Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.


Dishes of the Year



It’s that time of the year (Listmas? Ugh), when we gorge ourselves on the opinions of others, hope that we can make up for a year of apathy by digesting the entire cultural calendar in a bullet-pointed frenzy. With nothing much else to do (I’m not going to blog my Christmas dinner, am I?) I thought I’d wade into the fray. In chronological rather than ranking order, these are the best individual dishes I have eaten this year. I might have had better meals (that cheap, boozy fish dinner in Barcelona) or sampled better ingredients (salmon pastirma, perhaps), but these are the finest considered, composed plates of food I have sampled. For fairness and variety, I’ve only picked one dish from any meal or holiday – I could have chosen six from the Sportsman, for example – while for reasons of not being an arse, I have excluded anything cooked by myself.

Piccolo Napoli, Palermo, 28/2
Just a triumph of simplicity, which I wrote about at the time. Spaghetti, fresh sea urchin gently cooking in the heat of the pasta, parsley (chilli?) and oil. Outrageously tasty, supremely redolent of salt and sea, it made me want to eat urchin all the time.



The Sportsman, Seasalter, 16/4
The most impressive part of a very impressive meal, the full tasting menu at this Michelin-starred seaside pub. A warm poached egg yolk, a cool whipped eel cream, hiding little chunks of smoked eel and a violently fresh parsley sauce, all housed in an eggshell. Technically magnificent, beautifully flavoursome.

Mousel’s Cantine, Luxembourg City, 26/5
This is a little unfair, as half the fun was the place itself – a little brasserie around which waiters rushed, looking like extras from Asterix, carrying trays of foaming stone beer mugs, platters of choucroute and beans and potatoes – but this dish was lovely. Boned out feet, stuffed with something piggy, braised in a sauce rich with ham and mirepoix, sharp with mustard. You know it’s going to be good when the waiter warns you it’s “special”.


Tickets, Barcelona, 12/6
Not actually from the tapas bar itself, we had this from a food festival pitched up in the Ramblas, with various revered eateries offering little bites. I can’t even remember what else was in this bun, just the glazed softness of the brioche and the melting fat of a pig’s double chin.

Mangal 2, London, 9/7
Blackened white onions and fat tomatoes and a vast pile of herbs, with a couple of lettuce leaves and bits of cucumber for form’s sake, all drenched in pomegranate molasses, lemon and oil. Powerfully delicious, I could drink that dressing by the mug.

Polpetto, London, 6/8
Not really a dish? I was going to put the octopus, absurdly tender, spiced just so, charred in all the right places – but then I realised I had completely forgotten the beans that had come with it, and thought it was unfair to include a dish I couldn’t even remember properly. That polenta, though – I can taste it now. So rich, so delicately seasoned.

Billy Franks, London, 3/9
A canapé! Don’t worry, it’s the only one (I don’t make a habit of eating canapés). Served at the Young British Foodie awards ceremony, which we were shortlisted for. I must have eaten about ten of these. A dried, deep-fried jalapeno, topped with an n’duja cheese sauce, pineapple bacon jam and some kind of powdered beef jerky, this was exactly the sum of its parts and therefore filthily tasty.

Ciya, Istanbul, 28/9
Parsley, a purple herb I didn’t recognise, white cheese. Pomegranate, oil. Come on.

The Wingman, Norwich , 20/11
A brand new popup at the Birdcage which I hope we see more of, this is certainly one of the most exciting things to happen to Norwich for a while (not counting Pickle and Smoke, obviously). Sweet, sticky, spicy, covered in sesame, fresh spring onions and herbs, melting off the bone. The kimchi was pretty underpowered, but you can’t have everything. Give it time.

The Granville, Canterbury, 23/12
This is the Sportsman’s sister pub. Not quite as fancy, it confines itself to doing ‘pub grub’ very well. Annoyingly, they weren’t doing their cheap lunch deal in December (which they didn’t mention when I booked), so we spent a bit more than intended. Still delicious though. Tender meat, crisp skin, perfect roast potatoes. Nothing groundbreaking, no, but that’s not always what you want. A good start to the feasting period.