03 November, 2008

treats for me

And why, you ask reasonably, did I need a treat? Because really, a child's birthday is on some level a thank-you to the mother! Or it should be. So I determined that I would begin writing my next book chapter TOMORROW, definitely, and spend the day in Notting Hill, bumming around, just for me. And it was a good plan.

I had a long talk with Louise on the way about the book she wanted me to look for at my beloved Books for Cooks, and arrived there on the misty lunchtime day to find it is... closed on Mondays! How frustrating. But it did leave me with 45 minutes or so to bum around Portobello Road and its environs, finding The Spice Shop open for lemon grass and something called "lemon salt" which will be very nice in a simple salad dressing.

Then to the generally unaffordable but GORGEOUS Grocer on Elgin where everything is packaged in a way that makes you sit up and beg: I bought, purely on spec, chicken wings in garlic, honey and chili, vacuum packed to die for. And I bought a tub of basil mayonnaise, although I could easily make it myself, because, you said it, the packaging was so appealing. And dear readers, in case you think I am not budget-conscious, I saw beetroot pesto, but did not buy it at 6 pounds 50 for a small container! Dear me. I can definitely make THAT at home.

Into the Portobello food market proper, and I was completely sidetracked by a display of real strawberries, an aroma to die for, red all the way through: although Belgian, of course. So I initiated a discussion with the stall owner about... one's carbon footprint. I am very much of two minds on this subject of seasonality: of course I enjoy English strawberries in June more than I do any other strawberries at any other time of year. But if they are so fragrant and tasty and lovely from Belgium in November, and they're for sale... I don't know the right thing to do. For certain, and maybe this is something most food writers and chefs don't have to consider because they don't have children or someone else is feeding them: if my daughter begs for sauteed red peppers and asparagus, I am hard put to say NO, they're not in season, when there they are, from Spain or wherever, right in front of me. It's hard to say no to a child begging for vegetables. I suppose I could learn.

To salve my conscience, the lovely produce lady offered, "here's some lovely rocket, grown just this side of Heathrow!" Of course I bought it. It was probably flown in from Heathrow.

From there it was onto one of my favorite of Notting Hill restaurants, the brainchild of brilliant Australian Simon Tredway, E & O with my dear friend Jo: we feasted on peppered tuna with miso aioli (and tiny bit of something I would have identified as swiss chard, but the waiter said, "we call it a spring green," leaving aside the fact that it's November, speaking of seasonality). The whole thing was obviously rolled in the greens, then finished with a crunchy, paper-thin phyllo envelope, really only one layer, and sliced into thick slices which simply melted in the mouth. With this we had spicy tuna tempura maki, ice cold as I believe sushi and sashimi should be, the ultimate in freshness. Then very simple signature prawn chive dumplings with chilli sauce. Heavenly.

You would have thought at this point we had had enough of food, but we headed immediately to Mr Christian's delicatessen where I indulged myself in a really minute slice of pheasant pate with a sinful block of foie gras running through it: a great candidate for my midnight snack. That plus enormous garlic-stuffed olives for John's martini, and we figured we had done Notting Hill for the day.

Believe it or not, I was up this morning for a further jaunt to Shoreditch for lunch with my friend Twiggy. She and I never seem to see each other often enough, with real life intervening far too often, but when we do I am always thrilled. She is anyone's choice for a purely visual lunch date: a china doll of perfection, and I always feel lucky to be seated opposite her and spend a couple of hours enjoying the view! This time was a real adventure and we had to be dedicated to our sense of relishing the unknown. I had told another friend this morning that Twiggy and I were meeting at Spitalfields, which although strictly speaking true, did not really place me at the tube stop that would be expected. Therefore when my other friend said, "It's walking distance from there," she wasn't counting on my arriving at Liverpool Station and being completely at sea. Although you all know that my being at sea in terms of directions is entirely to be expected, and must be taken into account.

Twiggy and I found each other without too much difficulty and squinted at the index card I brought with me. "Did you write down the postcode?" she asked reasonably, and of course I had not, but we had the phone number and Twiggy's iPhone and finally reached the restaurant, Rochelle Canteen. Incomprehensible directions ensued, only underlined by the drowning traffic sounds where we stood. Finally we flagged down a taxi (never hard to find when one is with Twiggy!) and shortly were delivered to the restaurant which is ENTIRELY UNMARKED. Well, just between you and me it IS marked: it's the doorway with "BOYS" carved above it, in Arnold Circus at Rochelle Street.

We slipped in, and there was, sure enough, nothing more or less than a canteen: white formica tables, community style, a paper menu. Very little choice, especially for vegetarian Twiggy (and there must be a special degree of difficulty for vegetarians who don't like mushrooms, as they seem to be the faux-meat of choice in many dishes). But she easily settled for a lentil stew with celeriac, carrots, celery and a particularly toothsome goats cheese called Tymsboro from south-west England, the whole lot topped with a nice garnish of watercress. Dare I say it? The dish was meaty, satisfying (I nicked a good spoonful from her), with a rich though strictly vegetarian stock.

And I? I went for something I could never make at home: crab tortellini. Someday, perhaps the day after I learn to bake, I will make homemade pasta. But not today. This arrived as what I realised was a starter portion, to my disappointment because I could have eaten, quite happily, TWICE the three very large tortellini in my dish. Pasta perfectly al dente, the crabmeat all white and tasting tantalisingly of the sea, with a firm bite and total freshness. The crabmeat was flecked with nothing more than a little chopped parsley and the sauce a simple butter one laced with lemon juice, the whole dish topped with tiny leaves of baby tarragon. Could not have been better. The bread was firm and full of personality, and the dish of olives is more than two people can share, neither of whom is an enormous male person.

But more than the food, which is remarkable: the atmosphere and the clientele all made me feel as if I were... back at my writing seminar in Devon! Many people with notebooks and pens, many people in groups of three or four talking industriously and looking as if they alone were peopling our BBC screens with well-written scripts. Interesting young people, lots of people eating alone. Altogether a place full of energy and distinction and food to match.

Now I have an amazing chicken dish to tell you about that I invented (ha! one thing our writing tutors insisted upon was that nothing new is inventable under the sun, fair enough) this evening. But that must wait because election coverage is beginning and I will go turn my attention to it. As a foodie I can share with you this joke from David Sedaris' recent column in the New Yorker (I'm paraphrasing, sorry). "To those so-called 'un-decided' voters I can only say it's like being asked by a flight attendant, "Would you like the chicken, sir, or the broken glass?" and you ask, "How is the broken glass prepared?" It seems clear to me what the choice is, but tomorrow will tell us.

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