Saturday, 19 January 2013

2012: The Best of the Rest

So, Twenty Twelve was a bit of a cracker. You can read about the two most exciting parts here, but there was also the excitement of two honeymoons; the Olympics and Paralympics (where we Brits decided it was ok to cry and be gratuitously nice to each other); various get-togethers with family and friends (including an 80th birthday and a  New Year spent with some of my oldest and dearest pals); and, of course, plenty of eating and drinking along the way.

As has become the yearly tradition on the blog at around this time, here's some of the random food, drink and other miscellany that I haven't got around to writing about somewhere else but seemed too delicious not to remember. (Less a conventional 'best of', more a reminder of good time past, and why these trousers feel so tight....)

The turn of the year saw a trip to Stoke Newington, to finally meet my cousin Seth and catch up with his Mum and Dad. After a lovely lunch of bread, cheese and salad from the local farmers market we walked amongst the sheep's heads of Ridley Road before calling into Tugra, on the Stoke Newington Road for baklava. It was so good we had to walk back and pick up another box to take home with us. Not the best pre-wedding diet, but certainly the tastiest.

Paris was all about steakspastriesfoie gras and trotters. Oh, and a little romance, of course. I also can't omit to mention the fabulous cheese; not only did we bring our Neals Yard leftovers from the wedding (we had travelled straight from the reception), but we also had the most fantastic choice of French specimens at every shop and restaurant we visited. My favourite - well, certainly the most welcome - were a chestnut leaf and raffia wrapped Banon, and a little ash dusted pyramid of chevre we bought on our last morning. This, along with a bottle of vin rouge and some Poilaine raisin bread, provided the most perfect train picnic when we were delayed due to snow on the journey home. (I'm not sure our fellow passengers quite relished the pungent fromage as much as we did.)

March saw a visit to my Nan in Norfolk, with a stop off in Cambridge along the way. As well as eating  Fitzbillies buns for breakfast we also made a trip to the Cambridge Chop House. This was a great little place, with some stunning views of King's College from the ground floor dining room (there's also a large subterranean space), as well as some great, gravity dispensed local beers. 

The real star of the show, though is the meat. Specialising in good old 'British' grub, there is a focus on steak and game. We shared a pheasant wellington with red cabbage to start, followed by a whopper of a beef chop that made me feel a bit like Fred Flintstone, and some exemplary venison for the Ewing.

Considering our location there could be only one choice for pudding; Cambridge Burnt Cream with shortbread biscuits and a glass of something sticky. Those with a sweet tooth may also be tempted with the rest of their desert  their selection, including crumble, trifle and home-made arctic roll.

The Cambridge Chop House on Urbanspoon

While writing up our cross-country American adventures, our stop in Chicago seemed to get rather  forgotton. Here were a few of the (many) best bits:

We headed to Carson's in River North for the Ewing's birthday. Serendipitously Carson's has been around since 1977, exactly as long as the Ewing (sorry, Darling), and they both seem to be wearing pretty well. Carson's specialises in baby back ribs, as well as serving brisket, pork chops and chicken, smoked low and slow in a hickory wood-burning pit. As it says on the menu - 'no boiling, no marinade, no rubs or tenderisers, no liquid smoke, NOT 'fall-off-the-bone'. Real, authentic slow-cooked barbecue'.

The Ewing and I both ordered the half rack of ribs, served with coleslaw and a choice of side; in our case their famous potatoes au gratin (spuds sliced and served with vast amounts of cheddar and cream). Ribs were good; smoky, sweet, a little chewy. The potatoes took years from my life but I like to think I added a couple of months back by eating all my veg in the form of the tangy coleslaw. They also have a surprisingly decent beer menu; my pint of Three Floyd's Alpha King went down very nicely. 

Carson's on Urbanspoon

The infamous Chicago style dog 'dragged through the garden'. Chi Town weiners come served on a poppy seed bun and traditionally garnished with a luminous green relish, ball park mustard, sport peppers celery salt and a wedge of fresh tomato. Absolutely no ketchup allowed. We washed these down with Old Style beer, while watching the Cubs loose at Wrigley field on a Saturday afternoon. The quintessential American experience.

The first memorable breakfast in this round up was at Chicago's Lou Mitchell's; a classic diner, found at the start of Route 66, that's been serving breakfasts to the masses for over 85 years and where baskets of warm donut holes and packets of Milk Duds are still handed out to the lines of patrons eagerly waiting to get inside and enjoy the vast array of pastries, cakes, eggs and cereals.

On our early morning visit we enjoyed endless cups of coffee and a great, old fashioned, fresh fruit salad, followed by malted pecan waffles and ethereal banana pancakes served with crispy bacon and jugs of maple syrup. Just the sustenance we needed before our 52 hour train trip all the way to San Francisco.

Lou Mitchell's on Urbanspoon

The second breakfast; a perfect British fry up. We enjoyed this at Greendale's Farm Shop and Cafe in Devon, and it proved just the ticket after four days of partying hard down in Exeter. While it was a shame they had run out of hogs pudding (a West Country speciality), I still enjoyed some of the best black pudding I have eaten. Never was a plate of food and pot of tea so warmly welcomed. (If you were wondering, the Ewing ate her breakfast plus my unwanted fried eggs on two rounds of toast. An impressive effort.)

No summer would be complete without one of the Ewing's celebrated swiss rolls. This year her fluffy whisked sponge had been stuffed with lemon curd and home made limoncello-spiked cream, before being rolled up and finished with a crunchy sugar coating. Boozy, rich and sticky and too good not to have a second slice.

The world's greatest cake-maker being introduced to Mary Berry. Joking aside, this exciting meeting came about as the Ewing was helping to coordinate a local library volunteer event and the lovely Mary came to give a talk and present the awards. Although she seemed immune to the charms of all the baked goods on offer (I suppose there is too much of a good thing), I did feel rather proud as Ewing's victoria sponge was the first cake to be polished off.

While I blogged about the pasta on our tour of Tuscany, Marche, Umbria and San Marino there was plenty more to write home about in this charming corner of Italy. 

Contender for the one of the best things I ate this year was this rather modest looking scoop of pistachio gelato from Cafe Italia in Cagli. The kindly chap serving us pointed out the flavours that had been freshly churned that morning (all ably translated by our friend, Marinella) before we sat and ate our ice creams and drank our espresso in the shade of the town square. Maybe it was the heat, maybe we were soaking up the Italian gioia di vivere, but never has the simple trinity of frozen milk, sugar and nuts tasted so good.

Another speciality of the Umbria/Marche region is the the black truffle. During our trip we enjoyed them with shaved on pasta and beef carpaccio; studded through cheese and salami; and infused in wild honey. I was in my element when we found this shop selling local treats in the charming town of Gubbio, and I still have a jar of gloriously funky truffle paste, ready to slather over crostini or roast chicken, waiting in the cupboard.

During our trip we made the drive over to Fano; firstly to ogle the impossibly bronzed and beautiful Italian holiday makers, slowly baking in huge rows all across the beach; and secondly to sample the Brodetto di Fanese, the local interpretation of an Adriatic fish stew. Our waiter did patiently explain everything that was in it, including monkfish, mussels and mullet, but while the finer points have been lost to the midst of Frascati and too much sun, I do still remember was how good it tasted. There can be little more pleasing than sitting eating the day's catch as the fishermen were still mooring their boats metres in front of us.

We finished with a Moretta, a type of  cafe corretto, or 'corrected' coffee which the local fisherman would use to fortify themselves on cold mornings. Consisting of a sweetened ristretto fortified with brandy, rum, aniseed liquer and a twist lemon peel, which makes you wonder how they landed any fish at all. Bloody good, though.

Another Marche speciality is agnello scottadito or finger burning lamb chops. Cooked on an open fire, they're so named as they're so tasty people can't wait for them to cool down before tucking in. They featured on the menu at Ristaronte Maria - a gem of a place up in the mountains, where we stopped for our last lunch - alongside these tiny mutton kebabs with bitter wild greens. Served pink, they were impossibly tender and full-flavoured, with just the right charred fat to meat ratio and a sprinkling of salt and lemon. Simple perfection.

And to finish our trip, a glass of icy cold campari and soda enjoyed on our terrace, complete with stunning views out across the Appenine Mountains. Salute!

In October we took a trip to Wales, via the West Country, and ate lots of ice cream on the way. 

First up the 'ice cream from an Airstream', made by Harriet's Jolly Nice and served at Westonbirt Arboretum. We picked a  double scoop of Westonbirt Damson and Herefordshire Victoria Plum, seen here teetering precariously atop its cone. To be honest, I'm not really sure which was which, but both were lovely. The top scoop was light and refreshing, more like a sorbet than an ice cream, while the bottom scoop was rich and almost cream cheese-like in flavour.

Wales has a, rather surprisingly, strong ice cream heritage thanks to the influx of Italian immigrants that moved to the area from as early as the 18 century who soon began opening cafes, ice cream parlours and fish and chip shops. Two of the best known purveyors of frozen deserts in South Wales are Verdi's and Joe's, both of whom have branches in the Mumbles. 

Our first port of call was Verdi's, where I chose a  DIY sundae consisting of scoops of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, hot chocolate fudge sauce, mini marshmallows and a sugar wafer. While this was good (smother anything in marshmallow and chocolate and it would be hard to refuse), the coffee and stunning views were better.

A brisk walk along the Mumbles seafront and we were ready for our second ice cream of the afternoon. While the surrounding may not be as aesthetically pleasing (the outdoor table we sat at faced on to the Mumbles Road) the place was packed with pensioners and school kids all happily tucking in to cones and coffee.

I was tempted by another marshmallow and chocolate sundae, to compare with Verdi's effort earlier, but in the end I couldn't turn down a scoop of the intriguing-sounding Welsh cake. This was right up there with Cafe Italia as my scoop of the year. A rich, spicy nutmeg and cinnamon ice, studded with juicy raisins. A scoop or two of this on a warm Welsh cake would be a very fine thing indeed.

Or final stop was Shepherd's in Hay on Wye. A beautiful, old fashioned parlour that specialises in, as you may have gleaned from the name, sheep's milk ice creams. After dutifully eating our pannini and soup, alongside a couple of well made macchiatos, we made sure to leave enough room to sample a scoop or two. 

As it was the day before my birthday, I decided to celebrate with a slice of their homemade ice cream cake; stripy layers of hazelnut, chocolate and vanilla ice cream on a sponge base, all doused in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Worth getting another year older for. The Ewing's choice was slightly more refined; two scoops of sheep's milk ice in the intriguing, and delicious, blackcurrant and liquorice, and amaretti and marsala flavours.

What better way to end the year with yet more cake. This time it was Dorset apple, one of my favourites.  The first slice was eaten on Weymouth Harbour; a well deserved breakfast after missing our original hotel breakfast as the Ewing was 'struggling' somewhat after the merriment of the night before. Clotted cream crowned the weekend's excesses.

The second slice was eagerly consumed after a very wet and windy Boxing Day family walk on Burton Bradstock Beach (just down from the more famous Chesil, scene of some very tedious, but not yet forgotten, pebble measuring on my school geography field trip). This time there wasn't a tape measure in sight, just a slice of this, rich with fruit and spice and with a crunchy sugar crumble topping, and a cup of hot tea. 

After all the year's far-flung excesses it's cheering to remember that sometimes the simple things in life are still the best.

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