Friday, 29 January 2010

Around Dingle with a Paunch

Blasket island

The Dingle peninsula in South West Ireland reminded me of Cape Town’s breathtakingly rugged beauty. The mountains run like a crocodile’s spiky-spine down the peninsula giving way to emerald seas on either side. And much like Cape Town the weather varies on either side of the ridge, depending on how fickle it’s feeling that particular day.

Dingle also shares Cape Town’s love of relaxation. There’s almost a Spanish feeling of “maƱana” that glides into life here. Life in dingle is wonderful. The food is fantastic. The surfing is awesome. The golf courses almost unrivalled (but don’t tell a Scotsman). The only two things that are different from Cape Town are the extortionate costs and the weather. We've made this video to bring our experience to life...



Things to do in Dingle:

Smugglers cove

Blasket island lamb

Go to Blasket Island. It’s the most westerly point in Europe apparently. And is uninhabited apart from a few prestigious sheep and a colony of very smelly seals who guard the coastline like a fleet of U-Boats. The scenery is staggering. It would make the most amazing place for either Blofeld’s hideout or a Mr and Mrs Smith shag-pad hotel. Just beware that the ferry costs a lot. But it’s worth it. It makes you realise why Blasket Island lamb is so special.

Stunning view

When you drive back along the Irish equivalent of the Big Sur, stop off for an amazing afternoon tea at an artist’s studio. She only opens when she feels like it so if you see the "open" sign propped up against the porch hit the brakes and dive in.

Cafe open

Afternoon tea 2

We were served delicious apple pie, wicked bread & butter pudding and scones with a pot of tea overlooking the most idyllic stretch of coastline you’ll ever find.



Go fishing in Dingle. The fishermen are very happy to take tourists out for a spot of fishing. We had a whale of a time catching mackerel, pollack, sand-eels, sea bass and pouting. Given my track record with a rod in my hands, I was very worried that I was going to reel in “Fungi the Dolphin” which would have had the residents of Dingle lining me up for a keel haul.

Pollack and pouting

Filleting pollack

Not only did we get to take our impressive catch home with us, but our skipper also rapidly gutted them all as well.

Pollack

BBQ on the beach

We then drove back over the spectacular Connor Pass and barbecued our catch on the beach with plenty of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon. I’m convinced that fish doesn’t get any better than this.

Horse riding is very popular in the Cowie household and arguably even more popular in Dingle. Hacking across the wide open beaches, with the salty wind in your hair you can pretend you are training Red Rum for the Grand National. There are plenty of horse riding schools to choose from. Just take your pick.

If you are into hardcore endurance sport then sign up to the Dingle Triathlon. As a veteran triathlon spectator I can tell you that the setting for this one is charming. Participants swim across the bay before cycling into the hills and then run around the sand-dunes. It makes for a more natural experience than romping around Dorney Lake, Docklands or Blenheim Palace.

Stunning beach

Go surfing. The beaches around Castlegregory never let surfers down. All you need to do is pitch up, grab a board and a wet suit and imagine you are Keanu Reaves in Point Break. It is the ideal way to spend a morning before heading to the pub for lunch.

Golfers

God created Dingle specifically to be his golfing playground. Tralee and Ballybunion are two of the world’s best golf courses. And Waterville isn’t bad either! I played them many years ago and can’t wait to return to challenge the course record (for number of balls lost). This time we played at the Dingle Links which is a stiff challenge and at Castlegregory which is only a 9 hole course. Both are very good, but if anything the shorter course is better. If it was 18 holes it would be one of the best in Ireland. But I am delighted it isn’t because it was quiet and calm enough to teach Cowie on.

Me walking dogs

Beach cricket 2

Lark around on the beach. The beaches flanking the Dingle Peninsula are staggeringly beautiful when the sun is out. The sun dances on the icy water and the sand seems to stetch all the way to America. Our dogs loved the open space whilst Cowie and I enjoyed foraging for mussels, hitting golf balls and playing cricket.

Tuck in

We had a very indulgent time but focused mainly on eating at home rather than splashing out on restaurants because the exchange rate is crippling.

We had an impressive meal at Paddy’s Cottage which far exceeded our modest expectations. It looks like a cross between someone’s house and a petrol station. But fortunately it boasts a galley manned by a Frenchman and his son with the wife looking after the diners. Warm duck salad and gratinated mussels were pretty decent to start with, but it was the “hake a la Grenobloise” that set the evening alight. The double cutlet of hake yielded perfectly to reveal pristine white flesh bound by an assertive lemon and caper sauce studded with softened croutons. I’m very keen to give it a go myself after learning the recipe from the young chef.

Murphys ice cream

Waffle at Murphys

When you are in Dingle itself, you’ve got to go to Murphy’s Ice Cream and Dessert House. Their brown bread ice cream is to die for. And their waffles are worth living for, especially when slathered in chocolate sauce and ice cream. Arrive with a sugar low and leave with a hyperactive spring in your step gagging for more. We picked up a copy of their “Book of Sweet Things” which is a must have if you’ve got an ice cream maker.

If you don’t pay a visit to the fish and chip shop next to the spar then you owe yourself a serious dressing down. Their range of battered fish is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. And the quality of their fish and chips is worthy of a Michelin starred restaurant. My lightly smoked haddock and chips is the best I have ever had. And that list includes Aldbrough and Rick Stein.

If you’re feeling more flush then indulge in dinner at Out of the Blue which if the costs are anything to go by is something special. I've read several reviews which suggest it is one of Ireland's best restaurants.

Fish counter

Lobster

Dingle also sports a fantastic fishmonger who sells live lobsters and an array of very fresh fish. We got our hands on some gorgeous scallops which were partnered for dinner by some exceptionally good black pudding from Annascaul. I wish you could get it in England. The monochrome marriage of Dingle’s finest black pudding and even finer scallops was magical.

Dingle offers everything you need for a relaxed family holiday. I can’t wait to explore more of Ireland in the future. Thanks to Murphy’s, Niahm and Toasted Special for giving us such great advice about where to go and where to eat.

Further reading:

Trip Advisor
Chow Hound
Blasket Island
Lonely Planet
Ballybunion Hotels

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Around Essaouira with a Paunch

Imagine a wind tunnel which serves fabulous sea food and is constantly sunny. Then sprinkle in some North African bustle, the waft of exotic spices and the occasional call to prayer and you’re mentally in Essaouira. If you enjoy watersports, then you’ll be in paradise.

P1010215

Having devoured all the guide books and experienced the place for ourselves, we thought we’d share our experience which should help you plan your trip. This is the first video we've ever made... so we hope you like it and aren't too critical!



Where to stay:


We stayed at Riad Casa Lila which was moderately priced, friendly, helpful, very clean and the purveyors of a very superior breakfast served either on the terrace or balcony. I fell in love with their tomato and orange jams. The memory of the tomato jam is cemented in my mind due to me serendipitously reading about it in one of Elizabeth David’s tomes whilst slapping it onto one of their pillowy croissants.

Tomato jam

Bready stuff

If you’ve got more money to throw around, then Madada Mogador on Mr and Mrs Smith's site looks very porno as does L'Heure Bleue Palais. If your budget is more modest then Trip Advisor has a range of decent Riads on show. Ocean Vagabond looks pretty good.

Where to eat:


We ate very well indeed. Our highlights included:

Lamb and pear tagine

An imaginative meal in a creative setting at Elizir

Patio door

A progressive North African meal at Patio

Lamb and prune tagine

Excellent tagines at Laayoune

P1010213

Half decent fish at Sam’s on the waterfront

Lunch 2

Lowlights included the overcooked fish and hassle of the harbourside barbecue which I had hoped was going to be awesome and the worst fish soup I’ve ever eaten at an anonymous tourist trap in the main plaza. It was like eating cumin spiced glue.

Villa Maroc is regarded as setting the standard for traditional Essaouiran food. But you pay handsomely for it. After Five has its fans as well but unfortunately we didn't get a chance to eat there.

Where to enjoy a sundowner:

Sunset

Taros was the best bar to enjoy a well made drink whilst the sun went down. Get there before the sun has started its rapid descent to avoid missing out on a spot on the terrace. Then enjoy some spiced olives as the harbour basks in the rose tinted evening glow.

After Dark:


Graffiti face

When the sun goes down you've eaten a belly full of tagine and dried fruit have a stroll around the night market and enjoy the multi sensual smorgasboard of stimulation. Just watch the semi-orchestrated chaos unfold around you and have your camera ready for some good snaps.

Boats at night

Further reading:

Settle in to Gourmet Chick’s Moroccan adventures and then digest Not Eating out in New York’s thoughts.

If you've got any thoughts or stories about Essaouira please share them below so we can help people get the most out of their trip.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Hide the Sausage at Polpo

Tapasification is a good idea. Not only does it give you more choice. But it also means the spectre of food envy is forced to loom large elsewhere. The trauma of missing out on an amazing dish whilst you are tucking into something you ordered in a panic is cast aside. The only downside is that you tend to spend more money and are constantly fighting your fellow diners and deploying clandestine tactics to distract them from the last knee wobblingly seductive morsel.

So well done Polpo for popping up. An Italian, sorry Venetian, tapas, sorry bacari, joint is just what we needed. Being British we rather enjoyed the queue and less than charming welcome from the barman. It made us feel comfortable and fortunate to be allowed to eat in their restaurant. We quickly resorted to rudimentary sign language in order to communicate given that the noise, sorry, buzz was so loud, sorry vibrant.

To our enormous excitement we were seated on a table next to none other than Charles “Dinner-Party-Average” Campion and a companion. Cowie could barely contain herself as she rubber necked as if she was studying the fine detail of a particularly interesting car crash. Our waiter helpfully pointed out that he was a food critic who likes the food so much that he lets the kitchen cook him whatever they feel like.

If this wasn’t a debossed wax seal of approval then nothing is. Inspired by Campion and his insatiable appetite we threw ourselves into our task of eating as if there were medals at stake.

Arancini were texturally accomplished and a triumph of what some would call subtlety and others blandness. Chopped liver on toast was loamy but under-seasoned. Salt cod on grilled polenta was far more interesting causing me to hide the second half of it behind a wine bottle. Spratti in soar were the least popular, but that’s fine by me because I rather liked them. I chuckled as I thought of them as the Mini Me to Mackerel’s Dr. Evil.

And just as I thought this is all good without being thrilling, out came some pizzetta bianca. Like Dawn French in a Philadelphia advert I tried to mask my look of greedy glee as I chewed my first bite, spluttering to the others not to eat it because it tasted horrible. But they didn’t fall for it! I’ve been pining for some ever since reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s ode to pizza bianca. It’s a very simple dish. And in many ways the epitome of pure Italian food. It consists of a perfect pizza base that has a specific degree of thinness. According to the chaps at Wikipedia it is "topped with olive oil, salt and, occasionally, rosemary sprigs". It is then cooked very quickly and served without any fuss or accoutrements. There is an outside chance I enjoyed the idea of this dish as much as the real thing. But either way my debut was a thrill that has inspired me to explore the real thing in Rome.

Main dishes ranged from the excellent calf’s liver, flank steak and polpette to the decent pork belly and polpette. I found myself playing hide the sausage with the Cotechino. Mackerel tartare almost gave me a funny turn and fritto misto was crispy and well fried but bordered on tasteless. Slow cooked duck was inexplicably dry – if it was an actor you’d describe it as wooden. Two vegetarian dishes outshone most of their meaty table companions – a creamy slew of pumpkin again found itself cowering behind a wine bottle which was soon joined by the remnants of the wet polenta and some expertly roasted vegetables.

To finish we shared two rather ill conceived desserts – a semifreddo in a cone and a hot chocolate soup which were a bit of an afterthought. Maybe an affogato or just an espresso would have been a better idea. But it wasn’t all bad in the pudding department - Cowie’s almond tart was sensational.

Throughout our meal the service was swift, assured and helpful. I’ve only got two complaints but they are about the sludgy brown ceiling and crappy loos. But who cares about that when the atmosphere is so alive, and the food is so interesting. Charles Campion obviously doesn't. And how can I not love the restaurant that plucked my pizza bianca cherry.

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Restorative Powers of The Queens Arms in Corton Denham, Dorset

The Queens Arms

Our bodies and pockets were full of Sudafed, Lemsip, Paracetemol, catahr and reams of tissues. So we decided to shun our bikes and drive the 18 miles to The Queens Arms in Corton Denham, near Sherborne.

Fans of Malcom Gladwell will know what I mean when I say that when we first saw the pub we had a real “blink” moment. Our first impression of this stunning, golden stone pub with enchantingly friendly signs outside wasn’t something we just felt in our heads. I felt my tummy turn, looked at Cowie and felt a thrilling surge of emotion knock my cold clean out of my blocked up head. It seems good pubs have a medicinal quality, that the likes of Glaxo should bottle. We immediately knew we were in the presence of a special country pub.

Water for dogs

We like dogs and muddy boots

But this isn’t just a country pub. It’s a lot more too. Their attention to detail is charming. I loved the way they laid their pork pies out on the bar along with a whole Montgomery Cheddar. I was inspired by their array of local ciders and apple juice. I craved their range of bottled Moor Beers. I greedily guzzled their local ales. And we adored their fire, friendly service and attitude towards dogs.

We wolfed down a pork pie whilst deciding what to have for lunch. The pastry was beautifully crumbly, but we would have liked more jelly and a touch more salt. It turns out that they make excellent thinking food.

Pork pie

So with our brains enriched by pork pie we decided to share a bowl of mussels smothered in merguez sausage and tomato sauce. It was a very wise choice. Like everyone else, I’m a sucker for a good bowl of moules mariniere. But a good bowl is a rarity. Often they tend to miss the mark. So I’m often more interested in trying something a bit different in the hope of discovering something new and exciting. It turns out that spicy lamb sausage with a tomatoey sauce works brilliantly with mussels. It works with chorizo, so why not.

Mussels with Merguez

Still buzzing after our mussels, I was sent out to fetch the dogs from the car – I returned to the pub and the dogs immediately made themselves comfortable in front of the raging fire. They quickly became the stars of the pub and were befriended by numerous children and other dogs who wanted their front row seats.

Fire and dogs

For main course Cowie enjoyed a very memorable aubergine parcel with a spicy three bean stew. Whilst quite metropolitan for a very rural pub, it was full of flavour, beautifully textured and looked exquisite. If you can find a finer vegetarian main course in a country pub in the West Country please let us know.

Aubergine

Sausages and mash looked good. But I didn’t get a look in. So let’s just assume they hit the mark.

Sausages and mash

My oxtail hot pot was very delicately composed but suffered,as hot pots often do, from being a bit thin. That said, it looked charming and warmed my sniveling body to the very core. It was almost as if it had been created as a medicinal restorative.

Oxtail hot pot

We left with a small bill and a huge feeling of satisfaction and warmth. And then roamed off for a sensational walk across the ridge that overlooks the village and beforepopping into a cracking tea room called Bramble and Sage for a slice of cake and a cup of tea.

It was such a thrill to discover The Queens Arms. It’s now in my top 3 favourite pubs in the country and I can’t wait to go back. And I swear that since paying them a visit my awful cold has completely disappeared. If Glaxo are looking for new business ideas for 2010, they might want to consider opening a range of “medicinal watering holes” inspired by the Queens Arms.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Pigs Cheek Sausage Rolls & my Dream Pub Food

This is a more fuss free version of the Piggy Cheeky Wellingtons I made.

Pig cheeks in tray

Pig cheeks after cooking

Cook your pigs cheeks the same way by gently cooking overnight in a low oven. Let them cool then trim them lengthways so they are thinner and more suitable for sausage rolls.

Pig cheek sausage rolls

Sausage rolls

Give them a little smear of mustard and then wrap them in puff pastry. Bake for 15 minutes until the pastry is browned and serve with some mustard and a pint of beer.

Pig Cheek Sausage Roll

The meat melted and the pastry crunched. They are cheap. Delicious. Easy. And divine. Without question, these are the best sausage rolls ever - Ginger Pig included.

Just thinking about pig cheek sausage rolls has made me want to own a pub specialising in serving imaginative bar snacks that use cheap bits of meat. We’d have Scotch eggs on a par with the Harwood Arms, pork pies that make Helen’s look average and pigs cheek sausage rolls that make you wonder why you ever visited the Ginger Pig. And all for a couple of quid.

We’d also make biltong from ox cheek and serve chitterlings to unsuspecting drinkers. Imagine how tasty chicken oysters would be encased in a thin dumpling? And the bliss of tucking into a platter of bourbon glazed short ribs. Ramekins of hare pate would be a doddle. Pork belly confit would be a favourite. Just thinking about deep fried skate knobs makes me feel weak at the knees, ankles and toes.

And what’s wrong with doing a range of larger more tapasy type dishes of pigs cheeks in cider and cream? Or slices of slow cooked ox cheek with smoky mash?

If you’ve got any ideas for imaginative pub bar snacks let me know and we’ll start a pub together!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cheeky Pig Wellington

After almost tripping over myself in excitement when I first cooked pigs cheeks in a bourbon and mustard glaze, I’ve been gagging to cook with them again. I love their sweet tenderness and strong piggy taste. And the fact that they cost 14 pence each doesn’t hurt either!

Whenever I see them in Waitrose with the little green “Forgotten Cuts” flag in them I always buy the lot. Sorry. I just can’t help myself. This is probably why you rarely find them. It’s because a few annoying gits like me always gazump them.

A dozen or so have been in Cowie’s parents’s freezer for a few months now. And with a whole weekend to play with I decided to do something special with them. Cowie and I have been discussing how to cook them so much that Cowie has been plagued by bad dreams about being attacked by evil cheekless pigs! So when I flipped through a food magazine and saw a recipe for “Beef Wellington” the penny dropped and I started sketching out my recipe. I decided to switch the mushrooms in the traditional duxelle for apricots and then bolster it up with some pig’s liver pate. See below for the recipe. I then did a quick google and didn’t get any direct hits – does that mean this recipe is a world first?

Wash and pat dry you pigs’ cheeks. Then season them generously with salt and pepper before colouring them in a hot pan. Try to avoid smoking your girlfriend’s parents’ kitchen out at midnight like I did. Then sling them into a roasting dish along with a few sage leaves and whatever booze you have to hand. I used a glass of Argentine Pinot Noir. Then put cover with foil and cook very, very slowly. I put them in the top left oven of the Aga which is normally used for plate warming and let them bubble away overnight. But if you haven’t got an Aga and are worried about leaving the oven on overnight then slow cook them for 3 or 4 hours on a very low setting.

Pig cheeks in tray

Pig cheeks after cooking

Allow the pigs cheeks to cool and separate them from the juices.

Livery mix

Reduce the liquid to a syrup and add a handful of chopped dried apricots. This will become a sticky brown goo that will form the basis of the “duxelle”. Add 100 grams of pork liver pate to the brown goo and mix so that it becomes a paste. Season to taste.

Pig cheek being wrapped

Then lay a piece of cling film on a chopping board or work surface and line it with three overlapping slices of pancetta. Smear them with the “duxelle” and plop a pigs cheek in the middle. Then wrap them up into smart little parcels.

Pig cheek parcel solo

I then used an extra rasher of pancetta to hold it all together laterally.

Pig cheek parcels ready

Put these in the fridge and chill until you get around to rolling the pastry which must be done at the last possible moment to avoid soggyness.

Pig cheek wellington ready for baking

With 40 minutes to go before you want to eat them, roll out you puff pastry and roll it around the parcels. Place on a greased baking tray and cook in a hot oven until the pastry has browned which will take around 20 minutes.

Pig cheek wellingtons ta dar

Pig cheek wellington side

Pig cheek wellington cross section 2

Serve to impressed guests with mashed potato, broccoli and mustard. The meat was more tender than anything I've ever eaten and the pastry was puffy and crisp. The apricot duxelle gave the pork a playful fruitiness that helped to take your mind off the richness of the pate and unctuous meat.

Who needs fillet of beef that costs and arm and a leg when you can create something that tastes much better and costs a pittance? If beef short ribs were the trendy cheap cut of 2007, lamb shanks in 2008 and pork belly in 2009, then I reckon 2010 is the year of the pig cheek.

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