Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Bubbly and Bluffer's Brilliance

Bibs not included
Chocolate and champagne. The real essence of Valentine's Day. As many suffocate in the commercial crassness of yet another season of delusional romance, there are some delights out there that buck the clichéd trend and offer a little of something different for the one you love/hope to love etc. The Bluffer's Guide To Chocolate by Neil Davey is the perfect Valentine's Day gift or an essential point of reference to take you from scoffer to specialist.
Food critic and journalist Neil said, "From its bizarre history to its actually-bordering-on-the-insane production process, the fact that chocolate exists at all is a miracle.
It might be delicious but chocolate is also a vast and confusing subject which makes the perfect topic for Bluffer's Guide to bring down to bite sized chunks."

This brilliant book dismisses some commonly held beliefs including Belgian chocolate being the best in the world; white chocolate is not chocolate; chocolate is an aphrodisiac and chocolate is bad for you. The Bluffer's Guide to Chocolate is available for Kindle and iPad at Amazon for just £4.99 and from the Bluffer's website or any decent book shop for £6.99.

If you question the depth of affection for him/her and keep the Bluffer's Guide for yourself and are in need of further inspiration, then Laurenti Champagne is perfection in a bottle.The first (and possibly most important) fact about Laurenti is that it's exceptionally low in sulphates - reducing the chance of a hangover! Added to the fact that it's also low in calories, tastes sublime and is incredibly smooth, you will begin to understand it's popularity in France for over 90 years. Known as a 'grower champagne' - Laurenti only use fruit grown from their own estate - this exquisite range include Grande Cuvée Tradition - their prestigious vintage, Grande Cuvée Rosé aged in the Laurenti cellars for 3 years and the Grand Cuvée also aged for 3 years and a blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. Relatively new to the UK market this champagne is excellent value for money and the perfect Valentine's gift or your date if you're single.

The Laurenti range are priced from £34.99 and available from Wine Direction

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Pumpkin & Mice and a privilege...all on BBC2

I haven't blogged as much as I would have wanted or intended over the past 12 months. There I said it. But onwards and upwards and that original intention remains for the next 12 and beyond.

2014 has got off to a flyer and with numerous posts already in the pipeline I hope to bring more of my own personal development in the kitchen as well as the delights of Staffordshire food and drink to 'Potteries 'n' Pans' from here on in.

Yes...they are oatcakes!
Said 'flyer' consisted of a first and a privilege. I was invited to cook in a 'proper' commercial kitchen. The Coach and Horses in Farringdon is a must visit whenever I hit the capital and serves superb real ale (the BBC2 is a revelation and unbelievably rounded at only 2.5%) and sublime food. Chef Leigh Norton's menu is continually evolving and never ceases to amaze. The bacon and black pudding hash is a work of beauty and a current dish of brilliance is the incredible risotto of Jerusalem artichokes, radicchio and sherry vinegar. I was introduced to owner Giles Webster by my good friend and journalist Neil and I soon discovered that the gaffer's enthusiasm for every dish is absorbing to the point of mesmeric and his understanding of my desire to learn more about food and cooking in general he has since embraced, something for which I will be eternally grateful.

He welcomed Neil, Tom - outstanding photographer and superb cook - and myself into the kitchen for the day and gave us the opportunity to road test a few dishes we were experimenting with for another project (more of which at a later date).
Due to it's location in Central London, the Coach doesn't open on a Saturday as the City empties into suburbia and beyond, so we had the space to ourselves without the pressure of expectant diners.

I have nothing but admiration for Leigh and his team and all kitchen staff everywhere. Dealing with over 50 covers in an overpowering heat while turning out plates of such high quality must take some doing and is beyond the reaches of my imagination having pootled around playing with ingredients and under no duress whatsoever.

Sincere gratitude to Giles, Leigh and all the staff at The Coach for the opportunity and their hospitality. Cheers guys!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Jewel in the crowd

Breaking my BBC Good Food Show virginity was an experience. The size of the event was somewhat daunting and the attempt to see, taste and sample everything proved a challenge.

As I discussed in my Sentinel column, the down right rudeness of people was the biggest shock (although why I should be so shocked in this day and age - I don't really know) but on reflection it was an excellent day out and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It even made me change my long held opinion of James Martin. Enough said.

The real gem of a find for me wasn't the Sous Vide 'Smoking Gun' which is currently top of my Christmas Wish List but a Smoked Rapeseed Oil from Fussels. Inspired by the musings of a customer at a Farmers' Market, Andy Fussel experimented and the result is superb. Not normally an impulsive buyer, having sampled, purchasing became a necessity not a desire.

The smokiness is just right and formed the perfect base to a 'Smoked Bolognese', using the oil, smoked sea salt and smoked garlic.

Smoked Rapeseed Oil should be available to buy on line within the next couple of weeks. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Hoping this is just the beginning...

Within the past couple of months or so, two new outlets have opened in the City Centre of Stoke-on-Trent. This may be a common occurrence in other parts of the country yet in my home town it should be celebrated like a royal (or imminent panda) birth. The lack of progression in the choice of new, independent or in fact any kind of deli, restaurant or cafe is disheartening as the City continues to see established businesses replaced by charity shops or worse, emptiness - apart from a selection of outdated touring circus posters.

Lobby Coffee House
Nom and The Lobby Coffee House are bucking the trend and daring to challenge the apathy in decent and different food and drink. An early morning visit to the latter saw a light and airy venue, cleverly laid out and adorned with (as described by The Lobby guys themselves), 'barista antiques of yesteryear'. A straight forward latte was considerably enhanced by a superb bacon and poached egg sandwich. A proper breakfast butty and at just a couple of quid, excellent value. In the far too lengthy time that this post has sat in my 'drafts' list, the price has gone up but there is still plenty of pig, a perfectly poached egg cushioned by filling fresh bread. The former Prontaprint shop a the bottom of Piccadilly has been reinvented by Paul Legeckis, previously the gardening supervisor on the Trentham Estate. Looking for a change in direction, he has created a coffee house that feels welcoming, is good on the eye and based on the food sampled so far, on to a good thing. Whether Hanley punters will pay just shy of a fiver for a gourmet sandwich is yet to be seen but judging by the footfall as our breakfasts were freshly made, this may not be an issue. Don't be deterred by the picture in the window, it doesn't do the food justice.

On hearing differing opinions of Nom I was intrigued to find out how owner Leon Burton had spent £20k on the former bistro Pastiche. The lunch time menu is varied and reasonably priced (£7 for 2 courses), the venue superbly developed into a comfortable and stylish space. The two main dishes enjoyed that day included an excellently presented burger and onion rings and a homely lasagne, preceded by Jack Daniels BBQ glazed chicken wings and tomato soup.

I sincerely hope that both projects develop into on going concerns and avoid the fate of so many others. The City needs establishments such as these to lure people in and keep them there. Wishing them both the best of luck. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Birmingham Beer Bash

Following on from my recent Sentinel article, David Shipman, Staffordshire based amateur brewer and Director of Birmingham Craft Beer explains all about the beginnings of The Birmingham Beer Bash, beer, Staffordshire, beer, Freedom Brewery, beer, food...oh and beer.

David, tweets and blogs about (not surprisingly) beer and as well as being an amateur brewer (for now), he works as an Engineering Manager on the railways. Birmingham Craft Beer Limited, is an organisation created to run the Birmingham Beer Bash, a new and exciting beer event for the Midlands.  With a team of ten volunteers, David included, and two other members also hailing from Penkridge there is a strong Staffordshire link.  All are active on Twitter and include bloggers, home brewers and even a couple who are involved in the retail side of the beer business.

So, how did the Birmingham Beer Bash come into being? David explains,  'The story goes back to the early part of 2012, when a number of Midlanders including myself decided to arrange the first Birmingham "Twissup", an event arranged to bring people from Twitter together over a beer or two in real life.  It was at that social session that most of us met for the first time, all coming from the West Midlands or having strong links there, various of us having communicated for varying periods with the common thread that we were all passionate about really good beer.  That first meeting led to another and we acquired a couple more members of the group and got to discussing what we'd really like to see happening with the beer scene in the region.  "Craft beer" was really coming to the fore and we all agreed we didn't want the Midlands to be left behind when all these exciting developments were happening in London and other cities around the country.  A few of us had been lamenting the lack of good "craft beer" bars in the area through our blogs and we all felt something was needed to kick start things here. 

We decided that rather than complaining and waiting for someone to do something, we'd do it ourselves.  Things really took off from there, we ended up forming a company in order to have some business credibility and with an organising team of ten we set about creating the Birmingham Beer Bash.  It was decided from the outset that as our intentions were all about bringing something exciting to the area, not about making profits, we'd support a charity with any surplus we made and we all agreed on Birmingham Children's Hospital to be the beneficiary. Any proceeds, other than what we need to (hopefully) run an even bigger and better event next year, will be going to the Hospital.

By December 2012 we'd experienced an equivalent festival in Manchester, known now as IndyMan (the Independent Manchester Beer Convention to give its full title), and that had really set the bar, but had also shown us that we weren't the only ones with the same ideas about what we'd really like a beer festival to look like.  It was also in December that we finally found a suitable venue, which had been a long and difficult process.  The venue we ended up at, The Bond Co in Digbeth is a former canal warehouse, well restored and turned into offices and a conference facility with plenty of original features remaining.  There's a covered outdoor area and two large rooms which will form the focus for the festival with five bars across the two rooms and a selection of catering outside.

Since then we've been working hard to create what should be a stunning event.  We've been very fortunate to get the support of some great sponsors - our main sponsor is Purity, the successful Warwickshire Brewery.  They were quickly followed by Staffordshire's own Freedom brewery who are sponsoring the "National Keg" bar.  This event is quite a notable one for Freedom, with their focus on producing quality lagers which all end up in keg means that they never usually get a chance to appear at traditional beer festivals which focus pretty much exclusively on cask ales.  With this event almost on their doorstep it was a perfect opportunity.  Other bars have been sponsored too, with input from Birmingham pub group Bitters and Twisted, national distributor Pivovar and more recently The Junction in Harborne and Liverpool Craft Brewing lending their support.

The format of the festival is deliberately different to traditional beer festivals.  Most notably this is seen in the focus on quality keg products. We're not opposed to the traditional cask ale view of CAMRA, but we do
believe there is more to good beer than this.  Our main bar is devoted to keg beers from UK producers, and we'll have around 70 such beers in total.  Most of these will be served through the 30 taps on the National Keg Bar with beers rotating over the two days to provide extra variety. The second bar is the Cask Bar, offering 24 cask ales with some on hand pull.  There is then an International Bar which will have up to 14 taps to serve the 18 international beers, and a Cider Bar which will also feature some of the sour beer styles such as Geueze, Lambic, Kriek and Flanders Red.  The final bar is the Junction Bar, where M&B pub 'The Junction' will be showcasing the new "craft beer" range they are introducing.

The event is about more than just drinking beer however.  We were keen to add two further dimensions - quality food, and informal education.  So, we've got four fantastic local food providers catering for us at various points in the two days: Pop Up Dosa serving delicious South Indian dishes suitable for vegetarians; community bakery 'Loaf' with various deli sandwiches and cakes; Original Patty Men (Saturday only) and their not-so-humble take on the humble burger and finally Squisito Deli bringing Italian principles of Slow Food from their Warwickshire base.  We've also got the gourmet dining angle covered - two of the Midlands' finest chefs, Michelin-starred Luke Tipping of Simpsons, and chef-owner Brad Carter of Carter's, will be providing the food for five course tasting dinners matched with beers selected by our sponsors Purity, with one chef taking over the menu at each evening session.

For the education side we wanted to enlighten people more.  Just as with great food, more and more people are wanting to learn a bit more about what goes into the beers they are enjoying.  So we've arranged for a number of the brewers that make the beer we're featuring to come along themselves to work on the bars and talk to their customers.  We've also got the benefit of two fascinating seminars - one on hops by Paul Corbett, MD of hop merchant Charles Faram and world-renowned hop expert; and one on malt by Dominic Driscoll, Brewing Manager of the hugely successful Midlands brewery Thornbridge.  We've then added to this a number of tutored tastings where breweries and industry professionals can host a more personal tasting forsmaller groups.

The Beer Bash takes place on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th July, with sessions from 1100-1630 and 1730-2300.  The venue is The Bond Co, 180-182 Fazeley Street, Digbeth, Birmingham B5 5SE.  Details of breweries attending and the beers they are bringing can be found on our website, birminghambeerbash.co.uk and tickets are available online via the website too.  We can also be followed on Twitter (@birminghamCubed) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/BirminghamBeerBash).

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Every now and again you come across an addition to the store cupboard that makes you wonder how you ever managed to survive without it. A couple of weeks ago such a discovery was made.

Gran Luchito smoked chilli Paste does exactly what it says on the tin and is exactly what it says on the jar. The smokiness is delightfully balanced by the chilli punch and a tinge of sweetness, none overpowering the others.

The beauty of Gran Luchito is its versatility. My most recent adaptation involved smearing the paste all over rump steak but I've also spiced up breakfast, a minimalist spread on toast under a poached egg or blended with butter and rubbed under the skin of chicken, all ideas derived by the makers themselves but the opportunities for other uses seem endless.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Tis the season to burn stuff - or maybe not

Barbecuing has, until recently in my opinion, been underrated. Not the 'event' itself or the unique social situation but the fact that some fantastic and unique flavours can be derived from firing up the charcoal, marinating some meat (or peppers etc) and basically having some fun. However, Grillstock - held this year in Bristol and Manchester - and the countless competitions and events held in the US, show just how popular it is and why it can now rightly be viewed as a credible method of cooking. Lack of understanding is a UK thing. In the US in particular it is a religion, dry rub versus sauce, regions boasting their own particular varieties.

Neil Davey
I have been invited to join a team at Grillstock 2014. Team Captain is Neil Davey, journalist and one of the UK's leading BBQ experts. I recently chatted to him for The Sentinel when he outlined some basic tips and dispelled some long believed myths surrounding this traditional summer activity. Neil has travelled the world developing recipes of his own, sourcing ingredients and inspiration to share with professionals, amateur chefs and Sunday afternoon sizzlers, especially those on this side of the pond.

Talk of standard essentials can be found in the aforementioned article but Neil has many other tricks and tips that guarantee you will produce one of the finest meals you will ever cook outdoors.

"Temperature and the need to have uniformly grey/white coals with no smoke and getting everything right before you start cooking can be helped by one thing - a chimney starter. The shape holds the charcoal / briquettes in place and allows them to heat uniformly and quickly – about 20 minutes – and all you need to light one is a sheet or two of newspaper. The chimney starter also means it’s easy to pour the lit charcoal exactly where you want them in the barbecue itself, separating an area purely for keeping things warm and preventing overcooking. If you’re puzzling about the lack of smoke, that should come from wood chips –soaked in water, added to the charcoal – rather than the charcoal itself.

When you are ready to go, don't cook things straight from the fridge. Let them warm through a little – say, 20 mins as a minimum – before putting them on the grill. This helps things cook more evenly, and helps prevent that “classic” combination of burned outside and uncooked inner.

With some preparation and a little forethought the main thing I would then recommend is  - Be Creative!

Every culture cooks or has cooked over open flame / charcoal at some point in their history. While US barbecue gives classic flavours of smoke and spice, if you cook everything with the same rub / marinades, it’s going to get very boring, very quickly.

Look to Asia for influence – a small amount of yoghurt (go easy: too much and it will burn), chopped green chillies and turmeric will transform chicken or cuts like lamb neck. Take inspiration from your average kebab house. In Singapore recently I was given a sauce with fish that blew me away: it turned out to be freshly ground black pepper, a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, a handful of diced chillies and lots of fresh lime juice. It couldn’t be simpler but it will rock your world.

My current other go to ingredients for marinades and sauces are Korean pastes. Gochujang is a fantastic, dark red chilli paste with great depth and a heat that builds rather than taking the roof of your mouth off, doenjang is fermented soy paste that smells of all sorts of things (dark chocolate, freshly baked bread, beer) and gives everything that lip-smacking, deeply savoury “umami” hit. You can buy huge tubs of both for under a tenner from specialist Asian stores. You really won’t regret it."

Neil recommends his basic barbecue sauce, perfect with anything pulled from the ground (well apart from the bacon bit) or 'meaty'.

250mls apple juice 
3 tbsp dark brown sugar – ideally molasses sugar but Muscavado also works
1 tbsp each of black pepper, soy sauce, cider vinegar, tomato ketchup
Tabasco and salt (to taste)

Throw it all in a saucepan, stir, simmer until it reduces. That’s it.

"You can use this as a marinade, a pouring sauce, mix it with pulled pork, paste it on ribs for the last few minutes of grilling…  The fun though comes in how you flavour it to your own preferences. Drop a chilli (or more) into the liquid to infuse with heat. Switch out apple juice for something like peach juice (particularly good as a base for really spicy sauces) or mix with cider for a really sticky sauce. Substitute Worcestershire Sauce for the soy or use both. Increase the amount of ketchup. Add a splash of bourbon at the end to give it a smoky caramel edge. Add paprika or cayenne pepper or cumin or coriander or chilli powder to taste – or any combination of the above. Add minced garlic. Add sautéed peppers and / or onions and blend down. Add lemon juice. Throw in a shot of espresso. Add bacon for… well, because you can and because bacon rocks."

Follow Neil on Twitter @DineHard and check out his blog - The Lambshank Redemption