Archive

Posts Tagged ‘nick harman’

Hens just wanna have fun

Nick Harman visits a Happy Egg Co farm to see if the hens are really smiling. Al Stuart takes pictures of birds.

There are just a few chickens to be seen in the area outside the hut at the Happy Eggs Co Bulbourne Farm in Tring, Hertfordshire. The farmer Jean-Paul (JP) Michalski reckons it’s because it’s too hot for them to come out, but it might just be because they’re camera shy.

They’ve had a lot of visiting journalists recently. Happy Eggs Co, owned and monitored by Noble Foods, are keen to show just how contented their chickens are and have been issuing invites to the press left, right and centre. So the 14,000 strong chook flock, housed in huts spaced across the 120 acre farm could be excused for having a ‘want to be alone’ moment.

Now of course serious food journalists would spurn such invitations, preferring to drop in totally unannounced or come over the wire at night dressed as anarchists. Well the first option wasn’t really practical for us and the second we dismissed because neither I nor the photographer wanted to get our noses pierced.

So there is the suspicion that, rather like a care home for the elderly warned of an imminent inspection, the managers have sent the moaners and troublemakers off for the day and shoved all the dead bodies into a locked room out of sight.

That’s cynical though. On this brilliant sunny day, the chickens we see do indeed seem very happy, although chickens tend to have a rather malignant expression at the best of times. Those that have braved the 30 degree plus heat outside are making contented ‘book book’ noises and drumming on the toes of our boots with their beaks like Gene Krupa after too much coffee.

‘All these young trees will soon grow to provide lots of lovely shade for them,’ says JP talking about the wild pear and other fruit trees planted in profusion about the shed area. The hen sheds, which resemble something out of Tenko, are themselves large and airy and are regularly dragged, literally, to new locations to give the hens pastures new to peck about in.

Novelty is important to chickens apparently, they are inquisitive creatures JP says, and this explains why structures normally seen in a kids’ playground are dotted about the hens’ large open areas. Chickens it seems, are girls who just wanna have fun.

Each morning the sides of the sheds are flung open and, when it isn’t so very hot, a tsunami of feathers floods out as the hens eagerly get outside to begin their day pecking at the ground, dust bathing and playing with the toys. Research has shown that bored, unhappy hens don’t just have a lower quality of life, they also lay less good eggs too.

In the sheds the smell is, well actually there is very little smell at all thanks to a grating that lets the droppings naturally fall away from the hens’ laying and sleeping areas. The hens are free to come and go as they please all day long and the hut design means that fresh air constantly passes in and up to exit through the top vents so making it pleasantly cool and breezy despite the sun beating on the roof.

The eggs the hens lay here in the semi shade roll gently to the back of the laying area where a small conveyor belt trundles them outside to be placed in boxes. It’s all very calm and the chickens are as docile as family pets; cheerfully nibbling at feed and taking water from the constant supply fed to their small beak-activated drippers.

JP picks up random chickens and strokes them, which they seem to enjoy, and he explains that he can tell the health of the hens from such inspections.  Hens apparently peck at each other when stressed so the feathers look bad and they would not be amenable to being picked up if they weren’t happy.

Of course the elephant in the hen house is what happens when the hens’ laying days are over? Well as you’ve probably guessed they are not given a lethal injection and full military honours burial in a plot overlooking the setting sun, but sold for meat to the far east.

The average life expectancy of a laying hen is fourteen months, when in fact they could live for over fourteen years, but old chickens do not lay satisfactory eggs for the supermarket buyers. JP does try and find the hens a life after lay, but with so many chickens becoming redundant all the time, only a small percentage can ever be rehomed.

Rather sad but the art of farming is one mixing pragmatism with decency. Happy Egg Co farms, as far as we could tell and were shown, are doing everything they can to ensure their hens are properly and ethically treated and the result is better eggs for everyone.

So pay the extra pence for Happy Eggs Co eggs when you’re next out shopping and see if you can taste the difference. Maybe you’ll end up happier too.

This article first appeared on Foodepedia

Walking with sheep

A 180 km trek is nothing to the sheep of the Lot Valley during their annual Transhumance. Nick Harman pulls on his boots and falls in behind

‘They aren’t moutons, they are brebis,’ explains shepherd Frédéric Lestang in the heavily accented, semi-patois French of the Lot valley. As we talk his dogs fall back through our legs and chase along any straggler ‘ewes’ from the 700 strong flock we’re driving down a narrow stone-walled path. The ewes pack together tightly as the walls funnel them in but they maintain their pace, clearly happy to be on the move.

Which is just as well as they’ve just begun a journey of fifteen days, one which will see them leave behind their winter pastures in the Lot valley and ascend 180 kilometres to the dormant volcanic slopes of the Cantal. Here fresh grass and wild flowers watered by the melted snow will feed them summer long while their pasture back in the Lot burns away in the heat. Frederic himself will live in a ski lodge alongside his flock until late August before they all descend in time for the ewes to give birth to their lambs, the ‘product’ that makes the money.

Behind us is a motley crew of walkers of all ages, skipping as they try to avoid the natural waste products dropped by the flock ahead of them. This is the Transhumance 2013, a sustainable and ancient practice newly restored to life that anyone can join in with for a morning, a day or even the whole fifteen day journey.

We’d left our initial starting place, the little village of Espedaillac, to the sound of accordions and long speeches and fuelled by wine, beer and chunks of barbecued lamb. The brebis had surged out of their pen like a woolly tsunami, all baa’ing loudly and clanking the bells they wear. Brilliant late afternoon sunlight soon replaced the earlier clouds and we began to regret wearing so many clothes as the walking became more demanding.

Each stage of the transhumance is calculated to be about right for an averagely healthy person as well as for the brebis and each ends with a welcome party in the village stop. After eating and drinking a coach is provided to take the walkers back to their cars. All walkers can book a stage ahead of time and be helped with a selection of B&B, hotels and gites.

The Transhumance project has only been running a few years but already it’s a great success, an example of how different government, tourist and agricultural groups can work together to create an event that is good for everyone and is great fun too. I spoke with village mayors along the route, as a well as with shepherds and fellow walkers, and the mood was consistently upbeat; one couple had even come all the way from Colorado, USA to take part.

Walkers can take time out from the stages whenever they want to visit the remarkable medieval towns and villages dotted all over the Lot. Places such as St Cirque La Popie, a town perched as if contemplating suicide over a steep drop into the Lot valley below, its streets and small shops populated by self-professed artists. Andre Breton had a house here and the views he had down into the valley are giddying, as no doubt were the surrealist friends who came to visit him.

Also nearby is Figeac, another of the transhumance stops, with more lanes snaking past houses built back in the distant past. But if all this antiquity gets a bit much though there is the Champollion museum, a modern masterpiece created from the shell of the house where the man who cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone was born.

Everywhere in the region you can eat well; this is the land of duck, saffron, cheese and in season, gorgeous truffles and ceps. I started my mornings with the local Rocamadour goats cheese drizzled with honey, a treat only to be enjoyed in the region as it’s best eaten at just six days old and doesn’t travel.

But I certainly travelled and after a few pleasant hours of walking on that first evening, taking in lungful’s of clear air filled with the aroma of emerging leafy growth, wild garlic and herbs, we crested a rise and suddenly we were on the edge of a drop with a view that had me stepping back involuntarily. Far down below us we could see the monastery of a village, shrunk to train set size by the distance.

‘That’s where we spend the night,’ said Frederic as the flock began the almost vertical descent down string-thin paths used for centuries by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The path was soon churned up by the sheep ahead and we found ourselves careering downhill  slightly out of control, boots sliding on boulders as round as marbles, frantically waving our arms and grabbing onto trees, as well as each other, to remain upright.

After fifteen minutes we landed, marching proudly behind what I was now beginning to consider ‘our flock’ and delivering hearty ‘bonsoirs’ to French villagers as they emerged from their houses in the gathering twilight to see us pass by. The younger ones gawked in amazement and the old ‘mamies’ and ‘papies’ smiled broadly, no doubt remembering seeing the transhumance back in their youth.

In the monastery grounds a traditional band had struck up old songs, the barbecue was grilling lamb and chicken and stalls were serving  the local delicacy ‘pastis’, a  saffron pastry not the drink, which was being quickly sold to hungry walkers. I sat myself down gratefully on a bench by a trestle table and greedily filled my plate with lamb chops, their fat crispy and rich and the meat beautifully pink and moist.

A large plastic cup of red wine from Cahors to the south made it a meal that was the equal of anything I’ve eaten anywhere. Sometimes the meal that you’ve earned with your muscles tastes better than anything else in the world.

I rested my weary legs, felt healthier than I had in an age and began looking forward to getting back to my hotel, and then next morning after a good breakfast with that goats cheese figuring strongly, getting back on the trail and walking behind the brilliant brebis once more.

The Transhumance will take place again next year  www.transhumance.info/participez/

Thanks to www.tourisme-lot.com and  www.valleedulot.com for their invaluable help

 This piece appears on Foodepedia

Trying the tapa de ancho at Gaucho

Raw and ready

Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather different.  Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t’ the kind of place to take Morrissey for a snack.

Always nicely dark inside, you fall over the furniture a lot until your eyes adjust, it also benefits from an excellent Argentinian wine list. At a time when one rather suspected South America was dumping their inferior wines on the UK, the wine list at Gaucho was and remains a taste of what’s really available if you know where to look.

Of course the snobbier foodies never ‘got’ Gaucho, they dismissed it as too downmarket, it wasn’t properly connected to the right people in the right places, and it it was suspected that it might even harbour right wing tendencies, what with it being Argentinean and all. But Gaucho has got on with the task, serving up steaks to the masses and doing a good job of it, Gauchos now litter the pampas of London and remain popular with ordinary everyday folk looking for a reliably decent bit of steak any day of the week. Hearing of a new menu, we herded ourselves into the Swallow Street branch for a look see. Read more…

Trying the tapa de ancho at Gaucho

Raw and ready

Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather different.  Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t’ the kind of place to take Morrissey for a snack. Read more…

15 Westland Place, Shoreditch, London, N1 7LP www.fifteen.net

We do a lot of terrible things for charity us liberals; we buy dusters at ten times the going rate from shell suited, fast talking, wide boys at our door, we pretend to find the Big Issue a Good Read and we eat at Jamie’s 15.

Jamie’s 15 was perhaps the worst restaurant I ate in during 2007; the food was rubbish and overpriced, the tables smeared from wipes with filthy rags and the staff indolent and insolent. Jamieland souvenirs were being sold to gullible Americans and out of towners and the champagne socialists of North London were grimly eating as if it was their last ‘supper’. I didn’t go back and swore I never would, despite the obvious good intentions of the place.

But then a press release arrived saying that all had changed, there had been a design revamp and a bright new chef put in place. Gone was the dodgy Italian menu and in its place a British seasonal one had landed. That, and the fact that the area had changed its demographic since 2007, was enough to lure me back for lunch and a look see.

The City Road hasn’t changed much though, it’s still one of the noisiest, most brain-damaging traffic heavy streets in London, but Old Street tube station has moved on. Purged are the tramps and winos, now young people working in New Media throng through, all dressed the same and sporting self-satisfied expressions that say ‘I am here, I am in the centre of everything hip. I don’t work at a desk, I work in a space.’

Not many of them in Jamie’s 15 though, but then he’s probably old enough to be their dad, instead the 30 something bosses of those New Media companies fill the tables looking sharp in Gap. There’s an open kitchen at one end with a hunky looking pizza oven, although there appear to be no pizzas on the menu, and the feel is far more attractive than before. The tables and glasses are clean for one thing and the bar looks inviting.

The menu from chef, and mate of Jamie, Jon Rotheram is full of stuff I want to eat, but concise enough not to induce a headache of indecision. Jon’s time at St John is evident but this is not a clone, his own ideas are strong and only the focus on seasonal, simplicity and quality is carried through.

The dishes are for sharing, which is a concept I’m never very happy about being an only child, and it’s not always practical. How do you share a broth? With two straws? Not wanting to re-enact The Lady and the Tramp, we passed on that one.

Asparagus and courgette fiercely roasted in that pizza oven and topped with a gloriously glowing egg, was easier to share once the egg had been burst and stirred through. The ‘grass was crisp, the egg exemplary but where was the advertised truffle? No sign nor scent of it.

Pink Fir, Lincolnshire Poacher and wild garlic was fill your face gorgeous; Pink Fir, along with Ratte, are the best potatoes in the world for serving simply boiled or steamed  and the gummy, tangy  puddle of cheese clung to each piece tenaciously with the slight whiff of the wild garlic shooting through. We called for bread to mop up every last sticky bit of it.

And then there was Swiss Chard, the hardy beast of the green party, nothing can take it down not even a British winter and this was the first of the new year crop. At this pak-choi sized stage the leaves and stalks can remain wedded in the pan, as they cook at almost the same speed, and the leaves have not yet developed the super-metallic tang they pick up as the season progresses. A small lake of butter meant we deployed more bread and forgot about the cholesterol count.

The Portugese love pork and clams and so do I, there is a love there that is greater than the love between men. 15 makes it British-ish by adding slow braised pig cheek. The fat was gluey in a very good way; it stuck to the teeth like candy floss and was sweet like honey. This suited the clams very well, served in their shells and smugly plumply briny. White beans added extra protein and sucked up some of the surrounding juices and the laver bread, that peculiar Welsh staple, was an interesting cast member, but here it looked good but only really mumbled its part.

And then there were sweetbreads, an excellent foodstuff to freak out Americans I always find. They need a careful hand in the cooking; the sweetbreads, not Americans, and these were done very well. The texture resistant at first then morphing into the requisite creaminess and served with crisp purple sprouting broccoli and new season garlic. Our French waiter looked on approvingly, his smart service a model of only being at table when needed and not to keep pointlessly topping up the water every few minutes.

We were told there was a standard delay of 15 minutes for the Hazelnut madeleines, which would have seriously inconvenienced Proust, but didn’t bother J who elected to wait despite my increasingly itchy feet. When it arrived it didn’t prompt any buried childhood memories in him and when I asked him later what it had tasted like he couldn’t remember that either.  Ah well, so desserts didn’t quite do it.

The main thing is that this visit to Jamie’s 15 erased the bad memory of my first one. The food felt good and was properly priced, and the staff were as professional as can be. As a place for a democratic meal, something for everyone and as a post workstation drink and a nibble it seems to hit all the right notes.

The only shame is that 15 was allowed to be subpar for so long before Jamie realised that even liberals won’t put up with bad food for a good cause for ever.  The good news is that Jamie’s 15 no longer needs a charitable review.

Carrara at St James

March 18, 2013 1 comment

Bling-tastic

Dinner, a show and the last train home. It’s the perfect evening for many people but one all too often spoilt by panicky clock watching. Theatres don’t hold curtain up just because your dessert’s been delayed or because the waiter, all over you like a cheap suit when you arrived, is now MIA just as you need the bill – and pronto.

Covent Garden and Shaftesbury Avenue around 7pm are packed with pre-theatre diners wandering about in increasing desperation trying to decide where to eat. Many, if not most, are concerned about delays and will opt for a chain serving steaks or burgers. The food may be boring but it’s worth it for the reassurance of speed.

St James, the first purpose-built theatre complex to open in London for 30 years, has a solution; a brasserie downstairs, a restaurant upstairs and shows for all sorts in the theatre space, or the less formal studio, which was where we were headed for some comedy stylings. But first, let’s look at the food.

The restaurant Carrara at St. James is reached by a marble staircase that’s straight out of a rapper or Russian Mafioso’s wet dreams. It’s marble and it is rather magnificent and opens out into a restaurant that’s bright and modern. Open all day it has proper tables with linen napkins and other fancy things that drive young people mad, but that oldies like me rather appreciate. The menu is ‘Modern European’ which is a catch-all and rather meaningless term; what would Old-Fashioned European be? Spit roasted wild boar?

The point is that like a hotel restaurant, Carrara is obliged to offer something for everyone because their customers could be from anywhere. There’s a Pre and Post Theatre Menu – 2 courses for £15.50, 3 courses for £19.50 – which reads pretty, and a full menu with stalwarts such as steak, pasta, spatchcock poussin, calves liver and fish and chips, as well as slightly more exciting stuff like confit duck leg. Well exciting for many out of town arts lovers anyway.

Of the starters we liked the rabbit terrine, a good and chunky slice that went well with the pickled blackberries, a foraged kind of food and something the rabbit himself may well have eaten ( do rabbits eat fruit? Is it part of their 5 a day?). Also noteworthy was the grilled squid which would have been a bit better with clearer seasoning, salt in particular, but the seared scallop with black pudding is a no fail concept and it didn’t here.

For mains P wimped out on by having a steak, the choice of timid diners everywhere, but it was a good steak cooked properly medium rare as asked for and with chips which weren’t ‘triple cooked’ just properly cooked and served in a cutesy mini frying basket. A bit pricey at £22.50 but worth it.

For me there was a confit duck with cannellini bean cassoulet and an orange reduction. The duck had been decently finished so that the skin was crispy and the meat soft. The beans seemed to be dried ones, soaked and cooked, with a good firmness to the bite that you just don’t get with tinned ones – time saving shortcut though they may be.

Rather too many beans on the plate, but you aren’t obliged to eat them all and too much is better than too little I suppose. The orange reduction worked, a duck a l’orange for the modern world. Nothing noteworthy, nothing to get foodies in a froth, but two dishes professionally done and decent value for money. Desserts maintained the middle of the culinary road; a much better than average sticky toffee pudding managed to deliver the expected sugar rush, but didn’t settle on the stomach a like sack of treacle, and the lemon panna cotta was sharp and cleansing.

The ‘studio space’

And so to the show. I know it’s not my remit to be a comedy critic but I liked the studio space and the stage’s intimacy with the audience.  The compere Carl Hutchinson was truly excellent; the stand up, Tommy Rowson  had good material which he tended to fluff by mistiming.  Main act, Jigsaw, was made up of three people flinging out Radio4/Footlights -ish sketches at high speed, some of which worked and many didn’t, but the two men and one woman didn’t seem to care either way. Ned Sherrin would have lapped it up, but I suspect one of the trio will find himself ejected from the act when the other two get down to some pillow talk.

A short walk from Victoria station, well-priced and well-done food pitched at the right level, plus an eclectic range of shows in an ‘off-Broadway’ style, St James should get audiences in abundance.

My name’s Nick Harman, goodnight.

See more of St James upcoming shows

12 Palace Street, London SW1E 5JA www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Enter the rhubarb triangle

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

No false modesty here

‘If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the rhubarb growing,’ says Janet Oldroyd Hulme as we all obediently fall silent and strain our ears. Silent that is but for the odd sibilant plastic rustle as a kagoul-clad pensioner attempts to stabilise himself on the cold, wet slippery earth of the candlelit forcing shed.

‘Well you could if these were still at the initial growing stage,’ admits Janet, finally breaking the mystic spell.  ‘Rhubarb grows at around an inch a day and at the early stage there’s a definite creaking sound as it pushes up. Right, now back outside please!’

There’s actually a bit of a noticeable creaking sound as the pensioners all get their legs going again and compliantly shuffle out of the shed to the rhubarb shop, threading their way through the spooky, albino-ish shoots visible only by the guttering light of the candles on sticks dotted about.

The weigh in

We’re all on safari in the heart of the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, the area of West Yorkshire where rhubarb is king, a top seasonal crop appreciated  by savvy chefs all over the UK. Each morning the forced rhubarb from here is picked and sent out by fast trains to discerning buyers across the country, including Harrods, where it fetches a high price.

I’ve tagged along with the pensioners’ day trip to the Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm to find out a bit more about a vegetable (often mistakenly classed as a fruit) that rather blighted my younger days. My father, like so many dads back then, always grew rhubarb on his allotment and it appeared, stewed and covered in claggy custard, every weekend during its season, the sour oxalic acid coating my teenage teeth and haunting my dreams.

It wasn’t of course quality rhubarb like this. Before ushering us into the ghostly sheds Janet, a fourth generation rhubarb grower, treats us to the history and practice of rhubarb growing, especially forcing.  Grown in the UK since 1870 and originally from Siberia, it’s a vegetable rich in flavour as well as having a positive and balancing effect upon the digestive system and one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. There are even claims that rhubarb root (Rheum officinale) can be useful in treatment of Hepatitis B.

Listen carefully

Back in the day amateur growers like my father would place a bucket over the dormant rhubarb ‘crowns’ in winter so that when the shoots emerged in the spring they would be starved of light and blanched, so producing a lighter coloured stem and a more delicate flavour. After that initial first flush, the bucket would come off and we would then eat ordinary rhubarb until the longed for day when the bitter oxalic acid became finally too strong and it was time to let the plant get on with storing energy in its roots for the next year.

It’s this stored energy Janet explains, that the professional growers harness to create an even more delicate crop than blanched rhubarb; the famous Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Late in the year, once they’ve suffered the crucial cold spell they need to break their dormancy, the two or three year old rhubarb crowns are dug up from their fields to go into dark heated sheds where, seduced by the cosy warmth into thinking that Spring has sprung, they begin to quickly grow.

in the pink

With no light to photosynthesise by the emerging shoots have to call on that stored energy in their roots, which is enough to give them their remarkable growth spurt and to produce their uniquely tender and highly sought after delicate champagne pink stems. Once the growth is over, the exhausted crowns are chopped up and recycled back onto the land.

Not so long ago there were nearly 200 rhubarb growers at work in the triangle, but today there are less than twelve. It’s a shrinkage caused by the availability to the consumer of more tempting exotic fruits, by the increasing lack of the necessary cold autumns, the absence of ‘shoddy’, a cheap by-product of the woolen industry traditionally used as fertiliser, and the decline of the local coal mining industry that gave these sheds their relatively cheap source of heating.

Today bought-in fertiliser and expensive propane are what fuel the rhubarb’s growth and so drives up growers’ costs and the price to us in the shops. And then there are the cheaper, but far inferior, imports from Holland and Turkey to contend with.

£2.50 a packet at source

Traditional growers such as Janet hear the rumours of their industry’s imminent demise but believe the future is actually assured. As she explains, new varieties can adjust for the warmer autumns while modern insulation techniques now make the sheds cheaper to heat. As for the foreign imports, in 2010 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) granted local forced rhubarb the same protected name status enjoyed by products such as champagne and Parma ham. Now no producers of rhubarb outside the West Yorkshire triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield can now pass off their forced rhubarb as the real thing. Hooray for DEFRA.

That night in London we cook the bunch of Janet’s forced rhubarb that I carefully carried all the way back to town. We make a simple but classic rhubarb crumble and the flavour is delicate, sour-sweet and delicious and, although Dad can’t see me because he’s now on the big allotment in the sky, I raise a custard-coated spoon in tribute to his taste; he was right all along, rhubarb really is rather excellent.

Visit Oldroyd Hulme rhubarb farm

Find rhubarb recipes

Frying tonight. Madrid tapas tour

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

San Sebastian may have all the headlines when it comes to food, but Madrid can still make the grade. And when you get tired of tapas, there’s the museums and art to graze on. With Gastronomica Madrid 2013 now in full effect, Nick Harman hit the city streets to see what’s on offer.

Oh to be young again

Do you like football? Do you like tapas? Then you’ll love Puerta 57 in Madrid. Pass through the busy Barra Cibeles, redolent of garlic and the after shave of well-dressed Madrilenos, into the Salón Madrid and you’re gazing down at the floodlit ground of the Real Madrid stadium. Way down there epic matches have been fought and the sainted feet of Beckham once regularly twinkled over the hallowed turf. Up here your only struggle is to decide which of the premier league tapas on offer to put in the back of the net next.

Crispy prawns

I ate a Russian salad that would have made Lenin turn capitalist and plump prawns robed in a delicate web of dry, crispy batter. A plate of cutely shirt button sized clams, briefly steamed open, drenched in garlic, butter and oil and whisked over to diners from a stove just ten feet away, were sweet and nutty. I could have stayed all night.

La Dorada (obvs)

But the essence of tapas is to taste and move on and so fuelled by Rioja it was off to La Dorada. A seafood place (a dorada is a sea bream) with an ancient wooden bar running deep into the gloom at the back, it has a more informal vibe. The fact that it couldn’t be further from the sea, Madrid being pretty much in the dead center of Spain, doesn’t stop the fish here being first class.

Anchovies. Or whitebait. I don’t know.

Whitebait, or possibly fresh anchovies, came in light batter and in heavy profusion together with seared cubes of dogfish, or rock salmon as we sometimes call it in the UK.  It’s a relative of the shark (the barman resorted to miming Jaws to explain this) and fried it has pleasingly solid texture, almost like monkfish. A plate of fried eggs slipped on top of matchstick sized battered and fried fish was my favourite here, the egg broken as soon as the plate landed so as to ooze out into the fried fish and make a delicious mess.

Plastic chillies, not so hot

Io restaurant was next, my progress now a little slower owing to the amount of fried food I’d taken on board, not to mention all that Rioja. Deep in the financial zone of Madrid, Io looks the part – smart, shiny, sleek and modern and with a bouncer on the door. ‘No I’m not!’ corrected the hombre, ‘I look after people’s cars as the parking’s a nightmare around here.’

Croquetas

The tapas at Io are advertised as modern; meatballs arrive on dinky white mini-plates along with delicate croquetas of jamon and salt cod with a bath of mayonnaise for them to be plunged into. A little lacking in atmosphere in the evening, Io is probably livelier at lunch when the local businesses pop in.

I’ll have three of those

I swung by the Mercado San Miguel in the old town, built in 1916 this was once one of the city’s main covered market places but today it’s been refurbished to be a more modern home of tapas bars and food shops. The original cast iron pillars soar up to support a roof of wooden planks and its location near to Madrid’s main square makes it popular at all times.

Messy eating

There are over 30 food stallsand a great cookbook shop here by day, but at night the tapas bars spill out to occupy any spare space. It’s crowded all the way up to closing time and like our own Borough Market it’s a bit touristy and pricey, but for at least an hour you can happily wander about, shoving through the good-natured crowds and grabbing a bite here and a booze there.

The chef, not bothered by my gastric reaction to his ‘tortilla’

And finally to Estado Puro. Based in a hotel, this is nowhere as bad as that might suggest. The decor is designery and it’s convenient for a post Prado museum stop. They do a modern tapas menu here, but for me the mussel ‘meatball’ went too far and hit the gag reflex. The chef is ex El Bulli, so that means some creative ideas are on offer. Sliders were overly salty, but then you shouldn’t really go to Madrid to eat that kind of stuff anyway. Much better was ‘21st century tortilla’ which came surprisingly in a glass, the potato foamed on top of a runny yolk with some fried onion. You had to down it one and, tasty though it was, I began to get that familiar Fat Duck/El Bulli sense of queasiness coming on, although I suppose after four hours, lots of fried food and big glasses of red wine, it may not have been entirely the tortilla’s fault.

Olives on sweet pastry. About as unpleasant as it sounds

And so to bed, barely scratching the surface of Madrid’s food offerings, and regretting rather the Spanish people’s seeming suicidal disdain for green vegetables in favour of meat and fried things. But then who doesn’t like fried things, and let’s face it you can always eat salad tomorrow!

Madrid’s Gastronomica festival  ‘for the five senses’ runs from 19 January to 3 February offering tapas routes with a signature tapas and a bottle of local beer for €3, as well as selected restaurants serving special set price menus at € 25 and €40. There are also six selected ‘super’ restaurants at €75, one of them being cheffed by our own Simon Rogan from L’Enclume.

Yay chorizo!

The full Madrid Gastronomica programme can be seen here.

Puerta 57, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid. Access from Gate 57 in Calle Padre Damián

La Dorada, Orense 64, Madrid, SpainIo, Calle Manuel de Falla 28036 Madrid

Mercado San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel, Madrid, S Open until 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and until 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday

Io, Calle Manuel de Falla 28036 Madrid

Estado Puro, Plaza de Canovas del Castillo, 4, Madrid, (Centro, Cortes / Plaza Santa Ana)

Spanish Tourist OfficePO Box 4009London , W1A 6NB

info.londres@tourspain.eswww.spain.info

Chez Gerard -Bishopsgate

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

64 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AW www.chezgerard.co.uk

Tres Braz

Many years ago I’d ride the creaky lift at Covent Garden station and my eyes would fall on an advert that never seemed to change. ‘Chez Gerard,’ it said, ‘ best steak-frites this side of Paris.’

I’d never actually eaten steak frites in Paris, so had no idea of the size of the gauntlet being thrown down, but the claim was intriguing.  I meant to go and find out, it sounded tempting enough, but other meals got in the way and so Gerry had to make do without my custom.

And then of course I was too late; the Chez Gerard group was bought in 2011 by a division of Raymond ‘Voila!’  Blanc’s empire, to be rebranded as Brasserie Blancs. However some kind of change of heart has taken place and after a big revamp the restaurant in Bishopsgate is determinedly and proudly a Chez Gerard. Time to check out that steak boast.

It’s very City inside – J and I being the only people in the restaurant not wearing ties. Downstairs is a busy bar while upstairs there’s a la carte on offer. It’s a bit of a climb up there as the lift only takes one person – presumably it was designed by the same people who make the escape pods for Bond villains. Read more…

Flatiron steak, Soho

December 31, 2012 2 comments

17 Beak St, Soho, W1F 9RW flatironsteak.co.uk

Covetable chopper

I’m not the world’s biggest steak fan, it’s what people who don’t normally eat in restaurants, eat in restaurants. It’s my distress purchase in a country pub, because whatever else ‘chef’ may foul up from the freezer you can be fairly confident that he can cook a steak, or its minced equivalent the burger, adequately well.

What I would dearly like to rediscover, like lost innocence, is the steak restaurant of my youth, the Tavern in the Town in Croydon. My 11 year old self loved it in there – the faux Tudor decor, the big steaks with the cross-hatch grill marks, the lavish chips, the frozen peas, the tinned slippery mushrooms and the great big grilled tomato. Oh you may curl your lip in middle class disdain, but it was just great.

Which brings us to Flatiron, Soho where a steak is £10 with salad, if you can call a glass of mache a salad and they do. It comes ready sliced on a board, thus negating the need for the very stealable mini cleaver provided as a knife, and flatiron is a New Yawk cut of meat not all that well known in the UK although apparently called a Butler’s Steak over here.

Cut from the shoulder it’s a bit tougher than your average steak and so Flatiron sous vide it.  Now sous vide is a tricky thing, it’s very useful in professional kitchens as a means of prepping food in advance, but the resulting meat desperately needs to be finished over or under a flame, otherwise it comes out with both the texture and allure of baby food.

Bring your own cushion

I like to wrestle with a steak, shirts off like William Shatner in Star Trek, the hard-won bits are where the flavour is and that’s why onglet is so good. Flatiron’s steak is butter smooth, you could cut it with an airline spork, but they do a pretty good job of getting some texture and caramelisation on the outside, so saving it from being anodyne but it needs a bit more. Of course getting in a Josper or a charcoal grill would be expensive, but a hotter pan would probably do just as well.

The chips are rather good, the tasty crispy bits lurking at the bottom of the tin dog bowl they’re served in indicative of the real deal. The market greens of savoy cabbage steamed and served in another tin bowl are wrong, it’s school dinner cabbage even though it’s not been boiled to death in the approved manner. The steak sauces meanwhile are serviceable.

Seating is at funky tables with fixed wooden disks for seats that you swing your leg over as if mounting a culinary motorbike. There are no single tables only group ones, but then you’d hardly be coming here for a romantic meal would you. Wines come in specimen flasks of various sizes, which is handy, and they’re good enough for steak.

The decor, menu fonts and other style elements borrow magpie-like from the scenester mono glottal restaurants – your Polpos, your Meatliquors, your Pitt Cues, etc. – but pinching other people’s proven ideas isn’t such a bad idea if you’re looking to steer a safe course.

Whether it is a safe course overall is debatable. Nothing wrong with the food at the price, but the same people who ‘bloody loved’ this kind of thing mid 2012 are now turning their butterfly minds to the next fashionable thought. But for non scenesters who just want to eat in a ‘clean, well-lighted place’ and not make a style statement, tweet  or take photos of their food then Flatiron has only a few wrinkles.

Photos-  Paul Winch-Furness.