Tag: Reviews

Drinks Friday – Cider!

Drinks Friday – Cider!

 

In a poorly judged and frankly completely failed attempt to lose some weight, I decided to stop drinking beer (as much) this month.  As you might imagine, my entirely lukewarm approach to dieting was in part responsible for the failure.  The other contributing factor was that I replaced beer with cider.  There was some logic to this: I tend to drink cider more slowly. I think. Bottom line is I didn’t lose any weight but I did drink some interesting apple based beverages that I hadn’t tried before, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

Here is a run-down of three of the more interesting drinks I drank. Drunk? Drinked? Yay for cider!

 

  1. – Thatchers Leaf Twister

This is a sparkling cider with a clean taste similar to eating a fresh apple, a little sweeter than I was expecting but with enough sharpness to balance it.  The overall effect is very refreshing and deceptively easy to drink.  At 5% it is stronger than it tastes but the cans are small so you can go crazy (drink responsibly).  On the subject of the cans – when did cider makers decide to adopt the weird, matt feel cans that so many craft beers come in? It’s not that I don’t like them, but it’s a really strange, pointless trend.

The name of this drink is a point against it too.  If it was simply named ‘Leaf Twister’, I wouldn’t have an issue, but its full name is: ‘Original cider crafter Stan’s Thatchers leaf twister full-bodied sparkling cider’. I would drink this again, but probably out of a glass so other people couldn’t see what I was drinking and mistake me for a hipster.

 

  1. – Elk Warning – Blackberry

This Swedish cider is similar to Kopparberg and Rekordalig in style using a fairly neutral apple base and allowing the fruit flavours to shine.  I am not normally a fan of this style of cider but actually quite enjoyed this one; the blackberry flavour tastes natural (I find many fruit ciders taste very synthetic) and is allowed to shine.  It is a bit too sweet for my tastes, but has proven to me that I can enjoy this style of cider.  The hipster can makes another appearance here, and this cider is also available in strawberry flavour, but the less said about that the better.

 

  1. – Orchard Pig Hog Father

This is the kind of cider that would get me into trouble. It is dry and crisp, with just enough sweetness to keep it going down easily. It is lightly sparkling – effervescent without leaving you feeling bloated, and it packs a punch.  A very respectable 7.4% ensures that it tastes strong and grown-up.  While I enjoyed the previous two drinks, this is the one that I will keep buying. Of these three ciders,  Hog Father is definitely my top pick: It tastes great, has a sneaky Discworld reference in its name and perhaps most importantly, given that I have apparently got a bee in my bonnet about  little cans, It is sold in big, brown, glass bottles.

 

Have you got a favourite cider to recommend?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  Next month’s drinks Friday will be a good one – I will be selflessly working my way through a beer advent calendar over the next few weeks ready to review it before December starts.  I know, I’m all heart (conditions).

Visits: 59
Catch and Cook Fishing Trip

Catch and Cook Fishing Trip

At the time of writing this, ‘England’s Seafood FEAST’ is well under way. It is a two week event, running from the 22nd September until the 7th October, celebrating the wonderful array of restaurants, produce, and experiences that Torbay has to offer.  When I looked at the schedule I quickly decided that the one event I had to take part in was the catch and cook fishing trip run by the Cantina Kitchen and Bar in Paignton.  I have been looking for an excuse to go Mackerel fishing for about 3 years. Now was finally the time.

Bad Omens

It’s lucky I’m not superstitious as my journey from Exminster to Paignton would have probably been enough to put most people off going to sea.  An accident on the main road forced me to detour though country lanes and villages, relying on the sat-nav on my phone to steer me through, while also trying desperately to get hold of the bar to let them know I was delayed.  Poor signal and low battery threatened to derail me at any moment.  Queues of cars squeezed past one another as we all inched our way along what we hoped was the lesser of two evils. Each time we came to a halt I peered anxiously at the ETA displayed on the screen, and watched with horror as the meeting time of 5 o’clock became a distant dream.

Upon my arrival in Paignton I ran from the car park to the harbour – desperately hoping that the boat, ‘Our Joe-L’ would still be there. To my horror, as I rounded the corner into the harbour, I spotted the boat just pulling away from the harbour wall. In a last ditch effort, I legged it towards the boat, ready to jump from the wall like a slightly asthmatic, less grumpy Liam Neeson.  Fortunately, no such heroics were required (I do not have a very particular sets of skills). The boat was just picking someone up from the other side of the mouth of the harbour and came back for me moments later.

Quickly getting my breath back, and apologising to everyone for keeping them waiting, I boarded the boat and tried to put the past, profanity filled hour behind me.

Catch and Cook: Out to sea

It didn’t take long.  We were blessed with the perfect evening for a boat ride, with the sun still warm but low in the sky, bathing the sea, coastline and us in a glorious golden glow.  I have always been a fan of autumn, and it is because of days like this one; they feel like a reminder of the summer days that have been and gone, but more valued because of their scarcity.   If we had failed to catch a single fish I don’t think I would have been disappointed.  Fortunately that was not going to be a problem.

I am happy to report that I caught the first fish of the night. This was in no way due to any particular skill on my part however; I was still being shown how to cast the line in when I felt something pull on it. And my fellow fishermen and women quickly got off the mark too.  Shaun, our skipper, was kept very busy helping to unhook fish, but before long everyone was mucking in and helping each other as the fish were reeled in.

Just as the sun was beginning to sink behind the headland we turned for home.  We had caught more fish than we could eat in a week, but none of it was going to waste.  Shaun kept some of the smaller fish to use as bait, but the rest of the catch was strung together and after reaching the harbour we strolled proudly back to the restaurant with our catch.

Dinner

On arrival at Cantina we handed the fish over to the kitchen who busied themselves with prepping dinner.  We had a table reserved for us with a view of the kitchen so we were able to watch them working, while we chatted over a well-deserved drink. One of the highlights for me was the demonstration of how to prepare the fish including gutting and filleting it.  I was given the opportunity to have a go myself and discovered it was actually really simple, and very satisfying to successfully remove the fillets; no more getting the fishmonger to do it for me!

This was followed by a wonderful two course meal that was included in our ticket price.  To start we had a scallop, with pea puree and bacon crumb – a classic combination of flavours that was executed brilliantly: the scallop sweet and succulent, the puree velvety and the bacon crumb providing a little seasoning and a hit of umami flavour.  This was followed by our freshly caught mackerel, served with horseradish mash and Swiss chard. Again the dish was beautifully balanced – the oily fish matched brilliantly with the heat of horseradish.  Undoubtedly this fish tasted all the sweeter for being a part of our own catch, but the skill, care and passion of the chefs was what really made it shine.

When it came time to leave I was genuinely sad to go.  We were looked after in a friendly, informal but diligent way throughout, and felt like we had been not just customers for the evening, but welcomed into the community for a time.  I will definitely be back.

Many thanks to Kate and all her team at Cantina for looking after us and to Shaun for his exceptional fish finding. Also a special thanks to one of my fellow fishers, Tina, who provided many of the pictures above after my phone gave up the ghost!

Links

The boat we fished from, Our Joe-l is available to charter for fishing trips, wildlife observations and more. Click here for more details

Cantina Bar and Kitchen is a gem of a place. Family and dog friendly, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal and the food is excellent.  They organised the catch and cook event as part of ‘England’s seafood FEAST’ but have regular events advertised on their website. They even have their own craft gin, which I will definitely be trying next time I go. Find out more at www.cantinagoodrington.co.uk

There is still lots happenening between now and the 7th October. Find out about the other events that make up ‘England’s seafood FEAST’ by clicking here.

If you are interested in taking part in the Catch and Cook trip, it is running again on the 3rd October and details can be found here

Visits: 71
James on Books – ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ & ‘The Angry Chef’

James on Books – ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ & ‘The Angry Chef’

Although Literary review does not really come within the remit of this blog, the summer holidays have afforded me a little more time and there are a couple of books I have been reading recently that are extremely enjoyable.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

If you are reading this (and not related to me – hi Dad!) then odds are you like your food and probably enjoy cooking.  I picked up Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat entirely on a whim – Viv needed me out of Waterstones quick and I was drawn by the fact it was not just a cookbook.  What Nosrat manages to do in this book is break down the fundamentals of cookery into the four elements of the title, allowing the reader to develop a deeper understanding of not just what to do but most importantly why to do it.  There are countless cookbooks out there that will guide you towards creating tasty food, but this will teach you how to create your own dishes.  If, like me, you already experiment in the kitchen, then Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will prove utterly indispensable as it not only provides valuable tips to improve your cooking but also various beautifully illustrated tables, graphics and guides to help match flavours and styles of cuisine.

The information is presented elegantly too.  Nosrat balances the science of cooking with observations and anecdotes from her own experiences – often her mistakes – to ensure that the content is accessible.  She also does a wonderful job of allaying any fears the reader might have – constantly reminding us that mistakes will happen to even the best chefs but all can be used to learn and improve. The foreword strongly suggests reading the book from start to finish – not something I would naturally do with a cookbook – but it is well worth doing, not only because of how it will develop your understanding, but also because it is a damn good read.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is, in essence, a book of two halves; in the second half there is a wonderful collection of recipes – many of which are suggested as ways of experimenting with the principles laid out earlier, but all of which give the reader a chance to test out their new-found understanding and eat very well at the same time!  In the spirit of discovery and experimentation that runs through the book, there are numerous variations suggested too, encouraging us to truly play with our food in the best possible way!

As a final endorsement I will take a leaf out of Nosrat’s book (pun intended) and use an anecdote.  In my excitement over the book, I showed it to a friend who had come over for lunch, expecting her to politely flick through a few pages before putting it down.  When she did finally surface, after reading the first 40-50 pages, it was to try out one of the suggested experiments into the effects of salt on bitterness in food. As the book then did the rounds all afternoon we lost person after person to its charms.  Buy this book: read it, enjoy it, learn from it, cook from it – but hide it when people come over for dinner!

The Angry Chef

The second book I have devoured recently is Anthony Warner’s deeply scathing look at pseudoscience in the world of nutrition.  I will freely admit that I bought this book because some very creative swearing in the introduction made me smile, and although there was less profanity than that intro led me to believe, it is a compelling read nonetheless.

Much of what The Angry Chef aims to do is look at the science behind the claims of many of the diets and health advice that is so freely available today, as well as debunking some of the myths that exist around food.  The subject matter has been researched in extraordinary detail, creating a compelling argument against the quackery of many so called wellness gurus.  I should probably say – if it wasn’t already obvious – that with me as his audience, Warner is preaching to the choir. But behind the vitriol and poking fun at high profile proponents of ‘nutribollocks’ (Gwyneth Paltrow takes a pummelling) seems to be a genuine concern – that people might do themselves harm because of following a diet that has no scientific sense.  There is also the message that a healthy diet is not one of restriction and denial but one of moderation and enjoyment.

Warner has managed a great balancing act – the book is informed and informative while being entertaining, scientifically rigorous yet accessible and wonderfully crude while remaining charming.  It is unfortunate that those who probably need this book the most – the fad dieters who jump from trend to trend desperately hoping for some perfect version of themselves to emerge – will probably never even pick it up.

 

 

Have you read any interesting foodie books recently?  Let me know in the comments below!

Visits: 19
Forest Fungi

Forest Fungi

I haven’t always appreciated how lucky I am to live in Devon.  In fact I moved away for over 10 years, adamant I would never return; but when I did, I fell in love with the county in a way I wouldn’t have believed was possible.  One of the things that I really love, as a foodie, is the amazing variety of magnificent produce that can be found right on our doorstep.  It is easy, however, through habit, convenience, or shortness of time and budget, to rely on supermarkets for so much of what we eat.  That is why I have set out to find local producers who are offering products worth spending a little more time and money on.

Forest Fungi are definitely a fitting company to begin my journey with.  I had come across their mushrooms at Dart’s Farm and been really impressed by the variety and freshness of the product, but it was at this year’s Exeter Food Festival that they really caught my attention. In a sea of craft gin and micro-brewed ale their stall held the most enticing array of fungi – a fact not lost on the horde of other shoppers I had to fight through.  I knew that when I launched this blog, I would have to find out more about what they do.

And what a time I chose to get in touch.  This year has seen the business develop new grow space ‘The Shroom Rooms’ that will be open to the public by the time you are reading this, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek ahead of the opening, as well as a chance to meet the team behind these magnificent mushrooms.

I was introduced to Dave who was busy cropping in one of the new rooms and he talked me through the new space.  Using an old bungalow that has been gathering dust for many years (I’m told it had a lot of 70s styling still in place), they have stripped out much of the old interior to create a central atrium, with four grow rooms off the main space.  All of these rooms have glass doors so you can see the various mushrooms as they grow. On the walls in both the atrium and the grow rooms are information boards explaining the science behind the life cycle of a mushroom, details about specific varieties of mushroom (including how to use them in the kitchen), and a bit of history about the company.  I won’t go into detail about the boards here – go and have a look for yourself!

The new grow rooms at Forest Fungi

Dave tells me there are currently 9 different varieties they are growing; some will be familiar, like Shiitake and Oyster, while others such as Hen-of-the-woods and Nameko are likely to prove less well known.  I was particularly fascinated by the Nameko mushroom.  It grows with a slimy, gelatinous coating, making it rather unpleasant to eat raw (I was also advised against pickling it – apparently it just gets slimier), but great for use in soups, casseroles and stews, where it will help thicken the soup or sauce and provide a flavour similar to cashew.  This is where opening the grow rooms comes in to its own.  It provides the team at Forest Fungi a wonderful opportunity to educate, encourage and inspire their customers. If I were to simply see these slimy ‘shrooms on a shelf, I would probably walk right by.  Now I am busy pondering recipes I could use them in, confident that I understand how to get the most out of the ingredient.

Pink and Yellow Oyster mushrooms, thriving in their new home

Of course there are details about the business that you won’t find out by reading the signs. But everyone I spoke to was happy to tell me anything I asked about.  For example, Shiitakes continue to be grown in the original grow room.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly they grow very successfully in that space which is large enough to meet demand (currently).  Secondly, when they are harvested, a reddish brown liquid is released from the substrate on which the mushrooms are grown.  In the old grow room, which does not have the pristine white walls and visitor-friendly glass doors of its newer sibling, this isn’t much of an issue; the mess can be hosed down and washed away. In the new space I’m told, ‘it looked like we had committed several murders.’  You may think that peeking behind the curtain in this way could be off-putting but for me it was exactly the opposite.  Not only did my experience give me a great look at how the mushrooms are grown but also who is growing them.  And what I saw was a group of people who care about and love what they do.

After Dave gave me the tour, I spoke with Scott who founded the company 5 years ago. His passion for the business and for the product is palpable.  At present they supply between 40 and 50 restaurants, but their own farm shop and café remains the biggest customer, in part due to Scott’s determination to maintain control of the quality of the product that is available, and in part due to how successful the shop and café are.  The hope is that the new grow rooms will provide another reason for people to visit the farm and, to my mind, they certainly do that.

During our conversation, Scott spoke about plans for further developments down the line.  There is still some unused space on the site which could be used for additional growing space, or as a way of extending the café.  Having purchased the site this year (they have been renting since 2013), there was a real sense of excitement surrounding what the future of the business could be.  But this is not driven by corporate greed; It is very clear that Scott knows it is the people and the product that have made Forest Fungi a success so far, and he has no intention of losing sight of that.  There is a willingness to adapt the business to best meet challenges and take advantage of opportunities, while maintaining the ethos that the company was founded on and an unflinching position on quality. As Scott put it, ‘There is a concrete plan, but it does change.’

If you have even the slightest interest in mushrooms, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you head down to Dawlish Warren and take a look for yourself.  Even if you don’t, they could probably convert you! The team there are happy to help you choose the right mushroom for whatever you are trying to create if you have a dish in mind, or will suggest recipes you can try.

Follow the links to try their recipes for King Oyster Scallops or Mushroom Risotto (or you could try my recipes: mushrooms on toast and beef and mushroom stir-fry).

The café and farm shop are open year round and offer a great range of products from local producers as well as their mushrooms.  There are also regular stalls at various farmer’s markets and festivals around the county, if Dawlish is a bit out of your way.

The Shroom Rooms will be open for viewing from this weekend (25/08/2018) and entry is free.

Visits: 9
REVIEW: Alboka, Mijas, Spain

REVIEW: Alboka, Mijas, Spain

I have just returned from a family holiday in Spain, and while a trip with three families, five kids under six and only one real foodie (yours truly) doesn’t exactly lend itself to a plethora of quality dining experiences, I was pleasantly surprised by the standard of food we ate. Even the London Inn, which, thanks our middle class snobbery and the presence of a Scot in our group, we initially dismissed out of hand, did an excellent fish and chips which we ate sitting on the beach in the evening sun.  The stand-out meal, however, was courtesy of a restaurant called Alboka.

Situated in the picturesque town of Mijas, up in the mountains overlook the Costa del Sol, Alboka is a fairly unassuming little restaurant nestled between two competitors that, to the untrained eye, appear to be offering variations on a similar theme. I cannot say with any certainty that I would have chosen it if it hadn’t been for a recommendation from our friends who had visited the previous evening.  But to have missed this gem would have been a real tragedy.

As we entered I was struck by two things – firstly, this place was not courting tourist clichés. The décor felt stylish, contemporary and relaxed – a world away from many of the beachfront restaurants in the nearby town of Fuengirola. The second was the size of the kitchen. Through the serving hatch was a space that appeared to be about the size of a match box.  Now, I know there are plenty of great chefs producing wonderful food in small spaces, but I never fail to marvel at the logistics of this – I can barely make toast without turning the kitchen into a bomb site!

Once we were seated and got a look at the menu, I realised we had a problem: We couldn’t possibly eat everything.  Fortunately, many of the dishes were collected under tapas or sharing plate headings, so we did order quite a lot…

As with any tapas menu the dishes simply arrived when they were ready, so we started with a salad of crisp, fresh leaves, beautifully sweet cherry tomatoes, confit mushrooms, boiled quail’s eggs and a light, herby salad dressing.  It was a lovely showcase for great fresh produce, but what really set it apart was a soft, silky-smooth olive-oil ice cream that topped it off.  It was cooling and indulgent with just a hint of sweetness, and unlike anything I was expecting.  It was clear from this opening salvo that this was not going to be tapas as we know it.

The dishes that followed all subscribed to a similar ethos – familiar things, prepared and presented impeccably with a fresh spin on the idea.  Beef croquetas were served with a creamy goat’s cheese based sauce that brought a delightful tang to each rich, unctuous bite.  The same sauce was used to top fried potato wedges in a delicious (and infinitely more interesting) take on patatas bravas.  Two little pork meatballs were gone in a second; spicy and succulent, I could have eaten them by the bucket load. A dish of black pudding served on fried breadcrumbs is something that sounds like hangover food but it was served with casual elegance that elevated the humble ingredients to new heights.

A couple of the dishes took things a step further however. Pork fillet wrapped in ham was served with a spicy, sticky Pedro Ximénez sauce that I am determined to recreate and then have with everything, it was that good. Meanwhile, a plate of octopus with orange, chilli and radish was a work of art – bright, vibrant and modern, it would not have looked out of place in a Michelin-starred dining room.  The combination of flavours worked brilliantly too.  The flavour of the octopus packed a punch while the orange brought sweetness and freshness to the dish.  Lastly the chilli joined the party to give a moreish kick to each mouthful.

We ordered desserts out of pure gluttony – a chocolate fondant and a lemon posset. Both were delicious, crowd pleasing puds – although not quite as exciting as the mains, they were still well made, well presented and very enjoyable to eat.

Throughout the meal, the waiters were attentive and friendly, the service was prompt without ever feeling rushed and the value for money was beyond excellent.  For everything I have described, plus drinks, we paid just over 50 Euros.  If you are planning on heading to the Costa del Sol for your holidays, you should seriously consider making time for a trip to Alboka.  If not, watch this space as I fully intend to reverse engineer the recipes…

Visits: 31