My worst cuppa, ever



This could have been the beach where I passed out  in a drunken stupor

THE SIGN read ‘Last Cup of Tea for 4,000 Miles’ and I was gagging for a cuppa. My last had been at RAF Brize Norton and the next, if we got there, would be in Port Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands. When it comes to the British military, refreshments aren’t quite British Airways standards, even though I had been flying in a VC10.

The next leg of the flight would be in a rattling, uncomfortable Hercules transport and the best you could hope for was a carton of orange juice and a packet of sandwiches.

It was March, 1983, coming up to the first anniversary of the Argentine invasion and I was on my way to the islands, representing the Sheffield Star, as a sort of ‘consolation prize.’ I’d missed the big event but not by much. My name had been put down for the one slot to represent the regional press and I’d come third. I was told to keep my bags packed and not go anywhere that Easter as the fleet sailed south.

I moved up one when the nominated reporter was flown home early from Ascension Island and Derek Hudson of the Yorkshire Post took his place. It was Derek who in the Upland Goose, the islands’ sole hotel, memorably saved the skin of the Daily Telegraph’s Max Hastings who had made himself unpopular with some fellow journalists.

Someone waved a bayonet around and Derek grabbed him with the words “This isn’t the time or place to kill Max Hastings.”

So that was why I was on Ascension and in a queue, about the only one not in uniform, for the NAAFI tent serving the tea. I was really looking forwards to it until I took a sip and spit it out onto the ground. Nearby squaddies looked on horrified.

I was to learn later that there was not enough fresh water on Ascension so it had been chlorinated like that in a swimming pool. There was no fresh milk either so it was powdered. And as soldiers invariably like their tea sweet it had been pre-sugared. It might have been a nice cup of tea by army standards but not mine.

After the NAAFI we were given a choice, a climb up Green Mountain, the highest point, or a trip to the free bar. I was still thirsty so opted out of the nature ramble.

I palled up with a squaddie and we drank and drank and drank. At some point we must have passed out for I found myself lying on the beach, waking up to hear a cultivated voice saying: “You chaps will get the most awful sunburn if you stay there.”

I opened my eyes to see a blazing sun up in the sky and an army chaplain looking down, concerned. My drinking partner, by now very red in the face, stirred. He did, indeed, get severe sunburn. I didn’t. I put it down to having a naturally oily skin and not drinking the tea.

Rendezvous with Richie


This is Richie Russell, head chef at Remo’s in Broomhill, Sheffield, and he’s pretty big in South Korea. I know this because I keep getting visits to my blog from that country.

There have been 35 in the last week alone. And the one post they want to read is Rendezvous with Remo, written this time last January, about our Italian bistro evening cooked by Richie. So far that particular item has notched up 532 views, half of which have come from South Korea.

My WordPress blog has some nifty analytics and not only tells me which countries read it but also the search terms and they include ‘Richie Russell chef,’ ‘Richie Silversmiths’ and so on. That means I can’t kid myself they want to read about Sheffield Fishcakes or how to make brown sauce. But how had they tracked him down to my blog?

Richie, you will remember, starred in the Gordon Ramsay Kitchen Nightmares series back in 2009 which saw the Runaway Girl restaurant in Arundel Street turned into Silversmiths, with 310 expletive deleteds uttered along the way, almost all of them by Ramsay and Richie.

This show has been seen around the world. I had a flurry of interest from Australia when it was shown there. And it can be seen on the Korean version of YouTube, presumably with sub-titles. Someone has put a link in the comments section to that post on this blog. hence the visits.

Now Kitchen Nightmares happened over six years ago but the past is always present on the internet. Richie has moved on, first to Piccolo, then, three years ago, to his old friend Remo Simeone’s place in Broomhill. Between them they have turned the best coffee shop in town into a thriving café and once a month bistro.

I popped in for coffee and put my head round the kitchen door to see Richie. He’s not unaware of the interest. “I can always tell which country is watching the show because people try and contact me. When it was shown in Australia people wanted to befriend me on Facebook,” he said while preparing for that night’s bistro evening.

He has not, so far, had any requests from South Korea although that can only be a matter of time. I had a request to make of Richie. The blog picture most clicked is that of the café but while it shows Remo at work there is no sign of Richie.

Every journalist knows they should never disappoint a reader so here, for all of you out there in South Korea, is Richie. Now how long before someone puts a link on YouTube to this?

STOP PRESS. Richie left Remo’s in September, 2018. For readers in South Korea I am trying to find out where he is now. In fact, he has quit catering and is now in painting and decorating.

Turkey or chicken scratchings

Turkey scratchings, cooked in lard

Turkey scratchings, cooked in lard

Here’s a quick one. I’d saved the Christmas turkey legs in the freezer and was about to debone them, the meat for a curry and the remainder for a stock. But there was all that lovely skin and I had other plans for that instead of flavouring the stock.

Every now and again I do a Hugh Fearney-Whittingstall idea of turning chicken skin into scratchings but I couldn’t find it again in any of his books when it came to refreshing my memory. I seem to recall he cooked one inch squares of skin in a little water at first. The water boiled off to be replaced by the fat which came out of the skin.

So I looked on the internet. No mention of water but lard. I heated up a cast iron frying pan, added a nugget of lard, waited until it melted and gently fried the pieces of skin, using a heat diffuser. You probably need to turn the skin over a couple of times with a fork to ensure even frying.

It took about an hour until they were golden brown and crisp. I drained them on kitchen paper and added plenty of sea salt and ground black pepper. Lovely. I poured off the lard, hoping it would give me a kind of dripping for breakfast. There was no jelly of course but the lard was highly flavoured and quite delicious.

So that was a curry, soup, scratchings and ‘dripping’ all from two turkey legs. Isn’t thrift wonderful?

FOOTNOTE: I recently boned and stuffed eight chicken thighs, saved the skin and turned it into scratchings, as above. Very tasty, sprinkled with a little salt.

No smut, just soot


Barnsley’s John Foster in Victorian Bakers

To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes of the BBC’s Victorian Bakers, fearing it might be rather like the Great British Bake Off, which I have hardly seen. That’s mostly because it is hosted by the truly awful woman Sue Perkins, fully of smutty innuendoes, so it is the Great British Turn Off for me.

But Victorian Bakers does not contain Sue Perkins. One of the presenters is Alex Langlands, whose TV archaeological career I have followed since the truly wonderful series, Tales From the Green Valley, and the subsequent shows.

It also has four real bakers so while this is reality TV and they all have to dress up they do know their stuff and have a real passion for the craft. And unlike most TV historical shows, there are no false dramas, no silly tasks devised to make things more interesting. The history and process of baking is interesting in its own right.

Among them is John Foster, managing director of Foster’s Bakery, Barnsley, who makes sliced white and frozen bread to sell to China but, judging from his technique, can still turn a nifty artisan loaf when he has to.

One of the notable sequences came in the second episode when he got quite emotional having to add adulterants and extenders to flour such as chalk and alum.

I watch the show because I usually bake two or three loaves a week at home: a milk bloomer, wholemeal and Portuguese cornbread are my favourites. I do it because I have the time and find the process of kneading and baking very satisfying, almost elemental.

And I do it because while I am surrounded by artisan bakeries they all seem to produce tough, heavy breads (I am no lover of sourdough) which all look the same. The biggest failing is they want to be too arty-farty and forget they should concentrate on a few staples as well. I don’t want factory breads but they can’t sell me a hand-made split tin or bloomer so I have to make them myself.

Still, they are better than they used to be. One didn’t used to open until the afternoon because, as one partner told me, “we want our sleep as well.” Then why be a baker? This was also the enterprise that didn’t bake rolls except at the weekend.

Victorian Bakers is not one of those programmes which romanticise the past. You watch in full realisation of the effort and sweat it took to fire up a wood or coal oven. It wasn’t smut but soot in this bakery show.

This is excellent television and I do wish there were more programmes like it, educating without being patronising and trying to sex up cakes and buns. Confectionery is the subject of the third programme and I shall watch it with interest. Unlike Bake Off it will come without double-entendres and Sue Perkins.

Pretty good Monkey business?


Towering ambition – work going on at New Era Square

Building is well under way on Sheffield’s official Chinatown just over 100 years since the first known Chinese businessman, Percy Wong, opened his laundry at 90 Abbeydale Road. It was probably his brother Harry who had a similar business on Ecclesall Road.

Percy and Harry didn’t have that many compatriots in Sheffield. The Chinese population was tiny. The first record of the Chinese here dates back to 1855 when, according to the burial register of the old St Paul’s Church (where the Peace Gardens now are), A Chow, son of magician Too Ki, was interred.

These days the city’s Chinese population runs into thousands, not only locally born residents but students at the two universities. And, according to Percy and Harry’s successor, personable businessman Jerry Cheung, the new project could make Sheffield ‘the Chinese capital of Yorkshire.’

He is MD of the group building a £65 million complex containing an oriental supermarket, shops, offices and flats for 700 students, many of them from China. It will be on 86,000 square feet of land between St Mary’s Gate, Bramall Lane and Sheldon Street.The scheme will be paid for by Chinese money.

The site is just off the city’s unofficial Chinatown, London Road. I am not sure how superstitious the Chinese investors are. A Chinese businesswoman once told me Sheffield’s ‘dragon’ propitiously had its spine running along London road, its neck up The Moor and its head in West Street, where coincidentally a number of new oriental restaurants have sprung up to cater for the influx of students. But she could have been pulling my leg.

The Sheffield Star calls the new development Chinatown but that is not a handle Mr Cheung is happy with. He thinks the word is old fashioned and “carries a little bit of history baggage.” He might be a little too PC. Sheffielders will call it that, instead of New Era Square, its official name.

As the project starts in the Year of the Monkey, regarded as street smart animal, it is worth pausing to recall the development of the Chinese community here. Numbers remained low until the mid-50s when there was emigration from Hong Kong, caused by a collapse in the former colony’s farming economy and the realisation there was a growing appetite for Chinese food.

It is generally thought the first local Chinese eatery was the Rickshaw at 1-4 Broomhill Street, established by 1957, which advertised itself as a ‘restaurant and espresso coffee bar’ open every day from 10am until midnight. In a city tragically short of nightlife, it proved popular.

However, the Fung family, who run the Orient Express on Glossop Road, claim a great grandfather who married an English girl opened up the front room of their home in Pitsmoor just after he First World War.

The Fungs also had the upstairs Golden Dragon (now Wong Ting) in Matilda Street, which started around the same time as the downstairs Zing Vaa on The Moor (1958). The two businesses were bitter rivals.

A contributor to the Sheffield History website recalls the Zing Vaa being run by Harry Yun, whose family had the Yun Bun laundry in Heeley. Harry was born in Sheffield and had an accent to match.

‘He had a very good business head and knew that success was all about customer service. His restaurant on The Moor was underground, below one of the shops. He used to stand at the bottom of the stairs, greeting customers as they came in. If he recognised you as a regular visitor, he would greet you in a friendly fashion, saying “Oreyt, owd lad?” The last thing you’d expect from anyone who was obviously Chinese was an out-and-out Sheffield accent.’

In a magazine article a few years ago I estimated, with the help of a local Chinese businessman, that the number of Chinese students in the city was around 7,000. That figure didn’t quite match up with what the two universities were declaring but there were certainly enough to power the new Chinese restaurants and supermarkets which sprang up to serve them, incidentally providing Westerners with a more authentic taste of Chinese food.

Now it is powering a major new development. Another Helping wishes Jerry Cheung, who is thinking very big, the best of good fortune. It’s a Red Monkey year, good for starting a business. Percy and Harry Wong, who didn’t think bigger than washing people’s smalls, would be amazed.

And magician Too Ki would have thought he’d worked magic.

Waiter, there’s a spy in the soup


When I reviewed restaurants for a living it was never a case of eating what I would like best. It was eating what made a story or, at the very least, a paragraph. I soon realised that one of the quickest, simplest ways to test the competency of a kitchen was to order the soup.

It can tell you such a lot about the chef. If he can’t get this right, what chance the rest of his menu? If he’s just reached for a packet and added hot water then you can bet the microwave in the kitchen is pinging merrily away all evening as food is fetched from the freezer. And tinned soups always have that giveaway taste, usually of too much sugar.

If he’s a chef who has made his own stock instead of crumbling a cube, has used, perhaps, some of the ingredients from the other dishes on the menu, shows good judgement in seasoning – a critical thing with soup – then you can look forward to the rest of your meal being in safe hands.

Soups are usually considered humble but they can be glorious. I once had an ultra-elegant minestrone at Fischer’s of Baslow Hall, the vegetables cut so perfectly Toytown small, the flavours light and bright. Compare that to the minestrone served up not far away which saw me hauled up before the Press Council.

It was a poor meal all round with lacklustre service but the chief offender was the minestrone soup. No pasta, no rice (not obligatory, I know, but would have helped), instead globules of fat which coated the back of my spoon. I let rip in print. The Star got two kinds of letters: the first from readers saying ‘You could have been at our table, that’s what we found;” the second from the restaurant which demanded (1) a retraction, (2) a review by someone not called Martin Dawes or (3) they would invite me back “to have the pleasure of throwing me out.”

The then editor told them to stick it up their cannelloni so they complained officially, claiming I was not a qualified chef and so not qualified to criticise. On that argument only published authors could review books, or playwrights the theatre. The case was thrown out.

Chefs should love soups. A little adroit spicing and seasoning gives a dish which costs pennies but sells for pounds. I have previously remarked on the popularity of butternut squash soup, which almost cooks itself into the most amazing veloute texture. Yet some chefs have got it wrong. Serve it too thick and it’s gloop on your spoon; thin it out too much and it loses its structure.

One of the soups I remember most is the sour rye soup served inside a hollowed out home-baked loaf at the Polish restaurant Mniam Mniam on Abbeydale Road. This was a thin, salty, herby broth in which floated pieces of sausage and a boiled egg. The Poles must like soup. You could have any starter you wanted as long as it was soup: there were 10 of them and two more on the specials board.

I once accidentally dropped my tie in the soup at a Sheffield Italian restaurant (yes, it was that long ago when men wore ties on a night out) and they took it away, cleaned it, pressed it and presented it to me perfectly laundered without charge at the end of the night.

There used to be the Great Sheffield Soup Scam where restaurants got letters from a chap claiming soup had been splashed on their clothing while dining and enclosing a copy of the dry cleaning bill. Most paid up, not wanting the aggro. Until Cary Brown, then boss of Carriages (now the Peppercorn), on Abbeydale Road South, got one. Now Cary is an excellent chef but he has a thing about soup. He has never, ever served it on a restaurant menu. I can’t quite remember how but I think the chap was invited around to the restaurant to claim his money . . .

He finished up in the soup, so to speak

Christmas has gone to pot


Pot up your leftover ham or other meats

I just can’t let go of Christmas. I know I’ll still be eating it in March because it’s waste not, want not, in this house. The last of a turkey is in the pan on its way to becoming a curry. Its carcass made for a lovely turkey and pearl barley soup. Meanwhile I’ve had yet another ham sandwich but there’s still ham left over.

So I’ve potted it.

We seemed to have lost the art of potting meat at home but once it was normal, a way of using up leftover meat or extending the Sunday roast. It works for any kind of meat and is so simple it hardly needs a recipe.

Take a quantity of meat and chop it up, or tear it apart between two forks, very finely. You can use a blender but it turns stuff into a paste and we’re not out to rival Bingham’s or Sutherland’s spreads: we’re up for a little texture. It’s surprising what you can do with a sharp knife and a little patience.

Then you want to spice it up a little – mace (or nutmeg), mustard, salt and pepper is fine – mix it with a more or less equal quantity of melted butter and pack it into small containers. I used a couple of ramekins.

My recipe called for mustard seeds and powdered mace, mixed with a little cider vinegar. I guess you could use made mustard, such as Dijon, then you wouldn’t need the vinegar. My powdered mace hid from me in the spice cupboard so I had to pound a blade or two with the mortar and pestle: a long job! I also added some sweet paprika as it is currently my Spice of the Moment!

The recipe called for clarified butter so as I had about five ounces of ham I melted six ounces of butter and poured off the clear liquid, leaving the milky residue. Discard it, said my recipe. Now ‘discard’ is not a word heard much in my kitchen. There’s always a use for things. I poured it into a little jar and let it set, sort of.

I used it as a glaze on my milk bread loaf and on my toast the next day. Nowt wasted!

Back to the potted meat: I mixed most of the clarified butter with the finely chopped ham and spices (I also found a little curly parsley in the garden)and packed the mixture tightly in the little jars. I sealed it with the rest of the clarified butter, waited until set and popped them into the freezer. They should last for three months. Serve with toast and a few cornichons and some chutney as a starter.

Now this recipe is almost the same as that for potted kippers, see and I have my eye on one for potted cheese, taken from Dorothy Hartley’s ‘Food in England’ (1954). “Take 1 lb of old Cheshire Cheese, shave it very thin into a mortar, and put to it 1 oz of beaten mace, half a pound of butter and a glass of sack (sweet Spanish wine). Beat and grind all together, put into a pot and leave for a while, and cut it in slices for cream cheese.”

I think my modern day version will be bits of various cheeses, grated up, with not so much butter and tablespoon or so of port or dessert wine. I’ll keep the mace (I’ve found the powdered stuff!) and probably a little paprika. And this is probably best eaten after a day or so when flavours have melded.

Hardly recipes, are they? But they do come with one extra ingredient: a little smugness from not wasting a thing.


All you need: chopped meat, butter and spices