food

The Dorset Knob Throwing Festival!

I do love a bizarre local festival (see Kattenstoet), and the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival certainly falls under that category. I first became aware of it a few years ago, via a cooking show, I think (can’t remember which one), and this year, the stars aligned and I was able to attend (OK, Marcus and I were planning on going somewhere in England on the early May bank holiday weekend anyway, and we were thinking of Leicester (to see some Daniel Lambert sites), until I thought, “wait, when’s the Dorset Knob Festival?” Turns out it is also on the early May bank holiday weekend. Decision made).

I’ve been to enough, shall we say, provincial festivals and fetes in England to know roughly what to expect, so I wasn’t setting my hopes too high, but I was still expecting an amusing day out based solely on the obvious sense of humour possessed by the festival organisers. But first things first, what, you may ask, is a Dorset knob, and why is there a festival based around throwing them?

In the words of Dorset Phil, who performed at the Knob Festival, and described them more eloquently than I can: “Knob knob knob, Dorset knob, I likes mine with cheese. Hard as wood, tastes real good, but it goes soft when I dunk it in my tea.” (I recommend watching the whole video; the verses are pretty great too, and it is damn catchy.) Basically, they are small, hard, dry, extremely bland (I don’t agree with the “tastes real good” line) biscuity things that used to be generally available in the area, but are now produced by only one baking company, and only seasonally.  They’re made out of triple-baked bread dough, so it’s sort of like what would happen if you left a small roll somewhere for a good month or so to dry out. And yes, people eat them with cheese, typically a local blue cheese, which is how they were serving them at the festival (I did not have one there, because I hate blue cheese), but you can also dunk them in tea, which is how the competitors eat them in the knob eating contest. As for why they throw them…well, I genuinely can’t find an answer to that, but perhaps it’s related to similar traditions elsewhere in England of throwing hot cross buns. Ten years ago, someone seemed to realise that Dorset knobs had a hilarious name, started an innuendo-laden festival in their honour, and it’s grown from there, even having to move to a new location this year to accommodate the crowds.

  

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t due to cooperate on the day of the festival, as it was supposed to rain all day, only getting worse as the day progressed. So I threw on wellies and my raincoat, and we showed up right when the festival opened, before the rain got really bad. This turned out to be a smart move, as we were able to park relatively close to the field where the festival was taking place, and it wasn’t super crowded.

  

Admission was a fiver, and I was initially a little dismayed when I saw the venue…though I had been expecting crap, I was hoping I’d be wrong, but it just looked like a very standard English outdoor festival – some stalls by local food producers, and then some random generic crap for sale, like those wooden bowls and leatherware that seem to pop up at every market. However, once we got inside and saw all the knob-themed things, I started to perk up, because it was funny, and also rather delightful.

  

In addition to the knob throwing (of which more in a second, but I think they really missed a trick by not calling it “knob tossing”), there were SO MANY OTHER knob-themed games, including putt-the-knob, knob and spoon race, splat-the-knob, guess the weight of the big knob, knob-spotting, etc etc. I was also thrilled to see that they had t-shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers for sale, because one of my main aims in visiting was to score myself a knob t-shirt (mission accomplished, though maybe they should consider having black t-shirts in women’s sizes. I’m not a huge fan of pink, and they were already sold out of men’s smalls in black). But of course we started with the knob throwing. You got three tries for a pound and you had to throw underarm, and it is not as easy as it looks. They’re light, and they don’t go very far (I think a hot cross bun would be a hell of a lot easier to throw). I definitely did not take home the glorious bronze knob for my attempts.

As you can see, I also pinned the knob on the Cerne giant. Although I did indeed get it in the right place, anatomically (the blindfold wasn’t very effective), you actually had to land in the correct, pre-chosen secret square, which could have been anywhere on the board, to win the prize. We also attempted to guess the number of knobs in a jar, albeit unsuccessfully. Once we’d had enough of knob games, we wandered around a bit and dropped far too much money on food, including some surprisingly excellent brownies, local honey fudge, a three pack of beer from Cerne Abbas Brewery (which honestly, we bought mainly for the bottles with their Cerne giant label), and of course, an ice cream (though I pretty much just ate sweets, I was pleasantly surprised by how many savoury veggie options there were, including a vendor selling steamed puddings filled with dal that looked intriguing, but the food tent was hellishly crowded on account of the rain, and I wasn’t up for braving it again after I’d passed her stall), and then stood around listening to the musical stylings of the aforementioned Dorset Phil (who writes songs about drinking, and Dorset, and sometimes both, as in the case of his Badger Ale song), who I actually really enjoyed (but then I quite like the Wurzels, and he had a similar sort of amusing regional accent vibe).

Other than “awwwing” at all the cute puppies people had with them, there wasn’t really much else to do, and the rain was coming down harder, so we called it a day. Honestly, considering the size of the festival, I was amazed we spent almost two hours there, and that I enjoyed myself as much as I did. It was indeed, as the sign at the entrance promised, a “knobtastic day.” Kudos to the organisers for having a great sense of humour, and to everyone working there for being really friendly. It kind of reminded me of the funfair in that episode of Father Ted when Ted is trying to get interviewed by that TV show (minus the shitty rides), but it was self-consciously so – they’re definitely in on the joke!  The whole thing was really quite charming, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would go back again, especially if I lived closer!  3.5/5.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Thai Farm Cooking School

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I’m actually not a huge fan of Thai food, or Asian food in general, mainly because my diet is mostly based around bread, cheese, and pasta, and I don’t really like rice.  However, I love cooking, so I was happy to go along to a Thai cooking class on a farm outside of Chiang Mai.  The course cost 1100 baht per person, which is around 22 pounds, but included all the food, and transport to and from our hotel, so was really pretty reasonable.  The “Thai Farm” provided transport out to the farm in the form of a pick up truck with covered benches installed in the back (it was hot back there!); after everyone had been picked up, we were instructed to choose the dishes we wanted to cook – we had a choice of three different dishes for each of the five courses, all of which had a vegetarian/vegan option available.  Once our selections had been made, we proceeded to a market to pick up some of the ingredients for the recipes; all the produce would come from their organic farm.

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We were given a brief tour around the market, and received an explanation of some of the ingredients, and then given a little time to wander.  The market shared the interesting smells of the West Side Market, but because it was in an open sided building, there were a lot more bugs (also the meat section was kind of scary, not in terms of the animals they were selling, but sanitation wise)!  Some of the fruit looked amazing, and there was a stand selling crepes filled with your choice of sweets that seemed awfully tempting, but I figured we’d be eating enough throughout the day, so didn’t buy anything.

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We then headed to the farm, about an half an hour drive from the market down a long, winding dirt road; upon arrival, we were greeted with cold drinking water (much appreciated) and Thai hats and aprons to wear during our cooking session.  Our instructor then gave us a very lengthy tour of the farm, encouraging us to smell and taste many of the herbs and vegetables we’d be using; though he was very engaging, the tour lasted for an hour, and it was probably the hottest day of our trip, so even with the hat and loads of slathered-on sunscreen for protection, I was pretty desperate to get back in the shade.  Alas, the cooking session took place in a kind of hut, with gas stoves that got very hot, but no air conditioning, not even a fan, so even in the shade, things weren’t much better.

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However, once we started cooking, I could for the most part ignore my discomfort, as I was interested in learning some new recipes and techniques.  There were ten cooking stations, one for each of us in the class, with our instructor in the middle of the room so we could observe what he was doing.  We began by learning to make curry paste from scratch, either green, yellow, or red, our choice.  I had opted for red, which gets its colour from long red chillies, which are nowhere near as hot as the small ones, and includes a crapload of other exotic ingredients, like kaffir lime and Thai ginseng.  I really enjoyed using the massive mortar and pestle to grind it up; these were super heavy-duty ones, and it was great fun to bash out my frustrations on the paste.  That done, we learned how to make our choice of soup, which we then took outside to eat for the first course.  I am a total spice wuss (my favourite comfort food is homemade spaetzle sauteed in a bit of butter and lots of salt, so yeah, I tend to go for bland, yet salty foods), so I only put one chili in my Tom Yum, even though the instructor said to use two for mild.  Word of warning for wusses like me: it was so damn spicy, avoid the little peppers!  I think I might have just got a freak chili, because my boyfriend had put four in his, and said his soup was nowhere near as spicy as mine, but I seriously couldn’t even eat it without having an embarrassing coughing fit.  I didn’t put the little chillies in anything after that.  Lesson learned.

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We returned to the kitchen after soup o’clock to prepare the main dishes, including finishing the curry with the curry paste we made in the morning.  I was super excited to get to put tofu in my curry AND my stirfry, because I’d been counting on eating a lot of it on the trip, as it’s one of the few Asian foods I do really like, but had only seen it in vegetarian restaurants thus far (which I was really surprised about because Thai restaurants in the US and UK always have it on their menus, so I expected the same in Thailand, but it’s not as prevalent there as I’d been led to believe).  I was also pumped to use a beat-up, yet well-seasoned wok and shovel stirring thing, because I use a nonstick wok at home with a wooden spoon, which does the trick, but isn’t terribly authentic.  The flame kept burning my hand though, so I couldn’t keep the heat up quite as high as the instructor wanted me to.  So yeah, we cooked our curry and a tofu (or meat) stirfry with holy basil, and then sat down for the main part of the feast, accompanied by plain steamed rice, sticky rice, and papaya salad (which was again too spicy for my stupid weiner mouth, even though the instructor said he’d used light spicing).  Another word of advice; I took a bunch of regular rice because I didn’t know there’d be sticky rice, and I wanted to make sure I’d be full in case I didn’t like my curry (which was not a problem, since the curry rocked, and yes, I dislike rice, but at least it’s reliably edible), but sticky rice is like a gazillion times better, and then I was stuck eating a bunch of crappy regular rice, so don’t make my mistake.

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After lunch, we were given a little time to wander the grounds, and digest.  There was a nice little pond in the middle of the huts (there were four of them, and they all had a cooking class going on at the same time as ours), and a sleepy cat.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though the toilets were in another hut, they were clean and normal (non-squat) toilets, since after Phuket, I was kind of suspicious of any that weren’t in a city or hotel.  We were so full after lunch that I think we all felt a little sick at the thought of doing more cooking and eating, but our instructor assured us we could take the rest of the food to go if we wanted, so we all consented to cook the last two courses.

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These consisted of a noodle dish of our choice (pad thai, pad see ew, or spring rolls) made with fresh noodles from the market.  I went with pad see ew because it’s one of the few Thai dishes I really enjoy, because the noodles are so big and tasty, and it doesn’t have chili!  After cooking that and putting it in takeaway bags, we made pudding, which was either mango with sticky rice or bananas in coconut milk.  That was a tough call for me because I don’t like mango or cooked banana (unless it’s mushed up in something like banana bread where I don’t have to experience the texture), but I went with the sticky rice in the end because I figured I could at least eat the rice part.  We flavoured the rice with coconut milk and palm sugar, and oh my god, palm sugar is amazing!  It tasted like fudge (as in British sugary fudge, not chocolate) with more complexity, and I took a super huge blob just so I could sneak bites when no one was looking.  The finished dish made me feel extremely ill after I ate it, but that was probably far more to do with gobbling down all the palm sugar than the unpleasantness of the mango (I also don’t normally like pineapple, but Thai pineapple is amazing, so I thought Thai mango would be better too, but nope, still horrible).  Thankfully, our instructor served us delicious lemongrass tea that was meant to help with digestion immediately after.

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Even though I wasn’t crazy about all the food (which was not the fault of the farm, just my own weird palate and dislike of veg), I loved getting to learn how to cook new things, and I managed to survive the extreme heat of the day without air con, I was so engrossed!  I think it’s a fun experience for anyone with an interest in cooking or hell, eating, and Sawat (our instructor, who also appears to be the owner) was really friendly and helpful.  This is not going to turn into a cooking blog (not because I don’t like them; I actually read a tonne of cooking blogs, but because I wouldn’t want to take on all that work of recipe testing myself), but I thought just this one time, I’d include one of the recipes we learnt in class (I think it’s ok because they have them up on their website), for Pad See Ew, both because it’s tasty, and doesn’t have a lot of hard-to-find ingredients.  My own comments are in parentheses.

Stir Fried Big Noodles (Pad See Ew), from the Thai Farm Cooking School Cookbook

Serves 1-2

Ingredients:

200 grams big fresh noodles (about 7 ounces, though you can probably get away with using 8 if it’s easier, see note below)

100 grams sliced tofu (3.5 oz, I’d error on the generous side and throw in more, see note below)

1/3 cup sliced long beans

1/4 cup of sliced carrot

2 cloves of chopped garlic (again, I’d probably use more, but only because I love garlic)

1 egg

1 tsp of fish sauce or soy sauce

1 tsp of dark sweet soy sauce (if you can only find regular dark soy, that’s ok too)

1 1/2 tsp of sugar

1 1/2 tbsp soybean or vegetable oil

1 stem of chopped spring onion

Mix dark sweet soy sauce with big fresh noodles first and set aside.  Heat the oil in the wok.  Fry tofu until golden brown.  Add garlic, long beans, and carrot.  Stir fry until fragrant.  Push the vegetables to the side of the wok and add beaten egg.  Once they begin to set, quickly scramble them and stir through the vegetables.  Add noodles, and season with fish or soy sauce and sugar.  Add spring onion and stir fry thoroughly until well mixed.

Notes: By “big fresh noodles” they mean pad see ew noodles, or, as I usually see them sold, Thai rice sticks. I can never find the fresh in the UK, and have to go to Chinatown to find even the dried kind.  I buy the XL width ones, or the thickest kind I can find.  They usually come in 400 gram packets.  Just rehydrate in freshly boiled water for about five minutes, or whatever the packet says, before using in a stir fry if you’re using the dried kind.  Also if you’re using the dried kind, either only rehydrate 100 grams to end up with 200 grams of cooked noodles, or use the full 200 grams dried, but double or triple all the other ingredients to make sure you have enough – 200 grams of dried noodles that have been cooked is a lotta noodles!

They don’t specify, but when I cook any kind of stir fry with tofu, I use the extra-firm or firm kind (sold packed in water in the refrigerated section, not the shelf-stable silken kind), and press it for at least an hour to improve the texture, by wrapping it in a towel and weighting it down with a heavy pan, flipping halfway through.  I also love to bake it in a marinade first to improve the flavour, usually using the recipe in Vegan Eats World (I’m not vegan by any means, but it’s a great cookbook).  I also use WAY more than 3-4 oz if I’m cooking this as a main course, more like an entire 14 oz packet for two people, but I don’t really put veg in, and I love tofu, so use your own discretion.  I have to confess that my standard Pad See Ew recipe also comes from Vegan Eats World, and I love it (and admittedly prefer it to this version), but this one is probably more authentic, so give it a try.

And this is why I don’t have a recipe blog, because I can’t leave well enough alone and ramble on for three hours about ingredients.  Next week, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled museums and historic homes, don’t worry!

Cleveland, Ohio: West Side Market

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Merry Christmas Everyone!  I’m going to use the holiday as an excuse to highlight one of my favourite places in the world ( at least, one of my favourite places that is neither a museum nor a library): The West Side Market.  Growing up in Cleveland, no Christmas was complete without at least one visit to the West Side Market to stock up on essentials; from the special farmers’ cheese for pierogies (though I was always partial to potato and cheddar, which I also make every year), the holiday ham or roast (I always gave that one a miss too!), delicious breads, and of course, lots of veg for the side dishes!  My grandma would throw on her Russian style fur hat (which we all laughed at, but she was probably much warmer than the rest of us) and my grandpa donned his adorable flat cap, and off we’d go for an afternoon of leisurely shopping!  Although my grandparents are now sadly deceased, and I no longer live in Ohio, I still come home for Christmas every year, and a trip to Cleveland’s most famous market is always a must.

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The West Side Market just celebrated its centennial last year, and the market building itself dates back that far as well.  I always love spotting its distinctive tower in the distance when driving over the Hope Bridge (which is another piece of architecture I’m very fond of), and as a result of a (small, fortunately) fire this past year, they’ve given the interior an extensive cleaning, so it’s currently less grimy than in the past, though it has managed to retain its distinctive musk (an interesting combination of raw meat, stinky cheese, coffee, and an occasional whiff of something delicious, depending on where you’re standing).  The produce vendors are all in an unheated tent-like structure outside, but the actual market hall is where all the good stuff is at!  (You may notice the much better than normal photos in this post, which are courtesy of my brother and his fancy camera!  Don’t get used to hipstery bokeh or decent picture quality around here though!)

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The interior of the market is a jumble of stalls selling things as varied as Cambodian curries, Chinese meets hipster steamed buns, crepes, gyros, and both traditional and unusually filled pierogies, reflecting the unique ethnic makeup of the city, though the floor space is dominated by the abundance of traditional butchers hawking all manner of beef and pig parts (and lamb, and chicken, etc, etc).  Although I don’t eat meat myself, I’m not especially squeamish about looking at pig and sheep heads, which is probably necessary for surviving the market experience (could definitely do without all the gross meaty smells, but you can always linger by the coffee stall when it gets too much!).

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Of course, though the fun of the market is in exploring all the wonderful things for yourself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the things I like the most.  The best falafel in the world, as far as I’m concerned (and I’ve eaten LOTS of falafel) can be found at Maha’s Falafil, located in the outer left corner of the market over by the fishmongers.  Get the jumbo, you won’t regret it!  I like the enchiladas verde from Orale (though their prices are kind of steep, in my opinion) for a quick snack, and my brother never leaves without sampling a crepe from Crepes De Luxe.  The sourdough bread from Christopher’s is excellent for French toast, and I can put away a loaf of their asiago bread all too easily just by itself.  As far as sweets go (and you all know I have a real sweet tooth), I love the elaborate chocolate covered pretzel creations from Campbell’s, even though I always feel slightly ill after eating a whole one, and Vera’s bakery does proper old school coconut squares.  There’s loads of other bakeries too, so shop around and get whatever looks best that day; it’s probably all delicious!

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The market is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, but mid-day Wednesday or Friday are usually the best times to shop, as all the vendors are open, but it’s not super crowded.  If you ever find yourself in Cleveland, please try to come experience it; most Clevelanders are extremely proud of it (and rightly so), and I don’t think anyone will leave disappointed! I hope everyone is having a marvellous Christmas, and I’ll be back with another Ohio post next week!