Food, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Whatever happened to the Great British food revolution?

 

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Great architecture; food less so…

 

Not so long ago, this country spent much time congratulating itself on how it had transformed itself from the culinary dunce of the modern world into its finest destination. New eateries seemed to be popping up on a weekly basis, and the quality and choice on offer was always improving. So what happened?

I have no doubt there are now many more good places to eat in Britain than used to be the case, some of which I have mentioned previously in this blog – but as always, we seem to have fallen victim to faddism, of which veganism is probably just the latest manifestation. This, in my mind, is not the transformation that was being claimed, and given the disparities I see between the foodie culture being purveyed in the media (much of which I suspect is consumed vicariously) and what trundles down the average supermarket checkout conveyor, I wonder whether anything has really changed.

For the increased niceties of the top end do not a revolution make. Far more important in my view are the daily habits of the population at large. Here at Sprezz. H.Q. I can claim with pride, but more importantly honesty, that food is prepared from scratch on a daily basis, wherever possible using fresh ingredients from the unassuming local farm shop. It is not posh food, more often than not a bowl of pasta or a salad with a few comfortable old favourites regularly thrown in for good measure. But even this may be unusual – who knows?

A recent visit to Lincoln reinforced my doubts. I hadn’t been to that city since childhood, and it was indeed a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. The cathedral and its close are very fine, and even the more mundane parts have benefitted from a seemingly-attentive local council and the arrival of one of the country’s more successful new universities.

The place clearly has some wealth (which I mention inasmuch as it may indicate the existence of foodie types), but it is by no means all gentrified. We enjoyed our couple of days there – but the one disappointment was the food. This is not a ‘pop’ at Lincoln, for I suspect the issue is equally true of most British towns; we certainly found the same to be true in Newark, where we called en route, and our local towns don’t seem to be very different either. In fact, things seem to have gone downhill in recent years. The vast majority of eateries that we found were either the usual clone-chains (which have colonised Lincoln’s pleasant waterfront as predictably as they have in Poole, Ipswich and most other places) – and those independents that we did find seemed largely intent on pretending they were chains too.

There was a preponderance of burgers (sometimes posh, sometimes not), steak, chips, and various things covered in melted cheese. Even the several eateries in our hotel were pretty much the same. To the annoyance of my wife, many of such salads as were on offer contained meat, and nothing to suggest one might ask for anything different. We tried what was reputedly the best Italian restaurant in town – which was also noisily trying to pretend it was actually a fast food joint; the food was passable but nothing special, and the service abrupt, though definitely not in the French way…. Much of the menu still came with chips, sad lettuce leaves and slices of under-ripe tomato – and if that was acclaimed at the best….

Compare this to the average French, German or Italian town, where in our experience, one has a fighting chance of finding decent, basic food even at the most average pavement cafe. The produce is fresh, the variety wide and the willingness to accommodate individual needs normally present. I know climate plays a part in this – but it is not as though imported produce is not available. And in any case, the real trick is to use local produce, of which Lincolnshire is hardly short. To be fair, there were a number of decent independent butchers and more selling local produce; it just didn’t seem to be making it into the restaurants.

On the second night, we repaired to Carluccio’s – which while a chain has at least stuck to its founder’s vision, and reliably offers good food in pleasant surroundings; in our opinion it exceeded the previous night’s experience.

Despite the nation’s crowing about its food, I suspect there is now a general decline going on. The ‘casual dining’ chains are losing customers and closing branches. I’m not surprised given the uninspiring offerings they too often have – but I’m not confident they are falling from grace in favour of superior offerings. Unfortunately, even Carluccio’s is suffering – though I was pleased to ascertain that the Lincoln branch will remain. The place needs it.

And just to conclude (partly for the benefits of the Lincolnites who may read this) this piece is not a slur on that city; we very much enjoyed our visit. It is a fine place that warrants attention, even if a little tatty round the edges. It just a happened to function as a semi-random test of the current state of public dining in the U.K. – and it would seem that other than trophy-dining at the upper end of the market, not as much has changed as we seemed to believe.

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.

 

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).

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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Food

Multum in parva part two: pizza perfection?

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The second of my small-but-satisfying life quests involves another staple of the Italian diet: pizza. I am trying to think of an equivalent in the English gastronomic lexicon to pizza in Italian. I suppose it has to be fish and chips really, but I don’t think there is the same potential for complexity in that dish, even though really fresh fish (i.e. just off the boat) makes a noticeable difference. Chips are something my life can generally do without, sacrilegious though that may be to many.

Quite apart from what the perfect pizza actually is, there are numerous challenges with making one. Being by instinct a purist, I tend to think that the Neapolitans really should have the last word, and one really needs to have eaten a simple margarita in that city before one can judge. I pass that test.

I really don’t go for all the abuses of pizza either, mostly at the hands of the Americans. Stuffed crusts and the rest of it utterly lose the whole, glorious simplicity of the thing and suffocate it under pure greed. It is meant to be simple!

But like so many such things, that simplicity masks the art of doing the thing properly. I have spent three decades working on my technique, and cringe to think of my first efforts, taken from a 1970s student cook-book, that used tomato puree and instead of an oven, cooked the thing in a frying pan on a ring before finishing it under the grill… Thankfully we have moved on from those days.

I think it is important to accept the inevitable: unless you have built an oven in the garden, or have bought one of these new-fangled things, http://www.lakeland.co.uk/53090/Uuni-3-Wood-Fired-Outdoor-Pizza-Oven-with-Baking-Stone home-made pizza is always going to be a compromise. There is no way to reproduce the very particular effect of cooking in a super-heated wood oven other than doing it that way. Likewise, the fact that a pizza should cook in about a minute at 500- 600 degrees is never going to be reproduced in a domestic oven. The dough just does not behave in at all the same way at lower temperatures.

But I think it is possible, with care, to produce an acceptable result.

Friday night is pizza night in our household. It starts at about 5.00 pm with my wife making the dough. We use OO grade pasta flour, which can now be had from the local supermarket. This is extra-strong and makes a huge difference to the base. Using fresh yeast is also important; it’s not easy to obtain in the U.K. We used to scrounge it from a local baker until he closed, then our Swiss friends used to ‘import’ it for us. We have even resorted to buying it by mail from France, but now source it from a company near Bath. Getting the dough wet enough to be elastic without being so wet as to just collapse on itself takes practice, and every time is still an adventure…

The dough is left to rise in a slightly warm oven for a good couple of hours before being brought out to finish, while the oven heats. We bought the hottest domestic oven we could find – a Neff, specifically for this purpose. We can get 275⁰C out of it, further boosted by the use of pizza stones.

I then second-knead the dough and leave to recover while preparing the toppings. Passata is a better base – as often, much less is needed than expected, little more than a smear-covering. Toppings need to be simple: my wife usually has artichoke hearts, olives and capers, while I prefer mushroom and olives, with prosciutto ham added after cooking. In the summer, we add home-grown oregano and basil. It’s not worth using buffalo mozzarella on a pizza.

The dough is pushed and tossed out to a thin disc, and pushed out a little further to form a rim once on the stone. I tend to prepare the pizza directly onto the hot stone, which is easier than trying to shift it all across once assembled. The finished think normally makes it to the table by about eight: some fast food!

It’s not quite the full traditional technique, but as I said, it is necessary to accept certain adaptations to suit the circumstances; the result is very acceptable, despite its deficiencies. I think we are pretty much as close as we are going to get: it has only taken thirty years of very satisfying experimentation to get there…

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