Tuesday 22 December 2009

The Wild Garlic is a restaurant worth cycling 56 miles (uphill) for

We’ve had mixed success so far with our cycling expeditions. Our inaugural, meandering trip to Lewes was rewarded with a memorable lunch at Bill’s. But our whizz across Richmond Park to The Albany was a disaster. So we decided our next trip on two wheels needed to be somewhere that could both guarantee us a good lunch and a cycle ride full of amazing views and fresh air. Our choice was Mat Folas’ restaurant in the idyllic village of Beaminster in Dorset, called The Wild Garlic.

So we loaded our bikes onto the back of Cowie’s ageing car and drove them down to Cowie’s parents’ house in Somerset. We spent the evening carbo loading on beef stroganoff and mapping our route. Cowie very cleverly used a road atlas rather than the OS map I was hankering after which I later discovered was because it didn’t show the heart stopping contour lines!

We woke bright and early to the sound of horses neighing and the sight of our breath steaming from our mouths. Opening the curtains revealed a scene from Narnia with a haw frost blistering every surface it could find. Including our bikes which we had forgotten to bring inside.

We wrapped up warm and brought our bikes inside to thaw next to the Aga, much to the dismay of Cowie’s two whippets who stared at the shivering bikes with horror. Three bowls of porridge bathed in honey and sprinkled with brown sugar woke me up sufficiently to embark on our journey.

After a false start where my chain fell off after two yards we were away. Despite the icy roads and endless hills we made good time. We started in freezing fog, but within 20 minutes it had made way and wintry sunshine took its place. The roads were quiet, except for the odd tractor and farm lorry which allowed us to enjoy the stunning views. It was like cycling through a Constable exhibition.

Bikes by sign post

The Fox Inn

We stopped off after 30 miles at Corscombe for a refreshing half pint of bitter for me and a cup of tea for Cowie in a pub recommended in the Gastro Pub Cookbook called the Fox Inn.

The landlord then broke some very bad news. The road to Beaminster was closed for repairs. We’d have to go on a “very long detour over the downs”. WHAT?! No. We were so close.

We set off again, feeling slightly despondent, but determined not to let a little detour get in the way of our lunch. The hill out of Corscombeis making me sick just writing about it. It’s so steep I’m surprised health and safety haven’t stepped in to force the parish council to install an escalator! We cycled straight up hill for about 2 miles before emerging on the top of downs. Our reward was a view that took our misty breath away and made all the hard slog worth it.


We ignored the “road closed” sign and ploughed on to Beaminster without any problem at all. It seems the roadworks were a fiction of the landlord’s imagination.

We changed quickly out of our hi-vis tops and tried to make ourselves look less sweaty and horrible before nonchalantly striding into The Wild Garlic for lunch, feeling about as smug as is humanly possible.

The Wild Garlic

The room is airy, light, friendly and well decorated with warm yellows and natural wood. It’s not big, but that helps to give it a homely feeling. A statuette of an “M” proudly sits behind the bar and the odd glowing review hangs in a frame in the Gents. Richard Bramble prints of mackerel and crab adorn the restaurant’s walls, firmly establishing this as a local enterprise.

We loved the heavy wooden tables, whose strudy tops are carved with the names of ingredients and culinary aphorisms. It’s a great touch. We just wished as much care had gone into the chairs which by comparison are quite flimsy. But these are things you probably only notice after cycling for 3 hours!

The lunch menu is brief. We almost fell out as Cowie suggested we skip starters and dive into main courses. Given our exertions there was no way I was going to miss out.


My sautéed sprats with aioli were superb. The pale yellow dip was everything that its equivalent at The Albany was not. Subtle. Smooth. Somehow light. The sprats were crispy and yet still moist. A simple starter. But a belter.

Pigeon salad

Cowie’s pigeon with a cranberry and beetroot relish was even better. The pigeon was almost dangerous pink and oozed flavour like ripe plum that refuses to be constrained by its skin. The festive coloured relish added texture, sweetness and a touch of sour. The only way it could have been better was with a heavier hand with the seasoning.

Both were served on wooden boards with a very attractive side salad, composed of purples, reds and greens. You’ll struggle to find a more attractive sprinkling of leaves. Alas, the pretty little undressed salads have no flavour. No peppery rocket nor irony watercress. No bitter chicory nor powerful borage bud. No dressing. I hate to be picky. But, given that these salads accompany most dishes, it’s a shame they are being used as a garnish rather than as an extra flavour dimension. I was expecting a lot more, given the photos of tantalising salads on the website.

My liver with onion gravy and mash was perfectly cooked, with a rosy centre and gently charred edges. But it was the mash that turned out to be the star of the dish and possibly the entire meal. It was infused with a subtle, smoky flavour that is a house speciality. We asked our waitress for more details but were told it was a secret of the house. (But it may well be done a little bit like this). Even with the spectacular smoked mash, we couldn’t help but think mash with liver and onion gravy was missing something…

Scotch eggs and liver

Cowie’s venison scotch egg with chips was not good. We had ordered it on the grounds that it was making its debut on the menu. If it was a football match, the manager would have spared its blushes and substituted it at half time. The egg was cold and hard boiled. The venison sausage meat was barely warm. And the cost was £12. For £9.50 less than that at the Harwood Arms in Fulham you’ll get a runny middle, crispy crumb, hot sausage and a smile on your face. And it’s a starter. I’d be very surprised if this remains on the menu in its current form for very long.

Even though we knew we were already running late for our train home we couldn’t resist a cardamom pot with pomegranate seeds infused with rose water. When you see how attractive they are, it’s hard to resist.

Cardamon Pot

The idea is great. The presentation is stunning. But the cardamom flavoured yoghurt, whilst delicious in terms of flavour, was gritty. We couldn’t work out whether this was accidental or deliberate at the time. But with a spot of research it seems that graininess is a common problem with home made yoghurt stemming from either uneven temperature control during incubation or an issue with the modified starch stabilizer. It doesn’t really matter what caused it. It’s just a shame it’s not quite right.

We loved our lunch, even though we’re not won over by a few dishes which had basic technical flaws that show that this is a work in progress rather than the finished article. It’s a restaurant that’s brimming with ideas and delicious food. We are looking forward to taking Cowie’s grandmother who used to live around the corner from Beaminster to try out their more extensive dinner menu.

Our cycle home was less fun. The hills seemed steeper, the air was colder and the roads became busy. And it was dark. But we got home in one piece having cycled 56 miles and in need of another meal!

For more cycling escapades have a look here.

Monday 21 December 2009

Chez Sam in Essaouria


Sam’s commands pride of place at the end of the harbour. It overlooks the sea on three sides and is guarded by a flock of ravenous sea gulls, a flotilla of stray cats and is booby trapped with fish heads strewn across the tarmac.

Inky water

Boats at night

Boats and castle 2

It’s only a short walk, but it’s dark and forbidding. If you’ve ever read a Raymond Chandler novel you’d think you were about to get sapped on the back of the head by Moose Malloy.


Trip Advisor is full of glowing praise for Sam’s. It’s an institution that people have been raving about and returning to for decades. A quick glance at the visitors book reveals the passion people have for the place. It runs to 4 volumes of eccentric prose and elaborate drawings. If you go to Sam’s make sure you give it a read!

We settled in and became instantly obsessed with the table of loud middle aged Australians to our right. Two brothers. Very vocal. Familiar voices. Were they the Chappell brothers who used to play cricket for Australia? Maybe they were…

We shared the best calamari I’ve ever had as a starter. The rings of battered squid were as crunchy as paper thin porcelain and the innards were soft like the inside of a truffle.

John Dory

For main course I had John Dory which was disappointing. Overcooked and tasting slightly dirty. It came with a mushroom sauce which was bizarre and a rather good ratatouille.


Cowie’s dourade (sea bream) suffered a similar fate. There are few things more disappointing than being served a fish that has been cooked for too long.

Although disappointed by our overdone fish, we had a very memorable meal. Sam’s has plenty of atmosphere and legions of loving fans who adorn the visitors' book with amusing entries. But, sadly it goes long on theatre and falls short in the cooking department.

This is part of a mini-series of posts about Essaouira.

Friday 18 December 2009

Elizir is Essaouria's excellent equivalent of a supper club

Every holiday has it’s culinary highlights, which isn’t surprising given that we plan our trips around our meals! Our best meal by far was at Elizir. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a thrilling display of imagination in a land of tagines and overcooked fish.


Odd light


Light cube

Walking into Elizir is like tripping over, bumping your head, accidentally eating a magic mushroom and then entering into an art gallery in a children’s nursery rhyme on Portobello Road. A display of vintage clocks showing the wrong time sits in one corner. In another is a table full of magazines, bizarre telephones and records. All the lighting is incredibly cool. So cool in fact that a photographer from Vogue sat at her table alone taking snaps of the interior whilst we absorbed the atmosphere.

The food is just as creative. A colourful line of dips kicks things off with some soft flat bread to mop it up along with some strongly flavoured olive oil. Tapenade is excellent. A pumpkin dip is a revelation. And some tart goats’ cheese didn’t take any prisoners either.



My squid ink risotto was very good, if a touch dry. It had clearly been made with care and passion and had been seasoned well.

Squid ink risotto

Cowie’s gnocchi with almond pesto was very good too. After five days of couscous and tagines, some risotto and pasta was a real treat.

Gnocchi with almond pesto

True to type we went for a safe tagine and a more adventurous version. As is often the case, Cowie’s safety first approach paid off with her excellent lamb and pear tagine. Whereas my more gung-ho choice of chicken and gorgonzola tagine was less successful.

Chicken and gorgonzola tagine

Lamb and pear tagine

It turns out that creamy blue cheese doesn’t go with slow cooked Moroccan chicken. But lamb with pears and a few pine nuts is awesome.

Feeling very full we, shamefully, shunned dessert in favour of a walk around their enchanting roof terrace where the art gallery continues under a cloudless, twinkling sky.

We’ll forever remember Elizir, as much for the relaxed and imaginative environment as the food – in many ways it’s very close to the feel of a clandestine supper club in a strangers home. It’s a very special place that you simply have to experience if you are paying a visit to Essouria.

Thanks to Gourmet Chick for suggesting Elizir.

This is part of a mini-series of posts about Essaouira.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Overcooked Fish at Essaouira Harbour


We traipsed around Essaouira’s fish market doing our best to avoid being covered in flying fish scales or losing a shoe in a puddle of Piscean guts. We felt a bit like Rick Stein as we tried to talk to the local fishmongers about their displays. Fish of every shape and as many sizes ranging from large to illegally small graced the counters. The best sight was a guy with no teeth tearing apart a conger eel the size of the Amazon and a low point was a man tying to sell us a school of miniature sole which should still have been swimming around in their crèche.

Most people describe the fish market as one of Essaouira’s highlights. And indeed, as a spectacle it is. But as an eating experience, please don’t get your hopes up. Rumours of the fish being exquisite are quite literally overcooked.

After bartering with our fishmonger cum Mitch Tonks we were ushered to a plastic table and served a can of Sprite and encouraged to watch our fish being cooked. We chose a medium sized sea bass, a bunch of prawns, some squid and a couple of “scampi”. As I looked on I was hoping to be impressed by their raw skill and simple cooking technique. But sadly all I wanted to do was ask for my money back, or to push the chef out of the way and take over myself.

Fish kitchen


The fish were brutally scaled and sawed in half before being salted and then blasted over coals so hot that Dante could write a novella about them. Our platter of fish arrived burnt and drier than Tennessee. A squeeze of lemon would have helped if we had some. But alas, no. A plate of prawns were better, but unseasoned and smelling richly of ammonia. Some squid was OK, but nowhere near as soft as it could have been. And our “scampi” never showed up.

I hate to write such a negative piece about this meal. But the elemental simplicity of barbecued fish is one of my favourite things in the world. We had hoped that it was going to be one of our major highlights. Maybe our expectations were too high? But is it too much to ask for them to be able to cook their amazing fish with care and passion? Rather than just going through the motions…

This is part of a mini-series of posts about Essaouira.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Innovative Cooking at Le Patio, Essaouira, Morocco

Patio door

Le Patio is hidden away like a hidden strand of crucial DNA in a murder scene. Tucked away down a slightly forbidding side street and manned by a chap in a tunic, it’s got atmosphere spilling out of it like the hole in the Ozone layer.

You can either eat Moroccan/French tapas at the bar, or settle in for a proper dinner. Our table was perched on a small podium which we assumed must once have been reserved for a pole dancer. It meant we could peer out over the restaurant as if we owned the place, which was a great experience. However, it made trips to the toilet a near mortal hazard.

I looked at the menu and did what Cowie hates me doing. I ignored the dishes I knew I’d like and instead became besotted with a starter and main course that sounded unusual. Who could resist “Tangier Bouillabaisse” and “Seafood Pastilla”? Cowie was far more sensible and chose a Moroccan salad to start and grilled sea bass for main course with ratatouille.

My Tangier Bouillabaisse was a devil. It occasionally snarled with harissa which I couldn’t discern in the dark. It wasn’t anywhere near as classy as the classic Marseilles version. But I’m delighted I tried it. Instead of being sweet and deep it was a bit dusty and thin. But the fish was well cooked and potatoes a welcome change from cous cous! If you visit Le Patio make sure you give a go.

My seafood pastilla was one of the best things we ate in Essaouira. A typical pastilla is a flaky pastry shell with a filling of pigeon and almonds. But this one was stuffed full of tender squid, deeply flavoured prawns and generous flakes of slightly anonymous fish held together by a subtle white sauce. It was stunning. I’m keen to give it a go at a dinner party, with a hint of tarragon or fennel.

Cowie’s sea bass with ratatouille was excellent. For once the fish wasn’t overcooked, as we found it to be everywhere else in Essaouira. The ratatouille was sweet, well seasoned and packed full of flavour rather than being the watery afterthought it can sometimes be.

Le Patio is one of the most interesting places to eat in Essaouria. If you are bored of tagines, cous cous and over cooked fish, as you inevitably will be, then Le Patio should definitely be on your hit list.

We agree with one of the commenters on Trip Advisor: "Très agréable".

This is part of a mini-series of posts about Essaouira.

Monday 14 December 2009

Top Tagines at Laayoune, Essaouira, Morocco

During Ramadan, Essaouira's streets empty at sunset as quickly as a lift contaminated by a bad fart. And an hour later they are pulsing with freshly energised life. People who were once at the end of their tether become charming and friendly. Given that I get grumpy after an hour of not eating, I’d make a terrible Muslim. I’d land up sneaking off for an illicit bacon sandwich.

On our first night Ramadan really caught us out. Along with all the other tourists we found ourselves milling around between 7 and 8 trying to find a drink, or better still eat. But nowhere was open. My stomach growled. Cowie got tense. She knows better than anyone else what happens when I’m hungry and there is no immediate prospect of food.

Then we almost tripped over a restaurant called Laayoune which I had read about in a guide book. Before Cowie even knew it we were seated and ordering. The restaurant then filled up quicker than a waiting list for a half price starter home. And as we looked around we could see all the people we’d been in food purgatory with.

I chose a lamb and prune tagine with almonds and Cowie had chicken with preserved lemon and onions.

Lamb and prune tagine

My lamb tagine was smoldering hot and startlingly aromatic. The couple on the next table could barely contain themselves as they waffled in French about “le bouquet”. The prunes were plumy and sweet, giving the sauce a syrupy consistency that I always fail to achieve when I try to cook a tagine. The meat yielded and flaked, yet was still moist. The sesame seeds and almonds leant the dish a texture that dragged it away from being mush to something more refined. I had to keep both Cowie and the French couple next door at bay whilst I mopped up the remnants of my sauce.

Chicken with pickled lemon and onion

Cowie’s chicken tagine with preserved lemon, onions and sultanas was equally delicious. The meat wasn’t as interesting as the lamb, but what it lacked in substance it made up for in flavour. The sharpness of the preserved lemon balanced coyly with the sweetness of the sultanas and onions to create a dish that was a bit of a mess to look at, but wonderful to eat.

From my experience with tagines, both cooking them and eating them, the best are the simplest. I am guilty of trying to introduce too many flavours when I cook them, when all you need are a few components that are carefully balanced. Lemon + chicken + onions works brilliantly. As does lamb + prunes + almonds. But lamb + preserved lemon + prunes + almonds + sultanas + onions is far less than the sum of its parts. And whatever you do, don’t chose “Tagine Royale” or “Cous Cous Royale”, because what you’ll get is a medley of Moroccan cooking’s greatest hits all on one plate.

We had a lot of tagines in Essaouria and Laayoune is the place that set the mid price benchmark. Don’t expect to feel terribly special or find anything unusual on the menu. But, choose from their range of simple tagines and you’ll be rewarded with a meal that you’ll want to memorise and replicate when you get home.

This is part of a mini-series of posts about Essaouira.

Thursday 10 December 2009

WANTED: Washing Machine for Lateral Cooking Experiments

Normal cooking is boring. Hobs. Yawn. Ovens. Zzzzzzz. Microwaves. Grrrr. It’s much more fun using other bits of kit to cook with such as baths, irons, dishwashers and car engines.

We’ve had a lot of fun recently cooking in bizarre ways. Our experiments with cooking salmon in the bath tub and in the dishwasher have been roaring success. We now want to push the boundaries and try something that hasn’t been done before.

We want to cook pork belly in a washing machine. The flavourings and method are still in development. As it stands the pork itself will be surrounded by star anise, ginger, chilli, soy sauce and spring onion and then encased either in a cooking bag or a pillowcase like you would do with trainers.

We’ll then select a long hot washing cycle on a gentle spin and watch our pork go round and round in the drum of the machine, slowly becoming tenderised as it crashes around. Our hope is that it emerges as beautifully soft, deeply flavoured meat resembling pulled pork.

So if you work for Curry's, Miele, Bosch, Zanussi or any other white goods company please can you send me a washing machine so I can cook some amazing pork!

And if you don't then please help to spread the word to people who do. And if you've got any feedback on the cooking method, or any further ideas, please let me know. It's got the potential to be a really fun project and I need your help.

(Image is from Flickr Creative Commons from G & A Sattler)

Monday 7 December 2009

X Rated Sausage Making

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Otto von Bismarck

Good old Otto. Being a German he knew a thing or two about making sausages. Enough to know that sausage making is one of the most graphic things to do in the kitchen. It’s a sure fire way to push someone over the edge from being a happy go lucky meat eater to a raving vegetarian. And I'm sure there is a gag in there featuring Bill Clinton, but I haven't found a way to squeeze it in.

Cowie gave me an amazing sausage making machine for Christmas two years ago. But until recently it remained in its box collecting dust. I lugged it from London to Bedford in its wrapping paper, before opening it up, driving it to Somerset and then meandering it back to London. Once in London it moved between 3 houses as I played musical beds and has now travelled full circle back to my parents’ house. I could start a new blog, charting its progress, called Around Britain with a Sausage Maker and write it in the style of Chaucer. Or maybe not.

I spent a fantastic weekend back at home with Oli and Ed where we were supposed to build a pizza oven but got sidetracked by the weather. So we decided to make sausages. We went to our amazing local butcher called Browns of Stagsden and bought a pound of pork belly, the same amount of pork shoulder as well as a length of natural casings.

"Sausage making expert Oli" (in MasterChef voice over), convinced us to keep our sausages fairly straight forward with a pinch of sage, a smattering of apple and a damn good seasoning with a double handful of dried breadcrumbs to soak up the fat and stop them drying out. It proved to be very wise advice.

First of all, discard the instructions. They’re probably written in German anyway. Then assemble your sausage making apparatus taking care not to use the biscuit making function. (Whoops!). Grind your pork into a beautiful pink mince.

Pork mincing

Finely dice your apple and shred your sage.

Apple slithers

Pork mince

Then combine the lot, including the breadcrumbs and season the hell out of it. And then give it some more seasoning. A good way of checking the flavours are well balanced is to form a mini pattie from your minced pork concoction and fry it as if it was a burger. Then give it a taste and adjust the flavours and seasoning accordingly.

Then switch the apparatus so that the blade is removed in favour of a funnel. I challenge anyone to not burst out laughing as they perform the next task of attaching the sausage casing to the funnel. It’s like you’ve suddenly become a medieval prostitute engaged in some sort of bizarre futuristic fetish. Ed managed with aplomb.

Sausage casings

Sausage casing finger

Sausage pulling

Tie a knot in the end of the casing and get pumping. Moderate the speed of the machine to stop it turning into some sort of Disney cartoon disaster featuring a burly dog and a guy in a butcher’s apron. Twist the meat into links and voila. Perfect sausages. Otto would have been proud.

Sausage ties

We left the sausages in the fridge overnight to rest and then devoured them with a poached egg for one of the most memorable breakfasts I’ve had in years.

Sausages cooked

I’m now planning to make a batch of sausages on Christmas Eve and then give them to friends and family as presents. I’m keen to experiment with some interesting flavour combinations. So if anyone has any suggestions please let me know. Sichuan pepper sausages is top of my list at the moment.

If you want to find out more about making sausages check out www.sausagemaking.org

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Scallop Risotto with Rosemary Petals & Fennel Flowers

When I go home to see my parents I always look forward to cooking with our Aga and using goodies from our garden. Mum’s herb garden is brimming with interesting varieties of thyme, numerous types of basil, umpteen varieties of rosemary and different gradations of sage. And Dad’s orchard is normally heaving with a range of apples, pears, medlars, quinces, plums, greengages and crab-apples, with mulberries, apricots and nectarines planned for the future. And that’s before you get into the issue of which mushrooms are edible, let alone which flowers you might want to scatter into a salad or use as a garnish.

I wondered long and hard about telling you about our amazing scallop risotto because I’ve banged on about them a lot in the past. But this one is worth it because it featured the subtle floral flourish of rosemary flowers and fennel blossom.

Simply fry 3 small onions in butter and olive oil. After 5 minutes add 500 grams of risotto rice. Listen to it crackle and then tip in a third of a bottle of white wine. Once this has almost dried up add your first ladle of chicken stock whilst stirring slowly. Keep doing this until the rice is tender (after around 30 minutes). Then add a mug of frozen peas and 300 grams of queen scallops. Cook for 4 minutes and then add some spinach which will wilt in the heat of the rice. Stir in some butter, season and allow to rest for a few minutes.

Scallop and pea risotto with flowers

Serve with a garnish of purple rosemary flowers and honey coloured fennel flowers which taste of aniseed. The floral notes added a very subtle layer of flavours and interest that transformed this from just being a scallop risotto into a memory that will linger forever.


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