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!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cottage Pie and Broken Dreams

I’ve had an idea for a new TV food show, given that they’re all the rage at the minute’n’shit.

Probably called ‘Cook It!’, or ‘My Way’ or somesuch, it’s a format of such pure simplicity that it could make for fascinating contests, like the first couple of years of Big Brother before producers started wanking around with the rules and every housemate became a wannabe Z-lister.

And it might well have been done already – I don’t watch enough television to say for certain that it’s an original idea – but if it has, I’ve never seen it.

My screenplay, apparently
Little story: Many years ago I went for a meeting with a couple of TV producers to talk through some ideas I’d had, including one for an exciting, original drama full of intriguing twists.

They let me talk them enthusiastically through the synopsis for many minutes, perhaps with some degree of awkwardness on their part, before quietly informing me that I’d actually been recounting, with startling accuracy, the entire plot of The Pelican Brief. Oh.

I didn’t know! It wasn’t my fault I hadn’t read it or seen it and had just happened to come up with a similar idea! You've got to believe me!

I never heard from them again.

But life goes on

Anyway, here’s the deal: The contestants – three or four of them, probably - are told at the start of the programme what is on the menu that evening. Like ‘Spaghetti Bolognaise’ or ‘Eggs Benedict’ or ‘Cheese and Ham sandwich’ or ‘Apple Crumble’. Simple.

Perhaps after a couple of series, the prescribed dishes could be a little more ambiguous – ‘Pheasant Surprise’ or ‘Chocolate Outrageousness’ or something – but that’s it.

I think you see where I’m heading… we’d then see footage of the contestants going round shops buying up their ingredients, while the host watches on a big screen nodding and raising eyebrows as appropriate.

Later, in the studio, the cooks assemble in the on-set kitchens and - cue more nodding, eyebrow-raising and sarcastic comments - cook the specified dish. Their recipe. Their own individual take on whatever the menu might be.

Textbook Cottage Pie, this, texbook
The range of different interpretations of the same meal is bound to be interesting. Do they stick to a classic formula or ancient family recipe and concentrate on executing it perfectly? Do they take bold risks, topping their Bolognaise with slices of quince, or drizzling pigs blood over the crumble?

Will some poor sap spend hours perfecting an original and delicious Cottage Pie recipe, only to be told that ingredient-for-ingredient it's exactly the same as the Cottage Pie made by the catering unit on the set of The Pelican Brief?!?

God I wish those TV producers were reading this

I really like the idea that four different people could make four very different Paellas, and the winner would be determined by a vote after a tasting – though unlike Masterchef et al, I’d like to see the contestants make enough so the audience can try some too.

It seems ridiculous that the Ready Steady Cook winner is determined by the votes of a studio audience who only get to see (and possibly smell) the food. Surely you need to taste it to make an informed judgment, no?

And we’ll have no racing against the clock and plating up at the very last second or any of that needless manufactured drama either. They can start when they’re ready with a view to finishing at roughly the same time.

Anyway, I know it’s similar in a lot of ways to a number of existing shows, but then so is most TV.

On that note, here’s a relatively conservative – but extremely yummy – recipe for Cottage Pie, which I might possibly do if I were ever a contestant on this programme and ‘Cottage Pie’ was the dish of the day.

Actually, come to think of it, ‘Dish of the Day’ would be a far better title than ‘Cook It!’, wouldn’t it?

The BV Cottage Pie

Ingredients - serves four:

Lean minced beef, 1½-2 pounds
Carrots, 4 large or equivalent, coarsely grated
Onion, 1 large or 2 small, finely chopped
Chestnut mushrooms, a handful, chopped
9 out of 10 people we asked couldn't tell the difference!
Desiree or White potatoes, several, for the mash
Tomatoes, 3-4, chopped
Garlic, 2-3 cloves, smushed/finely chopped

Worcestershire Sauce and/or mushroom ketchup
Celery salt
Black pepper
Plain flour
Olive oil

Red Leicester or Mature Cheddar (or a mix of the two!), grated


Fry the onion and garlic in a little oil on a high heat until the onion softens, then add the minced beef. Season the meat generously with celery salt, paprika and black pepper as it cooks, then add the mushrooms, tomatoes and finally the grated carrot.

Once the meat is cooked through, add a big glug of Worcestershire Sauce/mushroom ketchup, reduce the heat and cover, letting it simmer for an hour or so, longer if you've time.

Coming along nicely...
While the meat is simmering, cook and mash your potatoes with lots of butter, aiming for a nice, creamy consistency, adding some grated cheese along the way.

Transfer your beefy mixture to a casserole dish, adding a little flour to thicken before so doing if necessary.

Ideally you want the dish to be filled evenly, and just over the half-way line to get the right ratio between potato and filling.

Spread your mash smoothly and evenly over the top of the meat, ensuring it’s completely covered, then add a sprinkling of grated cheddar to the top for extra cheesy goodness. Cheese goes well with beef and potato, don't you know!

Pop the dish in the oven (don’t cover!) at about 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes, so the cheese melts and the top browns slightly. When it looks ready, it’s ready.

Serve with a dollop of baked beans (be sure to add Worcestershire sauce) and a pint of good honest ordinary bitter.

For a ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ variation, use lamb instead of beef, substitute the carrot and paprika for diced aubergine, rosemary and mint, and perhaps top with crumbs of Feta instead of grated cheddar.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dead Dog

I’m not ‘cool’. I get that.

I support Coventry City. I’m a Tory. I go to church. I don’t own any devices prefixed by a lowercase ‘i’. My favourite vehicles are executive cars and grand tourers from the 1970s and 80s and my favourite music is Anglican chant, hymn tunes and folk-rock.

And not so much the kind of 'folk-rock' that is sometimes 'credible' amongst the cool like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, either. My favourite band ever is Steeleye Span and I'm proud of that.

In fact, I reject the very concept of fashion and take not a little pride in so doing, and even by the convoluted logic which dictates that the rejection of ‘cool’ makes one cool, I’m not cool.

I don’t generally like ‘cool’ things, so I appreciate that I’m perhaps not really Brewdog’s target market any more. Despite sporting seven body piercings, I've also never much liked Camden, it being full of all the 'cool' stuff I so despise, obviously.

As fate would have it, I've worked in Camden in the past, and dated a girl from Camden (who I then married) but the thought of drinking in the area always filled me with dread. Noisy. Trendy. Beer desert.


You can tell where this going - Brewdog Camden having opened recently and all that...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Porty Pig

Continuing with the January shopping theme from the other day, I recently found, in Tesco, a sugar-, dairy- and Lord-knows-what-else-free Advent Calendar had been reduced from a couple of quid to a quid to 49p.

And now to just 6p. 

Yep. Sixpence. 

That's 24 tiny shaped chocolates at just a farthing apiece! I think.

At that price, I just had to buy it, even knowing it would probably be awful, and we’d only eat one or two of the things before throwing it away.

And I wasn’t disappointed, in that I was, obviously, if that makes sense. The chocolates were 'bland, yet strange', as many vital-ingredient-free foods often are, and duly ended up in the bin. 

Even if it were still the season of Advent and this was the only chocolate I was eating, I'd probably pass. But it was worth it just for the sense of snouting out an irrepressible bargain!

Another bargain, at just 65 pence (three and six in the old money or something, probably) was a pound of pigs liver, which set the wheels turning in my mind for a new dish – four different bits of pig, slow cooked in a port sauce, accompanied with Stilton mash.

Now, people don’t eat a whole lot of pigs liver in these offal-sceptic times, which is probably why it's so inexpensive, and I’d be the first to admit I wouldn’t want it every day, but it’s probably quite good for you and definitely has it’s place in dishes like this.

While the liver is dirt cheap, you’ll need to buy expensive sausages with a high meat content so they don’t fall apart or absorb liquid and become squidgy, and it almost always pays to buy decent, thick bacon as you probably know already.

I thoroughly recommend Black Farmer sausages, though anything with 90%+ meat content is good for this recipe.

This is a dish you can enjoy at your leisure on a long Winter evening. And afterwards you can choose between Port and Stilton or a 'free from' Advent Calendar chocolate...

Porty Pig with Stilton Mash
Four kinds of pig, Port and Stilton...

Ingredients - makes at least four big portions.

Pigs liver, about half a pound, cleaned, trimmed and sliced into bite site pieces
Lean minced pork, about half a pound
Smoked Back Bacon, 6-8 thick rashers, coarsely chopped
Pork sausages (90%+ meat), 6-8, cut into bite size chunks
Onion, two large or three medium, coarsely chopped
Tomatoes, 3-4, cut into eighths (or twelfths if very large)
Garlic, a few cloves, chopped
Black pepper
Celery Salt
Plain flour or Corn flour to thicken
Worcestershire Sauce

For the mash:

White Potatoes, cooked and mashed.
Blue Stilton

Mix some plain flour with the cumin, celery salt, sage, black pepper and cumin (aiming for a 50-50 ratio of flour and spice) and dust your liver pieces. 

In a big, lidded, pan begin frying your bits of sausage in a little oil on a high heat, adding the garlic and onions after a few minutes. As the sausage starts to brown, add the liver and bacon, ensuring everything is kept moving and is evenly cooked. 

Finally add the minced pork, a good dash of Worcestershire sauce and whatever spice/flour mix you have left. 

Cook until all the meat has seen some heat and is nicely grey-brown, then chuck in the tomatoes and your first dash of port. 

Another few minutes at an high temperature, and you'll be able to turn the heat down, add a little more port and put the lid on. Let it simmer and bubble for a good hour or two, stiring occasionally with a big wooden spoon. 

While the piggy goodness is cooking away, absorbing the richness of the liver and port, you can prepare your mash as you see fit, adding butter and stilton to taste. 

For added portiness, add a final dash to the meat shortly before serving, and if the sauce is too liquidy, a little flour to thicken won't do any harm.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

January's Ale

I don’t think I’ve ever actually bought anything in a January Sale, and the ridiculous length of the queues at Westfield Stratford ensured that this record continued for another happy new year.

God knows why, in the Internet Age, so many people still find pleasure in the physical act of shopping – which in this case appeared to involve standing in a spiralling line that threatened to suffocate the very lungs and bowels of Primark customers – but apparently they do, and for some reason I offered to take Mrs B-V there last week.

The ‘some reason’, in truth, was the Tap East Brewpub which may very well be the only good thing about Westfield, and certainly one of the least crowded. At one point we were the only people in there, quietly drinking beer and playing beer top trumps whilst everybody in Primark was presumably still queuing.

Having spent the afternoon watching Coventry valiantly losing to West Ham, where the pies and sausage rolls leave a horrible margariney taste in the mouth, and the post-match experience involves a mile-long queue to get into Upton Park station, a cursory window shop was enough, but several pints were definitely on the agenda.

Ale, man, Ale's the stuff!
Run by the bods who own The Rake and Utobeer in Borough Market, Tap East is an American-style brewpub in look and feel, though they don’t do a full food menu or table service like you'd typically find in the States. Eats are restricted to plates of salady stuff from the chiller cabinet, which didn't appeal, and bowls of nuts from big jars, which did!

In US brewpub style, the brewery itself is visible behind glass, and as well as their own beers they offer a couple of guests at any given time. With six handpumps, there’s twice as many real ales on offer than at The Rake, although to be fair these premises are a lot larger, and conveniently located right by the entrance opposite Stratford International station, so you don’t even need to see any shops!

Their 5.2% IPA was the undoubted highlight – refreshing, hoppy and moreish, but I also tried their slightly fruity stout and the ordinary bitter (John Edwin, 3.8%) which was a bit thin and  underwhelming compared to the IPA. A Winter Warmer was coming soon, to replace the stout, and next time I’m in that part of East London I’ll have to try it if it’s still on.

I also found time for the only other beer on that I needed - a strong and malty bitter from the new Brecon brewery which really wasn’t my thing, but it made for a decent and varied range.

So if you go to Westfield, forget the stupid shopping and just go and drink beer.

Where to find it...

Tap East
Lower Ground Floor,
Westfield Stratford City
1EJ (map)