Wednesday, 25 September 2013

No Mint Juleps required... Dining at the Colonel's table

We all have our own, specific guilty pleasures in life. Mine include a large mug of Nescafe Gold Blend and such horrors from the vault as the collected works of Hale & Pace, ‘Invisible Touch’ by Genesis, Ed McBain cop thrillers and the 1989 film Tango and Cash; but is in the realm of food that it seems the worst and scurrilous culprits lie.

I was flicking through another deliciously guilty secret, the Mail Online, this evening when I spotted a malicious, gleefully reported story about St Micheal’s cookbook doyenne, the bottled chutney making, baking legend Mary Berry and the audacity that she displayed in purchasing a pre-made brownie tray-bake from her local supermarket. ‘Hold the front page someone! She doesn’t bake all the time!’ I can hear the lifestyle editor splutter as the news comes across the wire from the Buckinghamshire office. If anything this absurd story rather inspired me to write this post. I thought it was a somewhat harsh criticism of Mary Berry, at least she has never had the sanctimony to look down on those purchasing food for convenience (unlike wot I ‘ave!... read my article on the scourge of ready-made stock here). 

‘Good grief...’ one might say, echoing that famous catch-phrase of Charlie Brown - haven’t we all got a little too snobby about our food? Are we not allowed to every so often indulge in something that we know to be absolutely devoid of nutritional value yet gives us a momentary fix of pleasure? Goodness knows we need things like that in the scary landscape of the modern world. Having raised both barrels at the ‘Brown Bread Brigade’ before over the subject of the might white sliced I am rather minded to do so again, this time to rub some salt in the wounds I previously inflicted focusing on a fantastic trip I took the other night to my favourite outlet of forbidden food, Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

Let me set the scene...

It was Saturday afternoon. 16:00. The sky was gun-metal grey and the streets of Fulham were alive with  the thronging masses of Chelsea fans on their way to the terraces. In the air was a sense of excitement for an afternoon of sport. I was off to the pub to meet two stalwart friends for a bit of a chinwag over a few frothing ales. ‘Mine’s a Ghost Ship’ I said to the girl behind the bar as nonchalantly as possible. Surveying the surrounding punters it was a rather mild collection of civilised supporters, tourists and locals. This was the Sporting Pageboy, a rather sober establishment full of good ales and good times. One could imagine chasing with a nip of Laphroaig rather than a bourbon or in the case of a bar brawl a jar of japanese rice crackers or smoked almonds being used instead of a pool cue. Of course the match was on but this was a genteel crowd, far removed from the sordid fleshpots and drunken denizens of Fulham Broadway.

Fellows were well met, the drink flowed. Probably a bit too much in my case. I waxed lyrical, I made wild statements, outlandish claims and self-important declarations, easily blamed at the time, in my mind, on a rogue rusty pint. Friends departed off into the night on the way to their own adventure, I for my part had an appointment to make at 81-83 The Broadway, Wimbledon. 

Rolling out of the main station I walked down a busy thoroughfare full of sound and fury. Cheap, lager fuelled caterwauling and shouts went up from those heading to the seedy dives that populated this main drag adding to the sense that I was going somewhere the foodies and fashionistas (so fond of Brixton based Wishbone) would give a second glance. After short time, I was greeted by the smiling, jovial countenance of a man who dealt in southern friend chicken. It was the anemic portrait of Colonel Sanders himself. 

The hopes and dreams of my journey between the pub and KFC had culminated in this moment, to hell with the chicken snobs, to hell with the health police and bring it on! It was an easy choice, the brand new ‘Mighty Bucket for One’ seemed to be calling to me like some vile - but momentarily seductive - temptress.Two wings, two breast fillets and two pieces of original recipe chicken it was like a mini-banquet, a showcase of the emporium’s wares - it was an easy sell. One the side? Coke and fries... need I say more on these distractions? 

Let’s park them and turn to the chicken. I could not tell you the provenance, the breed and such like, I just knew at the time as I tore into crisp, savoury and scalding hot bits of chicken that I was experiencing a very fleeting and slightly drunken moment of culinary glory - made even more delicious by the fact that I knew I’d feel a little cheap and sordid following its consumption. The wings went down quickly, a little chili heat lingering on the tongue. Next the breast fillets, a yielding palette for crispy skin which baptises the tongue with scalding heat. Finally the main attraction, the climax, the original recipe pieces packed full of that special, secret recipe of 12 herbs and spices... it tasted so good at the time.

If it had been up to me, a good bottle of chilled Champagne or a bourbon on the rocks would have been nice. I think hell will freeze over before the Colonel countenances such laxity of abstinence in his establishments, although I’ve heard tell he was partial to a Mint Julep. 

Like so many fleeting pleasures this one was short-lived, it felt that as soon as I had started it was over and was facing a sobering was home. The effects of the alcohol wearing off and with a belly full of battered chicken I was feeling decidedly sorry for myself as I waddled home, my burden sloshing around in my stomach all the while... but here’s the thing, I’d do it again as, you know what, I like Kentucky Fried Chicken!’ 

After such a shock announcement, I am sure many of my foodie followers will be deserting in droves. I remain unrepentant and like KFC I will keep enjoying Hale & Pace, Genesis, Kurt Russell films and trashy cop thrillers. I hope that Mary Berry will take a leaf out of my book and continue to buy her brownie tray-bake, surely if she likes it that’s all that matters! 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Winging it - a bloody awful performance by the Lib Dems

Having once been to the Liberal Democrat party conference - in the capacity of an events organiser for a political magazine - I can attest to its eccentricities. The beards, the white socks and sandals, ill-fitting worsted jackets, severe fringes and coke-bottle glasses are all there in some shape or form. I was manning a stand on the exhibition floor so I got to see it all, as well as a refreshing level of activism not seen at either of the other two parties. Here it seemed that visitors were genuinely interested in debating policy and would  even engage a two-bit salesman like me in political discussion given half the chance. It was an interesting and quite enjoyable experience, not quite dominated by unions (Labour) and public affairs officers (Conservatives). 

That was only two years ago, but I have been careful to follow all the party conferences on the gogglebox and monitor the development of the respective parties in a turbulent time. As king makers the liberal democrats find themselves, mid-term in a very difficult position with two options: to sink into obscurity (the polls predict they will loose at least half their seats) or enter into another coalition government (another hung parliament looks increasingly likely). 

For party senior management the former is, quite obviously, unthinkable; The latter opens up a deep divide within the party distinctly separating the liberals wing from the SDP - the question of who to go into coalition with has real potential to destabilise the Liberal Democrats be it the Conservatives or Labour. For the meantime, like it or not they are mid-term through a coalition with the blues and it was in this setting that the party found itself on the banks of the Clyde.

Eyes were on Nick today. Vince ‘Jeremiah’ Cable (delusional egoist), Danny ‘Osborne’ Alexander (pragmatic) et al gave it their all in Glasgow to the assembled masses. The platform was there for some credible policy, some great speech full of gravitas and yet... yet it all descended into an exercise of back slapping and point scoring (not, I’m sure that the other two won’t have their fair share). 

Don’t get me wrong, I personally like having the Liberal Democrats around, they metre the loony fringes of my party (The Conservatives) with some loony fringes of their own creating a balance that was decidedly lacking in the Conservative governments of old. However, this union is one of convenience for most and a constant source of policy tension as much as it is one of policy agreement... deeply unpopular with some, lauded by others. 

I quite understand each side trying to snatch as much credit they can from any success from this partnership but listening to Nick Clegg this afternoon trot out his list of thwarted policy decisions at the Conservative’s expense took the biscuit, how easily he forgets his days as Leon Brittan’s advisor. The most galling moment was when he decided to bask in the glory of his disastrous decision to destroy the boundary review which will cause the demise of his own party and potentially let the ‘Reds under the bed’ back into power. Bravo Nick!

Having made a strong speech in comparison to his fellow senior colleagues, Nick can bask in some temporary glory. As he stood on that platform and made a wholly negative speech in which he deluded himself and delegates that his party were the only ones who came up with good policies he struck me as being wholly disingenuous. His lack of willingness to take responsibility for  the unpopular policies goes to show why he is just Deputy Prime Minister. 

What did that matter today? Gone for the moment is that moping, front bench pout from a man who cannot appreciate his good fortune. The Liberal Democrats might now be applauding his tough stance but it won’t change the fact that he has allowed his parliamentary party to both seriously hinder growth and stifle some very important policies. We shall wait and see what happens at the ballot box but I don’t reckon he’ll be quite so cocky as he was today!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Cordon du Chap: Shake Shack

Covent Garden
24 Market Building
The Piazza
London, WC2E 8RD
0203 5981360

There seems to be an awful lot of hype about burgers these days, a great furore has risen up around what is essentially a piece of meat between two slices of bread. Much the same can be said of hotdogs too. New places are sprouting up across the capital with each one offering their personal stamp, claiming to be the best or, indeed in one case, the most honest! There are now so many burger joints that one can easily develop an apathy towards such establishments and question whether the beef justifies the cost.

I, for my part as a budding gourmet (or gourmand some might say) around the capital have been to a few of these places. each one in turn is good but never better than the burgers that I make using my moulinex mincer and my butcher's steak, likewise with hotdogs using Frankfurters purchased from a polish deli and slathered with Sauerkraut and plenty of French's mustard. 

It was with this signature cynicism that I approached 'Shake Shack', the next "Big Thing" to have been imported from the States, offering the experience of an old fashioned US drive-thru as well as high quality milkshakes and frozen custard. A good friend of mine had been itching to try the place and, being a fellow of curious nature I naturally obliged. 

Located on the south side Covent Garden's old market square the whole place has an inside-outside feel with a first come first served attitude so popular with many de rigeur establishments. I must say I was not looking forward to the long queues that I was assured preceded placing an order at this place but being a Brit I was well used to standing in line and tapping an impatient foot to indicate my silent disapproval. 

Guess what? No queue! I couldn't believe it, we were given a menu and ushered behind a gaggle of excited people who had made up their minds while we were left floundering trying to decipher the simple looking (but deceptively complex) menu. The basic choices were clear but there was a plethora of choices within choices - add-ons and accoutrements to tantalise the tastebuds, it made it easy to get lost. 

Shunning the burger crowd I opted for a hot dog and some of the eatery's crinkle cut fries. On this visit I had a Shackago Dog, a fantastic array of kosher beef sausage, onion, cucumber, tomato, gherkin and the house's signature relish. My companion of the evening went for a beautifully cooked cheese burger and some cheesy fries. On a second visit I went one better with a a gut-busting ShackMeister Dog a crazy mix of Cumberland sausage, melted American cheese and crispy fried onions, I could feel my heart flutter on every mouthful! 

The mains are one thing, and done very well, but the puddings are another. If you've never tried concrete then you are missing out big time. Shake Shack sets itself aside from its competitors by offering a large range of American-themed frozen custards ranging from milk shakes to ice cream - Concrete falls somewhere in between and is a triumph of decadence! Using a simple blender the establishment mixes vanilla ice cream with all manner of delicious ingredients from salted caramel, Oreo cookies, berry jam, pretzels and many more. My personal favourite which I had on both occasions that I visited was 'Concrete Jungle' a heady mix of banana, caramel and peanut butter, it felt like America in a cardboard cup! My companion on my second visit went for the ever-so-moreish 'Sticky Toffee' a collation of Vanilla, chocolate toffee, chocolate chunks, salted caramel sauce and malt powder which she declared was utterly fabulous. 

Luckily you can also drink there so it is perfect both for lunch and dinner, try and order one of their own brand beers if you can, it went very well with my hot dog! 

Needless to say, I enjoyed myself very much at Shake Shack, it is good value, excellently prepared food, I hope they can keep it up in a market where the further a franchise grows the more mediocre it becomes. My advice is to live for the moment, go now and enjoy it while you can!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Enough is enough... my thoughts on cookery programming

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good cookery show as much as the next person, be it the studio based antics of the Saturday Kitchen bunch or the food travelogues of Rick Stein, but enough is enough as regards cookery programming, give us a break! 

I remember when I was younger - a child of the 1990s - when the cookery output was a few carefully placed series of Keith Floyd, Delia Smith, a weekly smattering of Food and Drink and a sunday evening dose of Loyd Grossman’s Masterchef. In these innocent days of the Magimix and the electric ‘Saucier’ there was a gentle balance of food programmes balanced with such nuggets the now defunct ‘Holiday’ programme, ‘Changing Rooms’, ‘Ground Force’ and a flick over to ITV at 20:00 to watch Jim Carver spiral into a gambling addiction on The Bill. Those were innocent times indeed.

To look at the scheduling now you would be thinking that I had referring to a far off time when you could still by cans of Sunkist and Lipton-ice fizzy iced tea was very de rigeur (and indeed I was). Now you can hardly move for the vast amount of cookery and food shows that seem to be choking up prime time and they seem to revolve around a number of instant recognisable stereotypes: 
  • Foul mouthed yob
  • Trendy, beatnik hipster
  • Sanctimonious crusader
  • Minor celeb turned cook
  • cheeky working class double act
  • Disgruntled Michelin-starred chef
  • Smug genius
I must stop as the list could go on forever, and it brings a smile to my face to conjure up the plethora of people who fall into these rather scathing categories. Of course, it’s hard to blame them, they have in some/most part made their own success and should be entitled to reap some reward in a highly competitive industry which has seen plenty fall onto the scrap-heap. After all who wouldn’t want to have their own cookery show and get paid to do it to boot? 

What a great cynic I am! Maybe I should be turning my barrels on the directors of programming who have let more and more ludicrous cooking shows clog the arteries of evening TV... especially competitive cooking. The rise of reality TV has seen the inevitable rise of amateur cooking competitions combining a mixture of irritating, fast-paced camera angles, garage music and vacuous comments over a near endless series of weeks full of (mainly) poor cookery to a (now) stale conclusion. Also, the tiresome prattlings of the presenters/judges leaves me rather cold. Even worse these production values seem to have spilled over into more conventional shows so that we are now forced to watch the presenter’s self-indulgence through soft focused lenses or vicariously through the back of a ladle as they congratulate themselves on another dish well done!

Before I get a number of angry fans of a certain show viciously berating me I will readily admit that, as regards competitive cookery shows and the like, I enjoyed the first series or two but after the umpteenth, protracted season of the same formats, the same people (in all but appearance and cliched soundbyte) and the same empty phrases from the judges regarding flavour versus presentation I switch off. The same principle can be applied to a number of one-man or duo-led programmes, fine (even great) the first time around but growing stale, like an untouched iced bun on a tea trolley, after repeated recycling. Ironically every silk purse becomes a sow’s ear after a while, but never the reverse. 

Thankfully a few chefs like Rick Stein and Nigel Slater still have an element of the former magic and reassurance that characterised British cookery programmes and are still a joy to watch. Unfortunately, I fear I am in somewhat in a minority, having judged from a quick glance over Twitter and my Facebook Newsfeed the nation seems to have been in quite a frenzy over the Great British Bake Off though goodness knows why... But it’s popular, and brings home the proverbial bacon, so please don’t stop on my account, all I ask our dear, dear programme commissioners is that we could have slightly less of it?