Monday 28 November 2011

Giraffe, Chelmsford



We were recently invited to attend the soft opening of the new Giraffe in Chelmsford, and never having set foot inside a Giraffe restaurant before (I know…) was keen to try it out.

Now, before I begin, let me tell you a little about the town. Chelmsford has, unfortunately, lost it’s charm from the ‘old days’. Photos from the Victorian era show many independent shops, including butchers, grocers, etc., all in lovely terraced buildings. Now, some town planner, around the 1970s is my guess, decided it would look much better with large, grey concrete buildings instead and knocked it all down. Since then, I really feel that Chelmsford ‘could do better’. In the restaurant sphere, were have any Italian chain you could care to mention, hundreds of curry houses and several Chineses. All the big chains are here, leaving room for very few independent ventures to make a go of it. For example, there is only one place I know of to pop into for a tea and scone or homemade cake, pitted against several large coffee chains, (Cherry on Top if you’re interested, which not only serves afternoon tea, but deliciously huge salads and lunches too!)

Sorry, but I’d really love some independent shops to really go for it and persuade everyone else that this is what we need. Anyway, back to trying Giraffe. As you can tell, I’m not enamoured with commonplace restaurant chains, but end up often eating in them due to lack of alternative choices, and to be fair, you know what you’re paying and you know what you’re going to get for it, which I found to be the case with Giraffe.

My husband and I took our baby along and, as it was my first ‘go’ at one of these things, we were quite excited. I arrived to find my husband sitting in the window seat, already having made friends with the staff, who were super friendly, drinking a beer. The words ‘This is wicked’ may have even fallen out of his mouth at one stage! 

As it was a trial night, the staff were incredibly attentive, a little too much so at some points, but all very willing to please; they really couldn’t have been more helpful. My husband already knew he was having the burger, I chose the quesadillas and we shared a nachos with crispy chorizo to begin.


The starter was good, although some tortillas were on the chewy side and the 5 thin slices of chorizo were not crispy, but still delicious. The burger and chips arrived and looked lovely. We were asked if we’d like it cooked medium or well done (no option of rare at all? There is, I know a bit of a debate already about this, certainly on twitter) and, to be honest, I saw no hint of pinkness in there despite asking for it medium. I was assured, however, that it tasted good!


My quesadillas were crispy round the edges, which was lovely and again, were very tasty. The smoked chicken flavour really came through and with the addition of the aioli and minty, chilli tomato relish, were scrummy. I do, however, think that they use the same sauce for the Quesadillas as they do for the Nachos, as there was a chicken option too for these. A shame, I thought, as it wouldn’t have taken much to vary the ingredients and flavours.


While my OH then tucked into a couple of cocktails, the baby began to scream. So much so, in fact, that I was forced to make a rather hasty retreat. We’d finished our meal, but the ambience, lighting and buzz of the place was so relaxed, I’d have liked to stay on to chill for a while longer.


In short, it’s definitely somewhere to which I’d return, if only to try the baby back ribs and the steak and lamb, which were, unfortunately, sold out by them time we ordered! It’s vibe is calm, certainly in the evenings, and the staff were friendly and keen to please. It’ll be filled every night, of that I have no doubt, and the food is of a good standard.

I still have have that niggling doubt, however, that I’d have preferred something less predictable and more authentic.

Friday 25 November 2011

Oxtail Stew

Unfortunately, we don’t have a local butchers, so whenever we’re out and about, tend to find an odd farm shop to pop into to pick up a bit of local meat. My husband is always on the lookout for oxtail, although rarely does anything with it (!) and happened to find one pack of three small frozen pieces at the ‘we sell everything under the sun’ amazing Upsons Farm Shop near Hatfield Peverel. In fact, we bought it the same day we picked up three new hens!

So, left in the fridge for two days as it was, I decided I’d better use it up! A really simple recipe that would also work brilliantly with lamb shanks. Simply dice carrots and onions and pan fry. Fry off the oxtail to brown and crispen the outside and pop everything into the slow cooker. If you don’t have one, use an ovenproof dish. Cover with a mixture of red wine and stock, throw in a few herbs and leave on high, or put into a low oven, for several hours.

About half an hour before serving, mix up a paste of flour, mustard and redcurrant jelly, although I used quince jelly as I had some made up. Add a little of the juice from the pot to loosen the mixture, then stir into the stew. Leave to thicken.


Serve with a crispy jacket potato, creamed leeks and a hearty glass of red.

Friday 18 November 2011

Northcote Manor

Having recently had a birthday and a baby, not in that order, I was lucky enough to visit Northcote Manor for a night, while Frankie’s grandparents had an opportunity to spend some quality time looking after their granddaughter for the night!

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, being only an hour or so from where I grew up. Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft are joint proprietors with Lisa Allen doing much of the cooking. We arrived on a Friday afternoon and were shown straight to our room: a beautiful large corner room overlooking the gardens and fields. we had booked a gourmet break (dinner, bed and breakfast for £335 in a superior double) and were invited for drinks in the lounge, complete with roaring fires, pre-dinner. The price included a half bottle of champagne, canapés, a 5-course seasonal menu, breakfast, and of course the room (with free minibar stocked with (unfortunately no alcohol but) locally produced soft drinks and the cutest little glass bottle of milk from a local dairy. SDC14261

We settled in quickly, and went straight out to explore the herb and vegetable garden, then went for a short drive to the village of Whalley, then on for an afternoon drink at Mitton Hall (well worth a visit, if only to look over the Ribble river with a glass of something chilled in your hand!) We returned and had the most luxurious bubble bath imaginable before dressing for dinner. (In the bathroom, even the mirrors are heated so they don’t steam up – clever huh?!)


A warm welcome awaited us from the staff downstairs, and our drinks and lovely canapés were served in front of the fire. It is over a month since we went, and I can’t remember what they were, but I know they tasted delicious!


The meal, too, was very tasty. I'm not going to comment on every course, suffice to say, the combination of flavours and textures was excellent.

The amuse-bouche deconstructed blt had, to quote Gregg, bags of flavour and interesting textures to make it taste ‘just right’.




I’d make a special note of the lemon caviar (no idea how it was done, but resembled caviar with little bursts of lemon flavour). It’s floating at the bottom of the tomato consommé, somewhere!



As usual, we opted for the local cheeses rather than dessert; simply can’t resist a good cheese board, especially as I’d saved a glass of red to go alongside.




Finished with petits fours and a special birthday message. What more could I ask?

Northcote Manor

Northcote Road

Tel: 01254 240555
Fax: 01254 246568


Tuesday 15 November 2011

Stuffed Mushrooms a la Nigel Slater


Along with the vast array of cookery books I own, I also thoroughly enjoy watching a good food programme on tv. One of my favourites is Nigel Slater’s newest series, Simple Cooking. Some people believe it to be rather over-produced, but I love the natural feel to it and the fact that all his produce lives wrapped in waxed paper, or is poured into thick glass bottles. I’d like my fridge to look like his but, unfortunately, mine is more usually a few leftover things hanging around in the salad compartment at the bottom feeling unloved and forgotten.

One of the recipes that looked really delicious was these stuffed mushrooms. Its a classic sausage-meat stuffing but with the crispiness on top and the chunks of chestnut therein. You can find the ‘proper’ recipe here, or follow my quantity-less version below.

Pop some large mushrooms in a roasting tin and a blob of butter in each. Pour over some olive oil and a splash of Madeira wine. Now, I had none, so used Port as Nigel suggested. I think, though, that Madeira wine would work better. Throw in a few sprigs of thyme too. (Again, I substituted for parsley as I didn’t have any.)


Bake in the oven for about 20 mins. Meanwhile, make the stuffing. Chop and fry gently some onions. Mix the inside of some tasty sausages, some breadcrumbs, chopped chestnuts, salt and pepper and add to the onions. Fry off for a short while.

Top the mushrooms with the stuffing mixture and return to the oven for about half an hour.


Now, I found that I could have added more oil, butter and Madeira at some point as the final mushrooms, although delicious, were on the dry side. I enjoyed the crispiness of the topping but maybe a lower oven and longer cooking time would have done the trick? I’ll leave you to play around with your own ideas for keeping them moist.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Apéritifs – Figs with cream cheese wrapped in Parma ham

I’m always on the look out for new and interesting apéritifs / amuse bouche ideas to go with that pre-dinner drink, as these are usually my favourite part of a meal. I have been known to simply eat rather too many and not have room for any dinner at all (although my OH might suggest the cocktails consumed alongside them may have also been to blame!)


These were brought to me via my mum, whose friend (bizarrely, my old English teacher and form tutor at high school) makes these as one of her amuse bouche, and they really are delicious: a simple combination of sweet and salty makes them irresistible, and you’ll have to refrain from going to make more. In fact, I suggest you use the whole pack of figs as you’ll always want / need more!

They are incredibly simple, and you’ll only need ripe figs, cream cheese and dry-cured ham, such as Parma. Writing that has just reminded me of a limited edition cook book produced by the regions involved in the Discover the Origin campaign which coincided with Fair-Trade fortnight back in February.

“ ‘Discover The Origin’ was created by the EU to make consumers more knowledgeable about what they are buying and where it comes from. They want to support local artisans who use traditional methods that have been handed down from generation to generation to create delicious food. These are people who care passionately about what they do. The result is natural products containing no artificial additives or preservatives, simply good honest food and wines that have not been tampered with.

In short by buying protected destination of origin stamped food (PDO) you are supporting honest trade/ craft/ tradition and means you get to eat and drink better! ”

Anyway, like I said, it’s the saltiness of the Parma ham against the sweetness of the figs and the creaminess of the cheese that really makes this work. Simply quarter the figs, spoon a little (or a lot) of cream cheese onto each piece and wrap in Parma ham. Serve with a chilled class of Chablis.


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