Friday, June 24, 2011

Let's have an English takeaway tonight

Many years ago, more than I care to remember frankly, I took on an evening job washing pots and pans in a restaurant in my home town of Helston, Cornwall. It was called The Gondolier and was run by a small, excitable Italian chef called Salvatore Pisano. After I'd worked there for a bit, and on a day of severe staff shortage, he allowed me to have a go at plating up desserts. I obviously displayed some kind of aptitude for it as I was soon making desserts and starters every day. Within six months I was helping to cook the mains and, in no time at all, had learned most of the basics of being a chef. It was great experience and, to this day, I can cook just about anything and love being in the kitchen.

When I moved to London to become a cop, I rented a house with two guys; a helicopter engineer called Steve and an accountant called John who worked for Heinz foods. That's us in the photo above demonstrating what happens when you mix snow with excessive alcohol. Without going into all the sordid details, it was rather like living in an extended episode of Men behaving badly most of the time with endless parties and a mini-pub, replete with barrels of lager and bitter, taps and cooling unit etc. set up permanently in the kitchen. I cooked most of the food, which was no bad thing as John brought endless freebies and cheapies home from his work and Man cannot live on beans alone - as we would have done if he'd taken on the cooking chores.

Cooking and food have always been a big part of my life and is undoubtedly why there's several big parts of me. I've always had a love of good food but a very poor relationship with it; I eat when I'm sad, I go out for a meal and some beers to celebrate when I'm happy. Sigh. How I envy the people who pick at a lettuce leaf and soon feel full. Or do I? Food is a pleasure. It's just a shame that, like most pleasures, if you have too much it does you harm.

I'd eat out every day if I could. I love discovering new restaurants and am always keen to try new cuisines. I have eaten everything from honey ants to crocodile to squirrel and everything in between. Upon arriving in London in 1980, I went into foodie overload as Cornwall didn't, at that time, have such things as Indian or Thai or even Greek food outlets. I saved up and ate in many of the toppest restaurants for the sheer experience and soon developed a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of London's eateries, some of which are still there. Being a cop in the West End in the mid-late 1980s, I was often asked by tourists for good restaurants to eat in and could usually answer their questions. All except one:

'Where can I get a good traditional British meal?'

It was a tough one to answer. There was a Beefeater Steakhouse and a Wimpey. There were pubs that served roast dinners or that specialised in pies (though nowhere near the quality found in some gastro pubs now). There were greasy spooneries where you could get a Full English. If you had some money you could try tea at the Ritz or visit Tiddy Dol's in Mayfair. But that was pretty much it. Plus, there was the unanswered question of what 'British Cuisine' actually is. Some people may scoff at the idea that such a thing even exists but it does. The problem is that it's hugely fragmentary.

I'm not sure if anyone actually knows how many different accents there are in the UK but I suspect it's in the thousands. In some rural areas, there are differences even between villages. On top of all of that, there are dialect words brought in from old Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon. Class also has a bearing as some people are taught to speak 'recieved pronunciation' as a standard. Well, British cuisine is much the same; there's no central or national cuisine. It ranges from bloaters and whisky, haggis and neeps and square suasage in Scotland right down to pasties and clotted cream, Star Gazey Pie, saffron buns and hog's pudding in Cornwall. Many counties have their own delicacies and so do many towns and cities. A truly British restaurant would offer the finest produce and the best dishes from all over the UK. And what a fabulous restaurant that would be! Just think about the astonishing range of cheeses we produce, the chutneys and pickles, the glorious casseroles and stews. Then there's what we do best - puddings. Not desserts but puddings; spotted dick, rhubarb crumble with properly thick custard (Creme Anglais? Pah!), Cornish ice cream, treacle tarts and bread and butter puddings. It's great to see people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall trying to get us back to eating great British food ... but I still can't spot the British restaurants in London's West End. Damn me, if I had the money, I'd open a chain of them.

Or maybe I'd capitalise on the reputation we have for poor food and unhealthy eating? I could open a Comfort Food Restaurant chain called Stodgies where sad people could come to cry and assuage their melancholy with artery-clogging delicacies. The music played gently overhead would be by Morrissey and The Cure or, on really tragic days, Dido or the Lighthouse Family. I'm imagining the menu now ...

My Hamster Died - Chicken nuggets served in a plastic ball.

My boyfriend dumped me - Chocolate sponge cake with chocolate chips and chocolate icing served with chocolate sauce. Shaped like a voodoo doll and served with a variety of very sharp cutlery.

No one understands me - A slice of your favourite pizza, dipped in beer batter and deep-fried.

The Jeremy Kyle Special - Only available in the trailer annexe. Everything on the menu served with Diamond White or Buckfast Tonic Wine. Fights encouraged.

Any suggestions for other delights at Stodgies?

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