The Joy Of The Oatcake

With a last-minute invite from the lovely Maria Thomas (friend to the blog and talented actress and producer), the Leading Man and I made it out to the wilds of Crouch End last Tuesday for a trip to the movies. The Greenhorn Film Festival, supporting new and emerging film-makers, held its Official Selection Night at the Arthouse Cinema, and we were treated to an evening of cracking shorts.

With patron Mike Leigh in attendance, the programme included Ed Chappell's prize-winning documentary Sandyman, a portrait of a sand artist who scribes mandala-like artworks into a Devon beach. Personal favourites of mine were Christian Schleffer's The Dewberry Empire, a funny and macabre animation about the often cruel world of children's game play, and Chris Lee and Paul Storrie's The Hedgehog, an exploration of games culture with a brutal twist.

But I'm not really here to talk about films today. See, one of the shorts was a smart little faux-newsreel piece on a culinary passion of mine. The film was George Smith's The Ultimate Guide To The Oatcake. And frankly, I'm shocked that this brilliant example of British local grub can be treated as a curiosity.

The oatcake is not, as the name might suggest, a type of flapjack or cereal bar. It certainly isn't a cake. It's more of a savoury pancake, with a denser, more robust structure that's somehow also airy and easy to digest. Think of it as a cross between a tortilla and a chapati. In fact, one long-standing theory for the origin of the oatcake has soldiers coming back from duty in India at the height of the British Empire and demanding their wives make the delicious savoury pancakes to which they had become addicted. Using local ingredients including oats, the result, although not authentic (we'd have to wait another hundred years for the real deal to make its way over from the sub-continent) were entirely delicious.

The oatcake is a highly versatile foodstuff, a benefit of its simplicity. A fantastic addition to a cooked breakfast, it's also great stuffed with cheese and ham as a lunch-time treat. Flavoursome and filling, I've even used oatcakes in a kind of cannelloni, rolling a thick ragu in them, covering with cheese and baking until everything bubbles. Now that, my hungry Readership, is a winter warmer.

The one problem with the oatcake is that of supply. Apart from aficionados like TLC and I, the oatcake is barely known outside of its native Staffordshire. Smith, in his pert little doco, notes that the shops that were once on every street corner in places like Stoke are fading away. The exclusivity of the dish, the fact that it's tricky to get outside The Potteries, has contributed to an obscurity that means that fewer and fewer people even know about them. Their short shelf life means that supermarkets are leery to stock them. The worry is that this most delicious of local dishes is in danger of becoming a culinary footnote.

Fortunately, thanks to the internet, it's easier than ever to buy them in vacuum packs from suppliers like High Lane or Poveys. You can even get a pancake-like mix to which you simply add water and a little fat. Or you could, you know, try to make them yourself. The batter is a mix of fresh yeast, sugar, fine oatmeal, plain flour and water, a leavened mix that needs time to rise and develop the bubbly texture that makes the oatcake so delicious.

Now, I've never tried this. I prefer the illicit thrill of knowing that there's a pack on its way down from my West Midlands contacts. There's an almost druggy tingle to the process. Crack the pack, hot pan, two minutes a side and hot damn, there's breakfast. There's nothing better with bacon and sausage, or simply warm with butter. But however you eat it, the oatcake is a must-try. It's even, with the low GI from the oats, good for you. Not if you fry it in lard, obviously. Find a balance. But do, please, find a pack of oatcakes. Your breakfasts will never be the same.

High Lane Oatcakes
Poveys Oatcakes
Staffordshire Oatcakes

For more on George Smith's great little documentary, including festival screenings, check him out on Facebook or Twitter. It's well worth a look.

 

About these ads

Bring On The Winter: Garlic shoulder of lamb with potato boulangère

Doco Dom and The Lady Deming have been visiting old haunts in France, and returned with a gift for lucky old me: a big-ass garlic grappe from Lautrec, the town famous for its stinking roses. I was, of course, deeply appreciative, but I was left with a slight problem. Now I have to do the stuff justice.

Garlic is the friendliest stuff with which to cook. The papery coating is the perfect defence against the heat of the oven, and a roasted head of garlic is a brilliant accompaniment to just about any savoury meal. Simply lop the top off, splash over a little oil, and cook for half an hour in a medium oven. The honey-coloured, mellow-flavoured paste that results when you squeeze out the cloves is a delight.

But we can do better than that. Keeping it French, I decided to snag some lamb shoulder, and put together the ideal slow-cooked meal for a lazy Sunday.

 

I'm a recent convert to the ways of the slow-cooked shoulder of beast. It is, to be fair, a dish that requires time. I could get my act together before leaving for work and pop a cut into the slow cooker, I suppose. But really, this is a weekend dish, designed for a bit of kitchen puttering. Particularly if you're smart, and do the potatoes at the same time.

Preheat your oven to 130C, and get on with the lamb. I had a half-kilo lump which will easily serve TLC and I with leftovers. Season it thoroughly, then get garlicking. Skin a whole head of the lovely stuff (it's easiest to bash it with the flat end of a knife or cleaver–the flesh will pop free from the papery husks) and nick off the hard stem. Then make deep incisions into the lamb with a sharp knife, and stuff the cloves into these pockets. Try to make sure they go all the way in. Don't be shy. Shove 'em in there.

Now to the spuds. Potatoes boulangère is the way forward here: layers of potato and onion, moistened with stock and flavoured with the copious fat from the lamb. You need a mandolin to do this properly. No, not the stringed instrument, you fool, the terrifying cross between a knife and a guillotine that has shortened many a chef's finger. Finely slice a couple of onions and four or five big potatoes. And grab some herbs. Thyme is traditional, but rosemary also works brilliantly.

Now to build. You can use a roasting tin, but I find a good deep casserole works just as well. Butter it well first. Pop a layer of potato in the bottom of the pot, then onion, herbs and a grind of salt and pepper. Then repeat, layering spuds, onion, herbs and seasoning until you've reached the top. If you're using Pyrex, then you get to see the result of your labours at the end. Check out this work of art.

 

Then all you do is slosh over a couple of ladlefuls of good stock, pop your lamb on top of everything and shove it in the oven. Then wait, which is probably the hardest bit. Five hours cooking time, slow and low, letting the fat gently render out of the lamb and into the boulangère, giving the garlic time to mellow and soften. Cook it for long enough and the cloves will actually melt into the meat, although I like the notion of squidging the soft garlic around on the plate.

When that five hours is finally done, let the meat rest for twenty minutes, then shred it. If there's a bone on the joint, it should slide free without complaint. Serve the lamb and potatoes with a simply steamed green veg (we had broccoli). You shouldn't need gravy as the boulangère is still quite sloppy. But don't let me stop you from sloshing a little mint sauce on the side.

The whole thing is is rich, herby, rib-sticking. There's nothing harsh about it. Hell, you don't even have to chew that hard. On the day the clocks went back, it was the perfect way to usher in the cooler months.

 

 

The Robin Hood Beer Festival: On Target For Food!

The Robin Hood Beer Festival is a must for any fan of the fine art of brewing. It takes over the grounds of beautiful Nottingham Castle for a long weekend in early October, usually catching the last of the sunshine before England succumbs to the soft rains of autumn. The Festival has been a lock on the Beeranaut's diary for quite a few years now, and 2014 saw a representative quartet (Super Sam, Rev Sherlock, Charmin' Ciaran and myself, El Conojito) jump on the train and hit the Midlands.

Now, I could spend a long time raving about the quality and choice of beer on offer, and let's be straight up here: The Robin Hood Festival has a larger selection than any other gathering in the country, and that includes the Great British in Olympia. Given the choice, you should be heading here rather than the big shed in London. The surroundings are nicer, the beer is better and, most importantly, the food is amazing. There'll be plenty of bloggers out there talking about the beer. Me, I'm peckish. Let's take a look at the food.

The thing with the Robin Hood Fest is that we're almost more excited about the grub than the beer. We know we're guaranteed a good feed at a reasonable price. We're not talking about duff burgers or a soggy cone of chips here. The scran at Robin Hood is top notch.

It never seems long after we head up the hill to the main marquee before we gravitate to the deli stand. It's lunch-time, after all. This is a shared concern between The Cheese Shop, which is normally based in the Flying Horse Arcade in Nottingham itself, and Melton Mowbray's own Mrs. King's Pies. I dream about the porky goodness encased in a lovely crumbly hot-water crust. A half-pie with a dab of mustard will set you back £2, and set you up for the afternoon. You will note that greedy Conojito had a salami on the side. Dense, meaty and utterly delightful. Rob's top tip: put a whole pie back to pick up for later, along with some choice cheeses. You have to check out the smoked stilton.

Porky bliss

 

While you're picking up treats, head to the Merry Berry stall and snag some chocolate for the significant other. These guys do a roaring trade at the bigger food festivals (they were at Olympia this year) and specialise in creamy buttons and spicy dark chocolate. TLC insists I bring her back the white chocolate with lemongrass. I have a thing for the Scorpion Death Chili Chocolate: absurdly hot, with a burn that just keeps building. Try it, but have a glass of something to hand, because that bad boy is gonna sting.

After an afternoon's connosieuring of fine ales, the hunger struck and we Beeranauts wended our way down the hill to the food stands. Tempted as I was by the maple and beer-glazed bacon, something more substantial was needed. Memsaab, a local curry house of distinction, was serving up good grub for the geezer on the go. A heaped punnet of curry and rice was £6 and it was money wisely invested. Beef Madras or Chicken Tikka Masala, both beautifully spiced and fall-apart tender. If you ask nicely, you can have a bit of both. Don't be embarrassed if you feel the urge to lick your tray clean. Lord knows, I wasn't. Memsaab also did amazing wraps of grilled marinaded meat. I had one of those later in the day. Hey, I was hungry.

As the sun started to ebb and the crowds started to grow, we knew it was time to vacate the site and find a quiet hostelry. For one thing, we'd been on our feet for six hours. But we needed one last snackie to get us on our way. A bowl of duck fat roasties from the appropriately named Duck Fat Roastie company did the trick. Deeply savoury, crispy, crumbly in the middle, intensely addictive. A big bowl was £3, and was enough for 4 greedy boozy blokes. The scraps at the bottom were the best bits, but the whole thing was deliriously good.

Ciaran makes an annexation attempt on the duck fat roasties. He failed.

 

A quiet pint at the Castle Rock Brewery tap by Nottingham's thoughtfully restored train station and we Beeranauts considered the ales of the day. The hits for me were Oakham's Citra (which you can get in M&S, in a slightly rebranded form), Enville's Cherry Blonde, which was the essence of a Cherry Bakewell in a glass, and Nottingham Brewery's own Centurion Porter. But I don't think I had a duff drop all day. Not bad, considering there were over a thousand beers to choose from and I was going purely by instinct.

As ever, The Robin Hood Beer Festival was the best of all possible worlds for the discerning Beeranaut: good beer, great food and a fantastic atmosphere in lovely surroundings. It's probably the highlight of my beer year, and its growing popularity shows that I'm not alone. Maybe see some of you there next October?

 

Your Beeranauts: El Conojito, Rev Sherlock, Super Sam, Charmin' Ciaran. Blue skies, great beer.

 

The September Read-easy!

Who doesn’t like a good book? Well, if you don’t, you’re in the wrong place this month!

Rob and Clive share the works of literary merit that have tickled their fancy recently, in a podcast that’s sure to appeal to those of you that enjoy slightly drunken rambling from two opinionated old geezers.

Pop your slippers on, pour yourself a sherry and join us as we crack open a volume or two…

The September Read-easy by Rob Wickings on Mixcloud

(Clive mentioned The Doctor Who Book Club podcast: you can check that out here.)

Thank You For Smoking

As the weather starts to draw in, and you start to think about digging jumpers and coats out of the wardrobe, you might think it's time to pack the barbecue away. Although it's probably past the time of year for you to be standing in front of a blazing grill in your shorts and “Kiss The Chef” apron, you might still get a bit of traction out of that unused bag of charcoal yet.

Readership, you may recall that I have been playing around with the notion of smoking my food. Certainly, our recent trip to Seahouses and the beautiful kippers and smoked prawns that they served up sharpened my appetite for all things hot-cured. Let's not forget, autumn is a time of bonfires and woodsmoke. Why not use that to our advantage?

Oh yeah. Daddy likee.

Now, my slightly cobbled together smoker is a testament to what can be done with an unassuming starting point–to whit, a lidded barbie from B&Q that we picked up half price a few years back. It's never really done the job, sadly, somehow managing to take ages to come up to heat. I'm an impatient man when dinner time is near, and it's very tempting to just slap that steak on my cast iron griddle, especially if I'm just cooking for the two of us.

But really, a lidded barbecue is all you need to start smoking. WIth the addition of a thermometer that gives you the optimum temperature for cooking with smoke, you're away.

Now, I mentioned that I'm not a patient man, but this method of cooking will teach you how important that virtue is. There are no shortcuts when you're smoking food. When you're cooking ribs or a pork shoulder, you need to be thinking in terms of 12 hours or so, 8 at a bare minimum. Fish or chicken won't take as long. Maybe six hours. The serious players in the US barbecue scene put their meat on overnight. The really dedicated guys sleep with their ovens, all the better to tweak the temperature or wood mix.

Slow and low, that is the tempo. The Beastie Boys said that, and who are we to argue? Do not allow your coals to go over 225 degrees (farenheit, that's about 110 celcius). I find it's best to just use one of those little bags of self-lighting coals, which will heat up and cool quickly, but hold enough residual heat to keep things ticking over nicely. If I need to change over, It's just a case of covering the meat in foil while I dump another bag in.

 

Steam train

 

You'll need wood in there as well, of course, soaked for an hour or so beforehand so they'll smoke rather than burn. Some barbies have a tray in which you can spread the chippings. If not, just form a rough bowl out of a couple of sheets of foil and pop the wood in that, next to the meat or fish. A sturdy jug of water will help to keep the atmosphere in the oven nice and moist too, helping the smoke to permeate deeper into your dinner.

The choice of wood is yours, and most garden centres have a reasonable selection (or, of course, there are online resources). Oak's better for fish and chicken, the more robust flavours of mesquite work brilliantly with beef and pork. Play around, see what works.

IIt may sound perverse after you've got up at six in the morning and spent all day watching a barbecue puttering away, but it's really nice to char your meat a little on a grill once it's smoked. It's the double cooking that makes the end result so mind-blowing. We had some pork ribs recently that, after 8 hours smoking, I drenched in Sweet Baby Ray's (the one and only barbecue sauce, accept no substitute) and blasted on a hot griddle. The end result was full of smoky flavour, absurdly rich and unctuous. Even TLC, who normally won't go near a rib, had three or four.

It's early days for me with this technique, and I'm absolutely guaranteed to have messed something up (all advice, hints and tips welcome, drop 'em in the comments if you would be so kind). I haven't even touched on the complex subject of wet and dry rubs, marinades and sauces. Again, any suggestions are very welcome.

But I'm eyeing up the bag of chicken in the freezer, thinking about a big bag of prawns, maybe a side of salmon. And considering how nice the sharp autumnal air in my back garden is going to smell with the sharp tang of woodsmoke in it.

 

 

Movies Unplugged: Berberian Sound Studio

And we're back. After a long hot summer, in which the last thing on my mind is sitting in X&HTower's screening theatre (plush and opulent though it may be), the weather has turned appropriately autumnal. Time to close the blinds, fire up the projector and dig into the teetering pile that is the Unwrapped archive.

Today's choice was informed by the fact that Peter Strickland's The Duke Of Burgundy has lit up the Toronto Film Festival. Time to look at the movie that brought his name to the public eye: Berberian Sound Studio.

Plot dump approaching, topped with the red flag that is the Spoiler Alert.

Gilderoy and Nagra

Gilderoy (played with twitchy reserve by Toby Jones) is a renowned dubbing mixer, who is hired by an Italian sound studio to help rescue an Argento-like horror film that has run into problems. He quickly finds that the environment, people and material are hugely different to the world of pastoral documentaries and children's programmes that he knows, and quietly begins to lose his mind…

Shot on a tiny budget on location at Three Mills Studio in East London, Berberian Sound Studio is a prime example of a film-maker getting the most out of his environment. There's no questioning the authenticity of the production design, and the attention to period detail is astonishing. If you're a fan of old film gear, be prepared to fangasm now. I was especially pleased to recognise an Albrecht sound follower: a piece of kit that I still use on a near-daily basis.

Gilderoy ponders the best way to eviserate a watermelon

 

The action is kept completely indoors. There isn't an exterior shot in the film, adding immeasurably to the airless, claustrophobic atmosphere. It's all artificial light, pools of darkness, empty corridors.

The word that kept springing to mind while watching the film was Kafkaesque. Gilderoy is an outsider, floundering in an environment in which he doesn't understand the rules, where he keeps making the wrong impressions. His efforts to reclaim expenses are thwarted as the accounts department claim there's no record of him flying to Italy in the first place. As his work in sound-designing the film starts to become an ordeal, the walls and dark rooms of the Berberian Sound Studio start to look ever more like those of a prison—or an asylum.

Gilderoy and Santini

 

Let's make one thing clear, directly from the lips of Santini, the maestro behind The Equestrian Vortex, the movie on which Gilderoy labours. This is not a horror film. Sure it takes plenty of cues from the mise en scêne of giallo. Just look at the black gloves of the never-seen projectionist, the pumping, Goblin-like soundtrack from Broadcast. The film is full of attractive Italian voiceover girls, of just the kind that would find a horrible end in yer typical Eurohorror. But if you're looking for gore, best keep looking. The only things to see the edge of a blade in this movie are the fruit and veg that Gilderoy attacks to provide the sound effects for Santini. We don't even see a single frame of the film itself that the diminutive sound engineer reacts so strongly against. That being said, the sight of a witch being vaginally violated with a red-hot poker, the scene that causes Gilderoy the most problems, is one that I could do without.

Strickland's refusal to bow to expectations as to what Berberian Sound Studio is or how events in the film pan out have led many to view the film as a frustrating experience. I understand that. The film is deliberately slippery, dodging away from genre tropes and formula story beats. Santini isn't an anagram for Satan, however hard you try to make it so.

Elena: giving the film a voice

 

The trouble with slippery things is, of course, that they're hard to grab hold of, and Berberian Sound Studio remains opaque, asks far more questions than it answers. How much of it is real? Are we, as is suggested at the end, simply watching a film within a film? There's no definitive answer, and loose ends aplenty. It famously divided opinion right down the middle when it was screened at Frightfest in 2011. Even now, synopses of the film differ wildly and are mostly inaccurate, pitching the movie as proto-giallo when it's nothing of the sort.

Which brings us to the 64,000 lire question—was Berberian Sound Studios worth Unwrapping?

Yes, it was. Difficult but tought-provoking, it's at once a treatise on the craft and sheer hard work involved in getting a film made, and a warning of the cost that the process can exact on you. The people that Gilderoy encounters are, for the most part, monstrous. One of the ADR actors even goes by the nickname 'The Goblin'. Gilderoy, the very image of the innocent abroad, has no chance amongst these creatures.

As a stylistic exercise Berberian Sound Studio is a storming triumph, and there's enough going on to keep you watching, and guessing, until the end. And indeed after. Enter without expectations, and you just might find yourself ensnared.

 

 

 

 

 

Bespoke wordsmithery for all ages, tastes and budgets. Est. 1966. No refunds. Owned and operated by Rob Wickings.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 766 other followers