Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The stuff of a Biblical soap opera

And so it began. Or rather - so it began again. If Manchester City fans believed that they had seen the last of Carlos Tevez in a sky blue shirt, then they imagined wrongly.

Because, like the prodigal son of Biblical fame, Carlos has come back, begging for forgiveness. And in equally Biblical fashion, he has felt the arms of the club embrace him again. It might be said that he is – to continue the religious analogies – ‘born again’.

Late yesterday afternoon, Tevez stepped onto a football pitch for the first time since his refusal to warm up – and therefore play – for the Blues in Munich.

That withdrawal of labour had come in the glamorous-as-it-gets Champions’ League, but this return was in a reserve (or elite development squad, to be accurate) match against Preston North End – one of the founder members of the football league to be sure (and the first English league champions), but not romantic opposition these days.

He lasted 45 minutes. Which, after a five-month, self-inflicted holiday, is not bad.

Football is a funny old mix of the pragmatic and the romantic.

For every religious analogy, there are others types. This has gone from low farce to operatic drama to soap opera and back.

Actually, the soap opera is what I keep thinking of - even though I haven't watched one in close to 30 years.

This isn’t EastEnders or Corrie: what’s in my mind is Dynasty, with Tevez all over-sized shoulder pads and a veritable wardrobe full of diva flounces.

Boss Roberto Mancini might have initially lost the plot in the immediate aftermath of the events against Bayern Munich – and I'm being über-critical here – but he has totally out-played Tevez and his band of advisors ever since.

Paternal, calm and offering the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption, it's been a classic performance.

One of the prime parts of the problem, though, is Kia Joorabchian, Tevez’s agent and a man that, frankly and personally, I wouldn’t trust further than I could throw him. In fact, probably less than that. So a bit of a sort of backward pass, as in rugby. But let's stop that analogy right there, before it gets really tortured.

Tevez is, I suspect, hardly the brightest penny in the jar – which is no crime. But actually, in saying that, what I really mean is that, as a son of one the poorest areas of Buenos Airies, he won't have had much formal education.

So let's be clear that he’s done superbly to lift himself from those humble beginnings – and apparently doesn't pretend they didn't occur.

That, of course, brings me to the thought that he's a little like one Diego Maradona. Okay – not quite as gifted, but hardly untalented – but in other ways, there are similarlties.

But one senses the finger of the university-educated Joorabchian – and a bunch of Russian ‘businessmen’ who, through Media Sports Investment, have ‘owned’ the player – in much of the problems that have plagued his entire career.

Of course, there’s the wider problem of agents in football per se: they have a vested interest in unsettling their clients, because that’s how they make money.

Tevez has been being unsettled at City for well over a year – two transfer requests in the last 15 months or so were hardly helpful, plus there was the sulk that saw him have to be threatened with disciplinary action by the club when he was intending to miss the post-FA Cup victory celebrations in the city.

He's certainly not getting good advice.

Last summer, he was almost on his way back to South America after the club had cut its asking price and said that Corinthians could pay in instalments. But that fell through at the last minute.

Hardly surprising, then, that Mancini opted to take the captaincy away from Tevez and give it to the magnificent Vincent Kompany.

All of which provoked another strop from the falling star as he complained about not getting his ‘loyalty bonus’. Well no, Carlos – the clue is in the word ‘loyalty’.

Yet the fans forgave him.

Tevez might be ‘high maintenance’ off the pitch (and Mancini had fallen over backwards to accommodate him more than once, particularly when he was complaining of being home sick), but at least when he was on it, he’d give the proverbial 110%.

So it was hardly surprising that refusal to go on to the pitch – or do the warming up that would have subsequently led to that – would be met with such anger, not just from Mancini, but from the fans.

So what now, with this climate of apology and forgiveness?

Pragmatism, methinks.

Personally, I never wanted to see him near the club again. But the club – although richer that Croesus – needs to comply with the forthcoming new financial rules and could do without letting him go for nothing.

Which rather left sacking out of the equation – and also means he needs to play to avoid a rule whereby, as a senior player, he could walk out without a transfer fee at the end of the season if he didn't make enough appearances.

To get anything like the sort of mood that he would like – and the January transfer window revealed interest but no buyers – Tevez needs to change the theme and remind people that he's actually a damned good player. A game changer, indeed.

So here he is, back at City, with that in mind. Doing his best for the club, on the pitch, is now his way of escape.

And what of the fans?

Well, those of us of a certain vintage might recall comparisons with marital infidelity. Howard Kendall notoriously left the manager's post at Maine Road to return to Everton, declaring the former to have been an extra-marital dalliance and the latter his one true love.

So I would be worried about great claims of love in this instance. But there have been none – and pragmatism might work in our favour.

City have been long enough without a title that, as the possibility of a championship grows slowly closer, I am personally prepared to say that, if Carlos Tevez can bring something positive to the final months of the campaign, then I for one will welcome him – if not exactly with open arms and a ticker tape parade – but with a sage nod and with pragmatism in my heart, and with the continued belief that there is something even greater that (hopefully!) awaits us in the none-too-distant future.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Know your onions

Watching the effervescent Raymond Blanc in the penultimate episode of The Very Hungry Frenchman, a number of things struck me - not least of which was just how beautiful Alsace looks.

Very Germanic, one might say.

But setting that aside, during the programme, he visited a farmer who grows seven tonnes of onions each year, comprising four varieties. These included a Roscoff, a local (very strong) onion and a 'chicken thigh' onion that looked liked a gargantuan banana shallot.

Now Blanc swears blind that the Roscoff is perfect for the classic French onion soup. But he selected the local variety for the tart he was planning to make.

Drifting into wakefulness on Saturday morning, something dawned on me: what varieties of onion could I, as a domestic British shopper and cook, call upon?




Such varieties hardly have the same aura of culinary sophistication about them.

Later, at Broadway Market, I asked organic greengrocer Mark about British varieties of onion.

"Brown," he said with a sardonic tone.



"And sometimes Spanish, which are sweeter."

He went on to explain that the only fruits or vegetables that have to be labeled by variety at the point of sale are potatoes and apples, because there are so many varieties of each.

Later still, at La Bouche, Stephane suggested that part of the difference is that France is so much larger and because it encompasses both northern and southern Europe, it effectively enjoys longer seasons.

Well fortunately for me, he has also agreed to keep stocking Roscoff onions beyond Christmas. So at least I have the opportunity to maintain my levels of culinary sophistication (stop sniggering at the back). These lovely, pink orbs are sweet and melt beautifully - hence they're great for soup but not an Alsace tart.

And at the weekend, Stephane also had strings of banana shallots from t'other side of the Channel too.

Actually, what I hadn't realised is that Roscoff onions are far from being a new import to these benighted (in allium terms at least) shores. As a hard onion, they keep well for ages and were thus perfect for the 'Onion Johnnies' - the men from Breton who used to visit these shores from France, bringing with them their onions.

They'd store their produce somewhere in the UK and then visit homes selling it, spending several months on the road.

If you ever wondered where that very British image of a Frenchman - on his bike, a string of onions around his neck, a striped shirt on his chest and a beret on his head - comes from, well now you know.

It eventually even entered the French language as ar Johniged or ar Johnniged in Breton.

Not that it was the French who introduced us to onions - that happened long before, thanks to the some geezers from Italy ("what did the Romans ever do for us?") and this staple of modern cookery became popular pretty much straight away.

Indeed, as Alan Davidson points out in The Oxford Companion to Food, the Anglo-Saxons were so enamoured of onions that they cited it often in riddles.

He gives this example.

    I am a wonderful thing, a joy to women ...
    I stand up high and steep over the bed;
    Beneath I am shaggy. Sometimes comes nigh
    A young maiden and handsome peasant's daughter,
    A maiden proud, to lay hold on me,
    She raises my redness, plunders my head,
    Fixes on me fast, feels straightaway
    What meeting me means when she thus approaches,
    A curly haired woman. Wet is the eye.

Oooh err, missus!

Those dodgy Saxon types. And people say the Germans have no sense of humour ...

But passing over that: you'd think we'd have had enough time to work out some varieties. But Mark's cynicism was not misplaced.

According to www.onions.org.uk - a website with the clear (and entirely decent) aim of boosting the great British onion on behalf of British onion growers - there are mild onions and cooking onions and white onions.

There are shallots and pickling onions and green onions.

And if we're that not already impressed enough, there are also salad, red and "supasweet" onions.

But not a variety mentioned on the entire site, that I could see.

All of which left me feeling a tad depressed.

The phrase 'know you onions' apparently doesn't seem to mean actually knowing ones, err, onions.

So where does it come from?

Grammarian and lexicographer CT Onions, who edited the OED from 1895 for some years is one possible inspiration.

Mind, there was also an SG Onions, who in 1843, created sets of coins to send out to schools to help children learn their pounds, shillings and pence.

Both possibilities make sense, although the phrase seems to have come into existence in the 1920s - at the height of the reign of the Onion Johnnies, as it happens.

And although I can, at this stage, give you no names of British onions - beyond white, red, salad etc - I'm fairly certain that, after reading this post, you'll know your onions better than before.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The heart of the matter

As the end of February rises into view, it seems to be the end of a funny old period; busy and distracting.

There’s been little of inspiration on the food front to report – things that I’m working on, but you’ll have to wait until I’ve got a couple of things actually sorted out before they're worth writing about.

However, last weekend I did take the opportunity afforded by The Other Half’s trip to Perpignan for the Rugby League to try a foodstuff that, to the best of my knowledge, I’d never eaten before – let alone cooked.

The item in question was heart – in this case, lamb’s heart. A single one was enough for me.

Surprised first of all to find that Jane Grisgon’s highly-regarded English Food didn’t even mention heart, I turned my attention to the wonders of the internet.

Various suggestions came up for stuffing heart, but I decided against that.

The recipe that struck me as the perfect way to start was a Canterbury casserole.

The first task was prepping the meat. I’d read that you have to ensure that any white tubes are removed. Well, this didn’t prove difficult – primarily as there seemed very little to remove.

The heart was then opened out and cut into strips about the width of a finger, which were then cut in half lengthways.

These pieces were dredged in seasoned flour and browned carefully in melted lard, before a peeled and chopped carrot, a peeled and sliced onion and two chopped sticks of celery were added and stirred around a bit.

A little more flour, a little more stirring, and then some stock was added. I used beef stock, which I’d defrosted overnight. And because I’d been able to get a tiny bit, I also added a piece of marrowbone.

It’s then brought gently to the boil, lidded and, with the heat turned right back down, cooked for an hour and a half, when parsley dumplings are placed on top, the lid is replaced and it's left for a further half an hour.

This was pretty good. But there are things that I’d do differently.

First, I’d get a bit Frenchified and add a little red wine after cooking the flour through – it’s the best way to deglaze anyway, but it does add layer of flavour to the liquid.

In his book Eating for England, Nigel Slater comments pithily on the nature of the generic English stew, and one of the things he notes is an absence of booze.

Now given that England has no history of wine production, it's hardly surprising that there's little wine in our classic, one-pot dishes, but there are alternatives in terms of beer and cider.

Yet I’ve noticed over the course of recent years, as I've started exploring such dishes, that most recipes that suggest using beer – particularly stout – don’t give enough cooking time for the liquid to become rich and sweet: it usually leaves a slightly bitter taste that, in the context of a meat dish, isn’t what you want.

The reason, I'm beginning to understand, is simple: we have lost the art – or at least the understanding – of slow cooking. Recipes now for anything more than an hour and a half are regarded as a long cook. It’s as though writers are convinced that, if they suggest something of double that (never mind longer), the modern English cook will be horrified and simply refuse to countenance such wanton times.

The Canterbury casserole benefits from the sweetening quality of the heart. Like kidneys in a Lancashire hotpot or a turbigo, they impart a richness to the dish. The marrowbone that I added also helped, while the stock was a proper one. But wine would have added something worthwhile, methinks.

The dumplings give a lovely soft, soothing and deeply comforting touch to the finished dish.

But the second thing I’d change from the recipe would be to reduce the initial cooking time from 90 minutes to a straight hour.

Now I’d possibly parboil the carrots briefly beforehand, but the meat really didn't need two full hours cooking.

But heart is something that I’d happily eat again – even if my first experience of holding and preparing this organ were far more tinged with the knowledge of exactly what it was and the job that it had done until a short while before, than I ever feel when coring kidneys.

Such squeamish inclinations are daft though: as a happy omnivore, a nose-to-tail approach is an importantly ethical one.

And even leaving such philosophical considerations aside, there is so much variety – and so many more culinary pleasures to meat than just a prime cut.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A voluptuous competition

Ladies and gentlemen - it's that weekend. 'What weekend?' I hear you ask. Well, this is the weekend when The Other Half heads to Perpignan in the south of France to watch his beloved Castleford Tigers play the Catalan Dragons in the Super League.

So he leaves early tomorrow to travel by train, and will spend most of Sunday travelling home.

I have booked tomorrow off and have my own plans for a gourmet girlie weekend.

Now these plans are centred on food, as regular readers might expect. Indeed, they're centred on one particular foodstuff.

So here's the gist: in the next 24 hours, if anyone can guess what ingredient this weekend's culinary adventures will be based on, there'll be a prize in it.

You can leave your entries here, at the blog, or at Facebook or via Twitter.

In the event of a tie, I'll draw lots.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Getting ready for the Games

Some of you might have missed it, but this is an Olympic year.

And indeed, it's the year of the Games being in London. Further to that, I happen to live within an Olympic borough. Exciting or what?

Well, let's pass over the point of my personal excitement for the moment, but in a wider spirt of enthusiasm, I thought I'd share with you a logo that I spotted the other day.

A local college, which I pass every day on my way to work, has just been decked out to advertise the fact that it's undertaking 'Games maker training'.

Now quite apart from the fact that that is an horrendous use of language, I couldn't help but notice the branding on a large banner hanging outside the college.

And that's what I reproduce here.

The only difference on the one I spotted at the college is that there's a Cadbury's logo to the bottom right, outside the dark blue box.

It didn't take long before I started wondering why a sponsor's logo has equal prominence with the logos of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Might it be telling us something about what the Games are really about?

And what does it say about any expected – or even desired – Olympic legacy?

I leave that to your imaginations.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Broadway Market faces the Tesco test

'Google', so they say, 'is your friend'. And Google does, indeed, provide a most informative search engine.

For instance, earlier today, I tried something. I entered my post code and then I entered a single word: Tesco.

It made for depressing viewing. Page one – eight listed. A further eight on the next page. Ten on the next page. Another load on the following page – and still I wasn't finished!

Indeed, it just went on and on.

I already knew that I had at least five within easy walking distance. There are others I pass on my way to and from work that have sprung up in the last year or so. The screengrab here shows just [i]some[/i] of the Tesco stores in central London.

I know that it doesn't show all of them, because the most detailed map searches I used for specific postcodes do not show the newish stores on New North Road, Pentonville Road and Hackney Road, so it seems reasonable to assume that a few more are missing too.

Sainsbury's is not quite as bad, although it appears to manage some clusters that make you wonder how anyone could justify three stores almost on top of one another.

Morrison's – fewer and more spread out.

Waitrose – a new one I had no idea was almost on my doorstep, just to the south of Hackney Road.

Co-op? A lot fewer, but there are quite a few Icelands.

Why this sudden spurt of searching? Because it seems that we're going to have another Sainsbury's, very soon and very near me. And because local businesses are worried about the possibility of a Tesco, too.

Let me explain. Our local council is dealing with a planning application for a site just around the corner from the top end of Broadway Market.

The site is currently occupied by small workshops and offices for small, local and locally-based businesses.

These will be chucked out and a block of flats will be built instead.

However, for the flats to be financially viable for the housing associating that wants to build them, there will have to be some commercial properties on the ground. Planning permission is being sought for office space.

Yet in similar developments only a few metres away, spangly new office spaces continue to stand empty.

And here we hit the nub.

Only recently, Hackney Council changed the nature of planning permission on one such block around the corner, on Mare Street, so that its empty office space can be used for retail instead. Sainsbury's will be moving in soon.

This was done with absolutely no consultation with local businesses or residents.

So it's hardly surprising that local businesses are now worried that this new scheme is just a ploy to shoehorn yet another supermarket in the area, without the bother of formally consulting on such a plan – and the one that they most suspect is Tesco.

That there is already a Tesco on nearby Wells Street (the first one), which killed off the old street market means nothing. That there is a vast Tesco metal box just off Mare Street, around half a mile up the road, means nothing either. That there's one on Bethnal Green Road and two on Hackney Road and I've seen a new one on City Road too matters not one shred.

That Hackney Council is spending money to hang banners around the borough linking 'I heart Hackney' with 'shop local' also appears to have no meaningful content – unless we assume that, by 'local', they simply mean at one of the rapidly increasing number of supermarket outlets that we're allowing to open'.

Now, I appreciate that, to some of you, this might sound a tad hysterical. I'll briefly mention – as always do when discussing this subject – the value of reading Shopped: The shocking power of Britain's supermarkets by Joanna Blythman and The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman (Wal-Mart owns Asda and is also a big model for Tesco).

But let's move on.

In the last few months, I've twice been in a cab where the driver has a former butcher, who realised that the traditional trade had little future and decide to change direction.

In the first such instance, his father – who owned three butchers' shops that his son expected to take on – had told him that the only hope for him, as butcher, was to go and work for a supermarket.

So he gave it a whirl. He found that he needed no skills; his knowledge of cuts and so forth was of no use. He had no butchering to do.

He did The Knowledge and changed job.

Travelling across London just over a week ago, there was the time to quiz the second of these quite thoroughly.

In a massive coincidence, he was born and grew up just around the back of Broadway Market. A couple of years younger than me, he remembers there being three butchers on the street - together with the greengrocers and the fishmongers and the bakers.

When The Other Half and I moved into the areas some 17 years ago, the street was a mess. A famous piece of graffiti described it thus: 'Broadway Market - not so much a sinking ship as a submarine'. Witty - and sadly true at the time.

I asked what he thought had killed off the street. There was no hesitation: supermarkets.

How, though?

They'd opened, offering cheap vegetables, he said. When shoppers went there for their greens, they decided to take the easy option of buying other things at the same time.

Gradually, unable to compete against increasing buying might the supermarkets could deploy, most of the independent businesses died.

Then, he added, shoppers found that the supermarkets were not quite as cheap as they had initially seemed, but by then it was too late.

But after the street had been killed off, what revived it? Small, private businesses – simple as.

The council made some half-hearted and completely cack-handed efforts to revive the street, but utterly failed. To give just one example, the council had the bright idea of starting a flower market on Saturdays. They kicked it off with just a couple of really, seriously piss-poor stall.

And yet this is just a stone's throw from the legendary Colombia Road, where people come from (at least) across the city for the Sunday flower market.

What has happened is entirely down to private individuals getting together to build a market – and to small businesses moving in, all at around the same time.

Broadway Market is no longer a submarine – it's no longer even close to being a 'sinking ship'. It is thriving and bubbling and healthy and quite wonderful.

Now this doesn't meet with universal approval. Ultra-leftist, SWP lies that there was ever an option between a privately-run market and a council-funded community centre haven't helped.

As haven't the almost mythical tales of the £3 loaf of bread – which is rendered utterly daft on the basis that it's an organic, seven-day sour, as opposed to a £1.72 loaf of ordinary, mass-produced wholemeal, which you can, of course, still but on Broadway Market from Percy Ingle.

The reality is that the market has been instrumental in reviving a once-almost dead street. Little has been lost to locals (myself included) as a result – and 2/3 of that as a direct result of collusion between the council and the ridiculously-named local commercial landlord, Roger Wratten, who, one imagines, delights in adding notches to his bedpost every time he drives another business to the wall because he, as landlord, can demand more dosh.

Trust me – it's happened more than once, more than twice ... And the most recent example is only just occurring.

Wratten, indeed, is an example of what can happen when greedy, individual landlords get their way. Broadway Market as a whole is – at present – and example of something different and far more positive from private businesses.

It's become a vital, thriving community. Where once there would hardly be anyone on the street at any time of day on any day of the week, now it draws in people for lunch, for dinner, for the evening. In the week and at the weekend.

Where once I'd have been forced to go to a big supermarket to do my shopping, I no longer have to. I can shop locally and stay locally.

And I'm going to defend that.

I have written to the council already with my comments on the planning application. I'm trying to find out the legal situation, I have said that I wish to attend any council meeting at which the application is discussed – and I wish to speak. And, simplest of all, I have signed the petition that is in most local shops on Broadway Market.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The ghosts of a faded glory

In the two years and three months since I was last in Brighton, more of the West Pier has slipped away into it’s final, watery grave.

Designed by Eugenius Birch and built in 1866, the pier was in such a state of disrepair that it was closed to the public in 1975. But it was finally reduced to a skeleton of iron, jutting up from the sea, by a fierce fire in 2003 – little more than a month after the local council had approved plans to restore it.

The West Pier Trust still believes that "professional arsonists" were responsible.

There is, of course, still Brighton Pier itself – “1,772 feet of fun” proclaims the website – but the sad and slowly disappearing remains of the West Pier have become an icon, more photographed than it’s still-gaudy, still-living neighbour.

And as the intervals between my own visits are measured by the year rather than the day, it is not difficult to note the differences each time we renew acquaintance.

This year it was the ballroom dome, which had previously reclined at a tilt in the shallows between the rotting bulk and the pebbled shore, that was gone. An inside-out aviary, covered in streamers of seaweed, a perch for the birds, consigned now to memory.

But while the burnt-out pier is the most obvious sign of decay, there is much in Brighton that reflects the fading glamour of the English resort.

There's the mint green livery of the promenade, dotted with rust and interspersed with rotted wood.

For work purposes, I was staying in the Metropole on the seafront. Built in 1890, it was designed by Alfred Waterhouse – whose work also includes the iconic Natural History Museum in London.

With 340 bedrooms and conference facilities, it is apparently the largest residential conference centre in Britain.

Sold by taxpayer-owned bank RBS last year, it’s now owned by investment company the Topland Group and is on long-term lease to Hilton hotels.

But long before it played such a cameo in the aftermath of the financial debaclé, its guests included Winston Churchill, while it stands next door to the Grand Hotel, which was bombed by the IRA during the 1984 Conservative Party conference.

So much history for a hotel, yet even though it remains a hive of activity, a sense of faded glory pervades the atmosphere.

On Friday night, with the temperatures plunging outside, I dined in.

My waiter was a charming young man called Sage, and I had decided to limit myself to the set-course menu for £20 (including a glass of wine).

Taking the chef’s suggestions, I’d opted for a duck terrine with fig – with turned out to be a fig marmalade, plus melba toast and a little, rather bland salad garnish. It was pleasant enough.

The cod that followed was somewhat odder. It pretended to the heights of modern cooking, but the single, small red pepper, a lonely floret of undercooked broccoli and a rather dry polenta cupcake that accompanied a piece of fillet, together with an unidentifiable garnish scattered around, was an unappetising pick ‘n’ mix selection of ingredients that had no unity.

Indeed, there was little suggestion that there had even been an attempt to knit it all together.

Looking at the menu for dessert, I realised that my cheapskating on the meal was going to make for a very uninspired culinary denouement.

Sage, however, was at hand – and helpfully agreed that I could add a little extra to my bill in order to have the chef’s special – a ‘Brighton Mess’.

A short while later, he wheeled a tray to my table and began the process of constructing my dessert, crushing meringue and adding a tiny splash of Grand Marnier as a base, before asking me to pick the next ingredients. In my case, these included assorted berries (none seasonal, I confess), cream and plenty of butterscotch.

It had an artificial sweetness, but that was a relief after the main course.

Just a short walk from the Brighton Pavilion, where the first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, cooked for the Prince Regent, in a restaurant that would once have prided itself on full sliver service and the food to match, these cut-price efforts to continue that tradition had a painful futility about them.

Few diners – either resident or from outside – appeared, and the spacious, chandeliered room almost echoed with the clink clink of cutlery.

Nearby, as an inducement to diners and filling the disquiet a little, a singer performed Rat Pack classics to karaoke accompaniments on a laptop.

Sage was a delight as he flattered me with his attention.

Back to the window, back to the here and now, I felt like a dowager duchess basking in a compliment as the final glow of her youth fades.

Perhaps I have watched too much Poirot, but as I made my way slowly back to my room later, on the deserted staircases, as the sounds of chatter from the bar drifted up, the ghosts of a bygone era seemed to be all around.

The discord continued the following evening, in the nearby China Garden, where a jarring meeting of cultures could be found; a pianist playing selections from The Sound of Music while diners consumed their dim sum. And brittle birthday-party loudness took over from the sound of a fractious baby, as the latter finally tumbled into exhausted sleep.

The food was a big improvement – deep-fried frogs’ legs with a chili sauce that packed a pleasing punch proving my dish of the weekend by some considerable way, even though it provoked a modicum of shock amongst one or two of my fellow staff diners.

The sweet and sour chicken was perfectly decent but, with some steamed rice, far too big a portion. I was too full for dessert and, after braving the driving, icy rain on the short walk back, happy to bid my colleagues a good night.

Earlier in the day, contemplating lunch, I'd gone in search of proper fish and chips. With snow in the air, I'd walked past at least three outlets that offered pizzas or kebabs alongside what I was after. I wanted dedication to this wonderful dish.

Sitting down eventually in a cramped corner chippy, with white tile walls dotted with blue and yellow cartoon fish and a notice proclaiming that it had been there for 50 years, here at least was a nod to tradition.

The fish was nice – flaky and moist, with a really light, crisp batter. The chips so-so; the mushy peas too wet. And no smell or taste of a proper cooking fat.

Back at the hotel, perhaps the most pleasantly memorable thing about the actual food was the egg station, where a cook prepares your eggs to order – the best eggs I’ve ever had at a hotel breakfast.

Make your request and then hit the toast machine to watch it’s oh-so-slow progress.

The bread is barely coloured after one run, so you put it through again, knowing that it will somehow go from an extreme of underdoneness to something nearing the opposite, altogether passing by a happy medium. Fortunately, I don’t mind well-done toast.

Later, traveling home through a snowy landscape, the incongruities continued as I spotted two deer near the train tracks at – of all places – Gatwick Airport.

But two and a half days later, it is the sense of those ghosts and of the fading glory of an old style of English seaside resort that remains with me. And something about that – a quality of sensuality in the decay – makes me quietly happy that they have not dissipated yet.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Frugal food that's fit for an emperor

With everyone watching the pennies, the question of ‘frugal food’ has reared its head, and launched almost as many articles as Helen of Troy launched ships.

But ‘frugal food’ is hardly a new idea – and it doesn’t just refer to cost, but to culinary simplicity too.

And not only that, but it doesn't mean ignoring flavour either – there’s no way that it would get any mention here if it did!

So bearing all this in mind, a perfect example of frugal food is that classic of Italian cuisine, minestrone.

It’s believed that the origins of minestrone predate the Roman Empire, while the Roman army is said to have marched on minestrone and pasta e ceci (a sort of beans and pasta).

Marcus Apicius's ancient cookbook De Re Coquinaria described polus, which was a Roman soup dating back to 30AD and made from faro (a wheat-based food), chickpeas and broad beans, with onions, garlic, lard, and greens thrown in.

Just as with the cassoulet I was exploring at the weekend, there is no one recipe for minestrone – no right or wrong way to make it. Much depends on seasonality and even what’s in the cupboard or fridge, which of course makes it idea frugal food, since it’s the perfect way to use up leftovers.

The only real certainty is the beans – and they should, ideally, be borlotti (or Roman) beans.

Minestrone alla Genovese is a version that’s typical of Liguria, and contains a greater use of herbs than other versions, plus pesto.

And this is the one I decided to use as my own guide, using The Food of Italy.

The first attempt was chock full of taste – but The Other Half was not overwhelmed because he has decided that he would prefer something that was not as chunky and had more broth going on in the bowl.

So, bearing in mind that a quiet life is worth making a certain number of adjustments for, I tried again today.

Whatever you’re going to put in your minestrone, the sofritto is crucial.

This is how any minestrone begins.

Chop an onion and garlic. In the meantime, melt around 40g of lard in a big, heavy pan. What you want to do is cook the vegetables, plus a couple of chopped leaves of sage and some pancetta very gently in the fat for at least 10 minutes. They need to be well softened, but most certainly not browned.

Once that's done, add a couple of medium-sized potatoes - peeled but not cut up - plus sliced carrot and celery, and cook for a further five minutes.

Add a good squeeze of tomato purée, a tinned of chopped tomatoes and some chopped basil leaves - be generous with the freshly ground black pepper, and then add stock and bring gently to the boil.

Turn the heat down, cover and cook for two hours, stirring a couple of times. The big test is when the potatoes have started collapsing on their own and can easily be crushed into the soup.

Test the seasoning.

Then add your rinsed borlotti beans - if from a tin; otherwise, add soaked beans with the tomatoes.

Now at this point, I added a sliced courgette, plus some broken pasta - spaghetti is ideal, but it could be anything, frankly. Keep the broken pasta from the bottom of a bag and save to chuck into a minestrone. And then carry on cooking until the pasta and green vegetables are cooked through.

Serve with a dollop of pesto – which gives it a lovely zing – and some grated parmesan.

According to Janet Clarkson's Soup: A Global History, various texts refer to something called 'Italian wedding soup', but something has got rather confused in the translation.

No such soup has ever existed. But one of the words for soup in Italian is minestra (zuppa is the other). Thin - or 'little' - soup is minestrina and thick - or 'big' - soup is minestrone. When ingredients in a soup are happily combined, they're referred to as maritati or 'married'.

It's not difficult to see where the mistake occurred.

But it's also easy to see why this classic soup is such a fine example of 'frugal food'. Forget the tinned version - it's a travesty. Cooked freshly, this is food fit for a Roman emperor. And given the number of ingredients, there'll be no stinging on portions - mine has done enough for lunch for The Other Half and me tomorrow.

And if all that wasn't enough to get you excited, it's healthy too!