Tuesday 26 August 2014

Raw Duck, Hackney

Raw Duck is the sister to Duck Soup in Soho, which I loved - it's a great date venue, though the bill can rack up pretty easily. This one has a bit of a history - when it first opened it was located on Amhurst Road in Hackney; however, the building they were housed in had to go through an emergency demolition in November of last year. Devastating news for the owners, but they bounced back and re-opened a few months later on Richmond Road. 

Google Maps doesn't know this though, and when you type Raw Duck into the app it will direct your very flustered friend to Amhurst Road. We arrived for brunch in dribs and drabs in varying states. It was one of the hottest days of the year, and I was baffled as to how anyone could sit in the courtyard with the sun beating down on them, but they did. The inside is large and airy, tables topped with white stone towards the back, while the middle is occupied with Scandinavian-style wooden tables and chairs. A far cry from the cramped bar seat nature of its' original, the menu is also very different. Some of it we didn't understand - tropea onion? Burlat cherries? - but the drinks list intriguingly listed 'drinking vinegars' and 'morning ferments'. Unfortunately many weren't available on the day we visited, but judging by their pickle shelf (above), fermentation is very much their thing. 

'Broken eggs' (£8) turned out to be a lightly scrambled omelette, served in a cast iron skillet. Flavoured with anchovy and sage, the ingredients were of good quality and it was an inspired pairing. I couldn't stop stealing tastes of it, spooned on top of sourdough bread. 

The 'dirty bird' (£7) was a massive sandwich, stuffed full of cold roast chicken and - joy! - a sheet of perfectly crisp chicken skin. My only gripe was that the advertised 'jalapeno mayo' was actually just mayo with jalapenos on the side for you to add in yourself. I wanted them incorporated, dammit. 

The 'Reuben', also £7, suffered from sauerkraut that wasn't tart enough to cut through the richness of the pastrami and cheese. Strange for somewhere that posits fermentation as a thing. The advertised wasabi mayo was indistinguishable

Trombetta courgette (that's a long, thin skinny one) was served with broad beans, peas, dill, pomegranate and tahini yoghurt (£10). We had wondered if it would be a flavour explosion but our resident vegetarian enjoyed it very much, making a nice change from the usual
mushrooms / aubergine sole vegetarian offering. 

The drinks list is as interesting as Duck Soup's - unfortunately our waiter was a little short on information, and couldn't tell us what 'On ya Bicyclette' consisted of, so when we ordered it on a whim, it clashed rather horribly with our hangovers. White wine and Campari doesn't slide down easily. But an orange wine available by the glass was cider-like and refreshing, and got us back on track. On the whole, service was a bit haphazard and we had to physically flag people down and the restaurant wasn't full, but it was a minor inconvenience rather than anything major. 

If I'm in the area, I'd return for dinner as the menu evolves to include exciting things that you don't often see, like salted coconut yoghurt, Sicilian red prawns and salt cod & pea fritters - not all together, mind. It strikes me as a worthy local restaurant, though perhaps not quite special enough to be somewhere I'd undertake a two hour round trip journey from home for. 

197 Richmond Road
Hackney E8 3NJ

Tel: 020 8986 6534  

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Pea, Ham & Mint Soup

Pea and ham soup, the ultimate winter comforter, isn't just for winter. For a start, the most traditional of the soups uses dried split peas, soaked overnight and cooked for until the peas collapse and release their starch, creating a soup so thick you can stand your spoon up in it. There's a time and a place for these soups; for me, mostly around the festive season, using a stock made from the bone of the Christmas ham. 

In the summer it's just as feasible; a big bag of peas in their pods, painstakingly shelled is how I made mine with some frozen peas to bolster them, but you can also use only frozen peas for ease and to save on time. It's the gammon that needs a little attention. I used a small lump from the butcher - poached gently in water with some aromatics to create a smoky stock, it was then fished out, de-skinned and roasted with a layer of mustard and sugar for crisp and flavoursome fat. Cold or hot, this soup was accompanied with a ham sandwich for dunking in. I don't make soups often, but when I do they have to be textured; there's no danger here of getting bored of every mouthful being the same. 

Pea, Ham & Mint Soup

Serves 6

500gr peas in their pod, podded
300gr frozen petit pois
3 medium sized floury potatoes, peeled and chopped into a small dice.
1 large onion, chopped roughly
400gr gammon joint, with skin
A handful of mint leaves
2 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp brown sugar
2l water
Creme fraiche and bread, to serve
Salt and pepper

In a large saucepan, place the gammon joint in with enough water to cover and bring to the boil on a high heat. Boil for 3 minutes, then take off the heat and throw away the water. Rinse the joint and the pan and fill again with 2 litres of water. Add the onion and half of the pea pods, put the lid on and bring to a gentle simmer for 45 minutes on a gentle heat. 

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C and line a baking tray with foil. Remove the gammon joint from the broth and leave to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the stock into another saucepan and discard the onion and the pea pods. Add the potato and place on a medium heat. 

De-skin the gammon joint, leaving a thick layer of fat and score it in a criss cross with a knife. Mix the mustard and the sugar together in a small bowl and slather on the gammon thickly. Place in the oven to roast for 15 minutes, then leave to cool. 

By now, the potato should be soft. Add 2/3rds of the peas and all the frozen peas and simmer for 5 minutes, then take off the heat, add the mint leaves and blend using a blender or a stick blender. Add the remaining peas back in and simmer for another 3 minutes, then take off the heat. 

Divide the gammon joint in half and chop half roughly. Taste for seasoning - it may need some salt. Slice the rest of the ham thinly. To serve, ladle into bowls and decorate each bowl with chunks of ham, a blob of creme fraiche and a slice of ham-topped buttered bread on the side. 

Saturday 16 August 2014

Wilderness, Oxfordshire

I'm a big fan of festivals. Obviously there are downsides to them; there's the British weather, camping isn't the most comfortable way to live especially when you're rubbish at being a pack horse / putting up tents, and portaloos are definitely not a fun experience, but there is sheer joy in spending a few days bumbling around, listening to good music, usually in a drunken haze with a bunch of friends. It is completely permissible to wear whatever ridiculous outfit you want, and to cover yourself in glitter and generally behave like a big child.

My taste in festival has become more refined, though. You wouldn't catch me dead at Reading, with all the teenagers throwing piss all over each other. The Big Chill was incredible the two years I went; then it was bought by an events company and turned into a big-branded corporate nightmare, before it folded after 2011. I went to Bestival once, in 2008, and it was so horrendous I had to take a two year hiatus; it wasn't Bestival's fault that the severe weather turned it into a mud swamp, but the general air of aggro wasn't my thing. 

Wilderness is fairly new in the festival world - three or four years, maybe? - and music isn't the core focus to it. Food plays a pretty big role here - indeed, on their website the chefs attending and hosting lunches and dinners in the Banqueting Hall are given equal line-up space to the headline acts. This year Angela Hartnett, Simon Rogan, and Russell Norman with Polpo cooked banquets in the enormous marquee. We'd made a last minute decision to go to Wilderness and by then all the banquets were sold out, but we lucked out by wandering past the hall in time for a lunch and a couple of people were selling tickets that their friends or partners were too hungover / didn't want to attend. 

Unlucky for them, as Angela Hartnett's lunch was excellent; all the dishes were served family style to share, and we got chatting to our neighbours, as music played - it felt almost like we were at a wedding party. Crisp, mushroomy arancini, antipasti dishes of cured meats, grilled aubergines, pickled artichokes and basil and spongy foccacia with grassy olive oil started us off. Rigatoni with bolognese and spinach and ricotta tortelli made up the pasta courses, and we were well aware we still had a chicken main to come. Luckily, courses were served in a very relaxed fashion, with a decent amount of time between them for maximum digestion time. I was agog at what a slick operation it was, given we were sat in a field. 

Chicken with slow roasted onions and fried potatoes damn near finished me off. The leaves were dressed with incredibly intense lemon and was essential in balancing the rich sweetness of the onions. Dessert was baked peaches with amaretti biscuits and zabaglione - a very liquid custard - I just about managed a couple of mouthfuls before we declared ourselves defeated, and went for a lie-down with our new friends and a pint in the sunshine. The cost was £45 a head, with an aperitif, red and white wine to share between 6; considering that most of the food on offer hovered between £7 - £10, sitting down in a banquet hall and being served 4 courses with booze seemed a pretty good bargain.

Otherwise, Southern fried chicken tacos from Ambriento were okay, but not as great as they usually are from their regular East Dulwich spot. Pork and beef chuck meatballs from The Bowler were life-giving goodness - nestled on wild rice and swimming in tomato sauce, they were also topped with fried shallots, sour cream and coriander; every bite was full of flavour. Anna Mae's macaroni cheese benefitted from a squirt of Sriracha, and was comforting and filling. Casual food offerings were vast and plentiful, from yoghurt and muesli (hah.) to your more usual, like pizzas, burgers and hot dogs. This is not the crappy stuff you'd be more used to at festivals in the early 2000's though; I regularly hear that Bleeker Burger are one of the best in London and I am only sad that I was too delicate to face a burger while I was there.

Moro, Hix and St. John all had their own tents in which they held feasts and Moro very cleverly set up a takeaway operation too. Charcoal barbecues emanated wafts of lamb cooking and flatbreads charring, enticing you in. For £7, two spiced lamb chops on a bed of chopped salad and flatbreads were great value; the lamb chops were dusted in a variety of spices and they were some of the most juicy and tender I've tried, though they had a slightly heavy hand with the salt. 

Credit too, to Spit & Roast who were selling some incredible fried chicken. After a skinful of wine on the Sunday night we came across their stall and almost ran towards it, tripping over each other in haste. The chicken was properly crisp, with juicy insides and a flavoursome crust. The fruity chilli sauce took no prisoners and was incredibly addictive too. 

Initially I was slightly nervous that Wilderness would be full of hooray Henrys, quaffing wine and rah'ing all over the place but actually (and despite the Mulberry 'craft' tent and Laurent Perrier champagne garden) there was a good mix of debauchery. Small, nondescript tents revealed secret casinos and the like, meaning it was impossible to stay in one place for too long. Deep inside a valley, the Pandemonium stage fired off dry ice and lasers, disco balls lazily spinning while seemingly most of the childless at the festival partied there until the early hours.

On the one day we actually had constant sunshine, going for a swim in the lake was incredibly refreshing. Lifeguards were on hand, mostly bemused by naked streakers running down from the campsite. Although we didn't actually make it to any of them, there were lots of outdoorsy activities available, though you had to book them in advance; yoga, horse riding, archery and foraging were all things that would have been good if I'd got my act together in time. Instead we plonked ourselves down with a healthy view of the bar.

As I get worryingly close to 30, festivals like Wilderness are more my bag; decent food, interesting talks and things to go and see, balanced with DJs to dance like a dickhead to until the thoroughly decent finishing time of 4am. My only gripe was that the festival was a bit too spread out; there was a lot of traversing to get from one group of friends to the other, and we had a tendency to get very lost, all the time. 

Tickets for 6th - 9th August 2015 are available at http://www.wildernessfestival.com/ 

(I went to Wilderness on press accreditation, but we paid for my companions' tickets, the food and booze.) 

Saturday 2 August 2014

The Culpeper, Shoreditch

I wasn't sure if I was going to write about The Culpeper, mainly because a friend of mine is a shareholder in the business and I wondered if I would be seen as biased or swayed by this. But then I remembered I can write what I bloody well like because this is my blog and I'm not such a simpleton that I can't form my own opinion. So, The Culpeper. Last year it was called The Princess Alice, and it was a fine old boozer with a foosball table and nothing much more remarkable than that. Oh, they also did a swing class in the sweaty room upstairs that you would have to edge past to get to the bathroom and hope that you don't get kicked in the crotch on the way by the oft-grumpy dancers. 

The entire pub was gutted and refurbished to be transformed into The Culpeper. Gone is the dinginess and the low ceilings; the main room is bright and airy, lit with swinging lightbulbs. Banquettes in bold turquoise line the huge open windows, and a shiny chromed bar is the central focus.

Head Chef Sandy Jarvis, formerly of Terroirs has created a menu that is solid gastro-pub, with flashes of excitement. Nestled within the classics like pie and fish and chips are porkcorn, and anchovy butter. 

Whole globe artichoke with spiced crab butter (£6) was a great example of a perfect starter. Easy to share, a little messy and not too filling, the crab butter was a lovely deviation from the usual vinaigrette. A salad of soft boiled egg with anchovies (£6.50) was well dressed with a tangy, parmesan sauce. The ingredients were obviously of top quality. 

Deep fried pigs head (£6) elicited ooh's of delight from our gaggle of girls; a few golden, crisp spheres of spiced pork was accompanied with leaves dressed with a mustardy emulsion, a sliver of pickled walnut here and there to counteract the richness. Our token vegetarian enjoyed roasted vegetables with Israeli cous cous (£5) - the big type - and a splodge of spiced yoghurt on top. 

Our mains were nothing short of hearty. An enormous pie (£14) with a golden puffed lid was packed full of creamy chicken, mushrooms and leek. I appreciated the dressed finely shaved cabbage and radish salad that came with it - one of my bug bears is a full priced main, but an incomplete meal that forces you to order the vegetable or carb component additionally. My own dish was an enormous pork chop (£15), thick and as big as my face, balanced on top of a lemony fennel salad. New potatoes, boiled and then roasted and tossed in mustard accompanied it, along with a herb-rich chimichurri sauce to pour over the chop. The pork was cooked to a rosy pink, leaving the meat juicy and the flavoursome fat crisp. 

By the time we got to desserts eyelids were starting to droop and the toll of our gluttony was onset. I wished I hadn't finished my friend's pie, when our lone shared dessert of a chocolate brownie with salted caramel, honeycomb and creme fraiche (£6) came out. It was attacked with fervour and it was as good as it sounds. 

For such a busy pub, service was swift and engaging. Our friend wrinkled her nose upon tasting the anchovy butter that comes with the bread (honestly, these vegetarians) and plain butter immediately appeared without prompt. Our waiter (or sommelier?) did well with the red wine drinkers in recommending a cloudy-ish, chilled Gamay which they loved; I had a slight tussle on the white wine front, but eventually talked him down to what was more mass affordable for a bunch of women who'd just been drinking beauty-parlour-house-white. Our ordered porkcorn never arrived - devastating, considering my love of both popcorn and pork - but when it was pointed out on the bill our waiter was so embarrassed he offered us a round of drinks on the house. We declined in favour of last tubes / trains / buses but it's the thought that counts.

I'm a big fan of The Culpeper; it's obviously strongly driven by food - they serve breakfast, lunch and during August you can also picnic on their rooftop, where they grow herbs and vegetables for the chef to use. Often pubs can lose the traditional pub drinkers aspect, but I've been for drinks, perched outside on a window ledge in the afternoon sun with scores of drinkers at the bar too and The Culpeper seemingly get the balance just right. 

The Culpeper
40 Commercial Street

(Tables are bookable for 6 or more)