Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Where the wild things are (the Bath version, anyway)

Leeks, oysters and rhubarb; purple sprouting broccoli, lamb and British asparagus: such are the flavours that herald the arrival of spring - if you can’t make a celebratory feast out of such a glorious shopping list, you have no rite to call yourself a foodie. But don’t allow the brightest seasonal superstars to distract you from one of Britain’s most overlooked treasures, growing freely (literally) in a hedgerow near you right now.

Wild garlic grows plentifully in and around areas of mature woodland, and is especially abundant in the West Country. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the clusters of tiny white, star-shaped flowers for some variation on snowdrops, but close up, you’ll notice slender, spear-shaped, vivid green leaves and a pungent, garlicky aroma that belies the milder flavour of the plant itself. Pick the leaves (and the flowers, to use as an interesting garnish) but leave the bulbs alone; they won’t mature for at least three years yet (if at all) - at this stage, their gift to you is a strictly topsoil treat.

Use rinsed raw wild garlic leaves to add a subtle garlicky backdrop to salads, or chop finely and sprinkle over warm pizzas, hot soup, pasta sauces or an omelette. It makes a lovely pesto (processed with olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese), loves lamb and has a natural affinity with spring onion mash, while the pretty, mildly-flavoured white flowers can be scattered over almost anything (except, perhaps, that rhubarb).

But perhaps you'd prefer somebody else to forage on your behalf? If so, I bet that these guys are making the very most of the stuff that's proliferating in our local hedgerows at the mo:

Queen Street is one of Bath’s most interesting little streets. Approach it from the Sawclose end, and you’re led to the cobbles by a rather grand arch that lends the whole experience a characterful feel from the off. From there on in, the vibe is contemporary rather than historic, courtesy of several interesting shops and galleries, one of Bath’s friendliest pubs (the Raven) and now, the Wild Cafe.

Making full use of the empty nest left behind by Blackstone’s Kitchen, this cheerful cafe uses local, seasonal produce to create eminently satisfying breakfasts, lunches of both the light and substantial variety and a selection of downhome teatime treats, mostly cooked before your very eyes in an open kitchen. Notable highlights include the flexible brunch menu (including a full English made with fully English ingredients), power-packed salads, mussels cooked in cider and perfect fish and chips, but a recent lunch that brought avocado on sourdough toast to one side of the table and a meaty venison burger with gert fat chips to the other proved that, whether you choose to take a stunningly simple or sturdy and complex route to lunchtime satisfaction, Wild has got the whole gamut tamed to a tee.

Sustainable policies are pushed to the fore, light bites start at around £2.95 (with more substantial options scraping the £6-7 mark) and sandwiches and salads are available to takeaway, should you wish to spend lunchtime perusing the glories of Queen Street as you munch.

See you there? Oh, if only!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sour grapes?

Never mind Michelin, the Good Pub and the Harden’s guides: if you really want to know which restaurants are hot and which should be closed down by the health authorities immediately, ask a restaurant owner.

Now take what I’ve said and add a massive pinch of salt. If I took the bile spewed by one proprietor about another (usually the one next door/across the street/down the road) seriously, I’d never eat out again - except of course at the one with the owner whose just spent 20 minutes dissing the competition.

Before the credit crunch chewed everybody up, most restaurant owners were only too happy to discuss and even recommend other, even similar, ventures in a healthy, ‘compare and contrast’ exercise. Now the heat is on for independent restaurateurs, perhaps it’s inevitable that - in an effort to keep their own doors open - such confidence has given way to forked-tongued practises. Today, I’m the regular recipient of information that would lead to several high profile libel and/or slander cases should I ever commit them to print, while the on-line food guides are forced to double-check the source of negative reviews in order to guarantee that they really are unbiased opinions submitted by a neutral source and not part of a smear campaign launched by another restaurant owner.

Contemporary foodies know instant mashed potato when they’re served it. We’re all familiar with the characteristics of microwaved food, and most of us can tell a homemade pastry case from its pre-prepared, ready-formed cousin blindfold. Don’t restaurant owners realise that, by implying otherwise, they’re actually accusing their customers of being really stupid? If we took their ranting seriously, we would be. Personally, I’m sick of the side order of petty bitching that comes with the petits fours.