Urban Harvesting

Alf with the pigs

Me with the pigs in Somerset

Growing up on the rural Devon-Somerset border I have always been aware of the crops the other side of the hedgerows and the animals grazing the fields. In our back garden we grew our own vegetables and had chickens scratching around, laying eggs in all the wrong places and getting in the way of our football games. I’ve missed this while living in the city, but you can’t take the Westcountry out of the boy and I’ve found a surprising number of ways to harvest produce in an urban environment.

1) Foraging;

In Norwich in the summer there is an abundance of elderflowers to be made into cordial; if you know where to look there are sloe berries to flavour gin and blackberries for pies. The Rosemary used in the Anchovy and Rosemary Butter came from a bush just down the road.

2) Allotments;

Norwich is a green city, it is home to more than 1,619 allotment plots on 18 sites. The average rent is £40 per year for a 250 square meter plot; plenty of space to keep you in vegetables throughout the growing months. The only problem is the waiting list, which was three years when I last checked; clearly a popular option!

3) Roof gardens;

Edible roof gardens absorb water, clean the city air and promote green living in an urban environment. In the past growing food in London has been a pipe dream for many, but developing roof space into gardens is opening up acres of previously unused space. Urban gardens have been endorsed by Boris Johnson as part of the capital’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

4) Guerilla gardens;

In the city of Los Angeles there is 26 square miles of arable land, enough space to grow 724,838,400 tomato plants. Guerilla gardening is Ron Finley’s way of reclaiming the streets and providing an alternative to fast food; projects for the mental and physical health of the community. His team of volunteers dig up vacant lots across the city and plant fruits and vegetables; “we’ve got to flip the script on what a gangster is; if you aint’ a gardener, you aint’ gangster, get gangster with your shovel, ok? and let that be your weapon of choice”.

5) Aquaponics;

Dan Barber is a chef and researcher. His research into aquaponics led him to Veta La Palma in South West Spain where he discovered “A farm that doesn’t feed it’s fish; a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators; a farm that is literally a water purification plant… farming extensively, not intensively”. Aquaponics relies on creating a self-sustainable ecosystem, which is why the farmers at Veta La Palma don’t scare away the birds who eat 20% of the farm’s fish. The pinker the flamingos’ feathers, the healthier the system is and therefore the tastier the fish will be. Companies like FARM:shop in London use aquaponics on a smaller scale to inspire the local community to grow and eat their own food.

The act of harvesting fruit and vegetables, whether they are foraged from the wild or cultivated in a garden, is the best possible incentive to eat a healthy diet free from processed foods. Gardening is a therapeutic process that sustains the body at the same time as satisfying the mind. There is nothing like the feeling of planting a crop, tending it, and cooking straight from the garden; as fresh as fresh can be.


Review of The Vine Thai Restaurant, Norwich

Having recently graduated from being an impoverished student at UEA, there have not been many times when I have been able to spend £60 on a meal out. I am an enthusiastic cook and having worked many food jobs I have high expectations. A few people had recommended The Vine Thai Restaurant on Dove Street in Norwich so Annabel and I decided to check it out.

Walking into the restaurant is like stepping into a doll’s house. Two locals were sat at a bar that couldn’t have been more than two metres long in a room that held five small tables. I soon realised that its not the size of the bar that counts though but the quality of the booze in its taps and being a CAMRA pub this was fine nectar indeed; Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, Norfolk Gold and HMY Britannia.

Up the narrow staircase to the side of the bar is the dining room which is equally as small as the downstairs. Through the serving hatch leading to the kitchen I could see plumes of steam as the rice cooker was opened and hear the clink of woks and implements. The waiter was very attentive and though he stood near our table for most of the evening his presence was not at all off-putting. After we ordered, the food came out quickly which is one of the benefits of a restaurant with only six tables.

Mixed StarterMixed Starter

The dumplings in the mixed starter tasted like they were from frozen, the tastiest being the patty at the bottom right of the picture which had a delicate lemony coriander flavour. It was the dips that made the starter though; home made soy sauce and satay sauce; plum sauce and chilli sauce with and without chopped vegetables.

Main course

From the left, Stir-fried beef with green peppers and oyster sauce, Goong pad med ma muang (Stir-fried king prawns with cashew nuts and vegetables), Red Thai chicken curry and Egg fried rice.

I wasn’t blown away by the prawns or the beef. In the former the cashew was the prevailing flavour but the dish was hindered by fairly tasteless vegetables just as the prawns were let down by the unstimulating sauce. Equally the green peppers in the beef were sharp and tangy and the meat was nicely pink in the middle, but that couldn’t make up for another sauce that never really turned up.

The fragrant, slightly chilli Red Thai Chicken Curry saved the day. The dish contained tender pieces of chicken,  rubbery bamboo shoots and a few fresh thai basil leaves tossed in at the end. This delicious aniseed flavour assaulted my taste buds and had me fishing around in the dish to find more; alas they were all gone and only the memory of the leaves remained.

Cleansing lychees in syrop and vanilla ice cream followed and then the bill. The meal came to £57.90; £48 for the set menu for two, and £9.90 for two small glasses of house red. Considering all of the above I thought it slightly on the expensive side, but due to the Thai Red Curry, the friendly service and the novelty of the venue, I still left a happy customer. I wouldn’t fancy tackling that tiny winding staircase after a few rice whiskeys though!

What’s the fuss about posh dried pasta?

3 kinds of dried spaghetti

From left to right; Napolina Basic, Napolina Bronze Died, Tesco Authentic Italian

The discrepancy between different brands of dried spaghetti has never really occurred to me. I always thought the question was whether to go for time consuming but delicious home-made pasta, or quick perfectly acceptable dried pasta. When most dried brands contain just water and wheat, how much better can the more expensive stuff possibly be? And is it worth paying more for this staple food? I came up with a pasta criteria to find out; good dried pasta must:

  • Have a firm texture when cooked
  • Have a flavour of its own that comes out when cooked in salted water
  • Hold onto the sauce it is then mixed with

Mike Sissons, author of Global Science Books explains the science behind the firm texture of good pasta; ‘The key features of durum wheat include its hardness, intense yellow colour and nutty taste.’ High protein semolina* from good durum wheat is made up of uniform protein particles and minimal starchy particles which makes the dough strong and elastic during manufacture and firm to the bite when cooked. If the correct balance between protein and starch is achieved the pasta shouldn’t shed too much starch into the cooking water.

(*Semolina is a coarse flour made from the protein-rich endosperm of the wheat.)

In her book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David concurs that the dried pasta with the best flavour and texture is made using very hard water and the highest quality durum wheat. Naples is the home of such favourable conditions which is perhaps why Napolina spaghetti, at £1.55 per 500g, is more than twice the price of its Tesco ‘Authentic Italian’ counterpart. The latter comes in at 65p per 500g despite the nutritional information on the two packets being very similar.

But does sauce adhere to Napolina spaghetti more than cheaper brands? Azélias Kitchen has a highly educational post on bronze die pasta. When making pasta, dough is extruded through a stamp mechanism called a die. The shape of the die determines the shape of the pasta and the material the die is made of determines the texture of the finished product. Though Napolina spaghetti costs £1.55, it is extruded through the same synthetic die as the cheaper brands which gives the pasta a shiny sauce-repelling texture.

The best dried pasta is made using a traditional bronze die, which makes the pasta rough and absorbant, the perfect surface for soaking up sauce. The spaghetti in Napolina’s Bronze Die range costs £1.99 for 500g.

Bronze die

Bronze die (photo found online)

So there you have it, the very best dried pasta on offer is made in Naples out of the finest quality high protein semolina from durum wheat. The dough is mixed using the local hard water, before being extruded through a traditional bronze die and slowly dried.

That is a lot of things to remember if you do decide to splash out on a pack of dried pasta. The main buzzwords to look out for are ‘bronze died’; Generally if the manufacturer has gone to the trouble of using a bronze die, then their ingredients will also be of good quality and their method sound.

Having conducted this research I cooked a spaghetti bolognese with Napolina Bronze Died spaghetti last night. With all my newfound knowledge I thought the spaghetti would dance a waltz around my mouth and romance my taste buds. However, my initial reaction was sceptical with regards to the value of the product.  Luckily the ragù alla bollognese made up for the disappointing spaghetti. I used up the dried porcini left over from the mushroom risotto I made last week and it was fantastic!

Despite falling at the first hurdle, my gut feeling is that good ingredients and traditional processes must yield a superior product, so I will continue looking for a pasta whose taste lives up to its credentials.

Pastrami and gherkin ciabatta

Today Annabel and I walked to Frank’s bar for brunch. Inside the low ceilings and warm colours made for a cosy atmosphere. We got two big mugs of coffee and checked out the menu, which as well as cooked meals includes brunch until 3pm, all day tapas and sandwiches. Two people walking past our table with a scrabble board affirmed that Frank’s bar is my kind of place!

Autumn colours on the walk into town

The focal point of most days for me is food, and today was no exception. I was after a meaty sandwich and a side of chips…

Pastrami, gherkin and mustard mayonnaise on warm crispy ciabatta

Luckily they don’t do chips as I think I would have exploded otherwise. The bread had the perfect balance of crispy crust and soft chewy crumb and inside there was a generous quantity of pastrami and gherkins.

Fishy lampshade

Frank’s Bar interior

Big mugs of coffee

Frank’s bar is a place where I could sit and chill for a long time. The food was really good value and the ambiance relaxed; its clear they would rather maintain a chilled out vibe than turn the tables over to cram as many covers in as possible. They show a film every Sunday afternoon which sounds very appealing! Definitely somewhere I will go back to.

Breakfast at The Iron House Brasserie

‘Bacon bacon bacon,                                                                                               everybody loves bacon,                                                                                                        there aint’ no mistakin’,                                                                                                       that premium quality bacon’.

My Irish girlfriend loves a fry up, or as she calls it, a ‘fry’. We have a well tried and thoroughly tested routine; get up, walk to Quinton’s butchers, listen to one of Mike Quinton’s invariably rude jokes, walk home with original sausages, smoked back bacon that goes deliciously crispy under the grill and a piece of award winning black pudding; all for less than £3. Having such quality breakfast ingredients on offer just around the corner, I have high breakfast standards!

On Sunday we went for breakfast in Town to meet up with some of Annabel’s friends. It was a clear autumnal morning with one of those crisp pale blue Norfolk skies; the kind of morning that makes East Anglia feel like an entirely different country to the Westcountry, where I grew up. We walked down Earlham road, past the Catholic Cathedral basking in the sunshine; down Upper St Giles street with the old cobbles and the cute cafes, past the market place to the Iron House Brasserie.

The Iron House Brasserie from the front

When we walked in the staff were friendly and could accommodate a table of 6 even though we hadn’t booked. The cobbled street and old fashioned shopfront contrasts with the modern interior, which works well downstairs as an escape from the busy street outside. I love going out for breakfast because you have the whole day in front of you. Through the large windows downstairs, you can watch the people outside going about their own weekend plans. The upstairs was less interesting, but when you don’t book you can’t complain about where you are seated.

I thought that my choice of eggs royale was spot on. The eggs were firm and runny in the right places, the hollandaise was nice and lemony and the perfect consistency, and the salmon was dark, thickly cut and rich in flavour. By the end I was nicely full, which makes a pleasant change from my usual post fry up food coma.

My breakfast; eggs royale

Having ummed and erred over whether to go for the eggs royale or the pancakes, Annabel was disappointed with hers when it came. She was expecting a stack of pancakes the size of her head. What she got was this;

Annabel’s pancakes, bacon and maple syrop

Overall it was a nice breakfast (you can tell that it’s me and not Annabel writing this!) and definitely somewhere I will revisit. Next time I go out for breakfast I’d like to check out Frank’s Bar for what I’m told is a real stack of pancakes!