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 21, 2017

Why nostalgia ain't what it used to be

We all know that things aren't as good as they used to be. Wagon Wheels have been getting smaller for years and must now be viewed under a microscope. Coca-cola doesn't taste as good as it did when we were hyperactive toddlers. And British Saturday night television was the finest on earth in the days when we still had 'good old-fashioned variety'.

We also 'all know' that this is mostly bollocks. As humans we view the past through nostalgic spectacles so heavily tinted with rose petals that we can't see the newly planted trees for the pile of aged wood. We have a keen sense of nuance and self-awareness, enough to understand things on the second level. We only think that stuff used to be bigger and better.

Or do we?

What if there is a third level of thinking to analyse? What if the revealed truth is that food, drink, entertainment and everything else really can get away with dumbing itself down, because people who are going to complain about it not being as good as it used to be will complain that it's not as good to be whatever happens, and everyone else will think that it probably is just as good as it used to be and we only think it isn't because of all that rose-tinted nostalgia stuff that blinds us. Except that it isn't actually blinding us and stuff really isn't as good as it used to be?

Does this make sense?

Allow me to analogise for just a moment...

A notable part of intermediate-level poker strategy is understanding the concept of 'thinking on different levels' just like this.

So, on the most simplistic level, it's simply about what cards you hold. If you have a strong hand, you bet heavily, while if you have a weak hand you don't bet and if there is action, you fold, obviously. On the second level you consider what your opponent might have, as well as your own hand - is your hand weak, but still better than his? Is your hand good, but his even better, that sort of thing.

On the next level you consider not only what cards you both have, but what your opponent might think you have. So here we encounter the most basic forms of bluff and slow-play. If you have a weak hand, you play it aggressively to make your opponent think you have a strong hand, and with a strong hand you play it slowly to try and induce a bet from the opponent who thinks you have a weak hand.

Another couple of levels deeper, and you think about what your opponenent thinks you think he thinks you have. You might bet a strong hand on the basis that the opponent may assume that you're playing on the previous level and are actually bluffing with a weak one.

And so on and so on and so on... Indeed this thought process can theoretically be extrapolated to an infinite depth, albeit by better players than I. What does he think I think he thinks I think he thinks I think he thinks I have... There is an argument for abandoning this logic altogether and simply playing only strong hands because they are strong - though if your opponent picks up on the fact that you have reached this conclusion, they'll know exactly what to do in response. 

But this is a food blog, not a lesson in poker theory. If you've got the analogy, good. If you haven't, don't worry about it (and don't take up poker - you're probably not cut out for it!)

Beefy fries!

McDonalds double-bluffed us, basically.

From poker chips to French Fries

I've eaten food from 'under the arches' exactly once in the last 22 years, and it made me sick. Literally. I threw up on Oxford Street.

But I'm not too snobbish to admit that when I was a child and indeed a teenager I used to eat it quite a lot. I still find the aroma vaguely nostalgic when I walk past a branch (and, yes, despite being a big fat bastard, I'm more than capable of so doing!)

Around the early-to-mid 1990s I began to notice that I really wasn't enjoying Maccie Ds anywhere near as much as I did when I was about 10 and regularly attended birthday parties at the Tooting McDonalds, where you got a tour of the freezing cold kitchen area and the tables on the upper floor were, for some reason, in the shape of a train.

Colouring in Grimace and the Hamburgler with brightly-coloured crayons was fun enough, I suppose, but it was really about the fries. When I were young, McDonalds fries were the stuff of legend. The little paper bags or, if you were lucky, the larger red cardboard containers were sacks of unadulterated joy. At least they were, before things started to change.

And this is one of those instances where things really did change. Back in the day, Ronald's finest fries were cooked in beef fat, which was reflected in the taste. Then they switched to standard vegetable fat and added some sort of powdered beef flavouring for a while. Then the flavouring was dropped altogether. God knows what sort of trendy laboratory oil is used to cook the things in these days.

I don't doubt that the evolution of the product went some way to increasing the appeal to vegetarians (and now, quite possibly vegans) and by some metrics they may have been made healthier. But I suspect it also cut costs and corners, and most importantly, they didn't taste as good.

Did they take the opportunity to switch to inferior potatoes at the same time? Who can say. I wouldn't have put it past them.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2004 or whatever ridiculously futuristic year it is these days (Two thousand and Seventeen? You have to be fucking kidding me, right?) and there's a little treat on the table for those of us who remember the way fries used to be.

20 of your English pounds, at any branch of The Hawksmoor, will buy you a Big Matt Meal (yes, it was created by a chef called Matthew) and with it an enormous slice of enhanced nostalgia.

Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles...

Launched, appropriately enough, on the Fourth of July this year, this burger and fries combo really is ths business. It's everything you remember about eating a Big Mac as a child, but, well, so much better.

It looks the part
It's the day you graduated from an ordinary cheeseburger. It's the first week of the Summer Holidays. It's Mayor McCheese apprehending the Hamburgler and bundling him into the back of your dad's Ford Granada while your mates looked on, impressed.

We'll start with the fries which are - given that this is the Hawksmoor, specialist in all things meaty and delicious - cooked with proper beef dripping and wholly unsuitable for vegetarians.

The crunch, the savoury aroma, the depth of flavour. It's all there. This is the way fries used to be, and indeed the way they damn well should be! It's very grown-up, and yet eating them made me feel like a child again.

But what about the burger? Faithfully assembled with all the components you'd expect in a triple-sliced bun, it certainly looks the part. The beef is evidently several grades above whatever sweepings the big clown gathers from his factory floor, and Hawksmoor already had a reputation for doing good work in the burger department.

Yeah, the patties are maybe a little thin (and consequently overdone) for my liking, but they probably need to be in order to achieve the desired effect. They're still far juicer and tastier than you'd get in the other place.

Don't remove the pickles whatever you do
The bun is squishy and slightly sweet, the special sauce is a faithful, but improved, take on the original. The cheese is gooey and every bite reveals the crunch and the tang of a slice of pickle. It all melds together in a mess of satisfying loveliness.

And another thing, remember how the Big Mac always looked taller in the picture than when you opened the box and it was disappointingly flat and squashed? Well, the Big Matt stays the correct height in real life. It's like the injustices of my schooldays have finally been righted.

There's homemade ketchup on the table too, with just the right balance of sweetness and zesty tomato. It's good, though the beefy fries don't really need it.

Admittedly, I've not had an actual Big Mac for many, many years, but I'm fairly confident that this pisses all over the Hamburgler's tits. Hawksmoor have pulled off the amazing trick of making something that is both wholly faithful to that which it imitates, and yet immensely superior.
It comes with a Shaky Pete's Ginger Brew - well, you can have the meal without for a few quid less, but why the fuck would you?!? - which has become pretty much Hawksmoor's signature drink. A tongue-kissingly refreshing beer cocktail with fresh, zingy ginger, a properly sharp hit of citrus fruit and a robust foundation of good, solid gin.

A great drink in its own lunchtime, but also kinda frothy which makes it an appropriate substitute for either shake or soda.

Yeah, I'm a big Hawksmoor fanboy. Their steaks are probably the best in London. Their cocktails are brilliant. I waxed evangelically lyrical over their fantastic set menu offers earlier in the year.

Now they're feeding not only my hungry mouth, but my longing for 80s nostalgia also.

Next time you feel like a McDonalds and you know deep in your heart that it won't hit the spot, get down to Hawksmoor, because that will!

The Big Matt meal is available at all Hawksmoor restaurants until the end of September (and hopefully well beyond)

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