Monday, August 31, 2009

This Other Eden. This Sceptred Isle. This England!

Dukes Head TavernBread, milk and butter are of venerable antiquity. They taste of the morning of the world.” - Leigh Hunt, The Seer

On Friday, J-Mac took a day off from being a Master of the Universe (I think he called in well). He had planned an itinerary visiting the English countryside in Oxfordshire, where he wanted to introduce me to an associate of his, and there was some vague talk of a pub meal of some sort. I hear pub, and I think ale, so whatever we ate was gonna be fine by me. Provisions would be needed for the drive and a care package delivered to his friend. That meant a trip to Borough Market.
Non-foodies and people who read this blog merely as a courtesy to me can easily skip this post, because you're just not gonna get it. I suppose you think that if you've seen one farmers market, you've seen them all. Well, I've got another think for you. Borough Market is not just some local farmers market. It is an orgy of organic produce, baked goods, meats, artisan cheeses, flowers, food stalls, wines, beers-of-many-nations, sweets, hawkers, chefs, wives, and sightseers. It is a Macy's Day Parade of food crammed into a beautifully arched space under a railway viaduct on the south side of London Bridge. A market has stood on that side of the bridge since Roman times.
Proper English muffinsMulti-grain loaf
Purple, orange and white carrotsHeirloom tomatoes
Nameko and Brown Beech mushroomsRoast pork
This was a market that registers on the Richter scale. It was sensory overload. I was a kid amped up on sugary cereal running around a toy store. The yeasty smell of fresh bread. The riot of colors in the produce stalls. The perfume of flowers. The buzz of merchants and shoppers. I was intoxicated. If my hyperbole smacks of excess, I hope you'll indulge me. Food excites me. The prospect of what one could do with all that bounty turned me giddy. Some folks follow NASCAR. I want to feed people.
After a solid hour longing to buy lots of everything, we settled on fruit, cheese, some good bread and rice paper-thin slices of prosciutto as an offering for our Oxford host. J-Mac had arranged for a rental car close to his flat. Just up the street from the pick up point was a very respectable tavern, the Dukes Head. (Looking at food tends to make one hungry.) It had a pretty little terrace, which was packed on this fine day, overlooking the Thames. We took a table inside with a great view of the river. I was ready for a pint and was surprised by the menu while waiting for the ale to arrive. I was expecting fish & chips and kidney pie, but should have known J-Mac wouldn't stand for such banality. Here was another establishment dusting off its carte du jour.
Chicken club sandwish - The Dukes HeadConfit of aubergine - The Dukes Head
There was a brie and asparagus salad with pea shoots and toasted almonds, steak with wild mushroom and spinach fricassee. Was this still the UK? I suspect Pete's toxic cocktails from the previous night were not sitting well with J-Mac, as he ordered a chicken club sandwich. I wasn't in top shape either, so stuck with vegetables - a confit of aubergine with spiced chickpeas, tomato and fennel. Surprisingly good. I was slowly learning that all preconceived notions about Britain's food trough could go out the window.
Bellies full, car packed, GPS programmed, we set off northward. It was a two-hour drive to Oxfordshire. The rental car came with an mp3 connection. I played DJ with my iPod the entire way. I think J-Mac envisioned another career for me in nightclubs and lounges should things go south at home. I do what I can to entertain.
Borough Hall confection
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad." - Jacques Chirac

St Paul's Cathedral"I'll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal." - Martha Harrison.

"Before the Sunday roast is placed in the oven the vegetables are put on to boil." - Anonymous

How long have British food jokes been around? Since the first World War? That's nearly a 100 years. It's no wonder the fallacy is so hard to dispel. But I'm happy to report that the State of Food in the United Kingdom is healthy, strong and tasty. For the past decade or so there's been a resurgence in demand for quality products. The appetite is growing for local produce. Britain produces more regional cheeses than France. It has 600 varieties of apples. One hundred twenty-five species of fish and shellfish live in its waters. Statistics like that can make for a seriously impressive menu. With the help of a good friend, a map, and a London Travelcard, I set out to discover what all the fuss was about.
My buddy J-Mac had been talking about my upcoming visit for months. I think he was more excited about my trip than I was. He'd been extolling the virtues of the new British cookery and couldn't wait to show off some his finds. After a walk around the financial district and a proper pint of ale (maybe it was two), I met him at Liverpool Station for the short walk to Hawksmoor.
Insidious cocktails - HawksmoorThe charcoal grill - Hawksmoor
Chef Jason Wallace - HawksmoorPorterhouse steak, medium-rare - Hawksmoor
J-Mac is something of a fixture at Hawksmoor. Pete, the fiendish bartender not only knows him by name, but by his preferred cocktail. Pete did his level best to get us shit-faced throughout dinner. Like me, J-Mac is a firm believer of sitting at the bar, so Pete had every opportunity to ply us with his newest concoctions. Manager, Will Beckett, was one of the coolest guys. He's the kind of restaurateur who gets it. His credo is: keep things simple, send the customer on his way fat & happy, and to serve the public is a noble calling. From my understanding, he's also quite the beer connoisseur. Once he figured out I wrote a food blog back in the States, he couldn't have been more accommodating or forthcoming. I liked him a lot.
Hawksmoor - 157 Commercial Street, London E1 6BJ, is first and foremost a steakhouse in the oldest sense of the word. Yorkshire Longhorn beef is simply cooked on a charcoal grill. The meat is some of the best you'll ever have. The service is flawless. Brits understand hospitality in a way most of their American counterparts find demeaning. They are attentive, uncomplaining and ever ready to oblige. They have unfairly (or wholly the opposite, really) raised the bar for restaurants here at home.
Double-decker bussesShaftesbury Memorial Fountain, Piccadilly Circus
Next morning, and on my own again, I rode a double-decker bus into the heart of London getting off at Piccadilly Circus, not as cliché as it sounds. Five major roads converge at Piccadilly. In 1819 King George IV commissioned John Nash to create a junction that would connect Carlton House with Regent's Park. Nash envisioned a circus (derived from the Latin word meaning circle, and having nothing whatsoever to do with lion taming or bearded ladies) roundabout for the flow of carriage traffic. You can walk just about anywhere from Piccadilly.
There is one place I go without fail on any trip to London, the National Portrait Gallery. It is home to Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and just about every other British monarch and noble since the Norman invasion. There is also some lovely portraiture of modern day notables. Alessandro Raho has a massive painting of Dame Judith Dench hanging in one of the lower galleries. He has, I think, brilliantly captured Ms. Dench.  Gay Icons was currently showing when I arrived at the gallery. Ten prominent gay figures were asked to select six historic and modern icons in their own lives. The submissions were inspired and moving. I caught myself misty-eyed on several occasions. 
Revived culturally and fueled with another proper ale, it was time to continue my investigative gastronomic reporting. Next stop, Neal's Yard Dairy for all things cheese.
Montgomery's cheddar cheese - Neal's Yard DairyEnglish cheddar - Neal's Yard Dairy
"Sparkenhoe" Leicester Cheese - Neal's Yard DairyHafod Welsh Organic cheedar cheese - Neal's Yard Dairy
Imported Parmigiano-Reggiano - Neal's Yard DairyImported Parmigiano-Reggiano - Neal's Yard Dairy
Cornish Yarg wrapped in wild nettle leaves - Neal's Yard DairyStrathdon blue cheese - Neal's Yard Dairy
Neal's Yard is a company after my own heart. These folks are excited by cheese. From humble beginnings in the 1980s, they've grown conscientiously, never losing the heart of their business model, matching the tastes of consumers with cheeses made regionally and by traditional methods. They buy cheeses from farms all over the British Isles. They have two shops in London and also ship to restaurants and stores all over the world.
There are no poems written about cheese. No flowery prose, nor devoted sonnets. My closest friend, surfing & golf partner and fellow foodie Matty O'Food and I came up with some lines of our own one summer. We put them to the melody of "Girls" by the Beastie Boys:
And all I really want is
And in the morning it's
Two at a time it's just

I love the way that it melts...
It goes on in that vein for several verses. Calculated silliness; the best kind.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tom Colicchio

On Rites, Rights, and Cooking Right.Top Chef host, Tom Colicchio stands up for marriage equality. Not a special right for homosexuals, but for "equal protection under the law".
Tom Colicchio: bear icon, and now, unsung gay activist.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In France They Kiss on Main Street

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur atop Montmartre as seen for the d'OrsayI have never made a secret of my love affair with France. On the contrary, I'm a bit of a snob about it. I have no idea from where this affectation springs. I'm Mexican & Irish. I grew up in southern California, southern Ohio, and then southern California again. What did I know of French? As a kid, I used to daydream about being the Prince of Wales, or the newly dubbed Crown Prince of Bavaria and living in Schloss Neuschwanstein. But when it came time to sign up for a foreign language in high school, I leapt at French. My Latina mother was aghast. I could not then, nor can I now offer any credible defense.
It's has been hard getting back to posting on You Gonna Finish That?. My mind wanders. I can't seem to find a thread that will weave all the stories together. Also, I've been reading a new friend's blog, and it has soured me on my own writing. Add a crippling dash of guilt for not posting, and you have yourself a spiraling cocktail of inertia.
Auberge Au Vieux Paris - 1594"Les Premières Funérailles" (The First Funerals) detail - Louis Ernest Barrias, 1883
But that's not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to indulge in public, masturbatory Francophilia. For this writer's money, France remains the capital of all things culinary. Even the most base, back-alley café takes the time preparing its dishes as befits a nation of gourmands. Many are family run enterprises with a wife or mother out front and a spouse or son (or daughter) behind the counter. Folks take an earnest pride in what comes out of their kitchens. They show a genuine appreciation for a healthy appetite and a favorable remark. One chef in particular quite literally hung inside the little window where he passed plates through to the hostess, waiting for my reaction to his creations. I was touched. No less so because the food was absolutely delicious. For the curious, the restaurant was Le Gayridon - 19 Rue de Picardie, 75003 Paris. It was recommended by a very colorful celebrant at a local gay club in the Marais district of Paris - probably the coolest neighborhood in the City. I am so glad to have made the discovery.
Plain trees - Île de la Cité, ParisElaborate wrought iron newel - Le Petit Palais
I was on my own this trip. It had its plusses and minuses. I spent a lot of time just wandering around, attempting to get lost, but always stumbling upon some familiar site or vista that would jar me out of my nostalgic musings. I relied on my iPod during these rambles; something I detest normally, but I was in the mood for a soundtrack all my own as I relished this most beautiful and urbane of cities. But instead of monumental architecture or heartbreakingly powerful paintings, my eye turned towards food.
Lamb stew - Le GayridonMagret de canard aux pistaches - Le Petit Châtelet
I followed a few simple rules: avoid the heavily-touristed boulevards, skip any bistro with an English translation of its menu, and never ever be in a rush. I tended to gravitate to establishments where the locals were dining. I once discreetly followed a pair of stunning off-duty gendarmes on their way to lunch. It was a great success both for the meal and the subsequent scenery.
Restaurant Le Petit ChâteletMenu, Le Petit Châtelet
I broke my tourist rule just once, and only at the insistence of a Parisienne friend who met me for dinner one night. She took me to Le Petit Châtelet - 39, Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, one of her favorite French restaurants. It was a beautiful summer evening, just made for dinging out of doors. We could spy the towers of Notre Dame just across the Seine. In spite of the insipid American father/daughter duo seated to my right, Le Petit Châtelet soon became a favorite of mine as well. The headwaiter had impeccable manners. He displayed feigned, pleasant shock when I ordered a Pernod instead of wine as an apéritif. I liked him immediately. Over salmon mousse and duck, we eavesdropped on smatterings of German and English overheard at adjoining tables. I pretended not to loathe my more ignorant countrymen, instead focusing on the enchanting atmosphere and relishing being white, single and male in the City of Lights.
"Le Moulin de la Galette" - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Musée d'OrsayLe Metro subway sign, Gare du Nord.
Paris opened up to me on this visit like no other time. I dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, eschewing my flip flops for more conventional leather walking shoes. I wasn't lugging around a backpack, and the locals rather foolishly took me for someone of respectable means. At every turn, I was greeted courteously and treated with friendliness and respect. Unheard of in France, or so I'm told.
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris at dusk
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Europe 2009

République française (France)United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (England)Danmark (Denmark)
"I fooled her," I thought. On the Eurostar from Paris to London, I was in the bar car ordering a snack when the attendant asked me to repeat my order. "Le Rapide, si vous plais," I repeated more clearly, emphasizing the hard "d". She started rattling away in French and my mind immediately froze. In a now halting voice, all trace of accent gone, I feebly asked that she speak more slowly. "Oh, you're American," she replied in English. "I thought you were French." My chest puffed out, my ego doubled in size and just as quickly deflated upon the realization that my French comprehension really sucks. Oh well....
That little shortcoming aside, it was a fantastic trip. The French, in my opinion, still hold on to the culinary crown. At any corner bistro, sit down to a gastronomic masterpiece with maybe five ingredients and a flare for presentation with just the flick of a wrist.  But the English have come into their own with chefs young and old re-defining British cuisine. In a small countryside inn, I experienced the beatitude of transcendence with my first Michelin Star meal, an epiphany. And Denmark continues the long-held tradition of breaking bread together. All are welcome at her table.
Hôtel de Ville, Paris FranceTudor architecture (detail), Oxford University, UK
I was so happy to be the solo traveler this time around. It afforded me the luxury of reacquainting myself with favorite sights seen with an older eye and at a different angle.
Elizabeth I - Unknown artist"Woman With Parasol Turned to Left" - Claude Monet
Old friends awaited in galleries in London and Paris. I stood with goose flesh in the presence of royalty and enveloped by the colors of the Impressionists.
Menu, Maria's Bourough Cafe, London EnglandMenu, Le Petit Châtelet, Paris France
I tried new things. I ordered off the menu, attempting a native casualness and never walked away disappointed.
Confit of aubergine, Duke's Head, Putney, UKBriny olives, Jamie's Italian, Oxford, UK
It was a period of respite and great excitement all at the same time. I visited loved ones from my past and made new friends along the way. I hope they will become good mates with time. It was a homecoming and a farewell party wrapped into one. I don't know when I'll be back, and thus treated every second there as if it could be my last.
I came home tired, thrilled, renewed, reflective. It will probably take weeks of debriefing, but this I know intuitively: we are, all of us, connected to one another. We dream, we love, we hurt, we laugh. Our commonalities bind us. Our differences are trivial. I am more in love with this planet and its people than ever. And I'm gonna spread that love through my stories and in opening my kitchen to all of you, who and wherever you are.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food