"Fuck me Sliney is on MasterChef!" I shouted, springing to my feet, spitting twiglets everywhere.
It really didn't make any sense, past just didn't marry up to present. I had witnessed this man carry out numerous unmentionables and pranks (what goes on rugby tour, stays on rugby tour) and there he was fretting over presenting his rack of lamb, handling it as if it were some precious newborn. Weird, very weird. So shortly after, I engaged in some email conversation with him. To cut a long story short, Sliney simply went onto MasterChef to push his cooking further (who ever knew that enjoyed cooking in the first place). Over the years he had gone through many different jobs but underlying throughout, he always had strong passion for food (again, who knew!) and wanted to pop his head over the parapet to see if he could take it somewhere. And I can totally appreciate that because it's something that I am trying to do with my food writing, although my arrow is slightly aimless. I haven't been in touch with the big man since but I hope he is plugging away and that one day, I'll find out that he's opened his own restaurant somewhere. I sincerely believe that it is possible to turn things around as long as you work hard at it. This link is tenuous at best but when I met Neil of The Lambshank Redemption for a WMPC swap, after having a chat with him at Dose coffee shop near Smithfield, his story is testimony to all of this. Of course I am not saying for a second that Neil has ever shat in a pint glass, waved his willy at French policemen or ate a can of Whiskas in under a minute. I am just saying that in his pursuit to become a full-time freelance writer, like Sliney he has undertaken a fair few jobs along the way. And quite possibly, Neil could have played loosehead prop at some point.
In his own words Neil's CV is "fucking hilarious" having made transitions from private banking to cheese monger to events organising at Albert Hall, all fairly disparate you might say with some years out in the wilderness building a reputation as a writer. His scary tales of securing positions at publication houses, only to discover shortly after that the whole deck is about to collapse gave a great insight into the industry. However, after 10 years of plowing on through stormy and calm seas alike, Neil now seems to be in the enviable position of getting the sweet stuff. I follow a few freelance writers on Twitter but I have to say that Neil is one of the more annoying ones. Forever advertising the hardship of driving around the Highlands in Bentleys, sampling whiskey or having to fly off 'somewhere', well it can all get rather grating. But I forgive Neil because I really like his humorous, cynical style of prose and plus there's the fact that he originally hails from Harold Wood and is therefore a true Son of Essex. Even better is that we shall soon be venturing on a Pie and Mashcapade together, a trawl around some of London's finest cockney cafes to sample as much gluey potato and unidentifiable, fetid mince as possible. All smothered in a palid green liquor, laaaverly. I shall be stumping up for a few pots of eels in return for the sumptuous feast that Neil provided.
The bag that Neil handed over was fairly weighty and as he did so he explained with twinkle in his eye that he enjoyed large portions. Which probably raised an eyebrow or two in the close confines of the small coffee shop in which we sat but I was oblivious to this as I peered in and immediately got a waft of cheese. For my supper, Neil announced that I was having some the haddock chowder he enjoyed the previous night along with a special chocolate rice pudding. The piece de resistance though was a fine selection of cheese. Yes his career in cheesemongeryness may be far behind him but Neil has still managed to keep hold of his Neal's Yard staff discount card. And to be fair why would you ever relinquish that? Another quiet night in the office meant that yet another WMPC would have to be enjoyed at home but that's never any skin of my nose. Give me that to working until four in the morning any day of the week. Neil's chowder was certainly substantial and packed with flavour with lovely chunks of pepper, sweetcorn and slithers of salty bacon. It was probably more dense than any chowder that I've tried before but I wasn't complaining and I really appreciated the peppery undertones, Neil's seasoning was perfectly balanced against the rich, creaminess of the dish. I also liked the way he created a twist on rice pudding, adding a bit of Terry's chocolate orange magic to the mix by melting a whole chocolate orange or by using an orange liqueur, I'm not entirely sure. It was very good either way but perhaps a bit too much after the very filling chowder. In fact, I was fit to bust and had to leave the cheese till the next day but ensured that I got it out of the fridge nice and early to breathe in time for lunch. Neil's selection - Ardrahan, Kirkhams Lancashire, Tunworth, Colston Basset, Red Leicester and a goats cheese which he told me the name of but forgot to make a note - was fantastic. All quite individual in character with their own qualities, I can safely say that I enjoyed all of them. Well OK the runny, gloopy, funky, pungent Tunworth was my favourite but even the Red Leicester was great. I find the supermarket variants of this cheese can be fairly bland but the one that Neil chose was lovely and strong. Cheesy heaven.
Thanks again Neil, I'm looking forward to our forthcoming Pie and Mashcapade.
Neil's Haddock, Bacon and Sweetcorn Chowder