Sunday, November 27, 2011

LONDON CALLING (BUT NOT VERY LOUD)

I don't think I ever showed you this.  It's a piece I did for Gourmet Live.
You can read it at their website here:


And do let me apologize for the photograph - I don't really look like that, honest.

LONDON CALLING

PUBLISHED IN GOURMET LIVE 09.22.10
A jar of mint sauce leads to a rare experience for Geoff Nicholson
—commonsense and cultural solidarity while traveling by air

The last time I came back to America from England I got pulled over by security at Heathrow because the x-ray machine had detected something suspicious in my hand luggage. My bag was unpacked and out came the offending article, a jar of English mint sauce. The English security man looked at it and me sternly, and pointed out that since the sauce was runny and the jar was large, I was breaking the rules about how much liquid could be taken on planes. Of course, if I’d thought about it even for a moment I would have realized this, but the need for mint sauce had clouded my judgment.

The security man softened a little and looked at me with sympathy rather than hostility, as though I was an idiot rather than a threat. I certainly expected him to confiscate the jar, but I found myself explaining that I was an Englishman living in California and it was hard to get authentic mint sauce there. The man’s face cracked the smallest of smiles, “Well,” he said, “an Englishman can’t have his roast lamb without mint sauce can he?” I agreed that he couldn’t, and I was then waved through, taking my jar with me, having experienced a rare example of commonsense and cultural solidarity while traveling by air.

In general I’m not one of those Englishmen who lives in America and spends a lot of time feeling nostalgic about warm beer and Marmite sandwiches, but there are moments when I crave a Fortnum and Mason’s hand raised pork pie, some good English piccalilli, a nice pair of kippers and so on, and I’m clearly not alone in this. There’s a very curious scene in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, in which Philip Marlowe, the tarnished yet noble private eye, has some thinking to do. He decides he needs prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, and goes to a Los Angeles restaurant called Lowry’s. Now I would have thought Marlowe was far too tough and all-American to be a Yorkshire pudding kind of guy. Great though it is, Yorkshire pudding seems a little too soft, frivolous and British for a hard bitten gumshoe, and this fictional moment just doesn’t ring true in the book. And I seems to me it was the author, Chandler, partly raised in England and very much an Anglophile, who was craving some British nosh, and placed the urge on his fictional hero. It’s hard to blame him.

There is no restaurant in L.A. called Lowry’s, and as far as I can tell there never was, but there is one called Lawry’s, and it certainly existed in Chandler’s time, though its location has moved since then. There you can indeed get prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, although in my experience the majority of the customers are unsure what a Yorkshire pudding is or how to eat it. Quite a high percentage of the puddings return to the kitchen untouched, which is a terrible shame. The interaction of well-beaten batter and sizzling hot beef fat in oven is one of British cookery’s most delicious and mystical processes. Lawry’s can certainly satisfy some of my yearnings for British food, and if it isn’t exactly a taste of home, it’s a decent approximation.

In fact Lawry’s, a small chain that now extends to Dallas, Las Vegas and Chicago, as well as outside America, is a respectful though not especially accurate, imitation of the classic London restaurant, Simpson’s in the Strand. The story goes that Lawrence L. Frank, the begetter of Lawry’s, never visited Simpson’s, but he heard reports that they carved beef tableside from grand silver trolleys, and this led him to create a version from his own imagination. I wouldn’t be the first to say that the imitation is rather better than the original.

Lawry’s doesn’t advertise itself as serving British food per se, and it’s not hard to see why. All Americans “know” how terrible British food is. They accuse it of being both bland and disgusting, not an easy trick to pull off. And the claim is that the food’s not just bad, but downright laughable. The jokes probably didn’t start with Mark Twain whose recipe for “New English Pie” involves a bullet-proof dough, several days of cooking and then petrifaction. And it certainly didn’t end with the Simpsons’ Mutton Chop Murderer episode, set in Victorian England, in which the killer is caught through his love of eel pies.

Old jokes and stereotypes die hard. The obvious way to counter them is to say that British food has seen huge changes and improvements in recent years. This is perfectly true, although I admit we British remain deeply attached to some quaint old delicacies such as spotted dick, toad in the hole and mushy peas, things that are never going to become hot favorites on American menus. But the biggest change of all is that the British, who once thought it was effete and unmanly to care what they put in their mouths, are now proud of their own gastronomic passions and connoisseurship.

The other way the British might counter the casual abuse of their national cuisine is to ask why, if Americans hate British food so much, they have such a love affair with British chefs. Jamie Oliver’s TV show Food Revolution just won an Emmy. Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck is about to be feted at the York City Wine & Food Festival. Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to Tail Eating, subtitled “a kind of British Cooking” was a smash hit with the pig’s trotter and marrowbone crowd. And there are times when it seems impossible to turn on a TV without seeing Gordon Ramsay joyfully cussing and calling people donkeys.

I find it intriguing to watch the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen struggling to cook beef Wellington—a thoroughly British dish—and I wonder how many of them knew what it was before they went on the show. For that matter, I wonder how many in the TV audience know even now.

It’s surely part of Ramsay’s success that he contradicts the received idea of the polite, reserved Brit. Whether he’s screaming at incompetent risotto-makers or hugging the newly on-track restaurateurs of Kitchen Nightmares, he’s nothing if not emotional. You also have to respect Ramsay for being the only British celebrity chef to open restaurants in America: that takes some nerve. It’s a surprise to go to one of his restaurants and find it’s a cool and sophisticated place, rather than a center of loud verbal obscenity and thrown food.

It must also be said that in Ramsay’s American restaurants, the Britishness is toned way down. Yes, on his menu at the London in West Hollywood you’ll find partridge and venison, at Maze in New York, there are some English-sounding desserts such as vanilla custard, and the London Bar, also in New York, offers “full English breakfast,” but he seems to be holding back. The website for London, West Hollywood, states that the cuisine is “western European with subtle Asian influences,” and Britain is certainly in western Europe, but Ramsey obviously doesn’t want to labor the point. The ox tongue and cheek, which is a signature dish in his British restaurants, and well worth seeking out, was only briefly on his American menus, which frankly is a damn shame: it’s a terrific dark, rich, gamey, very elegant concoction. There’s no beef Wellington on the menu either for that matter.

So if Gordon Ramsay isn’t going to satisfy our need for good British food in America, where should our quest take us? Well, there are quite a few, as it were, British “theme restaurants” scattered across America, various Britannia George and Dragons, Cat and Fiddles, along with an increasing number of gastropubs, a genuinely British invention that continues to mutate both in Britain and America. You hope these places will serve shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, maybe Cornish pasties. When these things are good they’re very good indeed, and to an Englishman even when they’re not really good they’re still not bad.

Some places may even serve curry, a British version of Indian food that’s a long way from anything actually eaten in India. The British have made curry in their own image, usually spicy but mild, sometimes creamy, occasionally extremely fierce, and generally accompanied by copious amounts of Indian bread. I suspect that not every American food lover will want to put too much energy into seeking out authentic versions of inauthentic copies of foreign cuisines, but if they do they’ll definitely be sharing flavors that are comfortingly familiar to millions of Britons.


Among the more interesting places where I’ve satisfied my urge for British food are the Lyons English Grille in Palm Springs—which serves a steak and kidney pie that’s satisfyingly heavy on the kidney, and sometimes they even have beef Wellington as a special—while in New York there’s Keen’s which certainly has British origins, as part of Lamb’s Club in London in the nineteenth century. There, as well as the famous mutton chops, you’ll find English trifle and Stilton from Neal’s Yard. High quality British cheese is certainly something that a deracinated Englishman often craves. It’s not impossible to find in America but here it’s a high priced luxury, whereas in Britain it’s an affordable staple.

And how about fish and chips? For the true British fish and chip experience you should be standing on a beach in a bleak English seaside town, the wind numbing your fingers as you eat the vinegar-soaked chips. It’s not an easy one to replicate in America. In southern California there’s the H. Salt Esquire chain, which is very authentic in some ways. The original owner really was named H. Salt (the H stood for Haddon), an Englishman, son of a fish and chip shop owner in Skegness, a bleak seaside town to be sure. The story here is that American tourists who ate at the shop enjoyed themselves so much they convinced Haddon that America would go wild for his food, and he duly moved to California. This may or may not be true: the hardest part to believe is that there were ever any American tourists in Skegness. I rather like my local H. Salt; the fish and chips are pretty good—they’re not haute cuisine, but fish and chips aren’t meant to be - and the layout of tables, counters and fryers really does have the feel a genuine English fish and chip shop, but the windswept beach is a long way away.
Much greater claims are made for A Salt and Battery, in New York’s West Village, with its English owners, cooks and sensibility. These result in chunky, irregularly shaped French fries, and crisp golden batter that doesn’t overwhelm the melting taste of the fish inside. One of A Salt’s fryers, Mat Arnfield, even beat Bobby Flay in a Food Channel “throwdown”: the fact that Flay used serrano chili vinegar certainly suggests he wasn’t going for authenticity. Fortunately he didn’t attempt the deep fried Mars bar, another A Salt and Battery specialty, one with Scottish origins, not as perfect an invention as the haggis, but definitely in the running.

Finally there’s one category of British food that’s absolutely unobtainable in America, and that’s game. A good local butcher in Britain will sell you venison, hare, pigeon, pheasant and whatnot, these will be genuinely free range - recently shot by a neighboring farmer. These are nothing like their farmed equivalents, however since such a trade would be both unthinkable and illegal in the U.S., in order to experience that particular element of British food, you’re going to have to travel to Britain, and once there you’ll be on a quest of a very different kind.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

MAKE MINE MILLET



I was in a Mexican restaurant t’other day, and there was some loud, annoying, full-of-himself clown at the next table making a song and dance to the waiter about how he wanted his margarita made with “top shelf” tequila and “top shelf” triple sec.

Leaving aside the question of whether the waiter was likely to add some top shelf saliva to the mix, the real issue here is surely that if you you’re a connoisseur of really good tequila, why would you mess it up it by putting it in a margarita?


In a lot of cases this whole top shelf thing strikes me as largely psychological.  I remember the first time I saw and tasted Hendrick’s gin.  I thought it was pretty special: I even convinced myself that I could taste the roses and the cucumber.  More than that, it seemed impossible to find outside of fancy bars.  But then it became available in liquor stores and now they sell it at my local supermarket.  Its exotic status, and desirability, has declined accordingly. The incredibly irritating and over elaborate website has been no help either.


This has been on my because I was recently given a bottle of something labeled Uganda Waragi, by David Shook, the well-known mustachioed L.A. poet.   He’d recently been in Kenya and had returned with the princely gift of waragi, which I admit I’d never heard of.


According to some accounts the name means “war gin,” while other sources say the word was coined by Sudanese soldiers from the Turkish “arak”) which sounds like a bit of a stretch. In any case it seems that waragi is the generic name for distilled liquor in Uganda, including home-made moonshine.  There have been attempts to legislate that this distillation can only be done under licence, but “artisanal” varieties persist, and deaths are not unknown.  The temptation to add some methanol to the mix is apparently too strong for some amateur distillers.


The commercial brand I had was made by Uganda Breweries, which is part of East African Breweries, and it’s apparently made from millet, and I was pleased to see that it was “triple distilled.” The companies make some efforts to market waragi as a fashionable drink, though this is slightly undercut by the fact that they also sell it in plastic sachets.


Anyway, you know, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this war gin.  It was a little unsubtle maybe, not necessarily “top shelf,” and you probably wouldn’t use it in a very, very dry martini, but as part of an everday gin and tonic, what the heck?  It was perfectly fine.  What’s more, its exotic status is surely unimpeachable. How many folks in the neighborhood will be drinking waragi tonight?  Forget the roses and the cucumber: taste that millet!




Wednesday, November 16, 2011

MASTICATING WITH MANSON

        


 I ate at LA’s Osteria Mozza last week, the fancy Italian restaurant run by Nancy Silverton, Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali.  It was an interesting week to be in a Batali establishment since he’d recently been railing against capitalism (or something) saying, "The way the bankers have toppled the way money is distributed – and taken most of it into their own hands – is as good as Stalin or Hitler and the evil guys."  Well this is a pretty dumb exaggeration if we take it literally, and at best a rhetorical excess.  And of course, the occasional banker has been known to eat in Batali’s restaurants. 


This being the case, and because he obviously knows what side his bread is buttered, Batali later apologized, by Twitter, naturally,  "To remove any ambiguity … I want to apologize for my remarks.  It was never my intention to equate our banking industry with Hitler and Stalin, two of the most evil, brutal dictators in modern history."

Well clearly it WAS his intention, but then he realized he’d been a dolt and regretted it for all kinds of reasons.  And I do wonder which other “evil guys” he had in mind.  Mao?  Mussolini? Milosovic?  Ah, those who don’t know history …

There had been some talk that bankers were going to boycott Batali’s restaurants, but L.A. doesn’t really base its wealth on banking anyway, and certainly business didn’t seem to have affected at Mozza.  The place was packed, although we did get a surprisingly good table at a surprisingly reasonable time. 

I wonder if it was because the Loved One and I were dining with legendary sports photographer and film maker Neil Leifer.  He’s perhaps best known for his photographs of Muhammad Ali, some taken while he was still Cassius Clay.


I’ve been digging around trying to find some information about Muhammad Ali’s eating habits.  There’s certainly this picture of him being photographed by Malcolm X at what looks like an all-American diner:


But there’s also an interview in Sports Illustrated from 1996 in which he says he adheres strictly to Black Muslim dietary laws, even though these apparently conflict with actual Muslim dietary laws.  He says, "Our beans are crushed and mashed and cooked. We eat only whole wheat bread and whole wheat muffins … We don't eat any sweet potatoes, because they're not good for the digestive system … We don't eat lima beans and collard greens; these are hard, animal foods. We don't eat shrimp, catfish, crabs, lobsters, all swine of the sea, and we don't eat garbage-eaters like the hog on the land and the buzzard in the sky. We have a knowledge of these things, and once we start eating Egyptian cooked rice and Arabian baked string beans, carrot pies, squash pies, buttermilk pies, we're not at home with what you whites eat."


I’m not sure I would ever really have looked to Muhammad Ali for foodie advice, though along with Christian Aguilera he has no doubt done good works feeding the hungry in Haiti.


Neil Leifer is a great anecdotalist, seems to have been everywhere and met everybody, and frankly this was something of a distraction from the food in the restaurant.  I ate crispy pig trotter with cicoria & mustard, and then rabbit with salsiccia, roasted garlic, lemon & rosemary.  I was far too inhibited to take pics of the food but as usual, the Internet proves that others have had no such inhibitions.


The food was pretty great, though savagely priced, and a part of me wishes I could have concentrated on it a little more, though I wouldn’t have missed Neil’s stories for the world.


Eventually he got round to talking about Charles Manson.  In the early 1980s Neil managed to get into Manson’s cell and take some photographs of him.  Of course, he had to make nice for the course of the visit, and he knew that if he pissed off Manson in any way the meeting would be over.  Naturally I asked if he found Manson as Satanic as legend has it.  Neil said not.  Neil is a short man, five foot six I’d guess, but he’s been around some very big scary guys in his years photographing sports, and he said he didn’t find Manson at all scary.  Neil reckoned he could easily have whipped Manson’s ass should the need have arisen.  It didn’t, but Neil got some great pictures.  Apparently that swastika was fading, so Manson kindly redrew it with a ballpoint pen.


Manson had some strong opinions on food, as well as on everything else.  According to one story, when he and the family were holed up in the Mojave desert he let the dogs eat before the humans, then the humans ate the canine leftovers.   In his court testimony he also said,  “You eat meat and you kill things that are better than you are, and then you say how bad, and even killers, your children  
are. You made your children what they are … ”  As bad as bankers, probably.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

AOK



I ate a lot of OK food in England: a couple of OK curries, an OK steak at Café Rouge, an OK all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Woodford, an OK Cornish pastie bought from a shop in Highgate.  This is not a complaint, OK food is infinitely better than not OK food, but of course we always hope for more than OK, and fortunately my trip provided some of that too. 


The best restaurant meal I had was lunch in the Rex Whistler Restaurant at the Tate Gallery.  That's it above but it's actually a lot less daunting than it looks there.  There was a “pre-lunch” section of the menu offering Colchester oysters and pork crackling with apple sauce.  The crackling was some of the most extraordinary I ever ate, and I have eaten a lot of pork crackling.  It was soft and melting on one side, tooth-breakingly hard and crisp on the other.  How exactly did they do that?


And then for the main course I had teal.  Teal!  How often do you see that on a menu?  It came with Swiss chard, parsnip crisps and bitter orange sauce and it was just wonderful, and it looked like this:


Actually it looked better than that.  But then, after we’d eaten, I looked at the menu again and there in the starter section was a pheasant and rabbit puree served with acorn puree.  Acorn puree!  How often do you see THAT on a menu?  The waitress assured us they were just ordinary acorns that had been boiled and crushed, but what a missed opportunity to eat something I’d never eaten before.

Boiling and crushing acorns sounds well within my skill set.  And it so happens that as I look out of my living room window a see an ancient oak tree, that just a few weeks ago was heavy with acorns (also heavy with cavorting squirrels).  I haven’t found an absolutely convincing recipe for acorn purée yet - I gather tannins are the big problem - and I guess the boiling leaches them out.  Anyway there’s a project for next year.


The most joyously surprising thing I ate in England was Lincolnshire smoked eel with pickled beetroot and horseraddish cream (above).  Now I know that eel is supposed to be endangered in some places these days, but even when it wasn’t endangered it was still pretty hard to find anywhere.  Some of my family were Lincolnshire farmers, but they certainly never served up smoked eel.  The fact that I ate this Lincolnshire eel in a fancy wine bar in Covent Garden called Terroirs, that also served Giuseppe Gualerzi Felino salami, ventreche “noir be Bigorre” and Cantabrian anchovies was especially pleasing.  It suggested that Lincolnshire eel can compete with the world.  (I’m assuming Cantabrian refers to the Spanish region rather than Cantab as in Cambridge, but in truth I didn’t ask).


The best meal I ate in somebody’s home was chez my pals Jeremy and Louise in Essex.  Jeremy and I had been having some back and forth about the hanging of pheasants.  As I recall, when I first started eating pheasant, there was a great deal of mystery about how long you hung them, and there were schools of thought that suggested the flesh was best when it had been hanging for ages and was alive with decay.  These days I’m not sure that store-bought pheasants are hung at all. The one Louise cooked had had been shot by Jeremy the previous weekend, so it had only hung for 5 or 6 days which he reckoned wasn’t enough, and I could see his point, though it seemed perfectly good to me.


And then the next day we went to the coast, to the Essex Coast, to a place called Point Clear.  It was the end of the day, turning cold and the sun was going down, and the beach there was scattered, positively awash with oyster.  Some of them had already been attacked and cracked open by seagulls, but in no time at all I’d rounded up a dozen live ones and we took them home with us. 


And you know, I’ve always liked the Richard Mabey, foraging, “food for free” thing, but I’ve never wholly embraced it.  There’s always the worry that you’ve misidentified a poisonous fern or mushroom, or in this case that you’ve picked up a tainted oyster (not that you can’t eat a tainted oyster in a restaurant) and in fact I couldn’t tempt Jeremy and Louise to share nature’s bounty with me.  But these oysters were great, and of course they were free. The Colchester oysters on sale in the restaurant at the Tate were selling for £2.15  each.  So I’d saved myself the best part of twenty six quid.  That’s a deal.  That’s way, way better than OK.


Monday, November 7, 2011

FOOD FUN


In one of my manifestations I write for Gourmet Live.  This week is their "Humor Issue."

Here's a link to my piece on "Funny Food"

http://www.gourmet.com/food/gourmetlive/2011/110211/funny-food


Thursday, November 3, 2011

STEEL CITY STOMACHS


If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning you’ll know that the title doesn’t only refer to the psychosis of eating, but is also a pun on “psychogeography,” defined by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals."  That’s him above, on the right with the specs.

So I’ve been trying to do something similar with food, examining the ways food effects “the emotions and behavior of individuals,” though I don’t believe there are “laws” in this area, precise or otherwise.  Sure, we are what we eat, but what we eat is largely determined by what the culture makes available to us, the way the environment, natural or otherwise, tells us what we should and shouldn’t eat.  So having been in England for a couple of weeks, I shall make a stab at describing some of the “special effects” I experienced while eating there. 


My first stop was in Sheffield, my old home town.  Fresh off the train I headed for the Showroom Café in search of a cup of coffee and a sandwich.  But seeing that they were offering something called a Henderson’s hotdog (and especially given my recent adventures with Detroit Dogs and L.A. Street Dogs, op cit) how could I resist?

The Henderson’s, of course, referred to Henderson’s Relish (even more op cit), Sheffield’s own vegetarian alternative to Worcestershire sauce.  I wasn't quite sure what was coming, but even so I got a lot more than I expected.  I didn’t even know it came with chips, for instance nor that it came in a huge baguette.   And although it wasn’t a huge surprise that it came with fried onions, I hadn’t expected them to be so coated, drenched, perhaps marinated, in Henderson’s Relish.


 You could argue that the sausage (and I think it was a genuine sausage rather than a true hotdog, though I’m certainly not complaining about that) got a bit lost amid all the bread, onions and Henderson’s, but as an instant introduction to the joys of Sheffield cuisine, it was hard to beat.


A couple of days later, in search of Sunday lunch, we went to Carbrook Hall (that's it above), on Attercliffe Common, a formerly very rough part of town where the Nicholsons  are supposed to have originally come from.  Carbrook Hall is a formerly grand private house with a huge amount of history.  It was  built in the 12th century, rebuilt in the 15th, used as a meeting place by Roundheads, then more or less demolished in the 19th  century, and what remains is a 17th century wing from 1620.   The current Pevsner Architectural Guide to Sheffield describes the exterior as “unpromising” which is hard to argue with.  But most importantly, the place is now a pub, allegedly the most haunted pub in Sheffield.

Again we’d have been happy with a sandwich, but it was a Sunday and the options were full Sunday roast lunch or no lunch at all.  So we had roast beef and all the trimmings it looked like this.



It was a very serviceable pub lunch.  There’s a big roast potato lurking behind the Yorkshire pudding, which was the best thing on the plate.  We ate in the oak room, a wonderfully paneled space, full of ornate carvings, and a molded ceiling that would overwhelm most other rooms.  


Above the fireplace we observed a carved panel showing a man, possibly a priest, standing on the body, or perhaps corpse, of a supine woman.  Her skeleton is showing, although her womb seems to be intact, and she’s apparently pregnant, and she also has a devil’s tail.  It seemed an odd bit of decoration to accompany your Sunday lunch and no less odd as decoration for a private 17th century home, but perhaps there’s a potent religious message there.


Not far from Carbrook Hall, a pub called the Noose and Gibbet was delivering a different though no less disturbing message.  The pub commemorates the execution of Spence Broughton, in 1792, for robbing the Sheffield and Rotherham mail.  The execution actually took place in Tyburn but his corpse was brought back to Sheffield and displayed in a gibbet for the next 36 years, at a spot not far from the current Noose and Gibbet.  It was quite a tourist attraction, apparently.


In the absence of a real corpse the pub has put a waxwork figure up in the gibbet, at the top of a pole, like an inn sign, and from the road it certainly looks as realistic as you would want it to be.  You might think that the sight of a hanged man or a pregnant corpse might be enough to put you off your food, but no, this is Sheffield, where people have strong stomachs, and they make extremely good use of them.