Category Archives: The 40 Project

The 40 Project part 5 – Fin

Well, this is it. It’s taken a few posts (and even longer for me to write up about it!), but what started off as something to keep me amused and occupied in the year I turned 40, I ended up doing much more than the requisite 40 and I’ve only written about those I have fairly decent pictures of. I’ve managed to travel a fair bit in my 40th year – 3 trips to Copenhagen, 1 trip to Whitstable and Seasalter, a trip to Lyon, numerous trips to London, an Alaskan Cruise, a trip to Washington State, a trip to San Francisco and also San Jose, a few trips to Manchester.. The list went on. However, there was a notable omission – I hadn’t done anything in my home town of Birmingham.

I’d spent quite some time wandering what I could do for my 40 list for Birmingham; There was one occasion I went to have a few drinks (and food) at the Two Towers Brewery which much to my amusement, really was a piss up in a brewery. However, I completely forgot to take any pictures so given I don’t have any pictorial evidence of said piss up in a brewery, I couldn’t really post about it. Then I wondered what other food specialties I could try from Birmingham – I had already come close with proper Black Country Butcher’s home made faggots, but the likes of HP Sauce, Bird’s Custard and even Typhoo Tea even though they all originated from Birmingham and you can still see remnants of the old Bird’s Custard Factory and HP Factory today, they are no longer produced in Birmingham which deemed them ineligible. I liked the idea of a pint of Mild with some pork scratchings and I know I have done both, but it didn’t feel right for my 40 list – Even though it’s probably the one closest to my heart.

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It was all coming down to one, inevitable choice really – The Balti. There’s a lot of snobbery when it comes to Baltis and let’s face it, it’s not exactly the most glamorous thing on the list, is it? I mean, this is my hometown – And the best I could come up with is a Balti? Never mind the fact that it’s not exactly a new thing for me to try. That said (and in the face of no real alternative), I slowly came round to the idea and eventually decided that I would go for a Balti in one of the original Balti restaurants in the Balti Triangle [40] (That’s a lot of “Balti”‘s there) on New Year’s Eve – What better way to see out the year in which I turned 40 than doing the final item on the list?

The choice of restaurant was quite important too – Looking at the Balti Birmingham site, it gives you a shortlist of “Authentic Balti” restaurants and a bit of research here and there led me to choose Al-Frash as my restaurant of choice. I’m not sure exactly how and why I chose that restaurant, but I was happy to be going there anyway.

Looking at the menu, I noticed they offered what they termed “world’s first sweet potato pakora” Well, I *had* to go for one of those. Similarly, I avoided ordering my usual curry and went for one of the House Specials when this caught my eye:

“Butterfly Special – Our signature dish, fusing all the delicious flavours of King Prawn, Chicken Tikka, Mushroom & Special Kashmiri Spices, cooked to perfection. Served with rice or nan”

Yep, SOLD! I’ll have that with rice and sadly, they didn’t offer a Family nan – One where it’s pretty much the size of the table – so I got a large nan to share with my fellow diners P and M whom joined me in this celebration.

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To be perfectly honest, the food itself was fine – It wasn’t anything standout, but I had a great time with 2 great friends to mark the end of the year I turned 40 and with that, the end of my 40 Project. I was really happy to end it on such a high note, eating nice food and with great company.

And that’s been the recurring theme throughout the whole year; Not only did I have great fun thinking of and doing this project, I got to do it accompanied with/surrounded by people I know and love. As previously mentioned in another post, I’ve been really fortunate in that I got to travel even more than usual but the whole spirit of which the project was taken – To mark the year when I turned 40 – Was done so in a celebratory fashion and I loved every single part of it. In contrast, this year (where I turned 41) seems dull in comparison and who knows – Perhaps I’ll think of something similar for my next significant Birthday. But for now, I know that I hit my 40s eating and drinking some fantastic food, surrounded by my brilliant family and fabulous friends – For which I am very grateful for.

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The 40 Project part 4 – CPH (AKA: I *heart* CPH)

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Given how often I go to Copenhagen, I couldn’t really have a 40 list without including something from CPH really. The thing with CPH was that because I had been so many times before, there were a lot of things which could qualify for the list which I had already done (if at all possible, I tried to do new things for the 40 list). That said, some things are too good to miss out so that’s where I started to change (bend) the rules somewhat in my approach to the whole 40 Project.

First up will be the Danish hot dogs (and Frikkadeller) [33]. I mean, even if you ignore the stand in the hall on your way to baggage reclaim at Kastrup Airport, there’s another kiosk right by the baggage carousels. What’s more, they’re both packed most of the time with Danes wanting a quick hot dog fix or presumably, a taste of home after some time abroad. In my case, it’s partly a reminder of my childhood when one of my cousins used travel to Denmark quite often as the guy she was dating lived in Denmark and she would subsequently bring over boxes of “Danish Sausages” (as we called them in my house), much to all my family’s delight. But it’s also a reminder of how much nicer hot dogs are than what we’d get over here. There is the important “snap” of the casing and the contents of the sausage may well be meat of indeterminate origin, but they’re damn tasty – Especially if like me, you got for the whole gamut of finely diced raw and deep fried onions, ketchup, remoulade and pickles all delicately encased within a hot dog roll lightly toasted and not big enough to encase the whole sausage resulting in both ends protruding out. I completely understand why the returning Danes make it one of their first stops upon landing back in CPH – I often make sure it’s one of the first things I eat upon landing at Kastrup and I look forward to it every time. I love the fact that your choice of drinks range from bottled water to soda fountains, or why not have a beer, Gammel Dansk or (my fave) a Jägermeister. So, whilst it’s not something new I did for the 40 Project, I couldn’t really have a CPH post and *not* include hotdogs in some way.

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Smørrebrød, or (Danish) Open Faced Sandwiches were the first thing I remember making in Home Economics class in school (many aeons ago). Being a Brit, I just thought it was curious why you wouldn’t have the 2nd slice of bread on top – That’s the whole point of a sandwich, isn’t it?!. That said, my trips to CPH have since taught me that the singular, solitary slice of bread on the base of a smørrebrød isn’t just any bread, it’s a slice of deliciously rugged and wholesome Danish rye bread – The sort where you believe that it’s actually doing you good by the act of eating it alone and well, you don’t need a 2nd slice to top the sandwich. Furthermore, the toppings are not of the ham and cheese (or coleslaw) variety my classmates and I had to eat in Home Economics all those years back. Rather, it’s some of the most delicately smoked eel either with scrambled eggs or some other accoutrements, it could be topped with another Scandinavian favourite – Pickled Herring, or you could top it with some organic local Danish roast pork… The variations are both broad and all very tasty. So it came to be that on one occasion in my 40th year, I didn’t just manage to eat Smørrebrød at Slotskælderen hos Gitte Kik in CPH, but I also managed to drink some Danish snaps and a local CPH beer [34] whilst there. This wasn’t the first time I had smørrebrød in CPH and I thought the first occasion was OK, but this visit to Slotskælderen hos Gitte Kik was brilliant – From the friendly service, to the guy with the red face at the front finishing most of the plates in front of you and I suspect that the snaps and beer may have added to the whole experience, but whilst the roast pork may not have looked like much, it was some of the best roast pork (and crackling) I’ve ever eaten and was worth the food coma it sent us into afterwards.

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An unexpected treat was a trip to the oldest bakery in Central CPH, Conditori La Glace. I loved how the window display of all the cakes drew you in and it’s very old Copenhagen inside, but the cakes are fantastic – They even had a sugar-free cake which I loved. However, I did manage to eat a Sportskage [35] which is the cake that La Glace is best known for and added another tick to the 40 list.

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With my growing interest in (Craft) Beer, it would be remiss of me to travel to CPH and NOT at least drink something local and well, the Daddy of CPH brewers is Mikkeller with their collaborations and experimental beers. So it was on the way to Relæ for another brilliant dinner that I got to drink a (Mikkeller) beer at Mikkeller and Friends [36]. It has quickly established itself as one of my favourite places to drink in CPH – With its minimalist look of walls painted in a soft, light blue (Turks and Caicos blue, I believe it is) combined with fixtures, fittings and furniture in a bare wood (lightly coloured) – The kind of Scandinavian minimalist design that you (well I) covet over for your own home until you realise that you’re too much of a hoarder to even begin to contemplate the ideal of minimalism. It’s the kind of bar design that is quite common in CPH and much as places in the UK imitate or offer something similar in design and setup, there is a certain (minimalist) swagger and well, vibe that makes it work so well in CPH which is missing in other places. Actually, whilst I’m here, I should really mention how CPH (despite the high price for alcohol) is a great place for craft beer – There are some really great tap rooms throughout the city with really varied and interesting selections. I mean, even the local corner shop near a hotel I was staying at had an entire aisle of bottled craft beers (which meant I could cheekily have one of my favourites, Brooklyn Brown Ale, with a snackette back in the hotel room). It was also in CPH that I discovered Christmas Ale (Beer) or Julebryg – And truly, my life has never been the same since..

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Relæ has an extra special place in my heart because it was my first experience of New Nordic Cuisine 4 years ago and I was completely blown away by it all – The cooking, the room, the soundtrack, how you got your cutlery from a drawer in the table. Added to this how Christian Puglisi and Kim Rosen are 2 of the nicest (and coolest) guys around, it pleases me to see how their little empire has expanded and transformed Nørrebro. So it was with complete surprise when YKL phoned me letting me know of an email that she had received from Christian saying that he knew it was short notice (4 weeks) and well, YKL and I had only literally just returned from a weekend in CPH, but that it was the 5th anniversary of Relæ opening and to celebrate it, they were having a bit of a party in the local park. Sounds good, right? Then we read this:

“The plan is that our amazing friends Rosio Sanchez and Renè Redzepi will be dishing out tacos, Magnus Nilsson cooks up hotdogs, Matt Orlando fries chicken, Mehmet Guhrs braises lamb, Kobe Desmeraults makes us Croquettes-de-crevettes and Chad Robertson will spread butter on delicious bread – all for you, friends and family to taste.”

Literally, my jaw dropped. Had we really been invited to this? Even though we had just got back from CPH, we were scrambling our diaries looking at plane tickets and accommodation. To cut a *very* long story short: It was every bit as brilliant as I hoped. There was a laid back feeling of joy in the air and it very much felt like a coming together of like-minded people in celebration of how Relæ has evolved in 5 years and with it, helped to make Nørrebro a go to destination within CPH. In fact, the whole weekend was centred on the (aforementioned) empire of restaurants and bars that Christian and Kim have built up: Bæst, Manfreds, Mirabelle and of course, Relæ. But what could I add from this for the 40 list? I could have added eating the beef tartare at Manfreds (Truly, if you’re ever in CPH and go to Manfreds, have the beef tartare – It’s one of the best you’ll ever eat). However, I wanted to convey how it felt extra special that in the year I turned 40, it was also the year that Relæ turned 5 and they put on such a massive spectacle which YKL and I were so very lucky to experience. So whilst I have eaten at Relæ many times and will continue going back as much as I can. For me, being able to eat a reinterpretation of the original menu at Relæ [37] made it onto the list. However, I do need to mention the generosity of Kim and Christian because when the bill arrived for that meal which was one of the best we’d ever had there, it appeared to be wrong (and any subsequent demands to speak to Kim and Christian were laughed at by the staff..

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Similarly, I have another special place in my heart for Bror; quite often our meal at Bror will contain the best tasting dishes of the whole CPH trip which is saying something how we generally go for the Big Hitters. Sam Nutter was still at Noma the first time I ate there and he was the one whom gave us our kitchen tour afterwards. When he and Victor Wagman left Noma to open Bror, I remember Rene Redzèpi saying how they both may not have any investors backing, but they had “huge talent and balls”. That only added to the amusement of how a signature dish at Bror became the Bull’s balls – They even have T-shirts saying “Poached, Sliced, Breaded, Fried” (how it’s cooked). So whilst I could say that eating Bulls balls at Bror[38] is on the list, I should also mention how during one of my trips to CPH in my 40th year, I also got to eat at Café LilleBror (RIP) where not content with feeding me balls at Bror, I also got to eat crispy dicks at Café LilleBror. [added to 38] As a side note, I can’t believe I’ve just made that public and now worry how this post is going to come up for certain internet searches…

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I started this post by saying how I couldn’t really leave out writing about Copenhagen given how often I have been there. Therefore I can’t leave out one of (if not) the main reasons for going to Copenhagen in first place – To eat at Noma. Yes, I am very biased when it comes to Noma – But that’s because I’ve never had a bad experience when at Noma. Sure, there have been some dishes where they didn’t *quite* hit the mark, but when you talk about an overall dining experience to encompass the setting, service, wine pairing and food – The whole shebang – you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere better in the world than Noma. Every time I’ve been to Noma, it’s been special and for different reasons every time.  I always spend hours recollecting various parts of the meal with YKL with a permagrin on my face – be it certain dishes, interaction with the staff, recounting conversations… The fact that I got to eat at Noma not just once, but twice to mark my 40th year with friends [39] added to the how special my 40th year was.

Such a gorgeous building Entrance

I know this won’t be my last post about CPH, but it very much was part of my 40 Project and whilst some things weren’t within the original remit of eating something local to that region or a speciality of a restaurant/bar for the first time, it felt right that I tweaked some of the qualifying criteria just so I could share some of the happy memories I have from my trips to CPH.

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The 40 Project part 3 – US of A!

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When compiling this list, it was always helped by the fact that I knew that I would be doing a fair bit of travelling – Much more so than usual. Generally, I take a lot of long weekend breaks, but this year, I knew that in addition to my trips to CPH and further away, I would be spending the bulk of my holiday allowance in the USA – Firstly for an Alaskan Cruise, but then using the opportunity to visit both my sisters H and YML just outside Seattle and San Jose respectively – Which meant another chance to add a few items onto my 40 list. Given the trip was essentially in 3 parts, it’s probably best I write about it in 3 parts:

Washington State

I actually had a fair bit on my original list when it came to Washington State, but in the end I only ended up adding a couple of items onto my 40 list, but it meant that I got to do lots of fun things which weren’t necessarily food or drink related. Also, I *did* drink a fair few beers from local breweries – But there wasn’t necessarily any photographic evidence of it, so less helpful in terms of writing up on it for this blog. HOWEVER, the 2 items I managed to add to the 40 list from my time in WA. were pretty good;

Firstly, I got to eat a burger from the marvellous Burger Express in Federal Way [22]. It’s been serving burgers to the good folks of Federal Way since 1983 (there is a sign inside stating that Burger Express is Federal Way’s only independent hamburger restaurant) and all the burgers are 1/4 lb beef patties with all the trimmings and come with a massive portion of skin-on fries. The inside is done up very much with a 50’s diner in mind with a jukebox at every booth. I remembered this place vaguely from my visit 10 years previously, but I was very happy to come here again and add it to my 40 list. (Photos)

Similarly, given I was so close to Seattle, I had to get a coffee. As it turns out, whilst en route to the Cruise Terminal in Seattle later that day, we drove past the Starbuck headquarters. And well, it was by chance that we not only got to go to a Drive-thru Starbucks (I first encountered a drive-thru coffee place 10 years previously and they were unheard of in the UK at that point), but I got to have a spiced Pumpkin Latte because it was near Halloween. So, drinking a spiced Pumpkin latte from a drive thru Starbucks [23] is proudly on my list.

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Alaska

One of the main purposes of the trip was to go on an Alaskan cruise; It’s something that’s been on my bucket list given how much I enjoy the whole cruise ship experience from my Cayamo days and combined with the fact that I could see H and a few of my sisters also went along, it was going to be something special.  I must say that Alaska is truly beautiful – Some of the scenery was stunning and amongst the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in my life. The fact that you’re so close to wildlife in their natural habitat was truly breathtaking at times, perhaps I was getting soaked up by the whole experience of being in the USA, but the fact that I saw not just one, but several Bald Headed Eagles in their natural habitat was something very special.  I did miss things like the chance to see a wild bear because I was busy being too cool (i.e. an idiot), but seeing things like glaciers up close made up for it.

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In regards to the 40 list, most of the things I managed to add to the list (with photographic evidence) were all done in Juneau, AK. There, I managed to eat Alaskan King Crab [24], washed down with a pint of Alaskan Amber Ale [25] (brewed by the Alaskan Brewing Company who are based in Juneau, no less). And whilst I enjoyed the Amber Ale, it was a perfect accompaniment to the King Crab. Sure, it took the best part of 35mins for me to extract every last fibre of juicy meat from the shell, but I was struck not only by how thick the fibres were, but the sweetness and juiciness of the meat astounded me. I mean, I’ve had some sweet crab meat before, but nothing like this. It was quite pricey, but an absolute treat. Also whilst in Juneau, we took an excursion to a Salmon Hatchery and whilst it was great fun seeing all the salmon leaping out of the water to simulate being in the wild, I have to admit it was fascinating seeing a wiley seal swim into the waters to presumably try to gorge on as much salmon as it could manage. After that, we headed to an old-fashioned Salmon Bake (taken there on a kitted out old School Bus, no less) and whilst YKL was busy endearing herself to the local wildlife and we were warned of the threat of bears coming up and trying to eat your food (let them, don’t try to fight them!), it was here that I got to sample some wild (not farmed) Alaskan salmon [26] (Photos)

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I should also mention how I went to other places in Alaska on this trip and as mentioned before, some of the scenery was breathtaking – I *loved* seeing the glaciers and well, experiencing the vastness as well as some of the beauty of the USA. I joke at how it was surprisingly colder than I thought it would be near a glacier or up a Mountain summit, but the serene beauty and tranquility of it all is something I will treasure being able to experience.

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California

Ah, the Golden State, the most populous of all the States in the USA.  I’ve already mentioned how this trip was a chance for me to see some of my sisters, so it was a chance to see YML and her family in San Jose.  Before that though, the opportunity arose to spend a few cheeky days in San Francisco.  Bearing in mind that we’d just got off an Alaskan cruise where we pretty much needed to wear all the clothes in our suitcases to keep warm, the weather in California was the absolute opposite – Temperatures nearing 30c with high humidity percentages, we certainly had no need for any thermals or fleeces!  Our time in San Francisco was short, so not only did we have to make difficult decisions on where to eat and see (some of which was led by availability, tbh).  I wanted to do things like make a pilgrimage to AT&T Park, home of my beloved San Francisco Giants or even try to catch a ballgame (sadly, I didn’t have time for either, so my wait to eat garlic fries there again goes on).  However, I did manage to tick off a few things from the 40 list:

Our first stop in San Francisco was a trip to the institution that is Swan Oyster Depot. This place is just beyond brilliant and is pretty much universally loved by everyone that goes there. I mean, it’s been there since 1912 so it must be doing some right. Sure, there are higher-end places with their white linen table cloths and silver cutlery. There are bigger establishments where you can fit more people in (and with that, the £££ or $$$ rather), but none of them have the charm, establishment, feel, history or welcome of Swan Oyster Depot. If you were to look up the definition of an ideal raw bar – Swan Oyster Depot was pretty much be it. I loved EVERYTHING I had to eat there – the oysters, the chowder (and I don’t like chowder, normally) but most of all – The crab back fat. OH. MY. GOD!! That stuff was divine (and nicely washed down with a pint of Anchor Steam Beer). So yeah, I got to eat at Swan Oyster Depot [27] – And it was every bit as glorious as I hoped it would be. (Photos)

I also got to go on a Brewery Tour of one of my favourite breweries – Anchor Brewing. We could only get tickets for the late morning session but for about $15, you get to not only tour the brewery and learn about its history, see it in action and learn about the beer making process, but you also get to taste a wide range of their beers. Folks, I didn’t really have time for breakfast beforehand (I thought we could grab something on the way – I was wrong). So when you consider how all the pours were generous (I’d say about a half pint for each beer) and we tried at least 7 different beers that day. You could say I was a bit sozzled by the end of the tour and in desperate need for some sustenance. However, I got to not only drink Anchor Steam Beer, but a whole range of Anchor Brewing Beers not only in San Francisco, but at the Anchor Brewery itself [28]. (Photos)

Sustenance came in the form of heading over to the Mission District and another pilgrimage – this time to Taqueria la Cumbre – Birthplace of the Mission Burrito. Say what you like about how authentic it is, the fact is Mission Burritos are known all over the world. And when you get to eat it as establishments like Taqueria la Cumbre, they are very tasty too. You could say that I was so drunk that any food was welcome, especially starchy carbs, but I really enjoyed my carne asada – freshly grilled strips of grass-fed beef topping some rice, beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese and guacamole (there may have been more), and I’m looking at the MOUND of food on the single tortilla and thinking to myself “there’s no WAY you are going to wrap that neatly!”. But in a series of deft moves seemingly defying the laws of physics, not only was the whole thing neatly wrapped, but smoothly done so in foil. Yeah, this guy had obviously rolled a few burritos in his time, but the finished item – served with some freshly fried tortilla chips – packed some weight when you lifted it up! By now, the smells wafting from the place and after watching them assemble (construct) this monster burrito, I couldn’t *wait* to sink my chops into it!. And it was worth the (marginal) wait and pilgrimage – Juicy carne asada, nice balance of rice, peas with a bit of kick from the pico de gallo. Yeah, I was a bit drunk, but this more than filled the hole and well, eating a burrito at Taqueria La Cumbre [29] meant another tick off the list. (Photos)

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For my 2nd lunch that afternoon (!!), we ended up meeting YKL in Tartine Bakery. For those in the know, Chad is probably the best baker in all of the USA – Easily within the West Coast. YKL and I were very fortunate to meet the man himself and his head baker, Richard earlier in the year as part of Relæ’s 5th Birthday Party (more of that in another post) and he very graciously mentioned that he would be happy to show us around the bakery (if he was around whilst we were there). Sadly, I didn’t get to make it as the day’s drinking took its toll on me (!!). However, I did manage to eat a Croque Monsieur and a Banana and Cream tart from Tartine Bakery [30]. And lemme tell you, that banana and cream tart was one of the best I’ve *ever* eaten.. I’m salivating just remembering how good it was. (Photos)

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For our last morning in San Francisco, we were taken on an impromptu tour of Clement St – the other Chinatown within San Francisco. It’s actually much more diverse but the amount of places with fresh dim sum (3 dumplings for $1), it honestly felt like being in Hong Kong and I loved it. (Photos) However, we were also very lucky to have been taken to B Patisserie that morning. I had heard of this place for their Kouign Amann and literally, the air is thick with the smell of butter when you are nearby. The patisserie on sale there certainly looked the part and the Kouign Amann tasted every bit as good as they looked – Light, flaky, buttery, crisp… Being able to eat a Kouign Amann (of different varieties) at B Patisserie [31] was an unexpected, but very welcome addition to the list. (Photos)

Our only foray into the Fine Dining arena was a trip to Manresa. Much had been heralded about Manresa, especially since a fire in July 2014 which devastated most of the restaurant. However, the word was that since it re-opened, the cooking from David Kinch was better than ever and indeed, the announcement that the restaurant was awarded 3*’s came a few weeks after our visit. I have to say, some of the food we ate there was stunning – Especially the signature “Into the Garden” [32]. That said, there were some misses for me (personally), but the highs were impressively good. (Photos)

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Of course, the whole USA trip wasn’t just about the #40 list, but a chance to see family too which is much more important and dear to my heart. I had great fun ticking off items on the 40 list in the USA, but the memories, happiness and joy from the whole trip are what I take away and cherish the most.

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The 40 Project part 2 – UK edition

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Given I got to travel to so many places over my 40th Birthday year, it meant that I didn’t get to do quite as much as I hoped or wanted to within these shores.  That said, it’s given me a list of places I hope to visit when I’m more mobile.  But for this year, I also got to pick and choose from things I’ve done to add to the 40 list.  I’ve already previously posted about eating proper faggots made by a Black Country butcher [14] so that was a nice start to the year.  Similarly, I’ve also posted about eating native oysters in Whitstable [15] and that trip to Whitstable also involved getting to eat the Lobster Lasagne at Wheelers [16].

That said, the Whitstable trip (rather amazingly), was a bit of a pre-cursor to our Lyon trip so in a bit of a whirlwind, we literally spent a few days in Whitstable, came home to unpack and clean some clothes, then headed off to Lyon for a few days.  I say amazingly because just a few years ago, it was an effort to do one of these trips, let along two in quick succession. However, the Whitstable trip was an excuse to fit in another trip to The Sportsman. I mean, it would be rude to not go given we were that part of the world..

I have a real soft spot for The Sportsman – Beautiful scenery, friendly, attentive staff and service, Fantastic food – Amongst the best in the Country (IMO). The food is not only very simple (in a good way), it’s also bloody delicious too. There are so many delicious things to recall, but I guess the signature dish for The Sportsman would be the Grilled Slip Sole (in seaweed butter) [17]. A prepared Slip Sole (skinned and head, outer bones removed) is grilled to perfection with some seaweed butter – And when I say it’s grilled to perfection, I mean it’s literally *just* cooked. Silence descends on the entire table as everyone tucks in enthusiastically and are too busy eating to talk – The only noise heard (other than the sound of cutlery scraping on the plates) are the occasional guttural approving noises and I swear, you can actually hear the sound of people smiling and grinning as they turn feral and end up sucking the fish bones to ensure no bit of flesh is missed out. Back to that fantasy list of dishes to eat before you die? This would be on there, no doubt. My gripe with this dish? One slip sole is never enough and you end up wanting more.. (Yes, I know that this is a First World Problem).

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For my actual Birthday itself, I spent a great weekend eating at some of my favourite places and with some of my favourite people. I managed to get afternoon tea at Claridges [18] which was an eye opener in terms of seeing Old Money versus New Money. Still, some lovely sandwiches and tea (which is surprisingly filling). I also want to shoehorn in how later in the year, I would find myself returning to Claridges for some drinks in the bar where I got to drink their signature cocktail, The Flapper. Anyway, back to my Birthday weekend – Come midnight, I found myself in MEATLiquor eating their fantastic burgers and fries and drinking their quite awesome grog, but given I’ve done that many, many times before, I didn’t add it to the list. However, we did all get drunk enough to pack into the photobooth and well, there really wasn’t a finer bunch of girls I would have rather seen in my 40th Birthday with.

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The following morning, there was only one place I really wanted to go for breakfast – E Pellicci on the Bethnal Green Road. I had previously tried to go there but unfortunately, it was during August when they’re closed for their annual family holiday. So, given I was in London on a weekday, it seemed rude to not go. After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. When we got there, we were not disappointed at all – There’s a slight art deco feel to the interior with the tiles and insignia on the floor, but this is an old fashioned caff that I grew up going to – The kind where the staff may be loud, but they’re ultra friendly. YKL wanted to get a tea and an espresso (separately) because she needed the caffeine hit from the espresso, but prefers a tea to drink and the response was “What? together?! Nah… I can’t let you do that I’m afraid..” Or, when someone asked if they used skimmed milk, the response was “No love, we don’t serve that filth in here.. Only the fullest pure stuff here!.” Upon hearing it was my Birthday, Pots and pans were banged on and the whole place was made to sing Happy Birthday to me – led, quite boisterously, by the staff. However, it wasn’t tacky like you may get from a chain restaurant (you all know what I mean). We may have gotten a few odd looks and comments when ordering things like the vegetarian special with sausage or black pudding (as in B’s case), but we wanted the famed bubble and squeak for breakfast and truly, it was magnificent. Actually, when the staff discovered that it was my 40th Birthday, the whole place was made to sing Happy Birthday to me again (this time, with more feeling). It was made more special because it was my Birthday, but the fact that I got to have a breakfast at E Pellicci[19] anyway is another one on the 40 list.

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Other items which got onto the list were things like eating a salt beef beigel from the legendary Beigel Bake on Brick Lane [19]. There are plenty of opinions as to which one is better or more authentic but in my eye, it’s all about Beigel Bake and the fact it’s part of my 40 list makes me very happy. Similarly, the fact that I could add both the Roast Marrow Bone and Parsley salad and also devilled kidneys on toast from St John [20] is something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. Yes, roast bone marrow is very popular these days but St John has been serving this dish for years – Long before it was fashionable – And it’s the old adage of a simple dish executed very well is truly a thing to behold.

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Also, there was a trip up to Bolster Moor Farm shop in some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever layed my eyes on where I got to eat a few of their award-winning Pork Pies [21].

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There is one item left on the list, but I’m going to save that one for a separate post by itself…

The 40 Project part 1 – Lyon

OH HAI FROM LYON!

This year has mainly been about my 40 Project.  For those whom aren’t familiar with this concept, it’s essentially a year-long project where during my travels to different locations or restaurants and eat/drink something which is either local to the area, a speciality of the area (which they may or may not be well known for), or eat a signature dish for a restaurant –  All this to mark the fact that I turned 40 this year.  As a result, it’s meant that I’ve been travelling about even more than usual and trying out even more different bars/restaurants/pubs and well, rather than writing one ginormous post about the whole list or dedicating 1 post per item achieved, I thought I would bunch together a whole load at a time to form a series of posts.  I mean, this project has spanned the whole year and given so much has happened, it deserves more than one blanket post.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of this year was spent travelling – Either to favourite places (Copenhagen) or to newer places (Alaska), but each destination was an opportunity to try something new, or remind myself of how great some things were. One place I’ve always wanted to visit was Lyon – Partly out of my love and respect for the old classic French Cuisine and Lyon was at the centre of a lot of the major changes in gastronomy over the past century as many of the protagonists in these changes (Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros Brothers, Eugenie Brazier) were based in Lyon. The name Bocuse – A man whom has held 3* for 50 years at his L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges restaurant – holds a near god-like status in my mind. Simply put, if there was no Paul Bocuse, there wouldn’t be the top chefs running their own restaurants we see these days. He’s *that* important.

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Therefore, it was pretty much a no-brainer that we should eat at L’Auberge du Pont de Collognes – I was seriously fighting back the tears upon arriving at the restaurant and seeing the illuminated Paul Bocuse sign at the top of the building. First tick on the 40 List was getting to eat the Truffle Soup, or (to give it’s proper name) Soupe au Truffles Noires VGE [1]. This was something M. Paul created for the French President years ago and it’s retained its cult status so much so that it’s become one of his signature dishes. A chicken broth laced with plenty of slivers of black truffle in an individual soup terrine with a dome of puff pastry on top. This was the one dish that I’d heard so very much about that it has an almost-revered like status in my life. It was only when I looked at the terrine whilst eating this that I noticed that it was created in 1975 – The very year I was born and it felt very serendipitous that I should be eating that very dish to mark my 40th Birthday year.

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But that wasn’t the only tick on the 40 list from this meal; As I opted for the menu classique, for my mains, I chose fricassée de volaille de Bresse à la crème et aux morilles [2] (Or, breast of Bresse chicken with a morel and cream sauce). It’s guerdon service here so the dish was finished table side with the assured professionalism as you would expect from such an institution.  The dish itself was as delicious as I hoped and by now, I was seriously happy.

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I also got to try YKL’s rouget barbet en écailles de pommes de terre croustillante [3] (red mullet with potato scales) which made up the third tick on the 40 list from that meal alone. I could go on a bit more about my meal at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, but that isn’t the purpose of this post, perhaps I’ll revisit it another time. But for now, I’ll say that I’m glad that I’ve experienced it whilst M. Paul is still alive.

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During this trip to Lyon, other ticks to the 40 list included:  eating the famed praline tarts [4] (although I must preferred the Galette Lyonnaise) and pike quenelles [5], I also got to eat Cervelle de Canut [6], another speciality of Lyon at that most Lyon of eating establishments, a Bouchon [7] (in this case, the very brilliant Bouchon des Filles).

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During our many trips to the market hall (or Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse to give its proper title), we stopped off at (another) celebrated Fromagerie, La Mère Richard and got to eat (and buy) her Saint Marcellin and Saint Félicien cheeses [8]. So good are her cheeses that they are featured in the cheese offerings at Bocuse’s restaurant. One of the great joys of this trip was waking up knowing that I had some St Marcellin cheese, baguette and mini cured meats to eat as breakfast. VERY Happy Days.

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During our meal at the celebrated La Mère Brazier, the artichaut et foie gras dish was one of the best things I have EVER eaten [9]. Seriously, whilst I have been lucky enough to eat dishes that are worthy of up to 13 out of 10, this dish was a 15. It was sublime. Genuinely, I didn’t want this dish to end and well, it firmly established itself onto the menu for my last meal. I could talk about how Matthieu Viannay has managed to reinvent the dish, etc. etc. But honestly, all you need to know is that it was friggin’ awesome. It was also from trying a chocolate at La Mere Brazier just before our dessert course that convinced me that we needed to go to the Bernachon boutique where I got to eat some very pretty looking patisserie in the café (including his signature Le President [10]) along with those sublime Palet d’Or [10]. Again, this could be the most delicious chocolate I’ve EVER eaten – And I like to think that I’ve eaten more than my fair share in my lifetime. If you ever know of anyone whom is going to Lyon, give them money and tell them to go to Bernachon and buy you a box of Palet d’Or to bring back, you can thank me later.

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However, the best meal of the trip for me was at the very fabulous Daniel et Denise. Seriously, this could be one of my favourite meals of the entire trip. Not just because I got to add things like eating a Pâté en croute [11] which chef Joseph Viola has won plaudits across France and beyond for (I can see why), or 2 other very Lyonnaise dishes – Saucission de Lyon [12]  (you gotta love a sausage) and of course, a Salade Lyonnaise [13]. I mean, in a world where it’s trendy to eat either a Greek Salad or a Niçoise, the poor Salade Lyonnaise is very much overlooked. However, when it’s done as well as it was here – crisp tender leaves (more Frisée with some dandelion leaves), perfectly dressed (as were ALL our salads on this trip), fat chunky lardons perfectly crisped so that all the fat is rendered out along with a poached egg – This is a thing of beauty to eat.

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Oh, and I really *must* mention the sides that you get with your meal at D&D – The pommes de terre dorées and the macaroni gratin by themselves are worth making the trip to Lyon for. I mean, nobody told me just *how* delicious (and rich) these would be and I discovered far too late in my meal how delicious they were – And was instantly wondering how/why I didn’t try them earlier in my meal rather than when I was pretty much about to burst. I know that no matter how hard I try, I would never be able to recreate the rich, unctuous textures and flavours of those sides if I tried myself. I mean, forget mac and cheese (as I thought it was), the macaroni gratin wins every time!  Ohh and if you think they’re just fried potatoes, think again.  These are not only fried in BUTTER (we are in Lyon, after all), but they’re not greasy in any way and are perfectly seasoned.  Seriously, I couldn’t stop eating these side dishes..

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The whole trip to Lyon was brilliant – Lyon is very much still a functional town where the tourist industry hasn’t taken over so you (shock! horror!) see French people actually getting on with their own lives and the markets are where they actually shop every day and not some tourist attraction for someone like myself. In fact, it wasn’t until we went to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (one of the main tourist attractions) that I heard an accent other than a French one. I loved the fact that when commenting on how a glass of Orangina was more expensive that a glass of wine, the waiter shrugged his shoulders a bit and said: “C’est La France.” How very true and bless you Lyon, I didn’t just get to add 13 items to my 40 list, but I had a brilliant time in doing so.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…

There was a bit (well, a long) gap between completing things for my Year 40 Project as I was not only busy with work (which involved an office relocation) or Chinese New Year, but also because I knew that with my planned trips this year, I would be able to tick a few items off the list in one fell swoop. And so it came to be that I didn’t do anything until the end of March where I had booked a few days off leading up to Easter and planned a short trip to Lyon (more of that in another post), but in our planning stage, I was a bit worried that spending a week there was too long, so we cut it to a few days instead. This of course meant we had a couple of days free and YKL (being the genius that she is), suggested a quick cheeky overnight stay in Whitstable where not only could we take advantage of native oysters being available (Is there an “R” in the month? CHECK!), but we could also go to one of our favourite places in the UK, The Sportsman for lunch the following day if we stayed overnight (and it also gave us an opportunity to eat at Wheelers, another iconic restaurant and generally relax and enjoy being in Whitstable). Hotels and trains booked, more people added to join us, it was just a matter of waiting…

Dinner at Wheelers was booked for 19:30 and for one reason or another, we didn’t actually make it to the Harbour until gone 16:00. That, combined with the fact that there wasn’t just bad weather, but strong gales forecasted overnight meant there weren’t many places left open and those that were open were very limited in their choices. Undeterred, we all went for the what we could make from an Oyster Crawl; First place we went too didn’t have any natives left, but we weren’t going to pass up on the opportunity to sit down and have some freshly shucked oysters – And they were delicious.

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By the time we finished our oysters, there were even fewer places left open and it was still a couple of hours at least until our booking at Wheelers – A fine Whitstable institution. What initially was a cheeky request to ask if we could leave some bottles of wine with them to be chilled (it’s BYO) quickly turned into an impromptu continuation of our Oyster Crawl when we learned they had some native oysters in and were willing to shuck some for us to eat. Well, the native oysters were just something else – This was my first native oyster in Whitstable, and furthermore, it was at Wheeler’s. It wasn’t just another item ticked off the 40 list, it was a moment to savour.

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However, a couple of oysters alone are not very filling when you’re pretty much famished and I have a thing about wanting to eat fish and chips at the seaside. Initially I headed to a pub where they looked to be pretty well known for their fish and chips, only to be told they only serve food at lunch times. So upon asking the barman where best to go, he directed me to the Whitstable Fish Bar and warned me that it wasn’t anything special, but the fish and chips there were good. After meeting up with YKL, we headed over to yunno, eat fish and chips before our dinner..

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Admittedly, my heart sank a little when I walked in because a quick glance at the menu saw they offered Southern Fried Chicken and Doner Kebabs – The usual fare you could get from any chippy anywhere. However, there wasn’t much in the hot plate so I ordered a fish and chips and was told to sit down as the food was cooked. It was only then I spotted a poster offering freshly battered whitebait and whilst ordering a portion in addition to the fish and chips would be too much, neither YKL nor I really wanted to pass up on the opportunity of whitebait. So, YKL suggested we have just fish and some whitebait – which would be ideal as it’s the chips which are more filling anyway. Order amended, we tried not to kill anyone who got their food first because it smelled so good, but it wasn’t too long before we got our fish and whitebait.

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The fish may not have been the freshest I’ve ever eaten – But it was pretty decent. Similarly, the whitebait could probably have been a bit fresher. But the winner was the coating and/or batter – The whitebait were breadcrumbed very well and were delicious, but the most amazing thing was the batter on the fish – It was so crisp that biting into it probably caused a seismic event somewhere in the globe. Truly, one of the best pieces of battered fish I’ve ever eaten. You all know I love Bedders here in Brum, but if I could get the freshness of the fish at Bedders combined with the batter at Whitstable Fish Bar – That would be battered fish nirvana for me. Sure, fish and chips in Whitstable wasn’t on the 40 list, nor was fish and chips at the Seaside, but if you ever find yourself in Whitstable, you should do yourselves a favour and come here for fish and chips.

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Still having a bit of time before our booking at Wheelers (mercifully for digestion purposes), we decided to look for somewhere to drink. I wasn’t going back to the pub I went to previously mainly because it was something from the TV where all that was needed was the needle to scratch from the record player and for the whole pub to suddenly go quiet as I walked (well, stumbled) through the doors. OK, may be exaggerating a teensy bit, but it wasn’t far off… As luck would have it, the three of us (Q had joined us at this stage) stumbled upon The Black Dog. We (well I) had spotted it on our way to the Harbour earlier in the day and in the past couple of years, I’ve been getting into the craft beer scene, so was well up for a pop inside.

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I wasn’t at all disappointed inside with the long high banquette lining either side of the bar. Seriously, they were so high that my feet didn’t touch the ground at all when sat down. They had a few barrels of beers in the background and the room, whilst dimly lit, had walls adorned with interesting – some may say quirky – choices of artwork, but hey! Any place where the door to the only loo is covered by posters and pictures of rock god/guitarist Slash, that’s alright by me..

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As for the beer? Well, the cellar, although small with only a few barrels of beer, is kept impeccably and the beer we had was not only at the right temperature, but there was an interesting selection on offer. It’s the kind of place where I would have stayed much longer if we didn’t already have plans for dinner at Wheelers. And that deserves a post all by itself…

For now though, I loved my short visit to Whitstable – I wish I could have stayed a bit longer. It’s not just the fact that I was by the seaside (coming from and living in landlocked Birmingham) and I got to eat in some really fantastic places (like Wheeler’s and The Sportsman), but I was genuinely surprised by how nice and friendly everyone in Whitstable was. Of course, it may by the cynical City Girl in me speaking and I’m generally surprised when people respond with anything more than a grunt, but I can honestly say that the people of Whitstable are lovely. More to the point, Whitstable itself is a lovely place with some really nice places to eat and drink, also to see and do and well, let’s not forget the fantastic fresh seafood available there.

And so The 40 Project begins…

So the first thing to be ticked off the list for the 40 Project was to eat homemade faggots from a Black Country butchers. Admittedly, I never really ate them as a child – My only knowledge of them was seeing the adverts for Brain’s Faggots on TV. It wasn’t even the thought of what was in them that put me off, but if the only version I knew of were mass-produced and/or frozen, I’m pretty sure they’re weren’t the gourmet delight that people depicted them to be. Sure, I remember seeing Diana Rigg on a talk show once mention how when she was appearing in a play, they used to have “proper homemade butchers faggots” and not only were they cheap, but they were actually delicious and wholesome – Not like the frozen gunk you get now.

Fast forward a few years and I’m working in a kitchen in Birmingham City Centre and we recruit a new chef de partie – Woody. Now, Woody had the thickest Black Country accent I’d ever heard and he often used to talk about “fagguts an’ pays”. I didn’t have a bloody clue what he was on about but it took a while until I had to get him to explain to me how it’s quite a Black Country thing to have foggots and mushy peas – With lashings of vinegar. Still, never got to try one… So it took the opening of Pure Bar and Kitchen in Birmingham – The first bar to be opened by Purity Ales and the food served there was in consultation with Andreas Antona from Simpsons – Sorry, I should address them by their full title: Michelin-Starred Simpsons restaurant for me to see faggots on the food menu for a mainstream bar. I must confess, I’ve started to get into craft ales and I’d seen mutterings about Pure Bar and Kitchen on Twitter, so I was curious to see what it was like; Well, I could go on about the post-industrial looking interior, or the really fantastic choice of ales, or even the fact that they serve their own homemade pickled eggs and pork scratchings which are served in a half pint glass as bar snacks. But the reason I’m on about Pure Bar and Kitchen? The fact that when they first opened, one of the small dishes they had was a home-made faggot with mushy peas and onion gravy. And yunno what? It was seriously good: The faggot may have been quite meaty rather than offaly, the onion gravy may have had a touch of craft ale added to it, but when you got the trifecta of faggot, peas and gravy in one mouthful – It was just sensational. Seriously, them faggots were one of the best things on the menu and not only was it dark day when they took it off the menu, I’m pretty sure some angels died as a result.

Although I’m still hopeful that faggots will return on the menu at Pure Bar and Kitchen soon, it was the faggots at Pure Bar and Kitchen that got me thinking of this for my 40 Project: It got me thinking of Woody and seeing Diana Rigg on TV all those years ago and well, if I’m going to try faggots, then I should get them from a butchers in the Black Country that have been making them for centuries. Once that was decided, it was simply a matter of where I should buy them from… The place I really wanted to go to – The Cook Shop on Old Hill sadly closed late last year so I just missed them. So it was a case of asking Paul Fulford, restaurant critic and columnist for the Birmingham Post if he knew of anywhere and he very kindly put the message out to his followers: First up was a suggestion of Don Guest in Halesowen (along with the suggestion to try the black pepper sausages). It was certainly Black Country enough in that it was in Halesowen and some quick research showed that it was easily accessible by public transport. Next up was Bowketts in Oldbury which may not strictly be Black Country, but they looked professional enough with their sausages and well, they did make their own faggots. Finally, there was Broadbents in Bilston which boasted of selling 2 million faggots in the past 6 years. You can’t much argue with that.

To be honest, I only needed to try one of the places suggested but for some reason, I tried buying faggots from as many places as possible as if doing a taste comparison. Of course, a lot of this was made possible by the fact that I was joined by my good pal The Foodist who very graciously drove me to all the different butchers (and in the process of doing so, got us taste-testing pork pies, too). But I do have some comments about the places we visited: Don Guest – Probably my favourite butchers of all we visited. I loved how it was an old-fashioned butchers in the middle of a row of houses that opens stupidly early (6am) and closes mid-afternoon. Their window display actually invited you in and by the time we got there mid-morning, they had already sold out of the black pepper sausages. What’s more, all their food is homemade so the faggots were from a recipe over a century old and they didn’t pre-cook the liver before making the faggots. There may have been a slight raising of the eyebrow when they said that they didn’t use pig’s cawl to wrap the faggots, but these were by far the best of all the faggots I bought – The liver wasn’t overcooked and the bits of bacon really added to the overall taste. There wasn’t any overpowering smell of offal and well, these were a pleasure to eat. In fact, everything I bought from Don Guest was very tasty and I am very envious of people in Halesowen whom can say that Don Guest is their local butchers.

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In terms of the other butchers we visited:

  • Bowketts – Although the roasted meats and crackling looked very tempting (we were really hungry, too), the inside of the butchers was really steamy. Sadly, the sausages weren’t that great – Or rather, they suffered from the fact that they were cooked alongside the sausages from Don Guest which were better. Similarly, the faggots were a bit dry and overcooked and when drowned in gravy, were OK. But they weren’t standout.
  • Broadbent – Sadly, they didn’t have any Faggots when we got there as they stopped making them over the Festive period.
  • Michael Kirk – Late addition and to be honest, the faggots were a bit dry and needed a bit more seasoning.

So there you go, I can honestly say that not only did I venture into the Black Country (We had to type in a WV postcode into the Sat Nav at one point!), but I got to try several homemade faggots from a Black Country butchers. And yunno what? They were pretty good. First item ticked off the list!

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