"It's not much but it's ours"

Saturday, August 29, 2009


With the writing for EATING FOR BRITAIN well under way, it is interesting to see what sort of picture is being formed of Britain past and present by its food. It is not meant to be a history book. There would be little point to that when Colin Spencer has already completed that mammoth task better than anyone else has and probably ever will. However, amongst what I hope will be amusing and readable chapters of my journeys to meet producers, chefs, farmers and shop owners, I hope there will still be enough information to form a worthwhile opinion about the way we eat in the UK.

While the notion that the Industrial Revolution and rationing fractured links to a glorious past of rural abundance and recipes passed from grandmother to mother to daughter may be far fetched, so is the idea that all strata of society viewed food as fuel and of function rather than of beauty. Feasting and fine dining may have only been the pleasures of the wealthy few, but that does not mean they did not exist. Just as they do today for those who wander around, er Borough Market to buy their produce.

You will thank God that there is actually a point to this, as a little over a week ago, I spent a day in the kitchen of a restaurant which truly does have links with our past, Rules. Opened two hundred and fifteen years ago as an Oyster house, Rules was a last chance for Thomas Rule who had led what their history calls a “wayward” life. Over the years, it seems to have maintained that slightly louche appeal and it is little wonder that King Edward VII made it his venue for a bit of rough with Lilly Langtry.

I have always been a fan of Rules, even as it went through a down period in the 1990’s when waiters wandered around with mini computers taking your orders and some wines were listed as “from the former colonies” Now, after considerable refurbishment and the opening of London’s best cocktail bar, it seems to have regained much of it’s former glory. The kitchen too had its challenges until five years ago, when the owner, John Mayhew brought in Richard Sawyer as Head Chef. Richard, is the sort of “old school” chef whose food I always love to eat, with years at the Savoy followed by almost as many working with Michel Bourdin at The Connaught behind him before he finally pitched up at Rules.

I had asked Richard if he and his crew could show me how to make two dishes for my book; Potted Shrimps and Steak & Kidney Pudding. Staples of the Rules menu for just about ever, these dishes really do have a link with our past. The earliest cookery manuals giving advice on potting for preservation and Hannah Glasse's instructions on how to make a good beef & oyster pudding are precious little different to making the ones I would see today.

Richard was already monitoring deliveries when I arrived and half of the thirty-person brigade were at their sections preparing for the fully booked lunchtime service. I was soon dressed in whites and then spent the next seven hours wandering around the kitchen trying not to get in anyone’s way as I flashed away with my camera and recorded video footage of the dishes being made.

You can see from my pictures and videos that, while I certainly saw the two dishes I had come in search of being prepared, thanks to the generosity of Senior Sous Chef’s Paul and Gary, I also saw a whole lot more during my time in the kitchen. The first thing that struck me was how quiet the place was with little shouting as people got on with their tasks in a hugely professional manner. The second was the quality of the ingredients, delivered in a constant stream down a steel chute from street level to await inspection by Richard. Whole Salmon, Plaice and Halibut ready to be trimmed by Richard himself. Lobsters from Scotland and The Scilly Isles, Beef from Rules's own closed herd of Belted Galloway and young grouse and roe deer from their own Lartington Estate. It’s impressive stuff and, as Richard himself put it

“If you can’t get excited about ingredients like this, you must be dead”

As the lunch service approached, I watched the two dishes I had come to see being prepared and the care both Paul and Gary took confirmed to me why they usually form my first two choices whenever I visit Rules. While I knew they were well made, in my ignorance, I had little idea that so much work went into making the relatively small portions that make it onto the plate.

When it came time to choose my own lunch, however, I shied away from my normal choices and turned my attention to the fabulous looking grouse that sat in the cool room ready to be roasted. I am one of those people who like their game to taste of game, so the notion of eating grouse a mere nine days after The Glorious 12th would normally not appeal, but when Paul showed me one plated up ready to head to the restaurant, I changed my mind and asked for one of my own, which they offered me as their guest.

It had been pan fried on each side to take on some colour and then just roasted for fifteen minutes and rested for a further ten minutes until the flesh was a perfect and consistent pink. It was topped off with bacon andsat on a bed of hispi cabbage sweated off with chestnuts and lardons. Traditionally, the livers would have been served with the grouse, but at Rules they use a duck liver pate and then serve the bird with the classic accompaniments of Madeira sauce, game chips, breadcrumbs, Cumberland sauce and bread sauce topped with a thick slick of clarified butter. Quite frankly, it's superb stuff and I stood at the pass gnawing at the bones and spooning the sauces into my mouth until I realised that I was in the way of service.

My time in the kitchen at Rules was coming to an end. I stopped for half an hour to watch Richard trimming three large saddles of Roe deer, removing every last scrap of meat until what remained looked like the result of a piranha attack. Then I did a quick round of the kitchen to say a heartfelt “thank you” for the good humour and generosity of the staff as I asked stupid questions and got in the way

I am hoping that my time at Rules will make an interesting chapter for the book, but what I am certain of is that after my time there, I shall never look at the restaurant or the dishes that come from its kitchen in quite the same way ever again.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009


Comparisons are going to be inevitable, so we might as well get it over with. Needoo Grill was opened a little under three months ago by the former manager of New Tayyabs and sits just a few steps away from London’s busiest restaurant around the corner on New Road.

It is a relatively small operation compared with its illustrious and ever expanding neighbour. It has just eighty seats downstairs and a handful by the window near the open kitchen. However, it already seems to have gathered its own following and, on a quiet Thursday lunchtime, although my friend William and I were the only diners, there was a steady stream of punters queuing for tandoori rolls and other lunchtime take-aways.

The owner has obviously brought his fourteen years experience at Tayyabs with him and there is little on the menu that will come as a surprise to anyone who has emerged from Fieldgate Street smelling of smoke and grilled lamb. He has, however, brought in his own chef for the task of preparing the dishes, straight from Lahore’s famous Food Street in Gawal Mandi.

If you are going to make a proper comparison with Tayyabs then you have to check out the grills and so, we began with an order of Lamb Chops, Seekh Kebabs and Chicken Tikka, a sure test of any pretender. On this showing it is very clear that the chef knows exactly what he is doing. The Chiken Tikka was perfectly flavoured from the marinade and beautifully moist inside when we split them open for closer examination. The Sheekh Kebabs, it may be heretical to say, were better than my last few visits to Tayyabs, dribbling juices as we picked them up to eat and leaving a fiery trail across the tongue after the first bite. The lamb chops, if you will the gold standard, were bang up to snuff too and both of us asked for new napkins after we had spent five minutes making sure the bones were scraped clean of meat. A little intercourse, if you will, of Paneer Tikka, was perhaps one starter too much, but had a perfect char on the outside and was soft and creamy in the middle.

Main courses have always been a bit of an afterthought in the ten years or so I have been visiting Tayyabs, a shame as they can often be very good indeed. However many times I promise myself I will pay them more attention next time, the first sniff of grilling means they are forgotten in favour of the more primal desire to chew on dead animals. I suspect the same will happen when I revisit Needoo Grill because their starters are pretty close to being just as good. This will also be a shame because their main courses were smashing too.

A special of Lamb Kofta Masala, came with little balls of lamb mince and boiled eggs in a rich, deeply savoury sauce and the Dal Baigun presented aubergines which had been roasted over an open flame before being cooked with a split chick pea dal leaving a smokiness to permeate the dish. Both choices got firm nods of approval from William, particularly when he was mopping them up with superb breads in the form of a perfectly puffed up naan and a flaky paratha.

There were some deserts on offer, but there was no way we were ever going to take up the offer to try them. We had pushed our plates away from us with nearly half of what we ordered on the table, a testament to the portion size. They took it away to be wrapped up so William could have it for lunch the next day, while we finished our meal with a cup of clove rich chai.

We came out laden down with take-away bags, which makes the cost of the meal of about £12 each bordering on the silly. As I said, it is almost inevitable that Needoo Grill is going to be compared to New Tayyabs and, on that basis it does well and I can really recommend it as an alternative venue when the whole baggage of the queues and noise at Wasim’s place gets a little bit too much.

But, that is doing Needoo Grill a disservice. It is a very good place in its own right and I am sure I shall be returning for supper in New Road very soon, whatever might be going on around the corner.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Two of the most extraordinary people I have met in the food and drink world are Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, the uber-couple of the cocktail making world and creators of the excellent website SHAKEN NOT STIRRED: A CELEBRATION OF THE MARTINI

Every time I have bumped into them at a party or an event in the last couple of years they have been insisting that they are working on a book, which will be "out soon"
I heard the tale so often that, when I saw them at this year's rather lousy Bar Show, and Anistatia told me "it's done, I am going to send you a copy" I just smiled, nodded politely and went off to find some free stuff to drink.

Well, what do you know? A few days ago, a copy of SPIRITUOUS JOURNEY plopped through my letterbox. It is the first part of a two book series and charts the history of booze from the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail.

For anyone who is slightly obsessed with cocktails like me, it is a must. Anistatia and Jared's writing style is immediate and engaging and not only is the book a testament to great research it is also filled with the sort of facts that make it possible to bore at an international level.

Did you know, for example, that the term "proof" came from testing the alcohol levels of spirits by pouring them over gunpowder and igniting them? If they went up in flames, there was sufficient alcohol in the spirit and it was deemed 100% proof.

With a smattering of historical cocktail recipes too, I am pretty sure reading this book will take up a good part of my Bank Holiday.

Well worth getting hold of.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009


The EATING FOR BRITAIN trip is coming to its end and with just a handful of visits to go I think I can safely say that I have given it my best shot at finding some of the fantastic foods and amazing producers we have on offer in the U.K.

I am also aware that I have been very, very fortunate and that, while people could and probably should have been quite wary of a strange, plump bald man turning up on the doorstep and prodding about their business, they have, almost universally, been incredibly welcoming and more than happy to show me around. Not only that, I have also been given privileged access to places that under normal circumstances I would only have dreamed of seeing and been given the opportunity to taste stuff that under normal circumstances, I would never have had the opportunity to try.

I kept this in mind as John Keeling, for the last ten years, the Brewing Director of Fuller’s Brewery took two hours of his incredibly valuable time to show me around the brewery and take me through a tasting of some of their vintage beers and the much sought after “Brewer’s Reserve”

There are few weekends that pass without HP and I downing a couple of pints of London Pride at The Artillery Arms near Old St. It remains one of our favourite pints, great flavours from the malt and hops, but also noticeable for its dependable consistency, which is a major factor in the oft futile search in London for a decent pint.

There has been brewing on the famous site in Chiswick for almost 350 years, but Fuller, Smith and Turner, as it is still know, has been brewing there since 1845. There have been considerable changes in that time, not least in the 1970’s when many breweries were ditching their cask ale production in favour of keg beers, which were seen as the future. Fuller’s Brewery made the then brave decision to keep making cask ales and turned down the opportunity to move to an out of town site in favour of spending a great deal of money on revamping their historical location. It paid dividends and now they are one of the few remaining breweries in the capital.

With London Pride being so prevalent in London Pubs, it is easy to mistake Fuller’s for one of the giant brewing companies, but John put it into perspective when he told me that, although they brew 220,000 barrels, that is only about a third of what other regional brewers like Greene King can churn out and a fraction of the 6 million barrels produced by super brewers like Carling. This relative small scale gives Fuller’s the chance to retain a certain amount of innovation and they now produce about twenty beers a year including their “reserves” and their seasonal ales.

John gave me the tour of the brewing house and, although I have seen many over the last couple of years, the individuality of each one always comes through. Here at Fuller’s it was great to see that while computers and mechanisation were obviously very much to the fore, there were still plenty of aspects, which depend on the skill of the brewer and his team. As if to prove a point, after the tour, we returned to John’s office and he showed one of the Fuller’s Brewery books. This weighty, leather bound book contains all the daily recipes dating back over one hundred years and, along with the daily notes from the brewer also showed the exact mixes of each beer down to the type of malt and hops.

The issues discussed in the books, scarcity of hops, problems with malting, failure of machines etc may have happened over a century ago, but when John had to deal with the leaking of fermentation tank, while I was there, you could see that precious little has changed in that time.

Tours are one things, but the proof is in the tasting, so after we left John’s office, we headed down to the “Hock Cellar” where barrels of beer used to be stored as they conditioned, to have a tasting in the smart new Fuller’s bar. John poured me a glass of their “Vintage Ale” a relatively new idea where they are taking one making a year, using the very best ingredients that have been supplied to them and making a limited amount of ale to be conditioned in the bottle and sold at a premium price. It is good, but powerful stuff coming in at a whopping 8.5% and half a glass left me swaying as I came blinking into the sunlight as John saw me off.

I made one last stop at their impressive new shop and then began the long walk back to Turnham Green tube station. On my way, I passed the George IV a Fuller’s pub. Well, it just had to be done. I popped inside and ordered a pint of London Pride. It was a good pour, no sparkler to knock all the Co2 out of the beer and a full measure. I sat outside in the Sun, sipping on my pint and making some notes. What could be better? I would like to say that my visit made the beer taste different, but of course it didn’t. It tasted like it always tastes, great. A very dependable pint and something that Fuller’s Brewery and London should be very, er proud of.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009


As rules-of-thumb go the one that says that the quality of the food in a restaurant is in inverse proportion to its view is not a bad one. You can’t really moan – you, the diner and the restaurant are usually complicit in the unwritten agreement that the latter’s responsibility starts and ends by providing a fabulous vista.

This doesn’t apply so much in London where, to be honest the views, especially from elevated positions are, well, a bit crap – the city as a whole being a bit of a dog’s dinner architecturally.

It was a bit of a surprise then, that my Dim Sum lunch at Chinese restaurant Min Jiang, situated at the top of The Kensington Gardens Hotel, was so enjoyable. Certainly because of the food which I already knew about –
DH’s visit a year ago confirmed that this was a very capable kitchen – but the fact the view over Kensington Gardens was really rather pleasant. Lots of green stuff (trees I think), not too many cranes. That sort of stuff.

Min Jiang is, of course, well known for its Roast Duck, of which they sell an astonishing twenty plus per day but I was here to try their Dim Sum. I already knew about their excellent Xiao Long Bao, Shanghai Dumplings filled with a savoury stock, which had piqued my interest about their other “bits of the heart”.

I had my answer as soon as I started nibbling at a little bowl of lightly pickled vegetables. The veg had been marinated in vinegar together with a little salt and sugar. Simple, sure, but light and tart and delicious.

Everything is freshly prepared and cooked to order by the chef (from Hong Kong) and the results show – this is some of the best Dim Sum cooking in London. Ok, the range isn’t wildly inventive or particulary extensive but there is a preciseness to the preparation and a lightness to the end result which didn’t leave me feeling bloated and harbouring a MSG-induced migraine even after nine dishes.

For the steamed stuff Har Gau and Pumpkin Dumpling were little balls densely packed with seafood. The skin was delicate, if a little thick, but miles ahead of the usual industrial Gau. Xiao Long Bao were still present and correct with a good, scaldingly-hot stock and meaty filling.

Char Siu Puffs – pastry encasing a rich porky filling - were a revelation, all hot and crumbly. Cubes of squidgy Turnip Cake were made into a spicy stir fry. Greaseless Spring Rolls came tightly packed with shredded Beijing Duck with a thick dipping sauce. A special of silky smooth rolls of Cheung Fun were stuffed with nuggets BBQ’d Pork.

Yam Croquettes show the kitchen’s dab hand at frying. In more run-of-the-mill places these will spend most of their last hours sunning themselves in a warmer. Here, at Min Jiang, they’re brought fresh from the deep-fat fryer. Great stuff.

Does the Chinese Custard Tart have its origins in Britain (home of the tart) or Portugal (home of the Pastel de Nata) ? For me it’s of minor interest but the delicate little cakes served here were wolfed down pretty quickly.

Min Jiang’s prices are a bit higher than the norm but then so are their standards. And to make sure you appreciate each dish there’s plenty of plate swapping. Think of it as eating from a tasting menu rather than a er, bun fight where everything is served at once and you all dive in. It’s altogether a calmer and more civilised experience.

You may prefer the hustle and bustle and cheapness of a Chinatown joint or the more modern spin at the disco-like Hakkasan or even the buzzy Yauatcha where you pay for the staff to be snotty and superior to you. It’s probably a sign of age but I was more than happy at Min Jiang - it has great food, friendly staff and a nice view. I may have just discovered my perfect Dim Sum joint.

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