It’s Ready, Steady, Cook for Jo


Volunteer Hannah Stevens serves up my Real Junk Food Café lunch

Until a man in an electric van called Juan (that’s the van not the man) shows up Jo Hercberg has no idea what will be on her café menu. “It’s like the Ready Steady Cook Challenge: great fun and you get good at substituting ingredients,” she says.

All over Sheffield firms are dumping perfectly good food reaching use by or sell by dates. Now, instead of sending it to landfill, they can donate it to the city’s Real Junk Food Project, to be turned into meals for anyone who wants them.

So through Jo’s kitchen door that morning came consignments of beef from Ocado to be turned into beef stew and, courtesy of Marks & Spencer, roast carrot soup with cashew and chilli. And there were king prawns and scallops looking for a recipe.

Lunch is already bubbling on the stove when the man in the van is back again. He plonks down two trays full of plastic pots containing chicken tikka with a mint yoghurt dip and another of individually wrapped bagels.

They’re from East Midlands Trains, as are the eggs which provide the café’s breakfasts. “Every first class ticket holder gets a free breakfast but as they don’t know how many customers they have so order more than they’re going to need,” explains Jo, founder of the Real Junk Food Café in Club Garden Road, Sharrow.

We had called a couple of weeks before to find a small café with just four tables and a few others outside. It’s on the ground floor of Regather Works, a former horn handle factory which is now used for community projects, with yellow painted wood panelled walls and a short blackboard menu. It is open for breakfast and lunch on Thursday, Fridays and Sundays. The average number of diners is 50.

We order roast chicken and pasta with Mediterranean vegetables and contemplate the glass jar on the table in front of us. It’s Pay As You Feel here. You put a donation in the jar, although if you were really skint could offer your skills or services as payment. I ask volunteer waitress Hannah Stevens for guidelines.

“What I do when I come here when I’m not working is ask myself what would I pay at Wetherspoons?” says Hannah, who runs an online business shipping British chocolate around the world.


Jo Hercberg in her kitchen

The food is just fine. We follow the main courses with a decent fruit salad, although the melon could profitably have been junked without troubling the kitchen. Donations are cleared away smartly for obvious reasons.

You can eat this feeling smug: you’ve not only had a cheap meal but done your bit for the city’s war on waste. For baby boomers brought up on the mantra, Waste Not, Want Not, the Real Junk Food Project is a shining beacon.

It is also a stomach filler for the local needy as for those who have more than two brass farthings to run together. What food that doesn’t get cooked is left outside on a table for people to take. However, we notice that, with the odd exception, most of the diners are what you might call young professionals, who would be equally at home in All Bar One.

“It wasn’t a typical week. There were pieces about the project in the Independent and Guardian. We got a lot of media attention,” says Jo, who took up the idea after hearing about a similar project launched in Leeds three years ago by chef Adam Smith. Jo, who was in the online travel business, realised this could be a more rewarding project and “I always wanted to do something with food.”

It was launched with a series of pop up restaurant nights across Sheffield before settling into Club Garden Road last September.

We first came across Jo at the Sheffield Food Festival when she explained that Britain wastes some 15 million tonnes. What she does can only dent the surplus ever so slightly but when I met her the café was coming up to feeding its 7,000th customer. Who are they?

“We have a varied customer base, people who hear about us and regulars who are either local or have supported us from the start.”

Money raised keeps the Project, a not for profit social enterprise fun by volunteers, ticking over, buying equipment and running pop up restaurants across the city. It also provides food for a local school.

But Jo has dinner to cook so I leave her to get on with it. “It never ceases to amaze me, we get all this food,” she says. I leave with a pot of chicken tikka dips, having left a donation.

For more details visit


The café at Regather Works

Expensive wine: Rayner is right!


Jay Rayner

Now how many times have you said this? “That looks to be a nice pair of shoes/jacket/shirt. How much is it? Really? I can get it for a third of the price down the road. Still, I’ll pay your much higher price.” Never, eh, you wouldn’t be so daft.

Now substitute the phrase ‘bottle of wine’ in that paragraph and read it again. How many times have you paid well over the odds for wine in a restaurant?

It’s a well-worn, familiar topic because we all know restaurants put a big mark up on their wine but Guardian food critic Jay Rayner, the foodie world’s Marco Pierre White, has popped the cork out of the bottle again at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where he was punting his latest book.

He is reported to have said he was irritated by wine snobbery (aren’t we all?) and added: “I refuse to be intimidated by a wine list. (They) are fraught with problems but mostly because of the b——- spouted by wine connoisseurs. They irritate me profoundly.”

He went on: “I do not hold to being intimidated by anything in this life and if a wine list irritates you just buy the cheapest on the list and tell them all to p— off.”

This was interpreted by headline writers as ‘always buy the cheapest wine,’ which is invariably the house wine, and has irritated the great man on Twitter as he didn’t say that but the context is clear. I certainly object to paying well over the odds for wine personally and so did my newspaper’s expense account.

So I felt only reasonable, as it should be to  Mr Rayner, to order the house wine so I could recommend it or not to the readers. I can recall several occasions where I warned them to avoid it in some places. Once I forgot my own advice and went back and ordered it again, a rubbishy Merlot in an Italian restaurant!

I certainly agree that your evening can be enhanced by matching particular wines to foods but unless I am sitting at home am not prepared to expensively indulge this pleasure in restaurants. I would rather spend the money on the food, which should not need the wine to support it.

Rayner is right. There is an awful lot of wine snobbery about and most diners feel intimidated. If restaurants really thought it was vitally important to match wine with food they would offer more half bottles and wines by the glass because it is unlikely one bottle will suit both mains when a couple go out to dine.

That’s why it irritates me when waiters ask if we have chosen the wine before we have decided on our order. We opt for a glass these days, so we can make a decent pairing.

Mark ups of 200 or 300 per cent are common and that is on the retail price you’ll find in supermarkets. Wholesale prices will be cheaper. I accept there should be a premium added to compensate the restaurant for its capital investment in stock. They can have a lot of money tied up.Some places will tell you that the spend on drink subsidises the food.

I think it legitimate to mark up a wine which is reasonably exclusive. I’ve just run my eye down the list of one leading Sheffield leading restaurant which offers a New Zealand white at £60. You won’t find it on many other lists although it is sold in another northern restaurant at £45!

Rayner tells of being ‘treated like dirt’ because he asked a waiter to suggest a cheaper wine. My favourite tale comes from former Sheffield Star restaurant critic Stephen McClarence who fancied a rose but couldn’t find one on the list.

He came back to the office regaling us with his account of how the waiter offered to mix a glass of red and white for him!

FOOTNOTE: You might like to read this post on BYO in local restaurants here

Charlie’s on a roll at Peppercorn


The bread rolls look sexy at Peppercorn

I may have mentioned this before but head chef Charlie Curran makes the sexiest bread rolls in Sheffield: springy little spheres of warm dough with a dimple in the top, dusted with white flour. They just look nudge, nudge, wink, wink, food porn naughty.

 There are four of them on a slate at our table, two white, two wholemeal, with discs of butter, one yellow, one black, being flavoured with Henderson’s Relish. This does nothing for the butter but makes it Very Sheffield.

 The rolls regularly get an outing on his Twitter page which, as an amateur baker, makes me green with envy. I cannot get mine as temptingly curvy as Charlie’s. And they’re in the first picture which comes up for the restaurant on TripAdvisor. If  British Baker magazine ran a Page Three these little bread buns would be on it.

 We are at Peppercorn, the restaurant he runs with front of house soulmate Kelly Ware on Abbeydale Road South, Sheffield, for Sunday lunch. It is exactly three years to the day since my review of the place in the Sheffield Star, shortly after it opened. How spooky is that? Back then I raved about the cylindrical chicken (here ) and vowed that if all potato dishes were like his fondant spuds I’d give up chips for life. Sadly, it hasn’t happened.

 It was a five star meal then, even though it was early days, and it is a five star Sunday lunch which gets under way spectacularly with an exquisitely flavoured fish sausage of scallops and lobster, the shellfish in toothsome pieces within a finely minced filling on a bed of springy homemade squid ink linguine, bathed in a cheesy thermidor sauce. It’s a winner.


Fish boudin with squid ink linguine

 Apparently it’s the first one out the kitchen as a trial for the a la carte menu. The excellent pasta is made by sous chef Dan Kidd. Charlie ‘inherited’ Dan when he followed Brian Moran into the premises. Come to think about it, not the only catering Brian in his life. Years ago he worked for Brian Turner in London.

 My wife’s chicken liver pate with toasted brioche was also a little belter of a dish for richness and flavour.

 Now Sunday lunch is like fish and chips or a curry: you spend days looking forward to it and then, so often, the reality fails to live up to the anticipation. Not here.


Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding

 There are three slices of tender beef, still pink and full of flavour, draped over four crunchy roast potatoes which taste as if they have just come out of the pan, not taken a turn in a deep fat fryer as I had recently. The gravy is made with the meat juices and there is a big, crispy Yorkshire Pudding. It is pretty close to Sunday lunch perfection.

 My wife, meanwhile, is enjoying the cod, a good piece accurately cooked on a bed of crushed potatoes with a simple, classic chive butter sauce. Vegetables come by the barrowload. Well almost. We count four dishes of cauliflower cheese, mashed swede and carrot, peas and beans and red cabbage. Surely people don’t get though all that?” They do,” says Charlie later.

We share a sweet, a properly wobbly pannacotta brave enough to be served out of the mould with berries and a strange green spongy sort of thing made to resemble woodland moss. “Wheatgrass,” says our waitress. It’s a novelty.

 It’s been a super meal with friendly, relaxed service. When Charlie comes out of the kitchen I compliment him on the rolls and the food. “I love baking,” he says and agrees that Sunday lunches have a different atmosphere in the kitchen. When everyone else has gone they’ll all sit down to their own Sunday lunch, chefs, servers and pot washer. I hope they enjoyed it as much as we did. Two courses cost £20, three for £25.

 We leave thinking that these premises, a low key building shaped like a shoebox, squeezed in between a Park & Ride car park and the Summer House, give little hint of the quality of cooking inside. But then he’s only keeping up with a tradition, following two fine chefs here, Cary Brown of Carriages and Brian Moran.

 Right now Charlie is on a roll in more ways than one.


Looking happy – Charlie Curran

 289 Abbeydale Road South, S17 3LB Sheffield. Web





Falling for Tumbling Tom


One of my hanging baskets of Tumbling Tom tomatoes

Usually making green tomato chutney is an admission of failure. Your tomatoes haven’t ripened, even when you’ve wrapped them in newspaper and put them in a drawer with a banana for company.

Not this year. I’ve had ripe tomatoes galore around the kitchen door, in growbags, pots and hanging baskets: big bright red ones and juicy red and yellow cherry tomatoes called Tumbling Toms. They have made me salads and sauces, tomato and olive tarts and been roasted in the oven to concentrate the sweetness.

I have had them fried on toast with a sprinkling of herbs as my favourite breakfast. All this without a greenhouse. It must be global warming!

I’ve always loved the scent of tomatoes but have never had much success growing them until recently. It all started when a neighbour asked me to water his plants while on holiday. I was enchanted by the sight of tomatoes cascading from the hanging baskets and was immediately struck down by tomato envy. The following year I grew my own, some from seed. Now, two years on, it’s Tomato Wars on my street!

But it’s getting colder and there are some which are never going to ripen so it is time for green tomato chutney. I turned to a recipe from Nigel Slater but played around with it, adding more spices than his austere version. Here it is.

900g green tomatoes, chopped
300g onions,chopped
90g raisins
250g light muscovado sugar
1 red chilli, deseeded
1 tsp salt
2 tsp mustard seeds
300ml white wine vinegar.

Add all to the pan and proceed as usual for a chutney (see my post, Chutney for chumps).

I hesitate to ‘improve’ on the Master but I didn’t have any white wine vinegar so used up an old bottle of sherry vinegar and replaced the muscovado with granuated sugar. Slater recommends yellow mustard seeds, I had black. I reckoned the chutney needed some extra spice so added two cloves of garlic, a thumb of grated ginger and a couple of teaspoons of garam masala.

There are a lot of tomato skins in this recipe so I cut the tomatoes finely and didn’t add the sugar until halfway through cooking because it tends to harden ingredients.

I filled four medium-sized jars with some left over, which was quickly eaten. I reckon this one is going to improve. It’s tangy but not over hot. And what doesn’t go with my sandwiches can always enhance a curry.


Tomatoes on toast for breakfast

The magic of Michelin

The new Michelin Guide 2017 awards were announced with a big fanfare in London, delighting some restaurants and chefs, sending others into misery. You could, if you wanted, watch the ceremony streamed live on the internet.

How things have changed. When I started reviewing, back in the 1980s, Michelin didn’t even bother to inform restaurants first but sent out the results via an embargoed Press release to journalists – giving them enough time to interview and photograph the starry chefs.

So it was in 1994 that I opened my Press release to find that Max Fischer had won a star for the first time at Baslow Hall. I rang to congratulate him and get a quote and was surprised this was the first he’d heard of it. And his reaction wasn’t quite what I imagined. “I suppose we shall get all these people coming wanting steak and strawberries,” he sighed.

I popped over for an interview after patiently explaining that the Sheffield Star, regional newspaper that it might be, certainly wouldn’t give people the idea that Baslow Hall was a steak and strawberries type of place.

Max then might have been the exception then because most chefs would die to get into the famed guide. Sometimes literally. I have eaten, wonderfully, at Bernard Loiseau’s restaurant in Saulieu, Burgundy. Sadly he shot himself in 2003 when he thought he might lose one of his three stars. He didn’t. His widow Dominique continues the business.

There is Michelin magic as far as the hospitality business is concerned. It is an accurate guide as to where to find good food. But it is good food of a certain type. And as some restaurants have found, the pressures of keeping up the standards don’t necessarily lead to success. Some have gone bust.

In Sheffield a few years ago Marcus Lane, then owner of Rafters and the holder of a Bib Gourmand, the award just below a star, asked not to be considered in following years because he thought it added undue pressure.

There will be plenty of headlines over the next few days about Michelin winners and losers but not that many people will buy a copy of the guide itself. Have you got one? The amount of detail it gives about any one place is small. Its value is the publicity and cachet it bestows. Much more user-friendly are publications like the Good Food Guide and Harden’s.

I long ago lost patience with the AA guide when I realised it was handing out rosettes to places not worthy of mention. One leading chef confided it had rung up to get details of the menu over the past year because one of its very few inspectors would not be visiting. Needless to say, this particular restaurant was included. I am sure things are very different now.

At one time this was entitled Egon Ronay’s AA Guide (the Hungarian food critic had previously had run his own guide) but when I pointed out in an article that his main involvement had been to provide his name and write the foreword this provoked a furious letter from the great man himself. I was carpeted for my impudence by a stupid Star executive but stood my ground.

But back to Michelin. Not much luck for places around here but congratulations  to Max and head chef Rupert Rowley for retaining the star once again this year. I don’t think there will be any need to let them know.


Crab apple crazy!


Chilli and crab apple jelly

This year I’m going crab apple crazy. All that fruit for free which nobody wants is just begging to be turned into jellies at hardly any cost except for the sugar. And that’s at bargain prices at the moment.

So far I’ve made rowan and crab apple jelly and chilli and crab apple jelly and both have been a great success. I can’t think why I haven’t done it before.

Actually I can. It’s all that straining overnight through jelly bags and trying not to squeeze and turn the liquid cloudy, then worrying about getting a set, overboiling and it finishing up hard and stiff instead of coming quivering out of the jar.

In fact, what I wanted was the sort of jellies that excellent chef Hugh Cocker always had on the menu at the Old Post, Chesterfield.

But now I’ve cracked it with the help of Pam Corbin’s Preserves, the River Cottage Handbook No 2. There are red and orange rowan berry trees all over Sheffield and I picked a kilo at the Ponderosa in Crookes. It’s a great place for fruit. Some years ago a local conservationist group planted fruit trees and bushes so now I pick gooseberries, blackcurrants, plums, damsons, blackberries and elderberries there throughout the year. The area, a big patch of parkland and woodland, got its name from local kids playing there after the ranch in the Sixties TV series Bonanza,

As I walked back to my car there was a crab apple tree ablaze with fruit. I picked some and to get an equal quantity of apple to rowan I scrumped more from my neighbour’s garden, with his permission.

Pam doesn’t mention this little trick but I blitzed the fruits in a processor, put everything in a big pan, just covered it with water and simmered for an hour. I tied the jelly bag to the four feet of an upturned stool, put a bowl underneath and covered the lot with a bin bag to keep the flies off.


An upturned stool and jelly bag makes this improvised strained

The next day I had about a litre of juice. It was back in the pan and for each 600ml of liquid I stirred in 450g of sugar. (This is the same formula for whatever jelly you make.) She also recommends the juice of a lemon although there is plenty of pectin in the apples. It’s there to sharpen flavours. As I wanted to use the jelly with meats I tied a bunch of sage and thyme together and hung it in the pan during the simmer and boil.

It was a remarkably quick set (test early) using the saucer test and the flavour and colour, a gorgeous pinky red, is excellent. It will go well with meats and enrich sauces and stews.

Flushed with success I tried again, this time with chillies, a mixture of bought ones from the local Indian shop (costing only pennies) and some tiny ones I’d grown on the windowsill. I chopped these up and added them to the pan while the juice was coming to the boil. I wanted it quite hot so had four chillies, red, orange and green, some deseeded, others not.

When the jelly sets you want the chilli bits suspended in it but they insist on floating to the top. Pam has a good trick. At setting point turn off the heat and leave the pan to cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then bottle. Every time the chillies rise to the top upend the jars and give them a twist. Eventually they give in, the jelly sets and they are suspended all through the mixture.

It’s hot but not too hot. Remember that one way to tone down a too chilli-hot curry is to add a tablespoon of sugar. There’s plenty of sugar in the jelly so the heat tends to balance out. It will be an alternative to the chill jam (made with tomatoes) which goes well with fish cakes and similar foods – just about anything really!

There are still shedloads of crab apples on the trees so I’m working out what to do next!


Crab apples – all for free

Why ‘No Shows’ are a no-no


No shows mean no money at the Samuel Fox

The other day James Duckett, chef-patron of the Samuel Fox Inn at Bradwell tweeted a picture of two empty tables at his North Derbyshire pub with the caption: “Two tables booked for Saturday night. #Noshow, no answering of phones, and we turned down other diners because of them! #Exasperating.”

It was, if anything, understatement. No shows mean loss of profit and can turn a busy evening into one which barely makes money. The Fox cannot rely on that much passing trade come 8pm on a dark Saturday night in the middle of the countryside. It’s estimated that no shows cost British restaurants up to £16 billion a year, although that does seem rather high.

That tweet struck a chord with me because in more than 25 years writing about food and restaurants for the Sheffield Star I often wrote stories castigating this bad practice. It seemed to come and go in waves. Often two couples would decide to go out but couldn’t agree on the restaurant. Both would book different places and make their minds up on the day.

Others were simply ignorant, very possibly not realising the financial damage they cause. Stung by a series of no shows, brothers Wayne and Jamie Bosworth, who then ran Rafters restaurant, waited until after closing time before ringing the number of one customer who failed to materialise. . “We said should we send the staff home yet?” remembers Jamie. “They were very apologetic.”

A couple of years ago, when reviewing, I rang the former Barretts Bistro at Hutcliffe Wood to book and was asked for my debit card details: number, name and security code. As well as that, they deducted a tenner per person from my card and would set that against the bill. I was most put out because I was planning a BYO dinner with garlic mushrooms and cheese soufflé, not a swanky suite at a five star hotel.

They had introduced the policy because in the space of a short time the tiny bistro had lost two tables of six and one of eight while other tables of four and six turned up as twos, said boss James Barrett.

Restaurants have to be careful. This sort of thing can put people off. So far, no one round here has followed the policy of Michelin three star Hong Kong restaurant Sushi Shikon by fining customers for cancelling, depending on how short a time they give (up to £350 per person). And more if fewer people turn up than booked!

Nor have British restaurants followed Copenhagen’s Noma where staff posted YouTube videos mocking absent customers. And one Australian restaurant took to naming and shaming people who failed to show.

Most restaurants are not high powered enough to demand customers book through an online agency or ask for as many details as Barretts Bistro demanded. Things should be taken on trust. Taking a mobile number is no guarantee, as James found. You simply programme the restaurant’s number into your phone and when the name flashes up, don’t answer. Perhaps he ought to ring on another line!

It is also, sadly, one way in which rivals can sabotage a business.

Taking a number can work both ways. Once, setting out to review a Sunday lunch, I was ten minutes into my journey when my mobile rang. It was the pub. The kitchen wiring had blown up. They wanted to tell me the best they could offer was sandwiches!