Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Ballad of Tunnock and Lees: Excerpt from Walking The Doggerel, available now!

New collection of song lyrics and poems from The Malt and Barley Revue, The Fairly Good Show, My Bad Gospel and Scar Quilse's Referendum Songbook. A fiver or so in paperback.

The Ballad of Mr Tunnock and Mr Lee

I’ve lost faith in beer and wine
No nicotine for quite some time
Facebook and Twitter - just boring me
All I want is Tunnocks and Lees
When life seems hard, when things get squalid
Just give me sugar and cocoa solids
The products I know will scratch that itch
They come from Uddingston, they come from Coatbridge

Mr Tunnock, Mr Lee
The pleasure you have given me
I gave you my molars and my wealth
But I would sacrifice my health
Mr Tunnock, Mr Lee

You will always be in my dreams
Teacakes, Snowballs, Wafer Creams
Some swear by Cadbury, by Frys or Mars
No Quaker could create the Macaroon Bar

Sometimes sugar just will not suffice
There are other passports to paradise
You must taste and try before you die
The products of Mr Whyte and Mr Mackay

But tastes expand, you crave variety
Then Elgin City is the place to be
116 years of whisky for sale

At Mr Gordon’s and Mr Macphail’s

Thursday, 4 December 2014

New Scottish drink-driving limit: how not to fall foul

Rules for drinking and driving. Just the one. Just the one rule, that is:

 If you’re driving, do not drink anything alcoholic. At all.

Some doctors of my acquaintance used to talk about ‘New Zealand rules’  - which, incidentally, I’ve never been able to track down - guidelines allegedly aimed at rural doctors who faced constant sobriety while socialising due to public transport being unavailable. The deal was that it takes approximately one hour to metabolise one unit of alcohol. So you gauge your drinking over an evening to leave you under the driving limit by the time you get in the car.

This is bullshit. Here are a couple of reasons. 

First, the notion of ‘a unit’ when you’re drinking delicious craft beers of anything between 5 and  10 per cent alcohol, or malt whiskies ranging from 40 to 57.9 per cent. How do you assess the number of units, especially when you’re being served varying quantities? One small (330ml) bottle of Duvel Golden Ale, 8.5 per cent, contains 2.81 units. But the delivery mechanism (fizzy, delicious, and it’s beer, award-winning ‘World’s best’ beer) means three will put you on your back and deliver the worst hangover in the world, too. Believe me, I know. Not for nothing is it called The Devil. Made by Monks, too, Belgian ones. They’re experts in brewing. And in demonology.

Second, people, and drinking conditions, vary. Different body weights, different degrees of liver capacity/damage, different amounts/types of food consumed, even different times of day - all can change the way alcohol works on your system. I haven’t drunk at lunchtime for years - until a rural Shetland occasion a few months ago when I had a single, small glass of wine with a salad, leaving me well within driving limits but almost comatose.

Third, alcohol is not some magic potion that makes you a better driver. Why imagine that it is? Unless you seriously can’t do without it, in which case you have a problem. Nor, for that matter, does it make you a better conversationalist, or even more relaxed and more adept at social interraction. You don’t need a ‘digestif’ to make that meal go down. Lacking one glass of red wine is not going to mean you will have a heart attack. Take a soluble aspirin instead. Yum!

If you work for Network Rail, you're subject to random breath tests at all times. The limit for all employees is not 80 mg, not 50, but 29 mg per 100 millilitres of blood. In Northern Ireland, legislation is pending to bring in a 50 mg limit, like Scotland, but in addition just 20 mg, which basically means nothing, for the recently qualified (up to two years) and professionals such as lorry or taxi drivers. 

I think that lower limit sends a more precise and better message: 

Do not drink and drive. At all.

One more thing. “I think I’ll leave the car.” Fair enough. You have that great sense of relief that you can now get absolutely guttered without worrying about anything but the taxi fare home and remembering where you parked. When you come back to get the car next...when?

Because a full-on binge (and this is Scotland, come on, that’s what we do. We like our moods to be well and truly altered) will not leave you with the ability to count up your units with any accuracy. ‘Proper’, especially wedding, party or seasonal drinking, will leave you over the limit the next day. Definitely. It’s not even a question of when, next day, your blood alcohol dips below the legal limit. It’s when you’re sober, as opposed to thinking you’re sober.

My informal  rule, and take it from One Who Binges, or at least Has Frequently Binged? 

Heavy drinking session, leave a 24 hour gap before driving. Or broadcasting. Or operating a chainsaw.

I mean, this isn’t for a laugh. This isn’t waking up on the couch at noon, gazing out the open door to the car, sitting in the street with the engine running and the driver’s door open, wondering ruefully how on earth you got home.  This isn’t even about health. It’s about not killing yourself and, more important, not killing other people.

So if you’re going to drink, take it seriously. I like that Innes and Gunn advert - ‘make it Innes and None’ . Brave of them. Though not a problem for me, as I’ve always found their beers, far, far too sweet. And strong.

To be honest, I’d much rather have a Duvel...

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sunset lunch! Frankie's, 2.00PM, and the batter's better

I've kind of lost touch with the mesmerising number of awards Frankie's, our local chip shop, has won, is in for, almost won or is in the process of winning. But there are loads. Despite the fact that I am fairly bamboozled by the variety of 'best fish and chip shop' competitions it would appear you can enter (and I presume there are all sorts of professional bodies to join and entry fees to pay) there is no question that Frankie's is among the best in the UK, and we're very lucky to have it. Well, 10 miles or so away, in Brae. You want carefully-sourced local fish, cooked from fresh? Come to Shetland.

Now, one of my issues with Frankie's is just that: being 10 miles away. So that any carry-out, even transported home at top (safe) speed, is going to be just slightly too cool for ideal consumption. Fish and chips should be eaten  sizzlingly fresh. And therefore, if we can, we 'eat in' at Frankie's, which opens up the possibilities of its 'catch of the day' menu and, err...puddings.

So yesterday, we headed down for a late (2.00pm, the sun just setting over Muckle Roe) lunch (booking a table; this is a very busy place, though as it happens there was plenty of room). The 'specials' menu included home-made fish cakes, langoustine tails in batter, and pan-fried scallops in Cointreau and fennel (£15 with chips). The mussels menu has been up and running for a while (Blueshell locally-farmed mussels, same as in London chain Belgo, recipes from Mussel Inn, Glasgow) but we were in the mood for frying. Susan had the langoustines, I had the 'Muckle Haddock' In batter. Chips, of course.

Now, we have eaten in Frankie's a lot. It's always been good. If I've ever had a slight quibble, it was that an occasional heaviness crept into the fish and the chips, which I put down to batter recipe and possibly the new-fangled oil-recycling super-efficient ecotastic fryers. I'm an industrial west of Scotland guy with a taste for lard that's been superheated all weekend and used for deep frying pizzas and black puddings. Whatever has happened, if anything, yesterday's food seemed on a different level. Everything, chips, prawns, fish, appeared lighter, crispier (and not brown and over-fried either). There was an almost tempura-like texture to the batter.

Maybe we were just very hungry. But for the first time at Frankie's I had a sweet - sharing a sticky toffee pudding and ice cream with Susan. Home made and delicious. Hey, half each! Moderation!

The coffee has always been a slight letdown at F's. It's pre-programmed 'Cappuccino' and in a Brae of scallops in Cointreau, we should really be talking just-roasted beans and a barrister-made espresso. Or is it barista? Or if Cappuccino's too tricky, maybe a V60, Clever or Aeropress.

So, that's Frankie's. Never mind the awards. It's really very good. And that view...

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Burger van (no burger). And Co-op whisky/wine bargains

I've taken to making raids on Lerwick (the big toon, 11,000 people, 40 miles away, has a Tesco) accompanied by Dexter the Devil Dog, which isn't really a problem. It hones your reaction times and driving skills. Veering in front of (and then away from) massive pipeline lorries at 80 mph with a Staffordshire/Collie cross dancing on your lap keeps you sharp.

There is a small but committed I-would-rather-die-than-shop-at-Tesco section of the Shetland populace. I am not among them. There is nowhere else you  can get Beurre D'Issigny, for a start. The other supermarket, the Co-op, has better meat, wine and cheese and so any trip to the toon is a two-checkout affair. The Lerwick Co-op (they have smaller shops in Brae and also in the South Mainland) used to have a not great but incredibly cheap café, but they have closed that and, foolishly (many Co-op management and strategic decisions are foolish, as you may have noticed in the media) replaced it with a clothes chop called Peacocks. I have never seen anyone buy anything there. Ever.

Just quickly, let me say that last week I bought a bottle of Aberlour 10-year-old Speyside single malt for £20 in the Co-op,  the best of all the cheap over production malts that pop up in supermarkets (Glen Moray, which is awful, Pulteney, which can be good but not in the expressions you find at those prices, and Jura, which is almost characterless). The Aberlour 10-year-old is a fine, heavily sherried malt, with all sorts of stewed tea and Christmas cake action going on. I'm told that these are cheap overstocks from the French market and not the same as the UK expression of Aberlour 10, but it's still good. Sometimes you'll find the occasional bottle of cask strength Aberlour A'Bunadh knocking about around £40. if so, buy one. It's the same as the cheapo 10 only much more so. Add water or your teeth will dissolve.

Also, they have the excellent 2011 Chateau Vieux Manoir Claret in stock. The price is around £7 and it's worth double that. I was advised to try it by an independent wine dealer who reckoned it was the best value supermarket wine in the country.

But it's to Tesco for bulk shopping, dog food (Harringtons) and because, with the dog in attendance, I can get lunch in the car park from the JK Mainland burger van. No burger for me, just the (carefully and freshly made) bacon, cheese and mushroom baguette. With chips. Delicious!

Shared with Dex the Dug of course. Stops him trying to clamber into my lap while I'm driving.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Shetland hall teas, and the Great Oven/Griddle Bannock 'Controversy'

It is a wonder and a glory, one of the greatest aspects of life in Shetland, and it involves, as you may have guessed, food. I am talking about the ‘hall tea’, which can sometimes morph effortlessly into the ‘school tea’ or just ‘eight o’clocks’ which may happen at 8.00pm, or earlier, or later. But what we are really talking about is home baking.

In summer, the ‘Sunday hall tea’ is a weekly event in one or other corner of the isles, with local women and (some) men baking and staffing a Sabbath afternoon extravaganza at one of the (oil-funded and rather luxurious) Shetland community halls, from Unst in the north  to Sumburgh in the south. You pay a set amount, usually, and can then drink as much tea or coffee as you like, filling your plate beyond the brim with sandwiches, quiche, pie, scones, bannocks and ‘fancies’, which can mean anything from cupcakes to gateaux, chocolate crispy crunches to brownies. Surplus delights are sold as takeaways. It is a fantastic opportunity not to cook, and to guess who baked what if you’re a member of the local community concerned. All profits go to either the hall itself, or a charity of the organisers' choice.

This past week has seen a hall tea and a school sale in our village, Hillswick, both fuelled by local baking of the highest possible standard. Two legends of Shetland bannock making, Peter Sinclair and Maria Parker, had examples of their work at the ‘Bake it for the Beatson’ event on Sunday, an opportunity for bannock connoisseurs such as myself. The Shetland bannock is a kind of buttermilk-fuelled scone which can be griddled or oven-cooked. There are as many recipes and twists to the basic technique as there are puffins on the cliffs, but a good starting point is Margaret Stout in the seminal book Cooking for Northern Wives, as channelled (‘top’ and ‘bottom’ bannocks) here: http://www.msmarmitelover.com/2013/06/cookery-for-northern-wives-recipe-for.html .

For those who wish to compare and contrast the Parker/Sinclair approach, I have unearthed Peter's recipe here: http://tasteofshetland.com/recipe/petersbannocks/ , while, with apologies to Maria, I have lifted hers from a local Facebook forum, and it is as follows:

I swear by Scoop flour - a bit mair dan 1lb, baking powder, salt, a sloosh o oil ( about half inch in da bottom o a pint jug) a tub o buttermilk an I ken da old Shetland folk mibee didna but I pit an egg in. I bake dem fur aboot 12 mins at 200c. Da girdle eens I dunna pit an egg in an use a girle or a heavy bottom frying pan.

Now, both Peter and Maria's default position is the 'oven bannock' with an egg included. Their bannocks are both supremely light and fluffy. For non-Shetlanders I should say that Scoop flour is loose-bagged plain flour from the deli Scoop in Lerwick, while Voe Bakery Flour is commercial self-raising bannock flour from (surprise!) the Voe Bakery, widely available in local shops. The significant differences in the recipes relate to Peter's use of yoghurt and self-raising flour, and Maria's of baking powder and plain flour. And that mysterious 'sloosh o oil'!

There are, as you can see, no exact quantities in Maria's recipe. And variations and tweaks on these recipes abound, notably the addition of extra baking powder (and sugar) along with the self-raising Voe flour in Peter's approach, just to give a bit of extra lift.

I have to say that my daughter Martha's opinion is fundamentalist: she believes that the 'oven bannock' is technically a scone. My son James, as in Great British Bake Off,  agrees and has a very traditional recipe for griddle-bannocks only in his book Brilliant Bread. Plain flour and baking powder. All the bannocks from these sources are delicious, though I have to say I prefer the oven versions. Maybe because I am a sconeoisseur at heart...

Anyway, back to the hall teas. There was, perhaps inevitably, an overabundance of excellent baking on Sunday, and as Susan was one of the organisers, we purchased a lot to take home for freezing. Thursday was school sale day, again with lots of terrific baking, as well as the availability of commercially-produced Vidlin Pies http://www.shetlandfoodtrail.com/food_trail/vidlin-pies/ . The eating has been good this week. 

But as one friend and neighbour said as we packed everything away on Thursday, ‘I’m aa fancied oot!’. 

Though I could actually go a bannock...preferably with saat beef or reestit mutton, of which much more at a later date...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Belfast, Ayr, Glasgow, Bellshill, St Andrews, Aberdeen!

Right, a quick swerve through recent jaunts to Belfast, Glasgow, Ayr, St Andrews and Aberdeen. Just too busy to do separate posts, though frankly all of these places deserve it.

Over in Northern Ireland for a delightful celebration of my grandson Dave’s fifth birthday, my son Sandy and daughter-in-law Elaine took us to a variety of eateries, notably Havana in the city centre. A kind of sleek bar/diner with loads of Guevara paraphernalia on the walls, the staff were welcoming on a level way beyond the call of duty, especially as we had a five-year-old in attendance. The food was Irish in origin and style, and exceptionally good. Fantastic rib-eye for me, perfectly cooked with proper, home-made chips. Good value too. 

On our last day we went to the Titanic museum, but hadn’t realised that on a holiday you have to book in advance online - it was full. The cafe and separate restaurant were rammed too, so we wandered over to the adjoining, and very impressive marina, where we found the famous Mourne Seafood Bar’s kerry-oot facility, or takeway van. Spectacular burgers and fish supper later, we were warmly ensconced in the unique Dock Cafe, a multi-denominational Christian endeavour which allows, indeed encourages you to bring in your own food. And serves tea, coffee, soup and cakes on a give-what-you-can-or want basis.
It may sound a bit gospel café-ish, but it was very cool and non-intrusive. There should be more places like this.

Back in Glasgow, our old haunt Smile in Queen Margaret Drive, the tiny Italian café run by genuine Florentines, was celebrating its ascendancy to Number One Restaurant in Glasgow on Trip Advisor (now slipped a bit, but not much). Remarkable, considering it’s essentially a lunch, breakfast and coffee place. But what coffee. They use Kimbo bean and make better drinks with them than anything I tasted in yer actual Italy. Sandwiches, cakes and desserts are also extraordinary.

Newly opened down the road is Cottonrake, on the corner of Bank Street and Great Western Road. Essentially a craft bakery, the selection of breads is impressive but the pastries are truly out of this world. The coffee’s good, and it’s a great place to sit, swoon over the raspberry and chocolate tart and watch the truly trendy heading for Papercup along the street, the absolute epicentre of bohemian caffeine in Glasgow. Yes, even more so than Artisan Roast or Avenue G, which are both terrific and trendy. But Papercup does Clever Coffee (a kind of techy filter) as well as your V60 (Japanese filter) and various other coffeesnob accoutrements. their flans are good too.

Speaking of Artisan, the new Artisan Lounge in Ayr, an offshoot of the excellent Su Casa and using the beans roasted there, is very good and a sign of the ancient town centre’s redevelopment. Great red pepper soup and probably the best coffee in southern Scotland outside Glasgow and Edinburgh. It's a vegetarian restaurant open until 9.00pm Wednesday to Saturday. The rosewater and cardamom cake I had there and at Su Casa, made by a local specialist baker, is one of the best things I have ever tasted.

A quick mention for the Horizon Hotel in Ayr, which is right on the beach, cheap, friendly and - especially important for us - not just dog friendly, but canine encouraging. Thanks for putting up with Dexter. And for swopping the unsmoked haddock for smoked at breakfast. Not the first time that’s happened to me.

Hotel breakfasts I have known: We stayed at the Hilton in Bellshill (remarkable deals available, known as Hilton Strathclyde) which had one of those irresistibly massive buffets, and a very good one too, with exceptionally fresh-baked/reheated croissants. Good spa/pool to work it off, too. Slightly better, I would say, than the gargantuan choice available at the hilariously grand Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, where we stayed for Susan’s University Year Club do.  It's an exceptionally well-run hotel, sumptuous and hospitable as you'd expect at this price range. But attention slipped at breakfast. Two kinds of bacon, one inedible, and bad, over-cooked, over-herbalised sausages. The Hilton was a fraction of the Old Course’s overnight price, too. But then, there’s this view...

Finally, for me, it was lunch with daughter Martha at the Inversnecky Cafe on Aberdeen’s seafront. Sometimes a chilliburger and chips is all you want or need.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Crab kerfuffle emergency spicy mayonnaise - the non-recipe


Susan was already on her way to Frankie's (Best chipper in Scotland - official) to fetch our tea last night, when our neighbour Michael arrived with a 'fry' - a wee gift of fish from his boat. In this case, as a creel fisherman, it was a particularly generous present - four large crabs and a lobster. 

I boiled them up last night on arrival, salting the water to sea levels. Around 20 minutes or so. The lobster is set for dinner on Thursday, in classic Thermidor form, with the crabs adding some extra  bulk. I'll describe what happens, when it happens...everything's in the freezer for the moment.

But I decided to use the crab claws to make a starter for tonight...sort of. Actually, that's a lie. The claws fell off during boiling and I forgot all about them until today, by which time they had to be salvaged from the boiling liquor in the big huge pot and dealt with, else they would waver past the point of unrefrigerated edibility. Idiot, I know.

Anyway, it was out with the breadboard and an old Le Creuset pot on the point of dearh through wobbly handle. Batter, batter, bits of shell and crab matter everywhere. Enough meat after much faffing about for a biggish bowl. And then the recipe.

Well, that's another lie. I don't really do recipes. I just throw things together and keep tasting until it's roughly right. And if it isn't, I have been known to run basic ingredients under the tap until I can just about start again. It's amazing what you can get away with. I've salvaged entire curries that way.

So, anyway. Crab meat, one bowl. Hellman's Mayonnaise or generic imitation, some. Mustard, Dijon, for taste not heat. Cayenne pepper or Nando's Scotch Bonnet sauce, half a teaspoon (the sauce not the Cayenne, which I didn't have). Lemon juice. Mix experimentally.

So far, so delicious. We're having it with pitta bread. Susan, for whom summers epnt working in a shellfish processing factory as a student rendered crabs inedible until she had my last batch of Crab Kerfuffle Emergency Mayo, says she'll eat it.

Oh, and Frankies was great last night, but it deserves a the full Jujubes treatment in due course.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Dark woody secrets of ageing whisk(e)y. Fast.

Thanks to Len Northfield, who sent me a link to this story about a wee burnt stick you add to cheap whisky to allegedly 'make it taste top shelf'.

The idea seems initially appealling and scientifically plausible. Ageing in oak (and Bourbon barrels, often used second-hand for whisky in Scotland, are charred internally) is part of the traditional production process for whisky, with and without the 'e'. The long, slow warehousing does indeed draw out nasty congeners (although chemicals from the wood can be just as vicious). Some evaporation (the 'Angels' Share') is inevitable. But sticking lumps of wood in spirit to accelerate the process? Well...

They do it on an industrial scale in Cleveland according to this NPR story, and there are lots of stories about the way barrels in Scotland are/have been 'treated' (notably with concentrated 'wine' - probably cheap reduced sherry) caramel and other substances. And in a sense, what's the difference between that and the fashionable habit of using casks which carry a taste from their previous use, be it rum, wine, other whiskies (I've tasted a dram which had been 'accidentally' flavoured using Laphroaig barrels) mackerel or herring?

Legally, you cannot call a dram 'Scotch Whisky' until it's been aged in oak, in Scotland, for at least three years. Exactly what's been done to the oak those barrels are made of, or indeed, whether or not lumps of charred wood have been floated in the spirit first...that would be an ecumenical matter...

Friday, 17 October 2014

Lerwick café society rules!

Let me say straight away that I am biased when it comes to The Peerie Shop Café in Lerwick. I have been going there since it opened and James Martin, chef and manager, is a pal. Let it also be said that he once provided exemplary Cullen Skink during one of my afternoon radio shows and employed, God bless him, my student son James during The Summer Of the Bake-Off. So there is no way I'm going to be critical of the place. If there was any reason to be negative, I just wouldn't review it.
Anyway, let me tell you about 'Da Peerie Shop'. It's attached to (but is separate from, if you see what I mean)  a rather nice craft, book and upmarket souvenir shop of the same name, in a very old building on the Lerwick waterfront, facing the old harbour. If it's warm and not too windy, tables may be placed outside, gingerly. Inside, it's tall, modern and narrow, on two floors, and seating can be at a premium. It's always busy.

Open from early morning to early evening, it does excellent espresso, cappuccino and all the usual Italianate caffeine delivery systems. Sandwiches are freshly made with good local bread, and to say the least generous. Two home-made soups a day, fresh scones and  spectacular baking. It is, if you can get a seat, the perfect local coffee shop.
I was in around midday so had that compromise mid-morning snack/lunch thing that allows savoury and sweet to run riot. Curried parsnip soup was well-nigh perfect - not over seasoned, spicy without being eye-watering and not  pungently parsnippy, but perfectly restrained in its winter-veg tastiness. Also, it hadn't been food-processed into paste, but retained proper texture. Brown  bread and butter, the slimmer's option (!) which left room for a proper latté and some carrot cake, which again, triumphed in its combination of subtlety and generosity (plenty of not-too-sweet topping, fine carrotiness but no Bugs Bunny bits. Eight quid for all that.
I  know the scones here very well and can thoroughly recommend them, but the soup-and-sweet option proved irresistible. There will of course be other scones, because I'll be back.  Of course.                                                

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Food Memory betrayed: Jacob's Club, ruined by the French, reclaimed by the Irish

Food memory. It’s a funny thing, our ability to recall the shape, texture and taste of  particular foods. Childhood taste experiences not only resonate down the years, but influence our adult food choices. We seek out the morsels which recreate past, innocent pleasures.

And sometimes, food memory deceives. Of late I’ve been eating Jacob’s Club Orange biscuits reasonably often, for one simple reason: my wife hates them, and so does my daughter, who was home for the summer. Therefore I could guarantee a secure supply of sweetmeats was lurking in the fridge when I came in from my daily grind of mild dogwalking, in need of a snacky sugar rush.
Memory played its part, of course. Club biscuits were as near a chocolate bar, a proper sweet, as you could get when I was a child in the 1960s, and cheaper than a Mars or a Crunchie.

But I’ve gradually become aware that the Club Biscuit is different these days. I always recall it as squat, brick-like, very chocolatey, very crunchy. It still has a hint of that that, but it has definitely slimmed down. It’s thinner,  there’s less chocolate. I didn’t realise the reasons for that, or that the Club is mired in fear, loathing, hatred, anti-French sentiment, anti- (and pro-) Irish sentiment. 
It all starts in Ireland, where, just prior to World War One, WR Jacob started producing the ‘Club Milk’ biscuit from a tiny bakery in Waterford. They quickly moved to Dublin and grew. It was a classic format: two biscuits, sandwiching cocoa cream, surrounded by thick layer of milk chocolate, wrapped in foil and then a slip wrap of paper. Within a year it was being made and marketed in the UK, from the company’s Liverpool factory. By the 1920s, the UK and Irish branches were operating separately.

The range expanded (orange, fruit, mint, plain, even a honeycomb version ) and became hugely popular in the UK, until in 1970 the Irish and British divisions of Jacobs were separated. If you’re old enough you may still remember the ‘playing card’ packaging used for the original biscuit, which provided the name ‘Club’ in the first place.

‘If you want a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club.” The jingle was everywhere and there WAS a lot of chocolate on a Club. You could nibble it off leaving the biscuit layers shorn and naked. Oh, and despite many west of Scotland jokes, Orange Clubs had and have no sectarian connotations.
Disaster struck in the mid 1990s when French firm Danone bought both the Irish and British branches of Jacobs. They changed everything: The packaging (no foil, no paper, just cellophane) and the recipe. One biscuit, less cocoa cream, a different, thinner layer of ‘chocolate-based coating’. There was outrage. Sacre Bleu!

In 2004 things got complicated. Danone sold the UK arm of Jacobs to United Biscuits who reinstated the packaging but left the skinflint French single-biscuit recipe intact. The Irish arm was sold to the Fruitfield Group, and Jacob Fruitfield Foods was formed, who are now marketing the original Jacob’s Milk Club, made exactly according to its full-thickness, double-biscuit, real chocolate recipe. There are stories of legal action in Ireland to stop cheaper (and inferior) biscuits being imported. And Jacobs in the UK are apparently in frequent legal ‘communication’ with Jacob Fruitfield over the use of the name on a number of other lines (like Cream Crackers, for instance; you can see how confusion could arise). As for availability of the ‘Original Milk Club’ in the UK, I know nothing, though I am hoping to source some next month during a trip ‘across the water’. No double wrapping, though, if the pictures are anything to go by.

In 2008, the massive old Jacob’s factory in Tallaght, Ireland, closed, although biscuits are still being made elsewhere. As for Jacobs in the UK, I have my Orange Club, and I quite like them. The thing is, before researching this piece, I had no yearning for the old, higher, double-sandwich, real chocolate pre-Danone version. My food memory had been traduced.

Now I want them back. Now I remember. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Mareel life: getting a handle on coffee

Call me an ungroovy curmudgeon, but I like a handle on my coffee cup or mug. Clutching a tumbler full of hot liquid is not for me. After all, it could tumble. And my clasping ability is not what it once was.

So my first few caffeinating experiences of Shetland's multi-million pound arts hub/cinema complex/music venue were not inspiring. The coffee mugs were gripless. There were other issues, too. I was suspicious of Mareel (a Shetland dialect word referring to the nighttime phosphorescence seen at sea in the wake or bow wave of a boat) due to what I saw as issues of transparency regarding its funding. I felt uneasy there. The café seemed haphazardly run and dusty. The staff were self-absorbed and very conscious of their coolness quotient. And anyway, I was a loyal and enthusiastic customer of the wonderful Peerie Shop Café in town.

But time has passed and the truth is for Shetlanders and isles residents (an important distinction) there's no avoiding Mareel, and not just if you want to hear live music or see a movie among other humans. It's big, you can always get a seat, there's easy parking and importantly, there's good wifi. Also, you can talk turkey or soya without being overheard or straining to hear the other half of a conversation. So for business meetings, it's ideal.

And now the coffee cups have handles. Not only that, there appears to have been something of a revolution in the catering department. Staff are enthusiastic, friendly and helpful. It's clean. My last two lattes have been exemplary and generous in terms of both foam consistency and shot size. Today I was offered the choice of three brownie varieties, all gluten free (not sure that's really a selling point, but never mind) with my eventual choice, a raspberry one, being quite excellent. Moist with that essential, marginal firmness to the top. Baked I think by local company The Island Oven.

The Mareel café bar is open late, has some interesting draft beers and weird teas, and there are art exhibitions upstairs. The smell of roasting popcorn reminds you there are films to see, the views of Lerwick Harbour are tremendous, and the hot drinks can be held without gloves. And that's a good thing. 

(Mareel, Lerwick, Shetland. Latte and brownie, £4.70)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Scones and Coffee (1): Ayr, Su Casa, Pandora's and hopes for The Artisan Lounge

These are excerpts from my Scottish Review piece on Ayr, which you can find in expanded form on The Beatcroft Blog.

What, and where, did we eat? My mum liked The Coffee Club, which had a branch in Kilmarnock, but my favourite for family outings, anywhere, Ayr, Kilmarnock or the vast smoke-blackened megacity of Glasgow, was a Stakis steakhouse.
Two courses or three. Prawn cocktail. Mixed grill. Black Forest gateau. Coffee with cream that you poured carefully over a teaspoon so it floated...

Finding somewhere to eat and drink in today’s Ayr is not a problem. There are dozens of pubs and coffee shops, of varying style and quality. Alas, bad cappuccino has become the curse of Scottish communities, often accompanied by something even more distressing, the microwaved stale scone. Over- sensitive to the risks, in unfamiliar establishments I now question thoroughly before consumption: do you grind your own beans? Who roasts them? Do your lattes come with two shots or a measly one? And crucially: when were your scones baked? This almost caused my ejection from the excellent Pandora’s in Sandgate. Eyes glinting, the uniformed waitress informed me that ALL scones were fresh THAT MORNING, and I could have a choice of treacle, cheese, plain or fruit, with butter or jam. In the panelled back room, I settled down with the Herald of Glasgow, Scotland to read about unilateral declarations of independence. Crumbs....

Subsequent to my various caffeine-fuelled manoeuvres between the Ayr and the Doon, I have discovered the delights of Su Casa, a bean-roasting and flat-white serving establishment in the Lorne Arcade. The rosewater, rhubarb and cardamom cake sounds appalling, but is magnificent...
And Su Casa is expanding, deep into the oldest part of Ayr's centre. The Artisan Lounge opens this week in an Old Bridge Road basement. A 'bistro-deli' may sound worrying, and there is a risk of acoustic crooning. But as tiny sign that bohemia may be blooming among the Semi-Chems and moneylenders, it's heartening.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Chip called Ubiquity: Just another liberal night in Ashton Lane

A Tuesday night in Glasgow, and the Liberal Democrats, released from their conference confines, were dining out. Cail Bruich in Great Western Road had nothing, not a smidgin of amuse guele, all night. No point in even trying Crabshakk  or its associated Table 11 (very disappointing and reeking of vintage deep fat fryer on my last visit, anyway).We needed a table for five (me, two sons and their partners) and we needed it early evening. Not Indian, not Chinese, not Italian. Something quite good but not card-bashingly dear. The Ubiquitous Chip? I roared at Number Four Son. You can't be serious...

"It's the only place in Glasgow with a table for five at 6.30" he replied, which probably wasn't entirely true. "And it's upstairs, the bar menu." As long as Alan Bissett isn't reading his bloody doggerel this time, I said, perhaps a little too heatedly. But James had received an assurance that this was not the case.

So, up the steps which launched several hundred 1980s hangovers I puffed, late as ever, to find the assembled Mortons and girlfriends already seated in a half-empty corridor of mezzanine. Furstenberg was being sipped. They still serve 'Furstie' as it's called on the bill. Four quid and 10 pence a pint. Dear God. I remember when it was introduced, one of the first draught over-strength lagers available in Glasgow. Tennents-weaned strangers to the Big F's power would sink three pints and find themselves unable to lock their knees. Nowadays, with most everyday beers lurking at five per cent alcohol, hapless consumers of Duvel, which is over eight, can find themselves similarly traduced.

I ordered a glass of house Shiraz, which was (contemptuously) termed "Du L'Allee" on the bill. Contempt is what it deserves - disappointing at £5.70 in this home of the grandiloquent wine list, too-long open and with a brassy scent of Duraglit. The Lib Dems and associated hacks were clearly drinking better things.

We ordered. I was on a squashy bench too low for the table. Service was swift and friendly, as it should be in a place which pioneered informal and yet informed waiting. As a student, I seem to recall eating a two-course lunch at the Chip (before it had an upstairs) for £1.50. They threw in the pudding for free as the service was so poor. Things have improved.

I started with carrot and (I think) fennel soup which was terrible, over-salted and  blended to micro-mush. My main was Galloway venison mince with tatties - a small portion, tasty but with a hint of over-gaminess which made me wonder how long the venison had been hanging for. All the portions were business-lunch sized, even the pork belly special which was approvingly consumed. We ordered extra greens and, in the place where Ronnie Clydesdale once banned the chip, chips. Both were good, though the Cail Bruich triple-cooked chips have the edge. As do mine, frankly. I reminded Magnus (black pudding to start, then Haggis: offally good, he said, but he was always an Adrian Mole fan) that while making a radio programme about the Glasgow Underground he, as a wee boy, had accompanied me to the Chip to interview the aforementioned Mr Clydesdale. Ronnie asked Mag if he wanted anything. "Chips" came the reply. And the forbidden tatties were instantly served. James had chicken which he said was 'near perfect'.

Good coffee. A proper macchiatto. Splendid attention from Aimee. But the Chip, even this Ubiquity Lite upstairs version, seemed on uncertain form. My last full-on special treat downstairs dinner (May) was both insanely expensive and disappointingly less-than-ordinary. But then, the Chip has provided some of my favourite meals and most memorable dining experiences. Notably, the dinner which nearly destroyed my brief career at STV and that time Honor Blackman insisted on moving table three timees...

The place began to fill with LibDems as we left. What we had was OK (apart from the soup) but this was food with a preoccupied, diffident, slightly skinflint air. £26 a head, not much to drink? Considerable room for improvement. At least Alan Bissett wasn't reciting.