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10 great English food products

With products from so many countries available in our shops and supermarkets, it’s easy to forget that England has some very good ones of its own.  Here’s ten of my favourites, in no particular order, and the county they are traditionally associated with

1 Pork pies (Leicestershire)

2 Oatcakes (Staffordshire)

3 Black pudding (Lancashire)

4 Cornish pasties (Cornwall, of course)

5 Eccles cakes (Greater Manchester)

6 Stilton cheese (Leicestershire and Derbyshire)

7 Clotted cream (Devon)

8 Potted shrimps (Lancashire)

9 Vivaldi potatoes (Norfolk)

10 Yorkshire pudding (Yorkshire, naturally)

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t believe all rave reviews

Last night I paid my second visit in a month to a fish and chip restaurant in south-east London that has received rave reviews even though on my previous visit I had been underwhelmed by both the fish (the batter wasn’t crispy and the haddock was so so) and the chips (pale instead of golden and not crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, as they should be).

I had broken one of my golden rules of not going to a place that sold fish and chips along with items on the menu such as burgers, fried chicken and Jamaican patties. Why do this?  If you set out to serve fish and chips, stick to fish and seafood, and cook them perfectly.

But, sadly, the majority of fish and chip shops or restaurants don’t do this. Fish and chips just feels like one of many items, not something special, which is what it should be. I’m not bothered what some people say about chicken tikka masala, this is our national dish.

The reason I decided to give the place in south-east London a second go was because of the friendly staff and friendly owner.  Yet I was still troubled by the number of customers who proclaimed that it served the best fish and chips in London. Perhaps I had caught it on a bad night, I concluded.

So last night I had high expectations when I placed my order. They soon started to disappear when my plate was put down in front of me. True, the haddock was large, but the chips looked just as pale as before. In fact, this time they were worse, because someone hadn’t bothered to cut out the green bits, which leave a bitter taste in the mouth. As for the haddock, it was no better than before and this time, the batter was soggy.

After I had paid and was leaving, the owner called to me. ‘I see, you haven’t eaten much,’ he said.

‘No…I like my chips crispy on the outside and soft inside…And I prefer crispy batter,’ I replied.

‘Well, you know, I only buy the best quality potatoes, but this is the wrong time of the year,’ he said.

‘Ah, I see,’ I said, thinking the poor quality of the chips was to do with the way they had been cooked, not the potatoes.

‘Next time when you come, they will be better,’ he said cheerfully.

‘Okay,’ I said, and went on my way.

I liked the owner and he seemed to genuinely want his customers to have a good experience. I could see he was proud of his restaurant, and I admire that.  But the truth is that while people might tell him online he’s serving great fish and chips, he’s not. Not by my book anyway.

This just goes to show that over 1,000 people on Trip Advisor can be wrong.

Monks take up brewing

 

For hundreds of years, monasteries in Europe have brewed beer. And now a monastery in Leicestershire has become the first one in England to do so since the Reformation.

When the Cistercian monks (known as Trappists) at Mount St Bernard Abbey, near Coleville, realized that dairy farming was no longer economically viable and closed their farm and sold their cows, they needed to come up with another way to support themselves. So they decided to brew beer.

After visiting the eleven Trappist monasteries brewing beer in Europe and the US, the monks at Mount St Bernard engaged a Dutch master brewer as an advisor.

He cautioned against just copying the style of existing Trappist beers, but to create a unique style. The first English Trappist ale, Tynt Meadow, combines the traditions of the continental Trappist brewers with the traditions of English brewing, which is centred on Burton on Trent just 15 miles away.

The monks have received help in brewing from The Pheasantry Brewery in Nottinghamshire, the Charnwood Brewery in nearby Loughborough, the Heritage Brewery at the National Brewery centre in Burton on Trent, the Framework Brewery in Leicester, and the Unicorn Brewery in Stockport.

However, it’s unlikely that the monks will be supping much of their ale themselves – their day begins at 3.15 am and they go to bed at 8 pm.

The Man Behind the Menu – coming soon!

No such thing as a fifteen-minute meal

 

It’s struck me recently that one of the hardest parts of cooking at home is not the prep or the actual cooking, but the washing up.

In my teens I worked as a pot washer and occasionally a kitchen porter in a three-star hotel in Derbyshire. Both jobs are seen as at the bottom of the ladder in the kitchen hierarchy.

Pot washing was monotonous, shoving trays of crockery through a steamer, stacking them to dry and then shelving them.

But being a kitchen porter was much more physically demanding, scrubbing heavy saucepans, cleaning working surfaces, cleaning the walk-in fridge, mopping the floor, taking heavy bags of rubbish out to the bins.

As a home cook, you are both pot washer and kitchen porter.

I try and wash up as I cook, but even so at the end of an evening the sink and work surface are littered with pans, dishes, knives, spatulas, spoons, peelers, and all manner of items. I look around me and say to myself, ‘How on earth did all this happen?’

This is what you don’t see when you watch Jamie’s Fifteen-Minute Meals. The fact is there’s no such thing as a fifteen-minute meal.

Good restaurants and bad restaurants

 

One of the things that sets a good restaurant apart from a bad one is how it handles a complaint from a customer. Good restaurants take complaints seriously; bad restaurants do nothing about the complaint.

I made a complaint this week when I went with my wife to Hisar Meze Bar, a Turkish restaurant in East Dulwich.  The evening started well with an excellent plate of lamb’s liver and decent if not outstanding borek (filo parcels with feta and parsley). However, a trip to the gents set alarm bells ringing. A clean and well maintained toilet is usually a sign of a good restaurant. This one was neither clean or well maintained.

We had both expected the sish lamb to be extremely tender. Lamb is, after all, a speciality in Turkish restaurants.  But when it arrived it turned out to be incredibly fatty. We called a waitress over and asked for a sharper knife. Actually, I was going to ask for a hacksaw. She returned with a new knife, but never thought to enquire why the knife on the table wasn’t sharp enough.

But it wasn’t just the sish lamb that left me regretting we had paid £28 for the two dishes. The salad appeared to have been dumped from a great height on the plate. It had been put together with little thought about presentation. I located a large white object in the salad. My wife suggested this might be a horseradish. The chips were dry and pale, probably because they had been sitting in the kitchen for ages, and the yogurt (£2.50) tasted of nothing.

I pushed my plate away, having only eaten a few morsels.

‘Is everything okay?’ asked a waiter.

‘The lamb was very fatty,’ I said.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll tell the chef,’ he replied casually.

Ten minutes later another waiter asked if everything was okay.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘The lamb was so fatty. I told your colleague that.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said with no real concern, and wandered off. He obviously had the same script.

Neither waiter returned, the chef never appeared, and we weren’t offered an alternative dish or a reduction on the bill.

We paid up, didn’t leave a tip, and decided we wouldn’t be returning to Hisar Meze Bar ever again.

Good restaurants understand that you can turn a complaint into something positive if you take a customer’s complaint seriously and do something about it. If you do this, the customer is likely to go away feeling disgruntled and ripped off. An apology with no action means nothing.

Bad restaurants just want to take your money and don’t understand that a restaurant is about creating an enjoyable experience for the customer, who has decided to spend his or her hard earned money in your establishment, not somewhere else. A really good experience means good food and good service (and not lip service).  Good restaurants know this.

Britain isn’t a foodie culture

 

You can get the impression that the quality of food in Britain we eat has changed beyond recognition in the last twenty years or so.  This is especially true if you live in London, with its dynamic restaurant scene and where farmers’ markets and posh butchers and delis have sprung up all over the place.

Yet if you travel beyond it’s a very different story.  A couple of years ago I was with my wife and son in a popular tourist town in Derbyshire, and the choice of places to eat came down to dingy looking fish and chips shops, pubs with confused looking menus, and a solitary pizza restaurant. We opted for the pizza restaurant – it was awful.

Michelin star chef Angela Hartnett, a protégée of Gordon Ramsey and the former head chef at the Connaught, has come to a similar conclusion about the foodie culture in the country.

When people say we are a “foodie nation, we have a food culture, I genuinely don’t think we do”, Hartnett told BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.

“I don’t think we’re like the Italians or the Spanish, where everyone from the person who lives in one flat to the person who lives in a villa will go and buy a chicken and everyone can afford that chicken. Our food culture is about money. People who have money can afford good food in this country.”

Hartnett went on to say it was wrong to patronise people on low incomes about organic food.

“When you haven’t got any money and you’re living on a low income, to patronise and sit there and say, ‘You’ve got to have an organic chicken’ is wrong. We’ve lost home economics in a lot of schools. People aren’t taught to shop. People don’t have the time to shop and the time to cook.”

I think she is bang on. There are too many chefs and food bloggers who live in a culinary bubble.  I recall Rick Stein once saying something to that effect.

The irony is that we have more cook books and TV cookery programmes than ever, yet for many people, despite Jamie Oliver’s best attempts, cooking still means sticking a supermarket ready means in the microwave.

Learning to make pizza

I’ve made pizza  a few times at home, but never been completely satisfied with the results. So -thanks to my wife – I went along to a pizza workshop at Bread Ahead in Pavillion Road in Chelsea.

It was a brilliant class. The instructor, Kevin, a Yorkshireman who learnt all about baking when he spent three years in the south of France, took us through all the steps in the pizza process. Once we had made the dough, he showed us how to stretch it by repeatedly slapping it hard on the table for about 8 minutes.

Something I hadn’t heard of before in pizza making was poolish, a mixture of water, sea salt, flour and yeast. It’s known in bakery terms as a starter, a term associated with sour dough, and is made the day before and then added to your dough mix. Also, Kevin used strong white bread flour, not 00 flour.

The pizza turned out to have  lovely chewy texture, which I assume was down to the poolish. We also made garlic dough balls and grissini (bread sticks), which were both equally good.

What I came away with more than anything was confidence. I’ve always found this is what cookery classes give you.  When you see  a professional make something in the kitchen, it demystifies the process and you think, “Yeah, you know, actually it’s not that difficult.”  And pizza isn’t. It only has four ingredients plus whatever toppings you decide to use.

So I’ll now be making pizza regularly at home. And I’ll enjoy slapping the dough.


Rick Stein discovers Mexican food

As presenters of TV food shows go, Rick Stein is a rarity.  His style is thoughtful, reflective, never over the top, and never all about him.  It’s the cuisine and the culture he wants us to focus on.

HIs latest TV series sees him journeying from California to Mexico. The last time he had been in Mexico was nearly 50 years ago.  I’ve see three episodes so far and they have been wonderful.

You always feel you are there with Stein as he make this way through a crowded food market or tastes a dish in a restaurant.  You can tell that some of the dishes he tastes leave him underwhelmed, but he’s too polite to say that to the chef or restaurant owner.  Instead he’ll say, “Yes, it’s very good”, or just nod.

There’s a humility and an almost child-like quality in Stein as he goes on his travels. He maybe a famous TV chef and personality, but he comes to discover and learn something new from the people he meets. He treats someone cooking hearty comfort food in a tiny kitchen in a back street somewhere or in their home with the same respect as a Michelin star chef at a fancy restaurant.

In episode three he journeyed to a trendy restaurant called in Taqueria Criollo in the coastal city of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where he met Tania Ganja and Memo Barrett and tried crispy tacos filled with mashed potatoes and crowned with shrimp aguachile and watermelon escabeche. “Seafood tacos for the social media generation,” he remarked in typical Stein fashion.

 

Why is pizza so popular?

 

The death of the wonderful Antonio Carluccio last week and my visit this week to the European Pizza and Pasta show at Olympia have got me pondering why we love food from Italy so much.

I’ve no idea how many Italian restaurants there are in Britain, but it must be several thousand.  The Italians got into the restaurant business in Britain long before the Indians and Chinese.

And in recent years we have seen the rise of excellent Italian chains – Ask, Carluccios, Franca Manca, to name but three.  And Jamie has even got in on the act.

If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that Italian cuisine is, of course, much more than pizza and pasta. I visited Sorrento a couple of years ago and was knocked out by the range and quality of dishes in its restaurants.

And we probably shouldn’t even talk about “Italian” cuisine, as in Italy food is regional. The kind of dishes they serve in Bologna will be different from those in Naples, the birthplace of pizza.

Pizza has to be the most popular dish in Britain. I know that some people argue that chicken tikka masala occupies that spot, but when do you ever hear kids asking for a curry when you take them out?

The reason pizza is popular is because it’s incredibly satisfying and so varied.  If you think about it, it’s basically bread with various toppings. And bread is popular wherever you go in the world, the flat breads in the Middle East, nan breads in India, baguettes in France, tortillas in Mexico. It can also be eaten in the street. It’s classic finger food.

At the European Pizza and Pasta Show, I got chatting to a woman from The Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association and asked her what she thought was the secret to the popularity of Italian cuisine in Britain.  ‘With Italian food, they don’t go in for novelty or gimmicks. They serve the same dishes again and again,’ she said.

She is spot on. In a London food scene that seems to get whackier every month, and where restaurants are desperate to make themselves appear different and innovative, you know exactly where you are with most Italian restaurants. What people want is good food and good service at a reasonable price. What they don’t want is the kind of foodie circus we now have in London.  Unsurprisingly, Antonio Carluccio was not a fan of this kind of nonsense.

Last night I went to a typical local Italian, II Mirto, tucked away in a side street in East Dulwich. The owner, who is from Sardinia, also runs an Italian deli down the road in Forest Hill. II Mirto seats just 22 diners and feels almost like eating in someone’s living room.  Oh, yes, and they only take cash, as the handwritten notice on the counter informs you.  The menu is pizzas, pasta and a couple of specials. There’s nothing pretentious or fancy about this place and the food is very decent.  That’s why I like it.

 

London’s allotments

 

I’m delighted that the fight to save Northfields Allotments is still going on. I visited them last year and was very impressed by the amazing variety of vegetables and fruit being grown. Established in 1832, they are London’s oldest. If the proposed plans to build housing goes through, people using the allotments could lose 10% of the space, leaving many gardeners without a plot.

At one time, if you went to a party and told someone that you had an allotment, they would nod, try to appear interested and then quickly start scanning the room for an excuse to get away.  ‘Back in a minute. Just need to catch Phil.’ Allotments were where you found glum old men in caps shuffling along with a wheelbarrow or slowly turning over soil with a spade before lighting their pipe and furtively disappearing into a small shed.

Tending an allotment was something you did when you had entered the twilight years of your life, like the characters in Last of the Summer Wine. It was a way of filling empty days – and maybe getting away from the wife. Allotments belonged to a world of bingo, meals on wheels, and those days centres where people sit staring ahead in wing-back chairs.

Things have changed now. If you want an allotment in London, then you will have to put your name down on a waiting list and often wait several years before one becomes vacant.  The waiting lists for some allotments have been closed.

The popularity of allotments reflects both the increasing interest many of us have in knowing more about what we eat and where it comes from and a disenchantment with the kind of fruit and veg on sale in supermarkets.

Allotments also tap into a romantic middle-class urban yearning for a more rural and simpler way of life. Allotments are about reconnecting with the natural world and escaping a corporate and hectic city life.  Allotments are no longer sniggered about. They can touch something deep inside us.

In London, where many people live in flats and don’t have a garden, if you want to grow vegetables, then you have to do it on a windowsill or, if you have one, a balcony. And, of course, you are limited to growing things such as basil or parsley or maybe tomatoes.  It’s not a good idea to grow anything big or hard on a windowsill, at least if you want to avoid newspaper headlines such as ‘Postman hit by potato.’

London has around 36,000 allotment plots, the vast majority of them located in the outer boroughs. In fact, three London boroughs, the City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and the Corporation of London, don’t have any allotments at all. Brent, Bromley and Ealing have the largest number.

The history of allotments is obscure, but it seems that they can at least be traced back to initiatives in the eighteenth century when some of the rural poor were given small patches of land to grow food. Many had been plunged into poverty as a result of the open field system of agriculture being replaced by enclosures. This meant that what was once common land was now owned by the wealthy.

Another factor behind the rise of allotments was the way the industrial revolution dramatically changed the face of England, with the working population moving from agriculture and the countryside to big factories in towns and cities. Some workers were given small parcels of land to grow food. It’s unclear whether the primary motivation was for them to feed themselves or to keep them occupied and away from taverns.

Various legislation was passed in Parliament to force local authorities to provide allotments, but it wasn’t until the First World War and concerns about food shortages that allotments really took off.  By 1917 there was around 1.5 million plots in England, much of it requisitioned.

After the war, some of the land was returned to its owners, but many returning servicemen were given small plots. The economic depression that followed the war led the Quakers to launch a scheme to provide allotments for the unemployed, so they could grow their own fresh food.

At the outbreak of the Second World War worries over how Britain was to feed itself returned and half a million extra plots were created.  A “Dig for Victory’ campaign was launched by the Ministry of Agriculture.  Bright posters and leaflets sought to take people’s minds off rationing and encourage them to get digging, and advice was provided on how to compost, sow seeds and weed.  Private gardens, sports fields, parks, land beside railway lines were all transformed into allotments. Even the lawns outside the Tower of London and at Kensington Gardens were turned into vegetable patches.

Characters such as ‘Doctor Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’ encouraged people to eat more vegetables and recipes were provided and on Sunday afternoons people would sit around their wireless listening to Cecil Henry Middleton on the Home Service give his gardening tips.

From the fifties onwards allotments went out of fashion, as food became mass produced and more available.  A brief revival in growing your own food occurred in the Seventies, perhaps due in part to The Good Life, the TV comedy about a couple who quit the rat race and convert their garden in suburbia into a farm.

What I remember most about the programme when I watched it as a teenager being awakened by his hormones is not the couple’s attempts to keep chickens or grow vegetables, but Felicity Kendall. Nearly all the boys in my class at school had a crush on her.

I hope those fighting to save Northfields Allotments can persuade the property developers to leave them alone. London needs these wonderful spaces.

 

 

 

 

Do you remember Vesta paella?

 

 

 

I have to say that my mum wasn’t a great cook. I don’t know if the nuns at the convent school in Ireland who educated her taught her any culinary skills, but if they did, she didn’t learn much.

Even so, she was willing to try new things, unlike my dad, who was never happier than when eating a plate of beans on burnt toast, which was the only meal I remember seeing him cook.

Maybe eating more exotic food was my mum’s way of trying to feel part of that glamorous world she saw in films and on TV and in the women’s magazines she used to buy each week, sitting up in bed at night flicking through the articles about clothes, being a good housewife, and new gadgets for the home.

One day, she arrived home from the shops and plonked her blue shopping bag down on the living room table.

“What’s for tea?” I asked as usual. I was always starving when I came home from school.

She pulled out a box and held it up. “This!”

“What’s that?” I said, peering at the photo of yellow rice flecked with red and green.

“It’s called paella. It’s a new thing,” she said, handing the box to me.

I examined it and saw that it had a small map of Spain on it. All I knew about Spain was that it was famous for oranges and that Leeds United under Don Revie had changed their kit to all white, like Real Madrid, to try and emulate their success.

Mum opened the box and there were two white sachets inside, one containing rice, the other a powdered mix with tiny pink prawns in it. After reading the instructions on the back of the box, she lopped off a chunk of Kerrygold butter into the frying pan and then tipped in the rice and began to fry it. As the grains sizzled, they started to brown.  She then gingerly poured in a jug of water and, checking the instructions again, turned up the gas flame to bring the pan to the boil.  Then she shook in the colourful powder, lowered the gas, and left it to simmer for twenty minutes.

When she put my plate in front of me and I took my first mouthful, I let out a long Mm sound. I’d never tasted anything like it before. I loved its creamy texture, the unfamiliar flavour, and the bite of the small prawns.

Remarkably Vesta still produces boxes of paella, although the map of Spain has been replaced by a flamenco dancer.

The fact that I can remember that paella all these years later tells me that it must have been a moment of some kind of significance. Perhaps that paella acted a signpost to a more exciting world than the small Midlands town that I was feeling trapped in. Food can do this. It can transport us to another place.