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.