From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Portugal


Restaurant: Estrella

Location: Lambeth

By Boeing: 1713 miles

By Boris Bike: 7.6 miles


In Britain we have a charming habit of labelling an area ‘little (insert random country)’ if it has more than two shops of the same cultural origin. So in Lambeth you kind find ‘Little Portugal’, a cluster of restaurants and delicatessens on a kink in the road between Vauxhall and Stockwell. Of a summer evening it is a throng of al fresco dining and small, ceramic fires. But this isn’t a druid convention, far from it, just hungry customers looking to apply a charred finish to their Chorizo laid across earthenware dishes.



We struggle to get a table and are invited to perch on narrow stools at the bar as the squat, moustachioed locals do, watching football. I order Portuguese stout and we are invited to peer into a glass cube layered with many and varied pastries. We ordered several, hoping they may contain meat or cheese in some form. The assembled crowd were a mix of noisy, jolly, bustling Portuguese families interspersed with cosy couples and culinary adventurers. The walls were bedecked with football scarves, photos and memorabilia. I imagine they put on quite a show for Portugal World Cup matches.



We order the chorizo beacon, partly for taste, partly for warmth and partly for light. The waiters enjoy setting them ablaze. The flames rise higher and in closer proximity than you suspect is legal, and this rebellion excites the compliant English. Salty, laced with fat and oozing oil they take some eating.



We are a nation of explorers like they are, our souls drawn to the sea and the opportunities beyond distant horizons. They have championed the moustache longer than we have, we must concede that, but in many other ways there is an affinity between us. Their style is elegant yet reserved their music indulgently nostalgic and their fondness for a deep furrowed cord worthy of Henley’s best.

After what must have been close to half an hour and several verbal cannons to the lackadaisical waiters we were led to small, cramped table outside. We ordered some red wine and the chorizo and tried to ignore the fact the waiters were ignoring us. It was Iberian hospitality at its complacent best. When you order strips of salt encrusted pork belly an extended wait is an agony no western medicine can tackle. A vegetarian diner next to us, who had oddly chosen to eat with a Lycra clad cyclist, was presented with our chicken croquettes. A further delay. We were eventually served with a flurry of stooped apologies.

I guess with their usual clientele spending every waking moment in the bar it doesn’t really matter when their orders arrive. Each meal appends to the last and blends into the next. They may as well just keep on bringing tapas and it can all be settled when the will is divided. But for a casual visitor this casual approach is frustrating. The British have a certain expectation, though we’d rather not voice our reservations. Who knows what the average American would make of the service. I imagine the embassy, soon to move close by, will process the complaints.

This attitude explains the success of Nandos. It has Portuguese taste in the form of piri-piri aplenty, but with a western, systemised approach to serving. That is to say what is ordered is then served, surely one of the earliest modules at catering college.

But this reflects a very British attitude to dining, that it should be an experience allocated strict parameters of time. It isn’t the evening’s entertainment; it proceeds and more than likely frustratingly delays the evening’s entertainment. That, at least, is the culture of an older generation. But in Portugal an evening is dinner with friends and family. The food plays a part but it isn’t the focus. In this sense it was a truly authentic experience.

Having said that, we didn’t risk a further delay with pudding so grabbed a few custard tarts in a delicatessen a few doors down and ate them on the way back to the station. Shortly after this visit we had a holiday in Madeira and discovered for the first time the vertical hanging carnivorous joy of Espetada: skewers of marinated beef, pork of chicken, hanging from a metal frame that dominates the table. Naturally the Portuguese are renowned for their seafood, particularly the sun baked cod of bacalhau. But for simplicity, taste and a communal spirit I’d endorse the espetada.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Poland


Restaurant: Autograf

Location: Turnpike Lane

By Boeing: 5969 miles

By Boris Bike: 7.7 miles




The fact that most Londoners can translate Polski Sklep is testament to the extent to which Polish immigration and culture forms a part of 21st century London. Polish is the second most spoken language in England, afterall, so you’d expect a few words to be assimilated. The shops that sell a boggling array of cured pork are a familiar sight, particularly in districts where the polish diaspora have congregated. The ties between Britain and Poland are long and celebrated, and it is no surprise that London proved a popular destination for poles seeking new careers and opportunities abroad when the EU was expanded ten years ago. An early King, Canute, was the son of a polish princess.

They flew our spitfires. In fact the 303 Polish squadron shot down the most Germans in the Battle of Britain. It was also Poles, not brainy Brits in Bletchley Park, that first broke the Enigma code. After the war many settled in Britain, having felt betrayed by communist Russia and fearing persecution of the liberal back home. Communities sprung up in London and polish ministries were founded in places such as Balham and Ealing. In order to preserve language and customs in an alien land clubs and youth groups were formed.



There are top end Polish restaurants in London, some of the most feted in the capital no less, but Autograf isn’t one of them. Turnpike Lane was a new discovery for me and it is blessed with the faded glamour and shabby dignity of a cavernous art deco tube building. But as with so many of the inner suburbs the promise of the planners didn’t quite materialise and the wonder soon dissipates along its narrow urban tentacles. We walked past the entrance at first, it was so narrow. But returning and pausing outside its stripped wooden panels and soft lighting convince an eye to widen and an intrigued bottom lip to jut out.

It is a cosy restaurant, certainly, many would say claustrophobic. The narrow space is dominated by a large corner mounted television. This is, I’m continually reminded on this journey, as essential an ingredient of a Baltic or Balkan outpost as the capacity to serve food. Lurid dancing and the haunting melodies of Europop, clearly makes the diners feel at home. The design of the restaurant has something of the American diner about it, with bench seats in booths. But the wooden planks are too light for a log cabin effect, and almost give it the feel of a sauna.

My companion, London born and raised but of proudly Polish descent, introduces himself to the waitress in suitably jovial terms. Sixty odd words and it only amounts to a beer each, making me wonder whether he asked her when her shift ends. Opposite, a pretentious young man wearing vibrant, and no doubt ethically sourced, knitwear crooned to his friends “You see, I told you it was a hidden gem.” There is much social cache to be won by making culinary discoveries. And surely if it is on Google it isn’t ‘hidden’.



They are served with the largest schnitzels I’ve ever seen. And I’ve made a life’s work of seeking out huge ones. I wrestle with myself, but don’t think it will be possible to order anything else. The menu may as well be the collected diaries of Tony Benn in Mongolian, for I won’t read it now. But before that, Pierogi. These butter fried dumplings are a staple of the Slavic world. With a greater girth and more robust filling than their Italian cousins, Ravioli, they are filled with combinations of potato, cabbage, cheese and gently spiced meats. We order a host of them in a platter.

They make an ideal starter and suit the laid back, communal dining style of the region. ‘Pir’ means festivity, appropriately enough. Naturally, inevitably even, we ordered too many. The waitress told us they were only small. I don’t think the radius of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is small, not when you have ten of them. They are a meal in themselves, truth be told. But though they dislodged the hunger, they didn’t dislodge the spectre of schnitzel envy.

For the love of all things lightly breaded and pan fried, it was a monster. If composed of a single animal the animal in question must have won many rosettes. If there was potato it was hidden, and rendered irrelevant. It was akin to the size of a hubcap on a Korean city car. The sweating began a third of the way through, and it was joined by an aching jaw. It was an ordeal. A delicious, diplomatic ordeal.

Ed Miliband is of polish stock, and the recent image of him eating a bacon sandwich betrayed a childhood of pitiless schnitzel serving: the stoop, the loss of muscular control, the need to use a hand on the table to prop up your seated weight, I adopted them all. In a feat of gluttonous duty I finished. You know when exhaustion is so total it makes you emotional? Well, I left the restaurant crying with a smile on my face.