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.