Friday, 19 December 2014

Exeter Eats: Christmas at the Rusty Bike

I've been eating at the Rusty Bike since Hallowe'en 2012. I know that because the meal we had that night was so damn good that Michele whipped his phone out as soon as he'd scraped the last morsel of dessert off his plate and gave the pub the following review:

"I'm Italian, and I am normally very picky about food (my girlfriend loves to say) but this place is one that helps me reconsidering English cuisine. I've really liked it! It costed a bit but was worthy. I had a deer and "some kind of bird", I tasted a chocolate and passion fruit dessert and I strongly recommend them both. Plus the ale I had was good as well, I will come back for food or just even for a pint."

(The bird was pheasant by the way)

Now, for Michele to say that a restaurant helps him to reconsider English cuisine is very high praise indeed. As such, we've been going back every time he comes to visit to see what the latest menu has to offer and it is, invariably, excellent.

Their website gives you an idea of what to expect:

"Our aim is to minimize the distance from producer to plate. We opened our own pig farm as part of that vision, but break-ins and poachers shooting five of the herd put a stop to that. Not giving up however, we source all of our meat direct from the farms around Exeter:  rare breed Pork from Haldon Hill, Ruby Beef from Dartmoor and lamb from Langford.
We have forged strong ties with local land owners and game keepers where we shoot our own venison, pheasant, rabbit and pigeon for the pot, and we use only line-caught fish. Bicton College supply us with fantastic rose veal and a small amount of hops for our brewery. You will often find us foraging in the hedges for wild garlic, dandelions and berries, and we bloody love it.
 Put all this together with a talented and dedicated team of chefs and friendly hospitable staff out front and its pretty close to our idea of the perfect pub.

However as Michele states in his review, the pub isn't the cheapest place in town and as students, it's difficult to justify spending two weeks' worth of grocery budget on a night out, no matter how damn good the food might be. 

Luckily for my foodie team and I, the Rusty Bike's Christmas menu only costs £25 for 3 courses (usually for a three course meal and drinks, we're looking at £35+ per person; not extortionate necessarily but beyond our usual means!)

We arrived just before 9pm to a table decked out for Christmas with a lovely little Christmas tree, crackers and festive water bottles. The rest of the restaurant and pub area was decorated with festive green tinsel, baubles and fairy lights, making it all feel even cosier than usual.

I started the evening with a pint (even though we'd had a cheeky little cocktail or three at home beforehand) because I simply cannot pass up on a good local brew.

We just about had time to pull our crackers before our starters arrived.

Frankie had a bowl of their delicious soup (potato, onion and garlic) with freshly baked bread.

Although it was neglected for a few minutes in favour of reading out the crap cracker jokes and getting our Christmas hats firmly in place!

Lauren had the smoked salmon with pickled cucumber and dill (just about visible); I pinched a bit and it was the most beautiful, tender and richly flavoured smoked salmon I've ever tried.

I, on the other hand, went for something I've had before.

Soft egg, salt cod and aioli.

I can still taste the salt cod now! If I could make this at home, I'd have it for brunch every weekend. Perhaps I need to start investigating?

Vicky didn't have a starter because she is a massively fussy vegetarian who doesn't like mushrooms or soup meaning there wasn't anything on the menu that she wanted and as we'd already persuaded the chef to make her something else for her main (that wasn't the mushroom risotto veggie option), she decided to go without and watch us. I swear I will get that girl to start eating soup or mushrooms by the end of this academic year if it's the last thing I do...

In between courses, it was time for Secret Santa gifts!

Although by this point, it wasn't very secret at all! In fact, Frankie was pretty much the only one who didn't have a clue as to who was whose Santa!

With a budget of £5 and threats of mean joke presents coming my way from my evil Santa (Vicky) I wasn't expecting much. I was very, very, very pleasantly surprised.

You may be wondering why I look so happy (yep, that's my happy surprised face, worryingly) about a seemingly empty egg carton but that's not the whole picture.

My incredibly thoughtful Santa made me a miniature cocktail garden kit! I have soil and seeds to plant various little herbs in the egg carton so that when they have bloomed (as I hope they will) we'll be able to add them to our cocktails! It's such a wonderful and personalised gift as I am famous in the house for splurging on two things; our communal cocktail bar and house plants (a year in Milan really did things to my head it seems...) An absolutely perfect present.

Unfortunately the table didn't quite allow us to have a proper hug.

Presents over, back to the food!

I was really feeling a little too tipsy by that point so the arrival of some freshly baked bread to help soak it all up helped a fair bit.

The chef kindly made a butternut squash risotto for our fussy veggie (top); Lauren went for the slow roasted pork, sausage, green lentils and thyme (middle) and I had the hake with tomato, fennel and white anchovy (bottom). Frankie had the mushroom risotto which was huge and ultimately defeated her (although I'm ashamed to say that I was able to polish the whole thing off when I went back a few days later for a society meal!)

Things rapidly went downhill from here.

Despite cocktails and beer, we thought wine was a good idea. This led to us quickly discovering that Vicky doesn't quite understand the instructions "tilt your head down and look up at the camera", that when we drink we really do create quite a mess and that it's probably best not to leave your photographic devices alone with Lauren:

One of the great things about the Rusty Bike is that you can turn up starving and know that they will take pretty good care of you so that by the time you leave, you can hardly walk.

In fact, by the end of our mains we were so full we had to ask them to wait at least half an hour before the puddings were rolled out!

Meanwhile, the restaurant began to empty out as the less rowdy patrons finished their meals and went home to bed.

However we couldn't keep away from the desserts for too long; if we're famous for one thing in our house, it's for our capacity to eat the sweet stuff.

Vicky and I have lived together since Year 1 and used to spend our evenings in halls hidden away in my room, making huge bowls of cookie dough and then gobbling it all down so that our flatmates wouldn't steal it (mean of us I know; we used to laugh at how ridiculous we were but we'd still do it now if we could get away with it!)

Lauren and Frankie on the other hand have taught even us a thing or two about eating chocolate. One day I want to be like them too.

Lauren and I shared the dark chocolate mousse with orange syrup and vanilla cream (Terry's, eat your heart out!) and the Devon cheese board.

Vicky had a chocolate mousse too and Frankie broke the mould with her sticky toffee pudding (which I of course pinched a bit of and can confirm was bloody fantastic - you've got to check the whole range of the menu, right?)

Despite our protesting stomachs, we managed to polish the lot off and sat back as four very happy Christmas elves.

Even though we were the last ones there (and had been more than noisy throughout the meal), the lovely staff brought us some of their sloe gin to try.

This made me incredibly happy as its been sold out every time I've been (so you know it's good stuff!) I finally had some and it didn't disappoint.

The Rusty Bike is well worth checking out if you're in Exeter. It's mine and Michele's favourite place to eat out and we are never disappointed.

In fact, I might just invite him back to Exeter so we can go again...

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A Day in the Dolomites

Usually when somebody writes about their summer holidays in the middle of winter, it's to lust over those lost days spent in velvety air and endless sunlight, to bathe in the nostalgia of warmer climes.

This is not going to be one of those posts for a number of reasons.

  1. I'm just a very, very lazy blogger who is only just getting around to posting about the summer
  2. It was bloody cold

That being said, a (minor) element of planning has gone into posting about our trip to the Dolomites now, simply because the lead up to Christmas is seriously catapulting me back to our Alpine adventure. It was a gorgeous week full of bracingly chilly air, pine forests, cosy wood cabins, sinfully cheesy comfort food, fairytale towns and apple strudel. 

Oh, and snow. Yep, I found snow in Italy in August.

We spent the week in a beautiful little town called Fiè allo Sciliar (in Italian; Völs am Schlern in German - the Alto Adige/Sud Tirol region was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire before being pinched by the Italians in 1919 and as such, is very much a bilingual region although you're more likely to hear German being spoken).

We arrived one afternoon and spent the rest of the day having a lazy wander through the town and up past Alpine chalets and through dense, green woodlands to the little lake of the town where I promptly fell in love with the area and vowed never to leave (more on that another time). This feeling was swiftly compounded by the fact that prosecco is so damn cheap there and by the delicious slice of apple strudel we ate at the little cafe on the corner on our way back down.

I was a very happy bunny and had dreams of the entire week being spent casually strolling through meadows and renting one of the little boats to row on the lake whilst nibbling on cheese.

Michele had other ideas.

We took the cable car up to where the air nipped at any bare skin you dared leave uncovered and began strolling towards the Sciliar.

I was struck by the incredible beauty of the area. I feel these photos just about do it justice however they don't quite capture the scale of these mountains.

Our little town was on the other side of this beast of a rock but as we'd driven up to the cable cars, we took a circular route via the Rifugio Bolzano.

As we approached the Sciliar, the clouds began to rear up above us. We dissolved into them and left the modern world behind.

On the other side, we found ourselves in the middle of a richly wooded landscape. There was no sound but the flow of water cascading over rocks and the sudden clatter of hooves when a group of men riding the most beautiful horses burst from the trees before clambering up the rocky hillside.

This is the last photo of me for a while. I was so happy and carefree at this point. Little did I know that the hard work was about to begin.

I won't bore you by going into too much detail but getting to the Rifugio (below) hurt. A lot. Consider the pictures of the Sciliar from earlier and look at that wonderfully smooth plain along the top of it. Picture yourself walking along it, up in the clouds, surrounded by meadows of cows, their bells tinkling gently in the breeze.

Now imagine getting up the practically-vertical rock face that stands between where we were in the first photos and that idyllic place.

Luckily the Rifugio Bolzano is quite a substantial resting place for weary travellers like ourselves and provides hot food to nurse you back to strength. We gorged on cheese, eggs, potatoes, bread and more cheese before braving the cold once more.

Yet after a rest, I was better able to appreciate the view.

We set off once more on slightly wobbly legs.

And before long, the Rifugio Bolzano seemed little more than a fairytale castle in the distance.

Now as will become apparent in this and future posts, we developed a very special relationship with the cows who live in the clouds.

And just when I thought all the hard work was done and it could only go downhill from there, I spotted our next destination.

In the top left quarter of this image:

Here's a close up. This is pretty much as far as my camera would zoom.

A sharp descent down a crumbling slope followed by another climb? No problem!

And I'm pleased to say that I beat Michele to it!

At the next rifguio, we had Kaiserschmarrn, an absolutely wonderful kind of sugary fried pancake and berry mash. I have absolutely no idea why I didn't take a photo (well... I do; it got eaten too quickly) but look it up on Pinterest next time you're feeling sadistic.

I can't quite put my finger on what it was that sold the Dolomites to me so much but I have never quite fallen in love with a place as much as I did this summer. Everything about everywhere we went utterly enchanted me.

There are signs that man has been here, of course. There are well-carved tracks and herds of cows and the occasional town or rifugio in the distance. Yet from some viewpoints, you could be in the middle of the wilderness. There's a humbling sense of how small you are. It's not frightening, it simply puts everything into perspective.

Luckily for my legs, this was the point at which we did start coming down. Watching those guys urge their horses up the hillside seemed like days ago by this point.

It was incredible rounding the corner and seeing just how far we'd come; see the Sciliar in the distance on the left! We climbed that thing and then went all the way around from there!

As much as I moaned pretty much the whole time we were going up (or down for that matter; my knees and thighs and resolve only like flat ground), I loved every single minute and would do it again in a heartbeat.

And before long, we were rejoining civilisation and thinking about dinner.

I cannot tell you how good it felt to sit down at the end of the day.

If you like life, go to the Dolomites.