26 September 2010

A Goodman Is Hard To Find

We've all had them. Those days when nothing clicks, work-wise. Or when you just can't get started. Or when a brief chat about a certain type of food plants an idea that just won't be shifted.

Friday was one of those days when "all of the above" applied. Words wouldn't flow, the excesses of earlier in the week meant a little voice kept suggesting a return to the duvet and a Google Chat with William Leigh had planted an idea that just wouldn't go away: lunch. And, specifically, the sort of lunch that sits between two halves of bun, comes smothered in cheese, gets set-off by crisp lettuce and onion, and sits happily alongside a big portion of chips.

As soon as the burger was mentioned, a) nothing else would do; and b) no more work was going to be attempted. Initial thoughts of Roast's excellent 10oz Welsh Black burger were scuppered by a key detail: they only serve them on the Saturday brunch menu. The much discussed That Burger was considered briefly... but then discarded for reasons of geography and instant gratification. One word kept popping into my mind though: Goodman.

In a move sure to shock food writers of all levels, I had only been to Goodman once, to try the In n Out / US tribute burger they sometimes offer their close associates. Thanks to Will, my first Goodman experience was a guilty, cheap cheese-covered, probably unrepeatable pleasure.

However, everyone kept telling me I needed to try the regular burger.

That's when we discovered that both their new City outpost was fully booked, ditto the original Mayfair branch. While not getting the burger of your choice is about as middle class as problems get - though not as middle class as the Islington toddler I'd heard about throwing a full-on tantrum in a deli and screaming "but I WANT sun dried tomatoes!" - it was still pretty damned devastating in the circumstances.

However, thanks to Twitter, Will's friendship with the Goodman team and just plain, old-fashioned string pulling, a message came back from head chef John Cadieux. The restaurant's fully booked and it's not an ideal solution but they could set us up a table in the kitchen if we wanted?

We wanted. My how we wanted. Even on getting there and discovering we could have a proper table in the Maddox Street restaurant, we still wanted the kitchen. And that's why Friday lunchtime was spent just over from the frier, among the incredible smells, fridges full of meat and industrious (and friendly) staff, with views like this

while dripping all the juices of this

down the front of my shirt.

It might also explain why, with four of us beaming from ear-to-ear and loving the noise, "pudding" was some of John's newly sourced Canadian steak...

It was a good Friday.

18 September 2010

Simple Pleasures

Let's face it: bits of pig will be featuring heavily in this list. There are few foodstuffs that can't be improved by the addition of a properly cooked / cured piece of a pig. Indeed, there are few days that can't be improved by the addition of the same. This one comes courtesy of the Giggly Pig - market regulars with, in founder Tracy Mackness, one of the hardest working people I've ever met, plus a fascinating background story, a very pink butcher's shop in Romford (my birthplace of Harold Hill, to be exact) and some of the best, proper, pig-related British foodstuffs I've ever sampled. And let's be honest here, I've sampled a few. As well as fuelling my Sunday mornings at Ally Pally's farmers' market, the Giggly Pig has inspired this latest - and ninth - simple pleasure: thick cut, delicious, properly crispy bacon.

13 September 2010

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch?

Oh yes there is. We're surrounded by food. I don't mean the usual high street outlets, the supermarkets (in all their shapes and sizes) or the local gems. I mean more literally. That wall over there, for example, might be covered in edible ivy. That clump of grass over there could be hiding some bristly ox-tongue. And as for those rocks when the tide goes out, why, it's a veritable feast...

Welcome then to the strange, fascinating and endlessly enjoyable world for foraging. As an offshoot of Mrs L's passionate "allotmenting" (she's the project manager and gardener, I'm in charge of destruction, strimming and other petrol-driven carnage), shes a voracious reader of gardening columns and such like. A little while back, she came across a young man named Fergus Drennan thanks to a Guardian article and, a few months later, with three friends and a lovely couple from Manchester, we found ourselves scrabbling around the Kent coast for, essentially, a free lunch. And some free garnishes, some free drink ingredients, some free things we can pickle and, indeed, most of the ingredients for a free dinner that will linger long in this mind.

The day was an education, packing in more information than I could possibly convey in a blog post. Rather than the specifics then - and a risk that someone might read this and start tucking into plants they've found on the walk to the tube - I'm going to go for broad strokes, lots of pictures, and a hearty recommendation that, if you can, get a foraging lesson from someone like the engaging, passionate Fergus who really knows their stuff - and then follow it up with a study of and constant reference to some of the excellent books that are available. Even if you never use the knowledge you glean again, the experience of standing in the pitch black, on a windswept and slightly drizzly beach, late on a Saturday night eating apple and plum crumble that's been cooked on open fires is one that, frankly, everyone should experience. It was slightly burned, a couple of rogue stones and pips had made it into the fruit (my bad, but you try peeling and coring an apple in the dark on a shingle beach) but it might just be the most delicious, warming pud I've ever eaten.

Herne Bay - or "nature's supermarket" as I shall now look at it...

Fergus talks us through the joys of seaweed harvesting

Yep, we're going to eat all of the above later.

We're also going to see this stuff later. It's a jelly made from a seaweed called carragheen that can be used as a natural gelatin replacement. For the record, this blob smelled like green tea.
Another reason to get professional advice: the speed with which the tide comes in or, as I now like to think of it, nature restocking its shelves.

Assorted edible vegetation from along the coastal path. The bottom one - sea purslane - was my favourite: crisp, salty and delicious.

Further inland, we found several rings of mushrooms

Beautiful, deep red hawthorns

Two minutes of gathering on a nearby common and we'd harvested a very fine crop of sorrel

Not to mention a decent crop of nettles - just the top three leaves or so, off non-flowering plants

Mrs L gets down and dirty with a sieve full of hawthorns, a smattering of blackberries and a splash of apple juice, to make an intense and simple fruit jelly.

The edible ivy that grows, conveniently, opposite Fergus' house.
Back to the house, we all helped prep lunch - the orange berries are the incredible, vitamin C-rich sea buckthorns

Ivy and wild rocket flowers for the salad

Within an hour or so, the hawthorn jelly had set enough to be sliced and cut, artfully, into stars.

The starter: the nettles we'd collected, plus some water cress and seaweed, blitzed with stock into a dark green, rich, hearty and tasty soup.

Something we didn't play a part in: a quiche that Fergus had made earlier with lots of garden vegetables and baked in a crust that is, remarkably, 20% acorn flour. Making that took 10 weeks of constant washing - thanks to two pillowcases and a nearby river - to remove the toxins and tannins, and a lot of grinding. An intriguing nutty flavour.

Probably the prettiest thing I'll eat this year. A flower-dotted salad made of all the things we'd collected earlier, plus a little feta and some artfully carved radishes.

Remember the seaweed gel above? The same plant was also used to set this panna cotta dessert, garnished with a star of clove-cured apple and the hawthorn jelly

A communally-churned sea buckthorn sorbet. Sharp, refreshing, oddly kumquat-like.

Cherry plums. Bemused - but glad - that the people living opposite the trees don't consider picking the fruit that grows there.

A remarkable - and huge - giant puffball, plus a few smaller examples. All secured from around a nearby go-karting track.

The beach at dusk. As dramatic a setting for supper as you could wish. Not that we could see it for long...

The "kitchen"

Wrapping sea bass fillets in seaweed

It's a brave man that deep fries seaweed in a wok over open flame.

Some of the deep fried results. The bottom one - gut weed - is the one traditionally served in Chinese restaurants. The best though was flash-fried dulse which tasted like crispy bacon.

The fruit - not a bad pile given how dark the prep time was

Dinner. Seaweed wrapped sea bass - amazingly moist, beautifully seasoned thanks to the saltiness of the seaweed - sea beet and tempura puffball. Amazing what you can do with a pan, a wok, some kindling and a lighter.

Look carefully. See the wok? That contains flour, butter, oats and nuts for the crumble topping.

Thanks to Andy's expert driftwood foraging, we had a rudimentary table to serve and eat from. This is the crumble kit: stewed fruit, the crispy topping and slightly smoky custard. Plus my empty bowl which wouldn't remain empty for long...

Best. Pudding. EVER.

6 September 2010

Simple Pleasures

I realise I might be alone in this one but I sincerely hope not. Two pieces of homemade bread, toasted on one side. Two juicy, fresh-from-the-vine, homegrown, sun-ripened, achingly sweet tomatoes. Wrist-strain inducing amounts of fresh ground black pepper. A Health Warning defying sprinkling of salt. Dollops of mayonnaise that Pret A Manger would declare "obscene". The result is Simple Pleasure, Number 8: The Tomato Sandwich.

2 September 2010

Peaks of Gastronomy

Consider me chastised. Over a glass of bubbly last night - good ol' Kettners - a friend told me that I'd been doing too many "Simple Pleasures" and not enough writing. And he was right. The original plan was a written piece AND a "Simple Pleasures" picture every week and there's been too little of the former of late.

At the risk of sounding big-headed, there's a certain amount of pressure now since more publications have identified these ramblings as worth paying attention to. The Telegraph plug was lovely and last week the highly entertaining Rhodri Marsden picked this as one of the blogs to watch for The Independent. And Olive Magazine has apparently picked up on it too, which is nice. There is a bit of an ongoing internal debate, that whole blogger v journo thing which I won't go into here because, frankly, it's deadly boring to anyone not in the industry and, unlike certain journalists, I think there's plenty of foodie fun to go around (and, actually, the rise of the bloggers has probably done more to keep me on my professional toes than anything else). There's maybe also a strange sense of creeping guilt but that's just me navel-gazing and certainly isn't fun to read - and fun, above all, is one of the main reasons I started this blog in the first place.

Enough of the over-analysis then and back to Italy for a final round-up of the breathtaking food on offer. The main purpose of the trip was billed as "The Peaks of Gastronomy". The Sudtirol area, as mentioned before, is bursting with Michelin-starred culinary talent. It's also rather mountainous and good for skiing. That means there are lovely lodges and restaurants dotted all over the hills and mountains and someone had the rather brilliant idea of taking some of these celebrated chefs up to these rest areas and having them teach the staff there one of their signature dishes. That means that you can graze your way between them, with a starter there and a main course over yonder and, presumably, a pudding somewhere in the distance.

We'd certainly planned to do that but a sudden downpour - of the sort you only get in mountains - instead saw us run in from the terrace for a graze through just the one menu at a hut called Col Alt. If all the food across the mountain is half as good as we had then, well, it's just yet another reason for anyone with the slightest interest in food to visit.

While on the terrace, we revived ourselves from the steep walk up with a "Veniziana" a prosecco-based drink reminiscent - quite appropriately - of Lucozade. It might not be quite as popular on hospital bedsides but, for weary food writers, it had a similar effect, although I perked up more with the platters of extraordinarily pretty amuses.

The inevitable speck made an appearance but you all know my love of pig by now, so that's not a complaint. That was swiftly followed by beautiful cubes of octopus and a polenta, cheese and truffle "snack" that might just be my favourite thing of the entire trip. The cheese was pungent and unctuous but married beautifully with the ballsy earthiness of the truffle, while the polenta provided texture and a slight sweetness to bring it all together.

Cue first drops of rain and a charge inside for their "Peaks" dish - a shepherd's cheese souffle with grilled courgettes and a crispy milk roll wafer with pumpkin seeds created by Claudio Melis - and a selection of the hut's regular dishes. The souffle was very good indeed but I have to say I preferred the robust nature of the hut's usual menu, particularly the spatzle, the venison burger (served on a single slice of dense, seeded bread and slathered with rich gravy) and a local "delicacy" of dumplings (with a big, messy, almost offensive cheese) served with "canederli" (cabbage salad). All were terrific and few were finished: this is hale and hearty food for walkers and skiers, and we were very aware that we had more dining to do later. It didn't stop us chipping our collective way through some puddings though: a nice enough creme brulee, a very good indeed chocolate pot and an absolutely stunning strawberry and prosecco chilled "soup" with berries that I've already attempted to pass off as my own.

After a rather scary descent, the afternoon was spent swimming and exercising (no, really) in preparation for dinner at St Hubertus, a meal that was, the more I think about it, one of the highlights of my year so far. I'll get to that shortly.