Thursday, 26 September 2013

Northern Food on Tour: Self-catering in France

I really don't have a great deal to say about the things I ate and drank in France the other week. We kept it very, very simple.

Crusty bread

Peasant food, as Jamie Oliver might have it.... 'You see these rural types, dressed in rags, barely a centime to their names, and they'll have been down the marche and bought just three simple ingredients; bread, cheese and wine, from which they'll conjure up the most amazing meal. It's called bread, cheese and wine. Now why can't you do that, you fat English plebeians?' That's how I imagine he'd have it anyway.

Rillettes: food of the Gods

And that's what I ate and drank for most of the week (I say I rather than we, as my better half is pregnant. I tried not to gloat, really I did). Crusty bread, oozing cheese and the unexpectedly good local red. There were a few salads too, with plenty of tomatoes. And not much in the way of charcuterie but loads of rillettes. If you've not had rillettes before think very coarse, extra fatty potted meat. Eat slices of baguette smothered in the stuff and topped with cornichons for added bite. Ooh yeah.

Oozing Perail

The best two cheeses of the trip were both local-ish, being from neighbouring departements (we stayed in a gite in the Tarn region, an hour or so east of Toulouse). Both were of the typical French mouldy rind, oozy paste school of cheese. Perail a sheep's and Rocamadour a goat's, though neither were stridently sheepy or goaty, probably as I think they're eaten very young.

Plus de vin rouge (the finest wine known to humanity)

The best wine? A recycled plastic water bottle filled from a van sporting an assortment of hoses and pipes by a jolly, gesticulating Frenchman at the weekly market in the local town. It was a red from the Gaillac wine region just down the road, and proved an inspired purchase at two euros ten a litre. I'm crap at describing wine, so bear with me here, it was very fruity tasting, actually slightly grapey which is rare, but with none of that overbearing sense of Ribena you get with, say, a mass market Aussie Shiraz. Very fruity but still subtle, dry on the palate but not from a big whack of tannin. I'll stop now. It was very nice.

Need spring onions, honey, game, spices and melons? No problem.

The market in the local town, Realmont, was outstandingly good. There were stalls for literally everything. On the food front alone there were stalls devoted solely to things as wide ranging as salt cod, spring onions and vanilla, as well as the full complement of greengrocers, charcuterers, butchers, bakers and so on. If it hadn't been on the Wednesday morning with only three days of our holiday remaining I'd have gone wild.


It was just so splendidly French too. The sense of locality and terroir and the genuine importance of market day and the relaxed, good life and all that stuff the French are supposedly famous for. Groups of men standing around in berets smoking Gauloises and saying bof! a lot. That sort of thing.

Old and French

I might be gushing somewhat (and exaggerating), but there is something captivating about market day in an attractive country town in France. It seems daft to describe it as really French, it being in French France and all, but take England as a comparison. No town in England is quite so resolutely, so stereotypically English as a French town is French (except perhaps London, which is in the curious position of being by far the most and the least English place in England).

I haven't got a discernible photo of my steak and chips, so here's one of our lovely (French) garden

Enough musing on the nature of Frenchness, and a final word on the food, which I've realised as I write is going to turn into more of the same. We only ate out a few times all holiday, but I really enjoyed it when we did. Not because the food was special or amazing or even very interesting, but because it was done properly. Steak or a duck breast, chips and salad will make most people happy if the meat is singed on the outside, pink within, the chips are thin and crisp and the salad leaves are dressed.

That's all it takes to make me smile anyway, and on this trip it was perfect every time. We could still learn a thing or two about getting these basics right over on this side of the channel (meat somehow overcooked despite having little evidence of contact with anything very hot, mealy chips and undressed salad sound familiar to anyone?).

still French

In summary, having just re-read what I've written, I think France maybe regaining its crown from Spain as my favoured holiday eating destination. If you ever get the chance to visit the Tarn region or anywhere nearby, then I'd thoroughly recommend it. The countryside is all rolling hills and wooded valleys, and the towns are ancient, pretty and sport an interesting architectural style combining bricks with half timbering (imagine Castleford crossed with Stratford-upon-Avon. Or maybe don't).

Beans and sossidges

Finally, one last thing that I've just remembered. Tinned cassoulet is ace. I'm sure it's not quite up to the standards of a home made version, but I wasn't keen on spending my holiday soaking beans and confit-ing duck, so the tin had to suffice. If you liked tinned beans and sausages, you'll like tinned cassoulet. It's like a super premium version where the sausages have been upgraded and a duck leg thrown in for good measure. With bonus duck fat.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Noodle Inn, Sheffield (revisited)

I've eaten at two of the restaurants in Sheffield's Noodle Inn mini-empire before (see here and here), enjoying the meal on both occasions but finding it tricky to work out what they're actually best at, the almost novel sized menus proving a challenge.

A repeat visit to the original Noodle Inn on London Road enlightened me further in one regard: their roast meats are very good indeed, especially the belly pork.

Three roast meats and noodles in soup brought a competent broth, bouncy noodles, plenty of greens and a ridiculous quantity of meat for the £7.50 price tag. The belly pork was a dream, the thin layer of crackling fracturing on the bite to give way to melting fat and tender flesh. Spot on, and it didn't even lose the crunch after sitting in the soup for ages. Many a gastropub charging twice the price for the stuff could learn a thing or two from these lot.

The duck and char sui pork were also good, but it's the belly pork that's sticking in the memory, and that I'll definitely be back for.

Service was brisk and to the point, but that's fine by me. You come here to get fed not for someone to be all nice to you. £7.50 for a huge bowl of noodles, or £11 with a beer and service.


156 London Road
S2 4LT

Edit: The website has disappeared. Surely they haven't closed down in the last fortnight or so since I was there? and are still online...

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Bar 44, Cowbridge, Wales

Completely off-piste from my normal neck of the woods, and probably any of you who happen to be reading this too, but should you find yourself in the Vale of Glamorgan I'd strongly recommend you dine at Bar 44.

It's a tapas bar of rare quality. I dined alone there last week while working away in the area, and everything was bloody brilliant.

Catalan bread with tomatoes and serrano ham. Just very good bread, toasted and topped with a mush of tomatoes with actual flavour and a generous covering of glistening, gorgeous ham. This stuff reminded me how good serrano can be, how you can get something of the intense, lingering taste of the finest iberico de bellota without the scary price tag. Full marks for serving it at room temperature too, fridge coldness is the enemy of good ham but is often what you end up with early on a quiet weekday.

Crispy hake with alioli. Why isn't hake more popular? I rarely see it on menus and it's practically never sold in chip shops. I've no idea why as it has the right attributes; pearlescent, sweet tasting, flaky flesh in thick fillets that survive a good battering. The batter on these was spot on and the garlickiness of the mayo was judged just right too.

I think it might be the injudicious use of olive oil that makes veggie tapas dishes seem so luxurious. Chickpeas and spinach was a plate licking triumph of paprika laced deliciousness.

Finally, from the more ambitious dishes on the specials menu, iberico pork presa (shoulder) with apple puree and hazelnut crumble. I had to get something from an iberico pig in there somewhere didn't I? The apple brought a subtle hint of acidity, the hazelnuts variation in texture, but the meat was the star. Cooked blush pink, tender but not meltingly so, it had a sweet, lingering flavour not dissimilar to the ham but sort of milder, fresher. Marvellous.

The bill for this little lot came to around £25 including a glass of properly chilled Manzanilla. I couldn't fault the service, and didn't get any sense of my having 'outcast freak' status for dining alone (always a worry especially in smaller towns).

Excellent, and judging by the steady stream of punters arriving, the locals know it too. They also have another branch in Penarth, closer to Cardiff.


44c High Street
CF71 7AG

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Derby Pyclet Company, Derby

Resurrecting and reinventing great local food; - that's the tagline on the Derby Pyclet Company's website. The great local foods in question are pyclets and Derbyshire oatcakes, the latter essentially the same as the famous Staffordshire variety.

But what the hell is a pyclet you might ask? If I wrote pikelet instead perhaps that will help, as that's what I'd always known them as in Yorkshire. Think of a flatter, broader crumpet.

They have a stall in Derby's original market hall (the city has two, an enormous modern one and its Victorian predecessor which has somehow miraculously survived redevelopment as something other than a proper market) where you can buy the goods to take away, or sit at the counter and order them to eat there and then.

I did both, pyclets for lunch and a bag of six (£1.50) for breakfasts and snacks in the week. You can keep it simple with butter and jam or go all out with a more substantial topping. Two with stilton, walnuts and honey (£4) made for a hefty lunch, they're not small these pyclets, that's a large dinner plate they're sat on.

If I'm a honest a little too hefty. The cheese was excellent stuff, rich and creamy, but a bit overbearing with the sugar hit and the soft, doughy innards of the pyclets. Not that I didn't wolf down the lot. The pyclets are still great though, they just benefit from an age in the toaster. Toast the hell out of them (twice on a medium high setting should do the trick) until the edges are lovely and crisp, the insides chewy and yielding, and they're a delight. Spread with butter, butter and jam, or butter and cheese.

I'll be back to try the oatcakes.

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