Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Gouda get through this

I’m on a diet. Or certainly not eating carbs in the evening or red meat or sugar at all. Apart from the bacon sandwich and bag of crisps I had for dinner last night. Swiftly followed by a delicious speculoos blondie, because we’ve just got back from holiday and we still haven’t got any ‘proper’ food in. And I’ve given up booze, at least for this Wednesday and Thursday. Our local brewery is having their monthly open night on Friday, so it would be rude not to.

Anyway, I only mention this as I’m sitting here finally trying to write this blog post – after a longer than anticipated, but very happy hiatus drinking port and getting portly. A task made even more bittersweet as I stare at the platters of cheese and meats and pies and baskets piled high with bread that we have recently ploughed through, all while contemplating eating something green (I’ve been told Bendicks Bittermints don’t count). Oh yes they do! - TE

Our first stop on a weekend of celebrating the three finest things in life (apart from my wife and my cat and the mighty Tottenham Hotspur) started with a visit to Renoufs in Southbourne. According to their website the Westbourne branch is often so busy you may have to wait weeks for a table at the weekend, but at two o’clock on a Saturday we were the only ones in their sister branch.

Inside strikes just the right balance between kitsch and classy, with high sharing tables in the centre and low booths around the outside and racks of wine covering the walls, festooned with brightly coloured fairy lights. The only thing I really struggled to get behind were signs for the ‘tinkletorium’ that didn’t get any less twee with the imbibing of alcohol.

They have a comprehensive wine list which also offers flights, and as I was still convincing myself it was the dog days of summer I started with a selection of roses that ranged from bright pink bubble gum to off-white, with sweetness levels to match. Plus a bottle of Pinot noir as a chaser.

The concept is simple: choose your meat, cheese and wine, chuck in a some extras from the selection of nibbles and sides, and you're good to go. They also offer three sharing boards, the Ultimate, the Party and the Supreme for two, four and six, respectively. 

We were five, but when we heard the Ultimate included 12 meats, eight cheeses, a giant pork pie, baked mini chorizo, olives, houmous, pate of the day, marinated cherry tomatoes, cheese-stuffed peppers, crackers chutneys, fruit, freshly baked bread, deep breath, and a whole baked camembert with onion marmalade, in the immortal words of JB 'baby it's no-brainer'. And we were still worried it wouldn't be sufficient - TE.

In the end it was easier to tell our waitress which cheeses and meats we didn't want from the selection on offer. Or, at least, wanted less, as I'd have happily eaten any of them. It arrived on a behemoth of a wooden board with baskets of (excellent) bread and crackers, that are happily topped up as needed. Gluten free bread was also available, and also got the thumbs up.

It was all every good, but cheesy standouts came from the Dorset Smoked, from the nearby Ford Farm, the washed-rind and slightly stinky Francis, Salisbury-based Lyburn Cheese and Tor, a pyramid-shaped goat's cheese rolled in ash from Somerset's Whitelake Dairy. 

I also scarfed quite a lot of the hot chorizo sausages, the duck and orange pate and the pork pie. Who doesn't love a pork pie. In fact, the only thing I had the slightest quibble with was the houmous, as I've realised I've become a crushed chickpea connoisseur since getting my Nutribullet (and a huge bore, to boot). Oh you were a bore before you got that babe - TE

It was a hefty selection to take down, even for us quintet of gannets, but we just about managed it - bar a few token salad leaves. Ably washed down with a bottle of Italian red, to celebrate the fact the Monkey had just got engaged on a holiday to Sicily. 

After Sunday's day of rest, Monday saw a visit to the Sett in Brockenhurst, deep in the glorious New Forest, for lunch en route home from my Mum's birthday celebrations in Lymington. Originally the building was a public convenience, before being sold off by the council and given a new lease of life as a convivial space that offers coffee, cakes and fancy sandwiches as well as a full range of cheese and charcuterie platters and a comprehensive range of spirits, beers and wines. 

The Ewing had a glass of verdejo, while I mulled over the Vibrant Forest pale ale but stumped for the natural, low sulphite Grand Cerdo tempranillo. From looking at the website the maker says the wine is: "a great wine dedicated to the bank executives that denied loans to us on the basis that wine is not a seizable asset. One day, these greasy and sweaty corporate suits will find that the best things in life cannot be impounded. Thanks to our friends help, we were finally able to bottle this wine. Now you can enjoy it with ham." Which I did.

Because I didn't write anything down, and then I went on holiday there may be a few gaps in my knowledge of what we ate, but I do remember from the meats we enjoyed the excellent Karma Ham, made by a Pinch of Salt in New Milton, wild Scottish venison salami with green pepper that was gloriously soft and gamey, and Hampshire coppa, made from New Forest pork shoulder and cured with spices including cinnamon, for a full on festive feel.

Cheeses included Mrs Bells Blue, an excellent ewes' milk cheese from Thirsk, that was like a slightly more reserved roquefort; Lyburn Winchester, a gouda-cheddar cross from near Salisbury; and Tunworth, a Hampshire take on a camembert style soft cheese we first had at our wedding and that I'm still utterly in love with. Me too and you - TE.

So, briefly in conclusion: afternoon drinking is great , pork pies go just as well with wine as with beer (tbf, pork pies go with anything) and I think I’m over both my blogging block and my (very) brief respite from cured meat and coagulated dairy. Time to post this and knock up a cheese and ham toastie to celebrate. YEAH baby! - TE.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Super Da Mario

Sometimes, living my life is just like being in a Hollywood movie. In the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones eventually gets his hands on the Holy Grail. In Harold and Kumar get the Munchies, our intrepid duo made it to White Castle, and on Air Show weekend, I finally got to go to Da Mario’s in Westbourne.

Now, this may seem like a very minor achievement, but when you consider Westbourne is heading completely the opposite way to the east side of Bournemouth we normally frequent, in addition to its rather random opening hours (17.30-22.00 Wednesday to Sunday) it felt like a success worth celebrating.  Even if forgetting to bring our own booze (All Hail Ale, a micro pub and soon to be bottle store is just next door, if you need to pick up emergency beverages) meant we had to share a toast over San Pellegrino water and a can of the cult Chinnoto instead.

Apart from the inner glow of getting a long standing achievement unlocked (Da Mario had topped the to-do list for a number of years, despite many visits to BoMo), you may be questioning why we had gone so far out of our way for dinner. The answer is simple, may favourite foodstuff; pizza. And not just any pizza, but, at one point not so long ago, the best pizza on Trip Advisor in the whole of the UK. 

Yes, TP is full of shilling and moaning and fake news and should be taken with more than a healthy pinch of salt, but I also had a good feeling that there were more than a few B-towners who knew a good pie when they made its acquaintance, and I was looking forward to being introduced.

The Ewing debated over the Ciao ( a mixture of chicken, mushroom and sweetcorn, which may have had some Italians saying see you later, but actually sounded pretty good), but went with the Italia. A far more classic combo of artichokes, pine nuts, Gorgonzola and aubergine. A great combination of flavours and, the Ewing's fear with a Neapolitan style pizza, no soggy bottom.

I chose the eponymous Da Mario, topped with sausage, pancetta, parma ham and the just right amount of black olives. i.e. a lot. This was a cracking pie; salty and smoky and punctuated with pools of milky cheese. A special mention, too, to the base - the real star of a good pizza. Here it was chewy and tangy and speckled with a leopard-like char from the blisteringly hot wood fired oven.

The generous size of the pies, plus the fact we still had to schlep back across to the right side of town, meant pud was off the menu. Although the white chocolate profiteroles filled with a milk chocolate mousse and the homemade tiramisu I spied in the cabinet means I'm looking forward to the sequel.


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.