Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Andre Simon Book awards: a conversation with Fuchsia Dunlop

Fuchsia Dunlop at Bar Shu restaurant in chinatown, London

I met Fuchsia Dunlop, the British expert on Chinese food, on a rainy January evening at the friendly Bar Shu, a Sichuan restaurant in London's Chinatown. Her latest book Land of Fish and Rice, Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China has been shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards for 2016.

Thanks for meeting me today. Your name is unusual. The only other Fuchsia I've ever heard of was a character in the Ghormenghast trilogy. 
(Smiles) My parents were reading that when they had me.

You helped develop the menu here at Bar Shu?
Yes, menu development, and I'm representing them.

The kind of work you do for them... do you advise on what would work for the Western public, or whether this will translate or not?
Yes, I give them a Western point of view because they already know the Chinese market very well. When they first opened, they weren't very interested in having the traditional dishes, which were old hat in China. But some of them, like Gong Bao Chicken or dry fried green beans, have gone on to be best sellers.

Do you ever cook fusion type stuff?
I just cook what I feel like cooking. When I write books, I try to be very accurate - that's the whole point.

You are about to go to Sri Lanka to be a guest chef. Are you going to be talking about and cooking from your latest book?
I'm doing one dinner from Sichuan and one from Jiangnan region, which is from the Land of Fish and Rice book, and a cooking class from both.

How long did you live in China for?
The longest period without leaving the country was a year and a half. But I've just been going backwards and forwards.

You lived there in '94. That's pre this whole foodie craze. When I grew up, food wasn't part of the culture as it is now. Now everybody wants to be a cook or food writer.
My mother has always been a very adventurous cook and a very good cook. I grew up cooking from childhood with lots of very international flavours because my mother taught English as a foreign language. We grew up with my mother's students and they would cook dinners. Many of them became family friends, coming to stay from all over the world - Iranians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Turkish.
From quite a young age, I actually wanted to be a chef. But I grew up in Oxford and all my friends were going to university. I did English at university while cooking quite seriously.

You were a journalist for the BBC? Or an editor?
I owed my parents lots of money but I wanted to go travelling. So I got this job sub-editing for the BBC, reading and correcting the English for the Asian Pacific region. I got interested in China.
I went on holiday to China, loved it, and started learning Mandarin. I got a scholarship. I was supposed to be doing something more academic but when I got to China, my Chinese wasn't good enough really, so I concentrated on learning the language.
I just started cooking. I literally asked restaurants in the neighbourhood that I liked whether I could study in the kitchen. It began out of curiosity.
Since I was a teenager, I've always had notebooks with menus in them. I can't remember when I started thinking in terms of books.

You specialise in the Chengdu and Sichuan region, is this the first book you've done about another region?
No, I did one on Hunan, The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.

Which is your favourite region in China?
Sichuan and Jiangnan. If you're talking about great cuisines that are very complex and many layered, Sichuan and Jiangnan cuisines are more sophisticated and complex. In Hunan, the food was delicious but it was very difficult living there. It was during the Sars epidemic, which is atypical pneumonia. All the foreigners left and travelling became difficult.
There are so many magical experiences. Each region has different aspects - Sichuan was thrilling, racy, exciting; Jiangnan is harmonious, lyrical, beautiful. It's very nice food to live on and to calm down and eat healthy.

It's almost more clean eating.

Yes. In Land of Fish and Rice, I wrote that many of the things that people are concerned about now in the West; eating simpler cleaner food, eating more vegetables, less meat, eating in a balanced way, also the obsession with provenance, sourcing good ingredients, is very strong in this region. There are so many things that we consider modern or Californian or Nordic or whatever but actually have deep equivalents in China and can be found in this region.

I don't eat meat and one of the problems for me in Chinese restaurants is the prevalence of it. I remember reading in Alex Renton's book Planet Carnivore that Chinese stir-fry is about making protein go further. My best friend who has left the country now was a blogger called Bellaphon, who is Chinese Malaysian. He would never take me to Chinese restaurants because he told me they'd all lie about the stock.
Oh, yeah. It's not so much lying. It's just that in China people tend to eat everything in general. The only people who are strict vegetarians are Buddhist monks. Even Buddhist believers tend to be part-time vegetarians. They might eat vegetarian when they go to the temple or on certain days of the Buddhist calendar. Even strict vegetarians, if they were feeling a bit worn out or ill, they'd eat a meat soup.
I think there is confusion. If you went to a Chinese restaurant they'd understand that a vegetarian like you -- that you eat mainly vegetables but if you want a bit of meat, it doesn't count.
There are arty intellectual types, say in Shanghai, where vegetarianism is becoming more fashionable as a reaction against pollution and materialism. So you don't get people who are inclining towards vegetarianism in your sense. But they have the same problems as you. They probably think it's ok to have a meat stock. You have to tell them: 'I don't want stock, I don't want lard.'

So it's difficult to explain it to them. The other thing about Chinese food: they love texture. Often they like rubbery or slimy texture.
Westerners haven't developed an appreciation or pleasure in variety of texture. Westerners find texture disgusting: slithery, gristly, rubbery - even the words sound disgusting. In China they are lovely, different, interesting experiences.

Have you become Chinese?
No, but when it comes to food I've been totally influenced by China. A recent example, I had dinner with this friend, a restaurateur. We had a fish tail, with very little meat, a spine, with lots of sauce. It was tremendously messy, with very little meat; you pick apart the spine, lovely gooey stuff in between. We ended up with this sauce all over our hands, all over our face.
So we finished eating this. Then he looked at me and said, 'of course we wouldn't give this to a normal foreigner'. So I definitely eat like a Chinese now.

Do you eat Chinese at home?
Oh, yes.

Is that your go-to? You'll do something Chinese?
Yeah, not exclusively, but at the moment almost all Chinese. You don't have to know a tremendous amount about how it works. When I'm working at home, it's noodles... various kinds of noodles.

... not pot noodles?
No! Not necessary. Noodles are very easy to make. It's a really nice way to eat. It can be very quick. Very healthy, lovely vegetables. Fresh and fast.

Which is one of the reason people are eating cook-chill meals: mums are working, they get home, they haven't got time. But actually Chinese is something they could cook quickly.
Also you can do things like, for example, make a slow cooked pork stew and freeze the leftovers. I often do that. Then have some fresh stir-fried thing. Have a jar of fermented tofu in the fridge, which is lovely with rice.

You speak fluent mandarin. Do you write it as well? Can you do all the characters?
Not all of them. The thing is if you specialising in anything, you have to learn the characters. There is a whole vocabulary of cooking methods that have no equivalent in English. Or if I'm trying to record a recipe, I might not always know the ingredients, I might have to look up them afterwards. It's also much quicker to use characters.

Is there a dictionary with all the Chinese cooking characters?
Sometimes it's quite complicated, you have to work out different names for different regions, different dialects. That can be confusing. Sometimes I'll have to search in a number of things.
The brilliant thing that's really changed my life is the software on my iPhone. I used to carry a small dictionary with me and it wouldn't be a small dictionary. With Chinese you have to look up three times. You have to first look up the radical, then find the character. (The radical is one bit of the character.) You look at the list of radicals and you find your character underneath. Then you look it up in the dictionary. It's very tedious. Now I can write it in my phone or write it phonetically, it's totally transformational - so much easier.

Have you ever eaten anything that was too disgusting that you just wouldn't eat?
I've eaten things that I also found disgusting, sure. But I taste everything. I think by now I'm just interested.
The two things I didn't much like eating, but did eat, were pigs intestines and stomach. But I've had some very good ones in recent years. I've got over that and I like them.

Is it a textural thing?
No. If they aren't prepared very well, they can have a slight offally taste. But I've grown to love even them. Of course, when I first lived in China, I was constantly faced with things I'd never had before. But there was a moment of daring: 'can I do this?' But I've grown used to it. Crossing that threshold doesn't mean anything anymore. I know I'm going to try it; I know I'm going to like it.  I also just have utmost respect for China as a gastronomic culture. The Chinese really know what's good in food.

You talked about the effect of the cultural revolution on their cuisine. Haute cuisine was denigrated, even street stalls were regarded as capitalist. I was thinking about comparing that with British food: how it went through the doldrums, how the war affected it, how we went through rationing. Our cuisine really suffered and was quite bland for many years but actually most countries have gone through some kind of war and yet their food hasn't suffered in the same way.
Cuisine is a living form of culture, which is being recreated on a daily basis. It's totally responsive to what's going on. Look at Syria now, there has been quite a bit written about the terrible disintegration - on networks, on restaurants and the craft and so on. People are trying to carry on in exile.
China is very unusual. The cultural revolution was a political assault on fancy food.

Was tasty food regarded as some kind of bourgeois affectation?
Not so much tasty food, but fancy food and fancy restaurants were seen as being elitist. There was a phrase, 'cheap and filling food for the masses' - not having exotica and banqueting and that sort of thing. Some restaurants were forced to be renamed with revolutionary names, like 'The East is Red'. Chefs were persecuted. In the cultural revolution in the 1950s, all the restaurants were nationalised, which completely changed the culture. There was a time it wasn't ok to be a small time trader. There was a period when tea houses closed.

It's interesting the influence of politics on food. I wonder if when politics is more left wing, food becomes plainer, more peasant-y? 
Yes, undoubtedly. There is quite a good book by Jack Goody, an anthropologist who looks at food and class. You get the most elaborate cuisines in countries with very stratified and complex social systems, lots of different layers of class. The French, the Chinese...

Hierarchical food...
That's when you get great cuisines. It's all very elaborate and interconnected, plus great street food, rustic food, and at the top a very elaborate food culture. You tend to get simpler cuisines, for instance, in some African societies where everyone's equal and they only have one chief.

I don't know a lot about African food. I don't think anyone knows much about it yet in the West.

Did you know I'm actually a bit of a cult in China? 

No. Why?

I'm part of the Dark Twisted Cookery movement. I noticed I was getting hundreds and thousands of hits from China. I then realised that a food blogger (in fact a tweeter, or the Chinese equivalent, a food micro blogger from Weibo) discovered my blog. The great thing about China is that there are so many people so even if .009 percent of the people look at your blog, that's a lot of people. But basically they were taking the piss out of my food. It went viral. It was in the China Daily.
Really? I'd be really interested to see.

I was always using Google Translate to try and work out what they were saying.
I wrote a piece about taking three chefs to The French laundry. Chinese people in general think Western food is very simple, really monotonous. They can't believe you might have a meal with just a big chunk of meat and some vegetables, just have three dishes. This is so boring and one-sided for them.

My food - I don't cook very British food. Partly because I don't cook meat.
The Chinese people do have excellent food and they are very attached to it. Everyone does that. People like us are the exception, people who are curious about food. It's quite normal to define your cultural boundaries by saying what other people eat is disgusting.

One of the things they laughed at was my stargazy pie. I thought, 'hello, the Chinese love fish heads, what's so gross about that?' They found my aubergines in chocolate very funny, which I understand. It didn't seem entirely respectful.
You are just getting a taste of what it's like the other way round. Freaky food in China. There was a period when every TV crew went to this penis restaurant in Beijing. Yes, it's very funny, but it's not typical.

What was it penises of?
Not sure. There are penises from different animals.

Have you ever been there?
No. (Laughs.)
When a very good friend came to London, I took her to a French restaurant, a nice place. She had a pigeon breast salad and the pigeon breast was rare... the Chinese don't eat raw food. When I saw she was anxious, I explained to her in Chinese terms that the chefs would think it would be 過熟, it would be leathery if it were fully cooked. Then she ate it up.

Did she like it?
Yes. I do know Chinese chefs living in London that like Western food who are open minded. Most people if they've had Western food, it's KFC or Pizza Hut. Young people tend to like Western food. Older people won't. You can't really expect them to like it. People see it as food for children. Some of my friends would take their children to KFC.

It's gimmicky, slightly jokey food.
Children like it. It's easier ordering. If you've got a bunch of children who are very noisy, it's convenient.

In China they are still eating basically Chinese food.
In places like Shanghai, which are very sophisticated and cosmopolitan where there are more Chinese people who have lived in the West, there are very good Western restaurants. There are people who will dip in and out, like in London, but that's not really the norm.

Are they getting fatter and taller?
China has terrible rocketing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as they start to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle.

Are they eating more dairy?
Yes, children eat more dairy, more sweets. They are making the same mistakes we are.

I thought it was quite funny in your memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, that if you brought apple pie to a dinner, your Chinese friends piled it on their plates with all the savoury dishes. I also thought about our history of food before the Russian service in which we had courses, that's how we used to eat, wasn't it?
Yes, and then you think of cold meats and chutneys, sweet and savoury. In some regions, there might be more formal wedding banquets with sweet soup at the end.

It's not for digestive reasons that we have sweet things at the end.
I went to a restaurant with a Chinese friend and we had a really fabulous meal, a tasting menu scenario with exquisite food. Like any Western tasting menu, it ended up with several sweet dishes - very rich, very heavy. My friend said, 'It's very heavy, a bit much.'
Even at a Chinese banquet where you eat lots of food, it would take you to a place of comfort at the end. You might have a refreshing soup to finish the meal. In China, food is about feeling comfortable. Much more thought goes into balance, the comfort of the body, not just taste.

Like Chinese medicine or ayurvedic Indian food or the humours. 
It's very similar, it's all about balance. There are no divisions in food.

It's almost like food is grammar, a dinner is a sentence. For some reason, our sentences always end on a sweet note and for some reason theirs don't.
There are some areas where people eat a lot of sweet things. But in much of the country they don't eat nearly as much sweet food as people typically do in the West.

Do they eat sweeter food in colder regions?
No, in fact it's rather the opposite. In Suzhou, which is a region I've written about, they have lots of sweet dishes. It's in the middle of China. It's hot. Availability of sugar cane has something to do with it.

The only place I've been to in China is Tibet. I spent three months there in 1987. 
Amazing. Tibet is not a place a place for gastronomy. The traditional food is very simple and limited. Now in the cities they also have Chinese restaurants. It's culturally very distinctive and different. Most of the restaurants were Muslim restaurants; a lot of the restaurants are run by Chinese Muslims.

Are your books translated into Chinese? Are there many Chinese cookbooks?
Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper is translated for Taiwan and Hong Kong.
There is a huge Chinese cookbook market. There are a lot of cookbooks that are just recipe books. Now there are travelogues about food, and essays about food. There aren't many with cookery techniques blended with the ethnographic.
Friends say my books should be translated because people like the outsider's eye. All the things that I remark on, they don't notice, as they see them every day.

Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper is very funny. For this latest book, you've been nominated for a prize. How do you feel about being shortlisted for the Andre Simon awards? 
Very honoured. There are some very good books in the line-up.

It was really nice to actually meet, I've been an admirer for a long time.

Buy Land of Fish and Rice here.


fuchsiadunlop.com
Twitter: @fuchsiadunlop
Instagram: @fuchsiadunlop

The Andre Simon awards winner will be announced on January 24th.

Friday, 13 January 2017

In conversation with ingredients specialist Nicola Lando of souschef.co.uk

People complain about too many ingredients in recipes, or that they're overly exotic. But I like to push the envelope in terms of ingredients, and the more cookbook authors do that, the more likely it is that supermarkets will stock them. Indeed, in my first book Supper Club, which came out in 2011, I talked about yuzu (citrus) and ponzu (soy sauce with citrus), which was a struggle to get hold of even in Japanese shops. Today it is possible to buy yuzu juice in large supermarkets and you can even get the fresh fruit in New Covent Garden.

The internet makes it much easier to get hold of rare ingredients. I often order mine from Amazon or, more regularly, an incredible website called souschef.co.uk based in North London. This was set up in 2012 by two city people with an enormous interest in food - Nicola Lando and her husband Nick. I went to have a browse around their warehouse and spoke to Nic just before they won an Observer Food Monthly prize for Best Independent Retailer.


I snacked on Danish liquorice, chocolate cigarillos and Spanish truffled crisps in their office while we chatted about their business, the food world, ingredients and future trends.



Nicola Lando of Sous Chef, London

How do you find your ingredients?

When I first started, I picked the best-known cookbooks from the world cuisines and top restaurants.

How many cookbooks did you buy? 

I already owned most of them.

Have you got an amazing collection? I've heard Diana Henry owns 10,000 cookbooks.

Not that many. I'm not sure.

5,000?

I don't know. My wall is smaller than Diana Henry's. I'll give you an estimate. I'll go home and count the shelves. Probably about five bookcases. How many have you got?

I've not counted them either. They are all over my house, in the toilet, everywhere. I've probably got about a thousand.

How many would you be buying a week to end up with 10,000 over how many years of food writing?

She probably gets them sent for free. Some of mine are sent for free. I still spend an awful lot of money on them. So you had tons and tons of cookbooks?

I went through them all, with a spread sheet and the cookbook by my side, and worked out which ingredients you couldn't buy on the high street. All the ingredients in columns over the top. Then a tally of the most common, the most frequently used unusual ingredients.

At the start it was trying to find which companies imported into this country, which ones I could get over here or not. I spent ages reading Chowhound and eGullet which were bigger then than now. I read lots of the American food press, the British food press. Often cookbooks mention specific brands. I would contact the manufacturer directly, try to get it over here.


That was the core foundation of the range. Since then it's grown more organically. I go to the different trade fairs around the world that ingredient producers go to.


Which is the best one?

The biggest is Sial in Paris.

Can anyone go?

It's trade. You could probably go.

Is it fascinating?

It's all food. Not just speciality ingredients. There is a hall of butchery and butchery supplies... palettes of processed chicken. At Sial you'll see anything, from bulk importers to a stall with one spice to someone making a deal over hundreds of gallons of milk.

There's a German one; they alternate every two years. America has fancy food shows. There's lots of homeware innovation shows, which have speciality food.


If you see an ingredient on a stall that you like, how much do you order? Can you order in small amounts? Do you just give it a try then order more?

If we can, we'll try a little bit at first. We are a small business.

I remember thinking when you started, 'what a brilliant idea'.

I started because it was a shop that I needed. You never know if other people have the same problem until you start. And it seems like people do need this.

Are you successful? Are you making a profit?

We make a living. We are growing.

How many products do you have now?

3,000. Jordi, our buyer, will order another 500. One in, one out. Some ingredients I order for fun, they don't sell but they satisfy my culinary curiosity.
I've been doing all the buying, all the marketing. I was even doing all the product photography until about a year ago. Until 12 months ago, this business was only five people.

I was always impressed that you personally would reply to my emails to your marketing mail outs.

Yes and the person whose name is on the order is the person who packed your order.

I kind of know that pretty much any ingredient I want, you are going to have.

Really? That's good. Let me know if there is anything we don't have. Unless it's fresh.

I'm an ingredients freak anyway. Cookbook authors should put at least a few unknown ingredients in their books. Supermarkets are obviously looking at cookbooks and ordering things in.

Yes for instance Nigella Lawson wrote about pomegranate molasses in 1995. It's not a recent thing.

Yes, so she's been plugging away about it for some time.

Obviously there's a difference between London supermarkets and elsewhere.

That's why Souschef is perfect. You can be living anywhere in the UK and you can get it.

Being able to cook from a cuisine and reimagine it in your home means you need to have the ingredients. For instance, Korean cooking: you are not going to be able to recreate Korean flavours unless you have the ingredients.

Most of these ingredients last a long time. The sauces don't go off. I don't know why people complain. I know Deliciously Ella was very 'I don't use unusual ingredients'.

I think you'd really get on with Symmetry Breakfast. You are the only two that I've met where I've just thought, 'you know so much about ingredients'.

As a blogger, we have been superseded by the Instagrammers. A paragraph of hashtags has taken precedence over a thoroughly researched piece. Now the Observer Food Monthly has removed the award for best food blogger and replaced it with Best Instagrammer.

Really? I look at Instagram.

I use all of it. Clerkenwell Boy I've met once. He's now being treated as some kind of food guru. He may know about food, I don't know. That whole Observer thing of jumping on trends, everything's about money and aspiration. I'm quite suspicious of all that. That's why I like blogging, it democratised food writing. Anyone could get into it. But now it's gone back to the money thing.

People thought books would be over. Everyone thought people would move onto Kindle. But they aren't. People like to have books. People want to spend time reading.

People buy books as gifts. What do you think of clean eating? Now clean eating is very over. 

Have you seen this book? It's entirely purées, the whole book is purées.

Baby food. 

Which is bizarre because babies no longer eat purée.

Don't they?

I've got a nine month old. The last few years, purée has gone out of fashion for babies. They now eat normal food. The advice is that they should eat what you are eating. Also, they can just sit there. You don't have to feed them. I don't have to force a spoon into his mouth.

How interesting that this has changed.

Funny thing is with clean eating, all the products have come out this year [2016]. This year, it was mainly raw chocolate, kale crisps and avocado smoothies, just everything with the healthy eating buzzwords. The products have lagged the trend a little bit.

Publishing is so slow. If I sign a book deal today, it'll be two years before it comes out. Why is it so slow? 

No idea. They are often printed in China. How long does it take you to write a book?

It depends. The last three I did in 18 months. At the time I was broke so I just ploughed on through it. Half killed me. Diana Henry told me she gets about two years for each book. 

When you have to do everything - testing, writing - six months per book isn't much. How's the vegan one doing?

Not bad. Have you sold many here at Souschef?

Quite well.

The cookbook sets are good, aren't they?

We are changing our book range a little bit. More world ones, which are discounted much less heavily. Diana Henry's latest book is £25 retail and £10 on Amazon. Books are cheaper on Amazon. We buy from the publisher for more than that.

Have either of you got a food background?

Nick doesn't. I did a months course at Leiths when I was 18. When I was working in my last job, I read The soul of a chef by Michael Ruhlman. It's just fascinating, it's complete obsession, lots of interest in French classics. I just loved it. I found it thrilling. So I started cooking a lot myself.

What year was that? 

2009. I went travelling before that. A bit of a waste really, I just enjoyed dinner. Now, I desperately cling onto food memories and taste everything obsessively so I can make it at home. Such a lot of wasted memories.

That's how I learnt to cook too. Also travelling is one of the few times you can afford to eat out. 

I went to South East Asia. Why can't I remember what was in those noodle soup bowls?

Do you still travel?

Yeah, I do.

When you go on holiday, would you go somewhere with a great food culture or just go to say Torremolinos?

Yes. Last year I spent two weeks in Japan, America, probably Korea, Italy a couple of times. Some of it is purely for leisure, but I'm always interested in products. I'm peering at the supermarkets. Buying things. You must do that.

Where is the next place you want to go?

I'd love to go to Mexico, learn all about that cuisine. There's so much more to learn in Japan. You could spend all of your life in learning about food in Japan. I'd love to go back to Korea again. I'd love to go to Taiwan.

Is it very distinct?

No, it's very similar to Chinese food but with the quality of Japanese food. Taiwanese can be better quality in terms of food brands. Japanese is always thought to be of the highest quality.

What new and exciting ingredients have you got coming up?

In Japan I'm thinking more about matcha drinking.

(I whisper) I don't really like it.

It's supposed to be so bitter. The whole thing is you have it with these very, very sweet sweets. That's the concept. It's a bit like a sauna: from the super hot to the ice cold.

So it's the contrast that is satisfying?

Yes, and the ceremony around it, and the beauty, and the frothing. Coffee is very bitter. It's not that dissimilar. We want to bring in coffee.

Some things we know will sell. Some things we bring on, and I think this is a brilliant ingredient but then only half a person buys it and I buy the rest. And then I'm not allowed to bring it in again.


What else?

American BBQ. It's still going to be big. We've started taking the smoky flavours and we've started eating this food out. Over the next 5 to 10 years, it's just going to get bigger.

Activated charcoal. We are getting that in.


Japanese food. Japan is big. Although our customers are sophisticated, people are still interested in sushi-making. People are starting to become more specific about the ingredients they want. Before it was dipping sushi in soy sauce. Now they want more than basic soy sauce: is it whole bean? Is it aged?


We suggest to them, why don't you try this better quality sushi rice? Rice has a 12-month shelf life in Japan. It takes 6 months to come out of Japan. The radiation problems have slowed the whole process. Then two months in a warehouse here. By the time it's got here, you've got a couple of months to sell it. But we sold out of it very quickly. We didn't even talk about it. The grains are so short and polished.


You can turn them into a necklace or something... use them as teeth.

You realise that even plain rice of that quality is so good to eat.

Balsamic vinegar. That's going to carry on.


Do you sell gigantes beans?

No one bought them. British people won't spend money on pulses. 2016 was the year of the pulse, but the British won't try expensive beans, which are so much better. Middle Eastern food is still big. It's that relaxed way of eating. Beautiful big salads. Dinner becomes more casual.

One thing I can't buy in this country is good artichoke hearts. 

We can get them, but they are expensive. Where did you get yours?

In Sicily. The only equivalent I've seen was in Borough market and it was £17 a jar. 

That's the issue. It would have been £17.

In Sicily it cost about 4 Euros. I ordered some Spanish ones off the internet, but they were mushy. Then I read in the Brindisa book that the Spanish like them more squidgy. The Sicilian ones were tight little buds. So gorgeous. I ate them for breakfast.


Tell me more about your start. 

I left my job. I worked in venture capital. I had savings. I thought about lots of ideas. I wanted to do something in food, but that's difficult. It's my passion, therefore perhaps I shouldn't do it. I kept thinking, this isn't serious.

I think you were onto the zeitgeist. Now loads of people come from the City into food. You were one of the first.

I thought I should do something less enjoyable. I wanted to understand the restaurant business and the business environment. I wanted a business making veal stock, which I love, using a waste product, bones. I wrote to a bunch of restaurants and Gaulthier said 'yes sure, come and work here'.

I hurriedly wrote down all the things I might have to do in a restaurant: mayonnaise, hollandaise, making bread. I thought I had to learn how to do all of these. So I learn them quickly the day before. Fortunately on my first day they asked me to make a hollandaise sauce. I stayed for about three or four months.


Were you paid?

No, it was like a stage. I loved it. I asked the chef: so if one of my friends in their 30s wanted to be a chef. Not me, 'a friend'. He immediately said, oh they are far too old. In France you go straight to a kitchen at 16.

That's when you have the stamina.

I'd finish work at midnight, I'd be just dead. But I loved it. That's when I came up with the idea for Souschef. They had beautiful ingredients in the kitchen. And obviously they could get them. So I wanted to create that shop for me. I started working on it probably about March, June that year. By about September/October, I got the website developers.

What year was this?

2011. Then I got a website commissioned. Later that year Nick was made redundant. Which helped.

Was he keen on the idea?

Yes he was.

What does he do in the business?

Nothing. (Laughs.)
He's much more the operation side. Finance. Planning. Managing the warehouse.

You do the more creative stuff?

He enjoys that as well. We work very closely together. We are very collaborative, but we argued so much when we first started. Just in terms of having to make a decision. It took us about a year and a half to make our roles separate enough so we could just do our jobs. It's easy to have your roles overlapping too much.

You had your first child last year?

Yes.

How old are you? 

I'm 36.

So you just pipped one out, in the nick of time. Would you like to have more?

I'd like to, I think. He's very sweet.

You like him?

Yes. I didn't expect to. It'll be great when he's in his 20s and he'll bring friends home who I can cook for.

In your late teens and early 20s, you stop cooking because you're going out. I wrote about this in my book Get Started in food writing. My daughter, when I was her age, we went to gigs and clubs. Now young people go out to eat together. 

Breakfast and lunch is cheaper than dinner. No alcohol. No desserts.

Is it weird that you are both called Nic(k)?

I can tell by the tone of voice that someone is using which one of us they are calling.

Is it confusing? It's a bit like Sam and Sam (two married chefs) of Moro.

It's ridiculous they are both called Sam. (Laughs.)
................................................

We take a look at the warehouse downstairs. I'm in heaven: shelves and shelves of interesting things. Japanese pottery, copper coffee filters, tiny bottles filled with pea-sized scarlet chillies, small jars of crystallised flowers.


Just before I leave, Nicola gives me a bag, like a rice sack, of products to take home. I love the sack, it's fashionably utilitarian but also stylish.


You should make those into bags. Just stick handles on them. 

Great idea!
................................................

Here is a list of what she gave me:

  • Truffle crisps to take home, oily and crunchy and moreish. You end up licking the salt off your fingers.
  • Valrhona 'Lait Carmelia' milk chocolate. Nicola says you can eat lots of this without feeling sick.
  • Kikkoman raw unpasteurised soy sauce. They've brought out raw 'Nama' soy sauce with whole beans. This is very interesting, unpasteurised, with a greater depth of flavour. 
  • Verjuice. Subtler than vinegar.
  • Violet sugar. Not healthy but pretty.
  • Christine Ferber Jams. She is renowned in France as one of the best jam makers. Her family makes them in Alsace. She was Alain Ducasse's pastry chef. Every morning she has her copper cauldrons and she's tending them. Everything is hand-made. I ordered strawberry jam and got the response 'Christine will make you some this week'. It's a much softer set with big pieces of fruit. Eat within eight days once opened - you'll get through that in three pieces of toast. When I compare them with Bonne Maman... there is no comparison.
  • Truffle paste. I love this paste. On a cracker with a sliver of parmesan.
  • Hot smoked Paprika from Spain. The tin is so pretty. Piquante.
  • Sardines. Really nice. So big and plump. I love the tins, which are a trend.
  • Salted cherry blossom. Put them in rice when it's cooking to add flavour. Plus it's pretty. But rinse it first, or it's too salty...
  • Peppers. We are really into pepper. Vietnamese Kampot. Nepalese Timut, really fruity. Long pepper is powerful and pungent. It's hard to grind because it's so big. Cubeb is very clovey. 
  • Midas Japanese Stoneware dish. Gorgeous mother of pearl colours. 
  • Chocolate Covered Cigarillos. These have been flying out the door.
  • Salted Liquorice sweets. I'm addicted to these.
Later Nicola emailed me. She'd counted and she had "a paltry 600-700 cookbooks". I still haven't counted mine.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

What does Vogue eat?

The Hatch cafe at Vogue House.

Tony Batalho, The Hatch at Vogue House
salad bar at The Hatch at Vogue House
Salad, sandwiches, cakes and chocolate.The Hatch at Vogue House
The Hatch at Vogue House
The Hatch at Vogue House
I went to interview the Vogue House in-house café owner Tony Batalha of The Hatch to find out what kind of things Condé Nast staff eat. (It's called The Hatch because they used to have a serving hatch in the wall. Just sayin', I love a serving hatch.)
I've spent 23 years working at Condé Nast so far. Before I worked for someone else, but then I took over.
What's the most popular meal here?
Avocado and smoked salmon on dark rye bread.
Is that what the models eat? Can you tell when they are models?
No. Everybody looks like a model in this building.
How many portions of avocado a day do you sell?
We sell avocado all day long. At least 32 portions a day of avocado on toast.
What other dishes are popular?
We have some traditional Portuguese bread, pao casero. House bread, made of rye, and the Portuguese custard tart.
I've noticed there are some cakes here. Who eats the cakes in Vogue House?
Tony laughs and shakes his head.

I look at the dishes on the menu; specials are posted overhead.

You started the courgetti about a year ago? Due to popular demand?
Yes. It's very popular. They like it with meat, like spag bol with courgettes. They want low fat.
And people don't want carbs. Who is eating all these carbs then?
That is a secret.
Tony and his assistant giggle.

Secret carb eaters?
In the morning, people are very worried about calories; they are very careful. But by the afternoon, they don't care. That's when they eat the chocolate.
Are there many vegetarians and vegans?
A few but not a lot. Not really. 
Do you get the editor of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, coming in?
Yes. 
Is she a Twix woman?
Normally she takes some nuts.
So she's quite healthy?
Yes, and she likes a tricolore salad: avocado, mozzarella, tomato.
What about famous people? Do you get them in here?
Yes, sometimes. We don't ask them. We don't know them. They aren't dressed up.
Have you got any plans for this place?
In January, House & Garden is going to do this place up. Change the cutlery, put in banquette seating, more tables. 
At the moment there are only two tables off to the side, although there is a wall of work by famous photographers. Mostly people eat at their desk.
Water is very popular as a drink. We sell 10 to 15 boxes a week, and each box has 12 bottles.
Tony explains:
We have two seasons. In the winter, we make soups and jacket potatoes. All are homemade, freshly made. We have pea and ham; butternut; basil and tomato. Also porridge in the winter. 
In summer, it's salad and juice. We sell at least 20 green juices a day. I had a deal where you got 10 juices a week. A diet plan. Carrot, orange, apple and ginger goes well.
But around here we have too much competition, with Pret and Eat and Caffè Nero. People come here when they have five minutes, grabbing something to eat at their desks. And people are careful with money since Brexit.
I thought they were all rich here.
No. Even people in Vogue House are being careful.
marmite on toast, The Hatch at Vogue House

Tony serves me Marmite on toast. It's fantastic. The bread is similar to Poilane - thin, sour, chewy, with caramel notes - and covered with melted salty butter and Marmite. Then I try the homemade tomato and basil soup. Fresh, thick and hearty, it's perfectly seasoned.

I meet a slim, fashionably dressed young woman from editorial. 'This Marmite on toast is so good,' I say to her, mouth half-full.
I can't eat bread. I can't do gluten. 
Are you coeliac?
No... but I find it makes me bloat.
She then pays by credit card for a courgetti dish.

You even accept credit cards, Tony?
Yes! And I have a credit list. 
Is there anyone that owes a lot of money?

Tony laughs.
We get it docked from their wages.
I think he's joking. Do you do Portuguese coffee? I order 'um galao'.
Yes, we do, but they want flat white here. They want Australian coffee. I can do galao but it's very milky, which they don't want.
juice menu, The Hatch at Vogue House

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Searching for pibil in the Yucatán

cochinita pibil de Julio, Holbox ,Yucatan, Mexico


cochinita pibil de Julio, Holbox ,Yucatan, Mexico
cochinita pibil stall at Holbox market, Yucatan, Mexico
cochinita pibil de Julio, Holbox, Yucatan, Mexico
Donde esta la casa de Julio?
I asked again, this time at Holbox's only gay bar. I'd wandered down the starless flooded back street, stepping over sleeping dogs like furry puddles, looking for this mythical house, the only house in Holbox, a tiny island a few miles from Cancun, that makes pibil. Pibil is a Mayan oven where food, usually pig, is cooked for hours on a low wood fire. It's Saturday night, around 11pm.

I knocked on Julio's door. No lights were on. Eventually a tiny woman in a cotton Mayan dress answers, blinking.
Hay Julio aqu? Es la casa de Julio?
She hesitates. Eventually:
Si.
Soy una jornalista de Inglaterra, especialista en la comida. Soy aquí por descubrir la cocina de Yucatán. La gente me dijo que Julio hace la cochinita aquí. (I am an English journalist, specialising in food. I'm here to discover Yucatan cooking. People told me that Julio makes cochinita pibil here.)
She nods. But doesn't move.
Se puede verla? Quiero sacar fotos. (Can I see it? I want to take photos).
She shuts the door. I'm not sure what's happening. Is that a no? I wait. Eventually a brown man with a kind face cracks open the door.

I do my spiel, adding that I'm here to cover the gastronomic festival in Holbox but also want to find out about traditional Mayan cooking techniques. Julio comes out, closing the door behind him, and leads me around the side of the house where a mutt is dozing, round to the back, which is black as a moonless night. I follow his sombre form through to an open roofed room at the back of his yard. Julio whisks off a giant metal lid. Underneath a half-metre wide pot is bubbling with white pork fat over a concrete semi-circular oven. I move around to see the fire. Julio kicks a log further into the flames.

He then shows me a tray of rich ochre liquid.
'Muy saborosa,' he growls, eyes blinking with sleep.
I'm holding my camera and a light, I have no hands free. He sticks his finger into the dripping liquid and feeds it to me, placing his stubby finger directly in my mouth. This is discomfitingly intimate but I don't want to be rude by flinching. I nod enthusiastically:
'Muy rico.' (Very rich/tasty.)
This is a mixture of achiote, bitter orange juice, onions, salt and spices. Julio pours the tray into the cauldron, stirring and smiling.

The tiny woman is his wife Alejandra, who is no more than 4' 5". All the Mayans are tiny. I'm all for small podgy people. They are my tribe. Us shorties need to stick together. Mexican hobbits.

I let them go back to bed. Cochinita in a pibil oven is a once-a-week treat on Sundays. In the morning I see them at the market with their daughter. They promise to make me a vegetarian pibil next time.

I came across another pibil stall, but they'd made it in Cancún and transported it here to Holbox island. There was a queue. My favourite thing is the big buckets of pink pickled onions that garnish every dish, plus the habanero tamulado sauce.

There was only one problem with this pibil: it didn't take place in an underground oven. Which means it isn't totally authentic. I get my chance later, when staying on the mainland, in Coba, a jungle town around a lake.

Coba

pyramid, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
cenote, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
cenote, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
cenote, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
Coba is famous for Mayan ruins, pyramids that are sickeningly steep to ascend and cenotes, fresh water pools, many underground. I cycle nine kilometres to the most dramatic cenote, a vast turquoise cavern accessible via a slippery wooden circular stairway several floors down.

On the way I see smoking fires deep in the jungle. Pausing, I wonder if they are making a pibil. It was a bank holiday, the sort of day where a family would prepare a feast.

On my return I park my bike by the side of the road and walk through the trees, broken up by slanting green shafts of sunlight. Smoking piles of leaves are everywhere. I call out.
aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
A short handsome man in his early 30s walks towards me. He's happy to show me around, explaining:
We are a group of six families setting up a typical Mayan village here in the jungle. We want to explain our culture to tourists, so you are our first tourist.
He shows me a smoking pile of leaves.
We are cooking pumpkin here, pibil-style. It should be ready now.
With a friend they shovel off the dirt, then the hot stones and burning embers, finally tearing off the banana leaves and revealing around 25 whole pumpkins of different sizes.
digging up a pibil oven, aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
calabaza cooked in pibil, aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
How long did it take to cook?
One hour 20 minutes.
Which seems remarkably precise. Are all of these smoking mounds pibil ovens? I ask, waving my hand.
Many of them, but some are just smoke to keep the mosquitos away.
Cooking pumpkins in this way means the flesh is sweet and dense. We serve them with honey and a pumpkin seed sauce.
calabaza, pumpkin cooked in pibil, aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
We walk further into the forest, where men and women are building a hut: making a thatched roof from palm leaves tied together with jungle ropes. Everyone speaks Mayan - Spanish is a second language. I use my one Mayan phrase: Iin kaabai Christina. I am called Kerstin.
Building a house takes a month. We cut the trees during the new moon, otherwise the insects eat it and turn it into dust. 
aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
aldea maya, coba, Yucatan, Mexico
His grandparents rested on hammocks while children ran around. The entire family is there.
We are also building a well, so we are completely self-sufficient here. Dig down 17 metres anywhere in the jungle and there is water. We have 5 metres more to dig. Do you know this tree?
He points to a tree with black resin on the bark.
This tree 'Chechem' burns you but we use it as medicine. 
In English this is known as Poisonwood. The tar will burn your skin. He then points to another tree: 
These are jungle bees, they are very rare now. They are so vulnerable; they don't even have stingers. 
We watch the bees cluster around a kind of bark pipe sticking out of a tree.
The honey is in the tree. If the bees are attacked they close up the opening, as that's their only defence.
stingless Yucatan honey bees
He gives me a blistered pumpkin to take back to my hotel for dinner. I'm staying at the Coqui Coqui Coba residence hotel, which only has two rooms. Each of them are in different wings, that is two pyramids joined by a rope bridge. It's a long climb up. The hotel seems ancient but it's fairly new. Every aspect of it is beautifully designed: from the stone bath tub to the handmade toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, insect repellent and eau de toilette. This place was started by perfumer Nicolas Malleville and his wife, an interior designer. There is a perfumerie where scents made from local ingredients are captured under tall glass domes: vanilla, orchid, jungle honey, Mexican roses from Valladolid, sandalwood, tabacco, agave, orange blossom.

I gave the calabaza to the chef, who gave me half and the rest was shared by the hotel staff. I have dinner on my own at a white linen clothed table, at the top of my pyramid room, on the terrace. I ate it as I watched the sunset, the bats flying from the tree, the crocodiles slinking around the lagoon, the crickets rubbing their legs. The steaming pumpkin, served on a platter covered by a silver dome, was sweet and smokey. The rare honey wasn't thick like normal honey, but almost watery and savoury, sweet with lemony notes.

hotel coqui coqui, coba, yucatan, Mexico
a jungle tree, hotel coqui coqui, coba, yucatan, Mexico
,my room, hotel coqui coqui, coba, yucatan, Mexico
hotel coqui coqui, coba, yucatan, Mexico
bath hotel coqui coqui, coba, yucatan, Mexico
breakfast hotel coqui coqui, coba, yucatan, Mexico