Thursday, 28 June 2018

Bonehead, Brum

My love affair with Nashville fried chicken started last year at Belle's Hot Chicken in Sydney. After reading about the place, I dragged assorted family members down to their Barangaroo restaurant and watched in in kind of amused horror when my Dad and brother-in-law took on the 'hot' wings (they go up another two notches to 'really fucking hot' if you're a real masochistic), and lost. 

In the end I stepped in and swapped some of my medium wings with them to spare their tears; I know, not all heroes wear capes. My Dad did shout me a RivaReno gelato afterwards, while complaining bitterly that I had nearly tried to kill him...

Anyway, stories of my heroics aside, I was inordinately happy to discover that Nashville hot chicken - cisp-coated fried chicken, given a bath in a blistering paste of oil and cayenne chilli powder that turns it a menacing brick red colour - had made it a little closer to home. To Birmingham, in fact, and not Alabama, but the heart of the West Midlands.

Found tucked away on Lower Severn street, in the shadow of the new sparkly New Street Station, Bonehead sells itself as 'craft beer and chicken'. Yes, it's a tried and tested combination that's not going to break any new ground, but with a decent beer list - that on my visit included a Northern Monk berry sour, the perfect aperitif, followed by a pint of Beavertown Gamma Ray as a chaser - things were off to a solid start.

Wings were offered in a variety of flavours that included buffalo with blue cheese and celery, original with garlic mayo, and honey soy, but it was only ever about the Hothead (their nashville tribute) with comeback sauce, a kind of spiky thousand island that I recently got acquainted with at Dave's Hot Chicken in L.A. 

Looking at the picture now, days later, and I'm still not sure how I felt when I was eating them. I guess a kind of love/hate feeling of searing pain from the chilli, both dried and fresh, coupled with a salty, oily, is-it-too-much moreishness that kept me going back. Eyes bulging and panting like Pavlov's dog, (an attractive thought, I know) until I was sweating and sobbing and filled with self-loathing. Or something close to that, anyway.

As if I wasn't enough of a sucker for punishment, I also had the Hothead thigh burger, with comeback sauce and pickles and a slice of good old plasticky American cheese. While the sweet, buttery bread took a bit of the sting out, it was still a two napkin job. One to (unsuccessfully) stop the grease going on my light grey trousers, and one to mop up my leaking eyes.

While they are centred around variations of deep fried bird, my highlight was the loaded waffle fries, a cool and creamy respite from the salty assault with slaw almost as good as my Mum's, a practically impossible feat. I actually think I enjoyed these even better cold out of a takeout the next morning; the delicious taste of slight soggy regret and raw red onion.

If there was one unintended plus point of too much salt and too much ale (not helped by a trip to Brewdog Birmingham, opposite Bonehead, to try some of the Dugges sour beers they have got in for the summer) it was drinking too much water, followed by the inevitable early morning loo visit. Which also bought the opportunity to see the sun breaking over the top of the Bullring car park. Strangely ordinary yet strangely beautiful, a bit like the night before.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Stick it between some bread and call it a sandwich

I used to work with a woman who would, every day like clockwork, forlornly pull her lunch out of her bag, sigh loudly while exclaiming 'aren't sandwiches boring', and then ruefully start to munch on her homemade sarnie. 

Firstly, I never quite understood why she didn't just make herself something else; secondly, who could possible hate on the sandwich? I'd spend the whole morning clock-watching until I could unwrap mine. It's still feel the same.

I eat a lot of food, and the food I eat the most is the humble 'something between two slices of bread'*. On average I've eaten 6 a week (one a day at work and a bacon sarnie on a Sunday), since early childhood. Which, by my primitive calculations makes approx ten thousand of the things (wow, imagine that - TE).

I never get bored, even on holiday, and as a testament to my love I dragged the Ewing around some of the best on the West coast, starting with the Godmother at the Bay Cities Deli. The most famous woman in Santa Monica.

*rolls, baguettes and bagels all welcome

Boars Head genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham and provolone cheese are layered up on crisp Italian bread with a perfectly blistered crust before being given "the works": mayo, mustard, Italian dressing, onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and chopped peppers. You can chose hot or mild, but there's really only one answer to that question; spice all the way.

It's always gonna be a pretty incredible sandwich, wherever you eat it, be it sitting on Santa Monica beach, fending off the seagulls and surreptitiously sipping a cream soda ale at 11 o'clock in the morning takes some beating (yeah baby - TE).

When it comes to iconic LA foods, there is little to beat the french dip sandwich and there is no where more iconic to try one than at Phillippe's, the "Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich". Established in 1908, it doesn't seem like much has changed, from the sawdust on the floors, to the 'carvers' who serve you at the counter, to the row of coin-operated phone booths by the door, this is a slice of the City of Angels set in aspic.

For their signature sandwich a crusty french roll is stuffed with beef (or lamb, turkey or pork) before being dunked in the hot roasting juices - chose single-dip, double-dip, or wet. A slice of cheese is optional, the special famous hot mustard on each table, is pretty much mandatory.

While the Ewing was reluctant to go for a sandwich (primarily because we had literally just eaten taquitos and tamales at Ceilto Lindo, across the street), I lured her in with the prospect of a beer; a schooner of Booming Rollers from San Diego-based Modern Times (I am such a push over - TE).

Even if the sandwich was a duff, it would have been worth it for the booze, with both of us agreeing it was possibly the best beer of the whole trip. And there were a few beers. Of course the french dip was excellent, with the Ewing bravely eating half of my roast beef and cheddar roll, although I had to eat the whole portion of macaroni salad to myself. Hardly a hardship, as I still think of it's mayo and pickle-spiked perfection even now.

If the Ewing thought we were done for the day after our french dip, she hadn't counted on the Dodger Dog at the Dodger Stadium, our next stop. While it might be a stretch to include this as a sandwich, it is meat (of a questionable providence, but animal-derived no less) between bread, so it's in.

Described as a 10 inch pork wiener - I added a couple of inches with the extra large - wrapped in a steamed bun and served either steamed or grilled. The grilled Dogs are considered the "classic" version. with more dogs sold here than at any other Major League ballpark.

I'm not completely sure what type I had, although it seemed a bit scorched, so I'm going with the latter. Was it a good dog? If spongy mechanically recovered meat clamped in soggy bread and smothered in sweet, vinegary mustard and ketchup, then yes. Was it a good experience? Absolutely, even if we left at the top of the 8th inning, with the Dodgers 3 -1 down, only to miss two homers. At least we heard the triumphant cheers as we walked back to Union Station. 

I couldn't possible write about a trip to California and not include at least one mention of In-n-Out, the burger chain established in 1958 that inspires a cult-like devotion. Known for it's secret menu, fair treatment of staff and resistance to franchising it's operations, it also makes a pretty decent burger.

If it was a stretch to include a Dodger Dog, its even more so to include a burger that eschews bread and is instead wrapped in a lettuce leaf, but this is Cali and this is a Double Double (two meat and two cheese) protein style. If the salad is still too carbalicious, you can order the flying dutchman, two slices of cheese melted between two burger patties. 

Of course, they also offer buns, and good thick shakes - above is the off-menu neapolitan, combining chocolate, vanilla and strawberry - and not very good fries that are marginally improved by being ordered animal style - covered in melted cheese, 'spread' (read thousand island) and grilled onions. Make sure they also chuck in some chilli peppers, but be careful; they are hotter than they look.

If burgers and hot dogs are in, then barbecue with parker rolls also qualifies (YEAH! we had such an amazing time on this trip - TE). While we were not strictly in 'cue country, most of the smoked meats in this corner of the country would still run smoke rings around anything you can find back here.

Case in point being Fox Smokehouse BBQ, our last stop on our drive to Vegas. An anonymous looking building in a strip mall in Boulder City, identifiable only by the smoker on the sidewalk outside and a small flashing neon sign in the window.

Inside smelt like the contents of my holdall after a week sitting around a bonfire at Reading Festival as a teenager. Not great for my Mum doing my washing, but a pretty enticing smell when you know it's the scent of slow-cooked ribs and brisket.

As predicted on arrival, the food was exceptional. Excellent deep fried nuggets of crispy okra with ranch dressing; barbecue pit beans; gooey mac and cheese; crunchy vinegar slaw and cold glasses of PBR for only just one buck. And of course the meat - tender ribs, with a proud, pink smoke ring and just the right amount of resistance when trying to prise them from the bone, and slices of soft and fatty brisket with it's crisp outer bark. Best of all were the pillowy rolls, perfect for DIY beef sandwiches. How can that ever be boring?

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Bucks Bites: Bull and Butcher

Now days it’s hard to think of a foodstuff that doesn’t have its own dedicated day. From cream puffs to cassoulet, chocolate cake to cheese fondue, it seems like there is an annual opportunity for me to be reminded of it while scrolling through Twitter at work, while tucking in to the same weekday sarnie at my desk. Of course, I feel very smug when sandwich week rolls around.

Apart from pancake day, which is obviously one of the holiest days in the glutton’s calendar, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever really been tempted by the marketers ploys to get me to eat more sausages or sandwiches, or sausage sandwiches (possibly because I’m not sure I could eat anymore), although the creation of the ploughman’s lunch - by the wonderfully named, Cheese Bureau - is still one of my favourite PR stories.

That being said, I did find myself a couple of weeks ago cynically shoehorning that it was National Fish and Chip Day on 1 June into the conversation. A handy way to persuade the Ewing that we should go for dinner in a country pub garden to commemorate the fact and a mercifully easy task when fried fish on a Friday was involved.

Of course a far harder job was deciding which pub and then crossing everything that it wasn’t going to rain. In answer to the former, I picked the Bull and Butcher in Turville, a quintessentially ‘English’ pub with whitewashed walls found in the picturesque Hambleden Valley village that the Vicar of Dibley was set in. 

With regard to the latter, not only did the rain hold off, but the clouds even parted a little; a very good job as all the inside tables seemed to have 'reserved’ signs on them. Fortunate really, as my wife’s 'thoughts' of booking had remained just that.

Although it isn’t Beer Day until the 15 June (which conveniently happens to be this Friday…), a pint of beer was a no-brainer, vying with creosote-coloured tannic tea as the perfect beverage with deep fried cod.  As it's a Brakspears pub, I went with their 'ordinary' bitter, a beer that in 1993, beer writer Michael Jackson described as the best in England.

Since their Henley home closed, production has moved to the Wychwood brewery in Witney and it fails to reach those heady heights anymore. That said it remains a great example of a classic English ale with biscuity malts and a fruity spiciness, at a low enough abv (3.9) to be the kind of perfect session beer that creeps up on gently you over an afternoon in front of a log fire with a good book and a wet dog for company.

While I had neither of these, I did have the conversation of the Ewing and my cod - skin on, we are in the South - with a slightly too thick carapace of batter, it was pretty decent, if not up to Prestwood Plaice standards (the Ewing used to drive around with a paper bag in the boot, so she could transport our Friday fish and chips home without risk of sogginess). Alongside were proper fat chips, which may have seemed miserly at first glance, but even I struggled to finish them.

While the main event passed muster, the accompaniments were standout. Peas, which were mushy and not the garden variety (nothing against their rounder brother, but mushy all the way with fried fish), were excellent. I also got the Ewing on the pea and malt vinegar vibe. Try it, it's a revelation. The home made tartar sauce was also stick your finger in the remnants at the bottom of the ramekin good.

My pudding was another pint of Brakspears, although we could have chosen from the stalwarts including bread and butter pudding, lemon tart and a chocolate brownie. Surprisingly the Ewing also eschewed dessert, plumping instead for a handful of runner bean plants from the plant sale to take home instead. Here’s hoping they’ll be ready by phaseolus coccineus week.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

More tea, vicar?

Last weekend saw most of us Brits basking in a long bank holiday; the second in May and the fifth of the year so far. Sadly, this is where it all goes downhill, as the next one isn’t until the fag end of August (Boo-hiss! - TE). Although I hear Labour are promising an extra four BH in their election manifesto (where's my poll card? - TE). First week in October sounds good (coincidentally also around my birthday), if you’re listening, Jezza (and first week in May...oh I forgot, I've already got one...TE).

Anyway, while I’m still basking in the joy of a four day week, it seems an apt time to take a break from my American adventures and write about one of my favourite ways to spend a sunny Sunday/bank holiday Monday; partaking in a cream tea in the Hughenden Valley.

Being lucky enough to have the Hughenden Estate on our doorstep, the Ewing and I - and on occasion the magical Stealth - can perennially be found traipsing around the fields and woods for various reasons. If it’s snowing, there’s normally a hip flask involved; spring is the perfect time to collect elderflowers for homemade cordial; and in autumn we head for the hedgerows laden with blackthorn bushes, to collect sloes for the annual batch of gin.

If that doesn’t sound quintessentially English enough (or like a bad version of the Good Life), on Sundays and Bank holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of October, St Michael and All Angels' Church also offer afternoon cream teas.

Adjacent to Hughenden Manor, the Grade II listed church is 12c in origin, but almost completely rebuilt in 1875. The interior impressively boasts a pulpit carved by Thomas Earp, floor tiles designed by Edward William Godwin and stained glass windows by Thomas Willement, and Clayton and Bell. Well worth a visit if you’re interested in the Victorian Gothic style. Or, if like me, you just enjoy poking about an old church on a sunny afternoon. My transformation to Officially Old is now well underway.

It’s also the final resting place of Benjamin Disraeli, who bought the Manor in 1848. While protocol did not permit her to attend the funeral, a memorial to Disraeli was erected by Queen Victoria on the north side of the chancel following his death. The only memorial to be erected by a reigning monarch to a commoner.

Anyway, I always save looking around the church for afterwards, always being in far too much of a hurry to race up the path to the church cottage next door, home of the aforementioned teas. You can eat inside but, if you’ve picked your day carefully, sit on the patio or in the lower walled garden, where you also get wonderful views of the church and across the Valley.

Normally the magical Stealth accompanies us, but on this most recent visit we were sadly without her company. While the quality of the conversation was diminished somewhat (you mean, one sided - TE), I was looking forward to actually being able to eat a whole slice of cake to myself. Until I remembered I was with my wife; and I had ordered chocolate cake…. Oh well, sharing is caring, although I notice it’s not quite as forthcoming in reverse (blah, blah, blah - TE).

For me it’s the perfect cream tea: a scone with cream and jam, a pot of tea and a slice of cake. All baked and served by the most wonderful volunteers and all still for a fiver in all the year’s we have been coming. The profits from the teas help to support the church and maintain Church House, and you can also leave a donation and buy copies of their recipe booklet, which I think the Ewing is currently building a stockpile of.

The cakes are all homemade and, certainly the ones I’ve tried, have all been wonderful. Proper slices of old fashioned loaf cake, slabs of tray bakes, and wedges of sponge in rotating flavours but sure to include a selection of classics including lemon drizzle, lime and ginger, victoria sponge and old fashioned fruit cake.

On our last visit my chocolate cake (there was also a fat-free version, which I politely declined, as nice as I’m sure it was…) was slathered in thick chocolate buttercream that shone in the afternoon sun and proved irresistible to the magpie-like attentions of my wife. Her slice of coffee and walnut may have been even better; the most fluffy of sponges with two different icings -  sandwiched with coffee buttercream and glazed with a carapace of coffee water icing - that showed commendable attention to detail.

But to enjoy tea here is more than just the sum of its cakes and perfectly risen scones adorned with clumps of clotted cream and raspberry jam (#creamfirst). It’s a place that feels so perfectly peaceful and welcoming; a spot untroubled by the world raging outside and immune to the passing of time. I very rarely feel patriotic, feeling these things essentially boil down to an accident of birth, but sometimes I do feel terribly lucky to be British. 

To be sat, peacefully in the church garden, red kites circling in the clear blue sky and the faint strum of a petrol mower in the distance. Even the enjoyment of fighting over the last forkful of cake with your nearest and dearest, though you know you’re going to come off second best, before the slow, contented tramp through the fields back home.