Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Posts Lost In Time And Space

Here it is, the obligatory anniversary post or bloggiversary as it is called by some, for Food Urchin is a year old today!* So crack out the champagne! Toot yer horns! Pull on your party poppers and join in with me for a rousing, raucous, rendition of "Knees up Mother Brown" around the ol' johanna!

Oompa, oompa, stick it up yer jumper, doing the Lambeth Walk, Oi!

I don't know why I had to go down some mockney celebratory route just then there, it just felt appropriate. Actually, all this fanfare is quite pointless really as it's not even Food Urchin's proper birthday. I registered the name with Blogger way back in February 2007 with the full intention of starting a food blog then but the reality is that it took nearly two years of sitting on my arse before I wrote anything. And when I started thinking about this post, the theme of lethargy loomed in my head. Particularly since there are a lot of half-written pieces that languish in my edit posts page. But why do they remain so? Well to be frank, it often comes down to a heady mixture of indecision, amnesia and slothfulness. Sometimes, I faff around too long, thinking trying to think up some quirky angle and lose all impetus to write anything. Sometimes, I have got so drunk I can barely remember what the hell happened. And yes, sometimes I am just a plain ol' lazy bugger. However, this is something I am trying to change and my therapist says that I've come a long way in a short space of time. So to mark this very special occasion I have compiled a list of the top ten blog posts that I started but didn't finish and condensed them. Some of which are about personal endeavours and some of which are about cracking events that I shamefully ignored.

These are the posts lost in time and space.

10. Opus

Carlingford Oysters

Last September, Mrs Food Urchin and I drove up to Birmingham to celebrate the birthday of my old uni chum who is affectionately known as "CraigWah". With the promise of going out for a decent meal in the city centre, we were grateful that for once we weren't getting dragged up there to watch yet another play (although CraigWah, you are a wonderful actor daarrlink). However, the spectacle that unfolded in Opus was akin to squirming through an embarrassingly bad Am Dram production that left us in fits of giggles. Don't get me wrong the food was very good and the restaurant had a stylish contemporary feel. The Carlingford oysters were amongst the best I've had in a long while and their Braised Skirt of Beef was sublime. No, it was the service that caused us to clutch at our collective pearls. We had a terrified baby faced waiter who threatened to ejaculate champagne all over us, such was his shaking. We had other equally youthful staff, constantly placing down the wrong dishes in front of us, spilling things. And then we had the slightly older, sour-faced Head Waiter who stood there looking upon the whole scene with an air of disdain and contempt, theatrically huffing and puffing, chastising his staff in front of us. Of course, we ended up siding with the new kids on the block. The best moment for me came when CraigWah's sister started chiding the Head Waiter for not smiling, suggesting he really should give it a go. Or in other words, she was saying "just stop being such a miserable bastard".

More Opus photos

9. Isle of Wight Fishing Trip

Sashimi!

In the summer we had our first holiday with the twins and Mrs Food Urchin's family on the bright and breezy Isle of Wight which brought home the stark reminder that now we have children, holidays will never be the same again. Gone are the days of sloping about doing nothing around the pool and each year is bound to intensify although God knows how we'll cope. Spending an afternoon at the beach was exhausting enough trying to stop my daughter from eating sand, pebbles and other floating detritus. Still I got some respite one day that week, in the form of my first deep sea fishing trip which might not sound at all appealing to those with dodgy sea legs but I really enjoyed it. For about half an hour. I went with my father-in-law and brother-in-law, both experienced fishermen and they gave me plenty of warnings about sea sickness. However, I didn't find it too bad which may be testimony to past indulgences with rum on land. Disorientation, giddiness, lack of balance? Ha! I'm used to it. Our first goal of the 7 hour trip was to catch some mackerel and after I was shown the simple jerk up and down technique with the rod, I was off like a loon. And to my amazement, I immediately started catching fish. One, two, three, four, five, SIX! SIX MACKEREL! Woo Hoo! The buzz I got was fairly palpable. As there were about 12 of us on the boat, we quickly got in a fair haul but then the skipper announced after about half an hour "OK, that's enough bait caught". "Bait?" I thought with a ponderous frown. It turned out that the mackerel was to be used to catch bigger fishies like conger eel and sharks. Slightly disappointed that I wasn't going to be able to take any back to the holiday home to whack on the bbq, I asked the skipper's mate who had busily started filleting the fish for a sliver to try. It tasted fantastic and clean, you can't get sashimi any fresher that. Of course that was my lot for the rest of the day, I didn't catch a bloody thing after that. 5 further hours is a long time on a boat, made longer when both your in-laws gurn with glee when they keep catching one massive fish after the other (which get thrown back in by the way). But like I said, I really enjoyed the experience, just next time I'll be getting on the 2 hour mackerel trip by myself and keeping whatever I catch.

More Isle of Wight photos

8. Launch of Jordans Country Crisp Appreciation Society

Poser

This was a massively fun event, spent in the company of fellow bloggers KaveyEats, The Ginger Gourmand, Scandilicious, Mathilde's Cuisine and Greedy Diva (and I hope Mrs FU doesn't pick up on the fact that they're all women.........ah obllocks). We had all ventured out to the wilds of west London to Leith's Cookery School to take part in the inauguration of the Country Crisp Appreciation Society, a bonkers idea if ever I heard one. I mean a fan club for cereal? But by all accounts there are plenty of people out there who take their worship of oaty crunchy clusters seriously, regularly sending in recipes and tips for improvement. As someone who doesn't really pay too much attention to what they have for breakfast in the morning (toast, bacon, curry, anything!) at first I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. But the guys from Jordans and Wildcard put on a very entertaining and informative morning, well a little bit of competitive cake baking always helps to liven things up (and yes Naomi, with your little delicate pear slices, you were definitely out to beat your rivals). Mr Bill Jordan, one of the founder's of Jordans Cereals would you believe, gave us a nice talk and exuded the kind of cool dudeness that you'd expect from someone who spent the late 60's in California. "Like, whoa, wholegrain? Far out maaan". But underneath this exterior, you could sense a true passion particularly when it came to the provenance of ingredients (only Conservation Grade or organic grain is used) and supporting British Farmers. Of course, the thing that really won me over was getting the opportunity to create my own brand of cereal to put in my very own personalised box. It made me feel like I had finally arrived. Where, I don't know but it's the always the simple things. By the by, I just have to say that Leith's really should invest in better quality peelers. My blade came pinging off during the cake off and very nearly caught Kavey in the eye. Prue, you coulda had a lawsuit on yer hands.

More Country Crisp photos

7. Brula

Devonshire crab, prawns, baby squid, avocado and sauce vierge

Again, I ventured over to west London for this one but this time I had my little sister Tori in tow and was taking her out for a birthday treat to Brula. Given that it took nearly a good two hours to get there by public transport, you may question why I chose a restaurant out in leafy St Margarets, near Twickenham when a curry and a beer in Romford would have sufficed. Well Brula had garnered some good reviews and had come runner up in lots of restaurant awards but the real reason at to why I chose this place was ahem, slightly bizarre I guess you could say. My sister and I are quite close and looking back on our childhood I have plenty of fond memories, remembering some of the games we used to make up and play, which would only make sense to us. Like "Cheese! Click Click!" and "Lego War!" for instance. My favourite game consisted of us just sitting in front of the TV and putting a video cassette of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory into the huge VHS machine we had. The opening credit sequence would start which was basically a montage of different chocolates being made in a factory and we would pretend to grab and scoff as many sweets as possible. Sometimes Tori would suddenly stop and I'd ask why and she would say "don't like these ones" and then carry on when a different batch came up on on screen. Oh to have an imagination like that nowadays. Anyway, Tori who is 5 years younger than me also had a variety of made up words she would use. One of which was "brula". Cue back to the restaurant, where we had a wonderful meal that night. The salad of Devonshire crab, prawns, baby squid, avocado and sauce vierge was an absolute winner as well as the Scotch Onglet steak with chanterelles and a persillade of snails. As I had been busily snapping away with my camera throughout, the manager kept coming over asking if everything was alright (he obviously recognised me as the notorious food critic that is Food Urchin). Towards the end, feeling a bit squiffy and brave, I asked him how they had come with the name for this classy French bistro. By all accounts, the original owners were called Bruce and Larry who shortened and amalgamated their names to come up with Brula. At which point I blurted out "Ha! Well 'brula' was my sister's baby word for 'sick', that's why we've come all the way over from Essex! I couldn't believe there was restaurant actually called 'brula'! Ha!" Not one of my finest moments but hey, the manager's face was a picture.

More photos from Brula

6. Blaggers' Banquet

The infamous jelly boobie shot (courtesy of Carmen Valino ©)

I did write a short post advertising the Blaggers' Banquet event back in November but to my guilt and regret didn't follow up with an account of what actually happened. Naughty really, as it was all for charity and in the weeks that followed, an online auction was still going on. I should have been shouting from the roof about it but even without alerting my readership of 20 or so weirdos (I'm counting those that actually subscribe to this blog) a magnificent sum of 9349 English pounds was raised for Action Against Hunger. The whole day itself was fun, stressful but great fun. As this was the first time I had ever set foot in a professional kitchen, the experience was quite the eye-opener. Someone in their infinite wisdom had decided to give me the role of Head Prep and on my arrival at Hawkmoor at 11 on a Sunday morning, Neil of The War on Cookbooks threw me some whites. Which I duly put on and then went to face the 8 or so faces that were helping on prep, wearing a thinly-veiled smile that said "er, I haven't a fucking clue what I am doing". Luckily, everyone had the good sense to simply crack on preparing canapes whilst I ran around like a headless chicken, asking the chefs in the kitchen what they wanted done. "Peel potatoes? OK everyone peel potatoes! Chop leeks? OK everyone chop leeks! Thinly slice parsnips? OK everyone thinly slice parsnips!" Evidently there were far too many of us as a lot of the time we were twiddling our hands but close to showtime, it was all hands to the deck to get the restaurant cleared and ready for service so in retrospect, thank gawd we had the numbers. And of course, the evening was a roaring success, the chefs in the kitchen did their thang, the front of house did their thang, the bar staff did their thang and the logistics people did there thang big time (by the looks of it, a lot of organising had been done). And I like to think that I did my bit, especially when I ferried two huge bags of ice from Green and Red, several miles down the road in Bethnal Green and nearly snapped my shoulders in two carrying the buggers. If we had run out of ice, as it was threatening to at one point, the whole thing would have been a disaster. A disaster I tell you.

5. Alimentum

Roast halibut with horseradish crust, confit prawn and shellfish dressing

On the day of this brilliant lunch at Alimentum, I didn't envisage that it would kick off by answering the door sopping wet and clutching a towel around my waist but then I also didn't envisage having a female driver to take me all the way to Cambridge. A Diet Coke ad this was not and once I had got dried and dressed, there was a distinct air of unease in the car. I tried to bring up some small talk but she was silent all the way. I think it was the moobs wot done it. By the end of the journey I was grateful to see some friendly faces in the shape of Eatlikeagirl, Gastrogeek and The WineSleuth and some of the ladies from Sauce. We had been invited to check out what was going on beyond the London restaurant scene and Alimentum fairly ticked all the boxes. The interior was cool and sleek leaning towards a 50's modernist style so it came as no surprise that the restaurant also doubled up as a Jazz club. Alimentum's main remit though is to give an alternative ethical approach to dining out, focusing on animal welfare and environmental issues. Which of course is laudable, although perhaps they should be a little careful when displaying their hearts on their sleeves. Having had the experience of disposing a live lobster last year, I read with interest on their website that they had a Crustastun unit. When I asked owner, John Hudgell about it, he sheepishly replied that the machine had been sent back and that he was happy that a swift stab to the head was just as efficient and compassionate way to kill a lobster. But no matter, as the tasting menu that Head Chef Mark Poynton served up was excellent (bloody hell, I've just shown where my priorities lie there!). Highlights came in the form of a Chestnut velouté with bacon, sprouts and seared scallop, Roast halibut with horseradish crust, confit prawn and shellfish dressing and a very curious but delicious Smoked milk jam mousse with banana and honey comb. This dessert came in a small lidded kilner jar, with hickory wood smoke locked in for good measure. When opened, the smoke puffed out as if there was a little magic dragon in there and little things like that do tickle me. If you ever do find yourself wandering around the cloisters of Cambridge, I would certainly recommend Alimentum.

4. Good Food Launch

"Yes I am really interested in your new cookbook, now tell me what were you thinking when Johnny made THAT kick?"

OK, let's make no bones about this. This was a piss-up, a glorified piss-up. UKTV Food now becomes The Good Food Channel so best we pop open a bottle or two and having blagged an invite, I thought why not, I don't mind if I do. Other blaggers that day included the aforementioned Gastrogeek and Scandilicious and also With Knife and Fork and Mr James Ramsden, as he now likes to be called and we were all seated on the "bloggers" table. A certain EatMyNels was also there but in a professional capacity so he gets away with it. The nation's third favourite queen, Christopher Biggins was there compering proceedings and a series of culinary challenges had been set up for the crowd with tables of journalists, tv spods and industry people competing against each other. The great and the good (and not so good) of that merry band that are known as Celebrity Chefs were also there but most of them didn't get their hands dirty. Up first were Linda and Sig who had the task of whisking up a mayonnaise in under two minutes which is no mean feat. My dainty wrists normally handle 30 seconds before I start crying. Then the man formally known as The Larder Lout and I took centre stage to create a pasta dish in 10 minutes. We went for ravioli and so James rolled out some silky sheets whilst I constructed a filling out of squash and pecorino and dressed the dish with melted sage butter. Executed to perfection I would say but as of yet no calls have been made commisioning our own television series. For the third and final task, Rej then teamed up with Sig to make a 30 second trifle which to be honest looked like vomit but by then we didn't care. We still managed an honorable mention when the best team was announced though. After all this, everyone was pretty much left to their own devices to mingle, quaff and chat so I managed to grab the attention of that celebrated chef, Matt Dawson and basically waffled on about that drop goal for 10 minutes whilst he tried to stifle a yawn. And then came the golden opportunity to talk to Xanthe Clay, who incidently had been on the winning team. It was my intention to snare her as a candidate for WMPC but by then, my booze riddled synapses went on the wane and I just started jabbering and stuttering like an idiot. It didn't help that Xanthe's wonderful heaving bosom was prominently on display. Nor the fact that over her shoulder, I spotted James pinching her prize of a bottle of champagne from off her table and run off into the sunset. An extremely enjoyable afternoon.

More Good Food photos

3. Eurostar, Lille and the Tragedy of Pascal

Why did you have to die Pascal, Why!?!?

It seems like many moons ago now but back at the beginning of October of last year, I had the good fortune to win two tickets for a return trip to Lille on Eurostar. I won them via a competition on World Foodie Guide, a blog that sadly is no longer updated, though in the two years it has been going Helen has managed to cram in enough food experiences and adventures to last a lifetime. The challenge set in conjunction with We Are Social, the pr peeps who were providing the tickets, was to simply leave a comment outlining why a little break to Lille would make a big difference to you. As you can imagine, I was pleased as punch to have my story picked out from a selection of worthy contenders especially as my little reason for wanting to go was a complete load of horlicks. I spun a tragic tale you see, involving snails, transvestites and a Frenchman called Pascal. If you are intrigued, you can read it here (mine is comment 18). I like to think that Helen and the guys at We Are Social were moved to tears. Ludicrous stories aside, I have to say that this break to Lille really was just the ticket for Mrs Food Urchin and I as these days, we rarely get opportunities to spend time alone together. Although we didn't have the most auspicious start to our adventure as it was raining very heavily when we arrived one late November morning. As Mrs FU neglected to bring sensible footwear, new shoes had to be sorted out with a tiny little bicker on the way. To this day I swear it was just a ruse to get me to buy her another pair but then the sun came out and all was right with the world. Our first stop was the Christmas Market which admittedly was rather tacky and touristy but there was mulled wine or Glühwein on sale which also helped to warm the cockles. I was rather bemused to get a sharp elbow to the ribs as this grotty French bag lady barged her way to the front of the queue but soon forgave her when we saw her 10 minutes later singing "alimentez les oiseaux, trois cents un sac" in front of a church. We didn't really have an agenda that day, we just aimlessly mooched around and relaxed. We hopped on the big wheel in the square, popped into a restaurant for lunch where we sampled carbonnade flamande for the first time and checked out a couple of bars for strong Flemish beer. And since my french is as good as this, it suited me just fine to keep things nice and simple. I had a slight scare in Meert when an assistant wanted to converse with me in a way that was more than necessary but I soon sent her scarpering with a vigourous pointing at the box of macaroons I wanted. The plan for the journey back on Eurostar was to catch some precious zzz's but as we were travelling Leisure Select, I wanted to make sure we got our allocation of champagne for the journey. The stewardess probably gave us two bottles worth so we slept on the tube on the way home instead.

More Lille photos

2. Bisol Tasting Competition

Now if I had gone and written a post about winning another competition (to which the prelude can be found here) I would whole heartedly agree that I'd be coming across just a bit too smug and self-congratulatory but this actually meant a hell of lot to me. I am confident in the kitchen and yes, I do enjoy cooking but put me in a situation where I'd have to actually come up with a new recipe and furthermore, try to match it with wine, then I would probably crap myself. What I mean to say is that I don't think of myself as an intuative cook so this was quite a challenge. Friends and family are always saying I should go on Masterchef but the idea of coming up with something on the spot fills me with horror. And I had a couple of weeks to think about this one. So when my entry of a Warm Winter Salad with Pheasant made it through to the final five, I was extremely chuffed. To go on and win after a cook-off against some very good dishes in the form of Essex Eating's Pork Chop and Simply Slendiferous' Trout with Watercress Salad, I was over the moon. And to be fair two people dropped out at the last minute but still the judges, after much discussion, decided that mine was the best match. It's a few months down the line and I still feel humbled by it all but now I can't wait to go to Trinity and sample the delights of the chef's table, which is coming up very soon..........."d'ya hear that Dan, the facking chef's table you slaaaagg, hahahahahahaha, Loser! L O S E R! Hahahahaha!"

Sorry

1. Getting Where's My Pork Chop in Olive Magazine

And this is it, the big one. This is one that show your Nan and say "Look Nan, I'm published!". This is the one you show your geography teacher and say "oh yeah, I'll amount to nothing eh? Look! LOOK!" This is the one you show to all the girls that knocked you back in Ritzys on a Friday night and say "yeah, bet you find me pretty damn hot now eh?". This is the one thing that should have propelled Where's My Pork Chop? into the stratosphere and when it was announced as Reader Blog of The Month in the January edition of Olive Magazine, this is one the should have opened the floodgates and hundreds of bloggers and foodies across the nation should have been queuing up to take part. This was the start of the book deal, this was this start of a new career, this was where Brad Pitt was lined up to play my part in the film.

I didn't get one email. Some young girl at my cousin's 30th in January did come up to me and said she'd seen me in the magazine but that was it. No-one acknowledged me on the streets, no-one called and I repeat. I. Didn't. Get. One. Email. What worries me is that getting in Olive Magazine RBOTM is a bit like winning Best Newcomer at the Brits. I mean look what happened to Kula Shaker.

But still, it probably was the biggest thrill of the year ; )

So that's it, my birthday post. The past year has been a lot of fun and I've met a load of great people. I look forward to the next one and I'm going to really try and actually post pieces rather leave to them to gather dust, er figuratively speaking that is. But I don't think I'm going to do another birthday post. That was exhausting.

*This post is a week late.