Warsaw

I arrived in Warsaw at lunch time and right next to my hotel was a “traditional restaurant, so I wasted no time.

Pierogi are traditional fried Polish dumplings. They can be filled with meat, cheese, vegetables. They’re fried and then served covered in a very oily bacon “gravy”.

I ordered the mixed portion. They looked and tasted like a bucket of Findus Crispy Pancakes.

This was not an inherently bad thing. I imagine that if you’re a manly Pole off to do manly Polish things these set you up just right; but I’m neither planning to toil in the fields of Silesia nor build someone’s extension in the Home Counties. They left me feeling exhausted, fat and oily. I may be all of these but I don’t like to feel it.

I defend Warsaw whenever anyone asks me about it but, as history has taught us, that’s not always easy. The city was largely rebuilt by some pretty grim communist architects. The sky is oddly colourless; neither grey nor white (and certainly not blue).

But there’s an underlying sense of ambition in Warsaw, the city seems to be full of young people who want to make it a trendy, modern city. There are very cool bars and shops if you look for them (and ignore the Irish bars and strip clubs for the British stags).

I’m staying in a c.£100 a night hotel and yet things are lovely. Just look at the breakfast pancakes;

There’s also a huge amount of vegan food in Warsaw and a real buzz about it. The first vegan place I tried was delicious. An enormous pile of crisp falafels with all the lovely bits that go with them. I spent a very happy time putting together different combinations to dredge through the hummus

The next lunch I went from fully vegan to merely veggie. Again the food was great.

who would have thought Warsaw had such great and varied food.

A country which has always enjoyed the good things now has a few quid and is doing brilliant stuff; portions are generous, puddings are teeth melting and beer is plentiful. Who cares if you’re enjoying it all in a brutalist bunker that looks a bit like my school’s 60s built tech block.

Andalusia

You’ve got to love a culture built around a lunch of drinking and nibbling salty things; followed by a nap; followed by an evening of drinking and nibbling salty things.

Madrid is my favourite city in the world for a messy weekend with Helen. I took her for her 30th and it nearly killed us both.

Andalusia felt like the obvious location for our “main holiday”. Surely the only thing better than a weekend of Spanish indulgence is two weeks of it. Well, it turns out this is 90% true but I have also found myself googling gout symptoms more than once.

Córdoba

The problem with tourist towns isn’t the tourists; it’s disreputable folk who see an opportunity to make a few quid off tourists. Unfortunately we got a bit caught out by restaurants shovelling shit to passing trade. If someone’s never coming back then you can flog then mangy swordfish, droopy chips and dubious croquettes.

Luckily we also stumbled across a rooftop which just about saved Córdoba from a food perspective. Not everything was brilliant (leeks with pig jowl and egg was particularly underwhelming) but the oxtail was a treat. Pitch black gelatinous meat falling off the ugliest bone. I was sucking at the marrow before I let them take the plates away.

It was also in Córdoba that we first discovered the now ubiquitous Andalusian variation on cold tomato soup; Salmorejo. Packed full of good olive oil (at good restaurants) and topped with ham and eggs it’s surprisingly addictive.

It’s also a good test of a place. If the boiled egg is grey, the ham cheap and the soup thin then leave before you eat anything else.

Seville

Of all the wonderful foods available in Seville the local speciality is a pork bap. Montaditos are small crusty white rolls filled with something delicious, and ideally a bit salty. All of the bars seem to offer them as a drinking snack.

The best ones are Montadito Pringa; effectively a pulled pork bap (already delicious) but with additional pig fat and black pudding mixed with it. So good.

Cooking course

We signed up to do market tour in Seville, but ended up cooking in a suburban kitchen for Spain’s premiere secondhand motorbike salesman (retired) and his endlessly fascinating wife.

About two days before we were due to do the market tour we were told it was overbooked. They suggested that instead we did a personal cooking experience in a local home. When we should have been poncing about with other Guardian Food Monthly types we found ourselves heading into the mountains in a battered Ford Mondeo with no seatbelts in the back.

Technically the host was a lovely bilingual young chap who worked as a guide. In reality he regularly stepped out to smoke, leaving us in the increasingly shakey hands of his mother. We were cooking for his parents and they’d never done this before.

His Dad was a wheezing, slightly yellowish chap with sunken eyes and a belly his grubby t-shirt could barely contain. He spoke no English, smoked endlessly and only came into the kitchen to get another beer. At dinner he sat at the head of the table and was always either laughing, wheezing or shoving food and drink into his mouth (often doing all of these simultaneously). I liked him a lot and was very happy to help him finish the whisky bottle I suspected he’d only opened for this meal.

Mum was cackling and very tactile with lots of long black/grey two tone hair, but a bit too heavy to be an old crone. She enthusiastically supervised our attempts to make paella, soup and tortilla. This involved shouting, ensuring the aforementioned hair fell in everything and then retreating to the cupboard for a hearty swig of red wine from the 5l plastic bottle she had stashed.

Through their son they told us the most brilliant stories over dinner. She was a motorbike racing girl from Spanish Morocco; he was the local speedway champion and had just opened his first sales and repair shop. From the photos they were both gorgeous; his now watery eyes twinkled with earned arrogance, her hair looked a lot better falling over her shoulders in a gold leather jumpsuit than bobbing in a raw tortilla mix.

She came in his shop, he didn’t charge her and soon they had the most successful shop in all Spain. They were rewarded with trips to Germany, Brazil and Japan. She picked up the languages and loved it, he played with motorbikes. It sounded like a hell of a ride, and well worth the toll it had clearly taken.

Cádiz

An ancient and historically significant port is still a port. Cádiz has intricate alleys and beautiful sea views, but it also has the grime built up centuries of hard work by men on ships and women on their backs. The scrawls on the cracked walls are unmistakably feckless graffiti, not street art.

Amongst the seediness we were hoping to get a bit of a respite from the cured meat and salty fat. I never thought I’d need a respite from such things, I assumed I could eat them until my arteries finally closed. It turns out there is a point when I crave something fresh and fishy.

We followed a Rick Stein recommendation for dinner. Rick may increasingly sound like a whiny Guardian letter writer but he has made his money talking fish. It was therefore rather a surprise when his recommendation took us to the best meat on the trip, possibly the best meal on the trip and maybe even the best cold cuts (a description that doesn’t do it justice) I’ve ever had;

The next night we did have fish and it was delicious. The waiter brought out a tray of stiff, shiny eyed sea bass, I picked one and 15 minutes later it returned after a pretty intense sun bed session

Granada

By the time we got to Granada we were going to take it easy. We felt liked we’d effectively done three back to back city weekends. Then the spectacular 3 hour drive over the mountains to get there gave me an unexpected new thirst

Within five minutes of leaving our hotel we’d squeezed into a buzzing bar. The great tradition in Granada is that tapas is free, with every drink, you get a small plate of deliciousness, no choice but who cares. By the time the visibly uncomfortable Americans next to us had stopped fussing and placed an order, Helen and I were three glasses of red and three plates of food to the good. By the time they’d worked out why they had lots of unordered food we were pissed and contented.

Toronto

I have a load of weird connections with Toronto. It was the only place my parents had traveled long haul before they had us. It was the destination for the only long haul holiday we ever took as a family. My wife used to live there.

It’s also a lovely place to moderate research. The people are so willing and friendly, even when they’re rubbishing the shit work of a bunch of impolite twats they remain faultlessly polite and supportive.

Helen loves chips, gravy and cheese, so it was perhaps inevitable she’d end up in the land of poutine. If she spoke French I’m sure she’d have gone to Montreal.

Just to annoy here I like to go to her favourite bar and order poutine and a portion of wings. It’s filthy. After a long night of groups, it goes very well with a few beers

Chengdu

At first glance China seems to be bewildering, impolite and culinarily disappointing. No one speaks English; the signs aren’t even in a familiar alphabet. People are impatient, pushy and sound like they’re locked in a constant battle with their phlegm. The food on the hotel buffet looked grey and gloopy.

But, this is all bollocks….

Chengdu is incredibly easy to navigate; the tube network is fantastic and makes you realise how much better London would be if TFL could threaten labour camps when negotiating with the RMT. It was though a worrying reminder of how much I rely on Google Maps to get around.

The people I’ve met are funny, cynical and delightfully greedy. There’s a pleasing obsession with food and being full. The impatience also suits me.

The food is wonderfully varied, delicious and fun.. On my first night here I did a food tour, on my second night the client took me to a great Yunnan restaurant and then ordered everything on the menu.

Some of the highlights,

Pancakes

The first stop on the food tour was a hole in the wall serving Sichuan pancakes. These are made with lightly fermented dough, bacon and a spicy jam. They’re greasy, doughy, spicy, sour and salty. It felt like we were doing the food tour in reverse; if they served these in London the queue at pub kicking out time would be enormous.

Peppers and Chili

Chengdu is in Sichuan province, so there’s a lot of pepper and spice. As with Indian food in India, you quickly realize that spiciness is far more complex and interesting than we think in the UK. It’s not just about uncomfortable mouth heat but balancing spices to create delicious tastes. (I’m sure the same is true of Mexican food but I’ve never managed to take a grown up trip there – I’ve always just gone to Cancun and got pissed with Helen.)

The most incredible Sichuan spice leaves your mouth tingly and numb, it’s a weirdly addictive sensation; a bit like holding really strong Listerine in your mouth too long. Other local spice effects are more familiar, leaving you with a lot of snot and an invigorating spicy buzz.

One of my favourite spicy dishes was at the Yunnan restaurant. It was spicy minced beef that you wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a mint leaf inside before squirting with fresh lime. Donald Trump’s worst nightmare; an alliance of Mexico and China.

Noodles  and Dumplings

The noodles and dumpling dishes are so close to pasta that it makes you think of Marco Polo. The dumplings here are boiled, not fried, so they can (at first glance) look very similar to tortellini. There was also a Yunnan dish of flat noodles with cured pork leg that was linguine with chili oil and pancetta in all but name.

For dumplings our food tour took us to a small restaurant inside a flat within a 70s built Soviet block. It was almost a cliché of a hidden gem restaurant; grubby kitchen with an old crone shuffling between steaming pots, garden furniture, yellowing walls with pealing posters.

Luckily the dumplings were great. They came in three level of spiciness; but all three were much more than just spicy. You got the roast garlic, the pork, the ginger and then the spices.

Noodles are shaved off of a golden doughy lump, straight into the boiling water; we’re a long way from Bachelors. In Italy, or good Italian restaurants, you learn that pasta doesn’t need to be a mere base for other things. Good pasta can be delicious with just good oil, salt (and maybe some cremated garlic in my house).  The same is true of noodles. One of the most surprising dishes we had was cold noodles in spicy oil. As you mixed the oil through the noodles the flavour didn’t just vary in intensity but actually changed based on the noodle-oil ratio

Rabbit’s Head

One of the dishes on the food tour that some wouldn’t eat was rabbit’s head that still had the teeth in it and looked distinctly like what it was.

As it had been slow cooked on the bone the cheek just fell apart. The done thing was to smear a bit of the brain on to the cheek before eating. As the brain had taken on the texture of bone marrow this was also rather lovely.

Bushtucker Trials

Locusts and grubs were less appetizing. They just don’t taste of much, and anything they do taste of is very ‘earthy’. Apparently they’re a great source of protein but I can see why they’ve not caught on around the world. They just don’t taste all that great.

Ruislip

For very practical reasons we moved to Ruislip four years ago. For the last two years we have been desperately trying to leave.

Ruislip is a rational choice if you work in West London (my wife does), use Heathrow a lot (yep) and your parents live in the West Midlands (mine) or North West (her’s). It’s also ideal if you like a grim suburbia that always makes you feel a bit sad and means your friends never visit no matter what you offer to cook. It’s a place of Wetherspoons curry nights, bad steaks in former pubs and tip runs on a Saturday.

At first glance the food options were fairly desperate too. Miller & Carter is treat meal if you enjoy the decadent manly idea of steak but not actually good steak itself.

Cafe Rouge are Cotes that have given up and let themselves go.

The tapas place was alright but the owner’s loathing for Ruislip came through the food. It was tapas which is perfectly acceptable if it comes with a beer in Madrid but adds up to a less than the sum of its parts when built into a full meal. It’s closed now.

Zaza is a sweet small chain of slightly fancy Italians across the far reaches of the Met Line. It’s a suburban birthday sort of place; empty Monday to Thursdays then booked months in advance on the weekend. The carbonara is genuinely delicious.

Our favourite place though is another, smaller family run Italian, Melissi. Just before it opened I went past and heard one of the family look at the new sign and say; “I can’t believe it’s happening”. I was on their side from the start.

The pizzas are sourdough and much better than Franca Manca. I lived in Brixton when Franca Manca first “popped” (as they probably don’t actually say in Brixton) and Melissi’s pizzas are simply superior

The pasta is also delicious. All cooked to order by the two chefs in the open kitchen. My favourite was the guanciale; salted pig jowl. The gnarly shards of pig fat were delicious in a tomato sauce with soft pasta. Alas no one else in Ruislip ordered it and I got a lovely apology from the owner when they’d taken it from the menu.

Beyond Melissi. Hop and Vine is a lovely little place for beer, gin and scratchings. If you get talking to the owners you have a great time. If you get stuck talking to Boring Bob the barfly you’ll hear about how he plans his work so his firm pays for his diesel to Watford away games.

Ora is also another family run place I really hope succeeds. It’s a brasserie infinitely better than Cafe Rouge, but sadly never as full. Boring Bob and his fellow Ruislipites don’t know a good thing when they’ve got one

And now we’re leaving, heading back to a proper London postcode, never to return.

Venice Beach

The food in Venice Beach is complex and conflicted. On the one hand Venice Beach is the heart of California’s body beautiful cult. In a place where even the homeless have abs everyone’s body is their temple. But on the other it’s also where America comes to drop out (because Americans even need designated places for various misbehaviours – Vegas and New Orleans are others). All day hedonism inevitably creates a craving for the filthiest indulgences. And, let’s be honest, this is still America.

First stop, Abbot Kinney, apparently one of the coolest streets in America.

I don’t know what Matcha is, even now I’ve eaten it, but in soft serve ice cream form it looks like “purest green”. (As first created by Lord Percy in the 15th century.)

It starts off tasting like slightly under sweetened raw cake mix, before quite quickly falling away to nothing. I didn’t finish it.

Next stop, brunch with friends who live here. Given we’re in LA and I can see the sea I go for fish tacos, they’re a bit underwhelming. Tacos have demonstrated they can be so much more than this half arsed, self assembly, offering. Tacos should be a delicate balance of powerful flavours, but these are meant to be built by an amateur (me). Then again it would take an alchemist, to create something truly delicious from over cooked fish, microwaved black beans, diced tomatoes, guacamole and limp flavourless pickled carrot. Still the Bloody Marys were good.

Perhaps this is all tacos were ever meant to be, perhaps we’ve all been spoilt by what they’ve become.

A leisurely bike ride along the front and we’re in Santa Monica ordering Poke Nachos. This feels like a dish which encapsulates and shares LA’s tensions; Pacific meets Mexican; healthy raw fish but served on crisps; fresh and light but with underlying grease and heft. Perhaps that’s why it was so delicious.

By 9pm the jet lag that had woken me at 4am is starting to kick in again. I’m back at my hotel and have grand plans of showering then going out for dinner. I’m determined not to spend the evening trying to stay awake a couple more hours by flicking between ESPN and internet pornography.

Alas, even the best laid plans can be scuppered. I try and avoid room service as a rule, a hotel Club Sandwich eaten off my chest feels like a waste of calories and opportunity. However, I was really tired and the menu looked quite interesting.

On my last trip here I was introduced to balsamic roasted sprouts. They are delicious. Since then I’ve learned how to cook them. You need to balance the vinegar, cook them through and always burn the outer leaves.

The room service menu also featured a steak burrito with stringy fries. It’d been a long day and I’d cycled about 8 miles. So,  I went dirty, but I had no idea just how dirty I was going.

The menu said it came with fries but this was incorrect. The fries were in the burrito covered in melted cheese and sucking up beef juices. It was so fucking good.  The flank steak was genuinely medium rare and so juicy the chips couldn’t get to the juice quickly enough. Cheesy blood was running down my arm onto my duvet by the third bite.

After such a filthy evening the next morning I needed to rebalance. I needed the angelic LA.

A cafe over the road from my hotel contained tattooed beautiful people and rustic bench seating, so I headed there. You can’t get more angelic LA than avocado toast with a poached egg, radish, chilliest and “micro cilantro”.

I wanted to hate it but, like the golden skinned hipster who served me, it was just too delicious.

Post script

The next day I went to Teddy Red Tacos and got the juicy, tasty taco hit I was looking for

Trump’s America

Venice Beach smells of piss and pot. It’s full of tarot readers, henna tattoo stalls and shops selling sloganned t-shirts. My friend (who lives here) calls it Camden on Sea; that’s not a compliment.

Yet my friend chooses to live here and I have gone out of my way to stay here on my last 3 visits to Los Angeles.

I should be staying in an airport hotel, the viewing facility is right by LAX. In the U.S. viewing facilities are often in the sprawl of soulless, low rise 80s architecture that surrounds airports. It’s convenient for clients to fly in, interfere, then fly home. I refuse to stay in airport hotels because they make me sad.

Venice is weird, along with the smells there’s always noises and colour; it’s a visceral place. Staying here provides an intense LA experience, albeit one that doesn’t leave me any closer to understanding the city.

Today Venice hosted the Festival of Chariots, a Hare Krishna event. From what I could see it involved a mix of Indians in traditional dress and white hippies dancing around, singing and smiling a lot. There were also floats with Hindu idols, and stalls providing veggie food to the many homeless people who live around the beach.

Alas, whenever a certain number of humans gather you always get a smattering of wankers. Today the wankers stood proudly under signs proclaiming the judgement of God (Christian).

As the happy-clappy and generous parade went by the thick set bearded wanker at the front got on the tannoy. Sadly he wasn’t preaching a warm, inclusive gospel of love thy neighbour. Instead his Christianity was a thin veneer for nasty, bullying racism.

He mocked Hinduism, India and the traditional dress of the American-Indians. He derided India as an awful place (I’ve been a few times, it’s amazing), and inevitably suggested that the American-Indians could “go home”. There were also pro-Trump slogans and, bizarrely, criticism of the feeding of the homeless. That was something that Jesus actually did too!

Personally I don’t find the Hare Krishnas’ much more objectively credible than the wankers’ but they’re infinitely better people. I’ve read a lot about Trump’s America and here it was, in California of all places. So angry, so cruel, so full of bitterness and bile.

Singapore

I like Singapore. Ok it’s organised fun and nothing like Manila, Jakarta or Bangkok, but I found all those cities exhausting. I only like Bangkok out of the three.

Look, if you think your Dad funding a trip to Asia will help you find yourself then Singapore is not the place. My understanding is this is best achieved by sweating on a Thai bus for 20 hours, getting pissed and then catching an STD from an Australian.

I wasn’t in Asia to find myself, I went for 5 days to catch up with one of my best friends. Singapore was ideal.

Twenty minute cab ride from the airport and I had a cold beer in his downtown office. Ten minute Grab ride later and we’re sat in the open front of a bar enjoying the mix of inside AC and outside heat, all with another cold beer. It was wonderful, everything was easy. We could focus on catching up and getting drunk. When we needed food we could order it without hassle and it arrived.

The next day we went to the famous Hawker markets. Yes they’re organised and sanitised compared to the rest of Asia but they’re also easy and delicious. So many stalls offering salt, grease and spice in various combinations sorted out our hangovers. Cold beers got us started again

And just look at the array of it. One of the best things about London is that new cultures arrive and bring their food, the same is true in Singapore

But I wouldn’t want to live in Singapore. Last year I read The Circle by Dave Eggers and Singapore brought it to mind. If you’re willing to play by the rules, not question anything and colour in the lines then it’s incredible, you will be looked after for as long as you behave. However, whilst we’re all willing to behave for a few days of stressfree deliciousness you don’t want a lifetime of it

Chicago

I’ve been to Chicago more than I’ve been to any other U.S city, and I really like it. Work takes me there but I want to go with Helen, I just don’t know how to fit it into a trip anywhere else we want to go.

I love U.S. bar culture, that the thing to do is pull up a stool and quietly greet the people either side of you. There’s no compulsion to talk to them, often after a long night moderating I just want to drink, but if you want to talk there’s usually interesting conversation available. I was previously in Chicago on the night of the Illinois Republican primary and spent the evening chatting to a chap who’d voted for Trump because “it’s impossible for him to become president but he can mess shit up”.

Whenever I’m in Chicago I always go for a deep dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno. Cool Chicago foodie types will tell you that deep dish is bullshit and only eaten by tourists. This might well be true but Deep Dish is basically a quiche with no egg and just a load of cheese, tomato and sausage. You also have to wait 40 minutes for it so can wind down from moderating with a couple of pints.

Whilst waiting for my pizza Alex the bartender and I watched the final of the College Softball World Series between UCLA and Oklahoma. Alex explained to me the intricacies of softball and his appreciation of “thick” women. It was difficult to argue with him, the game was brilliant and the college girls’ thighs substantial.

On my free night I walked up to the Old Town because I wanted to go and see the Second City theatre. We’re binge watching 30 Rock (again), so this was a pilgrimage.

Opposite the theatre there is a dive bar which is apparently famous. I went in there because the walk had left me thirsty, it did beers for $5 and was busy at 5pm. I later found out that the owner’s quirky personality and passion for artistic impression got it onto the Chicago edition of Parts Unknown

I then went and ate a lot of tacos. I love tacos. They’re just the perfect canvas for chefs to do amazing things: Small enough that they can be bold and experimental, and with a “fast food” heritage which allows them to be irreverent and dirty.

(While these tacos at Broken English were good the best I’ve ever had were at Pico’s Tacos in Mackie Mayors, Manchester

Bucharest

I’ve started doing this (again) as some people seem to be interested in all the places my job takes me. I always post pictures of amazing meals and cool places when I’m on a work trip, but I when go for dinner with my wife I often don’t take my phone. The reason I post so much on work trips is that I’m bored, and frankly lonely. I post because I want attention, I just want someone I know to be interested in what I’m doing.

It is therefore probably appropriate that I’ve restarted blogging from a country I’m really struggling with. I’ve always said that Belgium, Philippines and Nigeria are the three worst places I’ve ever been for work. Romania might join the list, but I really don’t want it to do so.

It’s a bit unfair really as flight delays meant that I landed at 2am. I’m also staying in a shit hotel in the suburbs, a hotel where the room keys have tassle keyrings. It’s also the sort of hotel that fails to send a car to the airport to pick you up, when you land at 2am, knackered.

My location hasn’t helped the food choices either. The first day the local agency told me the only place to get lunch was a kebab house. This turned out to be a ‘Mom & Pop’ kebab house with a middle aged couple of similar shapes bustling about between a counter and a barbecue grill. The food was alright; there was freshly cooked chicken in a warm wrap with lots of raw onion. I love raw onion.

A thunderstorm last night meant I was stuck in the same suburb for dinner. As I didn’t fancy kebab again this left me with two options; my hotel or a pizza place. The hotel Dining room was empty but for swan napkins and penguin waiters, both looking overly starched.

The Pizzeria sat me down opposite a couple who seemed to be rehearsing for an Amsterdam stage show. When kissing keep your tongue in your own mouth until your lips are locked. Their foreplay demonstration was accompanied by a playlist that moved effortlessly from a lounge version of Kung Fu Fighting to ‘(What a) Wonderful World’ in the style of Betty Boop

Again, the food was alright, it was a passable pizza; anchovies, olives and capers. (I love anchovies almost as much as I love raw onion, I use a lot of smints.) If a late night takeaway delivered this pizza at 1am you’d be happy with it, but it was a bit disappointing at any other time. That’s kind of been the story of all the food here.

I started off by caveating all of this by saying I’m still giving Romania a chance. The reason for this is the people. I know that sound trite but the people I’ve met have all been great fun. The Moderator is a young urban Romanian, bit nerdy. He knows about cricket because Andy Zaltzman mentions it on his podcast with Jon Oliver. The translator is pony tailed World War One battle re-enactment enthusiast who seems to have some fairly strong views on the Roma community. I think he might be a “Incel” (If that’s the word.) And the first respondent we went to visit for an ethnographic depth interview brewed his own moonshine. He was also a persistent and enthusiastic host, so it’s possible I’ll go blind soon. As with the food I think his moonshine is best sampled in the early hours, when you’re already pissed, but it was a lovely gesture