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!
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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How to destroy 12 countries in 83 paragraphs

Some time ago, I forget exactly when - probably around last Christmas, I set myself the slightly bonkers target of visiting 12 new countries during 2015.

Given that I'm reasonably well-traveled and had already been to something like 36 different countries, depending on what criteria one uses, this was a bit of a challenge. Especially as I also really like staying in England quite a lot. (We live in a fucking great country with a history and culture that shames the rest of the world and a thriving craft beer scene. Coventry are winning every week, and Steeleye Span are on tour. Who in their right mind wants to go off somewhere else in a fucking aeroplane?!?)

But with over 50 days still left in the year, I completed the mission relatively easily. Go me. (It's an even more impressive score for Mrs. B-V who hadn't been to Estonia or Belgium before and thus got 14 new countries!)

Some places were interesting from a food and drink perspective, some were not. Some I blogged about at the time*, others I wrote about elsewhere, and still others I didn't bother with as I considered them a waste of ink. Or keystrokes.



What I'm going to do now is to annoy lots of people by ranking the 12 new countries from 1 to 12. Actually 12 to 1. Worst to best.

Flag of flags - where I done gone and been
Before you start writing in and complaining that I'm wrong because Indonesia is the greatestest country in the world ever, or that I missed this really amazing place in southern Slovakia that does awesome botanical ales every Friday between 3 and 4:30, so I'm not in any position to judge...

THIS IS NOT A COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL GUIDE - It's an entirely subjective list, based solely on the bits of the countries that I happened to visit and my experiences at the time.

And with that disclaimerisation, here we go:

12. Luxembourg *


I'm going to incur the fearsome wrath of at least one Luxembourgish person I know, but my first thought following the 3+ hour train journey from Brussels was 'when can I make the 3+ hour journey back to Brussels?'


At least I got to appear in a hilarious viral video...

We wandered maybe a few hundred yards from the dull main station, down a dull road, and found a dull place to stop for a beer and some food that was so dull I can't remember what the fuck it was. 80 dull minutes later we were on the train back.

I know it has a reputation for being a boring country and I should probably have hung around a bit longer in search of evidence to the contrary, but the lure of the fantastic beer in Brussels was just too strong. Unlike the beer.

When I was a child I always used to root for Luxembourg in the Eurovision Song Contest.

I've absolutely no idea why.

11. Serbia


Car what I saw
On paper this should've been an interesting one as I went to the town of Vranje one day and Pristina - capital of breakaway nation Kosovo, which I'm not counting as a country in its own right - the next.

In reality neither place had an awful lot to recommend it, though drinks were pretty cheap in both places. Vodka-type drinks. There's not a lot else to do of an afternoon. Pristina had a statue of Billary Clinton to look at for all of two seconds. Oh, and a I saw a Citroen GS parked in a side street, and made a mental note to take a photo of it later, but when we walked back down that street later it had gone, but then I saw it driving along and was able to get a photo of it. GSs aren't even that rare. You see them in London from time to time for fucks sake.

As I say, there's not a lot else to do of an afternoon....

This tasted of sodium and tobacco
I also recall sitting in an extremely smoky cafe at a bus station, drinking dark beer and eating a sort of Sucuk-like sausage that was possibly the saltiest meal I've ever had. It would've just about worked as a starter portion, but this was a giant Serbian plateful, served with bread that was also fairly salty. And it all tasted faintly of cigarettes. Not the most balanced meal ever, nor indeed the most pleasant.

On balance, Kosovo seemed slightly nicer than Serbia, but there's not a lot in it. Not a lot in either of them, in fact.

10. Singapore


Somebody once described Singapore as 'Disneyland with the death penalty' , and they were probably onto something. There's certainly something creepy and dystopian about being given a small boiled sweet while they check your passport at Changi Airport, as if to sugar-coat the realities of a highly Authoritarian regime that'll quietly kill you for possession of weed or chewing gum. Probably.
 
For an important part of South East Asia, it's remarkably lacking in any history and culture of its own. The bland, 'recently manufactured' feel of the place only serves to suggest a more sinister underbelly, and it's hot, overpopulated, impersonal and expensive. What's to like?

Singaporean tree in the shape of a big droopy cock
In the absence of much else to do, we fell right into the tourist traps of plasticky artifice.
 
The Night Safari (basically a nighttime-only zoo, situated opposite the regular daytime zoo in a display of brazenly wasteful extravagance) and Gardens by the Bay (their equivalent of the Eden Project) are all both slickly-assembled tourist traps. But where is the heritage? The only vaguely historical thing to do in Singpore seemed to be a WWII Naval base - and that's been converted so that cunts can play laser-tag.

There are Buddhist and Hindu temples where the cheap, tacky decorations look like hand-me-downs from a failing theme park. Good luck making a spiritual connection with a merry-go-round horse.

The public transport system, though modern like everything else here, is crowded and confusing, while youths are constantly barging into you, obsessing over their fucking massive tablets, as if this is the only expression of individuality they have.

Oh Betjeman, what would ye have made of this place?!?

Even the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel - home of the Singapore Sling - isn't authentic. For a start, the actual location has moved several times over the years so it's actually not the same bar that served the famous drink a century ago. And I'd bet a guinea to a farthing that the recipe probably dates from around 1998 too.

Does this country have nothing but absolute contempt for history or tradition when it comes to anything other than state execution?!?

This was actually a decent burger
 OK, so one thing that redeemed Singapore in my eyes, albeit not that much, is the food and beer. It's only Asian in a fairly loose sense, but we enjoyed a Kobe burger, cooked ultra-rare, surprisingly authentic Buffalo wings and a rather tasty pork belly satay.

Brewerkz is like an American brewpub, only the beer isn't half as good and it costs at least twice as much. The cask-conditioned offering (very rare in Asia outside of Japan) is the gently bitter Hopback Ale (4.5%) though I got more drinking satisfaction from their hoppier 6% IPA and the Black Raspberry fruit beer (5.5%).

One of the City-state's many skyscrapers houses the Level 33 brewpub - the highest in the world - and while it's nice to have a few cool pints after several dry days, the ale is decidedly ordinary. You hang out there for the views rather than the beer, which gets more expensive with the passage of time, and after 8 PM, you can easily pay £12-14/pint for a very average IPA or porter.

Level 33 angered me with their wholly incorrect interpretation of 'beer nuts'. (It's peanuts roasted in their skins with lots of salt crystals, you fucktarded plumfucks, not a mix of cashews and almonds with fucking sugar!)

Sei Enam Chilli Crab
They did a nice line in beer cocktails at stupid prices. Which isn't enough to redeem this rubbish little country.


9. Indonesia

While Singapore is small and densely populated, Indonesia is truly fucking vast and consists of over 18,000 islands. I've been to exactly one of them, albeit one with a seafood restaurant that is famous in the region.


The ferry from Singapore to Batam Island takes you to within walking distance of Sei Enam, though that won't stop taxi drivers from offering you a taxi service, even though they've just seen you walk past 83 other taxis.

The gelatinous, sphincteral horror of the Sea Cucumber
I'm always up for trying local and regional specialities, though this inevitably means that I'll encounter foods that push my boundaries rather than my buttons, and this was no exception.

I can now understand fully why the Sea Cucumber is considered one of the worst foods on the planet - it's basically a giant underwater anus - and served in a broth made from fish stomachs, it really didn't appeal. It's sloppy and squishy and snotty, and generally very unpleasant to eat.

And I normally love eating cephalopods of all kinds, but the Sei Enam baby squid with tamarind were tough as old Indonesian boots and looked more like giant bugs. Their signature Chilli Crab was fairly tasty but messy and fussy to eat, with tiny fragments of shell in the sauce a bit of an annoyance. I struggled to see what the hype was all about.

Bugs, basically
On the plus side, their steamed buns, giant prawn crackers and hot sauce were all edible, and while this may be the only seafood restaurant I've ever been to without a winelist, the lemongrass lemonade and kedondong juice were magnificently refreshing.


Outside of the restaurant, this bit of Indonesia all seemed a little down-at-heel, with a confusingly-designed shopping mall connected to the ferry terminal and hot, dusty roads.

It wasn't great, though at least it felt relatively real.



8. FYROM

(The Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia is a strange, sterile country that feels more '80s Eastern European and less Greeky than I was hoping for.

Looks tasty enough, but tastes a bit bland
Skopje is aiming to become one of Europe's great capital cities, but doesn't seem quite sure how to go about it. The underpant gnomes running the place are currently focusing on crossing the picturesque river Vardar with as many bridges as possible, while erecting stone statues all over town, surprisingly few of them of Mother Theresa, its most famous daughter.

Food-wise, it's a bit stodgy and boring, though prices are reasonable as is usually the case in Eastern Europe. Big mixed plates of kebaby stuff looked appealing, but are woefully under-spiced compared to what you'd find in Greece or Turkey. Somebody needs to tell them that you can only do so much with salt.

It has an old town.

I fucking hate old towns.

7. Slovakia

The middling ranking reflects the tiny amount of time spent in this country (even less than Luxembourg).

What I did see was a little bit of rather pretty countryside in the Tatra mountains, just over the border from Zakopane in Poland. Nice fresh air too. And that is all.


6. Malaysia


Another substantial country that I can only claim to have seen a tiny fragment of - though five hours in Limbang is actually an extremely long time.


They do things differently here...
While KL is probably much like any other big city and the beaches of Borneo are established holiday destinations, Limbang - a place that nobody would go to unless ticking off countries - is essentially a Malaysian Basildon, with local people twatting on with their everyday ethnic lives and no reason for outsiders to visit.

As the proverbial crow flies, it's only about 10 miles from Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei where we were staying for a few nights, but it takes an hour and a half to get there on the only road out of Brunei, and there is only one bus a day that crosses the border - this is not the well-beaten tourist track by any means.

The bus, with its trampoline-like suspension, bounces you along on a nauseating journey, then suddenly drops you off in an unnervingly foreign place. Probably named in recognition of the number of times you will bang your limbs against the rickety frame of the bus.

But unlike Singapore, this felt like a real place; like real life. Upon entering a really dodgy-looking 'coffee shop', without any Malaysian currency or a clue what to order, we were welcomed by the only English-speaker who painstakingly explained everything to us and offered to exchange our Brunei dollars at a generous rate.

And we got some rather tasty food at rock-bottom prices - a tangy Malay curry with chicken and hardboiled egg, and noodles with duck.
 
Every litre contains 1.1 litres of sugar
Few places sell beer, the brightly coloured soft drinks are far too sweet and the tooth fairy must be doing great business here.

I pondered afterwards that this might be the only place I've ever been to with any serious number of people where I have literally been the only Caucasian person. (There had been a German chap on the bouncy bus, but he was staying on for a further seven hours all the way to Kota Kinabalu.)
But the people are friendly, the food is tasty and very, very cheap, and the culture shock hit us as hard as the 100 degree heat as we sat around drinking those strange, stupidly sweet soft drinks and waited for the bus to take us out of there.

5. Morocco

For somewhere relatively close to home, North Africa is a culture shock. 

In Marrakech you can't move for people approaching you, trying to sell you shit, rip you off or just beg money because you're a rich, fat, stupid Englishman. They are very persistent, they are dishonest (pretending to work at the hotel you're staying at), and they compete with one another quite violently at times.

A tasty, bubbling tagine
This gets unbearably irritating very quickly, and the only safe houses are usually an upstairs restaurant or your hotel room (even in the common areas of the hotel, people will try to offer you stuff you probably don't want or need). Taxi drivers will take you to where they think you should go, rather than where you ask to be dropped - so you can visit their brothers shop. 'Friendly' locals will shoo away begging children just so they can ask you for far larger sums.

It's horrendous. And don't think that hearing the call to prayer will save you. The mosques here are pretty much empty, with locals eschewing Salah in favour of harassing me and Mrs. B-V.

That said, you'd think Morocco would be ranked bottom of the pile. (And as it was the first country visited this year, way back in January, it very briefly was!)

But, we had some very tasty food including the obligatory tagines, bursting with dried fruits and allspice, and zingy Moroccan salads, finely chopped with plenty of fresh herbs.

The best OJ in the world?
The difference between the couscous served here and the couscous you might eat in a London restaurant is that somebody actually remembered to add some flavour. Lemon juice, white pepper, a little sprinkle of cinnamon maybe - these people know their spices. Bland is banned.


Then there is the absolutely delicious fresh orange juice, almost certainly the best in the world. Forget anything you've ever had out of a carton or bottle - that's poisonous pisswater compared to this ray of liquid sunshine.


Oranges are so plentiful here that freshly-squeezed juice is practically free in the markets. When I got thirsty I'd drink three or four glasses in quick succession.

It all adds up to a mixed bag of Tagine spice mix. The people are so, so fucking pushy, but if you can handle that, it's well worth spending a couple of days in Marrakech. 


4. Brunei

When weighing up the options for a land-grab at just a few days notice, the Far East stood out as a destination with relatively cheap flights and a lot of options connecting in Singapore. But where? Hanoi and Manila were both given earnest consideration, before I settled on Brunei simply because it would likely be 'orphaned' if I was able to get Malaysia and Indonesia.

Absolutely nobody I asked had ever been to Brunei properly - a couple of folks had stopped over at the airport en route to somewhere else in Borneo. 

Tandoori - Brunei style
And, you know what, I think they missed out.

It's a small, obscure country, but a uniquely fascinating one with a Tropical climate, and a strange mix of Arabic and Oriental influences, but little sign of British colonialism. Ornate, expensively-constructed mosques nestle amongst the greenery, just a few hundred yards away from rivers and mangrove swamps where boat people still live in water villages and proboscis monkeys swing from the trees.

This is a strange, peaceful place. Travelling on the water in a small wooden speedboat is daunting, but gives a glimpse of the unique mix of life here. The Sultan's house sits just across the water from wooden huts on stilts, but these are no shanty towns - people are prosperous here, thanks largely to oil wealth, and choose to live in the traditional Bornean way.

There's a varied mix of food too. The hotel breakfast buffet was different every day and one of the best I've ever encountered.

The Arabic influence extended to a curry restaurant serving very delicious variety platters for 6 Brunei dollars, which is basically pebbles and stones. You can get tikka, naan and biriyani, just like we do over here, but where our Indian restaurants exert a British influence and tame the dishes, a hint of Malay creeps in over here - things are just a bit more garlicky and gingery by default, which is no bad thing at all.

Ko macha ko achar to the fore...
Despite being tiny, Brunei does have its own food culture: Ko macha ko achar is a very much a local delicacy, a hot and very tasty anchovy pickle served with several different local dishes.

And the soy sauce! Forget the thin, lo-sodium crap you get with your sushi over here. This is dark, thick and intense and an absolute treat with your breakfast noodles. Sheer umami.

There are drawbacks - in that heat you'll go crazy for an ice cold pale ale, but being a devout Muslim country, there is none to be had. And we found that the bottled water tasted strange - far too minerally - though it didn't seem to do any substantive harm.

As with anywhere in the Far East, jetlag is going to seriously fuck you over, but of the four countries in the region I visited, Brunei was definitely the nicest.


3. Finland *

Following the Easyjet Tragedy of Errors, I might not have been in the most positive of mindsets on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. As it transpired, we had a rather pleasant afternoon enjoying a few sights, a pleasant stroll and some great beer, particularly at Bryggeri Helsinki.

Definitely a country I'd like to visit again. 

2. Poland

Now we're really talking. Krakow is a very decent place to go for a short break, even if you monumentally fuck-up as I did.

For years I've been interested in seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau and we had a trip booked for the middle day of our two night holiday.

A proper pub, with decent beers
Of course, that was before I realised we could get Slovakia. So the middle day was instead spent crossing the border to tick the country, and without sufficient time to fit it in before flying home, the death camp would have to wait. (Though the inappropriately flippant comments about death camps would not.)

Polish food has a reputation for not being all that great. Think stodge, dumplings, cabbage, pork and you're on the right lines. But Krakow is a young, cosmopolitan city and there are plenty of options.


I'd heard mostly negative things about the T.E.A. Time brewpub, even from people within the beer community whose opinions are usually valuable. And, much like the people who failed to visit Brunei, they were wrong.

It's a proper pub, set up initially at least by an Englishman, and it serves half a dozen real ales, which change over time. The word on the street (and Tripadvisor) was that everything was brown and twiggy or that the beers weren't in good condition. My experiences were of a wide range of beer styles served remarkably well.

Yep, a couple of beers in the range were a bit uninspired, but that's true of most breweries. The American Wheat (4%) was cool and refreshing, Smooth Hopperator (4.2%) is a fairly hoppy red ale, and the black IPA Contradiction (6%) could hold its own in any craft bar. There wasn't an 11.5% quadruple hopmonster, but there didn't need to be.
 
Porky goodness!
We spent hours sitting at the bar working our way through the range before moving onto Polish liqueurs, and also enjoyed probably the best food of the trip here - a simple meal white fish bites with proper, English style chips and a tangy tomato dip.
 
Younger, trendier drinkers less into cask have a craft beer haven House of Beer, where a dozen or so keg lines express the cream of Polish microbreweries such as BroKREACJA, while we had lunch at CK Browar, one of Krakow's older brewpubs, where the range comprised mostly European lager and wheaty styles. Food here included a vast pork knuckle on a spit, with bread and pickles.

Krakow has become a serious beer-drinking city on a par with places like Rome and that in itself makes it a destination for people like me.


1. Norway *


One night in Sandefjord. One of the loveliest meals I've ever had. One set of fairly low expectations completely confounded.

The No. 1 Plaice
I don't care what the rest of Norway is like, and if I never go back, my memories of the country will always be good. Stunningly fresh and delicious fish at Kokeriet, fantastically kind, warm people, and the purest, cleanest water I've ever tasted.

Of all the many places I've been in 2015, the charming friendliness and friendly charm of this little place made it my favourite.


And there we go - a whole year's worth of travel.  Now I have to go and do 13 countries next year to beat my tally... or perhaps not.

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this a lot. Something about rating rating countries on their eating and drinking experiences appeals.

    You've made me even more determined to get to Indonesia & Malaysia.

    I also had a memorable short stop in Norway (Flam) - a taster tray of 3 thirds cost £7 but never bettered. Agree on orange juice in Morocco at other end of scale too.

    Good luck next year !

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  2. Must cost ye a pretty penny

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well, it's not free, but you'd be surprised how relatively inexpensive it can be to travel the globe IF YOU ARE FLEXIBLE.

    For example, if we'd stayed one less day in Brunei and one more day in Singapore, the same trip would've cost almost 50% more. Sometimes a flight on a Wednesday is a third of the cost of the same flight on the Thursday. Sometimes hotels charge four times as much in June as they do in November.

    My approach is to take what's available, book at fairly short notice during the off-season, look around for bargains and, obviously, don't stop too long in expensive places.

    I know people who took one holiday in 2015 and spent more than I did on all these trips combined.

    ReplyDelete

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