Summer eating

Published in The Welwyn Hatfield Times 4 July 2018

Our villages and towns really come alive in the summer, with food festivals, farmers markets, summer fetes and horticultural shows. There is so much to do, but here is a small selection to help you get out and make the most of it all. Pimms, barbecues and home-made cakes anyone?

First of all, a huge well done to The White Hart who swept the board in the foodie events at the recent Welwyn Oscars, winning best restaurant, best pub and best bar and waiting staff. Congratulations to Jamie, Tom and team.

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One of the best local farmers markets is in White Lion Square in the centre of Hatfield. This Saturday (7th July, 8.30–1) head there for delicious and low-food miles produce. Stall holders may sell only what they grow or make themselves and every stall is run by the producer, their family or regular staff. Fruit and vegetables are seasonal, local and sold at very good prices. You can also buy meats, fish, cheese, pies, pickles, cakes and plants.

On the same day you can also go to the Welwyn Garden City Fine Food and Craft market outside Debenhams (10–4). They have a great selection of hot lunches, baked goods, preserves and fruit and vegetables.

Over in Ayot Green, the Ayot Horticultural show is also on the 7th July .The show starts at 2 so is the perfect place to head for a classic afternoon tea or to buy preserves and cakes to take home. There will also be a bar on the green – Pimms anyone?

The Codicote village fair is on Saturday 21st July. The amazing Bake Off competition returns and invites your entries in three categories: cup cake, large cake and showstopper. The theme of the fair this year is Animal Kingdom so how will that inspire you? Take your entry to the large tent next to the arena before 2pm for a chance to win a fantastic prize; KitchenAid are the sponsors and are very generous with their smart kit. Cakes will be judged on looks, flavour and originality. I judged last year and I promise you that I did taste every cake, and flavour and texture did swing the final decision in each category. I am always impressed by the food and drink for sale too – a great barbecue, food stalls and plenty of home-made cakes.

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Hatfield House has lots of fabulous music and theatre events this summer. I like the sound of the Midsummer Night’s Murder Mystery Dining Experience on 11 August. The Shakespeare Players, formed by RSC Alumni Peter Richards and his wife Felicity, are preparing to perform their open air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the grounds of Hatfield House. But something dreadful happens after the dress rehearsal… Over drinks and a three-course dinner with the cast, can you solve the mystery? Tickets are 60 each and the event takes places in the Riding School restaurant (from 7pm).

The next Woolmer Green farmers market is on July 22nd at Woolmer Green Village Hall (9–12). You can buy a lovely selection of local foods. Stalls include Bridget Bs meats from their Hertford farm, vegetables from EW Wells, cheese, cakes, preserves, Ellen Manchester’s sausage rolls, Meah’s curry sauces (these are delicious), Miss Muffet’s homemade curds and homemade pickles from Perks Pickles.

There are also plenty of pubs hosting world cup matches and barbecues, school fairs and much more. Have a great time!

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Rothamstead Festival of Ideas

Published in The Herts Advertiser 5 July 2018

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Did you make it to the Rothamstead Festival of Ideas weekend? It was a rare opportunity to explore the extensive site and find out what goes on. We went as a family and it was brilliant to learn about the world-leading research going into our food production – and the food available there was excellent too!

With the world’s population growing by the second, one of the challenges we face is how to feed everyone. Rothamstead do research into plants and crops and how to make sure we can grow enough around the world to eat. I was interested to see a chickpea plant for the first time – you need a huge plant to harvest enough for one tin of cooked chickpeas! We also saw lots of varieties of wheat and rice, which my teens had never seen before. We all know that fish is a good source of omega 3 oils, but I was interested to learn that the amount of omega 3 is falling in fish as their food sources become depleted – scientists are trying to find more sources. One plant is camelina (a flax seed), which is a brassica like mustard seed and canola so it can be grown to make amazing oil. The Rothamstead team are working out how to get nutrients from algae into it which is a rich source of omega 3. This knowledge is then sold around the world.

Tractor tours were taking families out to the fields beyond the main buildings (you can walk near them any time) and I chatted to one of the scientists who looks after the crops, sowing, tending and harvesting. There are hundreds of projects happening at any one time, with some taking up just a square metre. They use drones to check how the crops are getting on. Did you know that Rothamstead has also won medals at the Chelsea Flower show, showcasing the plants they grow?

We had a break in the ‘games field’ where there were food trucks ready to feed all the visitors. The girls loved the wood-fired pizza, and I chose Parker & Vine salads from their pop-up tent (the shop is based on Leyton Road). Emilio and his familiar blue van were also there, selling falafel and halloumi wraps. Farr Brewery were doing a good trade in their own beers and Prosecco. If we had more time the girls would have liked crepes from Nicky’s Little Kitchen who are also based locally – they do the classic sweet options, and also mozzarella, rocket, peppers and ham filled crepes. We ate our delicious lunches sitting on the hay bales that had been dotted around the field for visitors, alongside a display of the high-tech vehicles that harvest the plants.

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It was a rare chance to have afternoon tea at The Manor House – this was the original home of John Bennet Lawes who has left such a legacy in Harpenden. You can hire some of the Manor House formal rooms for parties and weddings. Tea and cakes were also served in the main staff restaurant, which is a lovely bright space. And the good news is that the staff restaurant is open to the public all year round, so if you didn’t make it to the Festival of Ideas but are curious about the site, you can pop in. A cooked lunch is excellent value, with soups at around 3.00 and main courses for under 5.00. They do a good choice of puds and bakes such as brownies, so perfect for a coffee break if out on a walk. There were picnic tables outside and plenty of space on the grass to sit if it gets busy.

We don’t always pause to think about where our food comes from, and many of us take food security for granted. Having this research take place right on our doorstep is fascinating, and I am delighted we got the chance to discover more about the work taking place.

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Zero Sushi

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Published in The Herts Advertiser 21 June 2018

Tucked away on Leyton Road is a small, yet very busy, sushi cafe and takeaway, Zero Sushi. Well-known to Harpenden regulars, it also attracts customers from miles away who tell me this is the best sushi outside of London; have you tried it yet?

I love the contemporary design of the shop, with strong black and orange Japanese styling. I chatted to Jack Yarwood the owner about how he came to bring sushi to Harpenden.

Jack comes from a family who work in the fish business; his father is a fish buyer and Jack’s uncle runs an award-winning fishmonger in Manchester. Jack studied making sushi and now recruits and trains his own chefs. He really cares about the sourcing of his fish and buys from small boats including mackerel from Cornwall and buys the best grade Blue Fin tuna.

The first Zero Sushi opened in Berkhamstead three years ago, followed shortly by Harpenden. There is seating for about 10 people or you can take away. Last time I went it was a chilly day so I chose a bowl of miso soup and vegetable gyoza. It was all beautifully presented (the gyoza on a board with banana leaf), and delicious. I had gyoza in Yo Sushi recently and Zero’s was much better, with more filling and nicely crispy wrappers. The dipping sauce had a fantastic umami flavour. My teen chose prawn katsu curry, which she loved; they also make chicken katsu. The prawns were generous and in a light, crispy crumb. I thought prices were very good for the quality. Service was friendly and quick, which is exactly what you need in your lunch break.

Most people go for the sushi of course; you can get sashimi, nigiri and maki made with prawns, salmon and tuna. Dragon sushi contains avocado and eel and they also make caterpillar rolls, which are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. The crunchy prawn tempura rolls are very popular. Order at the counter and they will make it fresh for you, or there are a few trays in the chilled counter ready to go. Selection platters are very popular and they have supplied weddings, parties, bar mitzvahs and office events; they are also really popular for families on friday evenings – prices start at about 25.00. They also sell a good range of cold-pressed juices.

Jack explained that he buys the same grade fish as used by Roka and Zuma, two world-famous Japanese restaurants in London. The supermarkets selling takeaway sushi just can’t buy the same quality at the prices they sell at, so if you really want to eat great quality fresh sushi, you really won’t find it in the supermarkets.

There had been some local chat about Waitrose opening a sushi counter right opposite Zero Sushi. Thankfully, the small indie has managed to survive the direct competition, and loyal customers continue to go. Last time I popped in on a Monday, usually a very quiet time for food retail, the shop was busy with a steady stream of customers.

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Jack also has plans to open in St Albans at the end of the summer, in time for the busy back to school and work period. The location will be on George Street, which is an ideal location as this is fast becoming a very buzzy foodie part of town, with Dylan’s, The Abbey and Loft as neighbours. It will offer something different to the lunchtime crowd, and you will be able to order the platters too. Jack is going to look into opening some evenings – watch this space.

Harpenden Zero Sushi is open 9-5 Monday to Saturday. If you want to order a platter, aim for at least a day’s notice as they buy the fish fresh daily and take around 100 orders a week across the two shops at the moment. Harpenden: 01582 762009.

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Incredible Edibles

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Published in The Herts Advertiser 6th June 2018

Our gardens are bursting into life at the moment and this is a great time to think about growing your own vegetables, herbs and fruits. Have you discovered the Hammonds End Food Smiles project yet? Based in Harpenden, this group of gardeners have been growing an impressive selection of vegetables for a couple of years now. As they harvest the produce, they share it amongst the group. They hold regular open days where you can go along and get tips on how to grow edibles and talk about joining up.

Some of the team have been busy transforming a plot of land right in the centre of St Albans. Surrounded by concrete paving and tall buildings, the Incredible Edibles garden is right next to the Albans Arena and St Albans Council offices; I urge you to go and have a look – I was amazed to find it there! It really is an oasis in the heart of the city.

The team have worked really hard to create a garden open to the whole community, full of edible plants. Anyone is welcome to explore the garden at any time, along the paths made from bark chippings (donated by Ayletts from their christmas tree collections) and get ideas for what to try growing at home. And, even better, you are allowed to pick the salad leaves, fruit and herbs! There will be beans and strawberries soon and there is already plenty of perpetual spinach to pick. You might want to give it a wash first, but then, you should do that with supermarket leaves anyway as they are often sprayed with chemicals.

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You might spot some of the volunteers working on the plot – feel free to ask questions and get some ideas. You can join in too; there is always weeding and planting to be done. Naomi, who helps to organise the site, mentioned that one volunteer is a Syrian refugee who has enjoyed using his skills on the garden. The best time to go along to find out more is on farmer’s market days (every second Sunday, 1–4) as there is a team working there then.

As Naomi showed us around, we spotted rhubarb, garlic and lettuce. Runner beans are slowly climbing up the poles, so hopefully they will be ready to eat soon. Even the berries on the fuschia plants are edible, and a good source of vitamin C. Everything is labelled so easy to identify. I asked about security and Naomi said that the location (right by the police station and under CCTV!) means that they don’t worry about it; I think they have a great ‘get on with it’ attitude.

The plot has been provided by the Council who helped to prepare the site and Waitrose has given the team a little funding through their green token scheme. The Incredible Edible garden has been planted with seeds and seedlings from Hammonds End Food Smiles and donations. It is a tricky plot in that there is a lot of shade from nearby buildings and large trees, but it just shows what can grow if you give it a go. It has really improved the area and when I went along there were people eating lunch nearby and enjoying the environment.

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Open Food Gardens is back for this year, with gardens in Redbourn, Wheathamstead, Park Street and St Albans to explore. Running through June to August, have a look on the sustainablestalbans.org site for dates and addresses. A trip to the Burydell Allotments in Park Street on Sunday 5th August (11–1) would be interesting and a chance to meet growers and ask questions. There is usually cake available too!

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The Sun Inn, Lemsford

Published in The Welwyn Hatfield Times 5 June 2018

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We have to make the most of lovely weather while we can, and one of the things we do best in this area is pub gardens. We escaped our desks and drove to The Sun Inn in Lemsford village; there are two pubs in this tiny village, and they attract visitors from nearby Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield.

Situated across the road from the River Lea and by a pretty stone bridge, The Sun Inn is a welcoming pub, with well-tended flowers outside. The lunch menu is affordable pub classics such as soup, sandwiches, omelettes and salads, along with fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and burgers. I was pleased to see some good vegetarian options and I chose the Superfood Salad with spiced quinoa, mixed grains, broccoli, leaves, pomegranate and tzatziki. For 10 pounds it was generous and good value. You can add smoked salmon or halloumi for a few pounds extra. My husband’s ‘special of the day’ bacon salad was slightly less successful as was a little heavy on the leaves and a bit light on variety; it might be wiser to stick with the more tried-and-tested main menu options. Service was quick and friendly; perfect for a mid-week lunch break.

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The Sun Inn is known for their sausages (including the popular sausage festival) and they do a great choice; red onion and rosemary is a good veggie option, and chicken and apricot makes a summery alternative to classic Cumberland and beef and Guinness.

You need to book for their Sunday lunches (01707 322247). I like that they have thought about their sourcing and lamb is from Wales and the free-range chicken is from Suffolk.

It was lovely sitting outside looking across to the willow trees and cottages and traffic was very light. You do feel far away from the nearby towns, and if you have time, cross the road, turn left and take a short walk near the grounds of Brocket Hall. A perfect lunchtime escape.

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The Ivy, St Albans

Published in The Herts Advertiser 23 May 2018

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There has been a lot of interest in The Ivy Brasserie that has just opened; the Caring group apparently paid a million pounds for the site on Verulam Road to bring their glamorous brand to St Albans. I went to the launch party and was invited to a brunch, but I thought the only way to really find out what it is like was to go on a busy lunchtime and pay my own way (we still do things the old-fashioned way at The Herts Ad!).

First things first; The Ivy in St Albans is one of 26 chain spin-offs from the original Ivy in London. It shares the same styling with the signature diamond stained-glass windows, bold artwork and banquette seating. I love the look of the interior which is inspired by St Albans with prints of the Cathedral and huge murals featuring roses. There are fresh flowers everywhere and the tables are set with smart linen and plateware.

In true brasserie style The Ivy is open all day so you can go for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, drinks or dinner. The tables along the banquettes are a little close together so not the place to discuss anything top secret; the round tables are more spacious and were given to families; I was really pleased to see that youngsters were given high chairs and parents made to feel very welcome, which is so important in our city. There are tables outside and bar stools so you can pop in for a coffee or a quick drink if there is space. They are keeping a few tables each day for walk-ins but it is already very popular with tables booked up for weeks ahead.

The restaurant was completely full when we arrived but service was quick and efficient throughout lunch; there are a lot of staff bustling around. There is a long “all day” menu with Ivy classics such as shepherd’s pie and salmon and haddock fish cake as well as plenty of steaks and grilled fish with prices from about 13.00. We were given a set lunch menu too, with two courses for 16.50 which is a great option. I chose the roasted butternut squash with buckwheat, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, pomegranate, crumbled feta, harissa and coriander dressing and it was excellent; perfectly cooked squash and piled with delicious flavours. My partner chose chargrilled halloumi with Padrón peppers, red pepper sauce and toasted fregola; again a very generous meal and the halloumi was griddled until really delicious. We didn’t need sides. As we were going back to work afterwards we asked for tap water; this is filtered and they charge a cover of 1.50 a table. Is this cheeky? Puds include classics such as apple tart and creme brulee and nudge 8.00 which is high for St Albans. There was quite a bit of up-selling; did we want starters first, or are we sure we don’t want alcoholic drinks? I would be the first to order drinks on a Friday night but not on a Tuesday lunchtime.

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A quick note on the drinks menu; there are non-alcoholic coolers and juices including rosemary lemonade, which sounds lovely. The cocktail list includes the famous Ivy bloody mary and a negroni tasting set which I want to go back and try. I was pleased to see they are selling The 3 Brewers of St Albans IPA and Classic English Ale. You can get a glass of decent wine for 5 a glass or choose a bottle of Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siecle Champagne for 170, with plenty of delicious-sounding options in between.

Service of 12.5% is added to the bill automatically.

I loved the food; it was delicious, imaginative and generous. The restaurant was busy as brasseries should be, and had a fun atmosphere; I am sure it will continue to be hugely popular.

UPDATE: I went back last week on a Friday evening. We didn’t have a booking so waited at the bar and drank a lot of rose until a table came free. Service was great and quick. Blackened cod was fab (the butternut squash has come off the menu – not sure why) and the apple tart with flaming calvados was amazing. No upselling but then we had already ordered lots of drinks. Very busy again!

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Harpenden Street Food Social

Published in The Herts Advertiser 7 May 2018

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Have you discovered the lovely Street Food Social in Harpenden yet? It is a pop-up event on the common in front of Lussmann’s on Saturday evenings and it has a lovely atmosphere and great food. I loved the bunting, painted fabric signs around the trees and funky trucks – it’s a small market but there is something for everyone to eat here.

I spoke to Emilio who set up the event in August last year; they are now back for this summer. You might know Emilio as he was co-owner of The Vine Leaves; he now sells the delicious falafel and shawarma they were known for from his distinctive blue food truck in Harpenden centre and at the Street Food Social. Emilio explained that he was keen to set up an event for Harpenden locals that everyone could go to including families and teens, and when I went along there was an excellent atmosphere, with straw bales on the grass for you to relax on and live music. There are about six vendors each time, including a bar and a good range of foods. There is plenty of space for picnic rugs and buggies too.

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The Harpenden Street Food Social is held on the third Saturday of each month until 9pm so is a great option to get the family out at the weekend and far cheaper than many local restaurants. There is a bar stall that sells Prosecco, beers and wine and a few soft drinks too. My girls love pancakes and the French crepes stall Pause Gourmande was doing well with their range of sweet and savoury pancakes.

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We really lack Mexican restaurants locally so the Baja Cantina truck is a good option for a fix of tacos, nachos and quesidillas – I like the menu written on a surf board. The nachos piled with veggie chilli for 4 pounds is a good-value option. You can design your taco to suit you, with salsa, guacamole, cheese, chipotle, slow-cooked chilli beef, steak, prawns with lime, chilli chicken or veggie beans for about 6 pounds.

Jack’s Smoke Shack does pulled pork, sausage, beef brisket and pitt beans, all with slaw. They also do mac n’ cheese which is vegetarian but hardly a healthier option, made with elbow macaroni, three cheeses and a cheese and panko crumb topping.

If you go along do check out the Riverford stall – getting a veg box delivered is a really easy way to cut down on your plastic consumption and they deliver to your door.

Emilio’s own van sells chicken or lamb shawarma or falafel with salad, fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and sauces (tahini and garlic) in a wrap. I used to love the falafel at The Vine Leaves and it really is lovely cooked freshly and eaten as street food as it is all over Israel and Turkey. It’s vegan as well, if you hold off on the yoghurt dressing. At around 5 each, it is a great family meal option; the grilled halloumi wraps were popular with my kids. Emilio and gang also pop up at food festivals and do private events; I last saw him at the Sustainable St Albans Know How fair. You can contact him via the Harpenden Street Food Social facebook page if you want the truck for a wedding or party.

People often say there isn’t enough to do in the town centres in the evenings around here, especially for families, so I hope you are able to go along and support this social event. The next one is the 19th May (12-9) so let’s hope for a gorgeous sunny day.

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