Monday, 29 June 2015
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
Wednesday, 17 June 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
Thursday, 4 June 2015
Whenever people ask me which cuisine is the most badly represented or otherwise maligned in London my stock answer has always been 'Mexican'. Wahaca have a fair bash at it, and there are a couple of streetfood stalls that aren't completely hideous, but most of the time I'm baffled that food so full of joy and life on the streets of Mexico somehow morphs into Tex-Mex Las Iguanas slop when it hits these shores.
But perhaps I'm just more concerned about Mexican food in the UK because I know how good it can be when done properly. I've never been to Greece, for example, so the relative dearth of good Greek restaurants in London never really bothered me too much; perhaps if I'd spent many a happy summer holiday eating fresh sardines by the beach in Naxos then it would annoy me I couldn't do the same in London but nothing I've learned about spanakopita, moussaka, dolmades and the like really has me thinking I'm missing out on that much... (sorry Greece).
Similarly, and continuing in my efforts to insult the culinary traditions of as many of my fellow Europeans as possible in one blog post, Portugal. Unlike my knee-jerk prejudice against Greek food, I have at least actually been to Portugal - specifically Lisbon. I went to a chicken restaurant that the whole of Twitter said was the best in town - Bonjardim - to find a bit of overcooked bird without much to recommend it, and was doubly annoyed when I was charged extra for nibbling on a bit of factory baguette (this cover charge business is apparently a Thing over there). The next night we went to a Michelin starred place which served a kind of bland international cuisine that could have come from anywhere. And the famous Belem Pastel de Nata (custard tarts) were fine but hardly worth an international voyage.
So when I say that the food at Taberna do Mercado is better than anything I've ever had in Portugal, or any other Portuguese food in London (nobody say the N word), that's certainly true, but still not much of a recommendation. Let's start at the beginning, with an item on the menu under the heading "Snacks" called "Runner bean fritters and bulhão pato [white wine]". A giant mass of tempura batter, studded with onions and runner beans, slowly dissolving into a cold soup of some kind, it was exactly as weird as that sounds. Pulling apart the constituent vegetables into anything bitesize was a messy and difficult business, and although it didn't taste terrible, any of the batter that had come into contact with the white wine soup was the consistency of wallpaper paste. I have absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do with this, and £5 for a few beans and batter isn't exactly value.
Bisaro pork "cachaco" (smoked neck) was good, moist but not too fatty and with a nice paprika kick.
Alheira is apparently another type of Portuguese sausage, only these had been worked into strange misshappen croquette things with a faintly disturbing mushy texture. However, the "spring tomatoes" they came with were excellent, seasoned perfectly and with bags of flavour, and even the watercress on top was noteworthy thanks to a super dressing.
Our favourite of the savouries was this - Bisaro (a rare breed of pig from Fundão) pork tartare, Cozido (a Portuguese stew) broth and cabbage. Aggressive seasoning initially threatened to spoil it but once you'd got past the salty top layer it turned into an incredibly rewarding and commendably unusual dish, dainty cubes of flash-seared pork all smoky and tender from the grill, in a clear, rich broth. Well worth the £9.
But then a beef prego sandwich brought us back down to earth. The problem with a lot of steak sandwiches is that the steak either needs to be chopped into little bits (Philly-cheesesteak style) or impossibly thin, or impossibly tender (or all three) to be able to eat it without the entire filling being dragged out with your first bite. Which was exactly what happened here. There was nothing wrong with the beef, it just didn't belong in a sandwich, and combined with the tasteless dry bread and (though no doubt authentic) deeply unsettling seafood paste (dare I say Shippams? No, I'm not that cruel), it all added up to a very unsatisfying whole.
Which makes the dessert all the more bizarre. Because, somewhat against expectations by this point, it was completely wonderful. Not only did it look almost too precious to eat, with a luminescent orange center (thickened with pork fat, but don't let that put you off) resting in a port sauce dotted with oil the colour of rare gemstones, but the flavour was just as impressive, a salt custard flan so light it just dissolved in the mouth. As a statement of intent - accomplished, unique and brilliant - it's something Taberna do Mercado should be inordinately proud of. I just wish there'd be a few more dishes that lived up to it.
All said and done, though, at least this is something new - at least, new for London. And whether or not it does the food of Portugal (which of course I'm sure I've not seen the best of) justice, that's certainly not for me to judge. All I can tell you is it's a mid-priced European restaurant in the center of London that does a few things quite well, a few other things not so well, and one thing brilliantly. At least it's not another Nando's.
There's plenty of options in Spitalfields if Taberna do Mercado doesn't take your fancy. Use my app to find them.
Monday, 1 June 2015
Palomar has - unbelievably - been open for a year. Unbelievable because it seems like only yesterday the massed critics and bloggers of London were falling over themselves to lavish praise on the place and also unbelievable because twelve months on from those triumphant opening weeks it still shows absolutely no sign of being anything less than the hottest ticket in town.
Which rather begs the question, why have I taken my sweet time? Long gone are the days when I'd try to have my review out before the paint in the gents had dried, but neither was I self-consciously avoiding the place; in fact I knew, somewhere at the back of my mind, for certain, I'd love Palomar. Because, it seems, everyone does. This restaurant doesn't have fans, it doesn't even have anything as straightforward has regulars. It has lovers. In short, I don't know why it's taken me so long. I'm an idiot. I didn't know what was good for me. But I've been now, and I too, now, am in love.
Taking part in an evening here (I can't even describe it as anything as dull as a "meal") is like being invited to the best party in town, being asked to dance by the most attractive person in the room, and then being snogged full on the face before you had a chance to reply. It's not just thrilling, it's acutely, almost embarrassingly flattering, a whirlwind of hospitality that sweeps you off your feet, tenderly offers you exquisite Middle Eastern dishes of passion and invention, then lowers you back onto the streets of Soho a few hours later with your face covered in lipstick and shirt buttons undone. Metaphorically! Metaphorically. Ahem.
The whole experience shines, and not just because the restaurant itself is gorgeous (though it is, at least the bar is - stools at the perfect height to a gleaming zinc surface, overlooking a frenetic open kitchen populated by beautiful people who look like they're having the time of their lives). At around 6pm I was told the wait would be an hour, and precisely an hour later (swiftly passed with a couple of cocktails up the road in Spuntino) they called me back. Anyone who thinks no reservations restaurants are a hardship are just being awkward.
But amidst all my gushing over the atmosphere and service I hope you don't think the food and drink are fringe events. Not a bit of it. An off-menu cocktail called Into The Wild (£8) was a minty, citrussy affair based with vodka rather than the more usual gin and matched with the first bit of food (some dainty chicken liver crostini - sorry, "Yiddish bruschetta") remarkably well.
Challah bread is a fluffy brioche-style thing, plaited and golden glazed. I've occasionally bought it from Gail's on Northcote Road, and very good it was too but I was never quite sure the best thing to do with it. Here, lightly toasted and dipped in olive oil and tahini, it suddenly made perfect sense, sweet and salty and rich, and so addictive the only thing stopping us order another (at a pathetic £2 a go) was the worry we wouldn't have room for the rest of the menu.
Shakshukit is a "deconstructed kebab", containing mince, yoghurt, tahini, a variety of herbs and dressings and a lovely fresh pitta straight from the grill. Richly flavoured and generous in size, it was a perfect advertisement for the kind of food that Palomar produce - in their own words "of modern day Jerusalem... influenced by the rich cultures of Southern Spain, North Africa and the Levant." Most of London will be new to these flavours, but like Berber & Q since, they know there's a city-wide love affair here just waiting to happen.
"Jerusalem Mix", a heady concoction of grilled offal (livers, hearts and sweetbreads) spiked with oily okra and tahini, was similarly captivating. Perhaps if I'd had something like this before somewhere else I'd have been slightly more level-headed and critical in my approach, and wouldn't have hoovered it up in seconds like a starving wild animal. But even objectively this was perfectly seasoned, powerfully-flavoured and served by people who just knew it was wonderful - an attitude literally impossible to resist.
Last of the savouries was a plate of wild seabass with a lentil & octopus salad. Getting a delicate crisp, dry skin on any fillet of fish means you're already 99% of the way there in my book, and so the gorgeous garlic and confit olive sauce it rested on, not to mention the chunks of grilled octopus mixed in with the lentils, just made it all the more special.
Dessert was a shared bowl of "Malabi", a milk pudding topped with raspberry coulis, studded with little bits of coconut meringue. I've a sneaking suspicion this wasn't quite as brilliant as what had come before but I was so hopelessly besotted with Palomar by this point they probably could have given me a used ashtray and I'd have knocked it back in six spoonfuls with a dreamy smile on my face. We paid the bill (just over £50 a head) as a member of the kitchen staff poured us a couple of shots of the house liqueur (some sort of citrus I think, don't ask me) and one for herself, as if she wanted us to stay all night. I would have done, in a heartbeat.
Like after any great restaurant I've had the pleasure of visiting in the past, I have spent the last few days trying to analyse exactly what it is that Palomar are doing that makes them so extraordinary. Because realistically, at a basic level, they are just bringing you dinner, and you are paying for it, and so are lots of other places. It is - though I have to peel myself off the ceiling to admit it - just a restaurant.
But it's the sheer enthusiasm and joy they bring to the whole business that puts them in a complete category of their own. The food isn't just reasonably priced and tasty, it's exciting and unlike anywhere else in town. The room isn't just comfortable and beautiful, but feels like the front row of a tiny theatre, an intimate, immersive production that spins effortlessly around you and leaves you breathless. And the service - there needs to be a new word for it; you're not just looked after, you're embraced. And the least I can do, the least I'm even able to do, is embrace Palomar right back.
Palomar, barring any natural disasters, will be in the next version of the app. Meantime download it to see where else is good.