Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Marksman, Bethnal Green

The gentrification of Shoreditch is now so advanced and so final that even those that still privately bemoan the disappearance of the old working-men's clubs, the spit-and-sawdust pubs, laundrettes and pound shops, have stopped commenting on it in public. That battle has been lost. This is now a place of wine bars, speakeasies, popups and street food, £5 a pint and £40 a head, the new shorthand for London itself, beards the new bearskin, tattoos the new Tower Bridge.

And I'm torn myself, for though of course I hate to see any part of our collective heritage priced out and forgotten, the problem with the kind of people who are setting up shop in this part of town lately is that so many of them are annoyingly good. Sagar and Wilde, for example, is exactly the kind of wine bar that every oenophile wants on their doorstep, an intimate and comfortable place staffed by helpful and passionate staff. It replaced a pub called the British Lion which was very popular with skinhead BNP supporters and had more regular visits from the local constabulary than brewery vans. Perhaps it is a shame that the "old" Shoreditch has disappeared, but I am not a racist, I am a glutton, which is an altogether more acceptable 21st century sin, and the new Shoreditch is far more my kind of scene.

The Marksman, just a few steps down the street from Sagar & Wilde, has, too, been modernised. Exactly how different it is from its previous incarnation I can't tell you because I've never been inside before, but I get the impression they're trying to make the change as painless and subtle as possible for all concerned. It's all very tastefully done and it definitely still feels like a cosy boozer, with wobbly furniture, bar stools and even a group of burly old boys occupying their corner of the room as they presumably have for many years previously. But look a little closer and the signs are there - table service, craft beers, and an intriguing new menu. Things are afoot.

Two freshly-shucked rock oysters, dressed with apple and pickled elderberries, just the thing for a warm summer's evening. I liked how they were balanced on top of their own shell lids, I liked how the oyster meat was loosened and I liked how the gentle acidic/floral notes that had been added to the minerally shellfish.

And I liked absolutely everything else. In fact I can't remember the last time I've enjoyed a more comprehensively perfect menu. A sign of a good restaurant is that the food you order you enjoy, and you're happy to pay for it, and want to go back once it's all over. Surely a sign of a perfect restaurant is that choosing between salt hake & potato rissoles, devilled crab on toast or beef & barley bun is just an exercise in satisficing, and that picking a dish at random would have yielded similarly stunning results. This is the beef bun by the way, a sweet, soft sphere containing the finest loose-meat pie filling, accompanied by an ethereally light horseradish cream. You could work for a thousand years and not be able to improve it, a thing of exquisite beauty.

Similarly devilled crab on toast. I've had devilled crab on toast before, very nice crab on toast too. But this was devilled crab on toast made by someone who finally knows what devilled crab on toast should be. Thin bread, just soaking enough of the juices without being collapsey, topped with an oil-flecked "mayo" so light it's almost a foam, and of course plenty of fresh white crab meat, fresh herbs and chilli. Perfect.

Megrim sole was gently butter-browned, the flesh cooked so well it lifted off in huge, bright-white, meaty chunks. The sharp & seasalty salad it came with was a colourful balance to the buttery fish, and was itself impressive enough to be a talking point. I wonder if anything could be improved about this plate of food, and I suspect not. It was, again, perfect.

As for the other main, curried kid with sourdough roti, well, what would you improve about a vast haunch of slow-cooked goat, dressed in thick curry oils and spices so that each last square inch of this beautiful piece of meat was seasoned flawlessly? Or a clever sourdough flatbread topped with a clear tomato jam, a nod to a curry house naan but something much more delicate and sophisticated? Nothing, that's what. This was, again, perfect.

I'd heard rumours of the brown butter & honey tart on the Twitter grapevine but still nothing could prepare us for the reality of a thin pastry base supporting a custard/honey mixture so precisely on the edge of collapse that the whole thing dissolved in the mouth like butter-honey candy floss. It was, of course, perfect.

And a chocolate ganache, smooth as silk, with a malt ice cream and surrounded by (I think) booze-soaked, slightly dried cherries, little chewy flavour bombs, topped with bits of cherry-sugar crackling. Which bit of that doesn't sound great? What would you add or remove? Nothing? No, me neither.

What the Marksman deserves to be - and what I sincerely hope it remains - is a perfect example of how a traditional East End boozer can be revamped and reimagined for a younger and more food-savvy audience without sacrificing any of the features that made it a pub (as opposed to a restaurant, or bar) in the first place. If you can keep the old boys at the bar happy, whilst serving magnificent, innovative dishes alongside a carefully-chosen wine list, then you have walked that line perfectly and deserve to do very well. Meanwhile, no matter what the future holds, know only this - that there are few better places to eat and drink in town, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to completely fall in love with the place. The perfect pub? Probably. The perfect score? Why not.


The Marksman will be in the next version of the app. But if you can't get a table, try my app for other options in the area.

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Monday, 29 June 2015

The Kingham Plough, Cotswolds

On the first evening of a weekend out of London, lulled into a false sense of security by the general comfortable loveliness of the Cotswolds, I broke my own golden rule - "do your research". Perhaps in Madrid, or Istanbul, or Bangkok you can wander travel-sore and weary from your hotel/AirBnB/tastefully-restored-14th-century-farmhouse (delete as appropriate) to the nearest bar and be happy with the results, but this has never been true of the UK and definitely isn't true of Shipton-under-Wychwood. The pub we found ourselves in on Friday night was certainly handy, being barely 50ft from the front door of our accommodation, but the expensive frozen rubbish they served, reluctantly and only vaguely in relation to what was ordered, was a timely reminder that good food is never guaranteed no matter now nice and low and oak-beamed your ceilings are. Lesson, for the umpteenth time, learned.

So Saturday lunchtime had a lot riding on it, but from the very first moment it was clear the Kingham Plough, a brisk 5-mile walk away across some of the more spectacularly lovely scenery this country has to offer, was altogether a far more worthwhile affair. In the tradition of fine old country gastropubs there is an a la carte menu, with starters around £11 and mains around £25 geared towards the kind of budget you find in these parts. But far more exciting was a truly vast "snacks" menu, ranging from Scotch quails eggs to a steak & ale pie, and covering pretty much any item you'd ever wanted to see on a pub bar menu inbetween. George Orwell's perfect pub The Moon Under Water may not have ever existed, but had he been alive today this would be his point 6 met entirely, surely as perfect a pub snack menu as anyone's ever written.

Writing it is one thing though, making a reality of it quite another, but it's my pleasure to report that the Plough walks the walk just as well as it writes a menu. It's the little things you notice first - house "cereal" bread (not entirely sure of the definition, maybe they meant the bran flakes on the crust) came warm from the oven and accompanied by Holmleigh Dairy butter, which was so rich and orange it looked like a slab of Red Leicester. This is a part of the world obsessed with dairy - Stinking Bishop, Barkham Blue, Berkswell and the various lovely goat's products from Brockhall Farm are all not a million miles away, and in fact Kingham itself, a tiny village home to no more than a couple of hundred people, has its own artisan cheese maker Rodger Crudge. Oh, and the Plough has a milk vending machine in its beer garden. For emergencies, like.

Prawns in a branded Hook Norton pintglass were lovely and sweet, with an aioli just garlicky enough. Pork pie was a perfectly formed little thing, generously filled with plenty of pig and summer herbs. I'd have preferred piccalilly to the "ploughman's pickle" it came with (actually more of a chutney), similarly the "homemade ketchup" presented alongside the otherwise stunning sausage roll. Homemade ketchup falls into the same category as homemade brown sauce or homemade hot buffalo wing sauce - it's an awful lot of effort to put into something that will end up still tasting worse than the stuff you can buy off the shelf. So why bother?

Mushrooms and snails on toast was perhaps the most universally admired of the snack dishes - there's something so incredibly right about the marriage of snails and mushrooms; flora and fauna that shared an environment in nature and now share a plate. "Soily" is usually used as an insult when used about food, but the more benign "earthy" doesn't cut it in this situation either - the combination of bread, butter, snails, mushrooms, thyme, was like eating a salty slice of the rolling Oxfordshire countryside. Perfectly balanced, and addictively packed with flavour.

Cotswold Rarebit was another pleasant twist on a classic - a thick mixture of what were (presumably local) cheeses mixed in with (presumably also local) beer. Thicker and less potently alcoholic as some rarebits I've tried, it was still very easy to enjoy. So too were some simple grilled asparagus stalks, dipped into a pot of hollandaise.

Lamb shoulder bun with cucumber & mint relish could probably be accused of being the most left-field, rather knowingly trendy whilst everything else had been so tastefully traditional, but was a hugely generous portion for £6.50 and came in their own glossy house baked buns. And for the sake of curiosity we even tried a couple of dishes from the a la carte, a wonderful chargrilled Cornish mackerel fillet, with various foraged sea vegetables and an impeccably balanced oyster mayonnaise, and a moist, complex Chicken Wellington. This is obviously a kitchen very happy operating at any budget.

The success of the mackerel made us think that there was more on the a la carte worth investigating, so to save any tricky um-ing and ah-ing we just decided to order everything under desserts. And boy am I glad we did, because whoever's on pastry at the Plough is doing a quite remarkable job. House ice creams, made with the same Guernsey cattle milk from the nearby vending machine, were just about as perfect as it's possible for ice cream to be, rich and velvety with not a hint of crunch and in a variety of powerful, seasonal flavours.

Elderflower and goat's curd cheesecake was also very top-end stuff, and wouldn't be out of place on any Michelin-starred menu. The citrussy notes of goat's curd and elderflower are a perfect match, and I liked the clever little jelly they'd managed to get to set on top of the cake.

Dark chocolate & cherry Arctic Roll was a dense and exotic play on techniques and texture, and though chocolate and cherry is hardly a groundbreaking idea, it worked because every element was as good as it can be. The roll itself was particularly interesting, as when you cut a slice with your knife it briefly revealed a shiny frozen interior that changed to dark and matte before your eyes, like in those old school science videos of anonymous lab technicians cutting through a block of pure sodium.

And then the best soufflé I can remember eating in a very long time. Neither too eggy or too light, not too sweet or too greasy, it was an utter strawberry soufflé masterclass, completely unimprovable. Everyone on the table agreed that in a meal of many contenders, this was the winning dish, something that you could have paid €50 for in a 3 star Parisian hotel restauarant and still been happy. So not bad, really, for £9.

In many ways, I'm glad we had that awful first meal on the Friday. I wasn't glad at the time, of course, I wished we'd run a mile in the opposite direction, but now I've put a bit of distance between myself and leathery steak and rancid onion rings I can appreciate that if nothing else, we should never take good food for granted. We may never be a country where the minimum standard is anything more than mediocre - we'll never have the tapas bars of Madrid or the street stalls of Bangkok, and crappy frozen chain pub food may always be a stick for lazy tourists to beat us with. But for a country that for so long could offer nothing more than crappy frozen food to suddenly be home to artisan cheese makers, passionate producers, local breweries and even the odd restaurant as good as the Plough, well, to be honest, that'll do for now. And just think where we can go from here.

Photos by Hannah


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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

My Top 18 Cheeses

This morning I woke up to this dreadful pile of ill-informed nonsense. I try not to let such transparently "provocative" piles of sub-Buzzfeed clickbait get to me, and I know plenty of you will point out it's a tongue-in-cheek bit of fluff, not worthy of the ad revenue it was designed to generate. But whilst celebrity gossip and "you won't believe what happens next" viral videos can wash harmlessly by, cheese happens to be a subject I care deeply about and it's painful to see it treated with such wilful, gurning ignorance. So in an effort to counter at least some of the damage done by the Metro to the reputation of cheese, here is my, very personal, top 18:

18. Brie de Meaux

Nothing too strong or challenging to start with, but this is still pretty much everything you'd want from an everyday soft cheese. Creamy and satisfying to eat, it's also incredibly versatile - try the grilled version at the Dairy, Clapham (above) with truffle grated on top, it's the world's best cheese on toast.

Metro's choice: Brie. Doesn't specify which, perhaps they mean the stuff they get in the basil and tomato sandwiches at Pret. "A bit soggy tasting", they generalise, with surprising confidence.

17. Ardrahan

Like so many washed-rind cheeses, it takes a bit of mental strength to get past the extraordinary smell of Ardrahan to really appreciate the subtle mix of smoky, farmy, creamy flavours in the flesh; all the more impressive since Ardrahan doesn't have the advantage of being made with unpasteurised milk.

Metro's choice: "Cheesestrings"[sic]. Misspelled Cheestrings, remarkable considering the photo of the packet with the correct spelling just underneath. Also, Metro, and this applies to most of your list, Cheestrings are not a "type" of cheese.

16. Gubbeen

Another strong showing from the Irish, Gubbeen isn't perhaps the most complex cheese in terms of flavour, but is an excellent way of convincing the most risk-averse of your friends that washed-rind isn't all about rotting corpses and ruined fridges. Creamy and savoury, with a nice sticky rind.

Metro's choice: Wensleydale and cranberry. Though it's true that fruit in cheese is an abomination, why Wensleydale? Or, indeed cranberry?

15. Stinking Bishop

Can you tell I have a soft spot for pongy washed-rind cheeses? As the name suggests, this cheese can be quite remarkably strong, some might argue rather one dimensionally so. But kept correctly and caught at the right time of year, it has a delicate nutty flavour and a lovely tacky texture on the rind (washed with perry, of all things).

Metro's choice: Swiss cheese "aka Emmental" because of course there are no other Swiss cheeses. At all.

14. Tunworth

One of the few pasteurised cheeses on this list, but I'll make an exception for Tunworth because I love the idea of some people in Hampshire making a Camembert (sorry Camembert-style) in their kitchen and it being better than most examples of the original. Sweet and nutty, with a surprisingly complex aftertaste.

Metro's choice: Cottage cheese. An interesting choice, because as Vic & Bob informed us, it's not a cheese, it's a residue.

13. Roquefort

If you can't appreciate the soft, salty notes of this ancient cheese from central France, then perhaps you're better off writing for the Metro after all. A blue cheese that packs a punch without being harsh or difficult, Roquefort is notable for its consistency and availability - an emergency cheeseboard cheese that's available from Asda that can still impress your guests.

Metro's choice: Blue cheese. "Smells a bit rotten" they say, dismissing a thousand years of human achievement in cheesemaking in one oblivious soundbite.

12. Mrs Kirkham's

The catalyst for a UK-wide cheesemaking renaissance, Mrs Kirkham's deserves a spot on this list for its importance alone. Of course, it also tastes lovely - softly crumbly with just the faintest touch of blue cheese pungence.

Metro's choice: Red Leicester. "Just a bit meh", presumably they haven't tried Sparkenhoe but then presumably they've never really given a shit about cheese in their lives.

11. Montgomery's cheddar

A true artisan product, Montgomery's is so different from mass-market cheddar it almost needs a new name. Much like Comte, another unpasteurised hard cheese, its variability is part of its charm, and can range from sweet to nutty, milky to an almost animal stock flavour. Sometimes has a lovely crystalline crunch.

Metro's choice: American cheese slice. Doesn't specify a brand but then if all blue cheeses are the same why not processed?

10. Berkswell

Reminiscent of a French or Spanish mountain cheese (the Manchego of the West Midlands, if you like), the charming home-made nature of this cheese is reflected in the unusual shaped truckle, formed inside a plastic salad spinner. Dense and salty, with a strong musty aroma and those heavenly farmyard notes of the best unpasteurised product.

Metro's choice: Cream cheese. Again, not really a cheese but I get the impression their heart's not in it by this point.

9. Vacherin Mont d'Or

Not one for the weak-hearted, even young Vacherin has the ability to slay a man at 15 paces (metaphorically), but late in the season you'll need to store this bad boy in a different town to escape its penetrative aroma. Persevere, though, and you're rewarded with a surprisingly gentle taste, creamy and complex rather than offensively sulphurous.

Metro's choice: Goat's cheese. "Always a welcome addition to pizza", they say, neatly offending both cheese makers AND Italians in one ludicrous comment.

8. Livarot

Much as I love championing home-grown cheese, you have to admit the French often have the advantage of technique and a few hundred years of experience. Livarot is a grown-up cheese, a perfect balance of soft rind and firm, faintly chalky flesh that boasts a deep, rich flavour.

Metro's choice: Paneer. At least it's a type of cheese.

7. Stichelton

For various stupid legal reasons, Britain's only true, unpasteurised Stilton, painstakingly made to ancient techniques, cannot be called a Stilton. But who cares about titles, because this is a stonking cheese, with a flavour profile so dense and intricate you could write a book trying to describe all its facets.

Metro's choice: Mexican cheese. "Cheese with a load of chillies and spices crushed into it", the Mexicans will surely be staggered to discover.

6. Epoisses

You know things are getting serious when a cheese is so volatile it can only be served with a spoon. But people who recoil from the admittedly eye-watering aroma are missing out on a complex and satisfying taste; a truly world-class cheese.

Metro's choice: Halloumi. Running out of ideas, scanning the fridges in the corner shop.

5. Valencay

Into the top 5, and there had to be at least one ash-coated goat's cheese on the list. I've chosen Valencay over its many rivals because all said and done, this eye-catching cheese with the sweet, citric taste is the supreme example of its kind. Beautiful, inside and out.

Metro's choice: Mozzarella. "Doesn't taste very good when not melted", they say, ensuring any remaining Italians still alive after the goat's cheese comment have now surely also combusted.

4. Camembert from Falaise by Marie-Anne Cantin

I've gone a bit more specific on this one. There are many ways to enjoy Camembert, but affineur Marie-Anne Cantin in Paris and their careful 22-day ageing process has resulted in the finest Camembert I've ever tasted in my life. A beautiful, multifaceted flavour that's powerful without being harsh, this is the Camemberts to rule all Camemberts - if you're ever in the French capital, don't waste the opportunity to try it yourself.

Metro's choice: Feta. Someone's having an M&S salad for lunch today.

3. Cornish Blue

Born of desperation as the bottom fell out of the milk market, that this cheese exists at all is testament to the enormous bravery and industriousness of maker Philp Stansfield. That it tastes as good as it does - salty and creamy with a delicate buttery/vanilla aftertaste - is a wonderful bonus.

Metro's choice: Parmesan. Say what you see.

2. St James

If any French, Italian or Spanish ever need an answer to "can the British really make world class cheese", this is the definitive answer. The washed rind gives with a gentle snap, revealing a beguiling, complex flesh that sings of the seasons, of wild flowers and the rolling Cumbrian countryside. A towering achievement.

Metro's choice: Mild cheddar. As someone on Twitter said, "I'm surprised they didn't specify grated".

1. Comté

There had to be one, and though I love St James from the bottom of my heart and consider Martin Gott to be a god amongst men (blessed are the cheesemakers), Comté at its best still trounces all other dairy. Its unpredictability is part of its charm - every wheel is different, and Comté afficionados mark the attributes of each example on a flavour wheel, noting flavours from leather to coffee. So on an off day it can be little more than pleasant. But when it's good, it's transportative. My Desert Island cheese, and in my opinion, the best in the world.

Metro's choice: Mature cheddar. They're just saying words now. But the good news is, we're finally at number one and so they can go back to writing about, I don't know, puppies and the stars of Made in Chelsea, whatever the hell the Metro usually concerns itself with.

Photo credits:

Gubbeen, Stinking Bishop: Stamfordcheese Tunworth: The Food Shortlist
Mrs Kirkham's: Mrs Kirkham's
Montgomery's Cheddar, Berkswell: Murray's cheese
Stichelton, Valencay: Wikipedia
St James: The Courtyard Dairy

Almost forgot: Buy my app.