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.