Plymouth River Cottage Canteen

Question: how does a flying visitor with a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall culinary mancrush fill two spare hours on a rainy day in Plymouth?

Simple; he heads 10 minutes out of town to the impressively swish Urban Splash development at the Royal William Dockyard, gets thoroughly soaked wandering around looking for directions and then finally stumbles across Hugh F-W’s cavernous River Cottage Plymouth Canteen and Deli.

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Having done zero research in advance, I’d expected something a little more homespun, and along the lines of the original Axminster River Cottage Canteen but this on a grander scale altogether. From the first step through the door of this Grade 1 listed former Naval Brewhouse the feeling of space is overwhelming with triple height ceilings, a single industrial sized dining room and an open kitchen creating a feeling of well, yes, as the name suggests, a huge canteen.

Having said this is clearly an upmarket, thoughtfully designed and sympathetically converted canteen. But then this IS an Urban Splash development after all. Huge windows set in metre thick granite walls provide distractingly panoramic views towards Plymouth Sound, floors are stripped, fittings are industrial, furniture is artfully distressed and yes, of course, the acoustics are terrible.

Being a wet, weekday lunchtime in January no booking was needed and barely a third of the tables were occupied so, as would be expected under the circumstances, service was prompt and efficient. Perhaps I was just feeling overly damp and grumpy but my waitress’s enthusiasm grated a little but then again maybe she’s ok when she has more punters to share it with or maybe she just thought this sorry solo diner had been stood up?

Foodwise, well it’s Hugh isn’t it? Local is the watchword whether it’s the Portland crab, locally caught mackerel, West Country meats, hearty sounding seasonal vegetables or Cornish blue cheese. Everything on the menu sounds as though it could’ve got here on the bus at a push. Just how it should be- lecture over.

From a short but varied menu I went for the Spicy Pork Balls with Asian slaw and chilli sauce served on a flatbread. Oh and yes, go on, I’ll have fries too. And, oh, is that Cornish Orchards cider? Well, yes, I got a taste for that down at the Porthminster Beach Café last year so I might as well.

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And on a day like this it hits the spot. A nice mix of comforting spicy pork with the crunch of the slaw combined with the double carbohydrate hit of flatbread and fries and a really decent cider seems suitably West Country; thoroughly local and just enough for a wet and hungry visitor looking for a no-frills lunch. Well, enough when a panna cotta with warm spiced apricots is thrown in for good measure. I tend to treat panna cotta as a pudding for warmer weather with the ubiquitous summer berries but this winter version with a little heat and spice works well and at around the £20 mark for a small main, a side, dessert and a decent cider I don’t feel hard done to.

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And, being on a tight schedule, with the aim of being in, out and on my way within the hour I guess my waitress’s enthusiasm and attentiveness is no bad thing. With a little well-timed eye contact I’m settled up and on my way with 10 minutes to spare.

So what can I say? Good luck Hugh…..if this is the next step in developing the River Cottage brand into a wider chain then it’s a good start. Locally sourced well cooked food, a daily changing menu and a genuinely interesting setting. If the rest of the canteens are like this and there’s no compromise on the River Cottage principles, I’m with you all the way.

Thyme and Tides- Stockbridge

Ok, this is a tricky one, but not because there’s a problem with the food and certainly not with the service. The problem is entirely mine and it’s trying to get past the Stockbridge stereotypes that populate this great little bistro/deli and concentrate on the food.

Maybe it was the fact that it was the first day of opening after New Year and that the rump end of the holiday period was still lingering but there seemed to be more than the usual number of 4×4’s, expensive wellies (no, not Hunters. the Aigle ones at £290 a pop) and little Cosmos and Cressidas enjoying their last family lunch before being placed lovingly on the steam train back to pre-prep until Easter, adding to the crowd of well-heeled locals who have made Thyme & Tides the busiest of Stockbridge’s many well-regarded dining rooms.

With such a clientele comes an expectation of high standards and it certainly seems that the Thyme and Tides team are doing enough things right to generate this level of business in such a competitive “foodie” destination. Indeed, even on weekdays, the queue around lunchtime can stretch out of the door for those who haven’t had the foresight to book ahead but today, a 10 minute wait following a friendly welcome and explanation of the expected wait time allows for a quick browse of the accompanying interestingly-stocked deli before being seated.

The dining room itself is bright and stylish in a “tastefully neutral” way with acoustics that suffer a little in a space with so many hard surfaces but any lull in conversation simply provides an opportunity for some more people watching and my companion and I pass the time trying to spot who’s eccentrically local and who’s “down from London” for the holidays.

Service is quick, attentive and professional as would be expected from a bistro who’s proprietor comes from a background of running a consultancy for failing bistros. Staff are clearly well-drilled, know the content of the menu well and even on a day with limited choices due to the New Year reopening, there’s plenty of options based on good quality, mainly locally-sourced ingredients.

For a light(ish) lunch, my choice was the buffalo burger with bacon and cheese with a side order of fries. The buffalo is local enough to have joined the queue of it’s own accord having come from the Broughton Water Buffalo people in the next village and makes for a great burger served nicely medium rare. Being so lazy and having taken almost 2 weeks to write up my visit, my memory of just exactly what else was on that burger is pretty hazy but I remember that it was definitely good, in fact very good indeed.

Being unable to leave without testing out Barista Will’s highly rated coffee, I finished off with an Americano and a decent chunk of Millionaire’s Shortbread, again locally made and leaving me with no complaints. This is much more than a coffee and cake kind of place but for those who want nothing more, they do it very well.

I wish I’d written this up more quickly now, I wish I’d taken notes and I wish I’d taken a couple of pictures too because Thyme & Tides deserves better than a quickly dashed out write up of a poorly remembered lunchtime visit. But on the bright side, I guess that gives me an excuse to make another visit sometime soon.

I’ll look forward to it………

The Borough Cafe, Downton

Downton sits on the northern edge of the New Forest and 4 miles south of Salisbury.  Pretty enough with its fair share of chocolate box cottages and views of the Avon as it leaves the water meadows and winds south to join the Stour at Christchurch but, neither being in Salisbury nor the New Forest, it’s somewhat lost on the traffic grinding past on the A338. Which is a shame, as a short detour in the village centre leads to the Borough Café, a new appearance on the local food scene but one that would sit well in either of these more visited tourist hotspots.
 
But then maybe it’s being slightly off the beaten track that makes the Borough Café try that little bit harder? Sure, the honeypot villages of the New Forest are chock-full of quaint little tea rooms but the regular coachloads of tourists being poured through their front doors means that beyond offering a clean tablecloth, a cup of tea and a toasted teacake they really don’t need to make much effort to draw in the crowds.
 
In Downton, without its tourist hordes, a little more work is required and that’s exactly what Caroline Bromilow and her team seem to be putting in. A building that was previously a dark and dreary village bank has been transformed into a light and airy café staffed by a friendly team serving food that makes a trip to Downton well worth considering.
 
I’ve made 3 trips in as many weeks now and each time there’s been a buzz about the place with a mix of the usual working lunchers, and daytime child-free mums combined with walkers, cyclists and locals interested to see what’s happening. The team seem to know their regulars and with prompt and friendly service that new openings often struggle to achieve at such an early stage, the Borough Café has clearly cracked the basics of getting the right food, to the right table at the right time!
 
Good service alone won’t bring the punters back though and this is where things get better still. On the surface, the menu doesn’t look hugely different to a hundred others but the difference is in the detail here. Coffee freshly ground to order, Teapigs teas, home-made soup changing every day and served with a huge chunk of bread from New Forest Bakeries down the road in Breamore, a bacon ciabatta served with tomato and pepper relish rather than the standard bacon sarnie with ketchup and a wide enough selection of sandwiches, wraps and panini to guarantee happiness to even the most difficult customer.
 
And as the New Forest Bakeries bread suggests, there’s a focus on sourcing food locally with a host of Dorset and Hampshire food producers listed as suppliers on www.theboroughcafe.co.uk including Dorset Tea, Pig & Pickles relishes and even Prices the local butcher supplying the bacon. Any suggestions? Hmmm….well Lyburn cheese is made only 10 mins up the road in Landford so it’d seem an obvious addition but after barely 3 months of business, this is a good start!
 
So yes, Downton, you may have lost a bank, (admittedly one that only seemed to open for about 25 minutes twice a week), but I think you’ve gained something far more valuable. A meeting place for the locals, a haven for those like me who want to grab a decent bite on a rare lunchbreak and somewhere that might even draw in a few newcomers to the village who would otherwise have continued their journey along the A338 without a second thought. Here’s to you, and here’s to the Borough Café!

Dear Majestic…..

Dear Majestic
I tweeted your Salisbury store recently to ask what ciders they stocked…….
I’ll skip the boring bit about how they didn’t reply even after a second tweet and how only a really geeky tweet to the big cheese at Majestic central solicited a response but when I finally heard from them, their best (and only) offer was a mixed case of Weston’s. I did ask if they had anything a bit more local and but was told this was out of their hands. Purchasing decisions are down to the big cheese apparently?
When I called in at the store to check for myself I found they also stocked Henney’s (Herefordshire), Aspall’s (Suffolk), Longueville (Normandy) and Rekorderlig (Sweden). But nothing from Wiltshire, Somerset, Hampshire or Dorset.
Now……forgive me if I’m sticking my oar in here but doesn’t something seem a little wrong when your store in Salisbury, Wiltshire, on the edge of the West Country doesn’t stock a single cider from the surrounding counties? Cider and the West Country are inseparable as far as most drinkers are concerned but not, it seems when it comes to the Majestic purchasing team.
Can you imagine living in Bavaria and the local off-licence not stocking a decent local beer? Living in Epernay and being offered Prosecco? Muscadet in Burgundy? Can’t imagine it somehow yet, here in the West Country, Majestic can’t offer a single local West Country cider.
And it’s clearly not for the lack of availability- off the top of my head I could suggest Wessex Cider- 15 mins up the road in Fifield Bavant, New Forest Cider- 20 mins in the other direction and good enough to go down a storm every week on Borough Market, Cider by Rosie over in Blandford and last but certainly not least, the superb Burrow Hill Cider an hour away in Somerset.
There are plenty of others that I could list but I don’t want to bore you. In fact if I really did want to bore you I’d mention how you seem to ignore some of the fantastic local brewers like Hopback and Downton Breweries too but I better not go on too long.
So, I’ll leave it up to you Majestic. Maybe you can explain this curious omission from your range of ciders? Or maybe you can show some commitment to the great local producers in the West Country by updating your stock to offer something a bit more reflective of our locality?
Go on, I dare you…….

Kings Arms Lockerley and plans for a return trip…

Hidden away between Romsey and Salisbury, it’s not that long ago that the Kings Arms was another rural pub facing an uncertain future. An attractive 18th century building in a pretty location but with so much local competition and the temptation to take the easy option and get a drink closer to home, Lockerley’s local eventually closed and sat empty and unloved until early 2011.
At this point, I began to notice signs of life during my occasional passings-by and what was becoming the village ugly duckling started to transform into something with definite swan potential. A smartened up exterior, an interesting website and, throughout last winter, a temptingly warm glow radiating out of the front windows into the darkness that is Lockerley on a damp winter’s night make me wonder how I’ve not managed to find the time to stop off and see what was going on inside before now.
But anyway, with a wedding anniversary as an excuse for some midweek dining without children in tow, the time for wondering had passed and after a short but dark journey through the back roads of Tytherley and beyond, the glow from the Kings Arms drew us inside. And, yes, the inside lives up to expectations- roaring fire, warm welcome, friendly dog and smartly kitted out with a mix of vintage furniture, neutral shades, local art and the impression that someone’s gone to great effort to make it feel this effortless.
Wednesday nights are inevitably quiet and given the choice between eating in the dining room or at a table in the bar, the latter seems the better option and with a trickle of trick of treaters trying their luck at the bar throughout the evening, the Kings Arms suggests it’s a pub that’s still kept it’s place at the heart of the village despite the obvious “smartening-up” that’s gone on. With the barmaid doubling up as waitress this evening, the menu arrives along with our drinks and it clearly shows that the kitchen knows its strengths- local food, simply cooked and well presented. The menu doesn’t have any great surprises, but a choice of six starters and six mains offers enough variety to leave us considering our options before deciding on a shared starter of pan-fried pigeon breast, crushed peas and pancetta followed by the Hampshire rib-eye with roast tomato and chips and pork and honey sausages with mash and gravy.
The starter goes down well with the single strip of crisp, salty pancetta contrasting well with the pigeon breast and the bed of crushed peas providing a blast of colour on the plate. No complaints here and our empty plate is promptly collected by our friendly barmaid cum waitress.

Main courses soon follow and, as ever, much sharing of food takes place. Although we’re happy with our choices, we’re equally interested in what each other’s taste like and the second opinions confirm our initial feelings that everything is well at the Kings Head. My own choice is made even better by the fact that, on first bite, I recognise the sausages as coming from Greenfields Pork who keep their herd just up the road in the Wallops and sell their products through the Hampshire Farmers Markets. Feed me Greenfields sausages and I’m happy- it’s that simple! As an added bonus, I also receive a side of red cabbage (which wasn’t mentioned on the menu) but works well and has an interesting hint of what I first thought was fennel but I think was actually liquorice- yes, I know, I should’ve asked! And the rib-eye and chips? Well, if it’s done well there’s not much to say so I don’t have much to say other than the clearly chef knows what he’s doing.
The rule of six applies once again to the dessert menu with four choices plus ice cream or Lyburn cheeses with chutney. Being sweet-toothed we opt for lemon posset with home made shortbread and chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel popcorn and once again, after some mutual sharing, neither last long. The posset makes for a refreshingly sharp and light end to the meal and the fondant a satisfying opposite. I’m not entirely sure the popcorn adds anything but then it doesn’t detract either and with Heston making an excellent salted popcorn ice cream, it was certainly worth a try!

Plates cleared and with a bill for barely over £50 including a drink each (good behaviour on a school night!) we agree that this is decent value for good local ingredients, well cooked in the sort of village pub that we’d be happy to spend a lot more time in. It looks like it’d be the perfect place for a winter Sunday Lunch in front of that open fire and we resolve to come back soon to give it a try.

Having a Blas(t) on a Friday night….. (sorry!)

Tucked away up a cobbled side street a few minutes walk away from the main harbour, Blas is too easy to miss for those not in the know. And even for those who stumble upon it, it might not have the immediate appeal of some of the “smarter” restaurants in St Ives.  No bookings, no toilets, communal tables, kids’ pictures on the wall and a menu consisting mostly of burgers might sound like the worst kind of fast food outlet but it doesn’t take long to realise that Blas is a million miles away from this.


The small, single room with four slightly rickety shared tables and chairs made from reclaimed materials can’t help but encourage a informal approach to dining and with staff who really seem to enjoy being run off their feet by hungry locals and holidaymakers, the atmosphere is busy but relaxed.
The food (and drink) is almost entirely locally sourced from small producers, which is a key element of the Blas philosophy of being local, sustainable and ethical and the menu includes a wide enough variety of beef, chicken and vegetable burgers to keep the fussiest of eaters happy. We opted for the Bacon Cheeseburger, Chilli burger and Halloumi stack each served with a mugful of deliciously crisp skinny fries and our unanimous choice of the Cornish Orchards Black and Gold cider. For the first time since we arrived, the conversation slowed as we began to work our way through our imposingly sized choices but, once plates were emptied, we were in agreement that these burgers are pretty exceptional.


In all honesty, writing about something so seemingly simple as a burger seems almost self-indulgent but there’s definitely something to be said for that rare combination of good quality, well-seasoned beef, served pink with an interesting mix of leaves and relish and (yes!) a decentroll. Simple maybe, but it’s amazing how few places actually get all the elements right.

Full, but too tempted by the brownies with clotted cream to say no, we finally stagger back out into the dark reflecting on how well the Blas formula works and how there should be one in every town in the country. But maybe that’s forgetting that it’s Blas’s uniqueness that makes it what it is? So yes, scrap that idea and lets leave it perfectly tucked away on a back street of St Ives- it’s where it’s meant to be and who wants a second rate copy of something this good anyway?


Friday in St Ives and where to start. Moomaid of Zennor? Oh go on…..

An October weekend in St Ives….sounds perfect yes? Well call me ungrateful, but 2 days just isn’t long enough to do justice to all the places on my to eat list unless I adopt a 7 meals a day approach to my weekend. My shortlist, compiled from some old favourites combined with a few “hmmm looks interesting” options includes, Blas Burgerworks, Porthminster Beach Café, St Andrews St Bistro, Moomaid of Zennor and, of course, as many local cider makers as I can find!
Car parked, bags checked and time to explore. And what better way to explore than with ice cream in hand? Directly on the busy harbour and up a short flight of steps, the Moomaid of Zennor ice cream parlour is the public face of family run Tremedda Farm, a 250 acre dairy farm just 5 miles up the road in the tiny hamlet of Zennor. With the milk and cream for the business coming straight from Tremedda’s own Friesian herd which is then turned into over 30 flavours ice cream right on the farm, this ice cream is about as local and unadulterated as it’s possible to get.
Moomaid supplies its own parlours in St Ives and in Porthtowan as well as just about every restaurant in the area worth its salt. But I know this already, I’m a fan, a serial customer and my only issue is which flavour to start with. Disappointingly but not entirely surprisingly, the Sea Salt Caramel has already sold out but I’m still spoilt for choice with a mix of traditional (Vanilla, Mint Choc Chip, Belgian Chocolate) and more innovative (Almond and Amarena Cherry, Fig and Mascarpone or Turkish Delight) flavours to choose from. Turkish Delight would be a first for me so it’s a good place to start and it doesn’t disappoint- it’s that pink dusty stuff you brought back for your mum from your holiday in Maramaris but metamorphosed into a traditional Cornish ice cream and served in a sugar cone. Certainly unusual at first taste but in a good way and I’m left wondering why everyone doesn’t make this flavour!


Later in the day I’m back for more, this time it’s the Almond and Cherry whilst Mrs Food Geek goes for the Moomaid Mess, a variation on Eton Mess but made with ice cream and clotted cream added to the usual strawberries and meringue. Yes, they’re as good as they sound and that’s the thing about Moomaid, it really is as good as it sounds! Great ice cream, locally made, locally sold and always looking for new ideas and twists on original flavours.
The Moomaid website tells the story how a young man was lured into the sea by the Mermaid of Zennor but nowadays it’s more likely he’d have stayed put and put in an order for another scoop!


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