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!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Pasty Times

The humble, put-upon pasty has been in the news rather a lot lately and it's almost putting me off eating the damn things. It's second only to fucking Leveson now, and has been rambling on for weeks.

Whereas once, picking up a hot 'tradtional' or 'steak and stilton' at a railway station was just something you did because you were hungry, cold and a long way from home, these days it's more or less a political act.

Mind, in my view, it's definitely the petty, sniping media who are pretty much entirely to blame for this situation rather than those who make the pasties (or indeed those who pass the laws affecting those who make the pasties).

There's no such thing as the 'pasty tax'. Not really.

Anybody smart enough not be duped by media-created memes knows that it's simply a convenient (and salacious) narrative to rouse the rabble.

Unfortunately, but predictably, a significant proportion of people have played their part bang on cue, and seem to genuinely believe that there was actually a special new tax introduced on pasties (probably the same people who believe there is a 'granny tax' specifically introduced to take money from little old ladies purses). Sigh.

Simplifying laws and levelling playing fields is generally a good thing for governments to do. And, much as I would resent having to pay more for my pasties, it only seems right that the taxes paid by places that sell hot pastry products should be the same as those paid by places that sell fish and chips or hot dogs or anything else. (Ideally, as a Libertarian I'd like all tax and all the stuff it pays for to be reduced as much as possible, obviously)

So it wasn't about creating a 'pasty tax' at all. It was about removing a 'pasty loophole'. If this simple concept had been planted in the public consciousness prior to the Budget, there would have been no problem.

I believe that the current government do have common-sense policy-making in their instincts, but, crucially, they are absolutely disastrous at selling them to the public, and in an age where PR is all-important, George Osborne has managed the messaging very badly indeed.  

Thus something fair, sensible and simple was made to appear unfair, illogical and complicated.

It's hard to imagine any previous administration making such a presentational cock-up - but it's the press who have been the real villains here particularly cuntsome for adding fuel to the great pasty fire when they could have done the hapless Chancellor's explaining for him.

But what's done is done

I suppose I should offer some opinions on actual pasties then, now that we can continue to enjoy them at a different rate of VAT from other hot takeaway foods...

Strangely enough, Cornwall is the only county in England (whichever set of boundaries you choose to use) that I've never visited, so I've never eaten a real Cornish pasty in it's native land.

I would like to try a really traditional pasty - you know, where there's a sweet course at the far end, and the crimp is actually a handle that you can't eat because it gets all dirty from the dust on your hands from the tin mines or something. But I suspect such authenticity only exists in the mind these days. Not unlike the 'pasty tax'...

When I was a child, 'Cornish' was the only type of pasty, but now there are many varieties to appease an ever-hungry audience - in the last few weeks I've had pork and cider, lamb and rosemary and various other combinations. Although one thing I've noticed is that none of the pasties have 'potato' in the name, but all contain quite a lot of it. Funny that.

Even before pastygate, not all pasties were created equal.

The worst of the worst, surely is Greggs, unless they've changed a lot in recent years. I tried one of their pasties a few years ago, when they were going round taking over Bakers Ovens and it was so ghastly I couldn't eat more than a couple of bites. 

The meat, what little there was of it, was stringy and gristly. The big chunks of swede and potato were almost raw, with a strange sour, vinegary note, and the whole thing tasted overwhelmingly of salty margarine, which is one of the most unpleasant flavour profiles I can imagine. But then, I'm not sure Greggs make or sell anything worth eating.

I've also not particularly enjoyed the offerings of The Pasty Shop, the garish yellow goddaughter of the railway station forecout.

The only pasties from there that seem to have any real flavour are the decidedly un-traditional Chicken Balti and Steak and Stilton varieties, with their 'tradtional' pasty the last word in blandness. Their staff also seem to be feckless and clueless and generally unhelpful - perhaps the sort of people who swallowed the 'pasty tax' spin?

Doing a bit better on all counts is the West Cornwall Pasty Co. whose traditional pasty seems fairly close to what I imagine authenticity to be. Lots of black pepper, good mix of root veg, nice pastry texture, and even if it contains margarine, I can't taste the bastard.

West Cornwall also do a good Steak and Ale pasty, made with St. Austell bitter which seeps out through the crimping and caramelises nicely on the surface, but it's also often the one they've run out of. The friendly pirate is a common sight these days, and this has become my preferred station pasty option.

The heart of Cornwall - Ipswich
They don't have many outlets, but if you ever find an Oggy Oggy pasty stall, you're in for a treat. The franchise hasn't expanded much at all, which is a shame, because their 'Oggy' is on a par with the West Cornwall traditional, and their gooey blue cheese-based version is an absolute joy, with plenty of juicy meet, a really strong cheesy flavour, and hardly any potato-padding.

Most Oggy Oggys actually seem to be located in Cornwall, as opposed to 'mainline railway stations with a high footfall', which is very encouraging. There was a lone outpost in Ipswich, which I frequented, err, frequently when I lived there.

Finally, I've only ever encountered them at beer festivals, but Proper Cornish Pasties are another decent bet. On the small side, but well seasoned and meaty, they're an ideal accompaniment to beer, and they use the 'upright' form with the crimp along the top, like the pasties of my childhood. 

I gather the 'flat, with the crimp along the side' format which has become commonplace now is more historically accurate, but I care less about these things than I do about how good they taste!

So, yeah, fuck pastygate. Fuck the papers. And eat pasties.

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