Birmingham Restaurant Review: A yummy Brummie bistro - The Pickled Piglet

Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
I’m a bit geographically off piste in terms of my latest restaurant review.  It’s not of an eatery in Edinburgh, nor even one in Glasgow.  For this week, I am dining at a place nearly 250 miles due south of “Auld Reekie”.  And it turns out to be a restaurant I liked very much indeed.   I probably should explain.

The first day of spring has always been memorable for me, not only because it marks the passing of winter, but also because 21st March is my Dad’s birthday.  So to mark his 79th year on planet Earth I thought it appropriate to arrange a wee visit back to Birmingham – the city of my birth – to celebrate this notable event.  I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that the exact form this celebration took was to take my parents out for very pleasant meal.

Now Birmingham is a very different place from the depressed, and – to be honest – somewhat depressing, metropolis I left in the mid-1980s.  Though the “city of a thousand trades” may have well and truly had the stuffing knocked out of it during the Thatcher era, it has now become a vibrant, cultural hub.  Its centre has witnessed massive regeneration over the last two decades, particularly around its “canal quarter”, as the development of Symphony Hall and Brum’s architecturally impressive Library of Birmingham bear testament.  The waterways that were once at the heart of Birmingham’s industrial revolution are now the focus of a Bohemian collection of cultural and culinary establishments.  And as my Dad was born a stone's throw from the canal hub of Gas Street Basin, I thought it might be appropriate to find somewhere close by for a relaxed – but good quality – lunch.

Turbot with samphire and cockles.
Fab turbot with samphire and cockles.
A quick bit of searching on the internet and I had made a reservation for Friday lunch at the Pickled Piglet.  Located on Gas Street itself, this bar and bistro's website promised much of what I look for when I dine out - locally sourced ingredients, and free range, properly matured meat.  "Any chef can dress a plate, but taste is a different game" the restaurant's website sagely stated.  Occupying a compact, converted warehouse building, the Pickled Piglet’s dining and bar area is located on the upper floor.  It's bright and airy space which is tastefully furnished, whilst retaining features which nod to the building's industrial heritage.  Being Friday lunchtime in the centre of a bustling city, I'd expected the restaurant to be full.  Yet even though our reservation was for 1pm, as we were seated it quickly became apparent we were the only diners there.  Had I chosen a dud, I wondered?  Read on, and you will find the opposite to be true.

Recipe – Zesty lemon drizzle polenta cake

A lemon polenta cake in a cake tin
Deliciously zesty lemon polenta cake.
A thought entered my head the other day.  "I really must post more recipes on the blog that involve baking" is how the thought went.  Those of you who are regular followers of Scrumptious Scran will know from my "quaking baking" post that my control-freakery makes me a bit afraid of cooking bread, cakes and tarts.  I'm generally fine mixing the ingredients together, it's when these riches have to be abandoned in the oven – a bit like a parent leaving a child on its first day at school - that I start to fret.  I mean, what if they just sit there without doing what's expected of them?

Lemon polenta cake mixture in a cake tin.
Cake mixture in lined tin, ready for the oven.
I had mixed feelings a couple of weeks ago, when one of my work colleagues - who knew I was a food blogger – suggested I might want to contribute to a charity bake sale at work, in aid of Sport Relief.  Deep down, I knew this was the sort of challenge I needed to encourage me to have another bash at a baking recipe.  But what if the dish I produced was rubbish and nobody wanted to buy any of it?  Oh, the potential shame!  In order to avert such a disaster I would have to choose my recipe carefully, deciding upon something that was relatively simple to prepare, pretty foolproof to bake, AND that looked and tasted good.  It also occurred to me that it might be nice to produce something that wasn't entirely based on flour, eggs, butter and sugar.

Recipe: Bravo Belgium! - Carbonade flamande, or Belgian-style beef and beer casserole


A pot of carbonade flamanade - Belgian beef and beer casserole.
Flaming tasty - Carbonade flamanade ready to eat.
It’s nearly the middle of March, so as a “foodie” I suppose I really should be clambering to the likes of Edinburgh Farmer’s Market to fill my bags with early spring vegetables in order to cook a recipe that’s both fresh and tasty. Well that’s all well and good in theory, but whilst southern England may have been basking in double digit temperatures last Saturday, in Scotland it certainly didn’t feel very spring-like. Consequently my yearning for comfort food continues, meaning that last weekend I decided to draw inspiration for dinner from the Low Countries – Belgium to be precise.

Softening carrot, onion and celery by frying.
Sweating the veg until soft.
Belgium has a surprisingly varied and rich cuisine, featuring really great meat, fish and vegetable dishes that often have overtones of influence from neighbouring cultures and countries. I’ve heard it joked that Belgium food combines the straightforwardness of the Dutch, the portion control of the Germans, and the cooking skill of the French. We all know that, in terms of food and drink, Belgium is particularly famous for three things: fries (frieten/frites); chocolate; and beer. What might not be so obvious however it that the Belgians have not only mastered the art of producing a fantastic range of excellent beers, but also cooking with beer as well.

Chunks of beef shin coated in seasoned flour.
Chunks of beef shin coated in seasoned flour.
Ample chunks of shin of beef, combined with complementary vegetables and a few herbs and spices, and simmered slow and long in a bitter-sour-malty beer. This is basically carbonade flamande (or in Flemish, stoverij or stoofvlees, which sounds pretty close to the Scottish “stovies”), often described as Belgium’s “true national dish”. It is a sumptuous casserole where a tough cut of meat softens superbly - through slow cooking – and melds its flavours with the acidic-sweetness of the hoppy beer and aromatic vegetables to produce a rich gravy. It’s both splendid and really simple to prepare.

Recipe: Peas please me, and ham it up too! - Split pea and ham hock soup


A bowl of pea and ham soup
Pea and ham soup - a real winter warmer.
In my last review on Scrumptious Scran – for the excellent The Apiary bistro – I mentioned how, at the end of a long winter, we often need something comforting (food-wise) to provide a bit of cheer. Spring, may be about to bring us warmer days and the year’s first crop of fresh produce, but even March can have a wintry sting in its tail.

When we can now skip to the supermarket to purchase out-of-season asparagus jetted in from South America, or fresh tomatoes grown at any time of year, it’s easy to forget that historically during this season people would mostly be cooking with produce harvested the preceding year, and preserved to last through the winter. Personally speaking I think that some of the best comfort food to be made uses these preserved ingredients, and a fine example of this can be found in a steaming-hot bowl of split pea and smoked ham hock soup.

Split peas, vegetables and herbs in a pan about to be boiled.
Split peas and flavourings about to be cooked.
There’s something truly lovely about the look of this deep khaki-green concoction, punctuated with pink flecks of meat. But if it looks good, it tastes event better. Drying the peas imparts a really earthy mellowness to them, totally different to the taste of these legumes when fresh out the pod. By salting, then smoking the hock (or hough), the rich meaty flavour of this cut is further enhanced and transformed to yield (once simmered for a couple of hours) tenderly smoky, almost gamey meat. The further addition of good quality stock and some complimentary herbs and spices all combine to produce a splendidly tasty and filling dish. And what’s more, given that the ingredients are usually pretty cheap, it makes for an economical meal, too.