Ode to The Pub

So, there I am – a couple of years back – one of those lazy, hazy summer days before the madness and mayhem of my current life, sat in this pub with a mate just chewing the fat. You would think that all’s well with the world. Except it isn’t, because the ‘pub’ in which we find ourselves ensconced, isn’t really a pub at all. For a start, there’s not a real hand pull in site – I’ve seen more decent pumps at the local Q8 than in this dubious boozer. And talking of boozers, it doesn’t really fit that description either. That would imply an assortment of colourful characters philosophising, jovially haranguing, and speculating on how to find love in a dark place. This gaff is wall-to-wall Girls Aloud – okay, could be worse. Except this proliferation of totty is a major distraction from the serious business of getting a little toasted. And then there’s the problem of what to drink. There’s nothing on the gleaming chrome taps to give the slightest hint of what carbonated nonsense is going to pour forth. One thing’s for sure – whatever does come out will be cold. In fact, judging by the ice-clad, dispensing sculptures, it’ll be bloody freezing.

With a heavy heart, there’s nothing for it but to hit the top shelf and reminisce on the good old days. And then the magic starts to happen. Gradually, through hazy, starry eyes, those ‘Angel of The North’ size bar taps take on the good old phallic shape of pumps gone by; the chinking glasses of Chardonnay against Pinot Grigio becomes the resonant clash of the titans as eye-wateringly hoppy IPA meets viscous, dark stout. The Thai prawn and guava Cajun tortilla wrap combo morphs into a golden globe of free-range Scotch egg, while the bottle-tossing barman seems to be suddenly delivering an aerated pint of the finest, pillowy-headed bitter. Happy days, and me and my mate are in full flow – waxing lyrical about beer and food; imagining flavours long since gone, and atmospheres of a bygone age. Maybe we’re just a couple of old farts getting pissed in a place we simply don’t belong. But then again – maybe not, because do you know the best bit of all? Girls Aloud are still alive and kicking, crystal clear and gazing in our direction. By George, I think we’ve just conceived our perfect pub. Cheers!

My life in a pie and a pint

There’s a howling wind whistling through a gap in my faulty Velux window allowing the lashing rain to dampen, not only my kitchen floor, but my spirits too. If it were not for the unassuming morsel in front of me, I would be seriously questioning the wisdom of my recent south north migration. This edible source of Zen-like karma is a Frank Woods pork pie. Still warm from the butcher’s oven, it is a classic water-crust pastry encasing perfectly seasoned, free-range meat moistened by molten jelly. In a nut (brown) shell – it is an artisan parcel of free-range goodness, epitomising everything that is to be celebrated about local, passion-driven fare. Believe it or not, it is also the straw that broke the camels back in influencing the return to my native Yorkshire.

Having sold-up a thriving bar business in Harrogate some years previously, I had headed to London in search of streets paved with truffles – not for my own consumption you understand – no such small fortune. No, it was time for me to pursue my life-long passion on a new level: I was going to learn to cook ‘restaurant-style’. I hurled myself with sweaty abandon into the steamy, high-pressure kitchens that contribute to London’s new status as a world food capital, with the blind conviction of a lemming off a cliff. I had the full experience all right: those white Alba truffles were everywhere; seared slabs of melting foie gras oozed through labyrinth, sub terrain corridors like arterial cholesterol, while every variety of quail’s egg-garnished, finger-licking canapé was laboriously prepared around gleaming stainless steel tables. My previous passion for beer – no time to drink it anymore – had to be channelled into cooking with it, and matching it with food. Eventually, nice people in the media even invited me to demonstrate, broadcast and write about what I was doing with the amber nectar. But I was pining for the pies.

Don’t get me wrong here, there’s plenty of scope in the big smoke to enjoy great regional produce without pretence: The gastro-pub concept has been expanding exponentially for the last few years to the point where the band wagon has become more of a superstar tour bus. But the bottom line is: there’s a dearth of decent pork pies in London – butchers, pubs, gastro or otherwise, quite simply don’t do them. You’ll understand then, that after finally being forced to pay £3.50 in some fancy Traiteur to get a poor, French impersonation of the sacred pastry, I felt it was time to head back to the hills.

So, here I am, wandering the Yorkshire countryside like some epicurean nomad, in search of artisan produce served up by people with a passion for provenance. What’s more, I want to wash it down with a pint of golden-hued Yorkshire ale rather than a fruitified goblet of New World Chardonnay. As I set out on this rural gastro-exploration, I’m initially struck by an overwhelming sense of ‘where do I start?’ Fortunately, being ‘up north’ the folk are friendly, and after a couple of preliminary phone calls I’m inundated with generous offers of help and guidance on the subject of people, places and products. And what a wealth of talent there is: from spring blossom honey to herds of roaming buffalo and more hand-crafted beers then you can shake a stein at. And let’s not forget Yorkshire’s got a coastline – know what I’m saying? So, having firmly established the fact that I’m up to my armpits in top-drawer tucker and belting beer- I’m heading off to find it, cook it, and sup it. So, whether you’re in Timbuktu or Todmorden, watch this space and let me share my thoughts, passions, discoveries and inspirations. You know it makes sense.

Loving Food and Hating Waste

‘Delicious, quick-as-a-flash, no shopping required, everyone loves it’. If this little phrase of unlikely bedfellows sounds like the stuff of culinary fantasy – in the same vain as self-emptying dish washer and easy-clean juicer, then prepare yourself for a little surprise. This wish list for heaven in the home eating is yours for the taking by simply embracing a few basic principles and ideas.

Imagine opening the kitchen cupboard doors and fridge; glancing at the veg rack, and instead of seeing empty spaces, decaying produce, yesterday’s remnants and a scary ensemble of dry goods, you were able to instantly visualise effortless, tasty pizza (with a golden thin and crispy base made from a flour tortilla). Imagine a topping on that pizza of char-grilled courgette strips, succulent roasted pepper (last week’s old veg), a thin spread of Bolognese sauce (three day leftovers), all topped with melting, bubbling cheddar (was dry, with the first bloom of mould). Or how about a golden-fried fish cake stuffed to the gills with tuna mayo, green flecks of blanched broccoli stalk, garden peas and tender potato? And then to finish – a tasty layered dessert made from last week’s croissant (magically transformed into soft sponge), sweet, juicy nectarine (which only minutes previously could have made a couple of overs of test cricket it was so under-ripe), and a raspberry-streaked crème fraiche.

Chances are you’ve probably consigned all the ingredients gone to make the above dishes to the bin at some time or another based on anything from expired best before date to “it’ll be rotten by the time we get back after the weekend”. Most food waste comes from a combination of phobia, false perception and paranoia: A phobia of re-heating – propagated by the dark forces of the European food police; a false perception that slightly brown or bendy means inedible and paranoia that an expired best before may poison you.

The first issue to tackle is the phobia of reheating, and the cornerstone of fulfilling that opening line fantasy. You can re-heat just about anything for days after it’s been cooked: chicken, rice, pasta, Bolognese sauce, roasted red pepper, blanched broccoli, etc. etc. The fridge life of any of this stuff is considerably extended by having your fridge on a good, cold setting – mine is just one notch away from freezing stuff. Just make sure you cool your cooked food to room temperature as quickly as possible (thin layers always cool quicker than thick), and then refrigerate or freeze in plastic lidded containers.

Secondly, just because your courgette wouldn’t take first prize at the village fete doesn’t mean it won’t be transformed from tired and bendy into tasty and good-looking with a quick blast of heat from the char-grill plate. Scratch beneath the surface is the battle cry here, and you’ll be amazed what gems you unearth. And finally, just because it’s stale (bread products) or past best before (everything) doesn’t mean it’s a has-been only fit for the scrap heap. Those dried herbs and spices are a treasure trove of flavour for the mundane and the everyday, so let aroma be your guide – not the date.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that fruit and veg deteriorates because of enzyme activity which is magically halted through cooking. So, once cooked, you’ve temporarily suspended that deterioration, and you have the double whammy of a load of pre-cooked ingredients in your fridge or freezer that simply need combining in whatever manner you fancy and then simply re-heating. Believe me, it’s a lot easier to conjure up a fish cake recipe from nothing when you’re looking at fluffy, cooked mash in the fridge than a gangrenous green tattie with a ‘don’t you dare’ glint in its sprouting eye.