I now do a Supper Club and private catering!

Visit rodboroughsupperclub.blogspot.com/ for details or email: heidiandfranks@gmail.com to be added to the mailing list

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Costa: coffee for accountants, made by accountants

  Is it any wonder I hate Costa Coffee? Really, I have not one good word to say about them. But I know quite a few bad ones.

  Costa started out as a proper coffee shop in London. That is, the people making it cared about how it tasted as they roasted it themselves. In 1995, it was bought by Whitbread the 'brewery' and operators of such gourmet establishments as Brewers Fayre, Premier Inn and Beefeater. Since then, it has seen an unstoppable rise in places you can buy an acidic, coffee-ish tasting liquid. Quite bizarrely, you can buy Tassimo capsules of Costa Coffee. Which suggests there are people who believe their coffee is so good they will drink it at home ('ahhh. Let me savour the taste of over-roasted coffee'). What Costa would like you to believe is their dominion of the milky, extortionately-priced beverage market is owed to their exceptional ability with ground arabica. Nothing could be further from the truth.

   Costa is not in the business of selling coffee just as McDonalds is not in the business of selling burgers. Costa is all about the franchise. People wanting a business with a strong brand could do worse than the purveyors of watery, brown frothy milk. Franchisees pay £100,000 and Costa do everything to sweeten the deal. Unlike a MacDonalds, there is very little to be done in terms of staff training and shops can be run with a skeleton crew. Thus a Costa franchise, in the franchise market, is always a very tempting proposition. But they then have to open five stores and this makes the ubiquity exponential. Although I fail to understand why new Costas, should all intentions be pure, always seem to open opposite other coffee shops or cafés. One might think there was something dodgy going on there. Almost as if they were trying to drive people out of business.

  Costa has infected every high street, service station, cinema and shopping precinct with its pathetic brand of grotesque 'coffee culture'. By forcing naive franchisees to open ever more stores it is no wonder it has a 40% market share. This is not to say Starbucks is any better (certainly not from the taxman's point of view) but that peers and a caffeine addiction force one to fork out more to accountants masquerading as shopkeepers.

  So where does this leave the coffee? Costa prides itself on training its baristas in using only the finest coffee. Their head taster has even insured his tongue for £10 million (maybe because it's the only human tongue made of leather and asbestos). This is a heinous crime against language and the meaning of 'finest'. For one thing, I have never experienced a Costa cappuccino with milk heated to the correct temperature and texturised to an homogenous, stable foam. For another, Costa use 90% Arabica to 10% Robusta. Robusta is the stuff you don't want. It is more bitter and higher in caffeine. No barista worth his salt would dream of touching it.

   Whitbread are the masters in forcing food and drink upon you that is foul and soul-destroying. The problem with Whitbread is identical to the problem of food in Britain. On the side of the angels are those restaurants, caterers, cafés, purveyors, producers, farmers and confectioners whose business model is to make something really good so people will buy it. The dark forces are those whose model revolves around squeezing the profit margins so that everything is so cheap, people will continue to budget less for food, pay less for it, and feel good about the money they are saving.  Please, I urge you to shun Costa in all its horrible forms. I am sick of having to go to them. As those possessed of tastebuds are nauseating after an endurance of Beefeater or Brewers Fayre.

  Costa might be good enough for harassed mid-level accountants on their daily commute, but it isn't fit for human consumption.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The argument against organic food

   Organic food is grown in a combination of dogma, petty squeamishness and stupidity. I should explain.

   As is the way with this blog, I'll read something and be compelled to write about it because I disagree so much. This week it was the turn of Ms Marmite Lover and her post about cooking for an organic debate Now I like Ms Marmite but I must answer her rhetorical question 'How can anyone be against organic food?'.

 There is of course nothing wrong with growing food and farming without using unnatural pesticides and chemicals. It is what our ancestors did and carries on a millennia-old tradition. But what is quite unnatural is to define a food in a way such that people are misled to believe the antonym of organic is 'crap' or 'stuffed with chemicals' or 'unhealthy'. It breeds a paranoia of certain foods that is preposterous and potentially harmful. It also brings with it the holier-than-thou despotic coven of new age idealists that is the Soil Association.

  Having spoken with farmers both organic and non, I can confirm it is quite ludicrous and nonsensical that they should all be exclusively organic and the great organic utopia should dawn on Great Britain. The first organic farmer I spoke to farmed cattle and lamb. For him, it was easy. His land hadn't been sprayed and he didn't keep enough animals that they should struggle for room and pasture. He was a very nice bloke too. But he didn't apply for soil association labelling as it was too difficult and expensive. He admitted that it was easy to keep his organic accreditation but that it was much harder for the organic wheat and grain growers. For there are a horrifying number of insects wanting to eat grain and one of the few ways to control them is through the expensive and time consuming process of crop rotation.

  The next farmer I spoke to was a poultry farmer called Dave of Cotswold Edge Farm. And to him, to certify with the Soil Association would be absolute suicide. Not that there was anything wrong with his farming practices. For poultry farming is also very simple. The varying fowl have their coops opened in the morning, grain is put out, at night they return to the coop and the doors are closed after them. In between they are given a large field where they can forage for wild herbs and shrubs, run around and be normal. They aren't dosed with steroids, antibiotics and numerous vaccinations like battery-farmed fowl (although they are vaccinated against salmonella. hence an extremely low number of cases each year from raw eggs).

     So why isn't Dave organic? His farming practices are little different from his ancestors. It is because he does not want to pay three times as much for organic feed. Such a premium would force him to raise the price of his chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys threefold. And what would be the benefit to someone paying three times the normal price? The taste, nutritional content, texture and quality would be exactly the same. Are we to believe that traces of pesticides in chicken feed have a destructive effect even after they have been consumed by the chicken? Maybe, but this scenario strikes me as utterly absurd.

  So there is the rub. While wheat prices are going up and up we expect these farmers to pay even more for a potential return they might not ever see. So people will pay even more money for a benefit they'll never feel. An organic veg box, which I subscribe to, is one thing (and another blogpost) but it's blind paranoia that we need to eat organic all the time. An organic loaf of white bread is still less healthy than non-organic brown. Organic sugar still rots your teeth and organic food, irony of ironies, is not as pesticide free as you think.

  The real causes of obesity and childhood illnesses are laziness and ignorance. The organic movement has similar origins. What is more, the lazy opinion that GMO's are inherently dangerous is willful ignorance. And that was never healthy for man nor beast.


Monday, 13 August 2012

Misguided Angel

    Once upon a time, in the little seaside town of Dartmouth, was a restaurant. Its chef was extraordinarily, for the time, a woman, British and self-taught. Her name was Joyce Molyneux and she named her restaurant 'The Carved Angel' after a large wooden statue that sat in the dining room. She had a natural intuition and flare for simple dishes that melted hearts and won her a Michelin star. The Carved Angel was, by many accounts, one of the first British restaurants you would travel for. Basil ice cream, sole with lemon and ginger, and chicken with yoghurt and turmeric were prepared in an open-plan kitchen using local, seasonal produce (I mean, I don't think the basil or the ginger or the turmeric were local. But the fish and chicken were).

  Molyneux retired in 1999 at the age of 68, as she was a lightweight. The restaurant entered a period of grief. No longer blessed with the sorceress' spatula and skillet it reached a nadir with this review and would no doubt end ignominiously. To the apparent rescue came this man:
No It's not Wolfgang Puck after a month of amoebic dysentry
  Back then, in 2002, John Burton-Race wasn't the instantly slap-able judge in various ITV cookery competitions. He was the annoying egotist chef and bullying husband star of a reality series. JBR was fed up of never seeing his wife and kids as chef of the two-michelin-starred L'Ortolan. He'd decided they were all going to live in France and the series appears lost. Were it to be found, we would see his children having screaming tantrums as they spent eight hours a day being taught in French, without comprehending a word. It had other tantrums too. His wife getting fed up, his kids refusing to eat -no doubt delicious- food he was trying to educate them with. In other words, he was still slap-able but you'd pause first.

  He returned to England wanting to create a restaurant that kept it simple and local, just as Joyce Molyneux had done. So he bought The Carved Angel and renamed it 'The New Angel'. The series following him do this is here. It is very sad to say of one so egotistical, but he did very well with it. He quite genuinely loved the local produce and the spider crab brought in by the day boats. In fact he did brilliantly up to the point he left his wife for his long-term mistress, appeared on I'm a Celebrity... and his wife closed the restaurant with no forewarning and sent the staff packing.

   Another unfortunate event (in a series yet to resolve) was the opening of both The Seahorse and Rockfish by posh fishmonger and restaurateur Mitch Tonks. The Seahorse has competently musseled into the part of Dartmouth's destination restaurant and Rockfish soaks up the tourists put off by high-priced fine dining. So that wasn't good.

  As JBR moved on to bicker with Jilly Goolden about chocolate chip muffins, who should come to the rescue of the old New Angel (that was once carved) than L'Ortolan head chef Alan Murchison. Murchison had started a worthy venture called 10 in 8. The business plan was to buy restaurants, put young but talented chefs in them, and win 10 stars in 8 years. The plan was starting to work with La Becasse in Ludlow, and who knows, maybe it still will. But it led to this happening.

  I had cause to frequent Dartmouth every six months or so and had passed the newly reopened 'The Angel' some time previously. The menu looked exciting, the dining room gorgeous and Alan Murchison himself at the pass. It was early evening and, if memory serves, no one was eating. The icy Gallic gaze of the master chef was not for the shy and starstruck amateur blogger and we wandered on to a resto on the corner. As the months passed, I cursed my inhibitions. I kept thinking about what an exciting time I'd missed out on. A determination welled up within me to return to this once great destination with its carbonaceous seraphim.

   My next visit to the Dart caused me to run up the small riviera to this exciting resto with a no-doubt-exciting young head chef. My bounding inquisition turned at once to puzzlement on reading the first menu item:

Chicken Liver Parfait

There must have been a mistake I thought. I'd read the wrong menu. CLP, while there is nothing wrong with it, is the menu staple for every single awful pub with pretensions, every Hilton, golf club, provincial brasserie and mass catering set-up. It is cheap and quick to serve and as dull as its oxidised exterior. My next thought was that The Angel had changed hands. This was a menu of singular set lunch desperation. It was a white flag of defeat in an Italic font. Sullenly I returned to my family group and we went to the rather good Rockfish. Confusion and curiosity got the better of me when I saw the chefs of the Rockfish standing idly at the pass. 'What's going on at The Angel? Has it changed hands?' I asked. Two chefs shrugged. One answered 'They've gone through three chefs in the last month. They were running it as a coffee bar at one point. That went well. All I know is they keep changing it'. After an excellent and affordable meal at the Rockfish, my mother had cause to be sat in A & E just yards down the road (NB: this had nothing to do with the food at the restaurant).

  A chef had come in with a serious burn to his hand. She clocked his uniform and asked where he worked. 'I work at the cursed Angel. I've worked for Raymond Blanc for fifteen years and he warned me I should never have taken this job*. We've gone from taking a hundred pounds a head to people coming in to share a scone.'

  And there lies the tragedy. As a caveat, it is worth noting that it took Joyce Molyneux and her business partner Tom Jaine fifteen years to turn a profit. The Cursed Angel would be an apt new name for a restaurant that, while being mis-managed and ill-judged by a procession of proprietors, is lurching slowly to the end due to the stubborn parsimony of the British tourist. Murchison should cut his losses and sell it to the next fool together with a sign 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Set lunch menu only £10!'. The angel has died. It died after mortal wounding in a fight with a seahorse.

* (as a point of interest, both JBR and Murchison also worked for many years for Blanc and are friendly with him)

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Bizarre Za Za

   Curiosity can be a foolish thing. For human as well as feline. So it was when a father dragged his exhausted wife and child halfway across a deserted Bristol to inquire as to a table at the biggest restaurant in the country: Za za Bazaar.

  'Fully Booked' they informed us, of a restaurant with seating for seven hundred. Quite where this multitude came from, on a cold january sunday afternoon was a mystery. "I know, lets all go to an Asian-food-market-themed-tapas-style restaurant this afternoon" they all thought in unison; and booked a week ahead for a resto serving Chinese, Indian, Italian, American, British, and Thai cuisines. Our feet did not ache long as we found a waterfront café serving roast dinner with all the trimmings. Reflecting on the matter, we knew Za za was never for us.

  ZZB is quite an immense folly. It can only fail but for a giant nationwide fervour for  hot dogs with curry. It is almost postmodern. There could be ZZB artists who've found Thai green curry goes brilliantly with chips dipped in creme brulée. Yet one doubts that a place with a terrible reputation for service will survive long enough for the avant garde to gain traction. For that matter, why offer a waiter service at all? You don't get it in fast food places. Certainly the chap with the falafel van up the road isn't offering it.

  It is one of many ZZB bizarrenesses [bizarrities? bizarri?]. Like the fact you have to book. There is apparently a system to the booking based on hours and having to be present for one hour before the waiting staff get agitated. This may explain why we couldn't get a table at a place serving a potential 700 covers. Yet it does make you wonder at how this bizarre figure was arrived.

  But the last, most baffling and bizarre element that turns my brain into a puffball of spores is the fact someone wants to do it all. Someone is willing to hang their reputation to the ability to cook a multitude of world cuisines really well, without being a Fat-lipped Essex boy with an eye for phony moral crusades. On the real Asian food markets, the chap selling fermented fish with salted rice works for himself. His livelihood stands on that one dish and if the guy next to him selling fried crickets is doing a crappy job it doesn't matter. And if everyone decides fermented fish and fried crickets are so 1993 then it doesn't threaten the whole market. Meaning those guys can sell broccoli and stilton soup instead.

  I could be wrong. I almost hope I am for the time five years hence, when a little boy wants to see Spiderman 8 at the IMAX and wants chocolate and sausage nachos afterwards. But I also doubt that 'Falafel King' - that Bristol institution selling delicious, fresh, tasty, healthy and cheap falafels with a smile- are troubled by this new development up the waterside.  Maybe ZZ isn't quite the bazaar, but a TGI Angel Café Nando's. Meaning it'll be very successful and I will never attempt a trip ever again.

Monday, 12 December 2011

How to cook Christmas lunch without stressing too much about it

   Whether you love Christmas or hate it, you may find yourself as matriarch of a disparate brood of salivating familials. Now the festive season has started, every woman's magazine and food journal has a thousand tips for 'surviving' or 'cooking the perfect Christmas dinner'. They may even have a 'top ten cheats'.

  If you feel you have to cheat at Christmas luncheon then you should have a better opinion of yourself and your abilities. In essence, it is roast a little boil a little. Whether you count it as a cheat or not, do not under any circumstances entertain the notion that you should do everything yourself. The veg takes a lot of peeling but this is an easy job to foist on children, siblings and parents. They may even enjoy taking part. It may abase their guilt that they are receiving a delicious gut-busting meal without paying for it. You could mention this if they appear workshy.

Cooking the Meat

  While the meat takes the most time, do not follow the timings on the bird bought from the supermarket. These are far in excess of what will produce a moist and perfectly cooked turkey. If you are happy to keep it simple and easy, follow this recipe from Nigella Lawson:

Preheat the oven to 200ºC gas mark 6. Rub the breast with a little butter or brush with goose fat... Put the turkey breast-down in the roasting tray...Keep in oven for the first thirty minutes then turn down to gas mark 4/180ºC, and turn the bird the right way up thirty minutes from the end.

  Unless you have a colossal 11.5kg turkey, you do not have to cook it for 4 and a half hours. Reckon on two hours for a small one, and two and a half to three for a big one. Skewer the meat in the thigh and squeeze it to see if the juices run clear. If they do, and you've got another hour or two until serving, then it's okay. Cover it with two layers of foil and a couple of tea towels and get on with everything else.

The Roasties

  My mother is monomaniacal about roast potatoes at Christmas. They end up taking all the oven space and leave me fretting about the parsnips. She does however produce superlative roasties.

  After peeling your spuds, make sure they're not too big. A small potato will cut into four and a large into six. The more sharp edges you have the better. You want to boil them until you can pierce them with a knife, then drizzle with sunflower, groundnut, vegetable oil or even better, daub them with goose fat, beef dripping or lard. Goose fat gives the best flavour but dripping and lard will cook them quicker. Lightly season them and if inclined, add thyme or rosemary. Pop in the oven and give them a shake after twenty minutes. Don't overcrowd the tray and make sure they all have a nice coating of fat. If anyone mentions Aunt Bessie in any context then you may kill them.

The Gravy

  After the tatties are golden my mother then goes loudly insane about gravy and its correct volume (i.e. loads). If I've lost my patience with her fretting then I will let her do it and frown deeply when she adds some bisto 'to give it body'.

  Bisto is rubbish. If it needs a bit of something then there is a product called 'Knorr touch of taste' or cornflour to thicken. The key to a good gravy is to follow a few simple processes and then tweak a little at the end.

Start by scooping off a lot of the fat. A goose makes gallons and a turkey will produce more than your needs. There is no foolproof guide here so try to remove as much as you can without the precious juice elixir. You want the roasting pan over a medium heat and to whisk in a tablespoon of flour or cornflour. You then want to add at least a glass of wine (white for poultry, red for beef or lamb) and let it bubble away until the alcohol has burned off and you've whisked up the scrapings from the bottom of the pan. Whisk again and add stock until your correct consistency is reached. Finally, taste and season with salt and sherry vinegar. Add that 'touch of taste' stuff if it's a little bland.

  Apart from that, be sure to finish off your sprouts with lots of bacon or pancetta (plus chestnuts or sunflower seeds as an option, possibly finishing with a drizzle of sesame oil) and don't serve them if overcooked. Do lots of roast parsnips and don't chop your carrots into rounds as it's common. And just remember that everyone is too young or drunk to care anyhow.

Joyeux Noel!

Apologies for the absence

I have been away from the blog for far too long and have missed it greatly. After moving house, having a baby boy, arguing with BT for hours and doing a job inbetween I've been somewhat indisposed and broadband free. I now have a few spare hours a week to mutter on about veg boxes and the pointlessness of Toby's Carvery. Meanwhile, here is a clip that explains everything that was wonderful about Marco Pierre-White in his wafer-thin, mad-haired pomp.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Review: Pollen Street Social

  My girlfriend has very large cups. These are Massimo grande latte cup measurements. So big in fact that she cannot buy new ones from a shop without being judged freakish in her requirements. 'I'm sorry we only stock espresso and dainty tea cups here' they say (in a matter of speaking). This is mostly by the by but it explains why I found myself at a loose end in Central London.

  As she attended a shop that was very good at judging a girl's cup requirement, I meandered into Pollen Street and thought to satisfy curiosity by peeping at the menu of Jason Atherton's well attended restaurant. A Maitresse d' spotted me and enquired if I'd like to eat there for lunch. I replied that while I would dearly love to I very much doubted the likelihood. She thought about this, smiled and said 'I'm sure we could fit you in the bar'. Having pondered it for all of five seconds after reading the thoroughly reasonable lunch menu I fetched my freshly becupped woman of significance and ordered a Sussex Pale Ale.

   What is quickly manifest about PSS is the details have been attended to. The beer came in a polished tankard glistening with sexy condensation. Service was on the right side of informality. The cote de boeuf's (big slabs of fore rib) are on display in their raw state through a clever glass fridge backing on to a basement corridor. The bar was quite beautiful with glass jars of fruit and large legs of Iberico ham. It felt like someone had thought long and hard about all these things.

 The set lunch menu was short but exceptional value (£25.50 for three courses). And the food was quite wonderful. My crab vinaigrette with nashi pear, pickled cauliflower and peanut powder was light, fresh and very delicious but could not compare to the pigeon of my companion. I felt slaughtered by deliciousness. It rivalled the exquisite pigeon and beetroot of Nathan Outlaw. It's velouté was so finely perfumed and voluptuous that I long to taste it again.

  The mains really drove the point home that this was a kitchen firing on all cylinders. My partridge was just superlative in every way and came with kale that appeared to have been cooked in apple juice. Meaning they even made kale taste like modern cuisine. The bread sauce was a foamy cream that effected a thick, springy duvet of loveliness. Memory recalls a salty (in a nice way) lamb chop but I was too in love with my partridge at the time to make any kind of critical judgment.

  Of all the glorious gastronomy my one sense of something being slightly wrong was three blobs of lime jelly with my unctuous rice pudding. It wasn't unpleasant to find sharp citric flavours in the creaminess but it was doing the 'cutting through' thing when I just wanted to gorge on the sweet, comforting rice.

  I can't praise this restaurant highly enough. Often you go to a place with great food, you eat well and decide you don't need to go there again. Or you feel by going again you're wasting an opportunity to go somewhere else. Sometimes you just want to hate something because critics have hyped it into cloud cuckoo land. This time I just don't care and will return as soon as life allows. Sorry to add to the hype but it really is that good.