Radioactive days

Polonium restaurant in 2006

Polonium restaurant in 2006

With the inquiry into the polonium poisoning in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko revealing dramatic new evidence almost every day, this might be the time to recall how those events led to one Sheffield business becoming the Most Famous Restaurant in the World, albeit briefly.

It is 2006 and I’ve not long reviewed a meal at travel agent Boguslaw Sidorowicz’s Polish restaurant Polonium on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, when the Litvinenko story breaks.

I give Boguslaw a call and, tongue in cheek, ask him if his food is also radioactive. He plays along, I write a story and then all hell breaks loose. The world’s press, looking for a new angle, loves the story. Boguslaw’s phone doesn’t stop ringing. The story goes radioactive.

I met him at his restaurant in the middle of it all – at first we couldn’t get in because he didn’t have the keys and his cook from Kazakhstan (no, not Borat) was playing the radio too loudly to hear – to see how he was getting on. “It started with you and it went all round England, then Europe, then the world. I got a call from Tokyo when I was shopping in Nottingham. I’ve said I’ll stop it when I get a call from the Moon,” he told me.

He opened specially for The Sun reporter who then wrote he was the only one in the restaurant and found Russian and Polish TV crews turned up without appointments. One day his website had 728,000 hits and he featured on Have I Got News For You. No wonder people pointed him out in the street.

Boguslaw, who was born in Sheffield to Polish parents, was not slow in cashing in. The new James Bondski menu featured Live and Let Pie potato pancakes, Goldfinger Golabki (stuffed cabbage), Steak Spy and The Pie Who Loved Me as well as Flamin’ Polonium dessert.

With what we know now, it is unlikely this would be repeated but back in 2006 this was quite a story. And does a Polish restaurant with a Kazakh cook sound authentic? Well yes because that nice Uncle Stalin deported thousands of Poles there.

As for the restaurant, named after a Polish folk band Boguslaw had played in during the Seventies, it closed after another year or two.

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Pasta with a pistol

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I don’t have any difficulty recalling my most memorable meal but I couldn’t tell you a single thing I ate. When you’ve just had a pistol pointed at you by a jumpy man disguised by a bandana, little details like food go a bit hazy.

It was 2003. We had had 10 days strolling through Italy on a walking holiday, the kind where there’s just the two of you with a route map between pre-booked hotels and your luggage goes on ahead by taxi. We were treating ourselves with two final days in Rome.

 Even better, our hotel had upgraded us and we asked them to find us a really posh restaurant. The enoteca, a wine bar with food, was easily found by walking in a straight line for several blocks in the shadow of the Vatican.

 We ate early. There were just two other couples, dressed smartly as only Italians can, leaving us standing out as a little bit shabby. Well, you don’t bring your Armani with you on a hike.

 Then it happened. A man, with his face half covered by a bandana, burst through the door waving a gun. A big gun. I particularly remember that. It all happened so quickly, the bartender was spread-eagled on the floor, the man was shouting and waving that gun and frightened faces were appearing in the porthole-shaped window of the kitchen door.

I started as if to get up but one of the two male customers shook his head in my direction. They each put their wallets on the table then the man was shouting at me. I thought ‘That bugger’s not getting my money’ and took a keen interest in bottles on shelves. In any case, my wallet was in my wife’s handbag under her seat.

The man was still shouting and pointing and I recall wondering if the pistol was loaded. I couldn’t understand him but it was clear what he wanted. There was no time to be scared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the same customer put his finger to his head and tell the gunman ‘Inglese,’ shorthand for ‘that man is stupid.’

 Then the robber was gone and, amazingly, the place returned to normal, as if hold-ups happened in Roman restaurants every week of the year. My wife wanted to go but I said this was now the safest place as he was unlikely to return. They took our order – it was a little difficult – and we found it hard to pay attention to the food. The police arrived but they ignored us.

 We wondered whether we would get a bill because of the drama but of course they did, the restaurant had already lost the contents of the bar till. It was a long, scary walk back and we jumped at every shadow, thinking it might conceal the gunman. You don’t forget a thing like that but don’t ask me what I ate.

 

Walnut whip?

Walnuts with walnut pesto

Walnuts with walnut pesto

First, a little gentle misogyny. Have you heard the rhyme which goes: “A woman, a dog and a walnut tree; the harder they are beaten, the better they will be”? Well, perhaps not gentle as far as the first two are concerned but beating the tree is supposed to knock off dead branches which could spread disease. I suppose you’d call that the original walnut whip. Ouch!

Every Christmas my brother Adrian in Norfolk sends me an eagerly anticipated box containing a bottle of single malt whisky and several pounds walnuts from the tree in his back garden. I have noticed the size of the bottle decrease but the quantity – and quality – of the walnuts increase. The current crop is excellent and he keeps me in walnuts for half the year.

He reports the crop was especially plentiful this year, as opposed to the previous one, largely due to winning a little war with the neighbourhood squirrels. I shall draw a veil over what happened.

I use them in salads and in English pesto, instead of pine kernels. The herb is still basil in the winter but I replace that with sage, mint and marjoram when my pot herbs are flourishing in spring and summer. They also go well in cakes and artisan bread. I’m about to experiment with a Doris Grant no-knead loaf with walnuts.

I have no idea whether my brother beats his tree but the quality is good. You can crack the shells open with one hand (even my granddaughters can do it) which is a good sign that they are not too old. It’s best to leave the kernels in the shells until needed because they keep better. I think the kernels you buy must be treated.

The English walnut, Juglans regia, comes from Persia and was presumably brought here by the Romans, another good thing they did for us. Walnuts usually only appear in the shops around Christmas but you can find them quite easily in continental grocers such as Ozmen on London Road. Persian cooking uses a lot of walnuts, often roasted and ground and partnered with pomegranates in stews. My dad used to like pickled walnuts (done when they are still green) but that is an acquired taste.

Of all nuts, walnuts are said to be the best for health, being particularly good for the heart and memory loss, so I shall keep nibbling. Thanks for the nuts Adrian and the whisky is very good, too.

Eating in the Eighties

Parkes - La Bonne Bouche

Parkes – La Bonne Bouche

The menu cost ten francs for three courses in pre-euro days but you didn’t have to worry if you hadn’t got any foreign funny money. Conveniently one franc equalled one pound at this little French bistro in Eighties Sheffield, no matter what the official exchange rate was.

It was a mamma and poppa operation, the wife cooked and hubby, dressed in a striped Breton jumper, was front of house at Parkes, a place sub-titled as La Bonne Bouche. It was situated between a TV and a sandwich shop on Penistone Road, Sheffield. The food was good – French onion soup, cassoulets, beef bourguignon – and the bistro was a great favourite with the local Labour Party, seemingly forever in control at Sheffield Town Hall.

I was there one night when the owner threw open the door dramatically, gazed upon post-industrial Sheffield and opined: “Ee, it’s not the Cote d’Azur out there, is it?” It wasn’t. He was looking towards Leppings Lane.

That was the site of the Four Lanes Bistro and where I nearly terminated my days as a restaurant reviewer tragically early. I was eating an unstringed runner bean which somehow tangled itself around my tonsils and I began to choke.

My wife called for water. The dining room was upstairs, the kitchen downstairs, and the waiter, who was rather slow, took his time. I can still hear his footsteps coming closer with that glass of water which saved my bacon.

There weren’t that many decent places to eat in Sheffield back then. I started reviewing just after Tessa Bramley opened up the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway and Greenhead House, the Good Food Guide’s South Yorkshire restaurant of the year (and the only one listed in Sheffield) was so popular you had to book months ahead for a table at weekends.

Tuckwoods, in Surrey Street, was still in its heyday, the city’s oldest restaurant. It finally closed in 2002 after 145 years, although it had only been in Surrey Street since 1949. This was the place for Shoppers Lunches and Theatre Teas of plate pie (mince and mushroom baked on a plate with pastry top and bottom), haddock and chips or sausage and mash, followed by curd tart, served by waitresses in starched white pinnies.

The premises never recovered their glory. Tuckwoods was large and had a grand entrance but you couldn’t see in. That didn’t so much matter because of its reputation but the Italian eateries which followed, and Cary Brown’s steak and fish London Club, all suffered and the place is still empty today.

Save my bacon

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The best bit about Sunday breakfasts when I was a kid were the bacon rinds, crisped and crozzled to a frazzle, which crunched satisfyingly between your teeth. And so it was when I had a family of my own. They would fight over the rinds.

Now you don’t get too many mentions of bacon rinds on food blogs or in cookery books but they are an underused resource. As with chicken giblets, you’d be hard-pressed to find any if you shop in supermarkets. Just as giblets have been “removed for your convenience,” according to the label, so bacon rashers have been trimmed for sale. I find their removal highly inconvenient. I want to save my bacon.

You don’t have to cut rinds off if you like your bacon crisp, although it helps to nick them every few inches to prevent curling, but I prefer the meat slightly underdone. I detach the rinds and heat them in the pan slowly to render the fat (too fast and everything burns) before adding the bacon. That way you need no oil.

And if you’re frying mushrooms a rind or two doesn’t go amiss for flavour although they won’t crisp because of the liquid from the fungi.

A bacon rind or two, cooked or uncooked, add flavour to a stew although be sure to fish them out later. I once crisped a batch of rinds, ground them to a powder and used it to flavour breadcrumb toppings but was unsure how long it would keep.

Food writer Matthew Fort likes to freeze rinds until he’s got enough then bake them at 180C until crisp, season and nibble them with a glass of sherry. Classy. And he’s got all that rendered fat left over. I’ve nicked the picture from his excellent blog, https://fortonfood.wordpress.com/

Crispy rinds are a halfway house to pork scratchings and just as good. Yet supermarkets and butchers are robbing us of the opportunity to enjoy a treat our grandmothers would have taken for granted.

*Rind on bacon used to be available from Kempka’s on Abbeydale Road, since closed and Konrad is now at Whirlow Hall Farm Shop. He may be there but the rinds are not. I would love to hear of butchers who offer this facility.

Let’s hear it for the Big O

John Parsons with calves feet

John Parsons with calves feet

There’s been some Twittering from Sheffield foodies about eating offal after one cooked a pig’s heart for her dog. She tried a bit first and liked it. Good for her. There’s some fine eating to be had in those bits of animals we mention with a shudder.

We’ve all eaten liver, kidneys and oxtail in a stew but what about wyssen (an animal’s throatpipe), sheep’s brains, chitterling and bag (the rear end of a pig’s alimentary canal), lamb’s testicles, pig’s stomach, pancreas and thyroid glands and lamb’s lights?

I can tick off some of them but I know a man who has gone right through the list because he’s cooked them. He’s John Parsons, master of the Big O (for offal) and this area’s answer to Offal King Fergus Henderson, the London chef who made ‘nose to tail eating’ fashionable. At Food and Fine Wine on Ecclesall Road a few years back he ran occasional offal evenings for intrepid diners and repeated the idea at Fancie further along some time later.

It was quite a revelation. Wyssen, spongy in texture, was served with squares of tripe in a borlotti bean stew. I closed my eyes to eat the sheep brains, sliced and fried, which were crisp on the outside with a creamy interior.

It would be unfair to suggest that everything offal is a success. “The lambs lights – lungs – with sultanas and orange zest were particularly foul, to be honest. It’s the texture, like a big, fleshy Aero. And pig’s stomach was particularly gross,” he told me that evening.

You can’t just call in at the butcher for this type of meat so John has to make a special journey to the abattoir when he’s planning an evening and hope they’ve got what he wants. These days he’s cooking at the Druid Inn, Birchover, so check if and when he plans to get offally again on http://www.druidinnbirchover.co.uk

Years ago I used to enjoy cooked Bath Chaps, which you could buy in Sainsbury’s, and was delighted to find them recently on Sheffield Market, not known by that name but Pig’s Cheeks. Sometimes we don’t realise we’re eating offal as in haslet, a meat loaf which includes all sorts of bits and pieces.

Tastes have changed. There used to be several tripe stalls on the old Sheaf Market which dwindled down to a single tray full of morose looking bits, sold only to pensioners. I am also partial to brawn, but only very occasionally, which requires a pig’s head and trotters if made properly.

We mustn’t forget the feet. I’ve had deep-fried hen’s tootsies as dim sum. The claws go remarkably crispy. David Blunkett MP once tipped me off about a little café on Devonshire Green which made gorgeous cow heel gravy.

I had a wonderful stuffed pig’s trotter a la Pierre Koffman from Max Fischer at Baslow Hall, filled as I remember with chicken and mushroom, and always look out for trotters on menus abroad. In Catalonia a waiter refused point blank to serve me trotter “because the English don’t like it.” I had to have something else.

I returned the next night and pointedly ordered it from the same waiter. This time I was served. So was it wonderful, a truly unexpected gastronomic experience? No.

Seen below, John’s offal tempura and spleen with mash

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In memory of Sam n Ella’s

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I can never make French onion soup without remembering the menu at the long-gone Sam n Ella’s restaurant on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, in (I think) the early Nineties. It was a minor sensation, mainly because of the cost. It was dirt cheap, even for then.

Starters and desserts were all £1 and main courses £3. As I said at the time, for a fiver you couldn’t go wrong. If you liked it then you had a bargain. If you didn’t, then you just shrugged your shoulders and put it down to experience. You couldn’t really grumble. You could also share in the jokey name which was a play on salmonella.

After I wrote about it the story was taken up by hospitality press and Caterer & Hotelkeeper had an article on the business. “How can this place make money?” asked the man from the magazine. “Search me,” I told him.

Oddly, I cannot remember a single thing from the menu, which I reviewed, other than the French onion soup. It was not a rich broth with long cooked caramelised onions. They were still raw and the stock tasted like Marmite dissolved in hot water, which is exactly what it was. “Well, what do you expect for a quid?” said the owner.

Sam n Ella’s burned brightly for a time then expired. It might have been full but no one could make a profit on those margins.

Today I was to be giving a talk to Stocksbridge Probus Club but it was snowed off. I was so keyed up I had to release the adrenaline somehow and went into the kitchen to make French onion soup, ideal for a cold, snowy day.

You don’t need a recipe for onion soup here but the dish, as served in Les Halles, requires a rich, beefy stock. I don’t know about you but that is not something you find very often in my kitchen. But after I’d cooked the onions with garlic, thyme and bay for a couple of hours I made a pint or so of stock with a couple of Italian cubes, a tablespoonful of kecap manis (rich soy sauce) and reached for the jar of Marmite . . .

Everything all right with your meal, sir?

Marco Pierre White - don't ask them

Marco Pierre White – don’t ask them

The waiter beams down at you and asks “Is everything OK?” Harmless enough, perhaps, but some people find it irritating. If you’re a restaurant reviewer it is often a loaded question. If you mutter ‘fine, thanks’ and lambast the meal in print later I reckon the restaurant has grounds for complaint: “Your chap said one thing and wrote another.” Personally, I always contrived to have my mouth full at the critical moment or let my wife answer. She’s her own person – up to a point!

I raise this because Marco Pierre White has banned his staff from asking customers if their meal is OK. That’s fine by me. I take it MPW never did a tour of the tables (he’s retired from cooking if not from owning restaurants) when he was in charge of the kitchen. Being asked the same question by the chef is a darned sight scarier for a reviewer.

When it happened and I had enjoyed the meal it was no problem. If I hadn’t made up my mind and needed to ‘think on’ it was more problematical. “Interesting,” was a word I often used, because it swings both ways, in a good and bad sense. If I hated it, I’d have to change the subject. Or hide.

I was once ‘clocked’ in a rather poor restaurant by the chef who did a ‘casual’ tour of the tables before getting to me. I could see over my wife’s shoulder that he was coming closer so went to the loo and stayed there rather a long time until I guessed chef had given up. The missus was cross, though.

I had got my own back for a time in our early days when we had had a very poor meal (in Barnsley) and paid with a cheque. The owner spotted the name on the cheque was not the same as the one I used to book and thought I was a conman. I had to own up as a restaurant reviewer (some would say they are the same thing) and when asked my verdict on the meal said I liked to digest matters.

So he turned to my wife, who had earlier sent her meal back to the kitchen. “That was the worst steak I have had in my life,” she said. No chance of asking him to pose for a picture after that! Have you seen those cartoons where a character shrinks to the size of a pea on a chequered floor? That was me. It felt like a very long walk out to the car where my wife and I had a sharp exchange of views. We subsequently drew up ground rules.

Some chefs have been so keen to get my opinion I have had them sit down at our table during dessert and quiz me over each mouthful. Give me a break!

British diners are notoriously anxious not to cause offence and no kitchen should take feedback via the waiters as seriously reliable. People say ‘lovely’ and never come again. Instead, look at the evidence on the plates. So ‘Is everything OK?’ becomes a social ritual. When you say it isn’t they are often so surprised they don’t know what to do.

Or they get very cross and Things Can Happen. When I objected to an island table in a quiet restaurant the staff decided to teach me a lesson and put me next to the kitchen door, kicking it open extra loudly every time they passed. It was wonderful to see their faces when I introduced myself later. It wasn’t a bad meal either.

Then there was that Bakewell restaurant playing extra loud pop music to a roomful of diners all over 50. When my wife asked politely if the volume could be turned down the manager spent the rest of the night making sarcastic comments.

So perhaps MPW is right. You’re not going to get an honest answer so why ask?

Rendezvous with Remo

Italian meatloaf

Italian meatloaf

luxurious tiramisu

luxurious tiramisu

The other night my wife and I did something we haven’t done since last October. Well you can stop sniggering because we went out for a meal together. Not with the grandchildren, just ourselves. Oh and a pen, notebook and camera. When you’ve had over 1,400 meals out over 26 years of restaurant reviewing old habits die hard.

I thought I might as well, for the blog. Anyway I could never switch off when I was working. I’d always pause mid-mouthful and ask myself what I could say about it if asked. Once on holiday we went to the famous Magpie fish and chip restaurant in Whitby. “Now you’re not working, just enjoy it,” admonished my wife.

“Hello Martin, Are you going to write about them?” called a well-known Sheffield character who spotted us coming in. And I thought, why not? Lots of Sheffield people eat here on holiday so a review would be legit. My wife didn’t quite see it that way but I jotted a few notes on a paper serviette, took the odd picture, wrote up the piece and in the end the paper settled the bill. Now that’s what I call a free meal.

We were certainly paying at Remo’s in Broomhill, a place we invariably call in for coffee when we’re out shopping on Saturday. It’s got lots of atmosphere, looks authentic (the boss is Italian via Rotherham) and has very probably the best coffee in town.

Last year owner Remo Simeone finally realised his dream of expanding the place and doing rather more in the food side than a few salads and sandwiches and the odd hot dish cooked and brought in by veteran Sheffield restaurateur Marco Giove Senior. He hired his old pal Richie Russell as chef.

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Chef Richie Russell

You’ll know Richie. He was the chef in that Kitchen Nightmares TV show in 2009 who memorably swapped 310 expletive deleteds (including 240 F words) with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay at the restaurant rebranded as Silversmiths in Arundel Street. Despite this, one reviewer described Richie as one of the nicest chefs seen in the series. And so he is.

Since starting, Richie has introduced more hot dishes to the menu, which now changes every month, and there is now a monthly bistro evening. Well, chefs have to keep interested. We’ve been meaning to go and eventually did.

Soup was cauliflower, chickpeas and celery, with a background flavouring of rosemary, with a slice of ciabatta with toasted taleggio on top. Nice flavours, which is what you could also say about the asparagus and artichoke tart which followed. I followed next with Italian meatloaf (a sort of square meatball) and got two gutsy slices. The kitchen had used quite a bit of bread in the mixture but it was a good, rumbustious dish, although it cried out for a tomato sauce.

Instead, it was partnered with a bean casserole, as was my wife’s main course of baked squash with pasta and Dolcellate. It looked rib-sticking but was quite delicate, if too much with the beans. It was all good spirited stuff and the meal ended with a quite glorious orange, chocolate and Amaretto tiramisu so, with BYO and no corkage, it was great value for around £25 a head and I heard nobody swear all night.

NOTICE TO READERS FROM SOUTH KOREA, MORE ABOUT RICHIE (AND PHOTO} HERE http://wp.me/p5wFIX-lO

 

Remo's

Remo’s

Jugging your kippers

kipper pate

kipper pate

The only trouble with kippers is that they stink the place out. No matter that you’ve got an oil burner and an incense stick wafting aromatic aromas through the house, they don’t quite disguise that one aroma you’d rather not have.

We once rented a Kipper Cottage in Seahouses, Northumberland, well named as it was downwind of the town smokery a street or two away. To make it worse, I’d grill kippers for breakfast.

It was Kipper Sunday and I’d bought a pair from Mann’s of Sharrowvale Road but I didn’t want to grill them. The flesh gets hot, juices run enticingly and the flesh crisps up but even if you’ve got the extractor fan on and the window open it smells as if you’ve got a tramp as a houseguest the next day. So I decided to jug them.

This is when you immerse the kippers, heads removed, in a jug of hot water and wait for five minutes before sticking them on the plate. These were vacuum packed so I thought I’d put the whole package in the water, never mind the heads.

It worked. There were lots of buttery juices to pour over the kipper. The flesh doesn’t get quite as hot as when the fish is grilled, or as crisp, so it’s a softer eat. Grilling make the flesh separate more easily from the bones but that’s a minor matter. I am not sure where these kippers were smoked; they have quite a pronounced but not overpowering flavour.

This was a one kipper morning. I like to finish off with toast and home made marmalade but a little work turned the other kipper into pate, although that’s probably too grand a word for what is really kipper paste. Removing as many bones as possible I pounded the flesh in a mortar and pestle with a knob of butter, lemon juice, generous helping of paprika (my spice of the moment), ground black pepper and a third of a teaspoon of powdered mace. I sealed it with some melted butter garnished with a little parsley from a garden pot.

One pair of kippers makes me quite a few breakfasts and snacks throughout the week. And if the smell of grilled kipper rates 10 on a scale of one to 10 then jugged is five.