Tuesday, 21 February 2017

A Big Day in the North (of London)

'The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom'
Danny Blanchflower

I remember avidly watching the FA cup draw on TV as a child, waiting impatiently for Tottenham’s ball to be pulled out of the velvet bag and cursing when they always seemed to be one of the last teams to be picked. Which is why - after inadvertently turning the TV over just as the draw for the fourth round took place a few weeks ago – I was surprised and even, after all these years, a little excited to see Spurs were the first ones out the hat. Things got better when the next ball out was Wycombe Wanderers, our local team who play just up the road from the Ewing’s birthplace. A hometown derby was on the cards.

As well as stoking a bit of friendly family rivalry, it was also the perfect chance for me to make one final visit to the Lane before the old stadium is demolished – to be replaced by a swanky new 60,00 stadium on the same site - while indoctrinating the Ewing into the joys (and pain) of seeing a match at one of the finest stadiums in the land (after reiterating that cheering for the Chairboys in the home end was probably not a good move).

It was over decade ago when I used to trail up the High Road to the Lane - the days of Kanute and Keane rather than Kane and Kyle Walker - I managed to pick up a cheap Kappa dark blue away strip (back in the days when I was svelte enough to, just about, pull it off) that I wore under my work shirt for a whole week after we beat Chelsea in the League Cup. So I had planned a day of revisiting old haunts and discovering new ones.

First beer of the day was at the Beehive, perfectly situated about halfway between Seven Sisters and the Lane, where it had to be Hopspur amber ale, from Tottenham-based Redemption Brewery. We also clearly qualified as responsible adults as we were served our beer in dimpled pint pots, whereas the away fans coming in behind us got their lager in plastic glasses.

London cask beer often gets a bad rap, and often deservedly so. This, however, was a tip-top pint, balancing a gentle bitterness with a tight and creamy head. A dangerously drinkable session ale that I could have happily kept quaffing in their sunny beer garden all afternoon.

Man can’t live on beer alone (although I have tried) - and their barbecue shack, in said garden, was only just firing up for the day - so I popped down the road for a slice of tottenham cake. Originally invented by Quaker baker Henry Chalkley, it’s probably the only pink-hued foodstuff a Spurs fan would consider eating on match day, the colour originally coming from the mulberries that grew on Tottenham Friends burial ground. Of course, that’s now been replaced by e-numbers but the fluffy vanilla sponge, topped with a tooth-achingly sweet water icing, still remains a Proustian madeline.

Next stop was the Bricklayers, on the High Road just north of the ground. It's home fans only (and a cash bar) on match days, the Brickies is known as as one of the best places to have a sing-song, while surrounded by a plethora of Tottenham memorabilia, before the game.

Sadly the beer isn't up to the heights of the decor, with only lager, in seemingly every conceivable variety, cider and Guinness on offer. As there was no Holsten (sponsors on my very first Spur's shirt - another away number, this time in canary yellow) I went for Heineken, while the Ewing picked a pint of the Black Stuff.

I haven't had the pleasure of drinking the Dutch lager since a trip to the brewery in Amsterdam, and it seems I haven't missed much. Still, there's a decent beer garden if it gets too snug in the pub, complete with TV screens and a good old fashioned burger bar, and a cold Guinness always goes down well on keg.

Many moons ago the Ewing and I bonded over our love of fried chicken (and cheap sushi, and pints of cider) and I had been informed that Chick King was the best in N17 (despite the less than hench review by the Pengest Munch). Two ‘two piece and (excellent) chips’, eaten standing at the chrome counter that runs along the side of the room, and all washed down with a chocolate milkshake made the perfect pre-match meal. 

Apparently the secret coating contains cinnamon, amongst other witchcraft. Whatever the ingredients, the outside was crisp, keeping the bird juicy within. The queue was not too fearsome an hour before kick-off, but as we left, the hordes were stretching up the High Road, so plan accordingly if you fancy a fillet burger or some crispy wings before the game.

There was just enough time for swift half before the game, so we dashed around the corner to the Antwerp Arms. The pub has been here, overlooking Bruce Castle Park, since 1822 but has recently been taken over by the Bruce Castle Village Association after it was sold to developers, and is now run as a community pub.

As well as a great story about how neighbourly spirit and perseverance can stop the wrecking balls rolling in, the Annie is a lovely pub serving a good selection of local beers. We enjoyed one of the best, Beavertown's Gamma Ray, in their sunny garden. New bobble hat model's own.

One place where (most) of the locals are glad to see the cranes in is at the new Northumberland Development Project. A project which will see the new Spurs ground being built that will seat 61,000 - including a 17,000-seat single tier stand, the biggest in the UK - and feature its own cheese tasting room, microbrewery and bakery. The cleverest part is how the new stadium is being built on the original White Hart Lane site. You can already see it taking shape, including the 'nibble' taken out of the current North Stand, as you approach their current ground.

Of course, their are the inevitable downsides: building works will see Spurs moving temporarily to Wembley next season (a current bogey ground, in Europe at least); the stadium will no longer be called the Lane (naming rights being sold for cold had cash) and and public transport and parking in N17 is still lacking, to say the least. But overall it's a welcome, and necessary move. 

While WHL is still one of the finest grounds in the land, with a great atmosphere and history, it's also too small, with no real potential for expansion, and it's beginning to show it's age. From the pictures, the stands in the new ground are positioned close to the pitch (one of the best things about the current ground) and the large stands should hopefully help to regenerate that famous atmosphere. 

A rousing atmosphere that was rather muted from the home fans for most of the game on our visit (the away fans were in fine form) that saw us sneak a 4-3 victory with a very cheeky, 96 minute winner. Typical Spurs but a great game of cup football.

In desperate need of something to steady the nerves - and because I couldn't walk past Tottenham Hale on a Saturday afternoon without calling in for a jar - we walked over to Beavertown Brewery for a drink. Fortuitously it was also the annual launch of their Heavy Water sea salt and sour cherry imperial stout; and this year they also brewed limited edition kegs with chilli and with cocoa and hazelnuts.

Ok, I'll admit it, Heavy Water has never been a favourite of mine (although I love their India Cowbell india stout), but the chocolate/nut addition gave it a little extra oomph, and made it dangerously drinakble. And at 9% I'm just glad I wasn't drowning my sorrows...

Beer demands kebabs so we headed back to the High Road to OZ Erciyes Ocakbasi. It seems we weren't alone as, at half six on a Saturday, they had already run out of both lamb and chicken doner; which seemed rather unfortunate for a kebab restaurant. Thankfully, this turn of events lead to us choosing the mixed grill for two, cooked on the fearsome open charcoal grill along the side of the room. Yes, there is a man somewhere behind that wall of smoke.

As our meat was grilling we entertained ourselves with some excellent cacik - strained yoghut with garlic and cucumber - a basket of fresh Turkish bread and a chopped salad sprinkled with sumac, all provided gratis, alongside giant lamachun – topped with spiced lamb, which cost the princely sum of two pounds. 

A temperamental beast - many restaurants only seem to serve lamachun during certain hours, which is almost certainly not when you're visiting – I think it also represents one of the bargains of the restaurant world. It’s also Stealth’s favourite, so I always have to order one in her honour.

After eating solidly since we arrived, even the Ewing looked slightly fear-stricken when a mountain of assorted types of meat, juices soaking into a bed of fluffy white rice and more toasted Turkish bread, arrived tableside. A fear I soon shared when, no matter how many gloriously crispy lamb ribs, chunks of kofte or smoky shish we ate, the end seemed no nearer in sight.

When I glanced up to see my wife looking pink and clammy, half a chicken wing in hand and a despairing look in her eyes, I knew we were done. Thankfully, I think they’re fairly well-versed in this sort of thing and were happy to box up our leftovers - I was also thankful when they bought glasses of complimentary sweetened Turkish tea, for the digestion. An offer that was somewhat undermined by another complimentary offering of a tray of sutlac – baked rice pudding – one of my favourite deserts. Needless to say I found a little extra room and even the Ewing managed to activate the magical pudding stomach to help me finish it off.

And, as if she hasn't suffered enough putting up with me for all these years, the Ewing - as a newly adopted, and most dedicated Spurs fan - has just condemned herself to join me in a continuing cycle of thwarted dreams and disappointment. Wouldn't change it (or her) for the world, though. (best day ever! - TE).

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

How does your garden grow - The Botanist, Marlow

While my existence may appear chaotic, underneath I’m one of life’s planners; give me half a chance and I’ve probably already made a spreadsheet plotting it’s probability in great detail. While I try to bow to random spontaneity when the occasion demands it (rubbish, she hates surprises - TE), I like to read menus, I like to see dishes online, I like to plan what I’m going to have for dinner three weeks hence (and then change my mind at the restaurant, to try and feel as if I’m really living on the edge) which is what made a last-minute lunch booking at the Botanist, with only a cursory glance at the website, so out of character.

Still, I’d had a discussion with an enthusiastic work colleague who was also planning a visit, plus found out they were knocking 50% off the bill in January as well as offering a special Ginuary menu for those who were still prioritising enjoyment above hepatic function after the excess of Christmas, so what could go wrong…

By the evening I was already having a small sense of foreboding when, after looking at social media, I noticed there were very few pictures of food, but lots of glitzy cocktails, dazzling teeth and tans of a Trumpian hue. Now, I like a flaming fishbowl along with the rest of them, but I doubted its suitability as an accompaniment to my quiet Sunday repast. 

It got worse when I did find pictures of the food and realised the conceit derived from their name meant that mayo was served in watering cans, garlic mushrooms and chocolate mousse came in a trowel (mercifully as separate dishes) and chicken liver pate arrived in a mini flower pot, complete with its own chutney-filled wheelbarrow.

Now, I’ve eaten a roast on a breadboard (with a lap-full of gravy), fritters from old spam tins and even barbecue ribs from a galvanised bin, but I started to feel a bit We Want Plates, especially as we were going for lunch with Stealth - someone who manages to be both far more spontaneous (believe me, she's not either - TE) but far more curmudgeonly (yes, I think both things are related).

Still, I was attempting to practice my edgy New Year New You abandonment and Stealth was trying to be more accommodating - read hungover and happy to leave the organising to someone else – while the long suffering Ewing was just hoping that our Millennial indignation was kept in check and we didn’t get too carried away with Ginuary, being as she was the designated driver.

On enquiring about Ginuary our waitress told us that, while available all through the month, it isn’t advertised on weekends ‘as they don’t want people to know about it’ (cunning -TE). Which perhaps explains why two of our G&Ts (we doubled up to make full use of the offer) initially arrived with no gin. Still, it would be churlish to complain too much at less than a fiver for a double and Fevertree tonic in this neck of the woods. It was also good to try a few hitherto unknown English gins, from Hunters, Langleys and Poetic Licence respectively. Stealth didn’t even complain about the basil leaves and cardamom pods floating in her glass.

After steeling myself for a starter that looked like it had been assembled in the shed, I actually found myself disappointed they had run out of the chicken liver pate. No matter, the calamari was crisp and well-seasoned and I still got a novelty watering can full of mayo for dipping.

The Ewing and Stealth made classic opening choices with a bacon-crumbed baked camembert and a scotch egg – both served on disappointingly prosaic wooden boards – respectively. The gooey cheese, served with apple slices and wholemeal toast for dunking, was particularly good. I can’t comment on Stealth’s pick, being an avowed oeuf-avoider, but if anyone’s in the market for a hot sauce hand model, get in touch.

Our mains bought a full compliment of proper plates, and very nice ones at that, with mine playing host to the classic roast beef dinner. Even my cauliflower cheese came in an eminently sensible enamel side dish. Pink meat, plenty of parsnips, crispy yorkie, well-cooked veg, glossy gravy and the aforementioned cauli; this was a properly first class roast in every respect. Even the horseradish had that sinus-clearing oomph that bought a little tear to my eye.

The Ewing and Stealth also kept up the bovine theme. My wife went for broke with a - well-judged - rare rib eye, chips and peppercorn sauce and Stealth picking steak and ale pie with peas and sweet potato fries. A pie which also gets bonus points for being a pastry product with four walls; no Casserole with a Lid here. Again, it was comfortingly rib-sticking stuff served in ample portions - clearly the Instagrammers hanging out here on a Friday night stick to a liquid diet.

Bucking the practical trend, my rice pudding with amarena cherries and honeycomb came in an old fashioned glass jelly mould. Which may have looked pretty, but meant I lost most of my cherry sauce to the indentations at the bottom of the glass, despite the valiant attempts of my probing spoon (this is why you have fingers - TE).

Freshly baked cookie dough, served in its own cast iron pan and topped with caramel ice cream was both as tooth-janglingly sweet and delicious as it sounds, but the strawberry on the cake, literally, went to Stealth’s skewer. After all the sensible tableware, I think it gave us both more joy than we’d care to admit to have desert served dangling vertically.

While they offer a range of various savoury skewers, ranging from lamb koftas to salt and pepper pork to jerk salmon – the sweet version impales berries with marshmallows and chunks of chocolate brownie (and a random piece of apple, which did cause some customary grumpy consternation), to be doused tableside in toffee sauce. 

As they were out of vanilla ice cream, she chose a scoop of eton mess, swirled with meringue, fruit coulis and popping candy - ensuring our meal went out with a wiz bang, or an enthusiastic fizzle at the very least. Rather like our New Year efforts to embrace the new.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Spud U Like - Sandford Park Ale House

I’ve written about my passion for pubs before, often quoting from Orwell’s marvellous A Moon Under Water - a great read and a pleasant distraction from all the ominous quotes from 1984 that look so prescient at the moment – and it’s a love that remains as enduring as the smell of stale fag smoke clinging to a old bar carpet.

Trying to choose a favourite pub always feels rather like choosing a favourite child (not so much because of partisanship - more because, when you think you’ve found The One, they run out of scratchings or the beer’s flat), but one I always enjoy drinking at, and it seems I am in good company as it was awarded CAMRA'S Pub of the Year 2015, is the Sandford Park Ale House in Cheltenham.

The first time I visited was a dark Sunday evening, where we were too late for a roast but just in time for the dish of leftover spuds and a jug of gravy to be put out on the bar. While roasties aren’t my favourite (I didn’t get the moniker Amy One Potato for nothing) I could have eaten a barrowful of these, anointed with the finest gravy I have possibly ever eaten.

Which carb-heavy talk makes an apt lead in to our most recent visit, after attending a nearby Potato Day – which is what people do at the weekend when they get old, apparently. A surreal, although not  entirely unenjoyable experience, where people rummaged through piles of knobbly roots, checking off their carefully compiled lists, and had chance to admire famous works of art that had been replaced by tubers. 

Reckoning that standing in a muddy marquee juggling spuds is a thirsty business, I had also brokered a deal with the Ewing where she agreed that if I feigned enough interest in the allotment we could go to the Sandford Park for lunch.

As well as their ambrosial gravy, the beer is also kept in reliably fine nick with a solid cask offering (Oakham’s Citra, Wye Valley's Butty Bach and Purity's Mad Goose being stalwarts, alongside a roster of regularly-changing ales) as well as offering a big Belgian and keg selection. 

Beers I remember from previous trips include Timmermans kriek lambic (a guilty pleasure), Dark Star Creme Brulee stout on cask and a 5 Points Railway porter on keg. This time I was excited to see Harvey’s Best Bitter, which remains one of my favourite beers, while the Ewing, who had being craving the Black Stuff, had a pint of Arbor Nitro Stout.

As it was Saturday, the roasts weren’t on (nor, disappointingly were the faggots, mash and and peas, replaced by haggis, neeps and tatties for Burns Night) so we decided to share two dishes featuring different incarnations of the potato, burger and chips and ham knuckle and boiled potatoes.

My descriptions downplay the dishes somewhat, as the burger - on a floury bun, topped with a thick doorstop of blue cheese and a pile of dill pickles, served with fluffy chunky chips and tomato relish - was the perfect pub fare. 

One thing that amuses/confuses me here is the assertion that ‘note that you may order vinegar to be added to your meal in our kitchen but we do not put it out in the pub.’ Why are patrons no longer trusted with the non-brewed condiment? Have they been putting it in the beer, in an attempted sabotage of the hostelries good reputation? Whatever the reason, chip to vinegar ratio is a personal thing – so while I enjoyed the dousing ours had been given in the kitchen, the Ewing wasn’t as keen. Which, I suppose, wasn’t really a problem from my perspective…

The ham knuckle was even more magnificent – a behemoth of boiled pig served with sauerkraut, buttered potatoes and a light, glossy gravy that, while not up to the ethereal heights of the previous visit, was still cleared from the plate with the last forkful of DIY mash. And all yours for under a tenner.

A thoroughly decent pub, serving thoroughly decent beer and spuds (other foods are available) and, in the words of AA Milne; ‘if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a decent sort of fellow’.