Sunday, 7 February 2010

Illegal eating

Boiled babies and dog bodies are not often on one's dinner menu on a fine Saturday night. However, this is precisely what I had last night - and enjoyed (almost!) every bit of it. Although it was no ordinary day and no ordinary place...

Ms Marmite Lover underground restaurant - tonight's menu

Underground what?

The dinner took place in one of the increasingly numerous underground restaurants in London, in this instance it was an impressively spacious and vintage-clad house of Ms Marmite Lover (further simply as Ms ML) of the same-named blog.

Underground restaurants, or supper clubs, or guerilla eating - essentially dinner parties staged in houses of strangers for which you pay an agreed fee - are no longer the obscure and below the earth establishments as they once were. I have been told that some of the original ones, a restaurante de puertas cerradas - restaurants behind locked doors - appeared in and around Cuba, but these days these, essentially illegal, eateries are the rage throughout the States and the British isles, attracting the trendy and arty , and those inspiring to be so.

Everyone from food bloggers to Guardian and Time Out have written about the trend, and so last night I had to admit to this 'okkkey, I do need to do one of these' type of affairs. The decision was inspired by the the theme of the menu: navy, ships biscuits, Napoleon, and sailors - don't ask! But my dear J seemed somewhat of an admirer (although he didn't actually end up coming out with me due to a very un-sailor like cold).

On how to choose the better of two...weevils.

Ms ML put together a fabulously bizarre and appropriately stodgy meal based on the books of Patrick O'Brian- famed by Russell Crowe and his 'Master and Commander'. This is how Ms ML qualifies the theme of the dinner:

[The books were about] Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. O'Brian spent the last 50 years of his life in the South of France. Now you might think stories about seafaring during the time of Bonaparte would be dry, boy's own type tales but not at all! The relationship between Aubrey and Maturin is touching, the humour bawdy, the technical details of the sails and workings of tall ships fascinating and the ship's routine, along with the intensely male hierarchy on board, gripping....

Running through these novels are descriptions of food, meals and banquets...The naval diet consisted of rum rations, salt beef, portable soup and hard tack. At the start of each voyage, the purser would gather the victuals for the journey. Hard tack or ship's biscuit would be baked four times to render it as hard as possible; as it ages, it softens. It was supposed to last for five years. You'd have to tap it for weevils before eating. This was an era before tinned goods.

As you can imagine, I was intensely looking forward to the experience - in that kind of perverse way!

The actual recipes of the dinner were taken from a wonderfully conforming and hilarious 'Lobscourse and Spotted Dog', a book of recipes inspired by O'Brian's writting edited by Grossman and Thomas. 'A triumph of culinary anthropology' as Washington Post put it. Need I say more! The book is a fascinating collection of the old English (and otherwise) dishes, stories, histories and all in-between.

The menu

A portable soup (an early form of stock cube): Blind Scouse
Ships biscuit

Stargazy pie with herrings
Pease pudding

Boiled Baby

Stargazy pie with pease pudding and mushroom ketchup

I'll start by saying the food was good, but varied
. When I say good I mean it matched the expectations (or even exceeded them in case of the pie) and generally left a warm and wobbly feeling in our bellies.

Now the details:

The dinner didn't start well. The transport didn't work properly on the way to the secret location, we were miserably cold and it took us ages to get through the doors due to our difficulty with pronouncing the password (it's an underground restaurant, init). When we were handed in warm (but lady-like size) cups of pink rum grog, we quickly and obligingly gulped.

I say - 'shampoo?'. My companion said - 'don't care, I'm cold'. So we squinted but finished the pink liquid.

Rum Grog

Having settled down at a lovely table of 10, lovingly covered with a vintage table cloth and expensively heavy cutlery, Blind Scouse arrived.

Served cleverly in wide and shallow enamel bowls, Scourse turned out to be a truly home-made soup of barley, potatoes, carrots and other similarly mundane vegetables. The important addition was that of Ships biscuits (for the teeth-crashing description see above) that were to be soaked in Scouse's stock. It tasted well-intentional and well-turned out. I even forgot my childhood misgivings for grey barley.

Table is set - Ms ML knows her vintage plate from her flea market napkin

(at this point a notch or two of a belt came off). The Pie has arrived.

BoldThe star of the dinner (note, what we actually had looked even better)

Stargazy pie with herrings

I had heard of the dish through my (shame, shame on me) earlier addiction to the Great British Menu, where Mark Hix (whose squidgy, cluby 'Hix' in Soho I had been frequented recently and will probably review soon) won the day with his version of this funny old dish. This was the first time I tried the dish.

The pie is essentially a mix of potatoes, carrots, probably leeks, cream, tarragon and herring, covered by the crispiness of quite sweet pastry with herring heads exuberantly sticking out from underneath the pie top - staring at stars of course. We loved the wholesome, creamy pie, with just the right percentage of salt, pepper and tarragon, all despite of the annoying little bones, intermediately interfering with the experience.

The best of stodge worlds

The dreamy herrings were accompanied by a pease pudding (or dog's body if I remember correctly), 'English version of dahl', as Ms ML put it herself. A very moorish accompaniment of peas cooked into mash with lots of butter. This is what the good old English cooking is all about - stodge, lovely, tasty stodge (at that point I remember exchanging remarks with a table colleague about the essential similarity of all northern European cooking - Russians and English are united forever by the love for stodge).

Boiled Baby - the best titled-pudding ever?

After the cheese course, which I'm sure was lovely but I couldn't fit into myself anymore, we had the Baby, yes, the whole Boiled Baby - a simple steamed pudding of flour, raisins, nutmeg and not much else. We all agreed that:

1. the dish was absolutely spot on and 'authentic' as this is exactly how Captain Audrey would have liked it

2. by serving the Baby with the voluptuous, silky rose-water custard, Ms ML did wonders by making us eating even half of it.

Even my Russian stodge-accustomed body could not handle any more.

Posh nosh vs humble pie?

The setting was gorgeous, atmosphere was fun, food was decent. I would happily admit that I'd do it again.

I can see how those who run such establishments find the lure of media hype too attractive to resist, which easily leads to turning up of many noses. As with those Michelin-starred, the booking queues become overwhelmingly long and the stardom of the owners overshadow the quality of the food.

But whilst these place are still home kitchens with all their imperfections, mistakes and mostly sincere (if occasionally tetchy) personal interaction, I'm choosing Ms Marmite Lover's little hide-away any day of the week.

Well, until I succumb to the glory of Texture - on which, hopefully, next week.

You ain't gonna get a toilet like this at Gordon Ramsey's


Daily Spud said...

What a great first line! Would be fascinated to try out one of those underground restaurants - there are one or two that I've heard of here but the ones in London tickle my fancy more, I must say.

gastroanthropologist said...

That herring pie - I've never seen fish presented like that!

ps When can I get a loaf of your bread!