Everything Has Changed.

Yesterday Keith and I drove to New York, where we are now and where we picked up our new puppy.  He’s a whippet, born April eighth. We’ve named him Fergus Henderson, after the chef at St. John in London, but we’re just calling him Fergus. (Whippets are English, the name Fergus is English…) Fergus Henderson is just too much of a mouthful, especially if you want to be smart and stick both Keith and my last names in there too.  That’s a lot to fit on an ID tag.

My dad won’t admit it, but he’s pretty enamored with Fergus. I don’t blame him, because this dog is pretty damn cute.  I’ll be posting a photo of him every day on a separate site called Fergus, At Your Service, though I’m sure I’ll be mentioning him on a fairly regular basis — we’ve now got a four-legged reason to stay in.  So get used to more writing about home-cooked meals rather than restaurant food.

You’ve been warned.

Everything Has Changed” by Lucinda Williams.

Judy’s Kitchen in Bristol.

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Where do you live?
St. Andrews, Bristol, UK.

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How often do you cook or bake?
I cook/bake roughly three times a week, on average.

judy-3-5What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
It’s very hard to decide on the answer to this one! Recently we purchased a salad spinner. Not very exciting you may think — but we’d wanted one for ages as we eat loads of salad and most of it comes from our organic veg box and tends to be pretty muddy. We were ending up wasting loads of kitchen roll just trying to pat it dry as we thought we did not have space for a salad spinner but then we found a really perfect small one in a fab shop in Bath called Kitchens. I am extra chuffed as it is a fetching plum colour which perfectly co-ordinates with our kitchen and it fits in our existing cupboard space.  Result.  But on the same day we bought a “proper,” good quality Parmesan grater, and that’s pretty funky too. But cheapest of all, and perhaps the most useful, was a small, simple plastic tool which prises a small gap between the lid of a jar and its side, negating the vacuum and thus rendering the jar open-able! (I was finally able to open my Dad’s pickled eggs, made over three years ago — they were, predictably, a little over-pickled.)

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
My favourite part of the kitchen is the left hand side wall which is lined with half-width cabinets — a fantastic use of an extremely small amount of space, it provides storage space as well as invaluable surface area upon which we keep the microwave, the food processor and various kilner jars of dried foodstuffs, the fruit bowl, the toaster, the sharp knives, the recipe book stand, the radio and various other kitchen essentials, none of which we would have room for with only our regular units.
judy-2

What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
This is an easy question to answer for me. I did A Level Home Economics which was equally concerned in those days with food chemistry, nutrition and cookery skills (now there is no practical or kitchen aspect to it at all).  We had a written exam at the end of the two years, same as all my other subjects, but in addition we had a cookery exam around the Easter time of our final A Level year. It was in two parts and incredibly stressful!

The first part was held in a regular classroom under exam conditions. We had to come up with a menu for a three course meal which incorporated at least six cookery skills considered to be A Level standard. These included, amongst other things, the ability to make choux pastry, hot water pastry (for pork pies and such), savoury or sweet roulade (flourless), roux sauce I think, possibly homemade mayonnaise.  Can’t really remember the others. There were also various other nutritional standards, and other considerations to be met in the menu (now lost to me) As well as the menu we had to come up with a schedule, listing what to do for every stage of each dish and most importantly dovetailing the preparation of all the dishes together to make a seamless, two hour plan.

The second part of the exam was held a few weeks later. We had to follow, to the letter (if not we lost marks) the plan we had come up with and actually produce this three course meal in two hours. After half an hour the cookery teacher’s daughter ran out in tears, unable to cope with the pressure. Twenty minutes later, another girl followed.  There were only six of us in the group, those of us who remained wondered if we could make it. Faces were strained and sweaty.  We moved without speaking (it was all held under exam conditions), frantically trying to keep to our schedules… I did okay I think, the food looked and tasted all right but the mayo was a little green (my recipe had called for olive oil, but I had used one that was a little too virgin!). Still, it was an experience I shall never forget!

from-judy-dorians(Note from Nayiri:  I took the above photo during my visit to England.  It’s the view from Judy’s kitchen window, which overlooks Bristol.)

Graffiti in Bristol.

I’m always hyper-aware of graffiti — I don’t know if it’s because I remember the time when New York subway cars were absolutely covered in spray paint and marker, or if it’s because I’m just plain attracted to bold graphics and color.  The fact of the matter is that if it’s there, chances are I’ve not only noticed it but also stored away a mental snapshot.  In the case of the graffiti in Bristol, I did more than remember an image — I stopped right there on the street with my camera.

Street art is huge in Bristol; Google it and pages of info comes up.  According to my friends Judy and Dorian a great deal of it is commissioned, though there are a few graffiti that would be considered flat-out vandalism.  There also were a few that are undeniably famous, like the Banksy pieces that are still scattered about the city; some have been painted over.  Speaking of painting over, this photo here — which will redirect you to a short slideshow of Bristol graffiti, if clicked on — is of an artist covering someone else’s graffiti with his own.  When we walked past on our way to the city center the next day, the storefront looked completely different.  Even the dig at Gordon Ramsay was gone.  Oh well…  it’s temporary art, after all.

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Visiting St Werburghs City Farm.

Near where Judy and Dorian live in Bristol is a neighborhood called St Werburghs; from our friends’ flat, it’s a pleasant walk through through the city allotments (community gardens) to St Werburghs City Farm, a free, independently-run farm focused on education.  Before I go into more detail on the farm, may I just mention how extraordinary the St Werburghs allotments are?  It was an overcast morning the day the four of us treked down a narrow and muddy path to the farm; the light was the sort that makes everything look so very lush, and in every direction over sloping hills all I could see was green from the efforts of the allotment lessees.  It was inspiring.

Back to the farm…

If you thought I was a dawdler in the markets of the world, you should see me on a farm.  Oh, how I get sidetracked by things such as a goat’s rectangular pupils or the posture of a chicken.  I could easily spend several hours with the bunnies alone, not to mention a mama pig whose piglets share a birthday with me.  Luckily, we didn’t have plans until around ten-thirty that evening…

Click on the picture below to see a slideshow of St Werburghs.

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St Werburghs City Farm
Watercress Road
Bristol BS2 9YJ
England
+ 020 0117 942 8241

Breakfast at St Werburghs City Farm Café.

One of the options Judy suggested for Sunday breakfast was the café at the city farm down the street from her flat.

“It’s lovely,” she said.  “Everything is delicious and fresh, and you get massive piles of food.  And there’s a pig.”

Even if I hadn’t already been sold on breakfast — Judy had me at lovely — the mention of the pig is what did it for me, honestly.  They’re incredibly intelligent, and even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter.  What I like about them is their hairy little tails.

city-farm-cafe-3A brief walk later, the four of us stood in front what just might be the strangest-looking building I’ve ever seen.  It looked like something out of Tolkien; if Bilbo or Frodo Baggins had poked his head out of the front door, I wouldn’t have been even the least been surprised.  In fact, I was kind of expecting it and was a little disappointed when neither showed up, especially as the architecture of the café appears as though it was inspired by Bag End.

city-farm-cafe-2Truthfully though, St Werburghs City Farm Café is thoroughly charming, and by that I mean there are no right angles in the entire place and each window and beam within appears to be handcarved out of England’s knottiest wood.  Inside, the ceiling slopes so dramatically that I don’t think either Keith  or Dorian were able to stand up straight, except for in the exact center of the round room.  If I were a kid visiting the café, I would have really loved it — which isn’t, of course, to say that I didn’t.  It’s simply that the place has a fantastical quality to it that any child with an inquisitive mind and an active imagination would love — which is probably why the café was full of children.

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In spite of the magical décor, what the four of us had come for was the food.  The menu is posted on a blackboard above the counter, and the moment I saw black pudding listed I knew I would be ordering a dish that came with a serving of it.  And so, I settled on the Big Farmer:  bacon, breakfast sausage,a fried egg, beans, mushroom, spinach, toast and, finally, the black pudding (£6.95).

Judy wasn’t kidding when she said piles of food; once it arrived I had half a mind to weigh my plate.  Still, I came close to shoveling it all down — it was incredibly tasty.  I was the most surprised by the spinach, actually, which was probably the freshest I have had in a while, and the ketchupy beans were fantastic.  Also noteworthy was the supersalty butter that brought a grin to my face, and the perfectly-cooked mushrooms which had the perfect amount of bite left to them.  The sausage was pleasantly light, leaving me with plenty of room for the bacon — utterly unlike American bacon, I should say, as British bacon tends to come from the animal’s back.  I saved the black pudding for last, and you know what?  I think I kind of loved it.  The exterior was nice and crunchy, while the inside had a fabulous meaty flavor that could only be described as intoxicating.

I don’t think anyone else was more pleased with breakfast than me, except for maybe Judy, who practically clapped her hands to see my clean plate and the minuscule remnants of pudding dotting its surface.  If I had thought of it, I would have taken an after photo for you all to see.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Better yet: if you find yourself in the Bristol area, you’ll drop in to the café at St Werburghs for some breakfast.

St Werburghs City Farm Café
Watercress Road
Bristol BS2 9YJ
England
+44 0117 942 8241

Snacks at Kingsdown Vaults.

I adore cheese and Keith loves wine, so when Judy suggested dropping by her favorite wine and cheese pub before we all sneaked into a private party to see Dorian’s band, we pretty much all simultaneously started looking around for a taxi to take us to Kingsdown Vaults.

While I might not be much of a drinker, it’s neighborhood pubs like this that I wish we had more of here in Massachusetts.  The closest that I can think of that captures the same sort of laid-back mellowness is the bar at Union Square’s Independent, but even that’s a bit of a stretch.  After all, even the Independent has a TV, something the Kingsdown Vaults does not.  Instead of television, the Vaults’s got battered tables, a wicked assortment of mismatched chairs and the requisite fire roaring in the fireplace.  The Vaults also has board games and books stacked on its slightly saggy shelves and arbitrary guns hanging on the walls which may or may not be real.  Add groupings of tall, fat and drippy candles trailing tails of wax down their sides and you’ve got an altogether cozy atmosphere that can’t be replicated.

wine-cheeseFoodwise, the Vaults offers small bites like smalec (a Polish spread made of pork fat, bacon and bits of onion) and miscellaneous cheeses.  The three of us shared a fondue (£4.50) and feta-stuffed peppers (£2.90) which were described on the menu as bell but were in fact way too hot and too small to be bells.  I’ve got the feeling that they were Fresnos, simply from their size and heat.  The thing is, it doesn’t matter — Kingsdown Vaults is a place to go for a drink (or series of), a long chat and maybe a board game or two.  It’s not necessarily the best spot, culinarily-speaking, but does that even matter when there’s wine and bites of cheese to be had?  Sometimes, that’s all a girl like me needs.

Kingsdown Vaults
29-31 Kingsdown Parade
Bristol BS6
England
+44 117 924 9134
kingsdownvaults.com

Late Lunch at River Station.

Keith and I got off to a shamefully late start our first morning in Bristol.  Suffice to say that my use of the word morning is a total stretch, as neither of us even stumbled out of our friends Judy and Dorian’s spare room for a shower until one in the afternoon.  In our defense, we were both at varying degrees of sick — the next day I would lose my voice entirely, after an evening of feeling like my throat was coated in shards of glass, and Keith was already coughing into a series of tissues.  Still, we managed to eventually make our way down to Bristol Harbor, then walked about ten more minutes to River Station, a restaurant housed in a former police station.

River Station is divided into two sections, the restaurant upstairs and the bar/kitchen on the ground level;  both have excellent views overlooking the River Avon.  (Here’s something confusing about the UK — there are eight Rivers Avon: four in England, three in Scotland and one in Wales.  This River Avon is also called the Lower Avon or Bristol Avon, and is not Shakespeare’s Avon, which flows through Warwickshire in the West Midlands.)  While the restaurant was serving food, we decided to stay downstairs in the bar, where we sat on a curved leather banquette and watched a trio of swans lazily paddle in concentric circles.

river-station-11Sick or not, I was starving; at this point it was probably something like eighteen hours since my previous meal, a vegetarian moussaka and a half-pint at The Watershed’s Café/Bar.  Not only was I craving something filling, but I also wanted something that could scratch at my sore throat on the way down.  (See number four.)  For that reason I chose the goat cheese bruschetta and beet coleslaw (£5.00) as my starter.  I was a little surprised when my plate arrived, as River Station’s interpretation of bruschetta seemed to be simply a toasted slice of crusty bread topped with cheese; I’m not quite sure what I had been expecting, but I do know that I did anticipate something garlicky.  In the end I didn’t mind though — goat cheese is a weakness of mine, and River Station was extremely generous with theirs.  The beet slaw was both sweet and tangy, and the addition of watercress added a nice peppery bite.  In retrospect, I wish I had thought to pile the vegetables on top of the melty cheese, but they were just as good alongside.

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I knew I would hanker for something to soothe my unhappy throat after the crusty bread did its job; squid ink spaghetti and smoked salmon tossed in a vodka cream sauce (£8.00) sounded like the perfect solution.  And perfect it was.  Not only is pasta made with squid ink fun to look at, with its jet-black color, but it’s also fun to eat, as each bite releases a briny zip in your mouth.  Combined with the delicate salmon, milky sauce, fresh herbs and lemon, it was simultaneously comforting and refreshing — exactly what I needed to bolster me up so I could face the day.  Or at least the rest of the afternoon.

Judy met us after she finished work, and the three of us sat with lattes and tea while we chatted and reminisced.  Not once were we bothered by waitstaff, except to clear our scraped-clean plates.  I got the feeling that, had we chosen to, we could have sat there all night, laughing and watching the water, and peering into the dark for the swans we could no longer see.  River Station has the ideal atmosphere and menu for doing exactly that.

River Station
The Grove
Bristol, BS1 4RB
England
+44 0117 914 9463
riverstation.co.uk

Lunch at The Eagle.

Our last London meal was a bit stressful.  We needed a place that would be quick, didn’t require a reservation and was near where we had stored our luggage.  Oh, and ideally, the restaurant would be atmospheric and the food delicious… With these caveats firmly in place, we found ourselves at The Eagle, a gastropub in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of Islington.

When I use the word “gastropub,” what I really mean in this case is The Gastropub.  The team behind The Eagle were the first of London’s pubs to not only start serving dishes beyond the usual pub fare of bangers and mash or fish and chips, but to also create the genre of food itself.  In fact, if you look up gastropub on Wikipedia, there’s a photograph of The Eagle at the top of the page.  Seriously.

It was a typical British day (sunny in the morning, bullet-sized raindrops by mid-day) when we squeezed in amongst the crowded tables.  The Eagle is incredibly popular; we luckily snagged two stools at the counter overlooking Farringdon Road.  From there we could watch the activity behind the bar, where immense sausages were frizzling away on a flattop grill.  We also had a great view of the dining room itself; it’s a massive, window-lined space full of tables, mismatched chairs and squashy looking sofas underneath a pressed tin ceiling and framed with hunter green walls.  It was also absolutely packed with loud, chatty Londoners tossing back pints and ordering their lunches up at the bar, where the day’s offerings are chalked up on blackboards.

the-eagle2While I warmed my wet feet on the radiator underneath the narrow counter, Keith got in line at the bar.  He decided to go with a few of the aforementioned sausages; I chose the chicken, ham and mushroom risotto (£8.50), mostly because it’s a dish I have no patience to make myself.  The thought of all that stirring makes my arm feel sore even now, as I sit comfortably on my sofa, nowhere near a stove.

The Eagle’s risotto has a lovely creamy texture, and the dish wasn’t laced overwhelmingly with mushroom.  It was also neither laced overwhelmingly with any other flavor; the rice was almost too subtle, and I found myself adding liberal amounts of both salt and pepper to my plate, something I very rarely do.  In all fairness, each bite of chicken was especially tender and the ham was amazingly juicy — it was just the rice itself that I found a bit lacking.  Perhaps lacking is not the most appropriate word to use here.  I think missing is more accurate.

The menu at The Eagle begins with very English cuisine like Keith’s sausages, and then moves across Europe to land squarely in the Mediterranean; aside from my risotto, the chalkboard listed both a Spanish fish stew and similarly-styled grilled prawns.  It doesn’t matter if you prefer to stand on the British or Iberian side of the culinary fence, since a trip to London’s first gastropub shouldn’t be skipped.  The risotto, on the other hand…  Well, I’ll leave that up to you.

The Eagle
159, Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3
England
+44 020 7837 1353

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Missed Opportunity.

I wish I had thought to photograph pub signs while I was traipsing around England — wouldn’t that have made a nice little photo essay?  Pub names are so interesting; I saw countless Kings Arms and Red Lions, a few Georges (The George, The George V, The George IV, The George & Dragon,  The George & Vulture, etc.), a couple of Alberts (The Prince Albert, Victoria & Albert, Albert Arms, Royal Albert, etc.) a Fleece & Firkin (which sounds a bit scandalous), The Happy Cocks (which sounds very scandalous) and both The King’s and The Queen’s Head.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get to is this:  what would I name my pub, if I were to open a pub?  Here’s a short list of potential names.  Please feel free to contribute!

  1. The Baby Head*
  2. The Gnome & Unicorn
  3. The Knitting Kitten
  4. The Stomping Stallion
  5. The Unruly Knockers (because you simply need a vaguely outrageous name)**
  6. The Vicious Circle**
*Keith coined this phrase to describe the way a drinker’s head droops when drunk.
**A co-writer’s credit must be given to my friend Marcella.  She knows why.

Dinner at St John.

(Firstly, let me say this: the interior of St John is so brightly lit that I decided not to use a flash, which is oftentimes intrusive to other diners and waitstaff.  Secondly: I’m an idiot.)

st-johnThe reservation I was most looking forward to during our trip to England was the dinner we had booked at St John.  I’m a huge fan of offal, having grown up fighting over marrow-filled bones, so the thought of eating at a restaurant most famous for adhering to a “nose to tail” menu was absolutely exciting.  I purposely stopped reading anything that referred to St John, Fergus Henderson or offal, so I was completely entranced by the restaurant’s all white utterly utilitarian interior, which has been well-documented.  What was interesting to me was that the sight of such dazzling white wasn’t the slightest bit austere; in fact, it only enhanced the fantastic aroma radiating from the kitchen in the most teasing fashion.  It was as if the whiteness of the place, the total lack of visual stimulus focused the senses more on what was about to be consumed.

Unfortunately, I was suffering at dinner — I had flown over the Atlantic with the teensiest sprout of a cold, which of course blossomed into the most beautiful flower a few days into the trip.  For that reason and that reason alone I briefly considered ordering the cauliflower soup as my starter.  Keith looked at me with a raised eyebrow when I mentioned my choice of appetizer, then calmly listed why I was making a mistake.

“Besides,” he said, “I need you to get the marrow so I can taste it.”

st-john-1It doesn’t take more than the mention of marrow to twist my arm in its favor, so I agreed.  I sincerely doubt I can clearly express how glad I am that I listened.  Sure, I’m biased when it comes to marrow, but this marrow (£6.70) is what all the other bone marrows in the world dream of becoming when they grow up.  Even if I hadn’t smeared pieces of crunchy grilled toast with the impossibly soft and stunningly supple marrow, even if I hadn’t then sprinkled it with coarse granules of salt, crisp leaves of parsley,  and beads of capers, seeing versions of this plate float around to the other tables in the dining room would have been enough.  I’m not exaggerating when I say each looked like a veritable mini Stonehenge.  I’m exaggerating even less when I add that my mouth is watering even now, many meals later.

st-john-2It would have been hopeless to chose an entrée that could possibly compare to the lusciousness that was the marrow, but I tried my hardest with the lamb tongues, butter beans and anchovy (£16.00), which was also served with curly leaves of kale.  The tongue, which I haven’t had in years, was intensely flavored, meaty and dense, and its sauce added just the right amount of salty energy.  Something I realized while eating, though, is that I apparently really hate the butter bean.  Could there be anything more boring and more tepid-flavored than this legume?  I don’t know if Keith noticed, but I kept on offering him bites of bean or placing them, uninvited, on his plate.

st-john-3At first, we thought we weren’t going to get dessert but when our server suggested the treacle tart, we realized that fighting the urge for sweets was a silly battle.  The thing is, our server all but abandoned us soon after mentioning the kitchen only had one tart left; all of our attempts to catch her eye or get her attention seemed to be categorically ignored.  By the time we did manage to put our order in, the treacle, of course, was gone.  We ended up instead with a lovely clementine trifle (£6.70), but no amount of custard, sponge cake and fruit can make up for the loss of a pastry filled with sugary syrup, butter and cream.

I think my love and consumption of meat has been well-documented thus far, but it should be noted that St John, remarkably, has a very nice selection of vegetarian dishes.  Even more remarkably, the restaurant’s menu changes daily; while there is some overlap and while some starters, mains and desserts remain the same (read: marrow), there’s no guarantee that diners will be able to replicate a previous day’s entire meal.  Nor should a diner attempt to.  Where’s the fun in that?

And, for no reason other than I just plain would like to, I’ll end with Chef Henderson’s famous quote explaining his cooking mentality:

If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.

St John
26, St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
England
+44 20 72510848
stjohnrestaurant.com

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