Ten essential British foodie experiences
Witnessing oyster adulation on the Kent coast
Dedicating a week-long festival to the humble oyster might seem a tough act to pull off. But Whitstable, now synonymous with the world's clammiest delicacy, more than manages, luring in tens of thousands of visitors each July. Of course it's not all about the bivalves - there's music, poetry, art and plenty of booze sloshing around - but it's rude to leave town without sampling the star of the show, cold, quivering and freshly "shucked" from its shell.
The festival's quirky timing, apart from promising half-decent weather, is a legacy of St James's Day (July 25), traditionally marked with a thanksgiving service on the beach in honour of the patron saint of, you guessed it, oysters.
As well as the oyster tasting (£4.50 for six), there's a giant farmers' market and beer festival, impromptu performance art (everything from sea shanties to comedy) and a crab-catching competition for the kids. Perhaps the highlight, though, is the oyster-eating contest where iron-stomached participants sacrifice their dignity by downing four oysters and half a pint of stout in the fastest time possible.
Whitstable Oyster Festival is held annually, starting on or near July 25. For exact dates see www.whitstableoysterfestival.com.
Finding Scotland's Italian soft spot
On paper, it doesn't look like the best business plan: hawking ice cream in the most infamously cold and damp of climates. Yet for hundreds of Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, the prospect of pushing a handcart up and down the mean streets of Britain's industrial cities was a more attractive option than the grinding rural poverty back home. Many gravitated to Glasgow and, with more than 300 shops operating by 1905 alone, ice-cream cones were to become an integral and much loved fixture of Scottish life.
Today there's only a few about, but they're well worth a visit. University Café, in the city's West End, has been open since 1918 and could win a prize for its vintage-kitsch window display alone. Just as treasured, and perhaps even more atmospheric, is Café D'Jaconelli in Maryhill, opened in 1924. With its seriously old-school frontage, boiled sweeties and glass door etching of sundae-with-smoking ashtray, it's become something of a city icon. Jaconelli's claims its ice cream as the best in the city - and they may just be right.
Sampling seafood and sparkling wine on the Cornish coast
There remain few places more idyllic than the quay at Padstow to tuck into a mountainous portion of fish and chips. With the ocean so close, it's little surprise that seafood is the speciality: your fish might have been caught just hours before by the boats in view, or landed that very morning in nearby Falmouth or Newlyn. And pick up your fish supper from Stein's Fish and Chips, part of the ever-expanding portfolio of the area's best-known piscatorial magnate, and it's not just cod or haddock on the menu. On a typical day at Stein's quayside chippie there's also a choice of sea bream, hake, lemon sole and even monkfish.
Padstow and its environs are full of fabulous food - from pasty shops to delis, ice-cream parlours to gastropubs - but this chic little fishing village is best known for its high-class restaurants. The seeds for Padstow's much-lauded dining scene were planted when Stein opened his flagship Seafood Restaurant opened back in 1975. Arguably still Padstow's headliner, here you are treated to a seafood extravaganza - ranging from classic fruits de mer or lobster Thermidor to melt-in-the-mouth scallop, sea bass and salmon sashimi, and gorgeously messy Singapore chilli crab - in classy, modern but unpretentious surroundings.
Rick Stein's restaurants www.rickstein.com.
Tracking down Wallace's favourite cheese
Fans of Nick Park's amusing clay-based tales will know that toothy Wallace is an ardent cheese-lover, and his particular favourite is the deliciously crumbly, tangy Wensleydale. When he chose to highlight the cheese, Park was unaware that the Wensleydale Creamery, based in Hawes, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, was suffering such low sales that production of the cheese was close to suspension. PR played its part though, and with the creation of a special Wallace and Gromit-branded cheese, the Creamery's sales soared.
Located a couple of minutes' walk from the centre of the village, the Creamery includes a small museum outlining the history of the cheese, with charming reconstructions of milking parlours and a typical Yorkshire kitchen equipped with bygone cooking implements and a cosy hearth. The Wensleydale Creamery has - thanks to Kit Calvert's dogged determination and Nick Park's little clay friends - firmly established itself on the English cheese board.
Wensleydale Creamery, Gayle Lane, Hawes, Wensleydale, North Yorkshire www.wensleydale.co.uk.
Digging for gourmand gold in the Somerset Levels
Each spring, they arrive in their thousands, wriggling their way up through the rhynes and ditches that crisscross the Somerset Levels. It's taken a year to get here, the warm currents of the Gulf Stream carrying them some three thousand miles across the Atlantic from their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. No one really knows why the European eel makes such a mammoth journey, only to return when fully mature, to spawn and die. In fact, not much is known at all about this mysterious creature, other than they don't half taste good.
Elvers (baby eels) have been a central Somerset delicacy for hundreds of years: covered in flour and deep-fried, cooked with bacon and served in an omelette or, best of all, smoked. At Brown & Forrest, a family-run smokery in the heart of the Levels, they've been hand-smoking eels for over thirty years, using a system that goes back a hundred. The coppery-skinned creatures are whipped out of the smokery, aromatic clouds billowing about them, and served fresh on rye bread at the on-site restaurant, or vacuum-packed for the deli next door. Add a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of pepper (or, for the smoked-eel aficionado, a dash of horseradish), but not too much - you still want to taste the briny tang of the Sargasso Sea.
Brown & Forrest is at Bowden Farm Smokery, Hambridge, Somerset 01458/250875, www.smokedeel.co.uk.
Taking tea with a Rascal
A dozen pairs of shining, ruby-red eyes peer out from among the neat rows of creamy chocolate éclairs, glistening fruit tarts and crumbly Yorkshire shortbread. On closer inspection, the eyes turn out to be sticky, glacé cherries atop a large raisin bun and are accompanied by a toothy, blanched almond grin. This cheeky face belongs to the celebrated Fat Rascal, the best-known and arguably most delicious cake served up at Harrogate's - and Yorkshire's - most famous tearooms, Bettys. A cross between a rock bun and a scone, the Rascal is made with a tempting concoction of dried fruit, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange and lemon zest. Washed down with a steaming cup of tea, it's the ultimate teatime treat.
Bettys' flagship branch is at 1 Parliament St, Harrogate, North Yorkshire Details can be found at www.bettys.co.uk.
Breakfasting like a king at an East End institution
It's 11am on Saturday morning at the E Pellicci café on Bethnal Green Road, and everyone is bloody hungry. There's a queue out the door, and ravenous customers poke their heads in periodically, desperate for an available seat. Once you've bagged one, wave for the menu of Italian and British staples. Above your head, the staff banter oscillates between Cockney and Italian, and customers clamour to order over the bilingual bellows. For an idea of those who've dined here before you, look up at the signed framed photos of EastEnders actors dotting the walls.
Pellicci's breakfast menu features all the permutations of a classic full English, plus loads of extras for a build-your-own feast. Unlike mediocre greasy spoons with their limp, oily no. 3 breakfasts, what you get here is of superior quality, and service comes extra-friendly with a healthy dose of mickey-taking. If the fry-up doesn't appeal, there's plenty more to choose from: steak pies, fish and chip specials, scampi and more. You may need to lie down for an hour afterwards, and you probably won't be on speaking terms with your arteries, but yes, it is the finest breakfast in London.
E Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 020/7739 4873.
Eating offal at St John
It's fair to say that twenty years ago, the only place you'd expect to see a squirrel was in the park, and that bone marrow was something fit only for the dog. Nose-to-tail eating would have been thought something from the Middle Ages.
Fergus Henderson changed all that when he opened St John on the site of a former smokehouse in then unfashionable Farringdon, just north of the City of London. The design for the new restaurant was simple: rickety wooden tables and plain white walls, in keeping with the building's former role. And the cooking was even simpler. No garnishes, sauces or reductions here - instead, the emphasis was on impeccably sourced British ingredients served without fanfare. Great British dishes - smoked eel, saddle of hare, pork belly - all made a triumphant return to the menu.
What really set tongues wagging, though, was Fergus's conviction that virtually all parts of an animal could - and should - be consumed, a return to the thrifty rural traditions of Britain's past. A starter of chitterlings or rolled pig spleen, for example, could be followed by blood cakes and fried eggs or ox heart and carrots - with squirrel (it's like tender wild rabbit) making a seasonal appearance.
Over fifteen years on, and St John has gone from strength to strength, with a sister branch, Bread and Wine, in Spitalfields and a hotel in the West End.
St John Bar & Restaurant, 26 St John St, London EC1 www.stjohnrestaurant.com.
Guzzling garlic on the Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight Garlic Festival, which makes a corner of the island hum with the sour, buttery pong of garlic for two days every August, began as a local school fundraiser in the 1980s. Nowadays it's a much bigger deal, attracting around 20,000 visitors a year and giving locals a chance to showcase the island's best produce - including great husk-covered bulbs of garlic that taste so good, even the French have started importing them.
There are stalls selling tongue-tingling garlic beer, sickly-sweet garlic fudge and even sugary garlic ice cream. But you can also get your chops around dishes that make use of the stinky allium in much more conventional ways. From striped blue and white tipis, apron-clad vendors serve up barbecued ears of sweetcorn, smothered in butter and infused with delicate garlic. Everywhere you look, there are bundles of purpley-white cloves waiting to be thrown into pots and pans of deliciously piquant sauces. A warning though: even if you only sample a few of the garlicky treats on offer, you're going to smell bad for at least twenty-four hours.
The Isle of Wight Garlic Festival (www.garlic-festival.co.uk) takes place every August at Fighting Cocks Crossroads, Bathingbourne Lane, Sandown.
Celebrating the humble Cornish pasty
Cornwall's gastronomic reputation thrives on the bounty of the sea, but the county's most famous food export was, for centuries, taken deep into the bowels of the earth. The pasty (or oggy in the Cornish dialect) was the staple lunch of tin miners, who could hold the crimped crust in their grubby hands and throw that part away after eating the filling, which used to consist of meat and veg on one side and jam on the other.
Three million of these gut-busting snacks are made every week in Cornwall, though as any local will tell you, many of them ain't proper. To be considered genuine, it must be crimped to one side rather than on top, must have no filling other than chuck steak, sliced potato, onion and swede, and these ingredients must be raw prior to baking. Purists roll their eyes at carrots and such abominations as lamb and mint.
Perhaps the best place to make a pilgrimage is Ann's Pasties, a small shop in The Lizard that made its name when it was featured on Rick Stein's TV series Food Heroes.
Ann's Pasties, Sunny Corner, 3 Beacon Terrace, The Lizard, Cornwall 01326/290889, www.annspasties.co.uk. The shop opens at 9am Mon-Sat (closed Mon Nov-Easter) and shuts when they sell the last pasty.
Finding deep-fried heaven in Glasgow
There's strong evidence to suggest that Glasgow's signature dish, the deep-fried Mars bar, started off predominantly as an urban myth, but the concept intrigued so many it became a widespread reality. Either way, there's no escaping the fact that the combination of soft, gooey chocolatey caramel and slightly savoury crisp exterior is horribly compelling - though you wouldn't want a second (and, let's face it, you'll struggle to finish a first). Kings Café, just off Sauchiehall Street's main drinking drag, is a proud purveyor - though in truth, takeaways throughout the city will usually deep-fry any confectionery you like for a modestly negotiated fee.
Battered Creme eggs are also prized, but their popularity - and that of the deep-fried Mars bar - was preceded by that of the deep-fried pizza, a dubious by-product of Glasgow's sizeable Italian population - at least the healthy Mediterranean diet is making inroads somehow. For a "pizza supper" a whole or half portion is typically dunked in oil without batter (accompanied of course by Irn-Bru), but Pizza Crolla are renowned for their less health-conscious variation, the battered Pizza Crunch. If this isn't quite enough to soak up the booze, you can always cut the pizza in half and fill it with chips - hey presto, a pizza and chip sandwich. Tastiest of all, however, and undisputed king of all Glaswegian battered dishes, is the deep-fried haggis.
Sampling a taste of Brum in the Balti Triangle
Just a couple of kilometres southeast of Birmingham city centre lies a microcosm of north Indian and Pakistani life. Clothes shops stock saris, salwar kameezes and pashminas; halal butchers' stand beside grocers' with Asian fruit, vegetables and spices; jewellers sell elaborate gold creations by the weight, while other stores offer a bewildering array of multicoloured beads and bangles. Locals switch between Urdu and Punjabi and English - though whichever language is spoken a distinct Brummie twang remains. Above all, the air is thick with intoxicating aromas.
This area, centred on three roads - Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road - is home to something just as iconic to Birmingham as the Bullring and the Rotunda: the balti. Invented by the area's Pakistani and Kashmiri community in the mid-1970s, balti is best thought of as a style of cooking, rather than a single dish. (There is some disagreement about the origins of the name: balti means "bucket" or "cooking utensil" in Hindi and Punjabi, though there is also a region of north Indian and Pakistan called Baltistan.)
The Balti Triangle, as it's been dubbed, has around a dozen authentic balti restaurants (as well as many traditional Indian restaurants): among the best are Punjab Palace, Al Frash and Shabab, all on Ladypool Road, and Shahi Nan Kebab House on Stratford Road. There's a wide range of baltis on offer (most costing around £6), though two dishes really stand out: chicken and mushroom, and lamb and aubergine.
Tracking down the perfect chippy in Lancashire
Where should you go for the best fish and chips in Britain? Yorkshire and Lancashire both lay claim to the title, but for both sheer quantity of choice and the local pride taken in serving the finest haddock and chips (cod is most definitely a southern thing), it's the northwest that has the edge. Lancashire has more chippies than anywhere else in the UK, and there's a strong claim that the county is home to the first ever fish and chip shop, opened on the site of Oldham's Tommyfield Market in 1863.
That original chippie is today long gone, and these days it's Blackpool's sea air that provides the ideal atmosphere for devouring a wrapped paper bag full of deep-fried goodness. Standout among the resort's chippies is Seniors, where the fish is bought fresh each morning from nearby Fleetwood's fish market, and delicacies including hake and turbot are often on offer alongside the standard choices.
If Blackpool feels a little too bellicose an environment for sampling the perfect fish and chips, then head a few miles south to the tiny village of Lytham, where Whelan's has been frequented by the likes of Rick Stein, who loved this bijou gem so much he wrote about it in his Seafood Lovers Guide.
Perhaps the most revered of all the northwest's chippies, though, can be found up the coast in the sleepy county town of Lancaster. Here lies Hodgson's, proud recipient of a garland of awards including the National Federation of Fryers' "Fish and Chip Shop of the Year". Like all the best chip shops in this area, you'll struggle to find gravy, spring rolls or microwaved pies. What you will find is an authentic slice of northern hospitality and gargantuan portions.
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