Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Whitstable Farmers' Market

It was eleven o’clock before the family were all in bed, and two o’clock next morning was the latest hour for starting with the beehives if they were to be delivered on the retailers of Casterbridge before the Saturday Market began, the way thither lying by bad roads over a distance of between twenty and thirty miles, and the horse wagon being the slowest.’  Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Shopping at a market is an adventure of sorts. Not an earth shattering adventure but one which brings unexpected surprises; strange shaped vegetables, not fit for supermarket shelves; the appearance of old friends (of the human variety, in case you’re wondering); new faces; emerging community projects; and ideas, if anything, ideas on something different to eat.
Farmers' markets are not really anything new, wherever we’re from, they’re in our DNA. Skip back just a few generations, and markets were the rhythm of the community. Our ancestors saddled up before dawn had broken, and headed off to the market,  horse drawn carts laden with wares.  Or maybe they just waddled off with a string sack and a few pennies in their pockets. People went to market and they bartered and traded and paired off and settled scores.

Markets are talked of in the press as if they’re something new, a quaint but slightly rebellious alternative to superstores. If you’re a working person, it’s practically impossible to avoid a superstore of some sort or another. Occasionally I may run into someone I know in a large store, but it’s rare. Rare, because I’m not looking around. I go in with a list and I hurry. And I’m pissed if they moved things around because, no disrespect, but I just don’t want to hang around in there any longer than I have to.
At the Whitstable Farmers' Market, this Saturday, it’s not the same. It will never be the same as a store, even if I was retired and shopped exclusively at the market. At the market I’ll find something to talk about because it’s impossible not to.  Because food is delightful and interesting and because there’s a story with the food, whatever it is.
I’m buying cheese from Ashmore, and I’m after a Camembert to oven bake, melting it into a fondue which I’ll try our later with a glass of red wine. ‘Oh stop it’ says a stranger who overheard. I buy more cheese, hard cheese. No idea what I will do with it but it tastes so good. And I pass a Camembert to the stranger next to me, so he can try it too.
I’m after pheasant to slow cook with red onions and garlic cloves, in their shells. So I move on to Godmesham Game, ‘We’ve also got some whistling duck you might like to try.’ The whistling duck stares up silently. I pick it up, turn it over but give it a miss. It’s a pheasant I’m after.
And then there’s the vegetables from Ripple Farms, a parsnip the size of a child’s forearm. ‘It can’t be that big, it’s just not possible.’ But it is. Its lying on the stall for all to see.
I’m stocking up on free bay leaves and the stall holder tells me about ‘Transition Town’ an environmental group with a with a community garden in Stream Walk. So I’ve volunteered to go along.
I run into John and Sue owners of Temple Foods. We’d  met at the supper club and he’s cooking a vegetarian meal for the club Thursday evening. I buy a ticket even though I’m supposed to give a lecture early on Friday morning and I thought I’d keep Thursday night  free to prepare. I prepare this Sunday instead.
I’m leaving and a chocolate seller assaults my taste buds with dark homemade chocolate, seasoned with lavender, and cognac.
If you'd like to try it, the Whitstable Market runs on the second and last Saturday of each month at St Marys Hall in Oxford Street. Food is local with stalls no further than thirty miles from Whitstable, no more than Tess had to travel in Thomas Hardy’s town of Casterbridge.
My message, if there is any ' Eat well, live well and support your local Farmers' Market.' Here's ours at
p.s. An idea for pheasant. It’s a rich taste, ideal on a cold day. The stall holder told me that this was good, an end of the winter catch. I’ve had it before but never cooked it myself.
So this is what I did; started by frying it lightly in butter, just for a few minutes, to glaze the skin, rubbed in some rock salt and pepper, then added it to a slow cooker with a red onion, white wine, about 10 garlic cloves in their shells, bay leaves, a bit of fresh beetroot. After about five hours in the slow cooker, I roasted it in the oven, 200 degrees Celsius for half an hour, in the slow cooker casserole dish to crisp the skin. Had it with mashed potato and butter.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

JoJo’s Meze, Meat and Fish Restaurant, overlooking the sea

I’ve heard so much about JoJos, my visit was long overdue.
I thought I would give it a try for lunch with my old University friend, Mustafa, who takes the most beautiful photos. We decided he would take a few snaps and I would write up a review.   
I booked two days in advance, unsure about whether they could fit us in and was offered the last two remaining seats at the bar. I have to confess, while I was looking forward to sampling this new venue –I’m a tad nervous about places like JoJos – it’s so well known, with a influx of celebrity clients, DFLs (‘Down from London’) and regular foodies with write ups in the National press. I wonder if I’ll enjoy the experience or feel like a poor cousin sitting at the bar? It could be a perverse hang-over from student days, when lunch at Pizza Express was still a treat, but years later I just can’t be doing the pretentiousness of being ‘seen at the right places’ sprouting some Transatlantic lingo of upmarket joints where they expect you to understand what ‘Fiocco di Spalla’ is. There’s none of that at JoJo’s– I’ve got it all wrong. No hanging around feeling like a spare part either, we’re welcomed and ushered straight to a bar area overlooking the grill, so I can peer in every now and again watch the chefs at work.
There are meat hooks with cured hams and sauscisson, onions, chillies, colourful sprigs of dried herbs. Just behind the bar Sous-chefs prepare the platters with startling efficiency; meats, humus, olives. Sitting at the bar is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like the casualness of it, the slightly informal feel.
The restaurant specialises in Mediterranean style food; a good choice for a seaside getaway. Its  straight forward, unpretentious - Meze, meat platters, chargrilled sardines, panfried mackerel, home-made focaccia. There’re no assumptions made about the diner’s understanding of food, ‘Lomo’ is explained on the menu as ‘smoked cured pork loin’; Fiocco di Spalla, by the way, is Lean pork air cured and rolled in ground pepper. ’ So no need to be rude about it.

We feasted on olives, warm, crispy pita bread cut into figure length triangles, a tzatziki made with Greek Yoghurt, stupendous amounts of garlic and mint; calamari deep fried in beer batter with a piquant garlic mayo; fresh shrimps lightly buttered in more garlic and finished with the most perfect sticky toffee pudding -  a warm, moist pudding with a life of its own, doused in a syrup that melted as soon as it hit the palate. Fortunately I was wearing a pair of ‘eating jeans’ rather than anything too slick and fitting.
That pudding, with a life of its own!

A meal at JoJos won’t break the bank. Most dishes are under £10, and those over can be shared by two people. There’s no order in which the food might come, its designed to be shared, set out in platters where you all dip in.
The restaurant is family run, the owner, his wife and brother were all on duty, keeping a close eye on the staff. As I’m watching the goings on behind the grill, there’s nothing left to sit. The minute a platter was ready, its out, no hanging around. The food is sourced from the soils and seas around Whitstable. The place is buzzing, packed, with over 70 customers, which is how it operates every day. There’s tables of 10 and more, but everyone gets the same service and the service is impeccable. JoJos deserves to be written about, it’s no coincidence that people who are used to eating well rate it well. I’m told that while its best to book, they won’t take booking more than two weeks ahead to give everyone a chance. I like that.
So, my final thoughts – I will be back for certain, and hope I get there on a hot summer day so I can sit with friends on the terrace, with the expansive views over the estuary and take more time, try more dishes. Right now I need to do something about this garlic and the size of my stomach.

Nothing left to waste

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Whitstable Supper Club

On Valentine’s night Sidonio and Karen launched a brilliant project here in Whitstable, a community Supper Club. The agenda is simple, to bring people together through food.  Someone puts themselves forward to cook whatever they fancy in the Umbrella Centre, everyone sits down around long tables with other people they don’t know, and they eat and talk and make new friends. Not very British, I hear you say...well no, but so much fun.

Perhaps you’re fed up with your own company, and from waiting for the pizza man whose always late from dogging a million potholes before he gets to you with his wares,  perhaps  you’re broke and can’t afford Gourmet meals out with your loved one - ‘get your sorry self down to the Supper Club.’ Here’s the deal, people, it only costs £10 a head and half for kids, so you’ve really got nothing to lose.
You  eat and talk and munch your way through brilliantly created nosh and go home thinking  ‘that was different, and it was actually, a damn good evening’.
 If you’re worried about the ambiance, don’t. This is not a bringing together of the knitted cardigan brigade, sipping tea through dentures and discussing the price of gas ( I have no idea what a Community Centre does in the day but the thought did cross my mind). This is an evening of candlelight, an eclectic group of young and old, of people who love food and a vibrant community, eating, perhaps drinking a bit too much, playing music and laughing. And with the twinkling tea-lights, I could go far enough to say, it could be romantic.
It’s not the first of its kind; Sidonio started a supper club at the other end of the world sourcing seafood from Mozambique and preparing creative, artful meals in Johannesburg. The club grew and grew to several hundred members. I can’t see it getting that big here, but you never know. We started with a group of 27 and maybe  we’ll spread out through the garden into the car park and perhaps the beach!
Anyway, before I bore you with my ramblings, I probably ought to share a bit of what we ate just in case you too are inspired to try it: there was starters of cod croquettes;  a delightful mixture of cod, mashed potato, fresh coriander and spices bedded on rocket; and the main course, an aromatic stew of  shrimps, coconut, peanuts and spring onions served with maize and rice. Eating through it stirred up memories of long lost summers back in Africa, humid lazy days by the beach, and then I remembered, I’m here in Whitstable, and it’s just a bit cold outside.
The Supper Club will run on every Thursday night. It’s a great opportunity to bring friends and family together and show off your culinary skills. So before you try your hand at Master Chef, join us at the Umbrella Centre.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Howard's Kitchen

A few years ago a colleague mentioned this tea room called Howard’s Kitchen where she liked to catch up with friends. I had never noticed it before, and decided to try it for a breakfast.
The website describes Howard’s Kitchen as a chef owned cafe focusing on unpretentious and delicious home cooked food. Since I first tried it I’ve been back many times. This morning I arrived with three friends who stayed over. We were slightly hung over from merriment of the previous evening, and desperately in need of something to eat. It was bitingly cold with the threat of snow.  Howard’s Kitchen, as always, was steamy, warm, with the smell of cooked bacon.
The entrance opens into a kitchen and seated area. There’s more seating space upstairs including a leather couch to curl up on with the paper. Round the back there’s an outside courtyard which is popular in the summer. Of the many good things to say about Howard’s Kitchen, there’s always a table free when you come in. Whitstable has hundreds of places to eat, but finding somewhere to sit is a struggle. There are restaurants in this town taking bookings for May and its only February. Some are crowded,  booming with people spilling over onto each other, and to be honest, I can’t cope with it all in the morning. I was told that in certain towns in the world, they keep a few tables back for the locals, but I’m afraid that Whitstable doesn’t seem to be one of them. Our top restaurants sell out to visitors time and time again. Howard’s Kitchen is a local place filled up with local people. I’m not sure whether its though intention or a fortunate accident, perhaps it’s the general lack of pretentiousness. You don’t need to book and there will be some space.
 It doesn’t promise any frills and there are none. But you will get a good meal. The Chef cooks up simple meals with locally sourced, fresh produce. Every now and again he’ll throw in an unexpected surprise. A couple of weeks back I was persuaded to try the special, Game Pie, which left me barely able to walk. The waitress was so enthusiastic about it I couldn’t refuse. She came over with the pie and told me that I was very lucky to have ordered it, and I was in for a treat.  That’s another thing I love about this place, the staff are genuinely helpful. They’re interested in what’s on the menu and proud of their food.
Today, for a slight change from the Americano I ordered a Swedish Tea and Elderflower juice to help rehydrate. The Swedish Tea is a gentle infusion, lightly scented with rose. Our waitress tells us me I am going to love it. She serves it up with a glass of hot water and the tea leaves compressed in a spoon. I’m less adventurous with my breakfast sticking to scrambled egg, fried mushroom, sausage and bacon. We try out the Chef’s special ‘Tarragon and Chicken Pie’ with vegetables.

The breakfast has left me feeling more settled but still needed sugar. I ask if anyone else wants a dessert or coffee, but they decline.  I ask the waitress to run through their specials anyway;  lemon drizzle, chocolate and hazelnut cheesecake; and rhubarb tart. Everyone orders something and its surprisingly good. Homemade dessert on a cold Sunday morning in February. It wasn’t a bad start to the day.  

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Whitstable Fish Market

Whitstable, Monday, 28th January
It’s been an interesting week in Whitstable.  Janet Street-Porter banished our local newspaper, the Whitstable Times to Room 101 for allegedly failing to report on anything other than Whitstable’s one-way system and the town’s parking problems. Unsurprisingly, no-one was amused. On Friday the Times published a full blown cartoon of Janet on its front page; big hair, big teeth, and a lopsided scowl.
In September last year, Janet was interviewed by the Telegraph’s Travel on why she loves Whitstable, ‘Great restaurants’  came first, and of course, she likes walking by the sea.  And again, no-on was impressed. Of the 12 published comments one from Delilah summed up the general reaction about the state of Whitstable ‘full of Janet Street-Porters with their pretentious friends from London, pushing up the price of everything.’ So it seems we don’t much like ‘Londoners’ descending on Whitstable with their 4x 4s and ‘braying kids’.
We’re lucky here in Whitstable, to live by the sea, in a town with its own fishmongers, independent butchers, several fruit and vegetable stores, at least two bakeries and some decent places to eat, many of them, chain free. People will come here. It is a nuisance when you can’t find parking in your own road and when the High Street is so packed you have to step out into it and dodge traffic just to walk five meters along. But at the same time, it’s a good life. People come because it’s beautiful and authentic, with shops and variety and character. Across the estuary from Whitstable you can make out the shoreline of the Isle of Sheppey, home to the town of Sheerness, with its open prisons and redundant steel factory.  It doesn’t quite have the same level of attraction, not yet at least. If crowds are the by-product of living in a decent place, I’ll have them.
Although I have to admit, it’s great when we’re quiet, like the last Sunday in January. It was a blue sky day, feverishly breezy with a winter chill. Whitstable has a working harbour with a fish market. It’s the first place I’ve chosen to write on in my blog – in which I am dedicating to food in this town where everyone loves eating. You won’t go hungry in Whitstable, it has every imaginable venue. Some have been awarded Michelin stars, others are happy to stick to kebab and fries. They all have their place.

The harbour is a hub of activity and industry, the Fish Market, Sea Scouts, West’s Oysters, Brett Aggregates, the sea-hut shaped market stalls for local traders. It’s alive with noise and motion. Terns dart in and out of fishing nets and coils of rope while gulls squawk and hover in the skies above.  
Whitstable’s Fish Market is easy to find. It’s situated on the South Quay, under the Crab and Winkle Restaurant. Outside its main entrance is its unofficial landmark, a fibreglass fisherman with a white beard and yellow jacket. He’s recently been joined by a bag of chips with legs and a face.  The theme continues into the market where bins are shaped like trout with gaping mouths.  
Inside its as colourful and noisy the harbour. The Market is just one example of one of the town’s more popular venues, serving visitors and adding an extra dimension to their day by the sea, while stocking up well for the rest of us. There’s a colourful deli offering dressed lobster, crab sandwiches, smoked salmon; an ice tray with local fish like sole, skate and wild sea bass and more popular assortments of fresh salmon and tuna fillets, mackerel, and squid. I’m endlessly ashamed when I pick any of these up at Tesco. New Year’s resolution, not to do that again when the harbour is on my doorstep!
There’s seasoned fishmonger cutting open rock oysters, gutting and weighing the stock, tourists swarming round counters stocked with muscles, oysters, whelks, jellied eels, crabs to be eaten in or taken away.
Oysters. There’s plenty of them everywhere you look.  The town is famous for them.  There’s nothing that beats half a dozen on a hot sunny day, outside by the harbour with a glass of white wine.  I’m endlessly amused by the treatment of this unfortunate mollusc, supposed aphrodisiac of the seas (it’s never had this effect on me, but I live on in hope). I accept that it has an odd appearance, for the uninitiated, it’s not a pretty sight and has been compared to many things which are simply not aphrodisiacs. People dangle them over open gullets, eyes closed, (I saw someone once pinching his nose), they pry them out of their shells with plastic forks, over season them with salt and Tabasco sauce, and then wonder why they taste of Tabasco sauce. People chew, splutter and choke them down,  laughing and insulting them.
Whitstable oysters are probably the best to start off on; they’re smaller (so easier to swallow) but have chunkier shells (which won’t matter, you don’t consume the shells). The harbour also serves up oysters farmed over in Ireland which tend to be a larger variety. So it’s up to you. Choose your oyster with care. A good oyster doesn’t need too much seasoning, a squeeze of lemon juice is enough and try not to overdo it.
The Market serves more conventional seaside alternatives for the less adventurous, ice cream in Mr Whippy cones, or cod and chips. Last year it was refurbished with indoor seating set towards the back so punters can enjoy their harbour feast in warmth. There are small touches to brighten up the venue; on the walls of one corridor are scenes of Whitstable and its harbour throughout time.
It’s a good place whatever the time of year. Sunday was just too cold for oysters, so I got some cod and chips to eat in and crab soup for later in the week. Tip – don’t leave crab soup it in the fridge too long after it's been opened.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Sugar Boy

They say that the root of all evil is money. That’s just not true when you’re a kid; when you’re a kid, it has to be sweets. For the love of sweets we learnt to bribe, smuggle and steal.
Edmond was seduced by the wicked witch of Narnia with her Turkish delight; and the golden ticket winners at Willy Wonker’s factory all, barring Charlie, met their gloopy end in seas of gum and chocolate.  Its remarkable what memories surface when you’re strolling around a sweet shop as an adult. At some point very early on in our lives we discovered sweets, cracked out teeth on them, got bubblegum stuck in our hair or toffee in our braces.  My descent into the shady world of deceit started with me biting the tail off a marzipan pig which didn’t belong to me,  then its ears and nose. I told myself I would stop before it all got out of control and anyone noticed, then  realised that it was too late. The pig was already dismembered.
There’s a sweet shop at the bottom of my road in Harbour Street, a traditional sweet shop with tubs of candy. The Sugar Boy. It’s full of sugar and spice and many things nice. There’s rock candy, chocolate mice, jelly babies, sherbet that fizzles on the tongue, toffee, peanuts roasted in caramel, dark chocolate, light chocolate, nougat, fried eggs, sugar gums, coils of liquorice with multi coloured sprinkles, wine gums, alphabet sweets, gob stoppers, marzipan, pastilles. There’s sugar free sweets, yoghurt sweets, sweets to clear your throat.
Britain is in the throws of an obesity crisis because apparently we eat too much crap. It keeps on cropping up in the papers every now and again. But to be honest, I don't care.  On my way to do some regular shopping I decide to stop off first at the Sugar Boy and walk around with a plastic bucket and pincers, to wade through a sea of sweets and fill it up with anything which grabs my imagination. Despite its proximity I haven’t visited my local sweet box in months. It lightens the mood on a grey winter's day. It’s a place of happy memories crammed with sweets from the floor to the ceiling. There are scales to weigh up the sweets, priced per 100 g. Then they’re packed in pink and white paper bags.
I’ve just got the sweets home and put them out on the lounge table for decoration (as if) and now it’s clear what was missing. The thing is, a bowl of sweets looks  damn good on a table along with the magazines, books and coasters.

  -The End-