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.