Friday, 29 March 2013

Richard O'Sullivan - The man about the kitchen...

The history of this still great nation is littered with the works and endeavors of many a great rennaisance man: Pepys, Evelyn and Johnson can all be said to have made their contributions to the furtherment of human culture, pushing the boundaries and quashing the dogmatic beliefs of of their time, but none can be said to have had the same impact as O’Sullivan. 

Richard O’Sullivan was a true shining star, in fact the great Russian writer Lermontov might have gone so far as to call him a hero of our time such was his influence on the collective zeitgeist during the latter half of the 20th Century. 

Actor, writer, social critic and culinary genius, there was a time when O’Sullivan held great influence in this country, from 1974-1982 he was an unmistakeable face on ITV finding fame playing the cookery student, latterly chef, Robin Trip in two of the country’s best loved sitcoms: Man about the house and Robin’s Nest. Playing these roles with a Falstaffian precision he charmed both young and old with choice turn of phrase and bawdy antics as his character tried to get off with either of his house mates (played by Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomset). 

However, of all O’Sullivan’s accolades he should be remembered for a landmark achievement in the world of cookery writing, and one which is rightly placed up there in the pantheon with Apicius, Soyer, Escoffier, Glasse, Adria and Blumenthal. Published in 1980 Man About The Kitchen: A book for people who can’t cook - much was to overturn everything that people previously thought possible in the kitchen. 

Risque chapter titles like: ‘Richard’s Roast’, ‘Birds I Fancy’, ‘Some like it hot’ and ‘Carry on cooking’ make the reader chuckle with their naughtiness, fully capturing the cultural melting pots that were the Italian bistros of the late 1970s where I imagine O’Sullivan and his fellow dilettantes held court. Long before Keith Floyd introduced the UK public to the delights of relaxed cookery, O’Sullivan was advocating a more leisurely approach, as his introduction states: 

‘I like to be on my own in the kitchen, hearing my friends enjoying themselves in the next room. A glass of wine in my hand, something good to cook, and I’m in my element...’

The book beginnings with the bare essentials and handy tips with which to get the most of the cooking experience, such as the importance of investing in a fish slice: 

This is essential, used for turning over pancakes...also good for scraping burnt bits off the bottom of pans, and swatting flies.’ 

Before-hand, as many culinary historians I am sure will attest, home cooks had never been enlightened as to the many alternative, practical uses of kitchen implements which would be opened up by this work, another, clever passage references the modern wonders of a kitchen timer: 

with this ticking away in your pocket you can watch Match of the Day, or go to the pub, knowing you’ll be reminded when the meal is ready.’

Just brilliant, why bother with Jamie’s 30 minute meals when you have this book? O’Sullivan also realised that most people wouldn’t have been aware of the plethora of exotic herbs sampled on the ‘Grand Tour’ he did of Europe during his youth, and much like the great architect, Sir John Soanes, he sought to educate us with the delights of Tarragon, Basil and Coriander. Furthermore he was embracing the continental taste for coffee, only just reaching the shores of 1970s Britain: 

How to cheat at making coffee... and impress your friends. Make instant coffee and serve it in a Cona jug. Put a couple of coffee beans on the hot-plate to give that freshly roasted smell.’

As on of the great, classically trained actors of his day he knew that stage-craft was essential to the perfect meal, as demonstrated in this passage: 

‘there’s a knack to making a good omelette, you’ll soon pick it up, but in the meantime, don’t be too discouraged by your first efforts. Soft lighting, or better still, candlelight, covers a multitude of sins...’ 

Olivier couldn’t have put it better himself.

The whole book is punctuated by fantastic vignettes from a life well lived, from the young O’Sullivan’s daliances with a female sergeant in the Israeli army (evoking scene’s of Turgenev’s First Love and Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman - for which this tale, I have heard, was the driving influence) inspiring such dishes as: ‘Ladies Thighs’ and ‘Legs Fair and Fowl’. He also references his love for Italian cooking, referencing the great honour bestowed on him by Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison in the 60s when he was known as ‘Spaghetti O’Sullivan’ from which he advises the plucky Brits to cook their pasta for 12-15 minutes: 

once done you can get away with leaving it in the water in which it has been cooked for up to about 5 minutes, but once drained it must be rinsed to get the starch off it... so put in a colander and hold it under the hot tap for a minute.’

I am sure that Marcella Hazan would not disagree! 

But it is his metaphorical and philosophical musings that really bring this tome together (concisely comprising of 93 crisp pages), as he warns the reader:

Decide on the menu first. Make certain that the dishes go well together: Don’t have rice soup followed by creamed chicken and rice, followed by rice pudding. Good flavours perhaps, but a bit pale and uninteresting - like taking an ash blonde our on a foggy day.’ 

It is this wit and verve that set this book above the rest and give it the rightly deserved titles as one of the most important cookery books of the 20th Century, if not all time. Let me leave you with another fabulous tip and strongly urge you to pick up a copy where you can: 

‘One of my favourite flambĂ© dishes is Omelette Surprise, when you flambĂ© an omelette with whisky... don’t forget to drink the gravy!’

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Spirit of Radio... Permanent Waves (1980) - Rush

I vividly remember a former colleague of mine walking into the office one morning and declaring that Rush were one of the worst bands he had the unfortunate luck to have listened to in recent years. Granted, a large volume of their early catalogue I find rather impenetrable – although die hard fans would strongly disagree. However to mind they had some flashes of brilliance which certainly deserve some mention on this blog. One such one is their commercial breakthrough, Permanent Waves (1980).

Rush are a Canadian band largely forgotten by modern audiences until the hit film ‘I love you man’ with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel brought them back to the attention the public through their rollicking 1981 hit ‘Tom Sawyer’.  An aggressive drinking tune with hard lyrics and a pounding bassline make this one of the gem’s in their treasure chest of hits, but not – to my mind- their peak, which came a year earlier.

As soon as you hear the distorted guitar intro to ‘Spirit of Radio’ and the drum collapse of the legendary Neil Peart you know you have made the right choice with this record. The tune is inspiring, backed with heavy hard rock sensibilities, it was – and still is – a real favourite of mine when I am limbering up for a night out, and I am always surprised when I find that it is never on a DJ’s list at a club (though why this should come as such a shock I am not sure).  Peart’s insistent vocal keep the listener hooked and then, to make it even more appealing it drops into a faux-reggae bridge 2/3 of the way through the tune almost like something from a Police album!

The second track, ‘Freewill’ with its punchy guitar riff is another gem harvested from the album. If you can look past the rather prog driven lyrics you get to experience a powerful tune full of soaring synthesizers and overdriven guitars. This is a perfect example of the direction that rock music was to take going into the early 80s, whilst still keeping with Rush’s signature brand of music and breaking down into a Stranglers-esque bass riff and dirty guitar solo.

‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is sadly not the same as the power-pop classic written by Bruce Hornby and performed by Huey Lewis and the News but an extended work-out which allows each musician in the band to flex their musical muscles. As pompous as it is confused, this is definitely the weakest track for me on the album.   

Things thankfully pick up again with ‘Entre Nous’, another pleasant slice of rock complimented by some space-age synth that would not be out of place on a Manfred Mann Earth Band record. Unlike many of the other compositions, ‘Entre Nous’ is much simpler in structure, bringing in some welcome acoustic guitar to the mix.

Rush wasn’t all about thrashing guitars and strutting drum licks, they could play it slow, and ‘Different Strings’ exhibits this well, sounding like a Genesis tune (Heathhaze from Duke (1980) for example), it’s subdued, stripped down and Peart doesn’t over-dramatise his vocals as he is prone to do on many of the band’s other songs.

The final track on this short album is ‘Natural Science’ which starts slow but builds into a frantic conclusion and is easily the heaviest number on the album with a really dirty guitar riff punctuated by tape-effects adding something of a sinister air to the recording. ‘Natural Science’ has an ever shifting tempo and there are a number of bizarre twists and turns in the tune which makes it all the more compelling. Finally the album reaches a natural conclusion and tail off with the sound of waves crashing against the shore.

Whilst not the best album I own, this one is a real monument to the time of its release and shows a band fast approaching their commercial and (some would say) creative peak. A solid 8/10 methinks…

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Some kind of wonderful… a paean to a guilty pleasure

Mass hysteria seems to have gripped the food world, capturing the imagination of the general public. First it was the horsemeat scandal, now it’s the scientific discovery that processed meats shorten your life expectancy. I can see the smug food police looking down their noses at people like me as I tuck into a Saturday morning breakfast of streaky bacon, buttery scrambled eggs, fresh orange juice and black filter coffee. I am sure if they had it their way I would be eating a bran cracker, a few slices of apple and a cup of hot water with lemon peel! Granted I do not have the former for breakfast every day but it gives me a grim satisfaction to stick two fingers up to a profession that has systematically sought to take enjoyment out of the kitchen and reduce the consumption of food to a mere fuel which ensures our survival on earth. 

In this piece I want to focus on a food that has become stigmatic in recent years, a non-essential comestible, a poster-boy if you will for the food police... The Big Mac. I am sure that anyone reading this has watched Morgan Spurlock’s amusing but ‘MIchael Moore-ish’ documentary Supersize Me where he embarks upon a month of eating nothing but MacDonald’s products. At the end of the documentary (surprise, surprise) the nutritionalist finds that his liver and kidneys are almost shot and his weight had increase.

Stop press! Who would have thought that fatty foods with questionable nutritional value could do this. But it was propaganda to the masses, who demanded healthier options from their fast food establishments and opened up the franchises to every happy-go-lucky regular who thought they could launch litigation on the back of their porkiness. The Western media - who sometimes have far too many column inches to fill as well as time on their hands started to hound out any stories they could to tar fast food establishments with a negative brush.

This will not be the case here, for I want to draw your attention to one of my favourite of guilty pleasures. Nestling amongst a bed of crisp chicken nugget and apple pies shimmering with vegetable oil you will find this beast – the ever-faithful Big Mac.

The flagship product, the mother-lode of the franchise has been both the company's most proud product and its most vilified. Towering as it does over the diner’s tray, crammed with all sorts of unhealthy and anemic goodies and additives that literary melt on contact with the mouth as shreds of lettuce and ‘special’ sauce spatter the paper tray guard.

To the uninitiated the anatomy of the Big Mac is simple enough. First you take a burger bun base, add burger, add American cheese, add lettuce, slices of gherkin, ‘special sauce’; then another bun base, repeat the previous process, add chopped onion and more ‘special’ sauce; this is all finished with a sesame seed bun top. They say that the simplest things in life are sometimes the most pleasurable and there is certainly nothing simpler in this construction (if you can look past the myriad of chemical processes and reactions behind the creation of its component parts).

Some people augment their burger with fries and a soft drink, a waste of time to my mind, the best thing to have with a Big Mac is a glass of Champagne or a crisp pilsner and a Gitanes cigarette sat outside in St James’s Park - like a posh hobo! How strange, yet so appealing. This should always be followed, if able to manage one, by another Big Mac (only joking!).

Given the controversy that surrounds them, and looking past the health implications, what is it that makes this ‘delicacy’ have such appeal, at least to me? It is probably down to the fact that I only eat it twice or so in a year, a treat to myself when I am feeling ever so slightly debauched. Whether it comes after the ballad of the ‘one-too-many-pints-at-the-pub’ or the remorseful yarn of ‘I-had-one-too-many-the-night-before’, perhaps it might be passing a service station on a long journey or spying one (as I did the other day) in a train station on the way back from a trade show. Whatever it is, it is once in a blue moon and tastes all the better for it.

This is not about justifying their consumption as your whole diet but as something to be enjoyed from time to time, like a good English breakfast or a hotdog laden with mustard, onions and sauerkraut. But I sometimes fear that the food police merely see scapegoats and pounce on them, vilifying those who enjoy them in moderation. I for one will say that it will be the start of something very worrying if the Big Mac disappeared from our high streets, for first the Big Mac why not the Full English and so on.

However, foodies fear not. For those of you who cannot agree with me, nor even countenance the idea of stepping through the twin golden arches, I have devised an alternative with lovely, homemade burgers, to give you that same experience at home! So tune in next time to get my exclusive recipe…

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Cordon Du Chap: Sand's End

135-137 Stephendale Road

Cordon Du Chap: ❁❁❁

The Harwood Arms garnered a lot of press last year as the first Michelin starred gastropub in the UK (if not the world) with its inventive menu combining esoteric ingredients like oxtail and snails, cold chicken and candied hazelnuts and bringing old classics like brawn back to the attention of the nation’s palettes. However its sister restaurant, The Sands End, is as good if not in many ways better, and well worth a visit if you are in the area.

Tucked away in a residential street just off Wandsworth Bridge Road, The Sands End looks like any other better-than-average pub, but wait until you see the menu! Unlike the Harwood arms the team here have not tried to be too over-ambitious in their combinations. There is much to be admired about a menu which matches tried and tested ingredients effectively, while keeping them contemporary and entertaining. 

The flair and skill in the cooking really shines through the well considered portions, the excellent cooking and the balance of flavours. This is the sort of place you could take the fussiest of eaters and I guarantee that they would find something they want to eat on the menu. 

There is a fabulous daily menu choc-full of hearty dishes such as: braised ham hock with parsley sauce and root vegetables; Loin and belly of Middle White pork, braised cabbage & bacon, crushed potatoes and a daily home-made pie. For those with less of an appetite they have a range of tasty bar snacks, such as plaice goujons, steak tartare, duck rillette and sharing boards of artisan charcuterie. Puddings range from green apple & Aspall cider trifle to fresh waffle, pistachios, honey, yoghurt ice cream. 

On a recent trip I sampled their reasonably priced set menu which really shows off the skill of the kitchen. the wafer-thin rare roast beef topped with watercress and a mustard dressing was followed by the most delicious homemade linguine and silver mullett (pan-fried with a caper laden buerre noisette). All this was finished off with a delicately poached pear with honey and mascarpone ice cream. 

Yesterday I was treated to a delicious smoked salmon tartare with a fresh pickled cucumber relish followed up with a truly spectacular chestnut gnocchi topped with delicately cooked chanterelle mushrooms and roasted salsify. Every component was masterfully cooked and there were certainly no complaints from this corner. 

There is a substantial drinks menu and some very nice ales on tap, in particular I was please to see Black Sheep bitter (a favourite of mine from university days) as well as a jug of some homemade bloody mary mix. There were also some nice looking magnums of Provencal Rose chilling in an ice bucket on the bar counter.

The service is very friendly if a little sporadic, so make sure you are in no hurry over your lunch and avoid taking impatient friends or relatives. However this is a mere quibble when compared to all the positives that this establishment has going for it. In any case I thoroughly recommend you make a trip to Stephendale Road and discover this great place for yourself.