God I needed this.
The last time I departed England's shores it was in a different, more heroic age of travel, before Google Maps, before Kindle, before Spotify. Before, if you young herberts can envisage such a time, Android and the iPhone. I'm talking of 2005.
As well as quite a few trips abroad for work that year, including Las Vegas and Doha, I went on holiday twice. I took my beloved Fiat Coupé 20V Turbo over to Spain and spent two weeks driving down to Andalusia from the Basque region and back again, ending with a few days in Bilbao eating my weight in pintxos.
The second jaunt was to New York, staying at the Hudson. These are just the places I can recall eating at: Nobu, Gramercy Tavern, Brasserie les Halles, Bar Masa, Balthazar, Babbo and Lupa. There were more.
The travel was all part of my increasingly frantic attempts to convince myself that I was ALL RIGHT REALLY and not hopelessly and dangerously fractured. Because in late 2004, with my drinking well out of control, I'd had a breakdown, bodged a suicide attempt (diazepam/vodka/stanley knife/warm bath), and had to resign from the all the projects I was working on. Then I started pretending. Apart from the travel, here's what else I did: went into therapy; started going to AA; spent money I didn't have; went on a diet; bought a whole new wardrobe of clothes; started having regular sessions of reflexology and acupuncture; spent more money I didn't have.
It was all to no avail, of course, and the wheels finally came off the bus after a year or so.
But now, after bankruptcy, homelessness, metal illness and years on the sausage, here I am in 2014 with a paying job, a brand new passport and public sector annual leave coming out of my trapdoor. So when I was invited to come and speak at a recovery conference here in Amsterdam, flights paid, it seemed too good an opportunity not to tack on a holiday to the trip.
One of the things that I used to find fascinating about travelling is, despite all that global village bollocks, the differences you find, how some countries do some things much better than others and some things inexplicably worse. Here in Amsterdam instances of the former far outweigh those of the latter.
For one thing, if you're going to create a city, making one out of canals is just shitting brilliant. Large swathes of Amsterdam are remarkably quiet and peaceful. Things seem to move at a relaxed pace and I'd say that's, in part, down to having ancient waterways everywhere.
Then there's public transport. On board the buses here they have LED displays showing the times of arrival at the upcoming stops. And a typical main street is laid out like this: a central lane for trams and buses to whizz up and down freely; either side of this, lanes for cars; outside of them, cycle lanes; and, finally, footpaths.
Then there's the not inconsiderable matter of the frites. Whereas in the UK chips and curry sauce are the sole preserve of the shamefully drunk and schoolchildren, or shamefully drunk schoolchildren, here you can find elegantly dressed women sipping their negronis at a bar while tucking into a cone of deliciously crunchy frites and curry mayo (see Frites uit Zuyd below).
But then, heavily in the minus column, there's the bloody cyclists. They're everywhere. In London they are regarded as vermin to be mown down without compunction by all right-thinking motorists. But here they are the dominant species and are a serious danger to the innocent tourist. Vast, seemingly CGI-generated swathes of the fuckers come at you from all sides. They do, admittedly, sometimes ring their bells, but as these have all the warning capacity of an angel's tear landing on a mound of goose feathers, the danger remains. But if you can view them from a place of safety they're fun to watch. Again in contrast to their British masked, lycra-clad counterparts, they all just wear ordinary clothes. They also make the most of their rides by doing something useful like smoking, chatting on the phone, or eating a sandwich. I didn't see any one reading a book while cycling, but I wouldn't have been at all surprised. And I didn't see a single one of them wearing a helmet - and why should they, they have no natural predator after all.
Oh, and Dutch bicycle design seems to have stopped sometime in the 1950s:
the cultural bit
This trip was all about walking around, relaxing and, of course, food. So the only cultural thing I did was visit the Stedelijk Museum to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition The Image as Burden. She's one hell of a figure painter. It's coming to the Tate Modern in February.
So what about the food then? My overall conclusion, from an admittedly partial sampling, is that the local scene is pretty good but, with one brilliant exception, not great. You'll have fun, you'll meet warm and friendly people, you'll eat well but not fabulously. Too many places seem to have the form right, but not the content. To put it another way, if you were to plonk (to take just a few examples from Peckham alone) Peckham Bazaar, Artusi and Ganapati down in Amsterdam they'd blow the town away.
Anyway, here's where I stayed and where I went. Apologies, as ever, for the appalling quality of the photos.
where i stayed
The concept of the hotel is to cut out all hidden costs and remove all unnecessary items, in order to provide its guests a luxury feel for an affordable price. The rooms are prefabricated produced in citizenM’s own factory and easy to transport. The rooms are stacked on a ground floor with a dynamic lobby / living-room space. - from the Concept website
citizenM is an achingly hip hotel chain for the cost-conscious urbane, bohemian, metrosexual (and you know I tick all those boxes). I have an awful feeling the 'M' stands for 'mobile'. There are two in Amsterdam - one at the airport and one in a soulless location a few minutes walk from the World Trade Centre, which is where I stayed. The location didn't bother me though, because a tram stops just around the corner to whisk you into the centre. Room rates can vary wildly; playing around on their website I could get a room in January for €67 but they told me it can go up to as much as €199. My rate was €140.
The rooms themselves are what the crew cabins on the Starship Enterprise would look like if Nathan Barley signed on as Interior Design Officer.
Despite including the largest fucking bed in the entire world (it could comfortably sleep four) which takes up at least a third of the room, design quirks mean that the room is really only suitable for one person. For one thing there's little storage space, just a drawer under the bed, a small chrome rack on the wall by the door with three hangers supplied and a couple of shelves by the sink for toiletries. And nowhere to put your luggage.
More importantly, as you can see from the photos, you'd be showering and shitting in full view of your partner.
But for the solitary traveller with only one suitcase it's just fine. Because you're not really meant to spend that much time in there apart from sleeping. The whole focus of the hotel is on that 'dynamic lobby / living-room space'. Front and centre is the 24/7 bar/eating area with communal tables, with the rest of the ground floor given over to lounging/working spaces. Once I'd got over the shame of bringing out a battered Sony laptop rather than a MacBook Air LIKE EVERY OTHER SINGLE PERSON THERE, I rather liked it.
The staff are, every one of them, warm and friendly. It's not their fault that the CitizenM brand takes the right-on trendiness to laughable and annoying extremes. To take just one example, the trash receptacles have this stencilled on their sides: 'citizenM says: put your trash here, sorry seagulls'. There's far too much of the 'citizenM says...' branding around the place. None at all would be my suggestion.
But, to quote Nathan, 'You should come, dollsnatch. It's gonna be totally fucking Mexico'.
Right, let's get this one out of the way first. Lots of people recommended this place as the best restaurant in Amsterdam, so I went and I chose the chef's four course menu. The first two dishes were pretty good. But the beef was tough as old boots and woefully under seasoned. And the dessert was just a really, really bad idea - slices of beetroot marinated in anise, a beetroot foam, a brownie, gingernut bits and ice cream. It was disgusting.
Having said that, there's obviously talent here and I would definitely go back. I'd just make sure to order from the à la carte menu. And avoid any dessert featuring beetroot.
the golden bend
The area around the Herrengracht and the Keisersgracht between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat is a great place for a quiet, meditative stroll.
Oud-West is a lively, urban neighborhood between the Overtoom and De Clercqstraat, just north of the Vondelpark. I went for these two places:
staring at jacob
Amsterdam is big on brunch (see also Little Collins and Paper Planes below). Most of the write-ups I came across mentioned how packed these places get. But that must be a weekend phenomenon, because they were all empty when I went. Staring at Jacob is a great spot on a sleepy street running alongside a canal.
I went intending to order the fried chicken with waffles, poached egg and maple syrup, but changed my mind at the last minute and ordered bacon, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes and maple syrup. It was well Jackson.
De Hallen is a newly renovated tramshed now containing a hotel, a cinema, shops and studios. And also (huzzah!) a brand new food hall with something like a 20 or so food outlets surrounding a central bar area with tables. An effortlessly civilised spot to hang out in - like almost everywhere else in Amsterdam.
This is the area I kept returning to most frequently during my stay, and the one I reckon I'd like live in if I ever moved to Amsterdam. It struck me as just a great neighbourhood, based as it is around the thriving street market on Albert Cuypstraat, with dozens of restaurants, bars and shops, and with its own delightful little park, Sarphatipark.
So, my conference duties are finished, I've checked into the hotel and, with no particular plan in mind, I take an early evening stroll around the Pijp and stumble on this place. Looks pretty good and so I pop in and ask if they've a table. Yes, says the ebulliently friendly owner Suzie, if I can vacate by 7.45 (it's 6.15). 'OK' says I.
It's a lovely room, if maybe a tad expense-account-ish. But that impression might just be because, by the time I left, the place was rammed to the gunnels with large parties of suits.
The cooking was faultless. It turns out that it was voted the second best restaurant in the Netherlands this year by Trip Advisor (make of that what you will). Whatever, it was the best meal I ate in Amsterdam until my final night's experience at Fraîche (see below).
Great little coffee bar, saving for the fact that they've got that precious, fascistic no-sugar thing going on (if you can be a precious fascist). When I asked for some the barista said 'our coffee doesn't need sugar'. 'That's as maybe, treacle, but I find that my coffee, and by that I mean the one that I'm about to pay you several euros for, thus transferring ownership from you to me, is immeasurably improved by the addition of a scant half-teaspoon of the sweet stuff'. I didn't say that of course. I just stared at him for several, agonisingly long seconds until, with a visible wilt, he finally said simply 'I'll bring you some sugar'.
frites uit zuyd / café par hasard
One room of this operation is an upmarket chip shop, a temple to all the fried Dutch delights; the other is a restaurant serving things like steak tartare, salads, soft shell crabs, fish and chips etc.
But you can also sit at the restaurant's cocktail bar while eating your snacks from the takeaway. Which is what I did. Seeing I was uncertain what to order, the guy behind the bar set me up with an enormous tray loaded with lots of deep-fried, crunchy snacks (see below).
Again, lots of recommendations for brunch at Little Collins (they do dinner too), but my order of corn fritters with bacon, guacamole, tomato salsa and sour cream was an unedifying mess of a plate. The bacon would have been better streaky, the fritters tasted mainly of pepper, the avocado was a bland sludge and the rocket added nothing.
The rest of the menu reads well though:
The only 'fail' of the entire week - I couldn't get into Moksi, it was full. It serves supposedly the best Surinamese food in Amsterdam. Mind you, it doesn't take much to fill the place up as there's only five (I think) tables.
But just a short walk away was the back up of Albina, where I had a very tasty Moksi meti - roasted chicken, pork, and green beans in a dark, soy-sticky sauce .
I forgot to save the exterior photo of Albina, but no matter because just a few doors down from it is the Nieuw Albina, which is identical in that both are two units knocked in to one and both have based their decor and layout on the British transport caff.
the 9 streets and the jordaan
Fabulous, picturesque and adjacent areas to wander around in, shop and eat.
The De 9 Straatjes are actually three streets intersected by two canals, Herengracht and Keizersgracht. They're bordered by Prinsengracht canal on the west and Singel canal on the east. It's kind of Amsterdam's version of Carnaby street, but more laid-back and bohemian. And much, much prettier. And with added water.
The Jordaan is a once working-class, now gentrified, neighbourhood strewn with art galleries, courtyards, cafés, restaurants, bars and markets.
Another brunch destination. The juice in the photo was mango, coconut water, pineapple and lime. To eat I ordered the pancakes - according to the menu a stack of pancakes, maple syrup, vanilla bean marscapone and strawberries. What I got was a single (though large) pancake, with five blueberries. When I pointed out the discrepancy, the charming staff member (they're all charming, everywhere) looked at the menu with surprise, as it was new to her. So she knocked the price of the juice (€4.50) off the bill.
Nice coffee hangout, offering loads of different brew methods - V60, Chemex, Clever, Aeropress, Syphon and French Press - as well as all the usual espresso-based drinks.
I didn't eat here, but have included it because they serve, by common consent, the best apple pie in the city. Next time.
headfirst coffee roasters
The only micro-roastery I came across in my wanderings. And they've got sugar at the bar. Recommended.
What. A. Fucking. Find.
On Friday late morning when I arrived at the lovely Staring at Jacob there were a couple of builders in there packing away after a little refurb work. Later on, I'm chatting with one of the staff, picking her brains about where to eat on my last night in Amsterdam. De Kas? Daalder? She suggested a Japanese restaurant I've forgotten the name of and then pointed to one of the builders and said 'or you could always try his restaurant'. And that was my introduction to Noah who turned out to be not only the owner of Jacob's but also chef/owner along with his mate Anthony (the other builder) of what became, later in the evening, my favourite place to eat in all of Amsterdam - Restaurant Fraîche.
I loved it as soon as I walked in. I just knew it was going to be good. And so it proved to be. In terms of vibe, of execution, and of presentation it reminded me of nowhere so much as Peckham Bazaar. And I can think of no finer compliment.
I guess I was a little unadventurous in my choices - steak and cheese - but for one thing I wanted to see if the beef at Wilde Zwijnen was a one-off or indicative of the parlous state of Dutch meat in general. And secondly I reckon how a restaurant keeps it cheeses is a good indication of how it does everything else.
Joyously, the bavette was meltingly tender and each of the five cheeses laid before me were in perfect condition. And the selection of four desserts I finished with was divine.
But here's what else I could have had:
And here's the Sunday brunch menu:
Reads pretty damn good, doesn't it?
If I lived in Amsterdam I'd be coming here all the time. A fabulous place and just the perfect end to my trip.
So there you go. One week in Amsterdam and the wellbeing meter reading 'full'. I am restored.
And no, I didn't try out a FEBO automat. That'd be like a Dutch bloke coming to London to eat in a Greggs.
A five-day GMV pass, covering the metro, trams and buses costs €26
9292 is a very useful, simple to use English language journey planner to sort out your tram, metro and bus journeys.
I only discovered this site on my last day. Bugger. Amsterdam restaurant reviews and food news at eat Amsterdam.
A Google map of all the places I visited can be found here.
Prinses Irenestraat 30
1077 WX Amsterdam
Javaplein 23 hs
1095 CJ Amsterdam
Staring at Jacob
Jacob van Lennepkade 215
1054 ZP Amsterdam
Hannie Dankbaar Passage 33
1053 RT Amsterdam
N.B. The entrance is off Ten Katestraat
Daniël Stalpertstraat 103
1072 XD Amsterdam
Frites uit Zuyd
1072 EZ Amsterdam
1e Sweelinckstraat 19-F
1073 CL Amsterdam
Ferdinand Bolstraat 21
1072 LB Amsterdam
Albert Cuypstraat 69
1072 CN Amsterdam
1012 KL Amsterdam
1016 CB Amsterdam
N.B. This is the coffee bar outlet of Screaming Beans, not to be confused with their wine/food gaff on Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat
1015 NA Amsterdam
Headfirst Coffee Roasters
1015 MP Amsterdam
1015 MT Amsterdam
Well that took a lot longer than I'd imagined. I could lie and tell you that my extended sabbatical from here was due to working these ancient nadgers off in my new job, and to some extent that's true. But it's really because of two other factors. One is that my last several-months-long depressive episode left its usual aftermath: a veritable cesspit of a flat and an unusable kitchen. Then the change from long-term unemployment to full-time work proved harder to adjust to than I could have imagined. Up until a few weeks ago I was perfectly fine, cheery and efficient at work, but as soon as I got home it was like someone just unplugged me. I shut down. Until the next morning when I went to work again.
But I think I'm getting the hang of it now, the old work/life balance thing. The flat, and more importantly the kitchen, are back to being ship-shape and Bristol fashion; I've been to a few restaurants - Artusi, Cafe Murano, Pizza Pilgrims, Tonkotsu; I've even been, I shit you not, to see a West End musical, The Pyjama Game. I'm hopeful that I'll have an article appearing in a certain august food periodical in a few months time. Oh, and I've signed a book contract.
The usual apologies to everyone who has got in touch and to whom I haven't replied. My silence doesn't mean that I don't welcome and value your comments. Now, on with the motley...
My friend and colleague Nash was born and brought up in Ghana. He went abroad recently and when he came back, the very first thing he absopositively HAD to have was peanut soup and fufu. Intrigued, I asked him for the recipe. Well I asked him for the recipe for the peanut soup. I stupidly forgot to ask how he makes his fufu.
Here's Nash's backstory...
...and here's what he does today:
And that, my friends, is recovery.
To quote Wikepedia: "Fufu (variants of the name include foofoo, foufou, fufuo) is a staple food of many countries in Africa and the Caribbean. It is often made with a flour made from the cassava plant or alternatively another flour, such as semolina or maize flour. It can also be made by boiling starchy food crops like cassava, yams or cooking plantains and then pounding them into a dough-like consistency. Fufu is eaten with the fingers, and a small ball of it can be dipped into an accompanying soup or sauce. Foods made in this manner are known by different names in different places. However, fufu stands out, especially in Ghana and in West Africa in general." Here's three videos about making and eating it:
the traditional way of making fufu
how to make it using fufu flour
Fast forward to 9 mins 31 secs to see how this guy makes his fufu at home.
how to eat fufu with your hand
I've adapted Nash's recipe in a few particulars. Normally you'd use a boiler chicken for this, but I've used all chicken thighs. You also wouldn't normally fry the chicken and onion first but I did, for a bit of caramelisation and to render off some fat. I used some chicken stock instead of all water. And I added thyme and lemon juice. Sorry Nash. And unending thanks for getting the blog kick-started again.
There's a real skill to making fufu and obviously I couldn't hope to get it quite right at the first attempt. I also had major reservations about how appetising a big dollop of unseasoned flour and water could be. But, nestling in a highly spiced soup, it only bloody well works.
This is a glorious bowl of food.
for the soup:
8 bone-in chicken thighs (approx 1.1 kg)
1 tbsp of groundnut oil
3 sprigs of thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 scotch bonnet pepper, chopped
juice of half a lemon
150g of smooth peanut butter (about three big spoonfuls)
70g of tomato purée (half a tube)
500ml chicken stock
for the fufu:
100g plaintain fufu flour per person
220ml water per person
Chop each chicken thigh into two and pat the pieces dry with kitchen roll. Heat a large frying pan to fairly high. Tie the thyme sprigs together and place in a big pot. Quarter and slice one of the onions.
Add a tablespoon of oil to the frying pan and fry the chicken, skin side only, until the skin is golden and crispy. Do this in batches. Add to the big pot. Drain off the fat and oil from the pan, leaving just a film of oil behind, and fry the sliced onion. Add to the pot. Add 250ml of the stock, bring to the boil and then simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
Chop up the other onion roughly and blend with the ginger, garlic, scotch bonnet, lemon juice and the rest of the stock. Add this to the pot and simmer for 20 minutes.
Now add the peanut butter, tomato purée and 200 ml of water and simmer for 40 minutes.
Make the fufu as per the video above (or follow the packet instructions) and shape it. As best you can.
At the end of the 40 minutes off simmering, add water to the soup until it is the consistency you like, then season with salt. Give it another 5 minutes. Serve poured over and around the fufu.
You know what? It is so fucking good to be back.
you'll be doing alright with your christmas of white, but i'll have a blue, blue christmas
The more eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed a certain lack of activity on these pages of late. I’m afraid that, as last November bled into December, I went into one, big time. I resurfaced only a couple of weeks ago. Cooking, at least cooking anything that might merit a mention here, has been beyond me these last few months. I’ve been eating shite.
If you don’t know, writing this blog and volunteering (at The Maudsley and The Dragon Café) have been the two major pillars of my recovery. So when, in October, the blog won an award and the volunteering led to me being offered a job at the Maudsley’s new Recovery College, you might reasonably have expected a festive season of unrestrained jubilation, fireworks and marching bands.
But that would be to ignore the fact that you can’t chart the recovery journey in a straight ascending line. Not only does it rise and fall, it also spirals backwards before continuing along. Even when your demons are at bay it’s never safe to assume that it’s more than a fragile peace.
You know how you can work your bollocks off all year and then, when you take a holiday, you come down with awful aches and pains? Well, it’s the same with we frazzled of mind, except the aches and pains are psychological – in my case self-loathing, self-doubt, anxiety and alienation. With Princes Corned Beef and Findus Frozen Macaroni Cheese for Christmas lunch – culinary, maudlin self-harm.
But fear not, because The Skintster abides, and is currently bobbing along on an ocean of wellbeing. And it’s all because I started the job three weeks ago. The first paid employment I’ve had in eight years. And what a joy it is. I hadn’t quite realised what a vast difference being a wage earner once again would mean – I’m even walking differently, the service-user shuffle replaced with a spring in the step. I should have known because, before my crisis, I’d had a long and rewarding career; had, in fact, never been out of work since I gave up studying for a law degree to run off and join the theatre. But you don’t, I guess, realise the weight you bear on your shoulders until it’s lifted from you.
The corrosive effects of unemployment aren’t limited simply to the obvious financial hardships or to the stress imposed by the current system of demonization; a big part of it is the loss of identity, of status, of a sense of self-worth, of a valued place in the community. If you find yourself without a job, without a home, and mentally ill then you find yourself in a world devoid of hope, control and opportunity. And without those three elements in place, nobody can have a satisfying and meaningful life. I’ve now got them back.
The story of my life for the past decade could, I suppose, be told in mainly tragic terms and I have, of course, told it that way on occasion, both to myself and to others. But now I’d like to tell it a different way. I’d like to tell the story of my great good fortune .
there is (or was) a safety net
In 2006 I was in free-fall, crazed with self-hatred, at the mercy of rank depression and drinking myself into oblivion. But somehow, at some point (I think it was late autumn), I must have gone to a doctor, because I found myself referred to SLaM’s Lordship Lane Community Mental Health Team and found myself under the tender care of the sainted Rachel Sheppard. She remained my care coordinator for the next seven years. It is no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here today without Rachel and the others in the team.
I’m going back very soon, not as a service user this time but as a colleague, to talk about the Recovery College. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable back then. They couldn’t do much with me at first, though they tried their best. I’d not hit bottom yet.
Thankfully they didn't give up.
rachel sorts out my benefits
By the end of 2006 I had absolutely no money – in fact I was in debt to the tune of about £250,000. But I did have two previously unused chequebooks and a guarantee card, so I started living (fraudulently) off those. When I ran out of cheques in February 2007 I signed on, and spent the rest of the year on the basic Job Seeker’s Allowance. It was an awful time. I was drinking whenever I could, and going through withdrawal – the shakes and vomiting blood – when I couldn’t. The bailiffs were becoming increasingly resolute and I’d hide behind closed curtains and a locked door.
I hadn’t a clue about the benefits system and even if I had I was in no fit state to do anything about it. But Rachel took matters in hand and, by the end of the year, I was getting Income Support and Disability Living Allowance. You may be of the opinion that such largesse shouldn’t be wasted on a miserable sinner such as myself and I wouldn’t argue with you. But I am ineffably grateful. It allowed me to live with a degree of dignity these last few years, while I tried, falteringly, to get back on track.
saved from the streets
Eventually, the bank decided that, all things considered, they'd quite like their money back, thank you very much, and that the best thing all round would be to repossess my flat, which they finally did in early 2008.
But beforehand, Rachel had arranged with the Homeless Unit on Bournemouth that a colleague of hers would take me there straight from handing the flat keys over to the bailiff and that I would have a place in a homeless hostel that very night. Otherwise…well, otherwise I don’t know. I’d have been on the streets obviously, but I’m not sure how long I would have lasted.
with all my worldly goods
A couple of weeks before I went into the hostel I was whining to a chap at the Homeless Unit about how I was going to lose all my stuff – furniture, clothes and, most importantly, my kitchen equipment and my books. ‘We’ll store all that for you’ he said. And they did. For a one-off payment of £20 they put everything into storage. How fortunate was that?
a brand new home
After a few months, I was moved out of the hostel into temporary accommodation in a flat in a large block of flats in the Oval. I spent about nine months there waiting for a place of my own. The council publish a weekly magazine listing all the available council and housing association properties and one day I saw a flat that was more than I could have ever dreamed about. Built by Habitat For Humanity, eco-friendlied up the wazoo, it was in exactly the spot I would have chosen if I’d been given the chance, in my adopted homeland of the Republic of Peckham.
I applied for it and I got it. Yet another stroke of good luck. I moved in during the spring of 2009.
an opportunity to volunteer
I date the (very tentative) start of my recovery from then, when I had a place to call my own again. I was more receptive to attempts from Rachel and the CMHT to engage me, although I was still pretty fucked up. I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but it wasn’t what I needed, some occupational therapy activities and some vocational workshops at Southwark Works. In 2010, one of the advisors there, Chris Finch, despite me being a pretty useless and unresponsive client, let me know about a volunteering opportunity at the Maudsley. He got in touch at just the right moment, just when I was ready to attempt to re-engage with the world in some way after far too long as a recluse.
So in October 2010 I started working for Gabrielle Richards and her team. Gabrielle is SLaM’s Professional Head of Occupational Therapy & Trust Social Inclusion Lead. The latter bit of that title means she is in charge of implementing the trust’s Recovery Strategy.
I was doubly fortunate here. Firstly, I’d got a chance to be working on a variety of recovery-related projects as part of my own recovery. And, secondly, I got the chance to work in an office with such wonderful people as Gabrielle, Sarah, Alexis, Isabel and David. I love ‘em all.
All was fine and dandy for a few months but then I became unwell again and had to leave in early 2011. Most of the rest of that year was spent in a dank and dismal limbo.
But I came out of it and started putting together this website. I was bowled over by the response I got when it went live in the first week of January of 2012. A week later, and only because of the boost I’d got from that response, I got back in touch with Gabrielle and asked if I might have another chance. Wonderfully, I was taken back into the fold. And in the winter of 2012 we began working on a new project for the Maudsley – a Recovery College.
Where I now work.
i used to think i was french but i'm alright maintenant
At the beginning of 2013 I finally got access to what I think I needed all along – full-on psychodynamic psychotherapy. This is a precious resource within the NHS and I am so blessed to have been considered a suitable case for treatment. It’s done wonders.
But 2013 was about to bring even more good fortune.
my (flat white) cup runneth over
October 2013. What a ‘what the fuck’ of a month that was. The Observer Food Blog of The Year Award and an interview for, and then an offer of, the job of Operations Manager of the SLaM Recovery College. If just one of these had occurred I would have been overjoyed. For the two to happen a mere couple of weeks apart was scarcely to be believed.
The film-maker Mark Green made videos of the winners of the OFM awards and here’s the one he did of me. It is, in part, a kind of a love letter to the food culture of Peckham.
We don't have a video of our college (yet), but here's one from our good friends over at the Central and North West London Trust's Recovery College.
what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?
But here's the thing: probably my greatest piece of good fortune was that what happened to me happened when it did and not now, a few years later. Because I seriously doubt that that all important safety net would still be strong enough now to catch me. Not with social care battered by budget cuts, reduced staffing levels and out-sourced services, as the noble endeavour that was the NHS is sacrificed on the altar of free-market ideology; not when many people seem to have accepted as fact the despicable propaganda war against the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. Not when peoples' lives are being devastated by the current benefits policies every single day.
It's hard to remember, in the current political climate of malevolence, divisiveness, rancour and fear, that it wasn't always like this. In 1945, after the fall of Germany, the people of this country, it's returning soldiers, rejected, to the world's astonishment, Churchill and his party - the Tories. They voted for a better, fairer Britain. They 'had known the 'thirties, and they didn't want it again: the dole queue, the street corner, the true poverty of that time. They wanted jobs, and security, and a better future for their children than they had had.'*
They voted for this:
The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that - it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable...homes ...It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them...The nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation and re-equipment of its homes, its factories and machinery, its schools, its social services...proper social security for all - social provision against rainy days, coupled with economic policies calculated to reduce rainy days to a minimum...In the new National Health Service there should be health centres where the people may get the best that modern science can offer, more and better hospitals, and proper conditions for our doctors and nurses.
And they got '...one of the great governments of British history - those five, six years of creating what is now being so brutally and wantonly and callously dismantled...'**.
I am very, very far from being a political animal, so I'd just ask this: surely we can do better than this, can't we?
Surely we are better than this?
a final word on brand awareness
So, there you go. I've been lucky in so many ways. And I have a chance, just a chance, of having some kind of a future after all. There are some past misdeeds that I think I might be able to make amends for and there are others that I know I cannot make right. I'll have to live with that. But I feel like I've served my sentence.
So I’m going to carry on with the blog, and carry on as the Skint Foodie, if that's alright with you lot. You don’t fuck with your brand after all.
I do have a job now, it’s true. But luckily, in this regard at least, it pays jackshit. And anyway, as I hope I've made clear, it was never about eating as cheaply as you can. It was, and is, about eating as well as you can for a modest budget. I’ll be able to afford more fresh fish and fruit now it's true, but, other than that, the way I eat won’t change at all. What will change is that, instead of only being able to spend money on food, I’ll now be able to spend a bit on other things as well – books, cinema, a few clothes etc.
This weekend, I celebrated getting my first pay check by going on a trip to the wonderful Brockley Market. Treats included a lovely piece of Dexter shin of beef from Nathan Mills of The Butchery Ltd, chorizo and cheese from Flavours of Spain, raw butter from Hook & Son, ham from Moons Green and, to eat there, a buttermilk fried chicken bap with coleslaw and Korean hot sauce from Spit & Roast. Lawd have mercy!
I am now so close to getting my cooking mojo back and I’ve quite a few ideas for the blog in the back of my mind (I’m close to perfecting an almond thins recipe for example). Normal service will be resumed here very, very soon.
Unless things go tits up of course.
* From 'Quartered Safe Out Here' by George MacDonald Fraser (a great memoir, by the way)
** From Denis Potter's final interview in 1994. God knows what he would have thought of the utter shower currently in government.
Hello you sweet old world. Apologies for the recent blackout. New posts are expected in the not too distant future.
Meanwhile, here are the soundtracks from all 12 episodes of Season 2:
and a link to a playlist of all 240 tracks...
And a belated Happy New Year to you all. Back soon.
You might be making this for one, as I did, but you may as well make enough of the lentils for four servings and refrigerate or freeze what you don't use immediately.
I fell in love with Jules & Sharpie's Hot Pepper Jelly a while back, but recently bought a jar of the equally delicious Chilli Yellow Pepper Jelly from Stokes and it was the latter I used here. If you're using another make of jelly, add just one tablespoon at first then more as needed - yours might be hotter.
for the lentils (makes 4 servings):
200g puy lentils
½ onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 small stick celery, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 chorizo sausage (approx. 60g), skin removed, diced
100ml red wine
2 tbsps hot pepper jelly (see note above)
juice of half a lemon
a handful of parsley, finely chopped
for the trout:
1 trout fillet
salt + black pepper
a splash of olive oil
a handful of tiny croutons
Put the lentils in a pan with plenty of water, bring to the boil and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 20-25 minutes. Drain.
You can make the croutons while the lentils are simmering: coat a handful of diced bread with oil in a small roasting tray and place in a 200C/180C fan oven for about 5 minutes.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and add the onion, carrot and celery. Fry until softened, turn up the heat and add the garlic and chorizo. Fry, stirring regularly, for about 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and let it bubble away until reduced to a few spoonfuls. Add the hot pepper jelly and let it melt. Add the lentils and lemon juice and season with salt. Stir in the parsley, drizzle with more olive oil and set aside.
Heat a frying pan to fairly high. Add a good splash of oil and place the fish skin-side down, holding it down with a spatula so it doesn't arch up as the skin shrinks. Turn the fillet over after about 4 minutes and fry for one minute. Squeeze over the juice from the other lemon half and serve with a dollop of the lentils and a scattering of croutons.
Heap high the groaning platter with pink fillets, suckling pig and thick gammon, celestial chef. Be generous with the crackling. Let your hand slip with the gravy trough, dispensing plenty. - George Mann MacBeth
Gravy: surely one of the most memory-laden words in the English language; the nectar of the North. If someone says to you 'would you like sauce with that?' you'll answer 'what kind of sauce?'. But if someone asks ''would you like gravy with that' the only sane retort is 'too right, sunshine. Hi ye hence with a jug of said meaty essences forthwith.'.
Absent the sticky reductions of veal stock available to the professional chef, I'd guess most of us make gravy at home only when we've done a Sunday roast, availing ourselves of the juices and sticky bits in the roasting tray.
I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage. - Erma Bombeck
But what about during the week? What about if you're on your tod and can't be arsed making a roast? Well, here's a quick and delicious gravy for just such an occasion. For this particular one, I've used apple juice, because that's what was in the fridge, and also because I was serving it with a pork chop. But you can just as well use red or white wine, or cider. You could use madeira or marsala, but then I'd leave out the redcurrant jelly.
The only stock I tend make at home is chicken - great for soups, stews, risottos etc., but no good here. So I buy one of those vac-pacs of beef stock from the supermarket (£1.40 for 500 ml), use 125ml, and freeze the other three portions for later use.
a slice of butter
1 small shallot, finely chopped
60 ml apple juice
125 ml beef stock
1 heaped tsp of dijon mustard
½ tsp redcurrant jelly
a handful of roughly torn up savoy cabbage leaves
a slice of butter
1 x pork chop, rind removed, at room temperature
½ dessert apple
salt + black pepper
In a small pan, melt a slice of butter over a low heat and gently fry the chopped shallot until it's a deep golden colour. Add the apple juice, stock, mustard and redcurrant jelly. Turn up the heat and boil until reduced by roughly a half. Strain into a bowl or jug and season with pepper; depending on the stock you're using, it may not need any salt.
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and throw in the cabbage. Cook for a few minutes until softened. Rinse in cold water, drain dry and roughly chop.
Peel the apple half and slice into segments. Then griddle, or fry in a pan with a little butter, until caramelised.
All the above can, of course, be done well in advance.
When you're ready to eat, season the pork chop. Heat a frying pan to fairly high and add a splash of oil. Hold the chop fat side down in the oil for a minute or two, just to colour. Now fry for approximately 4-5 minutes each side.
While the chop is cooking, heat a pan and melt a slice of butter in it. Add the chopped cabbage, season and stir until heated through. Re-heat the gravy (I put the jug in the microwave on high for 1 minute).
Arrange the chop, cabbage and apple on a plate and serve with the jug of gravy on the side.
Before we start, a vast, unending, tear-soaked avalanche of gratitude to all those of you kind enough to have voted this site as the Best Food Blog in this year's Observer Food Monthly Awards. I'm not going to even try to pretend I'm cool about this. I am absolutely thrilled and astounded. You can all take yesterday off. Now back to the food:
This was an immensely satisfying and comforting plateful and just about exactly what I'm looking for in a home-cooked meal: a few ingredients, a simple recipe and outstanding taste.
The great Marcella Hazan passed away last month, sad to say, aged 89. When I heard the news, I immediately reached for my battered copy of The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (one of my all-time favourite cookbooks) and I've been dipping into it most evenings since. Her influence cannot be overestimated. To quote The Telegraph's obituary: 'Chain smoking, impatient and famously brusque, she introduced recipes that were traditional, tasty and ruthlessly pared-down: her famous tomato sauce contained only a tin of peeled plum tomatoes, five tablespoons of unsalted butter, one small white onion and salt'. Ah yes, that sauce. Have you ever made it? If not, it's all over the internet, but here's her son Giuliano's description. Make it as soon as you possibly can.
Actually, quoting from The Telegraph's obituary column has reminded me of another of my favourite books, their Book of Obituaries: A Celebration of Eccentric Lives. A glorious read. Here's a sample:
'Denisa Lady Newborough, who has died aged 79, was many things: wire-walker, nightclub girl, nude dancer, airpilot. She only refused to be two things - a whore and a spy - "and there were attempts to make me both", she once wrote.
She was also a milliner, a perfumier and an antiques dealer; but her real metier, in early life at least, was what she called "profitable romance". Her opinions on the subject of presents from gentlemen would have done credit to the pen of Anita Loos: "I have never believed that jewels, any more than motor cars, can be called vulgar just because they are gigantic".'
Anyway, there's a recipe in Essentials for Braised Leeks with Parmesan, made with, again, just five ingredients: leeks, butter, salt, parmesan and water. I've used chicken stock and added parsley. And serrano. And an egg.
A stock cube won't do here; as you're reducing the stock to nothing, the end product would be overwhelmingly salty.
approx 275g leeks (after trimming and discarding of tough outer leaves))
25g butter, cubed
250ml home-made chicken stock
2 tbsps grated parmesan
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
2 slices of serrano or prosciutto (approx. 50g)
1 fresh egg
salt + black pepper
Bring a pan of water to barely simmering and have a bowl of ice cold water ready. Crack the egg into a small cup or ramekin. Whisk the water into a whirlpool effect and carefully lower the egg into the centre. When set, after about 2-3 minutes, lift out the egg and slide into the bowl of icy water.
Cut the leeks in half lengthways and wash under running water, and then cut them widthways into approximately 120mm pieces. Put them into a pan in which they'll all fit snugly in a single layer. Dot the cubes of butter over and pour in the chicken stock. Add a pinch of salt and grind in some black pepper.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat a bit, cover and cook for about ten minutes, turning a couple of times. Remove the cover and turn the heat up to full. Let the stock bubble way to nothing, stirring the leeks a few times. This might take another ten minutes.
Meanwhile, heat up a pan of water (for re-heating the egg) and grill the serrano slices.
When the leeks are just starting to stick to the base of the pan, remove from the heat and stir in the parmesan and parsley. Put the egg into the pan of simmering water to re-heat.
Spoon the leeks onto a dinner plate and arrange the serrano on top. Remove the egg from the pan of water, drain, and place on top of the serrano.
Smoked salmon, for obvious reasons, isn't something that tends to find its way onto my weekly shopping list. Smoked salmon trimmings, however, well that's a different story. They're ideal for a Sunday breakfast with scrambled eggs or for a mid-week sandwich. I also like to stir them into a simple salad of new potatoes, spring onions, parsley and mayonnaise.
Not too long ago I could buy 120g of own-brand stuff for 90p from Morrison's. They don't seem to stock that anymore; instead they're selling 'posh cuts' from the Harbour Salmon Co at (I think) £1.49 for 90g. Still, you can get a 120g packet from Tesco for £1.50. Which works out at £5 a kilo cheaper than their cheapest packet of slices. So the 30g of trimmings in the pasta recipe below costs only 37.5p.
Anyway, here's five suggestions for meals to make with the trimmings:
Oh, the wonderful world of ready-made puff pastry. Buy a 500g block, cut it into six pieces*, and freeze them. They take no time at all to defrost and are perfect as the basis for a simple mid-week dinner. Roll a piece out to your desired thickness and make the shape you require - a rectangle, square or round. Add your chosen toppings, bung in the oven for 20 minutes or so and serve with a crisp, green salad and maybe some sautéed potatoes or a hunk of good bread. There's already a few ideas in the recipe section:
And here's a recipe for a mushroom tart I made last night:
You know what the filling for these tiny, pop-in-your-mouth delights - a simple mixture of mascarpone, condensed milk and vanilla - tasted like to me? The Mr Whippy ice creams of my childhood summers. But without all the thickeners, stabilisers, emulsifiers, and E numbers.
You can buy ready-made sweet shortcrust pastry (Jus-Roll for example), but I've never seen it in any of my local supermarkets.
You'll need a non-stick mini-muffin tray like this one.
SHORTLISTED FOR FOOD BLOG OF THE YEAR 2014