Sid James and moody cows

Vintage Red Leicester from Sparkenhoe with Sharrow Sourdough and Hedgerow Piccalilli

Vintage Red Leicester from Sparkenhoe with Sharrow Sourdough and Hedgerow Piccalilli

I woke up blearily after a night of cheese-tinctured dreams. Did I really have one made from the milk of moody cows and another called Sid James?

We’d been to the monthly cheese and wine tasting organised by those Grand Fromages of Sharrow Vale, Nick and Nicky Peck of the Porter Brook Deli, with Barry Starmore and Jefferson Boss of Starmore Boss, visionary vintners further along the road.

I always think that a wine tasting pure and simple is really an excuse to put as many decent wines down your throat and pretend you’re learning something. Hands up all those who remember anything after the fourth glass. Thought so.

But add cheese and it seems so much more civilised and sophisticated, don’t you think? Instead of slurp, slurp, slurp it’s slurp, nibble, chew, because we’re enjoying it at the Seven Hills Bakery, which is supplying the bread.

There are 36 of us at refectory tables and we all say hello to our neighbours in that ultra-polite way the British have. The theme of the evening is artisanal wines and cheeses and, of course the bread, which has had the least distance to travel, straight from the ovens at the artisanal sourdough bakery where we’re sat.

We start with a sparkle: a Prosecco from the Bisol family in the Veneto region partnered with an English Brie, the aristocratic sounding Baron Bigod of Suffolk. It’s made with milk from a herd of Montbeliarde cows at Fen Farm, Bungay. Now I’m no lover of French Brie, which always seems to me to be too languid and effeminate in a French kind of way. But this is firmer and, if I dare say it, more manly.

In any case I’ve recently eaten something very similar while on holiday, the St Jude made by the White Wood Diary with milk from the same herd.

Nick gives us one of those little cheesy tips to use to impress. If you see a chalky line in the middle of your Brie it’s not fully mature.

Naturally the bread is French, a baton made with a poolish, or pre-fermented dough, explains bakery boss Laura Bullock. By the end of the evening I’ve changed my mind about Seven Hills, which I associate with heavy, dense, extra chewy breads with hard crusts, not good for ancient teeth. They do those but there are lighter ones instead.

I won’t go through every mouthful but I think Nick is pulling our legs when he asks us to identify two Hafod cheddars made on different days of the week, June 9 and June 12. Apparently he isn’t. It’s something about the quality of the grass or the mood of the cows. Moody cows? I can’t but others can. At any rate, both are outshone by their partner cheese, Isle of Mull.

If you used this event to nick ideas for your own cheese and wine party or cheese course then these cheeses are a fine match with the bakery’s white sourdough. And the wine to go with cheese from a moody cow is a Domaine Brau Viognier Pure from Languedoc.

Sid James was a mishearing for St James cheese, a sheep’s milk cheese from Cartmel, Cumbria. It tasted craggy, like Sid. It went with a red from Santa Barbara, California, described as “elegant forward Pinot,” which is not what you would call our Sid. I thought juicy but I was probably conjuring up images of Barbara Windsor.

The overwhelming vote for platter of the night was for a partnering of the bakery’s excellent buttermilk tea cakes (my favourite) with Cote Hill Blue and an intriguing sherry, Valdespino Pedro Ximenez El Candado. “Coating but not cloying,” said Starmore Boss. Now that’s a phrase I’ll use at my next wine tasting.

It was great fun and all for £20 a head. The next event is on June 24 and 25.

Porter Brook Deli:
Starmore Boss:
Seven Hills Bakery:

Sunday at Marco’s

Marco's of Sheffield - a glowering presence

Marco’s of Sheffield – a glowering presence

We’ve had Sunday lunch at Marco’s New York Italian on West Bar Green, Sheffield, but first three stories about Marco Pierre White, the celebrity chef who looks like a real bruiser with that squids ink tagliatelle of a hairdo.

The first is of the customer who ordered chips in one of his very posh restaurants. MPW muttered under his breath. Chips did not go with the dish but he cut the potatoes, cooked them and added £25 on the bill for his Michelin-starred time.

Then there was the chef who couldn’t stand the heat in the kitchen until the fiery Marco took a knife and slit the seat of his chequered pants.

But my favourite is of the restaurant reviewer who in his early days wrote admiringly of his background of classical French cooking, pointing out that the Leeds-born chef had never been to France but knew a man who had.

The joke is in the back story. There was not one man but three who were his kitchen mentors: the dazzlingly talented French chefs Pierre Koffman, Raymond Blanc and Nico Ladenis.

By now, I’d guess, the equally dazzlingly talented Mr White has been to France and around the world, certainly to Italy and New York, and Australia, where he is very big on TV. He has even been to Sheffield although not until after his restaurant opened last April. It’s next door to the Hamilton by Hilton Hotel in a building I last visited with out of date motoring documents when it was a police headquarters.

You can’t miss it: there’s a picture outside of Marco glowering as if someone has just collapsed the soufflé.

Sheffield got quite excited when Marco’s, the third in the chain the chef fronts, opened up but cynical old foodies like me knew that while MPW may once have had three Michelin stars he had handed them all in and retired from the kitchen way back in 1999. But people like it when you sprinkle a little celebrity stardust.

So I didn’t bother then but the management recently made me an offer: I could eat there for Sunday lunch, bring some friends and it was all on Marco’s, free, gratis and for nothing, provided I wrote about it. It wasn’t just me but just about every other foodie who blogged and tweeted in Sheffield.
I just thought you should know so you can reach for the salt cellar if you think it’s needed.

We couldn’t make Tweeters’ Sunday so did the following one. Knowing that the great man was due to host a £60 a head dinner a few days later – there was an armchair he’d be sitting in to sign books and menus – I took the chance to sit in it first.

Marco’s does pizza, pasta, steaks and ribs, more or less like any other Sheffield Italian and as I’ve never been to New York can’t judge the American angle. In any case we had what was mostly a very British three course Sunday lunch at £16. Its PR spin is that “We’re an American-Italian restaurant and the notion of sharing good food with friends and family is a culture engrained in both of those countries.” And I thought we did that, too, in England.

The basic premise is that you can share each course and for starters we tucked into some excellent, very crabby crab cakes, gutsy chicken wings, punchy tomato bruschetta and a very good mackerel pate, among other things. The only complaint was there was not enough toast for the pate.

There was a choice of three meats and a vegetarian option for mains. There were four of us and we could have had one of each but decided on the beef and chicken, leaving the gammon and goats cheese tart for another time.

The beef drew most approval on account of its tastiness, slices blushing pink. The chicken came in portions and I liked the herb rub on the skin. Everyone loved the vegetables which included a rather good red cabbage although the duck fat roast potatoes tasted a little jaded. “It’s a bit like having a carvery at your table,” said one of the party.

We sampled all three desserts. Excellent rhubarb crumble had a fine layer of crunchiness with just the right heft of rhubarb. The ladies in the party had sticky toffee and sticky chocolate puddings, one either side of a board, and loved them.

People are used to going out into the country for Sunday lunch, certainly in the summer, so it may take a little time for the idea of coming into the city to catch on.

Marco’s is a big, comfortable place with seating for 110. Head chef John Cluckie who opened he restaurant has now moved up to development chef and Fenchman Flo Grou has taken his place. Our meal was cooked by sous chef Lee Crookes.

Then there’s Andrea Booker, the Sheffield girl come home as restaurant manager, who calls you ‘darling’ and looks after you smashing. We reckoned Marco’s scored very heavily for value for money as portions are more than generous. And for darlings. Oh yes, and you can get chips.

West Bar Green, Sheffield, S1 2DA. Tel: 0114 399 099. Web:

Marco's roast beef

Marco’s roast beef

Don’t pass the salt

salt and pepper pots - but do you really need them?

salt and pepper pots – but do you really need them?

The first thing I look for on a restaurant table is the salt and pepper. I want to see that they’re there and what they are although I probably won’t be using them. You can tell an awful lot about a place from just these two condiments.

And the diners. Look at that chap over there. Almost as soon as his plate arrives he is reaching for the salt and sprinkling it everywhere. Now there’s someone who doesn’t know his food or care too much for the nuances of taste.

Seasoning is a skill you hope that every chef has. My edition of Larousse Gastronomique states that seasoning is “the addition of various ingredients (salt, pepper, spices, condiments, aromatics, oil and vinegar) in variable quantities to a culinary preparation, either to give it a particular taste or to increase its palatability without changing the nature of the food it contains.”

What’s more, this encyclopaedia of French culinary knowledge goes on to stress it is “a delicate art that requires a precise knowledge of basic substances to bring out the best in the different flavours by blending them.”

So, before we add salt and pepper let’s see how the chef does. We owe it to him (or her). If I don’t reach for either during a meal the kitchen has done its job. Mind you, seasoning is a subjective thing. No chef can put the right amount of salt for me on chips or roast potatoes although oddly he can for mash. It’s an art.

I had a night many years ago as a lowly commis chef in the then Michelin-starred Old Vicarage at Ridgeway and my eyes were opened by the way salt and sugar were added to almost every dish, the European answer to MSG. But I now do it myself in my own kitchen, a little salt here, a pinch of sugar there.

Nowhere with any pride in its food will offer you table salt or ready ground pepper these days. That’s for the transport caffs. Sea salt or rock salt adds a piquancy to food and an elusive sweetness. You don’t believe me? Put a salt crystal on your tongue and concentrate. See. I can’t tell you the reason but it’s there.

There is nothing quite like freshly ground pepper, the king of spices. Just think what the South Indians do with this one spice. I remember being intrigued by chef Gary France’s pepper pots at the old Harley Hotel: a mixture of black, white, green and red peppercorns with the odd coriander berry thrown in for good measure and have copied it ever since.

Having said all this, I don’t really want to use them! I hope the chef has. But I do want to be given the option. I hate the sort of place where the condiments are not on the table so you have to ask. That’s just a touch of arrogance on the part of the restaurant.

There’s a well known place in Sheffield which brings open pots of salt without salt spoons. It would be uneconomical to fill them afresh each time and I am not going to trust the hygiene of the fingers and thumbs which went in before me.

And there’s Carluccio’s chain of Italian restaurants which makes a thing of giving its waiting staff the pepperpots and asking you if you want a grinding before you’ve even tasted the food. What are you supposed to do? Start eating, make a decision and flag down a passing pepperpot person? It betrays a lamentable lack of understanding about food for the sake of a gimmick. (The Ecclesall Road branch has now closed.)

Salt and pepper might seem like ordinary items but they can say quite a lot about a restaurant and its customers. It’s these little nuances that make food and eating out an ever-interesting topic. So next time, before you say pass the salt, ask yourself if it’s really needed.

Your pork chops are in the urinal sir

Food served in a novelty urinal

Food served in a novelty urinal

They must have run out of plates at this local restaurant we were eating in because they brought my pudding to the table on a slate. Next to it was a little jug of custard. What happens when you pour liquid on a flat surface? Exactly.

No names, no pack drill, although this will come as no surprise to diners. As one woman wrote to me in my Sheffield Star reviewing days: “I have been fed food on boards, slates and tiles. Why can’t they just use plates?”

The short answer is that it would be too easy. Chefs are caught up in a whirl of fashion. Plates are so last year. They are artists. Not only will they deconstruct classic dishes – same ingredients, different order – but they need new canvasses on which to paint their food pictures.

The washing up stations in some restaurant kitchen must resemble B&Q – I am still expecting jam roly poly to turn up one day in a length of plastic guttering – but wouldn’t it be nice to just have plates?

Now diners are fighting back. The We Want Plates Twitter site, which has just had a burst of publicity in the national press, features photos of some of the worst examples: A fried breakfast on a shovel, salad in a jar, chips in tins, what look like chicken nuggets in a trainer, food in a hub cap, cakes and biscuits on a skateboard . . . you couldn’t make it up. There are the pictures to prove it.

My favourite, though, is what looks like apple sauce delivered in a tiny toy wheelbarrow.

Of course, even if you do get a plate there’s no guarantee it’s going to be round. It might be square, long and thin, triangular or sloped, all plates I’ve eaten on in the past.

Of course, the food historian in me might be itching to tell you that wooden boards were common in the Middle Ages. They were called trenchers, descended from similarly shaped loaves. But we have moved on.

I think this recent trend has its origins in Seventies nightclubs like the Fiesta which served up chicken and scampi in a basket. From there it’s only a chip or two away from pork medallions served in a novelty urinal. Post-modern ironic flourishes even in Havana, Cuba.

And the word urinal leads me to the next point. A microbiologist might shudder (in fact one does if you visit the We Want Plates Twitter page) at all the little bugs and germs hidden in the crevices of hard to clean wood and other such stuff.

Another thing which gets my goat is if, say, you have ordered pie, chips and peas there is a plate but you have to take the pie off its serviette and the chips and peas out of their containers. Plate it please!

Chefs are relying too much on novelty rather than the quality of their food. It’s rather like menu descriptions. Dawes’s Law states that the more florid the menu, the poorer the food.

So, please, chefs, I want to taste the food on my palate not served up on a pallet. Otherwise I’ll bring my own plate.

Batter, tatter, fish – what’s up for the Sheffield Fishcake?

The Sheffield Fishcake at Seafayre - but is it under threat?

The Sheffield Fishcake at Seafayre – but is it under threat?

“Batter, tatter, fish, tatter, batter,” is the succinct description of the construction of a Sheffield fishcake, seen as a geological diagram. It’s a sort of fish sandwich, a piece of cod or haddock between two slices of potato, swathed in batter and deep fried.

Some insist on calling it a Yorkshire fishcake on account of it also being sold in Halifax or Huddersfield but Sheffield is the only Northern town to give its name to this speciality. Yorkshire has its pudding and mushy peas so let this be Sheffield’s national dish!

I am not sure whether it’s dying out in the area’s chippies or is still holding on. The three or four chip shops nearest me don’t sell it. In Barnsley they think a fishcake is mashed fish and potato with parsley, as does most of the rest of the country.

It’s not hard to see how the Sheffield fishcake came about. A chippie decided this was the best way to make use of fish trimmings. But why is it a strictly regional thing: surely the same thought should have applied in the rest of the country. Perhaps only a Yorkshireman can turn (almost) nowt into owt.

I have always been fascinated by Sheffield fishcakes. I grew up in Derby where my father ran a chippie in complete ignorance of this delicacy some 40 miles north. I’d had a scallop, a slice of potato in batter, but that was less than half way to the real thing.

Nor had Bruce Payne, owner of Seafayre chippie and fish restaurant on Charles Street, Sheffield. He’s from Leicester and had to be shown how to make them when he married into Sheffield’s Pearce dynasty of chippies. The Sheffield fishcake is popular: when on Castle Market he once sold 224 on a Friday lunchtime. “I thought they would be as popular here but it’s a different clientele,” he says.

Bruce doesn’t use a slice of fish but trimmings as he says it would otherwise be difficult to seat the fish and potato together snugly. He has to be careful with his choice of spuds. “When varieties change I thought a baking potato would be suitable but it just goes mushy.” Nor does he parboil the potatoes. And “I always use cod because this is a cod shop,” he adds.

At just £1.45 it’s a particularly tasty and comforting dish and well worth ordering, with or without the chips.

The Sheffield or Yorkshire fishcake is a working man or woman’s snack but there’s no reason why it can’t be poshed up, as it is at the three-star George Hotel in Hathersage. Sous chef Steven Sumpner may come from Basingstoke but “I’ve always known about Yorkshire fishcakes because my father, who is from Leeds, loves them

“I remember my dad showing our local fish and chip shop how to make them so when we had our fish n chips nights he could have a Yorkshire fish cake. It was a big deal to him being a Leeds boy.”

Steven, whose own favourite fishcake from a chippie is from Four Lanes on Leppings Lane, Hillsborough, produced mini fishcakes for a special occasion at the hotel recently but it often goes on the menu because “it’s homely and rustic.”

His method is to parboil the potatoes so it allows for thick slices of spud which can be cooked at the same rate as the fish and batter: if he used them raw the rest would be overcooked. And because it is a hotel he can use tail ends of fillets.

The batter, too, gets special attention. “My recipe always has wine vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. This gives the batter an extra crispy and light texture with a nice punch of vinegar. I season with rock salt and it really gives that feeling you have drenched your fish in vinegar and salt but you still have a crispy batter!”

Steven’s miniature versions are extremely tasty little morsels with extra oomph in the batter. I enjoyed them.

Of course, one man’s fishcake is another man’s fritter, pattie, scallop or rissole so the Sheffield or Yorkshire fishcake might exist somewhere else in the world under another name. I have heard of a double decker fishcake with a layer of peas as well as fish and spuds and there is the famous mushy pea fritter at Two Steps on Sharrowvale Road.

Finally, here’s Yorkshire chef Brian Turner’s version, as seen on YouTube. Go to

*Seafayre has now closed but Bruce continues frying (and serving Sheffield fishcakes)  at the Market Chippie on The Moor Market. This is for the benefit of Peterborough FC fans accessing this site via


Steven Sumpner's Sheffield fishcakes

Steven Sumpner’s Sheffield fishcakes

Steven Sumpner in the George's kitchen

Steven Sumpner in the George’s kitchen