Sunday, 6 December 2009

Fermenting change

Why did I start The Underground Restaurant?
Was it to get famous? Was it to become known as a great chef ?
Nope. In fact when I started almost a year ago, I had no idea whether anybody would even come.
You see the buzz for me, the shiver up my spine, the 'oh wow this is all worth it' moment, lies in these words: 'community', 'sharing', 'experimentation', 'dismantling boundaries'. My instrument is food, that which binds us all(sounds a bit Lord of the Rings doesn't it?). We all need to eat. Many of us love to cook.

Feeding is how mothers show their love for their families. It's how countries and communities and religions and families can identify each other. Meals are memories, are milestones in our lives; the first date, the lover that proposed, the husband that did not return for dinner (in retrospect the first signs of divorce), the tentative feeding of your baby, the family discussions and rows around the table as the children grow up. Sunday lunch, one of the few remaining meals requiring mandatory attendance for family members, is where you might bring a prospective mate to meet the relatives. When I travel, new tastes and smells are intrinsic in recalling that country. (It's no coincidence that the most popular tourist destinations are those with the greatest cuisines: Thailand, Italy, France, I'd also include India and Japan). Food divides us too: religions are distinguished via what they will not eat or drink.

Several supperclubs imitate restaurants. You book a table for two. Nobody talks to anybody else. You have imitation restaurant food. The portions are tiny, nouvelle cuisine restaurant stylee. You aren't invited into the kitchen. The bathroom has been spruced up. All signs of slovenly family life have been tucked away. The service is formal even obsequious. The china matches, has been bought especially for the occasion.
I don't get it. This is our chance to muck about with the format. Frankly if I feel like serving a dozen starters and no pud or vice versa, well why not? Lets play. Yes, one has to give some food, it has to be some kind of chef/dinner/guest equation but let's push it around a little. 'Guests' can help out, come in the kitchen, get their own water. 'Staff' can sit down and chat. The hierarchy is horizontal. It's anarchy, but in the true sense of the word...'an' (Greek for 'without') 'archy' (a ruler). Not chaos.

Yesterday was pressure: one thing after another went wrong, triggered by the fact that I had to sling a dessert of expensive ingredients in the bin and create another. It was true 'seat of your pants' stuff, guerrilla cookery, and there were moments when I worried that I'd have to order take-out for all my guests.
I wondered why I am doing this? Why am I sacrificing my social life (I never go out from Thursday to Sunday nowadays), my living room (life is lived in my bedroom, the living parts of flat has shrunk to bedsit proportions), my mental health (my daughter says my personality totally changes every weekend, I turn into a stressed-out monster)....
But then something happened....
I'll set the scene: I'd finally pulled the dinner together, two Front of House volunteers were helping me, the kirs had been drunk, the canapes had been distributed. Suddenly from the kitchen we heard a clinking on a glass in the living room, then quiet.
Somebody was speaking seemingly to the entire room...agog, I sneaked out to have a look. A young woman was standing up, introducing herself and saying
"it's such a nice atmosphere here and I'd like to know more about the other tables so, if you like, perhaps you could say who you are, what brought you here..."
There was a little silence then one by one, people started to stand and say their names, where they came from, how they heard about The Underground Restaurant..
This display of 'show and tell' was fantastic. It was also a little weird, like an intervention or a 12 step programme entitled 'Supperclub addicts anonymous'. People were participating, contributing and using the space and the occasion in an unusual way. There was a lot of love in the room.

Maggie Spicer, one of the volunteers, came from Barcelona for the weekend. She noted that I'd bought a book 'Wild fermentation' (1) by Sandor Ellix Katz, a friend of hers. This American writer lives in a commune and is a food activist.
Sandor is HIV positive, naturally he is passionate about diet; nutrition being literally a life saver in his case.
He writes:
"Do-it-yourself is an ethic that is practiced by many different people.It is an attitude of self-empowerment and openness to learning. Do-it-yourselfers include folks who garden, cook 'from scratch', make clothes and handcrafts, build and fix things, and practice healing arts...Anarchist punk culture uses do-it-yourself, or d.i.y. as a slogan to live by. Publishing a 'zine', being in a band, dumpster diving perfectly good food, squatting, activism, and skill-share events are all manifestations of the d.i.y. attitude"
Like Sandor, I had an unusual route into food. I did not go to catering college, I did not do a 'stage' at a top restaurant, I have not worked in 'normal' restaurants at all. Of course I got the usual grounding we all receive from our mothers and grandmothers and the societal expectation that possessing mammaries and ovaries leads inevitably to being in charge of cooking dinner.
I cooked at anti-G8 camps, catering for 'barrios' of 250 activists from local ingredients and whatever 'The Anarchist Teapot' catering company got delivered. Our materials were dumpster dived; we once, needing an enormous spoon to stir a large pot, used a cricket bat instead. I cooked in Belgrade for the People's Global Action conference. Ever fed 450 hungry Serbian trade unionists, German punks and French philosophers? I have.
I cooked at Pogo, a co-operative vegan cafe in Hackney, whose principles are as strong as their customers are random. It is in Crackney after all. I cooked weekly at the appropriately acronymed R.A.G., the Radical Anthropology Group, an evening class of anthropologists who mostly discuss the moon, Stonehenge, periods and Marxist sex strikes in hunter-gatherer societies. I cooked at festivals, in fields, while the rest of the staff are high on E and K. I've cooked in squats, one of which was in a swimming pool, for donations, from ingredients found in skips. I've cooked cans of soup on my car engine, on the way to camping. I have cooked in forests, in deserts, on beaches, on fires. I pulled mussels from the freezing Antarctic sea, having backpacked to a national park in Tierra Del Fuego carrying white wine and garlic in my pockets to make moules marinières. I've dug clams at low tide to make a campfire spaghetti vongole.
I cooked for the 40th birthday of a man that had just dumped me. Heartbroken, humiliated, I made sure that there was a great spread, for him and his new girlfriend. Cooking is therapy. I've cooked from a tiny 'vis à vis' apartment in Paris, watching my neighbour trying to jump out of the window. Suicide is popular in Paris, culinary capital of the world.

I'm naturally a backstage person, as are most chefs. Quickly I learnt, after a few weeks at The Underground Restaurant, that it was essential to make my presence known front of house. Now I do an announcement at the start of every meal. It makes sense. People are in your home, they want to meet the host.
Going to somebody's house to eat and never meeting the host/chef is as strange as getting in the back of a friend's car, while they drive alone up front, feeling like a taxi driver.
It's your territory. Claim it. Share it.
This week's meal also required people to share food intimately. I'd provided one baked raw milk Vacherin cheese between two. There was an odd number of guests, so strangers would have to dip into the same cheese.
Baked Vacherin
  1. Take off the lid and wrap the bottom of the wooden box in double foil.
  2. Simmer a clove of garlic in some white wine. Slice thinly and put 2/3 shards into the cheese.
  3. Add half a glass of white wine.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes, until bubbling.
Serve with:
  • small waxy potatoes like Exquisa, Charlotte or La Ratte, rolled in salt and covered with olive oil, roasted whole with skins on, for 30-40minutes in a hot oven.
  • small sharp silverskin onions, cornichons, pickled peppercorns
  • bread if need be
  • salad with walnut oil and vinegar or lemon juice. Malden salt crumbled on at the last minute.
For starters I served seabass marinated for an hour in:
  • Yuzu (a kind of Japanese citrus fruit somewhere between a mandarin and a lemon). This is rather expensive however and only available in Japanese shops.
  • Ponzu, a Tamari style soy sauce
  • White miso, also available from Japanese shops
  • Ginger (I used pickled ginger to garnish)
  • Kaffir lime (zest and juice) if available. This is the fruit tree from which lime leaves come, as used in Thai cooking.
  • Chopped umeboshi plums
  • Fresh limes. I used tons of the juice. I love them.
But if you can't get hold of all of this stuff, don't worry. You can 'cook' fish ceviche style with just some lime or lemon juice and add some soy sauce and ginger to make it Japanese influenced. I also made quick cucumber pickles to accompany it from a recipe in Harumi Kurihara's book 'Everyday Harumi':
  • Cut off ends and roll cucumbers in salt. Leave for fifteen minutes.
  • Mix 100ml soy sauce, 100ml of rice vinegar. Julienne some fresh peeled ginger.
  • I added fresh torn dill too to make a Jewish/Japanese fusion pickle.
  • Rinse salt off cucumbers, slice them lengthways down the centre and scoop out the seeds.
  • Turn them over and bash the skins a little with a rolling pin. (Yeah I know that's weird, but just do it, don't argue).
  • Slice 'em all up and put them in the mixture of soy/vinegar. Leave them for a few hours.
  • Again, you can replace the rice vinegar with wine vinegar if you like.
I tried a new fishmonger this week but he delivered the fish uncleaned and whole. As I said, I haven't been to catering school and my filleting skills are rudimentary. The fish were small and I didn't want to ruin them. I tweeted about my predicament and @gary_robinson offered to come over and help out.
When Gary turned up, I was impressed. Not only was he film-star good-looking but he is currently the executive chef for 11 restaurants in a hotel group 'Shangri-la' in Abu Dhabi. It also emerged that he was chef for seven years for a very eminent royal personage. I boggled. A top chef was in my kitchen, filleting my fish! (This is not a euphemism). He wants to return to London eventually to start his own place.
"I miss this. As an executive chef you aren't hands on. I want to be filleting fish again"
he explained as I watched a virtuoso display of skill. He worked methodically, and it still took him a couple of hours to do it. It would have taken me a day. One of the things I need suppliers to understand is that as a one-woman domestic operation, I'm short of both time and fridge space. Ingredients such as fish need to be delivered as specified and close to dining time. I desperately need a bigger fridge, and would love a Smeg as it would fit nicely into my vintage style kitchen.

As for the terrible dessert disaster, it was my own damn fault. Why do I muck about with cake recipes? Bakers are different from cooks, they are self-disciplined and obey rules. I'm a recipe fiddler. So I took the wonderful Trish Deseine's chocolate fondant cake, which I've made before, and made it with white chocolate instead. I like white chocolate. I'm a kid like that.
The result was awful; sweetened congealed butter. Do I go down the shops and buy everyone a packet of chocolate buttons as dessert?
Twitter came to the rescue: @josordoni suggested lemon posset. This is easy peasy pudding 'n pie.
  • 600ml of double cream
  • 160g of caster sugar
  • zest and juice of two lemons
  • Boil cream and sugar for 5 minutes.
  • Let it cool.
  • Add the zest and juice.
  • Whip it.
  • Spoon into glasses or ramekins or jam jars or whatever.
  • Leave it in the fridge for 3-5 hours.
This meant however that the vegetarians, who didn't eat fish, got three dishes; starter, main and dessert that looked identical, all vaguely pale yellow and in round containers.
Starter: ramekin of parmesan custard
Main: round vacherin cheese in a box
Dessert: ramekin of lemon posset (with almond shortbread, also roundish and pale)

So it was an off-white meal...

(1) Anything fermented is Umami. And if you were shocked by 'mother's milk' then perhaps you won't want to try my Chicha recipe, a delicious drink I frequently had in Peru, made from corn fermented with saliva...

I've got technical problems with my blog: feed is broken (says it's too big) and can't post any more pictures. If anyone can help, please contact me...


  1. I had a lovely time at your place when I visited all those months ago, but I can honestly say if someone stood up and said:

    "it's such a nice atmosphere here and I'd like to know more about the other tables so, if you like, perhaps you could say who you are, what brought you here..."

    ...I would have stood up and left.

  2. Yes sounds a bit scary, a bit unEnglish doesn't it?
    But actually it was really cool, exhilarating even...

  3. It's good when you pull things together at the last minute leaving guests with no idea there was a problem in the first place. I had a similar experience with white chocolate - the properties of the two types are so different.

    I realised I'd forgotten the sauce for the main course just as I was about to clear the starter. Kitchen cupboards at the house were empty. Panic. They had port though. Port, tomato soup, sweet & sour sauce, roasting juices and a wodge of butter. They loved it.

    I was getting into a similar position as Gary - removed from the frontline which is why I like doing this. Good job I've never been too interested in money though.

    Not too sure about the photo thing - too technical for me. I've just started to reduce the size of my photos using Paint programme (20%) so they're under 100kb so they take up less space. Maybe you could reduce some of the old ones? Or use Flikr and include the link on the blog post? Or move some of your archive to a new blog and carry on with the present one?

    Have you thought of going to Billingsgate yourself? You would save even more going direct, and you can get them to fillet it there for you. Early start though. Tried here? Seeing people face to face is easier.

    And fridges - try freecycle. I've picked up 4 from there. Free. So useful.

  4. I agree a very unEnglish approach but perhaps speaks volumes as to your customer base...

    Good to hear Gary performed well and as to his good film star looks well I know a few who are eager to get to know him better!!!

    I am sure its his Scottish lilt that makes him even more attractive...gosh I hate him!

    I agree with James check out freecycle you can get some amazing throw aways... my local area has even had sit on lawnmowers being given away!

    Sounds like you had a stressful but rewarding evening...

  5. It's seems to me that this has restored your faith, which had been somewhat put upon over the last couple of months - that is a GOOD thing! So pleased for you.

    Lemon possett - always wanted to try - shall give it a go over the weekend I think. Can pretend to be a Victorian consumptive maybe?! For some reason that's the image that is always conjured by the word 'possett'.

    Stay faithful, C x

  6. This is EXACTLY why I am coming over later! See you in a bit xx

  7. It does sound like you have exceeded your limit. Another blogger user I know had the same thing happen - she had to set up another blog and link back

  8. Brilliant post.

    I host pictures on flickr - is it that blogger won't host your pictures? Or can you not post any?

  9. Another great read. Never a dull moment in your kitchen. If your events were dull and boring you wouldn't have anything to write about and we wouldn't be reading your blog. The fact that you are running out of uploading space suggests to me that you ought to write a book. Kind Regards.

  10. fingers and toes: mine seem to go on picasa...but my allotment is full up almost...

  11. Is Chicha the purple stuff? I think it tastes good so!

    My, my you've had a varied and very interesting life/life experiences haven't you? Much to be admired and to aspire to!

    I agree with what you talk about at the beginning of the post - why does everything have to be so uniform and regiment? Why follow a set of rules? Creativity comes when you break them and carve out your own path. We are all too eager to lay out rules sometimes that it restricts the possibilities and potential! I'm trying to adopt the manta of 'going my own way' where my life career is concerned and not to just fall into the dull world of office isn't easy. You have to be a brave person I think...I think you are very brave and adventurous to do what you do! :)

    Message to Chris, I know it sounds like something out of AA but I was there and it was actually kind of sweet and we had a laugh...

  12. Yes it's the purple stuff...
    very refreshing!

  13. I love reading your posts and it's going to be one of my new year resolutions to come to one of your nights. And I'd be delighted to help wash up.

  14. Beautiful post. I am not so sure how I would react to "sharing" but fascinating when others do!

  15. Hello from Argentina! I am now hooked to your blog! Bravo! I love your blog posts.

  16. Great post, I take inspiration from all the heart you put into the restaurant. I guess the sharing is like those occasional fab nights when (usually a little tipsy or in a foreign land) you talk to the strangers on the table next to you and end up having the most wonderful evening. Also, might be able to help with tech stuff, don't know Blogger v well but am web designer, will DM you on Twitter (@Urbanfoodie_net we met at the Blaggers Banquet).

  17. I think the idea is absolutely brilliant. If you like entertaining, cooking and getting people together, how perfect is that? It's like the man on the advert with the After Eights. Does anyone know if there are any similar underground restaurants in Dorset? I feel a trip to your abode coming on, to get some tips.

  18. Great post! LOL at the restaurateurs anonymous.


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