Abandoning ship

Two years! That’s how long I’ve left my poor blog unattended for. While I recultivate my attention span, I’ll be on Tumblr here. But I’ll be back…

In search of a sub’s dinner

I’m a sub-editor. The pesky one that watches out for errant apostrophes and such,  occasionally writes a vaguely ok headline and sets herself up for a fall when it comes to blogging mistakes.

It means I work distinctly odd hours – usually 2ish to 10ish, or thereabouts. And, the main consequence for this blog – and my life –  is that it has made dinner, in its lovely hot winey form, virtually extinct, apart from on glorious Saturdays. (Ok. It’s not the world’s greatest hardship, by any stretch. But this is a food blog. I’m allowed to moan about fripperies. For the much  less trivial, read the wonderful Unemployed Hack).

Us subs, and general shifters, deal with said situation in ways varied and numerous. The sensible way, nutritionally, would be to have a proper old-fashioned hot dinner at lunchtime, and then sandwiches for tea. Sadly, this means I may well slump on to my desk in an overfed haze at about 3pm – not so good professionally.

Go Away I'm Proofing

Ideal sub's lunch receptacle

Option two. Eat an ordinary person’s lunch, make it through the shift on a mixture of crisps, fruit and biscuits purloined from kind colleagues, and cook a proper dinner when you get home. Aside from the fact this would mean treating my long-suffering flatmate to my untidy and noisy cooking at about 11pm, I feel guilty eating late AND it takes a lot of biscuits to make it from 2.30 til 11. Trust me.

Three. Pret. And such. Given half the chance – and a lot more money – my laziness would kick in and I would buy a lot of takeaway. But thriftiness says no.

Sadly option four – take food in and microwave it – isn’t possible as we are microwaveless at work. We have a canteen, but it’s understandably frowned upon to drip hot lasagne over the chief sub as you explain the fourth paragraph of your story with an hour to go before first edition.

Sausage pasta #1

Which leaves the cobbled together – and heavily tupperware reliant – option five. If I’m being good, I’ll make soup for a week (thank you, dear flatmate and your blender) so I have at least one vaguely hot meal a day for lunch, albeit eaten precariously as I try to dry my hair and do my make-up at the same time.

Similarly I’ll cook something dinnerish for the week, carefully box it up and eat it cold at work. Which is why I came to be pouring red wine into three days worth of sausage and tomato pasta sauce* at about 10 this morning.

Aside from the inherent risks of early morning alcoholism and eating dinner for breakfast, things that make a good hot meal aren’t always so good cold – and it’s sad to watch it cool down when you know it would have made a delicious dinner. And, frankly, I’m also all too frequently lured into option three by being disorganised and forgetting to make things.

The bit where I want to add creme fraiche and just have it on toast

So it’s my new mission to find recipes that serve as dinner, are delicious cold, can be made in quantity, don’t cost the earth and aren’t sandwiches (packed lunch for dinner is sometimes beautifully reminiscent of journeys and school trips, but not every day).

So. Up with my poor, neglected blog, and on to pastures new – in search of a sub’s dinner. All ideas greatly appreciated.

*I fear giving you a very studenty recipe for sausage pasta would be like teaching many grandmothers how to suck eggs. But I took a couple of nice photos, so I’ve popped them in. My only word on the subject is it’s nice to de-skin the sausages and make them into mini meatballs by coating them in chilli powder/paprika and flour, to keep them together and give them a nice crunchy coating, as in sausage pasta #1 above.  And add some red wine. Just try not to drink it in the morning.

Ta da! Every student's dream/nightmare

Mum goes in pursuit of the perfect pork pie

My mum is a wonderful pastry cook. Her work colleagues request tins of cheese straws for office birthdays. For five years, on and off, she’d bring me sausage rolls wrapped in foil when she came to visit me at uni, and I would seduce my friends with them. She has no need of Delia, or scales. It’s all by eye, and her light pastry fingers.

Mum's sausage rolls


My mum also has a penchant for pork pies.

Now. A whole menagerie of beasts go by the name of ‘pork pie’. And a whole menagerie of people are closet – or not so closet – lovers of this most British of fat-laden snacks. My friend Rosie has organic veg boxes delivered and tends to cook light Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern food, all vegetables and spices and cous cous. But she loves pork pies, especially M&S mini ones.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, is more from the drink-mopping school of pork pie connoisseurs. He marches into Lidl in a hungover blur and demolishes the luminous pink 39p ones in about two bites. I can’t help but be tempted by the new breed of posh ones with stilton or onion chutney added, usually sold for about five times more than they’re worth.

Pork pie a la maman #1


Naturally, my mum has a different approach. She’s dallied with Dickinson & Morris – third in yesterday’s FT taste test – and had a long-distance unrequited affair with mail order Brays Cottage (they send them to you frozen, and all you have to do is bake them and add jelly). Recently, she’s turned to the warm embrace of pies from The Woodbridge Fine Food Company. And they’re good – very good. But even these, made from uncured meat, warm with pepper and rich with jelly, are never quite good enough.

So making a pork pie – a proper pork pie, peppery and coarse, with homemade jelly – has been her holy grail for years.

Three weeks ago, she finally did it. And yesterday, she made another one, the recipe tweaked a little. Both times, it was marvellous (unlike my photography):

Mum's pork pie #2


She used this tin from Lakeland, and followed the recipe inside, ditching the pork belly and bacon as too fatty and sticking just to pork shoulder. It’s a serious commitment, the making of a pork pie. You have to fiddle with hot water pastry and make sure there are no leaks, then cook the pie on a low setting for two hours. Then there’s the anxious wait until it’s cool enough – but not too cool – to add the jelly.

None of that fazed mum. Bias aside, her pie really was seriously good. The pastry was perfect, naturally, with that strange alchemy of crunch and clag you need in a pork pie. The meat was coarse but tender, peppery and soft, and the jelly – oh, the jelly. It’s always been my favourite bit, and I think a pork pie which is tight on the jelly is a thing of misery. But there was plenty in this, tasty and wholesome from homemade stock.

Mum's pork pie, angle #3


And what do you know, a few month’s ago my mum’s hero, Nigel Slater, made this one. Spot the difference? I can’t.

Next time she’s going to try chicken and ham. Maybe with a bit of stuffing. I can’t wait until Christmas.

Independents in Ipswich – The Museum Street Café

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that vegetarian cafés are far more exciting then their carnivorous rivals. Partly because making vegetables sing requires a little more effort than offering a rack of condiments (French mustard, sir? French mustard? Does anyone actually have that – I don’t mean dijon – unless they’re having served-with-chips-and-onion-rings steak?), and partly, I think, because they have to convert suspicious meat-lovers.

The Rainbow Café in Cambridge has done this beautifully, attracting glowing reviews and loyal customers for their mixture of vegetarian staples, like their spinach and ricotta lasagne, or far-flung dishes like their Ethiopian Mesir Wat (lentil bowl). And, stereotypical as it may sound, vegetarian cafes usually do a mean carrot cake – the Rainbow Café proudly say theirs is the best Nigel Slater has ever tasted.

But where the Rainbow Café falls down is on price – as a lowly student, I always thought £9.95+ was a bit steep for lunch (especially when I wasn’t getting a dose of much-needed iron to sort out my pallid library-induced complexion). Not so at the Museum Street Café in Ipswich, where their imaginative, tasty and homecooked vegetarian food costs as little as £4.50.

Two things to notice first about the Museum Street Café. One, jugs of water and glasses come as standard on each table. Two, you queue up for your food, so service is quick, you can see what today’s specials are – and can work out for yourself just what a beetroot and goat’s cheese pattie will look like (this…)

Beetroot and goat's cheese patties

If that hasn’t endeared it to you already, then the fact it’s always bustling, food runs out (rather than being resurrected from some over-frosted freezer), and the owner is usually on hand to recommend his favourites should do the job. Just like the Rainbow Café, it tries out exciting new ideas to tempt people in – and they really work.

Indecisive as ever, my friend Soph and I picked two dishes and shared them – huge platefuls which meant we weren’t competing for the last mouthful. We chose the sweet pepper and onion tart and the beetroot and goat’s cheese patties, served with beetroot tzatziki and rice.

Both were gorgeous. The tart was lovely, just warm, really cheesy, creamy and downright savoury, with good crispy pastry. The beetroot patties – not quite the disturbing shade of pink my camera converted them to – were good too, fresh and sweet,  with a creaminess and depth from the goat’s cheese. The beetroot tzatziki verged on overkill, but it was tangy and colourful and helped to cut through the goat’s cheese. Both came with a green salad, which was freshly dressed as we waited, and for an extra charge you can get a variety of brightly-coloured side salads.

Sweet pepper and onion tart

Other options included a spicy dahl, and a gorgeous-looking lasagne. Everything’s vegetarian, and they have a great selection of cakes too, including their version of the commonplace carrot cake – a courgette cake, which I’m still working up the courage to try.

Warm and bustling, the Museum Street Café makes you feel like you’ve just wandered into your friend’s kitchen. The food is substantial, a proper meal rather than just a sandwich, the prices are little more than you’d pay for a boring chain cafe panini, and the quick service means you can nip in on your lunch break.

Try it – and bring along your most carnivorous friend. They’ll be surprised.

Independents in Ipswich – Caffè Basso

Of late, like towns and cities across the country, Ipswich has suffered an invasion. A plague. An epidemic. For a great wave of identikit cappuccinos, dubious frappes (Nero is currently proudly proclaiming to have ‘the iciest coffee’ – what?!) and overpriced paninis has swept through the town, leaving non-branded coffee quaking in its wake.

A 'pumpkin-spiced latte with chai', according to the kind Flickr person from whom I borrowed it

It might have hit Suffolk a bit later than elsewhere, but the cult of the chain café has done its damage here too. Despite spending too many of my formative years ensconced in the sofas of Ipswich’s first Nero, whether it be gossiping, revising (from A-level geography to the finer points of the Faerie Queene) or, lately, knitting and being nosey, now even I’m slowly moving away from my favourite haunt. In the last five years, the grip of the chain café has just become too strong.

The worst victim is the poor old Great White Horse Hotel, which has now been colonised by a Starbucks. It’s admittedly one of the more elegant ones, but the fact that the other half of the building is home to a fly-by-night shop selling diamante and sequin covered handkerchiefs masquerading as skirts slightly detracts from its supposedly classy image. Together with the Carr Street Costa and the original Nero, it forms a Bermuda Triangle of mass-market coffee shops, all within about twenty paces of each other.

But now, finally, Ipswich is fighting back. It’s always had a few old-fashioned, tea-and-bun style establishments, like Pickwicks, or Blends in the Buttermarket, but nothing to tug a younger generation away from the lure of Starbucks.

Not so now. Every time I come home, there’s another shiny new café, brimming with good coffee, individual touches and an optimism which will hopefully sustain them through the recession.

In the last few days I’ve managed to fit in two visits to Caffè Basso (being a soon-to-be-employed journalist is tough). It’s been around for more than a year now, but, shamefully, I’d never been before – now I wish I had.

It’s great. Glass-fronted and sleek, if it wasn’t for the unavoidable view of the Co-op car park, you could almost forget you were in England. They’ve tried to make it as authentic as possible, and apart from the jarring note of a bottle of Smirnoff Ice in the fridge (what?!), they succeed . Italian radio plays in the background and even the toilet pays homage to Basso’s roots – one of the walls is decorated entirely with Italian newspaper pages, covered in glass. In other hands it could have been tacky, but everything is done lightly and elegantly, so it’s classy rather than kitsch.

The coffee list is refreshingly to the point, with some new names to add to the familiar list, including a Corretto (which I’d never seen before), a coffee with an added shot of sambuca. Maybe not for breakfast.

Beer + Coffee = Perfection

But the coffee – even sambuca-less – is really very good. Their cappuccino was small, with just the right amount of tight-bubbled creamy froth rather than the shaving foam beloved of some places, and the coffee was strong without being bitter.

It’s licensed, so you can have my current favourite pairing – an espresso with a beer. The cakes displayed behind the beautiful curved glass counter look gorgeous – my friend’s ‘americano’ (New York-style) cheesecake was generous and creamy, her only complaint the lack of a proper biscuit base (‘it’s the best bit!’). They also do a mean-looking tiramisu, a couple of tortas and, unusually for Ipswich anyway, delicious ricotta-filled cannoli.

Their food menu is different, too – we had a flatbread filled with goat’s cheese and spinach, and although the filling could have been more substantial, the bread was great, with a bite and chewiness very different to dull pre-packed panini.

Goat's cheese and spinach flatbread

With free wi-fi, the day’s papers lying about, reasonable prices (£1.40 for an espresso, £2.05 for a cappuccino) and plenty of space, it’s the perfect place to relax and read in peace without being harried along. And there’s not a Starbucks logo in sight.

There’s loads more Ipswich independents to add to this list, including the gorgeous Museum Street Café, Saints, St Nicholas Stores and the Napoli Deli, and I’ll be writing about them in the next few days, but I’d love to have some more recommendations for the best independents in Ipswich – please send me your suggestions!

Review – The Green Dragon Haddenham

So. On Wednesday, I ended my Brit-bashing rant of despair with a heartfelt cry – ‘Is dried pasta in powder really the best we can do?’ Henry V, eat your heart out.

The answer, of course, is no. At the risk of parroting a commonplace fact, in the last few years it’s clear that any lingering shame at the pinnacle of British cuisine being fish and chips has evaporated. Instead, we have witnessed the rise and rise of the New British Classic, steered by a new – and now endemic – beast; the gastropub.

Once a welcomed innovation, now they are being held up as one of the causes of the decline of the British pub. Traditional boozers – go to Save the Boozer to recommend your local one –  have found themselves stripped, left colourless and with little more than an Ikea chair and an overpriced menu to cover their dignity.

But they’re not all like that. One of the success stories is to be found tucked away in the Buckinghamshire village of Haddenham, familiar to Midsomer Murders fans as one of the sets for the long-running series. Given its location, amidst the village’s picturesque duck pond and Tudor-beamed houses, the owners of the Green Dragon pub could easily have succumbed to temptation and transformed the Grade II listed 18th-century building into an over-priced gimmick designed to appeal solely to Londoners on the hunt for a day out in the ‘country’.

Instead, the Green Dragon combines the best traditions of an old-fashioned pub with some really great food, attracting locals and Londoners alike. The inside is cool and airy, and even on a Tuesday lunchtime in term-time, most of the tables were full. The newly-redesigned summer menu is a delight – full of gentle twists on traditional classics.

I could happily have eaten about five things – the Fettuccini Primavera with seasonal vegetables, Parma ham & artichoke looked especially good, and if I’d have been going for dinner I’d have been tempted by the steak, with its intriguing – and delicious-sounding – smuggler rarebit-stuffed mushrooms.

But, after I’d seen it whisked past me by the efficient and friendly staff, I plumped for the bubble and squeak with crispy bacon, poached egg and hollandaise sauce. A simple staple, maybe, but it was gorgeous – the homemade bubble and squeak was golden and crispy on the outside, with a perfect balance of potato and cabbage inside. The streaky bacon was substantial and meaty rather than wafer thin, which made a nice change, and the hollandaise was rich and creamy without being sickly or cloying.

As a poor student/blogger/not-quite-yet-employed person, I can’t wax lyrical about the five other dishes I tried, but suffice it to say everything coming out of the kitchen looked great, and regulars tell me the Sunday roasts – and even the selection of lunchtime sandwiches – are well worth trying.

But, despite not having much of a sweet tooth, for once the dessert was even better than the main. I managed to snaffle one of the last portions of the Dragon’s gorgeous summer puddings. Served with a generous dollop of clotted cream, it was full of ripe raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries – partly supplied by local allotments – which were tart without hurting your head (or your teeth).

My only criticism was that, on a beautiful sunny day, seats outside were limited, but it’s a minor point against the great food, relaxed atmosphere, and sense of proper old-fashioned pub-ness – real ales are still proudly on the menu.

Vin et Fromage – stretching my blogging legs

So. After four months of exam-and-frolic-based neglect, I decided it’s about time I resurrected my poor dusty blog before it got relegated to the back of the shelf like an out-of-date packet of cup-a-soup.

It wasn’t an entirely unprompted decision – as usual, it had something to do with cheese, and quite a lot to do with coffee.

Last week, I reluctantly returned from France. The reluctance was twofold. Firstly, it was a 4am ferry, so every follicle and molecule was urging me to sleep. But secondly, and much more importantly, I was leaving behind not so much the land of milk and honey, as the land of wine and cheese, where each day was spent in the warm embrace of a soft chevre, a speciality of the Loire Valley, and a glass of cool red.

Coming back to the wonders of a Shell garage somewhere on the M4 didn’t really help. Somehow we’d swapped cafes selling salads which sang with yesterday’s plastic sandwiches, glowing with E numbers.

It’s not as cheap now anymore, of course, and skipping round a supermarket knocking about 2 euros off the prices is a thing of the past. Plus now Milka and Mikados are available in the UK, part of the joy I always used to have on school exchanges has gone.

But – the coffee! No more decaf-half-fat-frappe-latte-milkshakes masquerading as coffee – in France, it’s either white, or black, small or big, in delicate cups. Strong and smooth, it goes hand in hand with a ladylike glass of Stella (no wifebeater jokes here) and should send shivers of fear through Starbucks.

And I’d forgotten about the bread. Forgotten how a 70 cent baguette from the baker’s in the square manages to be better than the poshest, posing-as-artisan bread here. The crust crispy but chewy, the inside white, fluffy, verging on sourdough as it stretches gently when you pull it apart.

And of course bread, and a jug of water, come with everything, almost without asking. And salads aren’t relegated to the bottom of the menu and doused in Caesar dressing – they are bright and bold, with delicate vinaigrettes, sizzling lardons, molten cheese, generous slices of cured ham…

They cost virtually nothing in labour, and at 8 euros is probably a bit cheeky, but it’s so much nicer to see maybe three or four salads on a menu, with perhaps a quiche and a croque, than a whole litany of ‘and chips’, chosen by the not-so-discerning hands of the freezer and microwave.

But the most striking thing of all were the two lonely shelves in the supermarket selling British food. I will defend custard and HP and Marmite and all the rest to the hilt, but Loyd Grossman, really? And Batchelors’ Pasta ‘n’ Sauce? And Tiptree jam at four times the price of rhubarb Bonne Maman?

Is dried pasta in powder really the best we can do?

Of course not. But good food is taken for granted in France – it’s still a 50/50 gamble here.

Commonplace rant over. I’m going to go and bake a (frozen) pain au chocolat, and pretend I’m not really in Suffolk.