Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Weekending at The Cary Arms, South Devon

I don't explore England enough. It's well enough saying that it's good to get out of London sometimes, but having done weekends in New York, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Copenhagen this year, those types of weekends aren't exactly relaxing. Airports themselves I find quite stressful - if you've ever been on the verge of missing a flight, I'm sure you can sympathise - and then you're racing around trying to see everything on the limited time you have. I know, I know. Woe is me. Recently I spent a couple of days in rainy Devon, cozying up by roaring fires and eating a whole lot of seafood, and it happened to be just a mere two or so hours on a very pleasant train journey. I was clearly lucky enough to avoid Sunday replacement bus services.

The Cary Arms is an adorable converted pub, down a steep hill and right on the coast of Baddacombe Bay. It has typically low ceilings and several nooks and crannies to hide away in with the morning papers, or indeed a digestif. Probably not a digestif in the morning though. 

We were a group of five, invited to visit by their people. They have rooms as well as cottages, and the Beach Cottage was very well equipped with everything you might need for a self-catering stay. When we arrived we warmed ourselves by the Aga, before migrating over to the living room for a couple of board games. A pre-stocked fireplace made it incredibly easy to light... by someone else... I'm terrible at practical things like that. I'm much better at pouring out sloe gin that came complimentary and - joy! - was replenished daily. 

Unlike most self-catering cottages though, here you still have the luxury of nightly turn-downs in the spacious bedrooms. When I tiredly whipped off the covers of my big bouncy bed I discovered a hot water bottle warming the sheets. There is not much more glorious than getting into a pre-warmed bed.

For breakfast, fruit, honey, granola and yoghurt were on offer as well as a more traditional European-style breakfast of sliced meats and cheeses, thus enabling a three course breakfast once you factor in the cooked breakfasts that obviously I wouldn't turn down.

I ordered the grilled kippers and I got literally all the kippers in the world. See? That was just for me. It was a bit much actually. We giggled so heartily at the size of it, the waitress shrieked into the kitchen - "'ere! They're laughing at your kippers!" I gamely attempted it in its entirety but had to stop, fearful of a slow death by salt. They were good kippers though.

Much more manageable was the smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. I felt the eggs could have been a little creamier, a little fluffier but that was merely a light gripe. 

As it pissed it down with rain, we donned our raincoats and, er, leopard print trainers ("you definitely didn't bring wellies...?") and set off with David Beazley, our wild food foraging instructor. 

Sure, we look pretty soggy and bedraggled. But David was really brilliant, and took us on an hour long leisurely walk, picking out various leaves, encouraging us to taste them as we went.

We gathered leaves along the way in little plastic tubs, with the view of making our own salad as we went along. Many of the leaves were citrussy in flavour, some strongly of celery, others a hint of cucumber. 

The views along the way were stunning. Admittedly it might have been rather more picturesque if the sun had been shining and we were romping around the coast in shorts and hats, but then we definitely wouldn't have seen this mini waterfall.  

Once we'd gathered all our leaves we dressed them with a squirt of sweet sea buckthorn dressing that David had made, and in went some roasted hazelnuts he'd brought along. It was really delicious - refreshing, and interesting. A lot of salad I eat from pre-bagged or bought tend to be heavy with rocket, or bland with watery leaves, but these actually had flavour. Bitterness, sweetness, citrus, all in there. All the tastier because we picked it ourselves. 

I have absolutely no recollection of which leaf was what, which is incredibly helpful, but luckily David has a Kindle book and an app that details pictures as well as recipes. 

What else is there to do in the area? I'll come on to that later, to avoid this becoming the longest post there ever was, but what was an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a morning is a wine and cheese tasting at Sharpham's Vineyard. There's nothing quite like legitimising an 11am glass of wine - only really acceptable at weddings or wine tastings APPARENTLY - and Sharpham's wine is very fine indeed. 

If you want to learn anything about English wine then I would strongly recommend visiting. On account of said pissing rain we forewent the vineyard tour, opting instead to have a good sit under some warm blankets and be guided through all their wines instead. The Dart Valley Reserve was my favourite, and happily you can find it in Borough Market. 

What Sharpham's also do incredibly well is cheese. Each cheese we tried matched a different glass of wine, but standalone we could only sit on our hands to avoid scoffing the lot. Well worth seeking out - stockists are listed here

Back to our abode, and The Cary Arms also serves food in the evenings, with a menu that can only be described as gastro-pub with a strong leaning towards seafood. Full of solid comfort food like steak and ale pie and fish and chips, they also do lighter, more elegant options. I really enjoyed the seared (very local) Brixham scallops with crisp parma ham wafers. The star anise jus lifted it from being a bit obvious to bringing something a little different about it.  

The 'trio of fish' changes depending on what's fresh at the market. Cooked very simply and sympathetically to bring out the best of each, the seabass, ling and hake were all topped with pistou sauce. A seasonal vegetable accompaniment of mange tout, green beans and cubes of fried potato really did make me reminiscent of the veg sides you get in countryside pubs. That's not a criticism, it's just very straight-forward. 

On another night, seared pigeon breast with butternut squash puree and a black pudding sauce was very generous with not one but three whole breasts, cooked perfectly blushing and juicy in the middle. Someone had a big day on the red cress garnish, but the flavours worked really nicely, the tang of the black pudding off-setting the sweetness of the squash.  

I opted for the Devon crab salad with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise and while I was happy to get both white and brown crabmeat, the mayonnaise was a bit too plentiful to fully appreciate it. 

We all got dinner envy at the Otter ale-battered fish and chips. The less said about crushed peas the better since the person actually eating the meal loved them and I'm a big mushy girl. The fish looked perfect. Sigh. I really liked the newspaper garnish, harking back to how fish and chips used to be served. 

With a sticky toffee pudding and a cheese board to properly finish us off, there was really only one thing for it - either fall asleep in front of a fire, or take advantage of the ex-pub's throwback - pool. 

They also have a spa there, with treatment rooms. In 2016 a set of beach huts will be built, completing their spa and offering rooms right on the seafront. After a restful night's sleep in a properly dark, properly silent room - this is a novelty for a Londoner - we were treated to a 25 minute neck, shoulder and back massage. Completely blissful. Afterwards I flopped into a big squishy seat and stared at the sea for a while. 

I was invited to The Cary Arms, but as with everything on this site, all opinions are my own. Rooms start at £196 per night for two, including breakfast.

The Cary Arms
Babbacombe Beach
South Devon
Tel:  + 44 (0) 1803 327110

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Mushroom & Perilla Tagliatelle

Perilla is a brilliant herb. Incredibly beautiful, with purple undersides, it's a robust leaf and it has an incredible fragrance to it. A little anise, a hint of mint, slightly medicinal, it is used across Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese cooking. It is very similar to shiso - I would find it difficult to tell the difference in a flavour test. In London, you can buy huge bunches of the stuff cheaply at Longdan in Elephant and Castle - they also have other branches. You can buy shiso leaves at The Japan Centre, but here they're not cheap at all. I bought this particular bunch for the Bun Rieu, and I was left with a huge bunch of the rest. So what to do? 

Pasta. Obviously. 

This kind of pasta, called 'wafu', is based on Japanese fusion. It takes European ingredients and fusions it with Japanese flavours. Here, I used tagliatelle and a rich butter and miso sauce to dress the pasta in. Exotic mushrooms like shimeji and brown beech mushrooms are bolstered with oyster mushrooms too. I loved this; the butter gives it a luxurious richness, and when mixed with soy sauce and miso, it really adds a whole lot of umami to those mushrooms. Shredded perilla give it an extra citrus-like freshness. 

Mushroom & Perilla Tagliatelle

Serves 2

400gr dried tagliatelle
A handful of oyster mushrooms, washed and roughly chopped
A half handful each of shimeji & brown beech mushrooms, washed well
1 clove of garlic, minced
40gr butter
2 tbsp white miso 
2 tbsp light soy sauce
A rib or two of cavalo nero or spring greens, shredded finely
1 stalk of spring onion, greens finely sliced at an angle, whites saved for another
3 perilla leaves, shredded
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Put the pasta on to cook in heavily salted water. 

Melt the butter and mix in the white miso and soy sauce until completely incorporated In a cast iron pan, add the oil and heat on high until smoking. Add the oyster mushrooms and sear for a few moments before moving them around the pan. Add the clove of garlic and stir continuously so the garlic doesn't catch. Add the shimeji and brown beech mushrooms, cook for another minute, and then add the butter miso and soy mixture, taking it off the heat as you mix it in. 

For the final minute, add the cavalo nero to the pasta cooking water, then drain, reserving 4 tbsp of the cooking water. Add the tagliatelle to the mushroom mixture and mix well, with a little of the reserved cooking water. Serve, and garnish with the spring onion and perilla leaves. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Blacklock's New Sunday Service

Blacklock, which opened this year, is one of my favourite meat emporiums. A subterranean den of affordable excess, I fell in love with their chops. Now though? I'm even more in love, for they have pulled off the nigh-impossible; an amazing Sunday roast. 

I was invited to the test run, and it ran like clockwork. You can choose from pork, beef or lamb but we decided not to worry ourselves with having to make a decision. Like their regular menu, you can go 'all-in' and get the works. For £20 per head, beautifully cooked meat, steamed broccoli and colourful carrots, a giant Yorkshire pudding and more crisp, golden fluffy potatoes than we could eat. There was so much rich, flavoursome dark golden gravy we dipped potatoes directly into the jug. Some classic 80s and 90s hits played just loud enough for me to want to sing along. It's just really really fun. 

Go. Why on earth wouldn't you?

(The Pinot Noir is dangerously drinkable.)

24 Great Windmill St, London W1D 7LG

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Stir-Fried Pork & Cucumber

If there's something my people definitely love doing, it's stir-frying salad items. Lettuce, check. Tomatoes, sure. From my experience, the Chinese (especially older generations) don't much like eating raw vegetables. My dad made a tuna salad once and my grandmother tipped the whole lot into a wok and stir-fried it for a good few minutes. We all stared on, wide-eyed.

Just as often as cucumbers are served raw for salads and crudités in the West, they can also be cooked with great result. The key is to keep them big, so they don't dissolve in the pan, and to salt them well to draw the excess water out of them before you cook them. It also helps to cook them on a high, ferocious heat to get some smokiness in them. They become denser, a more concentrated flavour. This is the simplest of stir-fried dishes, and you need only a few staples to get a very tasty result.

Stir-Fried Pork & Cucumber

Serves 2

1 larger cucumber, sliced lengthways in half and deseeded
1 tbsp table salt
A handful of sugarsnap peas
2 spring onions
1 tsp minced ginger
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
200gr pork (leg or tenderloin), sliced thinly
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp dark soy
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
A pinch of white pepper
2 tbsp vegetable oil

For the sauce:
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp light soy
1 tsp dark soy
1 tbsp Chinkiang vinegar (sub with half sherry vinegar and half balsamic if you don't have this)
A pinch of sugar
1 tsp cornflour

Peel the cucumber in stripes so that you have large green and white stripes. Chop roughly in large pieces, toss in the 1 tbsp salt and place in a sieve. Leave to drain for half an hour, then wash thoroughly and leave to dry. Meanwhile, marinade the pork in the soy sauces, rice wine, sesame oil, cornflour and white pepper.

Separate the whites from the greens of the spring onion, and slice into 2 inch sections. Slice the greens finely and place to one side.

Mix the sauce ingredients together.

Heat 1 tbsp of oil until smoking hot, then fry the pork, tossing occasionally, for 2 - 3 minutes. Remove to a plate. Get the wok smoking hot again, add another tbsp of oil, then add the ginger and whites of the spring onion. Add the cucumber and sugarsnap peas, and stir fry for 2 - 3 minutes until they get some colour on them. Add the garlic, and continue to stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Add the pork back in and stir to combine for another minute or two, then add the sauce ingredients. Stir-fry until the liquid thickens slightly, then remove from the heat and serve, garnishing the top with spring onions. Serve with rice.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A Basic Bun Rieu

I've never been to Vietnam. All my experiences of Vietnamese food are in and around London, from what used to be almost weekly trips to Café East in Surrey Quays, and traversing the lengths of Kingsland Road. I once went on a date to Salvation in Noodles in Dalston, and had such a delicious noodle soup that I sought out to create it myself, cobbling what I could gather from the interwebs. That's all set to change, with a trip to Vietnam planned in January - Saigon, Phu Quoc and Hoi An - hit me up with best things to eat and places to stay, please!

So this Bun Rieu is very basic. It's the basic retelling of this dish, originally from the Mekong, from someone who has never visited it. I can only apologise now for any lack of authenticity, but what I do know is that it tastes really good. Some recipes add pork to the crab mixture for a more solid cake, and others add fresh crab meat; I wanted to try this as unadulterated as possible. 

It's made using a very tomato-heavy broth, sometimes reddened by annatto seeds (I didn't bother) and funked the funk up with fermented shrimp paste. It's the runny type, almost violet in colour, and that shit stinks, yo. It's also called Mam Tom, and the Chinese also use it as 'fine shrimp paste'. I have a bit about it in Chinatown Kitchen, along with accompanying recipes of how to use it to delicious potential. You'll recoil like you've been shot if you take a long whiff of it. You'll rejoice when you realise that once cooked, it transforms. 

What does seem key in this recipe is 'minced crab in spices', that you can buy in cans from Vietnamese and Chinese supermarkets. Without it, you'll have to pound paddy crabs to a pulp, with shells and all. Don't ask me what the spices are. I have no idea. 

What you're aiming for is to make the broth, then add the crab mixture so that when it cooks, it makes a big floating crab cake for you to break up into each bowl. The soup is simultaneously tart and sweet with tamarind and tomato, deeply reminiscent of the sea. Bun are round noodles, and they slither about in the broth; served with an assortment of herbs, to flavour each mouthful. You can buy all this stuff in London at Longdan (various branches). 

Bun Rieu

Serves 4

750ml vegetable broth
3 large tomatoes, chopped roughly
1 tsp fine shrimp paste 
1 tbsp tamarind puree
1 tbsp fish sauce 
1 can of crab with spices
150gr dried shrimp, soaked for an hour in cold water, drained and then blitzed until fine
2 eggs
2 large spring onions, whites and green separated
2 cloves of garlic, minced
200gr dry weight bun noodles (labelled jiangxi noodles), cooked until tender and drained
A bunch of Thai basil
A few sprigs of rau ram (hot mint) 
A few mint leaves
A few perilla (or shiso) leaves
A small handful of coriander
4 tofu puffs, soaked in boiling water and squeezed dry between two spoons, then halved.
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges

In a large saucepan, heat 1 tbsp the oil until shimmering. Mince the greens of the spring onion and add to the saucepan, along with the garlic. Cook until fragrant, then add the crab. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes, then decant into a bowl to cool. Add the blitzed dried shrimp.

Clean the saucepan out and add the oil again. Add the whites of the spring onion, minced, then the chopped tomatoes. Add the broth, tamarind, shrimp sauce, fish sauce and simmer for 10 minutes until the tomatoes start to break down. Don't boil it. 

Whisk the eggs into the crab and shrimp mixture. Turn the heat on high, and add this to the broth, drizzling it as you go, then let it cook, undisturbed, for another 3 or 4 minutes. Take off the heat. Check the seasoning; if it needs more salt add a touch more fish sauce.

Divide the noodles into 4 bowls, add 2 tofu puff halves, and ladle the hot broth over it evenly. Garnish with mint, perilla, hot mint, coriander and basil leaves, then top with a lime wedge and serve immediately. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

La Pubilla, Barcelona, and More On Catalonian Food

When people talk about Barcelona and food, invariably they talk about where the best tapas bar is, or where to find the best tapas but actually being as it is in Catalonia, tapas isn't actually local to Barcelona. Tapas is native to Andalusia, though adopted all over Spain. Compared with Madrid, whereby anywhere you stop for a drink and you really do get a tapa - be it olives, or marinated anchovies or the like - Barcelona isn't so. You sit down and order from a menu. Catalonian food is characterised by dishes such as botifarra, a pork sausage with spices, or escalivada - smoky, grilled vegetables such as peppers and aubergine. The most common Catalonian dish served in Barcelona is pan con tomate, or pa amb tomàquet in Catalonian; toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, rubbed until the pulp has been spread on the bread and the skins discarded. Topped liberally with salt and olive oil, this accompanies almost every meal. 

Keen to get a try of real Catalonian food, we went to La Pubilla, recommended by Su-Lin. I wasn't expecting such a sleek, minimal room, and being that it was unfathomably early for dinner (8:30pm!) we were the only customers. All the menus are in Catalonian or English, no Spanish equivalent. Some of the words are shared, though by and large we were baffled. 

Having already had a meat and cheese pitstop, we weren't exactly famished so we were rather pleased to find that the starter portion sizes were quite elegant. Marinated mackerel (top photo) with Salmorejo (a creamy gazpacho) was vividly orange, pretty on the plate and the flavours, married with the shaved fennel, were bright and perky. I am so obsessed with Salmorejo I was gulping down cartons of the stuff that you can buy from the fridges in the supermarkets. 

A halved, baked peach stuffed with shredded stewed duck was somewhat richer; the duck was scented with a little anise and the soft flesh of the peach worked so well with it. We pulled it apart with forks, spearing firmer raw peach cubes alongside. What a brilliant idea; I was concerned it might be a bit reminiscent of the (usually) abominable duck a l'orange, but we needn't have worried. Our third starter, a brawn-like shaved pressed meat with pickled chanterelles and herbed creme fraiche was less successful, though not disastrous; just a touch on the bland side. 

For mains, we all went down the seafood route and this was salted cod with cod throats (!) and white beans. I loved this. Though the skin would have been better crisp, I loved the slithery aspect of the cod throats, which were barely discernible unless you were looking for them. The cod was cooked so that firm flakes came away, pearlescent and creamy. This, like the rest of the mains we had, was better shared as what with being salt cod and all, it was quite... salty. 

Monkfish was declared the dish of the night by some of the table, and I almost agreed. The fish was cooked incredibly well, and it was sat on a bed of black rice, squash and tomatoes. It was light though it felt decadent, as most monkfish dishes seem to me; it's such a firm steak of a fish. 

But for me, this lobster rice was the dish of the night. A giant casserole came to the table, with it's own board to protect the table from its ferocious bubbling. Underneath the broth was soupy rice, creamy and rice from cooking in lobster bisque. This could have served 4 alone but we gamely ploughed on, eating the lobster-soup-rice, until all that was left was the lobster itself. Implements were requested, and viscera flew as we extracted all the sweet lobster meat from the shell. Meanwhile, this being our second dinner, I was full to bursting - my waistband was protesting - but onwards I continued, until there was nothing left to be eaten. 

We were so incredibly full that we had to go for an forty minute walk before we felt anything close to being normal again. 

La Pubilla, Plaça de la Llibertat, 23, 08012 Barcelona, Spain

I still can't tell you exactly what Catalan food is, but La Pubilla gave it a good go. Word has it that their lunch menu, at €13 for 3 courses, is one of the best value in town but actually I think that might go to Granja Mabel.  I went there three times for lunch when I was working (I did actually do some work in Barcelona!) and the menu del dia was merely €10 for three courses, that changed every day. It was absolutely rammed. I hadn't expected much but actually the 'secreto' pork was one of the best pieces of pork I've eaten in recent memory, and on another day, the pigs cheek served on the bone with rice was beautiful simplicity. 

Granja Mabel, Carrer de la Marina, 114, 08018 Barcelona, Spain

Entirely on the other end of the scale was Els Pescadors, probably one of the most expensive (and reputably the best) fish restaurant in town. I mention it because here I had hake cooked in 'suquet' - another traditional Catalonian dish. The restaurant itself is a cab ride away from the centre of town, the waiters wear starched white shirts, and they wheel a trolley full of the day's catch for you to be tempted by. I sat and watched a local jazz band play in the square outside, while an Italian couple next to me streamed the football, and a pair of Chinese lads chain-smoked their way through a steak tartare. But the suquet itself was rich with seafood flavour, heavy with potato and a large piece of braised hake, cooked just under so the flesh resisted a little against the bones, took centre stage. It's not a pretty dish. I asked for some vegetables - might I have a side salad? - and they looked at me like I was crazy. For €27.50 one might have thought some vegetables might be included. But no. I skipped starters and dessert.

Els Pescadors, Plaça de Prim, 1, 08005 Barcelona, Spain

Friday, 2 October 2015

Tapas 24, Barcelona

Tapas 24 is right in the middle of a bustling Barcelona, near Passeig de Gracia. I usually associate these kind of areas, the ones right in the middle of town, with our own Leicester Square; a culinary wasteland, unless you know where to look. Thanks to the good people of Twitter, I had plenty of recommendations, peppering my map of Barcelona, ensuring I wouldn't be far from a decent meal or drink.

Tapas 24 is owned by an El Bulli alumnus, bringing us traditional tapas with a modern take to them. There's a small terrace, but the main bar is in the basement, around a central cooking area. When I went my friends were a little tardy but even at the unfashionably early hour of 1pm, I was having to sheepishly save the seats next to me. They didn't like me much there.

The 'bikini' sandwich - I have no idea why they're called that, as it's probably the least bikini-friendly thing - is white bread stuffed to the gills with cheese, ham and truffles. How do they get that uniform toasty brownness? It's magic, that's what. Tasty, tasty melty gooey magic. 

The man next to me insisted we must get the gambas, so gambas we got and very good they were too. They were simply packed in salt and grilled, which made for some very salty finger-licking when we got down to de-shelling them. At this stage of the trip I was 99% salt anyway - the Spanish really like their salt, huh? - so I just shrugged and carried on. 

I was at the stage of the trip now where I was jumping on any vegetable available to me. WHY Barcelona, WHY U NO SERVE VEGETABLES? Anyway, this tomato salad was decorated with slivers of jamon, nestled in a cream that might have been influenced by tahini and topped with little orange salmon roe that popped in your mouth. It was wonderful; the tomatoes were sweet and juicy, the jamon and roe salty. I could feel my blood absorbing the vitamins. I am not being over-dramatic.

Chargrilled octopus was interspersed with big, wibbly wobbly chunks of Iberico pork fat. Sometimes the fat had a little bit of meat attached to it too. It was advertised as such on the menu, but I still felt it a little overwhelming. The flavour was incredible, but all that fat really coats the mouth. We needed a glass of rosé to steady ourselves. 

I kept seeing 'bomba' on various menus, and this is it; a giant ball of mashed potato, stuffed with minced meat, breadcrumbed and deep fried. It is topped with a spicy tomato sauce, and sat on a mayonnaise-like one too. Yes. Very yes.

Lastly, Iberico presa with chimichurri sauce had to be ordered. It's still a bit of a rarity in London, this special type of pork - reared on acorns, it's of such a high standard that one can eat it rare. Here it was seared lightly, insides still ruby red, and topped with a herby oil. It was so flavoursome it could have been mistaken for beef.

Service was fine, they were there when we needed them but otherwise completely indifferent. At around €40 a head with booze it certainly wasn't one of the cheapest lunches, but we found it to be good value - maybe I'm so used to London prices?

With that, we went to walk it off around the Sagrada Familia. Top tip: book online. It's so easy. Don't even think about turning up without a ticket, unless you really love queuing.