Friday, 30 December 2011

Restaurant review: Belgreen, Exeter

There can’t be too many professional kitchens in Devon with a silver mirror disco ball hanging from the kitchen ceiling. But then Belgreen is probably unlike any café you have ever visited.

A quirky little place that doubles up as a shop selling vintage household goods and printed linens, this new venture from chef Isabel Davies and designer Teresa Green opened a couple of months ago on Magdalen Road in the desirable St Leonard’s area of Exeter.

A street that still boasts a butchers, a delicatessen, cafes and restaurants, clothes shops, a pub and a launderette (cheekily called the Dandy Dipper), Magdalen Road is a fabulous reminder that the independents are still thriving and that there is still life beyond homogenised shopping centres.

This independent spirit is certainly evident at Belgreen, which manages to be thoroughly contemporary yet retro and deliciously old-fashioned at the same time.

From the moment you step inside and hear the tinkle of the antique bell above the door, there is a sense of timelessness about the café. You half expect Margaret Rutherford or Joyce Grenfell to be pouring a cup of tea in the corner.

There are just six closely-packed tables for customers, which certainly makes for an intimate experience and booking is highly advisable.

Tables and chairs are rickety, wooden and mismatched. There are retro mirrors on one wall, a vintage ivory wall phone on another. Crockery is antique and knives and forks are the sort of bone-handled Sheffield Steel cutlery found at car boot sales and antiques fairs.

In the window, enamel colanders and whisks hang on a washing line next to co-owner Teresa’s striking linen tea towels.

Chef Isabel worked in some notable kitchens prior to opening Belgreen. She started at riverstation in Bristol before moving to London to work at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Her first head chef’s position was at the celebrated London gastropub The Lansdowne and then at La Fromagerie in Marylebone.

More recently, she was sous chef at Mark Hix’s Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.

That’s quite a CV for a young woman barely into her third decade.

The menus change daily at Belgreen and they are chalked up on boards. Breakfast is served from 8.30am until 11.30am and might include home toasted granola or muesli with yogurt and raspberry compote; a bacon and tomato sandwich; Manx kippers, toast and butter or sauté tomatoes on toast.

And then comes lunch. With nothing more than £8.50 on the day we visited, the sub-£10 policy here is sensible, attractive and exactly right for such straitened times.

Portions are generous, too, and it would be quite possible to eat very well for around a fiver before you ordered drinks. There are half a dozen different wines available by the glass or bottle, as well as plenty of quality soft drinks and good coffee dispensed from a striking red Elektra coffee machine.

This is robust, seasonal cooking that uses as much local produce as possible and it is backed up with the best that Italy and France can offer.

My pappardelle, chicken livers, pancetta and sage (£8.50) was a generous plate of fresh pasta mixed with a tangle of precisely cooked chicken livers that were still rose pink in the middle. The pancetta added a salty crunch and the sage was used with restraint so as not to overpower the dish.

Across the table, roast pork, white beans and anchovy (£8.50) was the sort of comforting, rustic peasant dish you would expect to find in the Italian mountains, not leafy St Leonard’s. The strips of pork were surprisingly tender and the use of anchovy as a main flavour, rather than just a seasoning, was an inspired touch.

Dishes we didn’t order included watercress soup with pancetta and chilli flakes (£4.50); Provencal fish soup and rouille (£5.50); Welsh rabbit and watercress (£5); roast squash and blue cheese tart (£5.50) and Exmouth mussels with white wine, garlic and parsley (£8).

From the short dessert menu (scrawled in white chalk on a brown paper bag hanging from a wooden peg, naturally), a shared pear and almond tart (£3.50) was deep, moist and squidgy with a huge slice of tender pear in the centre.

A quirky place selling intelligently cooked seasonal food, as well as chipped enamel jugs and vintage blankets, Belgreen is certainly unique.

It may be a small café, but it has a large and generous heart. Like the silver mirror disco ball in the kitchen, this is one place where the talent really shines through.

Belgreen, 25 Magdalen Road, Exeter, EX2 4TA. Tel: 01392 271190.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The permanent 'pop-up' that may become a future model for the restaurant industry

Words: Mark Taylor
Photo: Natasha Lichodedova

There can be few food lovers who haven’t dreamed of running their own restaurant but don’t have the money to do it or can’t find the right venue.
Now, help is at hand thanks to an enterprising group of chefs who have launched a unique permanent venue where anybody can run their own food event, whether it’s the ultimate dinner party, a pop-up supper club or a full-on restaurant for the night.
Number 40 Alfred Place in Kingsdown, Bristol, has been various restaurants over the past two decades. A vegetarian restaurant in the 1990s, it was then Portuguese bistro A Cozinha for a decade before becoming the short-lived Alfred’s at the end of last year.
When the property fell empty again earlier this year, landlord Austin O’Baoighill and his business partner Rob Dennis were approached by two Bristol foodies with several years’ experience of working in some of the city’s best restaurants.
Robert Birse and Kate Hawkings came up with the idea to turn 40 Alfred Place into a permanent licensed space for people to hire out and be their own boss. Although the space is for hire for anything (“from a Scrabble night or ‘stitch and bitch’ evening to a private fine dining dinner”), the drive is to provide chefs with a pop-up platform.
Not only does the space have two floors with tables and chairs, it has a small bar and a well equipped kitchen.
And if you want to hold a dinner party or supper club and don’t want to cook, they can even supply a professional chef and bar staff for an additional cost.
There have been two successful pop-ups at 40 Alfred Place already. Last month’s successful Cavaville cava and tapas bar ran for four evenings and it was followed last weekend by the sell-out Fishstock, a fish feast organised by the 40 Alfred Place team in conjunction with Lido head chef Freddy Bird.
Rob Birse says 40 Alfred Place is a natural progression of the city’s burgeoning supper club and pop-up restaurant scene.
“It’s a matter of evolution. The whole supper club and pop-up thing has been growing and although it’s not mainstream, it’s a lot more common now.
“People have taken control of running their own places as a way of doing things affordably.
“At the same time, the economy is still dodgy and it’s very difficult to set up your own place.
“As a landlord, I would be a bit worried about putting a young talent in a place with a lease because it’s touch and go if they are going to make it in the first six months and then they have the headache of finding somebody else. This is more about landlords and budding restaurateurs and chefs meeting in the middle.”
Rob says the landlord of 40 Alfred Place has been very supportive of the venture and is now a partner in the fledgling business.
“For Austin, the rent gets paid and he stands to gain financially if it turns to profit in the end.
“But ultimately, he’s just really interested in the concept and we all hope it will become a model for a future concept in the catering industry.”
Whilst Rob accepts that pop-ups and supper clubs may only be followed by a small but committed group of foodies, he wants 40 Alfred Place to become open to a wider circle.
From August 22, the space will be used during the day as a neighbourhood café with free wi-fi access, coffee supplied by Bristol’s Extract Coffee Roasters and pastries from Hart’s Bakery.
Says Rob: “The realistic part of my brain is asking if we are constantly appealing to the same audience but when I was marketing Fishstock last week I realised there is a huge untapped foodie audience in Bristol.
“There are lots of people who have heard about pop-ups but don’t quite know what they were but think they sound exciting. Impromptu restaurants are a social thing as much as a foodie thing - you can go with a group of friends and there’s a sense of anticipation and excitement.
“Because this is not a supper club in somebody’s home, people may view it as a ‘safer’ or less intimidating option in some ways. I guess this is half way between the secret supper clubs and pop-ups and a ‘proper’ restaurant.”
There is a charge for the use of kitchen between Sunday and Thursday, which includes all the kit. On Friday and Saturday, it’s a flat fee.
The rates to hire 40 Alfred Place vary depending on the day but they start at £50 for a Monday night to £250 for a Saturday.
The basic kitchen is set up with enough kit to cook for 15 people quite easily and, for an additional sum, extra kit can be provided to enable people to cook for up to 40 guests.
Cutlery and crockery is all included, as is public liability insurance. All you have to pay is the hire fee and a refundable deposit for breakages or damage.
If you don’t want to cook, the organisers have a pool of chefs and experienced waiting staff they can pull in for the night.
As a chef, Rob says a temporary restaurant or one-off event also allows for more creativity in the kitchen.
“Chefs get complete freedom and they can do things they don’t get the opportunity to do in their usual restaurants.
“It’s a chance to earn a bit of extra money but it’s a bit of creative freedom and expression and it’s also a bit of fun.
“It doesn’t matter how creative a restaurant is, you are still stuck in the same kitchen all day every day so this allows chefs to step out of that, work in a completely different environment and cook for a different audience and that’s very exciting.”
So, is there a downside to all of this?
“Well, if it’s a terrible night and nobody turns up, the worst that can happen is that your ego might take a dent and you might lose a few quid on produce, but there’s no long lasting damage.”

For more information about 40 Alfred Place, email or call 0117 9443060

This article first appeared in the Bristol Evening Post

Friday, 1 July 2011

Interview with Simon Hopkinson

Simon Hopkinson is getting nervous about being recognised in the street when his first-ever TV series gets aired next week.
This most private of men has for years resisted TV appearances in favour of writing his best-selling cookbooks, but this is all set to change when The Good Cook appears on primetime BBC1.
“It does seem a bit silly to starting a TV career at the age of 57,” chuckles Hopkinson, who was coaxed into making a series by a production team at BBC Bristol.
The London-based food writer, who retired as a full-time chef in 1995, has spent a lot of time in Bristol over the past few months.
Although the bulk of the filming was done in London (‘on a set built to simulate my tiny, cramped kitchen at home’), a lot of the post-production work was done in Bristol.
He knows Bristol well because of his friend Stephen Markwick, who Hopkinson describes as ‘one of the very best chefs I know’.
Markwick, who runs the Culinaria restaurant in Redland, has contributed two recipes to the book that accompanies the series.
“I saw Stephen for lunch a couple of weeks ago,” Hopkinson tells me. “He took me to a lovely little restaurant called Flinty Red, which is just around the corner from the studio where I was doing the final voice-overs for the series. I spent hours in a basement just off Whiteladies Road – this is a whole new world to me.”
Although well known in foodie circles because of books such as Roast Chicken and Other Stories; The Prawn Cocktail Years and Gammon & Spinach, Hopkinson has never courted celebrity and has always been suspicious of TV.
Part of this has been down to a natural shyness, although one suspects that part of it is down to a general unease with rise of the ‘celebrity chef’.
And so it comes as something of a surprise when he says he ‘had a ball’ making The Good Cook, a series that shows us how to cook some of his favourite dishes and get the best of out of his favourite ingredients.
“It took me a long time to decide to do the series,” says Hopkinson. “There was a lot of umming and ahhing, but the BBC Bristol team were so lovely that they gently persuaded me.
“I went to the initial meeting only because I thought I had nothing to lose and I got on really well with them.
“We did a bit of filming in my kitchen at home as a tester, and that seemed to go well so I then had I somebody to teach me how to look down the black hole that is the camera.
“It took a while, and I got into a real state about it at times, but then I suddenly turned a corner and I really enjoyed it.
“I do want to emphasise how I was looked after by the crew and the producers from BBC Bristol. They really held my hand.
“It was quite a gamble for them, too, as it was my first time on TV, but they were a joy to work with.”
Hopkinson has built up a huge following for his intelligent, thoughtful writing about food and he is admired by many of his peers in the food world.
He loves food and good ingredients and he has something of a reputation for being a stickler for doing things properly in the kitchen and not taking shortcuts.
His approach to cooking is far removed from the ‘bish, bash, bosh’ school of many modern TV chefs so how does he think The Good Cook will be received by viewers?
“I suppose, I will be a new face to a lot of them, even though I’m quite well known to a small group of people who buy niche cookbooks.
“I’ve always been serious about food and cooking, I’ve always thought that it was important.
“What I’m trying to say in the programmes is enjoy your cooking and if you do it right you will reap huge rewards.
“I’m never going to say that cooking is easy because I think it’s too easy to say that.
“I have done some very easy recipes in the book and in the series – actually, rather than easy, I’d like to say simple and thoughtful.”
The series is structured around Hopkinson’s passion for ingredients and his recipes are definitive versions of classics such as coq au vin; homemade gravadlax and sticky toffee pudding. In the first of the six episodes, he makes baked pappardelle with pancetta and porcini; scallops in white butter sauce and his famous salad Nicoise.
A man who probably loses sleep worrying how to make the bacon bits stay suspended in a quiche Lorraine, rather than sink to the bottom (incidentally, the book reveals the secret of this culinary conundrum), Hopkinson has an old-fashioned tone to his instructions, although he doesn’t want to come across too headmaster-ish.
“I like things to be done properly, but I’m not too strict,” he laughs. “Let’s just say I’m quietly emphatic.
“Having said that, there is one point where I do say ‘this is how it should be’ when I refer to how a crumble should be. But then a crumble should be simple and it should be crunchy on top and soggy underneath.”
Despite the looming TV fame, Hopkinson won’t be swept away on the media wave, preferring to cook for himself and close friends at the West London flat he shares with his cat.
“I won’t do cookery demos in public and I don’t do many interviews. I can’t stand up in front of people and cook and I can’t do public speaking, it’s just not my thing.”
Whilst he is clearly proud of The Good Cook, the reality that he might be recognised on the tube after next Friday is now hitting home and he says he doesn’t like watching himself on TV.
“I am not very comfortable watching myself on TV so I’m going to my brother’s on the night it’s aired and watch it with him. We’re going to have a barbecue and cook the tandoori chicken legs from the book.
“I couldn’t possibly sit at home and watch it on my own, that would be really weird. I would have to cover my eyes with a cushion.
“I keep saying I’ll never go out again once it’s shown on TV. That’s if it takes off, of course.
“If it doesn’t, they might just ignore me and cross the street when they see me, which would be perfect.”

The Good Cook, BBC1, Friday July 8, 7.30pm. The accompanying book is published on June 30 (BBC Books, £25).

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review of Soho Food Feast

It may have been Glastonbury weekend, but the first-ever Soho Food Feast was the real place to be last Saturday.
Organised by Margot Henderson to raise money for Soho Parish Primary School, the five-hour event took place in the relatively tranquil setting of St Anne’s Church gardens in Wardour Street.
Margot and husband Fergus raided their combined address books to rally a number of high profile cheffy chums, including Jeremy Lee, Peter Gordon, Valentine Warner and Eddie Hart, all of whom cooked signature dishes or held cookery demonstrations.
Other West End establishments to serve food included Hix, Bocca di Lupo, Barrafina, Arbutus, Polpo, The Ivy and The Groucho.
Whether it was St John Hotel pig’s head sausage and faggot, Dean Street Townhouse mince and tatties or noodles from Koya, the food on offer was of the highest quality and was matched by some appropriately fortifying liquid refreshments at the bar run by The French House.
Meanwhile, St John’s Trevor Gulliver kept visitors well watered with his informal wine tastings, whilst the cake competition and cabaret kept others amused.
It was a highly enjoyable, sun-baked afternoon filled with great food, much merriment and plenty to do for all ages, especially the children.
Most importantly, it raised a phenomenal £23,000 for Soho Parish Primary School so three cheers and raise a glass of Ricard to Margot and the Soho Food Feast committee. Well done, chaps!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

St John tea now on sale

Last month, I was lucky enough to receive a sample of the new St John tea created by 'Rare Tea Lady' Henrietta Lovell and it blew me away.
A blend of two different flushes of Darjeeling and a little of a very rare Chinese tea, it's subtle, complex and, more importantly utterly delicious in a reviving kind of way.
The blend was created by Henrietta, Fergus Henderson and the St John team "after much vigorous tasting, slurping and manifold cucumber sandwiches".
The small sample I had was only enough for about four pots but everybody who tried it agreed it was one of the best all-round teas they had ever tasted.
The good news is that the tea is now on sale through the St John online shop, as well as being served at the St John restaurants and hotel.
It costs £7 for a 50g tin, plus shipping costs.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

HIX Oyster & Fish House pops-up at Selfridges in London

For one month only, the HIX Restaurant & Champagne bar at Selfridges will host a pop-up Hix Oyster & Fish House - Mark’s restaurant in Lyme Regis.
The venture coincides with Selfridges’ PROJECT OCEAN, a series of events, talks, in-store activity and installations aimed at bringing awareness to the problems of over-fishing in the world.
Selfridges has teamed up with a host of environmental organisations including The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace to help our oceans.
PROJECT OCEAN will take place at Selfridges from May 11 to June 12 and, in addition, Val Warner, Mitch Tonks and Mark Hix will host a sustainable fish supper on Wednesday, May 25 at 7pm. Tickets are open to the public and cost £60 per person for a three-course menu and half a bottle of wine.
Mark Hix says: ‘PROJECT OCEAN is a huge undertaking, it aims to highlight the plight of endangered fish, and so Selfridges has eliminated all endangered fish stocks across the food halls and restaurants.
“For us at HIX it’s the perfect opportunity to show our commitment to sustainability and give Londoners a taste of our fish restaurant in Lyme Regis. The views from the restaurant might not be the same as Lyme Regis, but we’ll be cooking the dishes that we do in Lyme, celebrating local producers and seasonal produce from the seashore. I might even put some seaside sounds and seagulls on the ipod. We’ll add a bit of fishy drama to the event.’”
The menu will feature Mark’s signature style British cooking with an emphasis on South West seafood. Diners can enjoy whole Portland crab with mayonnaise, steamed rock mussels in Burow Hill Cider or Newlyn hake with cockles and alexanders.
Hix Oyster & Fish House at Selfridges opens on May 12 and reservation lines open on May 3.
Tickets for the May 25 sustainable fish supper are open to the public and cost £60 per person for a 3-course menu and half a bottle of wine. Call 01689 855 390 to book.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Book review: Everyday and Sunday – Recipes from Riverford Farm

Three years after the award-winning Riverford Farm Cook Book, Guy Watson and Jane Baxter have written the long-awaited follow-up.

Everyday and Sunday – Recipes from Riverford Farm features more of chef Jane’s wonderful seasonal recipes, interspersed with informative and interesting introductions about produce and growing from Guy, the owner of what is now the largest organic box scheme in the UK.

Many of the recipes will be familiar to visitors of the farm’s highly regarded on-site Field Kitchen restaurant and they are arranged month-by-month, which will be particularly useful to anybody who cooks dishes depending on what is in their weekly veg box or what is available at their local farmers’ market.

As the book’s title suggests, these are a combination of quick dishes for busy weekdays and more involved meals for leisurely family weekends.

There are some cracking recipes in the book. The dishes in the April and May chapters alone make me want to get straight into the kitchen and start cooking – for example: orecchiette with purple sprouting broccoli; wild garlic pesto; spiced chicken with spring greens; asparagus, egg, prosciutto and Parmesan; triple garlic frittata, and rhubarb and cinnamon cake.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Jane a few times and these straightforward, unpretentious recipes reflect her down-to-earth approach perfectly, but also capture her infectious passion for really simple food with big flavours.

The first Riverford cookbook was impressive but this manages to be that rare thing - a follow-up volume that is even better than the original. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Everyday and Sunday – Recipes from Riverford Farm is published by Fourth Estate on May 2. The hardback costs £24.99 and the paperback is £18.99 (and only available from Riverford).

Thursday, 21 April 2011

REVIEW: The Kings Arms, Lockerley, Hampshire

Although it opened last Christmas, The Kings Arms at Lockerley has pretty much kept itself beneath the radar until now. It doesn’t even have a website, although I’m assured that it will do in the very near future.
Nestling in a beautiful village close to the Test Valley, the pub once suffered from a bad reputation because of a few unsavoury locals and eventually closed down.
The ambitious new owners have breathed new life into the only pub in the village and many of the locals are now returning to the place after avoiding it for more than a decade.
A detached redbrick pub with a trickling stream running through the large garden, it is a homely sort of place which feels more pub than restaurant. A good thing.
Inside, the pub is tastefully decorated with walls of local art, old wine bottles, antiques and baskets of dried lavender. There is an upright piano near the door, which may come in handy if any of the rock legends living nearby pop in for a pint of Ringwood ale.
Old pictures of country pursuits remind visitors of its rural location, although its close proximity to Romsey and its railway station makes it accessible for those without a car.
Chef Tim Futter’s food is unpretentious and the menu is appealing, not to mention sensibly priced.
There is a good use of local ingredients and a strong sense of seasonality, both of which were evident in a well composed starter of English asparagus paired with champ potato and local Winchester cheese (£5.95).
Grilled hake with a nicoise salad and aioli (£13.95) was an excellent lunchtime choice for such a warm day. The fish was eye-poppingly fresh and precisely cooked, and topped with an unadvertised bread crumbed Scotch egg with an impressively runny yolk. The sweetness of the roasted red peppers and salty green olives worked well with the fish.
To finish, a creamy slice of iced coffee parfait with excellent honeycomb (£5.75) displayed a delicate hand.
There is a sense that The Kings Arms is only just hitting its stride and there are big plans for a kitchen garden, chickens and private dining ‘pods’ (small eco-friendly cabins), as well as an outside kitchen.

The Kings Arms, Romsey Road, Lockerley, Hampshire, SO51 0JF. Tel: 01794 340332.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Review: Sam's Kitchen Deli, Bath

A ridiculous desk-load of (paid!) work has meant that I haven't been able to add to this blog for a week or so but I simply have to break off and tell you about Sam's Kitchen Deli, although it's one of those culinary discoveries that I'm almost reluctant to share for fear of not getting a table next time.
And it's not as if Sam's Kitchen Deli has many tables in the first place. In fact, it only has seating for about a dozen people at any one time - most of them squeezed around the farmhouse table in the middle of this former antiques shop close to Bath's main shopping area.
It's the first venture for Sam Wylde and Steve Wesley, whose impressive joint CV includes stints at Babington House hotel, The Archangel in Frome and At The Chapel in Bruton.
Sam's Kitchen Deli is a modest affair with a tiny open kitchen behind the counter, a fabulous flagstone floor, one sofa and an upright piano beneath shelves of wine (to buy and takeaway - the place doesn't have a licence) and deli items.
Everything but the bread and pastries are made on the premises and the menu changes every day, including the daily 'roast', which on the day I visited was a fabulous pork belly, which I ate with a bowl of room temperature purple sprouting broccoli and homemade sweet chilli jam served in a dinky little Kilner jar.
To accompany it, an Ottolenghi-style pearl barley and pomegranate salad scooped from one of the ceramic bowls on the counter, and a portion of the roasted aubergine, fennel and pesto.
Other savoury options on offer included a croissant filled with Westcombe Cheddar and prosciutto, and warm slices of goats' cheese and roasted red pepper tart boasting crisp, short pastry.
To finish, an exemplary slice of River Cafe-inspired flourless chocolate Nemesis still warm from the oven and as molten as a chocolate fondant. The orange and polenta cake and the white chocolate and macadamia nut brownies were also going down well with others around the farmhouse table, as was carefully-made coffee dispensed from the bright yellow La Marzocco.
Apparently, I was the first food hack to sniff out Sam's Kitchen Deli but judging from this experience I certainly won't be the last.
In a city that desperately needs more high quality eating places, Sam's Kitchen Deli is a genuine breath of fresh air and Bath's best-kept secret. Until now, of course.

Sam's Kitchen, 61 Walcot Street, Bath. Tel: 01225 481159.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

How Twitter can transform your restaurant

I recently came across this piece by social media guru Peter Kay (not the comedian!) and I think it's worth sharing as many restaurants, pubs, delis and food producers probably haven't quite realised the power of Twitter and similar outlets. Food for thought.

Now there is nothing new and particularly bold in this statement, I grant you, but the environment in which we sit as judge and jury of all that surrounds us has changed dramatically over recent years.
These are changes many people in the restaurant industry are struggling to keep up with.
There are many factors that a restaurateur needs to skilfully manage to ensure their enterprise is a success. They need to work hard to ensure their menu is mouth watering, the service is excellent and the ambience is just so. These are all finely balanced to ensure and that every customer leaves having had a great experience and they go and tell all of their friends what an excellent place to eat it was.
A great dining out experience is underpinned by the understanding from the management that every element is a public relations exercise. A process that needs to be managed to ensure that valuable positive word of mouth is flowing and keeping those tables full of hungry diners.
If the chef was having a bad night or the service was particularly slow unless you had a food critic in the place the impact would be contained. The restaurateur could get away with an occasional off night but not so much these days as in the immortal words of Bob Dylan;
“the times, they are a-changing”
We all now connected in ways that ten years ago most normal people would have thought impossible; but the reality is now that anyone can publish and distribute information on an unprecedented scale with incredible ease. I am of course talking about the social web which happens to be a bit of a fascination of mine but it is everywhere these days, even in our pockets as we are sat eating out.
What this means is that, more than ever, we are constantly updating our status or tweeting. With the advent of the mobile web we can take pictures and use apps that share our location. Think about that for just a second, we are not only walking around with our entire contact book in our pocket but we can now send messages and photos to thousands of our loose connections with a few taps of a button. If you then factor in that anyone, and I do mean anyone, can search for that information then the mind boggles.
What this represents in the restaurant trade is both opportunity and risk. Opportunity, because if your customer is having a good experience everybody gets to read about it.
Risk, because if your customer is having a bad experience everybody gets to read about it.
In an environment where we can all share information about what we are doing, where we are and who is with us we are increasingly doing it. Twitter recently announced on its fifth birthday that over one billion tweets were flowing though its system a week. That's a huge amount of information and I can guarantee some of it will be about restaurants.
What this means to restaurant owners is that every customer sitting in their establishment should be now seen as a critic with their own publisher and a massive audience sitting in there with them.
A sobering prospect, but full of opportunity. Opportunity because if they manage it right they can create the conditions where this activity is focused and beneficial to the business.
Just imagine if you created the conditions where you actively encouraged your customers to be creative and tell you what they thought of their dining experience whilst they were still in the place but at the same time they were telling everyone on the internet. It would keep the place on its toes that’s for sure so service would always be good but it would also create lots and lots of digital word of mouth. Combine that with pictures and you’ve got a way to market your menu to the masses at a relatively low cost.
What I don’t understand is why I am not seeing much more of this happening. It might be because restaurant owners are too busy to worrying about social media or perhaps they don’t even realise it exists.
I know that if I were in their shoes I would be all over it.
Food for thought, methinks.

Peter Kay teaches businesses how to best meet the challenges that social media creates and turn them into opportunities. His Twitter handle is: @notfrombolton

Friday, 11 March 2011

Interview with first-time cookbook author Genevieve Taylor

After years of working behind the scenes on other writers' cookbooks, Bristol mum Genevieve Taylor has finally penned her own.
This week sees the release of Stew!, a collection of 100 simple stews, braises and curries from around the world.
It is the first time Genevieve has seen her name on the front cover of a book despite working as a food stylist and photographer on a number of successful cookbooks.
For Genevieve, who lives in St Annes with her husband and two young children, it is a dream come true and, she says, the result of sheer persistence on her part.
“I had worked on half a dozen books as a food stylist and every time I did one I would joke with the publishers and ask to them when they were going to let me write one of my own. I think I ground them down in the end.”
For the past few years, Genevieve has split her time between looking after her children, running her Zest catering business in Bristol and working freelance for Bath-based publishers Absolute Press.
Out of the blue at the end of last year, Absolute Press art director Matt Inwood told Genevieve that they were looking for an author for a new book about stews and suggested she wrote a proposal for it.
Genevieve says: “I jumped at the chance, but then Matt told me I had to write it in eight weeks.
“It was a mad deadline but I dropped everything took myself off to the Brecon Beacons for a couple of long three-day breaks with my dog, laptop and various pots and pans.
“I rented a cottage up a mountain in the middle of nowhere with no television, no kids, no mobile phone, and just cooked and wrote. It was the only way I could get some head space.
“I had some of the recipes already but the book is also a combination of dishes I cook for my family, mixed with recipes from around the world.”
The book is a veritable encyclopaedia of stews and slow-cooked dishes, from simple Lancashire hotpot and coq au vin to pork braised with ginger, garlic and sweet soy and Sri Lankan salmon curry with coconut sambal.
As well as rich and comforting winter warmers, there are fresh and vibrant recipes for spring and summer, such as lamb, petit pois and little gem lettuce with mint.
As Genevieve explains, they are all dishes that involve the age-old method of cooking meat and vegetables gently in some sort of liquid. This is certainly not fast food.
“Stewing is essentially about cooking something solid such as meat, fish or vegetables in a liquid. You can take it as far and wide as you like.
“Most people just think of hearty winter dishes when they think of stews but there are many lighter stews for the spring and summer so I have included a whole chapter on those.”
Genevieve is a self-taught cook and came into the food world after a career as a freelance television producer working on wildlife documentaries for the BBC and Bristol-based Endemol.
“When I had my two children, I knew television producer wouldn’t be a viable career again so I set up my own catering business and took it from there with the food styling and now the writing.”
Now that Genevieve’s first book has been published, she is already planning more and is clearly proud to have made the leap from food stylist to author.
“I was absolutely thrilled to see the book when it came back from the printers as it was the first time my name has been on the front as the author.
“I had been wanting to write a book for ages and never thought it would actually happen. I have been jotting down recipes and ideas in notebooks for years just in case.
“I’m coming up with new ideas all the time and one of my roles as a food stylist has been to create recipes for certain ingredients, such as asparagus, so that has helped.
“I really hope this is the first of many books. I’ve always enjoyed writing and I really enjoyed the process of doing the book.”
Although she has yet to decide what the next book might be, it may well be based around her new blog, An Egg a Day, which she describes as ‘the culinary diary of a novice hen-keeper’.
Last November, Genevieve started to keep four hens in the back garden of her St Annes home and decided it would make for an interesting blog, creating recipes from the eggs her hens lay every day.
Recent recipes have included a ‘sublime’ onion tart, sticky beetroot and ginger muffins and coffee custard and bananas.
Although the initial outlay for the chicken coupe came to around £300 and the chicks cost £15 each, Genevieve says it was money well spent and the chickens have become a part of family life in the Taylor household.
“I have four chickens – Sam, Doris, Ellie and Mabel – who lay between three and four eggs a day so the whole idea was a diary of what I’m doing with these eggs, with anecdotes about what it’s like keeping chickens in an urban garden.
“The chickens are very easy to look after and the eggs are absolutely delicious. Getting the first egg was amazing – I was so thrilled by it.”
It looks like Genevieve has already found the subject for her second cookbook.

Stew! By Genevieve Taylor is published by Absolute Press, £12.99. To follow Genevieve’s blog, go to

Review: No.1 Harbourside, Bristol

It is almost a year since No.1 Harbourside opened beneath the Watershed cinema in the heart of Bristol's dockland area.
The second project for Coexist, the sustainable, creative collective behind the hugely successful Canteen and Hamilton House across town on Stokes Croft, this café bar and restaurant has brought something fresh and exciting to the waterfront.
In a stretch of the docks that has for years been dominated by brash bars and chains, No.1 Harbourside has been a breath of cool independence.
If nothing else, it has attracted a different crowd of drinkers – by which I mean people who go for fun and enjoyment, not drinking 12 pints of lager and spoiling for a fight.
It hasn’t been the easiest transformation, but then major changes like this don’t happen overnight.
In its first year, No.1 Harbourside has had to find its feet and gauge exactly what people want. It was never going to be simply transplanting the unique Stokes Croft spirit into a city centre bar.
For a start, there are no residents – part of the success of The Canteen is that it is used by the people living in the area – and much more passing trade, especially curious tourists and city visitors.
Whilst No.1 Harbourside has gained a reputation as a bar with quality live music most nights, it has struggled to become a food destination.
My early experiences of the food on offer were not memorable and even though the chefs were creative and introduced a locally-sourced tapas menu, the food tended to promise more than it delivered.
There were occasions over the past year when eyebrows were raised at such dishes as parsnip ‘three ways’ and pheasant trifle – two perfect examples of chefs cooking for themselves, rather than the people who pay their wages (the public).
Thankfully, there has been a major reshuffle at No.1 Harbourside and a new menu and kitchen team launched last week.
The owners have gone back to the drawing board and returned to the original plan of offering a short menu that is both affordable and accessible.
This means, out with the pheasant trifle and in with the house mussels with black pepper fries (£5), along with four daily specials scratched on a small chalkboard above the long bar.
The new menu from ex-Canteen chef Rhys Williams comes with the tagline of ‘eat something wholesome every day’, with dishes described as ‘square meals’ – a quaint term that belongs to a pre-fast food era.
Not only is there more of an emphasis on simpler food and a commitment to locally sourced ingredients (the aim is 90%), but value for money is key here and to prove the point every diner gets a free bowl of soup with slices of homemade organic bread before the main course arrives.
On the lunchtime I popped in, a hot bowl of well-made leek and potato soup arrived as I supped my pint of Stroud Brewery’s hoppy Budding ale – one of four local beers on offer.
The short menu read very well indeed – pan-fried fillet of grey mullet with lemon and chive butter (£7), bubble and squeak cake with homemade ketchup (£6) and duck casserole with pearl barley and mushrooms (£8) being the three main dishes I bypassed en route to ordering what was described as ‘giant pork chop with sage and apple sauce’ (£9).
Giant is an understatement. About an inch and a half thick, with an inch of sweet fat around the edge, this bone-in chop took up most of the plate.
The meat was juicy, impressively tender and boasted a genuine farmyard porkiness. The sage and apple sauce was a little shy and could have made itself known more but the unadvertised curly kale and sautéed potatoes were spot-on. For £9, it was excellent value, free soup or not.
I couldn’t see any desserts on offer, but there are cakes for those who still feel hungry. There are also bar snacks in the evening, including oysters.
When I reviewed No.1 Harbourside in the first week of opening last year, I wasn’t that impressed with the food and I thought the kitchen was trying too hard to impress.
The new menu and concept is much more on track. By offering generous portions of simply cooked food, it is finally achieving its original aim of making local, seasonal and organic produce something for the masses and not just the middle classes. That in itself is something to celebrate and reason enough to support No.1 Harbourside.

No.1 Harbourside, 1 Canons Road, Bristol, BS1 5UH. Tel: 0117 9291100.

* An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Bristol Evening Post and Metro newspapers

REVIEW: The Paulet Arms, Wiltshire

With his shaven head, tattooed arms and generous girth, Adrian Jones looks like a proper chef, or at least a chef in a Guy Ritchie gangster movie.
Thankfully, his bark is worse than his bite. He’s a gentle giant and when it comes to talking about food, he’s a pussycat waiting to have his tummy tickled. He is passionate about cooking.
This is a man whose simple and robust cooking resulted in him being described as a ‘gastroterrorist’ by the fiery Irish chef Richard Corrigan no less. High praise indeed.
Earlier this year, Jones turned up at The Paulet Arms, a newly-opened village pub close to Westbury in Wiltshire.
The pub used to be called The Three Daggers and then The Lamb but a wealthy American businessman acquired the red-brick building last year and invested around £1.3m into making it a smart pub with four chic bedrooms.
The Paulet Arms doesn’t want to be tagged a gastropub and the handpumps of Wadworth 6X and Bath Ales Gem are there as much for the locals on the barstools as the groups of diners in the light, conservatory-style dining room.
The scrubbed pine table and antique leather armchair style is understated but not without its quirky touches, including underfloor heating under the slate flagstones and flat screen TVs concealed behind mirrors.
No expense has been spared in making this a comfortable and stylish pub – down to the linen tea towel napkins and stainless steel cutlery especially made in Sheffield.
Jones had carte blanche when it came to creating the menus for the pub but his time at The Salisbury in Fulham – where he garnered a rave review from Fay Maschler – has equipped him with the knowledge of what people want to eat in pubs.
His food is produce-driven and he uses predominantly local suppliers, including nearby Bratton Pig - breeders of free-range Mangalitza and British Saddleback pigs – and La Chasse, the Dorset-based hunter-gatherers.
“I want to be told by my suppliers what’s good that day,” says Jones. “That’s got to the best way to write seasonal menus, and we are lucky to have such great produce on our doorstep.”
There are already plans to expand the operation at the pub, with a farm shop at the end of the year (the village no longer has a local shop) and even an on-site microbrewery to supply the pub with its own ales.
In the bar, there are tapas-sized snacks such as salt cod fish fingers, rare roast beef and pickles and sausages and mustard.
You can eat from the main menu anywhere in the pub, which is a refreshing change from all those self-styled gastropubs where diners and drinkers are segregated.
At lunch, there is a eye-rubbingly good value menu for £10 (two courses) or £13 (three courses) and on the day I visited choices included chicken and sweetcorn soup; salt cod fritter with Dorset leaves and garlic mayo, and grilled sea bass, hot smoked salmon and celeriac.
My starter of grilled scallops, Trealy Farm cured meat and red watercress (a supplement of £6) was bang on the money. The bushy sprigs of watercress were intensely peppery and were the perfect match for the sweet scallops and rich, salty meats.
A main course of slow roast venison, red cabbage and soft mash was beautifully cooked. The meat had been cooked slowly for several hours and it was pink and velvety in texture. The red cabbage was sweet and sticky but retained an earthiness, the mash was generously seasoned with white pepper and probably contained as much butter and cream as potato.
A flourless chocolate brownie made using ground almonds was almost fondant-like in the middle and the richness was cut with kirsch-soaked cherries.
In the evening, things move up a gear with the likes of salt cod fritters with garlic mayo (£4.75), bavette steak and chips with béarnaise (£11) and lamb shank shepherd’s pie with roast carrots and peas (£13).
This is confident cooking of well-sourced ingredients by a chef who doesn’t go in for froths and fads.
Everything on the plate was there for a reason and it was as honest and unpretentious as good food gets.

The Paulet Arms, Edington, Westbury, Wiltshire. Tel: 01380 830940

Friday, 4 March 2011

Arrival of ex-French Laundry and Fat Duck chef marks new era for The Castle at Taunton

The departure of Richard Guest as head chef at The Castle hotel in Taunton may have caused owner Kit Chapman a temporary headache at the time but the good news is that he has found a very gifted replacement.
Young Irishman Jamie Raftery, the son of a respected poet, has injected new vigour into this historic venue. The Castle has produced some notable chefs over the years, including Gary Rhodes, but after lunch there today I think we will be hearing a lot more about the newest recruit, who worked for a year at the French Laundry and also at The Fat Duck.
Raftery's arrival has coincided with some major changes at the hotel. From early April, the hotel's famous dining room will only be open for events and 'high days and holidays'. The Chapman family - which, of course, includes Michelin-starred chef Dominic Chapman who now cooks at The Royal Oak at Paley Street - has decided to move the Castle's food offering to the more informal Brazz brasserie next door.
Brazz at The Castle will essentially offer the same high level of service and food but in a more relaxed, contemporary setting.
I tasted a number of dishes destined for the new menu and they were excellent. Raftery is clearly a gifted and passionate chef who has learnt well at his previous restaurants.
His food is produce-driven and delivers big flavours, as was evident in a faultless starter of chicken liver parfait with medlar jelly and brioche and a delicate and beautifully composed goat's cheese mousse, beetroot, apple, celery and walnut.
For me, the star dish was a robust and rich main course of venison faggots with lentils, red cabbage and parsnips, although it was a close call between that and an inspired dessert of apple mousse, cider apples and sorbet.
Talking to Kit Chapman and his new chef, I got the sense that the move away from formal dining in the Castle itself marks the end of one era but the dawn of an exciting new one and I think Brazz at The Castle will be a huge success when it launches officially next month.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A taste of Simon Hopkinson in the Cotswolds

Simon Hopkinson may not be cooking professionally these days, but his food lives on at a new hotel in Gloucestershire.
The former Bibendum chef and award-winning author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories is the consultant chef at the newly opened Montpellier Chapter Hotel in Cheltenham.
Hopkinson has worked closely on the menus with the restaurant's head chef, Tom Rains, and many of the dishes will be familiar to any diners who remember Hopkinson’s cooking at Bibendum.
Starters include potted shrimps with wholemeal toast and scallops cooked in the half shell with garlic and herb butter. Main courses of roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing, bacon and sausage roll and bread sauce or shepherd’s pie with carrot and swede mash might be followed by chocolate mousse, rhubarb crumble with custard or lemon meringue pie.
For Rains – a long-time admirer of Hopkinson – it has been a dream come true to return to the town of his birth and work with one of Britain’s greatest chefs.
“I jumped at the chance,” says Rains. “We have really worked hard to put together a daily changing menu which showcases the best of the British Isles’ ingredients and well-executed dishes full of flavour.”
Hopkinson has been hands-on with the menus and has spent a lot of time at the hotel. Rains has even had to cook for the great chef at the home he shares with his wife.
“I was a bit nervous when I first met Simon,” he admits. “He is such a big name in the restaurant world but very few chefs would have this opportunity and I have learnt so much about cooking from him."
The two chefs have sourced as much produce as possible from the Cotswolds and the immediate area. Poultry comes from Madgett’s Farm in the Forest of Dean, meat from Hill View Farm in Gretton and smoked salmon comes from the Wye Valley.

The Restaurant at The Montpellier Chapter Hotel, Bayshill Road, Montpellier, Cheltenham, GL50 3AS. Tel: 01242 527788

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Countdown to the Love Food Spring Festival

The second Love Food Spring Festival has been announced for March 26/27 and this year admission will be free.

Held at the historic Brunel’s Old Station next to Temple Meads in the heart of Bristol, The Spring Festival promises to be the city’s biggest food and drink event of 2011.

Hundreds of producers, chefs, experts, writers, entertainers, artists and musicians will be joining forces with an estimated 8,000 visitors to celebrate, enjoy, and learn about all of the fantastic produce to be found in the South West.

Those of you who have attended a Love Food festival before will know that, as well as delivering some hard hitting messages about sustainability and provenance, it is also a family event with a fantastically fun atmosphere.

And to make the event even more accessible to everybody, founder and organiser Lorna Knapman has decided to make entry to the festival free.

“I want The Spring Festival to be enjoyed by as many people as possible,” says Lorna. “I feel it is so essential in these times that good food does not get missed off the agenda just because it is perceived to be too expensive.”

With a huge indoor Love Food market, garden, a beach, a rant room, cookery school, tasting theatre, picnic area, street food, local bar, music, café, children’s area, performers, art and much more, this is set to be a truly magnificent event.

Highlights of this year’s Spring Festival include:

The Love Food market
Seventy handpicked market stalls providing a vibrant, colourful, delicious and informative shopping experience. The market will showcase a fantastic range of amazing local produce and the opportunity for customers and producers to communicate and network, finding ways in which we can create a more sustainable future for our food.
Stalls already confirmed include: Love Patisserie, The Community Farm, The Thoughtful Bread Company, Bath Pig, Upton Cheyney Chilli Farm, Heavenly Hedgerows and many more.

The Cookery School
Some of the region’s best chefs will be sharing their skills with visitors of all ages and teaching them how you can make deliciously affordable food at home. Chefs so far confirmed include Mitch Tonks (Rockfish Grill), Freddie Bird (The Lido) and Ron Faulkner (The Muset by Ronnie).

Picnic area
Street food combined with a bar and great live music. A great place to sit down and enjoy some delicious food with family and friends and soak up the fun and colourful atmosphere. Stallholders confirmed so far include: Venison in the Vale, Bristol Ethicurean, Tom’s Pies, Orchard Pig, Bristol Beer Factory and Agnes Spencer’s Jerk Chicken.

The Children's Area
A dedicated children's area will provide a wide range of activities designed to entertain and educate. It will give children, parents and teachers from different communities the opportunity to learn and be enthused by food and nature through planting workshops, story-telling and hands-on cookery classes including children’s baking and butter making. Staff from Windmill Hill City Farm will also be on hand with some of their livestock and will be running some great workshops.

Anorak workshops
Anorak – ‘the happy mag for kids’ – will be making its Bristol debut at the Spring Festival, running workshops with food-related activities. The magazine’s staff will also be on the look out for child reporters so bring your notebooks and pencils!

The Garden
Workshops, talks and advice on all aspects of gardening and allotment-keeping, including culinary and medicinal herbs for sale from local growers Glenholme Herbs, bee-keeping, composting, growing fruit and vegetables and the Gorgeous Great Cake Café serving tea, coffee and light refreshments.

The Beach
A fun filled room with a hard-hitting message. Come and enjoy some delicious local seafood from the BBQ, relax in a deck chair, listen to the sound of the sea and fill yourselves with knowledge and inspiring information about what we can do to protect it. Sandcastles included!

The Rant Room
Led by Rude Health's co-founder and chief ranter Nick, our small but proudly outspoken gang isn't afraid of standing up for real, honest food - the way it should be. Join passionate food producers and famous foodies as they step onto the hay bale and up to the microphone to voice their opinions.

The Taste Theatre
Fun, informative and delicious tasting sessions with some local experts including Bristol Beer Factory and Orchard Pig in a super ‘Spring Taste Off’.

Art Exhibition
Local artists will show the beauty and wonder of the natural world, food in all its glory and revealing photo stories about the processes and results of local initiatives. All of these things take part under one roof with a fantastic soundtrack, a great atmosphere, lots of happy food loving visitors, massive amounts of bunting, straw bales and fun. Come and join the party!

Lorna Knapman says: “Like Love Food, this festival is about bringing the countryside to the city. It’s about reconnecting with our communities and the land, enjoying the space and air that natural landscapes offer us.
“By working outdoors, becoming more in touch with the changing seasons around us, learning to grow our own, eating together and encouraging our children to be a big part of these things, I truly believe that it can have a massive impact.
“It’s all about having fun while we do it and not over complicating things or making these changes seem difficult or intimidating. The last thing we want is for people to be afraid to ask a question.”

The Spring Festival will take place at Brunel’s Old Station, Temple Meads, Bristol, on Saturday March 26 (10.30am-6pm) and Sunday March 27 (11am-5pm). Entry is free.

New pub venture from former Wheatsheaf head chef

Next Monday sees the launch of The Apple Tree at West Pennard, near Glastonbury. It's the first solo venture for Lee Evans, the former head chef of the award-winning Wheatsheaf at Combe Hay. Lee and his wife, Ally, have taken over this stone-built country pub and added two en-suite bedrooms for visitors who want to make a night of it and enjoy Lee's fantastic breakfasts (anyone for caramelised porridge with whisky or grilled Arbroath smokies?). Open for lunch and dinner, the pub is still very much a place for a pint of ale or cider, but food is another reason to make a detour. There is a bar snack menu and sandwiches such as hot rump of Hereford beef and horseradish or Chew Valley smoked salmon and creme fraiche. The main lunch and dinner menu promises dishes such as confit duck with blood orange and chicory salad; chicken, leek and ham pie; braised beef shin casserole with horseradish mashed potato, and slow cooked belly of pork with black pudding, caramelised apples and crackling. To book, call 01749 890060.