Archive for the 'Food' Category

Food Britannia off cuts: The first food blogger

Note: The follow is probably going to be cut from my forthcoming book – Food Britannia – for space and style reasons. However, rather than have it lie on the printing room floor as it were, I thought I’d post it here.  I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on it

The First Food Blogger.

Food, like football, fashion and philately, has enthusiasts; people who are interested in eating for eating’s sake rather than as a means to end. You’re probably one yourself, that’s why you’re reading this book. In the past to express a joy of eating earned the label of gourmand, and had vague associations with gluttony, pleasure in food was a sin. Few foodies these days would describe themselves as a gourmand, and those that do need a reality check. No, like many other hobbies the internet has allowed amateurs – in the original sense of the word, amour – to devote considerable time, effort and disposable income to exploring the world of food and telling us the results.  An awareness of food bloggers is now part of any eatery’s online strategy. Technology has allowed comments, photos, and opinions on what’s in their mouth to be broadcast before they’ve even finished chewing. Restaurants may fear this, but all that’s happening is a faster version of what people have always done, telling people about a good or a bad meal or cooking experience.

Back in 1995, we didn’t have mobile phones, let alone access to the internet, and multi-media meant typing a letter while listening to CD at the same time. What online activity there was was mainly confined to a few academic institutions and telephony companies. But the blokes (and it mainly was blokes back then) who used those early connections started asking and telling other each other where to get a good bite to eat. For younger readers and the less tech savvy, these conversation postings were all conducted on something call Usenet, which allowed like-minded folk gathered around a particular subject, think of them as proto-Facebook groups.

One of the earliest was on which Tim Duncan posted news of Daruma-Ya, a new Japanese restaurant opening in 1995. And where did this iconoclastic digitally-heralded opening take place? Not the Soho media land but on the docks of Leith, Edinburgh. Sadly Daruma-Ya didn’t survive, maybe Edinburgh wasn’t ready for the small clean refinement of Japanese cooking in 1995.

Another pioneer was Graham Trigg, who in 1994 inspired by the late Richard Binns’ French Travel books, put up a website.  “I started writing notes as dining out was expensive and as time passes all that’s left is a hazy memory and a receipt” says Graham. Graham’s background was in IT, and he was using a system called CIX, or Collaborative Information Exchange even before Usenet.  A project for the airline industry meant Graham had to understand web technology and how to build these new things called websites. Research, work and a personal interest came together. “My first Web site was built in early 1996 and reviewed 17 London restaurants” says Graham.

He also explored a few places outside the capital, for example eating both lunch and dinner at Gidleigh Park in Devon cooked by a 27 year old Michael Caines. The hotel was established by Paul Henderson and was one of the first to have a decent website, not doubt due to Paul coming from San Francisco to set up the place in 1977.

There’s some lovely reviews from the early days of ‘Cool Britannia’ British restaurateuring on Graham’s site. Think back to the mid 90s when the River Café seemed fresh, edgy and modern – Italian without the gingham tablecloths and canon-sized pepper mills. Graham has a 1996 review of lunch at La Tante Claire, then ran by Pierre Koffman, under whom Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing all work at various points. It’s now the site of Gordon Ramsay Hospital Road. He also has notes on Pied a Terre,  another early adopter with a website in the late 1990s. And to those that think fine dining is expensive, Peid a terre’s degastion menu in 2001 was £65 for eight courses, and in 2009 it’s £85 for 10. Not bad. Finally there’s a lovely review of the Walnut Tree in Wales.

All this is remarkable because all this wasn’t that long ago, and though a lot of the venues Graham visited have gone – Coast, Bank etc – many are still there. Now nearly every restaurant has a website, if only with a phone number on it. I asked Graham how restaurant’s website have changed over the years he’s been viewing them.  “In the early days there was too much style over substance and no consideration for the connection speed of the customers i.e. dial-up. The big problem [is] content not being kept up to date, but to be fair this was, and still is, a global web disease.”

Lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

My wife and I didn’t have a wedding list, we were just happy that people came and had a good time. However, lots of people chose to buy us something which was very kind. The upshot was that we got things we wouldn’t have even thought of asking for.

Lunch at le Manoir

Such as the  generous gift from Susannah and Guy who gave us a voucher for lunch at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons when we tied the knot way back in March. And so last Friday we found ourselves walking up the garden path for lunch in Raymond Blanc’s fabulously appointed country hotel.  The weather was a touch inclement but the home fires were burning bright inside as we sat down in the lounge with the menus and a glass of champagne.

Lunch at le Manoir

After we’d selected our food and blown the top of the fizz a small slate arrived with six Hors d’œuvres: Tartar of salmon on a shard of crunchy bread, tiny arancini, fondant something or other, a little beef tart, goats’ cheese wrapped in jelly with a dash of mint (this is the one on the spoon), and two anchovy fillets so tiny the chef must have filleted them with a microscope came on crunch shard of bread with drip of pesto.

Each of these limbered up our taste buds like Beckham’s touchline warm up in the 65th minute of an England game. And now ready for action we moved through into the dining room. We were sat in the conservatory, which given that we were eating early and the weather outside miserable lacked a little atmosphere, however is soon warmed up as more diners and guests arrived. The sommelier recommend an American Pinot Noir which was light in the mouth and just the sort of thing I like.

Lunch at le Manoir

A amuse bouche of mackerel with chorizo and a slice of new potato came first, which was very enjoyable, though the cake fork that came with it wasn’t quite up to the task of cutting the fish, so I dove in with my butter knife. This had already been put to use like a bricklayers trowel slathering various breads with some lovely butter, chief amongst them bacon bread, studded throughout with lardons.

Lunch at le Manoir

Starters proper duly arrived, pumpkin risotto with chestnuts and crispy bacon for me, and smooth duck liver parfait with a ‘crumble’ top for Kate. The risotto was creamy and unctuous, some seeds – were they from the same pumpkin? – came too which gave firmer bite. Saltiness was provided by some crisp ham. Kate’s parfait came in a shallow dish topped with tiny cubes of fried bread, and a salad of minted apples slices and leaves.

Lunch at le Manoir

Lunch at le Manoir

Mains were cod with squid, chicory and butternut squash for Kate and chicken with mash, bacon and garden vegetables. The cod dish won this round, with the squid was beautifully presented and cooked.  My chicken dish suffered only from the fact that we’re all over familiar with chicken nowadays. It was however a master class in meat and two veg, with the breast juicy and the mash smooth.  The thigh had been given some 2 star treatment by being boned out, stuffed, rolled and roasted. And as you’d expect the gravy was lovely. It was Sunday lunch essentially, a very good one.

Lunch at le Manoir

But zoot alores what’s this? The optional cheese course was offered in the French way before pudding and I took full advantage. Seconds later our waitress backed into view a cheese trolly so large I’m surprised it didn’t go ‘beep-boop! Warning cheese trolly reversing’ as she did so, it was huge. On top was a broad selection, and I duly went for the stronger ones; eposse, a blue one, a goat’s, I didn’t catch all the names.

Lunch at le Manoir

They were all French bar one or two from the UK and an Italian gorgonzola and here I feel I must reproach Monsieur Blanc. Unlike say, wine, surely with cheese Britain can at least compete – even beat – the French nowadays non? There are some lovely examples of immortalised milk available in the UK, Please Raymond, you’re cheese trolly has the room, a section of the UK’s finest would be a worthy addition.

Lunch at le Manoir Lunch at le Manoir

Puds were caramelised pear feuillete and chocolate tart with coffee bean ice-cream. Now the French know a think or two about pears, England we do apples, but pears like it a touch warmer. These came in a wonderful ginger sauce, with a quenelle of pear sorbet and slice of dried pear. The chocolate dish was devine, balancing bitter with sweet, and a good kick from the ice cream.

Lunch at le Manoir

The main business of the day taken care of we decanted once more to the lounge like people coming out of surgery into the recovery room. Here came some lovely petit fours and two coffees to sharpen me up for the drive home in the rain.  A token attempt to ‘walk it off’ was made as we had a nose round the veg patch. Here was Richard Edwards ‘valley au championions’, though I couldn’t find a single fungus there. Maybe they’d all been picked?

Lunch at le Manoir

Blanc’s just celebrated his 25th Year at la Manoir, that’s a long time in this business, and needless to say it is a very smooth and refined operation. Yet despite the history it remains a rather accessible and easy going experience. This was a very fine lunch, and I hope to return again, next time in better weather hopefully.

Goodbye Dad

Yesterday was my father’s funeral. My Dad was a cook and chef nearly all his working life. He entered the Navy, after a troubled upbringing, at the age of 16 starting as an assistant cook. Travelling the world on HMS Tiger, Victorious, Lincoln, Excellent and others he rose through cook to become leading cook, until marriage and thoughts of me came along.

His record reads ‘Webb is a capable and excellent leading cook, though he does have some problem with authority.” In civvy street he managed and cooked in the Model Inn in Cardiff (now a dog rough pub), the Kings Arms in Swindon, the George and Dragon in Andover as the Barley Mow near Channel 4 and the Anchor by Tate Modern, then just an old power station.

After half a pint of rum a day in the navy and a life behind the bar and dealing with the heat and stresses of the kitchen it’d be an understatement to say he had a fondness for a drink. Alcoholism is a seldom-addressed occupational hazard in the hospitality industry. Indeed Keith Floyd’s recent documentary and passing struck a major chord with me, I felt so sorry for his daughter. But unlike Floyd my dad was never a drunk, never nasty or spiteful, never unkempt or dishevelled. Booze fuelled the patter, and the patter meant the customer paid handsomely and went home happy.

After my parents divorced in 1985 my Dad drifted down to the West Country. Here as an agency chef he did any number of jobs, from hotels to staff kitchens in large factories. There was even a spell at a fish and chip shop where in the summer of1991 me and my mate Christian, between O levels and A levels spent eight weeks frying fish, drinking heavily and trying to loose our virginity. I remember dropping 5kg blocks of dripping into boiling fat with a hangover and trying not to get scalded. One Dad deciding that the curry sauce supplied was shit and that he was going to make his own ‘special’ sauce. I went up to the deli and bought a fist full of dried bird’s eye chillies, and other curry powders. We made a sauce so powerful we jokingly sold it with a health warning. Blokes loved it.

And now I find myself back in the West Country for his funeral. I’d arranged to have lunch with my sister and brother-in-law before hand, so they’d be no rumbling stomachs during the eulogy. They’d set of at 5am from Buxton and I at 9 from London with only a slice of toast inside me,  so by noon we were all a little peckish. My sister wanted to visit River Cottage canteen, being a big fan of Hugh. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant, last time I was there the canteen was more a café vibe, and the weather being so foul, wet and cold we fancied a proper lunch.

Thankfully they’ve moved the café element to the front of the shop and beefed up the restaurant feel in the back (though still incredibly casual). Maybe they always did this and my mind’s playing tricks… anyway. Tim Maddams was at the pass so I had a chat about when I visited River Cottage as part of the Food Map and other small talk before asking ‘What’s good today then?’ ‘Well I’ve got two rabbits in, I was going to put them on as a special, they’re not even on the menu board yet”. He fetched them from the oven for us to have a look at. They beauties were slowly braising in a wine stock with heaps of thyme, onion and garlic and just two or three dried chillies for a tiny nip of heat. The bunnies themselves were practically snared by some lovely streaky bacon and some salty, meaty chunks of salami in there too. One sniff and I said “sold, we’ll have ’em.”.

river cottage canteen mussels

My sister doesn’t eat much meat. She went veggie in the early 90s as a protest to intensive animal farming and cruelty. Lately she’s been coming round to wild food, believing if it’s had a good free life and is shot quickly (as well as having the opportunity to escape) then she’ll give it a go.  Being a family not afraid to get stuck and all of us hungry from early starts we also ordered a main of mussels between the three of us as a starter. Though they were plump and incredibly juicy, and the sauce good, they were but the warm up act to the headlining brace of bunnies.

River cottage canteen rabbits

These came in with great fanfare and looks of astonishment from the fellow diners, especially the two timid souls at the table next to us who’d order burgers. Now I’m sure River Cottage Canteen burgers are good an all, but talk about a culinary equivalent of  lights-off-missionary-position. Our rabbits came whole on a RC branded chopping board, with the pan juices in a little jug. With that came a big bowl of decent fluffy mash, and a side of buttered greens, some lovely chard if I’m not mistaken.

“Here you go, and one of you gets to be mum’ said the waitress as she put it down. Our Mum not being here I duly dived in. The rabbit was tender enough to pop apart with our regular knives and forks, and we set about it.

the end of River Cottage Canteen Rabbits

What followed was a fitting and wonderful meal and a worthy of a send off for my Dad. We washed it all down with a couple of bottle of stinger ale and by the time we’d finished the table looked like someone had napalmed the set of Watership down. We left cheered by the joy of living and family and sharing and headed for Yeovil Crem.

Bye Dad.


Those of you who read this blog regularly (thank you) will know my penchant for taking home the bones of meals and making stock. I did it at Hawksmoor, and again at St John, so obviously the skeletons of these I took back to the pass and Tim very kindly wrapped them in tin foil. The stock went on when I got back to London.


Michael Anthony Webb 1946 - 2009

Saffron Walden haul

Saffron Walden late summer haul

Autumn, the best time of year visually, still warm, but with a nip in the air, and the best time for food in my book too.

A daytrip to Saffron Walden yealded some interesting foodie items, Walnut and apricot bread, beetroot, onions, squashes, fresh carrots, a bloomin’ great marrow, cavalo nero, a lettuce, local beer, local honey, some sorrel and two books. The Graham Kerr Cookbook by the Galloping Gormet  (Where’s his bio-pic BBC? He’s not dead yet granted, but you could get Martin Sheen to play him, look at the back story, it’s got everything!) And Eating and Drinking, a food anthology of prose poems and other bits and bobs all arranged under various headings.

The beer was slightly too yeasty for me, with not quite enough fizz, tasted a little, well dead to be honest. Flavour was right, but it just fell short of the mark. The honey was from Gerald Smith Honey of Stanleys Farm in the town and is so good I’ve put it in with roasting veg as well as had it on toast and in porridge.

soup and stock

The cavalo nero went into some chicken broth as a soup, love those bitter irony leaves. The other squashes, beetroots, carrots and the mahoosive marrow were roasted with a whole head of garlic and the onions to create literarly gallons of soup. Soup’s a favourite in our house at lunchtime, it’s hot, quick and in a mug you can eat it with one hand while holding the nipper.

Cavalo Nero soup

Finally the sorrel has appeared in salads and various other things, and there’s still loads left in the fridge.

The cabbage and the beer came from Sceptred Isle, the root veggies from a little ‘local &/or organic’ gazebo round the back of the town hall and the bread from a stall in the Market square. So in all, £20 the lot, not a bad autumnal haul.

Yay for the arrival of Autumn.

leftovers to go please

Ahoy! Like a lazy Frenchman I took the whole of August off blogging to concentrate on learning the ropes of dadhoodness. Surfice to say I think I’ve about got the basics sorted now. So some sort of service will resume on these very pages.

Dinner at St John

Dinner at St John

Now, August is a bit ‘too hot can’t be bothered’ month for food, but it does have the glorious 12th, and that means grouse.  I had one at Saint John on the 29th. The little fella had been hung for 4 days or so to firm up a little, and was then roasted. They served it pink, very pink, so pink in fact a good vet could have brought it round. The liver and other good bits came pated on a crunchy square of toast, there was the traditional bread sauce. and the obligatory water cress protruded from it’s derriere.

Dinner at St John

Yum, bloody tang

Very nice it was too. But here’s the rub. Very hard to really pick all the meat off with a knife and fork, and though I got stuck in there with my fingers for the legs, I still felt it had more to give. Rest assured this grouse did not die in vain. With as much meat extracted as possible in a smart busy restaurant wearing a light colours shirt and on a date with my wife, I asked for the carcass to take home.

Stock with grouse carcass

Roasting the poor thing a second time

Here, late at night it was put the oven, to roast once more, before being slowly simmered in root veg and onions till dawn, when the cockerel call of my baby daughter had us up with the lark.The next day I used it along with a half a bottle of white wine as a base for braising a shoulder of lamb. This was stunning, you could pull it apart with the slightest nudge. After straining off the fat in my trusty gravy separater, I made a gravy by reducing the cooking liquor down.

braised lamb

lamb, veg, stock, time = delicious

Now a small amount of that gravy was left over, and because of the high fat content set solid, I duly popped that in the fridge.  Today’s the 8th September and I made a squid and chorizo stew, for a tiny flavour push I added the last of that gravy, and so the final essence of the grouse slipped under the surface of the stew like Arnie at the end of Terminator 2.

And so I say this. Yes to doggy bags, yes to restaurants giving you the bones, yes to walking out full with a warm foil package under your arm. I did the same at Hawksmoor in May. The fore rib was 40 odd quid and my wife ordered the fish. No probs though, we just had the remaining beef in sandwiches the next day, then a curry, and the huge bone went on to again make stock, which went into French onion soup, with brings us round quite nicely to end on a French note, where we began – bon ap.

Food and beer tasting session

Bill Green is the sort of chap who can pull off a cravat with a CAMRA monogrammed polo shirt. He’s also the press officer for the East London & City Branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, so it would be fair to say, knows a hell of a lot about the stuff. He’d very kindly invited myself and 30-odd other people for a beer and food matching evening in the upstairs room of the Dispensary, EC1, (itself chosen and the East London Camra pub of the year)

Beer and food matching night at the Dispensary EC1

The themed for the evening was ‘beers brewed without hops’, which only became popular in the 13th Century. Before their introduction other botanicals such as dandelion, wormwood and heather were added to beer for flavour and to add some bitterness. Bill lined up a selection of beers that contain additional flavouring elements, and worked carefully with the Dispensary’s head chef and owner Dave Cambridge to produce an accompanying menu.

My olfactory sense was somewhat diminished due to the onset of a bout of man flu, consequently my tasting notes reads along the lines of ‘yup, that tastes like beer’ so I’ve included below Bill’s thoughts.

Seconds away, eyes down, and we’re off..…

Umbell Magna Porter 5.0%
Food: Parma ham Crostini
Nethergate, Pentlow, Suffolk
Bill saysInfused with coriander and following a 1752 recipe.  Warm, rich and fruity.  Taste a favourite tipple of Dr Johnson, David Garrick and Sarah Siddons!’

I say ‘unusual one to start with, I’d have perhaps looked a little further east that the Italian peninsular for the food match. It works fine, what with the saltiness of the ham, but I’m wondering if more could be made of the coriander flavoring, perhaps middle eastern style lamb?

Next we’re off to bonnie Scotland…

Beer and food matching night at the Dispensary EC1

Beer: Heather Ale 4.1% Williams of Alloa, Scotland
Food: Quail Egg with Haggis and Hollandaise
Bill says
Unique taste of heather flowers recalling Scottish Mediaeval ales. Robert the Bruce was inspired by this Beer to conquer at Bannockburn!  Earthy with hints of honey and a herbal aroma.’

I say ‘Great combination, Scotch eggs being one of my favourite things on Earth, the beer’s bouncy, and despite the conk full of snot I can still detect the peaty heathery notes and the distant drone of a Runrig gig. William’s website declares heather ale has been brewed in Scotland since 2000BC. The peppery earthy taste and texture of the Scotch egg holds up well with the beer.

Then we’re off to the Far East via Salisbury…

Beer: Taiphoon 4.2%
Food: Thai Chicken and Coconut Satay
Hopback, Salisbury
Bill says ‘Coriander and lemongrass give an Oriental zing to this Pale Ale.  Unusual and interesting in being brewed from a mixture of barley, maize and wheat malts.

I say ‘there was a fair chili kick to the skewers, and the coriander was there in the beer, but I had trouble tasting any lemongrass. Tasty drop mind, and was light and refreshing after the heat of the chicken. Hopback brewery produce one of my all time favourite drops, Summer Lightning, the taste of summer as far as I’m concerned, that and rain water obviously.

Beer and food matching night at the Dispensary EC1

Beer: Dandelion 4.5%
Food: Tempura Roast Pimento
Hall and Woodhouse, Blandford Forum, Dorset

Bill saysLight and golden organic bitter with herb aroma and bittersweet aftertaste. Dandelions have been valued for centuries for their herbal qualities and this beer style was an 18th century favourite.

I say ‘Dandelions get a bad rep in the UK, pick them and you’ll wet the bed we were told as kids, which is based on their powerful diuretic nature (wonder if the same is true after a session on this beer?) and the heads come in handy for playing ‘what’s the time Mister Wolf?’ The people at my table detected a slight sweet grassy smell, but I’m drawing a blank due to the cold. The peppers were nice and sweet, not greasy. Hall and Woodhouse also make a pumpkin ale, which sounds fantastic, one for Autumn for sure.

Beer: Grozet 5.0%
Food: Wild Boar and Apple Chipolata
Williams of Alloa, Scotland

Bill saysAn unpasteurized Lager that proves the Czechs can be matched.  Gooseberry-infused it is clean and crisp with delicious floral aromas.

I say ‘sausage and beer are natural bedfellows. Indeed the Grenadier Pub in Belgravia does sausages on the bar for a quid. Bill here confessed to not being a lager fan, and indeed it did sit oddly on the mouth after the other beers, there were comments on my table of a slight medicinal quality to it.  Good bangers mind, all made from scratch by David.

Beer and food matching night at the Dispensary EC1

Beer: Chocolate Strong Ale 6.5%
Food: Teriyaki Beef
Meantime, Greenwich.

Bill says: Montezuma’s reward! The Aztecs added chocolate to beer and now innovative brewers are now copying. Dark chocolate contrasts with the crystal malts to give puckering bouquet and complex taste

I say: Simply stunning, the best match by far, a match like Bjorn v McEnroe is a match, a match like Swan Vesta is a match. A match that in two mouthfuls triple jumps its way across three Continents looting tastes from the far east, south America and the home of time itself, Greenwich. The best one of the evening as far as I’m concerned.  Even the back of the bottle sums up my attitude before trying it saying ‘Chocolate and beer! Are we mad?’ No sir. Eccentric perhaps, even genius, but not mad. It’s really something else; indeed I slow cooked ox cheek in it at the weekend.

How do you follow that?  Well, with something sweet, and from the same brewery too.

Beer: Raspberry Wheat 6.5%
Food: Mini Summer Pudding
Meantime, Greenwich

Bill says: Vibrant red colour and mouth-arousing zesty finish.  Challenges the classic Berliner weisses.  Secondary fermentation of the fruit sugars gives potent flavour and lingering aftertaste.

I say: Another good combination, sharp and tart to finish off with and leaving our mouths puckered shut like a dogs bum… um, in a good way.

Beer and food matching night at the Dispensary EC1


For me the pairing of food and drink has always been more subjective that the pairing of flavours or ingredients on a plate. I don’t know about you but I’ve never taken as gospel the food suggestions on the back of a bottle of wine for example. Food’s relationship with drink is an open relationship in which pretty much anything goes, yes even red wine with fish for which James Bond once shot a man.

However, some things ‘go’ better than others. For me, the best beer and food combinations of the evening either shared a cultural link, a terrior if you will, (think haggis and heather) or had a connection through similar ingredients. I try to look past the standard formula of ‘the w of y cuts through the x of the z’ (where w is an characteristic of the drink y, and x an attribute of ingredient z)

When looking at food with drink, I’m looking for something more, some soul at the bottom of the glass maybe, some other reason for these tastes being together and why they work. I am however watchful of the biblical saying ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ and that at the end of the day drink is present on a table for toasting as well as tasting, so let’s not get to hung up about it.

Far more interesting to my mind is the progress that’s been made. To think that 40 years ago we’d have been pairing a Whatney’s Party Seven with Marguerite Patten’s cheddar fondue or chicken in a basket. Today UK breweries are producing a broad enough range of beers to compliment and enhance almost every cuisine from across the globe. I’d even go so far as to say that the depth, range and colour of that palette is greater than that of wine, yet you’ll see few beers on sommeliers’ hefty tomes.

If you’d like to find out more, the CAMRA website has a nice ‘rule of thumb’ page listing major ingredients and what ‘goes best’ with each of them. Cheers.

In praise of washing up

Sunday Lunch with Rebecca, mike and Neil

When I was younger and extended family came for a visit mum would do a lunch. On the day itself was an air of palpable excitement in the house, extra cleaning had to be done, a special lunch was planned, and no one was allowed to use the loo or make a mess anywhere until the guests had arrived. As the allotted hour of arrival approached me and my sister kept station at the front window listening for the sound of a car in the street outside. Meanwhile in the kitchen the kettle was practically kept at a rolling boil, ready for the cups of tea and a full debrief of the traffic conditions and journey highlights.

Later we’d all sit down for lunch; probably salad and cold cuts in the summer, or something meaty in the winter. Then with the meal over, the blokes would help clear the table and then move into the lounge or out to check oil in cars and have a crafty fag, while the aunts, mums and grandma did the dishes. Us kids were press ganged into putting away, and I always found that the washing up was where the real gossip, chat and exchange of views seemed to happen. Back then no one owned a dishwasher, and washing up – like shelling peas or licking the cake bowl – was part of the food production process.  I remember the chatter mixing with the chink and clatter of dishes and the tea towels that put in three minute bouts before being too wet to use and had to be replaced by new ones. When domestic order was once again restored, more tea was put on, as was the telly and we all settled down, the world now put to rights.

I mention this vignette from yesteryear because a few weeks ago some old BBC friends came round for Sunday lunch. We had some special sixty-day aged beef that my friend Theo at the Ginger Pig’s Hackney branch had set aside for another customer who’d changed his mind at the last minute apparently; his loss was our gain is all I’ll say. The lunch was lovely, lashings of wine, tasty gravy, cauliflower cheese and roasties.  The spuds for the roasties were Cyprus, a potato I’d never roasted before, and my friends did look at me a little oddly when I told them I had a practice run with one potato last night just to make sure nothing went wrong.

Anyway, with the lunch over I began to scrap the plates and run the hot tap for washing up. This is when my friend Neil chipped in with ‘let me help you with the dishes’. Washing up on your own is dull, washing up with a friend is a chance to confide and talk to each other in a different way.  You’re both engaged in a task, so there’s all the dealing with ‘you’ve missed a bit’ and ‘where does this sieve live?’ stuff. This of course runs concurrent with the big life issues of love and loss.  It’s a sort of duet, a dance; a totally different space and activity on which to host a conversation, different things are said than at the table. Let’s face it, no one ever says ‘ooh let me help you fill the dishwasher’, that’s just boring. You try it next time you have people round, make washing up part of the whole process. It gives both host and guest a chance to talk in a more personal way. You also end up with a nice clean kitchen, and all your pots and plates put back in new and unusual places.

This blog is no longer being updated

I've left it here for historical purposes. Please visit my new blog at


These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
January 2020
« Dec