The Great Food Escape

How many parents can remember the first time they went out for a child-free meal after having a baby?

For the first few weeks I simply didn’t have the strength or energy. Besides, I looked like the living dead, which would surely put the other diners off their food.

At the end of week 4, my Mum had been staying with us for a while to help out and I wanted to say thank you before she went home. We left little F and a bottle or two of formula with my hubby and headed down to The Globe in Topsham.

It felt good to be out, without worrying if the pram would fit through doorways, or when F was due his next feed. The food was tasty – a creamy risotto with smoked salmon – and I enjoyed an alcohol-free beer to wash it down.

Being able to eat a meal and chat with my Mum without the distraction of a crying baby did wonders for my head space. To be out in public doing ‘normal’ adult activities was brilliant.

Too much too soon?

But I was still in the ‘new baby zombie zone’. I couldn’t get comfortable on the chair without a cushion and my boobs were sore and achy. Naturally I wondered if the little one was behaving for his Dad.

I enjoyed my first venture out but it still felt a bit like an out-of-body experience.

Its all in the timing

Fast-forward another 4 weeks and my long-suffering Mum came back to help out for a few days while my husband was away with work. On the night he returned, he kindly (or foolishly?!?) stayed at home again with F while we tried dining out again.

Our venue of choice was Cafe Rouge and our gallant babysitter even acted as our taxi into town. We settled down in a quiet corner and began dribbling over the menu.

The difference at 2 months was significant. The lack of a cushion to sit on wasn’t a big problem and although I felt tired, it was manageable, not the ‘ill’ tired feeling I’d had previously.

I took great pleasure in choosing a glass of wine, but it showed that I was out of practice at drinking alcohol because I first selected a crisp, dry Chardonnay, before realising a rich red would better compliment the duck I had ordered. I swapped to a large (and why not?!) Merlot and savoured every drop.

IMG_4668

The duck leg was tasty and made even better by the accompanying cherry sauce. The dauphinois potatoes were a little bland – not as creamy as I’d have liked – but apart from that I would have happily licked the plate!

Again the feeling of freedom at being out as an individual and not just a Mum was appreciated. I suddenly remembered the art of conversation that doesn’t revolve around baby related topics. Of course it was enjoyable to talk a bit about our little F, but using my brain (what’s left of it) on other subjects (mostly food, surprise surprise) was refreshing.

We were back home within a few hours but it felt like a decent break. My husband had survived (just about!) and I felt revived, back in circulation and a little bit more human. This great food escape had done me the world of good.

2 Seafood Eatery Recommendations in North Cornwall

One of my favourite places (apart from the North, of course) is Cornwall.

That Rugged Cornish CoastlineI mean, what’s not to love? Wide blue skies, a rugged coastline filled with magic and mischief and the magnificent yet terrifying waves of the sea.

For me, it’s a part of the country that offers escapism – a chance to reset and forget the monotony of the  day-to-day stresses.

A Cornish Escape

An opportunity for such an escape presented itself in April and I enjoyed a fabulous few days with family down in St Agnes on the North coast.

Coastal walks, the reading of books and consuming of one or two beverages all happened. But I’d like to linger on another pastime if I may…the devouring of fresh, tasty seafood.

A Seaside Setting

We were well placed for such an activity and one evening we took a little trip to the beautiful harbour village of Porthleven to be seduced by the cooking of Rick Stein’s team.

We dined early so pretty much had the place to ourselves for the first half hour, giving us a chance to dribble over not just the menu but the uber-stylish decor and view outside. Dusk was falling and the pretty coloured string lights framed the harbour, with their reflections shimmering on the water.

Fruits of the Sea

We selected a wine to enhance the impressive seafood that we were anticipating, and we weren’t disappointed. I chose fish cakes to start, which might sound like an average kind of choice but believe me, these were far from it.

The texture of the breadcrumbs and flavour of the fish were good enough alone, but what made the dish excel was the refreshing and intense flavour of the salsa verde dressing. I was, however, just a tad jealous of another starter on the table – the prawn and crayfish cocktail with avocado.

Onto the mains and the men chose good old fish and chips but I wanted something a little different so opted for ray with black butter, which came swimming in a red wine sauce and sprinkled with capers. Ray may require a bit more work in extracting the delicious flesh from in between the bones, but that just makes the prize all the more worthwhile.

Seafood Round Two

So Stein’s was a seafood success and a hard act to follow, to be fair. The Driftwood Spars in St Agnes holds special memories for us as we got married there, a year ago now. They’ve had a change of Chef since the stunning wedding breakfast that we enjoyed, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We may have picked a bad evening in terms of service, as our drinks took an age to arrive – in fact our starters had arrived before they did – but it paid off, quite literally, as they gave us the bottle of fizz we’d ordered for free. Every cloud.

Share the Wealth

In keeping with the current collaborative trend, we went for a seafood sharing platter to start and there was more than enough for the 4 of us. Salt and pepper squid and crab claws covered one of the boards, whilst I gave most of my attention to the pot of mussels swimming in white wine sauce.

The Main Act

Onto the mains and two of us continued the seafood theme, my choice being fillet of hake with saffron mash and pea shoots. The skin on the fish was deliciously crispy and the vegetables added a subtle sweetness to the dish.

The blokes opted (somewhat typically) for steak, but I think they missed out. Being this close to the coast, the seafood was incredibly fresh and tasty. It really added to our Cornish experience and I can’t wait for my next visit so that I can indulge again.

 

 

Slow Food in the Fast Lane

Hailing from northern skies but living in the South West means that I know both the M5 and M6 quite well. Being able to predict your ETA based on the landmarks around you is quite handy, and guessing the name of the next service station is a good game to pass the time.

Until recently, that, and the relief of a long-awaited ‘comfort break’ was the only entertainment the service stations offered. Being charged double the normal price for anything edible and having to suffer tea which resembles dishwater is not my idea of fun.

But all this has changed. Now, reaching Gloucester not only signals that I’ve chipped 2 hours off my journey, it also provides the chance for a nosey at interesting local produce and to grab a quality snack.

Gloucester services - Light and spacious

The interior is light and spacious with beautiful wooden beams

You can tell that Gloucester Services is not your average as you leave the motorway. It looks more like Teletubby land with lush green grass in bumps on the approach to the building, which is embedded into the hillside. In contradiction to the impression its cosy Hobbit hole-like exterior may give, inside is an impressive light and open plan space not at all like the rabbit warren styles of other service stations.

The further I got into the building, the more breaks in convention there were to be found. Visiting the ladies was not the usual experience of having to hover/hold your nose/get out as quickly as you can, and should I have felt so inclined, I could have refreshed myself with a free shower.

The shop boasted an abundence of interesting food, drink and gift products more akin to a posh Farmers’ Market than a service station. It even had it’s own butchers counter. Yes, you heard me correctly, a quality, locally stocked butchers counter.

Fresh pastries for breakfast

Fresh pastries for breakfast

In the café area I was able to choose from some delicious local snacks, which weren’t just homemade, many of the options were actually healthy. This is fast food on a quality level, without the need for any guilt. And what was my slow fast food of choice? Freshly baked croissants with a selection of homemade jams, washed down with a quality cup of tea. Unlike in the overpriced coffee chains, it was presented in a proper little tea pot so that I could mash the bag to my heart’s content and add as much milk as I wanted.

So what’s the story behind this refreshing service station idea? Well, it all started 200 miles further north, much closer to home for me in Cumbria. Local farmers the Dennings, in partnership with a local bakers, set up a service station at Tebay when the M6 motorway was built. This family-run motorway service station – the first of its kind in the UK – was a success, largely through its home cooked, locally sourced food and forty years on in 2012, a sister station to Tebay was born at Gloucester. Northerners educating Southerners on how it should be done. Music to my ears.

The view from Tebay services

The view from Tebay services

My journey up-country which saw me first visiting Gloucester Services also took me to the Lake District a few days later, and of course I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the Mothership. With views across to the south lakes hills in the background and more immediately a delightful little pond, Tebay offers the same impressive selection of local and artisan ingredients as Gloucester, but with something extra: Northern charm.

This time, after a wander around the shop, perusing the ales, exotic chocolates and another expertly managed butchers counter, I sat down to enjoy a homemade cherry and pumpkin seed flapjack. Very nice indeed.

The Tebay Family Story

The Tebay Family Story

After a pleasant interlude munching my snack and peering out to the view, I left Tebay Services, and even my exit out of the building was entertaining, with the story and timeline of the business decorating the walls on the route out. They’re obviously proud of their history and I can see why.

I wish there were more services like these and I already couldn’t wait to stop at Gloucester south-bound on my route back down to the South West, where I’ve heard they have a fantastic fishmongers counter. That’ll be my dinner sorted, then.

 

January Best Bites

Given that the beginning of the month is usually a bit minimal on the food front, due to the health regime promises we make to ourselves and the general lack of dosh, January for me was pretty tasty. Here are some of the most scrumptious bites.

An Italian Job

I was doing quite well on the healthy eating and drinking front at the beginning of the year, but half way through January it was my beloved fiancé’s birthday so what could I do but show my support and indulge? His parents ventured to the South West to celebrate with us for the weekend, so on the Friday evening my culinary skills were put to the test. What to cook for the in-laws? Lasagne of course! I thought it was a touch on the dry side myself but despite that it was pretty tasty and seemed to be a hit. Perhaps that was more due to it being washed down with a delicious bottle of Argentinian Malbec, kindly brought by our guests. Not a bad start to the weekend!

Parma ham and mozzerella at CarlucciosItalian Indulgence

On the Saturday we continued the Italian theme with dinner at Carluccios. As it was a celebration we pushed the boat out with starters and Prosecco all round – I practically waddled out of the restaurant afterwards I was so full!

It was a delicious meal though and the service was as warm as the atmosphere – an ideal birthday experience. As my first course I chose Parma ham. They really do give you a plateful and the Buffalo mozzarella it was topped with was like no other I’d tasted before. It was so soft that it was almost more liquid than solid and the creaminess perfectly complimented the salt of the Proscuitto.

So after a mountain of ham, what do you think I chose for my main course? Fish maybe? A vegetable dish? Nope, I chose spaghetti carbonara. Yes, that’s right, a delicious creamy pasta dish laced with smokey pancetta. More ham! Not very imaginative I know, but it’s one of my favourite Italian dishes and I couldn’t resist. Just the right amount of sauce to coat the al dente pasta made this is fantastic choice.

A cake-first

Lemon meringue cakeYou would think that at the ripe old age of…well, let’s just say that I’m in my thirties! So you’d think that as a food enthusiast and general piggie, by now I would have tried most types of cake. But when I met a friend recently in a Topsham cafe, I experienced a foodie-first: Lemon Meringue Cake.

I loved the lemon meringue pies my Mum made when I was little, but I’d never seen the refreshing, zesty ingredients applied in this way…perhaps I’ve led a sheltered cake life. The light and fluffy sandwich was cemented together with a zingy smooth curd and topped with a generous layer of lemon cream icing. What a refreshing revelation for my taste buds!

Lunch with a view

Samuel Jones MenuWhen a new pub or restaurant opens in the city I’m usually chomping at the bit to go and have a nosey. But the Samuel Jones down on Exeter quay opened way before Christmas and I’m ashamed to say I only made my first visit there at the end of January.

A low winter sun was blazing in the blue sky and shimmering on the river below. The place was packed inside and out, but we managed to squeeze onto a table near the bar. There wasn’t an extensive choice on the menu and as the waiting staff kept walking past holding dishes that weren’t on there, I presume there must have been a specials menu that we’d missed.

No matter though, the burgers we’d ordered were tasty as were the proper chunky chips on the side. My veggie burger was a tower of soft goats’ cheese with slices of roasted aubergine, pepper and pickled beetroot.

Samuel Jones veggie burgerVery enjoyable and definitely a cool place to hang out on a Sunday afternoon. I’m looking forward to going back soon to try a Bailey’s latte. The brunch dishes looked enticing too. Hmm, I can see frequent visits to my new local happening over the next few weeks!

So there we have my not so lean start to the year. Well, you know what they say, start as you mean to go on!

The next best thing since sliced bread

So, it’s 2015. This new year lark seems to come around scarily fast nowadays. Of course I’ve made the usual healthy eating resolutions, which at the moment are in serious conflict with the amount of chocolate which is still lying temptingly around from Christmas. But I don’t want to dwell on those pledges, instead I’m thinking about what this year will mean in terms of food. Will I taste a new ingredient and fall dramatically, deeply head over heels with it? Will I finally get that work-life-balance right and discover extra hours in the day that mean I can do more experimenting and tasting? Hmm…I won’t be holding my breath on that one.

Cake pops

The strange fad that is ‘cake pops’

I’m also thinking about what dishes and flavours will be the good, the bad and the ugly in 2015. If last year saw burger restaurants become even more popular and cake pops and other ridiculous baking fads take over the nation, what delights await us this year?

I recently read an article by BBC Good Food about potential food trends for 2015 and a smile crept across my face when I saw that two of the predicted best things since sliced bread are actually what us northerners have been doing for years.

Leaders in foodie fashion

Yes that’s right, all those who think that anyone who lives north of the Watford gap is gastronomically backwards can eat their words.

Food trend #1: Poutine.

Poutine

Classic Poutine – or should that be good old chips & gravy??

Hailing from Canada, this dish is apparently “in its purest form, chips, gravy and cheese curds“. I’m not sure what springs to mind for others but immediately I’m thinking, obviously, those northern delicacies chips and gravy and cheesy chips! Personally, I’m not entirely convinced about combining the two, but if this new trend means that I might actually be able to get a decent plate of chips and gravy outside of Lancashire then I’m quite happy. And it seems that it’s such a popular recipe that various people are claiming responsibility for its origin. Well, I think Northern England should stake a claim.

Food trend #2: Lard.

Lard

Lard – a potato’s best friend

Well, need I say more? Ask someone which 5 words spring to mind when they think of the north and you can bet your bottom dollar that lard will be in there somewhere.  We’ve been using it for years to fry our chips, grease our cooking tins and to bathe in (ok, maybe not the last one), but apparently now it’s making a come-back. After being shunned for being too unhealthy/pig related/generally northern, lard is now being reinvented and celebrated by those in the culinary world who decide what the next big thing is. Apparently it’s really good for crisping your roast potatoes and flaking your pastry.

Who knew??

 

Noise pollution

Warning: This blog is going to be slightly ranty. It’s not often that I do that (well, in my blog, anyway), but just for a change I thought I’d vent my spleen via this medium. I also realise that I’m going to come across as something of a grumpy old woman – a title I would usually strongly refute – but if that is the case this time, so be it.

G&T at the Hilton

G&T at the Hilton

Last month I had to go up to Manchester for work. Making the most of having my travel paid for, I extended my visit and my Mum and I stayed in the Hilton, darling, in the city centre. We had a lovely time, starting our evening with a pre-dinner drink in the hotel bar. Well, it would be rude not to, especially as we had been given a free drink voucher when we booked!

We were looking for somewhere to eat that was a bit different but nothing too fancy. You know, better than a Wetherspoons but not somewhere that would break the bank or where we wouldn’t understand the choices on the menu.

Wood Street Mission, near Spinningfields in Manchester

Wood Street Mission, near Spinningfields in Manchester. Image courtesy of http://www.woodstreetmission.org.uk

We wandered in the direction of Spinningfields, a recently refurbished area just off Deansgate. Now an attractive and vibrant design of businesses, bars and eateries, its history is somewhat less glamorous. In the mid-19th century, when the city was in the grip of the turbulent industrial revolution, it was home to some of the poorest residents of the city struggling to get by in a mass of grim tenements.

Back in the present day, the area is ironically aesthetically appealing, successful and teaming with places to eat. We liked the look of the first restaurant we came across – Neighbourhood, boasting ‘casual fine dining’ inspired by neighbourhoods in Manhatten. The stylish interior definitely appealed as we presented ourselves as ladies who dine in the city all the time. There was just one problem: the volume of the music, which was less ‘background’ and more in your face, or should I say ears? We asked to be seated in a quiet part of the restaurant and were shown down some steps to a table next to the glass wall at the rear of the restaurant.

It was a nice spot and we were all ready to commit to a drink while we perused the menu. But spending what would have been not an extortionate but still rather significant wedge of cash on a meal which was meant to be an opportunity to catch up, without actually being able to hear each other unless we shouted ourselves hoarse across the table, just didn’t sit well. We did that shameful thing – when the waiter was busy with other customers, we swiftly slunk out of the door.

We walked around Spinningfields peering into the windows to peruse the menus, but wherever we went there seemed to be the thump thump of music vibrating the glass. Clearly we had strayed into the wrong district given we were looking for somewhere with atmosphere yet without noise pollution – something I wouldn’t have thought was too much to ask on a Sunday evening, even in a city.

Bill's Manchester

Enjoying a glass of fizz in the candlelight at Bill’s in Manchester

So we left the trendy young things to it and headed a few blocks to the right and back up in the direction of Deansgate. Beginning to be at a loss of where to go for our relaxing evening, we suddenly stumbled across a familiar sight – Bill’s Restaurant. I’m not necessarily one to favour chain establishments over something more original, but although the number of Bill’s Restaurants are increasing across the country, they are original. The greengrocer origins of the business are still at the very heart of their menus, which are bursting with fresh, seasonal ingredients. So having enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the Bill’s in Exeter with my Mum a few months earlier, we took this as a welcome sight.

Bill's chicken skewers

Chicken skewers on a bed of cous cous

I love the candlelight ambiance in Bill’s and the warmth it creates. I won’t pretend that this restaurant didn’t also manage its atmosphere by adding music, but it was less ‘thump thump’ and more ‘and relax…’ so we again asked for a quiet spot and this time it was perfect, helped along nicely with a glass of Prosecco.

I ordered the marinated chicken skewers which are served on a bed of cous cous flavoured with mint, parsley and lemon. The fresh herbs really make this dish and the dollop of tzatziki on the side prevents it from being a dry meal.

Mum with her troutAfter some deliberation, Mum ordered herb crusted trout from the Specials Menu, which came with a dressed salad. She got a lovely chunky piece of fish with a firm, meaty texture (yes, I insisted on trying some!) and I loved the crunchy crust with a its subtle chargrilled flavour.

We were both suitably impressed with our grub which was made all the more enjoyable in the dusky glow of the surroundings, and wasn’t spoilt by headache-inducing, conversation-stopping thump thumping music. Yes, I think I’ve definitely earned the title of grumpy old woman now!

 

May and June Best Bites

Yes that’s right, two months has gone since my last review of my most recent greedy food antics. I do wonder if time secretly gangs up on us all and fast-forwards itself when we’re not looking.

So this blog is a double-whammy: How I’ve been stuffing my face over the last two months. And it seems that my tooth had a sweet craving, with just one of my best bites being savoury. Well I guess summer is a time for cake….and cocktails!

1. Thunder and Lightning

Cornish 'Thunder and Lightning'

Cornish ‘Thunder and Lightning’

No, I haven’t decided to dabble in meteorology. My number one bite is a very naughty but nice Cornish tradition, recently recommended to me and my workmates. Obviously we were intrigued with this variation on the traditional cream tea and just had to give it a go.

For those who haven’t heard of Thunder and Lightening, you start by cutting a scone in half (although I should point out that the original recipe is with thick white bread) then spread a generous dollop of clotted cream on each half (sound familiar so far?). When it comes to the cream, for me just has to be Rodda’s, which is what I was dragged up on spending my summer holidays with my Grandparents in Newquay.

So not exactly groundbreaking so far, but here comes the surprise: Instead of topping with a mound of sticky sweet jam, you drizzle over golden syrup. This was a new one on me, but I did enjoy the taste combination.

I’m not sure I’d replace the traditional cream tea for good, but I’d recommend giving thunder and lightning a go for a change!

2. Breakfast at Bill’s

Bill's Eggs Royale

Bill’s Eggs Royale

What a treat on a Saturday morning: To enjoy a delicious, well cooked breakfast which is full of flavour and served with a smile in a refreshing and vibrant setting. This was what me and my Mum lapped up when we went for breakfast at Bill’s.

Not only were my Eggs Royale full of flavour and perfectly cooked with a runny yolk to be proud of, but when I ordered a pot of tea, I got a PROPER pot of tea. I find it annoying that sometimes when you order a pot, you actually get a piddly little piece of pottery which barely holds more than one cup anyway. Well, not this bad boy.

Bill's Vegetarian Breakfast

Bill’s Vegetarian Breakfast

My Mum opted for the Vegetarian Breakfast and her eyes nearly popped out of her head when it was delivered. It was a huge plate crammed with colours and textures, but there was no way that poor Mum could put that volume away.

She decided to sacrifice the soda toast, but refused to give up the guacamole or hummus which were spread on the two slices, and proceeded to delicately remove the topping from each. The Manager walked past and noticed her doing this, and subtly suggested to our waitress that she come and have a chat.

No, she didn’t ask Mum to stop playing with her food, she came to make sure that Mum was happy with her meal, or if she would like something else instead. Mum hastily reassured her that the food was lovely but just too much for her to eat. It struck me what good observational and subtle customer service skills the team at Bill’s has.

4. Mum’s cake fest

Mum's cakesSpeaking of my Mum, during the same visit she insisted on doing some baking to ‘top up’ my cake stocks. We’d dragged ourselves around the shops in town all day during the recent heat wave and frankly, I was good for nothing. She’s definitely made of stronger stuff than I am because as I sat cabbage-like on the couch, she efficiently yet lovingly whipped up a triple-layered Victoria sponge PLUS a handful of cute little butterfly cakes.

Apart from the obvious attraction of putting your feet up whilst someone makes you delicious sweet treats, it was a pleasure listening to Mum grafting away in the kitchen.  I spent many happy hours as a child helping her bake and the sound of her singing as she worked brought back lots of lovely memories.

The icing and jam combo that she used was just delicious and everything was baked to perfection – something that I never seem to manage in my oven. That’s my theory of blaming the cooker for my baking failures out the window then – a bad workman, and all that…

5. Friday cocktails

Southernhay House cocktail menuSo after all Mum’s slaving away, it was only right that I took her out for a treat in beautiful Exeter. There are loads of options, but I needed something special, somewhere stylish and aesthetically pleasing.

The solution? Cocktails at Southernhay House.

Although grand, the exterior is bright and welcoming and once inside, the beautiful decor makes you want to peak into every room. With difficulty, we controlled our nosey-ness and headed into the uber-smart bar, with its interesting decor and bottles of all shapes and colours just asking to be poured.

Cocktails at Southernhay HouseWe chose our spot on the white and blue leather seats and proceeded to dribble over the menu, taking an age to decide what to go for. In the end, I opted for Kir Royal – Crème de Cassis with Champagne – and Mum ordered Tipu’s Temptation, which apparently is a classic old-fashioned cocktail that includes Grand Marnier and Champagne in its list of ingredients. We know how to live.

We watched in fascination as the bartender composed our drinks with precision and professional confidence, with just a hint of a smile at these two giddy ladies who clearly don’t get out much.

The cocktails tasted delicious, the sweetness of the Crème de Cassis evened out by the tang of the Champagne. Sipping away and putting the world to rights, the drinks soon began to disappear and it seemed a shame not to have one more – this time Mum chose Independence, made with sloe gin, lemon, sugar syrup and Prosecco. For me though, it was an opportunity for a cliché not to be missed. You’ve guessed it, my second cocktail was a nod to James Bond with a Vodka Martini. Not exactly his ‘Vesper‘ drink, shaken, not stirred, but close enough for me and boy did it pack a punch! After round two we were very merry and made for home.

What a brilliant few months and an excellent foodie start to the summer!

 

April Best Bites

It’s hard to believe that May is here already. Where have the first four months of the year gone? Typically, the only times that ever seem to drag are at work, usually stuck in some boring meeting-about-a-meeting or from 3pm on a Friday. In contrast, when you’re spending your time as you choose (in my case usually cooking, baking, or eating) time develops a mind of its own and goes galloping faster into the future than you care for.

So it seems a shame not to look back on those moments when you’ve enjoyed doing something…and where better to start than with food? This is me savoring the best bites of April:

1. Food for a friend

Thai green prawn curryI had a friend coming round for a catch up before she went away on holiday and I wanted to cook something tasty and full of flavour that didn’t take too much time or dosh. Someone at work recommended Green Thai Curry – ok, so most people have made a Thai curry before, but this recipe just had a few subtle differences that made me want to give it a try.

This version had the usual suspects – green Thai curry paste, peppers, coconut milk – but the main difference from your standard curry recipe was adding cornflour to make the sauce thicker. This really worked and the sauce coated the other ingredients well instead of just sitting thinly on the bottom of the plate.

To keep the cost down, I chose prawns as the star of the meal instead of chicken, which can be pricey (when buying free range) and I also decided to throw in some diced butternut squash (steamed until soft before adding to the pan) to pad the dish out a bit.

I finished with a generous squeeze of lime juice and a sprinkling of coriander on top. So with a neat heaping of rice on the side, I presented my friend with a colourful and saucy dish which offered a variety of tastes and textures. Winner!

 2. Northern Delights

Easter meant a pilgrimage back to the mothership also known as Lancashire. That instantly gives me a dilemma in my best bites of April – there are just too many to choose from! Should I write about the mouth-wateringly good Holland’s Pies at the Wigan Warriors match? Or how about the best fish, chips, mushy peas and gravy around from Banny’s? Of course not forgetting my Mum’s delicious steak pie with crumbly pastry and crinkle cut chips cooked in the chip pan!

All more than worthy of making it onto the best bites list. But we also know how to eat out up north and on this trip, we visited somewhere new, or new to me. The Alma Inn at Laneshaw Bridge. We travelled from Barrowford along windy roads meandering their way across a jigsaw of green fields separated by dry stone walls. It was just starting to go dark and the lights from farms twinkled in the distance, peeking over the hills. We arrived just in time to catch the last of the view from the back of the pub, enough to make me write a mental note to come back on a hot day to soak up the sunshine and scenery.

Chicken in tarragon and mustard sauce with daughinoise with purple sprouting broccoliInside, the once coaching inn matches the impressive views. Beautiful light wooden beams, rich red walls and open fireplaces make this place appeal just as much on a winter’s day as in fine weather. Me and my three companions sat in the conservatory and us ladies enjoyed a glass of Prosecco (dangerously I can drink that stuff like it’s pop) while the blokes had a pint of the local ale. The menu gave us plenty to choose from, but my Alma Inn Best Bite had to be a very tender chicken breast with Diane sauce, served with two of my favourites – purple sprouting broccoli and creamy dauphinoise potatoes. The sauce, usually served with a steak dish, was rich without being too sickly and complimented the chicken well. The generous portion of broccoli was just cooked and the potatoes soaked up what was left of the sauce.

Chocolate mousse with caramel brittle and ice creamWe were all happily full after our mains but we couldn’t resist a glimpse at the dessert menu. Usually I can restrain myself, but that becomes a problem when there’s chocolate involved. And there was, in the form of a smooth chocolate mousse on a biscuit base, delicately impaled with shards of caramel and served with a dollop of clotted cream. This, like the mains was a generous portion and there was no way I could have eaten it on my own. Luckily, my altruistic other half shared it with me!

3. Best of the South West

So back to the West Country we came and to balance out the northern highs, Mr A and I enjoyed a weekend at the Exeter Festival of South West Food & Drink. One of the foodie highlights of the year, I love to spend two full days tasting the samples, feasting my eyes and savoring the smells of all the stalls. Many of the same producers were there as in previous years – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but it was nice to see a few newbies too, like the stall that was selling gigantic wraps filled with everything you could imagine.

Sadly (and somewhat ironically, given that I spent the whole weekend talking about them), I can’t remember what they were called. Something Street Kitchen I think. The idea was to choose your main filling ingredient – I went for chicken – then pick everything but the kitchen sink to go with it. Lettuce, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, cheese and cucumber (I lose count of what else) with a sweet chilli sauce drizzled over for good measure. It was delicious, but even between the two of us we struggled to finish it. Value for money!

Another first was a juicy venison burger from Good Game which had cranberry and coleslaw on it – very tasty, especially when washed down with an Orchard Pig cider.

The star of show, however, was something I’d had at the festival in previous years: ‘Sole on a roll’ from Bennetts Seafood. The deliciously fresh fish is fried in a light crispy batter that dissolves on the tongue and served on a bap with a bit of greenery and a dollop of tartar sauce. It really does take some beating. Or should that be battering?!?

Food Festival haul 2014For me it’s one of the best weekends of the year in Exeter and I wish I had an unlimited pot to spend just gorging myself on the food and drink (nice image, I know)! As it was, we did go a bit mad and came home with quite a haul…the majority of which was made up of pies, but being a Wigan lass, who could expect any different?

Also in the loot were sausages, burgers, steak, mini tartlets and scallop fishcakes (which actually turned out to be more potato than fish cake, a little disappointingly). The festival might only be once a year but we’ll be dining on this lot for some time to come! Bring on next April…

Burger me!

There’s a new trend sweeping the UK: Burger restaurants. Ok, it’s not really that new, we’ve long been influenced by America and burgers have been popular for many years, but there seems to be a modern revival of this classic, with a series of American diner/burger bar hybrids popping up in every town and city in their multiples.

And some of them are quite literally ‘popping-up’: Hub Box has tiny premises in Exeter and Truro, the latter being an old metal container, the likes of which you would usually see on the back of a cargo ship crossing the ocean. Hub Box counteract their lack of space by offering burger takeaways and ensuring there is a quick turn around of tables. It certainly doesn’t seem to put people off.

I do like a good burger, although it’s not something I would usually choose off a menu when eating out. But when done right, there is nothing like the taste of a good quality, juicy cheeseburger with all the trimmings. So on a recent catch up with friends, that’s just what I went for.

Ruby Burger menu

Ruby Burger menu

Our chosen venue was Ruby Burger, which is an interesting mix of the traditional American diner using quality local Devon produce, including Ruby Red Devon beef, hence the name. The restaurant has a very ‘cool’ vibe, a bit like a modern day Happy Days set, with a mix of worn wooden tables and chairs and red leather booths tucked away at the back and on a mezzanine level looking down over the main room.

It was early evening on a week day when we arrived and not very busy, but we still had to wait at a wooden table whilst nattering before we could pounce on a booth when it became available. There was just one girl serving to begin with but she managed very well and was friendly without being nauseating, no sign of the bilious-enducing American ‘Have a nice day!’ here!

Dandelion & Burdock

Dandelion & Burdock

Whilst dribbling over the menu a debate began amongst me and my two companions about the ingredients that make up that American condiment, Burger sauce. There were suggestions of mayonnaise crossed with tomato sauce, which then descended into side-tracked conversations about thousand island dressing, prawn marie rose sauce, the list goes on.

All the speculating made us thirsty and we ordered quite a random mix of drinks: a vanilla milkshake for one friend, looking very delicious and more like a knickerbocker glory than a milkshake, and a Devon Mist cider from Sandford Orchards, dry and refreshing, for my other friend.

The Ruby Burger logo

The Ruby Burger logo

Both excellent choices, but for me, it was an opportunity to take a trip down memory lane. A fizzy and almost liquorice-tasting Dandelion and Burdock. It reminded me of when the ‘pop man’ used to come round to our house once a week when I was a child  with the glass litre bottles of every drink we could have desired: Cola, lemonade, sarsaparilla and of course, my drink of choice this evening. We got 10p off each replacement for returning the empties. Now there’s something you no longer see, we have to pay for groceries to be delivered to our door now.

So by this time we’d caught up on all our recent news, had a debate about some form of food which is an obvious essential, and quenched our thirst. It was now time for the main act: The food. As I alluded to earlier, my burger choice was going to be a classic to get the most from this modern diner, and I opted for a Ruby Cheeseburger. My friends didn’t stray too far from the traditional either, both opting for a Ruby burger. We waited in anticipation for our juicy, American-Devon cross breed burgers.

Before too long our little – or not so little – gems were presented to us. I love Ruby Burger’s use of the old fashioned blue and white cookware, it just adds to the appeal of the classic dish when it’s placed before you. Being a northerner I couldn’t resist ordering a bowl of ‘proper chips’ to come with my burger, apparently fried in beef dripping – if that’s not got a taste of Lancashire about it I don’t know what has!

Ruby Cheese Burger

Ruby Cheese Burger

The Cheddar cheese had just nicely melted on the hot beefburger, which was sandwiched with juicy green lettuce and a fat slice of red tomato. I wanted a big mouth watering bite but the height of the burger meant it was a choice of either dislocating my jaw or unashamedly squashing the bap down with my palm. Not possessing the skill of a snake I opted for the latter then sunk my teeth in. It was a succulent, well seasoned, tasty mouthful that did not disappoint. All of the beef at Ruby Burger is cooked to medium unless otherwise requested and it was just right. Accompanied by those northern-style chips, it was the perfect burger.

So there might be more burger restaurants than hot dinners to choose from at the moment, but Ruby Burger definitely provides stiff competition. A good choice of burgers and variations on the reasonably priced menu, prepared, cooked and presented well in relaxed and interesting surroundings. But with Byron Hamburgers set to open in Exeter’s Princesshay this summer, the competition is about to get tougher.

 

2014…How did that happen??

It’s 2014. How did that happen? I have no idea. I am ashamed that there are no posts on here during 2013. Not one!

The truth is, I was forced to neglect my beloved More than just Gravy for just over a year due to studying for a Professional Diploma in Marketing. Trying to do the course and work full time, I just had too much on my plate, so to speak, to keep writing the blog too.  But I’m pleased to say it’s all done and dusted now, I’m officially qualified and free to return to the creative instead of academic writing, which is definitely more my cup of tea!

So what better time to restart my ramblings than the beginning of 2014.  Christmas has eaten itself into oblivion. New Years has made it’s resolutions. But what about the important stuff: FOOD!

Of course there has been masses of that. I spent the Christmas break visiting family and friends, so there was a fair share of traditional festive fayre in the mix, but I don’t want to focus on that in this post, mainly because I think by now we’re all sick of it!

We spend so long planning, fantasising about and preparing for our Christmas feasts that we all feel like we’ve eaten it ten times over before the big day arrives. Not to mention the fact that most of us have eaten at least one Christmas dinner at a works do or a get-together with friends in the run-up.

Luckily, as well as my family festive feast I also enjoyed some delicious meals out. So here for your enjoyment is my yuletide face-stuffing overview…

1. The best city in the country: Manchester

The Mark Addy

The Mark Addy

I miss Manchester! It was time to scratch that itch so I went with my Mum and Sister on Christmas Eve to shop and stuff our faces. Yes that’s right, on Christmas Eve. No, we’re not mad – in fact we had the right idea because the place was fairly quiet! Clearly the thought of facing the crush of panic-stricken men doing last minute present buying put everyone else off a trip to the city! After an hour or so of spending the Christmas money we hadn’t received yet, we felt the need to refuel and headed for the canal-side pub The Mark Addy, named after a local hero who, during his short life of just 51 years, rescued over 50 people from the River Irwel, on the banks of which the pub sits. They don’t make them like that any more!

None of us are really people who could be described as a typical ‘ladies who lunch’, but it was Christmas and in true northern fashion we thought “sod it, we’ll treat ourselves!” and we ordered a bottle of Prosecco and set about dribbling over the menu.

Hot smoked salmon terrine

Hot smoked salmon terrine

The choices were varied, with typical northern bar snacks including pork scratchings and the mysterious crispy Manchester “Thingymabobs”. The traditional hearty pub grub was on there too but I decided to be difficult and choose two starters from the Special Chef’s menu. First up came the hot smoked salmon and potato wedge terrine, held together by a subtle creamy horseradish sauce. The textures and temperature enhanced the delicate smoky flavour – it was delicious.

Black pudding and potato cake

Black pudding and potato cake

The starter that I chose as my main course, if you catch my Irwell drift, was a potato and black pudding cake topped with a poached egg. When in Rome and all that… There are many other foods that black pudding makes an excellent partner to: scallops, pork and rabbit to name a few. But sometimes the simple components cooked well are the best. And this was the best.

A crunchy crust gave the dish texture and the balance of smooth potato and that strong black pudding taste was just right. Complimented by the satisfyingly runny egg yolk, I had perfection. More northern food please!!!

2. The Boxing Day Buffet

Boxing Day buffet lunch

Boxing Day buffet lunch

Ok, I know I said I’d avoid writing about the traditional Christmas dinner, but there has to be room to mention the aftermath, the post-Christmas gorging opportunity, the meal that tastes even better than its hot-from-the-oven beginnings the day before. The legendary Boxing Day buffet.

My Mum put this magnificent spread together, adding to the roast turkey and stuffing the classic Christmas snacks that seem to somehow find their way into every cupboard and fridge every festive period: Cheese and biscuits, accompanied by multiple homemade chutneys which had been inflicted as Christmas presents; A variety of mixed nuts; Crunchy breadsticks to dredge through accompanying dips; Smoked salmon, neatly rolled with cream cheese and brie; plus the obligatory salads as an attempt to bring down the calorie count. Followed by a buttered slice of Mum’s fruit cake, washed down with a steaming cup of Gluhwein. THIS is what Christmas is all about!

3. A festive feast in the shadow of Pendle

Pendle Hill snow witch courtesy of adjohnstone.com

Pendle Hill snow witch courtesy of adjohnstone.com

A trip back up North is never complete without some fine local grub at the Pendle Inn at Barley. 2012 saw the 400th anniversary of the trial of the Lancashire Witches and this cosy country pub which huddles at the foot of Pendle Hill is full of tributes to the local history.

Moorehouse’s ales are on tap, from Blonde Witch to Black Cat, each with its own distinct flavour. The bar menu dishes offer tribute to the ill-fated women, including Malkin Tower hot black pudding fritters and the infamous Pendle Pie. The lyrics of Old Pendle, a folk song reminiscent of my childhood are framed upon the wall as are photographs of the hill in winter, as snow is melting on its steep side, leaving the unmistakeable white shape of a witch.

Pork with spring onion mash black pudding and creamy mustard sauce

Pork with spring onion mash black pudding and creamy mustard sauce

In contrast to the cold snow, the inn is warm and toasty with a roaring fire, just the place to settle down to a hearty lunch for my Dad’s birthday. We all found the choice a difficult one but in the end mine was roast loin of pork with spring potato mash, a mustard cream sauce and black pudding ‘bon bons’.

They actually turned out to be more like enlarged wedges similar to the pieces in Trivial Persuit, but whatever the shape, they added a rich flavour to the dish. The generous loin of pork was nice and lean (I’m not a fan of the jelly-like texture of fat) and the smooth mash soaked up the creamy mustard sauce. Well-balanced flavours and textures made this a most enjoyable and indulgent meal. It was a large portion but I surprised myself and practically cleaned the plate…and waddled out of the pub afterwards!

And so after such glutenous yuletide frivolities, the new year will have to be a time of self control and embracing of all things healthy. Well, maybe not all things…