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.

Time zones and … O Juice

clock

 

I am writing this on the 30th of March,  the day after that on which the UK was scheduled to leave the EU, but did not. This day, Saturday,  is in the last weekend of March. Early on Sunday morning, we shift from Greenwich Mean Time to British Summer Time, by advancing our clocks by one hour.

In late 1994, while we were on holiday in California, we decided to drive over to the State of Arizona to see Lake Havasu City. After London Bridge was dismantled in 1968, its stones were carefully labelled and sent to Lake Havasu City, where it was reconstructed. By 1971, the bridge had been re-built in a picturesque lakeside position where it has become one of Arizona’s major tourist attractions.

After settling into a motel, we wandered over to a restaurant. For the duration of our evening meal we were the only diners. I ordered ‘New York Steak’, which turned out to be strips of beefsteak. Soon after taking our order, the waitress returned and asked: “D’ya want it with or without O Juice?”

I had never heard of eating steak with orange juice, so I said:

“Excuse me, what did you say?”

She replied, slightly impatiently: 

“O juice, you know kinda gravy.”

What sounded like ‘O Juice’ was the waitresses attempt to pronounce the French culinary term ‘au jus‘.

After eating our meal, it was only eight o’clock. We asked the waitress where were all of the other diners and why was she clearing all the tables and stacking the chairs, getting ready to close the eatery.

“It’s  getting late you know”

“But it’s only eight,” we retorted.

“Nope, it’s nine,” she informed us.

We had not realised that by crossing from California to Arizona, we had moved into a time zone one hour ahead of California.

A candle on the plate

I first visited India 25 years ago, arriving in January 1994. On the day before we left to return to the UK, my wife took me to Shezan, a restaurant in Bangalore’s Lavelle Road. This pleasant thoroughfare is named after a Mr Lavelle, who made his fortune at the (now disused) Kolar gold fields east of Bangalore.

My wife said to me that brilliant biryani, which I ought to try, was served at Shezan. We arrived at the restaurant, which was then housed in a picturesque colonial era bungalow.

Where this bungalow used to stand, there is now a modern office building called Shezan Lavelle. Since this was built, the restaurant has been situated at various other locations in Lavelle Road. Recently in late 2018, the Lavelle Road branch of this eatery has been discontinued. Shezan continues to operate in Cunningham Road, where there has been a branch for many years.

Back in 1994, I looked at the menu at Shezan and noticed that Chateaubriand beef steaks were being offered for the Rupee equivalent of 2 Pounds Sterling. I told my wife that I would have a steak rather than a biryani. After all, good biryanis were available in London, where a Chateaubriand used to cost eight to ten times the price at Shezan. The steak at Shezan was first class, and it continues to be so 25 years later.

Shezan used to be run by a man, who died in late 2018, and his elderly father. When we began bringing our young daughter to Bangalore in the late 1990s, we took her for meals at Shezan. Whatever was ordered for her arrived with a small candle flickering on her plate. The candle was placed in a hollowed out tomato that served as a shade.

In early January 2019, we visited the Shezan in Cunningham Road with our daughter, by now a young lady. The branch is run superbly by Aftab, a son of the recently deceased former owner.

Our daughter ordered a portion of Sholay Kebab, a slightly spicy chicken dish cooked with curry leaves. It arrived with a small candle flickering under a hollowed out tomato shell. Remarkably, the kindly Aftab had remembered our daughter after not having seen her since she was a small child.

Claim your steak

STEAK

When I was much younger, my parents often took my sister and me to eat dinner in restaurants.

Before we looked at the menu, my late mother used to examine the plates and cutlery on our table. If there was a blemish on the cutlery or a crack or chip in the porcelain, the waiter would be summoned to replace the defective item(s). Often this delayed the arrival of any food. If we looked reproachfully at my mother, she would say:

“You can eat off cracked plates if you like, but I am not paying good money to eat off bad plates.”

She said this in such a way that meant that really there was no way that any of us could eat off damaged crockery, even if we wanted to.

As the years went by, I used to look at my plate and cutlery carefully as soon as we sat down. If I spotted a defect, I used to casually lay my hand on it so that my mother would not see it. I was always hungry before a meal and wanted to get on with it rather than having to wait for perfect eating utensils to be fetched. Once any defective cutlery/crockery was replaced, the meal could be ordered.

My mother was fond of beef steak. Rather unfashionably for London in the 1960s, she preferred her steak rare, almost what the French call ‘bleu’. This simple request was the real test for a restaurant. Frequently, the rare steak would arrive cold. My mother would then summon the waiter or maitre d’hote.

“My steak is cold.”

“Madame, I will ask the kitchen to heat it for you.”

The steak would then be returned, and my mother would begin cutting it. Soon the waiter would be called again.

“My steak is no longer rare; it is overcooked. Take it away and bring me another one cooked rare and warm.”

Any restaurant that could get this right without fuss, won my mother’s custom. She would then return there frequently.

Today, rare steak is the ‘in thing’. Most good chefs and discerning diners prefer the insides of steaks to be red, if not bloody.

Writing of steaks reminded me of Monty Modlyn (1921-94), a radio presenter and journalist. Occasionally he would speak on the early morning Today programme on the BBC Home Service (now ‘Radio 4’). He would report on steaks and other meat he had eaten. He had a metal ball that he would drop onto pieces of meat. The depth of the indentation made by the ball’s impact was his measure of the meat’s quality. It all sounded a bit mad to me when I listened to him when I was a young boy. Apparently, what he was doing was quite sound. The quality of raw meat can be judged by indenting it with a finger tip and then watching how quickly the indentation disappears. If the meat recovers quickly, then the quality is likely to be lower than if it recovers slowly.