Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Bad Habits...

I was in Waitrose this evening when I was exposed to the worst piece of nanny-statism that I have seen for years and a sad indicator that times are changing as freedom of choice is once again restricted. I don't want to sound like an ungrateful fellow for there are plenty of fantastic freedoms in UK society yet every now and again the tyranny of the minority seems to triumph. Viz magazine runs a fantastic cartoon called 'Meddlesome Ratbag' every now and again and I think this very much encapsulates the antagonists of this tale. 

I am not a heavy smoker (although I do enjoy the occasional cigar) and I do not smoke cigarettes but I do appreciate people's rights to smoke them without being treated as social pariahs. It seems that in the last 10 years that there has been a systematic effort to make outcasts of the smoking population and pour scorn onto their habit.

Since the ban of smoking in public places more and more measures have been introduced to make it more inconvenient for people to enjoy a cheeky ciggie. The latest is a measure to keep cigarettes hidden from public view which strikes me as the most cynical, ludicrous and highly ineffective method of preventing people from smoking. It goes hand in hand with the misconception that young people are drawn to cigarettes because of the packet rather than the contents! Surely proper checks on ID should be enough to ensure that people underage do not smoke and if they do smoke then it is more than likely they will purchase their cigs from an underground source rather than from behind the counter. 

To make matters worse, the legislation to effectively banish smokers to the great outdoors has, to my mind, accounted for a rise in litter on the streets and in antisocial behaviour as more and more people take their drinks outside and seek to engage passing pedestrians in their woes or their desire for a bit of argy bargy. I can almost hear someone cry 'think of the children', but frankly I don't think a child should be in a licenced pub after 18:00! Of course people want to enjoy their pints but then again I feel that I enjoyed my pint much more when smokers both masked disgusting smell of stale, cheap alcohol and also managed to keep some of the more rowdy customers in the bar rather than out causing trouble on the pavement - however you might say the latter is still true now, I just rely on memory and a little nostalgia! 

I know that smoking is not good for people's health but then again neither is eating a bag of cheesy Wotsits or drinking a couple of Gin and Tonics, and I make very sure that I do not smoke in front of children or any other person who might have an aversion to it  - unless it is in a well ventilated area. But for me what makes this who meddling in smoker's affairs even worse is that  are large number of the legislators who make the rulings on this are smokers to a man/woman. I once saw a politician wolfing down a big mac and sucking away on a Marlboro Red as if their life depended on it…oh the hypocrisy! 

This piece is not trying to reverse any law because we all know that this will never happen, even if Nick Clegg did admit that he was partial to the odd smoke or two. I just get a little bit weary of the effectiveness of minority campaigns which seem to preach that, because they don't approve of something nobody else should be allowed to enjoy themselves doing it. This is not just confined to smoking, however it serves as a good example of a sad habit that seems to be gripping the nation! 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Sketches from a cigar smokers album: Volume 2

Sat in my kitchen listening to Jeff Beck's fantastic There and Back (1980) I am taken to one of the greatest cigar challenges of my life. Like Beck's harsh album of guitar instrumentals, the Cohiba Churchill 2003 Edition that I smoked whilst on holiday in Rome was a hard hitting affair, packed full of rich flavours and an assault on the mental senses. 

It had been given to my father as a present and, as he had chosen to give up smoking a number of months ago, it found its way in to my possession on the provision that I consumed it whilst we were in the Italian capital. Not wanting to disappoint I lit up on the afternoon we were there after a filling lunch of antipasti, artichokes and a plate of parpadelle con funghi washed down with a questionable white (not unpleasant but of goodness knows what origin!). 

Dangerous and seductive, like the femme fatale out of an old Kirk Douglas or Robert Mitchum film, it remained consistent throughout its lifespan, before being extinguished with quite dignity. This was not a smoke for the faint hearted and worked well against the various glasses of differing grappa that the proprietor - who looked like she had been a fun-loving and racy lady in her past - providing a healthy mix of fire and brimstone. 

The mark of a good cigar is that it remains consistent throughout the smoke and nowhere is this more true than with the renowned Cohiba. I would be lying if I said it was my favourite roll (that accolade will alway go to Bolivar) but it was a magical smoke and given the situation, drink accompaniment and company a memorable consumption!


It might come as a surprise to all and sundry that I am not the greatest adherent of religious holidays, to me they are fantastically convenient and much welcomed days off in a sea of intense work! Nowhere is this more true than 'Good Friday' and it rather makes me that it is sad that we do not have more public holidays of Fridays. Certainly, I feel that they would be more welcome that Mondays (not that I am complaining to much). 

In one of those bizarrely delightful turn of events I managed to convince 6 good friends to come and share the delights of a Frida free from work partaking in a good meal, followed by a much needed session in one of the many watering holes that surround historic Wimbledon Common. 

For this occasion a lighter, but prestigious cigar was required to celebrate the season and the Romeo e Julieta  that I picked did the afternoon justice. Standing outside the ever-reliable Hand in Hand and the Crooked Billet I puffed away as I sank a few pints of Wandle Brewery's excellent Junction a rich, darker and maltier version of their popular and equally good Wandle

Romeo e Julieta cigars remain a popular choice with many friends and foe (not that I have too many), and it is easy to see why, they have a lighter finish that most and do not require too much effort to smoke. They also have remarkable value for money compared to other Havana cigars, due to their fantastic longevity maintaining a remarkably solid ash for a good period of time.

What could be better on a public holiday? Good company, great booze and the best company that a Bloody Good Chap could hope for? I thoroughly recommend each and every one of you try it sometime for, in the long term such moments are so fleeting you cannot help but welcome them with open arms. 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Cordon Du Chap: Tell me more, tell me more, tell me Al Moro!

Al Moro 

Cordon Du Chap (out of a possible five) : ❁❁❁❁❁❁ (I have broken my own rating system, it was that good!!)

There are a few places in Rome that are well kept secrets for a reason, they are the places that the city financiers and political elites like to go for a quite lunch to discuss whatever major deal or policy initiative might be in the offing. Al Moro is such a place. Tipped off by an executive friend of mine as one of the best places to eat in the heart of Rome I was expecting big things as I had heard that restaurants in Rome can either be excellent or distinctly mediocre… I was not disappointed. 

I had added pressure a very important family member - who incidentally was treating me to this holiday - to their 60th birthday meal and I  wanted to make sure that I had chosen somewhere worthy of such an important milestone. 

Set in a backstreet just off the Trevi Fountain, Al Moro looks rather unassuming and you would be forgiven for walking past it if your were unfamiliar with its fabulous food. However, should you go do be warned that you might want to wear a jacket and tie. Luckily my companion and I were able to feign the ignorance of British tourists and got away with our polo shirts and jeans - but I think that our excellent (if canny) waiter, Vincenzo, realised that we were going to be spending a bit of Monday. 

We were seated in the dining room, which was starting to fill up with all manner of besuited business men and women looking forward to their lunchtime repasts. After the obligatory Campari and Soda, beautifully prepared with a mere splash of soda and a slice of blood orange, we moved onto the Gavi de Gavi (a pleasantly dry Italian white - this one was excellent) and our starters. 

To begin with I had a plate of expertly sliced Culatello di Zibello, which had a beautiful balance of sweet and salt, working well against the Gavi. My dining companion had a comprehensive plate of antipasto misto. For all those uncouth individuals that think this fist course rather unadventurous, antipasti done well is a different beast in Italy compared to the rather uninspiring collations served up to punters in the UK. I tried some of the Corollina salami and I must say it was one of the best examples of the sausage that I have savoured. 

We moved onto the primi piatti and on this we took the recommendation of the house, their take on the much abused classic, spaghetti carbonara. Let's just say that this was the best Carbonara that I have ever had, and I do not exaggerate. Succulent pancetta played against perfectly al dente spaghetti coated in a delicious combination of parmesan and egg yolk. A cleverly sized portion merely whetted the appetite rather than extinguish it. 

Double veal followed, my dining compadre had a sumptuously decadent Osso Bucco Bianco with creamed potatoes. In a rich vegetable sauce the slowly cooked shin of veal literally melted in the mouth and the scant scoop of bone marrow was a taste sensation - it was shared with great reluctance! For my part I had an excellent plate of veal escalopes with thinly sliced artichokes in a faintly lemony sauce, each mouthful was more delicious than the last and it was with great sadness that I finished my plate. We accompanied this hearty and filling food with a great Niebollo (don't ask me what it was, but needless to say it was delicious and perfectly matched the meat). 

By this stage I was feeling almost full to the rafters, but I have always been someone who likes a challenge and when my guest suggested a half-bottle of Amarone and a plate of Italian Cheeses I found it hard to resist. A 2007 Masi Contasera - I am sure the expert critics are rather particular than I am - was excellent and coped well against the strong cheeses offered. To be honest, by this stage I was nearing the end of threshold and I could feel my stomach trying to compete for space with the button on my jeans! 

The meal was rounded off in true style with a generous glass of grappa (for those of you that are not familiar with it, this a rocket fuel-like liquor from Friuli made from the skins of the grapes used in the wine making process) and a fortifying double espresso - my milk-loving companion had a Macchiato! 

We staggered out of the restaurant under the sheer weight of all the food we had consumed, but we were contented and the portions had been just the right amount on each plate. We were happy and satisfied rather than bloated and disappointed. I can, with much confidence say that this is one of the best meals that I have ever eaten. And, whilst on face value the bill was on the large side, it was worth it for the excellent service, the fabulous food and the true atmosphere of a country that still knows how to appreciate a good business lunch - even if they find the occasional tourist to happen upon Al Moro as a minor inconvenience! 

On a final note, I have left the Address block blank on this occasion as I fear that to reveal the precise location would be to spoil the slightly secluded air that this place maintains in one of the busiest tourist districts in Italy's capital. They do have a website, but you will have to investigate this yourself... I have already said too much! 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Please sir, I want less…

There seems to be a scourge wracking its way through the eating establishments of Great Britain these days… the size of the portions. 

Whilst I am not adverse to the fantastic food revolution that this green and pleasant land has undergone over the last 20 years, it seems to have been coupled with the serving of wasteful, gargantuan portions masquerading under the false tags of 'hearty', 'rib-sticking' and 'wholesome'. This is entirely misleading and more often than not I have been to gastropubs and restaurants where a large number of plates leave the table still piled with food. In the words of the lawyer from Pink Floyd's Rock-pera The Wall  (1979) 'This will not do!'.

As much as I find the change for life campaign terribly patronising, they have a very important point about cutting down meal sizes to healthy portions. It seems that this point has passed over a number of establishments. 

The way a number of eateries present a plate with a large cut of very rich meat (giving the false impression that more ingredient makes it more worth your hard earned cash) and then an unreasonable portion of vegetables (kale, spring greens or some other ruffage rich and toothy leaf) and a stodgy carbohydrate (the current trend seems to be a root vegetable mash). The classic fayre of ye old England, some might say and whilst I do not deny that many of these dishes are cooked with finesse, the result is a heart clogging heap of food which most people cannot manage and a withering look from a waiter when you don't finish it. 

I am not trying to suggest that we go back to the times of Novelle Cuisine (or the bastardisation of it) but let's bring a bit of moderation into the restaurant industry and set on a size that the average person can realistically finish. Whilst I like British root vegetables, I do not need a whole bag of parsnips on my plate to prove it! Nor do I need half a kilo of pork belly to get the satisfaction i need from this delicious cut of meat!

Take a leaf out of the chef Bruce Poole, who, at this restaurant Chez Bruce has managed to obtain the perfect balance of flavour and quantity without leaving the customer either too hungry or too full.