The Charles Lamb, Islington

It’s a curious thing. Mention the Charles Lamb to anyone familiar with Islington and you get one of two reactions. It’s either an immediate grin and an ‘omigodilovethatplace’, launching into stories of sneaky after work pints and lazy weekend lunches, or blank. Nothing. 

To those of you in the latter camp, you really should give the Charles Lamb a try. It’s tucked away behind Angel but utterly removed from the madness of Upper Street.

We went in on a Saturday – the obviously named Map room (also known as the Cheese room, as the lead glass window once served as a shop front from which cheese was sold) and the bar itself were empty when we arrived as everyone sat outside in the sunshine. We walked around reading the art works, lots of typography pieces including some from New North Press, and Steven Kenny’s Please Don’t Feed Mascha signs.  They refer to the resident dog, whose art dealer owners have curated the wonderful collection on the walls. I liked the magnifying glass provided to properly examine the map of 1890s London poverty.

Darren, the very affable manager, talked us through the menu of the day and also told us a little more about their suppliers. They buy locally (including Exeter St Bread and McKanna Meats)  and seasonally as much as possible – many of the vendors they use call them on a daily basis to tell them what’s been caught or is good that day and they plan menus accordingly. As a result, the menu changes frequently and it’s a ‘first come first served’ mentality but their bar menu has some constants too. 
I started with a Fentiman’s Ginger beer as we were hot and sticky after the walk there, and the boy went for that traditional hangover vanquisher, the Bloody Mary. Turns out they liven it up with a dash of Caol Ila, which got the thumbs up – can’t bear tomato juice myself.
 
We started on foccacia with a delicious fruity olive oil, waiting for the first course. The Chicken liver pate from the bar menu was a very generous portion, and when we cracked the disc of buttermilk coloured fat on top there was warm, unctuous, velvety pate waiting underneath which came with heaps of cornichons and wedges of toast.
 

I went for the Raw candy beetroot, mint and feta salad (£6.50) while the boy ordered the Salt beef sandwich (£8) which had tongues of translucent pickle slices hanging out the side, and thick slices of juicy beef. The plan was to divide and share as usual but I found myself hanging on to the salad – this sort of thing doesn’t normally happen. The boy had a pint of the rather good Harviestoun Schiehallion to go with it – it won Best pilsner 2010 and was hoppy, rich, reminded me of a San Francisco craft beer.

We were persuaded into desserts, the pannacotta was particularly popular and when it arrived it was a full wine glass with glorious speckles of vanilla bean showing through. It emerged that I still hate pannacotta but I wouldn’t have been able to wrestle it away from the boy anyway and he really wouldn’t have had a look in at my frangipane tart with the sharpest imaginable red fruit coulis on top, which cut the sweetness perfectly.
When we were in there, a couple of lost tourists who’d presumably come up from the nearby Regent’s Canal came in and asked what local beers they had.  Darren replied  almost innocently ‘Well, pretty much everything in here is local’.    Then a woman came in saying she was looking for ‘Daniel and Charlie’ – Darren said he hadn’t seen them yet. Turns out she was referring to one of the regulars and his spaniel. We quizzed him about whether they do private hire (at the time we were looking for a pub to hold a party after our wedding) and he explained that as they are a local pub, and in a residential area, they only close the pub for regulars or neighbours. That way, he explains, if someone asks why they were closed on Wednesday night, he can say ‘Oh, No 15 were having a birthday party’ which is acceptable apparently.  All I can say is, Elia St and its nearby residents are very lucky indeed.
Thanks to Hannah at Story PR for arranging for us to visit.

Charles Lamb
16 Elia Street
Islington N1 8DE

José

On the eve of the opening of José Pizarro’s eponymous new space, the man himself was good enough to throw open the doors to a bustling crowd and invite us down to sample the wares.

I think everyone has already described the space as ‘cosy’ – and that’s as much down to the service and the atmosphere as the bijou size of the place. It seats seventeen covers apparently, and the house speciality is small sharing plates. We guzzled gazpacho (given that I’m not a huge tomato fan, this even took me by surprise) and tussled over tortilla, accompanied by a great Cava and a Fino – will have to go back and study the lists properly. What a chore, eh?

With his strong focus on both the sherry selection and daily market specials, José has created a spot that you could pop into over and over again – just to make sure you’re not missing out, of course. We loved the hake with aioli, the croquettas, the manchego – and it went on and on. Plenty of justification for visiting again in the very near future.

Thank you to the gorgeous Hannah at Nourish for inviting us.

José, 104 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UB

Open:  Mon-Fri 12:00-22:30; Sat 10:00-22:30; Sun 10:00-18:00

T: 020 7403 4902 (no reservations)

Jamie Oliver: Fifteen London and Recipease

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of running into some of the very wonderful Jamie Oliver crew.  A couple of weeks ago we gathered at Fifteen, lured by the promise of what turned out to be, frankly, the finest Hot Cross Buns known to man.

There they are in all their sticky glossy gloriousness. We had the privilege of sitting with the lovely Kenny, master baker at Fifteen who’d also made delicious candy-coloured rhubarb and ginger jam which we piled on high, before I proceeded to pillage the vast brunch menu, and order….

Yeah. The fruit plate and the porridge. I was obviously having some sort of healthy epiphany (short-lived, natch) but it was actually very good and here’s where I think Fifteen scores very highly – it does a proper brunch. By that I mean there are decent Bloody Marys – ok, not unlimited but let’s not run before we can walk here –  and a wide range of food options from sweet to savoury with the traditional hangover cures in the middle. I did slightly wish I’d followed Louis‘ example and had the eggy brioche though because actually, I think anything coming out of Kenny’s kitchen is going to be superbly good and just having his sourdough bread toasted and spread with jam and salty butter all morning would have been an absolute treat.  We lingered through to almost lunchtime – we’ll go again and it would be great if the breakfast was served longer at the weekend. For weekdays, they have free wifi too….

I lived around the corner from Fifteen when it first opened and Jamie Oliver started spreading his mission about getting ‘hard to reach’ young people into professional kitchens and training them to be fully qualified.  It’s hard to believe that that was ten years ago.  Now the empire spans Cornwall and Amsterdam too. Jamie’s passion for cooking, and equally food education is legendary. Recipease is another part of his mission.

Uyen and I went down to take a knife skills class (apparently the most popular class they run at the Clapham Junction location). The rather brilliant Annegrete, a professional chef who used to work at Fifteen, put us through our paces for the two hour class.  This was after having a good mosey around the very well curated selection of homewares and merchandise in the shop – you really could drop serious cash here.  The classes are reasonably priced – £30 for ours including cooking our own lunch, and a glass of wine thrown in, plus you get 10% off in the shop afterwards.

What were the most important things I took away from the class? Well, apart from how to prepare prawns properly which was a bit of a bonus, there was the following:

  • how to properly and efficiently sharpen knives – dull equals dangerous
  • move the hands and the blade, keep the food steady
  • make sure the food is stable and set in place
  • place a damp kitchen towel under your board to keep it stable
  • how to rock chop, tap chop and cross chop safely (no slap chop necessary here thank you)

Some on Twitter asked how basic the class was.  Well, the skills are basic but I think a lot of us who consider ourselves competent in the kitchen are probably not as fast or indeed as efficient as we could be in terms of knife skills.  We all thought we’d progressed pretty far during the class and then Annegrete proudly told we’d done well, and with six months’ practice, we’d be great. Gulp.

Being able to cook is such a fundamental life skill but where do most of us pick up the basics? Well, probably at home, if we’re lucky, or we pick up things from books, blogs and TV. I did suffer through a couple of years of home economics in secondary school but I can guarantee they never let us near anything useful like knives. In Jamie’s Dream School currently showing on Channel 4, he seems to be doing his own, more useful take on home ec – i.e. here’s how to chop properly – so that you can cook a meal that’s faster and cheaper than a take away. That’s real home economics to me. Bless Jamie. Long may his mission continue.  (Watch his chopping demo here)

The Trattoria at Fifteen London is open for breakfast and brunch 7:30am to 11:00am Monday to Saturday, and 8:00am to 11:00am Sunday.

Recipease, Clapham Junction, Battersea, 48-50 St Johns Road, SW11 1PR

Thank you to the fabulous Hannah Norris at Nourish and the crew at Recipease for inviting me.

Clarence Court Eggs and the Heston Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding

What could be better than having Mark Hix expound personally on why he recommends Clarence Court eggs at a select tasting in the private dining room at Hix Soho? Better than doing a blind comparison of three egg brands via steaming plates of creamy scrambled and perfectly presented boiled eggs? Better than the eggselent* three course eggy menu that was served up to us afterwards?
The answer is “Taking home 2 doz eggs in an Orla Kiely goodie bag”. BRING IT ON.

Mark Hix talked to us about why he’s a Clarence Court Ambassador (partly the vivid yellow colour of the egg yolks – as he said, you eat with your eyes too), chattered about the modern art (all of the art in the restaurant was specially commissioned) and we had Tonnix wine to drink (a collaboration between him and Mitch Tonks, conceived over a lunch at their mutual Portuguese wine merchant, label designed by their mate Tracey Emin) and tried different a trio of egg dishes.  I loved the posset which surprised me – usually not a fan of that type of dessert.

I’m already a fan of Clarence Court’s Burford Browns, and as it happened we’d just shopped so I was looking at a fridge containing 36 eggs. It’s not that big a fridge. First off, a luxurious Saturday breakfast of boiled duck egg and sourdough toast. (if only we’d had truffles too we could have tried to recreate our favourite Tristan Welch starter at Launceston Place) After 5:40 mins precisely as mandated by Delia, they were little pools of yolky sunshine and my only complaint was I hadn’t been offered two of them. The chef pointed out that they’re bigger than chicken eggs. I  tried to nick some of his and had to make do with purloining toast.

I’d contemplated making quail scotch eggs but on an evening when I knew I had to use up 500g of mince, the boyf had an inspired idea: thanks to his flicking through Nigella’s “Kitchen“, we ended up with Meatloaf.

Rather than the chicken eggs which she naturally suggests, I used one duck egg to bind it all admirably and nestled 10 hardboiled quail eggs into the centre of the meat. It works a treat as every slice has a reasonable allocation of egg throughout.

Finally I decided to attempt my grandmother’s custard to finish the eggs – I reckoned it would be the perfect accompaniment to something else in the fridge – the Heston from Waitrose Hidden Orange Pudding. I’d been thrilled when Waitrose sent me one and then hesitated to open it. My Dad *loves* Christmas pudding and I knew I’d be very popular if I brought it home.
Like “home”, home.
To Ireland, for Christmas. That was a month away at that stage.
Boo. Then Helen kindly said she had lots left over in her fridge and gave me some, and I get to be awarded the “Best Daughter” prize. Win!!

I have to admit, I really liked the pud. Mainly because it smelled just like the one my Mum makes, so it was going to be a winner, though Mum’s pud has certainly never strayed anywhere near an orange, and it’s honestly nothing like a Sussex Pond Pudding (one of my colleagues pointed out that that was where the inspiration probably came from) but I like the whole nuts and the sweetness – it was rather less stodgy than Christmas pud can regrettably be.  Famously, it sold out and there wouldn’t be any more on offer as they take too long to mature.  That makes feel almost churlish saying how well it went with proper egg custard, made with one of the last Burford Browns.

Ingredients

  • 1 Burford Brown egg yolk, at room temperature.
  • 10 g sugar
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 1 vanilla pod or vanilla essence to taste

Method

  1. Mix the milk and sugar in a saucepan
  2. Put the vanilla seeds or essence into the mixture to infuse and then bring it slowly to the boil
  3. Beat the egg yolk
  4. Slowly pour the hot mixture over the egg yolk , beating constantly so the yolk doesn’t curdle
  5. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and whisk constantly while heating gently until it coats the back of the spoon.

Now it’s on to a dry January, and a vast stacked of Post-It’d book marks.  Lots of new recipes to try this year.

Fernandez and Leluu + Unearthed = Action Against Hunger

Imagine being a small or artisan food producer – possibly a family firm, making a product you believe in, to what’s probably a tried and tested recipe. Something you’re passionate about and believe in, and want to be able to focus on perfecting.

Or a committed foodie, a consummate party-thrower, someone for whom “fun” is inviting thirty strangers over to your house three times a week and producing dish after dish of marvellous morsels to an unknown audience.

Simon Day created Unearthed Foods as a way to not only showcase but to distribute fantastic regional continental foods in the UK. With links into major retailers, they can get great exposure for smaller brands and allow the manufacturers to concentrate on production. Importantly, they also operate a robust supply chain so that the logistics make sense and they can import goods from a number of different locations in Europe efficiently. That makes more goods affordable for the consumer here too, and helps support the company’s aim of introducing regional specialties to this market. I guess that, technically, coordinated shipping reduces the carbon footprint too?

Fernandez and Leluu are long-time favourites of mine and they were a great pairing with Unearthed.  Simon  Fcame up with some fantastic combinations, using Unearthed products along with original dishes – sweetcorn soup with chorizo oil drizzle above. The first course included unctuous rillettes from Le Mans, not unlike the ones I had when I spent time in that city as a teenager. Nothing you could have told me as a seventeen year old would have convinced me that a couple of decades later I’d be wolfing them down, I loathed them then. But paired with oyster mushrooms cooked in wine and butter, and they were unbelievably moreish.  This was probably my favourite course of the evening – or was it the pears poached in champagne and vanilla? The broken rice was damn good too. As were the flamenquines.  We were also treated to Campo Viejo wines and both the Rioja and the cava went down really well.

There was such a buzzy crowd, the chatter was so loud we were on the verge of yodelling at each other, while cooing over each successive course as it appeared before us. Conversation and consumption aside, there was actually a more important reason for us all to be gathered together.

Action Against Hunger.  They’ve moved on from their ‘Fight Hunger Eat Out‘ campaign in September and October to focus on ‘Fight Hunger Eat In’. You see where they’re going with this.  I’ve had many fabulous meals in supperclubs for a donation of about £35. That’s roughly the amount of money that’s required to treat a child for malnutrition which is pretty sobering. Providing tools for a family costs around £20 (and if you donate online and are a UK taxpayer, boost your donation with Gift Aid).  Unearthed will donate 1p from all sales, and they’re aiming to support a project in Zambia for grandparent-headed families, where parents have died (mainly due to AIDS) and the children are now the responsibility of elderly relatives who may be unable to work or support them.

Check out Fernandez and Leluu’s great tips on entertaining, stock up on Unearthed tapas if you don’t want to cook and get some friends around.  Cook for them and ask them to make a donation to the charity as ‘payment’.  If you’re allergic to kitchens perhaps consider buying the charity lunch – donating the same amount as your next restaurant meal. It really is all in a good cause.

Thanks to Fernandez and Leluu, Unearthed, and Wildcard.

New York eats

We spent a week in New York last month and naturally went armed with a list of foodie must-do places.  Some of the places exceeded the hype and others were grave disappointments (suggesting we possibly place too much value on eating).  More to come later from the boy, but here are my top finds from this trip.

Part of the trip was spent exploring Brooklyn with our lovely friend Sarah, who’s been there all summer. We ordered a trio of meals to swap and share at Rosewater in Brooklyn – lamb burger, pancakes with peaches, pistachios and cardamom, and the best sandwich I’ve ever had.

Lightly griddled bread, packed with layers of tender brisket, aioli-dressed salad and the ultimate punch came from slices of juicy marinated pepper. Even though the pancakes were great (and lord knows I’m a huge fan of the fluffy American breakfast treat) I was remarkably reticent about handing over the second half of the sandwich when the time came to trade. Rosewater does a great prix-fixe brunch – $14 including a drink. When is this magical institution of proper weekend leisurely lunching going to establish itself in London?

787 Union Street, (Sixth Avenue), Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215 USA
(718) 783-3800

After very disappointing cupcakes from- oh, just about everywhere we tried, I was starting to despair a little. And contemplating about ordering some Bittersweet Bakers or Ella’s Bakehouse goodies for our return (they’re my favourite London bakers by far) to make up.

Then we made the pedestrian pilgrimage to Baked. Deep in Red Hook, it’s the artisan bakery established by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. We shared three cupcakes: Peanut Butter, Red Hook Red Hot and their signature Sweet Salty, beloved by Martha. God, they were good. I’d have to say that the chocolate chip cookies and homemade marshmallows were even better. When I saw them serving the marshmallows in their hot chocolate, I even started to wonder if we could stay long enough til I could fit a cup in.  Amazon just delivered both their books too. Will be thoroughly road-testing them soon.

359 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, New York 11231
(718) 222-0345

We stumbled across the Mac Bar and despite a planned trip to Lombardi’s later, we couldn’t resist it. We also couldn’t resist the regular size, $9.50, because… oh yes. Yes, it does. It comes in an undoubtedly environmentally unsound bright yellow plastic container in the shape of a macaroni elbow. The “Cheeseburger” option comes with ground beef, American cheese, and cheddar.  The weather had shifted that day into squally showers and this was perfect comfort food.

54 Prince St, (between Mulberry St & Lafayette St), New York, NY 10012
(212) 226-8877

Yes. I am on a diet post-holiday. Thanks to lovely Sarah for schlepping us around, she’s an excellent tour guide.

The Harmony of Wine and Water

You might remember the Evening Standard’s Water on Tap campaign from a few years ago.  Their bugbear was that restaurants habitually made you feel rather inferior if you dared to answer the traditional ‘still or sparkling’ with a tentative ‘Tap?’

As much for the rationale that the ice-cubes in your mineral water were made from the Thames anyway, as to assert our freedom to stand up snotty sommeliers, I went along with the campaign. Though mainly to slake thirst, and often a bottle of mineral water would be ordered too. Water is water, water is good, get two litres in somehow, right?  But it rather sat in the background, as it in the photo above.  I didn’t really consider the impact of what was in the water glass on the food that I was ordering, or how it might factor into the whole dining experience. Then I met Andreas Larsson.

S.Pellegrino are probably best known for their eponymous mineral water rather than for their non-carbonated Acqua Panna plus more recently they sponsored the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.  Andreas, World Sommelier 2007,  works with them amongst other clients, as a taster and consultant. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a man who loves his job.  And why wouldn’t he? Andreas is affable and obviously thrives on communicating and teaching about his passions – food, wine and taste. I suppose his services are increasingly required as we move through rolling stages of what he calls ‘gastronomic refinement’ – when a food and its market moves from being niche or undiscovered and graduates to encompass increasing levels of speciality, as has happened with coffee and olive oil in the past, for example.

Feeling a touch self-conscious, we set about tasting and comparing tap water, both S.Pellegrino waters and red wine, white wine, champagne and port.  We tried canapés, garlic prawns, rare beef and pastry desserts. Though I guess we wouldn’t have been invited along if there wasn’t a story to tell, it turned out to be fascinating. We started with champagne – so a mouthful of bubbly, chased with Acqua Panna which is described as ‘smooth’ or ‘velvety’. The light fruity and citrus flavours of the champagne still lingered.  Another sip and we brought out the S.Pellegrino.  In direct contrast to the still, it acted like a palate refresher and all traces of the champagne disappeared.  And the tap water? Well, in the context it didn’t fare well. Overwhelmingly chemical and it had to be chased away with mineral water.

We moved on to harmonising with food.  Essentially Andreas would suggest that you consider your water order as carefully as your wine – why spend time and money on a special bottle only to wash away the tastes with a heavily carbonated water, or one that doesn’t stand up to robust flavours?  As a very general guide, pick a (gently) carbonated water to live up to reds and red meat, and don’t drown your Chablis and seabream.  Again it was interesting to see how the beef and a burgundy benefitted from the S.Pellegrino while the Acqua Panna was very soft in comparison.

All in all, it was an intriguing experiment. I can’t promise to always live to Andreas’s standards, I’ll certainly try to consider water choices when eating out in future. It’s all part of the ongoing food education – and it was a delightful afternoon.

We were tucked away upstairs in Hush for the session, and thanks to Jo and Sarah at Grayling for organising.