Under the radar? That’s definitely Abruzzo. It’s the poor touristic relation of Toscana, Umbria, Piemonte and yet this predominantly rural Italian region has so much to offer. Three National Parks, one Regional Park and several natural reserves are home to an unprecedented 75 per cent of Europe’s flora and fauna species. The slow food on offer, washed down with the local soft Montepulciano reds, is reason enough to visit the scores of  ancient hilltop villages.

Take lentils. The medieval town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio holds a festival every September in their honour, the Sagra delle Lenticchie, and is campaigning to win them DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) status alongside such iconic foodstuffs as Parmesan, Balsamic vinegar of Modena, San Marzano tomatoes and the like.

I source my Abruzzo lentils (via the wonderful Ham and Cheese Company in Bermondsey) from the Casino di Caprafico 100km south east which accesses the same scrubby terrain that somehow brings out the iron-rich best in these tiny legumes. Easily the equal of France’s acclaimed Puy lentils. The same deeply traditional operation also yields my go-to new season olive oil. The head honcho is Giacomo Santoleri. Let Ham and Cheese Co tell his story:

“Giacomo Santoleri was an engineer before turning to agriculture 20 years ago. His Caprafico farm is on the eastern slopes of the Maiella National Park, close to the town of Guardiagrele and there he has chosen to grow a range of heritage grains to mill for bread and pasta. Pasta from his barley and emmer (farro) is a long way from the uniform white mono flavour of pasta made from high yielding wheat varieties and it is also much healthier; emmer is known to be good for the heart and immune system. It is high in antioxidants, fibre and protein. Like many heritage grains the plants are strong and sturdy and can be grown without the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”

And the Caprafico lentils?

“Giacomo grows ancient grains and pulses on the Caprafico plain in Abruzzo. These lentils are sown at the end of March on poor, chalky soil and they thrive in the harsh mountain temperatures of the Maiella National Park. Surviving these adverse conditions gives the lentils lots of flavour

“The lentils ripen at different times depending on their altitude but the majority are harvested during August. Harvesting takes place by hand because the lentils grow so close to the ground that mechanised harvesting can destroy up to 40 per cent of the harvest. Inside the cloth bag are 500gs of the most beautiful, speckled lentils. Cook them with a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery then stir them – still firm – into some softened dice of the same vegetables. Top them with a sausage or poached egg.”

The form the perfect base for toothsome New Year’s Day treat, Cotechino, sausagey subject of one of my Italian Food Trail pieces, but with my latest lentil batch I have wilfully ditched seasonality.

Just as summer is almost convincing Yorkshire it is Abruzzo I’ve assembled in my garden the ingredients for a decidedly autumnal Lentil and Chestnut Soup, loosely adapted from a Rachel Roddy recipe. It was an excuse to use up two vacuum packs of hulled chestnuts that had lain too long in the store cupboard. Plus I had an excess of chicken broth in the freezer and a surfeit of herbs from the garden.

Lentil and Chestnut Soup


4 tbsp good olive oil

1 onion,

1 carrot

1 stick celery,

100ml Noilly Prat

3 tomatoes, skinned and diced

Ready cooked chestnuts, broken up

2 litres of chicken broth/water

Parsley, chervil, dill, marjoram or other mixed fresh herbs.

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper, to taste


In a large pan heat olive oil over a low flame, add chestnuts, stir for a minute then add vermouth and let it bubble for a couple of minutes.

Rinse the lentils and add to a separate pan with chopped veg, herbs and stock water mixture. Simmer for an hour or so over a low heat until the lentils are tender Unlike red lentils they keep their shape). Remove bayleaf. Take out half the mix and blend roughly before returning to the lentil pan along with the chestnuts and a splash of good extra virgin olive oil. Caprafico would be perfect.

A Proustian madeleine moment? With hops? Not quite. The lager in the iconic Budweiser Budvar tankard glass flaunted all the right credentials, including the distinctive huge frothy head, bringing back glorious travel memories. Yet the taste was subtly different from what you’d expect of the classic Czech beer. 

Adam Brož, the brewmaster of that state-run enterprise was at my elbow to explain their unique link-up with Derbyshire’s finest, Thornbridge. Our native Golding hops and Maris Otter malt give Czech Mates (a bit of an ouch name, but hey) its own tang, benefiting from the legendary Budvar yeast. Cheers – or, as they say in South Bohemia ‘Na zdraví’!

Budvar’s first ever collab outside its home country is not meant to replicate the original. At 4.8 per cent it is weaker and the maturation period is shorter, though considerably longer than most lagers including even Czech rival Pilsener Urquell. And don’t even mention the dreaded American Budweiser, which perennially bombards Budvar with legal challenges over the brand.

I am at a Czech Mates launch night in a Thornbridge tied house in Leeds, The Bankers Cat, and Budvar global ambassador Ridem is generously plying us with samples of Thornbridge’s crisp, well balanced labour of love. Like Adam, he is delighted that I have visited their iconic brewery in České Budějovice. I tell them how it was the final destination of an eye-opening pilgrimage to the Czech Republic (or Czechia as it now styles itself). That was in 2016. My previous visit to their country had been in 1976, just eight years after the Prague Spring and the Soviet crushing of Czech dreams of freedom. How different it all felt…

A land of fairy tales and golden lager

Advent Sunday in Český Krumlov (main picture) and the bells are ringing. The first sighting of blue sky in this most misty of autumns in South Bohemia has lured me out into the old town before breakfast. Winding alleys that had breathed mystery after dark are equally entrancing by day. Who needs Prague when you can have a place like this to yourself?

Except around the corner comes a selfie-driven Japanese coach pack. UNESCO World Heritage status means off the beaten track just doesn’t happen these days. Still this historic city, set in a horseshoe bend of the River Vltava (Moldau) and lorded over by an immense 13th century castle, wears its tourist honeypot trappings lightly. 

We are 170km south of the Czech capital, not far from the Austrian border. This has been territory fought over for centuries. When Germans ruled the roost it was called  Krummau an der Moldau just as the region’s main centre, České Budějovice, was Budweis (hence the brewery name, more of which anon). 

After the collapse of the Soviet empire and the splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia Český Krumlov arose from decades of decay like some Sleeping Beauty. Which seems quite apt in a land entwined in folklore and fairytale.

Especially around Christmas when it all takes off. Well, Flying Baby Jesus does. When the Velvet Revolution kicked out Communism there was a rush to introduce Czechs to that burly guy in red with the white beard. They were having none of it. Their festive bringer of gifts is Ježíšek, variously depicted as a baby, toddler, and young lad (see the image below from a church we visited). 

On Christmas Eve families deck the tree and share a traditional Czech dinner of carp and potato salad, then the children are sent to scan the skies for Ježíšek. When a bell rings they rush back to find their presents have arrived.

Snacking on the Christmas Markets

The Czechs have the highest beer consumption in the world – 129 litres a head. Their food, from pretzels to goulasch via dumplings, sauerkraut, grilled meats and sausages, seems custom-built to match the foaming brews.

We were there at Christmas Markets time, more home-made affairs than the ersatz ones inflicted on the UK every November and December. In both Český Krumlov and České Budějovice I sampled these Czech snacks for the first time:

Trdelnik: a hybrid of cake and sweet pastry made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, then grilled and topped with a sugar and spice mix.

Sazanka: a thin omelette on rye with gherkins and browned spring onions.

Kapri Hranolky: carp fries, the fish chunks spiced with cumin and ginger then floured and deep-fried. Delicious with a noggin of mulled mead, but I opted for a bottle of Krumlov’s own local beer, Eggenberg. 

Green man riding a catfish and other tall tales

My best present was discovering the unanticipated wonders of Český Krumlov. After being captivated by the view from the Castle of its close clustered rooftops encircled by the river came the defining focus of the stay: the Fairytale House – Puppet Museum. Here you could learn about contemporary puppeteering, even try your hand, but it is the marionette mausoleum aspect – some tableaux dating back to the 18th century – that captivated. Czech childhoods seem populated by sprites, witches and demons. None more creepy than the water spirit ”vodník”. This green man riding a catfish drowns unwary folk and captures their souls in a jar. 

Equally spooky is the White Lady who haunts the Castle and makes appearances in the nearby Hotel Růže. If the spirit is smiling, good news will follow; if she looks serious, and wears or carries black gloves, the news will be bad. Legend has it she threw herself off a cliff when her father refused to allow her to marry the man she loved.

Another Krumlov story, much more horrific, featured deranged Don Julius, bastard son of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II. When he took up residence in the Castle in 1607 he was joined by the local barber’s daughter, Markéta Pichlerová, with her family’s permission. 

Tiring of her, he beat her up and threw her from a turret window – she escaped death only because a rubbish heap broke her fall. After she recovered from terrible injuries, the tyrant demanded her back – and then cut her into tiny pieces. In subsequent captivity in the Castle he degenerated into a human wreck and was probably murdered on the Emperor’s orders.

Near the knuckle – St Reparatus and Egon Schiele

A dark past but visiting the Castle nowadays is a jolly experience. The exuberant Baroque theatre is only open for occasional concerts and the two resident bears penned below the battlements are coy about showing themselves, but the 29 room Museum in the colourful tower is equally colourful and eccentric. Don’t miss the reliquary of St Reparatus, his bones gaudily embellished by nuns.

Just as near the knuckle is some of the raw, explicit imagery inside the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. The Austrian painter died in the Spanish flu epidemic, at just 28, in 1918, the same year as his inspirational mentor, Gustav Klimt. This gallery in a former brewery exists because Schiele’s mother came from the town and he spent time here, enraptured by the Bohemian forests, before being driven out because of his bohemian (as in unorthodox) lifestyle. This is charted in exemplary fashion alongside changing exhibitions of current artists.

The Museum Fotoatelier Seidel is an altogether sedater affair. This house/studio of early 20th century photographic pioneer Josef Seidel is a time warp with its abundance of original cameras and props. He was a chronicler of a pre-war, pre-Soviet age and the images are fascinating. 

All these attractions are within close walking distance. The best passport to seeing them is the Český Krumlov Card, covering five museums and the Krumlov monastery complex. For a single adult it costs £15

Czech craft beers and a castle crammed with antlers

Visiting castles is bound to work up an appetite… and a thirst. Hluboká nad Vlatou, 10km north of České Budějovice, is home to a very stately pile. The 13th century Hluboká Castle was transformed into its current Neo-Gothic Windsor look in the 19th century by the Schwarzenberg family. They had downsized from Český Krumlov Castle to this 11 tower, 140 room, glorified ‘hunting lodge’. In the hall the Schwarzenbergs pose en masse in a family photograph of the time, the menfolk itching to get away and blast the life out of all the stags they can bag. You can’t move for trophy antlers and gun racks throughout the public rooms, only the odd manic boar’s head breaking the plush monotony. 

There are various tours on offer, after which you will probably be ready for a  substantial repast at the village’s characterful restaurant, Solidní Šance. Specilaity is potato pancakes stuffed with cabbage and pork. The house strudel is benchmark stuff, too. To accompany there’s a range of unfiltered and unpasteurized ‘Czech-style craft beers’ brewed in-house at the Pivovar Hluboká, using Budvar yeast, Czech or Bavarian malts and Žatec hops. Go for their Žatec semi-early red, if available.

Some 20km to the west of České Budějovice is another UNESCO heritage gem, the model village of Holašovice. Ranked around a village green are several dozen houses refashioned in the 19th century in the ‘Folk Baroque’ style aping noble mansions. Think lacy, colourful gables.

I’m told the number of houses has remained constant throughout Holašovice’s  800 years of existence and most are still lived in by villagers. Two taverns, a chapel and a blacksmith are here to serve them, and No.6 of the 17 farms in the village offers a fascinating collection of bygone rural tackle. Thought-provoking indeed our lugubrious guide’s demo (without animal) of how to castrate a sheep.

Our journey’s end – the refreshing city of České Budějovice

But then the whole trip was full of quirky revelations. The main purpose of our visit to České Budějovice 25km north of Český Krumlov was to visit the brewery but on a guided tour around the town every building seemed to boast an odd back story. Climb the 250 steps to the top of the Italianate Gothic-Renaissance Black Tower (1577) and you are rewarded with a spectacular view over Budějovice’s vast main square and the Blanský Forest in the distance. The abiding memory, though, is of the goat who once shared the tower apartment with the guardian.

Walk over to Piarist Square. On one side is the steeply gabled Salt Warehouse, once an armoury, today a motorcycle museum. Inset randomly in the facade are three reliefs of stone faces, believed to represent a trio of thieves beheaded.  On the other side, high on the exterior of the Church of the Sacrifice of Our Lady, a frog-like gargoyle bulges just below the roof. It recreates a frog crawled into the foundations of the Dominican church during construction and kept causing the church walls to crumble; in the end, it was ejected from the foundations. It is said that its sculpture used to be placed lower, but the stone frog has been crawling upwards step by step until it reaches the roof and then the church will collapse and it will be the end of the world.

An equivalent doom will arrive when the vast underground lake that supplies the perfect, pure soft water for making Budvar beer runs out. It’s not going to happen any time soon but it’s a nagging long-term quandary for the state-owned brewery that upholds the country’s beer traditions, lagering (slow conditioning) its top-fermented, burnished gold beer for 90 days in comparison with just 25 for arch-rival corporate-owned Pilsener Urquell in the northern town of Plzeň, where the classic beer style was created.

Budvar are meticulous, too, in sourcing locally only pale Moravian malt and Saaz whole hops (not the pellets used by most brewers, even the of the artisan craft persuasion). It was a glorious sight watching hops being loaded into one of the gleaming copper vessels.

So does Budvar Budweiser taste better at hallowed source?

At the end of our Budvar Visitor Centre Tour we tasted the end product in the cellar. Patiently conditioned and unpasteurised, lacily frothy fresh from the tanks, it lived up to Garrett Oliver’s tasting note in his magisterial Oxford Companion to Beer: “Refreshing, showing a rich malt and vanilla aroma, and fine, floral hop character. The finish has a fine balance of juicy malt, tangy hop resins, and a delicate hint of apple fruit.” Quite.

Oliver touches at length on the decades-long legal wrangling over naming rights with the US brewing giants Anheuser-Busch, who produce their own (vastly inferior) ‘Budweiser’ and Bud Lite. At the height of the squabble Budvar was saved from a takeover by them after the intervention of then president Vaclac Havel and today worldwide sales are soaring. In the fairy tale land of Bohemia they like happy endings.

Budějovický Budvar Brewery, n. p.K. Světlé 512/4 370 04 České Budějovice. To plan your (highly recommended) Brewery Tour visit here. End your tour with a meal at Budvar’s own restaurant 100 metres away on the corner of Pražská and K. Světlé streets. The rich, dry Budvar dark lager is a consummate match for the house speciality, goulasch. For full tourism information about Czechia visit this link. Jet2.com fly regularly from Manchester to Prague. České Budějovice is two hours south of the Czech capital with Český Krumlov a further half hour away.

What links the sprightliest greenery in my vernal garden with a dish created in 1962 at a railroad halt at the head of the navigable Loire? L’oseille is what the French call sorrel and in the unassuming industrial town of Roanne two chefs created culinary magic by marrying this acidic, zesty herb to a salmon escalope.

I first read about it in 1978 in remarkable book called Great Chefs of France, essentially a handsomely illustrated roll call of all the figures who created ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’. Roanne-based Les Freres Troigros, Jean and Pierre, sounded the most fun. Asked to create a dish for Paul Bocuse’s Legion d’Honneur lunch for Giscard d’Estaing, they came up with Escalope de saumon  a l’oseille and the rest is history. I have been slavishly following the recipe for this delicate, almost Zen-like dish since 1980 when the brothers published their own cookbook, Nouvelle Cuisine, part of a series translated into English that included Cuisine Minceur by Michel Guerard, the only one of that groundbreaking kitchen generation still alive.

By 1968 the brothers had gained a third Michelin star for the restaurant, which it has held ever since, while morphing from the station’s Hotel Moderne, prospering from the Route Nationale 7 running past, via a more sophisticated makeover in 1976, to its current incarnation after a switch to a rural site in 2007. Jean died of a heart attack in 1983, Pierre in 2020 at the age of 92, the Troigros legacy long since consolidated in the hands of Pierre’s son Michel (and now a new generation). Influences on the menu in recent times have been Japanese, a logical extension of the pared down intensity of the original Nouvelle Cuisine movement.

Alas, I’ve never eaten in the restaurant proper. On a press trip to explore the wines of the Roannaise region a Troigros lunch was organised for us. A lovely prix fixe three courses yes, but it was in a spin-off down the street, the Cafe Epicerie Le Central. It cost just 23 euros, quarter of the price of a main at the big place, where the other day I struggled to find salmon with sorrel on the website menu.

My own sorrel crop has mostly been perennial. When one year it failed we were rescued by a cutting from the unlikeliest of sources, the Michelin-starred Mr Underhills in Ludlow. 

Chris Bradley was virtually a one-man band at the stove (hence a no choice five course menu) with his wife Judy front of house. Quite a team, both now retired, the building down by Dinham Weir sold on as a private house. 

The no choice dinner we had in the garden was utterly memorable with salmon and sorrel as a starter. Which led to our lament about our own lost herb. Not only did Judy come up with a replacement from her own garden, she even volunteered Chris to drive us back to our hotel in the absence of Ludlow taxis. Now that was Michelin star service. Here’s my take on the original Troisgros recipe…

Salmon in a creamy sorrel sauce – a dish that has stood the test of time


1kg fresh middle cut of salmon, skinned; 80g fresh sorrel leaves; 2 shallots;  500ml fish fumet; 4tbsp dry white wine; 2tbsp Noilly Prat; 400ml double cream; 40g butter; juice of ½ lemon; salt and freshly ground pepper; small amount of arachide or other light oil.


Divide the salmon into four fillets and put them between two sheets of lightly oiled wax paper and flatten the fish evenly, using a mallet. Remove the stems from the sorrel by stripping the central veins from each leaf.

To prepare the fish sauce put the fish fumet, white wine, Noilly Prat and shallots into a saucepan and cook over high heat until a near glaze is reached. Add the cream and reduce until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add the sorrel for around 20 seconds while stirring. Then incorporate the butter off the heat.  Before serving add a few drops of lemon juice

To cook the fillets, sprinkle salt and pepper on the least presentable side. Heat up the oil (or use a non-stick pan), then add the salmon with the seasoned side down for 25 seconds. then turn to the second side for another 25 seconds. The salmon should be undercooked since it will continue to cook after plating. Add the sorrel sauce, enlivened with a squeeze of lemon, to each warmed plate then add the salmon. Voilà!

My memories of Indy Man Beer Con 2022 remain vivid, culminating in a desperate tumble down uneven Edwardian stone steps as I scrambled to use up my remaining drinks tokens at the end of the Saturday afternoon session. Miraculously, like some charmed mountain goat, I arose unscathed. Most of my tokens had been spent at the 3 Fonteinen stand, supping their sublime Belgian qeuzes. I hope this year’s emphasis on sustainability at the UK’s best craft beer festival doesn’t preclude such overseas legends.

This year’s IMBC, returning to Manchester’s Victoria Baths for its 10th year, is all about discoveries. Last year’s joyful event introduced me to the ‘honeyed epiphany’ of wasp yeast. Thanks Wild Beer Co (a sign of the difficult times for the industry it has since collapsed into administration).

There’s already a sweet smell of success about Indy Man 2023 (October 5-8). Tickets, frozen at 2022 prices, went on sale on Thursday, May 18 and already both Saturday sessions are sold out with tickets ‘running low’ for both Thursday and Friday evening sessions. There is greater availability for the Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoons, where tickets cost £14.50, as opposed to £19. For true devotees there are also Full Fat tikcets for all sessions at £75. To snap up your slot before it’s too late (plus advance deals on token bundles) visit this link. Breweries involved will be named nearer the time. International participants will have to guarantee their beers are transported to the festival in a way that uses the most carbon efficient modes of freight.

Tokens will function in the same way as they did in 2022: namely, that it’ll be one token for one third of a beer across all three days. Organisers will also be reinstating the ability to sell back unused tokens to the festival at the end of each session. Which could save this over-keen punter from ale-addled dismemberment!

Sup up! Communal beer fun before Indy Man

Real ale diehards will, of course, home in on London’s Olympia for the Great British Beer Festival (August 1-5). Personally, I find supping on this kind of scale overwhelming. More manageable is a local CAMRA event such as the 35th Stockport Beer Festival (June 22-24) at its new venue, the Masonic Guildhall. One of the best trad gatherings, it promises over 250 beers ciders and perries. 

Still, I don’t expect I’ll make it there either, but I have purchased advance tickets for two delightful festivals at once under the radar breweries, respectively in Lancashire and Derbyshire, that book-end big brother Greater Manchester.

Rivington Brewing Co Farm Trip (August 31-September 3)

I’ve voiced my admiration before for this farm-based craft brewery with its scenic hilltop beer garden. Across one special long weekend they fill it to the brim to showcase their favourite beer peers. This year they welcome over  60 breweries from across the globe, pouring across 50+ lines, natural wines, gin and cocktail bars, local street food vendors and live music. Book here. There is availability (£12.50) on the opening Thursday and the Sunday (Family Day) and a few tickets for the Friday, but Saturday is sold out. Also a limited amount of caravan/campervan packages remain.

Torrside Smokefest (September 16-17)

Franconia is the German home of Rauchbier. Hence this single-minded New Mills brewery have named one of their beers after it, brewed with 85 per cent smoked malt. Each year across two eight hour sessions they replicate the Bamberg heartland of this style. You have to book in advance an there are £15 tickets left for the Sunday. Book here. For your £15 you get a memorial glass and your first distinctly smoky third, then access to over 20 similar tipples plus smoked toppings on your pizza.

Summer Beer Thing (June 30-July 2)

Meanwhile, there’s always Indy Man’s little brother, which used to be based in Sadler’s Yard before Cloudwater Brewing picked up the Pilcrow and turned it into Sadler’s Cat. Now  Kampus’s canalside garden will be host its eclectic range of craft beers from across the UK. A big plus in this buzzing urban neighbourhood are ballast options from the likes of The Great North Pie Co, Nell’s Pizza, Madre and Pollen Bakery. Tickets for the three weekend sessions range from £6 to £10 (including branded glass). Buy them here.

Poretti, Moretti, Peroni? As if they were concocted on a Scrabble board (big score for Mezzogiorno, but I digress), all those big Italian beer brand names sort of morph into one generic light lager. That’s what they taste like to me. Still, on a (let’s pray) sunny August Bank Holiday Weekend in Manchester’s Cathedral Gardens they hit the spot to accompany pizza slices, arancini, even gelato. Yes, Festa Italiana (August 25-27) is back for its sixth outing. With, you guessed it, sponsors Poretti offering a new upfront attraction.

Equally refreshing is the presence of newer blood at the demo counters. Yes, there will be returning veterans such as Jamie Oliver mentor and UK brand ambassador for Parmigiano Reggiano Gennaro Contaldo and Giancarlo Caldesi (Return to Tuscany, Saturday Kitchen, Sunday Brunch), alongside Festa founder Maurizio Cecco. But they will be joined by rising stars such as Great British Bake Off 2021 winner Giuseppe Dell’Anno and Masterchef UK 2021 quarter-finalist/ICG Cooking Competition Award winner Sofia Gallo. Another huge Festa fave is pastaia Carmela Sereno Hayes offering pasta classes for all ages.

The line-up has been announced in a week when Maurizio has also been celebrating the first birthday of the latest outpost of his Manchester empire, Salvi’s, set among the four colossal towers of Deansgate Square. Prosecco and Poretti (naturally) flowed freely at the big party in this sleek, buzzing restaurant.

Festa Italiana offers an alternative immersion in all things authentic Italian and gastronomic . Think al fresco meets dolce vita in the shadow of the National Football Museum and the Corn Exchange. Street food and workshops aplenty. Music is also very much part of this very family-friendly, free-to enter festival. Want to sing along to That’s Amore? Or Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano?At the live music stage your chance will come. Possibly fuelled by ample sips of Poretti…

The Birrificio Angelo Poretti will be pouring at its ‘iconic Piazza’, pairing its beer with food at a sit-down dining spot. This ‘Grande Tavole’ experience is a ticketed event on Saturday 26th with the area open to all on Sunday 27th. 

Intimidated? Not easily. Yet there have been occasions. I recall a stay in a Mayfair apartment with our own private butler. “Order me a cab for Loftus Road.” An eyebrow-raised response: “Might that be the soccer stadium? Will sir be requiring a scarf and rattle?” Thankfully, in the midst of the away support, you are enveloped in a communal support system. Buoyed by some Blackburn Rovers umbilical cord. There’s not quite the same safety net when you are dining solo in the capital.

The legendary Henry Harris couldn’t be happier chalking up a new era for Racine

I tell myself I’ve alway found it a test of a restaurant how they handle a ‘Gourmet No Mates’. Maybe they’ll mistake me for a Michelin inspector and either up their game… or piss in my potage. But that’s all just fanciful. For my lone foray to Fallow in the autumn I was ushered to the chef’s table counter, as requested, and soon discovered I wasn’t alone in being alone. Next door, from Japan, was a fellow seeker after the sustainable culinary holy grail at London’s hottest restaurant. Just off Haymarket, it was bustling front of house and in the open kitchen right before me. To be on the safe side I ingratiated myself with the Irish sommelier by ordering a palate-cleansing pint of Guinness. Among the occupied throng I felt welcome and the whole food experience was worth the risk. 

Reassured, last month I struck out with a hat-trick of solo efforts in Farringdon, Soho and Shoreditch respectively – Bouchon Racine, reincarnation of Henry Harris’s legendary Parisian-style bistro in Knightsbridge; wine-led Noble Rot on the site of the old Gay Hussar; and Manteca, hippest of Italian nose-to-tail newcomers, ironically replacing a Pizza Express. The space almost became Rambutan, who’ve just opened near Borough Market, but that’s a whole different story. Rambutan


Let’s start with the latter, heaving on a Sunday evening, where it was again my choice to bag a counter. My luck was in as they sat me next to the salumi slicer. Hypnotic. A bigger deal than you might imagine; they cure their charcuterie in-house. A couple my age, bearing no tats or facial hair, urged me to tuck into the Saddleback coppa and, at a hefty sounding £10, it was remarkably sweet and creamy after its sojourn in the basement hanging cabinet.

The sommelier this time was from the Southern Med via Leeds. His buttonholing me about was I from those parts (Yorkshire) put me at my ease, as did the red I ordered – a Dolcetto from AJ Vajra, a Piedmont winemaking family I know well. Light and fragrant, belying its deep purple hue, it was a a perfect companion for every morsel, from some pillowy focaccia through to the heartiest of pasta mains, fazzoletti with duck ragù and duck fat pangrattato (£15, I resisted the £10 winter truffle supplement). The wine list a a real thing of beauty, ranging from the reasonably priced rustic to stellar Tuscan royalty. Authentic credentials? 20 varieties of amaro. Cynar, Fernet Branca  knew, but Madame Milu, Ferro Chiva Baliva and Ramazzotti? Maybe another time.

Yes, you’d be right in assuming no Italian presence in the ownership or probably the kitchen brigade (though it was hard to make them out in the frantic blur of the open kitchen). The restaurant is a collab between Smokestak barbecue king David Carter and Chris Leach, once of another carnivorous joint, Pitt Cue. Both huge Italophiles, obviously.

Before the duo beached up in Shoredith Manteca had been a start-up project at 10 Heddon Street, then a standalone restaurant in Soho. But it is here among the bare, plastered walls it truly seems to have found its mojo. Dining on my tod, I obviously went for small plates, tempted though I was by a wood-fired whole John Dory or a Creedy Carver duck.

My healthy greens were puntarella alla romana, its bitter leaves given a gladiator’s thrust by anchovy and chilli (£8). Pig’s head fritti (£8) next, their over-the top spice hit down to a dollop of pilacca. The chilli heat was subtler in a slick portion of line caught pollock crudo (£12), blood orange giving it a Sicilian feel.

My £15 fazzoletti with ragù was slightly less in your snout than what became a Manteca signature dish when Shaun Moffat (now at the Edinburgh Castle, Ancoats) was chef there – a pig skin ragù topped with parmesan and served with a dipping chunk of the same skin crisped. Manteca comes from the Spanish word for pork fat or lard.  excpect you guessed something like that.

Manteca, 49-51 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3PT (020 7033 6642).

Noble Rot

You wait five years for a second Noble Rot restaurant to bob up and before you can find a gap to book your solitary table at the Soho version they’ve opened a third one – in Shepherd Market, Mayfair. I was hoping to make up for a disappointing experience, just before the Pandemic, in the original Lamb’s Conduit Street Rot, where the food didn’t match up to the wine or the atmosphere of the unreconstructed 1701 townhouse. I’d been buying the Noble Rot wine magazine, out of which it sprang in 2015, and still do, on occasion buying wine from its allied Shrine to Vine operation. The sophomore Soho site is, in contrast, an irregular old haunt of mine as The Gay Hussar. Not that I frequented it in the way that generations of Labour politicos and journalists did. Not for me the scheming cabals, who used the upstairs dining room as their canteen; I just enjoyed the goose-fat and goulasch, the veal stuffed cabbage and  sour cherry strudels of this very Hungarian restaurant, run by Victor Sassie for 34 years from 1953 until his death. General manager John Wrobel and others kept this time warp going until 2018. What is wonderful is how the rescuing Noble Rot team, whose backers included restaurant reviewing doyenne Marina O’Loughlin, have kept so much of the Georgian interior and atmosphere – albeit with a very different food and wine offering. 

Be gone Bull’s Blood and all who go sloshed on it. This being Noble Rot, there’s a comprehensive modern list, offering numerous leftfield wines by the glass. I indulged in a Pittnauer Blaufränkisch from Austria’s Burgenland after a palate refresher of classic Kernel table beer, offering remarkable flavour at just 3.5% ABV. Oh, and a glass of minerally biodynamic Crozes Hermitage Blanc from the brilliant Laurent Habrad in-between. 

Thankfully my three course supper was spot on this time. A risotto of palourde clams (£14) offered a sensory overload trinity of flavours – vermouth, fennel and bottarga. It followed by a generous confit duck leg with a classic accompaniment of cavolo nero, lentils and a sauce of Agen prunes and red wine. The £30 price a slight ouch factor. Prunes featured again with hazelnut in a biscuit for a dense wodge of chocolate mousse.

Modern British cuisine beautifully executed and a warm welcome to match. Who needs company? The narrow downstairs dining room accommodated a fellow solo diner, a family with young kids and, shades of the past, in the corner behind me, a couple plotting the political demise of a rival. Cue approval from the Martin Rowson caricatures of past habitués upstairs.

The feelgood aspect was clinched by The Green Scarf Factor. I was already on the Elizabeth Line when I got a text saying I’d left it. They’d stash it away for me. Next day when I dropped by to collect it couldn’t be found and I was in a train rush. Not to worry. When we locate it we’ll post it on to you, they said. And they did.

Noble Rot, 2 Greek St, London W1D 4NB. 020 7183 8190.

Bouchon Racine

Not just the French tragedian Jean famed for his alexandrines, Racine was also a much-loved bistro across from Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge. The name translates as root and the roots of chef/patron Henry Harris’s culinary inspiration were definitely ‘à travers la Manche’. Alas that quartier beyond Harrods was already being colonised with oligarchs whose tastes ran more to property than French bistro classics and Racine shut in 2015, leaving so many memories. 

It was my perennial London bolthole. My wife Theresa and I even took a Paris-based copain there to shame him with this paradigm of ‘petits restaurants’. My dear late dining amie Sarah Hughes would fit in confession at the Oratory before boozy lunch. Even eating there on my own was a perfect comfort zone. Push through the front door’s heavy draught proof drape and you felt cosseted. A glass of Beaujolais at your elbow, a choice of Le Figaro or the Times proffered, while you awaited the likes of oysters, rillettes, rabbit with mustard and creamed spinach and a Valrhona chocolate pot.

All of which dishes, eight years on, I revisited in the upstairs dining room of the Three Compasses, Cowcross Street, opposite Farringdon Station. With Monsieur Harris himself, in front of the Bouchon Racine’s chalked menu board, beaming at the effrontery of reconvening when his fan base had nigh on given up on a permanent return. 

That fanbase was very much in evidence one Tuesday lunchtime. Mostly middle-aged trenchermen on the ample side with a long afternoon’s commitment to exploring the wine list. Service was informally impeccable and the simple dining room more Montmartre than you’d expect from a faded old London tavern. 

Whisper it, too, the food may be even better than of yore. My oysters were Carlingford’s finest – plump Louet Feissers au naturel, six for £22 – the Rillettes (£11) from Ibiaima pork, sourced from the French Basque country. Then so much tender flesh on the Lapin à la Moutarde (£23), cloaked in smoked bacon, its silkiest of sauces given extra succulence by my swamping the plate with an £8.50 side of spinach creamed with foie gras. Check out the menu board for all the treats I had to resist. No pudding I had told myself but, of course, the tiny two tone pot au chocolate (£8) with my double espresso was de rigueur – as they used to say in Knightsbridge. 

The origin of the word bouchon for such a bistro comes from Lyon. They were originally inns for silk workers and the name apparently derives not from corks, as you might imagine, but from a 16th century expression for a bundle of twisted straw. This featured in signs to designate the restaurants. In Farringdon steer your course via the Three Compasses. A solo voyage? You won’t feel marooned.

Bouchon Racine, 66 Cowcross Street, London EC1M 6BP (020 7253 3368).

One boon of the lockdowns, as we sought solace beyond our isolation, was stumbling upon digital escape routes for which we felt a kinship. Mine were strangely consoling. Among the social media tumult of misinformation and malice what a relief each day to receive via Twitter an Eric Ravilious artwork (@Ravilious1942) or a snatch of Seamus Heaney verse (@HeaneyDaily)? Best of all was my discovery of the Friends of Friendless Churches. I was not alone – there were 46,000 followers of @friendschurches helping spread the word about a tiny 65-year-old charity ‘caring for 60 redundant but beautiful places of worship in England and Wales.’

I also follow @BatsinChurches. This project tailors the interests of our 18 native species to the delicate structures they choose to inhabit. Both these niche organisations – the first mostly privately resourced, the second a Heritage Fund recipient, each a labour of love – get their moment in the spotlight in Peter Ross’s vivid trawl across the ecclesiastical edifices of our island, Steeple Chasing (Headline, £22, published May 11).

Appropriately enough, Friendless Churches is the focus of the chapter titled Dust. The author meets its director, Rachel Morley an Irish woman in her thirties, on site on a bend of the River Monnow just across the Welsh Border. St James Llangua is nearing the end of its working life. It’s not in a good state. Can they afford to rescue it it? It will take £300,000 to fix the roof and make it safe. That’s half of the Friends’ annual income. 

Further chapters are entitled Steel, Fire, Stone, Bone, Fen, Light etc in this award-winning Scottish feature writer’s neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among the steeples and bell towers. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor, A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards (Headline, £20).

That came out in 2020. This suggests a publisher cashing in with a quickfire follow-up. Far from the case. Steeple Chasing is given an extra dimension by the intervening pandemic. The quirky stories are still there, as is Ross’s wry charm, but essentially this is a book about people caring deeply. About the fabric of churches and the fabric of community. It has become a state of the nation book. While focusing on structured religion in decline.

The dressing-up box meets secret anointment excesses of this weekend’s Coronation (of the ‘Defender of the Faith’) made me wish for a simpler communion with history. Alone in a Norman church, perhaps, among fields. Such architectural survivors, of course, feature in Simon Jenkins’ comprehensive England’s Thousand Best Churches, which offers a star rating for each. This can easily become a tourist ticker exercise. I say this as a man already compiling a Steeple Chasing bucket list. On it for starters are two slightly spooky churches – Holy Trinity at Stow Bardolph in Norfolk and St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Chaldon in Surrey.

The former is host to a life-size wax effigy of one Sarah Hare, a member of the local gentry who died aged 55 on April 9, 1744 ‘after poisoning her blood with the prick of a needle’. It was her wish to be memorialised this way; the body itself is buried beneath the church floor. The face is “plump and over-ripe, ingrained dirt gives the impression it is veined like cheese, The eyes are blue. Dark curls fall across the forehead. The effigy has grown grubby and worn. The neck and décolletage are filthier than the face and the hands are filthiest of all. Her left index finger is coming away at the knuckle, “ writes Ross.

He compares the experience to Dorian Gray, Miss Havisham or the end of Don’t Look Now. “It would be the most natural thing in the world, the most dreadful thing in the world, if she smiled.” After which he takes tea with her descendant, Lady Rose Hare, who is rather fond of Sarah. The only other funeral effigies in the UK are in Westminster Abbey. Surely some Royal hangers-on were auditioning for the part last Saturday.

Grand Guignol in pictorial form at the Chaldon church, tucked in a fold of the North Downs. Dating back to 1170, ’The Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul and the Road to Heaven’ is a 17ft by 6ft red mural depicting purgatorial torment. Demons stir a cauldron full of murderers, a hell hound chews a woman’s arm, devils press forks to the head of a money-lender until white-hot coins spill from his mouth. How precious to find such a masterpiece still in situ rather than transported to a museum.

As so often in the book, Ross’s empathy comes to the fore. Acknowledging it is intellectually quite complex, offering new ideas about the afterlife, he writes that “the total  effect is visceral. It must have been a fearful experience for medieval churchgoers to stand facing the altar with this horror show behind them. I bet they smelled the sulphur. I bet they felt the heat on the back of their necks.” 

Linking it tenuously to Picasso’s Guernica, Ross concludes: “it seems both ancient and queer and radical and modernist”. That could apply to Stanley Spencer. In the same chapter, Paint, Ross takes in his vast religious war painting, Resurrection of the Soldiers, at Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire. I love these (sic) leaps of faith throughout Steeple Chasing.

The book ranges far beyond country churches. Sheela-na-gigs and other ruderies, wooden angels among Norfolk rafters, Glastonbury’s sacred springs, the abandoned brutalist seminary of St Peter’s outside Dumbarton. The mighty centres of Christendom are also tackled – Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s. With the latter, in the Fire chapter, his fascinating tangent features the air wardens who stood sentinel over it during World War II, when miraculously it survived. My favourite London contribution, though, is in the next chapter Cats. Worth buying the book just for this account of a feral Borough Market ratter enlisted to serve in the same capacity at adjacent Southwark Cathedral. Christened Doorkins Magnificat, she patrolled the grounds by night and found favourite spots inside to snooze during the day. This famous feline even met The Queen on one royal visit. 

Alas, Doorkins’ eventual end was hastened by being caught up in the 2017 Islamist terror attack on London Bridge with its fleeing crowds, sirens and flashing lights. After the Cathedral doors were blown open in a controlled explosion, she was never the same cat again. No spoilers. Buy this fabulous book to find out what happens to Magnificat.

A YouTube postscript

Each time I finish reading a Peter Ross book there’s a pattern developing. I Google a film. In the case of A Tomb With A View it was One Million Dollars, Anife Kellehers’s documentary about Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery that’s also an elegy for its legendary tour guide, Shane MacThomais (who committed suicide aged 44, though that’s not mentioned in the film). It’s a remarkable watch.

In Steeple Chasing John Betjeman’s A Passion for Churches gets a mention in relation to Norfolk’s rich holy building heritage. The BBC screened it in  1974 and it’s still available grainily on YouTube. Watch it and be amazed at how 50 years has transformed Britain (an absurd lapse into medieval kingship ritual aside). Did people really look like that? Was it all so grey? It out-Larkins Larkin, a vastly superior poet to Betjeman (witness Church Going or An Arundel Tomb). And yes, at least in the country parishes, we were still clinging on to being a church-going nation.

Take in the Indian food shot above. The mutton keema is adapted from a recipe by my beloved Dishhoom, the paratha was bought in frozen, while the date and tamarind chutney and coriander/mint dip were both home-made. Star of the impromptu tiffin, though, is hidden under that tangle of radish sprouts. Step into the spotlight Gurdeep Loyal’s Punjabi Ranchero.

It comes from his Mother Tongue (4th Estate, £28) and follows the template of this utterly utterly distinctive cookbook, whose playful manifesto proclaims: “Food is a living form of culture that evolves: its boundaries are fluid, blurred, porous and dynamic… authenticity is an unending reel of culinary snapshots, an evolving spectrum that captures many transformative moments along flavourful journeys in generations of kitchens.”

So where we are at with this “second generation British Indian food writer and home cook, a descendant of Punjabi farmers and Leicester market traders with big appetites” is a dish such as this ‘Aloo Chaat Wedge Salad with a Pink Peppercorn Ranch Dressing’. Potatoes and chaat masala meet American iceberg lettuce dressing. His aim? To marry the “same splendidly kitsch garnishing skills as Indian street snacks” with the “Fanny Craddock meets breakfast buffet school of culinary arts.” Cue some ‘visual mood board’ fantasy about the iconic Fanny sporting a sari on Christmas Day!

Like all the 100 determinedly hybrid recipes in his debut collection, it works a treat. Hard to imagine in advance Gurdeep’s anarchically fusion take, Lasagne Rolls with Kasunda Keema (the recipe for which is at the end of this piece), but I was won over by his introduction to it. A charming, accomplished writer, he is as good on intros as tweaking traditional food styles.

“It was the daytime clubbing scene where the boundaries of bhangra and Asian underground were pushed, blending Punjabi folk music, classical Indian melodies and Bollywood anthems with hip hop, R’n’B, soul, dance and garage. I remember South Asian friends bunking off college on Wednesday afternoons, heels in their bags, to get to afternoon raves. 

“Created by and for the diaspora, they served a generation of young adults, united by a need to party coupled with a need to be at home in time to make roti. I encountered offshoots of the scene much later, through the queer-desi night Club Kali and sporadic bhangra DJs that played Popstarz at the Apollo. Those 2am moments on the dance floor were rare times I could be every layer of my identity at once, illuminating with lasers what was often concealed by the code-switching of my life by daylight. Identity is like lasagne: each layer unique, but transformed when brought together as a whole.”

A professional level cellist, 39-year-old Gurdeep can’t resist peppering his food writing with musical analogies. Born in Leicester, he has pursued his passion for flavours across an eclectic career path that has included helping grow Innocent Drinks and exploring global food trends for Harrods and Marks & Spencer. All this while coping with plural identities as a British-born son of Punjabi immigrants. He recognises the irony of the title Mother Tongue when his mother will never have the English language skills to read it.

And, of course, there is another Loyal identity – as a gay man. It’s not the kind of memoir that dwells on prejudice and the struggles that brings. For that try The Go-Between by the equally flamboyant Osman Yousefzada (Canongate £14.99). He wrote: “My parents come from an underclass; they were illiterate and couldn’t read or write in any language.…they came from humble rural areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan and moved to the UK in the early 1970s to fill the low-level jobs no one else wanted.”

Much of his account is of a child perceptively exploring the confines of the immigrant ‘ghetto’ that was Balsall Heath, Birmingham and the restrictions on women, particularly his beloved mother and sisters. Eventually, he breaks through the barriers to reach university in London, starting his own fashion label (Beyoncé and Lady Gaga were clients) and more recently becoming renowned as a multi-disciplinary artist.

Brought up in America, another gifted gay writer Mayukh Sen trades less on his Asian descent (Bengali). His own breakthrough book of 2021, deals with the marginalisation of female voices within a patriarchal 20th century culinary culture. Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women who Revolutionised Food in America (Norton, £11.39) profiles cookery writers familiar to me on this side of the Pond – Italian champion Marcella Hazan and Indian Julie Sahni, restaurateur and recipe rival of the higher profile Madhur Jaffrey – but the remaining five were equally fascinating in their struggles to promote their authentic cooking styles.

These may seem yesterday’s battles when we now have a bewildering proliferation of cookbooks defining authentic cuisines of nations, even regions. And with one click online you can source multiple variants of one exotic recipe or other. In the midst of this tumult my tip is to seek out those second generation Asian writers who are not on repeat, who have loyalty to tradition but bend it to their own culinary will. 

I’d first recommend the remarkable Nik Sharma, California-based molecular biologist/photographer/cookbook author and, a theme developing, also gay. Start with Saison (Chronicle Books, £25), then move on to the more challenging, science-based The Flavor Equation (Chronicle Books, £26) and perhaps his A Brown Table website.

In the UK women writers are to the fore. Sumayya Usmani blends an expectation-defying memoir and a contemporary take on her native Pakistani cuisine in Andaza (Murdoch £20). Meera Sodha’s Made in India and Fresh India (both Penguin Figtree, £20) are my go-to weekday meal gospels. Her story, too, is one of emigration. She was born in Lincolnshire to Ugandan Indian parents and the cross-fertilisation shows in a dish like a brussels sprout thoran and she is not too purist to promote a curry featuring a Lincolnshire sausage. On the fipside, I’m not sure how much beaching up in Coventry from the Tamil northern tip of Sri Lanka has influenced Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s recently restaurant Rambutan near Borough Market. Her cookbook of that same name is a retro look at the (delicious) family food she grew up with and its transformation in exile, while not shying away from the tragic sectarian strife of her homeland.

More recently another second generation Punjabi, Sarah Woods, in her Desi Kitchen (Penguin, £30), has charted the diaspora of a variety of regional Indian cuisines in assorted UK regions, again recognising the mutations of ‘authentic’ dishes. Ravinder Boghal, Kenyan-born to Indian parents, doesn’t even claim, in her Marylebone restaurant Jikoni and the cookbook of the same name to be remotely ‘traditional’. ‘Proudly inauthentic recipes from an immigrant kitchen’ is the sub-heading of Jikoni (Bloomsbury, £26).

I’m a big fan of Ravinder’s paneer gnudi with saag or clove-smoked venison samosas with beetroot chutney but, for the moment, I‘m loyally smitten with Gurdap. Oh, those Coconut Crab Crumpets with Railway Crispy Eggs (I kid you not), Tahini Chalai Chicken Wings, Hariyali Coconut Fish Pie, Miso-Masala Fried Chicken Sando, Desi Kofta Meatballs with Sticky Mango-Lime Tomatoes, Sweet Chilli-Gunpowder Roasted Cauliflower, and Chocolate-Orange Jalebis. Pure genius. Meanwhile, finally, lasagne as you’ve never known it…

Kasundi keema lasagne rolls

(Serves 4) 

For the kasundi keema: 

2 tbsp ghee 

2 large onions, finely chopped 

1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed 

1 tbsp black mustard seeds 

1 tbsp cumin seeds 

8 garlic cloves, very finely chopped 

2 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger 

2 tsp chilli flakes 

500g minced lamb (20 per cent fat) 

2 tbsp Garam Masala (see page 23) 

2 tsp fine sea salt 

5 tbsp tomato purée 

2 tbsp dark brown sugar 

3 tbsp apple cider vinegar 

½ x 400g can of chopped tomatoes 

For the cheese paste: 

200g mature Cheddar cheese, grated 

2 tsp cumin seeds, crushed 

3 tbsp coarse semolina 

1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper 

1 egg, lightly beaten 

For the greens: 

200g cavolo nero, coarse stalks removed 

1 tbsp English mustard 

4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped or grated 

4 tbsp lemon juice 

For the lasagne rolls and tarkha: 

10-12 lasagne sheets 

500g jar of tomato pasta sauce 

2 tbsp vegetable oil 

30–35 fresh curry leaves 

1½ tbsp black mustard seeds 

1 tsp chilli flakes


To make the keema, heat the ghee in a large pan, add the onions and cook for 7–8 minutes until golden. 

Next add the coriander, mustard and cumin seeds, cooking for another 2–3 minutes, before adding the garlic, ginger and chilli flakes. Now add the lamb, browning for 4–6 minutes before mixing through the garam masala and salt. Finally add the tomato purée, sugar and vinegar, along with the tomatoes. Simmer and reduce for 5–7 minutes, then set aside. 

To make the cheese paste, mix all the ingredients together into a crumbly mixture. 

For the greens, boil the cavolo nero in salted water for 5–6 minutes until tender, then blend with the mustard, garlic and lemon juice into a thick smooth paste. Add a little water if needed, then let it cool. 

Preheat the oven to 200°C fan. 

Cover the lasagne sheets with boiling water and leave for 4–5 minutes to soften a little. Slice each lasagne sheet down the middle lengthways, making 2 strips ready for rolling. 

Take one pasta strip, spread with 1 tablespoon of the mustard greens, sprinkle over some cheese paste and finally add a spoon of keema. Roll up tightly into a snail. Repeat to form all the lasagne rolls. 

Pour the jarred tomato pasta sauce into an ovenproof dish and tightly pack in the lasagne rolls. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for a final 10–15 minutes until piping hot and crusty on top. 

Meanwhile, for the tarkha, heat the vegetable oil in a pan, then add the curry leaves, mustard seeds and chilli flakes. Sizzle for 1 minute, then drizzle over the baked lasagne rolls just before serving. 

Quiz time. David Beckham and arguably the finest 18th century Falstaff – what have they in common? Answer: a fierce looking fish bearing the thumbprint of St Peter. 

Back in 2015 Becks took a then teenage Brooklyn fishing off Dorset. There’s a picture of the pair proudly brandishing their catch – the second biggest John Dory ever landed on that particular boat, the skipper told them. That might make it 3kg. It’s hard to tell given the bizarre body. This delicious expensive fish is certainly no looker. So thin, head on it is nigh invisible as it sneaks up on prey, rapidly sucking up the likes of shrimp and squid.

Those distinctive black marks on either side of its dark olive yellow body, clustered with spines? Supposedly they are the thumb and finger-prints of Apostle Peter, who snatched the fish out of the Sea of Galilee and removed a gold coin from its mouth to pay taxes he owed. Its Latin name is Zeus Faber. So godlike connections but that hasn’t saved it from nicknames. The French traditionally dubbed it ‘l’horrible’ or “poulet de mer”.  One theory from a certain Jules Verne has its proper name springing from ‘janitore’, St Peter’s role at the gates of Heaven, but it’s more than likely an anglicisation of Jaune Doré (golden yellow).

It certainly shone brightly for the Irish-born Shakespearean actor James Quin, maybe bested as Lear to David Garrick but a legendary champion of the John Dory’s merits. When asked what sauce suited its surprisingly fleshy fillets he responded by announcing the banns of marriage between ‘delicate Ann Chovy, and good John Dory’. 

You’ll find the tomb of this maverick ham, accused of both murder and manslaughter in his roistering prime, in the Abbey Church, Bath. Where, as quoted by Alan Davidson in his scholarly North Atlantic Seafood, “Quin’s celebrity as the prince of epicures was well known, and where his palate finished its voluptuous career.”

So a man after my own heart. I’ve been been basking in a kind of John Dory afterglow since acquiring, at Wellgate Fisheries, Clitheroe, the best specimen I’ve ever had. Carefully avoiding those nasty barbs, owner Giles Shaw filleted it from its heavy bones and substantial head, which later yielded a perfect fumet for a paella.

Just 40 per cent of body weight left, but what to do with the slightly sticky but firm flesh? The mercurial Quin recommended poaching in sea water and serving with a lobster or shrimp sauce, according to Davidson, who suggests cider and cream might be the way to go. Instead I reverted to Mistress Ann Chovy and followed the Mitch Tonks recipe for Grilled Dory with Anchovy Vinaigrette, replacing the customary braised fennel (a sprinkle of fennel pollen sufficing) with steamed spinach. I also scattered over a few mussels from the batch destined for the paella. Thanks to the quality of fish it was the equal of the dish we ate at Tonks’ flagship, The Seahorse, on Dartmouth Embankment. https://seahorserestaurant.co.uk

By all means follow my lead but wait until autumn. John Dory is not on any endangered quota, but breeding season is May to August… You can purchase it online  from Tonks’ own Rockfish Seafood Market. Another good John Dory source is Trident Fresh Fish Or maybe give Giles a ring and enjoy the drive up to Clitheroe to collect.

Eliza Acton noted in Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) that John Dory, “though of uninviting appearance is considered by some persons as the most delicious fish that appears at table”. I concur heartily.



150 ml /¼ pt olive oil

150 ml/ ¼ pt white wine vinegar

150 ml/ ¼ pt white wine

2 bay leaves

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 sliced lemon

1 small onion, finely sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely sliced

3 Florence fennel bulbs

John Dory fillets – they will vary in size but allow about 180g / 6 oz per person


For the anchovy vinaigrette:

6 salted anchovy fillets

1 tsp Dijon mustard

3 tbsp white wine vinegar

100 ml double cream

1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Squeeze of lemon

Black pepper


Pre-heat the oven to 175C. First braise the fennel by gently heating the olive oil, wine vinegar, wine, bay leaf, fennel seeds and coriander seeds in a pan.   Then add the sliced lemon, onion, sliced garlic and fennel.  Cover and cook in the oven for about an hour until the fennel is tender. Remove from the oven and allow to cool at room temperature in the braising liquid.

Make the anchovy vinaigrette by pounding the anchovy fillets in a pestle and mortar.  Then put the mustard in a bowl with the vinegar and whisk together slowly adding the olive oil until those the three ingredients emulsify. Then add the anchovy paste and gently whisk in the cream. Add the parsley, a squeeze of lemon and plenty of black pepper.

 Heat the grill then brush the John Dory fillets with a little olive oil and season with salt.  Grill for 6-7 minutes until lightly golden.

To serve put two or three chunks of braised fennel and onion mixture on a plate, place the fish alongside and drizzle with the anchovy vinaigrette.