Eggs

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Malleable, creamy and smoother than a you-know-what, the pickled egg is something of an unsung hero, never quite enjoying the status of extended family members like the salt-of-the-earth fried, or the poached, which, being a little more selective about both the location and company in which it chooses to appear, can be found parking its substantial behind on slices of ham, smoked salmon, and hot buttered muffins in smart eateries and hotel restaurants around the world.

Even the humble boiled egg rears its head in nursery rhymes and lateral thinking mathematical teasers, whereas its hard-boiled cousin had its fifteen minutes of fame appearing in a 1970s tv advertising campaign for a Germanic-branded creamed sauce, which claimed the reason God created eggs was so we could hard-boil them, slice them in half, scoop out their insides and fill them with the above-mentioned condiment. It also made similar claims for the dimple of a tomato and the guttering in a stick of celery: in response to such levels of patronisation my mother threw the last bottle we had in the bin and vowed never to buy another. My Uncle Alec, upon my relating the incident to him, replied by telling me: “Don’t let anyone dissuade you of the power of the menopause to lay waste to even the most rational of minds.” When I told him I had absolutely no idea as to what he was talking about, he chuckled and said: “Of course not, what was I thinking? What are you now, seven?”
“Nine.”

“Yes, I knew that,” he said. He then drew up a chair and, producing a small notebook and pen from an inside jacket pocket, continued to illustrate through a series of diagrams, arrows and words that my young brain could not comprehend, exactly what was going on inside my mother’s body and head. “If you ever need someone to talk to,” he concluded, tapping the side of his nose with his pen, “you know where I am.” He lived in Kent.

Whatever, Mother and I converted to mayonnaise and, notwithstanding a rocky patch during the early nineteen-eighties, when an attempt to broaden the appeal of the nation’s number one brand saw an advertising campaign featuring a well-known children’s entertainer who compared his mother’s string beans to, wait for it…real string, that’s how it remained.

If all this tells us anything, it’s that even a raw egg that’s been beaten to a pulp and blended with a cold-pressed, lubricated fruit juice gets its own mention on the jar – it’s egg mayonnaise, not olive oil mayonnaise. Such status you’d think, then, would see even the outsider of the family in receipt of at least a little respect. But the pickled egg? That grubby variety act in a checked jacket stinking of tobacco and Double Diamond? No chance. Which is a shame as for some time they’ve been a source of fascination for me: so clinically sterile do they appear in those jars of theirs, I often think they’d be more at home in the disinfected storerooms of some Victorian biological geneticist’s laboratory than a kitchen cupboard or barroom shelf.

In fact, biting into one does seem, in itself, like an oral act of scientific trickery, the acidic vinegar sting of the first mouthful giving the feeling that you’re lowering your gut into instantaneous, mobile acid bath. But, as you take your second bite, hoping your nearest 24-hour Asda’s got a gallon of Gaviscon knocking about on the shelves, the neutralising effect of the yolk nullifies the acidity and calms the storm. It’s almost like a speeded up version of eating a very hot chilli pepper without the agony or the chemical rush as the painkilling endorphins kick in.

It’s not as if the yolk hasn’t been permeated by the vinegar, either. Take a scoop from a dissected egg and you’ll soon discover that, miraculously, the vinegar has penetrated the rubbery sheath and made its way to the centre. Now that, I would suggest, is an act of God.

Perhaps my fondness for a pub snack that many might consider grazing only the very lower echelons of a definitive top-50 pub snack chart, relates to the fact that the pickled egg actually takes me back to certain moments in my life that feature the very uncle referenced above.

The first of these incidents occurred in a beer garden on a golden, August afternoon in Canterbury when I was seven years old. Mum had put us both on the bus from Cardiff to see how he was coping after his recent divorce and I’d begged him to take me out for a spin in his brand new TR7. Under strict instructions from Mum to provide me with lunch, Alec chucked the two pounds she’d given him at a pack of ten cigarettes, a pint of bitter, half a lemonade, and a pickled egg, which we shared – as we did my lemonade, into which he baptised his nose, thick black hairs and all, when he took a swig from the tiny half-pint jug ‘to see what it was like.’ He later took my apparent lack of thirst as a cue to neck it down in one, after he’d finished his beer, his eyes streaming as the ice-cold bubbles exploded up against the back of his nose and throat. As for the food, Alec held the egg on a fork toward my face like a swordsman, beckoning me to partake, but I was in no mood. He then went on to gorge it down in two big bites, murmuring and grunting approval as he chewed it all up. “Good,” was the only word I managed to catch fully.

The next egg / Alec incident occurred at a Cardiff pub some ten years later. As a lecturer in architecture, he was in town for a conference and, as a very nerdy, extremely young-looking A-level student, I’d wanted to meet him for a coffee to have a chat about university options.

Alec had insisted on meeting in the famous City Arms pub on Quay Street, however, reassuring me when I’d voiced concerns about my age and youthful appearance, that if they didn’t want me in their pub, they’ve have him to answer to! Things started to make sense when he arrived with Anne, a woman in her mid-forties, in possession of thick, curly, black hair, which she stacked up on top of her head; and a loud, dirty, room-emptying laugh which, judging by the number of times it was given an airing, she no doubt considered an asset.

Upon entering the pub, Anne went to the toilet while Alec ordered at the bar. When she arrived at our table, the sight of two pickled eggs, arranged suggestively on a white plate by Alec, had her cackling at full volume while he looked up wearing a cheeky smirk. Making a note to keep him away from my pint, I still nearly choked when he held one of the eggs between his teeth, as if offering her a bite. When she accepted the invitation, Alec catching the broken fragments in a cupped hand beneath both chins, I became very interested in an old black and white photograph of Cardiff docks on the wall, going on to become immersed in a book of poetry as they went on to paw each other in full view of the whole pub.

Some fifteen minutes into our meeting, I was invited to leave by the pub landlord on account of my ‘not even looking fourteen’, to which Alec remonstrated with the words, “Oh come on!” as he stood earnestly, one hand holding his pint, the other outstretched, seeking reasonable outcomes. He did manage to look crestfallen as I made my way out but when I returned five minutes later to retrieve the Brian Patten poetry collection I’d left on my seat, I saw that he and Anne had moved to a table in the corner of the lounge where, engaged in the most desperate of clinches, Alec repeatedly grabbed at Anne’s large backside, repeatedly pulling it towards him in much the same way you would if you were trying to haul something heavy, like a back of boulders, or a mule, over a wall. I remember his stopping only to grab her hand when she made for the buckle on his belt; they then held and caressed hands in mid-air, as if engaged in some sit-down version of ballroom dancing as I made my way out.

The third instalment of Alec and the pickled egg occurred three years later in 1987, in The Cambridge, a  pub at the University of Liverpool where I was a student. Alec was doing year at Manchester Poly, though on this occasion he was somewhat less carefree, having just been informed that he’d impregnated a twenty-one year old student.

I can still see him ranting in the pub, crimson and furious, shouting and whispering at the same time, managing to repeat the phrase, “I was wearing a fucking condom,” on at least half a dozen occasions. As his voice became louder, I became more worried. “Look,” I said, “if you’re going to sleep with your female students, then pregnancy is an outcome you risk. I run the same risk when I’m sleeping with women, too.” (Looking around, I’d become fearful that other punters – some of them familiar faces – might think this was some kind of awful business between the two of us.)

It had taken some effort erasing the images of Alec and Anne from my mind and the thought of him, now fifty, with someone younger and probably more attractive did not please me. His insistence on being so forensic, detailing every incident in an eventful day hardly helped, either: the meeting in the pub with ‘Britt’, her friends having to leave early, the beers, the game of pool, his favourite Cream track on the jukebox, her favourite Chris Rea, too: then the nitty-gritty, the walk back across the campus, the room, the taking of the condom from a drawer in her bedroom, the application of the said item: the worst of it is the statement, “It was fucking full.” This from a man whom my mother thought might offer paternal guidance after the death of my father all those years ago.

As for the relevance of the pickled egg in this incident? Well, there was no pickled egg, but there should have been, as I couldn’t stop thinking about how his visual stunt in the City Arms didn’t seem that funny any more; and how purchasing one in The Cambridge, along with a line or two about him being in a bit of a pickle might have worked, but probably wouldn’t have. As for any other word-play, or thematic connections with references to the lines above, I’ll leave that to your own imaginations – for the time being, recollections of the above incidents has provided quite enough exercise for mine.

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I’ll be bringing myself to write a pickled egg / beer match soon. Unfortunately, talk of Alec and his intimacies has necessitated a break of at least a few days before I can return to the subject. Watch this space! 

Just a note on the illustration above, which was composed by local Cardiff photographer and, now, illustrator Daz Phillips. I asked Daz to replicate the pickled eggs of the City Arms, plus something to evoke the Victorian imagery of the opening paragraphs, which he was more than able to do. When I asked him to identify the object, he said it was an old find from Cardiff Railway station and dated back over one-hundred and forty years! Daz actually provided a water-colour, originally, but was able to knock up a sketch within minutes of my requesting a black and white image. Incredible that he’s able to work so quickly and well worth the £50 fee!

 

The Problem with Pizza

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Before I moved to the southern Italian region of Puglia for a year in 1991, I was put in touch with Enzo, a Cardiff resident whose brother actually ran a small pizzeria in Lecce in the north of the region. I visited Enzo at his small shop on the outskirts of Cardiff city centre on several occasions prior to my leaving for Italy. The following extract was first published in my collection of short stories about pizza called ‘A Pizza di Action’ published by Aurora Press in 1995. Now unfortunately out of print, so cherished is the book by those who bought it that a quick scan on Amazon reveals not one person willing to sell it on. Many fruitless hours trawling through Yellow Pages has resulted only in my drafting a letter to the Advertising Standards Authority, from whom I am still awaiting a reply. Anyway, on with the story.   

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Enzo fixed my eyes with his. We were standing in the small gentlemen’s outfitters he owned which he had, with some reasonable logic, called Enzo’s. It was September 1991 and just two weeks before I was to depart for Southern Italy. In my hands I held a pair of grey, cotton sports briefs, on offer at three pairs for three pounds.  

Situated just five minutes walk from Cardiff city centre on a Victorian, urban high street, thickly populated with sole-trader shops and small businesses, Enzo’s clientele consisted mainly of the working class folk of the neighbourhood, and the students who resided there for some thirty weeks of the year. To the former he represented decent quality clothing at affordable prices; a shirt for skittles, an anniversary tie. To the latter, Enzo’s was something of a novelty; a curio where one could further contrive one’s sartorial image; where conservatism became revolution, and where socks and pants were definitely cheaper than any other outlet within the surrounding square mile. To this end, with his heavy Italian accent and his outspoken, yet gentle demeanour, Enzo achieved that most burdensome of denominations, and one whose currency diminishes on both sides of the social spectrum when the chips are down; that of local cult hero.

“There’s money in pants,” Enzo said as I stretched the elastic waist of the underwear, testing the resolve and durability of the garment as I walked towards the counter to make my purchase. “And there’s money in trousers, shirts and socks. But Pizza…?” Enzo shrugged. “You don’t make money with pizza on your own in this country. The chains have got it by the balls.” His hands met, cupped upwards and then clenched into two fists as he bit heavily on his lower lip. I placed the pants on the counter, followed by my money. The ker-ching of the till sounded – just – and the three pound coins rattled into the tray. Enzo had a point.  The big boys certainly had a stranglehold in the city centres.

“But there are small pizzerias outside town. And in the valleys?” I ventured.

“What I mean,” he continued, “is that the chains have made a complete bastard of it. And the little guys follow. They have no choice. That’s what people eat in this country.”

I must confess, up to this point I hadn’t really been that concerned. Particularly as I had, for some time, considered this Italian ‘national treasure’ to be amongst the most overrated of foodstuffs on earth. Not that I told Enzo of this, of course: once, my mention of the fact I thought opera was ‘naff’ had nearly caused the man a burst blood-vessel.

“I mean, when was the last pizza you ‘ad?” he asked.

“I think I had one a few weeks ago,” I lied.

“And was it good?”

“It was okay.”  

“What d’you ‘ave on it?

Christ, there was no stopping him. “Err, cheese and pineapple.”  

“Cheese and pineapple?  

Actually, I had meant to say ham and pineapple but being in Enzo’s had taken me back a decade and a half back to the days when…

Enzo sighed – and then, a second wind as he delivered a tirade against some of the different toppings that this country has deemed fit to integrate alongside the established ‘classics’. “Cheddar cheese, ham and pineapple, chile con carne, Chicken fucking Tikka Ma-fucking-sala!  On pizza?” Forty-five years in Cardiff and Enzo could curse all right, and as he did so, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing.

But this was just the warm-up. The main source of Enzo’s spleen wasn’t focused on the toppings: the big problem concerned the base.

“How can you eat that shit?” On ‘shit’, his voice raised an octave and a bulging blood vessel reminded me that here was a man who didn’t need my views on Italian culture to wind him up to a state of near collapse.

“A pizza base is thin of crispy, light to touch. It make melt in the mouth.” Stress was causing his otherwise impeccable, if heavily-accented English to suffer.

“Enzo,” I implored, dropping my pants on the counter.

“There’s too much base here. American imperials.”

A student customer shot a glance over and, dreading a discourse on Greenham Common and Trident missiles, I moved the conversation back to the bread.

Yes, I had always thought Italy to have been the true home of pizza and had become confused as to the usage of American cities in the marketing of them of late. And as for that base, well, it has to be said, I had often wondered where the appeal was in something that seemed as happy to stick to a cardboard box as it was to the roof of your mouth.  Indeed, whilst chewing on one particularly stodgy purchase I was almost convinced that my next bite would reveal the other half of the insole of an old training shoe.

“You wait ‘til you go to Italia!  Margherita, Capriciosa, Napoli, Quatro Estazzioni… You will understand then.”

Thanking Enzo for his opinions, I bade him arriverderci – I had been learning – and promised I would put his words to the test as soon as I arrived. “And what about you, Enzo? When you go back, what’s your favourite?”

A mournful look. “Oh, I can’t, get on a plane,” he said patting his heart. “Doctor’s orders. It’s the food here. It’s killing me!”

“It sure is, Enzo,” I thought. “It sure is.”  

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Good stuff, eh? And what a pay off! Remember to check Amazon on a regular basis.  

By the way, if it looks as if I’ve riffed on an old theme (pineapple on pizza), I do have some evidence of me complaining about this more than ten years ago before other latecomers and gatecrashers stepped into the fray to comment on a subject that would have been mine, had certain publishers been more aware of their professional responsibilities. Anyway, two weeks after my encounter with Enzo I was in the south of Italy and trying out my first real Italian pizza at the charming outlet just around the corner of my flat in Bari Vecchia (old Bari).  

Pizza Capriciosa

There are many versions of this served up in pizza houses, restaurants and take-aways across the world but for me, the definitive version came from Pizzeria Rossi, the tiny corridor pizzeria that was situated just two minutes walk from my flat in Bari Veccia – Old Bari  

p1010479Roberto, whom I nicknamed ‘Paolo’ after the famous match-fixing footballer of the ‘70s and ‘80s, was the king! So confident was he in his ability, that he was willing to potentially wreck the creation he’d just forged in that wooden stove of his by folding it half before sliding it into a white paper bag to be taken away for consumption in the privacy of one’s own home. It was strange that first time, unfolding the pizza and scraping the contents equidistantly across the disc but as the first mouthful melted on the tongue I realised, very much like the internal examination I’d experienced at the hands of the University Doctor some years earlier, that a surprising experience need not necessarily be a wholly unpleasant one.

 

To make ‘Paolo’s’ Capriciosa, you’ll need the following.

 

Pizza Base: Makes 2

 

300g strong bread flour Tipo 00

1 tbs olive oil

1 tsp salt

7g dried yeast powder

200ml lukewarm water

 

Pour the flour into a bowl or onto a work surface. If the latter, make a well in the midde of the flour. Pour in the salt and yeast – some say to keep the two apart initially. Pour in your olive oil and then add the water, bit by bit, stirring with a wooden spoon if in a bowl to mix it all together. When it has pretty much bound together, remove it from the bowl (if using) and start to knead it with the heal of your hand. Add more flour if it’s too sticky or moist. Keep kneading for five minutes, pulling it every now and then, helping it to become a little more elastic-like. Shape the mixture into a ball and place in a bowl: cover with clingfilm, and leave in a warm place for a couple of hours until it’s doubled in size.

 

When ready, remove the dough, knock the air out with the flat of your hand, squeeze and roll it around a bit with your hands to get more air out, and cut into two equal parts. Take one of the pieces and make a round base by pressing it out into a flat circle shape with your fingers (there will be lots of fingerprint dents in it – don’t worry). Then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a large disc, turning the dough frequently on the worktop to achieve as close an approximation to a disc shape as is possible.

 

Okay, to make sure this whole thing works, I do the following. Firstly, I place a large-ish round baking stone – that’s a thing people (usually Welsh people) use to make Welsh Cakes with: this will make your base crisper and it goes into an oven turned up to its highest heat,   about ten minutes before I start rolling out the base. After the base has been rolled, I then sprinkle a little flour or, more preferably, some polenta onto a baking sheet and then place the rolled base on the sheet.

 

From this position I’m ready to load on the ingredients. Recalling my first week in Bari, let’s use the following:

 

  • Anchovies x 6
  • Capers x 10
  • Thin Sliced Ham, 2 slices
  • Mozzarella, 1 ball
  • A few Basil leaves
  • 2 smallish chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • Passatta (sieved tomatoes). If you don’t have any to hand then dilute some Tomato Puree with water so that it’s easily spreadable but not too runny
  • Olive oil (optional)

 

Okay, take your Passatta / diluted puree and pour some onto the base. With a flat spatula or big spoon, move it around so that it covers the surface area. It won’t go on completely evenly so make sure that every part of the base at least moist from some tomato interaction; use enough to make a decent covering without drenching the base.  Also make sure that the outer edges see some action as if they go into the oven completely dry they’ll burn up too quickly.

 

Now take the ball of Mozzarella and after breaking it up by hand, place it in even spaces across the base. Now the ham slices: tear them by hand into three pieces and do likewise.  As for the anchovies, it’s a nice idea to place them like spokes, the idea being that each slice contains the same contents. Some say to keep a bit of the texture, you should place them on five minutes before you take the pizza out of the oven, though I don’t bother.  Scatter the capers and mushrooms on and drizzle a little olive oil on the top. Break up the basil leaves and throw them on.

 

Now whack it in the oven.  

 

Keep an eye on it: the oven’s high temperature will get things moving along quickly so make sure it doesn’t burn. I use the highest heat possible because it gives you your best opportunity of crisping up that base on the lethally hot baking stone. If you’re using polenta, it will make it even crispier – how the Italians intended it, I think.  
As for the beer, it’s pilsner or Euro lager all the way for me, though if I had to make a choice, I’d allow nostalgia lead me towards the pouring of a freezing glass of Peroni – red label, as opposed  to the Nastro Azzuro, the popular, if preposterously overpriced strain we find so readily in our pubs these days. In my Bari days, we only seemed to be able to ever get our hands on one beer, and that was red label Peroni. Leading with a malty introduction, it reveals a refreshing, light bitterness, ending with a lingering dry finish. Masterpiece it isn’t, but it’s a decent enough beer for a hot day which also suits any kind of dish carrying such strong and salty flavours as this.

Recollections: Great Britain 1976

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“Friday night they’ll be dressed to kill

Down at Dino’s Bar ‘n’ Grill

The drink will flow and blood will spill

If the boys wanna fight you better let ‘em.”

Know the song?  Of course, the words above are taken from The Boys Are Back in Town, the 1976 top ten hit from Irish rock band Thin Lizzy written by the now sadly deceased Phil Lynott.

I loved this song when it came out and pay tribute to the fact that it still manages to conjure up the spirit of the era so succinctly. For those who don’t know it, the song, in my mind’s eye, focuses on a group of denim-clad, possibly hirsute men who have spent the year travelling around on motorcycles, endeavouring to discover the world around them whilst, no doubt, getting up to all sorts of hi-jinx along the way. Taking the liberty to join some dots of my own, they probably broke a few hearts as well. Looking back now, it’s almost as if Lynott were writing about my own future life!  

In the opening bars, the singer tells a girl he knows that he has word that ‘the boys’ will soon be returning to their locality to share their many adventures with those who were left behind. Under such examination we understand that Lynott is providing a blueprint for a life that rewards the stretching of comfort zones.

Whereas the song’s chief themes adopt a Chaucerian approach to hope, rebirth, and mankind’s synchronisation with the seasons, I have to take issue with the lyrics which I have isolated from the main body of text: violence is something that should never be tolerated and the instruction that any outbreak of vandalism or physical abuse should be tolerated ‘or else!’ is something I find at best hard to warm to, at worst extremely menacing.

My real note of concern, however, concerns the venue. Since I have never eaten at, seen or heard about any food and drink outlet called Dino’s Bar and Grill, I can only surmise that, far from this being a chain or franchise which enjoys the safety net of a central slush fund to dip into in case of emergencies, the bar and grill in question is an independent outlet run by a sole trader. One’s mind recoils in horror as we imagine the character of Dino, struggling to maintain order as the coleslaw, chicken wings and bar stools fly around the dining area, knowing full well that the man covering all costs for all breakages and subsequent loss of custom until the insurance policy pays up will be none other than himself. That’s if the policy pays out.

And what of this man’s origins?  Certainly the spelling of the name suggests a man of Mediterranean extraction and not a British citizen whose name Dean has been suffixed with the letter ‘o’ in the interests of attaching a personable nickname.  Besides, this trait is most common in the Merseyside and South Wales areas and, taking into account Lynott’s background and life, we should therefore conclude that the location he writes about is either his hometown of Dublin or, more likely, London where the immigrant population is much higher.

I, myself, have always imagined Dino as an Italian or Greek man, probably of around five foot seven inches in height and quite possibly, considering his working environment and the inevitable temptation to snack throughout the long and irregular hours that the food industry demands, rotund of stature.  

As the picture emerges, we might also add, though I’m certainly not writing this in a tablet of stone, that Dino, as a non-native speaker, may well have struggled with some of the more challenging complexities of the English language. As we know, in times of panic it is our linguistic ability which takes a back seat as the fight or flight response kicks in.  Throughout the mayhem, then, we might imagine him armed only with stock phrases such as ‘stop’, ‘please’, and ‘no’ at his disposal.

As Milan Kundera says, and I paraphrase: “When we live abroad, we walk on a high wire, without the safety net of interpersonal support from friends, relatives and the social norms that help us to maintain a sense of our true identity.”  Without his mother tongue at his disposal, this man, quite possibly a widower (no mention is made of Dino’s wife  in this or any other song) now struggles on all fronts. A grim scenario  indeed.  

But let us not be troubled by supposition: we must remember that the warning which appears in the opening quote is pre-fixed with the word if.  “If the boy’s wanna fight…”  So we address the possibility of an outbreak of violence with caution, knowing that although it lurks in the background, it is by far from a foregone conclusion.  

In this instance, then, on encountering this group of young men, it would be advisable to keep a healthy distance, whilst always taking care to ensure non-threatening eye contact if queuing at the bar in their presence. Remembering to ask a polite and friendly question about the experiences they’ve had during the past year, whilst also mentioning how good it is to see them again, might also help to generate a feeling of wellbeing. Lastly, a word to a friend, within earshot of ‘the boys’, along the lines of how one should be grateful that Dino manages to run such an excellent eatery, might also go some way to making them think twice about starting any trouble within the bar, perhaps encouraging them to take any fights they are likely to start into an adjoining car park.      

This extract was taken from my dissertation ‘Semiotics, Language, Popular Media and the Social Response’: that’s Module C122 for those who were on the course at the University of Liverpool in 1986.  In retrospect, I can see what a struggle it was to link all the themes together, particularly the social response bit in the penultimate paragraph. I’d therefore like to issue an apology to Dr B. Siddle, Head of the Department of Combined Honours SES (Social and Environmental Studies).  I now understand that my behaviour when receiving your initial criticism was totally unacceptable, and I can now see that having to resubmit the paper the following year brought a maturity to my work that had erstwhile been lacking – as did the withholding of my grant monies until I had made payment for the breakages in your office.

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Every summer during my childhood, my extended family would come to stay for two to three weeks and in the summer of 1976, the year of that Thin Lizzy hit, we visited, on several occasions, a place which very much evokes the memory of Dino’s Bar and Grill.  

The place was an American ‘burger joint’ called The Lexington, and it was situated in Cardiff city centre. Memories of the interior are vivid – oak-style beams and staircases, a large wagon wheel and the obligatory, if incongruous, Wurlitzer jukebox piping out the sounds of heavy rock, Philadelphia disco and zeitgeisty bands like, um, The Rubettes.  The Lexington served up real beef burgers, T-Bone steaks, chicken wings (in the days before we called them Buffalo wings), great plates of chips and bucket loads of lettuce, cucumber and tomato salad.  

Though I can’t remember all the details, I do recall that, because of my age, I was the only family member not allowed even a sip of the beer they served there which came in bottles and went by the name of Schlitz. The ‘beer which made Milwauke famous’ (obviously some time before the leather jacket-clad Arthur Fonzereli hit our TV screens), it was conspicuous by its absence during my formative drinking years in the mid-80s, though feel free to correct me if it was still available in the UK at this time. Research shows that the brewery closed down in the early ’90s, though Schlitz is still made on a contract basis by a Miller brewery, though I have seen it written that it is nothing like the original, which is described as being like an ‘old style beer.

One final point is that The Lexington was the first place where I ever tasted tomato relish and that when the waitress had advised a children’s portion, she’d done it out of a sense of responsibility, and not to mock the posturing of a ten year-old in a blue corduroy suit who felt it was high time he started living the life of those featured in the Thin Lizzy song critiqued above. Although I struggled ‘manfully’ with most of the contents of that groaning plate of minced-beef, bread and lettuce, it was a bit embarrassing when we all had to get off the bus five stops early, just as it was having to squat behind a tree to make room for the contents of the meal I’d just enjoyed. I had cramps for three days.

Let Regions Speak Unto Regions

 

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fullsizerender-1Looking at the trinkets and trophies the first UK conquistadors brought back with them from their sojourns to foreign climes – and here I’m talking about the first package holidaymakers to the Spanish costas – you’d think many of them had just spent two weeks in 19th century Mexico, rather than one of the most culturally diverse and, then, fastest developing economies in Western Europe. Sombreros, plastic donkeys and miniature guitars are all well and good but in making a quick peseta or two flogging-on these ephemeral articles to sunburned British holiday-makers, the Spanish misrepresented the vast cultural riches that lie within the Iberian peninsular. Perhaps they were trying to put us off moving inland.

Some of the most surprising aspects of Spain can be found on the north coast, particularly within the regions of Asturias and Galicia, the two autonomous regions that lie farthest north west of the country. It is a common thread to compare the former to Wales and the latter to Ireland, such are the geographical similarities.

But it’s not just a matter of landscape: Asturias, for example, is a Principality, like Wales, and therefore the first son of the ruling monarch is ennobled with the title Principe de Asturia; the Spanish equivalent of Prince of Wales. If we can draw a line of comparison connecting the two former Empire states, then the fine and balanced son of King Juan Carlos is treading in a parallel line of footsteps embedded by no finer exponents of a nation’s right to monarchy than Henry VIII and Prince Charles; information I’m sure that he is thrilled to know.

Similarities between the two regions do not end there: the principle industry of Asturias was, for many years, coal-mining, though in my own experience and research I have found no evidence of large groups of ruddy-cheeked, blazer-clad men singing harmonious laments to unrequited love and seaweed.

But viva la differencia or, as they say in Asturias, “Are you suggesting my uncle’s mule?” *

Another common thread can be identified by taking a look at some of the regions’ national dishes. I’m sure you’ll all know about Welsh Rarebit, the wholesome staple of cheese on toast, but did you know that the traditional recipe also contains beer or, to be more precise, ale? Sure enough, a few tablespoons of light ale can be added with mustard and washed down with the very beverage sourced for the food.

As for those Asturians, they moved things on a stage further by taking a leaf out of the Belgian’s book by sticking their food ingredients in the beer, in this case, cider. The regional dish Chorizo con Sidra is one that can be enjoyed at any time of the day as boiling the cider to half the volume evaporates the alcohol. I wouldn’t bother to recommend a drink to go with this dish – all you need is a hunk of bread to mop up the liquid.

Anyway, for your own delectation, why not try the following?

Chorizo con Sidra – Chorizo and Cider

You need:

Chorizo sausage
Medium sweet cider
A French loaf.

You need to:

Simply slice the chorizo into pieces 1cm – 1 ½ cm, you choose how many slices you need. Put the pieces in the pan and then cover with 3 parts volume of cider. Bring to the boil and then turn to a low heat. Simmer until the liquid has reduced by half. Ladle the contents into a bowl and, bread in hand, get cracking. Any residual liquid can be mopped up with the bread.

Que Bueno!

Welsh Rarebit – you’ll probably have most of the ingredients in your fridge anyway, so why the hell not?

You need:

Slice of toast
Grated cheese, cheddar / Edam. 100g
Milk, 1 tablespoons
Indian Pale Ale, 1tablespoons
English Mustard, 1tsp
1oz butter
Worcestershire Sauce – a splash

Simply put the cheese and milk in a saucepan and melt slowly over a low heat. Add a little salt and pepper and then add the butter and ale. When it is piping hot, pour it over the toast and place under the grill until browned. Add the Worcestershire & wash down with the ale!

Boyo Boy!

*  Check this.

 

 

Baby Duck and the Great British Wine Experiment

Gentlemen of a certain age, I’d like you to take a trip back in time. It’s Sunday morning and you’re probably in your teenage years.

Your parents are enjoying a late breakfast of marmalade on toast, muesli and yogurt-juice in the kitchen-extension. As they perch against the newly installed breakfast bar, de rigueur in the late 70s / early 80s, the quiet of the morning is disturbed only by the gentle radiophonic babblings of Noel Edmunds, as he broadcasts from Dingley Del; wise-cracking with celebrity guests and making prank telephone calls to an unsuspecting Great British public. Mum and Dad are scanning the various sections of the Sunday newspaper – or they are if they take a quality Sunday. If they take a middle-brow or tabloid, then Dad will probably be reading the main paper and Mum the colour supplement. In this case, you might want to subtract the breakfast bar from the scene, not to mention the muesli and yogurt juice. Some of you out there, and I know how you feel, might also need to remove one of the parents, probably the father, from the setting, too. I’m tempted to add that a neighbour’s older sibling might well be pummelling seven shades of sh*t out of you for some completely unknown reason, but decline to do so for fear of soiling the tranquil tableau we’ve just created.

What I’m driving towards here is the fact that, broadsheet or tabloid, you will at some stage have got your hands on the colour supplement, and thus will have found yourself flicking through the pages to find something worth looking at. Having found, and studied, the shower advertisement featuring a blonde lady, half-covered in soap suds and with her bottom tantalisingly appearing in view behind the lightly-steamed glass, you may well have disappeared with it to a private place for around 10 to 15 minutes before deciding whether or not to peruse the rest of the magazine. If you had read further, then you may well have found an article on food and possibly drink. The food would have covered anything from traditional British fare to Mediterranean, Indian, American or even Mexican cuisine. Any drink accompaniments would undoubtedly have been wine.

Some of you of a certain age might also remember, in those very pages, encountering an advertisement for a beverage called Baby Duck, a Canadian production described as ‘training wheels for drinkers.’ To this day, I’m still not sure about the wisdom of putting wheels and drink in the same advertising slogan but I think I can see what they were trying to do.

In 1979, the product, a light, sparkling wine of around 5% gravity, was launched in Britain to rival the world’s most popular wine, Mattheus of Portugal, a light effervescent Rosè sold in a fat, elongated bottle: the purpose of the British launch was to get Baby Duck on the UK’s collective dinner table, where it would be shared by adults and children; the intention being to establish the product as the world’s number one wine.

Our country was chosen because, although our understanding and appreciation of wine was considerably poorer in comparison to our European neighbours, this was a time when we really thought we’d like to try to give this wine drinking thing a go. Ironic that in trying to assimilate our habits to those of other cultures, we were hijacked by as limited a version of the real thing as was possible to find. As one of the men behind Baby Duck explained, the product was aimed at an ‘unsophisticated consumer, brought up on fizzy drinks like Coke and 7-Up’, leaving us in little doubt as to what the continental perception of British tastes was – and more often than not, still is.

Another facet of the sales strategy was that putting something like Baby Duck on our tables would make us more like the French; it would train adults, and help children to appreciate and respect wine from a young age. At the time, I’ve no doubt that this seemed like a good pitch, though you don’t have to be too much of a cynic to align it to the tactic of hooking kids onto fast food products before they can even read, thus guaranteeing a lifetime of brand loyalty. I’ve doubted, for a long time, the validity of the argument that says kids drinking watered-down wine at the age of five will ensure they won’t turn out to be washed-out addicts later in life, but let’s not go off on that tangent. 

Baby Duck actually appeared on my Sunday lunch table during my own childhood, particularly when we had visitors. Without wishing to condemn the product out of hand (as a thirteen year old, I liked drinking it, even though I’m not sure I actually liked it), I think we can all be just a little relieved that British tastes have evolved and that the range of wines now available to us proves that, even if you’ve been weaned on the trashiest, most sugar-saturated, carbonated swill, it doesn’t mean to say that your path’s been laid before you.

Baby Duck is still going strong in Canada, though I have no idea if is available in the UK. As I haven’t seen it on a British supermarket shelf for over 20 years, I think we can assume the experiment failed. Then again, if the idea was to turn us on to more sophisticated wines, then someone from the BD stable might claim it worked; a strange claim, to educate the tastes of others to the detriment of your own livelihood. All I can safely say is that I haven’t a seen a Baby Duck advert, nor one of those shower campaigns for a long time – not that I’ve been looking for either, of course.