Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Sichuan, Fish Fragrant, New Boys in Town (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 4/4/14

When I was larking about in Bristol the other week I stumbled across a rather fabulous little shop. Run by Koreans, their produce was natch mainly Korean, but they sensibly made a little nod to some other gear from way out East. I bought some fermented chilli bean paste, which is not remotely Korean but Chinese and specifically Sichuan.

Occasionally, when I’m not pretending to set up my own business, playing Angry Birds on my phone, or checking out the crumpet at the new opticians next door to Harp Lane, I’ll read a book. I’ve just finished Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop. A great read, but can you get any specialist Sichuan ingredients round here? Quite. I got my wife Fifty Shades of Grey recently, hopefully the feedback of that particular tome will be unpublishable.

So I’ve gone to Bristol and got all the kit and I knock up one of the best meals I’ve made in a very long time. I’m not one to extol my own culinary virtues, but bloody hell – Fuchsia’s ‘Fish-fragrant aubergines’ turned out pretty tidily. Strange name for a dish that contains not a jot of fish, but the depth and pure savouriness that came from this particular concoction was extraordinary.

The cooking of the Sichuan Province leans on ‘umami’ (the yummy taste you get from stuff like Parmesan cheese, Worcester sauce, and wild mushrooms) and mad, intense heat. This is man-food in extremis but never wishing to be too blokey I made it for my dear chum and business partner Lydia, and she had seconds.

I’ll give you the recipe if you like, but you’d do well buying Fuchsia’s book

Back from Chengdu, I touch down in little ol’ Ludlow. Turns out my former employers, Ludlow Food Centre are taking on a shop in the centre of Ludlow as a café-deli. Ice cream, fancy sarnies, bags of personality, that sort of thing. It sounds super. Rumour has it they were after our site at Harp Lane but I’m far too discreet and professional to comment on that particular issue. No idea Your Honour. Ludlow’s a funny town in that many people have tried coercing me into slamming LFC. I wish them well, truly I do. The more the merrier. My only advice - for what it’s worth – make some mates round here. Being aloof doesn’t get you very far round here.

Competition aside, I need to find me a supplier of Sichuan stuff. Tasty times ahead. Watch this space. 

Bristol: the Best Place to Eat (unedited): South Shropshire Journal 28/3/14

I rarely travel by train any more. I have a car that works perfectly well, and I can fill it with children and all their kit. My car runs quite inexpensively and generally on time. Trains don’t. However, given the rare opportunity when I get to go somewhere on my own without the kids and associated paraphernalia, I’ll splash out, hope that I don’t have to spend eight hellish hours waiting at Newport for a missed connection and thoroughly enjoy the ride.

On a solitary train journey one is all but forced to sit nice and still in one place, drink a tin or two of warm and overpriced train Stella Artois (optional), and gaze at the countryside as it rattles by. This is my idea of Nirvana (I get that it may not be yours), and last week I chugged down to Bristol with only a ten-minute wait at Newport. Phew.

What a city: all Brunel and beards, a railway station that looks like a cathedral, and some of the best places to eat anywhere I know. I was taken out for lunch by my friend Xanthe who writes about food for the Telegraph (a bit like this paper, but with bigger pages and less fat stock news) to a place called Flinty Red where I ate amongst other things, hang on, I’ve still got the menu, “Roast Carrot and Ewe’s Curd, Carpaccio of Kid Loin with Caper & Lemon Dressing, Seared Onglet with Creamed Kale” and I came very close to weeping with happiness in front of Xanthe. Which would have been horribly embarrassing. Such simple stuff, so painfully bang-on 2014, but effortless too. And cheapy cheap cheap. And the place wasn’t even full. Astonishing. In Ludlow a gaff like Flinty Red would be booked up months in advance.

I didn’t think it could get much better until five hours later when it did, at Bell’s Diner. Much of the same but up a notch and I think this time I actually did do a little cry, but it was darkish in Bell’s so I reckon I got away with it. I’ve got their menu too, but it would be showing off to relate that to you. Google it and go.

There are funky little coffee shops everywhere you turn, great pubs on each corner, friendly people, mad hairy wholefood shops selling bags of foraged foliage, bonkers wine shops. Enough already, you get the idea, I enjoyed myself in Brizzle.

But back at home, I spotted some local asparagus in the shops, a sure sign of tastiness lurking just round the corner. This weekend, what could be more springy than the clocks changing and Mothering Sunday? A cause for celebration if ever there was one.

Jersey Royals (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 21/3/14

I bet on horses twice a year: The Grand National, and Cheltenham Gold Cup. Having blown a whole tenner on some daft nag at Cheltenham (I think he’s probably still trying to find the finishing line), I shovelled copious amounts of well rotted gee-gee dung on to my veg patch and thought to myself, ‘this is all they’re useful for’.

By bespattering half of my garden with semi-digested straw I welcome in spring and think about the treats that lie ahead. New potatoes will probably go in first after they’ve enjoyed a good chit on a warm window-sill. To remind myself just how lovely a home grown early spud is, I bought myself a bag of Jersey Royals, which as they have done every year for the last decade or so, bought nothing but disappointment in the eating.

I’m not one for gastronomic nostalgia – very few things tasted better back in the good old days – but Jerseys sure as heck used to be so much tastier. Mr Farmer the greengrocer tells me that they no longer use seaweed (or vraic, as they call it over there) as a fertiliser, a fact that used to contribute to their unique and delicious flavour. Whatever the reasons, until my own taters are ready I’ll be unfashionably opting for the imported Majorcan earlies, which taste like a new potato ought to. Stuff the air miles, quite frankly.

I’ll also be getting my onion sets in soon, although I’m not really sure why I bother growing a vegetable that can be bought so cheaply and ubiquitously. You pop a baby onion in the ground, wait a few months, you pull up a bigger one. Pretty boring horticulture really.

However, the onion is the one vegetable, and possibly any ingredient, that gets more use in my kitchen than any other.

Pretty much every meal I prepare will involve this most handy of all alliums, although more often than not it plays an essential, but cameo role. Think of Ghostbusters without Dr Egon Spengler. See? It’s unimaginable. Well, that’s the onion. Often appearing alongside carrots and celery in a classic mirepoix or sofrito in braises, soups and stews, an onion will provide savoury bottom notes when cooked soft and slow without being allowed to take on colour and caramel flavours.

I should let onions play the protagonist more frequently. Baked whole with cream and cheese, pureed to go with lamb, I love a deep French onion soup, a sticky tangle on a pissaladiere (a southern French - and utterly delicious – version of pizza). Yummy yum. Perhaps it is worth growing a few of my own after all. 

Shrove Tuesday, Whorehouses and so on...(unedited) South Shropshire Journal 14/3/14

Here I go with another column in arrears. Deficit journalism. It was Shrove Tuesday last week and I completely forgot about it. I couldn’t give a flipping toss (see what I’ve done there?) about pancakes. Anyway, forgot about it I did, until I got home last Tuesday evening to find my little girls smearing pancakes loaded with chocolate spread all over their pretty little faces.

This kind of defies the whole idea of Shrove Tuesday: use up all the eggs, flour and milk in your house and subsist on dust and gravel until Easter Sunday. You’ve been a bad person. Lent it out. But don’t go buying a jar of Nutella. It will not admonish you from sin. I told that to my wife, who was pretty ambivalent.

When I was small we went on family holidays to Brittany in the north of France, every year for quite a long time. We’d take the ferry to St Marlo from Portsmouth and Mum, Dad, my sister Tilly and me would all bundle into a tiny cabin. Once across the Channel it would be a short time until we met our first galette complete. Ham, egg, cheese, and a lacey-thin pancake. That’s what it’s all about my friends. No other pancake - in my opinion - is worth the strife.

If you don’t want to cross the Channel for some decent grub do what I did last week and nip down to London. I went down for ‘research’ and a ‘meeting’ to gather a few ideas in order to make Harp Lane (My deli? In Ludlow? Opening soonish? Ring any bells? I may have mentioned it 8985095834 times before) the best it can possibly be.

Do what I did, handpick a few places in our capital, and you’ll quickly realise that the Big Smoke has never screamed louder in terms of gastronomy. Not clever stuff, not expensive flimflammery, just top-notch grub in warehouses, whorehouses, and outhouses. Making do, but not in that tired and overdone post-warish way, just very current, cool, and above all – bloody tasty.

There are boys with beards and tattoos cooking the sort of food that we can only dream of up here, for half the price. Girls out front who do customer service like we’ve never known, and they look like supermodels too. I understand that it’s a trade-off. We have a life in Shropshire that those smokin’ hot hipsters down there can only dream of. And a couple of days in London now is enough for me. I’m always happy to be heading west on the Westway. Driving over Titterstone Clee, down into Ludlow on the first sunny day in three months, well, Shropshire has never looked better. Those supermodel waitresses don’t know what they’re missing. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Coffee Guy, and Forgetting St David's Day (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 7/3/14

Easy José the Coffee Guy came to visit me recently, because he’s going to supply my little shop in Ludlow with beans and machines and all the paraphernalia one needs to make a grown up cup of coffee. If you want to get serious about coffee (which I do), you’ve got to know a guy like Easy José. Have you ever met a Wine Guy? All “top notes of a wet pavement” this, and “bosky little nuances of tobacco and bog-myrtle” that. Loud corduroys and checked shirts? You must have met a Wine Guy.

Well, the coffee lot are less shouty and slurpy, and more poetic and pretty. José the Coffee Guy ran us through some of the treats that will be coming our way: Sumatran stuff that tasted like sweeties, Kenyan coffee both grapefruity and chocolately at the same time, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that was a flower meadow in a cup. It was a crazy way to spend the day and by the end of it my heart was palpitating and I didn’t sleep for forty eight hours. But, it was tremendous fun, and we’ll do coffee at Harp Lane like nobody else. We’re getting a little bar in where you can perch and knock back a perfectly constructed flat white. You won’t want to hang around (though you’ll be welcome to) because our coffee will be served at a neckable 65 degrees Celsius, and that’s the temperature to have it. So there.

Here in Ludlow, being fifteen miles away from the Welsh border I feel as if I should have done something about St David’s day last week. Didn’t even cross my mind I’m afraid. Nothing personal, I just forgot. I love Wales, I can just about see it from where I write. For a long time in I went for Welsh girlfriends. I’ve matured since then, but a Welsh accent on a lady can still turn me all wobbly at the knees. My first ever beau in fact was Wewish . Cracking. If you’re able, get you one of them. Jude wasn’t particularly Welsh, or Jewish, but a great combo nevertheless.

Hafod, Perl Las, Gorwydd Caerphilly. Three cheeses that would always make it into my top ten all time. I holiday in Pembrokeshire every summer and, I was schooled in Monmouth. Which is (I think) in Wales.

Look, enough cross-border appeasement. Happus belated Dewiwhatever to my Welsh readers.

I can’t be sure (partly as this column still very rarely makes it online – so it’s tricky to check dates) but I think this may be my 51st column for this paper, making next week my 1st anniversary. Not one week off, and 23,000 words. How about that? 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ciggies for Breakfast (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 28/2/14

And then it stopped raining. The first time since before Christmas. An orange orb hung in the air. At five o’ clock in the afternoon there was light. The Storm abated for a few minutes last week so I popped up to my veg patch, squelched it with the palm of my hand, hrrrumphed to myself and went back inside for a cup of tea. Don’t know about the rest of you veg-growers, but my patch is going to be unworkable until at least 2067.

Anyway, tea. I’m rubbish with tea, no taste at all. I do coffee, cheese, wine, truffles, foie gras, caviar and all that sort of stuff properly. But with tea I’m simple. In the afternoon I take a neat PG Tips with a dash of milk. I can’t be doing with supermarket own-brand teabags, they just don’t cut it. In the morning (and this is the important one) my preference is 50: 50 builders and Lapsang Souchong – two bags, one cup - with a Marlboro Light. *For me this is the perfect weekday breakfast, but it’s so terribly unfashionable to advocate a cigarette as part of a balanced breakfast that I expect this will be subbed-out.  *Subs: Please don’t remove this bit!

I really struggle with breakfast. Just can’t be doing with it, not on a normal working day. Toast and cereal just don’t flick my switch. The very thought of porridge makes me want to go straight back to bed. Midweek I’ll take a fag and a cup o’ tea. No better way to start your day, although I obviously don’t tell my baby girls that. I fill them up with weetabix and bran flakes and they’re happy.

Give me a Weekend Breakfast and I’m your man. Any time from 10.00am onwards. Full English, no beans, I’ll have that. If there’s fried bread, then so much the better. Beans make a fry-up too saucy, and bean sauce mingled with runny egg is intrinsically wrong.

Failing that I’ll have kedgeree please. With a glass of beer. On a Sunday, Desert Island Discs or the Archers omnibus on the radio. The bells of St Laurence’s Ludlow will be ringing.

Devilled kidneys and a cheeky bloody Mary, seed cake with a glass of Madeira; kippers with buttered brown bread and strong, stewed tea; eggs Benedict and the Sunday Times. A bit of leftover Chinese takeaway in the fridge poses a treat of higher distinction than almost anything else. For me, brunch is king, A meal to be revered. If like me, you’re a person of high and distinguished taste, you’ll take your breakfast late in the morning. If, however, you’re under eighteen then listen to your parents and ignore pretty much everything I’ve just written.

Everything Deep-fried is so Jolly Good (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 21/2/14

The other day I was enjoying a pint of Hobsons best bitter (one of my top five favourite all time beers) in the Sun Inn in Leintwardine (one of my top five favourite local pubs) when I got a bit peckish. They don’t do food at the Sun but there’s a fish ‘n’ chippy next door. So I popped in, placed my order and twenty minutes later a smiley lady delivered it to my table in the pub. Cracking arrangement. As I sat there ploughing through a delicious pile of fried stuff – with a massive pickled gherkin and a tub of mushy peas on the side – it occurred to me that so many of my very favourite things have spent time in the deep-fat fryer.

Spanish churros, dusted with sugar and dunked in bitter-sweet hot chocolate; doughnuts from the chap at the fair who looks like he could do with a good shower; hot samosas; Italian fritto misto; Clive at Ludlow’s Green Café used to do amazing deep fried pigs’ brains with sauce gribiche. Love it all. Deep-fried stuff gets a bum wrap, but hang it: the taste and texture implications far outweigh the scare mongering from the Association of Squeaky Clean Arteries. Live dangerously I say. Although maybe not as dangerously as I did once after a few ‘heavies’ one evening in Edinburgh after wrapping up a week’s worth of board-treading at the Fringe (there’s so much you don’t know about me).

Under the assumption that I’d purchased a humble cheeseburger you can only imagine my horror and delight upon bighting into this thing. The burger itself had been injected with lurid orange processed cheese then dunked in batter and plunged in boiling oil. Reader, it was truly magnificent. The following day however, I became more familiar than I would have wished with pretty much every single service station between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Stevenage.

Every year a gang of us go to the Ludlow point-to-point races and every year, I’m the Scotch Egg Guy. It’s a faff of greater worth than any other faff I know, because of all the stupendous stuff to come out of the fryer, there is none better than my point-to-point Scotch eggs. This is an actual fact. I don’t know who invented this much-molested culinary marvel but I doubt it was a Scotsman (I refer you back to the Edinburgh episode). This is the only time I ever deep fry as the smell of bad pub kitchen tends to permeate the whole house for days. A properly made Scotch egg, still hot, with a crisp exterior, moist sausage meat, and a runny yolk would definitely make it onto my list of top five favourite things to eat ever in the whole world.