Best Bacon Sandwiches at Nimmings Cafe, Clent Hills

Clent Hills - Photo by Hannah Eno
Clent Hills – Photo by Hannah Eno
What are the ingredients of a bloody good walk? Well a nice view is always good. And a sturdy hill to climb to give a sense of achievement at the end, that’s always good too. But mainly I find a food or drink incentive is the best way of getting me out of the house.
But where to go, when starting from Birmingham? Hills and views usually requires a car journey.  Tolkien fans may wish to head towards Tolkien’s inspiration for the Shire – the Lickey Hills, or even further to the Malvern Hills.
But I fancy that notorious bacon fancier Tolkien (there are seven references to bacon in The Hobbit) would, if he was still in walking mode, prefer to go to my top tip for a country ramble: the Clent Hills.
The walk is decent enough, a nice big hill, a trig point, a folly in the distance, the malevolant-looking Black Mountains out to the West. But the real reason to go is what must be without a doubt The Best Bacon Sandwich (nearly) in Birmingham.
If I was writing in the Guardian we could do 300 words on what makes the best bacon sandwich. But given food enjoyment is 90% context, you are halfway there already on a cold, bright winter Sunday morning, surrounded by dogs and dog walkers and half-famished from the effort of dragging yourself out of bed (sandwich should preceed walk I find). But the other 10% is well supplied with a bouncy thickly-sliced bloomer loaf, slices dunked in bacon grease and generously stuffed with well-griddled, crisp edged bacon, cut thick enough from the belly to be substantial. Red sauce optional but a must. Adding an egg often not a bad idea – you know, just for sustenance. Don’t forget there’s a walk after this. This is not the place for multigrain sourdough and rare breed oinkers, and all the better for it.
Be warned, this place is hella popular so you might be in for a 30 minute wait at peak times. But you can get a steaming mug of tea (always tea, never a coffee, especially here) while you wait and watch the dog owners with small-pony-sized hounds struggling to stop them shagging (or eating) the littler ones.
If you can still be bothered to walk up the hill once you’ve had your sandwich, there’s a very decent pub on the other side for a lunchtime pint.
Open every day except Mondays and Xmas Day. If you have National Trust membership you can park for free in the car park.

Smokeandumami’s 2013 Top of the Pops

It’s been a pretty good year for Birmingham food. Street food has definitely been on-trend, with original purveyors Digbeth Dining Club going from strength to strength, with the glorious Meat Shack certainly our pick of the vendors there, with both his regular burgers and specials both worth seeking out. Also helping the cause of street food was Brum Yum Yum, loudly declaring their intentions to transform the way we dine in the city, and having established a very popular regular Saturday event in Kings Heath. Food pop-up Can Eat run by Lap and Dom Clarke from Loaf Community Bakery’s premises gained a regular audience and a 5* review from Paul Fulford.

A number of independent openings have plugged the few remaining gaps in Birmingham’s food offering, perhaps most particularly Istanbul for Turkish food, and both Seoul Plaza and Banana Leaf Cafe providing much-needed lunch options in Selly Oak. All this we have been (kind of) diligently documenting on our Birmingham Food Map. We plan to continue adding new sites until we have the whole city covered (please leave suggestions in the comments).

A fourth Michelin star was added to Birmingham’s impressive roster of Simpsons, Turners and Purnells by Adam’s Restaurant. Huge congratulations to Adam Stokes and the other head chefs for this achievement, it cannot always be easy in the current economic climate. But increasingly we find our own appetites have increasingly shifting away from this style of dining, as evidenced by the eateries featured on this blog.

Sadly there have been the inevitable closures too: Lap’s favourite sichuan restaurant BBQ Village is no more. And it seems the useful independent food board has gone the way of the dodo too?

Looking at the blog statistics, the most popular posts during 2013 have all been related to home cooking, including Nick’s treatise on brining, and Lap’s guide to butchering a pork shoulder for BBQ, the epic how to cook a fat steak, 9000 ways with razor clams and the definitive comparison of chilli bean pastes for those wishing to follow the peerless Fuschia Dunlop’s recipes..

On the Birmingham food map, popular entries have included fish and chips at the Black Country Living Museum (still unbeatable in Nick’s view), the estimable and very reliable Min Min and pho-slingers Nom Nom Noodles, Digbeth Dining Club and finest purveyors of curried lambs brain’s Mughal-E-Azam.

Posts from previous years that still keep giving in 2013 include Lap’s encyclopedic guide to the Birmingham Indoor Market and Wholesale Market, actually the most popular post on this site and a lesson to Birmingham Council who seem set on moving and marginalising this unique asset (Birmingham Council should realise that claims of Birmingham being a foodie city are just as much to do with the market as the four Michelin stars we claim as our own). Other popular posts are Lap’s excellent guide to eel smoking, his definitive guide to Hainan chicken rice, Nick’s guide to Moro-style beetroot borani and the unimpeachable beef rendang recipe, which I highly recommend you try. Finally, judging from the hits, thousands of you are still desperate to find a place for sushi in Birmingham, but it sadly remains  a bit of a desert out there.

So all that remains me to do is to thank you the readers of the blog for your support in 2013, wish you a Happy New Year and ask that you keep reading in 2014 and please do get involved in the comments section or on Twitter as it makes the whole experience much more rewarding for us!





Loaf Community Bakery, Stirchley

Tom and Dom from Loaf have been rightly annoyed with me for not having put the fabulous Loaf Community Bakery on the Birmingham Food Map yet. A source of great shame; when we conceived the map project my plan was to post one item per day until we were exhausted of all options. However, it was not to be, due to burn-out from non-blog projects.

Yet, I don’t feel that bad, as I figure if you already read this blog, and are therefore an afficionado of the Birmingham food scene, you must know of Loaf already, which serves as a kind of beacon for those interested in food in the City. But anyway, sorry to Tom and Dom and pleased I can correct this wrong now!

So what to say about Loaf Community Bakery – originally a ‘bread club’, a subscription-based bakery run from Tom’s house and domestic oven, he has since harnessed the support of his community to set up a fully-fledged bakery and cookery school in a shop front on Stirchley High Street. Tom has strong ideas about the power of projects such as his, not just to supply great food, but to help communities ‘save’ their local high streets from shuttering and the inexorable creep of the major supermarkets.

The way I look at it: these guys bake what is easily the best bread in Birmingham, bar absolutely no-one. Properly made, hand-shaped crusty sourdough, part-rye loaves like the ‘Maslin’ and dark, treacly all-rye tin varieties. Great big bloomin’ bloomers, multi-grain loaves and specialty breads like focaccias and brioche. You might also find a sticky bun or two if they haven’t sold out.

It’s not just bread, there is a (most) weekly Friday lunch club called Stirchley Brewhouse, with a rotating menu of sandwiches and hot food, usually one meat and one vegetarian option, with Sarah Frost’s amazing cakes to have afters.

There are occasional pop-ups, including the highly-rated CANeat event which a no-choice set menu of progressive and innovative food (5* review from Paul Fulford).

There is also the cookery school which hosts a variety of interesting events. I have been on the Simply sourdough course which I can highly recommend, there are other bread-making courses, foraging, clay oven building, fish and seafood (run by blog co-writer Lap), pickling and preserves, and many more!

The opening hours are informed by the baking schedule, so it is open 2pm-7pm Tuesday-Friday and then they do an overnight bake on Friday so open 8.15am-2pm on Saturday. But not Sunday or Monday.

Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School, 1421 Pershore Road, Stirchley, Birmingham

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Banana Leaf Cafe, Selly Oak

You’d have to try pretty hard to find a worse location for a restaurant than the back of the Costcutter grocery store in Selly Oak. However, on the occasionally true equation that restaurant shabbiness sometimes equals superlative food, I was excited to try the Banana Leaf Cafe. This had previously been recommended to me by a colleague as a Malaysian street food style cafe, run by Birmingham University students. We went in August, only to find that they were closed for the summer holiday. We returned a few weeks ago only to find that rather than a Malaysian restaurant, it was now a Sri Lankan restaurant run by a hugely friendly family. Served buffet-style, they had a phenomenally hot mutton curry, rice, fish-filled patties, a selection of dals and vegetable curries and several sambals. So excited was I by my huge plate of deliciousness I failed to take any specific notes on what exactly I was eating. However all the food was of home-cooked quality, and staggeringly good. Keen that we were enjoying ourselves they brought over a pancake which was cooked like a dosa, but wasn’t lentil-based. And to finish off, some chocolate cake. Strange, very lovely, extremely cheap. I am posting this in haste because I suspect you need to get down here and keep these guys open, so completely unlikely is their location. Open 7 days a week, I think just for lunch. I will confirm after our next visit

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Banana Leaf Cafe, back of Costcutter supermarket (up from and on same side of Seoul Plaza, down from Aldi), Bristol Road, Birmingham

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Seoul Plaza, Selly Oak

What’s not to love about plucky little Seoul Plaza? For budding David Changs this Korean supermarket is the place to get your gochugaru (red pepper powder) and brine shrimp for making home-made kimchi, and your gochujang and ssamjang for bo ssam. There are also aisles for Chinese and Japanese ingredients, including a reasonable selection of fresh Chinese vegetables. You can pick up a decent Pi-Xian chilli bean paste here for fish-fragrant aubergines or mapo tofu. Those back from Japan with a hankering for Pocari Sweat will find it in the fridge, along with those weird drinks that look like they have frogspawn in (nope, never tried). If you can’t be bothered to make your own kimchi, you can also choose from their freshly-made options.

In the past few weeks, perhaps most excitingly for those desperate to find food in Selly Oak, they have started a hot food counter, serving takeaway rice, noodles, Korean fried chicken, fried dumplings, vegetable and pork dishes. The Korean fried chicken has a decent crust and decent sauce. A great deal for under a fiver. This is rapidly becoming our canteen for trips out from University campus.

They even have a small section for crockery and homewares, I got some nice Korean clay rice bowls here, perfect for serving kimchi jiggae. You can even pick up a rice cooker while you are there, or even an authentic Korean dedicated kimchi fridge, a snip at £700.

Seoul Plaza, 536 Bristol Road (down from and opposite Aldi), Birmingham.

Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!
Bowl of takeaway goodness from Seoul Plaza! My new lunch!

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Piña colada sorbet


What could be nicer in weather like this? Tropical flavours, a bit of alcohol and freezey cold on your tongue.

I asked Hannah to pick out a recipe from David Lebovitz’s peerless ice-cream and sorbet manual, The Perfect Scoop, and this is what she went for.

It couldn’t be simpler: a nice large ripe pineapple, 250g sugar, a can of coconut milk (not cream), a decent slug of rum and a squeeze of lime juice. Peel and core the pineapple, cutting off any gnarly bits, chop into chunks and blend with the other ingredients until smooth. I added a sprinkle of salt too, thinking it might sharpen up the flavour a bit. Give it a taste and adjust the rum and line to taste. Finally, churn the mixture in an ice cream maker.

I noticed the Guardian recently posted a buyer’s guide to ice-cream makers. If I may add my two pence, I would definitely recommend getting one with its own refrigeration unit – pricey, perhaps – but the ease of use means you will definitely use it more than with a bowl type. I had a Magimix Gelato but it broke almost immediately, and was a bit rubbish when it was working. Now I have a Cuisinart ICE50BCU, and this is a great buy. It has a decent powered freezer unit, doesn’t require any alcohol to be added between the freezer and the bowl, and has been rock-solid reliability. The only issues are a slightly fiddly lid fitting, which has resulted in me snapping off a bit of plastic, and the noise. It is sufficiently noisy that I churn the ice cream in another room with the door closed. Can honestly say this is one of the best kitchen investments I’ve ever made.



Brined roast pork belly, and some thoughts about brining

Next time you roast a joint of belly pork I would definitely recommend brining it in advance. Brining improves the texture of the meat, keeping it moister, and also seems to help with crackling formation. If you get the brine right you don’t have to worry about seasoning the outside. And you can also add some complementary flavourings which will penetrate within the meat- I chose juniper, bay leaf and garlic, mainly because they were to hand but you can express yourself. I cooked a small belly joint around 1.5kg for around 2.5 hours at 130 degrees C and then cranked up the temperature to around 210 degrees C for 20 minutes to finish the crackling.

My continuing campaign is that all brine recipes are expressed in terms of percentage strength, and include the weight of the thing to be brined. So, if you are aiming for an end-result of 5% salt, and you have a 2kg (2000g) piece of pork and cover it in 3 litres (3000g) of water, then you would calculate (2000g+3000g) * (5/100) = 250g of salt.

Again I am struck by the variability in recipes out there. The venerable Fergus Henderson, suggests in his brine recipe 600g of salt to 4 litres of water and does not specify the weight of pork belly. Assuming a 2kg piece, then this would be a 10% brine. He would have you brine for 3 days. I suspect this will result in something unpalatably salty for most people. This recipe from Anna Hansen uses less salt, but unhelpfully does not state how much water to include just to use enough brine “to cover”, which doesn’t take into account the variability in your pot. As an aside, if whatever I am brining can fit into a Ziploc bag, this is my preferred method. Just be sure to double-bag it in case of any leaks. I can’t even work out the brine strength for this New York Times recipe as they use the insane Imperial system (actually the US customary units system, come on Americans get with the programme – yes, that’s two m’s and a e).

So in conclusion, when brining, consider how salty you would like the result to be, I would suggest a palatable range is between 3 and 5%. I find it neat that sea water is around 3%, a nod to our amphibious past? You can find out what you like through experimentation. However, bear in mind that curing is not particularly efficient and you should consider at least two additional factors: time in the cure, and thickness of the meat. I suspect that explains why some recipes call for such high salt concentrations. There is considerable variability in terms of length of time required to cure and this mainly depends on the thickness of your pork belly. A thin piece should be done in 24 hours, but thicker pieces will require longer.

I am working on a Unified Field Theory of Brining, but still need to figure out some of the formulas involved. Call me Brinestein.

So, a few questions for advanced blog readers:

  • What is the formula governing brine uptake into meat at a certain temperature by thickness? I.e. can we predict the salt concentration at 1cm, 2cm, etc. after N days at fridge temperature if we know the starting salinity of our brine?
  • Why does brining improve crackling? One could argue that it is due to dehydration from the salt, but this would not make sense as it makes meat moister due to uptake of brine into the lysed cells. Is it due to a physical effect of breaking down the skin structure, e.g. forming cracks, perhaps similar to the technique of pouring boiling water over the skin?



Rossopomodoro, Bull Ring

“Where can I get a proper wood-fired pizza?”

“Is there anything decent to eat in the Bull Ring?”

Was I right people of Birmingham? Were these questions vexing you to your very core?

Thought so. Here’s the answer. Rossopomodoro, situated in Birmingham Selfridges food hall. That’s the food hall that doesn’t really sell any food, but can offer you the delights of Krispy Kreme, Pret a Manger and Mr. Ed’s Diner. Yes, that’s our Selfridges food hall people of London, don’t judge us.

Now I wouldn’t pretend Rossopomodoro is perfection. But their pizza is, I think depending on who is shaping the dough and manning the fire, anything from pretty good to excellent. Not a fan of too many toppings on my pizza, I’d go for the Verace – which pimps the mozzarella and adds a slick of decent quality olive oil. Their tomato sauce is pleasingly simple, I think it’s just decent quality, well-seasoned, canned Italian plum tomatoes (which you can buy to take home if you want, better than most supermarket brands). I think they also import their flour, which is a bit mad but they end up with a decent tasting crust so whatever works for them.

However, don’t expect anything great from the starters which I always skip after a singular disaster with some arancini. Pasta is no better than found at regular Italian chain restaurants (i.e. woeful) and I’ve never stuck around to find out if their desserts are any good.

But that doesn’t take anything away from the pizza! If you are shopping in the Bullring and fancy a sustaining pizza, and who doesn’t from time to time, then here’s your answer. It’s surprisingly unbusy as well. In fact, I wonder how well it is doing, so pop along and support it so I can still eat there in future!

Rossopomodoro, Selfridges Food Hall. They also do takeaway. Pizzas around a tenner.

Fish and Chips at the Black Country Living Museum


P1150723-768x1024 dsc_0309 dsc_0311 dsc_0019“Is there anywhere to eat between Walsall and Birmingham?”, a Twitter-er (tweeter?) asked t’other day. “Why yes, the Black Country Museum for fish and chips!” I responded, instantly. “Seriously?” came the response.

Yes! Seriously. I’ve been banging on about the fish and chips at the Black Country Museum for at least five years now, and still people think I’m joking. I’m not! To my mind they easily do the best fish and chips in the West Midlands, whilst laying a strong claim to the best fish and chips in the UK (and by extension the known Universe).

As with all great food experiences, it transcends what on the plate, or in this case in the cone. Ideally you will visit BCLM on a bright, sunny day which is slightly too cold to be completely comfortable. The bitter cold will sharpen the appetite and prime the stomach for its incoming raft of vinegar-soaked fats and carbs. The museum – which is indisputedly the best of the living museums – will have already given you a taste of the appalling conditions of the working class as they mined, chain-made and forged their way through a tough, tough life. The thoughts of such privation will serve to make your first bite of the dripping-fried, perfectly crisp, never greasy batter feel even more luxurious. The flakes of cod (always cod) are soft, thick and not overcooked. The chips have a good heft of dripping about them. Absolute perfection.

A few practical points: The museum isn’t particularly cheap to get into at around £12, although worth every penny. This is offset by the fact that you can use your receipt for free entry for the forthcoming year. Think of it as membership to an exclusive fish and chip club. The queues for Hobbs & Son, which was a real fish and chip shop before being moved to the museum from Hall Street, Dudley – brick-by-brick and painstakingly rebuilt and refurbished will probably be long at a weekend and busy periods, although I’ve never had to wait more than 30 minutes. Bear in mind in busy periods they sometimes run both fish and chip shops and sometimes one shop will be serving fish and chips for non-meat eaters, do not on any circumstances get tricked into eating these!!

I’ll leave it to your conscience to decide if you should get a pickled egg.

Carters of Moseley, Birmingham

Carters of Moseley is your perfect neighbourhood restaurant, particularly if you live in Moseley. After a particularly bruising week at work, this is where I want head to. The food is reassuringly comforting, featuring favourite ingredients like quail, pigeon, ox cheek or a decent tranche of fish, and cooked with rock-solid technique. It’s not just classic bistro though, there are enough little touches of flair; maybe some modernist technique here, or a scattering of foraged ingredients there, enough to show that chef Brad Carter has got real talent and style. But he never ruins things by showing off. It’s delivering a 21st-century hug on a plate, not an ego-driven descent into brick-licking moss in a flower pot madness. There are no shouty swearies going on back in the kitchen I suspect. Holly runs her front of house with real warmth and they are both real foodies, spending the small amount of free time they have checking out openings in London for inspiration. They have a beer menu with proper beers. They have decent wines by the glass. You can buy a good bottle for between £20-30.

They will also likely have a Michelin star before long, but I’m selfishly hoping it won’t be for a while, lest it ruin this little gem.

It’s not cheap, go for the set lunch menu if you are on a budget. Saturday lunch would be a good idea, straight after Moseley Farmers market. They also do afternoon tea. Bookings are advised, and definitely required for busy periods like Friday evenings and weekends. They also don’t cater for children, which has meant we haven’t gone for a while, but just as soon as I can convince Hannah to let us get a baby-sitter, this is the first place I’ll head …