Sunday, 5 May 2013

Fried chicken blood

"Texture of tofu, tastes like liver" says Shawn, who has taken it upon herself to ensure that I eat a new weird thing each day I'm in Seville. And she's not far wrong. Sangre encebollada is made initially by mixing fresh chicken blood with water which is then heated until set, then the block is sliced into thick pieces and fried with sweet, soft onions - and what tasted like a splash of sherry, though by this point this could be projection of what is within.

Close up
But lo, as weird as chicken blood tofu sounds, it is a triumph. By far my favourite of the weird new shit so far, an iron-rich ballast against beautifully sweet, slow cooked Spanish onions, and without the cloying, overwhelming richness you'd get from a plate full of liver. Don't get me wrong, it was still served in a portion far too big for one, but it was a real treat, smushed into bread with its tender oniony friend. I'd love to try it with loads of ginger, spring onions and a big squooosh of Sriracha. 

To prove I'm not simply on a big swinging dick mission to eat all of the weird Spanish food, here's some of the other stuff we ate. Today, at lunch. Yes, just the one meal *explodes*.

Also in fried chicken blood restaurant, known as Eslava...

Star dish of the day. Named Surpresa meaning "surprise". Apparently a little nugget of beautiful porky goodness nipped from somewhere behind the jaw, a new one on me - I'll be figuring this out when I get home. I was sure it was cheek, but apparently not. Super-slow cooked, seasoned to perfection, fabulous and melty. Oof.
Duck tenderloin! Okay, what's that then? Apparently it's those little tubular fillets that you can prize from the breast. Tremendous, with a sweet and sticky pear poached in a red wine reduction.
And then in Brunilda...

Croquetas de jamon, and very good ones too, lovely smack of nutmeg. Equally noteworthy, the giant glass of Albariño lurking in the background, dry, delicious, costing just €2.80 a pop. 
Praise-a the presa! A cut taken from below the shoulder of a fatty, acorn-rich Iberico pig, simply grilled and served with buttery sweet potatoes and a sauce made with salty Basque cheese, Idiazabal.
Seared tuna tataky, chunky tomato concasse, pink pickled onion rings and a parsley dressing. Beautiful bit of fish, the dish a  treat after what feels like an eight month English winter.
CHIPIRONES. Mini squid, migas (fried but soft breadcrumbs, in the best way possible) flecked with fried egg and topped with a big quenelle of herring roe. Superb.
And, I also found a wine shop. OH-OH. So happy.

Jorge Ordonez & Co, both their 2010 Victoria Muscatel (left) and the 2012 Botani dry muscat (right).
Pazo Señorans Albarińo, 2011 (centre-left).
Esencia de la Andana Manzanilla En Rama, bottle number 6758 out of just 10,000 (centre-right).

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Sevilla day two: percebes

Another day, another chance to try new weird shit. Percebes, also known as goose barnacles, are frankly terrifying to look at, like the claws of baby dinosaurs or those wiggly little lost souls captured by Ursula in The Little Mermaid, only fossilised. Their smell is, not unsurprisingly, so much that of a rock pool that I'm instantly in Robin Hood's Bay, aged 11, about to get told off for getting my trainers wet. Despite appearances, at just €18/kg I thought I'd give them a go.

Cooking them couldn't be simpler; boil some water, as salty as the sea. Add the percebes, wait for the water to properly boil again and they're done.

Yep. Still worrying to look at.
Eating them, however, is a right faff - I must have been doing it a bit wrong, so covered I am now in salty coastal spray. You prize one off, wrestle it out of its weird flexible armour, then eat the long squidgy bit inside. The texture of tender squid, and a flavour like a lobster that has never left a particularly rock-pooly rock pool; sweet, pleasant, zinc-y fresh - but not something I'd rate over a decent crab (and they've every bit as fiddly). Worth trying, and given the chance I'd eat them again, but not like the truly fabulous RED PRAWNS experience I had a few weeks ago.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Sevilla day one: some new things

Given my propensity to half-arsed-itude with this blog, there's no danger of a new post every day I'm on me jollies. But I tried some new, weird shit this afternoon and my parents are both asleep, pretending to listen to podcasts on their iPads. So a blog post it is.

Today we had a fantastic market and tapas tour with the ever brilliant Sevilla Tapas, Shawn as she's generally known to her face, or Queen of Tapas according to The Times (they're not wrong). She'll guide you around the city and the food of Andalusia, easing you in gently with a plate of jamon then before you know it BAM! you're eating...well, we'll get to that.

We begin at la Plaza Encarnación with a breakfast of churros and chocolate at the Centurian Cafe - named after its proximity to and part in the annual Easter hoo-har (I hear they're big into their religious stuff over here). We had media rations today, and will be back for full portions tomorrow - even my mum finished hers, approximately the twelfth meal I have seen her eat in its entirety (clearly, I take after my dad).

See those shadows? They are caused by SUNLIGHT. Oh, how lovely.
We head into the market (which is underneath this wondrous thing, the largest wooden structure in the world) to gawp at the barrage of completely awesome stuff. Mountains of cheese, no fewer than five meat counters, loads of huge, misshapen vegetables and fish fresher than the Prince of Bel Air chasing a good Christian girl. Living in London it's easy to become complacent about fresh food, to forget how utterly shonky the UK can be for buying what I blithely consider the basics, and this is really accentuated by my parents' sheer exuberance at the market. The meat lacks a bit of the finesse I'm used to [*London face*] but still looks pretty decent, and makes up any aesthetic shortcomings with lamb heads and dead fluffy bunnies.

To prepare a lamb head one simply pulls the jaw apart, CRACK!, wiggles out and slices off the tongue, lops off the top of the skull Indiana Jones-style and plucks out the delicate squishy little think-sponge. Yum.

It's the fish counters by which I'm most impressed; big prawns, little squid, lots of fish - all at pretty fantastic prices too. They have the GIANT RED PRAWNS London types lust after at the moment, and at €72/kg it's heartening to note we're not actually paying over the odds in the UK, despite the GRP's Spanish origin. My parents and I do the appropriate face one should pull on viewing large vat of live, escaping snails ("it's the season!" exclaims Shawn) and we go on our merry way to hunt for jamon, queso, jerez etc (down with the locals, me).

We arrive at a stall thoroughly bedecked in bits of cured pig, where scores of locals are hanging about waiting for their jamon to be hand-sliced by one of a number of wiry Spanish blokes. Cunningly, Shawn has called ahead and pre-ordered to avoid the half-hour wait for such artisanal service, however the wiry Spanish bloke in question thought we were coming tomorrow, and has subsequently prepared bugger all. Unfazed, he continues slicing for the lady he's serving, and only Shawn notices that he's utilised a 'one for you, one for the-pre-order-that-I-didn't-prepare' distribution method. A quiet genius, that man.  We pay, we go buy cheese.

Shawn is your divining rod for all that is delicious in Sevilla, offering food tours and guidance for a nominal fee. As such, she's treated well by those to whom she brings custom, and she has a deal with the bloke who runs the market cafe that means we can eat some of our market spoils while paying for his booze and olives. Shawn deposits us at a table and goes up to get the drinks, returning not just with booze and olives, but with a bowl of aforementioned caracoles - yep, sensing my burning curiosity, she's brought me some tiny snails.

Diminutive - that there's a teaspoon
The only snails I've had before were the typically French variety - big, boiled and covered in garlic butter. I found them a bit chewy and, well, odd - more an excuse for garlic butter than a delicacy in their own right, and I need nothing more than bread or mushrooms as an excuse for garlic butter. These little buggers are teensy in comparison to their French cousins and prepared simply by boiling in a salty court bouillon. As delicate as a well-cooked mussel and fairly similar in taste too - they're delicious, an adventure taken and won.

Me: scared. Mum: gleeful at the prospect of me being scared.
Oh sweet lord. How happy this made me. 
The second market, Mercado de la Feria, sees us wind around a more ye olde Spanish-looking affair, but it is largely filled with the same [fantastic] produce. The fish hall is beautiful, but lacks the fierce air conditioning of the first market; fine in May, an assault to the senses in the 35°C+ heat of summer, we're told.

Fish hall
Pretty bags of beans
We end up in La Cantina, one of those tapas joints you might not risk as an uneducated tourist but which proves to be an unpolished - not to mention supremely popular - gem. Chicharones aside this place is strictly seafood, and it seems to live and thrive by the sensible rule of a fairly restricted menu in order to keep everything jumping fresh. La Cantina works in the way that all low-key Spanish seafood bars should - you ogle a counter of fresh sea creatures, tell them what you want then they yell your name when your food is ready.

State of the art glass chilling system
GAMBAS. These were fantastic.
It's here that Shawn presents me with my second challenge - sea anenomes. I'm not going to lie, it hadn't event crossed my mind to eat these weird, wavy, floaty specimens, never mind that they might be good.

Battered and deep fried. Obviously.
And they are good. The flavour of the sea, but not in the same salty, zinc-fresh way as an oyster; they have a rich, earthy character to them, not dissimilar to the flavour of sea trout. Where the legs are crispy and firm (gimme fried strands of anything), the centre has a delightfully weird wobble and looks like an oil slick - I won't lie, a teensy bit overwhelming on my first go, but I know I'll be trying them again. Chocos fritos (deep fried cuttlefish) is about as tender as you'll find, and the potato salad is oil-rich and well seasoned, pepped with thin slivers of red onion and green pepper. Five sherries, three beers, four glasses of wine and very generous nibbles for five comes to just €35.

We leave with my own idea of the holy scripture, the rules by which we shall live our (short) time in Seville: Shawn's restaurant recommendations. Salud!

ADDENDUM: my mother feels extremely hard done by in my rash assumption that she was asleep. She was, in fact, ferociously busy with her Facebook, email and "Twitters".

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Why you should be friends with your local fishmonger

...or isn't Twitter nice sometimes? And serendipity. Quick shout out for that too.

Anthony Bourdain theorised that butchers are all heart and fishmongers are miserable buggers, but I've met lots of people who disprove the theory and Jonathan Norris is one of them. Whether freezing off his unmentionables manning his Pimlico fish stall or ensconced in his almost-as-chilly Victoria Park shop, Jonathan offers brilliant service always with a smile and fantastic quality fish. The kind of chap who will fillet you a line caught mackerel while taking the piss out of your football team, then ask how your dinner was on Twitter.

Meanwhile, near Tottenham Court Road today, Chris Pople proved himself entirely unable to just have a sandwich, instead nipping into Fino for a spot of lunch. On their menu is MASSIVE RED PRAWN, which Chris professed to be life-changing and to taste like it had been injected with bisque. Twitter was awash with curiosity, envy and bragging, and being an only child who likes fancy crustacea obviously I joined in.

Being a social media maestro and thoroughly lovely chap, Jonathan sent me a DM telling me to hot foot it to his Hackney shop where he had a little present. In the interests of fair exchange I grabbed some pork tenderloin and lamb neck fillet from t'Pig on the way, but feel that with the twenty odd quid of wild gambero rosso I was gifted, I still owe Jonathan a sausage or two. Jonathan keeps the smaller sized prawns in stock because the biggies tend to represent larger investment than most are willing to make for a single shrimp, and because although this bit of Hackney is now veh, veh nice, it's still the East End, innit. I say in stock because, like Birds Eye's best peas, they're actually fresher freshly frozen than they would be transported any other way from Southern Italy, so he keeps a few in the deep freeze. And they're properly, actually wild unlike most prawns out there - meat's my specialist subject these days, so I'll point to this excellent post for more info.

Such precious prawns need careful treatment, advice was sought from Thomas Blythe, Fino's head front of house chap and writer type, someone with whom I have a small history of begging for recipes (at least he got a novelty egg cup for the last one). On the grill for about 60 seconds each side. Little bit of salt as they're already quite salty - thanks, TB!

I did a single prawn test run at lunch, and it was so delicious I ended up eating the shell and giving the head a good chew too - quite unlike anything I've tried before, just so very sweet and prawny. Chris nails the description with his bisque comment above.

If you're in the market for some, get in touch with Jonathan - if you haven't already legged it to Fino.

Jonathan Norris of Pimlico (and Hackney)
207 Victoria Park Road, E9 7JN
Tachbrook Street Market

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

An open letter to PETA


When you have made as much noise about the poor state of British poultry and pork farming as you have about foreign furs and foie gras; when you have hounded the owners, shareholders and decision makers of McDonalds, KFC, Tesco, ASDA, Bernard Matthews, Chicken Cottage, Sainsbury’s, Nandos, 3663 etc etc etc about the billions of tons of cruel and destructive meat they sell each year; when you have put your single-minded, ill-thought, juvenile approach style behind you and actually used some sense and decency to appeal to the wider public in a hope to persuade them to make more ethical choices, only then should you feel comfortable emailing my personal email address asking me to pay heed to your blind-sighted, inverse snobbish, pseudo-emotional and vaguely threatening campaign against an issue which is responsible for an infinitesimal proportion of the animal cruelty you should be trying to end.

Get some perspective.


Monday, 6 February 2012

Mersea spoils: Dover soles as cheap as chips

If there's a question mark over the provenance of some of the seafood, the same cannot be said of the wet fish counter at The Company Shed. Brimming with plaice, flounders, sprats and soles so perky they can't have travelled further than day boat-to-building, the exception being salmon which can only have been Scottish. As well as rigor-stiff freshness another giveaway is the price, almost half of what you'd give a decent London fishmonger.

They had as many Dover soles as sprats on this occasion which may have further reduced the damage, and at £15/kg (you'll often pay upwards of £25/kg) for generous one-portion fish it would have been rude and silly not to.

Who you looking at?

Ironically, Dover sole is easier to deal with when it's a few days old so I had a fight to pull off the sandpapery dark grey skin (I left on the white). If stored appropriately Dovers can be eaten up to two weeks after they've been caught, which probably tells you something about their popularity with restaurants.

You make a slit across the tail and pull the skin off across the body, which is a complete ballache - 20 minutes! - when the fish is just out of the water. Thanks @LeCafeAnglais and @angus_macnab for the fishy tips!

I grilled the fish for 3-4 minutes either side with just seasoning and a bit of butter for company. A caramelised fennel, tarragon and lemon zest butter (finely sliced fennel slowly cooked in butter until golden brown, fresh chopped tarragon, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt. What can't you make better with more butter?) to pour on the finished fish and some roasted squash on the side and job's done. Firm, sweet, delicate and succulent fish, almost worth the Mersea trip alone.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Mersea Island, The Company Shed, the only way is Essex

Just sixty miles from London, Mersea Island is a great weekend getaway if you like buckets of cheap seafood, a handful of decent pubs and very few people for miles around. I dare say it's a busier fish kettle mid summer but then you don't get yer oysters and the weather is probably rubbish anyway. Go now, it's good.

When Sheds Collide

The draw for many is The Company Shed, barely more than a shack on the shoreline serving straight-up seafood and very little besides. Fancy it ain't, but ours would be a nicer world for a few more honest places like this. Communal tables decked out in wipe clean tablecloths, BYO bread, wine and mayo and a wall of help yourself glasses give the place the warm informality of a very relaxed supper club. Even in chilly, off-season January it's totally full, so arrive either by midday and grab a seat or a good half hour - apparently up to two hours in busier months - before you want to eat, stick your name on the list and toddle off and build a sand castle.

How much of the menu is locally sourced is questionable - I've yet to eat a tiger prawn pulled from British waters - but everything we ordered save for a bowl of slightly gritty mussels was damn fine. We left the cold mixed platters alone preferring to spend a bit more - we're talking a mere few quid - on individual plates of seafoody stuff, all a well-rehearsed exercise in simple-but-great. It went a bit like this, this being two meals' worth given we were so happy on day one we returned for seconds the next.

Colchester native oysters. You can bet your boots on the bivalves not having travelled far. A salty, zinc-fuelled slap and proper taste of the sea, served on a built-for-purpose oyster plate (I NEED ONE OF THESE IN MY LIFE PLEASE?). When in Rome...

Big prawns, little prawns, E5 bread. The Hackney Wild sourdough is so very awesome that it's all I'd consider taking with me. Team it with oyster stout - containing actual oysters! - from the Mersea Island Brewery and Vineyard and a load of hot-dang seafood and you're basically winning. Sweet, succulent crevettes at a pound a pop - very reasonable - and a bowl of small prawns left me crying out for a blob of good mayo but were nonetheless delicious with a healthy squoosh of lemon.

Stonking-fresh scantily dressed crab - just seasoning and no messing it seems - and tiger prawns hot from the grill with aioli. A few pounds a plate and as good as the best tapas in Seville (good, then).

More hot stuff. Massive, perfectly - barely - cooked scallops grilled with streaky bacon and cherry tomatoes, served with baby leaf salad (such frippery!), flour-dusted, seasoned sprats with bread and butter, oysters grilled with Parmesan and cream. All excellent, the scallops and the oysters particularly so.

Play with your food, eat your friends: the remnants.

And the damage? You can't really spend more than £15 a head unless you're an enormous fatty, and I can eat Quite A Lot

...proven by this. Very fine fish and chips at the West Mersea Oyster bar after sinking a few at The Victory. Homemade tartare sauce, mushy peas, the lot.

So stick a fork in me, I'm done. A great weekend of great seafood and a reasonable quantity of decent beer. Still winning.