Friday, 16 June 2017

7. Dining In The Capital Of The Marches.


  Birmingham is the unofficial capital of the West Midlands so it's worth thinking about the notable dining establishments in the other counties that make up the area - Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire - some may say the latter is in the West Country but I think that is only true in the far south of the county around Bristol.
  Birmingham today of course is in the artificial county of West Midlands, invented as recently as the 1970's, but those of us with enough wrinkles on our foreheads will always think of ourselves as Warwickshire lads and that's the end of the matter. There's also the county of Borsetshire, beloved of fans of The Archers, and some of us can name dining establishments in that county but, alas, they are only fictional!
  I love to visit other towns of the West Midlands and am usually accompanied by my dog which means I become particularly familiar with dog-friendly hotels and the restaurants housed in them but my visits also give me chance to learn more about the culinary history of the places and to test out what they have on offer.
  The importance of the town of Ludlow, medieval capital of the distant Welsh Marches, its castle looking out over Shropshire and itself in the shadow of Clee Hill, in the modern gastronomic history of Mercia can not be overstated. It was here in 1994 that Shaun Hill opened The Merchant House in a private house which he transformed into one of Britain's most respected restaurants.
  He worked as the only chef in the kitchen, having begun his career working for Robert Carrier in Islington, and the kitchen at The Merchant House was so small that he could only work with 3 
saucepans at a time. Nevertheless Shaun Hill was awarded 1 Michelin star in 1996 and the 24 seater restaurant retained it until Shaun Hill closed The Merchant House to move on to other objectives.
  Although being advertised internationally no-one could be found to take on the business and no other restaurant was subsequently opened at the site but for food lovers who want to visit this shrine of Midlands gastronomy the private house there towards the lower end of Corve Street continues to have the restaurant sign hanging outside as shown in the photograph at the head of this piece.


Shaun Hill

 In 2000 Claude Bosi opened Hibiscus in the building which had housed Ken Adams' Bib Gourmand-winning "The Oaks", not far from The Merchant House in Corve Street and was awarded a Michelin star the following year. A second Michelin star was awarded to the restaurant in 2004 but in July 2006 Bosi announced that he was selling the restaurant and moving to London. It looked as though Ludlow's position as a somewhat unlikely gastronomic Mecca was coming to an end. It is interesting to note that Glynn Purnell worked for a few months with Bosi at Hibiscus.
  However the property was sold to Alan Murchison and reopened under the name La Becasse (the Woodcock) in 2007 with Will Holland as the Head chef. It was awarded a Michelin star in 2009 just 18 months after being opened despite being described as "a bit Froggified" by Shaun Hill to Jasper Gerard in The Telegraph in 2009 or maybe because of that description.  Holland left La Becasse in 2013 to become the Head chef of Coast in Pembrokeshire and Alan Murchison sold the restaurant with the new owners employing Chris O'Halloran as Head chef. The restaurant won the award "Best European Restaurant in England and Wales" at the Creative Oceanic Awards ceremony held in Manchester in 2014 beating, among others, Simon Rogan's "The French" in Manchester.
  However the restaurant group which owned La Becasse ran into financial difficulties and was closed in January 2015.

Claude Bosi

La Becasse

  The restaurant was reopened, with support from the Bosi brothers, as Mortimer's" in October 2015 by the new Head chef, Wayne Smith, and his business partner Andrew Brooks who manages the restaurant; Brooks had worked at the Charlton Arms which was owned by Claude Bosi's brother, Cedric, and Wayne Smith had worked with Claude Bosi at Overton Grange Hotel. The cuisine served at Mortimer's is described as "Modern British/French".
  I have not yet had chance to dine at Mortimer's but intend to do so before the year is out.


  Ludlow had a third star in the firmament in the form of Mr. Underhill's. The restaurant, owned by chef Chris Bradley and his wife Judy, began its life located in Suffolk in 1981 and was named after the couple's cat, Mr. Underhill, whose name originated in the pages of Tolkein's The Hobbit. The Bradley's moved the restaurant with rooms to Ludlow in 1997 and was awarded 1 Michelin star in 2000 which the restaurant retained until it closed on 20 December 2015.
  I once tried to make a reservation at the restaurant for dinner but although a promise was made to phone me back about it nearer the date no such call was ever made and frankly, I couldn't be bothered to try again. The problem was that tables were mainly saved, quite reasonably, for those people staying in the guest accommodation and I realised that a dog would not be allowed to accompany me if I stayed there (well it was named after a cat!)


  Presently no restaurant in Ludlow possesses a Michelin star but the charming Green Cafe opened at Dinham Mill on the site of a former swimming pool in 2009 was awarded a Bib Gourmand in September 2015.
  I have visited the cafe several times in recent years and have found my visits to always be very pleasurable - sometimes just for an excellent coffee perhaps consumed alongside the cafe's sourdough toast (today plastered with fabulous homemade lemon curd) (possibly the best lemon curd in the world) and sometimes for an always delicious lunch, sitting outside with Lucy The Labrador, enjoying the sun and the beautiful view - ducklings swimming along behind their mothers, countless labradors plunging into the river Teme, the overpouring of the weir and all overlooked by Ludlow's mighty medieval castle. No-one could deny this lovely little place, with its always friendly and charming waiting staff, its Bib.
  The Chef-patron is Clive Davis.


  The Charlton Arms on Ludford Bridge was opened by Cedric Bosi in 2013 and is a pub with rooms. Pleasingly it is also dog friendly. Pubs really do look good with a black labrador sprawled on the floor looking dozy but alert to the presence and potential availability of food. Doubtless some other breeds, equally aware of the presence of food, look good in traditional pubs. Having said that, I still haven't made it to the Charlton Arms but it's on my list of things to do.


  Lucy and I stay at the beautiful Fishmore Hall Hotel which is located in a rural setting on the edge of Ludlow and which, obviously, is dog friendly and has its own fine dining restaurant, Forelles. The hotel itself was opened by Laura Penman in 2007, the Georgian building having been restored from its former derelict state. I love to lounge in the delightful sitting room with the dog lying comfortably by me - I feel like a character out of an Angela Thirkell novel.
  The hotel has an area which is called the Brasserie though its role is rather flexible and a bar with a number of rather good gins on offer. Forelles itself is situated in the extension to the side of the hotel and it gives a feeling of lightness as well as a wonderful view of Clee Hill. The staff are very friendly and delightful and keen to help the diner.
  The wines on offer are excellent and the three course meal, with its added sourdough bread (crispy and tasty), amuse bouche and pre-dessert, offers a good choice of food prepared by the Head chef, Andrew Birch, who took over the kitchen at Fishmore in 2015. There is also a 6 course taster menu but in my dotage as I am that is just too much of a good thing for my poor shrinking stomach to deal with.
  Fishmore Hall's first Head Chef was Marc Hardiman and he was succeeded in 2009, having earned the hotel a fine reputation for its restaurant, by David Jaram who had worked with Hardiman since the opening of Forelles. Andrew Birch came to Fishmore Hall having won the awards of Young Chief Apprentice of Britain and Young Chef Apprentice of Europe 2005 as well as being a finalist in the Roux Regional Scholarship 2006. He had been the Senior sous chef at the Montagu Arms in Hampshire. Andrew Birch was one of the contestant chefs in BBC's Great British Menu series 11 in 2016.
  I have dined at Forelles a number of times and it is hard to fault the quality of the cooking which is usually perfectly timed and perfectly seasoned. Chef Birch has a great ability to hit the diner with unexpected flavours which sometimes are highly successful and other times less so. He is currently serving an excellent halibut dish but with an extremely sweet sweet potato purée which to me at least does not work with all the other ingredients on the dish. I have also recently had perfectly cooked lamb served with a viciously powerful garlic pesto which, in truth, seemed far to overwhelming. Forelles is currently something of an adventure but very enjoyable.
  Memorable recent dishes are the scallops with smoked chicken and a white chocolate cheesecake with elderberry sorbet which is clearly a dish sent to Andrew Birch directly from Heaven above. The quality of the cooking is highly consistent and I love the way Andrew Birch uses very unusual ingredients. The above mentioned halibut dish, for instance, was accompanied by lovely wild asparagus. I like his pragmatic approach to ingredients - he serves locally sourced food but is quite prepared to use ingredients from further afield if the end result is the optimal outcome. Sometimes localism of ingredients can get a little silly - I think back to last year when a friend with whom I was dining at Birmingham's The Wilderness was told in reply to his request for a slice of lemon with his drinking water that the restaurant did not use lemons because they were not local produce but if he wished, a citrus-tasting wood ant could be provided to achieve the desired lemon flavour in his drink! One imagines that there is none of that sort of nonsense taking place at Forelles!



  And so, to the Ludlow Food Festival, held the second weekend of September every year in the grounds of Ludlow Castle. From the dog's point of view the highlight of the event is the "Sausage trail" in which crowds of visitors wander around the town stopping at various stations where different butchers are waiting to serve their prized sausages on sticks to the assembled consumers who then judge their favourite. There were six different sausages on offer last year which was a great pleasure to Lucy The Labrador who had her own ticket and was therefore able to not just sample one of each sausage herself but was offered extra pieces by some of the vendors and was also not averse to mopping up any bits of sausage dropped in the streets. Those who fear for her health need be reassured by the fact that she did not participate in the "Bread trail" or the "Ale trail".
  The Festival itself remains very well attended but is, for the present at least, past its golden age. Many of the stands are devoted to the sale of trendy gins and unending varieties of chutneys and relishes. But it's still fun and Lucy does not mind a half hour in the dog crèche while I wander around the main marquee.
  Ludlow remains a place for the food lover to visit and I suspect that all it will take to get things really moving again is the falling to earth of a (Michelin) star somewhere in the town. We'll see. There are people working hard in the town who make make that possibility a reality. In the meantime there's plenty of excellent food to be tracked down and the town is so attractive that the hardened food lover can not help but like the place for one of those reasons or the other.

A group at the Ludlow Food Festival Sampling A Local Dessert



Wednesday, 8 March 2017

6. The One Eyes Have It.

 It's true isn't it? Most of us would like to say nasty, deliciously caustic things about someone and have the world as our audience and at the same time do it with a sense of impunity. Fortunately most of us are not psychopaths nor in a position to fulfill such a secret wish. Thank the good Lord.
  Of course the unspeakable Tripadvisor does give a lot of people the misplaced sense of empowerment which leads them to launch written assaults on defenceless dining establishments which are frequently doing their best to deliver as good a service and food as edible as they can possibly manage, and make a living out of it as much as is feasible and employ people as well. But the vox populi is a fearsome beast and the opportunity to let rip against a restaurant for what is seen as a slight, a mild impertinence, minimal error, a tiny incompetence or whatever is an opportunity which more and more people feel incapable of resisting regardless of the consequences on a business, its owners and employees.
  
The One-Eyes Have It 
 
 But it's the professional critics whom we all really envy. Giles Coren - now there's a name to conjure up in the history of the development of the food scene in Birmingham. He generated much heat in 2015 by writing in The Times, "Honestly, if I'm going out of London to eat, it's more productive to leave the country". The Birmingham Mail reported on 6 February 2015 that Coren said that Birmingham's "posh" eateries were "not my sort of thing at all" and that he had branded Brummies as being "bumpkins, yokels and one-eyes". The final remark had come at the end of a seeming retraction of his comments about "provincial dining" - he had opened a tweet that he "was not qualified to comment on Brum's food scene" and described his comments as "boring fob-offs" but closed with "Although they're all quite true. I would just normally mince my words to avoid offending the bumpkins, yokels and one-eyes".
  The problem with the writings of Giles Coren is that are often very enjoyable and it's not difficult to disagree with many of his opinions though he can be viciously cruel. Who can forget his vicious nastiness when he reviewed what was then the 1 Michelin-starred Kingham Plough in Oxfordshire where he very reasonably launched a diatribe on sous vide cooking but savagely attacked the lovely chef Emily Watkins? It's fun to read witty criticism but quite another thing to read savage destructiveness.
  That's TripAdvisor - too many people who can't spell correctly, never seemed to have used any punctuation in their life or really have just never learnt any good manners, are given voice and opportunity to destroy a restaurant's reputation at the click of a computer key. And none of them are likely ever to be a Giles Coren.

Tripadvisors working out how to concoct a negative review and get a discount
out of the restauranteur. "The  Bean Feast" by Jan Steen, 1668.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

5. Are Potatoes A First Course Or Just An Accompanying Vegetable?

Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters"

  I had a home for many years in Sheffield and whilst finding Yorkshiremen friendly and straightforward I did manage to get a feeling of how cautious many of them could be when it came to spending money. Thus when you visit them and they are kind enough to serve you a roast beef dinner, they can't resist feeding you with a starter of a large plate of Yorkshire pudding thus rendering you considerably full before you get to the main course and resulting in there being no need to serve you quite as much expensive beef as would have otherwise been the case had you not been laden down with a stomach full of batter.

  Recently I have set about wondering whether Brummies are turning into Yorkshiremen by following a similar strategy - that of filling you with potatoes in the place of a batter pudding as a starter thus reducing the amount of meat or fish that is needed to be served resulting in a lower cost of ingredients used in a main course dish.

  Take Carter's Of Moseley for instance where the cooking is fine enough to earn Brad Carter a Michelin star but where, after a couple of delightful appetisers, a dish of Mayan Gold potatoes, perfectly mashed but perhaps a little less buttery than I should like, is served as the first course of the lunchtime menu with a light bone marrow gravy. The dish is generously sized and its contents not surprisingly filling so that to wish for large dishes of meat to follow would result in abdominal discomfort were those wishes brought to realisation.
  
Mayan Gold potato


  Then there was Glynn Purnell's splendid special Christmas dinner which was tied to the launch of his new book, Rib Ticklers & Choux-Ins, which got off to a fabulous start with champagne and delicious appetisers but then moved on to a potato-based starter - tiny baked potatoes with a slightly underwhelming chorizo mayonnaise - which was, to be honest, not really all that nice. The problem with baked potatoes is that they really are at their best when served with butter and salt and not a lot else - of course nowadays we have the ubiquitous "jackets" filled with cheese, baked beans, chilli and so on but there is nothing like a fair-sized perfectly baked potato stuffed with with a big melting lump of butter sprinkled with salt to one's taste. These mini-potatoes might have looked good to the standard one might have expected from a Michelin chef but they were more style than substance. Still the meal improved considerably after that.

  Chefs! - potatoes are wonderful things. They rank among the highest placed of God's gifts to Man but they are not a basis for a first course. Potatoes are an accompaniment not a starter. 

  Just look at Van Gogh's painting shown above which is called "The Potato Eaters" - the subjects do not really look as though they're enjoying their meal. Now if they had been served with a bit of meat at the same time, perhaps a little gravy as well, think how much more cheerful they might have looked. Of course they are French peasants so that may also explain their facial expressions to some degree. 

  I hope the "Potato starter" is not going to be a trend in 2017. Otherwise I might end up looking like Van Gogh's French peasants. That would be a pity. Brummie chefs - please do not turn into honorary Yorkshiremen.

Monday, 3 October 2016

4. Birmingham's Michelin Constellation 2017 - Peel's Is A New Star.





  Today's (3 October 2016) "Michelin Guide 2017" launch event held at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in Savoy Place in London has defined the Food Scene in Birmingham for the upcoming 12 months.


  The event was held at that particular venue as it is said to pay homage to the Guide's historic motoring background, the Guide having been introduced in France in 1900 by André and Edouard Michelin to inform motorists of where they could find good food and accommodation, the location of the most scenic driving routes and the places where driving essentials such as tyres - naturally - could be bought. Thirty five thousand copies of the first edition were printed and given away free by the brothers and 4 years later, a Belgium edition was released.



  The first edition of the British Isles version was published in 1911. The Guide began to award stars for fine dining establishments in 1926 though initially this involved the awarding of a single star with the hierarchy of 3 stars being introduced in 1931 and the meaning of each star being defined in 1936 so that:- 

  1 star was defined as representing "A very good restaurant in its category" (Une tres bonne table dans sa categorie)

  2 stars were defined as representing "Excellent cooking, worth a detour" (Table excellente, merite un detour)

  3 stars were defined as representing "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey" (Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage").

  No Guide for Britain was issued from 1931 to 1974, the first star being given in 1974 to Le Gavroche, then in Lower Sloane Street in London, founded in 1967 by Michel and Albert Roux. Birmingham's first Michelin stars were not obtained until 2005 when Jessica's (chef Glyn Purnell) and Simpson's (chef Luke Tipping, relocated from Kenilworth) were both awarded a single star.



  Since 1955 the Guide has also awarded the Bib Gourmand which recognises restaurants which offer "exceptional good food at moderate prices" - a menu offering items priced below a maximum determined by local economic standards. Bib (Bibendum) is the company's name for the Michelin Man which has been its logo for more than 100 years. 


  The 2016 British Guide included 3 x 3 stars, 23 x 2 stars and 143 x 1 stars plus 155 Bibs Gourmands where meals should cost up to £28. Famously Birmingham restaurants took 5 x 1 stars in the 2016 edition - Purnell's, Simpson's, Turner's, Adam's, and Carter's Of Moseley.  

  And so .... to 2017. Who's up and who's down in Birmingham and The West Midlands?

  Peel's Restaurant At Hampton Manor in Hampton In Arden with its chef Robert Palmer was the only winner of a new one star award in the West Midlands. There were no other changes in star status in the area - Purnell's, Simpson's, Carters of Moseley, Turner's@69 and Adam's all keep their one star. Out of 18 new single star winners the usual London-centric awards gave 7 of the awards to the capital's restaurants with a further 3 in the Home Counties. 

  Slightly further afield in the West Midlands - Le Champignon Sauvage retains its 2 star status and The Butcher's Arms in Eldersfield in Worcestershire and The Cross at Kenilworth (in Kenilworth of course) retain their single star status.

  One can only conclude that travelling out of the safe south east is just that little bit too tiresome for Michelin inspectors though a trip up to Cumbria always seems worth the effort, an underpopulated area which has 2 new star winners. There was only one restaurant which was upgraded from one to 2 stars - Raby Hunt in Darlington so it seems as though Glynn Purnell will have to keep battling on for another year. 

  The ceremony which was streamed live on You Tube was rather awkward and the audience of prominent chefs didn't really look as though they were enjoying themselves that much. Still, there were canapes and champagne served at the end to cheer them all up. 

  Spare a thought for poor old Manchester, which, every so often, claims that it's Britain's "Second City"  - it still hasn't got even a single Michelin single-starred restaurant. Perhaps the Michelin inspectors don't like the place because it rains there so much!

  Peel's new star seems to be well deserved - the restaurant won the 2016 Birmingham Food And Drinks Awards "Best Fine Dining" prize with Hampton Manor also winning the Birmingham's Best Hotel award. 

  So Birmingham moves on with another Michelin starred restaurant in its vicinity. Great!

  

Saturday, 1 October 2016

3. Birmingham Food - Will The Stars Shine Next Week?

  It was really the BBC television programme Great British Menu that brought me to the new stage of my life where I like food. Before, I liked going out to eat as one of the things you do for social interaction and also because I liked going to south Asian restaurants to have curries - but I didn't go because I found food to be (a) interesting and (b) enjoyable.

  And I now I do like food and find it to be interesting. For some years I'd been aware of food - after all there were enough television programmes on the subject which were impossible to miss and you couldn't be ignorant of nouvelle cuisine, the hoohah about sustainability, the tiresome utterances from Jamie Oliver, the stuff about Delia Smith teaching everyone how to boil an egg, the foul-mouthed antics of Gordon Ramsey, the exhaustingly suggestive theatre of Nigella Lawson and so on. But nothing really caught my attention. Well Nigella's programme was, er, quite good fun to watch I suppose.

  But Great British Menu brought real, and often quite accomplished, British chefs to our screens sometimes bringing us fabulous new, previously undreamed-of, dishes (and sometimes some preposterous rubbish). Glyn Purnell was still on his way up when he scored "the perfect 3 tens" for his egg custard surprise which I knew, when I saw it, that I would have to go and try myself. And so I did. And then I discovered that I really did like food.

  And now Great British Menu is back again and I am and shall be riveted for the next few weeks to see what comes along. I like the Friday episodes when Oliver, Matthew and Pru (plus hanger on) squabble and dither about their marks for the contestants' exhausting efforts and never cease to marvel how regularly they disagree with the opinion of the chef judge from earlier in the week. 

   Sometimes I think we are gradually getting away from all that French cuisine stuff on which British chefs have been fixated since the end of rationing. Of course it doesn't help that they all dream of a Michelin star and it really does seem hard to achieve the goal without giving a respectful nod in the direction of those historical characters, Escoffier and Careme. Michelin is a bastion of French chauvinism that continues to judge British chefs on the conventions of a century or two ago which first of all sought to render the vaguely vile food of French peasants at least edible and then give some order to the way a meal was served. And of course the British public is just as bad - mention that a restaurant has got a Michelin star and the punters will flock to pay extraordinarily high prices for the cheapest cuts of meat or the tiniest pieces of fish.


   And of course, in a couple of days time on 3 October, we will know the verdict of the Michelin judges for 2017 and Birmingham chefs and restaurant business owners will either be wringing their hands or leaping in the air cock-a-hoop (that sounds like a good name for a dish - "Coq a hupe"!)
  Will the status of Turner's be affected by his change of direction? - hopefully not - his food seems as wonderful, and expensive, as ever.
  Will Purnell's finally make it over the line to a 2 star status? I had lunch there yesterday - Glynn Purnell's  autumn menu was full of a thousand tastes and surprises and pleasures and had a suspiciously French theme to it - a gorgeously unctious tarte tatin, poulet au lait and spectacularly tasty mushroom duxelles and sauce Abufera but there were also some wonderful British touches to it such as the Brixham cod with a lime pickle and various preparations of cauliflower and gravlax cured sea trout, delightfully pink-orange coloured  with tastes of fennel breaking out all over the dish.  And all (and more) for £45. What else does the man have to do to get the recognition of 2 stars? - move to London or Cumbria, I suppose.
  And then there's the immaculate Adam's. I know the new restaurant hasn't been going for long but, honestly, can it get any better? Smart, chic, spot on and fabulous food - some highly original, some rather more classical and again, such good value. I'm not sure for how long you have to show consistency in the quality of your dishes before that second star comes twinkling out but the restaurant deserves the celestial bodies' to shine on it sooner rather than later.
  Will Simpson's, where a mild service chaos seemed to exist on my last visit along with a sense of the food not really being in the top flight any more (even though "The Good Food Guide" placed the restaurant in its Top 50 UK Restaurants" list only quite recently) lose its star?
  Will Cheal's of Henley receive it's first star?
  
  All will soon be revealed after the weekend.


  

Sunday, 28 August 2016

2. Lists.


  I notice that The Good Food Guide has just published its list of Britain's 50 Best Restaurants for this year. What a load of tosh!

  How is it possible to list the best 50 dining places in a country which has 1000s of restaurants? It's all a matter of personal taste. It's a very reasonable thing to describe one's personal experience at an eating establishment and even to give it a personal score, if one has that sort of obsessional personality. But once it gets to making lists then the whole thing is going too far. And it has such important, potentially tragic, consequences. A restaurant's reputation can be ruined, destroyed, obliterated for falling out of a list. Restauranteurs have enough to cope with what with stars or macaroons or whatever you want to call them without worrying that their actually quite excellent restaurant has slipped, say, 26 places down a list with all the negative publicity associated with such a decline.

Tripadvisor lists are appalling entities. A dining place has only to upset three or four semi-literate, easily offended, inarticulate Tripadvisors and its local rating falls off a cliff as, irrespective of how good the food is, if a waiter is perceived as looking at a customer in the wrong way or food is not delivered to the table less than 26 seconds after an order is placed, then the vindictive self-appointed critic will wield the sword of awarding the restaurant one Tripadvisor spot and the restaurant will plunge down the local listing and never be read about again with the resultant loss of customers.

  So what about this Good Food Guide list? The West Midlands fares very badly in it. The highest placed restaurant in our area is Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, a solid purveyor of mainly classical French dishes which really isn't at the cutting edge of gastronomy in the middle part of the second decade of the 21st century, which is placed at number 13. 
  Then you have to plunge down to number 35 to find Simpson's in Edgbaston which has entered the list this year. A recent visit there resulted in my companions and I finding the service to be mildly chaotic and inexact and the dishes not as exciting as we might have hoped for which means that I am rather surprised to find that those who draw up the list chose this year to place the restaurant in it. After dining there, I had even wondered if Simpson's had lost its vroomph to such a degree that it might lose its Michelin star (just a month to go to find out!)
  Adam's in Waterloo Street in Birmingham, surely currently considerably superior to Simpson's, languishes down at number 41. And that's that. No sign of Purnell's in the list or any of our other restaurants.
  It looks like the compilers of the Good Food list need to spend a little more time in Birmingham than they do in London (20 restaurants in the list) and they might learn something.


Saturday, 6 August 2016

1. From Cremated Beef To Frozen Ants.

A Gourmand by Henri Brispot 1928

  It's a sad fact that as you get older you love food more but at the same time you are less able to eat it. Somehow, though your stomach looks bigger from the outside it feels smaller on the inside; you have, in effect a reverse Tardis stomach.

  So, I suppose, it makes sense to be more discerning about what you eat. The good news is that you probably have more money than you used to so you can afford to be more discerning. Things happen - you discover that burgers are revolting, even when jazzed up somewhat and sold for 7 times the price that Macdonalds charges (I have no idea how much Macdonalds charges for a burger since I haven't visited one of their establishments since the early 1990s and then it was just to have one of their milk shakes that takes 20 minutes to drink because it all gets lodged in the straw they give you).
  
  Food you rejected instantly before you were 50 years old suddenly becomes enormously delicious - Brussels sprouts for instance, now one of my great winter pleasures (no doubt some will say that I ought to get out more - and I do in actual fact). I still haven't really conquered offal, however, and don't suppose that I ever will now. Pigeon, too, has not come to me in my maturity after an unpleasant experience with a dish made up of the bird and not a lot else in Hong Kong in 1987. Still, my food horizons have broadened enormously as my skin has grown increasingly wrinkled.

  I was born and bred in Birmingham. I grew up to know and partially like the English cuisine of the 1950s and 60s remembered mainly as cremated meat and soggy vegetables (as an undiscerning child I obviously recognised just how unpleasant was the dried-out roast beef we had on Sundays as I was always in trouble for putting it in mouth and then choking it back or refusing to eat it completely - give me a piece of Yorkshire pudding, a couple of perfectly cooked roast potatoes and a few tinned peas with perhaps a sliver of carrot and the slightest drip of Oxo gravy and I was a happy child).

  Chicken was too expensive to eat regularly and was so costly that we had a special cockerel rather than turkey for Christmas dinner which I later learned to call Christmas lunch. Our Christmas puddings and cakes were homemade and a lady in Grantham always sent us memorable pork pies in the Christmas post made in the bakery at which she worked. Food may often have been over cooked but I knew nothing different and it therefore suited me.

  But things were moving on. I remember my first Ploughman's lunch, then newly invented as part of a cheese marketing campaign, which I had when my dad took me to the Old Hare And Hounds at the Lickey Hills one Saturday evening, washed down by my favourite soft drink - Vimto - while my dad, not much of a drinker apart from a dark rum at Christmas (he had been in the navy during The War), supped half a pint of mild. The Ploughman's was amazing to us, incredibly simple (too much so for modern tastes) - just cheese, rings of raw onion and very crusty bread with butter. We adopted it and when we stayed home on a Saturday night, my mother off visiting her parents, my dad and I would chomp away at crispy bread and Cheddar and hot, raw onion while watching our then favourite television programme, in black and white, "The High Chaparral". There's no better form of father-son bonding than watching a western while devouring a simple Ploughman's.

  Then there were curries. Sort of. My Gran discovered Vesta Curries and we set off down a new road of previously undreamed of flavours. There was originally Beef Curry - admittedly the pieces of rehydrated meat in them were rather strange but I grew to tolerate them. There was Chow Mein which I never liked - the ribbon noodles always seemed horribly slimy - but there was also Chop Suey which was fantastic because of the presence of the crispy noodles. Mmmm.

  We didn't eat out much then. In our little suburb on the very edge of Birmingham there were only fish and chip shops and nothing else in those days. I remember my parents visited the Jewellery Quarter where they both worked to dine with some friends or colleagues but I don't think children were really taken out to eat dinner then. If my mother and aunts were torturing me by taking me shopping in town with them they usually treated me to lunch at Lewis' - I remember the restaurant or cafeteria or whatever they called it was at the top of the building - on the fifth floor, I think, which just happened serendipitously to be the same floor as the paradise known as the Toy Department and 1 floor below the roof area where they kept the pets which I loved to see. I ALWAYS chose sausage (3 of them), beans and chips which cost half a crown (2/6d) and to me then, at least, were as delicious and enjoyable as you might find a meal at Purnell's to be in this current time.

  Otherwise, being taken to eat in Birmingham usually centred around a visit to a Lyon's Corner Cafe and having a cheese or ham and salad sandwich. Later I had my first burger, very exciting, at what I think was called a Wimpey Bar but I can't remember where it was situated.
  
  It wasn't till I was in my mid-teens that I remember going out for a real dinner with the rest of the family at a place called The Barn in Hockley Heath. It was not a formal restaurant but a spot where you not only ate but were entertained by a cabaret. 

                      
The Gourmand by Louis Leopold Boilly1761 - 1845
  
  But curries were becoming something rather more interesting than rehydrated lumps from a cardboard packet. By now large numbers of Indian and Pakistani immigrants had moved into Birmingham and south Asian restaurants were becoming accessible to the native English population. Thus, in the 70's, I discovered the wonder of places like The Maharajah in Hurst Street and The Raj Doot and life would never be the same. And no-one had even mentioned the word "Balti" then.

  About this time I moved to work in Sheffield and South Yorkshire and my dining out mainly took place in that part of the country but I was always coming back to Birmingham and eventually moved back for good. And what a transformation in British food had occurred in those intervening years. Birmingham had passed through various phases - at one time The Plough And Harrow had been the pinnacle - good friends did their courting over some excellent food there - and before you could say "Yuppie" we had Delia Smith making cooking simple, Nouvelle Cuisine, Beaujolais Nouveau, and various other nouveaus until the time when food programmes filled the television screens, Fine Dining and Sous vide cooking entered our vocabulary and Simpson's had left Kenilworth for Edgbaston and Jessica's with Glynn Purnell were with us. 

  And now food is actually quite different. And in lucky old Birmingham it's rather good. And here I shall waffle on about it in a piece of self-indulgence which occasionally someone else may come across and spend a few seconds seeing if any of it's worth reading. Lots of others do it, a lot of bright young things write bubbly food blogs and of course there's always the grumpy old professional critics and so one might ask what is the point of me sitting here typing this stuff. Probably none whatsoever. I may never write another instalment but I like to jot things down and right now, food and the way we eat is an important part of history in general and Birmingham's history in particular. And I've always liked history.

   In it's little way, Alex Claridge's "The ants got to the cheese tart first" is history - it can't have happened very much in Birmingham's past that people intentionally paid to eat ants and discovered that they really do taste like lemons.

Alex Claridge's The Ants Got To The Cheese Tart First