Afternoon Tea At Memoirs

Tea is served! Full afternoon tea at Memoirs Colchester, with a Botanical Royal accompaniment

I’ve been meaning to check out Memoirs for some time- the now not-quite-new conversion of the old library in Colchester town hall into a fine dining restaurant. This was the first of several moves from the town hall to make more commercial use of the space there including The Cells in the old magistrates dungeons below and the new addition of The Courts upstairs (where I shall hopefully fill my Town Hall trilogy of bloggings before Christmas).

Where The Cells and The Courts are a more casual affair offering plenty of fried stuff and drinks deals, Memoirs is pitching to a very different audience and boasts one of only three Michelin listings for the town. Once used for weddings and civil ceremonies, it is an absolutely beautiful space, airy and high ceilinged with décor in gold and cream that pulls off being luxe without feeling too over done or cheesy. An impressive bar with a distinctly 30s feel marks a shiny focal point beneath an ornate window which fills the space with natural light during the day. It is a very pretty, fresh space befitting the menu and the level of punter they are trying to attract.

My call to eat out on a higher budget doesn’t come so often in Colchester these days, and on those occasions of late that it has I have found myself deferring to Greyfriars up the road or Church St Tavern down the road and round the corner but I finally made a visit in October to take the bestie for a birthday treat. Their day to day menu is modern, offering plenty of classics with a twist and solid meat and fish options, daily specials and the geographically expected oysters. Check out their website for full menus and some surprisingly good value set menus that I can’t comment on because we went for afternoon tea.

Scone, cream, jam, in that order!

Afternoon tea has always struck me as a hard balance to hit- splitting that massive pile of mid PM carbohydrates into the right amount of sweet, savoury and cheese covered is not an easy task, especially if one needs to function as a human being later on in the day without feeling both bloatingly nauseous and hungry again by five. But on the other hand, it’s nice isn’t it? We all like cake and it’s a bit of a treat to argue over the cream and jam order for your scones (cream then jam BTW) and eat off the pretty little stack of plates like some kind of delicately bouffanted Jane Austen character. If you’ve not met my companion or I, I can assure you that is exactly what we are like…..

So it was a treat, it was the afternoon and we both like a bit of cake so we went for afternoon tea. And what an afternoon tea. Due to a midweek 2pm sitting the choice of table was unrestricted as we were the only ones in there however the service was friendly and the space so comfortable that we were gassing away and enjoying ourselves pretty quickly without the need for provided atmosphere. If you’re planning on a first date here however, you might want to stray into their busier hours. Despite the lack of rush on the staff there, I should mention that the service was impeccable and hit a wonderful balance of being both relaxed and efficient without becoming the slightest bit snooty which is something I rarely experience. Top marks there.
Starters came in flutes with the inevitable fizzy upgrade which then became fizzy cocktail upgrades. If you are boozy lady (or gentleman over the age of 18) who lunches I would steer you towards their Botanical Royal- a prosecco base spiked with a mystery house ‘botanical’ infusion which is a wonderful bright lilac in colour and I’m damned if I can tell you what is in it but the finish is smooth and distinctly floral. 

Tea components change with demand but we were treated to some well executed though not desperately noteworthy sandwiches which can pass with only the comment that they didn’t scrimp on the fillings.

Next up two scones which get double points for being both huge and delicious. One fruit, one plain with some kind of very crunchy sweet glaze, served with a good amount of clotted cream and the compulsory tiptree jam pots on the side. Marvellous.

The top tier

The top tier seemed mildly underwhelming at first holding banana bread, a little pile of saucy berries with a single meringue going as ‘eton mess’, a potted cheesecake and a small triangle of something chocolatey and evil looking. In a world of gold velour seats and penguin suited barmen, this wasn’t quite the display that one might have expected other than the delicately placed violet flower in the middle of this humble offering. I say humble, it wasn’t really once you got down to the eating- for style must never come before substance in the world of posh grub. I’m a bit of a snob about banana bread and can say that I would sell limbs to be able to recreate my own quite as well as they did, add in a major vital organ for the ability to actually present it in an even slightly aesthetically pleasing way as they managed to in a sneakily cut duo with a topping of fresh sliced ‘nana that was by some kind of sorcery neither slimy nor brown. Intrigue. Saucy berries and meringue thing were fine, passionfruit cheesecake was bordering the sickly-over sweet realms but balanced with odd punctuations of crunchiness which I’m still considering the merits of. Micro basil addition was inspired, however. But the then there was the little triangle of something chocolatey and evil.

 

Well.

 

Bravo, Memoirs. That dark point of tart was a miniscule culinary victory of overt rich chocolatelyness complimented perfectly by a crunchy base, Bestie described it as like a slice of the best chocolate truffle she’d had. I could have cried into my earl grey. Many people might say that you only needed a tiny piece as it was so densely flavoured but to be honest those are the kind of people I could probably eat as well as an entire chocolate tart, however along with the rest of the tea it was an ample serving. Satisfied? We were both merrily stuffed and outwardly ashamed of ourselves and I have to say I felt no need to eat again for the remainder of the day until some pre-bed martini soak up toast was required but that is another post in itself, for another time.

The view from the table, nice bar, nice chairs, nice all round.

Afternoon tea is by pre-booking only at £18.85- £23.95 per head depending on alcoholic add ons, and is well worth the money for a fine afternoon treat.

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MEATOPIA

20140906_120819Meatopia: Periodic gathering of carnivorous foodies and trendies to have a massive BBQ manned by the current favourite chefs on the scene.

Born in concept across the pond, Meatopia made it’s UK début at Tobacco Dock in Wapping last year to the simple promise of high quality, ethically sourced meat cooked on an open flame. They encourage consumption from ‘toe to tail’ and give a showcase opportunity for some of the best eating around plus craft beers, booze and tid bits in their tasting room as well as subtle but consistent plugs throughout the day for various sponsors- 2014 including Sailor Jerry’s and our heroes at Maldon Sea Salt. The sequel happened over 6th & 7th September this year and I made it along with the boy, the other boy and his missus for Old Skool Saturday and a fantastic time was had by all.

Make no mistake, there is a LOT of meat, prepped up into handy street food sized portions to be lined up for and taken in exchange for your Meat Buck (a bit like disney dollars, buy online in advance for a miniscule discount). You can then ram the whole delicious bundle into your face before running to the next stop or, if you have need to be all hoity toity and civilised you can take a nice, gentle stroll and nosh away whilst contemplating your next move to the varied soundtrack and constant smellalong of burning wood and sizzling meaty goodness.

Entertainment between BBQ visits

Entertainment between BBQ visits

Perhaps pause to enjoy a brass band covering Rick Astley and Dolly Parton or a hammy cock-er-ney piano sing along in the main bar while you savour a rum heavy cocktail- I still need to know exactly who was dishing out the bloody mary looking thing with a crispy bacon rasher along side the celery stick. If you need a harder beverage head below to Dickies where you can have shots of bourbon or upgrade to the modern miracle that is the Pickleback (as previously discovered here). Then onwards and upwards to taste small batch craft beers and ciders and wines (oh my) in the tasting room or out onto the decks to enjoy some belting tunes from the DJ Ship and a little breathing space for your belly.

Yes, there is plenty of entertainment and places to sit down and t-shirts to buy and even a nice little indie coffee stand but let’s get to the meat. If only we could have made it to all of the meat! For there were some 20 odd options with sliders, chilli and bacon pretty high on the recurrent themes plus the pretty amazing sight of a whole Ox on the spitroast but sadly only for the cooking and not for the eating on the day of my visit. The decision of what to go for was a struggle to start and something akin to Sophie’s Choice come the end of the day and the final meat buck. The one thing I was sold on before arrival was the Double Smoked Cheddar Dog from the lovely folks at Shake Shack. Due to our early arrival the crowds were low and this was my first stop. Whilst the queues were common and in some cases comically long (I’m talking to you, Beau Myers) the less busy stands certainly weren’t offering any less yummies and in most cases the masters of flame were amicable and happy to have a little chat whilst dishing up your morsels and this was certainly the case here.  Despite the abundance of queues the whole day really is very, very American what with all the bourbon and baseball caps and just being so bloody friendly to everyone despite sweating and slaving away over an open flame. It was a welcome change for this Brit though and great to have a chance to speak to some folks behind the new buzz names that I’d only heard of and mentally salivated over, and don’t anticipate seeing again regularly due to living outside of the M25. Maybe don’t ask them how they came to be on the bill though, because they don’t seem to like discussing the terms or invitation of an appearance here. The first rule of Meat Club perhaps.

We’re going to get photo heavy now and check out the good stuff.

Shake Shack Meatopia Double Smoked Cheddar Dog. This was my first dish of the day and oh so seriously almost winner of Boomboom Favourite. A delicious hotdog wrapped in bacon, soft white bun and smothering of spicy tomato and peper and smoke garlic sauce thing with cheese finish. I. Love. Hotdogs. And I love this, perfect starter with a bottle of Crate Cider, also highly recommended. Point too to the Shake Shack dude dishing them out and how lovely and chatty he was.

Shake Shack Meatopia Double Smoked Cheddar Dog. This was my first dish of the day and oh so seriously almost winner of Boomboom Favourite. A delicious hotdog wrapped in bacon, soft white bun and smothering of spicy tomato and peper and smoked garlic sauce thing with cheese finish. I. Love. Hotdogs. And I love this, perfect starter with a bottle of Crate Cider, also highly recommended. Point too to the Shake Shack dude dishing them out and how lovely and chatty he was.

An espresso rubbed beef offering, consumed in double quick time by the boy. Wonderfully tender with a good rick sauce, though unconvinced on the farofa. What is farofa anyway?

An espresso rubbed beef offering, consumed in double quick time by the boy. Wonderfully tender with a good rich sauce, though unconvinced on the farofa. What is farofa anyway?

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Rummy beef rib with slaw. Very nice slaw indeed and a good lump of beef. I'd be thrilled to turn out something like this at home, they were there on both days doing the same dish.

Rummy beef rib with slaw. Very nice slaw indeed and a good lump of beef. I’d be thrilled to turn out something like this at home, they were there on both days doing the same dish.

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The Famous Breakfast club from Beau Myers: Beef, pork collar, cheese, cheerios. Possibly deservedly the longest line up of the day and the biggest punch packer as I needed a lengthy sit down after this one. It really did have cheerios in it. Thank you Boy for the pic x

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A brief breach in the meat to draw your attention to Crate brewery who were present in the tasting room and at the bar offering their blond, dark and cider bottles. My compatriots attest to the quality of the beers and I certainly recommend the cider. My Kerrie In Law can be quoted with ‘it smells like it should taste of appletise’, which is indeed the case- very dry, very apply and very easy to disappear in record time.  A little investigation shows up crate to be a great looking establishment in Hackney who do retail, wholesale and OH MY GOD THEY MAKE PIZZA TOO! Check them out at http://www.cratebrewery.com

Simple but perfectly executed spatchcock chicken with a very punchy sauce (mangoes in there maybe?) and whole bbqed spring onions. Exceptional and served by lovely man in red cap.

Simple but perfectly executed spatchcock chicken with a very punchy sauce (mangoes in there maybe?) and whole bbqed spring onions. Exceptional and served by lovely man in red cap.

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I could eat this every day and this was certainly my winning dish. Simply served, beautifully cooked goat tacos given a real wowzers factor from a fresh coriander heavy salsa verde, little bit of lime to cut through it. Perfect summer food and a little bit of theare watching them pull the whole goats from the BBQ. Bloody wonderful.

I could eat this every day and this Neil Rankin dish was hands down the Boomboom Favourite. Simply served, beautifully cooked goat tacos given real wowzers factor from a fresh, coriander heavy salsa verde, little bit of lime to cut through it. Perfect summer food and a little bit of theatre watching them pull the whole goats from the BBQ. Bloody wonderful.

Bone marrow curry as modelled by the other boy. An odd combination but incredibly tasty and loves the deep fried leaf garnish. Showing up the the no waste principle and much more appealing that the 'beef and pig bits' option.

Bone marrow curry from Burnt Ends Grill as modelled by the other boy. An odd combination but incredibly tasty and loved the deep fried leaf garnish. Showing up the the no waste principle and much more appealing than the ‘beef and pig bits’ option.

Final call smoked chicken with bourbon corn- a criminally hard decision with our final meatbuck. It won out over the Louisianna cut pork rib due to the already high level of red meat consumption throughout the day and my intrigue as to the corn. Plus, a much needed vegetable serving. It was pretty good and the BBQ sauce was lovely and rich without being too spice heavy. A nice little finish.

Final call was Dirty Bones Coke Smoked Chicken with bourbon corn- a criminally hard decision with our final meatbuck. It won out over the Louisianna cut pork rib due to the already high level of red meat consumption throughout the day and my intrigue as to the corn. Plus, a much needed vegetable serving. It was pretty good and the BBQ sauce was lovely and rich without being too spice heavy. A nice little finish.

Majority beverage of th20140906_165856e day and Vegetarian option was the wonderful Frontier Lager, an English beer from Fullers that I’ve not come across before. Great flavoursome stuff, not too fizzy and the perfect wash down for all that lovely meat, best enjoyed out on the terrace to the accompaniment of 70s DJ sounds and a bit of hazy sunshine. I must also make honourable photo free mentions to Korean pork belly from Judy Joo of Jin Joo which both boys devoured to lots of happy eaty noises and Hobo Coffee from Horsham for dishing out some fine hot drinks, maybe next year I’ll have room for an espresso martini. Not even the desserts were suitable for vegetarians and you can look up Mallowists if you like a big wobbly gourmet marshmallow once in a while- I vouch for the strawberry and basil.

So that was Meatopia, a fantastic and original event which stands out from so many other food festivals and flies the flag for just doing one thing, and doing it very well. Edible aspects aside the enjoyability of this day out also owes large amounts to an airy, well run venue which hasn’t sunk to the temptation to oversell, giving a fun and atmospherically busy experience rather than ramming in as many punters as possible to the inevitable overcrowding and ill tempers. No cross words, no impossible toilet queues, no shoving or grumps of any sort so maybe here I should also say a big thank you to those other attendees for contributing to a great day that we are all still talking about. But not too loudly because it still feels like a nicely kept secret and we don’t want any old riff raff turning up next time.

For more info on attending next year you can check out http://www.meatopia.co.uk or do the twitter thing with @meatopiaUK.

Thoughts on Galvin

20140615_141753Have you seen that advert for Sky on Demand? You know, where Idris Elba is in a spectacularly tight jumper and goes on about great TV that everyone else is going on about and you have to mutter a comedy grumpy ‘I aven’t seeyn it’? Well that advert is how I have felt for some time about the Galvin brothers and their little culinary empire. There was a dinner that clashed with a wedding a year or so ago, oh we went to Galvin. Ok, never heard of it. Oh it was fantastic was it?

Then there’s a great bit of dinner, where’d you get the recipe? Oh, the Galvin book. No, no I’ve not got it. What’d you get for Christmas? Oh dinner at Galvin. Not been there no. Everyone in the know seems to be reading, making and going to bloody Galvin apart from me. Not that I’m bitter or childish, I just wanted to know! A little hype is a good thing, it interests, it excites but for me too much hype destroys and irritates. I’ll get bored quickly and outraged into unjustified avoidance of anything I’ve heard too much about, especially if people insist that I will enjoy it. Well maybe I wont, just to show you! Anyway, around came Father’s Day and my lucky old man got to indulge in his annual treat of taking his wife and children out for a dinner that he pays for.
He is truly spoiled.
He is also a big fan of the Galvin Phenomenon and decided that we would all celebrate his general Dad skills at La Chapelle in Spitalfields. Oooh. Time to put all these shining reviews to the test, time to see if the hype is worth all the, er, hype and time to see if their famous signature Tart Tartin really is worth writing home about.

Fun fact, my elder sibling came second this year in the Pomme D’Or- an annual tart tartin contest run by the brothers Galvin. He’s met them and swapped selfies and pastry stories and everything, and I am in the corner saying No, I aven’t beeyn yet!

Outrage aside, lets get to the point. Actually first, let’s get everyone caught up: The Galvin set up is a family affair since 2005 headed up by the exotically named brothers Chris and Jeff. They have seven sites in all, most in London with two new spots in lovely Edinburgh. Cuisine is modern, French, and not shy of a Michelin Star. Their own mission statement is a desire to “offer high quality French cuisine, served in luxurious surroundings by warm, hospitable and professional front of house”. They also have a rather lovely looking book, Cook Book de Luxe.

Cut back to the action, it’s Father’s Day, it’s Sunday lunch and it’s La Chapelle, the third Galvin joint to open, situated behind a very unassuming doorway in Spitalfields. Cut to greeting from marvellous welcoming host staff who just managed to be smiley without being sickly. Cut to some quiet, slightly shabby live lounge room Jazz style band banging out unlikely cover versions in the bar. Cut to beautiful, high ceilinged space with ingeniously placed mirrors and resultingly fantastic light. Cut to the menu, let’s cut to the chase.

galvinTo start, a Dorset crab ‘lasagne’, which I was quite insistently guided to by my more experienced companions against my initial lean towards quail, I went with majority recommendation. It’s something of a signature dish, a beautifully light, almost mousse like crab stack served with some thin and silky pasta, pea shoots and sauce. Absolutely fantastic, I could have eaten three of them. The boy had the quail, it looked good but I stand by my choice.

To main, chateaubriand with some veggie bits and quail eggs, some truffley stuff too and two show stealing short rib nibblets. Outstanding. Melt in the mouth beef, gorgeously plated and just wonderful to consume. I just drooled a bit into my keyboard. I’m no stranger to good steak, and this went beyond it. Also nice to see if served in a single portion, a rarity in my experience for this cut, and a welcome one as we don’t always have someone who wants to share.

20140615_161541To dessert, to the inevitable Tart Tartin. Crispy, whisper away from overdone pastry, succulent apples, rich caramel, crème fraiche quenelle. Delightful as expected, but is is as good at Big Bros? I’m not sure I’ll ever tell. The other boy had a chocolate fondant affair which looked pretty amazing too. And if that wasn’t enough, in true French style you can expect some to die for petit fours with your double espresso, a lovely touch to round off things and ensure you leave without the merest space left in your tummy.

So the food gets a tick, as does the wine list. The swish building gets a tick. The shabby jazz cover band get a tick and the service, well. So often service is the great leveller between locations, and not just high end ones. I have recently sworn off ever visiting the best Chinese buffet in my home town due to the excessive levels of vileness of their staff, and will also avoid a certain Smithsfield venue in the future after suffering some pretty naff service on my last two outings there. Good food is one thing, poor treatment outweighs it but great staff make for a brilliant experience and the service at La Chapelle made for a really unrivalled afternoon. My list of positive adjectives runs dry for those guys. Immaculately turned out and unobtrusively attentive but happy to join in with a sigh and a chat when the old boy had to introduce the other boy, the tart making, Pomme d’Or running up boy (I’ve won stuff too you know, competition in a Brownie Guides Cornish Pasty contest is pretty fierce I can tell you). It could have been sycophantic and sickly, and if it isn’t genuine then it is acting of the highest regard from the entire team because they really made the afternoon special, and comfortable. I’m not naive enough to think they work for the warm fuzzy feeling of being good people alone, but plenty of hospitality staff aren’t that hospitable these days and at La Chapelle, their service really is something of an art form, making it stand out as a warm and welcoming experience so much less intimidating or icy than some of it’s Michelin peers. Mission accomplished, Chris & Jeff. Mission accomplished.

20140615_170915At the other end of the check list, it isn’t cheap, but you didn’t really expect it to be and there are set menus and whatnot for the thrifty minded. However my over riding conclusion from this outing is to tell you to damn the expense and go for it, because it’s a massive and worthy treat. You could even pick up a signed book at bargain rates as something to help keep you conscious all the way home on the train (thanks Dad for that!). Hardcore types could even treat themselves to a cheeky one for the road in Cafe a Vin just next door, but just the one. Especially if you have a busy Monday at work on the horizon. Yeah, that hurt.

 

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Eating Ypres and A Night At Old Tom’s

A cheeky Leffe Ruby with a view on the Menin Gate.

A cheeky Leffe Ruby with a view on the Menin Gate.

Anyone remember that old TV advert for trying new things that you previously thought were rubbish that you might actually like and one of the things they suggested was Belgium, depicted by a lone cow in a flat field giving a long and forlorn moo? No?
Well anyway I’ve been to Belgium a couple of times, visiting Brugge some years ago and Ypres just a week ago. There’s more than you think going on in Belgium, especially if you like good food and beer (and if you don’t you may well be in the wrong place). It is still pretty flat though, with quite a few cows.

The main cause of my second visit to Belgium was a late addition to my father’s 60th birthday celebrations to visit The Menin Gate and take a WWI Battlefield Tour. I wont go into this too much, but I would thoroughly recommend such trips to anyone with an interest in history, the military or frankly anyone who thinks that modern life is rubbish because you may need some of the perspective on this that the various memorials and museums in the Western Front areas of Belgium provide. And what better time to visit than on the brink of the 100 year memorial of the start of WWI, coming your way in just a few months in 2014? No, it’s not a knees up kind of celebration thing but when you are finished paying respects and improving your modern history knowledge there’s plenty of beer and good times to be had also.

So, Ypres or Ieper depending on your mother tongue; a little over an hour’s drive from either Brussels or Lille; a compact, well kept and gothic looking town that is in its entirety less than 95 years old due to being completely annihilated in the first world war. It was reconstructed faithfully when hostilities ceased and has an ordered and serious feel to it. The main market square is lined with many a chocolatier and eatery and drinkery and bakery. Brasseries, bakers and pubs, oh my! If I was considerably richer in time and money I could happily spend a lot of time eating in Ypres.

Caaaaaake in one of many impressive bakeries.

Caaaaaake in one of many impressive bakeries.

You will find the usual continental suspects if you want to eat at home- cheese shops and high end delis with some heart stopping patés on offer and the kind of airy, theatrical bakery that we would call artisan at home is standard issue. Try the Paris Bakery on the corner of the main square opposite the cloth hall for fruit bread loaves bigger than your head. As expected several chocolatiers are to be found in town and one rather majestic waffle shop which I very sadly only managed to inhale calories from on the way past. Stupid two day trip.

I’m not going to list all the shops, that would get dull quickly, I will just say that there is a plenty and said plenty is high quality too- though you may expect that quality as it’s not a comparatively cheap place to do anything. Not so fun Belgium fact- it has one of the highest tax rates going in the EU. Travelling Brits should expect to cough up a pretty penny for all consumables, but you can get your beer by the litre and Belgium is home to 800+ domestic brews so save some euros for the barman. It is also worth noting that a double mokka is nothing like the mocha you are used to from Pret or Costa or your preferred high st coffee agent.

20131010_192710From our flying visit, I can recommend two brasseries in Ypres if you find yourself there: De Founderie and Old Tom’s. I can’t really do justice to De Founderie without pictures of their fantastic and beautifully presented food, you need to go there to believe it but the best summary I can give is taken directly from Richard Holmes’ summary of all eating in Ypres as “a good dinner- French quality and German portions.”* I was thrilled by the presentation, comforted by the non invasive but friendly service and yummed out by some fabulous fish, so much so that I couldn’t manage a dessert. I know. Me turning down afters. So at 50-60 euros a head if you’re full on with wine (and why wouldn’t you be?) give De Founderie a go. I particularly recommend the ray special which was an enormous skate wing, perfectly cooked and simply served with some spuds and plenty of butter. Dad said good things about the steak too, and he tends to know about these things.

 

Old Tom’s is in the main market square adjacent to the Cloth Hall (which you really can’t miss) in a bank of restaurants and came recommended to us by Benoit who’s lodgings we were renting for our stay. You should find it fairly easily and it’s a short walk from the Menin Gate or the city walls. It’s very traditional and a little bit 70’s inside, but in a charming way. The staff are spectacularly friendly and tirelessly cheerful even when one bunch of bloody English tourists are rather obviously keeping them at work later than they would usually have to hang around. They have an impressive fish menu and boast eel as their house speciality though none of us ventured to try this as it would likely have meant sitting at a table separate from father who is not a fan to say the least. Starters sampled were some very fresh oysters for the boys and shrimp croquettes for the girls. The oysters were served plain but very fresh with only a lemon wedge for dressing. All were consumed without complaint. The croquettes were fantastic- crunchy on the outside with a hot, smooth filling rich with fresh prawns and plenty of pepper. Don’t be fooled by memories of grim oven cooked school dinner croquettes, these are really worth a go.

Mussels n Frites, a must-do Belgian dinner, with an old favourite french white. Perfect.

Mussels n Frites, a must-do Belgian dinner, with an old favourite french white. Perfect.

It  would have been rude to be in Belgium and not have a traditional mussels n frites supper, so we all went for variations on this theme. There were several sorts on offer- all huge pots of freshly cooked shell on mussels poached in cream or white wine or a curious sounding mix of white Belgian beer and curry. My brother had the curry mussels (on top of raw oysters, the man has guts of steel) and reported that they were quite wonderful. I went for the ‘Mussels Old Tom’ in which I could identify butter, cream, white wine, garlic and lots of celery tops along with some bonus cockles. Absolutely delicious, perfectly cooked and served with a big dish of hot frites with accompanying mayonnaise and ‘mussels sauce’ which seemed to be some kind of dijionaisse sauce with some cooked chopped mussels lurking within. Who cares what was in it, it was great on chips. Wash it all down with a good sancerre or a range of reds or beers on offer and you are in for a rather massive treat. Well satisfied and well stuffed and yes, there was no dessert for me this night either. Ooof. I did try a small corner of the old man’s waffles though which were beautifully light and tasty and served with gloriously twee lashings of whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Old Tom’s was a warm and satisfying experience I can’t find even the merest complaint about. A slightly more budget friendly option than De Founderie at 30-40 euros a head including excessive amounts of wine and a couple of desserts, with a homely atmosphere and such friendly staff please please please do give them a try if you are in town, maybe after your visit to hear the Last Post, still sounded at the Menin Gate every night at 8pm which is as much of a must do as a mussels dinner.

Should I go back to Ypres, which I feel I probably will, I will save space for waffles and look forwards to more chocolates and a fuller induction in beer at one of the comfy looking bars scattered around the place. It’s not a party town by any means, Ypres is understated, polite and casually well turned out though and a real treasure trove for the discerning consumer of all things delectable.

 

*From the foreword to The Western Front, available from BBC books.

Jamie Oliver’s Italian

Jamie Oliver.

Now there’s a bloke who raises a mixed opinion.

Yeah, he’s a bit of a nob with all the over affected Essex boyisms and unnecessary pounding of work surfaces and yes, his shows are often full of painfully scripted ‘friends and family’ who randomly turn up to devour and praise his makings but all appear to be TV actors mostly employed in Sainsburys adverts or the odd episode of Doctors.

However it’s been a long time since The Naked Chef and as well as my above listed misgivings Jamie has also opened a nice little earner of a restaurant that basically employs very naughty boys and gives them a chance at a vocational future that doesn’t involve getting kicked out of full time education. That’s nice. Who missed his one geezer campaign against the tendancy of this country to feed their children utter rot for lunch? That was a good bit of work too, no matter how much positive personal press he got out of it. Yes, he might be a slobbery gobbed oik but he got the Turkey Twizzler out of our schools and when you get right down to it, he tends to turn out very nice food indeed. More often than not it’s easy enough for the layman to prepare and not laden with too many exotic or unaffordable ingredients. So he’s kind of irritating, but he knows his stuff. I’m not sure if I like him or not.
My facebook brethren mirror my conflicted opinions on JO too as within minutes of asking the general opinion on his Italian style restaurants I was hit with two opinions of Go there! and For the love of God don’t go there! But we were in Norwich and had one treat meal left before heading for the train home and there it was on The Royal Arcade, Jamie Oliver’s Italian. It seemed rude not to give it a go.

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Overall, I’m glad we did. The JOI is a sort of chain I suppose, themed on well executed traditional Italian eating with ‘a twist’, or so the official gumph tells us. The restaurant itself is lovely, located at the Castle end of the Royal shopping Arcade in central Norwich. High ceilings, big windows, clean tiles and from my experience incredibly amiable staff. You can see the slaves at work in an almost open kitchen on the first floor, where we enjoyed a gloriously comfortable table by the windows with lovely deep arm chairs (a pleasant surprise as we booked for Sunday lunch roughly half an hour before turning up and half expected to be in the pack with all the San Pellegrino crates). There is a shameless amount of Jamie Oliver kitchen paraphernalia and cook books available for purchase, scattered at eye level throughout the main areas of the restaurant but it doesn’t look too out of place so it’s not too offensive. Neither is the ambience provided by a seriously Naked Chef era soundtrack playing throughout service, heavy on the Britpop and modrock which I enjoy but is not to everyone’s taste. And the loos are frankly marvellous, with tiny monochrome floor tiles and classic vintage looking Crapper toilets. Fab.

first serving of antipasti

first serving of antipasti

It’s not cheap, but not eyepoppingly expensive either unless you really try to hit the most expensive options for each course. The Mr and I opted for ‘Jamies Italian Feast’- a sharer style menu selling at fifteen quid a head. I was pleasantly surprised and Mr was bloody thrilled. It was served in two halves, first off a lovely long plank of antipasti and their freshly handmade foccacia which was beautifully light and moreish. The highlight here was the mozarella, dressed with chilli and mint but they were so tender and creamy, almost liquid in the centre a real joy to consume. There’s a lovely pink pepper dressed lettuce just off camera too which was pretty special. Once this was demolished, and demolish it we certainly did, we were given five minutes repose before round two.

round two, the hot stuff.

round two, the hot stuff.

Second up we had some spaghetti with a lovely rich tomato and aubergine sauce, local roast chicken with potatoes and more olives, a perfectly executed risotto primavera and a pile of polenta chips- which they are apparently famous for there. I can see why, they were bloody amazing and I will be researching how I might recreate these crunchy, not quite sweet bundles of deep fried parmesan dusted amazingness for my own excessive consumption at home. Good work.

We were told that this ‘feast’ sharer is a showcase of what JOI do best, sadly only available until six pm and not really representative of the menu as a whole so it’s difficult to call a full on review from this one sitting. Especially difficult when I’ve since spoken to several people who found the food a bit of a non event and the bill somewhat explosive.

Huh.

It’s not like I’m easily pleased in these matters, so it seems curious to me to hear this but each to their own, I have to say I thought the food was more than satisfactory and the price reasonable in respect to the quality of our lunch. I should maybe add that the Mr was hungry again an hour later, but that’s not a rare occurrence for him and we didn’t have any dessert.

To sum up, yes, I would recommend it and I would like to go back and sample the menu proper so as to regurgitate to my readers a review proper! But if you do happen by and have time to spare, give it a go and give the sharer feast platter thing a go, it really was nice. My only regret was not having a big fat glass of wine to go with it.

check out the offerings by clicking here

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Mersea Food Festival

The Mersea Vineyard and Brewery, picturesque home to the Mersea Food, Drink & Leisure Festival

The Mersea Vineyard and Brewery, picturesque home to the Mersea Food, Drink & Leisure Festival

It’s easy to get cynical about foodie events these days, particularly if one is restricted to public transport. In these parts, this pretty much leaves you to a few affairs in Castle Park and the Christmas market. I recently found out that most of the events around Colchester are organised by the same soulless money grabbing organisation which is why to be honest once you have seen the offerings once, you don’t necessarily need to return.

And yet hope springs eternal that one might enjoy a wander and find something new and not grossly overpriced among the little stands and cook outs, especially if it’s a nice day. So on 25th May, when invited by some friends who were making the journey across the strood to Mersea Island to try out a food festival at the Vineyards, I covered up all my cynicism, got some cash out and went along for the ride.

In all honesty, this rotary club run festival is something of a revelation in how events like this should be. For a start, there is no entry fee, however one is invited to support the Rotary Club in their organisational duties by purchasing some raffle tickets (it is also sponsored by the East Of England Co-operative Soc). One also has to give massive points for the lovely location at the island vineyards- yes an actual vineyard, in Essex!- although this effect might be lost if the gods of fruit and grain don’t bless you with a gloriously sunny day, as they did this year.
The 2013 festival hosted the expected foodie traders’ area with may unexpected traders therein. Unexpected as in new, as in not the usual mass produced, roll out the foodie types I’m used to seeing at this kind of event. In fact the only people I recognised were the lovely folk from Tess’s Cakes– a fantastic local outfit who can actually make nicely decorated cakes that don’t taste like glittery cardboard. So, there was cake, check that off the list, then while you’re there you can also mark the areas of chocolate, fudge, ice cream, wine and wonky label sauces as complete too.

Sausages from Wigborough Meats. They didn't make it to midnight.

Sausages from Wigborough Meats. They didn’t make it to midnight.

I have to take a moment to plug Wigborough Traditional Meats and their marvellous, succulent sausages. Well flavoured in lots of varieties not limited to pork and apricot, Toulouse, Old English, pork and leek, you get the idea. If you like some real bang in your banger try their spicy chorizo sausage- bloody fantastic.
I shall also make reference to Chocolate Planet, who I sadly can’t find a website for, but offer a great range of beautifully finished handmade chocolatey treats. Look out for them if you are local, the ladies on the stall were really friendly too. If there is one theme to this festival it might actually be that- it’s friendly. All the exhibitors were upbeat, chatty and keen to engage even if you weren’t standing around with your wallet hanging open. This is a atmosphere missing from Colchester Food & Drink Festival other food festivals I have been to. The craft area had a similar vibe, jovial without being pushy, it felt comfortable to browse things I had no intention of buying, which lead to more impulse buying that I would have intended up on arrival!

*insert appropriate meat joke here*

*insert appropriate meat joke here*

Past the traders then and on to lunch! A great array of hot, fresh food stands. As you would expect from Mersea there was plenty of fresh seafood and Mersea oysters available, plus curries, thai, a Man vs Food style hotwing challenge and just set a little way back the inevitable Bar Tent, selling Mersea brewed beers and wine from grapes grown on the very grounds you are about to drink it from. Now that is what local events should be about. It you’re not up for the busy, noisy or chairless dining experience then there is also a little indoor cafe just behind all the action, serving coffee, cakes and simple lunches with a nice comfy chair. You can also buy the Mersea wines and beers from here to take home.

Live demos in the co-op tent.

Live demos in the co-op tent.

There is provided a mixed soundtrack of the day from a great, rustic-effect lorry cab serving as the main stage. Rock n roll, local choirs doing ABBA covers, girls with guitars, your Dad singing wedding band favourites, you get the idea. Great fun. There was also some story telling going on for the small people and some belly dancing for the Dads and a cookery demo tent for those wishing to learn a thing or get a free taster.
If I have any complaints, they are minor, such as the total lack of accessibility by public transport to this event, though drivers are blessed with masses of on site parking. I might also urge the Co-op to rethink their MC in the cookery display tent. Dude was irritating, and pretty much out of keeping with the feel of the day by saying helpful things over the poor lad trying to demonstrate deep fried oysters such as ‘I wont have one, more a meat and two veg man I am’. Really?

 

The summary point for the day should be positive however, and to stress that there really was something for everyone here. Posh cakes, traditional stodgy kitchen favourites cakes, sweets, sausages, wine, cheese, posh fudge, traditional fudge, seafood, pad thai, burgers and hot wings and beer, oh my. Entertainment, inflatable area and story telling for the kids, really nice portaloos, cheap coffee and dogs welcome. If you’re local, or don’t mind a drive, you should check it out next year, info on their website www.mersea-fdl-festival.com and you can visit the vineyard for a coffee or some B&B or even to get married! It’s a lovely venue, click here to read all about it.

Well done Mersea, very well done indeed.

Eat Britain! Eat Tiptree Jam!


I’d be beyond remiss not to give a little shout out to Wilkin & Sons Tiptree Jam as we’re talking about local food marvels. Tiptree jam is manufactured at the Wilkin and Sons factory roughly ten miles from the spot I am typing this from, and it’s pretty famous in these parts. Now a trust run business, Wilkin & Sons have been banging out jams, sauces, preserves and marmalades since 1885 from the village of Tiptree in sunny Essex. Still under the eye of the original founder’s great grandson, this is a Great British Business thriving at home when other classic homegrown products are either scaling down or being sold to international companies such as the now Japanese owned Branston Pickle. So why are Wilkin & Sons still doing so well?

Simple.

Jam.

Who doesn’t like jam? Oh, yes you do you big fibber, and if you visit either the on site shop at the factory or their lovely website, I challenge you to go through their sticky repertoire and not find something you want. Ok so pedants may point out it’s not ALL jam, but this adds to the beauty of it. There’s jams, marmalades, lemon curd, ice creams, jellies, honey, savoury table sauces and chutneys, even a simply labelled jar of ‘Christmas’, it’s never ending! Ok, not quite never ending but it’s a fantastic selection and I am yet to meet a Tiptree product I didn’t like. I am still working my way through the entire list but favour in particular their lime marmalade and hot mango sauce. Their plain and simple strawberry jam is second to none, so wonderfully sticky and fruity, without being sickly, that I’ve never felt the need to upgrade to their champagne version. But never say never.

My latest Tiptree haul, all for less than a fiver. Bargain.

Ok fine, I hear you say, but it’s just jam! And sauce and marmalade and that. Why them? Well don’t take my word for it, ask HRH The Queen of England if you get the chance. The Royal table has had a standing order from Wilkin & Sons since 1911 and if it’s good enough for them, well.

But why settle with a jar of jam by mail order (or by hand from most grocers, country wide) when you can go to the factory yourself for the full experience! Sadly a factory tour isn’t available these days but as well as a gorgeous little shop full of reasonably priced (no, really) jams and jellies and spreads plus some artisan bakery products and other local wonder produce there is a delightful jam museum and the all important tea rooms. You can get refreshed with a selection of rather good teas or out and out stuffed with grub, right on the main site where all the products are made. Standard tea room fare is available in the form of sandwiches and baked potatoes but really, when in this particular Rome you need to be going for a full on afternoon tea of sandwiches and scones and butter and yes, you guessed it, JAM! All served in their signature mini jars, it’s just such a simple treat. I went there recently for a friend’s birthday lunch and am still deliriously happy to have been introduced to their Hot Gooseberry Chutney which makes the difference between a cheese sandwich and the best bloody cheese sandwich you ever laid tastebuds on. Heavenly.

You can read more about them by clicking here, including their farming, recipes, products and illustrious history. They are a great British success story, and don’t fight the sampling temptation, if nothing else grab yourself a jar of their strawberry or raspberry jam. Or the cherry one. Or the tawny marmalade. And some mango sauce. And you’re done. Once you’ve got some icecream too. Maybe some more jam.