Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Yum, yum...yum?

For such a small city, Bath punches well above its weight in terms of an illustrious reputation for posh watering holes. And a recent survey by Condé Nast - the publishers behind many esteemed, international foodie/travel/style publications including Gourmet, Bon Appetite and the Epicurious website - has just confirmed the city’s appetite for eating out: apparently, there are more restaurants per capita in this dinky little mini-metropolis than there are Newcastle, central Manchester and nearby Bristol combined. So if my frequent meanderings around Bath’s eateries can be taken as a snapshot of what’s going on across England, here we have Food UK in microcosm.

The Good: options, options, everywhere you look, from globally-inspired exotica to really good, properly British home cooking. The credit crunch has inspired a return to long-forgotten ‘unfashionable’ cuts of meat from shin to shoulder while imaginative use of offal has revitalised jaded, carnivorous palates. But vegetarians are no long overlooked: today, meat-free choices are likely to be the most creative, inventive gems on the menu.

The Bad: service. I know it’s a tough job, but seeing as somebody has to do it (and millions do), they could at least stop letting us know what a huge favour they’re doing for us. In Bath, slow, offhand or arrogant service isn’t that unusual. Being told that breakfast isn’t served until 11am or that teacakes and scones aren’t available after lunchtime is typical, and the coffee machine being turned off before you’ve even ordered dessert is par for the course; surely we all deserve better?

The Ugly: “Ingredients are locally sourced according to seasonal availability” - except when they’re not. Kenyan green beans, New Zealand lamb, pears in May, raspberries in January, exotic fruit and pre-baked pastry cases delivered by Brake Bros do not a ‘locally sourced’ menu make; mission statements are for life, not just for luring customers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Don't rain on my parade? Why on earth not?!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we Brits are obsessed with the weather. Never mind what political, global or domestic crisis is dominating the headlines; the worse the weather forecast at sign-off time, the better the outlook for stand-up comedians, daytime TV chat show hosts and queue conversations across the land.

When the Met Office recently declared a volte face on their predictions for a ‘barbecue summer’, we would have partied in the street - if it hadn’t been so cold, of course (and if we actually liked our neighbours). We seem to expect some kind of meteorological shop steward to “do something about” the fact that our summer season is very often far too similar to every other season of the year - ie, rainy. Because we don’t get a lot of sun, we either go to drastic measures to bask in the amount that’s available elsewhere or spray/toast/paint ourselves orange to make it look as though we have. But all the time, we’re missing the point: right here, right now and regardless of the weather, the UK climate (that’ll be mid-latitude oceanic, kids) creates, to my mind, a spectacularly beautiful environment all year round.

The hues of our British town, village and cityscapes, whether wrought from urban concrete or Cotswold stone, come to life in the rain; dust, humidity and sun that ‘cracks the flags’ can’t possibly create a tapestry anywhere near as rich or various. Greenery - be it the kind that flourishes along the byways that cut through acres of pastoral paradise or a dandelion stalk peeking from a crack in the pavement outside the local 24 hour garage - comes alive, thrives, and continues to survive when subject to regular showers. The world takes on a uniquely atmospheric ambience just before a storm, when clouds the colour of a bruises divide earth from sky with a claustrophobic canopy. Afterwards, when the drama has passed, it leaves in its wake feeling of promise and optimism far more inspiring and refreshing than the draining, oppressive aftermath of a too-hot day. Meanwhile, at the Great British Seaside...

In the 1920s, there was a huge leap in the number of people able to take a holiday by the sea. The original staycationers created an opportunity for the architects of the day to get truly creative, creating ultra-modern (for the time) holiday paradises all along the British coast. Up until cheap air travel dominated our psyches in the late 1970s, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Clevedon, Weston Super Mare, Weymouth, Morecambe and Torquay were the hip destinations for cool travellers; today, the grand, camp and often brazenly kitsch architecture of these once-glorious resorts still reflects the glamour, frivolity and allure awaiting all who originally hopped aboard the seaside express. And storm clouds on the horizon never stopped play - such places were built with the vagaries of the British weather in mind. Even when it rains, it rains pennies from, if not exactly heaven, then an original 1950s fruit machine in a vintage games arcade that reeks of candyfloss and wet dog. You’ll never be far from the evocative assault to the senses that is an indoor funfair, complete with a carousel, dodgems and waltzers manned by louche young men as nonchalant as Edwardian dandies who take great delight in spinning thrill seekers into temporary oblivion And after your voyage of rediscovery, take it as an indisputable fact from an obsessive foodie that nothing - no food, anywhere in the world - tastes as good as fish and chips eaten from a warm, damp wrapper while taking shelter in a structure especially built for the purpose on the esplanade.

New York has its cityscapes, the Bahamas its beaches, Turkey its wallet-friendly lira. But Britain has a unique, indigenous charm all of its own - it’s called rain.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Think global, act local?

I may be suffering from a bout of seasonally affected disorder (a holiday? Yeah, right), but watching Rick Stein’s latest foodie-travelogue (his ‘Far Eastern Odyssey’, BBC2, Wednesdays) has really given me a taste for...anything but safe, dull, uninspired British food.

Rick Stein brings a real sense of joy, excitement and humour to all things food-related; he tucks into the world on a plate with the enthusiasm of a puppy dog being told he’s going on ‘walkies’. In the Far East, he’s discovering the energy, history and traditions behind what's possibly the most exciting food in the world, stuffing his face with rich pickings on trains, roadsides and farm workers shacks (hah! Imagine trying to do that on Britain’s motorways); in summary, it’s the most invigorating thing on TV right now, whether you want the recipes or not.

Now compare and contrast Rick’s FEO with his ‘Food Heroes’ series, the UK equivalent of his odysseys. Throughout the last series, we drifted through self-conscious farmers’ markets packed with self-righteous posh families getting off on the frisson of having their (organic) carrots wrapped up in yesterday’s Guardian - a sharp contrast to the vibrant, bustling markets of Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Phuket. We met grumpy pig farmers grunting on about profit margins, cheese makers promoting expensive cheese that ‘smells like fart’ and WI members who yakked on about the war years - yawn, yawn, yawn.

Despite all the flim-flam about the rediscovery of ‘forgotten’ cuts of meat, restaurant mission statements supposedly promoting locally sourced food and food writers (myself included - eek!) banging on about the UK ‘food revolution’, modern British menus are too often largely based around the practicalities of convenience, either for the home cook or the restaurant chef. Real food represents culture, heritage and survival, not snobbery, ignorance and elitism - and in the UK, it’s still generally in tragically short supply.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A forkful of blah-blah

At the grand old age of forty-blah-blah, I am at last the proud owner of....cutlery. Now please don’t get me wrong, here; I haven’t been eating with my fingers for the past few decades (although it has to be said, there’s nowt wrong with that). But as far as my personal experience goes, cutlery drawers have comprised of a mix’n’match jumble of pronged, curved, dented and semi-blunt instruments collected over years of house moves, donations and acquisitions - until now.

Now it has to be said that I love my current cutlery drawer. I love the battered old tablespoons that I think once belonged to my grandma and the forks with leaves engraved into the handles that most definitely did. I love the knife that fell into my bag (and not in a Scouse way - it literally, honestly did just that) when I was eating at a certain restaurant in Bath (I didn’t know where it had disappeared to until I came home). I love the teaspoon with a picture of a very eccentric cat on the handle, another teaspoon that came home with me from my very first trip to New York (long story) and I the little dessert forks with a diamond shape stamped into the base of the prongs (I used them as a 10 year old, and still use them lots today). But for a woman who hosts a lot of dinner parties, the current cutlery just will not do. While mismatched, reclaimed, or authentically vintage dishes are fine (and just a teensy bit chic), mad cutlery doesn’t always work well. I recently declared that I’d get married again just so I could put cutlery on the gift list. Yesterday, while I sat outside the lovely Chandos Deli on Broadmead bemoaning the horrors of Bristol’s Cabot Circus (of which more later), He saved me the hassle of finding the right dress and making cupcakes for 70 people and cut straight to the chase: we now have - courtesy of the Aladdin’s Cave for stylish bargain hunters that is TK Maxx - a shiny, completely matching 58-piece flatware collection in a lovely box AND a proper pestle and mortar AND a really fab, chrome manual juicer: three items, surely, that no domestic goddess can or should live without? When we got home, there was a huge temptation to set the table for eight. Instead, we put the cutlery in the spare room to be unveiled at the next DP, juiced a dozen oranges and ground their oil out of the pulp and flesh in the pestle and mortar, for use in hundreds of curries-to-come. Hoorah!

Now then: Cabot Circus - oh, what a show indeed (but not in a good way). Oh crikey, it’s just vile - the culmination, I guess, of a whole generation of young adults being force fed a diet of junk TV, Z-list celebrities and food that isn’t really food and now need somewhere to spend the cash they haven’t got and will never have, thanks to places like this: layer upon layer of bland, faceless shops staffed by zombiefied sales people who probably can’t afford most of the over-priced tat on the rails. Alongside a Kurt Geiger outlet, a mini Harvey Nicks and a Mac shop, there’s a huge branch of Primark and a Zara, both of which - stocked as they are with shredded rags and bits of plastic - already look like temporary shelters for the crisis victims who stand in a bleak queue at the tills, desperate for temporary sustenance. In the Mac shop, I broke into a cold sweat as a Coupland-esque ‘droid tried to explain how the ‘no till’ policy works before I ran away to Raymond Blanc’s gaff to chug cold cappuccino served by an exceedingly snooty, disinterested teenager for the grand price of £2.50 per cup. We had a nice dinner at Tampopo though, before which He grabbed those kitchen bargains from TKM (which, funnily enough, is and always has been successfully situated at what used to be called The Galleries but is now called The Mall, at the heart of the ‘old’ Broadmead). But still, our day out in Bristol reminded me why I live in Bath. Okay, rant over, and on to more typical Animal Disco things...

Apart from our day out, I’ve been in for five whole days and evenings in a row, so have therefore been cooking lots - look out for the results of some very successful experiments and revisits here over the coming days. I’ve also been commissioned to write a series of feature - hoorah! - for a broadsheet - hoorah! - all about my foodie memories - hoorah! The Great American Disaster and the Chelsea Kitchen (both on the Kings Road), the first dinner I ever cooked for Him, Sea Urchins in Toronto, an ice cream in Cannes, a hotel dinner in Bastard, Norway, corned beef sandwiches eaten by the trampolines at Southport fair, backstage buffets, Michelin men...all will be revealed soon. For now, whoever and wherever you are, thanks for reading and come back soon; keep it real.