Sunday, August 26, 2007
Monday, August 20, 2007
First of all, softball. It's not the most traditional Enligh sport, but softball seems to have quite a following amongst English law firms. At Bird & Bird, we have a team that plays in a league each year and also enters the annual legal industry softball tournament. The 2007 edition of this tournament was held on Saturday and was a full-day event structured in such a way as to give almost every team a 75% chance of leaving with a trophy of some sort (lawyers are very bad losers, so it's best to try and make everyone feel like a winner). Despite this, an the fact that we showed some considerable style and panache (particularly with the bat), we managed to walk away with nothing except our (slightly wounded) pride. Our lack of success can be attributed to two main factors: (1) the fact that other teams had drafted into their ranks specialist squads of semi-professional Canadian softballers, who had been training for the tournament 12 hours a day, 7 days a week since February this year; and (2) our unfortunate tendency to pull out our worst plays just as we were on the verge of victory - like the time we were leading comfortably and only had to dismiss one more batter to end the opposition innings and then proceeded to concede 10 consecutive runs through an amazing series of dropped catches and wild over-throws. Despite our plentiful supply of natural talent, we really did make winning seem like hard work. At least there's always 2008 ...
Secondly, tennis. After a long lay-off (I think the last time I took the court in anger was sometime in the first half of 2006) I've been playing tennis again. My hitting partner is a guy called Anthony who's come off an even longer lay-off than me (something in the region of 8 years). However, unlike me, Anthony has the advantage of having real tennis-playing talent and was heavily involved in the sport during his university days. So while I can just about keep the ball in the court with him when we're rallying, it's an understatement to say that we're slightly mis-matched. On this particular occasion, we played on some carpet courts in the Harbour Club, which is a newly refurbished fitness centre on Harrow Road and about 15 minutes walk from my flat. The carpet is a nice quick surface that suits both our games, but the complex itself is a massive heat-trap with poor ventilation, and feels a little like you're playing tennis in a Turkish bath. After 5 minutes we were both dripping in sweat but decided we'd push on through and keep playing. It was great, but an hour or so of scrambling from side to side trying to track down Anthony's massive groundstrokes left me absolutely shattered. Today my legs are so stiff that I can hardly walk. I dropped a pound coin on the ground earlier and when I bent down to pick it up it felt like my hamstrings were about to snap.
Finally, the inaugural Tranzie degustation dinner. The five of us who shared lunch at the Fat Duck last weekend decided that anything Heston could do, we could do better and so decided to put on our own degustation feast, with each of us supplying a course. Jenny and Brendan, the consummate hosts, kindly volunteered their dining room for the occasion and also prepared menus, hilarious personalised profiles of each chef and a brief, but amusing, wine list. Having had advance notice of the event and always desperate for validation from my peer group, I put a fair amount of effort into my contribution - a palate cleansing sorbet. I've actually got some sorbet making experience, and a mango & passionfruit combination is my trade mark dish, but being so eager to impress I thought I'd try something different. My first attempt was a kiwi fruit number that turned into an unmitigated disaster. The sorbet turned brown and tasted terribly acidic. And a hairy half kiwi fruit filled with a pile of brown slush doesn't exactly look appetising. Not a good start. My next combination was apple and cinnamon and this one turned out OK, but for some reason it came out too icy. I know - sorbet is meant to be icy but this one was TOO icy. I can't explain it any better than that. Let's move on. My next combination was lime and basil. No good. One of my taste-testers said it tasted to her "like icy pesto". Tragedy. So after 2 weeks worth of experimentation, I went back to the trusty mango & passionfruit option. It did the job OK, but was completely overshadowed by the offerings of my more talented friends. Jenny's san choi bao was my personal favouite, followed closely by Brendan's interpretation of a dish known as "Fiona's Surprise". It was sublime.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Now, to set the scene, it's worth stating upfront that in my early years I was a picky eater. The list of things that I would refuse to eat was worryingly long. In fact, my mum had a very limited range of ingredients that she could use if she wanted to make a meal that I would deem acceptable. I'm not sure how she managed to feed me a well-balanced diet using only: fish fingers, peanut butter, dried apricots and sultana bread. But somehow she did. And one of the strategies she used with great success was disguising ingredients so that I didn't realise what I was eating. For many, many years I wolfed down plate after plate of beef stroganoff without ever realising that it was full of mushrooms (which, at the time, I was sure would made me puke if ate one). Well done, Mum. And well done, Mr Blumenthal, a man who is continuing (to much acclaim) this fine tradition of making amazing food that isn't quite what it seems. This is Mr Blumenthal's story. This is the story of lunch at The Fat Duck.
The occasion was Jenny's birthday. The attendees were Jenny, Brendan, Joyce, Huy and me. Lunch lasted 4 hours. There were 16 courses. I ate 10 pieces of bread (the magic proportion - one part butter to two parts bread - that's a lot of butter). We had two bottles of wine (at which point our money ran out). The total cost was, well, that's enough statistics... let's get on with the real story
On arrival at the second best restaurant in the world (ie The Fat Duck) we were greeted by a small and unassuming building. We were soon seated in a small and impeccably decorated dining room (room for around 40 diners only, bespoke, slightly disturbing, yellow paintings lining the walls - inspired by egg and bacon ice cream? possibly) and presented with what appeared at first to be the Consolidated Oxford English Dictionary Volume A to E but turned out, on closer inspection, to be the wine list.
Traditional wisdom says the safest choice on a wine list is the second cheapest bottle. Joyce challenged this, saying the third cheapest is safer (as restaurateurs often try and shift bad wine by placing it in the second cheapest slot). At The Fat Duck the third cheapest wine cost 150 quid, so we decided to ignore convention and go for the cheapest wine instead. A rash move? Hardly, as the sommelier said, everything is quality at The Fat Duck. With wine ordered, food was next and that was easy. We all wanted to try Heston Blumenthal's tasting menu. Straight from his underground laboratory, Mr Blumenthal's tasting dishes are famous for being strange and fantastic. He didn't disappoint us. I won't go into detail about every one of the 16 different creations we tried. But here is just a sample:
- Oak Moss - The smoky, woody essense of oak moss served as a plastic breath-freshener strip and followed by truffle toast. A square bed of moss is placed on your table and liquid nitrogen is poured on top to release the smell of the forest. Smoky tendrils of gas cover your table. It's like you're eating something out of a fantasy novel. It's brilliantly theatrical. And the truffles were truly out of this world.
- Snail Porridge - Sounds awful, tastes delicious. It really is porridge (there are oats in there) but it looks nothing like what you imagine. A bright grass-green pool of porridge serves as a base for the thinnest saltiest strips of cured ham and delicious bite-sized pieces of snail topped by thin ribbons of fennel. Creamy and salty and meaty. It's great. This one was my favourite.
- Sound of the Sea - As Huy knowledgeably told us, this was the ultimate "multi-modal" dish - providing pleasure for all the senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and well, ok, maybe not touching but I'm sure the staff would be discreet if you tried to eat the dish with your hands. Served on a glass plate, you get what looks like (but obviously is not) a small pile of sand, foam and seaweed. In front of you is a conch shell housing an iPod mini. Put the headphones on and you hear the sound of crashing waves and the screech of seagulls. When you start to eat, what you're tasting is the sensation of being at the beach. It sounds bizarre, but it works and will blow your mind.
- Bacon and Egg Ice Cream - This one's a long-time Blumenthal favourite. The bacon is already in the eggs when they are brought to your table (just like the lime is in the coconut in the old Harry Nilsson song). They're cracked right in front of you and out pours a beautifully smooth custard into a copper pot. More liquid nitrogen and a bit of stirring later, and hey presto you have egg and bacon ice cream. Served up on your plate on a bed of the lightest french toast and a caramelised wafer of bacon, it is the strangest and most wonderful dessert finish to a meal you can imagine. Sweet and savoury. Breakfast and dessert. Incredible.
The food looked like nothing I had ever seen before. Or, actually, it did look vaguely familiar, but I didn't always recognise it as food. But the taste was special in the truest McAvaney-esque sense of the word. In fact, my taste buds are stimluated even as I'm typing now. Come to think of it, I have both eggs and bacon in the fridge. Now all I need to do is get the bacon inside the eggs and find some liquid nitrogen. This could take a while....
* There will be no prize.