As a food blogger, even one as insignificant as me, PR firms are always lining up to give you something free in exchange for publicity.
More often than not what I get offered is crap. Only a few weeks ago I said “no thank you” to representatives of a well-known, cheap food brand, whose most popular product I blame for a spectacular bout of food poisoning suffered last year.
Perhaps they misunderstood where I was coming from with Foods To Try Before You Die, read it as some sort of cuisine-themed suicide note. “We’ve made him violently ill before so he’ll love this!”
At the very least I’m certain they hadn’t bothered to read any of my posts. I know not every item on The List fits into the luxury category but the lack of budget ready meals really should’ve been a clue. Economy supermarket is not the undiscovered niche I’m looking for.
So I must say it was refreshing to be asked to review a hamper by the folks at gourmet food retailer Forman and Field, a company much more in-keeping with the quality focus of my blog. I hadn’t tried any of their wares before but I had been on their website and liked what I saw. Indeed, in the early days of The List, when it was basically just an offline Word document with pictures, porchetta was listed as an item solely off the back of seeing it on Forman and Field’s site. I thought it looked awesome so on there it went.*
Thus when I was asked to review one of the company’s hampers my answer was a bit of a no-brainer. “Why yes. Yes I would.”
I was a little surprised by the quality of everything as I rummaged through the picnic basket. I’d expected luxury but I hadn’t expected the very best. Cheese (Stichelton, Innes Log, Berkswell and Ardrahan) was from Neal’s Yard, a supplier of Michelin-starred restaurants up and down the country. Smoked salmon was from H. Forman & Son**, a century-old pioneering producer, as reputable as you can find. The pork pie was Mrs King’s, arguably the finest Melton Mowbray in existence.
I couldn’t wait to dig in.
The banana bread was the first to go, scoffed down with a mug of tea. Moist and flavourful with a faultless crumb, it was a WI award winner if ever there was one. A similarly good chocolate brownie, the greatest pork pie I’ve ever had and some cheese in immaculate condition followed. It was a strong start.
The next day I tried Paul Wayne Gregory’s tea-infused chocolates and they were what you’d expect from an award-winning chocolatier: texturally perfect. The lapsang souchong wasn’t really to my tastes and the Earl Grey flavour was perhaps too subtle but the jasmine in the middle was “just right”. My wife made the obvious Goldilocks joke.
Potted lobster was enjoyable on rye bread toast though, if I’m honest, I expected a little more from it. They weren’t stingy with the lobster and there was nothing wrong with the cooking but I spent the entire time wishing it was potted shrimp instead. Given my favourite shellfish-based spread is much cheaper, I don’t see why anyone would bother buying this.
Regardless, I’d say the Alderton ham was perhaps the only bit that was sub-par. It was very nice ham, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be confident I could take a 20-minute walk down the road and find something better. I genuinely couldn’t say that about anything else – certainly not the smoked salmon. The London cure was up there with the best I’ve tasted; the wild vastly superior. I took to Twitter to say I’d never eaten anything better in my own home, and I wasn’t lying. It was divine.
Afterwards I had the lemon curd, which was never going to compete, but was excellent nonetheless. I made it into a little tart with a base of crushed digestive biscuits and later vowed that I should eat lemon curd more often. It was delicious.
Here’s what was in the box, with pictures.
Genuine Wild and London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon (H. Forman & Son)
Potted Lobster (Forman & Field)
Chocolate Brownie and Banana Bread (Forman & Field)***
Lemon Curd (Forman & Field)
Hand Carved Ham (Alderton Ham)
Pure Indulgence Chocolates (Paul Wayne Gregory)
Pork Pie (Mrs King’s)
Selection of Dairy Cheeses (Neal’s Yard)
Overall I was very impressed with the hamper sent to me by Forman and Field. The food was all extremely high-end and I think it’d be difficult to find better quality in your local area, even at specialist shops or farmers’ markets. Certainly assembling produce this good on your own would take a lot of time.
One thing that’s put me off buying food online in the past is concern over freshness. How many days before this was posted was it packed? Is it going to be stale or past its best? I’d look on something like Maldon Rock oysters as pure food poisoning bait, and why pay for a stomach bug when there’s a company out there willing to send me one for free?
But I think, based on the evidence of the cheese (the biggest freshness test), I would trust Forman and Field to send me just about anything. Apparently cut on the same day the hamper was posted, it was in better condition than any cheese I’ve had outside a Michelin star restaurant.
And I can’t praise it much higher than that.
*As you can see, I eventually took porchetta off The List when I decided to make it exclusively about food that I’d genuinely be disappointed not to try in my lifetime, rather than just stuff that I liked the look of. But I would still like to try it.
**H. Forman & Son is linked to Forman and Field, so I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by that one.
***I forgot to take a picture of the chocolate brownie. Sorry.
I’ve been having a great time at Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2011 since it started on Friday. Out of everything I’ve tried so far there have been two main standouts: the Big Indie Wine Fest, which I’ll cover in another post, and the cheese on sale in St Anne’s Square.
The market they’ve got there is dominated by cheese vendors, who must make up at least a quarter of all the stalls. The quality of some of their produce is ridiculous and has comfortably outshone everything else I’ve got around to tasting in the last few days.*
The easiest stall to be drawn to is that run by the Saddleworth Cheese Company, which is owned by Sean Wilson, who played Martin Platt in Coronation Street. His celebrity is clearly a major selling point – a huge picture of him decorates the stand – and I’m sure they get a lot of business solely because people want to be served by the male nurse off Corrie. But try their cheese, speak to them and you’ll soon see the business is much more than just a gimmick.
Sean’s partner in fromagerie, who has something of the Johnny Rotten about him, is brilliant.** Dashing around the stand making sure all the potential customers try all of the cheeses, he’s extremely passionate and charming; someone who clearly loves his cheese and just wants everybody else to love it as much as he does. He explained to us how all the different varieties were made, where their individual flavours came from and generally did a bloody good job of convincing us we needed to buy some.
With a friend, I purchased all four of their products: Muldoons Picnic (crumbly Lancashire), Hows yer father (creamy Lancashire), Mouth Almighty (tasty Lancashire) and Smelly Apeth (blue). They were all very good, but the award-winning blue was clearly in a different class from the rest.
Four big blocks of cheese – Mr Rotten went out of his way to make sure we got the four biggest slices as part of the four for £10 deal – would normally be enough to keep me going for a while and I had no intention of buying any more. But on a second visit to St Anne’s I ended up getting sucked back in by the fine folks from the Cheshire Cheese Company, who sell some very interesting cheese indeed.
Alongside your traditional mature cheddars and creamy Lancashires, they make some very weird and wonderful truckles, flavoured with ingredients such as toffee, curry and jerk spice. They’ve got a relatively large number of cheeses to try and that they’re able to pull all the strange ones off without making anything truly disgusting is extremely impressive – although I’d imagine Taste of the Raj and Sticky Toffee Heaven probably get a bit much once the novelty wears off.
I bought three rounds off them for £10: Robinsons Old Tom Ale & Mustard Cheddar, Bowland Mature Lancashire, Apple, Sultana & Cinnamon and Traditional Cheshire. All are pretty great, but I think the Old Tom is my favourite.
The final cheese I bought was from the French cheese stand, the name of which escapes me. Looking around at it and struggling to keep the slobber in my mouth, I wanted to kick myself for spending so much on cheese from other stalls when I could’ve got some from there instead. I was looking for a non-dairy cheese for my wife and picked up a beautiful gooey, unpasteurised goat’s cheese, which I think was £3. It’s easily the best cheese I’ve had from the festival so far and I feel I need to go back.
Of course, there are plenty of other cheese vendors – including the famous Mrs Kirkham’s – in St Anne’s Square at the moment and I suppose I should probably try them all for, erm, the sake of fairness. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it…
Besides, I’ve opened a bottle of port all special. Can’t let that go to waste now, can I?
*Cheese has even outshone these rather addictive pork scratchings from The Crusty Pie Company, which I’m munching my way through while I write this post. They’re also available in St Anne’s Square.
**Besides the food, getting to meet the producers and vendors is the best part of MFDF or any other food festival. Obviously not all of them are cut out for speaking to members of the public, but when you come across a real character who cares so much about their produce, it’s really cool.