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

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 d├ęcor, 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.