Thursday, January 29, 2009

The King and I

From gagging on meal deals at Fasty McNasties to applauding the current culinary emperor’s new clothes at the latest venture to be sanctioned by the Michelin man, Venue goes forth and samples the rich and varied eating out opportunities round these yer parts on your behalf. Selfless? That’s we food critics. While many experiences take us on a trip beyond our wildest prandial dreams, some are far, far worse than our most vivid kitchen nightmares. As a result of such research, while I still don’t believe that you can judge a book by its cover, I can confidently claim to measure any restaurant’s worth by its menus. And I’m not very keen on big chain ventures. And I’m a bit of a snob.

So, I was less than pessimistic about the prospect of an early dinner at The King of Wessex: the big JD Wetherspoons pub that dominates the atrium (as those vast, soulless spaces at the ‘heart’ of every new ‘multifunctional leisure facility’ is called) of Bath’s Kingsmead Complex. To be honest, I was writing the review the moment my Obnoxious Teenage Companion and I set foot in the door: meal deals – yuk. Curry, Grill and Sunday Clubs – ditto. Beer’n’burger offers – aargh, I’m a no-list celebrity, get me out of here! “Calm down, dear – it’s only a really good value for money pub that ‘normal’ people really like”, said OTC, bringing Michael Winner into a Wetherspoons for the first and probably only time in the great man’s life. “And anyway – check out the website!”. And before I knew it, he was poking away at his iPhone/BlackBerry/electronic Ouija board thingie and reeling off all manner of tantalising facts and figures akin to the kind you find writ large all over every available space at every restaurant worth its (low) salt. “The fish is sustainable!”, he yelled. “The eggs are free range, AND they save water and recycle oil and, like, reduce energy!”, he screeched. “AND they do gluten-free food and local ales, AND you can work out all the fat and calorie content and everything! It’s fantastic! AND it’s dead cheap! And the film starts in half an hour so we can just order some food and get on with our lives?”.

Thus put firmly in my place, I ordered fish and chips and he ordered chicken, leek and Wiltshire ham pie and we both shared a gert big slab of sticky toffee pudding (all utterly unremarkable), and with a bottle of wine the whole shebang came in at less than £18. So yes, it’s cheap. And yes, this is a chain that goes commendably large on, like, ethical responsibility and stuff (which earned them an extra star in each category). But while the food isn’t exactly a nightmare experience, there’s nothing more that can be said in it’s favour apart from the fact that it fills you up. And it’s cheap. And apparently, ‘normal’ people really like it. Go figure.

Better Late then Never...

According to Marc (‘Doc’) Crewe, my favourite chefs were tossers and the restaurants I loved were poncy. I’m obsessed by MasterChef; Doc’s favourite food-related documentary was ‘Half Ton Mum’. When I was cosying up with Nigel Slater’s gently kitsch autobiography ’Toast’, Doc would email me extracts from the original rock’n’roll chef Anthony Bourdain’s graphic memoir ‘Kitchen Confidential’ ...“for perspective”. By rights, Doc and I should never have appeared on the same menu together. And yet, it was he inspired me, week after week, to keep on writing about a subject that we both loved.

Doc was, in many ways, Venue’s own Michael Winner: a sardonic, graceless and often wilfully obnoxious man, but informative and erudite, both on and off the page. And he really, really knew his stuff when it came to food. When he called Jean Christophe Novelli a wanker, his judgement was based as much on a lack of technical ability than the fact he envied ‘the big ponce’ his fanbase of swooning females. When he accused me of allowing pomp and ceremony to skew my verdict on one of Bath’s Michelin-starred restaurants, he had a valid point. And yes, ‘Half Ton Mum’ said more about the western world’s attitude to food than Slater’s Alan Bennett-style musings. But I’m not conceding to these conclusions from under a jus of sentimental hindsight. Such topics were typical of the lengthy ruminations Doc and I would indulge ourselves, often while we got inelegantly wasted; in the company of a fellow foodie, he was as keen to discuss the variables of slow-roasted belly pork and the latest ego-fuelled ‘sleb chef tantrum as he was quick to encourage the exchange of vile revelations from the sleazy depths of our imaginations. Doc may have had his totally tasteless moments, but he never failed to bring flavour and bite to Venue's pages - or my life.

As recent tributes have attested, Doc was a truly original character. But a rare sensitivity lay not too far beneath that superficially cynical exterior. Doc talked me through many romantic dramas, bringing clarity to what were, with hindsight, utterly ridiculous situations. It was Doc I’d turn to in times of domestic crisis, because I never failed to be impressed by how he dealt with those of his own.

Last time I saw Doc, I was moved by full-on festive spirit and buoyed up by too much wine. So I decided to tell him how much I loved him. It wasn’t the sort of exchange Doc and I normally enjoyed, but now I’m grateful for my own sentimental ridiculousness because – and most definitely not in spite of - his response. “Why d’you have to go all X-Factor on me?”, he grumbled disdainfully; “just fuck off and have a good Christmas”. Despite losing one of my best friends three days later, I duly adhered to Doc’s final commission to me. And as far as I’m concerned, Doc genuinely did have the X-Factor. I’m so sorry he fucked off early.

Footnote: the typeface has gone all weird and my computer won't let me upload a picture of Doc to accompany this piece. I can hear him now, chuckling over my shoulder. Well sod you, Doc; I'm going to publish and be damned.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fellow Bloggers!

One thinks that this feature makes very interesting reading...

Have a wonderful Wednesday, y'all!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Well, it was worth a try...

THE DICTIONARY DEFINITION: “Aphrodisiacs: various forms of stimulation thought to arouse sexual excitement, generally classified in two principal groups: (1) psycho-physiological (visual, tactile, olfactory, aural) and (2) internal (stemming from food, alcoholic, drugs, love potions, medical preparations)”.

Male, 42
Existing libido level: high - but can a quick shot of nature’s Viagra make a good thing even better?

Female, 44
Qualifications: none

FACT Oysters are massively high in zinc, which plays a vital role in the production of the hormone prostaglandin (which regulates the growth and function of the sex organs).

FICTION Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell, roman emperors paid for them by their weight in gold and frisky fop Casanova used to eat 12 dozen of ‘em before a ‘session’.

METHOD According to Gordon Ramsay, oysters are best served raw, on a bed of crushed ice – simple as that. According to my beloved guinea pig, raw oysters ‘taste like bad phlegm’ – or at least, I think that’s what he said as he dashed off to the bathroom to vomit copiously.

RESULT? 0/5 – sick just isn’t sexy

FACT Ginger and chillies contain androgens which are thought to raise testosterone levels and increase sexual desire in men, while nuts are good for men’s, erm, nuts (thanks to that horny old devil called zinc again)

FICTION Emperor Caligula ate 50 raw chillies every morning in order to maintain his legendary stamina levels; Barbara Cartland used to drink a pine nut smoothie when she wanted to kick-start the bodice ripping imagination

METHOD I feel a stir-fry coming on! Heavy on the pine nuts and the spices, with a few prawns thrown in for good measure (well whaddya know – zinc again!). And I watched … and waited. And waited again as he went off to the loo. Again. And again. And again. “Must have been something I ate …”, he mumbled, as he dissolved yet another sachet of Diocalm in warm water.

RESULT? 0/5 - fiery for all the wrong reasons.

FACT Chocolate contains high levels of phenylethylamine and seratonin, chemical mood-lifting agents which produce the euphoric effects associated with being in love

FICTION Chocolate has been credited as having mystical aphrodisiac qualities since the days of the Mayan and Aztec cultures

METHOD A grand selection of organic dark chocolate - rich in antioxidants and nutrients (including iron for stamina, nudge nudge) to accompany the ‘Lost’ Season Four climax …

RESULT 1/5 … or rather, anticlimax. Nothing happened, nothing was explained – and the chocolate – though absolutely yummy - had no palpable effect, either.

FACT It’s not what you eat, it's the way that you eat it

FICTION 9 and a Half Weeks, that 1970’s Cadbury’s Flake advert, Linda Lovelace – mmmmmmmm, yes …

METHOD On the menu today: butter-drenched asparagus spears and slippery smoked salmon strands followed by Haagen Dazs with bananas and raspberries (which I intended to feed him blindfold). Down went the asparagus, in what I hoped was true porn star style; cue my one-man ‘audience’ looking at me as though I was absolutely mad every time I slurped salaciously while catching his eye. Best quote of the evening: “Why are you eating like that? Have you got a mouth ulcer?”, followed by: “No you can’t blindfold me! I don’t trust you not to kill me – or at least steal my wallet”. Charming! Experiment terminated.

RESULT? 5/5 for hilarity. 0/5 for anything else.

FACT Alcohol reduces inhibitions

FICTION “Candy’s dandy, but liquor’s quicker” (Ogden Nash)

METHOD Take two bottles of Champagne, four of Rolling Rock and a bottle of Baileys - we were dancing to show tunes by 9pm and dancing to slow tunes one hour later. Unfortunately, though, I can’t remember actually going to bed - but I do know for sure that I was sick in the morning, he had too much of a headache to get up and go to work and neither of us could manage anything more than grunting at each other until at least midday.

RESULT: 1/5 – but it has to be said, he’s the greatest dancer

Rumour, humour, fact, fiction and fun – such is the stuff that aphrodisiacs are made of. Some brave souls swear by crushed and powdered blister beetles, others get hard at the very mention of lizard’s penis, while the Wonderbra will always be a girl’s best friend when it comes to a lure. Still, a little bit of what you fancy will always do you good – and if that happens to be the one you’re with on Valentine’s Day, you’ve got your gift all wrapped up already.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I was brought up as a vegetarian. As a child, toast and honey was (and, to an extent, still is) the bedrock of my diet. On a semi-commune in Wales - so ‘semi’ that my family were pretty much the only permanent members - I more or less lived on homemade potato cakes, flapjacks, wholemeal bread, cheese and Ribena. When our taste of The Good Life ended with a move back to Liverpool, the food I most associate with my pre-teenage years is hummus, halva and Twix bars, the pork chops, stews and Sunday roasts of which my friends spoke being as alien and mysterious to me as my family’s ‘exotic’ menus were to them.

And then I discovered Eric’s.

Eric’s was to Liverpool what CBGBs was to New York - part music venue, part way of life. The bands I saw play there went on to become legendary, but to a disenfranchised 14 year old, Joy Division, The Ramones and Elvis Costello failed to fascinate. The cafe, however, completely captivated my imagination, the hot dogs, burgers and bacon sarnies being far more enticing than the wraps of mysterious white powder that the ‘chef’ kept tucked alongside the small change in the till. And so it came to pass that just before my 15th birthday, I lost my vegetarian virginity to a Plumrose look-a-like in a stale white bun; the brine-boiled onions provided the foreplay, the vinegar-diluted ketchup the afterglow. Forbidden fruit never tasted so good, but rebellion tasted even better.

The family were informed the very next day, probably via something along the lines of, “IhateyousoI’veeatenahotdog!”. “Oh darling, a hot dog isn’t even food, let alone meat”, murmured my serene, unflappable mother. “You must be starving. Have a falafel.”

The moral of this tale? Keep Mum - she really does know best.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Joyful January

It’s Sunday morning and there’s a beef casserole in the oven already, which will be at it’s yummiest, tastiest best in a few hours time when we get back from visiting Bath Cats and Dogs Home (oh, you know why! The search continues…).

Anyway, because I haven’t popped in here for over a week (but my stats prove that lots of you have; why oh why doesn’t anybody post a comment anymore?), here’s a catch-up list of the kind of stuff and nonsense that’s given me pause for thought over this past week:

Bart Spices’ Ras el Hanout (Moroccan spice mix, complete with rose petals). Even the chunky silver tin it comes in is gorgeous; £3.15 for 65g of store cupboard delight.

A dark pink, chiffon shift dress which was relegated to the back of my wardrobe as I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to fit into after overdosing on seasonal excess. Feeling masochistic, I tried it on. It fitted perfectly. Despite what that new advertising campaign plastered on the side of buses tells us, this event - alongside the 'Miracle on the Hudson River' - proves that there must actually be a God.

The weather. Yes, it’s cold. But oooh, it’s bracing! And it makes staying in even snugglier. A related bonus: when I dashed up to the local shops one morning last week, I sniffed the breeze and was suddenly reminded of stepping out of a warm hotel onto a freezing cold street in Canada, years ago. The memory inspired me to write a short story as soon as I got in. And writing short stories makes me really happy. Hoorah!

My niece and her boyfriend coming to stay. We went to eat at Jamie Oliver’s gaff and, despite rumours to the contrary, it’s still just as nice as it was when it first opened – in fact, it’s even better now the novelty has worn off. I just hope that none of the staff noticed that we stole two tea towels on the way out…

News that one of my bestest friends has been nominated for a BAFTA. I’m still not quite sure in what category etc because one of my other bestest friends - his missus, no less – hasn’t enlightened me; she’s probably too busy wondering what she’s going to wear for the ceremony (if you’re reading, KirkbyGirl, feel free to borrow the aforementioned pink chiffon shift…).

Attending the Great Australian Drag Show at Komedia on Friday evening: great company, great show.

And now, here’s a random observation that for some strange reason popped into my head this morning: why is it that, when you say the words New York to certain people, they seem to feel obliged to blurt “Noo Yoik!”, in what I imagine to be either (a) a demonstration that they’re really bored and therefore only half listening to what you’re saying or (b) some kind of weird proof that they think they know how people in New York say New York. If you completely ignore their parrot-style yakking and persist with the sentence, they annoyingly continue saying “Noo Yoik!”. If you pause and say, “yes, New York,”, they say ‘Noo Yoik!’ again. And if you shut up completely, there’s a really embarrassing silence. So I’m going to stop mentioning New York ever again to certain people.

There now follows one of those strange videos that can be found on YouTube, for which someone has cobbled together a collection of related images to go with the song in question, which in this case is my current number one, all-time favourite. For once, the images don’t let it down, so please click on it, and enjoy. And if I don’t get time to come back here meself until next week… have a good one, kids!