Thursday, 16 June 2016

Anniversaries, Paris House and Michelin Stars

Can anyone explain to me the apparent requirement that forces posh restaurants to serve tiny portions on enormous plates? 'I'm sorry chef, you'll have to wait until next year, your plates just aren't big enough.' Surely there's a compromise to be found?

As we sat at the table of Paris House eating a 10 course marathon meal extravaganza, and considering that point (in my head), I was also reminding Mrs P just how lucky she was for being married to me for the past 5 years. No, wait. It was the other way around wasn't it, I was reminding myself about how lucky I was for being married to Mrs P while also talking about these needlessly enormous plates. It was our five year anniversary and I thought that I had a lot to make up for during the previous five years of embarrassing decisions and general knobbyness that Mrs P has had to endure at my hands by treating her to some slap-up nosh.

I've written about it in a bit more detail over at Two Men About Town so head over to get the full run down.

Five years though... to be fair, I'm quite grateful that she's not slapped an injunction on me by now. So I figured that if nothing else, she deserved a bit of a treat and Paris House certainly gave us that. I've been lucky enough to go over there a few times to meet Phil Fanning, owner and Head Chef during my experiences judging the MK Food Awards and don't think for a second I missed the opportunity to introduce Mrs P to 'my close personal friend (aka someone I've met a couple of times) Phil, you know, the Michelin starred chef'. 

Just in case you can't be bothered to click on the link - here's a couple of the best pictures/dishes:







The review contains all my thoughts about the place so have a read if you want to know all about the food and why you should appreciate fine dining as an unforgettable experience, but I kept back this one to share with you lovely people who continue to read these posts for your own oddly comforting yet still undeniably voyeuristic reasons; why is it that the good times feel too short and the bad times feel too long?

Happy Anniversary Mrs P, it feels like yesterday and in 40 years time, I hope it still does.

Monday, 30 May 2016

The Black Horse in Woburn

So, my Two Men About Town blog has taken off a little more ferociously than I had first thought and I've not had that much time to put down much on here but here's a link to my experience at the launch of the new Summer menu at the Black Horse in Woburn that I was lucky enough to be invited to:

The Black Horse Summer Menu Review

I've mentioned how uneasy I find these press events and really, unless you can get talking to people that realise and appreciate how inherently odd they actually are, I'm remain unconvinced. Luckily I was on home turf at the Black Horse and the team there are quite exceptional. They have been my go-to venue of choice for lunches with family for the last couple of years because a) they are consistently good, and b) they have always pitched the menu on the right sight of 'expensive enough to be worth the trip vs. enough good value not to mind.' So once again, they produced a solid and excellent performance even in the most extreme of circumstances (names of those involved have been changed to protect the innocent)

It's weird to think that we're now moving into the Summer season which is when (this time last year) I started to really see interest get put my way with all sorts of people getting in touch. This blogging lark is interesting in how it changes the way you start thinking about what you're doing and where you're going. I think that an honest blog and trusted is worth a lot more than a hundred Trip Advisor clones, even if we do get it wrong every now and then.

Coming Soon: Paris House - A Michelin Starred Anniversary (because she's worth it)

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Wine Tasting at The Old Thatched Inn in Adstock

I used to think that there was nothing better than going out for a good knees up on a school night. These days I try and be a bit more measured in my approach but still it's good to meet new people.

I spent a very relaxing evening last week doing exactly that at one of Mrs P's favourite pubs The Old Thatched Inn; eating, drinking and talking. What's not to like?

All the details are over on Two Men About Town: http://bit.ly/25jgnMm so check it out if you want to know what happens when you sign up for something without really thinking it through...


Friday, 20 May 2016

Two Men About Town - a new direction

I've been blessed in my life with some truly great friends, I've known some for over 30 years and others for less than 2 but I'm glad to say that I am lucky that I have the opportunity to make new ones every day. Recently, one of those friends said:

'Hey Rob, I really like your blog, It's amazing, clearly the best blog written by anyone ever but you don't talk about much other than food. Let's do a blog together where you can talk about anything because I really value your thoughts on various topics such as what type of shoes you wear or the crisis in the Middle East.'

Yep, that's what he said and if @suburbangent tries to tell you different, he's a dirty liar. So, without any further fanfare and self-trumpet blowing, I would like to present to you, in association with my good friend Mr SuburbanGent:

Two Men About Town

I'm not going to stop RobsRibs but Two Men will be a place for far more discussion on everything that is stimulating, intriguing or pleasurable in our lives. However, you can assured that because I'm involved there will still be food, a lot of food.

So whizz on over and take a look, you never know you might even find it interesting.




Monday, 9 May 2016

MK Food Awards 2016 - the aftermath

Who doesn't like a good awards ceremony? Usually it's a perfect chance to dress up in Tux and tie to meet, mingle and generally get drunk with as many like minded people as possible. So it was that last Sunday granted another great example for the best of the local catering industry in Milton Keynes to measure up and see exactly which of them had captured the public's heart over the past twelve months.

I covered the event last year and was really pleased to be invited to take part again, although I felt even more of a fraud as I spoke all evening to people who have put their money where their mouths are and actually done something about their passion for food and drink rather than just hiding behind the safety of a laptop and throwing out opinions whether people want them to or not.*

So what happened, who was there and what did we eat? Well, as per last year, I arrived too late to sample the appetisers made by Milton Keynes catering college students (dammit, I really do have to work on my timing), but breezed in to take my seat on the Mayoral table.




Which turned out to be a genius plan as Mr and Mrs Mayor were on the last few weeks wind down at the end of their tour of civic duty and were more than willing to join in with the gusto of the evening. I was also sat with some of the smaller independent producers whom I've recently covered and got to know - it's these guys who are willing to take the risks that the big brands won't and prove just how exciting your Friday night takeaway can be: @urbangrilla @foodinmk @mkfoodrev @goodtimescafeUK



Starters were cheese, tomato salsa and a couple of tasty green pea splodges - there is always a compromise to be had when catering for a large number of people and good spirits kept the table in excellent humour even when the temperature soared past 'sweaty' and hit 'sauna' early on.

Mains came with plenty of added gravy and mint sauce for those who wanted it.



But it was the desert that was the highlight - a trio of spoonfuls that provided chocolate, lemon and strawberry mouthfuls that tasted as good as they looked. It's never going to be easy to cater for so many people and while compromises will always have to be made, this dish made the most of the opportunity and so hats off to the team @berthoolivier for making such a good fist of it.



As with any event that I now attend alongside fellow eating enthusiast @Loubou, I have learned that she will inevitably take far better pictures than I can. So please check out her blog here as I'm sure she'll give you a much better view of the ambience and atmosphere than any wobbly views of a group of mates on the wrong side of a bottle of prosecco which is pretty much all I managed to come away with.

The big awards went to Spencer Orlington from Bistro Live for Chef of the year, The Don for Best Newcomer and Nonnas for Restaurant of the year, none of which I have visited and so they immediately jump to the top of the 'should visit' list. The winners of the category that I was lucky enough the judge was The Indian Orchard and the Hornes Brewery which are both products which I have already further enjoyed since the judging!

So, in summary I have nothing but massive congratulations for all the worthy winners and competitors that are working so hard to make my home town a better place to live and eat in. You can find all the details at the MK Food and Leisure Award HQ once they have recovered enough from the evening to post them up, or you can follow them @mkfoodawards. If nothing else, the evening just goes to show that the foodie scene here in Milton Keynes is growing at a breakneck pace and there is so much for us to be proud of. Excellent work from everyone - well done and I'll see you all next year! 






I'm describing me there in case you hadn't noticed. 

Friday, 29 April 2016

Judging the MK Food Awards 2016

A lot can happen in a year. Loads, and don't even get me started on the beginning of this year. But no matter how much is squeezed in, it always seems to go so quickly - for example, it doesn't seem so very long ago that I was judging last years entries in the local produce category of the annual MK Food Awards. Fast forward a year, and here we are again looking at even more entries. Looking across the table I'm so pleased to see that local producers are getting better and better.

As the date got closer I was once again summoned to Paris House, and I was therefore (also once again) pointedly reminded by Mrs P. that I hadn't taken her to eat there yet. Paris House as our resident Michelin starred venue remains as beautiful, classy and desirable as ever. Mrs P. need not fear, a reservation will be made.



I joined the esteemed panel which this year included (alongside Steve from the ever present @mkfoodawards) Phil Fanning of @parishousechef, Jeff of @jeffthechefhogs and Lou from @loubou. The entries for the 2016 awards were as varied as ever and for those interested in the full list:

Food:

Kandola’s Kitchen – Chocolates 
Gunter Weber – Rural Honey
Frosts Food Hall – Chicken Liver Pâté
Fistful of Spice – Caribbean Hot Sauce Mango Chilli 
Virtual Orchard – Cider Vinegar with Mother
The Indian Orchard – Garlic and Tamarind Pickle 
Jam Moo Kow – Plum & Cinnamon Jam
Wodehill – Croxton Ewe Cheese
Amazing-Grains – Rye Bread

Drink:
Hornes Brewery – Triple Goat Porter 4.6% vol
Bucks Star Brewery – Cloudy Artisan Beer 4% vol
White Park Brewery – Oast House 4.8% vol
Concrete Cow Brewery – MK IPA 5% vol




Full details of this and all the categories will be announced on the 8th of May - but suffice to say that choosing from such a group of products was not easy and there was much discussion on the individual merits of each entry. What was also not easy was consuming a combination of all the above at 9am in the morning, lucky they don't call me Rob 'iron stomach' for nothing. This judging lark isn't all fast cars and fancy country houses you know.

And as so you, dear readers, would expect, I'll be there on the 8th tweeting and blogging so you won't miss out on the action. If you haven't already, you only have a couple more days to enter the public vote so get yourself over to www.mkfla.co.uk and let them know what you think.

Lou took much  better pictures than I did so head over to her blog at Miltonkeynesgirl to check them out.






Monday, 25 April 2016

The Old Thatched Inn - Adstock (redux)

Last year, I was in need of a good Sunday lunch and together with my brother-in-law, the Family P all trooped off to The Old Thatched Inn (TOTI) at Adstock. As you may recall, it wasn't a 100% satisfactory experience, but since then I have suffered many such Sunday lunch related disappointments and so, when they got back in touch and offered us the chance to give TOTI* another crack, we jumped at the chance. Admittedly, Mrs P has visited a few more times than me but she has been a die-hard TOTI fan for a while and even demanded that I include them in my recent top tips.

So, a date night was confirmed and after the babysitter arrived (this was adult time - no dolls or disney channel talk allowed), we got right to it so to speak. As before, this place looks great. Full of generous helpings of character and homely atmosphere. It represents the best kind of modern country pub. It's the sort of place you could rock up for a decent pint, then after a couple of drinks decide to stay for a bit of pan-fried Aylesbury duck breast in the restaurant. As you do.

His and hers, Mrs P has always loved a good pint of bitter**. The beer here is good but not spectacularly local and there is still enough Doombar on tap for the average non-fanatical beer drinking CAMRA aficionados among us.  They do, however, serve bubbles by the glass. A Mrs P pleaser for sure!  



The decor remains relaxed and wonderfully comfortable with big squashy sofas from where you can enjoy your pre-dinner drinkiepoos.




Starters were a wild garlic and white onion soup with some kind of giant homemade fried focaccia croutons and a Mediterranean salad. Wild garlic is just so now, dah-ling and this was absolutely lovely - the portion was ample and the flavour was just as generous. The salad was fresh and light with classic flavours and again, presented in bumper proportions.




Mains were equally impressive and looked if not pretty, then certainly tasteful. The duck and mash were soft and packed with flavour, the skin crunchy and beautifully blistered. The cabbage bringing a mild but sharp twang that cut through the fatty duck like a tasty bolt of lightning through a storm called Dinner.

The menu proudly declares that the blade of beef has been cooked for 8 hours and having tasted it, I would believe them even if they claimed to have spent 6 of those hours painting each one with freshly squeezed rainbow juice from a brush made from shaved unicorn hair. The meat simply melted away and with the crunch of the veg was such a joy that I had to resist the urge to slap Mrs P on the hand with my knife when she suggested that we 'swap plates'.

The puds were equally stella with an apple and custard tart sitting alongside the most intense chocolate parfait I've ever had. The tart was creamy and smooth with that custard nestling within its pastry cup just daring you to smother it with the quenelle of solidified apple sauce that was placed so tantalizingly close.

The parfait was a great mix of tastes and textures. From the crunch of nuts, the smooth nutella dollop on the top and the dense and intense parfait itself;




Understated and classy, the plates brought the whole meal to a well deserved end. We rolled out seriously pleased and replete, safe in the knowledge that if we had paid for the meal, we would still have had change from £30 a head plus drinks. For food like this, that is serious value. 

A great pub, my only slight annoyance is that they insist on calling themselves a 'gastro pub', there is no shame in being just a pub and TOTI can sleep easy knowing that they are good enough to let the gastro speak for itself.


*Great acronym - every time i say it, I think of this, but perhaps that says more about me than I would like to publicly admit.

**That joke actually caused Mrs P to commit physical violence upon my person. 


While Mrs P and I dined as guests of TOTI, the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, it must be said though that we liked it so much that we signed up there and then for their upcoming wine tasting evening. Four courses and wine for 45 quid, what's not to like?

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Fasting or Feasting - a rant

Before we start this, I want to be absolutely clear on two points. Firstly, if you are the kind of person who likes and follows celebrity or fashionable diets/body sculpting tips and believe that they work for you, then great but this will not be the kind of article that will provide you with the reassurance that you are doing the right thing. Secondly, neither is it an unrepentant attack on the healthy food movement as a whole, most of whose members are undeniably well meaning but attempt to provide the kind of ultimately doomed principles that are usually presented in 'three easy steps'. 

If you are still here then I hope we are all on the same page about what's coming so let's get cracking; I was in Tesco a few days ago and wandered down the book aisle as I am prone to do in certain moments of calm. I browsed across a few mediocre Dan Brown copycats and glossed over the paperback 'Easter Holiday easy readers' until my eye was caught by this book sitting at the number one best sellers position:



At this point let me please say that I have nothing whatsoever against Elly Pear. I've never met her but I'm sure she is a lovely woman, indeed I know several people who follow her dietary advice and swear that it does them the world of good. However, the reason behind my sudden, uncontrollable and irrepressible anger towards this book is that it represents the ultimate failure of our modern, cultured and some may say even civilised society to understand how we continue to use and mis-use food in sustaining our bodies on a daily basis. Instead, it excuses and even encourages our current unwillingness to develop long term relationships with the food we eat. You don't need willpower if you only have to not eat for a day, right?

Ms Pear is, of course not the only culprit in this issue and on the same shelf I immediately saw other such gems. Believe me when I say that I have just as much ire for Davina McCall, Amelia Freer, Dallas Hartwig and James Duigan.


 

 

All of these books promise that by buying their book and following their edicts to give you either karmic absolution, body image revolution within an absurd time frame or in the deplorable case of James Duigan, both of these at the same time.

I know that by now, some of you will be apocalyptically enraged by my mis-representation of these diets and how they actually advocate 'whole food' views with enough caveats about personal responsibility and clear accepted opinions of what is healthy and what is not to satisfy your justification bias. However, keep with me here and let me demonstrate why I got so angry with publishers making money out of your and my insecurities while pretending that they are doing us a favour.

Let's start with Elly Pear, it's not what she says that I have a problem with, rather it's the attitude that her book represents. Let's not mess about here, there are three major attractions to the very basic representation of 'Fast Days and Feast Days'. Firstly, that you can eat anything you want.  Feasting is a good thing and is all about pleasure, gluttony and generally feeling good about eating as much as possible. Secondly, a 'fast day' can be one of two things, firstly it's a day of not eating but secondly it describes a period of time that passes more quickly before you get to another 'feast day'. Finally, the cover shows Elly herself, looking attractive and representing the kind of person that you can be if you follow the guidance in her book.

Am I the only one who see's this as odd? Is an accelerated process of starving and bingeing really going to make you more attractive? I think a huge number of recovering anorexics and binge eaters would beg to differ. Again, please don't think for a second that I believe that Elly Pear is offering readers a weight loss solution based on the principles of eating disorders, rather what I object to is that this is the representation that book gives me, the reader as its proposition. If you read the book, you'll see that the promise of a 'feast day' is actually laced with very carefully constructed guidance on what you should and shouldn't eat. I applaud the intention to change what the reader believes to constitute a feast into something more appropriate to healthy living but you are set up to fail if you go into the plan on the promise of its title alone, which unfortunately, is the inevitable intention of the publisher. An attractive cover sells books.

Now, look back at the other book covers that I chose here. All of them give you the same message; it's easy to eat whatever you want and still change yourself into a better person.  'A totally toned tummy in 14 days', James Duigan you should be ashamed of yourself; 'the 30 day guide to TOTAL HEALTH and FOOD FREEDOM' nice use of capitals there to highlight the ridiculous promises; '10 easy steps to losing weight' it's easy to look as good as this airbrushed photo; 'Eat carbs and still lose weight with my amazing 5 week smart carb plan' come on Davina shouldn't it be under promise and over deliver, not the other way around?

The truth is, that it's really, really, really hard to stay healthy in today's society and any suggestion that it's otherwise is wrong. There are simply too many competing interests all trying to get hold of your cash. From junk food to healthy snacks, from processed fats, processed sugars to organic pesticides and fairtrade bananas, sooner or later you'll fall off the wagon and hate yourself for doing it. So, after noticing that you've just finished the whole tub of ice-cream without realising it, you'll buy another book which promises to fix you up and make you feel better about yourself just in time for the summer holidays. I don't know to what extent these messages are written by the authors themselves or created by publishers to sell books but their effect is to create an overwhelming baseline of an accepted view that allows you and me to expect to treat food in a particular way; it's OK to only eat sausages today because a) I really like them and b) besides, I'm drinking kale smoothies for the rest of the week. 

So what do you do? Aha, my friends, you won't catch me out that easily! Will I just be another hypocritical voice in my condemnation of something that I haven't been able to achieve myself? We live in a completely different world to the one that we evolved from, with so many more choices and experiences open to us. I live my life by eating my way from experience to experience and so I can't afford to be weighed down by such emotional baggage as worrying about how I look in my speedos. I see diversification of diet as a good thing and people today are able to explore new tastes more than ever before but as there are so many things to treat and indulge on, that diversification must be enjoyed in both the good and the bad.

Too much of anything is bad, just as a little bit of anything probably isn't going to kill you*. Surely a healthy understanding of the essence of life must be based on the appreciation that life is full of nice things to eat and we can have some of this, a bit more of that but only a little bit of this. Before you could order food from any cuisine under the sun delivered hot to your door, people didn't need to worry about polyfats or carb bloating. We live in a new world and we should respond by recognising it. I am not the posterchild for clean living, I don't have a body mass index of anything approaching svelte and I don't cut out sugar, carbs, wheat, soya, fat, nuts or gluten. But I do know that eating too much of any of those things is bad for me and I adjust my habits accordingly. 

I see the commercial need to push on the human condition but morally, can it be justified when it just pushes us towards a point of culinary armageddon where we end up with one of only two extremes:

1) total sanitisation of food that's been screened, processed and approved before it can be eaten without guilt 

versus;

2) the counter culture of hemp oil biscuits and soya pasta, where nothing can enter the body unless it's been grown on the untouched slopes of the Andes and cultivated with the tears of passing yak.

Now I don't know about you, but I'm hoping that we find a happy medium.




* Apart from heroin, or crack. Seriously kids, don't do drugs. At all.



Saturday, 16 April 2016

Camping on the Isle of Wight

I like camping, I like the way you are taken out of your usual every day and put in a situation that lets you appreciate all the stuff that you don't need in your normal life. Of course, it also lets you appreciate all the stuff that you suddenly realise that you desperately need but have forgotten to pack, even more.

This Easter, The Child and I went camping for some Daddy and Daughter time while Mrs P worked through the week. We've been on camping holibobs as a family for some time so she was enthusiastic and I was naive, therefore we both packed up and shipped out for the best part of a week.


Two trains, a bus, a ferry, another bus, a missed bus and a very helpful man called Richard later, we arrived at our site and started to get set up. Grange Farm on the Isle of Wight is exactly what we had wanted with amazing coastal views, amazing beachy walks and a massive children's play area. The weather played along beautifully too and we had enough unexpected wall to wall sunshine to burn us both to a perfect lobster crisp*.

Gratuitous sunset shot:


Yeah, I know.

'But surely Rob', I hear you cry, 'during this self-imposed camping exile, you must have given up your gourmet ideals and lived off only burnt sausages and boil-in-the-bag porridge?' Not a bit of it my friends, among the meals we enjoyed, the two I will share with you here were the most successful. Admittedly there were others that didn't quite work out as intended and as it was a holiday, I also treated The Child to a Dirty Burger or two but then you can't appreciate the good without the bad, right? Now, as you all may have noticed, I don't normally do recipes but I'll make an exception here because sometimes it's useful to know what you really need to make some decent scran when no-one expects you to be able to. And lets be honest, part of this is all about showing off to other people isn't it?

Firstly lets talk essentials, if you've been following me for a while, you may remember I literally started from scratch last February to see what you really need to make it over a month. Here, it's just a week so we can cut a few corners but we were taking literally everything with us so were trying to travel as light as possible.

Essentials:

Two sources of heat - really important if you want to eat stuff hot.
A saucepan and a frying pan
A chopping board - perhaps not essential but how far does your personal ingenuity go?
A sharp knife
Salt and pepper
Chilli - again, not essential per se but for me it's got to be up there
Instant noodles or rice
'Fresh' pasta - you know the stuff I mean; it's not really fresh but it's the non-dried sort that lasts for months in the fridge, it also cooks much quicker than dried
Garlic + Ginger - these travel really well so you can stick a bit in your pocket and forget about them
Chicken stock cubes - just a couple, I know I bang on about doing it yourself and that's all well and good but in this situation you need instant flavour
Oil  

I tried to make sure that each meal had some form of carbohydrate, protein and veg with the protein and veg elements picked up either daily or every other day. All campsites have shops of some kind and the good ones have local farm supplies which you can dive in to.



Here we have tortellini with chicken, cherry tomatoes, spring onions with a salad motif topping. We had forgotten the plates so ended up eating everything out of bowls; c'est la vie.

Chicken
Cherry Tomatoes (On the vine of course dah-ling)
Garlic
Spring onions
Chilli
Pasta - I took tortellini because it is more filling that other kinds

Boil some water and put the frying pan on, fry off some chopped garlic and cubed chicken. Chop an entire packet of cherry tomatoes and add them once the chicken is browning. Add salt. Add the chilli if you want it to simmer through, or put it on afterwards if you have any reticent diners

Cook the pasta for a couple of minutes and when its ready drain off most of the water but throw a little bit back into the chicken to loosen the sauce up a bit and mix it all together.

Serve in a bowl with salad, or on a plate if you are feeling posh.


We pushed the boat out on this one with noodles, prawns and sweetcorn.

Instant noodle
Prawns
Baby sweetcorn
Spring onions
Chilli
Pepper

Boil your water and add a chicken stock cube, fry some garlic, ginger and chilli for a couple of minutes. Then break your baby corn in half and throw that in. Eat the rest of the packet of corn while you wait for the rest to cook. Sprinkle with pepper (we had white pepper because that was the only kind that I had in the cupboard when I was packing), and add the noodles to the water when it's bubbling.

Add the prawns to the pan to heat through and when the noodles are soft enough just combine the whole lot together. The stock cube has turned the water into a broth (kind of) so why waste it?

I know that these recipes are not quite haute cuisine, but they are tasty, easy and quick to cook and filling so given the choice between a bowl of chicken and tortellini or bitterness and regret for tea, I know which one I'll be packing.