Author Archives: gregwatts1960

The demise of Front Row

The scene is a planning meeting for Front Row, BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme, at the BBC’s expensive offices in Salford. Around the table are sat the production team.

Editor: “So, what do we all think about Jake’s idea? The guy who’s written the novel about the orphan who gets into crime but then finds his way and becomes rich?”

Researcher: “Is he black?”

Jake: “No.”

Producer: “Gay?”

Jake: “Don’t think so.”

Researcher: “Is he a woman?”

Jake: “Er, he’s a man.”

Researcher: “Oh, yeah…Trans?”

Jake: “Doubt it.”

Editor: “Does he mention the gender pay gap, then?”

Jake: “No, nothing like that.”

Producer: “What about homophobia?”

Jake: “That doesn’t come up.”

Researcher: “What about anti-establishment?”

Jake: “Yeah, you could say that.”

Editor: “Is he anti-Trump, though?”

Jake: “The thing is, the story’s set in Victorian times.”

Editor: “Sorry, you did say. What’s his moral line?”

Jake: “I suppose he takes a traditional Christian view of things.”

Editor: “No good, then. Sorry, Jake. Now, let’s move on…Tell you what, I really like the idea about this arts festival for gay dog owners…” 

I’ve been listening to Front Row for several years, and I’ve heard some great interviews. But, increasingly, when I tune in now I find myself feeling that I am being preached at. I get the impression that some items on the show have not be chosen for their artistic merit, but rather because they tick the politically correct boxes drawn up by BBC bureaucrats who are part of the diversity and equality industry.

Recently, for example, it seems that the main focus of many discussions or interviews on the programme is what a book, play, film, or piece of art has to say about women: the Me Too movement, inequality, under representation, gender stereotypes, sexuality.

Front Row is in danger of becoming a parody of itself – just like the programme depicted in the new Alan Partridge TV series.

Too much tourism

Venice is being choked by tourists

The report last November that the Vatican Museums are considering putting a cap on visitor numbers because of overcrowding came as no surprise to me.

The 54 galleries of the museums, which stretch for seven miles and contain some of the world’s greatest treasures, attract over six million visitors a year. 

I was not surprised, because the overcrowding at the Vatican is part of a larger picture of how mass tourism in Europe is making some cities unbearable in the summer for tourists and locals alike.

Budget airlines such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet have made cheap travel to Europe possible, and millions of us search their web sites for bargain flights. If you are lucky, at certain times of the year you can find return flights to some cities for as little as fifty quid.

And now we have more and more cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers in cities such as Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Amsterdam.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Europe is being turned into  a giant theme park.

While local shops, restaurants and hotels rub their hands with glee at the hordes of tourists crowding the streets, locals are not so happy.

In cities across Europe, there are now regularly protests about everything from noise and litter to Airbnb out-of-towners pushing up house prices. The deregulation of taxi laws has seen a spike in taxi services like Uber clogging the streets.

Venetians have long complained that mass tourism is swamping the city, famous for its canals. Traditional businesses such as pharmacies and bakeries have been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and many locals have moved out.

The figures for Venice are startling. The city’s population has dropped to 59,000 from a peak of 164,000, and each year, between 20 – 24 million visitors descend on it.

In Barcelona, fewer locals now do their shopping at its famous food market, the Boqueria in La Rambla, because so many tourists go there.  They come to gaze at the incredible array at fresh meats, fish, and cheeses on display, but not to buy. Some stalls now sell takeaway food and put up “Photos No!” signs.

It’s the same all over the centre of Barcelona.  The pavements are too crowded. When I was last there, I wanted to see the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s amazing unfinished cathedral. But I couldn’t face having to join such a long queue and then when I eventually got inside having to shuffle along with hundreds of other people.

If you travel to any European tourism hotspot, it doesn’t take long to work out that one of the largest tourist groups is now the Chinese. I remember three years ago sitting on a ferry in Sorrento about to depart to Capri when I was astonished to see nearly a hundred Chinese tourists suddenly clamber aboard – each one of them eating grapes from a bag.

In her book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism Elizabeth Becker says one of the main reasons the Chinese travel to Europe for is for shopping. “They shop for brand names, luxury clothes, jewellery, luggage, and whisky, anything with prestige.”

So many Chinese tourists come to Venice that tour operators often drop them off at pizza restaurants and cafes owned by Chinese, and they are directed to shops selling “Venetian glass” that was made in China.

When I took a train up the Italian Riviera to visit the Cinque Terre, five historic towns nestling by the sea, it was standing room only. And you could barely move through the streets in each town. In this case, most tourists seemed to be other Europeans or Americans with backpacks.

In the UK we have similar problems with mass tourism. Those of us who live in London know to avoid areas such as South Kensington, Piccadilly, and the South Bank at certain times of the year.

Elsewhere, because locals in Cambridge have complained about not being able to move around easily, the tourism body Visit Cambridge and Beyond has been forced to take the step of encouraging the Chinese to visit in smaller groups and it is also working to tackle coach congestion in the city’s narrow streets. 

While down in Cornwall, fans of the BBC TV series Poldarkarrived in such numbers that it threatened what attracted them in the first place: the tranquility. Last year, the Cornish tourist board pleaded with people not to visit its beaches, but to stay away from them!

Well, I’ve decided to avoid visiting any towns and cities in Europe that are tourist destinations. Instead I’ll go to somewhere off the tourist trail, where I don’t have to join a long queue to buy a train ticket and where there are no tourist menus – I just hope lots of other people don’t have the same idea.

Ends

Will the restaurant bubble burst?

Is the London restaurant bubble going to burst?

According to accountancy firm Moore Stephens, in 2017/18 there were 1,219 restaurant insolvencies, up 24% on the year before and nearly double the rate seen in 2010/11.

Brexit concerns, business rates and over expansion are among the top reasons given for this.

Jeremy Willmont, head of restructuring and insolvency at Moore Stephens, says closures in the restaurant sector are at “epidemic” levels.

“The impact is visible on almost every high street of a major town or city,” he said.

He says an influx of private equity investment into restaurant chains has led to some opening too many sites which fail to break even.

The massive explosion in the number of restaurants in London has always struck me as unsustainable. Many high streets have just too many places.  

My corner of south-east London is a good example. If you walk along Lordship Lane in East Dulwich on a weekday afternoon, you will see hardly anyone sitting in its forty or so eateries.

Elsewhere, a new trendy café is about to open in Forest Hill, an area that already has enough such places. If you go to Peckham, once a backwater when it came to decent food, it seems there’s a sourdough pizza restaurant around every corner. And over the last year in Crystal Palace, where you are spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants and pubs, several more places have opened, all no doubt thinking they can cash in on the craze for eating out.  

This situation can be seen in many parts of London.

The fact is that London has too many restaurants, and it has too many restaurants that are unable to offer good service and good food and at a reasonable price. Fourteen quid for fish and chips in a gastro pub is way too high. 

The problem is, the huge increase in restaurants in the capital has outstripped the number of suitably qualified or experienced staff to work in them.  Many restaurants are so desperate for someone to work in the kitchen or front of house that they will take virtually anyone.

What’s more, most restaurants in London rely on staff from overseas. If people start heading back to Poland, Bulgaria, Spain, or wherever, then many restaurants will have to close their doors.

So will the restaurant bubble burst? Quite possibly. And that might be a good thing, because then perhaps will see restaurants providing higher quality food and service, and better value for money.

Waiting for the Night Bus

 

I have been thinking a lot recently about what it was like living in London in the 1980s, as I’m writing a memoir about those years entitled Waiting for the Night Bus.

And what has struck me is how my life has changed in so many small ways. Here’s a list of things I once did in the 1980s, but no longer do.

Buy newspapers

Buy records

Buy rolls of film

Use a typewriter

Use an A-Z

Use public phone boxes

Use telephone directories

Use Yellow Pages

Go to libraries

Write cheques

Go to a launderette

Jump on and off Routemaster buses

Pay cash on buses

Smoke in pubs

Buy sweets in Woolworth

Buy trousers and shirts in BHS or C & A

Travel on National Express

Write letters and buy postcards

Buy ready meals

Go to discos

Travel on slam door trains

Watch the TV news

Fish and chips – Tom Kerridge style

 

Tom Kerridge has been grabbing the headlines this week at the opening of his first restaurant in London. The reason is his menu includes fish and chips priced at £32.50.

I won’t be heading to Kerridge’s Bar and Grill at the Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall to sample them. To charge £32.50 for  a piece of brill and a few fried potatoes is outrageous, even if they do come with pease pudding, tartare sauce and something called a matson spicy sauce.

Kerridge, whose TV persona is that of the chatty bloke next door, clearly believes customers will stump up that sort of money. And he may well be right.  Trying to find perfect fish and chips in London is like trying to find the proverbial holy grail. A couple of weeks ago, when I went for a takeaway to a fish and chip restaurant in south-east London that has garnered many outstanding reviews, I ended up depositing most of my meal in the bin.

I have to say that I’ve always come away underwhelmed when I’ve eaten at restaurants owned by celebrity chefs. I’ve only been to three – Jamie’s Italian, a Marco Pierre White place near Harrod’s, and Rick Stein at Barnes – , but I’ve seen enough to realise that they are no better or worse than countless other restaurants.

Something tells me that if I did indeed go to Kerridge’s Bar and Grill, expecting sensational fish and chips, I’d come away at the end of the meal very disappointed, which is exactly how I felt upon leaving Rick Stein at Barnes.

Of course, the exorbitant price Kerridge is charging for fish and chips has got him acres of space in the media. Everyone now knows Kerridge has a spot in central London.

I’d like to think the cost of fish and chips was a publicity stunt, and the price will drop by half once the media chatter has died away.  But I very much doubt it.

 

Too many recipe books

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I walked into a branch of Waterstone’s the other day and immediately gravitated to the food and drink section. And not for the first time, I was astonished by the number of recipe books on the shelves.

When I came out of the shop, I found myself musing how many copies these often lavishly and expensively produced books sell.

Okay, Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients was the best selling book in the UK last year, and people like Mary Berry and Rick Stein shift copies because they have the ability to make a connection with viewers of their TV programmes. And, of course, if you are a regular face on TV – no matter how bad you are on the screen, like Nadia Hussein or the Hairy Bikers – you will sell books.

But what about all these other chefs? How many copies of their books are actually sold?

And have you noticed how big some of these books are? They take up a lot of space on a shelf. Last year, The True Food of Spain by Monika Linton, the founder of Brindisa came out. It’s a thumping 544 pages!

It seems that every chef who makes an appearance on Saturday Kitchen has just published a recipe book.  The scenario has almost become a parody. After asking what the chef will be cooking, Matt Tebbutt will then say as if surprised, “So you’ve got a book out.”

“Yes,” says the chef. “I’ve loved writing it.”

“So what’s it about?”

“Well, Matt, I want to show how cooking delicious meals at home can be really quick/I want to provide busy people with some simple ideas for healthy meals/I want to show that vegetables don’t have to be boring…”

They say this in the manner of someone who has some secret to share when what they are doing is the same as hundreds of other recipe book writers have already done.

“No!” I yell at the TV. “We don’t want another cookery book like this. There are hundreds of them out there. Please! Go back to the kitchen in your restaurant and stay there.”

Of course, only the publishers know how many recipe books get sold – and they only release figures when they want to boast. They never tell you which recipe book has been a turkey.

But I would hazard a guess that many of these books are probably bought as gifts for birthdays or Christmas, and that they never actually get used.

At least that’s how it is with me. I much prefer to watch a video of a chef cooking a dish on You Tube. It’s a far better way to follow a recipe – and it  doesn’t take up space on a shelf

An inspiring cafe in Lisbon

 

When I go on holiday I nearly always come away full of admiration for some restaurant, bar, or chef.

On my recent trip to Lisbon I stumbled across a tiny café, not much bigger than a living room, in a back street near the Amoreiras shopping centre in the north-west of the city, just off the E24 tram route. It had nine seats inside and sixteen outside.

Adorning the walls of the café were photos and paintings of the nearby Águas Livres Aqueduct, built in the eighteenth century to provide Lisbon with fresh drinking water.

The café was called Elova. What impressed me was not the food, as all it served was bread rolls (bought from the bakery opposite), pastries coffee, wine and beer, but the owner. His name was Rui, and, with his lived in face and pony tail, he looked as if he might have been a drummer in some rock band years ago.

The reason Rui made such an impression on me was that he ran the café single-handed, at least until his wife came to take over in the afternoon. He made the rolls (and the cheese and ham were very good), served the customers, washed up, cleared tables, squeezed oranges by hand, took the payments, anything that needed doing, in fact. And he did all this with a smile.

When I asked Rui about the story behind his café, he told me he had opened it in 2000. Before that, he had only worked in one restaurant. The café’s name, he explained, was made up of the names of his two children.

I didn’t get the chance to ask him if he had ever been in a rock band, but the rock music that was always playing in the background suggested that I might have been right.

Elova isn’t the kind of place that you’ll find tourists in.  It’s strictly for the locals, who pop in throughout the day for a coffee, or a beer or glass of wine, no doubt to catch up on local gossip.

It’s inspiring to meet people like Rui, who have an idea, work hard to achieve it, and build a successful business.  Rui’s café is the kind of place I could imagine myself running one day, offering perhaps a few simple but fresh tapas dishes.  Well, we can all dream, can’t we?

 

10 great English food products

With products from so many countries available in our shops and supermarkets, it’s easy to forget that England has some very good ones of its own.  Here’s ten of my favourites, in no particular order, and the county they are traditionally associated with

1 Pork pies (Leicestershire)

2 Oatcakes (Staffordshire)

3 Black pudding (Lancashire)

4 Cornish pasties (Cornwall, of course)

5 Eccles cakes (Greater Manchester)

6 Stilton cheese (Leicestershire and Derbyshire)

7 Clotted cream (Devon)

8 Potted shrimps (Lancashire)

9 Vivaldi potatoes (Norfolk)

10 Yorkshire pudding (Yorkshire, naturally)

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t believe all rave reviews

Last night I paid my second visit in a month to a fish and chip restaurant in south-east London that has received rave reviews even though on my previous visit I had been underwhelmed by both the fish (the batter wasn’t crispy and the haddock was so so) and the chips (pale instead of golden and not crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, as they should be).

I had broken one of my golden rules of not going to a place that sold fish and chips along with items on the menu such as burgers, fried chicken and Jamaican patties. Why do this?  If you set out to serve fish and chips, stick to fish and seafood, and cook them perfectly.

But, sadly, the majority of fish and chip shops or restaurants don’t do this. Fish and chips just feels like one of many items, not something special, which is what it should be. I’m not bothered what some people say about chicken tikka masala, this is our national dish.

The reason I decided to give the place in south-east London a second go was because of the friendly staff and friendly owner.  Yet I was still troubled by the number of customers who proclaimed that it served the best fish and chips in London. Perhaps I had caught it on a bad night, I concluded.

So last night I had high expectations when I placed my order. They soon started to disappear when my plate was put down in front of me. True, the haddock was large, but the chips looked just as pale as before. In fact, this time they were worse, because someone hadn’t bothered to cut out the green bits, which leave a bitter taste in the mouth. As for the haddock, it was no better than before and this time, the batter was soggy.

After I had paid and was leaving, the owner called to me. ‘I see, you haven’t eaten much,’ he said.

‘No…I like my chips crispy on the outside and soft inside…And I prefer crispy batter,’ I replied.

‘Well, you know, I only buy the best quality potatoes, but this is the wrong time of the year,’ he said.

‘Ah, I see,’ I said, thinking the poor quality of the chips was to do with the way they had been cooked, not the potatoes.

‘Next time when you come, they will be better,’ he said cheerfully.

‘Okay,’ I said, and went on my way.

I liked the owner and he seemed to genuinely want his customers to have a good experience. I could see he was proud of his restaurant, and I admire that.  But the truth is that while people might tell him online he’s serving great fish and chips, he’s not. Not by my book anyway.

This just goes to show that over 1,000 people on Trip Advisor can be wrong.

Monks take up brewing

 

For hundreds of years, monasteries in Europe have brewed beer. And now a monastery in Leicestershire has become the first one in England to do so since the Reformation.

When the Cistercian monks (known as Trappists) at Mount St Bernard Abbey, near Coleville, realized that dairy farming was no longer economically viable and closed their farm and sold their cows, they needed to come up with another way to support themselves. So they decided to brew beer.

After visiting the eleven Trappist monasteries brewing beer in Europe and the US, the monks at Mount St Bernard engaged a Dutch master brewer as an advisor.

He cautioned against just copying the style of existing Trappist beers, but to create a unique style. The first English Trappist ale, Tynt Meadow, combines the traditions of the continental Trappist brewers with the traditions of English brewing, which is centred on Burton on Trent just 15 miles away.

The monks have received help in brewing from The Pheasantry Brewery in Nottinghamshire, the Charnwood Brewery in nearby Loughborough, the Heritage Brewery at the National Brewery centre in Burton on Trent, the Framework Brewery in Leicester, and the Unicorn Brewery in Stockport.

However, it’s unlikely that the monks will be supping much of their ale themselves – their day begins at 3.15 am and they go to bed at 8 pm.

The Man Behind the Menu – coming soon!

The man who wrote Kitchen Confidential

 

“And in that unforgettably sweet moment, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” that followed – first sex, first joint, first day in high school, first published book – I attained glory.”

So wrote Anthony Bourdain in the first chapter of his best-selling 2000 memoir about what it’s really like to work in New York restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

The news yesterday that he had died aged just 61 shocked me. But what shocked me even more was that it he had committed suicide. It seems he had hung himself.

He was found in his hotel room in the village of Kaysersberg in the Alsace region of France by friend and celebrity chef Eric Ripert.  The two of them were there to film a TV series.

Bourdain, like Keith Floyd, Marco Pierre White, Rick Stein and others, played a huge part in making cooking attractive and food, to quote Bourdain again, “something other than a substance one stuffed into one’s face when hungry – like filling up at a gas station”.

I must have read Kitchen Confidential a dozen times. It’s not just a fantastic book about what goes on in professional kitchens. It’s also brilliantly written. Indeed, that first chapter, where he travels to France as a child with his parents, is a masterclass in writing the opening to a memoir. He says so much in so few words and provides such sensual and evocative images.

After the phenomenal success of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain quit working as a chef and embarked on a writing and TV career.  He published follow-up books to Kitchen Confidential and also novels and made a string of TV shows, which often saw him in some far flung corner of the world eating sheep’s testicles or ants’ eggs.

I have to confess that I never found his TV programmes as engaging as those of Keith Floyd or Rick Stein. I felt Bourdain lacked their warmth and humour. I don’t think he was  a natural in front of the camera. Nevertheless, the programmes were hugely popular.

But it’s Kitchen Confidential I shall always remember him for. I end with another quote.  “They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s, while outside, in the nearly unmanned kitchen, orders spewed out of the chattering printer and were ignored.”

Another of my favourite writers died recently, Tom Wolfe. He was 88 and died of natural causes. The manner of Bourdain’s death is deeply sad. Despite all his success and, as he once said, being paid loads of money to travel around the world and do anything he wanted, away from the TV cameras, he must have been deeply troubled and in lots of emotional pain. Throughout much of his life he had battled with various demons. This demons hadn’t gone away, it seems.

Anthony Bourdain, rest in peace.