Love your fish shop


The way I see it: if you’ve got a half decent fishmonger near you, you’re blessed with the opportunity to eat like a king. I’ve been pretty fortunate as the neighbourhoods I’ve called home have all had fish shops of some description, from the fairly decent Walter Purkis in Crouch End to the excellent Harts’s bi-weekly fish stall in Frome.

So I was really deflated when we moved to south Bristol and there was no fishmonger to be found nearby, despite a whole host of decent restaurants, bars, delis, butchers and bakers (no candlestick makers though, because we don’t have those anymore, do we?) along nearby North St.

And yet it turned out that wasn’t actually the case, for at almost the same time we moved to the city, The Fish Shop, a successful fishmongers based over on Gloucester Road, opened a second smaller shop (a ‘shopette’, if you will) just up the road from us. And so not only do I have a fishmonger once again, but it’s the best one yet!

What really elevates The North Street Fish Shop for me is the quality of the produce. I don’t mean it’s all swanky turbot, sole and halibut (indeed, you’re more likely to find pollack, squid and mackerel here), it’s just always so bloody fresh and inviting. In fact, what really caught my attention when I finally discovered the place is that it smells of the seaside. Not just fish, but of salt-crusted rock pools, sea air and sun-baked seaweed. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s very hard to resist.

And it gets better, as not only is the fish beautifully fresh and bountifully stocked, but proprietor Dan Stern is a consummate foodie who’s always able to recommend an alternative fish if you can’t find what you’re looking for, or the best cut for the dish you have in mind, or simply a good, easy-to-prepare recipe if you’re not sure what you want. This, for me, is really the key to buying fish.

I trained as a chef at 15 and have been cooking most of my life, but fish is still a challenge I’m a long way from mastering. I make the effort and push myself to get better at understanding and cooking it, but this is greatly aided by the help of a good fishmonger (and fish eater). A bit of cooking confidence with fish goes a long way.


For instance: I made ceviche for the first time recently, and despite all the recipes saying ‘use any white fish’ Dan was very particular about recommending me a fish that would give the best results (and the least chance of parasites – according to where and how the fish fed in the ocean, apparently). And when I made one of my favourite fish dishes, Vietnamese Cha-Ca, again he was keen to recommend just the right variety of white fish for the job (Pollack in this instance), insisting on tail end cuts to avoid bones.

The original Fish Shop opened on Gloucester Road in 2010. Dan wasn’t a fishmonger by trade, simply a businessman responding to a gap in the market. The learning curve was pretty severe at first, but ultimately he relies on quality and fair pricing to guide him. “I buy and sell what I would want to eat myself”, he says. “If I don’t rate the catch, I’ll send it back to the supplier.” As a small independent business, that’s not an attitude that’s going to ingratiate him with the old guard trade, but for consumers like me, it makes all the difference.

The majority of The Fish Shop’s wild stock is landed on the South Coast, from Newhaven down to Newlynn. They’re big advocates of MSC-certified fish and will buy this wherever possible. Sustainability is also important, so they stock many lesser known UK fish like sand sole, dabs and ling. Sustainability extends to farmed fish also, with MSC-approved Arctic char from Dorset and high quality GM-free Var salmon from the Faroe islands. I haven’t tried the salmon yet, but the char is lovely, with a very clean, trout-like flavour. “Ultimately”, Dan concludes, “I’d love to be in a position where shops like ours can buy mixed catches directly from smaller day boats without the risk of discards.” Unfortunately, he says, this is still a long way off.

So let’s hear it for our fishmongers. If you have any interest in eating good fish, there’s nothing that can beat their knowledge and passion when it comes to sourcing and selling the stuff. Get down to your local, ask questions, and expand your culinary horizons. Good fishmongers are the key to eating a better variety of sustainable fish and helping to raise the UK fishing standards. As consumers we hold some of the power in securing a better future for the our seas, and certainly our diets.

Oh, and if you want to try something a little different (but really easy to make), here’s a little video of how to make Hanoi Cha-Ca fish. It really is one of the nicest fish dishes I’ve had. Just remember the tail-end trick, it’s winner!

The Fish Shop, Bristol

<p><a href=”″>Cha-Ca Fish</a> from <a href=”″>William Thomas</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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Way Out East

© William Thomas 2015. No permissions granted.

Up above the fog (finally) in the Buda hills

Here’s a little break from Bristol-based foodery to share my festive feasting ‘out east’. This year we spent Christmas over at my partner’s parents’ place near Szarvas in a very unseasonably foggy southeast Hungary. And my word do they know how to eat over there.

The gorging actually started in Budapest’s Jewish quarter at Fricska, a ‘gastropub’ in the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter. Clearly the Hungarians have a very different definition of the term gastropub to us, as Fricska is a smart modern restaurant that serves an adept take on classic Hungarian dishes, aimed predominantly at tourists and well-healed locals. Korhelyleves (sauerkraut soup – known affectionately as ‘hangover soup’) was nicely refined, pitching the pickled cabbage tang against a deep, paprika richness aided further by a dumpling filled with wonderfully smoky salami. Seared duck liver was spot on too, as soft as butter, rich as sin and judiciously paired with slivers of poached quince.

A hearty piece of Hungary’s dark and fatty Mangalica pork loin was my main. Cooked very pink, this flavoursome meat was served on a bed of lecsó with plump potato dumplings. For all the heroic simplicity of the pork though, the lecsó let the dish down, forgoing the complex parprikary depths it usually has for a more restauranty ‘sweet pepper’ vibe. Roasted quail followed a similar pattern: the delicate bird seasoned and cooked beautifully, then let down by its accompanying arrangement of over sweet and under cooked root vegetables, adding little to the flavourful meat.

© William Thomas 2015. No permissions granted.

Mangalica pork loin at Fricska

Praise however must be given to Fricska’s homemade potato sourdough, a masterfully made bread – soft and springy, crusty and robust, full of flavour and readily replenished. The desserts were also notable, though I can’t really remember them as Fricska has an excellent selection of Hungarian wines by the glass, which rendered me very happy but somewhat befuddled by the third course.

But to hell with refinement and fussy presentation, that’s not what Hungarian cooking is all about to me. Like most cuisines (if we’re honest) the country’s food is best expressed in domestic kitchens across the land, where mums and grandmas cook for their loved ones. None more so than at my in-laws.

Wild duck with preserved sour cherries kicked off the festive feasting, all deep gamey richness and refreshing, perfumed fruit. Christmas Eve (which is when festivities come to a head in much of continental Europe) brought catfish (harcsa) cooked two ways: first as a sumptuously rich soup with that lovely blood-like texture only the Hungarians seem able to achieve (my guess is it’s an emulsion caused by shed loads of sweet paprika meeting a generously fat-enriched liquor), which served as a delicious vehicle for the meaty, somewhat earthy fish. Secondly, there was breaded and fried (in lard, naturally) slices of harcsa which we ate with a salad of potatoes, gherkins, red onions and sour cream. This was rustic country cooking at its finest: simple, unfussy and heart-warming.

On Christmas day there was Guinea fowl soup to kick things off (hats off to the Hungarian way of starting every meal with a consommé-esque soup. It’s clean, wholesome and satisfying without being over filling: the perfect ‘amuse bouche’). This one was light but deliciously meaty and paprikary, with a backnote of spice tempered by the soup pasta. And it was duck, once again, that made the star attraction on the festive table. Locally reared leg/thigh joints, marinated for 12 hours in orange juice, red wine and spices, well seasoned and cooked hot to render down the fat. This we served with spiced red cabbage and home-preserved quince. It was truly one of the most enjoyable Christmas meals I’ve eaten. No roasties, no sprouts, no parsnips, no stuffing, no gravy (and no paper hats!)… just a perfect plate of festive food. The marinade had penetrated right through to the bone, permeating the meat with its wintery aromas and helping it reach its blissfully tender state. The fat was crisp and sweetly golden, and those accompaniments! The earthy, fruity cabbage (my mother-in-law grates beetroot in, FTW) and the fragrant, medieval exoticness of the quince pushed and pulled the duck from one pole of tasty to another. A veritable plateful of heaven. Praise the lord indeed.

© William Thomas 2015. No permissions granted.

Christmas roast duck

Following a day of leftovers, we finished our stay with májas hurka, a big boiled pig-offal-and-rice sausage that’s like a cross between haggis and liverwurst, with fried unsmoked kolbász (sausage), recently made by my father-in-law. I have to say I prefer the peppery intensity and oaty moistness of Scottish haggis, but hurka is well worth trying if you’re in the country. Fresh kolbász are relatively rare, as most Hungarian sausages are smoked. They’re closer to a French saucisson than our own as Hungarians don’t go in for the water/rusk emulsion that gives our bangers their succulence. But oozing paprikary fat and subtly flavoured with caraway, these bad boys are a porky treat of the highest order, even if the combo was a tad heavy at 11 o’clock in the morning!

Other notable mentions from our Hungarian festive spread were the myriad cakes my mother-in-law prepared – my favourite being the traditional makós, a distinctive, burnished-brown roulade cake filled with poppy seeds. In addition there was the many home-pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables from my mother-in-law’s garden, including the aforementioned cherries and quince, plus the finest gherkins known to man, pruned plums and even preserved watermelon. And on top of this, of course, was the ever-present homemade plum schnapps (szilvapálinka). The first one may burn a little, but you soon get over that (usually by the second, and usually before breakfast if your NO isn’t sufficiently strong) but the pay-off is a backnote of sweet plum for the rest of the day…


Sky Kong Kong, Bristol

Sky Kong Kong, Bristol. © William Thomas. 2015

In an early episode of Knowing Me Knowing You, Alan Partridge hosts (well, co-hosts) his fictional chat show from Paris, where ‘controversial chef’ Philippe Lambert describes the Paris restaurant scene as a “big fat pig, endlessly regurgitating and consuming that which it eats, without discrimination, without taste, without joy…” while Alan absently picks over a plate of hors d’ouvres, pulling faces and showing little interest in the food or his guest.

It’s easy to sympathise with Philippe’s assessment looking at today’s restaurant scene. Everyone’s a foodie now. It takes no knowledge or discernment, just a credit card and an Instragram account. Which is fine I guess, it keeps the wheels turning, but perhaps it was a similar opinion to Philipe’s that led Sky Kong Kong’s proprietor Hwi Shim to leave behind the intensity of London’s restaurant scene and open her informal eatery just off the grungy Bear Pit roundabout in Bristol.

Sky Kong Kong is a cute little place, one that barely feels like a restaurant at all. Half the dining area is given over to what looks like an art school, while a long communal table fills the remaining space, leaving little room for the lone server to operate. Behind a bamboo roll blind, you can just make out chef Hwi beavering away in her tiny kitchen, happily working alone and keeping herself to herself. There are no menus, no drinks list (no drinks at all actually, it’s BYO) and no real indication that you’re in a restaurant, save for the shelves laden with jars of various kimchi.

But when the food arrives, it’s a bit of a revelation. Sky Kong Kong offers a daily-changing set meal with no choices. For a very reasonable £12.50, you get a starter and main to share, with dessert at a £2.50 supplement. The visually arresting tuna tartare balanced oily rich fish with the exotic tang of passion fruit on a pleasingly neutral canvass of rice tteok (a smooth Korean rice cake, a bit like fresh coconut in texture). The beetroot cake was an intriguing take on the earthy/sweet vegetable and held its own in the fish-fruit bout. The noodles were delicate and refreshing, but too cold and slight in portion to make an impression. And the three sauces mostly just adhered themselves to the plate.

Tuna tartare at Sky Kong Kong, Bristol. © William Thomas, 2015

The three-part main was basically an exercise in how to construct a truly great salad. The principle plate featured large pieces of marinated beef rib (cut from a decent sized joint that had been glazed in something soya-based and then roasted), all sweetly soft, juicy and heightened by the deep umami of the marinade. It sat among a complex salad that revealed something different with each turn. There were leaves, fruits (grapefruit, Korean pear, goji), mozzarella, more beetroot, more roasted tomatoes; there was a dressing, and underneath, a sauce. It was an absorbing, if seemingly cavalier, assembly.

Beef rib salad at Sky Kong Kong, Bristol. © William Thomas, 2015

On the side was a whole mackerel fillet, expertly seared to retain all of its deep fatty goodness under a seasoned golden crust. And then the most Korean element: a tray of garnishes, from dried anchovies and garlic stems to kimchi, pickled mushrooms and perilla leaves. Our server explained each element, but offered no guidance. You simply let your tastebuds guide you and worked out your own combinations. It was all interchangeable. The zingy, refreshing fruits cut through the fish, while the mozzarella and garlic stems created moments of moaning, eyes-shut bliss with the beef. Chucking the anchovies into the dressing meant there was excitement and complexity right down to the last morsel, especially when the mackerel skin was dredged in too. It was, all-in-all, a thoroughly engaging presentation of food, one that was clearly Korean at heart, but drew inspiration from many other places.

Seared mackerel at Sky Kong Kong, Bristol. © William Thomas, 2015

Sky Kong Kong offers the relatively intrepid diner a varied, artistically presented and fairly challenging meal, one that frequently takes you by surprise and requires a bit of effort to get the best from. It was a shame, then, that the other diners on the evening we went seemed to have gone principally for the chat, with food on the side. Now I don’t want to come across a massive snob, but come on, if you’re just getting together with friends for a catch-up, what’s wrong with a chain restaurant?  They offer reliability, consistency, a bit of elbow room and your own table. Sky Kong Kong is the polar opposite, you need to bring your interest and focus on the food. But as I sat wedged between a group of excitable thirty-somethings playing virtual top trumps with their travels and a pair of middle-aged divorcees tearing their exes to shreds, I began to loath the communal table. I guess we could have moved, but it would have looked so miserable, so I tried to put a brave face on things. That never works.

I don’t want this to turn into a rant, but here’s an idea: if you’re faced with a plate of food that challenges your expectations and offers some unfamiliar ingredients/combinations, why not listen to the person who’s taking the time to explain the to you? You’ll get so much more out of the food, and you might learn something. And if you do choose to just talk over her and ignore what she’s telling you, don’t then sit there asking ‘what’s this stuff?’ ‘is that pomegranate?’ or exclaiming ‘oh, I don’t really like fish’ and ‘beef with fruit?!’ as it might have a negative impact on your fellow diners’ enjoyment.

I just hope these people weren’t indicative of the usual diners at Sky Kong Kong, as maybe Hwi Shim will become as equally disillusioned with offering her unique style of cooking to Bristol as she did with the London restaurant scene.  I will definitely return, but I’ll show up late and choose my seat carefully.

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Extraordinary Viennoiserie


Farro Bakery – almond croissants, spiced buns, kouign-amann, canelés, pains au chocolat, Danishes.

I made a fantastic discovery on Sunday at my local weekly market (Tobacco Factory, 10am – 2pm): Farro, a Bristol bakery from Easton, run by an English chap called Bradley who specialises in making classic French patisserie.

Apologies to all my baker friends, but I’ve never seen pastry work quite so beautiful (as the picture above amply illustrates). From the classic croissants and pains au chocolat to the modern iterations like almond croissants and the cronut-esque ‘spiced buns’ (ribbons of laminated dough knotted, baked and dusted with sugar and spices), to regional French specialities like canelés de Bordeaux and Breton’s salty sweet kouign-amann, everything Bradley had on offer looked stunning. There was also Danishes, savoury tartlets and some very intriguing muscavado buns (not pictured).

I tried the pain aux chocolat and the spiced bun (but really I could, and probably should, have tried it all. It may have been my last day on earth, but what a way to go). Both were exquisite. The chocolate croissant was light, flaky, buttery sweet and with crisp layers of bittersweet dark chocolate (I didn’t re-heat it – too greedy – but did dunk into my coffee to melt the chocolate a bit). The spiced bun was heaven. Crisp and caramelised on the outside, light and airy inside, with layers of cinnamon-spiced sugar swirling throughout. Don’t ask how many calories. I didn’t.

I spoke to Bradley about his work and he explained how important he sees oven temperature in getting the bake just right, so the natural sugars in the flour and butter can caramelise on the outside and create the right balance between sweet crust and flaky interior. The guy’s got some serious talent and I can’t wait to try some more of his work. Definitely one to watch.


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The Chocolate Society

Alasdair with a tray of his raspberry bon-bons

Al Garnsworthy with a tray of his Raspberry Truffles

So far on this blog I’ve mostly focused on food that’s grown, reared or raised in and around Somerset. But as I’ve delved further into the food and drink of the West Country, I’ve come to realise that I’m missing a trick. As well as all the home-grown produce from this area, there are also some amazing things being made that, while not technically products of the West Country, are as much a part of Somerset’s food and drink scene as the home-grown stuff.

Recently I’ve met a number of young West Country food artisans who, despite using raw ingredients, techniques or recipes from overseas, are united not just by their location, but by their integrity. The more small producers I meet, the more I recognise the same passion for quality and the same rejection of the mass market in favour of small-scale, artisan craft. If it’s a trend that’s burgeoning, and one that perhaps underpins the future of Britain’s food culture, then the future looks rosy to me.

Take The Chocolate Society, for example. Based down near Wincanton in Somerset, but using a base ingredient produced in the Rhone Valley of France (and grown, harvested and processed near the Equator in Africa and Central America), they make chocolate confections that are some of the finest I have ever tried (and I’ve tried plenty).

Owned and run by brother Al and Duncan Garnsworthy, The Chocolate Society produces a range of innovative ‘fresh’ chocolates based around the quality and complexity of Valrhona couverture. Specialising in bon-bons, truffles, caramels, chocolate-coated fruit & nuts and solid bars, as well as a range of chocolate-coated honeycomb, the company creates blissfully indulgent and original products that put integrity and quality first. Eschewing preservatives and with a desire to keep  shelf life to a minimum in order to deliver an exquisite chocolate experience, TCS focus on the sensory interplay of tastes, textures and flavours over purely commercial confectionary considerations.

There’s something charming about The Chocolate Society’s story. When the Garnsworthy brothers bought the brand (the business had already been established for 20 years, but had fallen on hard times and was all but wiped out by the recession) they intended to outsource product manufacture and steer the company back to success through canny marketing. But the quality of the products they were getting back just wasn’t good enough to take the business where they wanted it to go, so the brothers, Alasdair in particular, set out to master the chocolatier’s art and see if they couldn’t do a better job themselves.

Deciding upon the excellent chocolate couverture from France’s Valrhona as their best raw material , Alasdair set off to the Rhône Valley to be trained by the company’s esteemed chocolate makers in the art of the chocolatier. Back in the UK, the brothers found empty premises in a old cheese factory near Wincanton, then, through a mixture of financial necessity and a desire to do things properly, they acquired some vintage chocolate making kit, including a pair of old French tempering machines, a mechanical Easter egg centrifuge and, most impressively of all, an enormous Sollich enrobing and drying table from Germany.

And so, by concentrating their efforts on getting the fundamentals right, and with their know-how and ambition in place, The Chocolate Society are exactly where they want to be: free to experiment and create world class confections. And create they do…

When I went to visit, I was taken through a tasting of TCS’s finest efforts by Al. I’m no chocolate novice, but I was blown away by what I tasted. Their gorgeous chocolate-coated honeycomb, which they market under the name Hokey Pokey, might sound a bit ‘familiar’, but in this instance it’s a classic combination taken to its most sophisticated conclusion. I love any confection that takes a childhood favourite – here, a Cadbury’s Crunchie – and gives it a grown-up, gastronomic spin. There’s no fierce sugary burn here, nor any of that sticky, filling-inducing honeycomb ‘clag’, just gorgeous, lightly-brittle golden nuggets (made with actual honey unlike most honeycomb) double enrobed in lusciously rich chocolate.

The Chocolate Society's beautiful Liquid Salt Caramels

The Chocolate Society’s beautiful Liquid Salt Caramels

Other goodies I tried included their fabulous Liquid Salt Caramels. These are mini works of art, and I could see the gleeful pride in Alasdair’s face as I tasted them. The Chocolate Society have really nailed this one, pairing the most gorgeous not-too-runny-but-not-too-gooey caramel with just the right amount of sea salt to elevate and round out the flavours of the other ingredients. All this inside perfectly pitched 62% cocoa dark chocolate couverture that crisply breaks to release the caramel, then slowly melts to provide a kind of three stage journey of sweet delirium: bittersweet cocoa, salty-sweet caramel and a long sumptuous melt of the chocolate’s deeper complexities. Lovely.

And then it got even better. After the salted caramel Alasdair brought out his ganache bon-bons, understated-looking squares that conceal layers of softly tempered praline ganache inside thick, rich chocolate. The one that really blew me away was a combination of Japanese yuzu fruit and hazelnut praline. The interplay of the yuzu’s citrus flavours and the praline’s roasted nutty ones spun a merry dance with my taste memory banks – and I’m really not exaggerating when I say that eating it was one of my most memorable food moments. A box of these in the house would be lethal (but much appreciated! ;- ).

Which all gets me thinking. While I don’t begrudge the modern have-a-go foodie empowerment pushed by the likes of BBC’s Great British Bake Off and its ilk, I do believe the over-blown hoopla these shows promote, that cooking is all about getting stuck in, buying kit, one-upmanship, buzz ingredients and foodie bling, is amiss. It takes time to learn to create beautiful food and requires dedication alongside lots of trial and error. So let’s not forget the artisans, those people who hone their craft day in and day out. Their passion and drive can produce delights far beyond the best of our abilities, so I think it’s worth stopping every once in a while to appreciate just how much pleasure properly made, judicially crafted food and drink can be. I just count my blessings so much of it is made on my doorstep.

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Kimber’s Farm Beef Bhuna

Beef bhuna ©William Thomas 2013Regular readers will probably be aware of my love for Stourhead Farm meat (most of which is reared in and around the magnificent 2,650 acre estate) as I mention it in every other post. But the real beauty of living out west is I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to buying local, top quality meat. So this time I’d like to celebrate my ‘second’ favourite meat supplier – Kimber’s Farm in nearby Charlton Musgrove, who thankfully come to Frome farmers’ market once a month and allow me to stock up.

Kimber’s Farm is an old school mixed stock farm dating back 300 years. They’re based in the Blackmore Vale near Wincanton, and the farm is still run today by the Kimber family, who are very proud of their husbandry skills and animal welfare practices. They rear traditional varieties of beef, veal, lamb and pork, as well as a whole range of poultry (including cockerels and turkey). AND they make their own Gloucester Old Spot charcuterie, which is bloody lovely.

On Kimber’s last visit to Frome, I picked up a raft of goodies, including half a turkey (pre jointed and packed – a genius idea for stocking up the freezer), some of their salami, and two humungous slabs of Aberdeen Angus beef shin. My original intention for these was to keep them on hand and make a big hearty West Country ossobucco-style ragù, but this weekend I defrosted them, took one whiff of their deep beefiness, and decided to make a curry instead. As a firm believer in big flavours, I wanted to see if curry spices could be amplified by the gelatinous, marrow-rich hunks of meat you get from slow-cooking good beef shin.

I opted for a Kerala Ka Bhuna Gosht recipe from curry queen Madhur Jaffrey. Although the recipe was for lamb, it appealed to me because it uses a lot of whole spices, I already had most of the ingredients and the recipe was pretty easy. I don’t want to reprint the recipe here, but basically it’s a very straightforward curry, based on an onion, ginger, garlic, tomato and curry leaf sauce, and deeply flavoured with a dry masala of ground whole cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, mustard seed and dried chilli. The two pieces of shin went into all this and cooked ‘low and slow’ for around 4 hours. Then I left it overnight to steep and for the flavours to come together.

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With so many flavours going on in this dish, not to mention the deep gelatinous richness of the meat, there was a danger of it being all too much. Indeed, when I first tasted the dish, after about two hours cooking, the spices tasted overly pronounced and quite bitter, especially the coriander and fenugreek. But I needn’t have worried, like most good stews, time worked its magic and when I investigated again, once cooked and cooled, the flavours had mellowed and deepened, and all I had to do was break up the meat a little, remove the outer skin and central bone, and skim some off the excess fat.

This is a pretty majestic dish. Deeply rich, warming, exotic, fragrant and comforting… a powerhouse of spicy, meaty pleasure. And really simple too. Preparation time was about ten minutes, the rest was just letting it cook. As with all dishes, but especially the simplest ones, quality of ingredients is key. Using whole spices instead of pre-ground gives an unmatched depth of aroma, and don’t skimp on either the ginger or garlic. But it was the beef, ultimately, that provided the perfect foil for the spices, enveloping them and tempering the pungency in its gelatinous, marrow-rich mellowness. Damn, I wish I hadn’t eaten it all so quickly now…

Madhur Jaffrey’s website
Kimber’s Farm
Information about shin of beef

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My cherry amour

duck legs

I wanted to share this recipe after picking up some rather nice looking duck legs at Stourhead recently. This is one of my ‘old favourites’, a go-to dish that never lets me down and produces fantastic results for the minimum of effort. (It also features quite a ‘cheffy’ sauce that always impresses and hints at much more effort than is actually required, thus making it a great date dish!).

I don’t want to big this up too much, as it is essentially just duck and cherries, that old, über-unfashionable 70’s dinner party classic. But you know what? Who cares about food fashion. It’s a dish that works time and time again. It’s also a classic combination and is effortlessly amenable to whatever personal adjustments you want to make. Experiment all you like.

In essence, this is a recipe that found me, rather than vice versa. Years ago back in London I picked up some duck legs at a impossible-to-refuse price. Having never cooked with them before, I decided to bake them with a little red wine in a lidded crock pot and see what happened. But then we were invited out for dinner, so I switched off the oven and left the duck for the next day.

What I found awaiting me when I took the (now cooled) pot out of the oven were two beautifully, confit-soft duck legs, one rich stock and a whole load of fat. So I poured off the fat, made a sauce with the cooking juices and some sour cherries, and discovered one of the easiest, loveliest dishes in my repetoire. And because I’m such a big-hearted lug, I’m now sharing it with you. Enjoy!


– serves two, scale up as required
– this dish needs slow cooking. if haven’t got time, forget it and use duck breasts instead.

Two duck legs
1 tin of sour or Morello cherries
Red wine (try a richer Cru Beaujolais or a good Italian Sangiovese*)
Orange zest
Sherry vinegar

• Find a good fitting casserole dish or crock pot for however many duck legs you’re using. Crammed together is better than floating around.

• Empty the juice from the cherries over the legs, then pour over enough wine to half/two-thirds cover. Season, and add some strips of orange zest and a couple of star anise ‘flowers’.

• Bake in the oven, with the lid on, for around three hours at 110 degrees. Leave to cool.

• Strain the liquid from the duck into a small saucepan, and once settled, skim off the fat. There’ll be plenty.

• Heat the oven to 200 degrees, and place the duck legs on a racked tray. Meanwhile, empty the cherries into the skimmed cooking liquor, add a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of sherry vinegar and a good glug more wine.

• Reduce by two thirds or until you have lovely glossy spoon-coating rich cherry sauce. Check the flavour and adjust to find the perfect balance between sweet, tangy, deep and aromatic.

• Pop the duck legs bag in the hot oven for five(isn) minutes, just to heat through and crisp up the skin. Served dressed with the sauce, accompanied with mash and spinach. Kinda like this:

cherry duck

* If you really want to make this a special meal, my top tip wine match recommendation would be this INCREDIBLE old-vine Fleurie from specialist Beaujolais importer Beaujolais & Beyond. Alternatively, for less money, this beautiful Chénas would be an amazing partner also.

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The Thoughtful Bread Co.


I first came across The Thoughtful Bread Company when we moved to Frome. Two cafés here carry their loaves, but it was their exceptional flatbreads that initially caught my attention. Served with homemade hummus and salad at the Stardust café on Stony Street, these soft, garlic and chilli encrusted beauties are a real slice of (well, ok, ‘discs of’) artisan bread heaven.

Amongst the myriad craft bakeries that have popped up around the county in the past five years, the Thoughtful Bread Company really stands out as something a bit different. While I admired the company for the quality of its products, I didn’t really appreciate just how different they are until I visited their stall at Green Park Station in Bath and met up with founder Duncan Glendinning. TBC are head and shoulders above most bakeries in terms of the quality of their wares, their integrity and their desire to walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to business ethics.

Good bread aside (and let’s me clear, TBC make seriously good bread), The Thoughtful Bread Company put sustainability both at the heart of their business philosophy as well as their day-to-day operations. While sustainability is a term bandied about by every company today under the guilty guise of ‘corporate responsibility’, for the Thoughtful Bread Co it’s a different thing entirely. Indeed, it is the very foundation of the business.

The Thoughtful Bread Co started back in 2009, after Duncan met Patrick Ryan while out working on an eco-tourism project in Fiji. Looking for something to get his teeth into back home, Duncan realised just how perfect and universal a foodstuff bread is. Simple, nutritious, widely appealing and with a touch of alchemy, bread is the king of the table – and made from just four humble ingredients. This purity was the eureka moment for Duncan, who set about starting a business on his own terms, one that would be both for the community and of the community, one based on hard work, openness and fairness, not huge bank loans and aggressive business strategies.

Not that any of that matters if the product is crap, of course. But luckily Duncan’s passion and vision and Patrick’s talents as a chef dovetailed to enable them to create a bakery that consistently produces top-quality, award-winning artisan breads and baked goods. From classic crackly sourdoughs and sandwich loaves to funky beetroot breads and beautifully authentic pastries (Duncan is half French, so knows a thing or two about the use of butter!), the Thoughtful Bread Co use the best locally-grown organic flours and as many wild ingredients as they can forage from nature’s larder to craft their goods. And in doing so they have amassed a pretty unique array of delights (see those Garibaldi biscuits below, front and centre? Exactly).

TBCcakesBut it’s not just the products that separate the Thoughtful Bread Co from the pack, it’s the little details too. For instance, they offer a bartering system at their stall, so if you take them a bag of freshly foraged wild garlic or some homegrown veggies from your garden, they’ll swap them for bread (or cakes). They’ll then turn your offering into something delicious to sell, such as their ludicrously tasty wild garlic pesto or one of their lovely calzone wraps. While that may sound a little cute, I assure you it’s not. I saw it in action and it was very impressive indeed – and totally genuine. It was a glimpse of what the future could be: handmade, locally-produced goods, crafted, shared and enjoyed within the spirit of community. Well, here’s hoping.

Thoughtful Bread Company website
Good piece on TBC’s origins
Cheeky video about the Bread Revolution book

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West Country marmalade

Whisky marmalade and Westcombe ricotta on toasted homemade sourdough. Get in.

Whisky marmalade and Westcombe ricotta on toasted homemade sourdough. Get in.

Ok, the title’s a bit of a stretch as there’s nothing particularly West Country about this marmalade. The fruit’s Spanish, the sugar’s from the Caribbean, and I used Sarah Raven’s recipe, who’s based in East Sussex. But I did at least jazz it up with whisky from the Isle of Jura, one of Scotland’s westerly islands, so I guess the ‘West Country’ tag does kind of apply. And I bought the Seville oranges from Frome Wholefoods, whose owner, Sheila, recommended this particular recipe to me.

This is my third year making marmalade. The first year I followed Delia’s recipe (good enough for my mum, good enough for me), which turned out beautifully, but was a bit of a faff (as her recipes usually are). Last year I went with Dan Lepard’s method, which again yielded a great preserve, but with much the same level of faff. I’d pretty much resigned myself to the fact that if you want top quality marmalade (and I do) you’re going to have to faff about a bit. Which is why I was immediately attracted to Sarah Raven’s recipe when I read it. There’s considerably less effort.

Basically, marmalade recipes fall into two camps. You either halve and juice the oranges at the start, collecting the pith and pips in a muslin parcel to simmer with the fruit, or – as with Mrs Raven’s version – you cook the oranges whole, then scoop out and chop the fruit once they’re cooked, boiling the pith and pips down separately and recombining the pectin-rich jelly later on. If you’ve never made marmalade before, let me tell you that this is a far easier, and quicker, method.

Here’s what I did (recipe based on Sarah Raven’s, from her website):


1.5 kilos organic Seville oranges
2.75 kilos organic golden caster sugar
2.8 litres water
4 lemons

• Wash the oranges and place them in a large lidded pan big enough to hold them and the water comfortably.
• Add 2.5 litres of the water and bring slowly to the boil, simmering the oranges gently for one hour. Now turn off the heat and leave to cool.
• When cool enough to handle (leave it overnight if you like), halve the oranges and scoop out the pith and pips with a spoon into another, smaller saucepan. Add the remaining 300ml of water to this pan, as well as the lemons, chopped into eight pieces.
• Put the pith, pips and lemons onto boil, and simmer very gently for around 30 mins, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing sticks on the bottom.
• Meanwhile, chop or slice your orange peel halves into your desired thickness. I cut the halves in half lengthways, then slice them across into medium thick slivers. Place the peel back into the cooking water and slowly pour in the sugar.
• Next you want to strain the pith, pips and lemon mush into the proto-marmalade. First of all however, it wants to be cooked down as much as possible, so that all the pith has dissolved and all the pectin has been extracted from the pips.
• Strain the mush through a fine metal sieve into the fruit, water and sugar mix, using a wooden spoon to mash the fruit though and scraping all the pectin-rich jelly from the underside as you go. Keep mashing and scraping until you’re confident you’ve got as much of the pectin out as possible.
• Now place the pan back on the heat and bring slowly to the boil, gently stirring the whole time to dissolve all the sugar.
• When you’re absolutely sure all the sugar is dissolved, crank the heat up and boil your marmalade vigorously until it reaches the setting point, that mystical state that those of us who choose not to use a sugar thermometer must somehow attain through frozen saucers and steamed up windows (see the links below).
• When you’ve finally reached that crinkly skinned nirvana of setness, ladle your marmalade into sterilised jars, to which, if you’re feeling fruity, you’ve added a cheeky glug of whisky. Screw on the lids immediately and allow to fully cool, whereby you should have around 15 airtight, perfect sealed jars of magnificent Seville orange marmalade. Amen to that.

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So, what makes this a West Country marmalade? Well, apart from the fairly tenuous connections I listed at the start, it’s all in the serving. Here’s the thing with making your own marmalade: you don’t want to mess around when it comes to eating it. Are you just going to spread it on some sweaty slices of toasted Warburtons? Don’t be daft. You want to match the quality of your preserve. Use the finest bread you can (that’s homemade wholemeal sourdough if you’re asking me). And if you really want to make this a gastronomic event, go one step further. Get some quality farmhouse ricotta cheese (Westcombe Dairy’s full-flavoured Somerset ricotta is my pick) pile that on your wholemeal toast, and anoint it with your fridge-cold, mouth-tingling marmalade. It’s like a wholesome breakfast cheesecake, all crunchy crackling toast, lactic dairy softness and tangy orange glory. If there’s a better way to start the day, well, it ought to come with a warning.

Sarah Raven’s original recipe
Dan Lepard’s insightful and myth-dispelling marmalade advice
Delia’s classic recipe, with info on timings, setting points, jar sterilising, etc

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Serious sausages

20130306-224109.jpgFunnily enough, my recent foray into sausage-making has absolutely nothing to do with the horse meat ‘scandal’. In truth, I was just feeling curious and liked the idea of trying to make my own. I’m also keen to experiment with making my own salami, and I read somewhere that you shouldn’t try that until you’ve mastered making fresh sausages.

But having bought a ‘classic no.5’ Weschenfelder meat grinder just as the shit-storm around the European processed food chain hit the fan, it reinforced what I’ve long believed: industrialised food is a travesty. And as a big fan of minced meat dishes – from sausages and burgers to salamis and ragùs – I felt a calling to explore the realm even further, using the exceptional quality meat available here in the West Country.

Any regular reader of this blog won’t be too surprised to hear that when it came to sourcing the pork for my sausages, I went straight to Stourhead Farm Shop, that bastion of quality British meat. I’d done some research and decided on 1 kilo of pork shoulder (lovely flavoursome meat with a good ratio of fat) to 500g of pork belly (again, big on flavour, even bigger on fat).

Now, here’s the interesting bit (really). Despite what you might think, you actually do need to add water and breadcrumbs to sausages. While every instinct cries out to omit these nasty ‘filler’ additives, without these two vital ingredients, you just can’t make a British banger. Breadcrumbs (or rusk, which is basically yeast free breadcrumb) and water are what makes a banger a banger. They help to bind and emulsify with the pork’s fat, creating a perfect structure for holding and delivering the flavours of the seasoned meat and giving a beautifully succulent texture.

You need around 10% of the weight of your sausage meat in both water and breadcrumb/rusk. Some recipes call for a lot more, but let’s not go crazy. Quantities or percentages of seasoning are a little trickier. Most recipes hover around the 1-3% mark, but I think you want to let instinct guide you here. Salt is good, herbs are good, spices are good, garlic is good… They all do wonderful things when combined with pork, so feel your way and go with what seems right. The beauty is, you can always fry off some of your seasoned meat before stuffing your sausages, and adjust the seasoning to suit afterwards.


– makes around 18 – 20 sausages (depending on how much you fill them and how big/small you make each one!)

1 kilo pork shoulder
500g pork belly
(bones and skin removed, chopped into 2cm cubes and well chilled)
150g cold water
150g breadcrumbs or rusk (top tip: blitzed Carr’s water biscuits make excellent rusk)
2 heaped tsp sea salt
2 heaped tsp dried sage
3 garlic cloves
1 heaped tsp herbs de Provence
1 tsp blade mace

• Once the meat is chopped and well chilled, mince it through the grinder on the large plate. It’s vital the meat is very cold when you mince it, to ensure the fat cuts properly. If the meat is too warm, the fat will simply smear through the blades instead of being chopped/ground.
• Add the seasonings to the meat, then the breadcrumb/rusk, mix through, then add the water. Stir vigorously until well combined and the fat emulsifies and binds throughout, showing a white film of myosin across the surface.
• Place the mixture back in the fridge (or even the freezer) and change the plate on the mincer for the smaller one.
• When the sausage meat is very well chilled (don’t freeze it!), mince the whole lot through the grinder once again. Top tip: take the first chunk of newly minced filling out and return it to your mix – the mincer’s chamber will hold some of the previously minced batch.
• Fry off a small patty of your sausage meat to check the seasoning. Correct as you see fit, then shire your sausage casings on to the stuffings nozzle.
• Remove the plates and blade from the grinder (actually I put the large plate back in for this part, just to keep a direction of the flow), then place your ‘shired’ sausage nozzle on and fill your sausages. Trial and error and a video is the best way to understand this part. See links below.
• Here’s a slideshow of the meat grinding process…

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Sausage making kit
Very useful sausage making advice
Mildly helpful video (funny too!)

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