Food

Polignano from Puglia

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Chelmsford in Essex is not the most obvious place to have connections with Italy – until, perhaps, one remembers that it was here in 1898 that Guiliemo Marconi set up the world’s first radio factory and in 1910 made the world’s first public broadcast. So the precedent is good.

It is rather more of a mystery why there are Italians in the town today, for despite its recent achievement of city status, this is still – ahem! – a rather optimistic moniker for a place that is hardly Bath or York, let alone London or Los Angeles.

And yet it is using its new-found status to make the best of its fairly modest lot. When I lived there in the early 1990s, the talk was mostly of how soon one would be able to escape the boring, declining dump of a place. But today, it is lively, with a good selection of retail outlets, a busy market and the recent addition of some higher-end stores, anchored by John Lewis, that has been made possible by the easterly exodus from London of a number of financial companies and the high-earners they bring.

While John Lewis is a bonus anywhere, personally I prefer the smaller independent stores which give a place individuality – and it was by pure fluke that last weekend, while waiting for some friends, we chanced upon Polignano, tucked away in a side-street. I have already mentioned Pastaciutta, the market-place Italian kitchen – and now Chelmsford has a very genuine Italian delicatessen/eatery at the other end of its town centre too.

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Polignano seems to be a real labour of love – formed to echo the Pugliese owners’ home life – though how they came to find themselves in Essex is not explained. The place is modest in size, though with a small outdoor terrace and more tables upstairs. It has apparently been there since late 2014, yet I had never noticed. Despite this, it is one of those places that draws the attention from fifty paces – and it did not take long, peering through the windows for us to ascertain that this was no fake. Enthusiastic gestures invited us inside – where the unaffected display of cured meats, home-baked breads, marinaded aubergine slices, out-of –the-ordinary wines and less-known southern specialities on the menu led to a swift change of lunch plans.

Service was leisurely, so it was just as well we were not in a hurry, but the place was well-filled, and the quality of the food, when it appeared fully explained why. Likewise, my glass of Negroamaro was so good that I just had to buy a bottle on the way out. On his equally modest website, Marino Polignano explains that a pallet of specialities is sent fortnightly from his father in Puglia – and it shows. I wonder how many other places in Britain have cactus fruit jam on the menu. Another point of interest is that Polignano is in Italy too, where other members of the family run a restaurant and hotel.

One can only wish such a place great but limited success: it deserves much – but I hope that Marino’s ambitions are modest enough that he will not yield to the temptation to expand, as so many other ventures have over the years at the expense of the character that made them in the first place. In this case, small should definitely remain beautiful.

 

 

Food

Easter Lamb for one

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Cooking larger cuts of meat is not often a viable proposition in a two-person, half-vegetarian household. Even where there are suitable cuts, the need to produce two separate meals can be off-putting when time is short. In the last couple of years, though, I have started marking Easter with the cooking of a lamb shank. I became aware of the possibilities of what was once considered an inferior cut after a glorious meal of Welsh lamb shank braised in red wine at Yr Hen Fecws, a small restaurant-with-rooms in Portmadog, Gwynnedd.

I do like preparing casseroles, and this is very easy: just the usual base of onion, celery and carrot coarsely chopped, leeks if available (which they weren’t here due to a memory slip) and a couple or three crushed cloves of garlic. The meat is browned in oil before being removed while the vegetables are softened. The meat is then replaced, thyme and rosemary added, as is about 1/3 bottle of red wine and a little more than that by volume of meat stock. The pot is left to cook in a low oven (about 150C) for around 2 ½ hours.

Lamb has a lovely flavour, and this cut is just about right for one, served with Jersey Royal potatoes and spring vegetables.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

The High Life

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After my previous complaints about the state of Britain’s town centres it was a pleasure, a few days ago, to visit somewhere that it still getting it right. Norwich (in Eastern England) has always been a law unto itself; I lived there for a year in the mid 1980s, when it was still a haven for as many alternative and offbeat scenes as you can imagine. Being rather out-on-a-limb geographically speaking has helped: only recently has it received the mixed blessings of a dual-carriageway road to the outside world, and while a modest 200,000 in population, its position as the centre of a large and quite remote rural hinterland lends it a big-city feel.

The building of the University of East Anglia in the 1960s added to its instinctively liberal character, especially after the construction of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, an early work of Normal Foster, put it on the map forty years ago.

Even today, while it has ‘normalised’ somewhat, Norwich is still a city of great character, of course helped by a fine medieval, Georgian and Victorian architectural legacy and a network of narrow lanes still crammed with independent shops. As was the case everywhere, the sixties and seventies were generally less kind, with the usual bland corporate construction on the margins of the city centre. However, it was to one such building that my visit took me.

I was there for a professional rendezvous, and Chris had suggested meeting at The Rooftop Gardens, a restaurant atop a six storey office block not far from the station. This really is a case of making the best of the available opportunities in a way that provincial Britain rarely manages.

There is something appealing about getting high up in a city: it’s as though one has found an eyrie, tucked away yet simultaneously with a commanding view. Even for one who struggles with heights, the reason why penthouse apartments command a premium is immediately clear: an enviable 360 degree view taking in one of the city’s two cathedrals, its many medieval churches, the castle, the handsome railway station and the whole sweep of the city on its rise in the centre of a meander of the River Wensum. It’s a pity that so many such places are resolutely private.

The restaurant itself is smooth, exuding the kind of lounge-bar appeal I have seen in similar places on the continent, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the cool of somewhere like Bar Rouge, on the 20th floor of Basel’s Messeturm. But then, it doesn’t come with the vertigo either… The food is modern British in style, attractively produced if not especially generous of portion, and the staff attentive,  even a little eager.

There are two outside seating areas, with clear screens and a large awning to mitigate the climatic extremes in what is quite an exposed position; I can imagine it is an excellent spot on summer nights. There is also the advantage that it is the one place in that part of the city from where one cannot see the rest of the host building…

While Norwich is clearly a city of some means, the essential ingredient for remaining a “fine city” (as Norwich bills itself) is making the most of one’s assets. In that, imagination and vision are as important as hard cash. This is the city that, when its library burned down some years ago, built itself a fine contemporary mediathèque in the middle of the old town. In many British towns, the missing factor seems to be any kind of vision, which can work wonders even when money is short. As I have found more locally, there is a kind of dull, downtrodden provincialism about many smaller towns, a lack of any sense of urbanisme – civic pride or sophistication that is the necessary spark for places like Rooftop Gardens. I barely need to say that one gets a far wider sense of this on much of the continent.

Norwich is one example of how a place can have the best of both worlds: a city small enough to remain personable and eminently walkable, yet big enough to achieve some sophistication.  The Rooftop Gardens an excellent example of how to capitalise on an otherwise rather doubtful 1970s ‘asset’, and as such could easily be replicated elsewhere.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

What is becoming of the British town centre?

When Richard Beeching closed many of Britain’s branch line railways in the mid 1960’s, he was probably doing some necessary pruning – except that he didn’t realise that he was cutting not branches but roots. It later became evident how those smaller operations fed nutrients – in the form of custom – into the bigger lines. The consequence was a decline in use of the railways that took decades to reverse.

One might have hoped that we had learned the lesson – but it seems as though Britain’s town centres are going the same way. Walking around my local one (which had better remain nameless for fear of doing it more harm), I was shocked at its state of decline. I must admit, we go there rarely these days – which probably tells its own truth – so it was saddening to see the number of empty premises, tatty-looking streets and rather unsavoury-looking characters hanging around. Perhaps more frequent visits would have concealed the steepness of the decline.

This is not one of the centres of despair in the post-industrial wastelands of the North, but a major town of over 120,000 people, in one of the more prosperous parts of the south – and it is growing quickly. So what is happening to its urban fabric?

I think a number of factors are playing a part – and just as in the case of Beeching and the railways, own goals feature strongly.

I am part of that problem. I don’t mind for one minute being thought of as having obscure or even rarefied tastes – but be that as it may, my local town simply no longer caters for them as it used to. Consequently, I rarely find any need to spend money there, because it provides little that I need or want. The internet is of course a major part of this – but equally culpable, in my opinion, is the retail sector of Great Britain which has increasingly been dominated by chains such that anyone whose taste does not fall within the mainstream is less likely to be catered for. If you want to buy leisure-wear, you have the entire town to play with; look for any other form of decent menswear and you are struggling (except for a couple of very expensive shops). The same is true for music: the high street stores used to keep reasonable selections of minority genres; mostly now gone – so I buy my music from online specialists. I could go on: the point is this – by narrowing their offerings, and simultaneously putting many local specialist shops out of business, the retail sector has in effect excluded many of those smaller tribes who nonetheless collectively brought patronage to town centres.

There then followed a downward spiral – not helped in the least by three other factors:

1) the insistence of the local council on bleeding people dry for parking in the town, while for many years failing to provide workable alternatives in the form of good public transport. I know many people who will not use the town on account of its parking charges. I am talking here about often well-heeled people who live in the surrounding hinterland. Those who are left are the ones who cannot afford to go anywhere else.

2) The same council’s granting of permission for yet more out-of-town retail and leisure developments ostensibly to cater for the town’s growth – but which in reality only deprive the centre of trade.

3) The bleeding dry of funds from central government that has prevented local councils from maintaining their urban fabric, let alone innovating. But that is not the whole story: the town received a spectacular new art gallery some years ago – but the approach path is still half-screened off behind rusty, corrugated iron in an area where a redevelopment scheme never seems to happen. It can only be off-putting to potential visitors and the public image.

I am puzzled by one thing: towns on the continent must be encountering the same challenges from e-commerce (though I gather the Brits have been early adopters, as usual with anything that allows them never to leave their couches) – and there is no shortage of out-of-town retailing on the continent either – but the same hollowing-out effect seems not to be present.

Maybe it comes down simply to the fact that people in those countries simply have greater spending power to support more retailers – but I also wonder whether it is also something to do with the fact that continental towns have never been simply retail machines in the way British ones were allowed to become. There still seem to be more inner-urban dwellers on the continent (though it does also seem to be increasing in Britain) – and perhaps more significantly, people in France, Italy and elsewhere know how to inhabit their towns in a way the British have lost – or never had. The variety of cultural events seems to be much greater – and the food scene is not dominated by the increasingly tacky-looking chain restaurants that now line most British town streets as retail has fled. They also tend to have better public transport to bring people in from outlying districts.

I am sure the desire for greater choice has something to do with the problems in Britain: while I don’t buy often, I do spend money on good quality when I need something; but I will not part with cash for something sub-standard and no doubt I’m not alone in that demographic. People of that profile have been repelled by mainstream retail as I described. They also happen to be mobile: I can buy premium goods more cheaply at a nearby outlet village, likewise those and specialist goods online – and when I want the full urban experience, I am less than a hour’s drive from one place that is noticeably bucking the trend: Cambridge.

Cambridge also shows that while money clearly speaks (it has an evident glut), town centres can still work in Britain by providing for people with diverse needs and by offering more than just bleak, clone-retail. While Cambridge does have its critics, the sheer attractiveness and liveliness of its townscape makes up for a lot.

My local town also has an attractive townscape – indeed one of the more dramatic High Streets in the country – which the local council has repeatedly failed to pedestrianise it properly. It has other fine buildings too – some of which have been left to become weed-covered eyesores for want of an enlightened planning policy.

In the end it is the ability of local worthies to capitalise on what they have that I think has made the difference between Cambridge and my local centre. Quite what all the extra thousands who are expected to come to live in the newly-built acres of rabbit hutches are going to get out of their lives there is anyone’s guess.

A little vision goes a long way. And a lack of it can create a disaster where there need be none.

Food

Espresso international

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The British may still (just) be a nation of tea-drinkers but trends are a-changing. In fact, there is evidence that we now drink more coffee than tea – and the generational shift has quite a lot to do with it. Britain is one of the few countries in the world where coffee consumption is still rising, whereas there has been a slow but steady decline in tea since the 1970s.

Personally, I don’t see this as zero-sum matter – but as usual the reward is not so much in what you do as how you do it. Neither plonking a cheap teabag (procedurally guilty – but at least I stick to Twinings!) nor a spoonful of equally cheap instant coffee in a mug really hits the mark. Both drinks have elaborate rituals attached to them, and while I suspect that the aforementioned procedures are the dominant ones the length and breadth of the nation, at least the growth in coffee shops means that nowhere in the land is probably more than a kilometre from a proper espresso machine now, where said rituals do exist.

The making of proper coffee repays the eye, ear and nose as well as the taste buds – (who remembers the 1980/90s adverts (for Nescafe I think) where a guy entertaining a new date goes into the kitchen and makes all the necessary noises orally, while popping instant in the cafetière?), and it is a most satisfying punctuation point on the morning, even for one who needs to restrict his caffeine intake.

Well, we do own a decent little Gaggia, and there is no instant in the house, so anyone asking for coffee here is in for a wait. It’s always worth it. I’m encouraged to have visited several other households recently where the same situation seemed to obtain. We have owned a couple such machines over the years, prior to which we used the much-loved Lavazza Principessa stove-top shown in the header photo – though the rubber seal has rather perished in the meantime meaning we get a lot of leaking steam but not much pressure.

All of which is by means of introducing a rather pleasing emporium which we found while looking to add a couple of plain Illy cappuccino cups to the roster.

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                                            https://www.espresso-international.co.uk/

The store is actually in Germany but delivery was quick and the products arrived very well-wrapped. In fact, this is a gold-mine for all things coffee-related and a little delving can be  rather bad for the wallet. Not only did we find said Illy cups (not easily available in the U.K.), but we also ended up with a couple of Lavazza ones that I had been hunting for some time. There is also a huge selection of coffee types and configurations, equipment there that you never even knew you needed, a very tempting array of coffee-related biscotti and more.

I shall be paying a return visit in due course.

(Independent review – no interest except as a satisfied customer).

Opinion & Thought, Travel

An M25 for high speed trains?

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Our last two trips on the continent were both by train. The first was to Lyon, the second to Basel via Strasbourg. In the past it has always been necessary to change trains in Paris, and using the RER (fast metro) with luggage was never the easiest of experiences. However, recent high-speed openings have changed the landscape. The trip to Lyon involved a twenty-minute wait at Lille Europe, which is just one hour from where we parked our car at Ebbsfleet, just off the M25. At Lille, we switched to a TGV duplex (double deck) which was heading for Marseille. The trip from Lille to Lyon was three hours, making a car-to-hotel time of a little under six hours, not very much longer than the time by air with all its attendant mucking around. The second trip was very similar, with a change in Lille onto a Strasbourg train again around about a three-hour direct time. Back in 2006, the last time I travelled to Strasbourg by train, it was four hours just from Paris.

What has made this possible is the completion of further high-speed rail in France, most particularly the extension east to Strasbourg. It seems to have prompted SNCF to re-cast its connections in Lille so that they are now useable by British travellers. The key section of track was built some time ago, which is the Paris by-pass, which means that trains can travel direct between provincial centres using this by-pass line as a hub-and-spoke network.

In my opinion, London desperately needs something similar. With the construction of High Speed 2 to Birmingham getting tentatively underway, the time to think about this is now. The original intention was to link the new line to the Channel Tunnel line under London, but this was abandoned due to the cost. Those making the decisions seemed incapable of conceiving that people from north of London might ever want to travel anywhere beyond our capital. As a result, people seeking a connection will need to make their way along the Euston Road and check in all over again at St. Pancras, which one estimate suggests could add two hours to the journey time from, for example Birmingham to Paris, thus rendering it utterly and hopelessly uncompetitive with air. One might have hoped that the extra millions spent to facilitate better connections with the entire north of Britain might have been worth it – but it seems not. Such is Whitehall bunker thinking.

At last, however, it seems as though there is a little creative thinking going on about the nation’s transport needs. It’s a pity it is coming from a private sector company rather than a forward-thinking State, but anything is better than nothing, and the company concerned is highly credible in the engineering and transport sector. A proposal has been tabled for a connecting line from HS1 to HS2 called HS4air. The name makes more sense when one remembers that HS3 is the putative trans-Pennine route and the new proposal will also link Heathrow and Gatwick with a high speed (fifteen-minute) shuttle, thus allowing them effectively to operate as one airport.

The line would re-use the longest straight on the existing railway in Britain, from Ashford to near Gatwick, whence it would tunnel under the airport and the North Downs before paralleling the M25 to Heathrow and HS2. It would cost about £10bn for the 140km line.

HS4air map

Personally, I had always envisaged a London by-pass paralleling the M25 north of London where it could link to the other main radial main lines, but in many ways this new proposal make better sense, and it would offer many parts of the provincial U.K. vastly improved access not only to the airports but potentially the continent too. We might even end up with something that looked like an emergent network.

This is the kind of thinking that has long been present on the continent – hence the possibility to those trips that I described above. Unfortunately, it is much rarer to see this kind of vision in the U.K. and it deserves to be taken seriously. It would be good to see some serious efforts being put into improving the options for those who live beyond London – but given that approval will presumably lie with Westminster, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Food, Travel

Harriet’s

 

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It sometimes seems as though aesthetic tastes are expected to be mutually exclusive, but this needn’t be so. For example, my tastes are resolutely modernist, but I am still perfectly capable of appreciating the ‘old stuff’. My only reservations are that the styles of the past are in effect dead, and while old buildings, for example, clearly endure into the present, there seems to be to me little point in replicating them when there are so many more opportunities offered by the styles and techniques of the present day. So what I really dislike is fake-old, pastiche attempts to recreate past styles that rarely work even when carefully done.
Harriet’s however, treads an admirable line between its relative youth and the ambience of a very glamorous yesterday.
This is a small chain of three tea rooms in Cambridge, Norwich and Bury St. Edmunds (in eastern England), the last of which is the original. Conceived in the mid-1990s and opened just after the millennium, Harriet’s revives the lost era of grand tea rooms. The Bury branch is by far the grandest, set in the neo-classical Cornhill buildings dating from around 1900, it has high ceilings, splendid chandeliers and often features live piano music. Unlike so many recreations, no detail has been spared: the marble table tops and the Thonet bentwood chairs are the real thing; the staff are appropriately turned out had have clearly been properly trained – and even the toilets are done out to the same high standard – always a good sign. The introduction of the usual modern cash-desk technology is very unobtrusive. Likewise, the food and drink on offer is of a high standard, the highlight perhaps being the very attractive macaroons.
However, what makes it most successful is that it does not feel like a pastiche, despite being less than twenty years old. What’s more, the populace of Bury seem to have made it their own, with queues for tables at weekends. Once inside, the ambience is, I assume very much what a grand early twentieth century tea room would have been – though I am also reminded of some the great cafes of the continent, such as the Cafe Central and Cafe Sacher in Vienna. The room hums with quiet conversation, and the place is enough of a spectacle to be able to carry this – there is nothing fake about the result – it has become a genuine ‘society’ spot in the centre of Bury.
In fact, the chief sadness is that so many of the original tea rooms were closed in Britain – had they not been, they might have represented the continuation into the present of a tradition similar to the cafe culture that has never died out on the continent – and for which the modern, themed chains that we mostly now have in the U.K. can only ever be the palest of imitations.

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