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!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Baltic Birthday

Nobody likes getting old much, do they?

I spoke to a 101-year-old recently whose refreshing and darkly candid take on her longevity was 'I hate being old. All my friends are dead!'

I've a comparatively long way to go, not that I'm likely to make it that far, but I did 'celebrate' my 35th last week, and to add insult to injury, I was accosted by not one but two market research people the very next day, and had to select, for the first time, the '35-44' box in which I shall be stuck for the next decade!

I'm now officially part of the target audience for Radio 2, The Spectator and Guy Clapperton's LifeOver35 blog, although in preperation I've been reading the latter for a few months, the Speccie for several years, and I actually like to think I've outgrown the Light Programme!

In recent months I've been acquiring new ailments left, right and centre, and a spell of extended stress at work (it would be less depressing working at a children's hospice) is taking its toll on my blood pressure. 

All I need now to trigger the textbook midlife crisis is a bad marriage - though, fortunately, I'm very happy being married to Mrs B-V who surprised me with a unique birthday present in the form of a trip to Latvia!


Chronophobia aside, the big day itself was quite enjoyable, with several beers at the Craft Beer Company to numb the pain, some of which were very good indeed. Highlights included Summer Wine Diablo, 6% and bursting with Citra hops, and a Black IPA from Arbor, though the 7.5% Breakfast Stout from the same brewery was a long and sickly struggle from the first sip to the bottom of the glass.

Birthday beer

Fortunately our flight to Riga the following day wasn't until late afternoon, so I didn't pay too heavy a price for overindulgence in strong ale. My system probably needed to stock up too, as Latvia isn't known for it's beer. Or, indeed, anything much.

Firstly, a few recommendations for anybody thinking of visiting Riga:

1. You can realistically 'do' Riga in a single day, so it's probably a bad idea to book a stay of more than two nights. We had two nights and were getting bored.

Being 35+ I'm never happier than when sitting down, but Riga is one of these 'old towns' that you have to walk around, with manky cobbled streets. Never been my kind of destination, and probably never will. Some things don't change as you get older. 

2. Try to avoid ever flying Ryanair. To anywhere. They are cheap, but their planes are cramped and unpleasant and we got stung with 'security charges' at the airport which they had deliberately not included in the upfront price to keep it cheap. Wankers.

There wasn't even a bus to take people from the gate to the plane, despite the plane being further from the gate than I've ever seen before - probably around 400 yards, which is a long way to dash in torrential rain with other aircraft moving disconcertingly around as you run across the tarmac.

3. Avoid using the strangely-named Terravision coach service to Stansted. It's bad enough having to fly from fucking Stansted in the first place, without this total shower of incompetence. 

Rather than running to timetables, they seem to depart only when there are enough bodies to completely fill the thing up, which for us meant standing in the aforementioned rain at Stratford worrying that we'd miss our flight on the way out, and standing around at Stansted late at night, knowing that we'd miss the last DLR on the way home.

It's the Ryanair of coaches.

4. In fact, don't fucking fly at all. There's too much hanging around, too much hassle getting to and from airports, too much turbulence and fearing for your life, and too few people in passport control at British airports. 

It's the Terravision of travel. Except that that's already Terravision.

5 (and back on the actual subject of Latvia rather than general whinging about shit). Don't take too much money. Riga is cheap and it's hard to spend. You can get a half-litre of beer in a bar in the centre for about £1.30 and a plate of food for the same price. I bought the best spoon ever for about a fiver. No, really. It's a great spoon.

The important stuff

So, what about the food and drink?

Well, with so little to do we spent quite a lot of time eating and drinking, and I noticed some similarities to Lithuania and Estonia, both of which I've previously visited. 

Grey peas; Steak with liquor
The national dish is grey peas, which thankfully aren't like peas as we know them, but a sort of cross between split peas and black-eyed beans, cooked with onion and bacon. It's not unpleasant and widely available (for a couple of quid).

What was unpleasant, however, was lunch on our first day. Somehow we seemed to find ourselves in a workers cafe in the basement of some government offices and not knowing about the food, just pointed to something behind the glass which we ascertained was a sort of potato pancake with meat inside.

The 'meat' was some kind of reconstituted pulp, almost entirely unseasoned apart from the sour cream which they seem to serve with everything in this part of the world. Maybe it was pink slime? I couldn't eat much of it without gagging, whatever it was.

Oh for some beer to cleanse my mouth...

Riga has a brewpub, Lido, located in some suburban shopping mall away from the old town that we didn't get to visit, but their beers are available fairly widely, and their old town outpost, Alus Seta offered an opportunity to try the closest thing to proper beer in the area (and some grey peas!)

This lot cost about £2.80
As expected, it's nothing to write home about. I tried their regular light lager, a honey beer which was a bit more interesting, and an amber which was darker and maltier. All of it was very fizzy and none of it was particularly hoppy.

Alus Seta is also well known for it's traditional Latvian food, though slightly disconcertingly, you have to queue up, canteen-style, with a tray and point to everything you want.

Suck it and see

Again we didn't know exactly what we were getting, but most of the stuff here was indeed very good. Skewers of moist chicken, garlic roast potatoes, thick garlic-infused steak with a parsley sauce a bit like the 'liquor' dispensed by our very own pie'n'mash shops. 

Clearly if you choose the right thing, there is some tasty food to be had here.

Garlic Bread? Garlic? Bread? Queens?
While some of the food can be bland, garlic features heavily and, as is common in this region, the garlic bread is something rather special - black rye bread deep fried in thin slices, probably in garlic-infused oil, and liberally coated with smushed garlic. 

Served with blue cheese sauce in the Queens pub, they were particularly good, though perhaps not the healthiest snack ever.

There was unfiltered wheat beer on here (passable), as well as Latvian 'Kiss' cider, which is a lot like the Scandinavian ciders that have taken off over here in recent years - horribly, horribly sweet and synthetic-tasting.

But as we were staying for a few (and some vodka, balsam and cream liquers) we were able to eat our way through the food menu, which was at odds with the 'English pub' theme.

After the garlic bread, smoky hunters sausages and slow-roasted pork belly in chilli were good accompaniments for an afternoon's drinking before we had to catch the plane home, and if I'd known how long and manky the journey home would be (we didn't get back until 2:30 AM) I'd have had more to drink!

'City of contrasts' is a cliche that's been done to death, but it's probably a fair reflection on Riga. Some of the food was very tasty, but there's not a lot to see or do (a 35 minute ride on a little cart seems to cover everything) and there are other, more interesting parts of the former USSR. Like Ukraine. And Estonia.

Am I glad I've been? Yes.

Was it a good birthday present? Yes. Thank you, Mrs B-V.

Would I want to go back, or go through the experience again? Fuck, no!

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