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!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Expensive 'Spoons, expensive countries and a very expensive poo

One of the most insane weekends of my life involved a stag night in Tallinn, eight years ago.

We set off at stupid'o'clock on a Friday morning, on a minibus from Ipswich, started drinking in the Stansted Wetherspoons, and got to the Estonian capital shortly after midday local time, if I recall correctly.

There then followed a marathon afternoon and evening of spiced beer and shots of pepper vodka, followed by weird, tasty, offally food. I suspect I drank more than anybody else. At least eight pints plus half a dozen shots, I'd imagine.


But while the other stags went to their hotel for a big sleep, a lie-in and the prospect of rinsing and repeating the following day, I headed to the airport at about 2AM to catch another flight (actually a pair of flights as I had to connect in Copenhagen).

I've had more pre-flight Wetherbreakfasts than you've had hot Wetherbreakfasts
It's all a bit fuzzy now. I can vaguely remember using a disabled toilet in Copenhagen airport and playing 'Animal Crossing' on a Nintendo DS, which was what all us uber-cool kids were doing at the time. I don't actually remember sleeping.

I landed at Manchester Airport at about 9:30, feeling, bizarrely, as fresh as a daisy, and proceeded to visit half a dozen Manc 'Spoons (enjoying, obviously, a second Wetherbreakfast in as many days) before catching the train down to Stoke, to watch Coventry City beat the hosts 3-1.

And then, the tiny matter of a 150 mile journey home, mostly on a rail replacement bus. I think I actually got up in time to go to church on the Sunday.

Many thought me crazy for arranging this madcap itinerary, cutting short a stag weekend just to attend a football match. I saw it as some sort of endurance challenge. One of those things where you ride the waves on a twisted surfboard of adrenaline and Wetherbreakfasts and let reality catch up later.
Having done precisely zero sight-seeing first time around, I always felt like I hadn't seen enough of Tallinn, and wanted to check out some new eating and drinking places, as well as revisiting the haunts I remembered from Gareth's stag.

I'd also never been to Finland, and the crossing From Tallinn to Helsinki seemed as good a way as any to tick that one off, so a short trip seemed like a no-brainer. Nice and smooth this time, with no unnecessary extra flights and mad dashes around Northern Europe...


Now, I don't much like flying, nor the hours of faffery that invariably takes place at airports either side of the flight, but our experience with EasyJet last Monday was perhaps the worst of my life.

We got to Gatwick a couple of hours before the departure time, having checked in weeks before online, and breezed through security. No problems there. It's 9:30 in the morning, flight at ten past eleven. Let's go for some breakfast and a pre-flight beer as per the B-V tradition.

When the big screen said 'Go to gate', we started heading towards gate 45, pausing only for a trip to the facilities to shift my Wetherbreakfast. I don't think I was in there that long, was I?

Fuck you
When we got to the gate, the departure boards were still saying 'Go to gate', but a surly jobsworth told us, in the most deadpan tone imaginable, that the flight had gone. We laughed. Surely he had to be joking, right? It doesn't go for half an hour.

But no. It had gone. We'd just missed the bus to the plane. Fucking Cuntplungers.

I pondered on what a great irony it would be for somebody with my fear of flying if the plane that left without us burst into flames, and determined never, ever to fly with these fuckers again.

Some woman came over and told me to calm down: the plane had 'gone' and we'd have to go to the Easyjet help desk. Like fuck the plane has gone. The passengers are probably still being driven across the tarmac, you fucking arsetard.

Still the screens said 'Go to gate'. We took photos, to use when we take the fuckers to court.

Where was 'last call'? Where was 'gate closing'? Where were the announcements? Usually they do a generic call for the 'final few passengers', and then, if necessary ask for people by name. But there was none of that.

I don't think I'm being unreasonable. They should at least have told people the gate was closing, particularly because it was one of those gates where everyone has to go on a stupid bus, rather than walk directly onto the plane via one of those jetty things that always seem to be made by Thyssen-Krupp.

The staff on the Easyjet 'help' desk were singularly unhelpful. No more flights. No, they can't put on another flight. No, we just have to wait there for an hour, until someone can take us back landside through a kind of reverse security.

The best we could do? Book flights on Baltic Air, not leaving until the evening, changing in Riga and arriving in Tallinn at half past midnight! At an additional cost of £350! And the obliteration of our first evening in Tallinn! Fuck this shit!

I needed a big beer after that nonsense!
And all because I needed to do a big poo. If I'd elected to hold it in the bomb bay across the North Sea, we'd have made that fucking bus, no problem.

Now, you might be asking, why not cut your losses and just go home instead? And, yes, it might've been an option, had we not already paid in full for our hotel in Tallinn, our return flight and a return ferry trip to Helsinki the following day. I couldn't afford not to spend that extra 350 quid on my visit to the facilitas.


And so began an extended vacation in Gatwick, spent mostly in the various Wetherspoons, which manage to have a far less interesting selection of beers compared to those on the high street, but charge double the price.

Baltic Air, to their credit, got us there, albeit with a mad rush to make the graveyard shift connection in Riga, not helped by security staff who didn't seem to care if a plane left without us for the second time that day.

Dinner on the 'first night' consisted of a can of lager from the hotel minibar. A. Le Coq 'Premium' (5.2%) is one of the most common beers but is an unmemorable, Stella-like pilsner. (On the Tallink ferry, you can get a 400ml Coq along with a shot of Valhalla, a black herbal J├Ąger-clone for €7.50, which isn't a terrible deal.)

Last time I was in Tallinn, they still used the EEK, and prices were dirt cheap. Beers worked out at little more than £1 a pint. This is, sadly, no longer the case. Estonian prices seem to be on a par with mainland Europe, and Finland is more expensive still.

Would love to have spent longer here (and less in fucking Gatwick!)
The highlight of Helsinki was the Bryggeri Helsinki brewpub, which makes up for its lack of an imaginative name with a varied range of modern keg beers.

We tried their IPA (5.5%, dry and hoppy, not over-carbonated) and the Roggenfest - a 5.2% red rye beer that drinks more like a German Rauchbier with a rather smokesome character and notes of peat.

Sadly there wasn't time to check out the restaurant, but you can order large pretzels over the bar.  Served with a highly pungent cheesy dip, they went particularly well with the Roggenfest. It is expensive, but then this is craft beer in Scandinavia, so what do you expect?

There are now several pubs in Helsinki serving cask beer - the bad news is that this is almost always imported from the UK. The Pullman bar inside the early art deco railway station had Fuller's Seafarer on handpump, though we passed this up in favour of something more local, Siinebrychoff 'Karhu A', a malty lager in the Czech style.

This station pub reminded me a lot of the old Head of Steam at Liverpool Lime Street and also did some rather good spicy coated nuts.

There's talk of a gizzard
Back in Tallinn we had enough time for a couple of proper meals, though not as many as if we hadn't been fucked around by EasyJet, obviously.


I don't know if it's my memory playing tricks on me, the effects of alcohol, a decline in quality since 2007, or a combination of all three, but the Beer House brewpub, in the heart of the old town, just wasn't as good as I remember.

The menu seems pretty similar and the beer range has perhaps increased, but I'd been raving about the crispy pigs ears with garlic sauce for years and had looked forward for an opportunity to try them again. This time they were unpleasantly cartilagey without the crunch or porky flavour I remembered.

I also remember spicy, offally sausages being a highlight, but again was a bit disappointed. We tried a metre-long sausage with bean stew and while the sausage itself was OK, the stew was bland tomato with little seasoning and undercooked beans. Plus there were bloody peas in it. I'm certain the dish used to be a lot tastier, as well as about a third of the price.

We also tried chicken gizzards, and the less said about these greasy, chewy monstrosities, the better. Garlic black bread was OK, mozzarella balls were bland and disappointing, a far cry from what I was expecting based on past performance.

At least the beer was fine, though just fine. We tried all seven of the beers brewed on site, several of which were very similar to one another. The clean, bready Marzen was probably my favourite, while the Dunkel and Helles are faithful, if unexciting, takes on traditional German styles. The Medovar Honey isn't bad, if you like that sort of thing.

€20 gets you the sampler which includes approximately a half pint of each beer, though you'll wish you'd gone for a full litre of your favourite and had it in a big glass more suitable for rapid-reaction thirst-quenching.

I'd spent several dimly-lit hours in Olde Hansa on the stag weekend and had fond, if blurry memories of the atmosphere and the drinks, but hadn't sampled the Medieval menu.

It's pricey and touristy, obviously - the costumed waitresses refer to the cutlery as 'weapons' and when you pay by card it's 'using your wizard magic', but it's not all Disney-style gimmickry. They play authentic medieval music (sometimes even live apparently) and the menu is fairly faithful - there's no leavened bread or potatoes, and the side dishes include berries, turnips and spelt.

We tried some slow-cooked pork with beer syrup and the game sausages which are a mix of elk, wild boar and bear. The pork was very tender inside and the beer syrup sticky and sweet, but the blackened skin was almost inedible, possibly intentionally.

Game sausages were meaty and flavoursome as expected, and if we hadn't been in a hurry to catch the last EasyJet flight I'm ever going to catch and go home, we might've gone for one of their 'feast' options which last some time and include just about everything on the menu.

The drinks selection isn't all medieval and the provenance of the beers is a secret. Dark beer with honey, dark beer with herbs and light beer with cinnamon are the options, which is exactly as it was when I visited eight years ago.

I suspect that they might bring in standard beers from a regional brewery and add the extras in house, but they're tasty enough, particularly the cinnamon which is quaffable in large quantities - the other two are a bit spiky and intense to drink a lot of.

The decor in this place keeps you looking, and I love the chunky ceramic drinkware. If you only go to one place in Tallinn, Olde Hansa is probably the one to go to.

In the event, the only other place apart from airport and ferry terminals where we had time to grab a quick drink was the Kochi Aidad brewpub which is conveniently close to the ferry terminal and open for half an hour after the ferry back from Helsinki docks.

They offer a range of six or so beers. I felt like something different and tried their Koch Ronk stout (4.5% and more like an American porter) as well as the Kvass, a malty, non-alcoholic drink made from rye bread. This was flavoured strongly with herbs and was, perhaps an acquired taste without the alcohol to balance out some of the more extreme Baltic botanicals.

And that, thanks to EasyJet shortening our holiday by eight crucial hours, was that.

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