From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Bulgaria



Restaurant: The Crazy Cock
Location: Willesden


By Boeing : 6543 miles

By Boris Bike : 7 miles


Walking along the mile long stretch between Willesden Junction and Dollis Hill I wondered how many fast food options an area needed. Seventeen fried chicken shops appeared to be flourishing despite the competition. Add to that pizzas, kebabs, Chinese and curry and i began to wonder whether anyone in this postcode ever dined in. Amongst the cuisines vying for custom was the city’s sole Bulgarian offering.



I had an inkling of what it held in store as i’d read a few online reviews of the Crazy Cock. It was difficult to discern whether people were being accurate or unkind. This recent trend of restaurant reviewing is a curious one as like disgruntled owls people regurgitate their meals for people to pick over. And for the restaurants they come as a mixed blessing, for while they offer publicity they can also be searingly cynical. In my case I had no alternative so i read with a resigned, detached amusement. If i believed what i read I was in for an evening bereft of hope, comfort or nutrition. But such things are subjective. Or so I hoped.

Entering the Crazy Cock it was immediately clear that this wasn't a Bulgarian restaurant but a Bulgarian themed restaurant. It was like a less charming imitation of Austria’s Tiroler Hut. After a few bemused minutes i realised that they had tried to recreate a kind of Bulgarian pastiche of a Dickensian street scene, with windows jutting from the wall, and crudely painted rustic types gathering kindling below. In Austria such staging would be fun taking us on a flight of fancy to the rolling hills of the Tirol and comely milkmaids bashfully frolicking in the meadows.



Our preconceptions of the Tirol are warm and welcoming. The same cannot be said for Bulgaria, which is one of the least romantic destinations imaginable. To assume people will want to be transported there is absurd and insane. Instead of being charming, festive and fun it was a little sinister. If everyone was in on the joke it might be different in a kind of 'it's so terrible its brilliant' way but being the lone diner in a vast, dimly lit room I felt the joke was on me. The waitress clearly thought it oddly amusing i had turned up.

Amidst this rather odd never-everland, with walls bedecked with folk costumes and pencil-sketch collages of Bulgarian sprites and folk legends, was a raised stage and a small keyboard. For the Crazy Cock, as the menu declares, is first and foremost a party venue. And a party isn't complete without music. From out of the shadows a portly man in a tracksuit shuffled behind the keyboard, limbered up, and then played the odd chord to accompany a disco track blaring through the CD. If you closed your eyes you could imagine Terry Wogan at the Eurovision song contest in 1993.A centre-spread in the menu showed parties of people dancing on the tables. I concluded that they were either paid or coerced at gunpoint.

Having acclimatised and ordered a Bulgarian Beer I perused the menu. The first three pages consisted of salads, each less appealing than the last. The following pages didn't get much more appetising with dishes such as 'tripe in butter' and 'pork liver, village style' hardly whetting my appetite. Having read that yoghurt was thought to have originated in Bulgaria i went for the regional classic, Tarator, a yoghurt and cucumber soup laced with garlic. Having been a frequent fork and flag visitor to Eurasia i knew that pork would feature heavily in the cuisine. I am becoming an expert i thought as i saw pork in an array of guises, from skewered kebab to casserole.



The waitress suggested I ordered a 'babushka hotch potch'. She felt it was marginally more authentic than the 'Monastery style pork'. The Tarator was an acquired taste that after several spoonfuls I had clearly not acquired. The Hotch Potch came in a steaming clay bowl. It was the kind of dish a bachelor would concoct to nurse a nagging hangover. The odd morsel of pork could be found between bits of tomato, potato and mushroom, all doused in a thick, semi-molten tasteless cheese.

After the main course was served I was advised by the keyboard player that a belly dancer was due to perform. It promised to be the least seductive aspect of an evening bereft of romance. Thankfully, i was spared the spectacle as the young lady in question had twisted an ankle en route. As I was contemplating dessert a group of thirty shady men in tracksuits and leather jackets clambered in and sat at an adjacent table. They cackled in a local tongue and rudely admonished the waitress at every opportunity. They ordered bottles of the Rakia, Bulgarian plum brandy, and set about an evening of laughter and dubious transactions. I already felt bored and disconsolate and now I left unease. I left. Quickly.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Brazil



Restaurant: Favella Chic
Location: Old Street


By Boeing : 6363 miles

By Boris Bike: 9.3 miles


It is a quirk of the alphabet that two of the world's most beguiling and bewitching countries fall within the first two letters. This means I had the great pleasure of experiencing Brazil with the taste of Argentina still lingering tantalisingly in my mouth.

For the English, a largely conservative, risk-averse race, peculiarly accustomed to and comforted by rote and routine, Brazil provides the antithesis to the calculating conformity of their everyday lives. While we would panic without such order we still yearn to escape. And where better to escape to than Brazil, that global brand encompassing exuberance, flair, passion and impulse in a heady cocktail of hedonistic sensory abandon.



While Argentina seems to be the tourist destination of the moment its neighbour Brazil has been adopted by many as their second country. This is seen through a striking cultural marker. For most young men wearing their national football shirt is to quite literally bare a badge of honour, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Imagine a Welshman wearing an England football shirt. Now imagine that welshman lasting more than ten minutes in a Swansea skirmish. And yet that same welshman could happily sport a Brazilian shirt without so much as a raised eyebrow or signet ring imprint on his brow.

On suburban greens and sink estate wrecks boys dazzle and dribble, leaving hapless defenders in their wake in a yellow Brazilian haze. On the football field, the playground, the beach and even the litter strewn courtyards of provincial shopping arcades to be Brazilian is better than British. Given that in football, and by cultural osmosis the whole way of life, Brazil is expression, invention and virility, the legendary Pele has spent the last decade promoting erectile dysfunction. Well not promoting it as such, but, how do i put this, raising its profile.



Opening the door of the old street based Favella Chic I was hit by a wall of sound as the samba beats of the house band blared out at an ear-bleeding volume. It was an assault on the senses; the eyes drawn to the decadence of the decor, the almost kitsch over elaboration of detail adorning the walls and lines of shelves serving no other purpose than to mount votive objects and popish paraphernalia. Waiting for my dining companion to arrive I ordered that most Brazilian of cocktails, the Caipirinha. Made from fermented sugar cane it is eye-wateringly sweet and cheek-pinchingly strong.

Favella Chic had drawn a eclectic crowd. There were businessmen on their way home from work, art students in small, beret wearing groups and the odd couple craning towards each other to whisper sweet nothings amid the din of the band. The name of the restaurant is intriguing. A favella is a shanty town and ramshackle slums with their communal scenes of profound poverty are seldom described as 'chic'. It is like a Liverpudlian describing the Toxteth estate as 'cosmopolitan'. But such is the lure of Brazil that even its seediest, least civilised aspects are imbued with an exotic mystery. Rather than the squalor and misery of a slum, we project an image of a favella as a vibrant, vital district with children playing football in the street and impromptu concerts performed on steel drums. The fact that its residents are defying poverty makes their lust for life and irrepressible spirit all the more romantic.

Brazilians display that visceral emotion and raw passion that has come to define Latin America and is seen it its music, dance and cinema. Not even an emotion as discrete as mild annoyance is internalised, and this is illustrated by my waitress who throws her hands in the air in consternation when I explain that I need a few more minutes with the menu. For a catholic country, with a strict moral compass, Brazilians rarely miss an opportunity to let their hair down. Looking up from my menu I noticed that I was sitting below an alter; a painted wooden statue of Jesus peering down at me. It was, in miniature, like Brazil's most iconic monument looking down over the notoriously sinful city of Rio De Janeiro.

Having travelled from Argentina via Bolivia the menu had a familiar feel, with an emphasis on meat and staples such as potato, and beans. As with its neighbours, being such a large country, Brazil borders no fewer than nine south American countries, the cuisine is an amalgam of local traditions and foreign influences from the waves of immigration in the modern era. With Portuguese rather than Spanish colonial influence, the food has echoes of its former imperial masters with bacalao, salted cod, and chourico, a spicy, salty sausage.

After stumbling through several days in a pork induced malaise after my Bosnian adventure i was keen to explore alternatives. But wishing to be authentic i ordered the national dish, Feijoada, a black bean stew with various cuts of pork, including belly, ribs and sausage: Very rich, very salty and very filling. It was a delicious dish. The food and drink echoed the excess, swagger and brash braggadocio of Brazilian culture.

Ordering wine was something of a challenge as the waitresses, alluring but bolshy, preferred to dance rather than serve. But in Brazil no-one works when they can play.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Bosnia



Restaurant: Mugi
Location: Ealing


By Boeing : 6830 miles

By Boris Bike : 9.2 miles


While Croatia and the Dalmatian coast has become the de rigour European tourist destination neighbouring Bosnia is still associated with shells, Serbs and Slobodan. The Balkan conflict has done for ‘Bosnia’ what a dissenting disciple did for that perfectly agreeable Christian name Judas. Given this unfortunate branding it is perhaps not surprising that finding a Bosnian restaurant in London was a difficult task. The slightly bemused Bosnian Ambassador told me when i called that one of his clerks had driven past one in Ealing. An extensive internet search and an impromptu pilot of Google’s translation service confirmed that there was indeed a Bosnian Cafe called Mugi in Ealing Common.

On arriving at the cafe it was immediately apparent that it served those it served. It made no attempt to lure in an intrepid haute cuisine hitchhiker or for that matter any intrigued passer-by. Mugi was perhaps the most nondescript shop of a drab, nondescript parade. Stark decor and lighting with a laboratory intensity greeted us we sat at a corner table. Fading yellow paint with peach melba alcoves were reminiscent of the set design for Hi-De-Hi. The cafe consisted of a long counter, four fifths of which was a shimmering shrine to pork, in all its shapes, sizes and smoked scrumptiousness. Next to that were some shelves of intriguing biscuits and large jars of pickled cherries. In the corner was a television showing Sarajevo soccer.



n Eastern homeopathy consumption of pork sends energy rushing around the body, and, like gravity defying funfair rides or jumping out of a plane with a rope around your ankle, is not recommended for those of a nervous disposition. As I looked at the choices on the laminated, wipe-clean menu I realised why the region develops so many top class tennis players. The stamina comes not from a gruelling training regime, but from a daily diet of hams, hocks and haunches. We then noticed, not on the menu but on a huge banner draped across the wall, that you could order an entire spit roast suckling pig for £95, just in case you didn’t want to limit yourself to a particular cut. Us English love nothing better than carving up a roasted pig at a wedding or a jousting re-enactment but in a cafe we generally limit ourselves to a bath bun or bacon bap.

With a brief respite in mind I ordered Burek, a traditional Balkan snack of cheese and spinach encased in a coil of pastry. It had the appearance of a battered Cumberland ring and remarkably was even more filling. It was heavy and hearty, humble and home-cooked, the chief virtues of Bosnian cuisine. For the mains it came down to a choice of what you wanted your pork stuffed inside. I opted for the traditional staple of pork wrapped in cabbage leaves. There is no pretence with Bosnian food, no mastercheffery attention to detail here, just three enormous dollops floating in a thin gravy in a bowl almost the size of a chamber pot. Though I couldn’t get through it all I nevertheless ordered an apple and nut Baklava for desert. Not only was this hearty and heavy, but also pupil dilatingly sweet.

I was disappointed that the only Bosnian restaurant in London was unlicensed. The wines from Herzegovina are reputed to be eminently quaffable and a tipple of local plum brandy would have been a warming elixir. The waitress pointed at a rickety fridge in the corner with flickering luminescent tubes casting shadows over Orangina and Sprite. I rashly chose the local cola variant. The taste was indescribable but I’ll give it a go: a fruity marmite cordial with a shot of Red Bull.



Having thought we were alone a snoop outside in the courtyard revealed a group of bewhiskered, bent with age Bozniaks crowded around a television, offering sage commentary in their native tongue. But on the Fork and Flag adventure nothing is quite as it seems, for this was not football but fencing! Then it dawned on me, this wasn’t so much a culinary outpost as a cultural centre. The diaspora would arrive in dribs and drabs to watch the television and meet with friends; if they were hungry they would gnaw on a pickled trotter or enjoy a slice of Baklava. We were out of place, not unwanted as such but certainly unwelcomed.

Mugi doesn’t advertise, in English in any case, doesn’t have a website or contact details and seems content merely to provide a haven for London’s Balkan community. Even if a visitor found it, they are not given much encouragement, beyond the good but limited food, to return. But this philosophy is clearly not recession proof as, much like the Albanian restaurant, Mugi offered English all day breakfasts to make ends meet.

After being crudely bundled together to form Yugoslavia, Balkan states are beginning to forge their own identities. While Croatia and Montenegro have captured the imagination of Western Europe Bosnia and Serbia are still largely introspective nations. But time has removed the Balkan status as a volatile region and with more and more adventurous souls seeking off-the-beaten-tourist-track destinations Bosnia could find itself a beneficiary of boom. In the meantime if you are a glutton for gammon or salivate over smoked shoulders then wend your gentle way to Ealing. It won’t be a window to another world but you won’t leave hungry.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Bolivia



Restaurant: Parrilladas De La Sur
Location: Old Kent Road

By Boeing: 6364 miles

By Boris Bike: 1.9 miles


This was always going to be a journey of contrasts and cultures clashes. But none will be more profound, surely, than that between avant garde Covent Garden and the dingy drudgery of the Old Kent Road. In one people clamour to arrive and be seen while in other every man jack seems hell-bent on leaving in the least conspicuous manner possible. It is ironic that the London district with the most intriguing name, the Elephant and Castle, proves to be the most dreary. What must be the largest and ugliest roundabout in any Christian realm sprawls its tributaries of kebab shops, betting dens and scruffy 24 hour mini-cab offices in all directions until they peter out with the promise of a more gentrified post code.

It is one of the wonders of London that the most drab and colourless areas house some of the most vibrant and colourful communities. Exotic soul singers and pampered preachers leer down from half torn-off frescoes selling their concerts and CD's. In amongst these is the only Bolivian restaurant in London. The entrance to Parrillidas De la Sur is, rather unsettlingly, set behind bars but as you walk through you are beckoned in with music and flashing disco lights.

On a Sunday evening the place was heaving with members of the Bolivian Diaspora, chatting away to the disjointed rhythms of Ricky Martin's less talented brother accompanied by pan-pipes hauled backwards through a primitive synthesiser.



A large open kitchen and grill is flanked by a wall of assorted guitars and plates, sandwiched between two enormous super-woofer speakers and another with a heart shaped Bolivian flag surrounded by lights, like a gaudy shrine to their homeland. After a look of utter consternation the waitress managed to source a laminated English menu. I knew from my Argentinean experience that in South America 'vegetarian' is a word tantamount to an expletive, and that a carnivore, from whatever country, will feel at home. I wasn't disappointed.

Taking my cue from the locals i ordered a platter of beef and chorizo, and a rather noxious home-made liquid that was half fetid root beer and half fermented ginger ale. The Bolivian home-brew, Chicha Cochabambina, was, alas, unavailable. I noted with furrowed brow that without exception the locals drank Fosters from cans.

I was half relieved when it became apparent that they didn't stock the national delicacy of cuy (guinea pig). I'm told their teeth become even more pronounced as their cheeks are sucked in after an extended grill! Like much of the region Bolivian cuisine is an amalgam of native traditions and European influence. The Inca staples of Corn and potato dominate with Saltena (baked empanadas) a popular deep-fried indulgence of a snack. Huge slabs of Pork and Beef dominate most dishes although German influence can be seen in the Silpancho a deep fried schnitzel on a bed of potato. I baulked when my meal was served: I counted no fewer than twenty six ounces of meat. I'm rarely out-caloried but in this case I had to admit defeat.

After negotiating several lingering stares, I was not sporting the latest Bolivian trends it must be said, I began to relax and enjoy the strange Inca flavoured pop. My fellow diners didn't seem to notice the ear-drum splitting volume and were engaged in animated conversation. There were young lovers on dates, old men recounting tales of the old country and family groups squabbling and bickering. I felt invisible amongst them, like an anthropologist observing their movements and mannerisms.

While Argentina and Brazil are exotic destinations known and envied the world over, Bolivia is relatively unheralded. Indeed the only conspicuous reference in popular culture is when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid held off the Bolivian army from a ramshackle shed. Many also know it as the country where Che Guevara met his grisly demise in the late 1960's. A large country encompassing the Andes and the Amazon basin It is also poor with around 60% under the poverty line, so has few of the glamorous trappings of its neighbours. This has made given less international reach in a world where such glitz and grandeur are greatly admired. But in an era when tourists are seeking the authentic rather than auspicious, it is becoming a more frequent item on a travel itinerary.

Unlike Argentina whose Amerindian population is now a minority, most Bolivians are of Inca ancestry and in their poverty have retained many of their ancient customs, insulated from western temptations by a largely hand to mouth existence. Its tourist appeal lies mainly in its natural wonders with the vast and eery salt deserts and the islands of Lake Titicaca. My dining experience was odd and this is, apparently, in keeping with the land itself. It comes as no surprise therefore that two national symbols are that most random of ruminants, the Llama, and a very English Bowler hat.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Belgium



Restaurant - Belgo Centraal
Location - Covent Garden

By Boeing : 4386 miles

By Boris Bike : 1.5 miles


If you type into Google ‘list of famous Belgians’ it is headed by two well known figures. One is known as the ‘muscles from Brussels’ and the other is a fictional detective invented by an English woman. Is it a country or a conundrum? So far the Fork and Flag odyssey has taken me all over the world and so to return so close to home, to somewhere so familiar, was, at first, a little underwhelming. Afterall, thanks to the Eurostar I know Brussels and Bruges better than Bridport or Bicester. I know their love of chocolates, intricate lace doilies and dunking fries in mayonnaise. But to return is to discover anew and exchange first glimpses for a panoramic view.

For many Belgium is the poor relation of western Europe. It lacks the style of France, the sophistication of Italy and the substance of Germany. It appears small, incidental and parochial in comparison with its neighbours. It isn’t in the G8 and I’m not convinced there is a strong case for it to be in a G80.



I’ve trodden the width and breadth of London to find culinary exclaves but for Belgium I couldn’t have been more central. Belgo’s, a successful and swanky chain, has its main restaurant in a vast subterranean vault in Covent Garden. At street level the entrance is comprised of uber-urban metal walkways, hoists and scaffolds; more like the set of a John Paul-Gautier fashion show than a Trappist retreat. But descending the stairs the Belgian theme becomes more pronounced, still modern and minimalist, but with brick arches and that evocative smell of musty beer and the garlic of a thousand doused mussels.

The waiters wore what I presumed must be traditional dress, flowing black and red tunics that were not so much androgynous as effeminate. This was, I thought, a Belgian theme, afterall Poirot can hardly be said to be the most macho of sleuths and even Tintin has a kind of Tilda Swinton tomboy charm. The waitresses, it goes without saying, were butch. Given that we were early I was struck by how busy the restaurant was. There were tables and alcoves as far as the eye could see and all of them were taken. A look at the menu and the reason for this popularity was immediately apparent. It is the only restaurant I have ever been to where the beer list is ten times longer than the wine list. You can get any beer in Belgium but it is particularly renowned for two types: fruit beer and Trappist ales. To start with I ordered a Strawberry beer. It was almost as thick as a milkshake. It was flavoursome but its childlike sweetness was a little unsettling, like eating a bowl of Malibu flavoured Angel Delight.

A closer look at the beer list revealed one vintage bottle at a quite staggering £38. In a hypermarket that would buy you a case of 70 mortal malts. But there are connoisseurs in all warps and life and for all tastes. I, for one, will issue a stern rebuke to anyone who claims a sausage roll is just a sausage roll. Those who in French restaurants order a £600 Bordeaux no doubt impress their friends in Belgium by ordering a round of £38 beer.

Unfortunately my fear and loathing of crustacea prevented me from ordering mussels, that quintessential Belgian delicacy. Thankfully my companion obliged. Instead I ordered Waterzooi, a traditional chicken casserole, delicately flavoured with cream. I was impressed when the mussels came served on a hot plate with mussel shaped indents.

By the time I had finished my main course I was getting into the spirit of the Belgian experience and starting to enjoy their quirky customs. While in this perky mood I ordered a chocolate beer, as I couldn’t think of any reason not to. It was, if I may be frank, disgusting. And of course that is exactly what it would be. It is an absurd partnership of incongruent constituents: like ordering marmite ice-cream. I felt I had been duped, been taken in for the tourist I was. I bet a Belgian has never once ordered a bottle of this foul tasting, stagnant ditch water of a beverage. This is Belgium marketing its eccentricity to a bewitched Britisher. I tried to recover the evening by finishing with that most Belgian of deserts: the waffle. A hot, freshly griddled waffle was served smothered in chocolate sauce. In Bruges or Antwerp these can be bought from a street vendor for no more than two euros but I would pay not far shy of a tenner for mine. But then authenticity is a commodity, and it comes at a cost.

I left the restaurant a little bloated and a little confused. What is this land that is half Flemish and half French? Is it boring or beguiling? It seems so quaint and harmless yet the Belgian empire was reckoned to be amongst the most cruel and uncompromising. It appears so irrelevant and yet is the seat of power for some of the most powerful organisations in the world. I concluded that Belgium is the central hub of a vast Venn diagram of opposing and counter-opposing influences. I then concluded that I was more confused than I thought.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Barbados



Restaurant - Cottons
Location - Farringdon

By Boeing : 9179 miles

By Boris Bike : 3.8 miles


I began this journey dreaming of exotic climes and colourful destinations. By a quirk of fate, or perhaps phonetics, I have spent much of the first leg in the sparse and spartan surroundings of Eurasia, which is why I was bursting with anticipation on arrival at Cotton’s, a Bajan oasis in Farringdon. The Caribbean is a tropical paradise where each and every island is a beguiling variation on an enchanting theme. They are a unique amalgam of native customs, African settlement, American influence and the legacies of European colonial rule.

It is fitting that my first visit to the Caribbean is to Barbados, perhaps the most British of the West Indian islands. But this isn’t virgin territory, because my imagination has preceded me. A combination of Malibu adverts, cricket commentaries and the Notting Hill Carnival has painted a vivid picture of palm trees, laid-back beach life, unrelenting rhythms and colourful, vivacious personalities. Britain seems hopelessly constrained and conservative in comparison. But thanks in large part to cricket, a national obsession, many things are still done in an English way. So I need not have worried upon entering the restaurant, dressed, I now recoil in recalling, in the colonial colours of blue cords, red cardigan and white summer jacket, as just one word of praise for the unequalled talents of Sir Garfield Sobers, a Bajan icon, would see my greeted as a kith and kin.



Generally Caribbean food is served in colourful local cafes or street markets. This seems suited to the casual, ‘no worries’ ethos of the West Indies. But cheap and cheerful is not a recipe for profit for an aspiring restaurateur. Cotton’s, located in the trendy and cosmopolitan Exmouth market, offers ‘fusion’ food. This means that they serve Caribbean dishes at western prices. This ‘fusion’ concept extends to the décor. They have, no doubt rightly, surmised that customers will baulk at paying £30 a head if they are squeezed into Formica tables staring at a torn laminated poster of Bob Marley. So at Cotton’s there is polished wood flooring, leather benches and pristine white tablecloths. A hint of Bajan spice is offered in the odd exotic plant and brightly coloured fish painted on the walls. In truth, it doesn’t quite work. It is neither authenticity endearing or aesthetically pleasing. Part of the appeal of the Caribbean is a homely absence of pretension. However, the waiters were jovial and a suitably colourful cocktail, rum based of course, Barbados being the first manufacturers of that particular poison in the world, set the evening in motion. The menu was printed in a fancy italic font: a fusion of Caribbean recipes and western respectability.

While different islands have their own specialities ,regional favourites are served right across the Caribbean. Very few west Indian restaurants in London betray their island of origin. The Bajan delicacy is the so called ‘flying fish’. This is a species prevalent in that part of the world but is literally emblematic to Barbados, having been adopted as a national symbol. Water Pollution has meant they are a far rarer sight these days and are rarely served in restaurants.



Leaving ‘Jerk sauce’ and salt fish fritters to Jamaica I ordered the signature dish of goat curry. In Bangladesh I was conscious that I was eating my first fork and flag curry, that most urgent and ubiquitous of food formats. The Bengali version was, of course, very familiar but as my journey continues I will sample curries of varying and various textures and tastes. The Bajan curry is inspired by the thick, spicy dishes found throughout west and central Africa, the ancestral lands of the vast majority of the population.

A friend of mine later lambasted me for eating goat. But you can’t embark on a journey such as this without throwing caution to the wind. I’ll happily try a marinated mouse or a pickled possum if that is the plat du jour. What I won’t do is eat an endangered species. You won’t find me chewing a battered Panda or sampling an albatross fillet in an aniseed reduction. For the record a goat tastes like gamey mutton. Huge chunks of meat and bone in a thick sauce makes this as hearty a meal as you can imagine.

My dining companions opted for sea food dishes. Being island nations fish is abundant in the Caribbean and a key part of their diet. The image of a septuagenarian Rastafarian swooping up a red snapper in a primitive net from a whicker chair on the end of a rickety jetty in a tranquil, palm-lined bay is an appealing one. More appealing certainly than our Captain Birdseye and his mass-produced, mechanical methods. His affable demeanour and ruddy cheeks disguise the hard soul of a ruthless businessman.

The mix of cultures in Barbados include Amerindians, mainly from nearby Guyana, Arawaks and Carib tribes from South America and the Afro-Bajans of the Yoruba and Igbo tribes. This demographic melting pot has seen the island evolve into a culturally complex land that adopts a joyously laid-back approach to life. Comparing Barbados to Barnsley is, on the face of it, absurd, and yet its neighbours refer to the island as “Little England.” I somehow can’t imagine Dickie Bird or Michael Parkinson in tropical garb beating a steel drum.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Bangladesh



Restaurant – Dil Chad
Location - Whitechapel

By Boeing : 4289 miles

By Boris Bike : 5.2 miles


After Austria I had expected to make my way to Azerbaijan and learn a little more about the Caucasus, that much maligned and misunderstood region where states seek to escape anonymity by clustering at the beginning of the alphabet. But alas, like Angola, it’s sole London restaurant had recently closed, another victim of the tightening purse strings of increasingly discerning diners. So earlier than anticipated I travelled east to Bangladesh and one of the liveliest and most evocative streets in London, Brick Lane.



Bangladesh, once part of Greater India, now stands very much in the shadow of its illustrious neighbour, lacking its Bollywood glamour, economic might and international profile. While India is a global brand extending its reach and riches, Bangladesh is a regional backwater, too busy furrowing its own fields to cast its sights on pastures new. And yet us British are more familiar with its cuisine than you would ever guess. Around 80% of Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Bengalis. So odd as it may seem our adopted national cuisine is from a country most of us would never consider going to. Our taste is for Indian and so Indian restaurants they are.

London’s Bengali community are largely focused just east of the city, in the boroughs of Whitechapel and Shoreditch. Such are their numbers and influence that Brick Lane is known colloquially as ‘Bangla-town’. To walk down this street of a bustling evening is to assault your senses. There is nothing subtle or under-stated in its appeal: neon lights glare down on you from lurid shop fronts and waiters chase you down the road with increasingly frenetic entreaties. If you want to wander unnoticed and unhindered you will be disappointed. This part of London is vibrant and visceral.



But rather than succumb to a beseeching Brick Lane my friend and I wander through narrow lanes towards Liverpool Street and amidst the edifices of enterprise is Dil Chad, one of the oldest foreign restaurants in the city. When this restaurant opened in 1962, London still considered Lasagne exotic and most east enders would sooner chew a whelk than be wined and dined. You could, perhaps, in Knightsbridge or Soho sample Italian or French but London’s culinary map was less culturally diverse than a Cornish prep school. But you could eat Bangladeshi, albeit cunningly disguised as Indian.

This land of low-lying deltas has had its fair share of floods and failures. It is not surprising then that Bangladesh has this far failed to dance on the international stage. Given the troubles, many with ambition fled the shores, a significant number settling in London and stirring their cuisine into our national consciousness.

As much of Bangladesh is water, fish is eaten in great quantity and striking seafood dishes are prepared, such as Shukti, a pungent dry fish. These are seldom seen in a London Bengali restaurant. Nor, it seems, are our palates particularly keen on stewed pulses, which form the basis for most authentic dishes. Dal is a staple of the sundries but pigeon pea and red gram would certainly raise a cockney eyebrow. The tell tale giveaway that you are sitting in a Bengali restaurant in Indian tailoring is the presence of Beef dishes. These would never be served in a Hindu restaurant.

One of the emerging themes of this journey is how restaurants have sought to balance authenticity with popularity. Bengali cuisine is a classic case in point. Those holidaying in downtown Dhaka will struggle to find a Tandori Tikka Masala or onion bhaji. The Bangla-Brit hybrid menu is now established but as Londoner’s become more adventurous, restaurants are returning to more traditional, authentic fare. Catering for the post pub crowd is as simple as having a red sauce (Masala), a brown sauce (Bhuna) and some onions simmering on a stove. But the sober seek out the speciality dishes.

To start with we ordered Dal, a suitably spicy dipping sauce for a shard of parata. I then opted for the appealingly annotated ‘Pride of Bangladesh’, a variation on the popular Jhal Frezi dish of spiced chicken with onions and peppers. Free from so strict a remit my friend blithely ordered a Lamb Vindaloo, that came simmering and burbling with ill intent.

For some reason, unlike other cuisines, the British do not tend to order desert at an Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant. Despite once ordering a scoop of ice cream in a moulded plastic penguin I too have followed this custom. It is ironic then that Bangladesh is renowned for its traditional sweets. And sweet is very much the word. Even the most ardent sweet tooth would baulk at some of their sugar laden concoctions. Fried sweets, that resemble battered icicles, and various forms of sweetened milk dishes pervade. But alas such sweets are not a part of the Bengali-Brit tradition and therefore I was spared the ignominy of loosening to the next belt hole.

Leaving the restaurant I noted that the street signs in this part of town are bi-lingual, making it comparable, if not as widely known, as Chinatown. Bengali restaurants are spread liberally across London from the centre to the suburbs and the satellites. For so long sampled only on a booze addled Saturday night Bengali culture is now more prominent and proud, with Bengali dress, music and custom a familiar sight in many parts of London. First it was ubiquitous and only then unique.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Austria



Restaurant - Tiroler Hut
Location - Bayswater

By Boeing : 9887 miles

By Boris Bike : 2.3 miles


In spite of its rich Habsburg cultural heritage and Vienna’s sophistication the image that most Britishers have of Austria is of Julie Andrews teaching impossibly high-waisted children to yodel in alpine pastures. The Sound of Music has formed our Austrian canvass of an idyllic, fresh aired, clean limbed, Elysian pasture of dairy cows, wild flowers and impromptu fillial choruses.

The fact that our image of Austria is not formed of seven centuries of imperial elegance and artistic expression but by a hackneyed musical from the 1960’s is an example of how television has blinkered our cultural viewpoint. It is unsurprising then that Austrian dining in London is not civilised Viennese aut cuisine but yeasty, yodelling, beer swilling pantomime. Despite the unassuming neon lit entrance of the infamous Tiroler Hut, within minutes of walking down steps into a dingy, airless cellar, reverberating with the echoes of frenzied yodelling, you know this will be an unforgettable evening. It as if an alpine lodge has been transported from the Tirol having been furnished en route by Shepperton Studios most eccentric set designer. It is soon apparent that this is more cabaret than cuisine. Alpine cow maidens with flirtatious costumes serve cavernous, foaming steins of beer while you browse the menu for the many variations on the pork, cabbage and dumpling theme.



Austrian cuisine is most noted for its delicate pastry deserts such as sachertorte and innumerable butter encased cakes and tarts. A Viennese Coffee house, with its laid back elegance, silver service and convivial conversation, puts our Starbucks to shame. But their dining is far less exotic and memorable, following the bland Germanic tastes of slow cooked meats and dollops of stewed vegetables. The Teutonic palate is not the most adventurous, with the danger of spice avoided in favour of the comfort of centuries old home cooked staples.



From our small table in a distant corner we saw a bow-backed septuagenarian in mandatory high waisted shorts and twanging braces make his leisurely way to an area suspiciously free of tables. The reason for their absence soon became clear as he stepped onto the impromptu stage and yodelled the tune of Edelweiss, that age old tune bastardised by the Von Trapps. It was difficult to tell whether the straining yodels were the result of a conscious tightening of vocal chords or an attempt to suppress a sneeze. It is said that the Yodel was invented as a way of communicating across the alps in the era before mobile phones, or even semaphore. It was an attempt to reverse Darwinian Theory and devolve to the level of cuckoos. But absurd a means of communication as it is it has remained an integral part of Austrian folk traditions. With yodellers and Morris dancers clearly cut from the same cloth we are not in a position to feel culturally superior. But while it was silly and faintly comic the good humour and hospitality, greeted by a stirring chorus of thing slapping, felt authentic. My medallions of cured pork on a bed of seasoned cabbage washed down with replenished beer the evening was more entertaining than most.



It was kitsch, certainly, but light hearted, unpretentious fun and frivolity. With the yodeller mopping his brow after an exerting stint another man appeared and arranged fourteen bells on a table, ranging from tiny to town-cryer size, with a couple of steel tea pots for good measure. He then reprised Edelweiss with a peerless performance of a cow bell chorus. With each bell of a different pitch and kettles providing the bass, by shaking them with eye-aching speed and a deftness of touch that betrayed his arthritic age, he received a standing ovation. This was an Austrian artist at the top of his game. Finishing my slice of cinnamon laced apfelstrudel I beamed from ear to ear.

Then the evening turned surreal. Not content with an authentic Austrian repertoire the yodeller reappeared and murdered a strongly Arian accented rendition of New York, New York by Frank Sinatra. I could have been in Rene’s cafe in Allo Allo. Rather than celebrate his native culture he had locked it in the gallows to be publically mocked. On cue a drunken stag party formed an impromptu conga line and a Korean girl grabbed the microphone for the most unlikely duet since Rod Hull and Emu. It was a scene straight from a Terry Gilliam fantasy. I half expected a dwarf on a unicycle to offer me schnapps.

From enjoying myself in an Austrian restaurant I sat helplessly by while my evening descended into a Benny Hill inspired stag party venue. I suddenly felt like a bashful Methodist who had unwittingly gatecrashed a naturist wine tasting; out of place and out of sorts. It had been the oddest evening of year. On the one hand it had been the most immersive cultural experience of the journey, but on the other it felt constructed and crass. Without the culinary range and popularity of other countries Austrian cuisine has sought succour in that nutritional niche, the themed evening. London is the richer for it, but it is certainly an acquired taste.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Australia



Restaurant - Walkabout
Location - Shepherds Bush

By Boeing : 8428 miles

By Boris Bike : 2.5 miles


From the Caucasus my journey takes me over 7000 miles to the most far flung continent on earth. They say you can’t discover the real Australia without experiencing the empty expanses of the outback so ever eager to heed the advice of others I ambled from the regency splendour of Gloucester Road to the bustle of the bush, Shepherd’s Bush. Entering the cavernous, neon-lit Walkabout bar, that shrine of anglicised aussieness, I reflected on the impact Australians have had on London. While there are, no doubt, ample Algerians and, if you believe what you hear, an array of Armenians in Acton, these antipodeans are the first Diaspora that represent a significant percentage of the capital’s community.



Australians have not just settled in London but left their mark. Thirty years ago it would have been considered foolish to wear a singlet and sandals on the first sunny day in March but now this odd custom doesn’t even raise an eyebrow on Clapham Common. I suspect too that Australians are largely responsible for that ubiquitous aroma of the ‘barbee’ that pervades the capital between June and September. This is, afterall, a country that shares the same language, well at least a mangled dialect of it, the same queen and many of the same customs. England is a home from home, I guess, a return from exile of a generation once removed.

Although Australia has become a destination world renowned for the quality of its cuisine the aussie food available here is best described as ‘tucker’. This term is in fact the one used on the walkabout menu so I have no qualms in following their lead. The menu proved surprisingly varied with many dishes accompanied by pleas to those with larger appetites. In the end I declined the invitation to ‘go ultimate with a triple decker’. Although I ordered a burger I overlooked the more obvious beef for the faintly ridiculous ‘kangaroo.’ Although there were some token effort salads on the menu lettuce was referred to as ‘rabbit food’. The offer to ‘upgrade to wedges’ was an amusing illustration of the humble origins of the food and, more presciently, its consumers. Walkabout serves up the antidote to pretentious gastro pub meals. This was wholesome, no-nonsense, no-frills tucker. In short the aussies have impinged on a Yorkshire monopoly, except they don’t sell Kangaroo in Swale Dale.



Clearly previous customers must have been shocked to find a slab of skippy on their plate as a caption on the menu declares ‘yes this really is Kangaroo’. When mine arrived I suddenly realised that there must be Kangaroo farms, marsupial meat houses. The meat itself was very rich and flavoursome, reminiscent of venison. This was no weatherspoon burger, it was a subtle and succulent meal.

For Englishmen of my generation our impression of Australia was formed from an early age by beer adverts. An orchestra of didgeridoos and wobble boards would introduce a stereo-typed aussie alpha male usually in urgent need of either a toilet (a dunny), a beer (tinnie), a woman ( a sheila) or all three. The punchline would be a typically brash, simplistic aussie word play, such as ‘An aussie wouldn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX for anything else’. Fosters and Four X were the good time beers that we adopted as far more fun and frothy alternative to our stiff English stouts and eighteenth century ales. But ironically aussies will tell you no-one drinks those brands back home. They drink Victoria Bitter instead. Wanting the authentic experience I ordered a VB to discover that despite hops and complex fermentation the bottled beverage has a less distinctive flavour than water itself.



A decade ago there seemed to be a walkabout in almost every district but now only the larger venues remain. Whether this is merely a sign of these difficult times or a judgement on the appeal of the aussie experience it is impossible to say. These are not so much pubs as entertainment venues, offering large screen sports, disco tunes to the small hours and, we must suppose, a thousand and one drunken indiscretions. This multi-purpose approach means that midweek diners can enjoy the musty aroma of stale beer and sweat stained surfaces. The décor, enormous plasma screens and giant crudely drawn murals of aborigines playing rugby, was somewhat distracting but I was soothed by the images of baggy green stumps being uprooted by Pakistani yorkers. A circumambulation of the bar revealed that the only aussies present were pulling pints. These were English clientele enjoying, and therefore endorsing, the aussie pub culture.

As I left I saw something that helped explain the appeal. In an England derided by Jeremy Clarkson, that most esteemed of social commentators, for selling its soul to political correctness, a door adjacent to the bar was daubed with the lettering ‘Disabled Dunnie’. You have to hand it to them, a father is wise to listen to the counsel of his son.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Armenia



Restaurant - Jakobs
Location - Gloucester Road

By Boeing : 8330 miles

By Boris Bike : 5.7 miles


Begrudgingly leaving the delights of Argentina behind I approached my next destination with a sense of intrigue bordering on trepidation. Before you set foot in a country, or in my case one of its food preparing exclaves, your mind builds a picture based on media projection and poorly sourced prejudice. I had already conjured up an image of Armenia of hirsute, hillside goat shepherdesses cowering from soviet skirmishes in the valleys below. Clearly I was safe from such internecine warfare in Gloucester Road but nevertheless to enter a restaurant uneasy rather than expectant does not make for the greatest start to an evening.

On being led to my table I was fortified by the thought that twenty years ago people may have had the same reservations about war torn Croatia, now one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe. ‘Undiscovered’ can be a surprisingly powerful selling point even if it leads the more astute to question why it has never been discovered before. It is all very well a country offering ‘authenticity’ but if this comes hand in hand with ‘abject poverty’ and ‘occasional guerrilla uprisings’ it tends to take the sheen off the romance.



The restaurant was a hotchpotch of cultural paraphernalia, including some rather sinister looking dolls and grotesque anthromorphic figurines, and eclectic groups of diners. I got the impression that my fellow diners had chanced upon it through convenience or hunger and had carried out little or no research into its Armenian roots. During the day the owners, presumably in an attempt to increase patronage, transformed the restaurant into the ‘messy hands’ children’s pottery club. Whether the children were encouraged to mould Armenian fauna and flagons I cannot say.

Although a new country I immediately sensed I was in familiar territory. Like Afghanistan and Albania this is a land squeezed between east and west in the borderlands of Europe and Asia. Armenia, in the cranny of the Caucasus, is part of that huge swathe of Eurasia that on liberation from soviet yolk fragmented into an intricate jigsaw of national self-determination and fledgling democracies. In this hard-edged hinterland almost every village attests its unique ethno-cultural heritage and its right to be recognised as an independent nation. In ten years time it is plausible that this journey could encompass a further fifty or so countries in this region, some as small as Monaco and as non-descript as Wales.

Bordered by Turkey and Iran, Armenian cuisine has a decidedly middle eastern flavour. This was clearly evident from the buffet at Jacobs, the diner-cum-delicatessen, that offered local staples such as Aubergine, chick peas and cracked wheat salads. But as in Albania the national dishes were conspicuous by their absence. Fasulya, a stew of lamb, green beans and strained tomato was not available. Neither was checil, a pickled cheese, or a sour plum puree intriguingly translated as ‘fruit leather’. The generic regional fare was hearty and wholesome but didn’t offer a distinctly Armenian flavour. My stuffed aubergine was suitably satisying but I was left wondering whether it would have been enriched by a sip of the local Armenian brew of fermented bread. Similarly I was disappointed not to sample the speciality soup of lentils and walnuts. Though suitably nourished I felt that in distilling the national flavour they had distilled the dining experience. The commercial compromise of the owners had forced a culinary compromise on the customer.



We ordered three beers with our starters only to later discover that this modest order represented 75% of their available stock. I don’t know whether this was due to Armenian abstemiousness or whether the opposite was in fact true and that the lunch time frequenters had got more than a little merry. In any case it was the first time I have ever been at a restaurant that was unable to fulfil a drinks order.

My fellow diner wryly noted that his rice was ‘red’, and quipped that this was in homage to their soviet heritage. But looking around there was no bust of Lenin on the wall or hammer and sickle hung in the restrooms. Indeed the atmosphere and adornments reflected a small, eccentric land of folk-lore, not a colossal and uniform collective. But, alas, there was little to give identity to that land or resonance to that folk-lore. It was intriguing clutter that drew the eye but did not enlighten or enrich the beholder.

What tourist would chose to visit such a place? Unsurprisingly tourism is not playing as large a role as Armenians would hope in revitalising their economy. Left a legacy of crumbling soviet era industrial infrastructure the nation has returned to a more pastoral lifestyle and diversified into new markets such as finishing precious stones. This is a new country with an age old aspiration, to promote its attractions and attributes to the wider world. Rumour has it Armenia is preparing a case for membership of the European Union. But it will take a period of lasting peace and prosperity, not to mention a genius in public relations, for a common or garden Englishman to tell his kids that they are not going to Euro Disney this summer afterall, but the Armenian steppe.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Argentina



Restaurant - Buen Ayre
Location - Hackney

By Boeing : 6322 miles

By Boris Bike : 8.6 miles


I had intended to remain in Africa and move south west from Algeria to the former Portuguese colony of Angola. However, the proprietor of the sole Angolan eatery in London, a ramshackle restaurant that only opened on request, called me to say he had closed due to disagreement with the taxman. The recession has clearly made existence at the margins of marketable cuisine a hand to mouth affair.

As I took the jubilee line to Bethnal Green for my next destination I wondered whether London will lose its multicultural flavour in this double-dip downturn. Will the culinary outposts that make this journey so rich in discovery disappear off the map? How sad it would be if London’s diversity of cuisine was reduced to only those familiar staples of mass consumption, such as Chinese, Indian and Italian, and if, god forbid, at some time in the future this journey would yield as many unique aromas in Croydon as London!



Broadway market, in Hackney, is a bustling thoroughfare of eclectic trends and al fresco dining. The market abuzz with pre-prandial pleasantry and po-faced pretension I found my way through the cultural milieu to Buen Ayre, an Argentinean asado with an unassuming entrance but crackling atmosphere.





A lithe, lascivious waitress met me at the door and asked whether I had booked. I was taken aback. It was just past six and I was struggling to find a table. Then it struck me: Argentina is the first place on my journey that is a bona fide tourist destination; a place people chose to visit. If people dream of visiting this South American utopia then of course they will book early and often for a night sampling its culture and cuisine.

Led to a rustic brushed wood table I had pride of place by the vast open barbeque that was the focal point of the restaurant, already loaded with steak. Charcoal, imported, I was proudly informed, from Argentina for its unique aroma, glowed as the effusive chef, surrounded by patriotic paraphernalia such as football scarves and photos of tango dancers, flirted with the waitresses. In Argentina every sense is not only entertained but entertained to excess. Argentineans simply don’t do restraint. To them to abstain is to forego pleasure.



As I sampled my starter of deep fried empanadas I watched agape as huge ribs of steak and bulbous sausages were loaded onto parillada, large sizzling platters for entire tables of salivating diners. Looking up I noticed a wire mesh bulls head protruding from the wall, like a pagan idol, venerated by an entire nation.

To a Londoner growing up in the eighties a steakhouse means red velvet, high-backed benches, battered, bone dry onion rings and a solitary grilled tomato. Meat would be well done to the point where you needed a hacksaw rather than a knife to attack it. Every arid morsel would scrape down your throat and lay as ballast in your stomach for months. Thus raised I naturally asked for my steak ‘medium well’. This request was met with a stern rebuke. In place of chips were flame grilled sweet peppers and a piquant oregano pesto called chimichurri. In an Argentinean restaurant groups chatter rather than sit in silent concentration trying in vain to chomp through rigid, risible rump.



Although a Spanish colony Argentinean food and festivity is most influenced by the waves of Italian immigration that arrived in 19th century. Now roughly 60% of the population are of Italian descent and adopt the custom of supper as a social rather than purely culinary experience. The Asado barbecue is far more than a neighbourhood nosh: It is where friendships are affirmed, family allegiances strengthened and the very fabric of society woven. Food is never an after thought or eaten for convenience. It is said that cheese with quince jelly is the favoured snack of Buenos Aries truck drivers!

From architecture to sport European influence is felt more than anywhere else in Latin America. From the Spanish they got horsemanship, from the Italians flavours and fashion and from the English a penchant for high tea and polo.



Eating my steak, with a glass of Malbec in one hand and a Quilmas beer in the other, I chuckled as I reflected how we went from larger than life in his playing days to larger in life in middle age. I suspect that what took him from over-bearing to overweight was Dulce De Leche, a national delicacy. For desert I ordered pancakes smothered in this milk caramel. It was, without question, the richest, most decadent dish I have ever eaten: toffee with the density of diamond. You couldn’t create anything more filling if you tried, not even if you smothered a cornish pasty with syrup and threw it in a Glaswegian deep fat fryer. As if this wasn’t indulgent enough It was accompanied by helado, a rich and creamy Italian style ice-cream.



In Argentina you are not meant to leave wanting more, rather you berate yourself for not ordering less. It is nothing short of state endorsed gluttony: not a deadly sin but a rights of passage through paradise.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Algeria



Restaurant - Numidie
Location - Crystal Palace

By Boeing : 951 miles

By Boris Bike : 9.7 miles


Fantastically vibrant and colourful television commercials paint pictures of a distant paradise and ‘bewitch’ the senses; tourism is the bread and butter of many a national economy . But like a 1950’s public service announcement Albania’s advert would be brief, black and white and bemuse. So it was with a great sense of expectation that I travelled south across the Mediterranean to my next port of call, Algeria.

Of all the continents Africa is perhaps the most bewitching. The recent world cup, the first ever to be hosted on African soil, finally allowed a continent with more than its fair share of despots and despondency to showcase its rich culture and newfound confidence to an expectant world. The dazzling delirium of the opening ceremony showed that this is not a continent wanting for passion or personality. But to compare Algiers, that northern outpost of fading colonial splendour, with Soweto is like twinning Syracuse with Stockholm. Africa, I soon saw, was anything but homogenous. Contrast, contradiction and calamity were as much its bywords as colour and carnival.



My visit to Algeria saw me leave Kilburn for one of London’s most famous landmarks. Well that is to say the site of one its foremost former landmarks. Crystal Palace was once the fulcrum of South London socialites. Now it is a scruffy suburb that sits bashfully in the shadow of the 220 metre faux Eiffel tower and its manicured gardens. In truth since the great fire of 1936 destroyed its crystal citadel the district has struggled to retain its glean and glamour. Apparently Sebastian Coe once ran marginally faster than Steve Cram here, but that is one of the few times it has made the papers. It is now a venue for hire not a site to inspire. As I walked from the station up Anerly Hill I recalled my last visit, some twenty years ago, when in one of the vast regency gardens, at a football swop shop, I struck up an exchange with a musty misanthrope and swapped a sticker of west ham’s reserve goalkeeper for the Swindon Town squad.

Algeria is a country that though geographically in Africa has, during its troubled and eventful history, been drawn into the compass of the Islamic Middle East. And like many of its continental neighbours only in the earliest and latest chapters in its history has it been master of its own fate. In between a succession of pirates, plunderers, princes and potentates have forced subjugation and left their mark in the culture and cuisine. It was no surprise then that Numidie, a small, unassuming bistro set amidst a parade of gaudy bars and neon-fronted noodle houses, has a provincial French air. Its low-lit ambiance, rustic furniture and elegant mirrors were in keeping with the understated charm that was the legacy of 130 years of French occupation. Moving the other way in this cultural exchange between victor and vassal, Algerian footballer Zinedine Zidane became one of the most celebrated and enigmatic French superstars of recent times.



The bitter civil war that followed independence in 1992 saw 160,000 die and in a recent study Algiers, despite its Gallic glamour, had the lowest quality of life of 132 capital cities. With the French removed Algeria once more sought to define itself and its relationships with its African neighbours and Arab allies.

‘Numidie’ is the name for an ancient Berber kingdom. Along with neighbouring Morocco, Algeria is the ancestral home of the indigenous peoples of North Africa. They were dispersed and marginalised by the arabization of the region in the 11th century but their culture has survived and is now flourishing once more. This can be seen in the cuisine, which is distinct from middle-eastern traditions. Its dishes and delicacies are drawn from the varied landscape of the country that includes Mediterranean ports, fertile plains, the Atlas mountains and southern deserts.

My starter, a traditional fish soup was very much a Mediterranean dish with a rich tomato and herb base while the Merguez, the national speciality, was a hearty, spicy sausage eaten for centuries in the mountain regions. The Berber staples are couscous and chickpea. These feature in most dishes, not least in the most popular main course, a rich stew called a tajine. Algerian food is less spicy than its Moroccan counterpart and my chicken tajine was delicate and salty. The flavours were subtle, balanced and without the fiery heat and intense spice found in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia.



Olives and grapes are a major harvest, although since the French left the wine has become, according to my blushing waitress, ‘variable’. Nevertheless in season Algerians enjoy bountiful fruits and serve these for desert. Algeria ,afterall, has been suggested site for the Garden of Eden. My pudding was truly delicious and the highlight of the meal, a pear poached in red wine, aniseed and spices. Like the rest of the meal it was simple, fresh and mouth-watering. It was, to my mind, far more indulgent than the richest chocolate concoction an American diner could dream up. Algerian cuisine combines regional flavours and styles with French gastronomic traditions to pleasing effect.

I leave Algeria wiser and well fed. I look forward to returning to Africa soon to see what is familiar and what is different and learn a little more about a land whose mystery is its mirror to the world.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Albania



Restaurant - Alba
Location - Kilburn

By Boeing : 2693 miles

By Boris Bike : 7.3 miles


Sated and surprised I left Afghanistan and travelled west to Albania, a land buttressed by the Balkans but bestrode by Greece. Rather than clamber through mountain passes my route took me via the Bakerloo line to Kilburn. Once again my destination had hardly earned a reputation as a tourist trap. In fact I’ve never met anyone who has been there be it for business, break or bereavement.

Despite a glorious climate and long expanses of unspoilt beaches Albania is a country that has never planned a second runway let alone a fifth. Sadly this seeming lack of appeal was shared by Alba, the small Albanian café and restaurant where I dined, alone, literally alone, on a Friday evening. For restaurants, i surmised, at least one of these three key elements must be enticing: location, cuisine and atmosphere. The rest are left to wrestle with the rents.



The owner, a portly, gregarious Kosovan, didn’t seem too downcast at the lack of custom. It appeared to be a typical start to a lonely, loss-making weekend. Glancing down the menu I struggled to find any Albanian dishes. There was page after page of pasta and Panettone, elegantly scribed in Italian, but not one authentic dish. Then I found some, on the final page, hidden below the aperitifs. The chef seemed bemused when I ordered them and spent several minutes rustling around in cupboards trying to find the ingredients. While he did this I looked out of the window and saw a pink cardboard sign affixed to a pane offering ‘English breakfasts, served all day.’ It was clearly a case of entice the English or face eviction: diversify or default.

A brief stroll in the area revealed that this restaurant was not an exclave but part of a bustling enclave in this western district of London. Albanians snipped away in a local barbers while their countrymen sold packets of pastilles in a newsagent. I believe I was even given a Standard by a swarthy Albanian gent at the exit of the tube station. It was these men, missing the smells and sounds of home that provided the custom. Or i expect that was the idea, maybe they’d been in London long enough to sample the alternatives, however disloyal that may appear.



Albania, like Afghanistan, is a country that has been claimed by one empire after another from the times of antiquity. Greece, Rome, Byzantium and Ottoman Turkey all conquered this abundant land, took what they wanted and left. But unlike Afghanistan, rather than enhance their sense of nation this serial subjugation has left Albania dull and diluted. The owner even admitted as much, ‘The Ottomans left us so many words we forgot about our own. The young just speak English.’ With a reported 10,000 people dying in vendetta wars in the last twenty years the phrase ‘let bygones be bygones’ certainly appears to have fallen out of common usage.

It is no accident that the post war world has virtually forgotten Albania. Its communist leader, Enver Hoxha, was not one for global diplomacy. In fact he detested any mobility, be it spatial or social, prohibiting air travel and banning private transport in his forty year reign. For the English it conjures an image of country close to but not as cultural as Greece, a bit like how we perceive the Welsh. It is in the right vicinity, we think, but is there any reason to visit in particular? As students will testify the reason, in Aberwswth or Albania, can only boil down to one thing: because it is cheap. And therein lies the appeal. Unvisited can just as easily be explained as unspoilt; basic, in less cynical eyes, is bohemian.

In Albania it is not pragmatic to be patriotic. Today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ruler. This is a country that faced the ignominy of being invaded by Mussolini. After several years this fascist megalomaniac was supplanted by that icon of justice and egalitarianism, Adolf Hitler. Even the most inscrutable poker face would fail to reveal the disappointment of such a hand. But this ‘borrowed’ nationhood has had an odd, unpredictable effect. The owner and his staff spoke of Greater Albania, an entity that traverses the lines and borders of maps and encompasses what we, in our starched collar conformity, naively assume are separate cultures and countries. For a Kossovan to own an Albanian restaurant cannot be compared to Michel Le Roux managing a Little Chef.

In this context my expectations of the meal were not high. But undeterred I asked for the national dish, lamb baked in yoghurt. I was met with a frown and told “ It takes too long to cook.” I settled for a beef grill. Ten minutes a later a bulbous burger was dished up accompanied by cabbage and pitta. It was as inspiring as a Alan Titchmarsh novel, but without the sauce. The blandness of the meal was saved by a yoghurt and cucumber soup, referred to as a liquid salad, that was poured over the meat. This leant it a blessed semblance of flavour.

As I rose to leave I noticed framed pictures of shepherds roaming Albanian meadows. They seemed happy.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Afghanistan



Restaurant - Ariana
Location - Mile End

It was fitting that this journey would begin in Mile End. It is a district of contrasts, where modernity is a visitor unwelcome and unheeded. Much like Afghanistan, that conundrum of a country, whose history has become its legacy. Afghans are a fiercely proud race whose spirit has been bowed but not broken by a recent past of rack, ruin and Rumfeldt.

Heading East, not on the silk route but the screeching rails of the district line, I emerged into the dying embers of day to be greeted by socialist activists requesting my signature on a petition denouncing the coalition government as a democratic sham. Free thought, I mused, not readily identified as an Afghani trait. But a call to arms, yes, that certainly fits the bill.

Mile End has yet to embrace the gastro pub. Its inns are spartan and foreboding. They don’t stock bottled beer from Japanese microbreweries or play synthetic jazz in the washrooms. Lives here are simply led, unencumbered by ambition or pretension. As I opened the door of the Ariana restaurant, I wondered where the similarities would end.



The Afghans are a noble people who have mastered bravery under the harsh tutelage of history. I know this as once, in the midst of a surreal afternoon, I lunched with their national cricket captain. The image of him recalling and reliving the euphoria of his teams’ first ever victory was truly humbling, and something I will never forget. Afghans are passionately patriotic, often to the brink of hysteria, and have a deep, mystical connection with their tribe and terrain. They desperately want the world to see the land they love, not the desolate, war-ravaged wasteland shown on television.

The owner cum chef, I hope the first of many an obliging host, was no different. He was, for one night only, a cultural attaché. He beseeched me to marvel at the intricate mosaic tiling of his decorative kiln; the oil painting of afghan horsemen riding into the sunset; carved birds of prey swooping down from ceiling brackets. There was no denying it was an evocative scene that suspended the imagination enough to be far more than a mere pastiche. On the authenticity scale, this was closer to Khyber than kitsch.



We dined cross-legged on a raised wooden platform covered with rugs and scattered with richly embroidered cushions. This is how guests are received in an Afghan household, each article and adornment reflecting the virtue and valour of the host. Above us were hung ancient stringed instruments that would, I can only imagine, provide an eery refrain to haunting lament. Slaves to tradition we ordered some mint tea. It was served in ornate porcelain cups festooned with ossack style dancers.

I’m not sure what I expected from the menu, but in any case I was surprised by the staples and specialities on offer. I had assumed it would be typical of the cuisine of Greater Persia, with simple grilled meats on long, entwining skewers. These featured of course but so did a cavalcade of curious native dishes, bursting with fruits and flavours. It was rich with seasonal vegetables and abundant vitamins. Afghanistan, it seems, is more fertile and alluvial than one would imagine. The chef explained that although vegetables and fruits grow with rare abandon, they do so only for a short season. With no means of refrigeration anything not consumed in the months of plenty is pickled. Us English are known to enjoy an onion so preserved, but a peach!



As a statement on Afghanistan’s long and troubled history ‘Carry on Up the Khyber’ is perhaps the worst ever consigned to celluloid. Frivolity and farce are not part of the Afghan story. This is a serious land of severe and serious deeds. As I sipped my tea I thought of the kite runners of Kabul: such earnest innocence in the face of such dread.

A delicate dish of fried aubergine was followed by a platter of Mantoo and Ashak, giant ravioli like pasta parcels, filled with minced lamb or stewed leek, topped with strained tomato. This was Mediterranean, not Middle Eastern, fare. It was a reminder that Afghanistan is a Eurasian state, influenced as much by Caucasian Europe as its Asian neighbours. The men, stocky and striking, Pashtun and Tajik, have blue eyes and fairer skin than the tribesmen of neighbouring Pakistan. They are born in the borderlands of east and west, courted and conquered by covetous cousins.

But as if to resist classification the next dish, a boiled shank of lamb in a bed of currant-infused rice, brought scents of Persia and India in its aroma. For me boiling is a procedure more suited to non-sentient organisms, but the meat was as tender as a lullaby and very enjoyable. There was an absence of the spice and rich seasoning you would expect in the Kashmir. Beyond the Khyber Pass lies a different land.

Afghanistan is as beguiling as it is brutal, an ancient and alluring land, whatever preconceptions and misconceptions you may arrive with.