Friday, 30 March 2012

Laziness and Bánh Mi Buggery

Out of all the seven deadly sins that I am prone to (and I am pretty much prone to them all), the cardinal sin of sloth is the one that often snares me the most. It really is the one that I like to hang myself out to dry on because my head is always full, always teetering with good intentions and vim, to get out there and truly do something different with my life. And yet time and time again, these plans, these ideas, which always sprint off headfirst at breakneck speed, often suddenly slam violently into a wall of farty, apathetic, laziness. It's something that gets to me a lot, I am forever beating myself up but I don't know what to do about it. The crazy thing is that I am not actually lazy, I work very hard, bloody hard. I procrastinate too much though, that's the problem I think. I've lost count of the times I've sat down at the computer, flexed my knuckles and set about writing up a blog post or plan some new food adventure or tried to work out a book proposal even:

"Ah yes, right, here we go, OK......let's just have a think, ah.......ooh email, ah new Oatmeal! (click) ah...... he he, hehehe, HAHAHA........ what was I doing? Oh sod it, let's have a cup of tea."

Maybe I'll work it out at some point and very soon I hope. But in the meantime, whilst we're on the subject of indolence and torpidity, I thought it would be fun to write a quick post about a development in the world of baguettes, involving the sandwich chain Eat and their buggery with bánh mi.

So yes, Eat have recently launched their very own take on the Vietnamese classic, the Bánh Mi or in their case, the 'Very' Spicy Chicken Bánh Mi. And I picked up one recently, out of curiosity really and while I make no claim to be an expert on Vietnamese cuisine, I felt confident enough to pass this verdict. Now, this may or may not have been fair. After all, Eat do a fair to middling line range of products. But in all fairness, it really wasn't that good. The bread was far too dense and heavy. The chicken was saturated and pappy in a mayonnaise gloop. Shredded carrots and mooli were listless and sodden. And the chilli heat, smeared on as a base sauce, coating the bread, was far too hot, tasting like the "Extra sexy super chilli hot?" regret of a Friday night doner kebab. No, not good at all. And so I consigned the whole concept to the dustbin of history, never to be repeated again.

Then I popped to City Caphe earlier this week and one of those strange, whirlwind ideas came flying into my head as I stood in the substantial queue. 'Perhaps, I should order their chicken bánh mi and buy another one of Eat's version to do a test comparison? Yes, that might be good, perhaps I've been too harsh on poor old Eat,' I thought to myself. And so soon after, I found myself in a nearby park, sat on the grass, in the sunshine with two baguettes in front of me, looking like a proper glutton. That other sin I have issues with.

The resounding result didn't need much deconstructing really. City Caphe's baguette was far, far better. Light, crisp bread, succulent pieces of lightly spiced chicken, crunchy carrot with slices of red chilli and fragrant coriander leaves. Made with finesse and care and attention. It was delicious. Whereas the baguette from Eat, well it just reinforced my original conclusion. It was shite.

But what is the point of such an experiment anyway? Aside from pouring ridicule and pity on myself, I am sure my fellow park grazers were wondering what the hell was I doing eating and photographising two baguettes, the point is this; why launch a new type of sandwich to your customers when it's plainly obvious you don't give two hoots about it in the first place? Why offer a generic, modified, plasticised, Westernised version of an original? Why not be brave and introduce something to your audience that is authentic, different and vibrant? I think the answer for Eat lies at the feet of Sloth. And I don't mean that wonky-eyed, muscle bound dude from the Goonies. No, I mean it's just plain lazy. And therein lies the problem. Despite the great strides that apparently are being made with regards to this country's food cultcha, this sort of laziness will always put us on the back foot. Food prepared and served this way to the masses only waters things down to a bland, extraneous point of acceptability. This a shame and it irks me somewhat and probably needs a proper route of enquiry but this is all I can muster for now.

But hey, at least I don't feel so lazy after writing that. It's a start, eh?

Clash of the Bánh Mi's

Hmm, from this angle, they both don't look that bad but......



Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Springtime at The Food Urchin Supper Club - 31st March 2012

By all accounts, Spring starts today. And although sources do vary from one druid to another, I for one, am very grateful of its arrival. For when Spring is here, the world all around us becomes more buoyant, verdant, lustful and free. Finally, we can cast off the dreary shackles of Winter, finally we can strip naked and run like stags through the forest, bare foot, feeling life penetrating back up through the musty, damp soil. However, a even more exciting proposition than that (for I am no longer allowed to actually go running sans apparel these days, court injunction, can't say anymore) is the arrival of wild garlic in our garden. When the ramsons start peeking through, then that is the signal, that Aslan is on his way.

And yet, as the new shoots push their way through, I am curiously minded of death. The death of our cat Dickie who succumbed to diabetes last year, poor thing. He loved roaming around the wild garlic patch, stretching his fluffy white chin over a broad leaf for a tickle, rolling around for a dose of allium scent, perhaps to impress the lady cats in the neighbourhood. On occasion, he also used to like spraying his business over the garlic, which would fill me with rage and I would chase him down the path swinging a rake over my head, screaming. So he didn't do that that often. At least I don't think he did. The children still think Dickie lives out in the garden, living a life, buoyant, lustful and free.

"He's very naughty that Dickie, isn't he Daddy. He never comes when you call him"

I haven't the heart to tell them the truth, to reveal death, to talk of that good night, which one should not go into gently. Not yet....................

I am supposed to be telling you about the next Food Urchin Supper Club which is on March 31st 2012.

Clearly, I have been sniffing too much copydex this morning.

So yes LIFE! FERTILITY! LAMB! FORAGING! RHUBARB! BOOZE! These are just some of the elements that we shall be introducing to our guests and this shall be the very exciting menu:

Nettle and Ham Hock Soup

Fennel Risotto with Pan-Fried Scallops

Wild Garlic and Anchovy Stuffed Lamb with Flageolet Beans, Roast Gnocchi and Spring Vegetables

Buttermilk Pudding with Boozy Rhubarb

All for the respectable donation of £25.00 per head (which includes free Essex tap water, homemade bread and a refreshing granita, of some description).

Vegetarian options available on request.

For more information and to reserve a place, please email me at:

Ordinarily, I like to post menus and supper club musings on Posterous. But as the site has gorn up the wall today, I might concentrate all efforts from one singular blog. Makes sense dunnit (might get my domain name sorted out one of these days too).

Monday, 12 March 2012

Meating Donald Russell

My Father-in-law, a tall and stout man, often likes to dispense pearls of curious wisdom. Pearls that draw you in. Make you listen and concentrate with your head down. Usually over a pint, cupping your ear against the background din of a Friday night. And when he's said what he's had to say, Pete will often just lean back with a satisfied grin, full of sage ambivalence, finish his bitter and go and get another round in. Leaving you standing there, bemused and perplexed, wondering, "Did he just say what I think he just said?"

One pearl that Pete often likes to trot out, is this gem.

"Never trust a chippy with a full set of fingers. Same goes for butchers too."

It's a twisted logic but the train of thought goes along the lines that any craftsman, in this case, a carpenter or a butcher, who loses a digit whilst plying their trade is actually going to be more skillful and thorough. Because having paid the ultimate sacrifice, you can be sure that the care and attention that they put into their work, is going to be of a far higher standard. Far higher than your average Joe, who would probably prefer to keep their phalanges intact in the first place. Which does makes sense. Albeit in a very macabre, perverse way.

And having visited Donald Russell, master butchers and purveyors of fine foods, up in Aberbeenshire recently with May from Slow Food Kitchen, it was Pete's mantra that kept coming back to me, time and time again.

The fairly full-on day started calmly enough with tea and biscuits and a historical overview of a family business which rose from the ashes of the BSE crisis in 1996. In a nutshell, prior to this cataclysmic event for British beef farming, Donald Russell supplied to trade only, providing gourmet meats to hotels and restaurants throughout the UK and worldwide. But once the news hit, the shutters came smashing down and a lot of jobs were lost. Fortunately, for Donald Russell, a small ray of light came in the form of an idea, to sell to the public and to "send samples out, not price lists." This, in turn, bolstered consumer confidence back into beef and the business entered a whole new era, providing steak by mail. Now little success stories like that do fill me with joy but having had a peek at their website (which reveals a lot about the ambition and drive of the company, they now sell a hell of lot of products), I did have some reservations.

Personally, the Amazon led culture of buying online, especially food doesn't really appeal. Call me a caveman if you like (and my wife often does) but if possible, I would always prefer to see, smell, prod and if allowed, taste food when I am buying it. Clicking a mouse button seems too anonymous, too automated and after donning my Beastie Boy attire in readiness for our tour of Donald Russell's butchery departments and production lines, I wasn't too sure what to expect. But once I got used to the cold, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of bodies, not cadavers of cows, though there were plenty of those. No, the amount of people employed there was pretty startling. Butchers french trimming lamb racks, blades slashing back and forth. Steaks and cheeks were sliced with speed and efficiency, portioned and weighed, all by hand. Rows of pastry were lined with seasoned sausage meat, rolled and egged and cut, again by hand. I feel naive saying this but I had half-expected a whizzing, conveyor belt system attended by a dozen Johnny Number 5's. And the butchery that was on display was dazzling.

Leaning in for a closer look at one guy who in a manner of seconds, was making deft work at reducing a joint of ribeye into 5 or 6 equal steaks, I couldn't resist the urge for a quick count up. "One, two, three, four.....hmm, he's still got all his fingers," I thought to myself. Perhaps a bit too loudly because 'Piotr' suddenly paused to stop and stare back whilst clenching his scimitar, reminding me in an instant that some butchers still have the capacity to scare the hell out of me. But gratefully, he just tipped me a wink and a smile before carrying on with his business.

After that the rest of the tour went by fairly uneventfully although our foray into the maturation room did cause some brief alarm. Eyeing rows and rows of aging beef, darkened, encrusted and smelling faintly of cheese sparked off some serious tummy rumblings.

I have already alluded to the Neanderthal inside me but the ongoing display of meat was beginning to fray and feverishly, I started to wonder if taking a little nibble, just a little bite, would be out of the question. Luckily Liz, one of our guides, then announced that it was time for lunch so off we sped to their development kitchen with yours truly, dragging his knuckles behind.

Lunch was to consist largely of steak (naturally) but chef, Eddie McDonald had a couple of tricks up his sleeve to show us first, demonstrating that not all steaks are the same. Now I come from the school of thought where you should simply "wipe it's arse and stick it on a plate" and have gladly issued such instructions forth to yawning waiters in the past but Eddie had other ideas. The first curious suggestion was, that to cook a rump steak rare, you should allow 4 minutes for each side with a further 8 minutes or so for resting. Now I am all for the resting time but surely frying a steak for 8 minutes is sacrilege? But when Eddie brought out the pave rump steaks, which were as thick a er......a butcher's neck, I saw his point and with our help, we cooked three beauties to rare, medium and well done.

As this was the first time I tried pave rump (think rump really pared down and trimmed of any fat) my first impressions was that the texture was nice but the flavour was missing somewhat. And of course, the well done steak was a pointless exercise because who in hell likes well done steak, done to shoe leather. The protein overload didn't end there though because in the oven Eddie had secreted three other types of steak for us to try. Actually secreted is the wrong word because the joints of ribeye, sirloin and fillet were enormous and the electric temperature probes that were inserted into each one kept beeping off at inopportune moments. Moving even further away from the wham, bam, thank you ma'am style of cooking steak, Eddie had kept these joints in the oven for over 90 minutes at a constant temperature of 60c.

They had been seared off first but the method employed here ensured the most tender, succulent steaks possible with the least amount of effort, which I imagine is very popular with the likes of Mrs Fortesque-Smythe of Royal Tunbridge Wells. And the steaks, which were quite rare, once carved and distributed, certainly did melt in the mouth. My favourite was the ribeye with an oozing, rich vein of fat running through.

As lunch came to a close and somewhat stupified by a rush of amino acids, I clasped Eddie's hand and thanked him warmly for a fantastic lunch, noting that all his fingers were in place. Although perhaps I could have been a bit more casual about it as he did look a bit perplexed when I held his hand up to the light. And then it was then time to venture back into the tundra for our butchery Masterclass, the part of our visit that I was looking forward to most of all.

Bequeathed with warmer gear ie a very trendy body warmer, we entered the demo room where upon the slab lay a rather alien looking object and given the temperature, we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had just wondered into a John Carpenter film. But what lay before us was known as a 'roasting', essentially a side of cow and for the remainder of the afternoon, the mission of Andy Grant, butcher and production manager, was to show us how to take it apart.

As someone who professes a love for meat, I still get, somewhat embarrassingly, flumoxed at times when it comes to recognising what cuts come from where (I blame being brought up at the supermarket). So to have Andy break everything down simply and slowly was much appreciated.

The obvious clues of course do come from the names of the cuts. I know that rib roasts and ribeye comes from, well from the rib area and rump from the backside end of the cow but given that butcher's terminology can run a whole gamut from Porterhouse to hanger to flat iron to skirt to Jiminy Cricket Splitback Corner Short Rib, I was worried about keeping up. Thankfully, Andy kept everything simple and I picked up some good tips, particularly with sirloin. If you ever spot an oyster of meat just under the line of fat on a sirloin steak, it's come from the rump end and doesn't really constitute as true sirloin. I'll remember that one. Although at one point we did venture into Tafelspitz territory where I wanted to say "Oh come on Andy, you are making this up." And as he surgically broke the roasting down, it was surprising to see just how much waste is produced. For instance this piece of fillet, worthy of a sci-fi cameo.....

....was trimmed down to this.

And all that work for the most flavourless, in my opinion, piece of steak. No wonder it's so expensive.

The fun part then came as we took turns to cut steaks dressed as Sir Galahad, complete with chain mail. The butchers at Donald Russell take great pride so it seems in cutting the exact weight, all the time, everytime so the competitive element went into overdrive as May, Andy and I took it turns to slice steaks to the optimum 220 grams. The first couple of attempts I made were a bit shonky.....
......but then I hit gold.

And it was like scoring a try at Twickenham. Although Andy did disparage my celebration of running high fives whilst holding a razor sharp knife because "That's how accidents happen Danny." And told me in no uncertain terms to put the blade down. But still, it was fun.

So then the day came to a close and after a bit of a debrief, we retired quietly to our hotel (alright, there was a bit more steak tasting in the evening) and I do have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Donald Russell. It was certainly an eye opener in some respects. Going back to my initial provisos about buying meat online, I would glady order from them in future. There are a couple of buts though. I think firstly, it would be encouraging to see Donald Russell embrace the artisan behind their trade and push it to the forefront because it was certainly evident. One of the many things we talked about on the trip was the fact that butchery is slowly becoming a dying trade in this country and Mark Farquhar, Head Butcher at Donald Russell, spoke of initiatives to support the industry such as apprenticeships, training schemes etc. If I could go to the website and see more of that happening then personally, it would be more of a draw to use them.

Secondly, throughout the trip, the elephant in the room (rather than cow) was the issue of provenance. You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the words 'Aberdeen Angus' once or any other breed. This is simply because it didn't really come up. I am sure that they do source Aberdeen Angus from local farms for meat but it wasn't really pushed. In fact, one curious statement went along the lines that it "wasn't about breeds but about quality." Which for a company such as Donald Russell, complete with royal appointment, sounded strange to me. Something almost that my Father-in-law would come out with. Surely customers want to know where their meat is coming from? No? I know I do. It may well be an obtuse and contrary thing to focus on, right at the end, after all I have no understanding of the company's operational level but if Donald Russell were to unravel this last cloak of anonymity, then I for one would be caught, hook, line and sinker.

And by the mouth please, not by my fingers.

Many thanks goes to Donald Russell and Wild Card for their hospitality and for organising the trip.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Transcendental Chablis

Pairing wine with food isn't easy. There you go, I've said it.

Alright, it might be easy if you know a little bit about the stuff. About wine that is. To truly appreciate the grape, it's inherent qualities and characteristics and then to match it with food, well there are many, many processes to master. Or so it would seem. You see it's all about vinification, classification, appellation, degustation, from all across the nations and even then, the learned expert (who has to undergo a rigorous bout of sommelification) doesn't always get it right. Many's the time in a restaurant, have I asked a wine steward for their recommendation to accompany my meal and ended up spitting the wine out in disgust. This usually happens upon finding out the price of the wine from the list, rather than have anything to do with the quality. But in all honesty, I have on occasion sat through a tasting menu, spooned a mouthful from the plate and slurped straight from the glass and thought, "Erm, I don't get it. Where are the fireworks?"

So where do we go from here?

Well it's an interesting question and it's one that I have been asking myself a lot recently because I put my hand up to take part in a competition run by The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (think Men In Black but with corkscrews). The remit was to simply come up with a food pairing to go with Chablis, one of the more sophisticated, swankier incarnations of Chardonnay that exists out there in the big, bad world of wine. And for while I was stumped. Even after sampling the best part of a bottle that was sent, a Les Domaines Brocard Chablis, 2007, no less, I was still stumped. Luckily they also sent me a Chablis Premier Cru, Les Vaillons 2007, Billaud-Simon and after tasting that, the magical genie deep within my cerebral cortex began to muse, design and reminisce from the past.

You see there is a lot to be said about personal experience when it comes to thinking about pairing food and wine. And as I let the flavours of the Les Vaillons wash over me, something strange started to happen. I don't know if it was the nose, clean with an element of soft creaminess. Or the dry, crisp, mineral notes on the palate. Or the combination of apples and citrus with just a slight hint of herbaceousness but it was as though the Chablis was furrowing through history, ploughing the terroir of my mind.

Snapshots of a holiday in the south of France before the arrival of children, in the undulating peaks of Le Fenouillèdes, began to focus in and out. A tiny gite in a tiny, tiny village, set in a cauldron-like valley where swallows would race round and round as though on a cycle track before soaring majestically into the sky. Silent mornings, spent with doors open in the listless heat, lying on our bed, peering through the cracks of our toes. Bikes and baguettes, riding through cobbled streets. Trips in the car to the sea, listening to foreign radio against crashing waves. A birthday, a celebration, a visit to the supermarche and then to a poissonnerie with pointing fingers and brief, muted embarrassment and then back home. Mussels and clams steamed in wine, squid and prawns quickly fried, linguine boiled and tossed into a shabby old colander. Oil, garlic, some chicken stock and tomatoes in a pan over heat and then stir through the shellfish. The pasta gets curled into the middle of the bowl, an island for the seafood ragout before herbs, finely chopped are sprinkled around. Good old Mr Stein, he never lets you down. And then the wine is brought out, a similar crisp, acidic Chablis, very gently chilled. A kiss, then a sip and as we eat, the sun slowly sinks out of sight, leaving us quite alone, in our quiet field and everything is just perfect.

So my ideal match for Les Vaillons Chablis would be a Seafood Ragout with Fine Herbs and Linguine.

To be enjoyed alfresco, during the last remaining rays of the day.

Except this isn't the field I remember.

This isn't the field at all.....

How did I get here?

You know, I suspect I've been thinking about this wine pairing just a little bit too much.