Saturday, 30 October 2010
I hate it when someone tries to steal my thunder. I hate it.
So when I came home the other night from the office to find the above carved pumpkin on the table, I hit the roof.
"I was supposed to carve that pumpkin, not you!" I hissed (cos the kids were asleep and I didn't want to wake them).
Mrs FU just smirked and said something like "blah blah blah I am much better at carving pumpkins that you blah blah blah besides do you want to win that bottle of champagne? blah blah blah"
Or some utter tosh like that.
So in the morning I decided that I would carve the other side of the pumpkin and show her exactly what I could do. And I wouldn't need these gimmicky little saws, plastic scoops or drill bits. I would use a manly knife dammit!
A couple of incisions later*, I decided it wasn't for me. I mean come on, really this is just kids stuff, a complete waste of my time and I've got better things to do but if you fancy having a crack at carving, you'd do well to nip down to your local Waitrose where they are selling pumpkin carving kits for £6.99 (and they may well be reduced in price tomorrow). Now if you'll excuse me I have to make a vampire cape out of dustbin liners.
*OK the general course of action consisted of a slice here, gouge there, stand back, examine, stab, hollow, pierce, a yelling of "balls", cut, cut, cut, scratch head, slice, slice, slice, exasperated whine, hack, hack, hack, stare, frenzied hack, hack, hack, slam knife down and walk to the bottom of the garden.
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Meanwhile, on the top floor of a towering glass building in the centre of the city, a group of Alpha males are chewing on cigars, chatting and eagerly surveying a 3D presentation. Interface free, London is replicated in fine architectural detail as the display shows an intricate map of all the city's buildings, streets and byways. Against the buildings and along the roads are blue markers in the shape of a circle. Suddenly the image is flipped on it's side and the shape of the city becomes clearly defined. Even more striking is the morass of dots everywhere, the map is almost completely blue. Apart from one red dot somewhere on the outskirts. The room becomes hushed and the group of sweating suits huddle, lean forward and focus on the red dot. A digital clock appears, hovering over the far right corner of the map and it is counting down from 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. The red dot changes to blue and the Alpha males erupt and start slapping each others backs, braying all the while. Over the melee, corks pop, crystal flutes are charged and champagne is downed in one. Glasses are then smashed on the floor, a phone call is made and the whole group go marching out, laughing all the way. The blue map remains in the room, all is now eerily quiet. But what has happened here? It's obvious isn't it, the last independent sandwich shop in the city has finally gone out of business.
Apologies for the bleak, dystopian opening to this post but I have recently found out that Fantoni's has shut and it's likely to be for good. I've worked in Smithfield for over thirteen years now and Fantoni's sandwich bar on Long Lane just around the corner from my office has been a permanent fixture. Well until last week and having discovered that it's gone, I found myself filled with a mixture of sadness, anger and guilt. Now businesses fail all the time for various reasons but when you know the faces behind the counter, enough to know the names of their daughters, enough to hear and talk about their ups and downs, it's impossible not to make a connection. And as a result I can't help feeling hypocritical about all the times I've visited the Prets, EATs and Marks and Sparks that have sprung up in the area around this small family run sandwich bar. OK my custom alone wouldn't have made any difference but in future I would do well to consider the independent businesses in my area more often. Especially over the big boys that are bashing the lifeblood out of it.
One place that has been bashed about recently is Alford's of Farringdon. I've briefly alluded to their story before here but in a nutshell, this small deli and sandwich shop was facing certain closure at the start of the year due to the Crossrail development that is taking over Smithfield. Luckily, the owner found new premises just down the way on Farringdon Road, next to Vivat Bacchus which was bigger than their old unit so they had scope to seat customers and run a cafe style lunch menu. Its been open for a couple of months now and goes by the name of Alford's Deli so I went down there the other day to grab a bite to eat and see how they were coping with the transition and I am happy to report back that it's pretty much business as unusual. One of the defining factors that tells you that a sandwich shop or cafe is good is when you see a long line of people snaking out of the door and when I arrived at Alford's there it was, the familiar queue. The new unit certainly felt a lot more airy and brighter than the original shop with it's large expanse of glass at the front but I think at the moment they are struggling with filling the actual space they've got. I say this because as you enter, to your left hand side an area has been set aside for a tiny rain forest and other topiary frippery that you can actually purchase. Which is kind of bizarre for a deli and sandwich shop. But saying that, it could well be a lifesaver should I ever find myself queuing up and a light bulb goes off in my head that says 'er isn't it our anniversary today?'
Also I'd say that the deli side of operations is looking slightly lost in the new shop with shelves of conserves and pickles stacked almost discreetly to the side. In the chiller cabinets, just a few choice truckles of cheese and oblong packs of charcuterie were on display so perhaps they are focusing more on catering for the hungry breakfast and lunchtime masses rather than the food shopper who hankers after unusual artisan produce. Or maybe they just sorted out the delicatessen aspect to the new surroundings just yet.
What Alfords hasn't changed is their approach to making great food and offering excellent polite service. Taking a fancy to their lunch specials board, I decided to eat in rather than scarper back to my desk with their regular sandwich of the week which is what I normally go for. After perusing a list that contained Steak and Ale Pie and Seafood Mornay, I plumped for the Mixed Cheese and Red Onion Tart with Butternut Squash Salad and Quince Compote and a Diet Coke, mindful of my continually expanding waistline. After nabbing a table by the window, my order only took 5 minutes to arrive and it was pretty delicious to look at as well as to eat. The caramelised onions in the tart contrasted nicely against the salty cheese in the tart. Vivid roast butternut in the salad was smokey, sweet and tender and the quince compote gave a lovely aromatic bite to each forkful of food. Plainly boiled new potatoes with a pesto drizzle were a pleasant surprise and all for the price of five English pounds. And fifty pence (with Diet Coke it did in fact come to £6.20). Bargain. The biggest brownie point though came when I began to make my way out. Waving goodbye to the cheerful proprietor (I will find out his name one of these days) I spotted a familiar face behind the counter who was busily wiping it down. Alas it wasn't a face from Fantoni's but from Farringdon Fruiterers, a green grocers that has recently been closed down due to the Crossrail development. And this was really heartwarming to see. That despite it all, for all the 'progress' going on in the area, at least there's one person who hasn't lost their livelihood. I know it's all down to personal connections, points of view and I should be equally concerned to hear of job losses at Pret A Manger, if that were ever to happen. But I have to say that when I spotted her, a tacit reminder was served that our small independent shops and businesses need all the support they can get. Especially a place as good as Alford's Deli. I shall be going back more often I can tell you that.
Mixed Cheese and Red Onion Tart with Butternut Squash Salad and Quince Compote
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Like I said I hate magpies. Mainly because of the noise they make and for the mess they create all over my patio and garden fence. And yes because to my mind, they have evil, evil eyes. But rather than letting them reduce me to a blubbering mess, I often find myself grimacing at the kitchen window, plotting their demise yet puzzling over the practical (and not to mention legal) implications. All whilst washing up. And of course as I am always thinking with my stomach, I have often wondered that once they were dispatched, what would they actually taste like? So I decided to embark on a thorough investigation, to look into the matter deeply, to find out what it truly means to live off the land and to carefully consider from a dietary point of view, the impact that sociocultural evolution has had on our lifestyles in this country. Yes I went on Twitter and asked "Can you shoot and eat magpies?"
Out of all the replies that came back my way, it was Lara Newman's response that caught my eye. That is Lara of Sheen Suppers who tweeted "I'll ask my mate Timmy, he goes shooting all the time" and it caught my eye mainly because Timmy is far too sweet a name to associate with anyone who blasts birds out of the sky. But as it happened (and this was after some fervent email correspondence) I discovered that Timmy who was originally Suffolk born and bred, knew what he was talking about when it came to these matters. By definition, It is perfectly legal to shoot magpies under general license on private land and with proper permission but as Timmy pointed out, magpies are scavengers and fond of carrion and therefore would not make for delectable eating. This news disheartened me somewhat. "Bollocks", I think was the term that rang through my head but Lara then sent me a message that Timmy would be more that happy to get some other birds to try out that would be unusual but okay to eat. From there, things kind of snowballed. Next thing I knew, Lara and I were planning a day's cookathon at my house where Timmy would supply rooks, jackdaws, pigeons and a tiny little jay along with rabbit and hare. Funny how these kind of things can spring up out of innocuous enquiries on the Internet but for evermore, 2nd October 2010 shall be known as 'Dodgy Meat Day' in our household, mainly because the lines between feral and game had been blurred. And also because of the fluffy, cutesy, 'Bambi' nature of these animals, the whole enterprise did have a slightly dodgy feel to it.
Lara turned up nice and early that day with the rabbit, hare and jay already in tow, Timmy was coming along later that afternoon with the rest of The Birds! We had a good idea of what we wanted to do with Hazel and Bigwig, I decided on hare stew, Lara had a rabbit terrine recipe she wanted to try out and luckily Timmy had already taken care of skinning and gutting the animals. But there was still a hesitant air about the kitchen to get cracking as we chatted over a cup of tea. The kids had already been dispatched (and by that I mean they were off with their grandparents for the afternoon), Mrs FU was busy making a chocolate mousse for dessert and I sensed that Lara really didn't want to have a go at jointing them so I decided to have a go. Despite this being my first time, it was fairly easy really, just like jointing a chicken although the hare was tough going in places. Once that was done we were off. The stew was fairly generic, I fried the hare pieces quickly in a big pot with some onions and then added flour, vegetables, red wine, chicken stock, thyme, bay, some juniper berries and left it simmering on the hob. Lara's terrine quickly took shape and was soon scooped into Grandpa Brezina's tin, placed into a bain marie and popped into the oven. Suddenly the kitchen was filled with heavenly smells and it was time to crack open the cider and ponder what to do with the jay*.
Before we knew it there was a knock on the door and I opened it to find Timmy standing there beaming and carrying a massive tray covered in newspaper with girlfriend Kimmy (yes Kimmy) peeping over his broad shoulders. We marched back into the kitchen and the tray was promptly plonked onto the side. I took a peek underneath the paper to find 4 rooks, 4 jackdaws and 2 pigeons, all neatly plucked, prepared and ready to go. OK Tim explained which was which, I didn't ascertain this all by myself. No, I was far too busy gorping at them with a stupid smile on my face. I looked up to see Timmy looking at me. "So what are we going to do with these then?" and with the same shit-eating grin, I replied "I have no idea". Timmy professed that pigeon was his favourite and would eat them simply roasted all the time so that took care of that, we'd roast the pigeon. Lara stepped into the breach saying she would have a go at making rook pie, that dainty dish to put before the King. Which left me prodding away at the jackdaw. They were quite small, similar in size to quails and they got me thinking about a Moro recipe I've tried out before, cumin marinated quails breasts in flat breads. Would breast of jackdaw have the same delicate flavour? There was only one way to find out.
Luckily Timmy was more than happy to cut the birds up for us and I was fairly impressed by his butchery skills. Making a deft slice here and there, he quickly teased the breasts out of the jackdaw with his fingers (oo-er missus) and before I knew it I had six burgundy patties to play around with (again, oo-er). Timmy then also did the same with the rook, also de-boning their legs in the same confident, casual manner and Lara set to work on her pie. Timmy then asked what did we want to do with the muntjac? The muntjac? What kind of bird is a muntjac? Slowly and carefully, Timmy explained that muntjac was a breed of deer from Asia that had been introduced to this isle in the 1920's. Small in stature but with a propensity to breed like the bunny rabbit that was cooking away in the oven, the muntjac population exploded and by and large it is the most common species of deer to be found in this country. Seeing as we were going 'wild' for the day, Timmy brought along a saddle of muntjac, albeit shop bought for us to try out. The meat factor to this feast was starting to tip the scales and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have that much in the way of vegetables to serve up.
Again Timmy gave us a bit of a masterclass in carving up the saddle, preparing various cuts so that we ended up steaks, chops, medallions and a rather classy looking french trimmed rack. We decided not to mess around too much with the muntjac, just to simple season the meat, pan fry the steaks and roast the rack. Like I said, there was a fair amount of food to get through but having drunk a couple of ciders, my appetite was gearing up so I wasn't too worried. Then there was another knock on the door.
So I went to the door and found Iain, Lara's other half, walking up the path in his plus fours, looking like this:
Striding triumphantly, Iain (or Maino as he is also known) was clutching in one hand a brace of duck and in the other a huge Canada Goose. His arrival wasn't unexpected but things were starting to get faintly ridiculous. Having been on a shoot somewhere in Surrey, Maino decided that he should share some of the spoils of the day. I took the goose from him and wandered back into the kitchen scratching the back of my head. Normally clutching the elongated neck of a dead bird would have perturbed me somewhat but all I that had running through my mind was 'bloody hell, I think all we've got in the fridge is some spring greens'. After some discussion, we all agreed that Maino's contribution was a step too far and that we wouldn't cook his birds that day which I hope didn't disappoint him too much. And I don't think it did as he soon relaxed into a glass of wine whilst Timmy ferociously went about the business of plucking the goose in the corner of the room. I should dispel images of blurred arms and feathers flying around the place here, he did keep the goose in a black plastic bag whilst doing so but I couldn't help but marvel at how regular Timmy made this all seem. Throughout the day, going about the business of preparing all of these animals did highlight to me how easy it is to remove yourself from this aspect of the food chain. I know I make light of most things when I blog but getting up close and personal to it all, I did garner a strong respect for these wild creatures, it did make me feel more grateful. Possibly a rather pious note to bring up there but I would recommend cooking totally from field to plate. Certainly makes you think the next time you traipse along the meat aisle eyeing up row upon row of plastic containers.
And now I am pontificating. So how did it come out? What did it taste like? Should you all rush out to buy rook? Well thankfully there were some more mouths to feed as the grandparents returned with the dustbin lids by 7 o'clock and were up for staying around to try our experiments. The twins by the way took one sniff at the ducks lying on the floor by the back door and declared with big yawns, they were ready for beddy byes. Once we put everything out on the table there didn't seem to be quite as much as I expected but everyone tucked in with relish, giving the spring greens that I had steamed a wide berth. The highlight for me was the muntjac, especially the medallions which I pan fried quite quickly, keeping them medium-rare. The meat was so tender and succulent, a real treat. The hare stew went down well too as it had been on the hob for a good couple of hours the flesh just fell from the bone. With the aromatic blend of juniper and bay, the hare meat had quite a delicate flavour which was surprising as I have read that it can be very gamey. Lara's pie, complete with homemade pastry was fantastic. The dark meat was similar to pigeon although slightly more dense in texture. And her terrine was very good too, rich and nutty but probably could have done with pressing overnight in the fridge to get solid clean slices. But still a very good recipe which you find at the bottom. The pigeon that was roasted with bacon rashers over the top was nice but I think they had been left in the oven just a tad too long so had toughened up, a reminder that game really doesn't need that much cooking. And my jackdaw cumin breast baked in flat breads? Well to honest, in my opinion they tasted a bit crap really suffering again from too long in the oven and podgy dough that had over proved. I was after tender, spicy morsels meat in a crisp bread casing. I got the opposite. Tough and sponge. But never mind, it was all in the name of experimentation. All in all though it really was a fun day of cooking in kitchen, rounded off by far too much wine in my instance.
Thanks to Lara, Maino, Timmy and Kimmy for coming over and Timmy especially for getting us the dodgy meat. We should do it again but I am not sure about hedgehog Timmy, I really, really couldn't.
Rabbit and nut terrine
1 tbs duck fat
3 shallots, chopped
300g boneless rabbit, cubed
300g boneless pork shoulder, coarsely minced
200g chicken livers, trimmed and coarsely minced
pinch of ground cinnamon
pinch of chilli flakes
100ml double cream
50ml white port (or gooseberry vodka in our case)
50g pistachio nuts
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Put the sultanas in a bowl, pour in the Armagnac, top up with warm water and leave to soak. Melt the duck fat in a frying pan. Add the shallots and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes until softened and translucent. Add the rabbit and cook, stirring frequently for 5-10 minutes until light golden brown. Remove pan from the heat.
Mix the rabbit and shallots with the pork and chicken livers in a bowl and stir in the cinnamon, chilli, cream and port. Season with salt and pepper. Drain the sultanas and stir them into the mixture with the nuts. Spoon the mixture into a terrine and cover. Put the terrine into a roasting tin, pour in boiling water to come up about halfway up the side and bake for 2 hours. Serve Cold.
*The jay was very much the subject of debate being the size of a budgerigar and Timmy had concerns about its diet out in the wild. Like the magpie, it is also a bit of a grubby scavenger but he took it's tiny breasts out anyway and we used them for the flat breads. Of course when baking them I forgot which was which so there was a Russian roulette element when it came to serving them. Maino and Kimmy lucked out but as far as I know they still live.
Sunday, 10 October 2010
If there was ever an occasion to test the foundations of that old adage 'it's not the winning but the taking part that counts' it would have to be an awards ceremony. You may well have been there before, as a nominee or part of a group, selected as one of the best in your field. Tell me, as you sit there at your table, surrounded your contemporaries who sit serenely on other tables, what's going through your mind? Twitchy, nervous, nails bitten to the quick, waiting, hoping, dreaming for your name to be called out, are you seriously prepared to let the best man win? No, of course you're not. You're in this for the glory, the adulation, the supreme power of being proclaimed the ultimate. To punch the air, to sneer down at your pathetic peers, to grab that oblong piece of plexiglass mounted in graphite and to thrust your groin in the general direction of your applauding, baying audience. That's what you're there for, screw the others for they are losers!
Of course, it can be absolutely crushing when your name is not read out. Worse still is having to smile, teeth clenched, fit to shatter and clap as the winner makes their way to the podium, knowing that later in the evening you will have to shake their hand and congratulate them. When all you really want to do is stick a wooden tooth pick in their eye. Yes, I've been there before (Best Supporting Actor at the Brents if you really want to know). And knowing what must have been going through their minds, the guys from the Hare and Hounds that is, I was surprised that they didn't join me as I jumped up on the table with the intention throwing an empty bottle at the folks from The Swan. Who were way, way across the other side of the room. We should have won Best Gastro pub! Not you, you bastards! In hindsight, the Hare and Hounds didn't join me probably because they didn't know me from Adam and really were happy just to have been nominated. After all, 18000 votes from the good public of Essex had been cast. And that counts for a lot. A lot more than the few judges who decide who the winner should be. But that didn't cross my mind. After numerous pints of Aspall's Cyder, not a lot at all happens up there really. I was just grateful for Sarah of Essex Gourmet and Linda of With Knife and Fork for dragging me back down. If it wasn't for them, I would have surely spent the night with the Witham constabulary.
All lies of course as I was on my best behaviour at the recent Essex Food and Drink Awards and had a great evening at the stunning location of Braxted Park. This awards ceremony is in it's third year now and seems to be gaining momentum as a promoter of all that is good food wise in God's own county. So I was very glad to get the invitation from Sarah to attend. Despite living on it's doorstep (although there was a spat at the table as to whether Upminster actually is in Essex, yes it IS Sarah) I don't really know much about the restaurant/pub scene or about many producers based in Essex. And I feel slightly ashamed by this. So I saw this awards ceremony as a great opportunity to see what's out there. I am certainly going to make a bee line for the aforementioned Hare and Hounds who shared our table because having had a good chat with them, I really liked their approach of making tasty, honest fare from locally sourced ingredients. This isn't *hic* "you're my beshtest pal" talk here but talk of 230 covers on their busy periods. For a place situated pretty much in the middle of nowhere* this speaks volumes to me when pubs around the country are dying a death.
It also seems that I am going to have to check out some old haunts, especially ones that I have left far behind me. Given my locality to some of the nominees, Brentwood was an area that I was particularily interested in and I was happy as Larry that Calcotts Farm got the accolade of Best Farm Shop because it's a brilliant place to go and buy local fruit and vegetables as well as other goodies synonymous to Essex. But my heart sank when Mason's of Brentwood was awarded Best Large Restaurant of the Year. Why? Well the last couple of times I dined there, the whole experience was simply.........meh. The food was good but overvalued, the service so so and the overall atmosphere stilted and stuffy. But that was probably over four years ago and having expressed my ire about the award to friends and family, many have come back saying what a fantastic place it is. So perhaps I should eat my hat, book a reservation and take another peak. As a result of winning Best Restaurant, it's likely to be busy for a while so don't expect a humble pie review just yet. I'll wait till next month for things to die down and for our next lot of child benefit to be paid in.
But like I said a great night with great company (including you Steve), food and wine. Here is the list of the winners. Be sure to check them out should you live or venture into God's own county.
Young Chef of the Year
Beth Blacklock, St Benedicts College, Colchester
Chef of the Future
Thomas Booton, Le Talbooth
Essex Baker of the Year
Humes of Halstead
Best Farm Shop
Calcott Hall Farm, Brentwood
Best Essex Retail Product
Fairfields Farm Crisps
Best Gastro Pub
The Swan, Felsted
Best Traditional Pub
Axe & Compasses, Arkesden (Mr Oliver has made mention of this place recently)
Best Hotel Restaurant
Prested Hall, Feering
Best Restaurant Service
Blue Strawberry, Hatfield Peverel
Best Newcomer Restaurant
The DuCane, Great Braxted
Best Small Restaurant
Contented Sole, Burnham on Crouch
Best Large Restaurant
Chef of the Year
Jonathan Brown, The DuCane, Great Braxted
Terrine of fish and shellfish. Bass, red mullet, monkfish and organic salmon set in a sole and scallop mousselin with crushed peas
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
Oh balls, this isn't going well.
So! The other day I met up with May of Slow Food Kitchen, Aaron of The Grubworm and Andre Dang of Andre Dang for a #clerkenwelllunchers session at Tohbang. This was not my first Korean food outing I'll have you know. I visited this smart, clean establishment a few months ago where I broke my dolsot bibimbap cherry. And very good it was too. Raw beef steak with raw egg, various vegetables and spices is served up in a scalding hot stone bowl and whizzed up in front of you by your waitress with some chopsticks. This dish strangely transported me back to childhood when my mum used to cut up my egg and chips for me. Except she never used chopsticks. Anyway, like I said very good.
This time I went for Kimchi Jjigae, a heartwarming chilli hot dish with fermented cabbage and tofu, perfick for a drizzly autumn day. Not quite soup, not quite stew, it certainly brought a rush of blood to my cheeks and a trickle of sweat down my temple. I am a big fan of sauerkraut so the kimchi wasn't a massive surprise although May did say that I should try it unmasked to get it's true pungent flavour. Andre said that if I wanted to explore Korean food further then I should venture down to New Malden, apparently somewhat of a hot spot for this vibrant cuisine. Aaron didn't say much because he was busy stuffing his face. Mind you I didn't say much either as I was concentrating hard on trying to catch slippery chunks of tofu, tongue sticking out from the corner of my mouth. Served up with plain sticky rice, a little amuse bouche of pickled vegetables and at the handsome price of six English pounds, it was quite a bargain for such a filling lunch.
On the subject of filling, Andre kindly gave me some Caithness Butter Shortbread to try. Later on in the afternoon back in the office, I started to tuck into them with a cup of Rosy Lee and they proved to be dangerously moreish. I have to say though, why do some biscuits lull you into false sense of security? One minute you're slicing the top open, plucking a couple out, going about your business. The next minute, you spy the packet beside your monitor almost empty with a scattering a guilty crumbs across your keyboard. I mean seriously, how does that happen?