Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Eastern Sunday

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on th' other.

Most people have rather lofty, or at least exciting, ambitions and ideas; if you’re Miss World then, naturally, it’s world peace; the Ewing wants a dog and a self-watering allotment (or perhaps a dog that will water the allotment) and Stealth quite fancies a pad in the Barbican.

Since accepting the simple things in life really are often the best – the first hard cox in autumn (steady), a letter through the post from my Nan, breakfast in bed with the Ewing – my recent, and rather more modest goal, was getting to Wapping Market on a Sunday morning before all the Crosstown doughnuts and Dark Fluid coffee ran out. (I do still harbour a secret dream to drive through all the mainland States in a faux wood panelled station wagon while living off cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Kraft macaroni cheese cooked on a camping stove.)

Since the market - sister of the burgeoning Saturday market at Brockley, which also proved quite an effort getting to - opened at the beginning of the summer, I have been taunted with an endless Instagram feed every Sunday of fried chicken, ice cream, local fruit and veg and, of course, the famed coffee and doughnuts.

Finally, after feeling thoroughly down in the dumps most the preceding week, I decided the only way to shake the gloom and spin out the last hazy day of August was by eating, drinking and generally making merry. So I roused the Ewing from her precious weekend slumber and dragged her all the way down to Brussels Dock for breakfast. Well, by the time we actually arrived, more lunch-ish.

First stop was a dash down to Crosstown for our fried dough fix. The Monmouth coffee custard stuffed square was a given, but the second choice was more difficult and saw a squabble ensue over whether to pick the ring doughnut stuffed with chocolate ganache or the salted banana caramel. the former won out, although I would have been more than happy with the cinnamon and sugar dusted number, while the chatty guy serving us had plenty of praise for the seasonal nectarine flavour. Decisions, decisions.

After nabbing a brace of 'nuts I patiently joined the queue for our iced coffee and americano from Dark Fluid, SE London based bean roasters with a mobile coffee cart, before finally find a spot down on the wharf wall to scoff our haul.

While I was impressed with the effort of stuffing the rich ganache into chocolate truffle ring doughnut, I found the crumb itself a little dry. Far more successful was the coffee number, which oozed it's caffeine-spiked loan obscenely with every bite and went down perfectly with my, very decent, cup of joe.

Of course it wasn't all stimulants and sugar, the Ewing also hit the Roadery's van to grab a pretty spectacular sandwich that saw slices 5hr slow cooked ox cheek being paired with peppery salad leaves before being stuffed between two slices of toasted milk'n'honey sourdough bread.

Highlight of our visit came, unexpectedly, in the form of a cone of apricot and Amaretto ice cream from the Ruby Violet van. Apricots don't normally do it for me (I'm pretty sure that's why the Ewing chose it as we were going to 'share'), but this was utterly exceptional. The flavour was sharp and bright, while the texture was butter soft and a little fuzzy - just like the skin of a perfect, juicy apricot - on the tongue.

There were also a few treats to take home; the first ears of the autumn corn, a big bag of greengages and a punnet of Victoria plums, as well as some proper English muffins and gingerbread. My favourite take home purchase was the Graceburn cheese, a soft cow's cheese in oil with herbs and garic that's made with unpasteurised organic milk by Blackwoods in Bromley. Very good with homegrown tomatoes and sourdough toast (or out the jar with a teaspoon).

After sunning ourselves with the friendly crowd that had assembled down by the water it was time for some proper refreshments. The market is, quite literally, a stone’s throw from the old stalwart and favoured drinking hole whenever I'm in these parts, the Prospect of Whitby. This time however we eschewed it for a visit to the Captain Kidd, back down on Wapping High Street, after we had to skipped past it on our last pub crawl.

The Captain Kidd is a Sam Smith’s, pub, a Yorkshire brewers known for its impossibly cheap and rather mysterious range of own brand beers, ciders spirits and mixers. You can imagine the disquiet this must cause the average drinker when they call in looking for their favoured American piss or pint of wife beater and instead are faced with ‘Alpine Lager’ or 'Yorkshire Stingo'. Something that’s apparent by the mild irritation of the staff and the slightly sticky laminated menus they have to provide that describe the different libations actually available.

Overall the Captain Kidd's a decent enough pub; the Ewing rates the Extra Stout and it also boasts the best garden and river views of the trio of hostelries that run from the Town of Ramsgate to the Prospect. There was also a particularly vocal, and very amusing, group of locals trading salacious stories at the bar on our visit. An increasingly rare find in the Big Smoke.

The beers themselves or the ones I’ve had the pleasure to try - mostly at the John Snow, a labyrinth-like Sam Smiths in the centre of Soho - range from the pretty decent to pretty unpalatable, but at £2.70 for a pint of the Best Bitter it’s hard to care too much. Yo ho ho and a bottle of (own brand) rum, indeed.

Captain Kidd on Urbanspoon

Friday, 19 September 2014

Sambal Kitchen and Diner

A few weeks ago the Ewing and I were tasked with picking up a parcel from Gerrards Cross. Not wanting to schlep all the way over to ‘mini Hollywood’ – Wikipedia’s words, certainly not mine - for nothing, I was quick to seize the chance for an impromptu lunch stop en route.

The question was, where? As far as good eating goes, since leaving my first ever job (at legendary sandwich bar Mrs Crusty, the place I learnt how to battle with clingfilm and win) GX ‘village’ (it’s not) is depressingly bereft of anywhere I’d actively choose to patronise. This really is white sliced Middle Englander and ladies wot lunch territory.

Sure, there’s a branch of Malik’s – Heston’s favourite Cookham based curry house, and there’s Bawarchi, another Indian where we'd recently had a rather nice dinner. There’s also an offshoot of Beaconsfield bakers Jung’s, always good for a cake and a coffee; and I’ve been meaning to try the Three Oaks, yet another Cookham spin-off - although our meal at mother pub, the White Oak, was pretty average and pretty expensive.

After a bit of aimless Googling, I decided the best course of action was to carry on a few miles down the Western Avenue to South Harrow where, again according to my friend, Wikipedia, ‘shops on Northolt Road sell Sri Lankan and Polish groceries. There are five Halal butchers, nine public houses and four chicken shops.’ Beer and fried poultry, now that’s more like it.

Despite the leafy beech trees and chalk escarpments of my Chiltern home, I still love this neck of the woods. I was born less than two miles up the road and good old Grandad still happily lives round the corner in Pinner. I also love the contrast; as you dice with death dodging in and out of bus lanes, marvelling at tmyserious shops with names such as Shankar Superstore and Natraj Sweet Centre, a mere twenty minutes away au pairs pushing Bugaboos are competing for space at the duck pond on GX Common. South Harrow can still boast a bigger branch of Waitrose, though.

After an attempt to entice us into having our fortune read under the railway bridge (lord if it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all), we made it to Sambal Kitchen and Diner, a Sri Lankan restaurant complete with sister takeaway branch next door. 

We started off with some mutton rolls; good old Findus pancake-esque cylinders wrapped in fluorescent breadcrumbs and stuffed with spiced lamb, and served alongside a hot chilli dip and the obligatory sparse shreds of warm iceberg. The classic tubular snack, fresh from the fryer, to get things going.

We also had a dosa, one of the Ewing’s favourites. This time we tried the Jaffna dosa, two spongy, slightly sour, lentil pancakes served with coconut chutney and a thin vegetable sambar for dipping. Rather different from the more familiar masala dosa, a drier, more French crepe like version, but very good none the less. 

Drinks, which appeared about half way through our meal, were interesting. The Ewing had a fresh pineapple juice, while I had the Nelli crush, a lurid green, ultra sweet gooseberry flavoured cordial that was surprisingly refreshing when paired with all the heat and spice. This one came, unusually, with crunchy jelly like lumps, adding its own unique frogspawn-like texture. Mmm, crunchy frogspawn

My main was the devilled mutton curry with two buttery Veechu roti – the Sri Lankan version being far closer to Malay style flaky flatbread rather than the, relatively, parsimonious Indian kind. Served with a dish of simple creamy, nutty yellow daal and more fresh coconut chutney.

I love curries like this; the thin fiery gravy rich with the slightly acrid note of fried curry leaves and the dry chilli spicing fierce enough to thoroughly clear the sinuses. The bread was great, too, breaking apart in fluffy, ghee-soaked layers to be used to scoop up the sticky shreds of tender meat.

The Ewing went for the Pittu and fish curry, an interesting combo of pittu, a dish of steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut, usually served for breakfast; a punchy Ceylon omelette (stuffed with fresh green chillies); coconut sambal; a vegetable paal curry and a king fish curry.

The Ewing was slightly apprehensive about the king fish curry. The last time she had ordered one, down at Dosa World in Bournemouth, it was so hot that she couldn't manage eat it, while the insane spiciness left me temporarily deaf and barely able to breath. The sweaty endorphin rush at the time was great, the day after not so much.

This was far tamer, but still with a decent kick, the meaty king fish standing up well to the rich, slightly smoky, sauce and the turrets of rice providing a nice bland counterpoint to the spice of the curry.

I was beaten when it came to desert, but the Ewing, unsurprisingly, wasn’t ready to admit defeat. Her choice was the falooda, a tooth-achingly sugary ice cream desert flavoured with heady rosewater syrup and studded throughout with chunks of fruit.

On arrival it smelt rather like a gathering of freshly powdered grandmas and looked like pink ectoplasm, so when she proclaimed it was nice I was happy just to take her word for it. Although, even she doubted the wisdom of attempting to finish the whole thing after the vast spread that had preceded it.

Twenty four quid later and we were happily heading back to the leafy ‘burbs to pick the package up, only to discover that it had been locked in a storage cupboard and the only key holder had gone home twenty minutes beforehand (long story). Proving it really was a falooda too far. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014


In a change from my usual default horizontal mode things have gone a bit crazy bonkers recently; lots of work stuff, plenty of friend stuff, some family stuff and an allotment that is hemorrhaging marrows (and spaghetti squash, pumpkins, artichokes and tomatoes...).

Thankfully, to help restore the chilled-out equilibrium, we had a week down in North Devon to look forward to with with my Dad and his antipodean other half Shelly for company. Seven days where there was nothing more demanding to do than meet my one self-imposed  target - to eat ice cream and crab at least once a day throughout stay. #crabandicecreamchallenge (check Instagram for all the photos) accepted.

First stop, after aborted plans for lunch at the Broomhill Sculpture Gardens due to holiday traffic and and obligatory first fall out of the trip halfway down the M5, was the Porlock Weir, a picture postcard fishing harbour on the West Somerset coast.

Luckily we soon had our first success, in the form of crab sandwiches on the lawn at the, simply monikered, The Cafe. These formed perfectly pleasant and rather genteel lunch - although I did lower the tone slightly by stuffing them with the accompanying cheese and onion crisps. A solid and shell-free (the one downside with crab sarnies) start to our adventure.

Our first ice creams of our trip came from the Harbour Stores, courtesy of Styles, a local producer who make their wares, including a variety of ewe's milk ice creams and frozen desserts, on a nearby Exmoor Farm. We both decide to start our onerous challenge with the ewe's milk varieties, with a single cone of the strawberry for me and a double cone of chocolate and blueberry for the Ewing.

The strawberry - a flavour I normally find too sweet or weirdly artificial - was both clean and creamy while the blueberry was similarly fresh and fruity, but a little too floral and sweet for my tastes; the Ewing, however, loved it. The chocolate was a revelation; smooth and rich but not cloying and with a lovely bitter chocolate back note. Certainly one of the best we tried all week, and as a bonus the ewe's milk ice cream is also far lower in fat that the usual cows milk varieties. 

The first night saw a bit of a diversion from our original plans, instead of heading straight for Appledore, our base for the week, we were invited to stay with some friends in Bampton, on the edge of Exmoor. Needless to say there was much merriment and plenty of alcohol and, despite the best efforts of pints of hot tea and local sausages and bacon cooked in the Aga, the following morning was something of a struggle.

Luckily a bit of sunshine and a soothing sea breeze greeted us on our arrival in Appledore - a pretty quayside village on the Torridge estuary that has enough pubs to keep your interest but is pretty much on the road to nowhere, keeping the worst of the summer hordes at bay.

Carbs and cold Coca Cola were very much the order of the day, and after dumping the suitcases we walked down onto the quayside for some late lunch. Thankfully we quickly found John's, a deli/cafe with branches in both Appledore and across the water in Instow. John's may be as close to my idea of heaven as I'll find on earth; inside is a cornucopia of local products including shelves of beers, wines, biscuits, jams, chutneys and coffees; a counter groaning with homemade scones, flapjacks and brownies; and a chilled cabinet stuffed with cheese, fish, pies, pastries and tarts.

Choosing a takeaway so we could enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, we eschewed several of their other tempting crustacean-based products in order to go for the classic crab baguette. A majestical combo of crispy bread, crunchy salad, white and brown crab and lashing of Devonshire butter; salvation in a sandwich

When I was a child I always thought getting old meant the day you began to actually began to prefer ready salted crisps and vanilla ice cream above the myriad of other exciting flavour available, and vowed that that would never happen to me. Of course, now I am old(er) I have realised the pleasure of simple things (although I'm not sure I'll ever end my passionate love affair with pickled onion Monster Munch and Wotsits) and nothing highlights that more than Hockings, a North Devon institution.

Based in Appledore, Hockings have four vans posted around the vicinity selling one flavour, and one flavour only, classic vanilla. The vans are still wonderfully old fashioned and you can have your ice cream sandwiched in a wafer (with or without nougat), in an oyster, in a cup or in a cone.

It may have been the sea air, it may have been the sunshine, it may have been the stinking hangover, but this, without doubt, was one of the best ice creams I have had for a long time. I went with a wafer, a tricky customer to eat and pure nostalgia in every messy mouthful. The Ewing surpassed even herself with a triple cone topped with a heap of Devonshire clotted cream; sheer unbridled gluttony that necessitated an afternoon nap but was worth every calorie. 

If you want to cause ripples in a quaint Victorian seaside town then surely the best way is to commission Brit Art’s l'enfant terrible to create a giant statue of a naked pregnant woman for the harbour. Well, that's exactly what they did in the sleepy town of Illfracombe, cue our visit to see 'Verity', the opinion polarising stainless steel and bronze statue by Damian Hirst, for ourselves.

Taller than the Angel of the North, and with its exposed cut-through of Verity’s inner-workings, it’s certainly a conversation piece, although I think I preferred the views across the dark blue waters to Lundy Island, seen as we walked around the cliff path from the town beach.

Lunch was a brace of these gigantic beauties at Espresso (a slightly strange name for a very good little seasonal bistro, a short walk from the seafront) served with a glorious homemade mayo, crisp fries and a wonderfully sweet tomato and onion salad.

After a hour or so of cracking, picking and delving amongst the shells of these beasts came the first, and possibly only time, I have ever seen the Ewing down her pick as she reached Peak Crab. Yes, it is true, there can be (almost) too much of a good thing. Thankfully a good walk in the sea air around the cliffs and past Henry Williams house (the author of Tarka the Otter), even bumping in to a friend's mum who I last saw at my sister's wedding en route, sharpened our appetite for another frozen desert.

As we were in Devon, what could be more appropriate than, err, gelato from Turin (It did come highly recommended by said friend's mum). We share a cone of coffee and Bronte pistachio flavour. The latter - checkout the lustrous, almost metallic shine of the sweet nut infused custard - being peerless amongst most pistachio ice creams I have eaten; matching (and even surpassing most) of those I have enjoyed on holiday in Italy.

The next day saw a group outing and the first stop was Clovelly -  the privately owned, pedestrianised fishing village known for its steeply cobbled main street, donkeys and sledge-pulled deliveries and somewhere I had first visited with my family many moons before. An unusually early start proved a bonus, as the steep cobbled main street that lead down to the quay were almost deserted, and the late August sun felt almost Mediterranean against the wattle and daub houses and blue seas beyond.

My, elephant memoried, father recollected a small seafood purveyor down by the quayside on our last visit, and, lo and behold, it soon came into sight as we descended the last stretch of cobbles. Alongside our daily dose of fresh crab - a good blend of meaty white flesh and the iron-rich dark meat - I couldn't resist a pot of cockles, doused in plenty of malt vinegar and white pepper.

Ice cream number one, this was a big day for frozen dairy-based deserts, was a scoop of Dunstaple Farm clotted cream vanilla, replete with a good old chocolate flake. This was a classic West Country ice cream, made on a farm near Holsworthy, complete with that unique yellow tinge that the rich cream adds to the mix. Very nice, although the Ewing, despite the refusal of a cone of her own, seemed to have little problem helping me demolish it.

Lunch was enjoyed overlooking the stunning spot above, at the foot of Tintagel castle on the North Cornish coast. Alongside a Famous Five-esque feast of bread, cold meats and cheeses, we also queued for an interminably long time in Tintagel village for a trio of pasties from the Pengenna Bakery; two traditional steak and veg and a steak and Stilton for the Ewing. The joy of a piping hot pastry and a fresh sea breeze is a combo that would struggle to be beaten.

To get back from the Castle we had to pass the Helsett Farm trailer. Knowing that they were based just own the road near Boscastle, it seemed remiss not to stop by for a scoop. This time it was the Ewing's choice of a, rather unusual and beautifully hued, blackcurrant and cream flavour. Unlike earlier, where I was more than happy to share, she proved more territorial. I can, however, report that the couple of licks I did manage to snatch went down very nicely.

Final stop of the day was lovely Padstow. After a mosey around the bustling harbour - with the crowds spilling from the assorted pasty shops and Rick Stein's chippy - we headed down to the beach where the acres of golden sand were only punctuated two gnarly fisherman. 

After a scramble over the rocks quick paddle - out in the distance, in the harbour entrance, lies the mythical Doombar, for which the Sharp's beer is named - we had worked up enough appetite to head back to the harbour to complete our hat trick of ice creams.

Every time I visit this town I always stop for at least one cone from Roskilly's, and this time was no different. With flaours ranging from Cream Tea to Gooseberry Yogurt Ice, it was a tricky decision, but the Ewing and I finally plumped on sharing a scoop of Malty Mystery (see picture right at the top of the post), a marvellous mix of malt, cream and chocolate pieces.

Dad chose a tub of the Cornish Fairing, with a big whack of ginger spice and crunchy biscuit pieces, while Shelly went with the classic strawberry in a choc dipped cone. Great ices in a lovely setting.

Wednesday saw a trip to the coastal towns of Lynmouth (at the bottom) and Lynton (at the top). To traverse between the two we queued up for the cliff railway, a water powered (from the nearby Lyn River) funicular railway that lifts you 500 feet on a 58% gradient. Which why I had earlier passed on the Ewing's suggestion of walking up the steps.

Our reward when we reached the top was a late lunch in the gardens of Lacey's Tea Rooms where both went for the special, spicy fishcakes with chips and salad, washed down with a large pot of West Country tea. This was good, simple English cooking -  hot and crisp chips and crab cakes, with a nice tickle of spice, served with a pleasingly old fashioned salad including pickled beetroot, homemade coleslaw and retro mustard cress.

The efforts expended walking back along the cliff path necessitated an ice cream from Mavis Thrupton's hut in Lynmouth harbour. I went with Britain's first 'spaghetti' ice cream ( a Mr Whippy by any other name) while the Ewing had a double scoop of Cointeu an orange ice cream with chocolate chunks. While mine was decent enough, if lacking some strawberry 'tomato' sauce to really recreate the proper Italian noodle based effect, the Ewing wasn't very fond of hers (of course, she didn't stop it going to waste, though...).

To negate any disappointment we walked up the road to the next ice cream parlour, there's a big choice in Lynmouth, where I had a cone of the, deservedly, 'award winning!' Caravel Fudge Royale. The Ewing plumped for a scoop of good old chocolate - this time with added 'cream crunch', in the form of Oreo-esque biscuit pieces - guaranteed to always hit the spot. 

The weather began to break on the penultimate day, reverting back to that familiar old English drizzle. Perfect for our hike around Lydford Gorge and down to the waterfall, where the Ewing tried to hijack the pooh stick competition by attempting to fling in a tree trunk.

The star of a picnic lunch, much needed to fortify us for our hike, was a crab and ginger quiche, again from our friends at John's of Appledore. This was their quiche of the month, and certainly one of the nicest I have eaten. A topping of South Devon chilli jam was especially inspired.

Also a huge thumbs up for the very kind man at the cafe, who held the doors open past five o o'clock so we could call in for an ice cream on the return leg through the gorge. I'm not sure that passion fruit sorbet counts as an ice cream, but, after scrambling over mossy rocks and through muddy streams, I'm not sure I care.

It wouldn't be a holiday without a swim in the sea, so we headed across the Torridge to Instow on our final morning so the Ewing could freeze her toes, and various other appendages, off. Sensibly, I stayed dry by assuming the esteemed job of clothes/towel carrier and general dogsbody.

Lunch was a hat-trick from John's, this time at their Instow branch, with their crab pate, crackers and Cornish tomatoes eaten on the harbour wall. We also nabbed slices of millionaire's shortbread, and a syrup-soaked orange and polenta cake for the drive back; and, most importantly, a squealer pork pie from Chunk's of Devon. Currently My New Favourite thing.

The final fling on our #crabandicecreamchallenge was a stop at the Quince Honey Farm in South Molten on our way back home. After buying up essential supplies of Exmoor honey, beeswax candles and honey hand cream we sat outside to enjoy some of their honey ice creams.

They offer three flavours; honey with fudge, honey with honeycombe and straight honey, all made for them at Dunstaple Farm (see my ice cream at Clovelly) and all featuring a mix both their Exmoor heather honey and Devon flower honey. An unusual and subtle flavour with a hint of 'chewiness' in the finished ice cream that proved very pleasant.

And so the sun finally set on our fish and frozen dairy based adventure. A week that also featured much laughter, a bitter and pork scratching baptism for the Aussie contingent, late night chips by the harbour, morris dancing, brass bands by the seafront and some decent English weather. Even the Ewing, despite both being on holiday with her in-laws and getting a daily dose of crabs, couldn't help but succumb to the Devonian charms.