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!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Small beer

Here's a question: How many beers can you name that are 2.8% ABV or under?

You know, real, proper beers.

Young Georgie's budget this week was broadly unsurprising - a decent stab at keeping things ticking over and generally balancing the books during hard times, but what the fuck is that 2.8% beer thing all about?!?

Time was when the standard budget rhetoric would be 'an extra penny on a pint of beer', and we'd all moan about it a bit and pay it because it was accepted as just something that happened.

But these groovy, modern Chancellors do things a bit differently - hence the new policy of duty being raised on beers above 7.5%, of which there are quite a few, and slashed for beers below 2.8%, of which there are, well, hmm... I don't know - maybe some tinned supermarket own brand lager which is probably piss-cheap anyway? (Maybe super-weak milds and boys' bitters are the norm in Tatton, but I suspect not, even if the only pub in the constituency I've visited was the Wetherspoons in Wilmslow several years ago.)

I'm pretty sure anything below 1% is already exempt from duty, because it counts as low alcohol beer which is in it's own, unloved category.

It's an odd one, because it's not like there are many beers at all that will actually become significantly cheaper as a result of this legislation (which may possibly have been the point!) especially not real ales. 

In fact, I can think of only two:
If memory serves, Brakspear's brewed a 2.5% session beer a few years back to prove that they could pack in a lot of flavour at that strength, but it was never widely available and disappeared without trace before I got to try it.

And our controversial friends at Brewdog responded to Portman Group criticism of their high strength beers by bringing out 'Nanny State' at 1.1% - I like extremely hoppy beers but this was so ridiculously astringent and lacking in supporting body so as to be almost undrinkable. (Incidentally, neither of these were available at the Wilmslow Spoons either!)

So, unless Osborne really wants to encourage us to drink the super-weak, super-cheap supermarket-branded tinned products of unknown origin (usually called things like 'Challenge Lager' or 'Crown Bitter'. it's hard to see where this one is coming from. 

Maybe Britain's microbrewers, already benefiting from a reduction in duty for low-volume producers from a previous budget, will be inspired to launch new low-strength but flavoursome ales. I certainly hope so!

At the 'high strength' end of the market, the increase in duty smacks a little of putting all your tins of Special Brew in one basket.

We all know the rationale here - 9% 'superstrength' lagers are very cheap, consumed by tramps and teens wanting to get pissed, and 'binge drinking' is a blight on our society on a par with paedophiles and asylum seekers. Apparently.

But the problem is that there are a great many excellent beers which just happen to be over 7.5%, and which are clearly aimed an altogether more discerning clientele. Such beers are already many times more expensive than the likes of Tenants Super too.

Oh well, I guess the extra duty I'll pay next time I drink Hardcore IPA or Arrogant Bastard will be offset by the saving I'll make on all these new 2.7% beers when they're eventually launched...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ben's Boston Baked Beans - a recipe to try before it's too late

I’m sure it’s frightfully un-English, but I don’t go in for much of this ‘fretting about the weather’ nonsense.

Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it rains, occasionally it snows. Big fucking deal. And it annoys me when people start faffing about with different clothing’n’shit according to the season, which are approximate guidelines at best anyway. 

'Ooh, I've got to take some long sleeves just in case it gets nippy'... 'I'll put it in my bag because they say it's going to be hot on Sunday'... 'I can't wear those shoes, it's only March!'... Silly, faffing twats.

No, I just wear the same clothes all year round, just with a jacket on top between about October and April. Easy.

I have no strong preference for either rain or shine or hot or cold climates (apart from an enjoyment of brisk, overcast mornings when the heavenly canvas is a consistent off-white as far as the eye can see, and it feels like the world has fallen out of the sky, obviously) but food is a slightly different beast.

'Tis the season

There are, it has to be said, some sorts of food that do just taste better when it’s cold, and others that are cut out for balmy, Summer days.

There aren’t many, mind. Most dishes can be happily consumed all year round, and don’t let anybody tell you any different, but in the case of rich, hearty stews and casseroles, and indeed Ben’s Boston Baked Beans, what I done cooked last night, you really want to be enjoying them now, before the cold weather runs out!

I first published my BBB recipe on the anchovy fans Facebook group, which remains to this day the only food group I’ve set up whose membership has actually expanded significantly.

In goes the beer - only a few hours to go!

Yes, it contains anchovies. Baked beans with anchovies, pork, maple syrup and various other seemingly incongruous ingredients.

Like most stew recipes, it's incredibly flexible. I used haricot and borlotti beans last night, but you can substitute with maybe cannelini or black-eyed beans if you prefer. You could even use a tin of normal 'baked beans' in an emergency, though the results aren't as good and you don't want to dilute your sauce with Mr. Heinz variety.

Be aware that to enjoy this dish at it's best, you need to cook it for a minimum of two hours, ideally substantially longer!

Ben's Boston Baked Beans

Ingredients - makes four decent servings

Haricot Beans, one tin, drained
Borlotti Beans, one tin, drained
Belly of pork, about half a pound or 4-5 big rashers, cut into bite-sized chunks
Smoked bacon, about 6 rashers, as above
Anchovy fillets, a few
Onions, a couple large or a few small, chopped
Tomatoes, about 6 average size, chopped
Red Pepper, a large one, chopped
Chestnut mushrooms, a few, chopped
Chilli Powder 
Wholegrain Mustard 
Worcestershire Sauce
Maple Syrup  
Black pepper 
Dark Beer - old ale, stout or porter


Take a big pan with a lid, and heat the excess oil from your anchovy fillets (not the fish, just the oil), and use it to brown your pork. After a few minutes add the bacon, onions, garlic and cumin - you want the pork fat to go crispy and the onions to start caramelising. Towards the end of this process, put your peppers and anchovies in there too.

Once it's all basically cooked (though not overcooked), you chuck in the beans and everything else and mix it all up. The quantities will depend on your personal taste - for a sweeter sauce, more maple syrup, for a hotter version, more tabasco etc.

The important thing is that you put the lid on and cook the whole thing on a very low heat for at least a couple of hours. If it ever gets too dry, add a little more beer.
If you've got the balance right, it will all reduce to a delicious thick, sticky sauce that's sweet and salty and hot in just the right ratios (which, to some extent, you can determine). The beans and pork will have absorbed the flavours, and you've got some fucking excellent food right there.
You could transfer the whole thing to a casserole and cook in the oven if you prefer. Or even cook in a straw box, or underground, or whatever slow-cooking method you prefer.

Once it's done, you can eat it on it's own, or maybe with a large baked potato, or some fresh sourdough bread. It's all good. If you've got some left over the next day it will still be nice when re-heated, so buy some chips from the chip shop and pour the beans on top, why don't you?
To drink with it - almost anything. Maybe some of the beer you used?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The good, the bad and the Unagi

‘I look down on him because I am upper class’; ‘I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class. I am middle class’; ‘I know my place’.

These old lines seem rather dated now, and the sketch has fallen out of favour, primarily due to our perceptions of any implicit class system in our self-identity changing drastically over the last 45 years, and also because the visual effectiveness of the skit relies on deploying a trio of actors who just happen to be as significantly diverse in stature as Cleese, Barker and Corbett. Which probably is a solicitors firm somewhere.

Class-ic Comedy?
Anyway, the demise of British class identity aside, the sketch does hint at one of the great truths of life – the rule of three. That is to say that a substantial number of different things can be broadly broken down into three varieties – one good, one averagey, and one that’s just a bit underwhelming, or maybe even abject shite.

Kinda like how the Ford Capri existed in a sluggish 1.3 litre entry-level variant that flattered to deceive, a perfectly respectable 2 litre Ghia, and the big fuck-off 3 litre V6 what The Professionals done drove around in. And John Cleese’s character from that sketch, presumably.

If these three characters were alive and real and happened to be working in Canary Wharf today… stay with me on this one please… if they were real in the here and now and fancied some contemporary Oriental fusion food for lunch today, where would they go to eat?