Monday, 30 November 2009

Tsunami of umami/breast is best

Visitors book

Phoebe there anything more beautiful than a mother feeding her baby?

Phoebe's milk, Lorna's milk

Breast milk boobsicles

Stuffing mackerel


Yuzu marinated sea bass

Gold and silver leaf in the sake

Eleanor Seabird and Gaz Twist played


That liquorice foam looks a bit dodgy doesn't it?

Do we? Don't we? Oh what the hell...

What is umami? It's the fifth taste after salt, bitter, sweet and sour, discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who was trying to define the taste of 'dashi', a typically Japanese broth. Chemically, umami is a L-glutamate, which is why MSG (Monosodiumglutamate) makes food so moreish. Umami is a Japanese word (onomatopoeic in that it sounds like 'yummy' )and the nearest translation is probably 'savouriness'.
I realised earlier this year that almost all the food I like is umami: Marmite (naturellement), cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, seaweed, mushrooms, umeboshi plums, soy sauce, seafood, pickles, in fact anything fermented... meat is probably the only umami ingredient I don't like.
Umami also satiates and produces serotonin; in other words it makes us feel full and happy when we eat. In my research I found it particularly interesting that human breast milk is very high in umami, much higher than cow's milk or formula. I'm not a scientist but this leads me to believe that umami is somehow necessary for human development. Clearly breast milk had to go on the menu, but who would donate?
I registered for mumsnet and put up an ad. It was taken down within seconds. I asked around for months. One lady agreed but her boyfriend objected. Finally a saviour: Petra Chocstar's cousins, Lorna and Phoebe, had recently given birth and even better, were willing to donate!
It's a controversial ingredient. Most people's reactions both in real life and on Twitter, ranged from 'ew' to 'no to breast milk. It feels quite wrong to me... cannibalistic even..' to the extreme 'I'm going to open an underground restaurant and serve a cum sandwich.See how you like that' and even further 'I don't care if it cures cancer and promotes world peace! It's effing BREAST MILK!! That's disgusting!'. (Thank you Chris Pople).
While it's perfectly acceptable to exploit the milk meant for calves, in the process separating mother and child, apparently it sparks outrage when donated by an animal that can give consent, the human female. The aversion might be centred around that it reminds us that we are, in fact, animals. When I was breastfeeding, especially having to 'express' milk from a pumping machine, I did feel like a cow. It brought home to me that society's sexualisation of breasts meant that we'd forgotten the basic function of feed our young.
Vegans are very pro-breast milk: PETA, the animal rights activists suggested that Ben & Jerry's icecream use human milk rather than cow. Not so weird actually, for there is an icecream company that does precisely that. Breast milk recipes can be found at this link, the aptly named site Land of Milk and Honey.
On Twitter I discovered up and coming culinary star Signe Skaimsgard Johansen (@scandilicious). She too is an umami buff and agreed to help me devise and cook a menu for a special Underground Umami night. Signe was a stagière at The Fat Duck lab, has trained in Japan and at Leith's cookery school. An academic, specialising in fermented foods such as bread and cheese, Signe has contributed recipes to The Bumper book of Marmite, The Ultimate Student cookbook (soon to be reviewed) and will be teaching at the newly set up School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire.
Wakana of Akashi Tai came to help out with front of house plus provide free sake tastings for my guests. In the kitchen Wakana suggested a private tasting with some aged sake (2002) which matched impressively with the cheese board. Sake is not in itself umami but, paired with certain flavours you achieve 'umami convergence' a food boffin's term for bloody delicious.
Signe and I decided to add gold and silver flakes (courtesy of @spoon hq) from Laura Santini's Easy Tasty Magic clever food range to add sparkle to the sake. We also used her Taste No5 Umami paste (and funnily enough I was wearing Chanel No5) to up the umami quotient in the mackerel stuffing.

The menu:

Complimentary Kir royale

A shot of dashi, a shot of Akashi Tai sake flecked with gold and silver, a taster of yuzu, white miso, umeboshi plum, kaffir lime and ponzu marinated sea bass with pickled ginger

Parmesan custard with wild mushrooms on sourdough toast

Roasted mackerel stuffed with sun-blushed tomatoes, Laura Santini's Taste No5 umami paste, parsley and thyme served with a confit of fennel, celeriac, lemon and capers

Cheese plate from Neal's Yard: Colston Basset stilton, Stawley goat cheese and Gorwydd caerphilly, orange blossom honey, chilli jam from Italy, almonds and oat cakes.

Chocolate fizz pop icecream served in cinnamon and cardamom cones with Marmite butter caramel and liquorice air

Mother's milk


Marmarati goodie bags

One of the great things about collaborating with others is you pick up tips. As we prepped and cooked through the day on Saturday, Signe shared both old wives' tales from her Scandinavian background and professional knowledge. After removing the mackerel bones with tweezers, she suggested using cheap vinegar to remove the fish smell from our hands and chopping surfaces.
I prefer to use wooden chopping boards rather than nylon. Wood is a natural disinfectant and heals itself from cuts. Sig told me a trick: especially on wood used for meat, sprinkle a thick layer of salt on the boards, leave overnight and discard the salt in the morning. This thoroughly disinfects the wood and prevents it from buckling from moisture.

Fizz Wiz in the icecream
The standout dish for me was the ceviche style yuzu-marinated seabass, a classic Japanese dish to which I added both fresh Kaffir lime and ordinary lime. This is definitely going on the menu for future dates. I adore ceviche, ate it all the time at street stalls in Peru (where it was paired with sweet potato) and this Japanese take on it hit all the right taste receptors.
As for the breast milk, I decided to keep it simple as I only had enough for a mouthful for each of my guests. I froze it in little breast shaped chocolate moulds with a goji berry representing a nipple. The guests were remarkably open-minded, all but two ate theirs. How did it taste? Subtly sweet...


In the bathroom. My daughter was putting on foundation in the mirror. Her skin is perfect.
"Why do you wear foundation?" I asked. "At your age?"
"Because I've got skin like an old woman" she said "everybody teases me about it at school. I've got those things...that old men get when they drink ..."
"Thread veins?"
"Yeah, that. I've got tons of blemishes and I have to cover them up"
I looked at my face in the mirror. I had crinkly bags under my eyes. I pushed at my skin, it doesn't spring back into place as it would have a few years ago. Even a year ago.
I seemed to have aged enormously since starting The Underground Restaurant. In fact I haven't properly looked at myself for a while, being so busy. I've neglected any 'beauty routine'.
Next to me was my teen...her perfect heart shaped face...
I sit on the toilet and sigh: "So apart from your weight, your height, the little bump on your eyelid and your old ladies' skin...what else do people at school criticize about you? It seems, according to them, you are absolutely hideous"
"Look that's how it is. Everybody cusses everybody else." my daughter says patiently as if speaking to a retard.
"Do you?"
"Yeah. 'Course. Probably."
"You slag off other people's looks?"
"Well my friends and especially S."
"Why S?"
S. is particularly beautiful, tall and slim with almond-shaped eyes and great hair. She's been spotted by model agencies.
"Everybody has a go at S" snorts my teen "because she's so perfect".
"Does she get upset?"
"Yes, sometimes she cries"
"So you are all making each other feel bad? I mean you come home and cry too" I state.
My teen shrugs.

Cussing, that is, the art of putting each other down, does seem to be worse than it was in my youth. I wonder if it comes from 'freestyle rap battles'. It must be hard, though, for teenagers to build up any self-esteem when every imperfection is ruthlessly targeted. Or does it toughen them up?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Goodbye to Berlin

Well lucky I didn't pack my bowler hat and stockings, I really wouldn't have found any use for them. I was obsessed with the film ‘Cabaret’ for years so a visit to Berlin was a fond fantasy consisting of intimate bars and clubs, divinely decadent people and glamour amongst the ruins...
In reality Berlin is a huge centre-less urban sprawl. It's hard to get a handle on it. I stayed with The Teen in Eisenachestrasse which I never figured out in relation to Mitte (a part of the former East Berlin which is the nearest thing to a centre).
Why does everybody rave about this place? It's grim. It's greyer than London. As my teen said:"Everybody looks ill".
On the U-bahn the majority of the people had hacking coughs. One guy sitting opposite me, who looked like one of Egon Shiele's skinnier nudes, seemed to suffer from tuberculosis. Squeezing away from him as far I could, I tried to cover my mouth and nose. The people still look like extras from a 70s film about Eastern Europe.
I was invited to Berlin by a much-lauded supperclub hostess 'The shy chef' to go eat at her Berlin supper club on Saturday night. Early Friday morning, disturbed by the silence, anxious about the lack of address, I wrote an email, "Please could I have the address as I may not find internet access in Berlin". Casually someone wrote back:
"Unfortunately, due to some complications with both the Chef and the current location, we have had to cancel the dinner evenings for the next couple of weekends. We're very sorry for the late notice but we've been trying everything we could to ensure that it would go ahead, sadly to no avail.
We hope that you have a nice time in Berlin and also hope you will make it to us the next time you're in town.
Kind regards,
The Shy Chef

Whaaat! I spluttered. The whole reason I was going, had paid for flights and accommodation, was to visit this place for my book. I mean, do they live in a world where going to Berlin is a like a trip across the road? Do they know how fucking expensive Europe is for British people at the moment? Do they have children? Commitments? Have to organise their lives differently if they want to go away? Clearly not. They didn't even suggest meeting up...
There have been times when I could have cancelled dinners, due to illness, or legal problems (Amen!) but I never have. Not once. I have too strong a sense of responsibility. I'd have to be  virtually dead to cancel.

Bitterly disappointed, I had one more to visit, something cited on several sites and in several articles as a supperclub 'Cookiescream'. Not only that, it was vegetarian and a fixed menu cost 33 euros. £33 in today's prices, more expensive than mine, but what the hell...
Their website didn't give much info so I emailed and a guy called Peter said he'd reserve a table for two at 8pm. I wrote again asking
"is it in your home?"
No reply. Maybe that was a stupid question, I thought to myself, and didn't dignify a reply. Because of course it's in his home. That's the whole point of a supperclub really.
So dragged self and The Teen up to Stansted. Sat next to scary Otto Dix style hard-faced German woman with plaits piled on top of her head, pancake makeup, dark red thin lips and wearing a challenging shade of russet.
We stayed in the room of a family apartment, it was pretty easy to find from the airport but it would have been better to have stayed nearer the 'centre'. Commuting took a good deal of time and as it was all underground, I never felt like I got to see the layout of Berlin.
Getting off at Friedrichstrasse, we were a little early. Let’s get some chips I said. There was a food outlet selling lots of fried things in batter; fried calamari, fried fish goujons, Indian fried potatoes (green) and chips. They had a bunch of sauces which they served in icecream wafers. Not kidding. But good idea as they are strong and disposable. We ordered something called quarkundgermanishspicish. Actually I made that up but it was a khaki-coloured low fat cream cheese. Not bad.

Down an alleyway...

Round a this can't be right...

Ooh isn't that amazing!

Finally there...

The best thing about Cookiescream was the journey; following instructions to go down an alley between a large posh hotel and another building, it felt like we were venturing into some kind of industrial estate. Surely it can't be here, we thought. Suddenly I noticed a massive chandelier handing from the rafters, this gave a clue to something more happening in this alleyway than deliveries to the back of the hotel. We teamed up with an Englishwoman also wandering around cluelessly knocking on doors, and found the entrance. Winding our way upstairs, we passed a disco, then it opened into...a restaurant, a normal standard restaurant. We were led to our seats.
“Is this a supperclub?” I asked the waitress.
“Well there is a club downstairs...”
“Who is Peter, I thought this was in his home “ I repeated stupidly.
She looked at me pityingly.
I scanned the menu. It was very expensive. The cheapest bottle of wine was 28 euros. That's £28. Gagging for a drink, I ordered it and while not bad, it was sweet white, not something you could drink much of.
"Would you like water?" the waitress asked.
"Just tap"
"We don't do tap. Still or sparkling?"
"Why not? "I squeaked.
"It's like that everywhere in Berlin, no one will give you tap water."
"You'd instantly get a bad review for that in London" I muttered.
They gave us a plate of bread and a little dish of cottage cheese with some kind of herb in it. Couldn't recognise the herb. It lacked salt. I asked for salt. This is one of those vegetarian restaurants that thinks you shouldn't put salt in food. Food fascism I call it. Designed to make life even more miserable than it already is.
My starter...oh what to say? It's the kind of food I detest. It's the kind of food where I want to kill the chef. Pretentious, tasteless and expensive. No salt again. I would like vegetarian food to have a better reputation, to be seen as more than brown slop, but this is not the way. Stupid pompous plating. A quenelle of this, a dirty protest of that. Itty bitty. Ingredients that make no sense, do not connect or converge but look exotic on a menu.
I looked around. People were sitting down at their tables. When their plates arrived they looked happy not angry. I wanted to stand on my chair and scream at them.

"You fucking morons. You know nothing about food. This is food for fucking moron people who know nothing about food."
But the Germans are famously law-abiding (we spent the whole trip resisting the urge to jaywalk, people will stand to attention for hours at crossings, even when the road is empty, waiting for the distinctively leprechaun-like green man) so I quenched the urge to smash the place up in a punk fury.
What was it,  this starter that so offended? It was recommended by the waitress and was called 'Stuffed brioche with quail egg'.
It consisted of a stale brioche hollowed out to contain some kind of cheese inside, ah no looking at the menu it was 'truffled foam of potatoes’ on a ‘bed of redwine shallots’ that tasted like red cabbage. The red cabbage completely overpowered any other taste. It was disappointing for £9. And small. The picture above is life size. Ok, I slightly exaggerate but it isn't much bigger.
The waitress, bless her, did bend 'die regeln' and bring us two glasses of tap water.
Mains: I ordered, again on recommendation, 'puree & grilled Hokkaido pumpkin with gnocci of chive, gelly (sic) of balsamico, redwine sauce, wild herbs'.
I specifically said to the waitress that I disliked beetroot. This main came with slices of beetroot hidden under the school dinners purée of pumpkin. It was absolutely horrible. I've been cooking with pumpkin recently and there are ways to make it taste interesting. This didn't achieve that. The gnocci, all ten of the little bastards, were rock-hard and tasteless. As for the 'gelly' and the redwine sauce, well I suppose that accounts for the little droplets and squiggles.
I've said it before, if a sauce is good I want a jug of it not a smear. A proper puddle at least.
Who likes this kind of food? Dieters, food faddists, Pro-Ana thinspirational 'wanarexic/fauxlimics'? Fashion folk who want to be seen eating but not actually eat?
The teen got 'tomato-tandoori-risotto with baked praline of goat cheese, chickweed and tomato fumet'. The pralines, two, were great, hot and tasty. The only successful element of the meal. The tiny oblong of 'risotto' was flavoured with ready-made curry powder. When I make curry, I grind and roast my own spices. I know the difference between shop-bought instant curry powder and the real thing.
Hey if chickweed is a chic ingredient I’ve got tons of it in my garden due to lack of weeding.
Puddle of tomatoey liquid.
The Teen definitely got the better deal. But both of these mains cost £18 each. I can go to a decent restaurant, hell I can even go to a Michelin starred restaurant and get a nice main for that.
We couldn't even be arsed to order pudding at £9. I imagine it would be a couple of squirts from a squeegy bottle and a quenelle.
Still hungry, we went to a late night shop and bought a load of sweets (Lindt chocolate balls and some salty liquorice) and a dvd to watch on our laptops 'Rachel's getting married' good acting, rather depressing. Anne Hathaway doing her prettier Liza Minelli thing, all lugubrious brown eyes and mobile mouth.

Sat: Big big breakfast in first cafe we saw. A huge spread of different cheeses on a large grey slate. The cheeses were rather processed and tasteless but I made a couple of sarnies for later, wrapped them in napkins and then tussled with the teen about who was going to carry them.
"I've got a camera in my bag" I pleaded
(I have ruined so many cameras by carrying food in the same bag). 
I won.

The teen had tomato soup. At first sight we were pleased because it looked homemade, it didn't look like Heinz (although I do actually like Heinz Tomato soup). But it was pasta sauce served as a soup. Weird and not very edible. But nice big portions for a reasonable sum of money. Unlike...well I won't bore you to death...because I think you now know what I think of 'cookiescream'.

Then we walked down the road and saw some squats...Tacheles. Finally, I thought, a bit of the famed Berlin alternative scene. We took some pix and had a beer (you had to pay a deposit for the glass) at the Zapata bar. So interesting squats but nothing you wouldn't find in Hackney on any given day of the week.
Then we carried on walking. And walking. Because everything is really far. All the streets are enormously wide. Perfect for rolling tanks down. Oops.
We found the holocaust memorial. A subject of contention, according to the guide book for having been built 'on prime real estate with little historical significance'. I found it moving. The large oblong stones ressembled a cemetary, but this time the tombstones were without names. As you got further in, going deeper as the earth dipped, it perfectly summed up a feeling of oppression. I was a little shocked at German youth jumping on the gravestones, pulling funny poses for photographs. I couldn't stop myself from telling one off:
'This is inappropriate, you wouldn't do this in a graveyard would you?'
She stopped 'You are right but we are so happy!'
A cubist portrait of the memorial
We moved onto the bunker where Hitler shot himself. It's now a carpark. A void. It seems Berlin is constructed around embarrassment of one sort or another. There is not yet, despite promises, a museum about the Nazis and yet fascism and communism is what most people associate with this place. The communist past is easier to deal with: there is a section of the wall left standing and 'ostalgie' a play on the word 'nostalgia', a longing for past memories for the East, of the time when the East was blocked off behind the iron curtain. But even this period is scantily dealt with, a series of temporary looking boards with information in English and German near to Checkpoint Charlie.
On Sunday we did little, the weather looked so dispiriting, except visit a Bavarian restaurant Kuchekaiser (they love that word Kaiser, it's the one part of their past of which they are not embarrassed). This was the cheeriest place we visited. The food was heavy: my starter of blinis and smoked salmon was laid out into a multi-level sandwich, cemented together by the ubiquitous quark, which could eminently grace an upperclass version of 'This is why you are fat'.
The teen's starter of goats cheese on toast was not à la francaise which is generally fine toasts graced by a roundel of chèvre, here it consisted of doorsteps of bread, with an equivalently doormat thickness of cheese.
My main dish were two-ton home-made noodles, a gluey net of onions and a covering of shrapnels of fried brown something on top. This is food to fight off the Russian Winter. This is the culinary equivalent of Gore-tex and thermals.
The teen was delighted with her fish fingers and mash: battered goujons, as opposed to Birdseye, with buttered mashed potato.
Dessert was disappointing: apple strudel with heavy pastry, not much filling, cold creme anglaise and irritating irrelevant bits of decorative exotic fruit. Got the feeling it wasn't home-made.
Still we enjoyed our meal. The atmosphere was family-busy, we were asked to watch a pushchair outside, and the waitresses friendly and helpful. Does this reflect Bavarian warmth?
Venturing out into the drab, we were too weighed down to attempt sight-seeing so we dipped into a cinema to see Ken Loach's latest prole-flick 'Looking for Eric'.
To be frank I groaned when I saw that it was a Ken Loach film. Europeans fucking love Ken Loach. Just as they love Woody Allen. I lived in France for years and every Ken Loach film was greeted like the second coming. I like some of his films but many of them are incredibly patronising about the working class who often come across as clueless victims. Still his films afford one of the few opportunities, apart from reality TV, to actually see the working class (or non-working) portrayed unvarnished on mass media. This film has the stellar presence of Eric Cantona, humour and an optimistic ending.
We got the U-bahn to Schoenberg airport in the morning where I had the single most enjoyable gastronomic experience of the trip: a large chewy pretzel bought at an underground stall (I love pretzels small and large and have made them myself) through which was mined a seam of, oh joy, butter. Every mouthful of this tube of lye-boiled dough, salt and butter was divine. Those Germans know their bread.
Sausages in croissants...this is a country where it is pretty much acceptable to put a sausage in anything...
You order a beer and half a metre of it arrives...
Even the U-bahn stations look like beer signs...