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Archive for December, 2009

It’s the big one

Lasers see in the Bells at Edinburgh's Hogmanay street party

Lasers see in the Bells at Edinburgh's Hogmanay street party

Not everybody likes Hogmanay but those who don't would probably change their minds if they realised that they were in the same camp as Michael Winner. In today's Mail, he moans fluently about the ghastliness of having to see in yet another New Year in the champagne-soaked horror of the five star Sandy Lane resort in the Caribbean. It's worth reading if only to see just how many names he can drop in the course of three paragraphs. I gave up when he hit triple figures.

Anyway, now that's off my chest, today's much more important topic is hangovers and how to avoid the beasts or, if they can't be avoided, how to get over them as quickly as possible. Obviously, the best way to dodge them is to drink in moderation but, even with the best will in the world, many of us will still be waking up with faces stuck to the pillow tomorrow morning.

Sticking to clear drinks helps minimise the pain as does having a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage although I suspect that the latter only works because you spend more time in the loo than with a glass in hand. I'm not sure that lining the stomach helps stop a hangover. In my own bitter experience, it simply slows down the rate at which the alcohol takes effect but it will still get you in the end.

If the night before hasn't been quite as sensible as planned then what can be done? In the early years of their careers, medic friends would hook up hungover colleagues to a saline drip and hand them the oxygen mask. Apparently, the effects were like watching the dead come back to life.

Dehydration is one of the major causes of a hangover and your body finds it hard to absorb fluids when you are hungover so simply drinking gallons of water won't help as much as you hope. An IV drip gets all that liquid goodness into the system much more effectively.

Assuming that you don't have access to medical equipment and staff then your options become more mundane and, regrettably, less effective. Here are my top hangover tips. They don't cure it, nothing does, but they help.

If you can manage them then a pint of water and a couple of paracetamol (not aspirin 'cos they can irritate your stomach) before crashing out will help. If you get up in the night to get rid of that last pint of water then try and force another one down. When you first wake in the morning, drink some more water, pop another paracetamol and go back to sleep. Ideally, you repeat this pattern until you feel human but be careful not to OD on the paracetamol as liver damage isn't much fun either.

If work, family or an emergency such as a house fire forces you from your scratcher then eat comfort food. Chicken soup, bacon butties, hot buttered toast will all make you feel better. Avoid coffee and don't have a hair of the dog because that makes people think you have a drinking problem; even if it's just a little breakfast Baileys. I find that watching Aliens helps but this is a purely personal preference.

Here's wishing you all a Happy New Year and a clear head tomorrow morning.

Beer belly buster

For reasons which my long-suffering belt makes clear, this Telegraph story about male corsets caught my eye. They launch in Marks and Sparks on January 7, a date which I imagine will also be a busy time for gym induction courses.

Room 101

Greg Wallace: face of fun or face of evil?

Greg Wallace: face of fun or face of evil?

As ever, The Guardian's Word of Mouth blog makes for entertaining reading with this entry about the worst food trends of the Noughties. I'm with Mr Majumdar on the proliferation of tapas but think he is being a little Scrooge-like with some of his other pet hates. Masterchef has become rather repetitive as the TV execs milk the formula to death but it's a million miles better than the sneering, snobbish tone of Come Dine With Me.

Apart from Come Dine With Me, if I could sling any food trend into the dustbin of history then paying a separate charge for veg would be fairly near the top of the list. Restaurateurs would argue that it's a way of improving customer choice. I say that the chef should have the confidence to serve the appropriate accompaniments with the centrepiece of each dish and charge accordingly.

Next up would be rubbish food scares and over-hyping miracle foods. Eating a bacon sarnie won't kill you just as eating acai berries won't make you live forever. I understand the need to sell newspapers and the temptation to polish up a story but a little perspective would be appreciated.

My other pet hate is overly fancy crockery in restaurants that haven't thought it through. Good restaurants sometimes have unusual plates and bowls because they suit the food that they contain either by keeping it warm for longer or making it easier to eat. That they sometimes look striking is a bonus. Less thoughtful restaurants use eye-catching crockery because they are aping Michelin joints. The result is food that is hard to eat and which looks like one of the Ugly Sisters' hoofs forced into Cinderella's slipper.

OK, grouch over but what food trends would you like to bung in your restaurant room 101?

What’s next on the plate?

Whoopie pies: the next big thing?

Whoopie pies: the next big thing?

Now that the Noughties are drawing to a close, it's time to try and guess what might happen on the food front in the Teenies. Naturally, the papers are already full of confident predictions as to what might be on the menu over the coming decade. According to The Observer, whoopie pie is going to be the next big thing. It sounds fun but it's perhaps not the sort of revelation that would have had the editor shouting for the printing presses to stop and pages one to four to be cleared.

The Times has come out with a very wide ranging set of predictions here. I liked the ambition of number thirteen which seems to predict the fully automated dinner party: “Organise a dinner party on Facebook — your radio-tagged fridge, which knows its contents, will order from Ocado, and the robot maid will do the rest.” And squadrons of flying pigs might just be spotted against the backdrop of a blue moon.

As an enthusiastic but rarely successful punter on the horses, I know that predicting the future will almost always come back to haunt you. However, the following trends are my guesstimates as to what the next few years may hold.

1) The recession will end but more and more value for money restaurants will continue to open long after unemployment falls back and house prices stabilise. Bling interiors, luxury ingredients and big bills are off menu for a while yet.

2) Linked to number one will be a continued interest in nose to tail eating. You might need a medical dictionary to decipher the menu but every meal time will be an adventure.

3) Linked to one and two will be a surge of restaurants that flaunt their green credentials. Reduced waste, low energy consumption, sustainable sourcing and clearly displayed corporate social responsibility statements will be the buzz concepts.

4) Expect the government to become a lot more involved in the way that restaurateurs run their businesses. We're talking calories counts on menus, increased alcohol policing and outright bans on ingredients which are deemed harmful such as trans fats.

5) There will be some deep thinking about GM foods. Can an increasing population afford not to consider GM crops or meat grown in vitro?

6) On a much lighter note, the pop-up trend looks set to take off in Scotland. Barca in Glasgow's Princes Square is currently hosting a pop-up cava bar. Plenty more will follow.

7) Without suggesting that there will be an outbreak of communal living and yoghurt-knitting, there will be a flurry of interest in shared meals. Think communal tables in restaurants and large joints of meat to share.

8) Celebrity chefs will have to fight hard for air time in the face of more and more reality cooking shows.

9) This one is more of a personal and probably doomed wish than a prediction but I would love to see an end to the tapas craze. Once more, images of flying pigs are crossing my mind's eye.

What food trends do you think will characterise the Teenies? What would you like to happen on the restaurant front?

So you think you know your onions?

If the telly has lost its allure and you just can't face the sales, then have a bash at Caterer's 2009 quiz. It's a cheeky little number that should have you giggling no matter how many of the questions you can answer.

Myrrh made beer

Cauld Reekie: winner of the mostly aptly named beer award

Cauld Reekie: winner of the mostly aptly named beer award

So, how was your Christmas? Mine was a little more white than I might have liked. You know that you are no longer a spring chicken when you look out the window at drifting snow and, instead of thinking 'Yay! Snowballs/sledging/snowmen', your first thought is 'Uh oh, driving home is going to be a nightmare.'

Anyway, it was fab fun although it does feel as though I have eaten nothing but cake and meat for five days. Post-Christmas is the one time of the year when I actually crave vegetables.

Anyway, as I try to get match fit for Thursday's shenanigans, I came across this timely story in The Telegraph about myrrh. Apparently the resin from the Middle East can help lower cholesterol; potentially useful if you have just broken your family's record for eating the most pigs in a blanket at one sitting.

In the run-up to Christmas, I met Jo Stewart who runs Edinburgh's Stewart Brewery with her husband Steven. Along with their usual range of brews, the Stewarts produced a couple of Christmas beers: the splendidly named Cauld Reekie and another called Three Wise Men.

The original idea for the Three Wise Men was to make it from Styrian goldings, frankincense and myrrh to mimick the gifts that the Biblical three wise men were said to have taken to the stable. It seemed like a great idea for a beer and one that could have plenty of marketing potential. Unfortunately, it fell at the first hurdle when Jo tried a little myrrh in a cup of tea and thought it vile.

There are no such problems with their St Giles, Embra and Edinburgh Gold beers which have recently become available in 330ml bottles.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-12-27

The apotheosis of toasted cheese?

Ok, here is my Xmas present to 5pm blog readers.
This is, IMHO, one of the finest pieces of food writing but to my knowledge it has never been anthologised. (Let me know if I am wrong!)
It comes from Samuel Beckett's novel, "More pricks than kicks". Secondhand copies can be got cheaply from Amazon.


Ronnie Somerville, (5pm Heid Cook & Bottlewasher)

"Lunch to come off at all, was a very nice affair. If his lunch was to be enjoyable, and it could be very enjoyable indeed, he must be left in absolute tranquility to prepare it. But if he were disturbed now, if some brisk tattler were to come bouncing in now with a big idea or a petition, he might just as well not eat at all, for the food would turn to bittemess on his palate or, worse again, taste of nothing. He must be left strictly alone, he must have complete quiet and privacy to prepare the food for his lunch.

The first thing to do was to lock the door. Now nobody could come at him. He deployed an old Herald and smoothed it out on the table. The rather handsome face of McCabe the assassin stared up at him. Then he lit the gas ring and unhooked the square flat toaster, asbestos grill, from its nail and set it precisely on the flame. He found he had to lower the flame. Toast must not on any account be be done too rapidly. For bread to be toasted as it ought, through and through, it must be done on a mild steady flame. Otherwise you only charred the outsides and left the pith as sodden as before. If there was one thing he abominated more than another it was to feel his teeth meet in a bathos of pith and dough. And it was so easy to do the thing properly. So, he thought, having regulated the flow and adjusted the grill, by the time by the time I have the bread cut that will be just right. Now the long barrel loaf came out of its biscuit-tin and had its end evened off on the face of McCabe. Two inexorable drives with the bread saw and a pair of neat rounds of raw bread, the main elements of his meal, lay before him , awaiting his pleasure. The stump of the loaf went back into prison, the crumbs, as though there were no such thing as a sparrow in the wide world, were swept in a fever away, and the slices snatched up and carried to the grill. All these preliminaries were very hasty and impersonal.
It was now that real skill began to be required, it was at this point that the average person began to make a bash of the entire proceedings. He laid his cheek against the soft of the bread, it was spongy and warm, alive. But he would very soon take that plush feel off it, by God but he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face. He lowered the gas a suspicion and plaqued one flabby slab plump down on the glowing fabric, but very pat and precise, so that the whole resembled the Japanese flag. Then on top, there not being room for the two to do evenly side by side, and if you did not do them evenly you might just as well save yourself the trouble of doing them at all, the other round was set to warm. When the first candidate was done, which was only when it was black through and through, it changed places with its comrade, so that now it in its turn lay on top, done to a dead end, black and smoking, waiting till as much could be said of the other.

For the tiller of the field the thing was simple, he had it from his mother. The spots were Cain with his truss of thorns, dispossessed, cursed from the earth, fugitive and vagabond. The moon was that countenance fallen and branded, seared with the first stigma of God's pity, that an outcast might not die quickly. It was a mix-up in the mind of the tiller, but that did not matter. It had been good enough for his mother, it was good enough for him.

Belacqua on his knees before the flame, poring over the grill, controlled every phase of the broiling. It took time, but if a thing was worth doing at all it was worth doing well, that was a true saying. Long before the end the room was full of smoke and the reek of burning. He switched off the gas, when all that human care and skill could do had been done, and restored the toaster to its nail. This was an act of dilapidation, for it seared a great weal in the paper. This was hooliganism pure and simple. What the hell did he care? Was it his wall? The same hopeless paper had been there fifty years. it was livid with age. It could not be disimproved.

Next a thick paste of Savora, salt and Cayenne on each round, were worked in while the pores were still open with the heat. No butter, God forbid, just a good forment of mustard and salt and pepper on each round. Butter was a blunder, it made the toast soggy. Buttered toast was all right for Senior Fellows and Salvationists, for such as had nothing but false teeth in their heads. It was no good at all to a fairly strong young rose like Belacqua. This meal that he was at such pains to make ready, he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs. Then the anguish of pungency, the pang of the spices, as each mouthful died, scorching his palate, bringing tears.

But he was not yet all set, there was yet much to be done. He had burnt his offering, he had not fully dressed it. Yes, he had put the horse behind the tumbrel. He clapped the toasted rounds together, he brought them smartly together like cymbals, they clave the one to the other on the viscid salve of Savora. Then he wrapped them up for the time being in any old sheet of paper. Then he made himself ready for the road.

Now the great thing was to avoid being accosted. To be stopped at this stage and have conversational nuisance committed all over him would be a disaster. His whole being was straining forward towards the joy in store. If he were accosted now he might just as well fling his lunch into the gutter and walk straight back home. Sometimes hunger, more of mind, I need scarcely say, than of body, for this meal amounted to such a frenzy that he would not have hesitated to strike any man rash enough to buttonhole and baulk him, he would have shouldered him out of his path without ceremony. Woe betide the meddler who crossed him when his mind was really set on this meal.

He threaded his way rapidly, his head bowed, through a familiar labyrinth of lanes and suddenly dived into a little family grocery. In the shop they were not surprised. Most days, about this hour, he shot in off the street in this way.

The slab of cheese was prepared. Separated since morning from the piece, it was only waiting for Belacqua to call and take it. Gorgonzola cheese. He knew a man who came from Gorgonzola, his name was Angelo. He had been born in Nice but all his youth had been spent in Gorgonzola. He knew where to look for it. Every day it was there, in the same corner, waiting to he called for. They were very decent obliging people.

He looked sceptically at the cut of cheese. He turned it over on its back to see was the other side any better. The other side was worse. They had laid it better side up, they had practised that little deception. Who shall blame them? He rubbed it. It was sweating. That was something. He stooped and smelt it. A faint fragrance of corruption. What good was that? He didn't want fragrance, he wasn't a bloody gourmet, he wanted a good stench. What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.
He looked fiercely at the grocer.
'What's that?' he demanded.
The grocer writhed.
'Well?' demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, 'is that the best you can do?'
'In the length and breadth of Dublin' said the grocer 'you won't find a rottener bit this minute.'
Belacqua was furious. The. impudent dogsbody, for two pins he would assault him.
'It won't do' he cried, 'do you hear me, it won't do at all. I won't have it.' He ground his teeth.
The grocer, instead of simply washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his arms in a wild crucified gesture of supplication. Sullenly Belacqua undid his packet and slipped the cadaverous tablet of cheese between the hard cold black boards of the toast. He stumped to the door where he whirled round however.
'You heard me?' he cried.
'Sir' said the grocer. This was not a question, nor yet an expression of acquiescence. The tone in which it was let fall made it quite impossible to know what was in the man's mind. It was a most ingenious riposte.
'I tell you' said Belacqua with great heat, 'this won't do at all. If vou can't do better than this' he raised the hand that held the packet 'I shall be obliged to go for my cheese elsewhere. Do you mark me?'
'Sir' said the grocer.


Belacqua drew near to the school, quite happy, for all had gone swimmingly. The lunch had been a noticeable success, it would abide as a standard in his mind. indeed he could not imagine its ever being superseded. And such a pale soapy piece of cheese to prove so strong! He must only conclude that he had been abusing himself all these years in relating the strength of cheese directly to its, greenness. We live and learn, that was a true saying. Also his teeth and jaws had been in heaven, splinters of vanquished toast spraying forth at each gnash. It was like eating glass. His mouth burned and ached with the exploit."

Odds and bobs

Look into my eyes. You will have today's special.

Look into my eyes. You will have today's special.

Righto, that's me signing off until Monday but, before I go and stretch my waistband, here's a couple of curios which have nothing to do with Christmas.

First up is the question of restaurant psychology. When you order in a restaurant, you decide what you are going to eat, don't you? Well, not according to this article in The Independent which seems to reckon that restaurateurs have the kind of mind powers that Derren Brown would envy. The article is based on a book called Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) by the American author William Poundstone.

The gist of the article is that by careful menu presentation and canny pricing, restaurateurs can manipulate customers into choosing the menu items that deliver most profit. Some of it, such as offering three different portion sizes to increase sales of the middle sized choice, makes sense. Some of the other theories seem to assume that customers close down their brains when they open a menu. If this tickles your interest then there is more here courtesy of the National Restaurant Association of America. Beware, it contains phrases such as 'continuum of appeal' which sounds as though it may be a Dr Who episode.

On a more light-hearted note, fancy some snail caviar?

I'll see you on the other side. Have a great Christmas.

Festive newbie

While most of us are contemplating a festive snooze in front of the telly, some restaurateurs have been working flat out to get their shiny new pleasure palaces open before Christmas. Most in keeping with the spirit of the season is Ingram Wynd, a new venture in the Merchant City whose Victorian theme means it would not seem entirely out of place in a Dickens' novel.

Game 'pye' with suet dumplings, Cullen skink and a high tea menu are all the sort of menu choices that wouldn't have phased Little Bob Cratchit. Although some of the choices, such as the saddle of rabbit stuffed with haggis, show a slightly more modern twist.

Prints of old Glasgow, a collection of antique teaspoons and a fine selection of parlour palms help create the illusion that you just might have slipped through a hole in the space/time vortex and gone back 150 years.

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