Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Eddie Gilbert's, Ramsgate

As part of our continuing mini culinary tour of East Kent the next stop was the Isle of Thanet, and a trip to Eddie Gilbert's for 'Gourmet Fish and Chips'.
Walking past a well stocked fish counter and a couple of industrial sized fryers we made our way up the staircase at the back of the shop into the surprisingly light dining area.  The vaulted ceiling and walls are decorated with just enough fishing nets and nautical memorabilia to set the scene and, even on a dreary Wednesday lunchtime, there was already a cosy buzz.
We started with a hoppy and refreshing aperitif, in the form of the locally brewed Gadd's Number 3 Pale Ale, to drink while we chose our food.  Looking at the a la carte menu I got a feeling of rising panic; what to chose when everything looked so delicious. With phrases including 'home smoked cod', 'warm whelk vinaigrette' and 'spiced mackerel with shallot bhaji' it was clear this wasn't any old chippie fare.  Before I could become overwhelmed with indecision I went back to basics and picked two of my fishy favourites.

The menu also offers a selection of fish and seafood that can be served battered or grilled and are offered up with all the usual chip shop accompaniments.  For those not persuaded by the deep sea delights a handmade range of Kentish pies are available, served with mash and veg, and on weekdays you can also choose a bargain two or three course set menu.

The Ewing started with their famous duck egg with crispy smoked eel 'soldiers' served in a newspaper cone.  The egg was nicely cooked with a soft and gooey centre perfect for dunking. The soldiers were very good too;  hot, crispy and greaseless with a lovely smoky fish note to cut through the richness of the egg . I barely had time to swipe a soldier before she was happily mopping up the last of the sticky  yolk. 

I chose brown shrimps from the nibbles section served simply with lemon, warm bread and butter.  As a child we often used to visit Belgium on holiday and one of the biggest treats was buying a big bag of tiny brown shrimps to eat on the journey home. At first me and my sister would attempt to daintily peel them but we would always end up copying my Dad and munching them shell and all.

What can I say about these other than there are few things in life as perfect as eating a bowl of shrimps that you don't have to peel yourself.  They were gorgeously plump and sweet and my only problem, despite the generous portion, was that I could have easily eaten twice as many.

All the mains looked fabulous but we both plumped for the Fritto Misto with beef dripping chips (lightweights are given an option of vegetable oil) and a side of beautifully cooked, slightly salty samphire.  The selection of seafood included two huge juicy prawns, meltingly soft squid, delicate strips of sea bass and lovely flaky cod all encased in a feather light batter.  The deft hand at the fryer extended to the glorious, crispy yet fluffy chips which I used to help mop up the jug of accompanying spicy tomato 'ragu' and moreish aioli.

After all that glorious fried food I could barely manage another morsel.  Luckily it wasn't hard to persuade the chocoholic Ewing to order the Black Pearl Stout and Chocolate Ice Cream so I could sample it with a glass of Black Pearl Stout.  This beer has been brewed by Gadd's, specially for Eddie Gilbert's, and the waiter suggested that for the best effect we should take a mouthful of ice cream and wash it down with the stout.

It was, unsurprisingly, lovely.  The rich coffee and slightly bitter flavour of the stout was tempered by the smooth, chocolatey ice cream and the accompanying ginger snap baskets were crisp on the outside and marvellously syrupy and chewy underneath.

Friendly service with tasty, reasonably priced, food all dished up in nice surroundings show that Eddie Gilbert's is worthy of the hype.  What really impressed me though was how it manages to appeal to everyone. On our visit I observed ladies who lunch, nibbling on mussels and smoked salmon from the 'light bites' section; couples choosing the good value set menu; A large table celebrating with several bottles of wine; pensioners tucking into to cod and chips and young children enjoying scampi and ice cream.  There's even the obligatory steak for the non-fish eaters, which, showing the quality in the kitchen, manages to be an aged rib eye with blue cheese butter. 

The small dining area fills up quickly so make sure to book, especially on weekends. If you do find yourself in the vicinity without a reservation make sure you stop for takeaway cod and beef dripping chips to eat down on the beach.  But be careful, this is one fish supper you won't want to be sharing with the seagulls.

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Friday, 25 March 2011

Lower Hardres Farm Shop, Canterbury

For the first Farm Shop Friday blog, complete with mini celebration of Bacon Connoisseurs' Week, I'm looking at the lovely Lower Hardres Farm Shop just outside Canterbury.

While on our recent jaunt around the East Kent coast one of the highlights was the fabulous farmer's markets and farm shops we visited. In fact we didn't need to visit the supermarket all week (apart from a dash around Ramsgate Waitrose booze aisle to pick up some Gadd's beer) as we could pick up everything we needed locally.

Only five minutes down the road from where we were staying the Lower Hardres Farm Shop quickly became our local corner store.  Farm shops can sometimes be disappointing; dusty displays of tired looking food, no local produce, over-inflated prices or twee displays of strange jams and fancy biscuits, but nothing you can actually cook for dinner.
As soon as we walked through the door I could see we were going to get along. The large range of Kentish apple and pear juices instantly captured my attention and the Ewing was equally attracted to a display of chocolate Goupie (a locally made chewy confection).  I love the way that different apples produce juices of such varying flavours and colours.  After seeing the fate of the magnificent Howgate Wonder on the People's Supermarket TV programme a few weeks (too sweet to be a cooking apple and too big to be an eater) ago I knew I had to buy some juice.  It was lovely, slightly tart and pleasingly cloudy, a world away from the bright, sweet commercial stuff.  I also picked up some bottles of mixed bramley/cox juice.  Two great British stalwarts which, when combined, make a aromatic and tangy drink.

Another big highlight was the Paul Hollywood bread.  Based just down the road in Aylesham the Great British Baker currently only has a few outlets where you can pick up a loaf.  We tried the walnut, which was full of nutty chunks and great with goat's cheese, and the yummy black and green olive loaf which was great with everything.

Cheeses include a selection from the Cheesemakers of Canterbury and Ellie's Dairy.  The Ashmore is a tangy, cheddar style unpasteurised cheese which is great with pickle, and the Bowyer is a wedge shaped brie style soft cheese that was a little too ripe for me.  The Goat from Ellie's Dairy was firmer and drier than I was expecting, but was smooth and fresh tasting. I found the dried mixed herbs it had been rolled in a bit too dominant and would choose the plain version next time to really taste the sweet and delicate flavours.

Other treats include their own free range eggs, complete with lovely, slightly knobbly shells,  local milk, cream and yogurt and a range of Kent made cakes and biscuits.  On our visits we saw this is a place where you can pop in for a few bits and pieces, or come for the weekly shop. From small purchases like a cauli and a piece of cheese to big boxes laden with Canterbury brewed beer, sacks of potatoes, ice cream and joints of meat you can pick it all up here.  There's even a corner dedicated to instant coffee, loo roll, white sliced and other little essentials.

The real jewel at this place is the butchery at the back. The pork comes from rare breed saddleback pigs (proud photos of the pigs adorn the butchery walls which is touching or disconcerting depending on which way you look at it) and is also used to make fantastic pork pies, sausages and bacon.

And what bacon; this is the stuff of my porcine dreams; sweet, smoky and cut in generous slices bacon like this deserves to be recognised and gets my vote for anyone wanting to celebrate Bacon Connoisseurs' Week this week. I know these things are very often cynical marketing ploys, and it would be hard for me to pig out (sorry!) on bacon much more than I already do, but when it gives people a chance to promote beautiful, local produce made with such care and attention then it gets my vote.

I often tell myself I'm going to give up bad bacon (yes, it does exist) but occassionally I'm tempted by the big piles of wafer thin, watery pink stuff on offer at the supermarket. I then watch with inevitable disappointment as, instead of crisping, it sits in a pool of white gunge steaming in the frying pan.

This bacon is different; with a deep smokiness and gloriously crispy fat it's impossible not to eat it and feel it's not doing you some good (albeit to your well-being rather than you're waistline!) Eating these slices of porky perfection I have decided that enough is enough; not only does decent bacon mean happier pigs it means a happy consumer too. I would rather eat a fabulous bacon sarnie as a treat on Saturday morning than flavourless, dry imitation bacon everyday.

I can think of no better reason to relish that rasher.  So get to your nearest pork purveyor, if you're lucky it may be somewhere like the Lower Hardres Farm Shop, and enjoy some proper British bacon this weekend.


Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent

In 1999 chef Stephen Harris took over a tired pub, surrounded by salt marshes, on the East Kent coast.  11 years and a Michelin Star later and it is more popular than ever.  Although every newspaper critic and food blogger seems to have eaten here over the years its enduring success seems to be based on a lack of pretension and local ingredients simply prepared rather than any attempts to follow trends or introduce unnecessary flourishes. 

About the same time the Sportsman was being resurrected I started uni about ten miles down the road in Canterbury.  Although I never ate there as a student we would often drive up the coast on Sunday afternoons to eat cockles by the sea front and have a few pints of hair of the dog at a local pub.   So when we started planning a trip to revisit some old Kentish haunts, and to find a few new ones, I knew the tasting menu at the Sportsman would be high up on the things to do list.

We excitedly set off from Canterbury with bright blue skies and sunshine, but by the time we wound our way along the Faversham road to Seasalter the fog was fast closing in across the salt marshes.  It made the roaring log fire, warm welcome and pint of Master Brew we received on arrival even more greatly appreciated.

Luckily the Ewing had very kindly offered to take on driving duties and, despite an enticing sign advertising Pol Roger champagne by the glass and a remarkably decent value wine list, I sentimentally stuck with the local Master Blaster.  In my student days a pint of 'the Local Hero' would accompany most things and I'm happy to say that a decade later, for me, it still made a great pairing with the food. (and, at 3.7%, four pints meant I could still manage to walk on the beach in a straight line after lunch)

As we stood at the bar they asked would we like to see a printed menu or would we prefer a surprise.  Predictably we replied 'menu' and 'surpise' in perfect unison.  Instead of being thrown by our indecision we were shown to our table and I was given the day's tasting menu while the Ewing waited for the first course in anticipation.

Much has been said about the layout and service at the Sportsman.  Tables are large, and spaced well apart, and there is only one service at both lunchtime and in the evening. On our visit there were two other couples eating the tasting menu, and we were all given tables for four at the front of the restaurant. (the tasting menu is only available for tables of six or less, booked at least 48 hours in advance and not at weekends)

It is touches like this that make it so well loved.  The almost permanent fully booked sign in the window suggests they could easily try and cram in more punters, but the sole focus here seems to be simply eating, drinking and having a good time.  This is something that seems so obvious but also seems to be sadly absent in so many other places.

Of course having comfy chairs and exemplary service would mean very little if the food wasn't up to par; Luckily the Sportsman gets that one right too.  The home made warm pork scratchings served with a  mustard and apple sauce are somewhat legendary.  We quickly found out this was with good reason as they managed to be melt in the mouth soft and crispy at the same time and surprisingly light for something composed almost entirely of saturated fat.

They were accompanied by a square of pickled herring on soda bread with apple jelly and cream cheese.  I wolfed this down and it ably matched anything I've tasted on the Nyhavn in Copenhagen.  Firm super fresh  fish set off with the smooth schmear of cheese and the sweet, tangy fruit. 

The next course was billed as 'oysters'.  Firstly they came served with apple foam and an onion puree.  Not usually the biggest fan of oysters but these were quite awesome.  The mollusc's briny freshness complementing and contrasting with the sharp apple and sweet silky onion.

Next they were served poached with a rhubarb granita, cream and toasted seaweed.  The texture of the plump, warm oyster was delicate and lovely and the granita provided a cold and tangy counterpoint. However, I found the cream a little too rich with the soft oyster, even when served with the crispy, salty seaweed flakes.

And then the for the bread; sourdough, focaccia with rosemary and onions and soda bread served with house churned butter. Rather unconventionally this served as a course on its own, instead of something to idly chew while browsing the menu, but this bread and butter this good deserves proper consideration. 

The soda bread in particular is worthy of a special mention, dense and dark with a treacly edge complemented by the sweet butter. Moreish and warm we easily managed to eat all of it and rather ruefully had to turn down the offer of more to try and do full justice to the rest of the meal. 

The seaweed flakes were also used with the slip soles served with a seaweed butter. The green appearance fooled you into thinking of grassy herb flavours but the iodine rich seaweed taste burst through to complement the perfectly cooked fish and buttery juices. The soft flakes of sole slid from the bones and, as you can see from the picture above, not much evidence was left on the plate.
Next was wigeon, a wild duck shot on the marshes behind the pub and served with quince puree, lentils and mustard.  This was a dense meat with a rich smoky smell that reminded me of  the gloriousness of really good bacon.  The gamey flavour worked well with the contrast of the sweet and sour accompaniments and earthy lentils.

Then the fish course;  a fantastic piece of brill with smoked roe that was only improved by Stephen Harris coming out of the kitchen to serve it to us himself.  He explained the roe used in the sauce was abundant at this time of year and it was served with some sea beet and sea purslane foraged from the beach that morning.

This was a real show stopper; the braised fish fell apart under the slightest pressure and the sauce contained tiny bubbles of rich, smoky roe that popped on the tongue.  The sea herbs added a freshness and a delicate salty edge to the dish.

Next was Monkshill lamb, straight from the farm that you can see from the pub. This was served first as breaded shoulder with a dangerously addictive mint sauce and was described by the Ewing as 'like a posh KFC'.  It certainly had that that moreish crunch, but without the grease and with tender, sweet meat that just shredded apart.

Then there was roasted loin and braised shoulder with local carrots, broccoli and turnip.  This was possibly the peak of a lunch with so many high points.  The lamb shoulder was meltingly soft and the loin perfectly pink with a wonderful proper 'lamby' flavour and just the right amount of chew.  Of all the dishes this was the most 'straightforward' but every mouthful was perfect.  A special mention must go to the fantastic, glossy, sticky gravy that had both of us in rapture while trying to chase the last drops around the plate. 
Finally- time for the puddings!  The first was a pleasingly sharp rhubarb granita with a tangy yogurt topping and popping candy.  As well as the fizz the candy provided little nuggets of sweetness to break up the sour fruit.  Rhubarb's one of my favourites and this certainly provided a bright little flavour punch.

Next was cream cheese ice cream with pear, biscuit crumbs and meringue.  Again this was simple but inspired; all the elements were perfectly nice on their own but became brilliant when eaten together. The ice cream was smooth, with a pleasing lactic tang, and each mouthful managed to be perfectly crunchy, fruity and creamy all at the same time.
The final hurdle came with a wooden board laden with gorgeous little petit fours and and a double espresso each.  The waitress assured us we could box up the pastries to take home if we couldn't manage to eat everything but, like the rest of the meal, they were far too good to resist.

Warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel was as delicious as it sounds, bitter chocolate and salty-sweet caramel but still surprisingly light.  There were also flaky mini apple turnovers; nutmeg-dusted custard tarts with a perfect wobble; dense chocolate truffles and, finally, some almondy shortbread squares.

This was a memorable afternoon; not just for the standard of cooking, friendly service and local ingredients but for the whole experience. After three hours of solid eating and drinking I still didn't want the meal to end.  This is a testament to the considerable skill of the chef as each course managed to be exciting, different and, most importantly, taste great.  

At £55 pounds a head the Sportsman tasting menu seems a recession-proof bargain and is truly great value for money. And, like many others who have visited before, I'm already excitedly thinking about a return trip to sample some more of this wonderful food and warm hospitality.

Surrounded by beautiful Kentish countryside on one side and the sea on the other it seemed a shame not to explore beyond the pub.  So, wrapped up warmly in our hats and coats, we took a walk across the misty marshes and along the beach to try and work off some of our epic lunch.

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