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‘Best of (Mostly) British’ Category

  1. Gwatkins Cider

    December 25, 2019 by jimkeir

    If there’s anywhere to begin, this is it. Cider has a bit of a reputation to lose; alco-pop, painfully sweet, flavourless, only for kids trying to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible.


    Actually, in many cases, right, but that’s not why we’re here. I’m a cider fan and will usually try a local if we’re out and about in any cider-producing region. Northwest France does it pretty damn well, but no matter where it comes from, any and all cider or perry I try now is compared with Gwatkins and I genuinely doubt that any will come even close.

    We found this on tap at Ludlow Food Festival a few years ago. I’m fairly sure it was Mr. Gwatkin himself on the stand, it was a hot day, and a light perry (pear cider for the uninitiated) seemed like just the ticket. A couple of mouthfuls later we circled back round and told him this was the best we’d ever had by a long way. It still is.

    Perrys are harder to make than ciders because the fruit has to be perfectly ripe and perfectly treated – any damaged or bruised fruit affect it much more than they would an apple cider. It needs to be made with perry-specific pear varieties which aren’t common any more. This perry wasn’t overly sweet and had a sublime combination of fruit and floral flavours and then, after that had begun to fade, a wonderful tangy aftertaste that lasted longer than such delicate flavours should do. We had a few pints of that, that day.

    Ciders now tend to be incredibly sweet and, lordy me, made even sweeter by adding strawberry or rhubarb flavourings and shipping them from New Zealand. Not Gwatkins. They’re made in the traditional way using traditional, old, cider-specific apple and pear varieties and they have bite. A barman at a fantastic beer festival, Eddyfest (which will be listed here soon!), was muttering about having sold out of all of the ultra-sweet imported ciders and being completely bemused as to how people could drink them. We’d both just poured away a pint of two different ciders that were genuinely so sweet they were causing pain, and had circled back to the bar for pints of Gwatkins. I offered him a sip – I think it was the Yarlington Mill – and he did a bit of a double-take, took another sip, and said “by God you’re going to know you’ve had a pint of cider after one of those”.

    Gwatkins. The way cider should be. And they do mail order.

  2. In The Beginning…

    December 25, 2019 by jimkeir

    It all began, as some things do, with a cheese sandwich. This particular beginning wasn’t related to permanent intestinal damage the likes of which would make a Bupa shareholder cry, which is indeed something that can begin with a cheese sandwich. That was in India. This beginning was a determination to persuade as many people as possible that British food ought not to be dismissed, as many people – mostly Brits – seem to think. “Aah, British food, fish and chips, roast beef, terrible bread”. Yes, we do have terrible bread, but only if you buy it in [insert name of litigious supermarket chain here].

    I wish I could say exactly where this sarnie epiphany was created but it’s been lost to the depths of time. I clearly remember it visually but, other than probably being in the north of England, can’t narrow it down any more than that. What I do remember though, is the cheese sandwich. A simple cheddar buttie, salad and crisps, exactly like you’d get in any little independent tearoom that had a bit of pride in what it served – but this was different. A level above. The cheese paired perfectly with the bread. The bread was made in the same village. The salad was the exact right blend of sweet, bitter and crispy to counter the flavours and textures of the sandwich.

    Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it isn’t good food. In fact, it can mean just the opposite – simple dishes have less fiddly bits, less distractions, to hide behind if something’s not right. Picture being somewhere that advertises a “dining experience”; the decor, the waiters that spang into existence exactly, and only, when they’re needed, the extremely high china-to-food-coverage ratio of the plates, actually being able to get a parking spot. One detail being not 100% perfect might be noticed but is just one tiny detail out of the whole experience. With fish and chips in a bag, if it’s not right then it’s not right.

    I call it my “standard candle” test, a phrase stolen from astrophysics. If I’m somewhere that prides itself on it’s food and likely to eat there more than once, I’ll typically order the house burger. The heathen option, the last thing on the menu, added especially and grudgingly for people who balk at eating anything they’ve not personally microwaved in the past. Why? Because a burger gives you no place to hide. If a kitchen, a chef, can make the simple, globally-served, no-thought-required burger into something special then they’ve really mastered their art. Too many trimmings? Fail. Can’t taste the beef? Fail. Too thick to actually pick up? Fail. (Probably). Brioche buns? Those are a sweet breakfast or dessert item for chrissakes. Basic mistake. Fail.

    So back to the cheese sandwich. Britain really does produce world-class food, in a distinctive style. Just like the French, Italians, Spanish, Indian, Chinese, Thai and so on – not necessarily better, but different and just as worthy of attention. We need to be able to persuade the rest of the world of that. Hell, we need to persuade most British of that, especially those that have only ever really experienced chain-pub and supermarket food.

    These short posts are simply listing places we’ve been, food we’ve had, real cider and ale, places we’ve stayed in a few cases, that have been outstanding. Few if any will be for “twiddly” food. Most will be for the simple, honest, dare I say rustic food that Britain does – or can do – spectacularly well. There’s a few overseas places listed too but in the main we’re showcasing British produce.