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!