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Why is pizza so popular?

 

The death of the wonderful Antonio Carluccio last week and my visit this week to the European Pizza and Pasta show at Olympia have got me pondering why we love food from Italy so much.

I’ve no idea how many Italian restaurants there are in Britain, but it must be several thousand.  The Italians got into the restaurant business in Britain long before the Indians and Chinese.

And in recent years we have seen the rise of excellent Italian chains – Ask, Carluccios, Franca Manca, to name but three.  And Jamie has even got in on the act.

If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that Italian cuisine is, of course, much more than pizza and pasta. I visited Sorrento a couple of years ago and was knocked out by the range and quality of dishes in its restaurants.

And we probably shouldn’t even talk about “Italian” cuisine, as in Italy food is regional. The kind of dishes they serve in Bologna will be different from those in Naples, the birthplace of pizza.

Pizza has to be the most popular dish in Britain. I know that some people argue that chicken tikka masala occupies that spot, but when do you ever hear kids asking for a curry when you take them out?

The reason pizza is popular is because it’s incredibly satisfying and so varied.  If you think about it, it’s basically bread with various toppings. And bread is popular wherever you go in the world, the flat breads in the Middle East, nan breads in India, baguettes in France, tortillas in Mexico. It can also be eaten in the street. It’s classic finger food.

At the European Pizza and Pasta Show, I got chatting to a woman from The Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association and asked her what she thought was the secret to the popularity of Italian cuisine in Britain.  ‘With Italian food, they don’t go in for novelty or gimmicks. They serve the same dishes again and again,’ she said.

She is spot on. In a London food scene that seems to get whackier every month, and where restaurants are desperate to make themselves appear different and innovative, you know exactly where you are with most Italian restaurants. What people want is good food and good service at a reasonable price. What they don’t want is the kind of foodie circus we now have in London.  Unsurprisingly, Antonio Carluccio was not a fan of this kind of nonsense.

Last night I went to a typical local Italian, II Mirto, tucked away in a side street in East Dulwich. The owner, who is from Sardinia, also runs an Italian deli down the road in Forest Hill. II Mirto seats just 22 diners and feels almost like eating in someone’s living room.  Oh, yes, and they only take cash, as the handwritten notice on the counter informs you.  The menu is pizzas, pasta and a couple of specials. There’s nothing pretentious or fancy about this place and the food is very decent.  That’s why I like it.

 

London’s allotments

 

I’m delighted that the fight to save Northfields Allotments is still going on. I visited them last year and was very impressed by the amazing variety of vegetables and fruit being grown. Established in 1832, they are London’s oldest. If the proposed plans to build housing goes through, people using the allotments could lose 10% of the space, leaving many gardeners without a plot.

At one time, if you went to a party and told someone that you had an allotment, they would nod, try to appear interested and then quickly start scanning the room for an excuse to get away.  ‘Back in a minute. Just need to catch Phil.’ Allotments were where you found glum old men in caps shuffling along with a wheelbarrow or slowly turning over soil with a spade before lighting their pipe and furtively disappearing into a small shed.

Tending an allotment was something you did when you had entered the twilight years of your life, like the characters in Last of the Summer Wine. It was a way of filling empty days – and maybe getting away from the wife. Allotments belonged to a world of bingo, meals on wheels, and those days centres where people sit staring ahead in wing-back chairs.

Things have changed now. If you want an allotment in London, then you will have to put your name down on a waiting list and often wait several years before one becomes vacant.  The waiting lists for some allotments have been closed.

The popularity of allotments reflects both the increasing interest many of us have in knowing more about what we eat and where it comes from and a disenchantment with the kind of fruit and veg on sale in supermarkets.

Allotments also tap into a romantic middle-class urban yearning for a more rural and simpler way of life. Allotments are about reconnecting with the natural world and escaping a corporate and hectic city life.  Allotments are no longer sniggered about. They can touch something deep inside us.

In London, where many people live in flats and don’t have a garden, if you want to grow vegetables, then you have to do it on a windowsill or, if you have one, a balcony. And, of course, you are limited to growing things such as basil or parsley or maybe tomatoes.  It’s not a good idea to grow anything big or hard on a windowsill, at least if you want to avoid newspaper headlines such as ‘Postman hit by potato.’

London has around 36,000 allotment plots, the vast majority of them located in the outer boroughs. In fact, three London boroughs, the City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and the Corporation of London, don’t have any allotments at all. Brent, Bromley and Ealing have the largest number.

The history of allotments is obscure, but it seems that they can at least be traced back to initiatives in the eighteenth century when some of the rural poor were given small patches of land to grow food. Many had been plunged into poverty as a result of the open field system of agriculture being replaced by enclosures. This meant that what was once common land was now owned by the wealthy.

Another factor behind the rise of allotments was the way the industrial revolution dramatically changed the face of England, with the working population moving from agriculture and the countryside to big factories in towns and cities. Some workers were given small parcels of land to grow food. It’s unclear whether the primary motivation was for them to feed themselves or to keep them occupied and away from taverns.

Various legislation was passed in Parliament to force local authorities to provide allotments, but it wasn’t until the First World War and concerns about food shortages that allotments really took off.  By 1917 there was around 1.5 million plots in England, much of it requisitioned.

After the war, some of the land was returned to its owners, but many returning servicemen were given small plots. The economic depression that followed the war led the Quakers to launch a scheme to provide allotments for the unemployed, so they could grow their own fresh food.

At the outbreak of the Second World War worries over how Britain was to feed itself returned and half a million extra plots were created.  A “Dig for Victory’ campaign was launched by the Ministry of Agriculture.  Bright posters and leaflets sought to take people’s minds off rationing and encourage them to get digging, and advice was provided on how to compost, sow seeds and weed.  Private gardens, sports fields, parks, land beside railway lines were all transformed into allotments. Even the lawns outside the Tower of London and at Kensington Gardens were turned into vegetable patches.

Characters such as ‘Doctor Carrot’ and ‘Potato Pete’ encouraged people to eat more vegetables and recipes were provided and on Sunday afternoons people would sit around their wireless listening to Cecil Henry Middleton on the Home Service give his gardening tips.

From the fifties onwards allotments went out of fashion, as food became mass produced and more available.  A brief revival in growing your own food occurred in the Seventies, perhaps due in part to The Good Life, the TV comedy about a couple who quit the rat race and convert their garden in suburbia into a farm.

What I remember most about the programme when I watched it as a teenager being awakened by his hormones is not the couple’s attempts to keep chickens or grow vegetables, but Felicity Kendall. Nearly all the boys in my class at school had a crush on her.

I hope those fighting to save Northfields Allotments can persuade the property developers to leave them alone. London needs these wonderful spaces.

 

 

 

 

Do you remember Vesta paella?

 

 

 

I have to say that my mum wasn’t a great cook. I don’t know if the nuns at the convent school in Ireland who educated her taught her any culinary skills, but if they did, she didn’t learn much.

Even so, she was willing to try new things, unlike my dad, who was never happier than when eating a plate of beans on burnt toast, which was the only meal I remember seeing him cook.

Maybe eating more exotic food was my mum’s way of trying to feel part of that glamorous world she saw in films and on TV and in the women’s magazines she used to buy each week, sitting up in bed at night flicking through the articles about clothes, being a good housewife, and new gadgets for the home.

One day, she arrived home from the shops and plonked her blue shopping bag down on the living room table.

“What’s for tea?” I asked as usual. I was always starving when I came home from school.

She pulled out a box and held it up. “This!”

“What’s that?” I said, peering at the photo of yellow rice flecked with red and green.

“It’s called paella. It’s a new thing,” she said, handing the box to me.

I examined it and saw that it had a small map of Spain on it. All I knew about Spain was that it was famous for oranges and that Leeds United under Don Revie had changed their kit to all white, like Real Madrid, to try and emulate their success.

Mum opened the box and there were two white sachets inside, one containing rice, the other a powdered mix with tiny pink prawns in it. After reading the instructions on the back of the box, she lopped off a chunk of Kerrygold butter into the frying pan and then tipped in the rice and began to fry it. As the grains sizzled, they started to brown.  She then gingerly poured in a jug of water and, checking the instructions again, turned up the gas flame to bring the pan to the boil.  Then she shook in the colourful powder, lowered the gas, and left it to simmer for twenty minutes.

When she put my plate in front of me and I took my first mouthful, I let out a long Mm sound. I’d never tasted anything like it before. I loved its creamy texture, the unfamiliar flavour, and the bite of the small prawns.

Remarkably Vesta still produces boxes of paella, although the map of Spain has been replaced by a flamenco dancer.

The fact that I can remember that paella all these years later tells me that it must have been a moment of some kind of significance. Perhaps that paella acted a signpost to a more exciting world than the small Midlands town that I was feeling trapped in. Food can do this. It can transport us to another place.

 

 

Too many cook books

 

Kirstie Allsop, co-presenter of Location, Location, Location cropped up as a guest on Saturday Kitchen recently. And, low and behold, she has just written a cook book, Kirstie’s Real Kitchen.  She gushed to the excellent Matt Tebbutt (a fitting heir to James Martin) that she has written a cook book with accessible recipes, so everyone at home can follow them. Blimey. I thought that was the whole point of a cookery book.

Every time I watch Saturday Kitchen there’s someone plugging another cook book and making out it is providing something unique.  The truth is, in most cases, they’re not. They are simply tweaking existing recipes. “It’s cottage pie with a twist.”

I have a collection of cook books, but have never used most of them. Nowadays I’ll often head to You Tube to watch a clip of a top chef, such as Marco Pierre White, Rick Stein, or Gordon Ramsay, cooking a particular dish.

What astonishes me is that most of these cook books being churned out by publishers are filled with arty photos of dishes and therefore expensive to produce. And then there’s all the marketing. But I can’t help wonder how many of them actually sell, or sell well enough to make a profit for the publisher. I can’t answer this question – but I bet Kirstie is already working on her second book.

 

Robbed in Barcelona

 

I noticed the three men in shorts and T-shirts larking about on the platform, but didn’t think much of it.  It was about 11 pm and I thought they might have been enjoying themselves in one of the nearby bars around Urquinaona.

When the train arrived, my wife and son got on ahead of me. As I tried to enter the carriage, one of the three men edged in front of me, dropping his sunglasses on the floor by the doors. I stood there and waited for him to pick them up.  He started fumbling around, so I stepped to the side. As I did, he moved across, making it difficult for me to get on the train.

Then he got up up and I moved into the carriage. The next thing, a second man motioned to me to move further down, and then a third man tugged at the neck of my shirt and pointed to a space by one of the windows. Feeling slightly disorientated, I obediently shuffled along, wondering what was happening.

Just before the doors closed the three men jumped off.  Instinctively I patted the pocket on my shorts where my wallet was. ‘They’ve nicked my wallet!’ I said to my wife.

I had become another victim of the gangs who prowl busy Metro stations and crowded streets in the centre of Barcelona seeking tourists to target.  My initial feeling of shock at what had happened was quickly replaced by one of anger.

I have always considered myself very street wise when in a foreign city. I do my best to be low key and not seem like a tourist. But on this occasion I fell for a common distraction technique.

When we reached our hotel, I immediately phoned my bank and cancelled my debit card. The only other items in my wallet were my Oyster card and Sainsbury’s and Tesco club cards. The crime carried out by the gang had netted them 60 euros and a £10 note.

Two days before this, as I was travelling on a bus with my wife and son to the centre of the city to meet some friends in a restaurant in a street off Las Ramblas, a friend texted to ask what had happened in Barcelona. He had read reports of a serious incident involving a van.

Had we caught the bus half an hour earlier and not gone to the cafe opposite the hotel for a snack we too might have been among victims of that horrific terrorist attack which left 14 people dead and dozens more injured.

I was robbed, but that is trivial when compared to what happened in Las Ramblas. I was lucky. Others were not

Restaurants in Italy and Spain can be disappointing

We are always told how fantastic the food in Spain and Italy is. And, yes, you can find some great places to eat. But there are also many restaurants where the food is mediocre or awful and the service slapdash.

This is my conclusion having returned from a holiday in Tuscany and Barcelona with my wife and son. I had gone in the expectation of eating great food in wonderful restaurants. Instead more often than not I came away disappointed.

For example, one evening we sat down at a table outside Osteria Enoteca in a small square on Corso Italia, the main shopping street in Pisa. I ordered a pizza with salami, my wife a spaghetti carbonara, and we ordered a margarita for our son. Each dish turned out to be very poor. But the service was just as bad.

Could we have some parmesan, please? Ten minutes later a waiter returns with a small bowl. Could we have some olive oil, please? Another ten minutes goes by before the waiter returns. By the way, I ordered a beer – half an hour ago. The beer arrives after another ten minutes. At 10.20 pm one of the waiters starts stacking the chairs while we are several other customers are still eating.  This was a Tuesday evening in the middle of August when Pisa is packed with tourists.

It was a similar story in several other restaurants we visited in Pisa or in the towns along the Tuscan coast. So many of the waiters we encountered seemed very forgetful.

However, one restaurant in Pisa was brilliant: La Meloria Fried and Fish in Via Domenico Cavalca.  From the outside it doesn’t look much, but the food was excellent (penne with octopus and calamari with boiled potatoes in parsley and olive oil were particularly good) and the service from Elena, the owner, outstanding. She seemed to be able to do six things at once and always with a smile. You could tell from the way she served the customers that she took a pride in her restaurant and was passionate about it. What’s more, you can have a bottle of good wine for nine euro.

In Barcelona the prize for the worst meal I ate goes to La Surena in Port Vell. I ordered dogfish and patatas bravas. Both were disgusting.  Something told me that the food was probably frozen. After we had left the restaurant, I went immediately to a shop to buy some biscuits to take away the awful flavour.

Another bad experience was at Congrejo Loco, a fish and seafood restaurant in Port Olympia. As soon as I saw the prices (190 euro per kilo of lobster), the white table cloths, the huge menus, and the waiters dressed in white jackets I suspected that this would be another disappointment. And it was. I ordered Gallician octopus and potatoes (15 euro). It was saturated in pimento and salt. Truly awful. The restaurant had been chosen by a friend of ours and her husband, because they had had their wedding reception there.  They admitted that it had gone down hill since then.

Two restaurants that were excellent, however, were Laia in Blanes, a resort on the Catalan coast, where I had some delicious baby calamari, and Entre Pam I Tapes in Badalona, on the northern edge of Barcelona, where I had the best patatatas bravas I’ve ever eaten.

Chefs such as Rick Stein, Gennaro Contaldo, and Jose Pizaro have done a wonderful job in convincing us that Italy and Spain are gastronomic wonderlands. The truth is that there are many restaurants that dish up food that is as poor as you would get in some places in Britain and that seem to care little about providing diners with a memorable experience.

 

 

 

Borough Market

The terrorist attacks on innocent people at Borough Market also were a major blow to its many food business and those employed in them.  Some will probably have lost thousands of pounds or even contracts with hotels and restaurants who have found new suppliers.

Poutine

Last night my daughter and I were chatting about when when she mentioned a dish I’d never heard of: poutine. She told me that had eaten it several times when she had visited Montreal.

Poutine, she explained, was chips, gravy and cheese. ‘It might not sound much, but it’s absolutely delicious.’

Her description reminded me that when I was growing up in Derbyshire chips and gravy was a popular request at my local chippie.

I did a bit of research about poutine and, apparently, poutine translates from French-Canadian to either ‘pudding’ or ‘mess’. The dish has been a staple at Québecois greasy spoons since the 1950s, keeping French-Canadians going through unbearably cold winters. Now it can be found everywhere across the province from roadside truck stops and McDonald’s to high-end Montreal restaurants.

Poutine is usually made with cheese curds, the solid bits left from acidifying milk which have a chewy, squeaky texture halfway between mozzarella and halloumi. When combined with fries and a traditional Canadian brown gravy, they semi-melt, making for the perfect winter warmer, drunken dinner or hangover cure.

Some chefs in Canada and the US, have updated poutine with fancy toppings such as pulled pork, lobster or jerk chicken.

 

I gather there are several places in London serving poutine, so I intend to go and try it.

Don’t believe the hype about some pubs and restaurants

 

I’ve thought for a long time that there’s too much hype about how good restaurants and pubs are supposed to be. When it comes to hype, restaurants and pubs can be up there with the best of them. Their web sites often make exaggerated claims about the food on offer. Menus are sprinkled with words such as “artisan”, “aged” and “hand-made”, and contain words or phrases you’ve never come across before (“tonkatsu-inspired”, “nduja sausage”, “basil pistou).  And you are informed that your crab is from Norfolk, your cheese from Yorkshire, and your Kale from Lincolnshire.

You will often be told the “story” behind the restaurant to make you feel that you are visiting a place where the owners really care about the food, the service and you, the customer.

And to drive home just how good a place considers itself to be, its door will be festooned with stickers from Trip Advisor, Square Table or one of the other  countless organisations that market themselves by handing out stars or awards to restaurants, who grab them greedily.

But, of course, when you use so much hype, the customer’s expectations increase. And the fact is that there are far too many restaurants where the hype far exceeds the quality of food and service provided.

This week, I’ve encountered two gastro pubs where the food and service didn’t match the hype.

The order mix up

The first was in a pretty village in Kent, where I went with my wife and son on Sunday afternoon. I was told 40 minutes after placing our order at the bar that, sorry, I couldn’t have fish and chips. That’s right, 40 minutes later.

“There was a bit of a mix up. We had two table 52s down,” said a young guy coming up to the table. “Would you like to order something else?”

I gritted my teeth and ordered burger and fries instead. When it arrived 15 minutes later it turned out to be pretty average, although at £13.50 the price was above average. Remember, this is rural Kent, not London’s West End.

Fish with bones

The second villain was a pub near Tower Bridge. Having been denied fish and chips in Kent, I decided I’d have them here. I knew the pub quite well and the quality of the food had always been very good. However, it had been over three years since my last visit. But the pub still had the same two owners, so I figured the standards would be the same.

I was wrong. My friend discovered his fish contained numerous bones. I complained to one of the bar staff and asked him to tell one of the co-owners, who was sitting at the bar having a drink.  He came over to see what the problem was. Here’s the conversation:

Me: There’s quite a few bones in my friend’s fish, although, so far, I haven’t found any in mine.

Co-owner: You do get bones on fish.

Me: Shouldn’t the fish be pin-boned properly in the kitchen?

Co-owner [Pointing to the menu]: It does say that fish might contain bones.’

Me: Yes, but shouldn’t the kitchen staff do a better job in removing them. Imagine if a child was eating this fish. They might end up in hospital.

Co-owner: Well, you’ve not found any bones in yours.

Me: No, not yet. But there might be some. Look, my friend’s just found another one.

Co-owner: The kitchen gets busy sometimes.

Me: When I go to my local fishmonger I always ask for the pin bones to be removed. And when I get him I check it to make sure this has happened. If not, I remove them with tweasers or scissors.

Co-owner: Yeah, well, the kitchen staff don’t always have the time.

Me: But I’ve always thought that removing pin bones from fish was a basic task for staff in any restaurant kitchen.

He shrugged and offered my friend another piece of fish, but my friend declined, thinking there was no guarantee that it would be any better.

I should add that the fish and chips were mediocre. The batter was soggy and the chips (about a dozen of them) dry.  And this cost a whopping £14.

What disappointed me most about this experience was the attitude of the co-owner. He didn’t seem particularly bothered about the bones. Well, I have my standards when it comes to fish. If I served fish with bones still in it to friends who came for a meal, I would be embarrassed and I would be annoyed with myself.

As my friend and I left the pub, we noticed an A board on the pavement. It said, “Best fish and chips in the area.”  As I said earlier, too many restaurants go in for too much hype.

Franco Manca – great restaurant model

Coming up with the right business model for a restaurant must be one of the hardest things. We can all think of places where, for one reason or another, the owners have got so much of it wrong. Yes, the food scene in London is unrecognisable from twenty years ago, but there are still many very mediocre restaurants as well as some truly awful ones.

London is, of course, awash with pizza restaurants, and many of them pretty good, I’m happy to say.  For example, I’m a big fan of Ask, whose branches never disappoint either in the quality of food or the service.  Some people can be sniffy about chains. I have no such qualms, provided they are good.

At the weekend, I visited Franco Manca in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. Franco Manca started out in Brixton in 2008 when Giuseppe Mascoli, who came to London in 1989 as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics, started offering sour dough pizzas. Unlike now, they were a bit of a novelty back then.

The pizzas are cooked for 40 seconds in a wood-burning oven at 500 degrees. They are prepared by pizzaiolos using the traditional method that Mascoli learned at his family home in Naples.

His Brixton restaurant turned out to be a roaring success, and Giuseppe went on to open other branches across London. In 2015 he sold the business to Fulham Shore, which has opened restaurants across the UK.

One of the things that makes Franca Manco different from many restaurants is its menu. It only has six pizzas on offer.  There’s no pasta or anything else, other than a choice between two salads. I’ve always been a great believer in short menus. With just a few items to choose from, there’s a good chance that the food will be very good. And Franca Manca’s pizzas are delicious.

And the prices at Franco Manca take some beating: tomato, garlic and oregano (£4.95), tomato, mozzarella, and basil (£6.40) and, the most expensive, tomato, cured organic chorizo and mozzarella (£7.55).

With their short menu, low prices, delicious pizzas, and, just as importantly, good service, Franco Manca has created a winning business model. I can think of a few places that could learn a thing or two from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rick Stein comes to Barnes

Finding good fish and chips in London is one of life’s challenges. So it’s great news that Rick Stein has opened a restaurant in Barnes, his first in London.

Despite previously saying he would never open a restaurant in London, Stein has taken over The Depot in Barnes. As this is one of the poshest parts of the capital, paying £16.95 for cod and chips or £8.95 for three oysters is unlikely to concern the locals.

The inclusion on the menu of dishes such as Singapore chilli crab, wasabi, and Indonesian seafood curry reflects Stein’s travels around the Far East for his excellent BBC TV series.

Of course, Stein won’t be cooking himself.  The days when he would be sweating away in a hot kitchen have long gone. What diners going to The Depot will expect is some of the best fish and seafood they have ever eaten, as this is what Stein specialises in.

I’m planning to visit soon.  Given Stein’s reputation, I will book in advance, as I’m sure The Depot will become one of London’s most popular restaurants.

 

Restaurants can be hit and miss

 

I can’t think what to write, but I need to write something, as I haven’t posted anything this year. Well, what’s on my mind is the varying quality of food and service – and therefore disappointing – in so many restaurants around London that are deemed to be very good. Here’s some I’ve visited recently:

500 Degrees, Crystal Palace: the pizza was okay, but the service abysmal. As this was the third disappointing experience at this restaurant, I won’t be going again.

Lorenzo’s, Crystal Palace:  good pizza and service pretty good. My wife had a pasta dish, but wasn’t impressed.

Ask, Beckenham: excellent pizza and crayfish pasta, but, unusually for Ask, hit and miss service (the manager said some staff were on holiday).

Iberica, The Zig-Zag Building, Victoria, The food was average. The staff seemed very inexperienced and kept dropping glasses. The food was all the more disappointing, as Iberica’s menus are designed by a three-star Michelin chef. But perhaps the clue is in the word “designed”.

Joanna’s, Crystal Palace: fantastic food and great service. The staff seemed to be enjoying their work.