Love at first bite

I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.

FOOD Pizza Etna_800 BLOG

My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier.  Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.

Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.

During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.

My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.

In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry.   As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.

Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”

“You will not like them.”

“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”

“You won’t like them”

“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”

The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”

The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.  

Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill

 

Ignorance is bliss

DURING MY UNDERGRADUATE student days in the very early 1970s, a good friend, who is now my wife, suggested that a group of us should visit one of the then very few Japanese restaurants in London. The one we chose was in St Christopher’s Place, close to Oxford Street.

We decided to order sashimi, raw fish. I chose to have a plate of tuna sashimi. I had never eaten raw fish before, but after my first bite I decided this was a very superior way of serving fish. The sashimi was more than delicious. I would have loved much more than the five neatly cut pieces of tuna, which was the portion size. However, I could not afford that luxury.

The five bite sized pieces of tuna cost £7. And, in the early 1970s that sum could pay for a lot of food or other goods. For example, a Penguin paperback book cost 12.5 or 17.5 pence and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol was well under £1.

I was left hungry after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and had to assuage my appetite at a fast food outlet.

Today, the price of Japanese food in London has dropped relative to what it was almost 50 years ago. Outlets like Itsu can provide a satisfying Japanese set meal for little more than £7. Better quality Japanese restaurants are justifiably more expensive, but not usually way out of reach, as was my plate of sashimi in St Christopher’s Place.

We used to visit a lovely Japanese restaurant in Holland Park side street. It was run by an elderly couple from Japan. It closed when they retired. For a year or two, we did not eat Japanese food in London.

One Saturday evening, we were watching a play at the National Theatre. It was not satisfactory. So, we walked out after the first act. We decided to drive to Ali Baba, an Egyptian eatery near Baker Street.

On the way, I thought that if we were to see a Japanese restaurant, we would stop and eat there. I stopped the car outside a Japanese restaurant near Bloomsbury and suggested to my wife that we ate there. She agreed and we entered the small eatery.

We looked at the menu and then looked at each other across the table. By chance, we had walked into a very (no kidding) expensive place. We were on the point of walking out when I said to my wife:
“Let’s eat here. I will enjoy it if I don’t see the bill. You check it, and I will hand over the card.”
Ignorance is bliss, and so was the food.

Pictures taken at Harima restaurant in Bangalore, India

The Gay Hussar

THE USAGE OF THE WORD ‘GAY’ to refer to same sex relationships dates back to the 1960s.

Before this time, back in 1953, Victor Sassie opened a Hungarian restaurant in Greek Street in London’s Soho district. It closed a few years ago in 2018.

Apart from serving Hungarian specialities, the Gay Hussar was a popular meeting place for politicians.

My father was often invited to meet his colleague, friend, and occasional co-author the Hungarian born (Lord) Peter Bauer at the Gay Hussar. Dad was not too keen on the fare at the restaurant because he found it too rich and a bit heavy. I only ate there once. I thought that the cooking in Hungary was better than that on offer in Greek Street.

The Gay Hussar was not the only Hungarian eatery in Soho. The other was Csarda in Dean Street. This closed long before the Gay Hussar. It is one of my few minor regrets that I was never able to eat at the Csarda.

The ‘unearthing’ of an ashtray from the Gay Hussar is what prompted me to write about this no longer existing restaurant.

A picnic to remember

 

I AM NOT A LOVER OF picnics. My perfect idea of eating outside my home is not squatting on a rug in a picturesque open-air location, but in a restaurant. In contrast, my wife and her parents loved picnics.

Many years ago, when both of my dear in-laws were still alive and healthy, that is well before 2006, we decided to have a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree just outside the city of Bangalore (India). Known in Kannada, the official state language of Karnataka, as ‘Dodda Aalada Mara’ that means ‘Big Banyan Tree’, this huge tree, an example of Ficus benghalensis which is about 400 years old, covers about three acres. It is located about 17 and a half miles west by southwest of the Bangalore Club in central Bangalore.

It is a popular local attraction for picnickers. This being the case and also the fact that I had never been there helped my in-laws decide that we should enjoy a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree. After thermos flasks had been filled, masala omelette sandwiches prepared, blankets packed, puri aloo packaged, bhakri boxed up in cylindrical steel containers with tight fitting lids, we set off: my parents in law, my brother in law and his family, my wife and our very young daughter, and me.

We arrived at the tree, which looked more like a dense, tangled forest than a single tree, but that is what banyan trees become when left to their own devices. After threading our way through the aerial roots hanging down from the tree, we found a small open space that looked nice for a picnic. At least everybody except me, not a lover of picnics, thought so.

We laid out the blanket, and put out the containers of food, and that is about as far our picnic was to resemble a normal meal ‘al fresco’. Moments after setting out the food, swarms of our closely related primates appeared. These monkeys had not come to keep us company or simply to watch their two-legged relatives eating. No, they had arrived to be fed. Their only intentions were far from friendly. They had come to steal our picnic. One by one they dropped out of the trees and approached our food. With great difficulty we were able to ‘shoo’ away these almost fearless raiders. At one stage, I resorted to throwing wet used teabags at them. They were very persistent, in fact so persistent that we decided not to persist with our picnic. We packed everything and made a hasty departure having eaten nothing.

This experience did nothing to remove my long-held prejudice against picnicking. It did the opposite. Wasps and other intruders are bad enough, but monkeys ‘took the biscuit’. Well, metaphorically if not in fact.

Foot and mouth

Wales 1 SMALL

Before she died in 2012, we used to make annual visits to a dear friend, whom I had known since my childhood, in South Wales. She used to live in London, but when she retired, she moved to a village in the Brecon Beacons, near the River Usk. We stayed in her cottage but were encouraged to leave her in peace from after breakfast until about four in the afternoon. We did not mind this because there is plenty to explore in the area and often the weather was good at the times of the year that we visited her.

In 2001, disaster hit Wales in the form of a vicious outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In order to prevent its spread, all footpaths and many open spaces were closed to visitors. This and the appalling rain that fell relentlessly during our visit, restricted what we could do while we were allowing our guest a few hours relief from her guests. We drove around the countryside not particularly having much fun.

One day, we arrived at a small town with a name I am unable to pronounce correctly:  Llanwrtyd Wells. It was lunch time. We parked outside a hotel near the town centre. The floor of the lobby was covered with a grubby, well-worn carpet. We were shown into an unattractive dining room. Our hopes for having a decent meal fell as we surveyed the room’s dingy uninviting décor. The sight of incessant rain falling outside did little to enhance the dreary mood that this unappealing room was inducing.

The hotel’s owner brought us menus. We asked what he recommended. He said “steaks” and showed us the large range of meats listed in the menu. We asked his advice about which steak to choose. Then, he did something that transformed the dingy place for us.

He gave us a ‘tutorial’ about the relative merits of different kinds of beefsteak and their tastes. The least tasty, in his opinion, was the costliest cut, fillet steak. Sirloin steak was, he advised us, tastier and cheaper than fillet. However, he considered that the tastiest cut was rib-eye. He explained that the latter was marbled with fine streaks of fat, and it was this that gives it its superior taste. We ordered it and discovered he was right. He regretted that he was unable to serve the local, and in his view far superior, Black Mountain beef. This was because of the problems connected with the foot and mouth outbreak.

Whenever I buy steak, I look for rib-eye first, and if this is not available, I go for sirloin. Whenever I think of beefsteak, I always remember that dreary eatery in Llanwrtyd Wells and its helpful landlord. For a long time, I could not remember in which town in Wales, we were given our tutorial about steaks. Recently, I discovered some photographs I had taken there almost twenty years ago. In one of them, there was a pub sign that read “Neuadd Arms Hotel”. Seeing this helped me discover where we had been.

What is in a name

When I was a young child, I used to love eating slices of tongue. It was a cold meat that I really enjoyed. In those days, I never thought about the name of the meat, that is ‘tongue’.

When I was about 10 years old, I put ‘two and two together’ and realised that what I had been eating was once a living animal’s tongue. This realisation put me off eating tongue. I have hardly ever eaten tongue since that discover of what is in its name.

The curious thing is that, with plenty of knowledge of anatomy, I have no difficulties eating, say, liver or pancreas (‘sweetbreads’) or stomach (‘tripe’).

Picture from Wikipedia

A powerful smell

Years ago, before the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, I was visiting Budapest in Hungary with my friend the author, the late Michael Jacobs (he wrote Budapest, A Cultural Guide, published in 1998). We decided to eat dinner in a large restaurant called the Kárpátia, which was founded in 1877 and is one of the city’s longest surviving eateries.

cheese

The dining hall was very spacious. Its decor is Victorian Gothic revival. Diners are serenaded by a small band. As far as I can remember we ate well, as was often the case in Communist Hungary. One could enjoy the restaurants in Budapest if you were a western tourist, but for most Hungarians, who were low paid, eating in fancy restaurants was way beyond their means.  I remember eating a magnificent lunch at another restaurant and paying less than £5 for a gargantuan spread. When I told my Hungarian hosts that I had been to that place to eat, they could not believe that I was able to afford it. I was going to tell them what good value it was, but held my tongue.

At the end of the meal at the Kárpátia , I decided to try a cheese, which I had never heard of  and was on the menu. It was called Pálpusztai. I ordered a portion, and waited. The doors to the kitchen were at the far end of the large room in which we were dining. Our table was as far from the kitchen as was possible. Before the waiter re-entered the dining hall, a strong pungent odour could be sensed. The smell filled the entire dining hall. It was my cheese. Michael was horrified that first, I was prepared to try it, and then, second, that I liked it. Actually, I like most pungent cheeses. 

Pálpusztai is a cow’s milk cheese, which was first made by Pál Heller of the Derby és Vajtermelő Cheese Company in the 1890s. According to Wikipedia, the bacterium, Brevibacterium linens, that gives the cheese its odour is the same as that found on human skin, which contributes to body odour. Maybe, it was lucky I did not know that when I was looking at the menu at the Kárpátia!