Thursday, 24 September 2015

An Ibizian Interlude

I have to confess, of all the places I have ever wanted to visit in the big wide world, Beefa was never one of them. For such a tiny isle, it packs a big punch and it seems everyone I know has gone there, many of them multiple times. But for every person that spoke about the 'unspoilt north', or told me 'it's not all about the super clubs', I couldn't fail to get the thoughts of short shorts, fish bowls and Paris Hilton coated in foam (shudder) out of my head.

But then #emilyandnigelaregettingmarried happened, and the venue was on a beach in one of their favourite places, the White Isle. Not wanting to miss one of the parties of the year (and realising, due to impending old age, the idea of an all-nighter at a super club soon wouldn't exist, if i wanted to go or not) I packed my straw hat and shades, downed a few lagers at the airport, and got down on it.

I'd like to say it wasn't all late night dancing and days spent in bed or by the pool, but it mostly was. We did, however manage to rouse ourselves to see some of the delights of Ibiza, and I can confirm it is a very beautiful place. Our villa, high up in the hills in the sleepy town of San Josep, was gorgeous and Ibiza old town (now a UNESCO heritage site), far away from the flashy marina and the frozen pina coladas (which were also very good) is well worth a tour.

While the trip may not have provided haute cuisine, from the serrano ham flavour crisps eaten in bed (surely a culinary highlight of any holiday), to a gorgeous wedding breakfast, we ate plenty of good grub; Here are some of the best bites.

Breakfast most days, alongside some of the best chocolate croissants I have eaten, was sobrassada, a raw, cured sausage made with pork and paprika that's a specialty of the Balearics. Unlike most sausages, the sobrassada remains almost pate-like inside, a result of the curing conditions (high humidity and mild cold) which are typical of the late Balearic climate.

The size of the sausages range from thin winter sobrassada, stuffed into intestines, right up to bisbe (or bishops) that are stuffed into large pig's bladders and made in the warmer months. The one I picked up from the supermarket deli stood somewhere in between the two, and was rather good spread onto crusty bread and served with a handful of sweet Mediterranean tomatoes, especially with the view from our veranda across to Sa Talaiassa.

Another local dish is the ensaimada, a spiral of coiled dough made with saïm, or a type of reduced pork fat. Apparently you can tell a true ensaïmada if it stains a piece of paper with the lard - how you would differentiate between  the mark made by lard compared to another fat, it isn't clear.

I tried the traditional ensaimada, which, if I'm honest, was underwhelming when compared to the rest of the pastries we sampled from the local baker's counter. Apparently you can also get filled versions, stuffed with pastry cream, chocolate or strands of candied pumpkin. Even better, you may also find greixonera, a kind of bread pudding made with yesterday's stale ensaimada, eggs, cream and cinnamon (yeah, if you ever manage to see daylight and or make it outside the villa - TE).

On our cultural day - which, of course, was also the greyest - we made it out to Cala d'Hort (thanks for The Ewing for transporting us) (that's ok - TE) a small, secluded cove on the western coast with great views of the tiny island of Es Vedra.

There's two restaurants at Cala d'Hort, del Carmen down on the beach and Es Boldado, our choice, up on the cliff. As is fitting for a seaside gaff, the menu offers a whole gamut of fish and seafood dishes, with a particular focus on rice dishes including arroz a la marinera (fisherman's rice); Arroz negro (black rice) and Arroz ciego ('blind' or boneless rice) alongside the Ibizian specialty Bullit de peix con arroz a banda, a bright yellow fish stew that was flying out the kitchen on our trip.

Of course, as Brits we couldn't come to Spain and not order the Paella. We chose the mixta, featuring both meat and seafood, and after twenty minutes drinking cold Mahou and eating green olives, bread and obscenely garlicky aioli, our lunch was ready.

Ropy photo aside (hen party 'jinks' had seen both my phone and camera end up at the bottom of the swimming pool, leaving me at the mercy of the Ewing's cracked and battered iPhone) (think yourself lucky you had a phone to borrow - TE) this was exemplary. a mixture of chicken, crab, prawns, langoustine (which always look so beautiful, but taste, oddly, of not much), mussels, and chunks of squid in a saffron and squid ink infused savoury rice with just the right amount of stodginess.

While there are, reportedly, still plenty of hidden 'foodie' gems, Ibiza has won it's party reputation for a reason - with sustenance often coming off second best to giant gin and tonics and beach-side dj sets. That said, who could resist the copious menus offering pizza, pasta and things served with chips. 

Our local haunt in San Josep did a good crab tagliatelle and rigatoni amatriciana and also got extra points for serving the cava in wine glasses and graciously putting up with our raucous pre-hen party. We also ate decent pizza in Ibiza old town, topped with blue cheese sausage and broccoli (my one concession to green vegetables during the week) with raspberry panacotta and a round of limoncello on the house.

We also had a - slightly stressful to organise, with people coming from all across the island - but ultimately lovely - pre-wedding dinner at Pinocchio's, again in Ibiza old town. I had a fabulous classic holiday salad, topped with grated carrot, olives, tuna, ham, sweetcorn and a lone white asparagus spear followed by a decent milanese cutlet with proper chips and a couple of bottles of rioja.

After our exploits over the previous week it was a miracle we made it so fresh faced (or at all) to the wedding; the bride and groom both looked radiant, the location was stunning, the photographer (and a few of the congregation, sitting in the sunshine) was hot, and the 'sand man' was a legend.

It was also the only wedding I have been to with pedalos, or should that be 'wedalos'. Whatever you might call them, they were great fun, as were the classic garage tunes and bad wedding dance moves ala Croydon circa 1999.

Possibly the thing I had been most looking forward to all week was the 'sea bream a la mama' recommended by the bride to be when they made a little recce to the venue and sampled the food earlier in the year. It didn't disappoint - despite drunkenly swallowing several bones - with the bed of roasted tomatoes the fish nestled on being an unexpected delight.

The rest of the food was equally delightful, from the sharing platters - bowls of mussels, veggie stacks and buttery salmon pate with bread sticks - to start and ending with an assiette of deserts, a sorbet, a perfectly judged chocolate and sour cherry fondant and one of the best creme brulees I have eaten. (Fellow guests, please feel free to correct me on the menu recollection; horrible pictures with flash and lots of white sangria can lead to unreliable memories...)

They say you haven't lived until you've drunk coconut liquer out of a ring-shaped, flashing shot glass, or something. And of course, no right thinking bunch of sensible individuals fast approaching their mid-thirties would turn down a luminous thimbles of petrol. Just as well really, as we seemed to be offered quite a few of them. 

So a huge congratulations to Mr and Mrs James-Walsh; it was a ball and a pleasure to be there to celebrate with you (a delight! - TE). And while I thought - at least after I got home, sat at my desk at work, head in hands - that I could never face the White Isle again, now I've had time to recover, I kinda miss the place. Here's to Ibiza 2016.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Bites: Stuffed Crust is 20

Anyone who knows me is well aware I always have plenty to say. But, as a consequence of often being busy talking, I don't always have plenty of time to write. Cue 'Bites', a cunning series of blog shorts that will hopefully allow me to pontificate, rant and generally waffle over the pressing concerns of the day in little digestible pieces. Like Twitter with more words or Tumblr with less memes. And where better to start than with one of my very favourite things, Pizza Hut's stuffed crust pizza.

When I was young I thought you would feel old when you got grey hairs, or your back gave out as you got out of bed or when kids you babysat for were suddenly serving you at the pub. The truth is I felt eternally youthful until that moment a few weeks ago when an email popped up in my inbox loudly proclaiming that Pizza Hut's signature stuffed crust first appeared over two decades ago.

We have now reached a place where for more of my life than not, I can choose to pimp my base with an internal ring of molten mozzarella - on a side note, if Marty Mcfly was travelling back to the future now, in 2015, his destination year would be 1985. They still haven't invented a pizza hydrator, though.

I think the real reason it made me feel so ancient is because I remember stuffed crust being launched. I was in America, visiting Vegas, and I remember sitting transfixed in my hotel room, watching an advert starring Andre Agassi and Pistol Pete Sampras where the latter turned his slice of pie around and ate it crust first. Something about this was so fascinating, yet unsettling that I knew I had to try it for myself (eaten the right way, point first, of course, I'm not an animal).

Sadly, I couldn't find the original advert, but I did find the the Donald and Ivana Trump ad from the same series. Quite enough to put you off your dinner but still marginally less annoying than the Damon Hill and Murray Walker one we were subjected to on this side of the pond.

After all that excitement I can't actually remember my first stuffed crust pie. It may have been on that holiday, or it may have been back in in Blightly where the stuffed crust didn't arrive until a full two years later. Of course, whenever it was, the glamorous Hollywood lure of a shiny pie and it's stretchy strings of glossy cheese were sadly exposed by the reality of a leaden base with a stuffed crust that more resembled a hardened artery (and probably your reward if you ate too many).

I can, however, remember my best stuffed crust. Stealth, who had a job at the High Wycombe Hut, would sometimes meet me in town after working a late night shift. If I was very lucky and asked extra nicely she would bring an individual deep pan pizza - Super Supreme, no green peppers - with a modified stuffed crust base. To paraphrase Kevin McCallister, a whole stuffed crust pizza just for me. Pretty much the only reason our friendship endured, really (Obviously that is not true Mummy P, she also bought cold Big Macs to sixth form for me).

Pizza Hut have also just released a special anniversary crust collection with limited edition versions that are stuffed with ham, cheese (and mustard, if you like it spicy), garlic butter and cheese and jalapenos and cheese. We tried the ham and cheese, nice but not really exciting enough to match the simplicity of the original.

I have to confess, of all the Hut's recent inventions, the one I was saddest to see being withdrawn was their individual cheeseburger crust - yes, that's cheeseburgers, stuffed on a pizza - with spicy ketchup. My waistline, however, was far happier.

While I don't possess any pictures of me actually eating said stuffed crust, I do have some pizza pictures from an earlier American holiday, taken in those halycon days of youth, circa 1991, before the fabled stuffed crust even existed. 

These shots show another behemoth, that sadly didn't prove quite as popular, called the 'Bigfoot'; a straight-edged pie with two foot by one foot dimensions. Two square feet of my favourite food for dinner. In the pre Man Vs Food days this was a serious amount of dough, although one that clearly proved no match for the Roscoe family who, from the after shot, clearly all wanted a pizza the action*. 

(*no charge for extra cheese)

Friday, 11 September 2015

Brizzle in the Drizzle

Before my recent career change, I hadn't worked on a Monday for nearly a decade. For every bad point about my old job all I had to think about was that smug Sunday evening feeling, when I'd be cracking open that second bottle of wine with glee, and it would all seem worth it.

Now I've joined the rat race, I may have got all my weekends back but I also only get to experience the dizzy joy of a bank holiday half a dozen or so times a year. Garfield's right; Mondays do suck. On the upside it means I can plan to make more of them, and for the late 'summer' (I use that word advisedly) bank holiday, the office drone's last free pass until Christmas, I dragged the Ewing down to the South West to Banksy's Dismaland; a satisfyingly dismal day out. But before our miserable adventure, we found ourselves with a day to spare, and where better to spend it than one of my favourite cities, the beautiful Brizzle.

Our first stop was the recently relocated Moor Brewery, who were hosting a beery barbecue for the Bank Holiday with some of their West country friends; the previously blogged about, Ethicurean; newcomers, No Man's Grace; and ex-butchers and bakers, Birch. All very alliterative.

It may have been a drab day but the pop of colour from the gazebo at the front - that the weather-hardened drinkers had already begun to congregate under - standing out against the grey roof and the even greyer sky was a cheering sight. And by the time we left a multicolored tangle of bikes had also been propped up against the wooden fence outside. A very Bristolian scene.

Moor originally began in 1996, making their beers on a five barrel plant based in Pitney, on the Somerset Levels. Nearly two decades and much success later and they can now be found brewing on a shiny new twenty barrel brew kit about ten minutes walk from Temple Mead station.

Their beers are all unfined, meaning they don't use isinglass - derived from fish swim bladders - or any other finings to settle the brew. This leaves their beers naturally hazy, although most will settle naturally, or drop bright if you want to get technical, over time. 

Like 'cask vs keg', 'London Murky' is a beery bone of contention. Opaque brews that can sometimes look more like tomato soup are going to be a hard sell for some drinkers, and may give the impression of being 'off', even if they are designed to be drunk that way. But Moor, and many others - think of German wheat beers or hoppy West Coast IPAs - believe that fining free will produce a more natural product with a better flavour and aroma.

I'm a big fan of Moor beers, but clearly we were here to put more to the test. From their keg selection we started with Claudia, a hoppy wheat ale that's a California/German mash-up between an IPA and hefeweizen; all the cloves and bubblegum you'd expect from the wheat with an added mango and grapefruit funkiness from the hops.

We also sampled their Dark Alliance, a rich smoky stout brewed with the addition of coffee from the nearby Clifton Coffee Company, Finally I got stuck into the Return of the Empire, a IPA brewed with new English jester hops, and big enough to stand up to the West Coast hop bombs. It was so good I had a couple.

Blur may have sung 'barbecue is cooking, sausages and chicken' in their paean to an English bank holiday, but the menu for this long weekend grillfest promised something a little more. Who wouldn't be up for sampling such delights as pig skin crisps, grilled corn with crab butter and duck breast with burnt orange; even if it did mean standing in a rather cramped and smoky queue. At least we had plenty of beer to keep us lubricated.

First up was a grilled oyster with burnt cucumber from Birch. It's pretty hard to make your grub look good on paper plates, but these bivalves, served perched on a bed of sea salt, certainly looked the part. As an avowed oyster avoider (alongside my nemesis, the egg) the Ewing reported them excellent.

Next was the Ethicurean's beef rib, a bijou piece of sublime bovine served with a smoky aubergine puree and smoked cherry tomatoes - anything that can improve upon a cherry tomato (still one of my favourites of all foods) is a good thing indeed. If there were a criticism, I might have preferred to gnaw my rib off the bone, but I am a neanderthal. 

Another great dish, which I have failed to do justice to with my picture, was No Man's Grace's offering of cured hake, charred lettuce and red wine tartare sauce. Smoky, salty, tangy and the second dish in a row that proved hot salad can be a very good thing.

It wouldn't have been a barbecue without something in a bun and the offering from Birch of welsh black flank beef with grilled onions and mustard may certainly hit the spot. Maybe my savoury dish of the day; maybe. The only down side was having to share with the Ewing (I will remember that - TE).

For pudding we had the battle of the marshmallows. A curious sea salt, onion and aniseed incarnation from the Ethicurean was far more delicious, and far less scary, than it first sounded. We also scarfed a a very good slab of sticky toffee apple cake that just missed a crowning dollop of cream.

The Birch raspberry marshmallow and chocolate biscuit s'more was truly a brilliant thing. The berry-infused toasted confection being complimented by the slightly bitter cocoa note of the biscuit. If I'd have had the patience, and wasn't in the grip of a crazed sugar rush, I'd have queued for another (and a third).

Luckily I had one more sweet distraction to occupy me, a waffle cone of beer flavoured ice cream from No Man's Grace. From the three ices they had created - the others being based on wheat beer, Claudia and barrel aged old ale, Fusion - I chose the BMoor, made with the stout of the same name that Moor describe as 'a big hit of blueberry chocolate cheesecake'. I'm sure you're bored of superlatives, but you can see from the half-eaten evidence that this frozen desert was not long for this world. 

Not quite done for the day we walked up Welsh Back - the mooring place of the Apple Cider Barge, scene of a few drunken birthday shenanigans last time we were in town - to King Street's Beermuda Triangle; a row of three watering holes; the Beer Emporium, The Famous Royal Naval Volunteer and Small Bar.

Sadly the FRNV was closed for a private party (although a photo did exist of me from my last visit here, but I made the Ewing take it down from Twitter, so you're all spared). Happily the other two were open for business, so we started at the subterranean Beer Emporium, a split level shop and bar with a few streetside tables above ground

Our final port of call was Small Bar, confusingly, a rather large space that is so named because of its dedication to small batch beers. Their web site cites the 'things we have', including 25 taps pouring great beer produced in the South West and beyond; food in collaboration with some of the best local independents and beards (some of us…). And the 'things we don't' including pint glasses; shot Glasses; TV’s and Stella on tap. Which is the kind of divisive thing you will either find refreshing or not, depending on your opinion on 568ml measures of wife beater.

Luckily, with such a great looking bar list, it was easy to forget about Belgium's most infamous libation and get stuck in to some of the South West's finest brews. This time two more sour beers, both from Somerset's Wild Beer Co. The first was my Sleeping Lemons, a gose (German-style sour wheat beer) made with salted, preserved lemons. Despite the rather alarming aroma of Fairy Liquid it made the perfect, zesty summer tipple.

The Ewing also enjoyed her Somerset Wild, a spontaneously fermented berlinner weisse-inspired bretted brew described as 'the Yakult of beers' and made with wild apple starter. Dry, acidic and a touch fruity, rather like its imbiber.

They also have a food menu featuring all the usual beer food suspects including burgers, dogs and club sandwiches on Hobbs House bread. As a stop gap we went for the deep fried platter; a light snackette of battered dill pickles, jalapenos and onion rings with homemade fry sauce. Oh, and buried somewhere under all that ballast, a deep fried Mars Bar.

The reason for having just a little morsel? The fact that KFC was opposite our hotel and (as has become customary every time we stay here) I was already planning the best way to attack a two piece variety meal - the hot wings and mini fillet strip made a good pre-breakfast the following morning - with fries and extra gravy. Not a refined spread, but it would be a lie to say I didn't enjoy this about as much as anything else I'd eaten all weekend.

I've realised that more than one of my blogs have ended with drunken feasts of fried chicken and gravy; and while that is no bad thing, I'm going to leave this one on a slightly more refined note with a bijou Bristol beer haul. The Old Freddy Walker is going in my stocking, ready for Christmas, the Ready Made 2, brewed with porridge, made a very nice brunch tipple, and the Wiper and True Milkshake may not have bought all the boys to the yard, but boy it was a tasty stout.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Dumplings Legend and a Sandwich

Some things just go together; strawberries and cream, Bert and Ernie, Tottenham Hotspur and a late conceded goal; but one of my favourite pairings is still dim sum and cold beer. Preferably enjoyed on a lazy Friday afternoon off work, with the sun streaming through the window and my wife for company (and to fight over the 'odd' buns with).

Fortuitously, this was the very pairing I was able to enjoy a fortnight or so ago, when the sun was still high in the sky and summer still felt as if it was 'just around the corner', rather than the dew lined lawns and conker shells that I have been waking up to this week. Oh, the fickle vagaries of my beloved English seasons.

Our destination was Chinatown; a much maligned stretch of the West End but still the first place I head if I need to stock up on slices of lurid pandan cream cakes, or waffles shaped like fish and stuffed with red beans, or piles of crispy duck and pork belly or glasses of milky Taiwanese bubble tea filled with bobbles of black tapioca spawn. Basically anything I can eat, and a few inedible things that I've tried to.

While your certainly spoilt for choice, choosing a somewhere to eat in this part of town can be a bit hit and miss. For every 'authentic' spot, featuring hand pulled noodles or windows full of lacquered roast meats there is an all you can eat buffet, with its endless trays of gloopy sweet and sour and beef in black bean and desiccated spring rolls; more confusingly they are often found in the same restaurant. 

We chose Dumpling's Legend, smack dab in the middle of the bustling Gerard street and famed, unsurprisingly, for it's dumplings. The restaurant is part of the Leong's Legend chain, whose Bayswater branch I first blogged all the way back in early 2011. For the record I'm still digesting that toast casket.

We chose a selection of eight dim sum from a good-looking lunch menu - for those not in the mood for buns and rolls there's also a selection of soups, rice dishes and curries - including Malaysian chicken and braised beef brisket - and the whole gamut of noodles from fried Shanghai-style seafood udon to a fiery dan dan mian with minced pork and a raft of chilli oil.

What DL are really famous for, though are the xiao long bao, or 'soup' dumplings. A dish hailing from the Jiangnan region of China, especially Beijing and Wuxi. We chose the Hokkaido shrimp and chinese loofah stuffed version, although they also have a limited amount of fresh crab roe dumplings available each day alongside standard pork and prawn, spicy pork and a pork and truffle special.

A well made dumpling should have a gossamer thin skin cradling its liquid load (cleverly, if you ever wondered how the ship gets in the bottle, the soup starts life as a cold square of jellied stock that melts as the dumpling steams). The trick being to eat them before they cool down enough so the bases stick to the steamer and split, losing your liquid cargo, but not too hot that you lift the roof of your mouth off.

These were pretty perfect, with a juicy prawny-porky filling and pleasingly thin wrappers and only one spilt load. Holding the dumplings by their emerging prawn tails and lowering them into my mouth proved an effective way of dispatching them, if not one my dining companions would endorse.

Cheung fung with scallops and preserved veg were a little gluey in texture, with an over-salty filling being overpowered by the bath of dark soy sauce they were bobbing in. Sill polished them all off, of course. Barbecued pork pastries were better; a friable lard based pastry - not one for the dieters but, literally, melt in the mouth - stuffed with a sweet shredded meat filling. Pulled pork eat your heart out.

The fried taro puffs with cheese and scallop looked pretty magnificent, rather like a Halloween Don King wig. Cheese is an unusual flavour to find in Far Eastern cookery, and I was initially a little sceptical it would work, especially when paired with the seafood. Italians look away now.

Thankfully, while being all bit bonkers and and the delicate scallop being somewhat missing in action, the interior of the puffs was like an oozy fondue that wouldn't have been out of place apres ski somewhere in the Alps. An interesting novelty, although with the slightly oily crisp carapace, probably a bit overkill overall.

Still the Ewing's favourite, the steamed pork buns passed muster, though were rather crowded out by the other goodies on the table. Ditto the pork and prawn siu mai, although I was rather impressed by the filling, which contained whole large shrimp. They're also one of the only dim sum that come in fours, making things far easier when you dine a deux.

The steamed spicy duck dumplings suffered from wrappers that were a little too thick and chewy, but boasted an unusual filling of chilli-spiked sweet and sour shredded poultry which I was rather enamored with.

We finished with sesame topped durian pastries; the same crumbly lard dough that enacased the barbecue pork triangles, but this time filled with durian, the infamous 'king of fruits. Originating in South East Asia this spiky beast is renowned for it's smell that has been compared to blocked drains or rotten eggs. Anthony Bourdain has gone further, stating: 'your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother'.

Mercifully these were far more tame than the pungent raw fruit, which has been banned on public transport in Singapore due to it's offensive odour. Here the filling was sweet and creamy, although it did emit a slight gym sock note, which wasn't entirely pleasant to find in your pudding.

Service, notable curt in many Chinese restaurants and not renowned for being particularly pleasant here, was charm personified. Genuinely, everyone on our visit was charm personified; from the cheery greeting and giving us the best table in the window to showing me the way to the loos when I became hopelessly distracted when walking past the fish tanks, giant elephant sculptures and framed pictures of Prince Charles. 

The bill also came to an entirely reasonable forty quid, which may double the Ewing's 'last tenner' theory, but was still tremendous value for a huge spread that even we we struggled to finish  - the Ewing valiantly rallied, long after I threw down my napkin, until only one lonely durian puff remained - plus icy beers and pots of refreshing green tea.

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Talking of green tea, as well as a pot of it to drink with our lunch we also tracked down Yolkin, on Rupert Street's Street Food Union lunchtime market, for a wonderfully lurid homemade matcha ice cream macaron sandwich. You can find four changing flavours each week - on Friday and Saturday at Rupert Street and Sunday at the Truman Brewery.

Here they take fresh eggs, separate the yolks to make ice cream and the whites to make macaron, before combining back together again to make these awesome chewy, milky creations that sound incongruous, but when combined equal more than the sum of their parts. Like dim sum and beer, or me and the Ewing, it's always better when we're together.