Monday, 29 October 2018

Tapas Tuesdays

While writing this blog I've frequently flip-flopped on many food related issues. My favourite cheese; my favourite roast; my favourite curry; my favourite sandwich - currently Roquefort; rib of beef; lamb dhansak (with peshwari naan and a bhindi bhaji) and bacon with butter on white bread - but my devotion to lunch, my very favourite meal of the day, hasn't wavered.

Not just any lunch, of course. Most of my lunches, like most of us, are extremely ordinary (excuse me? ordinary? - TE). Consumed hunched over my key board, trying not too get too many crumbs wedged in my space bar. Which is what makes a 'proper' lunch so very wonderful. The kind when you start early with an aperitif and a nibble or two, before segueing seamlessly into the evening on a crest of food and booze and good conversation.

Which is why I was particularly looking forward to our lunch at Ultracomida in Narberth - a deli-cum-tapas bar deep in the heart of rural Pembrokeshire. A whole day with nothing much to do except eating and drinking and poking our noses into charity shops and butchers and bakers and staring at community notice boards and estate agent's windows. The Ewing even found West Wales first zero waste store and spend a happy half an hour buying strange herbal infusions and hippy soap (a shampoo bar actually which has been a real success - TE). Getting old can be truly brilliant sometimes.

All Tuesdays should kick off with a cold glass of cava and gratis dishes of stuffed olives and fresh bread. Even better if the olives are the salty green kind I used to love as a kid, stuffed with a strip of red pepper paste you can tease out with your tongue. 

The Ewing also had much fun trying different blends of oil and vinegar, from the various bottles found on the large sharing tables that dominate the light and airy room where the restaurant is housed - get here early for lunch, queues were already building at half twelve. The best combo being judged as a mix of organic Spanish olive oil with a balsamic style PX sherry vinegar.

For such a small space the menu is surprisingly comprehensive, starting with a range of breakfasts - including the classic pan con tomate and huevos rotos, or 'broken eggs', served with fried potatoes  - before moving on to a wide range of fish, veg and meat tapas that are available all day, plus a range of toasted sandwiches that are served at lunchtime.

You can also order platters made up of a selection of the various cheeses and cured meats that they also sell in the shop, or just order drinks and nibbles or coffee with a slice of cake or a pastry. I'm not sure how Spanish rocky road or carrot cake are, but they seemed very popular.

Initially I was pretty against the crab croquettes; I mean, I love a croquette, but I had already spotted the peerless jamon version on the menu and I doubted these could be any improvement. 

So the Ewing pouted, and I relented and I was (this seldomly happens) happy to be proved wrong. The croquettes were utterly joyful; a delicate shell of golden breadcrumbs encasing a hefty nugget of crab-flecked bechamel, fried until the outside was crisp and the inside all gooey and melty.

They had both chopitos (baby squid) and calamari (squid rings) on the menu on our visit. Which, as a squid lover, showed admirable attention to detail. Tempted though I was, it was even harder to resist the cazon en adobo; school shark marinaded in garlic, vinegar and paprika, before being floured and deep fried.

These were the most glorious, and generously portioned, springy nuggets of fish. Arriving fresh from the fryer they were scoffed with an indecent haste - with only the briefest pause to sweep them through the wobbly aioli that left me with the ability to repel Dracula for days after our visit.

I also ordered the paella - which I had pre-warned the Ewing I wasn't going to share, under any circumstances - to quench a raging craving for I had had for weeks. Not only is seeing paella on a menu still a rare find, it usually necessitates two people minimum, plus an interminable wait while it's cooked. Here they prepare a batch each morning, ready for the lunchtime service, so it's ready to go when you order and there is no minimum portion size.

This was a paella Valenciana, named for the city where the dish originated, made here with roasted peppers, rabbit, chorizo and iberico pork. While I do love seafood in my rice, an unfortunate incident with Stealth, the opened wine and the unopened mussels did put me off for a while and I actually think I prefer the classic land-based version. This version was simple lovely and perfectly itched the scratch.

The Ewing, on hearing that I wasn't planning to share my rice (bar the odd forkful, I'm not a complete monster) chose the bacalao con hinojo, salt cod with roasted artichoke, lemon and more of that fearsome aioli.

This was a superb dish and I was suitably jealous - a thick tranche of fish, with burnished skin and flesh that broke into pearly white flakes that possessed the lovely gelatinous quality that come from being cured with salt before being cooked. And an utter bargain at eight quid. Throw in a couple of spuds and it would go for twice that in many restaurants.

The only real duff note was the heirloom tomato salad, with a generous topping of inky purple olives,ordered to bump up our veg quotient. There wasn't anything wrong with it, just that it seemed very 'meh' in comparison to the other dishes and the toms weren't a patch on those grown by the Ewing this year (awww...thanks babe - TE)

Chocolate con churros feel like the kind of thing you should order when you're propping up a bar on holiday in Spain, only to presented with disappointment and regret when the bowl of tepid dishwater and greasy, cold dough sticks arrive.

Here they were everything they always promise to be; hot puffy twists of crisp batter served alongside a cup of gooey, thick chocolate for dunking. As if that wasn't enough, we also had glasses of Orujo, a strong pomace brandy, and Ponche Caballero - a brandy with added oranges, plums, sultanas, cinnamon.

After the inevitable detour on the way out to buy cheese (a palate-stripping blue and a manchego wrapped in rosemary) and vermouth, our postprandial stroll took us to a second pudding stop at the gelato and gin shop, Fire and Ice. Whilst I picked a restrained (and exceptional) frozen yoghurt with blackcurrant a ripple, the Ewing went full out with Gethin's cider sorbet and a gin and tonic sorbet with orange.

The only downside was, after enjoying such a joyful day of half-cut gluttony, it had to be followed by worse for wear Wednesday.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Still got it - adventures in Soho

Sometimes I think getting old just means rebelling about getting old. In the last year, for example, I seem to have regress to an early twenties version of me - getting a tattoo at a 24 hour tattoo parlour in Vegas, having a grade one undercut (which even my hairdresser questioned the wisdom of in mid-winter), rocking my Casio calculator watch (always a popular conversation piece with men and women of a certain age) and wearing my luminous green Nike Air Max 95s like they’ve never gone out of fashion (have they ever gone out of fashion?)

And so when trying to arrange the location for a staid, mid-week post-work dinner date with Stealth, I also decided we needed to go to a gay bar (sung in the style of Electric Six). Something she, surprisingly, willing acquiesced to.

Things started out in a more middle-aged way with a trip to De Hems, for strong ale and where they were fortuitously also showing the early Spurs Vs Milan game (and even more fortuitously, we had left before they conceded the two late goals) and then for dinner at the place with the worst name but, apparently the best Malay noodle soup in town, Laksamania.

I chose the (already) famed Penang assam laksa - a bold and spicy fish broth cut through with lime and tamarind and combined with udon noodles, flaked mackerel, red chilli, shrimp paste, pineapple, cucumber and onion. And, as a bonus for an ouef-avoider, no boiled egg.

This was bullish without bullying. A thrilling assault of sweet, sour and spice, every spoonful dredging up flakes of oily fish and fat bouncy noodles, at turns rich and refreshing and with enough spice to get that satisfying sheen building on your brow as you slurp. If I had any recommendations it would be don't wear a light coloured shirt. Or attempt more restraint than I managed.

I also ordered for Stealth: the Ipoh curry laksa - a peppery hot and creamy soup with hints of star anise and cloves, to create a complex flavour. Yellow egg noodles & rice vermicelli noodles, mussels, bean sprouts, bean curd puffs, king prawns, slices of BBQ pork and half a boiled egg.

I can't remember if I tried this, I'm pretty sure I (would have) liked it. So did she, although not as much as the pints of Hop House 13 she was dispatching as we put the  world to rights.

The dessert menu features a variety of different shaved iced, although the snow ice original and coconut snow ice seemed to contain exactly the same ingredients. Whilst I noticed this, I obviously had no intention of interrogating the waitress over the differences. Unlike Stealth, who was happy to quiz her, despite my very English protestations.

She was very quick to recommend the coconut version 'because it contains coconut'. Which it certainly did, alongside some lumps of jelly and the odd odd kernel of sweetcorn, which were surprisingly pleasant. I also saw what, I think, was the original shaved ice, which was filled with a lurid mix of beans and fruit and also looked pretty good if you like some fibre with your pudding.

Stealth was as good as her word and we ended up at Trisha's legendary Soho bar, drinking mystery shots and standing in their outside courtyard, enjoying all the second hand smoke and gossip while looking at the stars twinkling above us in the London sky (although that could have been the fairy lights, we had supped a couple by that point). 

I'm not at liberty to reveal the full horror of what happened on the way home - what happens in E&C stays in E&C - but we both survived to see the dawn. As I said to Stealth the morning after, whilst texting to compare hangovers, we've still got it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Gouda get through this

I’m on a diet. Or certainly not eating carbs in the evening or red meat or sugar at all. Apart from the bacon sandwich and bag of crisps I had for dinner last night. Swiftly followed by a delicious speculoos blondie, because we’ve just got back from holiday and we still haven’t got any ‘proper’ food in. And I’ve given up booze, at least for this Wednesday and Thursday. Our local brewery is having their monthly open night on Friday, so it would be rude not to.

Anyway, I only mention this as I’m sitting here finally trying to write this blog post – after a longer than anticipated, but very happy hiatus drinking port and getting portly. A task made even more bittersweet as I stare at the platters of cheese and meats and pies and baskets piled high with bread that we have recently ploughed through, all while contemplating eating something green (I’ve been told Bendicks Bittermints don’t count). Oh yes they do! - TE

Our first stop on a weekend of celebrating the three finest things in life (apart from my wife and my cat and the mighty Tottenham Hotspur) started with a visit to Renoufs in Southbourne. According to their website the Westbourne branch is often so busy you may have to wait weeks for a table at the weekend, but at two o’clock on a Saturday we were the only ones in their sister branch.

Inside strikes just the right balance between kitsch and classy, with high sharing tables in the centre and low booths around the outside and racks of wine covering the walls, festooned with brightly coloured fairy lights. The only thing I really struggled to get behind were signs for the ‘tinkletorium’ that didn’t get any less twee with the imbibing of alcohol.

They have a comprehensive wine list which also offers flights, and as I was still convincing myself it was the dog days of summer I started with a selection of roses that ranged from bright pink bubble gum to off-white, with sweetness levels to match. Plus a bottle of Pinot noir as a chaser.

The concept is simple: choose your meat, cheese and wine, chuck in a some extras from the selection of nibbles and sides, and you're good to go. They also offer three sharing boards, the Ultimate, the Party and the Supreme for two, four and six, respectively. 

We were five, but when we heard the Ultimate included 12 meats, eight cheeses, a giant pork pie, baked mini chorizo, olives, houmous, pate of the day, marinated cherry tomatoes, cheese-stuffed peppers, crackers chutneys, fruit, freshly baked bread, deep breath, and a whole baked camembert with onion marmalade, in the immortal words of JB 'baby it's no-brainer'. And we were still worried it wouldn't be sufficient - TE.

In the end it was easier to tell our waitress which cheeses and meats we didn't want from the selection on offer. Or, at least, wanted less, as I'd have happily eaten any of them. It arrived on a behemoth of a wooden board with baskets of (excellent) bread and crackers, that are happily topped up as needed. Gluten free bread was also available, and also got the thumbs up.

It was all every good, but cheesy standouts came from the Dorset Smoked, from the nearby Ford Farm, the washed-rind and slightly stinky Francis, Salisbury-based Lyburn Cheese and Tor, a pyramid-shaped goat's cheese rolled in ash from Somerset's Whitelake Dairy. 

I also scarfed quite a lot of the hot chorizo sausages, the duck and orange pate and the pork pie. Who doesn't love a pork pie. In fact, the only thing I had the slightest quibble with was the houmous, as I've realised I've become a crushed chickpea connoisseur since getting my Nutribullet (and a huge bore, to boot). Oh you were a bore before you got that babe - TE

It was a hefty selection to take down, even for us quintet of gannets, but we just about managed it - bar a few token salad leaves. Ably washed down with a bottle of Italian red, to celebrate the fact the Monkey had just got engaged on a holiday to Sicily. 

After Sunday's day of rest, Monday saw a visit to the Sett in Brockenhurst, deep in the glorious New Forest, for lunch en route home from my Mum's birthday celebrations in Lymington. Originally the building was a public convenience, before being sold off by the council and given a new lease of life as a convivial space that offers coffee, cakes and fancy sandwiches as well as a full range of cheese and charcuterie platters and a comprehensive range of spirits, beers and wines. 

The Ewing had a glass of verdejo, while I mulled over the Vibrant Forest pale ale but stumped for the natural, low sulphite Grand Cerdo tempranillo. From looking at the website the maker says the wine is: "a great wine dedicated to the bank executives that denied loans to us on the basis that wine is not a seizable asset. One day, these greasy and sweaty corporate suits will find that the best things in life cannot be impounded. Thanks to our friends help, we were finally able to bottle this wine. Now you can enjoy it with ham." Which I did.

Because I didn't write anything down, and then I went on holiday there may be a few gaps in my knowledge of what we ate, but I do remember from the meats we enjoyed the excellent Karma Ham, made by a Pinch of Salt in New Milton, wild Scottish venison salami with green pepper that was gloriously soft and gamey, and Hampshire coppa, made from New Forest pork shoulder and cured with spices including cinnamon, for a full on festive feel.

Cheeses included Mrs Bells Blue, an excellent ewes' milk cheese from Thirsk, that was like a slightly more reserved roquefort; Lyburn Winchester, a gouda-cheddar cross from near Salisbury; and Tunworth, a Hampshire take on a camembert style soft cheese we first had at our wedding and that I'm still utterly in love with. Me too and you - TE.

So, briefly in conclusion: afternoon drinking is great , pork pies go just as well with wine as with beer (tbf, pork pies go with anything) and I think I’m over both my blogging block and my (very) brief respite from cured meat and coagulated dairy. Time to post this and knock up a cheese and ham toastie to celebrate. YEAH baby! - TE.