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.