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!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Appointment with disappointment

It’s an interesting feature of the human condition that we judge a lot of stuff not by how good or bad it is, but by how good or bad it is relative to our expectations of how good or bad it will be.

I went to see Final Destination V this week, fully prejudiced-up with broad expectations based on the preceding four films and a sense of ‘they’ll probably be running out of ideas now’.

I laughed a bit, cringed a bit, and it delivers all the gory set-pieces one expected, and delivered them well, but there’s also a delicious twist at the end which I didn’t see coming, and the 3D effects are, it has to be said, the most inventive and spectacular I’ve ever seen, being a bit of a 3D-sceptic until now.

That’s an example of something that is decent enough in itself, but which seems better because it exceeded modest expectations.

Today I went to Starbucks for the first time in months and discovered that I had over £25 on my Starbucks card. Woohoo. That's about 11 large Hazelnut Americanos with free extra shots. Indifferent because it's Starbucks, yes, but splendid in it's freeness. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wine Whine

We take it for granted that it’s pretty easy to buy decent wine these days – certainly compared to the experiences of previous generations.

Armed with a little knowledge and a little money, we can walk into a supermarket or off-license, make relatively well informed decisions and take advantage of the considerable choice available.

Fruity, new-world Merlot in the £6-8 range? You got it. Crisp, dry Chablis to go with that smoked salmon you’re serving as a starter tomorrow? On the bottom shelf – take your pick from these.

What’s probably harder for us these days than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago is buying bad wine. Cheap wine. Wine that your might, perhaps, not want to drink.

‘B-but you are a chap of exceptional taste and discernment’, I can hear the voices saying, ‘Why ever would you want to buy bad wine?’

Fairly obviously, for cooking with. I'll explain why. And buying good bad wine, or rather, buying the right bad wine is trickier than you might think.

Of course, you can use good wine to cook, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing so. If you’ve got a big Claret or Burgundy to drink with a joint of beef, I’d fully expect you to add a generous splash to the meat juices to make your gravy.

But if you’re cooking beef for eight hungry people and the quantity of wine required to make the gravy starts to exceed half a bottle or so, you have to question whether you want to waste expensive wine in the kitchen when you could be drinking it at the table.

I use wine in cooking a lot. Pasta sauces, risotto, casseroles, pot roasts. And after a few years of experimenting I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just foolhardy to use anything other than the cheapest suitable plonk you can get your hands on. Suitable being the operative word, mind.

In France, they get this. In the Hypermarkets there are little sections for wines that have the right characteristics for cooking but which you wouldn't really want to drink. They often come in square, ribbed plastic bottles. But in England it's a challenge, almost as if people don't want to admit that cheap wine has a use other than as sustenance for tramps.

It's all good

Taste the difference?
I’m the first person to defend wine ‘snobs’ from lazy philistine criticism, but outside the glass, the rules are different and the quality of wine becomes singularly unimportant.

Hell, I’m the kind of person that fusses about the quality of butter or olive oil I use, but the cooking pot is a mighty Dionysian leveller and will barely respect a Château Lafite Rothschild better than a Tesco’s own-brand Rioja.

There are some who say you shouldn't cook with a wine you wouldn't be happy to drink. And they can fuck right off.  Do they really think they can tell the difference when it's mingling on the stove with garlic, onions and Worcestershire sauce?
I challenge the wine buffs to prove me wrong on this one: Once the wine is absorbed into a sauce, you’ll probably be able to tell if it’s red or white and possibly, just possibly, guess at a grape variety, depending on sweetness, fruitiness, peppery-ness and so on.

But that’s it.

I don’t believe even the most knowledgeable expert would be reliably capable of identifying the region or vintage once the wine is in my pancetta risotto or chicken chasseur – and even I'm wrong, theirs are not the palettes for which I’m cooking on a regular basis.

So, having established that it’s not really worth wasting your drinking wine or paying over the odds for something to cook with, we face the conundrum in the supermarket – that dirt-cheap cooking wine to serve your purpose is actually pretty hard to find, at least at a price significantly lower than wine which is better. (Fairly obviously if a bad wine is the same price as a reasonable wine, you buy the reasonable wine because it gives you additional options viz what to with it!)

The problem is that it’s not just as simple ‘buy any cheap wine’ because most of the cheap ‘wines’ you’ll find on the shelves are aimed not at savvy chefs but at cheap drinkers, and are sweet, weak and sparkling, which makes them unsuitable for most culinary purposes, except possibly some kind of syllabub.

And yet, there are demonstrably acceptable cooking wines available at very low prices (e.g. £2.99 or less) – they just don’t seem to be widely promoted. ‘Acceptable’ will usually mean either a cheap Chardonnay, which is fine for your cheesy and fishy dishes where the acidity will temper the oils, and rough Spanish red which will do for almost everything else.
Be prepared to search high and low for them though. And unless you’re doing the chicken chasseur thing - which can easily require a whole bottle - you’ll probably want to make sure any cooking wine you buy is screw-top rather than corked, which limits the choices further.

(Oh, and if you ever plan to explore the world of wine enemas, you'll want the dry white. Don't ask me how I know, just trust me on this one!)

If you’ve been using drinking-quality wines for cooking, just try my advice for yourself, and if you don’t like it, you can go back to using champagne for blanching cauliflower, or whatever it is you do.

With the money you save, you’ll be able to buy better wine for actually drinking, or invest in other better quality for cooking in areas where you will notice the difference (like buying those long, pointy red peppers rather than the stubby ones),

Or you could even buy me a little present. Like a cheap Spanish red...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ladywell Lunch

I picked up the aroma literally seconds after I stepped off the train.

My father had told me when I was young that the best way of locating a good fish and chip shop was to follow your nose, and it's generally proved to be sound advice.

It was by complete accident that I found myself in Ladywell at lunchtime anyway - I was just returning from a meeting in Croydon in the morning and the train didn't stop where I wanted it to. Ladywell is a hotbed of inconvenience like that. Last time I was there it was only because they terminated a bus early. Bastards.

And workday lunchtime is hardly the standard window for eating fish and chips, is it? Indeed I can't actually remember ever having done so previously, preferring my battered haddock on a day out to the seaside, or late in the evening after a few pints  - not that many proper chippies stay open after closing time these days.

But I was hungry and it smelt good, so the Village Fish Bar for lunch it was.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Chicken in Kiev

One of the reasons I've not blogged recently - in addition to my unadulterated laziness, obviously - is that we've been off to Eastern Europe once again - this time to Ukraine.

If you're into ghost towns and urban exploration the reason for visiting this part of the former USSR is fairly obvious - to see the remains of Chernobyl and Pripyat inside the Exclusion Zone.

While the Ukranian government officially don't allow tourism, meaning that any excursions there are spuriously designated as scientific or ecological visits, it's a hotbet of urbex tourism, and not hard to see why - as ghost towns go, Pripyat is unprecedentedly spectacular.

 Not pleasant
The same can't be said of the food there - the only place for visitors to dine within the 19 mile exclusion zone is the cleanup site workers canteen, which has the look and feel of a prison or hospital eatery. And the charm.

The four course lunch provided - there was no choice in the matter - was substantial but fucking horrible, consisting of an indifferent, watery borscht, a squishy smoked ham salad, a disgusting fried chicken fillet with gloopy mash, and a dried fruit fritter made with potato flour and served with sour cream. Ugh.

I didn't worry all that much about the possibility of the food being radioactive because I hardly ate any of it.

The tourist office had said that we might want to take a packed lunch - despite lunch being provided. I now understand why!

The Real Deal

Fortunately, the food in Kiev, where we were staying, is rather more edible. 
The city even boasts three brewpubs, though the beer is decidedly lacking in variety, and consists universally of a range of lagers ranging from pale-and-tasteless to brown-and-over-malty, with the occasional wheat beer thrown in.

I was expecting more garlic
It was in one such brewpub, the Arena Beer House - modelled on American style bars with exposed brewing equipment and multiple  screens broadcasting sports - that Mrs B-V got to sample a genuine Chicken Kiev. Or Kyiv. Or Київ.

The fact that words can be written in any one of three ways - Westernised, Ukranian spelling / International alphabet, and Ukrainian spelling / Cyrillic alphabet - makes it incredibly hard to navigate ones way around the city, by the way, as maps and street signs all use different renditions.

Anyway, the Chicken Howeveryouspellit seems to be a dish primarily aimed at tourists who think themselves experimental but aren't, as, it has to be said, the filling was rather bland and probably less garlicy than you'd find in a Tesco's Finest Chicken Kiev.

I'd gone for the Pork neck shashlick, which bore only a passing visual resemblance to the shashlicks found in Indian restaurants, but was no less tasty. The barbecued meat was smoky, tender and full of flavour, having clearly been marinated for a very long time. 

It came up with fresh hummous, a chilli sauce, flatbread, salad and garlic and rosemary fries, and was damn good. A lot like the pork souvlaki one finds in Greece, and thoroughly recommended, should you ever go to the Arena beer house.

Shisha pipes are also surprisingly popular in the City and seem to be available in several bars, so we rounded off our meal with a tasty pipe of watermelon tobacco.

Where and What Else?

One place where we did manage to eat something deeply garlicy was the Shato brewery where you can pick from a special beer snacks menu while you drink your pale-and-tasteless or brown-and-overly-malty lager.

Ear ear
Like many former Soviet countries, deep fried black bread with smushed garlic is a speciality and this time they haven't dumbed it down for the tourists.
Crispy pigs ears were also on the menu, but were a disappointment compared to those I'd tried in Tallinn a few years ago. However, the 'peasant sausages' proved to be an agreeable blend of offal and herbs, and the fried cheese would go well with almost any beer.

You'll probably want to drink some vodka - known locally as Horilka - when you visit this part of the world - if possible go for a small obscure local producer, or homemade if you can find it. As well as being cheaper than the big name brands, these have a fresh, creamy flavour and grainy aroma and make for far better neat-drinking than the mainstream vareties that taste only of alcohol.

On the street you will find people dispensing 'Krak' an almost non-alcoholic beery drink made from bread. With it's low carbonation and frothy head, it has the look of a pint of real English bitter, with a sour edge, offset by artifical sweetening. Strange, but not unpleasant.

Oh, and right by the Mussorgsky-inspiring 'Golden gate' - which is neither golden nor a gate - there's an Italian restaurant that does an absolutely killer Osso Bucco with Parmesan mash.

Don't expect the good food in central Kiev to be cheap. While Ukraine is fairly poor, and prices in shops and from the street kiosks are low (40-50p for a half-litre bottle of water or beer) it's clear that bars and restaurants are only affordable to the wealthy elite, and prices are almost comparable with London at current exchange rates.

Tables in restaurants stand empty, while outside it's one of the most crowded cities (and certainly the most congested metro system) I've visited.

Is it worth a visit? Well, I like ticking off countries and am fascinated by ghost towns, so it was a no-brainer. The food and drink is hit and miss, but it's interesting and varied and you get to tell your friends you've been to Chernobyl!

Just remember to listen to the guy at the tourist office when he suggests taking a packed lunch!