ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Friday, December 30, 2011

eggnogblog

If you're reading this then you survived Christmas - if not necessarily New Year - and unless you're under three, probably suffered from some degree of nostalgia.

The marketing weasels are very clever these days, and they'd love to think that the plethora of new products available will avert our minds eyes from the wistful memories of all the stuff you can't get any more, but which will never be forgotten.

150 watt lightbulbs, high tar cigarettes, guards on trains, the hard square toffee in Quality Street, Gold Top milk... all gone.

Actually, I was surprised to discover recently that the Gold Top (or 'full cream') milk that my grandmother used to give me as a child is actually still available in large supermarkets. Not liking milk very much - unless it's been made into butter or cheese, obviously - I'm not all that bothered either way, but for a few years now I've been meaning to make Egg Nog, and thought that a bottle of Gold Top might well be a useful ingredient. That and eggs, presumably.

Oh, and some booze. Obviously.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The wait is nearly over

I saw a great new festive product on sale this week.

It’s called ‘Bruce Forsyth’s Double-your-Ham’, and it’s brilliant. You just squeeze a couple of drops of the solution onto your Christmas ham using the supplied pipette, and within 30 minutes the ham will increase in size by 100%.


It's Ham-tastic!
Plus, it’s endorsed by the very crown prince of National Treasureland himself – what’s not to like?

For people who don’t like ham, you can also buy Brucie’s ‘Halve your ham’, which basically involves the chinsome octogenarian coming round your house and eating half of your ham.

I admit it, I’m talking rubbish again. He only eats about 40% of it then he gets full and wanders off to present Strictly, so the product is shit. I’m thinking of reporting them to Trading Standards actually.

Although, when you think about it, it does mean that if you keep using the product your ham will technically last forever, albeit in eternally diminishing quantity, because he’ll never take all of it. Hmm. I have some strange dreams. If indeed it was a dream.

Once, as a child I dreamed I was unhappy because I’d spent all my Christmas money on myrrh and didn’t know what to do. 



Chocolate, please
 

Anyway, I think I can safely ascribe my extraordinary mental state lately to a lack of chocolate. It’s now been over three weeks without, apart from a tiny one each day from my Advent Calendar, obviously, and it’s starting to take its toll.

For a start, I wish the calendar actually contained nice chocolate rather than manky Maltesers – and even then, just the chocolate without the crunchy, malty centre; you don’t even get the mini bag of Maltesers until Christmas Eve!

I had to change my dessert selection at my team’s Christmas Lunch from Yule Log (which looked really nice and rich) to the Christmas Pudding, which was far too light and cakey with a distinct shortage of fruit, nuts and alcohol as set-menu Christmas Puddings very often are.

A large box of Hotel Chocolat chocs – possibly the finest chocolates commercially available at the moment and certainly the most varied and interesting – arrived in the office and I couldn’t have any. Bah humbug! (Humbugs not containing any chocolate and hence permissible, of course)

And there was only one style of biscuit in the selection tin that didn’t have chocolate, and in normal circumstances it would have been my last choice. The plain Viennese sandwich – who chooses that for fucks sake?!?

When it was really cold last week I wasn’t even able to go to Paul and have their excellent hot chocolate – man, it’s been tough, I tells ya. Hopefully Bono will put out a charity single alerting people to plight of those who have voluntarily given up chocolate for Advent.

I even had to pass up the chance to drink a chocolate stout the other night - admittedly in the Market Porter where there were about a dozen other beers to choose from, but my hackles were already rankled by the preponderance of fairweather drinkers whose great numbers have rendered pubs horrendously crowded! Maybe landlords are using some kind of Forsyth-endorsed ‘Double your punters’ product?

OK, I’ll stop complaining now anyway. It’s been a good test of my willpower, and just about challenging enough to feel like an achievement. Go Me! And my wife!

There’s only a few days to go, and when we get back after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I’ll be up for an Augustus Gloop-style feast. 



A very chocolatey Christmas to all Ben Viveur readers too, I might add.

I’m determined to make my first Christmas as a married man as chocolatey as possible – after all, we deserve it, and if Brucie brings out a ‘Double your Yule Log’ product I’ll buy it. Twice.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Festive Beef Stew

You know Christmas is coming when supermarket starts playing 'A spaceman came travelling' while you're buying cloves.

With ten days to go now, it's coming right for us again like a snowballing reindeer and I'm starting to get that unnerving feeling that I haven't pulled my preparatory finger out as much as I should've. The ghost of Christmas Last Minute will be a guest at my table once more. Eek.


But apart from the panicked retail spree on Christmas Eve that I seldom seem capable of avoiding, I actually really enjoy the festive season - probably more so than the people who end up with the mediocre gifts I impulse-buy on December 24, anyway.


I enjoy the music, I enjoy the board games, I enjoy the not having to go to work (although I might very well end up with more of that than I'd like in 2012!). And I enjoy the food and drink, obviously. 


Maybe add some tinsel...
I probably said something very similar this time last year and if not I definitely thought it. 


Anyway, I had to do something with those cloves, so I've come up with a new recipe - a variation on my classic beef stew with a festive twist in the form of a mulled wine-style sauce.
 
I'll include the original version too, as this dish is good at any time during the winter, especially if you can get bargain packs of winter vegetables which tend to be very good value. 

My hunch (or indeed haunch) is that the festive variant would work equally well with venison or perhaps rabbit. Enjoy! 


Beef Stew / Festive Beef Stew

Ingredients - makes four portions. If you don't have all the vegetables it doesn't really matter!

Don't overcook too soon, mind!
Diced stewing beef, about two pounds
Onions, two or three quartered
Leek, one sliced
Carrots, a few sliced
Swede, one sliced
Celery, two sticks chopped
Chestnut Mushrooms, chopped bite-size
Tomatoes, three or four, quartered
Plain Flour
Garlic Salt
Celery Salt
Chilli Powder
Black Pepper
Cumin
Worcestershire Sauce
Olive Oil


FOR THE ORIGINAL VERSION ONLY:
Green Pepper,  one sliced
Dark Beer, about 2/3 pint
Maille Mustard, a generous spoonful
FOR THE FESTIVE VERSION ONLY:
Parsnips, two sliced
Red Wine, about half a bottle
Ground Ginger
Ground Cinnamon
Ground Nutmeg
Whole Cloves, about 6-8


Method

Peel/chop/slice your vegetables as required, and place them in a big casserole - make sure there's room left at the top for the beef.
Mix up the flour with the garlic salt, black pepper, cumin, chilli powder and celery salt (and if you're doing the festive version include cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger as well). Aim for a roughly 50/50 mix of flour and spice.

Dust your meat with the seasoned flour, and brown in a big pan with a little oil, but don't let it overcook. Take it off the heat and add to the pan the beer (or wine), Worcestershire sauce, mustard (or cloves), and maybe another pinch of all the required spices - but if you're doing the Christmas edition, be careful not to overdo the cloves as a little goes a long way in the cloven realm.

Pour the meat and sauce into the casserole, making sure there will be enough liquid to more or less cover the meat and vegetables - eg not quite up to the top because the liquid level will rise during cooking.

Put the lid on the pot and whack in the oven on a low heat (~100 degrees) for at least three hours, taking it out the oven to shuffle the ingredients around and make sure nothing is exposed and burning mid-way through. 
You can slow-cook the stew almost indefinitely, so it's a dish that can easily be prepared the day earlier and heated up before serving.
Serve piping hot with your choice of fresh bread, potato or rice, and enjoy!!!.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The delights of Leather Lane

Some people give up stuff for Lent. Alcohol… meat… wanking… whatever.

My Lenten facsting tactics usually involving giving up something but relapsing half-way through, thus showing myself to be a man of admirable intention but with no pretensions to divinity. To try nobly and fail with serenity is the human condition after all.

Either that or I’ll wait until Passiontide or thereabouts, figure out something I just happen to have failed to consume during Lent, and retrospectively decide to give that up, with the finishing line only being a matter of days away.

And that’s not cheating, it’s just being clever.

Anyway, it’s Advent, not Lent, but the wife and I have a little pact that during this year’s Advent season we shall eat no chocolate at all – apart from one chocolate per day from our chocolate Advent Calendars (which start on December 1 rather than Advent Sunday but then I suppose that would be too much to ask in today’s broken world…)

We're both partial to chocolatey goodness, especially after meals, so it’s been a bit of a challenge and we’re only a week in. Also I can use the fact that I did this as my fast for Lent 2012!


Yes. Yes, I can. Don't think I won't.
 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Strange Days

Well, it’s been a tough few weeks in the B-V household, one way or another - Family bereavements coupled with major shakeups at work immediately following the move to Holborn have made life feel a whole lot less stable and normal.

I can’t calculate which is lower – my level of job security or the number of relatives I have left. Both must be down to single digits by now.

Anyway, things haven't been easy, hence the lack of blogging recently, and in the kitchen this means I’ve retreated into my culinary comfort zone, rustling up old winter favourites like my famous Boston baked beans and a nice chilli, rather than trying to create new masterpieces. Which isn't to say that my beans and chilli aren't masterpieces in their own right, obviously.

And having said goodbye to Canary Wharf (and the sense of job security that seemed to go with it) I’ve been uncharacteristically slow to explore my new territory – possibly because it might not be mine to explore for very long!

OK, so my tongue has wandered a tad: There’s the Leather Lane burger van where the burgers taste strangely like kofte kebabs, a plethora of good pubs offering decent lunch menus (Venison and prune pie and Black Cab stout at the Melton Mowbray!), and a fair few independent sandwich and coffee shops, all of which are potentially good news for this blogpipe.

But despite my deliberately saying that I wouldn’t be buying all my lunches from the Sainsbury’s opposite the new office, I’ve been buying most of my lunches from the Sainsbury’s opposite the office. Ho hum.

Supermarket Sweep

It’s just been the sort of period where even the effort of thinking ‘what shall I try today?’ was often too much, and having lived and work in places dominated by Tescos for the last couple of years, it has to be said that Sainsbury’s £3 lunch deal absolutely pisses sloppy wet shit over Tesco’s £2.50 lunch deal.

For a start, you can choose any of their sandwiches (even premium ones like the BLT in a rustic torpedo, or the Ham hock and cheddar which cost more than three quid on their own) whereas at Tesco one is limited to a sandwich from the basic range. And Sainsbury's stuff is a notch up from Tesco's to begin with, frankly.

The crisp selection is about the same, but your drink options include proper fruit juices rather than manky concentrated versions, so for an extra 50p, you’re getting a way better experience than you would at Tesco.

I realise that this is bit mundane by my standards, but I'll assume forgiveness and try to do better in the future!

Ooh, colourful...
Curry and Fireworks

One rare moment of sanctuary in the last few weeks that I've been meaning to write about was our trip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden for Diwali.

I have to admit that I’d not properly been inside a Hindu temple since a disturbing experience as a young child, and things seem to have moved on since then.

I’m told it’s a bit different during the rest of the year, but Diwali here is run as an industro-commercial operation – much like almost every cathedral seems to be these days, with their donation boxes and gift shops and refectories.

The atmosphere in the surrounding area was very much like an evening football match - for London's Hindu population Diwali is still a very big deal, and it's hard to imagine anything remotely comparable in the Church of England!

You get to walk through the temple itself as if it’s a tourist attraction, but only a very few stopped to pray before the icons; the emphasis is not so much on anything obviously spiritual, but on the vast, crowded food tent and the equally massive firework display which was probably the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.

Back when I was a child, in those carefree days of long Summer holidays, actually liking cola cubes, and getting disturbed in Hindu temples, I loved fireworks and wanted to be a pyrotechnics designer when I grew up. 

Hungry Hungry Hindus
I still like fireworks, but not as much as I like food and so the real highlight for me was the veritable food festival, with stalls offering many and varied Indian delights - plus, slightly incongruously, pizza and chips, which seemed particularly popular!


The food was primarily from the Shayona restaurant and catering company which apparently is permanently based within the Temple complex. It's all vegetarian, but it's good.


The tent was jam-packed, and the lines for every stall were long and meandering, like an orgy of snakes. You'd join a queue with little idea of what you were going to get, and then eat it while standing in the next queue - but that was all part of the fun somehow.

We tried the Puna Kachori - little vegetable frittery things, all mixed up with vermicelli, yoghurt and tons of fresh coriander and chillis.

Chana+Puri=Awesome
And then there was the Channa and Puri stall - at the end of the longest, twistiest snake of all in the nest of queues - but well worth it.


The only real disappointment was the Jalebi, which I've never liked. It's basically sticky and super-sweet deep fried radioactive batter. We took one bite each, then gave our portion to a guy near the front of the queue, saving him several days. He thought he was actually queuing for the Dabeli rather than the Jalebi, but it didn't matter.


As deep religious experiences go, it's unlikely Diwali in Neasden will satisfy too many people, as it must surely be too commercial for the truly devoted and too lightweight to convert outsiders, but if you like eating and watching firework displays and don't mind crowds, it's a blast!
 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beer and Barbershop

Personal tragedy means that the past week or so has been a very difficult time in the B-V household, so don't expect a new blog post for a while.

If you need something to do this Friday evening (October 14) I'd just like to draw your attention to the Beer and Barbershop evening, taking place at the church of Saint Leonard, Streatham at 7:30 PM.

There will be food and ale, and expertly-intoned drinking songs from Barber's Hop - a very fine quartet of which I just happen to be a member.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Silver linings

My time working in Canary Wharf is fast drawing to a close. As of now I’m dividing my working hours between the familiar Wharven territory and our new Holborn Circus office, and during this period of transition my tastebuds will get to say goodbye to some old friends and make some new acquaintances.

It’s not all bad news – I’ve discovered there’s a Birley, a Paul and a Byron all within about half a mile of the new office, which is reassurance enough that I won’t have to resort to lunch from Sainsbury’s every day. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with Sainsbury’s.

But the immediacy and choice proffered by the Lady of the Wharf will be gone, and I might have to actually start planning where I’m going to get lunch from instead of descending a lift into a world of utter spoiled-for-choiceness.

One choice I would no longer have even if we stayed here is the top-floor food court at Cabot Place West. Comprising just a Burger King and Singapore Sam, about which I've previously blogged, it was one of the few places one could reliably find space to sit and eat ones lunch.

The entire floor has now become 'Pure Sports Medicine'. I don't know what that is, and I don't want to know. I suspect it doesn't taste any worse than BK or Singapore Sam though...


A taste of Italy


One thing I haven’t located in Holborn yet is a substitute for Zazà Gelato, which I’ve recently discovered here, perhaps later than I'd have liked.

The Italians tend to excel at real coffee and proper ice cream, and Zazà does both as well as anywhere I’ve found outside of Italy. They actually have three outlets on the Wharf but unfortunately none in the Holborn area, which is a crying shame.

Zazà - photo from canarywharf.com
As you’d expect, you can have espresso or cappuccino or latte, or whatever format of coffee you desire, and the ice cream - actually gelato, which technically is a subtly different beast – comes in a broad but not over the top range of flavours, built around the classics of vanilla, caramel, coffee and various varieties of nut.

And it's molto squisito. Trust me on this one.

You can have a giant cone with three different flavours if you insist, but the real Italian experience for me is the affogato al caffe – a scoop of gelato topped with an espresso shot.

The coffee stays hot, the gelato stays cold, and the whole combination is a treat in itself. Considering the quality, £3 isn’t bad value either.



They also do ice cream - sorry, gelato - in a croissant, which is a winning combination I thought I'd invented myself a few years ago.


A pint of beer


But one thing that neither Italians or Canary Wharf does very well is pubs and beer. Holborn to the rescue then!

The area around the new office is full of proper central London boozers, and after my inaugural trip to the new premises, I made my long-awaited first visit to the Craft Beer Co in Leather Lane - just a few minutes walk away.


I'd heard tremendously good things about this place - formerly the Clock House - and the range on the bar didn't disappoint, with a huge blessing of handpumps to choose from, as well as umpteen keg taps that focussed on imported American beers and British 'craft' rather than the usual mainstream crap.

As an aside, it's interesting that this place uses the term 'craft' without discrimination, unlike those who would have it refer exclusively to beers that aren't real ale, which is a nonsense.

I only had time for a couple of quick pints, and went for Mallinson's Om Nom - a golden ale with loads of Citra hops - and the Revolutions brewery's Severin Dark (mild) because I'd been keen to try this Yorkshire cuckoo brewery's products since they set up last year but hadn't had an opportunity to do so yet.

Also in evidence were some tried and tasted Dark Star beers, and plenty more from Revolutions, plus God-knows-what-else, and a couple of house beers brewed locally by Camden Town. With homemade pork pies and scotch eggs available too, albeit expensive ones, it's looking like a pub made in Heaven. Get the fuck in.

I can see myself spending a lot more time here in the coming weeks and months AND the walk down Leather Lane between pub and office is full of strange eateries that are just crying out to be sampled...


On The Wharf...

Zaza Gelato
Lower level, Cabot Place East,
Canary Wharf
E14 4QS

Kisok 3, Canada Place,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5AH

Jubilee Place,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5NY
  
*********


Not On The Wharf...

Craft Beer Co
82 Leather Lane
Clerkenwell,
EC1N 7TR
*********

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Appointment with disappointment

It’s an interesting feature of the human condition that we judge a lot of stuff not by how good or bad it is, but by how good or bad it is relative to our expectations of how good or bad it will be.

I went to see Final Destination V this week, fully prejudiced-up with broad expectations based on the preceding four films and a sense of ‘they’ll probably be running out of ideas now’.

I laughed a bit, cringed a bit, and it delivers all the gory set-pieces one expected, and delivered them well, but there’s also a delicious twist at the end which I didn’t see coming, and the 3D effects are, it has to be said, the most inventive and spectacular I’ve ever seen, being a bit of a 3D-sceptic until now.

That’s an example of something that is decent enough in itself, but which seems better because it exceeded modest expectations.

Today I went to Starbucks for the first time in months and discovered that I had over £25 on my Starbucks card. Woohoo. That's about 11 large Hazelnut Americanos with free extra shots. Indifferent because it's Starbucks, yes, but splendid in it's freeness. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wine Whine

We take it for granted that it’s pretty easy to buy decent wine these days – certainly compared to the experiences of previous generations.

Armed with a little knowledge and a little money, we can walk into a supermarket or off-license, make relatively well informed decisions and take advantage of the considerable choice available.

Fruity, new-world Merlot in the £6-8 range? You got it. Crisp, dry Chablis to go with that smoked salmon you’re serving as a starter tomorrow? On the bottom shelf – take your pick from these.

What’s probably harder for us these days than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago is buying bad wine. Cheap wine. Wine that your might, perhaps, not want to drink.

‘B-but you are a chap of exceptional taste and discernment’, I can hear the voices saying, ‘Why ever would you want to buy bad wine?’

Fairly obviously, for cooking with. I'll explain why. And buying good bad wine, or rather, buying the right bad wine is trickier than you might think.

Of course, you can use good wine to cook, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing so. If you’ve got a big Claret or Burgundy to drink with a joint of beef, I’d fully expect you to add a generous splash to the meat juices to make your gravy.

But if you’re cooking beef for eight hungry people and the quantity of wine required to make the gravy starts to exceed half a bottle or so, you have to question whether you want to waste expensive wine in the kitchen when you could be drinking it at the table.

I use wine in cooking a lot. Pasta sauces, risotto, casseroles, pot roasts. And after a few years of experimenting I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just foolhardy to use anything other than the cheapest suitable plonk you can get your hands on. Suitable being the operative word, mind.

In France, they get this. In the Hypermarkets there are little sections for wines that have the right characteristics for cooking but which you wouldn't really want to drink. They often come in square, ribbed plastic bottles. But in England it's a challenge, almost as if people don't want to admit that cheap wine has a use other than as sustenance for tramps.


It's all good

Taste the difference?
I’m the first person to defend wine ‘snobs’ from lazy philistine criticism, but outside the glass, the rules are different and the quality of wine becomes singularly unimportant.

Hell, I’m the kind of person that fusses about the quality of butter or olive oil I use, but the cooking pot is a mighty Dionysian leveller and will barely respect a Château Lafite Rothschild better than a Tesco’s own-brand Rioja.

There are some who say you shouldn't cook with a wine you wouldn't be happy to drink. And they can fuck right off.  Do they really think they can tell the difference when it's mingling on the stove with garlic, onions and Worcestershire sauce?
I challenge the wine buffs to prove me wrong on this one: Once the wine is absorbed into a sauce, you’ll probably be able to tell if it’s red or white and possibly, just possibly, guess at a grape variety, depending on sweetness, fruitiness, peppery-ness and so on.

But that’s it.

I don’t believe even the most knowledgeable expert would be reliably capable of identifying the region or vintage once the wine is in my pancetta risotto or chicken chasseur – and even I'm wrong, theirs are not the palettes for which I’m cooking on a regular basis.

So, having established that it’s not really worth wasting your drinking wine or paying over the odds for something to cook with, we face the conundrum in the supermarket – that dirt-cheap cooking wine to serve your purpose is actually pretty hard to find, at least at a price significantly lower than wine which is better. (Fairly obviously if a bad wine is the same price as a reasonable wine, you buy the reasonable wine because it gives you additional options viz what to with it!)

The problem is that it’s not just as simple ‘buy any cheap wine’ because most of the cheap ‘wines’ you’ll find on the shelves are aimed not at savvy chefs but at cheap drinkers, and are sweet, weak and sparkling, which makes them unsuitable for most culinary purposes, except possibly some kind of syllabub.

And yet, there are demonstrably acceptable cooking wines available at very low prices (e.g. £2.99 or less) – they just don’t seem to be widely promoted. ‘Acceptable’ will usually mean either a cheap Chardonnay, which is fine for your cheesy and fishy dishes where the acidity will temper the oils, and rough Spanish red which will do for almost everything else.
  
Be prepared to search high and low for them though. And unless you’re doing the chicken chasseur thing - which can easily require a whole bottle - you’ll probably want to make sure any cooking wine you buy is screw-top rather than corked, which limits the choices further.

(Oh, and if you ever plan to explore the world of wine enemas, you'll want the dry white. Don't ask me how I know, just trust me on this one!)

If you’ve been using drinking-quality wines for cooking, just try my advice for yourself, and if you don’t like it, you can go back to using champagne for blanching cauliflower, or whatever it is you do.

With the money you save, you’ll be able to buy better wine for actually drinking, or invest in other better quality for cooking in areas where you will notice the difference (like buying those long, pointy red peppers rather than the stubby ones),

Or you could even buy me a little present. Like a cheap Spanish red...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ladywell Lunch

I picked up the aroma literally seconds after I stepped off the train.

My father had told me when I was young that the best way of locating a good fish and chip shop was to follow your nose, and it's generally proved to be sound advice.

It was by complete accident that I found myself in Ladywell at lunchtime anyway - I was just returning from a meeting in Croydon in the morning and the train didn't stop where I wanted it to. Ladywell is a hotbed of inconvenience like that. Last time I was there it was only because they terminated a bus early. Bastards.

And workday lunchtime is hardly the standard window for eating fish and chips, is it? Indeed I can't actually remember ever having done so previously, preferring my battered haddock on a day out to the seaside, or late in the evening after a few pints  - not that many proper chippies stay open after closing time these days.

But I was hungry and it smelt good, so the Village Fish Bar for lunch it was.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Chicken in Kiev

One of the reasons I've not blogged recently - in addition to my unadulterated laziness, obviously - is that we've been off to Eastern Europe once again - this time to Ukraine.

If you're into ghost towns and urban exploration the reason for visiting this part of the former USSR is fairly obvious - to see the remains of Chernobyl and Pripyat inside the Exclusion Zone.

While the Ukranian government officially don't allow tourism, meaning that any excursions there are spuriously designated as scientific or ecological visits, it's a hotbet of urbex tourism, and not hard to see why - as ghost towns go, Pripyat is unprecedentedly spectacular.

 Not pleasant
The same can't be said of the food there - the only place for visitors to dine within the 19 mile exclusion zone is the cleanup site workers canteen, which has the look and feel of a prison or hospital eatery. And the charm.

The four course lunch provided - there was no choice in the matter - was substantial but fucking horrible, consisting of an indifferent, watery borscht, a squishy smoked ham salad, a disgusting fried chicken fillet with gloopy mash, and a dried fruit fritter made with potato flour and served with sour cream. Ugh.

I didn't worry all that much about the possibility of the food being radioactive because I hardly ate any of it.

The tourist office had said that we might want to take a packed lunch - despite lunch being provided. I now understand why!


The Real Deal


Fortunately, the food in Kiev, where we were staying, is rather more edible. 
 
The city even boasts three brewpubs, though the beer is decidedly lacking in variety, and consists universally of a range of lagers ranging from pale-and-tasteless to brown-and-over-malty, with the occasional wheat beer thrown in.

I was expecting more garlic
It was in one such brewpub, the Arena Beer House - modelled on American style bars with exposed brewing equipment and multiple  screens broadcasting sports - that Mrs B-V got to sample a genuine Chicken Kiev. Or Kyiv. Or Київ.

The fact that words can be written in any one of three ways - Westernised, Ukranian spelling / International alphabet, and Ukrainian spelling / Cyrillic alphabet - makes it incredibly hard to navigate ones way around the city, by the way, as maps and street signs all use different renditions.

Anyway, the Chicken Howeveryouspellit seems to be a dish primarily aimed at tourists who think themselves experimental but aren't, as, it has to be said, the filling was rather bland and probably less garlicy than you'd find in a Tesco's Finest Chicken Kiev.

I'd gone for the Pork neck shashlick, which bore only a passing visual resemblance to the shashlicks found in Indian restaurants, but was no less tasty. The barbecued meat was smoky, tender and full of flavour, having clearly been marinated for a very long time. 

It came up with fresh hummous, a chilli sauce, flatbread, salad and garlic and rosemary fries, and was damn good. A lot like the pork souvlaki one finds in Greece, and thoroughly recommended, should you ever go to the Arena beer house.

Shisha pipes are also surprisingly popular in the City and seem to be available in several bars, so we rounded off our meal with a tasty pipe of watermelon tobacco.


Where and What Else?


One place where we did manage to eat something deeply garlicy was the Shato brewery where you can pick from a special beer snacks menu while you drink your pale-and-tasteless or brown-and-overly-malty lager.

Ear ear
Like many former Soviet countries, deep fried black bread with smushed garlic is a speciality and this time they haven't dumbed it down for the tourists.
Crispy pigs ears were also on the menu, but were a disappointment compared to those I'd tried in Tallinn a few years ago. However, the 'peasant sausages' proved to be an agreeable blend of offal and herbs, and the fried cheese would go well with almost any beer.

You'll probably want to drink some vodka - known locally as Horilka - when you visit this part of the world - if possible go for a small obscure local producer, or homemade if you can find it. As well as being cheaper than the big name brands, these have a fresh, creamy flavour and grainy aroma and make for far better neat-drinking than the mainstream vareties that taste only of alcohol.

On the street you will find people dispensing 'Krak' an almost non-alcoholic beery drink made from bread. With it's low carbonation and frothy head, it has the look of a pint of real English bitter, with a sour edge, offset by artifical sweetening. Strange, but not unpleasant.

Oh, and right by the Mussorgsky-inspiring 'Golden gate' - which is neither golden nor a gate - there's an Italian restaurant that does an absolutely killer Osso Bucco with Parmesan mash.

Don't expect the good food in central Kiev to be cheap. While Ukraine is fairly poor, and prices in shops and from the street kiosks are low (40-50p for a half-litre bottle of water or beer) it's clear that bars and restaurants are only affordable to the wealthy elite, and prices are almost comparable with London at current exchange rates.

Tables in restaurants stand empty, while outside it's one of the most crowded cities (and certainly the most congested metro system) I've visited.

Is it worth a visit? Well, I like ticking off countries and am fascinated by ghost towns, so it was a no-brainer. The food and drink is hit and miss, but it's interesting and varied and you get to tell your friends you've been to Chernobyl!

Just remember to listen to the guy at the tourist office when he suggests taking a packed lunch!

Friday, August 19, 2011

A week in the life of a Birley king


One of the things I’ll miss most about Canary Wharf when we leave will be Birley's.

In an area where hungry bankers and regulators are decadently spoilt for lunchtime choice Birley still stands out like a bready, meaty beacon in an uber-competitive field of lunch.

Unless you obsess about these sorts of things in the way that I do, you may not be aware that there are actually five, no, six Birley outlets on the Wharf, all with different specialities? That’s one for every day of the week – if you fudge the maths, which we will, obviously - and whereas going to the same place for lunch everyday would normally turn out to be rather tiresome, I always felt that Birley’s range is so diverse that one could quite happily go there every day and not feel cheated at all.

So guess who’s spent this week going to a different Birley shop every day?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who hates all the pies?

It's strange. By my reckoning I've only been to Manchester about four times in my life, and then generally only fleetingly. 

I'd never before had to spend a night in the city centre - until Tuesday this week, which just so happened to be the evening the riots kicked off there. What are the chances of that?!?

Mrs B-V and I had been watching Coventry City losing pathetically to Bury and were hoping to head back to Manchester city centre on the Metrolink to drown our sorrows, but the police in their infinite wisdom had decided to close the system down. 

Great.

Well done, chaps - while you're advising everyone to stay indoors, you close down transport systems so people who are already out and about can't get back to where they are staying?!? Really sensible, that. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

London's Burning (but dinner's OK)

Last week's beery adventures at the GBBF became hard work after a while, but it will go down as one of the greatest beer festivals of all time - I just needed a weekend to recover and take it easy on the alcohol front.

Well you would too if you'd spend four successive days relentlessly downing pint after pint, especially big Transatlantic fuckers like Clipper City Big DIPA (10%) and Amnesia Wonka Porter (?%).

But now it's back to normal - although a 'normal' where rioters are mindlessly setting fire to the capital so they can steal trainers - and I have to start cooking my own food rather than just picking up a tub of olives or a 20 inch bratwurst or a pork and stilton pie when I feel like it. 

Your starter for ten. Minutes.
The other day somebody pointed out that I rarely do recipes for starters, so to shut them the fuck up, here's a starter. Nah nah na-nah nah. You're wrong, WRONG I say. Go and loot Bejams or something, Sonny Jim. And relax...


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

GBBF 2011 - the BV Review

Little tip to everyone with murderous intent who has been offended by my controversial brand of journalism over the years - if you're looking for an opportunity to bump me off, this is the week when my movements will be utterly predictable.
 
The most exciting few days in the beer calendar are finally upon us, and I'll be spending every day at the GBBF. And if you like beer and are anywhere near London between now and Saturday, so should you!

Outside...
Last night's first night began with the Champion Beer of Britain announcement, which coincided with the beautiful feeling of putting my 'out of office' on and hitting the road - and by 'road' I mean 'Jubilee and District lines', obviously.

I won't be partaking of the overall winner, Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde Mild at the festival, simply because I've had it many times before and it was a staple of mine when living in East Anglia, but it's an interesting choice, and the award probably inspired me to incorporate some mild into my opening night's drinking.


It begins


With thirsty enthusiasm coarsing through my veins, I grabbed a pint from the bar nearest the entrance, recognising Rudgate Jorvik Blonde as a beer I'd seen at festivals previously but not got around to trying.

A low strength but fruity pale bitter seemed instinctively to be the best thing for quenching ones thirst and attaining instant refreshment, and I wasn't disappointed. An eminantly quaffable starter for ten, and I began to wander around the festival, 'casing the joint' as it were. (People planning to kill me - you'll need to do this too, so pay attention!) 

Inside!
Having been sceptical when the event moved from Olympia to Earl's Court, I have to admit that the new venue has grown on me, and it's sad to think that this will be the last GBBF here before the vast hall in all its concretey glory is demolished. I've got used to the layout, and will miss it not being like this.


I like the interesting, triangley shape of the venue too - a little like a Ram's Head (which would have been useful free advertising for Youngs before they pretty much abandoned the Ram motif) or perhaps even a taperingly thick cock and balls.

I went to one of the bars in the 'left testicle' to get my next pint, and successfully concluded some unfinished business.

At last year's GBBF I was drinking silver award winner, Amber Chocolate Orange Stout and very tasty it was too. Like a chocolate orange in a glass of beer.

Trouble is, I spilled my pint half-way through, and when I went back to the bar to get another half, they had sold out. Arggh.

Chocolate Orange Stout

I should explain at this point that for a beer to count, I feel I need to drink at least one pint, or whatever the largest available measure is, so without the rest of my drink, I couldn't count it as a tick. I'd been waiting a full year to enjoy the chocolatey, orangey goodness again and finally be able to say I've had full measure.

Yeah, I know. I'm a sad, anal twat who gets hung up on self-imposed rules'n'shit. The beer is delicious though.

As a 'ticker', the event for me is largely about drinking as many new beers as I possibly can, so I hit the CAMRA member's lounge to enjoy the stout and check the festival programme against my records to identify beers I fancied and make sure I hadn't had them before. A Tweet from Fuller's brewery gave me some food for thought too.

I tried Sadler's 'The Spig' which is another tasty and easy-drinking blonde ale, and grabbed some of the legendary pork scratchings from the crusty pie company - surely the best-tasting and most natural pig fat snacks in the world (and their pies are damn good too).

My fourth beer was a bit special, not least because it's extremely rare and very strong. As the tweet explained, Fuller's 'Brewer's Reserve No. 3 - Whisky cask' was only available for a limited period of an hour or so, and was only sold in third-of-a-pint measures, which means I only had to drink a third to count it, but I'd have happily drunk more - the whisky notes were incredible.


Food


One of my plans this year was also to check out as much of the huge range of food as I possibly could, and the seafood stall intrigued me, offering a range of cockles, mussels, prawns, squid etc. with seafood sauce - the kind of stuff that you used to get from a van outside pubs but now hardly ever see, except by the seaside.

I had a little snack-sized tub of the mixed seafood cocktail and it brought back memories of eating seafood and drinking beer in old Leigh on Sea. Obviously, it had to be a dark beer to accompany this, and White Dog 'Born to be Mild' didn't disappoint. 

Interestingly though, the White Dog brewery is actually in Italy, and is the only Italian brewery that regularly produces real ales - another rarity on the tick list. Roasty and strong (for a mild) it drank more like a stout, which made it a natural bedfellow for the seafood.

Brewdog might have lost their brewery stand, but nobody would have noticed - and one of the more intriguing brewery stands was for 'William Worthington' - the Worthington's brand that was run into the ground by Bass during the 90s and 00s but which seems to be set for a revival under the Coors group who have brought Worthington home to Burton on Trent, using the old Bass Museum brewery. 

Some of the beers on the stand haven't existed for many years - Worthington 'E', famous in the 1960s, and a cask version of the famous bottled 'White Shield'. I'll be trying these later in the week, but I went for the Mild, last available regularly in cask form in the 70s I believe.   

It certainly isn't as tasty and complex as the Italian take on the style, or indeed Dark Star's excellent Victorian Ruby Mild (6%) which I had in Wetherspoons the other day, but as a snapshot of the kind of milds our fathers and grandfathers might have drunk in the middle of the last century, it's a classic example.

Wanting something more substantial to eat, I tried the intriguing 'Beef and Scrumpy' pastie from 'Proper Cornish Pasties' and, unlike most of the food and drink at the festival, it was, it has to be said, pretty awful.

Beef and Cider DOES NOT WORK. I've yet to try a single dish in which those flavours have successfully gone together. Beef and Ale, yes. Pork and Cider, yes. But beef just doesn't complement cider any more than it complements white wine.

So I left half my pasty, and though I quite felt like another beer or two, I decided to call it quits and pace myself, knowing that there is a whole week of drinking ahead of me.

That was last night, I'm now off to begin a second day of drinking. and realising that I didn't get around to trying a single American beer last night, I think I know which bar I'll be mostly hanging around today.

So, snipers, come to Earls Court and take your pop shots at me. Just wait until the end of the week so I can down a few more beers, OK? 


The Great British Beer Festival runs until Saturday


Where to find it...

Earls Court Exhibition Centre, 
SW5 9TA
*********


Friday, July 22, 2011

Who kept the Dogs out?

I'm still counting the days to the GBBF, and there aren't too many of them remaining now, though judging by the overblown reaction from some to the news that Brewdog won't be there, I'm starting to wonder if I'll have Earl's Court all to myself!


It goes like this: Brewdog, provocatively book bar space at the festival, then get involved in an argument whether the beer they'll be supplying is real or keg, and whether their keg beer can actually technically qualify as real ale anyway. They withhold payment and continue arguing right up until the deadline for getting the floorplan printed, then suddenly stop arguing and pay up - just after the final deadline passes. Possibly deliberately so they can whinge about CAMRA.

There has been some thoughtful analysis and calls for common sense in the beery blogosphere this week, not to mention a tranche of ridiculous 'outrage' from the Brewdog fanboys who can't see beyond the hype.

Will they be missed?
'I was only going to go to the GBBF because of Brewdog. I shan't go now, and I'll tear up my CAMRA membership card for good measure!!!' 

Hmm, right.

If those expressing these views are actual people, as opposed to Brewdog's PR stooges, I don't think they'll be any great loss to either the festival or CAMRA anyway. I mean, who goes to the biggest beer festival in the world just to drink the products of one brewery?!?

Maybe they're afraid of the truth - after all, the ridiculous inference that only Brewdog make good beer and all the real ale in the country is bland and boring would be immediately disproven after about five minutes at the GBBF. 




Storm in a pint glass


With hundreds of beers available, in all manner of styles, including over 100 American real ales with some uncompromising hop monsters amongst them, Brewdog would struggle to really stand out on the merits of their beer alone. Yes, there are a ton of other folks making good beer, and doing so without making a fuss about it too. Good beer was good for years before Mssrs Watt and Dickie came along.
 
The big hoo-hah over how their beers are dispensed is of their making. We all know they're capable of brewing excellent cask beers, so to book space at the biggest real ale festival in the world, and then boast proudly on their website that they'll be selling their keg beers there (whilst, at the same time, telling the organisers that the beers will actually meet the definition of 'real ale') is an act purely designed to draw attention to themselves and ridicule CAMRA - much like most things that Brewdog do, really.

Brewdog keg beers are among the best beers to be kegged, and indeed blur the boundary between real ale and old-style filtered, pasteurised keg, but they have a very duplicitous strategy of promoting this kind of dispense as two different things, depending on who they're attempting to win over. 


Any kind of association with CAMRA seems to be anathaema to their marketing strategy, but the London scene is clearly important to them - if they're going to use a beer festival to draw attention to themselves, they might as well do so in the capital, I guess. 

But there is a risk that this simply drives them further down the path of wrongheadedness and eventually they might stop brewing real ale altogether. Which would be a loss.

Brewdog Camden is set to open this Summer and Meantime (like Brewdog, a small brewery that focus generally on keg) are to begin contract-brewing Brewdog beers in Greenwich for their London outlets. The Camden bar will be their first tied house outside Scotland, not that they use terms like ‘tied house’ – and unless they depart radically from the formula of their bars in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, it will be keg-only. Worrying.

The alliance with Meantime is unsurprising, and as well as opening up most profitable distribution channels in the capital, it begins to make a case for ‘craft keg’ being a legitimate movement in this country rather than simply the maverick actions of one brewery. Add in Zero Degrees who have always been 99% keg and Thornbridge, who are doing more and more keg, and they’ve got a bit of momentum.


But it won't carry 'craft keg' into Earls Court, at least not this year. They didn't pay up, and they're not going to be there. As publicity stunts go, this is pretty unimaginative thus far, although we have yet to see if they'll do anything while the actual festival is running.

It’s not inconceivable that once they've milked the publicity from 'getting cancelled', they'll host a competing ‘alternative’ festival somewhere nearby - as they’ve recently done when boycotting Scottish CAMRA festivals.

I wondered if maybe they'd set up their bar, serving only keg beer and use the event to get involved in a fracas with the organisers, or they could have set up but served no beer at all ‘because CAMRA won’t let us serve it they way we want to’, then given out fliers with vouchers for free beer at the Brewdog Camden bar on condition that customers left the festival immediately.

One truly outrageous option would have been for them to get back to doing what they do best and use their GBBF bar to showcase their beers in cask form so everybody can enjoy them... clearly that's way too much to have hoped for though.

Publicity stunts aside, there is a clear division of opinion between those who see the emergence of the likes of Brewdog and Meantime – decent brewers but with a notable dispassion for real ale as we know it – as a threat to be campaigned against or as a wake-up call for CAMRA to redefine itself.

James Watt never did take me up on my invitation, and I'm sure he has bigger fish to fry. And, frankly, I have bigger beer to drink.

Brewdog are good, but they're not Gods, and they are reliant on publicity stunts and arguments based around logically fallacious juxtapositions.

If there was a cask Brewdog beer that I hadn't tried before at the GBBF I'd probably have had a pint. As it is, I'll have an extra pint from a fantastic American brewery instead.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

  • Greggs' Helen didn't win The Apprentice and can go back to being a PA to a rubbish pie magnate
  • The food at the Lambeth Country Show set new standards for International eclecticness, and
  • The beer list for the American cask ale bar at GBBF has been released and it's fucking awesome. And only two weeks away.  
The GBBF is my favourite event of the beer year, and there will of course be a live(ish) Ben Viveur report comin' atcha from Earl's Court on the opening night, if I'm still standing after drinking 'Palate Wrecker Double IPA' (9.5% ABV!) or 'Brewmaster Flash and the Furious Five Hops' (at a mere 8% a drink suitable only for girls and gays).

Can't. Fucking. Wait.

Mind you, if I'd known the food this weekend at the Country Show was going to be so tasty and interesting, I'd have planned a live blogcast from there too.

Importantly, there's cider!
It just didn't occur to me before the event - walking around a muddy field in the driving rain isn't much fun, and I have to admit that dub music and Socialist Worker tombola stalls don't generally do a whole lot for me either, even if there is plenty of cider to drink.

But if you're hungry for tastes from around the world (or, let's be honest, if you're just hungry) it's a brilliant place to be. 

Eat your way around the world

It was at the Country Show, as a child - years before there were Japanese restaurants in South London, that I first began my love affair with tempura. The crunch, the explosion of flavours, the way the batter softens with the splash of soy sauce... if there's a better way to cook simple vegetables I've yet to taste it.

As usual there was a Japanese foodstall this year doing a very fine version - the batter light and crispy, the onion and courgette and aubergine and carrot a perfect marriage. 

Talking of perfect marriages, despite my Mrs B-V having been born in Guyana, I'd never actually tried Guyanese food until yesterday. As one might possibly expect, given the history and geography of the place, it's a fusion of Asian and Caribbean flavours, but exactly what such a concept would taste like was unclear until I tried it. 

And it was, without doubt, the finest chana and roti dish I've ever tried. Honestly. If my wife came from a country where the food was fucking shit, I'd tell her it was fucking shit, but this amazed me as the traditional currying spices were complimented beautifully by molasses and tamarind, giving the dish a sweetish, barbecue-saucey note.

At the Trinidad & Tobago food place (yes, there was one of them too) I got to try the Trinibagan take on the same dish which was nowhere near as good, but then came a Portugese Hog Roast - an interesting twist on the festival classic, with an aromatic fennel and apple seasoning. And cider, of course.

There were, of course, a million nationalities of food we didn't get to try (including Ghanaian, Eritrean, and plenty of different Jamaicans alongside the usual Indian, Chinese, sausages, traditional hog roasts etc.) but were just too full.

I just hope that some of these guys take their wares to GBBF because I'll be needing plenty of food to soak up all the beer I'm planning to drink there.