Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Sussex Charmers

After the veritable bun feast that was Louis' christening, Stealth, the Ewing and I carried on the adventures with our own version of Three Have Fun in a Caravan, by spending a few days in the lovely surrounds of Rye Harbour (minus Dick and the dog. Not a euphemism).

Trying to prove that we could accomplish more than the self perpetuating drink, sleep, suffer repeat spiral (that wasn't helped with a spot of Bank Holiday wine tasting at Chapel Down on the way to Rye), I decreed we should get a dose of sea air and a measure of culture with a visit to Bexhill to see the Ladybird by Design exhibition, celebrating 100 years of Ladybird books, at the De La Warr Pavilion.

The exhibition was a fascinating, and rather dangerous, slice of nostalgia (I'm ancient enough to say that now). Taking us back to the innocent times when blonde-haired blue-eyed children went shopping with mother, learnt about public services such as gas and electricity and got to play with knives, batteries, matches and boiling water. 

For me the best bit was seeing the classic fairy stories such as the Elves and the Shoemaker, Rumplestiltskin and the Runaway Pancake; perennial favourites that my Dad used to read to me each night as a young child. And whilst the run is finished in Bexhill, you can catch it in London  from 10 July – 27 September 2015. 

Even without the healthy dose of reminiscence, the building itself is well worth a visit being a Modernist gem, especially of a blued-skied spring day such as that of our trip. On hearing of it's opening George Bernard Shaw exclaimed; 'Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least.'

Another sign of the town's continued emergence from its faded dog days (it's an ongoing process) was our lunch at Bistro45, an unassuming little Belgian spot set just back from the sea front. While incongruous from the outside, it turned out to be one of those gems that even prompted Stealth to chide me for not taking pictures of her lunch so I could write about it later. 

From a strong beer selection (both in scope and ABV), we sampled the Affligem - served in it's own special rack, complete with a separate glass for the sediment, to add or drink separately as you wish - as well as pints of Vedett and, one of my favourites, the classic Trappist ale, Orval. 

Mains were moules, obviously. Most of us have some sort of mollusc horror story, but the allure of a well cooked bowl of mussels keeps us coming back for more. My perfect Pastis version, with Pernod, fennel, dill and cream, was a case in point. Rustling bowls of skinny fries and crisp baguette with butter were provided for mopping the creamy, aniseed infused juices at the bottom of the pot.

Stealth went all fancy dan with a mixed seafood pot with extra squid, cockles and prawns. She also, obviously, veered off piste and requested it extra spicy - or in her words 'with loads of Tabasco' - without even a raised eyebrow from the kitchen (I still didn't get any pictures, though).

Whilst it may seem incongruous to have a slice of Flanders on the South Coast - we found out that the dad of the lovely chap that served us was Belgian, and his son had now taken over the running of the place - everything was perfect. They even, on hearing it was her birthday, put a candle in the Ewing's creme brulee and served up Black Jacks and Fruit Salads with the bill.

The nearest pub to our caravan in Rye Harbour was the Inkerman Arms, a resolutely old fashioned  -in a fascinating 70/80s style, rather than olde worlde - sort of place. There was also the bonus of meeting a wonderfully eccentric and friendly bunch of locals, who even tried to persuade us to join them in an evening of drinking discounted Southern Comfort and lemonade at the Social Club followed by a night of karaoke classics.  

As tempting as it sounded, we stuck with the far more staid option of sitting in front of the fire supping pints of Old Dairy bitter, brewed up the road in Tenterden. The best place to be as the springtime showers battered at the windows.

They also serve a menu of home cooked pub staples, with the locals recommending the fresh fish straight off the boats in Hastings. As it was Friday, we chose to have ours beer battered. A tranche of huss for me (not one of my favourites, but a southern classic that remind me of the fish suppers of my youth) and the legendary Rye Bay scallops for the Ewing. All served with the obligatory chips, peas (mushy for me) and homemade tartare sauce. 

Mere words, and not even when accompanied by this strangely day-glo photo, cannot express quite how good these sweet bivalves actually were; so I shan't bother other than to say they blew the deep fried Tasmanian scallops we ate in the harbour in Hobart out the water, and were even better than the Mancunian battered potato slices that also bear the same name. 

A highlight in an remarkably sugar free week was a Saturday morning trip to Knopps, famed hot chocolate purveyors run by the eponymous Dutchman whose name, rather aptly, translates as 'buttons'. Here you can match your poison - from a creamy 34% white chocolate right through to a bitter 100% cocoa with no added sugar, -with all manner of herbs, spices and fruits. Think orange zest, fresh ginger, pink peppercorns or dried lavender, amongst others.

I'm not normally a big hot chocolate fan, but my 64% single origin dark chocolate complete with homemade vanilla marshmallows had me, not very, surreptitiously licking the bowl. The coffee and homemade salted caramel shortbread looked pretty ace, too.

A day spent in Rye itself meant a visit to the Ypres Castle monument, with the Ewing supporting the old adage 'sun's out gun's out', in between the showers. Tucked away next door we found the Ypres Castle Inn, a little gem known locally as the 'Wiper's', with its stunning beer garden looking out across the salt flats to the sea, live music, comfy armchairs (where we resided most of Saturday afternoon, reading our books) and a great selection of local ales. 

The Harveys Sussex best bitter, brewed in Lewes, was one of the best kept pints I have had for a long time. While I do have a fondness for palette wrecking hop forward beers, with all their skunky tropical fruit and stickiness, this is the perfect example of a deliciously well balanced session beer, hopped with British stalwarts, Fuggles, Goldings, Progress and Bramling Cross.

After liking things here so much, we booked ourselves in for the Sunday lunch the following day. And, after waking to blue skies the following morning, decided a walk along the beach and back through the nature reserve would sharpen our perfectly appetites beforehand. 

Three and a half  hot and sweaty hours later - a large part of it lost in a field full of sheep somewhere between Winchelsea and Rye Harbour, although we did get to walk past the magnificent Camber Castle, built by Henry VIII - we finally arrived. Any crossness was quickly dissipated by another pint of Harveys and a huge basket of warm baguette served with a delicious and ridiculously garlicky (although not quite so good when you're staying in a confined space) houmous.

A crispy rolled shoulder of roast lamb was equally fine, as were the accompanying al dente veg, raisin flecked red cabbage and generous amounts of crunchy spuds. The gravy drenched and rather soggy yorkie may have seemed somewhat superfluous, but, after so much unwarranted exercise, I ate it anyway.

Pudding provided yet more delicious carbohydrates with my absolute favourite of all favourite things, spotted dick. While slightly incongruous in the unseasonably warm weather, it was still absolutely, impossibly wondrous, with that lovely springy texture you only get from a proper steamed suet pudding and served with lashings of hot yellow custard.

What better parting shot than a visit to the picture perfect St Thomas' Church in Winchelsea, often disputed as the smallest town in Britain. It's also the last resting place of Spike Milligan, whose tongue-in-cheek gravestone inscription reads, in Gaelic, Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite. Or, I told you I was ill.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Hatches, Matches and (Mummy P's Cake) Dispatches

Despite the potential for unwelcome denouements, drunken confessions and the appearance of strange half cousins with wandering hands, family celebrations are great fun. And even more so when there not your own. So when the invite to the christening of Stealth's nephew Louis, and the subsequent garden party, dropped through the letterbox, the Ewing and I were already on our very best behaviour.

Despite the predictable bank holiday traffic, we somehow contrived to arrive in the chocolate box village of Chiddingstone a little early for the christening service, meaning there was only one thing for it - to the Castle Inn for a restorative snifter or two.

As well as the local Larkin's ale, of which I enjoyed a nicely kept pint, they were also advertising bottles of sparkling Chiddingstone cider. How could we resist, although at over seven percent you can see the effect it quickly had on Stealth and I. 

The ceremony was perfect, with Louis being impeccably behaved which is more than could be said for his aunt, who became rather teary at the surprise announcement of Ben and Kate's recent nuptials. All of us, fortified by fermented apple, sang the hymns with the sort of gusto not seen since an E number overload in the second year of infants. 

Formalities out of the way, we headed back to Ben and Kate's beautiful converted oast house, a quintessential glimpse of the Kent of yore. After a welcome glass of cold rose (or two) we made our way to the bar in the assembled yurt on the lawn for tops ups. A barrel of Larkin's beer, a solid English choice, was joined by a giant jug of refreshingly tequila heavy margarita.

To eat was a veritable feast, straight out of the pages of Enid Blyton. Stealth had told us that her sister made the best sandwiches, and whilst Mummy R will always hold that mantle in my mind, the chicken and cucumber on tiger bread (the secret ingredient, when we asked Kate later, butter you can leave teeth marks in) demanded repeated sampling. Little brown bread triangles stuffed with shredded ham hock were equally glorious and dainty cucumber bought decorum to the proceedings (although not the way the Ewing was inhaling them).

There were chicken legs, and quails eggs and two giant gala pies, Kate's favourite, that saw me luck out with a piece that was almost eggless, whilst Stealth felt equally fortunate to grab a slice shot through with hard boiled ovum. Best of all was cheese and pineapple on sticks, protruding from goggle-eyed fruity hedgehogs, who still managed to look far saner than my wife.

For those with a sweet tooth, tiered cake stands in the marquee groaned under the weight of slices of battenburg, cupcakes, delicious turkish delight scented meringues and chocolate crispie cakes. A huge platter of local cheese was also quickly demolished; a lemony, mousse-like goat being the highlight.

There was even a ice cream truck, popular with both children and the Ewing, who ate both her chocolate cone with chocolate sauce and my mint choc chip with chocolate sprinkles. Strong work.

A visit to the countryside wouldn't be complete without a trip to see the micro pigs (Big Pig and Little Pig) who were chilling out in the sun - at least until you stroked their snouts, to which they responded in a frenzied porcine fashion. On a further recce around the place - Stealth in her brogues, the Ewing in her heels, fitting in just like locals - we also made acquaintance with a brace of very friendly sheep in the lower field.

It wouldn't be a party without cake, and Louis' christening cake (whilst being without a layer of Kate's favourite marzipan) was a buttercream-stuffed spongy delight that went particularly well with a glass of port and a toast to the happy family. 

As if that wasn't enough, a fabulous day was crowned with Mummy P opening a tin to reveal a glorious chocolate cake, baked by her own fair hand. It was quickly dispatched - mostly with the help of the Ewing, who was particularly smitten (with both the baked goods and Mummy P).

As one of my most loyal (only) readers, I was delighted when she allowed me to share both the recipe and this lovely photograph here.

Mummy P’s Chocolate Cake (adapted from The Hotel Inspectors Five Star Classic)

250 g - 70 % good quality dark chocolate broken and gently melted in a large bowl in either a microwave or bain-marie
170 g - unsalted butter
170 g - ground almonds
170 g - golden castor sugar
6 - large eggs
2 tbsp - dark rum
3 tbsp - extra strong coffee
3 – 4 - cardamom pods with seeds extracted and finely ground.

To finish:  
Glazed violet or rose petals (optional) and, if used, gently pressed in to surface when the cake is out of the oven and still slightly very slightly warm

To Serve:
Bowl of whipped cream or crème fraiche (optional)

Generously grease one, deep spring-form cake tin - approx. 24 cm
Place on heavy baking sheet
Heat oven to gas mark 2, electric 150 C, fan oven 130 C
Beat the butter, ground almonds and sugar into the melted chocolate to form a paste
Add the lightly beaten egg yolks, rum, coffee and ground cardamom 
Whisk egg whites until firm
Beat about a quarter of them into the chocolate mix, then add remaining egg whites with a metal spoon keeping the mixture as airy as possible
Pour mixture into the cake tin
Depending on your oven bake from 50 – 80 minutes.  The mixture needs to be risen and soft but firm to touch when pressed in the middle
Leave to cool 

Cooking time depends a little on whether you are serving as a pudding or as a cake.  A shorter cooking time will render a more mousse-like effect, which is lovely served with cream.  A slightly longer cooking time will give a more traditional cake texture.  Both are scrumptious and are so rich that 8 -12 people can have a generous helping - depending on greed quotient. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

64 Degrees and Tilly Gingerbread

Last week saw the Ewing's birthday and after taking her wine tasting, when she had to drive, giving her a t-shirt emblazoned with cats which, even as a avowed feline lover, she has vowed never to wear in public, and then spending the rest of the bank holiday in a caravan in 50 mph winds I thought it only proper to take her out for a belated celebratory meal.

The venue of choice was 64 Degrees in Brighton chef Michael Bremner's small plate pean to dehydrators, blow torches and water baths (the restaurants name coming from the temperature that they cook their hen's eggs). Sat at the snazzy space age counter, a perfect vantage point to watch the chefs work, makes quite a change from the previous week's fish and chips on the beach and pints of bitter in front of the log fire (gas fire).

The menu has three short sections labelled 'Fish,Veg and Meat', obviously we wanted everything. To help while deliberating I enjoyed a Spirit pale Ale, a worryingly new ageish sounding beer from Hug Brewing whose tasty tropical hoppiness belied its low ABV. The Ewing got stuck into a spritzy white from Sussex, served in strange IKEA like tumblers that I nearly accidently topped up from the water carafe several times.

We started with new season's asparagus served with pink grapefruit, hollandaise and almond. Any shred of decorum left went out the window as we attacked this with fingers, harder than it looks when your sitting on a stool and sharing a plate; luckily both shirt fronts and dignity were left intact. A dish with a real spring in it's step, both literally and figuratively.

Next up was tuna, seared and sliced and served with a passion fruit emulsion, pomegranate, radish and micro coriander. Again a plate of fresh simplicity, the clean, sweet fish holding up well to the funky, sharp notes of the fruit.

Croquettes of sticky shreds of compressed pork cheek encased in breadcrumbs, came hot and crisp from the fryer and were served with a mushroom ketchup of deep fungal depth, even if it wasn't much of a looker. Alongside was yet more fruit, this time in the form of charred lime, and a tangle of pickled onions which both cut through the richness admirably.

The final savoury plate of smoked chicken, peas and whelks was a late switch that saw us jettisoning a lamb rump and seaweed dish. The Ewing was scared by the whelks, after being scarred several times previously - most notably during a 'romantic' meal in Paris that saw us grimacing over blubbery pigs trotters and rubbery fruit de mer - but thankfully it turned out to be a very sound move.

It may not have been the best looking thing we ate, but I think the pea mousse/foam, as Exorcist like as it appeared, was the highlight of our whole meal (it was divine!- TE). The sweet whelks were chopped finely enough to avoid being their usual briny choking hazard and the gentle smokiness of chicken rounded out proceedings. 

The rum jelly bear has already become a bit of cult choice for pud; it's boozy, jellied deliciousness only improved by a Tony Montana-esque pile of citric sherbet served alongside it. Proving that you can still have fun as a grown up.

There was also espresso and, very good, chocolate truffles for the the more adult amongst us, although I think the Ewing felt a little pang of jealousy when she saw the impressive looking chocolate malt desert make its way to an adjacent table (looked amazing-had serious pudding envy - TE).

As we were paying the bill one of the charming team of staff asked us what our plans were for after lunch. After being so well fed, even we felt a little embarrassed to say 'going for an ice cream', so we cited the less greedy sunding option of 'going for a walk' instead. Before then feeling obliged to valiantly stretch our legs along the seafront, so we could at least try and blame the sea air for sharpening our appetites so quickly.

Fortuitously Boho Gelato, a experimental micro ice cream parlour renowned for it's quirky flavours such as bourbon and bourbon (biscuit and whiskey), beer sorbet and cucumber and rose. The Ewing surpassed herself with a triple scoop of licorice, chocolate cherry pavlova and Small Batch coffee sorbet, and easily dispatched the towering mountain of ice cream.

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When I came to pick my flavour, there could only be one choice. The blackberry, gingerbread and white chocolate (with a scoop of cinnamon and fig on top) as, after an impatient nine months of baking, we had heard the exciting news that the Gingerbread baby - nicknamed after my brother-in-law's 'strawberry blonde' hair - had been born in Sydney the day before. A very memorable way to mark my sister's first (Australian) Mother's Day.

Obviously, being the loveliest baby that you ever did see, I'm obliged to share at least one picture of little Matilda Rose. And this one, with a very proud Grandad Tom, is a favourite. I'm already looking forward to sharing a few bottles (milk to start with, of course) with her.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Sunday Bunday

So, it finally looks like Grandad's on the move. After nearly 89 years in Harrow and it's surrounds (discounting the 'lost' teenage years spent working in a shoe shop in Leigh-on-Sea and a stint serving in Germany during WW2), he's moved down to Wimborne for some southern sun and sea air.

While, hopefully, this change of scenery is going to be a good thing for him it means that we won't have the need to chug up the A40 come the weekend. Deciding to fit in one last hoorah we headed to the inauspicious surroundings of the East Pan Asian restaurant, found above the Loon Fung supermarket in Alperton before a Sunday visit for tea at Grandad's.

While it doesn't look like much from the outside, upstairs is a large and modern restaurant that was teeming with Chinese faces and empty dishes. Always a promising sign. Daytime dining means the choice of large dim sum menu, while they also offer a decent selection of sushi rolls sashimi and tempura (with fresh fish from the supermarket below), alongside rice dishes, soup and noodles.

One of the delights of eating dim sum is filling in the menu yourself. Who would have thought being given a stubby pencil and a sheet full of unintelligible squiggles would be so much fun - and while most the dishes have translations, a few don't. Probably, I'm guessing, as they contain some variety of internal organs. Worth a try if you're feeling lucky...

To drink was an endless pot of jasmine tea, another source of amusement for our simple minds as the Ewing and I always insist of serving each other and tapping the table in some ham fisted attempt at Chinese decorum. 

Also, unlike most meals, dim sum doesn't seem to miss an alcoholic accompaniment. Yes, a cold lager will always do nicely alsongside, but the tannin in the tea does a very fine job of washing away all the salt and fat and doesn't make you feel quite as much of a lush. And without those 'essential' bloody marys and bucks fizz, it also makes it the most affordable of brunch options.

Cheung fun stuffed with beef and water Chestnut Steamed and Pork & Prawn Bean Curd Roll were the first out. Both solid were choices; the slithery rice dough of the cheung fun that I found so strange the first time I tried it (on a failed date in Chinatown, the lack of romantic spark not down to my table manners) has become one of my favourite dim sum picks.

Next was a tower of steamed goodies. Lurid wasabi infused dumpling wrappers encased a juicy prawn filling, although the Japanese horseradish kick was notably absent. Steamed pork buns, a must with the Ewing around, did the job without too much fanfare and the scallop dumpling were delicate and sweet - although our over-eager waiter whisked away the third one away unbidden, causing some divisional consternation (always try and eat dim sum in multiples of three people, unless you want arguments).

Best of all, from the weekend specials, was a plate of mixed roast meats that included the distinctive red-edged char sui tenderloin, slow cooked belly pork with its creamy frill of fat and a magnificent duck breast, with a crisp bronzed and lacquered skin that wouldn't have looked out of place on TOWIE.

Alongside - following the only bit of advise I have ever heeded from Giles Coren, a self-confessed expert in eating Chinese food - we chose a dish of greens to add a modicum of fibre to proceedings. This time it was stir fried gai lan, or Chinese broccoli, with a touch of oyster sauce and plenty of garlic and ginger.

We finished with little fried custard buns (only at the weekends, although you can get the steamed version all week) which were like a superior fairgound doughnut - the puffy and crisp outer casing giving way to a dense, sweet eggy filling. Better than jam and caster sugar, any day of the week.

Grandad may have moved south, but we'll be back soon to enjoy this piece of the East in West London - especially when the supermarket below sells such delights as the Lonely God vegetable flavoured maize snack. Befriending a packet of these after a bun feast sure beats church on Sunday.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

King John the Second

Being both greedy and lazy I don't usually write about things twice (I would have also said it's because I avoid repeating myself, but some of you know me in real life...). But a recent weekend at my Mum's, with two meals of beautiful simplicity from my Mum's local, The King John Inn, caused me to reconsider. Well, that and the fact I seem to have  gone home via the pub a lot recently, leading to a reasonable amount of Curry Club and Steak Night, which isn't nearly as photogenic.

The first meal of the weekend wasn't at the pub proper but the Old Cartshed (or village hall to any one not from these parts), a few hundred yards down the road. Pictured above during the Jubilee celebrations.

Once a month, on a Friday night, the locals convene here for fish and chips - pre-ordered and cooked at the King John before being carted down the lane by the locals - and enjoyed with BYO beer and wine and pots of tea, followed by a quiz and then a singalong around the old joanna (I may have made that last detail up). Before returning the pots and pans back to the pub and washing down dinner with a few more ales.

Our motor down was hampered somewhat by sheep in the road, and a little more by roadworks around Basingstoke, but Mum had popped our fish in the oven to stay warm. Despite it's tin foil incineration, the batter carapace on my monster cod fillet had stayed admirably crisp, the fish within firm and flaky.

Homemade tartare sauce - rich mayo studded with poky capers and gherkins - was spot on and the crushed garden peas, Sarsons and Heinz were all present and correct. The only grumble came with the chips. These are more rustling fries than familiar fat battens of potato that usually accompany this British staple, and are something of a bone of contention amongst the more old school villagers. True, they might not be traditional, but are still mighty good. To top things off we also won the quiz with our superior knowledge of the length of the M1 in the tie break (193.5 miles if you were interested)

The following night we made it back down the pub proper for dinner. Starting with, amongst others, my Mum's dish of choice when she dines here, the Portland crab on toast. It's hard to tire of spanking fresh Dorset seafood, mixed with a a lick of mayo and lemon and served on crisp toast made from their house baked bread - but at ten quid you might expect it to be pretty good.

I was nearly swayed by the pigeon salad with bacon and croutons but in the end the simplicity (and because it sounded so lovely) of the chalk stream trout sashimi won out. It was without superlative; fatty, sweet slices of beautifully fresh fish, with none of the dank muddy flavour that sometimes blights these river dwellers, and served Japanese style with soy and an eye watering blob of wasabi; a cracking plate to start.

Mains were equally noteworthy. A brace of pan fried baby dover sole with hollandaise sauce, purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens and cute as a button (and not much bigger) Jersey Royals was simple seasonal cooking at its very finest. Last time I ate here a single (larger) fish cost a pony (in the Cockney vernacular, not a relic of livestock trading), but this came in at an entirely reasonable (if hardly cheap) 17 pounds.

My Mum's majestic looking pie with a proper suet crust pastry also deserves a mention. There is something wonderfully old fashioned about a suet crust, and this example was properly crisp on top and nicely soggy beneath, filled with simply braised local lamb and served with a pile of buttery mash and greens.

My pud was a white chocolate terrine (they also do a great dark chocolate one, served with a Seville coffee) with early English strawberries and cream. This had an admirably light texture while still being creamy and rich but, with the ripple of jammy berry compote swirled through, a touch too sweet for me.

Better were a plate of their signature beignets. On the left are apple-stuffed balls of freshly fried dough, served with a salted caramel sauced (and a spiced cider shot), that I enjoyed last time we ate here. On the right is the Ewing's lemon curd doughuts served with a sharp lemon posset. These were peerless as ever

The King John isn't a bargain (although my Mum reports a recent £20 prix fixe at lunchtime) but it does have a (very) local and seasonal menu of well cooked food. For those not wanting to eat the beer is well kept  - often featuring Sixpenny brews from a couple of miles up the road, alongside Ringwood and Badger - there's log fires in the winter, a leg of ham carved to order on the bar and plenty of corduroy, gun dogs and gin. Perfect for a proper weekend in the sticks.

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