Friday, 30 October 2009

In which we bathe in a little reflected bygone glamour...

As has probably become evident by now, one of my great loves is the Roaring Twenties period and its shining, to-hell-with-it-all-and-damn-the-consequences mood. Currently dear old BBC4 are running a 1920s/30s series of programmes with one of the stars in the firmament being Glamour's Golden Age, shown on Monday and repeated on Thursday nights. Do watch - last week's, about the architecture and building from Art Deco to Modernism was fascinating; this week's instalment, covering the brief bursts of light that were Stephen Tennant, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Cecil Beaton, the Jungman sisters et al was a wonderful introduction to the period with good commentary from Lucy Moore and David Taylor, whose books on the subject are equally riveting and illuminating.
I have to admit my knowledge is deeper on the Left Bank and its literary stars of the age, who seem to have a little more purpose and gravitas to their lives, but the above-mentioned are good fun when we all could do with a little sparkle nowadays.

Just a little olden light to bathe in as the nights get darker.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

It's all in the seasoning...

Life's a careful, fragile balance, I think we can say. Work-life, love-friends, priorities-commitments - it's all about how many balls and how few hands. Mostly, it carries on just straight as you like, but every now and then, you get thrown a curve ball. Just how you're meant to catch it when you're intent on juggling all the others is anybody's guess, but field it you do and (mixed metaphor fast approaching) what turns out to be on first sight an overdose of searingly hot and unpleasant chilli can turn out to be the very pep it all needed to help it whoosh along like gangbusters, perhaps albeit at a tangent to the original.

All of which is a ramblingly musing way of saying that we could learn a lot from Vietnamese cuisine. No, really. Bear with me. It seems to me they've got it down - that blend of sweet, sour, salty, fresh and every now and then a zing of chilli to waken the tastebuds. This was made crystal-clear to me at last night's feast at Mien Tay, Clapham Junction's newly-opened sister branch to the one in Shoreditch.

Brace yourselves, it's an orgy of food. So much so, for the first time, I actually understood the invention and appeal of the Roman vomitarium. We started with a fresh salad of thinly sliced beef with coriander and lime, the beef perhaps poached in a little stock or similar so that it was meltingly tender and just cooked.

Followed by a platter of goodies: quail roasted and then sprinkled as desired with a salt-sugar-white pepper mixture and lime; deep-fried soft shell crab looking more than a little 'en crapaud' as the invading French might say; beef wrapped in betel leaves which you eat in the same chopstick-grab as a rice paper-wrapped vermicelli roll and dipped in a delicate chilli sauce; rice-paper spring rolls, crisp as a winter day, filled with minced chicken and prawns and - just as a palate freshener - lightly pickled carrots for crunch and lift.

Followed by beef cooked in coco-juice (guess coconut water, not milk) and wine vinegar in a little pot on a gas burner - DIY fondue Vietnamese-style. Ravishing, the beef swirled in the juices until opaque, then tipped over a vermicelli/salad bowl with a little of the juices and chilli sauce; Goat (who knew?) with galangal, strong-tasting and slightly curried; monster prawns in egg-yolk and garlic sauce (blee, egg, left this one for my fellow trooper); side dishes of morning glory and pak choi with garlic; pho with beef brisket and beef balls, the broth stomach-settling in its crystal-clear, somehow soothing intensity. There could have been more, but at this point my brain was starting to reject the notion of yet more. There should/could have been stir-fried eel and another spicy goat dish - we certainly wanted them - but I couldn't tell you with any certainty we had them, as it all started to blur...

Rainbow seaweed drink - of course - with actual kidney beans lurking in its murky opalescent depths wasn't for me, but the Vietnamese coffee, as rhapsodized over by a certain M. Bourdain, was excellent. They drip strong bitter coffee (gorgeous just as it was) onto a - how can I put this without the imagery seeming off-putting - bottom-floater of condensed milk. Then you stir and drink - sweet and strong and surprisingly addictive for this dedicated non-milk drinker.

There isn't a wine list as such - house wine seems to be whatever they've got on hand, but I noticed tables operating on a BYO, which seems ultimately sensible. Main courses range around the £6 which is an indescribable bargain, considering the quantity of food in each dish - we shared each one comfortably between two.

Despite each dish having its own distinct, hardly faint-hearted flavours, the overwhelming impression was one of levity, of each component working in harmony with the others on the plate, everything there for a purpose, the seasoning minutely adjusted to enhance the main ingredient rather than overwhelm.

Oh, there you go - we're back to balance again. Told you Vietnamese had all the answers.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Happy Birthday... Evelyn Waugh

I'm not obssessed, I swear, but it's his birthday today. Celebrate by reading Mad World by Paula Byrne or even just dip back into Decline & Fall or Brideshead. Go on, treat yourself.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Humming bears and other animals

Humming bears is a delightful image. Durrell describes this in his books with the most wonderful description of himself and a bear at Whipsnade when he worked as a keeper singing along together, Durrell providing the lyrics, the bear the background hum while sucking his paw, apparently utterly content.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Death of a Farmers Market; or do some research first

Sad news, Palace residents. Penge Farmers Market is no more. After a 6 month trial the organisers have discovered that Penge - try as it might - is not actually home to 'AB1' residents (what - just what - is that supposed to mean? Does anyone apart from weird marketeers use this term to describe human beings?), unlike Dulwich where they also have a market going, and so the good honest hard-working people of Penge will not - and cannot - support a farmers market. To be honest, Penge isn't that short of reasonable shops - they have a great butchers and there's a very large Sainsburys at the end of the high street, so realistically speaking, they're not going to want to pay upwards of £7 for 2 loaves of fancy-schmancy bread and £4 for a bottle of apple juice. Frankly, not many people would.
So what does it take for a farmers market to work? According to the market organiser when I spoke to him earlier in the year, Penge was a plum spot for a market, lacking as it does independent grocers, a fishmongers, bakery etc and being (apparently although not in actuality) the habitat of relatively high earners. According to Murray Bros, the butchers, a market was never going to work for the reasons mentioned above - people in the locality simply don't have that money to throw around. They don't necessarily seek out higher-welfare meat and organic veg - it's not their priority; cost, on the other hand, is. That's why the supermarket and its BOGOF deals thrives.
So surely the demographic research was at fault. Or maybe people get too stuck in their ways. Yes, I could go and buy some gorgeous chicken liver pate and some nice heritage potatoes, but if you can't pick up everything for your weekly shop, and have to go elsewhere, it starts to make little sense.
I maintain Crystal Palace, which is marginally better-off as an area, and which really doesn't have a single independent food retailer to its name 9and a bloody Sainsburys to boot) really could sustain a farmers market. If it can sustain the French market that trundles along once every 3 weeks, the least it could do is host a market twice a month. But I could be being hopelessly romantic and idealistic and living-in-the-clouds. Maybe the reason there are no food shops in Palace is because we're all lazy shoppers who prefer to just trudge around the supermarket of a weekend, rather than care about where our food comes from; maybe Palace isn't as rich as I think it is. But then, the restaurant scene in Palace not only survives but positively thrives, so clearly there's interest in good food...
Meanwhile, while I live in unquenchable hope, I visited Brixton Farmers Market, newly opened in September. And there's another apparent contradiction: Brixton sure as hell ain't rich and it has an enormous Saturday market. Yet, Sunday morning the market - a large one by LFM standards - was buzzing and people were clearly buying, a fact backed up by the fact that when I went back just before closing, I was struggling to get the produce I'd eyed up on the way in. So how does that work? While I struggle to fathom this mystery, I shall now be visiting Brixton every Sunday - never say I'm not dedicated.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

In which we make a new discovery

Check out this Ume Plum Seasoning from Clearspring - you can find it in the supermarket, often in the specialist section. It's a vinegar seasoning from umeboshi plums, those fabulous salty-sour pickled Japanese plums, which are addictive as a nibble.

Last night I wok-fried (wokked?) diced aubergines and courgettes with a little sesame oil. Then I added ginger, garlic and chilli to the wok and some squid rings, cooked until opaque and tender. I then deglazed the pan with Chinese cooking wine (I know Japanese... Chinese are not the same thing but I wanted the sweetness of the wine) and a few dashes of the Ume seasoning and knapped the lot over the squid and veggies. This works because the salty-sourness of the Ume plum seasoning is tempered by the sweetness of the wine and then given fire with ginger and chillies. I even ended up adding more seasoning fresh on top. Pak choi steamed with garlic and oyster sauce on the side for a tres healthy dinner.

A Fine Day Out

The South African Garden

Last Sunday was one of those gorgeous crisp autumnal days where, as Bill Bryson once said, you might feel as if 'you could ping the air like a wine glass.' In honour of the last of the good weather, we went en famille on a little day trip to the Horniman Museum, which - despite living ooh 10 mins away - we've never yet managed to get to.

Well, what a find.... The gardens are stunning at this time of year, all glorious golden auburn colours and the views on a clear day show St Paul's and beyond...

This is the beautiful conservatory:

Inside the Horniman museum, it's perhaps not as beautiful, but it's utterly fascinating. As far as I understand, Horniman was a local gent fond of collecting stuffed animals. We're not talking teddies here (imagine my disappointment) but actual stuffed animals, some of which I'm fairly sure wouldn't be allowed to be stuffed today.

Anyway, his collection became too large for his house so he bequeathed it to a museum in his name and it's a slightly creepy but absolutely interest-worthy exhibit. Apes and monkeys, birds of every colour and size, dog heads (! not keen on that bit), otters, reptiles - the list goes on and on - in fact, I can't imagine there's much not stuffed apart from the larger lions, tigers and bears. Upstairs there are fossils and sea life. If you've got small children, they'd love it (or it would give them nightmares but life's hard....) and there's various exhibits on such as a tribal exhibition, robot zoo, etc.

Why does the Government insist on screwing everyone?

If the reportage in this article in The Telegraph is true, and I am sure it is, the Government's new 'hoof tax' is devastating news for every horse owner. Every horse and pony in the country is now liable for a new tax - trainers and breeders must pay £10.50 for every horse they own. This apparently will generate nearly £7 million a year which will go towards yet another quango (why can't they become extinct?) which allegedly will research the way animal disease-outbreaks are handled in the country - ie incompetently and financially disastrously for everyone unfortunate enough to be afflicted.

There appears to be some campaign to be launched - please sign - i'll post it when I can find it. This doesn't just affect those who fall into Labour's supposed categoryof every horse owner as landed gentry, but those who sacrifice and scrimp and save for a much beloved family pet.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A blow-out at the pop-up; or Pierre Koffman's genius revealed

I haven't been able to even give a hint of what was to happen last Saturday, as it was all a surprise for my sister's birthday and she does - she says - read this blog. So for actual whole weeks - and it has felt like a decade - I have had to keep schtum over one of the most exciting restaurant events of the year... And now, dear reader, I can tell you that we spend Saturday night en famille at Pierre Koffman's pop-up restaurant on the roof of Selfridges. And it was everything you might have dreamed.

(A small background note: if you're not quite getting all the adulation and foodie-groupie-screaming about his 'return', know this: Tante Claire was the seminal restaurant in London until Pierre Koffman, genius 3-Michelin-starred chef closed it, turning the space over to big Sweary Gord - tant pis. He progenated the chef world with chef babies including Eric Chavot, Tom Kitchin, Bruno Loubet and Tom Aikens. He has been absent for some time; and now he has returned...). The great joke is his proteges are joining him in the kitchen - on the night we visited, we were treated to Bruno on carrot-peeling and Eric on potato-pureeing.

The entrance to the restaurant is one for the exclusivity-lovers. A dedicated -guarded - lift, a quick ascendancy into a simple white corridor. Simple but stunningly decorated with minimalist objets - the ghost-girl with her veil is gorgeous. There's a small bar area but with the American Embassy setting off fireworks just next door, they sweetly moved us to our table in front of the glass wall so we could watch with a glass of wine and the bread basket - choices included bacon & onion, tomato, brown or white.

Then we're in with an amuse bouche of two discs of boudin blanc and noir atop a tiny refreshingly crisp tangle of lightly pickled red cabbage It's a palate-teaser echoing his earthy Gascon roots and it's an indication of the meat-centric food to follow. Veggies beware - this is not for you.

The menu is adventurous for something that's only around for a matter of weeks. Starters: lobster cocktail with avocado and lemon jelly; scallops in a laguna of squid ink; a special of langoustine bisque with accompanying raviolo; snails and wild mushrooms with bone marrow; foie gras with potato galette; game pithivier with a sticky jus corsé... I had the scallops - 3 perfectly seared and cooked sweet, soft pillows of shellfish surrounded by sticky, intense squid ink. I tried some of the snails - I'm still not keen texturally but the flavour was dark, woodsy - a clever pairing of fungi and gastropod. The langoustine bisque was silky-rich but not too sweet.

But, you know, starters, schmarters.... I'm almost tempted to write about nothing other than Pierre's signature main dish of pigs trotters, stuffed with sweetbreads and creamed morels, served with a cloud of potato puree so ethereally light and buttery you could bury your face in it. It came with two translucent discs of pork crackling - a textural foil for the rich sweet creamy unctuousness of the trotter. The sauce was a concentrated but not too sticky veal stock reduction, but fluid enough to coat the potato rather than glue to it. There are other mains available.

Oh all right then... Challans duck with herbs and spices, perfectly roasted; a pave of wild sea bass with artichoke barigoule was saved from being too summery by the woodsy artichokes. I'm told the Hare Royale is autumn on a plate. Or choose from a roast veal cutlet or cod with ceps, but why would you when there's Pierre's pigs trotter...!!??

Desserts - not my favourite thing - are startlingly good. My only criticism of the pistachio souffle - that I heinously had without the accompanying ice cream because the combination does nothing for me - was that it was too big. But then I only eat half a chocolate at a time so what do I know? The Toscano chocolate mousse with muscovado ice cream was another silky confection and saved from over-bitterness and over-sweetness by the orange compote. I'm assured the Gascon apple pie is what Eve should have fallen with, being the absolute apotheosis of orchard fruit.

And there we have it. Some quite stunning petits fours, good coffee and a few bottles of wine - FYI an Italian white called Kerner that I had never heard of and a big French Segla which was a tad too cool, but hey, you can't have everything.

I wonder if a taste of being back in this kind of environment would be enough to persuare PK back behind the stove. But I suspect the fun is in the temporariness - take advantage while you can.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

TS Eliot...

... is officially the best poet in the world ever.... made my day. Have just finished reading Humphrey Carpenter's Being Geniuses (sic) Together where TS made a couple of surprising appearances on the Left Bank. I wasn't aware he'd got as far as 'the lost generation' and he doesn't seem to have been much impressed by them either, but having them all at least on nodding terms is bliss.

Also - in a complete left swerve - never had quite grasped that the inspiration for Brett Ashley in Sun Also Rises was Duff Twysden - must find out more about her. How autobiographical that book is is quite extraordinary - it all happened just as Hem describes, with just a little name-changing and a little play about with actual happenings (!). Dear old Hem - succumbed to outrageous jealousy even in his own writings and even when it was Harold Loeb and not him being tossed around on the horns of a bull in Pamplona...

Monday, 5 October 2009

In which we 're-plump' the ageing process

Just a small rant... I'm not ever sucked in by adverts (see all that subliminal messaging waste of time...! and yet...) - particularly those dealing with beauty products (I'm wedded to my Liz Earle collection and LilyLolo mineral foundation and after that I'm fair game) and hair products. Frankly - as MCD notes, who calls it as he sees it - do I really want bamboo in my shampoo? What on earth can it add? A certain ability to snap and fray...?

We're now both quite baffled and amused by the torturous language the dear old advert copywriters use to get their product USP across, most of which seems to be how to defy the ageing process and get back that silky smooth skin of lost youth (Did anyone really have that - didn't we all have spots and over-enthusiastic sebaceous glands and eczema and god knows what? What skin memory are we trying to recover here?). Anyway, the sheer terror of ageing and wrinkles and bags and sunspots, ad nauseam has sent the copywriters quite into overdrive and panic has caused them commit such semantically outrageous sins as to make you want to clap your hands over your ears in horror.

Consider if you will my personal favourite 're-perfect'; as in 'this serum can re-perfect your skin texture, making it as smoothly oleaginous as a baby's nappy-rash-ridden backside.' Dreadful, no?

Or how about - last night's discovery - 'reversalist'; as in 'our reversalist moisturiser can now make you look like the pre-foetus collection of cells your lack of brain resembles.'

Or 're-support'; scaffolding for those bags.

Or 're-nutrition'; I'm starting to lose the will to live.

Or 'de-wrinkle'; you sad sack-eyed chump

Or the scary 're-plump'; ew. and aaargh....

Any others, put them down. It's not language, it's a crime.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Not The Great Gatsby

I'm a sincere devotee of Marina Hyde's Lost in Showbiz and I've posted links to her blog before, but this one: Simon Cowell seeing himself as an [ersatz] Jay Gatsby is a stonker.

PS: Today is Graham Greene's birthday.