If time and money were of no consequence then it is not summer sun that I would chase across the globe but instead the soft glow and sharp snap of autumn. Not for me the gamboling lambs and showers of spring, nor the disappointment of successive summers. Winter I like but it can be interminable and bleak; No, it is autumn that most often puts a spring in my step. I adore the golden hues and the scent of wood smoke on the air and I live for the crackle of the first frosts and the accompanying morning mists.

And it is my favourite time in the kitchen too, when at last my favourite cheap cuts of meat and accompanying gnarly roots come to slow simmers filling the house with scented steam rich with herbs and spice. Much as I adore grilling prime cuts over hot coals and wood, they have an aggressive charm, all flames, salt, acrid smoke and pungent marinades. With an autumnal braise there is comfort from a barely blipping pot, a gentle presence that doesn’t demand attention like it’s brash summer cousin.

And if you’re going to braise in October and November, and of course you should, a lot, then one thing that you must braise at least once is venison which is one of those things that we do better than anywhere else in the world. And it’s still not ‘there’ you know and it makes me cross that we don’t really eat it because we don’t, no matter that places like Borough Market actively promote it. Every year we write the same recipes and knock out the same articles about the health benefits and providence and it pops up on tasting menus and the occasional sad burger in ‘gastro’ pub but where are the haunches? The fillets, the T-Bones, The LIVER? Why can I go to my supermarket now and buy a frozen leg of New Zealand Lamb but I can’t buy a haunch of venison. Friar Tuck would turn in his ample grave.

Are we squeamish because of Bambi and The Monarch of the Glen? Or because they are shot with guns and there is blood and skinning involved? I wish it weren’t still overwhelmingly preferable to get our protein from grotesquely bloated abominations, bred behind locked doors and living out their absurdly short lives on concrete and faeces. On a similar theme, my personal mission for the last decade or so has been to get more people eating offal (and drink more Riesling but that’s a fight for another day) so my next demo at Borough Market will be venison offal which is some of the best offal you can get – I’ll be doing deer tongue tacos, a venison offal keema and skewering the sweetest livers, pungent with Sichuan pepper and cumin amongst other things.

If you’re not sure about venison or offal, I promise this will be a great ‘gateway’…. Darren from Shellseekers will be shooting my deer in the days before my demo and the offal will be as fresh and uncontaminated as can be, from a wild animal, majestic in the gloaming and we will cook it together and hopefully it will be something to which you will return again and again.

There is a sublime moment during the tasting menu at The Sportsman in Seasalter when your knife but whispers at slip sole bone and pearly, iridescent flesh pares away with nary a fight. This morsel – underside ridged from contact with ribs but pristine; outside speckled green with seaweed butter, arrives at your mouth moist and perfumed with the nearby sea and melts away leaving a trace of iodine, sweet meat and eye-rolling joy. The Tom and Jerry fish skeleton of a thousand instagrams is testament to the perfect cooking, devoid of clinging dry or pulpy raw flesh; clean as a beach pebble every single time. Which is the point that I’m gently meandering to for I’m guessing that The Sportsman have cooked tens of thousands of slip soles and I’d bet that each was as starkly beautiful as the last. I’d bet all the money in my pockets that each and every slip sole is delicately plated and given the slightest push with the warm finger of a chef who just knows. I can’t say for sure but I’ll bet there are no probes to take the ‘core’ temperature and if there’s a sous-vide machine for fish in that kitchen I’ll eat all the money in my pockets and the sundry detritus of yours. You feel when a fish is cooked right. You know, or you don’t and The Sportsman do.

Which brings me to Rick Stein in Barnes, by the river where The Depot used to be. It’s a handsome restaurant, but it always has been, a pretty courtyard awash on a cold November night with fairy lights and fog is enticing, as is the dark water flowing slowly, tar-like, past the far side widows. Early, we sat at the bar for a Negroni upon which is perched a soft pickled walnut, about which I simply cannot make my mind. It was a stunning addition or a calamitous folly. I don’t know which so we’ll go with the former lest you reach the end of this and think me unkind.

I took fifteen minutes to drink my Negroni, walnut and all and for that entire time, four plates of food sat on the bar, at my elbow – two plates of sashimi and two of fresh white crab. I’m guessing that the cold starter station is behind the bar, perhaps to aid logistics, perhaps for a bit of theatre but plated starters of raw and delicate, fresh sea food, wilting in the heat of a public bar for twenty minutes seems strange and speaks to me of a culture not obsessed with perfection. Cooking the same slip sole, the same way, thousands of times is about kitchen culture. It is about perfection and zeal and shame. In some kitchens the idea of waste, of incorrect cooking, of cutting corners is anathema. The culture infects everyone from the Head Chef to the porter and at all the levels in between each of a hundred jobs is done with quiet skill, application and pride. We moved to our perfectly nice table.

The wine list is a thing of beauty, keenly priced and interesting. They have Burklin Wolf Riesling, an Estate that I visited in my youth and swam, drunk and naked in a ceremonial pond with a wine merchant pal who was genuinely bitten by a snake. Thirty two quid for some of the best Riesling that you can buy that retails for about thirteen is fantastic value and a nostalgia trip all at once. I order the cheapest starter but the one that will tell you more about the kitchen than any other, Fish soup with rouille and croutons. The soup was OK but was not possessed of the ‘funk’ that true Provencal fish soup attains. The tang of small whole fish, of guts and heads and bone, boiled, crushed and strained. Anise and orange zest adding flora. This was a polite fishy soup rather than a fine fish soup. Perfect, I’m sure for the Barnes lunch crowd but I want my fish soup to slap me in the face with pungent piscine aggression. This was a theatrical air kiss of a soup, prim and proper and just a bit dull.

And then I got cross because I paid forty-eight pounds and eighty-eight pence (including service) for a piece of Turbot, some chips and some cavalo nero. A quid shy of fifty notes for a plate of food. I implore you not to think that I am the kind of person who minds paying fifty quid for a plate of food. I don’t. I’ve rarely had to mind, even at some of the best restaurants in Britain (that slip sole is a tenner, a la carte), but whenever I have, every element has been faultless. If I pay fifty quid for a premium ingredient, perfectly cooked I’m happy as a clam. My turbot was a bit overcooked. That’s all. Maybe a minute or two, maybe it had sat under a hot lamp for too long (the plate was literally scalding). It was a wee bit over done. It’s not the end of the world and yes it’s a first-world problem for a middle-class chump in Barnes to spend the weekly budget for some families on a piece of slightly over-cooked fish but fuck it. It’s my fifty quid and they overcooked my turbot.

I’m not expecting (my ACTUAL food hero) Rick to cook my fish in his restaurant, or even his son, but I expect, when you’re charging Michelin star+ prices, for the culture to be right and it just wasn’t. The service was kind of sweet but scatty and no one knew anything about the wine list. The food left on the bar, the burning plates and the imperfect soup. A bog standard pudding of chocolate ‘pave’, crushed peanuts and bought in Jude’s ice cream (dull) and top end prices all left me feeling a bit sad. I’d hoped that Barnes might finally have a jewel to behold and be proud of but beautiful, shimmering Rick Stein, Barnes is more costume jewellery than precious gem. Its a shame therefore that here, in Barnes that won’t matter and it will be fully booked for years and years to come.

 

 

Everything has been written about Kiln. All the words. I’ve just read them all – by Fay and Giles, Grace and a hundred others. About Ben Chapman and his evangelical thirst for knowledge and apparent allergy to electricity. About the immaculately sourced Tamworth pigs and day boat-caught brill, the clay pots and the charcoal, the hipster chefs and the retro turntables and the Northern Soul. All the words, about a specific long pepper and the herbs grown in Cornish poly tunnels. All the words about ‘peak 2016’ and no bookings and how they’ll text you when a spot at the bar becomes available. The variations of fish sauce and the genus of the basil. The heat, the dark, the aggressive assault on your namby Western palates. The intensity and the goodness of it.

So I’m not going to write those words again because you can read them all in many a myriad place far from here. I decided to write about Kiln a year after everyone else because of how it makes me feel and how imperturbably it has snuck up on me to become just about my favourite place to while away an hour in London.

It is also a symbol, a starting point for me after a year in which I have spent four of its twelve months lying in bed, in pain and fatigued. There will be other times when the downside of that unpleasant stat come more to the fore, not least the effects that it has had on my mental health, career, bank balance and family, but I have also had a lot of time to think, I’ve had a lot of therapy and counselling and I’ve given up a lot of the things that although I loved, made me stressed and sick and tired. So now I’m a writer. Exciting! I’m no longer a shopkeeper, a restaurateur or an entrepreneur. My days as a wine merchant, publican, butcher and chef are gone – I’m not an ‘operator’ or a salesman, a creative director or a party planner or any other of the other jobs to which I have turned a hand over the last twenty years. Now is not the time to wallow in what might have been but push on to what could be, repair my gut, my head and do things that make my children proud.

And the first thing that I’m going to write about is Kiln because it makes me very happy and I wish I’d thought of it, done it and nailed it like Ben has.

As a responsible eater of food you simply have to have a favourite restaurant, one that you patronise weekly, or as often as you can afford. One where you alone pay a fair chunk of the KP’s daily wage or the business rates, one where you can make a difference to their bottom line, because it’s nigh on impossible to run restaurants in London – certainly without massive investment so when you find somewhere that fits you, embrace it, help them, tell people.

And so it is with Kiln, I just like being there more than I like not being there. I like the staff, so engaging and sweet. I like the fierce heat from the charcoal and the turmeric gin and tonic. Sure, it looks like twenty other Soho restaurants, all brick and exposed extraction but it has a singular character that just suits me; it might not suit you and that’s OK.

All of the food is good and I have eaten maybe forty dishes there without a duffer, not one that I wouldn’t gladly order again and again, but I only want to tell you about one of them, The Burmese Wild Ginger and Beef Cheek Curry but without mentioning the beef cheek. Because the sauce is the thing; the distillation, the very essence of Kiln. The liquor, scooped from the bowl after the protein has gone is the summation of all of the parts; the soul, heart, joy and work that have gone into this beautiful little restaurant.

It is hellish dark and deep but thin, almost broth like, the better for drinking from the clay bowl like the animal you are. But first the aroma, nectar-like, ambrosial. Floral but deeply savoury and then everything pops as each receptor in your mouth acknowledges that something weird is happening as layer upon layer of flavour coats your tongue for the briefest blissful moment. You know in an instant that these spices have been hard toasted and ground here, probably that morning, that the cheeks were browned to crispness with marmitey crust before their low, slow braise. You know with this sip that each herb was fresh and chopped with care, each allium lovingly peeled. This sip tells me everything that I need to know about Kiln, everything and more.

And that is why the first thing that I write as ‘just’ a writer will be about Kiln, because of a spoonful of sauce and the way it makes me feel.

Better.

Last Christmas I lay in a corridor in agony, surrounded by the injured the traumatised and the weak. Eventually I was wheeled into a ward – the Surgical Ward at Kingston Hospital, which was and remains the worst place that I have ever spent some time. They pulled the curtains around my bed and my wife had to leave me to look after the children. A nurse who wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to me attached a drip, clumsily to the back of my hand and my blood burst from the vein before she could slip in the tube and gushed all over the floor in an oily vivid slick. Nausea attacked as every semblance of colour left my face; my head lolled back on the foam pillow and she tutted and tried again. The blood stayed on the floor for ninety minutes.

Every bed in the ward was occupied, as was every chair in the corridor along with several more beds. There was one poor nurse for the whole ward and God knows where else and when I asked a simple question she told me that she was ‘agency’ and didn’t know. No one knew. This was Boxing Day in London and this place felt abandoned, desperate.

I did not sleep that night, the man in the bed next to me was unbearably distressed, crying, shouting, groaning and farting. I pressed my call button for him but no one came. I genuinely don’t know if he lived through that night for at about four am his bed was engulfed with doctors and nurses and he was rushed out amidst beeping equipment and panic-laced shouts. He didn’t come back. I like to think that he’s on a lovely farm now, chasing rabbits and having the time of his life….

I opened my eyes in the half dark and an apparition stood staring at me, beside my bed. I focused (unfortunately) and it was a man, of advanced age just standing and staring at me, his white hair, wild atop his head and clad in just a pyjama top. His flaccid old cock and balls hung inches from my head and the back of his legs were spattered in liquid faeces. ‘Where is she?’ He murmured. ‘Do you know?’

I pressed the call button and no one came, he turned, his bony white arse, filthy and desiccated and crossed the ward to the bed opposite and began rummaging through drawers ‘My underpants. I need my underpants’. The occupant of the bed woke in a panic and screamed at him to Fuck. Off. I have never seen such a wretched thing, felt more helpless. This man, reduced to pacing his own shit around a hospital, exposed and yes, vulnerable. He might have been a Titan, a leader of men or an athlete. He might have been a scholar or a soldier but here he was in the dying light of his life, confused and scared, covered in shit and desperate for some pants to cover his nakedness. I suspect he’s probably dead now too. I almost hope that he is because his life at that time in that place was too tragic for words. I hope that if he is alive that he doesn’t remember that night and particularly the panic and disgust in my face that I couldn’t disguise in time.

By the side of the winding road from Inverness to Kinlochbervie stands a granite monument inscribed with the legend ‘Welcome to Mackay Country’ and when I pass it I feel like I’ve come home. It’s not my home though and it never has been. In all honesty and to my eternal chagrin it might never be, but this grand ‘Mackay Country’, or ‘Sutherland’ as the less self-absorbed Mackay’s call it is the only place on earth where goosebumps rise when I hear the whispers of my forefathers on the wind. I gaze wistfully over the heathered moorland and eagle-circled crags with a longing that I can’t explain and become, as you can see, poetical and spiritual and deeply, tediously irritating. I can’t help it for I am a Mackay of the Clan Mackay strong of arm and bushy of beard and I will fight you, fuelled by salted porridge and haggis like the brave warriors before me, our great virile balls, swinging in the breeze, bekilted and bare of arse and crushing your windpipes under our feet, you invading Sassenach bastards.

My Great-great-grandfather was a ‘proper’ Mackay and of course he was called Murdo. Of course he was – I didn’t just saddle my poor boy with a stupid name on a whim. From the day that my own grandfather, John sat me on his knee and told me of his grandfather Murdo, I have been all but obsessed with this man who died fifty years before I was born and almost ninety before his young namesake.

He was a fisherman and lived in a two-room croft, on a hillside overlooking the North Sea, not far from the village of Bettyhill, which, in turn is not far from John O’Groats. This is as far north as we can get on this island and as wild. On the map it goes Bettyhill, Orkney, Faroe islands, Arctic. Mackay Country is a barren, hard and staggeringly beautiful land. I know that John travelled by train from London to Bettyhill just before The Great War to meet and spend time with his grandfather, Murdo and this makes all of this less abstract; a man that I knew well and loved visited that croft, spoke to this man, met his children, saw his nets, spoke to him of London and life. How I wished I had sucked more of the marrow of Grandpa John’s life when he was alive.

That Murdo Snr. was a fisherman brings me great comfort and incredible pride. I can imagine his gnarled, bleeding hands, salted and blue, heaving nets in the freezing rain. I see him smoking, drinking a dram by the fire, thawing. Maybe he fiddled in the gloaming, a bow tiny in those great working hands. Perhaps he couldn’t read and regaled his boys with stories told to him by his own grandfather – ancient Highland legends of gods and men. I don’t know if he was happy, if he was a good man or bad. I presume he had a powerful faith, as most did in that time and place and I expect that he led the most simple and Spartan of lives.

What the fuck, I wonder often, would he make of mine?

There is nobility in pulling a gleaming salmon from a frothing sea, selling it, and buying only the things that without which life would be rendered impossible. He raised a family in two rooms on the proceeds of the ocean and died in the parish to which he had been born, having never ventured more than a few miles south his whole life long. He must have fostered some sense of adventure in his son though- Jack Mackay, my great-grandfather, made it to London as a Metropolitan Policeman. His son John, my grandfather, lived in Pimlico and worked for the gas board, and his son, Christopher, my father, was a lecturer. When I sold the first salmon in my shop I thought about Murdo and the completion of a circle. When I named my son for him it felt like a tribute to a myth or a god. Murdo Mackay of the Clan Mackay is my hero; it is as simple as that. I love him – I love the idea of him and I grasp for him when I don’t know what to do, when life is too complex and I imagine him rolling eyes heavenward at my ‘problems’ as the snow batters his ravaged old face.

We went there, Sara and I with some friends and a (as yet unnamed) Murdo shaped foetus in situ. We stopped at the ‘Mackay Country’ stone and took hilarious photos for Instagram, pointing at it and then at me, ‘MACKAY COUNTRY LOL’ etc. It’s probably what Murdo Snr would have wanted. We stayed in a croft, not far from where Murdo Snr kept his. We had hot water and Wi-Fi, snorkels and prosecco. The parents among us plugged in the baby monitors and worried about the stair gradient. I thought again about Murdo, shitting in an outhouse, eating only when there was food, setting his sons broken bones under candle light and spending his day off hearing about the burning fires of hell from the local preacher man.

A few miles east is the most gorgeous beach on earth and you must, if you can, go there before you die. We can’t be friends if you can’t find the poetry and beauty in ‘Sandwood Bay’. You must walk four miles from the nearest road, along a dirt track that winds through moorland and bog, mountains and ancient quarry. Eagles circle overhead and the bones of crofts long since abandoned, jut from the earth and you wonder in awe at how anyone lived here, in this place and for so long. Suddenly as you break the bow of a hill the salt in the air hits you and the sand whips up around your face and you gasp at a vista of dreams, a beach of the whitest sand leading to the most azure sea you will ever see. There will be no one there and you will pity every other person on earth who at that exact moment is not gazing down upon Sandwood Bay. You will run down the dunes, relieving yourself of such accoutrements as clothing and dive into the turquoise froth where your nuts will retract with the force of a thousand horses and you will nearly die of shock as your core temperature plummets to levels of death and suffering.

This is the North Sea and the next mainland to which you could swim, should you be so inclined is Iceland. Ice. Land. On the sunniest of days the sand glows warm, the sea twinkles blue and you could easily be on a deserted Thai island were it not for the fact that testes rarely evacuate scrotum in The Indian Ocean. I thought about Murdo again. Standing up on the cliffs, looking sternly down at his progeny, choosing to jump into a sea that was for me a playground but for him a mortally dangerous necessity.

Not far from Sandwood Bay and as far as the eye can see are beds of jewelled coal black mussels, thriving in the clean, clear waters and just waiting to be plucked. A plump mussel, briny and raw, with your feet still in the water is the greatest of things to eat and forget Murdo, this is an act that connects us immediately to our pre historic ancestors, this is something unchanged for millennia and about as far removed to how we eat now as to be unrecognisable to most. ‘Oh my GOD, that’s disgusting! You’ll get food poisoning! Is it alive? You are so gross’.

The mussel moves me in ways that only a few foodstuffs do, it’s so base, so simple, so ancient. It’s weird and sexy and tastes sweet and salty and nothing a human hand can do improves it. I love an oyster as much as the next macho man but oysters are so obvious, so ‘Fall of Rome’ with their gnarly armour and pearly iridescence. The sluts of the seas, all slippery and sexual, ‘Look at me’ says the oyster, ‘anoint me with your shallot vinegar and marvel as I tumble down your throat with viscous salty abandon’.

No, for me the most honest of the bi-valves is the mussel, the Land Rover Defender to the oysters Aston Martin. Both good in their own way, driven by Rick Stein and James Bond but where you could enjoy a pint with Rick, ruminating on Ulysses and the writing of Elizabeth David, Bond would fuck your wife and kill you.

As a chef of some twenty years standing now, you might consider it surprising that I have long considered that the chef is nothing short of a gastronomic vandal, oppressing ingredients and bending customers to his will. Almost nothing gets on my tits more that a waiter asking me if I would like him to explain the chef’s ‘concept’ to me. ‘Unless it’s to cook food and let me eat it, I am supremely uninterested’ I say, although of course I don’t because I am English and I mumble something about how super that would be.

The chef has prepared for you today ‘textures of carrot’

I love the texture of carrot: It’s crunchy.

‘And for your main course Chef would like you to enjoy his ‘anatomy of owl with a veneer of fennel jus’. Please smell this old leather belt whilst listening on earphones to a dog barking in Soweto to truly experience Chef’s vision.’

God sake.

The best food is untouched by ‘chef’, but it must be fresh. Supermarket fish for example is not fresh; it is horrid and requires all of the numbing garlic and white wine that you can chuck at it. It doesn’t smell right, feel right, cook right or most importantly, taste right. A fresh piece of fish, one that that swam yesterday and cooked simply in a pan with plenty of sea salt, pepper and a squeeze lemon is one of foods greatest joys. You simply can’t replicate it with fish that has ended up in your kitchen via a supermarket. It’s the feel of it, with just a whisper of iodine and sweetness. Like a raspberry off the bush or a carrot from the ground there is a feeling about things fresh for which there is no substitute in science.

When food is fresh you don’t need to do anything to it – in most cases you don’t even need to cook it at all. I would no more mess around with a fresh piece of fish than I would put lippy on my baby girl; both are perfect and to add is to detract.

When you pick your mussels, savour one raw. Close your eyes as the gentle waves break at your feet and allow yourself to become part of the sea for the briefest and most magical of moments. Find your brill stiff fresh and baste it with nothing but golden butter and cry happy tears as a burnished exterior gives way to a translucent pearly white centre. Pluck your raspberry, warm with sunlight from the bush and think not of coulis or mousse. Let each bead burst on your tongue, sweetness and acid in symbiosis and dependant on nothing for perfection. This is how to eat for maximum pleasure and it hardly ever happens, so busy are we with our lives of such immutable tensions.

I have infrequent moments of pure joy; when my son creeps into our bed, terrified by thunder and smelling faintly of wee and mango shampoo is one but for longer than I have had children I have found eye rolling ecstasy in putting into my mouth something unfettered and unadorned. A mussel is everything to me that food should be. It speaks of a past for which I have only an intellectual inkling but an emotional obsession, a constant presence across the millennia that links me to my forefathers and theirs. We gather them for free in a place of wild beauty, with friends or family to share around a table later and they taste delicious. It is a humble beast, the mussel, the proletariat of the sea, workmanlike and reliable but there is magic within and without that dark, glimmering carapace and we would be foolish to relegate it below its flashier cousins.

I dream of Sutherland very often and search property pages for cut price crofts overlooking raging seas. I doubt I could live there permanently, certainly not with a young family and definitely not without the legion mod cons that my posh Edinburgh wife would demand. But I need something approaching a home there, an escape, a tangible link to my past that I can share with my son whom when he’s old enough may think of his namesake as I do; just a fisherman, husband and father yet (and without proof or reason) a god amongst men, a role model and an inspiration. I want to sit with Murdo, looking out to sea, on a pilgrimage I suppose, to our family seat; wild and beautiful still and barely different from when Murdo Snr. bestrode these hills like the Highland colossus that in my minds eye he almost certainly was.

Roast Restaurant, 9.25 am on a Saturday in 2006

‘OK! Excellent! I’ll have the full English please. Is it OK to have an extra slice of your amazing black pudding instead of the tomato? Yes? Great, thanks. And umm, A Bloody Mary- just to take the edge off- you know?

And for you Madam?

‘Can I just have a piece of fruit please- can you make sure it’s been washed? And some grapefruit juice.’

‘Oh, are you sure? The breakfast is amazing here- kippers?

‘I’m actually vegan. Fruit’s fine.’

‘No, of course, sure. Vegan. That’s cool. Is that like, um, an ethical thing?

‘Yes.’

‘Right. Yes, COOL. That’s really great. How about a drink though? Pretty sure there’s no animals in vodka and tomato juice, HA HA!’

‘It’s 9.30 am.’

‘No, right. Of course. Ridiculous.’

‘Here is your Bloody Mary sir.’

Oh Christ.

‘Oh, thanks, mate. Lovely.’

WHY DID I ORDER THIS?

‘How’s your grapefruit juice- looks great.’

‘Nice, thank you.’

Well this is going swimmingly.

‘So have you been to Borough Market before?’

‘No.’

 Really!? I love it- come all the time- this is my first date here though! You’re not a ‘foodie’ then?

‘No.’

‘Full English with extra black pudding for you sir……’

Oh yes, lovely. Thank you.’

‘And this apple for you Madam.’

‘Thank you.’

GOD SAKE.

And that was the beginning of the end of that first date at Roast restaurant in the middle of Borough Market.

But it didn’t deter me though- In the dating years (c.2005-2010) Borough was my first date of choice- more interesting/original than a bar, easier to escape in event of a disaster (see above) and ample opportunity to show off my encyclopaedic knowledge of aged Alpine cheese and Sussex day boats. It’s interesting, but probably not surprising that amazing first ‘Borough’ dates- you know, perusing great produce, fog and excitement in the air, clutching a hot cider and ‘accidentally’ brushing arms as you both reach for the same pumpkin display….. usually meant a disastrous second date in a poncey bar or posh restaurant.

Borough relaxes people, especially me- I’m happy there, comfortable, confidant. I can be myself in my surroundings. When you stick me in a ‘trendy’ bar in Shoreditch for date 2 I’m an idiot, out of my comfort zone and I sweat profusely and say things like ‘So, erm dating! Eh? What’s THAT all about? Do you like bicycles?

But you can’t really have a first date and a second date in Borough Market because you’d come across as a bit weird so instead of supping oysters and Chablis off a barrel and skipping past butchery displays, fingers entwined and alive with possibility, you have to put on a shirt and give someone a pound to wash your hands when you have a wee and pay fourteen quid for a watery martini for someone that you literally know you will never see again.

I’m so glad I’m married now.

 

 

 

 

Suet has rather snuck up on me over the years to become one of my absolute favourite ingredients. It doesn’t sound great on paper- fancy some animal kidney fat? But it’s one of those ingredients that does things that can’t be replicated by anything else and is touched with magical alchemy when added to a multitude of sweet and savoury dishes.

It’s first recorded use in this country is early in the 17th century – in something called an ‘English College Pudding’ which was served to Oxford University students as early as 1617. From what I can work out a ‘College pudding’ is a cousin of our Christmas pudding, crammed as it was with suet, dried fruits and spice.

Suet is absolutely crucial to the success of Great British nursery puddings- jam roly poly, spotted dick, and of course mince pies and Christmas pudding but I love it even more in the depths of winter with meat and rich gravy. Suet is synonymous with ‘rib-sticking’ and it’s such a perfect evocative phrase, suet gives pastry a richness and unctuousness that you will never replicate with other shortening agents. It sticks to the roof of your mouth, coating it with flavour. Ale will help here or a glass of something old and red. I recently had a meal at The Kingham Plough and it was freezing cold, pouring with rain when we arrived like a couple of drowned rats. A roaring fire helped but not as much as seeing steak and kidney pudding on the menu. I could have stayed for a week. I realised then that if ever I see something containing suet on a menu I will order it. If there’s animal kidney fat and ideally animal kidneys on your menu then I’m pretty much a happy man.

Here is a pie recipe that celebrates suet, free-range chicken, bay leaves, onions, British charcuterie and most importantly simplicity. One of the things that I do now when I develop a recipe is literally the opposite of what I did say, 10 years ago. I take things away. I used to add little sausage balls, sage, ham, mushrooms, leeks and any manner of other ingredients when I made a chicken pie. This one has a handful of ingredients but they are all crucial and all hold their own. As an example, so many recipes will say ‘add a bay leaf’ and you’ll reach for the back of your spice cupboard and pull out a desiccated leaf that crumbles to dust immediately. Pointless. I want this pie to taste of bay so I use 6 fresh leaves from a tree in my garden. Bay, chicken, sweet melting onions, British chorizo and rich crisp, soggy suet pastry make for a wonderful pie. The inherent crispness and sogginess is one of the great joys of suet pastry – it’s so full of fat that you can’t fail to have a crispy lid but so unctuous that within it is soft and melting and moist.

Suet crusted chicken, British chorizo and sweet onion pie

Serves 6 hungry people . Cooking/prep time 2 hours

Perceived wisdom states that you should use leftovers to make a chicken pie. Not in this manor- poaching the whole chicken is well worth it here, not least because you flavour your sauce with the reduced stock. Literally every ounce of flavour from that chicken finds its way into your pie. I can never be faffed making a separate roux for this kind of pie- adding butter and flour and cooking through is much easier, makes less watching up and makes no discernible difference!

Ingredients

For the pie filling:

1 1.5kg free range or organic chicken

3 white onions

200g British chorizo, cut into small cubes

6 fresh bay leaves (or dried if you can’t find fresh)

150g plain flour

200 mls double cream

150g butter

For the pastry:

350g self-raising flour

tsp salt

175g beef suet (shredded)

2 egg yolks to glaze

Method:

Pre heat oven to 200 degrees

Place the chicken with 2 bay leaves in a large pan and cover with cold water- about a litre. You can add some aromatics, carrots and onions if you wish. Bring to a simmer and poach gently for 1 hour. Remove and allow to cool and pull the meat from the bones and cut into chunks. Increase the heat and reduce the stock by half. Set aside.

Slice your onions thinly and add to a frying pan with a knob of butter, the chorizo and the bay leaves and cook over a low heat, stirring gently until soft and sweet but not caramelised. At least half an hour.

Now add your chicken to the pan with the rest of the butter and the flour. Coat everything in the flour and cook for 10 minutes, stirring all the time .

Add the reduced stock and the cream and cook for a further 15 minutes. Add some milk, stock or water if too dry.

Place the filling in a pie dish to cool.

For the pastry:

Mix together the dry ingredients with your fingers. Add very cold water slowly until you form a dough. It should not be too wet. Roll out and place over the pie. Crimp the edges with a fork and glaze with the egg yolks.

Put into preheated oven at 200 degrees for 35 minutes until golden, burnished brown.