Friday, 27 December 2013

New Year's Cotechino, and the Next Step (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 27/12/13

Golly, only four days left of 2013. That went quick. 361 days gone, just like that and what have I to show for it? Forty-odd columns for this paper, and a whole lot fuddling and muddling around.

Now I have children I don’t mind New Year’s Eve at all. No point trying to get a babysitter. There’s no pressure on going out to have fun when you can stay at home and unapologetically go to bed at ten o’ clock.

I like what the Italians do on New Year’s Eve: cotechino sausages and lentils. The lentils symbolise coins and good fortune. It’s a cracking dish too, but decent Italian sausages are hard to come by round these parts. In London it’s easy, just visit Jacob Kennedy’s howlingly wonderful Bocca di Lupo in Soho for the real deal. In Shropshire, John Brereton at Ludlow Food Centre does a fine Italian style sausage. Coarse pig, robust with fennel and garlic. The pig in an Italian sausage must be lumpy. Cook them nice and slow and the fatty and meaty all get melty and sticky.

I’m not going to be at the Ludlow Food Centre for much longer, so I’ll miss my staff discount on John’s Italian sausages. In 2014 I’m going to go it alone (with a little help from my friends). Spread my wings and fly not very far from here and hopefully spread a bit of my own foodie joy too. I’ll keep you posted, if my editor allows it.

I’m not savvy or cool enough to make any big predictions as to what the big food-fads of next year will be. In the southern metropolises dirty burgers have stayed steady, Peruvian’s been on the up and Seoul food is apparently the latest street sensation. As long as Mary Berry keeps going we’ll all be baking. 2013 has been the year of horsemeat, kids getting fatter (a trend that simply must end), and one in which Nigella’s famous ham cooked in Coke took on a completely new meaning. Bless her.

In Ludlow and the surrounding area there are some big things a-happening and the gastro rumour mill has never been grinding harder. Chefs leaving, places closing, chefs arriving, new joints opening up. 2014 round these parts at least, is going to be an exciting one.

I don’t know if I've bought you anything particularly novel, edgy or tasty since March, but thank you for going with it and reading my weekly whiffle. I've had some truly humbling feedback from doing this, some that makes me hoot, and some that makes me seethe with vitriol. It’s all good. So from me to you, a very happy end of 2013. I’ll see you on the other side.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Have Yourself a Beefy Little Christmas (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 20/12/13

After all the old pipe I trotted out last week in praise of the turkey, I should probably come clean. Call me a hypocritical fraud if you like, but on Christmas Day I’ll be on beef. I knew that I would be weeks ago when I ordered it, I just didn’t want to share it with you. My massive hulk of a forerib has been hanging for several weeks now. Its flavour gaining depth as putrification is carefully controlled by John the butcher. I gave it a sniff the other day and no longer does it smell like dead cow, but sweet, stiltony, with musky inside-of-a-hymnbook notes.

If I’m careful not to get too smashed on bucks fizz and bloody Marys come Christmas morning I am confident that this bit of moo-moo will make for the best non-turkey dinner ever.

On a recent foray around my local supermarket (I’d been sent for clingfilm but got distracted), I noticed how one could actually get away with doing nothing on the big day. Ready-cooked stuffing, pigs in blankets, trimmed sprouts, pre-roasted spuds, gravy. Where’s the fun in that? That’s food for people who cook through a sense of obligation, rather than joy. If that’s you I’d argue that if your only decent dish is a killer fry-up, then make that instead, so much more giving. Christmas wouldn’t be the same for me without somebody throwing a wobbly in the kitchen and sobbing drunkenly into the bread sauce (a condiment by the way, that is the single greatest gift of the festive period).

There was a period in the early 2000s when I hated Christmas and selfishly swerved it regardless of how my family would regard my absence from the Yuletide table. I missed being there, especially on Christmas Eve.

I adore the night before Christmas. Baked ham with Mum’s knockout Cumberland sauce, carols from King’s on the wireless, midnight mass, the seasonal angst of not being able to find the end of the sellotape. Love it. The day after too, with leftovers, pickled onions (there must be pickled onions on Boxing Day), a slice of Christmas pud fried in butter for breakfast. The day in the middle is just a formality.   

So much of my Christmas is centred on abundant, expensive food that we could easily manage without, and family that we could not. This makes me outrageously fortunate. While I’m tucking in with my happy and healthy family, there will be so many out there with nothing and no-one, just wishing that Christmas would go away. I spare these people a thought, but I do nothing to make things better for them. Call me a hypocritical fraud if you like, again.

Whatever you eat over Christmas, wherever you eat it, and whoever (if anyone) you share it with, I wish you a harmonious and healthy one. 

An Homage to the Turkey (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 13/12/13

Before I kick things off, I’d like to remind you that today is Friday 13th. So, just mind how you go. Okay? Good.

Right, health and safety out of the way I’m going to talk turkey, because it’s Christmas really soon and I write about food. It’s not original by any stretch, but obligatory. However, unlike a lot of people who write about food, I’m not going to give the turkey a hard time. If anything at this time of year they need a bit of sympathy because whilst the rest of us are having super jolly fun, maxing out our credit cards and snogging the intern from accounts at the works Christmas bash (really, you’ll both regret it tomorrow – don’t say I didn’t warn you), the poor old gobbler is not having such a great fist of it.

Not only do turkeys have to endure getting murdered in their hundreds of thousands right about now, they have the indignity of getting pilloried in the press for being dull, tasteless and flaccid too. Not fair. Not my turkey. So I’m going to put my tiny head and wrinkly warty old neck above the parapet and put it out there that I rather like turkey.

Once dead, it has many redeeming features not least its sheer size. What a splendid thing to sally forth to the table on the greatest feasting day of all. A roasted turkey just screams generosity and celebration. If you get a good one, cook it properly, then so much the better. Style and substance.

As I said last week, I’m in no position to tell you how to cook the damned thing, but I can certainly extol the sense in buying a good one. There are some jolly gobbly good turkey producers round here. Judy Goodman and her family over at Great Witley produce the best I’ve tasted (geese too, and the finest asparagus you can eat). Judy is also one of the most passionate, yet modest and grounded food producers I know. She’s a delight, and so are her birds. The Goodmans’ turkeys grow slowly, have plenty of room to move about, and are fed a good diet. They’ll cost you a few quid and rightly so, but all properly produced food should hurt your pocket a bit. But I’ve told you that before.

The sprout on the other hand, can do one. It’s fashionable to pretend that the sprout is an enjoyable part of the festive season. You can dress it up however you like, but the Brussels sprout will always taste like condensed flatulence. I’ll go without the sprout, and no doubt you’ll go with. A sense of stoic yuletide duty. Well done you. I’ll push them to one side and gobble up the turkey. 

A Birthday Loo Seat & a Christmas Reading List (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 6/12/13

It was my birthday last week. I had a lovely day, thanks very much for asking. A really stonking lunch at the French Pantry in Ludlow (where we ate so much the Missus and I had to have a lie-down afterwards), and I got a few presents too. The older I get the shorter my birthday wish list becomes. This year I asked for a loo seat, socks and a whisk. Received ‘em all with thanks.

It’s now in the run up to Christmas that it’s impossible to open a weekend newspaper without being confronted with lists. List of things that you simply must buy for the twenty-something hipster / middle aged hippy / little monkey / adrenalin junkie and other such barmy demographics, ad infinitum. Gift porn for the unimaginative.

I adore recipe books, in fact I verge on fetishist about them. As someone with an overwhelmingly nerdy interest in all things edible, I devour food literature. The walls of my house are bound together with cookery books good and bad.

Should you be unimaginative enough to need a list, here, for what it’s worth is a short list of books I’ve read this year that I would like to find in my stocking on Christmas morning, were it not that I already own them:

1)      The Ethicurean Cookbook: recipes, thoughts and ramblings from the team behind the Bristol restaurant of the same name. Organised by season, with inspiration coming from their own walled garden, this is a book that makes my heart sing. The recipes whilst a tad ‘cheffy’ for me, inspire and provoke ideas. The photography is beyond stunning.
2)      Eat - The little book of fast food, by Nigel Slater: Britain’s most preeminent food writer triumphs again. With over 600 recipes, all bases are covered. Slater’s food is accessible and non-scary, his writing borders on the poetic.
3)      Food DIY, by Tim Hayward: more of a manual than a recipe book. Hayward is a bloke’s bloke and here he teaches us with macho hilarity everything from curing salami to cooking lobster in a wheelbarrow. Yes, really.
4)      It’s All Good, by Gwyneth Paltrow: I’m throwing this in as a curveball. I do not own this, and if St Nick pops this in my stocking, I’ll get him. The Guardian describe this as a book “…characterised by a complete fear of food.” Sounds tasty.

Next week, you’ll be pleased to know, with a full week until Christmas day, I’m going to hang back on telling you how to make the perfect hassle-free Christmas lunch. Because, a) all the other papers told how to do it weeks ago, and b) I’ve never cooked Christmas lunch in my life. This year, like all the other years, I’ll rely on Mum.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Shropshire aka the New Cotswolds, Gets Down on it (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 29/11/13

In the last couple of weeks or so my colleagues on our sister paper at the Shropshire Star have tapped into something that’s really going on in Shropshire. Glowing reviews of places that don’t put origami napkins in Paris goblets; that don’t stack chips jenga-style; that don’t give you a carvery where your husband went back for thirds and ‘plumped’ for a pint of Carling.

Guys, we’re getting funky! We’re totes doing dude food, we’re not taking reservations (a fad I find particularly galling); we’re actually going to some places where people who like eating like to go and eat.

Eat Up in Shrewsbury and Cicchetti in Ludlow have both been well met, and this columnist breathes a sigh of relief. It’s so tremendously fun as a small-town journo to write up top end restaurants where you get an inter-course freebie or to slam those who really could do without your interferences anyway. In Shropshire, there really is a thing going on.

Trends spread, and traditionally they hit this bit of the world a long time after it’s caught on everywhere else. We’re both blessed and plagued by geography. However, London is coming to the country, and I predict that within the next five to ten years we’ll be brinking on being the New Cotswolds.

It’s jolly easy to do the basics, to make the crowd happy, and it’s cheap and convenient too, and granted there’s room for it. It’s a lot more fun to take some risks. If I were a publican or an owner of a delicatessen I’d be thinking ahead. I’d have to be in the right place, like Ludlow or Bridgnorth, but I’d be watching those weekenders gaping at the low prices in estate agents’ windows who are gasping for a decent flat white and a pulled pork bap.

Being something of a gastronomic trailblazer I’ve been co-running a pop-up restaurant of my own for the last three years. We’re called the Marches Supper Society ( and along with Laura (formerly of Ludlow’s Green Café, defected to cheffing in Dorset) and Adam (most skillsome cook I know never to have gone pro, sells beautiful things at Black Bough on Market St, Ludlow) we’ve done okay. There’s a definite market for funky stuff like this.

Will, Me ( and horrid charity mo), Adam

In fact we did one yesterday at De Greys in Ludlow (big thanks to our chum Robbie Underhill, the gaffer), but obviously I've no idea how it went because I wrote this a week ago*. Laura couldn’t make it so Adam (pictured) and I roped in a bloke called Will Holland (pictured) who used to do a bit of cooking, racked up a Michelin star and what have you. I expect it went well. They normally do, these things. Will’s opening up a new place in Bridgnorth next year, and it’s bound to be brilliant.

Shropshire’s ready for cool, believe me. Watch this space: it’s going to get even better.

*Actually, it went jolly well!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Bonkers British Puddings and Stir Up Sunday - South Shropshire Journal 22/11/13

This weekend gives us Stir-up Sunday, when traditionally it is permitted for us to start getting enthusiastic about Christmas. This is the last Sunday before Advent and in the Book of Common Prayer it says somewhere, something about “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord…plenteously bringing forth fruits of good work.” And if it’s in the Book of Common Prayer, it’s legit in my book (my book is inscribed at the front: “To Kenneth J. Mackley, Easter 1925”, as if proof were needed that I’m a God-fearing fellow who researches these columns scrupulously).

Anyway, on Stir-up Sunday, you stir and steam your Christmas puds, and it makes sense to do this five weeks before the Big Day. Christmas puddings need time to sit and fizz and brew, so that by the 25th December, just after the Queen’s speech it will arrive at the table alight and crackling with holly, and everyone is far too full to eat another of mouthful of anything. Still, it was a nice thought.

Whether it gets eaten or not, it’s good to stir pud this Sunday. As a Christmas pudding steams away on the hob, your house stops being four walls and a mortgage, and becomes homelier than ever. The smells of spices, rich fruit and citrus peel, and the kitchen windows fugged with condensation takes me back to being small, when everything was right with the world. Rose-tinted nostalgia is as integral to my Christmas as the John Lewis advert and the Nativity itself.

There’s something simply splendid about our old puddings: their lore, legacies and latent lunacy. I mean, where else in the world would a whole day be earmarked for stirring currants and eggs?

At work the other day (the Ludlow Food Centre where incidentally they make a glorious Christmas Pudding should the idea of making one’s own be too onerous) we set about creating Lord Randall’s pudding, a marvellous steamed sponge spiked with bitter marmalade and sweetened with apricots. But were we able to find out who Lord Randall was? Were we heck as like. I suspect he was a caddish philanderer of some sort, afflicted with dead man’s leg and spotted Dick, which he caught from Apple Charlotte. Although I’ll wager that Brown Betty, and Eve got involved too. HRH the Queen of Puddings of course was not inculpable, but sources (sauces?) tell me she was boating on a Sussex pond that day, so we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not particularly sweet-toothed, but there is such soothing and solace to be found in the sugary and stodgy old favourites. Make time for your pudding this Stir-up Sunday and escape the commercial claptrap, just temporarily, with a wooden spoon. The time Dear Readers, for figgy pudding, is now.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Beans: a Pulsation Situation (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 15/11/13

There are certain, staple items that can always be found in my kitchen cupboards. Things that I cannot, and God-willing, will not ever do without. At the more – shall we say, aspirational – end of the spectrum there will be: good olive oil, tinned anchovies (always Ortiz), Maldon sea salt (or the most excellent Halen Môn), fish sauce, preserved lemons and numerous other tinky-winky jars, tins and packets.

But, at the other end, I’ve got to have proper tea bags (I’ve always thought the term ‘builder’s’ somewhat derogative – what about plumbers and sparkies?), Bisto, OXO cubes, and Heinz baked beans. Hell will freeze over before I have supermarket own-brand beanz in my cupboardz, because the real stuff is just the best, right?

Yes, up to a point. Those beans all sweet, salty, sort of tomatoey, and straight from a tin go well on buttered toast. So yummy, especially if there’s Marmite underneath and grated cheese above. No substitute.

Your own baked beans will be different but better, because they will have taken you a good 24 hours to prepare. Your baked beans will involve overnight soaking, braising a pigs’ trotter, reducing several kilos of tomatoes to a hundredth of their original weight, a lot of patience and a whole lot of love.

You’ll do well to keep some beans in your larder be they in tins, or dried. And if like me, you’re slightly broke and a lot inventive, you’ll find a place for the pulse. It’s at this time of year particularly that this mealy genre comes into its own, helping to keep the cold out and the warmth in. Beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on add starchy volume and thickness to soups, stews and braises of all sorts. Over time they suck up the flavours of whatever it that they’re sharing a pot and become melty and tender.

For so long pulses were the vegan preserve of the Cranks generation and beardy wholefood shops, and indeed they are essential in many meat-free dishes. One of my all time favourite things to eat is a well-made dhal, and all manner of vegetarian Gujarati dishes in particular involving musty mung beans, black-eyed peas and the like. But pulses in my kitchen come alive when slow cooked with cheaper bits of meat. From ham and split pea soups (particularly the London Particular) to fruity and heavily spiced lamb tagines bulked with chickpeas, to the baked beans mentioned above.

Make pulses the backbone of your winter diet and yes, things are likely to get windy, but this is a small price to pay for warmth, comfort, and tasty thrift. One day, I may get given a recipe column and I’ll reveal in minute detail how to prepare my trotter-beans. In the meantime play around, and get your finger (or chops) right on the pulse. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Pluckin' Pleasant Pheasant (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 8/11/13

One evening last week I arrived home after work to find a brace of pheasants hanging from my knocker. A young cock and an old hen. I’ll take that, happily. When autumn happens it happens all at once, so three weeks ago I did game birds, a fortnight ago pumpkins, last week quinces, and now I’m back on birds. There’s a lot happening right now, so go with it.

Over the knocker hung these birds, but the weather was warm. They were shot on Saturday, it was Wednesday, and a few flies were starting to take an interest. I’m something of an expert at ageing game. Beat an old bird that’s hanging on your doorstep, firmly on its chest. If a fly or two flies out from the beak, it’s time to get pluckin’. In fact, you probably should have done it yesterday. If its body falls clean from its head – forget about it.

What I anticipate more than the gift of free pheasies is an invitation to go and shoot them. The pursuit of animals as sport is controversial; I know this, so spare me the lecture. I don’t bullfight, badger-bait, cockfight, foxhunt, or coarse fish (In my mind an abomination). I enjoy however – along with thousands of others in this county - the sport of pheasant shooting.

Trudging through countryside often off-limits for most of the year, drunk as a tree on sloe gin at 11.00am, and waiting silently on a peg with feet in frost, mud or dew, I relish a day in the shooting field. The only sound comes from the panting of gundogs, until the distant clacking, whooping, and whistling of the beating line draws closer. Some of the birds, bred for sport – but more importantly to me – the pot, will fly high and clever and live to see another day.

Many will not. And I’m fine with this. In fact I’m more than fine with this. Having pulled the trigger, and been responsible for ending a creature’s life be it a pheasant, woodcock, snipe, rabbit – whatever ends up in the bag on that day – I derive a greater pleasure when it comes to the eating. However sozzled on fruity moonshine I might be at the moment of dispatch, the killing of an animal is an act I consider with a sober and respectful mind.

Throughout the shooting season I’ll become more adventurous, racy and experimental with any game that comes my way. This first brace got the gentle treatment. Plucked and trussed, their breasts protected with very fat bacon, they were roasted high and hard. Served with fried apples, tiny duck-fatty roast potatoes, and wine enriched pheasant juices, this was a supper to whet the appetite for what is to come over the darkening months. 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Curiously Quincy, the Naughtiest Fruit of them all (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 1/11/13

If I should die, in the moments before I draw my rattley last, I’d like to be presented with a bowl of quinces to gaze upon, sniff and stroke, before I get on my merry way to wherever it is that I’m going next. For the quince is the most pungently, eye-poppingly sensual fruit of them all.

It was a quince (so they say, although I’m not sure who was there to verify this – maybe it was Adam) that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, not an apple; Aristophanes used quinces to reference the bosom of young females; Lear’s owl and pussycat were partial, and Nigel Slater one of the greatest food-writers of our time neatly describes the quince as, “A fat cherub…here and there, patches of soft, pubescent down.”

Slice through a quince and there will be no secret as to why it was often regarded as a fertility symbol. A popular variety is the vranja, which to my mind, so prone to childishly creating puerile non-anagrams, is a word not a million miles from, well, you know…

I came home the other evening to a warm embrace of a smell, so intoxicating that it made me thankful for the gloomsome fug and damp outside. I am something of a dictator when it comes to the cooking in this house, but when my wife had been slow-roasting pork and quince for an afternoon, my control freakism went walkabout. Naked and raw, a quince exudes a subtle scent, and a coquettish smile. Exposed to the dry heat of an oven the quince grows up, throws off her clothes and the hug becomes a snog, with the promise of much more. The aroma deeply honeyed, musky, and complex; its ancient Arabian heritage is laid bare. When cooked, the quince gives up on flirting and gets stuck right in.

Quince roasted with fat pork is the most perfect culinary symbiosis. Earthy yet soft. Butch but femme. The dirtiest weekend imaginable, in a roasting tin. One of so many examples of opposites attracting, which is why the sweet, perfumed Spanish quince paste, membrillo is frequently paired with the salty-sharp and sheepy manchego cheese.

Membrillo (the Anglo version is confusingly called “quince cheese”) is easily made at home, and a tremendous way of making the most of the glut we’re experiencing at the moment. Forego the manchego cheese for the biteiest of cheddar cheese and pair it with quince cheese. Sounds ridiculous? It’s just sublime.

The quince is a proper cook’s fruit that will reward you with organoleptic joy beyond compare. But if you can’t be bothered to cook it, I urge you to just pop a few in a large bowl on your kitchen table. Find a quiet moment to gaze, sniff, and touch. Surely this is what life, in and out of the kitchen, is all about. 

Friday, 25 October 2013

In Praise of the Pumpkin (Unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 25/10/13

Here begins my last column of the year in sensible daylight hours. This weekend we shall set the clocks back and plunge ourselves into darkness. It’s okay though, because whilst your vitamin D levels may plummet it means that you can legitimately eat buttered crumpets after work for the next three months. Before actual tea.

It’s Halloween next week, and that means authorised yobbism: a whole pack of Haribo and a fiver in exchange for not setting fire to my car / wife/ kids? Bargain. As far as I’m concerned All Hallows’ Eve is just another excuse for people to make money out of plastic and chocolate. In ecclesiastic terms it coincides there or there about with harvest festival. So, come ye thankful people come, and give thanks for the pumpkin, the jolliest of all vegetables. You can carve whatever you like into a pumpkin but it will still remain friendly.

The pumpkin and its associated family members offer so much more potential than a half-arsed scary face. If you scoop out a squash and discard the innards (although I’ve heard that vegans and the like may enjoy the roasted seeds as a naughty snack - whatever), you’ll be left with a feast that will make you forget all about the yoof outside slashing your tyres.

A thing to do with a pumpkin is to hollow it out, dump a hideous amount of cream, stock and gruyere cheese into its empty belly, wrap it in loads of tin foil and roast it in the oven for a couple of hours. You’ll be looking at the most extraordinarily fun soup you’ve ever had.

Another fun thing to do with a pumpkin: plonk it on top of a bird table (or similar) and shoot it with a 12-bore shotgun. I hate to waste perfectly good food, but seriously, anyone with a license to bear arms must try this.

Squashes are resilient to pretty much anything that you can throw at them., gastronomically speaking. Peel them though, please. Squash skin is frankly minging, so take it off and season the flesh liberally. Peeled, cut into wedges and rubbed with chilli, cumin, coriander and more salt and olive oil than you dare, the pumpkin and its squashy brethren make for a laudable supper. On its own, without meat. There, I’ve said it.

If you’re clever, judicious, and sexy, you’ll roast squash and squish it with amoretti biscuits and sage, and pop it in tortellini that you’ve made yourself. Brown butter, a bit more sage fried nice and crisp, this is possibly the best pasta dish of all. You’ll present this humble but complex little dish to your friends, and they’ll remain friends for the rest of your life.

All I am saying is give spaghettis, acorns, turbans, pom-poms, kabochas and Hubbards a chance. Show them some love, and you’ll be in for some sensational scran. A squash is not just for Halloween. They will really brighten up your winter.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Tripadvisor and the Trots (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 18/10/13

Oh heavens. It’s deadline day: 450 words on tasty food and I’ve left it to the last minute again. Normally I find this lark pretty straightforward, unless I’ve picked up some sort of horror-bug and spent the last what feels like forever on, in and around the lavatory, expelling tasty food at great velocity. Boy-oh-boy, just the thought of food makes me never want to look at it again, let alone write about it.

But, ever the consummate professional, loyalty to my small flock of readers will ensue and this week I offer you a recipe for a weak mug of tea with just a tiny splash of milk and two sugars, washed down with half a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

As if I would. While my stomach is turning and its bile rising in the back of my throat I’ll turn my numbed brain to the internet. Now, make no mistake, the internet has bought us many great things (unfortunately not this purely-on-paper column – big hint there Ed), but Tripadvisor is not one of them. Or more accurately, some of the people who use Tripadvisor. If you’re unfamiliar with this heinous website, it gives anyone with a grudge and access to the web, free-rein to libel the hospitality industry. Had a stale packet of crisps at your local? Pop on Tripadvisor and tell the world that their curtains are horrid and the chef tried to chat up your girlfriend, after he spat in your soup. Easy as that.

Negative reviews on Tripadvisor are almost always written by cowards and fools. Cowards, because it’s so easy to say mean things about other people when you’re hidden behind a computer screen and a pseudonym. Fools, because if you had big enough cojones to make a complaint at the time, you’d most likely have walked out of whichever place it was you decided to slam, with a free pud or bottle of wine, and a personal apology from patron. If at the time you thought the fish of the day was a bit stinky, but ate it all up, paid full price, didn’t complain then went home and wrote about it, well it just makes you a moron with the trots.

However, more hideous than those punters who write the reviews are the restaurateurs who make impulsive, half-witted and vitriolic responses to their adverse feedback. So-called professionals telling their customers where to stick it looks like a cry for help, desperation and always over-inflated egoism. Personally it puts me off visiting their establishment way more than any drunken fumble of a ‘review’ ever would. However harsh the criticism they receive, it shows that their views on hospitality, and customer service are way out of kilter and that they know the customer is wrong.

Hospitality is above all about generosity, with a smattering of humility. Tripadvisor, in the wrong hands, is the very antithesis of these great virtues.

Subway comes to Ludlow, and my Reuben Sandwich (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 11/10/13

Recently our mother paper, the Shropshire Star reported that over the next few years the global jumbo-sandwich chain Subway is to open something like 645489982 new branches in our county, in turn creating 960930852098 new jobs. My figures may be slightly out - I didn’t read it - but it’s something along these lines.

In the north of the county this sort of news is not going to ruffle too many feathers. Telford, Oswestry, Wolverhampton, well they’re all kind of Subway-ish places.

But here in Ludlow, where Subway is to open within the next few weeks, the news is causing a bit of brouhaha. The mess! The frightful smell! What will people think? Our town is the gastronomic capital of all England! (Which it’s not, by the way. When will people get over it?) Well, I think we just need to suck it up. It’s just a little shop in a little shop (Ludlow’s branch is going to be a teensy franchise stuffed at the back of the existing Spar), selling a few foot-long ‘subs’ to spotty college students (a small minority) and hungover unemployed people (a slightly larger minority). I won’t be feeding the giant, but I’m not going to make a big deal over it. There are many perfectly good sandwiches to be had in this town.

However, the best sandwich in Ludlow, possibly in Shropshire, or even the whole world was the Reuben Sandwich that I made this week with my good friend Reuben. The Reuben was born in an American deli back in the 1920s. Many delis, and many Reubens claimed to be its creator. Quite honestly I couldn't care, because minor historical details shouldn't get in the way of a good Reuben.

So, Reuben being the most Jewish goy I know seemed like the most suitable person to build this bad-boy with. Because really the Reuben is so much more than a sandwich, that one builds rather than simply makes it.

It goes something like this: find a large, fatty rolled up piece of brisket (see your local jolly butcher), steep it in a brine to which you add your own secret blend of herbs and spices. Wait for a fortnight. Then, boil it up for a good five hours until it’s tender and sexy and whiffs a bit like tinned corned beef. Meanwhile find a Polish delicatessen and buy a big jar of sauerkraut (I went to west London for mine). Find some good Swiss cheese and make proper Thousand Island dressing. Make your own rye bread, or cheat and find a baker who’ll do it for you (thanks Peter Cook of Price’s in Ludlow).  And you’re all set. Unfortunately I’ve run out of inches, such is the Reuben’s complexity, but believe me, it’s worth the effort. I hereby expect dozens of letters demanding the recipe. We’ll see…

Friday, 4 October 2013

Teenage Kicks, and the Pleasure of Real Cider (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 4/10/13

Christmas 1994. A disco or maybe a ‘ball’ – first time I’d worn a tie out of school - somewhere in Herefordshire, or maybe Shropshire. Around these parts for sure. A rugby club, perhaps a hotel function room. Can’t quite remember, but there was a girl who looked pretty under the winter moon, propped saucily against the flank of a hired minibus somewhere out the back. I’d persuaded her that the fresh air would do us both the world of good, and proffering her one of two Marlboro Lights that I’d stolen from my father earlier that day (chivalry was as important to me then as it is now) I promptly chundered up two whole pints of GL cider onto her best shoes. I don’t think I ever found out her name.

I discovered cider shortly before alcopops were born. For the underage drinker in the early to mid 1990s, cider was the go-to, default grog of choice. A bit appley, a bit fizzy, cheap and strong. Eminently vomitable. It tasted passable on the way back out. I wish I’d had a Laurie Lee moment: “Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer…” But I never did. I guess Laurie was on something better than GL.

I took a break from cider until there was another girl, years later, in Somerset who lived at Burrow Hill. She was crackers, but the cider from Burrow Hill was clear, pure, and tasted of sunshine. We collected it weekly in jerry cans and had a hazy summer that lasted long.

Cider is a drink that perhaps tells more stories than any other. The real deal – made by human hand and encased in bottles and barrels – encapsulates mists and mellow fruitfulness with more clarity than any other drink. Call it what you like (the French call it terroir) but drink honest, hard working cider at the right time and you’ll flood your palate with fruit, trees, and fertile soil. Good cider is produced in proliferation around here and right now the cider makers of the Marches are enjoying their best harvest in a decade.

The UK cider industry is worth £2.9bn at the moment and expectations are that it will hit £4bn by 2017. With 480 cider producers in the UK, and two million cider apple trees planted in the last 20 years, it’s looking pretty (Cider with) rosy.

There’s some funky gear in the supermarkets, with big name branding. They’re doing the legwork for the little people who are producing liquid genius, with provenance and soul and merrily cashing in on the big boys’ success. Shop around and try them all. You’re in the heart of cider country. It would be rude not to. 

Beef Cheeks, and how a Trotter will Improve Almost Anything (Unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 27/9/13

At some point, over the weekend of the Ludlow Food Festival I found myself in possession of a quartet of beef cheeks. You know how it is: one minute you’re tucking into your 18th pint, the next you have a carrier bag full of cow face. Not wanting to look a gift-horse in the proverbial phizog I sobered up, took them home and slopped them onto a chopping board where they glistened all crimson and gristly whilst I poured myself a steadying beer and thought about things awhile.

Maybe it’s a boy thing, but I’ve always had a bit of a macabre obsession with knobbly wobbly bits. To a certain degree the more off-putting a piece of animal looks in the raw, the more likely I am to want to ingest it.

Naked beef cheeks look spectacularly nasty, but to the keen cook it is these extremities that get the heart racing. Cows don’t do much, but they chew all day long. Their maws are pistons for perpetual mastication, which means that in the wrong hands they’ll be tough as old boots. Unless of course like me, you treat them terribly gently to the point where they submit and yield with a sigh. Which is exactly what I did.

Into the pot they went with a bottle of rough red, plenty of garlic and a pig’s trotter hewn in half - There are few dishes, especially those that are slow cooked that will not be improved with the addition of a trotter – and they simmered at a mere blip for many hours. The progeny born of this mess of face and foot was one of such sticky, meaty savour that I took pride in calling it my baby.

Of all the animals that are killed for our greedy pleasure there are scary and oft-forgotten parts that need to be brought into our lives and tummies. Eschew them at your peril. The flippy-flappy ‘oysters’ on a chicken known in French as sot l’y laisse, roughly translated as ‘the bits that only a nutter would leave’; the brains of calves, pigs, and lambs, blanched, crumbed and fried in hot fat; hearts and gizzards of duck devilled on buttered toast. Balls too, should not be missed. I’ll draw the line at pigs’ ears though, and anything that retains the crunch of cartilage.

These bits will always be cheap or indeed free if you make friends with the right people but they will command attention and skills that are pleasurable to learn. They should not require a strong stomach to prepare or eat. If the hidden parts of edible animals cause you to shudder, then I would argue that perhaps you should reconsider your status as a meat eater. Arm yourself with Fergus Henderson’s seminal book Nose to Tail Eating, the bible of body parts, and get stuck in!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Slaughter of Tiny Birds, Golf & Committees (Unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 20/9/13

I’ve got a bit of an issue with committees. Committee people, a bit like golf people give me the willies somewhat, all earnest and laughing at things that aren’t really that funny, not laughing at things that really are funny, odd clothes, a poor grasp of personal hygiene and that sort of thing. I’ve been on a few committees myself and never went the distance. Those that I’d like to be on won’t have me, so I’ll take a pop at all of them. Silly me, I’ve already probably alienated half of my readership and I’m only 87 words in to a 450 word piece (at least half the population of Shropshire are on a committee and / or play golf). Mneh, I’ll manage without them.

Anyway, long story short, I was reading about the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, and by heavens they’re a busy bunch. Based in Germany the CABS dash about all over Europe (sometimes the Near East too), causing havoc for all those who delight in, well, slaughtering birds. Most recently several members of CABS have been expelled from Les Landes in France by the local gendarmes for protesting about the trapping of the ortolan.

The ortolan (emberiza hortulana – should there be any classicist ornithologists amongst my remaining readers) is a tiny little thing – highly rated by greedy Gauls - that is force fed in a little dark box, then drowned in Armagnac and roasted before the whole thing is scoffed, bones and all. To get the most from the experience, one should apparently drape a linen napkin over one’s head to enjoy all the tasty birdie aromas.

I can kind of see what the CABS’s objection is, but if you’re going to eat miniature buntings, you might as well do it properly.

It’s around about this time of year when I turn my mind to personal gains that can be achieved from the mass slaughter of tiny birds and begin to drool unattractively in gluttonous anticipation. Within the next couple of weeks there will be young partridge in the local butchers’ shops, blasted from the skies above landed estates and perhaps the tastiest treat of early autumn. More affordable than the grouse, and with a less scatological flavour, this is a dickie-bird I really relish.

Woodpigeon too, shot over the stubble fields are available now. Plump-breasted, cheap, and plentiful (which reminds me of a weekend I once lost in Amsterdam – maybe an anecdote for another time), this is vermin worth seeking out. Braised whole for a long time with peas – frozen work fine, those grey-green French jobbies in jars are even better – or just the breasts sautéed quickly in butter with some fried field mushrooms…Oh my!

Sorry CABS members, I won’t be signing up any time soon, so I’m out. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Ludlow Food Festival (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 13/9/13

One sunny Sunday in September 1994 I turned up – under familial duress - to help out at the first Ludlow Food Festival. I was fifteen years old and my parents with some of their friends had got this thing together in Castle Square.

My parents owned a small cookware shop on the High Street, Dad was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and a brand new Tesco was about to open up on the site of the old livestock market.

In the Church Inn one evening (you give me a properly Great Idea that wasn’t born in a pub, and I’ll give you a tenner), a bunch of likeminded people bashed their heads together in defiance, and decided that Ludlow had enough independent food shops and local producers to create a bit of a celebratory hoo-ha. Shaun Hill, who opened the legendary Merchant House restaurant at about the same time tells me, “It was obvious even to a blind man that a small town that could support three cheese shops, half a dozen world class butchers and two first rate greengrocers contained enough people who cared about food.”

It was a sort of  farmers’ market back in September 1994, but there had never been a farmers’ market, in Ludlow or anywhere else. I was there, reluctantly chopping up sausages for people to taste, not realising or caring what this would become.

It’s hard to imagine a time when food festivals didn’t exist, but truly they’re modern phenomena. Ludlow gave rise to the food festival and in turn to an epicurean awakening that exists and flourishes nineteen years on.

The impact that the Ludlow Food Festival has had on reviving artisan food production in this country cannot be underestimated. There are now many food festivals, and some are undoubtedly more highbrow in elite foodie terms. However, Ludlow’s independent traders all those years ago put a peg in the ground that has stayed put.

Ludlow Food Festival is a part of me, and it’s in my blood. I’m not a director, or even on the committee, but every second weekend of September I’ve been there. I’ll be there this year too, amongst other things co-hosting King Pong (a smell-off of the world’s stinkiest cheeses, brought to you by the Ludlow Food Centre). The sun will shine, and I shall beam with pride that I live in a small town where something as huge as this happens every year.
In 2013, my Mum is still a director of this glorious event along with a few other stalwarts who were there in the Church Inn at the beginning. 2013 promises more demonstrations, tastings, workshops and – most importantly – local food and drink producers than ever before. Come one, come all, and enjoy the party.

This year’s Ludlow Food Festival runs from 13th – 15th September. For information visit or call 01584 873957

Blackberries and Foraging (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 6/9/13

                                “At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
                                 Among others, red, green, hard as a knot…
…Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Dear old Seamus Heaney had late summer bang-to-rights when it came to blackberries, and I’ve delighted in watching my eldest daughter tottering around inky fingered and crimson mouthed, foraging food for free. In my aspirational head it’s all so very kids’ section of the Boden catalogue, but in fact it’s M & Co down the passageway by Shropshire Building Supplies. I don’t mind revealing where we get our blackberries, because by the time you read this Bea and I will have had the lot of ‘em.

For me, blackberry picking is the very apotheosis of the childhood idyll, along with climbing trees, throwing sticks at conker trees, and attempting to buy rude magazines from petrol stations. The “lust for picking” however, is a thrill that I wish to instil in my children much in the same way it was passed on to me. I remember as a small boy at prep school taking unripe apples from a tree that was very much out of bounds, eating the lot of them and soiling myself within twelve hours. Those were the days.

Foraging is currently the Big Thing. Historically, foraging was a bit of a necessity because peasants didn’t have Tesco. Now it’s unnecessary but cool. And actually grubbing around for food from the verges (one reader recently warned against this – fie to them I say) and fields is jolly good fun, remarkably rewarding, totally free and often legal. My lovely friend Liz, based down the road in the Golden Valley is a full-time forager and furtles around in hedgerows turning her pickings into the most wonderful edible lotions and potions:

As much as I love a scrumped apple or a blagged blackberry, fungi is where the fun guys (geddit?) forage. My old Dad was something of the amateur mycologist and would often take himself off to ******* Common or ***** Hill (serious ‘shroomers never reveal their hunting grounds) armed with a small knife, a basket and Roger Phillips’ seminal book, Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain. I would accompany him from time to time in the woods, always on the search for the elusive boletus edulis, the penny bun, the cep. On our way to the hunting grounds we would find field mushrooms and puffballs to take back for lunch. It was only ever when Dad was foraging on his own that he’d find a cep that was always “eaten by slugs and not worth bringing home.”

Next week, a preview of the beautiful beast that is the Ludlow Food Festival. In the meantime, happy foraging!

Moments before filing this piece I heard on the news that Seamus Heaney died today (30th August 2013). I dedicate this week’s column to the memory of Heaney, one of the greatest wordsmiths of the modern era.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The Death of my Little Knife, and Restauranty Rumours (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 30/8/13

When my trusty Opinel knife finally bit the dust recently, I grieved. Not like one would mourn the passing of a close friend or relative, but a great aunt perhaps. That little knife, bought years ago from a back street Florentine ironmonger and smuggled through customs had become a good friend, one of my best. Its plain wooden handle the exact length of my fist, had become smoothed with use, the blade stained with rust and sharpened over time so that it was half its original width.

I’m generally an immaterial sort of fellow. Not for me sharp suits, fancy cars, over-compensatory large televisions. Stuff doesn’t really flick my switch. But when it comes to my batterie de cuisine, well, I get a bit funny about it.

I spend a lot of time cooking, and the gear in my kitchen cupboards and drawers whilst being fundamentally basic, has history. And if you touch it, I’ll get you.

On more than one occasion I have spent embarrassing sums of cash on knives, pots and so on, used them once or twice and handed them over to the loft, simply because they don’t feel right.

My diminutive culinary arsenal that gets used over and over: the charred and now worn round-cornered wooden spatula; an inherited Le Creuset casserole, knobless but with a greasy patina that only comes from the cooking of hundreds of curries and stews; a heavy beech chopping board that is concave, stained and scarred; an odd rubber-handled knife I bought in Woolies for a fiver fifteen years ago, in my first week at university; my nod to modernity: a couple of Microplane graters, and a mini Magimix. These are a few of my favourite things. And if you cook a lot too, you’ll understand and you will empathise with the loss of my trusty knife.

In other news: exciting times for South Shropshire scoffing. The southernmost boozer in the county, the Salwey in Wooferton, reopened two weeks ago. Down the road in Orleton the old Maidenhead is set for a thorough revamp with a bakery attached. In Ludlow, the brilliant Martyn Emsen (formerly of the Jolly Frog, Leintwardine) is opening up a ciccheti bar on Broad Street – that’s tapas to you and me, but more Italiany – it’s bound to be brilliant. There’s a ‘posh’ pizza parlour opening up in Quality Square, and rumour has it that a Bosi brother (remember Hibiscus, the Bell Inn in Yarpole?) is taking on the Charlton Arms. Wow!

There are other rumbling restauranty rumblings that I couldn’t possibly comment on. Unless of course you’re gasping for publicity and want to treat me to a free lunch in exchange for a decent write-up. In which case I’m all yours. I’m shameless, and in mourning. 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Courgettes and Wasp Trapping - South Shropshire Journal 23/8/13

Yellow ones, green ones, ribbed ones and big fat round ones should you feel daring. My courgette patch has peaked and I’m overrun. Every morning come rain or shine I’ll trudge up to my beds and check how things have been going whilst I was tucked up in bed. I’ll curse the slugs, caterpillars and the neighbours’ cats, but now in late August I marvel at the al fresco adult-accessories store that is my courgette patch.

There is plenty of summer left, but these early morning forays remind me that autumn is not too far away. Every turning season holds its own magic, but at dawn in late summer the air is cleaner, the light crisper than perhaps at any other time. As August fades into autumn the biggest harvest of the year arrives, and with luck there will be gluts of abundance presenting the keener cooks with challenges that we are not faced with at any other time of year.

My courgettes have found their way into everything. Soup, pasta, on top of pizza, raw in salads, roasted and stuffed, grated in chocolate cakes (seriously, give it a go), and slowly stewed in butter. My editor, Pete, has kindly furnished me with Mrs Pete’s recipe for a savoury courgette loaf. This is next on the list, and it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone.

It’s at this time of year, at harvest-home, when not so long ago every housewife and cottage gardener would have set about the preserving pan, processing gluts of this and that into jams and jellies, pickles and chutneys. Making preserves at home is one of the most rewarding culinary activities I can think of. It’s labour intensive, but as intense labours go I can think of few more fulfilling.

If you still have an old jam jar going begging, one of my very favourite late summer pastimes is old-school wasp trapping. Take one empty jam jar with a scraping of jam left in it, add a splosh of water, swill it all around a bit, place in a sunny spot, crack open a cold beer, sit back and delight in Jasper after Jasper meeting their doom. So while I’m sat around nonchalantly killing innocent wasps, there are others also appreciating the start of Killing Season. The ‘Glorious 12th’ was last week, and the 12th August marks the start of the game season, or specifically grouse. The grouse fetches a princely sum, and is shot by princely types on heathery moors. It heralds the start of weeks of forthcoming gluttony. Brace yourselves and enjoy what’s to come.

Lab Burgers, Vegetarian Girlfriends and Peppa Pig (unedited version) - South Shropshire Journal 16/8/13

Regular readers may be aware that I frequently make reference to burgers in this column: 2nd August, barbecue burgers; 5th July George Osborne burgers. Earlier in the year I probably alluded to horse burgers. Call me a band-wagon hopper-onner, but I write about food, and it would seem that 2013 is the year of the burger.

I was all set to write a nice clean burgerless column this week until some maniac scientists gave us the stem cell burger, and I couldn’t really not mention it. Burger me! This burger, that grew from cow cells in a petri-dish at the cost of £215,000 could possibly be the future of meat, apparently. Meat that has not come from an animal, that has not had to munch away at millions of tons of costly food that could otherwise be used for feeding humans, that has not had to be killed in a slaughterhouse, and that has not farted loads of hot methane into our fragile atmosphere. And it’ll cost you less than 250 grand for a quarter-pounder. Bargain.

I was watching the BBC breakfast programme the other day (which I like to do when Susanna Reid is on and the kids aren’t making me switch over to Peppa Pig), and there was a vegetarian zealot proclaiming that test-tube meat is a really very sensible, viable and not remotely crackers way of feeding the carnivorous world.

I had a vegetarian zealot girlfriend many years ago, and it didn’t work out. Vegetarianism and I do not mix. I don’t want to be all Jeremy Clarkson over this, but Veggies kind of need to get over it. Don’t eat meat, it’s fine; just don’t try to make the rest of us feel bad about it, and don’t make us eat petri-meat. I have some good friends who swing that way and good luck to them. My mate Lydia (straight-up vegetarian, who enjoys the odd sausage roll) writes a lovely blog about not particularly not being a vegetarian at

The future of meat production should not come from laboratories, but from us, the people who eat and demand it. Globally I’ve got nothing, but locally maybe I have something: look for the best meat available, the stuff that is (literally) not costing the earth. Ask supermarkets and butchers about the sustainability of their produce. Buy less meat but make it go further. I’ll happily give you at least five suggestions as to how to make a pig’s head go a very long way, should you be interested.

Stiffies and Turd-burgers (unedited version) - South Shropshire Journal 9/8/13

I love getting invited to things, whether I’m interested in them or not. It’s just fun to get a stiffy through your letterbox from time to time and makes you realise that somebody, somewhere gives a flying-one about your existence. During the stiffy season I like to have at least two invitations on my mantelpiece at any one time.

The last couple of weeks have done me well. I’ve been invited to this, that and the other and I’ve turned up. The evening ones get me out of having to bathe my babies, which is great. You go to a Thing, for instance an art Thing, fashion Thing, food Thing, wedding Thing, whatever Thing. You chat to a bunch of people who can’t remember your name (it’s fine, you can’t remember theirs either) and you slurp a glass or two of something warm, when it probably ought to be cold.

The thing is, at these things the nibbles are generally so awful. Why has the canapé eluded us? The canapé makes a wedding, an art exhibition, a fashion show, a whatever. A good one titillates the palate and the soul. In posh restaurants they call it an amuse bouche. A bad or average canapé makes you think “whatever happened to chips and dips?”

So my advice, for what it’s worth, if you’re hosting a Thing splash out on the nibbles. I’ll remember it, even if nobody else does.

I’ve some chums, by the way, who have the wonderful Black Bough gallery and shop in Ludlow. If they send you an invite to a Thing, go. They do proper nibbles.

The Burwarton Show is the climax of the South Shropshire summer season. A veritable smorgasbord of handsome livestock, pretty girls in tweed, and confused people from Kidderminster. I blagged a member’s pass which meant I could park in a field where I had to trudge through fewer cowpats than you did, before stepping in the other cowpats.

As country shows go, this is one of the best (regular readers will know that I will not have researched this) and sort of sums-up all that is wonderful about South Shropshire: pretty girls in tweed, fine cattle, neat sheep, oiled pigs on parade and a few more pretty girls in tweed.

So the best of Shropshire farming was being displayed in all its finery, there were some local food producers here and there selling their wares, and some more pretty girls in tweed, but the mass-catering was so unrepresentative of what Shropshire has to offer.

It’s not just Burwarton, and I’m sure most people don’t care, but if we’re showing off our agricultural capabilities, surely the burger vans should be doing so too? Turd-burgers and horse-in-a-bad-bap just, you know, let the side down. 

Friday, 2 August 2013

The British Barbecue Balls-up (unedited) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 2/8/13

I write this sitting in the paddling pool. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on my parched lawn of brown burnt thistle, dandelions and dog-dung. The grass went long ago.

I’m slightly miffed this week, because what I really wanted to write about was how rubbish the British picnic actually is – to expose it, in a tabloid naming and shaming fashion - and I’d been working on it for a bit. But, unfortunately someone else got in there first. Jay Rayner in the Guardian brilliantly gave the great British Picnic the hiding it deserves last week and because the Guardian remains stoically socialist and refuses to impose a firewall, you can go and read about how awful picnics are online, for free.

So, I won’t do picnics but I will however lay into the barbecue, because if anything’s worse than a bad picnic, it’s a bad barbecue and with the weather we’ve had, I bet you’ve had a few. Bad ones that is.

Lazy Man does barbecue badly and he only cooks when the sun comes out and then thinks he’s done something wonderful. He hasn’t. Popping some burgers and sausages over a pile of chemical briquettes and calling it cooking isn’t cooking.

That monstrosity that you have on your patio with a gas canister attached and a rain cover? Sorry, that’s not a barbecue, it’s an indoor cooker outside. No-one BBQs worse than us Brits, not even those gastronomically vapid Americans – in fact, they do it jolly well. Donning a comedy apron does not turn you into a cook. It makes you look like a wally.

Barbecue with good British charcoal which (unless you want to put a finger up to the rain forests) will – and should - cost you some cash. Get a decent bit of meat. A barbecue involves patience, and it’s the most wonderful way to do Sunday lunch. Get your butcher to bone-out and butterfly a leg of lamb, a shoulder of pork, something like that. Marinate it a day before, and light the barbie a couple of hours before you want to cook.

I spent a few days in London and, as I do when I’m in Town I stuffed my face with the sort of tucker that you can’t get ‘round here. In Shepherds Bush the Syrians barbecue so well. In Dalston, the Turks do it perhaps a shade better. They grill over hot coals or smoking wood, bits of animal that we may chuck in the bin. Balls and all. Dusted with spooky stuff like ras-el-hanout and za-atar, these boys really know how to do it properly.

So next time the sun comes out and you fancy playing with fire, do it some justice why don’t you. There’s a good chap. 

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Cricket Tea, and the Joy of Cucumbers - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 26/7/13

Well, who would have thought it? Forget the ‘Jubilympics’ of soggy old 2012, this is what summertime is all about. At Wimbledon they lost not one day’s play to rain and then everyone’s favourite Briton (Andy is no longer just dour old Scottish) goes and wins it. And then the scorcher not only becomes more scorching, but England (not Britain) go and win the first test of the Ashes. Yes, this is how an English summer ought to be.

And of course, because it’s all getting a little bit too hot and we’re all getting a bit too jolly about it, everyone stars going, “It’s too ‘ot”. “I canner sleep”. “I dunner like it, my wife comes out in sweaty ‘ives.”

Do me a favour? Do you actually remember last so-called-summer?

Me, I’m jolly happy and have got three games of cricket under my belt in the last two weeks. This means three cricket teas, and when the sun is high and the livin’ is easy, there is no finer thing to eat than the cricket tea. You bat or you bowl, or you loiter around at fine leg or deep backward square making daisy chains, and you go in for tea. Any sport that is punctuated by food is pretty much tickety-boo in my book.

Cricket tea done well is a thing of splendour. Sandwiches, warmed gently in a musty pavilion that smells faintly of hymn book. Pork pies cut into dainty quarters, thick tea served in those funny green cups that smack of village hall, and weak orange squash. Cake too. Lots of. There must be a coffee one (made with Camp, if we’re being proper), and a Victoria sponge with so much icing sugar on top that it makes you sneeze even looking at it.

The great cricket tea sandwich, and probably the very best of all English sandwiches is The Cucumber. It is rarely seen these days, and even rarer made well, but I urge you – now while the mercury is still rising – to go and make one for yourself. A few non-negotiable rules: peel the cucumber, halve it horizontally, scrape the seeds out with a teaspoon, slice into half-moons no thicker than a pound coin, toss in a little salt and leave to drain in a sieve for twenty minutes. It’s worth it. The bread must be fresh from a proper bakers’ shop, and as soft and white as Boris Johnson. Take the crusts off, unsalted butter on both slices, a grind of pepper on the cucumber, and cut into the daintiest triangles.

To be fair, I’ve never encountered a really good cucumber sandwich at a cricket match, but I should like to. And this may just be that perfect summer when I do. 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Shaun Hill, a Jolly Clever Fellow - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 12/7/13 (unedited)

Being the slightly self-depreciating chap that I am, I’m always slightly surprised when people tell me that they’ve enjoyed reading this column, or indeed have simply read it at all. It was much to my amazement recently when at my local greengrocer’s a fellow I’ve never met before tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You write that column in the paper don’t you?” Before I could even start looking for a pen with which to sign his copy of the South Shropshire Journal he continued, “Well it’s a bit bloody moany.”

Charmless, but he may have a point. What irks me more is that my byline photo (see above), possibly the most unflattering snap ever taken of me sober and clothed, would appear accurate and lifelike enough to warrant me being recognised by complete strangers. So, unfortunately, I guess this is actually what I look like.

But I take unconstructive and random criticism on board – I’m a man of the people me- and I’m going to write a moan-free column this week.

When Shaun Hill opened the Merchant House restaurant in Ludlow back in the early ‘90s many locals at the time thought that he was going to wreak unutterable havoc on this little town with many old timers decreeing that fancy-pants new restaurants had no purpose here other than causing noise and smell. Shaun came from “off” with clever ideas and wonderful food, a serious reputation, and within a couple of years had turned a staid market town in the middle of nowhere into a gastronomic hub pulsing gorgeousness.

By the time Hill left Ludlow in 2005 he had single-handedly turned the town into somewhere worth living, and thirteen years later his legacy lives on. The Ludlow Food Festival, Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus, Mr Underhill’s, La Becasse. They’d be nothing without Shaun Hill.

After Ludlow, Shaun went into retirement for about five minutes and then found himself cooking at the legendary Walnut Tree Inn just outside Abergavenny. Local newspapers have more A A Gill-u-likes than you could ever need, so I’m not going to embark on a review here. But go to the Walnut Tree, just go. Save up and eat the sort of grub that first got Ludlow her reputation. I went last week and ate some of the most clean, sensible and accomplished food that I’m ever likely to.

Shaun Hill is of the group of chefs (Simon Hopkinson, Alastair Little, Jeremy Lee, Fergus Henderson, Rowley Leigh, Henry Harris etc) who emerged in the late 1980s, gentlemanly, educated, witty and better at cooking than any of the half-cocked telly clogging halfwits who are so prevalent these days.

Shaun has retired once already. Try his cooking before he retires again. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Twitter-burger, and the Chancellor - Published in the South Shropshire Journal - 5/7/13

My editor at the SSJ wisely removed some McDonalds-related material from this piece that potentially could have seen him and me in a whole lot of hot water. Therefore I will print the article almost as it appeared in the paper. I don't need Ronald taking me to the cleaners. Sorry. 

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls then took a photo of himself eating a burger and chips. The Chancellor was just trying to appear normal, so tweeted a picture of himself tucking into a midnight snack - a ‘Shamburger’ as the Sun decreed – whilst he was finishing off his spending review. Poor George.

I couldn't really give two hoots about George, after all he’s right up there in the Top Ten List of People who Currently Make our Lives a Misery, but what really got my back-up about this is that he got pilloried in some darker corners of the press for not buying the offending patty from McDonald’s. Where he went wrong apparently was by choosing to get his burger from Byron, a small independent chain owned by a friendly chap called Tom, who source their meat from British farms.

Silly, silly George. What he should have done in order to please the electorate would have been to go to a massive global behemoth and spent 99p on one of their burgers instead. Why? For goodness sake, he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer so can probably afford to treat himself to a glamorous takeaway once in a while (George’s meal cost him just shy of a tenner apparently – flash git) Good on him I say, for setting an example. Reports initially told us that George’s burger was delivered to Downing Street, even though Byron don’t actually do deliveries. I asked Tom from Byron myself if there was any chance he could deliver a burger to Ludlow. He firmly but sweetly told me they wouldn’t. Turns out George got no special treatment either and one of his elves popped out to get it for him.

I like that. Blanket rules. Let one person get away with it, and everyone else starts taking the Mick. Stick to the policy. Bravo Byron!

We should follow Byron’s (and George’s) lead and pay a bit more attention to burgers. A good hamburger shouldn’t be cheap and nasty. It will be made from good bits of cow and lavished with the attention that it deserves. If, unlike Mr Osborne you’re making your own, make sure you use mince with plenty of fat in it. Burgers, like most good things benefit from decent lubrication and this is what fat does. Keeps ‘im nice and moist. Yum. Buns. You need good buns. Search out the best, or do them yourself. I’ve got a book that suggests adding a little Bird’s custard powder to your bun mix, and this is inspired. You get that slight sweetness that they do at Maccy D’s, but you’ve done it yourself.

Thanks George, for making us think about burgers again.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Lusty Elizabeth David, and Broad Beans. Published in the South Shropshire Journal - 28/6/13

The great foodwriter Elizabeth David wrote thus of summer food: “Meals will be primitive…entirely delicious because perfectly appropriate to the time, the place and the circumstances…You are on holiday. You are in company of your own choosing. The air is clean. I ask no greater luxury. Indeed I can think of none.”

Having enjoyed a few warm days recently, I may perhaps have come over all wistful and romantic prematurely. Peaked a touch early maybe, but when summertime arrives, pretty girls put on floaty dresses, the babies smell all of sun-cream and strawberries, it’s then that I turn to dear old Mrs David.

The best summer food is indeed primitive in its simplicity and so much the better for it. At the time of writing it is the eve of the Summer Solstice (call me disorganised would you? I wrote this a good week ago dear Reader!), and traditionally tomorrow is the day that the last of the asparagus is harvested. Cheerio spring, hello summer. So the ‘grass may be gone, but for me the primitive gobblings will be peas fresh from the pod, strawbs straight from the punnet, ice creams direct from the jingly-jangly van. Elizabeth David was a partisan of lustiness, and summer food is sexy. Have you ever podded a pea or picked a crab with someone you’re likely to spend the night with? You should try it.

With a bit of luck – the Met Office don’t unfortunately seem so optimistic – we may enjoy a few more days of alfresco dining over the next few months. Lounging around all Bridesheady and Cider with Rosieish on picnic rugs and up against hayricks. Phwoar.

In my little garden the first broad beans are just appearing. And by the time you’re reading this I reckon they may well be ready. I love a broad bean, in their cool fluffy pods. I will commit vegetal infanticide and harvest them when the beans are no larger than a little fingernail. As affords such a seasonal treat, I will go to the bother of blanching them in boiling water for a brief minute, chilling them in iced water, and then popping each one out of its tiny jacket. Tossed around in the best virgin olive oil you can afford (do me a favour with this rapeseed malarkey – there’s a time and a place, maybe), the teeniest squirt of lemon juice and a little chopped mint, this is a moment I look forward to every year.

Although the longest day has been and gone, summer is only just beginning. Enjoy the seasonal treats that come your way because round here we have them in fleeting abundance. Come rain or shine, it’s an opportunity that’s too delicious to be missed. 

Monday, 24 June 2013

Badgers and Cheese (pre-editing) - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 21/6/13

The Great British Badger Bash is underway down in the West Country. It’s too early to work out if it’s going well (“well” being an entirely objective term depending on whether you’re a badger or not) but unsurprisingly it’s already causing a hoo-hah.

I’ve read the pros and cons of this operation and perhaps it’s not really in my remit to delve too deep into this, but as a fully paid-up and dedicated cheesemonger it’s of frontline relevance to me. Like any dedicated cheeseman ought to, I deal with many of my suppliers directly. Many - arguably often some of the best - cheesemakers are dairy farmers. The impression I get is that bovine tuberculosis is a massive pain in the what-nots, and that old Mr Badger is far from an innocent bystander when it comes the spreading of this disease.

Now we all know that badgers have been being bashed by farmers since BTB began. You’ll never find anyone who’s actually done it, but everyone knows somebody who has. Let’s get real here, how many people have really hit a badger with their car? And how many badgers do you find “sleeping” (as I frequently lie to my daughter) by the side of the road? Quite. We may as well make it legal for a bit and see what happens.

So it’ll be interesting to see how this cull works out. In time the figures will speak for themselves. Until they do, I wish that people would get their heads around the fact that the countryside and its goings-on are not always pretty and fluffy. Nature does not organise itself, and because we’re at the top of the food chain and considerably more intelligent than badgers and dairy cattle, we need to get involved. Unless of course you’d rather not eat meat, vegetables and fruit, or drink milk, wear woolly jumpers and so on.

I need to sell good cheese in order to make a living, so I could do without badgers buggering things about. And good cheese, properly made by people who care, is quite the most remarkable thing. Possibly more messed around with over the years than lovely old bread that I extolled last week, by the early ‘80s artisan cheesemaking had all but died out in the UK, but now, and especially in our neighbouring counties and our own, craft (not Kraft) cheese production is thriving.

The work of the artisan chessemaker is so incredibly skilled. There’s science there, but more than anything else there’s the intrinsic instinct and ‘feel’ that comes with passion and experience. When tasting proper cheese you’ll get a sense of place – what the Frogs call terroir – of where the cows grazed, what the weather was doing, and what the milkmaid was wearing. Really, you will, and I don’t want those pesky badgers getting in the way of something as gastronomically glorious as that. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Love of the Loaf - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 14/6/13

A few weeks ago I – perhaps slightly acerbically – took a bit of a pop at the New Foodie Revolutionists. All beards, trust funds and yeastiness, they’ve got a long way to go when it comes to having a grip on reality and commercialism, sustainability and feeding the world. But they mean well, really they do, and they reap harmony from the baking of real bread.

Have you ever baked a loaf of bread? Of course you have. Scratch that. Have you ever baked a proper loaf of bread? A loaf that is made from nothing but flour, water and microbes and LOVE?

Real Bread amongst the foodists of San Francisco and London is pretty much the status quo, but for the rest of us, not so much. It used to be the norm, but no longer. It ought to be though, because properly made bread is an embodiment of everything that is meet and right, so to do. It is an outwardly simple yet intrinsically mind-boggling thing. Like bread, many of the finest and most brilliant things contain very little. Think cheese, wine, beer, salami and Wayne Rooney.

Bread, like booze and cheese is the most ancient and wondrous of comestibles. Bread is warm, it is sharing, it is family, and it transcends everything. There is no single culture on earth that doesn’t make, break, and share bread.

My mate Peter who’s The Man at Price’s in Ludlow gave me some of his ancient sourdough starter a little while ago. Sourdough is where it’s at when it comes to bread and you need Starter to start it. Food is subject to trends just like clothes. Take your Aztec-prints– so last year, like quasi-modish tiger bread and foccacia-with-stuff-in-it. Faintly daft now. Looks like fun, not much to it, and will never make the distance. The good sourdough loaf is the well-judged A-line skirt, a Loake’s boot, a Panama hat. It will go on and on.

Anyway, I’ve been playing around with Peter’s starter (a mad amalgam of natural yeasts, which feed from the atmosphere they live in) for yonks. It’s taken a lot of work, but I’ve finally nailed it and this week I a made a damned-near perfect loaf. The most satisfying (publishable) thing I’ve done in ages.

It’s fun to have a bash at this at home, but if you can’t be fagged and you live where I do then why bother? We have a plethora of brilliant bakers on our doorstep. Peter at Prices, Robert at Swifts, Anna at the Ludlow Food Centre, and many more. The phenomenal artisan bakers of Shropshire may not be in the trendy-set yet, but we’re bloody lucky to have them in our bucolic back yard.

The Shropshire Map of Death

Frankly I find it utterly stultifying that the government, after everything that has happened over the last few gruesome years, is still pumping (or surreptitiously slipping) cash into quangos. Big dozy white elephants implemented to make it look like actual governmental departments are doing something productive. But they’re still there, being all serious and expensive.

Public Health England (“an Executive Agency for the Department of Health”) has carried out a project called Longer Lives. Part of the Longer Lives project was to draw up a map – presumably done by a bunch of GCSE geography kids on work experience – to highlight the fact that people in the southern half of England live longer than those in the northern half.

I haven’t found out how long it took PHE to work out that folk up north smoke more fags, eat more takeaways, and go out on the lash more often than the fairies down south, but I’ll bet it took them a fair while. Maybe Jeremy Hunt was on holiday that week. I could have saved them a whole bunch of time and just told it to them straight, but strangely I wasn’t approached to opine on this particular matter. Hey-ho. The interesting thing though is that whereas the north south divide was always traditionally a diagonal line from the Severn Estuary to the Wash, it is now a nice horizontal-ish line from the Humber to the Mersey. Much more north south and them-and-us. Result for Shropshire: as far as death goes, we’re southerners. Yay!

It’s great. You can have a look at a pretty colour coded map on the PHE website. Green meaning premature death outcomes are “best”, yellow, orange and down to red. Red get the idea. So there I was looking at this map, most of the southern half nice and green with odd pockets of red here and there in places like Luton, Coventry and so on, and as my eyes moved upwards and across I was thrilled to see Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire all verdant, free of junk-food, lung cancer and untimely death and feeling really quite proud to be a man of the Marches and then…then there was this bloody great red blob pulsing like a bubo in the top right corner of my home county.

Telford and Wrekin. As red as you like. After Much Wenlock, you’ve pretty much had it. To be honest it’s of no great concern to me, as callous as this may sound. My own Shropshire stops at about Church Stretton, but it just makes our county’s Fat Map look untidy. A blot (or a Blott – RIP dear old Tom Sharpe – nice Shropshire cultural reference there young man, thanks very much) on our lovely and aged landscape. 

Friday, 31 May 2013

Fat Kids, and Good Old Jamie - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 31/5/13

Jamie Oliver – gawd bless ‘im – having already socked it to The Man on school dinners, has got in a right two and eight about over what goes into our children’s lunchboxes. The contents of many he reckons, are tantamount to child abuse. He’s recently had a full-on bust up with Education Secretary Michael Gove over this, but Jamie perpetually ploughs on.

I’m pretty sure it’s not in Jamie’s job-spec to do this sort of stuff, but very few others are doing it, so he takes one for the team. Along with a chap I know called Henry Dimbleby who has a super chain of healthy fast food restaurants called Leon (Shropshire’s crying out for one), there just aren’t many high-profile people with the single-mindedness to take a gargantuan task like this on. Bloody well bravo and chin-chin for fellows like that I say.

It’s far too easy to bash the likes of Oliver as just another celebrity chef, but I’ll defend him until the day is done. There has been no single human being on the planet in the last half-century who has done more to make us celebrate the good things - and decry the bad - in food than Jamie Oliver.

Being complacent that your kids eat junk in lunches provided by their school is just about forgivable. But only just. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s slightly beyond your control, but packing their lunchboxes with nutritionally vacuous crud is reprehensible. The government can’t immediately control this bit, nor can Jamie Oliver, but a culture of bad food sets-in like rot and spreads. It comes from the Mums and Dads who allow their offspring to eat Haribo and Pringles for breakfast.

An industry source tells me, “Home economics as a subject in schools was abandoned when food became part of design technology. Food technology consists of things like ‘design a pizza and design the packaging then explain how you would sell it’. It’s all to do with commercial food production rather than scratch-cooking with proper ingredients.”

This could be happening in your local schools – perhaps it’s worth digging a little deeper?

At some point, when they’re a bit bigger our kids will hide away and smoke cigs, drink bad cider, and learn about the birds and the bees first hand. They’ll decide what goes in their lunch too, and we’ll take it on the chin, like grown-ups. But we must give them a foundation while they’re little and their vital organs untainted by vice.

As parents, we have a singular and ineffable duty to keep our children safe from harm.

Listen to Jamie, and you may find he’s not the wally that you thought he was. He’s just a bloke trying to do his best. And what’s so wrong with that?

Friday, 17 May 2013

Pigeons and Big Openings - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 17/5/13

May bank holiday in South Shropshire and it sounds like the whole county is a-buzz with the hum of electric mowers. The drone dips and circles on the warm breeze like the swallows that have decided finally to come back to Blighty for the summer.

I forego the mower, lured instead by my small vegetable patch where seeds that have lain dormant and shivering for weeks are now poking shoots from the warming soil. Not being a natural gardener, I cherish and guard this plot with perhaps greater zeal than I afford my own children. So when the woodpigeon have started hungrily to eye my nascent pea-shoots, and then start pecking at them I know what needs to be done.

The old air rifle often makes an appearance at this time of year, the barrel warm in my hand, elbow rested on top of the wheelie bin by the back door I take a sight on an intruder on the pea bed. A ping, and a thrup, the briefest of flaps: Pigeon 0 – Peas 1. An hour later and the same again, and I’ve got dinner for two. If you’re going to go to the bother of slaying something that’s dissing your veggies then you might as well eat it. I fry the pigeons’ plumptious breasts in butter and wilt a clump of roadside wild garlic (well washed – it’s at leg cocking level) in the same pan. Free food of the very highest order.

I love a Big Opening almost as much as my patch; the bigger the better for me. I’ve been to a couple recently and it’s heartening to see that there’s a long-lacked gastronomic middle ground in and around Ludlow that’s being filled.

I went to opening night – technically a Soft rather than Big Opening, I’ll take what I can get - at Ludlow Kitchen in Bromfield (yeah, yeah, it’s a very minor geographic detail). Tremendous stuff: all field to fork and spot-on sourcing credentials, tasty prices, a non-sweary and modestly brilliant chef. Then I went to the Marches Kitchen & Bar where there used to be a sweaty dive called the George, in Ludlow’s Castle Square. They do slightly bonkers pizzas, brunches, cocktails. The staff were pretty and made eye contact. Unusual for Ludlow but a great formula. They source ingredients locally. I wish them all very well.

Up until recently there’s not been many places (apart from lovely ol’ Clive Davis at the Green Café) round here where you can go to eat without feeling guilty about it. The hospitality industry is finally catching onto the fact that we’re all sailing quite close to the wind. So if you’re not shooting your scoff or picking it from the gutter, you can at least go out for something nice to eat without taking too much of a hit.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Dog Poo & The Ludlow Spring Festival - Published in the South Shropshire Journal 10/5/13

By the time you read this, the local elections will have been and gone. Quite honestly I’ve lost interest. If there’s something guaranteed to turn you off local politics, it’s following local politicians on Twitter. The hair pulling and tit-for-tat that goes on between wannabe (and indeed existing) councillors on this so-called social networking website, has been anything but sociable. What’s the big fuss anyway? Once they’re in they will spend the next five years arguing about dog muck and who’s supposed to mow the grass in the cemetery. Important stuff granted, but come on girls, play nicely.

So, if the new guard hasn’t taken control of the South Shropshire Journal you will have read the first bit of this column, and if you live in Ludlow or its environs (or anywhere else for that matter) you can look forward to this town putting on a socking great party that celebrates victuals and grog. The Ludlow Spring Food Festival is like the sexy but demure sister of the big September event. Both equally luscious in their own way, but the spring one for me has the edge.

The Spring Event has a big old beardy beer tent and here Shropshire does its thing better than anyone else in the world. We are a county of understatement and quiet plodding, but we brew beer like nobody else. The sausages, the bread, the E-type Jags and Alvises (the Marches Transport Festival runs concurrently in the castle grounds) and a bit of iffy folk music is just so very British. And it takes place in May, the most splendid, verdant British month. A big hug of a festival that shows off what we do best in this not-so-quiet corner of England. And it makes me jolly proud to be a Shropshire Lad. 

Whilst Ludlow’s gastronomic crown may have slipped and slided around on her head over the years, it’s these weekend-long jollies that keep her steady. Michelin stars come and go, but the festivals make life gastronomically and socially sound in this town. The May Fair last weekend will no doubt have attracted it’s usual tedious dose of NIMBYism from Disgusted of Ludlow; “The helter-skelter was virtually in the upstairs drawing room, simply ghastly. And the smell of fried onions, uugh.” but actually, it all adds to the fun of living in a market town.

Festivals and fairs make places tick, whether you like them or not. Communities come together and celebrate the good things - bangers or candyfloss- and others flock in from afar and point out the things that we as natives take for granted: low house prices, friendly smiles from strangers, quirky independent shops, omnipresent dog poo, untended graveyards…We live in a good place. Let’s enjoy it.