Monday, 9 April 2012

A touch of northern sophistication

Classy and sophisticated food doesn’t only mean haute cuisine. It doesn’t even have to mean that you have to have slaved over a hot stove for hours and hours either.

The weekend produced a number of dishes that, I’m willing to assert, were as classy as owt, even if they were not likely to grace the tables of La Gavroche.

In fact, although this was never a particular intention, it all went a bit northern over the last few days.

The mood was established early on Friday with a visit to Broadway Market – a far quieter experience than can be expected on Saturdays.

Fin & Founder now seem established as residential fish merchants. I still use Vikki wherever possible on a Saturday, because she’s been there since shortly after the market arrived to change out lives. But a permanent fishmonger is an absolute boon.

It’s not cheap and it’s clearly aimed primarily at the growing rather more middle class residents that have moved into the area in the last eight years.

For a while, I wouldn’t go in. The shop had originally been Spirit’s general West Indian store, which used to have a small amount of fish.

Spirit, however, was shoved out in – how to put it carefully? – dubious circumstances by our favourite greedy local landlord, Dr Roger Wratten, whose mere name always puts me in mind of Bill Tidy’s dastardly villain, Roger Ditchley.

One such occurrence might be construed as an accident, but the countless times Wratten has hiked rents to push out businesses makes it very far from that.

He’s done it on at least four other occasions that I know of – and that’s just on Broadway Market.

Spirit’s shop lay empty for ages, before being done up and becoming home to Fin & Founder. The dreadful doctor is apparently no longer the owner of that site so one can’t exactly hold them to blame.

I rather enjoy shopping there. On Friday, it was to get some thick cod fillet for dinner.

“I’ll just pin bone it for you,” said the young man serving me.

“Oh, no need for that,” I replied. “I can do that.”

He looked surprised.

“OH, I have my own pin-boning pliars,” I explained. “Wüstloff ones.”

He made no further query.

Obviously, preparing the customer’s fish in such a manner ‘adds value’ and helps justify the prices. I know I’m not going to get a discount, but I really don’t need it done.

In some cases – such as prepping squid – I downright love doing the job myself.

Fin & Founder is, I think, symptomatic of so much that is happening in British food – certainly in the cities.

Were it not for shops like this, run by people like this, there simply would not be a fishmonger on Broadway Market. And there are no proper wet fish shops within walking distance either.

The traditional fishmongers’ died off over a number of years – yet more of the collateral damage caused by supermarket expansion, plus the greed of those commercial landlords.

So it could be claimed that good food – proper food – has unfortunately become elitist in such areas.

The tragedy with this is that now it’s apparently considered a middle class, well off thing to actually want good food.

How on earth did we reach such a depressing point – depressing, indeed, on so many levels? It’s not the case in every other country, that quality food is considered only the preserve of some perceived elite.

And indeed, what I wanted to cook on Friday was light years from being ‘elite’.

The intention in this case was to make something I do rarely – fish and chips.

Rarely, that is, because I don’t have a deep fat fryer or chip pan, and therefore have to use fresh fat every time. Which ups the cost a bit, but it’s worth it.

In this case, that meant a dozen 250g blocks of lard, since I’ve given up deep frying in vegetable oil.

It’s such an easy dish.

Cut your chips and soak them for 30 minutes or so in cold water. Drain and dry thoroughly.

Make your batter. Pure Delia at this point: 110g of self-raising flour, a good pinch of salt and 165ml of water – all whisked together until it’s lump free.

In this case, thinking that some people use beer instead of water, I made use of some sparkling water that was in the fridge.

Now it’s just a case of melting and then heating the lard.

You need it to be at a temperature of 190˚C. This used to mean relying on chucking a cube of bread into the shimmering fat and seeing it if cooked in a minute.

But since I’ve actually got a jam thermometer these days, it’s a darned sight more scientific.

In go the chips for up to five minutes. In reality, I found that they were well on the way by three minutes, so they were decanted onto a paper-towel lined plate and the fish, which had been waiting in the batter, was slipped carefully into the second pan.

Once the fat in the chip pan is back up to heat, the chips go back in for about two minutes.

And real chips are not a pale yellow.

The only processed thing about the meal was a tin of mushy peas. And the only downside? The smell, which I managed to keep in the kitchen alone.

But goodness me, it was good.

It amazes me that we have come so close to losing sight of what a fantastic dish this can be.

Near us, in Dalston, Is Faulkners fish and chip takeaway and restaurant. It’s supposed to be good, but is poor for anyone who has had the real thing.

The same goes for the North Sea Fish Restaurant (and takeaway) in Bloomsbury.

Neither are cheap and yet the chips aren’t even hand cut for starters.

Both would be left standing by the very down-to-Earth, dock-side chippy we ate in in Scarborough, last spring.

Yet such experiences are few and far between. Which is sad, I think. Very sad.

But on to more weekend fodder.

My new friends, Si King and Dave Myers of Hairy Biker fame, were the source of Saturday’s dinner – a meat and potato pie.

Not that they’re just my new friends – The Other Half has been the one remembering when the current series is on and tuning in every week.

And the ‘bakeathon’, with the duo intrepidly biking and baking their way around Europe is certainly most enjoyable.

This wasn’t bad the first time I did it, last autumn – but it was even better this time: moister and, err, wittier.

The pastry, as previously, was made using lard. I used good beef mince (400g for the two of us).

A good squeeze of tomato purée was substituted for the ketchup, since I didn’t have any of the latter in the cupboard, but Worcester sauce and HP sauce were used exactly as the recipe specified.

I kid you not – this is also good. Very good.

Oh, it might not be haute cuisine but, just like the fish and chips, at its best, a proper pie is a thing of enormous pleasure and very high quality.

And since I made up the amount of pastry mentioned in the book, I have just under half to use up later this week. What a dreadful problem to face – what pie to make next?

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