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.