29 November 2010

GUEST POST - Sam Russell's excellent UK adventures !

One of the best things about keeping this blog has been people's new-found propensity to share with me detailed accounts of recent WONDERFUL FOOD EXPERIENCES ! I hang off every word - I love it !

Last week a colleague of mine at OA returned from a work trip in the UK and US with a raft of fairly exceptional food experiences. I was so rapt by Sam's stories and astute observations, I asked if she would do some 'guest blogging' about them. Sam agreed (woohoo!), and so here is her first entry. The account is gloriously detailed  (!) so, get a cup of tea, settle in and indulge in some UK-inspired foodie escapism. Enjoy.

(by Sam Russell)
I’d be a terrible MasterChef contestant. When asked what my food dream is, rather than give the stock standard answer of “opening my own restaurant making people happy with my food vision spreading joy and yumminess blah blah blah”, I’m afraid I’d have to be terribly honest and confess that my food dream is to eat my way from one side of the planet to the other. Perhaps, if I must, make a TV series about it as I go. But that would get in the way of the eating and enjoying, I would think.

I recently had the opportunity to do this a bit when I had to travel to the UK and the US for work. As all work and no play makes Sam grumpy, hungry and in search of a stiff drink, I was determined to fit in some foodie fun. And some of it found me. Some of the funnest fun comes in the simplest of places.

Part 1 – The UK

Day One. Stupid o’clock in the morning.

Ok, it’s a nothing thing, but I felt it worth noting that after 26 hours of airline food and a further hour on a bus from Heathrow to Gatwick, a large (which is much larger than Australian large) espresso coffee and an entire bag of M&S Mini Jaffa Cakes while waiting to be collected by your hosts is manna from the gods. I meant to bring a bag of those home. Bugger.

English Pub Food

And when I say English pub food I mean the honest, regular kind, not the fancy schmancy ooh la la gastropub food, screaming “OOH LOOK AT ME, I’M ARTISANAL!” masquerading as the pub grub it sprang from. I mean The Real Thing. Done well, there’s nothing wrong with it and I don’t know why it comes in for so much flack. My first proper meal on English soil was in a pub called The Swan Inn, local to my hosts in East Sussex. An inn since it was built in 1399, it looks like something from off a Franklin Mint plate your nanna might have on her mantelpiece. Low ceilings. Open fires. Dogs mooching under tables. Local real ale on fat, elaborate tap. Deep grooves worn in the brick floor from centuries of folk coming in for a pint. My stomach was feeling a little delicate, so I had a simple potato and leek soup served with a rough hewn chunk of granary bread. The soup had the ideal consistency and texture. The creaminess was supplied by nothing but perfectly pureed potato. Not too grainy, as you often get (the soup, not the bread. The bread was suitably grainy). And it just tasted… fresh. Just potato and just leek. It was completely unadorned – not a chive, sprig of parsley or dollop of anything to be found - and it was great.

I was fascinated by a flyer I spotted pinned on the wall. The pub was holding its annual pickling contest. To enter you had to submit a batch of pickled onions, pickled eggs and sloe gin. It was made very clear that you had to submit all three items or you’d be disqualified. It was Very Serious Business. I’d have loved to have seen that.

Other pubs I went to both made good use of Harveys, the locally brewed real ale. The White Horse Inn in Bodle Street Green has Fish and Chips night every Tuesday, offering the traditional cod, haddock or plaice in a crisp Harveys beer batter with hand cut chips (I must admit, we went both Tuesdays I was there. I was most pleased that they keep their oil nice and clean. Stale, tainted oil is a pet hate of mine), and at The Rose and Crown in Burwash I ate a deliciously melting and comforting ox cheek, slowly braised in ale with mash, followed by a sticky stodgefest of treacle tart. My stars, what a gooey guilty pleasure that was. I sampled a couple of Harveys at The White Horse, too: the standard Harveys Sussex Best Bitter (malty, caramel, with a hint of citrus tang on the finish) and a seasonal offering I think also came from Harveys, but I can’t be sure. Whatever it was, it was infused with cinnamon, which made a winter-warming ale even warmer.


I had the good fortune of sampling the output of two of the UK’s best known chef exports: Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian and Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food. I had planned to say that it might be comparing apples to oranges, but given that the Italian idea is a chain of affordable restaurants and the other very much sees itself as an actual restaurant and not just an upmarket airport café, on reflection it might be a more level playing field than I first thought. In both cases I've done my best to ignore the hype and the sleb angle, concentrating on food and concept.

Now, please consider that my base frame of reference is Australian restaurant culture, where we love our international cuisines (Italian and Asian especially) and happily pilfer their ideas, flavours and methods, combining them with local ingredients to create the strange and beautiful mongrel of Modern Australian cuisine. As such, I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb here, and state that despite the pastas and Italian cured meats on the menu, I did not find Jamie's Italian food to be especially Italian. This is not a criticism by a long shot; it's simply an observation based on where I come from. I can see how a Brit might think otherwise, but here I think it might be viewed as a place that draws some of its influences from Italy, rather than an Italian restaurant per se. There’s a difference. Its Italian-ness, I think, comes from the concept - think of the welcoming, rustic outdoor Italian table you've seen in countless movies or TV commercials for spaghetti sauce, coffee or long distance telephony. It groans with plentiful, seasonal dishes made from local ingredients, fresh as can be, cooked simply with love (and maybe a little salt) and shared with convivial company and good quaffing plonk. This is what he's going for. It's a cultural thing more than a well worn bunch of tastes.

Consider the menu - grilled steak, grilled chicken, lamb chops, burger, roasted Brixham scallops, fish from nearby Hastings baked en papillote (I mean, does adding a bit of fennel and chilli make it Italian? Discuss.). Not especially Italian foods, really. My main course was local grilled pheasant with bread sauce and crispy fried livers, which mostly strikes me as rather English. Having watched wild pheasant roam around my hosts' garden that morning, I really felt I should try one. Delicious! The livers were not whole liver slivers as I expected; rather, they were dollops of light, creamy liver mousse which had been crumbed and fried with sage, giving the almost-but-not-quite-liquid liver blobs a delicate, crunchy mantle.

Dessert was a trio of house made ice creams (chocolate, hazlenut and ginger, they change regularly), but I think the star of the meal was the wild boar salami I chose as part of a shared antipasto slab. (And I mean slab literally - great slabs of wood are used instead of plates for pretty much everything, adding to the rustic feel.) Hailing from Wiltshire, and led by a grumpy alpha male named Julian, the boar roam free and wild on a privately owned estate truffling out acorns, berries, mushrooms and other tidbits from the forest floor. The influence of terroir on these happy piggies is obvious. It’s earthy meat. You can taste the seeds and the earthworms the boars dig up. It helps that the salami is not made only from the belly and scraps, but also from prime cuts of the animal. The meat has a gamey warmth and depth that is helped with a splash of red wine and pepper in the mix, and allowed to shine on its own without interference from overdone spices, or the higher levels of preserving nitrites and ascorbate you find in commercial salamis. The drying process isn't overdone either. Just enough to make a nicely set salami, firm to the tooth but not too chewy, with flavours that are just concentrated enough (rather than a hard, heavy thing you could club someone with and then hide the evidence by eating the weapon).

Jamie's concept succeeds. It's casual food not treated casually, and it's good stuff. I visited the Brighton restaurant.

Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food in Terminal 5 at Heathrow is another fine concept, but one I felt traded a little too heavily on Gordon's sleb status rather than the merits of its food. It's a fine idea to have a restaurant in an airport where grown-ups can order a good meal that doesn't come out of a bain marie and enjoy a decent drink, but if that's your concept you've got to make good on your promise and I didn't feel that Gordo's food quite did that.

To be fair, I was eating breakfast. The more substantial offerings might fare better.

I ordered scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, coffee and toast. The toast came quite a while before the dish, which would have been fine had it come with some jam and more than a little fingernail's worth of hard butter. But it didn't, and my toast was well cold by the time my eggs arrived. When the dish came, it consisted of three pieces of smoked salmon laid flat on the plate - which was fine - accompanied by a small, flat puddle of gritty scrambled egg. I confess I prefer my scrambled eggs to be minimally molested while in the pan. I like them gently moved about and turned over now and again, presented in voluptuous curds with a bit of wobble atop buttery toast. These eggs - and I apologise for the comparison, but it's accurate - looked a bit like they'd been in somebody already. I wager they had been constantly stirred with a whisk while cooking, resulting in lumpy liquid egg that ran all over the plate. Given that you taste with your eyes first, it was a most unappetising start to the meal and it didn't get any better when my mouth got involved.

Fellow diners at the next table were not impressed with their choices either. It was early, it was wet and dark, it was freezing and windy, so understandably the vegetarian lady at the next table did not feel for cold fruit and yoghurt and enquired as to what savoury cooked options were available to her. She was presented with the standard Classic Breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, mushroom and tomato. With the usual serving size of tomato, egg and mushroom, but without the bacon or sausage. And still charged full price. She wasn't happy, and I don't blame her. I found it surprising that there weren't cooked vego options that weren’t sweet.

The service was pretty good though. Very good, professional waitstaff, who have the theatrical aspect of service down pat. It's just that the food needs to catch up.

Speaking of concepts, Plane Food does have one of the best I've seen anywhere - picnics. Three courses of very appealing-sounding portable food supplied in an insulated, flat bottomed, zip-up bag designed to be carried onboard aircraft. It would happily sit in an overhead locker or under the seat in front of you until eating time. Bloody brilliant idea, and just under 12 quid a pop. Flabby, foil-encased trolley food begone!

Modern Brits

Lamberts is a place that shares a philosophy with many a good Modern Australian eatery (my beloved local, the Glebe Point Diner comes to mind). It's all about being local, seasonal, ethical, organic (where possible), sourced from small suppliers who care about how food is raised, whether beast, fish, fowl or fruit. It also strives to be a relaxed and relaxing place, while still aspiring to be fine dining.

As appetising as smoked eel, bacon and honey sounded (what a combo!), I skipped the entree and went straight to the mains: six hour Middlewhite pork belly with mash, kale and a black pudding roll. Very nice, though the lovely crispy skin wanted for a bit of seasoning (and cried out for a fennel seed or two!). The meat underneath was succulent, soft and beautifully juicy. The surprise was the black pudding roll. I'd never had a good experience with blood sausages, but this was delish. It wasn't a firm slice of blood sausage; rather, sausage had been chopped and deconstructed and then encased within a roll of golden, flaky puff pastry, presenting as a small, softer, looser sausage roll. I wonder if it was a jokey little take on the crumbed and deep fried black puddings you can get down the chippy? It was a tasty accompaniment to the pork. Both deeply flavoursome, but like the light side and dark side of the same coin.

Dessert was the star of this show, and the ice creams the stars of the desserts. My companion opted for the sticky date slice with roasted banana and peanut ice cream. With chopped peanuts on the outside and slightly unusual velvet texture at its core, she had a bit of trouble recognising it as an ice cream, but it was enticing nonetheless. Dates, caramelised banana, peanuts, cream. Can't go wrong with that.

I went for the chocolate fudge pudding with chestnuts and salted caramel ice cream. Now there's two perfect marriages on a plate. Chocolate and chestnuts; caramel and salt.

The salt + sweet thing is a trend I know Australian foodies are aware of, but in my experience, not one that has manifested much in many restaurant menus here. It has much more of a history in the northern hemisphere, I guess. I'll write about it more when I write about the food I experienced in the US because it has reached mass-market saturation there - Reese's Peanut Butter Cups have been around forever, President Obama is known to care for a salted caramel and you can buy salted caramel truffles at Wal-Mart.

We do know how a sharp, contrasting flavour can elevate a sweet thing. Strawberries in balsamic vinegar is nothing new to us, neither is drizzled truffled honey whacking out the salty bloom of a blue cheese. Similarly, salt just whacks out that extra sweet toffee flourish in caramel. (I don't need to tell you, I know you know.) And helps cut through the richness just a little. Uuuunnh. Salty sweet caramel flavour explosion, creamy cold with warm gooshy chocolate pudding. Divine.

This is exceptionally good food. Sophisticated but unpretentious; much attention is given to detail, but it's not fussy. It's just all about the food, y'all. If you're in London, go. It's worth the trek down the Northern line and is pretty good value too, in my humble opinion.

Little fun thing - The milkshake shop just outside Victoria Station. Have a favourite candy bar? Any bar you can name, they’ve got it and they're all about smooshing it up in a milkshake. Mine was a Terry's Chocolate Orange milkshake. Awww yeahh.

And the award for oddest meal in Britain goes to... Hilton Hotel, Cardiff. My friend and I had travelled to Cardiff to see a show and discovered on arrival that a major international rugby union match had finished as we arrived in the late afternoon (Australia beat Wales, adding to the danger element for us). We learnt that Cardiff pretty much goes into lockdown on a football day. You can't buy booze in glass bottles, even well after the game, and at the Hilton, you can't order a cocktail or anything a la carte. Hence, we were stuck with the buffet. I don't remember the appetisers, except to say they were just little light bits of odd things (sort of Japanesey, vaguely something else and misc) that bore no relation to one another. Main course was a continental leap to various roast carvery with passable Yorkshire pud and a nondescript sauce made of brown. Dessert was a choice of many little squares of things made of something creamy with gelatin. All the colours of the rainbow with different garnishes to indicate different flavours, yet they mysteriously all tasted the same. Very puzzling.


nicole youl said...

This makes fabulous reading Sam. I felt like I was right there with you! Am now looking forward to reading about your adventures in the States. NY x

beccles suffolk said...

A long but good read. You might say Hilton Hotel, Cardiff is odd, but it only piqued my curiosity. I'll try that out.

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