Monday, March 31, 2008

All the Fun of the Fair

So the clocks went back and, completely in keeping with the general theme, spring suddenly sprung, almost overnight. The birds started singing at 4am this morning (bless their funny little body clocks), and yesterday, a traveling fairground started to set up camp in Victoria Park, directly in the line of vision from my kitchen window.

A traveling fair always looks far more romantic from a misty distance (in both the physical and the hazy memory sense) than it does close up. Dusty teddy bears hanging from a noose along the edges of the rifle range, dead goldfish floating in plastic bags full of septic water, the stench of rancid hot dogs filling air already thick with clouds of burning sugar and techno-techno-techno at full volume – that, unfortunately, is the reality of an up close and personal visit to the faraway, magical vision that I’ll be gazing at every evening from my ivory tower perspective for the next fortnight or so. But for someone who lives, as I pretty much do, in an optimistic half-dream, the traveling fair is a magical place, full of almost supernatural wonder.

I remember my dad taking me to the traveling fair on the first day it arrived in Sefton Park, Liverpool. I must have been about nine years old. The grass – yet to be trodden underfoot or turned into mud by the inevitable rain – glowed an eerie, emerald green in the reflection from the lights. The soft pink candyfloss on a stick was yet to be the diabetic nightmare that it represents to me now. I loved watching brave riders claim their pillion seats on the Speedway and teenage girls letting rip with well rehearsed, attention-grabbing shrieks as their Farrah Fawcett copycat hairstyles and billowing flares got all mussed up on the Waltzers. Excited children with parents far less paranoid about safety than mine (at the time, at least) kicked their feet in the swaying carriages of the Big Wheel as my dad and I took to a Bumper Car, R Dean Taylor’s ‘There’s a Ghost in my House’ blasting through the speakers as my dad instructed me to avoid collision with other riders. Avoid collision? That, surely, was the whole point of our 40p, thrill-seeking adventure. Talking of which …

My sister (who would have been around 13 at the time) set off to explore the fairground at a much more grown up time of day; oooh, it must have been almost 7pm when she and her friends Farrah-flared off in the direction of the park. “Don’t talk to the fairground boys”, warned my mum, referring to the louche louts who slouched around the rides taking money but looked like they should have been in the Bay City Rollers instead. “They’re drifters”, she said, “and they don’t wash their hands after going to the loo”. In my mind, the drifter aspect explained their dirty bland smiles, the loo thing their dirty blond hair. But if I’d have been my sister, I’d have skipped the rides those boys were promoting and gone off in search of another kind of daring adventure with one of them instead. Ah, so easy to say, with hindsight! But I was way too young. Today, it’s the memory of that jewel-coloured emerald green grass that stayed with me ever since – and you know what? I’m very grateful for that.

So will I go to the fair this spring? Probably not - I’m too old to be excited by the lure of a pillion seat, with or without the allure of a superficially glamorous transient urging me to go faster. Just knowing that either option is a mere hop, skip and a jump away is enough excitement for me.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Let them eat cake - but preferably in their own nurseries

Flora must avoid margarine, Oliver only eats organic, Bianca can’t tolerate white bread, and if Daisy has dairy, there’ll be hell to pay – welcome to kids food 2008 style, where Turkey Twizzlers have been consigned to hell and nut allergies rule supreme. But something else has been thrown out along with the Monster Munch of days gone by.

In my day, when it came to eating out in public, saying “please” and “thank you” while Not Picking Nose At Table was of equal, if not more, importance than what we got on the plate. Me, a child raised by wolves who survived on grains picked when the moon was in Aquarius! (okay, hippies on a vegetarian commune – same difference). Today, Tarquin, Harriet and little Ostentatia turn up in Pizza Express with a list of no-go’s, intolerances and food sensitivities longer than the menu itself, accompanied by parents so preoccupied by sugar levels that their bawling, whingeing, bum-picking brats are free to run riot. And if such bad behaviour attracts so much as a tut from the table next door, the whole restaurant is subjected to loud, boorish rants regarding the importance of ‘healthy self-expression’ in children under seven from loud, boorish ranters who are as objectionable as their brood.

What happened to table manners? Why do modern parents think that fellow diners aren’t perturbed by baby’s ear-splitting screams? What makes them think that we’re all interested in the thumping floorshow offered by a very bored, very clumsy Grace? If parents aren’t interested in giving their children a good grounding by treating them like the adults they’ll one day become, then restrain them! Brace them into highchairs! Or do what used to be done in the good old, bad old days: bribe them with Death by Chocolate, and give us all a peaceful meal.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Long Good Friday/Underneath the Arches

The trouble with Easter arriving so early this year is that it just doesn't feel Easterish. But hey, it's a Bank Holiday - and I don't care what the weatherman says, when the weatherman says it's raining, etc. But then again, what am I to do, exactly, with the official no-work day that stretches behind and before me? I've already broken the Great British (don't work to) Rule by getting up with the lark and rattling through a review of a very mediocre TRB play that I saw last night (details next week, after publication, etc) and a review of the non-surgical facelift that I underwent on behalf of Folio readers yesterday afternoon (it's a tough job, but hey - I'm tough). And I keep persisting with that dreadfully annoying habit of italicising a lot, which suggests that I'm looking forward and over-emphasising everything excitedly. Except I'm not. I'm just fiddling around with fonts in the hope of making these words leap off the page and talk to you - which of course they can't. Oh, ho hum indeed!

I should be biding my time off by cooking something long'n'slow in the oven, but I'll be doing plenty of that on Sunday (big traditional roast dinner planned, guest list TBC) and again on Tuesday evening, when mummy will be a guest at the table, hoorah! And anyway, what with it being Good Friday, we're obliged to have fish this evening, and I ain't slow-cooking a cod. I could embark on the overdue housework, but that feels too much like bad use of time (days off have been few and far between lately as it is, and anyway, pre-mum's-visit is the best time for that sort of lark). I ought to invite my dad over, because he's probably getting a bit stir crazy (as opposed to just plain bit crazy), what with the weather hemming him in - but I'm feeling too selfish to entertain according to his whim (even the very thought of it has reduced me to using cumbersome, archaic words like 'ought'). And lordy, I know I'm not doing a very good job of entertaining you lot, either!

So, I'm now going to drag myself from my torpor and go to the great trouble of cutting and pasting a recent Venue review, not just to fill a gap but because you might genuinely find it (a) informative, (b) entertaining, and/or (c) a good way to fill up your own spare time while you're wondering what to do with a long Good Friday.

Hoppety-hop, Easter Bunnies! I'm sure I'll be on far less dreary form soon.

Restaurant de l’Arche, Bath

My boss isn’t very bossy. In fact, he vehemently denies that he’s my boss at all; he’s always pointing out that actually, I'm freelance, and therefore accountable only to myself. “Come to work with me, then”, I said; “I might be able to offset you against tax … or something…”.

So after a quickie (drink, that is; he’ll always be a boss to me) at my favourite watering hole on the corner, we headed off under the arch that straddles a very pretty cobbled street, our path illuminated by sparkly lights from frippery shop windows, me ranting on about the ‘context’ of the restaurant we were heading for (“the manager used to be at blah blah, the food is blah blah blah”) in a vain attempt to prove my non-credentials as MD of Animal Disco Publishing Ltd (sole trader) while my non-boss doubtless wordlessly pleaded “please shut up, I'm starving and running out of patience”. And as that patience was soon richly rewarded, you’re not getting off the history lecture either:

Restaurant de l’Arche has magpied into the space left behind by Blackstones Restaurant (RIP). While this gorgeous, five-storey former Georgian townhouse is a very charming building indeed, it doesn’t lend itself easily to an eatery. In an attempt to open up the available space in the narrow dining areas, Blackstones’ bright’n’breezy, contemporary tactics made it a bit too canteenish. But by taking the obvious snug’n’cosy approach instead, the new kids on the block have revamped the building’s limitations to their full advantage - it’s now a smart, upmarket French bistro affair, with invitingly well-dressed tables (sparkling glassware, candles, single-stemmed roses, etc) and the kind of plush, dark red paintwork that adds a touch of classy bordello to proceedings.

Pre-scoff, we climbed a narrow, winding staircase to the restaurant’s champagne and oyster bar on the top floor, where we sipped a glass of something elegant while a silent Marilyn Monroe undulated and simpered on a rather incongruous plasma screen behind us. Such kitschery did wonders for my imagination; suddenly, I was a dark haired Pola Debevoise and the non-boss was Freddie Denmark. Fashioned thus (if only in my pitiful fantasies) we headed back down to the very posh version of the café all the wannabe millionaire wives end up fainting in at the end of the film.

Freddie – enthralled by the prospect of tea-marinated prunes – went for warm duck breast salad to start, which came with walnuts that added crunch to both melting breast and prunes (two words you don’t often see in the same sentence), while I, in a distinctly unladylike fashion, gobbled up two sturdy cubes of goats cheese tightly parcelled up with very tasty cured ham: a rich, salty-sweet collaboration that did wonders for the tastebuds. After that, my sea bass fillets came melting on a neat little tangle of black linguini with a very nicely balanced orange and vanilla beurre blanc frothing joyfully at the edges. He, meanwhile, declared his rack of lamb with cherry tomatoes, dauphinois potato, garlic crisp and red wine sauce to be “like, dead good”. And while I’m sure covert millionaires don’t usually talk like ‘Skins’ characters, I have to agree with him (after all, I was still in ditzy Pola mode, and the food was turning me even ditzier). But hang on: the real me was having a déjà vu moment as a familiar figure in chef whites approached us – blimey, it if it isn’t that clever young fella who used to be at the glorious Fig Tree in Monkton Combe! That explains it, then. Yum.

All this glamorous excitement, coupled with the fact that his crepe Suzette oozed orange caramel and was flambéed in Cointreau at the table (wheee, pyrotechnics!), meant that I couldn’t manage all of my crisp white chocolate basket, which came extravagantly filled with three creamy, dreamy ice cream boules (including a lush Baileys version). But I had, I think, managed to convince my non-boss that working on his non-behalf can be a very definitely positive thing. Presumably, my non-cheque is in the post …

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Your Dirty Dawg

Fellow blogger H always makes me smile. And her latest post reminds me of a Venue panel I once wrote that made some readers sick ...

Remember the hot dog sellers who used to ply their wares around fairgrounds, markets and street corners, wafting the reek of processed meat, boiled onions and three day old brine wherever they went? According to various urban myths, the sellers never washed their hands (or worse, peed in the brine), the sausages contained traces of real dog and behind every rickety cart there was a gun-toting drug dealer laundering his dirty cash – now that’s what I call a recipe for the perfect guilty pleasure indeed.

Most commercial, mass-market hot dogs are made from mechanically recovered chicken mixed with pork fat, water, starch, salt, collagen and additives – mmmmm. They cost around 79p for an 8-dog can, and are conveniently available at 24-hour garages and Smile stores across the country. You can try Princes, Lancaster, Ye Olde Oak and supermarket own brand; lite, premium, vacuum packed or in a jar, but only one brand rules the pound: Plumrose - the original (probably) and still most definitely the best.

For the full-on experience, your lukewarm hot dog must be served in one of those generic, white, spongy hot dog buns (usually around 10p for 24) with a squiggly line of French (the brand, not the country) yellow squirty mustard along the top. Boil some onions in the brine left in the pan if you must, and – for total hot dog wagon authenticity – dump them on top of the bun with nicotine and pee-soaked fingertips, wrap the whole thing in a damp, greying napkin and charge yourself 50p.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

Actually, I'm more of a jam-filled donut. Oh for goodness sake - of course I've been to Berlin since the wall came down! 1998, for example, when I spent a warm spring week there. Or the year before that, when I went for Christmas. So what possessed me to report here (and actually, to anybody else who cared) that I hadn't been there since the boundaries were smashed? As usual, I guess I'd ruled out reality in favour of a bit of drama. But anyway, the points are that (a) I've been there both pre- and post- 'the changes', and (b) I've just been back again. Now I'm home, with pages of scribbled notes in my diary, the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) I'm going to share with you here. Please forgive the non-linear narrative; Berlin just isn't that sort of city.

A Small Room in Berlin? I don't know what Christopher Isherwood would have made of the apartment we stayed in: a huge, empty, concrete space, with a kitchen/bedroom at one end, another bedroom at the other, and a massive dancefloor/performance area - complete with floor-to-ceiling curtains - dominating the middle. Fabulous, glamorous, strange. I loved it.

Sightseeing: a boy who looked like he should have been in a Depeche Mode video (circa 1984) scurrying along the stasse carrying an ornate cake box. A Chris Ish lookalike staring at transparent undies in a sexy lingerie shop window. Loudmouthed American kids playing hide and seek on the Holocaust Memorial. Blade Runner cityscapes everywhere you look. Seeing the word 'PRAWNCURRY' on an otherwise unreadable menu on our very first night and deciding that I'd ordered the very best thing on the menu as soon as it arrived. A huge poodle on the train - a sort of glam rock version of Pete Burns - with ballet dancer tippytoes and soft, soft curls. A beautiful girl serving us cocktails in a bar, telling us how much she loves visiting Devon and inadvertently making me feel bulky and a bit old. Gazing up at the windows of what was once Christopher Isherwood's apartment (yes, I am obsessed). Stroking the doorbell of what was once David Bowie/Iggy Pop's apartment (ditto). A tiny little man wearing a hooded duffle coat, with what seemed to be an entirely purple face peeping out from inside. A Lego giraffe from the top of a very tall building. A huge, glamorous hotel lobby, where I waltzed with the reunited friend after I'd used their 'facilities'. Ketchup under my nails and curry powder in my hair as I gazed up at the TV tower. An open air, rooftop bar on the sixth floor of an artist's squat in Kreuzberg. Prostitutes all wearing what appeared to be the same 'uniform' (long white patent leather boots, tightly fastened corsets, tiny mini kilts) teasing the boys on a street in Mitte. Karl Marx Allee. The remains of the wall at the East Side Gallery ("and you ... you will be Queen").

Namedrop: brunch with Sam Riley on our very first morning.

Stupidest Quote Ever (said during this trip, but I'm not telling you who said it): "So did they take the wall down as part of their Millennium celebrations, then?"

Best Moment: arriving at the airport to be greeted by a friendly face bearing huge hugs.

Worst Moment: feeling sick all day long on leaving day, then enduring an extremely rocky flight as we landed at Bristol airport during a storm.

What's Next: a review at a restaurant owned by one of the most annoying men in Bath this evening, followed by more reunification at GP. 'Hedda Gabler' on Saturday evening. A new friend on Tuesday evening. Work, work, work ... but all good, good, good. More Berlin diaries to follow. And an overall feeling of fabulousness after a really brilliant long weekend away.

Life is a cabaret indeed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I must remember to pack the tinned mincemeat ...

The great day has arrived ... and I'm off to Berlin. Hoorah! I haven't been there since before the wall came down. When I first visited (aged just 16, and ridiculously thick) I didn't even know there was a wall there. Much has happened to both the city and I over the past couple of decades - and I can't wait to put us both together again. Friends will be reunited too ... oh yes, this is exciting! But I couldn't go anywhere without leaving a rant for you to enjoy, could I? Ah, Delia; what's going on???

Enjoy the weekend without me, folks! You have an Access All Areas pass to the Disco in my absence, and I'll fill you in on Berlin when I return.

Delia Smith: The (not so) Sweet Cheat?

Nigella undulates her way around an Italian deli, fills her saddlebags with expensive antipasti and croons “There - starters for six people, and virtually no effort on my behalf”. Swooooon! Marco can’t get through a sentence without mentioning Knorr chicken stock cubes. Do we lambaste him for not boiling and skimming a carcass for three hours? Nope - we flutter our eyelashes and dream that one day we too might crumble in his capable hands. When Jamie says we’ll Taste the Difference, Sainsbury’s has to triple the available space in the ready meals aisle.

Then poor old Delia comes along with ‘How to Cheat’ – all tinned mincemeat, frozen vegetables and ‘Dress Italian’ jars of tomato sauce – and wow, watch those knives come out! Not, it has to be said, taken from the drawers of the millions who have already bought the book itself (you don’t need knives to chop a pre-sliced jar of onions). But it is a bit weird that just when the importance of buying local, organic and/or responsibly sourced food finally starts to penetrate the consciousness of the average British consumer, the woman who prissily lectured the nation about how to boil an egg decides to promote over-priced, over-packaged convenience food over the affordable, healthier, tastier alternatives.

But perhaps, for the first time in Delia’s life, she’s having a rebel moment. Despite her indisputable culinary skills, she’s generally considered to be a bit of a prissy school ma’am, bland but reliable, with a persona as frosty as the frozen mashed potato she’s currently promoting. The words ‘passion’ and ‘Delia Smith’ rarely appear in the same sentence; maybe this book is her big coming out party, wherein she confirms to the world at large what we’ve all suspected for a long time: Delia actually loathes cooking … and ‘How to Cheat’ proves it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Analyse This!

I’ve been analysed - I guess it had to happen sooner rather than later. But rather than spend hours lying on a couch pondering my navel and blaming everything on my parents, I took the fast track to being categorised as a total loony and handed several back issues of Venue, my food diaries (what, you don’t keep one …?) and access to my blog archives to an analyst of a very zeroes persuasion.

Lurking shamelessly amongst my eclectic gaggle of eccentric friends, there’s a ‘trend forecaster’ in our midst. As he’s widening his circle of clients (mobile phone companies, interior designers and trustafarians with a plan for world domination) to include restaurateurs and food producers, he needs to ‘assess my blueprint’ as a prospective source of insider information. As a result, my overall synopsis goes something like this: I’m an archetypal LOAFer – a foodie who’s shopping list is dictated by local, organic, animal-friendly and fairly-traded ethics. Well, I’m not ashamed to say that he’s got that right. However, I’m also a bit of a snob, seriously seduced by ‘premiumisation’ (own-label ‘value’ brands? You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding) and using food as a fast-track to superiority; ole Crystal Balls cites references to Cavelo Nero, Jamón Serrano and Kobi beef as the food writer’s equivalent of Coleen McLoughlin desperately toting the latest Anya Hindmarch shopping bag in an attempt to hide the fact that she and Wayne live on Happy Meals. Blimey!

But the worst is yet to come: I am, apparently, exactly the kind of person that the new-look McDonalds – think, Studio 54 for the Wi-Fi generation – has geared it’s transformation towards. “You know”, says the hoity-toity TF, just as I’m about to slash my wrists; “A bit like Nigella Lawson”. What a waste of time! I could have told him that in the first place …