Monday, 30 May 2011

The Pantiles Food Festival - Review

It was during late February, whilst idly trawling the web in search of a news story, that I stumbled upon the press release for the Pantiles Food Festival. In a matter of minutes I had greedily consumed said press release and knew that I need look no further for my news story.

In what seemed like no time at all later, the news story deadline was long forgotten and the food festival was upon us. It began on the Friday evening, where Richard Phillips, head chef of Thackeray's (amongst other things), opened the festival with a screening of Babette's Feast and a glass of red in the Pantiles' Corn Exchange.

Unfortunately, due to a work experience placement, I couldn't make the Friday, but by Saturday morning I was back in Tunbridge Wells and raring to go. As it turned out, it was a beautiful day. Upon approaching the Pantiles I was greeted firstly with smells: smells of fresh fish, smells of herbs and spices, smells of food. It seemed that the marketing and PR for the event had been a success: I don't think I've ever seen the Pantiles so busy as it was then. Market stalls and consumers crammed every inch of those tiles which are so often so painfully empty.

There were stalls selling every edible delight imaginable, from fresh fish, meat and cheeses, to breads, jams, chutneys, chocolates, fudges, to ciders and beers, to olives, oils and curries... the list goes on. Best of all, of course, was that there were plenty of free samples to try. The highlights of which, for me, were lemon infused rapeseed oil (subtle and aromatic), pink cider, and watermelon jam. I think that businesses that don't offer free samples do miss out here – it seems to me that you are so much more likely to buy a product if you've had the chance to taste it first.

As well as the stalls, there were live cookery demonstrations on the bandstand from various chefs from local pubs and restaurants, as well as talks with different people. The talk I was keen to attend was with Sue Ashworth, a food writer and stylist with over 20 books to her name. By the time I actually found the building where her talk was taking place I was ten minutes late. There was no one in the room besides two ladies at the front, so I approached them and it turned out to be Sue Ashworth and a friend. Bizarrely enough, I was the only person to turn up to her talk, so she wasn't going to go ahead with it any more.

Now why no one at all, in the absolutely heaving Pantiles, would be interested to hear the tales of a seasoned freelance food writer and stylist seemed a little odd to me. As a result, however, I had a really nice one-to-one chat with her in which I heard a few of her tales from in the industry and was given helpful and sound advice concerning food writing and photography. “Never give up; never, never give up, because you'll get there in the end” was her number one top-tip.

Overall, I think it would be fair to say (possibly because I missed the Friday), that the event was more of a glorified market than a food festival. There weren't any of the street performers or entertainers that were mentioned in the press release, and perhaps a little live music could have spruced things up a little. But that's not to put the event down, because it was very good: beautiful weather, a fantastic turnout, and a great atmosphere made for a really enjoyable experience.

Happily, according to Richard Simm, Chair of the Association of Pantiles Traders, the Pantiles Food Festival is to become an annual event, one which will only get better with every year. Roll on next year, I say.

There were plenty of local heroes, such as the chaps from Sankey's here.

If you can see past the stripes, check out them lovely pies.

Crowds. A surprisingly rare site at The Pantiles.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Borough Market

A lesson on customer service, leaking wallets and a mini invention test.

Most people know of the equipment that corner shops have invested in; the high pitched squeal employed specifically to rid the area around the shop of ASBO-totting yoofs – you know, the hooded type that turn up on BMXs and in modified Vauxhall Corsa's. Borough Market has invested in something similar, but this is a drug. Everyone who swaggers in through its gilded gates is unwittingly hit by the invisible vapour, which penetrates a part of the brain which controls how one spends one's money. It unlocks this mechanism and thus metaphorically creates a rather gaping hole in your wallet, which results in the severe leakage of money.

At least that is what it seems like.

I had never been to the market until last week. My friend Susie had often praised its virtues, and had ensured me that I would love it, so I took her word for it, organised the trip, and off we went.

My first impressions of the place were somewhat overwhelming. Aside from the constant stream of delivery vans and large amounts of building works, there was so much to see that we must have walked round three or four times before making any decision as to what to buy. There was so much on offer that it is pointless to list it, but in brief there was a vast array of meats, fishes, vegetables, breads, cakes, pastries, oils, beers and much, much more. Some things were much more expensive than at supermarkets (usually a reflection of their quality or extravagence), and some actually a fair bit cheaper (3 avocados for one pound, anyone?).

My first good impression of customer service of the day was at an Italian stall called La Tua Pasta. Whilst musing over the choices of fresh tortellini, I was intrigued by the wild boar variety, but wasn't quite sure what boar tasted like. Before you knew it, one of the two running the stall ripped open a pack, chucked a couple in a pan of boiling water (and threw in a couple of pumpkin ones for good measure too), put them on a plate, drizzled with olive oil and a smattering of parmesan, and gave them to us. Considering they're worth about 64p each, this was pretty generous. And the boar, as it turned out, was delicious. Some more chit-chat and advice later (concerning the intriguing squid-ink, white crab and mascarpone tortellini – selling for £9.50 a pack), and I was seven pounds down and one pack of wild boar tortellini up. Aside from the fact that it was delicious, the duo's friendliness and helpfulness were one of the key reasons I wanted to buy from them.

After a while we decided to have a coffee break and headed to the Pret across the road, which was where we encountered our second experience of exemplary service. The guy behind the till was really, almost unsually, friendly and chatty, which was nice enough in itself. But it was the fact that he offered me a coffee on the house that had me amazed. I've never had that experience before, and it was that which made us both agree to go to the same Pret again whenever we're in the vicinity. Being kind and friendly gets you customers – if only all businesses would work that out.

After much more meandering, a pit stop at the hole in the wall to refuel the thirsty wallet, temptations, purchases, and the testing of many olive oils, we departed with some bags full of healthy goodness.

First stop was lunch at Susie's, by Susie. Tortellini filled with beetroot and ricotta was the order of the day, topped with a delicious basil olive oil, and complemented by an avocado salad and some rosemary and salt focaccia bread. Eaten outside in the sun, this made for an exceedingly pleasant experience; the best lunch I've had in a while.

Doing an 'invention test' style dinner before going to the market sounded like a good idea. However, once I was there, there was so much choice and endless possibilities that it became a rather difficult task. In the end though, I decided to go for something simple (and not particularly inventive, if I'm honest): baked cod on roasted potato slices with vine roasted cherry tomatoes. In the event of cooking it I did actually get the timings all wrong, causing some wasted time and frustration, but that's only to be expected of amateur intuition I guess. I enjoyed the meal with a glass of Meantime Chocolate beer (also bought at the market, of course!), which was rather delicious, though the chocolate was barely noticeable. Anyway, here's the correct timing version:

Baked Cod on Roasted Potato Slices with Vine Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Serves: 1 (easily doubled)


Cost: £4.00 (approx)


  • 1 fillet of cod (200g approx)

  • 1 large potato

  • About 6 cherry tomatoes (on the vine)

  • salt and black pepper

  • lemon juice

  • Best extra virgin olive oil (I used basil oil)

  • dried rosemary


  1. Preheat your oven to 220c and get a pan of salted water on the boil. Peel your potato and then cut in half down the middle. Slice the halves in semi-circle like discs, about 0.5 – 1cm thick. Par-boil them in the salted water for 5 minutes.

  2. Next, remove from the heat and drain off the water, and let the potatoes steam dry for a minute or so. Now place them into a roasting try, avoiding having them on top of each other. Drizzle with the olive oil and then season with salt, pepper and the rosemary. Place into the oven, and cook for 20 minutes

  3. Lay your fish fillet on a chopping board and generously season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil (and a little rosemary, if you like). Turn it over and season the other side.

  4. After the potatoes have been cooking for 15 minutes, place the cherry tomatoes onto an oven tray and season with a little salt and pepper and some olive oil, and then place in the oven.

  5. Once the 20 minutes are up, turn the temperature down to 190c and place your cod, skin side down, on the oven tray next to the cherry tomatoes. Cook for twenty minutes, and then serve.

So there we have it, the Borough Market experience. A thoroughly enjoyable one it was, and well worth it. I would definitely recommend it to any foodie, or simply anyone who wishes to get some seasonal produce that can be cheaper and fresher than that of the supermarkets. My two pieces of advice are: 1) Don't go on a Saturday – apparently you can hardly move it is so busy. And 2), come prepared to lose a fair wedge of hard earned dough in return for some exquisite delicacies. Oh, and finally, don't forget to visit the friendly Italians at La Tua Pasta, and the Pret just outside the market!

A few photos:

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The MasterChef Challenge

So there we have it, another year of MasterChef has come and gone. Another three everyday you-and-me's have gone on the epic foodie adventure of a lifetime, and enjoyed the dizzying heights of prime-time slot television limelight. And one of them has gone on to enter the MasterChef hall of fame: congratulations to Mr Tim Anderson for a well deserved win. His imaginative and inventive genius that had him dubbed 'the mad professor', complemented by a (typically American) bright, positive and generally pleasant disposition, made him well worthy of the title.

Speaking of such things, you may well remember the MasterChef At Home book I mentioned here previously. Well, predictably, I succumbed to the temptation and eventually bought it.

Whilst idly browsing through the wealth of staggering recipes accommodated in its pages, I decided to set myself a little challenge. I'm going to try and cook my way through at least 10 per cent of the recipes in the book, or as many as possible (whichever comes first, to be honest!). Obviously, some (or many) of them will be very expensive, some of them will use equipment and methods which I do not have the means to acquire, and some of them will simply be too difficult. But that's going to be part of the fun.

And that's just what it is: a bit of fun really. Every now and then I might report on how things are going, and who knows, maybe it could even 'change my looiife?'

I tried my first recipe from the book the other day – a butternut squash soup with cumin (pictured above). Ironically, considering this is the MasterChef book, it was actually simpler to make than many of the soups in Jamie's Ministry of Food. More importantly, though, is the fact that it really did taste amazing. I will be sure to revisit that one at some point in the near future.

Anyway, let the games commence....