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East London Food

This week I hoped to be driving around France. I was going south, via Tours, Poitiers and Bordeaux. Then west, through Provence, over to Lyon, north again, and home. By the time I’d return my car boot, and, I hoped, my stomach, too, would be full. But there’s a blockade of oil refineries, or something, and I had a picture of being stranded on a distant country lane with no petrol or phone reception. Distant French country lanes can be very distant, you probably won’t find a pub and a Macdonalds on a roundabout 200m away. Plus, there’s a three-month ban on foie gras because of fears of avian flu. So it was settled: I’m at home and my tour de France has been postponed, maybe until next year. Désolé.

For compensation I have a copy of East London Food. It’s a sort of guidebook that you can keep on your coffee table. You can pick a dove grey or minty green cover, but my choice of pink may tell you all you’ll ever need to know about me. It’s something local for the locavores of East London;  a tour of some of the most interesting independent suppliers, producers, shops and restaurants between, roughly, Stoke Newington to the west and Upton Park to the east, and it’s quite my thing. So much so that I wish I’d had the idea, written it and taken the pictures. As it is those things have been done very well by Rosie Burkett, (words), and Helen Cathcart, (photography). Read More

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Best Kitchen Basics, Mark Best

So far on Siberia I’ve only looked at cookbooks from the bestseller lists, books by established writers and chefs, books, on the whole, with large initial print runs. Maybe Five Quarters was more of a punt, but there was a lot of good noise about that before it came out. And it is, of course, superb. Quality makes a difference to anything and usually a good difference.

In front of me I have Best Kitchen Basics, which may be more esoteric than the others. It is by Mark Best, a chef I hardly knew of before, which is perhaps not surprising as he works in Australia. It is here that I should confess I have a thing for Australian cookbooks, ever since I first picked up a copy of Sydney Food by Bill Granger, (in Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, which still doesn’t have a functioning website), before, ahem, anyone here had heard of Bill Granger, and I was sold. The promise of modern, easy, stylish food and cool, urban living was hard to resist. That must have been fifteen or twenty years ago and since then I have yearned to experience Australia’s food culture, indeed, Australia’s food, and, of course, Australia. I almost went a couple of years ago: I was sitting in a travel agent, about to buy a ticket, but I thought about the twenty-six hour flight and my finger stayed poised above the buttons on the machine. My pin number was never entered and I have never entered Australia. One day I will go by ship and sit on deck with a tartan blanket over my knees, reading a thick history of someone or something, while sipping beef tea with a big splash of brandy in it. One day. Read More

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Where I live, in a smartish part of North West London, local restaurants are, at best, old fashioned, and at worst off-putting. There’s all the usual ItalianIndianChineseGreek, and pubs that serve the same thing that pubs – let’s not call them gastropubs, anymore – serve everywhere. I don’t mean that any of them are bad, although some aren’t good, but I do mean that none excite me. There is an Iranian, which, at least, is less expected than the others, but what there isn’t, what there isn’t in spades, is a good, modern, British, and good, modern, British excites me a lot.

I went the other night with my regular restaurant companion, Camilla, to Pidgin, in a part of Hackney that’s difficult to get to without a car or taxi, and either will need a functioning sat nav. It sits in a small parade of shops that tell of the trendification of the area since I lived close by for three months in 1990, in the square that Eastenders’ Albert Square was based on. I don’t mean that my going and it coming up are connected, but you never know. It is surrounded by houses that I guess go for £2 million or more, as well as social housing. I would think it’s a nice place to live, as long as you don’t want to leave, and Pidgin makes it even nicer, and less likely that you’d want to. Read More

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Joe Allen

One of my objections to the theatre is that it’s on at the time I like to eat dinner. Still, once a year, I buy a ticket to something that I hope will persuade me the theatre is worth eating supper early for. Last year was Gypsy with Imelda Saunton, and that was definitely worth it. This year it was Funny Girl’s turn.

As I remember the story from the film, Barbra Streisand marries Omar Sharif, but it doesn’t work out because he can’t sing. He might even have gone to prison for it, I’m a bit hazy on that. It’s interesting when non-singers are cast in singing roles, by which I mean “interesting”; see also Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia, and practically the whole cast of Everyone Says I Love You. I remember reading that Hewyl Bennett was offered Michael York’s part in Cabaret but when he saw it was a musical turned it down without reading the script, knowing he can’t sing, but not knowing that the role doesn’t call for it. Hewyl could have had Michael’s career, but he wouldn’t have had my respect. There’s a lesson here, I’m sure, if only I could see it. Anyway. Read More

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Basque, José Pizarro

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José Pizarro

My brother and his wife own a holiday flat in Fuengarola. They go as often as they can, twenty or more times a year. They once avoided Christmas at my other brother and his wife’s by flying to Spain on Christmas Day, then flying home on the 27th. I don’t know what one had done to offend the other, but families can be as hilarious as they can be awful. They love the heat, (not in late December, I know, but that time was different), they love the sea and jet skis and all the things you can find at a resort in Southern Spain. They also love the food there: burgers, pizza, egg and chips. Gastronauts, they are not.

I can’t imagine what they imagine actual Spanish food to be or what they think it would do to them if they ate it. I know, there are rabbits and snails, and they might sell their flat if they knew about barnacles. They have the taste of twelve-year-olds and are as adventurous, too. Nothing can persuade them of the pleasures they’re missing. Read More

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Anyone who tells you big beards are dead need only push through the fashionable crowds of Shorditch on the way to Lyle’s to know their demise is somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, when you arrive you are greeted by a handsome, Amish-looking gentleman called Harvey, who sports a fine, bushy beard, white shirt and black suit. I failed to see if his trousers stopped just short of his ankle. I’m happy to note, however, the waning of the waxed moustache in East London’s restaurant scene.

Lyle’s is that sort of restaurant in that sort of area. If food historians want to discover the definitive on-trend foods of fashionable London in 2016 then a copy of Lyle’s menu will be of some help. Agretti, tick; ramsons, tick; calçot, tick. Oats, whey and pig’s head, tick, tick, and tick again. Do they name the breed of animal used in each dish? You know they do. As I doubt you have a waiter beside you to explain everything, I wonder if I should include a glossary at the end of this.

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I’ve been going to, and loving, Moro for more than fifteen years. I had my fiftieth birthday there and if I have a sixtieth it will be there, too.  I love its little brother next door, Morito, and am always happy to sit there, at the counter, eating croquetas, chatting to the chef. I was at Moro again on Friday night and, it seems to me, after all these years, it’s still improving. How can that be?

I love sitting at the bar, despite the high stools being instruments of quick torture. I chat to the barman, or look around at the people at the tables. That’s always fine entertainment, Clerkenwell types next to Shoreditch types. There are subtle differences in beards and shoes. I always feel like I’ve had a good night out after I’ve eaten dinner at Moro. To me it’s fun. Read More