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.