Running for the border

Ten days ago we had a fabulous leaving party; joyfully drunk in our favorite pub with 40 of our dearest friends. We knew we had to wash our hands pretty regularly and try not to cough in public, but apart from that the world seemed to be very much as it always had been.

Last Monday Helen moved to our new apartment in New York. It was an exciting time, we were starting a new life in the city that never sleeps.

I made sure Helen was safely in the apartment, sorted out the furniture delivery, went for a celebratory dinner with her then headed back to London to wrap up our lives. The plan was I’d return to New York on the 1st April. All good.

Saturday afternoon I was refereeing, both teams were short of players and we were talking about a bit of working from home, but still nothing to worry about.

The next 24 hours….

As I got off the pitch Trump announced a ban on travel from the UK to the US, effective from Monday night. If I didn’t get to Helen in the next 48 hours I didn’t know when I’d next be seeing her; within 24 hours I was on a plane.

I called Helen, she was in tears. By the time I got off the phone with her my amazing friends had already looked that there were seats available on flights the next day. My priority was ensuring all loose ends could be tied up so I could get on that flight.

Top priority: the cats. They were meant to be fly on the Tuesday anyway but now I needed the cat travel people to take them on the Sunday, and UK citizens wouldn’t be able to enter the US from Monday night, so there was a good chance they’d be with them for a few weeks. Luckily Pet Air UK are utterly lovely and incredible. The cat lady who answered her mobile on Saturday night said she would personally come round with the van to pick them up the next morning (Sunday) at 11 as she couldn’t get there any earlier, she actually apologized!  They’d look after them for as long as I needed.

I could now book my flight. There were no other living creatures to consider.

So, I booked my flight – it was around 7pm on Saturday evening and I would be flying at 7pm on Sunday evening. I had 24 hours to pack up our entire life and move to another continent. I was literally running for the border. My Dad helpfully likened the situation to Le Carre’s ‘The spy who came in from the cold’; and then reminded me what happened to Leamus when he got to the border.

Next up, make a webuyanycar appointment for the morning. 10am on Sunday I was there and trying not to look too desperate.

Anyway, back to Saturday night. My amazing friends and me were heading to my house to box up. I thought I had 3 weeks to leisurely sort through stuff, pack some, take some to the tip and then store.

For three hours we worked like lunatics packing up my weird books and clearing out kitchen drawers full of spices bought because Helen once needed a pinch in a recipe.

My colleague, who I’d agreed to give a load of our stuff as she’s moving into her first flat arrived half way through with a zip car van. She loaded up and headed off.

And we continued to clear and pack, making two big piles; one of boxes for storage, one of bin liners for the tip. In between Dominoes came and went and we found all sorts of things I had no idea Helen had ever bought. Until, eventually, at around 10.30 we’d had enough and went for last orders at the pub. I bought thank you beers and then my friends headed off to bed

But… I’d still not packed a thing. It was midnight and I needed to leave for the airport at 3 tomorrow. We’d done an ok job with packing up the house but all my clothes and belongings were still all over the place. Around 3am I had three full cases and my mud and kit filled rugby bag as carry on.

The next morning I was up at 6, packing again. There are so many cupboards and nooks to clear in a house; under the stairs was still full. My parents text at 7 to say they were on the way. I hadn’t asked them to do this but they’re amazing like that. Obviously I was a bit worried about dad, but given we’ve not hugged in 30 years I figured he’d be fine.

At 9 my amazing friends returned to help pack the cats up for their trip, and take me to sell the car.  Ten minutes stood around a cold Homebase car park, 10 minutes watching a man kick the tyres of my car and we were done. We treated ourselves to Snickers for breakfast.

As we were driving home I got a message to say the cats had gone, a few moments later we saw the PetAir UK van driving away from my home. The cats prefer Helen, but that was pretty heartbreaking

Even more heartbreaking (but in a wonderful way), by the time I got home my parents had loaded up their car and were ready to do the first tip run; they’re brilliant.  All of a sudden we were getting somewhere, one of the two big piles had gone. Ok, there was still a load to do but were getting there.

By Sunday morning my phone was going constantly with friends offering to help in any way they could. Our letting agent, The Property Partnership, also stepped up and offered to take on the cleaning of the house and any final management. They didn’t need to do that, and have waived any management fees. Our handyman, and neighbour, was similarly supportive; straight round and offering to pick up anything I didn’t manage to do.

By 2pm we were able to sit for a few minutes with Ginsters Slices, Mini Cheddars and Eccles Cakes (who needs parents who hug you if you can have parents who step up and know exactly what food you want in stressful times).  By 3pm I was in my friends car and on my way to Heathrow.

All I had to do now was get through US immigration and start a new life in a shut down country!

London

After fourteen years I no longer live in London.

To begin with I lived in a flat in Battersea with a couple of Afrikaans bears and an Irish gamer. The bathroom was at the back of the flat. Whilst I was watching TV the bears would walk through hand in hand in towels to shower together, 15 minutes later they’d walk back leaving wet footprints.

I was skint, single and oh so desperate to be a bright young thing; I was dreadful. Luckily I loved Sam Smith pubs and those cheap but reliable French bistros; Savoir Faire, Pierre Victoire and Bar Du Marche. Bar Du Marche was on Berwick street and even as a 25 year old I could tell it was terrible. I once found a live earwig in my salad. Savoir Faire remains on the shit end of Oxford Street and Pierre Victoire at the top of Dean Street. Both were solid date options of mine up until my last days of dating, with my now wife. I still love the sloppy mess which is rib eye steak with peppercorn sauce and blue cheese mash at Pierre Victoire. It arrives a great big ecru splodge then becomes steadily blood soaked as you find and eat the buried steak.

Soon I fell for things not available outside London (or at least not then, to me). Magical places that rammed home the uniqueness of London. I never wanted to leave;

Belgos- you descend in a metal lift, the waiters wear habits and it’s a bunker of long tables full of people eating mussels!!! I always took friends from home here hoping it’s amazingness would rub off on me.

Brick Lane- I grew up in a town with two Indian restaurants, both owned by the same Bangladeshi family, who also provided the only non white kids at my school. We used to go to them as sixth formers, get served beer and know we were proper LADS. Objectively of course most of Brick Lane is terrible, but a whole road of neon signs offering curry was thrilling. Where to eat when one guys offering you free poppadoms, and the next 20% off cans of warm Carlsberg from the off license next door?

Thai food in pubs – This was a big thing in 2006, particularly around Clapham. My girlfriend at the time persuaded me that serving overly sweet, sloppy Pad Thai instantly made any pub more sophisticated than the one next door. I dread to think how much Pad Thai I vomited up after a night on Clapham High Street.

From 2008 until 2015 I lived in various places in and around Brixton. By pure coincidence I was living in one of the coolest, up and coming-est, food focused places in the Western world. I didn’t realise this at the time and certainly did nothing to contribute to it. But I did eat and drink a lot.

I never understood the appeal of Franca Manca but loved Bukowski, Honest and Mama Lan’s in the market. We went to Honest when it first opened and was still BYOB. I’d heard they used Ginger Pig meat and was a bit obsessed with their sausage rolls at the time (still am). Bukowski expanded too, but last time I went to it’s Soho branch we were the only people in, it died a few months later.

Outside the market Asmara was a weird and wonderful Eritrean restaurant that always made me smile. Dollops of stews served on giant spongey breads. There was a ceremony around your boiled egg, and end of meal coffee.

By my 30s I had a few quid more in my pocket, and more importantly was trying to impress a girl out of my league. Like any tosser who covets being described as “foodie” I began to fetishise Michelin stars. Here was a way of knowing that where I was eating was impressive (and hopefully delicious).

The first starred place I ever went to was Arbutus and my memory is of a great night. They did a tripe dish which allowed me to feel all daring, and it seemed to pair with the second cheapest wine (red and white).

After that there have been starred missteps like Marcus, Hedone and Clove Club; at all of which the tasting menu became a chore by the end.

Lovely starred places which just worked; anything “Social” immediately comes to mind.

And then there have been the truly fantastic, mind blowing London meals which were worth every Amex punishing moment; The Ledbury and Core.

Finally as I’ve grown older and worked out what I like I’ve developed a stable of favourites, place I visit and recommend often. Places I would go to whatever a critic said;

Quality Chop House- the Barnsley chop with confit potatoes will shorten my life but I just don’t care.

The Coach – calves brain with lemon and caper butter was the best thing I ate in 2018 (and probably 2019)

Freakscene- we went when it had just opened. Scott and Phar were incredible hosts and so keen to create a great restaurant. We desperately wanted to love the food and were so relieved when it was such a delight. We’ve back since with all our greediest friends.

The Brown Dog- last but by no means least our local pub. 200 yards from our house but worth a trek across London. Helen swears by the pies, the fish and chips is as good as any pub version and the burger cheered us up after our exhausting anniversary lunch at Clove Club. But for me it’s the bavette steak every time. It’s the sort of steak frites you get at Parisian cafes. Squidgy, bloody steak, a giant mushroom and shards of crisp, salty chips for textual contrast. I’m a bit in love with this dish, when we first moved to Barnes I was ordering it once a week.

And now I’m gone, I live in New York. I planned to write this as a sort of reflection on my amazing time in London; how the food I’ve eaten has changed as I have. Now though it feels different. When I left I was pretty confident all the great restaurants would still be there, and have been joined by a load more. Alas, with this virus that may not be the case, and that’s awful because there’s nothing more joyful than eating in a restaurant; whether it’s alone with a book, intimately with someone I love or noisily with a group of fun people.

Oman

We’ve done and seen so little here. We’ve not left the three interconnected hotels that form the resort; we’ve not been out in the kayaks, joined a yoga class on the beach or learned to wake board. It has been a wonderful, floppy, wasted time. My sole achievement has been to read three books in a week (unless you count 3 plates at the breakfast buffet as an achievement).

We’ve been here before so knew what we were coming here to do, or not do. Before meeting Helen I’d never done the flop on a sun lounger holiday but now we’ve become, if not connoisseurs, pretty clear in what we’re looking for.

The Shangri-La Al Husn just works. The flight to Muscat leaves after work on a Friday and it’s just 20 minutes drive to the resort. We were in the pool before London was having it’s Saturday breakfast. The Al Husn is adult only and the fanciest of the three hotels. We’re the youngest around the pool, along with a mix of well preserved European couples and middle aged gays. But you also have access to the other hotels and their pools, here there’s a bit more buzz, and a lazy river. It’s fun to slum it down there occasionally but always know we can escape back if anyone is too close, loud or beautiful.

Multiple hotels also opens up more food options. At the fancy hotel the poolside food is focused on fresh and healthy; there’s a lot of leaves and seeds. But at the other resort there are pizzas, wings and “chilli cheese waffle fries”. Helen is a complex and demanding soul: This is somewhere that can provide in one place, tranquility and Evian mist spray, and in another waffle fries and inflatables.

The complex is miles from anywhere, we’re trapped and would have to accept any overpriced shit food. And I’ve stayed places that had clearly factored this into their business plan.

Here though the food is consistently better than we expected. It probably helps that it’s not all inclusive and so there is business for the different restaurants to fight over.

The buffets are consistently decent, with a few overcooked, oversized prawns and bits of lobster to remind you it’s fancy. The tapas place is good enough that it wasn’t until our second visit that we noticed it’s pork free; good pigless tapas isn’t easy. The south East Asian restaurant feels pretty authentic, from the staffing to the Nasi Lemak (if a bit over refined).

Back to work on Monday

Tianjin

I’ve been chased down a rural Kenyan road by children shouting Mzungu at the first white person they’d ever met; I’ve had selfies with half the young people at an Indian historical site; and I’ve needed a personal security guard in suburban Nigeria. China’s indifference isn’t that bad.

And China isn’t unwelcoming to travellers, it can just feel pretty inaccessible. I have tried to venture out and explore on this trip but, unsupervised, even the hotel has proven something of a challenge at times. 

The local team took me to a Halal restaurant round the corner from the facility. In North China Halal restaurants are common, we’re not far from Mongolia and there are quite a few Muslims about.

The restaurant was above a butcher’s. It was an austere room – Lino floor, high ceiling, bare walls and dark wooden tables with rickety chairs. Perhaps this is how the workers’ paradise was meant to feel.

The tables around us were apparently filled with a fairly typical local clientele; pissed retired people. My colleague Clive (I love the Western names Chinese people choose for themselves) explained that the local population is old and the done thing in retirement is day drinking with friends. The tables were full of overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles; the air of smoke and toothless laughter. Halal food combined with infidel drink passes for fusion round here.

We may only be a couple of hours from Beijing but the food was distinctly regional and ‘Northern’. It was very different to the Cantonese Chinese food we’re used to in the UK; less bright colours and more murky browns. There’s a lot more lamb, or more accurately mutton, and (obviously) less pork. On the whole things seem to be less spiky and spicy vs. both Anglo-Chinese food and the food I had on my recent trip to Sichuan. Instead there’s a heavier, more offaly earthiness, not unwelcome when it’s minus 5 outside. 

There was squidgy and crispy lamb on skewers, not minced exactly but more a mash of flesh and organs. The sort of stuff that frying gives a delicious sweetness and texture, but I can’t eat boiled. 

There were also dumplings, of course, here containing slow cooked beef and celery. They came with a bowl of vinegar to cut through the richness of the meat

Luckily the numbing chilli I loved in Chengdu had made its way across China too, here in a delicious dish of tofu with shredded beef shin.

…….

Beyond this meal I’ve been confined by language and cowardice to my hotel buffet. I did try and venture out to a dumpling place. I could see tables of happy people noisily eating piles of deliciousness. I asked for a table for one, the waitress responded in Chinese (fair enough) and showed me the menu (also in Chinese, again fair enough given we’re in China). She then gave me a look which successfully communicated that we both knew this wasn’t going to work. I nodded and walked away. 

I have a love/hate relationship with hotel buffets. When I first started traveling for work the buffets of Asian hotels were places of wonder. The occasional ‘All you can eat’  birthday treats of my childhood had combined and multiplied. Now, I’m bored of them and the slightly shit facsimiles of local and surrounding cuisines.  

One of the great joys of buffets should be that you can choose what you want, and, importantly, what you don’t want. I made the decision to reject the ‘braised lamb spine’, the ‘chicken cartilage’ and the sheep soup that smelled so awfully of farm and fat. But, the waiters didn’t seem happy to leave the only westerner in the place to make his own choices.

Lamb soup, too much farm and fat for me

I was proudly brought a whole crab (in which I found barely any meat but a lot of feathers), and a weird dessert soup thing that was effectively have a melon swimming in honey and Lemsip. 

I was already disappointed in myself for being back at the buffet, I didn’t need these unrelenting attacks. I need comfort and found it in a soup bowl I filled with ice cream and chocolate cake, because I’m a really adventurous foodie traveler like that! 

UK General Election

I’m currently awake with jet lag in China. The local time is 5.47 and I have a long day of briefing and groups ahead of me. So, this seems a good time to give my Qual researcher “take” on the recent election.

More precisely, this is why I think Labour lost (so badly), and I think it was grounded in an horrendous lack of audience understanding. I don’t know who was doing their Qual research but they were shit. I have my suspicions as to why, but that’s irrelevant

Anywhere, here goes….

“NOT THE” is just about the most stupid and nasty two words you can put into an election slogan. Why the fuck would any party make clear they’re actively against an element of the electorate?

Here’s why it’s nasty:

As a slogan with no context it is saying we’re for the majority, not a minority. Put any other group apart from “the rich” after those two words and you’re overtly awful. But “the (rich) few” shouldn’t be utterly disregarded by a potential party of government either. Leaving aside the % of tax they pay, its just the politics of division. It’s pointing at an ‘other’ and saying to people “they’re your enemy, it’s their fault you don’t have another car or a bigger willy”. It is inherently negative and appealing to the worst of people.

Here’s why it’s stupid:

People are aspirational. The minority Labour decided to demonise is actually one a lot of people want to join. The only people who don’t want more are those who can sit pretty satisfied with their lot (it would be lazy of me to suggest this is “Jeremy’s” set).

I appreciate there is far more to this than a bad slogan. I just think that whilst people congratulate/lament the impact of “TAKE BACK CONTROL” and “GET BREXIT DONE” it’s worth acknowledging the appalling competition

New York 1

We’re moving to New York next year, and my relationship with food in America will have to change.

Helen and I are currently here to find somewhere to live and hopefully sort out my visa so I can work. The move is fuelled by Helen’s professional brilliance, I’m just along for the ride.

As with my usual four day jaunts to America I’m eating everything;

Buffalo chicken whenever we’re at a bar

Korean lunch for one whilst Helen was at work

Slightly over cooked burger with fries and sprouts for “brunch”

Mexican but more specifically a gloopy pile of cheese laden Nachos (plus a few tacos) for dinner, between us

I’ve only been here just over 48 hours, and I didn’t even take a photo of the quinoa Shakshouka I had at a breakfast job interview. Nor the enormous (and gross) pepperoni pizza we ordered up to the room.

America, and especially New York, is the land where everything is available, no questions asked. In London the same range might be available but begrudgingly and between certain times. In New York it’s whatever, whenever (all you have to do is pay for it)

And much of it is wonderful, life affirming stuff. Sat in a dive bar, sport on the screens with beer, wings and Helen is about as happy as I get. As long as I’ve got a big enough pile of napkins I want for nothing.

That Korean food was an almost equally lovely solo experience. I sat there hovering my chopsticks over the bowls choosing where to nibble from next. I was gleefully switching between the spicy octopus stir fry and the tofu broth until my nose ran like a tap.

The US has also reinvented and reinvigorated the Brussels sprout. When I was a child it was “cool”/lazy to hate them. Then the cool kid chefs started to play with sprouts, and now they’re delicious. Roasted or fried they go almost sweet alongside the earthiness. The ones I had here in New York were tossed through home fries.

But these delights could be dangerous now I’m living here. A few days of American indulgence then back to UK restraint was ok, I remained healthy if podgy.

Everyone knows the portions are bigger here but it’s the whole relationship with food that’s troubling. You hear it in the language;

Customers order food by saying “I’ll do the…”

Servers ask if you’re finished with a friendly “are you still working on that”

Food shouldn’t be a job, especially in a restaurant. I don’t want to be working at a meal. But American meals do become work before you’re finished.

This was best illustrated by the nachos. Unrelenting thick melted cheese stops being pleasurable pretty abruptly. There’s no middle ground; the second bite is smile triggering indulgence, the third a claggy chore. And there are still a lot more to go!

The only way to survive will be to leave food, but then you get the sort of pitying looks given to the defeated. My new aim, to remain perennially defeated but alive.

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.