Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Robert Thompson, The Hambrough, Isle of Wight

My first piece for The Arbiturian is now up - http://www.arbuturian.com/2011/hambrough-ventnor

The full text is pasted below, though it looks far better on the site:

It’s a brave chef who opens his tasting menu with a potato. The potato is a Mayan Twilight: scrubbed (membrane off, skin on), cooked in a water bath over night, served with shavings of truffle, chard, artichoke and a hazelnut dressing. The chef is Robert Thompson of The Hambrough, Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight.

I know the island well – my mother is a Caulkhead (that’s Wight-speak for local), however in spite of dozens of childhood visits to the island, Ventnor was never deemed worthy of an excursion. So when I heard that Ventnor was now home to a Michelin starred restaurant I had to investigate further. I spent two nights at the Hambrough and a couple of hours quizzing Thompson on a sunny July afternoon.

Our arrival at the Hambrough was not elegant, having been preluded by some serious speed-limit breaking and half an hour on a ferry (my travel nemesis). Our table was booked for half-eight, and as parking in Ventnor proved an utter bugger, we arrived at the hotel with just enough time to fling our luggage into the room before heading down for our three-hour dinner.

The tasting menu is six courses long, but as seems to be the norm with such things there were a few bonus rounds flung in as well. The shot of smoked haddock chowder with truffle oil was silky and exceptionally rich – a shot’s worth was ample. The standout dishes for me were the (comically large) scallops and the veal, which came with a bone marrow cream of which I nearly asked for a second helping.

The menu could almost be an advert for the Isle of Wight’s food and producers. Crab, lobster and sea bass all come off boats in Ventnor Harbour, only one hundred yards from the hotel. Each morning samphire and sea purslane are gathered from the nearby coast. However, Thompson is no slave to the local produce cause. If it doesn’t meet his very high standard, you will not find it on the menu. In spite of a heavy presence of vineyards on the island, there is no Isle of Wight wine on his wine list and having sampled it elsewhere, I don’t blame him.

There are only seven rooms at the Hambrough, a couple of which have balconies overlooking the sea. The décor throughout is tasteful, nothing ground breaking, very comfortable without being showy. As a caffeine addict I was very impressed to find an espresso machine in my room and, thank the lord, real milk in the fridge.

When I met with Thompson the morning after that epic tasting menu – and following an equally epic breakfast, I was interested to know how he saw the Hambrough. Is it to use the current trendy foodie term, a ‘restaurant with rooms’ or are we going with the more traditional ‘hotel’? Neither, it seems. “It’s more than just a restaurant with rooms and hotel conjures up images of room service and cloches.”

The front of house is run by his wife, Diana (they met at the Wintringham when he was head chef, and she commis pastry chef). The service is well balanced, the staff friendly without being invasive; there is a consistent lack of pretension about the place. Indeed they are currently without a sommelier, the last having lost his position for being ‘too arrogant’. I respectfully pointed out that he may have misunderstood the point of a sommelier.

When Thompson came to the island he also took over the Pond Café in nearby Bonchurch, where I dined on my second night. As my interview with Thompson took place prior to my meal at the Pond, I utilised the opportunity to get his opinion on what I should order. I knew I was in for a good meal when he recounted pretty much the entire menu as he clearly couldn’t make just one selection.

Dishes at the Pond are more on the simple side, each showcasing one or two quality ingredients without as many of the ‘cheffy’ flourishes. The location is beautiful, and very unlike the coastal Hambrough, in spite of there being only a couple of minutes drive between them. Bonchurch is a tiny village, deep in a valley, which was lush and green when I visited, with ducks splashing about and carp occasionally leaping out the water. The area has a timeless quality and the feel of the restaurant is more casual, more of a drop in type of place, even if just for a glass of wine and some very well selected appetisers.

For my main course I went with the lamb (chosen on the grounds that Thompson had praised it for ever so slightly longer than the other dishes), a gloriously tender chargrilled leg with mini roasted vegetables and salsa verde. I couldn’t resist a few forkfuls of my companion’s locally caught and delicately cooked plaice, with island samphire, mushrooms and a very light vermouth sauce.

Prior to meeting him, I had a rather romantic notion that Thompson’s move to the island was motivated by a love for its amazing local produce. Seems not. Thompson had actually visited the island only once, when he was six, before he came to view the restaurants. He rather endearingly recalled his father “piggybacking me down Blackgang Chine in Shanklin.” Instead his move to the island was due to “a lack of other similar places”, clearly a logical chap.

When he took over the two restaurants, he decided not to rename them. I asked him whether this was entirely sensible, especially as old reviews (which I had hunted out online and read with amusement) are somewhat less than complimentary. “Well what to? Pond Café – well there’s a pond. This place is on Hambrough Road.” As I said, he’s a logical man.

As well as the two restaurants there is also self-catering accommodation and the Pond now sells a range of picnic hampers, but he is not stopping there. Thompson is currently waiting on the council’s decision on plans to take over the Winter Gardens – a crumbling art deco event venue on Ventnor sea front; once white, now grubby grey. Should his plans go ahead, it would continue to be a venue but would also have space for sixty covers of fine dining upstairs, eighty covers in a less formal restaurant downstairs, an open air terrace, and rooms. The Pond café and Hambrough are both hopefully to obtain some more space as well.

Small coastal fishing town, two restaurants and plans for expansion; the comparison to Rick Stein (who has spent the last four decades building a restaurant empire in Padstow, Cornwall) was inevitable, but thankfully one that he welcomed. “That’s what you’ve got to do. Around here everyone talks about “the season”, what season? I will not build a business around the idea that I only work in the summer.”

Clearly he is making waves on the island but what about the whole celebrity chef side of things, does it appeal at all? He says he is not without offers but is very firm that he would only do it for the right project. We discussed the many chefs that are getting it wrong, with Netto adverts and a certain range of branded kitchen scales receiving some serious vitriol. In pondering TV chefs, conversation meanders back to Rick Stein, whom he cites as an example of someone who is getting it right.

Thompson’s presence in Ventnor has made the town a worthy gastronomic destination. Should his plans for expansion go ahead, and I pray they do, both Thompson and the island’s produce will get the respect they deserve. As for the comparisons to his Padstow based counterpart, I’m not sure he’ll ever be rid of the association, but I believed him when he said that unlike Stein, “it won’t take me 36 years.”

The Hambrough, Hambrough Rd, Ventnor, Isle Of Wight PO38 1SQ. Tel: 01983 856 333. Website. Pond Café, Bonchurch Village Rd, Ventnor, Isle Of Wight PO38 1RG. Tel: 01983 855 666. Website. More information about Robert Thompson can be found at his website. Follow chef Robert Thompson on Twitter.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Damson and apple jelly

I always favour making jelly over making jam, indeed I’m not too sure when I even last made jam, whereas jelly can be guaranteed to be found bubbling away in my kitchen at least every couple of months.
My preference for jellies is two-fold, firstly they are just such a lovely colour, and secondly and far more importantly they require less prep time and I am lazy.
So, for this batch following obtaining a vast amount of damsons, it was damson and apple jelly.
Damson and apple jelly
Basic recipe
Damsons, left whole stalks removed but no need to de-stone

Cooking apples, cored and roughly chopped – about half the volume of damsons
Caster sugar
Jelly bag
Put the apples and damsons in a large pan with enough water to cover generously. Bring to the boil then cook gently until very soft and pulpy, this should take about an hour.
Strain through a jelly bag over a bowl overnight/ at least 8 hours, resisting the urge to squeeze the bag (results in a cloudy jelly).
Measure your juice.  For every pint of juice you’ll need a pound of sugar. Gently heat the required amount of sugar in a dish in the oven, until warm to the touch (150 C for 20 mins should do it).
Put the juice and the warm sugar in a pan – you’ll need a large one with lots of room for it to bubble. Bring to a rolling boil and once you have reached the setting point (start checking after 15 mins), pour into warm, sterile jars. A preserving funnel is a very worthwhile investment)
Testing for setting point
There are various methods of testing for the setting point, many cooks play about with thermometers but I prefer to use ‘the wrinkle test’ as it gives more control over achieving a desired set. A couple of hours before you start cooking the jelly place a few saucers in the fridge (you need multiple so that you always have a cold one).  When you want to test the set take a teeny bit of your jelly (1/2 teaspoon or so) and pour on to a cold saucer.  Leave it for about 30 seconds and then give the mixture a bit of a push with one finger.  You are looking for a distant ‘wrinkling’ of the mixture.   
Experiment with adding different flavourings, I chucked a couple of cardamom pods in mine. Or if you want a savoury jelly to go with roast meats rosemary would work well.
A note on pectin
This recipe does not use precise ratios of fruit as both are high in pectin, however with other less willing to set fruits always stick with a trusted recipe for that type of fruit/ fruit combination.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A little rant about supermarket snobs

In defense of ‘supermarket snobs’.
More than a few times in my life I have been accused of being a snob. I consider it one of the ugliest words in the English language, it is so full of malice and I find it says a lot more about the accuser than the accused.
What I find particularly offensive is when one is labelled as a snob for something as minor as the supermarket they decide to shop in.  I am a Waitrose sort of girl, and recently entered in to a twitter debate with someone who came out with the line ‘Honestly.  We can’t all shop at Waitrose’.  Actually I have news for you, you can.  It isn’t some magical land with a door policy excluding all but the mega privileged; you don’t have to produce a bank statement to gain entry.  It is a supermarket.
Yes if you went around flinging in products willy-nilly you might find you have chosen something on the pricey end of the scale but there is an inexpensive version alongside the pricey.
When I go to Waitrose, it is actually enjoyable, it is not a chore. Sainsburys on the other hand, most definitely is a chore.  The staff are rude and/or indifferent, the store feels crammed and illogically laid out. There is a Tesco in the next town where the aisles tower over the poor intimidated shoppers and there is only room for two trolleys to pass in the aisles if both shoppers have Stig-like handling abilities.  Should you accidentally bash into a fellow shopper they swear at you, and indeed you swear at them; if it were in Waitrose one would have apologised and laughed about it, but Tescos (and all the other equally soul destroying supermarkets) brings out the worst in people.
I like to think of myself as a savvy shopper. I know when it is worthwhile to spend that little bit more for quality and when a cheaper alternative will suffice.  Fruit and Veg always comes from the local greengrocer, which is a little bit cheaper but more importantly he always gives me a bag of cauliflower leaves for my rabbits and hens – great customer service will always win my vote.
I don’t deny that there may be some fabulous produce in the cheaper end shops on offer if you sift through all the generic nonsense.  But I’d rather not thanks.   I go where I get the best quality and service for my money.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Spectator Scoff - Polenta

I recently got a bit polenta obsessed and experimented endlessly (slight exaggeration there, I have since stopped), anyway see here: http://www.spectator.co.uk/scoff/blog/6855628/farina-di-mais.thtml  for my ramblings on the Spectator's Scoff blog.

For the piece I wrote some new recipes:

Simple, ‘wet’ polenta
200g polenta
1.2 litres  good quality vegetable stock
Knob of butter
25g Parmesan, grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring the stock to the boil in a saucepan, and then slowly pour in the polenta in a constant stream, stirring all the time to prevent lumps forming. Turn down the heat and keep stirring until cooked (about 5 minutes for quick, about 45 for slow but check the packet instructions). Once the polenta is coming away from the sides of a pan, you can start to stir in the butter and cheese. Season to taste and remove from the heat.
Polenta Crumble topping
Makes enough for the cake plus surplus for plum crumble
115g fridge-cold unsalted butter
100g polenta (I would use the non-quick cook variety)
50g plain flour
115g golden caster sugar
50g porridge oats
A sprinkling of cinnamon or mixed spice as you wish
Mix the butter, polenta and flour with your fingertips until they resemble breadcrumbs. Alternatively whizz them in a food processor. Then mix in the sugar and porridge oats.
Rhubarb and Orange Polenta Crumble Cake
Need one 23cm spring form baking tin
350g rhubarb, cut into 1 cm chunks, sprinkled with 50g caster sugar and left for an hour (this creates lovely sugary juices)
150g golden caster sugar
150g unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 medium eggs
100g self-raising flour
100g ground almonds
Half a teaspoon of cinnamon
1 orange

Preheat the oven to 190C. Grease the tin and line the base with baking parchment. Cream together the butter and sugar and then beat in the eggs. Zest the orange into the mix and add 2 tablespoons of the juice. Sieve the flour and mix it with the almonds and cinnamon, then beat into the wet ingredients. Stir in the rhubarb and all the sugary juices. Pour into the prepared tin. Cover with a layer of the crumble mix (see above) 1cm deep. Bake for 50mins to an hour and leave to cool in the tin.

Monday, 28 March 2011

East Lodge, Derbyshire - Restaurant Review

East Lodge, Rowsley, Derbyshire

East Lodge had the honour of hosting a lunch on Saturday in celebration of my Grandfather-in-law’s (does such a title exist?) 90th birthday. First impressions were that it was an attractive building with nice grounds. We were warmly greeted and shown to the conservatory where we joined the rest of our party, had an aperitif and perused the menus.

We decided against starters - the rather hopelessly laid out menu failed to make it clear that a starter was even an option. Between the seven of us we ordered one fish and chips, one beef fillet, three steak and kidney pies and two turkey breasts which were poached and seared “a la plancha” which came with a fried sage and onion sandwich, fondant potatoes and braised celery. I opted for the turkey, though it was not without fear that they may think my choice influenced by the appalling advert with Marco Pierre White and Martin Kemp which can currently be seen on TVs irritating viewers around the country.

We were invited into our private dining room just before the food arrived. We weren’t aware we were to have use of a private dining room, and while it got a few ‘oohs’ and ‘isn’t this nice’s from our party I am actually not a fan of the private dining room experience.  I am people watcher, and am endlessly interested in what other tables order and how they respond to their experience, I like seeing the staff in action and getting a proper ‘feel’ for the place.  And every time I have been in a private room I have found that the waiting staff have underestimated the speed at which I can drain a wine glass, so I have often been left to stare woefully at my empty glass hoping someone will come check on us, East Lodge was no different.

The food arrived and first impression on my dish: ‘weird, they are using my slate placemats as a plate, what’s the bloody point in that?’ and then slightly sad that my fondant potato was so very teeny. The ‘fried sage and onion sandwich’ which I was very intrigued to sample turned out to be a small disc of baguette with some stuffing on it.  Tasty yes, but I had hoped for something more inspired. The turkey was very moist, the teeny fondant potato and celery complimented the dish well, as did the elaborately swirled sauce (somebody has been watching too much Masterchef).

It didn’t seem appropriate for me to taste the entire table’s food but I did steal a forkful of the lovely fiancés beef which was very tasty and perfectly met the request of being cooked medium-rare. 
For dessert we had one Gateau Marjolaine (layers of hazelnut meringue with vanilla, chocolate and praline butter cream), one bakled Alaska “flambé” and five chocolate fondants. The chocolate fondants were all cooked to perfection as I expected, just the right amount of ooze. Judging by the contented noises coming from across the table seems the other desserts were good too. We followed dessert with a birthday cake and coffees. The cake was very tasty, the coffee not as strong as I like.

Unfortunately, the mean portion size was not limited to the fondant potato, I felt all of us would have preferred 50% more grub for our buck. I appreciate it is meant to be fine dining but if you order a pie, you want a proper sized pie, damnit.

The food was very good but unadventurous, the service was very friendly and polite. A pleasant place that was very well suited to a 90th birthday lunch but I wouldn’t return with a younger crowd.  The coffee rather sums up the feel of the place, very pleasant, with good flavour but lacking balls. 


And I should say a big thank you to the lovely in-laws for picking up the bill, thank you lovely in-laws, you are most lovely xx

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Over the top cupcake decoration - a rant

BBC Good Food blog in which I rant about the trend for excessive decoration on cupcakes is now live.. and I seem to have annoyed a few cupcake makers

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Faking it

Faking it - pretending to like certain foods

Imagine you at some sort of social function, your host is eagerly offering you a beautifully presented tray of handmade appetisers and announces with a smile that they are black pudding croquettes.  However you cannot stand black pudding. You have a split second to decide your response; you can go either for the bold 'thanks but no thanks' and risk offending your host, or quickly gobble one down through a false smile.

Sometimes there is no choice I'm afraid; you'll just have to eat up. Not many of us will be honoured with an invitation to tea with the queen, but if you are I strongly recommend not rejecting a cucumber sandwich. And you would have to be quite a horrid person indeed to send back food at a wedding.

Some foods are easier to reject than others. I don't imagine anyone would bat an eyelid if your hated food was say, bananas but it seems there are certain foods that we (especially us foodie types) are supposed to like. Top of my list is caviar. I'm not convinced that anyone really likes caviar. A quick poll among friends and family
(both those who share my love of food and those who don't give two hoots) proved general confusion about why it is meant to be so great. Olives are a close second; I'm not a fan but they seem to be a ubiquitous appetiser in all mid-range restaurants.

I detest anchovies, I just can't get on with offal and I believe the only thing that should be served 'tartare' is tartare sauce. However, politely reject an offer of these foods and you may find yourself instantly lowered from connoisseur to cretin. And woe betide you if you aren't a fan of cheese; there is a whole course dedicated to the stuff.

I was at a restaurant, nowhere particularly smart, and one of our party refused a glass of wine and instead ordered a rum and coke. Now I do struggle to understand how someone could not enjoy wine, but this girl does not. However she certainly did not deserve the look she received from our waiter. I never knew a single raised eyebrow could spell out 'pleb' so eloquently.

So, a plea. To the dinner party hosts, no black pudding or caviar appetisers please. You know your guests may be less than thrilled, don’t make them pretend, quit showing off and offer something more palatable. To all restaurateurs, please don't fill your menus with the trendy foods of the moment and tell your waiters to stop sneering at clientèle who are brave enough to order what they really want. And stop judging me when I reject your bowl of olives. I'm not a pleb, I just don't like olives.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Prezzo restaurant review


Earlier this week the lovely fiancé and I had both had rather exhausting days and fancied dinner out, nothing special just a cure for hunger and laziness.  Our local Prezzo is a mere five minute walk and seemed to be just what we needed.  It is always a gamble however, going to our local Prezzo.  I have never had a problem with the food, (more of that later) but the service has been so bad at times it has become a local joke. 

One of the good features of Prezzo is that their entire menu is available for take-away, great idea in theory. However I have never successfully managed to order it.  I once phoned up and very politely asked if I could place a take-away order, their response was to bark ‘Not now!’ and then hang up.  On another occasion the response, by comparison was bordering on the verbose: ‘I am sorry we are too busy’.  And heaven forbid you turn up without a reservation, even if it is 6pm on a Monday and the restaurant is half empty, oooh that makes them so grumpy.

Our drinks order was taken swiftly and they offered tap water as well as mineral, very good.  However looking at me like I had just belched in their face when I politely declined olives, not so good. So you get the point, the service is pretty hopeless, on to the food.   We headed straight to main courses, fiancé going for the spicy beef pizza, I wasn’t in the mood for pizza or pasta (yes I know, what the hell was I doing in an Italian then?) so I went for the Ciabatta Milanese (breaded chicken in a ciabatta with cheese and salady stuff) with a side of gratinated potatoes.

We didn’t have to wait long and the pizza arrived looking tasty, the base was just the right thickness and the topping was generous and well seasoned. My ciabatta too, was spot on for a simple dinner, with a generous slathering of garlic mayonnaise (can’t have breaded chicken without garlic mayo, no no no).  But then there was the little dish of unappealing looking chunks of potato in a cheesy mess that I could only presume was supposed to be my gratin.  The potatoes were undercooked and the creamy topping was shockingly bland.  If I am going to order a decadent cheesy creamy gratin I expect to enjoy it, otherwise I might as well be eating calorie laden gruel.  

To end, though both stuffed we shared a vanilla panna cotta with raspberry coulis.  As you can imagine they didn’t look thrilled that we were sharing a dessert, which is a real bug bear of mine.  We were pretty full so either we ordered no dessert or one, be grateful we ordered the one.

So to summarise if you want simple tasty food and are happy to overlook shockingly rude (though strangely swift) service and a bad gratin then its perfectly fine - its never going to be exciting - but it is fine. And being how it is only five minutes away I’m sure we’ll be back soon, at the very least we can be sure to gather some amusing anecdotes on hopeless service.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Middle Farm

Middle Farm, East Sussex

Last weekend I had a serious case of writer’s block (yes I know, woe is me, how I do struggle for my art!).  But if there is anything that can snap me out of a woeful mood it is food, cute animals and countryside (in that order). I did some investigations online and found Middle Farm, near Lewes in Sussex. Drawn to the fact it boasts a farm shop, cider and perry store and open farm it sounded like just what I needed.

I’m afraid I do digress to the maturity of a five year old when around cute animals and was seriously excited by the sheep, llamas, chickens, jersey cows etc in the petting zoo.  Indeed I was even enthralled by the rabbits and I have two of those at home.

Having spent at least at hour cooing over the cute creatures, and trying to convince lovely fiancé that we really do need to buy some chickens, we had afternoon tea at the restaurant (very good scones).

We still had the farm shop and the cider/ perry shop to go. The farm shop was very good indeed, particulary impressive were the cheese selection and the meat counter. The cider/ perry shop it transpired was a treasure trove of wall to wall bottles of boozey delights, not just cider and perry.

What did I buy? Duck eggs and hen eggs , bacon (we had a great breakfast the next day), some beautiful smoked venison and a rather handsome cauliflower.  

From the booze shop I bought some cider (Normandy style, the proper way in my opinion), a bottle of elderflower liqueur (to compare with St Germain elderflower liqueur which I am hooked on) a mini bottle for a friend who loves it too. 

I also got and a bottle of beer called Black Death, made by the Fallen Angel brewery company of Sussex. It’s brewed with naga chillies – which we got for a friend of the lovely fiancé who loves all things chilli (he has been known to drink chilli vodka through the eye, why? I cannot explain).

I feel I should recommend the farm as a ‘great family day out’ farm shop for the parents and animals for the children.  But sod the children it’s just a great day out.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


Shrove Tuesday or ‘pancake day’ is nearly upon us.  Surely you have noticed,
at this time of year every supermarket feels it necessary to create a stand dedicated to all things pancake – including those bloody ‘batter in a box’ creations.

I don't think we eat enough pancakes in this country, the Americans I imagine eat more than us, but their pancakes are a very different thing all together. The French truly understand pancakes and have the sense, unlike us Brits and them over the pond to give them a variety of names.

When in France ‘pancakes’ are the ultimate fast food on the go, with stalls to be found in many markets. For something sweet, a thin crepe, with just a simple sprinkling of sugar or a spreading of jam and then folded into a triangle and served with a small piece of white paper to protect your hands. Or for something savoury and more robust I have always been partial to a galette saucisse, a pancake made with buckwheat flour and wrapped around a sausage

This Tuesday I will be having savoury stuffed pancakes for the main course (the sensible bit), followed by a decadent dessert of  a table covered with every possible sweet topping to mix and match with yet more pancakes until our little hearts are content.

Ham and mushroom (or just mushroom and more mushroom)
Cheese and leeks
Smoked haddock in a cheesy sauce
Spinach and ricotta

jam, apricot or raspberry are the favourites
cooked apples and calvados
banana and chocolate (put whole squares or chips in and the heat will melt them if you fold it over and its hot from the pan)
Lemon and sugar (Tradition dictates I have at least one ‘proper pancake day pancake’)
The lovely fiancé will no doubt go for his usual uber sugar hit of golden syrup and brown sugar

Should you be having pancakes this Tuesday please do have at least one with merely a good squeeze of lemon and some sugar to adorn it, it seems the ‘proper’ thing to do, in the same way that making American style pancakes seems somehow blasphemous. 

The possible fillings and toppings are almost endless but a few of my favourites-

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Throw together dinner II

Staring into my fridge and kitchen cupboards this evening, hoping inspiration would hit me regarding what to make for dinner, I realised I had many odds and sods and no cohesive meal jumped out at me.

These odds and sods included-
Ricotta cheese
Slices of chorizo
Speck ham
Peppers (bell, red)
New potatoes

So, I concluded the best solution was to make a selection of individual dishes, which I loosely claimed to be based upon tapas, thereby allowing me to make lots of bits and bobs that don’t necessarily complement each other but individually taste nice.

On the menu we had:

Prawns with lemon and white wine (I may not have mentioned the white wine in my lists, but rest assured there is always wine in my house)

Crostini/ bruschetta of baguette slices topped with pesto, a sundried tomato per slice and mozzarella

Boiled new potatoes, fried with garlic, chilli and red pepper with a glug of passata and a dash of white wine (ie bastardised patas bravas)

Spinach, mushroom and ricotta with lots of black pepper and a grating of nutmeg (with bread for dunking)

The speck and chorizo I left cold as an optional extra, or to be pretentious, it formed a meat platter.

There is something so satisfying about throwing stuff together without planning. I know I am usually the queen of forward planning but every now and again I do like to test my ability of a good fridge forage.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Hinds Head Review

I am a huge fan of Heston Blumenthal, have bought his books and watched all his tv programmes but until last weekend had never actually eaten in one of his restaurants.  On Saturday the lovely fiancé and I headed to the Hinds Head, or to give it its colloquial name ‘Heston’s pub’ and I was very excitable on the hour’s drive over.

We easily found the very regular looking pub in a very attractive English village and eagerly walked in.  Unfortunately my first sight was not of tasty food and contented patrons but a hoarde of wedding guests (I wonder if there is a collective term for wedding guests?) blocking my path to get to the maitre d’. Having politely nudged our way past we were very politely shown to our simple but elegantly laid table and introduced to our waitress, who we never saw again.  She took LF’s drink order but I asked for a couple of minutes to peruse the wine menu, but she never came back for my order.  Instead I had to wait until someone came for our food order to make the request.  But, I didn’t mind, I was in a good mood, could see plates of very tasty food on neighbouring tables and soon had a large glass of wine in my hand.
Wild Mushroom Macaroni
(That's not the camera, it really was that dark)

The menu was well balanced and thankfully not too long as it was very hard to decide what to eat when you suspect everything will be fabulous. None of the starters wildly appealed to either of us and not having massive appetites we opted to go for mains and then dessert.  Lovely fiancé opted for the venison cheeseburger, which I was very tempted by but I have a rather stupid rule that I won’t eat the same as him as you seem to be getting less experience for your buck (especially as I inevitably steal some from his plate and vice versa).  I chose the wild mushroom macaroni with fried duck egg, my logic being that I wouldn’t normally order pasta in a pub as I fear something over cooked and bland so thought I would enjoy a really good pub pasta.  I wasn’t disappointed the portion was reasonable without being large, the pasta was beautifully complemented by the oozing yolk but it was incredibly rich so although very tasty I wouldn’t have wanted more.  The burger was also splendid, though the dressing on the lettuce was a teeny bit overpowering but that really is the only problem I can think of regarding the food.  Naturally we ordered some of the famous triple cooked chips, and unsurprisingly they were the best chips I have eaten.

The mother of all cheeseburgers
But, we never did get to the dessert.  Not because we were completely full (I don’t think I could ever be too full for a good dessert) but rather because we were finding the atmosphere really oppressive and craved fresh air and a stroll along the Thames.  The wedding party had disappeared upstairs, though I did have the bride, massive dress and all push past the table at one point, they were very noisy, as indeed a wedding reception should be… just not when I have gone out for a relaxing lunch. The lighting didn’t help at all, it is a beautiful old building, and old buildings do tend to be dark but with dim lighting it was very gloomy even at lunchtime with the sun shining.

The service really wasn’t good (please don’t think me overly negative, it does pain me to say anything negative about King Heston).  Our table wasn’t properly cleared and we weren’t even offered desserts or a coffee until we had already asked for the bill.  (The poor waiter did seem a little embarrassed when he realised our table had been somewhat forgotten about).

In a nutshell, the problem was that the Hinds Head tries to act like a restaurant but missed the mark, is it a pub or not I’m still not sure? We were met by the maitre d’, drinks orders were at the table rather than from a bar, about 95 per cent of the space was given over to dining not drinking and the prices all point to restaurant. But noisy wedding guests, five different waiters and poor service say pub.

So do go, definitely, for some fantastic food and I hope it was just an off day for the waiting staff.  And should you be reading this, Heston, Clive Dixon et al you are so infuriatingly close to being perfect, just don’t hold wedding receptions unless they book out the place; decide if you are a pub or restaurant and turn the bloody lights up.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

House Guest article

I presently have a house guest – a friend going through a break up has moved in to the spare bedroom. So like any good friend I have been keeping her well fed and ensure the house always contains a lot of vodka... and then I wrote an article about her.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Pub Food Blog

My latest piece for the BBC GoodFood blog is now up - in which I rant about pub food, enjoy!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Lamb shoulder and ragu

Lamb shoulder and the ultimate lamb ragu

We had the lovely fiance's work chums over for dinner, too many of them to sit around the dinner table so it was to be a buffet affair. For a bit of informal dining for a crowd I often fall back to my loved lamb shoulder in tomatoes and wine recipe. Served with some roasted baby potatoes and garlicky green beans it was a very tasty casual dinner.

I love making this recipe because I look forward to using the leftovers so much, I always ensure I cook more than we need (although that didn't stop me nervously hovering as guests helped themselves to a third serving).

Lamb shoulder
Serves 4, with yummy leftovers

1 lamb shoulder, weighing about 1½ – 2 Kg
3 garlic cloves
3 sprigs of rosemary
Olive oil
250ml red wine
1 x 400g chopped tomatoes

Preheat oven to 200C. Crush the garlic cloves and chop the rosemary leaves from one sprig as finely as possible (you could always lob the garlic and rosemary in a mini blender) use some of the olive oil to make a thick rub for the lamb and season. Before applying the rub stab the lamb a few times so that the rub will penetrate the meat. Then rub the rosemary mixture all over (thus giving yourself a rather pungent hand treatment). Pop the lamb in a roasting tin, tucking in the two remaining rosemary sprigs ensuring you will have space for the wine and tomatoes later. Cook the lamb at this temperature for half an hour.

Best leftovers EVER
Turn the temperature down to 130C and cook for another hour. Put the wine and tomatoes and some seasoning in a pan and bring to the boil for a minute or so. Give it a taste and if necessary add a wee bit of sugar. Carefully pour the fat out of the lamb tin (keeping the lovely juices), then pour over the wine mixture.

Cook for another two hours, covered with foil for the first hour.

If you have managed to stop people gobbling it all and have some leftovers. Chop the meat into small pieces and put in a pan with any remaining sauce and an extra glug of wine and tomatoes if it needs it, bring to boil then simmer until cooked through. Serve mixed into pappardelle.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Beetroot and apple salad

We recently had arancini (see here) and seeing how it is hardly a health food I thought I would balance it out with a seasonal salad.  As earlier blogged about I made my own raspberry vinegar in the summer (see here) and I’m going to use it to make for a fruity salad dressing, which will be drizzled over beetroot, apple and leaves.

Couldn't decided if it looked better with or without dressing
This is what I would call a salad course sort of salad, if you want to make it more substantial crumbling over some cheese would be a lovely addition.

Beetroot and apple salad

Serves 2
1 medium sized beetroot cooked and cooled, skin removed
1 tart tasting apple – I recommend granny smith
2 handfuls of watercress, rocket or a mixture of the two
1 tbsp raspberry vinegar
½ tbsp orange juice
½ tbsp good quality olive oil or better yet walnut oil if you have it

Keeping the beetroot whole cut it into thin slices (less than 1mm ideally), not forgetting to admire your fetching pink fingers when you’re done. 
.... so you're getting both
Make the dressing by combining the vinegar and juice and mix and season, then add the oil a drop at a time, whisking as you go.  Put aside.
Chop the apple into quarters and remove the core, or use an apple corer (though I don’t like the things) then slice the apple as thinly as you can without loosing a finger, keep the skin on. 
To assemble the salad I would place a handful of leaves in the middle of each plate then layer the beetroot and apple in a circular pattern alternating between the two to show off the lovely colours.  Then drizzle over your dressing.

NB if you are not eating straight away toss the apple in some lemon juice, this will of course slightly alter the taste of the salad

Beetroot on Foodista

Friday, 14 January 2011

January 2011 - Roadkill

A surprisingly evil pheasant

I have just finished chatting with my father on the phone and his closing words were: ‘Right, I’d better make the pastry for my pheasant pie’.  Not too unusual a thing to do I’m sure you’ll agree, what made me laugh (and got me typing) was my automatic presumption that said pheasant most certainly did not come from the local butcher. 

You see my father lives in the middle of Wales, he has a rather splendid water mill with a dozen acres or so of land, right in the middle of those acres is quite a busy road and busy roads mean roadkill. 

So far my father’s roadkill meals have been limited to our feathered friends, pheasants and ducks to be specific, he has shied away from badger as he has been told it has a very strong flavour and is hopeful, though so far unsuccessful, of finding a rabbit.

I was talking to friend the other day about all things roadkill and they told me about someone they know who moved into a new house and on the day of the big move found a deer at the side of the road, still warm but very much dead.  So, seeing the potential of many a tasty meal, chucked dead Bambi in the back of the van. 

A surprisingly pleasant badger

Bambi needed to be bled of course, so new home-owner constructed a tripod-thing in the garden and hung up the deer before bleeding him out.  Now a dead deer (or indeed, any deer) contains a hell of a lot of blood.  So picture the scene of a new neighbour moving into your street, you pop round to say hello, do the ‘welcome to the road’ bit only to see a garden full of blood and a deer hanging upside down from a make-shift tripod, I’m sure he made quite an impression.

Another friend’s father is, like my own, prone to eating things he finds at the roadside (please do not judge my friends on the fact they all seem to have road kill related stories). Her father however does not limit himself or birds or meats one would find in the butcher. He has been known to serve badger, squirrel, fox; if it’s dead and free, he’ll eat it and in turn so has my friend. Unlike said friend I have never been served roadkill, well not knowingly anyway, but would I eat it? Yes I think I would.

Lunch.  Nom nom nom.

It is not a food for the squeamish certainly, but it’s free, the death was probably instantaneous and it’s about as free-range as you can get. It’s actually a rather ethical way to source your meat. I suppose it depends where you live, eating roadkill in the countryside does not seem as bizarre as it would in the middle of say, London – casseroled skanky urban fox anyone?

p.s. If memory serves me correctly, there is something about it being illegal to eat an animal you have hit with your own car however as long as your car didn’t do the hitting you are free to eat the meat.  (Yes a cynic could suggest that you could hunt in convoy, but that’s a little sinister). 

Tips on eating roadkill

Not being an expert on all things roadkill, here is some advice from my father for anyone wishing to cook up a road-side pheasant or duck:

“Here in Wales, pheasants are abundant; the locals call them sheep with wings, for neither are very bright. Apparently there is more conscience regarding eating duck.

The process is quite simple, don’t hang them for that increases the flavour and you will soon get tired of it, don’t pluck but skin, and don’t let the contents of the crop go everywhere. If you do hang then upside down in the cellar, I’d recommend warning anybody before they go down for wine, or if you choose not to warn them then listen out -  it can be entertaining.

Slow cook or pressure-cook the bird; let the meat fall of the carcass. Or simply just take the breasts off and chuck the rest away”.

How to Cook Roadkill on Foodista