Monday, 20 October 2014

The Living Daylights

In a slight diversion from the usual food and drink based-shenanigans. I'm taking a time out to take Pies and Fries on location. Most avid readers of the blog (hi again, Mum and Mrs P) will no doubt be aware of my unabashed Bond love. It’s true I’m a massive 007 fan and my favourite film of the franchise – possibly... probably... if I really, really had to choose – is 1987's the Living Daylights.

Yes, that’s right not the classic Connery,  jocular Moore or ice cold Craig, but the wonderful, and very overlooked, Timothy Dalton making his debut in a first of a deuce of appearances as the world’s most famous spy. A fabulous film that, for various reasons, failed to jump start a flagging franchise and lead to the slightly less lovable Licence to Kill.

Now normally I’m not really a fan boy about such things, but rather excitingly – and, you can imagine, this really thrilled the Ewing -we recently had the chance to visit some of the locations in TLD; firstly in Vienna and then closer to home in London and the Chilterns.


Our first port of call was the Volksoper in Vienna which provided the façade of the 'Ľudové Konzervatorium' (people’s conservatory) in Bratislavia (still a Communist country, an not open to filming, when the TLD was shot), the backdrop to some of the most iconic scenes from the film.

While the building itself looks pretty much the same - save for the large red lettering on the left hand side of the building - the most striking thing is how much the scrawny little sapling that you see planted at the front of the building in the film has grown in the last 26 years!

I took my pictures of the Volksoper’s exterior from outside the sweet shop on the opposite side of the street. It’s the same shop that Bond and Saunders access in the film in order to try and get a clean shot at Kara Milovoy, Koskov’s supposed assassin, who appears in the top window above the balcony of the Volksoper during the interval. It was closing when we arrive, but pictures of Timothy Dalton can apparently still be seen stuck up inside.

While the interior shots of the Ľudové Konzervatorium were provided by the Sofiensäle (sadly burnt to a shell in 2001) in the film, we were lucky enough to have a night in the gods at the Volksoper. Our evening's entertainment was provided by Strauss' Die Fledermaus, a farcical operatta first premiered in Vienna 137 years before, and still able to raise a laugh, especially after a few cans of Ottakringer drunk en route.

Some of the best scenes from any Bond film are to be found in TLD, where Koskov is sprung from Blayden, the MI6 safe house deep in the English countryside. In real life the exterior shots of Blayden and its surrounds are provided by Stonor Park, just outside Henley, with the interior being filmed back in the studio.

Built in c.1180, Stonor House has been the home of the Stonor family for more than eight centuries and is still privately owned, and lived in, by the family. Both the house and gardens, with a small shop and tea room, can be visited between 1-5 on Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays, so we jumped in the jalopy one sunny Sunday afternoon for a gander.

In Stor's scenes, Necros, undoubtedly one of the franchise’s most fearless henchmen, hijacks the local milkman’s float – one of the only things that really dates this classic film – before driving to the safe house and attacking the staff with various weapons including electric carving knives, handfuls of salt, a set of saucepans and the lead his Walkman headphones (another great 80’s touch).

This leads to the double agent Koskov being re-captured by the rebels, who arrive on the front lawn in an ambulance helicopter, assisted by Necros who is now disguised as a doctor. Only the grounds front of the house and chapel are visible in these scenes, which means that sadly you don’t get to see the beautiful English garden, with stunning views across the Chiltern Hills and to the deer park and woodland behind.

While they don't make the film, the Italianate style gardens are charming, shouldn’t be missed. As well as the neat as a pin lawn just to the back of the house there is a maze of meadow and orchard gardens that mix neatly topiaried rows of trees with wild grass. The long mixed border at the top of the terrace, complete with giant artichokes and glorious climbing roses, ends with a Japanese garden house, built after the 5th Lord Camoys visit to Kyoto at the turn of the last century.

Prior to the excitement of Koskov’s escape, we see Bond drive up to the gates of Blayden, before going inside to deliver a hamper of champagne and caviar from Harrods -

Koskov: “What’s this? From Harrods a godsend, the food here is horrible. What’s this, Caviar, well that’s peasant food for us, but with champagne it’s ok. And more – Bollinger RD – the best!” 

Bond also explains to M that he took the liberty of changing it as the champagne as the brand on the list was “questionable”.

As mentioned above, these interior shots were not set in Stonor, but we did get to see some of the interior for ourselves when we stopped by the tea room that is housed in the fabulous Old Great Hall. A fabulous room complete with its old deer skulls on the walls, trophies from the deer park behind the house, and new glass atrium. 

The cream tea comes highly recommended,; generous pots of tea and giant, freshly baked scones, although the portions of cream and jam were a little lacking. There’s also a range of homemade cakes and sandwiches available to eat in or out.

Slightly confusingly, after the scenes set in Bratislava that were filmed in Vienna, we then move on to the scenes set in Vienna that were also filmed in the city. 

After a great snowy chase that sees Bond and Kara crossing the Austrian/Slovakian border on a cello case they arrive, even more ingloriously, in Vienna on the back of a vegetable truck. On their disembarking you can see the Reisenrad in the background, as well as, very briefly, the Shell petrol station, which stills stands, unchanged, by the entrance. 

The Reisenrad, situated in the Prater Park, is one of Vienna’s most iconic landmarks, and Bond and Kara return to the Prater later that evening for a bit of schmoozing for Bond to rendezvous with Saunders. But not before they take a fiaker, traditional Viennese horse drawn carriage, to the Schonnbrunn Palace.

Bond is surprisingly gallant in these scenes, gazing lovingly at Kara in the carriage and then even insisting on separate rooms when they arrive at the hotel Palais Schwarzenberg. The film was made middle of the AIDS epidemic, and Bond’s usual philandering was kept in check, although he does smoke in the film, something which is now probably frowned upon more than promiscuity.

I wish I could describe our trip to the Schonbrunn quite as romantically as Bond’s, but it was hot, I was hungry and we had to climb the hill to the top of the Gloritte before we could eat our picnic. That said, once our pretzel rolls, schinken and Kase were dispatched, we could finally relax on the lawn and enjoy the glorious views over the city and things didn’t seem so bad after all.

The interior was similarly stunning and a mercifully brief audio guide means you can get a good over view of some of the 1,441 rooms without losing the will to live while looking at another four poster bed or antique dinner service. There’s also very good strudel available from the adjacent Café Residenz.

Balloon, Mein Herr?
On Bond and Kara returning to the Prater that evening, we see some of the most exciting and touching scenes in the film. After the obligatory ride on the waltzers and triumph on the shooting range the loved up pair take a spin on the big wheel. 

From his vantage point Bond spots a balloon seller, aka Necros, offering Saunders his wares.  His line, Balloon, Mein Herr?, is a direct reference to the Third Man, the most famous of all films shot in Vienna, and is well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already.

After a bit of seduction high in the sky, Bond leaves Kara briefly to meet Saunders at the Prater café -I’m not sure if it’s still here or not, as we didn’t get a chance to explore much beyond the wheel, but from his expression James doesn’t rate the coffee too highly anyway.  Here we see Saunders hand over the info to Bond before being trapped between the remote controlled sliding doors as he exits (the rigged hydraulic piston can just be glimpsed in the far right of the shot).

Of course, if Necros was really clever, he would have dispatched Saunders before the rendezvous with Bond, but anyway I digress… What is really touching about this scene is seeing Dalton convey Bond’s softer side. Although Saunders is a stuffy bureaucrat at odds with Bonds lazzies fare attitude, during the film they develop an understanding and James is genuinely stricken by the fact he was unable to protect him.

Our ride was far less eventful, but still no less enjoyable, and the views from the wheel on a clear day are not to be missed. The rest of the park itself is a pleasantly old fashioned sort of place with the usual selection of fairground rides and games, although, as there’s no entrance fee to the park, it’s easy just to take the Metro to the Prater just for a spin on the wheel, as we did.

The park scenes mark the end of the European locations, until the final act when Bond returns to watch Kara in concert. In between, of the more far flung locale they visit, Tangier is high on the list for a potential next adventure, although remote Afghanistan, where bond joins the Mujahideen to try and bust Whittaker’s opium ring, is probably not going to be on the itinerary anytime soon. 

Their internment in Central Asia does, however, lead to one of the film’s funniest lines: Kara: "You were fantastic – we're free!" Bond: "Kara, we're inside a Russian air base in the middle of Afghanistan."

The film ends with the credits rolling over a night time view of the Schonbrunn Palace, accompanied by another criminally overlooked nugget, the Pretenders ‘If There Was a Man’; the first time a Bond film has featured a different track for both opening and closing credits.

A fitting end to a fabulous film; and, in case this post seems light on the consumables, Bond does make the time for a drink or two: 

Linda: [into phone] It's all so boring here, Margo - there's nothing but playboys and tennis pros. [sighs] If only I could find a real man. 
[James Bond, having just dispatched an assassin in a burning truck in mid-air, lands on the boat with a smouldering parachute] 
Bond: I need to use your phone [takes phone] She'll call you back [hangs up].
Linda: You are who? 
Bond: Bond, James Bond [into phone] Exercise Control, 007 here. I'll report in an hour. 
Linda: [offering drink] won’t you join me? 
Bond: [into phone] better make that two.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Brick Lane, Curry Again

When it comes to Sunday dinner there are three choices I favour. The good old roast, when you’re feeling traditional; a barbecue when it’s too hot to contemplate lashings of gravy and Yorkshire pud; and a curry for all other occasions. It may not please the purists, but in a country where tikka masala is our national dish why not slather a bit of tandoori marinade on your chicken dinner before falling asleep in front of Songs of Praise.

Of course many may think that filling up on ghee-laden mountains of rice and bread and spicy platters of charred meat, all washed down with fizzy lager, would be a disaster come Monday morning, when you’re slumped back in the office battling with the gastric consequences of that extra bhaj, but alternate weekend working means Mondays are my Sundays. Ergo Sunday evening is my Saturday night.

Stealth probably doesn’t know what day of the week it actually is, but is always up for a good curry, so after a sunny afternoon stocking up on beigels and drinking glasses of fresh watermelon juice and avocado smoothies on Brick Lane we met her at Needo Grill, the final missing piece in my quest to try the Whitechapel trilogy that also features Tayyabs and the Lahore Kebab House.

Needo was set up by the former manager of Tayyabs, so you have the pick of their lauded dishes without the mile-long queues.  Inside the red and black decor is smarter than Lahore and brighter than Tayaabs, although constantly spying yourself in the mirrored walls isn’t conducive to ordering yet another round of naan bread. Drinks are BYO, so we stocked up with large bottle of cold Cobra from the nearby corner store en route.

To start we shared the mixed grill, a platter of sizzling lamb chops, seekh kebabs, chicken tikka and grilled onions. While I’m not sure these were the best incarnations of the classic that I have had - the lamb chops particularly lacking the requisite fat and char ratio - they possessed a pleasingly fierce chilli kick that went well with the sweet yoghurt and mint dip that had appeared with our plate of poppadums.

Since our previous trip to Tayyabs had been marred slightly by Stealth claiming she had been struck by a gastric ulcer, before lying sweating in the corridor by the loos (never a dull moment) I took this opportunity to reorder the stalwarts, plus the pumpkin, that we had been too stuffed to order before. There was also a buttery nan for me that was mostly eaten by Stealth (no, no, I don't want one, really) plus two roti that were mostly eaten by Stealth, too.

Firstly we have the worst picture (not a single effort to capture this was in focus) of the best dish, the fabled dry meat. Never has a moniker been less appealing and, thankfully, less deserved, the ‘dry’ describing the lack of gravy rather than the texture of the dish itself, reminding me of a rendang, with soft shreds of sticky mutton in a thickly reduced and well-spiced sauce.

Accompanying were two vegetable choices.  The first was the Dal Baingan, a mixture of nutty lentils and smoky baby aubergine – although I notice singular, rather than the two we were served at Tayyabs. The consistency of lentils was also slightly looser. 

We also tried the Punjabi Tinda, or baby pumpkin, curry, with a pleasingly grown up sweet and sour flavour and, again, lashings of ghee (in case you fear veggies are actually good for you).

Overall I’d pick the dry meat at Needoo and the grilled meat at Tayyabs, but I’d give either a firm recommendation (the Karahi Ghost at Lahore Kebab House also deserves a mention) without much hesitation. 

Going at an off peak time, we arrived at about half five on a Sunday evening, also means  less hurrying and harrying by the waiter, who graciously lent us their bottle openers and provided jugs of iced water long after we had finished our main meals.

As always after a curry, pudding was a stretch too far. We had, however, bought Stealth a present, in the form of a Cinnamon Tree Bakery biscuit from our visit to Wapping market, to nibble on later.

In fact both Stealth’s gingerbread elephant and the Ewing’s shortbread owl were most appropriate, forming the first instalment of a new series ‘owners who looked like their baked goods’ - even featuring the adoption of an cigarette trunk for extra added likeness.  

A cheering Sunday night scene of friend swapping biscuits (Stealth bought us some earless rabbits lovingly baked by our friends Claire and Kam) and certainly one that was worth missing the traditional joint of British beef and golden heap of roasties for.

Needoo Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Birthday Golf @ Swingers

I'm feeling pretty excited right now, as in less than 12 hours I'll be saying sayonara to these shores for a trip to the land of the Rising Sun, and by the time you read this I'll hopefully be necking Suntory and slurping soba. But before I swap PG Tips for matcha and cod and chips for kaiten-zushi there's always time for some early birthday golf bragging after my triumph in East London last weekend.

The venue for these anniversary shenanigans was The Royal Shoreditch Golf Club, aka Swingers London (tip, don't Google at work), a warehouse that's been converted into a crazy golf-cum-bar-cum street food collective. Yes, on paper that does sound like a tiresome beard and plaid magnet (and that's just me and my entourage of ladies), where hipsters might congregate over Negronis on the 18th hole, but in reality it's just bloody good fun.

The good times started at the Freixenet bar with a round of sparkling rose and, after a wait for back-up ice supplies, some pretty lethal signature Soho Spritzes that we saw being ordered by the (obligatory) hen party (with obligatory gay guy) playing in front of us.

Dutch courage imbibed, we made our way to the first tee where I sensed the magical powers of the knitted tank top, classic wear for all stylish golfers about town, would give me that extra cutting edge against some fearsome (drunk and clueless) competition.

Course-side drink service was provided by the charming Jeremy Nine Iron, from whom we ordered pints of Meantime lager a couple of rounds of Dandies, based on the cocktails of the same name available at Hawksmoor; 'Cognac stirred with Maraschino & Benedictine, topped with Champagne. Adapted from a punch served at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria in the 1930s. We’ve taken a more refined approach, eschewing the original’s soda water in favour of more champagne.'

More champagne, can't say fairer than that, although I would like to say sorry to the member of the hen party I accidentally belted on the second tee after I'd drunk the first one of these. Thanks too, to the nice guy in front who provided helpful tactical tips a la Ken Brown on the BBC at Augusta. 

Of course, there can oly be one winner, and with a golf ball as loud as my trousers, it was fate the birthday girl would triumph. Of course, the rest of the party were equally fulsome with their praise as I was with my modesty...

With the absence of a buggy service or a caddy to carry our clubs, we were need of some serious sustenance after we made it back to the club house. The choices here are top notch, with the initial grub being provided by scene stalwarts Patty and Bun and Pizza Pilgrims, with more traders lined up later in the year.

I was allowed to order and, ignoring Stealth's protests that pizza without cheese is just tomatoes on toast, ordered a marinara and a pizza bianca with mushrooms and truffle oil. Both were excellent, possibly even better than the last time I ate at their bricks and mortar gaff, although the the tomato was a touch heavy handed.

We also shared Patty and Buns's crispy chicken thighs, served bathed in a punchy tamarind, fish sauce and chilli-spiked glaze and topped with crunchy peanuts and fresh coriander. Winner winner chicken dinner.

While they also offer a 'golf ball' sub, with pork and beef meat balls and tomato sauce, I couldn't miss up the opportunity to order an Ari Gold,one of London's truly great burgers. 'Beef patty, Cheese, Lettuce, Tomato, Pickled onions, Ketchup, Smokey P&B mayo, Brioche bun'. Job done. 

Of course, there's no party without a cake, so thanks to the fabulous, marvelous, wonderful (make the most of it, I only say it once a year) Stealth for my personalised box of Hummingbird cupcakes. They may have been little more than frosting and crumbs by the time we got them back to South London, but nothing could squash the start of a perfect birthday weekend.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Say Cheese! (and some crackers)

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” 
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Fermented milk is a marvellous thing, and discovering that recent weekend trip to my Mum's in Wiltshire was going to coincide with a festival dedicated to its pursuit was pretty much my idea of heaven on earth. Slightly less celestial was the imbibing of one too many pints of 6D Best at the local pub, followed by a homemade lasagne washed down with several bottles of vino rosso the night before our visit...

The morning after started as a bit of a struggle, but a delivery of Stornoway black pudding for breakfast soon got things back on track. A while the idea of standing in a tent hot tent full of fermenting dairy products with a hangover may sound fairly hellish, it was mercifully far less whiffy than I first feared. In fact, once we were armed with our first toothpicks and set free on the tables laded with free samples of assorted cheesy wares I was quickly on my way to formaggi heaven.

As with these things, the first stall managed to divest us of most our money; firstly for half a wheel of White Nancy, a soft goat’s cheese with a bloomy white rind and gooey centre and secondly for a Alex James’ Goddess No 5 a Guernsey cow’s milk cheese washed in Temperley Somerset Cider Brandy until it reaches a supple sticky perfection. (Now safely stowed in Mum’s freezer, waiting for an unveiling come Christmas time.)  I was also rather enamoured with the Sloe Tavy, a semi hard, stinky heart-shaped goat’s milk cheese that’s washed in Plymouth sloe gin.

Next purchase was half a round of Little Ryding, a soft ewe’s milk cheese that was a bit of a bargain at a fiver for a whole cheese. They were also offering the rather lovely Millstone, a hard cheese, Manchego like in style with that lovely supple fattiness that sheep’s milk provides (possibly, depending which day you ask, my favourite milk for cheese).

The Windyridge stall was good fun, with their rather outre products and cheerful staff standing out amongst some of the rather more po-faced producers. While there's nothing sophisticated about their range of flavoured West Country cheddar all the samples I hose were great. Particular favourites were the horseradish and parsley, Spitfire with naga chilli and baked bean flavour (yes really). They were also good value at 3 packs for a fiver meaning we had no excused not to take a trio home.

Blue Vinny is one of the most interesting of English cheeses, as well as the most local to the festival, being made just outside Sturminster Newton itself. Historically the cheese is made with skimmed milk a by -product from the butter market. While the cream and butter were valuable in London, the skimmed milk was not, so was traditionally turned into blue cheese for farmers and the surrounding villagers to enjoy.

While the cheese was a common in Dorset for hundreds of years, production stopped around 1970 and the cheese became extinct. However, in 1980 Mike Davies of Woodbridge Farm, made the bold move to resurrect the 300 year old recipe and the unpasteurised cows’ milk cheese is now freely available once again.

Sadly, the product didn’t appeal as much as the tale behind it. White not a bad cheese by any stretch, the skimmed milk used in its production means the finished cheese is quite astringent and missing the smooth fattiness of my favourite kind of blues. Still worth a try if you ever spot it, if only for the chance to reclaim our history through food; especially good with a Dorset knob.

One stall that certainly disappoint was James’s Cheese, a company that concentrates on the affinage of products sourced from partner dairies and is run by James McCall, who started his great love of cheese under the tutorage of the great James Aldridge.

Most of the James’s cheeses are washed rind, matured at nearby Child Okeford, although there are a trio of soft cow’s milk cheese flavoured with chillies, pepper and herbs also available. My favourite of the selection, and perhaps the whole day, was the Francis, a washed rind cheese named after Atkinson's other given name.

Originally the cheese starts life as ‘Stoney Cross’, made by Salisbury-based Lyburn Cheese. James then takes it across the border to Dorset and turns it into the wonderfully meaty, sticky  beast that is Francis; a glorious cheese that could happily stand up to any French stinker but isn’t too overpowering.

The cloth-bound Sparkenhoe Vintage Red Leicester I tried was as good as ever, although one of our party wasn’t much of a fan, ruling it out for the cheeseboard. They were also offering the Bosworth Field, a pretty decent mould ripened unpasteurised cheese with a light and crumbly texture.

Alongside all the fromage, my exciting discovery of the day was the goat merguez from the Norsworthy Dairy Goat stall. As I was excitedly snapping some up the Ewing and my Mum had descended upon the selection of goat’s cheeses also offered, before settling on the Little Dollop, a gloriously runny specimen that flowed across the plate like cheesy lava when we cup it open the next day.

As the Ewing and my Mum were still hopelessly attempting to spear cheeses so ripe they’d be easier scooped up with a spoon, I had spied the one thing I was looking forward to above all else – the cheese toastie stall. And, fortuitously, just in time for lunch.

The grill, manned by the good people at Westcombe Dairies, was churning out delicious cheddar stuffed toasties on sourdough bread and studded with spring onions, cooked to a crisp perfection by the help of a couple of foil wrapped bricks. Moments later and the ambrosial mix of carbs and dairy was in hand (and down front).

The sandwich was so good, and the guys on the stall so friendly, that we also bought a chunk to take home. After all, it would have been remiss not to have at least one gum-tingling hard cheese in our selection and the Westcombe didn’t disappoint. A creamy and firm, rather than crumbly, cheddar with a rich nuttiness and a good lick of acidity to finish; super stuff.

While we couldn't face anymore coagulated curds and whey when we got home on Saturday, by Sunday evening we had got our cheese eating chops back and enjoyed this magnificent platter of choice morsels, alongside a nice Portugese red, a selection of polenta and spelt crackers and an episode of Morse. Perfect.

While most the haul was eaten, we did bring a hunk of the Francis washed rind from James's Cheese Company back home. Consulting my favourite tome, Nikki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus, for potential flavour pairing combos (before I scoffed by the light of the fridge), I found a simple recipe for fennel-spiked crackers that would also make good use of the Maltstar flour, ground at Stoates mill in Dorset, that we had bought in Shaftesbury on the way back home.

Maltstar and Fennel Seed Crackers
(adapted from The Flavour Thesaurus)

150g flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp fennel (or cumin or celery) seeds
25ml olive oil
125 ml water

put flour, baking powder and fennel seeds in a mixing bowl
add the oil and water in increments until the mixture formas a doufh
Knead for five minutes, wrap dough in clingfilm and allow to rest in the fridge for 30 mins
Unwrap dough and roll out to 5mm thick then press out your crackers with a cutter (you'll get approx 24 5cm diameter crackers).
Place crackers on a greased baking sheet, brush with water and bake at 160c for 25 minutes or until golden and baked through.
Allow to cool before storing in an airtight container.