Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Sketches from a cigar smokers album

I should feel a wretch for adapting the title of my favourite author's debut, especially for a pastime that so many find so socially abhorrent…but I don't. These sketches, the first collection in what I hope will be many, will perhaps provide some fun, witty and informative vignettes of why I enjoy the occasional cigar! (in due course these will be moved to the cigar specific page!)


I'm sorry, but there is no substitute, admirable imitations - yes worthy contenders - but in truth, nothing beats the magic of a Cuban cigar. Anyone who has read this blog will have seen my account of a trip made by a good pal and yours truly to the cigar lounge at the Lanesborough Hotel. There really is nothing like smoking a Siglo I Cohiba in the warming atmosphere of a deep armchair by a roaring fire whilst the ice chinks away in a crystal tumbler filled with one of the establishments finely made Negronis. 

Myths, legends and the like surround what makes a Havana so special. It could be the climate, the soil the tobacco plant grows in, the fermentation process or the way they are made in Cuba under such strict conditions. Whatever it may be, they are delicious and well worth the price tag they command. 

Hand made, artisan products are coming back into fashion and I would like to champion the cigar. Perhaps, if I make some money, somewhere down the line (doubtful), I will put the proceeds into building a temperature controlled greenhouse and curing room and produce some exclusive 'Henry Rubinstein' British cigars. Perhaps I'll inspire a revolution, Sainsbury's might start a Taste the Difference range, Tesco a Finest…. here's to entrepreneurial dreaming!


The other Sunday, a Montecristo came to mind. After a fine lunch of roasted shoulder of lamb with all the trimmings nothing seemed more fitting than a Montecristo No. 2 and a glass of ice cold Cointreau. I had recorded the Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas classic Out of the past and sat down to watch it. 

The cigar was sublime, as said above there is no substitute for Cuban. Montecristos have a mild and characteristically dry finish - savoury and light. This is a perfect compliment to the dense, citrusy sugariness of the Cointreau. This format (No. 2) is my favourite of the range as it gives a longer smoke than the smaller Coronas and Petit Coronas which, due to their dry nature burn relatively quickly. Possibly the most prolific global cigar brand along with Cohiba, this to my mind is the perfect place to start and I would thoroughly recommend it to a beginner  before embarking on harder formats likeBolivar and Romeo y Julieta which are moister, denser and slower burning. 


CAO is not a label that most people think of when it comes to prime cigar smoking. A boutique American producer, running events and producing an array of cigars using a blend of tobaccos from the world over apart from of course Cuba. At JFK airport I came across a sampler pack of their wares. As a keen and enthusiastic cigar smoker  - if not an efficianado - I brought the pack to see if the Yanks could produce a world beater. 

I was delightfully surprised by the fantastic Brazilian offering coupled with a few delicious, ice cold bottles of Mexican lager. I had put the cult classic Vanishing Point (see post: Film for Thought - Vanishing Point 11/01/2011) and all the elements fell together to make for an enjoyable, relaxed evening in front of the goggle box. Rich but not too heavy with a long ash, like the accompanying film - a slow burner but definitely worth the cheap price I paid for them. 

For other drinking alternatives should you prefer something stronger, a smooth blended whisky like Canadian Club or J&B. If you pass through duty free and you see some of these in the humidor, then I thoroughly recommending buying a box of five. 


Christmastime seems like a distant memory now, but a time of cheer it surely is and to my mind a time for a Bolivar of gargantuan proportions. They say it is the time of year that people need to treat themselves and there is plenty of need for that in these austere times. I'm sure that our dear leaders Cleggers and Cameron both enjoy chomping on a Cohiba at their local watering hole (secretly) or after the kids have gone to bed. 

In this case a vintage port would come in handy, perhaps with a nice reblechon and a cup of strong black coffee. Last year it was a fantastic, if slightly maderised 1949 Fonseca, not a year of note - according to Michael Broadbent - but certainly a fantastic drink, and a slice of our history. Served, of course,  in Waterford port glasses out of a grossly inappropriate (and illegally leaded) Czech crystal decanter!

The cigar itself is a project alone, with 5-6 hours of smoking time, dense smoke and almost overwhelming richness, this is not an undertaking for the faint heart or those with weak constitutions. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

Cordon Du Chap: The curry house you always remember the next morning...

Ahmed's Tandoori
2 The Broadway
SW19 1RF

Cordon Du Chap (out of a possible five): (❁❁❁❁ - for nothing if not the company!!)

Wimbledon has never been somewhere famed for great curries, the 'Indian Gossip' (round the corner from where I live) is a competent if uninspiring restaurant which does a nice Manchurian chicken, a tasty lamb tikka and not much else - it is also ruinously expensive (a trait that it shares with most other similar restaurants in the neighbourhood). Of course there are some unmentionably bad takeaways serving the important purpose for droves of half-cut executives returning home around the 22:30 mark on a Thursday/Friday night…I've been there a few times before!

Then there are the curry houses that gain a cult status through regular - if somewhat resigned - visitation (chiefly due to its proximity to the Prince of Wales) by a group of locals, Ahmed's Tandoori is one such place. 

The two mates who I go with to this establishment virtually twisted my arm to give this place a review, such is their sentimentality for the unique atmosphere that this place has to offer. I would be lying if i said the curries were the best I had ever eaten, in fact I would be lying if I said that they were anywhere near that level. 

A trip to this restaurant is usually preceded by a couple of shoddy pints of cheap lager (a la Gary & Tony) and an unfruitful turn on the IT Box - by which time we have got over all of our respective work based gripes and moved onto more erudite and (occasionally) vulgar banter. It is at this stage that Ahmed's beckons, with its Prince purple sign, which helpfully informs the would be customer that it is a fully licensed establishment - the dangerous words for the seasoned drinkers! 

The first thing you are hit with upon entering is the controversial decor. For any of you who have seen Only Fools and Horses it is reminiscent of one of the curry houses that Del-boy used to take many an ill-fated date in the early years of the show. There is a charmingly retro waiting area by a bar stocking classic bottles of Cinzano, Martini Rosso and Stone's ginger wine untouched and covered in a layer of dust probably undisturbed since 1978. On a wide glass coffee table, surrounded by jolting banquets an ominous 'lucky dip' platter of salted peanuts sits with a single (unnervingly much used) plastic spoon available to serve yourself - I have yet to be tempted by the pandora's box of food poisoning that is this centrepiece but I'm sure many a less cautious man has lived to rue the day they grabbed a handful of these salty (and unpleasant) surprises. 

Lilac is the resounding colour here with a generous  coating of cadbury's purple and plenty of latticed woodwork making for a retro, if highly oppressive experience. The service is - as you would expect from such an old-school experience - intruding when you least want it and non-existent when you do!

So far I fear that I have hardly painted a glittering picture and I can almost hear the 'bishop' and 'baronet' of booze baying for my blood! However, the food is distinctly average, nondescript and entirely suitable for soaking up pints of lager. Testament to this was the filthy meal I had there the other night (sadly not quite saved by the great value company!). It was my fault really - rather than going for the reliable Bhuna or the oversized but so-so Thali, I went for the mixed grill masala - if there was ever a case of style over substance then this was it. Never have I regretted such a choice as this in all of my poor curry history. Sweet and grainy, the taste of desiccated coconut dominated the preparation, let's just say that I was wishing for the £11.50 back that I had handed over for it. 

Usually I am very up for a pint soaking meal and so I'll put my recent experience down to a lack of foresight, a couple too many drinks and ultimately - a thing that so few food lovers want to admit - a bad menu decision! But please don't let this self analysis of my choices when slightly inebriated make you think that this is some great restaurant misunderstood. Frankly, if it wasn't for my mates, the bizarre ambience and booze before the trip there, it would be unlikely that I would ever have gone to Ahmed's. However I - and I am sure one or two others reading this post - cannot resist the lure of great banter, coupled with the combination of cheap beer and s*** food. In this case Ahmed's deserves the bracketed four cordons for the great time I have with my mates there…but this is not enough and they totally deserve the very real one cordon for the pretty mediocre food they serve. 

Sunday, 25 March 2012

In my time of dying: Physical Graffiti - Led Zeppelin (1975)

It feels rather cliched to write a review of a Led Zeppelin album as I feel I am retracing a well trodden path, but as I listen to the epic 'Kashmir' with its dirty violin riffs and heavy orchestration I feel that I cannot let Physical Graffiti go by without a Rubinstein review!

The band had no need to prove themselves by 1975, one of the biggest, brashest and most exciting rock band around, Led Zeppelin had conquered the world through their heavy brand of blues rock - many claim them as an early metal group… I would disagree, but that is a matter of opinion. Their first four albums are still rightly regarded as rock classics and are an indispensable addition to any collection. However my favourite has to be their last 'great' record, Physical Graffiti. In fact I like it so much that it will almost certainly receive a solid and rarer 10/10 by the end of this review (sorry for the spoiler) such is the sheer joy of listening to one of the coolest albums of all time.

In true 1970s style it is a double album with a number of drawn out, conceptual tracks yet maintaining the unique energy that Zeppelin brought to their music and the very tight production that made their tunes aural experiences. You can not help but be taken in by the rollicking opener 'Custard Pie' with its liberal use of the clavinet (listen to Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, for more information!), Plant's rasping vocals and Jimmy Page's frenetic playing. From the get go this is an album all about excess in some way shape or form. The hard edge is balanced by some funky work outs and some great keyboard use in tandem with Page's guitar, 'Trampled under foot' being a great example of this.

However for me the crowning point of the whole record would be the already referenced 'Kashmir', a faux-eastern tinged rock anthem with some of the best string arrangements from the period that rival even the efforts of Chic's Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards. Any fans of the cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High will remember when Eric 'The Rat' Ratner gets it so wrong by attempting to use this song to break the ice on a first date.

I won't elaborate too much more on the other fantastic tracks on the album as I fear I will just be repeating what a whole slew of album critics have said before me. Yes it might now be a ubiquitous, tiresome "Rock Classic" but I feel this is thoroughly deserved. you can take Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Exile on Main Street, give me this one any day! 10 out of 10, enough said.

Monday, 5 March 2012

From the belly of the beast

The aromas coming from the pot were intoxicating, filling the kitchen with a simple, spicy fragrance that sat well with the ice cold lager I had in one hand and a Villiger pressed Grosseformat (easily my favourite of the mass produced cigars behind the supermarket tobacco counter) in the other. My stylish Dean & Deluca cooks apron was already bespattered with the chilli laden cooking liquor which was testament to my lack of control when it came to keeping contents in the pan! This was how a Saturday afternoon should be, drinking cool beer and smoking cheap cigars whilst a pot of magic simmers away on the stove...

There is nothing quite like a little bit of belly of pork! And modern foodistas seems to think so to, so much so that it seems to crop up on every respectable restaurant and trendy gastropub. In fact, you cannot move anywhere without seeing belly of pork in some shape or form. Sometimes it can be delicious and other times it can be downright filthy! There are few things as bad as a nasty, grey, stringy and flabby belly which has been cooked too quickly and left for too long under the pass. Other times it is not so much the cooking of the beast but the sheer quantity that so many restaurants think is correct to serve to customers (i will be covering this practice later in the week). Thankfully there are plenty of delicious ways to serve this cut and this fabulous recipe from one of Australia's foremost chefs is a real cracker and an alternative way to eat this now popular cut!

Neil Perry has been a big name on the Antipodean food scene for a while and considering that the Aussie influence has been steadily trickling over to us pommie b*******ds, it is surprising that he hasn't had more exposure over here. The recipe he gives for chilli braised belly of pork is rich and fiery, you will not need too much of it as it is very filling and a little goes a long way. When I next do it I will certainly invite some mates around to give me a hand! I have made a few cosmetic changes but the recipe remains pretty much the same. The only major departure I have take is to substitute the orange zest for a couple of thick slices of ginger - I don't really like the taste of oranges with meat, however if you do then feel free to revert to Perry's original addition. All that's left to be said is to serve it with some steamed rice, stir-fried pak choi and either an ice-cold lager or an ice cold bone dry Gruner Veltliner.

1kg Belly of pork, cut into 2-3 inch pieces
Slug of groundnut oil
Maldon sea salt
5 dried red chillies (or generous handful of dried chilli flakes)
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 fresh bay leaves
2 thick slices of root ginger (or 1 piece of orange rind a la Perry) 
Handful of chopped spring onions


1. Pour oil into a heavy pan and set to a high heat until hot enough to fry.

2. throw in the pork belly and turn the heat right down, add the salt and cook slowly for 1/2 hour turning occasionally until the meat is golden brown and leeched plenty of fat. 

3. carefully pour off the hot fat into a bowl to cool before discarding (do not pour it down the sink!) 

4. Meanwhile, place the chillies/flakes in a bowl and cover with 500ml boiling water and leave to soak for 30 minutes. 

5. Remove the chillies and chop (or not if flakes), reserving the water, then combine with garlic, cumin and the flavoured water in a mixer, blending until smooth. 

6. Add the chilli sauce, bay leaves and ginger to the pork and stir through. Keep on a low, low heat, cover securely and leave to braise for a couple of hours (stirring occasionally) - by the end of the process the sauce should be thick and the meat should melt in the mouth. 

7. Season to taste, plate up and scatter with the chopped spring onions...voila!

Slow but simple, a real classic from Neil Perry and an admirable way to spend a Winter's Saturday afternoon.