Review: Fishmore Hall, Ludlow

I think I may have mentioned that we live in Ludlow at the moment. Before our year of travelling around the world we were in London, now we’re in the woolly Welsh marches. Do I need to tell you about Ludlow? I expect everyone likely to be reading a food blog already knows it as a gourmet destination and a distinctly “foodie” town.

In fact it was the stunning medieval town and castle and the wild rural hill country around it that we loved when we first visited Ludlow. It was entirely by accident that we discovered its culinary credentials. “Yes, the town has three Michelin-starred restaurants,” our B&B hosts explained to us, “we can phone for a table, but it’s fairly unlikely there will be anything free tonight.” Followed five minutes later with, “aren’t you lucky, they’ve had a cancellation at Mr Underhills!”

Since then we’ve visited several times, got a second home here, and now have moved here at least for the nonce. And of course we’ve identified the good, the bad and the ugly of places to eat in the area. In fact it’s getting hard to find somewhere new that is likely to be any good. This weekend we took ourselves to Fishmore Hall, a small hotel just outside the town that is building a reputation for fine dining.

The hotel is a fine old manor house, and inside the décor is pleasant without feeling particularly deluxe. It’s contemporary and a little unmemorable, but relaxing. Service was friendly and efficient throughout the evening, although the restaurant was admittedly quiet – the annual Medieval Christmas Fayre in town no doubt attracting all the guests away.

Our amuse bouche was a cauliflower veloute with a rather hefty drizzle of truffle oil. I could probably have stopped proceedings right there and made some fairly astute predictions about the course of the rest of the meal. Although I would have had egg on my face, because there were actually some decent bits of invention in our later courses.

My pave of confit salmon wasn’t novel, but it was good, with nibbles of beetroot and a creamy goat cheese mousse. Maureen’s pigeon breast was presented on a piece of slate (no waaaaay!) but it was presented nicely with carpaccio cauli and curried pinenuts, a tangy little revelation. The other starter among the four of us was scallops, a little undercooked and a tad too salty.

My main was duck breast, great little roasted turnips, a blob of fragrant quince puree and a dribble of mead gravy. I ran out of sauce long before I ran out of duck, which was a pity as I’m always more interested in the accompaniments than the core ingredient of a main. Okay, not always. But I must have eaten well-cooked slices of decent quality duck breast a score of times before so it’s hardly what I’m focussed on at the twenty-first outing. Maureen’s venison was jolly good, its Jerusalem artichoke puree astoundingly tasty, and the addition of three slighty squodgy raspberries to the plating frankly bizarre. The best main (judging by the cooing noises Martin was making, as I didn’t try any) was some rolled rabbit saddle with peanuts and lime. Peanuts and lime, eh?

The dessert made me smile, mostly in a good way. It was a banana cream slice, with some peanut ice cream. The banana cream was an arrow straight out of childhood which smacked cleanly into my heart. The ice cream was decent company, though predictably sickly. There was some other stuff on the plate, including bits of squishy banana and a fairly tasteless jelly, but they didn’t need to be there. A meringue-covered cheesecake with nifty tarragon ice cream (must remember that one) was declared very good, while a rhubarb concoction (seasons, people!) was somewhat unbalanced but definitely rhubarby.

So where did we end up? Well, it looks like there are some interesting ideas in chef David Jaram’s head, but accomplishment perhaps isn’t quite reaching aspiration. There were some slightly duff elements and some plating that made me smile in the wrong way. The menu was £49 for three courses, with a decently priced wine list. In the gastronomic micro-climate of Ludlow it’s easier to judge value: this is £10 more than a decent three courses on white linen at Dinham Hall Hotel, and £10 less than having your socks knocked off by three courses at La Becasse. On the evidence of this outing, that is probably a tad expensive for the food and ambiance here.

Review: The Bell Inn, Yarpole

This weekend was clearly doomed. Doooooomed!

Which is another way of saying that we were too late trying to book the restaurant(s) we wanted and so ended up eating somewhere dull on Saturday night. And then we didn’t even manage to rectify things with a good Sunday lunch, making for pretty much a culinary failure of a weekend.

Our friends Tim and Vanessa were visiting and we had wanted to try The Checkers in Montgomery, which scored a Michelin star this year… but was perhaps understandably booked up a couple of weeks in advance. So we thought we’d return to The Stagg at Titley, the granddaddy of Michelin-starred pubs, which we hadn’t been to for years. Fully booked. So we settled on The Bell at Yarpole, that I vaguely recalled had a Bib Gourmand and was run by Claude Bosi’s brother.

The Bell is actually under new ownership, has been for a year. Cedric Bosi has followed his brother up to London and can be found at a new gastropub in Wimbledon. The current chef at The Bell was apparently winner of Herefordshire’s New Chef of the Year, 2010. Their website is annoying, but I like that the address is “” which looks like it should read “the belly arpole”.

It’s still a lovely pub, and the chap behind the bar was friendly and helpful. Service was generally friendly too, though not terribly skilful. And so we come swiftly to the food. Four of us ate, and the bill came to £145 including a £30 bottle of wine. So, roughly appropriate gastropub prices for the Marches.

Starters included scallops on cauliflower purée, game terrine with spicy pear chutney, broccoli and Stilton soup. The scallops were fine, though for no good reason one of us had 2.5 scallops instead of 3 scallops. The terrine was good, very rustic with nice chutney. The soup was tasty enough but hardly elevated.

For the mains two of us had a trio of lamb (cutlet, breast, shepherd’s pie) and two had the trio of pork (belly, faggot and black pudding). The shepherd’s pie was okay but huge, the cutlet pretty good and the breast okay, the parmentier potatoes with it were squodgy and tired, and the gratin of beetroot and celeriac just didn’t work; the cream was very apparent and seemed split. I don’t think beetroot was made to gratin in this way. As for the piggy dish, the black pudding was tasty and probably home made while the faggot had a good strong herbal punk but needed gravy to prevent it desiccating your mouth. And was huge. The pork belly was fairly well cooked, but could have been a lot more unctuous and – criminally – the crackling was a waste of inedible chewiness. The mustard mash was fine, but there was lots of it. Especially with the side dish of (over) boiled veggies.

We finished with a massive lump of sticky toffee pudding in a lake of caramel sauce untempered by any bitter notes at all.

For the price, this wasn’t a terrible meal. But it wasn’t much good either. There were some basic mistakes in the cooking, and you can’t rectify that by giving us enough food to feed ourselves and the family of trolls we keep locked in the boot of the car. Only the smaller of the two dining rooms at The Bell was open this Saturday evening, which is perhaps telling.

I won’t trouble you with our failed attempts to recoup the weekend with a quality Sunday lunch. It didn’t work, we shouldn’t have tried for anything more ambitious than a pub roast without forethought and planning. In fact, Tim pronounced accurately that the best thing we ate all weekend was the homemade marshmallows that came with our (really good) hot chocolate at The Green Cafe, where we stopped after a leaf-kicking morning stroll along the Whitcliffe. Honestly, who makes homemade marshmallows just to offer them with a cup of hot chocolate? Our favourite cafe.

And needless to say, the weekend wasn’t really doomed. We always enjoy seeing our friends for a weekend even when the gourmandising doesn’t quite work out.

Spicy beetroot soup

There’s definitely a nip in the air this morning. A little frost in the shadows and by the road was a big old toadstool with a puddle of water on its upturned cap that was still frozen. Steamy breath and a hazy sun on the rooftops of Ludlow. I love chillies at any time of year, but when it’s cold outside the extra heat is very welcome in almost any dish. Maureen disagrees of course: chillies are vital in every dish at all times of year, and twice on Thursdays.

This month’s Sweet Heat Challenge is soup, which is handy because I had all the ingredients needed for a spicy beetroot soup. This stuff is packed with warmth: the warm glow of chilli, the earthy warmth of beetroot, the warm red of roasted pepper, the warm notes of toasted cumin, the cosy warmth of slowly cooked tomatoes, the smokey warmth of paprika. It’s like a woolly blanket in a bowl. Which would be horrible. Ugh, bad analogy. Ignore that.

Spicy beetroot soup
This makes enough for 4-6 bowls

2 large beetroots
2 red peppers
1 small onion, chopped roughly
1 stick celery, chopped roughly
2 cloves of garlic, chopped roughly
2 chipotle chillies (smoked dried jalapenos)
½ tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp cumin and coriander seeds mixed
1 tin chopped tomatoes
½ pint vegetable stock
  1. Simmer the beetroots (skin-on) in a pan of boiling water for 30-40 minutes until cooked through – test with a knife.
  2. Meanwhile, halve the peppers and rub with a little olive oil then roast on an oven tray at 160C for 30 minutes or until skin is brown/black in a few places.
  3. Dry-fry the cumin and coriander until toasty and smoking, then grind to a powder.
  4. Begin to gently fry the onion, celery and garlic in a large saucepan just before the peppers and beetroot are finished. Don’t colour them at all.
  5. Pop the peppers in a plastic bag and tie it – the steam will loosen the skins, which you can then peel off and roughly chop the pepper.
  6. Drain the beetroots and reserve a pint of the water. Once the beetroot has cooled a little, simply rub the skin off then chop the beetroots roughly.
  7. Now add the peppers and beetroot to the onions, add the paprika, the cumin and coriander, the chillies roughly chopped. Stir, then add the chopped tomatoes, vegetable stock and most of the reserved beetroot water.
  8. Simmer for 30 minutes or so, check seasoning, add more water if needed. Once you are happy, blend the whole lot to a smooth soup.
  9. Serve with a sprinkle of black salt and a swirl of olive oil on top. Soured cream is an even better alternative.

You can make this even better by roasting more of the stuff. For example: roast the garlic, or use smoked garlic, or roast some tomatoes to use instead of the tin of chopped toms, perhaps even roast the beetroots. It all depends what you have the time and inclination for and on this occasion I kept it fairly simple.

As an aside, I also added another dried Asian chilli for some real heat. The result was some serious fire though, which might not be everyone’s ticket for a comforting shoup. We like it hot!

Review: The Chilli Pickle, Brighton

Oooo… lovely. A cup of steaming hot chai, sweet and spicy and milky and deeply reviving. Exactly as you’d get it from a good chai-wallah in Delhi. In fact it takes me straight back to the spice market in Jodhpur, or the book seller in Udaipur. While I got sick to the back teeth with all the hard-sell and hassle on the “Rajasthan circuit” we did a few years ago, there were a handful of genuinely pleasant tradesmen we spent time with; discussing (and purchasing) whole spices, and buying some lovely leather-bound books of handmade paper. In both cases a useful lad was sent out to get cups of chai from one of the nearby wallahs, obviously to help lubricate the relaxed sales process, and that small, hot cup of brew is an indelible part of my memories of India.

Which is why whenever I visit Brighton, I always find myself at Chilli Pickle. Either for lunch, dinner or just a drink. Because they make a magical cup of chai, and the best indication of authenticity I can think of is that it transports me right back to Jodhpur market. I’ve had chai at some of the more famous nouveau-Indian restaurants in London that don’t transport me anywhere.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t really a review, it’s more a raving recommendation for a great place in Brighton to get Indian food that both hums with authenticity but also delivers neat, original, modern dishes. Chef Alun Sperring has worked at The Cinnamon Club, but rather than replicate the white-linen fine-dining-with-spice here in Brighton he is providing all the same quality and authenticity but in a more colourful and relaxed setting. Closer to the roots.

Today we just had lunch, both in the form of roti wraps. Maureen’s was an earthy, fiery laal mans made with local Sussex mutton and tempered with an uplifting mint relish and a chilli pickle with lovely burnt flavours. Mine was a venison sheek kebab, buzzing with lots of dark and fruity spices. Along with the mint relish I had an astoundingly pink beetroot raita, which is of course both perfect for venison and also chimes with the vibrancy and colour of Indian cooking.

It happens to also chime nicely with the décor at Chilli Pickle. Bold colours on the walls, simple unvarnished hardwood tables, decorated with huge shelves stacked with Indian cooking vessels and colourful bags of rice. There’s a big open kitchen at one end of the restaurant. Contemporary, and Indian, and Brightonian. Their original location in the Lanes was more cosy, but they’ve filled a much larger space in the new Jubilee Square very well and picked up a Bib Gourmand in the process.

Service is always friendly and helpful. To be honest I can’t comment on the wine selection, as I’ve never looked at it. It’s lassi all the way for me when I eat here, either the startlingly spicy and refreshing salt lassi or the thick and oh-so-rosy gulab lassi. Wonder if I can find an excuse for one more trip to Brighton before Christmas?

Apple soufflé with white chocolate parfait

I spend more time reading food blogs now that I have a food blog. Inevitable perhaps, but I’ve certainly learned some new things to do with favourite ingredients and I’ve got some good tips for restaurants to try (and others to steer clear of). It’s a nice way to while away some time.

So equally inevitably I’ve stumbled onto “round-ups”, whereby a blogger asks for recipes on a theme and then summarises them on their own blog, with links. Good publicity for them, good publicity for all the entrants. It’s something I could easily get hooked on. “We Should Cocoa” is a monthly round-up of recipes pairing chocolate (obviously) with another ingredient. This month the round-up is hosted by Chocolate Log Blog and the ingredient is… apples. Which if you think about it are one fruit not commonly paired with chocolate. That got me thinking.

Attempt #1: Apple tempura with a chocolate and sake dipping sauce

Well, this didn’t quite work out. Nothing disastrous, and we enjoyed eating it, but it’s not a recipe worthy of offering up. Apples just don’t seem cut out for tempura: the slightly softened texture they have after a quick deep-frying is a little unappealing in batter. On top of that, although the batter was light and I made the chocolate sauce deliberately thin, dipping batter in chocolate is a very rich experience. Almost Scottish, dare I say.

On the positive side, I dipped some roughly torn pieces of a good cooked ham into the spare batter and can confirm that tempura ham is delicious. Big thumbs-up, better than tempura prawns in fact. And also the combination of sake and chocolate is a winning one, worthy of further investigation. It’s something about the nutty rice notes in the wine that play so well with dark chocolate.

Attempt #2: Apple soufflé with white chocolate parfait
Okay, less experimental. I love making soufflés, they’re easy and impressive and can be flavoured with anything. With no ice cream maker the only challenge was finding a frozen chocolate accompaniment that doesn’t require the hassle of stirring it regularly while it freezes. So: this was pronounced delicious by everyone and is my entry to ‘We Should Cocoa’ this month.

For the parfait
100g white chocolate
340ml double cream
60ml water
80g caster sugar
4 large eggs yolks
For the soufflés
1 1/2 cooking apples
2 dessert spoons sugar
Juice of half a lemon
2 star anise
1 inch root ginger, roughly chopped
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 dessert spoon of calvados
3 large eggs
1 dessert spoon caster sugar

The parfait is taken from a recipe by James Perry, and you’ll have plenty spare. The soufflé recipe makes 4.

  1. To make the parfait, melt the chocolate in a bowl set over simmering water. Meanwhile whip the cream to the soft peak stage and set aside. Bring the water and sugar to the boil in a small pan until the sugar has dissolved – you want a syrup only, not caramel. Whisk the egg yolks until pale and thickened then pour in the hot sugar syrup and continue to whisk for one minute. Whisk the melted chocolate into this mixture, then quickly fold in the whipped cream. Pour into a tub and freeze for a couple of hours.
  2. Macerate the apples by putting them in a pan with the lemon juice, calvados and two dessert spoons of sugar. Add the cinnamon, ginger and star anise then mix together. Leave for an hour.
  3. Now bring the apples to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or so until well broken down. Push them through a sieve to make pureé. Taste it for sweetness, add a little more sugar if needed.
  4. Separate the three eggs. Beat the yolks, then add half the apple pureé and beat. Divide the rest of the apple pureé between four ramekins, to form a base.
  5. Whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Add a dessert spoon of caster sugar and whisk for another minute. Put a big dessert spoon of the whites into the yolk mix and stir together to loosen it. Now add the rest of the whites and fold together without over-mixing, as this will lose the air. Better to have it slightly unmixed than a flat soufflé.
  6. Fill the ramekins with the mixture, be as neat or scruffy as you like with the top. Put them on a baking tray in the oven at 170C for 15 minutes or until they’re fully risen and nicely browned on top.
  7. Dust with icing sugar, then at the table top each soufflé with a quenelle of parfait. Poke a hole in the top first and the parfait should sink into the soufflé and melt. You can serve another quenelle of parfait on the side too.

A couple of chef-y notes on this…

  • Firstly, the best way I’ve found to get good steep ‘walls’ on risen soufflés is to butter the inside of the ramekins and then swirl caster sugar around in them to get a coating. The egg whites shy away from this and so rise vertically. I know it works, because this time I lazily didn’t do it and they didn’t rise so well!
  • The crumb on the parfait in the photo is a praline. I toasted hazelnuts for 15 minutes at 150C then rubbed the skins off, then gently cooked a couple of tbsp caster sugar in a small pan until it melted and was golden caramel, then added the hazelnuts, then poured it onto greaseproof paper to cool, then whizzed in a food processor to crumbs. It was very, very tasty but hid the white chocolate flavour a bit so I’ve left it out of the recipe.
  • I don’t know how to make quenelles! Lots of playing around with two spoons while the parfait started melting. It sorta worked. I think practise is probably key.