12 reasons to visit your High Street Butcher

Last Christmas I wrote a blog about The Meat Crusade campaign to save the High Street Butcher and get quality British meat back on dinner tables. The last 12 months have seen the meat industry hitting the headlines more often than ever before, and for all the wrong reasons.

With the season of feasting approaching, The Meat Crusade and its loyal supporters are back and are telling the world why we should be making friends with our butcher. As one of few remaining reliable sources of quality meat, sourced from reputable British farmers, I think it’s time us shoppers showed our butcher friends some festive cheer for their valiant perseverance in the face of supermarkets. If we don’t use them, we will lose them – it’s as simple as that.

 

TV chef Brian Turner is a supporter of The Meat Crusade. He adds his support; “Your local butcher values your custom, and takes pleasure in providing you with exceptional tasting, quality meat to be enjoyed by the whole family. They source traceable meat from reputable farms, and have a wealth of knowledge on cooking various cuts that they are only too happy to share to ensure you have a roast to remember this Christmas.”
TV chef Brian Turner is a supporter of The Meat Crusade. He adds his support; “Your local butcher values your custom, and takes pleasure in providing you with exceptional tasting, quality meat to be enjoyed by the whole family. They source traceable meat from reputable farms, and have a wealth of knowledge on cooking various cuts that they are only too happy to share to ensure you have a roast to remember this Christmas.”

 

So when you’re planning your festive feast, consider The Meat Crusade’s 12 reasons to visit your Butcher this Christmas (and year round!):

 

  1. Full Traceability – a good butcher will know where his meat comes from and have a relationship with the farmer who supplies it.
  2. Something special – a butcher can offer you something bespoke. Not keen on turkey? He can prepare a stunning rib roast instead. He’s not preparing for a mass market, he’s there to serve you.
  3. Made to order – he’ll prepare cuts of meat to your requirements and mince meat to the quantity you specify.
  4. Just for you – he will order special things, given a bit of notice; game in season, an ox tongue, a goose, pig’s trotters or organic meat.
  5. Sausages – a good butcher makes a variety of his own sausages, from chipolatas, pigs in blankets to Cumberland, Lincolnshire, or Irish Breakfast. Often produced to well-guarded family recipe, and using quality ingredients, butchers sausages beat supermarket sausages hands down – and your butcher can tell you exactly what has gone into them.
  6. A good butcher makes a selection of the following (or stocks examples made by local artisan producers) – bacon, black pudding, faggots, pork pies and pasties, pates.
  7. Cooking tips – forget Delia, a good butcher will know how long to cook any roast or bird he sells.
  8. Advice – he will advise you on the right cuts for particular dishes, and point you to where cheap cuts shine.
  9. A warm welcome – a butcher will chat with you about your day, you won’t get that in the meat aisle of the supermarket.
  10. Questions are welcome – butchers are there to cut meat and offer a service.  Butchers love to talk shop.
  11. Regular customers do get special treatment – pop in often and you’ll get to know about special offers and different deliveries, including seasonal products like game.
  12. The butcher needs your custom – it’s a case of use them or lose them. Your High Street Butcher needs you to shop often and regularly.
12 reasons to visit your High Street Butcher

An Introduction to Wine Tasting – Yorkshire Wine School

Last week I went back to school – a school for grown-ups that is. I attended an introduction to wine tasting run by Yorkshire Wine School in the Radisson Hotel, Leeds. Considering that I work with wine, and consume a significant amount, I really know very little about how wine is actually produced and the significance of grape varieties and climates in different countries. Well I learnt more in 2 hours than I’ve learnt in years of drinking the stuff.

 

That’s thanks to Laura Kent who ran the event – she set up Yorkshire Wine School two years ago, with 15 years of experience in the wine industry, and now holds a variety of events around Leeds, York and further afield. Laura promises a fun and entertaining course in a relaxed and unpretentious atmospherewhich is just what we got, and we learnt a great deal too.

 

It all started with this question – which are the biggest wine producing countries in the world? Hmmm. There are the obvious European countries but which order, I wasn’t quite sure? So I pictured the supermarket shelf, usually selling countless bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or Australian or South African or Chilean or Argentinian wines – so surely they must be up there? Think again – these are the top 5 biggest wine producing countries in the world right now:

 

  1. Italy (approx. 50,000 hectare litres per year)
  2. France (extremely close behind Italy on production)
  3. Spain (approx. 40,000 hectare litres per year)
  4. USA (approx. 18,000 hectare litres per year – mostly Californian)
  5. China (I missed this, I wasn’t concentrating)

 

I won’t give you a full review of what I learnt – I don’t think Yorkshire Wine School would appreciate me giving everything away. Where’s the incentive to join a course then? But I wanted to share with you some of the things I found interesting.

 

  • The 3 key impacts on wine are the climate, the grape variety and the wine making technique i.e. oaked or un-oaked
  • The biggest wine producing regions generally sit between 30 – 50 degrees on both sides of the equator
  • The desired conditions for growing grapes is a resting period of cooler weather for the vines to conserve energy, followed by a long, slow ripening period over spring and summer for the grapes to ripen.
  • The sweetness or the acidity of the grapes is determined by the climate, as the sugar levels increase during the ripening stage and thus tend to be sweeter in very warm climates, and more acidic in cooler climates.

 

These are the six wines we sampled and a little bit about what I learnt:

 

Hunawhir Riesling, Alsace, 2012 (Latitude Wines, £10.99)
What did I learn?
Riesling is traditionally associated with sweet wines, however this was dry with a sharp acidity to it – this is due to the grapes growing in a cooler climate in the North and not over ripening. This wine wasn’t to my taste as I usually prefer flavours that fall into the ‘tropical fruit’ family.

Tasting notes from Yorkshire Wine School: This wine is from France’s driest wine producing region. In the warmth of the Alsace sun the grapes become fully ripe with lovely soft citrusy notes. It is an elegant, clean wine with lemon fruit flavours and a slightly mineral-note of slate and stone. Nearly all Alsace wines are made dry and this one is no exception, typically high acidity with a long refreshing finish. Great with simple shellfish dishes or grilled herby chicken.

 

Montana Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand 2013 (Widely available) £7-£10
What did I learn?
I happen to be a regular purchaser of this wine and it’s one of my trusty favourites. It contrasted with the sharpness of the previous wine because although it is still a dry wine, the more moderate climate enables the grapes to ripen more and become sweeter. It’s also packed full of tropical fruit flavours.

 

Tasting notes from Yorkshire Wine School: This is possibly the most popular white wine in the UK at the moment. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has taken off in a massive way in the last five years and you can see why. It has vibrant, lush, tropical aromas of passion fruit, green capsicum pepper, guava and gooseberry which make it very inviting. On the palate it is flavourful with citrus and herbaceous notes, an array of tropical fruit flavours which mirror the intensity of the aromas. Despite its very ripe, fruit driven qualities, it is actually a very dry, crisp wine which leaves you feeling refreshed; the balance of fruit flavour with a dry finish is one of the appealing characteristics of NZ Sauvignon Blanc. It is not a wine which requires food to match with it, but it works well with grilled goats’ cheese and roasted vegetables.

 

Glen Carlou Chardonnay, South Africa 2011 (Latitude Wines £11.99)
What did I learn?
Due to the hot climate this is a sweeter wine and the high sugar level converts into a high alcohol content. It is an “oaked” wine which means the wine has matured in oak barrels, which adds a weight, viscosity and softness to the wine. This is a more costly way of producing wines, and so you will normally pay a higher price for wines produced using this technique.

 

Tasting notes from Yorkshire Wine School: A cracking example of Chardonnay made in a similar style to the wines of Burgundy. On the nose and on the palate there are plenty of examples of the influence of oak; aromas of buttered toast, pastry, vanilla cream or biscuits. On the palate you can taste the soft peachy fruit of the Chardonnay and feel the rich, creamy texture which is given to the wine by the oak ageing. Ideal wine to partner roast pork stuffed with apples or peaches, with all the trimmings!

Campo Viejo Rioja, Gran Reserva, 2005 (Widely available, £15)
What did I learn?
Wines made in the Rioja region mainly use tempranillo grapes. There are 3 main types of Rioja to look out for;

Crianza – wines aged for at least 1 year in oak barrels
Reserva – aged for at least 3 years, which a minimum of 1 year in oak
Gran reserva – aged for at least 5 years with a minimum of 2 years in oak

 

Tasting notes from Yorkshire Wine School: The Spanish use the term ‘Reserva’ on a wine label to refer to a period of time, specified by law, spent maturing in oak. Gran Reserva Riojas have spent a minimum of 5 years ageing in bottles and in oak barrels and are therefore the most mature and oaky style of wine – the term does not imply quality per say, it is about maturity. In general only wines of the highest quality are considered worthy to mature in barrel for such a long period of time; but be aware – not everyone likes the mature, oaky style. The slightly brown tinge in the giveaway to the age of the wine, although in Gran Reserva terms this is still a relatively young wine. It has strong aromas of vanilla and chocolate from the oak ageing with a smooth, firm body. The tannins are strong but well integrated into the body of the wine – this process happens over time in the barrels. It is a complex blend of oak, spice, dried fruit and earthy savoury notes. A classic partner to lamb dishes.

 

Castello della Paneretta Chianti Classico Riserva, Italy, 2010 (Marks and Spencer, £13.99)
What did I learn?
Chianti is an area of Tuscany from which Chianti is produced. The boundaries of what started as a very small wine region were extended over years to incorporate further growers stretching toward the coast and further inland – the result of this was that there became a great variation in the quality of Chianti, as growers located too close to the sea breeze or further inland where conditions were warmer, didn’t produce the optimum grapes that came from the original boundaries of Chianti. For this reason the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium was founded in 1924 to protect wine produced in the oldest and most genuine Chianti region – so keep an eye out for the Classico reference on your Chianti bottle!

 

Tasting notes from Yorkshire Wine School: The word Classico is defined by Italian wine law, meaning that the grapes are grown in a delimited area which has historically defined the superior vineyard areas. The main grape in Chianti is Sangiovese which can produce robust and structured wines. This quality example showcases the profile of tannin in red wine. It has a bristly, slightly fur-like quality in the mouth which off-sets the soft cherry fruit. On the nose there is the aroma of mature, vegetal, gamey fruit. Tannins react well to salt in food, so top quality Chianti is an excellent choice for hard cheeses and cured meats.

 

Tapiz Reserva Malbec, Argentina, 2012 (Latitude Wines, £10.99)
What did I learn?
Not a great deal actually – I was too distracted with sampling the wine by this point and had just had a plate of cheese and meats presented in front of me. But I can tell you the Malbec was delightful – a very easy drinker and a crowd pleaser all round.

Tasting notes from Yorkshire Wine School: Big, bold and inky black in colour with heady aromas of violet, milk chocolate and bitter chocolate. On the palate there is plenty of clean, autumnal fruit backed up with a fine tannic structure and plenty of mocha spice from the small oak barrels. The wine has good acidity, but it is not as dominant in the wine as it is in the Chianti or even the Rioja; this Malbec has plenty of soft fruit such as blackberry or damson to balance the dryness. There is also a vanilla and liquorice spice which gives the finish a pleasant peppery note. Robust, but satisfyingly easy to drink and a great match with spicy beef empanadas.

 

 

An Introduction to Wine Tasting – Yorkshire Wine School

Ristorante O’Puledrone, Sorrento (you heard it here first!)

Marina Grande, Sorrento
Marina Grande, Sorrento

The old fishing village of Marina Grande in Sorrento is a hidden jewel, easily missed by travellers captivated by the heart of Sorrento; its main Piazza Torquato Tasso and Marina Piccola.

 

Those seeking solace from the bustle of tourists should take the 10 minute walk to Marina Grande, a working fishing port which has retained its rustic Italian charm. There’s a real sense of community with washing lines strewn from balconies and friends and families congregating by the beach.

 

View across the marina to a cafe over the sea (we didn't eat here but it looks idyllic)
View across the marina to a cafe over the sea (we didn’t eat here but it looks idyllic)

It was mid-May and out of season which will have played a part in the slower pace of Marina Grande. The beach front is made up of cafes and fish restaurants selling the day’s catch and we sat with a coffee watching the boats bob up and down peacefully. Routine everyday life was going on around us; the fishermen sat out in the sun untangling their nets from the morning’s work and a school class of children were guided hand in hand across the square.

 

Here I discovered the most incredible restaurant I’ve come across in long time and a pleasure I have to share with you. Ristorante O’Puledrone stands out from other restaurants on the marina – it is understated, a discreet stone building with barn Whiteboarddoors opening out onto the cobbled road, minimalist tables and chairs and a white board that read; “Fresh fish daily. This restaurant is owned by a group of fishermen. Please ask about today’s catch”.

 

It opened for the first time only five weeks ago and is a cooperative of 8 local fishermen who supply restaurants around the marina and nearby shops. The fishermen set sail at 5am each morning to fish off the Amalfi Coast, most commonly bringing home prawns, calamari, sardine, tuna, swordfish, clams and mussels, seabass and other white fish.

 

Mussels & SpaghettiGaetano, one of the fishermen in the cooperative, expressed that the industry has been suffering for up to five years and opening a cooperative restaurant, whilst it took 2 years to gain permission from the authorities, will help them to seek another form of income. When they bring the catch in each day their chef gets first pick of the fare before the remainder is sold elsewhere. This is literally the best fish in Sorrento.

 

Fried fish of the dayI ordered mussels with spaghetti and it was exquisite, tossed in garlic, tomatoes and chilli with huge juicy mussels. It sounds simple but it is quite possibly the tastiest simple I’ve ever eaten. Mum ordered fried fish of the day, a plate full of an unidentified white fish fried in a very light batter. It is a fish very common off these coasts, in between a sardine and whitebait. It might have a name, but the language barrier prevented us from getting to the bottom of it. Again, it was absolutely perfect.

 

The meal was very reasonably priced and the only discrepancy was mum and I debating whose meal was more delicious. If I have any regrets, it was discovering this place on the last day. I’d have done almost anything to take Gaetano up on the offer to join them at sea the next morning…

Ristorante O’Puledrone, Sorrento (you heard it here first!)

The Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey Estate

View from our room window
View from our room window

Only a 45 minute drive from my Yorkshire home, The Devonshire Arms is situated on the 30,000 acre Bolton Abbey Estate and is owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

We pulled up to a grand ivy covered property with immaculately maintained gardens standing in all its splendour. Greeted by a porch filled with green wellies and a roaring log fire, there’s nothing understated about the arrival (or the rest of the hotel for that matter). Magnificent paintings and antlers hang from the walls and the lounges are furnished with antiques, heavy draping curtains and sofas you sink into.

We were welcomed by a tour of the hotel before being showed to our room – a contrast to downstairs, the room was light with soft creams and pastels and a stunning view across the estate towards Bolton Abbey. The wall between the bedroom and bathroom featured a large glass window which caused much amusement but fortunately had sliding canvas doors for privacy.Room Window

A gentle stroll alongside the river leads to the ruins of Bolton Abbey. After weeks of dreary weather, we couldn’t have been luckier to spend the day in glorious sunshine and a blue cloudless sky.Bolton Abbey

The Burlington Restaurant is the highest rated restaurant in Yorkshire with a Michelin star and 4 AA rosettes and the Devonshire Brasserie and Bar is lively and vibrant and wouldn’t have been out of place in a city setting. Feeling like a more informal atmosphere, we opted for the brasserie for dinner.

We began with an aperitif of prosecco. Fortunately for me my partner had a change of tune and I began the evening with two glasses of prosecco. Perfect. The menu had just the right selection – not too many you’re stuck for choice and few enough to make you try something different.

GnocchiDan’s Wild Rabbit & Tomato Ragout with Pan Fried Potato Gnocchi and Pesto was light, well-seasoned and the meat was succulent and tasty. This contrasted with my heavier starter of Pan Fried Pigeon Breast with a rich accompaniment of Brussel Sprouts, Pancetta, Juniper Jus. WePigeon ate half and switched over, not wanting to miss out on either.

My pork fillet medallions were cooked very well, moist and tender and came with a Bacon & Apple Potato Rosti, Wild Mushrooms, Celeriac Puree and Thyme Jus. Dan’s Pan Fried VenisonVenison Haunch Steak came with creamy Dauphinoise Potatoes, Braised Red Cabbage and a sharp Blackberry Jus.

Portions were a healthy size without being overwhelming and we had just enough room to squeeze in a cheese board of Harrogate Blue, Gjetost (with a sweet caramel flavour and colour that could easily be confused with fudge), Livarot, Cooleeney, Wensleydale Special Reserve andPork Black Crowdie.

The Devonshire Arms prides itself on having “one of the finest wine lists in the country” and we were successful in wangling an envied tour of the hotel’s wine cellar courtesy of the lovely Ben. The list includes over 2,500 wines with the oldest vintage dating back to 1900. Whilst there are a number of reasonably priced bottles, the prices for the fine and the rare frequently reach 4 digits.

We retired to the interestingly themed “dog” lounge for cocktails after dinner, decorated with velvet dog print wallpaper, dog paintings and everything else dog related and reclined into another deep sofa with a very potent Apple Martini (seriously, that’ll put hairs on your chest!). The hotel is dog friendly and we had the company of 4 canine guests sprawled contentedly in front of a log fire.Dog Lounge

Breakfast the following morning was just what the doctor ordered. A Yorkshire fried breakfast and pot of tea in The Burlington Restaurant set us up for a work out in the hotel’s gym. The Health Barn consists of a small gym, swimming pool, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and cold plunge pool – I tried all bar the cold plunge (not that I’m a wuss or anything). There’s also a good range of spa treatments but book in advance, I left it a week before and both days were fully booked.

It was a wonderful few days and the perfect romantic getaways so fellas, get your hands in your pockets and whisk your lady away – http://www.thedevonshirearms.co.uk.

The Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey Estate

No17 Café & Restaurant, Milnthorpe

Usually when I’m home in the Lakes and eating out, I always opt for one of many excellent country pubs nestled around the countryside which I miss whilst living the city life in Leeds.

However over Christmas I decided to venture to Milnthorpe to sample the No17 Café & Restaurant, a relatively new spot which has fast gained a great reputation amongst locals. I was intrigued by the amount of positive comments I’d heard and, well, curiosity got the better of me.

Located on Park Road, opposite the new Booths supermarket, there is plenty of parking in a private car park behind the property (entered via public car park). From the road side, the building looks misleadingly small, and I was surprised to find two floors with ample dining space. The ‘L’ shaped layout means you aren’t exposed in one large open space and the tables are set in a more personal arrangement, making it harder to hear the domestic problems of the couple on the next table.

Since Milnthorpe isn’t known locally for its wild party scene (the opposite in fact), I was naively expecting the restaurant to reflect the sleepy market town it sits in. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The atmosphere was buzzing and vibrant and heaving with parties drinking in the bar area and full tables. I instantly congratulated myself for being obsessively organised and booking well in advance.

The restaurant is tastefully decorated with pale colours giving it a spacious and elegant feel. The café and bar area downstairs is relaxed and was buzzing with diners enjoying their pre & post dinner drinks. There is also a dining area upstairs for private functions.

On the website, the chef claims to use a mixture of local Cumbrian produce, rightly so given the beautiful produce growing and being produced on the doorstep, although the provenance wasn’t prominent on the menu.

Once seated, we did wait quite some time for our order to be taken, however it was shortly after Christmas and clearly very busy with parties dining out. After the slow start, the service was exceptional and the staff were just the right amount of attentive.

To start I had chilli, chickpea & feta fritters with curried mango & mint coleslaw. The creamy mango coleslaw was the perfect accompaniment to the dish, pacifying the spicy kick left behind by the chilli. The combination of textures between the fritter and coleslaw complemented each other well.

Fritters

Dan had chicken liver & foie gras parafait wrapped in serrano ham with pear & fig chutney & toasted brioche. It was indulgent, rich and velvety smooth whilst still having the firm texture that I prefer over a mousse-like density. Not that I was supposed to be the one eating it.

Parfait

For main, I went for roasted duck breast, confit leg spring roll, scalloped potatoes, beetroot puree, plum sauce & popcorn. The meat was succulent, flavoursome and tender. The fat was cooked perfectly to a crisp yet melting texture. The sharpness of the beetroot puree and sweetness of the plus sauce sliced through the richness of the duck beautifully. Unfortunately the potatoes let the dish down as they were dry and tough, almost like they’d been cooked long before and been kept warm. My only other comment is that the popcorn, while an interesting touch, was unnecessary.

Duck

Dan’s Lakeland venison steak came with fondant potato, honey & parsnip puree and charred leek with redcurrant & thyme sauce. Again, the venison was cooked beautifully, juicy and tender with rich, gamey flavours. Because of it being such a lean meat, venison can easily become dry (in the wrong hands i.e. mine) but this dish was wonderfully succulent, benefitting from being served quite rare. Again, the potatoes let the dish down as they were also very tough but that didn’t stop Dan from clearing the plate.

IMG_2202

Despite desperately willing there to be, there really wasn’t any room at all for dessert. So sadly dinner ended there with the promise that we’d return for dessert another time (and the rest). Overall, it was a very lovely evening.

No17 Café & Restaurant, Milnthorpe

Probably the most unusual Christmas Tree of 2012

With only 20 days to go until Christmas (not that I’m counting), the Christmas craze is definitely in full swing with Christmas trees popping up all over the place.

The fabulous Meat Tree outside of Hutchinson’s of Ripley Butchers. From left to right: Peter Buck, Owner and Master Butcher, and his Manager and Butcher, Nick Allen.
The fabulous Meat Tree outside of Hutchinson’s of Ripley Butchers. From left to right: Peter Buck, Owner and Master Butcher, and his Manager and Butcher, Nick Allen.

While most people are digging last year’s tinsel and baubles out of the attic, I found myself handling a whole new type of decoration altogether… those made from meat. That’s right, my tree was draped with garlands of chipolata sausage, streaky bacon tinsel, baubles of traditional faggots and black pudding rings and topped with a streaky bacon star.

 

Before you think it, no, I’m not going insane. No matter how much I love food, even I’m not crazy enough to spend the next 20 days with fresh meat products hanging from my tree.

 

My colleagues and I decorated the tree to raise awareness of a very special campaign, The Meat Crusade, which aims to save one of our national treasures, the High Street Butcher. In the mid 80s, there were approximately 22,000 high street butchers in Britain, in 2010, there were just 6,553. This is a very swift (and worrying) decline and by working with John Penny & Sons, a Yorkshire based farmers & meat wholesalers, we hope to get quality butchers’ meat back on British dinner tables.

 

So, what’s a meat tree got to do with this campaign? As the season of feasts approaches, The Meat Crusade is asking shoppers to support their butcher for life and not just for Christmas. Going to the butcher is a part of preparing for Christmas that we all enjoy. There’s something satisfying about buying a turkey, ham or rib roast that feels special and gives you confidence that your family is getting something of exceptional quality for their Christmas dinner.

 

Santa, erm, I mean Nick Allen, decorating the Meat Christmas Tree with garlands of chipolata sausage, streaky bacon tinsel, baubles of traditional faggots and black pudding rings and topped with streaky bacon star.
Santa, erm, I mean Nick Allen, decorating the Meat Christmas Tree with garlands of chipolata sausage, streaky bacon tinsel, baubles of traditional faggots and black pudding rings and topped with streaky bacon star.

The problem is that for many people, this is just a one off purchase. Once the Christmas festivities have passed, many shoppers return to the convenience of purchasing meat from the supermarket, along with their other groceries, and butchers become forgotten until next Christmas.

 

John Penny, the Yorkshire Farmer pioneering the campaign, explained to me; “We all flock to the butcher at Christmas because we want the best we can buy for our family. We forget we can buy the best from the local butcher all year round. Visiting a good butcher shouldn’t be a once a year occasion, it should be a once a week routine.”

 

“Butchers need your support now more than ever. If the decline continues, the High Street butcher will go the way of the fishmonger—only a handful of shops will remain and the art of butchery will be lost for generations.”

 

“That’s why The Meat Crusade wants shoppers to know that if we fail to support our butchers throughout the year, you might find that many won’t be able to open their doors next Christmas.”

 

I wanted to use my blog to make people aware of how serious the situation is facing many butchers and hope that, like me, you will also make a decision to purchase meat from a butcher all year round. In most cases, people don’t stop to think about the consequences our purchasing decisions have on the wider agricultural and meat industry.

 

It is us, the consumers, who have the power to change demand for products but if we don’t step up to do the right thing, very shortly our purchasing choices could contribute to the disappearance of our high street butchers altogether.

 

For more information about The Meat Crusade or a list of some of the top butchers in the country, visit the website for John Penny & Sons, which is http://www.johnpenny.co.uk/the-meat-crusade.html.

Probably the most unusual Christmas Tree of 2012

Gaucho, Leeds

I’m relieved to finally be updating my blog following a number of technical crises with my laptop (technology hates me) which have now been fixed… I hope.

I have also at last visited a restaurant I’ve been meaning to visit for a while now – Gaucho, an Argentinean steak restaurant in Leeds. Considering it is located near Greek Street, in the popular food quarter of Leeds, it’s barely visible situated below ground level. The only indicator is a very discreet menu fixed to the wall.

But Gaucho isn’t a restaurant that needs worry about being visible. It’s inconspicuous and understated exterior is a charming reminder that a place which is so well-known by word of mouth doesn’t need to be anything but subtle. Its reputation alone finds foodies hunting the place out.

However, the understated exterior isn’t reflected in the extravagant decor. Inside, the mood is dark and romantic. Retro cow print fur, white leather and huge chandeliers give a sultry boudoir feel to a restaurant filled with smartly dressed professionals. This is posh steak.

The wine menu is vast – it’s more like a brochure. We went for Argentinean in the spirit of the evening (plus it was one of the only wines in our price bracket) – Torrentes Michel Torino at £21.35. It came from Selección G, a series of wines made exclusively for Gaucho which allegedly represent the best of Argentina’s grape selection and terroir in their various regions of origin.

Our ‘hostess’ for the evening was pleasant but formal (personally, while I do prefer unobtrusive service, a smile now and again goes a long way). Prior to ordering, the hostess brought the raw cuts of meat to the table on a platter to describe the cuts, the weights and how they should be cooked. All steaks come in either 300g or 400g. I’ve learnt a lot about the various cuts of meat since I began working in the world of food and thought the act of explaining them to customers who may not know a great deal about how they differ was a nice touch.

I went for my preferred steak – ribeye – “delicately marbled throughout for superb, full-bodied flavour” as did a friend. We chose 300g at £20.50 which was more than big enough for us. Plus, there was no way that 400g steak was going to squeeze into my dress. My other friends chose rump – “the leanest cut with a pure, distinctive flavour” – at £17.95 for a 300g steak. It was without a doubt the most spectacular steak I’ve ever eaten. Tender and cooked to perfection, there’s certainly no need for a steak knife. There was a little mix up with the steaks when both Jamie and Abbey were disappointed with how they’d been cooked, however we quickly realised they’d been given each other’s steaks. Once these had been changed, everyone was in steak ecstasy. Sauces, at 2.75 each, were absolutely mouth-wateringly delicious and I had to secretly scoop the remains of my mushroom sauce out of the pot with a chip when no-one was looking.

The side dishes were extraordinary. We chose sautéed green courgette with ginger, mint and lemon oil (£4.00), tenderstem broccoli sautéed with shallots in a soy and wasabi dressing (£5.25) and spinach sautéed with garlic, olive oil and lemon (£4.50).

After dinner, we retreated to the bar lounge for cocktails. Relaxed and chatty, it serves a wide range of cocktails – a great place for after dinner drinks and conversation. Although, a warning to men, some of the cocktails are served in very feminine glasses. One of my male friends had a series of girly cocktails and feeling somewhat emasculated, wished he’d asked more questions about the presentation beforehand.

I can understand why some people may feel slightly uncomfortable or out of place in Gaucho as it could be seen to some as a little pretentious (an observation a couple have friends have shared), however it’s the perfect place for confident, smartly dressed, food loving professionals. I’m pleased we had an occasion to go and I absolutely plan on returning.

Gaucho, Leeds

Death by chocolate

One of my closest friends, Matt, is a complete chocolate addict. How he has such a fine set of gnashers I have no idea because he has the sweetest tooth of anyone I’ve known. He’d secretly love to become a chocolatier and own his own shop/brand (not the easiest or cheapest vocation to pursue) but for now he works for a confectionery company on the design team and in his spare time, tries his hand at tempering chocolates. And me? I get to eat them.

I really do recommend you adopt a friend with such a hobby because aside from the copious amount of calories setting up home on my thighs, I’m in chocolate heaven. For my birthday in July, my gift was a selection of delicious handmade chocolates – an absolute hit at my girly gathering. These included marzipan balls with a ground cherry compote with dark chocolate and strawberry drizzle, sticky toffee truffles, milk chocolate coated orange ganache domes with gold leaf decoration and dark mint ganache truffles with a dark chocolate coated shell and mint flavoured topping. Working amongst chocolates every day, he also often appears with leftover samples which I accept willingly with again, no consideration for the thighs.

So when it was his birthday last weekend, I had no idea what kind of gesture I could make that would live up to the endless supply of confectionery that’s being getting shovelled my way. After some brainstorming with my housemate, we decided an extremely chocolatey birthday cake accompanied by champagne and strawberries would go down a storm. I remembered my mum making a fantastic cake when I was younger and so my first port of call was to raid her recipe books. I have no idea where the recipe initially came from since I found it handwritten in a pretty old note-book from donkey’s years ago.

It is American Chocolate Fudge Cake and it tastes just as incredible as I remember it to be (which never happens). I thought I’d share it and spread the happiness around. It goes like this…

Ingredients:
3oz plain chocolate
8oz sugar
½ pint milk
4oz butter
2 eggs, beaten
1tsp vanilla essence
2oz walnuts, chopped
8oz plain flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder

For the filling:
2oz butter
4oz sugar
2oz chocolate (melted)

Method:
Place chocolate in a small pan with 5oz of sugar and half the milk. Stir over a low heat until melted, then leave to cool.

Cream the butter and remaining sugar until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the chocolate mixture and walnuts.

Fold in the flour and baking powder alternatively with the remaining milk and then divide between two cake tins.

Cook on 180C for 30 minutes until cakes spring back when touched.

For the filling, beat the melted chocolate into the butter alternatively with icing sugar until light and fluffy.

To ensure an appropriate chocolate fest was had by all, I decided to make a white chocolate frosting to go over the cake using a simple recipe from River Cottage online which involves beating the following ingredients together:

50g white chocolate, melted
70g butter
70g icing sugar

To serve:
Accompany with a bottle of champagne and excellent friends

I mustn’t forget to mention the book I bought as a gift – it was called Couture Chocolate by William Curly (four times winner of the Academy of Chocolate’s award “Best British Chocolatier” – to ensure many more years of free confectionery of course.

Death by chocolate

White Swan Inn, Pickering

 

This weekend I had the great pleasure of staying at the stunning White Swan Inn, a 16th century coaching inn located in the beautiful Yorkshire market town of Pickering, just on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.

It is in a prime location, only 45 minutes from York and 30 minutes from the picturesque fishing village of Whitby on the Scarborough coast. The quintessential fishing village of Whitby, nestling beneath it’s 13th Century abbey, is packed full of charm. We parked at West Cliff, where you can climb down steps to the beach, and strolled down the prom and around the Bay – the smell of fish and chips radiates from the streets where there are a number of seafood restaurants and chippies serving the day’s catch of fish. I’d packed a picnic and we sat on the windy beach looking across at the beautiful town. Feeling enthusiastic after lunch, we then tackled the 199 steps up to Whitby Abbey with splendid views overlooking Whitby Bay and had a stroll along the cliff tops.

Not afraid of being the clichéd tourist, we stopped at Goathland on the way back to Pickering, a village which Heartbeat lovers will recognise as Aidensfield. We visited all the iconic Heartbeat sets, including the Aidensfied Garage and Grocery Store, saw Greengrass’s farm and had half a pint in the Aidensfield Arms – unfortunately, in a moment of excitement, I accidentally threw my drink all over Dan who spent the rest of the afternoon looking as though he’d had an accident. Safe to say I was in the bad books!

So, with beer stained trousers, we headed to check in at the White Swan Inn. We were welcomed by friendly and attentive staff who led us to our room – the ‘Hideaway Treat’ –

White Swan Inn

situated separate to the main hotel in a very attractively converted stable block.

Our luxurious two-storey room had a downstairs sitting room with a large free-standing bath (equipped with candles and bath soak for the more romantic guests), a chaise longue and a wide-screen TV. Leading from the sitting area was a stunning wet room with a double shower (plenty of room for two). Upstairs, the spectacular bedroom with king size bed had French windows and a ‘Juliet’ balcony

I was blown away by the interior design of the hotel and our room – hats off to the designer! Each room is individually themed and every item has been specifically selected with this in mind – it really is incredible and extravagant. Our contemporary room was light and spacious with blues and creams, gleaming metal and a chandelier. A stunning portrait of a woman hung on the wall in the bedroom and I had to try my best not to run away with it! The hotel is owned by Marion and Victor Buchanan and it is Marion’s eye for design that is behind the creative and imaginative decor of the hotel. This is a talent she carries out professionally outside of the White Swan Inn and something she is passionate about developing.

There is a real personal feel to the place – from the attentiveness of the staff, to the human touch that’s evident in the decoration and the care and thought that has gone into producing all the great information about the hotel. Dan and I sat for a good 20 minutes reading the welcome booklet which is written with wit and personality. I almost felt like I’d been friends with the owners for years. I particularly enjoyed the bar information; “a late bar may be available to those that have dined with us at the discretion of the manager on duty. Bribery often works. Anyone crawling in after hours from other hostelries should go straight to bed in disgrace”.

The private club lounge for guests is a perfect space to relax – again designed to be a homely, welcoming place for guests to unwind, there is an honesty bar, a selection of the day’s newspapers and a pool table. As we had a little time before dinner, we went inside and I wupped Dan at a game of pool – five years and I’m still surprising him with my endless talents!

We headed over to the main hotel for dinner where we were greeted by a member of staff and taken into the bar to have a drink and look over the menus before dinner.  The menus change regularly as the hotel is renowned for using fresh, seasonal local produce. On the website, chef Darren Clemmit guarantees that over 80% of the ingredients used in the kitchen are sourced locally within Yorkshire.

There is an extensive wine list of reasonably priced wines – I ordered a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for £17.95 which was waiting for us at our table when we moved into the dining room. Again, the dining room – low ceilings with warm reds and browns – had been designed to reflect the era and style of the 16th century inn. One wall has ingeniously been collaged with the lids from wooden champagne boxes.

We were impressed to note that even though we’d ordered our dinner from the bar, the waiting staff in the dining room knew exactly who had ordered which meal and our plates were placed confidently in front of us, no questions asked.

To start, I had grilled Rowley round goat’s cheese, beetroot relish, wild rocket and pesto (£7.95), followed by slow cooked plum pudding breed belly pork, braised red cabbage, bramley apple sauce and mustard mash (£16.95). The goat’s cheese was delicious, warm and caramelised on top. The pork was sublime, beautifully tender, melting in the mouth. Both dishes were extraordinary.

Dan’s potted pork with apricot chutney and roasted sour dough (£7.95) starter was equally delicious and he described it as ‘the best starter he’d ever had’ – this is far more significant than you realise. Usually a lot less enthralled by food then me, I rarely get any feedback, especially of the enthusiastic nature. This was followed by seared salmon, white wine, chive veloute, buttery mash and green vegetables (£17.95). Based on the scraped clean plate and the sighs of appreciation, I’m guessing this too was a big hit. I was slightly nervous at one point that he was about to lick the plate clean.

In our struggle to pick a dessert from the list, a helpful waitress recommended the trio of desserts; strawberries with mascarpone cream, glazed lemon tart and sticky toffee pudding (£11.95) and it was nice to be able to sample a mixture of tastes. My favourite was the lemon tart which had been caramelised on top to add a crunchy texture.

Breakfast was equally spectacular. After we had tucked into helpings of cereal from the breakfast buffet table, we both tackled a Yorkshire breakfast of bacon, egg, sausage, black

Trio of desserts… I have half eaten the lemon tart and tried to disguise it with raspberries.

pudding and toast. Coming from a girl who isn’t a great fan of sausages, the sausages were amazing. All meat, except feathered or with antlers, comes from the Ginger Pig, the prestigious chain of London butchers whose farms are in North Yorkshire only seven miles away from the White Swan Inn. If I can offer you any advice, do not, whatever you do, live a life having not sampled one of these sausages.

We both agreed that it was the most perfect dinner and overnight stay we’ve had. Although the majority of other guests appeared to be around the 40+ age group, I’d certainly recommend the White Swan Inn to couples my age. Although it’s family-friendly, I’d say it is more suited to couples looking for a romantic retreat. The only disappointment of the stay was having to leave the next day – I’d have quite happily stayed forever. That, and the fact that I had to return home to my boring shower after experiencing the delights of a double shower – I don’t think showering will ever be the same again.

White Swan Inn, Pickering

Eating in the wonderful city of Barcelona

It’s rare that you come across a city that you could happily visit time and time again and still feel there’s more to see – I believe Barcelona is one of those places. It has everything from high-end designer fashion to quaint antique shops and boutiques. It has the historic buildings and streets of the Gothic Quarter to the impressive architecture of Gaudi and other renowned Spanish architects. It has all the delights of a city break right next to a white sandy beach.

I flew to Barcelona in June with my mum for a girly break for three days and two nights. It’s a really easy city to get around with buses going from the airport to the two main plazas every 10 minutes. The metro is absolutely fantastic, really efficient, clean and modern. We bought 10 journeys for 9 Euros making it a really cheap and quick way to travel across the city.

Barcelona is probably the most notorious European city for pickpockets and its allegedly absent-minded tourists who are the main target. However, I saw no trouble at all during our stay and believe that if you are fairly street-wise and have a good awareness of people and suspicious behaviour, you’ll have a safe and friendly visit. My mother, who had gone to extremes of purchasing a “security shirt” with a zip pocket sewn into the inside to deter thieves, was genuinely quite disappointed to have not seen an ounce of trouble.

We stayed at the HCC Open Hotel in the L’Eixample area between the Urgell and Rockfort metro stations. I’d found a deal on Groupon for two nights bed and breakfast for two people for £145 which is very reasonable for Barcelona so took the plunge and booked it – I was a bit reluctant having never booked anything holiday related using a voucher site before and also (trivial comment follow), I was really put off by the name – “Open Hotel” – I had all kinds of visions about what an open hotel might welcome. However, the apprehension wasn’t necessary, the hotel was perfect for what we wanted, exceptionally clean and spacious, friendly staff and an excellent breakfast buffet (it’s always about the food).

As it should be, the three days comprised of food, wine and more food. On day one, we went to Poble Espanyol,  a walled village built with different types of Spanish architecture. You have to pay to go inside (as with everything in Barcelona) but it is beautiful and filled with windy streets, plazas and nice restaurants. All the restaurants seemed much the same, offering a set menu and a tapas menu. Since we’d been travelling since 3am and were ravenous, it seemed only appropriate to have a big jug of delicious sangria and the set menu.

A starter of “peasant’s bread” comprised of toast, a tomato and a full garlic clove. Slightly confused about the correct approach to this, I had to peer across at my Spanish neighbours to determine the protocol – after mastering the art of peasant’s bread, I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. Pan con tomate, as its most commonly referred to, is a staple on most Spanish menus and is usually already made – I preferred the option to ‘do it yourself’ as many restaurants smear the grilled bread in a tomato and garlic puree  which makes the bread soggy. This was followed by THE most delicious mussels I’ve ever eaten. Being by the sea, seafood is a staple on every menu and rightly so because it’s fantastic. Another popular dish is spicy Catalan sausage which my mum ordered and really enjoyed. I’d definitely recommend a visit to Poble Espanyol for a meal as you won’t be stuck for choice.

It was during this visit that I realised my love for the Spanish cuisine of tapas. The concept of ordering several small dishes between friends is perfect for the young socialites of Barcelona who eat late and snack over conversation. We majored on tapas, taking pleasure in the opportunity to sample various Spanish delicacies in one sitting. We also found a light lunch of a couple of tapas dishes accompanied by a glass of sangria was sufficient to keep us going until dinner. On the second evening, we ate at Taller de Tapas, a chain of tapas restaurants in Barcelona and whilst we had a very enjoyable evening, we could have found a better restaurant. We found the food to be good and particular enjoyed the prawns in garlic, mackerel and the scallops. My only criticisms would be that the food came almost immediately suggesting that it wasn’t prepared freshly and the potatoes were COVERED in sauces. They seem to do this in most restaurants in Barcelona so if you’re not a big sauce fan, make sure you mention beforehand.

We also found that the quality of the sangria was very up and down. We didn’t find any as nice as the jug we had over lunch at Poble Espanyol on the first day. Many contain far too much lemonade and not enough red wine or fruit to produce them  cheaply so if you aren’t sure, I’d recommend opting for wine – there is more rioja than you can shake a stick at.

Having well and truly eaten our way through Barcelona’s tapas restaurants, there was only one thing for it – paella on the beach. To end a fantastic trip, we spent our last afternoon sat in a seafood restaurant beside the beach tucking into paella and watching the world go by. This was undoubtedly the most memorable meal I’ve had for a long time. The waiters presented us with a tray full of fresh seafood, showing us exactly what would go into the paella, explaining that it would take between 20-30 minutes to freshly prepare. They give you the option to have the seafood in its shells or already shelled by them and there are a variety of different types of paella to choose from. We went for seafood paella, without the shells. It was served directly onto our plates out of the pan it was cooked in and was absolutely sensational. The seafood was cooked perfectly and the rice was moist and succulent. What a perfect end to the holiday! Again, much sangria was consumed.

In between eating our body weight in Spanish cuisine, we did a lot of sightseeing and there is so much to see. We strolled through the charming streets of the gothic quarter taking in the architecture and visited the Cathedral and a number of plazas. However, the most spectacular sight of all was unquestionably The Sagrada Familia. No photograph can possibly portray the immensity and magnificence of this masterpiece – an absolute must see! We also ventured into cheesy tourist territory by taking the open top bus tour of the city – whilst not our usual style, we found this to be the perfect way to see the city and get to grips with its layout. The tour stops off at all the major sights, including the Olympic Stadium, the port (which was filled with cruise ships), the football stadium and the Gaudi House – perfect for those who are visiting for a short time.

Whilst three days was plenty to enjoy Barcelona, I feel that we barely scraped the surface and I will certainly visit again. If you’re planning on visiting Barcelona and would like any advice (it doesn’t need to be food related), just leave me a comment and I’ll happily help where I can.

Eating in the wonderful city of Barcelona