Saturday, 23 October 2010

When the chips are down

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that I was Heston Blumenthal’s greatest fan: any interest I might have entertained in the man frequently described as the country’s ‘best chef’ was pretty much finished off by his Guardian column some years ago, which notoriously included a recipe for fried eggs that involved cooking the white and the yolk separately.

And I cannot claim to be particularly inspired by the sort of dishes that are served at his highly lauded restaurant, The Fat Duck. Snail porridge is one example.

And then there are what I think of as the gimmicks: for instance, serving a scallops dish with an iPod in a conch shell playing sea sounds for the diner.

‘Molecular gastronomy’ is apparently the name for the cooking bit of this – a term coined in the late 1980s by French scientist Herve This and Oxford University professor Nicholas Kurti.

Perhaps the most famous exponent is Ferran Adria, at El Bulli near Barcelona (he spends six months of the year in a laboratory in the city, apparently), while such luminaries as Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 in Manhattan, and Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homaro Cantu of Moto, both of which are in Chicago.

I suspect the thing about the fried egg annoyed me so much because this really is everyday food: I’m quite prepared to spend hours in the kitchen for things that require it, but a fried egg never has been, is not now and never will be haute cuisine: it’s quick, everyday fodder.

Earlier this year, “the UK’s top chef” joined up with Waitrose, a chain of quality supermarkets that are part of John Lewis – in other words, a co-operative. Delia Smith was also part of this big new advertising campaign – Britain’s “best-loved cook”. An intriguing combination.

I was browsing the Waitrose site the other week and came across a Blumenthal recipe for cream of mushroom soup that actually caught my attention.

It caught my attention particularly because of the garnish – dried mushrooms that have been roasted, then blitzed and pressed through a sieve to leave a powder.

The thing is, you look at that and think: ‘Well it’s hardly complicated and I can see that it would add a really intense zing to the final soup’.

So I tried it today. I modified the soup a little – not completely puréeing it, as The Other Half prefers his soups to have some texture – but it had oodles of flavour and the powder really did add something.

For dinner, I’d decided to do chips. Now this might seem a rather strange way to plan a meal, but faith needed to be regained for the humble chip.

Yesterday’s lunchtime had demanded something more substantial than soup or a sandwich since we were meeting a friend for a post-work drink. So I nipped down to the North Sea Fish Bar to pick up chips (one portion between both of us), a chicken and mushroom pie for The Other Half, scampi for me and a pot of mushy peas to share.

As always, I soon wondered why I'd bothered. The art of the hand-cut chip seems to have disappeared and the scampi wasn’t anything to write home about. Yet this has a reputation as a good fish ‘n’ chippy, with an attached restaurant that does good trade (and isn’t cheap).

But frankly, it’s no better or worse than Faulkners in Hackney, which has also somehow acquired the status of being excellent.

The last time I had really good fish and chips was some years ago in Hull, in a really old-fashioned place, with plastic gingham tablecloths, thick sliced bread to make chip butties and tea in white mugs. The fish was sensational; the batter superb. The mushy peas hit the spot exactly and the chips? Well, needless to say, they weren’t out of a freezer.

There used to be a brilliant chippy next to the bus station in Piccadilly, Manchester, but that’s gone the way of all flesh, replaced by characterless glass and polished metal.

My father would sometimes drive to a chippy in Mossley to bring back fish and chips for a Saturday lunch. I remember it as a glorious treat.

But somewhere along the line, the English have gone off fish and chips – or at least lowered their ideas of what is good about it. A world of fast food outlets, with their skinny ‘fries’, has left us with barely even a memory of what good chips are.

Gastro pubs do their bit. But I’d decided to cook my own – something that I probably only do about two or three times a year.

I don’t follow Heston’s recipe – which involves cooking them three times. But I do use Delia’s method, which means cooking them twice.

Peel your potatoes and cut them into chips – not too thick. Pop them in a bowl of cold water and leave for half an hour – this gets rid of some of the starch and also helps plump them up. Drain and dry thoroughly.

Get your vegetable oil (or lard) hot enough that a cube of day-old bread with brown in it in a minute. Put the chips in carefully and cook for around 4-5 minutes. Remove carefully to a plate and then let the oil get back to its previous temperature. Pop the chips back in and cook for another 2-3 minutes – watching that they don’t get over-cooked.

Remove them to a plate with kitchen paper on it and serve as quickly as possible – chips don’t take kindly to being left around.

Lovely – soft and fluffy in the middle, beautifully crisp on the outside.

That meant that this morning’s main shopping question was what to serve with them. Now I didn’t want to deep fry fish too, but was wondering about grilling or roasting some fish.

Then, as I was walking up Broadway Market, Andy waved at me from the new game stall and I popped over for a chat.

Inevitably, I also found myself looking at the produce and, when I spotted venison burgers, the choice was made.

As I mentioned in that post about game, many people believe it's all – and always – expensive. These burgers were four for £4. Two were more than enough for us for a meal, so the others have gone in the freezer.

Now apparently, a spot of Googling informs me that the price of a McDonalds burger meal is nearly a fiver, which people seem to consider is cheap (it comes with ‘fries’, a drink and your bun, after all).

But let’s see: £1 for a meat patty made from top-notch meat, plus a few pennies for the potatoes, a bit more for the oil to cook the chips (about £1.50 per person and assuming it only gets used once) and let’s be generous about the frozen peas I served (it was a generous portion) and say 50p per portion. If I’d wanted, we could have each had a top-brand fizzy drink for 50p (assuming I hadn’t bought in bulk).

So being generous in my estimates, our meal was less than a McDonalds meal and would still have come in cheaper even if I'd added a liquid equivalent – so why do people think that McDonalds is expensive, but that markets such as Broadway Market are insanely expensive?

And that’s without even mentioning the issue of quality – and honesty, I’d back my chips against McDonalds’ ‘fries’ any time!

When and how did this massive con happen?

In his very entertaining and informative In the Devil’s Garden: a sinful history of forbidden food, Stewart Lee Allen discusses (amongst many other things) the issue of ‘appropriate’ foods for the working class. Some were banned because they were seen as likely to produce sloth (although they were fine for the aristocrats, on the grounds that they were entitled to a life of doing nothing – France and white bread is a perfect example of this).

But the thought of the plebs getting the idea that food could be sensual and wonderful was not to be tolerated.

Just as ancient Sparta, with its national dish of ‘black broth’ – pork stock, vinegar, blood and salt – “banished citizens who enjoyed eating”, Allen suggests that “both today’s fast-food outlets and Spartan mess halls are/were designed to discourage lingering over dinner and eliminate the need for people to “waste” time cooking for their family.

“And, like the Spartans’ legendarily bad food, many of these convenience foods are so unpleasant they even make work look good. They’re also immensely profitable for the corporations who produce them.

“Perfect: American workers now pay more money for worse food so they can hurry back to jobs they hate.”

He has a point about the big con at the heart of all this.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people in my little bit of Hackney complaining about Broadway Market. Local Trotskyists, showing a remarkable lack of interest in actual facts, spent ages shouting about how the council – which had not set it up, had not funded it and doesn’t run it – should have built a community centre instead. ‘Instead of what?’ one asked.

There was no ‘instead’. A group of private individuals and traders and producers got together and got the market going. It didn’t replace anything. Apart from dodgy property dealings by our local council, which saw two long-term shopkeepers pushed out (and which market stallholders helped campaign against), nothing has been lost.

Local people now have more choice than they had six and a half years ago when, as a famous bit of local graffiti had it: "Broadway Market – not so much a sinking ship as a submarine". In those days, if you couldn't get what you wanted at the one butcher, one chain baker, one very limited fruit and veg stall and the one independent general store, you had no choice but to tramp to one of the supermarkets that have taken over the area. Now, we have a realistic choice of where we shop, because we have genuine alternatives.

Yet some continue to believe the myth that it’s all criminally beyond their means. Unlike McDonalds or any other fast-food joint. Obviously.

Why do I bet that the con isn’t as effective across the Channel?

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