Crab apple crazy!

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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.

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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!

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Crab apples – all for free

Why ‘No Shows’ are a no-no

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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!

Jack pops up with the pies

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Everything on the menu is a pie

The chicken pies had sold out first. “Chicken pie,” ordered the next man in the queue. “I’m sorry, they’ve all gone,” said pie man Jack Norman. “There’s a mystery one left: I know it’s not beef so it could be chicken or cheddar. It’s a one in two chance.”

You’ll find 24 year old Jack, an escapee from Pizza Express, every Thursday in the Pop Up Café on the corner of Union Street. I took a flyer off an A-board on The Moor, followed the directions and got a quid off my lunch when I showed it.

Jack started Pie Eyed 18 months ago and makes the pies at the Century Business Centre in Rotherham, where he’s from. They are proper pies with proper pastry, all butter shortcrust, not bought-in. His meat and vegetables are bought from local suppliers. “No additives. No nonsense. Just proper pies,” is the business’s selling point.

Union Street is a co-working, hot desking workspace with Wi Fi and meeting rooms for hire with a pop up café on the ground floor. At the risk of sounding like the Sixties pop group The Scaffold, Mondays is bagels, Tuesday’s salads, Wednesday is pasta,Thursday’s pies and Friday is waffles.

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Pie, mash, peas and gravy – lovely

Jack has been at Union Street for just a year. “I worked at Pizza Express. It’s not cooking, is it, but I learned a lot. But it was not what I really wanted to do with my life,” he said, serving me up a beef brisket and Black Sheep Ale pie (£3.50) with mash, peas and gravy each at 50p a time. You can take away or sit and eat, cutlery and Henderson’s provided, at big chummy tables.

“I’d seen the interest in street food but it was barbecued food and pizzas. Nobody seemed to be doing the British classics, like pies,” he added.

At Union Street, handily sited between Sheffield Hallam University, the Peace Gardens, The Moor and the Millennium Gallery, he sells around 60 pies a day. He makes about a dozen varieties all told and there are always three on offer: the beef is a regular and today there is also chicken, chorizo and butterbean plus a veggie pie, Cheddar and caramelised red onion.

The customer decided to go for the Mystery Pie.

Thursdays at Union Street is not going to make his fortune but it keeps him busy. This lunchtime they are queuing out the door. It’s just him. “Everyone else has two people but Jack does it all himself,” said a Union Street official. The cafe acts as a showcase for Pie Eyed because he also caters for weddings and other celebrations, as well as turning up at events like the Peddler Market on Arundel Street.

My pie is pretty substantial and very tasty, while the crust is admirably short. In fact, it’s so filling I don’t want much tea. After a lifetime of eating pies I’d rate it as seriously good.

And the Mystery Pie? It was chicken.

Pie Eyed pops up every Thursday. For more details visit www.PieEyed.co.uk or www.union-st.org

 

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What pops up when

 

Rock eel, Spam fritters and saveloy

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Rock eel – notice the prominent backbone

“Rock eel, when available,” I said excitedly as I studied the fish and chip restaurant menu. “I’ve never had that.” But I had, many years ago only then I called it rock salmon.

It may have been near the rocks but it was never an eel. It’s also called flake (occasionally) and also huss but is in fact a kind of dogfish or shark. That first doesn’t look good on the menu.

It’s all these years of living Up North which have made me forget what I once knew, or ought to have done. Up here chippies sell only cod or haddock (unless you’ve got a rogue one passing catfish  off as cod). Down South, and for me this was a broad swathe of country from Norwich via East Grinstead to Exeter, they also sold plaice – and rock salmon.

At Fishers, a very pleasing chippie with adjacent restaurant in the gritty North Norfolk resort of Hunstanton – think Rotherham on Sea with so many fatties on parade or Great Yarmouth without the bling – they do rock eel as well as deep-fried plaice. They also have scampi, roe, fishcakes, fish pie, saveloy (also when  available) and Spam fritters and for a moment I wavered. But you can only wander down one Memory Lane at a time and rock eel was available.

It came swathed in batter with the outline of a bony spine showing through so it could have been Squalus acanthias (spiny dogfish) or Scyliorhinus stellaris (bull huss). It was interesting.

The flesh was not pearly white like my wife’s cod but had a faint pinkish tinge. It did not fall apart under the fork in flakes but had a soft texture with very little ‘bite.’ As for taste, there was no contest with the cod, which was far superior. In fact, I was hard pressed to detect much flavour but that is never a problem with added vinegar, lemon, salt and pepper.

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Spam fritters and saveloy on the menu

The batter was good and crispy, the chips, pale and soft. The mushy peas, faintly minty, were a bilious green and I suspect they were factory made but there was just something which suggested they could have been soaked peas with added colouring.

My palate told me the frying medium was not oil but beef dripping or lard, which is traditional in East Anglia. So which? I asked our waitress. “It’s got meat in it and I’m a vegetarian,” she said. I remarked there was not that much for her to eat here, then. “I have a lot of peas,” she replied.

This is the second time we have called in at Fishers. The first, on a cold, blustery winter’s day, was a revelation. This time, with a Country & Western singer warbling on the verge of tunefulness outside the bar next door, it was good but not as memorable. Normally I’d have the haddock.

I fancy there is an Italian input to this place, a chippie since the Sixties, because there are a range of homemade Italian ices (bubblegum flavour anyone) and, besides the Golden Jumbo Fishcake, fishcakes with spinach or mozzarella.

It was cheap. With drinks the bill was around £20. It was good quality. And I’d ticked (or re-ticked) another fish off my list. Next time round I’ll stick to haddock but those Spam fritters are tempting . . .

# 2-4 Greevegate, Hunstanton PE36 6BJ. Tel: 01485 532 487. Web: www.fishersofhunstanton.com

 

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Rock eel, rock salmon, huss or dogfish but it’s a shark

Time for chefs to get out of the kitchen?

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I’m a great believer on chefs doing a ‘tour of the tables’ towards the end of service when things have slowed down in the kitchen. So why did I hide in the loo when one chef was approaching my table?

It was many years ago. The meal had been awful. The chef knew I was there. I couldn’t think of anything neutral to say (I never said one thing in person and the opposite in print) so I scarpered for what must have been the longest wee in history. My wife wasn’t best pleased.

But when did you last see a chef glad handing around the tables? It is a courtesy which, if not often performed that much over the years, is done so even less now. But as so often with the hospitality industry, a little gesture which doesn’t cost anything reaps dividends in customer goodwill.

I often had chefs come to my table but it was a special trip because I had a notebook and a review would follow in The Star. Both of us wanted to get our facts right. But when I asked if they made a tour of the tables on a regular basis few did.

Some were too shy. Others had little small talk. Some said it was a waste of time because diners, being British, didn’t say what they thought. “I let my food do the talking,” said one. Another pointed out, reasonably, that chatting to customers is the province of the front of house team.

But it can’t do any harm, can it? And the classier the restaurant, the more people will want to see the chef. Foodies may have a genuine question they’d like to ask, not easily relayed via a third party. And we’re all snobs and social climbers to a degree. People, being people, like to drop into conversations later phrases such as “As chef so-and-so said to me . . .” indicating they could afford to eat at Restaurant Swanky or whatever.

And any chef worth his or her kitchen salt can use the occasion to see who their customers are, rather than peering through the kitchen door, and pick up on the little nuances of conversation on what customers like or dislike. The presence of the kitchen captain also backs up what the front of house should be doing, expressing pleasure that customers are dining with them tonight.

It doesn’t have to be high end chefs who do this (and very often isn’t). One of the best I saw was Italian Pepe Scime of Pepe’s (now Vitos) of South Road, Walkley, a born performer who regularly toured the tables with a laugh and a joke some 30 years ago.

So chefs, think about. Can you spend five minutes to get out of the kitchen? Don’t be shy. Your customers will love you for it.