Hungry? Then walk on by. . .


Looks tempting but chances are you’ll be sorry!

We’ve all been there. It’s the first few hours of the holiday and you’re just off the plane, hot, bothered and hungry. And just down the road from the hotel are all those tempting restaurants with colourful awnings, parasol tables, understandable menus and men outside inviting you to eat.

It almost certainly won’t be the best meal of the holiday.

We did it in Athens in a square full of restaurants with outside tables on a warm Greek night. Of course it had to be moussaka, probably the worst slop we’ve eaten, straight out of the freezer and into the microwave.

We did it in Brussels, just off the Grand Place, down that street with places selling moules and frites. The mussels were tasteless, the chips out of a bag. We should have kept on walking.

Another Helping’s Golden Rule No 1: Beware of restaurants touting for business. If they are good enough, they don’t need it. Which leads us to Golden Rule No 2: Try a little further afield and, if possible, go a little outside your comfort zone. It will very probably be worth it.

I know it’s becoming trendy to rave about little salt of the earth out of the way places but sometimes you can strike lucky. Not always. I followed up a rave review in one online guide and wondered what the fuss was about. Perhaps the owner had written it himself or the reviewer was just having a laugh. But don’t be put off the idea.

The other week in Porto we took the train along the River Douro valley. It’s well worth it only you won’t see the river for the first hour, then views are spectacular. We stopped two hours down the line in the middle of the Port wine region at the little town of Regua needing lunch.

Without a smartphone we couldn’t look up TripAdvisor and even if we had we wouldn’t have found it as the Adega Popular wasn’t listed. We wandered aimlessly until my eye was taken by a green canopy over a door leading off a steep, narrow lane, the Rua do Primeiro de Dezembro. We went in to find a party of workmen finishing their lunch at a long narrow table. Apart from them, there was just a middle aged couple and us.

The owner asked if we spoke Portuguese. No. Did he speak English? No. French? “Un peu.” We were on. “Le menu?” He shrugged and pointed to an A –board on the pavement with the limited day’s menu chalked up. We went out to inspect it and translated it from Portuguese to French to English.

“Coelho estufado?” “Lapin,” he said. Ah, rabbit stew. My wife had the vitela, veal. Now it really was good. My stew, on the bone, was hearty, the veal steak massive, blushing red and tender. With bread, olives, oil, two mains, a shared pudding, two coffees and a bottle of wine we had change from 30 euros. What a bargain.

The previous year in Lisbon we’d wandered down a side street, Rua Praia do Bom Sucesso, to find the lively Restaurante O Recanto, full of locals and office workers. There was no English menu but our chicken escalope and cheese salad and bottle of vinho verde went down very well and cost us peanuts.

Then there was that lunch in Venice not more than 300m from the Grand Canal, by the side of which a couple of coffees can cost 10 euros. Not here. This was a workmen’s café which had escaped the gentrification of the area and was still selling cheap, robust, authentic food with a menu solely in Italian.

And probably one of the best meals we had in Venice. Well, there was that great pizzeria, a good 15 minutes walk from our hotel, well out of the tourist zone . . .





No garlic for Krishna


Temple fodder – no onions or garlic allowed

The elderly lady on my doorstep with a copy of The Watchtower had just invited this lapsed Methodist to a Maundy Thursday meeting at Kingdom Hall. For once I had the perfect repost to a Jehovah’s Witness: “I’m sorry but I’m going to a Hindu temple.”

Twenty-four hours later on a chilly night I was watching saried ladies circle not much of a bonfire in the car park of an old school, now Sheffield’s Hindu Mandir temple on Buckenham Street, just off Spital Hill, and  got my face daubed in coloured paints as they called “Happy Holi.”

I’d been invited by Nirmal and Parshotam Gupta, previously owners of Nirmal’s Indian restaurant on Glossop Road (the only Indian restaurant run by a real Indian as opposed to Pakistani and the only Indian one run by a woman in this 99.9 per cent male dominated profession). I’d missed Divali, for family reasons, but Holi was the next one up.

Holi is the festival of colours, hence the face paints, and the festival of sharing love, as Wikipedia puts it, welcoming the arrival of spring while commemorating the legend of a king who thought he was a god. In India it is a two day event with massive bonfires, water fights, women hitting men with sticks, getting intoxicated, then cleaning up to forgive and forget for past misdeeds the following day.

In Sheffield this is toned down (no water fights, no sticks) with a mini-bonfire and explanatory call to the fire brigade and all over in a couple of hours.

I followed the celebrants into the temple for songs in front of an altar decorated with brightly coloured images of Krishna and the gods. They sat cross-legged on the floor or on chairs, singing unaccompanied except for rhythmic clapping and the beat of a tabla drum.

But this is a food blog and I was there for the food. I can’t think of any religious festival anywhere in the word which does not have food or drink associated with it in some way. In this case there didn’t seem to be anything special (although I missed out on the offering of sweetmeats) but it was what wasn’t eaten which was important.

The food afterwards, dispensed in a giant soup kitchen to several hundred people, was vegetarian, of course, because strict Hindus don’t eat meat. “It won’t quite be like what you are used to because there is no onion or garlic but we can have plenty of ginger,” said Nirmal, whose restaurant blazed a trail for Indian food in Sheffield back in the Eighties. Hindus eat lots of this, of course, but it is banned within the confines of the temple because plants of the allium family are thought to promote ignorance and, ahem, passion. Now I would have thought passion was what was wanted in the festival of love but I kept those thoughts to myself.

Nirmal had sponsored the food which meant she arranged the menu and hired a lady, Manisha Popat, to cook it, which she did splendidly. Holding plastic thalis we formed a queue to be doled out spiced rice, vegetable and aubergine curry, a thin dal, bread and poppadoms. It was very pleasant – I didn’t notice the lack of onions or garlic – but not as spicy hot as I’d anticipated. I had a surprise on my second mouthful when I discovered another of the dishes was a sweet vermicelli dessert.

There was also something I’d not had before, a boondi raita, yoghurt with fried balls of chick pea flour. You won’t find this is a restaurant.

I ate my meal sitting next to the poet Debjani Chatterjee who filled me in with the finer points of the festival. She had dived into the ladies to clean her face of paint before supper. “I’m going home on the bus and I don’t want them to think I’m a madwoman.” I kept mine on to show them at home.


Inside the temple

More than the average Toastie


The Francesinha – more than a mouthful


For a little French girl she was less than trim. You might call her a fat lass. You’d certainly be a fat lad if you indulged in her more than once a week. But I’d gone all the way to Porto on the Atlantic coast of Portugal to find her and if her looks weren’t everything it  might just be love at first bite.

After all, this time last year I was further south in Lisbon nibbling away at the pasteis de nata, what looks like a scorched custard tart, to find culinary heaven.

But it was not to be with the Francesinha, which is Portuguese for ‘little French girl,’ the speciality sandwich of Porto and the surrounding area. Take two slices of lightly toasted bread and fill it with a triple layer of roast beef, ham and spicy sausage, sprinkle cheese on top and bake it, then serve it up with a sauce of tomato and beer with, very often, a fried egg on top and chips on the side. And, no, I have not made that up.

I bought one in the Pimms Café Restaurante on the Rua do Infante for under 10 euros. I knew vaguely about it, that it was supposed to be the Portuguese answer to France’s croque monsieur toasted cheese and ham sandwich.

I love tracking down local and regional food specialities which the rest of the world does not know about or has forgotten but often there can be more fun in the finding than the eating.

It was with great joy I discovered the last maker of polony sausage in Wombwell, which became ecstatic delight when it turned out the company was founded by a butcher called Harry Potter. My spirits plunged a little southwards when I tasted it. You can read all about this stalwart of Barnsley funeral teas here

The Francesinha was not unpleasant. It was a good cheesy, meaty chew. The chipolata-sized sausage was spicy, as was the sauce. I listed the ingredients I knew to my wife and the man at the next table broke off from canoodling with his girlfriend to say: “Sometimes they put whisky in it.”

I don’t think there was whisky in this. “Tomato, beer, meat and salt,” said the owner of Pimms who asked me what I thought of it. I suspect by meat he meant stock or essence. I must have been less than enthusiastic because he disappeared after that.

Cafes and restaurants in Porto compete to have the best Francesinha and guard their sauce recipes fiercely. I’m told you can buy bottled sauces for it. There are fish and vegetarian versions but it is the triple-decker sensation of beef, sausage and ham, rounded off with cheese and a buzz from the sauce which make this what it is.

Chips are usually served on the side. The Francesinha Especial comes with a fried egg on top. Now that adds up to a lot of calories.

The dish, invented in the 1960s, has so far not spread much outside Porto but they are proud of it. I wonder if it could catch on in Sheffield?


Inside the Francesinha

This greengrocer gets me in a pickle!


Pickled cucumbers halved to fit the jars

I stumbled at the first hurdle with this recipe which began: ‘Prick your cucumbers with a silver fork.’ We don’t have any silver cutlery in our house so I had to make do with EPNS. It works just as well.

Before we get back to forks I want to say a word in praise of greengrocers. I love ‘em and try to avoid buying vegetables in supermarkets except for just one, the Ozmen supermarket on London Road. Asian grocery stores are always fascinating but Ozmen’s goes over the top with its vast array of fruit and vegetables, some familiar, others exotic. It puts the average British greengrocers to shame.

There is not just one kind of aubergine but at least four, plenty of varieties of onions, a bewildering amount of greens, long, thin beans, crinkly pods, colourful chillies and peppers in different shapes and sizes, sacks of walnuts and chestnuts and mysterious fruits – I just like looking at them. The other day my eye was taken by the cucumbers, about five inches long, a third the size of a normal one but bigger than a gherkin. I think they came from Jordan. And I was just itching to pickle them.

We like pickled gherkins. In fact we once bought a big, cheap jar of them from Ozmen but you get what you pay for. They tasted of nothing and went off almost immediately. But when you do it yourself you do it right.

I bought a handful of mini cucumbers and found if I cut them in half across the middle I could get three and a half or so in each old gherkin jar I’d saved. I never throw any jars out but that’s another story.

I had a recipe lined up for garlic and dill pickled cucumbers. You can get big bunches of dill at Ozmen’s but I had some dill seeds which needed using up. To make four one litre jars you will probably need 14-16 mini cucumbers, depending on how big they are.

You will also need:

250g sea salt
4-6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
Bunch of dill or two tablespoons dill seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
Four bay leaves
300ml clear distilled malt vinegar*
900ml of water

*I used cheap Happy Shopper vinegar so I don’t imagine it was very strong. Use better vinegar if you wish but the ratio of vinegar to water is about 1:3, or one to four at a push. You will almost certainly have some pickling liquid left over so bottle it to use for the next batch.

Wash and prick the cucumbers all over with a (silver) fork to allow the water to flow out and pickling liquid to penetrate.

Layer in a plastic or ceramic bowl and cover with the salt. My recipe said leave for four hours, I left them overnight. Drain the liquid, wash VERY thoroughly to remove salt and leave to drain dry.

In a saucepan gently bring the vinegar and water to a boil, adding all the other ingredients. Cover, simmer for five minutes and allow to cool.

Pour one inch of pickling liquid into each jar (to avoid air pockets). Put in cucumbers upright (I managed to fit one across the top) and fill jars with pickling liquid. Seal and leave in a cool dark space.

The recipe said they were ready for eating next day. Ambitious. It took a week to develop the full crunchiness. Best store in the fridge once opened as the acidity of the pickle is not great. Unopened jars should keep in the cupboard for a month or two.

If you have a cucumber or two left over slice into discs and put into a small jar (or eat them at once). It’s also fun playing around with this basic pickle, perhaps adding fennel and or chilli, mustard seeds or even caraway.

P1030638 These little beauties are ready for pickling

A passion for paella


Omar gets all steamed up over his paella

A dark back yard in the drizzling rain off a busy Sheffield street is not the most exotic location for cooking paella. But then the city has had few chefs as exotic as Omar Allibhoy, even if he’s only here on a temporary basis.

On March 16 the photogenic young Spaniard, dark-eyed, dark-haired and bearded, opens the fifth branch of his Tapas Revolution mini-chain in Meadowhall, so we can stuff ourselves silly with pulpa a la Gallega and pimientos de Padron without troubling easyJet.

You’d think Omar, from Madrid, would have it in for Sheffield. Five years ago he and his pal rode their scooters from Liverpool on the west coast to the east, cooking tapas for anyone they met on the way. They stopped at a Sheffield Travelodge overnight and had one of the bikes nicked. But at least he got to Grimsby before Sacha Baron Cohen!

To promote the new enterprise, still being built as I write, Omar had taken over Matthew Holdsworth’s tiny Bhaji Shop bistro on Chesterfield Road for the night to host a pop-up restaurant for local foodies and bloggers. There are tapas but the highlight of the night is the paella.

Omar needs a metre-wide paella pan and the Bhaji’s kitchen was much too small so he camped out under an awning in the back yard. The weather is less than Spanish. I nip out to take a look and he emerges from a cloud of steam as the dish cooks fragrantly. He might be worth a mint by now but, while he’s brought a team of chefs to help him, he’s still in charge of the paella. It’s his particular passion.

When it arrives it is an intensely, savoury, smoky, complex dish heady with the smell and taste of saffron and paprika, with chicken (but no rabbit), artichokes, three types of beans and rice which is still firm yet yielding to the tooth. It’s quite the best I have ever had.

Omar got a leg up in life working for the world’s most famous chef, Farran Adria, and the world’s sweariest, Gordon Ramsay, who dubbed him the restaurant version of Antonio Banderas. That was worth a few PR and newspaper headlines (and it’s on the cover of his recipe book) but he does display an engaging enthusiasm.

While all his outlets are in mega shopping outlets I observe it is unusual for Sheffield to get a trendy chain restaurant so soon. Usually all the big names go to Shrewsbury before Sheffield. The city can’t even sustain a Loch Fyne, which has just closed. He winces slightly at the word ‘chain,’ as if someone has just knocked over a dish of his albondigas, and stresses everything except the bread will be made on site: no microwaves, no heat-and-eat, no freezers. “It doesn’t feel like a chain to us; it’s a very personal project.” OK, whatever the Spanish is for autonomous link in a chain, it’s that!

Of course, any food which you get for free will taste wonderful but, that aside, it was very, very good indeed. We weren’t fed any old patatas bravas – in fact we didn’t get that at all – and for me the starriest dishes were the chorizo a la sidra (lovely sweet and spicy Asturian sausages roasted in cider), pulpo a la Gallega (soft steamed octopus with sliced potato in paprika) and some intensely cumin-flavoured meatballs.

And, of course, there was excellent Iberico ham, Manchego cheese, marinated anchovies and much more, washed down with Sangria, Spanish beer and wine.

Omar is on a mission to introduce the city to what he calls real tapas. He mutters that Britain  has seen ‘the dark side of Spanish food.’ But we’re not such principiantes (beginners) in the tapas department. Back in the Nineties that excellent chef Michael Morgan introduced them at his Mediterranean restaurant in Hunter’s Bar.

One more thing. At the same time as Omar opens Tapas Revolution there will be a churroseria, a kiosk selling that famous Spanish snack, next door. Can’t wait.

More details at The book, Tapas Revolution, is published by Ebury Press at £20.


Steamed octopus and potatoes


Kym’s new Italian Job


Kym and Severio

Italian restaurants are as much about the atmosphere as the food so how do you conjure that up over your takeaway pizza or cannelloni when you’re curled on the sofa in your jimjams in front of the telly?

Remember Franco’s in Crookes? The garlic bread might have been half a breadcake wiped with garlic but owner Franco D’Egido locked the door for a sing-in with an Italian version of the Wild Rover while his wife Elaine let off the balloons.

The food was much, much better at Pepe’s on South Road, Walkley, where chef Pepe Scime would leave the kitchen to provide the night’s entertainment, boast his food was from Netto and scratch his armpits theatrically to show he wasn’t being serious.

“I know,” says Kym Hall, with a sigh, remembering her family’s restaurant, Dino’s, on London Road some 20 or so years ago. “We’d be dancing on the tables and singing until 6am. But that doesn’t happen these days.”

She and her Dad Severio, a long-time city restaurateur, have just opened an Italian takeaway, Italia Uno, on Banner Cross in Sheffield. It’s not the first that does far more than pizzas: there’s Italian Express in Walkley (and they were involved in that at the start). Severio will be cooking but he’s not going to turn up on your doorstep and sing O Sole Mio.

But if the food is as good as that at the launch party you might want to switch over to Montalbano on the telly after you’ve ordered your mozzarella in carrozza and penne carbonara to complete the experience.

Barely a week or so after opening in a former kebab shop Italia Uno is already making a stir. The menu is almost dish for dish that at Walkley and looks the same as in most trattorias with all the old favourites but the cooking has a brightness and zing that brings you up sharp.

The crust on the pizzas was thin and pliable yet still offering crispness, arancini, with options of meat and veggie were lively, tasty mouthfuls while the melanzane parmigiana was a delight. Filletti di Pollo, a sort of mini Milanese, slivers of chicken breast under the crispiest of breadcrumbs, are the Italian reproach to chicken nuggets.


It all looks tempting at Italia Uno

And if anyone had told me I’d eat a Nutella pizza I’d say pull the other one yet Severio’s version is a treat. He wears a red bandana which gives him a shiver-me-timbers piratical air. From Sorrento, he makes several trips a year back home to keep himself in touch with the cooking.

It’s early days but some of the most popular dishes are the veggie and vegan dishes, down to Kym, a vegan herself, who has been publicising the takeaway on that online community. It wasn’t always so. She was red in tooth and claw until she found herself as a cavegirl on Channel 5’s 10,000 BC show having to disassemble a dead deer.

Kym, 33, opted out after 10 days in bearskins in frozen Bulgaria but it turned her first veggie, then vegan. So much for telling the programme makers “if I get to kill the meat that I have to eat, that is what I want to go and do.”

I ask how she can reconcile her views with taking order for meatballs at the Italia Uno counter. “Saverio gets his meat from local, responsible sources,” says the woman who still weakens her beliefs every now and again for a spoonful of honey or a ‘happy egg.’ And BC for her now means Banner Cross.

The suburb seems delighted in finding Italia Uno on its doorstep. The takeaway does deliveries for a small charge but most people like to collect it themselves. Kym, in that direct way of hers, says she is surprised. “I wouldn’t if I was sitting in my pyjamas.”

Italia Union is at 955 Ecclesall Road, Banner Cross, and open from 4pm Tues-Sun. There are veggie, vegan, gluten free and under 500K dishes. Tel: 0114 453 5079. Website


Kym looks as if she has a bone to pick in 10,000BC