Review: West End Thrills – The Edinburgh Larder Bistro

Beetroot Soup
Beetroot and chard soup.
I have been inspired to go west. Following my recent visit to the excellent Slow Food event at Edinburgh’s Summerhall, I’ve realised I need to venture outside my east Edinburgh eatery comfort zone more often. My resolve to dine more widely stems from the realisation that Edinburgh has some great restaurants that follow the slow food ethos which I have yet to visit. So on Friday, I put my resolution into action when JML and I booked ourselves a table at The Edinburgh Larder Bistro (1a Alva Street, EH2 4PH) for dinner.

I had heard of this restaurant before, but it really popped onto my culinary radar when I had the opportunity to taste some great nibbles prepared by the establishment’s Chef – Finlay Nicol – at the Summerhall event. Nicol is a member of Slow Food’s The Chef Alliance, so it’s unsurprising to learn that the bistro serves a menu comprising of seasonal dishes, and works with local food and drink suppliers to ensure that these feature the best local, Scottish produce.

The Edinburgh Larder Bistro, occupies an expansive, slightly labyrinthine basement in Edinburgh’s West End. Unexpectedly, the venue also sports a bright conservatory area to its rear, which is where we were seated. Whilst the restaurant offers an impressive a la carte menu, we had taken advantage of a offer and therefore chose our dishes from the slightly smaller, but no less impressive, pre-theatre menu.

Smoked Haddock Pate
Smoked haddock pâté.
To start, I went for the beetroot and chard soup. This was invitingly bright purpley-pink and packed with delicious flavours of earthy sweetness from the beetroot, married with the slightly astringent kick of the chard. A generous blob of crème fraiche placed in the centre of the bowl also added a nice creamy note when mixed into the rest of the liquid, and the only slight quibble I had with the dish was that I had to use a fork to help the lengthy shreds of shard leaves onto my spoon. JML’s opening dish was the pâté of the day, which smoked haddock and spring onion. He was served two generous quenelles of pâté, accompanied by an inviting, flower-adorned organic salad and slices of wholemeal toast. The pâté was obviously made with quality ingredients, and tasted of rich, yet subtle, smokey fishiness, which was complemented by a zing from the spring onion. The speed with which it was consumed certainly suggested it was a hit.

Pork Belly
Roast pork belly.
For my main course, I was initially tempted to order the beef cheeks. I’m a big fan of under-utilised cuts of meat, and beef cheeks – and for that matter, their piggy counterparts – are delicious when slow braised. I was a little disappointed, therefore, when our waitress informed us that in this instance the cheeks had been substituted with a pork belly alternative. Any disappointment soon evaporated however, when I was presented with a beautifully succulent and tender slice of pork adorned with crispy crackling and resting on a bed of sautéed new potatoes, greens and peas., all surrounded by a light, meaty broth. The meat was perfectly cooked and worked well with the rest of dish’s ingredients. To accompany my main, I also ordered a side of seasonal vegetables, which in this case consisted of sautéed lettuce and chard. This was nice enough, but having already consumed chard in my soup, there was a wee danger of overloading on this particular veg.

Sustainable food news: A quick post about Slow Food

A great slow food barley risotto.
A demo of cooking great barley risotto.
A passion about good food that is responsibly produced and sourced.  This is what has inspired me to write about the quality ingredients I buy, cook and eat. I am not alone in this dedication, I know.  Yet sometimes it can be tricky to engage with others who share a similar passion. Accosting  fellow shoppers at a farmers' market to congratulate them on their purchases of organic rhubarb, or a sour dough bloomer risks offending middle-class sensibilities, after all. Of course, I'm parodying the image of those of us with an interest in sustainable food. However, there is definitely a need for a forum that easily allows people to exchange ideas and exuberance about the things they are growing, cooking and eating.

Yesterday I had the pleasure to participate in a great event marking the end of Slow Food Week 2013. For anyone not familiar with the slow food movement, please do have a look at their website. Fundamentally, their ethos is all about food being “good, clean and fair”. It’s an approach that encompasses care and, dare I say, passion – whether this comes from those producing the raw ingredients, or those serving the delicious dishes that are composed from these. What’s more, slow food is also about knowing the exact background of what is being served and eaten.

Let's be honest, anonymous shopping is so easy these days. Swipe, beep, swipe, beep, goes the routine. And off home we go with our bags full of Chilean asparagus, Kenyan beans, and New Zealand hoki (it’s a fish, the stocks of which look increasingly threatened). There is usually no discussion in the generic environment of the supermarket as to the provenance or sustainability of the food we buy – bar the marketing blurb that “reassures” us that produce is “Scottish”, or “English”, or “British” - apart, of course, from when it frequently isn’t any of these things. There’s no real explanation about what’s on offer, other than a passing indication of country of origin, and maybe – if we are lucky – a diminutive name check for the producer. There certainly seems to be little genuine passion from big retailers about the produce filling the supermarkets’ aisles.  But it doesn't have to be like this.

Mull cheese and smoked trout from Belhaven.
Cheese from Mull, smoked trout from Belhaven.
Yesterday, at Edinburgh's Summerhall, knowledge and passion were in abundance. The event featured producers, suppliers and restaurateurs from across Scotland, each with stalls packed with (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and produce. All supporters of the slow food ethos, everyone had a story to tell, and every stall was a bit different. To be honest, such was the enthusiasm of all those involved for what they were doing, there was a danger of being slightly overwhelming - but not in a bad way. To taste such quality produce and hear about the connection those serving it had with what they were offering was inspirational. It was great to experience so much of that genuine buzz in one place, at one time.

Recipe: Get the hock out! - Smoked ham hock and summer vegetable salad

Tasty smoked ham hock salad.
Summery ham hock salad - keep the BBQ in the shed!
This is really pleasant. The sun is shining, which makes for a lovely evening, and as I write I’m sipping a chilled glass of white wine. It would appear that summer has finally arrived, albeit several months behind schedule. The smell of barbecues drifting through the open windows of Scrumptious Scran Towers confirms this.

Got to love a BBQ… Well yes and no. Done properly, they are great. Tastily marinated meat and fish, succulently cooked; chargrilled vegetable kebabs with squeaky haloumi cheese; and on the side, bowls of new potatoes coated in thick mayonnaise, chives and parsley. All shared by friends and family lounging around in a garden full of chat and laughter.

Enticing though this scene may seem, it isn’t always easily achieved. Forward planning is absolutely key to the success of a good barbecue. There’s the preparing of marinades, combined with the hours these take to work their wonder on the meat or fish of choice. Then there comes the stress of ensuring the charcoal is at just the right heat so that the fare that is on offer doesn’t get burnt to a crisp, or worse still, is revealed as being still raw in the middle when bitten into. Is it such a surprise then, that sometimes when the sun is shining I yearn for tasty, summery food this isn’t such high maintenance?

A great example of this is an appetising salad with smoked ham hock, and seasonal vegetables at its centre. The hock is cheap, and a good quality one – such as the one supplied by Simon Howie, which I used here – will provide all the smokey, meaty flavour you would normally expect from something cooked on a barbecue. All that has to be done to prepare the ham is pop it in a pan of simmering water for an hour and half and then shred the tender meat from the bone. Stress free lazing in the sunshine can ensue whilst this preparation takes place.

When ready, by mixing the hock with the salty-savouriness of green olives; the sweetness of tomatoes, beetroot and smokey, roast yellow pepper; and the spicy kick provided by radishes and red onion you will definitely achieve a winning taste combination. A salad isn’t a salad unless properly dressed, of course, and to accomplish this I douse the ingredients with a vinaigrette which mixes extra virgin olive oil with sherry and balsamic vinegar, and a good measure of grain mustard. Combining the two varieties of vinegar brings both acidity and sweetness to the dressing, which is then underlined by the gentle heat of the mustard grains.

The ham hock may take a little while to cook, but it can be left unattended once at a simmer, unlike meat on a barbecue, and the rest of the salad ingredients literally take a few minutes to prepare. What can be better than a great tasting, stress free dish that allows for plenty of lazing in the sunshine?

Sustainable food news: A brilliant "Pig Idea"

A happy pig.
Out-of-date carrot - nice piggy snack (photo: James Perrin).
It may have escaped your attention, but today is World Environment Day – the annual United Nations-initiated celebration of positive environmental action. Whether we like it or not, food production has a considerable global environmental impact, resulting from energy consumption, habitat destruction, pesticide use, and so on. It’s therefore somewhat disturbing that around one third of all the food produced annually for human consumption – a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes – is either wasted or lost. Cue a new campaign launched to coincide with World Environment Day which sets out to raise awareness of food waste and the role pigs – yes, pigs – can play in addressing this.

The Pig Idea is calling for the many tonnes of food we waste each year in the UK to be put to a more productive use, instead finding its way onto the menu for one of our favourite meat animals – the pig. Initiated by Thomasina Miers – former Masterchef winner, cookery writer and restaurateur – and food waste expert, Tristram Stuart, the campaign is calling for a change in European law to allow for a return to the traditional practice of feeding pigs with waste food. Other high-profile supporters of the initiative – brilliantly describes as “Hambassadors” – include River Cottage supremo Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and BBC Masterchef presenter, John Torode.

The team at The Pig Idea have today started the process of rearing eight pigs at Stepney City Farm, on a healthy menu of food waste collected from around London. From spent brewer’s grains, whey, unsold vegetables and bread, the food that would otherwise have been wasted will be collected and fed to the pigs. The Pig Idea campaign will culminate in a major food event in London's Trafalgar Square in November, when some of the UK's best known chefs will gather to offer thousands of members of the public their favourite pork dishes, using the pork reared by The Pig Idea team. This feast will highlight the current global food waste scandal, and illustrate that the solutions to this can be practical, economical and delicious.

Speaking at the launch of The Pig Idea Tristram Stuart, author and campaigner on food waste, commented:

“Humans have been recycling food waste by feeding it to pigs for thousands of years. Reviving this tradition will help to protect forests that are being chopped down to grow the millions of tonnes of soya we import from South America every year to feed our livestock.”

Thomasina Miers, Chef at Wahaca, the award winning sustainable restaurant, added:

"Cutting down rainforest in the Amazon to grow feed for pigs in Europe makes no sense. Let's save all our delicious food waste and feed it to the pigs. Not only will we be saving the rainforest (and slowing down climate change) but we'll be bringing down the cost of pig feed and pork. Let them eat waste!"

More information on The Pig Idea and how to support the campaign can be found at the initiative’s website –

Thomasina Miers with "Pig Idea" pigs.
Feeding time with Thomasina and Tristram (photo: James Perrin).

Supplier spotlight: Something good in da hood!

"Food in da Hood" food van.
From this van will come great scran.
Good food doesn’t have to cost the earth. Some of the best things I have eaten have been put together using simple, healthy and economic ingredients. When many of us in the UK continue to feel a significant pinch on our finances – thanks to the global economic crash – and the prices of many foodstuffs are rocketing, it’s more important than ever that people have access to nutritious food that is not expensive.

Unfortunately, for far too many people in Scotland there remains a direct link between poor health and a poor diet: three quarters of the population consumes more than the recommended daily level of salt; and less than 25% of Scots consume the recommend five portions of fruit and vegetables each day (more info here). Part of the problem with Scotland’s diet stems from the fact that, whether as a result of time poverty or financial poverty, a significant proportion of the food we consume is pre-prepared and contains high levels of fat, sugar and salt. But things might soon be set to change in the Scottish region of Renfrewshire, thanks to a novel food project.

Food in the Hood is a mobile food initiative that aims to prepare, cook and sell home-style meals at tea time, to communities throughout Renfrewshire, using a converted van. The not-just-for-profit company hopes to take a share of the traditional takeaway market, by offering the same convenient service, but with a better product. Food in the Hood will prepare a menu consisting of favourite dishes – such as steak pie, chilli and vegetable curry – but cooked in the best possible way and using as little salt, fat and sugar as taste allows.

The initiative also intends to do more than just sell great food; it also hopes to change the eating habits of the communities it will serve as well as delivering other benefits. Not only will any profits be invested back into community projects, Food in the Hood is also intending to source much of its produce locally – from individuals, allotments and Renfrewshire organisations – and encourage “people in the community to grow for the community”. And of key importance, the intention is to keep the prices of the meals that are served as affordable as possible in order to ensure everyone can have access to good, healthy food.