Sunday, 30 March 2008

The smell of fermented fish

Some of you will recall my visit to Sweden last August.

Being an interested traveller, I was eager to try things traditionally Swedish, and I did my best to do so, even if some of them proved to be...not quite to my taste.

One of the things I bought was surströmming, which, as any online contributor-authored encyclopedia will tell you, is a Swedish delicacy based on the concept of preservation without salt. In short, it's fermented fish (specifically Baltic herring), in a can. The fermentation continues after the canning process, with the result that the tins begin to bulge at top and bottom over time.

Surströmming is famous for its smell, which is legendary, and supposedly so terrible that it's been banned from all sorts of places. What I do know is that when I told my Swedish friends that I'd bought it, they banned me from opening it when they were around. If I'm honest, that was part of the attraction for me. I mean, fermented fish. In a can. That smells bad. What's not to like?

All of which happy preamble brings us up to date, because today I decided to open up the surströmming and see what all the fuss was about. Just to be sure, I put on an old pair of jeans, and a tired t-shirt. And I went to the far end of the garden with my can opener and my can of fermented fish.

Now I am not a stupid man. I appreciated that the bulging of the can indicated a certain amount of pressure on the inside, which would quite probably result in an explosive discharge of some sort when I breached the can. So when I placed the can down, and applied the opener, I was prepared for the sudden explosion of fish. I was alert, ready, poised to leap clear.

What I was not prepared for was the single drop of milky liquid that seeped leisurely and languidly from the puncture hole. Anti-climax!

It was then that I made my big mistake; I relaxed. I leaned in a little closer to re-apply the opener.

Which is precisely when the no-longer-expected explosion occured, spraying my face and head with foul-smelling fish liquor.

Let's just take a moment to explore that phrase a little. By "foul-smelling fish liquor", I mean off-the-scale foul-smelling. I mean powerfully awfully horrible. I mean stench rather than aroma. Leave-the-room bad. Look, just trust me on this. It's like nothing else I've ever smelled - and I've smelled some things in my time, let's be honest. But that's not for here.

Drenched, sticky, stinking, I poured off the liquor carefully, and was left with a half a can of slick-looking - alive-looking, actually - fish. My appetite suddenly deserted me - but only momentarily, I was quite certain. I set the can to one side, and went to scrub myself back to my usual aroma.

And that, friends, is all I can remember about that.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

I spy (with my little eye)

...something beginning with 'O'.

And something beginning with 'D (ABOT,A)'.

And something else beginning with 'COL-HC'.

Did you want to play the guessing game? Then stop reading now.

Oh, you're back. Are you all done guessing? Then here are the answers.

I saw:

  • an Owl
  • a Deer (A Bunch Of Them, Actually)
  • and a Couple Of Long-Horned Cattle.

Did you get them right?

And did you guess that I saw all of them on my late afternoon drive from Glorious Gloucestershire to Beautiful Bedfordshire?

Very well done you, then. You little smarty pants.

Friday, 21 March 2008

How to cheat at cooking on television

Honestly, what is going on with that new Delia programme? It is breath-takingly, depressingly, squirmingly awful. The so-called recipes are patronisingly straightforward - more food assembly than cooking - and are so reliant on heavily-processed convenient (excuse me, cheat's) ingredients that I can't imagine how much each "dish" must cost to turn out.

Jamie, Gordon, Heston et al. are making aspirational food that we might one day be cool or sexy enough to make - or at the very least, food that is entertaining to watch being made, food that looks fun and exciting on the plate. By contrast, Delia is making the food we make when we just can't be bothered, when we're too drunk, or too broke to care what it looks like, what it tastes of. It's food we all know how to make, because we all know how to open a packet of frozen potato wedges. I mean, it's so low-brow it's practically Cro-Magnon (yes, I know. Just work with me on this one).

The end product of one of her recipes actually looked like something my dog used to produce. I wish I was joking.

What makes the whole farce even more frightening is that someone, somewhere was pitched the idea for this show, and they actually commissioned it. Someone must have watched the programme before transmission. And they still chose to broadcast it! Any one of a hundred people I can think of right now could present this show with as much competence as Delia, and more charisma. Frankly, an 8 year old child could do the job at least as well - and provide far more entertaining lifestyle inserts for the show (don't get me going on that, it's just too horrible. Why those segments weren't permanently eradicated from history in the editing suite is another of life's great mysteries).

All of which is made possible by the unique way the BBC is funded.

I was thinking of submitting the following recipe for inclusion in the next series, but after the one programme I accidentally watched - pinned to my chair, horrified - I haven't dared watch any more. For all I know, it might already have featured.

Crisp Sandwiches

You will need:
1 bag of crisps (get an adult to open it for you if you need)
2 slices of bread (pre-buttered is best)

To make the dish, place one slice of bread on your worksurface and begin laying the crisps on top of it until it's fairly evenly covered. Once you've done that, place the second slice on top (I like to line up the tops of the slices, so that it looks neat) and press down lightly until the crisps crack a little. Slice at an angle and serve immediately.

Cheat's info:Bread can be bought pretty much anywhere these days, and often comes ready sliced - this is the best sort because you don't have to bother (and you wouldn't do it properly even if you did try). If you can't find pre-buttered bread in your local supermarket or deli, you can order it from Timbuktu, where they make the best bread, and slice it brilliantly, too.

Cheat's tip: Bread keeps well in the freezer. Make sure you slice it before you freeze it, and then you can take out only as much as you need.

Monday, 17 March 2008

An Idle Thought

If I wore it around my neck and told them it was a necklace, would airport staff allow me to take my camera through the security checkpoint?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

That's not all

Okay, so perhaps t'other day's review of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons was not sufficient, did not pique the reader's curiousity, nor do the place justice. Perhaps a little more detail is appropriate.

So, to begin by setting the scene. I approached under the cover of darkness, cleverly missing all the signs to the place, and arriving (like a beggar in the night) through the impressive gate pillars without a clear idea where I was. It was only when I wandered into reception, Friday-weary, replete in jeans, fleece and two days worth of stubble, that I caught sight of the business cards and realised that I must have left my stomach somewhere on the driveway.

My car, by the by, was by far the oldest and dirtiest in the car park. It was considerably older than many in the staff car park, now that I think of it. And because I neglected to proffer my keys for it to be valet parked, it was the first sight to greet every subsequent visitor to the place. This amuses, delights and horrifies me in similar measure.

Nevertheless, my rough appearance was not commented upon, my wild eyes unremarked, and I was shown graciously to my enormous room where I was able to dress more appropriately for dinner. Only slightly more appropriately, I might add, as I had neglected to bring anything smarter than a pair of black jeans. But my shoes were by Loake, my shirt had an understated elegance, and the set of my chin more than enough to deter any comments from more formally attired guests.

I need not have worried. Although the conservatory dining room tends towards the formal rather than the informal, and the dress code and the diners themselves reflected that, I was neither underdressed nor out of place. My dinner companion and I (of which, more later perhaps) were the youngest diners there by a fair stretch, although there were some very small people at breakfast the next morning.

As for the food, we had the 10 course discovery menu, which was generally excellent. The brill - with an oyster, in the lightest wasabi sauce - was outstanding, and the scallops, always amazing, were lifted to another level by the cauliflower puree: rich, deep and tasty.

The bread too was excellent, especially the sour dough variety; it tasted like bread should taste. Full of flavour, doughy, with a good crust.

The napkins, table linen fans, are lovely.

Let's be clear about this: Le Manoir is very, very good. The service is attentive, and apparently sincere, the food superb and the setting just this side of stunning; not quite, but not far off. Scenic in a relaxing - rather than challenging - sort of way. Yes, it's expensive to stay there - but the attention to detail is beyond the ordinary. And yes, the food is comparatively expensive (I would have said that the tasting menu at The Fat Duck offers better value, bang for buck, at just a few pounds more for almost 50% more courses - but the 'Duck offers a completely different experience). But what is delivered - what you get for your money - is nothing short of fabulous.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Cycle commuting in the Cotswolds

Today, I commuted to work on my bicycle. This is remarkable only for the fact that I travelled this morning from the scenic Chalford Hill, travelling the full 16 miles with a keen tailwind.

I saw a dead badger, a dead pigeon, and a blackbird, all reclining on the road's early morning surface.

At lunch time I ran a steady 5 miles.

In the evening, I cycled back to Chalford Hill, with the morning's tailwind become the evening's headwind, blowing steadily in my face all the way. It took me 50% longer to get home, panting and straining and occasionally gasping in frustrated exhaustion.

When I arrived, I was knackered - with hardly enough energy to be triumphant. The final stretch had been singularly dark and disturbing, especially the descent down Cowcombe Hill, and that despite my superb lights. And I had to stop four times on my way up Old Neighbourhood, a hill of rare intensity, particularly at the end of the day.

But I did it :)

Friday, 7 March 2008

Life smells good

My nose has been working overtime over late - both in the aaaaahtissueblessme kind of way, as any number of you fine people can attest - and in the sniffsniffooooooh kind of way. From the packet of Revels I enjoyed in the car, to the bread toasting in the kitchen, things about me suddenly seem to have a finer, deeper, richer aroma. Or my nose is lately more sensitive.

Just t'other night, the mushrooms cooking in the pan in Chalford smelled amazing (as was dinner, so it's mucho thanks to the Beardless One).

Then it was the smell of the tree that was cut down right outside my (other) office window. And the cheeseboard that had hamster cage and mushroom and ammonia and farmyard as I moved my beak around the little cheesey wonders thereon.

Last night, my glass of The Glenlivet 18 Year Old had so much vanilla and chocolate going on that I had to check that it was the same whisky as I remembered (it was). And that the glass was clean (it was).