Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Sichuan, Fish Fragrant, New Boys in Town (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 4/4/14

When I was larking about in Bristol the other week I stumbled across a rather fabulous little shop. Run by Koreans, their produce was natch mainly Korean, but they sensibly made a little nod to some other gear from way out East. I bought some fermented chilli bean paste, which is not remotely Korean but Chinese and specifically Sichuan.

Occasionally, when I’m not pretending to set up my own business, playing Angry Birds on my phone, or checking out the crumpet at the new opticians next door to Harp Lane, I’ll read a book. I’ve just finished Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop. A great read, but can you get any specialist Sichuan ingredients round here? Quite. I got my wife Fifty Shades of Grey recently, hopefully the feedback of that particular tome will be unpublishable.

So I’ve gone to Bristol and got all the kit and I knock up one of the best meals I’ve made in a very long time. I’m not one to extol my own culinary virtues, but bloody hell – Fuchsia’s ‘Fish-fragrant aubergines’ turned out pretty tidily. Strange name for a dish that contains not a jot of fish, but the depth and pure savouriness that came from this particular concoction was extraordinary.

The cooking of the Sichuan Province leans on ‘umami’ (the yummy taste you get from stuff like Parmesan cheese, Worcester sauce, and wild mushrooms) and mad, intense heat. This is man-food in extremis but never wishing to be too blokey I made it for my dear chum and business partner Lydia, and she had seconds.

I’ll give you the recipe if you like, but you’d do well buying Fuchsia’s book

Back from Chengdu, I touch down in little ol’ Ludlow. Turns out my former employers, Ludlow Food Centre are taking on a shop in the centre of Ludlow as a cafĂ©-deli. Ice cream, fancy sarnies, bags of personality, that sort of thing. It sounds super. Rumour has it they were after our site at Harp Lane but I’m far too discreet and professional to comment on that particular issue. No idea Your Honour. Ludlow’s a funny town in that many people have tried coercing me into slamming LFC. I wish them well, truly I do. The more the merrier. My only advice - for what it’s worth – make some mates round here. Being aloof doesn’t get you very far round here.

Competition aside, I need to find me a supplier of Sichuan stuff. Tasty times ahead. Watch this space. 

Bristol: the Best Place to Eat (unedited): South Shropshire Journal 28/3/14

I rarely travel by train any more. I have a car that works perfectly well, and I can fill it with children and all their kit. My car runs quite inexpensively and generally on time. Trains don’t. However, given the rare opportunity when I get to go somewhere on my own without the kids and associated paraphernalia, I’ll splash out, hope that I don’t have to spend eight hellish hours waiting at Newport for a missed connection and thoroughly enjoy the ride.

On a solitary train journey one is all but forced to sit nice and still in one place, drink a tin or two of warm and overpriced train Stella Artois (optional), and gaze at the countryside as it rattles by. This is my idea of Nirvana (I get that it may not be yours), and last week I chugged down to Bristol with only a ten-minute wait at Newport. Phew.

What a city: all Brunel and beards, a railway station that looks like a cathedral, and some of the best places to eat anywhere I know. I was taken out for lunch by my friend Xanthe who writes about food for the Telegraph (a bit like this paper, but with bigger pages and less fat stock news) to a place called Flinty Red where I ate amongst other things, hang on, I’ve still got the menu, “Roast Carrot and Ewe’s Curd, Carpaccio of Kid Loin with Caper & Lemon Dressing, Seared Onglet with Creamed Kale” and I came very close to weeping with happiness in front of Xanthe. Which would have been horribly embarrassing. Such simple stuff, so painfully bang-on 2014, but effortless too. And cheapy cheap cheap. And the place wasn’t even full. Astonishing. In Ludlow a gaff like Flinty Red would be booked up months in advance.

I didn’t think it could get much better until five hours later when it did, at Bell’s Diner. Much of the same but up a notch and I think this time I actually did do a little cry, but it was darkish in Bell’s so I reckon I got away with it. I’ve got their menu too, but it would be showing off to relate that to you. Google it and go.

There are funky little coffee shops everywhere you turn, great pubs on each corner, friendly people, mad hairy wholefood shops selling bags of foraged foliage, bonkers wine shops. Enough already, you get the idea, I enjoyed myself in Brizzle.

But back at home, I spotted some local asparagus in the shops, a sure sign of tastiness lurking just round the corner. This weekend, what could be more springy than the clocks changing and Mothering Sunday? A cause for celebration if ever there was one.

Jersey Royals (unedited) - South Shropshire Journal 21/3/14

I bet on horses twice a year: The Grand National, and Cheltenham Gold Cup. Having blown a whole tenner on some daft nag at Cheltenham (I think he’s probably still trying to find the finishing line), I shovelled copious amounts of well rotted gee-gee dung on to my veg patch and thought to myself, ‘this is all they’re useful for’.

By bespattering half of my garden with semi-digested straw I welcome in spring and think about the treats that lie ahead. New potatoes will probably go in first after they’ve enjoyed a good chit on a warm window-sill. To remind myself just how lovely a home grown early spud is, I bought myself a bag of Jersey Royals, which as they have done every year for the last decade or so, bought nothing but disappointment in the eating.

I’m not one for gastronomic nostalgia – very few things tasted better back in the good old days – but Jerseys sure as heck used to be so much tastier. Mr Farmer the greengrocer tells me that they no longer use seaweed (or vraic, as they call it over there) as a fertiliser, a fact that used to contribute to their unique and delicious flavour. Whatever the reasons, until my own taters are ready I’ll be unfashionably opting for the imported Majorcan earlies, which taste like a new potato ought to. Stuff the air miles, quite frankly.

I’ll also be getting my onion sets in soon, although I’m not really sure why I bother growing a vegetable that can be bought so cheaply and ubiquitously. You pop a baby onion in the ground, wait a few months, you pull up a bigger one. Pretty boring horticulture really.

However, the onion is the one vegetable, and possibly any ingredient, that gets more use in my kitchen than any other.

Pretty much every meal I prepare will involve this most handy of all alliums, although more often than not it plays an essential, but cameo role. Think of Ghostbusters without Dr Egon Spengler. See? It’s unimaginable. Well, that’s the onion. Often appearing alongside carrots and celery in a classic mirepoix or sofrito in braises, soups and stews, an onion will provide savoury bottom notes when cooked soft and slow without being allowed to take on colour and caramel flavours.

I should let onions play the protagonist more frequently. Baked whole with cream and cheese, pureed to go with lamb, I love a deep French onion soup, a sticky tangle on a pissaladiere (a southern French - and utterly delicious – version of pizza). Yummy yum. Perhaps it is worth growing a few of my own after all. 

Shrove Tuesday, Whorehouses and so on...(unedited) South Shropshire Journal 14/3/14

Here I go with another column in arrears. Deficit journalism. It was Shrove Tuesday last week and I completely forgot about it. I couldn’t give a flipping toss (see what I’ve done there?) about pancakes. Anyway, forgot about it I did, until I got home last Tuesday evening to find my little girls smearing pancakes loaded with chocolate spread all over their pretty little faces.

This kind of defies the whole idea of Shrove Tuesday: use up all the eggs, flour and milk in your house and subsist on dust and gravel until Easter Sunday. You’ve been a bad person. Lent it out. But don’t go buying a jar of Nutella. It will not admonish you from sin. I told that to my wife, who was pretty ambivalent.

When I was small we went on family holidays to Brittany in the north of France, every year for quite a long time. We’d take the ferry to St Marlo from Portsmouth and Mum, Dad, my sister Tilly and me would all bundle into a tiny cabin. Once across the Channel it would be a short time until we met our first galette complete. Ham, egg, cheese, and a lacey-thin pancake. That’s what it’s all about my friends. No other pancake - in my opinion - is worth the strife.

If you don’t want to cross the Channel for some decent grub do what I did last week and nip down to London. I went down for ‘research’ and a ‘meeting’ to gather a few ideas in order to make Harp Lane (My deli? In Ludlow? Opening soonish? Ring any bells? I may have mentioned it 8985095834 times before) the best it can possibly be.

Do what I did, handpick a few places in our capital, and you’ll quickly realise that the Big Smoke has never screamed louder in terms of gastronomy. Not clever stuff, not expensive flimflammery, just top-notch grub in warehouses, whorehouses, and outhouses. Making do, but not in that tired and overdone post-warish way, just very current, cool, and above all – bloody tasty.

There are boys with beards and tattoos cooking the sort of food that we can only dream of up here, for half the price. Girls out front who do customer service like we’ve never known, and they look like supermodels too. I understand that it’s a trade-off. We have a life in Shropshire that those smokin’ hot hipsters down there can only dream of. And a couple of days in London now is enough for me. I’m always happy to be heading west on the Westway. Driving over Titterstone Clee, down into Ludlow on the first sunny day in three months, well, Shropshire has never looked better. Those supermodel waitresses don’t know what they’re missing.