Apropos of very little in particular it was my birthday the other day. I’m usually not one for celebrating but when relatives are so insistent on being nice to me it’s very hard to resist.
Baba gave me a watch, HT gave me a copy of The Times published on my date of birth (interestingly the front page contained just adverts which gives you a rough idea of how ancient I am) and HS and his delightful friend, Sybil (favourite word: Whatever !!???), paid for a slap-up meal at Rules.
On my actual birthday I had to work (booo), so after a long, hard day at the office and with an early flight to Madrid the next day I didn’t really want to go out. I was very pleasantly surprised then, to find a package from my Sister and her family waiting for me which contained a tin of Beluga Caviar. It was also rather prescient of her as on the way home I’d picked up half a bottle of Krug Grande Année…as you do. HS was on the wagon for the week and admitted caviar didn’t do anything for him so it was all for moi.
Now I hadn’t eaten this quantity of Beluga for many years so the first couple of mouthfuls were eaten too quickly and in too large a quantity. Like most things in life the pleasure of an activity is prolonged if you take it nice and slowwwwwly. I began to wield my Mother of Pearl caviar spoon more delicately, delivering just a few eggs into my mouth before gently popping them on my tongue and taking a sip of the champagne.
A strange kind of alchemy then became apparent as the slightly salty, very creamy fish roe starting working with the richness of the Krug. I could come up with all sorts of flowery language to describe the tastes but only two words were in my head. Clue: they both started with F and the second one was Fantastic. When I’d finished all I could think was: I want more. Now.
My night wasn’t quite over though as for the next act HS and I shared a Kilo of the famed Bistecca Chianina from Tuscany. I’d imported this Beef from Italy at some cost and was hoping it didn’t disappoint. It didn’t. Cooked on a ridged grill and rested properly until evenly bloody it’s flavour was quite different to good quality British and Irish Beef being more akin to the Carne Roja from Galicia. It was a bit more chewy as well, but in a good way. As we might say in Britain: not a bad way to finish off my special day. Cumpleaños Feli - to me of course.
Fifty women average age below thirty and me. I liked the sound of those odds as I made my way to St James Hall in Islington.
Baking plays a huge part in the history of British food and, as a counter point to my time spent with the good people of Betty’s of Harrogate, what better than to visit with the W.I?
My mind was filled with thoughts of kindly old women, all of whom would, of course, resemble my granny, imploring me to eat my fifth slice of Battenburg while pouring me cups of tea and fussing about how skinny I look (hey, it could happen)
Well, it would appear that the W.I is changing, well at least in the Islington branch it is, because tonight’s meeting, where the assembled throng would be guided through the black arts of cupcake decoration, had me in the company of a group of women most of whom were younger than me and many of whom I was old enough to have sired. I felt lucky and wizzened by equal turns. Not quite the demographic I was expecting but I was told a sign of the increasing interest in the organisation from a whole new generation.
The W.I, despite my misconceptions, remains a hugely vibrant movement. With over 6,500 branches around the country it has, since its inception in 1915, brought together women of all ages to pursue traditional activities like baking and crafts as well as uniting women into a quietly potent force against some of the world’s ills such as trafficking of women to Europe’s sex industry.
After the meeting was called to order and Katie, the current president of the branch explained who the hell the middle-aged man was who was taking pictures, the business of the day got under way and groups of tables helped them selves to pre-made cupcakes and twists of lurid icing and began to give it their best shot.
In truth, precious little icing seemed to be going on and more than one of the members confessed to “eating the evidence” but everybody seemed to be having a whale of a time and even members recruited during a recent drive seem to be made incredibly welcome.
As for me, I moved from table to table, trying not to get in the way and asking why they were there. The answers, almost inevitably, were as much to do with the social as they were to do with preserving the national heritage of Britain’s traditional skills. However, the W.I is, I know determined to maintain these for future generations and the courses at the refurbished Denman College will be up and running again in April.
As part of the EATING FOR BRITAIN journey, my night with the Islington branch of the W.I may only be a brief footnote, but I still got to spend my evening in the company of a whole heap of delightful young women, and you didn’t.
KENNEDY'S OF GOSWELL ROAD: WHEN IS A BARGAIN LUNCH NOT A BARGAIN LUNCH?
I have two readers of the blog, Krista and Peter to thank for pointing me in the direction of Kennedy’s of Goswell Road which stands where Mezzo and formerly The Goswell Road Fish Bar used to be. The latter, on many occasions, was very good. The former on one trying was bad enough for me never to return until today when I popped into the latest incarnation to take advantage of its lunchtime offer of a meal and a drink for £5
So here is how I imagine the bargain lunch should work under normal circumstances.
Restaurant needs to attract more customers at lunchtime. Restaurant offers limited menu of more simple dishes at a good price where it can still make money and the customer can be prompted to visit them instead of buying a sandwich.
The understanding should be that, while you are experiencing a limited offer and perhaps, but not always smaller portions, you should also be experiencing the same quality of ingredients and cooking as you would expect of an evening meal.
Unfortunately, as with today’s lunch the reality is often very different with both restaurant owner and punter seemingly under the impression that, just because a meal is cheap it can be of inferior quality and execution. The lunchtime fish & chips at Kennedy’s are both.
Mind you, it seems to be working as there was barely a space to be had in the restaurant, a long line at the take-away and apart from a handful of people who selected pies, the majority seemed, like me, plump for the offer of fish & chip.
When it arrived, you could see immediately where corners had been cut. The scraggly bit of cod deemed suitable for a London lunchtime portion would not have been considered fit for a Northern cat. The small selection of chips did little to cover glaring white of the over large plate and only a decent size bowl of peas seemed like value for even this small amount of money. Out of the generosity of their hearts, or more likely to cover up some more of the white plate, they had added the, oh so traditional Fish & Chip companions of coleslaw and salad. So wrong on so many levels I simply have no idea where to begin.
Size isn’t everything as I am all too often reminded and such parsimoniousness could have been forgivable had the cooking been able. It was not. The chips were undercooked, probably in a rush to get plates out to the waiting crowd and the fish itself, while undeniably fresh was covered in a batter which clung to the flesh like a five-year old to its mum on the first day of school. Even the peas were so undistinguished that I regretted having a generous portion and left most of them along with, obviously, the salad and the coleslaw.
The glass of red wine that came with the meal was pretty nasty, but did at least serve to take the taste of the food from my mouth and, about 20 minutes after I arrived, I found myself back on the street again feeling as cheap and shoddy as my lunch.
The bill came to £7 including £1 for the peas and a £1 tip for service, which was friendly but harried as two Eastern European girls wondered what kind of nation would do this to fish and potatoes. Looking back on my recent experience at The Golden Fish bar on Farringdon, up there with the best London has to offer (not saying a lot I grant you) in matters fish & chipular, my meal was £6 for a piping hot, well prepared generous portion. So, this is not even a particular bargain.
I have posted an image of the evening menu as I really can’t see why anyone would want to subject them self to this lunchtime treat. Let me know if you visit and how it stands up.
They say you get what you pay for in life. They, whoever "they" may be have obviously not been to Kennedy's.
Well, not old at all. In fact, so fresh that they could not have been more so if they were a prince, lousy at rap and lived in Bel Air. These were scallops landed less than twelve hours earlier and opened in front of us by Russell Drew of Market Fisheries in Rye.
I had joined my chum and food writer, Neil Davey at The Rye Scallop Festival which began last weekend and runs until Saturday the 28th and Russell was showing us just how easy it is to plop the plump, still pulsating specimens from their shells when you have had thirty years practice.
Scallop fishing in these here parts is a relatively new business, beginning only in the early 1970’s when a local cod fisherman turned his attention to trying to harvest oysters, created a small harrowing net and instead ended up with a net full of scallops.
A lucky accident, perhaps, but because of the strict season, which runs from November to May and the laws allowing only the catch of a certain size, this has become a profitable and sustainable enterprise.
Depressingly both Russell and Tony Isted at Rye bay fisheries explained that over ninety percent of their catch goes live, in the shell across from The Cinque Ports to France, where housewives not afraid of getting their hands dirty snap them up without hesitation. Here in Britain, however, despite the fact that they seem to appear on just about every cookery programme possible, they are still considered expensive, exotic and difficult to prepare.
A huge shame, because the examples that Russell opened for us screamed out, er not literally although they were still very much alive, to be cooked gently in a little bacon fat or to be sliced thinly for sushi. Best of all, each scallop sported a glistening bag of roe in oranges of different shades, longing to be sliced off and fried in butter and served on toast or whizzed up with olive oil to make taramasalata.
By now it was past midday and, despite a quick bacon sandwich for breakfast, we could not bring ourselves to leave Rye without a visit to a local pub. Lorna Hall, an extraordinary local who organises the festival free, gratis and for nowt, had been kind enough to show us around and pointed us in the direction of The Ypres Castle Arms, in the oldest section of the small town.
There, like many other restaurants, the chef had created a menu based around scallops and Neil and I sat in front of the log fire, pint of Harvey’s in hand and ordered thirteen scallops to be served in various different styles. They brought them out on a platter for us to share and, taking into account my years of training under HP, I placed myself in charge of divvying them up fairly.
Three came cooked in lime and chilli, three more in a little tarragon and butter and more still wrapped in parma ham However, best of all, four came sitting on top of slices of local black pudding, a perfect combination and we both flopped back in our seats to enjoy the views across the Romney Marshes as we let them digest happily in our ample stomachs.
If we had been across La Manche, such treasures as a plate of achingly fresh local produce would not only have a festival to promote them, but songs written about them. Here in the UK, it is only thanks to people like Lorna, Tony and Russell that we even get to hear about them, a crying shame.
If you have chance this Saturday, Rye is a little over an hour from London on the train and there will lots of opportunities to eat some of the best scallops you will have ever tasted.
I received a couple of e-mails after my last post, not complaining, as I suspected might happen, about the catching and killing of the rabbits but asking how else, other than rabbit pie, they could be prepared.
It’s a good question and one worth thinking about given that, even if you don’t want to go out hunting, you can buy a rabbit from any decent butcher for under £3 and make something delicious to feed two or three people. Not bad in these times when money is tight.
So, yesterday, after my workout, I spent the day preparing two very different dishes using the two rabbits Stuart of The Country Bumpkin had kindly given me to take away.
First up, a classic French take on Br’er Rabbit, a “Lapin Au Crème et Cidre” which involved jointing the animal, tossing in seasoned flour, browning in butter and then slow cooking along with carrots, onions, bacon lardons, fresh thyme and half a bottle of Normandy cider.
While that was left to cook gently in the oven for two hours, I turned my attention to the other rabbit and, using the pointers Stuart had given me, I stripped all the meat from the bones, tossed the chunks in corn flour, deep fried them and then served with a sweet & sour sauce made from quite a few ingredients including tomato puree, soy sauce, sesame oil, lime juice & zest and lots of ginger, chilli and garlic.
The deep fried rabbit was certainly a little tougher than you might expect if you made the dish with pork or chicken, but it was perfectly passable and worked really well with the tangy, hot, sweet sauce.
By now, the rabbit in the oven was ready, the meat falling off the bone. So, I removed the joints from the pot, keeping warm, and reduced the sauce a little further with some cream and whole grain mustard before finishing off with a shot of brandy and pouring back over the joints. The sweet and sour had been interesting, but this was the star, incredibly easy to make. The rabbit meat was tender and its flavour still held up in the sauce.
So, in response to the question “what can you do with a rabbit apart from making a pie?” the answer is “ a hell of a lot” I am a bit bunnied out right now, but I can definitely see myself picking up a rabbit or two in the near future even if, unlike Stuart, I can’t just pop down to the local field to find them.
Hunting is wrong, right? Toffs in red chasing some poor, helpless fox around the countryside aided only by twenty of their friends on horseback, a pack of ravenous dogs and a few bugles. Corporate bigwigs from The City shooting thousands of birds of which the majority will be buried and precious few will end up in the pot, or hare coursing by, well just about anyone.
And, of course, if you were just to look at it that way, you can understand why hunting is up there, in many people’s eyes, with child molestation and mass poisoning.
But, let’s step back a moment and look at it from a different direction, that of the men of the countryside, of the farmer whose crops are blighted by pigeons or whose cattle and other live stock are made lame by rabbit holes. To them, hunting is not only the most efficient form of pest control, but also provides an added source of food for the table and income from sales to game dealers. Without them, our menus would be much the poorer.
But, what do I know? I am only a city boy. Well, I know enough to think that there have to be many sides to a story that is amongst the most contentious in the U.K and that it is an important part of my trip to get off my high, liberal horse, and go and find out what it is like for those, literally out in the field.
Stuart Blackman has been involved in countryside pursuits since he was a small child and, after what he described as three “wasted” years at university and a job that merely got in the way of his true passion, he jumped at the chance of redundancy to set up The Country Bumpkin offering people like me the chance to join him for a day’s foraging, shooting and cooking.
On a cold, February morning, there was precious little to be foraged and Stuart, with innate common sense, knew better than to let me near a gun. So, he had suggested that we spend a morning in the company of two of his ten ferrets while they set about their task of chasing rabbits into the purse nets Stuart began laying across the holes of the warren the moment we arrived in the field.
For a nation whose view of rabbits comes entirely from Beatrix Potter and Art Garfunkel, the thought of killing and eating rabbits can be an uncomfortable one. However, Stuart left me in no doubt that to him these are vermin, pests who are vast in number and who do considerable damage. He does not deny that he enjoys spending his time outdoors or enjoys equally cooking the fruits of his day’s activities, but his main concern is to “catch and dispatch” the rabbits as quickly as possible.
Soon after laying the nets and placing the small ferret at the entrance to a bolt-hole, the animal had done its task and a rabbit was caught in the nets to be killed quickly with a twist of the neck. While the sight of its legs twitching in death throes was not something I can ever imagine getting used to, Stuart assured me it was dead already and set to work catching more.
Not long after, our work was done and we had four animals to carry to a nearby barn and clean for supper. First though, another great countryside tradition, a quick brew up and a slice of fantastic Victoria sponge made by Stuart’s mum, just the job to conquer the cold wind blowing across the fields of Hertfordshire.
In the barn, Stuart cleaned out the guts of the animal and then, as the video demonstrates, skinned them with a deft precision and cleaned them ready for cooking before turning his attention to preparing a quick lunch of a splendid pigeon breast sandwich.
Back at Country Bumpkin H.Q, Stuart got down to the main reason for my visit, the preparation of one of the fifty dishes for my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip, a rabbit pie. Trimming the meat from the bones with the practised skill of a man who has done it a thousand times, he tossed the meat in seasoned flour before cooking down with chunks of onion and carrot and the carcasses to add extra flavour. While it was cooking, he told me about the wild food nights he is running in local pubs and restaurants where everything served is caught, foraged and prepared by him, everything from nettle soup to hare pate. By the time it was time to roll the lard based pastry lid on the pie, I was already salivating.
Stuart apologised for the final result stating “ there’s no airs and graces with my food” he had no need to be sorry, it was delicious. The rabbit pie was real food, the sort of dish that would have Greg Wallace saying “deep” and “savoury” until his head exploded. I sat in Stuart’s living room, eyeballing his two hunting pointer dogs, spooning the chunks of meat and gravy to my mouth until most of the pie was gone.
If felt bad enough to leave him at least some of the pie, I was not foolish enough to turn down the offer of the remaining two rabbits, which Stuart cleaned and wrapped for me to take away as he waved goodbye to me some eight hours after I had arrived. Supper tomorrow is already in the planning stage.
I know that one simple blog post about rabbit pie wont do much to bridge the gap between pro and anti hunting camps. I know that, even after a day with Stuart, there are still some hunting practices that I can never reconcile with my views even given my love of meat. But, I also know that Stuart Blackman is a passionate countryman who has absolute respect for the animals he hunts and kills, who takes loving care in preparing them and has more honesty in his little finger than any person who buys their meat and fish in handy portions at the supermarket and then joins an anti-hunt rally.
Can anyone tell me how long Ossie’s Jerk Chicken has been on Exeter St near Covent Garden?
I must have walked down that street a thousand times on my way to somewhere more important and yet it was not until Tuesday evening that I first spotted this small café with its lurid green frontage, nestled next to the doorway for Joe Allen’s. Bizarre, but it stuck in my mind for long enough for me to consider it as a lunch spot today after a mid-morning meeting.
The notion of a small café selling Caribbean staples amongst the tawdry tourist tat of Covent Garden is an odd one and everybody else must have thought so too given that, for my short time there, no one else bothered to darken their doors. A shame given that Ossie obviously knows what he is about and the menu is filled with a fantastic sounding selection of Jamaican staples. Jerk pork, curry mutton, cow foot, rice & peas, fried dumpling and callaloo, it all sounded like the stuff that could agreeably fill a lunch time hole
But, if Ossie feels strongly enough about it to put his name to it, then it had to be the jerk chicken and I ordered two pieces with some rice and peas, a side order of akee dumpling and a can of fiery Jamaican ginger beer. For £9.00, pretty reasonable value, particularly when you consider that what arrived would have fed two people.
The akee, mixed with salt fish sat on top of a fried dumpling that, if you did believe God existed would convince you he was not a benign and loving overlord. Although the small pieces I tore off tasted good in a deep fried lump of dough kind of way, I can still feel them digesting some hours later. The akee itself was, as I remembered it, an acquired taste, as HP puts it, “more of a texture thing” and I soon pushed that portion of my lunch to one side to concentrate on the chicken.
Now, that was more like it. Well-flavoured and spiced rice, plumped out with beans next to a generous mound of bone-in chicken glistening in its jerk coating. The meat fell from the bone and the chilli heat hit the tongue, then the back of the throat before working its way down to the stomach in a satisfying flame of savoury heat as I turned the bones to shreds.
Ossie’s with its two tables and a handful of chairs is not a place to linger and I was in, fed and about my business in twenty minutes. But, it is an interesting place to stop for a quick snack, particularly in an area bereft of any options outside the standard chains.
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