Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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, February 28, 2011

Silly season in the world of crisps

It’s that time of year when Walkers Crisps introduce a range of ridiculous flavours, only temporarily, thank God, and this time it’s in aid of Comic Relief

I'm not going to officially critique the four comedian-inspired varieties, because that would insult both our intelligences, but suffice to say that all four varieties bear absolutely no resemblance to the foodstuffs they purport to be, because, well, crisps very seldom do, do they?

I tried ‘Steak and Al pie’ (basically a subdued beef and onion flavour) and ‘Jimmy con Carne’ (subdued chilli flavour) a couple of weeks ago, and yesterday the spirit of Red Nose Day compelled me to complete the set, so I tried  ‘Steven Fry Up’ (subdued smoky bacon flavour) and ‘Frank Roast Dinner’ (subdued roast chicken flavour with the addition of sage and rosemary). 

God knows why I wasted my time eating these ridiculous crisps, just as I did with the ‘Cajun Squirrel’ and ‘Builder’s Breakfast’ flavours they inflicted on the world a year or two, but I really should have learned my lesson by now.

Comic Relief stopped actually being funny about 20 years ago when that bloke kept saying 'The Belgians' anyway didn't it?

Breast milk ice cream might be courting controversy at the moment (my personal squeamishness around lacto-cannibalism means I'm not in a hurry to sample it) but at least it's made using an authentic ingredient, albeit one that came out of some attention-seeking housewives' tits. 

You suck, and your product sucks

But back to Walkers Crisps, and why my view of them has become increasingly negative over the years:

Properly-coloured crisp packets are teh good.
Firstly, they’ve got way too big for their boots, taking over smaller (and arguably tastier) crisp makers, rationalising the product folio they inherited along the way.

Secondly, they unashamedly sponsor Leicester City,

And thirdly, not only did they get all the colours monged up (it should be dark blue for Ready Salted, Light Blue for Salt’n’Vinegar, and Green for Cheese and Onion, you fuckwits) but they also became so ubiquitous in the potato snack sector that an entire generation of youngsters have now grown up believing that this tuberous abomination is completely normal.

I wish Golden Wonder had fought their corner for proper, blue, Ready Salted, but they were too busy making Pot Noodles instead, and, like the Smiths and Rileys crisps I enjoyed as a child, they are now hard, if not impossible to find. (Oh, and my favourite chilli flavour Zweifel crisps that came in the bag made of the same stuff that you used to get wrapped around Lucozade bottles. Them were proper yummy!)

I’ve become way more fussy over the last 20 years or so. I used to eat Prawn Cocktail flavour all the time as a child, but I tried a packet the other day for nostalgia purposes and found the syntheticness unpleasantly overbearing.

Keep it real

Nowadays, I just wish they’d keep crisps simple and honest.

I hardly eat anything other than sea salted, and when I do, it’s likely to be in the ‘sea salt and black pepper’ or ‘sea salt, garlic and herbs’ ballpark – you know, something where the actual ingredients actually reflect the stated flavour, rather than, say, ‘Chicken’ crisps that have seen no trace of fowl but plenty of tarragon and paprika.

Even before sampling them, I know that the only constituent part of Frank’s theoretical roast dinner that made it into the actual product is the potatoes, which renders the whole concept moot in my view.

Any crisp that purports to be flavoured with some kind of meat or fish will usually be pretty horrible, with the possible exception of bacon flavours, which are sometimes acceptable, though hardly authentically bacony, obviously.

And until this time next year when Walkers will launch their breast milk flavour, ‘Chicken’ and ‘Beef’ are probably the worst offenders.

At least if they fried ‘Beef’ crisps in actual beef dripping rather than sunflower oil, they might be able to produce something that actually tasted like the description, but then, I guess children and vegetarians would complain that their beef flavour crisps actually tasted of beef rather than of beef flavour crisps.

Of course, then there would be a whole new market for 'Beef flavour crisps' flavour crisps...

Friday, February 18, 2011

An open invitation to James Watt

Well, things on the beer front seem to have kicked off a little whilst I've been away getting married and honeymooning'n'shit.

Late last year, I wrote a piece for the December 2010 / January 2011 edition of the London Drinker magazine about the Brewdog brewery that provoked some debate - much like the brewery itself, in fact.
The dog with two faces?
Despite my reputation as a maverick writer capable of seriously pissing people off (I've received actual real-life death threats and everything!) it honestly wasn't penned with the intention of being controversial, but simply to open a discussion about an issue that matters to me - good brewers threatening to marginalise real ale.

Correspondence supporting both sides of this complicated moral issue features in the February / March issue and I'm starting to feel as though I need to be the ambassador for this cause because I just can't let things like this go without a fight.

On that basis, I'd like to invite James Watt, Brewdog's 'Head of Stuff' (or however he'd like to be addressed today) to engage me in a little discussion, if he can take time out from running his excellent, if Achillian operation.

James, we have much in common; we're both rebels, or at least we like to think we are.

I like Brewdog beers. A lot. So I guess that means we probably both like good beers.

We both know that it's not as straightforward as cask=good and keg=bad.

And we both take the attitude that we don't care what people think or who we piss off, possibly too often for our own good at times.

Whatever you think of us, you know that us CAMRA types, beer festival organisers and hop enthusiasts in general, put Brewdog on the map long before you had your bottles on the shelves in Tescos.

People like me were singing your praises and spreading the word from the moment we first tried your (real) beers. Maybe there is an argument that you might just owe us a teensy little something in return? No?

You've achieved a lot because your beers were good, and like it or not, in this country, good beer matters more to those who drink cask than those who sup fizz. To my knowledge, there is no 'campaign for keg beer' out there promoting the keg versions of your products.

So, if you haven't already, can I just ask you to read what I, and others have said about your current brewing philosophy?

For what it's worth, I'm willing to take the time to head up to your neck of the woods to meet you for a few beers and a chat - not as any kind of official CAMRA ambassador nor indeed as a Brewdog shareholder, which I am, but just as a guy with a view who wants to safeguard against terrible things happening.

Because if Brewdog's fantastic beers stopped being available in real form, that would be a terrible, frightening scenario - not just for those of us who love to drink them, but for the very essence of our nation's beer heritage. 

I hope you take me up on my offer. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No place like home - my Romania and Hungary-moon

Well, she didn't abandon me at the altar, nor did our plane explode on take-off whilst whisking us away on our honeymoon (both of which are things I actually worried about, being the neurotic slice of toast that I frequently am) so I've returned alive to these shores, and this blog, a married gentleman.

The second cake we cut that day!
Yes, yes, I accept your well-wishes. Gifts in the post please. Thank you.

If you like beer, champagne and curry, you'll have loved our wedding. And wedding cake too. We managed to wangle not one but two of them.

Every guest I've spoken to has remarked that the quality of the food from Premier Rouge was simply fantastic, and it was a fitting menu for a brilliant day.

Brilliant and exhausting, mind, and I don't know whose bright idea it was to book a 9 AM flight the very next morning to take us away on our honeymoon to the Far East. Of Europe.


Romania is part of Eastern Europe that really hasn’t opened up much to Anglican tourism yet, particularly in early February when it's several degrees below freezing and everywhere is covered in snow and ice. Few natives speak English, even in central Bucharest, and the ski resorts to the North, and the whole place still feels surprisingly Soviet, which all adds up to an interesting destination for honeymoonal adventures...

Traditional Romanian food isn’t exactly reknowned as one of the world’s great cuisines, and some of the stuff we ate while exploring the streets of Bucharest and castles of Transylvania was indeed pretty ropey, especially the plain fried fish dishes, and the tendency to serve gloopy polenta with almost everything.

But there were some highlights; Caru cu bere is a decent restaurant in central Bucharest, ornate and cavernous, and specialising in their native food,  and we enjoyed a couple of meals there both before and after our mini tour around the region.

March of the kitchen staff
A quite bizarre event happened there on our first night when, at 9 PM, all the waiters, chefs and everybody else working at the place suddenly downed tools and paraded around the restaurant to marching band music, while the regular diners applauded and visitors like us looked on, utterly bemused!

One of the staples of Romanian menus is the bacon and bean soup, often served in a bread bowl, though it has to be said that the bread itself was often pretty manky and perhaps not as freshly baked as it might be.

It's a pity, because soups and stews feature strongly on the menus of Romania, and some nice soft bread to mop them up would have gone down a treat. Part of the joy was the surprise when ordering a traditional Romanian stew and never knowing exactly what it would contain, though it's usually some combination of beef, pork, bacon and sometimes bits of sausage, in a tomatoey or mushroomy sauce. Which makes for perfectly acceptable food.

Also prominent are cheese and and cold meat platters, ideal for snacking on and a good accompaniment to an evening of drinking and smoking Sobranies, smoking in bars and restaurants still very much a part of life over there, of course.

The most interesting cheeses are the Blue Rocfort (the good news is that it's pretty much the same as Roquefort, and every bit as tasty) and the bark-smoked Brânza de burduf. Meat products include pigs intestine sausages, various pates, and cured lard, which lacks the heavy spicing of Northern European versions and therefore seems like a not particularly pleasant way to ingest high proportions of fat!

A little observation: Chicken is almost non-existent on Romanian menus, with the notable exception of their livers which are widely available - sauteéd, deep-fried, and served as a thin paté with cheeses and salads - which rather makes you wonder what they do with the remainder of the creatures!

We froze our cocks off

Pretty, but chilly
The Ice Hotel at Balea Lake seemed like a nice Romantic idea for a honeymoon at the time, but the reality is that it’s extremely cold and once you’ve got over the novelty of everything being made from ice, and half-way up an inescapable mountainside, there really isn’t a whole lot to do, other than go inside the non-Ice hotel owned by the same people to eat, drink and warm up.  

We were the only people staying, and thank God we were only spending one night of the tour there!

Outside of the vaguely happening Bucharest, their food is, for the most part, rather bland and indifferent, though the hot smoked sausage did the job when it was cold outside, which was all the time, and I experienced for the first time, the surprising joys of Rum Tea, which is, as one might expect, just hot black tea with a tot of rum in it.

Smoky and Sausagey
But leaving the Ice Hotel behind was a relief, and Romania itself isn't a place we'd hurry back to, though it was a brilliant experience.

It's not really a country for serious drinking. The nation's domestic beer is largely limited to a few brands (Silva, Ursus and Ciuc are the most widespread) and these are brewed by multinationals anyway. Go for the porterish 'dark' or 'black' versions if you can, or Ciuc unfiltered as these have more flavour than the fizzy pale lagers.

Around Bran Castle, home to Vlad Dracule, you can buy 'Transylvanian' wine, only it's actually imported from neighbouring Bulgaria, which is probably a good thing, but it's not a Romanian thing.

Fly Malev

Incidentally, my fear of flying notwithstanding, if you’re planning on going somewhere in Europe and using Budapest as a hub, you can do a lot worse than flying Malev Hungarian Airlines.

No, really.

Zero queuing time for check-in and baggage-drop at every stage of the journey meant more time spent eating and drinking before the flight, and that’s got to be a good thing.

(If you do fly Malev, be sure to choose the ‘peanuts’ snack option on the plane rather than the ‘chocolate’, which turned out to be a gruesome Hungarian wafer thing, like an old stale Taxi or Blue Riband bar, thinly coated in dark cooking chocolate!)

Hungry in Hungary?

So, anyway, having survived the Arctic conditions in Romania, and been wise enough to eschew 'chocolate' in favour of peanuts on the flight this time, we stopped off in Budapest for a couple of nights on the way back and found it an altogether more Westernised and civilised place – with the possible exemption of Memento Park which is just, well, weird!

At a mere one degree below freezing and with no snow on the ground, Hungary is a tropical paradise compared to Romania. We found a couple of restaurants near our hotel which were outstanding, and though I have no Hungarian benchmark to compare them against, never having been to the country before, I’d highly recommend both

It’s worth noting that prices in Budapest are close to those in London, whereas Romania is still quite reminiscent of the golden days when everything in Eastern Europe cost peanuts to us – you can have a beer in a bar for little more than one of the King’s pounds, and substantial main dishes in restaurants are about £4. But the food in Budapest was also vastly superior and worth the price differential, it has to be said, and Hungarian portions are notably larger to boot.

Arany Bárány (the Golden Sheep) is a cosy and intimate place, classy and unassuming, apart from the resident fiddler who assumes that you’ll buy his CD if he serenades you for long enough.

(Which we did, largely because I tried to catch him out by asking him to play Bartók then Lizst then Kodály, which he did, and I couldn’t think of any more Hungarian composers after that!)

The food seems to be pretty authentic and traditional Hungarian and damn good at that. As in Romania, they’re big on soups, and I had to try a genuine goulash, which was thinner, soupier and more startery than I expected, but with a good hit of paprika. Mrs. Ben Viveur’s pheasant and quails egg soup was meaty and flavoursome too.

Arany Bárány’s main courses, at least the ones that we sampled, are superb too. The stag stew with potato doughnuts was less gamey than one might expect; rich and flavoursome with the meat oh so tender.

Rustic lamb dishes are the speciality of the house, and my meatballs stuffed with Ewes’ cheese were gooey and well spiced, almost kofte-like, with a hearty tomato and onion sauce, rice and a few slices of fresh orange.

Given these generous platefuls we really needn’t have ordered the side of rosemary potatoes, but they were so perfectly cooked and seasoned, we’re glad that we did.

As if things couldn’t get any better, the chocolate crepe dessert was incredible – with an intense, dark cocoa sauce on top, and a moussy hazelnut butter filling inside the pancake.

All in all, one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, and that’s high praise indeed from me.

Boom & Brass

Of course, the temptation was go right back to Arany Bárány again the following night – our last in Budapest – but there are so many other places to try in this delicious world of ours and only so many evenings in which to try them.

A big fuck-off pan of Hungarian meat
Just a few minutes walk away, right by Vorosmarty Ter. Station on Budapest’s historic first metro line, is Boom & Brass, a thoroughly modern brasserie offering a contemporary take on traditional Hungarian cuisine.

This was perhaps the silver or bronze to the previous evening’s Golden Sheep, but the food was good nonetheless.

The fish goulash offered an interesting twist on Hungary’s national dish, and their garlic spinach was a scrummy side, but the real talking point was the conspicuously huge set plate for two, which included duck leg, pork medallions, various skewers of meat, and velvety, melt-in-the-mouth duck foie grois, along with whole roast potatoes and a medley of vegetables, all presented in a giant pan.

Deeply satisfying, all of it, and proof surely that there are many worse places in the world to eat out than Budapest.

If you really must, you can even round off your meal with a small glass of Unicum (and, trust me, you’ll only want a small glass) which purports to be Hungary’s national drink. An astringent, herbal concoction, it’s almost revolting enough to make your palette forget how delicious the dinner was. Almost.

We brought some back as a souvenir, just so people would think we had a less enjoyable honeymoon than we actually did!

And so, it’s back to real world, and my new life as a married Ben Viveur. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this has been a long, long post, and I suspect it’s time to go and prepare some pancetta and sweet pepper linguine for my wife. Coming, dear...