Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Off your bike

Wanting to take advantage of a rare Sunday off (I’m managing a café on weekends but that’s a story for another day) and an even rarer beautiful sunny day, I decided to cycle to the Sunday markets in Spitalfield. The day did not start well after an altercation in Hyde Park. A man took issue with me cycling in a no cycling section of the park (around 99% of the park) and actually grabbed me and tried to pull me off my bike. The fact that he could grab me shows how slowly and carefully I was riding your Honour. Despite Ken Livingstone's proclamations I haven't found London to be overly bike friendly. The unpleasant exchange ended with him yelling “Piss off back to your own country” and me replying “So you’re uptight, a knob AND a racist”. To which he surprisingly agreed.

By the time I reached the markets I was in desperate need of a coffee and in no mood for a frappuccino. I circled the markets and its surrounds before homing in on Market Coffee House on Brushfield St.

It had all the markings of a good coffee experience: next to a foodie mecca A. Gold, coffee served in small cups rather than mugs, lots of customers and friendly ones too who were happy to share tables, and some antipodean accents behind the counter. Maybe I’m racist when it comes to who I trust to make my coffee.

After a false start (in my still shaken state I ordered a white coffee and was handed a long black with cold milk) my persistence paid off and I was rewarded with a lovely latte.

All was well with the world again.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

A country showing

Many a happy memory is held of our annual family outing to the Queensland Royal Agricultural Show - or the Ekka as everyone calls it in my hometown, Brisbane. Eating strawberry icecream, watching the dog shows and the wood chopping competition, catching the chairlift from one end of the showground to the other, spending hours choosing the two show bags we were allowed, and huddling together on the stands in the main ring at night time to watch the fireworks with the crowd chanting ‘red’ 'blue’ ‘green’ as we tried to guess the next colour that would explode in the sky.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that my visit to a friend’s place in Wiltshire coincided with the Gillingham and Shafttesbury Agricultural Show. There were jousting knights, ferret races, large farm machinery and fashion for sale and best of all, a food tent showcasing the region’s finest produce. I will never look at a sausage the same way after sampling more than is healthy in one day- researching suppliers for the café.

Competition standard may not have been world class. Some dubious entries in the craft and home baking categories attracted harsh comments from the public viewing the entries on display...

but there was nothing shameful about the size of their vegetables.

These magnificent buddha-esque onions inspired me to bake a tart – practising for my entry next year in the vegetable tart category.

Goat cheese and caramelised onion tart

40g butter
4 large onions (relatively speaking- they don’t have to be the size of those pictured)
salt pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
120g goats cheese log
2 eggs
250 ml crème fraiche
24cm shortcrust pastry case baked blind (10mins with baking paper on, 10 minutes without)
2 sprigs lemon thyme

Preheat oven to 180 degrees.

Melt butter in large pan. Add onions and a good pinch of salt and cook stirring over medium to high heat until softened (about 5-10 minutes). Turn heat down to low, cover with a lid and leave to soften for about 30 minutes, stirring often. Remove lid and continue to cook until liquid is evaporated and the onions are a golden colour and have a jam like consistency (about another 30 minutes but depends on how much liquid you have to start with). Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Remove from heat and leave to cool.

Cut the goats cheese into slices about 5mm thick and then into halfmoons. Beat eggs with the crème fraiche until smoothly combined. Stir in the cooled onions and add salt and pepper to taste. Pour mixture into pastry case and arrange goats cheese slices over the top. Scatter over the thyme leaves and some ground pepper. Place tart in the oven and bake until golden and just set (about 25 minutes). Let stand for half an hour before serving.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

A different Bill

I don't mind admitting that it was with feelings of trepidation and preemptive envy that I made the trip to Brighton to visit Bill's Produce Store (no connection to the three Bill's cafes in Sydney set up by Bill Grainger). A gaping hole in the UK market is casual cafe dining for foodies - something that Australia has in abundance. From what I'd heard, Bill's in Brighton had a very Australian feel and did great breakfasts, salads and fresh juices. What if they were doing exactly what I'd envisaged for my cafe but better than I ever could?

After getting hopelessly lost (it's 100 North Rd Brighton, not North Street or Brighton Rd) we arrived at 1pm and were seated at the last free table. Literally ten minutes later there was a queue - not bad for a weekday considering Bill's is by no means small (looks like it seats over 60). Its a food store/cafe housed in what feels like a shed with high ceilings, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables in the front, a cafe in the back half and shelves of upmarket pantry items like chutneys, vinegars and oil lining the walls throughout. I don't know how many people actually buy any of this stuff; no-one while we were there. But despite the slightly staged look, it all lends itself to the farm-shop, rustic atmosphere they are trying to create.

They have managed to fit a lot of different offerings in a relatively small space with takeaway sandwiches, salads and cakes, a juice bar, the fresh produce and goods section and the eat in cafe which is clearly what most people come for. The menu marks it as more cafe than restaurant and is weighted towards breakfast which includes all the usual suspects - scrambled eggs, eggs benedict, pancakes, grilled mushrooms, etc. For lunch there are a selection of pizzas (thick based like a focacia and heavily loaded with ingredients) and quiches (English cafes are very fond of quiches) all on display, as well as a couple of daily specials written up on blackboards.

I had the steak sandwich (9 quid) which came as a gristly, though generously sized, piece of steak sandwiched in home made focaccia bread with horseradish mayonnaise and roast vegetables including roast parsnip, zuchini and sweet potato. I'm all in favour of mixing flavours and textures but I also think that if you use really fresh quality ingredients (which given the props and setting you assume they do) its better to keep it simple. I think the roast vegetables were a mistake.

Nothing is minimalist or understated at Bill's - portions are huge, flavours are mixed together with gay abandon, and the presentation is a little overwhelming. I gave up on desert because I couldn't see what any of the cakes looked like underneath the decorative flora and fauna.

And yes, the coffee is served in cups for giants with calcium deficencies.

In contrast to all the chaos and clutter going on in ingredients, presentation and people, the waiters are amazingly calm and efficient. We had excellent attentive service, although I did take issue with the man serving at the fruit and veg counter when he mocked my Aussie accent. Ah a cunning linguist: "You don't hear me making fun of your accent do you?" "Well go on then". So I gave him a rendition of my cockney accent, something I felt I'd honed from working at a jacket potato shop in Holborn 13 years ago: "I'll have a jacket wif beans and cheese and don't be shy wif the beans". Not bad he conceded "but you still sound like an Aussie". I didn't think he'd appreciate a history lesson explaining Australia's convict beginnings so I let it go.

All in all, nothing amazing about Bill's considering the hype - they are still way superior to most cafes I've been to in the UK and are obviously doing something right to be so popular. Maybe I was just unlucky but I was peversely happy to be a bit disappointed.