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, 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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I'm Fired?

Well, I didn't go along this morning to my interview with Sir Alan - or more likely some fresh-faced Broadcast Assistant, or whatever the BBC calls their junior staff these days - and I don't feel too bad about it.

It became clear a couple of days ago that I really wouldn't be able to muster the energy or inclination to fill out a second, longer application, update my CV, get my hair cut, purchase a new suit, trim my beard, and get up early in the morning just for the privilege of standing around in a studio with an imperial tonne of wannabe executive salescunts, so I spent yesterday evening relaxing and cooking Gnocchi and Pancetta-stuffed peppers rather than frantically preparing for inevitable disappointment. Good decision.

I'm 'leaving the process' earlier than most, I know, and I won't have the honour of being humiliated on TV by the terrier-like Amstrad peer, but will the winning candidate know how to cook this dish? Will they fuck.

It's a tasty little candidate with an impressive resume of ingredients, optimised for today's appetites. The rich tomatoey sauce is a USP that achieves cut-through with key demographics... OK, I'll stop talking twat. Here's the recipe:

Gnocchi and Pancetta-stuffed peppers

Ingredients - per pepper (two with sauce is an ample main course)

A whole pepper, any colour you choose
You're Fried! (The gnocchi, that is)
Pancetta cubes, a handful
Fresh Gnocchi, a handful
Black Pepper
Butter
Grated Fresh Parmesan

(for the tomato sauce)

A tomato, finely chopped
Onion, 1/2 a small one, finely chopped
Garlic, finely chopped
Capers, a few
Mushroom Ketchup, a splash
Black Pepper
Basil
Oregano
Paprika
Red wine
Olive oil


Method


First thing we're gonna do is make the sauce, so heat the oil in a sautee pan, and fry your onion and garlic until they soften, then add in all your other ingredients, cover, and leave to simmer on a low heat. If gets too dry, add more wine.
Once the sauce has had at least half an hour, ideally 45 minutes, you can cut the tops off your peppers, remove the seeds and whack them in an oven at about 150 degrees for 20 minutes or so.


While the sauce and the peppers are coming along nicely, it's time to fry your pancetta cubes in good quality butter until they are pinky-white throughout. Add more butter and throw the gnocchi in. Gnocchi does NOT need to be boiled in water. Frying it in butter gives you a lovely fluffy consistency and it will absorb the pancetta juices too.


Keep stirring the gnocchi around throughout, and once it starts to fluff up, turn the heat off and add a little black pepper and a good sprinkling of fresh Parmesan to the pan. Toss it all around so the Parmesan melts and sticks to the gnocchi, making it all cheesy and gooey.

All that's left to do now is take the peppers out of the oven, fill them with the gnocchi and pancetta, sprinkle a little more parmesan on top, then return them to the oven for exactly 4 minutes, 33 seconds. You can listen to the John Cage piece to ensure you get the timing exactly right.

We're now ready to plate up, so whack a couple of peppers on the plate and serve the rich tomatoey sauce in a generous puddle by the side.


Enjoy!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lord Sugar rush

There’s something about the pressures of impending deadlines that causes a rush of blood to ones head.

The deadline for applications for the next series of The Apprentice was midnight on Sunday, and so of course, late on Sunday evening the sense of ‘window of opportunity closing’ become unbearable, and Mrs B-V and I both filled in our application forms online in the nick of time a la Indiana Jones.

Much to our amazement, we've both made it to the initial interview stage too. I’ve no idea how many candidates make the shortlist, but we’ve been invited to don suits and show up at some TV studio for three hours next week… and it’s already sounding less appealing.

Thing is, I watch the show, but I do so from the ‘what complete tossers!?!’ perspective. While I’d quite enjoy the opportunity to lend the process a personality that’s a little different to the clones that usually turn out for these things, I’ve been asking myself:

Do I really want to be stuck in a house with a bunch of duplicitous, manipulative backstabbing desperados for eight weeks?

The height of new technology...
Do I really want to be awakened at ridiculous’o’clock in the morning and be forced to wear a suit all day while people use terms like ‘target market’ and ‘bottom line’?

Do I really want to start a new business, in partnership with the man who thought the Amstrad Emailer Plus was a viable technology product, who was pretty much saved from ruin by the extremely fortuitous digibox contract with Sky TV right before they took off, and who has given money to both Tottenham Hotspur and the Labour Party?!?.

Yes, I’m sure I’d be a ‘character’ on the show, and in the unlikely event that I won, I could cobble together some kind of food/drink-oriented business model - possibly a microbrewery for schoolchildren, or some kind of Risotto consultancy, but my passion would to create damn good, tasty stuff no matter what, and that would be a sticking point I’m sure.

Sir Alan, or whatever we’re meant to call him these days, would no doubt insist on all manner of business process, marketing wank, profit margineering and sales tossership that would kill anything inspirationally delicious that I could bring to the business.

The Enemy Without

Current favourite for this series, Helen Milligan works in the ‘food industry’ – what a ghastly term – as an Executive Assistant to a very important Chief Exec, but she’s been notably quiet about the exact identity of the company she works for - probably because it's Greggs.

The same Greggs who have flooded our high streets with the most horrible, unhealthy, margariney pastry products imaginable. The same Greggs who took over and shut down the Bakers Oven chain and replaced them with more Greggs.

Cheap and nasty barely begins to describe them and, by extension, arguably, their people.

I hate the Greggs chain and everything they stand for, for the same reasons I hate InBev and Cadburys and Coca-Cola – it’s all about the business of exploiting stupid people with no taste, with complete disregard for genuine quality.

And I don't rate Greggs Helen all that highly anyway, even if Sir Alan does.

So, I might show up on Tuesday, and I might not. It’ll largely depend on how much effort it will require, and effort is far better spent on achieving a silky consistency in one's roux than in filling out forms and buying new clothes.

If I do get past the next stage, the researchers will read this blog and I’ll be instantly ruled out for online impudence towards Lord Sugar anyway.

Friday, July 1, 2011

‘On the Wharf’ no more

Leaving New York wasn’t easy for REM, and Sheryl crow was indifferent to leaving Las Vegas. Now it’s my turn to muse on an imminent departure. And beer. And pubs named after Prime Ministers. Oh, and hotdogs. 'Gourmet' hotdogs. Hmm...

I can’t pretend I’m ecstatic about the fact that I’ll be leaving Canary Wharf in October when the organisation for whom I work relocates to Holborn. 

Longer, more expensive, more crowded commutes unarguably suck, and the move will have significant ramifications for this little blog. It still feels like I’ve barely licked the outer crust of the myriad food outlets around this place, and I’m always finding new places to eat.

Like the Gourmet Hotdog Company stand that just opened up. Of which more, presently.

At least the after-work drinking opportunities will be better in Holborn. I'll need beer to fortify myself for a long journey home surrounded by suited cocks... and interchanging at Bank. Ugh.