Thursday, 26 May 2011
Location: South Kensington
By Boeing: 393 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.2 miles
It wasn’t until after my visit to Denmark that I learnt of their Marmite moratorium. I must say the decision has left a bitter taste in my mouth. It seems a cynical form of protectionism to deprive a Dane who yearns for yeast merely to compel him to add a layer of Lurpak in compensation. For a nation known for its flamboyant toasts, this embargo of the extract is nothing short of spiteful. It must be treated as a diplomatic incident, and if a jar is not in Jutland by the end of the month it is an affront that is tantamount to a declaration of culinary war.
Of course this is far from an isolated incident. Over a thousand years ago the Danish nation was forged on the belief that meddling in English matters was far more entertaining than staying at home on their peninsula of pasture. The Viking found no sport more to his liking that raiding a coastal village for an afternoon of pillage and plunder. Presumably they took what they wanted, which evidently didn’t include any thick, viscous breakfast ingredients. In the 11th century they decided to stay, providing England with a Cnut the Great to rule the land of Danelaw after Ethelred the Unready.
The Viking legacy in England can be seen in placenames, such as Aislby in North Yorkshire and Lowesoft in Suffolk. And also, perhaps, in a man’s innate liking for beards and bacon. But when the Viking age came to an end Denmark shrunk from the map, the rampaging warriors settling down to farm the fields. It seems the Vikings quenched their national thirst for adventure, leaving their modern descendents happier with the humble life at home. This homespun idyll is embraced in Hygge, the concept of a calm and comfortable time that is the very definition of Danish domestic bliss.
Walking through the door of Madsen, London’s sole Danish restaurant, I realised that Hygge is easier to experience than to define. The soft, inviting lighting, the warm tones of stripped pine and red leather benches provided a refuge from the frenetic pace of rush hour London. It is only after sitting down at the table and sipping a beer that you appreciate the subdued style, carefully cosseting ambience and effortlessly cool Danish design. North Europeans are modest and introvert compared to their latin spirited Southern cousins, but this should not be misconstrued as a lack of confidence or a muted assertion of national pride. Theirs is a subtle expression. The Danish don’t extort your wonder or crave your adulation. They make you comfortable and leave you to discover Hygge in the details.
The Danes are much happier playing the role of the humble hen rather than the prancing peacock. And yet the restaurant recently crowned the best in the world is not in the cosmopolitan capitals of Milan, New York or Paris but Copenhagen. Noma achieved this accolade not by being flash but by foraging fresh ingredients from local forests and serving simple, stylish, nourishing food. Denmark reached the summit but didn’t feel the need to leave the flag.
Danish cuisine is marked by simple, fresh ingredients and carefully complimenting flavours. For starter I tried the national speciality, sild, better known to us as herring. It is served pickled, with a crisp salad, adding tart acidity to the dish. Though unassuming on the plate it is surprisingly flavoursome. The same can be said of Frikadeller, fried pork meatballs served with cabbage in a white sauce.
But it is human nature to express and excite. Copenhagen is a clean, smart, stylish and ordered city, content to offer visitors a warm welcome rather dazzle them with the wow factor. Yet at its heart lies the incomparable Tivoli Gardens, one of the most magical, captivating square miles in Europe. This theme-park cum fantasy world suspends belief and reminds you that Denmark is the fairy tale land of Hans Christian Anderson. When Alice spied through the looking glass this is where she spied.
Tivoli reveals what is generally hidden, the fun and flair behind the cool, phlegmatic demeanour. This expression, the unexpected explosion of colours and flavours, was seen in the deserts. The beetroot and Anis ice-cream looked enticing and tasted spectacular, like a firework display of rockets, flares and cascading candles erupting on the tongue. I looked at the bowl it was served in; modest, understated, functional. Then i tried another spoonful; complex, surprising, delicious.
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Denmark is not a country or a cuisine that will demand your attention or flaunt its virtues. It may not have a dust jacket splashed with colour or a ringing endorsement quoted on the spine. But if you sit, relax and savour its story you may just find it is a thriller afterall.
Thursday, 19 May 2011
Restaurant: The Czech Slovak Club
Location: West Hampstead
By Boeing: 1400 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.3 miles
A musty miasma drifted lightly through the panelled drawing room and beams of early evening sunlight cascaded through the regal bay windows to cast mounted coats of arms in half shadow. A light breeze fluttered red velvet curtains, cut from the same cloth as the gilded bench of the coronation carriage. Above the hearth and mantle hung a framed picture of the queen smiling over dining custodians. Opposite, and saluting her, the dignified youth of a dapper Spitfire pilot, pride piercing through his fixed glaze.
It was a scene that evoked a lost age of majesty, measured conversation and the swarthy salutations of men in brass-buttoned blazers. An age when to be English meant having a moustache net, buffed brown brogues and a brow-creasening scepticism of anything overseas. But the beer on the table was Budvar, not Boddingtons, and the waiter spoke with Czech cadence not Received Pronunciation. London’s Czech community have made their cultural home from home in an English drawing room. Anglophiles to a man. And Na Zdravi to that.
The Czech Slovak restaurant in West Hampstead must rank as one of the more surreal dining experiences in London. Situated in a vast Victorian town house it looks indistinguishable from other mansions in the street. If anything it might house a dental surgery or, perhaps, a reflexology clinic. Only a squat, mildewed statue of chef betrays any culinary pretensions. When you walk through the door into a long corridor you are still not sure whether it is your jacket that will be removed or a malevolent molar. At the rear of the building is a spartan bar with a sparse scattering of Czechs drinking Pilsner and cursing at an Ice Hockey game on TV. If the hockey was football and the Pilsner a pint of Pale Ale it could easily be a working mans club anywhere in England.
But beyond the bar, the doors open out onto an unexpected garden that looks like the set of a Monty Python spoof of the Sound of Music. Beyond the rows of benches is a huge log pile next to a BBQ cum-oven the size of a summer house. Set around this, in concentric circles, are chopped stumps for people to sit on. My Czech companion was overcome with its authenticity saying: ‘This is exactly what it is like. This is what i remember, everyone sitting on logs.’
Despite thinking there was an obvious gap in the market for an enterprising chair entrepreneur I found the scene satisfyingly rustic.
The Czechs, like many continental Europeans, embrace the wholesome goodness of the great outdoors. Unlike England and Holland where you can’t swing a cat without striking an architect in the face, vast tracts of central Europe remain unchanged and undeveloped. And while most associate the Czech republic with Prague, a city with few equals for classical beauty and cultural heritage, it is at heart a nation of pastures and country folk rather than pavements and commuter belts.
Sitting on a bench, sipping Budvar, I almost felt part of a kitsch homo-erotic Levis advert where wholesome woodcutters leant precariously, sorry, provocatively, with one leg on a freshly hewn stump. The scene is no doubt indistinguishable from many in Moravia, but then there are hundreds of children that sing in Switzerland but not all of them have the surname Von Trapp.
After enjoying the last hour of sunlight in the garden we moved through to the panelled restaurant, and sat by the window. It was part Fortnums part Fawlty Towers, with not a refresh or refurbish in decades. Though smart it fell someway short of elegant but the framed pictures, maps and photographs leant it a lived-in charm. It was the kind of room I can imagine the late John Gielgud passing many a happy hour reclined in an easy chair. Like Gielgud its Englishness was leant an air of intrigue by a subtle betrayal of its European origins
In keeping with the rustic feel of the garden the menu was hearty and wholesome. The rugged outdoors is clearly an appetite building lifestyle. While a slither of shashimi may suffice for a Tokyo businessman’s daily grind of access and egress of lifts, the demands of the Czech countryside require something a little more substantial. To start they need warming in the biting cold of winter with a piping hot bowl of soup. While i concede that there are more appetising sounding soups than sour cabbage, mine was surprisingly delicious and refreshing.
The main courses included regional favourites such as Schnitzels and rich Goulashes but also traditional Czech fare such as Beef in Cream. But the real treats and the real calories are to be found in the side dishes. The potato pancakes, riddled with bacon, are a meal in themselves and the traditional Halusky dumplings, like doughy gnocchi in a rich, cloying sheep milk bechamel, are more than a match for any appetite. In the end I picked up my serviette and ruefully hoisted the white flag of surrender. It was the first time I had ever left a restaurant with a doggy bag. In the end my jaw just failed to respond to my promptings. It was like trying to eat a sandpit.
Though a tantalising array of summer fruits was offered for dessert neither of us could summon the strength. But we rounded off the evening with a slurp and slam of the local tipple, Silvovice, a fiery plum brandy. It hadn’t been so much a meal as a feast. As European cuisine goes it may not have the finesse of France or the sophistication of Spain but a Czech meal consumed is a Czech contented.
Sunday, 15 May 2011
Location : Primrose Hill
By Boeing: 6611 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.4 miles
The minute you walk through the door of Lemonia you leave the paving of Primrose Hill for a Phoenician paradise of hanging baskets and sun-drenched platters of plenty. Its waiters twist and pirouette as they weave a path between boisterous businessmen, courting couples and the paparazzi princesses of the Primrose Hill crowd serving the bounty of Cyprus’s groves and gardens. For over thirty years it has been enticing diners with the promise of rest and retsina to break up the routine of a working week.
Cyprus has always been a favoured destination for the English. When planes were first built to fly passengers rather than pilots sun worshippers sought to escape to somewhere exotic but would no sooner cross a continent than take a gap year before university. The far flung outpost of this short haul empire was a hypnotic island of azure waters, ancient temples and lemon scented valleys. Though European in personality it is Middle Eastern in proximity, closer to the Cedar lined coast of Lebanon than the Greece. It was as exotic as a European break could be, and far classier and classical than Canvey Island or the Costa Del Sol. As I sat down at my table under terracotta tiles I shared their sense of adventure, foreign, unquestionably, but just familiar enough to rest at ease.
Cyprus’s beauty is quite literally the stuff of legend, being the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty But in ancient times as in modern this island, in the curtilage of Europe but on the cusp of Asia, was claimed by two different traditions. Though the Greek Aphrodite is better known and more widely celebrated she stole the limelight and lustre of the far older Phoenician Astarte. To this day Cyprus remains divided, with the South looking west to Greece and Europe and the North’s eyes cast east to Turkey and Asia Minor.
A Cypriot menu reflects this heritage, drawing tastes and traditions from both Greece and Turkey, Occident and Ottoman. Whether you are served a Greek Souvlaki or a Turkish Shish the taste is equally evocative of the island. In Lemonia the italics on the menu are in Greek but a Turkish taverna draws from the same inspiration. While the tongue may be different, the flesh and fillets are the same.
It is fitting for a birthplace of Gods that food is served in feasts. The rich, verdant landscape and sun-drenched climate provide an over-flowing basket of fruit and vegetables for the Cypriot table. Meals are served as a Mezzes, dish after dish served until the eyes forget to count the courses. Large families and chattering friends ate bowls of Okra, hummus, Tzatziki, stuffed vine leaves, spiced meatballs, Calamari rings and grilled Halloumi cheese as waiters circled with dishes, squeezing ever more dishes on laden tables. In Limassol these would have been supplemented further with local tastes thought a little too bold for English tastes, such as pickled quails eggs, sautéed snails and rams testes.
Mezze, the perfect meal for the indecisive, provides samples of specialities that are forever replenished. This food format, also widespread across the Middle East and Arabia, makes for lively, gregarious dining as people discover new dishes and pass them on to friends to try. Mezze is not marked by restraint and neither is the etiquette of those who enjoy it, who lean and ladle with a flurry of elbows. In Lemonia’s light and airy Orangery, diners, bathed in early evening sun, could almost be eating al fresco in a Lemon grove, dishes lined the length and breadth of long trestle tables. Sepia pictures, terracotta pots and vines cascading from ceiling-hung baskets add to an authentic air. It is one restaurant that prides itself in putting punters in their place, a place where they feel more on holiday than at home.
But Mezze works best with large groups and couples at smaller tables tend to eat conventional courses. But with an abundance of dishes on offer Cypriot waiters find specific tastes harder to cater for. My friend, A celiac, asked whether she could eat the Dolmades. Our waiter, amiable and attentive, left us to check. On his return he declared emphatically, ‘anything I serve, you can eat.’ We ordered Dolmades and Lountza (smoked pork tenderloin). He left us with our order but paused, and returned. “A basket of bread for you both?” We had added a complex caveat to the Cypriot cycle: He serves, we eat.
Baulking at paying £12 for a kebab (Souvlaki) I ordered Tavvas, a traditional lamb stew infused with cumin. It was so slow cooked it must have matured from lamb to mutton in the pot. A bottle of the local tipple, the fiery wine Retsina, added an acidic accompaniment.
While mains are succulent and delicately spiced, desserts are sweet. Mine resembled a honey-drenched shredded wheat covering sugar-swamped pistachios and hazelnuts. As if this wasn’t sweet enough I washed it down with the oldest wine in the world, the syrupy, Sherry-like Commandaria. If Aphrodite toasted to her beauty, it would have been this nectar passing her luscious lips.
It was delicious, but so heavy that my chin sunk to rest to rest on my chest, like a gluttonous monk preying for absolution.
Like those sixties tourists I left Cyprus with many anecdotes and mild Angina; an exotic land of myths and Mezze that lies in Europe, but looks out beyond.
Monday, 2 May 2011
Location : Soho
By Boeing: 1394 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.2 miles
Of all the destinations on this journey so far Cuba is perhaps the most intriguing. Despite being a mere stones-throw from the USA this island rejected the comforts of capitalism to become a Caribbean cradle of communism. The fusion of a Creole culture, Latin spirit and communist ideology makes Cuba a unique tourist destination. It's mystique comes from the legacy left by the defiant, enigmatic leadership of two of the 20th centuries most revered figures, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Were it not for them Cuba may have been yet another a beautiful but bland tropical paradise. Through the strength of their conviction they shaped a country of contrasts, complexity and contradictions.
in Europe and the East communism is associated with suppression of culture: individuality and ideas seen as undermining collective security and efficiency. But Cuban communism had character and colour, its solidarity appearing to enrich rather than enslave its soul. In this context it doesn't seem a paradox that Cuba's most famous exports, cigars, rum and rhythm, are symbols of indulgence and pleasure rather than tokens of self-sacrifice. But political, ideological and economic isolation from the USA, the largest economy in the world, came at a cost to cuisine.
It is popular saying in Cuba that the three successes of the revolution were education, sport and health and the three failures breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cuba remains the only country where food is rationed. With this in mind as I walked into Floridita restaurant in Soho, i was expecting more of a cultural than culinary experience.
The original Floridita in Havana has become something of a tourist trap as it was the favoured eatery of the writer Ernest Hemmingway, who is worshipped as a patron saint of tourists in a gaudy statue/shrine by the bar. This fame has brought fortune and a glamorous, glitzy branch in Soho. Descending the neon-lit stairwell to the shimmering leather couches and mirrored columns of the restaurant it is clear that Floridita is a high-end night-spot rather than a bohemian bistro.
We began the evening with a Daiquiri, the famous rum-based cocktail said to have been invented in Floridita, Havana. My companion, who had just returned from a Cuban honeymoon, remarked that although it felt familiar the absence of a rich, aromatic smog of cigar smoke prevented it from being a truly authentic experience.
In Cuba restaurants are very much a dinner and dance affair, with tables and booths clustered around a dance-floor and all angled towards a stage. Though very different in decor it reminded me of the famous nearby jazz club, Ronnie Scotts, where dinner is a mere appetizer for the musical feast provided.
Amid the by now familiar regional staples of spicy empanadas, steaks and thick bean stews was Lobster, the crowned king of crustacea. The Lobster has become one of the most sought after culinary delicacies in the world and the global industry is thought to be worth over a billion dollars annually. Being a relatively poor country with a permanent trade embargo imposed by the USA Cuba's lobster crop has been a financial godsend. But though plentiful in its waters Lobster very rarely makes its way onto the Cuban dinner table, due to its high costs and strict controls on domestic consumption. It has become identified as a national dish despite the fact it is rarely consumed.
Clearly catering for international, sophisticated palates Floridita overlooked humble home-cooked Cuban foods in favour of exclusive foreign dishes like Lobster Thermidore. The national staple, Ropa Vieja, a dish of shredded beef flank, plantain and rice was conspicuous by its absence. This sloppy stew that looks like 'old clothes' would not fit in with Floriditas exclusive brand or pricing conventions. But sulking in the sundries I found the wholesome Cuban supper Moros y Christianos, meaning Moors and Christians. This intriguing title merely denotes beans and rice, the ubiquitous ingredients of South America. The meal was consumed, the music was enjoyed.
The composition of the band members reflected the cosmopolitan, melting pot of ethnicity and cultures that is, somehow, uniquely Cuban. Black, Hispanic and Creole they all wore the same lurid floral shirts and played to the same irrepressible rhythm. Cuban music gained international renown through the songs of the Buena Vista social club and have a bouncy, hip-shaking sing-along quality. As i listened, an unusual connection struck me. Many of these simple, catchy tunes have become familiar chants on football terraces the length and breadth of Britain. Clearly the silken Spanish has long since given way to estuary English, but nevertheless these songs spring from the same Cuban Cha cha cha.
As the evening lengthened as did the shadows on the dance floor as couples twisted and jived to the tunes of the terraces. The first foray to the floor was by a Septuagenarian in two-tone brogues who claimed a new partner with every song and threw them under arms and into corners with the energy of a man a third of his age. The Cuban rhythms were like an elixir of youth, under their spell he defied age and arthritis. The quest for the mythical fountain of eternal youth is over: It is in Havana, and it flows with rum.