Monday, 30 June 2008

Weston Super (night)Mare

It just doesn't have quite the same retro appeal as my beloved Morecambe. My mum had joined me for a couple of days and we headed over there from Nailsea (after a fun night of boozing it up with the delightful Sue and Trev from Foresters). We'd heard that there were more charity shops in Weston than anywhere else in the UK. My mum's ears pricked up and that wild look took over her face: TAT! Off we trailed, along a particularly dreary part of the tour - along suburban lanes bereft of intrigue or funk - and into town.

There is the distasteful whiff of inertia about the place. It's as if there was a choice between sentience and coma and everyone in Weston chose the latter. The shop keepers can barely be bothered to look up, the waitress seemed joyless and those poor old donkeys...

I even discovered a 'farm shop' that haunted me it was so horrif. I tried my best to rescue some bags of grated cheese from their ambient, mould-inducing stupor but nobody in the shop seemed to care. I left in a hurry, past confused samplers wondering why I didn't want to taste the smudged bits of lemon cake. We pushed on out of there with relief.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Chocolate tasting - Clevedon Pier, North Somerset

I did a chocolate tasting last week at the most beautiful place I've ever had the pleasure to talk on this fine subject. Clevedon Pier is a Victorian fantasy - 200 yards of gappy planks marching out to a deathly looking sea miles below. The good people of Foresters turned out in their dozens to squeeze into the tiny little capsule at the end of the pier. We tried raw beans, roasted nibs, 100% pure, Venezuelan truffles, champagne truffles, 70%, milk and then finished off with a tray of chocolate martini shots. And then another tray...and another. By the time it was time to traverse back to the mainland we were all hugging and kissing each other like old friends.

This place flicked my switches and I'd return in a heartbeat.

Supper # 38 - Molland, Devon

Molland is really old fashioned. It lies up towards Exmoor coming away from South Molton; a small cluster of houses all looking like they're ready to drop into the road from their high up positions on the bank. As I drive along I lament my lack of horn - you can't see a thing and putting the chimes on is hardly much of a warning blast. If anything it confuses people and they look around, unsure of where the amplified music box sound is wafting in from. I curl around the corners, past the village pub and the tight group of teenagers hanging around on the side of the road and pull up to the Dart's farmhouse. They've said I can plug Jimmy in with their Red Devon bulls while I stay with my uncle Marius down the hill.

I arrive to hoots of delight from Mrs Dart and her daughter and get ushered into their huge, slightly retro kitchen. "You must be hungry", they say and bring out pineapple cake, carrot cake, still-warm quiche - and a large pot of clotted cream to dollop onto anything I fancy. Tea is poured and I get chowing, unable to resist almost anything anymore. It just all tastes so good and how often in London does one get offered cake as part of the daily, domestic routine? Not I and I'ma get mine while I can - before I know it I'm going to be back in that gym surrounded by slightly demonic individuals and craving such things as cake with clotted cream.

The Darts prepare great greedy lunches for the local shoot. A dozen or so men will come tromping down in their plus-fours and tweeds, chomping at the bit to blast those pheasants to the ground. Apparently it's now becoming trendy for city boys to come and have a pop. I suppose it's part of the rolling-around-in-the-mud-together in the woods impulse; a quick flight from the concrete to indulge the primal. Heck, I'd do it just for the big lunch at the end. They make all their pastry from scratch, cook their own cream, rear their own beef and grow all the veg in the garden. Heaven.

Uncle Mal turns up and can't turn down the cake either. We munch and chat and then settle Jimmy in and head off down the hill.

THE SET UP: My uncle and aunt have been given this house by my aunt's older sister. Sort of given's complicated. Anyway, Marius comes down here all the time from London for work. The house has been part of the Molland estate for centuries, you can practically smell the goat shed. It's brilliant and wonderfully far from civilisation.

Marius goes into the house swinging a cloth bag full of shop-bought goodies: Lincolnshire sausages, bagged lettuce, packaged veg and I am quietly surprised. Normally it's a lot more rustic and there's a hare hanging about somewhere or a partridge laying ready to be plucked. Needn't have worried though as the window of opportunity for a hearty - some might say challenging - supper soon presents itself when we discover that the fridge/freezer has been turned off. Off we troop to the stone back room to investigate the damage. We sniff and dunk and prodd and soon have an 'in' and an 'out' tray: out with the gassy grapefruit juice, the defrosted dog food and the filthy melted ice, in with the defrosted pheasant, the lamb stew and the sliced brown bread.

It really does bond you when you're not sure whether what you're about to eat is going to make you both ill or not, but in my family it's almost a test of strength to see who's constitution can withstand the least likely of offerings. In no time at all the pheasant is perched atop a piece of dripping-slathered bread and roasting in the oven for another time and the lamb stew is bubbling innocently away on the hob, veg roasts in the oven and zucchini softens in a pan.

WHAT WE ATE: Defrosted borscht given an artistic flourish of scissored chives start the ball rolling. Tastes like the earth. As earthy as anything I've had in a long time. Soon enough we're onto the main thrust of the meal - the defrosted lamb stew. There it sits, surrounded by jewel-like veg: zucchini sauteed with tomatoes and oregano, peppers and squash from the roasting pan, streaked with rosemary, chunky discs of carrot - it's quite a sight to behold. We tuck in, our wine glasses at the ready should anything untoward start to occur in our stomachs...all fine we proceed with gusto.

Next we enjoy some salad, reassuringly clean and perky and fresh from the bag. Some camembert accompanies it along with...oh, what's this? The pheasant is out of the oven and it's fatty bed is being touted around as a possible partner to all this clean-cut fare. "It might be a bit greasy" warns Marius, which means that it's going to be so far beyond greasy I probably shouldn't. But, heck, I do and am soon transferring it onto his plate where it'll receive a much better reception.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: Intrigue and suspicion over previous ancestor's misdemeanors, my grandparents and their barny when my grandmother discovered my grandfather had bought a house without telling her, Marius tells me about being sent out of London as a boy to stay on a farm in Cornwall and what a thrill it was for a King Arthur loving kid, more family disection. We get the map out a lot. I love going over maps - especially with people that really understand them. We gaze over Lincolnshire and its vast tracts of unadulterated farmland. We revel in the possibilities of the ancient kingdom of Arkenfeld. We slap each other on the back and pour more wine.

THE PUD: Venezuelan truffles and whiskey from the Co-Op. I bite mine tenderly, Mal tosses them back like popcorn. They're only just set and so perfectly supple. I love the way the cocoa powder acts as a serious case for the dreaminess within.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: Marius marches round the house pulling back bed covers, investigating what lies beneath - not that different to the inspection of the fridge in fact. Eventually we find a bed that I can sleep in, complete with sheets, pillow cases and blanket. One more discussion on the history of the house and where things have been put in/taken out and off I trot clutching (embarrassingly) OK!, full of pics of Wayne and Colleen having a right old knees-up.

Supper # 37 - Wadebridge, Cornwall (again)

I returned to Wadebridge and the open arms of Rose & Ben. I was spaced out after a day of 5am champagne drinking, sunrise paddling, very choppy non-mackerel fishing, almost hurling, gritty fish & chips eating, convulsed seagull watching and then a fill-up of Jimmy's tank - always alarming of late. I had called in en route to visit some more old Sixties muckers of my mum's which was, as we like to say in our family, very emotional. By the time I got back to the fold it felt like coming home.

There was Ben rotating clay dishes and shredding coconut, popping corks and sharpening knives. We gathered round the kitchen table once more and carried on gas-bagging as if it had been months. What is it about some people where just being around them causes thoughts to domino through your brain so? Like no effort at all is required.

I was desperate to watch the football. So was Ben. Rose had to make do with Scrabulous as she can't stand it. Italy-Spain - what a decision. We always back Italy in our family out of respect for the old days up the mountain in Montelaterone, but Spain just threw down so much more convincingly. As Italy stood strong and sturdy but with little fire Spain raged around the pitch, powerful and hot...especially that guapo, Casillas. MMmmmm!

Anyway, back to the grub. A slavish day in the pan had reduced cubes of spiced lamb down to yielding, easy-going little nuggets; all dark in colour and deep of flavour. Calcutta chickpeas with coconut shavings and comforting daal were cleaned and cooled by a cucumber raita. Ben had invented a flatbread which came out of the oven a bit crispier than he'd hoped - didn't bother me, I just loaded it up with all the goodness of the rest of the plate and crunched right through that sucker.

Lager, curry, football, la-la-la-la! and followed by a sleep that threatened never to end...

Padstow turns it on

Crawling out of bed in the dark reminds me of going to catch a flight. It's exciting and I fairly bounced up and at 'em when Adrian woke me. No tea for this chick - get me to the beach and that chilled champagne! We drove quickly along the lanes, trying to make it to St George's Well before 5.08am and the shard of dawn that would surely greet us...or would it be horizontal rain? The dingy morning brooded overhead, giving little away. I grabbed my shades from my bag just in case and down we marched to join the party, headed up by David of Bin Two; wine shop par excellence of Padstow.

Coolboxes bulged with iced champers, paper bags brimmed with boxes of duck eggs, bacon was being parted and placed on the grill and activity was all very hive like. I met all sorts of fun individuals - Padstow stalwarts imparting tails of rollicking good parties and magical sounding houses. I sipped on. Sometimes allowing a spot of Tropicana to enter my glass but generally going a pelo. We ate strawberries and cream, barbecued bread, played with the dogs, louched about, rain came in fits but by 7 the sun charged through the clouds and gave us a heck of a gorgeous day.

Later we went mackerel fishing (organised by super host Adrian). I declined motion-sickness pills on the grounds that I should have better sea legs than anyone, given my time on yachts. After an hour or so I was ready to hurl great Bucks-fizzy chunks and pined for the tourist thronged streets of Padstow. We returned, fish-less and opted for Rick Stein's Fish & Chips instead. I went for grilled mackerel with a battered oyster chaser. Delish. Even though seconds before my mouth made contact with it there was a hug gust of wind that sprinkled dock grit on all the food in our pavement picnic. It didn't effect my enjoyment - might even have given the whole thing a touch more authenticity.

We finished up and set off to leave, but not before witnessing one of the most revolting things I've ever forced myself to absorb. This huge great seagull came sweeping past the crowds, over the dock and nose-dived perilously close to me. He had his eyes on half a giant sausage roll abandoned by one of the kids. Off he went with his beak wrapped round the bounty. All his crew came squawking over, desperate for a bit of twos-up. No way yer bastards, he seemed to say as he threw his head back and swallowed the thing whole. He stood there for a few moments, his white neck bulging with this meaty lump. It stuck out like a goitre; a great writhing, living goitre that he gurgitated down until it was gone from sight; no doubt landing amongst all manner of other horrors in the pit of his trash-compacting gut. Gross.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Supper # 36 - Margots, Padstow, Cornwall

I sidled over to Padstow the next day. Rain loomed in the clouds and hibernation winked at me. My Padstonian host, Adrian, of Margots had gone to so much effort for my visit, including a carpark pitch at the austere looking Metropole Hotel, but when the weather's crap there is so little point in getting all set up and then WAITING. I actually don't mind it sometimes - there I am in Jimmy's cosy interior, surrounded by neon and flashing lights and I have to stay put, which means I can get down to admin, accounts and other such sufferers of aside pushing.

When I arrived it looked bleak. Adrian turned up with his family and seemed disappointed at my not being there earlier. I tried to explain the hopelessness of the situation and think an ice cream thrust gently towards him may have atoned things slightly.

We go our separate ways - him to prep the evening at the restaurant and me to mooch about town. 'Padstein' they call it and it's not hard to see why. The man is everywhere - under every (Pet)roc, up every street, down on the seafront - the local hero lofted high over this town, besieged by people wanting a piece of the fish pie. I pop into the Rick Stein deli and am aghast at what I discover. Charging £5.10 for a box of cereal that normally costs £2.99 in a supermarket is just not cricket. I turn on my heel and head of, horrified.

THE SET UP: Adrian has us booked in for a late table at the bistro. It will be only the fourth time in twelve years that he's sat down at the end of the night and eaten dinner here. He's Welsh via Northants and a 'non-foodie' - as he tells me, "I do what I do and I do it well". No funny business just good old fashioned reliable favourites. So I find goats cheese crostini, mushroom and chorizo risotto, scallops with bacon - and a small selection of other well chosen dishes. The place is booked up for months in advance and there is outcry should Adrian ever try to remove any of the Margots staples.

WHO CAME: Adrian and me.

WHAT WE ATE: We both go for the scallops with crispy bacon lardons, asparagus and caperberries. The scallops are juicy, firm little sea pillows. The serving is large. By the time my main of Bream turns up I see that trouble may be afoot and take an extra large swig of the Spy Valley sauvignon to help with the process. The Bream arrives atop a 'crab butter' - a yellow, chive studded sauce full of white crab meat. This is also huge and by the time I've put it away I'm beginning to feel a bit Creosote-esque.

DINER TABLE TOPICS: Adrian's mad, bad and dangerous past. Food. But Adrian doesn't want to talk about food - he wants to get down to more personal mechanics so I tell him about my past. I realise once again that I much prefer asking the questions. Whether this is a control thing or a privacy thing I'm not sure. We drink on; me the wine, him the Cornish bottled water. I hear about the horrors of the second-homers round here and how most locals and newcomers are priced out of the market. Twenty clothes shops in Padstow and nowhere to pick up your kids' school uniform. No butcher, no greengrocer, no video shop. It would drive me loopy. Adrian is good company and it's nice to see the relaxed interplay between him and his staff.

THE PUD: Much as I'm always tempted by a sticky toffee pudding, my devilish girth dictates a lighter option: saffron jelly with a poached saffron pear and clotted cream. It turns up cheery and glistening; the sunniest of sights for the summer solstice.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: So we lock up the restaurant, clamber the hill to the car and speed over to Adrian's house. His daughter, Becky, has given up her bed for the night...or should that be half the night? We're expected back in Padstow for sunrise and a beach party to celebrate the midsummer. Alarm set for 4.30am.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Supper # 35 - Wadebridge, Cornwall

THE SET UP: Rose and Ben are old friends of my mum's from the blessed Sixties. Whenever I see them I feel a magic transportation back to this hallowed time. They were at the epicentre of it - hanging out with all sorts of groovers and shakers and having so much fun. From London they moved to Scotland, then down to Somerset and now to Cornwall where they groove and shake in a much more low key fashion.

When I get there it is drizzling. Has been drizzling all day so that their garden heaves gently with the gradual weight of a million tiny raindrops. Ben ushers me in to the cosy stone cocoon of their kitchen and I am given a large glass of wine immediately. Rose is delighted and geed up, all ready to have a good old gas and hunker in for the evening. We stand round in the kitchen as Ben prepares beautiful little packages of prawn paste with perfect, rolled flat slices of bread and miniature omelettes. In they go to the awaiting wok, roiling and moiling with hot oil.

Ben used to play the guitar. Used to chase musicians all over - to New York to see Taj Mahal, down to Memphis, N'Awlins, Nashville - and Bob Dylan concerts chart decades. Now his hands work better with food and his creations rock the taste buds just like his slide guitar filled up your soul. Rose is mad keen on Scrabulous and gets incensed when a far away college kid accuses her of cheating. "I can't help responding though", she says "it's silly, I know but it really maddens me".

I set to work on a hot chocolate rum souffle and more wine gets devoured. I already feel like I don't much want to leave.

WHO CAME: Rose, Ben and me.

WHAT WE ATE: Deep fried prawn rolls with a tangy cucumber relish and hot, hot rice wine dip. Then we have a real 'fusion' number: Vietnamese spatch-cocked quails glazed with a deep, sticky hot sauce, wok-cooked pak choi and minted boiled potatoes just dug up from the garden. We grab those toothsome birds with both hands and fill our faces with flavour that punches like it means it. I go in for more, Rose elects more wine instead.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: We talk about my mum, Rose, Suzanne and Vicki; four London girls drawn together at school in 1964. Each had a different kind of family - tricky Jewish dad, predatory youthful mum, strict Catholic housekeeper, but Rose's house was a safe haven for them all - especially on that fateful week when each of them was expelled on a different day, ending with Friday when there was no one left in their gang to 'exclude'. And about Perthshire in 1981 when they moved up there: nothing doing for dinner except mince and tatties - even onion and garlic were hard to obtain. RnB would send for lentils, tahini, pasta, chilli and try and cobble together food with some flavour.

THE PUD: The hot chocolate souffle comes out of the oven looking swell. All puffed up with somewhere to go. We take it to its fate at the centre of the table and plunge in, pulling out a quivering, spoonful of heavenly warmth. On top we pour a hot chocolate sauce and sit there eating it in moaning delight. The dessert wine Ben pulls out seems so right.

We stay up talking and talking. I drill Ben for information on his really fruity sounding family history - of Cecil Beaton' first gig as photographer at his parents' wedding, his racy grandmother, Frieda, who would receive four letters a night from Edward VIII - blathering, soppy, childish letters - at the height of their relationship. He tells me not to repeat most of what he tells me, I'm gutted because it's fascinating.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: I ascend the old wooden stairs with a large glass of water and fall asleep watched over by Ben's mother in her unbelievable wedding dress.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Willie's Chocolate Factory

It was a miserable day. I'd started it in Exeter where I sidled up to a guest house and caught their wi-fi. I felt a bit dodgy but there was nowhere to park in town and it was pissing with rain. I got on the M5 up to Tiverton and ran over roundabouts and through puddles to get to oor Willie's chocolate factory. It was great to finally be there after hearing about the place for over a year. There was Willie, doing hundreds of things at once but looking fighting fit - even if he did complain of exhaustion.

The place is a warren of rooms; little units of high activity all lorded over by the heavy mechanical clunk of moving paddles and vibrating metal. In one area workers with blue hairnets wrapped freshly molded chocolate cylinders in gold foil. They were wordless in their concentration. I didn't hang around with them for long. Willie finally got off the blower and gave me a proper tour of the place.

There was a room heaving with jute sacks, full of single estate beans just arrived from the Venezuelan Cloud forest. He slit open a sack and emptied it into a waiting container. From there buckets full were thrown in the top of the enormous Bilbao roasting machine. After 20 minutes they'd come out the bottom all toasty and smelling great. Into the winnower where the shells got sucked away ready for the beans to begin the grinding and conching process.

The concher had been going on one batch for a few days, slopping the dark liquid back and forth, refining the particles for the smoothest end result. Willie lifted the lid and we both got a scoop of warm, melted Rio Caribe prime for tempering and barring up. It feels like a meal; like the ultimate in nutrition - complex and deep with notes that sing of a far flung land.

It would have been good to stay and talk all day - so many questions! But the road to Cornwall called. I loaded up with fresh supplies and thanked Willie for the bags of beans and nibs he threw in for good measure and hit the highway.

Look out for more of Willie back on the box soon....

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Supper # 34 - Exeter, Devon

Charlie invited me to supper anytime I was in Devon . She told me they lived in a madhouse, which obviously had my ears pricking up no end. I rang them up when it looked like I might finally have a handle on Dartmoor and they called me in; out of the wilderness and into the fire. Well, not into but close to. Mark, Charlie's husband greeted me wearing a pair of sturdy looking gloves. "For gardening?" I asked. "No, cooking" he said with a grin and then strode round the back of the house to tend to dinner: paella cooked on the family tripod BBQ. How exciting!

Charlie was an exemplary host. She furnished me with a very chilled glass of prosecco and then gave me a tour of the house, explaining all the quirks to look out for in the bathroom and offering the use of the washing machine. But I was too busy being awestruck to think about laundry - they live in the most fabulously retro house I've ever seen. It was built in the '50s as part of a Barnados home and then bought by Charlie's mum in the '70s.

THE SET UP: This house is pure Margot & Jerry nirvana. There is an avocado bathroom suite with a dual purpose loo roll dispenser and ashtray. Imagine that! And a dining room that just yells Robert Carrier at the top of its lungs, complete with hostess trolley. Charlie and Mark live there with C's mum and their two kids, Eddie and Eleanor. They pitched up here from London, wanting to get away to bring kids up and enjoy the good country air.

WHO CAME: Mark, Charlie, Me and C's mum.

WHAT WE ATE: So this BBQ had the look about it of being handled by people that knew what they were doing. Turns out Mark is a wine expert and Charlie really knows food. This meant that when C chose the wine Mark kicked up a silent stink and as Mark poked the barbie, Charlie kept a watchful eye from the sidelines. I was thrilled to see that both of these cats meant business in affairs of the palate. We ate paella from a big, hot pan. It bulged with throbbing little chorizitos, juicy shrimp and hunks of chicken. It was sprinkled with pimenton dulce and lemon wedges stood at the ready.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: The sad lack of decent food/wine shops in Exeter, how frickin' pricey Totnes is, how deprived Cornwall is at its centre (the worst in Britain, apparently), what they miss about London (good restaurants, Borough Market, 'culture'). We then discuss fave eating spots in London and I wax lyrical about my beloved Brixton and my much missed Hawksmoor. It turns out that this lot head for the hills with their rucksacks at least twice a month - they're proper stalwarts on the camping scene and have attracted many an admiring glance for their tripod cooking device and other exemplary features of outdoor living. Where are we all heading, I ask them and they opine on the possibility of flying long distance - or at all - becoming an unbelievable notion to future generations. Maybe we'll only be able to get to the British Isles and camping will be the norm. The idea of my bartering trip and how people have latched onto it is an example of this low level way in which attitudes are changing.

THE PUD: I make Bananas Foster on the tripod, feeling slightly guilty not to have pulled out some fabulous molten creation out of the bag for them. They insisted I go with the easier option though: easy pud = all the better for enabling cerebral discussion and not being distracted. I acquiesced and slung some nanas into a babbling pan of rum laced caramel. When soft and full of flavour I served them up, each bowl topped with spiced hot chocolate sauce and rum whipped cream. It was lovely - although we couldn't see much.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: The baby was booted out of her cot for the night and I was given her room. I went to bed reading Vanity Fair and fairly passed out in the cool, dark and peaceful room.

The next day Charlie introduced me to her and her mum's wonderful collection of cookery books. There was everything in there - Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Silver Spoon, Floyd, Keller, Claudia Roden...and of course, Robert Carrier. This is the best cook book collection I've encountered on my trip and I poured over them most hungrily...

Onto Dartmoor...

It was almost as if I'd entered some kind of full-size, 3D computer game, with me and the van as the perpetrators - twisting through all the obstacles in order to reach the other side and victory. I departed Totnes and Dartington and went in the direction of Exeter. Sort of. I'd read so much about Dartmoor - about the ancient tors, the murky swamps, the mist coming down and enshrouding the place with unspeakable disquiet. And about the bleakness that can bore right through you. I wanted to get right in there and traverse the entire moor.

From Buckfastleigh I cut up through a 1960s housing estate, already pushing Jimmy into second gear just to rev past the kid outside fixing his scrambler. As I turned the corner I was soon ensconced by high, dense hedgerows that seemed only just able to frame us as we wended through. The road was absolutely tiny and Jimmy collected all kinds of fern and bracken round his wheel arches. There was nowhere to pull in anywhere and I have no idea what might have happened if another vehicle had come along - it was all I could do to squeeze past a disapproving woman and her dog.

Every person I saw, in the occasional village I'd enter - in Buckfast, Coombe, Scorriton - would look at me with eyes of pure, local distaste. She's got to be out of her mind, they seemed to say, bringing that monstrosity through here, and then, she'll get hers...and as if I'd read their minds I would then be confronted by some new challenge - either a terrifyingly steep hill (shades of Yorkshire) or a bridge so tiny and so narrow that I wondered whether I might have to abandon Jimmy there in order to save myself.

But we triumphed and finally found ourselves with somewhat of an opening and engaged with the company of this merry party.

They shook their heads in horror as I showed them the route I fancied for reaching Exeter - none of them had ever done it, but I had to cross the moor properly or I wouldn't have been able to rest easy at night. And oh my! What a wild, beautiful thing it is! Hosted entirely by languishing sheep and the odd self-sufficient pony, it engulfs you with its sweet, chilled, marshy air. And time could fall away.

Not for me though; not for long. I had a dinner date on the fringes of Exeter and didn't want to throw the paella into jeopardy...