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 CafĂ©, 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!