Sunday, 30 June 2013
In the festival spirit (and because it is that time of year in Norfolk) we spent the morning in the hedgerow foraging for elderflowers. To reach the lofty, dinner-plate sized ones we had the added bonus of my dad, who you could say was the human equivalent of a cherry-picker. We divided the haul of foamy flowers; half went into making a cordial (for which the recipe is here) and the other half was destined for our pudding: elderflower panna cotta.
What emerged after the setting stage resembled something you might encounter in the murky fathoms of a frozen Siberian lake or the farthest reaches of space. This is because I didn’t have any ramekins... Appearance aside, it was Jagger-smooth, fragrant and nursery-food comforting, backed by its band of sweetened mashed strawberries and slices of yellow peach. When it’s not quite warm enough for ice cream, this is rock and roll, with extra flower-power.
Elderflower Panna Cotta
10 dry elderflower heads (choose the perfectly creamy, open ones – and ABOVE waist height for obvious reasons)
1 large pot (600ml) Double Cream
300ml natural Greek yoghurt
2 tablespoons caster sugar (or to taste)
Shake off any stubborn residents from the elderflowers and place them flora-down in a bowl (there will be smaller bugs within but these can be strained out later). Avoid rinsing them as this will lose flavour.
Heat the cream and sugar in a pan until the granules have dissolved and the cream is just starting to scald. Pour the warm cream mixture over the elderflower heads and cover the bowl with cling film, then go and do something else for a couple of hours (like, say, watch Laura Robson battling through to the next round at Wimbledon)…
Strain the cream mixture through a j cloth and sieve into a clean measuring jug. Whisk in the yoghurt so that the liquid makes a pint. Follow the instructions on the gelatine packet for a pint of liquid (mine was four sheets), soaking the leaves in water for a few minutes. Meanwhile, gently heat the cream mixture in a saucepan until warm. Squeeze out the gelatine leaves and stir into the cream until dissolved. If any bubbles have formed, you can tap these out now.
Line your ramekins or container with clingfilm and pour in the cooling mixture. Refrigerate for a couple of hours until set. Turn out onto a plate and slice if necessary.
PS: there were all kinds of analogies swimming around my head about elders and betters while I was writing this post - dads and Rolling Stones and all that - but for some reason none of them caught. Suggestions on a postcard please…
Monday, 10 June 2013
By its name it could be an age-old London song, an ancient boozer or a character in a lost Dickens novel; Bird of Smithfield sounds like it’s been around for a while. Conversely it hasn’t, and by some fluke the BSG and I have paid it a visit during its first few weeks. We’ve even beaten the website – we feel a little bit cool. Usually, we’re a couple of years down the waiting list.
I love this part of London, where ex-Ivy chef Alan Bird has chosen to make his nest: not wholly inhabited, primarily a working place with a market’s heartbeat. Strangely enough, my first job after university was in the building next door and I spent many happy fag breaks leaning against these windows, gazing at the market across the road. I think this used to be a pub, its façade now spruced with paint, the old carcass expertly crafted into a townhouse furnished with pieces of mid-century furniture, carefully considered artwork and repeats of a lattice pattern seen on the website that I very much hope is a deliberate reflection of the giant honeycomb glass-brick wall on the side of the market building opposite. (If it isn’t, it’s what my school art teacher would coin a ‘happy accident’.)
I suppose it’s like visiting parents with a new baby, when is it too early? Don’t you want to give them a bit of time to figure out which end does what, settle into a routine together, find time to wash their hair? This place has had a dodgy review in the press and perhaps this is - back to the baby analogy again - down to a few teething problems with the staff. We did notice a couple of moments. However, with 5 floors to stretch themselves between, each one with a unique feel, it’s bound to take time.
We’d stopped in the bar downstairs and had a cocktail – plus of course a snack, hot, battered chunks of perfectly cooked cod with homemade tartare sauce: delicious. As is our wont, we’d studied the menu in depth for a few days prior yet were still unsure what to order. We climbed the stairs to the small dining room with our charming host as if we were looking around her very stylish townhouse. The small roof terrace above us clinked, a gaggle chasing the last of the suns rare rays with rose.
In a rare role reversal, the BSG uncharacteristically plumped for a starter of crisp soused vegetables with a crispy hen’s egg, while I tucked into crumbed pork cheeks with green sauce – all of which garnered enthusiastic thumbs up and much humming with mouths full. His plate was as prettier than anything I have seen recently. I ought to mention, too, the warm sourdough loaf with nursery yellow butter I managed to devour most of. The BSG showed rare reserve; he ate rather like a bird on this occasion - me, more like a horse.
The natural order of things was restored with the mains (and my glutton’s guilt allayed); the freshest slip soles with sweet brown shrimp, cucumber and sea beets for me, pork belly with turnips, apples and watercress for the BSG. Mine was a true taste of all the best bits of the sea; sweet, salty, with lemon and pepper notes plus a light hint of mace. The BSG’s pork belly was deep, savoury and perfectly foiled by the turnips. Gilding the lily perhaps, we asked for triple cooked chips and creamed spinach on the side, the unwashed spinach being the only let down.
The list of desserts read like a roll-call of favourites. I couldn’t resist the call of the rhubarb trifle with Bird’s custard, as much for the chef’s wit as anything else. It was everything trifle should be: a cinch to eat; soft, sweet- sour on different sides of the tongue with the added bonus of crunchy praline almonds on top. By comparison, the BSG felt a little disappointed by his plum Bakewell Tart, but by this stage I was happy to share.
In twitching terms, our fellow diners were of the common corporate variety, but the BSG and I felt that with time this place will become a stronghold for a variety of species; foodies, friends, as well as rare fourth daters in the mood for something low-key and special. Chef Bird’s food is on song, in our humble opinion.