Posts Tagged ‘food’

Far too often, eating out is a lottery. Get it right, and the occasion is a delight and something to celebrate. Get it wrong, and an attack of the glooms is eclipsed only by the uncomfortable feelings around the middle (and the purse).

Geoff and I have learnt over the years not to have very high expectations. Too many times it’s been a case of ‘Well, that was OK, but I wouldn’t rush back.’ It isn’t that we have impossible standards – frankly, the kitchens at Hill Towers don’t exactly twinkle with Michelin stars – but we do like the basics of a warm welcome, an interesting menu and attentive service when we go out.

(Note to all waiting staff the length and breadth of the land: attentive service does not mean pointlessly chanting ‘Enjoy!’ every time you plonk a plate of food down in front of a customer. It makes a lot of people shudder with supressed anger and knot their ankles for fear of springing up, grabbing your lapels and nutting you. OK, slight exaggeration, but boy it is annoying and I refuse to believe you’d lose your job if you didn’t say it. Incidentally, do we think this habit was imported from America?)

I am really happy to say that since the weekend, our expectations have been raised several notches, thanks to an experience at a pub that could not be faulted in any way.

We met up with our son and daughter-in-law and two small grand-daughters, aged five and two-and-a-half, at a midway point between our respective homes. Now I know that having little ones in tow in a restaurant doesn’t always bode well for anyone, whether it’s us, other diners or even the children themselves, for whom sitting, conversing with ancients and eating a meal probably wouldn’t be their number one choice of activity.

With this in mind, I called the pub a few days before to book a table for six, requesting a high chair for Clemmie and suggesting they might like to put us somewhere not too close to others, in case they were not amenable to ankle-biters.

I need not have worried, because in fact the girls behaved impeccably, absorbed by our company and the treasures of the moment they’d brought from home as well as by the puzzles and books provided by the pub.

What was disruptive, though, were the two dogs that barged their way past us to the next table where their owners let them toss around the soft toys that the landlord and his family had put in a box for children to play with. I shall at this point substitute all my invective about thoughtless dog owners with one word: ‘Grrr.’

The menu was terrific, interesting, inventive, focusing on local produce and everything freshly cooked. All of us, Poppy and Clemmie included, were so spoilt for choice we dithered spectacularly. In due course, our meals were all served at the same time and even though no-one exhorted us to ‘Enjoy!’ we certainly did.

To say the staff were thoughtful would be to understate the enormous trouble they took to ensure we had a relaxed and happy meal together. The service was seamless, unobtrusive, utterly professional and with a friendliness that made us feel we were valued and special to them.

As if all that were not enough, the pub has an enormous car park so there’s no anxiety about having to squash in between a pair of tractor-sized 4x4s.

In short, it’s a place that has absolutely nailed how to host its customers, turning what is rocket science for so many into a perfect art form.


Read Full Post »

It seemed such a good idea at the time. Hey, I said, let’s not go to a pub for lunch to mark the end of our exercise class for the summer. I’ve got a better idea: come to my place.

Now that would have been OK if I had been addressing, say, a couple of friends. But no, I was rashly issuing this invitation to my entire class. That’s all my exercise mat-mates and our Great Leader. Oh yes please, they all said, with an equally rash enthusiasm.

No relaxing lunch in a pub garden, no kitchen staff taking responsibility for feeding 15 of us and clearing up afterwards. Everything is down to me, the daft one who’d opened her mouth and let something oddballish tumble out.

In fact I don’t regret offering to host the lunch. It’s going to be a pleasure to have everyone here as they are all such dear and good friends.

Typically of me, I am going into this great event – and, as I write, it is less than 24 hours until lift-off – with an absolute mountain of tasks to be completed. I know this because I have made lists, dozens of them, which flutter like over-sized confetti out of pockets and bags, off worktops and tables, whenever I move. They instruct me to do such things as ‘Get spare plates from cellar’ and ‘Dust top of grandfather clock’ (some of my friends are tall).

However, totally against the odds, and in a wholly uncharacteristic way, I’ve cleaned the house and done the shopping. My reward should be a long lie-down, for at least six months, but there are lists to be checked, tasks to be ticked off and added to, and panic stations to be manned.

I’ve changed my mind 28 times on what we’re going to eat. Summery stuff, obviously, so no nice comforting (and straightforward) vat of something stewy that would just need a bit of bread for mopping.

Summery food tends to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Mine is to be a multiple choice menu – or at least that’s how it appears in my head. Time will tell.

First off the production line was a delicious salad dressing. Get the basics out of the way, I told myself, as I stowed it in the fridge. Unfortunately, within an hour Geoff and I had consumed half of it without thinking when we had salad for lunch.

Already in the fridge were about a dozen avocado pears, irresistibly reduced in price because they were verging on the squidgy side of ripe. It seemed such a good idea to get loads of them,  but now I can’t think of a good reason for having done so. The same with a small van-load of cherry tomatoes, which will almost certainly be mush by morning. They looked so full of promise when I impulsively decided to give them a home.

I’ve made caponata, all dense and delicious, the product of only about six hours’ chopping and stirring, flavouring and praying over. The big question is, will I remember I’ve got it? Will it remain in the fridge, buried under a mountain of avocados and mushy tomatoes, or will I be alert enough to check one of my lists and bring it out for its hour of glory?

Since it’s the only thing on the menu so far that’s ready, there is every chance I will remember it and it will be the star of the show. The only, lonely, star, but a star all of my own making.

Read Full Post »

I was talking about TV cookery shows with a friend this week. It made a pleasant change of subject from other people’s illnesses, how they don’t make nativity plays like they used to (they’re actually rollicking good fun nowadays – imagine that!) and how ‘Christmas shopping’ is possibly the most terrifying phrase in the English language.

So we dwelt on TV cooking for quite some time, for fear of finding ourselves straying back into those danger areas.

Liz watches several of them and so when I happened to blurt out that I have a pet hate about such programmes I suspected she would understand what I was banging on about because she’s the nearest thing I know to a Mastermind-standard expert.

I said I felt they were all missing a trick because I had never yet seen one that gave guidance on absolute basics. She started to disagree, but I explained that what I meant was basics such as how to wash and thoroughly clean fruit and vegetables before chopping, dicing, slicing and so on with varying degrees of expertise. (In my case, invariably wielding a less-than-sharp knife, in a very much less than expert way.)

All you ever see is a delicious pile of ingredients rapidly reduced to a pan-ready state. But what happened to them before they began their starring role?

Some unseen assistant will, one hopes, have been charged with thoroughly washing and, where necessary, scrubbing the wherewithal for Mr or Ms Michelin-Star-Wizard to transform into a delicious dish.

But why can’t we be shown that process? How many cooks, or people who call themselves cooks thanks to the influence of telly chefs, take the time and trouble to wash away the chemicals from their raw ingredients?

“Do you know,” Liz said, “I’d never given that a thought.”

If you use organic produce it’s not that much of an issue, I said, in my best trying-not-to-be-preachy voice. You just need to inspect it and wash out any wildlife that may have hitched a ride.

But most other stuff has been sprayed and glazed and waxed to within an inch of its ridiculously false long life.

I explained to Liz that when I use non-organic stuff I wash it thoroughly in a solution of bicarbonate of soda. This is a win-win because it not only cleans it well but it makes me feel like an authentic Italian nonna.

And as for waxed, non-organic citrus fruit, well, I treat it a bit like a small child that’s covered itself in non-washable felt-tip pen: I just scrub and scrub until the pips squeak.

I asked Liz if she had ever known a TV cookery programme advise viewers to use only unwaxed oranges and lemons for grating or zesting. Never, she agreed.

Well, that’s what I mean about the programme makers missing a trick. Someone should be showing us the preliminary stages, so that we can all wise up to the unwanted extras that come with some of the fresh ingredients in our recipes.

“I had honestly never realised I’m grating the wax preservative as well when I grate an orange,” Liz said. “That’s revolting – even if it is apparently edible!”

Hot water and a vegetable scrubbing brush should do the trick, I suggested, or buy unwaxed organic fruit.

My holier-than-thou lecture over, we moved on to some of the dodgy hygiene we’d observed in a few cookery programmes – and this, inevitably, brought us full circle back to the fun topic of ailments and illnesses.

Read Full Post »

We were going to an organised lunch at the weekend and had to choose from a menu sent out in advance. Nothing grand, just a bit of good grub prepared in a hall kitchen by the time-honoured and indispensable ’team of willing volunteers’ – those wonderful souls who oil the wheels backstage of events up and down the land.

There was to be a ploughman’s lunch and Geoff was excited to see that he could choose between cheese and pork pie to go with his. “I haven’t had a pork pie since 1975, I swear,” he said in a voice that perfectly matched his pleading, puppy-dog eyes. I knew he expected me to say a firm No and that of course he was to have cheese – and not much of it at that.

He knows I’m not a great fan of pork pies and anyway I do try and keep him on a fairly tight leash for the good of his health.

As he stood there, hope and disappointment criss-crossing his face, I confounded us both when I blurted out a bright and chirpy “Why ever not? What a great idea!”

Geoff put a firm tick beside Pork Pie on his form and dispatched it with a first-class stamp, just to be sure.

The day dawned. Socialising on a major scale took place, crowds of us exchanged news and commended the weather for behaving, and soon it was time for lunch.

We joined the queue to collect our ploughman’s lunches. I took mine back to our table and waited for Geoff to join me. As he approached, I could see his face looked different: cloudy where just now it had been all sunshine smiles. “What’s the matter?”

He put his plate down. “Look,” he said, “it’s a slice of pork pie, not a round pork pie.”

A couple with us looked equally nonplussed. “It wasn’t what we’d been expecting, either,” they agreed, and we all stared at these plates with a pastry-rimed square of marbled pinky-grey on them. The shock and dismay were palpable. I began to wonder if I should call a counsellor, quickly.

The issue was discussed. At length, we came to the conclusion that it had been wrong to expect ’a pie’ because the booking form had offered the choice of cheese or pork pie, not ’a pork pie’.

They all accepted the fact bravely and tucked in.

Thank goodness we had avoided a pork pie crisis meltdown situation. It had been close, admittedly, but thorough analysis and good sense had prevailed. Observing the others on our table, I formed the opinion that most were probably on statins and a tight leash, so the pork pie experience was as rare and exciting for them as it was for Geoff.

Then it was swiftly on to pudding: another statin-buster, this time a choice of lemon cake and custard or chocolate gateau and cream. I’m such a dullard that I’d left a blank on my form as I’m a non-starter for any pudding unless it’s fruit, but Geoff opted for the lemon cake and custard.

It turned out to be his lucky day as two bowls were handed to him and, being polite, he didn’t like to make a fuss and try and hand one back. Still being polite and not wanting to hurt feelings, he polished off both.

Pork pie and two puddings. Not a bad lunch for someone who claims he only ever gets to eat rabbit food.

Read Full Post »

I hear that plates are out. Plates for eating off, that is, not the tectonic variety or the sort that dentists might fit in our mouths for eating with.

So if not plates at mealtimes, what do we use? Bowls, apparently. Ah, bowls, those useful containers from which to eat soup and cereal, foodstuffs which would otherwise seep over the edges and make a mess.

Keeping porridge off our laps is no longer the purpose of a bowl, it would seem. They are terrifically trendy nowadays for all types of food for two main reasons, though I bet there are more, such as the fact they remind us of the days when we were strapped in a high chair and everything tasted bland and mushy.

Rocket scientists on a day off have made the startling discovery that bowls make life easier if you are eating while slumped on the sofa watching telly. No mention of the fact it would be easier still if the eating was done at a table before slumping in front of the telly, but I am obviously missing the point.

Most of all, though, bowls are trendy because they apparently make food look so much more attractive when we’re all obsessively photographing our meals to post on social media.

I can’t help thinking this regression to toddlerhood is going to cause a bit of a blip on the chart of Man’s evolutionary progress. It could take some explaining, too, but I will leave that to the experts in 50 years’ time.

What doesn’t need an expert to pontificate upon is the move away from silver cutlery, especially the bone-handled variety. Who needs that in their daily lives? Probably only someone who has a butler or a housekeeper with time to spare and penchant for polishing.

Even so, even with the understandable turning away from drudgery in the scullery, I have a friend who deplores the decline in use of what she terms ‘proper’ cutlery. She is talking of the Sunday-best knives, forks, spoons and various unidentifiable prodding things that luxuriate in the silk-lined comfort of a wooden box called a canteen.

I doubt she and her family dine off every day off bone china and tackle their kitchen suppers with bone-handled knives and rat-tail design silver forks and spoons, but I do know they have one of those canteens and I also know she is the proud owner of her parents’ Wedgwood 12 place-setting dinner service, complete with lidded tureens.

They even travelled to London to buy two replacement teaspoons for the canteen from Mappin & Webb. Now there’s a claim to fame.

The china and the cutlery are well into their 80th year now, having been wedding presents for my friend’s parents. Who among the next generation is going to want the burden of inheriting such items? Whose homes can accommodate such space-fillers? Most of all, whose lifestyles, featuring as they do the aforementioned telly-watching while eating from bowls, is ever going to be suited to formal table-settings. Always assuming people even own a dining table in years to come.

One day the market will flood with orphaned canteens of cutlery. Children will turn to their parent(s) and ask what they are. “I’m not sure,” will come the reply, “but I think they’re a sort of old-fashioned graveyard for knives and forks. Now eat up and clear your bowl.”

Read Full Post »

One of my tasks on returning from holiday, apart from the washing, of course, and tediously relating our experiences to anyone unwise enough to come within six feet, was to try and sort out our diary for the next few weeks.

It wasn’t exactly blank to start with but we urgently wanted to fill a few of the gaps with pleasurable get-togethers with friends. We owe hospitality to too many people, so now, with lighter evenings and spring springing all over the place, must be the time to put this right.

I picked up the phone and got calling. The result: a densely packed three weeks at the end of which the kitchen will look like a war zone and Geoff and I will no longer fit into our clothes.

Never mind, it will be fun and we will love seeing our friends. Not all the meals are being hosted here at Hill Towers, a fact which comes as a relief, no doubt, to our guests, but also to me and my creaky culinary skills.

We’ll be meeting London friends at Winchester – a vaguely half-way point – and two lots of Devon friends in Bridport and Honiton.

Those who are coming here include a dear couple who I know enjoy meat and so I, a veggie these past 35 years, have promised them that’s what they’ll get. I am quite adept at cooking meat with my eyes closed and holding my nose, a feat made easier if I do as I plan to do this time and bung it in the slow cooker.

For others I shall try and devise meals that accommodate my less-than mainstream ways but don’t alarm the diners. I find if you don’t mention words like polenta and brown-rice flour then no-one is any the wiser and they just chatter and chomp away and clear their plates.

I’m not much of a pudding person – other than perhaps in appearance – and I usually rely on doing something decidedly uncreative with fresh fruit. For once, though, I plan to break that habit and some of our friends will be treated to a clementine cake. I had this when we went out for our Mother’s Day lunch and the chef kindly scribbled down the recipe for me. It was amazing how he could concentrate as I was so intent on telling him how fabulous it was, and he was, that I don’t think I stopped pouring praise into his ears for a full five minutes.

I passed the recipe around various pals and they all report it to be a huge success. Now it’s my turn to give it a whirl, perhaps with a blob of my lemon curd ice cream on the side.

On the in-between days, when Geoff and I aren’t due to be eating serious meals with starters and puddings, we have agreed we must eat lean and take loads of exercise. It’s alarming enough having to fight slightly straining buttons on the season’s lighter clothing after winter’s cosy comfort uniforms, but to inflict yet more difficulties on ourselves this early in the year would not be good. So there’ll be a tough regime in place at Hill Towers, just to make sure we don’t relax and enjoy ourselves too much. We couldn’t have that.

Read Full Post »

HOW interesting to learn that the NHS is to impose a sugar tax on drinks and snacks bought in hospitals.

I read the story announcing this just before accompanying a friend to hospital where she was to have a scan.

The first thing Diana had to do on arrival was drink a litre of water to ensure, among other things, her kidneys were in good order. Of course, this being modern Britain, there was a choice of liquids so anyone who couldn’t stomach the taste of plain water could have one of four ‘fruit’ squashes and overwhelm their bodies with artificial sweeteners and heaven knows what other chemicals.

We could not fathom why there needed to be a choice. It’s a hospital. Hospitals promote health – don’t they? So why pander to people in this unnecessary way?

Dear patients, you must drink a litre of liquid and we have chosen for you to have this in the form of water. End of story.

The money saved by not buying unhealthy squashes could go towards some of the items for which staff raise money. Notice boards on the corridors we walked along advised of proceeds raised by cake sales. Now why cake sales, I wonder? Undoubtedly because they’re popular and a sure-fire way of getting people to dip into their pockets. But there must be healthier ways of raising money and better examples to set to patients.

We spy a trolley doing its rounds, pushed by a volunteer. A strong volunteer, we can’t help concluding, since the trolley is burdened with unimaginable quantities of sweets, chocolates and snacks. It looks like a small ship, the SS Temptation, on its way to a WeightWatchers meeting.

Diana told me that when she’d been a patient she was discharged with a bag full of medications that she was being given “just in case”. She investigated only one, took a teaspoonful and found it to be so sickly she brought it straight back up and never unscrewed the bottle again.

Her mealtime request for a natural yogurt had resulted in the nearest the kitchens could get: a creamy ‘fruits of the forest flavour’, complete with artificial sweetener and all its usual unpleasant bedfellows.

Sweetness and sickliness is everywhere. Plain and ordinary never gets a look-in. No food is left unadorned or unadulterated.

Even a coffee nowadays is not considered a coffee by some unless it’s served in a bucket and pumped up to 300 calories with cream and sprinkles and goodness knows what else.

At least Diana and I didn’t spot any vending machines in the hospital, though we know there are some. That would have been one depressing step too far.

We know we could find one in the leisure centre, though, which must surely amount to cynicism on overdrive. Come in, swim, play sport, use the gym, get fit – oh, and while you’re here, feast on some of this rubbish and get a paunch, rot your teeth and ruin your appetite.

And don’t even start me on vending machines in schools. Childhood obesity is a serious problem? Well, what a surprise.

Do I think taxing sugary drinks and sweets in hospitals will have the desired effect of encouraging people to reduce their intake? Do I heck.

They’re so hooked on the drug of sweetness they’ll pay whatever they have to for a ‘fix’.

I would so love to be proved wrong and for this new move in the NHS to be the start of something really significant, but the way things are at present I can’t see it working.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »