My tome, over a year in the making, is nearly finished, you can pre-order a copy here (out Spring 2011)
Anyway, like self build furniture there’s always bits and bobs left over when writing a book. So some of them I’ve scrapped together here for your hopeful enjoyment.
When things go wrong
I’ve had to send things back, a very well done steak when I asked for it rare, a fondant potato that was rock solid in the centre, cold soup, funny tasting wine. I once found a small piece of cling film in a Eccles cake at a well respected London eatery, and in another pub restaurant run by a friend of a friend I broke a home-made biscuit from the cheese board in two to find a hair sticking out. A straight hair thankfully, if one can be thankful for finding a hair at all in ones food.
This happened again in a pizza restaurant in Islington, only this time I found out too late. I can’t tell you how gag inducing a pizza crust with a long hair in it is when wrapped around your back teeth like a dental floss.
In all these cases my default position is that kitchens and restaurants are staffed by human beings, and we all make mistakes. I find assuming a neutral matter-of-fact position rather than either a meek excuse me, or a booming Michael Winner style allows space for the staff to correct the error. Hectoring staff into a corner does no one any favours. However if you’ve given them ample chance to correct matters and you’re still not happy, vent your spleen before taking your stomach and wallet elsewhere. You should pay for what you’ve eaten and drunk up to that point however, excluding the offending article, but most resaturant managers at this point probably just want you out.
You should feed back to staff however. Diners do themselves and the venue a disservice by not voicing complaints, comments and observations at the time, only to screech invective into the internet when they get home , “We sat there for an hour” comments help no one, you’re not strapped into the chair. Someone once told me that Michael Winner takes his napkin in his hand (he only eats in the sort of places that have large cloth ones), raises his arm and twirls it around his head. You’d be amazed how quickly waiters come rushing.
Of course different rules apply when eating at friends or acquaintances homes. I’ve been to lunches that didn’t start till 5 pm due to ban planning, by which time everyone’s starving or drunk or both. Other times the food laid on has been ‘near’, as my mother-in-law would say, meaning a stop of at the chip shop on the way home. Maybe I’m just a glutton, but when you invite people over and they bring a bottle, at least send them home full.
I’ve not got a 100% record in the kitchen either mind. I’ve had chicken thighs not cook properly – a swift apology and back in the oven with them is the best response. And I once spent an age making falafels from scratch only for them to hit the hot oil and disintegrate leaving me with a chickpea silt at the bottom of the pan. When things like this happen, send out more bread. Good bread and butter is your dinner party safety net.
But without doubt the worse meal I ever had was years ago in Budapest. The guidebook said something along the lines of ’see Budapest before it becomes just another capital city of a western European social democracy’. My advice would be give it a few more years… and go in the spring. I thought I’d be safe in a Belgian place, how wrong I was. Hungary being a landlocked country the mussels were always going to be a risk. Small, over cooked and nothing like the plump almost milky ones I’ve experienced in Brussels. But worse was the snail starter. Now I love snails, they’re great with loads of garlic butter, perhaps it’s a Walloon tradition, but snails don’t work so well in a mushroom sauce. Why? Well they’re both grey and a bit slimy, and the later ends up making the former taste tough by virtue of association. Worse was the hideous presentation though, carved nipples of raw carrot and strips of red onion forming some sort of semicolon on the plate, alternate lemon and red pepper slices held firm by some cold mashed swede, and the dusting of dry week-old parsley. I paid up, slithered out and didn’t leave a tip.