Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

Back in the days when I first began dining out with any regularity there were only three choices in most locations; a curry (referred to as an Indian, though most establishments were run by Bangladeshis), a Chinese, or an Italian (usually pizza). Aside from that stereotyping that rendered the extensive cuisines of each country down to a single word, there were other expectations about the people who worked there. The “Indians” would tend to be very formal but keen to share a joke, the Chinese would be ultra efficient with little time wasted between courses, and the Italians would be slow.  

These are sweeping generalisations I know, but that was the typical experience of the time, and in some places I would guess it still holds true. I’ve no idea why the Chinese might work as they did, but of course there was a long history of British control on the Indian subcontinent which still left traces of “master and servant” in the relationships between the two peoples.

As for the Italian approach this is much easier to explain. Eating is such a social event in Italy, and the enjoyment of good food and good wine is further enhanced by good conversation. We Brits may have looked at all the courses on an Italian menu and balked at the volume of food to be eaten if you opted for antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni and dolci (not forgetting the pane too!) but spread out over an entire evening this isn’t so unreasonable. When you’re eating alone as I usually am, it’s a bit harder to justify!

When my children were young we were in Tuscany and drove a few miles to a place that had been recommended to us. Our reservation was early and I think we were the first to arrive, sitting outside in beautiful sunshine. When we left it was pitch black, but the time had flown by, aided by the food, the proprietor’s singing and accordion playing, and conversation boosted by the presence at the next table of the author John Mortimer and his family.

So I was surprised when I had lunch at a newly opened gourmet snack bar in Turin (Lumen) and was told that their goal was to deliver “espresso everything”. Coffee of course, but food and drink delivered on the double too.

What made this all the more surprising is that Turin is the home of Slow Food, a movement that sprang from a protest against opening a MacDonalds at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, and grew into a network across 150 countries that amongst other things promotes local and artisanal foods where the emphasis is on care over speed.  Turin is also the home of Eataly, a restaurant and grocery business that espouses Slow Food and is also developing an international presence.

So what were Lumen thinking about?  For me as a solo eater they nailed it.  The service was flawless and food delicious, but then the wine and the prosciutto had spent some time developing their flavours before they were sliced and poured so swiftly.  Best of both worlds.

Differing Tastes

Another disappointing British Bank Holiday Monday.  Yes it was dry, and even sunny at times, but so cold and windy that it was hard to believe this was late Spring rather than late Autumn.

So when looking for an activity for the day that wouldn’t be totally reliant on the weather, we opted for South Shields, thinking that the beach would be perfect if things improved, but that the food festival being held there would be a good alternative if they did not.

Of course, coming so soon after writing about the food culture of Bologna, this was bound to be a lesser experience.  Substitute streets full of enticing shops and cafés for queues of Brits at a circle of tents and caravans, clutching the ubiquitous pint in a plastic glass and stuffing their faces with burgers, hot-dogs and other portable foods.

_PW_0644_PW_0678The diversity of these foods was impressive; the usual suspects were joined by an array that included Japanese, Jamaican, Mexican, German, Italian, Indian, and Moroccan options, though they could generally be classified as spicy and/or stodgy.  Chilli was the lowest common denominator. (Wonder if Donald Trump enjoys Mexican food?)

More inspiring were the rows of stalls where mostly local food producers sold their wares, and more often than not provided some tasty samples.  I can’t help but feel that the marketing approach that most adopted highlighted their limitations.  More emphasis seemed to be placed on their local origin than on the flavour of their product.  For many the solution was to adopt the term “Northumbrian”, so that stalls representing the Northumbrian Smokehouse, Northumbrian Sausages, Northumbrian Cheeses and more were the order of the day. All very well, but aside from indicating that their products hadn’t clocked up many food miles, what does that tell the consumer?

The provenance of our food is given ever greater importance; restaurants will trumpet the farms where they source their ingredients, and sometimes be more informative explaining how the welfare of the animals or the organic methods used leads to a better product.  But a single word or a red and yellow flag?  No.

Much of the food we tried was decent enough, but those symbols alone are no proof of that.

My Italian lifestyle envy kicked in big time; surely they would do this so much better.  And so we enjoyed a musical interlude before escaping to a now sunlit beach, but not before grabbing a coffee in an emporium dedicated to sugary nonsense.  A family business.  Run by Italians!


Tapas (SOS)

Sometime in the 1980’s, I stayed at a hotel in the Swiss village of Morgins in the Porte du Soleil ski region.  I remember little about the skiing or location after so long, but one thing stuck with me.  One evening in the hotel, presumably so they could allow some staff a night off, they served a buffet in place of the more formal dinner.  Buffet’s normally disappoint but on this occasion the food was beautifully presented on mirrored surfaces, and its appearance was matched by its quality, with one dish particularly memorable.  Brochettes of lamb.

My palette was far less developed in those days, so I couldn’t begin to guess at what ingredients had been used to marinade and season these simple skewers of grilled meat, but they were succulent and delicious.  For years they were unsurpassed in my memory.

But this post is about Spanish gastronomy not Swiss, so let me change tack.

I’ve touched on tapas before; when writing about Venetian cicchetti for example.  Every nation that produces small bite-sized dishes inevitably finds it referred to using tapas as a reference (so Venetian Tapas, Brazilian, Korean, Philipino etc).  Being in Spain I thought I’d better try the original and did so twice in Barcelona (can’t think what I ate for lunch on the other days I was there!)

_PW_1899One of my experiences was distinctly average.  My guide-book recommended a particular brewpub and I ordered a selection of seafood tapas, only to received a single plate of seafood that seemed to offer nothing that was overtly Spanish or even cared for.  I could have eaten similar plates at home in the UK, and with better beer.

Thankfully that didn’t describe my experience at Tapas 24._PW_0086

I’d been walking for about 4 hours when I arrived there at 12.15 but this, I was told, meant that they were still only serving breakfast which perhaps explained the lack of customers.  I should return after 12.30 if I wanted tapas for lunch, which I duly did after a short detour to the park in Plaça de la Catalunya.  Now this little basement eatery was heaving with customers, but at least being a lone diner I could find a spot at the counter around the bar._PW_0075

An English menu was swiftly provided (why is it always so obvious to our European neighbours?) and I set to choosing some dishes, ordered a cerveza and began the anticipation.  Tapas 24 has a reputation to uphold.  Run by Carles Abellan, the chef who was contracted for 15 days to work in El Bulli (winner of the world’s best restaurant accolade a record five times) but who stayed for 15 years, it is renowned for serving gourmet versions of classic tapas.

_PW_0079My choices didn’t provide the most balanced diet, but each proved to be a revelation.  Bombes de la Barceloneta was a perfect sphere of meatball and potato croquette with a combination of creamy and spicy sauces expertly coating one side.  A safe start that was to be followed by a revelation.

Pinxo de Xai “Alhucemas” translated as simply a spicy lamb skewer, but this was nothing so ordinary.  I was finally transported back to my alpine experience of 30 years previously.  This was how lamb should be served, so I was already happy with my decision to lunch here.  _PW_0080The remarkable thing was that the lamb would then be overshadowed, and by something as straightforward as a cheese and ham toastie!

I’m perhaps guilty of oversimplifying, but the house speciality of Bikini Comerç 24 looks unremarkable.  Small and slender triangles of toasted white bread containing just three ingredients.  The cheese is mozzarella buffala, and the ham is of course Jamon Iberico, the Iberian ham which may even surpass the finest Italian prosciutto.  Two great ingredients but they are lifted to new heights by the addition of black truffle.  They were exquisite._PW_0083

I felt sorry for those whose experience of tapas hadn’t included such delights.  I hope they weren’t too disappointed.

Feeling peckish yet?



A Christmas Carolyn

Sometime ago I was talking to Carolyn, an old friend and colleague, about the challenges of spending Christmas Day on your own and the consequent trepidation that I was feeling.  As you would expect from such an experienced coach and counsellor, she wasn’t going to let me get away with that for long, and we ended the call with me having made her two promises.  (How does she do that?)

The first was that I would get out and about with my camera and vicariously experience other people’s pleasure; seeing kids out and about with new toys and bicycles.  The second was that I should do whatever it took to enjoy the full Christmas experience at home, so should stock up with food, drink, films and the TV schedule and keep myself occupied accordingly.

Appropriately enough on a day when the rules of time and space have been rewritten,  I seemed to get my timings wrong for the first element.  I didn’t get up too soon, or rather, once I’d texted the one person I know would be at work at 7.30 today, I went back to bed and did resurface too soon.  I had a leisurely breakfast, showered and dressed, prepared some food for later and only then did I pick up the MKIII and head for Durham.  It was 10.05 when I arrived and even though I then undertook another of the day’s text conversations it was still way too early for signs of life in the city.  I wasn’t quite alone, there were the odd couple strolling here and there, an occasional elderly churchgoer, and of course some Chinese students taking pictures of each other.

These aside the roads, streets and alleyways were largely devoid of life,

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the Palace Green similarly deserted,

and even the great edifice of worship itself stood silent with not a carol or chorister to be heard, APW_5703_4_5 and while the Wear was in spate from recent rains, it flowed silently and unbroken by oar or hull.

APW_5718 As I left the city to prepare my lunch, the nature of my timing error became apparent as a steady stream of vehicles developed, all bound for the Cathedral.  I’m guessing that the morning communion service was at 11.00.  Still I was not downcast.  The clear skies and fresh air had done the trick, and I even had time for a sneaky selfie in a barber shop window.  Given the time of year I should have photoshopped a large red “E” to the right.APW_5713

I had no problem with the second part of Carolyn’s advice however! APW_5731

You Only Bake Twice

Britain has taken baking to its heart again, a fact due in no small part to the phenomenal success of The Great British Bake Off presented by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.  Mary Berry has been synonymous  with baking for decades but Hollywood has come from seemingly from nowhere to become a TV “personality”; granted his own series on bread making here, and fronting the US version of Bake Off in the states.  Dubbed the George Clooney of TV chefs he and Mary have inspired many to reach for the flour again.  Including me.

I’m not a bad cook.  At times I can be very good, but bread in particular has always been my Achilles heel.  The few loaves I have produced over the years (including one baked in a plant pot!) have been heavy, stodgy, and completed unrelated to bread as we know it.  With time and space at my disposal now it was inevitable that I should give it another go to see if Mr Hollywood knew what he was talking about.  (As former Head Baker at Cliveden and The Dorchester, he should)

My first attempt was pretty decent.  The trouble was I started it one evening, and so didn’t have enough time for the proving and rushed it a little.  Colour and taste were good, excellent crust, but the crumb was just a little reminiscent of cake.  No matter, I enjoyed every slice.

With my second attempt, I went out during the second proving, and mistakenly had slashed the loaf too soon.  I returned to find a much larger loaf, though one that had grown laterally rather than vertically.  It just about stayed on the baking tray so I slipped it into the oven before it made its escape.  Half an hour later and we have a first; a crusty Stottie!  Still delicious though.

Think it’s going to be third time lucky?

Food photography is a very specialised art and one in some demand.  Books, magazines and websites call out for food that makes us salivate the moment our eyes fall upon it.  The trouble is that the food in those pictures is likely to be completely inedible.  Read any book on the techniques used and you will learn that the food is often skewered together to aid composition and garnished with oils, paints and detergents to give it shine and colour.  It’s not just inedible, it may even be toxic!

For any visitors I may want to impress this week, I baked something safer yesterday; chocolate and almond biscotti.  Biscotti is the source of our word biscuit, and means twice (bis) cooked (cotti).  Twice as many opportunities for error?  Not a chance and no additives for the photographs?  My younger daughter Holly is coming to stay this week which is why I made a chocolate version.  Eat anything with a chocolate flavour?  Holly would.  (See what I did there 😉 )


And did those feet…

I read with interest this week that Wales lags only slightly behind the USA in terms of the levels of obesity in the population, and at first assumed that the rest of the UK must therefore be in a similar predicament, but discovered that in England at least the NHS is prepared to intervene sooner when someone’s health is at risk.

Nevertheless those of us in the West grow ever fatter, despite fears that the growing world population may soon be unable to feed itself.  It will be interesting to see what happens as the trend for those in Chinese and India, with the economic whip hand, to eat more of a western diet.  As demand grows and prices increase we may be unable to afford to eat as we do now.

Perhaps that won’t be such a bad thing, given the growing levels of heart disease and diabetes.  In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells predicted a future were mankind developed into two populations, the slender and beautiful Eloi and the brutal subterranean Morlocks, who preyed on the Eloi for food.  I don’t think he got it quite right.

When I first arrived on the beach this morning there were few people at the north end of the bay, so I contented myself with the seascape to begin with, though the further south I walked the more people I encountered.  All were exercising in some way.

Out to sea a lone canoeist paddled rhythmically through the twinkling waters, whilst on land there were lots of walkers, runners and cross-trainers.  Our population seems to be diversifying into the fat and the fit, and that being the case, I don’t see the latter falling prey to the former.  They’ll struggle to catch them!

Among the dog walkers was Neil, who was out with his large boxer.  Neil was lean and wiry, but his dog seemed glad of the rest as we took Neil’s photograph.  Only the promise of an ice cream at the end of the walk got him moving again.  The dichotomy encapsulated!

Food, Glorious Food

In Newcastle today I knew that I would find someone to photograph.  What I did not know was that this was the final weekend of the annual EAT! festival run as part of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative.

In the past the festival has included some great ideas (restaurants in people’s homes), some spectacular stunts (dining suspended from the top of the car park made famous in Get Carter) and some pretty strange ideas (did I dream the 3D map of Tyneside made from cake?).  I’m not sure what was on the agenda this year, but I knew I’d get some colourful images and these are in the gallery below. (click on the first image to open an enlarged slideshow)

Remarkably I managed to walk my away around many of the stalls without succumbing to the temptation of colours, textures and aromas.  Incidentally the chap featured in the header wasn’t present at the festival – he’s still somewhere in my garden unfortunately!

Anyway, before I reached the gastronomic gala, I had already found today’s portrait.  He was sitting outside the Theatre Royal having a drink with a friend, and the combination of hair, glasses, beard and T-shirt gave him a cool celeb-like look.  Sort of Elton John meets Giorgio Armani by way of Bruce Willis.  Actually he’s called Lenny.