Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Festive Fun, St Albans

Anyone (or the one) who has read this blog with any regularity will know my perfect Sunday roast criteria; red meat should be rare, white meat not dry; yorkies should be both crisp and squidgy, there should be plenty of suitable condiments; a dish of bronzed cauliflower cheese and roast parsnips. Always roast parsnips.

For our lunch at The Fighting Cocks, I wasn’t really expecting any of the above. For a start I had chosen it primarily because I knew it and it was central, meaning we could go for a wander around the lake beforehand and Christmas market by the cathedral afterwards; and while I was curious about its claim to be the oldest pub in England, it also made me more doubtful it would actually be any good.

Unusually, however, I was completely unperturbed about the idea of tough beef and lumpy Bisto as the real reason for our visit was to see the lovely Maz, wedding witness, and the less lovely Stealth (only joking Mrs, P). When you’ve already got a good amount of juicy gossip to digest you tend to care far less about what’s actually on your plate.

One way the Cocks immediately impressed was with the snack menu, a list so appealing I had to send a picture to my crisp fiend sister, banished in almost completely decent potato-snack free Sydney. Any pub that offers Quavers, peanuts, posh crisps and pickled Onion Monster Munch is already onto a winner.

They also had Great Heck Treasure, on cask – a brewery whose beers I’ve recently been enjoying – and this thumping IPA was no different. Perfect with our selection of pizza flavoured crisps and pork scratchings. Whilst Stealth got stuck in to her first of five gins and everyone else battened down the hatches for the long afternoon ahead…

By now I’ve accepted that ordering roast beef in a pub means an assumption of overcooked (at least for my liking). This is not always based on surroundings, previous experience or even prices – downward of a tenner and expects sisal carpet- but by employing the pessimist is never disappointed approach. Grey beef? Well, that was to be expected. Rare beef? Well, what a lovely surprise.

I don’t know if it was because we were eating early, whether it was because we specified ‘as rare as you’ve got’ or if the Cocks just always nails the crowning glory of an Englishman’s Sunday dinner, but the meat was spot on. As, indeed, was everything else from the roasties to the yorkie, via the blob of fearsomely hot horseradish adorning each plate. The belly, with its shard of crackling (no, Maz didn’t share, despite a pleading look or two) went down equally well.

After a surfeit of gin, another beer, two - surprisingly poky with the festive spirit (there was certainly some in there…) - mulled wines and the unbridled excitement of seeing the picture that hung in my childhood bathroom in their loos, it was time for my promised reward for being so well behaved, a visit to the, snappily monikered, Beer Shop on the London Road.

Like the Chesham Brewery Shop – I’m seeing a theme with the names here – they offer a range of four or five keg beers to drink in or take away, alongside a big selection of bottles and cans. Stealth and I raced ahead and got in a round of Moor Brewery Revival (big hops, low ABV, very nice), while the drivers lingered behind, making do with digesting more gossip.

The range of beers here is pretty special; there are local beers from breweries including Leighton Buzzard and Tring, alongside a good UK showing, including a vast selection of Marbles, Buxton and Dark Star as well as a whole wall of well-chosen Belgians and Americans, with the odd Kiwi and Dane thrown in for good measure.

A few quid lighter and with a haul including Flying Dog Gonzo porter, Green Flash Triple IPA (an invalubale help when wrapping presents the following week) and a bottle of Sorachi Ace for Stealth’s New Year celebrations, we decamped for a delayed pudding, in the form of an ‘ultimate’ hot chocolate from the Hatch stall at Christmas market in the Cathedral gardens.

While not normally a big fan of hot chocolate, preferring my cocoa in cakes, cookies or ice creams, and despite the absence of mini marshmallows on top, this was perfect sugary salve for frozen fingers and burgeoning hangovers; providing the metaphorical (and literal) whipped cream that topped a lovely day.

While I take a break to sit about eating Toblerone and drinking sherry in my dressing gown, here's to a very Merry Christmas to all. Eat, drink and tolerate your in-laws and I'll be back deliberating, cogitating and digesting some more in the New Year.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

XT Brewery and the Eight Bells

Saturday sun came early one morning
In a sky so clear and blue
Saturday sun came without warning
So no-one knew what to do

Well, that last line wasn’t completely true. When the winter sun shines then what better than a brewery visit to stock up on festive supplies, followed by a boozy afternoon at the pub.

The brewery in question was XT, based at Notley farm way up in the wilds of North Bucks. We normally manage to make at least one visit at this time of year, as our Christmas guests have become rather partial to their beers; and I don’t mind a drop, either.

While our last visit was so foggy you could barely see past the pint in your hand, this time we were blessed with one of those glorious December mornings – brilliant blue skies, a crisp frost on the green fields – that made driving through the chocolate box villages, with their thatched cottages and wood smoke curling from the chimneys, an utter joy (save for the resurfacing argument about who had last seen the Cure CD that I wanted to listen on the drive, and the bit where the Ewing clipped someone’s wing mirror in one of the aforementioned  villages).

To get us in the mood we started off with half pints (quite the bargain at pound each) of their standard Xmas brew, the 25, a decent enough red AltBier. We also tried the 8, a rich dark beer brewed four different malts. The good weather meant we could sup these out in the sunshine, although it also meant the Ewing spied their sign offering free broken pallets alongside a help yourself hop compost heap – although I suppose further repeat visits will have to involve the purchase of beer, too.

As well as brewing beers under the XT moniker, they also offer a range of Animal beers, which allow them to experiment with a few more quirky flavour combinations. This time they had the Christmas-themed Gobble on cask (this version especially cellared in oak barrels), a rich dark stout brewed with roasted cacao nibs and a hint of orange, a beer the Ewing (and I) was so fond of we also picked up a two litre bottle straight from the keg for drinking later.

Next up was a visit to the Eight Bells - a pretty pub dating from 1607 in the nearby village of Long Crendon and perennial star in Midsommer Murders  - where I was very much looking forward to a long and lazy lunch and a prime spot in front of the log fire; circumstances which, alongside the Saturday papers made a very warm (literally) welcome. They also had the XT’s 25 on cask, so I settled for another pint of that.

Starters we decent enough; the crab pate was great, but the bread to crustacean ratio was a little off (too many carbs not enough crab) while the advertised and anticipated smoked garlic aioli was either absent or (possibly?) the dressing on the side salad.

The duck rillettes, served with granary bread, befell the opposite problem of too little bread – clearly not really a problem, who minds scooping up tender shreds of confit meat straight from plate to mouth? While the duck was nice enough the clementine marmalade, freshly made in the kitchen, was outstanding; a perfect bittersweet counterpoint to the fatty meat.

Sadly the mains fell as flat as the pizzas. Normally pub pizza is best avoided, but a whole section dedicated to their thin crust Italian bases and seasonal toppings including blue cheese and mushrooms and the ‘Porky Pig’, including chorizo, black pudding and pulled pork, were too tempting to turn down.

While the toppings -especially the glorious black pudding and mushrooms - were good, the base was far too thick and pallid and the intriguing ‘pork veloute’, replacing the familiar metallic tang of tomato, just bland. Add the fact that the extra pineapple salsa (the Ewing made me do it) looked suspiciously just like something tipped out of a can by the man from Del Monte and it was rather underwhelming.

That said, the remaining pizza that they boxed up for us to take home made a great post drinking snack after being  given a further crisp up in the oven the following evening, so it wasn’t without salvation. Prices, at around eight quid a pop, are also fair for a something that is often given astronomical mark ups.

Restraining ourselves from getting too pizza-logged also meant we had room for pud, which for me was the standout part of the menu. Despite not having a hugely sweet tooth, and often not being very excited by deserts when eating out, there was nothing here I wouldn’t have happily buried my face in – literally or figuratively.

In a very strange turn of events, confirmed chocoholic the Ewing turned down the chocolate bundt cake with Mexican hot chocolate sauce and coffee ice cream; which meant, with that description, I was almost duty bound to order it. It was pretty much perfect; gooey cake, subtly spiced sauce set off by the creamy and caffeinated accompaniment. The only thing I rued being that by choosing it, I missed the opportunity to order the spotted dick and fresh custard or the apple and custard millefuille.

The Ewing, thankfully, wasn’t disappointed with her choice. A butternut squash bavavois served with red wine poached pears and homemade amaretti biscuits. The bavavois was particularly noteworthy; smooth, sweet and slightly claggy - like the best sort of cheesecake, but this time served with the biscuits on top.

I liked the Eight Bells; while the cooking could do with a little work, the menu’s interesting without being too outrĂ© -  there’s still plenty of room for lunchtime baguettes and staples such as fish and chips and steak pie – the greeting is friendly and there’s plenty of local ales and cider to slake a thirst.

While it might not all have been perfect, to get through a few drinks at lunch followed by Saturday afternoon visits to both Waitrose and Lidl (to stock up on the all important reserves of marzipan and stollen) on the way home and avoid a murder, Misdsommer related or otherwise, seemed like a pretty good result. Pass me the bottle opener.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Pints and Pancakes, Chesham Style

Recently, at the fifth time braving the concentric circles of hell, aka IKEA - I did get to eat lots of meatballs, though – we bought a new bed. This turned out to be rather more fortuitous than I imagined, as two weeks later I was consigned to it with a rather nasty bout of ‘flu.

Whist I had all the extra cushions I had ever craved, a fluffy duvet and a memory foam mattress that pushed sleeping right back up to the top of my list of recreational activities, I was also undeniably ill. This was proved when I didn’t even venture downstairs into the kitchen for a whole weekend and even turned down dinner. Twice. 

It wasn’t all bad news, however. After a week of consignment I had dropped a notch on my belt, and although we had to cancel plans to visit the London Brewers market at Spitalfields, a trip to the supermarket to restock the cupboards took us perilously close to the Brewery Shop in Chesham…

Before my fortifying and well deserved drink, we popped in to the main reason for this blog post, Poppins. Poppins is a Southern-based chain of restaurant/cafes whose Canterbury branch retains somewhat legendary status in my mind as a regular place of salvation, providing fry ups and strong tea after nights on the tiles whist at uni.

Inside is formica heaven. In fact everything is shiny, from the laminated menus to the fried eggs. It’s the comforting kind of place that you don’t really see any more – the sort of place where you can have a deep fried burger with your all day breakfast (chips are pretty much compulsory) or mash-topped shepherd’s pie with a baked potato on the side, or toasted teacakes and beans on toast, and everything, well most things, come with lashings of squirty cream. My kinda place.

My first choice, lamb chops with all the trimmings, was off so I switched to the pork instead. It’s not actually an exaggeration to say that Poppins’ lamb chops are some of the best I have eaten, although I wasn’t holding out the same hopes for the porcine variety. Thankfully, whist being a little dry, they passed my stringent, Homer Simpson-esque, test. 

If there's any sight more comforting than grilled tomato, fried mushrooms, chops chips and peas, especially when one has crawled off their death bed to eat it, I haven’t yet made its acquaintance, and this was my perfect plate of comfort food. Oh, yeah, and it's all yours for £6.45.

The Ewing, unsurprisingly, was in her culinary heaven, choosing the three egg omelette with cheese and mushroom as a paean to the homely cooking of her Mum, whose childhood offering of ‘yellow fish with mash and peas’ remains her favourite dish, regardless of how many Michelin stars are on the menu.

With a pudding list like the one above, how could you resist (although I'm not sure if the Ewing's look is joy or trepidation)? Of course, we couldn’t and soon we were staring down a silver platter of pancakes heaped with hot cherries and a can of cream. If you want to look at the reasons behind the hole in the Ozone layer, Poppins is probably a good place to start.

CFCs aside, this is England set in aspic, the kind of place everyone remembers visiting with their grandparents - and still does, judging by the clientele. Come for lunch, stay for heart disease and diabetes, although they do have an on trend smoothie menu and even a selection of salads (prominently featuring cheese, mayo and coleslaw, obviously). The staff are also lovely, although the music – Muse interspersed with Nat King Cole – was possibly an acquired taste.

Next up it was time for a fortifying beer at The Chesham Brewery Shop, the Brewery tap for the Red Squirrel Brewery in Berkhampstead. As well as there own brews they also offer a selection of other ales, beer, cider and wine to drink in or take out.

While you can’t move around Bermondsey, Beavertown or Brixton for fear of disturbing another nest of beer drinking bead wearers huddled in a railway arch somewhere, this is a little piece of beer geek heaven transported to the end of the Metropolitan line.

They have a decent, regularly changing, selection on keg, including the lovely Gadds number 3 on our visit, of which I sampled the sweet and creamy Red Squirrel Milk Stout, an appropriate choice as the extra lactose in the brew meant it was often given to convalescents. 

We also grabbed a few bottles of the Red Squirrel Best Bitter for Christmas alongside a trio from Great Heck - the Amish Mash, a heavily hopped weisse hybrid, being particularly good – and a couple of oyster stouts from Redemption and Arbor.

No trip to Chesham would be complete without a visit to Darvells and Sons the bakers which, like Poppins, remains a place preserved time. Here you can buy old fashioned delights such as the barrel loaf - round toast anyone – wonky-eyed chocolate chip footballers, lardy cake, bath buns and cream horns. There’s even a nod to the contemporary with whoopee pies, and Syrian onion loaf, macaron and chia bread.

Our haul contained Viennese whirl topped mince pies, the gold standard of mince pies, a seasonal stilton and pear cobb and, my favourite, the ‘Battenberg Bookend’; a slice of strawberry jam filled cake covered in marzipan and then dipped in chocolate. As the lady behind the counter said, ’we can’t have that sponge drying out…’ 

Needless to say, after a week of snuffling, coughing and ineffective pill-popping, the best way to aid my recovery was with a slice of this chocolate covered delight and a cuppa - that good old English panacea - when we got home.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Foxlow and Craft Beer Co.

Foxlow is the baby sibling of the much loved Hawksmoor, and whilst there has always been a pricking curiosity to try their famed smoked beef ribs and soft serve sundaes, with something as perfect as Hawksmoor already existing it seemed destined to remain the overlooked runt of the litter.

Anyway, they now do brunch and who doesn’t love brunch (while this question may sound rhetorical, I emphatically did not like brunch as a child, not being able to overcome the confusion of missing a meal).  But with a half price soft launch on food through November weekends to test the new menu, it was time to overcome distrust of condensing two meals into one and book a table for Sunday lunch.

First things first though, and after arriving a little early for our table we walked down to Gray's Inn Road to Bottledog, Brewdog's dedicated beer shop, to stock up on a few bevvies.

Wintery stouts and porters were very much the order of the day, with a Mikkeller Cointreau barrel aged stout for the Ewing; the Mikeller brunch Weasel stout; Brewdog/Victory's U-Boat, a smoked porter; and Stone Brewery's Milk Stout being pick of the bunch. There may also be a bottle of the Black Tokyo Horizon underneath one lucky girl's Christmas tree...

I started brunch with a green juice, and also a red juice as our waiter eschewed anything so sensible as a pad and paper and so originally bought the wrong colour. I also had a glass of Prosecco, safe in the knowledge that the celery and apple elixir was stealing a march on my liver and ergo neutralising the brunch cocktails. The Ewing went with the wonderfully camp Miami Dolphin, a neon mashup of rum, lime and strawberry.

While we waited for our mountains of fried food to descend we enjoyed a rather sophisticated - and rather pungent - nibble of anchovies, goat's butter and raw onion on rye crisps. This is one serious, and seriously good snack. They also have a butternut squash version of baba ghanoush topped with sesame brittle. Yes, please.

The Montecristo (ham and cheese stuffed cronut) was sadly off the menu, so we compensated with the fried chicken on a croissant waffle topped with a fried egg and side of sausage gravy. Swap bacon for egg and double the waffle size and you may just have found my perfect brekkie.

I also promised the Ewing the basket of fried chicken, served with habanero vinegar and green slaw, alongside sides of fried tdusted with chicken salt and cavlo nero with lemon, garlic and chilli.

The chicken was everything you dream about when you order a family sized bucket (but usually end up with fowl that is both dry and greasy and pretty foul), crisp, juicy and perfectly pimped by the heat and tang of the vinegar. Fries – or what I saw of them – passed the Ewing’s stringent quality control with flying colours and cavlo nero is surely one of God’s ways of making up for the downsides of winter.

Despite eager over ordering (although far better than a recent trip to Hawksmoor) to skip pud would have been unthinkable, especially with soft serve sundae on the menu. In the end I chose the Elvis sandwich; slices of fried bread stuffed with soft serve, banana and peanut butter before being swamped in crispy bacon and caramel. As outrageous as it sounded, although the too icy ice cream turned out to be the bum note in the dish and, (quelle surprise), it was enormously rich after so much fried food.

The Ewing’s chocolate and hazelnut pot was no less indulgent but, being comprised mostly of her favourite foodstuff, didn’t prove much off a challenge.  Like Nutella on steroids and more acceptable to sit and eat from the jar with a spoon.

Whilst it was always going to be a hard gig to match up to such an eminently cool older brother, Foxlow is a lot of fun. With plenty of salt, smoke and sugar on the menu, a great drinks list - the six quid negroni slushies are certainly worth a punt - and fried chicken that passed the Ewing's stringent tests with flying colours, the young upstart has plenty of its own merits to recommend it.

While any sensible person with work the next day may have decided that this was the perfect adjunct for returning home for Antiques Roadshow and an early night, the eminently less sensible would take the opportunity to drag Stealth out east for a few beverages at the nearby Leather Lane branch of the craft Beer Co.

This branch of the expanding mini chain is very much a city boys’ pub, with the down stairs being set up for the maximum amount of ‘vertical drinking’ – high, narrow  tables and stools running around the side of the room and a long bar to stand at. Thankfully they also have an upstairs lounge area which is much comfier, although you do have to navigate the stairs every time you want a drink, increasing tricky as the evening wears on. Full marks too, to the lovely staff, who bought our drinks up on trays for us and kept us in pints of iced water throughout the hours we managed to while away

A quick glance at the menu – known for its range of rare and interesting brews, although keep an eye on the keg prices as they are quoted in half pints and can get pretty pricey pretty quickly - had me squeaking with delight (literally) when I saw the Beavertown/Napabier ‘Bone King’ DIPA collaboration was available on cask. 

This poured a golden orange, with a thick hazy look about it with an Um Bungo undercurrent; a funky, skunky, gum watering collision of peach and pineapple and passion fruit. The flavour didn’t disappoint, with bitterness from the hops and a tropical note that bellied its 8.5 percent abv.

Tempting as it was to just stick with the Bone King, my liver thanked me for swapping to a half of the Kent Brewery's Altered States, followed by two dark and brutish bruisers – a keg Yin from the Evil Twin and a cask Teleporter from the Summer Wine Brewery and a Calypso from Dugges.

Remaining memories were a little hazy; I know my wife loved the elderflower saison from Kent enough to order it twice and, at some point, Stealth had a scotch egg to go with her pint of Devil's Rest Burning Sky IPA. I also know that the Ewing (happily) acquiesced to partake in a selfie as we stood on the platform at Farringdon waiting for the tube home and, knowing her as I do, you can’t get a more ringing endorsement of fun (or certainly drunkenness) than that.