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, June 24, 2011

Adios, Diccionario Mexicana!

It might be a widely-propagated myth that the Eskimos have 83 different words for snow, but Mexicans definitely have at least a dozen different words for Mexican food.

Tacos, burritos, taquitos, fajitas, tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, chimichangas, hongos, rellenos – who knows what it really all means when you see it on a menu in a Mexican restaurant?

We've all spent time handing plates around the table, trying to figure out which one of the near-identical dishes is which, before saying 'fuck it, it's all good'.

You know that no matter what you order, you’ll always get either a soft thing or a crispy thing, it will be filled with some combination of meat, rice, cheese, beans, salad, salsa, sour cream and guacamole, and it will normally be pretty damn delicious.

Yes, ‘tostada’ implies that it will be one of the crispy ones, and ‘quesadillas’ and ‘carnitas’ will contain cheese and meat respectively, but then so could any of the other items on the menu. I like it. I like going to Mexican restaurants and I liked the food in Mexico itself when I briefly found myself there a few years ago - but let's not kid ourselves that it's not all the same kind of stuff.

I’ve no idea why Mexican restaurants have such a bewildering array of menu items – just list the components and let folks choose exactly what configuration they chose for fucks sake.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Peach for the stars?

'Movin' to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches...'

Someone in the office randomly started singing that the other day, and it prompted a brief discussion about who actually sang the song originally - one of those frustrating things where you know that you'll know you know it once somebody says it, but you just don't know it. If that makes sense.

I kept quiet because I was just as 'know it but don't know it' as everybody else, which is unusual for me. Usually I just pipe up with the correct answer as soon as some question about one-hit wonders or types of tree or Conservative politicians comes up.

Joe Dolce Music Theatre. The Larch. Howard Flight.


(And by 'correct answer', I mean a convincing answer, delivered confidently enough that nobody feels the need to Google it and check if it's actually correct or not, obviously.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Utter Crepe! (Well, actually quite good....)

The glut of visitors descending upon The Wharf this week for the Motor Expo has driven an already crowded area to the point of combustion. Possibly literally.
Motor Expo

It’s not just all the extra people, but the vehicles parked incongruously on every thoroughfare taking up space where people would normally be free to roam. Just not right, it isn't.

And I'm probably being as thick as a 4x4, or, worse, somebody who drives one, but I still haven’t figured out the fuck did they get all those Morgans and Lotuses and whathaveyou into the reception area of the tower. Do they remove all the people-doors and drive them in from the street one by one? Do they assemble the cars inside the building?

I’m not against motor shows – I actually find them quite interesting – but as with football and beer festivals, I find being in a large crowd a bloody nuisance rather than some kind of life-affirming sense of solidarity and togetherness. (And, yes, I still experience crowds at football, despite supporting a very unsuccessful and unpopular team).

Anyway, with thousands of Fiesta drivers excitedly taking lots of pictures of supercars they’ll never be able to afford (as well as the resident BMW 3-Series suitcunts who could buy something more interesting but won’t), the places where I usually pick up my lunch have all been doing very good business. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

The A-Z of BLTs

The annoying thing about 'little-known facts' is that they tend to do the rounds until everybody knows them, which seems to defeat the object really.

A surprising number of people know that Mike Nesmith’s mum invented Tipp-Ex, but fewer know that my father invented the BLT.

That might be because he didn’t actually invent it, obviously, but as a hungry child I believed he had invented the BLT, and in many ways that’s more important.

Back in the 1980s and early 90s, we often drove out into the countryside – or at least as far as Mitcham Common which almost felt like the countryside in them days - to catch pond life, walk disused railway trackbeds and extinguish forest fires.

Spartan by name...
We’d sing folk songs as we jauntily sped along in his Spartan Roadster or whatever eccentric vehicle he happened to be driving that month, armed with a picnic hamper full of apples, fruitcake, beer nuts, those little stubby bottles of Ruddles County they used to do back when it was still good, and, of course, BLT sandwiches.

(Another little-known fact, and one that's actually true this time: Dad sold his Spartan to one of the puppeteers from Spitting Image!)

It's commonplace these days, of course - the BLT, not the Spartan Roadster - and quite possibly the most popular sandwich filling in the world, but to a growing and excitable lad back then, they were a revelation.

Bacon had hitherto been something eaten hot for breakfast or cooked with liver in a thick sauce. Sandwiches contained ham, jam or peanut butter and that was that. But cold bacon? In a sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise?!? This bold new invention blew my mind and instantly became my favourite sandwich.

The Father Christmas moment

It was at least a couple of years before I realised that Dad hadn’t invented it at all – not that he’d ever actually claimed as much, mind – and that people all over the world were enjoying BLTs and had been doing so long before I existed.

Maybe it was watching Trading Places a lot that did it – eventually I’d have realised that the scene where the old boys explain pork belly trading to Billy-Ray refers to a bacon, lettuce and to-may-to sandwich, and as such, it probably wasn’t confined to my father’s picnic hamper.

Randolph and Mortimer didn’t quell my enjoyment of the BLT too much though and I’ve continued to eat them regularly for the last 20-odd years, which has been singularly unchallenging because availability is, to put it mildly, widespread verging on ubiquitous.

And whoever actually invented it, the little-known fact I want to establish is where to get the best BLT within five minutes of 1 Canada Square. With plenty of options to choose from the only thing for it was to try and eat my way through every BLT available on The Wharf – not in one sitting, mind – and see if any of them can hold a candle to those I consumed eagerly as a boy.

The ambrosia of nostalgia means that they invariably won’t, but there’s no such thing as a really bad BLT, though some are quite a bit better than others - and I should know as I've eaten BLT for lunch every day for the last week…

B to the L to the T
Pret Beech Smoked BLT, £2.89 (or £3.45 eat in!)

First up, we have the most widely-available BLT on the Wharf, due to the sheer number of Pret outlets. Their reputation ain’t what it was a decade ago, and the BLT demonstrates just why this is the case!

The Pret BLT looks the part but fails to deliver on taste. The granary bread is sliced too thin, making the sandwich dry on the outside but fall-aparty in the middle due to a surplus of tomato juice.

There is lots of smoky bacon, but it’s a bit greasy, and the Romaine lettuce isn’t a good choice to cut through this.

It could also have done with a good, sharp mayo, but instead the whole thing lacks flavour, and it’s very poor value compared to most of the competition.

Rating: Disappointing

Tesco BLT. £1.80 (or cheaper as part of meal deal)

The mainstream supermarket option boasts a decent amount of filling and ticks all the boxes for a classic BLT.

The bacon is sweet rather than smoky, the ratios are right, and while it’s not exceptional, it’s good value and does the job.

Rating: Acceptable

Tesco ‘Light Choices’ BLT, £1.50

At only 290 calories and with over 30% less fat than Tesco’s standard BLT, this is an appealing option that could do well in the Satiety Index.

The ‘formed’ bacon has a processed feel to it, is unsmoked, and there’s not much of it. Suprisingly for a low-fat offering there’s not much salad either, but the malted granary bread doesn’t taste like a cut-down option.

The low-fat dressing in lieu of mayonnaise tastes of very little, and to add a little something, the sandwich contains a lot of black pepper.

The whole thing is a bit weedy, but then it’s meant to be a healthy option.

Rating: Disappointing (but OK in a low-calorie context)

EAT Handmade BLT, £2.89 (£3.45 eat in)

EAT are the new, smaller, Pret and appear to have copied their business model almost to the letter, not to mention their prices.

The difference is that EAT’s BLT is far better.

The sandwich is well-filled with a good balance between the perfectly char-grilled and very meaty back bacon and the salad components. A mix of lollo rosso and frisee (I think!) lettuce adds interest to the texture, and the tomato comes through nicely.

The bread is again malted grain, which seems to be the standard BLT holder, and my only criticism is that there could have been a smidgen more mayo.

Rating: Tasty

Waitrose/Boots British BLT. £2.45 (or cheaper as part of meal deal)

Branded as ‘Waitrose’ but on sale in Boots next door, this is a visually appealing sandwich, with a lighter bread, crisp iceberg lettuce and plenty of tomato and mayonnaise giving it a fresh and colourful appearance.

The bacon is smoked and fairly salty, and I like a little more gravity to my bread, but this is a very strong contender and would be particularly enjoyable outdoors in the height of Summer.

Rating: Pleasant

Kruger ‘Really Fresh’ American crispy bacon with tomatoes, lettuce & mayo, £2.40

Kruger’s speciality is fresh juices and smoothies, but their entry into the BLT fray is an interesting one.

There’s plenty of filling and the bread is a decent, fresh granary with lots of bits.

The salad is fine but the bacon is strange - unsmoked, dry and brown and broken up into little bits, almost like the soya-based ‘bacon flavour’ topping you put on salads. They have a tendency to fall out and make the sandwich less satisfying to eat.

It might be ‘Really Fresh’ but it’s also ‘Really Salty’ – way too much sodium and not enough mayo. It’s a shame because if they kept the bacon in whole slices and added more mayo to cut through the salt, they’d have a good sandwich. 

Or maybe I've just overdosed?

Rating: Frustrating

Birley hand-made BLT, £3.85

The plan was to save the best until last, and this is the only place on The Wharf (of which I’m aware) where there’ll assemble the sandwich in front of you. Fresh is good, and the freshness is evident immediately, particularly in the crunchy lettuce and juicy tomato.

They offer a choice of white or brown bread and various options, but to ensure a fair comparison with the other sandwiches in the test, all of which are served on granary, I went for brown and mayo only. It’s very nice brown bread too, full of nutty grains.

It’s the most expensive BLT by some distance, but it’s a big doorstep fucker, with loads of filling and therefore the most substantial. The bacon is of the streaky variety, and I usually prefer back, but it’s tasty and there’s lots of it, while the mayo has the right balance between creaminess and sharpness.

Even after several days of lunching on BLTs, this went down a treat and it’s the only one that really took me back to the golden age. Next time I want a BLT at lunchtime (which probably won't be for another couple of weeks) I'm coming back to Birley.

Rating: BriLlianT