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.