Wild food, or food to drive you wild

Last month’s Guestrant at Electrik was one of my favourites to date. Wild foraged food is something both Miss South and I have dabbled in before, but with the best will in the world, we don’t have the knowledge to go beyond the well known and well-trodden without some proper guidance.

So when I read Beth Creedon was the guest in Electrik’s kitchen for June I was rather excited… I knew how well-received her first stint at Electrik had been last year, so I signed up right away. Beth’s a bit of an expert in foraged food, and comes with good credentials and form in preparing foraged feasts. She, alongside her husband, also runs Dig, Manchester’s best local veggie box scheme. I’d met her at the recent cheese ‘chewtorial’, and her obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for foraged food was infectious.

After the disappointment of the previous month’s event with Julie Bagnolli being cancelled due to poor attendance (shame on you North West foodies… surely you’re not doing anything better on a Monday night?) this needed to be something special to put a smile back on the faces of my dining companion and I. We needn’t have feared: it was.

We arrived, wet after a sudden heavy rainshower, looking over the well-stocked bar. Once again we decided to stick to beer, rather than wine, although there’s a decent selection of both in Electrik. We joined another couple on a table – always one of the best things about pop-up & supperclub-type arrangements is meeting new folk – and snatched a quick look at the menu which was being passed around.

The menu tantalised, teased and prompted whispered questions around our table. It sounded simple and restrained, yet wonderfully exotic. What the hell is Fat Hen? Do cherries go feral only when you lose them? Was that really two desserts on the menu? We couldn’t wait to learn more… so when Beth came out of the kitchen to introduce the first course I was straining to hear every word.

When it arrived the first course looked gorgeous… a perfectly turned-out layered terrine, surrounded by delicate leaves, sitting on a base of finely-sliced beetroot. We found out during the preamble that Fat Hen’s actually a kind of wild spinach-like leaf, not a plump poultry bird, so that was one mental image shattered. It, and the goats cheese in the terrine, was delicious, crowned with a sprig of chickweed. I’ve picked sorrel leaves in the woods before, and love their distinctively tart flavour. This sorrel was French, and the flavour of their leaves added piquancy. The star of the dish, though, were the little pickled dandelion buds. Wow! Revelatory stuff: these unassuming wee buds tasted like capers, and gave the whole starter an extra frission which I’d never expected. I may have to start home pickling…

With such a good starter our expectations around the table cranked up a gear. The main, with razor clams at its centrepiece, caused me some excitement (Miss South has already written on our love of these moreable molluscs) but my dining companion was somewhat nervous at the prospect of blade-like bivalves, being a little squeamish about such things. When the course was presented – a single razor clam shell laying across a bowl of chowder – this did little to allay her concerns, but she became more convinced when she tasted the contents.

The ‘hero’ shell – dressed with the flesh of several razor clams, hearty chunks of chorizo and a sprinkling of chives – capped a healthy portion of chowder. In this the razor clams were paired up with a goodly selection of smaller, more conventional clams. Accompanied by Barbakan bread, a perfect heart-shaped pat of delicious butter, and a hunk of lemon, this was simple but great fare. Salty pork and shellfish is a sure-fire winner (I’m looking at you, scallops and black pudding, as a prime example) and the rich notes of the chorizo complemented the tender pale flesh of the clams perfectly. The broth was rich and oh-so-moreable… by the time I looked up from my bowl there was a surfeit of empty shells and crockery around the table.

After that it was time for dessert #1… Beth reappeared from the depths of the kitchen to explain that yes, she couldn’t decide which dessert to serve us, so she opted for both. Hellish for us punters, you must understand, to be saddled with such an onerous task. The ‘feral’ cherries were local, but not totally wild… more like a domestic cultivar which had gone walkabout… so they were less tart than their wild cousins. Again, this looked so pretty… a cherry ‘mouse’, complete with almond ears, sat atop a cream cushion on a delightful chocolate mousse in a ramekin. Digging to the bottom of the mousse revealed macerated cherries, their sweet syrupy flavour riffing off the dark chocolate. Oh, and the finishing touches: glitter, and a sprinkling of popping candy on the plate, only added to the sense of giddy playfulness. Thumbs up!

The second sweet came shortly afterwards, and continued the local and slightly tongue-in-cheek theme, with a light hare-shaped shortbread accompanying strawberries, ice cream and praline pieces. The strawberries are Dig’s own organic offspring, grown in nearby Cheshire in polytunnels. Not sure what variety they were, but their flavour was rich and fruity, exuding summer with every mouthful. The elderflower and lime ice cream started to melt quite quickly, but the taste was divine… light and sharp citrus notes, with the elderflower rounding everything out in the background. The lavender praline was the unexpected highlight for me: I have a soft spot for lavender and its soft floral presence lent itself well to the slightly chewy sweetness of the praline. The whole dish disappeared quickly, but the flavours lingered on as a gentle reminder for some time. A fresh, light and well-balanced full stop to a really good meal.

Presentation was absolutely spot-on, food was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the theme and focus of the whole meal was bang on. A good balance of playfulness, education, quality and localism (without being too hung up on every last ingredient being utterly wild or from on our doorstep) made it a great menu. Oh, and at £25 a head, very good value considering the extra work which must’ve gone into the sourcing and preparation of the course. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough… bravo to Beth (and her sous for the night, Deanna).

Today’s Guestrant features Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham from Aumbry. After June’s experience I can’t wait to see what these graduates of the Fat Duck will deliver from Electrik’s modest kitchen…

Nose to Tail at St John…

The restaurant fairy paid me a visit last night and took me to St John, home of nose to tail eating, and the place I have most wanted to eat at in London for years. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a little bit wary of the knobbly bobbly wobbly bits of the beast as they require more cooking skill than I feel I have, so I have always wanted the chance to try the weird and wonderful, but well cooked. And I wasn’t disappointed!
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Kaosarn, Brixton

Brixton Village (formerly known as Granville Arcade) has had a reversal of fortune recently. Once a dilapidated rundown covered area with empty shops and a slightly forlorn atmosphere, it has been revived to become a thriving community of shops, stalls, coffee joints and places to eat, opening late on certain nights and attracting a crowd who love good food. And nowhere more so than the new Thai restaurant Kaosarn.
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Gastroclub Pudding 5, Football Nil

I attended my first session of Gastroclub earlier this month. This particular session was at the Market Restaurant, and promised not one, not two, but five desserts with a historical bent. A wee bit excessive, you say? Not a bit of it, we thought as we headed off to the city centre on a Tuesday evening, intrigued and excited by promises of exotic heritage desserts. It’s not often you get to mix history and food on a school night…

I’d heard of the Market Restaurant over the years, a long-established restaurant in the Northern Quarter, but I’d had never visited before. It manages to combine a touch of the old-fashioned British restaurant, mixed up with a souçon of bodega and a dash of quirky kitsch charm (we liked the randomness of the mix-and-match crockery).

My companion and I were greeted at the door by Katie Brunt, the effervescent organiser and host of Gastroclub which she’d started after discovering there was a dinner-sized gap in the market for like-minded foodlovers in Manchester. Katie explained numbers were down because of the United vs. Chelsea match that night. I’ve come late to Gastroclub (perhaps due in part to not actually living in Manchester these days) so we couldn’t tell whether the 30-odd folk in the upstairs restaurant were representative of a normal turnout or not. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and there was an obvious crowd of regulars.

We took our seats after being given a glass of fizz, met some fellow diners and ordered drinks. I was impressed by their beer selection, but somewhat less so by their prices: my opener of a bottle of Worthington’s classic White Shield was over £6, a significant ask even for a stunning IPA. Katie introduced the owner, Gary, a man whose passion for food and history was evident, who explained that the Market had run their pudding club ‘Sweet Meets’ for over 20 years. We would start the puddings with a recipe from the inimitable Elizabeth Raffald‘s book ‘The Experienced English Housekeeper’, one of Britain’s earliest best-selling cookbooks. This luminary of the literary food world settled and worked in Manchester, so it was an appropriate start to the pudding fest.

Before the pudding onslaught we had a simple light main course of Beef Stroganoff (very nice) and boiled potatoes. Despite this being good fare neither we nor anyone else seemed to overfill their plates: everyone was focused on the task ahead of the five desserts, and had no idea what to expect and how much room to leave.

Dessert 1: Elizabeth Raffald’s Orange Custard
This, it had to be said, was not a particularly attractive starting plate. A delicately-coloured shivering splodge was presented plainly on a plate, like a pale posset ectoplasm. I’m not sure, given the lighting in the venue, whether this was actually imbued with any colour from said oranges, but if it had been served in a porcelain tub I could’ve mistaken it for facecream at first glance. Perhaps the designer in me craves more ostentatious presentation. However the flavour was subtly pleasant : creamy, just sweet enough and delicately citrus-like. I rather enjoyed this, despite it not being much of a looker. Thumbs up for course one. 4/5

Dessert 2: Osbourne Pudding
Quite a contrast with dish two. This was warm and much heavier than the orange custard. It was lightly spiced, a bit like a bread & butter pudding with dried fruit. I love bread and butter pudding and have no qualms about eating it, although it felt odd to be doing so in the confines of a restaurant rather than at home in the depths of winter. Our table suffered from a momentary deficit of custard to offset the natural dryness of this pudding, hence lots of beer-drinking and muttering about inappropriate appropriation. Calm, and masticular moisture was rapidly re-established with the appearance of a replacement gravy boat of custard. Verdict: warm and hazy childhood memories stirred up, but perhaps not a foodie feast dish for a spring evening. 3/5

Dessert 3: The ‘Bees Knees’ Cheesecake
This looked the part for a posh pudding, and expectations were high. Cheesecake’s always welcome here, and I’d like to have known more about the provenance of this dish. Isn’t the bee’s knees one of the those expressions from the 1920’s which suggests superlative quality? Perhaps this self-confident title helped to raise expectations, however my companion and I were less overwhelmed than we’d expected. I found the filling more sweet and cloying (I’d suppose the name alludes to a high honey content?) than I like in a cheesecake, and the base was a touch too thin and soft compared to the benchmark cheesecakes of my youth. In the end the narrow slice was more than enough for my taste buds, and reminded me of that hoary old chestnut when being offered tea. “No ta, I’m sweet enough as it is”. 3.5/5

Dessert 4: Hannah Glasse’s Carrot Tart
This was definitely the course I was most intrigued by when the invite email went out. Carrot cake is wonderful. Carrots are orange and sweet and these features alone should make for a fantastically interesting dish. Even more so when it’s taken from Hannah Glasse‘s 18th century classic ‘ The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’. Perhaps I should’ve more keenly observed the word ‘plain’ in that book’s title.

There was a touch of unintentional comedy as everyone bar myself and another unfortunate chap sat next to me tucked into their slices of carrot tart: we’d not been served and we watched as two lonesome plates sat unattended at the far end of the room. So by the time we’d managed to attract the attention of the waiting staff the rest of the table had tasted, and in some cases pushed away their portions, with ambiguous phrases such as ‘sausage roll’ and ‘odd’ being bandied around.

When I tasted the tardy tart there was a definite ring of truth to the above comments: the pastry was on the savoury side and felt a bit… well, lardy and the filling was inoffensive but slightly odd. Like a very mildly granular dessert quiche, which isn’t an appealing concept, I grant you. I’ll put this down to the gustatory tastes and trends from the eighteenth century translating poorly for us more modern folks. At least I finished mine, enjoying the small and rapidly melting dollop of vanilla ice cream on the side. However this was not something I’d willingly try again, when I know how much more enjoyable carrot cake can be. Shame. 2/5

Dessert 5: Pear and almond crumble
By now slight pudding fatigue was starting to set in. Ideally it would’ve been the time to end with something extraordinary, smooth and light, like a sorbet or the mysterious ‘dark chocolate pots’ which had been promised on the notifiying email. However the closing curtain was provided instead by a pear crumble and cream. This was perfectly okay in its own right, but was neither bold nor light like I’d been hoping for, and was indeed rather wan. It really needed a boozy double cream, or some bold flavours to riff off the almonds and pear. Cobblers. 3/5

The winner, as judged by the Gastronauts at the end of the evening, was the “Bees Knees” cheesecake. Although wasn’t my favourite, it was by far the most popular, perhaps because it was the most contemporary of the desserts on offer… or at least the one most people would grab off the sweet trolley.

All in all it was a rather fun and silly night… starting with a cab driver who couldn’t comprehend anyone would be more into food than football, and ending with (slightly delicate) hugs at the end of the evening. You have to be careful hugging anyone who’s just eaten five desserts. Thanks to all the staff at the Market Restaurant, and to Katie for organising the event. I’m looking forward to the next Gastroclub, but I’ve reminded myself how I prefer savoury to sweet these days. Let’s hope the next one is equally exciting and unpredictable, but with a more piquant menu! You can follow @TheGastroClub on Twitter.

The March of the Irish

After the local food delights of February’s Guestrant at Electrik with local chef Deanna Thomas, my appetite has been whetted at the prospect of more pop-up restaurant action. So when Deanna casually mentioned on Twitter she was cooking a St Patrick’s night dinner at the lovely North Star Deli in Chorlton it seemed like a no brainer to make a beeline for the event. My companions and I arrived at North Star Deli on the night to find ourselves warmly welcomed and shown our seats. Adam, the deli owner and Deanna’s brother, set the scene as we met a selection of the other attendees, an interesting and diverse selection of fellow food lovers. I’d never been to the deli before even during normal hours, having moved out of Manchester around the time it opened, and was taken by its individual charms and how well suited it seemed to intimate after-hours dining.

As this was the inaugural session of the pop-up restaurant evening not all the tables were filled, but the conversation was lively and the anticipation grew heady before the chef came out to introduce the starter. The venue itself has an open kitchen behind the counter, perfect for peeking over to see what’s going on. Not that I did so much, I’d tried hard to avoid finding out what was on the menu as I wanted to be surprised by what was on offer at this ‘Irish inspired feast’.

Irish food has historically reflected the fruits of the land, rivers and sea; whether simple working food, or a more grandiose country house style. However to many people Irish food is perceived as plain and indistinguished. Thankfully over the past few decades a generation of producers, writers, chefs and general food lovers have challenged the standard, simple stereotypes of ‘everything with potatoes and cabbage’, instead introducing or rediscovering more artisanal flavours, combinations and techniques. As a result Irish food in the twenty-first century is as dynamic, exciting and experimental as anything in the UK, hopefully continuing to develop despite the recent economic crisis.

A cursory glance on the ‘net around St. Paddy’s Day throws up a pretty frightening selection of green-dyed beer and leprechaun-themed gubbins (predominantly from our American cousins who seem to have a somewhat confused take on their culinary heritage from the Emerald Isle). Don’t forget the impressive marketing muscle of Guinness either,: they’ve managed to turn St Patrick’s Night into an event synonymous with their most famous dark drink. I was hoping tonight’s fare would be more exciting than a dodgy Irish Stew, a pint of the black stuff, and a Lucky Charms-themed dessert though.

The starter bode well. We started with wheaten bread and beautifully formed little star-shaped butter pats being brought to our tables. The wheaten bread was the foil to a deceptively simple crisp green salad studded with wonderful bacon, surrounded by roasted beetroot, and finished with a Cashel Blue dressing and a chive garnish. Cashel Blue is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and internationally acclaimed too so I’m not being overly biased with my recommendation of how good this Irish farmhouse blue is. It makes for a sophisticated blue cheese dressing with a selection of complimentary ingredients which left one wanting more. Earthy beet, tangy cheese, fresh leaves, sweet salted bacon proved to be amicable and perfectly partnered bedfellows.

When the chef came out to introduce the first course, explaining that the recipe was based on Richard Corrigan’s version of this favourite bread, she was unsure of the reaction from the diners. She had nothing to fear: this was wonderfully good wheaten bread, and I speak as a lifetime fan! Generally wheaten bread is a wholemeal soda bread, and owes much of its character and flavour to the use of baking soda as a raising agent (rather than yeast, so good for those who are yeast intolerant) and use of tangy buttermilk. It’s straightforward to make and doesn’t require too much hard work: in fact it’s one of the few breads I can confidently make. I once flew to the Netherlands with a freshly baked loaf, just so I could present it to friends as an accompaniment for a shared meal. We’re serious about bread in our part of the world. Side note: a slice or two of decent wild smoked salmon, served on some buttered wheaten bread with a squeeze of lemon juice is one of Ireland’s great food pleasures and most satisfying starters… at least in our family.

The main course, a beef & Guinness stew with potato pastry crust, was a wee bit more of a nod to ‘traditional’ Irish cooking whilst maintaining a modern character. First came bowls with healthy portions of fine chunky beef, glistening with rich dark gravy. These were topped with a triangle of light pastry. This in its own right was very good, two different cuts of meat in a beer gravy working well in that time-honoured combination of ox and stout, but more so when paired with the diminutive carrots and mash. Especially the mash – a hybrid colcannon/champ mix which prompted both an audience participation game on what best to call it (champannon, colchamp) and also a full-scale rush to clean the bowls it came in. You have to go far to beat the pleasures of good mashed potato with a rich stew… and I was pleased to hear a previous post of ours had influenced the introduction of scallions to the mix. By the time the course was over it was a potato-free zone on our table and elsewhere.

Dessert, as we’d expected after last month’s stunning chocolate torte from a chef with a serious track record in pastry, was a cracker*. A beautiful slice of apple and almond tart, served with Irish cream and a Guinness caramel sauce. The tart was perfectly light, the sweet and sharpness of the apples playing off against the pastry and almonds. The Irish cream, whipped up with Baileys, sat decadently with an rather tongue-in-cheek bright green shamrock candy astride it. Meanwhile elbows were sharpened and fingers utilised so everyone could enjoy the caramel sauce to the maximum. Seriously good, and provoking debate and discussion around the tables as to what gave it such a deep range of flavours. If memory serves me correctly the mystery ingredient turn out to be cassis: I hope I don’t get in trouble for spilling the beans!

The evening was hugely enjoyable: superb food, lovely setting and a great selection of diners. It was great to meet so many interesting folk with a shared interest in food. Thanks to Adam and the staff at North Star Deli for their enthusiasm and service, and of course to Deanna Thomas for a great Celtic-inspired menu. Let’s hope there’ll be more of these events in the future.

* With thanks to Frank Carson… it’s the way I tell ’em!