27 July 2011

Upturn and downgrade

The Three Tuns in Henley re-emerges as the foodie pub the town needs, while the Mountain View fails to see the writing on the wall.

Henley diners have been given a few more options of late with La Barca opening down by the riverside, The Three Tuns emerging from a period in the doldrums and the rebranding of Henley institution The Himalaya.  
This last shouldn’t occupy us for long. If anything the newly named Mountain View has downgraded. While it may have a new sign, carpet and whitewashed walls the budget, of which there wasn’t much in the first place, obviously didn’t extend to spice. Quite possibly the blandest Tandoori mixed grill and Sag Aloo I’ve ever had. Best I think to let the place die a quick death. Henley has too many Indian restaurants, this is by far the worst in so many ways, it’s never busy, apart from Henley week, and would do us all a favour if it disappeared.
I’ll review La Barca properly in a few weeks. I’ve been a few times since it opened and apart from a decent glass of white Rioja haven’t been very impressed. I hear the quality of everything has improved so will visit again shortly.
The Three Tuns in Henley’s market place, next to the region’s best butcher, Gabriel Machin, has had a varied history over the last 10 years. From drug filled student dive to profit guzzling landlord it was transformed around five years ago to a respectable gastro pub with an excellent menu. That venture was disappointingly short lived though, as was the most recent option which had very passable rustic French food but was rarely open. It must be a difficult space to make a living, there aren’t quite enough covers, the bar is in the middle of the room, separating the space in two; three if you consider there is a huge fireplace in the small dining room concealing a few more tables. Then there are the virtually outside ancient loo’s and a barn like space, well hidden in the back garden, plus a tiny kitchen.
So hats off to chef Mark Duggan and his wife Sandra who are working their butts off to make the place work, ably assisted by the their son who must be the politest barman in the business. There are different menus for bar and dining room, though that shouldn’t stop you ordering whatever you fancy in either room. On the bar menu it’s the homemade bread and pies that really impress. Foccacia with Cherry Tomatoes was beautifully salty and oily, while both the Chicken & Mushroom and Steak & Ale pies are meaty with rich sauces that perfectly complement a lovely mash, rich in olive oil. My only criticism of the pies is a lack of accompanying vegetables even as a garnish.
In the dining area I have only tried the Rib-Eye Steak with CafĂ© de Paris butter and this was pretty late in the evening so top marks for accommodating us with a charred yet still tender hunk of cow. The chunky chips were not the best. Sandra explained there was a problem obtaining the right quality of potatoes at this time of year. It’s a problem that needs fixing but I can’t imagine it won’t be.
The wine list has had a bit more thought than most pub’s and its pleasing to see both affordable and interesting options available by the glass as well as the bottle. The Rare Vineyards Pinot Noir, Vin de France is a good example of a regional French Pinot, with elegance, cherries and spice while the Argentine Etchart Privado Malbec, Valle de Cafayate is exactly what you want from a deep, plumy Malbec at a great price point.
A great deal of hard work is going into making this difficult space a success. It’s not flashy gastro food, but it is exactly what you want from a good local pub.
The Three Tuns, 5 The Market Place, Henley on Thames RG9 2AA 01491 410138

18 July 2011

Leiths Food Writing Course - Pantry Newsletter

For 12 weeks this spring & summer I attended a weekly writing course at Leiths School of Food & Wine. One of the results is the newsletter Pantry, compiled and written by one small group of us.

You may notice that a couple of my contributions have previously appeared on this blog.

Many thanks to Lulu Grimes for leading the course and to Morgan, Lindsey, Angela and Jenny for making the collaboration such fun.

Pantry Leiths Newsletter

Peruvian lamb goes off with a bang

A few years ago I had the pleasure of walking the long way round to Machu Pichu and the Inca Trail following the Salcantay Trek. This piece describes one of the highlights of the walk.

Mt. Salcantay seen from the south
The Andean sun set lit up the snow on the mountains behind us in a glow that spread through the lush glaciated valley mid way between the peak of Mt. Salcantay and the spectacle of Machu Pichu, still 3 days walk away. As the heat faded from the day and the aches from our exertions crept through our muscles, sweet hot chocolate and fresh popcorn, proffered by our guide Michael, brought the warmth back into our cheeks, while we awaited a special dinner.

Two days previously we had stepped out from the rambling village of Mollepata, with Michael, his 7 year old son Pedro, 4 horses, a cook, his assistant, two porters and two wranglers. The numbers sound excessive to support just the four of us novice trekkers, however tourist income plays a valuable part in the economy of the local villages and their teamwork, cheerful chatter and dedication was very welcome when arriving in camp just as the clouds burst, seeing tents already erected and hot drinks waiting.

The previous night we had slept in the lee of Salcantay, listening to the creaks and groans of the great glaciers adjusting themselves. Dinner had been very simple, pasta with a tomato sauce, some fruit and chocolate. Tonight in this beautiful valley would be different.

Following a day which included a crossing of the great mountain's saddle at 4,640 meters, a height where steps are necessarily slow, with altitude sickness a real danger, followed by a menacing dance down a moraine filled escarpment, we arrived to find the campsite erected and the cook and the two porter's busy digging a shallow hole.

As we removed our steaming boots, hot rocks were taken out of the fire and placed in the trench. Jose the cook emerged from his small kitchen tent moments later with half a lamb, coated in oil, garlic, chilli and fresh herbs. He placed the lamb gently on top of the rocks, before covering that in bundles of long grass scythed from the surrounding hillside. On top of these he placed large dark local potatoes before covering the whole mass with divots of turf.

It was Christmas Eve high in the Andean cordillera, a special night for the people of the region; the night when a feast is made and visitors welcomed. Having donned extra fleeces and thick socks to ward of the chill we all gathered around the fire pit, only 30 minutes after the lamb had been buried to see what would emerge. Before long shovels were produced, the divots removed and the first steaming black potato's uncovered.

Potatoes of course owe their origins to this part of the world and the varieties to be seen in the markets of Cusco and at the shacks along the roadside are fascinating. Huge purple tubas the size of a melon next to tiny black or dark blue varieties show what an eclectic vegetable the potato is. Their flavours and textures vary too, from the earthy to the sweet, though colour doesn't seem to have a bearing on texture or taste. I wonder how we managed to make our every day potatoes so bland when there is such a rich variety to be found at their source.

Shortly after the potatoes the lamb was pulled from the ground and deposited on a nearby rock that served as a table. Hot and steaming, Jose demonstrated just how well cooked it was by pulling it apart before serving on our battered camp plates. As we gathered around the camp fire there was one ritual still to be performed, a toast to Christmas and the Gods with Pisco Sour as the liquor of choice. Pisco, a colourless, strong grape brandy with a squeeze of lemon juice to make it slightly more palatable. Down in one, and when the nose had stopped burning and the eyes watering it was time for the tenderest lamb.

Huge chunks of soft flesh exuding tantalising aromas sat on our plates. With the sky fully dark but a dazzling display of stars above, we pulled our hats over our ears and resorted to our fingers rather than cutlery to extract the best from the meat. It transpired that the Jose had been marinating the carcass twice a day since before the start of the expedition with his own blend of ingredients, so it was incredibly tender having absorbed the flavours of the herbs, garlic and chilli during its journey up and down the mountain.

The meat carried an unexpected depth of flavour, packing a small punch with some intense chilli. The crumbling purple flesh of the potato added earthy notes to the meal while the occasion and setting intensified our enjoyment. As we all wiped the grease from our faces Jose had one last trick up his sleeve. Jesus (pronounced in the Spanish way Hey-zuus), Jose's assistant emerged from his tent carrying a bundle of homemade fireworks. It seems Health and Safety has not arrived in the Cordillera Vilacabamba, as one by one Jesus held the rockets by their sticks as Jose lit the touch paper, only to hurl them in the air where after briefly fizzing about they exploded with booms that reverberated around the valley.

With only one horse bolting during the pyrotechnics, the meal and entertainment were considered a huge success by our considerably refreshed crew. So it was with much giggling, following more Pisco Sour's and with the smell of the best lamb in Peru on our fingers that we slipped unsteadily to our tents happy that the Inca Trail was waiting for us in the morning.

Hey wine waiter, leave that bottle alone

In my kitchen, at home, I am lucky enough to have a small wine fridge, it holds 12 bottles, though, with careful management a few more can be squeezed in. I am equally lucky to have a cellar in my house and while not large, alongside the broken bicycle and things I can't bring myself to throw away, it stores a small collection of interesting reds. At dinner parties, on a Friday or Saturday evening or come that rarest of things an English summer's day I enjoy sitting at my table sipping happily, having chosen something suitable to match the coming meal, considering the complexity or otherwise of the wine, geekily reading the label and scolding, or with luck congratulating myself on the fabulous choice I have made.

I like to do the same in a restaurant, especially when I could buy a pair of Jimmy Choos and a Mulberry handbag for the wife for the price of the restaurant bottle that I can buy in Waitrose for £7.99. It's not the mark up however that I object to. I understand there are overheads, staff costs, electricity, lighting and rent to be paid for, not forgetting the small matter of profit. I don't mind any of that. But if you are one of those establishments where the sommelier waves the bottle in front of my nose, makes a big deal of uncorking, or just as likely unscrewing the cap, offering me a taste and then whisking my bottle to some far corner of the room I will become extremely agitated. Leave the bottle on my table please.

I have filled up a wine glass on many occasions and while I appreciate it being done for me I don't always need the help of a professional, especially when the bottle will be despatched to the wilderness after each pour. There have been occasions when I know full well there is wine remaining in the bottle at the end of the meal, wine I will be paying for, wine that you are making difficult for me to drink. And of course I know I should just ask for it to stay on the table or walk over and get it, but I'm an English male of a certain age so feel uncomfortable causing a fuss. You don't remove my plate after every mouthful so don't remove my wine, let me read the label, let me wallow in my choice, let me pour my wine; please, leave it on my table.


12 July 2011

Henley Regatta & Festival June-July 2011

The very end of June every year sees the five day festival of rowing that is Henley Royal Regatta, followed a week later by Henley Festival of Music and Art. These two wonderfully diverse events constitute the pinnacle of the Henley season. One, with high class competitive action on the water, accompanied by astonishing bouts of gluttony and inebriation off it; the other boasts elegance, charm, music and art in a truly unique setting. The Festival too has its fair share of gluttony and inebriation, but somehow when it's middle class and in a black tie or evening dress it seems charming rather than offensive.

Thoughts about the food on offer at Henley Royal Regatta.

The Stewards Enclosure is the exclusive area reserved for members and their guests. It covers the last 300 metres or so of the rowing course, with immaculate lawns, bars and dining opportunities, all under acres of white canvas.

Taking up a good 100 metres on its own is the Stewards Luncheon & Tea tent. It must have capacity for well over 1,000 people and has two sittings for lunch every day of the 5 day Regatta, followed by 2 sittings for tea. In fact it would be quite easy never to leave the Luncheon tent! Unfortunately the catering and seating arrangements reflect the public school and university refectories where the majority of members spent their youths. Seated at enormously long benches, albeit ones with white linen, the service on the first day of the Regatta for our party of 6 was slow and disorganised while the food was disappointing. A dull terrine, unexceptional smoked salmon, overcooked cold roast beef and a paltry portion of strawberries & cream just didn't work. They all smacked of the mass catering kitchen they had come out of, which at £36 per head before wine, was underwhelming. Worse than this tap water was not offered and when asked for led to an unpleasant exchange in which the caterer insisted we couldn't have any. Of course we did in the end.

Another day and Fish & Chips from The Codfather, a mobile chippy parked a further 500 metres down river alongside Upper Thames Rowing Club, and very definitely outside any enclosure. Hot and crunchy, but no discernible evidence of fish in the batter. Still it had fine alcohol absorbing qualities. And talking of Upper Thames, the club made a valiant attempt to do something new this year to attract more rowers in to use the bars. This was a great idea executed badly, principally because the bars were badly stocked and run, while the beautiful new clubhouse was left empty. Upper Thames can do better than this and if it wants to profit from HRR should seriously examine its planning and operations.

While broadcasting on Regatta Radio there wasn't much time to eat, however I would like to mention the quality of the bacon baps at Cafe Regatta, incredibly welcome before a four hour stint of hangover laden commentary, and very well done.

The other catering facility that stands out for praise this year is in Remenham Club. Similar to the luncheon tent in the Stewards Enclosure but without so much of the pompousness, the caterers HH Clarke show how it should be done. A club for members of 7 of the metropolitan rowing clubs, Remenham has used Clarke's for many years and their experience shows, at just £32 per head. Duck Parfait, Braised Rump Steak and Lemon Posset all worked well, without betraying their origins in a tented kitchen. To cap it all, their wine list though necessarily short showed flare and imagination, especially an exceptional value Raoul Collet NV Champagne at £33 a bottle.

Henley Festival: has it fallen on the sword of populism?

Henley Festival is an awkward animal, a pushmepullyou of an event. Claiming on the one hand to bring world class music to Henley yet on the other giving into the blatantly commercial in order to turn a profit. Now in its 26th year the Festival started as a way of giving something back to the town after the hectic week of regatta. And to begin with it had the relaxed garden party atmosphere, accompanied by popular classics and reasonable prices that the town was looking for. As the festival grew so did the calibre of artist. Jose Carreras, Kiri te Kanawa, Willard White, Bryn Terfel & Nigel Kennedy have all performed from the stage built into the river. These artists are of course expensive to book so ticket prices have grown. As prices have risen more bars and catering outlets have appeared, none cheap and with this the charm has faded as the corporate sponsors have moved in. This year the Festival didn't even bother to pretend it was about classical music. Gone are the days of Beethoven recitals, Porgy & Bess and Vaughn Williams. Welcome Tom Jones, Jools Holland, Abba tribute and an X-factor winner (more of her later). As someone who has been going to the Festival for nigh on 20 years I find it sad that the organisers have succumbed to the overtly commercial and in doing so have become just another festival (albeit a posh one with black tie and a Roux Brothers restaurant).

The catering offering is now uniformly good. In the big tent deemed to be Cafe le Soir, 3 types of salmon, cold beef and lemon tart hit the right buttons, with the beef being exceptionally good even if the pastry in the tart had gone soggy. The best catering however is homemade, while the best part of the festival is being on the river. This is where it still has magic as hundreds of boats of all sizes and vintages moor up alongside one another to listen to the music, gossip and share food & wine prior to enjoying an exceptional firework display.

Back to the main stage. On the final day of the Festival I was invited to join one of the sponsors to see Rumer & Alexandra Burke. Unfortunately Rumer cried off with a sore throat to be replaced by Mica Paris. Always be wary of an artist who is available at the last minute. She has a great soul voice, with which she murdered Summertime prior to belting out her hit...My One Temptation from 1988. She was good in her own way but her set was entirely wrong for a crowd of middle class, middle aged, black tied, slightly pissed, Sunday night hedonists. I had the impression she was a bit desperate to please, as though she couldn't see where the next booking was coming from.

The X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke could and should be the British answer to Beyonce. If only she had the songs, she's certainly got the looks, the moves and the dancers. But performing to backing tapes is just wrong and continuing to ruin Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah should be made a criminal offence. The crowd seemed to love her but I got the feeling that far from being on her way to Beyonce like superstardom she is our next Mica Paris!

One small lunch in London

Amongst all this i found the time for lunch in Arbutus in Frith Street. Now well established and part of the group that runs Wild Honey and Les Deux Salons I was not particularly impressed. The food was Ok but no better than that, perhaps the winner being slow cooked lamb breast with minted spinach. Soft and falling apart, packed with flavour, a very good dish. However I wasn't thrilled. Go to Les Deux Salons its where all the energy and imagination seems to be.