Friday, March 26, 2010

My kind of food book

This stood out among the stacks of hardbacks currently dominating the front room (see Wednesday's post). If you can't read the small type in the photo, it's 'a guide to the edible plants of Britain'. I didn't need to do much actual foraging to get my hands on it; it arrived via DHL this morning. But I picked it up at three and have barely set it down since.

True, it's too heavy for a day out in the backpack – and in any case, the black and white pics aren't the greatest aid to identification. But there's plenty to admire about Miles Irving's book.

It's crisply ordered, by subdivisions of the plant kingdom (so no longer must enthusiasts of the dicotyledon plough aimlessly through a text in pursuit of their quarry). The practicalities you need – where to forage and when, and advice on those plants that might, in fact, kill you – are well presented. The trivia is fascinating. And, every few pages, a chef pitches in with a relevant recipe.

But what I like about it most is its inclusivity. I'm surrounded by glossy titles as I write this; as you'd expect, there are a fair few on the Hale and Hearty bookshelves, too. But there are only four or five cookbooks I use regularly. They don't tend to demand one-off, hard-to-find fresh ingredients that have no second life in the store cupboard, and (a pet hate, this) the methods don't require me to have the product of another recipe – for, say, a complex mussaman curry paste – in reserve. But finding and picking wild plants? Anyone can do it.

And they do. In his foreword, Mark Hix recalls going out to pick blackberries for his grandmother's pies. We all have memories like that. One of mine is eating beech nuts on country walks with my dad; one day I'll do the same with baby Frank. Irving's guide applies this sentiment to the broadest canvas. It's inspirational, rather than wishy-washy aspirational. The Ebury Press RRP is £30, but needless to say it's discounted here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Feed me now

The parlour chez Hale and Hearty is a little cluttered right now, and it's not entirely due to the recent arrival of baby Frank. Emma is coordinating this year's Guild Of Food Writers awards, which means she receives a copy of the relevant materials for every entry – including the submissions for the three best book categories.

It's a weighty survey of the good, the bad and – despite the best efforts of the airbrushers – the ugly of culinary publishing from 2009. And, two days after the first courier arrived, it's taking over the floor. Frank's carry cot is in danger of being walled in.

That's not to say he wouldn't appreciate the sentiment behind some of the titles in his infant eyeline – not least the latest from perma-grinning Aussie Bill Granger, five down from the top. I guess sometimes we can all get on board with that one. Me? I've got an eye on Laura Mason's Good Old-Fashioned Roasts. Even Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights can't compete with that.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Abode with me, and other stories

The baby is due on Sunday, so I've been doing my own personal variant on nesting. This involves waddling about doing all the food-based activities I can, just in case the little fella doesn't like going to restaurants.

Yesterday began with a vigorous judging session for the Northern Hospitality Awards, in the company of guidemeister Peter Harden, chef John Benson-Smith and Peter Banks, the MD at Rudding Park. There tends to be something refreshingly no-nonsense about panels that comprise chefs as well as industry observers, and we exchanged a few low-level profanities as we worked our way through a huge pile of entrants for our allocated award. I emitted a swear when Mr H aired his theory about cooking in the east of the country being far superior to cooking in the west, but I quite enjoyed his unique calling card - he gives copies of Harden's away instead of business cards - and his use of the term 'old cove'.

Then, in case they call off the Amazing Graze offer between now and June and mindful of the fact that the Chester hotel opens soon, it was straight to Abode for the twelve quid lunch, beloved of anyone who has a pulse, a palate and pockets with averagely deep bottoms. The things we expected to be good - the excellent bread basket, the food generally and the fish in particular - still are. Chef Ian Matfin is very good at what he does, and the slow-poached salmon with watercress puree and chopped duck egg was really lovely, a sophisticated but not clever-clever take on an egg and cress sandwich - and I say that as someone who hates an egg and cress sandwich almost as much as she hates a banana. Mum's guinea fowl dish was pretty strong too, as was a simple boudin of chicken served with a herb puree and a couple of wild mushrooms.

But. I don't mind the restaurant being in the basement, I don't mind the crappy, cheap looking logo that cunningly combines an M with an @ symbol (Michael Caines at Abode, innit?), but I do mind the service. For a team that have been in place long enough for me to recognise most of them, they're still, with one or two exceptions, incredibly stilted and cackhanded and seem hidebound by procedure ("two for lunch and you haven't booked? Let me check with chef despite the fact that the restaurant is almost empty") while not able to follow basic bits of it, like having someone at the desk. Grrr.

A few hours' break and it was on to Dilli. I have always held its Ayurvedic principles, or perhaps the way various PRs have gone on about them, against it, but I bloody love its potato cakes, with their herby green insides and swirly dressings of tamarind, chilli and yoghurt. We also had an extraordinarily light spinach curry, some seafood in a rich, yellow coconutty sauce, and a classy variation on a lamb bhuna. You can see the kitchen from a few of the seats, and I began to feel that with naan like theirs, I could happily go into labour without another dinner. Then I remembered that there are a few other places I want to get done before Sunday, baby permitting. Watch this space for either outcome, kids.