Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Squiffy in Summertown

I never really found this time of year particularly endearing when I was growing up. It’s still cold, still muddy, still not light enough to play outside after dinner. The lengthening days means the snow doesn't settle, yet still it falls (normally while I was doing cross country in running shorts and an aertex t shirt). Most of my memories are waiting with a child-like impatience for something good to actually happen. 

Now I’ve slowed down a little, although no less impatient, I can appreciate the subtle changes that herald a new year rolling around. The wonderful pale light that bathes everything in a Northern Renaissance glow as the sun climbs a little higher in the sky each day. Then the first of the snowdrops peeking through, followed by crocuses followed by daffs followed by bluebells followed by blossom.

In another nod to the rituals of growing older, we seem to have started taking an annual late winter pilgrimage to Oxford, which always seems a touch too early to see my favourite blossom – the pink blooms on the almond tree outside the church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street - in its full splendour. This year, however, we made up for it by taking a lovely walk along the canal path in the low sun for Sunday lunch at Pompette in Summerstown.

Currently the critics' darling, the space at Pompette is split into half restaurant, half wine bar the former offering a tight menu of French classics, the latter a separate selection of snacks and charcuterie. As I fancied a relaxed afternoon of getting sloshed (the name is the French for tipsy) and eating a variety of cured meats and fried things, we chose the latter option, a good call as we ended up with all the warmth and atmosphere without the slight starchiness of the other side of the room.

We started with glorious bread and glorious salted butter and more glorious salt to sprinkle on the salted butter and all accompanied by a cold bottle of Austrian pet nat, as that’s what all the cool kids drink. I thought it tasted like funky cider, The Ewing thought it tasted of ‘funky grapes’, both of us enjoyed it a great deal as we are obviously still cool, if slipping further and further away from our youth.

The cervelles de canut -  a fromages blanc flavoured with herbs, shallots, cider vinegar & walnut oil – has got to be the best thing (fifty pence under) a fiver can get you in North Oxford, or North just about anywhere. A Lyonnaise favourite, the name translates as "silk worker's brain", after the canuts, or weavers, who worked in the city; thankfully the dish itself is far less gruesome than it’s moniker might suggest.

The aforementioned glorious bread here has been turned into crisp, golden toasts for dunking, with the only disadvantage being the airy holes give the cheese more escape routes as you move mouthwards.

Anchovy, shallot & butter toasts were yet another incarnation for the humble loaf, and possibly the best of all; lightly toasted and topped with a slab of butter you could leave teeth marks in (the correct depth, according to my wife) and topped with plump salty anchovies and small rounds of sweet shallot. An unassailable combination one I’m already excitedly thinking of replicating in the garden with a cold bottle of rose come the first sniff of summer.

Croquettes were crisp breadcrumbed nuggets of wobbly fried bechamel, studded with chunks of superlative ham. Available per piece, I could easily have taken down a dozen. In the back ground you can see a superlative celeriac remoulade; an unassuming looking dish of the finely shredded root veg in a creamy dressing that packed a huge mustardy and caper-flecked punch.

Terrine maison — classic pork, chicken and veal terrine with pistachios, was a stunner looks wise but could have possibly benefited from a little more time warming up before I launched in. That impatient streak again.

Alongside the terrine came a large terracotta jar with a pair of wooden tongs and the announcement; ‘cornichons, for you’. Possibly the three most romantic words in the English language. Certainly the three most dangerous, as an unlimited supply of pickled cucumbers to accompany the cured pork products saw me eating well into double figures, as attested by the Zantac later that evening.

Cornichons also came adorning the plate of duck rillettes. Originally the Ewing wanted to eschew either these or the terrine, but I pressed for both and was rewarded with what I named ‘rillettes face’; the look of joy when she had scooped up some shredded meat and a little pickle onto a crust of bread and popped it in her mouth. The fact it was initially neglected, due to a surfeit of other goodies, allowing it to warm up a little also helped boost unctuousness.

'Green salad' was tacked onto the end of the order to try and make myself feel better about eating my greens. I'm not sure the wonderful creamy dressing had any tangible health benefits, but it tasted bloody good. 

You would think after such vasts amounts of food even my wife would be satisfied but, after finishing the second basket of bread she forlornly proclaimed 'is that all' in a mournful Pooh--like voice, before confessing she briefly thought the succulent decorating the table was another dish we had ordered. She was only thwarted when she inspected it a little closer and realised it was still potted in soil.

Luckily, and this was a pre-requisite on eating in the bar, puddings could be ordered on both sides of the divide, and the Ewing was most excited by the kirsch choux bun with Griottine cherries and hot chocolate sauce  and, despite my sugar ban, I was excited for her. While the first attempt arrived sans crème pat the second bun was plump with custard and gave her another chance to anoint it with the jug of hot chocolate sauce it came served with; immensely satisfying, even just to watch.

Obviously I was still being superciliously smug about not eating sugar, before promptly ordering a glass of Sauternes that was pretty much liquid honey, and quaffing a good bit of the Ewing's port - Graham's Six Grapes - for good measure.

A wonderful lunch with wonderful company; and another reason to love this time of year is the light flooding through the window that made my wife postprandially glow in the most lovely way - ably aided and abetted by all the desert wine.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Small beer, Worthing

The first month of the year; traditionally a dreary slog of dark mornings and diets and dry January. And while it does sometimes feel like winter may never end, I’ve found myself enjoying the simple pleasures it also brings; racing to get home while it’s still light, flaming sunrises, snow days, the first daffodil. And, for the first time in a long time, feeling more like me. And that’s (mostly) a glorious thing.

To punctuate the overwhelming greyness and to herald what I hope is going to be a cracking year, I also decided to book a weekend away in Worthing. No real reason, just a random urge to get away, see the sea, walk on the pier and spend some time with the lovely Ewing,  who normally feels far less enthusiastic about my plans but seemed (moderately) excited about this one. 

And if the idea of spending all that time with me wasn’t quite enough of a selling point, finding Worthing had seven micropubs and we were going to visit all of them after eating fish and chips on the beach was surely the clincher.

Although I’m still not absolutely clear what constitutes a ‘micropub’ and I’m not sure our crawl made it that much clearer, according to the Micropub Association ‘is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.’ What’s not to like?

Well, lack of ‘electronic entertainment’ might be a problem if you’re my wife and it’s the FA Cup 5th round weekend. A problem she negotiated by listening to the radio through one ear phone for most the afternoon. I did wonder why she seemed to be staring at me with particular interest at our first stop, the Georgi Fin in West Worthing, until I realised she was actually listening to Accrington Stanley Vs Derby County.

Thankfully I had my first drink of the day to keep me entertained which, after setting myself a challenge to only drink Sussex brews, was a pint of High Weald’s Chronicle (East Grinstead) at an eminently sensible 3.8%. Possibly verging towards triple B (boring brown bitter) in these Citra obsessed times, it was nevertheless a refreshing drop, bringing to mind something George Orwell might have supped while sitting by a coal fire and eating a plate of boiled turnips. Something we all might have to look forward to at the end of March….

The Ewing went a little further afield with her choice of the Pig and Porter (just over the border in Tunbridge Wells) rowanberry saison. I think she enjoyed it, contrary to appearances. In fact the GF was a good start all round – a friendly place with a good range of six gravity dispensed cask beers and three on keg, plus local ciders, wines and spirits.

We initially walked past the Green Man Ale and Cider House on the way to the next stop, only to find the door shut. When The Ewing saw the guy inside holding four fingers up, she confidently told me they would be open in four minutes. Fortunately I wasn't that pissed and realised he probably meant four o'clock, something a quick Google search confirmed. As we were an hour early it was back to the Green Man for a scoop first.

Landlord Les was very helpful when we asked which beers were local, with Goldmark down the road in Arundel being the choice for both of us - the Black Lion Porter for the Ewing and a pint (the idea of pacing myself falling quickly by the wayside) of American Hop Idol for me.

Both beers turned out to be crackers in fine condition; mine was fruity and hoppy while still sessionable, the Ewing rated it 'surprisingly good'. While her porter was  deceptively light in colour but with a rich roasty flavour.  Snacks weren’t strictly local, with scratchings from the Black Country and ham flavoured crisps from Chesham, back round our way, but they were very tasty.

I found the Green Man to be a wonderful curiosity (despite not being the only place like this we would visit over the weekend), with a welcoming landlord, friendly patrons and a real feeling of, slightly eccentric, traditional English bonhomie. Sitting there, drinking a perfectly kept pint and eating my bag of crispy pig skin on a grey Saturday afternoon, my wife beside me excitedly reading the vidiprinter scores, was one of those small moments of intense happiness.

After whiling away a happy hour, the Grizzly Bear, now stop three, was finally ready for us. This was a much hipper vibe to our previous stops with hops hanging from the ceiling, LED lights strung around the bar, and a bookcase that swings around to reveal a secret passage (rather prosaically it just leads to the loos). They were also playing a welcome soundtrack of jazz and blues, which matched the drizzly winter weather perfectly, although I'm not sure what the Micropub Association would have made of it all

The focus was on keg beer (not sure they had any cask on our visit?), wine and cocktails from a succinct list. I saw Beavertown, as well as a couple of ciders and a well known Irish stout, but nothing from closer to home. Secretly I was quite pleased as I had also clocked a mean-looking pornstar martini while looking on Instagram.

Yes, I'm fully aware that passionfruit isn't native to the south coast but I decided cocktails didn't count, which was just as well as this was a pearler. It might be a blast from the past but made like this, complete with a flute of prosecco chaser, it deserves to be revived.

The Ewing also enjoyed their take on an old fashioned, which was served a little longer than usual, and also appeared a different colour, but still came with the traditional orange and cherry garnish. I didn't read the menu, and I can't seem to find hide or hair of it on the interweb, so I can't tell you much more than that it didn't last long.

Founded in an ex hairdressing salon in 2014, the Brooksteed Ale House was named CAMRA’s Sussex pub of the year in 2016 and, judging from the crowds spilling out early on a Saturday night, it looks like it is still a firm favourite.

The time it took to squeeze our way in and get to the bar was also the perfect amount for me to Google some of the unfamiliar beers on the board and ascertain which ones were local. In the end the Ewing and I both went halves of Holler, formally of Uckfield but now brewing in Brighton. Um Bunko juicy pale on keg for me and Loot NEIPA on cask for the Ewing.

Both these were much more of the ‘craft’ ilk than previous beers we had tried, with plenty of juicy hops, as the names suggest. On balance I probably preferred my keg  offering, as the sticky, dank fruitiness seems to work better at a slightly lower temperature and with a bit of spritz.

That said I still think one of my very favourite beers was Beavertown/Naparbier’s DIPA colab, Bone King, which I had on cask at the Craft Beer Co. in Clerkenwell in 2014, and still dream about now. As you can see from the pictures, the Ewing was still utterly thrilled to be only half way round our trek…

The next two stops (originally missed out, but unearthed thanks to further Googling, much to my wife’s continued delight) were to the east of town, which meant crossing the railway line (again) and negotiating an inside-out umbrella and a flooded underpass and retrieving a missing glove.

Mission accomplished we arrived at Beer No Evil on the Brighton Road thirsty for round five. Or, more accurately, wet and bedraggled and pretty pissed, but at least not pissed off with each other (at that point, anyway...).

Pitched somewhere between micro pub and bottle shop this was possibly the best range of beers we saw to takeaway (and drink in) including the beer du jour on Instagram the weekend we visited, Verdant’s Putty. There was also a full range of Unbarred cans (brewed in Hove), and a good selection of Burning Sky and Kernal in 750 ml bottles.

I had a schooner of the new English IPA, brewed by Abyss in Lewes, which is their take on a NEIPA, but brewed with all English hops and malt. I wish I was in a position by that time to tell you something illuminating about how it tasted, but I wasn't. Certainly looks good from the pics, though.

The Ewing went for the only lager (kolsch) of our trip, a schooner of Entroido, an unusual pink version also brewed by Abyss and made with Sussex grapes and malt and Spanish hops. Again, who honestly knows if she enjoyed it by this point, but her expression suggests it was going down ok.

Onwards, to our next stop, the Old Bike Store, also on the Brighton Road. The eagle-eyed amongst you may notice the picture was taken in the daylight. No, we didn’t pull an all-nighter but when we arrived there were a gaggle of smokers by the doorway sheltering from the rain, so I decided to take a pic on the way out. And then promptly forgot.

Previously an actual bike shop, the long, skinny space seemed a bit sterile at first but overall I  really enjoyed the whole OBS experience. Especially the pristine tiled bar area and the friendly, knowledgeable staff who were happy to make local recs. 

I'm not even sure what the Ewing even drank, judging from the picture I'm going to say Arbor's The Devil Made Me Brew It, but whatever it was I know she enjoyed it more than her face suggests. I would also like to thank her for patiently drying my jacket on the portable heater without managing to scald herself or my clothing. An impressive feat at this point.

I had a half of the Scaramanga from Gun Brewery in Heathfield; partly because it was local but mostly because of the name. at 3.9 ABV, it was only one per cent stronger than my first beer of the day but proved a very different beast to end on. It was gluten free too, if you're into that kind of thing. I'm not, as I went for a Pizza on the way back to the hotel (the extra hot offering from Pizzaface. Recommended at the time, not so much the morning after...)

The following day heralded the final stop on the tour, Anchored in Worthing, the doyenne of micropubs in the town and also its first, opened in August 2013 . Described by landlord Nigel Watson as a ‘one room pub with no music, no gaming, machine or pool tables, no food not even a bar', walking in on a busy Sunday afternoon to a scene of happy people, excitable dogs and good conversion, it’s everything you hope a micropub would be.

All the three cask ales on the board were local and luckily they also offered flights, so I didn't have to make any difficult decisions. In fact everything they offer here is Sussex-centric, from the ales, ciders and perries to local wines of all hues from Bolney Estate and Nutbourne with their Nutty brut at a very reasonable 30 quid a bottle.

As promised there was a fine looking cheeseboard, along with crackers and pate and chutney and pickles. Sadly, after our lunch we had both eaten at the nearby Crabshack, neither of us could manage a slither, despite much good-natured encouragement persuading us to get stuck in.

Alongside the third Goldmark beer of the weekend,  the Moshpit IPA, I tried the Blonde Bird golden pale ale from Greyhound in West Chiltington and the Parody session IPA from Firebird from Rudgwick, Horsham. 

My hangover plus the glass of wine I had already imbibed put the breaks on me ordering another, but the lady we got chatting to had the right idea; order a flight then order a pint of your favourite as a chaser. In this case we both agreed on Goldmark, my standout brewery of the trip. The Ewing stuck with soft drinks, but didn't feel short-changed with her Folkingtons hot ginger beer.

While my wife would probably describe me as far too anti-social for micropubbing I thoroughly enjoyed our experience, Despite the fact I actually had to talk to people, including my wife… Only joking darling, I loved the sea air, Sussex ales and even the socialising.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Bucks bites: batter up

I’m not quite sure why the global schnitzel/escalope/tonkatsu phenomena hasn’t taken off on these shores. Sure, we have nuggets and kievs and breaded chicken strips (a box of 5 Maccy D’s Selects, with sour cream dip, is my new jam), but a flattened piece of meat, bread crumbed and fried, still remains elusive. And what isn't better breadcrumbed and fried.

After visiting Australia a few times to see my family, I'm often asked ‘why don’t you move there?’ To which I reply the weather (I’d melt); the history (I love old stuff, just ask my wife…); and the football (have you seen the A League…). 

But, as well as the fam, when I get back home I do miss being able to get a schnitty at the pub. Even if you have to drink your grog in schooners. For me it’s a near perfect pub meal, something you wouldn’t make at home – a proper schnitzel really requires shallow frying and involves much mess with all the double-dipping and dredging – and is also perfect to soak up the booze.

The Poles have a rich history of beating and breading things, which has made Syrena my second favourite place to go and eat in High Wycombe (almost next door to Dosa Special, which still remains my absolute favourite). 

It's a simple set up with a handful of tables, a counter at the back where you order and pay, and a short menu which includes both pork and chicken schnitzels (and sometimes a special of a breadcrumbed minced meat cutlet), which you can also order topped with cheese and mushrooms. 

I’m not always a traditionalist, but haven’t looked past the classic pork yet. The cutlets are crisp and hot and greaseless, with the thin carapace of breadcrumbs perfectly billowing up from the tender meat as they are fried to order.

Although the escalope covers most of the plate, there’s still room for a couple of scoops of potatoes, that exist somewhere in that perfect place between boiled and mash and strewn with dill. Salad won’t fit, so comes on the side. Normally two different types that may include their excellent coleslaw, beetroot, sauerkraut or pickled cucumbers.

The schnitzel topped with a layer of sauteed mushrooms and a layer of melted cheese is served with fries, garlic sauce and salad and is also pretty great, if not quite as great as the classic version. It's certainly a good post-pub choice (as the restaurant closes at 8, it would have to be an afternoon session).

Another favourite are tender slices of roast neck of pork that come with Silesian dumplings; bouncy potato dumplings traditional to the Upper Silesia region of Poland with a distinctive depression made with a thumb for gravy. The dumplings, which are similar to gnocchi, are boiled in salted water before being covered in the aforementioned gravy. Proper rib-sticking stuff that is especially good with their braised sweet red cabbage.

When we took Stealth along for dinner, she had one of her favourites, beef goulash. I think her favourite is still Mummy P's beef stroganoff, but she still seemed very happy with her choice. The beef and red pepper stew, with its deep paprika-spiked gravy, comes with buckwheat - an underrated grain that doesn't get the love it deserves.

Homemade deserts include pancakes served with sour cream and sugar - they can also be ordered as a savoury course with mushroom gravy or goulash - and crepes with cheese jam or Nutella. They also have a glass cabinet, like the ones my sister and I would press our noses up against when on holiday as children, with a variety of cookies, choux buns, brownies and waffles.

Even though I'm still off the sweet stuff, I have sampled their 'cheesecake' on several occasions before the sugar ban. I use the word loosely, as it's a behemoth featuring a pastry base, a fluffy cream cheese filling and a layer of fruit (I've tried plum and apricot), before being topped with a layer of crisp meringue. Unsurprisingly it's also very, very good. In fact, the only way to improve it would be to roll it in breadcrumbs and fry it.