Snack attack – the bar snack stages a comeback

05 November 2009
Snack attack – the bar snack stages a comeback

Bar snacks are making a comeback. It's no longer enough to have peanuts, crisps and a few olives on offer: customers now expect tasty, high-quality, low-cost nibbles and the humble Scotch egg s topping the list. Hilary Armstrong investigates

This has been the year of the Scotch egg. It has cropped up everywhere in all its runny-yolked glory and banished in the process our unhappy memories of the rock-hard, cannon-ball like versions of yesteryear.

But the Scotch egg isn't the only classic pub snack that has seen a reversal of fortune: pork scratchings, sausage rolls, roasted nuts and even pickled eggs are all back in vogue. Pubs, brasseries and even some upscale restaurants are starting to recognise there's revenue in nibbles, not to mention a real pleasure in reviving an old favourite.

Could unhygienic and dirty bowls of peanuts and rancid olives be consigned to the dustbin? We can but hope. Here, rising star pub owners and leading restaurateurs explain how top-notch snacking has supported their business.

TEN OF THE BEST BAR SNACKS1. Scotch egg 2. Triple-cooked chips 3. Sausage roll 4. Pork scratchings 5. Sausages 6. Pickled eggs 7. Rollmops 8. Welsh rarebit 9. Croquettes 10. Calamari

PR VALUEJohn Rensten, owner of the Compass in Islington, North London, which opened this summer, says his pub's dedicated bar snack menu has been brilliant from a public relations point of view. "In the reviews we've had, the journalists have spent the first paragraph talking about the snacks. We've found it's what they've wanted to talk about," he says. Similarly, the clean, simple photography - such as the eat-me-now black pudding roll (see recipe below) - has been "what the magazines and newspapers wanted to print".

Avid social networker Charlie McVeigh, whose Draft House opened in Battersea, south London, last month, got people discussing their favourite pub nibbles by using Twitter to "tweet" thus in August: "What are your favourite hot bar snacks? Food-storming for Draft House menu" In response came at least two dozen suggestions and well over double that again on Facebook.

Suggestions included Tuscan fried bats from one wag and fried bacon rind from none other than the Observer's food critic Jay Rayner. Plans were immediately hatched for a tasting with journalists, bloggers and friends, which provided great pre-opening hype for the pub.

MISE-EN-PLACE

Bar snacks can be a great seller, but chefs agree that bar snacks should not have an impact on service. Impinging on mise-en-place, however, is inevitable. Labour-intensive options such as Scotch eggs made daily from scratch have to be balanced by items that can be prepped in advance. Make in bulk, if you can.

At the year-old Harwood Arms in Fulham, west London, there's a weekly kipper croquette drill. Head chef Stephen Williams says: "One morning a week we gather round to pick the kippers. It's a pain in the arse but the job gets done. We aim to do it in an hour. If one person's stuck with the job, they slow down."

Williams has also trained his kitchen porters to shape and crumb croquettes. He swears by his VacPac machine for prolonging shelf life and advises, "Be smart with your freezer space. Fry from frozen if you can."

To save more time, consider leaving pickles, cured meats, cheese, crisps and nuts for bar staff to serve. At London wine bar Terroirs, chef Ed Wilson aims to move his bar snacks from behind the bar to the top of the bar, tapas bar-style, for even greater ease of service.

COST EFFECTIVENESS

Bar snacks can be, but rarely are, a luxury proposition. Their attraction for chefs is the low-cost ingredients that go into them - think of pig's ears and pork scratchings at Highgate's the Bull and Last - although they are labour-intensive. The Harwood's best-selling brawn is a thrifty option, even though it does take a couple of hours to process the pig's head. Winkles, on the other hand, which had also been on Williams's wish list, proved prohibitively expensive "for the one or two people who actually wanted them".

One tip from the chefs is to serve snacks that comprise one element of another dish such as the cauliflower cheese croquettes that come with pork belly at the Harwood or Scotch quail eggs with pea and ham soup at the Hind's Head in Bray, Berkshire. Venison trimmings are used up in the Harwood's popular venison Scotch egg.

The Compass's chef, Luke Owen, left fine dining for pub cooking. His experience since opening in July tells him, "I'd be stupid not to serve bar snacks." He sells 15 to 20 Scotch duck eggs a day (in a 30-seat venue) at £4 for an egg. The most expensive component for him is the duck egg at just under 30p. There are clear margins to be made even after labour has been factored in.

"We can sell £20-worth of snacks per table. You'd never make that much on crisps and peanuts," Owen points out.

Similarly at Terroirs, customers at the tables invariably order charcuterie but often bar snacks, too. In the afternoon, between services, those same snacks fill the gap when the kitchen has closed. Duck scratchings, cervelle de canut, home-made taramosalata - the current hot favourite at Terroirs - and vegetables with bagna cauda all have their ardent enthusiasts.

There is no question bar snacks bump up the bottom line, but McVeigh is quick to play down the money factor. "It's not about squeezing another few quid out of the customers. It's about warmth of service, ensuring people come back again, offering people a choice not to have a full meal with mineral water, coffees and so on," he says.

"Pubs are thriving in the current economic environment because people don't have to commit to a £60 bill and sitting for an hour and half at the table. Those sticking to a pint and a Scotch egg now may come back in the future," McVeigh adds.

This experience is confirmed by the Compass, where trading figures for the first six months have already shown that the 20-strong bar snack menu has been cut back as the pub's reputation for food has grown. "The first few weeks were all about the bar snacks but you'd be surprised by how quickly people upgraded to the main menu," Owen says.

THE TAPAS CONNECTION

Entire menus of snacks are catching on. But chef Clive Dixon at the Hind's Head is not a fan. Although he's constantly poring over historical recipes for new ideas, he lists only "three or four solid options that we're really proud of". The exception is in December when there will be mince pies and mulled wine on the bar.

Dixon's mainstays are devils on horseback, £1.75; Scotch quail eggs, £2.50; and Warwickshire whizzers (spiced sausages), £2.20. Pork scratchings in the Hind's Head packaging are coming soon. For Dixon, longer menus border on tapas territory. "The danger is diluting what you do. We are a destination restaurant but the pub is also part of the community. It's important we stay a traditional pub in the heart of the village," Dixon says.

Back at the Harwood, where the bar snack menu has just been extended and is now presented both on blackboard and A5 menus, Williams is similarly wary of the tapas comparison. "I'm very, very nervous to say the word - and I've told the floor staff never to use it - but the tapas-style of dining is an inspiration to the menu," he says.

LUNCH MENUS

Williams's menu at the Harwood, which scored a five in the Good Food Guide, was introduced in part as a solution to quieter lunchtimes. He had considered introducing a classic "two, two, two" lunch menu as the cheaper, quicker alternative to the full carte, but for the small kitchen that would have brought the additional burden of six new dishes each week. Instead, he chose to expand the bar menu (with snacks and some fantastic new sandwiches) so as not to "devalue our plated food".

"Because of the reviews and scores in the guidebooks, people come here to have the food experience they've read about but we are a pub and we want to stay that way. It's important to our weekday business that we're seen as somewhere you can pop into for a drink. We need to sell beer. If it becomes pure restaurant, it changes the staffing, the nature of the business," Williams says.

TRADITION AND INNOVATION

The inspiration for many of the new-wave bar snack menus is tradition - the kind of food we used to eat or wish we had eaten - or, as the Compass's Rensten puts it: "traditional things about British pubs that have become a bit crap". Such dishes don't only work in pubs; they translate to restaurants: London restaurants Hix Soho's Blythburgh pork crackling with crab apple sauce is a win; as are breaded olives at Corrigan's Mayfair; mini Scotch quail eggs at Sam's Brasserie, in Chiswick, London; and the not-so-mini Scotch eggs, Welsh rarebit and roes on toast at the Rivington Grills in Shoreditch and Greenwich. The hors d'oeuvres (radishes, salsify fritters and devilled chicken livers, etc) at Le Café Anglais, London, fulfil a similar role while the St John's restaurant's daily-changing bar menus are always worth a look: roast beef and dripping toast and chitterlings in a bun being great favourites with City workers.

Many of the favoured snacks come from the ingredient-led school of revivalist English food, and often come under the "guilty pleasure" heading. Anything fried or crumbed is good. McVeigh is also keen to get a "toastie" of some form on the Draft House menu. He loves croque monsieur but, sticking with a British theme, he'll be listing the medieval savoury "stewed cheese" instead.

Classic tapas - chorizo, olives and salted Marcona almonds - can't fail but it's interesting to see how the Spanish tradition has morphed into something new at the Harwood. Thus Lincolnshire poacher cheese with a cider apple jelly challenges manchego with membrillo, charcuterie might be cured British ham or Cornish salami while croquetas are made from cauliflower cheese - "accessible British flavours but in a different format" as Williams puts it.

QUALITY

One place for innovation is in the presentation. Kilner jars, wooden boards and slates are de rigueur while brown paper is the hip choice. A shared plate of calves' brains or battered skate knobs, as seen at the Bull and Last, suit brown paper perfectly.

It's impossible to hide behind bar snacks. Their apparent simplicity means they have to be spot on. McVeigh admits, "I've done bar snacks before but I'd never taken it that seriously. I just did stuff that would sell. Now people realise that simple stuff has real gastronomic value and that the quality of your pork scratchings is as important as that of your lobster thermidor.

"Simple things such as pies or chips are the most democratic dishes - anyone can judge them. And if a place can't make decent chips, then you know it's rubbish," McVeigh says.

Get your chips right, in other words, and your kitchen will earn the trust of your punters. They'll know you're not "just another gastropub". The idea is to surprise them with mushrooms on toast that transpire to be hedgehog, cèpes and trompettes de mort mushrooms foraged that day from the New Forest and available at the Compass or a hot Scotch egg with a perfect runny yolk.

"We've stuck our necks out on our website and said we do the world's best Scotch egg," laughs Rensten. "So it had better be!"

THE COMPASS'S BLACK PUDDING, APPLE AND SAGE SAUSAGE ROLLS

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 green apples
  • Butter
  • Sugar
  • 10 sage leaves
  • 200g black pudding
  • 200g sausage meat
  • Puff pastry
  • 2 eggs

METHOD

Peel and core apples, then dice into fine cubes. Fry off the apples in a little butter and sugar until soft. When the apple is ready, remove it from heat and add the roughly chopped sage. Leave to infuse.

Place sausage meat in a large bowl and crumble in the black pudding. Using an electric mixer, gently beat the mixture until smooth then fold in the apples.

Remove pastry from fridge and roll to roughly 5mm. Divide and cut the pastry into 8in x 6in squares and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper.

Spoon the filling slightly off centre on to the pastry squares

Egg wash the edges of the pastry then fold over to form the roll pressing down with a fork.

Gently score the top of the pastry with a knife and then glaze with egg wash.

Bake at 180°C for 18-20 minutes until golden brown. Leave to cool, then serve.

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