Monday, 28 September 2009

Aldeburgh Food Festival

I was slightly apprehensive about asking the male companion person to accompany me to the Aldeburgh Food Festival on Saturday. I had recently persuaded him to join me and other friends at Jimmy's Harvest Festival, which was allegedly a festival of food and music. My comments on that can be found on my regular blog if you're interested, but let's just say that 'disappointing' was the major theme of the day. However any fears of a repeat experience at the Aldeburgh Food Festival were completed unfounded, even with me accidentally adopting a somewhat, ahem, scenic B-road route to get us there.
Despite the name, the festival actually takes place in Snape, which is a few miles from Aldeburgh. The Maltings by the River Alde is a lovely setting, with lots of things to look at in addition to the festival activities. A large marquee housed the cookery theatre and most of the local and independent producers showcasing their wares. Luckily for visitors 'showcasing' means having lots of samples available to try, a marketing strategy heartily endorsed by the male companion person. There was a good variety of meat and fish-based products, as well as cakes, juices, beer, oils and some fruit and veg. I did notice that there did seem to be an awful lot of 'preserved' foods like jams, jellies, chutneys and pickles but in fact these also came in a micro-range of sweet, savoury and spicy options. I was a little surprised there weren't more cheese producers there (I only spotted one stall) but you can't have everything.

The courtyard area housed more independent retailers (including lots of very friendly fishmongers), another demonstration stage, most of the stalls selling hot food (we bought a plate of freshly cooked scallops from one), an Adnans bar, and importantly the ChocStar van. I have been reading Petra ChocStar's blog for a while and had an occasional Twitter exchange but have never actually manged to sample any of her amazing sounding chocolate creations. This was corrected on Saturday when I not only scoffed her most decadent sounding offering- the chocolate brownie fudge sundae, but also had a little chat with the lady herself. Suffice to say that Petra is lovely, and the sundae was fantastic. The balance of dense brownie, rich ice cream and a sauce that tasted like pure melted chocolate was perfect, and importantly not at all sickly sweet. I really hope to sample more ChocStar delights in the future.

I didn't really plan ahead enough to see any specific cookery demonstrations (although Fergus Henderson was doing something meat-related when I passed through), but it was very nice to see Thomasina Miers, Mark Hix, Tom Parker Bowles and Tom Aitkens wandering around the place and queuing up for things along with everyone else (if cookery really is the new rock and roll these people need to seriously increase their entourages).

The weather on the day was also lovely, which obviously helped a lot. But this was just a really well organised event which meant that although there were lots of people on the site, nothing was too crowded, there were lots of places to sit down for a break and eat, and nowhere had horrendous queues. Even little details like placing the cookery stages in areas where you didn't have to be sitting right at the front to see what was going on, but could just wander around or stand at the back for a bit, indicated how well thought-out this weekend had been.
And seeing as all this was for the bargain price of £5 a ticket (which also got you a programme and canvas bag too), Aldeburgh seemed to have set a really high standard, and as a food festival novice I'd be interested to see how others compare.

As it was such a nice day we decided to continue on to the coast proper and Aldeburgh itself. Having visited Southwold recently, I would say that Aldeburgh had a less immediate seaside-y feel too it and was more like a town that just happened to be by the sea. It was still lovely though, with lots of quirky cottages and a wide shingle beach housing many little huts selling fresh fish (though by the time we arrived they were all closing up).

I had heard much internet talk of Aldeburgh's Fish and Chip Shop, where people were prepared to queue for hours to get their portions of deep fried goodness. Even though we were both pretty stuffed from our festival indulgences, it seemed inappropriate to come this far and not make an attempt to sample some of this famed fish and chips too. So after a bracing walk along the sea-front, we joined a queue that did snake out of the shop a bit, but wasn't immensely long (I guess late September is not peak holiday season though).

After a fifteen minute wait we came out clutching our open bags of plaice and chips. So the verdict- ummm, well they were quite nice but if I'd had to wait an hour and a half for them I think I would have been rather disappointed. My fish was fine but slightly overcooked and the batter was verging on becoming a bit flabby. The chips were adequate but nothing special, although on the positive side everything was pleasantly oil free, piping hot, and quite reasonably priced for somewhere that is so popular.

Perhaps they were having and off day but I definitely preferred the fish and chips I sampled recently in Southwold, where the plaice was really moist and had been coated in a light but super crispy shell. However the Aldeburgh version was still perfectly edible, and to be honest there is something about fish and chips at the seaside that make it hard to go to far wrong.
So all in all a lovely day, and I can't believe it took me so long to discover the Suffolk coast.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Veggie chilli and salsa a.k.a. the tomato fest dinner

So the male companion person and top tomato fan has been harvesting a generous crop of several varieties of home-grown tomatoes every few days for the past month of so. Although he is happy to consume dozens (of the cherry sized ones) raw as a snack, even he hasn't managed to keep pace with the amount of fruit produced from his fifteen or so plants. So I decided to use up a fair chunk of the tomato backlog by making a veggie chilli and a tomato salsa.
As a non-meat eater I use Quorn products quite a lot, and used Quorn mince in this chilli. I think the key thing to remember with Quorn is that it is basically a protein substitute, and those fungal mycelium are not going to replicate the flavour or fat content that meat adds to food. So you need to make sure that whatever recipe you're using it in has plenty of other strong flavours that are sufficient to carry the dish, i.e. that you'd be happy to eat it without any actual Quorn in it.
Due to some uncertainty about what spices were present in the kitchen of the male companion person, I opted to use a sachet of Old El Paso chilli spice mix in this meal. It proved to be a perfectly adequate combination of paprika, cumin, etc, but was majorly lacking in heat- and this is coming from a chilli-wuss. However the addition of a few fresh chillis solved this problem quite easily.
The tomato salsa was essentially a selection of chopped up tomatoes, red onion and chopped basil which was a cooling contrast to the (actually not too spicy) chilli. I have started using basil rather than fresh corriander in salsas as I really like the almost astringent taste it has, and in this context I decided not to add any chopped chilli either.
Full recipes below, but tinned tomatoes can be substituted for fresh when not enjoying a tomato glut and freshly ground spices can be used if preferred. And obviously if you eat meat you can use this instead of Quorn.

Veggie chilli (enough for two with sufficient left over for lunch the next day)

350g Quorn mince
1 large white onion, chopped
4 big cloves of garlic, crushed
1 sachet Old El Paso chilli spice mix
2 tblsp tomato puree
About 500g fresh tomatoes, chopped
1-2 fresh chillis, finely chopped (depending on how hot you like your chilli)
1 yellow (or any other colour) pepper, chopped
1 tin cooked kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Generous amount of olive oil
Small glass of water, or enough to create appropriate chilli consistency
Salt and pepper to season (if needed)

Tomato salsa

As many tomatoes as you want, chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
Small handful of basil, torn
Lime juice and olive oil to dress
Salt and pepper to season

To make the chilli sweat down the onion in plenty of olive oil, then add the crushed garlic and cook gently without colouring. Drop in the chopped pepper, chillis and spice mix and fry gently for a few minutes. Add the Quorn mince, stir in and continue to cook slowly. Next add in the chopped tomatoes, the tomato puree and a little water. The tomatoes will release their juices as they cook down, and you can leave the pan on a low heat, stirring occasionally, as they do this. Add more water if the chilli looks too dry. I'd cook this for around 20mins on a low heat or until the tomatoes form a sauce for the mince, then add the kidney beans and continue to cook for another five minutes or so.
The ingredients for the salsa just need to be mixed together.
Serve the chilli with a handful of grated cheese on top, and the salsa and corn tortillas on the side.

Homegrown tomatoes
I rate them 10/10
Cost: Yet to be calculated

Old El Paso chilli spice mix
I rate it 6.5/10
Cost: Around £0.65

Friday, 11 September 2009

Al fresco Pizza Express, Cambridge, UK

So while the dregs of summer remain (just), here's a quick post about Pizza Express in Cambridge. This chain may be in danger of becoming ubiquitous but at least it's a freshly prepared and quite tasty sort of ubiquitous.
The branch on Regent Street is hardly a big secret as it's on one of the main roads into the centre of the city, but what you may not immediately realise is that it has a really nice first floor roof terrace. They don't actually seem to keep the terrace a secret on purpose but it's definitely not obvious that it's up there. And on a nice sunny day it's a lovely little escape from the noise and clatter of the open kitchen and frenetic service downstairs as well as avoiding passers-by peering at your food (often a risk with al fresco street eating). You also get to enjoy great views over Downing College while waiting for your pizza.
I may be wrong, but I still think of it as a little local secret (though backed by a national chain), and a good spot for coffe and cake while soaking up the last few photons of summer.

Pizza Express
Regent Street
Cambridge CB2 1DB