Thursday, 31 October 2019

Pigs at the Pig (birthday lunch number two)

This year I was fortunate enough to have two of my all-time favourite meals. Yes, even better than Christmas, Easter and the first solid food you can eat after having a tooth out - the birthday lunch. 

I've already written about the first here, whilst the second was a semi-surprise arrangement, concocted between my lovely wife and my lovely friends, at the Pig in Brockenhurst. (I'm not going to speculate further on my friend's additional motivations for wanting an excuse to go for lunch at the Pig too closely...).

This is the original Pig - there are now several incarnations, including the Pig in the Wall and the Pig on the Beach, spread across the South - and the converted house, built in the early 1900s includes a 29 room hotel, several treatment rooms and a bar, alongside the multi-roomed restaurant. 

We were shown to a lovely bright table in the corner of the conservatory, which made the pictures of the food look better and the pictures of us look worse. Nothing like the natural light to really highlight those imperfections.

Cocktails to start included icy cold Chase vodka martinis, with a healthy lick of olive brine and a green olive. There was also their version of a rum and cola, which was fabulous but, with ingredients including 'acorn aromatic' and 'honeydew sage', probably remains out of the scope of most amateur mixologists.  

A big basket of warm, fluffy bread - with the addition of yet more chopped olives - was excellent. Plus extra points for serving it with both oil and butter (or both, if you're the birthday girl, or just greedy. I was both).

From the piggy bits menu we ordered sharing plates of crackling shards with warm apple sauce and mini sausage rolls with mustard mayo which went down (along with retro mushroom vol au vents and salmon pate on toast) as you may imagine, very well. 

There were also raptures from the rest of the table over the 'brock eggs'; mini scotch eggs made by wrapping quail eggs in shredded ham hocks before being breadcrumbed and deep fried. If you weren't an oeuf-avoider you would probably have enjoyed these. But I am, so couldn't comment. 

I started things proper with a pretty (if a little bijou) plate of Solent mackerel tartare with fennel and trinidad peppers, topped with edible flowers from their gardens. At one point the trinidad was claimed to be hottest chilli in the world, but even I was glad that there wasn't any real heat to take away from the delicate flavours of the spanking fresh fish and gentle aniseed twang from the fennel.

While the menu changes seasonally the pièce de résistance is the tomahawk pork chop, a beast of a cut served with roast beetroot and a creamy mustard sauce. Move over Homer Simpson, this was damn near my perfect meal. The vast hunk of meat had been chargrilled on the outside while still juicy within, and the thick ribbon of crisp fat and rind (absolutely the best part) left intact. Earthy beetroot and a creamy mustard sauce with a decent punch completed things nicely.

Chips were commendably good, and I'l forgive them for being served in a flower pot as it fits in with the kitchen garden schtick. We also had some of their home grown steamed greens, fresh from the garden, and a plate of the excellent tobacco onions; crispy deep fried curls of lightly battered allium that did somewhat resemble a pouch of old shag tobacco.

After the fanfare with the pork, the Ewing was slightly underwhelmed with her choice of Beaulieu Estate venison haunch with crushed celeriac and pickled pear. While it looked the part, and each constituent element was well executed - especially the venison, which was butter-soft - overall it felt a little timid to really wow.

Thankfully she didn't completely miss put on the tomahawk and did manage to get her hands on a good bone (steady) to gnaw on when some of us were rendered defeated by the vast hunks of meat. Which you can clearly see she relished getting properly stuck into.

After wanting to try a queen of puddings - an old school dessert consisting of baked breadcrumbs mixed with custard, spread with jam and topped with meringue - for pretty much my whole life, just like buses, two have now come along at once. The first was made for me by the Ewing a with some allotment rhubarb, before it turned up again a few weeks after here at the Pig.

While it wasn't quite up to the standard of my wife's (and not because she is going to be reading this for typos later), it was pretty bloody great - chewy burning meringue segueing into a wobbly, custardy cakey layer, finished off with a base of warm jam.

The Ewing chose the chocolate mousse with honeycombe, boozy prunes and yet more flowers. Expecting something a bit more robust (and dare I say, more generous) the delicate pudding that appeared - like the previous daintier plates - was less successful than the old school, heartier helpings.

There was also a little dissonance around the table when one party member realised, a little too late, that the divisive dried fruit came with the mousse. As with the surfeit of chops, the Ewing felt the benefit here too, after being gifted the unwanted dehydrated plums. And with the added advantage of keeping things regular.

Now the Pig is well known for it's grounds - including kitchen gardens, smoke house, wild flower orchard and a chance to see future chops, in the form of their own pigs, snuffling around - which you are free to wander around (they even provide a range of welly boots if you don't have yours with you). But for once I was thankful for the inclement weather, which gave us the perfect opportunity to retire to the bar at the front and sit and enjoy a post-prandial in front of the log fire.

In this case a notorious P.I.G; made with bourbon, blackberry liqueur, Frangelico and apple juice. A perfect ending to the perfect afternoon. (I won't go into further details about how the rest of the night unravelled, but it may have involved more espresso martinis while trying to learn the moves to Cameo's Candy, which we then performed en masse like drunken line dancers at a wedding. And that's what you need friends for).

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Pink and black (or birthday lunch number one)

We've just got back from a week in Sicily (or, as the Ewing, who flicked through the phrasebook for five minutes would say, See-cheee-lee-uh). As ever there was food and drink. And more food and drink. And several afternoon naps. And it was lovely.

It's also been increasingly difficult to get the blogging mojo back since returning. Mostly because I have spent most my time since I've been back swathed in blankets, with the heating on full blast, bemoaning the fact I'm not still in shorts, looking out at the view above, sipping cold rose and eating cannoli.

While we ate many delicacies - including goat's intestines, gelato and granita for breakfast - but my favourite meal was my birthday lunch (part one of two, stay tuned for the next instalment) at Trattoria Al Vecchio Club Rosanero a shrine to the S.S.D Palermo, or the Pink and Black - named for the colour of their strips - the city's revered football team.

On arrival we were given a comprehensive menu but then, from my very limited understanding of Italian, informed that we should go and chose from the dishes chalked up on the boards around the room. Of course I had already studied it comprehensively on social media before our visit.

Which was lucky as it saved us standing over someone's table attempting to figure out random local specialities such as glasa, pasta topped with leftover stew, and triato, pasta with a 'chopped' sauce.

Our first antipasti was sarde a beccafico, or stuffed sardines, a dish we had seen Giorgio Locatelli cooking for Andrew Graham-Dixon on Sicily Unpacked (worth searching for online if not available on iPlayer). Made from butterflied sardines, stuffed with raisins, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, it's a peasant dish that has remained popular in Palermo.

I have say to I wasn't overly-excited about ordering them but felt duty-bound as I knew the Ewing wanted to try them. As things turned out, they were one of the best things I ate on the trip. Maybe it was the location, or the atmosphere, or the litre of vino blanco we had eagerly got stuck into, but they were simply perfect.

Equally as good was the caponata, a sweet and sour aubergine dish with celery, tomatoes, raisins and capers. Here served with the addition of chunks of spada, or swordfish, another fish found plentifully in local waters.

A heavenly mix of soft slippery aubergine and meaty cubes of grilled fish, bathed in local olive oil and mopped up with chunks of warm, sesame studded wood-fired bread that was delivered to every table on arrival. This was so good we had to come back just to order it again before we flew home.

For our primi platti, the Ewing ordered a bowl of spaghetti with sweet red prawns and briny sea urchin; with this heaping plateful being a half portion. I can confirm the full sized portions were at least twice as large, and I spent half my time trying not to stare in awe at the svelte local lady next to us who was quietly and elegantly demolishing a gargantuan heap of spaghetti bathed in a pool of jet-black squid ink sauce.

I chose the ravioli, with the robust pasta parcels pleasingly reminding me of the tinned squares in a lurid orange sauce which most 80s kids in England were subjected to as children. Rather than a mystery grey 'meat' filling, these were stuffed with a mousse of grouper fish, and served with a wonderfully glossy and buttery sauce of fresh tomato and topped with parsley and tiny pink shrimp.

In all honesty, after all that had come before, the squid was probably superfluous, but there was no way I was going to pass up ordering one of my favourite things. It was also good to see it available simply chargrilled (as well as stuffed and fried), the smoky cephalopod served bathed with olive oil, lemon and sprinkled with wild  Sicilian oregano.

In fact, the oregano was so good that I'm very  I bought a big bag in the famous Capo market and carried it home in my suitcase. I am  also retrospectively very glad I wasn't questioned more when coming back through customs.

As good girls who always eat our greens (along with pretty much everything else) we accompanied the squid with some giri  which can refer to various long-stemmed, spinach-like greens, but in this case meant swiss chard - that had been slowly cooked until soft in yet more olive oil and lemon juice and tasted deliciously sweet and delicate after all the big flavours that had come before.

We finished the meal the way all good meals should finish; with two icy cold glasses of local Sicilian amaro, a pleasingly small bill (less than fifty 50 Euros, including water and and the aforementioned litre of wine) and a long afternoon nap. The perfect way to herald the last year of the fourth decade of my existence.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Warming our cockles

On our recent drive down to Margate to visit Stealth and Regina's new pad the Ewing proclaimed ‘we need to get all our friend’s to move to the sea’. And while I still love the charms of her home in E&C (no, really) there is something exciting about a visit to the Isle of Thanet that reminds me of my halcyon days at university where the housemate with the car (always the best kind of housemate) would drive us here on Sundays to eat pots of vinegary cockles on the bleak sand, while hoping the sea air would somehow aid our hangovers.

Things are obviously much more fancy now, even at the Clintonville end, and after a glass of fizz while admiring the new view – complete with a running commentary from Stealth about the boats currently in the harbour; everybody needs a hobby when they leave London - we wandered along the sea front to Angela’s for a late lunch.

A tiny place with a big reputation, it has been featured everywhere from the FT to the Good Food Guide and I was already very excited about an afternoon heavily featuring the joys of booze and seafood. Starting with a bottle of vinho verde, chosen by the Ewing and appropriately named Chin Chin. Check out the bottle too – I know you should never judge a book by its cover, but how can drinking a couple of bottles of a wine with a label like that, on a sunny afternoon, be anything but pleasurable.

One sign that you know you are going to get a good feed is when the menu is found chalked up on a board hanging on the wall, that can be unhooked, as here, and paraded around if needed. One of the only flourishes I really don’t mind in restaurants. Even if their ever-changing nature often means I can’t look at them online before my visit. The good feed theory was backed up by the fact that we all eagerly wanted to eat it all, despite mainlining the Co-Ops salt and vinegar crisps (the best salt and vinegar crisps, don’t @ me) before coming out.

Fortuitously we all decided on different mains, just like proper food bloggers would, which was hardly a hardship when we would all have happily eaten any of them. Looking at it now I'm just sad we didn't have a fifth mouth (although we were with the Ewing, which pretty much constitutes the same thing) so we could enjoy the halibut and girolles. But then, there's always next time.

Little gratis nibbles of salmon pate on toast were wonderfully retro and completely delicious and we also ordered a basket of sourdough bread which came with butter that was mostly eschewed in lieu of dragging the hunks around our main dishes to soak up the sauce.

Ray has been one of my favourite fish since I went to Madrid with my Aunt as a teenager and ordered it, only to be told by the waitstaff that I - very awkward, very English - definitely wouldn't like it. As well meaning as the advice was my Aunt was indignant that I did want it and I would like it, and of course she was right. 

I still remember the congratulations I received from several excited Spanish women after methodically stripping all the flesh from the cartilaginous skeleton. Here was no different, with every last scrap of flesh divested from the bones and every last drop of swoonsome cockle vinaigrette, full of garlic and parsley and salty shellfish, scooped up with said sourdough.

The Ewing's hake was a perfectly cooked tranche of fish with burnished skin sitting proudly on top of a heap of sweet, slow-cooked fennel ragout and a big and beefy crab sauce. I was lucky enough to get a taste of this (not just because, when I asked the Ewing how it tasted for the purposes of the blog, she replied 'hake-y'), and it was quite as excellent as it looked.

Regina chose a grand hunk of monkfish on the bone on a bed of curried lentils, which she kindly modelled with an action shot, fork raised, so I could take a picture.

Stealth had no option than to let me take a picture of her fish stew, but you can see from her hand position she is getting good at modelling a plate. Both ladies seemed very happy with their choices, the sourdough coming in handy to make sure every plate was left pretty much spotless.

What was even more impressive than my greed was seeing the size of the kitchen our dishes came from. Making my house seem palatial.

Now, a few days before, I had sent Stealth a picture via Instagram (as has now become the customary way of contacting each other) to point out that Angela's' sister restaurant - Dory, just around the corner - were selling sourdough doughnuts on a Saturday morning and that I would very much like one on my visit.

While Stealth had not managed to procure a doughnut before our arrival (or let's be honest, attempted to...), she did ask one of our charming waitresses whether they thought there might be any left. While they said it was probably doubtful, they were more than happy to go and see while we finished our  lunch. The, incidentally absolutely delicious, bowl of greens we ordered to the side going someway to offset the scoring of any potential fried carbs.

After our dishes had been cleared Stealth announced that 'I don't want pudding, I'll just have a cup of tea' before, after a Pinteresque pause 'I'll just have a bite of yours'. Since Regina and I had already decided we were going to share a piece of the chocolate cake with caramel I told her, in no uncertain terms, that this was not happening.

Finally we decided on two slices between three of us, which worked out far better for me as Regina was sitting  closer to Stealth's roving fork. And while I did have to contend with renowned chocoholic the Ewing trying to get a look in, I wolfed down the fudgy yet ethereal mousse-style cake with a lake of burnished caramel without the need of much help at all.

The Ewing snagged the last slice of plum tart although, sadly, there were out of creme fraiche sorbet so she had to soldier on with a jug of pouring cream to douse it with instead. This was a lovely, light thing with sharp fruit and sweet custard and a slightly bruleed top bringing a little touch of bitterness.

We finished with good cafetiere coffee while having a giggle with the two waitresses who were a hoot and had lots of memories of old and new Margate to share with us. The food and atmosphere at Angela's were superlative and it comes highly recommended. And at fifty quid a head (with two bottles of wine and the doughnuts for later)  it might not have been cheap lunch, but it certainly felt like good value. A big thanks for Stealth and Regina for making it happen. No, I'm still not sharing my pudding next time.

Even after managing most of the chocolate cake on my own, old habits die hard and it was off to Manning's Seafood stall after lunch for a second cockle fix to attempt to negate the effects of a two bottle of wine lunch. I may be older than when I originally used to visit for my tray of bivalves, but clearly still no wiser.