19 Mar 2013

Sardines and feisty women


You can’t come to the Algarve and not have sardines, sprinkled with sea salt and grilled until the skin is crisp. So I did. At Taberna do Pescador in Albufeira. And they were good. Not outstanding.  Not memorable. Not as delicious as the photo promises. They were on the dry side so I think they were cooked for a bit too long. But they were still good. Tasty.  
  

It’s out of season on the Algarve but the terraces of two restaurants that front Praia dos Pescadores at Albufeira were a clamour of tourists, mostly British, waving their arms in the air and singing along to the jolly bing-bong of a brass band performing on the raised promenade. I guess that meant they were enjoying themselves. I hate that kind of enforced entertainment, particularly when I’m trying to eat, so we forged through the throng and the excitable waiters trying to reel in more lunch victims and did a U-ey back to the Taberna where the waiters outnumbered us three to one and we chowed down on good bread, sardine spread and sweet and crumbly cheese before the arrival of our main courses.


Food is dressing the pages of both books I’m reading here, one on the Kindle, the other in paperback. I’d never heard of Ann Bridge, author of The Portuguese Escape and a multitude of other titles, before I came across a handful of her novels republished as electronic editions by Bloomsbury Reader.  She was the wife of a diplomat and her experiences of postings around the world gave her the backgrounds, scenes and characters for her novels. The Portuguese Escape was published in the 1970s but is probably set in the 1950s. The heroines are feisty and independent but they know (or will come to understand) their place in the patriarchal order of things. The romantic male protagonist (the British one) dresses in tweed and drives a Bentley. And there’s more than a whiff of support for President Salazar, the dictator who ran Portugal until his death in 1968. The regime was subsequently ousted by the Carnation Revolution in 1974.  


‘He dictates this country, no?’
‘NO, and no twenty times!’ Richard exploded. ‘He guides it.’
(Kindle Location 945)


Guidance? Yep, that's what most fascists tend to offer. But I'm still enjoying the story. It’s a bit like watching an old black and white movie. I’m entranced by the plumby accents, the clothes, the cars, the pressure cooker emotions. And the food. ‘… meltingly tender young French beans, then cold veal with salad followed by a delicious local cheese — all washed down with good red wine…’ Even the Communists who abduct our Hungarian heroine eat reasonably well: ‘…an omelette, some bread and cheese’.


‘And is it not a form of blasphemy to abuse the gifts of God by bringing them badly cooked, and therefore horrible, to the table?’ proclaims our heroine.
(Kindle Location 970)


Switch God for Nature then I’ll chant that message too.


My paperback is a Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone PI novel, S is for Silence. Grafton’s novels have been my indulgent holiday reading for years: sharply written and atmospheric with convincing characters. And Kinsey likes to eat too, the kind of food you stop talking for and lick your fingers clean when you’ve finished, the stuff that healthy eating gurus warn you against. Barbecued chunks of beef, rubbed with salt, pepper and garlic salt, and served in thickly buttered rolls. A Kaiser roll, ‘buttered and laid on the grill until the bread was rich brown and crunchy at the edge. Rings of spicy salami had been soldered together with melted cheese — Monterey Jack infused with red pepper flakes. When I lifted the top, the yolk of the fried egg was still plump, and I knew it would ooze when I bit into it, soaking into the bread.’


I admit the latter might not be every gourmet’s dream but I’d happily take one of those after a day’s work. Who am I kidding? I’d take one after a day of doing nothing.


And what do I have to look forward to at my next physical, as opposed to literary, meal? Prawns as big as a baby’s arm. Some butter and oil, a little garlic, salt and parsley. Fresh bread and a tomato salad. Life is good. But it’s about to get better.




(Yes, that’s a full size dinner knife in the photo, about 10 inches long.)

Hungry Writing Prompts

Write about a memorable meal.
Write about someone on holiday.
Write about a favourite old movie.
Write your own definition of blasphemy.
Write a list of things that make life good.

10 Mar 2013

Reading the menu. Paying the price.


Shortly after the Midland Bank transferred me to their offshore offices in the Channel Islands, in April 1978, the company’s external auditor, Mr Wu, invited me out for dinner along with a posse of his favourites from the banking department. 
20 and decorative

I think the invitation was made more for my decorative qualities than my contribution to due process during the yearly audit: I’d only been there for less than 2 months. But I was 20 and in awe of the promise of sophistication offered by  Jersey’s restaurants, in comparison to South Wales, so despite feeling out of my depth I went along, hoping I’d say the right thing at the right time. I hadn’t given a thought to what I might eat. 

Until then, apart from a couple of Italian restaurants (complete with straw covered Chianti bottles), my dining out experience had been limited to Berni Inns, a chain of restaurants first launched in the UK by the Welsh-Italian Berni brothers in the late 1950s: a reliable choice of Gammon, Steak or Plaice with peas and chips. I was ill-equipped for a menu written in French. Although if I’d been less anxious about the whole situation I might have noticed that beneath the French names and descriptions, in a font decorative enough to twaddle your eyes, there were English translations. But I wasn’t.

Add to that a complete ignorance about the financial and gastronomic protocol of the meal – who was paying? should I choose a starter? did I like wine? – and you might begin to understand why I leapt upon the first thing with a glimmer of familiarity – boeuf

‘Are you sure you want that?’ my head dealer said hesitantly.
‘Yes,’ I said, with cheery faux confidence.

Sophistication did not welcome me into her arms that night. After smiling, hungrily, through other people’s starters of Moules Marinieres and home-made chicken liver pat├ęs, it took a herculean effort to maintain the grin when my main course arrived: a thick, plain rump steak topped with a stack of deep fried onion rings. Disappointment soaked through me like cold drizzle. The memory of the rest of the meal is lost to me. Though the whole ‘deep-end’ learning experience had a significant effect: I made sure to read all future menus properly. I still do.

There wasn’t a menu as such at the pub we ate in last night not far from where we live – I’ll call it The Scratched Salmon, The Bloated Bass or The Hopeless Herring in recognition of its true alliterative name. The dishes were chalked on blackboards on the wall and above the bar. ‘Can be a bit fatty!’ written in parentheses underneath Shoulder of Lamb alerted me to the possible level of the chef’s culinary knowledge and skill so I decided on something less challenging, more pub-grub and surely pretty risk free: home-cooked ham with a fried egg. How wrong I was. I asked the waitress whether the ham was genuinely home-cooked. 

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen it’. Seen it doing what?
‘It’s just that it was very bland and spongy,’ I said, pointing to the majority of it left on my plate, crowned with the remains of an egg, also devoid of any flavour.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ she said. And cleared the table.

Perhaps it was me though. And Tony. His scampi was the ‘homogenous, mealy bread-crumbed straight out of the freezer’ version. And dry. And our friend, whose suspiciously extravagant monkfish (with a prawn, lobster and brandy sauce) appeared to have lost all dimensions of flavour, and prawn, lobster and brandy, during its journey from the kitchen to our table. Yes, perhaps it was us. Because the place was packed. The restaurant was full and we’d managed to book one of the last tables in the bar. And it was on the pricey side too. £10 for ham, egg and chips. Though I wouldn’t have flinched at the price if the ham had been even half as nice as the joint my mother par-boiled then roasted with honey and mustard and sliced to delicious wafers of sweetness that melted in my mouth when I was in Wales last month. So maybe we were all unlucky. Or perhaps the place has been trading on its allegedly considerable reputation for so long that the people who go there are immune to the mediocrity that’s now on offer. 

I’m really not that difficult to please when it comes to food. Quality and taste are far more important than inventive sauces, exotic ingredients or plates elaborately dressed. I arrived home, grumpy, and had a thick slice of six grain bread spread with lemon and coriander hummus to cheer myself up. This morning Tony made me pancakes with butter and Demerara sugar. I’m starting to pick up. 


Hungry Writing Prompts

  1. Write about youth and inexperience.
  2. Write a list of French words you know.
  3. Write about fat.
  4. Write about being unlucky.
  5. Write about what cheers you up.




1 Mar 2013

Fancy a Gurkha? Or a George?

I had a day-out yesterday, not a shopping/special event/friends kind of day out, more of a welly-booted farmer's day out: we latched the trailer onto the old Peugeot and set off for Godstone, heading clockwise on the M25. When I say old, I mean old: 120,000 miles on the clock, one of the doors has a nail jammed into the hinge so it doesn't fall off, and the front seats are bucket style through decades of slumped arses, rather than by design. The doors don't lock either but that's hardly a concern.

We were picking up a second-hand 1,000 litre water tank for the farm and stopped in Godstone for lunch at what we thought was a pub but turned out to be a Nepalese and Indian restaurant, Lal Akash, that had held onto one of the former pub bars, complete with stool-perching beer-drinking locals. In the bar you could have pizza and chicken nuggets and chips; in the restaurant there were a range of Nepalese specialities and the usual Indian restaurant fare. 

And that's where I ordered Gurkha Rifle with chapati. When I read it on the menu I immediately thought of Clive Dunn as Jonesy in Dad's Army. 'They don't like it up 'em, Capt. Mainwaring!' The reality is boneless chicken cooked with chilli, ginger and garlic in a hot spicy sauce. I also tried a Khukuri: no, I didn't have a go at wielding a curved Nepalese knife, it's a Nepalese beer brewed in the UK that packs a punch at lunchtime.

Notice the paucity of photographs? I left my camera at home... But I did learn how to say 'thank you' in Nepali: 'dhanybad'. And I said it several times: the food was freshly cooked and the service full of smiles. And even though we only ordered for two there seemed to be enough for a small regiment of Gurkhas. One of those lunches where you can't imagine eating for at least another 24 hours.

***

Today, 1st March, is St. David's Day - the patron saint of Wales. I made welshcakes as I do every year. Packed two little boxes of them to take to my step-daughters tomorrow. I've never heard any of my English friends talk about any particular recipe in association with St. George's Day (April 23rd). The BBC Good Food website has a list of St George's Day recipes but I feel suspicious about its authenticity when the first recipe is Full English Frittata!

But how do you choose between what's English and what's generally British? Cornish Pastie, maybe. But that's specifically Cornish. Same with Lancashire Hotpot and Clotted Cream: they're regional. What would an English person choose to cook on St. George's Day that's quintessentially English?


Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about a day-out.
Write about something broken.
Write about feeling full.
Write about saintliness.
Write about a food that encapsulates your personality.