Foraging for “autumnal excrementa”

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Medlars. Remind you of anything?

I HADN’T been the first to spot the tree. Most of the fruit on the lower branches, right besides a footpath, had been stripped of fruit. But higher up there were still some I might get. I needed a long stick but there was an empty lager can discarded in the leaf litter. I took aim. Bull’s Eye! Two of them came tumbling down.

I’d noticed the medlar tree earlier in the year while foraging in a Sheffield park. Tiny brown fruit were on the branches but it was much too soon to pick them. They only ripen around November time. No wonder this was a medieval favourite in the days when fresh fruit all year round was impossibility.

Chaucer mentions them, and Shakespeare, not always kindly, and D H Lawrence, who had a thing about fundaments, wrote of “wineskins of brown morbidity, autumnal excrementa … an exquisite odour of leave taking”.

But the medlar has long fallen out of favour. In part, it’s its looks. It has the appearance of a greeny brown crab apple split open at the bottom into five crinkly segments. It resembles for all the world what leads the French to call them cul de chien, dog’s arse. But don’t let that put you off.

The medlar is only edible when it is ripe, that is beginning to rot or blet, so I made a mental note to come back in late autumn. It was on the last day of November that I went in search of the tree.

 

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Inside the medlar – squidgy with pips

One or two of the medlars had already bletted. I squeezed one gently onto my tongue. The nearest thing it smells and tastes like is apple. A very soft, squidgy apple. And the texture is somewhere between a slightly fibrous pear and a ripe fig, although without the latter’s graininess. And it was sweet. I can honestly say it was the best I’ve eaten because it was the first I’ve eaten. I also got a mouthful of pips. There are five. Enthusiasts declare that medlars are a fruit you either love or hate. I quite like them.

I’ve only got eight or nine and have already eaten a couple. The rest will go into the cellar, in the dark, to ripen. You can make fruit cheese, jam or jelly with them although I haven’t got enough so they will be an occasional treat. This has been my most exotic forage of the year. I’m waiting for my cellar to be full of that exquisite odour.

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The Chef Behind the (Wet Fish) Counter

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Hake with clams and samphire

YOU know how it is, you go out to eat some fancy fish but can tell it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg and then the other two. Well there were four of us and we started with three Colchester oysters and ordered three plates of hake with clams and both fillets of a sea bass and the bill was £43.

Yes, you read that right.

Mind you, we had to make some sacrifices. One of us got out of bed at 5am to bake the ciabatta which mopped up our chilli-spiked tomato sauces while another popped next door but two to the wine shop for a chilled bottle of Puglian white and four glasses.

But if you don’t mind being propped up on a bar stool a couple of feet from a prime display of wet fish on crushed ice while customers come in for their cod or smoked haddock then I can heartily recommend Mann’s wet fish shop on Sharrowvale Road, Sheffield, any lunchtime when it’s open, all week save Sunday and Monday.

An A-board on the pavement invites you in: “Try any fish. We do the rest.”

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The chef, not behind the curtain but behind the counter is Christian Szurko, not some fishmonger who fancies his hand with a frying pan but a fully trained chef with experience at London’s seafood restaurant J Sheekey and the Blue Broom, Lounge Bar and Club One Eleven back here.

Just walk in, size up the fish, tell him how you’d like it (fried or poached, usually) and sit down with a bottle of BYO and wait until it’s ready. All you’ll be charged is the shop price of the ingredients plus £2 per person for the privilege of having it cooked. The hake was £18 a kilo and the sea bass £14. If you really want a fish called wonga the halibut is £40.

While we were the only ‘diners’ on a blowy Wednesday the previous Saturday there had been 20 eating. “Not bad for a wet fish shop, is it?” said Christian, cutting very generous steaks off the fearsome looking hake lolling next to squid.

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Christian beheads the hake

My wife and I were joined by fellow foodie blogger Craig Harris and his wife Marie, both staunch Italophiles, and it was he who had made the lovely springy ciabatta that morning.

Customers could already eat in after Christian started an impromptu oyster bar a couple of years back. At £1 a pop it was and still is a bargain. “It escalated from there. We always had the induction hobs because we make our own stock for the shop,” he added. So is he scratching a cheffy itch? “Partly, but I also run pop up restaurants. I’m looking for new premises now.”

If you fancy a glass of Chablis to chase it down then Jane Cummings of Olive & Vine wine merchants has a berth there on Saturdays. As it was midweek my wife nipped out to fellow wine merchants Starmore Boss with a tenner and came back with a chilled A Mano Bianco. They also loaned us the glasses.

Christian, who took over the then Hillsborough-based business with his brother Danny (who has since left the shop) in 2008, could offer the fish with spiced lentil salsa, daal with paneer, spicy tomato sauce or garlic mash that day. We already had the bread so didn’t need the mash but the tomato sauce sounded good. “Throw in some clams and samphire?” asked Christian. You bet.

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Lunch is on the right

We almost forgot the oysters until Craig prompted me. They were expertly shucked by Craig’s new partner in the shop Scott Mills, another chef turned fishmonger. These were Colchester oysters in tip top condition.

So was the hake, heralded by tempting cooking smells. I sometimes find the texture of this fish, a favourite with the Spanish, a little on the heavy side but this, while still retaining firm-fleshed meatiness, was also light and flakey, set off nicely by the tomato sauce with a little crunchiness from the emerald green samphire. The clams were fine but I don’t go into raptures over a vongole. What is it but a posh cockle? Give me a winkle or a whelk any day.

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Christian plates while Scott supervises

It made for a very pleasant and enjoyable lunch where we could all pretend we were Rick Steins popping in for a bite with an obliging chef. This is one you all must try.

#Mann’s is at 261 Sharrowvale Road, Sheffield S11 8ZE. Tel: 0114 268 2225 On Twitter and Facebook

Check out what Craig thought of the meal at www. craigscrockpot.wordpress.com

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A feast of fish

A bunch of Sunday lunches

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hereOysters Kilpatrick at Peppercorn

MY wife had stirred disconsolately through her bowl of modgy fish chowder, so thick and full of overcooked potato you could stand a spoon up in it. “I feel like Jacques Cousteau: I’ve just found a piece of fish at last.”

Oh, I remember it well: One of our many Sunday Lunches That Went Wrong.

We are speeding towards one now and have high hopes but to pass the time reflect on some of the others we have had in the 25 years or so when I wrote about restaurants for a living instead of for fun, as here.

Sunday lunches were our special treat and usually chosen carefully. We regarded it as a perk for filing a review on time and never missing a single week. It was also compensation for giving up our day of rest (Wednesday or Friday night reviews didn’t seem so onerous) and it kept down the housekeeping bills.

So we would make sure we did the Peacock at Rowsley (country house hotel with famous guests, super food and Sunday newspapers by the fire) at least once every three years and preferably on a rainy winter Sunday. There were a few others like that, on a rota, but every now and again you had to take pot luck.

Wherever I went I almost inevitably had roast beef. My reasoning was that this was the dish most people would order, certainly the men, and Sunday isn’t a day to go experimental. My wife could explore the menu’s more exotic slopes.

That modge of a chowder was in an hotel dining room on the edge of Sheffield where the chef had unwisely bunked off in the middle of service to leave a trainee in charge. My roast beef wasn’t any better but the gravy was surprisingly good. I shan’t name the place because it’s still there but I will the Middlewood Hall Hotel, long deceased, like the chipolata served up with my daughter’s roast. It had been baked so hard she couldn’t get her knife through it so gave it to her mum. Mum couldn’t either so it was Pass the Sausage and my turn. It was Man versus Chipolata and I lost.

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I always order the roast beef

 

At another place, where customers piled their plates so high they looked like relief models of Mount Kilimanjaro with clouds around the top – oh no, they were cauliflower florets – the kitchen had burned an apple pie badly. The chef had tried to conceal the error, submerged under a sea of custard.

Sometimes we got it right but customers got it wrong. I trilled a hymn of praise to the rosy red beef and brown bread ice cream (in the days before it was retro) and the following week it was so inundated with customers they couldn’t cope. Diners hadn’t been reading my review closely. “My beef was undercooked,” one reader rang in, who liked his meat grey.

I went back some years later and the highlight of our visit was not the food but a diner who strode to the table in flat cap and Wellington boots. Well, it was in the countryside.

No one is wearing flat caps or Wellington boots at Peppercorn on Abbeydale Road South. We had meant to be a four but friends cried off so we kept the booking just for us. Now I have reviewed Sunday lunch on the blog here just over a year ago so I’ll keep it short. Chef-patron Charlie Curran and his wife Kelly had disappeared to Filey to relax before the Christmas rush leaving the kitchen in the capable hands of sous Dan Kidd.

It was notable for a starter I’d not seen before, oysters Kilpatrick. This comprised three rock oysters toped with cheddar cheese and bacon lardons, baked on hay. I think it’s Australian in origin and the cheese can be optional in most recipes I’ve seen. I liked it. Flavours were subtler than I expected, I didn’t get the briny blast you have with a raw oyster, so it’s not so much Margate, more Frinton. With light as a feather batter on my wife’s squid rings (“If my cheese soufflé is as light I’ll be pleased,” she said and she was) and up to the mark roast beef, we enjoyed ourselves.

#Peppercorn, 289 Abbeydale Road South, Sheffield S17 3LB. 0114 235 0101. Web: www.peppercorn-restaurant.co.uk

The King who came to dinner

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The Charnwood Hotel

 CHRIS King, the man who restored an historic building into Sheffield’s first boutique hotel and was a driving force behind the city’s culinary renaissance, has died. He had Parkinson’s Disease. He was 81.

FUNERAL DETAILS AT END OF STORY

WHENEVER Chris King passed the crumbling Georgian mansion at the corner of Sharrow Lane and London Road he knew the best way to bring it back to life was as a hotel. The Grade II listed building had been built around 1780 by Master Cutler and scissorsmith John Henfrey on a site then on the outskirts of the city.

Chris didn’t start out as a hotelier, he was a structural engineer. So he knew if a building could be saved. However, as with so much of what happens in Sheffield, he had to battle with a city council which lacked imagination. It took over two years for him and his wife Val to get planning permission for the Charnwood, Sheffield’s first boutique hotel. It lasted for almost 20 years as a popular wedding venue and the focus of much of the city’s good cooking.

The 22-bed Charnwood opened in 1985. Its guests included stars from the World Snooker Championship and comedians Victoria Wood and Mike Harding. It also became the home of two top restaurants, Brasserie Leo and the smaller more upmarket Henfrey’s. Chris was not a man to cut corners. He employed celebrity chef and local lad Kevin Woodford as catering consultant. The Woodford Suite was named after him.

“Chris told me he wanted to do things right,” says Cary Brown, whom he appointed the hotel’s (and the country’s) youngest head chef at 21. He had dropped by to do a two day shift after leaving Claridges and was on his way out when he was offered the head chef’s job, provided he passed a three month’s trial.

Chris sent Cary to Paris to see how things were done there before opening Brasserie Leo. When Cary left, Wayne Bosworth and his sous Marcus Lane made similar trips. The restaurant was designed with banquettes, alcoves, gleaming brass, big mirrors and a splendid bar. Even the coat stands were authentic. And in the kitchen were a dozen copper pans.

The hotel aimed high. A lobster, truffle and veal sweetbread starter was on the menu for £17.95, a fortune, then as now, for Sheffield in the Eighties. Even Cary was worried about the price. “Chris said if it’s worth that, charge it,” he recalls.

He enjoyed his new life. Always impeccably dressed, he and Val could often be seen dining quietly in a corner checking the quality of the food and the reactions of customers.

Other chefs who made a name in the kitchen included Wayne, Murray Chapman and Stephen Hall as head chefs while others including Marcus and Jamie Bosworth, who would both later run Rafters, and Richard Irving also cooked.

While the cooking got the Charnwood into the guides the hotel ran smoothly with Chris and Val at the helm and her sister Ann Sommerfield as duty manager. There were good years then bad as business was hit by a slowdown at the turn of the century. “The economics did not stack up, the economics of a small hotel against a big one,” he said then. Chris tried unsuccessfully to sell the hotel, on the market for £1.3 million.

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Chris King presents an award at a hospitality event

It closed on Christmas Eve, 2004. The 16 staff were all found jobs, according to Anne. If Chris couldn’t sell the place as a hotel he would turn it into apartments. He supervised the work himself. “I do not want to pay people for what I already know,” he said. The project opened the following year renamed Wisteria Gardens, after the striking mauve and blue flowers which covered the walls. He had planted them a quarter century before.

Val, who predeceased him, died from cancer. Chris also had it but recovered and went to run a smallholding near Lincoln where he planted 2,000 walnut trees. However he returned to Sheffield later and died at Beauchief.

Cary Brown said: “He was a legend and pioneer in the hotel and catering industry. What he brought to Sheffield wasn’t realised until later. If it wasn’t for that hotel Sheffield would not have got on the culinary map until years later.”

#Chris King died on Thursday, 16 November, 2017. Details of the funeral will be announced here shortly.

Picture of Chris King sourced courtesy of Craig Harris.

*The funeral will be held at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium at 1.15pm on Thursday,7 December, followed by a wake at the Double Tree Hilton, Meadowhead.

Why I’m spluttering over this chutney

IMG_0485MY pan is spluttering and so am I. In fact, I’m cursing telly chef James Martin, that wannabe Keith Floyd, and fervently wishing that the next time he gets into his fancy sports car he drives over a cliff.

 My tomato harvest, chiefly in hanging baskets and grow bags by the kitchen door, has been a lovely one this year. I swear by that little cherry Tumbling Tom. But some have failed to ripen and I don’t want to waste them. You can smuggle some of them into a curry, as a sort of Pound Shop tomatillo, or you can make green tomato chutney.

 I made a few jars last year but was heavy on the spices and it is only just coming up to decent eating. It goes fine in a curry, though. What I needed was a chutney so on trend and clever it would knock spots off all other green tomato chutneys. Let’s face it, this is always a chutney with a whiff of waste not, want not desperation. Then I hit upon James Martin’s.

Yes, I know.

 The man is hardly trendy but he is ubiquitous. Name me a food fair, he’s there. He’ll turn up for the opening of a fridge.

IMG_0475 But what got me was that he caramelises the fruit. No one else did. Nifty, I thought, but there was a little niggle at the back of my mind as I followed the instructions.

 First you melt brown sugar in a frying pan until it caramelises than add some white wine vinegar and the other ingredients. Wait a minute, won’t that mean . . .

 TOFFEE!!!!!

 It did. I swore. My wife ducked out of the kitchen. Luckily I had only added the vinegar, not the rest, and it took 20 or so minutes simmering before the toffee melted again. Then I added the tomatoes etc and proceeded as normal.

 James Martin’s method, on the BBC food website, is less than 80 words and he doesn’t explain or allow for any of this. So what’s it like? Strangely, it does not taste of toffee. It’s OK and I’d judge that while it may improve with keeping it’s more or less ready to eat. I’ve got a jar and a bowl to use over the next few weeks with my cheese sandwiches. I’ll let you know.

 175g light brown sugar

150ml white wine vinegar

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

2cm fresh ginger, grated

1 red chilli (I used some green chilli and chilli powder)

125g sultanas

600g green tomatoes, quartered

 Heat sugar in frying pan until melted and caramelised

Add vinegar (see above!!) and other ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour until thickened and try the spoon test (trail through chutney to leave a channel).

Spoon into sterilised jars.

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A way with courgettes

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Marinated stuffed courgettes keep well in a jar

 

I USED to think the courgette was the vegetable that flavour forgot and have lost count of the times I have been served pallid little discs simply boiled or steamed in restaurants. But my wife likes them so I have to think up tasty ways to cook.

It wasn’t so much  case of away with courgettes as a way with courgettes!

Courgettes, of course, have this blotting paper capacity for absorbing flavours and Mediterranean kitchens know what melodies you can play with olive oil, garlic, lemon and herbs. And flour. Blogger Jane Sofos has a tempting picture of battered courgette ribbons on her excellent website www.kouzinacooking.com a rhapsody on Greek food and landscape seen from the eye of  a Sheffield woman.

I have yet to try this but often add courgette rolls to our ‘Italian evenings’ at home  – Parma ham, finocchiona (fennel salami), Gorgonzola, oven roasted tomatoes and focaccia with a good Italian white. I used to love seeing this delicacy in Nonna’s deli: griddled ribbons of courgette (or should I say zucchini as this dish is Italian?) wrapped around a stuffing and bathed in oil. It was so good last time my wife asked if I could bottle some so I did.

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Slice the courgettes with a vegetable peeler

From one decent-sized but not over-large courgette, washed with the ends left on, I got 12 thin slices, using a vegetable peeler, pressed hard. They were put in a bowl with a tablespoon of olive oil, minced garlic and thyme with salt and pepper and left to marinate while I heated the griddle. The strips cooked in a couple of minutes and I put them to cool in another bowl with the juice of half of half a lemon. I also griddled the ‘offcuts’ which I would chop and use in the stuffling.

Earlier this year I bought a couple of pots of Moroccan mint and it has grown vigorously in an old metal filing cabinet drawer onto which someone had soldered four legs then thrown over a fence near the Dronfield sewage works some years ago. I rescued it on a blackberrying expedition.

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Grilled and ready to be stuffed with mint

The mint has a vivid heady smell and flavour but I have not used it as much as I should. I made up for it by cutting off big handfuls and chopping it up finely. I added a few homemade nasturtium ‘capers,’ a little garlic, the chopped offcuts and added the drained lemon juice. The next job was to lay out each courgette strip and paste a teaspoonful of the mixture along its length before rolling it up tightly and securing with half a cocktail stick. You only need to do this last if you are putting them in jars. You can pack them neatly in a dish if you are going to eat them immediately.

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Spread chopped mint on the courgettes before rolling up tightly

Of course you don’t have to use mint. It could be feta. Or chopped walnuts and herbs. Or simply strips in lemon and olive oil. But mint is what I had and I could make it for pennies. I can’t wait to eat it.

*IT occurs to me that my last couple of posts have been all about preserving – home marinated olives and pickled eggs – and my blogging chum Craig Harris has countered with oven roasted tomatoes and balsamic onions at www.craigscrockpot.wordpress.com a blog so passionate and enthusiastic you can feel the heat of his kitchen. We are not in competition but if he ups the ante I’ll be ready!

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Ready to bottle

Fox got eggs in a pickle

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Clear vinegar shows the eggs off well

IF the fox hadn’t eaten the chickens I wouldn’t have pickled a jar of eggs. And I wouldn’t be writing this. I’d popped in the Down To Earth wholefood shop on Sharrowvale Road to offload some egg boxes and fill a couple up with their size ones from a farm at Whirlow. There weren’t any.

“Fox has got the hens again. There won’t be any more for about a month,” said boss John Leeson. But he did have some size threes, just the right size for pickling. I hadn’t done that for a bit. I bought a dozen and said: “All I need now is a packet of crisps.” He looked blank.

“You’re in a pub. You’ve got a pint of beer and feel peckish so you buy a packet of crisps and a pickled egg, put the egg in the packet and eat both together. Yummy,” I told him. He still looked blank. He’d never done it. Nor had other people I mentioned it to.

Now you can buy jars of pickled eggs but are they are very easy and cheap to make. And it means you don’t have to go to a pub to enjoy them.

Very often I fire off a blog, just because something has captured my imagination, and don’t expect many people to read it. Sadly, I am very often proved right. But the one here on eating a pickled egg in a packet of crisps  which I dashed off in June 2016 has, after a slow start, notched up over 800 hits and seems to gaining momentum. Something must be up.

So just in case you feel like registering the textures of egg and crisp and those little soft bits where the vinegar has soggeyed up the crisps, here’s how to do it. For American readers, crisps here are what you call potato chips.

I sterilised a big Kilner jar and boiled up the eggs. Here’s a tip: crack them all over and shell with the handle of a teaspoon, one with a rounded end and, if curved, have it pointing upwards so it doesn’t dig into the white.

You can buy a pickling vinegar but I like to make something unique. You don’t even have to boil the pickling spices first. You can use ordinary brown malt vinegar but that makes things a bit murky. I used white distilled vinegar and popped the spices in: some peppercorns, black and pink, a couple of blades of mace and two fresh bay leaves. I would have added some allspice berries but they’d gone AWOL. As the eggs take a couple of weeks before they are ready there is plenty of time for the spices to infuse.

Two weeks later they had and I ate the first one with a packet of crisps. Just as I remembered.

pickled egg in a packet of crisps

Crisps taste nicer with a pickled egg

 

 

 

 

 

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