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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tourism and Chips

If you're in the mood for pity, I have to get up at the crack of sheer unreasonableness tomorrow morning to catch a 7AM flight from Gatwick.

Assuming we get past the initial hurdle of waking the fuck up on time, things should get better as we're off to Cyprus for a couple of days. It should be fairly mild, the food ought to be great, and it's another country to tick off the list - No. 34 for me!

Paphos in December isn't the most mainstream short break, which might be why the flights and hotels were grunt-cheap. And that suits me. I don't want to be a typical tourist if I can possibly help it.



Arches to Arches


So, the other day I was in Marble Arch for some reason, probably pub-related. (OK, definitely pub-related.) And it got me thinking a bit about the whole tourism industry'n'shit. I like thinking about stuff.

The area around the Arch consists of a large, fairly clean plaza area with little fringes of grass; groups of tourists of all nationalities ranging from giggling Japanese to bemused Finns, all shooting their i-phone videos and being counted by shouty tour guides.

What else? An entrance to the tube with lots of signs to stop people departing from the tourist trail and ending up in Harlesden; Little kiosks selling postcards, baseball caps and stupidly-priced bottles of water, and some poor sap holding a big arrow directing folks from Marble to Golden Arches where the familiar comforts of filet-o-fish and regular fries await them.

The thing is, I realised that, ultimately, it didn't really matter that it was Marble Arch. It could've been Leicester Square or Tower Hill. The set-up is exactly the same. It's all generically 'international' with only the bare essence of London.

Spot the native competition
Furthermore, it could've been the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, or the Heroes Square in Budapest. Pretty much anywhere where you can find throngs of tourists.

So, the bits of other countries that I've seen are, in all likelihood, just as unrepresentative, and therefore, despite hitting 34 countries tomorrow, I've seen fuck-all of the world really.

Which is a bit depressing. Why go to a different country just to experience something that's the same wherever you go? And why does the tourism industry pretty much perpetuate this reality by making things the same.

Another case in point is the Shard. I've not been up it yet, but I walk past the entrance several times a week and it's eerily similar to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The special separate lift for people going to the observation level. The little diagrams telling people how high they are going, and comparing it to smaller buildings. They probably use the same font. It's hundreds of miles away but it's the same.

It's all the bloody same.


Baiting the trap


Even when tourists do attempt to depart from the standard International diet of Big Mac, Coca-Cola and overpriced Evian, they're ripe for duping and fleecing. Ripe as a plum that falleth from the bough, I say!

And that brings me to Fish and Chipper in Leicester Square.

Right in the absolute eye of the storm at the heart of the very innermost centre of the tourism whirlpool, you'd probably struggle to find a Londoner amongst the hoardes.

It's a very ordinary fish bar...
And with many countries teaching their children that Fish and Chips is our national dish, it's a prime location to set a tourist trap with some fishy, chippy bait.

OK, so it's a bit more authentic than the filet-o-fish and regular fries, but the prices are, frankly, audacious for what really is just your standard chippy with a sit-down area.

A regular (comparatively small) portion of fish and chips costs £12-15 here, depending on which variety you choose, and that's probably around 150% more than your local chip shop. Even a standard-issue Peter's Pie and chips is eight quid or so.

Once you add in drinks, gherkins, pickled eggs, battered sausages and anything else that plays a bit part in your fish supper, you're looking at over £20 a head. For a one-course meal. In a fish bar.

Outrageous.

I know this is Central London, but the chippy in Borough High street - not exactly out in the sticks now - provides similar food of a similar quality (maybe slightly better quality, in fact) for less than half the price.

I wouldn't mind if the food here was exceptional, but it isn't. The freshest, tastiest fish and stunning thrice-cooked beef-fat chips might make it all worth the expense, but in truth it's very standard stuff. I guess they assume, probably correctly, that the tourists can't tell the difference.

...serving very ordinary fish and chips.
We tried the haddock - acceptable but nowt special - and the plaice, which was a bit watery and flavourless. Decent crispy batter, but no skin on the fish.

The chips were, again, just chips really, and the tartare sauce and gherkins appeared generic. There is nothing remotely special going on here whatsoever.

As I learned when visiting Olley's Fish Experience a couple of years ago, a premium price really doesn't mean much in the world of the chip shop.

The best portions of fish and chips I've ever had probably cost little more than a fiver, and if the tourists would only wander just a mile or two off the trail, they'd get to discover that it can be so much better than Fish and Chipper.

They might even get to see some real London too.


Where to find it...

Fish and Chipper
47 Cranbourn Street,
Leicester Square,
WC2H 7AN (map)

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