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Food and Drink

Simon Rogerson

Award-winning journalist Simon Rogerson is a lover of the good life. In his regular Be Happy column and blog he walks us through the finer things in life  – from exotic travel to humble fish and chips, Simon points his dry, quick wit at those things that peak his appetite

Sushi - eating fish responsibly

If you think over-fishing is a myth, take a look at your supermarket shelves and check out the prices for yellowfin tuna. Two decades ago, it wasn’t much more expensive than catfood – now it’s in the luxury section, with jars selling for between £4 and £12.

Demand hasn’t changed, but availability has. There may be plenty of fish left in the sea, but ‘plenty’ is a relative term. Which is a shame, because as we all know, it tastes fantastic; whether prepared raw, seared, singed or confit, the fish is something special... but ‘special’ isn’t a straightforward deal.

Tuna are close to the top of the food chain, which mean that various toxins present in the environment can become concentrated in their muscle flesh, the most notorious being mercury. But do we care? Not at a time when sushi chefs are venerated as culinary demi-gods (if you think I’m exaggerating, Google ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’).

Despite my own fondness for the fish, I cut back on my own tuna consumption a few years ago, partly due to a slow burning guilt complex over overfishing in the Indian Ocean, and partly because I probably had so much mercury coursing through my lower intestine, I was in danger of becoming a human thermometer. But then a holiday in the South Pacific put me back on the heavy metal highway.

I was cooling my heels in the Tahiti Radisson Plaza and the menu was a costly cavalcade of imported luxuries. Tahiti must be one of the most expensive places on the planet – it makes Geneva look like the bad end of the Khao San Road. Anyway, my finger led me down the £60 steak and chips to the local section of the menu, which promised ‘Polynesian Sushi’. It was a simple enough bowl of sushi rice and local tuna of unstated species, glistening like shards of ruby. The colour comes from myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule that tuna generate in huge quantities in order to achieve incredible bursts of speed, up to 45 miles per hour. Yes, I know cheetahs and peregrine falcons can shift even faster, but that’s through air. Punching through water at 45mph takes a living missile, and that’s exactly what tuna are. When we eat them, we are consuming a true marvel of nature… along with a fair portion of the periodic table.

Polynesia has a lot of tuna, and not a lot of much else (bizarrely, the locals are addicted to tinned corned beef). So, as my journey continued to the atoll island of Fakarava, I continued my holiday romance with the noble tuna. I was staying with a local family who served tuna and grouper as ‘poisson cru’, marinaded in citrus fruits and coconut milk. And I ordered even more at the little café, Snack Teanuanua, where you could order it in a variety of styles, including one eccentric variant that had sultanas and dry herbs in the mix. I took the latter as a sign… to stop eating tuna.

Back in Blighty, I return to raw fish when the fancy takes me, but I mostly skip (jack) the tuna, replacing it with farmed Atlantic salmon. Big chains such as Yo Sushi give salmon an equal billing on the menu, and it makes excellent nigiri (oblong blocks of rice topped with fish) and futomaki (rolls of rice and seaweed with two or three fillings chosen for their complementary tastes).

Good sushi comes at price, but even upscale places offer lunchtime deals, with an assortment of sushi, sashimi and other treats served in bento boxes. My favourite place for Bento boxes is Matsuba in Richmond, Surrey, a low-key affair run by a friendly Korean family. The sushi is prepared with quiet solemnity and presented as a selection of jewels, which is exactly how we should regard fresh wild fish. As with all the best food, there is attention to detail in every aspect of the dish, from the texture of the rice to the keenness of the pickles and the artistry of the presentation.

Matsuba brews its own soya sauce, which has a savoury depth unequalled by any shop-bought brand. Their pickles, soy and wasabi mustard provide the perfect counterpoint to fresh Atlantic salmon, with its buttery little veins of fat. Salmon doesn’t have to travel all the way from the Indian Ocean, so the fish hasn’t been frozen and defrosted by the time it finds itself on the business end of your chopsticks. These days, I generally ask for the tuna in my bento box to be replaced with salmon. Genuinely wild Atlantic salmon is a rare commodity but farmed organic is a fine substitute, as long as said farming is not overly intensive and takes place in open water where ocean and tidal currents can sweep away associated detritus.

Debates over fish farming are not likely to end, but with bluefin tuna teetering on the brink of commercial extinction and the sustainability of yellowfin fisheries hanging in the balance, responsible farming of alternative species seems to be the way forward.

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To the Broads and Beyond

We drove to Norfolk with a handful of recommendations and no preconceptions. For weekends away, our habit has always been to head west, to the traditional foodie comfort-zones of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. But they say one should broaden one’s horizons, so we headed to the Broads and beyond… to the expansive sands of Holkham in north Norfolk.

The Victoria at Holkham is an outlying property on the rambling Holkham Estate, which borders one of the most beautiful stretches of sandy beach on the East Coast. It is owned by the lord of the manor himself, Viscount Coke, though he leaves the grubby business of actually running the place to a local brewery, Adnams.

The building has been part of the Holkham estate since the original Viscount was elevated to the peerage by the Queen Vickie herself, back in 1837. After that, he was never going to call it the Nag’s Head.

On the map it looks a hop and a skip from the M11, but once you’re past Newmarket, you may as well be chugging along the broads. The last 60 miles to Holkham is a stop-start purgatory of winding lanes and inexplicable bucolic traffic jams – do turnip farms really need a rush hour? By the time you finally arrive you’ll be more than ready for a stiff drink, which is no problem, as the Victoria is a pub as well as a hotel and restaurant.

There was no sign of the local nobs when we arrived, but with a big country show taking place outside Holkham Hall next day, they could be forgiven for leaving us in the hands of the retainers. The rooms are informal but elegant, with their deep, roll-top baths and Rajahsthani four-posters. The overall effect is of a likeable (if self-conscious) shabby chic design ethic that complements the seaside setting and evokes the Victorian link without descending into ‘theme’ territory.

There’s nothing shabby about the dining room, which comfortably occupies the border-country of formality and friendliness. The food is an elevated form of gastro-pub fare, balancing French technique with the seasonal produce of the Holkham estate on one side of the Victoria, and the North Sea on the other.

The opening list of starters was an earnest parade of the usual suspects – ham hock salad, chicken liver parfait, scallops with chorizo. All worthy if well executed, but a tad predictable. There’s a secondary list of dishes that can be ordered in small or large portions, from which I selected a carpaccio of local venison with apple, celeriac and parmesan. It was a simple but pleasing plate, bursting with woodland vitality. On a practical note, the Victoria does top-notch comfort food and a range of plate sizes, so it’s fine for families.

The menu has a reasonable number of comfort classics, and it wasn’t just the younger diners tucking into sausage and mash with red cabbage and shallot sauce. With all the ramblers, dog-walkers (two of the rooms are ‘dog-friendly’) and beach-botherers this place attracts, the menu is big on people-pleasing platters.

I’d heard good things about the swine, so decided to pig out on slow roast Blythburgh pork belly, which came with roasted root vegetables and a marjoram jus. Despite the Victoria’s aristocratic connections, pork belly is a great leveller, a dish you can enjoy at practically every eatery on the social strata. This one was a skilled balance of tiered textures, crispy skin and creamy fat giving way to silky-soft flesh. Perhaps in the knowledge that we would be polishing off the porker the next day – in the form of rashers and sausage at breakfast – we parked the pud and went to bed.

Being the English seaside, it rained the next day. We had planned to spend the day strolling along Holkham beach, but instead went for a drive and chanced on Cookie’s Crab Shack in the village of Salthouse. It’s one of those places that’s obviously a bit of an institution, but you wouldn’t have heard of it unless you’d received a specific recommendation or had the benefit of local knowledge.

At Cookie’s, they eschew aristocratic graces and treat the place pretty much like a shop. You want good seafood and they sell it – that’s the deal. It really is a shack, or at least a shop with a sort of semi-detached conservatory/shed. While it lacks the Conran touch, these guys do know their oysters, and the place is a veritable baitball of seafood-seekers.

The staff can’t really cope with the footfall, so they just concentrate on selling shellfish and don’t bother too much with the whole smiley welcoming bit. But that didn’t matter, because my crab salad was a one-plate love letter to seaside food. It had that perfect balance of savoury and sweet that you only get when you’re eating within sight of the sea. I could have lived without the perfunctory salad of cucumber, lettuce and tomato. But I did appreciate the boiled samphire, which provided a salty riposte to the crab flesh.

Strange, how food lurks in the memory. Our meal at the Victoria was prepared with diligence and expertise, and served in a wonderful room full of beautiful people. Yet my abiding memory is of digging into the crab and watching the rain clatter down outside Cookie’s while the sad-eyed assistant told yet another would-be diner they really should have booked.

 

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Mixing it in Mayfair

Mayfair is one of those parts of London where the super-rich briefly rub shoulders with day-trippers. Despite the surface wealth, they’re having trouble filling the restaurants, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for deals and discounts.

In the Daily Telegraph, I found an offer for five courses at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, for about 50 per cent of the going rate. It’s a big room with a well-staffed kitchen designed to crank out lots of little tasting plates, the restaurant’s specialty; presumably the business model falls if Gordon can’t put bums on banquettes and keep the kitchen assembly-line working. Our walk from Bond Street to Grosvenor Square coincided with a brief but apocalyptic downpour that had us arriving on the steps of Maze in a state of drenched disarray. I half expected the maître d to offer us a towel instead of a table, but we were ushered across the elegant, David Rockwell-designed room to a table overlooking the bar.

Weirdly, it was exactly the same table we were given when we visited two years previously. Maze was very fashionable when it opened a few years ago; executive chef Jason Atherton’s signature dish, a cleverly deconstructed BLT, was the toast (or mini croque-monsieur) of London and sister establishments opened in New York and Prague. Now, with Atherton out of the picture working on his own projects, will the concept of French fodder with Asian flavours retain its popularity?

The food is less fussy than you’ll find at a lot of the gastro-domes in this part of town, but the execution is clinical in its precision. The idea is to order four or five tasting-size plates. So instead of building multiple flavours onto a chef’s vanity dish, you get a succession of self-contained mini-meals. The menu can appear staid in places. A recommended first course of Dorstone goat’s cheese curd with marinated beetroot was lovely – my wife’s favourite – but you can’t move for goat’s cheese and beetroot these days. It’s in every bistro, quite a lot of pubs, every recipe book… which is strange as the only place you really see goats is at petting zoos… This however was the best of its breed, the yin-yang of earthy curd and sharp beet expertly judged.

Some of the dishes skirted the waist-land between comfort food and effete eats: Szechuan-spiced Suffolk pork belly was at first glance a trad rib-sticker, but with the playful addition of langoustine alongside a braised Cox apple and the inevitable micro-pile of kale. Similarly, a roasted poussin breast and confit leg was a refined Sunday roast in miniature, served with a tootsie little potato salad, spring onion and pancetta.

The only bum note was the beef cheek, boiled with cardamom and star anise. The resulting dish was, to me, a spongy compromise rather than a fusion of cuisines. Still, this dish, or a variant thereof, has been on the menu for some time, so someone must like it. Speaking of cheek, the wine list arrived in the form of an iPad, the novelty of which failed to distract me from the mark-up.

So to dessert, which was at first anti-climactic. Hoping for something clever, I ordered the apple and blackberry crumble, which arrived looking like something perfunctory from the freezer section. A creamy dome concealed a semi-frozen flavour bomb of fruit at its core. There was some frozen granita in there somewhere, but it lacked the finesse of the other courses.

After lunch, we ambled across the West End’s backstreets towards the evening’s entertainment, in Fitzrovia. We suburbanites have an unspoken distaste for central London, but if you’ve got the luxury of time the area behind Oxford Street is a seductive parade of exiled smokers, disposable shops and forbidden side-alleys. As long as you don’t have to actually rush to do anything, it’s pure entertainment.

Much later, with no time to be choosy, we ducked into a darkened, ancient pub somewhere off Russell Square, and ordered fish and chips for two. It arrived on our table 15 minutes later and was, on its own deep-fried terms, rather wonderful. The fish may or may not have been cooked from frozen, but the batter was crisp and the pollock inside was just right. The chips were cooked from frozen, which I prefer to the clever-clogs, oversized triple-cooked jobs you get in gastro-pubs. The meal was utterly disposable, but in the context of two hungry people with an hour before the last train home, it was, in its own vinegar-drenched way, a little slice of perfection.

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