Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#cheeseandciderchallenge pt.2

On Tuesday the #cheeseandcidercchallenge trundled gaily onwards with the sat nav leading us up an extremely narrow lane, culminating in a dead end, from which we could see - all while expertly executing a 500 point turn - a tantalising glimpse of the sign for Sandford Orchards through the trees.

Even if we hadn't spied the logo, the rich autumnal smell of fermented apples hanging in the autumnal air would have been a dead giveaway that we were nearly in the right place.

Undeterred, we found a circuitous new route that made me very happy to find that we could enjoy a cold pint in their warehouse-cum-bar at the end of it. As you can see,  my darling wife felt the same.

She did cheer up somewhat when she found they had cider-inspired cocktail recipes chalked up on the walls and managed to get core ingredient - Fanny's Bramble, a blackcurrant-infused cider - for this year's famed Xmas cocktail to inflict  create for my family in Leeds. The other ingredients being fizz and vodka. I can feel the hangover now....

If there was simmering discord before we arrived at our next stop -  a short drive down the road to Quickes Dairy and farm shop - locking both sets of keys, one set still tantalisingly visible on the parcel shelf, in the car was the cherry on the cheesecake.

As it so happened, on this occasion, our luck was firmly in as Cakadoodledo, based in nearby Exeter, have opened up a cafe next door. Meaning that we could enjoy this wonderful ploughman's, with Quicke's cheddar, and a slice of chocolate and blackcurrant cake all while watching out the window as a friendly repairman was breaking in to our car outside.

And, as  if it couldn't get any better, the lovely ladies in the cafe gave us a slice of their incredible cheesecake topped brownie as they were celebrating their first birthday at their Quickes site.

Wednesday bought about a visit to the Totnes branch of the much lauded Country Cheeses, which was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. A huge selection of, mostly, very local cheese – there’s a map behind the counter to show you were they are produced – complemented by a smaller selection of chutney, jam, crackers and eggs, all served up by some enthusiastic fromage fanciers.

Of course, we quickly smashed our pre-agreed one cheese each limit; emerging with a Sloe Tavy - a heart-shaped cheese made specially for County Cheeses that is washed in Plymouth Sloe Gin; Devon Smoake - a naturally smoked cheese from Curworthy; Vintage Norworthy - a crumbly aged goats cheese; and Keltic promise – a Cornish (gasp) washed rind cheese for the Ewing that looked benign but made our fridge smell like my PE bag when I was in the hockey team at school.

After a successful morning our luck held with a visit to Newton Abbot to visit Ye Olde Cider Bar, one of Britain’s last remaining cider pubs. There's no beers on offer but you can order wine, if you don't mind it being made of elderberries, strawberries or rhubarb.

Clearly we were only here for one thing, although, with such a massive selection of cider (ask for the retro leather bound menu if you want tasting notes) it was hard to know where to start. After a couple of tasters I was tempted by a pint of Suicide, but as it was lunchtime on a Tuesday I thought it prudent to stick to the house cider, Sam's, pressed at Western Barn in Winkleigh.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything better in the bar snack leagues, especially their own 'ploughman’s' – consisting of a packet of crisps, a few pickled onions and  chunk of cheddar. The barman, rather sweetly, even came over to check I knew exactly what I’d ordered, and wasn’t expecting something fancier, as well as giving me a chilli warning before I tucked into the onions.

Thursday was an auspicious day, as it commemorated the (nth) anniversary of my birth. To celebrate the Ewing presented me with a clothbound truckle of Quicke's Devonshire Red – their take on a Red Leicester - complete with celebratory candle, and a bottle of Sandfords ice cider, made by freezing the fermented juice to make an even sweeter, stronger drink.

While this gift would have made a magnificent breakfast, fulfilling all aspects of the challenge admirably, we were in a predictable rush - to get to Plymouth for a tour of the Gin distillery – so there was no time to enjoy my new-gotten gains. 

Hence my cheese-based element for the day ended up being a breakfast of Quavers by the quayside, washed down with a double macchiato from Kaffehuis. An ever-so-slight elongation of the original rules, but it was my birthday; I’ll eat maize-based cheesy snacks and count them if I want to.

After a boozy afternoon spent enjoying several drinks including a sloe motion (Plymouth sloe gin topped with fizz), white rioja and a glass of pudding wine, I wasn’t really into the cider vibe after I stumbled back, starting on a bottle of port instead…. 

The Ewing - after heroically staying sober enough to safely drive me home - decided that shoving The Wilkin's cider in the freezer to make her own ice cider slushy and then drinking it out of a wine glass while watching the football would make her appear less uncouth. It may not have had quite have the desired effect, but she did look cute. I also had a few swigs to fulfil my remit for the day (birthday rules) and Harry Kane scored a last minute winner, so all in all, it was a satisfactory conclusion to proceedings.

While things had ended on a high note the day before, the following morning, despite the cloudless blue skies, painted a darker picture. It was a scene of sore heads and recriminations, where the only sensible answer was a huge plate of stinky, oozy cheese, washed down with the dregs of the port. By this point, as glorious as it all sounds, my cheese levels had reached the point of waking nightmares; hallucinating like I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and if only I lay my head down in the trap, the agony would soon be over.

After rousing myself enough to get out to Greenway (the doyenne of crime, Agatha Christie’s, holiday home)  and spending a happy, if exhausting day under the sun, sweating fermented milk and fortified grape juice, I decided the best way to round things off was a Friday night drink at the pub. After six and a half long, gruelling days of excessive dairy consumption and afternoon-inebriation, I just needed one last drink of cider to successfully complete the challenge. Readers, I had a beer.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

#cheeseandciderchallenge pt.1

The last time I spent a week in Devon I decided it would be a fun idea to embark on #crabandicecreamchallenge. An innocuous-sounding quest to eat crab and ice cream every day of our week long trip. After an incident with a giant crab in Ilfracombe, where I nearly lost my sanity (and my lunch), I did manage to make it to the end of the challenge unscathed, if a little green - like the crab - around the gills.

With this in mind other, saner, individuals might have wanted to relax and enjoy their forthcoming week in the West Country; but my gluttony was still piqued. Surprisingly, the Ewing, far from despairing at another of my hair-brained schemes, was remarkably receptive; although she did have to gently point out fish and chips for seven days in a row was probably going to end with hardened arteries and bigger trousers.

Hence the #cheeseandciderchallenge -  actually suggested by my wife, possibly with her own vested interest in dairy products and fermented apple juice – where I would attempt to eat both some West Country cheese and drink some West Country cider every day. Which would probably still have the same consequences as a diet of fish and chips, but with a bit more variety and the added opportunity to get half-cut.

As we were pretty much driving past the home of Britain’s most loved cheese, we had to swing by to buy some. That and Spurs were playing Huddersfield on Saturday lunchtime and it was going to be on the telly box.

After the boys in blue and white dishing out a comprehensive thumping, enjoyed over a fine lunch of prawns and whitebait and Otter Ale we headed down to the cheese factory, who proudly advertise themselves as the only remaining cheesemakers in Cheddar. If my memory serves me right the last time we were here you could stroll in and and out of the cheese making bit gratis, but this time it was a couple of quid to be allowed to press your nose up to the glass of the hallowed room where the magic happens.

Still, it’s worth it if you time a vista during the ‘cheddaring’ of the curds - stacking "loaves" of curd on top of one another in order to squeeze additional whey out of the loaves below, which make the cheese unique. You can also see their maturing rooms and gen up on a potted history of possibly the world’s most well-known coagulated milk product.

While they offer a full range, from a beginners version, right up to vintage, as well as cheese that is naturally blue or flavoured with additions such as port, wild garlic and herbs or even Marmite, we chose cave aged, as the proliferation of natural caves were the reason the cheese was originally produced in this area.

The next stop is one of Somerset’s gems - I would say hidden, but Roger Wilkin’s Farm is firmly on the radar, despite its rural location and ramshackle infrastructure, as attested by the throngs of Millennials and bearded locals milling about excitedly and knocking back scrumpy in the open shed as we arrived.

Having had such a good time on our previous visit, I wondered if it would live up to the memories but it was as endearing as ever. We were also lucky enough to bump into the man himself and hear about his most recent cider-making experiments while sipping our tankards of Wedmore’s finest, poured straight from the barrel. A real must visit at any time of the year, but especially if your trip coincides with harvest time when you might get to see the hydraulic Beare press in action.

Sunday morning meant a visit to the charming Curious Kitchen, where we forwent cheese in order to eat bacon and peanut brittle doughnuts washed down with piccolos. Just as glorious as it sounds. That was swiftly followed by lunch overlooking England’s busiest fishing harbour, at Rockfish Brixham, so it was a wonder we could manage any cheese or cider (I’d already had a pint of Sea Cider at lunchtime, just in case).

But manage it we did, with a visit to West Country Deli on Fore Street to pick up a chunk of Devon Blue, a cow’s milk cheese made by Ben Ticklemore (who also makes Beenleigh and Harbourne from Sheep and Goats milk respectively. The former often described as England’s Roquefort, which is certainly no Bad Thing). 

We then headed up the hill to the Queens Head, a lovely real ale pub that also had both keg and cask Hunt’s cider on the bar (we had the Andsome Bay and the Hazy Dazy) alongside a vast array of scratchings and crisps plus a banging-looking Sunday roast. The perfect place to drunkenly write postcards, before leaving them on the table…

On Tuesday morning an innocent wrong turn, about ten minutes from Sharpham Vineyard and Dairy, lead to a detour of knuckle-whitening proportions that almost ended our marriage somewhere down a tiny lane just outside Dartmouth. As it was we arrived rather late and rather dishevelled, but to a stunning backdrop of the sunny Dart estuary that cheered our spirits somewhat.

Our rush was to make it in time for the midday tasting session, which wasn’t actually running due to staff shortage. Fortuitously they also offered a DIY guided tour of the vineyards with a self-guided cheese and wine tasting after, that actually worked out far better for us as it meant we could faff and wander and bicker at our leisure with no one to hear us for miles around.

After our very pleasant, and remarkably bad-temper free walk, we reconvened for a wine tasting ‘basket’ of four different wines of your choosing plus a cheese platter with crackers and chutney. I’m not sure if it was the Devon air, the views, or the booze going to my head, but this was one of the best parts of our whole trip. The cheeses - their brie plus Sharpham and Sharpham with chives, that you can see being made at the factory next door - were delicious, the wine even better and the company exceptional.

Of course we wanted a bottle to take home, and after some careful consideration between seven of our eight choices, we had decided on a bottle of the barrel fermented bacchus. Of course, on trying the final (and most expensive) one the Ewing was smitten, and it was very nice when eaten with a rib of Devon Red beef when we got back home the following Sunday.

After such a clement morning it seemed too much to expect the weather to hold, and sure enough the afternoon turned damp and drizzly. Undeterred we set off for our second yomp of the day, from our base just outside Brixham; past St Mary’s Bay and along Berry Head to the Guardhouse CafĂ©, chosen because of the local cider and the Devon cream teas.

I’m really not sure there is anything so pleasurable as sitting down at four o’clock to a plate of fluffy scones, anointed with lashings of thick clotted cream and good jam (cream applied first, the Devonian way), washed down with pots of good strong breakfast tea. 

The Guardhouse did not disappoint, with freshly baked fluffy scones supplied with limitless cream and jam and a pot of hot water for a second cuppa.  The cider – the normal and pink from nearby from Ashridge - was entirely superfluous, and I’m not sure the sweetness of the apple was the most suitable accompaniment, but it was very welcome anyway and helped ward off the cold on the trek back home


Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Riddle me this

Just a couple of weeks after enjoying a boozy, seafood blowout overlooking an Essex Estuary, the Ewing was particularly delighted for the chance to enjoy a second one in quick succession - this time at Riddle and Finns in Brighton’s famed Laines.

Inside features the obligatory high-topped marble tables, cool white tiles that bought to mind Soho's Randall and Aubin and Rex and Mariano (RIP, although its successor, Zelman Meats, is also very good).

Beware that if you are in a pair you have to sit adjacent to each other, like old people in garden centre cafes, and you may also have to share your table. Probably not an issue, but even the Ewing was frustrated by the woman opposite us, and her insistence on loudly instructing her builder on the kitchen extension down the phone.

Good sourdough came with homemade mackerel pare, taramasalata, aioli and... horseradish. Clearly I had zoned out when the waitress announced this nugget of info, so it made a surprise sinus-clearer when I loaded it up on a crust of bread.

We started with half a dozen oysters - rocks, as they hadn't had their first natives of the season - a mixture of Rossmore, Carlingford and their oyster of the day, which I felt sure I wouldn't forget, then promptly did.

You can add sauces and toppings, for an extra fifty pence per bivalve, from a comprehensive list including Killpatrick - barbeque sauce and bacon lardons; Porthilly - deep fried & served with pickled vegetables and citrus mayo; and the classic Rockefeller. And while I do, sacrilege, like a cooked oyster, we ate these au naturel (don't worry, we both remained fully-clothed), although I did anoint mine with a liberal splash of red wine vinegar with finely chopped shallots.

The Ewing took advantage of the excellent value set lunch menu, two courses for £14.95, picking the mussels as her starter, with a spare spoon for me. Having eaten plenty of mussels in my life - many of the best looking out at the flat, windy beaches of de Panne on winter trips to the Belgium coast - these were, with no sense of hyperbole, some of the nicest. (oh they were so plump, silky and delicious - TE).

Big and plump and sweet, but not like the tasteless green lip behemoths, with a velvety sauce that we both clashed spoons over. I also enjoyed the late addition of baby spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes, not quite as strange as it seems.

At nearly twenty quid (it's simply listed on the menu as 'Riddle and Finns fish pie') I hoped my choice of main would be worth it. But when a bubbling dish full of chunks of smoked fish and salmon, topped with a burnished carapace of cheesy mash and crowned with a king prawn and a scallop, appeared (I asked for it to be served without the pesky half a boiled egg) I knew I had made a good decision.

A slightly less successful one was to serve the whole thing on a round of slate. Not only did it make the thought of turning the molten hot pie out a rather unappealing one, but it made it nigh on impossible to cut my veg without the shiver inducing screech of metal on rock. I'm not normally overly fussy about my choice of crockery, but this time I was firmly on the side of We Want Plates.

My unadvertised veg meant we also ordered a side of samphire; entirely superfluous, but very good. Especially when the brackish fronds were dragged through the accompanying dish of ethereal hollandaise sauce. A pairing to rival the more familiar asparagus, with the sea vegetables' season conveniently running on right behind.

The Ewing's main was a kinda re-hash of her starter, but with with the addition of squid and clams and served with pasta, and was no worse for that. A generous portion, well seasoned, with well-cooked pasta and a cold glass of vino blanco - you couldn't want for much more.

Dessert - a chocolate ganache creation with a base of tonka bean shortbread and layer of raspberry and lychee bavarois, decorated with a melange of flowers, mint and berries - looked the part, but failed to deliver. The shortbread was soft and the ganache a little chewy instead of melty. The unadvertised chocolate truffle-type things, rolled in coconut and embedded in a swirl of lemon flavoured cream, were pretty good, though.

After several glasses of prosecco and a very nice white Bordeaux, double espressos were in order, taken while chatting with the - super lovely - staff about the influx of Wycombians to the town that weekend.

The total bill just nudged a ton. Yes, a fair bit of cash to drop for lunch, but well worth it for fine quality fish and seafood served in lovely surroundings. You could, of course, get out for far less and far quicker than we did while still having a thoroughly lovely time, but probably not quite as much fun.

We emerged into the daylight to be greeted by a bright and breezy early autumn afternoon, The perfect weather for a slightly pissed (well, the non- designated driver), walk along the shingle, both buoyed by another wonderful seafood lunch and already planning our hat trick. In fact, the only thing I wouldn't want to repeat was the unplanned dunking in the North Sea. Eating all that fish hasn't metamorphosed me into a mermaid quite yet.