May 24, 2009

abbott 002

Abbott Ale is full-flavoured and smooth. There’s a hint of malt and overtones of spice and really I can think of no better brew to settle down with in the corner of a pub and get quietly sozzled.

When I lived in Cambridge this was my favourite tipple. It’s brewed in Bury St Edmunds by Greene King (who also make the lighter IPA – Indian Pale Ale). So I associate Abbott with the huge, melancholy sweetness of the flat East Anglian landscape. Big skies and nothing but fields and streams from here to the horizon, with only the occasional church spire soaring up, from Cambridge to King’s Lynn to the Norfolk Broads.

Cambridge is a great town. The Backs, where the river’s sandwiched between ancient colleges and a meadow, is perhaps the loveliest spot. You can picnic on the grass, or take a punt, or wander over bridges and through cobbled streets to find a likely watering hole.

If you want a bite to eat with your pint of Abbott, a Ploughman’s Lunch would be good, or a fish pie, or just cheese on toast with a dash of Tabasco sauce.  Try to get your Abbott on draught. While the canned version crops up in most supermarkets, it doesn’t match the real thing. The delicacy of the drink simply disappears.

And if you can’t find it on tap, take a visit to Cambridge. You could work your way through dozens of brilliantly old-school English pubs. The Eagle, just near Market Square, was one of my favourites. Or there’s The Anchor, The Granta and The Mill, all right on the river.


Feelin’ Foxy

May 13, 2009

‘The essence of Stoke Newington’ says Time Out. A ‘hub of culinary and imbibing activity’ according to the Fox’s web-site. It’s very red, very cosy and yes, a lot of bottles go down there. Along with games of backgammon, a stack of today’s papers to wade through and some great grub.

the fox

Stoke Newington began to be trendy at least as far back as the early 1980s. Today there’s a picturesque line of independent shops, a pretty church and the green expanse of Clissold Park (where there are deer). Stokie (as I’m sure someone affectionately calls it) is now the home for those trendsetters from the 80s made good. (If you’re a struggling artist now you live on its cheaper shores, in up-and-coming Dalston or Finsbury Park, bask in Stoke Newington’s extended aura of very English Bohemia, and yearn.)

Facts to know about Stoke Newington:

Award winning Indian restaurant Rasa started here and now there are two branches on Church Street, one purely vegetarian. It’s well worth a visit.

The independent DVD shop (can’t recall its name at the moment) is great too. Full of odd titles that sound intriguing and suitably superior staff who chew gum and look like the coolest kids at school but know everything about film.

It’s the epicentre for urban lesbians of a certain age. (Get off your bus at Fresh and Wild, stroll down past the bike shop and towards the bakery and you’ll know I’m right.)

People either love it or hate it. A bit like Maupin’s San Francisco, you’re either an absolute devotee or you just don’t get it (and are secretly hugely jealous of those that do). Walking to the Fox on Sunday night I was accosted by one of the latter. A large very flushed man in a blue jacket with years of brewery on his breath, who wanted to know if I was ‘going back in there?’ He gesticulated, wild-eyed, up Church Street.

I was.

And what was I going to vote in the next election?

I hummed and hawed and then, since that didn’t work and he was standing scarily close and was bigger than me, I walked on fast, while he puffed after me and then began to roar ‘I am a Conservative!’ Here he beat his chest (literally). ‘What is wrong with us?’ he asked (still beating his sweaty white shirt). ‘I am a Conservative!’ he thundered.  I scurried off into the sanctity of liberal London.

And then, the evening’s excitement over, I settled down to a very nice imbibe of  expensive red wine and expensive but delicious bangers and mash, paid for by my wonderful friend B and her girlfriend (yes B used to live in Stoke Newington) and thought I must come here more often. To Stoke. To the Fox. I must learn to play backgammon. I must wear dungarees and a hat. Life can be good.

Pass the Port

January 16, 2009

I meant well.

Right up until last night I fully intended to give you something really rather special. At one point I was going to convince you that spring greens with dolcelatte and pine nuts was the only dish worth eating. And that shredded kale was the perfect foil for cumin-roasted potatoes.

The green theme was strong but I wasn’t limited to it. Not limited at all – in fact I would go so far as to say my culinary imagination knew no bounds. It soared. It soared right over that recipe for gingerbread I meant to get round to way back when I had the cranberries. Over iced lemon cup-cakes. Over caramel squares. Over so many unmade and imaginary gems of the cookie jar.

There were even some things I actually did get down to cooking. There was a particularly delicious mountain of hot mashed potato in which butter and milk and tahini (yes, it works!) were heavily involved. There was a frugal but fragrant medley of steamed winter vegetables topped with grilled halloumi.

There was even a spicy noodle soup – well actually, no, there was the soup but I didn’t make it. It came from Wagamama. Not did I make anything for the children’s birthday tea at which margarita pizza was perfectly complimented with Nigella Lawson’s chocolate brownies (you can see a comment by those children under this recipe).

And at none of these meals, cooked by me or not, did I take photos or write down any ingredients. Perhaps it was because everywhere I turned there was too much of this –


Not just wine either. There was also port. Lethal stuff port and I don’t think anyone could expect even the most dedicated food blogger to function well with the camera after a glass or two of that!

Not that I’m any sort of heavy drinker, though obviously we do try to keep merry here. It was Dave’s fault, my flat-mate. He’s off work this week and keeps foisting the port on me. No, go away! Oh, OK then!

After a bit of port Dave tends to play one of these –


Which is fine. He plays very well. I just wish he didn’t want me to sing. He’s convinced himself that I’m somehow going to metamorphose into the lead singer of his (unformed) blues band. Ain’t gonna happen Dave!

Which all boils down to this (culinary play on words there!). I don’t have a recipe to share. But I will do.

I’ll make it up to you next week, I promise.

Until then, here’s a photo I took in Cyprus. Not for any good reason, no, but a pomegranate is a very nice thing to look at, isn’t it?


Bishop’s Finger

November 11, 2008

What is it with the British and Real Ale?

I used to think it was just nostalgia, in a similar vein to gentlemen’s clubs and scones for tea. And that the paid-up members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, don’t you know) would be rather the kind of people who might belong to a Lord of the Rings Appreciation Society (the book, not the film). You know the type I mean, with a predominance of facial hair and brown cords. A liking for plaits (the men that is). Dressing up as Bilbo Baggins at every opportunity. Over engraved silver tankards of home-brew, considering earnestly whether Frodo was actually the illegitimate son of the Elf-Lord. 

Maybe it’s the names of the ales that put me off. What sort of drink is called Dog’s Bollocks? Or Lion Slayer for that matter, or Roaring Meg, or the tongue-twisting Boat Brewery’s Locky’s Liquor Locker Liquor? (Try saying that when you’ve had one or two.) Like the quaint villlage names of middle England (Much-Happening-in-the-Marsh, Little Piddling) or the hamlets of Middle-Earth, they sound ever so nice, but rather hard to take seriously.

As far as I was concerned, there was only one point to Real Ale. To get drunk quicker. Period.

I had my first encounter with local hops when I was about 17 and staying in Wiltshire with a school friend. It was my first really rural experience too and I remember how large the sheep were, so shaggy they were almost menacing. In the local pub everyone stared at us, of course, as we necked 5 or 10 pints each of something very dark and strong and flat.

We had a thing for pork scratchings at the time, I remember. The ones in this pub were so much the genuine article that they were covered with bristles, which we found a little bit too rural.

The purpose of the evening, naturally, was to get utterly and irrevocably pissed. I succeeded in this very well indeed, so well that the room actually went round and round, a phenomenon I’d heard of but never witnessed. It was quite exciting. And then I was sick, and slept and in the morning woke feeling hungry and very pleased with myself.

Which all in all, seemed like an interesting milestone of a memory but no incitement to explore ales any further.

And then I came across this and realised How Wrong I Was.

The Bishop

The Bishop

Otherwise known as Nun’s Delight. Number 4 in a poll by the Independent of the best British bottled beers (just below Waggle Dance and Summer Lightning). With a generous fruity flavour, says the Independent. Yummy, I say. Good with some strong English cheese, like Stilton. Certainly not a tipple to get drunk on, it’s too rich for that and why waste it?

I know you’re dying to ask, so I’m going to do it for you. Why is it called Bishop’s Finger? This bit is a tad cutesy, but there you go, we’re English and we do cute well…it’s called Bishop’s Finger after the finger-shaped wayside signposts in Kent (where it’s brewed) that pointed the way for pilgrims travelling to see the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.

And it has it’s own charter (really!) and can only be brewed on a Friday (sorry, this is real Tolkien appreciation territory) by a head brewer using an antique Russian teak mash tun (honest!). And wearing a white druid’s robe and silver headdress.

Actually I made that last bit up. Ignore it. Hand on heart, Bishop’s Finger is the dog’s bollocks.