Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Wilkommens and wursts

On the website it says that the food is the main draw at the Tiroler Hut, suggesting a veritable showcase of the best of Austrian fare. I’ll not be knocking the food AA Gill-style, but I would beg to differ – we all know why we’re here and the nosh ain’t it. For the best Austrian fare in the big smoke, I have heard that Kipferl does a mean bratwurst, and that Kurz & Lang is the only Austrian deli in London. If they are as much fun as the Tiroler Hut this city will be an ever-so-slightly happier place.

snow disco

So, recently, a large bundle of us hit the ‘Hut’. This kitsch, faux chalet-cum-basement is nestled into a mountainside in West London (ok, not quite a mountain – does the barely distinguishable undulation that is Notting Hill count?) Inside, you are greeted by the owner Joseph and his family-based team, clad in lederhosen and dirndls, barely showing the strain of chafing aforementioned leather shorts, bearing trays heaving with gargantuan steins of beer, bottles of Grüner Veltliner and Schnapps. You and they are complicit in one fact, knowing looks are exchanged: it is the party, the virtual après-ski that is the main event here, their chief draw and the main breadwinner - the food is surely secondary. The food is a punctuation mark, a driver’s airbag keeping this friendly establishment just this side of being a messy drinking hole, sponging up the alcohol intake of its clientele.

More bread, madam?

avocado vinaigrette

Anyhoo, this said, the menu is not too bad in places but it is a bit of a crevasse field, if we are going to continue with alpine analogies. We lost G at the first turn, at Champignons Tiroler Hut; just because the description says they’re served warm doesn’t mean they’ve been cooked, apparently. My avocado vinaigrette consisted of a whole pear, sliced and splayed roadkill-fashion on an iceberg lettuce, grey and bruised rather like it had been up and down a mountain or two (getting warm in someone’s backpack) before reaching my plate. Serves me right for ordering it suppose – there’s always a touch of Fawlty Towers about it.

Meat, however, is something they do really rather well: the Mir ist alles Wurst on PJ’s plate were salty and delicious – sizzling bits of sausages and gherkins – the thinking person’s approach to a starter and luckily for me, a pickle-fiend, he was happy for me to assist. You can, however, have too much of a good thing and to finish his main course would have required an appetite generated by several hard days on the slopes – a handbag-sized entrecote piled high with crisp golden onions was lowered into position before him. PJ put his head down and set to work, very quietly – this was going to take all his time and attention.

Mixed wurst 

Further down the table, through the towers of beer I saw that the BSG and James, his companion in most manly ‘eat-offs’, had chosen the platter of ‘lots of meat, etc…’to share between them. I am not even sure if the word ‘etc’ bothered either, let alone what it referred to but it certainly hadn’t appealed to me, displaying a distinct lack of knowledge – or interest – on the part of the kitchen as to what they included. However, it didn’t touch the sides or cause any problems.

I confess to being a creature of habit in this place (yes, we’ve really been here more than once) and am awfully fond of the crisp, salty schnitzel. It appeared that this particular night so was everyone else as ours has been cut in half, presumably to ensure they stretched as far as possible, an odd approach which made us feel more than a bit affronted, especially as they’d only done this to the girls - presumably because ladies eat less. El wrongo.

blue slopes

Our trip to the real mountains in Austria seems a long time ago now, but it was nice for us all to get together again – though this time we did refrain from dancing to EuroPop in ski-boots on the tables (it’s just what they do in St Anton – it’s almost rude not to…) The same hospitable display was extended to us everywhere we visited during our week there. Unlike ski-resort restaurants in France and Switzerland, those in Austria have successfully retained their culinary and cultural identity. Of course, on every menu there’s the ubiquitous spag bol but this is barely visible amongst offerings of wurst, pretzels, sauerkraut, schnitzel, spätzle and strudel – comforting and perfect for refuelling after a morning of more strenuous exercise than is taken the rest of the year. These dishes are delicious; little wonder the Austrians have safeguarded them against the invasion of the chip.

Speaking of delicious, our blue-eyed chalet man-host Ed was an absolute dab hand in the tiny kitchen he had at his disposal – we are just sorry we’d had to stop and sample the Austrian-style après ski on the way home each afternoon; I’m not sure we took full advantage of the tea and cake window. Every night he would turn out a few courses to a large, slightly-too-merry group all too fond of dancing on the furniture. Sorry Ed, we do remember your broccoli and bacon soup (strangely good), your amazing roast pork and the raspberry clafoutis amongst all the other lovely things you produced for us. Most of all, we remember swimming in those eyes…


Back in London, the views in this subterranean chalet are not quite as spectacular - unless you like a badly-painted alpine idyll behind a red gingham curtain - and we’d gladly have had the EuroPop (sadly the cowbell cabaret didn’t happen this visit as Joseph was absent, but Ricardo the singer was there) but my goodness we all had fun. Come to think of it, thank goodness there were no glazed windows; they would have shattered on the final, wobbly high-note of Ricardo’s rendition of ‘Delilah’. PJ, still soldiering away at the paving stone of meat before him, would have barely noticed.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Bouillabaisse, Bermondsey, BSG in the back seat…

Alarmed by the ‘chaos without the skill’ segment in my last post, having identified it as a plummet in my kitchen confidence the ever-supportive BSG has suggested that I be the skipper in the galley for the next week and he be the pot-washer. He has vowed not to do the back-seat cooking that lends him his name - nay, not even to set a toe over the threshold to interfere. I feel rather like the stunned co-pilot who has just been given the cockpit controls after many voyages comfortably assisting the captain. I am pretty sure I remember being a competent hand in this realm before the BSG days. We’ll see I guess…

These past few weeks I have been haunted by Bouillabaisse. Well…perhaps haunted is the wrong word – implying a ghoul of a dish long-dead with our forebears, lost and buried with the ages. Au contraire - I think I mean to say courted; this sun-kissed, vibrant, fishy flirt is still very much alive, making eyes at me from almost every menu I’ve deliberated over. It all started when one threw a proverbial wink at me from its copper pan at Arbutus, beguiling me with its aromas as it wafted seductively past us to the next table. Thus far I have not succumbed to its advances, but this is not through a lack of desire; what can I say, Bouillabaisse, it’s not you with your sunny connotations and your promise of rich flavours, it’s me. Everywhere you appear, you seem to be adorned with some variety of shell-dwelling creature, a food family which has recently lost my trust…was it that bug that’s going round, or those Moules Marinières? Either way, I am not sure I can risk another bout with a bi-valve until I get an allergy test, and I wouldn’t want that kind of last dance with a dish I revere quite so much as this seaside soup…

bouillabaisse books

The shadow of the crustaceal threat hasn’t stopped me ogling it at other tables or furtively thumbing though culinary volumes to get my fix via the other senses, dreaming up Sliding Doors-style alternative scenarios where I am happily chomping my way through a rouille-topped crouton, spoon in hand, a steaming bowl of coral-hued broth before me. Having never set foot in the town, I think it is fair to say that I have not tasted un vrai Bouillabaisse in the Marsellais sense, but I have had many dishes of the same name and based around the same elements (fish, stock, olive oil, saffron) which have led me to believe that I’d be a fan. In his 1967 book The French at Table, Raymond Oliver, a chef and French gastronome devotes an entire chapter to the seafood stew – a whopping 20 pages – and still concludes with eight variations on the recipe; an attempt, it seems, to please everyone he’d interviewed during his research. According to the author, the people of Marseilles are fiercely proud of their dish and despite the main ingredients universally agreed upon, the recipe varies from household to household – everyone he meets purports to cooking it in their fishing hut, even though he is sure that many have never chopped an onion, and most don’t have a fishing hut, let alone fish. This is however, relatively unimportant – the dish is simply part of their cultural identity, reflecting their geography and sociology.

There it was again, flashing a bit of leg at me the other night, throwing me headlong me into yet another Mediterranean reverie (perhaps I am going mad due to the unusually long winter). I was meeting a friend in the Garrison on Bermondsey Street, a part of London hitherto unfamiliar to me. The legend above the door reads: The Garrison Public House, but if you’re thinking of going there for a pint, a packet of pork-scratchings and the football I’d think again. Though I suppose it would fall into the category of gastropub this is very much a restaurant in a pub’s shell. And very pleasant it is too, for we were two girls having a good supper and a chat and we were delighted with our surroundings. Candlelight flickers against pale sage and duck-egg blue clapboard, mismatched wallpaper and bounces off brass ship’s lanterns, enamelled jugs and bric-a-brac – the Swiss Family Robinson must have sent the owners their design brief in a bottle (with a bit of Farrow & Ball thrown in for good measure). We sat at the open mouth of the kitchen, on a sort of communal table which, as I was early and had a few minutes to wait, was a rather exciting place to be (amazingly, we didn’t smell too much like our food at the end of the night). We had crusty hunks of homemade bread and unsalted French butter, following up with hearty dishes of slow-cooked beef brisket stew and guinea fowl and mushrooms – just right to keep the edge off the chill outside. Apparently they also do rather a good breakfast too (I’ll have to return for this to confirm or deny, but the presence of a few jars of marmite on the condiment shelf is a good start in my book). Tomatoey-rich, savoury stew on buttery mash: it provided the perfect foil to these bitter early-March nights. I’ll be bounding back to Bermondsey one of these days I should think.


As bouillabaisse is not so much a dish but a political manifesto I’m not sure I want to offend anyone by even displaying a recipe here. After all my confusing and contradictory findings on this fishy favourite, it seems right to share Elizabeth David’s (largely humorous) take on even attempting it:

1) It is useless attempting to make a bouillabaisse away from the shores of the Mediterranean. All sorts of variations can be and are devised in other parts of the world, but it would be foolish to pretend that these have more than a remote relationship to the true bouillabaisse.

2) The fish must be spanking fresh from the sea, and of diverse kinds. The rascasse (a local rockfish) is essential, and the fish is always served with its head. If langouste is included, this is cut in half lengthways and served in its shell. Mussels, if part of the bouillabaisse, are likewise left in their shells.

3) Olive oil and saffron are equally essential.

4) Furious boiling, so that the olive oil and water (or the wine if you are a heretic) amalgamate, is another absolute essential of the success of the dish.

5) The Toulonnais sometimes add potatoes (a practice which appals a Marseillais). The potatoes are best cut (raw) into thin rounds and added at the same time as the soft fish.

6) A bouillabaisse is not intended to be a soup.


Yikes – a culinary minefield – I think I’ll just leave it to the experts, whoever they are…

Monday, 8 March 2010

Fish and dips


Taking away the meat element from our diet in the last few days has meant that we look closer at our meals in terms of sources of different nutrients and components – for example, finding alternative sources of protein. The MFW (meat-free week) was a resounding success, and I do believe that a bit of the habit has lingered. Not such great news if you are a fish, perhaps – we have been eating a lot of those…We had Rick Stein’s Thai fishcakes with green beans last night and they were extraordinary, served alongside some broccoli stir-fried with ginger, soy sauce, garlic and chilli.

People get a bit funny about doing what they love. We have been watching Raymond Blanc’s new series on telly lately. For someone I previously thought was a monosyllabic restaurateur he transforms in the kitchen into a slightly unhinged, über-Frenchman, a caricature of the flamboyant, eccentric artist; these elements of organic chaos combined with obvious skill make for far better viewing than ‘The Restaurant’. It is a joy to watch because you know there is a genuine madcap enthusiasm there – this is exactly how I feel when I’m watching the BSG like a whirling dervish in our kitchen, adding and tasting and knowing exactly what he’ll be doing next. I am the chaos without the skill, with one exception, this dip, a perennial crowd-pleaser.

You need:

1 large or two smaller aubergines

Olive oil


1 garlic clove (optional, depending on who you’re impressing)

Flat leaf parsley

Fresh red chilli

Salt and pepper

Pitta bread and crudités to serve

Roast the aubergine whole in a hot oven (180 degrees) for 45 minutes or until soft to the touch and the skin has started to wrinkle. Peel away the skin and the stalk and discard. Mash the innards in a bowl with a good glug of olive oil, a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, the crushed garlic clove, a small handful of chopped parsley and a teaspoon of finely chopped red chilli (with the white bits removed).


All the above ingredients can be added to personal taste, but the whole process is best done whilst the aubergine is still warm and straight from the oven – it seems to absorb the flavours better. I suppose you could do it all in a food processor, but mashing it all and stirring is rather fun. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with warm toasted pitta bread fragments (give them a couple of goes in the toaster – monitored of course - so that they are crunchy and strong enough to take a good dollop of dip).

This is a fantastic and failsafe snack or pre-dinner eat, with a flavour that is both fresh and smoky. It is great with crudités too – especially cauliflower – for a really guilt-free chomp. This is well complimented by an anchoiade: an anchovy dip made with anchovies, red wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs.