Sunday, 20 January 2013

Steel and spice

The Peace Gardens on a wintery night – quite magical.
Steel City, home of The Full Monty, has changed a lot in the last 30 odd years, as the industry that made it famous migrated in search of cheaper workforces.

But Sheffield, which has also been a university city since 1905, hasn't gone under, and while there are plenty of buildings that are statements of the civic pride of a successful industrial past, there are also signs of the regeneration.

Indeed, leaving the train station you walk straight into one of those – Sheaf Square, with its  enormous water feature of local steel that, on sunny days, glistens magnificently.

Winter Gardens
And talking of glistening, a vast picture of Sheffield’s own Olympic golden girl, Jessica Ennis, adorns the side of the Central Library – an apt illustration of where the city is today.

Another visible sign of the regeneration is the Winter Gardens, which opened in 2003 and is the largest, urban greenhouse in Europe. It's full of plants from around the world – although the fact that they are planted and looked after by part of Rentokill seems really rather peverse.

The Millennium Gallery leads off one side of the Winter Gardens, with a series of exhibition spaces and a shop.

There's a rather fun giraffe on display inside – steel cutlery recycled into a tall sculpture with moving parts. And I considered myself particularly fortunate that Christmas Cracker was still open for business.

One of the exhibition spaces, for the duration of the festive season and into new year it's transformed into a shop selling work by local artists and designers. And there was some wonderful stuff available.

Cutlery giraffe.
Not that it’s alone. Just inside one entrance to the Winter Gardens is the Bessemer Gallery – so named for the world’s first inexpensive method of making steel, which was, if not quite invented, then certainly brought to industrial fruition locally by one Henry Bessemer in the 1850s.

It’s a small shop that does pretty much the same thing, but all year round. Again, some lovely work was available.

I absolutely love galleries/shops like these, with work by local artists.

Elly Englefield cat brooch.
But here are special mentions to two of the designers I came across.

First, Dave Cawthorne, who makes jewelery in silver and titanium – the latter, a metal I first came across in a lovely, tiny shop in Lancaster, The Silver Tree, where I bought my very first earrings.

So it seemed entirely reasonable, therefore, to get myself a pair.

And second, Elly Englefield, who makes vintage-styled jewellery out of “found ephemera” – that’s old stuff, to you and me. There’s a playfulness to her pieces that I really like.

And given that one of the ones on display was a cat, that sort of set the seal on the matter. If nothing else, I told myself, it was a reward for not having smoked for a month.

Moving outside once more, adjacent to the nearby Sheffield Town Hall, the Peace Gardens provide a fascinatingly designed modern riff on traditional fountains that is intended to represent molten steel.

That, in essence, was what I managed to see on my trip, other than the inside of the City Hall – confusingly, this is actually a theatre – where the conference I was reporting was being held.

Dave Cawthorne earrings: '50s satellites or ancient shields?
The Novotel I’d been booked into was comfy enough and quiet, but it’s not the first time I’ve stayed somewhere that has taken a big business booking – and then not apparently arranged enough staff to do the job.

The staff themselves were friendly and as helpful as they could be, but something was just not working properly.

Breakfast was chaotic, with just a few people put into the invidious position of trying to do far too much.

On my second morning, I made sure I got down early, precisely to avoid the chaos. It was to little avail.

The absence of butter was entirely bad enough, but the irritant factor reached a peak when, instead of the requested tea, I got a pot of coffee that was so cool that, by the time milk was added, it was actually cold.

And honestly, leaving a tray of cooked eggs to congeal under a lamp, swimming in oil, may be convenient catering, but it is not conducive to a good culinary experience.

To be honest, it was hardly the greatest foodie trip.

On Friday, with snow falling and gusting around my ankles, I decided not to venture far from the hotel for dinner, but landed in the Sheffield branch of Browns, where I went down the apparently simple route of ordering fish and chips. Let's face it, I was up north.

Not my idea of proper mushy peas.
The fish was in a ‘tempura’ batter apparently. Well, it was batter – and it was a decent batter and it was decent cod.

The chips were reasonable. The mushy peas, though, were pretty much solid and cold, and came as a condiment, included in a small dish alongside ketchup and a tartare sauce.

And what’s the nonsense of serving it on a piece of paper on the plate? The merest hint of vinegar and it starts getting soggy and, before you know it, it tears as you're cutting your food.

Is it intended as a sort of postmodern homage to how our once-national dish used to be eaten out of newsprint? And while I don't generally whinge about portion size being too small, that wasn't a big plate full for £10.95.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon and the need for a reasonably rapid lunch. I picked Patisserie Valerie on the grounds both of it being almost opposite where I was working, and because the patisserie in the window looked mouthwatering.

And once seated, I opted for a spaghetti carbonara from the winter menu. What could go wrong?

The sorriest garnish you'll ever see.
It arrived with a garnish of a solitary and rather flaccid leaf of parsley. The pasta was cooked, but the dish was far from being piping hot. And weirdest of all was the bacon. This is something that is made with lardons or pancetta, but the cook had apparently run out midway through and just chucked in some pieces of the sort of bacon you'd expect in a butty - not even having made the effort to dice it.

Looking up the menu online, it does actually specify: “Spaghetti with Bacon, Cream & Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese & Ham”. But would anyone really expect some tiny dice of ham and some pieces of sliced bacon? And besides, who reads such a description anyway when you know precisely what should be in such a classic dish?

There’s a part of me that knows that I should complain. Just to be clear, I’m not judging something like this on the basis of Michelin-standard restaurants, but for what it is. It’s a cafe – one of quite a sizeable chain. And that was poor.

I didn’t say anything, partly because it was a time-sensitive situation. This was about getting in, fuelling up and getting back to work.

And perhaps, in that case, I help to continue such a state of affairs by not readily holding them to a decent standard. It wasn’t dirt cheap at £7.99, but my own reaction was as though I didn’t really expect anything much better.

Things did improve in the evening, when we went to Butlers Balti House for a staff meal. Now I don’t eat at Indian restaurants very often, but decided to move away from my standard safety-first choice of korma.

Lamb jalfrezi.
This time it was tandoori prawns as a starter, with lamb jalfrezi to follow. The menu said that nothing was more than medium hot, but you could ask for hotter (or milder) if you wished.

Wile we waited, we had vast piles of poppadoms with assorted relishes and dips – utterly moreish.

The prawns were good – it was a quite mild dish – and the lamb was enjoyable too, although really pretty hot by my standards, although the spicing was very subtle.

The dish included perfectly cooked pepper that was delightfully sweet as well as still having just the right amount of bite.

The meat was a bit too firm for my taste, but I guess that that is a result of the rapid cooking method.

As with everywhere, though, service was friendly and helpful.

And that was Sheffield. My next trip, starting tomorrow (weather permitting), will take exoticism to new heights. Brace yourself, Scunthorpe: here I come.

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