Archive for December 2011
The New Years Eve Run ended, for the most part, at the Prince but I still needed to catch the bus and really new the Carling Challenge ahead was going to be brutal so I continued into town and stopped at the Red Lion, poignant as the name of the first pub I hit once safely resident in England was a Red Lion (12o stumbling steps along the wall in Stretham to my front door on Pump Lane). As time goes on (nearly to 800 pubs now), this becomes statistically significant as the Red Lion is the most frequent name on my list and the most frequent name nationwide.
Anyway, the RWB Red Lion is lovely, with two small rooms well appointed and prices to cry for: £2.10 for Courage and £2.70 for Guinness (sounds rough in the States but here it is a blast from the ancient past). Nice folk, too, but RWB is pretty cool for a place that isn’t too cool. Still the same trip without the camera, so it is a Google map pic, probably originally shot in the summertime. Happy Ney Year!
Out for the last run of the year and preparing to settle into mostly Carling Black Label for the 100 Beers In !00 Places Challenge, I did a route out to RWB that dumped me off at the Prince of Wales. This was a fantastic little house out of the main town and the crowd and management were absolutely lovely. I had a Doom Bar for my beer, a conversation about drinks for hot curries and another about gambling on the Royal Wedding, then buggered off out to catch my bus back to Swindon. The photo is a screen capture (the sun does get that bright but never that high in Winter here)…forgot my camera.
Follow-up: Reported this public health menace to the Trading Standards office in Swindon before Christmas and they finally asked for details on 11 January (almost three weeks later). Nearly another week passed before they checked it out and said that they could find none on the shelf and that the proprietor, who seems quite cozy with some of the Council, assured that they had no intention of stocking it anymore. When someone gets poisoned, as I am sure will happen, I still have the vessel and the emails to trace this chain of events.
On “Seinfeld” there was a bit where Jerry says something like, “it doesn’t offend me as a Jew, it offends me as a comedian;” here, I’m not offended as a chemist or even as a customer…I’m offended as a drunk. There has been a spate of counterfeit vodka going around and I think I got some at my local shop last week. I haven’t had the chance to do any real chemical analysis on this but plan to do so; it smells of enols and ketones, and tastes a bit dodgy as well. The front label should never have passed quality control if the stuff was legit, glued on poorly and (like the back label) crooked.
The back label has a suspiciously low and simple tax number, but that really isn’t as unusual as the lousy job done reproducing the lines behind the stamp image and the ‘drinkaware’ web address has a hyphen in it that shouldn’t be there.
The lid of real Glens Vodka has always had a JG logo on it, while this one is plain. And, there is no lot code on the glass as per this article:
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In the mean time I have reported this to trading standards.
The run home required a stop for beverages and my sense of direction dictated that the stop was at Lidl…shit. However, there on the shelf was the 28-year-old malt that my single malt guru tipped me off to (with not a small amount of snarkiness less-than-subtly salting the ‘advice’); I could not resist, despite my better angels pushing me toward ANYTHING else.
Verdict: not really too bad, but it hasn’t picked up any of the character or complexity of the respectable malts less than half its age. There is an aromatic nose of vanilla and espresso faintly expressing itself, some malty smoke but not like you would hope and overall it is about as smooth as the price would dictate. I wouldn’t buy it again and since it is on a limited run of 3600 bottles that probably wouldn’t be in the cards, anyway.
Essentially, this booze has nothing to show for the 28 years before it climbed into the bottle and I feel a deep kinship with that. I really have to stop shopping at Lidl.
The curse of the Hungry Horse pub chain might be over…as I ran up to the Brookhouse Farm and saw the sign, thinking “oh, fuck me, why do these things happen?” I nearly continued on to Royal Wootton Bassett to pick up a new pub for the list. However, the place was quite pleasant inside (good music, friendly barmaid about my age and with the competence that the many years we have put in lend). There was one guy banging on about himself and what a daredevil he was as a kid and how “I’m just the same as that now, me.” What a fucking jackass…my favourite.
Got a wee jumpstart on the Challenge, as the ale was Olde Trip and GK IPA, neither of which I fancied as much as a frosty Carling Black Label. Yum, yum.
I left the Blunsdon Arms and ran up the hills toward the dog track and the A419 to give the Cold Harbor a visit. It is attached to a Premier Inn, a discount hotel chain, but is actually very nice and stands on its own unlike a few of the restaurant-y pubs that also attach themselves thus. It really isn’t easy to get to for pedestrians, though, and I wound up jumping a wall to get into the garden.
Q: "Didn't the brewery send a clip?" A: "Yes, but this is a family place."
The climb had been steep although the run between pubs was only about a mile-and-a-half, so I decided to slake the accumulated thirst with a Moorhouse Brewery Blond Witch–astringent but fruity and just light enough to sit well for the downhill course back to the house. Moorhouse, by the way, has the most blatantly pornographic pump clips around (bit of nipple on the Blond Witch, check it out).
The temperature dropped during the day but the skies cleared and it seemed a good time to go running. Consulting the map of pubs I haven’t yet tried, I found two on the northside and made my way up there.
I had avoided the Blunsdon Arms in the past because the outside is so unappealing–sort of a sterile, cookie-cutter, motel bar/restaurant. But, it is actually quite nice inside (far too nice for the likes of me).
With several ales to choose, I got a Pirate’s Gold by Wooden Hand Brewery and headed outside…there was a lovely view of Swindon down the hills and a light breeze to dry the sweat. The beer was good but could have been a bit more bitter to go with the walnut taste. Still, it was just a quick stop and maybe had I lingered the flavours would have matured a bit.
Cassoulet Step 1: Duck Confit
Cassoulet is my favourite winter dish, but it is supposed to be rustic, poor-people’s food and made from leftovers (which is why there are so many and widely varying recipes for it). A batch of cassoulet made from all the starting ingredients fresh from the grocer sets you back a few bob, but it is still well worth the effort.
My recipe, which is ever-evolving (here is last year’s batch, for comparison), uses either a roast duck or an ample amount of duck confit. Confit is a way of preserving meats under duck or goose fat and lends quite a bit of class to inferior cuts–a 15th-century peasant preparation that the lord of the manor would appropriate as the years progressed. The meat is salted heavily (more so than you might think is a good idea) then drowned in the fat and cooked at just over the boiling temperature for hours. Normally, you would just use leg quarters but this is for my extra special xmas and New Year’s cassoulet so I bought a whole Gressingham duck (4.5 kg) and cut it into pieces. The breasts are a bit of an extravagance, but we really don’t treat ourselves too often.
The fat rises above the liquified connective tissue...yum
Salting as I went along, the pieces were layered pretty tightly into a slow cooker set on low to get things started. I had a tangerine that had a nick in it and I put it in, quartered, and sprinkled a few fennel seeds around and crushed a rounded tablespoon of pepper corns coarsely and dumped them betwixt layers. I still needed to go pick up a couple of items at the store so the fat melting off the duck itself would have to do to start; I added another 500g later, along with some pork fat trimmings I found stored in the freezer from a roast last month.
Ready for storage, aging
Once some of the fat has melted into the dish, the temperature setting is turned to warm which will keep things at around 100-110 deg C. This goes on for about 10 hours, now, during which time the meat absorbs the flavours and the connective tissue melts and dissolves. Once cool, the meat is stripped and placed in tubs while the gelatin and fat separate and congeal. I don’t know a good use for the gel, so it gets tossed; the fat is remelted and poured over the meat to seal it from the air and airborne contaminants.
This is now ready to be stored. Put it in a cool, dark cabinet and let it sit for a week or so before use. Long-term, you should probably store it in the fridge (a month or so), or freezer (until you forget what it is). A bit of freezer duck confit is always a nice surprise during one of those damp, spring cold snaps. The guys at the Alcoholian do an admirable (and less actionable) job of describing the process and shelf life.
Biscotti and Vin Santo
Discussed in an earlier post, just do it at every holiday and most weekends.
Christmas Eve, A Lighter Bite
I’ve mentioned how wonderful the tomatoes are in the kebab shops with no correlation in the or market stalls, but in the fruit and veg merchants in central Swindon they are sublime. The little turkish market I walk past every evening has some of the best and at prices that boggle the mind (I would suggest they are involved in money laundering were they not my favourite stall on Manchester or Corporation). I loaded up on these and some chicken breasts at the halal butcher up the street and a bunch of fresh parsley and other autumn niceties leading into the holiday.
The drill this Xmas Eve was to brown some shallots and garlic (shitloads, some would say) in butter and goose fat then just as the golden tinge hit seal the flesh of bird breasts in this purifying inferno. Just barely, though, and then throw in many chunks of these heavenly tomatoes, some roughly split black olives, a spoon of crushed oregano, another of black peppercorns, likewise crushed, and a large handful of parsley. Cover and stew with a cup of dry white wine for an hour then stir, run up the heat and dry it out a bit. Serve it with a bit of fresh bread (a baguette, made here). Yum.
Christmas day, make the rest of the Cassoulet
But, while we wait, why not a bit of champagne, pâté, and brie?
Render the fats, cook the other meats
Some butchery is necessary on the meats and as I bought a large shoulder of pork to use some of the other cuttings in stir fries and other dishes earlier in the month but at this point it is down to about 700-900 grams and some of that must be cut away and other bits were meant by the butcher to be roasted to cracklings. No problem, in fact quite the opposite as I need some lard which I don’t generally keep and so used my butchery skills (duly earned in my earlier, youthful life) to trim this down for the purpose.
The lamb for the stew was also a shoulder and I couldn’t get anything but a rolled bit at this juncture (my farming connections being somewhat scattered since the move from Bicester). Again, no matter, but the trimming was a little more delicate, surgical, even. The butcher did a great job and I especially like the marbling for myself but I don’t want the lamb fat there in something I share, especially when Jackie (who normally despises lamb and mutton) is the prime recipient.
Once the fat is rendered, the skins are pulled and stripped while the heat is turned as high as I can get it–until there is smoke–then the cubed, defatted meats are browned with a crisp surface and nearly raw centre. I set these aside but collect the blood and other juices for the cassoulet.
Home made lard for the meats fry-up
Cook the beans
The beans are haricots blanches, 750g dry weight soaked in cold water overnight then rinsed. The reserved pork skins from the rendering are put in the bottom of a stock pot and covered with the beans, two onions studded with cloves, half a pound of finely diced pancetta, a couple of stalks of celery, three carrots cut lengthwise and then in half again, a handful of parsley, some bay leaves, and a tablespoon of salt. Instead of water, this confection is covered with duck broth and boiled for 1.5 hours before draining and throwing away the onions, parsley, pork skins, and celery.
Set the vegetables
Finally, a healthy dollop of duck fat is melted from the confit and heated hot but not smoking in the pan the meats were fried. This pan is then filled with scallion greens (some cups), a couple of chopped onions, two cups of shallots, some chopped celery with the greens, several coarsely chopped carrots, a shitload of garlic, and just a pinch (5 – 10) of cumin seeds and two or three fennel seeds (no more, dear god!). A parsnip or a few potatoes could be done, too, I hear but do not believe. Remove from heat after the onions are clear but not yet golden. Mix with the meats so they are all turned together, adding a pound of sliced, good quality garlic sausage or kielbasa.
Assemble and do the first baking
Ready to bake
Cut some tomatoes into large dice, say, quartered if they are really small. Put enough on the bottom of your casserole (or dutch oven or whatever-you-have that will hold all this and still fit in the oven) so that they WOULD cover the bottom if you mashed them–you should see most of the bottom of the pan, though. Add layers of beans, then meats and vegetables, then more tomatoes (being more generous after the first layer) in turn so the last layer is the meat and vegetable mixture. This batch got half a bottle of Orvieto poured over it, but any crisp, dry white wine would do…I’ve used red wine in the past with stunning results. Bake at 140-150 degrees C until bubbly and browning, about an hour.
First baking complete
You COULD buy bread...savages
This is one of the more contentious issues in cassoulet orthodoxy, and I’m told you really have to make a choice between the two ways but refuse to do so myself. If you are a No-Bread-Crumbs person, just leave the pot in the oven another 45 minutes.
Is it ready, yet?
This batch is a bit kinky, though, and was removed from the oven then covered by a 1/2 inch thick layer of bread crumbs made by putting three slices of dry toast, a cup of parmesan-reggiano, and a knob of ice-cold butter into a food processor and reducing to dust. This is then rebaked for an hour.
Merry Christmas and due to the copious leftovers, even with sharing, Happy New Year. Well, once the wine cabinet is restocked….
Christmas does a number on the wine stores...
Home page for the challenge...there should be some enjoyable pictures in the coming months
Or as my link to the left notes…100 Shit Beers as all real beer in the States is considered ‘craft’ or too la-di-fucking-da to qualify. That’s alright, I LIKE Carling and that shit is everywhere over here.
Places can be pubs (got that one covered) or someplace cool (I see some mid-race lagers in my future). My only question is, what is the challenge for the SECOND week?
[Note: Thanks to Brownie for clueing me into this.]
The Christmas Eve Run is usually a pretty decent way to shake off the pre-holiday overindulgence, and this year it was just what it says on the tin. Having finished all the requisite preparations for the holiday, enjoyed a fittingly decadent breakfast of smoked salmon, eggs, homemade bread, fried mushrooms, champagne and a couple of biscotti dunked in Vin Santo I recovered with some number puzzles, a bit of blues uke, and headed out over the hill across Old Town into Wroughton. Windy and a bit cool (myself AND the weather) I turned down Kerrs Way and soon found the Iron Horse, a modern estate pub that looks like a dental office inside and out except there is a fruit machine and a bar.
The architecture notwithstanding, this was a very cool pub and, set as it is next to some green space on a creek, is probably a fine place to soak up a bit of summer sun on the way to or from a long run out the Ridgeway. We shall see, we shall see….
I prefer to think the name has more to do with the Bollywood character than the guest room, but the Snooty Mehmaan (formerly the Snooty Fox) was near a bus stop and just a few miles over the fields from the Anchor so in I went. Lovely choice as they had Cobra on tap, but the kitchen was already closed so I couldn’t get a late lunch.
The guys there are quite a nice bunch, but after some initial chitchat they went off to tidy up and I was left with the carpenter working on their flooring for a wee talk. Another nice kid, this was the perfect way to end the day as the clouds rolled in obscuring the sun for what, as of this writing, turned out to be the next several days.
It is only about a kilometer from the Horse and Jockey to the Anchor and they are of similar age but it seems miles and centuries apart. Still, it was a beautiful day out and the village was very nice and I still had a surprising level of energy considering the busy Wednesday drink-runs. Into the pub to confront the statuesque/amazonian bartendress and move off down the hall to sit in the sun.
The music was fine and the crowd seemed a little more familiar with actual labor than the older group at the Horse and Jockey, but there was really something wrong with the place. It struck me as I was leaving that the house was quite old in construction but that sometime in the last few decades a really egregious and half-hearted attempt at modernisation occurred resulting in the ugly plaster that clings to this horrific paint job. What are you gonna do, though?
I mismeasured the run so it took a little longer to get to Hatford from Buckland and I reckoned if I were going to try either of the Stanford-in-the-Vale pubs it would be the Horse and Jockey. This turned out to be an excellent choice despite making it to the Anchor as well (turns out they were open all day, anyway). The Horse and Jockey has more of an old pub feel, though, despite both being several hundred years old (this one dating to the 15th century).
Dimly lit, with a low ceiling, an archipelago of small rooms, and a bar packed with barely-from-the-west Englishmen with deep-west-English accents and most in Wellies or work overhauls this was the real thing on such a beautiful first day of the holidays. I had a reasonably priced and perfectly presented Umbel Ale and glanced through a few issues of Private Eye on the stack of papers near the table I shared with some historic relic of a pensioner.
The briefest of visits to the lab were followed by the bus trip home, interrupted only by my stop at Buckland for a run. The plan was a trip to Stanford-in-the-Vale, loop through the village with a stop at a couple of pubs, then back up to the Snooty Mehmaan to catch the bus the rest of the way from there. First, however, it was essential to slake this monstrous thirst so I dashed to the Lamb, an ancient inn at the end of the walled bit of Buckland.
I was not disappointed with the Lamb. The landlady and the chef were fantastic folks and the pub dog was quite a sweety. Abingdon Ale was on the taps and a fire was blazing away opposite the bar. Awesome.
It was quiet, save the nervous pre-combat chatter of the wait staff (the chef told me there were three large parties and the smallest had several dozen covers). It was getting ready to kick off so I timed it just right. As I ran out toward the trails, the first three cars pulled in. Merry Christmas.
I wasn’t confused…I knew it was only called a bar, but I had a hankering for a piece of cod. It was fried fresh to order but was god-awful: greasy and with a bit of aftertaste that made me glad I had spent so much time imbibing antiseptics earlier in the evening. But, say what you will, they do have some fine offerings on the menu:
It has been AGES since I last hashed but the Oxford Hash is at night and the North Wilts Hash is difficult to get to whenever the start is at or near a pub I haven’t yet blogged in these pages. Last night, however, saw the OH3 start at the Ladygrove, just a few hundred meters from the Didcot rail station (a fifteen minute ride home, in fact). I have never had a good experience at a Hungry Horse pub but this confluence of events made it worth a try. Live and learn.
With the afternoon of drinking behind me and a plan to run to the Plough in Long Wittenham and what I thought was the Carpenter’s Arms in Appleford, I postponed the pint until me and Dippy returned from our village-to-village pub crawl. This was a good idea as I would’ve passed out had I restarted BEFORE the runs, but it was bad because we missed the hash food and the Ladygrove kitchen closed five minutes earlier. When we asked if we could bring some food in they were emphatic and hostile…I guess when you do the sort of business they do you don’t really have to be polite or sympathetic. Dippy got some chips at the fish place and signalled On-Out but we were harrassed by some butchy little cleaning woman for even crossing the property with outside food. We set our glasses on the pub side of the wall and the feast on the neighbourhood side and nourished ourselves. I won’t be returning to the Lady Boy anytime soon.
We made our way across the muddy fields at the edge of the Thames when we left Long Wittenham and rolled into the Carpenter’s Arms. We left the muddy footwear in the car park and I had a Hooky Bitter to match Dippy’s Abingdon Bridge and I noticed the friendly staff in this warm old inn were wearing matching polo shirts with ‘The Appleford‘ embroidered above their lumpy bits. Turns out, it has changed its name since Dippy set an OH3 trail out of here a few months back.
This sort of non-pub-like name usually means only bad things, like the food is going to take over the business and, indeed, a proper chef in proper chef’s checks came out to chat along with the affable and well fit landlady. It had been a Greene King pub before, and now is a true freehouse which is almost always a good thing. As mentioned, they had two local ales and interesting ones at that plus two other barrels had just run dry. There was a fire; the giant house is held up with ancient timbers; there are snugs to retreat to (although the friendly proprietor is well worth hanging out with if she’s not too busy). Go by, maybe the sign will be back up after the storms.
It was ever so dark to be wandering around alone in villages at the Berkshire/Oxfordshire borders but needs be. At least I had a local guide, Dippy from the Oxford Hash, who commutes past the trails we were on. The Oxford Hash almost always does prelaid A-to-A or A-to-A′ trails with a large table of food and drink set up at the finish so I had already planned to go off trail to a couple of nearby villages then meet back at the start later on, but the addition of Dippy is always a pleasure and, unusually where either of us is involved, made for a more direct route. The Plough at Long Wittenham emerged after about 25 minutes of steady pace.
The third time I asked for our Theakston’s Black Bull pints, pointing at the tap directly in front of him, it became obvious the landlord was less confused by my accent than just being a pain-in-the-arse to the foreigner. I heard later that he is renowned as the rudest landlord in the tri-county area; this would probably explain why the carollers that stopped briefly out front gave the place the briefest of looks before pissing off down the next house. He keeps a good ale, though, and the bar is quite an impressive and cozy old place to have a conversation (with someone else).
Pre-Christmas lunch with hashers has become a regular event the last 5 or 6 Christmases and this year a group from Oxford met up at Far From the Madding Crowd, which was nice since so many of them were not going to the hash tonight. Unlike most previous episodes, I was still able to do a bit of work afterward so tidied up a little administrative stuff I had planned to do over the break and gave the labs a last look before donning the running attire and heading out to the Marsh Harrier to tick off one of the last three pubs I had yet to visit within the boundaries of the Oxford loop road.
The place is alright and was packed with darts players when I arrived at 5, the posted opening time although today for some reason they opened at 2:30. I had a Bengal Lancer (Fuller’s IPA) and moved around the corner to a quiet table. Well, I SAY quiet as the craprock muzak blared out of a tannoy pointed straight at my face. Plus, this is the 4th time this month that I have been assaulted with “We built this city on rock-and-roll” in Oxford, proof if you need it that in fact you did not.
The Fir Tree is incredibly hip and the general atmosphere (if not the architecture) reminds me of some of the better bars back in Athens, Georgia. Laid out on multiple levels, painted dark and lit dimly, the bare wood floors and the rustic tables and bar stools are what so many pub designers try to achieve but it is done here without pretense. The bartender and regulars seem friendly and the background music is better than most that can be found on the radio ’round these parts (well, it was a Paramore album while I was there but I live in a desert of such insipid pop radio that even this stands out).
I ordered a seasonal ale, Howell’s Frosty Bells, which was especially nice with a bit of roasted nut flavour to it and a long finish. The bar is out-of-the-way — less than a Bannister minute from the track on Iffley Road where the four-minute mile was first beaten and far enough off Cowley Road to be more of a local than a party shack — but still convenient enough to the Plain to walk over and give it another try some evening. Soon.