Food · Lifestyle

Bland Food for Thought

Is it just me or does anyone out there think the same about our food in the UK? In my opinion it is mostly tasteless. Why do all these TV chefs insist on food that is heavily seasoned? Think about it! And the answer is, much of our food doesn’t taste of anything. One person described salad in the UK as being, ‘just crunchy water’. I’ve recently bought strawberries that looked like strawberries, were the same colour as strawberries, had the same texture as strawberries, but they tasted of nothing at all.

If you ever travel to or through Italy, Greece, France, Spain etc. you’ll find that fruit & veg in these places tastes amazing! So much flavour, and individually tasty in their own right. Why? Perhaps it is because much of their food is grown locally to the market or supermarket, and not transported to one end of the country and back, and is therefore likely to be both fresher and tastier. They also have a reliable climate that guarantees natural warmth, sunlight and the required nutrients from the soil. The problem, as I see it, is when consumers in the UK demand these products all year round. You could also suggest that UK supermarket fruits and vegetables are from varieties grown to have tough skins (so they don’t damage in transit), have a long shelf life (so they can be transported long distances and won’t go off in the shop), and don’t easily bruise / spoil. You also need to factor in supermarket processing costs (it’s easier and cheaper for them to deal with produce exactly the same size and consistency i.e. peppers, plums, apples etc.) and the packaging, so that you can neither taste nor smell the goods.

Another factor is the demise of the local greengrocer. In place of wonky carrots and ‘dirty’ potatoes we now have uniform shapes, colours and sizes. And why have the supermarkets seized the monopoly on fruit and veg? Because the public demand cheap food, that’s why. So, in my opinion, it’s both our faults. But that’s not enough info. Why is it that I buy what are described as ‘sweet’ oranges, I peel one, and it’s so sour it takes the enamel off my teeth. You could use the juice from supermarket plums to remove paint, and the grapes can give you mouth ulcers. But that’s how supermarkets want to sell it. From picking, days of shipment, packing and finally storing, by the time it appears on the shelves it has to look exactly the same as when it dropped off the tree.

It’s what happens to the fruit and veg when it’s stored that is interesting. They go into what’s called Controlled Atmosphere Storage all year. This consists of regulating concentrations of oxygencarbon dioxide and nitrogen, as well as the temperature and humidity of a storage room. Both dry commodities and fresh fruit and vegetables can be stored in controlled atmospheres. So, for instance, this means that apples are harvested at a certain time of the year, are put into CAS, and abracadabra, apples are on the shelves throughout the year looking and tasting exactly the same as the day they were picked – and before they’ve ripened!

UK consumers (at least according to supermarkets) care more about cosmetic appearance than their continental counterparts who appear to care more about taste, and UK supermarkets care more about consistency of product (size, weight, appearance, availability). Consistency of availability also means UK supermarkets are less likely to stock a great product that is only available for two weeks of the year (there is a cost to setting up the supply chain). In essence, supermarkets stock what sells, and what sells is often tasteless but resilient fruit and veg. It tastes less good, and spoils quickly once it’s out of its packaging.

But we still buy it because the general consumer has little or no choice. And as a closing point, nobody under a certain age will have a clue what I’m talking about, having been raised on supermarket fruit and veg for their entire lives. Pass the salt and pepper!

Three quick tips:

  1. When buying imported fruits (and vegetables); keep them outside of the fridge as much as possible, and if planning to eat soon, place them on the window sill for a little while, and the flavours should improve.
  2. Try visiting a thriving market with colourful fruit and veg stalls where you are cordially invited to taste the produce by the stall holder and purchase free from packaging. And it’s often cheaper.
  3. Grow your own.
dining · Food · Lifestyle

The Haven Inn at Barrow Haven

So, travel north to the top of Lincolnshire, beyond Barton upon Humber, drive across a lonely, rural landscape of flatness, and you’ll probably reach Barrow. In the winter the area is windswept and forlorn, and about as picturesque as a local cowpat. If you’re going to be kidnapped anywhere, this area is as good a place as any. The chocolate-brown estuary eternally and hungrily eats at the slimy mudbanks and the only sound you hear is the whine of loamy winds and bleating cries of paddling bird colonies. And just so’s you know, the Humber estuary marked the northern-most boundary of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, ruled at the time by King Wulfhere. He gave some land to a chap called St Chad who immediately decided to develop a monastery on the site. And Barrow came into being. The only other incident of note was that during World War 2, those dastardly Germans bombed the village for reasons best known to the bomber crew. There was a heavy anti aircraft battery situated here so whether they were trying to bomb that, or mistook it for the sprawl of Hull on the ‘other’ side of the river, or maybe they were just dumping, quite a few locals tragically lost their lives.

Why would anyone pass by here? Well, drive through the village towards Barrow Haven and just before you abandon all hope, the Haven Inn appears. OK, it’s a quiet area with few cars, but don’t be fooled, the Haven Inn is ‘buzzing’ most nights. Hearing that celebrity chef Nigel Brown is associated with the restaurant we decided to book for the Friday night and give it a go. Taking one look at the crowded car park on arrival, full of posh SUVs and other flash motors, I’m so glad I had previously booked.

On this wet and windy evening it was a pleasure to enter the warm, inviting atmosphere of the Inn with its roaring open fire and wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. We arrived in plenty of time as I’d booked for 7 o’ clock, which was perhaps a little optimistic on their part, however, we were quite happy, waiting with a drink in the cosy lounge. And we waited, and we waited. Finally we received menus at about 8 O’clock and were taken through to the restaurant area, a not particularly inspiring room, we thought. It appeared a trifle bland, and although colour coordinated, maybe some luxury wall paper and new light fittings would help it feel less like a new extension where the owners had not quite decided on the decor.

Again, it took a while for anything to happen. Our starters eventually arrived. We did take note that even though all the tables were occupied, strangely not one person was actually eating. With so many customers we hoped that they must know something that we didn’t and the food must be worth waiting for. Eventually our much anticipated garlic bread and creamy garlic mushrooms arrived and the starters didn’t disappoint. Late but delicious.

The main courses eventually arrived, just as I was contemplating nipping out for a burger. One generous vegetable lasagne with home made chips, salad and coleslaw, and one ‘perfectly cooked’ huge 18oz rump steak with all the trimmings were laid before us. Described as ‘one of the best steaks I’ve ever had’, it obviously was worth waiting for after all. We would have loved to have sampled the desert menu but we couldn’t even finish the mains. You could say there was quantity as well as quality. Next time it will be desert instead of starters.

It seems a little cruel to mark this place down because of the long wait to be seated, and before a morsel had passed our lips. But it was (is) a factor as part of the eating experience. Be fair, delicious as it was, it was only bread, a vege lasagne and steak and chips. And it seems that other customers have reflected on the same ‘waiting’ issue, which doesn’t make me feel so bad in moaning on the subject. On the plus side we thought the food was absolutely delicious, and it is obvious from the local clientele and regulars, that they all think the same. So with plenty of parking, very friendly and helpful staff and wallet-friendly prices, if you’re ever in the wilds of North Lincolnshire, and you’ve got time on your hands, the Haven Inn at Barrow Haven is, in our opinion, definitely worth a visit.

Tip: Check out the menu for ‘Specials’ nights on their website.

dining · Food · Lifestyle

Stokes High Bridge Cafe

In the centre of the beautiful Medieval city of Lincoln lies a gem from the past. The home of Stokes High Bridge Café, built over the River Witham circa 1160, is the only Medieval bridge in England with houses still upon it.

High Bridge Café, overlooks the bustling High Street at the front and the River Witham at the rear. It offers two fully licensed dining rooms and serves traditional home cooked food, light meals and snacks as well as Stokes’ famous teas and freshly roasted coffee.

We sneaked into this popular cafe shortly before closing time and were lucky enough to find a table between the tourists and the students. When we entered it felt like stepping back in time to a more genteel way of life, with the aromas of freshly brewed coffee and enticing food. The Tudor beams and the crisp, uniformed staff invoking a feeling of luxury and a time to relax and step away from the fast pace of twenty first century life rushing past outside.

There is a vast range of tea and coffee to choose from. More than thirty loose leaf teas and a splendid selection of single origin coffee beans and blends. Or choose a smooth and creamy cappuccino or filter coffee to accompany your freshly made salad, sandwich, cake or cream tea. Sit outside and watch the world go by.

No need to book, but, as a victim of its own success it can get busy. Still worth a visit just for the experience.

dining · Food · Lifestyle

Lunch at No. 3

There are mixed reviews about No.3 Gin Club and Kitchen in the centre of Hessle near Hull. We have been a number of times and have had a different experience each time. So choose your day and time to visit depending on what kind of experience you are hoping for. As many have commented, it can’t quite make up its mind what it wants to be. And it’s trying too hard to be all three: a music venue; a rowdy, boisterous, bellowing 18-25 drinking den; a restaurant. And it does all three well – but not together. [See ‘Are my ears deceiving me’ previous post.] This place is one big open plan room with very high ceilings and wooden flooring. It’s built for crowd drinking but with an area to eat in.

We chanced mid-afternoon on a Friday which seemed ideal for a meal with family and friends and without the crowds. On entering the premises we found the decor a bit drab and crying out for a face lift; a bit like a theatre in the daylight. But like any theatre, put on the bright lights at night and it morphs into life. Maybe, it was the calm before the storm as Friday night, in contrast, is more for a pre-night out meal in semi darkness with loud music and spirited shouting, or simply just for drinking.

So, back to the meal. The extensive drinks menu includes every variant on the gin theme that you can imagine (at a price!). But we decided to treat ourselves to cocktails today. If you fancy a cocktail that isn’t on the menu they will make it for you, just ask. What we noticed straight away was a lack of staff. Maybe it was shift change, and we did get served, so fair enough.

A quick glance at the menu and we chose our old favourite, the seafood platter. This is always a winner at No. 3. The food was served quick and hot. So was there anything to moan about? The only thing was, it was like a banquet! Huge! Way too much much for two people, in our opinion. Ten scallops, eight big portions of fish in batter, eight massive prawns in shells, prawns in rose marie sauce, a big bowl of mussels, etc.. With half a loaf of bread, vegetables, and enough salad to feed six vegetarians we duly tucked in. Was it good? You bet it was! Delicious and perfectly cooked. Fantastic pearly-white fish, amazing seasonings and a host of oils and dips. But, I can assure you, I’ll not eat another prawn for a few weeks. And because of the mountain of food it was inevitable that we had to eat the occasional cold scallop and fish. Food quality 10/10. Quantity 11/10.

Friday Fish Feast

The main menu has something for everyone, from a fish finger sandwich or vegeburger at lunchtime, to Rib-eye steak or duck in the evening. There is also a vege, meat or fish sharing board for £29, which is what we chose.

Do we recommend it? A big fat ‘yes’! But go at the right time to suit your age, temperament and your expectations. I’ve been in the evening with young people well used to drinking copiously and partying, and left because we were just unable to communicate. It was an assault on the ears. Even the waitress on that evening found it difficult to take our orders because of the din. And then the music starts! So, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

Give it a whirl. I’ll go again, when the time is right.

dining · Food · Lifestyle

Are My Ears Deceiving Me?

Is it me or are restaurants getting noisier? OK, I’m getting older and less understanding of modern life. That’s a fact! But I’m not alone in my fears over the advent of maximum decibels in public places. Others are beginning to notice and comment too. Especially in restaurants.

People, especially the young, are encouraged to make noise. You only have to watch TV to notice how ‘live’ audiences are whipped into a maniacal frenzy of whooping and whistling upon hearing some celebs mediocre comment, by over-zealous, flapping floor managers on TV shows. Now, I’m constantly noticing obnoxious people in public places who seem to want to talk and laugh louder than anyone else in our look-at-us culture. It becomes competitive. This causes a domino effect because others then have to take part and shout even louder just to be heard. So, is it society that’s to blame?

Or should restaurants themselves shoulder some of the responsibility? Well, you never hear incessant babble when fine dining in their tranquil surroundings, that’s for sure. Why? Next time you’re eating out, study the different decors.

And suddenly you notice. In ‘fine dining’ you have opulence, plush carpets, luxurious drapes and simple things such as table cloths. The walls are thick and the furniture is solid and padded. It deadens noise.

Compare that to our modern restaurant decor; high, exposed ceilings, and almost no soft goods, such as drapes, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the modern designer eye, but unfortunately a nightmare for the ears. The absent soft furnishings and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.
The result is a loud, echoing space that renders speech unintelligible. Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. And that’s bad for your health. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

So who do we blame? Architects? The avant-garde interior designers? Fashion? Yes, to all those, but spare a thought for the restaurateurs. Think of the nitty-gritty practicalities of running a modern business. Cheap furniture that is easy to wipe down and replace. No table linen or soft furnishings to wash. Cold tile floors and composite decorations that are easy to mop and disinfect. They are functional. The interior is planned out on computer software so that every centimeter of floor space is utilised – so you, the customer, can be crammed in and profits duly maximised.

There is one more interesting theory that has been cited. It is that of the space/rental formula i.e. how much a customer is willing to pay x for how long. Yes, even that has been worked out and timed to the minute. A restaurant does not want you, the customer, to overstay your welcome. (This vulgar formula is rarely used in the world of fine dining). You and your friend, sitting there talking over your coffees, are no longer paying for your space. You should get you coat on, clear off and let other paying punters in. It’s as plain as that. Once you’ve eaten and paid, you’re of no more use.

So, loud music and noisy customers are encouraged, and suddenly it becomes very hard to hold a conversation with the person sitting directly opposite you at a table. Some restaurateurs feel a ‘livelier’ atmosphere encourages more patrons, but a side ‘benefit’ is quicker table turnover, thus maximizing the number of people who could dine in a given evening.

So there you are. Noise is here to stay in the average conventional restaurant, whether you like it or not. Pardon? Say again?

dining · Food · Lifestyle

Chamas Rodizio

Located in the historic East Riding market town of Beverley, Chamas Rodizio claims to be a ‘true Brazilian gaucho experience’.

Firstly, if you are planning to visit Chamas it’s worth noting that there is no parking at all. The nearest public car park is quite a walk away as well, and being a Saturday on our visit, the bustling market filled the usual nearer car park. This may prove difficult for anyone with impaired mobility as might the stacked chairs limiting access to the toilets.

We were taken to a table in the corner which we found to be a bit of a squeeze. The floor was littered with remnants of food left by its last occupants, but to be fair someone came and swept it clean when asked.

So the idea here is that you help yourself to the extensive buffet. Everything is clearly labelled, and both hot and cold Brazilian dishes are available. There is something for everyone and it’s all delicious. Even though you may be tempted to try everything on offer, my advice is, pace yourself. You can return for more at any time.

When you are ready the waiters will bring skewers of spit roasted meats and carve them at your table. At lunchtime the meats include; steak, garlic steak and steak with cheese, marinated chicken, pork, gammon, sausage and minted lamb. Just say if you prefer your meat’well done’ and some will arrive. On our table the lamb was voted best by far. As long as your token is green, the meat will keep coming.

On a personal note, I chose the salmon option. Whoops! Should have stuck to the salad. I can honestly say that it was the worst salmon I have ever had. It was bone dry and tasteless. There is a vegetarian and vegan option but really it’s the meats that are the star attraction here.

In addition we were also served some hot, cheesy garlic bread, chips and to finish, juicy, cinnamon coated pineapple, which was also cooked on the spit. I could have eaten more of this!

When you’re stuffed, I mean finished, just turn your token over to the red side and the waiters will know not to bring anything else.

Chamas is very popular and you need to book. What you book is not a table for as long as you want, but a two hour slot. Someone will come and give you a thirty minute ‘warning’ for when your time is up. This is not a deterrent however, as there were plenty of happy diners making plenty of noise. Overall for £15.99 each at lunchtime we think, for carnivores, Chamas is well worth a visit.

Food · Lifestyle

The great British dish

Often wondered what our cousins from around the world think about Fish and Chips. The UK itself is now a cosmopolitan world and a myriad of different cultures and eating habits. How do the ‘new’ British settlers view our deep-fried delight, and is it still our national dish? And where did the dish originate? Well, long, long ago, back in the mists of time… Zzz

Actually, not that long ago. It all started in around 1860-ish. Our country was thriving and dripping in money, give or take a few million ordinary labourers who were still starving and unhelpfully dying of cholera, lung disease and leprosy etc. But apart from them, we had what we now call, on reflection, the Industrial Revolution. It was amazing! The poor were given jobs and mostly died for the cause. Well done to the destitute. You’ll always be remembered for your contribution. Erm… anyway… steam power and the railways opened up the country, and both people and fresh food such as fish were on the move and delivered to all parts of the country including the cities. But back to Fish and Chips.

So who invented them? As per usual there is continuing debate, but it was pretty much a draw between the Londoners and the North. As immigration gathered place, it is thought that the dish of fried fish was brought to our country by the Spanish and the Portuguese. That rich old social reformer, Charles Dickens actually mentions fried fish sold in restaurants in his novel, Oliver Twist. A Jewish immigrant called Joseph Malin is credited with selling the first actual dish of fish and chips. But where do chips come from, I hear you ask? Supposedly from France and Belgium is the answer. Fish and chips were cheap, became the staple diet of the industrial north and a huge relief from the drab starvation diet of the masses.

Skip a few years and we find that the fish and chip shops of Britain had flourished to the point where, in the 1940s this humble culinary masterpiece, wrapped in newspaper, was being queued for along the streets. Did you know that, during the war, fish and chips were one of the few foods not to be rationed during these austere times. The American soldiers came over, won the war, won our womenfolk and pinched our fish and chips. Except they refused to call them chips seeing as a chip in the states is a crisp. So they got fish and ‘fries’. Weird or what?

Don’t tell me I don’t teach you nothing!

There are still many questions unanswered. Why ‘mushy’ peas with fish and chips? Why are they best with a slice of bread and butter? Why salt and vinegar? Why do Southerners insist on calling it a fish shop when we Northerners call it a chip shop or ‘chippie’? Why do Southerners insist on calling it a fish supper? Anybody got any answers?

What’s that all about then? Nine chips in a stack…

… or in a basket? What?

Thin chips? T-h-i-n chips? Do me a favour!

Yes, that’s more like it! An ‘original’ dollop of mushy peas!

In the 90s and ‘noughties’ there was only one way for our national dish to go. All those pretentious TV foodies who ran out of ideas, and media health fascists (where would we be without them?) decided to try and ‘posh’ things up a bit. So now, in restaurants, we have to have big square cut chips, stacked into squares of nine on the edge of our plates, or stacked in a silly little metal basket. And ‘thin-cut chips! Thanks USA! Now they’re fried in vegetable oil, not lard. And don’t mention the tartar sauce! (I said not to mention it!). And suddenly you end up paying twice the price.

Of course, to be fair, we can no longer eat our chips out of newspaper for health reasons, but the original dish remains the best. On a cold, winter’s day, with steamed-up windows, and spots of rain falling, it’s time to pass the salt and vinegar, a steaming mug of tea and a proper plate of fish and chips. Lovely!

Lifestyle

When will we ever learn?

Received a big mystery parcel a couple of days ago. Wondered what surprise was in it?

Opened ALL THIS packaging, to find…

…my very small products , and free gift (very nice), from Clinique via Debenhams.

Just wondered why all this packaging?

Surely not necessary. And with all the media coverage about recycling, plastic and saving the planet, I think not!

I’m not fooled into thinking I’m getting more for my money just because it comes in a big box. Come on big companies, get your act together.

What do you think?

dining · Food · Lifestyle

Loving San Pietro in Scunthorpe

Having heard various mixed reports of late about this restaurant, we felt it time to check the place out once more. OK, it’s not what you’d call budget. Far from it! And maybe for the most of us it’s best kept as a place of special celebration. We knew it was going to sting financially so, is it worth a visit?

In a word, yes.

This award-winning restaurant and hotel, run by Sicilian-born chef Pietro Catalano, is housed in a unique former windmill and offers fine dining and a touch of class.

San Pietro advertised a fabulous seven course tasting menu including a full vegetarian choice. The trouble with these tasting menus is that you get whatever the chef gives you (like goat’s cheese – one for, one against), but it should be a real experience for the adventurous. You get to try things that you may not usually choose.

Starting with a glass of pink fizz and the seemingly customary roasted garlic, olive oil and a cube of ‘special’ bread, we began on the food marathon of culinary delights. Here goes…

Roast tomato veloute with red chilli pesto followed by burnt (on purpose!!!) goats cheese with red wine poached pears, hazelnut and watercress. Then it was time for scallops, artichoke, prosciutto, and truffle. Chicken tortellioni, sweetcorn veloute, pine nut and basil oil. Then monk fish in black ash (yep, black ash!) and beetroot. My favourite was the delicious Chateaubriand; cooked to my liking and carved at the table, and served with potato terrine, fois gras snow, mushrooms and spinach. The vege main; aubergine parmegiana, fried tomato and mozzarella gnocchi and pasta crisp, was a tasty alternative but in my opinion could have been a bit more of a generous portion. Just as I was recovering, out came a pina colada palette cleanser, followed by a very tasty white and dark chocolate mousse with sorbet and passion fruit. Last but not least came coffee with gorgeous homemade chocolates. The wine went down a treat.

And a quick mention in praise of the full alternative vege menu. Fantastic food from the amazing Pietro, and for a pleasant change in restaurants I’ve visited, not just an afterthought.

So, what wasn’t quite so amazing? On entering we were welcomed by an English lady who poured out our fizz. So far, so good. But then someone, presumably the sommelier, hurriedly gave us the menus and the wine list, and within a couple of minutes was asked if we’d chosen the wine yet. We felt we were being a bit rushed. Yes, sounds a bit snowflakey, however, after being led to our table, Mr. Grumpy asked us for our wine choice again and I asked for another two minutes to decide. Within the two minutes he was back again, before we’d even had a chance to peruse the contents, looking anything but happy, and pretty much demanded our choice. With smiles and apologies from us we quickly chose a bottle of their rose house wine. No thanks from him as Morose Mario walked away, returned, poured and disappeared.

We were looked after by a young (and presumably) Italian waiter who was cheerful, personable and pleasant. Offering humour and just the right amount of conversation to not be intrusive, he introduced the dishes and asked for feedback. However, the occasional dish was delivered to our table by another mature staff member who refused any conversation, with no eye contact and then ignored us. Other dishes were delivered by an attentive female staff member who made up for any ill feeling. I don’t know, but maybe it was a bit of a culture clash; the two mature staff nearly spoiling the whole San Pietro experience. Did we complain, you may ask? Well, considering Pietro hails from Sicily, (Mafiosa, etc.) we thought better of it! We didn’t want to wake up with a horses head on the pillow.

It is unfortunate that the San Pietro restaurant is not in the best of locations and the popularity of the restaurant means car parking is not great. But if you can find a parking space, close your eyes to the drab surroundings of the general area and immerse yourself in the beautiful interior of the restaurant, then Pietro’s eating experience is a must. Be prepared to give your bank card a bit of a hammering!

Lifestyle

Hot dog, anybody?

Juno came to visit us today. Thought it was worth a mention…

Isn’t she cute? It’s Juno’s first day away from mummy but you wouldn’t know it. At eight weeks old Juno is inquisitive and confident. She knows where the treats are kept and where to go poop. After playtime, cuddles and learning how to ‘sit!’, she has a well earned nap before going on a long car ride to her new forever home with Ben and Laura.

Right, that’s enough cuteness for today thank you.