I ate a lot of OK food in England: a couple of OK curries, an OK steak at Café Rouge, an OK all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Woodford, an OK Cornish pastie bought from a shop in Highgate. This is not a complaint, OK food is infinitely better than not OK food, but of course we always hope for more than OK, and fortunately my trip provided some of that too.
The best restaurant meal I had was lunch in the Rex Whistler Restaurant at the Tate Gallery. That's it above but it's actually a lot less daunting than it looks there. There was a “pre-lunch” section of the menu offering Colchester oysters and pork crackling with apple sauce. The crackling was some of the most extraordinary I ever ate, and I have eaten a lot of pork crackling. It was soft and melting on one side, tooth-breakingly hard and crisp on the other. How exactly did they do that?
And then for the main course I had teal. Teal! How often do you see that on a menu? It came with Swiss chard, parsnip crisps and bitter orange sauce and it was just wonderful, and it looked like this:
Actually it looked better than that. But then, after we’d eaten, I looked at the menu again and there in the starter section was a pheasant and rabbit puree served with acorn puree. Acorn puree! How often do you see THAT on a menu? The waitress assured us they were just ordinary acorns that had been boiled and crushed, but what a missed opportunity to eat something I’d never eaten before.
Boiling and crushing acorns sounds well within my skill set. And it so happens that as I look out of my living room window a see an ancient oak tree, that just a few weeks ago was heavy with acorns (also heavy with cavorting squirrels). I haven’t found an absolutely convincing recipe for acorn purée yet - I gather tannins are the big problem - and I guess the boiling leaches them out. Anyway there’s a project for next year.
The most joyously surprising thing I ate in England was Lincolnshire smoked eel with pickled beetroot and horseraddish cream (above). Now I know that eel is supposed to be endangered in some places these days, but even when it wasn’t endangered it was still pretty hard to find anywhere. Some of my family were Lincolnshire farmers, but they certainly never served up smoked eel. The fact that I ate this Lincolnshire eel in a fancy wine bar in Covent Garden called Terroirs, that also served Giuseppe Gualerzi Felino salami, ventreche “noir be Bigorre” and Cantabrian anchovies was especially pleasing. It suggested that Lincolnshire eel can compete with the world. (I’m assuming Cantabrian refers to the Spanish region rather than Cantab as in Cambridge, but in truth I didn’t ask).
The best meal I ate in somebody’s home was chez my pals Jeremy and Louise in Essex. Jeremy and I had been having some back and forth about the hanging of pheasants. As I recall, when I first started eating pheasant, there was a great deal of mystery about how long you hung them, and there were schools of thought that suggested the flesh was best when it had been hanging for ages and was alive with decay. These days I’m not sure that store-bought pheasants are hung at all. The one Louise cooked had had been shot by Jeremy the previous weekend, so it had only hung for 5 or 6 days which he reckoned wasn’t enough, and I could see his point, though it seemed perfectly good to me.
And then the next day we went to the coast, to the Essex Coast, to a place called Point Clear. It was the end of the day, turning cold and the sun was going down, and the beach there was scattered, positively awash with oyster. Some of them had already been attacked and cracked open by seagulls, but in no time at all I’d rounded up a dozen live ones and we took them home with us.
And you know, I’ve always liked the Richard Mabey, foraging, “food for free” thing, but I’ve never wholly embraced it. There’s always the worry that you’ve misidentified a poisonous fern or mushroom, or in this case that you’ve picked up a tainted oyster (not that you can’t eat a tainted oyster in a restaurant) and in fact I couldn’t tempt Jeremy and Louise to share nature’s bounty with me. But these oysters were great, and of course they were free. The Colchester oysters on sale in the restaurant at the Tate were selling for £2.15 each. So I’d saved myself the best part of twenty six quid. That’s a deal. That’s way, way better than OK.