Friday, August 26, 2011
Guest post by Dom Bailey
Car packed, tent, sleeping bag, spare pair of boxers, toothbrush, and wellies (just in case), and we're ready to head for The Levellers' Beautiful Days music festival in Devon.
Just about to pull off, when my father-in-law asks "is this bacon in the fridge for your festival?" Nice thought, but who takes bacon to a music festival? We shrug and hit the A303.
Festival food says as much about a festival as its toilets - not what you go for, but you're happy if it’s of a high standard. Festivals are no longer catered for solely by hot dogs or greasy burger vans - the Slough dual-carriageway "Three Nation" types where burgers, Chinese food, and kebabs swim in the same grease, absent of any subtleties the original recipes may have once had.
And it's not all veggie burgers and lentil cutlets either. At most festivals nowadays you can eat your way "around the world" and back again, such is the variety of food stalls on offer.
Beautiful Days is no exception. In fact, the global route could take you from Indian curries, to Italian pizza and pasta, Mediterranean kebabs, English fish and chips, Spanish paella, Thai, Japanese noodles and Tibetan stews, and that’s just for starters.
Or you may choose to eat your way "around the farm", with hog roasts, beef dumplings, lamb shish, chicken paella, and ostrich burgers. Or "around a health food shop" - from vegan mushroom burgers and liquorice sticks to a Liverpudlian speciality of patisserie (it wasn't exactly a stall, just a guy with a biscuit tin wandering around whispering "ash cakes?")
Ultimately, it's up to you whether or not a music festival - which can involve a 20-minute queue to the bar, a 15-minute queue for food, a 10-minute "oops sorry, excuse me, excuse me, why are you dressed as a Rubik's Cube, get out of the f***ing way" wade through the crowd to wait for the 20 minute sound check, and then the hour-long set, then the 15 minute post-set queue for the portaloos - is really the place to try an Indian phall for the first time. Or whether it's the right time to decide that an ostrich burger won't count 'cos you're vegetarian most of the time at home.
A stick-to-what-you-know, or are vaguely familiar with, approach doesn't mean you are going to miss out on quality food, but it may mean you miss out on less bands. You could always leave the delicious Tibetan Kitchen sha shi sesame chicken for the last night - then you've only got to worry about about the Little Chef toilets on the way home (sorry Heston).
So, what is the best festival food?
The Tibetan Kitchen could make an entry with its momo dumplings filled with spinach, cheese and garlic. Pure Pie's just-thick-enough shortcrust pastry casing - with saucy fillings like steak and horseradish, or pork and mustard - are winners at the end of a long day drinking cider in the sun followed by a long night jigging around to bands like Mad Dog Mcrea.
Freshly stone-baked pizza (which didn't seem to stay open long enough) were also quality, as were the Mediterranean stall's lamb kebab or falafel pittas. The Real Sausage Company always seemed to have a healthy queue for its real sausages. You can see where I'm going here, the key to festival food is that it has to be comforting, familiar, filling and easy to eat.
For some unknown reason - probably a family feud-related incident on the Cornwall-Devon border, I don't know - I didn't spot anywhere selling pasties. There were more pasties being sold 180 miles away on Ealing Broadway station than in a field with a captive audience of 12,500 people, 40 miles from Kernow.
They would have been the outright winner. They keep their heat, are filling, and you don't need to balance a plate and a pint and keep a hand free for cutlery. And, a half-eaten one will quickly slot into your pocket and keep its shape (probably) when you have to dash off to hear Carter USM knock out Sheriff Fatman.
But the true festival winner is even simpler than the pasty - a good old bacon sarnie. And it doesn't even have to be from a stall. Some of the camping Beautiful Dazers had brought their own.
Now, there are festival-goers who camp, and there are campers who go to festivals. The former include the category of "Shit, I thought I'd packed my sleeping bag, now I have to sleep in my rucksack..."
Some don't make it fully into the tent after binging on two-litre bottles of Thatchers cider. Their comatose bodies, half frozen from sticking out of the tent all night, being tripped over and pissed on, and half baking inside, where the drying pool of vomit may, or may not be, their own. I thought my bag of Bombay mix, a litre of water, and two packets of chewing gum was cheating a bit, until I took my first festival morning stumble through the tents.
An unmistakeable, cheery clink of cutlery seems out of place. A kettle whistles, a coffee percolator plunges, Tarquin is poured another bowl of Kellogg's Crunchy Nuts into his favourite bowl. These were professional campers - or just families, probably - but it would have taken a small team of Sherpas to get some of their kit from the four by four to the camp site.
Three nights in a field in Devon, but some of them had packed for a month lion hunting on the Serengeti. "Damn it, forgot the garlic crusher, darling!"
Some inbetweeners had portable barbeques, and calor gas stoves, which I suppose could be forgiven as the overwhelming smell wafting through the morning or afternoon air is bacon.
Tantalising, reassuring bacon. The smell of bacon that says: “Okay, you're in a field, you can't remember half the bands you saw last night and your head is on the verge of exploding or imploding, you're not sure, but everything’s okay because there is bacon...”
Cook it yourself and the choice is yours - brown bread, white bread, no bread, just ketchup, brown sauce, with cheese, with cheese and mustard, with Marmite. I've never quite understood the salad bit of a BLT. Even the Germans don't have salad for breakfast.
But if you're not a fully-fledged Camping and Caravanning Club member, and haven't even got a ‘Hexi Stove’ to cook a few rashers, you have to rely on the stalls. Someone else has to cook your bacon, your hangover cure, your comfort blanket.
I had two bacon sandwiches while there - one amazing, one not so much. The latter was a double bacon and sausage bap. Double meant two rashers and two uninspiring sausages, in an oversized floury bap. The ratio is very important. You don't want the salty, meaty taste lost in a mouthful of floury pillow.
The best was as simple as it gets. Two slices of granary bread, enough bacon to pile over and cover the bread surface area, a fried egg and your choice of sauce. With a mug of tea, of course. Okay, it's a dribbly, saucy mess after the first mouthful, but it really hits the spot and puts you back on track for another day of festivalling.
And served out of a double-decker London bus, it couldn't get more Beautiful Days than that. Thank you, The Tea Stop.
What we ate:
Chips and pea-mint sauce - crispy chips, nicely minted sauce (£3.50 The Sea Cow but calling itself Fish and Chips).
Quesadilla - flour tortilla with a thin filling of cheese, avocado, salsa and jalapeno peppers, folded and toasted a little on the hot plate (£4.50 - Mexican Vegetarian).
Ostrich burger - with Jack Daniels onion barbeque sauce and cheese in a floury bap (£7). Tasty burger made of ostrich from Berwick-upon-Tweed, but too much bread to burger ratio. I ‘heart’ ostrich was perhaps the most confusing name for a stall, given the hippyish audience. I ‘heart’ dolphin wouldn't have seemed out of place, but you wouldn't have expected to get a Flipper fricassee. Carter did quip "if you love ostriches so much, stop killing them!"
The Pure Pie crusty saucy, meaty round pies. I got two for £5 at the end of the night, which can't be bad. "You can save one till morning," was his pitch, but that was never going to happen.
Wraps and Baps - luxury falafel - four pieces, olives, garlic mushrooms, in a wrap cone which after the top layer was mainly iceberg lettuce. (£8)
Lamb kebab with couscous in a pitta. Delicious if a bit messy (about £6.50)
Double bacon and sausage bap - In the Night Garden. Double meant two rashers and two uninspiring sausages, in an oversized floury bap (£3.50).
Momo dumplings - with meatball or cheese and spinach fillings. They were nice enough to give us a taster of the sesame chicken, and the chickpea and spinach stew. Both were fantastic and the chicken was beautifully seasoned and tender (£1 dumpling taster).
Bacon and egg sandwich - The Tea Stop. A double decker bus of joy. THE hangover cure (£3.50).
:: Dom Bailey is a writer and musician. His songs are here on domssongs.blogspot.com.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Gordon Ramsay has suspended his head chef at the Maze Grill in London over claims he “went ballistic and screamed obscenities” at a waiter.
Matt Bishop, 34, was told not to return to work at the Mayfair steak house, while Ramsay’s company carries out an investigation, the Sunday Mirror said.
This may seem a trifle hypocritical given Ramsay’s reputation for giving chefs and serving staff the hair-dryer treatment, but apparently he “takes all complaints about any bad behaviour in his kitchens very seriously,” the paper quoted a close source as saying.
Bishop – who said in a recent interview that “cooking is my absolute everything” and even has a mise-en-place prep list tattooed on his body – allegedly ripped into the waiter for taking food to the wrong table.
“The mistake meant the food had gone cold and the chef would have to cook the dish again,” a kitchen insider told the paper. "It’s claimed the chef went ballistic and screamed a string of obscenities at the waiter in front of the whole kitchen.
"The guy was really upset. When Ramsay and his management heard the allegations of what was said, they decided to suspend the chef.”
Bishop (above) is a rising star in Ramsay’s crumbling restaurant empire and spent 18 months working at his Conrad Tokyo eatery in Japan. He returned to work as sous chef at Maze, and became head chef at Maze Grill when it opened three years ago.
Before that, he worked as a commis chef at Marco Pierre White’s Criterion, and later at City Rhodes, Pont de la Tour, Greenhouse, Odettes and Chez Max.
A spokesman for Gordon Ramsay Holdings said: “We do not publicly comment on individual human resources issues.”
Last week, Ramsay put Maze and Maze Grill – in Melbourne, Australia, into liquidation, blaming the crisis on the change in management since the departure of his father-in-law, Christopher Hutcheson, who was axed as chief executive in October last year.
“We have concluded that the business is not sustainable. Unfortunately, this course has become the only option as it is essential to focus on the health of the wider group," a spokesman said.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Guest post by Dom Bailey
Rabbit was once a staple in the English diet. But having grown up with Myxomatosis and Watership Down, it was never that appealing as a supper time treat. And I don't remember it ever being on the menu at home, friends' homes, or in the shops.
I did skin and boil one once, on an adventure training course as a teenager, but it was a meal for fuel rather than taste.
More appetising was the conill a la brasa they served in a restaurant I worked in as a waiter in Catalonia – split down the middle, BBQ-style, served with the pungent garlic emulsion, allioli. But it was fare rarely served to the staff.
After years in a rabbit-free wilderness (London), I now live near a farm shop that has, cheeky Cockney chappies might say, more rabbit than Sainsburys. It also has fridges packed with the usual cuts of free range duck, chicken, pork, pink veal, beef and lamb.
But the rabbit comes into the "wonder what they'll have this week" section that is the beauty of the farm shop - the seasonal game, or more unusual cuts, that you'll struggle to find in Sainsburys.
I'm as wide-eyed as my five-year-old at a whole beef tongue (farmer says "boil for a long time, then peel" - which I've not yet tried), or half a pig’s head ("popular with the local Gurkhas" - again, something I’ve yet to try), or the venison liver ("the marksman's cut" - which I will always buy when I see it, salt and paprika then flash fry), or even the venison saddle (great for slicing into minute steaks and grilling over wood).
The list goes on depending on the time of year, and the hunter's luck... wild goose, wild duck, partridge, pheasant and rabbit (sorry, Roger Serjent, never seen rook in the fridges).
So having skirted around the idea of rabbit for so long I finally decided, why not? It's been wild, chomped freely on woodland grass and woodsman's gardens - generally, a happy bunny.
I never feel guilty about quality food, origin is everything. But sometimes it is hard to shake off the English reluctance to eat our favourite cartoon characters. To rub it in, driving home, no lie, Florence And The Machine's Rabbit Heart came on the radio as I pulled up behind a Rabbits Vehicle Hire van.
But how to cook it?
Most seem to be pot recipes - country kitchen-style from days when the cook had to make do with whatever aged animal the shooter or trapper brought home. And fitting a gastro experiment in around family life, I was looking for a minimum fuss and preparation, in the oven, and forget about it option.
So I imagined a rabbit, chomping on some thyme leaves, nibbling at garlic tops, chewing a bay leaf, digging up a few carrots. Ok, I let my imagination go a little further with it raking up a truffle, knocking over some olive oil, while getting pissed on fermented apple juice and discarded lemon peel. But you get my drift.
So first take your rabbit. Hopefully it has been skinned. If not, consult Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Bear Grylls or suchlike. Even head, skin and cottontail-less it still looks rabbity. But with a family of four - everyone gets a leg...
The fore legs (that do seem unnervingly fore-army) are smaller than the hind legs, naturally. The rear legs are meaty from all the hoppitty-hop, but all the front legs have to do is put on eyeliner, lipstick, and crack open another Caramel ("Hey Mr Beaver etc").
Cut just behind the ribcage then take off each arm, I mean, leg. Saddle, down to where the hind legs are, then split the hind legs. Six pieces. A couple of sprigs of thyme, three cloves of garlic, salt and pepper, a glug of truffle oil, and a sliver of fresh lemon peel - into a freezer bag, seal and chill in the fridge for a few hours.
In a casserole dish on the hob, one chopped onion, in olive oil, low heat till transparent, with a few chopped carrots. Empty the bunny bag into the dish and brown the meat before adding a can of cider (440ml) and a dessert spoon of mustard (I used English but whatever takes your fancy). Bring to the boil, add some peas, top on, then into a pre-heated oven at 200C for 30 minutes until the meat is tender.
Take out the thyme sprigs and lemon peel. Then add a few glugs of single cream, and season to taste. If you're not ready to eat, or are cooking in advance, just turn off the oven and leave the casserole in there for a fuller, meat-falling-off-the-bone flavour.
You are left with a meaty, earthy, tangy hotpot. If you've slightly overdone the lemon (as some fool writing this did) a little more cream, and/or a sprinkle of sugar balances things out. Serve with white rice or bread to mop up the sauce, or use some of the sauce and some stock to boil some green lentils.
If you live with someone who would never consider eating rabbit - for Watership Down/Thumper reasons - tell them it's pheasant. If they can count, tell them it's two pheasants - but one had really stubby legs.
:: Dom Bailey is a writer and singer-songwriter. His songs are here at domssongs.blogspot.com.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was left looking a tad embarrassed when he had to be rescued by the coastguard during his latest fishing trip.
The TV cook was fishing with his 10-year-old son off Beer Head, on the south Devon coast, when his 19ft boat became stuck between rocks, and started taking on water.
He sent out an SOS to Portland Coastguard and a lifeboat was dispatched from nearby Sidmouth to rescue him.
They found his boat, Elderberry Snifter, balanced precariously on rocks near the eastern end of Branscombe beach, just to the west of Beer Head. It was being buffeted in the surf and was taking on water.
Naomi Firth, 31, one of the five crew on the rigid inflatable Pride of Sidmouth, swam to the celebrity chef’s boat and attached a tow rope, and it was winched ashore about an hour later.
View Larger Map
"Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall was very embarrassed but very happy to be saved,” a spokesman for the Sidmouth Lifeboat told the Sidmouth Herald. “We were glad we got to him before the rocks holed his boat.”
Neither the River Cottage cook or his son were injured, but both were said to be shaken up by the incident.
“Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall was a bit embarrassed but these things happen,” said Beer Coastguard station officer Terry Hoare.
“He’s been back in touch with us and thanked us for all our help.”
I’m not sure how it will affect sales of his River Cottage Catch & Cook courses, but at least customers will be safe in the knowledge that he won’t be skippering the boat himself. Not for £150 a pop anyway.
You probably read the story in the papers this week about head chef Charlie McCubbin (arrowed above) punching a kitchen worker and throwing him down the stairs after food critic AA Gill described his meal as “disgusting”.
McCubbin, 51, chef-owner of the River Café in Glasbury, on the banks of the River Wye, in Wales, escaped with a conditional discharge – the lowest possible sentence – after the court heard he had worked 17-hour days during this year’s Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and had “snapped” under extraordinary pressure.
Adrian Gill - who was at the festival plugging his new book Blasting Baboons With An Uzi - had apparently made the remark to a waiter in jest, and went on to give the 40-seater establishment four stars out of five for his £25 meal of antipasti, crab tart and lasagne.
But it was too late. The court heard that after the waiter told McCubbin about the drubbing, he kept storming into the kitchen and told cook Keith McVaigh, who was repairing a window: “When you’ve finished that you can f*** off and not come back.”
He then swung a punch at McVaigh, 52, which missed, and pushed him down a short flight of stairs, and then swore at another man, threatening him and saying he would take his "head off", Brecon magistrates were told.
His defence lawyer Bruce Gray pleaded in mitigation that McCubbin had worked himself to the point of exhaustion, and that somehow excused the violence.
But it doesn’t.
I’ve written a lot in the past about chefs working 17 or 18 hours a day, and how these ridiculous working hours should be stopped – if not by the Government, then by the restaurants themselves. And I’m pretty sure if they were, there would be a lot less abuse in the kitchen.
But however hard you work, and however much pressure you’re under to keep up standards, and however bad a review you get (or don’t in the end), it doesn’t justify physical violence and threats to kitchen staff.
Urging magistrates to give the chef the most lenient sentence possible, Gray said: "I say this to give you some idea of the stress of working in an environment where reputation is everything. Mr McCubbin feels he has to check and double check everything.
"The incident that led to this was that a cellar door had been left unsecured all that night and that was the straw that broke the camel's back."
A cellar door being left unsecured! To be fair, I’ve seen and heard of many incidents of chefs flipping over far less – dastardly crimes like clingfilm coming free from the corner of a container, or cooks forgetting to switch off their mobile phones during service.
But as for feeling like he has to check everything that goes out is ludicrous - that’s his job, standing at the pass, scrutinising plates, unless you’re Heston Blumenthal, in which case you’ll have your eye on other dishes.
It’s ridiculous that McCubbin escaped without even a fine or a few hours of community service for taking a swing at an employee and pushing him down the stairs, when a stand-up comic (however bad) gets four weeks in jail for throwing a foam pie at Rupert Murdoch.
I mean, where’s the justice in that? And what sort of message does it send out? There must be hundreds of sadistic chefs rubbing their hands with glee up and down the country, knowing they can mistreat their long-suffering underlings and get off scot free by blaming it on the stresses of work.
“I caught him spying in the oven at his soufflé, your honour...”
Oh well, case closed.
As for Gill pretending he thought the food was awful, and knowing full well the sort of tsunami that would cause in the kitchen, it’s a shame McCubbin didn’t direct his anger at him. Or at least throw him out of the restaurant as Gordon Ramsay, the man he says he’s often compared to for his foul-mouthed histrionics, once did.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
I continued my journey through the floating villages on Tonle Sap, and the tin shacks and wooden houses became even more ramshackle, until there were families of 14 living in single room shelters with reed-stitched roofs. The people looked happy, but the poverty was appalling.
Children were playing in the mud, and everywhere I went there were choruses of “allo!” It was obvious they got few foreign visitors. Most of the tourists they see are the boat loads of holidaymakers who float past on organised tours of SE Asia's largest freshwater lake, which during the monsoon swells up to cover a fifth of the country.
It’s an existence of mud, fish and lake water. I passed a yard making boats, and the smell of the wood oils enveloped the air with a fresh, musky, aftershave smell that for a few seconds overpowered the relentless stench of fish rotting away in tubs to make prahoc (a delicious fermented fish condiment that has a peculiar taste of Roquefort, and is often cooked in omelettes, and served with beef lok lak).
It's a tough life - the dreadful poverty means the average age expectancy is just 54, 50% of children are malnourished, and 12% die before the age of five, according to the NGOs that raise cash for the villagers.
Some of the wooden shacks were bought for families by foreign visitors, and have their names plastered on boards outside like 'for sale' signs.
The whole economy is based on fish. And I'm glad the Cambodian government has finally announced action to restore fish stocks in Tonle Sap, also known as the Great Lake, by removing the commercial licences of fishermen who had been pouring toxic chemicals into the water to drive fish towards their nets.
The 35 lot-holders, who had been paying the government a total of $2m a year for the privilege of overfishing and poisoning the lake, will not be able to operate for at least three years to allow fish stocks to recover.
Locals will still be able to fish the lake to feed their families, however - which is lucky considering there is very little else for them to eat.
On the dusty road back to Siem Reap, a tuk tuk full of lycra-clad Russians clutching beer bottles ambled past and then stopped suddenly in front of me.
They got out and disappeared down a slope to a lotus flower farm with a 1,000 riel ($0.25) honesty box outside for visitors. They started clambering around in the middle of the flowers, taking pictures of each other.
I watched for a bit wondering whether the entrance fee would pay for the damage to the plants, and then there was lightning over the hill and soon the full strength of a monsoon.
I was drenched in seconds. The potholes and craters quickly filled with muddy, red water and it was impossible to know which would lead down into a crunching chasm, and which was older and filled with stones.
I stopped outside one of the hammock bars lining the road. An old woman welcomed me in and sat me down with a bucket of ice cold beers and a bucket of ice.
I drank the Anchors in quick succession, staring out at the lush green rice fields that would soon become a lake again. I could have been in Wales, except the rain was stronger, the heat left breath trails in the air, and there wasn’t a curried chip or a track-suit in sight.
The rain gathered strength, and poured through every hole in the roof. They moved me to a room at the back with a sturdier roof made of rusty corrugated iron, and I drank a few more beers as I waited for my Cambodian sour rice chicken soup. A steaming bowl big enough to feed a brigade of hungry soldiers arrived. There was so much there, I shared it with the family.
The chicken was the gloopy, gelatinous parts of the bird – feet and wing tips mainly – as well as offal and gizzards, and with the sourness of the tamarind, flavoured the stock brilliantly.
It came with bean sprouts, chopped spring onions greens, and a bowl of Kampot pepper. Every time the liquid level fell below five gallons, the old woman would return with a cauldron of bubbling chicken stock to top it up.
It was absolutely divine, and continues to be one of my favourite Khmer dishes. More commonly, it is flavoured with dried shrimps, sliced shiitake and straw mushrooms, chopped thorny coriander, spring onion greens, slices of onion, plenty of black pepper, and julienne strips of fresh ginger draped over the top (pic below).
The prawns add wonderful bursts of fishy flavour, and it’s so thick, it has all the smack of a good Mulligatawny. It really is a spectacular meal in a soup.
I sat in my hammock and gazed out at the paddy fields that now resembled a patched quilt with squares of brown in the afternoon haze. I looked down at the water-filled trench below and the goat and her mewing kid. The top of a reed fish trap was poking out from the water. There was movement inside and I could see a snake’s head squeezing out through the bars.
It tried one side and then the other, each time looking for a bigger gap. Finally it pushed half its body through and dangled unsteadily in mid-air. I felt slightly guilty, but did it anyway. I walked out to the front of the restaurant to tell the family they were about to lose a snake.
They had no idea what I was talking about so I got them to follow me. They squinted for a bit as I pointed. The snake had gone still all of a sudden and you could hardly tell it was there. Then it gave a final lunge and vanished into the brown water. I gestured again, but the woman just shrugged.
“You want me go and get and cook for you?” she asked.
“No, no, I not like,” I said.
They wandered back to their hammocks, and then the woman returned with a stick in her hand. Her silhouette got closer. When she was a few feet away, the stick bent upwards and I realised it was a snake.
“I cook for you?” she said.
“No, no,” I said, panicking, and wondering how I could jump out of the hammock without falling over the low banister into the snake-filled trench 20ft below.
She grinned, and I thought she was going to throw it at me. But she walked off and chucked the serpent back into a large, foul-smelling vase to rejoin its friends and live for a few more hours. I staggered to my feet, paid the bill, and got back on my bike to brave the rain.
:: Map Of Siem Reap And Tonle Sap...
View Larger Map
Monday, August 15, 2011
Cambodia is a hard place to work in as a journalist, but it’s still depressing to see the lack of news coming out of the country. Publications that take a critical stance are quickly brought to heel, or have their licences taken away by the Information Ministry.
For a country so rife with corruption, and so full of human rights abuses, it’s a crying shame there’s not more printed about the place. Much of it has to do with the media’s ever-growing obsession with celebrities and soft news.
It hammered it home the other day when I typed “Cambodia” in a Google news search, and most of the stories that came up were about how Angelina Jolie’s kids love eating crickets and munch them “like Doritos” - as she revealed in an interview during a visit to Siem Reap Province to plug a £7,000 handbag for Louis Vuitton.
Light-hearted yarns about child labour, mass faintings in sweat shops knocking out goods for the likes of Tesco and Marks & Spencer, and foreign conglomerates driving out impoverished villagers from their homes to make way for rubber plantations and shopping malls, don’t stand much of a chance against what a celebrity’s adopted brood like to scoff while playing video games.
But in the unlikely event that Jolie or her kids ever find themselves on skid row, they could always try this novel way of catching crickets I came across on a tour of the third world floating villages lining the massive Tonle Sap lake, just south of Siem Reap and the ancient, fabled city of Angkor Wat.
It really is shocking the extremes of wealth in Cambodia, where there's little or no state help. Siem Reap is so developed, with its $800 a night suites and world class golf courses, and yet an hour's bike ride away there are villagers earning $500 a year.
When the lake is down, as it is now, they pretty much survive on snakehead fish, which are ugly looking things with dark reptilian eyes that glint angrily as they are pulled from nets, and are about the only fish that can survive the dry season buried in muddy puddles, pretty much like the people who live on them.
One side of the road was lined with plastic bowls with what looked like giant hankies hanging over them. I’d seen them many times, but still couldn’t figure out what they were for.
I’d seen calves and chickens drinking from them, and initially thought they were just water tubs, but why so many? And what about the netting and the electrical cables and fluorescent bulbs dodgily hooked up to the overhanging power lines?
A dead frog was floating in one. Was it a frog trap? That didn’t explain the electrics. Or did it?
A group of young Khmer men emerged from a karaoke bar. They were working for an English school and offered me a job on the spot after discovering I was British – which perhaps sheds some light on why people complain about there being so many village idiots teaching English out here.
It turned out the splat-smeared netting was to catch flying crickets, so they plunged down and drowned in the slimy green ooze. I looked closer as one of the bolder Khmers began fiddling with the fizzing electrics to demonstrate how it worked.
A cable ran from the overhead power line to a plastic water bottle with two connections, providing some sort of switch so the bulb dangling perilously over the water could be switched on at night to attract more insects.
The crickets are then collected in the morning and fried for breakfast, or sold to street vendors who cook them up for the thousands of tuk tuk drivers clapping their hands at tourists in the centre of Siem Reap.
:: Five Ways To Cook A Cricket
The locals are also big fans of deep-fried spiders, but I have no idea how they catch them...
As I was cycling up to one of the poorest villages, several policemen lounging in hammocks by the side of the track called me over and told me I had to pay $2 to go in.
I was directed back to the ticket office at Chong Kneas, where tourists are charged a hefty $20 to go on a short boat tour of the floating villages and schools.
At first, the touts denied it was possible to buy a ticket for the village and kept pointing at the boat, and then they said it was $4, and finally agreed it was $2.
It wasn’t the money that bothered me - it was knowing that hardly any of it would get to those cricket-loving villagers trying to scrape a living in the mud.
:: Map Of Siem Reap And Tonle Sap...
View Larger Map
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
The unfathomably brilliant Masterchef techno song has entered the top 40 – and is set to shoot up the charts this week.
With England on fire, global stock markets in meltdown, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse cutting short their holidays to plunge the country into further chaos, anything is possible – even a number one hit featuring the undeniable talents of Gregg Wallace and John Torode.
Swede Mason’s mash-up of ridiculous phrases and mid-rapture expressions from Egg and Toad, set to a funky, distorted bass lick became an overnight internet sensation when it was put on YouTube.
Millions of people around the world have now heard his incredibly catchy Masterchef Synesthesia, which on Sunday went to number 37 in the UK’s top 40 singles chart, just days after its release.
The editing masterpiece starts off with Egg rapping about a contestant’s “buttery biscuit base”, spliced with repetitions of “base, base, base, base...”
Later, it cuts to Toad throwing in an “acid bass” line for good measure as the screen goes all Scooby Doo, and demonstrating how it needs some oomph.
“Wobble, wobble, wobble,” raps Toad in the bridge, throwing his arms around like an acid casualty fending off imaginary wasps in a St John Ambulance festival tent, to lightning-quick edits of Egg's insistent: “Base!”
Egg and Toad are clearly big fans of the song, which is raising cash for Comic Relief. Both were celebrating the news it had got into the top 40.
Egg tweeted: “Really cannot believe I'm in a song in the top 40. Really very funny, and kind of nice.”
“When they said top 40, I thought they were talking about our ages. It’s bizarre,” Toad added.
It’s great news for 31-year-old Mason, who is saving up funds so he can give up his day job as a plasterer and labourer in London to concentrate on his music.
It’s quite fitting, given Masterchef’s premise of giving it all up to “make it as a professional”. Cue: Techno doesn’t get tougher than this...
Or as Egg would say: “This delivers on every...single...level.”
Other figures of ridicule Mason has poked fun at with his mash-ups include Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Madeley, Mel Gibson, and Harold from Neighbours. So at least they’re in good company.
Tuesday, August 09, 2011
Kitchen staff have been hailed as heroes after fighting off a gang of London looters who burst into a two star Michelin restaurant and began robbing customers.
Some 50 masked raiders wielding knives and wooden clubs smashed windows at The Ledbury, in Notting Hill, West London, and started ripping off terrified diners' watches and jewellery.
But the thugs were driven off when a brigade of chefs ran from the kitchen armed with rolling pins. When word got round that the looters were about to return to the posh eatery, staff got the 30-plus diners to hide in the toilets, and then the wine cellar.
Food blogger Louise Yang told how she was caught up in the violence, and how it turned out to the the most expensive evening of her life after thugs pulled her wedding ring from her finger.
The Ledbury before the attack (below) - and (above) what it looks like this morning...
She praised the cooks for going “beyond their call of duty” by protecting customers – a call echoed by thousands on Twitter.
“They were rushing up from the kitchen with rolling pins, fry baskets, and other dangerous kitchen tools and scared off the looters,” Yang (@nakedsushi) said.
“When word came that the looters were coming back a second time, they ushered us into the bathrooms and told us to lock the doors. A few minutes later, they led us into the wine cellar and told us to lock ourselves in there.”
Workers were this morning busy clearing up the mess at the restaurant, and fitting a new wooden door.
The Ledbury's head chef and owner Brett Graham, who was not at the restaurant during the attack, said: "We are open for lunch and dinner tonight - we are not going to be silenced by a bunch of thugs."
Yang said the violence started when she heard several “loud bangs” outside.
“One looter…told me to take off my rings and grabbed my hand, trying to yank them off. His friend tried to help too, but the rings wouldn’t come off and I just yelled at him that I’d take them off myself.“
Isaac McHale was one of the chefs who helped drive off the mob.
“Hi all, yes we were attacked, youths ran in., smashed up the room, all chefs ran up, youths left, came back later.... everyone shook up,” he tweeted. “We all take it very personally, esp us been there since we opened.“
Harry Wilkinson, a chef and food blogger, tweeted how his parents were in the restaurant having an anniversary meal at the time: “Bunch of people smashed the windows in and came in and tried ripping watches/wallets, jewellery off customers.”
The attack was one of hundreds during a third night of looting in London, which has also spread to other cities across the UK.
Other areas ransacked in the capital included Clapham, Hackney, Dalston, Peckham, Woolwich, Lewisham, Enfield, Walthamstow and Tottenham.
Sunday, August 07, 2011
Restaurants are always dreaming up new ways to lure customers and make their menus stand out from competitors. Whether it’s outlandish ice creams starry-eyed chefs churn out in their shiny new Pacojets, or iPods playing the sound of hunting horns as you eat your venison hotpot, or dipping your toes in a bucket of sand and seawater while eating juniper-smoked whelks, or getting rice chucked at you like confetti as you tuck into your wild garlic oil risotto, or just that old trick of using mysterious meats.
It’s happened before with ostrich and crocodile (the latter sparking “and make it snappy” gags to long-suffering waiters), and when that became a bit long in the tooth, restaurants wanting a few column inches started using squirrel, which got a bit of press attention a couple of years back, and then recently it became the so-called recession chic of using tripe and testacles, as showcased by the likes of Tom Kitchin, Scotland’s youngest Michelin-starred chef.
But the Taverners, a gastropub in Godshill, Isle of Wight, that makes a big thing of its local produce, low food miles, and “hand peeled, hand cut and triple-cooked” chips, must be regretting its choice of putting rook salad on the menu after it started getting hate mail from bird-lovers and a petition was set up to boycott the restaurant.
On Friday, police cautioned an unnamed 45-year-old man who admitted shooting 30 fledgling rooks and selling them to an unnamed butcher, who then flogged them to the restaurant.
All wild birds – except wood pigeons - are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, meaning it is illegal to sell them for human consumption. It doesn’t matter that rooks can be controlled under special circumstances if you’ve got a licence issued by Natural England - they can be thrown away, but they can’t be sold for any culinary use.
“From my perspective we bought it completely innocently from the butcher,” said head chef and owner Roger Serjent, 40, who has since taken his pan-fried pink rooks with roasted beetroot and hazelnut dressing off the menu.
“Afterwards we found out it was not legal. I had a lot of hate mail over it so I just want it to go away now,” he added, refusing to comment further.
Never one to shy away from controversy when there’s a bit of publicity to be had, Gordon Ramsay found himself in hot water too when he shot six rooks, and pan-fried their breasts for a salad during filming of his dreadful F Word show four years ago.
During the episode, Ramsay described rooks as a “real pest” who damage crops and steal birds’ eggs. He added: “I think it is about time something like this found its way back on to traditional British menus.”
But not according to Inspector Terry Clawson, from Hampshire police’s Isle of Wight Safer Neighbourhoods programme, who said police treated such cases seriously.
You can understand officers feeling like they’ve got to get involved, especially when hate mail’s flying about, but four and 20 rooks served in a salad is hardly busting an international smuggling ring in endangered meats. Think of all the people driving at 33mph they could have caught in that time.
The man arrested faced a maximum £5,000 fine and a jail sentence of up to six months for each bird shot – so if it was up to Heather Mills, would have got 15 years in jail (about 40 times what an MP serves these days for fiddling expenses).
But after two months of police inquiries, they just gave him a caution and told him not to do it again, while they were even more lenient with Serjent and the butcher, who they refused to name.
They just wrote stiff letters warning them not to sell rooks any more, which does make you wonder why they bothered to take action in the first place, when presumably there are far more pressing matters to attend to like youths loitering on bowling lawns, tramps peeing in bus shelters, and tracing the owners of missing jumpers.
I have sympathy for the chef. When I was back in the UK, an old boy in the house next to me used to bring me the occasional pheasant when he’d been out beating. And one day he arrived with a plastic bag full of rook fledglings (they have to be shot when they just come out of the nest and before they fly, otherwise they quickly become tough) that he’d got somewhere through his murky rural contacts (perhaps even the Ooh Arr Ay or the Farmer Bin Ladens).
It’s probably because I’m getting squeamish in my old age, but I looked into the bag and saw the purple carcasses plastered with black feathers and it turned my stomach.
He kept pressing me to make a rook pie, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them – something I found myself equally unable to do yesterday when I had a revolting meal of deep-fried frog at a Khmer restaurant in Siem Reap – so I put them in the freezer and decided to deal with them later, and banished the thought of those satanic, black feathers.
A month went by, with me ducking past my gnarly old neighbour’s house in case he inquired about the rooks as he ferreted around with his squirrel traps, and then eventually I handed them back and admitted defeat.
“Call yourself a chef?” I remember him chuckling.
He licked his lips as he looked in the bag, and got his wife to cook them up in a stew with dumplings, and brought me some round, which I made excuses about eating.
As I say, I have sympathy with the chef. Like him, I had no idea rooks were protected – all I knew about them from the farmers down the pub were how much of a nuisance they were to their crops, and where had all the songbirds gone?
It’s strange to think that those pints I used to buy the old boy in exchange for the birds probably constituted a financial transaction, and therefore an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. And that’s regardless of whether they were shot under licence, which of course they were.
Saturday, August 06, 2011
Guest post by Dom Bailey
If the haggis is the great chieftain o’ the puddin' race, the Hinds Head in the upmarket village of Bray, in Berkshire, has snagged a couple of others from the noble hierarchy.
Given that owner, Heston Blumenthal, is the Dr Frankenstein of gastromistry, you are more likely to find something Mary Shelley herself may have tucked into.
Little numbers by some of the dishes denote the age of resurrected recipes - but resurrected to live and taste as intended. Veal chops with cabbage and onion and sauce 'reform' (c.1830) are not out of place alongside the no-nonsense Hereford rib-eye with bone marrow, or bream, peas, mussels and borage, or pork belly with pearl barley and wheat beer.
I could have gone for all five starters - ham hock and foie gras terrine, crab on toast, raw venison, tea-smoked salmon, or lemon salad with cider-poached pear, goat's curd and walnuts (this, the menu modernistically warns, may contain nuts...) But instead I opted for a more rounded meal - a Scotch egg and two puddings.
I have only recently discovered that Scotch eggs do not have to be the shot put balls of grisly meat, air-pocket and dry hard-boiled egg found in school canteens, salad bars, and service station fridges.
In fact, I'd hazard to say the proof of a place is in its Scotch egg.
I mean really, how do they do it? Crispy salt-flaked breadcrumbs, tender sausage meat, and a soft-boiled quail's egg oozing yolk out of the middle. Soft-boiled!
But the proof is also in the puddings, as you might say.
The first is a specials/signature dish alongside the vivid pea and ham soup, or Cornish mackerel with Jersey potatoes, smoked fennel and red gooseberry chutney.
It is oxtail and kidney pudding (top pic) - a steaming flat-topped dome of delight in a silky, rich sauce. The pudding shell is thankfully thin and splits open to reveal the shreds of oxtail and kidney chunks. The beefy flavour is intense but not overpowering. A slightly thicker amount of pudding below - but all the better for mopping up the sauce. It’s definitely a plate-licking dish.
We had it served with sand carrots (growing them in sand makes them sweeter apparently, and I guess a lot less knobbly) and a baby spinach salad with an anchovy dressing, hazelnuts, and Lord of the Hundreds ewe's milk cheese. Ok, the salad was for my partner who had the mackerel, but it was fantastic with the salty anchovy, nutty cheese and nutty nuts.
The second pudding had the number c.1700 together with a little explanation card about the origin of puddings. I won't spoil it, but basically it dates back to a time when puddings got sweet, coming out of their haggis-binding intestine skins and into cloths.
The speckled, wobbly blob on the board next to some apple strands is Quaking Pudding. If I said imagine a warm, cinnamon-spiced panna cotta it wouldn't do it justice. There is just something comforting and earthily-maternal about each mouthful. The queen o’ the puddin' race, no less.
Other desserts - not puddings - include banana Eton Mess, and another resurrection and intriguingly-named chocolate wine ‘slush’ with millionaire shortbread (c.1660).
The Hinds Head looks like a country village pub, but it has foregone the soul-destroying gastropub/bistro make-over to keep the dark wooden panels, polished leather, and ghosts of a bygone era (there's even a Duck or Grouse warning sign to mind your head on the low beams...)
There's a bustle of black-dressed staff, and local drinkers are confined to the small bar area (during this Friday evening session at any rate). But worth seeking out for any time-travelling fans of the Great British pudding.
Price: £88 for two people, including a few pints of Marlow Brewery Smugglers ale (rather than the £600 bottle of Chateau Latour premier grand cru, Pauillac).
The Hinds Head: High Street, Bray, Berkshire, UK, SL6 2AB
Tel: +44 (0)1628 626151, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
:: Dom Bailey is a writer and musician. His songs – largely inspired, appropriately enough, by old English tales - are here...
Friday, August 05, 2011
One thing that surprised me during the two months or so I spent in Vietnam was how dismissive many tourists were of the food. When I was in Thailand and Cambodia, people kept saying to me that Vietnam was THE place for grub in SE Asia. Most of them had travelled throughout Indochina and knew their stuff, some were chefs who’d been working out there for a while.
Perhaps it was the high expectations, but my first experiences of Vietnamese food hardly blew me away, and I kept bumping into people who said the same – that it didn’t quite live up to the hype.
I even met a rapper called DJ Shadow in Saigon, who had a bizarre theory that it was down to the fact that Vietnam had been at war for most of the 20th century, and its people had been too busy learning to fight than cook. He’d even written a rap about it.
I can’t say I agreed with him, but it made for an interesting conversation from what I scarcely recall. After all, when the French colonised Cambodia, they tended to use Vietnamese chefs rather than Khmer ones, believing they were far more skilled cooks (which is praise indeed from the French).
But I did find some very good dishes during my travels through Nam. And the best of the lot, for my money, are the breakfasts. I never thought I’d find a meal to rival the great British fry-up, but it certainly holds true for banh mi op la (fried eggs cooked on a skillet with a freshly-made tomato sauce and a garlicky, mayonnaise-like emulsion, served with a crusty baguette) and bo kho (invariably described on tourist menus as Vietnamese goulash).
And the latter is not an unfair comparison, because like a properly-made goulash, bo kho has that beautiful, meaty thickness to the broth that only comes from cooking cheaper cuts for a long time, with root vegetables in towards the end.
There’s nothing quite like mopping up a hearty stew with bread, and that’s how it comes in Vietnam – banh mi – with a lovely fresh baguette to wipe up every smear of juice. But there’s other stuff too: the ubiquitous plate of thorny coriander and basil leaves for vitamins, and usually a small saucer of Kampot pepper, sea salt, chopped chilli and a lime quarter to squeeze in and stir into a paste – which takes the dish from superb to sublime.
The meal is a sister of the famous beef noodle soup, pho bo – Vietnam’s unofficial national dish. And it shares the same secrets in the stock – onions, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and occasionally other spices, cooked to black. This gives it a deep, slightly bitter, spicy flavour that differentiates it from the hundreds of permutations of beef daubes, stews, and goulashes you’ll find around the world from Paris to Prague to Phu Quoc.
The result after a few hours of simmering is an aromatic, velvety stew with lumps of falling-apart beef, potatoes and carrots – the sliced onions long having been dissolved into the thick broth. The best place I had it was at Cafe 333, off De Tham, in Saigon, where it is only served on the breakfast menu, topped with a garnish of sliced fresh onion and spring onion greens. It really is wonderful.
I’ve been tinkering with my version of it (I’ve even added wine, eek – so kiss my ass aficionados), and I’ve watched it being made in a few places, and I reckon it is definitely worth trying. There’s enough here for six very hungry people (at least)...
1kg different cuts of stewing beef – brisket, chuck, shank etc.
4 medium onions, or two big ones, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 star anise
3 red chillies
2 sticks of lemon grass, bruised and roughly chopped
1 stick of cinnamon
Thumb-sized piece of ginger
Two onions, cut in half
1kg beef bones
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tbsps tomato puree
½ bottle red wine
1 tbsp fish sauce
3 bay leaves
2 tsps brown sugar
Handful of flour
First make the stock by roasting the bones in a tray in the oven, scattered with the cloves, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, whole chillies, lemon grass, and a little oil and salt.
Blacken the unpeeled onion halves on the cut side directly over a hob, and add to the tray. Cook for about one hour at 170C until the bones and spices are nicely singed.
Remove from the pan and put in a saucepan. Pour in enough water to cover the bones and bring to the boil. When the water is boiling, deglaze the pan the bones were roasted in with a couple of ladles of the hot stock by putting the pan over a hob and scraping the bottom with a wooden spatula so all the juices and caramelised bits of flavour dissolve into the fiercely bubbling water.
Add to the stock, and simmer for two hours, adding more water if necessary. Then sieve the stock and reduce over a high flame – until you have about one litre of liquid.
Cut the beef into one to two-inch cubes. Put a handful of flour into a plastic bag, and throw the meat in, and shake until it is well-coated. Remove the meat from the bag, shaking off the excess flour.
Heat a little oil in a saucepan over a very hot flame and fry the diced pieces of beef, a few at a time, so as not to lose the heat from the pan, otherwise they will “stew” rather than brown. Add the chopped onions, and fry for another ten minutes, stirring all the time. Then add the tomato puree, garlic, sugar, and bay leaves, stir well, and cook for 30 seconds.
Pour in the wine and fish sauce, and bubble away. When the liquid has almost evaporated, pour in the stock, bring to the boil and simmer slowly for several hours until the meat is soft and feathery, and at the point of falling apart.
Add the potatoes and carrots about 40 minutes before the end so the veg is cooked through but still firm, adding more water if necessary. Season the stew, and serve with a fresh baguette, a plate of fresh green tops and herbs, and a side dish of Kampot pepper if you’re lucky enough to get it.