Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Northern Food on tour: Tapas in Malaga

Ever since a trip to Madrid a few years back I've been obsessed with tapas. Tapas done properly that is, a succession of snacks and small plates eaten with drinks, often standing at the bar or perched on stools in a series of different bars. Not tapas in the classic British style, rocking up at La Tasca in a large group, ordering the selection menu and sitting down to get stuck in for a couple of hours. That's a party finger buffet with more seats, not tapas.

Doing it properly is just so much fun. It's such a civilised and convivial way to spend an evening, far more so than the traditional Anglo-Saxon approach to getting pissed. Why not dine with your drinks throughout the evening, having a nibble of something quality here and there, as opposed to the 'segregated stomach lining dinner, neck a load of pints, booze soaking late night kebab' method.

To be fair to us Brits we've come along way in recent years, the concept of dining while drinking is hardly an alien one, but we've a long way to go to match the Spaniards.

On the impression of one half day visit, curtailed in the evening by the need to rise at four the following morning for a stupidly early flight (thanks, as ever, go to Ryanair), Malaga is a fine tapas city. I don't think you'll get the culinary creativity of the Basques or the sheer variety and value on offer in Madrid, but you will be fed very well for a fair price, and you will have a grand time.

I didn't make note of the names and locations of the places we went to, but it's not really necessary. Malaga has a fairly extensive pedestrianised central area that throngs with people in the evening. Just follow the crowds and you can't go far wrong. The atmosphere on the Friday night we were there was wonderful, festive and friendly without the slightest hint of unpleasantness.

Hotspots are around Calle Marquis de Larios (of gin fame, possibly), Calle Granada, Calle Alamos and on all the little alleyways inbetween.

Here are some of the things we ate. I should mention that they do sell green foods as well (you know, vegetables and stuff), it just seems that we forgot to order any on this occasion.

Mini sandwiches that were far more interesting than they look. Two each of asparagus mayo and jamon iberico with some sort of rich mousse. I'm sure it was called mousse de ca, but this doesn't seem to mean anything in translation? It was very smooth and rich, but not livery. Both flavours were delicious, and they cost 1.20 euros for two.

Bacalao (salt cod) blinis. I absolutely adore salt cod in anything, especially anything deep-fried. These weren't deep-fried, but were delicious anyway. The cod had been given a good soaking so it wasn't overly salty and was beautifully textured (imagine good, firm smoked salmon). 1.20 euros each.

Patatas bravas. Got to get the carbs in right? The spuds were expertly fried and the sauce had a good kick to it, though I prefer the tomatoey version to the creamy one here. This was a bit pricey as the place was a restaurant rather than a bar;- 5.80 euros for the racion.

Pinchos! One of pork loin with brie and sweet onion, the other of chorizo with fried quail's egg and roasted pepper. These were probably the best thing we ate, the star being the lovely tender pork loin. 2 euros each.

This was a bit of an accident. We ordered a half racion of what we thought would be shallow fried mushrooms (as in olive oil, garlic, herbs, that sort of thing) and what arrived was a whole racion, meaning a bloody big plateful, of deep fried mushrooms. It turned out that this bar was a freideria, basically a frying bar, where absolutely everything, and I mean everything, was doused in batter and deep-fried.

Not the most exciting plate of food, but I really couldn't fault the outstanding frying skills. To coat a load of sliced mushrooms in a thin, light batter and fry them until perfectly crisp and completely greaseless is no mean feat. Great beer snacks these. 4.80 euros for a full racion, and not much more for the seafood plates.

There didn't seem to be much in the way of freebies on offer in Malaga, but we didn't have the chance to dig very deeply so some of the more hidden away places may come up trumps. Free tapas were limited to crisps and olives where we got anything at all. At the bar pictured above the olives were gratis and the manchego tapa was 2.50 euros.

Drinks are consistently cheap by UK standards, a small beer costing around 1 to 1.50 euros and a glass of wine usually just under 2. Sherry of any variety is always a good bet, being extraordinarily good value in these parts (generally a few cents cheaper than other wine rather than a quid or two more). 

All in all you can return to your bed fully sated and suitably merry for twenty quid. Next time you visit the Costa del Sol remember that there's much more to Malaga than the airport.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Northern Food on tour: Self-catering in Spain again

I wouldn't normally choose to holiday twice in the same place in a matter of months, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of others we found ourselves heading off to Malaga once more for a repeat of last September's festivities.

I'm exceedingly grateful that we did because we had just as much fun this time around, but with the added bonus of a) not having all of our documents and stuff stolen, and b) my making a marriage proposal (accepted, thankfully). Good times.

On the eating and drinking front it was largely another self-catering affair, save for a pizza lunch in Nerja, a very average, touristy menu del dia in Granada, and a mini tapas crawl around Malaga (of which more later). We ate the same sort of thing as last time;- plenty of fresh fruit and salads to balance out the inevitable ham, bread and booze.

I'll not bore you with all the details, but here are a few things that were new discoveries or particularly good in spring rather than autumn.

The seasonal goods were all a month or two ahead of Britain, asparagus and strawberries being in particularly fine nick. We bought both in the supermarket, but later spotted strawberries growing locally and being sold at just three euros for an enormous box full.

As an aside it's interesting to note the lack of variety in the Spanish supermarkets, or at least what I perceived to be so. The number of fresh produce lines must be barely a quarter of what you'd find in the average British supermarket, but things are evidently much more seasonal. Asparagus and strawberries were in abundance in April, but were nowhere to be seen in September. Do we really need to be eating such things year round, expensive and air-freighted from Peru, or should we do as the Spanish seem to and gorge on them for pennies, but only when the right time arrives? On the other hand the lack of variety is definitely just that where some things are concerned. Good luck trying to get fresh herbs in a Spanish supermarket.

What is always readily available, and in wondrous, inexplicable variety in even the crappiest stores, is seafood. Especially shellfish. Bigging up Spain for eating seasonally and locally falls down completely when it comes to seafood, as they'll import the stuff from anywhere on the planet so long as it's good.

A bag of plump raw prawns were outstanding dunked in pungent alioli after flash-frying in olive oil with a good grind of salt and pepper. Beautifully sweet and perky, they were even good enough to make me eat a few Chinese-style;- sucking the juice from the heads. The cost of these little beauties? Seven euros something a kilo, which would be plenty for about six people.

My final and most exciting new discovery, and the one most fittingly Spanish given its use of delicious Andalusian booze, is Pedro Ximenez sherry as dessert ingredient. This is hardly a new idea, but the first time I'd got round to trying it.

Pedro Ximenez, or PX as it's commonly known, is the sweetest of all the sherry wines. It's thick, almost treacly with a complex, raisiny flavour. First attempt was PX poured straight over vanilla ice cream. Very good, but there was better to come.

A few recalcitrant plums were the only rubbish fruit we bought, with dry mealy flesh making it a waste of time eating them raw. Cooking a plum often works wonders though, so I quartered them and baked them slowly (they were in a medium oven for over an hour) with a generous pour of the PX. The result, served with more of the same ice cream, was divine. Tender fruit oozing syrupy, umber juice that was rich in dark, tannic flavour. Writing this is making me crave it now. If you see a strange man in Tesco late at night buying sherry, fruit and ice cream that'll probably be me.

This time around we did a little bit more sightseeing, visiting Granada and Malaga. The former really needs no introduction, the Alhambra is one major destination that absolutely lives up to its billing. It's stunning, just go.

Malaga on the other hand is a little hard done by, it doesn't always get the best press but is really rather lovely, especially on a Friday evening when what seems like the entire population is out on the streets enjoying themselves: talking, strolling and eating and drinking rather well. I'm going to write about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Cod's Scallops, Wollaton, Nottingham

Silly name, outstanding product. That is the gist of the Cod's Scallops.

The finest fish and chips I've eaten in a long while, in the Midlands. Who'd have thought. I'm not being Midlands-ist but it's rare to find such mastery of the beef dripping art outside God's own county.

Look at that fish, pictured in glorious widescreen technicolour just for you. Burnished and golden, it screams eat me! Eat me! Imagine the pleasure as your teeth fracture the delicate batter shell and release the sea-steam, the fatty goodness gently coating your lips like the salve of your dreams.

Take another look. Here's an extreme close-up.

I didn't have to imagine it, I lived this dream. And you can too, if you go to Nottingham.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there, but it really was very good. The chips were excellent as well. Peas and curry sauce standard.

£5.90 for fish and chips. 80p for peas or curry sauce. Marvellous.


170 Bramcote Lane

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Noodle Inn Centro, Sheffield

After a few false starts I've finally eaten a really good Chinese meal in Sheffield. The Noodle Inn restaurants come highly recommended from those in the know, and after a solo visit to the original branch on London Road a while back I was almost convinced, but the gargantuan menu made it tricky to pinpoint the good stuff.

The new branch in town has a slightly more focused approach, there's still a lengthy Cantonese and Sichuan menu but no dim sum list to complicate things further. All of the main dishes are available as one plate meals with rice, a great option if there aren't enough you for a full on sharing feast (and if your dining companion isn't a spice fiend).

Gong bao chicken (it might have been kung pao on the menu here) was a cracking rendition. Laced with sichuan pepper and chilli and coated in an addictive sticky salty-sweet sauce, there are few things more pleasurable than scooping this stuff up with chopsticks. It's not just the flavour that satisfies, but the mouth feel; soft chicken, the crack and yield of nuts (cashews rather than peanuts strangely), tongue tingling pepper, fluffy rice.

A plate of salt and chilli chicken wings were also damn fine and utterly more-ish, as you'd expect meaty wings fried to a good crisp and smothered in fried onions, garlic and chilli to be. 

Sweet and sour chicken's not really my cup of tea, but A was happy with hers and it looked like a decent version. Only veggie spring rolls were a pointless, but then they always are.

The one plate meals are all under a tenner, remarkable value given their enormity. We took home enough leftovers for another full meal. In total we paid around £28 including a drink each and service. Free ice cream for afters too!

I'll definitely be returning to Noodle Inn. The keen pricing and name suggests a pile-it-high noodle bar, big on quantity but lacking in quality, but don't let that put you off as the food is far better than that provided you order carefully. A Red Chilli style Sichuan knees-up is definitely on the cards.


15 Westfield Terrace
S1 4GH

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Meat free breakfast of champions

In homage to my favourite breakfast of 2012 I've experimented with several variations on the french toast and syrupy fruit theme. Today was the best of the lot: a seasonal special of french toasted hot cross buns and caramelised apples served with yoghurt.

It really was bloody lush, although probably closer to pudding than anything anyone might realistically call breakfast. With a few minor alterations and a dollop of cream you'd have hot cross bread and butter pudding.

No matter, after a working week of weetabix or granary toast Saturday breakfasts are the right time for a little luxury. I can't think of many better options than this that don't involve pork, and just once in a while it's time to give the pig a rest. Honest. I won't be having bacon sandwiches tomorrow. At all.

This recipe makes enough for two.

What you'll need

3 hot cross buns
3 eggs
2 apples
sugar (caster or granulated and icing)
greek yoghurt

What to do

Core the apples then slice them thinly. Put a small frying pan over a medium heat and add a knob of butter. Add the apples to the pan and fry them until golden brown, turning them as necessary.

While the apples are frying crack the eggs into a jug or bowl, add a generous splash of milk, a small grind of salt and a heaped teaspoon of sugar, then whisk up with a fork. Slice the hot cross buns in half.

Set a large frying pan over a high heat and add a splash of neutral cooking oil. Pour the egg mixture into a shallow bowl or deep plate, then dip the hot cross buns into the mixture. Leave them in there for thirty seconds or so to soak up some egg before turning and repeating with the other side.

Remove the cooked apples from the other pan, turn the heat down a bit then add two heaped dessertspoons of sugar (granulated or caster) and a generous splash of water. Give it a stir.

Add the eggy hot cross buns to the hot frying pan and fry until brown and lovely before turning and repeating on the other side. While the buns are frying keep stirring the syrup pan until the sugar has dissolved and a syrup has formed. You want it to be quite runny but not watery. Either turn up the heat to reduce or add more water to loosen as necessary.

When the buns are ready turn them out onto a piece of kitchen paper, then throw the apples back in the other pan and stir them round to coat in the syrup.

Plate up the buns then pour over the apples in syrup. Add a big dollop of thick greek yoghurt then dust over some icing sugar.

Eat immediately, accompanied by a caffeinated beverage (tea or coffee, not coca-cola). Revel in its deliciousness. Enjoy the sugar rush. Get up and do something energetic before it wears off. Or go back to sleep.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Six Eight Kafé, Birmingham

Just a quick heads up about a great coffee shop in Birmingham. I seem to end up in Brum every few months or so to attend some seminar or meeting or other, which usually means arrival in the New Street dungeon, not enough time to find anywhere decent, then a day of mediocre caffeinated liquids to keep me awake 'til the train home.

I know there's good coffee to be had in Birmingham, but up until now it's never been right there when I need it. Six Eight Kafé changed all that last week, conveniently appearing in front of me mere yards before I reached my destination.

The now customary flat white was a bobby-dazzler. Beautifully smooth in texture, just the right size, and made with an assertive, dark and roasty espresso blend that really hit the spot. The sandwiches looked good too but I'd already eaten.

£2.40 for the excellent coffee.


Six Eight Kafé
6/8 Temple Row
B2 5HG

Monday, 1 April 2013

Damson, MediaCity, Salford

On arriving in the new Damson restaurant at MediaCity what immediately strikes you is the view. A sweeping cityscape seen through floor to ceiling picture windows, virtually none of which can be any more than fifteen years old. The area is starting resemble a coherent city quarter, alive with people and not just buildings, which isn't something that can be said about many attempts at large scale regeneration.

The jury remains out on what benefit the regeneration bandwagon brings to the area at large, you don't have to travel far from the shiny new world of the Quays to end up in some of the North's most troubled urban quarters, but whatever your thoughts on this you have to admit it looks impressive.  I just hope that the BBC and other new tenants have at least attempted a local recruitment drive.

Whatever employment policies are at work, there are certainly a whole bunch of media types in situ who categorically weren't here before. Luckily for them the highly regarded Damson (original restaurant across town in Heaton Moor, I've never been) are giving them somewhere better to eat than the chain dross that's occupied the remainder of the restaurant space on site.

Luckily for me and my work colleagues too, as we just happen to have considerably less glamorous premises two minutes around the corner.

We all ate from the pre-theatre menu, a short list of four starters, three mains and four puddings. It's not fixed price, so depending on your choices can range from only £16 up to £27 for three courses.

After some decent bread and very good quality butter I started with white onion and thyme risotto, wild mushrooms with parsley and garlic, smoked pancetta powder. The beautifully made risotto spoke for itself but I'm not sure the pancetta powder added much other than a hint of saltiness.

Grilled fillet of haddock, Asian greens with shitake mushrooms and a lemongrass and coriander broth was an accurate, delicate bowl of food. I usually avoid Asian dishes in European restaurants, because they tend to be a bit rubbish, so this was a pleasing surprise. The rich, fragrant coconut-based broth had the balance of a good Thai curry, just one with the intensity dial turned down a few notches.

Best of all was pudding, and it's not often that I say that. Pistachio financier, chocolate ice cream, sweet and salty popcorn sounded like it needed a dollop of cream in place of the popcorn, and arrived with an unappetising brown smear across the plate. First impressions were completely wrong though as it tasted divine. The vivid, powerful hit of chocolate melded with the nutty financier like a dream and the popcorn was much more than an irrelevance, adding a nice change in texture and that all important, addictive bit of salt. There really is a lot to be said for putting a little seasoning into dessert.

Everyone else enjoyed their meals too, on another day I'd have happily chosen three different courses from the same menu. How does Smoked haddock scotch egg, avocado puree, chorizo and red pepper dressing followed by Slow cooked pork belly, Bury black pudding and Lancashire cheese hash brown, spiced apple puree, honey pickled white cabbage and then Mango and passion fruit mousse, spiced roasted pineapple, poached kiwi and coconut granita sound? Good to me.

Service was excellent throughout our meal. I couldn't tell you how much the bill came to, I wasn't paying and we had a few drinks, but the three courses I ate would set you back £20. Recommended, for both the food and the view.


Damson MediaCityUK
Orange Building

M50 2HF

Damson Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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