Bacon, eggs and fried banana

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IT’S time for Sunday breakfast, a Full English. Let’s see, bacon, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, grilled (or fried) tomato, baked beans, fried potatoes, fried bread and fried oatcake. But there’s something missing, isn’t there? Can’t guess? Where’s the fried banana?

I have eaten at countless hotels and greasy spoons but I have never, ever seen bacon, eggs and fried banana on the menu. At Chez Dawes I – my wife thinks I’m nuts – have it as a special treat and when the bananas in the fruit bowl are just right, ripe but not going to brown mush.

Bacon and banana is a marriage made in heaven. You get a jolt of caramelised sweetness against the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, as well as a contrast in textures. Add in a shelled soft boiled egg (another little peccadillo of mine) and the oozing yellow yolk sends things up a gear.

This liking for fried banana comes from my early teens when, out with my parents, I ordered chicken Maryland from the menu because I had never had it before. Fried breadcrumbed chicken arrived with fried banana (they should have been fritters but I remember them naked) and I suppose I was hooked. But only gently.

I indulge spasmodically. I don’t have them every week. And it’s not as if when you’re staying over at someone’s house for Sunday breakfast you can say in an offhand kind of way “Could you add a banana to the frying pan?”

I had bacon, eggs and fried banana for breakfast this morning (as you can see) and enjoyed it so much I want to share it.

And shelled soft boiled eggs? You can’t get them breakfasting out, can you? Fried, poached, scrambled or soft boiled with toast soldiers, yes. But there’s a special pleasure, my father taught me, in deftly shelling a soft boiled egg and slipping it wobbling onto your plate. Preferably eaten with a fried banana.

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Pip! Pip! It’s Lindy’s Jam Session

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Faye (right) watches Beulah crack almond kernels as Lindy preps

“HOW many pips have you got in your lemon?” asked Lindy Wildsmith, cookery tutor and author of umpteen books on kitchencraft. Now there’s a novelty. “Five,” said Faye, who was partnering me that day in the demonstration kitchen at Welbeck Abbey’s School of Artisan Food.

“That’s enough,” said Lindy, the woman who wrote Preserves and Sunny Days & Easy Living. It’s the pectin in them, you see. You need it to set your jams and jellies. We didn’t mean to be smug but the people at the next workstation only had two pips.

You join me at the school’s Best of British Summer Preserves & Pickles course, to which I was invited as a guest. Regular readers know I’m an enthusiastic pickler and preserver but there’s always more to learn. There was. As pips are so important but lemons are so unpredictable you can keep surplus pips in your freezer ready for when a citrus lets you down.

This is my second time at Welbeck. The first was in 2009 shortly after the school had opened and I was writing a magazine article about it. I knew it was a stately home, once belonging to the Dukes of Portland, but the title had died out. I was to meet the school’s guiding light, a lady called Alison, but unfortunately had not done my homework.

First we had a cuppa in the farm shop café before she took me for a spin in her battered car around the 400 acre estate. It looks a small posh village. Imposing buildings once used as garages and carpenters shops now housed the school, a brewery, bakery, dairy, cheesemaker and much else. It was only as the car climbed a rise and the magnificent Abbey rose into view and Alison said “That’s home” that it dawned on me she was the chatelaine of Welbeck itself.

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Birthday girl Kate (left) stirs her pot

She was Alison Swan Parente, wife of current owner William Parente, grandson of the seventh and last Duke of Portland. I was being chauffeured by a member of the aristocracy, albeit with her coronet knocked off.

There were seven women and three men on the course. Faye, the youngest, a teacher from Chapeltown, had won her place in a competition at this year’s Sheffield Food Festival. Paul, from London, and Jonathan from Nottingham, were serious foodies. Kate had been given the place as a 50th birthday present by her friends so three of them decided to join her. Likewise Audrey and Caroline, who were sisters. Some had made jams and jellies before, others were chutney chumps.

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Preserving sisters Audrey and Caroline

We had a whole day to make apricot and Amaretto jam, redcurrant and apple jelly, sweet chilli tomato jam, raspberry cordial and spiced beetroot and marjoram chutney – and take them home to our admiring families.

“It’s addictive. You won’t be able to walk past a market stall laden with fruit and vegetables and not wonder what you can do with them,” Lindy said breezily. “It’s not rocket science but certainly very rewarding.” Too true.

A little later she addressed the elephant in the room. You can’t get away from it but jams, jellies and chutneys contain an awful lot of sugar and that contains an awful lot of empty calories. “Sugar is public enemy number one. It’s taken over from salt. You see some people walking around with Coca Cola bottles in their hands – they are living on the edge. But you won’t get that trouble from home made preserves,” she said.

I tried not to think of that day’s story on page four of The Times which said that sugar made men (but not women) depressed. It sounded like junk science but even so I will be spreading that apricot and Amaretto jam (which smells and tastes heavenly) a little more thinly. I don’t want to live on the edge and be depressed.

I liked Lindy’s style. She was patient and thorough and fussed around us like a mother hen as we roasted (the beetroot), simmered, boiled, stirred, zested, strained and funnelled up a whole store cupboard of preserves. Everything tasted good. “I’m going to have that raspberry cordial with some gin tonight,” said Faye wickedly.

Lindy taught me the upside down spoon test for a set jelly. I do the wrinkle test: put some jam or jelly on a cold plate, leave it in the fridge for five minutes, and if it wrinkles when you push your finger through it’s ready. Lindy scoops some up in a spoon, puts it back in the fridge and turns the spoon upside down five minutes later. If it doesn’t fall off you’re on.

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Jonathan (left) and Paul busy chopping

Some of the students were so keen this was the second or third course. The school runs 15 different courses in baking and breadmaking, 13 in butchery (there’s still time to get on the goat butchery course on October 29, no need to bring your own goat), six in cheesemaking and well over a dozen others from pies and chocolates to foraging and ice cream.

Patience is a virtue in preserving. You can’t rush things. It took Faye and I three attempts before the apricots set. The smell when Lindy dropped in a slug of Amaretto! I don’t mean to be smug (again) but that redcurrant and apple jelly set the first time. And we’d forgotten the pips.

*The School of Artisan Food is at Lower Motor Yard, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire S80 3LR. For details visit www.schoolofartisanfood.org or call 01909 532 171.

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The author pots up

 

A little of what you fancies . . .

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Scones and fancies at the Flying Childers

I’M raising a cup of Darjeeling in the finest Wedgwood china during afternoon tea at Chatsworth, in honour of a horse called Flying Childers. In fact, we’re in the restaurant named after this 18th Century stallion once owned by the second Duke of Devonshire.

With six wins out of six the Duke wouldn’t sell him for his weight in gold. No matter that three of those wins were walkovers, the old boy (the horse, not the duke) went on to sire a champion called Spanking Roger.

And spanking, as in spankingly good, is how I’d describe the twelfth duke’s Wedgwood Afternoon Tea which costs £35 a head. Why, you could almost buy a Wedgwood china sugar bowl for that money. An extra tenner gets you a glass of champagne.

Our table top can hardly be seen for pretty, delicate Wedgwood in bright patterns and colours. There are plates, teapots, cup and saucers, a sugar bowl, milk jug, tea strainer bowls, gold coloured Wedgwood cutlery – a cake knife, fork and spoon – with a Wedgwood china dish to rest them in.  Only the sugar cubes aren’t Wedgwood. “When it arrived we were terrified of breaking anything,” says café manager Meire Heard. So are we and I nearly succeed when my tea cup tips over.

The new menu was launched in March and has been a hit. Chatsworth has invited my wife and I as guests to see just how good it is. The restaurant is in a glazed arcade which runs the length of one side of the old stable block and the first thing you notice is a painting of the eponymous horse.

Walking to our table we pass a party of Japanese women enjoying their scones and jam. The way the Flying Childers does it, this English tea ceremony is almost as complex as their own.

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Coronation Chicken was our favourite sandwich

First you are asked to choose your champagne (if you’re having it) and then the tea. Don’t look for PG Tips or builders’ tea. And it’s loose. A teabag at the Flying Childers would be a scandal. There is Earl Grey but as my wife is already wearing Earl Grey and cucumber perfume she doesn’t want to be mistaken for a tea pot so opts for  full-bodied Ceylon while I have fragrant Darjeeling. “My grandmother told me to always put the milk in first so it wouldn’t crack the china,” says my wife. I’m thinking of my mother who would always crook her little finger whenever she had a naice cup of tea in a naice place to match but this is 2017 so I don’t.

The Wedgwood Afternoon Tea is treated like a three course meal (cheaper versions are available). First comes some ‘gin and tonic’ cured salmon, cut thickly, with a citrusy crème fraiche, salted cucumber and rye croutons. It sparkles as much as our champagne.

This is followed by a plate of sandwiches and tartlets: Coronation Chicken, egg mayonnaise and cress and ham and chutney sandwiches in white and brown bread, and two beautifully done miniature pastries: a goat’s cheese, pine nut and red onion tart in a red (beetroot juice?) embossed pastry case which crumbles as you touch it and a more robust but still excellent pesto and vegetable quiche.

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Goats cheese tart: so tiny but big in flavour

It’s the pastry work at Chatsworth which always has me purring in admiration. There is more in evidence in the third course, the scones, cakes and fancies. The scones, cherry and sultana, are tiny but light and moist. The fancies are terrific: A Black Forest ‘gateau’ is hardly that although it comes with a couple of drunken boozy cherries in a box of the crispest pastry. There’s also a zippy lime and rhubarb shortbread cheesecake, well-scented Earl Grey panna cotta and little kiwi fruit tarts.

The only thing we’re wary of is the macaroons because we fear a sugar rush but, at the risk of sounding like a Two Ronnies’ sketch, I’m glad to see Chatsworth insists on two Os in macaroon and not this new affectation for calling them macarons.

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The Flying Childers restaurant

If all this seems like indulgence you’d be right. The menu wickedly urges you to ‘indulge yourself’ several times. But even gastronomic hedonism has to come to an end.  After a relaxed hour there are just crumbs on our plates (but not many) and a lonely macaroon, while the glasses of Laurent-Perrier champagne have been drained. It is expensive but you are paying for first class service, elegant surroundings and some wonderful patisserie work.

Plus a memory or two. For us it’s already up there with afternoon tea at The Ritz, cucumber sandwiches, harpist and all.

# Wedgwood Afternoon Tea costs £35, with champagne it’s £45. You can book online at www.chatsworth.org or drop in. Teas are served between 2 and 4pm.

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This painting of Flying Childers is at the restaurant entrance

Still not a proper job?

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Alistair Myers – wants to put a glitz on service (picture from Staff Canteen)

My post on National Waiters Day struck a chord with one leading member of the restaurant trade who would love to get more recognition for those who serve in front of the kitchen door. Here’s how he made it and what he wants to do next.

WHEN Alistair Myers was hauled before his head of year at Tapton School and asked why he wasn’t staying on for Sixth Form and university he told her he wanted to work in hotels and restaurants. “That’s not a proper job,” she countered but he dug his heels in and left at 16.

Today the co-owner (with chef Tom Lawson) and Maitre D of award-winning Rafters restaurant, on Oakbrook Road, Sheffield, has twice seen that teacher as a dinner guest but she has failed to recognise him. Surely, I say, the temptation must be to gently remind her how wrong she was. He shakes his head. His job is all about “creating memories for people and having a red carpet experience.” That might put the damper on the evening.

The trouble is, Tapton and other schools are still saying the same thing 17 years on. With National Waiters Day approaching (May 16) he’d love to enthuse other young Alistairs with a passion for the hospitality industry and talk to their fifth formers. Instead, he is either ignored or told ‘We’d love you and Tom to talk to our Sixth Form.” But that’s too late. He’s got to grab ‘em younger.

If you wonder why British hotels, restaurants and cafes are staffed with young Europeans it’s because in this country the hospitality industry, unless you’re a star chef, is still not seen as a proper job, as it is on the Continent. People mistake service for servility.

The industry is too often seen as somewhere to go if you’re not good enough for anything else or something you just fall into. Few are as driven as Alistair – luckily he had supportive parents who backed him to the hilt – who quickly glided upwards in his career. Mind you, that teacher wasn’t the only one who knocked him back. When he inquired about the catering course at Castle College he was told the waiting side of the course only involved one day a week. “We’ll make you a chef,” they told him. “I didn’t want to be a chef,” he says.

But where had this unlikely passion for the hospitality business come from? At Tapton he had to do his work experience and was given a list. He noticed Trust House Forte’s then crumbling Hallam Tower Hotel was on it, not far from home. He was lazy. “I thought I could ride down on my BMX and be back home in time for tea.”

He found he loved it, particularly when one evening the restaurant was a waiter short and Alistair volunteered, even though it was against the terms of work experience. It was cash in hand and the industry had got him for life. He got a buzz out of making people happy. “If we have an unhappy customer here that can ruin my night.”

If Castle couldn’t or wouldn’t help – he stresses things are so much different now at the renamed Sheffield College – he found his own career path through a multi-skilled apprenticeship at the former Beauchief Hotel, then the Rutland and Aston Hall Hotels before striking gold at Rowley’s. There Michelin-starred Max Fischer of Baslow Hall, its big brother restaurant, recognised Alistair’s talent and he was made restaurant manager at 23. And it was there he met chef Tom, with whom he struck up a friendship and what was to prove a working partnership.

Between them they ran the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley before taking over Rafters, one of the area’s top restaurants, from Marcus Lane in 2013. “I knew I was going to buy my own place, I just thought it would be a pub,” he grins.

It’s from here that he is anxious to find the next generation of service staff. It could be a battle. “People will say my compliments to the chef but seldom to the waiters. And when they come they all want to be sommeliers – the new rock stars of the restaurant business – but don’t know from which side to lay a plate or how to crumb a table.” They are at the right place if they want to know about wine: last year Alistair became the city’s first certified sommelier.

Alistair, who is 31, leaves nothing to chance. The system is still in its infancy but customers likes and dislikes are recorded and new bookings are researched. That’s how they spotted the Michelin inspector. The last time we went to Rafters Alistair recalled my wife’s love of hake. So had he logged that? “I don’t know how but I just know some things. I only wish I could remember some of the things my wife Toni tells me!” They have a son, Oscar.

The staff are encouraged to get involved in the running of the restaurant. Rafters has a ‘creative hub’ where they can brainstorm ideas. Half an hour before service the waiters and waitresses are briefed on who is coming and how to treat them. On a recent Friday he noticed he’d got a ‘Valentines Night’ ahead, almost all tables of two. Tom looked baffled as Alistair asked staff to just be a little louder to create more of a buzz that evening then retreated to his kitchen and let him get on with it.

Did it work? “The tips jar was full,” he says.

http://www.raftersrestaurant.co.uk
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You guys want meanies? No problem

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Cartoon courtesy of Comic Kingdom


It is National Waiters Day on 16 May but I assume that covers both sexes. In honour of the day here are a few memorable experiences provided by those who wait on.

THE waitress scuttled crablike to our table, arms outstretched as she put down my plate of lamb shank as gingerly as possible. Then she shot back with relief. “Whatever is the matter?” I asked. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said. This was a girl in completely the wrong job.

If she treated the food with disgust, what was the customer to think? Unlike the veggie waitress I got chatting to in a lovely fish and chip café in Hunstanton, Norfolk. “All I can eat here are peas and the occasional chip,” she said brightly.

I do seem to have trouble with lamb shank, a favourite of bistros in the Nineties, cooked long and slow and low until the meat is falling off the bone. At least, that’s the theory. In another Sheffield restaurant when I cut into mine it was decidedly raw. Naturally I complained, pointing out to the waitress the blood in the centre.

“No it’s not, it’s a trick of the light,” she claimed. The meal did not proceed sastisfactorily. Shortly afterwards the place was sold to a very good chef I was friendly with. “Those ovens, they couldn’t get up to cooking temperature,” he confided. Which explained my undercooked shank.

I have had waiting staff do a runner on me. Once was in France when my wife was served up langoustines, one of which was so rotten and off you could see it black with pus. I summoned the waitress, a slip of a girl, but did not quite have the right French words. “Cette langoustine est tres, tres, tres mort!” She fled to the kitchen where Monsieur le chef was called out. He shrugged. We bridled. But there were complimentary glasses of Grand Marnier to follow.

In a smart enoteca in the middle of Rome the whole waiting staff suddenly decamped to the kitchen in an instant, understandable because a gunman wearing a large red bandana over his face and toting a big black pistol suddenly came through the door. He wanted our wallets but he was not having mine. I played the English and stupid cards.

Waiting staff are supposed to be part of the hospitality industry but you would never know it at one hotel in the middle of Bakewell, now under different ownership. We walked in to dine past reception, down a corridor and into the restaurant passing at least half a dozen staff all of whom passed us silently avoiding eye contact. What a welcome by part of the hospitality industry!

So did the single waitress working overtime in the crowded dining room, avoiding our gaze until I coughed pointedly. She found us a table and gave us our menus, without a word. What a pity we ordered dishes she had neglected to mention were off the menu.

Waitresses – and it does seem to be mostly women and girls who wait at table – have done this a lot to me during my reviewing career. I took it as part of my job to review the front of house staff as much as the kitchen because they are the face of the restaurant. And good service can make up for defects in the kitchen.

Part of a waiter’s or waitress’s job is to know the menu and, ideally, to have eaten it so they are knowledgeable. I always asked some damn fool or idle question to see if they were up to the mark and had been listening when the chef explained it to them.

One chef I knew was so keen on his chicken three ways (roasted, poached and moussed) that he had rung me up to tell me in the hope of a paragraph in the paper. I obliged, then went to taste it. How did the chef do his chicken? I asked the girl. She paused then blagged, “He’ll do it any way you want.” Well, full marks for chutzpah.

I have had food slopped all over my jacket by inattentive waiting staff and my wife nearly had her foot speared by a knife dropped by an elderly waiter.

Of course, I have only given you the bad bits because they are the most entertaining. I have had excellent service over the years and it is always a pleasure to see it well done, so that you almost don’t notice it, rather than overdone.

You know the sort of thing – being asked what you want to drink before your bum hits the seat, asked to decide on the wine before you’ve chosen the food and zooming up to the table to inquire if all is well with the meal after you’ve just had the first mouthful.

I always hate, and this is a generational thing, my wife and I being referred to as ‘You Guys.’ One of us isn’t.  It is an awful Americanism. And being told ‘No Problem’ about almost anything.

Sometimes there is a language problem with so many Europeans in British restaurants and hotels these days. But the biggest one we ever had was with an American waitress working over here. She asked if we wanted any Meanies. We looked blank. She had several attempts before it clicked. She meant mayonnaise!

We’ll end with an accolade, to the long-gone Italian ristorante I reviewed in the Eighties when my tie (who wears one now?) dropped into the tomato sauce. It was whisked away, cleaned, dried and presented to me clean, fresh, pressed and dry at the end of the meal, free of charge. I still have no idea how they did it.

Yankees – no longer Doodle Dandy

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Yankees closed just before Christmas

IT only slowly dawned on me that Yankees, the burger place on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, had closed down just before Christmas, after 37 years. That’s pretty good going in a business where the average life expectancy is three years. But many will be sad to see it go.

A sign on the door said they were closed for refurbishment but that’s the one thing you don’t do on the run up to Christmas! Now there’s a sign saying the place is for let. 

I’d eaten there professionally and off duty over the years but hadn’t been in for quite some time. Well, that’s not entirely true. Tempted in by a new pulled pork and smoked ribs menu I found a table only to be told it wasn’t on that night – despite the banners on the railings outside promising otherwise. So, as I had a review to do, I upped and left.

Despite its age Yankees wasn’t the first American style burger restaurant in Sheffield. That honour went to Uncle Sam’s, further up the road towards town, opened by Ron Barton on July 4, 1971. It was quite a sensation at the time but it wasn’t until the other end of the decade that brothers Peter and Michael Freeman opened Yankees on the corner with Thompson Road in May, 1979.

Uncle Sam’s, still alive and kicking,  was the one with the overhead railway, Yankee’s the place with that cheeky poster of that girl tennis player with the bare bum. Both could tell tales of families where the parents had first eaten there as students and brought their own kids back.

I have no idea why Yankees closed but there is a lot of competition about these days. Chances are if a new place opens it’s either burgers or pizza, which is pretty depressing if you like your food and want a choice.

But Yankees helped to blaze a trail. Surprising as it might seem now, back then burgers, unless you had that uniquely British pattie at a Wimpy Bar, were rare. What Uncle Sam’s and Yankees were offering were bigger, tastier and (so it seemed) more American. It was no accident both were on Ecclesall Road, the city’s most upmarket street.

Then – don ‘t laugh – we called Ecclesall Road the ‘Bond Street of the North’ because there were so many boutiques. Now they have become takeaways and restaurants so, again, the two places were ahead of the curve.

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That poster – it was Uncle Sam’s with the overhead railway

Could Bing be the next Big Thing?

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‘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.

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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!

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Unwrapped and ready to eat