A good lunch in Shropshire

There are two ways of driving back to Birkenhead from Oxford. The first and easier way is to start on the M40, move onto the M42 before the hard slog of the M6 until you can join the M56 and then the M53 to take you all the way back home in two and half hours of teeth clenched motorway driving. It can be more interesting to find a way to do at least some of the journey cross country and we gave this a try when driving back on Tuesday.

We probably left it too late before deciding on the route that was to take us on the M40 and then the M42 past Birmingham and across the top of the Black Country into the wilds of Shropshire.

Part of the thinking behind all this was how good the autumnal colours would look as we wound our way up to Ludlow and then onto Oswestry. All went well until we got past Kidderminster when a low cloud enveloped the hills and obscured whatever good views might have been available. By the time we crossed over Titterstone Clee we could barely see the side of the road. We carried on past Ludlow and onto Bishops Castle lured on by the thought of a good pub lunch and fine ale.

We had stopped off in Bishops Castle two years ago for lunch and somewhere in the back of our minds we had meant to go back, the big attraction being The Three Tuns Inn & Brewery.

It was all that I had remembered. A large cavernous pub perched off the high street, a selection of six different beers on tap from the brewery next door and a menu of good solid pub grub – all with chips. Two of us had the 8oz home made burger with bacon, onion ring and chips. It was far better and far better value than the one had in Byron a few weeks ago. There was also a plate of fish and chips with a bowlful of thick mushy peas.

The food slipped down with a few good pints of 1642. Whilst standing at the bar I was reminded that back in the basement at home there were two jugs for beer that they would have filled for me to take back. I resisted the temptation to purchase another.

On the walk back to the car we diverted into a second book shop and I resisted another tempation to pick up a copy of The Folio Edition of In Search of Lost Time  for the bargain price of £30.00.

Old haunts

When we moved from Oxford to Liverpool almost eighteen years ago I would joke that there were no more two different cities in the country. The only thing they had in common being the number of listed buildings they both had, with Liverpool slightly ahead.

Over the years the two cities have moved less apart and now it seems there almost as many bemused tourists thronging around Matthew Street as there are on Cornmarket or wandering up Broad Street.

We were in Oxford this last weekend and on Monday we went into the city to revisit some old haunts. We started in the Covered Market which seems to move another step closer to complete gentrification every time we go in with another old shop closing and being turned into a café or card shop. Hayman’s the Fishmongers is still going strong, as is the cheese shop and the greengrocers, and there are still a cluster of good butchers still serving the Colleges.  It is always reassuring to spot a pig’s head through a window. Maybe this is the year I treat myself to making some brawn.

We then walked down The High, over Magdalen Bridge and lingered round the second hand clothes shops on St Clements before traipsing up Cowley Road. Although I have driven down it a few times since we left I think this was the first time we had walked up it. It was at once instantly familiar in its geography and layout, the cars negotiating the side streets, the ever present bikes threatening to run you down, but also hugely different. It was spruced up and cleaner, trees had been planted in the pavement and almost all of the shops and restaurants had changed. The only two that were still there as I remembered them were Uhuru , the health food shop and The Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House.

But the good news was that although they were operating under different signs and names the road was still packed with individual shops and restaurants. There seemed to be far fewer curry houses, I remember counting 17 one day on the way into town on the bus, but they had been replaced by Lebanese, Greek, Morrocan and Turkish restaurants. There were two very good Middle Eastern food shops both of which were selling packets of Giant Couscous or Mograbiah.  I don’t like to pass up on the opportunity to stock up on Mograbiah when I see it so I bought 3 kilos.

We made it all the way up to the junction with East Avenue at which point we turned back as the kids were demanding lunch. It was strange to linger outside the old Co-op Hall which had been a rather tatty room but which had now been smartened up to a proper venue. Amazing to think that only a couple of hundred yards from were we lived we able to walk down and see bands such as Radiohead, Supergrass, Therapy, Gong and Giant Sand (twice!).

With hungry and recalcitrant children to be kept on side lunch was in a Nando’s.  For some of us it was our first chance to indulge in the whole peri peri experience. The verdict was probably that it could have done better but was not as bad as we had feared.

On the way back into town there was just about time for another short diversion into a record shop with second hand vinyl, good coffee and a relaxed atmosphere this would have been a home from home eighteen years ago. As it was there was a quick grab of CD’s that caught my eye – Dirty Projectors on the back of a review in one of the Sunday papers and something by someone called Carl Rowe described as a mix of Tom waits, Leonard Cohen and Mark Lanegan.

The importance of knives

Any good kitchen needs a selection of knives to be able to function properly. There is no point is setting about trying to fillet a mackerel with a blunt blade. It won’t be sharp enough for a clean cut and you will end up having to hack at it to even make a start at piercing he skin and you will end up with a ragged torn strip of fish.

Over the years we have built up an odd selection of kinves. the most recent addition are two stumpy wooden handled Opinel Inox knives. They were a gift from my sister Anne-Marie have have quickly developed into our daily work horses. Regularly sharpened they are keen enough to quickly cut through the skin of a tomato, slice onions and garlic  and make light work with meat and fish.

When not on the chopping board the knives live  in a knife block next to the basket of oils. There re one or two in there that hardly make it out.

My favourite knive is a long steel blade that I stole from my mother when I left home. I can remember as a boy taking out into the garden to peel the bark from pieces of wood I was trying to turn into bows and arrows. It can be made ferociously sharp when it will make light work of anything I put it to. It needs a certain amount of respect shown to it and periodically the kids will be astonished by my yelping as I take another small slice of skin off the top of a finger and I hold my hand high in the air to try and reduce the flow of red blood. The blade itself is stained and pock marked with age – it must be at least fifty years old.