Bilberry picking

Bilberries are one of my favourite wild foods, right up there with wild garlic and parasol mushrooms. They start to appear in August and can be got into September, it all seems to depend on where exactly they’re growing. You’d also be well advised to look for them somewhere that sheep aren’t grazing, as the fat woolly lawnmowers will happily nibble up all the berries they can find. Up here in Shropshire you can see this easily comparing The Long Mynd and Stiperstones, both beautiful hills clad in bilberries and within sight of each other. Yet the sheep-grazed Mynd is miserable pickings while on Stiperstones we picked half a kilo in half an hour. This is well worth doing, as they pack a whole lot more flavour and goodness than their bloated cultivated cousins the blueberries. And of course food you found yourself is always better. Somehow the dark purple stains on your fingers that resist all attempts to wash it off just enhances the taste!

A couple of handfuls of bilberries make for a very intense milkshake. This one was made with a few scoops of proper vanilla ice cream, a splash of milk and a couple of juicy peaches too. Depending on how sweet the bilberries you’ve got are it may be helpful to add a couple of teaspoons of sugar. I also added a couple of spoonfuls of bilberry sauce for intensity.

This simple bilberry sauce is my favourite thing to do with bilberries for sheer versatility. It intensifies the flavour and you can judge the level of sweetness to balance out any sourness in your crop as I have to admit that bilberries eaten straight from the bush are a bit of a lottery. There are always a few face-puckering moments.

It’s a sweet sauce, perfect on ice cream, muesli, yogurt or anything else needing an intensely fruity hit. But the power of the fruit is enough that you can pair it as-is with savoury foods like duck, mackerel, game, lamb or cheese. Or, use it as a base: I added a couple of teaspoons of brandy and a tablespoon of sherry vinegar to a few tablespoons of the sauce and then simmered it gently for another ten minutes before serving on poached and pan-fried pheasant breast. Another one that worked well was to saute some shallot and garlic in butter, then add the sauce and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Finish with a splop of cream.

Bilberry sauce

250g bilberries
2 tbsp apple juice
2 dsp honey
juice of half a lemon
4 star anise
pinch of salt
  1. Rinse and drain your bilberries, picking out any leaves and bits of twig that got in the tub
  2. Put all the ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer for about 20 minutes
  3. Check the balance half-way (blow on the spoon, the sauce will be volcanic!) and add more honey or lemon as necessary.
  4. Pour into a jar straight from the heat and put the lid on, turning upside-down once – the sauce will still be well above boiling hot and that sterilises the jar and lid pretty well. Note: there’s no need to pass through a sieve, there are no noticeable seeds in bilberries and the sauce is better for the texture of the berries.

Enjoy!

Review: Ceviche, Soho

My experience of South American food from the three months we spent there at the end of our year around the world was generally poor. How could a continent that provided us with so many of the most brilliant staple ingredients have such rubbish cuisine? And I don’t just mean the roasted guinea pigs. South America gave us potatoes, sweetcorn, tomatoes, chillies, peppers, peanuts, pineapples, the list goes on. Yet we spent most of our time there wishing we were back in South East Asia or Australasia.

Okay, to be more specific we spent most of our visit in Chile, and whether trying local restaurants in towns well off the tourist trail or opting for Lonely Planet favourites we found the food to range between passable and irredeemably horrid. Meat, meat, meat, uninspiring and usually served with suspect salad. Even their fantastic seafood was treated with sad disrespect by every kitchen we encountered. Odd forays into fine dining were predictably miserable. But perhaps we haven’t given Peru a fair shake yet, as our time there was centred on the tourist hotspot of Cuzco. The food was adequate tourist-fodder, at least up a notch on their southern neighbour. Lima we missed.

Which brings me to Ceviche, a friendly little joint in Soho that gave us a chance to explore more Peruvian delights. There was a nice buzz to Ceviche, as someone who works ground crew on the runway at Heathrow might say. Or as I might say, it was so astonishingly noisy that you had to hold direct-to-ear nightclub conversations with the other people at your table. This did result in me drinking rather too many pisco sours, as it was easier to keep my lips occupied that way than by trying to keep up a meaningful discussion. Maybe that’s their intention?

To the food. We tucked into some good ceviche of sea bass in tangy lime and chilli based marinade. If you’ve never enjoyed ceviche, this was a fine specimen as an introduction. I also picked out a variation that included basil and green mango. Oddly, it was less than half the size of the standard ceviche which for the same price seemed (perhaps unintentionally) mean and the mango and basil didn’t do anything exciting to the dish. I’ve had some dazzling ceviches (in Miami, not Peru) and they could certainly try harder here.

Some very nice skewers of grilled beef heart, one thing I do recall fondly from the continent. If you’ve never tried heart, it is muscle and so more akin to meat than to other offal. Grilled it has a deeply savoury, salty taste. The grilled fish and chicken skewers were also good, though hardly particular to Peruvian cuisine. Causa is a layered dish of cold mashed potato and various toppings. We tried a luridly colourful one of coriander mash with a beetroot topping, it looked the part and tasted… nice. I can’t really go beyond nice. The more typical causa, topped with avocado and a seafood cocktail, was a much better dish.

We washed our meal down with pisco sours and a number of other pisco cocktails, the best by far being a delicious concoction involving passion fruit and cinnamon. The staple pisco sour was also a good specimen, not over-sweet nor too strong. Our friend Tim stuck with wine but couldn’t find a glass that was any more than hmm. His advice: stick to the pisco. Puddings were okay rather than astonishing. Dulce de leche ice cream had the taste but lacked the expected slick deliciousness of that gooey South American treat. The lucuma ice cream had such a subtle hint of the fruit that it may as well have not been there.

If you want to try Peruvian cuisine, or you want to relive your trip to Machu Picchu, I’d say Ceviche delivers a solid experience of the staple dishes that everyone knows. Albeit without the fried guinea pig. But they don’t seem particularly adept when it comes to lifting these staples to another level, or riffing into the world of more refined cuisine. Stick to the basics and you’ll have a good time. With all the pisco sours we managed to rack up £50 per person including tip but every dish is under £10 so your bill is pretty much in your own hands.

Review: The Checkers, Montgomery

One thing a restaurant really can’t be blamed for is having to share a dining room with a big party of cheerfully noisy people. Indeed, as they’re likely to have a storming drinks bill it’s only to be expected that restaurants would actively court such parties.

The Checkers
is a cosy, friendly restaurant in the modern country hotel style. They scooped a recent Michelin star which was enough to drag us the forty minute drive from Ludlow. We were introduced to some very comfy sofas in the lounge for pre-prandial drinks, but I’d scarcely admired the huge old fireplace beside us when the big party drifted in. Swiftly armed with champagne they stood around us and nearly on top of us, chatting away volubly with old friends. My sofa felt like it had been transported to a house party for very mature students. Jarring, having just started to relax. I needed to find my zen. It would be terribly unprofessional to allow something like this to affect my review. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that a top-notch server might have noticed that the four poor souls adrift on their sofa in the middle of the party had fallen strangely quiet, and shuffled them off to their table a little quicker.

Of course we ended up sat right next to the big table. And of course one of the chaps was of the cheerful loudmouth variety who gets noisier as the evening draws on and apparently tells the most hilarious jokes ever heard in rural Montgomeryshire. The braying reached a point where I was ready to ask a waiter to please enquire politely if the table next door would kindly shut the frigging damn hell up? Zen. Zennnnn…

My starter was a generous plate of scallops, beautifully – perfectly – cooked and accompanied by a delicate fennel and ginger salad. They hadn’t been brave enough with the confit ginger, a shame as this was a spot-on match for the scallops when I did find a bit in my mouthful. The fennel by contrast didn’t give the scallops quite enough. Maureen’s spiced yellow fin was also very nicely seared and served up with soy and sesame dressing. For me the puddle of soy washing around the plate didn’t look very pretty, and we all agreed that there was a note of citrus palpably absent from this starter.

For main course I was seduced by roast squab pigeon with date puree, couscous and orange jus. The squab was dense and lovely, treated just perfectly. Good jus, good couscous, lovely slow-roasted tomatoes, but the date puree was a nigardly blob that disappeared with the first three mouthfuls of bird. It was the date that seduced me, dammit, I want more! Maureen’s rabbit was a truly single-minded plate of protein. If there was any carbohydrate present I missed it, and the blob of shallot puree and confit tomatoes were lost in the heap of bunny. Really, deliciously, beautifully cooked bunny though it was.

I finished off with a hot praline souffle, because I like praline and was intrigued to see how they’d managed to balance the obvious sweetness. They hadn’t. It was incredibly rich and sickly, and the scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side wasn’t going to do anything to control that. I couldn’t finish it. Maureen by contrast went for the selection of Checkers desserts and faced a mountain of puddings. They must have all been pretty good as the plate was devastated by the end, but we couldn’t find anything particular to hold up as amazing. It’s always good to have a real “Ooo… YUM!” from at least one pud on a selection plate.

The Checkers is a good find in the wild and woolly Welsh marches. From our visit I would say that their great strength is execution – everything is cooked to perfection. In contrast, they seem to have missed the mark a few times in balancing a plate or picking a combination. I’d go again, to see whether different menu selections turn out to be better balanced, although at £75 a head with only one-and-a-half bottles of wine between the four of us I’ll probably wait a little while.

Review: Tanroagan, Isle of Man

The Isle of Man is one of the most unusual parts of the British Isles. It is as much of a backwater as you can find on these busy islands and that’s a pleasure in many ways. Manx folklore abounds with tales of fairies and monsters, and every damp woodland or ruined chapel has some local fairy associated with it. We roamed mouldering castles, verdant glens and rugged coastline for two days with scarcely another soul in sight and often felt pretty close to bumping into the moddey dhoo, the mooinjer veggey or the fenodyree, to name but three of the Manx fairies. It’s a fey and fascinating place, made more so by the weather which has ranged from cheery sunshine to eerie fog within an hour. I’d recommend a short break over here, though you may struggle to fill an entire week unless you really like hiking.

Of course, in other ways being a backwater eddying along a couple of decades behind the UK can be detrimental, and certainly seemed to be in the case of eating out.

We had supper one evening at the best Chinese restaurant on the island (as proclaimed by more than one apparently independent adjudicator) and it was execrable in every way, from the wallpaper paste consistency of the hot and sour soup to the nasty beef and aubergine hotpot; bits of aubergine cooked down to lumps of snot with strips of black skin hanging off in a gloopy sauce oddly reminiscent of the hot and sour soup. We also tried the renowned Manx kippers, and found them to be just the kind of ho-hum kippers I remember

having for tea as a kid and nothing whatsoever like the gorgeous specimens from the Black Mountain Smokery that we breakfasted on at the Felin Fach Griffin a while back. We tried our luck on a new and rather expensive restaurant in the hills, only to be served the kind of stolidly unexciting food that classy restaurants felt safe charging top dollar for thirty years ago. They’ve obviously also only just discovered Italian coffee on the island, as every cappuccino I tried came as a mug (yes, a mug) of scalding hot milk with a trace of burnt coffee and a scurf of foam on the surface.

So it was a pleasure to enjoy one decent meal, at a little fish restaurant called Tanroagan just off the north quay of the main town of Douglas. The restaurant is tucked down a side road and is a cosy little hole-in-the-wall with just a handful of tables. Rustic décor with blue, yellow and white is just about spot-on for a friendly informal seafood joint. Service was patchy, hilarious considering there were two servers and only one other table seated when we arrived. This seems to be a theme on Man: our B&B had a detailed list of recommendations almost all of which said something along the lines of “good food, service patchy”. Of course, they also recommended the horrible Chinese.

I digress. Back in Tanroagan our starter was a tian of smoked haddock brandade topped with a crisp fried poached egg and surrounded by a ring of delicate hollandaise. The brandade was super, either very good smoked haddock or the chef had salted it a while before making the dish.

For the main course I couldn’t resist sharing a whole pan-roasted turbot. In hindsight this isn’t the best way to review a fish restaurant; rather like enjoying a simple steak, you can’t do much more than judge whether the chef has cooked it to the right degree. In this case he had, and it was a clean and meaty piece of fish. On a plate, with a lemon. Chips were pretty good, and the side of veg was suitably summery, tossed in a little hollandaise to enrich.

Back home I wouldn’t call this meal a bargain, nor would I laud it as a truly great fish restaurant. But given the competition we tried on our three night stay, I’d definitely say Tanroagan should be on your short-list of restaurants for any trip to the Isle of Man. They even made a perfectly acceptable espresso to round off our supper.

Spaghetti alla carbonara, essentially

I found a great recipe for carbonara on a delicious food blog called The Epicurean. He’s most definitely an epicure, having researched the history of carbonara and gone into serious detail on the perfect ingredients to use in the perfect carbonara. It’s a good read.

But it ain’t me at all.

In fact, I’m developing a theory that any recipe has a handful of essential rules and key ingredients, around which you can substitute and adulterate to your heart’s content without spoiling the fundamental dish. Here’s one: guacamole. As long as you (a) have avocado, garlic and lemon/lime in it, (b) don’t add mayonnaise, (c) mash with a fork (don’t blend), then you’re going to have a good guacamole. Pep it with chilli, include coriander, add tomato, sweetcorn, whatever you fancy but stick to the (a), (b), (c) and it’ll still be a guacamole. Or we could look at Som Tam, the staple Thai salad: (a) some raw shredded veg that has crunch, (b) lime + sugar + fish sauce + chilli + garlic + peanuts, (c) mash (ideally in a pestle), don’t just mix and certainly don’t food-processorise (is that a valid verb?). If you have those essentials then it doesn’t matter an awful lot if you are missing the beans, the tomato, or the dried shrimps, or indeed if you can find no green papaya and only have a celeriac in the fridge. The results will still be recognisably Som Tam.

So it is with most recipes, I think.

And so it is with a spaghetti alla carbonara. Purists will insist that it must use guanciale pancetta and that any addition of chicken or vegetable is no longer a carbonara dammit. But from my experimentation I would say that the essentials of a carbonara are as follows: (a) no cream goes anywhere near it, (b) the sauce is made by emulsifying egg yolks and pecorino with a splash of the starchy water from the pasta, (c) the meaty flavours of cured pork are vital, (d) toast and crush your peppercorns. This last one is important. If you want black pepper to sing out as one of the main flavours of a dish, rather than just a seasoning, you need to toast whole peppercorns for a minute in a dry pan and crush them. Pork fat + pepper + emulsified egg = carbonara. Frankly I have trouble getting pancetta of any kind in Ludlow, so it’s superb home-cured streaky bacon from the local butcher for me and spaghetti from the supermarket. Tonight I threw in par-boiled fine beans, the other night it was a fine dice of mushrooms fried in garlic.

Anyway, the essential recipe is down to The Epicurean and you can find it here. I’ve replicated it below with my own notes.

Spaghetti alla carbonara (serves 2)

200g spaghetti
50g pancetta
2 egg yolks
40g finely grated pecorino
1 tsp black peppercorns
  1. Get the spaghetti boiling in a big pan of well salted water.
  2. At the same time chop the pancetta (or streaky bacon) into small bits and fry them until the fat is golden and crispy in a pan. Let the pork and its fat cool a little. If very little melted fat has been generated, add a glug of olive oil to the cooling pan.
  3. Beat the egg yolks with a third of the pecorino and half the pork fat
  4. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the water, then dump the pasta into a large bowl
  5. Add the pancetta/bacon and fat to the pasta and stir, then add a good splash of pasta water and stir again. Now add the egg mixture and stir some more, then add the pepper and most of the pecorino and stir until you’ve got a sticky emulsified sauce all over the spaghetti.
  6. Job done. Serve and then sprinkle the rest of the pecorino over the top

It goes without saying that you can add any vegetables you like to the pasta at the same time as the pancetta. I think you could probably do the dish with parmesan instead of pecorino if that’s all you have. Probably not with edam though. You don’t need much of the pasta water, perhaps a couple of tbsp. Streaky bacon is a good substitute for pancetta, but back bacon doesn’t really have enough fat. I’m betting that a handful of chopped fresh herbs would add something special to this dish.

Now, does anyone want to add any “essential” recipes of their own in the comments? Or point me to any links?

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