A week of gluttony

Published May 21, 2012 12:25am

I’m glad there’s no weighing machine here in our borrowed house by the river near Hay-on-Wye where we have been these last three days. For the last week, my old friends Memo and Deniz from Turkey have been our guests, and as a result, we have been eating out a lot at lunchtime, and I have been cooking most evenings. It was restful to have been distracted from the endless talk about the eurozone crisis as there’s no TV here in Hay. In the evening, we have been lighting a log fire, and talking and reading in the living room. There’s something about a lively fire that promotes conversation. Outside the house, the river Wye gurgles past, with the occasional swan or duck gliding along.

Over the last decade and more, as more and more pubs have been closing across Britain, others have reinvented themselves as gastro-pubs, and have moved away from the standard fare of sausages and mashed potatoes (or bangers and mash) and steak-and-kidney pie to more eclectic and exotic menus. Some couples have bought failing pubs to realise their dream of running their own restaurant.

One such establishment is the Red Bull, about twenty minutes from Devizes. Here, for the last two years, locals can get some seriously good food in very pleasant surroundings. Sadly, the weather was cold and cloudy when we were there last week, so we couldn’t sit in the garden. Our dishes were carefully prepared and presented, and my main course of confit duck was meltingly tender.

Our local favourite, the George and Dragon, is only two miles from our house and has been very reliable, especially with seafood that is sourced from Cornwall. They seat us in the bar area as Puffin, our terrier, is not permitted in the formal dining room. On most evenings, a log fire is lit, making the small, wood-lined room very cosy.

Near Hay, at the end of a long, narrow country road that has room for only one car, is the Bull’s Head, an old stone inn where shepherds once gathered for a grog or a pint to keep them going. Even though this pub is about as remote as you can get, it gave us our best meal of the week. The food was flawless, and the chef, a gifted amateur without any formal training, bakes some great bread as well.

In a well-run restaurant, attention to small details is the key to success. The mashed potatoes that came with my rib-eye steak were smooth without being runny or lumpy. The meat was medium-rare, just as I had asked. The chef’s wife prepared the desserts, and they were as light and imaginative as any I have ever had. I had eaten at the Bull’s Head a couple of times before, but they excelled themselves on this occasion.

Out of all these, the best known is the Felin-Fach Griffin, about 15 miles from where we were at Hay. The car park there is always full, as people come from miles around. The bar area has lots of leather sofas where you can read the papers before a roaring fire. The restaurant is casual with rough wooden tables and friendly, efficient service. While I had a superb roast chicken, others at our table didn’t do as well.

In the evening, we have stayed at home, and I’ve been active in the kitchen. As a treat for our guests, I asked our local butcher in Devizes to get me a fillet (or undercut) of venison. Deer farming is fairly widespread in the UK, so I can eat the meat without feeling guilty. The fillet, weighing a kilo, was marinated in garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and some rosemary. I then seared the surface on a very hot ridged frying pan, sealing in the flavour. I then popped it into a hot oven for about eight minutes, the idea being to warm (and not cook) the interior. I let it sit on the chopping board for another 7-8 minutes while I prepared the gravy. The fillet was then sliced into inch-thick steaks. Venison is dense, flavoursome meat with very little fat, so I prefer it to beef when I can get it.

Pheasants were another item our guests had not tried before, so we got a couple of them to roast. These are again full of flavour, and as they were shot on the wing, they had a few lead pellets still in them. Marinated in red wine (pious readers can find solace in the fact that the alcohol evaporates in the cooking process) and roasted for about half an hour, these game birds make excellent eating. Memo liked it well enough to strip one of the birds with his fingers, getting every scrap out of it. I took this as a compliment.

For our guests’ last evening with us, we got a leg of local Welsh lamb, and asked the butcher to butterfly it. He duly removed the bone, leaving us with a two-kilo slab of meat. I made several small cuts on both sides and inserted slivers of garlic in them. Salt and freshly ground pepper went on next, followed by a drizzle of virgin olive oil. Finally, a few sprigs of rosemary that grow in profusion around the house, and the meat was ready to go under the grill. Before I slid the baking tray into the oven, I placed parboiled baby potatoes around the meat to soak up its juices.

With the grill set at maximum, the lamb took about 45 minutes to turn into a delicate pink colour when I sliced it to check for doneness. We like our lamb underdone, so it was perfect. After it had rested for a few minutes, everybody tucked in. The potatoes were delicious, too, with slightly charred skin and soft interiors. There were only six of us, and everybody said there was too much meat, but it had all gone by the end of the meal.

Oh yes, between all this cooking and eating, I did manage to go into Hay and browse in some of the scores of second-hand bookshops the town boasts of. After all this gluttony, I’ll have to punish myself with some serious dieting.

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Comments (41) (Closed)


haider
May 21, 2012 03:34am
Dear sir, Your article can surely entice any food lover. I myself have been an admirer of western cuisines, especially the gourmet food. But one problem I have faced is getting the Halal food in west. The gastronomic dishes you have mentioned sound extremely appetizing however , I would appreciate if you could affirm that the meats you consumed were Halal( properly slaughtered) meats. Anyway good luck with your exploration and exploitation of western gastronomy...Just in case , I would like to let you know that a lot of them use Pure red wine( cooking alcohols) and pig fat( in some way ) during their taste building process. That is besides the worry of being the main portion(course) being halal or not...
NASAH (USA)
May 21, 2012 03:41am
"Two-kilos slab of lamb meat". My dear friend Irfan Husain -- please go easy on red meat. And you know why.
Vikram
May 21, 2012 03:48am
Dear sir, what a "tasty" article! :-) Do let us know in your subsequent columns of your travails with the "dieting" too (success, failure whatever :-)
vijay
May 21, 2012 04:37am
@Mr. Irfan I am used to your analysis on serious subjects which affect millions of people in the subcontinent. What message are you giving now? Eat and be merry.?
P N Eswaran
May 21, 2012 05:38am
Dear Mr. Irfan. We like to read your sagacious views on public issues more than your holidaying experiences.
Ahmad German
May 21, 2012 05:40am
Why are you telling us all this? Why would anyone care about your trips and dinner?
b.hans
May 21, 2012 05:49am
what this whole story means to average pakistani? what was your point to print it? things may be in depression, what the way these people are eating can even leaders afford it? here lies my answer.
Muqarrib
May 21, 2012 06:42am
Author’s description of his sumptuous meals of venison and duck night after night in English restaurants and pubs is of little interests to Pakistani readers who struggle hard to put food on the table for their children. Sorry, Mr. Husain, but I fail to see any redeeming value of your article for Pakistani readership.
Concerned Citizen
May 21, 2012 08:23am
Forgive me for sounding like a killjoy... But considering we're living in a country where a very very large number of people cannot even feed their families.. and are plagued with all sorts of financial and other problems... it seems a bit unseemly to me to have an article where some guy goes into great details describing how he regularly overindulges himself... In fact, even other Europeans (I take it the author lives in Europe) who are presently experiencing such economic hardship might consider this article a great insult to their fellow countrymen.. So what precisely is the point of posting this article and how does it benefit our society? A concerned citizen..
Haroon
May 21, 2012 09:19am
Was it halal meat or british non halal meat ?
Asjad Khan
May 21, 2012 10:03am
Very delicious article, little time away from worldly traumas, perhaps an anti-depressant. One of our readers, in above comment has referred to general inability of our people to afford all this leisurely caste-away type of time away from imploding urban societies. I would like to add here; this article in my opinion attempts to paint a time in absolute detachment from our hectic routines, aiming at having a quality moments experiencing menus at different restaurants by choice. The parallel that we ought to draw should be; every body can emulate such experiences in accordance with what one can afford in what way. Second theme out of this article may be phrased as " being informed of where to lavish what". It is not these particular places that should be the focus of reflection but the objective of having some down-time with family or friends experimenting delicacies of a particular place we are touring. Reading this article at least does not cause us shiver with "All is bad".
Raman
May 21, 2012 10:50am
Out of taste article, during these times of austerity.
Rehman Khattack
May 21, 2012 10:55am
Mr Irfan, It is not just that you like the sound of your arcane diatribe, you also revel in being austentatious about your unseemly gluttonous tendency. For someone who pretends to be a humble Pakistani journalist, one can't help but wonder, who finances your hedonistic life style. I do not believe, as you claim, that you spend more time in Pakistan than in the UK as you seem to be far too much in love with pubs to part from them for too long. It is about time for you to visit the truck wala cafes to see what life really tastes like!
Malik Butta
May 21, 2012 10:56am
You are a killjoy, my friend. Everything does not have to be doom and gloom. Irfan writes regularly on serious topics and he has every right to pen a writing on another activity very dear to us all: delighting in consumption of something close to haute-cusine. Our biggest problem, my dear friend, is that we don't enjoy life and are too full of ourselves. Take it easy.
raika45
May 21, 2012 12:14pm
What I expected was rejoinder by someone in Pakistan portraying those that live in some poorer regions.Like putting a humorous approach in making roti with dall ,mango pickles and the local wine [lassi] with a dash of salt and black pepper.The beauty of cooking with firewood since gas is not available.Inhaling the aroma of the dall with the smoke from the fire.Taking a mouthful followed by a tiny bite of the mango for the pequency [spelling] and a sip of the lassi to wet the food.In candlelight since there is no electricity.Wah kia fine dining hai.
Haji Ashfaq
May 21, 2012 12:29pm
Enjoyed the article - full of delicacies and good taste for food. Away from the mess at home, if someone can afford and enjoy traditional delicacies -why not ? Bon-appeite Irfan Bhai.
Vasan
May 21, 2012 12:54pm
I completely understand his emotions of wanting to share his joyous experiences. While understandable, sharing is best done with close relatives and friends in personal letters. Op-ed columns are usually places for topics that matter more. It is read by millions who are not looking to read a travelogue or a food-critic's views or a gossip column. When someone suddenly switches to irrelevant subjects, it looks like they have run out ideas, and there is nothing wrong with that - happens to everyone. I would rather Mr. Husain skip a column and simply say he is taking a vacation from writing also when he is on vacation, instead of writing about details that matter to no one but himself. I doubt if an American or European newspaper, with the massive circulation that I am sure Dawn has, would allow such 'happy' but frivolous columns unless it was in some section devoted to food or travel or leisure.
Agha Ata
May 21, 2012 12:56pm
Do all these restaurants and pubs serve halal meat? Somone might ask. But to be honest, Mr, Irfan, you made me so hungry at breakfast time! But unfortunately pubs in the USA or elsewhere (as far as i know) do not have the same atmosphere as in England. Have a nice day!
Devendra
May 21, 2012 01:31pm
The one article from Irfan not worth commenting.
NASAH (USA)
May 21, 2012 01:55pm
"Two-kilos slab of Welsh lamb " -- enough to make the Vegan Indians up in arms - except perhaps Vikram. I am glad it was not beef! -:)
NASAH (USA)
May 21, 2012 02:00pm
In fact it is a delightfully mouth-watering article for those who like pheasants and Welsh Lamb like yours truly.
Anwar
May 21, 2012 02:24pm
"Let them eat cake" as Marie Antoinette (allegedly) said.
BRR
May 21, 2012 02:26pm
I love the article - there is joy to be had, life has its ups and downs, but a happy time with friends is one of the gifts of life. That is what makes us more human, the ability to share food, thoughts, feelings and hopes. Keep it up Mr. Husain.
Tahir
May 21, 2012 02:33pm
For his Pakistani and Indian readers he glosses over the beef and pork dishes. Hypocrisy is alive and well.
Abbas
May 21, 2012 02:38pm
Useless filler article by Mr Husain.
ali
May 21, 2012 03:39pm
I like this article......it was a nice mental vacation from the never ending Pakistani political esophagus. But I prefer my steaks Medium well.
Osman Rashid
May 21, 2012 05:47pm
Mr Husssain was perhaps a bit tipsy when he wrote this self indulgent article. Otherwise how can a serious journalist write in a way that deems him totally disconnected with the millions of Pakistanis who find it a challange to find daily bread let alone the succulent pheasants drenched in 'red wine'.
pakAwam
May 21, 2012 06:07pm
Irfan, Next time you are at Felin-Fach Griffin....try their pork chops. That is what the is famous for!
Mujtaba
May 21, 2012 06:42pm
Cannot understand the wisdom of editors to allow this article to be published in op-ed. I would have understood if this jewel would have been part of a travel/food supplement. I expect more from "Dawn".
Babar Khan
May 21, 2012 08:55pm
I think you hit the nail on the head Mr. Butta. If we get off our self righteous pedestals and not judge each other at every turn, we will be in a much better place. I
Pradip
May 21, 2012 11:39pm
Well done, Irfan and I am not speaking of steak! It was fun reading and a welcome change too!! Now, here are two points I would have liked you to elaborate upon while on the subject. a) you did not tell us how you seasoned each one of those....except where it came already seasoned ...even with rosemary...hmm...the English are using Italian seasonings... b) you did not tell us what the sides were....to me, sides are as important as the main course. I have never tried venison although where I live, it is game and found in the season. I find lamb to be smelly (so in Turkey, I will have to go for beef) just like my wife finds goat to be smelly but personally, I think nothing better than a marbled t-bone or sirloin (although a good matsuzaka or chateaubriand would go very well). Thinking about it, your meal would have been complete with a nice horse-steak, which I enjoy in the French-Italian Alps but perhaps it is not popular in horse loving UK, eh?
Tariq
May 22, 2012 02:37am
Irfan what kind of an article is this. Firstly its has no relevance to 99% of the world. The other 1% like me is not interested in your meals at some pub in England.
kashif
May 22, 2012 02:53am
The author gave us a great insight into his time off in the English Country Side. Those who write about austerity etc and how this is out of order, I wonder if they still eat chicken while the people around them can't afford lentils...just goes to show us how hypocritical our society has become. The poor guy fed his guests to the best of his ability. He cooked some simple but delicious dishes..again a testament to his taste. Please don't display your lack of class by devouring his effort in tacking an honest breather.
Pradip
May 24, 2012 05:20am
What is PURE red wine by the way....not adulterated with water?
Irfan Husain
May 24, 2012 10:45am
I have had horse steak in Italy, but have never come across it in the UK. I would have loved to write about the vegetables and salads that accompanied our meals, but space prevented me. And, as you can see, I have taken a lot of flak about this piece already!
Irfan Husain
May 24, 2012 10:48am
actually, the article appeared on Monday in the foreign pages of Dawn. This is where I write my 'letter from abroad' which is not on the editorial pages. Hence my slightly frivolous piece.
Irfan Husain
May 24, 2012 10:48am
I have never pretended to be 'humble'!
Irfan Husain
May 24, 2012 10:49am
I suspect readers of Dawn do not have to struggle too hard to put food on their tables...
Irfan Husain
May 24, 2012 10:50am
As I mentioned in my article, when wine is used in cooking, the alcohol it contains evaporates.
Ellen
May 25, 2012 09:13pm
Hello Irfan, I always like reading about your life and what you do as a private citizen. It is my way of keeping in contact with an old friend. Keep them coming! Ellen( your Paris friend)
Pradip
May 28, 2012 01:36am
LOL, Goes with the territory, Brother! Always a pleasure reading you.