Sunday, September 24, 2006

Kitchen clockwork

Today I got the neighbours across and assembled a meal to christen the kitchen in style. A leg of best lamb slow roasted with garlic and olive oil, served in a little pile of moist brown slices over which I poured a fresh rosemary jus and topped with a fingerfull of wild flower and herb salad. The bottomless depths of flavour of the sauce hit everyone’s soul. The weather and scene outside were autumnal, yet the sun was hot and I wasn’t sure which way to go with the roast accessories.

But my eventual idea came good. So, with the little pile of tender lamb I threw out three bowls of veg: boiled tiny new tatties rolled in butter, leeks and parma ham; glazed carrot batons cooked in an aromatic vegetable broth; and a salad of runner beans and a sharp lemon-Dijon vinaigrette.

My virtual breakdown induced by the kitchen build was making me may close attention to what I was doing, and I went about the broth with rare precision and reliance on the subtleties of the flavours. It paid off, nobody able to stop putting the liquor into their mouths in some way or other. And the desert pushed it even further: a rude apple crumble spiked with oats and almonds, made with equal ratios of flour, sugar and butter despite the consistency being more gooey than usual and baked on a high heat for a good 40 minutes. It turned into a chewy cross between crumble and flapjack, a substance that almost disgusted you with its ability to make you gorge yourself on it until you were ill. It sat atop a deep layer of sweet but firm apples, and I served it with a spoon of good vanilla ice cream and a zigzag of concentrated blackberry&lime cordial reduction. The kitchen functions like clockwork.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Kitchen cowboys

Picking up my Home Improvement Partner (who, in the course of the next four days, would go from being best my mate to a lost soul questioning its reason for existence) from the airport (on account of the shear mass of cordless power tools he had with him) meant that I had the chance to stop off at the Shop for some food to see us and the family through the next wee while in the absence of a kitchen.

Lots of positive, enthusiastic chat as we made trips to various trade outlets, B&Q in particular. Lots of sizing up, lots more talk. A big job for sure, but we’ll have it done by the end of tomorrow, leaving Wednesday for the carpentry. So we talked about it some more and then went on another tip to B&Q. And by the end of the day we had caught up and overdosed on coffee and it was time to eat some scraps of super-rare roast beef and a tray of loosely roasted root veg, followed by a plate of cheese and some thickly buttered crackers.
And then we set about joyfully assembling the poxy white Ikea carcasses, keeping track of the associated medley of shiny metal fittings, multi-sized screws and ill-fitting plastic caps. We were done in no time. Spirits were high, the sweet and nutty smoke of Golden Virginia filling the room, mixed with powdery dry plaster and chipboard dust. Homely. This was going to be a good couple of days.

The following morning, Day 2, feeling infinitely fresher than we would have been had we sat up screaming at each other in the midst of a 5am whisky frenzy as may well have happened back in the oh-so recent days when I was under the illusion that I could drink properly, began with some trips to one or two obscure trade outlets for some bits of plumbing and some shelving. We were gone for three hours, and within minutes of returning I was back on my way to B&Q for some electrical sockets, switches, backing boxes, ... It came together in the end and we rewarded ourselves with a slab of centre beef rib, almost black from ageing, stuffed with creamy white pearls of hard fat, cooked on a searing grill pan and served with a simply dressed salad of tomatoes fresh from the Wife’s all-day refuge at an allotment-loving friend’s house. Hot beef, the beefiest we had eaten; cold tomatoes, as ripe as they get. And afterwards the rest of the cheese served hot rolls and salty butter. Things were going well without the worktops.


It is now Wednesday, the last day allocated for this jolly fun exercise. Things have hardly moved for 24 hours now. Everything looks the same. And the sockets still have to be done before we even think about it. So once I’d got back from B&Q we set about working out how to proceed. Electricity is a dangerous entity. Several years of higher education in the physical sciences, being examined an a regular basis on your knowledge of the fundamental laws of nature and made to demonstrate your practical prowess in countless pointless desk-top experiments, is no preparation for the prospect of facing the ring-main of your own house armed with a so-called tester screwdriver and a roll of fucking insulating tape.

But you have to tell yourself that it is all imaginary, like the notion that rock climbing on a highly exposed cliff edge with a 30m drop is more dangerous than a 5m fall off a boulder; once you have gripped that bright red thick copper cable between your thumb and forefinger -- and it really takes you to grip that fucker, however long you spend flicking it slightly and as quickly as you can as if this will make a single iota of difference – you can get stuck into it with smug self confidence. And you might then get as far as successfully chipping and scraping out a spur or two for your appliances and changing a face plate.

But your euphoria will be short lived. Before you know it you will be deafened by the sound of steel-on-steel as you pound haplessly away at the diamond-like artex of your back-wall, the entire house shaking with each deadening blow and the primitive blunt implement making its way micrometer by bone-shuddering micrometer.

Day 4. It was obvious from the fucking outset that we were going to fuck the sink. It was a cunt of a job anyway, full as it was with its very tightly fitting pipes and edges, and we were essentially fucked before we even tooled up. The exchange of nervous jokes ensued, laughing about how we knew we were going to fuck it but that somehow by talking about it we would avert disaster – a bit like taking a bomb on every flight you go on based on the fact that it is infinitesimally unlikely that two bombs would be placed independently on the same plane.

So off we set cleverly marking our masking tape to allow for the ten-mill recess for the frame and to line it all up. And then the checking began, stopping and remeasuring every mark, pretending we knew what we were doing. Yes the sink is 93cm long, yes that means it will just fit into the units; aye, it’s still 93cm long. In the end we were just going through the motions, so confident we were that our numbers were correct. And then came the excitement of cutting the rectangular slab out of the single piece of worktop that it would take four weeks to replace, beginning with the fattest drill hole we could make at the four corners and a small adrenalin rush. Then the jigsaw, gnawing its way irreversibly through the gluey weetabix profile. And within a few minutes, out it popped and the moment arrived -- the moment we had both been dreading yet wanted to have over as soon as possible, a bit like the death of a parent.

We rushed the sink into its hole to end the suspense once and for all, and within three seconds we realized what had happened. An oversight of the largest proportions, the sink not in fact being a perfect rectangle after all but, rather, a rectangle with rounded edges. The process of acceptance was swift but proceeded in familiar stages: beginning with disbelief [that you could have done something so fucking stupid having just spent the whole day joking about doing precisely that], mutual embarrassment [as a result of there being nowhere to hide from the fact that you are both officially cowboys], self-delusion [that by focussing all your frustration you will somehow remedy the situation and redeem your personal worth], realisation [that your solution, despite being the best there was on offer and at the forefront of your abilities, isn’t actually good enough], disillusion [that you really shouldn’t be the ones doing this in the first place], and finally, introspection [why did it always have to happen this way?].

And then there was a slump. We were downed by it, leaning on the bastard like it was our heavyweight sparring partner. It was hard to pick up the tools afterwards because we were acutely aware that no matter what we did, no matter how hard we tried, we were utterly capable of doing something just as fuckwittish to the next job.

But on we went, screwing it all down, and we started to get back onto a roll come early evening as the prospect of running water and drainage loomed large. So I bathed the children and sat in front of the Jungle Book to the happy sound of “CUNTING FUCKING IKEA CUNTS” emanating from the laminated depths of a unit with two short legs haging out of it. And once bedtime had passed the momentum picked up again, and although it was getting on we knew we were heading for a couple of hours of firing on all cylinders to get the main structure finished and functional. A 45 degree wooden worktop support was a nice evening’s project for me, so I set about measuring the wood. A bubbling pot of tomato and porcini coking in beef fat in the background; the Wife due back shortly from her evening class to find the kids cleaned, dried and bedded down. My best mate talking optimistically about getting as far as hanging a couple of unit doors by bedtime.

But none of this picture of thirty-something bliss was to be. As I bumbled quasi-efficiently about measuring up my right-angle, HIP was attending to a routine job we had meant to do earlier but didn’t get round to: cutting a hole through the back of the units for the dishwasher outflow tube. I could see the twin copper pipe carrying mains and hot water to the rest of the house rattling a little as the serrated disk of his cordless wonderdrill nagged its way though the laminated cardboard, but I simultaneously dismissed my the nightmare thought that he was about to drill through the mains at this stage in the game. And then all I heard was the terrifying groan of “oh no”, followed rapidly by what I immediately recognized as the tinny sound of high-pressure-water-jet –spilling into brand new unit.

I spent perhaps a minute living between attempts to see the funny side of things and catching glimpses of the full implications were of what had just taken place. Everything had shattered at our feet in an instant. We stemmed the flow but I could see it in his eyes: he had been broken. The sink we were unfortunate with, as daft as cunts for sure. But we had channelled all our lost pride into cutting irregular polygons from black formica with scissors, and had been reasonably pleased with our repair job.

Bursting the cold water main, however, the one installed just the day before, while attending to the afterthought of some drainage pipe for the yet-to-be-purchased dishwasher – plumbed new depths of self loathing. And it had little to do with the fact that we were facing an evening without water, the night before I was due back in the Office having not washed for three days and stinking of what smelled like sweet bum-sweat.
Rather, it was the sinking although immediate realization that the job, as we had defined it, was over. And with silent self searching, and alcohol for those who were able, the self-ridicule began. It was so awful it had to be funny etc, but as we stood there in the sawdust and water we all knew the sparkle had gone. So we lived out the rest of the evening dining on an the somewhat unusual penne+sauce livened up by some toasted pine nuts and basil, and served with a truffle–dressed green salad and hot salty rosemary bread. Some ice cream and chocolate sauce to soothe the pain. And a night of solemn tool gathering and cleaning up. Laughing at ourselves in some desperate way. The trouble is that the worst was still to come.

It began that night with delusional exchanges about what HIP would do the following day before lugging his tools back to the airport. Making a jig for the doors to help us get the handles in the right places, for example, or even getting as far as hanging a couple, and maybe picking up a new chuck key for my drill while he was out at the shop getting stuff. Alas, I arrived home after a day of readjustment to an environment in which outbursts of FUCKING CUNTS PUT THE CUNTING HOLES IN THE WRONG FUCKING PLACE etc are not the normal teatime chat, to be told that there was one more minor disaster.

To say I wasn’t in the mood for the conversation would be to understate wildly the feelings going through my already tattered brain. But hear it out I did, and with it drained the last piece of optimism that was going to get me through the remainder of the project. He had marked, and then drilled, all the handles in the middle of the doors, rendering them useless and visually ridiculous. I almost broke down. I loathed him for his errors. I smoked a fat pipe and sat there in uncertain fear of whether my disturbed behaviour was real or put on for the benefit of a reaction. But I found myself feeling deep empathy for the man too as I pushed spoonfuls of beefy bolognaise into my disembodied mouth.

I mean, Jesus Christ. Not even the dubious celebration of going out with the bang of a burst main, just a drizzle of pathetic fuck-ups as the project peters out like the runny aftertracks of a monumental stool. Fuck. For we shared something this week. The project wracked us. And I have learned a lot in the last 5 days. For example, about how much I never want to entertain that baseless delusion that I would be just as happy in life humping blocks on a building site or planting trees in the highlands. It is utter shite. You can fucking shove it . In any case, the simmering irony behind all of this is that it turns out I don't actually need a kitchen to cook at all.

Monday, September 18, 2006


I feel as if I have been beaten up. I have been worked hard. My hands are cut to ribbons and the areas that aren’t feel like sandpaper. I can barely move without aching pains, my lower knees red and bruised from kneeling on concrete. My quadriceps can only just power stance. But there is progress to show for it: a beautifully tiled floor. And a meal of yesterday’s roast beef.
I knew I would look like an idiot before my hard-grafting plasterer uncle if I started to piddle around preparing a full meal on the little work surface we had in the little time allowed. But all I had to do was slice a few tatties and throw them into a tray with some garlic, rosemary, oil, salt and pepper. Forty minutes later and out came the warming sight of caramelized edges and soft squidgey centres, thrown out on the table with a plateful of thinly sliced cold roast beef and a big bowl of salad dressed with the Dijon gloop I’d prepared yesterday. It was an appropriate and pleasant celebration of the day’s efforts. And then I handed over - with difficulty - a litre of my favourite and now redundant dram, thanked them for the pain, and waved goodbye.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


I took great pleasure in ripping out the remaining bits of my kitchen and the plastic wood floor that surrounded it, without a hint of emotion. I found chipboard-like materials soft with bacteria, black and slimy behind the sink. It was fucking disgusting. We have been living daily with this risk for two and a half years. It is going to look very different in here soon, and then after a week or two I imagine we will carry on as before, taking our richer surroundings for granted and busying ourselves with new notions of stainless steel appliances, hoods and extractors, floating islands, spots, hooks and rails. And then we’ll move.

The stripped-down meal plan is working out. I mixed a mustard dressing this morning to go with tomorrow’s leaves, and prepared a large, dark, marbled joint of topside for its roasting. Then, with everything but the cooker still standing, I placed the joint into the oven for an hour and then took it out to rest while I rolled an autumnal vegetable mix in the pan juices and fat. There were parsnips in there, neeps, carrots, courgettes, mushrooms and garlic too. The meat was bursting with beefy flavour, red and juicy and topped with a crispy ribbon of hot yellow fat. Who needs a fucking kitchen?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

My own food, I could just about handle

I keep dreaming about the oddly macabre Fat Duck logo, which was everywhere from the thick black wax seal on the cloth-like envelop containing my copy of the menu, to the embossed paper doily for the complimentary chocolates accompanying my coffee. And about the food too, every fucking night I am back there with those dishes, close to them somehow. And the night before I went I had Gordon Ramsay in them too – me and Gordon, casually turning up at Heston’s place in our leather jackets one afternoon for a few beers after service, trying out some of his latest lab work and talking shop.

But waking life goes on. As it did when we crashed back to Earth on Sunday with a stir fry. My own food I could still handle, though, and I just tossed the rest of the bits of veg from Friday’s meal in the wok and fried it in the quarter cup of five-spice pork fat I’d retained. A few noodles and we knocked it back without comment.

Then it was Monday and the Duck helped me through a drab day in the Office before coming home to put myself back into my food with the last tub of thick chicken stock I had in the freezer. I put it to good use in a risotto along with white wine, soaked porcini and some truffle oil at the end. It was the best risotto I have made, that stock warming us from our toes to our heads. Some rocket-watercress leaf thing and rosemary bread.

Don’t forget your fucking good risotto you bastard. It was heavenly stuff, too much of it of course, but heavenly. You make some of the best stocks you have ever tasted and you know how to use then to great effect. So don’t fucking give up now you Cunt. And don’t forget also the perfect noodle stir fry you knocked together for two late at night while tired and overwhelmed by the meal that changed your life.

Starting to get into the idea of Heston’s flavour deconstruction, but find myself getting stuck at the first hurdle: time. As I walk into the Office in the morning I think of things I can do to avoid roasting the leg of lamb in my freezer in the usual, excellent way and serving it with predictable but nicely done veg and loads of it too. So I imagined taking a good cut out of the bastard and simmering it gently in fat for 10 hours before shredding it with two forks and filling a ravioli or something like that with it. This of course would be served next to the more conventionally prepared meat, perhaps with a mint jelly sliding around somewhere, and a block of carrots glazed to taste of a million carrots and some rosemary jus that bears no visual evidence of the green herb, sp to speak.

And then I realized that this is all fantasy: I do not have the time to do a mere tenth of this amount of cooking, even if I could. And I also have to try to keep tea together on these brief post-work evenings, last night for example making use of things the Wife had bought-in like plastic mackerel, watercress, peppers and soft brown buttered bread. Salads and what-not. No matter, though, as everything tasted the same anyway. Mackerel and watercress, and whisky winegums.

But perhaps things are starting to get back to NORMAL, with today’s trip to the farmer’s market bearing fruits de mer in the form of a 2kg bag of small sweet moules which I steamed in a tasty liquor of stock, cream and wine. Leftovers really, and soaked up with the rest of the three-seed bread. But fuck it was good. I paid closer attention than usual to the size of the dice with the shallots and garlic, and used half a tub of nondescript fish stock with properly reduced Sur Lie. Double cream and flat-leafed parsley at the end. Bread coated with creamy butter. Untouchable.

In preparation for the kitchen build this weekend, during which I will have nothing but my cooker in the room, I picked up a joint of beef large enough to kill a man, which I want to cook at 70 degrees for a few days, for the craic. And the stock is running out at last. Need to make some more. Will be the first thing that happens once I get my new kitchen built. Once.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The World's best restaurant

From the moment I walked in I knew we were somewhere different. Wooden tables, well made, spaced considerately apart and partnered with simple sturdy chairs; set simply with thick cream napkins and solid cutlery with a thick water tumbler and a large spotless wine glass per setting; a short but complete menu that made perfect sense in its classic English setting. And this was just in the pub next door. Okay, so the pub was called the Hind’s Head and owned by Heston Alien-Blumenthal, but it set the scene perfectly for the afternoon that was about to unfold.

Blumenthal’s main gaff, The Fat Duck, is so unassuming in its small village location that I walked past it without noticing. Then I noticed some plumage, which turned out to come from a small brass plate next to a well-maintained door. During the same moment I also looked upward towards something that was catching my field of view and noticed the familiar webbed logo swinging back and fore from its metal boom. A Ferrari passed unmistaken behind me.

Bray, the village just off the M4 before you get to London, has the highest number of Michelin stars per resident of any other place in Britain, boasting as it does two of the UK’s three three-starred restaurants within three minutes walk of one another: The Duck and the Waterside, perched on the well-tended banks of the Thames. But the latter hasn’t had quite the same accolade as world’s best and world’s second best restaurant in the last two years to boot.

I knew about the snail porridge and bacon&egg ice cream before I walked through the door, but I hadn’t quite counted on just how much fun I was going to have for the next four hours. The show kicked off with a physics experiment, as you might expect from the dean of molecular gastronomy: a ball of egg white infused with tea, lime and vodka, cooked before your very eyes at -186 degrees in a flask of liquid nitrogen, which disappeared in a puff of nothingness when you popped it into your mouth.

“The tea cleanses the pallet,” stated the waiter with a cute French accent. “The lime wakes it up,” he went on, “and the vodka takes the fat out of your mouth.” He was right: Heston’s “nitro-green tea and lime mousse (2001)” had reset my senses in an instant.

Next, it was my brain.

A waiter placed a small plate on which sat two perfect squares of jelly: an orange one and a purple one.

“This is an orange and a beetroot jelly,” he said. “May I suggest that you eat the orange one first.” So I did, and within a second I looked up across the table to be met with the same slightly contorted expression that I must have been sporting, my mouth filled with the strongest, sweetest taste of beetroot I had ever tasted yet which my brain was telling me was orange. He had switched the flavours, and all we could do was chuckle at ourselves for having been caught out. It put me in the perfect mood; I had become receptive to the power of the unexpected.

There were still three amuse bouches to go before the main elements of the tasting menu arrived, the first a fresh oyster with passion fruit jelly and lavender which was like a slice of the North Atlantic that had been reduced, jellified and made to taste as if every molecule of sodium chloride within it was undergoing a reaction with my rapidly secreting saliva; the second a teaspoon sized quenelle of wholegrain mustard ice cream sited in the centre of a small dimple in a large white plate that was filled with a freshly poured pool of red cabbage gazpacho with 9 or 10 perfectly cut millimetre-cubed shallots; and the third an inclined plastic dome filled with chilled layers of a bright green pea puree, a meaty quail jelly and a smooth & thick langoustine cream topped with a tiny quenelle of fois gras parfait. I cut though the layers with my solid silver and subtly webbed teaspoon and felt the soft luxurious combo melt on my tongue. Its four or five little spoonfuls were all you needed, my God. The temperature of the dish also went against what you might expect from such flavours, drawing your attention to exactly how bizarre yet brilliant what you were eating was.

First up on the main sequence was Heston’s famous snail porridge, which for some reason I had convinced myself was really only going to be a nice risotto. It really wasn’t. It came as a bright green mound, parsely-based and flecked clearly with whitish grey oats. On top of this sat three small juicy snails, some dark red shredded Joselito ham and lots of shaved fennel. Taken together the flavours mixed well, and the volume of matter on my plate was just enough to afford me a full sample of the tastes and textures on offer by the time it had run out. I mopped up the thick green residue with the exceptional crusty brown bread that was being offered freely, spread thickly with the richest creamiest saltiest home-churned butter I have ever tasted.

Next was a dish with a nod if odd to tradition, comprising three pieces of roast fois gras with almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile. The gel was extraordinary in texture and taste, utterly smooth and silky yet filling your mouth with a million freshly chewed almonds. As were the three tiny perfect orange-yellow cubes of almond jelly, which dissolved much slower than the fatty liver when taken together in your mouth and served to draw your attention to the genius of the combo. The cherry, impressed innocently in the almond gel, was the tastiest I have ever eaten.

The next course was the closest to the edge. Savoury ice creams do have their limits I reckon, and sardine on toast flavour is about it. As ever, the dish arrived in perfect form, an oval disc of mackerel ‘invertebrate’ sitting next to the sorbet which was anchored with some strips of marinated daikon and had protruding from it a thin wafer of toast. The toast helped. Together it all worked, but too much sorbet in a mouthful and it started to come apart at the fins.

Anyway, all that took place in the background as I tried to figure out exactly how they managed to serve me a cross-section of raw mackerel containing no bones. The waiter was enjoying my frustration and felt confident enough to offer me the meal if I could guess how it was done. But you are never going to think inside the box of a freak like Heston. So it turns out that the bastard fillets the fish whole, as one would normally do, and then glues the fucking things back together again using “food glue” before wrapping it in cling film and leaving it to set for a couple of hours. If we had gone for the wine option too this would have been served with a warm Rashiku Ginjo-Sake, Yamatogawa. Nice.

And so to the salmon. We were already feeling incredibly good, the food not filling us up nor leaving us wanting more, just making you feel content, the classy surroundings and friendly, knowledgeable staff a huge factor. It was at this point when I realised the experience was transcending the concept of food familiar to me, as I found I couldn’t decide whether or not I cared whether or not the salmon was wild or poached. Everything else was of such high quality that I would find it hard to believe he would have used anything less, yet the way in which the square had been cooked left me with fewer ways of telling. It appeared in a liquorice parcel topped with three coriander seeds, next to two asparagus spears, some pink grapefruit and a smearing of vanilla mayonnaise. It looked and tasted both raw and cooked at the same time, which is hardly surprising given that it had been dipped in molten liquorice jelly three times, sealed in a vacuum bag and then poached for 35 minutes at a temperature of 30 degrees. That’s basically the same as leaving it in the window at home on a hot day, and for the first time in your life makes you wonder if health and safety isn’t such a bad thing after all. I liked it; the Wife less so.

The last of the mains seemed to serve to reassure, or perhaps to show how effortless it is for HB to roll off a classic should he want to. What arrived was a flawless dish of poached pigeon breast wrapped in pancetta and very rare, a small triangular parcel of its confied and shredded leg and a foamy greenish pistachio sauce with cocoa and quatre epices. The precision was breathtaking, the seasoning and temperature exact, and the flavours proving a warming, comforting break from the previous course. It was the only dish where I missed the possibility of wine, which would have been a 1999 Barolo Costa Grimaldi. And then, after feeling in safe hands, the waitress placed a simple card in front of both of us titled “Mrs Agnes B Marshall 1855-1905: The Queen of ice cream”. Okay, so we were back in Bray.

Agnes turns out to have been a lovely lady who was arguably the first to have invented the edible ice cream cone. A great wee tale about the woman printed on luxurious semi-laminated paper, which we finished just in time for a platter containing two perfect little cornets -- made to the original recipe, of course, and tasting, of course, like the best ice cream you had ever eaten.

Then somewhere around here there was a little break for a pot of sherbet to be eaten off the tip of a dried and rather brittle vanilla pod, before the main desert arrived. Again, a perfect score for the pleasure of eating a mango and Douglas fir puree, the bavarois of lychee and mango topped with some lime zest and two pine nuts hitting every note right and the ultra-smooth blackcurrant sorbet with the intensity of undiluted Ribena. Fucking hell this guy is good.

And then it was time for breakfast. It sounds ridiculous now to say that this made sense at half past three in the afternoon after you have just eaten the best food in your life. But you need to bear in mind that just two minutes previously I had watched a table of three inhaling the contents of plastic squeezy bottles filled variously with cinnamon and vanilla before each mouthful of their a la carte desert. They looked like a shower of cunts to be honest. So when the miniature box of Fat Duck Cereals arrived I was in the mood for some fucking parsnip flakes with parsnip milk, okay? But even this was merely the warm up for the grand finale: the famed bacon and egg ice cream.

So the liquid nitrogen was wheeled out again along with a flambee unit and half a dozen eggs. After being asked how you would like your eggs done, he takes one out and cracks it against the side of the overflowing pan and mixes the creamy mixture around the sub-zero copper surfaces until finally spooning it in half and placing it on your plate: smoked bacon and egg ice cream, served with a golden cuboid of French toast held in place by a strong tomato confit and a quenelle of dark brown caramel butter, ludicrously sweet and topped with two intensely flavoured dried mushrooms. We chewed the remarkable concoction down with an eggcup of chilled tea jelly; it was something quite special - a full English, deconstructed, twisted and taken to its maximum, brilliantly paired with a glass of Buck’s fizz, no less, for those who aren’t alcoholic.

The breakfast not only served as a clever gag, it also fitted perfectly into the pace of the afternoon. Having been sat there for three hours during which I felt like I’d never been anywhere else ever, I was in need of early warning that it was getting close to check-out time. And despite having never drunk tea in my entire life, I wiped my eggy chin with the strongest desire in the world for a nice big cup of the stuff.

And so it came, in a thick plastic glass that enabled Heston to pull off one last trick: a tea jelly straight from the fridge over which was poured piping hot water to make every single mouthful, from start to finish, give you that feeling you get when you go to sip a cup of tea or coffee only to find that it is stone cold. For a millisecond, that is, after which you suddenly find yourself worrying that you might burn your lips on this the most comforting of brews in recent memory.

And then, served along side the tastiest coffee I’ve ever had on this island, I was presented with a fitting end to proceedings: a drink. I knew it was going to be potent because otherwise it wouldn’t have been called a whisky wine gum, but hesitated for all of one second before reaching out and popping the golden sugared dome into my mouth. It tasted of very little at first, but then I bit into it and unleashed a depth of peat that threw me instantly back to a fierce early-morning argument with my best mate about the benefits of mobile phones, or to some other maddened moment fuelled by a dark Island malt. This was most clearly a Laphroaig, and a good dram of it and not much else bar the gelatine sheets by the taste of it. My brain lit up like a fucking Christmas tree, my senses temporarily numbed by the deeply familiar, base excitement at the prospect of getting drunk. It was instant, my neurons triggering all over the place in opposite directions: comfort versus danger, success versus failure; old versus new, trapped versus free. Even Heston couldn’t have bargained for all that.

He is a fucker. It was flawless from start to finish. I was placed in an elevated state of consciousness that lasted all night and blocked my ability to sense hunger. All food we ate after this rattling of the senses just seemed like “matter”. Everything tastes the same now.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Anticipating the Duck

Only about 12 hours to go. The idea is starting to set in now. I am excited. I predict that lunch will be a wonderful affair that will leave me in a heightened state of consciousness for the rest of the day. I hope it will open my eyes to the full power of food and suck my motivation for cooking from within. But I doubt it. In fact, the mere prospect of going to eat in the world’s finest restaurant managed to eek the last grain of energy from inside at the end of this hard week, half past seven at night and a homecoming of half-roasted belly pork and a pile of veg to prep.

So I set about making a sweet and sour sauce by frying onions, red&yellow peppers and garlic in pork fat with some chilli and lemon grass, orange rind and an apple. A good glug of white wine, some white wine vinegar and half a carton of sieved tomatoes. Simmer it all with the lid on, topping up with water, until everything is soft enough to press through a sieve and then again to leave a smooth red sauce. I then used the salty, five-spice flavoured fat to stir-fry some batons of carrot, courgette, sliced mushrooms and greens. Soy sauce at the end and then the rings came out to be filled with a disk of white rice, a loose pile of veg and a square of succulent pork topped with a golden puffy crust. It was all very good, sitting in a pool of crimson. The sharpness was just right to cut through the meat, but it was a bit light on the seasoning. I’d hardly tasted anything until right at the end, confident I had it under control all along. It looked sexier than it tasted, as it was basically some sweet and sour pork. There were nods of appreciation all round but it was basically a posh chinky. An afterthought of corn roasted whole in its sheath.

I then looked at the Duck home page to get into the mood and saw a tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream on there. I then got thinking about what he could be doing to his tarte tatin or custard to make it so much better than the one I make. I am pretty sure I could pull off the perfect combo, once or twice but not on demand perhaps. I don’t know. But I am hungry to find out. Come on Heston, impress me you siphon-loving weirdo.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Looming home improvement

Sporadic, time-starved mid-week meals spent sitting around waiting for the conversation about kitchen improvement to come to an end. You know, the usual optimization exercise that springs into action with everything from the price per square metre of cheap floor tiles through the style of the door fittings to the optical properties of the strips of material that will adorn the sawn edges of the worktops. The recurring nature of the conversation is what wears you down. It can be days between bouts, perhaps a week or two.

Then it will rear its ugly self just at the end of the night after you’ve got home from a day’s work, washed up the day’s plastic, got dinner on the go, cleaned your children’s teeth, continued with dinner, kissed your children goodnight, put your children to bed, finished off the dinner, laid the table, served the dinner, sat at the table, opened the Fucking mineral water, ate your dinner, talked about anything but, finished your dinner, talked about anything but, remained normal, … This has been going on for two years.

But even when you aren’t actually talking about home improvement -- on account of other aspects of modern life such as trying not to murder your two young children, wife and then heading for a cruise operator in the West Highlands for a one-way sailing to St Kilda -- it’s still present in the background like the nagging knowledge that you don’t have any garlic or cling film left. And this is a project that I am supposed to be in my element in: redesigning what is effectively my dream kitchen. Perhaps I am too tired to take it on board.

My love of cooking goes down to survival levels when time gets too tight. Maybe this is what all the world is doing and the reason why nobody knows where chips come from anymore is because they have careers in which they believe.
I, meanwhile, am eyeing up a Soay sheep’s bouncing spring lamb on the steep green hills while on the edge of the world and eating little else but fulmars and fish; posing as an eccentric eco-tourist when approached. “Home improvement” would surely take on a whole different meaning in such a setting.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Salad surprise

An evening alone, and little in the way of hunger except for a mini-binge on junk food, harping back to the doorstep-pieces I used to stuff into my face as soon as I got in the door from school. Now it feels like a guilty act, something I would never do in front of anyone else like listening to Slippery When Wet or watching Back to the Future. So I slammed two breads into the oven for my cheese and pickle piece and sliced the remainder of a small round lettuce for company. And then, on this otherwise totally unmemorable late autumn evening, something rather magical happened.

I wanted some onion in the meal somewhere, so I sliced half a shallot fairly finely and threw it into a bowl with a good glug of extra virgin and some red wine vinegar. Then I added half a teaspoon of good wholegrain mustard, a little salt and pepper and a crushed garlic clove. I never thought any more of it, took my hot brown breads from the oven and sat at the table before a plate of thick slices of farmhouse cheddar and a fat jar of Branston. Delightful. And I just dumped my fork into the springy green salad, with Julie London resonating in the background, and took a mouthful in. At first I thought I’d accidentally put some sort of spice in it without remembering, coriander perhaps. But, of course, I hadn’t. It must been the sweetness of the shallots, slightly soft from ten minutes in the oil and vinegar. But everything seemed bang on, a fragrant taste without a single fresh herb. It really was remarkable.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Why can't we do it like the Swiss?

We have got food all wrong in this country. We have available to us the best and worst food from all over the world, yet no matter; it is all fucked at the point of delivery. Take my three days in Geneva. First up was a steak near the airport, in l’aviation. It looks like little more than a large cafĂ© overlooking the runway from across the road, and it hadn’t changed a bit in the 6 years since I was last in it, barely able to talk to my sober dinner partners and future wife owing to the Bombay Saphire frenzy I’d had at home that afternoon. The place was rammed, brightly lit, noisy and smelling comfortingly of cigarette smoke – something you forget about in this handicapped and deeply impoverished land. And it was a Wednesday night.

Our party of four hungry blokes waited between two tables as the waiter, the same waiter, worked out the previous guests’ bill on the white paper table cloth before tearing it and his scribbles up and clearing it in a couple of sweeps. We were seated, without reservation nor the feeling of being pains in the arse, within a few minutes and asked which of the house wines we would be having with our meat. It had to be Gamay, as it always was, made from the grapes a few hundred metres away and always lightly chilled to help you get through the salty, fatty feast. No menus nor ordering are required other than how well you want your meat cooked. And unlike back home, rare really does mean rare and well-done means slightly pink.

Then the familiar formula kicked into action: four plates of salad vert with a thick and purple garlic dressing, immediately followed by a basket of fresh sliced bread with thick brown floury crusts. And then the killer – a thick strip of Argentinian steak hard and crispy on the outside and soft on the in, a pile of thin French fries doused in so much salt it looked like Christmas, and a yellow blanket of slightly foamy sauce the recipe for which is one of the few to have completely stumped me. It can only be a garlic-powder base and lots of butter or oil whisked in. And salt.

It is an outrageous assault of the senses and as unrefined as it gets, but it fucking works. Half-way through and your mouth feels as is it is shrinking from dehydration, your brain telling you quite clearly that this is killer food. And then it gets worse: the second round of chips and sauce, never forgotten no matter how busy they are. The contents of a platter of hot crisp fries only just tossed in salt and a dirty oven-proof dish of that thick garlic sauce being mercilessly spooned onto your plate, none of which you want but which you are powerless over yet again. A coffee to finish, a brandy for some, and all for £20 a head.

The next night was a Lebanese kebab, an assiette of highly seasoned chicken and beef with salad, falafel, lamb kebab, garlic & chilli sauce and plenty of warm round pitas that were replenished automatically. A cold can of Heineken for some. Service so good that the previous occupiers of the table were asked to leave to make way for us, seeing as they had been finished for some time. And, being Swiss, they got it. Smiles and winks from the waiter and swift, bullshit-free, precision service. THIS WAS A KEBAB.

And finally the other great Genevan institution: le trattoria. Like l’aviation, this Italian place does have a menu which many people do indeed refer to. But again, it is irrelevant. The order is never any different. It always has to be the same thing: penne silciliana, an outrageous pasta bake that comes once again with its own second helpings. This is a winner, and it surprised me how tasty it actually was in the cold light of day. They basically get some good quality precooked penne, mix it with a concentrated tomato sauce loaded with garlic, oil and soggy aubergine, and fill a cast iron dish with the stuff. Great handfuls of creamy proper buffalo mozzarella are shaken over the top and in it is fired into the pizza oven for ten minutes. It comes out steaming and golden, and is immediately spooned out to fill large white oval plates. A heavenly concoction that I spent several occasions trying unsuccessfully to replicate.

And it was with us in no time, as we sat there as a party of ten in the smoky bustle of prime-time Friday night with the vino rosso flowing and bread baskets keeping our hands occupied. The place was functioning like a well-oiled machine; nothing was going wrong. The sweaty waiters were tireless in their attention to orders and gestures, responding quickly and happily despite being rushed off their feet. These people are professionals who would appear to love their jobs.

I sat there after the generous second helpings had also been put away, enjoying the best coffee I have tasted since I last left these shores, thinking about the UK equivalent we went to a few weeks back -- the Kenco espresso and lack of any option other than pizza owing to their inability to serve properly cooked pasta. It was depressing to compare the two. It all made sense there. It was 11 by the time we left and the place was still going. Some had tiramisu, some calvados coffees. But all were delivered as desired and at the end of the evening with what looked like plenty of carafes we were each just £20 lighter, again.

Why wouldn’t this formula translate here? The lard arses would jump at it surely? And it wasn’t just the evening meals. Short bursts of good espresso broke the days up in to manageable pieces, with a proper meal eaten over the course of an hour’s lunch break followed by a round of coffees and some good conversation. It’s not as if people there work any less, they just realise the importance of such relaxation and interaction.

It is so much more civilised than the solitary desk-crouching we call lunch here, a tuna sandwich from the shop around the corner or a salad from upstairs being privately sucked up as if by a small disabled rodent. The whole sorry affair being over in a matter of minutes. A worthless exercise but one that is hard to break.

Tonight it felt good to cook again, although it was done mostly with a phone wedged against one ear. Lamb chops with a garlic and caper crust and a pile of roasted root vegetables. I stuffed the salty paste into scores in the fat and fried them fat-side down on the griddle pan before turning them over. The veg, parsnip, carrot, leeks, mushroom and garlic were roasted with rosemary and the pan deglazed with red wine - which went on to make a dressing for the autumn veg spruced up with some spinach, watercress and rocket.