Friday, 26 November 2010
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
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.