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, December 30, 2011


If you're reading this then you survived Christmas - if not necessarily New Year - and unless you're under three, probably suffered from some degree of nostalgia.

The marketing weasels are very clever these days, and they'd love to think that the plethora of new products available will avert our minds eyes from the wistful memories of all the stuff you can't get any more, but which will never be forgotten.

150 watt lightbulbs, high tar cigarettes, guards on trains, the hard square toffee in Quality Street, Gold Top milk... all gone.

Actually, I was surprised to discover recently that the Gold Top (or 'full cream') milk that my grandmother used to give me as a child is actually still available in large supermarkets. Not liking milk very much - unless it's been made into butter or cheese, obviously - I'm not all that bothered either way, but for a few years now I've been meaning to make Egg Nog, and thought that a bottle of Gold Top might well be a useful ingredient. That and eggs, presumably.

Oh, and some booze. Obviously.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The wait is nearly over

I saw a great new festive product on sale this week.

It’s called ‘Bruce Forsyth’s Double-your-Ham’, and it’s brilliant. You just squeeze a couple of drops of the solution onto your Christmas ham using the supplied pipette, and within 30 minutes the ham will increase in size by 100%.

It's Ham-tastic!
Plus, it’s endorsed by the very crown prince of National Treasureland himself – what’s not to like?

For people who don’t like ham, you can also buy Brucie’s ‘Halve your ham’, which basically involves the chinsome octogenarian coming round your house and eating half of your ham.

I admit it, I’m talking rubbish again. He only eats about 40% of it then he gets full and wanders off to present Strictly, so the product is shit. I’m thinking of reporting them to Trading Standards actually.

Although, when you think about it, it does mean that if you keep using the product your ham will technically last forever, albeit in eternally diminishing quantity, because he’ll never take all of it. Hmm. I have some strange dreams. If indeed it was a dream.

Once, as a child I dreamed I was unhappy because I’d spent all my Christmas money on myrrh and didn’t know what to do. 

Chocolate, please

Anyway, I think I can safely ascribe my extraordinary mental state lately to a lack of chocolate. It’s now been over three weeks without, apart from a tiny one each day from my Advent Calendar, obviously, and it’s starting to take its toll.

For a start, I wish the calendar actually contained nice chocolate rather than manky Maltesers – and even then, just the chocolate without the crunchy, malty centre; you don’t even get the mini bag of Maltesers until Christmas Eve!

I had to change my dessert selection at my team’s Christmas Lunch from Yule Log (which looked really nice and rich) to the Christmas Pudding, which was far too light and cakey with a distinct shortage of fruit, nuts and alcohol as set-menu Christmas Puddings very often are.

A large box of Hotel Chocolat chocs – possibly the finest chocolates commercially available at the moment and certainly the most varied and interesting – arrived in the office and I couldn’t have any. Bah humbug! (Humbugs not containing any chocolate and hence permissible, of course)

And there was only one style of biscuit in the selection tin that didn’t have chocolate, and in normal circumstances it would have been my last choice. The plain Viennese sandwich – who chooses that for fucks sake?!?

When it was really cold last week I wasn’t even able to go to Paul and have their excellent hot chocolate – man, it’s been tough, I tells ya. Hopefully Bono will put out a charity single alerting people to plight of those who have voluntarily given up chocolate for Advent.

I even had to pass up the chance to drink a chocolate stout the other night - admittedly in the Market Porter where there were about a dozen other beers to choose from, but my hackles were already rankled by the preponderance of fairweather drinkers whose great numbers have rendered pubs horrendously crowded! Maybe landlords are using some kind of Forsyth-endorsed ‘Double your punters’ product?

OK, I’ll stop complaining now anyway. It’s been a good test of my willpower, and just about challenging enough to feel like an achievement. Go Me! And my wife!

There’s only a few days to go, and when we get back after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve I’ll be up for an Augustus Gloop-style feast. 

A very chocolatey Christmas to all Ben Viveur readers too, I might add.

I’m determined to make my first Christmas as a married man as chocolatey as possible – after all, we deserve it, and if Brucie brings out a ‘Double your Yule Log’ product I’ll buy it. Twice.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Festive Beef Stew

You know Christmas is coming when supermarket starts playing 'A spaceman came travelling' while you're buying cloves.

With ten days to go now, it's coming right for us again like a snowballing reindeer and I'm starting to get that unnerving feeling that I haven't pulled my preparatory finger out as much as I should've. The ghost of Christmas Last Minute will be a guest at my table once more. Eek.

But apart from the panicked retail spree on Christmas Eve that I seldom seem capable of avoiding, I actually really enjoy the festive season - probably more so than the people who end up with the mediocre gifts I impulse-buy on December 24, anyway.

I enjoy the music, I enjoy the board games, I enjoy the not having to go to work (although I might very well end up with more of that than I'd like in 2012!). And I enjoy the food and drink, obviously. 

Maybe add some tinsel...
I probably said something very similar this time last year and if not I definitely thought it. 

Anyway, I had to do something with those cloves, so I've come up with a new recipe - a variation on my classic beef stew with a festive twist in the form of a mulled wine-style sauce.
I'll include the original version too, as this dish is good at any time during the winter, especially if you can get bargain packs of winter vegetables which tend to be very good value. 

My hunch (or indeed haunch) is that the festive variant would work equally well with venison or perhaps rabbit. Enjoy! 

Beef Stew / Festive Beef Stew

Ingredients - makes four portions. If you don't have all the vegetables it doesn't really matter!

Don't overcook too soon, mind!
Diced stewing beef, about two pounds
Onions, two or three quartered
Leek, one sliced
Carrots, a few sliced
Swede, one sliced
Celery, two sticks chopped
Chestnut Mushrooms, chopped bite-size
Tomatoes, three or four, quartered
Plain Flour
Garlic Salt
Celery Salt
Chilli Powder
Black Pepper
Worcestershire Sauce
Olive Oil

Green Pepper,  one sliced
Dark Beer, about 2/3 pint
Maille Mustard, a generous spoonful
Parsnips, two sliced
Red Wine, about half a bottle
Ground Ginger
Ground Cinnamon
Ground Nutmeg
Whole Cloves, about 6-8


Peel/chop/slice your vegetables as required, and place them in a big casserole - make sure there's room left at the top for the beef.
Mix up the flour with the garlic salt, black pepper, cumin, chilli powder and celery salt (and if you're doing the festive version include cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger as well). Aim for a roughly 50/50 mix of flour and spice.

Dust your meat with the seasoned flour, and brown in a big pan with a little oil, but don't let it overcook. Take it off the heat and add to the pan the beer (or wine), Worcestershire sauce, mustard (or cloves), and maybe another pinch of all the required spices - but if you're doing the Christmas edition, be careful not to overdo the cloves as a little goes a long way in the cloven realm.

Pour the meat and sauce into the casserole, making sure there will be enough liquid to more or less cover the meat and vegetables - eg not quite up to the top because the liquid level will rise during cooking.

Put the lid on the pot and whack in the oven on a low heat (~100 degrees) for at least three hours, taking it out the oven to shuffle the ingredients around and make sure nothing is exposed and burning mid-way through. 
You can slow-cook the stew almost indefinitely, so it's a dish that can easily be prepared the day earlier and heated up before serving.
Serve piping hot with your choice of fresh bread, potato or rice, and enjoy!!!.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The delights of Leather Lane

Some people give up stuff for Lent. Alcohol… meat… wanking… whatever.

My Lenten fasting tactics usually involving giving up something but relapsing half-way through, thus showing myself to be a man of admirable intention but with no pretensions to divinity. To try nobly and fail with serenity is the human condition after all.

Either that or I’ll wait until Passiontide or thereabouts, figure out something I just happen to have failed to consume during Lent, and retrospectively decide to give that up, with the finishing line only being a matter of days away.

And that’s not cheating, it’s just being clever.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Strange Days

Well, it’s been a tough few weeks in the B-V household, one way or another - Family bereavements coupled with major shakeups at work immediately following the move to Holborn have made life feel a whole lot less stable and normal.

I can’t calculate which is lower – my level of job security or the number of relatives I have left. Both must be down to single digits by now.

Anyway, things haven't been easy, hence the lack of blogging recently, and in the kitchen this means I’ve retreated into my culinary comfort zone, rustling up old winter favourites like my famous Boston baked beans and a nice chilli, rather than trying to create new masterpieces. Which isn't to say that my beans and chilli aren't masterpieces in their own right, obviously.

And having said goodbye to Canary Wharf (and the sense of job security that seemed to go with it) I’ve been uncharacteristically slow to explore my new territory – possibly because it might not be mine to explore for very long!

OK, so my tongue has wandered a tad: There’s the Leather Lane burger van where the burgers taste strangely like kofte kebabs, a plethora of good pubs offering decent lunch menus (Venison and prune pie and Black Cab stout at the Melton Mowbray!), and a fair few independent sandwich and coffee shops, all of which are potentially good news for this blogpipe.

But despite my deliberately saying that I wouldn’t be buying all my lunches from the Sainsbury’s opposite the new office, I’ve been buying most of my lunches from the Sainsbury’s opposite the office. Ho hum.

Supermarket Sweep

It’s just been the sort of period where even the effort of thinking ‘what shall I try today?’ was often too much, and having lived and work in places dominated by Tescos for the last couple of years, it has to be said that Sainsbury’s £3 lunch deal absolutely pisses sloppy wet shit over Tesco’s £2.50 lunch deal.

For a start, you can choose any of their sandwiches (even premium ones like the BLT in a rustic torpedo, or the Ham hock and cheddar which cost more than three quid on their own) whereas at Tesco one is limited to a sandwich from the basic range. And Sainsbury's stuff is a notch up from Tesco's to begin with, frankly.

The crisp selection is about the same, but your drink options include proper fruit juices rather than manky concentrated versions, so for an extra 50p, you’re getting a way better experience than you would at Tesco.

I realise that this is bit mundane by my standards, but I'll assume forgiveness and try to do better in the future!

Ooh, colourful...
Curry and Fireworks

One rare moment of sanctuary in the last few weeks that I've been meaning to write about was our trip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden for Diwali.

I have to admit that I’d not properly been inside a Hindu temple since a disturbing experience as a young child, and things seem to have moved on since then.

I’m told it’s a bit different during the rest of the year, but Diwali here is run as an industro-commercial operation – much like almost every cathedral seems to be these days, with their donation boxes and gift shops and refectories.

The atmosphere in the surrounding area was very much like an evening football match - for London's Hindu population Diwali is still a very big deal, and it's hard to imagine anything remotely comparable in the Church of England!

You get to walk through the temple itself as if it’s a tourist attraction, but only a very few stopped to pray before the icons; the emphasis is not so much on anything obviously spiritual, but on the vast, crowded food tent and the equally massive firework display which was probably the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.

Back when I was a child, in those carefree days of long Summer holidays, actually liking cola cubes, and getting disturbed in Hindu temples, I loved fireworks and wanted to be a pyrotechnics designer when I grew up. 

Hungry Hungry Hindus
I still like fireworks, but not as much as I like food and so the real highlight for me was the veritable food festival, with stalls offering many and varied Indian delights - plus, slightly incongruously, pizza and chips, which seemed particularly popular!

The food was primarily from the Shayona restaurant and catering company which apparently is permanently based within the Temple complex. It's all vegetarian, but it's good.

The tent was jam-packed, and the lines for every stall were long and meandering, like an orgy of snakes. You'd join a queue with little idea of what you were going to get, and then eat it while standing in the next queue - but that was all part of the fun somehow.

We tried the Puna Kachori - little vegetable frittery things, all mixed up with vermicelli, yoghurt and tons of fresh coriander and chillis.

And then there was the Channa and Puri stall - at the end of the longest, twistiest snake of all in the nest of queues - but well worth it.

The only real disappointment was the Jalebi, which I've never liked. It's basically sticky and super-sweet deep fried radioactive batter. We took one bite each, then gave our portion to a guy near the front of the queue, saving him several days. He thought he was actually queuing for the Dabeli rather than the Jalebi, but it didn't matter.

As deep religious experiences go, it's unlikely Diwali in Neasden will satisfy too many people, as it must surely be too commercial for the truly devoted and too lightweight to convert outsiders, but if you like eating and watching firework displays and don't mind crowds, it's a blast!