A Wet Monday in Paris

IMG_5940

Paris; city of lurve and garlic butter…

The true essence of Paris is piss. It’s the smell of freedom. It’s the smell of every Frenchman’s right to use any pavement, any doorway, any alleyway to relieve himself. Heaven knows all those spaces are cleaner and more inviting than most public toilets in France.

Sometimes my view of Paris as somewhere romantic is tested; tested to within a micron of destruction. Today is one of those days. I’ve just got back to the apartment, rain-drenched pretty much from the waist down, my umbrella so sodden that the water had started to leak through it.

And Mondays are the days when Paris closes, to the extent that the blog Paris By Mouth lists restaurants open on a Monday because most aren’t. Of course it also mistakenly includes restaurants on that list that don’t open on a Monday, so one can walk across town in the rain to find the place is closed.

Then there are restaurant staff who take a certain delight in refusing you a table. Of course it’s understandable because they’re full. But how hard is it to show sympathy for people who have staggered in from the rain rather than indulging in a mixture of ennui and pleasure at being able to push them out the door again?

IMG_5942

Le Drapeau de la Fidelite

 

But at least Paris in the rain escapes briefly from the fug of urine that otherwise envelopes it. And, even in a Monday downpour, there are things that encourage forgiveness. Like yesterday’s discovery of a tiny but amazing Vietnamese restaurant run by a retired professor that does sublime food at student prices.

Cramped and book-lined, le Drapeau de la Fidélité served a porc au caramel on sticky rice drenched in gravy that was one of the best things I’ve eaten in an age, and a pho bo that is the most authentic and flavoursome I’ve had in Vietnam or elsewhere.

IMG_5946

It’s a bento Jules et Jim, but not as we know it…

It was so much better than the place we ate on Saturday night, Les Papilles somewhere I’d enjoyed on an earlier visit but that this time just seemed tired and over-priced. Much more rewarding was a return to Le Verre Vole au Mer on Rue Lancry, which did a ‘bento’ (not like any Bento that ever made it east of Strasbourg mind you) that was wholesome and tasty and down to earth. And I did drag S to Du Pain et Des Idees for indulgent escargots (of the pastry kind).

We also wandered into Le Comptoir General, down an alley on the east bank of the Canal St Martin in the 10th, the kind of creative and social space that one used to be able to find in the UK but which money and property developers have put paid to. These days one has to travel to Paris or Berlin to be reminded of what it was like growing up in a country where pretty much anything went and things were worth doing for reasons other than persuading city types to part with their cash in exchange for expensive food and drink.

But away from the better heeled parts of town, Paris seems on edge, far more than when I was here back in October before the attacks on the Bataclan and elsewhere. Around Les Halles we saw security guards moving on groups of young black Parisians and on the Metro I saw a group of black girls heading out shopping and was reminded of the excellent French film ‘Girlhood’ about a group of young black women trying without much success, to find a future in the banlieues.

I was also reminded of a conversation I’d had in Singapore in January with a black British academic at a conference on multiculturalism. My sense was that, in the UK, we’ve come a long, long way in the last thirty years when it comes to race, but I wanted to know how a person of colour felt because I suspect they would be far more aware of the dynamics.

‘All my daughter’s friends are mixed race,’ she told me, adding that she agreed that we have come a long way. And that’s why, when I see groups of young black Parisians hanging out, it’s really strikes me how poor integration seems to be here. If this was London there would be far fewer groups of all-white or all-black or all-Asian people. We are far more likely to hang out with people from other backgrounds; be friends, lovers, parents together, or be children of multicultural relationships.

My Londoner friends from minority backgrounds are adamant that they feel London is as much their city as anyone’s. And I feel much the same. London is a global city these days. It belongs to the world. Paris, and I suspect France, has opted for parallel existences rather than integration and I suspect the country will pay a price for it, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Anyhow it’s cheerfully back to England tomorrow, but having trawled through Leipzig, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris I have to say that it’s Berlin I’m keenest to revisit.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Real Cost of Paintballing

IMG_5692I took Luca paintballing yesterday. It was fun.

Delta Force has paintball centres across the UK. It’s clearly an efficiently run operation. Once you’ve contacted them they will stay on your case with calls or texted offers and one such caught my eye. Luca and I got a day’s play for a little over eight quid. That covered 50 paintballs each and protective gear.

However the business model is pretty clear. Once they’ve got you there you quickly realise that you won’t get very far on 50 paintballs and end up buying more at £7.99 per hundred. We were also persuaded to buy ‘protective’ gloves – frankly a bit of a waste of time and money. So the day ended up costing the best part of thirty-five pounds.

However these days that’s hardly atypical for a day out and we had, if you’ll forgive my choice of phrase, a blast.

And what a great business model it is, because you buy or rent a piece of woodland, drag in some old busses and taxis for a post apocalyptic London scene, old jeeps and wooden bunkers for a WWII scenario, source a few rubber zombie heads and a graveyard, or pile up old oil drums, and you have a whole host of different sets (or maps as they refer to them). Six maps, two games on each and a finale dubbed the ‘Hunger Games’ and that’s your day.

IMG_5695Capital investment seems minimal aside from the guns and protective clothing. The equipment is stored in lockable steel containers, the base camp buildings are timber and tin sheds. Blast out the A Team theme to create atmosphere and you’re ready to rock. There must have been a couple of hundred people there for the day.  That’s a good £3000 takings, and on a Friday.

But what really took the shine off for me were the conversations I had with the staff. They were all friendly and full of enthusiasm. They seemed to enjoy working there. But when I asked how much they were paid I was told they got the minimum wage.

Then I remembered that April 1 was the day the minimum wage became the living wage, going from £6.70 to £7.20 an hour. ‘Well at least you get a pay rise today,’ I said. They shook their heads.

‘That’s only for people over 25,’ they pointed out. Most of us are under 25. And so they were. Just £6.70 an hour or £5.30 if they’re under 21. It really isn’t a living wage in commuter belt Kent. ‘But if we promoted we get more,’ they said. An extra £5 if they become a senior marshal and an extra £10 if they make manager. Five and ten pounds extra an hour? No. Per Day. Pfffft.

I know there are plenty in the business community who will witter on about providing jobs. Bollocks. They’re not employment creation charities, they’re business people. They’re out to make money and some are happy to do it of the backs of young people they won’t even pay properly.

I had a chat during the election campaign with a local farmer who has a well-known pick-your-own operation but who also employs fruit pickers. I asked him how high a living wage could be set before he started having problems. ‘Ten pounds an hour,’ was his reply. Fruit picking is notoriously low margin. It’s hard work. It attracts lots of Eastern Europeans who get moaned about by people who wouldn’t get out of bed to pick fruit. And yet my friend reckons £9-10 an hour wouldn’t kill his business.

There was some research a while back by, I believe, the University of Chicago on the impact of introducing a living wage in the US. Some businesses, such as junk food outlets, would go under. But what was interesting was that they produced evidence that new businesses would take their place – not upmarket restaurants but similar operations targeting similar demographics. What changed was the business model.

The problem with incumbency is that it produces inertia. Likewise as companies grow they become increasingly flat-footed. They can’t be bothered to change and when they have to many of them find it laborious to push through decisions and new processes. The resistance to paying people properly is the response of the lazy and the greedy. But rather than do what’s right government has for too long done what is asked of it by wealthy vested interests.

A day’s work by a 20 year old is worth the same as a day’s work from a 40 year old. Fine, pay a bonus for experience if it counts, but most of these jobs have a short learning curve. Employers are just hiring bodies – and in the case of Delta Force young, energetic twenty year olds who can relate easily to the teenagers who come for a fun day out have essential skills that a 40 year old might have lost.

I doubt the owner of Delta Force loses much sleep over his treatment of his young workforce, but if any of you ever run into him or her do us all a favour and remind them of the fact that 85% of people in Britain think the Under 25s deserve a living wage. I’m absolutely one of them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cartoon is Mightier than the Keris

IMG_5068

Zunar’s cartoon of Mahathir pre-Iraq, 2003. Dr M had just rushed back from holiday, hence the camera, hat and Hawaiian shirt

My latest for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent:

A city like Kuala Lumpur changes a lot when you’ve been away eight years, but the Coliseum Cafe does not. A still centre in the whirlwind, it’s much the same as in colonial times when it was one of KL’s smarter hotels, the haunt of rubber planters and station officers, military men and tin towkays – or bosses. Of late its battered leather chairs have been reupholstered and there are new faces behind the bar but Mohammad Nor Khalid’s cartoons still hang on the walls from the days when he used to stop by.

His name might be unfamiliar to most Malaysians but mention LAT, his nom de plume, and almost every face from eight to 80 will light up. LAT has been chronicling Malaysian life since the early 1970s. His first book of cartoons, Kampung Boy, a deeply affectionate depiction of rural life through the lens of his own childhood, and his many others taught me much. But LAT’s real genius, and I do not use that word lightly, lies in his ability to say the unsayable about the issues of the day with a generous humour and an absence of malice.

Great cartoonists are great truth-tellers and, in a country like Malaysia where the truth is often unwelcome, telling it without getting slated is a real skill. It’s one LAT has in spades. Even the irascible former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was a fan, despite LAT capturing his grumpy impatience perfectly.

The other Malaysian cartoonist of whom I’m an admirer is rather less concerned about giving offence. I chatted recently with Zulkiflee Anwar UlHaque, better known as Zunar, as he flitted between London and New York drawing attention to the fact he’s been charged with sedition. One of his cartoons hangs on my wall at home – Mahathir in Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war – a day when I, as the only foreign journalist present, provided a convenient stand in while Mahathir berated the entire wicked western media. It’s my favourite souvenir of my time there.

Zunar is as spiky as LAT is emollient. His work is fuelled by anger and a burning sense of injustice at corruption in Malaysian public life. At times he has a viciousness worthy of a James Gillray or Thomas Nash, founding fathers of British and American political cartooning. And though Malaysia always offered the likes of Zunar plenty of targets, the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has proved something of a gift.

Mr.Najib is a thoroughbred political animal. His father was Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, his uncle the third. A mutual acquaintance claimed Mr Najib, an MP at 23 and premier since 2009, told him he felt as at home in Simpson’s-in-the-Strand – a rather fusty London restaurant – as on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I can well believe it. He was privately educated in England. His style and grooming hint at Saville Row and Jermyn Street, London’s sartorial heart. Indeed he appears as much the English gentleman as the Malay political princeling.

And as a gentleman I would of course take his word for it that he was in no way involved in the murder of a Mongolian model, linked to his former right hand man, nor with various procurement scandals during his tenure as defence minister. And then lately there’s the small matter of 700 million US dollars that allegedly ended up in his personal bank accounts that, Mr Najib maintains, came from donations and not from a deeply indebted state investment firm he chaired.

Mr Najib may be wholly innocent on all counts. The trouble is that a growing number of Malaysians, including some in his own party, have their doubts. Zunar has been merciless. So merciless his books have been banned. But rather than charge him over his cartoons, he’s to be tried over social media posts accusing Malaysian judges of corruption. It’s a common allegation but prosecutions are rare. I ask him if he’d appear in court to answer the charges. ‘Of course,’ he replies before heading back to face up to 43 years behind bars. That’s the price one pays in Malaysia for daring to pull the tiger’s tail.

As we while away a sultry Kuala Lumpur evening over a curry, swaddled by the heat, my old friends talk of little else but Mr Najib. They fear for the relaxed, inclusive, multicultural, Malaysia they love. They blame the Prime Minister and his woes for the growing reach of Islamic fundamentalists, the religious police and far-right thugs. And with a sweeping new security law giving Mr Najib unprecedented powers now, more than ever, Malaysia needs its truth tellers to illuminate the way – among them LAT with the feather end of the quill, Zunar with its point.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prawn, Avocado and Watercress Salad

IMG_5046Another day, another recipe.

I have a bit of a dilemma. I tend to use cooking for others as a love/nurture thing. But, especially at this time of year, that can mean stodge, carbs and comfort food.

But that just risks ensuring that love and nurture equates with feeding someone up until they turn into Miss Piggy. This is not the way forward. Love and nurture doesn’t have to be unhealthy. And so I have resolved to explore more salads.

I think this one originally popped up in The Graun and I’ve always liked it. The interplay between the watercress, avocado and the lime juice and yoghurt dressing is great. I’ve adapted it very slightly, partly to make it a little more indulgent. But not much.

It’s this simple. Find a nice fresh bunch of watercress, pull out and woody stalks, soak in cold water to refresh and then wash and dry. Peel and slice a couple of small ripe avocados or one large one.

IMG_5042Grab a generous handful of prawns. I prefer unshelled tiger prawns. These I fry with butter and chopped garlic and then, when they’re almost ready, tossing in some brandy and flaming them.

 

Combine the prawns, watercress and avocado in a bowl and make a quick dressing from natural yoghurt and lime juice. A little of the zest would add more limeyness.  A splash of tabasco would also give things and additional kick if you like things a little spicy. Season to taste.

IMG_5044

I’m hopeful that a nice salad says ‘I love you’ just as much as, for instance, a huge tiramisu…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smoked Cauliflower Soup

IMG_5050There are some meals that just linger in the memory. One such I ate in Paris a couple of years ago with a friend. We’d booked ourselves into Les Papilles on Rue Gay-Lussac. It operates a single menu. You get a set four courses, no choice.

I remember it vividly not least if was one of the first times I’d eaten meat in years. The duck that constituted our second course seemed oddly chewy and hard work, if artfully done. I had no point of comparison and I’m told that the French like to chew hard on duck. Apparently. Then there was a sublime piece of Roquefort served with a prune cooked, I believe, in port that served as a perfect counterpoint and which I tried to recreate subsequently if not as well, and finally a passion fruit panna cotta that was… nice. However the first dish was revelatory; a cauliflower soup that transcended mere soupiness. It was simply the best soup I’ve ever eaten.

I had a first go at doing something similar a few weeks back and added parmesan to roasted cauliflower soup which simply produced an effect not unlike liquid cauliflower cheese. It was OK. No more.

So the other day I had a second go. I conferred with my dining partner and we agreed that smokiness was the thing, she recommending smoked bacon or bonito.

IMG_5049So I set about building proper smokiness  into the soup. That meant roasting the cauliflower over an open fire. This is preferably best done over embers rather than flames so I set up a trivet and turned it a couple of times. It was charred a tad more than I’d have liked (as you can see there were flames) but not so badly that I wanted to lose the blackened bits. Then I cut up the cauli- head, tossed it in olive oil and popped it in the fan oven at 160C (180C conventional).

While that was doing I gently fried some smoked bacon lardons in butter in a pan to release the fat, chopped up a shallot, added it to the bacon and when the cauliflower was more or less done popped it in with the shallots and with three medium small potatoes all sliced up. To these I added a quarter to a half teaspoon of smoked paprika (the sweet rather than the hot one).

After these had very slightly browned I poured in the stock; I’d added chicken concentrate (stock-pot) to boiling water and roughly chopped an onion, carrot and a stick of celery and tossed those in to boot and left it all to simmer.

Finally I blended it and added creme fraiche. It was pretty damn good. As good as the soup at Les Papilles as remembered at a remove of two years? Hmmmmm, not quite. There was something elusively wonderful about that soup, but this one was pretty damn good.

So what would I do to improve it? Well it was a little to thick for my taste so less potato and possibly some milk. I’d also consider sieving it to make it silkier. I’d roast the cauliflower slightly more carefully over the fire so it cooked rather than blackened. I might experiment with a splash of truffle oil. And if I had veggie dining companions I’d happily dump the bacon and use purely vegetable stock though I might add more butter for richness.

Ingredients:

1 medium head cauliflower

1 shallot

1 medium potato

butter

smoked bacon lardons or similar

1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 stick celery for stock + chicken or vege stock (cube, gel, powder or liquid) or make fresh.

creme fraiche

salt, pepper

smoked paprika

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Passing of Seasons

IMG_5905 (2)One of the things I missed about England when I was in SE Asia was the passage of time marked out in seasons. Malaysia was one long, deathless summer. Everything was constantly green. The only change was the coming of the rains. From November until January, with a regularity that would have impressed John Harrison, the rain would begin at four, cry its heart out for an hour, and finish at five.

It doesn’t seem to be much discussed but I’m intrigued by the effect that seasons, or the lack of them have on culture.

I’m not just talking about culture in the sense of the arts. We barely need reminding of Vivaldi and Keats or of Monet or Bruegel.

I’m interested in how seasons shape the way we think, feel, act, because what they do in microcosm is remind us of the cycle of birth, life and death, that we have a beginning and an end just as the seasons do.

In being able to count out the passing years do we gain a sense of urgency?  Does the brevity of summer high in the northern hemisphere remind us that life is short and that we must act now if we’re to do anything with what we have? Does the lack of seasons subtract that same sense of urgency from life in the tropics?

There are plenty of counter arguments; that Angkor and Calakmul arose close to the equator, that northern European Protestantism drove development and industrialisation rather than hard winters and the need to keep busy to keep warm.

Perhaps it’s just this time of year and my time of life, that I feel time speeding up and autumn coming round again with all too little to show for another year.

In my next post I’ll consider the role that whisky has played in fuelling melancholy writing…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Bestest Ever Fish Pie Recipe

IMG_7443Fish pie! It’s comfort food pure and simple. There’s nothing very elegant about fish pie. You can make individual ones and serve them up in individual oven-to-table bowls. That’ll give you an authentic pub-kitchen look. Or to can just say ‘bugger it’, make a large dish and slop it out onto a plate.

If you do that you’ll have to put up with the fact that it tends to look awful; a splodge of potato and a spew of fishy sauce. But it tastes great. No nouvelle cuisine chef ever attempted fish pie, unless it was to produce something ironically post-modern, that needed to be examined with a microscope and popped on the tip of one’s tongue. Voila!

This is home cooking where no one waits around while they contemplate ‘presentation’. You simply can’t dress this one up.

But comfort food is too often a little bland and fish pie, which is essentially fish in white sauce topped with potato, risks being very bland.

So flavouring is everything. But you have to be careful because it’s so easy to overpower the fish. So rather than go overboard with herbs or spices I prefer to point up fishy flavours.

I reckon Felicity Cloake’s ‘perfect fish pie’ recipe in the Graun is a good starting point. But it’s not there for me. So let me offer my small twist on this.

Quantities for two (generous) portions:

500g potatoes, variety according to whether you like them mashed or scalloped
25g butter
Splash of milk

Salt /pepper
250ml vegetable stock
100ml (dry) cider or white wine
Small bunch of parsley, divided into leaves and stalks
400g fish fillets – smoked haddock/cod/salmon
200g whole, shell-on tiger prawns
40g butter
25g plain flour
100ml double cream
2 anchovies, finely chopped
Handful of white breadcrumbs

Grated Parmesan or Pecorino

There are three distinct stages – potato topping, fish, sauce.

Potato first. I went with mashed in which case it’s just a case of steaming the potato until cooked and mashing it with a big knob of butter and some milk. Salt and pepper here work well. The alternative is to steam the potatoes until almost done, slice them into scallops and put them to one side so you can arrange them on top of the pie later.

Then the sauce. This is the key bit; take the heads and shells off the tiger prawns and throw them into a non-stick pan with the butter. It’s the prawn shells that give the dish its sumptuous flavour. When they’ve been properly cooked add the cider (or wine), parsley stalks (having pulled off and reserved the leaves) and the stock and reduce a little. I should stress that I use my father’s unpasteurised cider, made from Bramleys, Arthur Turners and a few other varieties (Tom Putt, Michelin, Blenheim Orange) thrown in. Sweet commercial cider might not work very well. If in doubt try a dry white wine.

Next strain the liquor, throwing away all the prawny bits and keeping the liquid. To the liquid add the fish, cubed, and prawns and cook for five minutes. Use a slotted spoon, take out the fish and prawns and put them to one side, ideally in the dish the pie will be cooked in.

IMG_7446Then make a roux with 25g of butter, the anchovies and an equal amount of flour and gradually add to it the liquor from the prawns and fish. When that is all mixed in (and don’t forget to add the juices that have drained from the fish) add the cream, the parsley leaves, salt and pepper. You could add a pinch of cayenne or chilli but go easy. The main flavours of this dish should be the prawn stock sauce and the smoked fish.

Tip the sauce over the fish and then put the mashed potato on top. If you’re using scalloped potatoes toss them in olive oil or melted butter first and pepper them, then arrange them hither and thither over the top. Put it in the oven at 180C for 35 minutes (stepping in with 10 or 15 minutes to go to add blended cheese and breadcrumbs).

I reckon serve with a salad or broccoli, something green for Pete’s sakes, to take the edge off the brownness. Oh, and try not to look at it too much… just eat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment