Thursday, 26 October 2017

17. Ben Tesh To Open Folium In November 2017.



  At last the glad news that Ben Tesh is to open his first permanent restaurant which he calls Folium. Service gets underway in November and it all looks very exciting. The aim is to serve modern British dishes in "a relaxed and informal atmosphere"and the 28 cover restaurant will be situated in Caroline Street off St. Paul's Square in the Jewellery Quarter.
  If you look up the meaning of Folium the definition " thin leaf-like structure" appears. However if you look up the meaning of Folium in cooking then you come across a text "Discovering words in the kitchen" by Julian Walker which links the word to the section on Pastry. It reminds us tha Filo derives from the modern Greek word for a leaf but mentions that the 1390 Forme de Cury includes a recipe which involves the use of sheets of thin pastry called foyles which are described as being "of paper". The piece then goes on to link 'folio', a sheet of paper, with 'leaf' which is what is meant by the Latin word Folium. I'm not sure if Ben Tesh would have gone through such tortured thinking to arrive at his restaurant's name but it will be interesting to find out.
  Tesh' partner, Lucy Hanson, will front the house.
  If the food served in his "pop-up" days is anything to go by then Birmingham will soon have another immaculate and brilliant restaurant to add to its fame as a truly great Food City. I have already booked myself a table. See Blog 10.

13. 2018 Michelin - Turner's Loses Its Star.


  This year's entrants in the Michelin Guide were announced at a live event on Monday 2 October 2017 held at The Brewery in east London.
  Last year's event was held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place in London and was streamed live and looked like a very uncomfortable affair (see Blog 4).
  The Michelin Guide Great Britain And Ireland 2018 will be published on Thursday 5 October.
  This year's event confirmed that it's really all about London and its elitist classes who dine there. A sushi bar off Regent Street which seats just 9 diners and where a meal costs £300 became the fifth U.K. Restaurant to be awarded 3 stars. Meanwhile Claude Bosi, previously of Ludlow, saw his restaurant Bibendum in South Kensington achieve 2 stars making it the 9th restaurant in London to be so rewarded. Six more London restaurants were awarded single stars meaning that there are now 70 Michelin starred restaurants in London. No London restaurant lost a star except that one restaurant in the city closed.
  Yes, it really is all about London. We one eye yokels (to paraphrase Giles Coren - see Blog 6) who live in the provinces, clearly can't recognise a great meal when we see one or smell one or taste one. What a load of rubbish. And yet we still think that Michelin is the be all and end all of judging food quality.
  Birmingham chef, Richard Turner, last year decided that he'd had enough and purposefully gave up ridiculously expensive tasting menus and flim flammery in the full expectation of losing his Michelin star for his restaurant Turner's At 69 and the result is that has indeed lost his Michelin star this year. I don't suppose it'll bother his regular customers that much.
  Otherwise the situation in Birmingham remains unchanged - Purnell's, Simpson's, Carter's of Moseley and Adam's all retain their single stars but no new restaurant has been awarded a star nor have any of those established on the list received an additional reward. Slightly further afield, Peel's at Hampton Manor and The Cross at Kenilworth both retain their single stars and in Cheltenham Le Champignon Sauvage retains its 2 stars.
  So no real advance in the Michelin stakes for Birmingham and the West Midlands but what can we expect from a publication so centred on London and the south-east?
  But spare a passing thought for Manchester which likes to fantasise that it is Britain's "Second City" (which it isn't of course) - the 2018 Guide has not brought it any stars and so the city has not had a Michelin-starred restaurant for 40 years! Doubtless the Conservatives attending their party conference in Manchester this year will be looking forward to 2018 when it will again be held in Birmingham, Britain's real second city and gastronomic second city as well.

So, well done again Birmingham, given the uphill struggle in the face of Michelin inspectors who think that civilisation begins and ends in London, there's much to be excited about still when it comes to food in the city.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

16. A Birmingham Banquet 1896



  I was delighted to have obtained recently a menu of a banquet held for the Annual Provincial Meeting of the Incorporated Law Society of the United Kingdom which took place in the magnificent Grosvenor Rooms of Birmingham's now being restored Grand Hotel on Tuesday 13 October 1896. The banquet took place in the presence of the first ever Lord Mayor of Birmingham, the Right Hon. James Smith (pictured below) and so it took place at a time when Birmingham was really finding its feet as a great English city. The legal profession attending the banquet clearly represented the elite in the city if the magnificence of their menu is anything to go by and the menu tells us what the "foodies" of the end of the Victorian age were being offered to eat by the chefs of the time. It's fascinating to compare it with the "tasting menus" of today which, after all, are mini-banquets of the 21st century.
  As the photograph below of the Grosvenor Rooms shows, they were dining in sumptuous surroundings and the food needed to match the place where it was being eaten. What else should a late-Victorian foodie expect?




  And what a menu! I presume that the menu offered two or three choices for most courses:- 

  Torte Claire
  Purée Tomate

  Clear Turtle soup
  Tomato purée

      ------

  Soles au Vin Blanc 
  Éperlans Fris, Sauce Tartare

  Sole in white wine sauce
  Fried smolt with Tartare sauce

              ------

  Ris de Veau Braisé aux Champignons
  Côtelettes de Mouton a la Réforme

  Calf sweetbreads with braised mushrooms
  Lamb cutlets in Reform Club sauce

                ------

  Hanche de Venaison, Sauce de Vin d'Oporto
  Dindon Bouilli, Sauce au Céleri
  Jambon de York Braisé

  Haunch of venison with Port wine sauce
  Boiled turkey with celery sauce
  Braised York ham

              ------

  Grouse


            ------

  Pouding Mousseline 
  Géléé aux Fruits
  Genoise Glace au Pistache
  Plombière á la Nesselrode

  Mousseline
  Fruit jelly
  Genoese pistachio ice cream
  Nesselrode ice pudding

           ------

  Crevettes au Diable
  
  Devilled shrimps

       ------

  Desserts

     ------

  Café

  Coffee



  The dishes listed on the menu are fascinating - on one hand there are dishes which could not possibly be served now - turtle soup for instance since turtles are protected internationally and killing them to make a soup would be illegal - and then the pre-nouvelle cuisine dishes heavily dependent on the recipes of Escoffier and his cuisine of sauces.
  Two dishes were of particular interest to me and I had to look them up to see what they were - the côtellettes de mouton à la Réforme and the Plombière à la Nesselrode.
  The Reform Club sauce was invented in the 1830s by Alexis Soyer, head cook at The Reform Club in Pall Mall, who created it when a troublesome club member arrived at the club late one evening and there was a need to create for the hungry member a dish out of whatever ingredients were available in the kitchen at the time. The sauce is produced from a sauce poivrade - a pepper sauce - with juliennes of gherkin, mushrooms, hard boiled egg white, pickled tongue and cooked truffle.
  Nesselrode pudding. Mmmmm....... This stupendous dessert was created by Carême in 1814 for the diplomat, Count Carl von Nesselrode. It became the popular ice pudding of the 19th century and was particularly admired by the English upper classes. It was usually made in a dome-shaped bombe mound to make it resemble a pudding boiled in a basin. The dish is made from simmered chestnuts with sugar, vanilla, egg yolks, chestnut purée, cream and Maraschino. It is then frozen while currants and raisins are boiled in syrup and added to the mix with chestnut cream and whipped cream. Personally, knowing that Nesselrode pudding was in the line-up, I think I would have skipped all the previous courses, as delicious and as extravagant as they may sound, and then consumed vast quantities of this gift from God.
  Purnell's, Adam's, Wilderness, Simpson's, Carter's - no matter what your view of food is - get serving the Nesselrode pudding and make the diners of Birmingham very happy! Come on, you know you must!
  The menu also includes the wine list (below) and a page dedicated to the price to be paid for such a sumptious dinner - the after dinner speeches. Finally, on the back page there's a list of music played during the banquet.
  The meal is a contrast to what we think is right for our day and age but I wouldn't mind travelling in a time machine to 13 October 1896 to The Grosvenor Rooms and trying it all out.




Thursday, 19 October 2017

15. The Good Food Guide 2018.


  Prior to the publication of The Michelin Guide, "The Good Food Guide 2018" appeared on the shelves of various book shops.
  For the first time in my life, I have bought myself a copy though I'm not sure why since I find it to be an intensely annoying publication based on the opinions of seemingly poncey elitist "inspectors" ("the restaurants included in The Good Food Guide are the very best in the UK", says they self-importantly) along with the opinions of middle class food snobs - a sort of upmarket remoaner "Tripadvisor" collection - with the most astonishingly hilariously pretentious quotes sprinkled liberally throughout the publication - "...a modern classic pairing of scallops and maple-glazed chicken wings, leaking umami from every pore, gains even greater resonance from baby parsnips fragmented with woodruff. Fish dishes rise to the aromatic challenge too, when miso-glazed cod arrives in geranium and coconut broth, while the favoured dessert has been bergamot parfait with orange jelly and liquorice cream." It's hard to believe that anyone writes like that anymore.
  That said, the book does have a sense of where we are now with British dining. Elizabeth Carter, the Consultant Editor, hampered by her flowery writing style, in her introduction reviews the current issues for we who like to eat out in Britain and sets current developments in a historical context.
  She deals with the now rather hackneyed subject of "the increasing sophistication of the restaurant-going public" and its effect on sustaining "a higher level of achievement at the cooking end".
  She writes about the way that "grand old dining-rooms are being seriously challenged" and that there is a "very strong sense of the generational passing of the baton". "They're not afraid to use the fine-dining moniker - in the modern way, of course: relaxed, engaged and entirely focused on the food. It makes the current restaurant scene a hectic one, but one that is more varied, more accessible, and certainly more exciting."
  Carter then gets bogged down, inevitably, in the London dining scene and how rents are leading to restauranteurs opening establishments in neighbourhoods rather than in the city centre. We won't worry ourselves here about the suffering of London diners. However Carter writes "And it's not confined to London - it's happening throughout the country made possible by the happy coincidence of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding audience of young professionals" (Corbyn-supporting, Brexit-rejecting champagne socialists who live in places like Moseley and Harborne). Dining out is certainly an important facet of modern social history.
  Carter writes about some exciting young chefs in this context - those who are reaching out for the baton - and includes Paul Foster who was named The Guide's "Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year" in 2012 and draws attention to his first solo business venture here in our area at Stratford-upon-Avon in the form of Salt in Church Street which he opened earlier this year. I have dined there myself three or four times and agree that this enthusiastic young chef is coming up with some remarkable dishes but likewise there were one or two which seemed to miss the mark. Foster seems to be The Big Thing in the West Midlands at present just as Matt Cheal was last year. I'm nor even sure if I prefer Salt to its next door neighbour, No. 9 Church Street, long established and home to some excellent dishes although sometimes Chef's creations have not always appealed to me in the eating as much as I thought they would on paper.


  I'm not entirely sure that the young Turks are actually taking over from our West Midlands giants at present though if I were to name one the reader might not be surprised to read that that name would be Alex Claridge whose The Wilderness goes unmentioned in the 2018 Guide (unlike The Michelin Guide).
  Elizabeth Carter writes about the impact of the new chefs on the move from tasting menus ("food spread over three or four hours with price-tags heading north of exorbitant"), though I'm not entirely sure if this gradual death of the Tasting Menu is not due more to the dining public and established chefs just getting fed up with the whole thing as seems to have been the case with Richard Turner at Turner's at 69 in Harborne and with him, his customers.
  She deals with the trend of sharing plates, not in itself to me a particularly important issue and urges diners to reject loud music in restaurants. I agree with her on that one but wish she would also campaign against loud diners in restaurants as well - if anything they're more of a problem than the mood music.
  So, if I hate the book, I do at least appreciate the introductory review. 
  I also like The Good Food Guide's highly detailed scoring system even if I don't necessarily agree with all the scores it hands out. Purnell's scores an ungenerous 5 out of 10 which is defined as "exact cooking techniques and a degree of ambition, showing balance and depth of flavour in dishes" - I think Glynn Purnell does a little better than that. The score of 6 for instance is "exemplary cooking skills, innovative ideas, impeccable ingredients and an element of excitement". Who can question that Purnell's dishes are full of innovative ideas and I do not believe that anyone who has ever dined there could not have experienced "an element of excitement" (much more than Simpson's (cooking score 7).
  So, who makes it into the 2018 Birmingham list? Well there's Adam's (score 7), Carter's Of Moseley (6), Edmund's (3), Harborne Kitchen (4, new entry), Lasan (3), Opus (2), Purnell's (5), Purnell's Bistro (2), Simpson's (7), Turner's at 69 (4) and Two Cats Kitchen (2, now closed).
  The Guide includes its top 50 restaurants in The United Kingdom list in the book and Birmingham has only two restaurants placed in that list - Simpson's at number 40 and Adam's at number 43. Well, we all like lists, don't we?


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

14. Detailed Look At Michelin Guide 2018.

 

  I've finally managed to find time to nip down to a book shop and hand over my money for the 2018 edition of The Michelin Guide Great Britain Ireland which is a title that seems to have a lot of grammatical problems and doesn't help in making sure the buyer is forking out for the correct edition without flicking through the pages to page 14 where the year that it is relevant to is finally revealed.
  Still it's fun to have it and see what regional preferences are shown by the Michelin inspectors and to guess precisely how rarely they bring themselves to manage a trip out of London and the Home Counties. An excursion out of the capital indeed seems like a rare phenomenon if judged by the summary of new awards and new Bib Gourmands.
  London has one new 3 star restaurant, 1 new 2 star restaurant and 7 new 1 star restaurants (two of them in Kensington and Chelsea where the rich get to eat Michelin starred food and the poor get trapped in burning flats). Meanwhile the Michelin inspectors deem that only 8 other restaurants in the whole of the rest of England are worthy of being awarded a new Michelin star and 3 of those are in the Home Counties/South-east and another 3 are in the south/south-west of England.
  Meanwhile there are 10 new Bib Gourmands in London but just 8 in the whole of the rest of England. What nonsense!


  The situation in Birmingham and The West Midlands is largely unchanged. As mentioned in Blog 13 four Birmingham restaurants retain their single stars - Purnell's, Carter's Of Moseley, Adam's and Simpson's - while Turner's At 69 loses its star though Richard Turner had seemed rather keen for that to happen so no harm done there then. The other Birmingham restaurants to receive a mention are Asha's and Lasan (both south Asian cuisine), Opus, Turner's At 69 and the only newly mentioned restaurant, Alex Claridge's splendid The Wilderness. The entry for the latter describes it as "A small casual restaurant located in the avant-garde Birmingham Open Media Gallery. The enthusiastic team serve artfully presented menus which marry just a few local and home-grown ingredients in playful combinations". This summary does not do justice to the fabulous nature of the food coming out of The Wilderness's kitchen - I was there last Friday evening with some friends and all were astonished at the excellence and originality of what was served to us.


  The Michelin Guide happily defines its criteria for the various awards it makes to what it sees as deserving restaurants.

   ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Three Michelin Stars. "Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey! Our highest award is given for the superlative cooking of chefs at the peak of their profession. The ingredients are exemplary, the cooking is elevated to an art form and their dishes are often destined to become classics".

   ⭐️⭐️ Two Michelin Stars. "Excellent cooking, worth a detour! The personality and talent of the chef and their team is evident in the expertly crafted dishes which are refined, inspired and sometimes original".

   ⭐️ One Michelin Star. "High quality cooking, worth a stop! Using top quality ingredients dishes with distinct flavours are carefully prepared to a consistently high standard".

   Bib Gourmand. "Good quality, good value cooking. 'Bibs are awarded for simple yet skilful cooking for under £28 or €40.

   🍽 The Michelin Plate. "Good cooking. Fresh ingredients, carefully prepared: simply a good meal".

  Birmingham diners will draw their own conclusions about how much our restaurants fit into these criteria. I would certainly argue that the dishes available at Purnell's reflect the personality of the chef and his team, are expertly crafted, refined, inspired and frequently original - having visited the restaurant quite often I also feel that Purnell's dishes are consistently refined, inspired, original and reflect the chef's personality. On these criteria there seems little reason to understand why Purnell's has not by now achieved a 2 star status other than the fact that the restaurant is not located in London.

  It's difficult, too, to argue that Alex Claridge's The Wilderness does not deliver "high quality food using top quality ingredients resulting in dishes carefully prepared to a consistently high standard with distinct flavours (in my opinion they are highly distinct flavours)". The meals I have had there have been highly consistent in quality and excellence. We will see what happens when The Wilderness moves to its new home in February 2018.

  I recently had lunch at Adam's and to be frank, its usually impeccable performance went slightly awry. My companion and I invested in an expensive extra lobster course which was served with satay and a pickle and the rather tasteless lobster was murdered by its accompaniments. It was certainly an ill-judged dish. It was followed by a a beautifully cooked and tasty chicken dish which was ruined by two accompanying elements which were too salty and, literally, left a very unpleasant taste in one's mouth. Perhaps chef was having an off-day.

  I haven't been to Simpson's for a while following an extraordinarily poor lunch experience there which was marked by indifferent food and near-chaotic service. I read on the dislikeable Tripadvisor that service remains an issue for some reasonably well-informed commentators and I have not brought myself to go back to eat there after last year's disappointing meal. I remember at the time thinking that Simpson's did not really deserve to hold on to its single star but the Michelin inspectors obviously feel differently.

  The Michelin Guide has reorganised its restaurant listings by placing the listed establishments in order according to "the quality of their food" with the star-awarded and Bib Gourmand restaurants "being placed at the top" (of the list) and "the rest of the restaurants in our selection are then identified by a new symbol: The Michelin Plate. The self-regarding introduction goes on to state that, "Being chosen by the Michelin Inspectors for inclusion in the guide is a guarantee of quality in itself and the plate symbol highlights restaurants where you will have a good meal". This is fatuous since no outside organisation can "guarantee" the quality of a restaurant nor that one will "have a good meal" at any single place at any time one may choose to go. What form does the Michelin Guide's guarantee take? - perhaps the price of one's Guide will be refunded if one does not have "a good meal" when the "Michelin Plate" symbol has promised that that will be the case. Oh no, I see no such guarantee printed in the book. If I were the editors I think I would withdraw the self-preening use of the word "guarantee" in future editions.

  From previous editions I see that the excellent Edmund's has disappeared from the Birmingham list therefore being denied the chance of announcing itself to be the awardee of a "Michelin Plate". I can not think why Edmund's has not been so rewarded - I have lunched there several times in the past 12 months and always been impressed and pleased by the cooking and dishes served there.

  Two Cats in the Jewellery Quarter has also disappeared from the Birmingham list but that is hardly surprising since it sadly closed at the end of September. I'm sure the innovative restaurant will be much missed including the elegant "Two Cats" sign:-


  Birmingham's "Michelin Plate" restaurant's are Asha's, Lasan, Opus, Turner's at 69, Andy Water's and The Wilderness. A rather shorter list than one might expect. This is contrasted with a similar list for Manchester which, as though to compensate for awarding none of that city's restaurants a Michelin star, is swollen with a Bib Gourmand and no fewer than 11 "Plate" establishments. Poor Manchester, always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

  Elsewhere in the West Midlands, Cheal's of Henley and Bluebell are awarded a Michelin Plate in Henley in Arden; No 9 Church Street, Salt, Lambs and Rooftop (at the RSC) are "plated" in Stratford upon Avon; Forelles, Mortimers, Old Downton Lodge, French Pantry and Charlton Arms have been awarded a Plate in Ludlow but the Green Cafe at Dinham seems to have lost its Bib Gourmand (although on several visits this year the food seemed as good as ever); Bilash in Wolverhampton is Plated; Lion and Pheasant and The Haughmond are Plated in Shrewsbury; Peel's retains its Michelin star in Hampton in Arden; The Cross At Kenilworth holds on to its star in Kenilworth; The Butcher's Arms in Eldersfield retains its star; The Howard Arms in Ilmington is Plated; The Castle House in Hereford is Plated; Buckland Manor and Russell's in Broadway are Plated; Brasserie At Mallory, Restaurant 23 and Oscar's are Plated at Leamington; The Moody Cow at Ross-on-Wye is Plated, The Lion at Leintwardine is Plated; and then there is Cheltenham where Le Champignon Sauvage retains its 2 stars and a remarkably large number of Plates are to be found at The Beaufort (at the wonderful Ellenborough Park Hotel, though I personally prefer its delightful, cosy brasserie), Lumière, Daffodil, Bhoomi, Curry Corner, East India Cafe, Koloshi, Prithvi (do you get the feeling that a Michelin inspector with a predilection for curries actually lives in Cheltenham?), White Spoon, No 131, Pursiane and Royal Oak (12, yes 12, Michelin plates in this small town, hmmm...hard to believe).

  So what is there to look forward to in the coming year in Birmingham? Purnell's is changing its midweek menu concept offering a more flexible a la carte menu with the classic Purnell dishes featured on it whilst retaining the magnificent tasting menus for weekend dining and of course there is a new Autumn menu.
  As mentioned above we have the new The Wilderness to get excited about in February 2018. I think we will need to try out Graeme Jackson's Grit which will be opened soon in the building which housed Two Cats and will there be news of Ben Tesh's very own, as opposed to "pop up", restaurant in the not too far off future? (I hope so).


Monday, 11 September 2017

12. Ludlow Food Festival 2017 - Part 2.



  Friday at the Ludlow Food Festival was pretty quiet and I wondered if the festival was falling out of favour with the food lovers of Britain. However, the following day, Saturday, saw huge crowds of people in the castle grounds and tramping around the town on the Sausage and Ale Trails. Plenty of dogs, with a strong emphasis on labradors, and country types whose costume appears to have remained unchanged for the past few years - body warmers, weillington boots and flat caps with a new emphasis, among the younger men at least, of nattily trimmed facial hair. There was a grand mixture of English and Welsh accents - smart, well-heeled upper middle class location non-specific, Shropshire and Herefordshire rural, true Brummie, identifiable Black Country and those originating more distantly.
  Throughout the festival, there were some excellent and highly enjoyable talks - cooking demonstrations - to sit in on. My favourites were given by Birmingham's very own Brad Carter of Carter's Of Moseley and the immortal Shaun Hill, once the chef patron of Ludlow's original first Michelin star winning The Merchant House.
  Brad Carter's talk centred on some of the Japanese-style dishes he is currently featuring in Moseley and he came over as a modest and very likeable chef despite his rather terrifying beard, who has achieved so much with great distinction though the award of the Michelin star came as a great surprise to him. 
  Current menus were offered to the audience and certainly made me feel that I wanted to set off for Moseley in this coming week to give his Foraged mushroom dashi and sea spaghetti dish which he featured in his demonstration a try. It certainly looks and sounds marvellous.




  But the highlight had to be Shaun Hill's talk which incidentally featured a cooking demonstration but was made up of anecdotes which covered his work over the decades and his encounters with food fashion that cometh and goeth like the wind. The subject of his earliest job at The Gay Hussar was dealt with by reminiscences of how the restaurant was visited by Harold Wilson and other members of his government though conversely the kitchens were staffed by as right wing a crew of workers as could be imagined. He talked about his career which took him through the eras of Nouvelle cuisine and Molecular gastronomy and other fads and how now we had arrived in the era of Forraged food which no doubt will have its day like a poor player strutting and fretting its hour upon the stage and then being lost forever.
  What an enjoyable speaker he is to listen to. Prior to his talk a figure went up to the stage and shook his hand and exchanged words with him and then sat just in front of me. Was that Claude Bosi who opened Hibiscus in Ludlow in 2000, won 2 Michelin stars for it and played a part in training Glynn Purnell before moving to London in 2006? (see Blog 7).



  I was pleased to buy a signed copy of Shaun Hill's new book "Salt Is Essential" and I am finding it to be very difficult to put down. The book is strongly recommended as a good read.
  After Shaun Hill's talk Lucy and I headed off back to Fishmore Hall Hotel so that I could have an excellent Sunday lunch in Forelles restaurant prepared by chef Andrew Birch. Andrew was serving an excellent starter of a generously proportioned scallop with little bonbons of ham and apple sticks and other tasty little elements. I had roast pork main course the cooking of which was absolutely spot on served with just the right amount of sauce, interestingly and deliciously flavoured broccoli and a side dish of exquisite Savoy cabbage with bacon. A little more apple sauce would have been nice but it was a thoroughly enjoyable dish. Finally there was a delicious dessert of cherry sorbet with crunchy chocolate on a perfect pannacota. This had been an excellent weekend and, as Lucy and I departed from the hotel to return home to Birmingham, I reserved us our room at Fishmore Hall for our visit to the 2018 Ludlow Food Festival.






Sunday, 10 September 2017

11. Ludlow Food Festival 2017 - Part 1.



  Lucy The Labrador and I have spent a delightful weekend at this year's Ludlow Food Festival - this is our third consecutive year and we remain as devoted to coming to this enjoyable event as the first year we turned up to this premier Food Festival. The festival was founded in 1995 being first held in the town square and then moving the next year into the grounds of the castle itself.


  The "Sausage Trail" is Lucy's favourite activity of the year. It was begun in 2000 and involves a walk around town stopping off at various sites to sample and give a judgement on the wares of a particular butcher or the other. This year there were five butchers presenting their excellent products- 4 from Ludlow itself and one from Ditton Priors. Lucy's a fairly generous marker when it comes to judging various types of food but she did indeed show a general enthusiasm for all the sausages that she got to eat. Myself, I like a peppery sausage and opted to give top marks to Reg May's butchers shop in Ditton Priors. The queue of sausage enthusiasts waiting to sample the wares of one of the Ludlow butchers was far too long so we missed me out on that particular sausage and try as I might I couldn't find the location of one of the other shrines of sausage consumption so that too did not get sampled this year. The map of sausage sampling sites included with the £4.50 ticket was poor and sign-posting was inadequate and close to non-existent. The organisers will need step up their game I think given the huge numbers of people in town bent on tracking down their dream sausages.
  The distance to be covered to visit each site has been increased this year and involves walking up and down two steep hills and while I'm sure this is a positive move from the health point of view (particularly as the participants are clearly consuming excessive calories in the form of all those delightful sausages) and it does give an added opportunity to visit more of this beautiful town during the course of the trail, I personally would have liked not to have had to exert myself quite so much and Lucy tended to agree with me.


  The trail's first port of call took participants down the hill to Dinham Mill where the Bib Gourmand-winning Green Cafe is situated. It's a beautiful site, Lucy had a swim in the shallow part of the river and there were plenty of other dogs out too with their owners all looking anticipatory of the pleasures to come. By the top we climbed up the hill to the castle again and made our way to St. Laurence's church where the second stage was sited the promised rain showers had begun but the huge crowds were not daunted by the intermittently poor weather.



  Then it was off again, down the hill to Ludlow Brewing Co. where the participants in the coincidental Ale Trail were sampling the wares provided at that site before tucking into the sausages available outside. The sun had come out again and there was general air of busy contentment all around. This site was the home of the sausage for us. Peppery and mildly spicy it was quite memorable and I confess I helped myself to a little piece of Lucy's sausage as well as consuming my own.
  We headed back up Corve Street to find an enormous queue in Tower Street waiting at the Sausage Trail station located there to obtain their sample of this particular little pleasure but by then Lucy and I were a little too tired to wait for what looked as though it was going to be twenty minutes or so to get our sausages. So, unable to locate the final station, we headed back to Ludlow Castle itself where the main events were taking place.


  Searching around the various street food stalls for what was to be lunch I decided it really was time for me to try one of The Beefy Boys much praised burgers. I'd looked at them in the past but never quite got round to sampling their products. How foolish I had been. I am not a great burger enthusiast - there are too many frankly vile such dishes around to make me willingly fork out a lot of money for the things. But "The Beefy Boys" burger, I found, is as magnificent a dish as can be found in this kingdom and probably even beyond its boundaries.
  The Beefy Boys Co. produced a burger from 100% 21 Day aged Herefordshire beef and in 2014 came first with the product in The United Kingdom and second overall in the World Food Championships. The burger I ate in Ludlow this weekend certainly justified The Beefy Boys Co. awards received by it. It was magnificent - a delicious flavour and wonderfully succulent. Definitely prize-winning. It came with various accompaniments but to be honest I barely noticed the bacon, cheese and jalapeño mayonnaise - it was all about the burger itself and the wonderful and perfectly cooked meat inside it. A memorable item of food indeed.



  I attended a number of the talks and cooking demonstrations taking place at the Festival and I will describe those in the next Blog.


Friday, 18 August 2017

8. More Strawberries Than Are Dreamt Of In Our Philosophy.


  For many years I enjoyed BBC's The Great British Menu. Glynn Purnell's appearances on it prompted me to drop in on his wondrous restaurant, for the first time in 2009. After that food became less peripheral to my existence.
  Sadly, GBM has lost its glint for me and I missed countless episodes just because it seemed so, er, .... boring. This year particularly so. I hate the 4 nights when celebrity, sorry, distinguished chefs pontificate on their colleagues' productions. Why can't they cut to the chase?
  I'm not happy that Prue sold her soul to the increasingly awful Channel 4 to participate in the Great British Bake Off, the popularity of which I have never understood despite friends' attempts to convince me that there is something interesting in amateurs producing dubious cakes and even more dubious pastries all sneered over by the unloveable Paul Hollywood. Prue, Matthew and Oliver were such a perfect trio of judges that anyone trying to break into the circle was doomed to failure. Please Prue, come home. Make an old bloke happy.
  Two and a half hours per week of GBM is just too much. It's not hard to tell which of the unfortunate contestants will be axed by the Guest Chef Judge from the first evening or so and seeing grown men and women, enveloped in fear, with shaking hands is not dignified.
  At least the show has dropped the bit where all the participating chefs get to vote on each other's dishes though it was interesting in the way that the chefs voted rarely for the same dishes as the lay judges did. It certainly begged the question as to whether professional chefs really know at all what their customers want and if they do whether or not they really care.
  Another relief is that we no longer have to put up with sequences where the chefs visit somewhere or the other to speak to someone who has "inspired" them. It really is very dull. All I want to do is see what the chefs are cooking, get a glimpse of how they do it, perhaps have a quick peep at the place where they work and then see how it all turns out. Oh, and to hear what Oliver, Prue and Matthew have to say about it all, witness a little squabble between Matthew and Oliver and hear Prue change her mind about a dish in a matter of seconds once the others get to work on her. I just want simplicity rather like a lot of us would like in our food a little more often.

  And so to the 2017 "Wimbledon" and "Summer Dishes" themed GBM. I was annoyed from the very start that the chefs who represented the Central area (The Midlands and East Anglia) generally did not have very much to do with dining in the central region - thus Ryan Simpson works at Orwells in Oxfordshire (actually in the south-east region), Nick Deverell-Smith who works at The Churchill Arms in Gloucestershire (arguably in the south-west region) though he had done a lot of his training in various places around the Midlands and Pip Lacey who works at Angela Hartnett's restaurant in London, Murano, and doesn't seemed to have done any cooking in the Midlands at all. The chefs may have had connections with The Midlands but it would have been preferable if chefs actually working in the area had actually represented the region. This is just another example of bias towards London and the South-east at the cost of the rest of the country.
  As the series drew to a close I tried to knuckle down to watching some episodes. Most of the chefs produced dishes based on strawberries - well you would wouldn't you given that the theme of the show was the Wimbledon Tennis Championships? By the end of it all we had had a surfeit of strawberries. Anything that could be done to a strawberry had been done. The winning fish course was even served with strawberries and pronounced by all the judges to be magnificent. I'm still trying to imagine what it must have tasted like - and failing miserably.
  I've seen so many strawberries this year that I have hardly been able to bring myself to eat one. That's just how bad things have been.
  So that's GBM for another year. I hope they cut it back a bit next year and drop the guest chef and guest lay judges and just have our trio of old campaigners discussing and squabbling and looking fittingly self-satisfied. Oh, and could we please have our region represented by chefs who actually work here please?

Thursday, 17 August 2017

10. Birmingham Food Geniuses. The Wilderness Is Regenerating.

The Wilderness ... Not Dying But, Like Dr. Who, Regenerating.

  I've just had a very happy couple of weeks - firstly going to lunch with a very good friend at Alex Claridge's "The Wilderness" and then, the very next day, to lunch at Purnell's, the day before the restaurant closed for a few days for a well deserved summer break. Lunching at the establishments of two geniuses on 2 consecutive days is a true gift from Heaven.
  And indeed Claridge and Purnell truly are geniuses though one of them has had only a short time to prove his brilliance while the other has had long enough to prove that genius doesn't fade.
  The Wilderness - the location is convenient - a minute's walk from New Street Station but Dudley Street is rather insalubrious and uninviting. Still once you've located exactly where the restaurant is and you've entered it then its quirky moss-covered walls make you forget that you're you're located near an adult shop and under a grim concrete bridge.
  The menu is presented as a story though I was not entirely sure what the story was though my own interpretation was that the story was about fabulous, inventive, delicious, brilliantly original edible works of genius. The menu, the story, is depicted below. I won't describe each course because I shall find it hard to not overuse words such as delicious, brilliant, wonderful and so on. But particularly memorable - I shall never forget this dear little bird whose fate it was to give the utmost pleasure to an old bloke - was the quail dish with its little thigh so beautifully tasty that I still say that this was the most enjoyable little bit of bird that has ever delighted my taste buds.
  I must not fail to mention the perfectly cooked Iberico pork dish with its remarkable pickles and the splendid rhubarb-based dessert.
  Claridge is a great cook but also a clever and inventive artist. Birmingham has a number of great chefs but Claridge has added brilliance which makes me use the word "genius".




  Don't forget Claridge's spooky petit fours, where else can you get to eat chocolate human skulls? And he has carried this spooky quirkiness over into a trailer video titled "The Wilderness Is Dying" to draw attention to his news that he is to move the restaurant and open it up along with a bar to the building which is next door to Adam's pop-up restaurant when it was situated in Bennett's Hill off New Street. The old, moss-infested Wilderness will close on 23 December and reopen in February 2018 in this much more appealing location. Personally, I can't wait to see what it's like though being rather staid and old I should like the decor to be that little more conventional but then again who knows what Alex Claridge will come up with? Something pretty unique I expect. More chances to show us his genius are coming along. And Birmingham food lovers can only be delighted at the prospect of what 2018 will bring us. The Wilderness is not dying but, like Dr. Who, regenerating into a new body.


  And so to another genius whose history I covered in Blog 9. I've developed my own personal tradition of lunching at Purnell's on the day before (always a Friday so far) the restaurant is closed for the staff's summer holiday. It gives a chance to make sure I taste Glynn's summer menu and also just a chance to experience a great pleasure which is to be denied for the next couple of weeks or so.
  And of course, as mentioned in Blog 9, "Purnell's" has now been open for 10 years. And I'm sure he's just getting better and better. I had the 5 course lunch which is immaculately good value at £45, the illustration below details what was served.
  Pork's obviously the meat of the moment - it was served both in The Wilderness and Purnell's - but how lovely to have fillet rather than tiresome belly which we diners have had to put up with from various establishments all over the country for many years. You might guess that Purnell's Wiltshire pork dish was cooked perfectly and the accompanying tamarind blatjang and the splendid little turnips made this a dish to remember.
  But before that had been a truly fabulous dish of pan-cooked plaice (hopefully sous vide cooked fish is an entity never to have to be endured again) with remarkable Rose pickled onions and summery broad beans. The fish was so perfect and tasty that it is wrestling with Claridge's little quail thigh I mentioned above for my award of favourite dish of the summer.
  These dishes do, though, have strong competition in the form of Purnell's ingenious and delectable "Chocolate and cherry" - the ultimate word in deconstructed Black Forest gateau - with its eminently delicious sorbet and quite magnificent frozen cherry "cloud" which is another one of those gastronomic experiences in life which one should not miss. The dish was let down a little by some rather flavourless fresh cherries but such was the brilliance of the rest of the dish that one could forgive Chef for the vagaries of English fresh fruit.
  There are also some new petit fours served with the coffee and delicious they are too but I am pleased that the fabulous blackcurrent and anise jellies are with us still. I always save these little flavour bombs so that they are the very last element I consume of my Purnell's meal. I can live happily on a diet composed entirely of these products of Purnell's brilliance but then again I'd never have got to taste Purnell's Brixham plaice dish or Claridge's wonderful little quail thigh and how much emptier my life would have been!
  Birmingham is Food City with its great chefs and Culinary Geniuses be they long established or newer to the scene. We are lucky, aren't we?





  And on the subject of new young culinary geniuses, we await news of Ben Tesh's new restaurant and of where it will be and when it will open. Even more to make us happy and full of expectation.


  Finally, the Digbeth Dining Club pleasingly had an away day in Longbridge. Here on the edge of the city in south-west Birmingham it can feel a little remote from the activity and excitement of the city centre so full marks to DDC for coming here and treating we yokels to the pleasures of a street food selection of some variety. The locals - what no doubt Giles Coren would call "One eyes" (see Blog 6) - turned out in their numbers to make the most of the opportunity- there were families in notable evidence and a number of accompanying dogs - my Labrador would have been mortified to miss the event, she just loved sniffing out any food that had been dropped.
  Hmmm...it hasn't been a bad summer at all really.






Sunday, 30 July 2017

9. Purnell's At Ten ... Plus Pigeon.


  On Friday 7 July 2017 a highly important anniversary for food lovers in Birmingham was celebrated. On that very day, 10 years before, Glynn Purnell had opened the doors of his ground-breaking new restaurant to the public and dining out in Birmingham and the West Midlands would never be the same again.
  In his book, "Cracking Yolks and Pig Tales" Glynn recalled how his first experience of cooking was preparing food for his younger siblings when his mother and father were out working and his earliest signature dish being baked beans on toast with some onion and a teaspoon of curry powder added to the beans. The dish would be finished with a covering of cheese. Glynn recalls that he thought he was a genius as did his brother and sister who were the beneficiaries of Glynn's early culinary inventiveness. Those of us who love to dine at his restaurant now know that these early presentiments of genius were completely correct.
  Glynn describes how at the age of 14 he began washing up and preparing salads for a hotel lounge and when he left school he began to work in the hotel kitchen under Peter Wintle and Roger Kendrick. He moved on to work in the hotel restaurant, The Terrace under the Head Chef, Tony Morris, and with Mark Hill, the sous-chef. 
  The next step in his career was to work at Simpson's when it was in Kenilworth and he worked under the chef-patron and father of modern West Midlands cuisine, Andreas Antona. There he worked under Luke Tipping and Andy Walters.
  He worked for a period under Claude Bosi at Hibiscus in Ludlow (see Blog 7). During his time at Hibiscus the restaurant increased its single Michelin star to two.
  Leaving Hibiscus he became Head Chef at Keith and Diane Stevenson's newly opened Jessica's in Edgbaston. A Michelin star and the AA Restaurant of the Year title followed soon after.
  After four years at Jessica's Glynn decided that he wished to open his own restaurant and found an old Victorian warehouse in Cornwall Street and, on a very tight budget, opened Purnell's with his wife, Kerry, on 7/7/07 at 7PM. Jessica's closed to business. Purnell's was awarded a Michelin star in 2009 and continues to hold this distinction. The restaurant's first manager was Jean Benoit Burloux and he was succeeded by Sonal Clare in 2014.
  To celebrate the restaurant's tenth anniversary he held a free lottery so that 15 winners and their guests could pass the 10th anniversary evening being indulged with a champagne reception and a 10 course meal. Sadly my entry, one of over a thousand, was not drawn from the hat but you can't always have what you want in life. I have just received a leaflet (illustrated above and below) which is a rather nice souvenir in itself with the rather witty photograph of Chef outside his restaurant and a nonchalant pigeon wandering by oblivious to the presence of one of Birmingham's great celebrities. If it knew what Glynn can do to pigeons it probably wouldn't have got so close.
  Here's to Purnell's' next 10 years and its second Michelin star!



  The leaflet that announced the Grand celebration dinner for the lucky winners:-


  Cracking Yolks & Pig Tales, Glynn Purnell's first book, published 2014 by Kyle Books:-


  Rib Ticklers & Choux-ins, Glynn Purnell's second book, published 2016 by Kyle Books:-


  Both signed copies, of course:-


Happy Diners saying "Here's to another 10 years, Glynn"