A guilty pleasure

August 27, 2010

I know it’s wrong, but there’s nothing, NOTHING quite like Tuc biscuits liberally slathered with lashings of Laughing Cow. That heavenly combination of salty, flaky wafer and thick, white stickiness that coats the mouth and tastes of nothing but cold is irresistable. I feel like Marie Antoinette in her mock dairy at Versailles – breasts trembling, milk pail swinging, all a-quiver with the wicked, plebian subversion of it all. I know it’s dirty, but no-one can see us down here…


I recently discovered a new cocktail, the New York Sour, at Bar Chocolate on D’Arblay Street in Soho. For some reason, I drank more than one. It contains bourbon, lemon, sugar, egg white and, frighteningly, a red wine float. Having thought quite hard about it through the inevitable haze, I came to the conclusion that the New York Sour is a cocktail for someone who is pretending that they are drinking for fun, but is actually drinking to forget.

Pudding porn

June 30, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I ate the best dessert in the world. I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth, so usually at that stage in a meal I default to cheese, or if too full for cheese, to cursing and coffee. On my last visit to Bocca di Lupo (yes, again) however, I was sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of Bergamot and prosecco granit-a-laska to throw caution to the wind. It was DIVINE. Bergamot is the herb that you find, extremely diluted, in Earl Grey tea – here it’s neat and its aromatic bitterness is extraordinary. In a large martini glass they pile the bergamot granita, pour over a splash of Prosecco, then top it with a two-inch layer of very soft meringue, which is then browned gently. The combination on the spoon, of hard, icy, crunchy, bitter granita and soft, warm, smoky-sweet meringue is like having somebody slowly kiss you while gently clamping a cold shackle around your ankle. Slightly alarming, but with a flush of promise. Yep.

It might sound somewhat off message but bear with me. After sitting in the cinema on my own barely breathing, I had to post something about this new film with Tilda Swinton I Am Love.


It’s the story of a woman, the Russian wife of a stiff Italian industrialist, who embarks on a passionate affair (obviously. Aren’t they always? Isn’t that the point?) with a young chef. Entirely, as far as I can see, because of the way he cooks a prawn. The moment when she tastes the dish he makes for her, slowly sliding her knife (a fish knife, incidentally, the continued use in swanky restaurants of which item of cutlery fills me with red-tinged rage, but that’s another post) through the flesh of the glistening prawn while all the sounds of polite conversation and tinkling china around her fade into the background, is the most evocative expression I have ever seen on film of what happens when you taste something that completely blows your mind. It made me want to go out and find myself a chef, immediately.

On a cultural note, it’s the sort of film that appeals to all the senses. It looks glorious, the sound, especially the music, bypasses your brain and grabs at your heart, and you can practically smell the food, the countryside, the sun-drenched city.  It should be added very close to the top of the woefully short list of great foodie films (another favourite is La Grande Bouffe, though that’s a rather different proposition, I admit). It is understated but heart-stoppingly dramatic at the same time – there’s an operatic quality about it, without the singing or the improbably large women posing as flighty ingenues. Go and see it.

This isn’t strictly a blog post but a feature I wrote last year, which was spiked by the newspaper I work for when it missed its peg. A Razor, A Shiny Knife do such great things though (and I admit to falling slightly in love with the guy who runs it, or at least with his monogrammed shirt cuffs) that I decided to post it. And I spent a day writing the damned thing.

I am seated at a banqueting table in a dimly lit room, surrounded by elegantly attired strangers. A swathe of flowers covers the centre, there are sculptures, candles, cut glass, silver. One end of the room is adorned with balloons. But everything is black. We wear black, my martini is black, this thing on my plate, which glistens like a slab of onyx (though I swear I saw it wobble), is black. It’s all a bit disconcerting.

This is the Black Banquet, a concept dreamed up by New York food-wranglers A Razor, A Shiny Knife. Held at the House of St Barnabas-in-Soho, a magnificent Georgian townhouse in London, it was the first in a planned series which Michael Cirino and Daniel Castaño hope to stage in Tokyo, Barcelona, LA, Miami, San Francisco and New York. “Each is going to be different. LA is going to have a very mid-centuries feel – an LA Story kind of thing,” explains Cirino when I meet him, jet-lagged and oven-fatigued, the day before the banquet. “We’re talking to the owners of a mansion in Bel Air that was owned by a famous film director. He shot his wife and then she shot him when he failed to kill her. We want that meal to feel like the dark side of LA. In New York we’re in talks with this mercantile exchange floor on Wall Street. We wanted to have the dinner on Wall Street because the 80s were the last time that New York felt dangerous.” The London dinner had a vaguely Dickensian feel – the aperitif of Hot Gin Punch was taken from the book Drinking with Dickens.

Despite their evident love of spectacle, for Cirino, in real life a contract negotiator and Castaño, a professional chef who starts up restaurants (his most recent project, Emilia Romagna, in Bogota, won a La Barra award for best new restaurant in Colombia) it’s all about the food. Their story started one Sunday in Brooklyn, when no-one would give them a table.

“There was this park that had free concerts on Sundays, so we’d go down there, and 10 or 15 people would show up, and 15 people don’t fit in restaurants that easily so we’d go to somebody’s house. And that became a conversation about food, and over the the summer our dinners became more and more elaborate,” says Cirino. These foodie evenings evolved into whole days of social cooking. “Daniel serves people all the time, he didn’t want to serve food on weekends, he’d want to cook with people and be social,” Cirino explains. “It wasn’t about having dinner, it was about making dinner and trying new things out.”

This is all a far cry from the theatre of the black banquet however, for which, when I meet him, Cirino has just returned from persuading a curmudgeonly academic at University College London to let him put blackberries into liquid nitrogen (Castaño is absent, opening another restaurant). It takes a singular sort of person to get from chummy pizza-making in Brooklyn to black jelly and sous-vide beef in an unknown kitchen in London. Casually explaining how to make the perfect poached egg, Cirino bandies around words like ‘immersion circulator’ as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. It makes you feel like a rank amateur.

The idea of a black banquet isn’t new. In 1511, the dining club The Company of the Trowel held a banquet to honour the marriage of Pluto, god of the underworld, and Proserpine. Guests entered through the hinged jaws of a serpent and the food was made to resemble foul creatures such as scorpions and frogs. On February 1st 1783 (the beginning of Lent), the notorious bon viveur and France’s first restaurant critic Grimod de la Reyniere hosted a black banquet at which choir boys burnt funeral incense and the table bore a catafalque (the platform used to support a coffin), while each guest had his own coffin placed behind his chair. The invitations were bordered in black like funeral notices – Louise XVI is said to have acquired one to frame. For Cirino, however, once again it comes down to the food.

“For me, the idea of black food is interesting because it robs you of the ability to know what you’re about to eat,” he says. “Food is visual. You look at food; you immediately sense what it’s going to taste like. You look at beans and think, ‘that’s going to taste like what I think beans taste like’. But if you hide it behind a lack of colour, a lack of comfortable shape, it becomes two separate things. It’s a piece of art on the plate, then it’s a flavour that was hidden from you until the moment it comes into your mouth or you were able to smell it.”

When I go to tap the slab of onyx with my knife, it slides effortlessly through, revealing whiteness underneath. A taste, and my mouth is full of salt and citrus – fish pate with confit lemons, encased in a dark soy sauce jelly. Cirino admits, introducing it to the guests, that this dish was a bit of a disaster. The high salt content of the soy reacted unexpectedly with the gelatine, he explains, and caused some jellies to collapse into little shiny black puddles. It’s also too salty. But it is one of seven courses, most of which work, despite a dozy moment on the part of one of the kitchen assistants (none of whom are trained chefs) who bought exactly the wrong kind of fish – an error discovered about an hour before plating. A starter of brioche crostini, dyed with squid ink, with soft cheese, caviar and blackberry is delicious and oyster soup served in the shell with a deep fried black oyster on the side (squid ink in a light tempura batter) is generally agreed to be a triumph. My favourite is the blue-yolked thousand-year-old duck egg wrapped in potash, but I’m in a minority. 

My fellow diners, all food-obsessives with the exception of an occult novelist and his grumpy girlfriend, who probably expected something else, are enchanted. “I always have great sympathy for people doing such novel ideas,” says Steve, “so I take off my ‘high end food critic’ hat and just enjoy the experience, which was great.” Another, Susan, who happily ate absolutely everything including the medium rare beef, despite usually being a vegetarian, agreed: “I truly think anyone who tries to do something creative like this should be lauded.” 

For Cirino, exhausted but exhilarated back in the kitchen afterwards, he’s just thrilled that people are interested enough to come and try things. “Black was always uncomfortable for people. We’ve been making a few of these dishes for about a year and a half and people are like, ‘Why is my shrimp fried black?’ and we’d be like, ‘That’s the way I wanted it,’ and they’re like, ‘But it doesn’t look good,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, it looks gorgeous.’ We serve this one shrimp dish on a custard of green curry that is a bright, pungent green and there’s a black prawn sitting on it wrapped in chives like a hoop. People would say, ‘It looks inedible,’ and I’d be like, ‘Did you put it in your mouth yet?’ And they would and they’d say, ‘That’s the best fried shrimp I’ve ever had. And I was like, ‘Now shut the fuck up.’”

…in the beginning

December 3, 2009

This is something of an experiment. A few people have suggested I start a food blog, so here it is. Perversely, however, this first, rather long post (I know, they will get shorter) is about wine, about which I know absolutely nothing. If you do, this will not be remotely edifying, and may even enrage you. It was as a complete novice that I recently found myself at Decanter magazine’s Fine Wine Encounter show at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. I was there purely because my friend N’s wife chose to go to the ballet with her mother instead. I can’t get on with dance; I’ve tried but since I spent most of The Stravinsky Project asleep and only woke up when a very tall woman appeared on pointe and dressed, apparently, as an elaborately knitted penis, I’ve given up.

The first thing that hits you at a wine show is the smell. It’s not just the odour of multiple wines, nor indeed of multiple wines which have been swilled around in multiple mouths and then spat out into buckets of sawdust, it’s the reek of multiple people crowded into a room, drinking copious quantities of multiple wines. If I were to describe that particular ‘nose’ I would certainly employ the word ‘sour’, and probably the word ‘bacon’.

Our first stop was at the Bisol & Jeio Prosecco (bisol.it) stand. Our companion’s justification was that Prosecco is a ‘breakfast wine’ (along with, apparently, vintage Champagne, which made me wonder what kind of a fabulously 17th century life he lives). Our first taste, the Jeio Valdobbiadene Brut Prosecco NV, was pretty inconsequential: breakfast wine or not, I don’t think it would hold up against much more than a bowl of muesli. Neither was I impressed by the Jeio Rosé Sparkling Brut NV. It tasted distinctly vegetable. I wrote one word: Cabbage. (I must admit to a slightly uneasy relationship with rosé anyway. I’m 30, single, female – I’d rather resist the opportunity to behave like a massive cliché if at all possible.)

Our unanimous favourite was the Bisol Riserva Millesimato Metodo Classico Brut 2001. This is currently unavailable to buy – B&J only make about 40,000 bottles, apparently for fun. It tasted like a crisp, sweet English apple (possibly a Russet) but as far as I was concerned, the best thing about it was the nose, which was just like that irresistably synthetic hot plastic smell that you get when you bend your credit card back and forth to break it when it expires (if, of course, you’ve managed not to lose it or get your wallet nicked in a shit bar in Islington first).

Next we visited the Louis Jadot stand (louisjadot.com), manned by Quentin Sadler, a wine consultant and blogger. He’s very chatty, and quite funny and was evidently bored out of his mind. Returning to my notes, I find that I have circled the Puligny Montrachet, 1er Cru Clos de la Garenne, Domaine du Duc de Magenta – I can only assume that I liked it. I think, if I try really hard, I can remember that if you don’t often get to drink a really fine white wine, it tastes exactly like what you would imagine a really fine, rather more expensive than you’re used to white wine would taste like. It was around £40-45 per bottle.

Our friend rather grandly announced that he “can’t bear Beaujolais,” but had to eat his words in the face of the Moulin á Vent, Clos de la Roche, Chateau des Jacques 2002. I forget most of what it tasted like, but I do remember vividly that the nose reminded me of the back room of a French bistro – the kind in which you might once have found Toulouse-Lautrec with his head in the scrawny bosom of a skinny whore. Though it has a certain surface refinement, there was a sweaty, slightly rough-and-ready edge to it that gave it a distinctly Montmartresque charm. The Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 2002, a Pinot Noir, was also joyously evocative – not to put too fine a point on it, it smelt like a farm girl wearing too much cheap perfume. Filthy, in a good way, like a roll in the hay, though a roll in the hay would be significantly cheaper.

The last stand that we visited before our notes became completely incomprehensible, was Jean Luc Baldes – Clos Triguedina (jlbaldes.com). They had some really fabulous wines, particularly the reds: the Probus 2000 tasted of both summer pudding and blue cheese, like Willy Wonka’s Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum, while Le Petit Clos 2006 had a distinct hint of Monster Munch (pickled onion flavour, if you’re interested, with a light note of tomato sauce) but was heavy on the tannins. The absolute winner though was their Black Wine 2001, of which there are only 300 bottles available (and probably, by now, considerably fewer). They apparently heat a portion of the grapes before fermentation, though how hot, and what portion was shrouded in secrecy. We were all falling over by this point, and the image of Monsieur Baldes locked away in the grape shed, dancing naked around a blazing fire over which swings cauldron of swelling grapes was almost too much. The nose is unmistakably treacle toffee, and this is how the flavour begins, heading towards raisin as the air gets to it. It is gorgeous. Apparently it can cellar for 50-100 years, though there isn’t a hope in hell it would last that long in my house

We were there for easily another two and a half hours but I was bordering on blind by this point. We then went for a curry, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

I didn’t sleep terribly well.