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 23, 2016

What can I give him? Christmas biscuits!

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a healthy contingent of miserly old scrotes banging on about how it's all too commercialised these days and the true meaning of Christmas has long been lost in a big pile of presents, wrapping and sellotape.

I've had some sympathy with this view since I ceased to be a wide-eyed, innocent infant eagerly opening his Rebel Transporter on Christmas morn. But of all the phenomena that are an affront to what the season should be, presents really aren't top of the list.

I mean, tinsel. What the festive fuck is that all about? At least the star on top of the tree (a custom that itself only goes back to the Victorian era) has some sort of significance. Nobody has ever explained to me what bloody tinsel is supposed to represent. And then there's the Coca-Colary bastardisation of Saint Nikolaos of Myra. And that fucking Darkness song about the bell ends. And The Snowman.

So gift-giving, which was always very much a part of the nativity story, is one of the more authentic traditions, even if the legend has expanded over the years from the original trio of gold, frankincense and myrrh to include drum solos and crutches.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Drinking Dodgy Bastards

Three years ago I came up with the Wintersmith cocktail, inspired by the Steeleye Span album of the same name (which, furthering the circularity, was itself inspired by the Terry Pratchett books).

Well, Sir Terry is sadly no longer with us, inventing cocktails is still a lot of fun, and Steeleye have a new album out called Dodgy Bastards, so I thought it was high time I came up with a new drink to go with it, and maybe even do a little reviewette of the album.

Album of the Year?
In recent years the band have developed a fairly heavy, proggy sound, though Maddy Prior's arrestingly clear voice remains very much at the heart of it all. It's a striking combination and right from the opening track, the multi-sectioned Cruel Brother, you know what you're in for: Elaborate tales, exquisite vocal harmonies and top-notch playing throughout.

That's just one of four songs on the album that exceed seven minutes in length, but before you start rolling your eyes, none of them get boring or repetitive for even a second. Case in point, Cromwell's Skull, an epic masterpiece from long-serving bassist Rick Kemp proves that the old boy can still turn out thoughtful lyrics and complex changes of key and time at the ripe old age of 75!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lost Breweries: D is for Devilfish

If I was a few years older, D would almost certainly stand for Devenish or Davenports, but as I'm still pushing back against the encroaching trouser-press of Fortydom, I'll take a tangential turn and talk about Antic pubs. For a bit.

Long-time readers will know my views on Antic - beloved and frustrating as they are in more or less equal measure. I like the quirky decor, the beer choice and quality is often superb and they usually ensure excellent food by employing creative, talented chefs.

Antic pubs are good enough to regularly feature in the Pub of Year, which is why it's all the more irritating that their business- and estate-management skills appear almost non-existent. Thriving, successful Antic pubs close at extremely short notice, quality staff are shunted around apparently at random and sometimes even the shortest of short-term leases aren't seen through to completion.

The Catford Bridge Tavern even won PotY in 2013, shortly before closing, and just down the road, we recently lost the Ravensbourne Arms, another PotY finalist. Yes, Antic run some truly great pubs, but one simply cannot rely on them to even still be there tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lost Breweries: C is for Cains

It's unusual for a Victorian-era regional brewery to simply close. Normally they either keep plodding along, producing nondescript beers for an aging local populace, or they get taken over by someone bigger and run into the ground.

The relatively recent demise of Cains was a truly bizarre case of fiddling while Liverpool burned. Even as brewing ceased, the owners were in denial and 'highly confident' about the direction of Cains, citing a forthcoming modern new microbrewery on the site and a bright future for the brand, neither of which have materialised in the three years since.

This was the latest (and, it would appear last) chapter in a convoluted history of ownership, and exactly what happened to cause its sudden closure remains something of a mystery. When the final ownership team - the Dusanj brothers - took control back in 2002 they were the first Asian owners of a British brewery and certainly talked a fine game. Previously the brewery and brand was owned by Boddington's of Manchester, giving them a presence in Merseyside, before they themselves were taken over by the Whitbread group (and thereafter InBev) and gave Cains back its independence.

But was the beer ever any good?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Drink up and move on

Six years ago, when I first started this blog - yes, it really has been that long - I worked in Canary Wharf and lived a few stops down the DLR. Ben Viveur was largely a food blog aimed at the lunchtime crowd 'On the Wharf'.

Things change. I moved offices a few times and the BV remit expanded to include the whole of London, and, occasionally places further afield. Which is probably a good thing. Christ knows how bored I'd be if I was still searching for the best sandwich in Canada Square now.

Well now, I'm leaving London. Moving house. Becoming a responsible homeowner for the first time. Woo. Scary. Things changing bigly.

So is this the end of BV as we know it? The end of the London Pub of the Year contest? The end of London restaurant reviews? (Not that I've done as many of them as I could lately)

No, of course it fucking isn't. I'll only be technically just outside London - Caterham, to be specific - and in all likelihood I won't spend any less time eating and drinking around the capital than I do now.

But with the move coming up, I've had to knuckle down and start drinking up the various samples that I get sent. And a couple of them were rather interesting and a little different to the standard pale ales that usually arrive on the doorstep.

(I know, I'm really very bad at reviewing the stuff I get sent to review. Hopefully this will make up for it a bit.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

BV London Pub of the Year 2015-16 - the results

Winning stuff is great.

Team GB is having the best overseas Olympics ever and might even pip China to second place in the medals table which would be a bloody fantastic achievement. If any of our medalists are reading - I'll buy you a pint. And that goes for all those unlucky fourth-place finishers too. Maybe there should be some sort of Tin medal for them or something?

Dominating the competition...
Now we can all safely forget about how shit England were in the footie, and enjoy some real sport. Watching the athletics always makes me want to go out and buy a load of javelins.

But it's not the only big competition exciting us this Summer - there are trophies (well, a trophy) to be awarded in the BV London Pub of Year.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Brewdog brings back real ale - sort of

The big announcement last week in the beer world came from Brewdog. So far, so normal. They like to do 'big announcements' on a regular, predictable basis.

I'm surprised they haven't brewed a triple IPA called 'Big Announcement' then done a big announcement about it, frankly.

But unlike most of the news coming out of Fraserburgh (or Ellon, or wherever it is they've had to relocate to now because they've increased another 300% in size in the last six months) this was actually important stuff.

Introspective and self promoting, obviously, because we wouldn't expect anything else from them, but important, paradigm-shifting news nonetheless. (And, yes, I am going to try to work a dig at Brewdog into every sentence, thank you very much!)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BV London Pub of the Year 2015-16 - part two

The other day we revisited the top five pubs from last year's competition. Now comes the arguably more interesting list of the five new challengers on the 2015-16 shortlist.

Narrowing it down to five was a challenge. Trying to ensure all parts of Greater London are represented is borderline impossible, while there is always a strong temptation to include more pubs that are undeniably great but similar to those already in the competition - such as another Craft Beer Company outlet.

I've tried to pick pubs that I think are worthy of entry in the competition whilst retaining a bit of variety, and this is what I've come up with:

Friday, July 22, 2016

BV London Pub of the Year 2015-16 - part one

So, it's that time of the year again. That half-way point in the calendar when I pick my Pub of the Year, which is probably the same as it was last year. You know the drill by now.

Except that things are a bit different this time.

Rather foolishly I committed myself at the start of 2016 to visiting every single brewery in London, with a view to putting out a book on the subject. That's going alright. Sort of. I've done just about half of the current total, so I'm just about on schedule.

The thing is, once you've one brewery (ok, a few) you really have seen them all. You start to see sacks of malt in your dreams. You try to find something that makes this fermentation vessel different from those fermentation vessels you saw last Saturday. All those American Pale Ales start to blur into one continuous stream of golden hoppiness. Another day. Another railway arch. Another industrial estate...

Friday, July 15, 2016

I should Cocoro

Pokémonimania, or whatever the fuck we should call the phenomenon, doesn't really interest me. I wasn't into it the first time around, and I have so much of a 'collector' mindset that if I ever started trying to 'catch em all' I'd literally be unable to stop until I did. And I've got better things to collect, like beers.

What this fad does afford me, however, is a rather tenuous angle with which to introduce a blog. Take that, Pikachu! I'm the one exploiting you!

Anyway, I've never been to Japan, and could be completely and utterly wrong, but my view of Japanese culture is that it's more insanely polarised than Brexit Britain.

On one hand you have a younger generation that is creative, exciting and spontaneous, leading the world in innovation, technology and brightly-lit things, and then behind the scenes there is an older Japan with very conservative values - family-oriented with a stereotypically strong work ethic. Quite the contradiction.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Final Meal 2016 - Piri piri Croque Monsieur

It's an interesting feature of life that we often blame our own failures and shortcomings on bad luck, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the huge role that the hand of fate plays in things beyond our control.

I'm not going to play the 'yet another disgruntled Remainer banging on about Brexit' card, given that I felt the campaign waged by both sides was pretty appalling and have no strong views either way. But, hubris aside, if we've learned one thing from this sorry referendum malarkey it is that wholesale, irreversible constitutional change should not be determined by a one-off poll requiring only a simple majority to pass.

It just shouldn't. Because it really is a fucking fucktarded way of doing things.

52:48 is hardly a clear mandate at the best of times, but several of the 52% expressed remorse almost immediately, and several more claimed they only voted Leave because they didn't think they'd win. Duh. Then you have this 'ere London. The strongest area in the country for Remain, with turnout badly affected by the weather and transport issues preventing folks from getting to the polls.

Piri piri Croque Monsieur - the dish of the Euro 2016 final
You could've held the EURef a week later and got a different result. Hold it five times, and it might end up 3-2 one way or t'other. It's effectively so close as to be a coin-flip, and the fact that we could easily have a different result simply because a few people changed their minds on a whim or couldn’t get to the polling station because their train home was cancelled simply proves that this is no way to decide the future of the country.

I'd be saying the same thing if Remain had won by such a small margin too, though obviously the status quo would've had less impact on the economy'n'shit. I was always more concerned that a close result either way would cause chaos in the Conservative Party, and so it's proven to be - I'm sorry to see David Cameron go, but lack of attention to detail has been arguably his biggest weakness in office, and so it's proven again with his failure to think properly about the rules of the Referendum and the part that luck can play if we don't take steps to ensure against it. Insist on a 60% majority - robust enough so as not to vulnerable to human whim, hailing storms or cancelled trains.

Anyway, having said I wouldn't play the disgruntled Remainer card (honestly I'm not!) I'll shut up in case people think I am.

Let's talk about football instead

It isn't just politics either. Euro 2016 has shown how fortune can have a massive and long-lasting impact on outcomes.

Two deserving finalists?
Hosts France might just about be one of the two best teams in the tournament, though they were very lucky to get past Germany.

But also in the final we have a desperately average Portugal side who struggled to finish third in their group, and didn't even win a game in regulation time until their semi-final win over Wales.

England were universally slated after losing to Iceland in the last 16, with Roy Hodgson going the same way as Cameron - but lets not forget that in the past year, England have beaten Wales, Portugal, Germany and France - all four semi-finalists. Again, it just illustrates how the fickle hand of fate makes a mockery of sport just as it does politics.

Will the winner of tomorrows Euro 2016 final be the best team in Europe in 2016? It's possible but tournament football is scarcely better at determining this than picking straws.

'Piri piri' is Portuguese for 'scraping through by drawing every game'
Anyway, a major final means that I create a recipe that combines the respective cuisines of the two finalists. There's a bit of luck in this too, as you never know quite how it's going to turn out.

I've done this a couple of times before though, with Black Forest Churrasco the dish of the 2014 World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina and Gnocchi Bravas when Spain took on Italy in the Final of Euro 2012.

This time we're going for a lunchtime classic, with a bit of a kick (how much will depend on how hot your Piri piri spice mix is, I go with good old reliable Swchwarz, tasty but not overpowering with chilli heat).

Piri piri Croque Monsieur

A French classic with a Portuguese twist!

Ingredients - serves two:

Bread, four slices, ideally French rustic style
Cheese, four generous but slender slices - I used French Comte
Ham, decent quality, four slices or so
French butter, you'd be surprised just how much! 
A shallot, very finely chopped/blitzed 
Piri piri spice mix
Tomato puree


The first step is make the hot sauce - melt a little butter in a small saucepan and fry off the shallots until very soft, then throw in a generous pinch of the Piri piri mix and a squirt of tomato puree.

I know which side my bread is buttered - both!
Finish with a dash of Madeira to achieve the desired liquidity, and leave on a low heat - you might want to taste it, add a little salt to taste and maybe more Piri piri if desired. Obviously for this project we want some robust, though not overwhelming heat and a bit of sweetness from the Madeira too.

The sauce should take about half an hour to reduce to where we want it to be - it's basically a sort of warm chutney.

In the meantime we can start prepping the rest of the meal - slicing the bread and cheese and so on. (If we had weeks of preparation we'd commission a specially-cured ham with Piri piri spices, but we'll make do with a normal Wiltshire cure for now.)

Toast the bread to sub-toast toastedness, if that makes sense - basically don't toast it for too long - and then butter on both sides. That's right, both sides. Like you used to have to do in those old Breville sandwich toasters back in 1989 before your mum married Biff Tannen.

Looking good...
Whack the slices of semi-toast in a hot griddle pan, flipping them over periodically to ensure they achieve a golden colour and crispy texture.

Layer a slice of cheese on top of each slice of toast - if the residual heat isn't enough to turn them gooey, knock them off momentarily with a spatula until they start to gooify, then slide them back on. Finally, add the ham to each slice, just allowing it to warm slightly atop the squidgy cheese.

Plate up immediately before serving, assembling the two halves of toasted bread, ham and cheese into sandwiches, with a good dollop of your Piri piri sauce spread inside.

Bon Appetit / Vamos a Comer!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lost Breweries: B is for Brew Wharf

London's thriving beer scene of the last decade has seen a few casualties and suffered some collateral damage. Some might argue that the biggest loss was Young's merger with Charles Wells and subsequent move to Bedford.

I didn't care much about that. What I did care about was the loss of Brew Wharf, a brewpub that pretty much kick-started a revolution in my view.

And so, I give you this obituary I penned a while back - reproduced from the April/May 2015 edition of London Drinker - which summed up my thoughts at the time.

Since I wrote it, I've learned that the brewing equipment is now with Breakwater brewery in Dover, and some of the same people seem to be involved too, which may be cause for optimism even though they're taking a long while to get up and runni
ng. The Brew Wharf bar itself hardly ever seems to be open these days, however...

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Lost Breweries: A is for Ash Vine

I've been regularly drinking beer for about 25 years now, which probably makes me just about qualified to reminisce about breweries that have slipped from our horizons.

It's easy to forget that this even happens, given that we've been reaping a seemingly endless harvest of new breweries for many years now. But some, indeed many, breweries go beer-belly-up for various reasons, so this is the first in a series of posts where I look back wistfully - or in this case, not - at a few of them. Starting with West Country micro Ash Vine.

And if you're sitting there thinking 'Ash Vine... Hmm.. were their beers as boring as I remember?' then you're pretty much on the same wavelength as me! And if the name draws a blank, it's probably further proof of the singularly unmemorable nature of their beers. Their many, many all-very-similar beers...

Friday, May 20, 2016

The land of Durrell (and Moussaka)

On his final visits to Corfu, towards the end of his life, Gerald Durrell lamented the extent to which the island where he grew up had changed.

In many ways I'm in a similar situation. I didn't grow up there, obviously, but I did spend several weeks of my youth holidaying on various Greek islands - the last time more than 20 years ago.

Until last week, when we spent a few days in Corfu as a base for a trip to Sarande, Albania (my 49th country, folks!) and to see if Greece was still as I remembered it.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Tragedy about a Daylight Robbery

Earlier this year, we saw The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre. All things considered, it's a pretty good production, subverting as it does a wide range of theatrical tropes to comedic effect. I laughed quite a bit. All good so far.

Then, a few weeks later we went to see the spin-off, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which was less fun - perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the supply of ideas for stuff that can go wrong was probably thin on the ground following the sheer number of things that, rightly, went wrong in The Play That Goes Wrong.

Nonetheless, it was still just about worth watching, in a sort of pantomimey, passing-the-timey sort of way.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Are we feeling revitalised yet?

So, last week I was able to attend one of CAMRA's consultation meetings as part of their Revitalisation programme.

Admittedly, one of the reasons I wanted to do this particular session was that it was being hosted by the Southwark brewery, and as such, was another small step towards doing every brewery in London this year. But I also have views, some of which aren't always entirely in line with established CAMRA dogma, and this was an opportunity to make them heard. Possibly.

For a start, I didn't agree with the negative and provocative language they used in bringing this exercise to the attention of the mainstream media, though I have to admit, it certainly got their attention, if possibly not for the best of reasons...

So, how did it all go? And what can you expect when the Revitez crew to rock up in your manor going all craft on you?

Monday, April 4, 2016

CAMRA's suicide note

I don't pay a whole lot of attention to CAMRA politics - I'm a member, but I'm not that kind of member - but over the last few days things have really gone a bit weird.

Some recent headlines made for interesting reading:

'Thanks to the hipsters, has the Campaign for Real Ale pulled its last pint?' asks the Telegraph, while the Indie wonders if the organisation is about to change its name and perhaps its entire remit. The BBC went with 'Should there be a crusade to save British pubs?', which, of course, is already heartland campaign territory, but there is a strong implication that this should become CAMRA's sole focus rather than worrying about all that 'real ale' nonsense.

So, it's pretty clear that a press release was widely circulated ahead of the AGM / Members Weekend in Liverpool, and whatever was in it has caused news outlets to jump to all kinds of fucked-up conclusions, right?

Or possibly the cart really was leading the horse on this occasion. Given that the title of the press release in question was: Is this the end of the Campaign for Real Ale?.

Yes, that's the actual title of a Campaign for Real Ale press release. Provocative? Confusing? Stupid?

Suicidal? Quite possibly.

Not so much the gentle winds of change, but somebody somewhere really pushing an angle that either CAMRA is in crisis (almost certainly not true in any sense; membership figures are at record levels) or that the organisation is about to make drastic policy changes.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Wither Spoons?

So, another round of Spoons Bingo comes to an end, and scoopers all over the land, me included, will have successfully ticked off another 50 beers. (Or, at least, as many of the 50 as they needed - there were some very 'everyday' ales on the list this time around.)

There has been another thought on my mind: Was this the last Wetherfest? Or at least the last as we know it?

50/50 (not a rating!)
Things are changing in JDW land. New openings have slowed to a trickle, while they have been quite aggressively selling off pubs over the past six months, including several where I've spent many happy hours.

For the first time, the overall size of the estate is contracting rather than expanding, and at an alarming pace.

Customers are reacting negatively to this, particularly in areas that are losing their last or only Spoons. Then there has been the huge backlash over their plans to stop serving Sunday Roasts.

(The 'roasts' were truly awful, so I'm not bothered, but a lot of people seemed to enjoy spending their Sabbaths eating slimy pre-sliced meat and microwaved bags of vegetables.)

There are whispers - nothing concrete, mind, but certainly speculation and rumours - that the company is making a few adjustments ahead of a substantial change to its operations. Does this mean a sell-off? Is Tim Martin preparing to step down as Chairman? Are we going to see the estate broken up into smaller chunks, some of which won't be Spoons as we know them?

And what would any of this mean for the beer policy?

I hope Spoons continue. I hope the biannual Wetherfests carry on. And I hope they can get back to acquiring new premises and expanding once more.

But nothing lasts forever, and I'm getting a vibe that the end may be nigh.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Banging on about Europe

So, we have a date. June 23.

No doubt there will be a cacophony of jabber right up until the EU Membership referendum, and indeed for some time afterwards.

But then maybe, just maybe, all the frothing Euro-obsessionistas will finally shut the fuck up.

I certainly hope so. The obsession has been an eradicable feature of British politics since the early 90s -  for the entirety of my adult life - and I don't mind admitting that it absolutely bores me to tears.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

2016 - the London brewery project

I like to set myself little challenges.

Staying alive, going a month without getting caught in a sea-lion enclosure, that sort of thing.

Last year I challenged myself to visit 12 new countries, which I managed fairly easily, so this year's quest, albeit closer to home, is probably a tougher one:

I'm going to visit (and, more importantly, drink in) every brewery in London.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

No more paltry poultry

There are few foodstuffs more homogenised in our culture than chicken.

In Britain we eat more than a pound per person per week, but the vast majority is consumed as a staple commodity, without pride or pleasure. It's the 'sliced white' of the meat industry, for sure. 

We're happy eating it in nugget, tikka or Coronation form, but are we maybe doing a disservice to the humble chicken by passing it off as a mere canvas for more interesting things? I like a Chicken Jalfrezi and I'll happily polish off a giant plate of buffalo wings. But, let's be honest, none of these are really about the chicken, are they?

A nicely roasted free-range chicken can be a thing of beauty for sure, but we hardly ever eat it these days. Sadly, we're far more likely to be stopping off at Chicken Cottage at 2AM for cheap battery chicken scraps, where the lack of underlying flavour is concealed by swathes of fat and a secret blend of herbs and spices. It's depressing; probably more so if you're a chicken!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Libertarian rantings

January is undoubtedly the favourite time of year for puritans, killjoys, and illiberal scaremongers, all of them seeking to get inside our heads and extract vengeance for any pleasure we might've gleaned from the festive season.

Top of the list is the lowering of the 'recommended drinking limits', which were already impractically low, to the point where no amount of alcohol is now considered safe, and neither men nor women should regularly consume more than 14 units a week. One glass of wine or a pint of weak beer per day, basically.

Government guidelines.  The very phrase makes me reach for a glass. And as usual, the science backing it up is pretty dubious when you actually scrutinise it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

BV's best beers of 2015

Well, it looks like 2015 is finally over - I don't know about you, but after suffering the seemingly inescapable march of time and life going faster and faster, the year actually went pretty slowly. Maybe time is slowing down? Maybe God slammed on the celestial handbrakes?

Or maybe it's just because it was a year with lots crammed into it, like a bulging Temporal Christmas Stocking. Perhaps with crudely-wrapped action figures all poking out the sides and distorting the very fabric of time?

I got to visit 12 new countries during the 12 months. That was pretty cool. And I finally ate in the House of Commons' Members Dining Room, and invented the Pimms Lagerita.

So, yes, it's been quite a year, but the backdrop to any sort of existence is, of course, beer, and this is the time when I traditionally tell you all what the best ones were. Well, the best new beers I sampled during the year, obviously. I seldom retread.