Friday, 27 February 2009

Nick Cohen's book launch

A selection of Nick Cohen's articles in various publications to the present day 'Waiting for the Etonians' is fucking brilliant. Leafing through it this morning, I have not yet come across a sentence I disagree with.
The book launch was last night at Daunt's in Marylebone High Street, London. It was filled by the usual suspects plus writers such as Suzanne Moore and Ian McEwan. I was told due to high numbers not to bring anyone. So I didn't. And felt like a bit of a twat on my own. I did chat to Jack of Kent, who for a right-wing Tory lawyer is about as far to the left as you can imagine. Never thought I'd find myself agreeing with a Tory. He introduced me to a couple of other Tories. I mentioned my Underground Restaurant. One guy from Demos said:
"Brilliant! That is sooo Tory. I've got to come."
Surprised I said "Really? How is it Tory?"
"Well it's all about you taking your own resources and using them to start a business. Refusing to kowtow to government regulations. And it's sharing, community. Toryism is all about loving nowadays." he replied.
His friend is in Hackney Conservatives.
"Are there any conservatives in Hackney?" I ask.
"Oh yes. More and more. Have you not heard of the Queenbridge battle? Where we trounced Labour?"
This Tory is a militant vegetarian. I tell him about Pogo vegan cafe in Hackney. He is excited. I say it's Anarchist, the clientele sport Mohican haircuts and are laden with piercings while sitting on sofas sipping their mango soy shakes, that sort of thing. Not very Tory. He still wants to go.
He explains: "We are 'red' Tories as opposed to blue. Who legalised trade unions? Us! We were opposed to Whig policies. We believe in community."
He expands:"Trouble was the Conservatives have fetishised Margaret Thatcher for the last decade. She was great. But monetarism doesn't work. All the surrounding men put her on a pedestal rather like they worship the Virgin Mary in Southern Europe. Now with Cameron leading us, that is in the past..."
I interrupt: "But he's a lightweight isn't he?"
The Scottish Hackney Tory lowers his voice and says: "Well after yesterday, it's all different. People will perceive him differently..."
"You mean, the fact that his child has died will give him..." I search for the right word "gravitas?"
The Scots Tory looks genuinely shocked. He stammers something about going to the toilet, turns on his heel and leaves me standing there on my own.
Even though Mr Cameron's son was disabled and there was a certain inevitability about his death, there is no worse pain than losing a child. I truly sympathise, from the heart. But it doesn't mean I will vote for him.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Lost Vagueness

Found:
1 Orange cardigan
1 bag with man's shoes/Asian lunch
1 pink and black scarf

Please apply to the lost property office of The Underground Restaurant to pick up!

Announcement: chocstar will be serving desserts from her chocmobile van parked in my driveway this Saturday evening. Her blog post about this event.

Mexican theme this week. I haven't entirely decided upon the menu but it will include the following:

Tequila cocktail to start.

I love making salsa's so I shall be making a couple of different ones plus guacamole. Tortilla chips.

Chile sin carne, chocolate and chipotle recipe with black beans, rice, sour cream, cheese, tortillas.

Salad.

Desserts from chocstar

Coffee

£25

I've given up finally on paypal (account blocked for 180 days, cos I'm a food terrorist!) and have the English speaking and helpful people at Wegottickets handling bookings now (link at top right hand side) so that I can spend less time on the computer and more time in the kitchen. 


Monday, 23 February 2009

Nueva Cancion



Soy Pan, Soy Paz, Soy Más
Composición: Piero José

Yo so-o-oy, yo so-o-oy, yo so-o-oy
soy agua, playa, cielo, casa, planta,
soy mar, Atlántico, viento y América,
soy un montón de cosas santas
mezcladas con cosas humanas
como te explico . . . cosas mundanas.

Fui niño, cuna , teta, techo, manta,
más miedo, cuco, grito, llanto, raza,
después mezclaron las palabras
o se escapaban las miradas
algo pasó . . . no entendí nada.

Vamos, decime, contame
todo lo que a vos te está pasando ahora,
porque sino cuando está el alma sóla llora
hay que sacarlo todo afuera, como la primavera
nadie quiere que adentro algo se muera
hablar mirándose a los ojos
sacar lo que se puede afuera
para que adentro nazcan cosas nuevas.

Soy, pan, soy paz, sos más, soy el que está por acá
no quiero más de lo que me puedas dar, uuuuuuh
hoy se te da, hoy se te quita,
igual que con la margarita . . . igual al mar,
igual la vida, la vida, la vida, la vida . . .

Vamos, decime, contame
todo lo que a vos te está pasando ahora,
porque sino cuando está el alma sóla llora
hay que sacarlo todo afuera, como la primavera
nadie quiere que adentro algo se muera
hablar mirándose a los ojos
sacar lo que se puede afuera
para que adentro nazcan cosas nuevas. (BIS)

cosas nuevas, nuevas, nuevas . . . nuevas

A mountain of a woman, Mercedes Sosa has a voice from the bowels of the earth. I came across her music when travelling through South America for a year. Argentina was probably my favourite country, and despite the fact that it was soon after the Falklands conflict, I was made to feel very welcome.
The first time I crossed over the border, between Chile and Argentina, a whole day journey by boat, foot, landrover, crossing rivers and mountains, I was anxious because I did not have the visa neccessary. To get the visa would have entailed a 2 day trip to Santiago, Chile's capital. No problem, I was waved through. On the other side, a truck driver with a gourd of maté (a bitter herbal tea) and a silver straw to suck it through, gave us a lift to a tiny town in Patagonia. From there I visited Cueva de las manos, a pre-historic cave in the middle of nowhere, with some of the earliest cave paintings, a series of ghostly almost sprayed-on hand prints in ochre. Bruce Chatwin writes about this place in his book 'In Patagonia'.


The second time I crossed the border into Argentina was less successful. This time it was from the poor North, the location where originated the majority of the mortalities in the war, 18 year olds most of them, forced there by the junta. This time I had the right papers, but the border police would not let me in. No reason. Except perhaps the poster on the wall saying 'Las malvinas son nuestras'. I turned back, another 2 day journey hitching in trucks, and entered at another border point.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Vacherin night at The Underground Restaurant


Menu:

Kir cava.
Olives.
Thai soup with coriander, lemon grass, lime, coconut milk, tiny green pea like aubergines. Garnished with mint, red pepper, spring onions.

Baked mini Vacherin (one between two)

Baby cornichons, silverskin onions, green pickled peppercorns, small firm potatoes (Sofia, Exquisa) Aga baked with Malden Salt, thyme and olive oil, served in a large copper pot.

Straight out of the oven focaccia.
Romain lettuce, red pepper, pine nut salad by Charlie Nelson, retired chef. (He's an ancient 24 years old and an absolute gem).

Tarte tatin with organic creme fraiche.

Cognac, XO Imperial Courvoisier, courtesy of Around Britain with a paunch rounded off the meal nicely.

Many people were lucky enough to win bottles of wine with their £10 raffle tickets!
24 people expected. 22 turned up. Possibly 2 didn't come because I forgot to give them the address. Gulp. Only realised at 3 in the morning. (So please remind me if I forget).




Had lovely trip to La Fromagerie in Moxon St to pick up the mini Vacherins. Cheeses there I have never seen before, we tried a Spanish blue with a tangy aftertaste, a 'cabecou' goat cheese.
I chose Vacherin for tonight's menu partly because the season for this cheese will soon be finished.
Went to Portobello Road market on Friday morning to buy more chairs...got 5 chairs and a table for £40. My restaurant now has 7 tables!
Much juggling of baking tins between the 3 ovens of my Aga. Moving trays to the top to get browned.


Discovered one fossilised tarte tatin in the oven this morning.

Skeptics in the pub: Nick Davies


"Turn off your mobiles or you will be put into a small room with Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail"
warned Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News who was giving this month's talk at the Skeptics in the Pub, London. Clearly considered a fate worse than death, everybody duly turned off their mobiles.
"...Paul Dacre calls people 'cunt' so frequently that his newsroom have named him 'the vagina monologue'."
Nick, a jittery man in his late 50s, breathlessly sped through his lecture as if he had too much to say and too little time to say it. 
He launched straight in with " The reason I'm 'telling on' other journalists is because of WMD. When it became clear that they didn't exist, every journalist in the world blamed the government but no one talked about the media's role".
There are so many false stories... Y2k for instance; the Clinton scandal- all false. The children's home in Jersey - false. There are thematic falsehoods. The sex trafficking scandal right now- I can tell it will turn out to be false."
He breaks off to remark that he has never been to a meeting with so much alcohol involved. People cheer. The pub actually runs out of glasses and people are exhorted to bring back their empties so that more alcohol can be served.
"Before, say 30 years ago, false news was down to proprietors of newspapers. That is still a problem. Almost all local newspapers are owned by four corporations. There is a profit/cost culture. The logic of commercialism has taken over from the logic of journalism."
I got a grant from the Rowntree trust and gave it to academics who physically measured the space available in newspapers that journalists have to fill. Today the average journalist has to write three times as many stories, fill three times as much space as in 1985. What does this mean? Well,  the average journalist has a third of the time to spend on each story."
In other words each journalist has less time to research, verify and check up whether the story is true.
He continues:"Only 12 % of the raw material that goes into newspapers is generated by journalists. The rest is from second hand sources such as press agencies like Reuters or, the likes of Alistair Campbell, PRs. News now is mere recycling." 
Before in Sheffield there were five local press agencies. Now there is just one, 'Whites' and they have a much smaller staff, not enough to have a presence in the courts or in council chambers."
My father ran several press agencies. He trained up generations of journalists and photographers, many of whom are now at the top in TV and newspapers. His agency covered all the local courts. My father retired in the 1990s, exhausted by trying to get newspapers to pay up. Newspapers were only interested in celebrity news, not crime, not what was going on in your local borough, not in what the local council was doing with your money. With the closure of my father's agency, journalism lost a valuable resource and training ground.
"Nowadays to get court news, journalists check the local police website for cases, download the details, effectively only getting the prosecution's side. Big corporations use PRs, everybody does. Al-Qaeda is primarily a media manipulation organisation and very good at it too. 
There are loads of phony grassroots organisations out there "astroturf groups" they are called in the U.S.A."
Hill & Knowlton, one of the biggest in the world, are unscrupulous. They will work with anybody. After people were shot in Tianamen square, who rushes in to help the Chinese government repair their reputation? Hill & Knowlton. No PR agency represented the oppressed. Last year they worked on the Chinese Olympics.
PR chooses the truths that they want us to have. 
PR has this expression...a 'Forward note' is what you tell the press...
So it seems like if we get rid of Rupert Murdoch instead we get Rupert the bear. Stories are picked that will sell the paper, not the important stories. 
Even the quality press has to cover [celebrity trivia] stories otherwise people will not be able to join in with the Great National Conversation."
Nick is referring to 'water cooler' stories, a US expression describing the things people in offices will discuss whilst at the water cooler. Here it should be 'photocopier' stories or maybe even 'fag break' stories. But, back to his point, this is why a serious paper will feel compelled to discuss Jordan or Jade Goody (although the latter has turned into a real subject of interest).
"Another example: the Queen Mother's death. She, inconveniently for the Daily papers, died on a Saturday. The Observer cleared the front page and devoted ten pages to her death and the 'national grief'. Except in reality there was a rather a shortage of grief. But...souvenir editions add 20% to circulation "
Barack Obama. Journalists think we want to feel hope. But Obama's policies are actually of the Kenneth Clarke wing of the Conservative party. He believes in God and Capitalism. If you really want to write about race in the United States you look at unemployment and prison statistics of which a huge percentage are black."
(Toby Young complained on his facebook status update about Obama getting a 'free pass' from journalists.)
"Today" Nick Davies concluded,"newspapers are in crisis, journalists are losing their jobs. There is the electronic model, websites and bloggers, but we can't earn a living from it. There is no financial model to keep us afloat in the future. The mass media is dying. Mini-media is non-profit."
We had a little break. My sister arrived and showed me the results of that day's shopping, holding up a massive bra.
"What size is that?" I ask out of the corner of my mouth.
"34 double H!" she announces unabashed.
The bearded ones surrounding us certainly look skeptical about the existence of such a bra size but are defeated by sheer physical evidence.

Questions from the audience.
Jack of Kent: Will bloggers replace journalists?"
Davies snorts:"Citizen journalism will fill the gap? Bullshit! It can help. Er...Tweetering... (he pronounces it slightly wrongly)... an editor told me, with the recent plane crash in the Hudson, he saw it reported on Twitter within 2 minutes. Within 4 minutes he had pictures [from Twitpix]. Reuters took 34 minutes to send the pictures.
Bloggers are recycling facts, commenting on stuff. They do not have the skills and resources necessary for investigative journalism. And bloggers have their little communities, everybody in their ghettos"
Question: "Why don't investigative journalists set up their own websites?"
Davies: "A group of us had a meeting about that in a Soho pub 3 weeks ago. Trouble is there is no precedent for a news website paying for itself. The Guardian has a circulation of under 400,000 a day. It's website has 26 million users a month. For no money. What do you do? Adverts? Become cocaine dealers?"
Nick Davies also talked about the Amazon invention of the electronic book the 'kindle'. "We need a mobile waterproof version of that."
"Murdoch is using his newspapers to undermine the BBC, wants to push it into a corner like public television in the United States. But hopefully it will survive with the license fee."
Somebody brings up the MMR scandal as an example of false news:
"30 kids died as a result of that."
Davies:"The P.C.C. (Press Complaints Commission) are slippery and dishonest. Look what happened to the McCanns. But they sued. Trouble is in this country you cannot get legal aid to sue for libel."
Davies then, consciously or not, plays up to this skeptical audience:"2012!"as further examples of myth making. "The illuminati! The world is controlled by Margaret Thatcher!" The audience jeers and laughs.
Somebody calls out "It's true!" to more laughter.
Davies reminisces about working for World in Action. "All those programmes gone. Serious journalism. Now we have that awful News at 10 with Trevor McDonald. Harry Evans, when he was the editor of The Sunday Times, it was the best newspaper in the world. They exposed Thalidomide, Kim Philby 'The spy that betrayed a generation'."
"I don't respect Andrew Neil but he stood up to Al Fayed. PR nowadays doesn't even have to pay, they walk straight in the front door and plonk their message on the news editor's desk."
"Do any of you remember the story about Hilda Morel? A 84 year old rose grower found naked, raped and dead in a field? I reported on that. Even Tam Dalyell said in the House of Commons that she was killed by British Intelligence because of, variously, her nephew, the fact she was due to give evidence about Sizewell, the nuclear plant... 
In 1994, ten years later, I reviewed the evidence in a piece for The Observer. It was a burglar. I made mistakes too. I'm not just pointing the finger at others."
Another questioner mentions urban legends and how he sees them reproduced as fact in the media.
Davies:"Oh like 'Baabaa black sheep' being replaced by politically correct schools as 'Baabaa coloured sheep'? Almost every story of the 'politically correct gone mad' genre is false. Not true."
Question: "Aren't the readers the problem?"
"The Daily Mail is feeding the prejudices of their readers. So yes."
One man interjected with "So your position is...the majority of modern media is a bit shit."
At the end another man brought up the McCanns again and also the Joana Cipriano case in Portugal. I'm afraid yours truly got very annoyed and passionately spoke out about media falsehoods but in complete opposition to Nick Davies' stance.
"I think the Portuguese and their police were maligned by our press. Tony Parsons called the Portuguese police 'Sardine munchers'...I have looked into these cases quite a bit..."
At that point I was literally booed into silence. I was the sole female voice to pipe up. I felt as if I were in the House of Commons. Nick Davies tried to hand me the mike and gracefully admitted to knowing little about the McCanns case. 
Two women came up to me afterwards to mutter agreement and were pleased that at least one woman's voice was heard. I had the same situation on facebook recently when I talked about the MMR jab. Women messaged me privately to say how much they agreed with me but were anxious about voicing it privately.
There does seem to be a gender divide on certain subjects.
I think, after my gobby display, a man I slightly fancied wasn't interested anymore. A female with opinions and the cojones to state them in public is a contraceptive device!

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Tim Maddams

Accompanied by a vegan friend, I turned up at the organic foods superstore ‘Wholefoods’ in Kensington for a talk on seasonal food by River Cottage chef Tim Maddams.
Tim is impressively passionate about fairtrade, organic and locally sourced food. He explained how cooking seasonally is different:
“Every chef’s early training consists of 1) plan menu 2) buy ingredients 3) serve it. At River Cottage, whatever is delivered in the morning… I cook in the evening. It forces you to be creative.”
Tim’s early training with Marco Pierre White, Alistair Little and St. John’s restaurant led to a gig cooking around Europe for 2 years, for the Formula 1 circuit.
“This left a sour taste in my mouth. Going to poor countries in an expensive catering unit and importing food” explained Tim “I wanted to connect again with local producers in Britain. It’s not just a moral choice. Seasonal and local food tastes better. Your local butcher and greengrocer can never compete with a large firm. If we don’t support local producer and shops, especially in a recession, they won’t be there in a few years time.”
As Tim talked, helpers handed around samples of cheese (Devon Bell, subtly pungent sage), charcuterie from Wales, Cocoa loco, Sussex based organic chocolate using coffee beans from Cafe Direct and Lyme Regis sourdough bread. I felt guilty, as my vegan friend would only be able to try the bread.
The tasters in the audience immediately began communicating in a chorus of “mmm’s” and “yum’s”.
“Calm down dear it’s only cheese” joked Tim.
To my surprise my vegan friend tried a piece of cheese. Emboldened by her, I attempted a tasting of the ‘lomo’ and the venison salami made by Trealy farm in Wales. I haven’t eaten meat in 30 years. The taboo thrill set us giggling, equivalent to a virgin’s visit to an Ann Summers party.
Lastly I tried the goose, cured by Tim Maddams himself. Overkill. Discreetly I spat it out. I’m afraid I will not be converted back to meat eating anytime soon.
Tim does state “Eat more veg and less meat” for the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide.

Café direct, the fairtrade coffee exporters invited River Cottage chef Tim Maddams to talk about seasonal food as part of a 9 day Tastefair at Wholefoods, Kensington. Check http://www.tastefair.co.uk/ for continuing events as part of Fairtrade Fortnight 2009.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Street food London/Portobello

                                                     



Portobello Rd/Goldborne Rd. Near Cafe Lisboa. After the midday call to prayer, stalls selling Moroccan food crowded with men in traditional dress. You could be in Marrakesh.
  •  Lentil and chickpea soup in deep rich tomato £1.50p. I was given a spoon and invited to share a bowl.
  •  Fish, prawns, mussels,olives, tomato and onion sauce £6 freshly barbecued served in a foil tray.
  •  Foil wrapped kettles containing sweet mint tea.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Eek a mousse

This is turning into a diary blog for The Underground Restaurant...
Val day was great but the usual mishaps occurred.
I was on schedule, despite my van breaking down last week and having to shop online. My teen wanted to go to a party on Friday night. I drove her over there.
On entering the house, chaos, around a dozen teenagers running around hysterically and one clutching his head. He was drunk and had fallen over, hitting his head on a rock. I took a look and you could see his skull through the cut.
The mum of the house, one of those liberal ones, pleaded with me to stay with the other teenagers while she took the boy to the hospital.
Her son was freaking out "Will we get done for this? He's been drinking."
I googled it and drinking at home is legal for kids over five years old in the UK.  
I do give my teen a little wine with her meals, or maybe a small glass of champagne. But these kids were glugging back whole bottles of vodka and gin.
My teen returned from her French school trip a week ago sneering at another child who blacked out after drinking about 6 inches of vodka.
"Huh, what a light weight!"
"I'd collapse if I drunk that much vodka" I told her. 
Cue more sneering.

"Really, it can kill you."
I ended up babysitting in this house until almost 1 pm. A waste of an evening.
Luckily a young trainee chef, Charlie, came to help me on Saturday. He beautifully blanched the asparagus spears, dipped the cherries in chocolate and, being the son of a furniture remover, knew exactly whether an additional table would fit through the door.
This time the Daily Mail photographer came to cover the evening. He was quite useful. He opened the door for guests. 
My sister and I kept getting the giggles as we were ladling out the soup.
"Is this the maddest thing we have ever done?" I ask her.
"Well there was the time that we were both vicars at Glastonbury and married people." she said.
"And the time when we did a stand up routine on food and astrology in a Camden town restaurant..." I added.
"But this is the maddest... yeah" she says
In the middle of plating up the mains, a woman spilt red wine all over her white crocheted cardigan. My sister wanted to stop everything "Where's a bucket?" and help the woman. 
"STOP IT" I hiss "Fuck her cardigan I don't want people's food to go cold"
I looked around the corner. The cardigan was hideous anyway. I bit back the impulse to say "Chuck it, it's vile". I do realise that a proper restauranteur would not say this. Only beautifully tanned top models can get away with white crochet. It looks shite on English women.
Later we got the giggles again. I'd miscalculated the amount of chocolate mousses. I needed one more. Hush hush I sent sister-woman out to buy one from the local supermarket, get like a 'Gu' high quality choc mousse.
My sis sneaks back.
"Bad news, I could only get the Somerfield version" she says.
We look at it. It's got fake whipped cream on top. The consistency of the mousse is blancmange, sloppy and pale coloured. I doubt there is any chocolate in it at all. People are slipping past us to smoke on the balcony. We are trying to hide the packaging.
We put the Somerfield 'mousse' in a Le Creuset ramekin. Still looks awful. We try to cover it up with chocolate dipped cherries. No better. 
I take a deep breath and ask two of the diners, that I actually know, if they would mind sharing one. I fess up.
The end of the evening, eyelashes and minicab cards.

Marco Pierre White



It's a long interview but I love what he says about food. At around 16 minutes he talks about wanting to eat in someone's kitchen or living room. He says his wife's mother is one of the best cooks he knows. I'd love to invite him to The Underground Restaurant, anybody know his contact details?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Street food

Whenever you travel you are advised not to eat street food. If you follow this advice you are missing out, it is the nearest thing to eating like the natives, aside from moving into their mother's houses.
Thai fish cakes for instance, I only ever found on the street in Bangkok, sold in packets of 5 or 10, freshly fried and piquant. Here in the UK, Thai fish cakes are a starter, 3 for around five quid, and mostly from frozen ready-made catering packs.
In Mexico the street food is a revelation and I'm quite prepared to risk hep C or whatever disease, although the amount of chili and lime involved may kill off any lurgies.
Behind my hotel in Mexico City I bought little dishes of roasted yellow sweet corn, with red pieces of chili, coriander and a squeeze of lime from one woman, who rinsed our dishes in a bucket of grey soapy water next to her tiny wheelie stall. 
In Oaxaca, expert Indigenous hands roll and stretch Mexican-style pancakes, a kind of tostada, on wok-like charcoal burners, ten's of stalls lined up selling the same dishes. It's hard to choose which one. I randomly pick my stall based on 2 criteria: the expressions of culinary rapture on customer's faces; which woman's apron I prefer. Apron wearing is an art form in Mexico and Guatemala and I bought a couple. Indian women wear them as skirt decoration even when they are not cooking.

I had the vegetarian version of these 'tlayudas' with Oaxacan stretchy cheese, home-made salsa and mole. You can choose from several different kinds of mole, brown, black, red, yellow. Mole is a kind of spice blend and sauce sometimes with chocolate, but used in a savoury way with chicken. 
Indian street food is excellent. But every time you go to a stall a middle-class Indian gentleman will come up and warn you, in a whisper, not to eat it. I didn't care. And I didn't get sick.
I loved the fresh mango and papaya covered with brown salt and lime. (In Mexico they do the same but with lime and chili). Creamy sour lassi's whipped up with a wooden stick and served ice-cold in a stainless steel tall cup...manna! Scoops of spicy chickpeas in bowls made of leaves...breakfast was often spent crouching in a queue waiting for freshly patted-out potato paratha, made kneeling near the ground
I went to India some time ago and sweet chai was still served in clay cups. The railway tracks were littered with shards for there was no shame in chucking them away, being biodegradable.
Recently at an Indian restaurant in Euston I had little fritters with sweet yoghurt tucked inside and a tamarind and coriander sauce. I do think street food should be brought indoors with one exception...
Chip shops in the UK: I know our mothers told us never to eat on the street but a portion of chips, eaten out of paper on a rainy British street is always better than eating the same indoors. Is it the temperature contrast of your fingers briefly dipping into soft warm salt and vinegared potatoes that makes the whole experience so good?
One of my French exes, when he came to live in London, became obsessed with the different chip shops in Camden and Kentish Town. He tried them all. 
One Chinese chip shop guy uttered the immortal phrase "Open or closed?".
My ex:"Excuse me?"
Chinese guy repeats: "Open or closed?"
My ex looks around at the door with it's sign:"but you are open no? I think this place is open..."
Chinese guy, patiently, penny dropping: "Do you want the paper on your chips to be open or closed?"
Selling honey by the jug near Oaxaca, Mexico.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Val day

 Nobody to spend Valentine's Day with? The Valentine's day mascara.

I'm sticking to similar menu to last week to maintain interior calm but will gradually branch out into my other repertoire.
But have upped the aphrodisiac quotient.
Asparagus- perhaps due to spear shape, but a well known aphrodisiac.
Rocket, pomegranate, garlic and chocolate all have similar qualities.

This weeks menu is:

Glass of kir royale

My own marinated olives

Roast cherry tomato and garlic soup with fresh baked herb focaccia

Rocket salad with pomegranate and asparagus spears

Gratin dauphinoise with saumon fumé/vegan and veg options

Mousse au chocolate with cointreau and chocolate dipped cherries

Love hearts.

£15. plus drink.

Then everyone will make love! Especially if I slip some 'e's into the soup.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Nanny state

Or should that be Big Brother? Just got call from the youngpersonsunit or something. Some New Labour bollocks.
It's about my daughter's arrest last year for smoking dope.
Apparently the police lied to me. Her arrest will be on her record for 100 years.
It will affect her ability to get a visa for the United States.
So trying a bit of spliff, from a friend's joint, not even her own, at the age of 14 means she will have a record for a century?
The youngpersonsunit said it was government policy to follow this up. To warn young people of the dangers of drugs. To give her 'drugs counselling'. To get her into after-school activities. 
I fumed.
I was more angry about this police lie than my daughter's dope-smoking experiment. She isn't a stoner after all. 
She doesn't have time for after-school activities. She's too tired and has homework. 
From MMR vaccines to thrusting endless leaflets about how to feed my child (5 a day) to general interfering, this New Labour government is starting to turn me towards freedom (liberté rather than egalité) on a scale worthy of the Unabomber.
Please butt out. 
We are not all idiots. 
Some parents are idiots, cruel, ignorant etc. But little is done about them (Baby P anyone? I heard Sharon Shoesmith's interview on Woman's hour and it was a show. She is the typical Blair babe spouting gobbledygook rather than common sense). No, those parents, clearly inadequate, are given endless second chances.
Why is everybody lying about drugs anyway? At least Obama admitted to inhaling.

Washing up


Laundry, clearing tables, recycling bottles, cleaning up.
I now have a permanent restaurant in my living room!
The Guardian article has led to further interest and many bookings.
My daughter got teased gently at school by teachers who saw her photo in the Guardian. They asked if they could come to the restaurant. I'm fine with that but my teen is horrified by the idea.
One blogger put my full home address on his blog. Spent Monday flipping out about that. Er...it is an underground restaurant. It's like telling the police about an illegal rave. He's taken it down now.
I have installed a pre-donate system with Paypal to avoid the problem of 'no shows'. Every normal restaurant gets 'no shows'. But an underground restaurant has no walk-in traffic. Profit margins are non-existent therefore if people don't come, not only would I have to live off their uneaten food for the following week but I also lose money which could threaten the future existence of this project. 

But it's not working too well. Paypal only has robots. Even their humans, which it takes hours on the phone to get through to, sound like robots. Stephen Hawking-type proto-American voices saying 'mam'.
I'll stick with Paypal a little bit longer but the work and frustration associated with it makes me want to rip my own fingernails out.
If you want to book the Paypal address is 
Msmarmite Lover (theundergroundrestaurant@gmail.com)
not undergroundrestaurant without 'the'
or googlemail

All payments to the paypal account are going to fund a long lusted after Kitchenaid mixer... and then if I'm lucky, a robot coupé

The aims of this project are humble. I and my friends wish to:
  • subvert the system
  • encourage a do-it-yourself attitude
  • reinvent traditional notions of motherhood in Western society
  • cook for other people
  • stretch myself on a culinary level
  • make new friends
  • enable them make new friends (you can talk to other tables at my restaurant)
  • convert the internet world to face-to-face interaction
  • make real food (no towers or plate grafitti)
  • be an ''invisible meta-legend vagabond anarcho-restauranteur".
How's that sound?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Zeen, Euston

My Tuesday night booking for Zeen restaurant cancelled due to fire, my sister and I rescheduled for Thursday when instead we had to path-find our way there through a blizzard.
Drummond street, next to Euston is known for it's Indian restaurants. Located in a 70's styled, orange-lit basement, the tube rumbling beneath you as you eat, Zeen is a fusion experience, cockney bombay.
Mini fresh-fried spicy popadums and mango chutney accompanied two Margarita cocktails which were not bad at all.
Starters: Dahi Batati Puri: crispy fried puri shells covered with wheat vermicelli, from which, on stabbing with your fork, tumbles sweet yoghurt, streaked through with a tamarind and coriander sauce. An unusual replacement for the standard yoghurt raitha, the owner 'Zeenat' said this dish is 'street food' in India. I'm a huge fan of street food everywhere and it was refreshing to see this dish brought indoors.

Other starters were also good; Soft shell crab with a rich tomato, garlic butter creamy sauce; chilli paneer, cubes of indian cheese mixed with stir fried mediterranean vegetables and a slick of tangy purée.

Presentation is modern, colourful, with fresh herbs but not poncy.
Flavours are separate, not your usual Indian where you get the feeling there is a huge vat of brown sauce in the kitchen which they ladle over every dish.

For mains I chose the thali platter: fantastically creamy nutmeg Saag Paneer (spinach & cheese), Kathe Meethe Aloo (tangy rich bombay-style potatoes), Tadka Dal, smooth yellow lentils topped with a wickedly calorific dribble of ghee, pilau rice (perfumed with golden saffron strands), mini papads, chutney, freshly made naan bread and the afore-mentioned Dahi Batata Puri.

My sister chose an unusual dish which could be described as an Indian version of haggis; the chef's special 'Tandoori stuffed squid'. The stuffing inside the tiny bodies was subtly spicy and fishy, the taste of squid perhaps overwhelmed, but, all importantly with squid, not rubbery.

We accompanied these dishes with a glass of house white, light and fruity, and the house red was soft and deep, both for £2.75 a glass. In general the drink prices are reasonable: £30 for a bottle of champagne for instance, £9.95p a bottle for house red or white.

We also ordered two lassis, salt and mango. The salty lassi was the best I have ever had outside of India. Fresh with just the right degree of sour, almost goat cheesy in flavour.
Desserts were less successful: my sister a fan of Rassomalai, cardamom and pistachio flavoured milk cakes even though usually grainy in texture seemed a little dry. My Falooda, a rose hued and flavoured 'Indian sundae' was not mind-blowing.
Zeen's weekday buffet lunch at £6.75 was recommended on Twitter.
Zeen could be summed up as: modern fusion for the price of a take-away.
Zeen is located at 130 Drummond Street, London NW1 2PA
Tel: 0207 387 0606

Web:www.zeenrestaurant.co.uk
Average price per head with wine: £25
Disabled access lift.

The opening night of the Underground Restaurant.


French tire-bouchons
My guests arrived on time. My teenager sat in the corner on a rocking chair looking like a scene from 'The turn of the screw'. Then, greeting her with almost choking relief, my sister arrived to waitress. After handing them a complimentary glass of kir royale to celebrate the opening night, people were seated for the first course.

I introduced several food bloggers to each other, Bellaphon, Foodrambler and Londoneater, the virtual colliding with the real. Which is partly the point. This is 'put your money where your mouth is' time. Anybody with a digital camera, a way with words and a budget for eating out, can put up recipes, review food. How many food bloggers then invite you over to actually try the food for yourself?
I disappear into the kitchen where the Guardian photographer has set up. I am tempted to go all Nigella on her, licking spoons artfully for the camera. She tells me to stop it immediately.
I have a table of friends here, a writer Caroline Simpson and two famous astrologers, Bethea Jenner and Michael Day, but otherwise I don't know anybody. 
I confess only half-joking to the Guardian photographer that this is all an elaborate scheme to find a boyfriend. I have no one to cook for, my teenager won't eat hardly anything, so I invite strangers over.
Horton Jupiter arrives saying his plus two will not be coming as they are too drunk. These are the people for whom I made extra mousse au chocolat. I think for the future I will ask people to 'donate' in advance via paypal. I was annoyed as I had turned down reservations for tonight.
I cover the kitchen surfaces with bowls to serve the roasted cherry tomato soup, placing a basil leaf in the middle of each, accompanied by a hunk of warmed up herb focaccia.
The gratins are cooked, the potatoes are soft in their cream but the tops need browning. I juggle with the various Aga ovens, alternating which dish of gratin will go in the roasting oven. I've cooked 4 baking tins worth of gratin, enough for 15 people.
Horton comes into the kitchen and strokes my Aga. We discuss Jeremy Clarkson's comment that Gordon Brown is a "one-eyed Scottish idiot"
Which I say is "factually true".
 Horton then  announces that David Blunkett could not possibly be a good government minister "because he is blind. Der!"
"What's that got to do with anything?" I ask.
"He's a stupid right-wing twat." states Horton.
"Yes. He should not be in government because he's a stupid right-wing twat, agreed, not because he is blind."
My sister shoos Horton out of the kitchen. The Guardian photographer, who has been a witness to this exchange gasps. "You can't say stuff like that!" 
I smirk to myself: well done Horton, you just lost the politically correct vote, she is from The Guardian after all.
Soup bowls return. We start to plate up the gratins, a relay with myself digging them out of the tins, my teen rushing them over to my sister who will add the two salads. I look over and realise my sister has piled the salad up high. The plate looks like something Popeye would eat.
"No, no, no. Not like that. Smaller. A scoop. Then trickle the dressing over!" I command.
The main course served, I go into the living room and have a little chat with each table. I'm playing so many roles here; cook and hostess. I'm wearing a smeared white apron. 
When the plates return I notice somebody hasn't eaten their gratin. I have to stop myself going to tell them off. This is a mother's restaurant after all.

Bompass & Parr


Blackcurrant jelly


The charming Bompas & Parr, who make art jellies for installations and parties (last week they did Mark Ronson's party) are here. They have brought some jellies in a cool box. Asking for a bowl of hot water to ease the jellies, elderflower and blackcurrant, out of their moulds, they serve them to each table as a 'palate clearer'.
Finally the chocolate mousses are served with a chocolate-dipped candied orange slice. A couple of people leave their orange slices. They are so good I scoop them off the plates and eat them up later.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Teenage bedroom


Plus ca change. Except in my day, it was Donny Osmond and David Cassidy (in those divine shaggy boots) torn out of the pages of Fab 208 magazine, which were rapidly ripped down (and hidden) to be replaced by Rod Stewart. Superceded by David Bowie, then Lou Reed. By the time it got to punk, I'd stopped putting posters on my wall, it would have been, in today's parlance, 'gay'.
Years later, as a photographer, I got to photograph David Cassidy. Arriving at the record company, I went to the loo. I saw a small man exiting, with an orange face and an armful, literally an armful, of foundation bottles and tubes. At the photo session I realised this man was David Cassidy.

Preparing for an Underground Restaurant


Mentally I started to prepare on Monday, planning my menu, visualising how many tables and chairs I would need.

Tuesday: I'd decided on my menu. Partly seasonal, based on what I get in my weekly organic box and partly just what I like to cook.
  • olives
  • fresh baked herb focaccia
  • roasted cherry tomato soup
  • Gratin dauphinoise with smoked salmon and double cream (without smoked salmon for vegetarians)
  • Celeriac and carrot remoulade
  • Green oak leaf salad with a Dijon mustard dressing
  • Mousse au chocolat
  • with candied orange slices.
Wednesday: Cleaning my flat, the toilet, floors, tossing out old magazines, stocking up on loo paper, asking my neighbour if I could borrow chairs. Basically I spent the day on my hands and knees with a bottle of bleach.
Went to buy a new battery for my digital camera which had stopped working. Had to trawl Oxford street. Time running out.
Evening went to Horton Jupiter's The Secret Ingredient home restaurant for the second time. Met Zoe Williams, Guardian writer, for dinner there. She is a new mother with an 18 month old toddler. We talked of our mum's cooking. Her mother was apparently a terrible cook but rather experimental...

"she put cardamom in everything" grimaced Zoe.
Zoe is also the restaurant reviewer for the Telegraph.
"What a fantastic job!" I said enviously.

"Well it can be difficult thinking up new ways to describe the same old dishes" she replied.
She also divulged that eating in Michelin starred restaurants was not that different in terms of actual food to ordinary non-starred restaurants. 
Made her promise to take me along with her if she ever needs a plus one for reviews. 
The Guardian photographer didn't turn up so I took the pictures. Lucky I had managed to find a new battery and charge up the camera.
Thursday: Got distracted chatting for 4 hours on facebook IM to a very witty and interesting man (and I've only ever seen a photo of his eye). Heart pounding at the end of the conversation. Romantic feelings for someone I have never met? 
Focus.
So ended up cooking at midnight. Made vegetable stock from celery, carrots, onions, coriander seeds, bay leaf, garlic, olive oil. Left to reduce down for several hours on the simmering plate of my Aga. Fresh stock makes such a difference to flavour.
Made some chocolate mousses with ras-el-hanout. Put them in fridge to set.
Prepared oranges for candied orange. Sliced oranges thinly. Laid them in a thick bottomed pan. One cup of water and 3 cups of sugar. Simmered gently for hours. 
Friday: checked chocolate mousses. Disgusting. 
This was such a successful combination for raw chocolates. For chocolate mousses it was awful. Had to chuck the lot.
Laid out candied oranges to dry on racks in coolest Aga oven. Tasted one. Delicious.
Spent morning on phone sending photographs to the Guardian of Horton Jupiter's restaurant. Dotmac email account suddenly not sending. 
Look at time.
Haven't done the shopping yet.
Rush out to Tesco's rather than trawling through farmer's markets which was original plan.
Spend £144 on food. £12 of which on an electric whisk as hand tired from last night's failed chocolate mousse whisking.
Drive to Community Foods in Brent Cross and buy catering tub of kalamata olives. £12.

Sister-woman agrees to come over and help move furniture.
Teenager arriving back from France on Eurostar. I'm late. I drive fast to St. Pancras. A bus collides with me as I overtake. Fuck it, I think. I check the damage later. Minor scrape. Who cares? It's London. Can't be precious about that.
Drive home with teenager. I'm too stressed to be nice to her. 
Sister-woman arrives.
She peels potatoes, tons of them. She then slices them thinly (but not thinly enough for me) and places them in cold water. I wish I had a robo-chef at home.
I remake chocolate mousses. They start to go wrong again. I've used 6 bars of chocolat Meunier. Lots of money. The chocolate mixture won't fold into the egg whites. 
At this point, dear readers, your normally bossy but calm chef has a total melt-down.

"I can't do it. IT'S ALL GOING WRONG. WHY AM I DOING THIS?' I  start to hyper-ventilate.
My sister starts to load the dishwasher.

"YOU ARE DOING THAT WRONG" I shout. She looks at me, clearly biting her tongue.
I try to breathe. I re stack the dishwasher. Sister-woman edges away from me.
 Teenager, who I haven't seen for a week, escapes to her bedroom with a glower.
"Mad woman" she hisses.
I've been trying not to drink. I've been trying to do this straight.
I nod at sister-woman and say "Make me a margarita cocktail."

I start to make the dough for my focaccia. I figure I'll make some beforehand to ferment it a little. Then add the fermented dough into the rest of the mixture later.
I make two large trays of focaccia
Sister-woman says "that's not enough".
I make two more trays.
I roast the cherry tomatoes and the garlic. They are out of season so they cost. 
I then remove the blackened skins which takes hours.
I mix the roasted tomatoes, squeeze out the roasted garlic, add it to my vegetable stock and whizz it up in the blender. It tastes amazing. Phew. Something is working.
I then check the candied orange slices. They are burnt. Black. I throw them in the bin. Trouble with an Aga is, it's so silent, you forget anything is in there.
I start again. Cooking them in sugar.
I am cooking until 3 am.
Saturday: 
I wake about 9am. 
Sister-woman and teenager want breakfast. This irritates me. I never eat when I cook. I am dimly aware that my irritation is totally unreasonable. Of course they have to eat.
Then sis and I drag tables from the garden and hose off the spider webs and dirt. Same for the garden chairs.
We move one of the sofas and my daughters drum kit into my bedroom. 
My bedroom, formally a romantic and sexy lair, looks like a car boot sale.
But, having placed the tables and chairs in the sitting room, I start to relax, even start to have fun.
Sister-woman and I lay the table cloths. She irons them, cleans the silver cutlery. It's starting to look like a French bistro. We giggle. We are playing 'houses' again as in childhood, but this time we play 'restaurants'. 
Finally a feeling of excited anticipation rather than dread.



The chocolate mousses are set. I send my teenager out to buy some more chocolate as we have two last minute guests and I don't have enough chocolate mousses.
She comes back with the wrong chocolate.
I shout at her "How can you be my child and not buy the right chocolate!?".
She mutters "I wish I'd never come home".
I start to make up the gratins. The potato slices have become weirdly stiff and curly. I can hardly lay them flat in the dishes. 
Another melt-down. I hate my sister for cutting them up last night. I scream at the slices of potato. 
I go into the living room. It looks lovely, all pale and candlelit with my black and white travel photos framed on the walls.
I return to the kitchen. 
The new orange slices are finally dried.
My sister goes home. I don't know if she will be back.
It's 5 p.m and I am still in my nightie. With trainers on from going into the garden. As my friend says "It's a strong look".
I make a supreme effort of self-control, knowing I still have the celeriac and carrots to grate (by hand) and the dressing to make. I go take a shower, wash my hair, put on a black dress. My one nod to glamour...high patent wedges and false eye-lashes. Under my big white apron.
I grate the two large celeriacs. They make such an enormous amount of salad, I know I will have enough for a week.
I wash the green lettuces. I ask my teenager to make the dressing. It's good. She uses the wrong mustard but it's good.
At 7.30 pm precisely the door bell goes.


http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kilburn-London/The-Underground-Restaurant/60298942936?ref=s

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Nuit blanche

Soon after I met my daughter's father, I spent Christmas eve with his family in a self-built house in the Lyonnais countryside. His family was enormous; 9 brothers and sisters, their partners, their kids, his mum, uncles and aunts.
One family friend, an honorary 'ton-ton' (the only gay in the village)spent every family occasion singing the back catalogue of Claude Francois and Barbara (Sid'amour à mort) and displaying how he could thread cutlery through his nose. He discovered this hole in his septum by mistake when cleaning one nostril with a handkerchief and realising to his delight that the end poked out the other nostril. Ton-ton was also a devotee of 'finger dancing', enacting a passionate tango on the table with his hands. This song always reminds me of him:
I had no idea what to expect on this Christmas eve, never before having heard the expression 'nuit blanche'. *
We arrived about 9 pm which struck me as rather late. Crates of oysters were cracked open. I'd contributed two entire smoked salmon, one Irish, one Scottish.
At 11 pm we sat down for soup, an hour later, salad. In fact courses were served approximately every two hours for the entire night. I tried salsify for the first time, in a gratin, which I loved. I tried to keep up but in the early hours of the morning I must have fallen asleep. For I woke up, head in my plate, feeling remarkably refreshed, to see that the others were now tucking into a plate of venison.
"Venez les enfants, on mange Bambi!"
called uncles and brothers-in-law laughingly at the children who were still up, revving around the sitting room on their new tricycles and singing into their new karaoke machines.
Around 10 am, the meal finished with cognac and fruit, yoghurts tossed onto the table and teensy cups of expresso. I played with a cube of sugar, dipping it into my cognac, 'faire un canard' (make a duck).
Of course then, soon after, it was midday, and the French do not like to muck about with their meal-times.
"Lunch-time! à table!" went the call.
To my astonishment and, it must be said, admiration, people sat down and started eating again.

*White night, a French expression for staying up all night and going straight into the next day.

Belle mere

I've slept with several French men and while not entirely successful romantically it has been enormously useful for my cooking. To the point that, when serving French onion soup at Pogo café, feeling pleased with my efforts, I wanted to write on the menu board
"I've fucked a lot of French men and sat in their mother's kitchens to bring you this delicious soup"
just so's the customers would be fully aware of the personal sacrifices entailed. Perhaps all dishes should be accompanied not so much by a descriptive list of ingredients but also the memories and experiences involved in learning how to make them.
My best tricks have been learnt not at my mother's knee but observing French mamans at work in their kitchens. I even made a film of my 'belle mere' talking through how to make an aioli, the bowl teetering on the edge of the kitchen table as she whisked and croaked in her regional Lyonnais accent, virtually impenetrable.
Another time, after a rainy night, she took me mushroom picking. All I saw was the back of her stocky form weaving through the trees like E.T. She carefully hid, in that canny peasant way, which trees were her favourites. At the end she had a basket full of chanterelles, ceps and 'trompettes de mort' (small black chanterelles) while I had two unidentifiable mushrooms. 
She was poor. I remember the Christmas she spent 'freelancing' for a local farmer; two days with a heap of live chickens, twisting their necks casually, prior to plucking. But fairy tales do happen. After decades bringing up ten children on her own(1), for her husband had died early, she, in her mid-sixties, met and married a man, moving from her HLM (council flat) where she slept on a sofabed, to live in his chateau. 

(1) She got a medal from President Giscard d'Estaing for having a 'famille nombreuse' (big family). In those days, after the second world war, they rewarded women who did their bit to re-populate France. My 'belle mere' showed me the medallion, shrugging with her lips down-turned, "How did this medal help? I'd rather have had some money".

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Relais Routier


Seeing Heston Blumenthal's makeover of The Little Chef restaurant, Popham, part of a British motorway caff chain, reminded me of the French equivalent, the Relais Routier or truck stop.
My parents had a house in France during my childhood, a stone cottage with 12th century walls three feet thick and a fireplace you could sit in. It was outside a small town named Condom, 100 km's south of Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region. 
It took us 2 days to drive there from London and the trip was always accompanied by a red plastic bound volume 'le guide des relais routiers de France'. The logo for relais routiers was a bit like a tube sign. It was also our job as kids in the back seat to spot these signs. The route to Condom was devised around which 'relais routier' we would eat in. Usually they were proper restaurants, cheap, a set menu, with a parking lot full of lorries. 
Sometimes, however, you would go into a private house, listed in this guide and eat in a woman's kitchen, just one table covered with an oilcloth. The woman would be wearing her flowery apron and cooking in front of you, turning around from her gas stove to plonk platters down on the table. This was the best food.
Once for hors d'oeuvres we were given a dish of long red radishes with their green tops still on, a basket of fresh baguette with a sourdough tang, a small hunk of unsalted butter and a pile of salt. We all looked at it, including my parents, not quite knowing what we were supposed to do with this array of ingredients.
The son of the woman, noticing our hesitation, laughed and showed us what to do: he cut a little cross in the end of the radish, smeared on a scrape of butter, then dipped it in salt, crunching the radish with torn off chunks of bread. So simple, just fresh produce, but so delicious. 
Wine was always included and everybody had a little carafe, even children, of rough red table wine. This impressed us kids enormously, we felt so grown-up.
In those days I ate meat. My favourite meal when we were allowed to order à la carte, was steak and chips. One night near Rouen, we stopped at a hotel-restaurant. We kids as usual ordered steak frites. There were strange mutterings from the proprietor, there seemed to be a problem. But then no, it was fine, steak frites it was. 
When the steak arrived, I bit into it.
"What do you think?" asked my dad.
"It's yummy. Sort of sweet."
"But you like it?" he asked, in a rare display of interest in my opinion
"Yeah, it's great." I enthused.
 At the end of the meal my dad told us that it was horse meat.