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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sicklehammer would be a great name for a band, wouldn't it?

We were flying back from Moscow at exactly the same time as Edward Snowden was flying in the opposite direction.

A week later, he's still stuck at the airport - I can vouch for the long queues, complicated, expensive visas and overly fussy customs and immigration processes, but a whole week is ridiculous!

But then Julian Assange has been happily living in some 3rd Division country's embasssy for a year now. Maybe these are the prices one pays for a life of consciencious whistleblowing (or perhaps self-important attention-seeking).

I thought this 'we're all being spied on 24/7' went out of the window years ago with the demise of the old USSR, but apparently not. Maybe in some ways we're all still living there waving our hammers and sickles around, and I didn't actually need to visit Moscow after all?

Walking past the mummified corpse of Lenin I made some throwaway comment about how amusing it would be if he suddenly opened his eyes and sat bolt upright... and a security guard angrily sidled up behind me before I'd even finished the sentence.

Of course, I didn't notice at the time because it was quite dark in there and I was already writing a screenplay in my mind where Vladimir the Revolutionary Zombie gets into all sorts of hilarious scrapes.

In my contended obliviousness I didn't realise what was happening until Mrs B-V told me later on, long after Mr. KGB had decreed that I wasn't a legitimate threat to his great, deceased leader. And maybe we don't notice when our governments back home are spying on us either?


Soapbox time...

I know - as a Libertarian I'm supposed to be all concerned about all the dodgy behaviour of our Western governments that's been coming out lately. And, yes, instinctively, I'm not exactly thrilled about it, but I just can't get too het up about this stuff. I'm more bothered about having fewer laws and more freedoms than whether somebody is spying on me without me even knowing it, whether I'm visiting embalmed communists, submitting expense receipts or watching interracial transgender porn.

Another tomb guard with his eye on me...
And while the likes of Assange and Snowden might be doing a noble public service on some level, they are also both colossal fucking hypocrites.

Firstly, by seeking asylum in countries whose own human rights records and penchant for secracy are no better than the countries they are purportedly exposing (and in Assange's case a country that's conveniently tolerant of the rape allegations he's facing).

And secondly, because few people had even heard of either of them until they started making a big hoo-hah about everything. The irony is that their own lives are under far closer scrutiny now than before, and more so than most of the 'normal' people on whose behalf they're claiming to be fighting. And they've knowingly brought it on themselves.

So, we're all still living in Soviet Russia. Pretty much. Bring me my hammer and sickle. Actually don't.

Yes, governments have the potential to seriously snoop on people. But, almost all of the time, they actually don't. Think about it. The logistics. The man-hours. It's just not possible for anything other than a tiny, cherry-picked fraction of our lives to be scrutinised by government agents. And then, it's usually only for a good reason like apprehending criminals, proving innocence, or preventing terror attacks. And we'd all be up in arms if criminals went unapprehended, innocence went unproven and terror attacks went unprevented.

We're caught on CCTV cameras hundreds of times a day. But most of that footage will never actually be seen by anybody. It's only really celebrities, alleged criminals and other spies who get spied on.

Unless you're doing something very elaborate involving routers and proxies, your Internet Service Provider can theoretically see tonnes of stuff about you? But are they spending time studying it because you're so fucking important? No, they're not. They have better things to do with their time.

And don't get me started on the people who are paranoid about government snooping, as if their unimportant little lives were of national interest, but who share intimate personal details on social networking channels where any cunt can see it...

OK, so we've had undercover police infiltrating the family of Stephen Lawrence, and it's worrying that they did it - after the family had become famous, obviously - but it was also bloody stupid and a complete waste of resources. Anything the police could possibly want to know about them would've been revealed in one of Doreen's cash-in books. It's not like the Lawrence family have been quiet and secretive for the last 20 years is it?

Nobody is coming out of this looking good. Nobody.

That tasty fried black bread with garlic!
Believe me, we're being Nannyed by the State in far worse ways than the stuff that Assange and Snowden are  so concerned about. It's just like being in Russia, but without that tasty fried black bread with garlic that they do.

Elsewhere in the news: Teacher Jeremy Forrest, jailed for over five years for his apparently loving relationship with a slightly underage girl 'who cannot be named for 'legal reasons'.

What, so this is a different relationship from the one he had with Megan Stammers, which was all over the press last year, hmm?!? 

Or is it yet another example of the law being totally shitting retarded. Fuck you, law, fuck you and your fucking shit.

And whatever happened to the right of the 'victim' (not that she is one or indeed sees herself as one) to not press charges?

Again, the sort of 'everybody knows but nobody is allowed to say' nonsense that I'd have expected in the CCCP.

Hammer. Sickle. Fuckwittedness.

But, fuck, do I digress!

So, Lenin's mausoleum and garlic bread aside, what was Moscow like?

Well, people are a bit unfriendly and officious, and don't seem to like Englanders too much.

The metro system is architecturally fascinating, but jam-packed at all times and probably the hardest one to navigate in the world.

It's horrendously expensive. More so than London, and possibly more so than Dubai where we were a few months ago.

It's also massive. Spanning miles and miles, though the only vaguely touristy stuff is really around the Red Square / Kremlin area. And vast areas are periodically blocked off by police or security guards for hours while helicopters fly in and out.

There's Gorky Park - famous in print and film - but there's not a whole lot to do there and it's basically a big open space for rollerblading Moscovites.


More caviar than one could ever want
All in all, Moscow hasn't really made itself a tourist destination in the way that other bits of the old USSR have - you'll have a more enjoyable and far cheaper holiday in Kiev or Tallinn.

I know, I know, what about the food and drink. Alright, I'll get to it...

Red Caviar is quite widely available - it differs from the black stuff in tins in that the balls are bigger, it's fresher and less processed and, obviously, it's red. Well, orangey.

It's basically salmon roe, like very intense, undiluted taramasalata. The eggs burst in your mouth, releasing salty fishiness. But I'm not quite sure I actually like it.

Served with stodgy pancakes and sour cream, I'm glad I've tried the stuff, but I wouldn't want to have it again, a couple of mouthfuls were more than enough, and I don't think it's worth the equivalent of about 25 quid.

Flounder and roasted vegetables (not included)
I tried the stuff in the Bosco Bar, in the Gum shopping mall, with a beer that came in the roundest glass I've ever supped from.



Fish and zero veg


Their unborn offspring aside, there are lots of fish on the menus - flounder, sea bass, that sort of thing, though it tends not to be that imaginatively cooked. And it's usually a good idea to order some vegetables on the side, as many main dishes don't include any beyond a couple of slices of gherkin and the occasional olive.

(Which is like an occasional table, but it's an olive, obviously.)

One restaurant - Stretenka, where we had some nice black garlic bread - recommended the 'Country style' beef after my first couple of choices weren't available. This was, frankly, awful. A leathery slab of horribly overcooked, unseasoned steak, with potato wedges, manky grey peas (which I didn't touch) and soggy broccoli.

The only redeeming feature was some crispy fried onions on top.

This meal was fucking abysmal
A little more appetising was the Beef Stroganoff at the touristy but deserted Old Tower, close to Red Square. I was able to clear my plate but again it was a bit on the bland side - stringy minced beef in a creamy sauce served with mashed potatoes.

When I make the dish it's probably less authentically Russian but I use thicker strips of meat, lots of wine to cut through the cream, and plenty of mushrooms and onions. And I think I prefer my version.


We also tried some pasta/dumpling things, filled with Elk and Bear meat which sounds more exotic than it actually was. Both basically tasted like a cross between horse and venison.


This stroganoff was a bit better
Our hotel, the Cosmos, built for the 1980 Olympics, was vast and boasts several bars and restaurants. The succinctly named 'Pub' wasn't actually bad, with a light, fragrant, Asian-style lager on tap and a crispy, well-seasoned pork chop on the menu. Despite being unadventurous it was probably the best main course I had the entire holiday!


Thirsty?


If you're going to drink in Moscow it makes sense to drink Vodka, though it's not always the thirst-quenching hit your throat desires on a hot Summer afternoon admittedly.

At least it's always served directly from the fridge, is (relatively) inexpensive, and has more flavour than most of the big brands sold over here.


This (hotel) meal was alright
The wheaty and aromatic Parliament vodka was probably my favourite, while the more expensive Beluga and Russian Standard, now making it's name over here tasted of less.

Various fruit vodkas were also available.

I like my beer, but this isn't really the country to go drinking it. Again, the best one might have been in the bloody hotel!

The biggest selection we found was at the Beer Market, an American-style 'tap house' in a grim urban area of monolithic soviet-era apartment blocks.

Amongst the 50 or so draught beers, there were many more from Britain, Belgium the Czech Republic etc. than from Russia, though I did sample a decent gueze style offering from a local brewery there.

The Pilgrim pub, around the corner from the aforementioned Stretenka, actually does real cask ale. Only it's English cask ale. Bloody Adnams broadside at that. I passed.

So...

Am I glad I've been to Moscow? Yes.

Would I go back? Not unless I had to.

Do I feel sorry for Edward Snowden being stuck there? No, he's the architect of his own shit. Plus, he'll probably get to eat lots of nice black garlic bread.

And there we have it.

Oh yeah, and they have mint-flavoured toothpicks. Those are pretty cool too.

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