Thursday, 28 August 2008

Something that made me smile

I was sent this picture last week. It made me smile so I thought I'd share it on here as I am sure there are a few people out there who will appreciate it too.

It's from Married to the Sea.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Breakfast muffins

I’m a big fan of muffins. A good blueberry muffin, slightly warm, with a spoonful of vanilla yoghurt is a real treat, especially when the fruit is fresh and the berries burst in your mouth with a little explosion of juice and flavour. I’ve also been a long time fan of PrĂȘt a Manger’s breakfast muffins that were, until not that long ago, amusingly named Morning Glory Muffins, and I’ve been meaning to attempt to replicate them for a while now.

They are chock full of nuts, seeds and dried fruit and have helped me get through many a morning hangover whilst still feeling healthy and without having to resort to a full fried breakfast. They also go really well with coffee and with a Bank Holiday weekend ahead of us I thought I would try to make a batch of these muffins as a weekend treat.

The first step was to try and find a basic recipe for a muffin. One that wasn’t too sweet, too greasy or too complicated. A recipe that was versatile enough to add items to and remove items from without any detriment. This proved to be considerably harder than I expected and I can safely say that, after hunting through hundreds of books and websites, no such recipe exists.

I was also adamant that these muffins would be actual muffins. Most recipes seemed to result in little cakes that refused to rise up over the top of the cases, giving nothing more than a pathetic little dome of cake and a dense body underneath. I wanted a blooming mushroom cloud of muffin, spilling over the top of the case like the flesh of an overweight teen girl ballooning out over the top of a pair of low cut jeans.

This is the holy grail of muffin making – a light cup cake shaped base with a delicious cloud-like top that looks as if it is trying to escape its humble origins. But as a beginner I was unsure how to achieve this feat. I could use industrial quantities of baking powder but I didn’t want the end product to taste like bicarbonate of soda. I was also using wholemeal flour, not noted for its anti-gravity properties. And judging by the photos accompanying the various recipes I consulted, it seemed unlikely that I was going to achieve the desired effect.

And then I had a eureka moment. Instead of mixing the wet ingredients into the dry ones as one complete lot, if the egg was separated and the white beaten, like a meringue, before it was folded in at the last possible moment, then the muffin should be full of the necessary air to rise up like a nuclear explosion. The theory was good, but many sound theories have failed in application. Communism works, in theory, said Homer Simpson. But buoyed by my own Archimedes moment, I was awash with confidence.

And so, with wanton abandon I mixed flour (wholemeal and white) with some oats, a generous quantity of dried fruit (pineapple, cranberries and raisins) and seeds (pumpkin, poppy and sunflower), some brown sugar and a little baking powder before adding the ‘wet’ constituents: milk, egg yolks, vanilla yoghurt, oil, grated carrot and orange juice. The whole lot was mixed together and as the oven was heating up, I went to work with the egg whites, whisking them up until they were transformed from a liquid dribble into a billowy mass.

Once the whisked egg white had been folded into the muffin mixture and divided equally between 12 muffin cases, they went into a hot oven and I crossed my fingers.

There was no superstition necessary, however, and after twenty minutes they had risen up and over, just like muffins should. These were no pathetically domed specimens, little cupcakes vaguely masquerading as muffins. These were bona fide muffins worthy of any bank holiday breakfast table, to be served with steaming coffee, a little butter and plenty of late morning sunshine.

And if you ask nicely, I might even give you the recipe…

Tag - You're It

Apparently I’ve been tagged not once, not twice, but three times. I wasn’t too sure what this entailed but after conducting a modicum of research it appears that I have to share six ‘random’ facts about myself and then pass on the meme to a further six bloggers.

My tags came from Kian (Red Cook, blog par excellence), Tom (Under the Tamarind Trees, wonderful Cambodian cusine blog) and Selina (Let’s Chow, another awesome blogger who was kind enough to bestow the ‘Brilliante Blog Award’ upon me as well)

So, here are six Me shaped factoids

1. If I drink coffee after midday, I end up suffering from crippling insomnia, no matter what time I go to bed.
2. I can’t abide the excessive and unnecessary use of the word ‘literally’ when used in the wrong context - as a lazy verbal quantifier. Ditto the word ‘random’. There are very few things that are truly random. The appearance of quarks in a vacuum, perhaps. The photos from your camera phone are not ‘random’.
3. I have an irrational fear of rollercoasters.
4. I am very, very good at procrastinating.5. I developed a crush on She-Ra at the age of four.
6. I have listened to Pulp’s Different Class album more than any other album in my collection.

Urban Pilgrim
Dave’s Cupboard
The Left Over Queen
Gild the Voodoolily
The Student Stomach
And Foodycat, consider yourself tagged. Oh, and help yourself to an award while you're at it.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Friday Nibbles - Lingham's Chilli Sauce

It may be assumed that working from home renders impotent the ability of Friday to cause a general wave of relief that it is the end of the week and a glorious 48 hour respite from the mundanities of work lies ahead. I suppose that, to a certain extent, this is the case. There is little differentiation between the days I spend at ‘work’ and at ‘play’. But there is still an unconscious awareness of the way that we split up the week.

Perhaps it is due to spending so long adhering to the timetable that had been so deftly lain out by generations past. Personally, if I had been at that particular meeting I would have suggested that a three day weekend following a four day week was, perhaps, a better and more even way to divide a seven day week. Alas, I was not consulted and I digress.

Despite the lack of apparent structure to my week, Friday still presents me with a feeling of quivering laziness, much as it did whilst I was plying my trade in an office. I suppose it is because I have to try incredibly hard to attach a semblance of rigidity to my working week in order to achieve anything at all and Fridays, therefore, still mark the end of the working week, as such.

The mind seems to get a little lazy at this point in the week so in an effort to increase my productivity I’ve decided to dedicate this particular day to something with a structure and form. From now on, Fridays will see a brief written eulogy to a particular iconic brand that no self-respecting kitchen should be without. An item that, over the years, has earned its place in the culinary Hall of Fame – these shall be known as Friday Nibbles.

I should also point out that I am not being paid for these mini-musings. I am not a member of any ‘paid for’ blogging sites. All the items that will feature on these pages are there on merit alone.

And so, without further deliberation, let’s get started. To kick off this mini-series I’m going to begin with something close to my heart: Lingham’s Chilli Sauce.

‘A mild piquant relish and appetizer of delightful flavour’ is how Lingham’s describe their iconic sauce, which celebrates its centenary this year. It contains just four ingredients: chillis, sugar, vinegar and salt. And that’s it, glorious in its simplicity. There are no additives, no preservatives, no bulking agents, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers or other such nasties. It is a wonderful example of what can be done with a short list of first-rate ingredients.

Originally created to satisfy the curiosity of Colonial Brits, it is now shipped all over the world so that people in all corners of the globe can enjoy its unique flavour. But despite its popularity, it is still manufactured by the same, small company in Malaysia who pride themselves on the quality of their product and the purity of its ingredients.

Over the years I’ve developed something of a taste for the spicy and have amassed a growing collection of chilli sauces ranging from the sweetly mild to the ferociously hot but Lingham’s is the one I find myself turning to most often. It doesn’t have the intense sweetness of Thai varieties, nor the occasionally oppressive garlic tang. It is mild enough to be enjoyed on its own as a dip but has enough bite to pep up dishes to a satisfyingly warm level.

It is also wonderfully versatile. You can stir it into ketchup and pour it over chips or use it is a marinade for chicken or fish. Dribbled over falafel or kebabs it adds a delicious heat. You can even add it to salad dressings to complement a cooling bowl of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber.

It is this versatility and downright tastiness that makes it a top-notch hot sauce and a permanent fixture in our store cupboard.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Souper Soup

With the weather taking a swift and decisive turn for the Autumnal, the appeal of salad and other such meals diminishes rapidly to be replaced by a desire for soups and other heartier fayre.

I know it is only August and that theoretically we have another couple of weeks before the short sleeves are replaced with jumpers and the barbecue is packed away for another year but the last few days have seen winds whipping through the branches and a significant dip in the temperature. Blackberries, perhaps the most evocative of Autumn fruits, have started to ripen to a vivid purple and the apple trees in the overgrown orchard next door are beginning to bear fruit, albeit a touch on the sour side – not that it will prevent us from making a batch of cider.

A triumvirate of peppers – one red, one green and one yellow – have sat in the vegetable draw for the past few weeks and yesterday seemed like a good opportunity to use them before they make that inevitable transition from edible to compostable.

I find raw peppers hugely unappealing, but roasted they take on a complexity of flavour that belies their uncooked state. They sweeten and lose the bitterness that makes them so unappetizing. They make great antipasti simply dribbled with olive oil, with a few grains of sea salt scattered over the top but I felt that something more filling was appropriate.

After they had been roasted, I added them to a pan with an onion and three or four cloves of garlic that had been gently sweating away for about ten minutes. Two tins of plum tomatoes, a little smoked paprika and some seasoning and you have a soup that can bubble away gently for an hour before it needs blitzing.

Alongside the soup I cooked a couple of generous handfuls of green lentils which are not only cheap but also wonderfully filling. These were stirred into the soup just before serving with a chunk of sourdough The result was a warming autumnal meal for an unseasonably autumnal day.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A disturbing confession

This is a post I thought I would never write. I had always vowed that anything grown under laboratory conditions would not pass my lips (see this, rather frightening, vision of the future: lab meat) let alone form even the smallest part of my diet. This included Quorn and Textured Vegetable Products (TVP) such as soya. I have no problem with vegetarianism or veganism, people have the right to eat whatever they wish. Indeed, over the last few months I have found that my own meat consumption has fallen significantly.

We can’t afford to eat quality meat (by which I mean humanely reared) on a regular basis and so we eat it with less frequency rather than accept a dip in quality. This is our own personal choice, much it is personal choice that convinces a person that they do not wish to eat meat at all.

What I do have an issue with is non-meat products that attempt to emulate something that has come from a living, breathing creature. If you make the choice to exist solely on legumes and pulses then make the commitment. Don’t fill your shopping basket with meat free bacon or TVP chicken style pieces. That’s just wrong and leads us to dark and murky places where I think we should not delve (see link above on lab grown meat).

Anyway, back to Quorn. Quorn is a manufactured fungus that was developed back in the 1960s. After being grown in a vast Petri dish, it is then processed into various forms that resemble animal products that we know and love: minced ‘meat’, chunks of ‘chicken style’ pieces and other such culinary abominations.

For some inexplicable and bizarre reason that still defies all rational explanation, a packet of these ‘chicken style’ Quorn pieces managed to find themselves in my freezer. In MY freezer alongside chunks of lamb neck, a bag of pig’s trotters and a frozen tray of game including pigeon, pheasant and venison. They were discovered as I was making room for a bag of ice and a bottle of Stolichnaya and were sacrificed so that we could enjoy some cold vodkas and tonic later in the evening.

They weren’t just sacrificed. In what may be deemed a slight over-reaction, they were deftly flicked towards the bin where they sat, slowly defrosting into their weird fungal form.

But in the spirit of adventure (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it, et cetera) and frugality (credit crunch cooking – don’t bin it, eat it) I removed them from their rubbishy grave soon afterwards and handed them to my girlfriend who insisted that they were, in fact, ‘quite nice.’

To me, ‘quite nice’ has never been a ringing endorsement. ‘Quite nice’ is how my grandmother might describe an album of pan-pipes music or an episode of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. Other foods that fall into the ‘quite nice’ bracket include mild cheddar, aubergines and Salt ‘n’ Shake crisps. None are offensive but neither are they worthy of praise and my world would not be a worse place if any of them ceased to exist.

For the Quorn, we decided on fajitas – my rationale being that almost any foodstuff, even one as soulless, soggy and pathetic as Quorn, can be rendered edible with the addition of copious amounts of hot sauce. It’s like balls in a bottle, just waiting to kick some poor, unsuspecting ingredient up the backside and render it a fully-fledged psycho like drill sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.

We added an onion and a sliced courgette, one of the many that are invading our kitchen thanks to a very productive vegetable patch, and then in went the Quorn. I was surprised to see it caramelising in a similar way to meat, albeit considerably faster. The smell, too, was pleasant. Not necessarily meaty, but certainly not fungal either. The sauce went in (from a jar. I know. I know. I know. But I can’t make everything from scratch) followed by a tin of black eyed beans and it bubbled away for a few minutes whilst we heated the wraps.

Once the tortillas had been filled with the mixture (which was looking disturbingly meaty) they were topped with a little tomato sauce, some cheese and then the whole lot slid into a hot oven.

It pains me to say this but they tasted good. Granted, there was a considerable amount of Who Dares Burns brand hot sauce dribbled into my fajita (I’ve just re-read that and it sounds incredibly rude. Oh well) but the overall flavour was good. Don’t get me wrong, there is more chance of Ellen DeGeneres being caught in a threesome with Siegfried and Roy than me renouncing meat and all its fleshy glory but perhaps I won’t be so fast to judge next time.

Thursday, 14 August 2008


I've been posting fairly regularly over at my new (non food related) blog. These have included, amongst other musings, writings on the US election, Russian dissidents, dead American comics and memory.

Feel free to scoot on over and say hello. It would be just lovely.




I lay the blame squarely at the door of Anthony Bourdain. If it had not been for this man I could be a normal, fully functioning member of society by now, complete with a regular job and a steady income. Instead I am a food obsessed jobbing writer desperate to eat my way around the world, indulge in endless gastronomic experiences, try anything and everything and hunt for the perfect meal. And then write it all down, naturally.

On second thoughts, maybe blame is the wrong word. I think, perhaps, that what I mean is that I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. If it had not been for this man I might have a regular job and a steady income. I could be a jobbing account manager by now (whatever that means). Instead I am a food-obsessed writer carefully eating my way around the world and cataloguing the growing collection of gastronomic experiences I am revelling in. My boundaries are limitless, my palate adventurous. I am happy to try anything and everything and am hunting for the perfect meal. And writing it all down, naturally.

When it comes to food I have an uninhibited sense of adventure. I’ve said before that what excites me most about travel isn’t the weather or the beaches or the galleries or museums or the views and vistas. It is the food. I don’t even have to leave the country to get excited. I am planning a trip to Colchester to feast on native oysters and a sojourn to Cromer to gorge on crab. Theses are no further than an hour from my house but the prospect excites me to the point when I can think about little else.

There is a culinary adventure wherever you look. A recent trip to Cardiff and Bath resulted in some superb lamb and (officially) the best sandwich in the country (more of those later).

Thailand was, of course, an almost non-stop gastro-quest. We had some incredible food and some amazing experiences – not all of which were food related, it may surprise you to discover. The heaving throng of Chinatown with its myriad smells and mind-blowing selection of streetfood. The iced coffee we supped surrounded by a thousand and one cars billowing out acrid fumes. The sweetly infamous durian fruit, munched clandestinely in the hotel room. The century eggs that ended up in a napkin. All were truly, truly incredible.

But, as is customary, I felt that I should save the best for last.

Feeling a little claustrophobic thanks to the slightly sanitised and staid feeling of the hotel I went searching for something a little more traditional. We had succumbed to room service once and also endured a deeply average meal in the hotel restaurant (hot tip – if something on the menu makes you utter the words ‘oo, that sounds interesting’ then avoid it at all costs. Or you may end up with deep fried duck with sweet espresso flavoured sauce) but once again I was hankering for something real, something with soul, something made on the side of the road.

After walking south along the beach for an hour I came across a lone taxi driver waiting for any passing trade. He asked me if I wanted a taxi. No, thank you, I replied but perhaps you could tell me where I could get some food?
‘Thai food?’ he said
‘Thai food.’
‘Local food?’
‘Local food.’
‘400 metres down the road is a motorbike and food stall,’ came the glorious reply ‘I give you lift.’
My spirits soared. I could not have crafted a better scenario. It transpired that there was a substantial amount of construction work taking place just along the coast and builders need feeding.

I told him that I would have to go and get my girlfriend but I promised to be back as soon as I could and set on my way, as fast as it is possible to go on banked sand whilst wearing flip flops that are two sizes too big. I hesitate to think what I looked like but lithe and athletic are two words that probably wouldn’t be used in this context.

By the time I got back to the hotel I had been gone almost two hours but I was too eager to take notice of the gentle reprimand I received from my girlfriend, no doubt slightly anxious that a fifteen minute stroll had taken a little longer than expected.

And then it began to rain. It rained harder than we had seen since we arrived. We really were in our own version of The Truman Show: ‘We have confirmed reports that two guests are attempting to escape the complex and eat elsewhere. Turn on the storm. Repeat, turn on the storm.’

Our hunger began to press and we toyed with the idea of postponing. But just as the pain in our bellies began to take over rational control of our heads the clouds parted, the rain ceased and we were able to start the pilgrimage.

The taxi driver was waiting and displayed delight on seeing our return. As promised, he drove us the short distance for nothing and as I saw the destination an uncontrollable smile spread across my face. Not one but two hastily cobbled together motorbikes with rudimentary stalls attached, each with a gas burner and an array of exciting foodstuffs available. I asked our driver to order for us. He declined my offer of a meal but duly rattled off an order to the waiting hawkers.

Within minutes we each had a cob of corn, a plastic tray heaped with freshly cooked fried rice, topped with tiny chillies and a plastic cup full of sweetened Thai iced tea. The driver offered to take us back to the beach so that we could eat within sight of the sea, a proposition we couldn’t resist.

We ate sat on a large piece of driftwood within metres of the rolling waves. Grey clouds loomed close to the horizon and a soft breeze rattled the palm trees. The food was the best I have ever tasted.

I was in a place I love, with someone I love doing what I love. This was perfection. Thanks, Tony.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


After a week in the urban intensity of Bangkok, we were ready to move on to more sedate climes and swap crushingly busy markets for vast empty beaches and the heaving Chao Praya river for the rolling Andaman sea.

Phuket is a famous contradiction. With a large Islamic population (here mosques allegedly outnumber Buddhist temples) there is a conservative streak running through the culture. Phuket Town, the capital of the island, is a tightly knit, functioning city with little regard, or need for a tourist industry. The markets are resolutely local with few, if any, concessions to non-Thais. English is not widely spoken, for example, and subsequently much communication must be done with elaborate hand gestures. The buildings here are crumbling relics to colonialism, stunning facades with peeling paint and overgrown driveways – the settlers long gone. It is traditional in an endearing and sleepy way.

Just 20 kilometres west lies Patong, the very antithesis of Phuket Town. Patong suffers thanks to its reputation as the sex tourism capital of Thailand. Formerly home to a US airbase, the town grew up and flourished on vice – the black market, sex, drugs and drink seem to be the key aspects of the economy. If hedonism were a currency, Patong would be beating the global recession. Pirate DVDs are sold openly on the streets along with fakes of every label under the sun. By day the neon lights look sad and stark as sunlight cascades the bright glow of reality over them but by night they dominate and turn the narrow streets into a lurid, glowing homage to Sodom and Gomorrah.

But thanks to international investment and government intervention, Patong is gradually shedding its reputation, or at least trying to. It is still a hedonist’s paradise (Michael Houellebecq’s novel Platform is a staggeringly well-written account of the underbelly of Patong) but, by all accounts, far less seedy than it once was and during daylight hours could even be described as a family resort.

Having had enough of late nights and neon, we chose to stay on the north of the Island, about 45 minutes from Patong, at one of an increasing number of resort hotels on the Mai Khao beach. These luxurious retreats offer unsurpassed luxury, endless activities (should you want to do more than lie in the sun), a staggering range of food in a number of restaurants and will even loan you a movie or two if you feel like staying in. There is even an on-site shop to provide you with all the necessities (at grossly inflated prices). In short, it is like the Truman Show.

And this is at the heart of the problem. If you want to lose yourself in a glorious fug of luxury then these Thai theme parks are ideal. If you want to experience Thailand but don’t want to get your hands dirty or be bothered with non-essential trapping like ‘culture’ then they are perfect. You can forget that there is a world out there, a world where taxis are cheap and food is a fraction of the price, and infinitely better, than in the hotel.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time softly floating on this cloud like, inland cruise ship but we soon got itchy feet. Having seen Bangkok and all the excitement and variety and intensity, shifting to this Truman-like existence was hard. And like Jim Carey’s character, our sense of adventure and intrigue got the better of us. And we were delighted that it did.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Century Eggs - The Epilogue

Two days ago I checked the stats on my blog. I’m used to getting a fairly decent number of hits per day and am generally happy when it hits three figures, usually after I’ve posted a photo on Tastespotting or Foodgawker. So I was a little taken aback to see that I’d had over 2,000 hits over the last 48 hours.

It turns out that the last post I wrote, about century eggs, was picked up by Neatorama and subsequently by a couple of other sites (here, for example). After doing a little happy dance I composed myself and thought about how I could carry on the general run of form.

And then I noticed that it had sparked something of a debate. It seems that century eggs have divided the global food community into two firm camps. I was accused of being ‘INCREDIBLY melodramatic’ (sic.) in my description of this foodstuff. Numerous century egg fans came out in defence of these weird snacks (sick) and then a raft of others backed me in my assessment.

OK, hands up, it’s a fair cop. I’ll admit now that I did exaggerate slightly for comic effect. I am a writer – it’s my job to try and entertain as well as inform. But what I wrote was etched in truth. I have an adventurous palate (these are not the most disgusting thing I have ever put in my mouth, that’s for sure) but these eggs were really not to my taste. And it seems some people agree with me:

However, to all those who doubted me and said I was being ‘melodramatic’, I am willing to be proved wrong. If there is enough demand I solemnly swear that I will go to my nearest Chinese supermarket and purchase a packet of century eggs. I will then post the resultant video of me eating one right here on my blog. As advised I will try it with sugar and hot sauce and congee. And if I am wrong and they don’t taste as bad as I first reported I will eat balut. Deal?

So, to register your interest simply leave a comment below and we’ll take it from there.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Breakfast time and some very old eggs

In keeping with my anthropological approach to eating whenever I am away I eschewed the regular looking breakfast items and went straight for the steaming bowl of what looked like wallpaper paste.

Eggs and bacon are all well and good but whenever I eat anything like that for breakfast I feel so sluggish and tired, like I want to head straight back to bed, rest a hand on my belly and watch some inane television. This was most definitely not what I wanted to be doing during my holiday. I wanted to be suppressing boundless energy and racing from temple to temple and market to market. Not snoozing in front of Mythbusters in an air-conditioned hotel room.

So steaming wallpaper paste it was. If this was full of enough goodness to keep generations of Asian farmers fed then I was sure it could keep me sated for the next few hours, no matter how many over-zealous tuk-tuk drivers I had to fend off.

I assumed that this rather unappetising looking gloop was congee, a breakfast staple round the whole of South East Asia. To the side were a number of bowls of condiments. I rather like this DIY aspect of Thai food, being able to adjust your meal to your exact tastes. Like it spicy? Not a problem. Prefer things a touch sweeter? Go right ahead, my good man.

Unlike here in the UK, there is much less differentiation between breakfast and the other meals of the day. It is not unusual to have fried rice or even noodle soup at an early hour, perhaps thickened with a little egg. Congee is made by cooking rice for a long, long time. Occasionally if you fail to put the kitchen timer on and you forget about the pan of basmati bubbling away, it can take on a somewhat glutinous feel as the starches and grains break down. Well, if you do that for about an hour longer then you have congee, almost like a rice porridge.

And it is delicious. It is warming and filling in the way that you would expect from a bowl full of pure carbohydrate but it really comes alive when you get creative with the condiments. The usual array of flavour options are there (salty fish sauce, astringent white vinegar, sweet sugar and fiery chilli) but these are joined by other tasty morsels such as fish balls (balls made from fish, not trout testes), chicken balls (ditto), crispy fried shallots, thinly sliced green pepper and thousand year eggs.

Now, thousand year eggs do appear on my list of things to try but if I am being perfectly honest they are not up there with kobe beef and oturo tuna. They don’t even come as far up the list as a New York hot dog or genuine boudin noir. They are hovering somewhere between deep fried chicken feet and a Domino’s Meateor Pizza – things that I might eat given the opportunity (and if my curiosity was in need of something a little more adventurous), but not something I would go out of my way to nibble on. They are a frightening looking foodstuff. If you took an x-ray of a raw egg, asked a three year old to colour it in and took a photograph of the result, the negative of that photo would look similar to a thousand year egg.

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

What we know as the white is not white at all. It is a translucent brown colour reminiscent of recycled glass. The yolk, far from being an appetising yellow, is grey. And hard. Depending on how old the egg in question is, the smell can be no more than a tickle of ammonia to an eye-wateringly sulphurous tang. Century eggs tend to be milder whereas the millennial counterparts really are a force to be reckoned with. Governments in need of an alternative fuel source need look no further than these potent little ova.

They are made by wrapping regular eggs (that taste so very good fried or poached or boiled or scrambled) in a mixture of salt, lime, mud, clay and straw and then leaving them. For ages. Occasionally they are even buried in the ground for several months before they are deemed edible. And here they were staring me plainly in the face, at breakfast.

So, along with a spoonful of all the other delicious extras, I gingerly (oh, thinly sliced ginger was in there as well) added a couple of pieces of strange-shiny-brown-grey-sulphur-egg to my congee. For good measure I stocked up on chillis – my rationale being that the heat from these tiny nuclear strength peppers would render impotent the flavour of the eggs, if necessary.

And it was necessary. The very moment I put this odd, quivering brown and grey jelly to my mouth I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The subtlety of the congee was simply lost amid an explosion of rancid sulphur, like a box of old eggs had been cooked in a catalytic converter. Everything about this bizarre foodstuff was repellent – the flavour, the texture, the smell and the appearance. I didn’t listen to it but I dare say if I had, it would have sounded disgusting as well.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being blinded by preconception I tried another piece. That ended up in the same place as the first one: in a tightly folded napkin. The heat from the excess of chilli became a welcome distraction but I can safely say that, as far as I am concerned, century eggs and all their ilk can stay buried firmly in the ground.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Latest Article

I’m delighted to say that my latest article ‘Doing the Groundwork’ has just been published in the August issue of Home Farmer Magazine. You can buy the magazine at Borders and WH Smith stores nationwide. Alternatively, click here to buy online.

Feeling Fruity - Durian

There is little danger of being unable to get your ‘five-a-day’ in Thailand. Indeed, the ubiquitous street vendors sell so many varieties of fruit it is hard to stop yourself from going beyond the magic number. Pineapples cut into intricate corkscrews, slithers of green mangoes, chilled wedges of watermelon, bags of sweet jackfruit, tangerines with an unfamiliar green skin, deep purple mangosteens, alien-like spiky lychees, freshly cut coconuts with luridly coloured straws peeping from the top and bunches of longan berries, which look disturbingly like potatoes, are all available in huge quantities for no more than a few baht.

Chief among these exotic fruits, though, is the infamous durian, one of South East Asia’s most well known delicacies and something any bold food adventurer simply has to try. Durian look like the pre-historic eggs of an animal dreamed up by HG Wells but it is the smell that makes this particular fruit so notorious.

Put in the simplest language possible, durian stinks. It stinks like nothing I have ever smelt before. It stinks enough to make you check your pants just to make sure that last fart you did was no more than mere gas. Whilst strolling the streets of Bangkok you may occasionally be overwhelmed by the stench from the city’s primitive sewage system. The only trouble is that the city’s sewage system is far from primitive and the smell is, in fact, coming from a near-by durian seller. It is illegal to take the fruit on public transport and you will struggle to find a hotel that permits it onto the premises. And everything you have heard about this spiky, deadly looking fruit is true.

Even wrapped tightly in impermeable plastic, the fetid stench is quite overwhelming. Imagine the smell of an open latrine after a starving army, plagued with dysentery, had been fed on onions, eggs, broccoli, cabbage and laxatives and you are in the right sort of Ball Park. It is a smell that gets into your nostrils and will not let go. It is quite, quite foul. But also bizarrely curious.

After we bought some I was drawn to the fruit, like a fly pulled towards the fatal beauty of a glowing blue light. We unwrapped the plastic and placed the strange pale yellow insides onto a plate. They looked like the kidneys from an alien species. Initially the smell was faint but as the fruit breathed it began to get stronger. Onion was the first discernable scent to emit from the custard yellow cheese-like orbs, closely followed by an increasingly fetid funk of rotting brassicas, like a neglected vegetable tray in the bottom of a fridge.

Before I passed out I felt it wise to pop some in my mouth just to see if the myths were true, namely it may smell like a dead sloth stuffed with garlic but don’t let that put you off because the taste is quite heavenly.

Until you actually taste it, it is hard to believe that this is the case. Taste and smell are so closely related that we often get the two confused: eat a piece of apple whilst holding a pear under your nose and you taste pear rather than apple. Surely with the two senses so close, there can’t be that much discrepancy between the full on nasal assault and the flavour of durian?

But anyone who has tried it knows that this is the case. Durian is delicious in a way that renders you quite speechless. It causes your eyes to widen in utter surprise, it dances across the tastebuds and tickles parts of your mouth in a way I have never experienced before. It is soft and creamy, custardy and sweet. Sure, there is the faintest taste of onion but that is only a mere flutter in the background – as if the smell and taste are only the most distantly related cousins. There is a delicate cheesiness to both the flavour and texture, which in my book is no bad thing. And once you have tasted it, the smell really isn’t that bad. There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where, on his final leg of the journey, the eponymous hero has to walk across a seemingly vast chasm. But it is just an optical illusion and there was a bridge there all along. Well, durian is like that. Once you’ve stepped into the abyss, you can’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about.

We tucked the plastic tray and wrapping into the bin, went to bed happy and slept well no doubt thanks to the bottle of Thai whiskey we had successfully polished off.

On waking up however, we were greeted with an eye-wateringly bad smell. For a bleary eyed hour we levelled comedy accusations at each other until the stench became so bad we had to ascertain from where it was emanating. A tiny sniff taken in the direction of the bin had me retching into the toilet unable to escape the raw fetidity of the stench that greeted me. The plastic tray had contaminated the bin and subsequently the entire room. It quickly went onto the balcony. Now I understand the ban. We checked out of the hotel the same day.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Take out coffee, Thai Style

Despite the best efforts of Starbucks et al who seem to be invading Bangkok with a ruthless efficiency, the best coffee in Thailand, like pretty much everything else, comes from solo entrepreneurs with little more than a roadside cart and a gas burner. Those who wish to indulge their caffeine habit with a skinny-frappa-latte-mochaccino may still do so but they are missing out on one of the city’s real treats.

The Thais love to nap. Second only to eating, dozing seems to be a national past-time. If a tuk-tuk driver isn’t racing through traffic he is likely to be parked under the shade of a tree, head back and eyes shut – a look of serene calm on his face. I suppose this explains the 24-hour nature of life in this city: catch some Zs in the day, keep going all night. It also explains the popularity of stimulant-laced drinks such as M-150 and Red Bull, a drink we are also familiar with, albeit in a slightly diluted and carbonated form. These frighteningly sweet, almost medicinal tasting drinks, are great at providing an intense and short lived burst of alertness (they also mix really, really well with Sam Song, a dangerously cheap brandy, just don’t expect to be sleeping any time soon if you have a night on these).

But despite the practicalities of these little brown bottles, I prefer my wake up call to be a little less sweet and slightly gentler. I also quite like my heart beating at its regular, sedate pace rather than an audible buzz which seems to be the effect of these liquid hyper stimulants. So coffee it was.

A busy road junction close to Chinatown was the temporary home of a coffee and tea cart sending wafts of tantalising smells through the fumes. Dodging the traffic, we ordered a coffee each and watched as an old lady went to work with dizzying speed: mixing, pouring, stirring and brewing with amazing skill. A large shot of coffee was mixed with sugar syrup and poured over crushed ice, steam pluming in fast disappearing curls above the rim of the cup where the hot coffee met the cool ice. This was topped up with condensed milk, dozens of tins of which weighed down the small cart.

Normally I am purist when it comes to matters coffee, especially first thing in the morning when only a double shot of thick, black espresso sweetened with a little Demerara sugar will do. The prospect of messing around with this base perfection irks me slightly. But my irk quickly evaporated, much like the steam from the gently boiling water on the cart, when I tasted this delightful drink. I am a convert, a genuine iced coffee convert. So much so that when we arrived home one of our first purchases was a tin of condensed milk so that we could recreate this moment of caffeine fuelled heaven.

And now, along with the sharp hissing of the espresso machine, the peace of the morning is regularly disturbed by the harsh grinding of the food processor as it works to crush cubes of ice. This is the best way to wake up when the sun is shining.

Thai style iced coffee
Fire up your coffee machine. Crush enough ice to fill a highball glass ¾ of the way to the top. Make a double shot of espresso and pour it into a mug. Mix in two teaspoons of brown sugar (white sugar is just too saccharine for this, it gives the coffee a nasty thin and synthetic taste). Add about 150ml of condensed milk. Stir it well and pour over the ice. A little sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg adds a nice warming note as well. NB – if you don’t have a coffee machine, a heaped teaspoon of instant coffee (gah, I hate it so much and it pains me to say this) mixed with a little boiling water should give a similar (although vastly inferior) result.