Issue 383
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New book Birmingham: It's Not Shit (50 Things That Delight About Brum), was launched last week. It's a golden compendium of Brummie-ness, from Snobs to the number 11 bus, from 'that photo of Bill Clinton at the Malt House' to 'calling roundabouts islands'. A paean to a city so comfortable with no longer giving a shit, it's written by Jon Bounds, Danny Smith and Jon Hickman. There's melancholy, even traces of deep sorrow but, for now, an excerpt demonstrating what those three talented writers, and indeed Brummies, do best: Dry observation.


It was my first meal as a Brummie, on the day my parents dropped me off at university. Passed to me over the beer pumps and an antique brass drip tray, my first cob: a bread fist clutching at a mound of cheese, wrapped in cling film.

A simple cob from a big plate at the back of the bar is an absolute delight, but I don’t want to fetishise the simple joy of these snacks. I’ll leave that sort of work to the chalk boards of the street food stands, and I’ll give those column inches to the food bloggers who obsess over the latest small plates concept in a pub you used to like (I’ll give them an inch and they’ll take a mile and then some). The cob is pure and simple, honest, and defies the sort of gentrification that needs me to hand raise an ode, low and slow, and serve it up on a slate.

The cob can be cheese (which always means cheddar). The cob can be ham (which means the very pink and very fatty slices from the deli at The Asda). Salad may be included at a push so long as it’s a thick slice of tomato or a single leaf of a round head lettuce. Personally, I like a cheese and onion one, when I can get it.

The cob is drinkers’ food. This is food on the hoof, necessary fuel between pints, which breaks the monotony of alternating salt n vinegar crisps and bags of scratchings. A cob is a commitment to a day at the bottom of a beer glass: we won’t make it home for lunch, and dinner, if it comes, will be wrapped in paper after last orders. It’s also a quiet enjoyment on a summer’s day — to be munched on the bench outside, with a book or the paper. When you have no agenda to speak of, thinking about real food can be stressful and a cob becomes soul food, nourishing you in a cosy fog of stasis, allowing you to keep decisions at bay a little longer and ride the wave of a Saturday wasted and frittered away on nothing very much.

Cobs have been in decline for some time, so every time I find a pub with a plate of them it fills my heart. If I see a cob I always want one, and I’ll usually buy one. When I do I feel like I’m putting a quid in the collection tin for the pandas or some other endangered species. If I don’t speak up for the cobs, who will?
Cobs are definitely in trouble. The sort of pub that would do you a cob are the same sorts of pubs that are closing at a growing rate across the country, and that doesn’t help. There have also been some murmurings that the cob is threatened by the dreaded ‘health and safety’ (sweating meat and dairy in plastic wrap on the counter all day is, to be fair, against pretty much every current food safety rule). Meanwhile the pubs that remain viable in the current market rely on food sales for a lot of their profit margin, and that food is more three-for-ten-pound-tapas than it is stick-a-quid-in-the-tin-and-grab-one.

The core problem, I think, that affects cobs is that they were usually a lovely little side-hustle. When I bought that first cob I noticed something a little weird. I asked for Guinness and a cob. The barman rang up a pint, took my fiver, split the change and gave some to me and dropped the rest in a pint pot under the optics. I went on to work in that pub and learned that this was one of several nice little earners we had for ourselves, outside of the control and oversight of the PLC that owned bricks, mortar, and stock control systems. The ham was indeed from The Asda and we bought it ourselves, made the cobs, and went out on the proceeds. In an increasingly managerial culture in pubs, and with an increasingly cash-free pub economy, it’s hard to see how cobs can be offered without you taking a seat, placing your order at the bar and waiting for a slowly raised brioche bun with hand cut chips and a surfeit of fillings.

If you value ‘real pubs’, you probably value cobs, so when you see one grab it with both hands (the pub and the cob). Don’t think about it — you don’t need to, it’s only a bloody cob — just sit on your bench with this book and take a bite, and then maybe have another pint or three and don’t worry about anything too much, you can always grab some chips for tea on the way home.
Birmingham: It's Not Shit, is £12. Words: Jon Hickman; Cob Photo! Bite Your Brum


In all of this (gesturing wildly) we sort of forgot that next door in Coventry they’re celebrating this year as the UK City of Culture. And something big has hit this week: The Turner Prize has landed at The Herbert Art Gallery, and you can see the shortlist right now, absolutely free. This year’s shortlist is made up entirely of artist collectives, emphasising the collaborative and community approach taken by so many artists this year in response to the world feeling a bit... broken. There are big societal and environmental issues under the spotlight, provocative, funny, and celebratory. Announced last week, Array Collective are this year’s winners, playfully addressing urgent social and political issues in Northern Ireland with an immersive síbín (‘pub without permission’) experience. With their work encompassing performances, protests, exhibitions and events, they subvert some of the ‘seriousness’ of the art world and make it accessible to everyone— and what better way than making a pub the centrepiece? Pictured above is one of the shortlisted pieces, ‘Cooking Sections’ (pictured), which considers the environmental impact of intensive food production and food habits using different installations and film, hitting you as hard as Seaspiracy with a cold, wet slap in the face. Move over, veganism; Cooking Sections champions the new ‘CLIMAVORE’ food choice, adapting to human alteration of the planet and ecosystems. First stop: replacing farmed salmon with better ingredients – and you can taste these dishes at Alfred’s Cafe, at the Herbert. See it all until 12 January 2022. Book


Stirchley independent sleeper hit restaurant, Verbena, only managed to open for sit down meals in 2021, launching at a time when, frankly, all hell was breaking loose. It's a measure of the owner, Chloë Qureshi, that not only did she get those doors open, but she's been rewarded with the kinds of reviews and words of mouth that suggest Verbena sits in that Venn diagrammatical, suburban sweet spot where value for money meets quality. If you've not been, tattoo Verbena onto your 2022 to do list. But don't park popping in until then. 'Why?' I hear you mutter into your screen. Because CHOCOLATE, that's why. Verbena, thanks to their close relationship to sweet treat specialist Bloom (Sarah Bloomfield) is taking orders for some of the most outstanding choc gifting and dining options in the entire city. Take their baubles (above left, £4.75), for example. These beaut creations are individually painted by Sarah, then the moulds are filled with tempered milk or white chocolate. The spheres are sandwiched together with chocolate and caramel chunks or crispy raspberries and white chocolate drops — sweet baby Jesus, they're good. There's limited numbers and they've sold out once over already, so do be quick. The baubles make very cute stocking gifts and can, as such, absolutely be bought individually. Then there's the hot chocolate bombes (above right, £3.85 each) which are filled with hot chocolate powder and mini marshmallows and come in singles or doubles. Great for a theatrical gift — or maybe as a Christmas Eve activity with kids — just pop them in hot milk and let the bombe do the rest. Finally, back by popular demand after a sellout Christmas 2020, are the gorgey yule logs (below, £20), which are filled with lashings of mascarpone cream and kirsch soaked cherries. Orders go through the Verbena webshop, with final orders needed by December 19. You'll need to be available to collect on Christmas Eve, 9am to 12pm, regardless of when you order. 


I'm scared of balloons. I'm not scared of the deflated (pre-flated?) variety — hey, I'm not a total coward — It's the overly distended, could-pop-at-any-time sort I can't be in the same room as. It's called globophobia and I'll thank you for not laughing. My daughters, who are five and nine and are terrible humans, absolutely revel in this fact — blowing balloons up and then placing them in burstable scenarios, just to watch me wriggle and writhe. The joke's on them, though, because a 110,000 Nutcracker-themed wonderland, built entirely from balloons is coming to Nechells tomorrow, and I'm not taking them to see it. Absolutely no chance. If you dance with the Devil, Delilah and Nell, you will get burned. It's a shame because it sounds right up their street. The first of the two giant structures will have eight foot tall jack in the boxes and other toys and presents in balloony format, the second is a full-on enchanted forest and the third, and they would love this, is a 30ft-high fairytale castle. The stunning settings are going up at the Nechells Wellbeing Centre in Rupert Street and are viewable until (and including) Sunday, December 12. You can either book tickets to simply walk around (£11.20 for adults and kids, but free for under twos) or pay £16.80 per person (again free for under twos) for a theatre performance that you follow through the magnificent structures, Tchaikovsky’s classic tale coming alive thanks to the BMOS Musical Theatre Company. There's a 'visit Santa' add on too, at £5 per kid. It's all in aid of free@last, a charity which helps vulnerable young people, with special thanks going to Brum-based balloon installation specialists Candy Bubbles. Oh, and the balloons are biodegradable, so put your pen away, Barbara. Tickets
Venue: The Ivy, 67-71 Temple Row, B2 5LS; Website 
Choice: Goose Shepherd's Pie that I didn't eat (£18.95) Chooser: Me 

I've never heard of anyone having a bad meal at The Ivy and I've never heard of anyone having an outstanding meal at The Ivy. It's Everton. It's Daniel Radcliffe. And so, with mathematical inevitability, here's another better than fine meal from the multi-million pound Temple Row spot. Shepherd's pie, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the original The Ivy's biggest selling dishes. Iconic and ever-present, it was the celebrity order of choice for years and, now that there's a gazillion The Ivies, there's a gazillion shepherd's pies — which is actually half shepherd, half cottage
. It's a splendid staple on the chain's roster and, for Christmas, they've launched a goose shepherd's pie (£18.95), which I've wasted 180 words and a photo on, despite their having sold out at 6pm on a Wednesday, in November. This was a devastating blow for my nauseatingly repetitive "talk to me, Goose" gag, and prompted my guest to suggest they pop to Cannon Hill park where there's "thousands of the honkers, chasing kids and pooing," and that "that nobody would miss a few". Anyway, what they did have was duck liver parfait, a hefty slab of indulgent, rich parfait balanced beautifully with crunchy, caramelised hazelnuts to be slathered on excellent brioche. This, to be fair, was "outstanding". A lobster and prawn cocktail (£15.95) did everything it said on the tin, with significantly more lobster than there was prawn. Meaty and light, I could tell my goose-killing guest wasn't as impressed as me, but I liked it. On mains, the whole festive turbot (can turbot's be festive? Santa hat maybe?) was crisp in all the right places, and drowning (can fish drown?) in beurre noisette. At an eye-watering £34.50 you'd want excellence, and it wasn't far off. What was miles off though, were the Christmas trimmings — parsnip and carrot batons were unexciting at best, and the sprouts summed up exactly why so many people think they don’t like sprouts, halved and boiled with zero seasoning. Anyone not cooking sprouts in a vat of butter and pancetta needs to reassess what they think Christmas is all about. Ribeye on the bone (£32.95) was really rather good, but doesn't offer much in the way of creative editorial, so I'll take the blame for the start of this sentence, but the chocolate bombe dessert (£8.95), featuring vanilla ice (the cream, not the idiot), a honeycomb centre and hot salted caramel sauce poured from on high to melt away the shell, was style and substance snogging under the mistletoe. We tried four of the six festive special cocktails and the Hold-Up Ginger with gingerbread, Japanese voddy, Aperol, pineapple, lime and mint was the standout of a mediocre bunch. Final mention for how buzzy the whole place was for 6pm on a Wednesday. An excellent atmosphere provided by Brummies who had clearly spent a long afternoon popping cork and polishing off goose. Naughty Brummies.
Ikon's Gallery's gift shop is looking like a lovely little option for Christmas ideas. My pick, although they're not going to squeeze into a stocking, are the Black County Type prints and in particular this snooker club shot (£22) that, if my childhood memory serves, was based Lye-way somewhere? Full collection 

It's niche, and no mistake, but for the architect in your life how about these Birmingham Brutalist building Top Trumps? £16

I went to Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker at The Hippodrome, last night. I've never seen it before. It's like an intravenous hit of Christmas, isn't it? Like a festive opioid (I bet they don't use that as a poster quote). There's good availability on seats for today's matinee (2pm), tonight (7.30pm) and even a few tomorrow too, if you fancy it. From £30

Sassy and skilled cocktail bar The Pineapple Club will, next year, launch their Japanese saké and cocktail spin-off bar, Shibuya Underground, beneath their current Great Western Arcade venue. To whip up some excitement they'll be linking up with Japanese food superstars, Kodawari, for a one-off pop-up (upstairs in their main bar, downstairs won't be ready by then) for an £85 per person feast on Feb 2. Full menu is TBC.

Not so sure if Digbeth has jumped the shark or is, quite admirably, just ignoring the bloody thing, but Ball Park Birmingham is now open, if you want to hurl yourself into one of the nation's biggest adult ball pits. Instagram
WORDS: Tom Cullen, Claire Hawkins

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