Monday, 30 July 2012

Just as there are fashions in food - Inapub July 2012

Just as there are fashions in food, there are fashions in food production. Back when Jamie Oliver kicked off his school food campaign, I discussed it with a food technologist working for a company specialising in ready meal production.

She recalled that when she had first qualified in the early 1980s, the process of mechanically recovering meat was seen as part of the solution to the world’s food shortage. Even the most skilled butcher leaves something in the carcase, ran the argument, so why not use machines to recover the valuable protein left behind and convert it into burgers, sausages and other meat products?

Move on a couple of decades, and such products were widely condemned as a nutritionally poor solution, despite the fact that they do their intended job very well by providing a cheap way to feed a family, often in shapes which can be conveniently pushed through a school fence.  

As I write this, protesters are threatening to dig up a field of wheat that has been genetically modified to deter aphids. Opponents of GM crops fear that the modifications will spread into the food chain with consequences no one can predict, while the scientists conducting the trial see huge potential for pest resistant crops to tackle hunger. Both sides believe passionately that their view is correct.

There is also news that farmer and food campaigner Jimmy Doherty is working with Tesco to promote rose veal, produced from the male calves of dairy cattle. Veal has long been a focus for animal welfare campaigners, but the home-produced product meets welfare standards. 

Currently, the dairy industry annually shoots an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 unwanted male cattle shortly after birth, simply because there is no market for the meat. At the same, steak from mature cattle is being priced off the menu in some pubs because of soaring beef costs. 

Ultimately, squaring the circle comes down to what customers are prepared to pay for. Personally, I don’t think I’d have a problem ordering a rose veal burger served in an aphid-resistant bun from a pub menu. The question is, will I be dining alone?    

As I think I’ve mentioned before, tomato is a long way from being my favourite flavour. So well done to the team at Yummy Pubs for recognising that a tomato sauce base is just one of many options for pizza. At their Kent pub, the Grove Ferry, Yummy has come up with a range of pizza sauces including caramelised onion, lemon & dill and green peppercorn. And yes, they even do takeaway.

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, July 2012

I have been given a hard time by pub chefs twice in recent weeks - Inapub June 2012

Readers will be distraught to learn that I have been given a hard time by pub chefs twice in recent weeks. Not, I hasten to add because I have complained, made a nuisance of myself or attempted in any way to abuse the privileged position that having my face beaning out from the top of this page potentially gives me. I’m British, we don’t do that sort of thing.

My crime, in each case, was to order a steak. You might think that’s not an unreasonable course of action when faced with a pub menu, but apparently it’s the culinary equivalent of asking Michelangelo to slap a coat of eggshell white emulsion on the ceiling, or Beethoven to bang out a few tunes on the old joanna.

“A steak’s just a steak, it doesn’t tell you anything about how good our food is,” said the chef in one of the pubs in question – and you have to imagine it being said in a petulant midlands accent to get the full effect. 

Firstly, the idea that a couple of decades writing about the business of selling food in pubs has turned me into some sort of gourmet is frankly laughable. A pint of bitter and a pork pie is about the right level for my palate, so pub chefs who think I’m out to have my gastronomic horizons stretched are wide of the mark..

Secondly, I enjoy a decent steak and I see no reason to apologise for ordering one. Particularly when, as in the cases in question, I’m paying for my meal rather than, as does happen from time to time, taking advantage of the generosity of the pub’s owner.

Finally, I have, on occasion, been served some truly horrible and very badly cooked steaks. So any chef who feels that cooking one properly is somehow not a proper test of their culinary skills is talking though their toque. 

The experience highlights a problem that a number of pub operators have mentioned. “We have to rein the chefs in regularly,” was how one put it – a nice way of saying that that the kitchen team were continually trying to drizzle the gravy, carve the veg into fancy shapes, and call the steak pie a beef wellington.

This can be a double-edged sword. The licensee of a pub which has won a couple of food awards tells me that he regularly has to explain to customers who turn expecting Michelin starred cuisine because of the publicity, that what’s was actually on offer is pie and chips. In this summer of celebrating all things British, let’s never apologise for pub food.

We all know that we need to widen the range of fish we eat to conserved stocks of overfished species, so all credit to Chef & Brewer for its recent Flavour of Seafood promotion, which featured dishes such as Cornish Megrim and Seafood Linguine. Since you ask, I had the Sea Bream Risotto, and very good it was too.

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, June 2012

I find myself at a slight disadvantage - Fullers Tenants Extra July 2012

I find myself at a slight disadvantage, thanks to the illustrious company I’m in this month. With Tenant’s Extra bookended by some of the nation’s sporting greats on the front and back covers, a glance at my picture will confirm that not only am I not worthy to tie their bootlaces, but also that bending over to do so would pose a grave risk to my spinal health.

Even so, I’ve been looking forward to this summer’s sporting bonanza just as much as the next armchair athlete. A pint in hand and football, cricket, and Olympic events ranging from taekwondo to Greco-Roman wrestling on the big screen – what more could you want? Well, a sandwich to accompany my beer doesn’t seem too much to ask. 

New research into the pub trade by investment bank Nomura shows that what they call ‘solus drinking’ and what the rest of us call ‘going for a beer’ is in decline. In other words, drink-only occasions are decreasing, while food-and-drink occasions, if not exactly booming, are at least stable.    

However, I watched one of England’s Euro 2012 group matches in a Surrey pub which was rammed to the gunnels with customers who were solus drinking like there was no tomorrow. The licensee was clearly caught out by demand, with the shortage of bar staff compounded by the need to deploy one of them on permanent glass collecting and washer-loading duties. 

So when one lucky punter made it to the front of the queue and enquired if there was any chance of a bowl of chips to go with his pint, the harassed licensee just pointed to a chap in a white shirt and fetching checked trousers shouting noisily at the screen. “We’re too busy to serve food during the match,” he said. “That’s my chef - my best-paid member of staff and the only one of us not working.”

High drinks sales during big sporting events are a Holy Grail for many pubs – but it needn’t be at the expense of food. There will be big national occasion during the London 2012 games as Team GB chases the medals, and many of us will gather in pubs to watch them. With a bit of forward planning, it should be possible to offer some simple pub grub as well as a well-kept pint. It would be a shame if all those chefs had nothing to do.
This 'Kitchen Porter' column originally appeared in Fullers Tenants Extra, July 2012

I’ve become something of a specialist: Fullers Tenants Extra June 2012

I’ve become something of a specialist in the pre-theatre dinner market over the past few months. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m an especially cultured individual, but more because, with a couple of our many offspring away at Uni, and the others of an age where they can safely be left for a few hours without succumbing to arson or cannibalism, Mrs P and I thought we should get out a bit more.

Many restaurants in the West End offer a theatre package, promising to get you fed, watered and back out onto the street in time for curtain-up at the theatre of your choice. Theatreland’s pubs, it has to be said, are a bit more hit and miss. 

Very few of them ask if you’re on a timetable, which you might think would be a basic question for West end pub when customers arrive to eat at around 6.30, an hour before the 7.30 start time of most venues in the area. If, as I always do, you say “we need to be about by 7.20 at the latest,” the response also varies. 

“Yes, no problem,” is fine, and so is “sorry, we’re very busy so it could be a problem” – either way, you know where you stand. Unfortunately, vague responses seem all too common. “We’ll do our best” or “hopefully” aren’t much help, because the only certainty is that the cast of the show won’t 10 minutes while you desperately wave at a busy waitress is a bid to pay for a half-eaten meal. 

It seems that pubs sometimes confuse casual dining with a casual attitude to customer service. For example, the Vegetarian Society recently published a survey that showed that while only 3 per cent of self-declared vegetarians eat fish, 85 per cent have been offered fish as a vegetarian choice when eating out.

No doubt the serving staff were trying to be helpful – but the best response to “what are the vegetarian choices?” is probably ‘do you eat seafood?” rather than “I can recommend the fish pie”. 

In the same way, a customer on a deadline needs certainty rather than an optimistic best guess, however well meant the intention. It doesn’t seem much to ask.

This 'Kitchen Porter' column first appeared in Fullers Tenants Extra, June 2012

As calls-to-action go - Inapub May 2012

As calls-to-action go, ‘Free Hog Roast’ has plenty to recommend it as a means of getting customers into a pub. It’s simple to understand, has a strong appeal, and, like cask beer or a properly-made Martini, represents something punters can’t duplicate easily at home.

The downside, as the more astute licensed trade professionals out there will have spotted almost immediately, is that putting on a hog roast is a relatively expensive proposition. Giving away slices of the end product is hardly the mark of a well-run, businesslike establishment.

So it was with some interest that I responded to an invitation from the Derby Arms, a well-located pub on the Downs outside Epsom, to partake of complimentary canapés, a wine tasting and – you guessed it – a hog roast. I should add that this wasn’t an industry junket, but an appeal to customers on the M&B pub’s database as a means of launching its summer menu.

Mrs P and myself were asked to put our names on a guest list, without which, we were warned sternly, there could be no possibility of admittance. As it turned out, when we rocked up at the door, we were handed a glass of fizz without even a rudimentary ID check.

I’m guessing that the unseasonably warm summer evening at the end of March caught the pub unawares, because the vast army that descended on Epsom Downs during the two hour window specified undoubtedly stretched them. Every plate of canapés that emerged from the kitchen was stripped clean in seconds, and it was a struggle to appreciate the subtle flavours of wines served in glasses that were still dishwasher-hot. 

The two young kitchen hands in charge of the hog roast deserve high praise for continuing to produce portions of pork long after the carcase appeared, to the casual observer, to have been reduced to mere bones and grease. All told, the atmosphere was cheerful and the staff helpful. I suspect the pub has generated considerable goodwill by coping admirably with a much higher-than forecast turnout.

With industry analyst Horizons recently warning that pubs need to compete head-to-head with high street restaurant chains, the need to have robust procedures for dealing with peaks in demand is becoming more important. Both M&B’s Sizzling Pub brand and Spirit Group’s Chef & Brewer picked up accolades at the recent Menu Innovation and Development Awards against strong restaurant competition – consumers want to eat at pubs, but they now expect the same service standards they get in restaurants.


When did pollen become a legitimate food for anything bigger than a bee? A recent gastropub menu I encountered offered several dishes served with fennel pollen crumb, and another featured pine pollen, advising diners that it’s a highly nutritious superfood. Which probably explains the buzz. Pass the anti-histamine.

This 'Pub Food With Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, May 2012

Let’s start with the basics - Fuller's Tenants Extra May 2012

Let’s start with the basics. My brief, according to the last issue of Tenants Extra, is to tell you ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ in the pub food world. So we should define our terms. Sorting out the difference between a ‘restaurant’ and a ‘pub that serves good food’ used to be fairly straightforward. When I regularly shortlisted entries for the annual Pub Food Awards, my mantra was “pies and fries are fine, jus and drizzle crosses the line.” 

That meant that sometimes a very well-run business might end up in the reject pile because its menu or service style didn’t feel ‘pubby’ enough. It’s harsh, but when you’ve got to whittle 100 or more hopefuls down to a shortlist of four, you need to have a system. 

Many consumers decide where they want to eat out by the way they define the venue. People who would only book a ‘restaurant’ for a special occasion will happily meet friends and family at the ‘pub’ for Sunday lunch or a midweek meal.

You might argue that if a business calls itself a pub, that should be good enough, but the definition is often made by someone else. Industry analyst Horizons recently published research estimating that at least 5,000 UK pubs now generate 50 per cent or more of their turnover from food sales.

Horizons’ number crunchers have decided that any operation that hits this magic figure should be redefined as a restaurant. At least their dividing line is clear – sell one too many portions of sausage and mash and your days as a pub are over.

For others, the lines are more blurred. I know some people who define it by service style. For them, white cloths and table service means ‘restaurant’, bare tables and orders at the bar means ‘pub’. Others look at the menu to seek out the all-important pub food classics such as fish & chips, burgers and steaks.  

These days, I suspect it’s as much about the atmosphere and the warmth of the welcome as it is what’s on the menu. After years of pondering, I think I’ve come up with a definition that works. If you’re made to feel uncomfortable about not picking up a menu, it’s a restaurant. On the other hand, if you can order a pint of bitter and sit at a table to sup it without getting a funny look from the staff, you’re in a pub. I’m sticking with pubs. Cheers!

This 'Kitchen Porter' column orignally appeared in Fuller's Tenants Extra, May 2012

Regular readers will be delighted to learn - Inapub April 2012

Regular readers will be delighted to learn that I have faced minimal issues when it comes to eating and drinking out in pubs over the past month. OK, the card reader wasn’t working in one West End pub, requiring me to pay for a meal in cash, but that’s hardly a crisis.

Of course, the challenge the professional pub correspondent faces when everything goes well is that it doesn’t leave much to write about. Thankfully, I have a good experience to report. A friend, one of those people with an eye for bargain, persuaded a group of us to book an online voucher deal at the Cock Inn, at Headley in Surrey. Yes, the Cock inn – you can all snigger once. 

The offer was a three course meal for two for £22. I have to admit I was cynical. “It will be a very limited menu,” I told anyone who was prepared to listen, “and they’ll try and persuade us to buy all sorts of extras.”

In fact, while there were some dishes on the menu that had a price supplement, there was a wide choice of starters and main courses. Our party was made up of six couples, and despite the fact that the pub was very busy, with many people taking up the offer, the service was good, the staff friendly and all everyone’s food arrived at about the same time.

Even with drinks, the total bill represented excellent value. My back-of-the-beermat maths said the hit on margins was balanced by the careful choice of dishes and the high volume of trade, with every table in the pub occupied.

The need to come up with such compelling, value-for-money offers is highlighted by the 2012 consumer report from Which? This found that 38 per cent of people say they are socialising at home instead of going to the pub, while one in four said they have had to dip into their savings to buy food or other daily essentials.

These are stark figures, which explain why so many pub and restaurant operators are using vouchers and deals to drive trade. This remains a challenge, with many finding that fickle consumers disappear when a better deal comes along. However, the Cock Inn has come up with a well- planned, well-executed offer which clearly works for the pub.

One gripe, though - my home-made steak and ale pie was excellent, but served in a casserole dish with a pastry lid. All together now: “That’s not a pie, it’s stew with a crouton”.

Let’s talk burgers. Is it too much to ask pubs to explain exactly what they include inside the bun? Too many menus are disappointingly short on detail. Personally, I love a bit of freshly-chopped onion, but I’m less keen on a slice of floppy tomato. When eating out as a family, the potential for disappointment multiplies with the range of preferences.

 This 'Pub food with Porter' column originally appeared in Inapub, April 2012

Back in the deep, dark days of January - Inapub March 2012

In the deep, dark days of January, I tried to book a table for four on a Saturday night at a number of Surrey’s more food-focused pubs. Since we was almost a month past Christmas, and still a week until the first payday of 2102, I hadn’t anticipated it being too much of problem.

The first pub I tried said it was fully booked in theory, since they had a number of large parties booked, but added we were welcome to turn up and try our luck, since they “might be able to squeeze us in”. That didn’t really appeal as a plan, so I tried a second pub, which was honest enough to admit they were booked out. That was enough to convince me that the received wisdom, that January is a quiet time for the trade, doesn’t always hold true.

At the third pub I tried, a member of staff cheerfully took my booking, only for one of his colleagues to call me back 10 minutes later to say that the pub was closed on the night in question for a private function. The fourth took my booking, including a name and phone number, and all seemed well.

However, when we turned up and confidently announced ourselves, we were met by puzzled stares, full tables and staff who kept going back to look carefully at a diary that very clearly did not contain a record of our booking. 
All credit to the pub in question, the Blue Anchor at Tadworth, for finding us a table as well as for some excellent service - and a general reminder that booking systems need to be robust and reliable.

Predicting customer demand is always a challenge, and my experience suggests that more than a few pubs have been caught out by higher-than-expected levels of trade at the start of 2012. For many, a mix of frozen and fresh food is essential to offer the range of choice and speed of service that customers expect.

The quality of frozen dishes available to pubs has improved substantially over recent years, and the good news is that for the most part, customers seem more concerned about the quality of the food served than how it arrived at the kitchen door.

The British Frozen Food Federation served fresh and frozen versions of pub classics such as hunter’s chicken, mash and jacket potato, burgers and fish and chips to customers, with diners saying that there ‘was no obvious difference’ between the dishes. You can see a video of customer reactions online at

Menuwatch: The flavours of Moroccan spices are now almost a requirement for any pub wanting to show off its gastronomic credentials, turning up in everything from burgers and stews to salads and vegetarian dishes. Given that the cuisine comes from a culture when most people don’t drink alcohol, it’s amazing how well it all goes with a pint of IPA. Cheers.       

This 'Pub Food with Porter' column orginally appeared in Inapub, March 2012