Thursday, 5 June 2014

May bites: Polish food, Dabbous, Fermentation with Sandorkraut, and wine studies

Finished my vegan book and commencing on my Get Started in Food Writing book. I've been delayed by fact that my iMac died and was out of action for over a week. Nowadays a computer four years old is considered a relic; five years old and it's officially on the dinosaur list and the Mac helpline can no longer help you.
Otherwise it was a good month: I won the Fortnum & Mason best online food writer award, which was a delight.
I have heard that MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party will not be published at the end of August as promised but in November, just before Christmas. Trouble with this pub date is that it may well get drowned out by the Christmas books of the big guns such as Jamie Oliver. Still, there is a step-by-step illustrated gingerbread house recipe - as seen on the Kirstie Allsop show - and a winter solstice-themed afternoon tea. Plus, as I've said before, a decent tea should have a hot element to it, fresh off the griddle crumpets etc, all of which I've provided recipes for. I hope you will eschew the mainstream book authors and buy MY book. (Fingers crossed!)
Here are the other things I've been doing in the month of May:
I visited, as a guest, Polish restaurant Ognisko, set in the grand premises of the former Polish Hearth club in South Kensington. Now, there is a good deal more to Eastern European food than borscht and dumplings. Owner Jan Woroniecki told me that the lumpen reputation of Polish food is due to the second world war and the Soviet occupation. This restaurant attempts to widen knowledge of the variety and subtlety of the Polish menu. The first thing I loved about this place is that it had a portrait of iconic Polish actress Rula Lenska on the stairwell in her red-haired Rock Follies glory. The dining room is large, airy and atmospheric, with elegant candlelit tables and cream tablecloths, while in another room men were singing opera impromptu. Food came in a series of small plates with rye bread, pickles, sour cucumber, blinis, borscht, smoked fish including herring, toasted kasha, a kind of buckwheat, delicious pelmeni pasta dumplings with chestnut, dill, cream and wild mushroom sauce. Drinks with the meal were Bison vodka and a malty beer. Unfortunately the zurek soup, a sour rye dish, was not available. Next time. 

Oh god, I'm about to commit a food industry crime. I've been told off before (in the early days of my blog) when making a couple of mild criticisms of another chef's pop up because "you don't criticise other chefs". Well, apologies to the internet, the zeitgeist, the Michelin star inspectors and every food critic on the planet, but I wasn't that keen on Dabbous. Maybe it was because I had the vegetarian (except for one course) menu. But I found it... clichéed, try-hard, not terribly interesting with faded flavours. Yes, visually it was very beautiful. It ticked every foodie box that chefs currently employ: the borage flower carefully placed (ho-hum), the sawn-off egg shell presentation (hell I did that in 2010 and I'm basically a housewife), the use of pine (yeah, yeah, every sodding Scandi chef has been doing that for a few years now and pine is not a big deal ingredient-wise in the UK so why imitate them?), putting funny vegetably ingredients into dessert (cucumber in a sweet lemon verbena soup?). The menu listing of unusual ingredients that you couldn't actually taste was a recurring fault: dessert was 'barley flour sponge soaked in red tea'. Yer mean rooibos? Couldn't taste it love. Dessert failed because it wasn't a) very sweet b) very memorable c) didn't conform to my restaurant rule number 10. It was a dessert for people who don't like desserts. My friend Les never eats dessert so he liked it. 
My mates Les and KC had the non-vegetarian menu and really enjoyed it. I tasted a bit of their two favourite courses, one with an acorn praline (I've cooked with acorns and they are horribly bitter so kudos for making them taste good) and the other, the best dish of the meal, was king crab with a rich, creamy sauce. But my vegetarian menu had none of these umami delights. The other yawnsome felony that modern chefs commit is the lack of carbs: the bread was ok but not very sourdough, and there was some potato in the pedestrian brandade de morue. But if I've spent £75 with only one glass of wine I expect to leave with at least one dish that I loved and can't wait to eat again. This did not happen. 
A plus point was the handsome and helpful staff.  
Fermentation talk: I've been banging on about fermentation and micro-bacterial rockstar Sandor Ellix Katz for about five years now. I went to see him at the University of Westminster at an event run by the Weston A Price foundation while he was on his UK tour. Katz, who looks like a member of the Village People with his handlebar moustache, is a very charismatic teacher, talking fluently without notes. Not to be missed if you have a chance to see him. Also at the talk, filling in for Sandor when he was unavoidably late due to our terrible trains, was Sonia Dunduru, who runs Cultured Probiotics. She has two autistic sons and spoke movingly about how daily doses of fermented sauerkraut helped them progress. I took extensive notes at this talk and will blog about this soon. 
Lost Lectures: I gave a talk about a couple of years ago for this pop-up lecture event where experts from different disciplines, as well as people who simply have an interesting story to tell, give talks. I went along to hear Vicky Pryce talk in May but discovered many others who were more interesting. I wanted to hear Vicky Pryce because I've been appalled by the fact that everyone involved with Chris Huhne's speeding crime case has ended up doing more prison time than him. Vicky Pryce, his ex-wife, lied for him, saying she was driving so that he wouldn't lose his license. He then left her for another woman and she took revenge by confessing. Huhne, a government minister, lost his job. In court, Pryce, a high-powered economist, pleaded the archaic defence of marital coercion. My mother (who said 'it's perfectly normal for couples to take speeding points for each other, I would do that for your dad'), my sister and virtually every columnist was outraged by this. How dare she, a successful woman, make out she was bullied by her husband? My view: just because you have a good career in the outside world, this doesn't make you immune to marital coercion - you can still be a victim of domestic abuse. It is also a fact that women are more harshly treated in courts because not only are they committing a crime but they are committing the even greater crime of not being feminine. Crime is seen as masculine, something that men do. Also, what the hell is wrong with revenge? It's a very human response to the behaviour of her husband who abandoned her. I feel she was punished for protesting her husband's bad behaviour. Political wives are supposed to suck it up.
However, seeing Vicky Pryce live made my sympathy for her diminish. She's not a good public speaker, droning on in a monotone, which doesn't help. Rather than talking about the emotional impact of the ordeal, she mostly talked about her book 'Prisonomics', about the economic idiocy of putting women in prison for non-violent crimes, particularly the effect on their children. Which is all very well, but it felt like she was trying to ignore the fact that she now has a criminal record and that she was attempting to speedily leapfrog into respectability by taking on the cause of women prisoners. She came across as simultaneously arrogant, out of touch and vulnerable, which is probably how she appeared in court. She has an unfortunate manner. Always good to see people for yourself isn't it? 
One of the most interesting and original talks was by Vice writer Joseph Cox on the positive aspects of the deep web and Silk Road. Do watch the video in the link. 
Paris Lees, the transgender columnist, was a disappointment because she copped out of  preparing a talk herself. Instead, she brought on another lady, Dr Kate Stone, who is also male to female transgender, who gamely recounted her story about being gored in the throat by a stag. Her issue was that all the newspapers headed their stories with 'transgender scientist' rather than bloody hell! someone has been stabbed in the throat and survived! Which I can understand, but realistically, being transgender is still quite unusual and newspapers are all about novelty and er... newness. The clue is in the name. 
Paris Lees herself is quite controversial amongst feminists since she wrote a column, 'I love wolf-whistles and cat calls', about how much she enjoys being sexually objectified (again, understandable because that means her transition has succeeded and men fancy her). This carried the unfortunate implication that all of us cisgender women should probably stop whining about it. Anyway, my sister who was with me, had had a couple of drinks, bravely got up during questions and challenged Lees on this, saying, I paraphrase, "I've been a fag hag since I was 14, so I'm not against the LGBT community, but what are you doing for the feminist cause as opposed to the transgender cause?". Paris Lees literally had no response. I also got the impression that the Lost Lectures is unused to anybody asking difficult questions. It's not Question Time. 
Philosopher Julian Baggini gave a short talk on his latest book 'The virtues of the table' where he explores meat eating and fair trade food. "Everytime we eat our brains evolve" is one quote. I didn't really get what he was talking about so here is a review by that anti-foodie Steven Poole. 
Last week I started my Wset level 2. What’s a Wset? This stands for Wine and Spirit Education Trust. You can study up to level 5 and then you can take the Masters of Wine qualification. I’m only on the baby slopes of wine knowledge. 
The course I was on was taught by Nick Adams, one of the MW’s for, in a horrible little town called Huntingdon. It didn’t take too long to drive there from London but then I just drove round and round the town, finding it impossible to find either my hotel or the hotel where the course was held. Stopping to ask the locals directions revealed the most ignorant, rude and probably in-bred people I’ve ever met in the UK.  From the tattoed dad (and not in a cool way) with his no-neck offspring, snarling ‘get a sat nav’ when I asked the way, to the night receptionist girl at the Marriot hotel (’No, you’ve not paid, give me your card’ when the room WAS paid for) in the end, I was desperate to leave for the embrace of the comparatively warm and cuddly London.
In the sixties, Huntingdon decided to build a ring road around the town, leading non-locals to tear their hair out with frustration at the impenetrability and poor urban planning of a place that, it turns out, is on the cover of the latest edition of Crap Towns. Believe me, I didn’t know that before I got there, I found this out from direct personal experience. But hey, don’t listen to me, read this.
However the course, as taught by Nick, was brilliant. I didn’t expect it to be so interesting and such fun. It explained so many of the things that have confused me about wine. And you get to taste! I'll do a post on some of the things I have learnt, or follow me on Twitter on the 5th, 11th and 18th of June where I'll be live-tweeting from the course.

Rose d'Anjou
I also went to a wine event promoting Rosé d'Anjou on a rooftop in Hoxton, organised by the sibilantly charming wine writer Douglas Blyde, which also had an interesting talk about food photography with Paul Winch Furness. I haven't actually had a moment to open the wines given to me but will await the Wset instructions on how to differentiate rosé wine. 


  1. Lovely newsy blog Kirsten and so sorry to read that your book is delayed but I'm sure that folk will support you. I am a big Sandor fan, with his encouragement I am in the process of making a seaweed starter. it's defo doing something but whether I get decent bread is another matter :-)

  2. Sssssibilantly charming, eh?

  3. I found this quite funny. "I didn't really get what he was talking about". I can believe that! But when you said "'Everytime we eat our brains evolve' is one quote" I had to conclude that the real problem was that you didn't really *hear* what I was talking about. That's not something I would have said. I can't even think what it was you misheard! Sorry the talk wasn't more interesting.

    1. Hi Julian, you are right, it was hard to hear and also sometimes you zone out a bit when there is too much going on. It was interesting I'm sure, I'll check out your book.
      Thanks for commenting.


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