Now dinner parties are a bit of a fondue

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Fondue parties – back in fashion?

APPARENTLY there’s a new trend in dinner parties. Instead of your host or hostess laying on a spread they expect you to do the cooking.

It’s even got a name: social dining.

If so, it’s passed me by. I only know about it because a very nice chap from BBC Radio Derby rang me up one morning and asked if I could talk about social dining on-air in half an hour.

My first thought was that Radio Derby had been let down by someone else at the last minute and they’d thought of me in desperation. My second thought was that BBC Radio Sheffield had buggered me about on the last two occasions so why not?

And my third thought was that I knew nothing about the subject but the very nice chap said he’d email me a story about it from the Daily Mail. Well, it must be true, then.

The article talked about the return of fondue, so very much Abigail’s Party, Chinese-style hot pots where you cook food in a fragrant broth, and cook-your-own-strips of meat and steaks on red hot grill plates. And I realised I had done them all while restaurant reviewing at some else’s expense.

I was on the Sally Pepper morning show and she’s a pretty lively interviewer. I knew what she wanted. It’s what any journalist or interviewer wants. She wanted the conversation heavily seasoned with anecdotes.

Well you don’t review restaurants for over 25 years without a few tales to tell but during that time we didn’t get invited to that many dinner parties. I like to think that it was more because people were frightened to invite a food critic than because they didn’t like me.

Could I count Christmas Dinners which are a big family dinner party? If so, I could tell about the time we couldn’t find the turkey giblets inside our bird before cooking but when we took it out of the oven, there was the plastic bag poking out the other end.

Would we poison anyone? Should we cancel dinner? Or say nothing? We did the latter. We watched closely but no one died.

Luckily my wife had a couple of tales from the time before me. She always helped polish my reviews with a good line and she’s still doing it.

So I told Sally about the time Sue and her ex went to dinner with a farmer’s daughter in Bamford and had rabbit. She doesn’t care much for it so picked here and there. In conversation another woman guest asked if it had come from the village’s excellent butchers shop.

“Oh no, the cat brought it in,” said the hostess, the owner of a posse of feral felines. She was ahead of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall there! Not roadkill but moggykill.

I gather there was a rush to the bathroom.

Sue was fated at dinner parties. There was the time she was invited by a couple she had never met and she still hasn’t seen the wife. There must have been a big row so the woman stayed upstairs while the husband tried to cope. The night ended early.

“So I never, ever saw her. They divorced shortly afterwards,” said Sue.

Sally did wonder aloud if the next stage on from social dining would be people bringing along their own food as well as cooking it. As long as it wasn’t rabbit, I said.

I think they liked it. The very, very nice chap from the BBC said the control room joined in the laughter. So perhaps they’ll have me back.

You can hear it here (but not if you’re overseas}from 15 minutes in. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0807gz8

No Flummery, tell me what you think!

I AM being quite sincere about this, I think there should be more flummery on our dining tables.

It’s nothing to do with being polite about the food and murmuring meaningless praise but the dish itself. It’s as old as the hills but hasn’t been seen around much since Victorian times.

Flummery is what you get if you mix oatmeal with some water, let it sit for a couple of days, strain off the liquid and boil it down then pour it into a dish to set, which it will.

I have been fascinated by flummery ever since reading a brief account on page 521 of Dorothy Hartley’s excellent Food In England (1954) which, if you haven’t got means you are not a proper ‘foodie.’

Here is the recipe she quotes from 1700.
“To make a pretty sort of Flummery. Put three handfuls of fine oatmeal into two quarts of water, let it steep a day and a night then pour off the clear water through a fine sieve and boil it down until it is as thick as hasty pudding. Put in sugar to taste and a spoonful of orange flowerwater. Put in a shallow dish to set for your use.”

And that is what I did although I scaled quantities down to two tablespoons of porridge oats, not oatmeal, in 450ml (one pint) of cold water and left it in the fridge for over two days as I quite forgot about it.

I boiled the clear liquid down by two thirds. It didn’t taste of much, just faintly oaty, but perked up with the juice of an orange, seeds from two green cardamom pods and a dessert spoonful or two of sugar.

It’s not bad, reminding me of blancmange. All the oats do, of course, is provide a setting agent. The flavourings are up to you. I have seen recipes where cream and eggs are added but that would up the calory count.

Flummery is known by many other names. A ‘Wash Brew’ from 1623 was made the same way, adding honey for flavour. Hartley herself suggests boiling with butter and milk, after steeping and straining, until it reaches the consistency of double cream.

“Continue to cook it slowly and rest a little on a cold plate, and when it ‘sets’ pour it into shallow bowls. It is a pleasant, roughish brown cream like junket and makes a cool summer breakfast cereal – with cream and sugar.”

I am going to keep on experimenting with this. The quantities I used only make enough for one dish. But it strikes me there must be a restaurant kitchen out there which can see the possibilities. And just think of the mark-up for a handful of oats.

I almost hate to say this but it is one dessert which can be totally vegan.

Give it a try. It hardly takes much effort. Then tell me what you think. And, please, no flummery about this flummery if you don’t like it.

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It sets like blancmange

I’m a chap for a roast pig’s cheek

                            Roast pig’s cheek from Waterall  Brothers

I WAS standing in line at Waterall Brothers, those Princes of Pork on Sheffield’s  Moor Market, hoping to buy a roast pork hock for Sunday tea when I realised they had run out. But they did have some roast pig’s cheeks at a bargain £1.80 each.

And as customers ahead of me ordered their sliced ham, haslet and pork chops I must have fallen into a kind of reverie because I asked for a Bath Chap.

The assistant looked at me with incomprehension. I rapidly said “pig’s cheek” for a Bath chap is not something you will find around here these days but in the Seventies  you could buy them in Sainsbury’s, although I was living Down South at the time.

It’s the same bit of the pig, its lower face or cheek, just treated in a different way.

A Bath chap is the cheek boned, brined for a couple of weeks, soaked then boiled until tender, skinned and rolled in breadcrumbs. You ate it sliced like ham for tea or fried like bacon. I haven’t  seen it for years although it still is a speciality in Bath and surrounding  Wiltshire.

More of that in a minute. I took my half a snout back home and as it still retained its jawbone and teeth my wife absented herself from the kitchen while I removed the skin, ideal as crackling although it may need a turn in the frying pan, and sliced the meat.

There was a fair bit of fat, which tasted sweet, and a decent amount of pink meat. It’s perhaps not the best tasting portion of a pig but it was all the better for a dressing of honey and mustard, served alongside boiled new potatoes.

I would love to make a Bath Chap (chap is the older word for chops, or cheek) but my only attempt at butchering a pig’s face ended in disaster. I was planning to make guanciale, the Italian cured pig’s cheek, and bought a half pig’s head from the market for a quid. My wife temporarily left home on that occasion.

To be honest I made a pig’s ear out of that pig’s face and, after curing, I found I had gone horribly wrong. Perhaps next time I will pay them to butcher it for me.

Guanciale is an altogether different product to the Bath Chap after it has been cured (allspice and thyme  are two of the aromatics) then hung. It tastes like bacon plus plus plus. It can be fried and incorporated into dishes and sauces or thinly sliced and served with a plate of charcuterie.

And that got me into another reverie. How good would it be to see a plate of English, or even Yorkshire charcuterie? Honey roast ham, haslet, black pudding, white pudding (both of which can be eaten without frying), Polony sausage, savoury ducks, corned beef . . .

Can’t see that catching on, can you?

                              The meat and skin sliced off the bone




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Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam!

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Spam on the menu at Ladybower

ON the last leg (and my last legs) of a five and a half mile hike I was dying for refreshment. It was getting too late for a pub lunch but there ahead in the Birchin Clough layby was the Ladybower Café.

And when I read the menu it reminded me of Monty Python. For sandwiches I could have Spam; Spam and Egg; Spam Egg  and Cheese Slice; Spam Bacon and Sausage; Spam and Sausage; and Spam and Bacon.

But I had bacon and egg instead!

I hadn’t really noticed the cafe, more a mobile catering van but with tables and chairs in good weather, before although I must have driven past many times on the A57 in the last 15 years it has been there, according to Julie, who served me.

To be honest, I was a little exhausted or would have asked a little more about this splendid throwback overlooking the Ladybower Reservoir. Judging by its Facebook page it has a host of admirers and regulars.

And I got talking to a whisky salesman whom, he said, had been made homeless and was living out of his car. I saw later that he had posted grateful thanks to Julie, who runs it with a bloke called Geoff, for giving him a free lunch.

The Ladybower Cafe (not to be confused with the Ladybower Inn up the road) is apparently very popular with bikers. Among them are Si and Dave, aka the Hairy Bikers, who dropped in for Spam and egg while filming for their TV series.

Sandwiches come in a breadcake, only white, because there is no call for brown or wholemeal, according to Julie.

My sandwich was great and she didn’t demur when I didn’t want tea because I had some left in my flask.

Next time, though, I’ll have Spam.

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Not just a cheesy idea

USING up the Christmas leftovers takes time, doesn’t it? I’ve made pies, soups and curries from the remains of the turkey and ham but I was still left with the cheese.

In the fridge and freezer are little ramekins of potted ham, potted turkey and (I think) potted ham and turkey so why not potted cheese?

It’s easy to make and I’ve long known about the recipe given by Dorothy Hartley in her wonderful book Food In England. You’re not a proper foodie if you haven’t got a copy. I am not sure if it’s currently in print but it is available on Amazon.

Her recipe is for a pound of cheese (any or a variety) pounded up with half that of butter, an ounce of ground mace and a glass of sack (sherry). It is  potted, left and then “sliced for cream cheese.”

Luckily, these days we have the food processor. Translating this recipe, I found I had 100g of various blue cheeses which I cut up up small, rinds and all. That meant 50g of butter. I put in a half teaspoonful of mace, although you could use nutmeg, and pressed the button.

As it whirled around I poured in enough port (it seemed a better idea than sherry) to make a smooth paste.

It tastes good although I might have added more spice and a twist of pepper. Worth giving a go if you have five minutes to spare.

Tonco: so trendy but tasty

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Quincewell tart – lovely pastry

IF TONCO, a bijou little eaterie tucked away shyly behind the stone lions in embryonic Dyson Place, Sheffield, sounds vaguely Mediterranean (Greek or Italian, perhaps?) you might be surprised to find that it takes its name from a long-forgotten sarsaparilla drink brewed in Barnsley.

Once you have managed to open the stiff front door, which obviously spent a previous life as muscle improving gym equipment, you find an industrial looking restaurant. Bare concrete walls, old school chairs, tables made from bicycle frames and a bar-cum-open kitchen give a deliberately unfinished look.

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Celeriac, confit yolk, pangritata

Tonco is the first tenant of Martin Flowers’ retail and apartments redevelopment of an old garage, chapel and wasteland behind Sharrowvale Road.

The exact location has fooled some but just tootle up the alleyway between the wet fish shop and the Mediterranean restaurant. This makes it off-off Ecclesall Road.

The place is run by rhyming couple Joe and Flo (Shrewsbury and Russell) who specialise in the currently fashionable small plates (think Anglo tapas) with a very eclectic menu. Someone asked me what the theme was and I said Very Modern Modern British. Quirky might be a better description. Which started by pinching the name from an old pop bottle.

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Tonco – Hidden away in the corner

Quirkiness has its charms but can irritate if it doesn’t work. Flo’s cooking, which juxtaposes unexpected flavours and ingredients, makes sure it does.

Slivers of celeriac are topped with a confit egg and run through with crispy pangritata, the Italian ‘poor man’s parmesan’ of fried garlicky breadcrumbs flavoured with thyme (£7). It doesn’t look much but the runny yolk binds vegetable and crumbs together for comfort food appeal.

The fashion for fermenting is seen in the fermented kohlrabi, another root, combined with wild sea bass, lightly cured, or ceviched, in the fermenting liquid (£7). It leaves a satisfying tang in the mouth and quite a bit of heat from a fiery paprika sauce.

We could have had oh-so-trendy cavolo nero salad with hemp seed and sesame or bigger plates of braised beef shoulder with homemade orecchiette pasta but, instead, settled for a delicious and generous plate of Italian meats: coppa, lomo and finocchiona (£7).

On my next visit I will get my teeth into bigger dishes such as the beef or stone bass with burnt leek, mussels and elderflower emulsion but instead shared a dessert from the list unforgivably headed Pud-Pud. There was nothing twee, though, about the tart, a quince take on Bakewell with spectacular pastrywork.

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Sea bass ceviche, fermented kohlrabi

The baking is first class here: try the soft, moist, spongy bread which almost converted me to sourdough with a vividly grassy Greek oil – just pressed by a friend of Joe’s, naturally.

They don’t have an espresso machine so you have to settle for cafetiere, which comes in a homely mug.

Tonco may be achingly trendy but, with the dishes we had at least, it works. What I liked was the excellence of the ingredients and the care with which they are used. So be like Joe: go with Flo.

Website: http://www.tonco.co.uk

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Joe and Flo at Tonco. Picture by @zoegenders

Marmalade? I’ve got whisky in my jars!

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Lucky 13 jars – with and without whisky

I HAVE to do it. Although I still have jars of marmalade from previous years in the cupboards and cellar I have to make some more the moment I see Seville oranges in the shops.

And every year, although I seem to keep saying it, this seems to be earlier than the one before.

There are plenty of recipes available like this one here  so I’ll just give a few tips.

Don’t buy more than a couple of pounds at a time. One pound of fruit requires two pounds of sugar and two pints of water and that will give four or five jars. Adjust the water, more or less, if you want a thinner or thicker preserve.

Sevilles freeze well if you can’t make your marmalade immediately.

Preserving sugar is a waste of money: use granulated or caster, a brown sugar for a darker colour.

Making marmalade is rewarding but tiresome. Spread it over two days to avoid it monopolising your whole day. I normally wash, halve, reserve the juice and pips and pith separately, then shred the peel with a sharp knife. Patience is all. Then soak the shreds in the water and juice overnight to soften.

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Seville oranges make the best marmalade

Remember to take the volume of juice into account when calculating the amount of water. You’ll also need the juice of at least one lemon per pound for pectin. Theoretically Sevilles don’t need it but I find they do.

Next day tie the pips and pith into a secure cheesecloth bag to dangle into the pan, then bring to the boil and simmer until the peel is soft. Only then add the sugar, after removing the pips.

Add it bit by bit to ensure all the sugar has dissolved.

Bring back to the boil, stirring every so often. The liquid will reduce somewhat until, when it reaches the correct volume at the right temperature with the right amount of pectin, thicken to become marmalade.

But very often things don’t run that smoothly.

Put three or four saucers in the freezer.

When you think it might be ready (the mixture thickens, coats the back of a spoon, starts sticking to the sides of the pan, or, irritatingly, none of this), about 15-20 minutes in, take out a saucer, scoop out a spoonful off liquid and leave it in the fridge for five minutes. meanwhile, turn off the pan.

Then check. If it wrinkles or drips slowly off the spoon it is ready. If not, try again.

Some people swear by jam thermometers but I swear at them as they always lie.

If it hasn’t set by the second saucer add the juice of half a lemon.

When it has, stir to distribute the shredded peel, allow to cool slightly and add a tot of your favourite whisky. if you want to make a jar or two of marmalade without booze, fill these first before adding the spirit.

Don’t worry about any scum. You can skim it but it usually disperses. If it doesn’t, stir in a knob of butter. If that doesn’t work scoop it into a bowl or jar for your own use. The scum will rise to the top and can be spooned off.

Beginners may find the shred slowly rises to the top of the jar. This means it hasn’t been stirred properly or was potted too soon. This generally works: invert the jars so they rise again. Then keep doing it until the little buggers give up and are more or less evenly dispersed.

Marmalade can be eaten as soon as made and keeps very well.

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The orange peel, water and sugar is bubbling nicely