Sunday, 3 June 2012

Eat Reading Live - 1st June 2012

The Eat Reading Live food festival happens in Reading's town centre each year. There are demonstrations to watch and food to buy, from stalls lining the pedestrianised streets serving up golden-coloured paella, spicy nasi goreng and decadently soft chocolate brownies (among lots of other things).

The festival took place on 1st-2nd June, and only being free on the Friday, I dropped off my youngest at school at lunchtime and headed off into town to see what was going on.

By the time I got there, Gennaro Contaldo had just finished his demonstration on stage at Reading's Broad Street. He was representing Jamie's Italian, over at the Riverside. I missed the show, but did manage to catch him posing for photos with fans, before he gestured to one of the men there and saying in his famous accent "Now you can go and make pasta." And in a bustle of people with ID badges, flashes and clicks from cameras, he was off. "He loves it," one of the guys at the Jamie's Italian stand told me later."He loves all the attention he gets."

Gennaro Contaldo poses with fans after his demonstration at Eat Reading Live
We had a wander around, drawn over to the La Tasca stand by the long queue and the whiff of saffron-scented rice. We shared a box of paella, which was really good; big chunky pieces of chicken, tiny little sweet peas and creamy yellow rice - all with a tingle of black pepper. The Sweeney and Todd Pie Shop was also there (their shop is, really, situated next to a barbers on Castle Street), along with Tampopo and Stewed, amongst others.

La Tasca cook up a big pot of paella

Alan Rosenthal, of Stewed, was about to begin his demonstration on the Broad Street stage as we arrived, so we settled ourselves, paella in hand, and waited. Alan showed us two recipes from the Stewed cookbook - beef and ale stew and also a dish made with slow-cooked cuttlefish. He recommended using chuck steak, rather than braising steak for stews, to achieve a better texture and flavour. And come on, we all love a bit of beef and ale stew, especially when it comes with horseradish and Stilton dumplings. But it was the cuttlefish that was the surprise of the day. Alan showed us how to prepare a cuttlefish from scratch, taking out the central piece of cartilage, intestines and ink sac ("you basically just have to rummage around in there"), and then sliced it and cooked it in red wine and some of the cuttlefish ink, for added flavour. It was amazing. "Is this going to be available at the kiosk?" people started to ask, looking up at the stage, fork in hand. It isn't he told them, although judging by the amount of people who had bypassed the beef and ale to try it, it wouldn't be a bad idea. The sauce was dark - a purplish black, on account of the ink - and the cuttlefish was soft, melting in the mouth. I'm not a huge seafood lover (I'm getting there), but this was gorgeous.

Alan Rosenthal gets to grips with a cuttlefish on stage in Broad Street, Reading

Next, I headed off to the Market Place, to watch a bread masterclass by Warings Craft Bakers. Alan gave the crowds lots of tips on how to make bread at home. Things like how to use steam (which I haven't done). Place just an eggcupful of water in a tray in the oven when you bake your bread, and you'll generate steam which stops the bread crusting over too quickly, meaning you get a larger, softer loaf before the crust develops and halts the rising process. He also told us to always make a cut in the top of the loaf, because that increases the surface area of crust "and that's where the flavour is." There were more stalls here, dishing up burgers and hot dogs (The Hilton), curries (The Royal Tandoori) and others with smoking, sizzling pans and stir-fry type dishes along with a Pimm's tent.

Alan from Warings Craft Bakers demonstrates how to make bread

Next up was a demonstration from Yasmina Siadatan (she was on The Apprentice) with Justin Le Stephany from Mya La Carte in Caversham. Yasmina chatted to the audience while Justin prepared smoked duck, showing us all how to make a home smoker. "You don't want to do this inside your house," Yasmina warned us all. "I did and I had to have all my curtains dry cleaned: very expensive." Justin took questions from the audience as he cooked, and Yasmina extended an invitation for local people to approach them with any home-grown produce they have. "We'll exchange your food for food," she offered, while I mentally worked out how quick I could set up an allotment and get some carrots going.  A great idea and good to see a restaurant working with the community so well. As for the restaurant, you do have to book, she said, as they're very busy. They're clearly proud of Justin (called 'JLS' - you should have seen the confusion when the announcer said that JLS would be on the stage), and I can't wait to get down to Caversham to try it for myself. With or without a muddy box of carrots in tow.

Justin Le Stephany takes a question from the audience while Yasmina Siadatan looks on - from Mya La Carte
One of my favourite demos of the day was from Kevin Little, from the Smelly Alley Fish Company.

For those who don't know Reading very well, the street is actually small and very old, with the official name of Union Street - it's just near Boots on Broad Street. There's a butcher, a greengrocer, an Asian supermarket and of course the fishmongers - the street is named by locals for obvious reasons. The children love to take a detour on the way home and look at the fish all lined up on the icy counter - all gleaming, bright-eyed and fresh. Kevin was great - honest, entertaining and very knowledgable, as you'd expect. He showed us how to prepare a crab - a brown crab and also a spider crab, which tastes quite a bit like lobster. As he hacked gently with the back of his knife and twisted off legs and claws, he talked about the British and how it's a shame we're not a nation of crab-lovers. When you go to France, he said, the waiter brings you out a whole crab and you just pick at it with your friends, tearing off claws and sucking on the soft meat inside. But in Britain, we're squeamish about it. We prefer our crabs already dressed and only fuss over the white meat. "If you've never had crab, you probably wouldn't like it," he said. "It's an aquired taste." But, he added, it should be enjoyed.

Kevin Little, from the Smelly Alley Fish Company with a spider crab
He also talked about the live crabs and lobsters kept in tanks in restaurants. "They don't really work," he said. "If you go to a restaurant and they have crabs and lobsters in tanks, order a steak. They starve and get thin." And he called on us to give our fishmongers a break, when it comes to crab. "Some come in and have a moan that there's not much meat inside the crab," he told us. Perhaps we're all too used to the uniformity of farmed animals and expect everything to be the same size and shape, which is our fault and not the crab's.

Daniel Bell, of Malmaison

Daniel Bell of Malmaison, near Reading station also did a demonstration over in Broad Street, which included a tuna carpaccio with an avocado and wasabi purée. With my tummy rumbling by now, I headed off in search of more food, and caught the eye of the people at the Jamie's Italian stall. They were offering a mini picnic box with some antipasti for £4 and a wedge of chocolate, raspberry and amaretto brownie drizzled with chocolate sauce for about £3.50. So I went for that. They told me it's one of their best sellers on the menu, and in the restaurant it's served with a scoop of rich bourbon ice cream. I ate it standing up on the side of the street, fork in hand, and got icing sugar over my camera. And I didn't care. The brownie was moist and warm, not overly sweet and had a crumbly topping of amaretti biscuits over the top, along with the chocolate drizzle. Goooood.

Food tents were set up on Reading's Broad Street

The last demonstration I went to was hosted by Tampopo. I went to Tampopo a few weeks ago and loved it there. As Paul (the supervisor at Reading) and executive chef Cliff Eddison cooked up a noodle dish and a spicy Thai salad, they engaged so well with us that it was like having a relaxed chat rather than watching a show. With fizzing woks and clattering spoons the scent of hot ginger and lemongrass filled the air. We got to eat noodles from passed around plates and got a taste of the spicy, citrussy salad topped with a piece of rare-cooked beef. Paul talked about Thailand - did you know it has the longest reigning monarch in the world? - and Cliff explained that for their menu, Tampopo took family dishes served up on street stands all around the east (Thailand, Vietnam and Japan are just a few) and brought them over for us in the UK to enjoy. All brilliant stuff.

Cliff and Paul from Tampopo, on Reading's Riverside near the Oracle

I definitely didn't go hungry at Eat Reading and got to see some great chefs at work, representing local businesses. If you go along next year, check the schedule of demos before you go, as you'll be flitting between the two streets - but they're close enough - and the short journey will give you a chance to grab a pie, a pot of stew or (just one more) chocolate brownie from the stalls on the way.

For more information about Eat Reading Live, visit the website.