Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Fischer's Baslow Hall

In a bid to trump conventionality the Ewing and I celebrated our nuptials on leap Day. As well as being a suitably contrary date, we also cunningly thought it would avoid the need for scrabbling round for the least wilted bunch of petrol station flowers every 365 days. Of course, all that has actually happened is that we now seem to find ourselves celebrating both the 28th February and 1st March.

This year we also decided to throw in a lunch on the 27th, at the Michelin starred and highly lauded and Fischer’s of Baslow Hall, whach was just down the road from where we were staying in Tideswell. That's of course  if we could correctly follow the sat nav; instead we ending up taking a more ‘scenic’ route and having a customary anniversary ‘disagreement’ before we had even arrived.

Luckily things picked up pretty quickly and we were soon enjoying a glass of fizz alongside some (polenta?) jenga chip thingies, served with a dish of sweet and smoky spiced aubergine puree, whilst sitting beside a roaring log fire in the drawing room. So far so good.

On being seated in the dining room we were left alsone with the fancy bread basket, a very dangerous thing indeed, which contained a hazelnut and raisin roll (good) and a treacle loaf (better). This was followed by an amuse bouche of onion soup topped with thyme foam. The herb infused foam, so often an unpleasant spaff of froth, was particularly tasty, working well with the sweet earthy soup.

We had picked the - very decent value at £27 for three courses - set menu, and to start I chose the seared squid with radicchio risotto; a riot of dark pink grains topped with a scattering of frosty sea herbs that looked rather like nuggets of green glass that had washed up on the beach. This was very good without really jumping up and grabbing me, I think I was expecting more of a bitter note from the radicchio to act as a foil for the sweet and tender squid.

The Ewing’s sea bream with blood orange and fennel was another fine looker. Here the bright acid punch of the citrus really set off the fish, which had been cooked perfectly to end up with crisp skin whilst remaining soft and flaky within. Blood orange is a fabulous thing, and here the brightness and astringency felt like a welcome shot of summer.

For the main we both chose the bavette with shin pie, cheesy mash, greens and carrots. Well, who wouldn’t? This was another fine piece of cooking; the slow cooked shin served in a hollowed out marrow bone only being improved by its buttery potato carapace. The steak had an iron-rich smoky flavour that paired perfectly with the slick of good gravy and pile of roasted root veg.

To drink I went with a Thornbridge Jaipur, brewed just up the road in Bakewell; a rather unconventional but spot on pairing with the spiciness perfectly complimenting the beef. The Ewing had a fishbowl of something red, French and pricey. Good job I love her.

My pudding, a kind of ‘deconstructed’ vanilla cheesecake with blood orange sorbet, felt like a bit of a disappointment, but only because there was so little of it and it tasted so good. Refined and beautiful is all very well - and the cheesecake was meltingly buttery and rich, probably not to be recommended in huge quantities - but three mouthfuls doesn't a memorable pud make.

In contrast the Ewing’s chocolate cake with brown butter ice cream, crumble and malted cream came as a generous slab of stickiness that kept even her quiet for a few minutes. The smoky caramel sauce and malted cream made particularly fine accompaniments.

From here we retired back into the drawing room for coffee and petit fours in front of the fire. The coffee, a silver cafetiere of giant proportions that was left on our table for us to help ourselves, was a caffeinated dream for the Ewing. Although she may have felt differently when trying to sleep later that evening after five or six cups of the stuff. The petit fours - fair salted caramel truffles and fabulous raspberry macaroons - were also very welcome, even after all that had preceded them

The whole Fischer’s experience is resolutely old school and none the worse for it. From the glasses of fizz to start to the coffee around the fire to finish, we were looked after impeccably. What’s more it’s thumpingly good value grub if you eat from the lunch menu and the manicured grounds are the perfect place to burn off a chocolate truffle or two. A very happy three quarters anniversary, indeed.

Fischer's at Baslow Hall on Urbanspoon

Friday, 20 March 2015

Drinking up Derbyshire

Part of the appeal of visiting the Peak District - aside, of course, from the magnificent hills and dales, classic architecture, culture and history - was the chance to visit the brewery and tap house of two of Britain's best loved brewers; Thornbridge in Bakewell and Buxton in, well, Buxton.

There are some moments in life which are pretty impossible to improve upon. Being called up to be offered a new job just at the the moment you arrive for a brewery tour with unlimited beer to drink at the end is certainly difficult to beat.

Such was the case when we turned up at the Thornbridge Riverside brewery, where my fellow tour mates were treated to the sight of me whooping and jumping up and down outside the full length windows, and before a drop had even been consumed. As if I actually needed a reason to drink more beer....

After getting a good view of the tanks where the brewing happens (recently expanded just a week or so before to increase capacity by a massive 40%) we were invited up into the control room where they check the quality of the beer as it ferments. 

Here they also experiment with new flavours and on our visit we saw a host of vibrating test tubes alongside various phials of beer that were being heated, cooled and otherwise adulterated whilst potentially on their way to become a new flavour in the left field series - a line of ales previously featuring parma violet porter and peanut butter stout.

We also got to see got to see the barrel store which is currently holding the second edition of Sour Brown - this batch maturing in French red wine casks with raspberries, rhubarb and cherries - alongside a contingent of beer quietly aging in Four Roses bourbon barrels.

Then it was back to the bar to celebrate with several jars, including bottles of Kipling, a South Pacific pale ale; Sequoia, an American amber ale; Twin Peaks, a Sierra Nevada collaboration and, on keg, Bayern, a very tasty classic Bavarian pils, and Cocoa Wonderland - the Ewing's favourite - a rich, thick and incredibly chocolatey porter.

We also picked up a bottle or two of pretty much everything they had in stock, including their ten year anniversary beer, Japiur X, a imperial incarnation of their most famous beer that's brewed at a stonking 10%. A few of these the following weekend gave me even more reasons to celebrate (and commiserate the following morning).

Making our way from the brewery we set off to counteract the effects of lingering at the bar for too long. This lead us back into Bakewell and to the Red Lion's  oatcakes - the big, spongy pancakes, not the small Scottish biscuits - which are another specialty of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Although they are sadly dying out you can still find them on the menu here, stuffed with either cheese and bacon or cheese and onion. 

Rather like a French buckwheat crepe, and with a lovely nutty, slightly sour flavour, this was a great way to spend less than four quid. Add some of the best chips I have eaten for a while (more like mini roasties) served with a proper jug of fresh beef gravy, complete with chunks of meat bobbing in it and pint of Peak Ales Bakewell Best Bitter, brewed on the nearby Chatsworth Estate, it made a fine end to a fine day.

Of course there were some moments of our stay when we weren't liver bashing, and during those brief passages of sobriety we could enjoy views like this, of the Cathedral of the Peak in Tideswell, which we were lucky enough to glimpse through our bedroom window during our stay at the adjacent George Inn.

The George also provided a magnificent example of the proper full english. Tea, juice and cereal to start followed by plenty of buttered toast and a immaculate selection of bacon, sausages, fried egg, mushrooms and tomato.

Like the fabled perfect roast dinner, getting a decent fry up away from home is nearly an impossible thing, but for each of the four mornings we stayed here our breakfast was freshly cooked to order and spot on each time.

Stomachs lined we set off for the geothermal spa town of Buxton. Scuppered slightly in it's bid to become a 'northern Bath' - due to it's high elevation providing even more inclement weather than the British norm - it's never the less still a charming place, complete with its own opera house, Pavilion gardens and the Devonshire dome, which now houses part of the campus of the University of Derby.

Despite the notable architecture the main charm for us heathens was the Buxton Tap House, the brewery tap of the eponymous brewery who produce their ware on an industrial estate just outside the town. Being as they don't offer official tours of the premises a visit to the Tap House was the closest we were going to get to where the magic happens. But with a regularly changing selection of five dedicated casks and eight keg lines of their own beer, it didn't seem much like a poor second best.

We started gently with two different types of golden ale, both on cask; a half of Moor Top, hopped with chinook, for me and a Buxton Spa, hopped with citra, for the Ewing. Both were finely kept and went down with an effortless ease.

Next I tried a half of their famed Axe Edge, named for the moor south west of Buxton, and here also served - a rare sight - on cask. This, deservedly, often makes the list of top UK IPAs and it's not hard to see why. Hopped with Amarillo, Citra and Nelson Sauvin, the bitter bite of citrus and big topical fruit flavours still manage to belie the 6.8% Abv.

To eat I went with the once trendy, now decidedly retro, (showing my age) pub classic, nachos. Normally I wouldn't bother, applying the 'I could make this at home' rule to it, despite the fact nachos are amazing I haven't made them since I was a student. On this occasion I'm very glad I did, the heap of tortillas arrived smothered by their smoked beef shin chilli, salsa, jalapenos and a blanket of cheddar and mozzarella, with generous Pollock-esque dabs of guacamole and sour cream providing the finish touches.

The Ewing's chowder was just as great, the mussels being home smoked in their own smoker and joined by corn and chunks of bacon, ably supported by doorstops of buttered brown bread. Top notch pub grub all round. (The Chowder was a revelation - TE).

Continuing our progress through the list my next brew was the Wild Boar, on cask, coming in at 5.7%. A decent pale ale that starts initially with the sweet flavour of tangerines and honey before smacking you around the chops with a lovely dry, bitter finish.

The Ewing's Red Raspberry Rye, a beer I'd heard much about, was the most interesting drink of the day. This poured completely opaque with no head and a dark red colour (as opposed to some of the bottles I've seen, which seem to pour a little clearer and pinker in hue?) and tasted phenomenal; dry, tart, a touch of wheat and packed full of fresh raspberry flavour. Perhaps not for everyone, but a beer well worth sampling at least once. (Definitely!- TE)

Last up was my favorite of the day, the Nth cloud, a DIPA the colour of Irn Bru. This was fresh out the brewery and was in fantastic condition, with a slightly sweet, resinous, almost chewy quality and huge amounts of ripe mango and grapefruit.

The Ewing went with the no less magnificent Living End - this being the bourbon barrel version rather than the Islay whisky incarnation - a imperial stout coming in at a majestic 10.1%. Thick with coffee, malt and chocolate with vanilla and oak from the barrel aging. Dangerously smooth and the perfect night cap to send us back (along with a selection of bottle to takeaway) to Tideswell.


It wouldn't be a trip to the Peaks without a chance to sample some of the cakes and pastries that helped put the region on the map. By far the most famous of these is the baked offering from Bakewell, here known as a pudding not a tart and resembling more of a baked custard tart with a raspberry jam layer underneath than the iced mini Mr Kipling pies my Dad used to wolf down. 

I found the original puds were good, if a little oily, although I must have inherited the same unsophisticated taste buds as my Dad as I preferred the tooth-achingly sweet iced version with its frangipan sponge layer.

Better still were the Thar cakes - very gingery, crisp oat biscuits (they are a relative of Yorkshire's parkin) - and Wakes Cakes, crumbly - short biscuits flavoured with rose water and ground coriander - that we bought from the bakers in Tideswell. Beer and biscuits; there's plenty of treats in them thar hills.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Seven(ish) Thrills of Sheffield

Everybody knows that Steel City is also the most famous to be built on seven hills (there may be the small matter of Italy’s capital, with its Trevi Fountain and Coliseum, but Sheffield produced Bertie Bassett and the Cockers - both Joe and Jarvis – so it clearly nudges ahead).

The Ewing is also going through a little love in with the Rome of Yorkshire, after she saw a speculative application for a speculative job which she speculatively though of applying for, despite the closest she has previously ever got to the place being when we pass Meadowhall on the M1 on the way to my Aunt and Uncle’s. 

To indulge her new obsession, we decided to make a weekend of it on the way to our trip to the Peak District. So here we have a beery Sheffield thrill for every Sheffield hill, plus a coffee stop for luck (or for sobering us up...).

Just like our first stop in Birmingham last winter (with the fabulous Craven Arms), I think that our very first stop was here my favourite of the whole trip. Both Arms, Craven and Rutland, are similarly old school, the Craven with its Majolica tiling the Rutland with its 1920's frontage of red brick and gold faience, and both serve a good selection of fine beer in old fashioned, dark wood surrounds.

The Craven Arms also has a mural by Sheffield street artist Phlegm (thankfully the paintings are more attractive than the name), whose distinctive works crop up in many other places across the city.

After battling Sunday buses and spring gales we were just in time for lunch. But before we could eat, it was time for the fabled first drink of the holiday. In my case a half of Magic Rock High Wire, a juicy, tropical fruit filled pale ale from the Huddersfield brewery that’s not seen much down South. The Ewing had a pint of something dark and smoky; always start like you mean to go on.

The food was fantastic. I’m pretty sure that, along with my Aunt’s steamed ginger pudding that I ate on the last evening of our trip, the roast veal with dauphinoise potatoes I ordered was the best thing I consumed in a week and a half (and I consumed a lot). The mushroom gravy, augmented by a drop of the famous Hendos, still haunts my dreams. 

The Ewing’s slow roasted shoulder of lamb was also a belter, with exemplary roast spuds and three Yorkies (although they did have a faint whiff of Aunt Bessie about them). To drink was a second Magic Rock, the belting Big Top, an India red ale based on their Rapture, but boosted up to a tasty 8%, that went down a little too smoothly.

Pudding was a good homemade chocolate brownie accompanied by remarkably good homemade banana and coffee ice cream and a half of Magic Rock’s Chipotle Punchline stout. A decent brew, although I felt the smoky after burn from the chillies rather disconcerting.

Next we considered traversing the city to check out the Red Deer or Bath Taps, but the cruel winds and hail forced us back towards the station; which turned out to be perfect for a couple of snifters at the Sheffield Tap, the famed pub built at the side of the station and accessed from sheaf street or platform 1b.

They’ve got a big range of cask and keg but not a huge amount that interested me on our visit. In the end I settled for a fair, if a little pricey, half of 6 North's Hop Classic Belgian IPA. The Ewing picked the even more expensive Ten Fidy from the Oskar Blues Brewery, at a lethally smooth 10.5 %, and was rewarded with an awesome imperial stout with a malty sweetness and a big lick of dark chocolate and bitter coffee.

Their bottle selection was much more interesting, and we settled for two efforts from the Marble Brewery; the Chocolate Marble and the Earl Grey IPA. Although they came from the wrong side of ‘tPennines, both were belters, the IPA being particularly great and well worth seeking out. I also –displaying a streak of drunken machismo – ordered the chilli jerky to nibble on, the large red lettering proclaiming ‘warning’ not enough to put me off. Well, reader, they weren’t wrong, the aftereffects on my digestive tract being even more cataclysmic the following day when combined with all the beer that had been drunk.

First stop the following morning was for caffeine at the rather lovely Sellers Wheel branch of Tamper Coffee, a lovely bright and beautiful space co owned by a couple of Kiwis, a nation known for their great coffee and brunches.

We weren't disappointed, despite our order turning up in a rather random fashion with rather random excuses; The Ewing's omelette, followed by my coffee, followed by my sandwich (sandwich press was heating up) followed, finally, by the Ewing's coffee (the pour over takes a while to prepare).

Timing grumbles aside, the freshly cooked omelette - four cheese with red onion - was delicious, although butter would have been nice to go with the rye toast. My salt beef and gherkin sarnie with mustard mayo was, as the hedgehog haired presenter of a famous road food TV show may have said, off the chain. 

My piccolo was good, although I really liked the lamington I had asked for alongside whilst waiting for my sandwich to toast (I was on holiday). When the Ewing's coffee finally turned up it was in a chemistry beaker (crazy. TE) which, once poured into her glass, rendered it rather lukewarm. Still the flavours were good, so much so we picked up a bag of the Tamper house blend beans for my Uncle on the way out.

After breakfasting we made way of the unusually sunny weather by visiting the nearby Millennium Gallery - complete with its giant horse sculpture made of Sheffield cutlery and striped (both blue and white for the Owls and red and white for the Blades) bottles of Hendos - and the adjoining Winter Gardens; a fine temperate glasshouse housing an array of tropical plants seldom seen in South Yorkshire alongside shops and a cafe.

Next we made our way down to Kelham Island, formally an industrial area, the 'island' being created by a diversion of the River Don to power the town corn mill, and now home to the Kelham Island museum which celebrates the cities rich heritage, alongside some flashy new student digs and five pubs.

One of these, predictably, was the site of our first stop. The Fat Cat, opened in 1850 in Kelham Island, and which styles itself as Sheffield’s ‘first real ale pub’. While it was under ownership by a big brewery for many years, in 1981 it was put up for auction and became a mecca for independent and local beer lovers. 

Being (literally) next door to the Kelham Island brewery, two of its permanent fixtures are Kelham Island bitter and their signature brew Pale Rider. With both beers having to make less than a 20 yard trip, it’s no surprise to say they were in tip top condition. The pork pies, on the bar were also pretty great.

Being a Monday, the atmosphere (no piped muzak or fruit machines here) was a little lacking and the staff a little curt; although it was nice to see the steady stream of locals, most known by name, propping up the bar and the roaring log fire in the corner. The rest of the food – curry night £4.50 with £1.50 pints, fresh pies baked daily, ploughmans and burgers  – also looked good, and very good vale too.

Saving ourselves we made our way to the end of the road, home of Kelham’s other famous hostelry, the Kelham Island Tavern. The set up here is less warren-like than the Fat Cat, and the atmosphere livelier and more welcoming, and, even though we had just missed the hot beef rolls, the barman offered to rustle us up a chip butty if we liked. 

Kind as the offer was, we stuck to our liquid diet; for me a pint of local brwery Abbydale's Deception and the Ewing had halves of Barnsley’s Acorn Old Moor Porter and a Thwaites Symphonic, a blackberry infused stout.

Another good no nonsense pub, the kind we excel at and that are now, sadly, becoming a rare breed, the Kelham Island is a very fine place to while away the afternoon. The highlight of our visit being when the dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire barman had to explain to a group of young Frenchwomen what exactly a scotch egg was; priceless.

From the old to the new, dinner was at Craft and Dough, Sheffield’s new pizza and craft beer gaff. Despite being able to see the Fat Cat and The Kelham Island tavern from the window, there’s no bitter and pork scratchings on the menu here. Actually, I tell a lie, there was a special pork scratching topped pizza made in honour of pig week, but they had sadly already sold out on the very first day of it being on the menu. And they also have bitter too, of which I enjoyed a bottle of Saltaire’s Joshua Jane. Proving there isn’t too much difference between the past and the present after all.

Being thwarted by the absence of the piggy special, I went for the equally protein loaded Crafty Cuts, an braised ox cheek, pepperoni, balsamic red onion mozzarella and oregano number, while the Ewing had the veggie Yorkshire Goats Curd, Henderson's Relish and with baby leeks grown at Furnace Hill, the restaurant’s own allotment in Kelham. I think I actually preferred the veggie option, although both were fine pies; generous and with a base that was at once chewy and charred, just the way it should be.

Puds came in the form of soft serve milk ice cream - a little boring, if I’m honest - which was enlivened greatly by the bottle of Brass Castle Bad Kitty vanilla infused stout (say that in a Yorkshire accent) I drank alongside it. The Ewing chose the Yorkshire rhurbarb mess, served with a Ilkley Siberia, a rhubarb infused saison and her second Ilkley beer of the night, after enjoying a bottle of Pale with her pizza. The mess was outstanding; batons of bright pink ‘barb, sweet crème anglaise and shards of meringue studded with tart rhubarb jelly, strong contender for pud of the year, even at this early stage.

 
The icing on the cake, literally and figuratively, came when JP, their lovely front of house, offered us the last couple of slices of his delicious chocolate birthday cake. Many thanks JP, and his Mum, who baked the fudgy, squidgy beauty (hat a treat! TE). You can see from our dishes, even after the shameless gluttony before, how well it went down.


First stop on our final day was the Three Tuns, which is known for being shaped like the Flat Iron Building (or should the Flat Iron building actually be known for resembling the Thee Tuns?) Whatever, this is another unusual and fine looking pub, recently taken over by the chaps behind the Rutland Arms.

 
Grabbing a quick half - a Bad Boi Rye IPA for me and a ginger infused stout for the Ewing -we managed to grab a spot in the ‘nose’ of the pub, which, with its boat shape, felt rather like being in Titanic, another beer and maybe I would have been doing my best Kate Winslet impression.

After the fearsome jerky consumed on the first night you may have thought I’d have learnt my lesson. Sadly not, as this time I opted to try the Pwhoar Horse My Brittle Pony (worth it for the name alone) a ‘100% beef free’ horse jerky. Whilst flavoured with chillies and soy, mercifully it was much milder and provided a good chew to accompany my pint.

Last up was the Harley - a quickly improvised stop when we realised the highly regarded Thornbridge pub, the Bath Taps, didn’t serve any grub. The Harley -along with the Riverside in Kelham and Jake’s bar in Leeds - serves food from the Twisted Burger Co., and we were soon happily ensconced on their battered leather sofas whilst waiting for our lunch.

I chose the Limp Brizket; Double Beef Patty, Shredded Brisket, American cheese, onion jam and techno Burger Sauce; and the Ewing the Pig Daddy Kane; double beef patty, pulled pork, American cheese, Kraken BBQ sauce and chorizo & apple jam; and a sharing portion of sweet potato fries. Not for dieters, then.

Overall these were pretty strong burgers; whilst my patties were overcooked, the outside had a good crust and the brisket was inspired, adding a juicy beefiness. A little bit of chilli heat would have been good, but I compensated with yet more Hendos. The Ewing’s effort was also commendable, although, with both BBQ sauce and apple jam, a little sweet for me, but the sweet potato fries, with their crunchy coating, were perfect.


To drink was a half of Saltaire’s Blackberry Cascade, an American style pale ale infused with a hint of the said fruit. And for me a pint of Farmer’s Bitter from nearby Bradfield Brewery, a rurally inspired and thoroughly English beer that was the perfect prompt for saying goodbye to the hustle of Steel City and making our way to the next stop, the bucolic Peak District.