Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Penny Arcades, Pint Shop and a Bun for My Trunk

Birthdays start out fun. There's parties and cake and games and hey, you can even cry if you want to. Then come the first 'milestones', where you can buy cigs (legally) and celebrate with a pint in the pub you've been drinking in for the last year (apologies to my favourite barmaid, Janet, at the White Hart, Beaconsfield). 

Thereafter the lustre of that special day tends to wane somewhat. Each advancing year brings less fun and more wrinkles, and instead of Castle Greyskull and Transformers you get socks and shower gel. That is until you reach a 'certain age'. It's hard to know exactly what that age is, as it varies from person to person, but you know you've reached it when you announce - unbidden and usually very loudly - exactly how old you are to all and sundry.

At 85 and still going strong, my Nan has reached that age. Although to be fair she still talks about all the 'elderly people' around her without the slightest bit of self awareness that she may now fall into that category herself. But they say you're only as young as you feel, and with the energy it must take to edge her perfectly manicured lawn and cut all her hedges, something she still does solo, I seem positively geriatric in comparison.

Of course, we didn't really need the excuse of a birthday to jump in the car and motor to Norfolk for the weekend, with good old Doreen being such amusing company in most circumstances, but it's nice to have a reason to celebrate. And where better than a day at the seaside and more specifically one of my favourite childhood haunts, Wells-next-the-Sea.

An afternoon playing in the penny arcade and walking along the sea front would take years off anyone's life, with a fish and chip lunch, bags of fudge from John's rock shop and a couple of bottles of strong Norfolk cider from Whin Hill to take home, adding them swiftly back on again. The perfect sort of afternoon.

After a few days of shepherd's pie, ice cream in the garden, toast and homemade marmalade washed down with a few too many of the afformaentioned ciders, we probably didn't need to visit Cambridge for Sunday lunch on our drive home. But we did anyway, ending up in the Pint Shop, a pub cum restaurant on Peas Hill boasting a wide beer selection and spit roasted meats on a Sunday. 

We chose to eat upstairs, in their shaker style stripped back dining room; a tranquil spot that was rather akin to eating in a Vermeer still life. Refreshment, chosen from a large board of rotating libations, came in the form of a Pulp Fiction grapefruit saison from the Nene Brewery; a zippy little summer number; and a pretty pedestrian Hopmen of the Apocalypse from Totally Brewed in Nottinghamshire. 

To eat we both chose the spit roast lamb shoulder with homemade mint sauce, mashed roots, greens and roasties from the Sunday set menu. A good roast is notoriously hard to get right but, as promised by the friendly barmen downstairs, this was a superlative Sunday dinner if, at 16 quid, a little stingy in its portioning. Add some cauli cheese and another slice of meat and it may have even rivalled my mother's famed 'rost' lamb. A Roscoe favourite.

A brief interlude before pud saw me sampling a pint of the staid but perfectly satisfactory Meteor bitter from the Star brewery in Lincolnshire. The Ewing's choice was the, far beefier, Something Something Darkside; a mashup between an imperial stout and an imperial IPA from West London's Weird Beard. A decadent, smoky and licorice-licked, BIPA - not one to take too lightly early on a Sunday afternoon.

Pictures of the desserts seem to have turned out in soft focus, a look that makes them look more like stills from a Euro porno than pudding. I would say it was because they were so seductively alluring, but in reality I think a blob of grease from the roasties got on my phone lens.

Sadly they couldn't live up to their fuzzy glow; my buttermilk pudding with saffron gooseberries and 'rough snap' (a not very snappy, oat biscuit) paled against the magisterial example at the Wheatsheaf Inn a few weeks before. Full praise though for the glowing golden gooseberries which were spot on and reminded me of why I fell in love with this quintessentially British sweet and sour fruit. The Ewing's pear and frangipane tart passed muster, but felt like a bit of a lacklustre finale.

Not wanting to depart without having that sweet spot thoroughly scratched, we managed to fit in a quick visit to Fitzbillies Cafe on Trumpington Street - Cambridge is certainly up there when it comes to great road names. Purveyors of traditional cream teas, puffy choux pastries and flaky sausage rolls, Fitzbillies remain renowned for their gooey chelsea buns which became a firm favourite on our last visit to Cambridge.

With the mercury nudging upwards, I was pleased to see a cooler incarnation of their famed yeasted bread product was available in the form of chelsea bun ice cream; a fragrant and rich lemon-scented and currant flecked joy that I would happily eat all year round.

Of course I couldn't pass up the chance to get my hands on some of their neatly coiled curls of syrup-soaked dough and we also bought a brace to take home for tea the following day. Quite as delicious as they look and rounding off a perfect weekend of simple things; sun, sea, smiles and sugar. Here's to the next one, Nan, and many more to come.

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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Going Solo: Morden and Lea

Normally, I'm a pretty big fan of being left on my lonesome. As Woody Allen knows, lots of things are better on your own. I've travelled around Oz, got tattoos, got drunk (thankfully not together) gone to the cinema, eaten kebabs on Primrose Hill, pork pies in Birmingham and coconut ice on Bournemouth pier, all quite happily sans company. The one thing, however, I've never really got into is dining on my tod. 

But, with life being fleeting (and, more importantly, Stealth off gallivanting and leaving me at a loose end), I decided to brace my self for the horror of Piccadilly Circus on a sunny Friday evening. Eschewing the glistening ducks suspended in the windows of Wardour Street and the serving hatches peddling flaccid slices of pizza for a pound, my destination was Mark Sargeant's first solo London venture, Morden and Lea.  

The restaurant - named after cartographers Robert Morden and Philip Lea, who were the first to map out the what's now known as Soho - is split into two; a casual all day dining area downstairs and an upstairs restaurant offering a la carte, with two or three courses for £29/35 respectively. I wanted to sit at the bar, which was upstairs, but asked for the downstairs menu, with it's list of trendy small plates and tartines (posh things on toast) much more suitable for nibbling solo whilst perched precariously on a stool.

Of course first drink of the weekend - traditionally after my cousin Will has given his Facebook klaxon - is always the sweetest, and this cold glass of Picopul got things off to a good start. Buoyed by the Friday feeling (and possibly slightly pissed), I even gave a few chapters of my book a go (now minus its Burger Bear bookmark).

First out of the kitchen was a salad of flaked smoked mackerel , peppered with punchy capers, red onion and grassy parsley. All very light and sprightly, if a little uninspired. Smoked mackerel still remains a favourite, though; which is handy, as I could still taste this come Saturday afternoon.

Better was the 'heritage carrot salad', a humdrum name for a beautifully bright mix of roots. Pureed, picked and otherwise jazzed up with liberal applications of olive oil, micro leaves and crunchy pine nuts. I can quite see why Peter battled with Mr MacGregor for the spoils, although I did pause over ordering when Time Out (rather less than palatably) described it as 'misconceived... presenting the uber-fash veg du jour in three different forms, (that) fell into the fail-zone'. Just goes to show you shouldn't believe all you read (says someone working in policy and comms).

Next up was Insta-favourite, the crab sausage roll - a white crab meat packed tube of pastry served with a brown crab mayo and watercress. This bronzed and shiny crustacean-stuffed delight deserves all of its plaudits. The accompanying mayo would be the stuff of dreams slathered in a sandwich, although here I would have preferred something a little sharper as a lubricant.

Now, when I had looked at the bar menu, I had noticed one glaring absence; no gypsy tart. This tooth-achingly sweet confection, that is much beloved in the Garden of England where it originated, is already rivaling the Hackney's Marksman and their honey and butter tart in the best of the sugary pastry stakes this summer.

Having not had the pleasure of sampling the latter yet, I can confirm the former is a very fine thing indeed. The wobbly mousse, made from evaporated milk and brown sugar, is cradled in a impossibly thin pastry crust, the burnt toffee sweetness cut through with a cricket ball of clotted cream balanced on crisp biscuit crumbs.

Wine, seafood, a sugar rush and some fascinating company (that never answers back). What more could you want on a Friday night? (errr....your wife sat opposite you, you fool - TE)

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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Serendipity and the Magic Roundabout

Chance, fate, destiny, karma, whatever you want to call it, I'm not really one to subscribe to cosmic intervention. As Arnold Palmer said; 'the more I practice, the luckier I get'. However, even for the most grounded of us (or anyone taking part in a spelling bee), sometimes serendipity is a very useful word to have in your vocabulary.

Case in point came on the day of my trip to the Statistical Society for geeky Census-type things. Being by the Barbican it seemed like the perfect chance to try out the Burger Bear pop up, if not for the meat and beer then for the novelty of being slap bang in the middle of Old Street Roundabout. 

I also had my Kickstarter voucher, procured when Tom Reaney, AKA Burger Bear Tom, had first pitched his idea of a east London-based double-decker container diner. The project was successfully funded, but various hold ups and hassles meant that (although you could redeem vouchers at Stoke Newington's Stokey Bears spin off) my postcard was tidily 'filed away' until the project (and the patties) were back cooking on gas. 

Of course, when attempting to finally unearth the postcard from it's safe place, I managed to find everything but the one thing I was looking for. And, after an evening of fruitless rifling through various piles of papers and in various nooks and crannies (and various fingers pointed at various family members...), I conceded it was gone. C'est la vie, the burger would still be mine, voucher or not. 

Then - like my very own scene in a bad b movie based on a film staring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale - as I grabbed my book on 70s politics I was determined to finish, I found it contained not one bookmark but two. Alongside the the Katz's Delicatessen business card I had been using was the missing Burger Bear postcard the Ewing had deployed. 

Some people may call this fate. Other, less charitable ones, may see it as your wife starting to read the book your currently reading, using your postcard to mark her place and then putting it back on the shelf and forgetting about it (oh you live with such a rogue - TE).... Either way, my crowdfunded lunch was back on.

With my voucher safely stowed and my stats all safely collated (who knew data collection could spark such drama), all I had to do was navigate my way through the blazing streets of the Barbican, through the hustle of suits in their summer shirts on Whitecross Market and up Old Street. Luckily the chalk board positioned in the middle of the Old Street Station underpass gave the final neon clue that even I couldn't miss. 

Up on the roof, the roundabout vibes are suitably hip; there's Relax, a bar, offering coffee and cocktails, running down one side. The Prawnography hut - offering, amongst other fishy fare, spider crabs smoked on the big green egg and the eponymous crustaceans with szechuan butter and beer bread - tucked around one corner; and Burger Bear - pumping out tunes with your fumes (the whole place feels remarkably tranquil and green, considering where it's situated) tucked around the other. 

My burger - the Grizzly Bear with cheese bacon and bacon jam - was without superlative. An offering that along with P&B and Bleecker, make up my top three London examples of beef in a bun. This one, dare I say it, may have been the best; shiny buns, 'merican cheese glazed on to the flattop-fried patty, topped with crisp shards of pig and nestling on a bed of red onion and iceberg.

Alongside were some fiendishly garlicky fries, cooked fresh to order and a frosty pint of Bear Hug Brewing's Spirit pale ale. Salt smoke, fat, hops; the perfectly balanced meal. I even got to sit next to Mr Burger Bear himself, as I made the futile attempt of trying to wrestle with my burger and keep the grease splodges from my book. Sometimes I feel the payoff for pleasure is worth the congealed cheese in your margins.

And then it's over. The most fun I have (legally) had on a roundabout since Becky Fair 1996. Although this time I managed to keep my dignity and my lunch. Get down there before the fleeting summer's through.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Wheatsheaf Inn, Northleach

Ever since I was a child I've always been fascinated by Midsummer. From trips to Scandinavia to try and glimpse that mysterious midnight sun (alongside plenty of drunken singing around the bonfire, schnapps in hand), to a late night picnic on the Thames with an ex, complete with amusing commentary from the adolescent boys boating on the river who kept contriving to sail past.

This year the Ewing agreed to indulge my love of the longest day (after all, it's all downhill until December) by spending it under canvas in the Cotswolds. If it wasn't going to be restful - during the midst of an English summer, when it's getting light at four in the morning and every bird in the sky breaks into full and throaty song not long after, sleep is something most of us dream of - it would certainly be an adventure. Or, with the prospect of erecting our new tent  for the first time looming, potential grounds for divorce (or death- TE).

As it was, it was pretty perfect. We, argued over guy ropes and groundsheets, drank lots of beer (a jug of Breakspear's Henley Gold, picked up at the Wychwood Brewery in Witney on route), blew hopelessly at a disposable barbecue until our eyes stung and our dinner was incinerated, and sat around the fire until every item of clothing (including the ones we weren't wearing) were impregnated with smoke. We even managed to wake and see the sunrise (and pick the slugs off the side of the porch that had arrived with the late night rain) before falling back to sleep.

While re-hydrating with white wine spritzers and breakfasting on cups of tea and a packet of Digestives is all well and good we were soon in need of some real sustenance. to the ivy clad Wheatsheaf Inn, in the nearby village of Northleach.

It's a picturesque spot, with a winding, shaded garden, a warren of dining rooms and a bar of dark wood and leather that was quickly filling up with pearls and corduroy as we arrived for Sunday lunch. I hoped the straw in our hair and aroma of barbecue briquette accompanying us would give a rustic air to our presence, but the effect was probably more like a knock-off Wurzel Gummidge and Aunt Sally.

I started with a Bobby's Beer, a local lager brewed in nearby Bourton-on-the-Water. I haven't sunk pints of the pale stuff since my uni days, and while it was certainly better than the watery fizz of yore, it didn't quite beat the joy of an English beer - such as the pint of Barnsey, a dark beer from Bath Ales that the Ewing chose - especially in this quintessentially English setting.

Bread here is courtesy of Hobbs the Bakers, home of the Baker Bros, and has a pleasingly chewy crumb  and tangy flavour. The butter, from nearby Netherend Farm, is one of my favourites. In fact we had already stopped that morning in the village so I could buy two packs of the salted variety which were cunningly stowed in the camping coolbox.

I eschewed the roast for the calves liver, served on a bed of spinach with a tomato sauce, fried sage and capers, and a peerless side order of crisp french fries. This was a hulking slab of offal, served rare as requested, that was nicely charred on the outside and creamy and ferrous within. Although as I moved towards the thicker, bloodier end I did begin feel somewhat like Anthony Hopkins in his star turn, less the pulses and red wine. Maybe you can have too much of a good thing. 

The Ewing went down the traditional route with generous slices of slow roasted pork, a less generous shard of crackling bathed in a light cream and wholegrain mustard sauce that made a summery change from your standard Bisto. 

Alongside were the standard roast potatoes and roots and a selection of steamed veg, including the undersung celariac and swede. Yorkies, a quid extra unless you had the beef, came puffed up majestically in their own cast iron dish and were, to coin a cliche, worth every penny.

Deserts were a blinder. The Ewing picked the Marathon pudding, as recommended by Jay Rayner in his Guardian Review, in which he memorably describes eating it thus: 'slip your spoon through the tumescent dome and you find below not just a liquid chocolate centre but also a mother lode of soft caramel with crushed peanuts. There is a scoop of their own vanilla ice cream on top to lubricate and cool things down.'

Even more outrageously the Ewing (at my suggestion) chose the almond ice cream to anoint the molten-centered cake, creating something reminiscent of the Almond Snickers, a spin-off bar that may be even better than the original. This was seriously sticky, sickly stuff, although a sweet-toothed pro like the Ewing gave it no chance.

My pudding, a virginal fromage blanc panna cotta with just the requisite amount of wobble, was a little more restrained but no less spectacular and was set off perfectly by locally picked Primrose Vale strawberries.

As delicious as supper of carbonised skewers of mystery meat and plastic glasses of warm beer is, it's also good to have metal cutlery, and a chair to sit on, and scented hand cream in the loos (especially good after battling with all those guy ropes) And, most importantly, a comfy bed to go home to for a well deserved afternoon siesta. Because if camping's good for one thing, it's reminding you how wonderful the pleasures of a (non inflatable) mattress are when you get home.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Brum Fun

I think I've had what writer's call 'block'. I ate and I ate, then I ate some more, but still the words wouldn't form (I did get a touch of indigestion, though). Slowly, as the idea of posting became more onerous, I begun to stop taking pictures of my lunch and went back to the same places to eat, so I wouldn't have to blog about them later. Was Pies and Fries finally stale and soggy?

Ultimately though, while it was nice to just sit back and smell the coffee (without trying to snap an arty picture) I kinda missed it; So grab the Rennies and let's get stuck in.

This particular adventure take us back to the Second City, or more precisely Snow Hill, the terminus of the Chiltern line. Strangely, in the fifteen or so years I've been coming to Brum, I'd never alighted here until earlier this year; now I've visited three times since March. While it misses the architectural majesty and convenience of Moor Street, it's in a much more interesting part of town. But more of that later.

First stop after ditching our bags was Brewdog, where, when faced with the comprehensive menu board above, I followed their sound recommendation and ordered a beer flight. After all, why have one beer when you can have four (not cheap though, a flight for both of us weighing in at twenty-two of your English pounds).

Pick of the bunch was Hymir, a brett fermented pale from Worcestershire's Urban Huntsman; the Ballast Point Dorado, a resinous imperial IPA; and the Dog D, a imperial stout with coffee and naga chillies from Brewdog. Whilst the latter two were belters ABV wise and we probably could have done with a breather, neither the Ewing or I could face the third of Brewdog's alcohol free Nanny State. Sometime's more is more.

Sufficiently lubricated we made our way to the inaugural Food Feast-ival at the, ominous-sounding, Coffin Works in the Jewellery Quarter. Just like it says on the tin, this was previously the site of the Newman Brothers 'producers of some of the world’s finest coffin furniture, including the fittings for the funerals of Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother'.

Whilst they've recreated the ambiance of the firm's 60s heyday - complete with restored machinery and costumed guided tours - we were here for the food and drinks, all served up in the picturesque cobbled courtyard.

The disadvantage of being in such an enclosed space, as beautiful as it was, was that the smoke from the oven - mounted in an old Mini Cooper - at the Baked in Brick pizza stand meant that I ended up smelling like a teenager's kit bag after sitting around the campfire at Reading Festival (my mother would attest, that's not a good thing).

Things looked up when we actually swapped some dough for some dough, opting to share a calzone stuffed with beef shin ragu and mozzarella. All very tasty if a little pallid on top for my tastes. Any chance of getting bored waiting for our pizza to cook was also dispelled when we (for 'we' read my darling wife), befriended Tina and Rich, two very friendly locals who regaled us with stories of sewing clubs, library cuts and the local birds (of the ornithological variety), that can be spotted in the Jewellery Quarter.

Refreshments came in the form of a couple of poky cocktails from the the Little Gin Company - a Cotswold Dry with pink grapefruit for me and Monkey 47 Gin with tonic and orange for the Ewing. Gin and grapefruit's a very good thing and the measures were pleasingly generous making the 80's soul records they were spinning even more welcome.

Most mortals may have called it a night after the second cocktail, especially seeing as we were just around the corner from our hotel. But who can resist Birmingham's small, but perfectly formed, Chinatown; especially when pissed.

This time we headed for Peach Garden, an insalubrious little gaff with endearingly gruff service tucked off Ladywell Walk, where the main deal is the roast meat that you can see hanging in the steamy front window. Here it's served three ways; roast duck, char sui and roast pork (and a fourth on a Monday and Tuesday, when they crack out the suckling pig).

A plate of crispy, fatty, salty roast meat on a bed of fluffy white rice and a few chinese cabbage leaves thrown in to prevent scurvy, is one of my favourite things to eat. Add a good dose of fiery chilli oil and endless cups of jasmine tea (here served in smoked glass beakers, from a giant metal pot) and there is no better way to soak up a surfeit of gin.

The Ewing equally relished her bowl of won ton soup, a lagoon of porky parcels swimming in a rich meat stock augmented with Chinese veg and egg noodles. We also shared a side dish of crunchy water chestnut slices and crisp bamboo shoots, scooped up with obligatory handfuls of prawn crackers that, eaten in my usual haste, left me with those little scratches at the corner of my mouth the following morning that mean I always vow to give up prawn crackers, or to improve my table manners, but alas I do neither (that's a shame there would be more for me - TE)

Breakfast was a peerless selection of cheap cereal (who could resist faux Coco Pops with lashings of cold milk (me-TE)), watered down orange juice, endless cups of strong tea and piles of hot toast with butter and strawberry jam. It was glorious. Truly.

There was also a pretty decent view across the chimney tops from the breakfast room, just a shame most of it had been enveloped by a thick fog, leaving even the sparkly new Birmingham Library as merely a gentle golden glow. 'Oh the rain falls hard on a humdrum town, this town has dragged you down', as Steven Patrick might say.

Wet weather meant the perfect chance to visit Six Eight Kafe, sit back with a book (or, as as the modern way, stare at your smart phone screen for a bit) and watch the world wade down a sodden Temple Row. A Chemex for two, brewed with bright Costa Rican beans, and a slice of freshly baked chocolate mocha cake also hit the spot.

Next was a dose of (well-read) anarchy when we joined in briefly, with the Friends of Birmingham protest march in Victoria Square, followed by a dose of culture at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. There's a very good Pre-Raphaelite gallery if, like my wife, you're into that thing. And there's a very good gift shop if, like me, you're not. We also got to see the Floozie in the Jacuzzi, Brum's first lady. 

Final stop was a full circle to the Hen and Chickens, an unprepossessing pub in Hockley, just down the road from Snow Hill Station. Sky Sports, check. Pool table, check. Pints of fizzy piss, check. Loos with fag burns on the cistern, no loo roll and no locks, check. Best Indian food I've eaten for a long while, check....

Let's be honest, you're not going to come here for the ambiance, but get a cold Cobra in your hand and order a mixed grill (this is the 'small'), a piping hot dish piled high with crisp smoky kofte kebabs, chicken and fish pakora served on a bed of charred onions, and you can see why people make the trek.

The curries were equally strong; we sampled a sag paneer that was earthy and fragrant and a summery pumpkin curry with onion and tomato that was fresh and light. Hot rounds of peshwari and garlic naans proved the perfect way to scoop them from plate to mouth.

They'll even box up your leftovers (and you will have leftovers) that made me very happy when I saw them in the fridge the next morning. For our fellow commuters on the train home, possibly less so.

And so back to Snow Hill to begin our journey back South. Aptly, there's a statue of a bowler hatted commuter, brolly and briefcase in hand, to wave us off as we depart for another week at the grindstone. 

As the sun goes down on a broken town
And the fingers bleed in the factories
Come on out tonight, come and see the side
Of the ones you love and the ones in love
And you