Thursday, 24 April 2014

Easter Weekend: The Didcot Railway Centre

Easter snuck up on me this year. As dense as it might sound I didn't realise we had a four day weekend coming up until five days before. Once I realised we had a long weekend coming up I couldn't wait limping through the last couple of days at work.

Becks and I decided to escape to the Oxfordshire countryside on the Friday evening to enjoy a bit of time outside of London. Not long after we arrived it was straight down to the local pub The Bear for dinner. It was my first visit since the new landlords took over at the beginning of the month and the food has moved up a notch, without the prices going in the same direction, which was good to see.

On the Saturday we visited The Didcot Railway Centre which we've been threatening to do for a while but hadn't made it to before now.

I can't have visited in over twenty years and don't remember anything from my previous visits so it was like a completely new attraction. We started our visit with a ride on a stream train - selecting the First Class carriage of course - from the entrance to the far end of the site.

Rather than walking back we caught a train on the other line which operates to carry visits around the site. The second line had a Steam Railmotor running, which has the engine located inside one of the carriages, rather then being a separate unit pulling the carriages. I hadn't seen anything like it before.

The whole site had the feeling of somewhere which is run for the benefit of the members who like to play with steam trains, rather than set up as a tourist attraction. We were able to wonder around, more or less where we liked, but there was virtually no information on what we were looking or signs to help us navigate around. But when we found our way into the second shed it was train gold with four / five tracks of gleaming steam trains rising above us. Becks seemed very enthusiastic about the whole experience, which surprised me given the almost non existence of trains of NZ. But then perhaps that was the reason?

Friday, 18 April 2014

Restaurant Review: Polpo, Smithfields

Spinach, Parmesan & soft egg pizzette
On Monday night school friends Rob, Joel and I had one of our six monthly catch ups over dinner. After Joel's successful choice of Vanilla Black last time out I put my neck on the line and suggested Polpo next to Smithfield Market. I was addicted to The Restaurant Man earlier in the year and had been looking for the opportunity to try one of Russell Norman's restaurants. Dinner with the boys seemed like the ideal chance.

Joel and I arrived early so we had a chance to order a beer and catch up. Seeing the food head to nearby tables was piquing my appetite and we decided to order a couple of the small plates to keep us going. Rob arrived just as the food hit the table which made us look like we'd time things perfectly, rather than being caught in the act of eating.

Potato & Parmesan crocchette
We stuck almost exclusively to vegetarian / fish dishes and with all the plates being under £10 I thought it was pretty good value. My highlights were the spinach, parmesan & soft egg pizzette (£8). The egg was indeed soft, but thankfully hadn't made the pizzette soggy (cooked separately?).

The chick pea, spinach & ricotta meatballs (£6) were surprisingly tasty and I didn't regret ordering the vegetarian option at all. I suspect it was the ricotta which made them taste so good. The prawn & artichoke linguine, bottarga (£8) was a generous serving for the price with sweet prawns.

Salmon tartare, horseraddish & carta di musica
If I wanted to pick the salmon tartare, horseraddish & carta di musica (£7) had a little too much horseraddish which hit you in pockets and dominated the salmon. And I thought thought the savoury dishes were better than the sweet.

Overall it was definitely a good evening. Just a shame I forgot my tape measure so I couldn't measure the height of the bar........

Chick pea, spinach & ricotta
Castelfranco, red onion & pine nuts
Prawn & artichoke linguine, bottarga
Duck, blood orange & fennel salad
Dessert special

All my eats are added to my map.

Polpo Smithfield
3 Cowcross Street
London EC1M 6DR
Polpo on Urbanspoon

London Marathon 2014

The leading pack read by Haille
On Sunday Becks and I headed down to Deptford to watch the London marathon from the same spot that we stood in last year at the top of Deptford High St.

Playing with the live tracking on the London Marathon website, we were able to anticipate when the leaders might arrive and check to see if friends had yet crossed the starting line. We had around a fifteen minute wait until the leaders passed, led by the legend Haille Gebrselassie who was pace making.

They passed in such a blur I wasn't quite sure whether Mo Farah was with the lead group, but thirty seconds later we got our answer as Mo passed with the second pace maker. I was a bit surprised not to see him with the leaders, but it was the sensible choice to run his own race.
The Mobot!
In the third pace group was the the first Kent runner. It was good to see that unlike last year, they'd given the sharp end of the club runners a pace maker. Although unbelievably they didn't let anyone know what time the pace runner would be going for. Not particularly helpful.

We then had a short wait for me runners from my club and other friends to come past us. I did my to give all of them a big shout as I always get a boost when someone calls my name during a marathon.

The third pack featuring John from Kent AC
After the quicker club runners the huge crowds started to arrive. We didn't manage to spot any celebrities this year, after my Michel Roux spot last time. We saw quite a few people in fancy dress, include one man who was doing it incredibly tough carrying a fridge on his back for charity. I gave a loud cheer for someone from Didcot Runners who was probably left wondering who the heck I was.

The last runner we saw before heading off for a coffee was my uni friend Ed. He was looking relaxed and in good form when he passed us. I wasn't quite quick enough with the camera so the only shot I have of him is from the back. However, it does show off my Camelbak rather nicely that I lent to him!
My running club, Kent AC, had a good day. John Gilbert was selected to run for GB in the European Championships this summer based on his performance and we won the club championships for the second year in a row. However, quite a few people performed just a bit slower than the times they were hoping for. It was a pretty hot day which wouldn't have helped.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Happy birthday to my blog: seven today!

The seventh year of the blog has felt a little slower in terms of post published. However, I've just checked and wrote ninety seven posts over the last twelve months. A lot more than I expected and not a bad haul.

The highlight of the year was probably the mind blowing leopard hunt that I saw in Zambia. The rest of my African adventure in Malawi was pretty special too.

As you'd expect on the blog there was a lot of eating. I was spotted on the Guardian running blog, and set a new personal best in the Abingdon Marathon. Not bad for a stomach ulcer affected race. In fact it was my hardest running year to date. I probably averaged over fifty miles a week for a continuous six months up to Christmas.

It has felt very special to have Becks at my side over the past twleve months. We had a delightful week in Paris and got to share my favourite meal of the year

Top ten posts of the year:
The Blogger stats and Google Analytics vary wildly, which is odd, as they are both powered by Google. Below are the top ten posts according to Analytics (as that is what I have used in previous years).

1. Reading the Economist for free on the Kindle - hopefully the Economist's lawyers will never read this one and come knocking on my door.
2. Best kebab in Istanbul - a couple of awesome kebabs from my visit to Istanbul.
3. Garmin Forerunner 100 unboxing - tech reviews can be a real hit. Just a shame I don't know what I'm doing!
4. Habberfield: Ricotta cheesecake taste off - two very good cheesecakes get the recognition they deserve.
5. Camelbak Hydrobak review - runners of the world have come to read the post.
6. Top Eats - people clearly love to search for restaurant recommendations. Bit of a shame I haven't added anywhere to it recently!
7.  Project Sourdough: Air bubbles, the elusive texture - I haven't posted about my bread making much recently, but still enjoy to bake.
8. Galtaji Rajasthan - A non mover at number two in the charts. Indian women in their brightly coloured sarees at Galtaji gets a lot of hits.
9. Kenwood KMix Unboxing - unboxing the mixer for my bread making. Shipped all the way from Germany to Sydney and now back to London.
10. Cooking: Coconut and lime slice - people obviously love recipes containing coconut and lime.

Thanks if you have stopped by during the year.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Restuarant Review: The Brockley Mess, Brockley

Buck Rarebit
On Sunday we had a late lunch at the Brockley Mess. With its attractive looking array of brunch options, the place has a bit of the Kiwi / Sydney café vibe that we both find so appealing. Both Becks and I were left wondering why we hadn't visited before. I blame the location in Brockley's midtown. Its is too far away for a quick bite, but not far enough, as a venue when out for a walk.

We started off with a couple of milkshakes. I chose the banana shake and Becks the chocolate version (both £2.75). Becks declared them the milkshakes were the best she'd had in a long time.
Banana and chocolate milkshakes
I ordered the tabbouleh (£4.95) from the specials board. A comforting mix of tabbouleh, salad, haloumi, felafel and pitta bread. The haloumi was my favourite bit of the dish. While the salad didn't arrive dressed an accompanying bottle of dressing arrived at the table to save me from a naked salad. The felafel were a little bland, but thankfully not dry.

Becks ordered the Buck Rarebit (£4.50), a Welsh Rarebit with a poached egg on top. A good mature cheddar and just enough Worcester sauce made it a pretty damn good cheese on toast. The poached egg was a little over cooked for me, but Becks declared it just to her liking.
The bill came to under £15, which was excellent value as lunch for two. With lots of attractive looking brunch options on the menu we'll be back.

Brockley Mess
325 Brockley Road
The Brockley Mess on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Restaurant Review: The Red Lion, Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire

Pig mixed grill
For the last few years I always had the next fine diner I wanted to try mapped out in my mind. It wasn't until Becks brought up Michelin stars back in January that I realised I didn't have a fine diner on my current wish list. As I flicked through the latest Michelin guide nowhere (which doesn't have an insanely long waiting list) particularly inspired. Then the idea struck me to have a smart meal during our weekend away in Oxfordshire. There isn't anywhere Michelin starred in the immediate vicinity of my parents house, but the Red Lion at Britwell Salome got a mention in the guide this year so I thought we'd check it out with my school friend Will.
Langoustine two ways
I been to the Red Lion, in its previous the Goose, back in 2005 to celebrate mum, dad, Ruth and grandma's birthdays which mass together in August. Has it really been so long since my last visit?

We were seated in the back dining room of the busy restaurant and settled in to look at the menus. The three of us were horrendously indecisive and we sent the waiters / waitresses away a couple of times before we were ready to order. I went for the strategy of ordering dishes that no one else was trying.

From specials board I ordered the langoustine two ways. The bisque had a deep and wonderful flavour, while the potato, claw meat and homemade mayonnaise looked the picture, but I didn't taste much langoustine in the mix which was a shame.
Melted Brèzain
Becks ordered the melted Brèzain with celeriac & mustard and cornichons. The dish looked the picture. I had a small taste of the melted Brèzain which tasted similar to raclette that I fondly remember ski holidays in France and who doesn't like a cornichon?

I almost didn't order the guinea fowl, homemade black pudding and dauphinoise as I was feeling peckish and mistakenly thought the guinea fowl was a small bird. Luckily it didn't put me off ordering the dish and I discovered the fowl was easily the same size as a duck leg.

The homemade black pudding was excellent, subtler and not as iron rich as some of the commercial black puddings I've eaten before.
Guinea fowl
Becks ordered the mutton shoulder wrapped in filo and served with couscous. Visually I didn't think it looked as good as the other dishes of the night. However, that didn't distract from the slowed cooked mutton which was as tender as the lamb shoulders I'd cooked the week before.

Will ordered the pig mixed grill (top photo). Neither Becks nor I got a look in and Will declared it one of the best plates of food he'd ever eaten. High praise.
Mutton shoulder
None of us had space of dessert, but fancying something sweet we ordered a selection of truffles from Tutu Delicious in nearby Wattlington. It turned out to be a good choice, with the salted caramel a particular favourite.

Dinner at The Red Lion surpassed all of our expectations. I was particularly impressed with the consistency of the dishes. At under £40 per head including (not many) drinks and service it was excellent value too.
Truffle selection

The Red Lion
Britwell Salome,
Near Watlington,
OX49 5LG

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A National Trust Bonanza

Basildon Park
Last weekend Becks and I decided to make the most of our soon to expire National Trust passes by visiting a few places in and around Oxfordshire. The weekend was made extra special by the fact we elongated it with two days off work and the glorious early Spring weather we had.

On the Friday afternoon we visited Basildon Park. I didn't think I'd ever been before, but when I saw the back of the house I remember a summer concert / jazz event type thing I'd been to over a decade before with my school friend Will and his family.

We started off with a walk through the grounds which took us about an hour. It thankfully wasn't too muddy on the tracks we took as I'd only taken one pair of shoes with me for the weekend and they were completely unsuitable for mud.

After our walk we had a quick rest in the deck chairs arranged on the lawn to soak up some of the afternoon sunshine and then it was into the house. We whipped through pretty quickly as it was approaching closing time and we wanted to see some of the formal gardens as well.

The house had been used to film the Downton Christmas special (I've still never seen an episode) and there were a few photos from the filming around the house. I also, oddly, remember the carpets. The NY have had special carpets made which replicate both the design of the original rugs in the house and the floorboards. Walking on carpeted floor board was a little wierd.

The tour of the house finished in the 1950s kitchen which was formica cool. An NT volunteer in the kitchen was baking biscuits and we wall tasted one as we left the house.

On Saturday we visited Mottisfont, a house built out of a medieval abbey. The gardens were covered in spring bulbs (which I did well not to capture in the photo above).

We again started in the gardens, admiring the winter garden before checking out the walled garden. I'm not usually one for plants, but the red twig dogwood was rather nice. I can't believe I've just written about a plant, middle age beckons.....
Walled garden at Mottisfont
After lunch in the café we headed into the house. For me the most interesting part of the house was the Lichfield photography exhibition that they were showing on the upper floor. There were over fifty excellent portraits capturing key figures from the 1960s onwards. Definitely worth a look.

After visiting the house we had a quick walk along the river, a visit to the shop and then it was time to head home. Becks and I both managed to fall asleep in the back of the car on the way home.

Greys Court
On Sunday we went for the hat trick of NT properties with a visit to Greys Court, a 16th Century house that was lived in until 2004.

We were basking in our third day of sunshine which had brought out the crowds. Seeing a packed café we decided to start our visit with a walk round the grounds. The woods were pleasantly quiet compared to the crowds on the lawn.

When we got back to the house we made a bee line to the café for a late lunch. The recently renovated café had been caught on the hop by all the crowds and was running out of food. The service was dreadfully slow. I know a lot of the staff are volunteers, but they need to sort their systems at the tills out!

After lunch it was into the house. Having been inhabited by elderly residents relatively recently it was stuck in a rather charming time warp, decorated with the possessions of the Brunner family. Like Basildon Park there was a volunteer in the kitchen baking biscuits. Sadly this batch had a slightly odd flavour.
Becks in the garden
After lunch we had a look around the walled garden and a climb up the tower. The walled garden was divided into number of spaces and it would be great to visit in summer when some of the mature planting is in full bloom.

We finished our afternoon reading the Sunday papers in the garden with the warm sun slowly going down behind the house.
Water feature in the walled garden