Sunday, 23 June 2013

Japanese food

My mother tells the story of how, staying in a hotel in Japan, she went down to breakfast one morning. The waitress came to her table and asked her politely: "Amelican Bleakfast or Japanese Bleakfast?" Being adventurous when it came to food, my mother immediately decided against "Amelican Bleakfast" and plumped for the latter option.

When recounting the story, she recalls little of what was brought, other than that there was a mound of rice and an egg, still in its shell. It was only when my mother cracked the egg on to the table and its contents spilled out and started to drip on to the floor that she realised the egg was still raw.

I want you to understand that my mother ordinarily had no difficulty with raw food but even this defeated her. I think the next day she opted for Amelican Bleakfast.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The City Arms

The Round Wimpy in the Coventry Precincts was my favourite cafe. The City Arms in Earlsdon was my favourite restaurant. It was where our grandparents would take us as a special treat. About five minutes' drive from their house, the City Arms was at the bottom of Earlsdon High Street, next to a roundabout: a hub dividing affluent, leafy, unchanged Coventry from its bomb-shattered heart. Not far away, as a child, my father had ridden his bike into "Devil's Dungeons", an exciting dip in the ground, surrounded by woodland.

I think the City Arms was a Berni Inn or its equivalent. Dark upstairs, red plush everywhere, it epitomised the nineteen seventies. But we spurned the cloying sauces and over-rich gateaux which went with the territory. The meal would not vary as far as I was concerned: rump steak with chips on patterned oval plates followed by vanilla ice cream in small silver bowls with a thick raspberry sauce and a scattering of nuts on top.

My younger brother once decided that he wanted just the sauce and nuts in a bowl with no ice cream. When this rather sparse-looking dish arrived, Grandfather was a little anxious about whether this was really what William had wanted. My brother appeared to be entirely content.

The waitresses were only too happy to serve the grandparents taking out their small grandchildren. "Aren't they kind bringing us all this lovely food?" my grandmother insists that I piped up on one occasion, a story she dined out on for years afterwards.

It was at the City Arms that I learned the concept of having a steak cooked to a diner's specification. Of all people, it was Granny who told the waitress that I would have it cooked rare. Of all people because neither Granny nor Grandfather could bear their meat cooked rare. But Granny knew that if I was my parents' son, the prospect of my wanting beef cooked into grey dryness was remote. Rare. I wasn't sure what rare meant. I wanted it red. And rare, I discovered, meant red. But with pleasing grill lines seared on top.

When I sat the entrance exam for King Henry VIII grammar school, my friend Rachel told me that if she passed the exam, she would be rewarded with a meal out and a box of chocolates. I repeated this to my mother, quite possibly in the hope that I would be offered a similar bribe. Instead, my mother was horrified at the prospect. "Imagine how she'd feel if she failed!" There was only one logical consequence. Merely for sitting the exam, I was taken out for lunch afterwards at the City Arms. And, as it turned out later, I managed to secure the lowest mark in Maths of all the candidates and thus failed to get into the school. But this had not stopped me from securing my rump steak, ice cream and box of Black Magic, with the best chocolate of all inside: the liquid cherry.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Onion vinegar

The best chip shops offer a choice of vinegar. There is the common brown sort which used to be called malt vinegar but now comes in bottles labelled "non-brewed condiment". And the clearer, slightly green sort which I was told by the man in the chip shop in Canterbury was onion vinegar: the stuff in which pickled onions are stored.

As well as looking different, it has a more interesting flavour, and soaks far better into the chips and batter than the malt variety. Of course, the purist would say that it is wrong to call these vinegars at all because vinegar means sour wine. Hence our being lumbered with "non-brewed condiment". And I have tried shaking wine vinegar on to fish and chips. It just doesn't work. Just as a green salad with oil and malt vinegar is an abomination.

Monday, 17 June 2013

A short cut to mushrooms

Hobbits, Tolkien tells us, are very fond of mushrooms. The author himself admitted that it was one of the things that made him know he had plenty in common with hobbits. An early chapter in "Lord of the Rings", before the shadows lengthen, is called "A Short Cut to Mushrooms". At one point a basket is produced "from which the unmistakable scent of mushrooms was rising". I have never thought of mushrooms as having a scent. Be that as it may, their earthy, half meat and half vegetable nature seems to me to make them obvious fodder for the likes of Frodo and Bilbo, in their hole in the ground.

Nigel Slater has provided a delicious late supper involving mushrooms in the first book of his that I ever encountered, "Real Fast Food". Mushrooms on toast. I recall impressing Granny when she asked one evening what I was having for supper and I told her this. I cannot promise that it is an exact replica of what he says in the book but so much the better he would doubtless say.

Fry and brown your sliced mushrooms in butter. Add some thinly sliced shallot and, perhaps, a few lardons, but they are by no means essential. Then stir in a significant amount of double cream, let it bubble briefly, and serve on toast.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Bacon and avocado

Philip was the inspiration behind this piece. See my entry called Ethiopian restaurant for more about him. He suggested an entry on "the mystery of why bacon and avocado combine to so sublime an end". Not one to mince his words when it comes to food. He is right.

I first encountered this combination when working over the summer for British Telecom in Crouch End. I should at this point say a bit about Julian Santos who was unique in my experience of bosses. On my first day there, he said this or words to like effect: "We have times when we are exceptionally busy and then I expect all hands to the pump. Equally, there are times when there is nothing going on, and I don't expect you to have to pretend to be busy. Feel free to make as many personal telephone calls as you wish. Or you've got free access to the computers. You might want to train yourself up on something." The most enlightened boss I have ever had. I learned how to touch type that summer. As a result, he got us all to work harder and more contentedly as a result. The sole woman in the office was Miss Moneypenny to his James Bond, sighing adoringly about him whenever he was out of the building.

Not far from the building where we worked was a perfectly good sandwich shop. Hardly worth a mention but for the fact that it was here that I discovered the bacon and avocado sandwich, which rapidly became my lunch of choice that summer. Hot bacon, ripe avocado; these are essential. Mayonnaise. Probably white bread is best on the blotting paper principle.

Thursday, 13 June 2013


I should look up where this word comes from in the context of cooking. It sounds violent enough: cod that's been beaten up, anyone? It has the same lip-smacking, tongue-tooth clashing sounds as one of its ingredients, butter.

There is something immensely satisfactory about the way that it turns from liquid into crisp solidity, hardening into the shape of the thing it surrounds; somehow it enhances a dish by simplifying it. Think of a flaky tempura prawn; the best I ever found were in a Japanese shop, now sadly closed, in Chinatown. Or fish from a fish and chip shop. And there are those little bits of loose batter that they'll give you for free if you ask. Perhaps the ultimate in simplicity is the white ladleful turned into a golden pancake. Pancakes which should never be merely crisp, but crisp and melting.

Bur it can be dull, something to chew through, such as bad Yorkshire Pudding. Then, of course, it can be a disguise for something horrid: spam fritter, for instance. Or it can make something utterly unhealthy even unhealthier: deep-fried Mars Bars (do they really exist?) and even deep fried pizza: yuk is not a word I often use as I try to recognise that it is reasonable for others to love food that I detest, but: yuk.

Monday, 10 June 2013


The summer of 1980 was one of those golden periods between one school and the next. That year, as usual, we went to France. Early in the holiday, we ended up at a campsite where our tent was pitched next to the caravan of an English couple called Gladys and Alan.

For some reason, my mother took an instant dislike to them. In fairness, it was, initially, nothing that they had done wrong. Her feelings stemmed from a prejudice against the Brits abroad. When in France, save for her own family and friends, she preferred to forget the existence of the Anglais.

And, to my mother's horror, Gladys and Alan were only too delighted to have an English family of four staying next to them. How they first introduced themselves I do not remember. I speculate that they offered us cups of tea on our arrival; my mother couldn't stand tea. Before we had been their neighbours for long, Alan had made a wooden boat with metal fittings for my brother. It was almost as though we were surrogate grandchildren.

One evening, Gladys came over to our tent and told us in a state of high excitement that she and Alan were going to a telephone box for the purposes of finding out their daughter's O-level results. "Have fun!" said my mother briefly. After they had left, my father, presumably thinking her hostility had been ill-concealed, murmured a mild reproach to my mother: "They've been very hospitable." No doubt he was referring to the tea.

Later on, the couple returned, having failed to negotiate the workings of the French telephone system. It turned out that they had been dialling the area code for Brittany rather than the international code for Britain. My father lent a hand and, in the process, discovered that although they had been coming to France for many years, Gladys and Alan had not picked up a word of French. We learnt that when it came to shopping for food, they would simply march into the butcher's and say: "Pork!" which, out loud, has the same meaning in both languages. They ended up eating casseroled pork, pork chops and roast pork. But always pork.

Thus it was that we ended up being invited to a barbecue with them. Gladys returned to the campsite after a morning's quest for food: "Success!" she announced with a beaming face to my underwhelmed mother, who at first indicated puzzlement. The couple had found, it must be admitted, a rather magnificent cut of pork for cooking on the barbecue, cylindrical in shape. That evening, they roasted it for us on a spit and I can remember nothing about what there was to go with it. But the meat was memorable.

We duly moved on from the campsite. Gladys and Alan sent us Christmas cards for a few years and then stopped. Exactly ten years later, my school days had come to an end and I was now in that period between school and university. We no longer went camping; my parents had bought a house in the south of France. One day, my mother decided on a whim that we would have supper in a playing field next to a river where there were some barbecues. There she roasted pork chops. During the meal, we reminisced about Gladys and Alan, that couple we had met at that campsite years ago, who thought Brittany meant Britain and only ever ate pork. The banal can often make the greatest memories of all.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Sneaky Tomato Sauce

This is another of the occasional "guest" recipes that I host. It comes from the same source as the last one: Lucie. But I took the liberty of adapting her recipe last time and ended up having a irreconcilable debate about the merits of delicious mozzarella and less than delicious feta. So on this occasion, I am not adding or taking anything away from Lucie's recipe.

"Sneaky Tomato Sauce for Pasta (For Veggiephobic kids!)


Coconut oil
Onion peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium carrots peeled and roughly chopped
Green beans washed, topped and tailed and chopped
Two tins of chopped tomatoes
Tin of kidney or Mexican beans
Two gluten / yeast free vegetable stock cubes
Ground coriander
Ground Cumin
Ground ginger
Chilli flakes
Boiling water


Melt coconut oil, fry onions for a few minutes on a medium heat. Add carrots and green beans and fry for a further few minutes. Add spices and stir through. Add tomatoes, stock cubes, kidney / Mexican beans and about a cup of boiling water. Stir, bring to boil, then simmer for about an hour. Remove from heat and use a hand blender to remove lumps. Serve with pasta. It's a great way to use up veg and get any fussy children to eat their veg."

Thanks Lucie!