Friday, 28 October 2011
Restaurant: The Gay Hussar
By Boeing: 698 miles
By Boris Bike: 2 miles
Hungary is one of the most intriguing countries in Europe, neither part of the confident, commercial West nor the vibrant East emerging from the soviet shadow. It is an ancient culture with a heady history and complex ethnic origins. The 20th century wasn’t kind to this once proud and great nation. A cultural fulcrum within the vast Habsburg empire, the end of the Great War saw it splinter into a nation state. But while neighbouring Austria became strong, confident and modernised Hungary struggled to assert itself in the modern age. In England it is chiefly known for its cultural centre and capitol Budapest and an athletic goalkeeper in the 1950s.
In the spheres of politics, industry and sport it rarely appears on the international radar. In some ways, therefore, it is trapped in time, reflecting back on a glorious past rather than facing its uncertain future. The same could be said of England of course, which is perhaps why i felt a distant kinship when entering the Gay Hussar, the only Hungarian restaurant in London, and a famous, long-standing Soho institution.
The restaurant has changed little since it opened in the 1960s. In those days Soho was a seedy den of scandal. Thanks largely to Peter Cook’s ‘Establishment’ club the area became trendy and got a fashionable facelift as new bars and clubs moved in. But the Gay Hussar remained the same and now looks incongruous amidst the new age, new-fanged bars and brasseries nearby. This gives it almost a Hansel and Gretel charm.
The restaurant is narrow with two rows of chairs facing each other. It is gloomy and low-lit, to some cosy to others austere, forever winter even with summer sun beating down outside. As you are shown to your table the eye is drawn to the hundreds of framed caricatures on the walls. These are, the waiter gleefully explained, pictures of famous dinner guests. There were some instantly recognisable features amongst the bulbous noses and coiffure quiffs. If a famous person books a cartoonist is on standby to draw them in a post prandial sitting. Being deemed ‘famous’ enough for this honour is akin to inclusion in Who’s Who or an invitation to the Queen’s garden party.
While we were half-recognising statesmen from the seventies the owner approached, twitching his nose and rubbing his hands like a clothed otter. Within seconds he had reeled off a few jokes so dry that it was only half way through pudding that we recognised them as such. With an occasional eyebrow motioned rebuke to one of his Indian waiters he took us through the menu. The only decision made on his first visit was for a bottle of the legendary Bull’s Blood, a Hungarian red so viscous I am willing to believe it does indeed contain Haemoglobin.
While my companions shared a platter of cured pork, I chose the rather more adventurous wild cherry gaspacho. It was bright pink and thick, like a Strawberry milkshake from McDonalds. Except this was boozy too. It was the strangest starter of the fork and flag odyssey to date. I’ve had many soups, from French Onion to sour Garlic, but none have been sweet. If served this as a pudding i’d have been delighted. Served as a starter knowing i had a further pudding to come I was over the moon. In the pink, you could say. Containing whole cherries and laced with both cherry liqueur and white wine it was a very indulgent entree.
For the main course there was no option but to go for the Goulash. This thick cream and paprika based stew is world renowned as a winter warmer. With striking similarities to a Czech stew it was filling and flavoursome. You are well advised to go several days without consuming a single calorie before you eat at a central European restaurant. These dishes are designed for people who have felled and dragged ten trees in sub-zero temperatures. For those who haven’t exerted themselves thus it can sit heavily on the stomach.
With 5000 calories a conservative estimate for the main dish it is only the eyes that crave a dessert. Had the choices been familiar I may well have joined my dining companions in moving straight to coffee. But the hazelnut puree just sounded too tempting. When it was served i stared at it with stern consternation. Initially i thought a particularly dozy waiter had delivered me a dish from an adjoining restaurant. For this looked for all the world like a bowl of wholemeal spaghetti with a blob of cream cheese on top. Mine was a very tentative taste, a furtive foray with my fork. But it was delicious, a rich nutty paste that must have been wrung through a mincer. Its looks certainly belied its taste.
Hungary was an inverted sandwich of an evening where the filling was the staple and the slices of bread the surprise. I expected it to be hearty and filling but the complexities and subtleties of the flavours were eye-opening, quite literally in the case of the gaspacho. Hungary has more depth of cultural sophistication than you may imagine.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Restaurant: Aphrodite Tavern
By Boeing: 2693 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.8 miles
There is no more popular place for Brits to escape grey skies and seasonal affective disorder than the sun and sea of the Greek islands. Within range of the budget carriers and promising a culture chaser to a tonic of sun-baked beaches it is destination of choice for many. And those that haven’t got the time or means to escape can get a taster of the experience at a Taverna. There are many in London, most traditional, family run restaurants that have kept progress and modernity at bay and offer a glimpse to the younger generation of what dining out was like for their parents, when such expense and frivolity would be the rarest of treats.
It is hard to believe when looking at the bland bechamel blobs that constitute, or even re-constitute, ready meal Moussaka’s that this now common dish was one of the most exotic of the sixties dinner party circuit. Then a Moussaka was a statement dish, a course to draw compliments and cul-de-sac cache. Now, thanks to the convenience age, it has turned from a weekend treat to a midweek TV dinner. Once given the silver service treatment it is now slipped unceremoniously from a Microwave to a plastic tray. Like its Italian cousin the Lasagna it has fallen from grace and favour, the culinary equivalent of a medieval beggar forced beyond the walls of civilised society to dwell in the hovels at the towns unfashionable extremities.
The diners in the wonderfully atmosphereic Aphrodite tavern were carving into Kleftiko, the signature slow braised leg of lamb, or the piquant tomato based stew Stifado. Why, they no doubt reasoned, would they spend £11 on a Moussaka when they had one the week before for a paltry £1.99. But I think that history, and Iceland, and that beady looking Birdseye, may have done a disservice to this classic dish. Afterall it has all the hallmarks and ingredients you would want from an appetising meal. So I threw caution to the wind, and ordered it.
The restaurant has a homely and inviting feel, a rare commodity in an age of stripped down, modernist restaurants. I took my table in a corner and took in the surroundings. Every nook and cranny was filled with artwork, statues and exotic objects. On the wall behind me were marble figures of Gods peering down reverently on the clutter of tables below. Small shelves were overgrown with plants, narrow sills festooned with cultural nic-nacs. Other than its small dimensions a certain cosyness was created by the undulating ceiling, that gave Aphrodite the impression it was hewn out of rock, or formed the vestibule an ancient temple.
As is the Greek way there were more plates hinged onto the wall than sat laden on the tables and as I sipped a glass of fiery Retsina I played a familiar game on this journey, guess what noise the odd instruments nailed to the wall make. This family run restaurant, with the portly, moustachioed chef-cum-owner and his wife the voluptuous waitress, is the antithesis of those modern chain restaurants that are aggressively colonising the city, that are devoid of character and run by young, business-schooled products of a graduate recruitment scheme.
It was busy with bravado and bonhomie as the convivial atmosphere made diners comfortable enough to laugh uproariously, relate coarse anecdotes from their working day or make emotive entreaties to their partners. This suspension of reality and the stuffy conventions of the formal dinner really did give it a holiday feel. You almost felt like you were in Greece, that if you walked out of the door you would walk down some steps onto a beach where Aegean waves would gently wash your feet.
The Moussaka was absolutely delicious. With a baked crust and the tenderest of succulent lamb centres it was unrecognisable from the ‘gourmet’ gruel that emerges after four and a half minutes in the microwave. I could see why such a dish would be met with gawps of appreciation at the suave sixties dinner parties of Chiswick and Carshalton Beeches.
The range of food on a Greek menu is extensive and this, along with the unique atmosphere of a Taverna, helps explain its popularity. For the carnivore there is grilled Souvlaki or slow roasted Kleftiko, that falls off the bone at the mere proximity of a knife. Then there are delicious dips made of yoghurt and chickpea or countless varieties of fish, squid and crustacea. The flavours are fresh, rich and distinctive. And the quantities make even a modest meal into a feast.
In Greece eating is an excess, indulged on a nightly basis. And nothing better illustrates this than a Greek coffee. Served without being filtered it is both drunk and chewed, as the grounds of beans are become wedged between the teeth. It is stronger than many spirits, like an untamed Espresso, with nothing tempering the almost acrid acidity of coffee. It warmed the back of my throat as a single malt Islay might have done.
Many are seduced by the Greek way of life. And after eating at Aphrodite I have some empathy with Shirley Valentine.
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Restaurant: Safe Handz
By Boeing: 4682 miles
By Boris Bike: 6.7 miles
My trip to the gold coast was my sixth visit to Africa on the Fork and Flag journey. Perhaps the least understood continent Africa is also the most underrepresented in its cuisine, certainly in terms of area. In many ways Africa is the most tribal of continents and this has created a complex patchwork of flavours and culinary influences that is grounded in rural traditions but draws too from the increasingly cosmopolitan urban cultures of the cities. From the Berbers to the Boers modern Africa is a heady mix of indigenous and imperial. Carved up in the colonial era before rediscovering its soul in triumphant nationalism in the 20th century the roots of its cuisines are a subtle fusion of the old and new, the familiar and the foreign. I saw this most recently in Ethiopia, where Italian finesse complemented the earthy flavours of the country.
The Ghanian community in London are both vocal and vivacious with smiling and singing the most popular of national pastimes. But though I expected and was looking forward to a lively evening I had to check the map several times for a suitable host. For the community is traditionally based around Tottenham, the centre of ugly and unsettling riots several evenings before. There is lively and then there is lively. I settled on a cheery looking place on the Holloway Road. On route from the station I walked past my Ecuadorian stop-off several doors down. I know it is a cliché, but it is a small world. There was no need to check the numbers on the doors for I could soon locate the restaurant from the enormous flag billowing from the first floor window. Not quite as large as the French flag, but given the smaller size of the building equally as impressive.
I stood outside for a moment. It had changed its name since I had researched it. It was now bestowed with one of the oddest names i’d encountered on the journey so far. I read it several times but it was still mad and misspelt. ‘Sweet Handz’. Had I got mixed up and come to the restaurant of a caramelising cannibal? Or was this a cultural reference, a band perhaps or a type of dance, to which I was blissfully ignorant? I never did find out the answer, but what is in a name anyway?
The restaurant was narrow with only space for a few small tables beside the bar and the food counter. And there was no space at all, with a gaggle of Ghanians in animated chatter with the owner. But I was soon noticed and beckoned in with a welcome smile and shown up a flight of stairs. This led to a more conventional seated area. It was a similar concept to that in Egypt, with the entrance being a refuge for the regulars with a restaurant presented on another floor for intrepid culinary tourists like my good self.
Having enjoyed a wonderful beer in Cameroon I knew that a local brew was an essential part of the experience so I ordered a Castle. When it arrived I was intrigued to find that it was a milk stout; clearly one of the imperial tastes that remained once the colony became independent in 1957. The food choices ranged from the standard (hot stews, grilled Tilapia and pounded cassava) to thestrange (char-grilled Guinea Fowl and deep-fried Turkey tails).
Having been regailed with stories of groundnut stews by a friend who spent several months in Accra, the capitol, I felt compelled to order that. But as an appetiser I couldn’t resist a Suya, a mutton kebab dusted with spicy peanut paste. I was glad of the stout to deaden the heat of the Suya. But while I was expecting the heat I had forgotten why the west favour lamb over mutton. The elder of the species can be very strong indeed, with an almost gamey flavour. Combined with a powerful marinade this makes for a flavoursome dish.
The Groundnut stew reminded me of a Malaysian Massuman curry, with a hot and creamy peanut based soup harbouring the odd morsel of mutton, another example of an unexpected culinary comparison. But in Africa eating is a hands-on activity and each piece of mutton had to be picked up and chewed around the bone. In Europe we often like the bones removed, but this is not the case in Africa where it all helps add to the flavour. Perhaps with microwavable convenience meals, food in the west has become too planned and too processed. African cuisine provides an antidote to this modern meddling. It may not be to everyones liking, but there is no denying that it is real food.
Thursday, 11 August 2011
Location: Parsons Green
By Boeing: 1635 miles
By Boris Bike: 4 miles
I can see Angela Merkel feeling quite at ease in Parsons Green with its yummy mummy affluence, trendy wine bars and tweedy trim residents on loan from the Cotswolds. She may buy a slim volume of Bertolt Brecht from one of the many coffee-house-cum-bookshops or purchase a charming hand-carved wooden toy for a god-niece in Schleswig-Holstein. Having expelled a good many calories browsing bookshelves and test driving hobby horses she would no doubt be feeling hungry.
Not wanting to give any more of her money to Greece she may pass the Taverna by and thinking wistfully of home see the welcoming Teutonic text of Fest a few yards up the street towards Putney. But as she walked through the doors her jovial amiability would turn to abject horror and slack-jawed disgust. If it was a parody she may have laughed, relishing the opportunity to dispel the myth that the Germans have no sense of humour, but this beerkeller restaurant is meant to be authentic. It is a replica of such poor taste that the UN may have to pass a resolution to get it closed immediately for fear of diplomatic reprisals.
Fest bills itself as London’s Oktoberfest venue, a place where every night is a dark, drunken October night: where you can drink weissbeer and eat wursts without the aid of easy-jet or a weekend to spare. It sounds like genius: take a concept many men travel a thousand miles for once a year and offer it to them on their doorstep every evening of the week. Throw in some National Lampoon’s European Adventure kitsch, high trousers and low blouses and it could be a riot. Simple: the job is, as the mockneys say, a goodun’.
But as soon as I walked to the bar it was evident that it wasn’t as simple as i’d assumed. Rather than be greeted by Greta I was served by a Sheila. As Australian as Ayers rock, trussed up as a latterday Heidi in a threadbare costume that looked like it was bought from e-bay. My excitement evaporated in an instant. I looked around the room. It was basically a Walkabout bar but with less Germans. A Korean couple sat in awkward silence in the corner and some brash aussies played pool in an anteroom. The only hint of anything Germanic were lines of promotional flyers from German breweries strung across the room like tawdry Bavarian bunting.
To lift my spirits I ordered a Stein of larger, one of those two pint glasses that are so heavy you need to be arm-wrestling champion to lift them. I chose a dark German larger but was met with a blank expression. “Is that Ok?” i asked. “ Sure darl’, its just no-one has ever ordered that one before” came the response. If I wasn’t shaking my head at that point I was a second later when over her eyes I saw a rack of pork scratching sachets.
I sat down on a bench at a vast table. This, like many of the restaurants on this journey, is designed as a party venue. My beer was as rough as rusty nails, the so called ‘treacle tones’ tasting more like burnt anchovy. For a starter I ordered a Beer Ring sausage, one of the emblems of the beer festival. After several minutes I saw the faux-fraulein scamper from the kitchen with a squat sausage. She was wearing pink Reebok pump trainers.
Awaiting my main course I considered the contrast between how we view French and German cultures and cuisines. Some of the best food in London is French and by this showing some of the worst is German. It is almost a national badge of honour to mistrust and misjudge all things German. We all have a little empathy with the Colonel in Fawlty Towers, even after all these years, even after Germany has blossomed into one of the most sophisticated and accomplished countries in the world. For some reason we just can’t embrace their culture as we can French, Spanish and Italian.
But I thought this was changing, the charming Christmas markets that spring up across the capitol in the winter are exciting and evocative. We welcome the rustic Germany of the Brothers Grimm, but only, it seems, on a seasonal basis. For the rest of the year we rarely give Germany a second thought. If we sought out the best of Germany, even in its seemingly bland cuisine, we may just appreciate a European neighbour. To say Fest represents Germany is insulting, like handing Ken Hom a six figure salary and making him head chef of a restaurant named Ho-Li-Fuk.
For a main course I chose the Schwinehaxen, a smoked pork knuckle smothered in mustard on a bed of sauerkraut. If I closed my eyes perhaps I could be looking out over rolling fields and forest from the turret of one of King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castles. But no, my eyes focused on the menu that featured the exciting ‘double knuckle challenge’. It was helpfully explained that this was only for ‘those who genuinely love pork knuckles’. The prize was to go on a wall of fame for those who have eaten two pork knuckles. I felt my soul shrivel and exit my body through my mustard inflamed nostrils. I can imagine walking past this address in a years time and finding a Korean karaoke. It is a room for hire to a country with the lowest bid.
Monday, 1 August 2011
Location: St John's Wood
By Boeing: 2091 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.3 miles
Though not enjoying the international profile and culinary legacy of France, Georgia is a country that takes food very seriously indeed. Renowned as the finest cuisine within the soviet orbit every dinner is celebrated as a feast. Having thrown off the shackles of communism the thriving cosmopolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg enjoy the trappings of wealth and a taste for the exquisite and the sophisticated. And the taste they have acquired is Georgian.
The Georgians don’t dine they feast and with an utter disregard for both duration and decorum a humble host is inadequate. To keep a feast alive requires not just hospitality but wit and wisdom. In Georgia this revered role is held by the Tamada, the Toast-master: in part a poet with a philosophers platitudes. It is he who orchestrates the evening as a conductor brings in the brass and stirs the strings to a glorious crescendo. And it is he who lends his name to a small, hidden restaurant in St Johns Wood.
In a quiet street, half-hidden behind an avenue of trees Tamada fulfils the role of a neighbourhood bistro rather than a tourist trap. It is refreshing to see an unusual cuisine on offer amongst the ubiquitous Curry Houses and Oriental eateries that pervade London’s leafy districts. In some ways Tamada is an oddity, neither serving convenience food nor in a convenient location. Such a restaurant relies on the quality of its food alone. I felt this was a good omen as i walked through the unassuming entrance into the relaxed, understated ambience of the restaurant.
Consisting merely of a handful of tables between a wide glass frontage and a decorative bar Tamada didn’t fit into either the ‘impact’ or the ‘themed’ categories that i have encountered on this journey. There was no attempt, through decor or design, to transport the diner to the country of origin. It was convivial and civilised. The walls were bare except for several paintings, mostly in a modern style, baring price tags. They were, a later enquiry attested, by Georgian painters.
It was clear after even the briefest glance at the menu that this was not typical of the cuisine I had seen elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The dishes were more subtle, complex and of a gourmet tradition. A region that has grown rich and portly with the profits of oil can afford to tantalise the tastebuds. And it is far more than a sense of regional solidarity that has made Georgian the haute cuisine of choice.
Before we ordered we enjoyed a glass of the house wine. When it was served the Cyrillic label caught the eye. This was a local wine, but unlike Cypriot Retsina, it was not cheaper or less refined than its Western European counterparts. Georgia is a proud and ancient wine making region. The taste and texture of the wine was rich with fruits and with a smooth finish redolent with tannins. It was complex and invigorating. We were in for a feast indeed.
I could not think of a greater contrast, either in restaurant or country, than Brazil and Georgia. And yet the traditional starter in both cultures is remarkably similar. Kachapuri is a griddled flat bread layered with cheese. It is traditionally served in platters at the beginning of the feast. It is meant to be shared, which perhaps explains why in consuming an entire plate I felt rather full. At a traditional Georgian feast a vast array of appetisers would be served, ranging from salads, stewed beans and baked mushrooms to terrines and soups.
Two of the distinctive flavours of Georgian cuisine are plums and walnuts, that form the basis for the many delicately flavoured stews that the country is famous for. While pork tends to dominate the Eastern European and Caucasus diet the Georgian menu includes a wide range of meats, including veal and lamb, and fish such as salmon and trout. This provides a more varied and complex menu, that compares more readily to France or Italy than to the Balkans or the Eastern Block.
I ordered the famous lamb stew Chaqapuli that is flavoured with red wine and plum sauce. It was the most delicately flavoured casserole I have ever tasted. Lighter than a goulash or bourginon but more flavoursome than a simple stew it combined a deep flavour with the freshness and texture of finely chopped vegetables and the sweetness of plum sauce. This was a very mature, sophisticated cuisine, perfected over centuries by very attuned palates used to eating well and often.
The legacy of the Soviet era is that the Russian region is generally viewed, in England at any rate, as austere and universal. Your average Brit, asked to describe any European country East of Poland in four words is likely to answer with Communism, Cabbage and Crap cars. There is, sadly, a lack of appreciation or knowledge of the ancient cultures and proud traditions of what now are liberated nations once more.
This uniformity was of course a Soviet policy and it will take some time for countries like Georgia to challenge these preconceptions and showcase their culture and cuisine to the wider world. If more people ate in Restaurants like Tamada and tasted Georgian cuisine they would be inclined to learn more.
Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Restaurant: Mon Plaisir
By Boeing: 1185 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.3 miles
And so my journey brings me to France, that crenelated castle of the canard, that citadel of Coq au-vin, that culinary capitol of the world. Egalite! Fraternete! Gastronomy!
At least that is what I had assumed. The mark of a maitre-de is a Michelin star afterall, nest pas? It seems not. It is London not Paris, according to Joel Rubuchon, a Frenchman no less, that is the Atlas of Appetite, bestriding the gastronomic globe. Our English eels need never again turn to jelly at the sight of a smug snail or a coq with a pommes frite on its shoulder. For Rubuchon read Ramsey, Ducasse looks an amateur beside our Delia and who is Jean-Christophe Novelli if not but a pale imitation of Ainsley Harriot?
But Jingoism is Mr Hyde to judgement’s Dr Jekyll and when looking for a suitable place for a sojourn of a supper it is evident that many of London’s best restaurants are French. If they weren’t so eye-wateringly expensive their Michelin stars would be two a penny. La Gavroche, Le Cercle, Racine to name a few. Deciding against re-mortgaging the house I plumped, lovely word plumped, no such onomatopoeic verbiage in French mores the pity, for Mon Plaisir, to the bustling north of Covent Garden.
My glamorous, garrulous, Gallic companion was meant to meet me there but had got lost, despite the largest Tricolore in London, billowing across the road in a summer breeze. “Typical”, she said, “ They create just what the English want to imagine a French restaurant to be.” Well, we could have gone to the Delice de France sandwich kiosk at Waterloo station if you wanted authenticity i thought. The first room in the restaurant has a pleasant, if perhaps a little overplayed, 1940’s Parisian period feel.
The walls are festooned with sepia pictures of the Seine and actresses in a gallery of gamine and Gallic poses. Originally this was the extent of the restaurant: a small bistro, as charming as it cramped. But it was, it turned out, merely one aria of a much larger French overture. Four rooms, each with different theme and ambience, now make up Mon Plaisir. Our table, at the rear, had the feeling of a late night jazz club, cosy and cosseting.
As soon as we sat my companion, eager to use her mother tongue, engaged our rather weary looking waiter in energetic conversation. This yielded the fact that he was fed up to the hind teeth of London and was escaping back across the channel the very next morning. He looked a little dejected, but perhaps, i thought to myself, if he’d explored the city rather than cowered in this little corner of the continent he may have thought differently.
We ordered wine: what else but a full bodied Beaujolais. I relaxed when after a few gurgles the rather contrived setting felt very authentic and welcoming indeed. The French certainly know how to dine in style. While British culture can often be contained the French burst into every moment in the full expectation that it will be more joyous than the last. Eating French cuisine demands abandon, not just to the flavours and the aromas but the sensuality of the experience.
What else could I order but the Coq au Vin. Parisian food is renowned for its precision but this popular staple of the stove is a simple, ancient Gaul dish that takes hours to prepare but is always consumed in minutes. The tender meat, braised in wine throughout the day, falls away from the bone, and the lardons and mushrooms are packed with flavour. But ours was a little disappointing and quailed, sorry paled, in comparison with that enjoyed in my companions childhood. However the Gratin Dauphinois, a dish i would accompany to the ends of this earth, was delicious. The wine was flowing and the evening was maturing nicely.
Then came the cheese-board and the epiphany, that if the moon was made of cheese then train me this minute as a cosmonaut. For the French if the smell of a cheese doesn’t induce an instantaneous headache then put it back on a hot shelf for a decade. There are habitual glue-sniffers that would require a snuff-box to regain consciousness after a whiff of this fetid fromage. Roquefort, Reblochon, Camembert, Pont L’Eveque they sent me into an hallucinatory state in which time and space were mere abstract concepts.
In the brief moments of sanity between mouthfuls i asked myself how something made from milk could taste like seven hundred times stronger than marmite. I felt like a teenagers sock, sodden for six days, had been thrust up my nasal cavity. Eating French cheese is the most violent, wanton form of masochism ever conceived by man. And yet, somehow, in contravention of every elemental law, every last vestige of decency, through the pain comes the rarest form of pleasure.
To eat in France is to feast on the basest and most beautiful of pleasures.
Saturday, 16 July 2011
Restaurant: The Finnish Church
By Boeing: 3602 miles
By Boris Bike: 7.7 miles
The last time I was in a church I was a teenager wearing a woggle, surreptitiously chomping my way through a double-decker during a sermon on the perils of gluttony. This was, of course, contraband confectionary, smuggled in under the nose of the rector, unwrapped under the cacophonous cover of a discordant organ. It still feels a little naughty, heretical even, to feast in a place of worship. At at the rear of the Finnish Church of London, in a beautiful building in rough-round-the-edges Rotherhithe, sipping coffee and peering down the aisle at the post modern altar, I felt like an imposter, soon to be ushered away under ecclesiastic duress. And yet on the table in front of me was a menu, and to my right a cafeteria counter loaded with buns and beverages. The Finnish, clearly, take a communal view of worship.
The eldest of Chelsea Pensioners may recall a time in England where the church was the fulcrum of village life, a place for people to greet and guffaw. Even by my scouting days that fun had given way to a fusty formality. But in Finland, if this corner of the cockney southbank is anything to go by, the church is still convivial and community spirited. And if you meet there why wouldn’t you eat there?
Being Scandinavian the church is a shrine to contemporary style, a temple to temporal trends. Clad in pine and enveloped in acres of glass it is bathed in early evening sunshine, the antithesis of the dark, dank, airless chancels that welcome English churchgoers. Rather than sombre, severe oak pews are Ikea style chairs.
I sat at a circular table among a cluster at the back of the room. My eye was drawn first to a large pine magazine rack that covered one wall. This offered everything the homesick Helsinkian may require, from a Finnish paper to catch up on the news from home, a parish pamphlet listing community events to an advert for a second hand lawnmower. The opposite half of the room was carpeted and strewn with fluffy toys and pop-up books. While fathers prayed, mothers chatted over coffee while their children played beside them. The whole spectrum of live, from the doting to the divine, under one spruce scented roof.
Feeling hungry I approached the counter. I was met a man as bemused as he was blonde who said “If we knew you were coming we’d have made more food.” I thought of replying that I hadn’t envisaged booking a church until my wedding day, but decided against it. There were no fresh options, be them sandwiches or Sami specials, and with the only heating utensil on site a modest microwave I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t about to tuck into a roast reindeer. But my spirits were lifted, and my groaning stomach somewhat appeased, by the offer of a Karelian Pie.
Whilst most of Finnish cuisine is shared with its Scandinavian neighbours this buttermilk rice pastry is a distinctive, if not delicious, culinary marker. I watched as a freezer bag was emptied and my main evening meal popped into the microwave until its two minute ping. This traditional, hearty dish consists of a dollop of savoury rice pudding on a pastry base, often finished, as it were, with an egg butter glaze.
The Fins are a nation that have historically been a pawn passed between their Scandinavian neighbours to the west and Russia to the East. This legacy can be seen in their food. In the cosmopolitan cities of the western seaboard the cuisine is Swedish and sophisticated while in eastern provinces, such as Karelia, the food is more humble and hearty, very much that of the Russian peasant.
After a delicious cinnamon bun had filled me up I browsed in the shop. Many of the staples, such as rye-bread and fish paste, are commonly seen across the region, but the branding was distinctively Finnish. For almost every product and every packet featured a Moomin, those magical, mysterious cartoon characters that are the country’s best known export. These shy and secretive forest dwelling creatures have expanded from their bucolic idyll to a global branded empire, and represented Finland to the world as a land that is mad as it is magical.
As I walked the rows and surveyed the shelves I saw their beaming smiles on crackers, crockery and, most perplexingly, lilos. Why anyone would go to a church several hundred miles from the sea to buy a themed inflatable is a question i have neither the time nor the inclination to wrestle with.
As I crunched into a biscuit in the shape of a Moomin in a Top Hat I was struck that Finland feels more distant than in reality it is. Like the strange, beguiling woodland land of sprites and spirits that the Moomins inhabit Finland feels like a mystical world, a world away. Its secrets seem deep and ancient, its image, like its interior, feels remote and impenetrable. That explains, perhaps, that while it it is clearly a magical land it has remained relatively unexplored in comparison with the rest of Scandinavia. It also goes some way to explain why my search for Finnish food led me to such a spiritual place.
Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Location: Goldhawk Road
By Boeing: 435 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.1 miles
Generally after a Fork and Flag I pack my bag, wind my pocket watch, apply a moist lemon-scented cleansing square to my brow and board a Boeing for distant climes. But after leaving ambient Asmara it was a mere amble over the border to Addis Adaba, in Ethiopia. Though the two countries share common ancestral tradition and cultural beliefs Ethiopia is very much the bigger brother. Thought to be the origin of the modern human it is an ancient land that traded Gold with phaoronic Egypt. Until modern times it was known as Abyssinia, a rich, verdant land that inspired the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to conjure a romantic image of African purity and beauty in his opium induced tale of Kubla Khan.
‘There was an Abyssinian maid, and on a Dulcimer she played.’
But though Ethiopia is one of the richest countries in Africa, the source of the Blue Nile and set to become the largest exporter of flowers in the world in English eyes it is still seen as a land of hunger and hopelessness as a result of the famines of the 1980s. Though over twenty years ago the images are seared into the consciousness. It was therefore a pleasing surprise to walk into Damera and be greeted with sprawling pot plants, vivid paintings depicting wildlife in lush vegetation and evocative wooden statues of leopards and Giraffes. This was a new, most welcome vision of Ethiopia. The tall, dapper, distinguished owner, clearly bristling with pride to play host to western custom, greeted us and beamed back a smile as we complimented him on the charming ambience he had created. Draped foliage, splashes of colour on crammed shelves and deep red tablecloths gave it a comfortable, convivial air and a shabby elegance.
While looking at the menu I ordered some traditional honey wine that has been in this part of East Africa for millennia. It is a sad trend in many restaurants I have visited that authentic dishes have given way to popular but bland western alternatives. In the cut and thrust of London gastronomy it is all too easy to water down authentic flavours in the quest for regular custom. But a discerning diner will always look for distinctive tastes. Honey wine was certainly that: expecting a vine variation of mead it was instead reminiscent of an old fashioned lemonade that has fermented in the sun dappled tramlines of a lawn tennis court.
Having just come from neighbouring Eritrea I knew that this Tuesday would indeed be a Shrove Tuesday, though with aromatic stews rather than a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of lemon as the filling. But my fellow diner assured me that Ethiopian cuisine had a distinctive ingredient so subtle, and so lip-lickingly scrumptious that this would be the first of many visits. I was intrigued. Many people become obsessed by glamorous celebrities or sumptuous sports cars. Some even find enlightenment in memorisingthe time of every train on the Basingstoke branch line. But my dining companion is the first i’ve met who is fixated by clarified butter. The taste, he claimed, of Nitter Kibeh, a clarified butter made with garlic, ginger and spice, was so moreish that it would have me coming back time and time again for a sample. I could see in his frenzied speech, his feral eyes, that butter, for him, was the altar at which he worshipped; his chancel, his confessional, his conduit to Christ.
For all I knew he could have funded the evening’s fix by pick-pocketing on the Piccadilly Line or selling one of his kidneys on the black-market just to feel that churned, clarified taste one more time. Food does funny things to people: five minutes in the presence of Gordon Ramsay is testament to that. But this was different, there was something verging on the sinister about his preference of butter as a basting agent.
By now our group had swelled to five and we ordered various platters with a gay abandon only gluttony can inspire. Shortly after, an enormous Injera arrived with splats of spicy split beans, patches of pulses and dollops of devilishly hot stew. It looked like an edible paint palette, with different textures and tints all demanding to be wrapped in a jagged corner of Injera and ingested. And there, in the middle, bubbling and burbling in its own Lurpaky loveliness, the ground beef in Nitter Kibeh. Like any addict my friend was lost in a feverish frenzy of ribald reliance. He was there in person but in spirit he had ascended to heaven to join Saint Ivel. The rest of us tried to prize a few grams from the palisade of jutting elbows he had erected around it. It was, I confess, quite, quite delicious. An Injera the size of a dustbin led was hacked and hewn to pieces as if we were a baying pack of wolves around a carrion carcass.
In one thoroughly entertaining evening Ethiopia proved itself to be a land of plenty. When February comes around and a pathetic pancake limps out of my pokey pan i’ll jump in a taxi to the Goldhawk road and salivate at the sheer circumference of the Injera. With butter you ask? I’ll clarify that nearer the time.
Saturday, 2 July 2011
Location: Harrow Road
By Boeing: 3294 miles
By Boris Bike: 5.6 miles
Leaving baseless accusations of vote-rigging by Rhonda valley red-tops aside my uncle was once voted the best Geography teacher in Wales. His annual Easter quiz ensured that our knowledge of locations and latitudes was at least the equal of ordnance survey. And yet I must confess, out of my uncle’s earshot of course, that prior to this journey I knew very little of Eritrea. This African country is stable and prosperous, has no cricket team, Olympic gold medalist or enigmatic dictator and has therefore slipped under the radar of international consciousness. So as I made the short walk from my front door to Mosob on the Harrow road I had no idea what to expect. Ignorance can be exciting, especially if urged on by hunger.
An unassuming entrance led into an ambient, stylish, low-lit restaurant. Eritrea was part of Mussolini’s new roman empire in Africa in the 1930’s. When Il Dulce fell from grace and Italy shrunk back to its heel and shoe peninsula a lasting legacy was left in this corner of East Africa. The monochrome pictures on the wall of modernist cinemas and the elegant edifices of Fiat factories were as surprising as they were impressive. The capital, Asmara, is renowned as a modernist citadel, an oasis of European chic, in the heart of tribal Africa. The contrast of this with the traditional emblem of the Mosob, a large, elaborately weaved basket in which food is served, made for an intriguing mix of styles.
The tables were quickly filling up, even in early evening mid week, which augered well for the feast ahead. Young trendy couples and locally based Eritreans in tribal dress sat cheek by jowel, the egrarious owner delighting in suggesting dishes and telling tales about his homeland. A trip to the washroom revealed a secret annex where a group of Eritreans were in loud conversation. Where the restaurant was muted and understated the annex made no such concessions to its London location, with zebra skin rugs draped across the walls and traditional instruments strewn across lintels and shelves.
Eriterean cuisine is based around the Injera, a large, savoury pancake, on which all meals are served. For my starter I ordered Injera rolled with spicy lentil and spinach. It has a slightly sour taste and absorbs the sauce like a sponge. The dish was spicy, very spicy. The main course is generally a rich stew, made from either lamb, beef or chicken. My lamb stew was thick, viscous and spicy. Once again it was served on an Injera. Without thinking I called over the waiter to say that they had forgotten to provide cutlery. Then I looked at my fellow diners and remembered: In this part of the world we eat with our hands. Tearing off the edge of the pancake you mop up the sauce and grab a few chunks of lamb. Then you put in your mouth with as little splashback onto your shirt as possible. It is a casual, friendly way of eating that cuts through the starched formality that can sometimes set the tone of a western meal.
It was my third taste of Africa after Algeria and the Cameroon and offered another flavour and experience to that most unknown and and misunderstood continent. It confirmed the trend that they love spicy, nourishing food. It is also a communal form of eating, with cauldrons of stew and piles of injera enough to feed the family, friend and anyone else in the near vicinity. In this way it differs from continental dishes that require particular preparation for each dish. Indeed, the best sort of Eritrean meal, and the most popular order around me, was a huge platter served on a giant Injera, lying in a Mosob, and filled with different stews, vegetables and pulses, each with their own spicy flavours.
It has been an ongoing theme in the Fork and Flag odyssey that many cuisines are a complex fusion of traditional staples and colonial influences. This effect can transport you through centuries in a single meal. In Eritrea the timeless, tribal Injera is followed by sophisticated, modern Italian deserts. Delicate layered pastries, alcohol soaked and cocoa dusted sponges and subtle, smooth ice creams serve to cleanse the palate after the thick, spicy stews. Feeling rather bloated I opted for tea with a shot of Zambuca, a local tipple adopted by the people from their Italian governors.
Next time I spin the globe I may notice Eritrea and i'll certainly remember the taste.
Sunday, 26 June 2011
Restaurant: G Cooke's
By Boeing: 2180 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.5 miles
Having gone too far flung corners of the world on this voyage you may imagine that returning to England would be a bit bland and predictable. Afterall I know this city so well, its patchwork of ancient and new, ordered and odd. But heading once more to Hackney I was embarking on a different journey, into my own past. My Grandmother grew up in the East End in the twenties when this now gentrified area was blighted by poverty. But though life was hard the hotchpotch of different communities gave it a vitality that made the well-heeled west seem fusty in comparison.
Though it is almost unrecognisable from those times with huge investment and a trendy sheen of bars, bistros and blitz parties the East End still has that heart pumping feeling of urgency and life. It still has a unique flavour. The enduring symbol of the East is the Jellied Eel. While the bream and bass at Billingsgate would find its way west the cheaper more plentiful eels would stay locally, to swim again in ladles of parsley infused ‘liquor’ that is made from its stock. Eels, whelks and cockles are as much English as the Game Pies and Beef Wellingtons silver served in the grand hotels of Park Lane and the Oak panelled restaurants of St James’s.
Stepping into F Cooke’s pie and mash shop is like being on a film set of a glossy period drama. But whereas Hollywood embellish and romanticise the past I see no gimmicks, pretension or contrived retro glamour here. It is old, yes, and it has an evocative charm, but is an everyday, working restaurant. It just happens not to have had a facelift since 1933.
Lining one wall is a counter with simmering vats of eels, a huge cistern of creamy mash and a large pan of green, brewing ‘liquor’. Diners sit together on a line bench tables with marble tops that line the opposite wall. I paid up front and it was less than a Panini.
Sitting down, waiting for my order, I admired the intricate yellow and green tiling and period details such as the old wooden clock. Pictures and newspaper cuttings on the wall lauded the exploits of East End champions, the boxers who scrapped in the streets and then fought for fame and farthings in clubs across the country. More of a lunchtime meal the shop was close to closing as I sat down and I had to lift my feet up several times as sawdust was swept away from under my table. I imagined Gordon Ramsey wielding a broom in his Michelin starred restaurant on the other side of the city.
After several minutes a plate was unceremoniously dumped on the table in front of me with a “there you go love”, making me think I should have probably collected it myself from the counter. A bulbous, charred pastry pie was buried by a dollop of mash, with a pile of jellied eels on the side and everything swamped in noxious green liquor. I gingerly picked up the eel as if it were a wasp. With a bony spine running through its core I literally had no idea how to eat it. My grandmother no doubt would have laughed fulsomely at my pathetic attempt. I discovered that the only option is to nibble it like a squirrel nibbles a chestnut as it turns it in its paws. It has a strong, but not unpleasant fishy taste, as does the liquor that dominates the flavour of the mash and clashes with the stewed beef and gravy of the pie.
Seeing my discomfort but appreciating my perseverance the patron came over to the table and began to chatter : “People say to me ‘Why don’t you sell Pizzas and Chips, they’d be popular’. But this is a pie and mash shop . You don’t go to a shoe shop to buy a dress do you?” I thought of the shop I’d passed on the walk from the tube that claimed to be experts in Pizza, fish and chips, kebabs, fried chicken and burgers. Diversification has become a business necessity. But this shop is a part of London’s cultural heritage and that gives it something special, something enduring.
Rather than slowly losing customers as old east enders give way to a young influx of Hoxtonites pie and mash shops are on the increase not the decline. The owner tells me that ‘East End’ actor Ray Winstone has just opened one nearby. But this is the East End not ‘The only way is Essex’ and the locals aren’t impressed with fame and fortune. She scrunched up her nose and delivered her verdict on this interloper: “Apparently its bloody awful. And he’s was bought up in Hertfordshire or somewhere.”
It just shows, even an actor can’t replicate true tradition and authenticity. I think my Nan would have liked that. Reeking of Eels I ran to a newsagent to buy some chewing gum to cleanse the palette. I absolutely loved the experience, the history, the pride of exploring my East end roots, but next time maybe I’ll just order a mug of tea and smuggle in some Jaffa Cakes.
Friday, 10 June 2011
Restaurant: Meya, Meya
Location: Edgware Road
By Boeing: 7396 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.9 miles
Egypt is a beguiling destination for any traveller, whether it be the awe-inspiring majesty of the Giza Pyramids, a thousand minarets piercing through the heat haze of a Cairo sunset, the crisp, cream linen lines of gentlemen on elegant Nile cruises or the boats inflated, shark infested waters of Sharm El Sheikh. When a country came to prominence in antiquity it has little choice but to be judged on its heritage and history. Such was the grandeur and greatness of the Pharonic era that modern Egypt is like too lands: one revered and admired across the world, a gateway to a mystical, magical past; and the other a much maligned, misunderstood Arab nation fighting for relevance now not reverence then.
Seen through English eyes this new Egypt squats rather uncomfortably on the old. Imagine the uproar amongst Rover drivers if Stone Henge was bathed in an arch shaped shadow of an adjoining McDonalds. It would be an outcry the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Berjerac was denied another series. And yet those returning from the Pyramids all join in the unison of a chorus of disapproval. “Ruined”, they lament. “ Wanton desecration”, those from Tunbridge Wells write to the Daily Telegraph.
There is a feeling, though never, i’m sure, expressed in such blunt terms, that Egypt is a once great civilisation gone to seed. The fact that one of the most infamous and notorious modern Egyptians, Mohammed Al Fayed, turned the best shop in the world into a tacky gift emporium and had the affrontery, not my word, but one I imagine has been used by the Daily Mail, to allow his son to court a Royal Princess has only confirmed this prejudice. And then there was that unseemly business in the Suez when Eden lost his desert garden.
But Meya Meya is the other side of Hyde Park from the gauche Grocery and Gimmicky Grotto that Harrods has become and is refreshingly authentic. There are no superimposed Pyramids on the window panes, no camels bearing Tutankhamun though the Valley of the Kings. This is the Egypt few English people know about, the bustling Arab metropolis of bazaars and baccarat. In fact so disconcerted was I by this new image of Egypt that on walking through the entrance I thought i must have the wrong address. It looked like a shabby pizza takeaway, and in a sense it was, for Meya Meya is the only place in London that sells Fateer, the local variant of pizza. Explaining that i had booked a table I was led through a door and down a staircase to a secret, smart restaurant.
I have lost count of the number of countries on this journey in which I've eaten to the accompanying chatter of babbling foreign adverts on huge plasma screens. But elsewhere the walls were adorned with old, framed photos of Cairo. They serve as a reminder that in the early 20th century, thanks to French colonial rule and the wealth brought to the city by the Suez Canal, Cairo was grand and glamorous. The central square and civic buildings have something of Paris in their decadence and design.
On an adjoining table a meeting was being convened of Egyptian rap artists. Every five minutes or so a few more would arrive and tuck into appetisers such as hummous and beans. The seemingly self-appointed chair, who I imagined played the synthesiser, was chastising the others for paying £5000 to rent a venue and then not selling any tickets. While this soap opera unfolded we ordered starters. My friend tried some wonderful Falafel, which must rank as the most successful of Egypt’s culinary exports. I wanted to sample a few authentic appetisers so enjoyed Mulukhiya, a thin green soup made from jute leaves, and Foul Medames, a thick puree of mashed fava beans with garlic and coriander. I looked over enviously at the crispy brown outside and fluffy green centre of my friends Falafel. The flavours had heavy hints of Lebanon and the Gulf, unsurprising given the strong political and cultural ties, but were distinctive enough to class as Egyptian rather than Mezze.
Having almost ordered a large Fateer i found that I could only manage half the diameter of my small portion. Though shaped like a pizza it is in fact made from folded pastry. The pastry both provides the base and enfolds the toppings, making it almost like a shallow pie. Anatolian sausage, thick cheese and multiple folds of pastry make for a heavy meal. Though tasty I don’t think the Italians have anything to fear, though fans of tarts and tartines will enjoy the texture.
In Cairo we would have enjoyed coffee and shisha for dessert but this being London only the former was permissible. Foolishly full I made the mistake or ordering the rich milky pudding Umm Ali which is baked with currents and ladles of sugar. Generally Mezze meals are quite light but in swapping pulses for pizza I could barely stand after paying the bill.
Leaving the restaurant I felt like Carter pulling back the stone and descending into Tutankhamun’s tomb. We had both seen for the first time a culture waiting to be found. He unleashed a curse, while I made do with a guttural groan of glutton.
Saturday, 4 June 2011
Restaurant: El Rincon Quinto
By Boeing: 6835 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.7 miles
For many, South American cuisine is characterised by Mexican spice. The first taste of the continent tends to be a burrito or fajita bursting with strong flavours and leaving a tingling heat on the roof of the mouth. So it is something of a surprise travelling throughout the region to find that the food is marked by simplicity rather than complexity. Many of the more traditional, rural countries, such as Ecuador, follow simple staples of the country rather than the exotic experimentation of cosmopolitan cities like Rio, Buenos Aries and Mexico City.
Ecuador is a small county by South American standards and yet within its modest borders it contains almost every eco-system on the planet. Dense rain-forest, tropical beaches and snow covered volcanos are all part of its natural landscape and provide a rich variety of ingredients for the dinner table. These include Guinea Pigs, Cuy, though being popular pets these are rarely, if ever, seen on an English plate. Ecuador is in many ways an insular nation, not reaching out culturally or commercially far from its borders. For this reason it is something of a curiosity. As I travelled north on the Metropolitan Line I felt like an adventurer.
The Holloway Road is a long and largely featureless North London thoroughfare where fried chicken take-aways, betting shops and shabby pubs predominate. But as I found a Bolivian tucked away on the Old Kent Road so I was delighted to discover an Ecuadorian oasis as a welcome refuge from the anonymity outside. El Rincon Quiteno has been serving up plates of pork and patacones (re-fried plantain) for seventeen years and has a humble, welcoming ambience. More of a cafe than a restaurant it attempts to serve both as a Sandwich Bar for students at the nearby London Metropolitan University and as an authentic eatery for the city’s South American diaspora.
With only five or six tables leading onto a busy, open kitchen it has a warm, homely charm. Sitting towards the rear of the space I saw some familiar dishes on the menu, with many borrowed from neighbouring Columbia, a recent stop on my journey. Rather than a basket of bread I was served a big bowl of popcorn. This traditional appetiser was the beginning of a truly topsy-turvy meal, where the dinner almost seemed to be served in reverse. My starter, Marudo Frito con Queso, fried ripe plantain with cheese, looked like a savoury banana split, though without the cloying sweetness of ice-cream or the floral matchstick umbrella that bathes it all in shade. As the Fork and Flag journey unfolds I find cultural echoes in the most surprising of places. The fulsome, filling fried plantain reminded me of the Canadian cheesy chip dish of Poutine.
After the starter i took time to take in the surroundings. Above my head was a map of Ecuador masquerading as a clock flanked by a couple of pictures of timeless agrarian scenes. On the far wall were a couple of musical instruments, one of which looked very much like one used in the Cuban band at Floridita. Another was like a curved banjo with etchings of AmerIndians hunting with bow and arrow. Seeing my interest the owner explained that sometimes they clear the tables away and play impromptu concerts. Despite my protestations he insisted on taking it off its shelf and showing it to me. “Our ancestors have played this for centuries”, he said proudly. Seeing a fixing on the back I asked him what it was for. “It is how you plug it into the electricity,” he replied. I wondered whether the whicker sandal stapled to a wooden beam overhead was in fact made of polypropylene.
For the main course I chose Fritada Con Mote, deep fried knuckles of pork, that came with boiled corn and plantain fritters. The plate was large and loaded with carbohydrates and calories. Most South American meals can feed a small family and Ecuador wasn’t any different. The pork was marinated and moorish with the corn and plantain providing bulk where bulk wasn’t, in truth, required. It was wholesome and hearty with a complete absence of pretension or presentation.
A major part of a South American meal is the accompanying music. So far on this journey I’ve enjoyed Bolivian Panpipe electro, Brazilian Bosso Novo and Cuban Cha Cha Cha. They have all been upbeat with a relentless rhythm making the meal little more than a sideshow for the dancing to follow. But in Ecuador, without a dance-floor, the music was slower and more subdued. The waiter explained that the songs were romantic ballads and laments, popular with older generations who like to reminisce about the past. Younger generations, he suggested, found these songs a little dull and depressing. Indeed a young Ecuadorian in tracksuit and trainers quickly put his earphones in when taking a seat near the kitchen. While the pace of change is slower away from the capitals on the continent with an international profile, it is coming nonetheless.