Thursday, 13 June 2019

Harry and a curry

A cemetery in deepest East London might seem like a strange place to start this post, but I do have a life outside of taking pictures of my lunch. Even if it happens to be taking pictures of gravestones en route to taking pictures of my lunch. I promise, this does get better....

The reason for ending up in Barking on a sunny Monday Morning in June goes back a few years, to my previous incarnation working in public libraries. During that time I had become involved in curating an exhibition that commemorated the centenary of the start of WW1. A fascinating and sobering project that lead me to start to research something about my own family, culminating in discovering my great-grandfather, Private Harry Roscoe MM.

Harry was born in Wigan circa 1890 although, by 1914, he had ended up in Romford, married to my great-grandmother, Florence, and with a son, Alan. My grandfather. Alan isn't around anymore, and there is no one else left to ask how or why Harry ended up in Essex but, as my colleague so succinctly put it; 'in those days, it would be for work or a woman'.

In 1915 Harry had enlisted to the West Ham Pals, aka 13th Battalion of the Essex Regiment, and by the end of the year had been sent to France to fight. The battalion were involved in many battles of the Great War, including at Vimy Ridge, Cambrai and the Battle of the Somme, and it was here that Harry won the Military Medal for gallantry. Awarded for an act of outstanding courage or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.

The excerpt above shows the war diary from the week Harry was recommended for his honour. A scan kindly provided to me by Elliot Taylor, who has a blog and has written a book about the Pals.

Harry died in December 1918, a month after the war had ended, most likely of his injuries. A pointless loss in a pointless war. My granddad was four. My great-grandmother remarried the following year, and Harry was never spoken of again. As my granddad never really spoke much about the past, we don't even know if he knew about Harry, or where he was interred. 

While it's a bittersweet story, I have to say I felt quite touched to finally find Harry's grave - commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose work ensures that men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars are not forgotten - and be able to give thanks for the sacrifices he, and many others, have made for our freedom.

Of course, I couldn't go all that way without thinking about what I was going to eat next and fortunately Thattukada, one of Eater's recent recommended restaurants, was just two stops away on the District Line.

Thattukada is a basic no frills Keralan restaurant - with a nod to God's own country evidenced by the pictures of vallam kali, the state's annual snake boat race, that cover the walls - that offers a selection of home cooked favourites that brings homesick Keralans to eat from all across London.

I started with a mango lassi which, in the absence of a dessert menu, also served as pudding. There's nothing more glorious to accompany food from the Indian subcontinent (ok, maybe on par with an icy cold lager). Sweet and tangy and fragrant and providing a soothing balm for the tongue after a surfeit of chilli spice.

The chicken fry or, to give it its full name, the Thattukada Special Nandan (Traditional) Chicken Fry Half (Kerala Style) 10 pieces, is becoming a bit of a signature dish. A whole (or half) chicken is expertly cleaved into bite-sized chunks on the bone, before being marinated in a lurid spice paste glowing with chilli. It's then deep fried and covered in a dreft of golden fried onions.

This tasted as excellent as it looks. Crisp, hot, salty, spicy. It was surprisingly effortless to eat ten pieces to myself. Maybe because I'm some kind of heathen, I really wanted something to dip this in. Some kind of yogurt-based dip perhaps; or just a big squirt of mayo, if I'm honest. But then I do drown my KFC in the Colonel's gravy. So what do I know.

I almost passed on ordering the appam, which would have been an error as these were the finest I have tried. Spongy and slightly sour, the plain version - they are also available filled with condensed milk or a whole egg, steamed into the centre - are particularly good for helping scoop up curry with your fingers. As evidenced by many of the patrons who were there on my visit. Luckily they took pity on me and kindly also provided a fork without asking.

The utensils were something that was in everybody's interests, as my attempts to eat the fish moilee - a deep and fragrant coconut based curry with cashew nuts and tomatoes and a the beautifully cooked kingfish steak that fell from the bone - would have been less than couth with out them. Although, in all honesty, if no one else was around I would have happily licked the bowl clean.

Oh, and for the record, the long green things were not beans, but chillies. Something that I found out when I ate a whole one. And, for the second time that day, I had a tear in my eye. Good food and family; sometimes there is nothing finer.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Sangers (and not sangers) - the Oz version

Last year we travelled the west coast of America and I ate a lot of sandwiches. Then I came back and wrote about how much I loved eating sandwiches. This year, after our trip to Australia, I'm doing pretty much the same thing, my love of carbs undiminished. I'm nothing if not consistent.

This is probably also going to serve as a bit of a round-up post, so I can document as much edible stuff as possible before I forget/lose interest. Which means including anything tasty I ate that might (or might not) have a passing resemblance to a sandwich. All while inventing more and more outlandish caveats for it's inclusion; and for that I make no apologies.

The first entry may seem like a Not Sandwich, but actually it was a Sandwich. At least that's how it was described on the feasting menu at Nomad, a contemporary/middle eastern restaurant in a converted warehouse in swanky Surry Hills. In an ideal world I would have the time and patience to write about the whole meal I enjoyed here with the family - we had the feasting menu, and it was all excellent, but in the interests of brevity, and sanity, I will start (and finish) at the end.

On the menu the ice cream sandwich with olive oil parfait, halva crumble, pistachio and honey sounded nice enough, in reality it was pretty bloody amazing. I've just sat staring at the picture for a while, trying to think of superlatives, but for once I'm lost for words.

Smoky, nutty, sweet, creamy, crunchy; you get the general idea. The magical biscuitty stuff that sandwiched the ice cream was particularly good.  After the full meal that proceeded this, we all still hungrily wolfed down two sharing plates, fighting over the scraps. Which probably says it all.

If the dessert at Nomad self-identified as a sandwich, I have no problems naming Black Star Pastry's watermelon and strawberry creation a sandwich too. Although it has been named the world's most instragrammed cake (which kind of flies in the face of my sandwich assertion), I still maintain it should be included for the simple reason it does actually sandwich a layer of fresh watermelon between two layers of pastry cream and sponge. All topped off with dried rose petals and strawberries.

On the face of it, I have to say it sounded all kinds of wrong. Fresh melon abutting fresh dairy was already curdling in my thoughts. Bits of dead flower, looking like something my Nan used to give me for Christmas, strewn on top. Obviously I was very incorrect and the whole thing seemed to balance together beautifully, as well as looking utterly beautiful. Yes, of course I posted a pic for the 'Gram.

People often say surf and turf is overrated; people are wrong. And they certainly haven't tried the chorizo and prawn roll from the Mojo Picon stand at the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney's Moore Park. My sister wanted us to go there just so we could try these, and it just proves good taste runs in the family.

This crispy roll, think Spanish bocadillo, is stuffed with grilled chunks of smoky fresh chorizo and topped with fat prawns, lime and coriander. I also added a healthy squirt of the eponymous mojo picon sauce, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, chilli and olive oil. This was so generously filled, the Ewing and I managed to share one between us and barely even squabble over who should get the errant prawns that had fallen overboard.

Is a pizza a sandwich? Lets be honest, definitely not (maybe, arguably, a calzone…) But with my sister moving house imminently, it was only right we should have one final pizza from RocketBoy, the pizza place that’s currently about 100m from her door. As you can see, we were certainly in need of some carbs, after a Monday beer crawl around Marrickville had left us in a rather parlous state.

My favourite of their pizzas is the the Malabar, topped with wild Aussie prawns, marinaded in chilli and coconut, plus chorizo, onion, parsley and lemon. Seafood is not normally my first choice on a pie (although who doesn’t love tinned tuna and red onion on deep pan after a night on the town) but it seems a rather apt choice when in Oz; well, in the absence of a Barbie to chuck the prawns on, anyway. 

It’s very good pizza, if perhaps not gold tier, but for a takeaway pizza it’s pretty decent, generously topped and fair value. Plus it’s proximity is a bonus. Although it seems my sister's new gaff also has a branch of Rocketboy around the corner (obviously one of the first things I checked). I’m going to overlook the fact everyone else ganged up on me and made me watch the Bachelor in Paradise when eating it. Although, even that couldn’t put me off.

Mr Crackles, on Oxford Street, Sydney’s main gay drag, has become a must visit on our trips to Oz, although I’ve still yet to visit while inebriated (draconian lock out laws currently prohibit most late night drinking in the surrounding area, but you can still get your pork fix until 4.30 in the morning on Friday and Saturday. Oh, and Mr Crackles is open too…).

They are best known for the ‘Classic Crackles’, a crispy baguette/ciabatta-ish hybrid with five spice roast pork belly, mayo and a Vietnamese salad. Which is what I always order, and this time was no different. Along with an extra cup of crackling, which we took to my sister as a reward for getting through a morning's shopping expedition with the kids in tow.

We also also tried the crackles salad, which is the same but no bread and more green stuff. It’s a majestic sandwich; crunchy and salty and fatty and enormously messy to eat while hovering over the high benches than run up both sides of the shop. Part of its joyous, unbridled, delicious appeal.

While it remained as delicious as ever I might have, wait for it, actually preferred the salad. It’s certainly easier to eat. The crusty bread, as good as it is (and it is good), can’t help but detract from the perfection of the wobbly chunks of pork belly and crisp crackling. While the bread may be dispensable, the one thing I think it does miss is a hit of chilli sauce. A little bit of zing would help cut through the richness nicely.

For the Ewing's birthday I took her on an all-dayer that ended up with dinner at Saint Peter (blog post to come) but started with an unexpectedly excellent lunch and drinks at the CBD branch of Continental Deli.

Known for their deli meats and cheeses and cocktails in a can, we both started with a Mar-tinny, which came with 3 green olives, plus an extra gilda (olive green chilli and anchovy on a stick) each, for good measure. An excellent start to proceedings.

As well as some outstanding Aussie washed rind cheese with rhubarb chutney, tiny little bitter olives and crackers, and a plate of wafer thin mortadella with picked chillies and cornichons we also had a genuine, legit sandwich in the form of their meatball sub.

This was a behemoth of crisp ciabatta bread, stuffed with a trio of giant balls, cooked in a tomato sauce and finished with a smattering of freshly grated Parmesan. Plus crisps, plus more pickles. This was a fine sandwich, although I felt the ethereal texture of the meatballs and the pillowy bread became a little samey. A situation that improved with the addition of some of the crisps to the sarnie.

Obviously there has to be a burger somewhere (definitely a sandwich), and this time we schlepped all the way over the Harbour Bridge to North Sydney to find it. Which also provided the perfect opportunity for a sun-kissed selfie or two.

Our destination was Five Points - only open for limited hours, Monday to Friday and offering a limited menu of five burgers, named after the five boroughs of New York, plus three milkshakes, and sides of chips and a green salad.

To be honest, when your burgers are this good there's not much else that you need. I chose the Bronx - a grilled beef patty, double cheese, bacon, onion jam, tomato sauce, pickles, american mustard, aioli and iceberg; and it was one of the best burgers I have had for a long time. Chips (a bit chunkier than fries, but still suitably thin enough to go alongside a burger) were also excellent, although the Ewing found her salted caramel shake a bit too thin and too sweet (even for her).

The lamington - a sponge cake dipped in a thin chocolate icing and rolled in coconut, often sandwiched with jam or cream - is a stone cold Aussie classic. It's also one of my favourite cakes and I had heard the best ones in town were to be found at Flour and Stone in Woolloomooloo.

The intel was right as this lamington was utterly outstanding. The Flour and Stone version is dipped in panna cotta (combating the potential dryness of the sponge and coconut, the greatest enemy of the lammo) before being filled with berry compote and rolled in dark chocolate and coconut flakes. The whole thing feels heavy in your hand but ethereally light as you eat it. Made even better if consumed to a back drop of sunny Woolloomooloo Harbour.

Another must visit since my brother-in-law took us on our last trip to Sydney is Marrickville Pork Roll; a tiny shop front in the Inner-West, with an almost constant queue outside, from where they deftly turn out what seems like an endless stream of what have been called the best pork rolls in town.

Essentially an analgised name for the banh mi, the pork roll is a Vietnamese sandwich that originated in the south of the country after baguettes were introduced in the mid-19 century by the French. Traditionally made with rice flour, which makes them even lighter and crisper, they are then stuffed with an array of ingredients that normally comprised of one or more meats (classically pork belly, pork sausage and pate), mayonnaise and salad including cucumber slices, coriander, pickled carrots and radish, and chillies.

While Marrickville is a little far flung from Central Sydney to come for a sandwich (they have an outpost in Steam Mill Lane now, and while I haven’t visited, I’m not sure I could be disloyal to the original), it makes the perfect stop on our (second) inner-west beer crawl.

One of my absolute favourite things to do when I’m in town. Certainly my favourite thing to do for six bucks. This time I think I enjoyed it even more than before; the airy baguette ably holding a full cargo of meat and veg plus a slathering of mayo and chopped chilli. This is truly one of my very favourite sandwiches I have eaten; and I’ve eaten a lot of sandwiches.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

The pies have it

As I haven’t even started writing up our most recent Oz adventures (I’m currently battling with a backlog of photos, but it’s coming), it does seem a little premature to be talking about how much I miss it. But I do; the place and, most especially, the people. Something that gets more acute with every visit. In fact I was beginning to worry, given the amazing time we had, that getting back to the UK would seem like some terrible anti-climax.

Thankfully we were greeted on our descent into Heathrow with stunning views along the river Thames as it meandered through the heart of London. Making my heart beat a little faster as I picked out all the iconic landmarks along the route. And, as we neared our destination, the spectacle of the sun rising over the endless green fields sent a shiver down my spine. Although that could have been because I couldn't turn that irritating blower thing off.

In order to make the culture shock seem a little less painful, I decided we should make the most of the streak of glorious weather that heralded our return - including sneaking in a trip to see the last of the bluebells at Ashridge - by immersing ourselves fully in the most British of pastimes; pies, pints and sitting outside at the pub. If anything was going to lift us from our post-holiday malaise I felt it was going to be best bitter and meat and potatoes.

The first pie we tried to help ease ourselves back into familiar waters – yes, the Aussies are famously fans of a pastry product, but served with ketchup and a cold lager, which isn’t quite the same thing at all – was at the Flower Pot in Aston, about half way between Henley and Hurley.

The Ewing hadn’t experienced its eccentric delights before, and was very taken with all the eclectic collection of taxidermy in the dining room, including giant carp and a couple of boar heads mounted on the wall.

I was more interested in the beer. As a Brakspear pub, they offer a roster of their real ales, including one of my favourite traditional English ales; Brakspear Bitter. This was in perfect condition, bitter-sweet with a backbone of malt and a gentle floral note from the traditional goldings and fuggles hops. 

Unsparkled, it still had a pleasingly tight head and creaminess and, at a modest 3.4 percent, it meant I could sneak an extra pint in while waiting for dinner. Why be a #craftwanker, when you can be a real ale bore.

For me, late spring is the pretty much the perfect time of year to be outside; not yet too hot, just before the wasps really get going and as the tree pollen count is winding down. The perfect time to enjoy a pub garden, and the Flower Pot has a decent one – large with plenty of tables with sun shades and, on our visit, lots of well-behaved dogs, who seemed to be enjoying the sunshine as much as we were.

Shortly we were also joined by two giant wedges of homemade pie from their pie board - one game (pheasant, partridge and turkey) and one rabbit – both served with chips, peas, and lashings of gravy. Firstly, and most importantly, they possessed a crust both top and bottom. Secondly, it was shortcrust, the supreme baked pie pastry (if we’re not including suet pastry, which is more for a steamed pudding) and thirdly the crust was in turns both crispy and stodgy, in the perfect ratio.

Both pies were excellent, being filled generously with chunks of juicy meat in a creamy, well-seasoned sauce. We didn’t encounter any lead shot, but there were a couple of bits of bone in with the bugs, so beware if you shovel your dinner down with rapacity, as I do. Chips were perfectly OK, and generously portioned and who doesn’t love a frozen pea.

Another great thing about the Flower Pot is its proximity to the Thames - my Dad used to meet his rugby mates here for a pint before meandering up the river to the Henley Regatta. The return journey later is one I'm sure wasn't without incident....

Our trip was far more staid. Wondering up to Hambleden Lock, on the other side of the water, all while dodging the mayflies and marvelling at the length of our shadows the slowly setting sun cast into the meadow. 

A few days later we found ourselves in another quintessentially English corner of the country; Wimborne Minster. This time it was to take Granddad out for lunch at the Stocks Inn in nearby Furzehill. We arrived just as the sun was emerging to be greeted by the sight of two men, wearing wide-brimmed floppy straw hats, thatching the roof. Peak English summer. Apart from the part about the sun emerging; which was still a great surprise. Even more so given that it was also the beginning of a bank holiday weekend.

To drink I started with a pint of Ringwood, brewed just down the road. In all honesty, it wasn’t in great nick, tasting flat and a touch vinegary. Far better was the second pint; the veritable Timothy Taylor Landlord, a Yorkshire bitter than seemed to have travelled far better. Landlord remains a perennial favourite for a reason and supping my pint, with its notes of grass and hay, while sitting in the verdant garden watching the thatcher’s at work, it seemed particularly appropriate.

The second pie of the week was Dorset beef and ale. Again, it was a double-cruster and again made with shortcrust pastry. It was a powerfully flavoured pie with a deep, sticky gravy and big chunks of meat. If I had a criticism, it had dried out around the edges and on the bottom crust. While I don’t mind my meat with some chew, the pastry wasn’t quite as squidgy as I like. 

Chips were, again, perfectly OK. There was also a medley of veg, slightly soggy, but of course I showed willing and finished them all, despite no promise of pudding at the end of it. Even Grandad was too stuffed for crumble, although he did take down an entire lamb shank with mash and asparagus.

Of course, while both pies were fabulous, they really weren’t the point here. I was far more interested in ingesting several pints of cellar temperature real ale, after all the schooners of tasteless suds I’d drunk in Oz. Oh, and spending some time in the bucolic English outdoors with some of my very favourite people. There really is no place like home.