Sunday, 2 July 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?

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.