English Food – part 1

Just as I was preparing to take a surreptitious picture if it, someone bought the Ostrich egg.

The egg was at Selfridges Food Hall: the lone giant in a pink box, next to its smaller Clarence Court fellows: quail, turkey, goose, and Legbar Cotswold chicken eggs. Clarence Court is unassociated with Clarence House and yet it seems part of a new British food royalty composed of ambitious chefs and ancient bloodlines. Jamie Oliver’s image even leers from the Clarence Court homepage to endorse the rarified breeds, like a revised, PR inflected brand of Royal Warrant. The eggs come imprinted with a tiny inked crown, which reassuringly washes off in the boiling.

As with the class system, so in England there are roughly 3 types of food, with attendant nuanced variances within each strata. * The types are English, English in emulation of another culture, and foreign. The last 2 are at least always passable and the first will probably kill you only slowly, rather than speedily (always look on the bright side). Some English food is actually pretty good.

At La Fromagerie they have a cheese jail. Someone guards the door and they slam it shut after you. The little cheeses sit in state like Kobe cattle waiting for the slaughter, and this is all I can tell you as I was far too intimidated and a little repulsed to enter the sanctum. I bought a French yogurt in a glass jar and fled. The items on offer are a mix of foreign, English in emulation, and (new) English. No mushy peas. In all fairness, the yogurt was excellent. I’ve never before been so aware that I was eating a particular type of fruit with my yogurt (blueberry, in this case), in a mixture that was neither too sweet nor too challenging. Ah les français. The yogurt is from La Ferme de Treillebois.

On the other end of the spectrum (actually I’m sure it is possible to go far further) is the cafeteria at Bletchley Park. Nice people but horrible food. Remember what they did to Alan Turing, however, and consider yourself lucky. The pan of vegetable lasagna appeared to date from his time and seemed similarly tortured, despite any hints of (culinary) genius. W. had the all-ochre sausage roll, chips, and root veg meal, and I had a rather stale cheese and tomato sandwich. Definitely English (and old style, not by some revisionist celebrity chef), but you don’t go to Bletchley for the food.

A nice combination of English and foreign is to be found at the Euston Tap. English people actually make very good beer, as do the non-English, so it’s a win, win situation as some speakers of the English language might say. W. had a glass of  Weihenstephan from the world’s oldest brewery, I drank a super rich and boozy imperial stout (Nøgne ø, 9%), and we then shared glasses of raspberry and cherry flavored beer (Kirkstall I believe, but I forgot to write it down). Awesome flavor and color. The Euston tap building is beautiful and a perfect use of urban space. They have about 25 beers on tap at once, with constant and heavy rotation. Super yummy and no attitude. With the beer we ate pork scratchings in a bag, which were actually quite good.

* Discounting evaluations like good, bad, deplorable, disaster of massive proportions etc.

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Beer

I got a beer-making kit this Christmas and have run out of excuses for not using it.

Making beer (and I’m assuming most alcohol) involves an ordered set of stages similar to those immediately preceding and following its consumption:

  • hard work and/or fear
  • a period of relative relaxation
  • euphoria/misery

The beer kit comes in a nice brown box that reveals none of its content (I understand printed pornography once arrived similarly concealed). This means that, prior to opening, the imagination may run rampant (again, see prior reference). To wit: inside is my magic beer kit. There’s a large container and some magic powder; you put the powder in the container with some water and then you have beer a bit later. Or, possibly: inside is my beer unicorn. I will keep it tethered in the back yard and milk it every night for pints and pints of delicious unicorn milk stout.

Predictably it is more the former than the latter and the first step is to sterilize everything (see “fear” from list above) and then do something several times with the rather large bag of grains as well as the chestnuts which you have remembered to purchase, roast, and peel in advance (see “hard work”) after which you may play with the alchemical pipes and rods and read up about “wort” for a week or 2 (see “relative relaxation”). Finally after another few weeks you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor (or shake your tiny fist if something has gone amiss: see “euphoria/misery”). The beer kit is from Brooklyn Brewshop. I will report back. If you want to snoop ahead you may read the instructions here.

Eggnog

If unicorns are the source of rainbows (see previous post) then eggnog must come from ferrets. If not ferrets then some other sort of small insidious mammal. (Minks, for instance. I hear they smell, too, although I may be confusing them with skunks). Ferrets are small, cute, furry, and bad tempered. I can personally attest to the fact that they bite. They are possibly also lazy, but this may be pure fiction on my part.

Eggnog has the viscosity of oil; thick enough that you could almost pinch it off
midstream, but then what would you do with the handful? Miniature Franz West replicas perhaps?  Or maybe replacement teeth  . . .

Teeth made from eggnog sounds conceptually engaging: a twist on the idea of the box filled with the sound of its own making: teeth formed from the material of their own destruction. There used to be a dentist’s office in downtown Boston with a giant plaster tooth in the front window. The tooth actually looked like a lesser West at an earlier transitional phase. The first ingredient listed on a carton of Garlelick Farms Egg Nog is “high fructose corn syrup”.

Eggnog is not the same as the (in my opinion) coyly named “milk punch”*. No eggs for one thing, or cream (but, yes, still booze). And you can’t buy it pre-made. I hear backbar has a nice version and I had a yummy one this summer at the bar at HIX. Milk punch has been around for several hundred years, as documented in recipes such as the one from the 1785 edition of  Mrs.Elizabeth Price’s The new, universal, and complete confectioner; being the whole art of confectionary made perfectly plain and easy. The frontespiece promises directions for “milk punch that will keep twenty years” but the actual recipes (one for “milk punch” and another for “milk punch for present drinking”) guarantee potability for only “ a fortnight’s time”. Both recipes call for large amounts of water, milk, lemon juice, brandy, and some sugar. I am not sure whether the 20 year promise is a mis-print or a case of false advertising.

The Germans have a variant of eggnog made with beer. I find this repellent but not surprising. Germans make very good cameras and bridges, but food: eh, not so much, to paraphrase Borat. Their drink is called Biersuppe and it apparently contains beer, cinnamon, egg yolks, sugar, milk and bits of bread. The proud Germans have made a number of videos detailing its fabrication (including the addition of liverwurst!!!) revealing it to be slightly less horrifying in appearance than pruno (prison wine). Even weasels shudder at the burden of association.

* Other relatives include possets and syllabubs

Marco Pierre White gets the blue sparkly mask

I’m reading Marco Pierre White’s book The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef. I tend to confuse MPW with DBC Pierre, though I do not mis-attribute their output (culinary versus literary). The confusion stems partly from the shared Pierre, as well as their respective “talented bad boy” images. I’ve never eaten at one of Mister White’s restaurants but I’ve read several of Mister, um, Pierre’s works (real name: Peter Warren Finlay). Like many readers I was thoroughly enthralled by Vernon God Little.

I’ve got a problem with much food writing (as indeed with most cultural criticism; for the record do sous chefs qualify as being part of the “culture industry”?). Not just with Marco Pierre White’s, who is obviously a more gifted chef than he is raconteur. Most restaurant reviews read like forth grade book reports. They’re lacking in the very things that drive good cooking and art: passion, substance, and strange untenable leaps that lead to new and wonderful products/pieces (and some astonishingly unpalatable failures). Much cultural criticism is similarly lacking and ultimately strikes me as obfuscated and vacant. I exempt Dave Hickey.

To rectify these literary shortcomings and as an act of personal catharsis I’ve come up with the following scenario: Mexican wrestling matches between scribes from opposite ends of the spectrum: the simplists versus the obfuscators. Marco Pierre White gets the blue sparkly mask and Frederick Jameson* the pink one, and maybe at the end they’ll be so worn down that they’ll have have no choice but to write in honest pain-felt prose. DBC Pierre can officiate since he seems to have won the battle ages ago. While you’re watching the Lucha Libre matches sip on a Michelada. Don’t skimp on the hot sauce.

W’s Michelada recipe:

Make a mixture of equal parts salt, sugar, chile powder and cayenne and spread out on a saucer. Use this to coat the rim of a tall, 20oz glass after carefully dipping just the rim in water.

To the glass add:

  • 1 full oz fresh lime juice — the juice from at least a whole large lime.
  • At least 1 full oz good-quality Mexican-style hot sauce (Tamazula, maybe Cholula, have had luck with Los Chileros — but *not* just Tabasco). To most American eyes this will look like an *insane* amount of hot sauce and lime juice. It is. Enjoy!
  • Several good shakes of Maggi sauce
  • Dash Worcestershire
  • 6-10 ice cubes
  • A bottle of Mexican beer (Best is Victoria, if you can find it, but Negro Modelo and others of that ilk will suffice). Be careful not to disrupt the rim coating.
Mix with a long spoon or chopstick. Finish with a chunky slice of lime.

* I purchased The Origins of Postmodernity by Perry Anderson over ten years ago and I have yet to finish it. I used to bring it as my onflight book until I made the connection that, fearful of flying though I was, if the plane crashed I could at least leave the book unfinished.

I should also add that so far I am enjoying the Marco Pierre White book; its a quick read and a good insight into the fact that you shouldn’t wait for permission to do something; just do it. Its basically a light co-authored autobiography of someone who happens to be a famous chef/restaurateur. I’m excited to start Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton next.

Cynar

*Many* years ago my friend Andy stopped by my apartment with a little bottle of something. Honestly I don’t remember why, though I suspect a party or other social gathering. And it wasn’t really a little bottle. At any rate, to reduce things to the relative level of complexity of a first year language lesson: “Andy brought a bottle to my apartment.” And contained therein was rather a lot of Cynar.

I still have the bottle, with much of the contents intact. Over the years a few brave souls have tested the liquid, but mostly the bottle lives on the top of fridge, like a deaf aging octopus that periodically splashes around and calls out to startled passersby. (Note, I mean the metaphor to be taken exactly as written: imagine that the dear old octopus lives on top of a refrigerator, which should do much to increase the “wow” factor). I honestly don’t remember what Cynar tastes like, but I imagine it to be something akin to: Jägermeister, Campari, and Pimms. (Possibly mixed together).

I can’t imagine getting rid of the Cynar, other than to return it to Andy should he decide to marry. But I also don’t really fancy drinking it. So imagine my excitement at reading the cocktail menu of Bespoke in New Haven and seeing a drink made with Cynar . . . Far easier to take the plunge of re-acquaintance with someone else’s peer-approved mixology, especially as their bottle of Cynar is probably not in a state of advanced dessication. Additionally, their drink contains not only Cynar but egg white, thereby raising the act of its consumption to “feat” status: even if the product is vile you get some bragging rights. (Note, I do not think the same of eating competitions: they just seems wasteful, although the Cameron Jamie/Keijo Haino video of the Nathan’s hot dog contest is fucking astounding, so I’m at least glad that contest exists).

I’m off to New Haven tomorrow and will report back.