Monday, June 25, 2012

The Food They Won’t Be Serving At The London Olympics

With the Olympics just a few weeks away, it appears every feature writer in the country has been hard at work trying to find ways to nose articles on London 2012.

We’ve had daily pieces on the stately homes, towns, former pit villages and rough estates the Olympic Torch has passed through on its 70-day journey around Britain. Nature writers penning columns on the 2,000 ash, alder, cherry, willow, birch and hazel trees planted in the Olympic Park. And history nuts casting their eyes back 64 years to the last London Olympics, when athletes apparently travelled by bus, stayed in shabby flats, and sewed their own kit.

Then, there was rationing. Now there are trendy food markets and pop ups on every corner, and a never ending appetite, it seems, for food and drink features with an Olympic theme, however desperately crowbarred in. I even spotted a journalist the other day on Twitter desperately asking whether anyone “could think of a way of linking a feature about drink with the Olympics”.

There have been endless, clichéd articles about how British food is trying to throw off its stodgy image of stringy beef and boiled, overcooked vegetables with everything. Apparently, according to some food writers, the world still sees us a culinary wasteland built on deep-fried Mars bars, instant mash and baked beans. Where have they been for the past 20 years?

Even David Cameron has got in on the act, espousing the virtues of sticky toffee pudding from Cartmel, oysters from Whitstable, salt marsh lamb from North Wales, and smoked salmon from Scotland, as the key to our cultural identity - showcasing “our heritage, openness, creativity and diversity". He didn’t mention what he plumps for at his country suppers.

We’re told spectators will be able to enjoy roast pork on a roll, Red Leicester cheese and apple chutney sandwiches, and, of course, fish and chips - as well as dishes from far away places like Asia, Africa, and the Malvinas. Roast penguin anyone? And if that wasn’t enough, the world's biggest McDonald's in the Olympic Park. Well, they had to do something for the sponsors I suppose.

But however ethnically diverse the offerings, thankfully you won’t find some of the foods I ate while covering the last Olympics in Beijing. In the weeks I spent there suffocating in smog, I wrote an article on the city’s Donghuamen night market, which the Chinese government had rebuilt to showcase 100 "dainty snacks" from all corners of China. Dainty wasn’t the word immediately on my lips when I conducted a Bushtucker trial with tourists in the market. Here it is, if you want a read...

I THREW up five minutes after visiting Donghuamen night market. It wasn't the snake, or the scorpion, the lamb's penis, testicles, bees, centipede, or the beer I downed trying to banish the taste. It was the silkworm.

It exploded in my mouth and it was everything I could do to stop myself instantly gagging on the musty, yellow gunk. I managed to last until the filming stopped - and then threw up in one of the bins.

All to the bemusement of the locals, who clearly found the array of creepy crawlies, and other things that go crunch in the night, delicious.

A sign in English said the people's government had rebuilt the market, off Beijing's central Wangfujing Street, to showcase 100 "dainty snacks" from all corners of China.

They said they wanted to "enhance the friendly exchanges with foreign countries."

But when I offered the delicacies to the hordes of Olympics fans who had descended on the infamous tourist spot, I think the most complimentary comment was "absolutely disgusting".

Only the French seemed to like it. A gaggle crowded round the scorpion stand and made pleasing, lip-smacking gestures in the way they would if they were tucking into a truffle or slice of foie gras, or a frog for that matter.

The whole thing was a dreadful experience, but the politburo was right: it did lead to some friendly - and hilarious - exchanges. I even found myself having a new-found respect for the likes of Peter Andre and Paul Burrell.

The Bushtucker Trials on TV show I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here looks easy when you're munching crisps on the sofa.

But when you get that first stomach convulsion, and insect legs stick in your throat, and the deep-fried, rancid taste is with you for the next 12 hours, it takes a lot more guts than you think.

"What do you think of the silkworm then?" I ask Canadian Kim Warburton, who is on a fact-finding mission for the Vancouver Games in 2010.

"It's awful. It's definitely a local taste - and it's still in my teeth!"

Her colleague Sarah Triantafillou is having none of it. I offer her a bit of snake, or was it a baby seahorse? But the most adventurous she'll go is the noodles.

"What did you think of the baby eels?" I ask. "What! No way!" she shrieks, clutching her mouth.

A Mexican guy butts in, shaking his head with a hangdog expression. "The scorpion was interesting," he muses.

I eventually get an American, in obligatory baseball cap, to eat a three-inch centipede. "It looks horrible, what does it taste like?" he grimaces. "It tastes like centipede," I tell him.

He crunches away with a pained look. "It's terrible - it's as bad as it looks. Errr centipede!" I offer him a beer to remove the taste.

"No thanks," he says. "If I drink too much beer, I might eat another one."

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Hand And Flowers: Can A Two Star Michelin Eatery Really Still Be Called A Pub?

I’d been wanting to go to the Hand And Flowers for a long time. The last time I’d drunk there was as a youth, when it’d been an unassuming country pub perched on the fringes of an upmarket town, and I’d thrown up in the garden. But, unlike me, it’d done a lot of growing up in that time, and was now a two-star Michelin eatery owned by fast-rising celebrity chef Tom Kerridge.

So a few days after returning from my 17-month sojourn in SE Asia, I drove to Marlow in Buckinghamshire to try out the grub. As I walked up to the front door, I was delighted to see Kerridge dealing with a van driver in the car park. The 38-year-old cook appeared rather red-faced and stressed - much more chef-like than the relaxed, smiley-faced man who stole the show on the BBC’s Great British Menu.

The fact that he was there at all, not just propping up the bar signing menus and regaling customers, but actually in whites cooking in his own kitchen, spoke volumes. Compared with the number of absentee sleb chefs you get in restaurants these days, it was a hugely refreshing sight knowing he would be behind the stove, driving on his team of nine cooks in his newly-enlarged kitchens, rather than flouncing around in front of cameras.


But as it turned out, he’d just returned from a three-week jolly to Singapore, where he’d been showcasing British pub food with his sous chef. I don’t know who’d been covering for him, or whether standards had slipped in his absence, but I was glad to be eating there when the big man was behind the stove, even if he did look a touch jet-lagged and frazzled.

The venue is hailed as the only pub in the world with two Michelin stars...but hang on a minute. Pub? Alright, it serves draught beer, has a bar, and is decked out in dark wood, but surely a pub is somewhere you drink? Somewhere you can order beer without anything more than crisps, cockles, or pork scratchings and not get frosty looks? It’s not a place that sells bottles of 1995 Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Amoureuses, Dmne Roumier for £1,100, or have I been away too long?

For me, there’s an easy test. If you can drink there happily without having to order grub, it’s a pub. If you can’t, it’s a restaurant. So the Hand And Flowers definitely isn’t a pub. I mean, there’s a line at the bottom of the menu saying minimum spend £15. You wouldn’t get that in a proper pub, would you? So just to check, I gave them a ring, pretending I’d just moved into the area and was checking out the local venues. Could I have a drink in there without buying food, I asked, expecting an immediate: “No, of course not. Fuck off.”.

I was wrong. The manager seemed quite well versed on the subject, schooled even. She said I was welcome to have just a drink. But only if I was standing at the bar, or standing or sitting in the garden. In short, the only way I could sit down without being rained on was by ordering food. So that’s settled - the Hand And Flowers IS a pub and is quite correct when it describes itself as “the first pub to have been awarded two Michelin Stars”. I just don’t know anyone who’d want to drink there. Five minutes of being jostled by never-ending waiters would be enough.

But as it turned out, I ate at the bar anyway. I’d booked the day before, and the only free table was at 2.45pm. “Isn’t there anything earlier?” my dining companion asked, so I tried again. The manager, who’d clearly forgotten about space needed for drinkers, said I could have a table at the bar at 12.45pm, 1pm, 1.15pm, 1.30pm...and presumably would have gone right the way through the afternoon at quarter of an hour intervals, until I said 1pm was fine.

So there I was. Kerridge looking red-faced dealing with a supplier in the car park. Me sat at the bar in candle-light. It’s for this reason, I have to apologise for the very poor quality of these photos. The place was so dark, it was like eating in a mine shaft. I ordered a pint of Greene King IPA, and my dining companion went for a similarly splendid gin and tonic. You might think there’s little that can go wrong with a gin and tonic, but apparently not. And there must be something in it, otherwise Michelin inspectors wouldn’t test the quality of a restaurant’s, sorry pub’s, beverages by ordering orange juice (is it freshly-squeezed etc) and a G&T (don’t ask).

Although the choice of items on the a la carte menu sounded fantastic - crispy pig’s head with rhubarb; loin of Cotswold venison with ox tongue; parsley soup with smoked eel et al - we went for the set lunch menu of two courses for £15, or three for £19, because I was paying. I was also intrigued how they’d pull off two-star cooking at the price of an all-you-can-eat Sunday curry buffet.

A plate of “free canapés” quickly arrived, delivered in a bounteous fashion as if they were a special favour for us. But it turns out they do this for everyone. A couple of slices of delicious bread, tiny saucers of flaked salt and freshly-cracked pepper, and a fish and chip-style cone of whitebait in a wonderfully light batter.


The cone arrived on a wooden board next to a small pot of Marie Rose sauce - which was as bad a match as it was made. Why anyone would want to dip whitebait in prawn cocktail sauce is beyond me. But when it’s the sort of pedestrian mayonnaise and over-riding ketchup flavour you’d expect from a James Martin airline meal, it’s far harder to stomach. But perhaps I’m being too harsh? They were “free canapés” after all.

The next blip was the “cauliflower soup with potato pakora and curry oil”. Cauliflower soup is never a particularly brilliant dish, for my money, but it works best when it’s done simply with just cauliflower and stock. This one was so drenched in cream, the cauliflower was left peeking out like a pervert in a Soho booth.

The soup was topped with a huge and deliciously-spiced pakora. But where was the curry oil? Normally you can’t miss it, because chefs can’t stop themselves doing fancy patterns with squeezy bottles. Then came the question of how to eat it. Do you dip the pakora in the soup? Or wolf it down, then get to the soup? Or sink it and eat spoonfuls of pakora and soup?

I went for the latter, and clearly this wasn’t the right way because as soon as I put my spoon down for a second, mid-bowl, the waiter - obviously noticing there was no longer a massive pakora terrifying my broth - snatched our plates away.

“Finished our soups gentlemen?” he said, not waiting for an answer. “How were they for you?”

Normally, I’d be annoyed. But I was pretty much creamed out by that stage. And it was the only fault in the otherwise excellent service. Sadly, in many Michelin-starred restaurants, or far worse prissy restaurants overlooked by the tyre guide, the service can be so affectedly solemn it leads to the sort of constipated atmosphere that does little for the indigestion. But it was just right at the Hand And Flowers. The Dereks were friendly and relaxed without too much pushy, while being extremely professional and attentive throughout. The only exception was the soup snatcher with the silly hair. But there’s always one.

Next came “belly of Wiltshire pork, spring turnip puree with marmalade and Italian leaves” - which was an absolutely sensational dish. Kerridge is known for his pork, and this showcased every bit of his talent. It was quite simply out of this world. It wasn’t the most generous portion of meat, but what do you expect at that price?

The belly, garnished with kohlrabi shoots, was juicily moist, and the skin beautifully crisp. It was perched on grilled and pickled endive, which was wonderfully bitter, and balanced the sweetness of the turnip puree and marmalade. The toffee-coloured gravy was divine, and having worked in a couple of Michelin restaurants, I can only guess at the fuss that had gone into creating it. Almost as good were the tiny copper saucepans of pomme boulangère we ordered from the sides to go with it. It really was a wonderful plate of food.

We were asked if we wanted desserts, but settled for coffee. I was tempted by the wonderful looking cheese board perched near my elbow - camembert, Wookey Hole Cave aged cheddar, Golden Cross, Barkham Blue, and the strongest of them all, plaisir au Chablis - a cheese from Burgundy washed once a week in wine.


Overall, it was a very relaxed, charming place to eat with brilliant service. And perhaps it’s unfair to judge a restaurant, sorry pub, by its lunch menu, but if it hadn’t been for the brilliance of the pork dish and boulangère side, I could have shut my eyes (or blown out the candles) and imagined myself in any one of the thousands of mediocre gastropubs that have spawned across Britain. I'd need a lot more convincing to accept it's the best one of the lot.

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

Sunday, June 10, 2012

An Expat Returns: Food I’ve Missed - The Good Old British Pie

I mentioned in my last blog that I’d write up some of the meals I drooled over in the 17 months I spent living in hotels in SE Asia, with only a kettle to cook in. And at the top of the list, or thereabouts, was the good old British pie.

What would I cook first, now I had a kitchen again? Steak and kidney pudding? Chicken and mushroom? Minced beef and onion? A proper pork pie or Cornish pasty? Or how about one from The English Cookery Book by Lucie G Nicoll I’m re-reading? A curiously quirky and charmingly vague book that for the second season of the year (April, May, June - if indeed it is early summer now, and not late autumn which the weather seems to suggest) recommends May Pie - an unspecified pastry filled with stewed young onions, turnips, carrots, lettuce hearts, parsley, and green peas in gravy. Or salmon pie - which is more of a baked fish loaf than a pie - containing just milk-soaked breadcrumbs, salmon, butter, seasoning, and beaten egg.

To be honest, neither was what I was imagining in those long evenings supping iced beer while discussing the merits of meat pies with Kiwis - a people that seem to hold the crumbly, fat-soaked comfort of flesh and pastry in even higher esteem than the Bovril-swigging English football fan.

In fact, I had to go back to the first season of January, February and March (who said the seasons aren’t changing?) to get on to the good stuff like beefsteak and kidney pudding made with nothing more than rump steak, beef kidney, flour, and ‘suet paste’. Or calf’s head pie made with head stock and meat and boiled eggs. Or Fanny pie comprising beef, mutton, bacon, onion, carrot, potato and ‘rich paste’. Or how about vermicelli pie, mutton pie, or bacon and herb pie?

No, I’d make it my own way from whatever needed using up in the fridge and freezer - in this case three chicken breasts and a bag of 18-month-old frozen leeks - a concoction which with a midnight plunder of next door’s herb garden  became ‘chicken and leek pie in tarragon pastry’.

And I have to say I was really chuffed with the result. It was so filled with herbs, it sort of stumbled drunkenly on the tongue in a heady bouquet, like sage derby on a few crackers. And although I’d made up the tarragon pastry on the spot, it turned out crispy, delicious and thankfully golden despite the unappetising green colour before it was cooked.

Anyway, enough talk. Here it is. It’s really worth a go - especially if, like me, you’ve been pie less in a pie-filled world for far longer than you’d care to recall.

Chicken And Leek Pie In Tarragon Pastry

For the filling:

A little butter and olive oil for frying
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, peeled, cut into four lengthways, and then diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 leeks, washed well and sliced
3 thyme sprigs, chopped
3 chicken breasts, cut into 2cm-wide cubes
1 bacon rasher, thinly sliced
50g butter
50g flour
300ml milk
1/4 nutmeg, freshly grated
salt and pepper

For the pastry:

300g plain flour
150g lard
1 level tsp salt
Leaves from 3 tarragon sprigs
130ml of cold water
A greased pie dish, 8 inches wide and 2 inches deep

Melt a knob of butter and a splash of olive oil in a pan and fry the shallots for a couple of minutes until they are slightly browned. Add the leeks, garlic and celery and fry for another few minutes, stirring frequently to stop the mixture catching. 

Add the bacon and chicken breast. Lower the heat, and continue cooking for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, make the pastry by putting the flour, tarragon, salt and lard in a food mixer and pulsing until it resembles greeny-grey breadcrumbs. The amount of water you add will depend on how much moisture was in the tarragon. Mine took about 130ml of water. Continue pulsing the breadcrumbs while trickling in the water. Stop when the pastry forms a ball and comes away clean from the sides of the processor. Cover with clingfilm and put in the freezer to chill.

Add 50g of flour and the freshly grated nutmeg to the pie filling and stir well for a minute over a low heat. Slowly add the milk, making sure each splash is fully blended in before adding the next one. By the end, the sauce should be the consistency of thick custard. If it’s too thick, add a little water. Continue simmering for another five minutes, stirring all the time, then take off the heat. Add the chopped thyme and season with salt and pepper.

Remove the pastry from the freezer and knead a couple of times on a lightly-floured board. Take two thirds of the ball, flatten into a disc with your hands, and roll into a circle about three inches wider than the pie dish.

Drape the pastry circle over the rolling pin, and then line the heavily-buttered pie dish. Push down gently to make sure there are no air pockets. Trim the pastry from the sides.

Roll out the excess pastry until about 5mm thick. Cut into strips. Brush the trimmed pastry edge with water and lay the strips on the rim of the pie dish and gently press together. Brush the pastry rim with water. Fill the pie with the creamy chicken and leek filling.

Roll out the remaining pastry to fit the top of the dish, and press the pastry edges together. Cut round the dish to remove the excess pastry, and then squeeze the edges together with a fork. Roll out the surplus pastry and cut into leaf designs to decorate the pie. 

Brush the pastry with egg yolk. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and bake the pie for one hour, or until a beautiful golden brown colour.

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

Friday, June 08, 2012

Panic Buying Of Bunting And A Rant About The Jubilee

After 17 months in Asia, I have finally returned to the UK and it’s been quite a culture shock as I suppose I always knew it would be. “How are you going to cope with being back here?” concerned friends and relatives asked. They answered the question themselves before I could. “You’re not. Are you?”

Well, I have no idea, if the truth be told. I arrived just in time for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Festivities would be too strong a word. I went to my parents’ village fete, which was opened by actor David Jason, who lives down the road, and watched the egg and spoon races and drank the awful summer bitter supplied by Chiltern Brewery.

Then I watched the military parades put on by the Army, RAF and sea cadets, and took a couple of pictures of Del Boy posing with the Royal British Legion Riders Branch, hoping the snaps might get into one or two of the papers. I could see the headline already “Lovely Jub-i-lee” - and wrote how the Only Fools And Horses star had swapped his grubby three wheeler for a shiny Harley Davidson.

But what struck me most was the massive difference between Asian culture, particularly in Cambodia, where I spent most of my months in SE Asia, and the floral-knitted lifestyle enjoyed in Britain. It seems far more tediously pedestrian than when I went away, not that it has probably changed that much however badly the country’s been run by Dave and his pasty-eating chums.

Of course, there are many things wrong with Cambodia - abject poverty, corruption, the complete lack of free education and healthcare, not to mention the impunity of officials able to gun down protesters who have the temerity to ask for little more than a slight improvement in their atrocious living standards. By comparison, the pasty tax is a tiny cold sore on the moon’s face.

But there are many things the country does much better than Britain, and perhaps the most noticeable of these is having fun. I think people here have forgotten how to do it. It isn’t just the terrible weather and the obsession with it - newspapers banging on about the Blitz spirit and how a million people lined the Thames, braving life and limb in monsoon conditions to cheer on the Queen  - it’s something far more depressing and mundane. You can’t blame it all on sodden spirits and the icy grips on umbrellas, it’s what passes for having a good time these days.

Just how did people celebrate this historic, patriotic occasion - and more importantly an extra day off from the soul-destroying office? They waved flags and held garden parties, and got local celebrities they never see for the rest of the year, to open village fetes. Some even held jam competitions and rode ponies. But nowhere, from what I could gather from idiot TV presenters interviewing people around the country about what the Queen means to them, did anyone seem to be having any fun. Nothing even close to it.

After Del Boy had done his stuff and tottered back to his mansion in his huge wellies, people gathered outside the village hall for a pig roast. And how did they enjoy this porky feast? They formed a huge queue, as only the British can. Few people spoke, no-one mingled, they just looked at the queue snaking away in front of them and wondered whether there would still be some meat by the time it was their turn to bung some apple sauce in a floury bap.

I’ve seen street beggars in Phnom Penh having more fun with a flat can of coke. It was sad to see. And for me, it largely comes down to community spirit. Or the complete absence of it. Here, villagers live a few yards from each other, just like Cambodia - and yet no-one knows who anyone is. It’s all about the fact they get in little boxes to drive to work, then work in bigger boxes, and then return in their little boxes for an evening in front of an even smaller box, which is why so many pubs are closing. And the only interaction they have is when a planning application is submitted and they get hot under their NIMBY collars and worry about how the extra homes or high speed rail link will affect property prices.

There’s tangible fear everywhere. Fear of breaking tedious bylaws and being seen to do wrong. Fear of being themselves. Fear of actually enjoying themselves. You might disagree. You might think what does this idiot know. We had a tug of war in our village, a cow pat-throwing family fun day, and a nettle eating competition. It was great fun.

But it really struck it home to me after the pig roast when everyone drove up the hill to light the beacon and listen to a jazz band in the icy rain. After frets about where you’d park and warnings from the local cadets about if you left your car on the road “it was at your own risk”, people tramped over the hill to watch 25lb cannons being fired, and silently prayed one of them might hit that terrible eye-sore of a garage their neighbour had built (we’re sure without the relevant fire certificate and building regulations). Then it was time for the fire to be lit.

You could see where it was despite the darkness and horizontal rain because there was a huge fire engine and a dozen firefighters ready to jump in should the burning crates get out of hand and somehow set fire to the sodden hillside. Or perhaps they were worried some Royalist madness might take over and people would start burning suspected witches? Not that you could really get much of a view of the fire engine because you had to stand well behind a safety cordon at least 100 yards from the action and imagine the warmth of the flames from there, and how wonderful it would be to chuck in a couple of foil-wrapped, ambient spuds.

One of my last memories of Cambodia was a three-day village party - this time not in celebration of a Royal anniversary, with the ensuing panic buying of bunting, but because they wanted to - with a spit-roast calf and a fire in a nearby field. There was no safety cordon or fire crew ordering you where to stand, or little sergeant majors telling you to cover your ears when the cannons went off, or ‘safe areas’ for the fireworks. Or even any queues for that matter.

There was just the chaotic enjoyment of the good things in life, and bottles of Mekong whisky being passed around until people got into such a state of happy oblivion they’d not so much forgotten to worry about whether the Volvo with its tucked-in wing mirrors would be safe on the grassy verge, but that they had one at all.

I remember a four-year-old boy clutching a handful of fireworks as his father lit them. Proper ones too. Bang, they went, and lit up the sky. No-one died, no-one got injured, but everyone had a good time. As I say, there are many things wrong with Cambodia, and there are many laws needed there that would desperately improve people’s lives, but we’ve gone far too far the other way until the very essence of life has been throttled out of us in perfectly-trimmed suburbia.

Yes, you can still find places in this ridiculous nanny state where people still enjoy themselves, but it’s a shame what this country has become and how any sense of community spirit has long vanished.

Anyway this rant is over. As I slowly get used to the appalling summer weather here again, I’ve been cheering myself up by cooking all the dishes I’ve missed living in hotels for the past 17 months, with only a kettle to cook in, which I’m going to post here over the next few days. Who said life isn’t fun?

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE