Tuesday 30 September 2014

Cambridge's Delicious Dumplings

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you ... dumplings!

Now, what place do dumplings have in a blog that's supposed to be about American food? Well I could justify it by saying that the three best Chinese meals I've ever had have been in the US - including one of my best meals full-stop.

To be honest, though, it's more about wanting to share a delicious lunch I've just had - especially as things have been a little quiet on this blog recently.

These little pockets of perfection came from a stall on Cambridge market - a stall that has no name, but is simply a few gas burners, a wok, a scratched formica table and a few plastic chairs.

You choose from 5 or 6 different types of dumpling, and then for another 50p you can have them fried. This delectable dozen of pork and chive cost me just a fiver. I did what the Chinese couple next to me did - I added a liberal splash of vinegar from the bottle on the table, a drizzle of hot chili sauce and tucked in. Absolutely delicious.

[The crab - poorly photographed!]
I have no idea how long this stall has been there, or how long it will be there for - so if you live in Cambridge, get down there as soon as you can. But please leave some dumplings for me!

So what, I pretend to hear you ask, were those three Chinese meals you had in the US?. Well, all three were in San Francisco - and first, the salt and pepper crab at the R&G Lounge, was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

We arrived knowing it was a 'must order', and were bemused when the waiter walked away halfway through us listing our side dishes. He knew what we didn't - if you order the crab, you'll need nothing else.

It's messy, primal food - I'm discovering how many of my top dishes are eaten with my fingers - salty, crunchy, crabby goodness. Rather than listen to my amateur hyperbole, watch this video of Anthony Bourdain doing it properly. Oh, and Anthony's right, you have to have a lychee martini.

The next was at the City View Restaurant, just round the corner. They're right renowned for their lunch time dim sum, delivered from a non-stop procession of trolleys. It's the carts that make it special - instead of ordering safely from a menu, you just pick what you want as it's wheeled past you. They stop serving lunch at 2.30pm, and that's the only reason I can ever see to leave. Just one more plate, just one ...

[This bun is so good]
And finally, a very honourable mention for the Good Mong Kok bakery on Stockton Street. They offer huge and freshly steamed pork buns for just pennies, and I love them.

So, Cambridge dumplings, you provided me with a flood of nostalgia for San Francisco's chinatown - maybe I'll try and go back in 2015.

But also I must try more of Cambridge's home grown Chinese food. We now have a mini Chinatown on Regent Street - I can think of at least five restaurants that have sprung up in recent years to serve our every growing Chinese community. If they're even half as good as San Francisco, I'll let you know!

Sunday 21 September 2014

Who's in the market for chorizo in a bun?

On the left you'll see one of London's top street foods, Brindisa's chorizo sandwich from Borough Market.

I've been eating this delicacy for over twelve years now, and it brings back special memories of when I moved to London, started a family and my love of food really started to take off.

This was my first visit to Borough Market in some time, and it's certainly changed - but then again, the market is no stranger to change.

The market has been in operation at least a thousand years, sitting strategically at the southern end of London Bridge, once the only bridge across the Thames.

However, by the 1990s the market was struggling. Like the other major London markets - Smithfields, Billingsgate, (New) Covent Garden, Borough was a wholesale market, open from 2am to 8am, selling fruit and vegetables to the high street grocers and restaurants of London. In fact, it still is, and I must try and get there early one day for an experience of the more ancient Borough Market.

The fortunes of the market changed in 1998 with the arrival of Brindisa and Neal's Yard, and the first Food Lovers' Fair. They had decided to open a retail market - initially on the third Saturday of every month. I would love to claim I was there at that first fair - for foodies, this is like seeing the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (where if everyone who claimed they went actually went, the hall would have been filled three times over).

In fact, I probably first went around 2002, when the market was now twice weekly, with a second, smaller retail market on Friday. The market was at a point of transition - it was no longer the preserve of the foodies-in-the-know and trendy restaurateurs. It had been 'discovered' - in no small part because of a mention on the programme of a new, bright eyed and bushy tailed chef by the name of Jamie Oliver.

This was apparently the market for the very best ingredients - yet we lived just down the road, probably passing over on the train every day - and had never been.

I still remember the excitement of our first trips. It was still very much a market - you came to buy things. We still talk in hushed and reverential tones about the Borough Market chicken - our first not to come from a supermarket, our first organic and free range, and probably our first to actually taste of chicken.

Brindisa clicked early on that looking at all these ingredients might actually make people hungry - and so they started cooking up their chorizo sausage and selling it to the hungry market goers. There's no doubt it was a great advertisement too. Also, there was the legendary queue - nothing like an hours' wait to get the mouth drooling in anticipation.

So there I was, last week, with my Brindisa chorizo in a bun, feeling a little sad and nostalgic. Why? Because I didn't have to queue for it. In fact, the guys at the stall were handing out free samples to try and entice custom. What's happened in the last ten years is that Borough Market is now an attraction, and it's had to change accordingly.

Listening to the babble of languages around me tells me that tourists dominate the visitors to Borough, and they don't want to walk round Tate Modern and Madame Tussauds with a back of vegetables and raw meat to cook on their trouser press in the hotel room. They want to taste some delicious food - right now - and move on to their next destination.

So Borough Market has become a huge food hall, and Brindisa's chorizo bun had to compete with goat tacos, fresh sweet corn and steak sandwiches in its little section alone. In the newly refurbished Three Crown Square there was there was a whole cornucopia of eating options. And to your average tourists, the Borough stalwarts of Brindisa and Neal's Yard are no more or less famous than any other stall on the market. Why queue for chorizo when there's three different paellas for sale just over there?

Change isn't a bad thing. The new look market is still vibrant and exciting, and all the food for sale continues to look delicious and inviting. All the old favourites are still there, and if I want to buy ingredients without having to fight through the tourists, well, I should come early. And who am I kidding? I don't live in South London any more, I don't want to carry a chicken home on the train. But a part of me, just a little part of me, wanted to queue for my chorizo in a bun.

Sunday 14 September 2014

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - Springdale and Zion

[View from our hotel, Springdale]
(First part of this adventure can be found here)

Every road trip has a town that surprises you. A place that's supposed to be just a rest stop, a convenient place for lunch. Somewhere that isn't a destination, somewhere born of a necessity - but then it charms you, and you wish you could stay longer.

I remember this feeling in Bisbee, Arizona and Springfield Missouri - and this year, Springdale in Utah.

We arrived in Springdale late with less than an hour before our dinner reservation - no one told us we'd changed timezones! We also planned to leave first thing in the morning for Zion Valley. We were staying in Springdale purely for its convenience, nestled as it is just outside the Zion National Park.

So we weren't prepared to find Springdale, and especially our hotel (the Desert Pearl Inn), quite so appealing. The hotel room had a balcony over looking the Virgin River that flowed through its grounds, while the canyon walls high above us caught the setting sun. The girls eagerly eyed the pool too, and the little town invited further exploration.

However, no such luck - instead we had a mad rush to get to the restaurant on time. Our meal at The Spotted Dog, however, took a surreal turn. I don't really remember what we ate - meatloaf, pasta pesto, steak - but we'll never forget the waiter.

[Zion Valley]
He was a tall, lanky chap with a lugubrious tone and he immediately put us in mind of Lurch from the Addams Family. His strangely affected delivery caused us to corpse every time he came to the table - it was as if he'd learned a 'posh waiter' voice from watching too much Downton Abbey. Poor man reduced my daughter to barely suppressed giggles every time he spoke. The food was fine, but the service was an experience.

The next morning, we're off on the shuttle bus to the visitors centre, and then on another bus up the canyon (in peak times, no cars are allowed). The bus takes you up the ever narrowing canyon as far as it can - from there you can walk until even that is no longer possible. The truly brave can then continue to trek up the river itself, as the high walls continue to press in.

This was another breath taking experience. The walls of the canyon approach 2,000ft high - that's four times the height of our own Cheddar Gorge.

The shade from the canyon walls meant it stayed cool and although the park was definitely busy, it was easy to escape the crowds.

The end of the trail was enlivened by the presence of the world's cheekiest squirrels - one of whom calmly walked up and took a cereal bar out of my wife's hand, and then boldly ate it in front of her!

[Utah State Road 9, out of Zion]
We left Zion bound for our next stop, Bryce Canyon, on what was probably the most scenic and exciting road I've taken to date in the US.

To cries of 'slow down', 'mind the edge' and 'we're going to die', we snaked up from the base of the canyon to the flat plateau above. At one point, the Mount Carmel tunnel carves through over 5,000ft of mountainside. The views are jaw dropping, although I suspect my wife had her eyes shut for most of it.

Before our road trip was finished we were to do drives that were higher, and even scarier, than this (although possibly not as beautiful), but it's still a once in a lifetime experience. But if you do go, don't treat Springdale as rest stop, like we did. Stay awhile!

Sunday 7 September 2014

Eat meat, sleep, repeat - Review of Meatopia 2014

[These people gave us free meat. We love them]
I did my fair share of music festivals when I was a kid - I fondly remember the Reading Rock Festival (the filth! the squalor! the cheap cider!) and Glastonbury was a blur of mud and poor sanitation.

As I've grown up, so have the festivals - whereas in my youth they were a chance to escape the grown ups for a weekend, now the over 40s take their families. Now we can glamp in our luxury yurt, eating organic hummus and making occasional forays to the acoustic stage.

I don't exaggerate either - a quick Google tells me that Latitude boasts an olive bar and a fruit and yoghurt stall. Cambridge Folk Festival has an onsite grocers. Glastonbury has over 250 food retailers, including silver service dining. Even Reading Festival offers organic meat (How things change - I fondly remember one year there we survived entirely on doughnuts, rather than eat the horse-n-gristle burgers).

So you can see how this could be taken to a logical extreme. Why not remove the bands all together? No more loud music, louche popstars and leud twerking to upset the little ones. Just have the food stalls, but somehow make them the stars of show.

I welcome you to Meatopia.

[Goat tacos]
If Meatopia were a music festival, it's much more Donnington that Glastonbury. No hummus here, it's all about the meat. But many of the elements of a classic festival remain - there's smoke everywhere, but it's wood, not dry ice. There's a main stage, where the headline act for Saturday is an Italian butcher - and we cheered when he removed the hip bone from the cow carcass like we would a blistering guitar solo.

We had our own rock god - DJ-BBQ, in his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit - as the day's MC. We even had some music - I particularly enjoyed the New York Brass Band's take on hits of the 80s and 90s - as well as guest DJs and piano sing-a-longs.

But the meat was the main attraction, and boy was it good. We had twenty-two different chefs to choose from - each had just one dish that was to be cooked on a charcoal barbecue. Each dish cost one 'meatbuck' which could be bought for £5. So I had 4 bucks to spend, and was almost paralysed with choice. Do I want lamb cutlets? pulled pork? pork belly? cheddar dog? How can you make me choose?

Information is power, so my little group explored the venue thoroughly. Tobacco dock made a charming location - although open to the elements, there were enough enclosed spaces to hide should it rain (which, luckily, it didn't). Most of the chefs were arranged over the two floors of the old docks themselves, and those chefs with special requirements were outside - the whole roast ox, for example, or the huge barbecue pit full of succulent goat. There were also plenty of bars and almost enough places to sit. Agonising though it was, choices were eventually made.
[Goats before they became tacos]

Most of us have had one sublime festival moment. Many of my generation go misty eyed at the mention of Orbital on the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, 1994. Did I have such a moment at Meatopia? I think the closest I got was my opening dish - the brisket by Tim Rattray of San Antonio's Granary Cue and Brew where I'd eaten just last month. Oh, I've missed brisket, and this was as good as any I'd had in Texas.

I couldn't fault my other plates either - Neil Rankin's goat tacos were incredible, and I'm definitely putting the Smokehouse in Islington on my must try list. Siggi Gunnlaugsson's burger with comte cheese was just as good - I walked past their place on Marylebone recently and thought it looked it good. They're definitely on the list too. Actually, let's also put 'Q Grill' on the list, as their pig cheeks just melted in my mouth.

[Granary's divine brisket]
I must also give honorable mentions to Hawksmoor (my daughter loved their flat iron steak), to Lockhart for the enormous chunk of chicken they gave my wife and finally a special prize for Bristol's Grillstock for their tray of 'free meat' - offcuts of their delicious rump hearts that kept us walking past their counter again and again and again (and convinced my daughter to eat their dish too).

So would we go again? Hell yes, it's in the diary already. Could I have eaten more food? Oh yes, that too - I was high on barbecue by the time I left, and had to be nearly dragged out by my friends and family. Meatopia - you're my kind of festival!