This time it’s true: Mr B bows out

p1050950-pauline-and-david-baldwin-21-02-2017-17-41-32

Pauline and David Baldwin

BALDWIN’S  Omega, Sheffield’s iconic banqueting suite and lunchtime venue, is to close next summer. After almost 40 years at the helm, colourful boss David Baldwin and his wife Pauline are calling it a day.

They have sold the site, which already has planning permission for around 40 homes, to a local builder.

“We can no longer do things to the standard we wish. Pauline didn’t want us to close but what made it easier in the end is that the figures don’t add up,” said David, known universally as Mr B or the Big ‘Un. “Since 2008 turnover has consistently gone down and we are not going to let standards slip.”

The business will close in July next year but expect there to be a series of parties and tearful farewells along the way.

p1050962

The hacienda style banqueting suite

While lunches do well, as do weekend events, trade dips in the week. That has been the tipping point. Pauline said: “It’s not just about money, it’s a change in social attitudes. You don’t have all-male dinners any more. There are more women in the workplace and men can’t stay out drinking. They can’t use the excuse of going out when they have to look after the children.”

The standard of cooking here has always been higher than one would expect for the price and the couple are not prepared to cut corners. On top of that David has recovered from a long bout of illness.

They took over the hacienda-style building in 1980, after it had been closed for two years. It was built by Sheffield Refreshment Houses in the Sixties as a would-be rival to high end London establishments. They brought with them customers from their two previous ventures, the Angler’s Rest at Bamford and the Hillsborough Suite at Sheffield Wednesday, then leased from the Mansfield Brewery.

David, a publican’s son, ex-communist and former ship’s steward known for his colourful language, became an important figure in the hospitality industry. The Omega has been a sort of unofficial college, with many of its chefs finding top jobs elsewhere.

He is larger than life, a man with a kitchenful of contacts and a superb raconteur with anecdotes about the rich and famous, not shy of risqué stories. But while he can be hospitality itself he takes no prisoners. Customers love to tell of the time he was summoned from the kitchen by a woman in the Rib Room restaurant who complained she had found pellets in her pheasant. “What did you expect it had died of, a fucking heart attack?” he roared.

p1050938-rib-room-at-the-omega-21-02-2017-16-25-51

The Rib Room at the Omega

As Pauline said, the hospitality industry has been hit by a cultural change. There is now a generation which does not naturally go out to eat to celebrate. At a recent New Year’s Eve restaurant dinner with friends the party telephoned their children to see where they were: without exception they were all at friends’ houses.

In the early years the Omega, now rechristened Baldwin’s Omega, thrived on works clubs and company dinners and when that petered out ‘morphed’, as Pauline puts it, into the present pattern of lunches and parties. They used to slip in events like salmon and strawberries or Caribbean evenings to fill odd free dates then found these became a mainstay.

The news of the sale and closure has leaked out gradually. Staff – there are about ten full time with the rest students – were told first “so they knew more than the customers.”

Over the years there have been persistent rumours that the Omega was to be sold (some of which Mr B now confesses he had started himself to generate publicity) and they have grown since planning permission was granted.  The Omega’s website still says: “Just a note to clarify the TRUE facts about plans for the future of Baldwin’s Omega. Pauline & I are not planning to leave for some considerable time and are taking bookings for 2016, 2017, 2018 & beyond. We already have a very busy forward diary.”

The couple said they wanted to give customers plenty of warning and be able to honour present bookings.

So what do they plan to do after next year, retire to Spain where they have a property? “No, I’m a Sheffield lad. It was bad enough moving to Dore,” David said.

*NEWS of the closure comes less than a year after the demise of another equally long-lived top Sheffield restaurant, Greenhead House. You can read that story here http://wp.me/p5wFIX-sQ

And here’s a taste of the food on a previous visit http://wp.me/p5wFIX-5O

http://www.baldwinsomega.com

balswins-omega-car-park-21-02-2017-18-10-12-21-02-2017-18-10-12

Houses will be built on the car park

Last rites for the Tom Dip?

p1050903-bacon-sandwich-with-tomato-dip-10-02-2017-13-28-38

Bacon sandwich with Tom Dip

SOMETIMES things we eat are so inconsequential or taken for granted that when tastes change they slip unnoticed into the culinary waste bin of life. Then it is ages before anyone realises. I suspect that is likely to happen to Sheffield ‘s tomato dip – hardly a dish, certainly not a recipe, more a sort of breakfast afterthought.

 For a Tom Dip you take a bacon sandwich, baptise the underside of the top slice in a pot of bubbling tinned tomatoes on the stove and assemble your sandwich. That is it. Sometimes you can dispense with the sandwich. A slice of toast can be a tomato dip.

 It was once in every workmen’s cafe. It was so ubiquitous there was even a cafe called the Tomato Dip, with a bright red tomato on the fascia board, on Charles Street, below Arundel Gate. It is now called Wellies and Tom Dip is not on the menu.

 There are Sheffield people today who have never heard of it, just as they have never heard of polony, that sausage for which the city was once nationally famous. I asked around and got blank looks. But it is not yet last rites for the Tom Dip.

 You can find it at the Hard Hat Café on Duke Street, on the hot sandwich menu at £1.05, sandwiched between the fried egg and the chip buttie. No bacon is involved but this is how the dish was originally designed: for those who couldn’t afford bacon.

 You can also order it at Sarni’s, that cosy little café tucked away off the High Street in Aldine Court, guilty of severe apostrophe abuse but lovely all-day breakfasts, although Tom Dip is not advertised on the menu. Ask for it and the privilege costs an extra 20p so a tin of tomatoes must be the cafe’s heftiest earner!

 According to the chatty cook quite a few regulars order it. “If they’re dieting they just have it with toast,” she said, serving up a breadcake, the top half smeared in tomato, with a couple of slices of bacon. Some customers just like the juice, others the tomato lumps.

 I thought it might be a generational thing but Sarni’s also has a 14-year-old regular for the Tom Dip who has been eating it since she was four.

 So what does the dip have over a splodge of red sauce, particularly Heinz? Nowt. Unless it’s a Tom Dip a la Brian Turner, with olive oil, onions and garlic, it doesn’t cut the mustard, so to speak, with this eater (although Tom Dip lovers on the Sheffield Forum website point out the long simmering concentrates the tomato). But that really doesn’t matter.

 We are what we choose to eat. And every time you order Tom Dip you are making a quiet statement – I’m northern, I’m from Sheffield, this is what we do – and keeping a tradition alive. And please don’t tell anyone I’m originally from Norfolk!

p1050909

Sarni’s is tucked away in Aldine Court

 

Could Bing be the next Big Thing?

P1060077 Chris makes me a Chinese crepe 24-03-2017 15-28-27

‘Uncle’ Chris makes my jian bing

Since this piece was written Zhange Ge (Angie) has closed her Chinese pancake stall but there is still chance to buy them from the CakeLicious Chinese pastries kiosk just around the corner in the market. But read this first then you’ll know all about this delicious snack.

Despite being right in the middle of Sheffield’s Moor Market trader Zhange Ge – but we can call her Angie – gets few English customers at her Big Bing Chinese crepe stall. They look, fascinated by the food theatre performed on the hotplate before them, then walk off without buying.

It’s their loss. With some 6,000 Chinese students in the city there’s plenty of business for Angie who sells what is China’s most popular street food but which has yet to make itself as well known as prawn crackers or chow mein. And for just £2.80 the standard version of what the Chinese call jian bing will fill you up for lunch.

Even though, as Angie says, it’s more of a breakfast back home in China.

Jian bing means fried pancake. It’s basically an omelette wrapped around a pancake and filled with crispy lettuce, crispy wanton and a hot dog, flavoured with hoisin sauce, chilli, spring onions, sesame and a few other ingredients. And although these are everyday items the result is more than the sum of its parts. You’ve got two soft layers in the pancake and omelette, two different kinds of crunch from the won ton and lettuce, bursts of flavour from the spring onions and spices, all bound together by the hoisin, bringing back memories of the crisp duck course in Chinese restaurants.

p1050911-big-bing-at-moor-market-10-02-2017-14-41-02

Big Bing before it closed on the Moor Market

Angie, who is 26 and comes from Qingdao in Shandong Province, where jian bing was traditionally invented almost 2,000 years ago, took just a couple of minutes to make mine.

First she spread a thin layer of batter on the circular hotplate then, as it was beginning to set, broke an egg over it and spread that, too. After scattering on what looked like seasoning she flipped the circle (so the omelette was now on the outside) and spread a layer of hoisin sauce, the stuff you get with crispy duck, over the surface. Then came a hot dog, or, rather, half of one sliced down the middle.

“Do you want chilli?” she asked. There was something else which I didn’t catch but said yes to both. She sprinkled on chilli flakes, chopped spring onion and sesame seeds and added won tons and lettuce before rolling it all up into quite a hefty package, wrapped in paper with smiley faces and presented in a brown paper bag.

I found a seat and tackled it gingerly, worried that bits might fall out. They didn’t. At a nearby table a couple of pretty Chinese students were eating their jian bings much more expertly.

Angie has been on the market for about six months. Chinese students have plenty of places to choose from: there are a couple more oriental food stalls as well as the Portuguese custard tarts which the Chinese love at the Chinese-run CakeLicious stall.

Jian bing has been around for rather longer. According to legend the dish was dreamed up by General Zhuge Liang around 250AD who told his soldiers to cook batter on their metal shields held over a fire when, for some reason, they hadn’t got their woks.

Bing could well be the next Big Thing in  street food to take off although it is fiddly to make and needs some little skill. If you don’t like the version on offer you can have one ‘custom built’ from extra ingredients listed. To see how Angie does it check out the video at https://www.facebook.com/MoorMarket/videos/1015037741950964/?video_source=pages_finch_thumbnail_video

CHRIS Wong who makes the Chinese pastries and delicious Portuguese egg tarts at CakeLicious is now selling jian bing at  his kiosk. There are two hotplates. He reckons it takes three minutes to make a pancake. What’s more, his batter is made the traditional way with green bean (mung) flour. His is the only place outside London to do so he claims. “Chinese people can smell the distinctive aroma,” he says. This part of the business is called Da Su Jian Bing. Da Su means ‘uncle,’ as he’s so much older than his student customers!

If you’re brave, ask him for a cup of black soya bean drink which takes him two hours to prepare each morning. Apparently Chinese students drink it all the time. To me it tasted like cocoa!

p1050922-this-is-what-a-chinese-crepe-looks-like-unwrapped-10-02-2017-14-49-31

Unwrapped and ready to eat

Peeling away the memories

p1050900-crisps-from-potato-peelings-07-02-2017-19-50-10
I read somewhere once that in India the poor are so thrifty they don’t even waste potato peelings. They cook and eat them. I can’t recall how they they did it it, frying I expect, but it chimed with my ‘waste not, want not’ mantra and I mentally filed that fact away.

My father wasn’t Indian but he didn’t waste potato peelings either. He ran a pub, the Longe Arms at Spixworth, near Norwich, did food and kept pigs in the back garden. He boiled up the peelings as swill for his swine and it smelled for all the world like a brewery doing the mash. Which is why today whenever I pass a brewery doing what it’s meant to do I think not of beer but pigs. And hungry Indians.

The other night we were having bangers and mash and I got out some reds to peel when it triggered the thoughts above. The oven was on as I was baking bread and I thought I could use one of the shelves to turn the peelings into oven crisps. I washed the spuds carefully, peeled them and dried off the peelings on kitchen paper. I put a film of oil on a baking tray, laid the peelings in rows and slipped them into the 200C oven. They were done inside ten minutes, perhaps a little too well here and there, drained on more paper and salted. And they were pretty good.

I think what this showed me was that sometimes I am too quick to throw on the compost heap food I could otherwise eat. I shall do it again but only if I already have the oven on.

So I munched my crisps and thought of pigs and how nice it would have been if I also had a beer.

Tip of the Iceberg?

p1050879-red-sorrel-and-the-first-of-the-lemon-sorrel-04-02-2017-16-57-59

Garden red sorrel peeping up through the giant lemon variety

February doesn’t strike me as the month for salads but people seem to be panicking about where their next Iceberg lettuce is coming from. The rain in Spain has been devastating the salad crops which we import from there.

Doesn’t bother me. I did what I always do when I want some salad: I did a sport of foraging. I didn’t have to go far, either. Just down the bottom of the garden.

 The red sorrel which grows like weed (that’s because it is a weed) has just started to come into leaf, as has my clump of lemon sorrel and perpetual beet spinach. And there are tender young dandelion leaves just waiting to be picked. If this shortage lasts just pop an upturned flowerpot over some healthy specimens to exclude the light and blanch the leaves to make them less bitter.

 I know celery is also part of the Great Salad Shortage but it’s worth buying a head. Unless you get them from a farmers’ market most of the leaves will have been cut off but there are usually enough nestling down among the stalks to make a salad. They are also a very useful herb. The stalks also go in so you get two for the price of one. Then just grate up a carrot and you’re done.

 Perhaps this shortage is teaching us  lesson to eat seasonally. I grew up through Februaries when tomatoes and lettuce were non existent and my parents wouldn’t have known what an aubergine was if it was put in front of them. It’s been said many times before but we’ve lost the thrill of the first strawberries, asparagus and the like coming into season because they are available all year round. Perhaps this shortage is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of what might happen if our trading patterns broke down.

p1050886-plenty-of-leaves-on-celery-04-02-2017-17-01-47

Find a head of celery with plenty of leaves