A visit to the Lake District really isn’t complete without visiting a few of the many small breweries that abound in this region.

So during our week’s holiday to Windermere in July, Pete and I made our way to Coniston’s Black Bull, attached to the small Coniston Brewing Co.

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The pub is charmingly retro; it’s 1970s interior hasn’t been gussied up for many a decade. The rubbery plastic menu books almost has me scuttling back out but the welcome is friendly so we stay.

Both of us order an 8/10 oz fillet of fresh haddock coated in our own Bluebird real ale batter, served with lemon wedge, chipped potatoes, mushy peas and homemade tartare sauce (£9.95).

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It’s fantastic; wonderfully soft, moist fish inside a light, crispy batter and the chips are decent too. Very nice indeed – we’re so glad we didn’t let my London snobbery about the plastic menu books put us off!

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Of course, an advantage of eating in a pub attached to a brewery is the excellent selection of draft beers served just as they’re intended to be.

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Pete enjoys pints of Bluebird and Blacksmiths Ale (all Coniston ales are £3.10 – £3.20 a pint) during the meal and we also buy several of their bottles to take home, plus a 2 pint plastic container of one of the drafts to enjoy at the holiday rental house.

After our lovely lunch, we ask the bar staff whether they think we might be allowed a peek inside the brewery – they say to knock at the door round back, where we’ve parked, and see if the staff have time – they might not, we’re warned, as they’re really busy, but it’s always worth asking.

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We do as advised and a friendly gentleman explains that they’re short two staff and he needs to perform some time-critical tasks in 11 minutes so there’s no time for a proper tour. Before we can thank him and suggest coming back another time, he warmly invites us in to have a quick look around.

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To our surprise, as he shoos us inside, he launches into a quick tour, showing us around the tiny space, explaining the process, pointing out hops from the UK, Germany and the US, showing us where the pure local stream water is piped in, insisting we peer inside some of the brewing tanks and encouraging my picture taking. It’s succinct but fascinating, especially learning about the small quantities they brew at a time, which allows them to brew so brew so many different ales a week.

Within a few minutes we’ve seen all of the tiny brewery, thank our impromptu guide and are on our way.

Coniston: lovely beer made by lovely people.

 

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Name: Coniston Blacksmiths Ale

ABV: 5.0%

Bottled/ Draft: Draft

Price: £3.20 a pint at the Black Bull, Coniston

Colour: Deep golden

Head/ Bubbles: Creamy head

Mouthfeel: Fuller body than the Bluebird

Taste: A good hoppy start, with an underlying strength and maltiness.

Comment: Labelled as a ‘Winter Warmer’ and with a name like Blacksmiths, I’d imagined this would be a dark, almost porter-like beer and was rather taken aback by the arrival of a deep golden pint. The strength, combined with a full body and rich flavour certainly made it an enjoyable pint but it would be a stretch to call it much of a winter warmer.

It’s interesting how strongly my opinion was affected by my expectations – the actual taste was certainly closer to what I’d expected than was suggested by it’s lighter colour; if they’d given me exactly the same beer but twice as dark I think I’d have enjoyed the beer twice as much. This is either a sign that breweries who add colour (or at least select dark malts for colour as much as flavour) know what they’re talking about, or that I need to keep my eyes closed when drinking!

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Name: Coniston Bluebird

ABV: 3.6%

Bottled/ Draft: Draft

Price: £3.20 a pint at the Black Bull, Coniston

Colour: Pale gold

Head/ Bubbles: Creamy head

Mouthfeel: Properly ‘beery’ feel, not watery but not chewy.

Taste: Strong hop start, almost overwhelming but short lived.

Comment: With little in the way of malt, this is quite a classic light spring or summer ale. On it’s own it’s a little over hopped for my taste – I’m not sure I’d enjoy a session with such a hoppy beer – but as I was enjoying it with lunch (a delicious fish and chips in the Black Bull pub next to the brewery), the food balanced out the hops nicely and changed the nature of the beer significantly.

This beer has actually highlighted something to me, that I will endeavour to pay closer attention to – beer (like wine, whisky, and ultimately everything else we drink) is deeply affected by whether it’s being enjoyed in isolation or with food. This is, I suppose, obvious when you think about it but I rarely do!

For those interested, the name Bluebird comes from Sir Malcolm Campbell’s powerboat, in which he set the world water speed record on Coniston Water back in 1939.

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My old blender is not only ancient and decrepit but also bottom of the range, with a wobbly base and a plastic jug. We’ve had it more years than I can remember. It may even have been “inherited” (read “liberated”) from my parents before we got married, now I think of it… and that was over 15 years ago!

When you switch it on the blades kick in at full speed, throwing half the ingredients up the sides of the jug and onto the underside of the lid where they stick, impudent and unrepentant, until I pause, lift the lid, and force them back down towards the blades with a spatula, before blitzing again. This cycle is repeated, with increasing frustration and increasingly obscene swearing until Pete takes over, with a sigh and banishes me from the kitchen.

The old thing struggles with anything but the softest of ingredients and certainly doesn’t cope well with chunks of solid fruit let alone ice-cubes. Which is a shame, as I rather like blending ice-cubes into a smoothie or lassi on a hot summer day, something I have stopped doing for fear of the motor exploding. So terrifying is the idea of throwing solid chunks of green apple into it’s maw that I’ve switched to using the Magimix to make Indian green chutney, something one would usually do in a blender.

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oldtimer

Still, it does cope with smoothies, as long as I stick to really soft fruit – no ice and no frozen fruit.

So, you can probably imagine my utter delight, ecstasy, elation, euphoria, exhilaration, glee, hysteria, joyousness, jubilation… when I was sent this extremely sexy Philips Robust blender.

I wasn’t asked to post about it on my blog, but simply to try it out and let them know what I think. But actually, having now used it a few times, I’m so excited about it, I have to share!

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Robust Robbie

I’d actually read about this particular model (HR2181) online some months previously, so I already knew all about the dual-blade system (two stainless-steel serrated blades), the auto-accelerate function, the five different speed settings and the pulse option. And the 2-litre scratch-proof glass jar.

The auto-accelerate function is particularly cunning, especially in combination with the two blades which rotate in opposite directions and at different speeds. Instead of throwing the contents of the jug up the sides, the blades start rotating slowly, so they are able to bite into the ingredients, and the speed is gradually increased in a roaring crescendo of power!

(And no, I didn’t just lift that paragraph from some marketing blurb, I wrote it myself).

“Robust Robbie”, as I’ve named him, arrived the day before we left for a week’s holiday in the Lake District and, persuaded against taking him with us, I was impatient to put Robbie through his paces when we got home.

I decided to make his very first test fairly straightforward – a fruit smoothie. Of course, I had to give him a bit of a challenge so I included some large, rock-solid frozen strawberries, straight out of the freezer and given absolutely no time to defrost.

Test 1 – Fresh and Frozen Fruit Smoothie

I love smoothies, preferably thick’n’gloopy and preferably home-made. I nearly always use banana as the base and add whatever other fruit I fancy and have available.

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smoothie ingredients: fresh banana, fresh pear and some previously frozen fresh whole strawberries

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probably no need to hold the lid down but old habits die hard

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and in a few quick moments, it’s done

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delicious

Test 2 – Chocolate Bar Milkshake

Chatting to my a friend at work, I swooned a little about my new amour, Robbie and she immediately suggested a chocolate bar milkshake.

Her idea reminded me instantly of my second visit to Market Kitchen during which King Adz blitzed some Dime bars to make a quick and easy milkshake.

A quick scout around the house revealed an elderly mars bar and a battered kit kat. Into the jug they went with a pint of milk.

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blink and they’re gone

I turned Robbie on for just a few short seconds and my milkshake was ready.

In retrospect, biscuity bars like kit kat have no place in a milkshake – the biscuit texture remains even when blended to smithereens.

Next time I’ll try a Snicker bar or some plain chocolate or some chocolate covered Turkish delight.

What do you suggest?

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Test 3 – Chicken Liver Paté

For Robbie’s third test, I made vast amounts of my chicken liver and port paté – the jug was almost full of cooked chicken livers and onions and artery-hardening amounts of butter. As expected, I was left with a smooth, pourable liquid in no time. Success!


I’ve become very attached to Robbie in the short time he’s been with us. I stroke his elegant silver body on passing and admire his sleek glass jug on the draining board.

I’m looking for more challenges for him, perhaps mum’s green mango and coriander chutney – my old blender simply can’t manage solid chunks of the sharp, hard green apples I use in place of raw mangoes.

I want to try some thick sauce and dips too as I hear from other testers that Robbie may meet his match with such sticky, viscous challenges.

If you have any ideas on recipes to Challenge Robbie, please let me know!

 

Back in May, we spent a lovely long weekend in Dorset for Pete’s birthday.

As the visit was all about great local food, I was keen to visit local producers and learn about their products, their history, their processes and not least, the people.

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Truckles

George and Amanda Streatfeild of Denhay Farm were kind enough to respond to my somewhat last-minute pre-trip email with an invitation to visit and learn about their traditional farmhouse cheddars and dry cured bacons.

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Raw milk tanks; Pete and George

We started off chatting to the Streadfeilds in George’s little office, where we learned about the history, the challenges and the current production processes of Denhay cheeses and bacons before a visit into the cheese production areas, including the maturation room where large and small truckles are kept at just the right temperature and humidity.

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Block cheddar

The Streatfeilds produce cheddar in three forms – traditional 27 kg truckles, smaller 2 kg rounds called Dorset Drums and 20 kg blocks. The milk comes from their own cows, which are Freedom Food accredited by the RSPCA.

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Truckles and Dorset Drums; George turning the cheeses

We were delighted to be able to try some of the cheese on site, as George extracted a shiny, yellow cylinder with his cheese iron, to test one of the maturing truckles and Amanda cut a slice off one of the blocks too.

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Amanda preparing a tasting

The cheese is a delicious, traditional, nutty cheddar – properly savoury without the European-style sweetness creeping into many cheddars. For me, it’s a touch mild, but I do have a tendency towards ridiculously strong cheese!

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Checking on the cheeses

Waitrose buy most of it and sell it under their own brand West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, but some is sold (under the Denhay name and also their SpoiltCow label) to other supermarkets, independent retailers and even exported to America and Europe.

When we left, we’re given some of their dry cured bacon to try. This is available in many supermarkets as either Denhay or SpoiltPig.

The cheese is good.

The bacon is magnificent!

Such a perfect texture and flavour, in fact, that we’ve become quite addicted to it, buying ourselves at least a pack a week. We have it grilled and crispy for breakfast or stuffed inside bread for the perfect bacon sandwich and we use it in cooking too – most recently, a delicious courgette carbonara using courgettes from the garden.

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Denhay cheese soufflé with Denhay bacon


Below, you’ll find a long but fascinating interview with the Streatfeilds, followed by a few video clip interviews and tasting sessions inside and outside the factory areas.

Key:
George
Amanda
Me

We started farming here in 1952 and we started milking cows in 1953 when we realised that this part of the world grows grass. If you grow grass, the one thing you should do is turn it into milk as that’s more profitable than turning it into beef and sheep. That’s the traditional view.

And it’s a very traditional dairy area. There are a lot of small dairies still, in this vale.

In those days (’54, ‘55) we had 3 dairies of 50 cows each – people came from all over the country to see one man milk 50 cows by himself, “couldn’t be done by himself, not possible!”

So we’ve grown from that base. The first big change was in 1959 when we started making farmhouse cheddar. We used milk from our cows and we bought in from neighbouring farms and we made 7 days a week and we made 400 pounds a day. And it dominated our lives.

Where you’re in here is the Marshwood Vale.

Historically there’s no water in the vale so the herds were only 4 or 5 cows at the most. And there was a history of neighbour warfare because the neighbours who had the springs on the hillside dammed them up for their cows. At night and the other neighbours, who didn’t have water, would come up and break the dams…

The main products from the Marsh of Vale were eggs and butter. The farmers would go from the vale to Bridport or Axminster to sell their eggs and butter. The result of that is that they had a lot of skimmed milk, which they made into Blue Vinney. This was one of the areas where it originated.

Now the original Blue Vinney is a horrid cheese. Very dry… very royal blue blue and because it was properly skimmed milk, albeit it by hand, it didn’t have a lot of flavour, because It’s the fat that gives you flavour.

Moving to beef, why people whinge about no flavour in beef is coz it’s too lean.

And why as a bacon producer I’d always eat streaky bacon because that’s got the flavour in it.

So anyway, we started making cheddar in 1959.

How did they learn to make cheese, your parents?

Oh my old man never actually made the cheese, he employed a cheese maker!

He employed Ken who was with us until 1982/83.

We’ve only ever had 3 cheese makers, we’re on our 3rd cheese maker at the moment,

The answer is that you seek advice from other cheese makers; the cheese making fraternity is very good at helping each other even though we’re competitors in other ways. So he had a lot of help from other farmers and a lot of encouragement.

In those days it was very easy because you sold your milk to the milk board and were paid on the 20th of the month following production. You bought it back from the milk board and turned it into cheddar but you only had to pay for it five months later. You had 5 months free credit. Brilliant! A lot of big farmhouse cheese makers built their whole lives on that credit so when that credit stopped, when the milk board ended, it was very painful for them.

So that’s how it started.

And at the same time as that we put in the piggery because when you make cheese you’ve got whey, which is the watery liquid leftover from cheese making, and that’s what we feed our pigs, whey and barley meal.

We grew and grew and grew and at our peak we had about 750 sows and we were making about the same volume as we are now, probably about 2 vats a day 6 days a week, a vat is a tonne… so that’s…

A lot?

No we’re really small, one of the smaller makers.

We got out of pigs 8 years ago – we lost a shed load of money on pigs – pigs do that, if you’re an economist you know they go up and down,

I’ve heard that but I don’t know why they go up and down? Why is that?

Very easy, the traditional reason is that when pigs are on the floor, the big barley farmers then don’t sell their barley they turn it into pig meat, because that’s more profitable. The more pigs are profitable the more and more pigs get produced, and then they get to a point where suddenly there are too many pigs and it all crashes. If you ever studied economics it was a regular 3 year pig cycle and a 10 year blackcurrant cycle … same thing…

There were probably four good reasons why we got out of pigs, profitability being the very big one. The second one was that our buildings were very old and inefficient and really you’ve got to have efficient buildings. The third reason was that, because of the change in legislation – which is quite right and reasonable, I’m not attacking it in anyway – to have cows and pigs on the same block of land is too many livestocks. If you’ve got a pig farmer in East Anglia with arable land, it’s not a problem, but here with dairy… we were going to fall foul of everything.

The fourth reason and probably the one that to me was the most driving reason is that we were developing the Denhay brand on the bacon side (as well as the cheese side) and it was very clear that that the consumer perception of premium brands is high welfare and the consumer perception of high welfare with pigs is pigs outside. Now, today [a gloriously sunny day] it would be lovely – the pigs would be very happy outside! But you can’t keep pigs outside in West Dorset. We get 36 inches of rain on very heavy clay. Go and do it on the Thetford Sounds with 24 inches of rain and the sand is so dry you can drive on it – here you can’t drive a car after an inch of rain. So, the wrong part of the world.

But we started curing bacon in 1994 (after the air dried ham in 1989) and we reckon we’re pretty good at curing bacon, so we continue to cure bacon. But we now source all British outdoor reared pork from around the country. Some comes from Devon… some comes from Gloucestershire… some comes from Norfolk… some comes from Scotland…

I take it those pig producers have no interest in doing that to the meat themselves?

No, most pig farmers are pig farmers and that’s the end of the argument.

The disadvantage we have is that we are only interested in backs and bellies. The big problem with British livestock farming (and this will keep you blogging for generations, this) is using the carcass in balance. Anybody can use a back and a belly – what are you going to do with the legs?

Oooh gammons, when do you buy gammons, when do you eat gammons? Christmas! Thank you, I rest my case! You try and sell a gammon at this time of year, a hopeless task, don’t know why, a fabulous product… We do a stunningly good gammon but we can’t sell it except for Christmas when we can’t make enough!

And shoulders, what do you do with shoulders? Make sausages… and… sausages…

So what we do is we buy from abattoirs. No good us making a relationship with the pig farmer, because they want to sell the whole pig. So we make relationships with abattoirs and we buy the bits we want…

I guess then that means you have to make sure your product is premium to offset the fact that you’re now paying more for the pig parts than you would if you farmed them?

You’re absolutely right, that’s absolutely smack on. And so premium is what we do, so we’re outdoor reared, we’re Freedom Foods accredited…

What does that mean, Freedom Foods accredited?

The RSPCA have a Freedom Food scheme and it’s based upon the five freedoms, if I can remember them all – freedom from thirst, freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from cold and freedom to express their natural tendencies…

[The five freedoms as more fully defined by the RSPCA as freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress.]

And so to be Freedom Food accredited doesn’t imply it’s outdoor reared so we have to tie the two together.

But, for example our cows are all Freedom Food accredited so the RSPCA come 2 or 3 times a year and look around. It means, if I say to you, “we look after our cows well”, you know it’s independently checked rather than me just saying it. And it’s something that Waitrose require us to do, too.

Yeah it’s one of the things I love about Waitrose actually is they’ve been looking at that for so much longer than everyone else, it’s great that everyone else is now interested but they’ve been doing it for a long time…

It’s second nature for them!

Anyway to come back to cheese, we were all traditional – that’s with the cloth bound – until 1984 when we realised we were a very large fish in an extremely small pond and the air was getting rarefied so we changed and we now make 12 vats a week of which 11 are block and one vat is traditional.

I don’t know much about cheddar so tell me what that means…

The difference is that a traditional cheddar has a rind on, is round and weighs 27 kilos. A block cheese is rectangular, weighs 20 kilos and doesn’t have any rind. I’ll show you the difference later…

And so we made that change and that block cheese is what you mostly buy in Waitrose as pre-packed cheese.

The majority of cheese you buy will be cheddar in the UK.

So that’s still our favourite cheese?

I wouldn’t say it’s our favourite cheese but it’s the one that most people use. If you’re making sandwiches, you’ll use cheddar, if you’re cooking you’ll use cheddar, unless the recipe calls for something different…

And so that is the bog-standard line.

The problem we face – We’re going through a very very difficult phase at the moment – is how people decide which cheddar to buy.

[We ramble a bit here, but essentially, George tells me that many consumers choose based on price, promotional offers and packaging, with very little understanding of the differences in styles of different cheddars.]

The problem we face is that farmhouse makers are making a different style of cheese to the majority of cheddar now available. If you compare our cheese to the market leaders (Davidstow, Pilgrim’s Choice, Cathedral City, Seriously Strong…) they are two totally different styles. And I’m not knocking Davidstow, it’s a really very good cheese… The market leaders are all very European in style, they’re quite sweet – if you ate one you wouldn’t say sweet, but it’s that kind of Emmental flavour. Whereas the traditional farmhouse flavour is much more savoury flavour.

[George is also frustrated by the way that some cheddar retailers, making cheeses in this newer, sweeter, European style are marketing their cheese with slogans about it tasting “how cheese used to taste 50 years ago”, which is completely inaccurate.

I agree to the suggestion that I should do a blind tasting of a few different cheddars, including some traditional farmhouse cheddars and some of the modern market leader brands, though I haven’t done this yet!

We move on to talk about PDOs]

Cheddar is something I’ve never ever paid that much attention to. I always thought though that you couldn’t change the style of it that easily because they were protected, is cheddar just not protected in that way?

Well West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is protected…

The generic term cheddar isn’t then?

Generic cheddar definitely isn’t but West Country Farnhouse cheddar is. But there are still things you can change. The weakness of the PDO scheme is that it’s only as good as how it was written/agreed in the first place. Cheddar was actually one of the earlier PDOs and it was fairly weakly written and so you can produce a whole raft of different cheese under the PDO. It has a value but not as big a value as it should have.

[I talk about the Stilton PDO and the Stichelton story, which is the only example I know – the Stilton PDO was nailed down to specify a pasteurised cheese, even though that was, at the time the PDO was created, a fairly recent development and the traditional recipe had always been unpasteurised. When a new kid on the block came along wanting to make a traditional unpasteurised Stilton, they were forced by the PDO to call it something else, and Stichelton was born. We agree though, that in retrospect, this did them a huge favour, from a marketing perspective.]

A PDO is only as good as the rules that were written at the time.

It sounds like whoever is big and successful at the time is the one that gets to pin down the PDO to what they want it to be?

That’s probably fair!

So what are you doing to address this, because that’s quite a challenging thing to deal with really?

We’re scratching our head about it! It’s only in the last 6 months that it’s really become very evident and that’s because so much cheese has been sold on promotion.

[We then ramble a while about bacon, and which brands Pete and I have noticed/ bought from our Waitrose.]

There will be at least three or four Denhay bacon products on the top shelf and then there’ll be Duchy Originals and that’s us too.

Really, that’s you?

We’ve done Duchy Originals bacon since 1999.

I assumed it was done somewhere in his estates, I had thought it was farms that he owned. Interesting! So what’s the difference then between the Duchy Originals bacon and the one that’s branded Denhay?

Well it’s the cure, they wanted to do a different cure.

And they’re organic and we’re not.

Are the pigs theirs?

Not necessarily… and in future won’t be.

OK, so it really is a brand for them more than anything, they can control the quality?

Yes, it’s a brand that delivers quite a lot of money into The Prince’s Charities Foundation and it’s a brand which the Prince is very passionate about and watches and manages in terms of quality control and what products go in, what don’t go in.

As of the middle of June it’s going to be Dutchy Originals from Waitrose and it’ll only be available from Waitrose.

[We talk about how we shop for bacon, and how oblivious we are to the different packaging and information printed on the packaging and how consumers often don’t read or notice anything other than what they are already familiar with.

The conversation moves on to Waitrose, and I talk about how I like shopping in Waitrose not only because of the quality but also because they have always had much more of a commitment to looking after their producers.]

Again, that’s what we always read in the press, that Waitrose look after their producers, do you feel that or not?

They are very good, very good indeed.

Is it a marked difference from the rest of them?

Huge!

We’ve dealt with Waitrose, supplied to them for 25 years.

Another thing I like about waitrose is how they say that if they find a producer that can only produce enough for three stores, if they like it they’ll still take it and put it into three stores. I don’t know how much they do this but I do see a difference in products stocked in different stores.

That’s correct, for instance you can buy our butter in only three Waitrose stores I think it is. And at Ocado.

[At this point, we don white coats and go to visit the cheese producing and storage areas.]

— with many thanks to Jow Lloyd for her help transcribing the audio file —


Videos

(Please forgive quality of sound and image composition – these videos were taken purely to give me an audio file for transcription, as above, but decided to share the videos instead. Pete’s actually really good at shooting video when he knows it’s going to be used as video! And ignore how daft I look in my orange hat and white lab coat, please!)

Pasteurisation, Homogenisation, Sterilisation

Making Cheddar

Grading the cheese

Truckles and Dorset Drums

(no idea why this one is a different size ratio, it’s from the same video footage, same settings but when I export it to youtube it loads differently to the other 5)

Tasting Denhay

Why Pasteurise?

Chocolate Weetabix Winners

24 Aug 2010  Comments Off
Aug 242010
 

The 2 winners of the Chocolate Weetabix giveaway are Leila Dukes (eggs royale, soft boiled eggs with marmite soldiers, bacon roll…) and Katie A (cinnamon hot buns with melted butter and bacon butties).
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Loved your answers, ladies!

Please email me your postal addresses (email link is at the left of my blog) and I’ll get the boxes posted out to you!

 

The first few beers reviewed for ‘Pete Drinks’ came from Abel & Cole – a company better known for delivering organic fruit and vegetables, but who’ve been expanding their range to cover all manner of other organic goodness.

Beer is a slightly unusual case in the organic world, in that it doesn’t really command any real price premium and it’s not something that breweries seem to make a big deal about. That’s not to say that they don’t make it clear (most of these beers have ‘organic’ in their name or state it clearly on the bottle), but the quality and nature of the beer takes precedence over it’s organicity.

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Your average beer buyer is more interested that Little Valley’s Withens is an IPA than the fact it’s organic.

A side effect of this is that if you’re deliberately shopping organically in the supermarket, it’s a harder job in the beer aisle than it is in the fresh produce section. If you are already be looking to Abel & Cole for that part of your shop, it’s easy to have your beer needs delivered to your door at the same time!

As I noted in the five reviews above, the beers we got were a bit of a mixed bag – some suffered from the lack of bottle conditioning but broadly they were an interesting and drinkable bunch. Certainly they were just as successful a collection as I might have had if I’d just walked into the supermarket and picked a random half dozen bottles from the shelves. Given the convenience of delivery and the reasonable pricing, if I had a weekly Abel & Cole delivery arriving anyway, I could well imagine adding a bottle or two on a fairly regular basis.

However, I do think that Abel & Cole could benefit from some changes to their line up.

One of my bugbears when it comes to bottled beer is that it should be bottle conditioned. I’m not alone in this – when you see a bottle declaring “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale“, that’s what it means. And who am I to argue with CAMRA? Only one of the beers we got was bottle conditioned and it’s the one that’s unfortunately no longer listed on Abel & Cole’s website (although the Brakspear Oxford Gold that’s replaced it is also bottle conditioned).

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I can’t quite fathom the reason for this aversion to bottle conditioning on Abel & Cole’s part; it’s not like you can’t get organic, bottle conditioned beers – Black Isle (one of the well represented, organic only breweries) produce more than half their range this way, and there are plenty of other too. Yes, you might want to let a bottle conditioned beer sit for a while to let the sediment settle, but your don’t often start opening up your beer as soon as the nice man delivers it (yes, ok, we’ve all had days like that, but…!)

Overall, a convenient way to feed your organic ale needs, but one that could benefit from a more carefully selected range.

 

Usually for me, the food is the key to a great dining experience. Service is very important too, as are location, price and a range of other factors. But the food is paramount.

At Paramount Restaurant, however, the views come first.

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And the views are astounding, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, extraordinary, incredible, magnificent, stunning, wondrous… and yes, I swallowed a thesaurus just to try and give you an inkling of how amazing they are.

Located on the 32nd floor of London’s well-known Centre Point building at Tottenham Court Road, Paramount was once a private members club that has decided to open it’s doors to the public as a restaurant, bar and events space.

I’m invited to attend a PR event to celebrate the launch, along with a group of fellow food bloggers.

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Arriving early, I’m encouraged to enjoy a drink in the bar area. I ask for my mojito extra sweet; it comes exactly as requested, a refreshing start. The others go for bubbly, which seems fitting on such a glorious summer’s day.

Already, I’m blown away by the views and wish we were sitting nearer a window.

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When a few more bloggers have arrived, we are taken upstairs to the 33rd floor, where a floor-to-ceiling glazed viewing gallery runs the entire circumference of Paramount.

360 degrees of London, laid out below!

There gallery has it’s own bar counter and seats – customers can enjoy drinks and bar snacks in the relative peace of the gallery itself.

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The views are utterly intoxicating.

I feel the oddest sensation – a surge of warmth for my home town, a rush of affection aroused by this bird’s eye view over it’s cluttered streets of brick and stone and concrete and glass, it’s historic churches and modern office blocks, it’s lines and patches of leafy green, it’s public spaces and secret corners, and by the silent-movie motion of buses, cars and people racing about their daily business down below.

I can’t stop grinning.

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We make our way around. I want to go again but reluctantly, I drag myself away from the spectacular panorama. We are taken back downstairs to the main floor of the restaurant and seated in The Red Room, a private room within the restaurant that can seat up to 24.

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It’s a funky space, designed (as is the whole place) by Tom Dixon, former head of design for Habitat. Me, I still can’t take my eyes away from the view and have to apologise repeatedly to my dining companions for trailing off mid-sentence or drifting away when they are talking to me.

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From the special set menu I order warm salad of quail, confit potato, green beans, walnut and pancetta to start, followed by trio of pork with celeriac puree, fondant potato and ginger sauce.

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Before the starters, we’re served an amuse bouche of asparagus and tarragon soup, rich and creamy with whole pieces of asparagus, it’s a nice start. With it come plates of bread and oil for sharing, though as they have different types of bread, I’d rather have them come around with a basket and offer each diner a choice.

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When my starter of salad of quail, confit potato, green beans, walnut and pancetta arrives, it’s a generous portion, plated in a somewhat retro tower. The various flavours and textures balance well, everything is well cooked, I enjoy it.

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The other starters go down well. I taste the summer truffle and sweet pea risotto, coddled hen’s egg and it’s good and has shavings of truffle on top for good measure. The smoked haddock and lentil chowder with lemon oil is declared rich, tasty and rather special. And from the opposite side of the table, I hear very positive noises about the double baked roquefort soufflé.

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The trio of pork with celeriac puree, fondant potato and ginger sauce looks even more retro (read, dated) than the starter, in terms of presentation. On one hand, I am a lover of restaurants that allow me to taste lots of different dishes – dim sum, tapas, mezze and more. On the other, I haven’t seen such a penchant for duos of this, trios of that since the late 1990s. Oh, and can I not count or are there four distinct porky offerings, not three? There is nothing wrong with the individual elements but none are exceptional either. Overall, this dish is a little disappointing.

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Feedback on both the sea bass with potato gnocchi, asparagus, samphire and caviar cream and the five spiced monkfish with saffron risotto and crab spring roll is good, in both cases the fish is deftly cooked and well balanced by the accompanying flavours and textures.

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I’m not entirely convinced by my neighbour’s butternut squash and sage tortellini with wilted greens – whilst it tastes good, it’s a little dry and, frankly, boring after a bite or two.

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A pre-dessert of strawberry and rasperry jelly with meringue is intriguing though I wouldn’t rush to have it again. The jelly bursts liquid in the mouth, which is novel, though I don’t particularly like the sensation.

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My dessert of walnut tart, cider sorbet, pink lady apple strudel with ginger custard is the most disappointing of all the dishes I taste during the night. The sorbet is the best thing on the plate, the walnut tart is alright, the other elements are so-so at best. And worst of all, to me, they all clash dreadfully – there’s no harmony or balance at all. It seems like a desperate attempt to thrust too many things at the customer, perhaps in the mistaken belief that more is more; I don’t know. But it’s quite a disappointment.

Judging from the highlights of the meal, head chef Colin Layfield (who worked with owner Pierre Condou previously, at L’Odeon) has what it takes to produce food to an excellent standard. The two main problems for me are lack of consistency and a somewhat dated approach.

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With starters from £8.50 to £13.50 and mains between £14.50 and £25.50 the food isn’t as good as London’s best in the same price range.

But given these views, I’m not sure that it needs to be.

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Certainly, I’m contemplating at least one return visit to share with loved ones the exhilaration of those tremendous views.

I leave you with the words of Jasper Gerard in his review for The Telegraph:

How good it is to see life in Centre Point. When Harry Hyams knocked it up in the Sixties (“coarse in the extreme” said Pevsner) he couldn’t find lodgers. Finally it is getting some loving after winning the Concrete Society’s Mature Structure Award, a prize that is, allegedly, “coveted”. This mature lady has even been listed, reward for standing idle for 43 years, rather like those time-servers shuffled into the House of Lords. The entrance is blandly corporate but up here at night with lights twinkling in the blackness it couldn’t fail to be romantic.”
 

Some time back I was invited to a launch event for Peter Gordon’s latest book, Fusion: A Culinary Journey.

It was hosted at GBK, the burger chain for which Peter has been a consulting chef since it opened it’s first branch in 2001. After enjoying some GBK canapes and drinks, we were invited into the kitchen to watch Peter cook a couple of dishes from the book, which we were each given a copy of on leaving.

Peter cooked two dishes, both of which I enjoyed, especially the egg salad. I’ve still not tried to make anything from the book yet, though I’ve flicked through it and am particularly enjoying reading the autobiographical passages about Peter’s life and travels and how he developed his unique fusion cooking style.

___

Just a few weeks later I was invited to a winemakers evening hosted at Peter’s famous The Providores restaurant.

Showcasing wines by Vin Alto paired with dishes designed by Peter Gordon and Providores head chef, Cristian Hossack, the evening was a relaxed, drawn-out affair lasting nearly 5 hours!

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I had a great time, not only with my lovely fellow-blogger table companions but also because of our utterly adorable waiter (when he smiled, my heart fair skipped a beat) and the lovely bar manager, Melanie Ellis.

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Not much into regular red and white wines, I explained my sweet tooth and cheekily asked if I could skip straight to the 2004 Vin Santo, made in the Italian style. This is what I drank all night, for four and a half hours, which may explain the sore head I had well into the next afternoon!

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Vin Alto, near Auckland in New Zealand, is owned and run by Enzo Bettio and his family and produces several wines in the Italian tradition. Bettio’s family are of Italian origin but lived for many generations in Switzerland, operating a gourmet food and drinks business. Bettio’s first business in New Zealand, one he ran for over 20 years, was along similar lines – importing gourmet deli goods from Europe. Only on selling the busines in 2002 did Bettio and his wife Margaret purchase the farm though they started making wine several years earlier. As well as wine, the Vin Alto farm also farms deer (supplying fresh meat and cured products to a number of local restaurants and has a restaurant and wine tasting room.

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Having listened to Bettio talk so passionately and entertainingly about his wines and farm, I think it would be a great place to visit!

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The food was, as I expected, pretty good too. Introduced by Cristian Hossack, the menu was as follows:

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Open raviolo of crevette gris and prawns in a light shellfish broth

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Duck liver parfait with caramelised shallots, stone fruit chutney and walnut brioche

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A cutlet of New Zealand lamb with braises shoulder ragout, herbed mascarpone polenta, spinach and curry leaves

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Roast venison with horseradish beetroot arancini, bok choy and bone marrow sauce

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Harbourne Blue and crostini with New Zealand Rata honey

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Sticky chocolate and prune cake with bitter chocolate sorbet

I can’t comment on the wine pairings as I stuck to the gorgeous vin santo throughout! Oh, and the delicious Vin Alto Limoncello which was absolutely superb!

 


Name: Black Isle Red Kite Ale

ABV: %4.2

Bottled/ Draft: Bottled

Bottle Conditioned: No

Bottle Size: 500 ml

Price: £2.19 from Abel & Cole

Colour: Amber

Clarity: Bright

Head/ Bubbles: Short lived head, not over fizzy. Positively exploded from the bottle, which is surprising for a non-bottle conditioned beer.

Mouthfeel: Fine bubbles, almost bottle conditioned.

Taste: Gentle malt flavour, well balanced with the hops.

Comment: A very easy drinking beer, that is a clear winner over the brewery’s Yellowhammer (which is, rather oddly, the award winner!) – it’s possible that it’s just down to the fact that this beer seems to handle being bottled far, far better. Far from the ‘tizer’ feel of it’s stablemate, the fizz is well controlled and doesn’t overwhelm what is a tasty and enjoyable bottle.

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