Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Brixham Rocks

I’m currently decorating my living room, which is probably marginally more exciting for you than for me, and is also proving pretty exhausting. As a consequence I’ve seen my weekly pizza count increase and my weekly blogging time decrease in inverse proportion over the last few weeks - not aided by my laptop being commandeered to watch Spurs not being spursy.

But, with a gap appearing between the painting of the woodwork and the new carpet being laid  - which also coincided with a break in the domestic footy for the England friendlies – I’m seizing my chance to write about one of my favourite meals of the year so far, Sunday lunch at Rockfish in Brixham Harbour.

Is it even a Sunday on holiday if you don’t start proceedings with a bloody mary? Clearly Rockfish shared my sentiments, offering both a classic and chilli version - the hot version is really pretty poky - on their succinct cocktail menu, but offering them at half price between 12 -2pm Well, it would have been rude not to.
The main thrust of the Rockfish menu is freshly caught day boat fish - caught in one of the largest fishing fleets in in the UK based in the harbour that can be glimpsed from the window – meaning a good proportion of their offering is dictated by time and tide. To help facilitate tricky decision-making, they have helpfully depicted the catch most commonly available on the place mat. 

Normally anything that involves me having to engage with another human for any longer than strictly necessary is anathema, but the waitress knowledgeably took us through not just what had been landed that morning, but what cut would be served and how best to have it prepared by the kitchen.

Choices on our visit included Mussels – from nearby Elberry Cove - a haunt of Agatha Christie – delicate fillets of brill, and an old favourite, wing of skate on the bone. I chose the hake, a fat tranche of fish that was offered battered or, as I chose, grilled with lashings of garlicky butter. Why hake isn’t more popular on our shores remains a mystery - although this probably pleases the Spanish, who seem to end up with most of our catch – as it’s a great fish which, when cooked as well as this, has a crisp skin and a firm sweet flesh that stands up well to robust flavours.

While I might have been willing to forego my batter, I couldn’t give up my fried potatoes, and the accompanying chips – decent old school chippy-style - are served in limitless qualities, along with their house tartare sauce. The Ewing, who never misses a trick to spend some extra money, also noticed they had a seaweed version, which looked rather ominous, but had an pleasing seaside note. (YOLO babe, YOLO - TE)

The Ewing had the mackerel, served whole, grilled until the skin blistered and anointed with the same garlic. Being all healthy like, she chose the side house salad, although a sizeable portion of greenery -  a mix of baby spinach, cos and romaine lettuce and cucumber with cherry tomatoes & red onion - dressed with a classic vinaigrette, meant the prefix wasn’t really necessary. (oh look there's me, looking suitably nautical - TE)

While the fish and chips were superlative, the side orders were beyond reproach, featuring what has quickly become my new favourite flavour combination – pickled onion rings topped with a mix of homemade curry sauce and mushy peas. 

Whoever decided to combine two stone cold chippy classics deserves a New Year’s gong at the very least. And probably one of those blue plaques, too. The pickled onion rings - not quite ‘pickly’ enough for my tastes but still exceptionally good – made the perfect vehicle to transport the deliciously lurid mixture mouthwards.

After devouring pretty much the whole basket of fried alliums single-handedly, I was wavering at the thought of pud, so my wife thoughtfully chose for me, as well as her own pick, of course. She’s nice like that. Not that you found me complaining when they arrived. After all, it would be pretty churlish to take issue with a wobbly slice of chocolate nemesis – based, presumably, on the legendary River Café’s signature dessert – and their home made mr whippy, drenched with a good glug of sticky PX sherry. I particularly enjoyed the latter, alongside an espresso– who wants to eat ice cream any other way.

Possibly the best bit of the whole experience – closely fought completion, vying with the company and the view – was the bill at the end. Coming in at a shade under sixty notes it was great value for two courses of surprisingly deft cooking plus cocktails and cider. Plus limitless sparkling and still water and complimentary sauces. 

In fact, we were so impressed with our lunch that, despite my exhaustive list of places to eat for the rest of our trip, we managed to squeeze in another sneaky visit the following Friday, to sample some fish and chips from their takeaway below.

Keeping it simple  - we also managed to squeeze in another visit to another chippy later that evening - more hake plus more (DIY) curry sauce and mushy peas - fresh Bay Whiting came as two curly fillets, sitting on a scoop of chips. A firm textured fish, perfect for frying, it makes a fine, plus ethical, cod substitute, especially if the batter is as crisp and golden as here.

We also tried the much maligned sprat – a middle-sized member of the herring family - which were fried whole in a very light coating of flour and served with more tartare to dip. Like whitebait on steroids (and, again, more sustainable, thanks to their bigger size). A must try, if you can handle staring down your dinner.

While there’s not anything in the same league back in my land-locked neck of the woods, Rockfish have recently collaborated with Burts Crisps, another well-loved Devonian company, to produce a fish and chip flavoured potato product. Not quite the same when snaffled at home, and not staring out at the harbour, but they certainly make watching paint dry a little more enjoyable.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#cheeseandciderchallenge pt.2

On Tuesday the #cheeseandcidercchallenge trundled gaily onwards with the sat nav leading us up an extremely narrow lane, culminating in a dead end, from which we could see - all while expertly executing a 500 point turn - a tantalising glimpse of the sign for Sandford Orchards through the trees.

Even if we hadn't spied the logo, the rich autumnal smell of fermented apples hanging in the autumnal air would have been a dead giveaway that we were nearly in the right place.

Undeterred, we found a circuitous new route that made me very happy to find that we could enjoy a cold pint in their warehouse-cum-bar at the end of it. As you can see,  my darling wife felt the same.

She did cheer up somewhat when she found they had cider-inspired cocktail recipes chalked up on the walls and managed to get core ingredient - Fanny's Bramble, a blackcurrant-infused cider - for this year's famed Xmas cocktail to inflict  create for my family in Leeds. The other ingredients being fizz and vodka. I can feel the hangover now....

If there was simmering discord before we arrived at our next stop -  a short drive down the road to Quickes Dairy and farm shop - locking both sets of keys, one set still tantalisingly visible on the parcel shelf, in the car was the cherry on the cheesecake.

As it so happened, on this occasion, our luck was firmly in as Cakadoodledo, based in nearby Exeter, have opened up a cafe next door. Meaning that we could enjoy this wonderful ploughman's, with Quicke's cheddar, and a slice of chocolate and blackcurrant cake all while watching out the window as a friendly repairman was breaking in to our car outside.

And, as  if it couldn't get any better, the lovely ladies in the cafe gave us a slice of their incredible cheesecake topped brownie as they were celebrating their first birthday at their Quickes site.

Wednesday bought about a visit to the Totnes branch of the much lauded Country Cheeses, which was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. A huge selection of, mostly, very local cheese – there’s a map behind the counter to show you were they are produced – complemented by a smaller selection of chutney, jam, crackers and eggs, all served up by some enthusiastic fromage fanciers.

Of course, we quickly smashed our pre-agreed one cheese each limit; emerging with a Sloe Tavy - a heart-shaped cheese made specially for County Cheeses that is washed in Plymouth Sloe Gin; Devon Smoake - a naturally smoked cheese from Curworthy; Vintage Norworthy - a crumbly aged goats cheese; and Keltic promise – a Cornish (gasp) washed rind cheese for the Ewing that looked benign but made our fridge smell like my PE bag when I was in the hockey team at school.

After a successful morning our luck held with a visit to Newton Abbot to visit Ye Olde Cider Bar, one of Britain’s last remaining cider pubs. There's no beers on offer but you can order wine, if you don't mind it being made of elderberries, strawberries or rhubarb.

Clearly we were only here for one thing, although, with such a massive selection of cider (ask for the retro leather bound menu if you want tasting notes) it was hard to know where to start. After a couple of tasters I was tempted by a pint of Suicide, but as it was lunchtime on a Tuesday I thought it prudent to stick to the house cider, Sam's, pressed at Western Barn in Winkleigh.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything better in the bar snack leagues, especially their own 'ploughman’s' – consisting of a packet of crisps, a few pickled onions and  chunk of cheddar. The barman, rather sweetly, even came over to check I knew exactly what I’d ordered, and wasn’t expecting something fancier, as well as giving me a chilli warning before I tucked into the onions.

Thursday was an auspicious day, as it commemorated the (nth) anniversary of my birth. To celebrate the Ewing presented me with a clothbound truckle of Quicke's Devonshire Red – their take on a Red Leicester - complete with celebratory candle, and a bottle of Sandfords ice cider, made by freezing the fermented juice to make an even sweeter, stronger drink.

While this gift would have made a magnificent breakfast, fulfilling all aspects of the challenge admirably, we were in a predictable rush - to get to Plymouth for a tour of the Gin distillery – so there was no time to enjoy my new-gotten gains. 

Hence my cheese-based element for the day ended up being a breakfast of Quavers by the quayside, washed down with a double macchiato from Kaffehuis. An ever-so-slight elongation of the original rules, but it was my birthday; I’ll eat maize-based cheesy snacks and count them if I want to.

After a boozy afternoon spent enjoying several drinks including a sloe motion (Plymouth sloe gin topped with fizz), white rioja and a glass of pudding wine, I wasn’t really into the cider vibe after I stumbled back, starting on a bottle of port instead…. 

The Ewing - after heroically staying sober enough to safely drive me home - decided that shoving The Wilkin's cider in the freezer to make her own ice cider slushy and then drinking it out of a wine glass while watching the football would make her appear less uncouth. It may not have had quite have the desired effect, but she did look cute. I also had a few swigs to fulfil my remit for the day (birthday rules) and Harry Kane scored a last minute winner, so all in all, it was a satisfactory conclusion to proceedings.

While things had ended on a high note the day before, the following morning, despite the cloudless blue skies, painted a darker picture. It was a scene of sore heads and recriminations, where the only sensible answer was a huge plate of stinky, oozy cheese, washed down with the dregs of the port. By this point, as glorious as it all sounds, my cheese levels had reached the point of waking nightmares; hallucinating like I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and if only I lay my head down in the trap, the agony would soon be over.

After rousing myself enough to get out to Greenway (the doyenne of crime, Agatha Christie’s, holiday home)  and spending a happy, if exhausting day under the sun, sweating fermented milk and fortified grape juice, I decided the best way to round things off was a Friday night drink at the pub. After six and a half long, gruelling days of excessive dairy consumption and afternoon-inebriation, I just needed one last drink of cider to successfully complete the challenge. Readers, I had a beer.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

#cheeseandciderchallenge pt.1

The last time I spent a week in Devon I decided it would be a fun idea to embark on #crabandicecreamchallenge. An innocuous-sounding quest to eat crab and ice cream every day of our week long trip. After an incident with a giant crab in Ilfracombe, where I nearly lost my sanity (and my lunch), I did manage to make it to the end of the challenge unscathed, if a little green - like the crab - around the gills.

With this in mind other, saner, individuals might have wanted to relax and enjoy their forthcoming week in the West Country; but my gluttony was still piqued. Surprisingly, the Ewing, far from despairing at another of my hair-brained schemes, was remarkably receptive; although she did have to gently point out fish and chips for seven days in a row was probably going to end with hardened arteries and bigger trousers.

Hence the #cheeseandciderchallenge -  actually suggested by my wife, possibly with her own vested interest in dairy products and fermented apple juice – where I would attempt to eat both some West Country cheese and drink some West Country cider every day. Which would probably still have the same consequences as a diet of fish and chips, but with a bit more variety and the added opportunity to get half-cut.

As we were pretty much driving past the home of Britain’s most loved cheese, we had to swing by to buy some. That and Spurs were playing Huddersfield on Saturday lunchtime and it was going to be on the telly box.

After the boys in blue and white dishing out a comprehensive thumping, enjoyed over a fine lunch of prawns and whitebait and Otter Ale we headed down to the cheese factory, who proudly advertise themselves as the only remaining cheesemakers in Cheddar. If my memory serves me right the last time we were here you could stroll in and and out of the cheese making bit gratis, but this time it was a couple of quid to be allowed to press your nose up to the glass of the hallowed room where the magic happens.

Still, it’s worth it if you time a vista during the ‘cheddaring’ of the curds - stacking "loaves" of curd on top of one another in order to squeeze additional whey out of the loaves below, which make the cheese unique. You can also see their maturing rooms and gen up on a potted history of possibly the world’s most well-known coagulated milk product.

While they offer a full range, from a beginners version, right up to vintage, as well as cheese that is naturally blue or flavoured with additions such as port, wild garlic and herbs or even Marmite, we chose cave aged, as the proliferation of natural caves were the reason the cheese was originally produced in this area.

The next stop is one of Somerset’s gems - I would say hidden, but Roger Wilkin’s Farm is firmly on the radar, despite its rural location and ramshackle infrastructure, as attested by the throngs of Millennials and bearded locals milling about excitedly and knocking back scrumpy in the open shed as we arrived.

Having had such a good time on our previous visit, I wondered if it would live up to the memories but it was as endearing as ever. We were also lucky enough to bump into the man himself and hear about his most recent cider-making experiments while sipping our tankards of Wedmore’s finest, poured straight from the barrel. A real must visit at any time of the year, but especially if your trip coincides with harvest time when you might get to see the hydraulic Beare press in action.

Sunday morning meant a visit to the charming Curious Kitchen, where we forwent cheese in order to eat bacon and peanut brittle doughnuts washed down with piccolos. Just as glorious as it sounds. That was swiftly followed by lunch overlooking England’s busiest fishing harbour, at Rockfish Brixham, so it was a wonder we could manage any cheese or cider (I’d already had a pint of Sea Cider at lunchtime, just in case).

But manage it we did, with a visit to West Country Deli on Fore Street to pick up a chunk of Devon Blue, a cow’s milk cheese made by Ben Ticklemore (who also makes Beenleigh and Harbourne from Sheep and Goats milk respectively. The former often described as England’s Roquefort, which is certainly no Bad Thing). 

We then headed up the hill to the Queens Head, a lovely real ale pub that also had both keg and cask Hunt’s cider on the bar (we had the Andsome Bay and the Hazy Dazy) alongside a vast array of scratchings and crisps plus a banging-looking Sunday roast. The perfect place to drunkenly write postcards, before leaving them on the table…

On Tuesday morning an innocent wrong turn, about ten minutes from Sharpham Vineyard and Dairy, lead to a detour of knuckle-whitening proportions that almost ended our marriage somewhere down a tiny lane just outside Dartmouth. As it was we arrived rather late and rather dishevelled, but to a stunning backdrop of the sunny Dart estuary that cheered our spirits somewhat.

Our rush was to make it in time for the midday tasting session, which wasn’t actually running due to staff shortage. Fortuitously they also offered a DIY guided tour of the vineyards with a self-guided cheese and wine tasting after, that actually worked out far better for us as it meant we could faff and wander and bicker at our leisure with no one to hear us for miles around.

After our very pleasant, and remarkably bad-temper free walk, we reconvened for a wine tasting ‘basket’ of four different wines of your choosing plus a cheese platter with crackers and chutney. I’m not sure if it was the Devon air, the views, or the booze going to my head, but this was one of the best parts of our whole trip. The cheeses - their brie plus Sharpham and Sharpham with chives, that you can see being made at the factory next door - were delicious, the wine even better and the company exceptional.

Of course we wanted a bottle to take home, and after some careful consideration between seven of our eight choices, we had decided on a bottle of the barrel fermented bacchus. Of course, on trying the final (and most expensive) one the Ewing was smitten, and it was very nice when eaten with a rib of Devon Red beef when we got back home the following Sunday.

After such a clement morning it seemed too much to expect the weather to hold, and sure enough the afternoon turned damp and drizzly. Undeterred we set off for our second yomp of the day, from our base just outside Brixham; past St Mary’s Bay and along Berry Head to the Guardhouse Café, chosen because of the local cider and the Devon cream teas.

I’m really not sure there is anything so pleasurable as sitting down at four o’clock to a plate of fluffy scones, anointed with lashings of thick clotted cream and good jam (cream applied first, the Devonian way), washed down with pots of good strong breakfast tea. 

The Guardhouse did not disappoint, with freshly baked fluffy scones supplied with limitless cream and jam and a pot of hot water for a second cuppa.  The cider – the normal and pink from nearby from Ashridge - was entirely superfluous, and I’m not sure the sweetness of the apple was the most suitable accompaniment, but it was very welcome anyway and helped ward off the cold on the trek back home