. Just so you know, guasca is a Colombian herb and papa criolla is a potato. If you live in the UK you can find a cornucopia of exotic ingredients online at www.lacasadejack.com.
Chicken and potato soup (Ajaico Santafereno)
Serves 6 to 8
1 whole chicken or 2.5 chicken breasts
18 cups cold water
2 garlic cloves
4 guasca leafy stalks
4 coriander leafy stalks
4 tbs coriander, chopped
4 ears of field corn each cut crosswise in half
6 firm potatoes, peeled and sliced
6 starchy potates, peeled and sliced
1 lb large papa criolla
Half a cup guasca leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
For the garnish
Half a cup of capers
Half a cup of double cream
1 avocado, peeled and sliced
Place the chicken, scallions, garlic and stalks of guasca and coriander in a large pot. Pour in the water, season with salt and pepper to taste. Set over medium heat and boil for 1 hour, or until the chicken is tender. Remove and discard the vegetables and herbs. Remove the chicken from the broth.
Once cool enough to handle, debone and shred the chicken. Set aside and discard the bones. Add the coriander, corn and starchy and firm potatoes to the broth and contiune cooking. Add the papa criolla after 10mins and continue cooking for 15 mins or until the papa criolla falls apart and thickens the mixture. Add guasca leaves and adjust seasoning. If the soup is too thick, add a little water.
Serve garnished with the shredded chicken, cream, capers and avocado.
This was a delicious pulled pork dish served on plantain. Beautifully rich and exotic.
In the coastline areas of Colombia it’s common to cook with coconut. Like in this luscious fish stew with calamari, mussels and white fish in a rich coconut sauce.
Cartagena Braised Beef (Posta negra Cartagena)
3lb of rump with its fat
1.5 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp vinegar
For the braising liquid
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 sweet chilli peppers, seeded and chopped
3 white onions, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tomatoes, chopped
Salt to taste
Place the meat in a bowl and marinate with salt, pepper, garlic and vinegar. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours.
Remove the meat from the fridge. Heat the oil in a pot over a high heat and brown the meat on all sides, starting with the fat, until it goes a dark caramel colour all over. Add the peppers, onion and garlic and saute for 2 mins.
Add the tomatoes and pour in enough hot water to cover a third of the meat. Braise for 45 mins over medium heat for medium. If you want it well done place in the oven at 180C for 40 mins.
Remove the meat from the pot, cover and allow to sit for 10 mins.
Cut it in thin slices to and serve with the sauce. If the sauce looks too dry, add some hot water and reduce it a bit for all the flavours to integrate and obtain a nice gravy. Serve with fried coconut rice and salad.
Did I mention that we started off in the kitchen? I love being involved in the cooking process, it’s the best way to learn and remember. Here’s some of the ingredients we used…yes, only some of them!
Well that was all quite an experience. South American food is making its mark more and more in London, and I’ve experienced plenty of delightful Argentinian and Peruvian restaurants. Must be time to visit a Colombian one soon. It’s clearly a fascinating foodie continent – and, now that I’m thinking about it, the only continent that I have never visited…Gotta do something about that.
Oh and here’s a picture of some houses in Chester Square…now that’s second rank accommodation I could cope with.