Sunday, December 31, 2006

Let down by a Hogmanay Haggis

It wasn’t just the immediate descent into disharmony that took place due to children being tired and adults feeling misunderstood just as we all sat down for the last meal of the year. Nor even the prospect that this sacred evening in the alky calendar was going to be spent Stoned Cold for the first time in some two decades. No, it was the vegetarian haggis that really brought about the demise of my Highland new-year’s eve meal.

I hadn’t given the event much thought and had left it too late to get hold of an appropriately sized meat variant. “Oh there’s not that much difference between them really,” said a friendly but unconvincing man from behind the shiny new till as he realised that I wasn’t going to be able to find a use for any of the six to eight-man haggi he had in his freezer. Thinking that the amount of salt and pepper likely packed into these fuckers would indeed mask and major taste differentials, I was inclined to believe him. So even though it didn’t’ feel like I really had a meal in the house at all, I went about preparing the neeps and tatties as if I had, plus a whisky sauce just for the craic to prod my stubborn resilience.

We started with hot bowls of thick and yellow ham and lentil soup from yesterday’s birthday vat. All seemed well, with minimal volumes being tentatively placed into small mouths and the Dashing White Sergeant fiddling away in the background. But somewhere in between mopping up the cool, salty sides of mine with soft brown bread and delivering plates of easy-to-eat haggis, neeps and tatties to the seated, the familial dynamic had been stretched beyond breaking point thanks to yet more relentless screaming from infant overtiredness, aches from restraining writhing 10kg torsos, and the mental exhaustion of being locked up together for over a week.

So I stood there beating up my whisky sauce with a milk frother, feeling like a right prat in the middle of a room full of so many unhappy and departing faces and, even more despicably, like I was not being properly appreciated. Couldn’t they see that it was for them that I have been standing every day in the kitchen for the last 10 days? That it brought me no personal pleasure whatsoever to pour a good splash of Morangie into a small pan of beef stock and whisk it all up with some cream to make a light but rich foam to cascade around the domes of white, orange and brown of this traditional Highland feast?

It didn’t really work-out that foamy. But it didn’t really matter because the haggis didn’t deserve it. Nut-brown and orange in appearance, dry in texture, under-seasoned in taste, and lukewarm in temperature owing to its low thermal capacity, this was nothing like the conventional beast at all. It was like eating a cross between a nut-cutlet and some undercooked cous-cous – a dream come true for your run-of-the-mill vegan no doubt, but hardly a match for the fatty spicy pluck of a pig softened up with meaty grains of gravy-soaked barley or much in the way of celebration to mark the last day of the year. You just know you’re off to a bad start when you try to vegetarianise a recipe that begins with a sheep’s stomach and a sewing needle.

It was all the more fitting that I dined on this flatulence buster alone at the new-year’s eve table, Ceilidh Classics on the stereo and, most hilariously of all, not a drop of alcohol in sight which to blame for the cacophony surrounding me. Somehow, the tragedy of Highland culture is never far from your door on this most unpredictable of winter nights.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Poor man's skink

The ultimate mid-week winter meal: a hot and thick smoked mackerel & potato soup with rocket, parsley or any other green herb you fancy. First, get a couple of kids and a career so that you have no more than 2.71 minutes per day to cook. Then, on the way back home one day from another day of living the dream, jump off the treadmill at your handy local-metro-express store for some vac-packed smoked mackerel and a plastic salad-bag of rocket/watercress.

Next, finely dice half an onion or a shallot and fry it in butter along with large chunks of a few peeled tatties, cover with milk (throw in any cream or decent stock if you have it too) and simmer until you can crush the potatoes against the side of the pan with a spoon (about ten minutes). Do this until you reach the consistency you desire (thicker soups are better for taking the edge off corporate disillusionment) and toss in bite-sized pieces of fish to heat them through. Adjust seasoning and serve hot in bowls with a pile of greenery.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The foie gras conversation

Having not played around much with foie gras before, I had turned to Google to look for any pointers as to how to put to best use the thick chunk of fresh fatty duck’s liver I’d picked up for my Christmas breakfast. But instead of getting two or three bog standard recipe ideas as is usual for such search strategies, this one returned nothing but links to photos and grainy video footage conveying the horror of the production process.

Fuck it, I thought, I’ll just spread it on hot toast then. The sight of all these people campaigning tirelessly to cure the world of this depravity had recalled all those routine conversations I have had or overheard about the rights and wrongs of eating foie gras. It’s the same conversation as the one about euthanasia or abortion or about Christmas becoming too commercial, each as much a waste of life as the next once you’ve endured two or three or however many it takes for you to arrive at an opinion of your own.

You’ve just got to keep things in perspective when working out what your opinion on foie gras (or veal or anything else that the animal rights army dreams up as its enemy for that matter) is. The single most formidable obstacle that most people come up against is their attitude towards social class, which tempts many to conflate their fledgling interest in animal rights with their well-honed dislike of the monied and landed. Next, some people confuse images of anatidae suffering (the bulk of which have been constructed from stories about the tubes and force-feeding or some other horrific factoid from the animal-liberation-front PR machine, or the Daily Mail) with their revulsion towards the taste and texture of the substance itself – or perhaps even the idea of eating internal organs in the first place. Finally, people generally fail to consider the actual numbers involved: just how many ducks and geese really are suffering at any one time? No single human can realistically eat more than one short and painful life’s worth each year for more than a few years, and very few manage that.

Failure to spend any time or energy unravelling issues like these usually allows hypocrisy to creep in. Somehow the public’s knowledge that the vast majority of the West’s pork, for example, comes from animals genetically much closer to us who spend their considerably longer and sorrier lives slowly burning to death in the ammonia of their own piss and shit on two square metres of concrete floor in a darkened hangar doesn’t seem to get them into such a fever, not to mention the chickens or the salmon. And what about the several species of large mammal that are on the brink of disappearing FOREVER from the realm of existence thanks to human greed?

A few ducks being stuffed to death for a small bunch of arseholes a few times a year is hard to lose sleep over given the atrocities carried out daily in the rest of the food chain – and that includes, if you want to get all Blythman about it, the slave labour that underlies the rock-bottom supermarket prices we all enjoy. Fuck the ducks is what I say. Their time will come when we’re all lying dead from H5N1, probably fairly soon.

And fuck Roger Moore too. Tonight, perhaps brought on by my eating nothing but goose and duck for the last three days (today, thankfully, being the last of it, served cold with a fresh, sharp Cumberland sauce and crispy hot stuffing), I thought I would put my apparently minority views about foie-gras-eating to the test by actually looking at some of the footage of the farms. I clicked with hesitation though. Just because I may not care much more than a thimble of mid-range Sauternes about the welfare of the bird whose artificially engorged liver is melting atop my hot crusty toast, seeing it as an acceptable crime to commit on the very few occasions that I do, I don’t like unnecessary cruelty to animals any more than those in the ALF. But when the video – on one of the more mainstream of the opposition sites – opened with Roger Moore’s sleazy husky voice describing how free ducks and geese like to be in the wild, accompanied by strings and piano in the background and slow-motion sunset shots of webbed feet skidding along mirror-like lakes, the whole thing fell apart for me. I was just waiting for the cut to the tubes and cages and shattered bills, and sure enough it came after about a minute and half -- with Moore’s grainy voice trembling as he described how the human equivalent of the amount of food being delivered to the stomachs of the birds in one sitting is about 45lbs of pasta (why pasta I’m not 100% sure, and he also didn’t state whether that was cooked or uncooked) and how, on account of being unable to move due to the sheer weight of their own livers, the poor critters have to sit there powerless while resident rats nibble at their open, festering wounds (cue close-up of the gaping action). His voice was breaking up so over-dramatically at one point that I expected him to burst out laughing.

It's not very Bond, is it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The best pudding I have ever eaten

It must have resembled a scene from Withnail, wandering dishevelled as I was around my kitchen in my loosely tied dressing gown until almost two o’clock on Christmas day, stuffing myself with foie gras on toast and wiping my variously flour-, grease- and dishwater-stained hands on what was proving a highly absorbent all-round dish-cloth and getting quietly sentimental at the sound of young carol singers on the radio. The only thing lacking was the hangover and glass of sherry, although I made sure I was as up to the eyeballs as I could have been in the mild intoxicating substances that I do temporarily allow myself these days.

I spotted the small tub of fatty fresh liver in the Shop on Christmas Eve, along with a jar of geranium & apple jelly, and thought the combo would make a fitting replacement for the wild smoked salmon that we had scoffed too early. I got into it by the third slice, but I always underestimate that sensation of being revoltingly stuffed as soon as I put a piece of FG lobe into my mouth. A glass of smooth, chilled breakfast wine would have helped enormously on this front. On several fronts, in fact.

Owing to the gear, there seemed to be much more to do than I had allowed time for. It was things like mince pies that were throwing spanners into the works, almost forgetting to spike the rich sweet pastry with orange zest and then not having enough of the stuff left over from my Main Pie to make anything but a dozen little mincemeat raviolis. Then there was the fucking goose, which was still sitting there waiting to go as the small hand passed twelve.

The end result was the realization that my cooking is starting to adversely affect those around me. I hadn’t reckoned on this until a few minutes before I knew the meal was ready to serve and I was about to sit down before my modest but rich goose platter. I use cooking as escapism, I thought. I do it to avoid talking to guests who happen to have been invited over, and certainly don’t get “stressed” by it? Yet here I was -- staring down at a small pile of dark red meat; sweet sausage stuffing with chestnuts, pears and dates; crispy roast potatoes cooked in the spicy salty fat of the bird; sprouts halved and fried lightly in butter with smoked bacon and finished off with spinach and herbs; carrot batons glazed in tarragon butter; all sitting in a pool of red wine, pear and apple jus made from a good quarter of my special festive three-meat stock -- when suddenly I felt a definite sense of relaxation: it was all perfect, bar perhaps the bird, and it was all downhill from here, drink or no drink, because I had nothing left to prove.

Not that I was in the slightest bit interested in the food. And that wasn’t just because the goose was overdone (I didn’t take into account the shorter time required for a wild bird such as mine than that demanded by the fatter domesticated variety, and shouldn’t have been so heavy handed when I pricked the skin). It was because it felt as if I had been cooking for a long time. We all sat there as a family unit, in moderate peace and harmony for the duration. Tipping point had passed and I could immediately see that they too were as relieved as I that I was happier. It was just the two of us eating, though, of course.

The goose didn’t look quite as pretty as the pictures I’d seen in the recipes (shock horror) I’d peeked at, appearing more like the decaying torso of a child stab victim than a crispy golden prize when I took it out of the oven after an hour and a half. But the gamey taste and firm, lean texture of the meat more than made up for it.

Even so, the meal pales into the scattered alcoholic memories of so many other candlelit Christmases when compared to the pudding I’d made for afters. Not literally a pudding, but rather a trio of christmasy pudding pieces that together made this the best desert I have ever eaten. The first was a small triangle of the aforementioned mince pie, hot, with its thin layer of crusty orangey pastry and filling of quality, not too sweet, mincemeat. The second was a halved pear that had been slowly poached in brandy and a loose pile of rum-soaked raisins and their thick warm boozy marinade. And the third was three small boules of firm, smooth, creamy cinnamon ice cream the likes of which I have never equalled (a handful of cinnamon bark that wasn’t handy). It was a fucking incredible combination of Christmas flavours and a lovely way to bring the meal to the somehow all important extra heights demanded of such affairs. Fucking Christmas.

And it continued ob to a Boxing Day spent similarly, with a big casserole made from chunks of cooked goose, stuffing balls, and diced celeriac, parsnip and carrot. More of the stock and a layer of sliced tatties on top, which should have first been roasted in the spicy goose fat that I’d retained from the roasting but then tipped away thanks to my foggy and disintegrating mind.
There was more of the decadent desert to follow. But I cannot say I am looking forward to a third day of the goose. I ended up, after pausing for thought for 2 minutes about it, boiling the bloody carcass for a good couple of hours with some aromatics to get a small tub of rather salty and over-seasoned stock that will make an evil mushroom risotto on some otherwise nondescript January evening. I just can’t stop making that ten-pound bastard bird feed even more mouths than it already has.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas cheer

The goose looks like a small baby, round like a barrel and dead for maybe three days. Its clammy fatty breast is pitted with what look like pustules from a horrific medieval disease, dark and sometimes sprouting feathers and surrounded by dark red and purple bruises. It looks disgusting, and the fact that it only cost a tenner seems to add to that. But it signals for sure that the Day is almost here. Once again I have spent the entirety of this day in the kitchen, making the place more festive than a fire in a fireworks factory.

There was a pan of warm cream and piles of cinnamon bark, star anise and some cloves to make tomorrow’s cinnamon ice cream; a tray of hot roasted chestnuts to go into my pear and date stuffing; and a small bowl of large raisins into which I poured a good glug of brandy and some Havana Club, and which I then stuck my nose right into just for the fucking craic.

Suddenly, although totally expectedly, I had the answer to why I was approaching This Christmas in such a tense manner and dreading it like a lagging Greylag. Of course: it was the lack of drink and its intoxicating warmth and childhood comfort. Some carols on the radio in the background nearly tipped me over the edge. This wasn’t to be the first time today that I would flirt so dangerously with alcohol. I later found myself with my head buried deep into a pan of port that was reducing for tonight’s tea and whose ethanol vapours near knocked me off my feet. I tried to divert the issue by marvelling at the clarity and structural properties of my stock as I spooned satisfying scoops from its plastic tub into the port reduction. I have no idea what I will do tomorrow.

But in the mean time I continued to distract myself with my Christmas Even feast. It was hardly a feast, mind. I had confied the legs of the mallards in goose fat all day, legs that had been marinating overnight in Chinese five-spice and the like. There wasn’t much meat on them that hadn’t been crystallized, but enough to be bulked out with some chopped chestnuts and sweated shallots into a filling for a dozen tortellini. So there was a little pasta to be made along the way.

A posh chinky really. I served the pasta, which even resembled a steamed dumpling, on a pile of shredded winter greens livened up with some chopped herbs and surrounded it with a glossy pool of this refined part sauce, which I had sweetened up at the end with a teaspoon of plum jelly. And it tasted of Christmas. And everything is now in place for Christmas. Just some stuffing, churning and chopping to do. Not to mention learning how to cook a fucking 3kilo goose, for two.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Stock can buy you happiness

I wanted to see for myself what it would have been like to sit down before a warm bowl of hot celeriac soup poured over a pile of wild smoked salmon anchored with a dollop of crème fraiche and garnished with a small herb salad, parsley oil and coarsely ground black pepper, cool and calm having not just ladled out 40 portions of it to my sister’s wedding guests. I knew it was good as we had wolfed down a lukewarm test-bowl with feverish hunger in the kitchen during the afternoon. A posh Cullen Skink really. But having this time just spent 7 hours on my feet in clouds of gamey steam, skimming the richest duck, pork and chicken stock and siphoning a little off to make comforting cottage pies and the like for the sick excited children, I’m not sure I quite managed.

I don’t relish stock-making days like I used to, and try to get them started as early as possible so that we don’t have to sit there at the sticky table with our sinuses infused with slightly-antiseptic-meat-flavour as if we’ve been in a sweat shop all day. I didn’t get the bones into the oven until 14:00 today, and there was water running down the insides of several exterior walls all evening, not to mention windows dripping with a several-micron thick layer of fatty residue, by the time I had strained and reduced it to a useful concentration that would allow me to help myself to spoonfuls from the fridge for the next few days. The house was trashed, my Christmas present almost ruined by condensation, and the rest of the family were mildly put-out, although more by the general scene – this, their father and husband, standing yet again for hours and days with his back to the world, cooking for two, or one -- than with the stock itself.
Wander upstairs for a piss, though, and you couldn’t help begin to smile at the centuries-old scent of orange, cloves and cinnamon making deeply pleasing the rich meaty flavours of the gamey meat. I put some star anise in there too, all of it about half an hour before the stock came off. It brought a festive mood into the house, and the large quantities of flesh on the bones had yielded a thick glossy sauce. Re-sticking a few patches of wallpaper is a small fee for such a desperately-needed personal atmosphere.
And it is but one of the many DIY jobs that I have lined up for the festive break none of which will ever happen owing to the amount of time I spend in the kitchen.

Nevertheless the soup was fucking tasty. I had used some very aromatic veg stock from the freezer plus a ladle of the Christmas brew, throwing it on top of the steaming chunks of celeriac that had been sweating with shallots and Chablis, simmering it all along with a tattie for half an hour with a big fresh bunch of herbs and then blitzing it to a smooth, creamy state. This soup can’t get too aromatic (on top of the stock I had topped the firm ribbons of fish with a salad of tarragon, parsley, dill, basil and chives) nor seem to take enough Maldon (we’re talking handfuls here). I could never afford to eat like this were it not for my fortunate Highland contacts.

But to complete the meal, and in an attempt to reach out to the Christmas spirit, I made a cross between a tarte tatin and an apple crumble by caramelizing some coxes, studding the gaps with dates and topping it with a buttery crumble full of walnuts and almonds. It almost worked.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas shopping

You’d never guess that it was just going to be the two of us for Christmas this year, not looking at the clobber I picked up today. The air was cold and damp, misty and Christmasy, and it felt right to be trawling meat counters for bones and freebees. Admittedly, I hadn’t intended on bringing home a fresh pig’s head. As if I’ve got the time to be fannying around with gritty snot and meaty ear wax, not to mention dealing with the horror of having to separate and remove a large wet brain.

But I couldn’t say no, not when faced with the terms on offer – the mere exchange of a charitable donation of 22 pence. I always get the feeling they don’t like me up in that organic butcher. I always seem to arrive at the wrong time of the week no matter what I’m after. But perhaps the Christmas air had got to them too, seeing as they were only too happy to throw me a large bag of pork bones. So I felt obliged to pick up a couple of slices of their beef shin and a bag of chicken wings.

On top of the 5kg Canada goose and brace of wild mallard with all but their breasts, some mince, bacon and sausage-meat, my 2006 Christmas shopping was near complete. As was the end of the lives of several animals and birds. Christ knows when I will get round to doing any of it though. I have never cooked a goose before, nor butchered a head. The pork bones, wings and duck carcasses are going to be turned into a special festive stock to get me in the mood. But in dealing with the head I have delusions about separating the three different types of flesh, binding them into a cylinder with muslin and simmering it for several hours in head stock. It’s a French Laundry job, served in medium-thick slices painted with Dijon mustard, coated in light breadcrumbs, fried in butter and topped with sauce gribiche.

But getting away from the turkey is the priority here. I can’t stand the idea, nor bear others harp on about how it has to be turkey and sprouts and bread-sauce or else it just isn’t fucking Christmas. They’re quite militant about it. I used to feel like that about the Christmas dinner. But I think several consecutive years spent variously passed-out in the wrong house, witnessing family ideals descend into brutal selfishness, lying stranded on a sheet of ice at the top of the drive having mysteriously awoken there without the ability to stand and spending three days in bed imbibing nothing but water, peach yoghurt and, eventually, soup that I was unable to transfer from bowl to mouth on account of the tremors, may have taken away some of the appeal.

Still, whatever I do this year will take less time than it would to synthesize this month’s OFM molecular-gastronomic take on the traditional turkey&trimmings. It involves fun stuff like parsnip ice-cream, sausage jelly and chestnut dust, and for once the editorial team has put together something with a sense of humour. There are a few articles that are worth reading, as well as the latest Blythman doomsday scenario, which always make me feel as though I am the last human alive.

But, oh no, what was that eight-page feature at the very beginning doing in there amongst it all? How on Earth could that have been seen as a good piece of editorial judgement? An entire issue exploring the future of food by the freaks at the forefront and there he was, peeking out from behind his teaspoon in one hand and pot of ice cream in the other, a pair of Converse trainers and the look of a small boy guilty of his sensitive criems in the playground. And we’re not just talking recipes here, although indeed a full 6 pages are devoted yet again to his best of the best, we’re talking the Story of how Nigel Became a Food Writer.

Yes indeed, 800 words or so revealing just how at first he rejected the publisher’s invitation to write a book because he found it too intimidating, but now, “fourteen years on, the outcome, my first book has sold somewhere around a million copies.” Would you ever buy a newspaper again in which the editor, or worse, a columnist, thought it good use of space to publish a story about how he became as great as he was – when there’s not even a point to be made about, say, how different the newspaper business was back then. No, no, just Nige and Nige (whose current luscious offering, I noticed the other day, wasn’t shifting many copies in Borders despite having been slashed in price). Anyway, at least I can console myself with the fact that I didn’t pay for any of it, being as I am one of those despicable figures who occasionally slips their favourite Sunday supplements between their many newspaper sections on the way to the counter.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Left--right split

A difficult moment for the hard-nosed anti-foodie, perched precariously as he or she is between blindly securing a top table in the comfort zone of organic food shows, cuddly food writers and celebrity recipes, and fighting on an almost daily basis conformity and the admission of helplessness in the face of mass marketing.
There I was, reading a little filler story about a new survey which reveals that: “Eating out in a restaurant is a source of intimidation, embarrassment and shame even for young professionals, due to ignorance of restaurant protocol and a lack of knowledge about food and wine.”
And so I felt myself smiling slightly smugly to myself, thinking “tell me something I don’t know. They’ve got it all so wrong. Let me open my own joint with a stripped down menu in plain English and simple service and surroundings that make the customer feel at ease. Etc.” And I read on in comfort, chortling quietly to myself that 65% of those questioned “have made food or wine choices based upon their desire to impress others rather than what they actually want, and a similar fraction would rather sit in silence than complain.”
Ah ha, I laughed, at the paradoxical observation that our food culture has evolved to the point where eating has been dislocated so badly from everyday life that enjoying it has been reduced to a pitiful inability. But then I found that the source of all this rich and valuable information, and thus some pretty favourable press coverage, was Devon-based Ashburton Cookery School – a place I stayed at for a week last year.
Nothing odd in that, of course. It was nice to read a familiar name. But the rest of the sentence continued: “ …, which earlier this year was voted one of the top five cookery schools in the world by Waitrose Food magazine.” My little heart went all warm for a moment, basking in the knowledge that I, the obsessive amateur gourmand, have that stamp of approval on my knife skills and creme brulees. And then I felt guilty for having succumbed to the bullshit of it all, that I somehow craved the recognition from the world that I deserve having attended not just any cookery school but one of the best cookery schools in the world. The survey is probably biased to the point of redundancy with loaded questions and too few statistics, yet still I felt I wanted to believe in it. Like I said, it’s a precarious position.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Recipes for Christmas

Gorging for two days on meat that tasted like a kiss. It sounds pretty corny, but I have not tasted beef like this before. I also don’t completely understand how this good but not unusually so roll of topside acquired the soft texture and sweet, bloody flavour that it did, as I thought I had overcooked it at one point. It was in for almost 40 minutes, and didn’t particularly ooze much blood while resting on the board. Its caramelized surface was encrusted with a thick rough layer of black pepper and mustard, through which you could just make out the shiny channels of juice keeping each fibre compartment tender and moist.

For some reason I wanted to eat fine food this weekend, some port and red wine in there to help me get the festive spirit that I need so badly to survive. But I didn’t want anything too fussy as I intended to free-up my wintry Sunday afternoon while also eating early en masse like a civilized and well-functioning family unit. So we began with the world’s simplest turnip soup, made by sweating turnip dice in a heavy pan and then pouring over a litre or two of hot vegetable stock. This stock I had made the night before, with oranges and fennel and sage and rosemary in addition to the usual aromatics, and left overnight with some raw shallot skins to sharpen it up. I garnished it with parsley oil, parsley, butter and coarsely ground black pepper. Plenty of Maldon and some sesame seed bread.

And then, in amongst the screams and cries of a child and an infant as they stuck raisins up each others’ orifices, I dished up a standard but swanky pile of soft, pink meat next to a small square of potato and horseradish cake, some shredded and steamed spring greens and a pool of glossy port sauce. The cake was simply some slices of tattie over which I had poured a mixture of warm cream and creamed horseradish sauce (really hot fresh stuff) and baked for half an hour. The sauce began with the boiling of a chopped shallot in port until it had reduce by two thirds, to which I added a tub of best beef stock and left to reduce by half along with a tight bundle of thyme, rosemary and parsley to freshen things up. It was boring but unbelievable. The meat tasted almost human, and had a texture the likes of which I have never experienced. I don’t understand this meat.

But no matter. Tonight we dined again on it until stuffed: more soup followed by more meat and more tattie and more greens and a thick mustardy gravy reclaimed from the base of the roasting dish with more wine, stock and cubes of ice-cold unsalted butter. It looked the same and has made me feel the same: like a fat carnivore.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


You have to look closely to see just how much of a rip-off £2.20 is for 120g of fucking feta and olive salad. I counted seven olives and three pieces of cheese, mixed up in a nice enough slodge of fresh herbs and decent olive oil in my punnet, which I picked up out of courtesy from a curious visit to the doomed deli down the road. It was tasty enough, for sure. The woman, a thirty-something sandal-wearing type who is clearly into her flans, quiches and bakes, felt so guilty about asking me so much for so little that she first asked me if £2.20 was aright and then, when I resignedly murmured “yes”, threw me a free wholemeal mince pie. But she won’t instead think to drop the price a little because she probably views her little venture as if it were some kind of fashion statement to her friends rather than a shop where local people might want to buy food from. I left, looking forward to my little plastic lunch, in the full knowledge that I would never return.

More worryingly, however, is a similar waft of keenness to chase the Christmas buck at the airport shop – my single supplier of everything really, and where I was certain to spend £50 stocking up in this week. But the bloke on the butcher counter put and end to all that by refusing to put aside a couple of turkey, chicken or game-bird carcasses for me so that I could do some nice thick saucing with the roast goose that I am trying in vain to get excited about cooking next week. But it wasn’t to be, since their kitchen department had allegedly instructed him to save all such waste for some turkey gravy of their own. However, I could “buy some ready-made from the shop when it’s done” pointed out said butcher helpfully. I turned away in obvious disTaste, scrunched up the A5 sheet of festive offers I had picked up to peruse and headed for the till with my bag of sardines and lump of best Barrow Gurney topside.

What is the fucking point of spending months nurturing a good relationship with your fish and meat suppliers -- via a skillful combination of the right amount and frequency of trade, time spent making staff feel as if they have just taught you something new and a slow but steady personalization of the chat about the “real each-other”, kids and jobs and background etc -- if you can’t rely on them for a few poxy bones three or four times a year?

I couldn’t have been more courteous. I had waited until the queue at the counter had subsided before bothering them with the bones question, swiftly ordering my beef and then coming back when it was free. And I know these people very well indeed, given the constraints of the staff—customer relationship. In the year since they opened they have become some weird kind of second family, themselves being largely made up of one family. But yesterday’s scene couldn’t have been more different to that of a year ago, when fresher faced butcher bloke was only too keen to cut and sell me for half the price all but the crown of a free-range turkey plus a free bag of all the bones I could use and more. Oh no, there was no problem at all before he realized he was going to see me virtually every week of his life from then onwards. Not to mention the fact that his fillet steak has shot up from £22 to £28 per kilo in the same period.

Am I expecting too much? Am I too loyal and deluded by my own sense of importance? Insisting on boiling up your own bones rather than pay someone to do it for you is, after all, clearly an arsehole sort of thing to do that only an obsessive amateur cook would bother with. But all I am asking of the human race is for people to think. If they then decide “fuck him”, then fucking great. But to divert me to the processed version is to cease treating the customer as an individual. And all I can do with the might of my single consumer vote is, go elsewhere for my festive fayre this year.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Corporate Christmas Nightmare, Part II

Today’s departmental Christmas lunch was meant to be more informal than Wednesday’s catering freakfest. So there we sat, we 30, in two rows in the backend of a city-centre Zizzi at midday on the last-Friday-but-one before Christmas. There was never a more efficient way of zapping the individual from a human, not only because we were just one of several departmental cohorts being processed that afternoon but because we were immersed in shopping-centre-décor as bland as surroundings can be. I understood this chain to offer contemporary Italian cuisine, but there was nothing Italian about the scene around me. We could have been in a slightly up-market McDonalds, or a service station, or some euro-restaurant dishing out nightmares to one-off tourists. Moreover, we could have been sitting in practically any eatery in any town centre in the country. All this place said to me was: we are here to take your money.

You just know from the minute you walk into these holes that the food is going to follow suit: overpriced, bland and mass produced. And you can pretty much count on the service being a handful of surly twenty-something, foundation-clad girls working what would appear to be their first shifts as waitresses and hating every minute of it.

We were not let down on any front.

I mean for Fuck’s sake, we had preordered – and paid £21 in cash for -- this set-meal slop four fucking weeks ago. The kitchen knew exactly what each of us was having for our first, second and third courses. Yet when, after an hour of fumbled drinks orders, the first plates started to arrive, the scene was one of a collection of androids whose programs had got out of synch and left them banging into each other and getting impatient with customers for not accepting whatever they did happen to have in their hands. Not that any of it was worth fighting for, mind. I couldn’t even remember what I had ordered, but judging by what was being dropped around me it didn’t make much difference: everything came in the same form of thick toast topped with either caramelized onions, roast cherry tomatoes or some cheap and nasty goat’s cheese, along with some balsamic and olive oil. It was fucking disgusting.

Another hour later the mains started to appear, again as if nobody had thought to look at the booking sheet. By this point, however, my gaze was starting to drift into the middle-distance, anywhere to take me away from the zany tales of drunken antics accrued long after I had left Part I of this horror series on Wednesday. “Ladies’” heels had been snapped clean off, necks bitten ragged, train-stops missed, and all against a backdrop of reciprocated mutterings about the need to take things easy what with the festive sessions on the imminent horizon and the general noise of alcohol-related messages from government, media and marketers.

Regarding the latter, I have seen in the last two days two ads that fail drastically the dipstick test of our society as one which has a healthy approach to food&drink. The first was for Bacardi, sold on the spiny back of the number of calories a Bacardi&coke(diet, obviously) contained (“only 54”, I think) as if it could reasonably be part of a healthy weight-loss plan, and the second an advert for the until-now mythical driving lager: Carling’s “C2”, where the 2 represents the percent alcohol by volume, punted as the ideal “lunchtime pint” as if it was the taste anyone was ever after.

But back to the pizza that was by now before me, looking fairly promising really with its quarter-segment toppings. As I indicated to my drinking buddies left, right and in front of me, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas by being an arsehole who “just can’t see that there so much more to eating out than the food”. So I muttered a few words about the base being too thick, floury and under-seasoned, the sauce having no discernible taste nor texture and the toppings comprising the most horrible “pepperoni” I had ever attempted to eat, three slimy artichokes, some wrinkly white mushrooms and a strip of Tesco parma ham at the end, and simply left the nastier bits on the plate.

The meal, in any organizational or social sense of the word, had all but disintegrated by the time the deserts started to arrive. But once again, it wasn’t as if people were missing out on much. Our mid-range Christmas deal offered as a choice of two: Tiramisu, of course, and a chocolate cheesecake. And when you see such single-piece chiller jobs on a menu near you, you know those lovely caterer suppliers Brake [formerly Brothers] has got there first. Sure enough, you only had to look at the precision of the cut to know that this thing had been sitting around for a while, without decay. The commercial aftertaste of preservatives and chemical agents is never combated by the higher-than- necessary sugar content, and people in the main seemed to be leaving their lot before their plates were clean.

At this point I dropped my £2 in the tray for the drinks bill – which, mysteriously, appeared efficiently and to the penny – and left. These things are hard without the lube of drink, even when you’ve landed a good place-setting. Everyone unconsciously buys their ticket into the arena, usually in the form of thee or four bottled beers and maybe a brandy with the coffee, and everything’s fine. So as I wandered around filling the rest of what was left of the afternoon while trying to avoid Christmas I found myself with a strong urge to get into an unknown bar and drink myself into unconsciousness on whisky. The season is bearing down hard, and I think one of the main reasons why I can’t seem to look forward to any of it. I can’t even decide what we are going to eat on Christmas day. I just can’t see any of it actually happening without the bottle of bubbly and dozen oysters for breakfast, followed by a good claret-soaked afternoon transferring, perhaps via a ceremonial glass of sherry over a mince pie, to some vintage port and ending, always ending, in the gubbing of tumblers of malt. Sparkling mineral water anyone?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fuckoffee pie

A box of bananas for a pound is not to be sniffed at, even if you do know that there is no chance you will get through them before they dissolve in less than 24 hours' time. So I picked one up a few days ago from a random fruit&veg shop and, having stopped at a few houses on the street to offload a bunch or two, started to work out what I might do with the bent yellow bastards.

I don’t know what drives this kind of logic. I once found myself with a catering-sized bag of carrots and cauliflower and so decided to make chutney. At least three shopping trips later to pick up essential extras such as Kilner jars and vinegar and a few fruits and spices I didn’t quite have enough of, I end up with a stinking pan of the stuff which I piled into the [sterilized at great temporal cost] jars, stored for a few months, and then scraped out into the bin so that I could fill the back of my very small pantry with glass jars that I may never use again a few months later.

But there is nothing you can dream up that involves a BOX of bananas, nothing at all. Instead, you have two options to choose from: banana bread and banoffee pie. Neither of these requires more than two bananas, but you don’t want to worry about that. The rest saves you two days of cooking meals that your children never eat, although the fruit seems to bung them up a bit. Anyway, I had never made a banoffee pie before and I thought this the only time in my life that I probably would. It was a minor disaster. It's not a pleasant thing to eat at the nest of times, but I had got the ratios of cream to toffee wrong and the base was too biscuity. A killer of the heart and arteries, it is also a danger food to those who cannot resist fat and sugar. So I slapped a warning sign on it, popped a couple of banas in my pocket for lunch, and headed to the Office.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Corporate Christmas Nightmare, Part I

Merry Christams from The Office! Even the entertainment was actually entertaining this year, and the venue DIFFERENT. It was all going well, my fellow employees looking good for the little extra grooming and the smell of petty bonuses in the air. And then it was time for lunch. So once I had nuzzled my nose in amongst the corporate sweat of ten others in order to find out with whom I would be sharing this memorable dining experience, I made a quick survey of the tables to see if they were each adorned with 8 sorry looking pastry cases filled with something safe and vegetarian and surrounded with balsamic vinegar etc. But what I found was even worse.

You could tell from just looking that it was going to be foul. A rectangular slab of dark grey sludge, as aesthetically unappealing as you could get by being too long by far for its width and thickness, surrounded by lumps of watery, orange-coloured matter. On closer inspection a few slices of mushroom began to appear, but I was still none the wiser about the stuff in between, which formed the vast bulk of the horror before me. When the time came to place some in my mouth I could hardly believe my senses. Not only was this the most insipid, under-seasoned food I have ever tried to taste, but it had the texture of phlegm that had been harvested from a fly burned lung, chilled and compressed. There was some garlic and possible tarragon in there somewhere, possibly, and the orange matter turned out to have come from bitter, unripened tomatoes. It was inedible. And for once, bar the remedial contingent, the starter was left almost untouched by my 5 new friends and 2 IT boys.

The cranberry sauce had already given away the main. But at least we were on safer ground here, weren’t we? Bizarrely, the one thing that almost everyone gets wrong -- the roast tatties – were reasonable (i.e. they weren’t deep fried and re-heated). But everything else was, quite simply, fucking disgusting. I have never experienced animal matter this dry before. It was impossible to eat more than a knife-tip’s worth at a time, no matter how much of the gloopy, thickener-based “gravy” you coated it with, without your entire mouth seizing up. It had been fucking obliterated, no doubt on health&safety grounds. The accompanying veg, some slimy parsnips, rock hard sprouts and overcooked carrots completed the dish seamlessly. And to take away the unpleasant scratchiness left on our tongues, we were then handed a soggy, tepid, trans-fat based strudel injected with factory apple pulp sat slap bang in a dish of watery cream into which some Cunt had poured a bottle of cheapest brandy essence.

This would have cost us something like £20-30 a head, for sure. And despite no work needed for the starter or desert, it took a team of more a dozen waiting staff TWO FUCKING HOURS to slop it out. It beggars belief. And when you’ve even got the computer geeks excited by the chance of discerning what your food is made of – just so that they can compete with one another, not eat it – you know you’ve hit the big time.

So I came home and fried us up a bloody best rump steak, picked up from the farmers’ market en route in my suit and which had been sitting safely in the cool bag in the boot of my car while my saliva glands were working overtime with a stringy piece of knackered turkey. I plastered it in good oil, salt and pepper and griddled the fucker to fuck. We ate it with roast cherry tomatoes, rocket and bread. And it was delicious. I am not going to put myself through the company catering ordeal ever again, and I need several tens of thousands of others to join me if we are ever to stamp out this culinary atrocity.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Drinking dilemmas

It’s the same feeling you get while listening to a recording of your own voice and trying to convince yourself that it doesn’t really sound that awful to others. Or happening across yesterday’s glossy foodie column in your newspaper and finding a big photograph of the meal you cooked last night in a moment of imagined spontaneity. But what else are you going to find in a G2 “Christmas drinking special” when you haven’t had a drink in nine months, and come across a helpful wooly-scarf wearing journalist “talking to three people about how giving up alcohol has improved their health and self-confidence without ruining their social lives”?

And so it kicks off with Brendan, a 52 year-old publishing director who hasn’t touched a drop in seven years and finds theatre and art an agreeable substitute. He tries hard not to “get preachy”, but then he all but falls apart when he admits that in order to appear presentable to others in a social context he feels he has to justify his existence with lines like “I’ve had my allocation”.

Penny Jones, 26/dry for two years/London again, also seems to be more concerned with how her abstinence appears to others than about any inner purpose. “People in the pub don’t really notice,” she insists, while being able to rest assured that she won’t fuck-up at the office Christmas party. Still, I suppose it’s hardly surprising when the reason she stopped in the first place was accidental, having been on antibiotics for a month and then seeing another as a good opportunity to better herself.

Finally we find cab-driver Martin, 29/guess where from/off it since 2 years, who seems to have been affected least by this crashing change of lifestyle. He gives his main reason for quitting: “because, first, I can and, second, I didn’t like the hangovers,” and concludes by admitting that he doesn’t even like the taste that much anymore.

These people are all alcoholics, people who cannot drink properly either in their own eyes only or further a field. But why does such a strong wiff of self righteousness always have to accompany such admissions of failure? They each report – as does the standfirst, in great black ink -- feeling much better for it, but I’m convinced they’re all lying. Sure, there is a moment when you notice that your eyes aren’t puffy, your head mince and your limbs numb, but after a while you simply adjust to feeling great each morning. Your reference point shifts, but you invent highs and lows on either side that feel every bit as good and bad as the spikes of a hard binge.

But back to my dilemma. I loathe these people and media trends because I see a reflection of myself in their pathetic testaments. It fucking has ruined their social lives, by definition, as it has mine. But, then, what has one human-gestation-period of sparkling mineral water done for me?

There is nothing like feeling at the top of your game, in whatever you do. I had complete control over my drinking, but only in a separate version of personal reality which overall I had absolutely no grip on whatsoever. The general tolerance I had built up meant I could spend a good 15 hours on a session with no one really noticing, using spirits, wines and beers in appropriate measures and moments to reach the gates of oblivion by midnight. I could, contrary to pharmacologist and president of the forum on food and health at the Royal Society of Medicine Dr Paul Clayton’s view in the next article in the Christmas drinking special that “alcohol is alcohol no matter how you slice it”, use my experience of what and in what quantity would provide the quickest and safest route there, depending of course on everything going on in the more real world of Wives and Children around me. And I miss it all terribly, even though ultimately I could see that I had began to lose control of either existence and that things were going to start crumbling. No amount of weight loss is going to change that memory.

Which brings me to dilemma number two: I am a rational person who likes to reason via theory and experiment, and therefore hold in high regard the mass of scientific knowledge. Yet I disagree with the chemists on this, Clayton in particular. It’s the kind of thing they love to chortle about in their labs together – “isn’t it so sweet that the masses think gin makes mascara run, particularly in the post-menopausal female. Or that they think the famous tequila worm is hallucinogenic because they confuse mescal with mescaline.” Fuck, I would love to believe it was all mythical too. But this is where my logical credentials are bent out of shape, as it simply isn’t true that whisky makes you feel the same as Champagne. And a proper vodka tonic buckles you in an instant like no other drink can.

Christmas drinking specials. Give us something more interesting, like what the other side gets up to for example. Fucking hell, you’d think people had forgotten just how wonderful Christmas spirits can be.

Monday, December 11, 2006


If I was a better person I wouldn’t want them to fail. They are probably a bright young couple, like us, trying to get away from open-plan hell and putting everything on the line for it. Perhaps they have children too, toddlers and babies and such like, and doubtless countless sleepless nights from which to recover, daily. And with Christmas around the corner, they will surely be buoyed by a false sense of security and, more worryingly, the total belief that organic, locally produced honey and oatcakes-for-twice-the-price-they-are-in-the-Tesco-metro-down-the-road will facilitate their bread&butter trade during the desolate, debt-riddled Januaries and Februaries that are looming large. This is a deli with a death notice.

But it is the reason why they thought their formula would work in the first place that is the most interesting thing to be learned here. We do not, for example, live in the best part of town. The nearest competition in the food department is the news&food shop across the road, holding nothing but sweeties&crisps, and a couple of general newsagents stocking six different types of white cider -- behind the counter – and 29 types of pornography. There is just one restaurant, a Siamese one, in over a mile of high street, and not a single bar you would want to go into unless you were alone and unwashed. If it’s a Belly Buster Special you’re after or a low-grade Indian, you’re in fucking Disneyland. But what you tend to find less of is those little tiny delis you see in covered markets and the like, glimmering windows full of wicker baskets of tea and lavender and overpriced chocolates, and overpriced everything, and open wooden shelves adorned with twirls of pine shavings and sawdust and boxes, and dishes of olives and a few roasted peppers. And a pile of dry organic bread.

Did they have one too many column-inches of Nigel and think there was a thriving community of day-trippers twaddling around with their shopping lists, with a fiver to spare for a mysterious silver bag of coffee beans? This is not what this place needs. It’s not what any of us fucking need. Why don’t they sell food that people can Eat? A small counter with a ham or two, some ultra-rare topside, a game terrine and a small selection of good cheese; a selection of bread, a load of wine in the 5-15 quid bracket, sandwiches made to order, soup on offer in the winter…open until ten every night. Nobody thinks about what people want. We don’t want honey, we just need somewhere we can get a good bag of pasta and a loaf of bread on a Friday night.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A night at River Cottage

It seems I’m with Hugh Curly-Twitteringsville on this wet December Sunday evening, glowing with the energy of a “one pot wonder” just like the kind advocated in his Weekend column yesterday. Mine was a shank-end leg of lamb, marinated overnight in a mash of rosemary, garlic and olive oil, simmered with a pile of good cannellini beans and a bunch of aromatics for three hours at 150 degrees in some best beef stock. However, motivated by the need for meal we could eat before 1700 while being out all afternoon occupying a cabin-fever-suffering three year-old, I was not apparently thinking along the same lines as HFW on the dish.

As his bacon and borlotti brew bubbled away, probably on his Aga, no doubt filling his stone-walled kitchen with warm cuddliness, Hugh was thinking about a mission to get the nation cooking.
“People who think cooking is a tedious drudge are, quite simply, deluded,” he begins. “The problem is, they'll never find out how wrong they are until they start to cook. Then they will discover very rapidly that cooking is a life-enhancing pleasure of limitless satisfaction and reward.”
While the language is flowery, I obviously can’t disagree with him given that much of my life revolves obsessively yet effortlessly around my evening meals. But I would just like to say one simple thing to him: it’s easy when you know how.

There are three-star soups made from nothing but broccoli, water and salt. There are fine ingredients being offered barley preped in exchange for tens of pounds at thousands of restaurants worldwide every minute of the day. Some dishes are so simple it is mesmerizing. But to suggest that “given the right recipe, [the culinary impoverished nation] can - with just a few simple ingredients, 10 minutes of the most basic preparation and a single pot - put together a meal that will sustain, delight and impress in equal measure” might act as a lifeline to the ready-meal-munching masses is like trying to introduce a heathen to art by way of a large square canvas covered in nothing but uniform, blue paint. It takes experience, sometime genius, to strip bare a recipe. To most people there is a fine, if at all existent, line between a late night pan of student stodge and a rustic, slow-cooked fashion statement.

And just as I found myself blaming Hugh for trying, I came across his bizarre admission of communication shortcomings: “The problem is, you're reading this and [the disadvantaged fools] are not,” he concludes. “Please cut it out and send it to them. Then invite yourself round for dinner to sample their success [read: have a good old chuckle with your foodie friends about how honest yet far off the mark it was]”.

But he was right about one thing: something indeed wonderful happened to my lamb in the process of marinating and cooking. It was the most tender I have ever eaten, each faintly purple muscle fibre clinging only just to its neighbour via a think layer of collagen. It fell off the bone in domes and bulbs and slabs laced with crispy salty fat, and a small pile of this magical matter sat proud of a deep bowl of soft creamy beans and a deep, thick, silky-smooth broth charged with rich lamby fat. Some boiled Savoy with parsley and spinach to garnish. It has put me to sleep.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Catering for life

Cooking for 40 is different. It doesn’t sound that many -- not much bigger, I imagine, than many family meals that will be thrown out with nothing but a single 60cm appliance to hand in the next two weeks. But we weren’t using white goods; we were surrounded by a Precambrian range spanning the length and height of an entire wall; silver fridges both tall and squat fixed with white, laminated signs dictating what passes though; yards of assorted stainless steel surfaces dulled by the slips of a hundred brain-dead commis; and the background stench of used vegetable oil, detergent and aluminum.

This was a real kitchen, albeit one that hadn’t properly been used since is was installed two decades ago. In fact, the only action it seemed to have been getting until us pair of cowboys turned up was the frying of a few greasy breakfasts on the – wait for it – four-ringed electric cooker standing next to the 6-ringed Beast.

The place wasn’t clean either. But as soon as we slapped our four large shallow cardboard boxes - overflowing with fresh herbs, bright purple cabbages and Tupperware tubs of veal stock and rose sauce - onto the metal tables, it felt right. We were in our fucking elements. The music was pumping, the weather bright, and the day ahead holding nothing but the prep and cooking a one-off five course meal for my sister’s wedding guests in 36 hours’ time.

There is no better way for the dreamy amateur in the kitchen to find out whether or not he or she could enjoy a life in catering. Even though I knew the people who would be eating it, I became totally detached from the food. It just felt like matter that had to be shifted from A to B, cleaned, processed, stored, cooked, served.

We were working with the best ingredients money can buy -- 2kg of wild smoked salmon, 7kg of prime diced venison haunch, live lobsters straight from their sea cages, herbs, cream and two outstanding stocks – and still, somewhere just beyond the 1kilo mark, they ceased to trigger any thought processes. The worst was the veg, and the vacuous task of fumbling 120 turned carrots and peeling to a uniform radius the same number of slippery, eye-watering shallots.

It took the whole day to put it together, but by the time we left we had two huge trays of potato and parsnip dauphinoise in the chiller along with two huge tubs of venison stew (say “stew” but it was, in fact, chunks of tender meat in a proper sauce of red wine, veal stock, game stock and a little redcurrant jelly); a huge pan of veg stock (more of a nage, packed as it was with lemon, fresh herbs and the redundant layers of shallot), another of thick ham-hock and lentil soup (for the post-meal masses); and some proto peti fours in the form of some creamy hand-rolled truffles and a few small trays of fresh orange jellies. We left happy after 12 long hours, my freshly sliced thumb from having taken my eye off the blade of the mandolin throbbing and my thumbnails red, swollen and probably infected from digging them through shallots, and fuelled ourselves with a big plate of basic spag boll back at the wedding HQ. Pasta never tasted this good.

The craic was good, although with themes including unconsenting anal sex with Gordon Ramsay at knifepoint, I guess you had to be there. By the time it came to service, however, I had all but stopped caring about the food, which was a mistake because a few unnecessary errors crept in in those vital few minutes. And the thought of eating it was a million miles away. But the audience was bowled over.

And so it should have been, faced as it was with a mouthwatering amuse of lobster-stuffed mango raviolis served on two spinach leaves and garnished with iced red pepper skin, followed by an outrageously aromatic celeriac soup with smoked salmon&creme fraiche and garnished with parsley oil and a small herb salad, venison in rich game sauce with a perfect square of creamy potatoes and spoons of red cabbage, shredded and braised with red wine, star anise and apple, and savoy, tossed in wholegrain mustard and cream, all finished with a boule of brown-bread ice cream served atop a small slab of warm, gooey oaty biscuit surrounded by a deep crimson rose sauce, and dusted off with coffee, truffles (the jellies didn’t work out) and a 12 year-old Jura, which we were just in time to pour having changed out of our whites.

It was the first drink I had had in 9 months, and it felt right to toast my friend the real genius behind the meal. And to my surprise it felt like it was only the day before when I had last had a whisky. It was horrible. I was looking at half-empty wine bottles in an unnerving light for the rest of the evening, but have never been surer that I still have some way to go, if ever, before I can drink properly.

And I have learned a few things about deluded fantasies too. I don’t want to work in a kitchen. The job is hard, hot and repetitive. Service is unrelenting. And this is with a single set menu prepared mostly a day in advance. And just as in the home, people seem to gravitate towards the kitchen and hover around it like confused parents, trying to endow themselves with a sense of purpose in the face of utter disinterest or even contempt. Because being in the kitchen fuels the ego. People are relying on your mysterious ability to prepare things they don’t understand and your territory is clearly defined. Kitchens are also the stationary hubs of small-scale establishments. And this wedding needed a lot of sticking together.

Since my return I have bee eying food more mechanically than usual, feeding the pair of us with random suppers of bacon&chili penne; potato, spinach and mackerel soup; mushroom risotto;

pot roasted pheasant with truffle and walnut stuffing; herring in oatmeal with a watercress, spinach and rocket salad; a “stampot” wank-style, comprising crushed roast potatoes with bacon, savoy cabbage and a thick mustard sauce; and tonight, another pair of herring, slashed and grilled and eaten with bread, lemon and salad. And yesterday I walked into the old tranny café at the end of my street and asked how much they wanted for it. What the fuck am I thinking?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

An affront to humanity

The stress brought on by kids’ birthday parties is another notch surely worthy of some weekend newspaper article about stress and modern life. A weekend spent gearing up for the event, which was over in under three hours. Two people in dressing gowns trying to cook in the same kitchen with nothing but recipes for disaster. Unable to talk to one another for want of murder. Of course the fucking soup was going to be ready in time to eat soon after everyone arrived; it had practically cooked itself yesterday while nobody was looking.

It was a winner too.

I had marinated the rather bland tasting pigs’ foot flesh in a little olive oil, lots of lemon and some salt. I tossed this into the steaming earthy bath of lentils and split peas, along with a handful of best streaky bacon that had been fried until dark and sticky. Served with a pool of double cream and some flat-leafed parsley, its meaty depths were apparent on people’s faces. Which is about all they were wearing in terms of an expression, as it’s socialy demanding to have conversations with people you don’t know in your own house. I wish they had all just got good and drunk or something.

But, then, I could have been driving back down the M6 in the pissing rain with 14,000 other Smunts, having spent all weekend at this year’s Good Food Show. And what a weekend that would have been. For my £20 entry fee (£18 if I had booked in advance) to the giant NEC I would have had the opportunity to allow over 200 exhibitors from stall upon cocktail-stick-nibble stall try and sell me things, as well as the chance – if I was one of the early birds – to see one of many 15 minute celebrity-chef performance shows – blatantly sponsored by Sainsbury’s and headlined by J.O. himself.

“This is the ultimate shopping experience for those of you who are true food lovers,” churns the foodie marketing machine. “If after a few hours of shopping, you can no longer carry your bags, why not take advantage of our Shop and Drop locations where you can leave all your shopping secure while you are going back for more. You even get a complimentary Mr Kipling mince pie when you return to collect it, and yes he makes ‘exceedingly’ good mince pies as well as cakes!”

How did consumer culture ever come to this? Just think of the amount of cash that’s swimming about up there. £20 per fucking person, handed over in exchange for the being sold things, your every glance while wandering desperately through this culinary circus filled with branded and logo-ed crap endorsed by your heroes, the Celebchefs, teasing you for just long enough to keep you buying the books while you sit there in your mini theatre with 100 other hopefuls cheering every time the leaping head-miked figure in the distance lands upright.

This annual freak show -- and all its provincial fall out such as Aberga-fucking-venny -- epitomises our pitiful
food culture in the UK. And why does it get me so angry? Because it puts the costs of kitchenware and berries up, and ramps the mongoled masses’ dependence on the state. And because I cannot understand someone who does not realise that being charged to be robbed is an affront to humanity.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A foray into vegetarianism

One which was raidly followed by a juicy rare duck breast with tatties roasted in duck fat. In fact, I was impressed by how much flavour the veggies were. They weren’t really veggies for one, the main component being reconstituted porcini mushrooms and a good handful of crushed walnuts. I mixed in some bread that had been soaking in milk and some shallots, leek and garlic that had been browned in butter and then boiled up with a glass of white wine until a soft, silky mess, and bound it all with an egg.

I then plastered one layer on the base of a buttered dish, topped it with handfuls of grated Gruyère, another layer of mix and finally a packet’s worth of supermarket mushrooms sliced thickly and tiled to cover as mush as possible of the surface. The holes I plugged with half walnuts, each dotted with a daub of Exmoor blue that I still had lying at the back of the fridge, and the whole lot coated with well seasoned double cream.

You might say it would be hard to fuck up a dish with that sort of volume of goodies and fat, but I didn’t really have too much of a clue as to what was going to come out of the oven after 30 minutes. Fortunately it was better than I had hoped, the mushroom mixture having taken on the texture of fine mince and the walnuts shining through. It was delicious.

But the duck, encrusted with half a cm of crispy skin spiked with sage, bay and some Chinese five-spice and served with a sauce made from a couple of scoops of my pigsfoot stock, a tablespoon of damson jam and a dash of dark Soy, stole the show. The texture of tender meat, I will never surrender.