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Friday, 27 April 2012

Country Pub of the Year

A good pub should be at the heart of every community.

Not just my thoughts but those of CAMRA the Campaign for Real Ale who don’t just champion real ale but also pubs and breweries and aim to ensure that there is a thriving industry and community.

April is their Community Pub month aimed at promoting the role of pubs as part of their local communities, be they in towns, cities or villages. So, once again the Coach and Horses in Chepstow won the Gwent Town Pub award, and the Star Inn Llansoy the Country Pub.

The Star Inn winning this prestigious award is an amazing story, as just a year ago the pub was shut, boarded up and unloved.

Enter John and Julie Davis who took it on, installed a good team and hot young chef, and re-opened with the aim of building a successful local pub that would concentrate on good beers, excellent food and become a key part of the community.

And how well that has worked.

First off there are a good range of beers, the CAMRA endorsement backs this up, and they support local brewers Kingstone – just down the road in Tintern, and Tiny Rebel the new Newport based brewery whom I featured in the earlier blog about the Newport Food Festival.

Locality matters to John and Julie and as well as good beers they want to support local producers and the restaurant features local food with the meat coming from Abergavennys Neil Powell.

Handling the cooking side is Matt Dawkins a hot young chef who I first met as a 17 year old catering college student in 2009 when we were both members of the Monmouthshire Team in TV show Taste the Nation. Monmouthshire went out in the first round with only Matt winning his head to head – and I didn’t even get to cook!

Matt is producing good local and seasonal food, reasonably priced and well presented so the restaurant was crowded even on a Wednesday evening. As I photographed the Specials Board a diner said “Don’t steal that menu, though I know why you would, the food’s always great”.

As it was we didn’t dine but the small plates of nibbles in the bar –lovely sausage rolls, home- made vegetable crisps, egg mayonnaise on crostini etc., showed Matt’s talent and a meal at the Star is a must.

But back to the award and one of the reasons that the Star was recognised is the way in which the pub is positioned at the heart of the community. Bank holidays are marked by Family Days with bouncy castles and kids’ activities and there is an exciting programme of drink related events as well.

4th May sees the chance to sample Butcombe Beers and some of Matts Hand Cut Chips, whilst the weekend of 4th June is the Star Inn Beer Festival with stalls, events, raffles and the opportunity to meet the Head Brewer at Kingstone Brewery. You might just win a case of beer in the raffle but even if you don’t real ales and live music should be reason enough to head out.
Later in the year there will be a Fullers Wine tasting evening and a pub organised trip to Butcombe Brewery in Bristol.

Before that the pub is supporting its local brewery with a trip to Kingstone on 8th June and one of the raffle prizes the weekend before is a place on the trip.

With loads of activities it is clear why, during Camra Community Pub Month, the Star was awarded Country Pub of the Year 2012.

Only going for a year the Star Inn has come a long way and will undoubtedly continue to develop and ensure that it becomes a major destination pub in both Monmouthshire and South wales.

Though I was there for the Award a return visit and full review is welldesered and I shall return in the very near future.

In the meantime Congratulations are due to John, Julie and the team who have turned around a closed pub and made it an award winner that should go from strength to strength.

Based on that the Star Inn Llansoy is undoubtedly Local and Great.

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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Pudding Heaven

Whilst Annascaul is rightly heralded as the birthplace of Antarctic explorer Tom Crean it has another claim to fame in Ashe’s of Annascaul, makers of award winning Black and White Puddings.

For those of you unfamiliar with Irish Puddings they are very different from the UK versions which tend to have either huge chunks of fat or an excess of Pinhead Oats in the Black and, in the case of the White seem to consist largely of Lard and Oatmeal, a claggy consistency and little if any taste. It is hardly surprising that they are, at the very least, an acquired taste.

Boudin, or Blood Puddings, as per the continental makers are however a totally different matter and a taste experience of their own and, in recent years, Irish producers are conquering the continent regularly winning in the competitions for best Boudin held there.

Ashe’s were established in 1916 and have gone from strength to strength.

As great Irish butcher Pat Whelan said “Annascaul is special” and many top chefs agree, I had a starter of Annascaul Black Pudding hash in the Chart House in Dingle, which was a mix of finely diced pudding and potato, and loved it.

As with all good foods the secret lies in good ingredients and sensitive handling to present them as intended not processed beyond belief.

A handmade pudding, baked in a steam oven in the cellar of the shop in Annascaul, the hand made as opposed to machinery constructed pudding is one of the few that uses fresh blood, in this case Beef Blood, most are made from reconstituted dried blood. The ingredients are simple: Beef blood, onions, breadcrumbs, suet, milk, oatmeal, flour, salt, pepper, spices, herbs. The secret lies in the exact combination and, whatever was decided back in 1916 nearly 100 years on the combination still works.

White Pudding is a relative newcomer first made in 2005. Again cake baked in the steam oven it is softer than the Black and an essential part of any proper breakfast. This pudding is also popular with chefs and often appears as a starter or even in canapés. White pudding is differentiated from Black in that it does not use blood, rather bacon. The ingredients, as with the Black Pudding are all sourced locally being: Prime back bacon, gammon, pearl barley, rusk, milk, salt, pepper, spices and seasonings. Whatever combination of spices are used the result is a really tasty pudding.

Of course a breakfast would not be breakfast without Bacon and Sausage and I am pleased to report that Ashe’s do both – very well.

The Sausages have a much lower fat content than usually found and the flavour is all the better for that!

The Traditional Pork Sausages are described as “Peppery Pork Perfection” and that is as accurate a description as I have ever heard. The smaller ones are chipolata size and there is a bigger really hungry/barbecue size as well. Unlike most sausages which are mix of lean meat and fat these are made from Pork Belly and the balance of fat to meat is natural, a 75% Pork content ensures a great sausage. Hand Packed into natural Lamb casings they fry beautifully with very little fat left in the pan and give a good meaty bite with loads of spicy flavour.

I cooked mine dry and they coloured well and maintained a great texture. Combined with extra thick cut commercial bread – the only time that I use commercial – they gave a brilliant sausage sandwich and moved Mrs. K to grant her highest accolade “Very Yum!”

Sadly when I called by the shop the Pork and Black Pudding sausages were out of stock “It’s the Easter Weekend, we’ve had a run and we only restarted making them today, can you wait?” I was told. Unfortunately we were heading back to the Ferry and had booked lunch some 150k south so I couldn’t. Try Camp or Blennerville was the suggestion. So keen was I that heading a potential 50k in the wrong direction was not an issue. As the white Pudding was still in the oven as well it made sense. Camp had sold out entirely but I was able to get my White Pudding in Blennerville and was only 35 minutes late for my lunch reservation. Having tried the Sausages and Black pudding I can only imagine the effect of combining the two in a sausage and will definitely be back to get some – perhaps I will have to email a reservation first!

Finally they have Bacon, both varieties Green and Smoked. Dry Cured for ultimate taste and none of that horrid white gunge that emerges from certain proprietary brands, these rashers are simply good!

After nearly a century of making puddings and porcine pleasure Ashe’s have got it just right. The combination of using local ingredients and hand processing really does bring out the very best in all of their products and this undoubtedly makes them Local And Great.

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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Antarcticly Cool Lager

After an overnight ferry and the drive to the West Coast of Ireland I fancied relaxing, so I headed to the bar of the Dingle Skellig Hotel for a pint, glad that hotels serve on Good Friday even if the pubs are all shut.

The usual suspects were all on tap, Guinness, Harp, Smithwicks and assorted multinational Lagers and then my eye fell on Tom Creans, a lager from the Dingle Brewing Company. Now I am not usually a huge fan of lager, though a Peroni in Italy is always acceptable but my dedication to Local products meant that this ought to be tasted.

“Not seen that one before” I said to the barman as he pulled my pint, “They have only been going since last Summer” he replied.

Sinking into a deep leather chair I tried my first mouthful. Light, crisp , with a bit of a bite and well chilled it really hit the mark. Making further enquiries I discovered that the brewery was open to the public and determined to get along there to find out more.

“Do you know why it’s called Tom Crean’s” asked the barman as I ordered a second pint, luckily I did. Tom Crean was born on the Dingle peninsular and was a major figure in Antarctic exploration, travelling with both Scott and Shackleton. On Scott’s doomed mission Tom Crean fell ill and was excluded from the final party who died in the snow, but still returned with Shackleton.

When that expedition ran into trouble Tom Crean set off with Shackleton, in a small boat to the whaling station on South Georgia to get relief for the rest of the crew stranded on Elephant Island. Landing on the opposite side of the island he covered 35 miles over mountains in 18 hours, a feat reflected in the lager’s badge – a compass pointing South and the words 18/35.

Tom Crean retired to his home village of Anascaul – a few kilometres from Dingle and took over the local pub which he renamed The South Pole Inn.

Tom rarely, if ever, spoke of his explorations and ran the pub until his death in 1938.

Fittingly the beer was launched in The South Pole at 18:35 on his birthday 21st July 2011.

Finding the brewery is easy, just follow the sign to the Conor Pass and it is the big white building on the edge of town. It used to be the local creamery then stood empty for a number of years before being converted into a brewery and there are some relics from the creamery days inside.

Anyone can visit and be assured of a warm welcome though the full visitor experience is still a work in progress but do not let that put you off.

An explanation of the brewing process is being built and you are free to wander around the brewery with only access to the control panels being roped off as brewing was in progress.

There are a number of connections with South Wales, firstly being the fact that Shackleton set off from Cardiff flying the red dragon flag and, indeed he raised a lot of the capital needed through public appeals in South Wales. Secondly one of the exhibits from the old Creamery days is an Alfa Laval milk separator which would have been built in their Cwmbran factory, now sadly closed.

Another more tenuous link is that on Scott’s fatal expedition one of the crew was a south Walian who intended, like Tom, to run a pub when he returned. Sadly this was not to be as he froze to death. The final link is that the National Museum of Wales has been holding an exhibition of Antarctic Exploration Photography with many images of Tom Crean.

I hoped to take a bottle of the beer back to Wales and sneak a photo of it with the exhibits in Cardiff but was thwarted as bottled Tom Crean's will not be available for another few weeks as the recipe has to be slightly amended for bottling.

But enough of history, back to the present and the story of the new beer.

At its simplest beer is just a combination of Malted Grain, Water, Hops and Yeast, not a lot different to bread though obviously the water : grain proportions are very different! Like bread it is how you combine the elements and the quality of the ingredients that determine the outcome.

Where the multinational beer factories make significant additions and take a purely chemical approach to brewing small breweries such as the Dingle Brewing Company and Tiny Rebel in Wales produce an artisan beer where it is the skill of the brewer not a computer programme that determines the outcome.

The brewing process is clearly demonstrated in explanatory exhibits and you are able to get up close and personal with the brew in a way that a huge factory would never allow.

Obviously having only one beer available at present could be seen as an issue but, start small, get it right and develop a range over time is the way to go. Small or micro-breweries offer something that the chemi-brewers cannot, a quality product developed with much customer feedback and one that reflects local taste.

Dingle Brewing Company fit perfectly into this model and have formed a partnership with a Dingle butcher who is using the lager to add an additional taste element to his sausages. They are as good as the lager itself and beer and pork have a natural affinity which is well documented in the snags.

I am looking forward to my next visit when I hope to try a new beer or two and hopefully bring a few bottles home.

At present Tom Creans is available across Kerry and in limited outlets in Cork and Dublin but the sheer quality of the pint means that it will be demanded elsewhere.

A small, new brewery but one that is undoubtedly local and destined to be great.

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Monday, 16 April 2012

Out Of The Blue - Out Of This World

How can a shack with a corrugated iron roof and a kitchen so small that the proverbial cat would get concussion, on the Western edge of Europe become a global destination restaurant - rated as one of the places you must visit before you die?

The answer must lie in the perfect combination of clear vision, great ingredients and superb cooking, where the ingredients are treated sensitively and are shown at their best.

Forget the fact that Out Of The Blue is a single story corrugated roofed old cottage and look at the signs on the walls. “Seafood only”. “Nothing Frozen”. “If there’s no fish we don’t open”. Equally important from my perspective is the one that says No Chips, this is cooking as it should be and, when the harbour is the other side of the road you can be sure that the fish will be at its absolute peak.

Naturally the menu reflects what has been caught that day so it’s on blackboards not printed and will vary not only seasonally, but daily. There is no “Specials” board, everything here is special.

Owner Tim Mason says that the decision to open some 10 years ago was a bit of a gamble, no one else had tried to open a restaurant that only served seafood that was always fresh, never had meat on the menu and would open only if the boats had landed. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely as the number of award plaques on the walls demonstrate.

The place is small, even with a recent extension that allowed an extra 2 metres in the main room, so eating is as much a communal event as private and the buzz about the place is terrific. On our visits we have never failed to get into conversation with adjacent tables and that is part of the charm of Out of the Blue.

Once seated we were given the blackboard with the menu for the evening, the Wine List –the only printed item in the restaurant, and a plate of fresh breads, butter and a Smoked Mackerel pate to consume whilst we considered the menu. Actually the bread and Mackerel was so good that we ignored the menu and tucked into the pre-starter and had to ask for more time to choose!

Tim sources his wines from his brother Ben who runs the Wicklow Wine Company and the list, though short, is ideally matched to fish, we chose a house wine a crisp Cuvee Orelie D’Ardeche 2011 which went well with all of our selections.

Tearing ourselves away from the delights of the Smoked Mackerel pate we chose starters: Salmon cured two ways for Mrs K and the Fish Chowder for myself. I am a huge fan of chowder and tend to order it whenever I see it on a menu and OOTB make the best I have tasted. A good mix of Smoked and Unsmoked white fish, Salmon and Mussels came in a creamy soup with a background hint of anise, Dill perhaps or Pernod?. Small pieces of Carrot and Leek added to the mix and I must admit I did ask for a little more bread as an accompaniment.

Janet’s Salmon came with a lemon dressing and a small salad, in which the beetroot really sang out.

Mains were a hard choice, we both could have managed everything on offer but the Seafood Platter was ruled out when we saw the huge portions delivered to the next table. I opted for the Langoustines flambéed in Cognac and was presented with 8 big Langoustines with sides of Beetroot, Carrot, Beans. Cauliflower and Broccoli, Potato and a Potato Salad. I was also given the requisite tools to extract every ounce of meat from the shells and a near record 4 wet wipes alongside the finger bowl. A rich langoustine sauce came with the meal and the fish, cooked to perfection, made a rich, creamy mouthful that I was happy to repeat until the last of the body was eaten and the claws and heads picked clean.

Janet’s John Dory came with sides of Couscous, Beetroot Salad, Celeriac Julienne, Tapenade, Cauliflower and Broccoli, Courgette and Potatoes and Puy Lentils. As with the Langoustines the vegetables added to the dish and the clever presentation encouraged the eating of every last scrap.

We needed a short break before considering the Dessert blackboard so I took off to the kitchen,

Tiny, smaller than many domestic kitchens this really does define galley kitchens, and it is amazing that such a small space can turn out the volume of high quality food that it does.

Jean Marie Vaireaux and Eric Maillard vary the menu between Lunch and Dinner so only the freshest fish gets to your plate. Eric was cooking the evening that we visited and, between cooking several dishes at once he found time to talk to me and even pose for a photo – armed with a can of beer from the fridge.

My kitchen odyssey had allowed Mrs K time to digest her meal and decide that Dessert was definitely on the cards. Checking the blackboard she decided on the Dark Chocolate Brownie whilst Espresso sufficed for me.

The Brownie was epic, I know because I was allowed a taste! Rich dark and gooey with a crisp crust, it was served with a tuile biscuit, whipped cream and Strawberries on the side and two sauces. A tour de force.

On our way out I wanted to speak briefly with Tim, but on returning to the Bar he was nowhere to be seen. “Don’t worry, he’s just slipped to the pub to get some beers for the kitchen” I was told and seconds later Tim returned with a tray of beers for the chefs to enjoy as service ended. You don’t see that often but it shows how much Tim thinks of the staff who deliver such quality food.

To make a great restaurant you need several elements: a clear vision, great ingredients, consistently good cooking and a front of house team who are fully behind the concept. Out Of The Blue has all of these in spades and the regular winning of awards demonstrates this clearly.

Out Of The Blue is an absolute must if you are in Dingle and an essential even if you have to travel there.

Often imitated, never equalled.
Truly Local and Great.
Contact Out Of The Blue (+353) 066 9150811 - omit the 0 in 066 if calling internationally

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