Archive for May, 2009

Say hello to my little friend!

Dinner with Rupert, Chris and Chris

A huge thanks to Rupert, Chris and Chris for the fantastic wedding present, a whole Pata Negra. Midnight snacks will never be the same again!  It’s sooooooo good I cannot tell you.

UPDATE: 11 days later…

Jamon Iberico

Groan… ham is my friend.

Eating Eurovision: Malta

Malta?! I put my hand in the bag first and out of the 25 countries I drew Malta. My GCSE Geography dusted itself off and swung into action. ‘Small Island, somewhere in the Med, bombed a lot during the war’ it said. But as for food, it drew a blank, along with the rest of my knowledge.

Eating Eurovision

Bernard Hamilton: Deputy High Commissioner of Malta

The next day when I asked the press person at the Maltese tourist office about Maltese food in London he replied “there isn’t any”. Two hours later I’m sat in the office of the Deputy High Commissioner for the Republic of Malta having Maltese coffee and biscuits. “It’s true, sadly there’s no Maltese restaurants here,” says Bernard Hamilton. Bernard very kindly found 30 minutes at ridiculously short notice to talk to me about Malta, it’s history and people, and it’s relationship to the UK. Churchill once called Malta the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’, and the former British colony is now an active member of the Commonwealth. “Our natural resource is our culture and heritage,” says Bernard, a heritage that has been shaped by nearly all the civilisations of antiquity as well as a few modern ones laying claim to the islands. Empire’s come and go, but Malta remains it seems. In fact the main island is home to the oldest free standing structures in the world, these rocks are old.

We come on to Eurovision. “Jade was in Malta a few weeks ago. (She was a guest of their act-choosing show) In Malta we take Eurovision very seriously”. It’s front-page news apparently. Malta, you’ll no doubt be aware, (mostly) give us the maximum 12 points no matter who we send to the competition (yes even Scootch). They are our last unsinkable ally against the axis of eastern Eurovision dominance, our brothers in arms, as Mike Atkinson says in the Guardian ‘we owe them’.

I move the discussion on to food. Bernard talks about the coffee we’re drinking, which is flavoured with fennel, cloves and something called cikwejra, which it turns out is chicory. The traditional flavoured coffees are falling out of favour, being replaced by the standard Italian styles. We also have some little dry biscuits to dip into the coffee. We move on to more substantial matters. “The national dish is rabbit,” says Bernard. “Families often keep their own rabbits to eat, and so consequently look after them well”. We talk some more about being a diplomat, Bernard won Young Diplomat of the year for his consular work, and the day to day tasks of the Commission, which are dealing with visas, promoting trade and tourism, and helping look after Malta’s interests in the UK. Before I leave Bernard very kindly gives me some Maltese wine, a 2006 Medina Vineyard. It’s a blend of syrah, Grenache and carignan from Delicata and gratefully received.

Things are moving…

I head back home and get a call from one of the other leads I’d frantically found earlier in the morning; Barbara from the Maltese Cultural Movement. We arrange to meet in a pub in Highgate, as she’s a few Maltese treats for me. These turn out to be some bottles of Cisk (pronounced Chisk) lager, six cans of Kinnie (a bitter/sweet soft drink native to Malta) and some Pastizzi – the ubiquitous (in Malta anyway) snack. Pastizzi come with either ricotta or pea fillings, and each village baker has their own way of making them – all done by hand. The ones I’ve got are frozen; I’ll be having them during Eurovision. If you want to try some either order them off Barbara or keep an eye out for Cynthia who runs and does some of the markets in London. Kinnie is a bitter drink made from oranges, but with slight aniseed notes. It’s reminds me of Campari, and is probably best served ice cold in a little café in Valetta. It’s the Irn Bru of Malta.

Eating Eurovision

Cisk lager and Kinnie soft drink

Barbara and her husband set up the Maltese Cultural Movement 11 years ago “because there was nothing really for the Maltese people in the UK”. (Earlier Bernard estimated that people of Maltese extraction number 50,000 in the UK, mostly based in London). “When we opened the centre in April 1998 we were overwhelmed by the response”. They now organise three Maltese themed events every year, the next being June 27th to celebrate mnarja. The festival takes place in Malta to honour St Peter and St Paul. “The whole island gets together, and it was at the festival that you hoped to meet a wife or a husband,” says Barbara. Indeed from listen to both Barnard and Barbara the Maltese like to party most weekends of the summer, there’s always something going on. (More on Maltese festivals here)
Barbara then talks about the future of the Maltese Cultural Movement, “when we set it up, we go the support of the first generation community, those that came over after the war, now we’re into the second and third generation –as well as young Maltese coming here for the first time – we need to be there for them too.”
Barbara also gives me a rabbit recipe, and here it is.
Fried Rabbit
1 rabbit cut into portions
Plenty of Garlic cut roughly (nearly a whole bulb)
Bay leaf
White wine (couple of large glasses, maybe more)
Fry the rabbit in a shallow oil and add half the garlic, season with salt and pepper. When the rabbit is golden in colour add the bay leaf for about a minute then take out the excess oil. Add the rest of the garlic and fry a little before adding the white wine and simmering until tender.

Eating Eurovision

Lots of garlic, lots of bay leaf

More Maltese kindness

Garlic it seems is key it seems to Maltese cooking, and indeed ‘did you put the garlic?’ is the blog name of a second generation Maltese Mary Rose who I met next.

Eating Eurovision

Mary and her lovely cakes

Mary-Rose was born in Melbourne to Maltese parents, she went to and fro between the Island and Oz before eventually settling in the UK. We arrange to meet at St Pancras at 7:45 and since finishing work at 6 she’s been home and baked me some cakes – I’m aghast. She’s also got a Maltese cookbook to lend me “my mother thinks this book’s rubbish” she says. The cakes are Pastini tal coconut, and here’s the recipe.

250g plain flour
250g butter
500g desiccated coconut
350g Sugar
A few drops of vanilla essence
4 eggs

Method (makes four dozen)
Rub the flour and butter together, them mix through the coconut. Then mix in the sugar and vanilla essence. Whisk the eggs into the mixture. Roll into little balls and decorate with glace cherries or almonds. Bake for 10-15 minutes at 200 degrees.
‘My mother always makes these in huge batches” says Mary, who then goes on to tell me about the pleasures and pitfalls of a Maltese mother. It seems that Maltese mothers are at the heart of the home, and Malta is a place where many traditional values are still present (The word for wife is the same as for woman). “My other half says it’s not so much backward, as just in a time warp”.

Mary goes on to talk about everything from the Maltese film industry to post war rationing to her mother’s lack of a toaster and the joy that is hobz biz-zejt. The later is literally translated as bread and oil, yet is more of an open sandwich. Take the traditional Maltese bread and place ripe sliced tomatoes on top, then add capers and tuna, before drizzling on a lot of olive oil. “This was often my lunch at School in Melbourne, when all the other kids had veggie-mite sandwiches” says Mary.
Bernard, Barbara and Mary all talked about rabbit as the national dish, and as it happens I had a bunny in the freezer from my trip round Smithfield Meat Market. So, armed with a recipe from Barbara and a Maltese Cookbook Mary lent me, I’m ready cook the Maltese national dish…

Eating Eurovision

Rabbit, with liver in

Stuffat tal-fenek aka stewed rabbit.
Barbara’s rabbit casserole.
Rabbit (plus liver and kidney’s). Red wine. Garlic. Onion. Tomatoes. Bay leaves. Spices (Chinese five spice). Salt & Pepper. Peas (Marrowfat).
Cut the rabbit into six pieces (legs, loin and front legs)
Sauté the rabbit with onion, garlic and wine and tomato sauce (made from more onion, garlic, bay leaf, spices and wine) simmer gently and add the peas.

Eating Eurovision

adding tomatoes

It’s 9:30pm by the time I get back home, and the aim of the stew is to cook it long and slow so the meat’s almost falling off the bones, so this is very much going to have to be a dish for tomorrow. I’m not very good at following recipes while cooking. Some people can’t be with out them, relying on them as a classical musician might rely on sheet music. I tend to riff a little when it comes to cooking, Barbara’s recipe calls for Chinese five spice, Mary’s book calls for curry powder and some pork belly. I’ve got none of these in the house, so opt for a tea spoon of garum masala. I just remember what Barbara said, ‘lots of garlic and bay leaf’, and put in loads.

Next, the rabbit. Why I think rabbit fell out of favour and was replaced by chicken is that when it’s laid out in front of you, it looks like a dead skinned animal, where as a chicken – upside down with legs and feet off – just looks raw. The way to deal with any squeamish thoughts you might have is to just get stuck in and cut it up, once you’ve broken the form it too can just look like raw ingredients. I chop it down into legs, loin and other bits, deciding to leave the head out, and brown it in the pan having first removed the onions and garlic.

Maltese Rabbit Stew

ready for tonight!

I put the lot back in and add a glass of Bernard’s Maltese wine and a carton of passata, bringing it up to a high heat. Lastly I add the liver, which is very delicate. Barbara recommends frying this with more garlic and oil before adding a splash of malt vinegar and eating – but it’s now getting on a bit so I just add it in and hope it’ll flavour the sauce. I set my oven to 100 degrees and pop the casserole in and set the time to turn off at 6am, giving 7 hours of long slow cooking. Most recipes call for peas to be added, Barbara says marrowfat are the best, but I’ve only got petit pois and they’ll have disintegrated after 7 hours cooking so I decide to add those when I reheat it tomorrow.
This morning the stew looks amazing, the sauce has thickened and darkened considerably, and the rabbit is soft and moist. Traditionally you would spoon off some of the sauce and have that over spaghetti as a starter, then have the meat with potatoes as a main course. Which is what I intend to do, with a glass of Maltese wine, an appetiser of pastizzi or two, and a drink of Kinnie.

When I woke up on Friday I knew next to nothing about Malta, and bugger all about its food. In 24 hours I’ve had coffee with the deputy high commissioner and sourced Maltese products and recipes first hand, which is exactly what Eating Eurovision is all about. As I said in the guidelines, most people are proud of their heritage and culture, and want to share it, and that makes the world a better place. There may not be a Maltese restaurant in London, but there’s lots of people who are proud to be Maltese, and who knows, maybe it’s time for one.

A tour around Smithfield


Waiting for the first tube of the day

Ah dawn, only ever viewed through blood-shot or sleep-filled bleary eyes, and it’s the later that look upon the low sun at the end of Gillespie Road N5 this morning. It’s 5:15am, and I find myself staring at the locked gates of Arsenal tube station that should be open by now. A yawning member staff comes over and slides back the barriers and 7 minutes later I’m on the first Piccadilly line tube of the day. The early start is necessary as I’m off for a tour of London’s historic Smithfield meat market.

Upon reaching Farringdon things are eerily quiet a la 28 days later, only the distant rattling and ‘vehicular reversing’ beeping coming from further up Cowcross Street belies any human activity. As I approach the building I see white transit vans clustering round each hole in the market’s side, doors open like mouths. Each of these vans is attended by somebody in white overalls and boots – and the first impression that comes into my head is, I’m sorry to say, maggots. I head up to the Superintendent’s office where I walk into a room of slightly bored looking students from Thanet catering college, who along with myself are here for a tour. A guide is recently retired market copper Tom Hunter, who for 37 year pounded his beat either side of the Grand Avenue and all around the 10 acre site.

After donning white coats and hard hats we’re off downstairs following Tom like ducklings. Everyone it seems knows him and he stops to shake hands and say hello to various stallholders. He leads us round the back to where the meat is unloaded or ‘pitched’ and shows us the rail and hook system that moves the heavy carcasses around to the rear store room of each unit.  “In the old days men would carry it all by hand, and when lifting a frozen pig carcass on or off their shoulder men would often rip their ears, which would bleed badly.”

Tour of Smithfield

buying lamb for a big party

We stop to admire some fine looking welsh lambs hanging up waiting for processing before moving onto the trading floor. The market is about 80% wholesale and consequently caters to many price points, and so there’s plenty of large blocks of industrial orange cheddar and intensively farmed Chinese chicken on offer as well as quality UK lamb and beef. Further on I peel away slightly from the group and stop to chat to three West Indian ladies who are shopping for a party. Jackie says she’s making curried goat (though she’s using lamb) with rice and peas, she’s also got chicken, beef, more lamb and two lambs heads. They’re shopping for friends’ freezers too. “We come here once a month – it’s much cheaper and the quality’s good” she says “I can get three, four times as much meat here as what I can get in Morrison’s. For under a £100 they’ve got an old shopping trolly packed to the gunwales with quality meat from Stephen at Andrade’s Butchers.  Tom later tells us that this is the only business that’s been here in the same family since the market opened in the 1900s

I then talk to the owner of another stall, Kentas ltd. I ask him how the market’s changed over the years. “It used to be brilliant here, but with the congestion charge everyone wants to be long gone by 7am. Add to that the health and safety, it’s gone mad.” He says, going on to quotes this story about stepladders in the Bodleian and finishing off with a pop at Brussels and the EU. “I’m not allowed to have anything open or out on display here, how can people try things? Years ago at Christmas we’d do a big urn of hot punch, and have mince pies out for the customers and other traders, we’re not allowed now.” It may sound like a rant, but he’s got a point, his stall has huge parma hams hanging up, as well as Italian cakes and salamis, it’s a shame he can’t open them and perfume the air.

Tour of Smithfield

Buying the Waygu

We move on to the Poultry hall where I buy a French rabbit and four quails to be used at some future date (any suggestions?). Here again I loose the group and fall in chatting with a North American guy at the counter who’s buying wagyu beef. “For a special occasion?” I ask. “Yeah, it’s a treat for myself” – Spencer Morley it turns out, is a cage fighter. It’s partly for the fitness and the discipline he tells me, but also as a foil against what he feels a safe, cosseted, danger-free life. He also has a day job as an IT consultant. Spencer eventually settles on a huge rump costing over £150, he’ll cut this into steaks, cook it sous-vide and then on a high hot flame. “It’s the best way I’ve found of doing steaks”. He shops for more ordinary meat at the market too, “Fighting means you need a lot of protein, and it’s just to expensive in the supermarket, here it’s much cheaper”.


Fight night!

Indeed the pugilistic arts and the market have a long history, later on back in the office Tom tells me of Tommy McGoven, who as well as being a porter was the lightweight champion of Great Britain. He shows me a poster from 1951 detailing a bout at the Royal Albert Hall in which Tommy was the main billing, and guess who else is further down the bill? Charlie, Ron and Reggie Kray.

The students having moved on, I sit and have a chat with Tom. He only retired 18 months ago, and says it’s hard leaving something he loves so much, so he does these tours. “I’m from Scotland right, but I think London, and round here especially, is the best place in the world”. Like the owner of Kentas, Tom too tells me of a certain loss of jour de vivre within the market; how it used to be a community full of characters. “I used to nick ‘em sure, but they were great guys”. There used to be barrowing running competitions and carcass carrying races between the porters too. “Every Christmas we’d get a barrow full of toys for this kids at St Barts, Homerton and the London hospital” Tom tells me.

He also tells tale of one porter who was, despite a love of the booze, a good singer. “The Queen mother was coming to visit and I wanted them [the traders and porters] on their best behaviour. Well after she’s out of the car this chap rushes forward, drops onto one knee and starts to sing ‘If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy’. It brought a tear to her eye I believe.” He says. “The Queen Mother came here many times, she new when the people here spoke about things, they were telling the truth”. Indeed she was made a horary freeman of the company of Butchers, and took a great interest in them.

We then look at a supplement published by the Meat Trades Journal in 1968 for the centenary of the market. It’s full of history, but also Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ and a belief in the future. These were times when science and farming were going to feed the world, where communication and commerce were near instant and global. What caught my eye is this image in a section about the future of the market. ‘Advance methods of selling may include phone-vision during which the seller will be able to show his meat in perfect colour’. Next to it an image straight out of Thunderbirds, ‘Smithfield may one day be on the ground floor of a multiple storey building with office and even flats above it’ and finally ‘no method has yet been discovered to move quantities of meat mechanically, but this problem will be solved.’ At least the last one came true.  The future Smithfield actually got was courtesy of Thomas Bennett, who designed a new poultry hall after Horace Jones’ 19th Century original burnt down in 1958. Other modernist roofing and adornments were added, the result not so much being a ‘carbuncle on the face of an old friend’ as repeatedly hitting said friend in the teeth with a breezeblock. Later additions glass and steel additions in the 90s are now too looking jaded and worn, making Smithfield look a mess. The fish market is abandoned, and some of the stalls in the poultry hall are boarded up and empty.


Could this space be put to use?

And yet, if you close your eyes and imagine you can get a sense of what this place was and what it can be again. What Smithfield needs I feel is restoration not development, Even the modernist additions are getting on for 50 years old now too, well on the way to becoming historical and, like them or not, are part of the history of the place. Smithfield is one of the few markets left in London in its original Victorian location.  Look at Borough market, you can hardly move there at weekends, and yet here across town stalls are boarded up and empty.

We’ve had a huge resurgence in produce and provenance over the past 15 years. The Smithfield site restored to it’s former glory could be a dream location for food fans, diners, catering students and businesses. Just across the street from the market is St John, Hix Oyster & Chop House, Smiths of Smithfield owned by John Torode, Comptoir Gascon and many others, all of whom are trading on the location and yet are thoroughly contemporary in outlook and service. What if the big names behind those eateries got together with the traders and the powers that be, and came up with a plan that promoted both history and heritage hand in hand with produce and provenance the area?  Could Smithfield once again be, as Daniel Defoe described in 1726 “without question, the greatest in the world”.



Not the best fry up in the world

Leaving the market at 8:30am, hungry and swimming against the tide of office workers, I sought to canvassed opinion on where to go for a breakfast. Smith’s of Smithfield seemed to be doing a roaring trade with plenty of suits chowing down, and there’s always the Cock Tavern in the market itself. But their was something sinister about their ‘special’ of a fish finger sandwich (in the middle of a meat market!) that put me off. I took the advice of one of the porters and headed for the Hope and Sirloin. The sign on the door said breakfasts were available upstairs, but after getting up there and finding no one I came back down. The guy behind the bar said I could order and eat downstairs, so I ordered a full English and customary pint of Guinness and waited. 10 minutes later the chef himself brings me out a fry up poorly piled together on a oval plate no bigger than 8” across. The beans were watery, the egg snotty in the middle and the kidney bloody. In its defence the sausages were good, as was the black pudding, but the liver was tough as old boots. It then took five minutes to find a clean knife and folk (followed by a ‘sorry mate’), and once I set to I felt less like a diner and more like a watch maker taking apart a pocket watch. There was so little room on the plate for any cutting of it’s contents I ended up spilling beans over the edge of the plate. Add to this the fact that I had to ask for the toast that was meant to accompany it, (followed by another ‘sorry mate’) and the fact that they were playing The Stones’ ‘Biggest Mistake of my Life’ and you can see where this is all going. As I left I read the board outside to the bottom, potato spelt with an e says it all. Still, you live, eat and learn.


Spot the typo

Eyedropper’s excellent eggy bread

Of all the things to reach for,
to quell both stomach and head.
There is but one true winner,
My old friend eggy bread.

Eggy bread

Eat it fast, eat it hot

Like most people I have on occasion been known to over indulge. That ‘one last round’ to make the debit card amount up over a tenner, the night’s cash having just ran out, we’ve all done. it.  The morning after, a touch delicate and with culinary skills not quite up to par, there’s one thing to reach for: eggy bread.

And let’s clear one thing up, it’s eggy bread when made this way, not French toast, not pan perdu, not dusted with icing sugar and served with a fruit compote. The only way to eat it is mouth blowingly hot, straight off the chopping board while the next one’s in the pan cooking.

However, in a nod to health but also texture, I take a leaf out of Sting’s ‘Englishman in New York’ and like my (eggy)toast done on one side. Toast on one side you say, but how? Well, you can do it under the grill obviously, but that require keeping your eye on both hob and grill – far too much effort. Besides if you’re going to bother waiting for the grill to get hot you might as well get some bacon on, and a tomato maybe, hell go the whole hog to a fry up, and that’s a whole other exercise.

See I’m lucky enough to have a Dualit toaster that can take four slices, I simply switch it to ‘two mode’ but place each slice in the ‘cold’ slot so that the element only heats one side. The opposite ‘raw’ side then gets to slip into the eggy bath and soak while the oil and butter in the frying pan heat up. Then it’s straight in and twisted round to gather up any straying egg. If you are doing the grill method my advice is lightly toast four pieces of bread at once, it won’t matter if they go cold as you can easily reheat by flipping in the frying pan.

Eggy bread

Why go to all this effort? Well I just find that keeping things ‘toast’ on one side give you both ridgidity, texture and crunch. Egg on both sides, even on good bread but especially on cheap thinly sliced white bread, gives too much sogginess and grease. And the last thing you want with a hangover is a greasy eggy gag.

And who knows, maybe one day, I’ll be hungover enough to experiment with eggy-one-side-fried-the-other-bread™ ?  I won’t insult your intelligence with a recipe, just try the above technique and see if it works for you.

Picnic recipes

Birthday picnic

Sunday was the nicest day of the bank holiday weekend, it was also the chosen day of my birthday picnic.  I’d spent Saturday making things and getting bits marinating. It was mainly salads and cold things, but also a few kebabs and koftas that needed cooking.

Now, I’m not really a fan of those disposable barbecues, it’s very difficult to control the heat, and they chuck out loads of smoke so that everyone gets a bit sick and smells of smoke for the rest of the day.

Far better to use a small cooking stove and a pan, with this you can cook in small batches as needed, the heat can be controlled and it doesn’t taste of charcoal.

But a picnic wouldn’t be a picnic without some salads, so here what I made.

Puy lentil salad

Half a pack of puy lentils
One packet of feta cheese
One tomato or half a pepper
Large handful of mint leaves
Olive oil

Boil the lentils as directed on the packet. Drain and cool. Cut the feta into small cubes, finely dice some red pepper or small tomatoes to provide a few flecks of red. Wash and chop the mint. Combine all the ingredients with the oil, season and serve.

Chorizo and chickpea

1 tin of chickpeas
1 chorizo (unsliced)
1 large onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 tin of tomatoes
Splash of pepper sauce
Pinch of saffron
Teaspoon red wine vinegar
Fresh parsley

Put the chickpeas in a small saucepan and boil gently, this will help soften them. Fry the onion and garlic in a frying pan and add slices of chorizo.  Add the cooked chickpeas, the tin of chopped tomatoes and all the other ingredients, season and cook slowly for 20 minutes till combined. Add the fresh parsley at the end.

Birthday picnic

Handful of minced beef and pork
Finely diced onion and garlic
Tea spoon cumin
Tea spoon chilli flakes
Salt and pepper
Chopped mint and parsley
Pinch curry powder
Handful breadcrumbs
1 egg

Fry the onion and garlic until translucent and leave to cool. (I find adding cooked onion keeps the moisture content in the koftas down) Add the onion to the meat along with the other ingredients and mix. The egg and the breadcrumbs help bind the mixture. Another tip is to use two bamboo sticks in each one. This gives extra grip and stops the chance of the meat spinning round when turning. Squeeze the meat tightly on and chill before cooking.

There were some ‘also ran’s’ that you can kind of figure out from the description.

Chilli beef kebabs – These were just cubes of beef marinated in oil, lime juice, chill flakes and pepper sauce and then skewered on sticks.

Minty lamb kebabs – Lamb, lemon juice, mint and natural yoghurt marinated and skewered.

Tuna and sweet corn salad – Dead basic this, can of tuna, sweet corn, chopped celery, parsley, mayonnaise – mixed up.

Potato salad – Boiled new potatoes, mint, mayonnaise, whole grain mustard.

Tomato salad – tomatoes deseeded and chopped, olive oil, balsamic and basil

Fennel and celery salad – fry the fennel and celery with onion and garlic, cool, and add to salad leaves. Add the fronds of the fennel and celery leaves too.

Sticky chicken wings – marinated in honey and soy sauce then cooked in a hot oven.

Add to the above bread, humus, wine, and some halloumi kebabs for the veggies and we all proceeded to get nicely smashed in the sunshine. Mmmm.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
May 2009
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