Thursday, 20 September 2018

Take me to church

As a Brit, I obviously have a Brit level obsession with talking about the weather (what else would we discuss with our colleagues as we stare forlornly out the office window). I sometimes think that descent into middle age is directly proportional to the number of times you check the weather forecast. Despite the fact you can’t change things, and what’s going on outside often seems hopelessly at odds with the prediction anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I didn’t have to check the Met Office website to know what would be going on in the skies up above. The fact that it was August Bank holiday weekend, coupled with our last camping trip of the year, made it a nailed on certainty that it would rain. Lots and lots of rain.

Clearly, as a Brit, I have also grown impervious to a bit of drizzle and so there was no chance that our trip - to Stoke Golding in Leicestershire, the village where Henry VII was crowned, heralding the start of the Tudor Dynasty - was going to be called off.

Yes, the Battle of Bosworth may only have taken place because Henry’s initial attempt at the throne had been scuppered by bad weather, but I felt far better prepared – having made detailed notes of the opening hours of all the pubs near the campsite, and remembered to pack a book, a waterproof jacket and a healthy dose of optimism….

Being prepared also meant thinking about what we were going to drink if we were tent-bound, and fortunately I found that Church End Brewery was only a few miles away from the campsite. 

Walking inside there's the welcoming and slightly nostalgic feeling of an old social club; hardly surprising, as that's what it originally started life as. With the freshly whitewashed walls and the smell of antiseptic soap, the loos reminded both me and the Ewing of primary school. This time without the Izal loo roll and with the addition of some racy advertising posters on the wall.

The brewery, you can see the workings through the glass window in the tap room, is clearly proud, and rightly so, of Goats Milk being named Supreme Champion Beer of Britain  2017 by CAMRA - I particularly like the 'Gloats Milk' poster by the bar - so obviously I had to have a pint. Say what you like about CAMRA, but they clearly know about ale, and this was a very good pint; dry and biscuity with a hint of lemon. Controversially I think I preferred the Folk a Cola, a refreshing golden bitter brewed for the Warwickshire Folk Festival. 

They were out of home made sausage rolls (boo) but they did have a range of pies and pasties from the nearby Rowley's butchers (yay). As well as being the spiritual home of the pork pie, the Midlands also produces the king of cheeses: Stilton.  So what could be better than a pork pie topped with the blue cheese. We also had a, very good, hot steak pasty; and possibly another pork pie.... 

Although it was still early on Saturday lunchtime I was already on my two pint limit (the Ewing was driving, plus knew we had to put a tent up...) so we got a 4 pint takeaway of the Irish Coffee Stout to take to the campsite. A beer the Ewing had been rhapsodising over at the brewery. A coffee and Jameson whiskey infused beer, this was as delicious as it sounded, although drinking it did hinder my attempts at helping sustain an erection. I think my wife was happy I kept my distance.

With the weather set to be biblical floods and plagues of locusts on Sunday, the one thing in our favour appeared to be that the George and Dragon, the Church End owned pub in the village, was offering a roast. Hot meat and potatoes, lashings of gravy, pints of well-cellared ale and shelter from the elements. Suddenly the rain didn’t seem so bad. That was until the Ewing phoned up to book and found it had been cancelled.

Initially this was fairly devastating news – a day trapped under soggy canvas, surviving on rations of cereal bars and and Pringles (although the second bit didn’t actually sound too bad) – but it quickly improved when she discovered the reason for the cancellation was because it clashed with Stoke Fest, the annual village beer/music/dog festival the lady on the phone excitedly recommended instead. Which is where – after several faintly hysterical, but strangely enjoyable, hours waiting for the rain to stop - we found ourselves.

Like all good village get-togethers there were hot dogs and burgers, and an ice cream van and a tombola and several, damp, dogs, dressed in their Sunday best from the dog show earlier. There was also some pretty decent live music, including young local lads playing ‘classics’ like Nirvana and Oasis, which they probably qualify as, which made me feel even more decrepit than I had waking up that morning, after a night on the camp bed.

Of course there was cask beer from Church End available in the beer tent, and of course that’s what we chose to drink, blasting through a couple of pints each of the excellent Gravedigger’s dark ale and the punningly named but less successful, What The Fox's Hat golden ale.

As well as a trio of pubs, Stoke Golding also has an Indian restaurant, so that's where we headed for some warming food (and it certainly helped warm the tent later that evening). They didn't serve Church End ale, but I did have a nice cold pint of Cobra lager, which was the perfect match with our chicken tikka-stuffed naan bread. My new favourite naan bread.

Monday dawned bright and sunny, which meant a happy morning drying out socks, a chance to read our books and drink copious amounts of campfire tea in the late summer sunshine. And, even better, the George and Dragon, normally shut at the start of the week, was open for the bank holiday for lunch and drinks.

After the Ewing spied and nabbed a homemade sausage roll and a gargantuan scotch egg to take home for later, I dove straight into a pint of the Old Englishman's Summer ale. Quickly chased with a pint of Gravedigger's ale, the wonderful roasty mild I had first sampled the day before, and my favourite of all their beers I tried over the weekend.

I was also overjoyed to see that they had faggots on the menu; one of my absolute faves and a must order whenever I see them, especially when served with the most glorious fresh cut chips, lurid mushy peas and  beefy gravy. Served piping hot, anointed with lashings of salt and gravy, there was no better plate of food to warm my, slightly damp and soggy, cockles. The Ewing also readily inhaled her fish and chips, hence the lack of photographic evidence.

Puds were of the resolutely old school variety which, again, filled me with little frisson of joy. Who could fail to be excited by a great wodge, of raisin-flecked, bread and butter pudding sitting in a lake of vanilla custard, or a paving slab of molten sticky toffee pudding in a lake of cold double cream. Both little moments of rib-sticking pleasure. 

On our way out the village we found this blue plaque which, in a wonderfully banal way had been attached to someone's modern brick gatepost. I don't remember much from my history A Level, but I do remember reading that the Winter King passed a law that stated 'that no Gascony or Guienne wines should be imported into any part of his dominions.' He must have sampled a pint of the Goats Milk.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Pick-up sticks

It’s been a little while since we’ve had a ‘compromise lunch’  - a meal, orchestrated by me, that also involves some sort of bribe in order to secure the Ewing’s participation. As if my company wasn’t quite enough.

This time, however, there was a twist. The Ewing wanted to go to Colindale to pick up her new four season sleeping bag and a new fleece for our camping trip, and promised to take me out for lunch if I came with her. How could a girl (read quickly approaching middle-age lesbian) resist?

I was excited to discover Jakarta was in the vicinity, so after we had finished arguing over folding tables and roll-up mattresses we could celebrate with Indonesian food (they also offer Thai and Malay-influenced dishes), which is still a rarity even in a multi-cultural megatropolis like London. 

I still have a big soft spot for the country, after several trips there when I was growing up (at the time my dad was a freight forwarder who worked closely with Garuda) and several of the carvings, statues and pictures in the restaurant reminded me of things we had bought back from our holidays. Although, sadly, our suitcases weren’t big enough for a giant lizard, like the one next to our table when we sat down.

To drink we both had the Thai iced tea. I'm not sure what gives it the violent orange hue (and I'm not sure I want to) but the milky sweet and fragrant drink was the perfect refresher in the dog days of a north London summer. They also gave us a basket of prawn cracker to munch on, my wife's absolute fave, as you can see in the above pic.

From the, extraordinarily good value lunch menu - £8.50/£9.50 for three courses (an extra quid if it’s the weekend) I started with chicken satay. Now, chicken satay, or any kind of satay, is one of my desert island dishes. The first time I tried it, as a small child on a family holiday to Bali, I couldn’t believe something could taste so exotic, so delicious. Even after a memorable night in my teenage years, when a then girlfriend’s dad made satay – with an excellent peanut sauce – and played us his old 60s records, until I got horribly drunk (and then horribly sick), couldn’t put me off.

My favourite kind of satay (spoken as if I actually eat it on any kind of regular basis) are the tiny little pieces of meat that must take lots of patience, and many more splinters, to thread on to the skewers, before being grilled over charcoal.

These were far chunkier, but never the less good; succulent and a bit smoky. The sauce wasn’t up to my ex's dads, but I not sure if anything will ever compare to that. Possibly because it’s perfectly preserved in my memory, possibly because of the whole jar of peanut butter and vast amounts of beer involved.

The Ewing had the prawn tom yum, (prawns hidden beneath a raft of mushrooms), one of her favourite soups. This one had the familiar lip-puckering sour edge, coupled with a huge whack of chilli heat that built until the beads of sweat appeared on her brow and tears in her eyes. The sure signs of a successful tom yum, but slightly disconcerting for the waitress who cleared our plates away.

Roast duck was served in a gargantuan portion, the soft and yielding meat draped with burnished, sticky skin that had been glazed in kecap manis, an aromatic, sweet Indonesian soy sauce. Some token shredded cabbage and carrot bought some crunchy respite.

The deep fried lamb chops in green chilli sauce didn’t have as much sauce as I hoped, but made up for it by being absolutely delicious. This was the first deep-fried version I have encountered, and hopefully not the last; the fatty, slightly gamey meat standing up to the fierce application of heat. 

What sauce there was comprised almost entirely of green chillies - along with a token bit of garlic and tomato – meaning the Ewing was more than happy to let me eat the lion’s share. Something I was more than happy to do, tempered by a glorious mound of fragrant, slightly sticky, white rice and another scoop of egg-fried rice studded with spring onion.

Pudding was a choice of tinned lychees - bobbing ominously like eyeballs, in a perfumed syrup - and that slightly chalky vanilla ice cream you used to get at a friend's houses if you went round for tea. With a good squirt of Ice Magic, if you were really lucky. Not really my bag; the Ewing, however, was sort of lucky, as I was quite happy to let her eat mine as well, despite her, weak, protestations that she was already full.

Although I didn’t get any dessert, I did manage to pick up a new fleece of my own on our trip to Go Outdoors. Nothing quite like the thrill of some new polyester. Sensible clothing and satay, a very successful Sunday.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Seeing double

Walking up the street for Sunday lunch at Afghan restaurant Mazar felt a bit like a scene in the old Spiderman, where Spidey suddenly finds himself squaring up to an identically dressed doppelgänger. There, just across the road, no more than twenty metres away was Masa; a very similarly named Afghani restaurant with a similar interior and a similar menu. 

Even more confusingly, we had also previously eaten Sunday lunch at Masa - although I did find myself having to search the blog to confirm this, a perennial problem of eating out a lot coupled with general short-term memory loss – which added to the feeling of general discombobulation.

One thing that certainly did differ between our visits was the temperature. Previously, on our visit across the road, everything was festooned in tinsel and there were Christmas films on the TV (or so the blog tells me). Whereas this time the TV in the corner – another similar touch – was showing the European Road Cycling Championships, with Glasgow bathed in rare sun.

It was even hotter in Harrow, with the weather station down the road recording the highest temperature in the country. Only a few degrees shy of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Afghan city where the owner hails from and for which the restaurant is named.

The interior is a little more ramshackle that it’s slightly fancier rival across the road, with the decor somewhere between a takeaway shop – they also offer a menu of burgers and pizza - and a cosy family restaurant. The walls are dominated by pictures of Afghanistan, including one of the blue mosque, which the owner was very happy to come over and talk to us about when he saw the Ewing admiring it. In fact, she was so smitten with his descriptions that it went straight to the top of the holiday list, at least until she got home and saw the Foreign Office has advised against all non-essential travel there…

Thankfully, although a visit to this fascinating country remains off limits to all but the most intrepid explorer, there’s still a chance to experience some of the culture and Afghani cuisine in this corner of North West London. Eschewing the standard fast food options, we chose the family pack 1, a selection of different traditional dishes served with naan and salad.

A late start in the kitchen that morning meant we were warned it would be about an hour before the rice was ready. No matter, they had air con and the Ewing had her ayran, a slightly salty yogurt drink that, although the thought of it makes me feel a little queasy, is apparently just the ticket in the hot weather.

We started with Mantoo, Afgani parcels filled with lamb, onions and herbs and served topped with a sauce of yoghurt and dried mint. While these were likened to ravioli, a better comparison would be Chinese Jiaozi or Tibetan momo, dumplings with thick wheat wrappers stuffed with ground minced meat and then steamed.

Sabzi Palak, spinach fried with white leek & garlic, was very similar to a good saag bhaji, which I always think of as quite an understated achievement, seeing as most my efforts at cooking spinach end up oily or bitter or gritty or watery. And sometimes, most impressively, all of those things together.

There was also a dish of bamia – a stew of okra, another of my favourite veg. This little baby version had been cooked down with tomato and onions a lashing of olive oil, to form a rich sauce that avoided the gloopy gumminess that the ladies fingers can be prone to (behave at the back).

Skewers of marinated lamb and chicken were smoky and tender and were served with giant oval naan – it wouldn’t be a kebab without some bread - which was flatter and crisper than the more familiar puffy, tear dropped-shape. Its rigid construction made an excellent shovel for the remnants of the dish of strained yogurt, that the Ewing was determined not to waste.

Afghan food, our genial host told us, was better than Indian food as it was spiced, but not too spicy. Of course, I was too polite to challenge his point, but I was very thankful for a verdant dish of sauce - presented with an ominous warning - that proved the perfect blend of heat from chillies and freshness from coriander and parsley.

When the platter of  Qabili Palow finally emerged, it lived up to its billing of Afghanistan’s national dish. Meat (here lamb, on the bone) is slow cooked in stock and added to white rice, that takes on a deep colour from slow-cooked onions and spices, before being topped with plump raisins, slivers of fried carrots, and almonds. Whenever I think I’m not really a fan of rice, I eat a dish like this and have to reconsider my position. There were also plenty of leftovers to take home for dinner the next day.

For desert I was torn between the firni – traditional Afghan desert of set custard sprinkled with pistachios and almonds – and the hot ‘n’ crunchy pie, which I’m guessing is not a traditional desert, but had such an amazing name I wasn’t sure I cared. In the end it was a moot point, as I was far too full to eat anything else, although the owner very kindly gave us a dish of a barfi-like fudge with nuts and some sugared almonds, which the Ewing was very enamoured with.

Whereas when my favourite webbed warrior met his double, there was only going to be one winner, in the case of Mazar and Masa it’s win-win. Two great restaurants, twice the fun. I just wish one was a little closer.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Pork life (under canvas)

I’m rather fond of camping, in fact a few nights under canvas was the very first trip the Ewing and I went on together. We went about ten miles up the road, it rained pretty much constantly and our air bed had a slow puncture, but that just seemed to make it all the more exciting and romantic. Well, until we came to our final morning and the rabbit with mixamatosis turned up. My wife may laugh thinking back, but I still have nightmares.

As sure as a circle keeps going round, our most recent trip together was also camping, this time to the Pig Place, an hour up the M40, on the Oxon/Northants border, following a lovely visit a few years back. And yes, it rained, and our mattress developed a puncture. Although now, after a decade together, the drizzle and lying on the lumpy ground had lost its allure somewhat. We have upgraded to a better tent at least, so on this trip we were happy sitting in the porch, waiting for the black clouds to pass so we could light the stove and have a cuppa.

It did start out bright though, so we made the most of the new Trotters Bar, a trailer with glorious views over the Oxford Canal and Cherwell Valley. With Thatcher’s on draft or local cider available by the pint, as well as a large range of gins and other spirits. We enjoyed a cider with blackcurrant (very 90s uni days) and a strong scrumpy, while sinking into a couple of the sofas that are positioned in a great spot on the slope leading down to the water.

The whole place is pretty idyllic. Set on a smallholding – featuring the eponymous pigs, chickens and runner ducks, the best kind of duck – it’s a beautiful, but back to basics spot.  While there are no showers and the only water is from their own borehole, there is a well-stocked farm shop on site, as well as a trailer kitchen serving freshly prepared food that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Dinner options included sweet and sour pork or a pork balti (plus a couple of veggie choices) served with chips, rice or a jacket spud. I had the sweet and sour with chips, which was everything I hoped it would be. Lean chunks of loin, from the farm, in a tangy sauce with mixed pepper and pineapple sitting on top of a bed of excellent chips; hot and crispy and fluffy and all tasting even better after a couple of pints of cider. If your're lucky, you might even get a visit from Sid, although there was no way I was sharing.

We may have been going back to basics, but we hadn't abandoned civilisation completely. So, of course, a bottle of organic port was an essential nightcap. it may have gone some way to insulating against the cold, but it certainly didn't help with four o'clock moonlit stumbles to the Portaloo, or my head the next morning. I did get to see the sun rising over the canal though, so not all terrible.

If dinner was good, the brekkie was superb, as good as I remembered, maybe even better. And, even better than that, if you get up early enough (everyone gets up far too early when they're camping) you get to see the farm animals being fed. The sight of the pig losing his shit over a loaf of bread was quite something to behold. I think I've finally found my spirit animal.

Happily for my wife, I enjoyed my first meal of the day in a more relaxed manner, all while admiring the glorious view across the Oxfordshire countryside.  We both chose the full english and, although I’m not such a committed ouef-avoider now days, I haven’t moved much beyond omelettes and scrambled egg, so the Ewing had my brace. They offer hen or duck eggs (both from the farm) so she had two of each, although I only seemed to get half a slice of toast and a small chunk of sausage in return…

There were also fantastic bacon and sausages (relatives of our new friends) as well as mushrooms, properly hot baked beans (something of a skill in itself) and toast buttered right to the edges. As well as the most gorgeous view through the mini orchard of apple trees and across the canal.

While I hate to shatter the carefully crafted illusion that I'm basically Robinson Crusoe reincarnated - and I could repair the mattress by lashing together a few branches, while simultaneously rubbing a couple of stray twigs to start a fire to cook a spot of lunch I had fished and foraged - I must confess we spent the afternoon at the nearby retail park buying new camp beds, followed by watching the Spurs game at a nearby pub, where I foraged for Scampi Fries and cider instead.

Saturday night at the campsite saw the annual performance by the Mikron Theatre Company - who arrived by narrow boat from Yorkshire – performing Revolting Women, a story commemorating the centenary of the suffragettes. So of course, for the first time all weekend, it hammered down. In honour of their visit there was a barbecue with wild boar hot dogs and pulled pork rolls. Unfortunately I don’t have any evidence, but the Ewing retreated to eat her dinner in the car, which probably tells you all you need to know about the mood in camp….

Thankfully a couple of beers plus a very restful night on our new camp beds meant we could greet the, slightly grey but still dry, morning with renewed vigour. Especially when it involved  a feathered guest who had come to say hello, plus hot sausage sandwiches with lashings of oxford sauce and several mugs of steaming tea. All hail the electric kettle by the bore hole.

After managing to get the tent down and cram everything back into the boot just as the heaven's opened again, we smugly decamped down the road to the Coach and Horses in Adderbury, to a lovely traditional pub which also boasts what must be the best value Sunday lunch in the whole of Oxfordshire.

Despite not having a reservation, the landlord very kindly squeezed us in at the bar thanks to a late cancellation. And when our roasts appeared I could see why. Four quid for pork loin, which of course I had to round the weekend off with, or half a roast chicken and stuffing, served with no less than five roasties (and yes, Amy One Potato ate them all) plus boiled veg that tasted reassuringly like being back at my nan’s house again. Only this time we didn’t have to hear the stories about so-and-so over the road; and I didn’t have to do the washing up.

Even better was the fact that they had a pudding menu (two fifty each) that included jam roly poly and custard. One of my very favourite things in life and the perfect antidote (along with another pint of bitter for the non-designated driver) to the persistent drizzle that had (mercifully) started the moment we stuffed the last bit of camping gear in the car.

While it maybe in turns too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy. camping is still a great chance to relax, get back to nature and, best of all, have a good giggle. In fact, the Ewing loved it so much she's already bought a new super duper sleeping bag and booked our next trip for the August Bank Holiday. I've packed the port, painkillers and a poncho (bank holiday equals guaranteed rain). What else do you need?