Wednesday 21 May 2014

Butchery Class at The Quality Chop House, and a Recipe for Stuffed Lamb Breast

I've written briefly before about The Quality Chop House, way back when I used to do these round-ups. I'm not sure I conveyed very well how much I enjoyed the meal I had there, but it was very much indeed, so I let off a little "WOOP!" when I received an email inviting me to try out the new butchery class they're offering.

The Quality Chop House has undergone several different incarnations, most recently a rather doomed meatball restaurant, until Will Lander and Josie Stead took it on as new owners, with Shaun Searley as their head chef. I love the set up of it; in the main dining room where you can book into the oft-talked-about uncomfortable church pews of the Grade II-listed building, a set menu of a few snacks to start, a main and pudding is served for £35. In the wine bar, a small and boisterous no-reservations space, a full bar menu to choose from. Something for everyone (except maybe vegans). Now, they have a butcher's shop and deli next door, headed up by their butcher, Olly. It was he who led us through a two hour class on how to break up a whole lamb into component parts suitable for cooking.

I'm not going to go into too much detail, save that Olly is a brilliant teacher and despite what might have been seemingly gory, was actually much easier than I had anticipated under Olly's careful instruction and watchful eye. Dealing with a carcass per 3 students, this was certainly a hands-on class - we sliced and poked and sawed our way into creating shoulders and legs ready for roasting, while Olly gave us helpful tips on cheaper cuts that still yield maximum flavour. As someone who never goes in for a frenched rack of lamb, always preferring the shoulder or scrag end, especially for curries, titbits of advice were great - such as the neck fillet being a cheaper but damn-near-as-good a cut as the fillet.

Even more excitingly, we were shown how to remove the rib bones from the breast of the lamb - an ultimate cheap cut, but one often daunting to deal with - before being presented with a host of ingredients to stuff it with. At the bottom of the post is a rough recipe (as I had no scales) for what we used, which I then got to take home to cook.

2 hours flew by, and with the butchery class done, we scrubbed our hands clean and headed for the restaurant to sit down to dinner. A lamb-centric menu was prepared for us, and we started with a trio of dishes consisted of radishes cleverly enrobed in butter, a stack of steaming hot lamb croquettes with aioli and lamb ribs, impossibly crisp and drenched in a mint sauce with such tartness as to cut through the intense flavour of well bred lamb fat. Those lamb ribs were on the often-changing menu when I visited all those months ago, and rightly so too - they are SO good. It was all I could do from stopping myself from running off with the bowl to a corner to strip those bones dry myself.

A huge platter of lamb followed to share, family-style; blushing pink slices, as well as slow-cooked shredded, tender shoulder to the side, on a bed of buttery greens with ribbons of courgettes and herbed potatoes. I couldn't decide which cut I liked more, so I just kept eating both until there was nothing left to eat. My companions didn't go hungry either.

To finish, a gorgeous dessert of strawberry sorbet, meringue, white chocolate and a macaron. I am only sad I stuffed myself so silly that I could only appreciate this a little, but it was an accomplished and a palate-refreshing end. I was handed over my bag of meat, which had my lamb breast handiwork (which Olly kindly fixed a little for me... I'm really shit at tying butcher's knots), half a shoulder and half a leg and off I waddled into the night, to wobble my way home on my bike. 

No less than three days later, I cooked my spoils of the evening. Yes, it's with the same accompaniments I had with the platter of lamb at The Quality Chop House. It was that good.

Stuffed Breast of Lamb

Serves 4 generously

1 lamb breast, ribs removed, in one piece
250gr minced lamb
2 stalks of rosemary, leaves removed from the stalk and minced
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped off and chopped roughly
6 smoked anchovies in oil, chopped roughly (normal ones also work)
A small handful of sea purslane, chopped roughly (not essential if you can't find it)
A large handful of wild garlic, chopped finely
2 shallots, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
A hefty pinch of salt

In a bowl, mix the minced lamb with the seasonings and ingredients well. Spread out onto one half of the lamb breast and then start rolling the breast tightly but not to squeeze the stuffing out. Secure with butcher's string lengthways and along the width of the cylinder at least 6 times. I was terrible at tying a butcher's slip knot, so use this guide. Roast on a high oven (220 degrees) on a rack for 20 minutes, then turn down to 90 degrees and roast for a further 2.5 hours, basting with the collected fat every hour.

Remove from the oven, leave to cool and then chill in the fridge for at least 3 - 4 hours, or overnight.

To serve, heat up a non-stick frying pan on a medium heat. Slice the lamb breast into 8 slices and pan fry (without oil, as the lamb breast is quite fatty and releases a lot of it) for 5 - 7 minutes each side, until crisp and golden. Serve with freshly steamed new potatoes tossed in a mint-heavy salsa verde and steamed greens. 

So, for a thoroughly educational and fun evening - seriously, if this advertising agency world gets too much, I'm retraining as a butcher - and a wonderful dinner, the details are below. Yes, I was invited, but I would have happily paid every penny of the £135 all inclusive price tag.

Quality Chop House
88 - 94 Farringdon Road, 
London EC1R 3EA

Call 0203 490 6228 or email for details. I believe they do pork and beef as well as lamb too.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Special Report: Brunching in Amsterdam

I can't say I spent much time in Amsterdam exploring all the best restaurants - I was there for King's Day. The first of its kind, previously Queen's Day, the day is to celebrate the Monarch's birthday. The people of Amsterdam take to the streets, dressed in orange. Sound systems pump out techno, others strange Dutch folk music and all day and all night the party goes on, so the following day, as you might expect, we were feeling pretty ropey. 

A refreshing 20 minute walk got us to an absolutely rammed Staring at Jacob. The waitress told us we'd be better off coming back around an hour later to seat us, which we were only happy to do; after having been told tales of the fried chicken and waffles, and now having glimpsed them wafting past on a plate, nothing else would do. We went round the corner for beers. Upon our return, I went to ask about a table and was told they were closing, having been very busy previously. My Rage Face went on. I protested, I stomped out. My rather more charming friends sidled in to try their luck, flaunting a birthday and we were seated shortly after, and told only certain items were available. 

The chef, an American guy complete with baseball cap came to take our orders and to tell us what we couldn't have. He promised to rustle me up some fried chicken. The situation was diffused. We got stuck into some prosecco cocktails. The chicken was crisply fried, the insides tender and juicy. Waffles were a little stiffer than I'd have hoped for, but I couldn't really complain. A perfectly poached egg nestled in between, and though you might think the maple syrup drizzled over it would be odd, I disagree and asked for extra syrup. It was everything I had hoped for, that I'd spent the morning tormenting my hungry self over thoughts of. 

My friend, ever the sugar fiend, ordered the french toast with bacon, and a side of pancakes. The bacon was flung to one side, discarded onto someone else's brunch and the pancakes slapped on top. A sugar lover's dream. 

All thoughts of nearly losing my shit over severe hunger-anger had dissipated, and I loved Staring at Jacob. Great staff, an excellent playlist and delicious food nursed us through our delicate time.

Staring at Jacob

Jacob van Lennepkade 215
1054 ZP Amsterdam

Sunday 11 May 2014

Southerden Pastry Store, Peckham

Peckham's 'gentrification' continues, with the Bellenden Road area becoming more and more upmarket. Estate agents like to call it Bellenden Village to really drive those house prices up, but then most estate agents are, well, what the word 'Bellenden' is made up of. Artusi opened recently, to acclaim and for a while now The Begging Bowl has been quietly working away, serving some of my favourite Thai food. General Store, a few doors down is a gorgeous little shop; herbs and vegetables from farms in Kent are sold here, as well as top quality cheese, bread and cured meats. It is not the Peckham of yesteryear, though Rye Lane still bustles with Halal butcher shops, fishmongers and beauty salons; noisy, smelly and wonderfully hectic.

Just off Rye Lane is Southerden, a 'pastry store' that is an oasis of calm. The first time we came we grabbed a couple of cakes to take away. Various cakes, breads and doughnuts are displayed by the window, with a brilliant glass dome contraption where by a thick rope is pulled on and hooked, lifting all three covers simultaneously.

Photo from @sharmilasub 
The Choumert bun (named, presumably, after the road the shop is on) was a joy to eat; crisp pastry on the outside, and filled with a creme patissiere filling that actually tasted of fresh raspberries. A lemon meringue tart the size of my palm was beautiful; a crisp pastry crust, a properly lemony filling, and billowing puffs of blow-torched meringue on top. Owner Mel is seemingly there 7 days a week, making everything from scratch out back daily. The lady has talent.

We visited again today and chose to sit in, nursing cups of tea. Inside, everything is brilliant white; the one large table in the centre of the room strewn with magazines and local newspapers, the cushioned bench, the chairs. A counter at the back displays more cakes, meringues and truffles, separated from the world by a glass sheet which I excitedly and inadvertently jabbed. Unfortunately my housemate was far too impatient to wait for me to take a proper picture, but the cake we shared was a beauty. Filled with stewed rhubarb in a buttery, flaky pastry case, the top is made of sponge cake, topped with some sort of red crumb, a curl of white chocolate and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream. It was really very special. The girls sitting opposite us exclaimed that it was the best cake they'd ever had.

Once we started, it was pretty difficult to stop and the homemade marshmallows kept catching my gaze. Toasted coconut, mango and lime, strawberry and basil, raspberry and champagne and blackberry and mint were on offer. Our raspberry cube was intensely flavoured with the fruit, with just a hint of the fizz. Foamy but not squishy and not over-sweet, it restored my faith in marshmallows, as I was previously a bit of a skeptic.

Lemon and poppyseed and raspberry macarons (and maybe a vanilla and cinnamon truffle...) ended our sugar binge. The lemon was my favourite, the sunshine yellow curd fragrant and sweet. For all this plus two teas, we paid £14 - great value for what is an incredibly intricate skill.

Next time, I'm totally going for these chocolate sticks - they are stirred into hot milk, creating a hot chocolate as they melt. They also sell breakfast boxes filled with croissants and cold-brewed coffee, as well as flour, butter and various pastries to take home and bake with. 


46 Choumert Road
London SE15 4SE

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Bell's Diner & Bar Rooms

A wonderful resource to our visit to Bath and Bristol was Dan's blog, (not so) Essex Eating, and Fiona Beckett's list of favourite restaurants. Of the plethora of places to choose from, Bell's Diner and Bar Rooms appealed to us the most. Having not really been to Bristol much I was a bit dubious when we drove down a grubby little back street it was located on, but all the trepidation was erased when we stepped inside. The bar area was small and a little crowded, so we were taken straight to our table, nestled within one of several rooms, which happened to be next to the record player. We were invited to pick the records as each finished, which was a nice touch, though I'm glad that responsibility didn't fall to me (where's the Rhianna record? Hmm?). 

The menu consists of small plates, with specials on the board. With a slight leaning towards Moorish influences with a hint of classic Spain, we started off with sweet, tangy pickles and salt cod croquettes with aioli, before we tackled the impossible task of trying to choose from a list of things we wanted all of. Tripe and chorizo stew, at a mere £3.50 came in a small terracotta dish, velvety strips of tripe in a spiced tomato sauce, a few chickpeas bobbing around for good measure. So far, so good. 

Baby Gem salad (pictured half eaten) was the best kind of salad; that is, dressed with anchovies and covered with cheese. Creamy, salty and dotted with breadcrumbs, it was an intense Caesar. Its recreation at home is imminent. 

Mussels and clams in a cream broth with wild garlic and pancetta, perched atop a slice of smoky grilled sourdough suffered from a little grittiness in the shellfish but was otherwise reminiscent of moules mariniere. 

Ox heart with beetroot and horseradish lacked a little of the punch of the nose-clearing heat it is so well known for, but the ox heart was tender and flavoursome, the beets earthy and firm. The dressing was tart and counteracted the sweetness of the beetroot, which I sometimes find overly cloying, but not so here. For £6.50 it was a decent value portion size.

Chicken oyster skewers came bathed in the same spiced clarified butter that the charcoal salt and pepper grilled prawns were doused in. The latter were gloriously messy - we covered ourselves in prawn juice as we ripped their heads off and shelled them with our hands, slurping the sauce as we went along. The chicken oysters were a more demure affair, the harissa yoghurt cooling the fire of the smoky chipotle flavouring. Generously replenished bread was essential for mopping up the plates.

Too stuffed for dessert, we asked for the bill and called it a day. The service was slick and friendly, attentive but never overbearing. I loved the small print on the menus (especially as an occasional just-can't-kick-that-one-cigarette smoker) - now that's service. At around £45 a head each with booze and service, it's not your every day caff, but we did eat amply and the food, bar a couple of glitches, was excellent. 

Bell's Diner and Bar Rooms

1 - 3 York Road
Bristol BS6 5QB

0117 924 0357

Friday 2 May 2014

The Pig Near Bath, Somerset

The Pig near Bath is the third incarnation from the hotel group. We visited the original in the New Forest, so called ‘a restaurant with rooms’, in the hope of dinner. We instantly fell in love with the place; big squishy couches in darkened, wood-panelled rooms were made for flopping on and a wander around the working gardens in the sunshine was idyllic. We drank a morose beer when our last minute request was turned down, and instead headed for The Limewood Hotel. When the opportunity came up a few months later to go away for the weekend, the recently opened Pig near Bath seemed the perfect choice.

The Pig opened a mere two weeks before we visited, though you’d never guess it. Service was slick, from check-in to check out. Formerly Hunstrete House, the group's house style is 'shabby chic', though I use the term shabby very loosely. A maze of rooms are tucked away, with one revealing a beautiful bar, others a crackling fire, and a billiards room. 

Our bedroom, of the ‘comfy’ range, was located inside the main house, while the swankiest 'hideaways', set over two floors with wood burning stoves and free-standing baths, are set within the gardens. A kingsize bed dominated the room, facing a flat screen TV. I loved the little touches of detail, like a variety of books about wild food and beekeeping. On opening the cupboard beneath, we found a fridge filled with local beers and ciders, sweets and snacks and a Nespresso machine. One of the better looking mini bars I’ve seen, and actually reasonably priced.

Like it’s sister in Brockenhurst, The Pig near Bath also has extensive gardens to supply the kitchen. Rows of kale and chard, spring onions, lettuces and cabbages were planted. The pot plants, upon closer inspection were actually arrangements of rosemary and brassicas. Little wooden sheds lined the edge of the gardens for massages and other holistic therapies, and the restaurant itself was housed in the conservatory. Jumbles of potted herbs that adorned every table, seemingly higgledy piggledy. It was too tempting not to taste some of the more unfamiliar ones, like lemon mint. 

Breakfast, not included in the price of the rooms, is charged at a flat £10 for the extensive buffet. Local jams and honey are offered with toast, along with a water bath to suspend the so-fresh-they’re-covered-in-poo eggs to cook to your liking. I almost stole one of the nifty egg timers. Huge bowls of granola, yoghurt, pastries and dried fruit were available, as well as slices of ham and cheese, so that you can breakfast like the continentals do. I was disappointed that the fruit offering was limited to apples, oranges and bananas. 

For an extra £5, you could add a savoury cooked breakfast item, and for a lighter breakfast i.e. not including the buffet, they charge £8 for things like a sausage sandwich, beans on toast, porridge. I found their price points slightly tricky. I knew we were heading for a big lunch that day so I had hoped for just a poached egg on toast, perhaps with some fruit but if I’d paid a tenner for that I’d feel ripped off. I am also uncontrollable around buffets. I ended up having a three course breakfast.

After a mooch around Bath, we returned for lunch. Our table overlooked the vast expanse of gardens, beyond to the deer grazing on the Mendip hills. My starter of a fried duck egg with kale, braised radishes and asparagus was simple and clean, pretty and vibrantly coloured. Soused herring, just lightly pickled was served at room temperature on top of warm, creamy white beans, a hearty portion for a starter.

It was the mains that were the star of the show, though. The ‘extraordinary’ Bath chap was exactly that. Half a pig’s face on a wooden board was the length of my forearm. The sheet of crisp, bronzed crackling had been loosened from the flesh and could be lifted off like a plate of armour. Below, a row of teeth were a dramatic and gruesome sight, as we were warned. Pigs have teeth. I know that. I don’t have an issue with my food looking like the animal it came from, but the blackened molars are likely to give small children nightmares. The darker cheek meat was rich and tender, lined with a layer of creamy fat. A pile of apple sauce accompanied the crackling, and we regretted ordering the pork scratchings and apple sauce snack option a mere half hour ago, to tide us over while we perused the menu.

Wild rabbit, deboned and given the KFC treatment arrived on a bed of sweet and vividly orange carrot puree. Although the coating was crisp, greaseless and nicely spiced, I wasn’t entirely convinced that chicken should be replaced with the leaner meat of rabbit. There’s a reason fried chicken is so popular. It’s all in the juiciness.

Ever since I saw the rows of purple and green kale in the garden, I craved their iron-rich bitterness. The side we had of it, steamed, was essential in relieving our palates. Tobacco onions were in fact shoestring onion fries and were coated in some sort of spicing. I couldn’t stop eating them, even when I knew eating more would cause some sort of internal damage. Two thirds of the way in, we admitted piggy defeat. The triple-cooked chips remained untouched. We waddled off to the library room to park our whale-like selves in front of the fire, peppermint tea in hand. Half an hour later, we retired to bed for a 4pm fat nap. Essential to aid digestion. 

The meal wasn't especially cheap, with starters around the £7 mark and the mains shooting up to the late teens. The sides push everything up that little bit more, but the quality of cooking and the standard of ingredients made our lunch there of decent value. It was an idyllic location, peaceful and beautiful. If you're not careful though you could seriously over-pork yourself - the snacks are mainly pig based, we almost ordered the slow-cooked crispy pig cheek starter, and look at that Bath chap! It is actually possible to over-pig. 

So, I think you can probably guess I really liked The Pig. A lot. It was everything I love about so-called 'boutique' hotels; posh enough to feel like a real treat, but not too posh that it becomes stuffy, or I feel sheepish about being there. Our local cab driver told us that it was mainly 'you London lot' that made up the clientele - indeed, I spotted someone I'd done some work with there. Small world. So not entirely suitable to go and completely hide away, then... 

Rooms start at £139 per night on weekdays, and can go up to £250 per night at weekends for the seriously swanky ones. 

The Pig Near Bath
Hunstrete House, 
Nr Bath,
BS39 4NS