Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Celebration of Truffles

When you get lost on the way to a restaurant, you know you are in the countryside. We didn't go far wrong, but in the dark the directions never seem to quite match up to reality. We were visiting The Harrow at Little Bedwyn to celebrate a recent birthday, mine not theirs, and we had been wanting to try out this up and coming place for some time.

When we finally arrived, the welcome we received was attentive, but not overly warm and we were quickly shown to our table. The restaurant appeared to be a large converted house with the two rooms now given over to seating diners at simple unfussy tables. The decor seemed a little dated, Sue and Roger Jones, the owners opting for bright wall colouring rather than the more modern muted palette. Still this place was more about the palate and this is where the Harrow was definitely headed in the right direction.

Once we had ploughed (pun intended) our way through the menu and extensive wine list and chosen our courses, we were brought a taster of butternut squash and truffle. This had a creamy consistency and was our first encounter with the ingredient that permeates most of the dishes on the menu, the humble English Truffle. They seem very proud of the fact that they forage for their own truffles at some secret location, and in enough quantity to use both in the restaurant and sell on. At the prices this ingredient can fetch, they must be making a fortune.

Another unique touch was the marrying of each dish on the menu with a recommended glass of wine, which made choosing easy for wine novices like ourselves. So we knew that our Meursault premier Cru and Chardonnay would go with with our mains at least.

My starter of Duck Terrine looked and tasted superb, with the pickled Chinese cabbage a useful foil to the robust flavour of the duck. My wife's Carpaccio of Venison, an unusual choice for her, had a strength of flavour that was complemented by fungi that would also be found in the deer's native woodland.

Moving on to the mains, we both opted for fish, as this was well represented on the menu. I chose the Dover Sole, a subtly flavoured fish that was lifted by the perfectly cooked scallops, the mash and the spinach that were layered beneath it. Across the table, my wife's truffle adorned Sea Bass was well cooked and balanced by the pak choi, potato rosti and chilli jam. Now at this point in the meal there is normally a dilemma about whether to carry on to the dessert, but thankfully due to the neatly judged portion sizes, there was never any doubt that we would. Before we received the menu though, another taster of fruit jelly and cream arrived which prepared us for the course to come.

My bread and butter pudding arrived with its components arranged in a row. On the left the small roundel of layered bread; in the centre the marinated prunes and on the right the coconut ice cream. The flavour of the main constituent was out of this world, and was like eating a mince pie, with the cinnamon and fruit very much to the fore, but tempered by the other parts of the dish. The chocolate terrine chosen by my wife was dark and rich and was accompanied by a chocolate and coffee shot with Baileys cream on top, with cappuccino ice cream to the side. The shot had almost too strong a coffee flavour, which overpowered the terrine, but this was only a mild criticism of what had been a very good meal.

We rounded off with coffee and chocolate truffles before we wended our way home, having had another great food experience in West Berkshire's (and eastern Wiltshire's as we were slightly over the border) impressive restaurant line up. Was it expensive? Well at just over £100 for the two of us, I think it was definitely worth it, as our combined rating was 9/10. It was only really let down by the lack of really local ingredients, save the ubiquitous truffle.

If you want a slice of modern British cooking at a reasonable price, you would do well to follow us there. We know the way now after all.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Couple In Conversation

Newbury's latest sculpture, part of the Town Trail and called 'Couple in Conversation', is aptly sited on the main roundabout in Newbury. I say aptly since I know what they are talking about, cars. Newbury has an unhealthy interest in that form of personal motorised transport: an obsession some might call it.

The main points being debated this week in the letters column of the Newbury Weekly News, the town's main newspaper, concern the daily traffic chaos brought about by the pedestrianisation and temporary closure of two of the main parts of the town: its central shopping area and the market place. There is also fervent discussion on the merits of a single or two way bridge over the Kennet, and plans for the Wharf, an historic area of the town which is bisected by the approach to said bridge.

In all of this debate there is a lot of support for the use of the car and the benefits of being able to drive through the heart of the town and park a few footsteps away from the shops. Newbury famously had its last battle over the provision of a bypass to take through traffic away from the centre, and having won that the car lobby is fighting to take back control of the centre. Surely this is an opportunity to be grasped to get people out of their cars and to make more environmentally friendly journeys within the town. Hasn't anyone heard of global warming here?

I am pretty sure that people don't visit Newbury to see the car parks, but from the tone of those letters in the local press, it seems that residents think that they are preferable to a canal boat basin which is planned for the Wharf area. This would complement the beautifully paved square that the Market Place is set to become, and would really provide a destination, somewhere worth visiting, and would bring increasing prosperity to the town.

It is ironic that the only people who will be able to get a good look at the new sculpture are drivers, as Newbury is fast becoming a place that people will just want to pass on through and not stop at. Has anyone rung Jeremy Clarkson? Perhaps he might like to bring back Top Gear with a special feature on Newbury: Car City.

Strange Nature

originally uploaded by rodkwithnasa.
There are some times when it pays to have your camera with you and this was one of them. Last Sunday, we were visiting friends, who had moved to a new house in the New Forest National Park. The weather had been atrocious for most of the day, but we managed to get out and about for a walk in the afternoon.

This was the depths of the English countryside and was most unspoilt and untouched by the onward march of civilisation. The flora and fauna of Hampshire were out in force as we saw roe deer, rabbits, Lesser Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, and this mycological treat. It was nearly a foot across and at a distance looked just like a beautiful, pristine white rock hidden amongst the grass. When we got nearer though we realised that this was alive, and is most probably an example of a Calvatia gigantea (Langermannia gigantea).

Isn't nature wonderful.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fog City Primer: Biking the Golden Gate

As landmarks go, this one's a real corker. This was another of those must see, must do attractions that brought us to San Francisco in the first place. The Golden Gate Bridge is surely the most attractive yet functional structure in the western hemisphere and friends had told us that there was only one way to see it in all its glory - to pedal over it on your very own bike.

Now we hadn't taken the trouble to fly our two wheeled transport over the Atlantic, but luckily this is a very popular pastime on the peninsula. Those helpful folk at Blazing Saddles, on production of the requisite plastic, furnished the whole family with bikes, routes and tickets for the Blue and Gold ferry for the return trip. This August Saturday was sunny but cool, with a stiffish breeze as is common on the coast - in short almost perfect conditions for the trip.

We set off from the Fisherman's Wharf and followed the edge of the bay round, passing the cable car turnaround at Mason and heading for the small incline up to the tree topped mound where Fort Mason lies. From this elevated position we got a good view of our goal, and so pressed on through the small park and down to Marina Blvd. Now we were on the flat again and made good progress as far as the Yacht Club, on its own small spit of land which protects the boats from the choppy waters of the bay. We took a small detour to see the less than impressive Wave Organ, a small sculpture located on the end of the finger of land.

We were impressed by the sheer number of locals jogging along this scenic bay-side stretch. Not for them the weekend chores of food shopping or cleaning, but Ipod Nanos fixed to arm and ear-buds to ear, with their best mate by their side for company and motivation. We saw others at the nearby Marina Green Park, where there was a volleyball competition in full swing, with rock music beating out over the PA. San Franciscans really know how to enjoy themselves.

We set off again, through the Presidio, part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area and a former military outpost of the Spanish. This is a beautiful area with a wide grassy margin crossed by paths, leading down to the beaches which line the bay. The main road was now far from us, having turned inland to start its journey up the bridge itself. We were able to enjoy the relative peace and tranquility, save for eddying groups of people that frequented the route, all taking part in their own journey.

A food stop was now necessary - a family marches on its stomach, and luckily the Crissy Field visitor centre hove into view just in time. The cafe here seemed to pride itself on great wholefood ingredients and the freshly prepared sandwiches were definitely worth the wait and the whole process of ordering bread, filling and dressing types separately for a family of four. Suitably re-fueled and with pictures of the now very near bridge safely in the camera, we went to view the small fort that sits beneath the approaches to the span.

It was now uphill and once we had purchased our souvenirs in the shop, it was out onto the deck of the bridge itself. The wind really picked up now as we headed out on the separate walking and cycling lane, conveniently one-way, on the Western flank of the bridge for our journey North. The youngest needed some help as we reached the towering supports and the wind stopped all forward movement, but after another photo opportunity we were on our way and eventually made it to the far side.

Needless to say, the views of the city from here were fabulous, and the topography from the shoreline to the highest hill were all laid out to see. We crossed under the main carriageways and headed for Vista Point which gave exactly what its name suggested. Unfortunately we left the relative safety of the off traffic cycle lanes, and the remainder of the switchback descent into Sausalito was on the road, which didn't please all of the members of our party. Nevertheless we made it back to Bay's edge and found our way to the ferry terminal.

Sausalito seemed to have its fair share of bigger property, a convenient bolt-hole from the pressures of city life perhaps? Surely in such a relaxed and fun loving place, who could possibly need such a thing? We didn't have long to ponder these questions before the process of loading a hundred or so bikes and a couple of hundred people onto a ferry began. It didn't look like it would be possible, but of course the operators were experts and had done this once or twice before. We set off back across the bay to our starting point on Fisherman's Wharf.

We had done it! And yes our friends were right - 'Biking the Bridge' was an experience not to be missed.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Whitstable Mess

I have to admit that at first I was sceptical. Travelling down to Kent from Newbury seemed a long way to go for a team building exercise, with all of the carbon emissions that it entailed. This also seemed like pure indulgence, after all we weren't helping the community but helping ourselves. But as the day drew nearer I became resigned to the fact that we were off to Whitstable for a day of fun. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

We arrived early, which ensured that we had time to look around the town, which was like stepping back in time to an age when your high street wasn't dominated by look-alike chain-stores, but had real independent shops. The only recognisable retailer was Woolworth's and even this store had managed to retain its shop front logo from circa 1970. Still, there was quite a buzz about the place - no urban backwater this, but a seaside town without a tacky prom.

As far as I could tell, there were two major attractions to Whitstable: the sea and oysters. The sea I knew of course, but I was much less familiar with oysters. Luckily for me, we got the opportunity to experience both.

Highlight one was a trip aboard the Thames sailing barge, Greta. This hundred year old vessel appeared to be home to a couple of keen seafaring types, and we had the pleasure of being taken out from Whitstable harbour for a couple of hour trip taking in views of the isle of Sheppey, and admiring from afar the large wind farm that has sprung up off the coast. The weather was pretty good for a quick cruise round the bay, the morning's rain having abated, but the winds were light and so no speed records were broken. All who wanted got a chance to try their hand at the tiller, and you quickly got used to the fact that steering produced motion long after you had moved your hand. This made for many corrections, but generally got us there in the end.

The second highlight was a visit to Birdies Bistro, and the chance to try those famous oysters. I can reveal that slurping them down in one is a skill, but one well worth acquiring, since eating them is like gagging on something that ought to be going the other way. The overall effect is that you are eating something that is good for you and despite a bit of sandy grit, and a slightly salty aftertaste, you are earning the respect of your peers for tackling something a bit tricky.

The main course was a much safer, but no less delicious Sea Bass, and for pudding their version of Eton Mess: Whitstable Mess. I didn't wash this down with quite as much alcohol as others, as I had my critical faculties to keep about me, but this was still an enjoyable stay in undiscovered corner of England.

In the morning I realised that there was one more treasure that this place had up its sleeve. Other places have beach huts but Whitstable goes for them in a big way, with several tiers of them, one behind the other for maximum density. They are a tradition that has died out in many a seaside town, but this place celebrated them as if all the tired and spare ones had gravitated here over a few years.

For a back to the Fifties experience, it cannot be beaten. Try it, you know you want to.