Monday 28 March 2011

Brown Windsor soup - A revival

I’ve always been slightly intrigued by Brown Windsor Soup. I’ve read mention of it countless times, generally in the context of Victorian or Edwardian dining, or perhaps later being associated with drab wartime austerity. It seems to come up again and again, but I’ve never tried it. I’ve never seen it on a menu and I barely know anyone who’s ever eaten it, apart from my Mother – once, in the 1960’s in London, who remembered it as being “Nice and rich”.

It used to be a restaurant staple, an absolute British classic, but the ravages of wartime economy meant that although it remained very much on the menu, the only defining characteristic it shared with it’s pre-war version was it’s brownness. ‘E’s grandfather apparently ate it whilst serving in the RAF, and remembers it being made from Bovril.
Abominations such as this are what helped to consign it not only to the dustbin of culinary history, but literally had it being held up as an example of the sheer awfulness of British cooking.

Recently I came across an Alastair Little recipe for Brown Windsor, and browsing the list of ingredients it was hard to see anything to dislike, in fact; it sounded absolutely delicious. Shin of beef, Lamb fillet, Marrow Bone, Cayenne and Sherry. Meat and booze! Does it get any better?
How could we, as a nation, have fallen out of love with something seemingly so right?

There was it seemed, only one-way to find out.

The soup’s very Britishness seemed to fit in nicely with what we try and do at our Bristol based ‘Montpelier Basement’ supper club, where the recurring theme is British, seasonal and local. When we announced it was on the menu, there was a fair bit of interest in the dish, it seemed I wasn’t the only one who had heard of it and was intrigued.

The night before the supper, we worked our way through the recipe ending up with a cauldron of murky, brackish swamp like liquid. Removing the bones, and scraping the jellified marrow out into the soup elicited something of an appalled and disgusted commentary from pescetarian ‘E’, for who the sheer meatiness was just a step too far. But the prodigious use of a stick blender and then forcing the resulting mixture through a Mouli saw something of a transformation…the soup slowly became a rather drab, but not entirely unexpected, uniform brown. The final additional flourish of some sherry and cayenne did nothing to improve the dull earthen sheen.

But what did it taste like?

Belying its slightly depressing, functional look, it tasted absolutely belting. Subtle at first, meaty. But then turning spicy and tinged with the sherry flavour. Bloody gorgeous.

We decided to liven things up slightly by adding a dollop of horseradish and chive crème fraiche to each bowl, which also helped to break up the appalling brownness.

The verdict of our diners at ‘The Basement’? The general consensus seemed to be that they absolutely loved it. In fact, I don’t think anyone we asked disliked it.

So, time for Brown Windsor Soup to emerge from it’s period in culinary limbo and once again take it’s place on menus across the nation, if only that a whole new generation can get to sample an absolute British classic? I think so.

Here’s the recipe.

Brown Windsor Soup
Serves 8

You’ll Need: -

225g Shin of Beef, cut into 2.5cm cubes
225g Lamb Fillet, cut into 2.5cm cubes
60g Dripping or Butter
1 Large Onion, thinly sliced
2 Carrots cut into small dice
60g Flour
1 Marrow Bone, sawn into 5cm pieces
2.25 Litres Beef or Chicken Stock
Bouquet Garni of Celery, Bay and Thyme
Salt and Pepper
1 tsp Cayenne Pepper
Sherry glass of Sweet Sherry or Madeira
Chopped Chives, Crème Fraiche, Horseradish to garnish (optional).

In a heavy casserole, brown the meat in the dripping or butter. Add the sliced onion and carrots, lower the heat and fry gently until they wilt. Sprinkle over the flour; turn up the heat and brown, stirring.

Add the marrow bone, pour over the stock and bring to the boil. Skim, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Add the bouquet garni and season. Simmer for 2 hours, topping up with water if needed.

Remove the bones and the bouquet garni (Making sure to scrape the marrow out into the soup). Blitz with a stick blender, then use a Mouli or push through a sieve using a wooden spoon into a clean pan. Adjust the seasoning and add the cayenne pepper and sweet sherry or Madeira.

Heat through gently before serving.
If you fancy pepping it up a bit, as we did, add some crème fraiche mixed with horseradish and finely chopped chives.

Monday 14 March 2011

Red Onion & Red Wine Soup

Regular visitors to my blog may have heard me mention ‘
The Eagle Cookbook’ once or twice in the past two years.
Despite amassing a collection of cookbooks large enough that I can almost legitimately refer to the living room as ‘The upstairs library’, this eponymous recipe book remains one of my absolute favourites.

In fact, despite seemingly cooking through it from cover to cover, I still managed to idly flick through the other day and stumble across yet another excellent rustic recipe that had somehow escaped my attention.

This ones an absolute cracker as well, managing to use up a whole bottle of red wine and a rather spectacular heap of twelve red onions (Since starting ‘
The Basement’ we often seem to have the odd spare bottle of red lurking, which makes me think I’m beginning to show my age here…not so long ago, it would have been sloshing down my gullet in the blink of an eye - if you're reading this, aghast at the very prospect of leftover wine, I salute you).

So, if you’re the proud owner of a red wine/red onion mountain, this one is for you. The dish is apparently northern Italian in origin, and is a bit of a warming winter soup, so seeing as more snow is knocking around parts of the UK right now, perhaps get it in before spring begins proper.
Oh, it’s served with Parmesan Bruschetta – which are ridiculously easy to make and are an integral part of the dish, so don’t omit these, ok?

Red Onion & Red Wine Soup with Parmesan Bruschetta

Serves 6

You’ll Need: -

1 Bottle of red wine
4 Cloves
4 Bay Leaves
A few sprigs of Thyme
50g Butter
4 Tbs Olive Oil
12 Red Onions, sliced
4 Garlic cloves, chopped
2 Teaspoons tomato puree
500ml Vegetable stock
2 Tbs Balsamic Vinegar
1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the Parmesan Bruschetta

6 Slices ‘country-style’ bread (I used sourdough).
2 Garlic cloves, peeled and halved
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan

Pour the wine into a large saucepan or casserole; add the cloves, bay leaves and half the thyme. Boil over a high heat until reduced by half. Strain, reserving the liquid. In the same saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the red onions and garlic. Cook slowly over a medium heat until tender, stirring now and again. (This will take at least 30 mins).
Add the reduced wine, tomato puree, vegetable stock and the remaining thyme. Cook at a gentle simmer for half hour. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and cinnamon, simmer for another 15 mins and season.

To make the Bruschetta, toast the bread on a griddle or in a dry, heavy frying pan. Rub with garlic, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with loads of Parmesan. Don’t be stingy.

Put a piece of Parmesan Bruschetta in each bowl, and pour over the soup. Garnish with thyme.

This soup is absolutely gorgeous, rich and sweet. In the photo I balanced the Bruschetta on top, but only so you, the reader, can see them. Otherwise, they’d be hidden under the soup. (Always thinking me). Oh and rather than the suggested 1 each, I decided 3 was a much safer bet, greedy bastardo that I am.
As is often the case with soups and stews, this tastes just that much better re-heated the next day.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

The Sportsman - Seasalter - Kent

Bitter experience has taught me that where it comes to dining out, expectation often leads to disappointment. I’ve lost count of the instances where the hype and promise surrounding a restaurant has built up my anticipation to almost feverish heights, but at the end of the night, the actual meal ends with blank looks, shrugs and a deflated ‘So was that it?’ feeling.

Therefore, no one was more surprised than me after a recent visit to the much-lauded, Michelin starred Sportsman pub in Seasalter, Kent. In the resulting post lunch haze, I came to the startling conclusion that it wasn’t just jaw droppingly amazing, but I had just eaten, without a doubt the best meal I’ve ever had – anywhere.

A bold statement you may think, and an even bolder statement if you’re prone to judging a book by its cover. The Sportsman being a somewhat down at heel looking building, just a stones throw from the sea, beside a quiet coastal road, surrounded for the most part by bleak marshland and fields dotted with grazing sheep. Don’t get me wrong; the location has something of a rugged charm to it. But what’s really remarkable about the place is, how unremarkable it is. Unless you knew better, you’d probably drive past with barely a sideward glance.

The overcast February weather on the day that ‘E’ and I visited probably didn’t do much to improve The Sportsman’s exterior charm. The frozen stillness of the grey leaden sky providing an almost perfect backdrop for the unremitting rolling crash of waves on the freezing cold pebble beach and the murky uninviting sea beyond.

Upon entering the pub, the weather outside provided a stark contrast to the charm of the bright, scrubbed, cheerful and welcoming interior. A log fire crackled lazily in the grate, and the room was flooded with natural light from the large windows on either side of the room.

Feeling instantly better about our prospects, we were directed to a large wooden table in the corner. We’d booked for the tasting menu (only available Monday to Friday, which is a bit of a pain in the arse, unless you live locally and are at large on weekdays). Our waitress asked whether we’d like the whole tasting menu to be a surprise, or if we wanted to know what they had in store. Being the busybody killjoys that we undoubtedly are, we opted to know what we would be eating beforehand. Being handed individually printed, separate menus was a nice touch (I had informed them beforehand that ‘E’ of course is a pescetarian and therefore foregoes the immeasurable delights provided by meat, whilst at the same time, embracing the fishy charms offered up by the sea). Which is handy, because at first glance fish appeared to feature heavily.

The Sportsman, as well as being a Michelin starred restaurant, is a pub. A proper one, with a remarkably priced wine list. The most expensive bottle comes in at just under £30. (This is partly due to the pub being tied to the local Shepherd Neame brewery, and therefore having to choose from what’s available at the brewery's suppliers). Nevertheless, it’s a well-chosen list. We decided to go for a bottle of Monopole Blanco 2009, a white Rioja, which we thought might be a good general option to go with the multiple dishes in the tasting menu. More from sheer blind luck than any real wine knowledge, we got it right and the chosen wine was perfect.

A slate appeared with some appetisers to kick off with. Neat looking beautifully fresh squares of Pickled Herring, Bramley Apple Jelly & Soda Bread.

The best pork crackling I’ve ever tasted, light and crisp but soft enough that it almost melted away in the mouth. When combined with the mustard, (which I think may have had a slight touch of apple), it was frigging awesome.

And one portion of Smoked Mackerel, Apple Jelly, Soda Bread and Sorrel (which I didn’t get to taste because ‘E’ stuffed it in her gob without offering me anything but a backwards ‘it was nice’ comment. (To be fair, it was her birthday and I shall of course be adding similar behaviour to the repertoire for my next birthday).

Our next dish swiftly appeared, Poached Rock Oyster, Sea-Buckthorn Granita, Jersey Cream and Dried Seaweed. I don’t think I’ve eaten a cooked oyster before, and now I’m wondering why as it was so bloody nice. The sea-buckthorn, (a wild foraged berry which grows in coastal regions), had a nice sweet, sour note which cut through the rich cream.

More poached oyster goodness followed, in the shape of Poached Native Oysters, Buerre Blanc, Pickled Cumber and topped with Avruga Caviar (Which I was unfamiliar with, and a quick Google has told me is a caviar substitute made from herring roe). Again, absolutely delicious, the buttery, slightly lemon tang of the buerre blanc complimenting the poached oysters beautifully. Lovely stuff.

A board of excellent bread, along with salted butter appeared next. Every element of which including, amazingly, the sea salt in the butter, is made in the pub. (The salt from seawater gathered from the handily located briny deep, just on the pub's doorstep).

The bread, particularly the focaccia was incredible with a beautifully crisp crust and we steamed our way happily through it all at a rate of knots, greedily accepting the offer of a resupply.

A bowl of Crab Risotto followed next, the brown meat flavouring the rich unctuous rice, and little pile of white meat heaped on top. It was subtly flavoured and delicious.

Mine and ‘E’s dining experience diverted at this point, her pescetarian tendencies meaning her next dish was Slip Sole with Smoked Salt Butter. Which was, from the taster I got, delicious and beautifully cooked. The bones, reminiscent of a cartoon representation were able to be removed in one complete piece.

My dish was Smoked Widgeon, which incidentally I’d never heard of and turned out to be a type of duck. It had been shot “around the back of the pub” (presumably whilst in flight, and not put up against a wall execution style). It came with a small pile of Puy lentils and a smear of quince. Again, beautifully cooked. The smoking gave the widgeon a pleasant almost bacon like taste. The sharpness of the accompanying quince cutting through the fattiness nicely.

‘E’s next morsel was a small heap of Whisky Smoked Salmon, which she ate at an almost obscene pace, declaring it excellent with just a slight underlying taste of whisky. I didn’t get a look in.

Eyeing ‘E’s rather more substantial dish and then turning my gaze back to the few scraps of a rather funky smelling meat I’d been given, I couldn’t help but feeling like I’d been stiffed. But what’s this? An explanatory note, which much to my surprise wasn’t from the chefs offering profuse apologies for the miniscule quantity of meat but an explanation that this was their own ham, laboriously cured on site for at least 14 months. I’m sad to say this was the only duff note in an incredible meal. I admire all concerned for the work involved in locally producing a cured ham. But, when the finished result is far inferior to what artisan producers in Spain are making, and having tasted Jamon de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota D.O.P. at Brindisa, I couldn’t help but think The Sportsman should scrap the whole idea of ham curing as a bad job and get some of this instead, because it is absolutely frigging amazing. Or, if not, omit ham from the menu entirely. To be honest I doubt very much if anything produced in the UK could ever compare.

Onwards and upwards. A teapot and cups containing ‘Turbot Tea’ was placed on the table. The ‘Tea’ was the stock that our next course had been cooked in, along with seaweed and soy. It was great, and an inventive way of introducing the next dish.

‘E’s menu and mine converged again at this point, Turbot with Sea Herbs (which were apparently sea beets gathered on the beach that morning by the chefs). Another beautiful dish, turbot is always a treat. The accompanying sea beet had an almost sweet taste, at least we think it was from the sea beet and not the sauce, neither of us having encountered it before. There were also cockles, some white crab meat, and a dusting of scallop roe powder.

Another fork in the road. ‘E’s next dish being a gorgeous looking plate of Red Mullet and Bouillabaisse Sauce. By all accounts it was lovely. I didn’t get to taste this either, but somewhat happily because I was totally and utterly distracted by the plate in front of me. The drive in had made me aware that lamb was very much in the offing. Seemingly in fields everywhere throughout Kent cantered cute little chops…I mean lambs… playfully nuzzled their muttons…mothers.

And here it was, Roast Lamb from Monkshill farm (which was just over the road from the pub). A cutlet resting against a piece of braised shoulder accompanied by probably the most amazing mint sauce I’ve ever tasted (so much so that we had a heated 10 minute discussion about what was in it, before giving in and asking the waitress…just demerara sugar syrup, mint and malt vinegar and no crack cocaine apparently).
Anyway, this dish was probably the best, eyes rolling back in the head, thing I ate. I absolutely loved it.

We’d been here a good few hours by this point, and getting near to the end, signalled by the arrival of a dessert. An Apple Sorbet, topped with yoghurt…and, as we discovered once we started eating, laced with space dust – which I haven’t encountered since I was a kid. A bit gimmicky perhaps, maybe. But ‘E’ and I were giggling and smiling like idiots, so it gets massive thumbs up from me.

Our next course was a somewhat more conventional dish of Iced Cream Cheese and Pear. The slightly sour iced cream cheese heaped on poached pear, scattered with a mixture of crumble and meringue crumbs. Absolutely cracking.

Finally, the best petit fours I’ve ever encountered anywhere – Chocolate mousse with warm salted caramel, squares of Shortbread, Mini Custard Tarts, Chocolate Truffles and finally Mini Apple Turnovers. All of it was excellent, but in particular the chocolate mousse and salted caramel was superb.

So over three hours later, The Sportsman tasting menu. Done.

Strangely, despite seemingly eating for England all afternoon, neither of us felt remotely stuffed or bloated, just happily full and contented. This, despite the eight courses advertised on the menu actually somehow expanding into 13 with all of the extra dishes accounted for.

Incredibly, my expectations had been surpassed by reality. Gobsmacking, it just never happens.
‘E’ and I talked about it afterwards, and agreed that this was without a doubt the best meal either of us had ever eaten anywhere, but it’s quite hard to pin down what made it so special.

I think it’s a combination of things, which make it such an experience. The seemingly remote location albeit surrounded by excellent local produce, seafood from nearby Whitstable, locally growing foraged herbs, vegetables from the pub's own garden and a meat from the nearby farm. There’s a complete and utter lack of pretentiousness about everything, from the service to the food. It’s beautifully informal, yet friendly and slick where it needs to be. The food is carefully presented and perfectly cooked. At the end of the day, I think they love what they’re doing at The Sportsman, and it shows.

I cannot recommend it enough, pretty much faultless. I honestly can’t believe I finally made it there after two years or so of wanting to go, and it was amazing. Seriously, drop everything, take a day off work and go. You won’t regret it.

The Sportsman

Faversham Road,

Telephone: 01227 273370