Tuesday 16 December 2014

5 American Christmas foods you won't see in the UK - and 5 UK foods you won't see there!

 [All American Christmas Lunch!] 
We in the UK have had a long love affair with American food. The latest trend is Thanksgiving - there might not be a single Wampanoag indian in the whole of London, but that doesn't stop us giving thanks that we can gobble down more turkey - Amazon tell us that sales of Thanksgiving foodstuffs are up 804% since 2011.

So what about American Christmas traditions? aren't they the same as ours? We've all seen plenty of Christmas dinners in American movies. There's a big turkey in the middle of the table, just like ours, and plenty of bowls of steaming, err, stuff. There's the question - what exactly is in all those steaming, delicious bowls? I had to investigate ...

[Green Beans and Onions]
1. Green beans. Now the Americans share our love/hate relationship with the Christmas sprout - but there's another vegetable even closer to their hearts. The green bean. Now I'm ambivalent about this humble bean - occasionally I'll have them gently steamed alongside my steak, but that's it. Well, it's on every American Christmas menu I can find - and no simple steaming here.

Nope, to be completely authentic we need Green Bean Casserole. This dish was originally created in 1955 by the Campbell soup company and even has its own Wikipedia entry. To simplify, take 2 cans of french beans for 1 can of Campbell's mushroom soup and half a tin of French's French Fried Onions. Stir. Bake. Eat. If more is more, add cheese.

2. Candied Sweet Potatoes. I can imagine how this one happened. Someone, somewhere, complained that their sweet potato wasn't, well, sweet enough. Ha, that's an easy problem to solve. Like the green bean casserole, the basic dish is almost brutal in its simplicity. One can of sweet potato or yam. Half a cup of brown sugar. A quarter of a cup of butter. And the all important secret ingredient - one and a half cups of marshmallows. Bake. Eat.

[Candied Yams]
I've actually eaten this delicacy in Memphis, and I'll tell you now, it's not subtle. It's like cake filling. Don't over do it.

3. Corn. Like most English people, I've got half a bag of icy sweetcorn in the freezer. Occasionally we've been known to boil a corn-on-the-cob. But what had never occurred to us was to mix it with the same weight of whipping cream. Oh, and add butter. And parmesan. Bake. Now we're looking at a proper Christmas dish.

4. Dinner rolls. You'd think, after all the sugar, butter, cream and cheese above, you'd never need more carbs? Don't be silly. You need bread. It's not optional. If you want, you can get seasonal and bake them into a wreath. The word I keep seeing in the recipes is 'buttery', and I suspect we're talking unsalted buttery too - to my tastes, American rolls are strangely sweet. But don't you dare leave them out.

[Christmas Jello Salad]
5. Christmas jello salad. I've never seen salad on a British Christmas table, but my idea of salad isn't the same as an American's. We're not talking a bag of Tesco salad leaves and a gloop of salad cream here. Instead, there's rich and creamy salads, such as the Waldorf, salads with cheese, nuts and rich dressings. Of course!

But the salad that made me stop in my tracks is the Jello salad. Described to me by my American friend, Chris, I thought this might be a peculiar Texan dish, so strange it might only unique to their family? Nope, a quick Google shows me a hundred recipes, but the approach is always basically the same. You need a green jelly (lime), a red jelly (cherry) and a clear jelly (lemon). Create and set a green layer, then mix cream cheese and marshmallows with the clear jelly to make the white layer. Set again. The pour on red. Then you have the three layer festive delight pictured!

So why is this a salad? Is this eaten with the main course or the desert? Chris, help us out here!

And in return, what dishes are we unlikely to see travelling back across the atlantic?

[I want these]
1. Roast potatoes. Mash is the American potato dish of choice, and it's likely to grace our table too. But one thing this anglo-irish house would never be without is roast potatoes. We might replace our turkey with beef, but would never, ever skip the roasties.

To my American readers, a word of advice - if you've never had these, then either try cooking them yourself or try them in Englishman's kitchen. Never eat them in an English sunday-lunch pub or an all-you-can eat carvery. These hard, leathery, bland frozen-and-deep-fried pockets of nastiness should be avoided at all costs. The best roasties are always homemade. In goose fat. I am so hungry right now.

2. Roast parsnips. The rest of the world considers parsnips as animal feed. Yet we roast them, along with our potatoes. What does that tell you about the British? Sweet, slightly chewy. That's parsnips, not the British.

[These pies aren't made of meat]
3. Mince pies. Right, let's get this straight. Mince pies haven't contained mince since the 18th century (except, perhaps a little suet if you're being authentic). This little pie has a long history, brought back by the Crusaders from Middle East (where the combination of fruit and meat is more common). The minced tongue and veal is now replaced (and perhaps improved) by alcohol soaked fruit.

Eating them - in our house certainly - has a degree of tradition. First, you gently peel off the lid. Then you cram in the same quantity of brandy butter, and perch the lid back on top. The butter melts into the hot pie, which you then liberally douse with cream. Now I'm feeling faint.

4. Brandy butter. What do you mean you don't have brandy butter in the US? It's pretty much what it says on the pot - brandy, butter and sugar, whipped together. Christmas pudding wouldn't be the same without it.

[Flaming Pudding]
5. Christmas pudding. Ah, but of course you don't have Christmas pudding either! This isn't a pudding in the American sense. It's more like a heavy cake comprised of dark sugars, bread crumbs, alcohol soaked fruits (again) and nuts. It's served hot, with lashings of the aforementioned brandy butter. Oh, and we set fire to it too. No, really.

And as a bonus - Christmas Crackers! Now, these crackers aren't food, like saltine or Graham, but they are a tradition that seems to stay firmly on this side of the Atlantic. My friend Chris (of salad jelly fame) tells me the story of when his family attempted to introduce a little 'old fashioned Englishness' into their Christmas - having spied these, no doubt, in some British period drama.

[Don't eat this]
During dinner, each cracker was carefully unpeeled and unwrapped, the hats worn and the jokes told. This tradition went on for years until Chris' English wife demonstrated their proper use - two people take hold of each end and pull - inside the cracker is a little bit of gunpowder, as used in a cap gun, which goes off with a satisfying crack. At this point the cracker then sprays its contents across the room, and you're sent scurrying under the table to find the small plastic gift. Such fun!

And finally, you really need to start celebrating Boxing Day. No, we have no idea why it's called that either. But it does mean you can eat the same food all over again.

Happy Christmas!

Further reading (and inspiration)

Christmas Traditions: Britain vs. America
10 Ways Brits Do Christmas Differently to Americans

Sunday 30 November 2014

Fantasy Road Trips - Dallas to San Francisco, via the Loneliest Road.

[Cadiz Summit]
For me, the picture on the left is the archetypal American road trip image. The empty road stretching to the horizon, no cars, no white vans, no roundabouts, no sudden changes of direction to accommodate ancient medieval field boundaries. It's not a view I'd ever get in England.

This particular view is just over the Cadiz Summit on Route 66, California - but I've seen countless versions of it in my journeys. And it's like a drug. I need more. So it's Fantasy Road Trip time.

There are few rules to Fantasy Road Trip. It shouldn't really take more than two weeks. I guess it should involve some mechanism for dropping my daughter off at camp, and meeting my wife at the end. And it really really needs a long, empty road.

When I discovered there's a road through Nevada that Life magazine called 'The Loneliest Road', I just knew I had to drive it. To quote - "It's totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don't recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they're confident of their survival skills...". Well, here I come.

The Loneliest Road is 287 miles across Nevada with very little on it - but not, as I've discovered, nothing. But first things first, how do I get there? Well, I'll list all the articles I used for research at the end, but like all Fantasy Trips, it involves compiling a dream team of must-do American roads, and then using Google maps to work out how to connect them all together. So here goes ...

This time I'd start in Dallas, drop my daughter off at camp, and get to Oklahoma City as fast as I can for probably most famous of the classic American highways - Route 66. I'll use this to travel the 500 odd miles to Santa Fe - with the added bonus that this now means I will have driven all of 66 between Santa Monica and Springfield, Missouri (and we all like that sort of added bonus on a fantasy trip). Maybe I'll break the journey in Amarillo and see if I can eat a 75oz steak!

Once in Santa Fe, I need to head north west to pick up Route 50, so here's a chance to see what Colorado has to offer. A clickbait article offering me '21 Roads to Drive Before I Die' introduces me to the 'Million Dollar Highway' (no. 18), and how can you resist a name like that? Especially when it involves some of the highest roads in the US. The wonderful MyScenicDrives suggests a way of connecting all together, and now I'm on my way to Utah, ready to join US-50.

[The Route]
The Million Dollar Highway - US-550 - takes me through Delta to Grand Junction, and now the once-US-50-now-I-70 delivers me to, yes, Delta again. But this time Delta UT, not Delta CO. America, are you messing with me? You give your roads multiple names, but give the same name to two towns just a few hundred miles apart?

The Loneliest Road, proper, starts when I cross the border on US-50 into Nevada - but first, I need to stop at the Border Inn. It's the first casino I'll find in Nevada, just feet over the border. Yet the rooms are still in Utah, in a completely different timezone (oh, you are messing with me, I knew it). A definite coffee stop.

Another definite stop is Ely - the only real civilisation I'm likely to encounter for some time (the only supermarket  forthe next 250 miles) and home to the (alleged) UFO crash site just outside of Area 51.

From here, we're following the path of the Pony Express (and possibly detouring to see the ruins of a few Pony Express stations too), not forgetting to get our passport stamped! Presuming we cross Nevada without incident, accident or alien abduction, we'll arrive at Reno - "The Biggest Little City in the World", whatever that means.

From there, it's a home run across California to San Francisco, and another 2,115 miles clocked up. So - fantasy or nightmare? Will I survive the Loneliest Road?

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Five Guys come to Cambridge - A Review.

[Busy people building burgers]
When I was a teenager, the choice was McDonalds or Burger King - like the Beatles or The Stones, it was one or the other, not both. Although (or perhaps because) I'd been employed by McDonalds, I was a Burger King boy - mushroom double-swiss for me, thank you very much!

But no one will be surprised to hear that the US has a lot of chains - both national and regional - nor that I've eaten in many of them. Texas chain Whataburger is probably my favourite - in Waxahachie they called me Sir and brought my food to the table. Oh, that Southern service!

Off the top of my head, in Texas alone, we've also eaten in a Sonic, Mooyah, Riscky's, Dairy Queen, In-n-out and, of course, a Five Guys. So please forgive me if they start to blend together. Five-in-a-riscky-queen-ic.

When I heard that we in Cambridge were getting a Five Guys, I was convinced we'd eaten in one in Allen, just north of Dallas. Oh yeah, Five Guys, been and done that. But Google maps tells me that must have been a Mooyah. Whoops. My family are convinced we ate in one in Rockwall, and I know better than to argue with them. So at best, I can only compare my experiences here in Cambridge with a vague and confused memory from about five years ago ('it was fine'). Perhaps that isn't a good sign?

[We love self promotion]
So this evening, I took us all for a slap up meal at the newly opened Five Guys in the Cambridge Leisure Park to see if it stirred any memories. It's cheaper than hypnotherapy.

The Leisure Park is a strange beast. When I first moved to Cambridge, the area was marked on maps with 'there be dragons'. It was Cambridge's stockyards, a derelict area of disused cattle markets and railway sidings. The only reason to go there was the Junction nightclub, and many a night we'd stumble out at 2am not having the faintest idea how to get home.

Now that's all been swept away, to be replaced by leisure-centre-by-numbers. There's a multi-screen cinema, and the usual hangers on. The Restaurant Group's Frankie & Benny's and the execrable Chiquito (where once we asked a staff member what she'd recommend, and she said 'none of it'). Add to that Nandos, Bella Pasta, a buffet Indian and Chinese and you have a pretty bland eating out experience probably replicated countless times across the country. Oh, and there's Alimentum - it looks like an upmarket hairdressers, and has a Michelin star. A more out of place restaurant you couldn't hope to encounter.

And there, in the middle, where Pizza Hut used to sit, is Five Guys.

[Small and messy burger]
Will Five Guys succeed? Well, they already have twenty branches across the UK - small fry (ha) compared with the big boys, but ousting our Pizza Hut was a bold move, and if they follow the multiplexes around the UK, they'll soon grow. They're the fastest growing food chain in the USA, so I don't doubt that rapid growth is firmly on their agenda.

But, but, what was it like? Well, obviously, I can't comment on the loud music for fear of sounding old (but Toto for heaven's sake?). It was big, bright, brash, buzzy and very very busy. I can be sure the other eateries in the leisure centre dreamed of queues at 7pm on a rainy Tuesday. It's classic fast food - you order at a till and wait at a counter for your brown paper bag. The choice is simple - plain, cheese or bacon, one patty or two, and a wide range of toppings. I had a 'small' (one patty), plus cheese, mushrooms, onions, lettuce, mustard and ketchup. Fries come in giant, vast and enormous. We chose the largest to share between three.

The burger was firmly in the messy camp - I bit on one end and all the toppings slid out the other. I found myself thinking about the next time - maybe just one sauce, maybe no mushrooms, that might make a more manageable burger. Therein lies the magic of Five Guys. Because all the toppings are optional, you're forced to choose, to personalise, to make your own creation. So although I'm eating in a multi-national chain, it's an individual experience - my Tony-burger isn't your-fave-burger.

[We love peanuts]
And it's this that makes them stand out - not the meat (it's better than many, but not up to gourmet burger standards), not the fries (skin-on, but over salted), but the customisation. I think they're going to be huge, and every twenty something in Cambridgeshire was queueing up to agree.

What did my fellow diners think? My tweenager declared it the best burger since Riscky's in Fort Worth. But give her free peanuts and she's anyones. My wife said it was 'fine'. And it was. It was 'fine'. My memories from the US weren't failing me after all.

Friday 10 October 2014

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - Bryce and Beyond

[Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre]
So, where did I leave you? With the screams and and cries for help that accompanied our journey out of Zion Valley on Utah's beautiful winding Highway 9, I think.

Peace returned as we reached the green fields of the High Plateaus of Colorado (in Utah). The road snaked along the Long Valley though peaceful Mormon towns and their immaculately clean and tidy farms. We arrived at Bryce Canyon Lodge in the late afternoon, checked in and retired to our delightful little cabin.

The Lodge was state of the art holiday accommodation in the 1920s - a smaller example of what we would see later at the Grand Canyon - and although a little faded and scuffed around the edges now, it still has considerable charm. We stayed in one of the cabins - no TV, no internet - dotted around the site among the trees. There's definitely a story to be told about America's early tourist industry, when places like this were hugely popular - I'll do some research, so watch this space.

We didn't really know what to expect from Bryce Canyon - we certainly didn't expect the most famous view, the Amphitheatre, to be just yards from our cabin. A short walk through the woods, then a clearing, then wow! Especially beautiful as the sun started to drop.

[Our Lodge]
Now, technically, Bryce isn't a canyon, but a collection of 'amphitheatres' - we're now at the edge of the sandstone that makes up the plateau, which water and ice erosion have eroded into curved half-bowls, full of hoodoos, towering spires of rock. The effect is like looking over the edge of a cliff into a forest of giant red-orange totem poles. It proved hard to photograph, and capture the scale of what we're looking at - especially as I was forever being admonished for standing too close to the edge.

The failing light and the thunderstorm in the distance sent us inside, in search of food. As we discovered both here and at the Grand Canyon, the food inside the National Parks is more about refuelling exhausted hikers than entertaining English foodies like us. The food was cheap, old fashioned - I hesitate to say 'school dinners', but perhaps just a little institutional. At Bryce we opted for pizza - freshly and enthusiastically made and slightly amateurish, served in a brightly lit hut a little distance from the main Lodge. We drank warm red wine from plastic beakers. I'm sure, if we'd spent the whole day hiking through the hoodoos, it would be just what needed.

[Lovely weather at Rainbow Point!]
During dinner the storm we'd spied in the distance arrived, quite dramatically - now I do love a good storm, but this one did ruin one of the treats of Bryce for me. The Lodge is one of only a handful of 'dark skies' parks in the US, where light pollution is kept to an absolutely minimum, and the night sky views are apparently unparalleled. Well, alas, for me, the skies were a uniform grey and not a star was to be to seen. It was also frustrating because we'd paid a little extra to stay at the Lodge rather than the much cheaper Best Western just outside the park. That said, it was still a charming place to visit.

The next day the weather was, quite frankly, awful as we bundled back in the car to explore the rest of Bryce. Leading away from the Lodge is a 20 mile or so one way drive to various rain blasted view points - we'd stop, dash out in the deluge to take a photo or two, then race back to the car. As the road climbed to the final viewpoint, the visibility dropped, but it was obvious we were traversing a narrow ridge with sheer drops on either side - much to the pleasure of my more nervous passengers. I'm not sure if the lack of a view helped or hindered - perhaps it's worse when the imagination is given full reign.

I'm sure the view from Rainbow Point is spectacular - and we did brave the weather as long as we could, to soak up what we could without becoming completely soaked ourselves. But we were glad to get back in the car and head back to civilisation.

[Try the Chubby Cheese]
It's at this point things starting to go wrong. We had a minor medical emergency (and because this is a food blog, and you might be eating, I won't tell you what went wrong, save to say that it was icky), and that meant a 50 mile round trip to the charmingly named Panguitch.

If that had a little silver lining, it was that it gave us a chance to see a little bit of small-town America we would normally have bypassed. We had lunch at an authentic little local's diner (Henrie's, home of the Chubby Cheese!) and explored the General Store that really did have a bit of everything (including a much needed and very helpful pharmacy).

After all that excitement, we headed back to Bryce, eager to put our feet up at the Best Western and dry out and relax. Ah. My first and only booking error of the holiday (don't forget I had twenty one to organise). When I'd tried to book the hotel in Bryce, I hadn't noticed the hotel was full, and it had instead recommended the next nearest, in Cedar City, over 70 miles away.

Well, the staff in Bryce's Best Western couldn't have been more helpful - one tried everything she could to find us something closer, while Jennifer went all dreamy eyed at the mere mention of Cedar City. It was the nearest real town, it had shops, it had restaurants, it had (gasp) a Wal Mart. We could tell Jennifer was jealous of our unexpected side trip to real civilisation.

So, we bundled back in the car, drove back through Panguitch and on to Cedar City. And what we found there can wait until my next post ...

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Cambridge's Delicious Dumplings

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you ... dumplings!

Now, what place do dumplings have in a blog that's supposed to be about American food? Well I could justify it by saying that the three best Chinese meals I've ever had have been in the US - including one of my best meals full-stop.

To be honest, though, it's more about wanting to share a delicious lunch I've just had - especially as things have been a little quiet on this blog recently.

These little pockets of perfection came from a stall on Cambridge market - a stall that has no name, but is simply a few gas burners, a wok, a scratched formica table and a few plastic chairs.

You choose from 5 or 6 different types of dumpling, and then for another 50p you can have them fried. This delectable dozen of pork and chive cost me just a fiver. I did what the Chinese couple next to me did - I added a liberal splash of vinegar from the bottle on the table, a drizzle of hot chili sauce and tucked in. Absolutely delicious.

[The crab - poorly photographed!]
I have no idea how long this stall has been there, or how long it will be there for - so if you live in Cambridge, get down there as soon as you can. But please leave some dumplings for me!

So what, I pretend to hear you ask, were those three Chinese meals you had in the US?. Well, all three were in San Francisco - and first, the salt and pepper crab at the R&G Lounge, was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

We arrived knowing it was a 'must order', and were bemused when the waiter walked away halfway through us listing our side dishes. He knew what we didn't - if you order the crab, you'll need nothing else.

It's messy, primal food - I'm discovering how many of my top dishes are eaten with my fingers - salty, crunchy, crabby goodness. Rather than listen to my amateur hyperbole, watch this video of Anthony Bourdain doing it properly. Oh, and Anthony's right, you have to have a lychee martini.

The next was at the City View Restaurant, just round the corner. They're right renowned for their lunch time dim sum, delivered from a non-stop procession of trolleys. It's the carts that make it special - instead of ordering safely from a menu, you just pick what you want as it's wheeled past you. They stop serving lunch at 2.30pm, and that's the only reason I can ever see to leave. Just one more plate, just one ...

[This bun is so good]
And finally, a very honourable mention for the Good Mong Kok bakery on Stockton Street. They offer huge and freshly steamed pork buns for just pennies, and I love them.

So, Cambridge dumplings, you provided me with a flood of nostalgia for San Francisco's chinatown - maybe I'll try and go back in 2015.

But also I must try more of Cambridge's home grown Chinese food. We now have a mini Chinatown on Regent Street - I can think of at least five restaurants that have sprung up in recent years to serve our every growing Chinese community. If they're even half as good as San Francisco, I'll let you know!

Sunday 21 September 2014

Who's in the market for chorizo in a bun?

On the left you'll see one of London's top street foods, Brindisa's chorizo sandwich from Borough Market.

I've been eating this delicacy for over twelve years now, and it brings back special memories of when I moved to London, started a family and my love of food really started to take off.

This was my first visit to Borough Market in some time, and it's certainly changed - but then again, the market is no stranger to change.

The market has been in operation at least a thousand years, sitting strategically at the southern end of London Bridge, once the only bridge across the Thames.

However, by the 1990s the market was struggling. Like the other major London markets - Smithfields, Billingsgate, (New) Covent Garden, Borough was a wholesale market, open from 2am to 8am, selling fruit and vegetables to the high street grocers and restaurants of London. In fact, it still is, and I must try and get there early one day for an experience of the more ancient Borough Market.

The fortunes of the market changed in 1998 with the arrival of Brindisa and Neal's Yard, and the first Food Lovers' Fair. They had decided to open a retail market - initially on the third Saturday of every month. I would love to claim I was there at that first fair - for foodies, this is like seeing the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (where if everyone who claimed they went actually went, the hall would have been filled three times over).

In fact, I probably first went around 2002, when the market was now twice weekly, with a second, smaller retail market on Friday. The market was at a point of transition - it was no longer the preserve of the foodies-in-the-know and trendy restaurateurs. It had been 'discovered' - in no small part because of a mention on the programme of a new, bright eyed and bushy tailed chef by the name of Jamie Oliver.

This was apparently the market for the very best ingredients - yet we lived just down the road, probably passing over on the train every day - and had never been.

I still remember the excitement of our first trips. It was still very much a market - you came to buy things. We still talk in hushed and reverential tones about the Borough Market chicken - our first not to come from a supermarket, our first organic and free range, and probably our first to actually taste of chicken.

Brindisa clicked early on that looking at all these ingredients might actually make people hungry - and so they started cooking up their chorizo sausage and selling it to the hungry market goers. There's no doubt it was a great advertisement too. Also, there was the legendary queue - nothing like an hours' wait to get the mouth drooling in anticipation.

So there I was, last week, with my Brindisa chorizo in a bun, feeling a little sad and nostalgic. Why? Because I didn't have to queue for it. In fact, the guys at the stall were handing out free samples to try and entice custom. What's happened in the last ten years is that Borough Market is now an attraction, and it's had to change accordingly.

Listening to the babble of languages around me tells me that tourists dominate the visitors to Borough, and they don't want to walk round Tate Modern and Madame Tussauds with a back of vegetables and raw meat to cook on their trouser press in the hotel room. They want to taste some delicious food - right now - and move on to their next destination.

So Borough Market has become a huge food hall, and Brindisa's chorizo bun had to compete with goat tacos, fresh sweet corn and steak sandwiches in its little section alone. In the newly refurbished Three Crown Square there was there was a whole cornucopia of eating options. And to your average tourists, the Borough stalwarts of Brindisa and Neal's Yard are no more or less famous than any other stall on the market. Why queue for chorizo when there's three different paellas for sale just over there?

Change isn't a bad thing. The new look market is still vibrant and exciting, and all the food for sale continues to look delicious and inviting. All the old favourites are still there, and if I want to buy ingredients without having to fight through the tourists, well, I should come early. And who am I kidding? I don't live in South London any more, I don't want to carry a chicken home on the train. But a part of me, just a little part of me, wanted to queue for my chorizo in a bun.

Sunday 14 September 2014

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - Springdale and Zion

[View from our hotel, Springdale]
(First part of this adventure can be found here)

Every road trip has a town that surprises you. A place that's supposed to be just a rest stop, a convenient place for lunch. Somewhere that isn't a destination, somewhere born of a necessity - but then it charms you, and you wish you could stay longer.

I remember this feeling in Bisbee, Arizona and Springfield Missouri - and this year, Springdale in Utah.

We arrived in Springdale late with less than an hour before our dinner reservation - no one told us we'd changed timezones! We also planned to leave first thing in the morning for Zion Valley. We were staying in Springdale purely for its convenience, nestled as it is just outside the Zion National Park.

So we weren't prepared to find Springdale, and especially our hotel (the Desert Pearl Inn), quite so appealing. The hotel room had a balcony over looking the Virgin River that flowed through its grounds, while the canyon walls high above us caught the setting sun. The girls eagerly eyed the pool too, and the little town invited further exploration.

However, no such luck - instead we had a mad rush to get to the restaurant on time. Our meal at The Spotted Dog, however, took a surreal turn. I don't really remember what we ate - meatloaf, pasta pesto, steak - but we'll never forget the waiter.

[Zion Valley]
He was a tall, lanky chap with a lugubrious tone and he immediately put us in mind of Lurch from the Addams Family. His strangely affected delivery caused us to corpse every time he came to the table - it was as if he'd learned a 'posh waiter' voice from watching too much Downton Abbey. Poor man reduced my daughter to barely suppressed giggles every time he spoke. The food was fine, but the service was an experience.

The next morning, we're off on the shuttle bus to the visitors centre, and then on another bus up the canyon (in peak times, no cars are allowed). The bus takes you up the ever narrowing canyon as far as it can - from there you can walk until even that is no longer possible. The truly brave can then continue to trek up the river itself, as the high walls continue to press in.

This was another breath taking experience. The walls of the canyon approach 2,000ft high - that's four times the height of our own Cheddar Gorge.

The shade from the canyon walls meant it stayed cool and although the park was definitely busy, it was easy to escape the crowds.

The end of the trail was enlivened by the presence of the world's cheekiest squirrels - one of whom calmly walked up and took a cereal bar out of my wife's hand, and then boldly ate it in front of her!

[Utah State Road 9, out of Zion]
We left Zion bound for our next stop, Bryce Canyon, on what was probably the most scenic and exciting road I've taken to date in the US.

To cries of 'slow down', 'mind the edge' and 'we're going to die', we snaked up from the base of the canyon to the flat plateau above. At one point, the Mount Carmel tunnel carves through over 5,000ft of mountainside. The views are jaw dropping, although I suspect my wife had her eyes shut for most of it.

Before our road trip was finished we were to do drives that were higher, and even scarier, than this (although possibly not as beautiful), but it's still a once in a lifetime experience. But if you do go, don't treat Springdale as rest stop, like we did. Stay awhile!

Sunday 7 September 2014

Eat meat, sleep, repeat - Review of Meatopia 2014

[These people gave us free meat. We love them]
I did my fair share of music festivals when I was a kid - I fondly remember the Reading Rock Festival (the filth! the squalor! the cheap cider!) and Glastonbury was a blur of mud and poor sanitation.

As I've grown up, so have the festivals - whereas in my youth they were a chance to escape the grown ups for a weekend, now the over 40s take their families. Now we can glamp in our luxury yurt, eating organic hummus and making occasional forays to the acoustic stage.

I don't exaggerate either - a quick Google tells me that Latitude boasts an olive bar and a fruit and yoghurt stall. Cambridge Folk Festival has an onsite grocers. Glastonbury has over 250 food retailers, including silver service dining. Even Reading Festival offers organic meat (How things change - I fondly remember one year there we survived entirely on doughnuts, rather than eat the horse-n-gristle burgers).

So you can see how this could be taken to a logical extreme. Why not remove the bands all together? No more loud music, louche popstars and leud twerking to upset the little ones. Just have the food stalls, but somehow make them the stars of show.

I welcome you to Meatopia.

[Goat tacos]
If Meatopia were a music festival, it's much more Donnington that Glastonbury. No hummus here, it's all about the meat. But many of the elements of a classic festival remain - there's smoke everywhere, but it's wood, not dry ice. There's a main stage, where the headline act for Saturday is an Italian butcher - and we cheered when he removed the hip bone from the cow carcass like we would a blistering guitar solo.

We had our own rock god - DJ-BBQ, in his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit - as the day's MC. We even had some music - I particularly enjoyed the New York Brass Band's take on hits of the 80s and 90s - as well as guest DJs and piano sing-a-longs.

But the meat was the main attraction, and boy was it good. We had twenty-two different chefs to choose from - each had just one dish that was to be cooked on a charcoal barbecue. Each dish cost one 'meatbuck' which could be bought for £5. So I had 4 bucks to spend, and was almost paralysed with choice. Do I want lamb cutlets? pulled pork? pork belly? cheddar dog? How can you make me choose?

Information is power, so my little group explored the venue thoroughly. Tobacco dock made a charming location - although open to the elements, there were enough enclosed spaces to hide should it rain (which, luckily, it didn't). Most of the chefs were arranged over the two floors of the old docks themselves, and those chefs with special requirements were outside - the whole roast ox, for example, or the huge barbecue pit full of succulent goat. There were also plenty of bars and almost enough places to sit. Agonising though it was, choices were eventually made.
[Goats before they became tacos]

Most of us have had one sublime festival moment. Many of my generation go misty eyed at the mention of Orbital on the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, 1994. Did I have such a moment at Meatopia? I think the closest I got was my opening dish - the brisket by Tim Rattray of San Antonio's Granary Cue and Brew where I'd eaten just last month. Oh, I've missed brisket, and this was as good as any I'd had in Texas.

I couldn't fault my other plates either - Neil Rankin's goat tacos were incredible, and I'm definitely putting the Smokehouse in Islington on my must try list. Siggi Gunnlaugsson's burger with comte cheese was just as good - I walked past their place on Marylebone recently and thought it looked it good. They're definitely on the list too. Actually, let's also put 'Q Grill' on the list, as their pig cheeks just melted in my mouth.

[Granary's divine brisket]
I must also give honorable mentions to Hawksmoor (my daughter loved their flat iron steak), to Lockhart for the enormous chunk of chicken they gave my wife and finally a special prize for Bristol's Grillstock for their tray of 'free meat' - offcuts of their delicious rump hearts that kept us walking past their counter again and again and again (and convinced my daughter to eat their dish too).

So would we go again? Hell yes, it's in the diary already. Could I have eaten more food? Oh yes, that too - I was high on barbecue by the time I left, and had to be nearly dragged out by my friends and family. Meatopia - you're my kind of festival!

Saturday 30 August 2014

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - The Valley of Fire

[Sandstone formations at the Valley of Fire]
I'll warn you now, there's a not a lot of food in these upcoming posts. But there are giant holes in the ground, vast empty spaces, vertiginous drives and some quite incredible scenery. So I do hope you'll forgive me. I also hope my experiences might be useful to other road trip planners like myself!

First off, a tiny bit of geology. Many gazillions of years ago, much of America was under water, with Utah and Arizona once being the coast of a huge inland sea (look here if you can't picture this).

Over time those sandy shores and sea beds compressed down into a mile thick layer of sandstone - plate tectonics (words I never thought I'd see in my blog) pushed this sandstone some ten thousand feet into the air, turning the sea bed into a high plateau. In turn, water, wind and ice eroded the sandstone into the most amazing canyons, cliffs and valleys (if this has piqued your interest, read more about the Grand Staircase).

I am no geology geek - but these landscapes, after they'd taken your breath away, would always leaving you asking why? how? What possessed nature to create these landscapes?

[Mouse's Tank, Valley of Fire, Nevada]
Anyway, although it came about more by luck than judgement, I was rather proud of our route. The scenery built up slowly - from the human scale of the carved red stones in the Valley of Fire to brain melting enormity of the Grand Canyon.

Done in reverse (as had originally been the plan, which I reversed to ensure we caught the Route 66 Festival in Kingman!), the Grand Canyon would simply have overwhelmed everything else.

So, on day one, a thunderstorm chased us out of Las Vegas along the I15 and then onto the evocatively named Valley of Fire Highway and into the park. Within the park itself, there's a dead-end road that leads up the valley from the visitor's center.

The road winds past a number of viewpoints and trail heads - we chose to walk the short and relatively easy Mouse's Tank trail, while the temperatures were still relatively cool after the storm, and played a fun game of 'spot the petroglyph'.

By the time we'd reached the end of the road, the temperatures were soaring - so tempted as I was to see the set of The Professionals (1966), still preserved among the White Domes Hills, common sense prevailed. Plenty of time yet to do what only mad dogs and Englishmen do  ...

[It's not joking, it was seriously hot]
Given it's just an hour from Las Vegas, I'd expected the Valley to be busier - perhaps, if you're going to do just one natural wonder during your stay, you're off to the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon? For us, it was the perfect introduction to what was to come.

The red sandstone shapes were other-worldly, especially if you're used to the flat, tamed and manicured landscapes of Cambridgeshire, and the petroglyphs remind you there's a mysterious history to America that's older than Columbus or the Pilgrim Fathers.

Oh, and I have to sneak some food in at the end. Don't make the mistake we made and expect to be able to eat at the visitor's centre - this one is purely educational displays and a small gift shop. Hungry, we rejoined the I15 and stopped off at the little town of Mesquite - which has the usual range of ubiquitous eateries.We ended up at a Jack-in-the-Box, although I've since been recommend the Peggy Sue's 50s diner next door. Ah well.

After that, we're back on the road to Springdale, Utah - but this post is already too long and writing about diners has made me hungry. So I'm off to eat brunch and I'll tell all about Zion soon.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Eating Las Vegas

[Gordon Ramsey's BURGR, Las Vegas]
Yet again, I find myself starting a posting with an apology for my recent online silence. For the past week or so I've been on my family holiday, exploring the mountains and canyons of the American Southwest - and then catching up with work at home.

The problem with family holidays is that it can be harder to find the time to write - and in this case, also knowing what to write about.

Is this blog going to be a food blog or a travel blog? Will I alienate my little handful of readers if I try to be both? These are the things that keep me awake at night. But I will try to keep this an American blog - whether that's American food experiences here in the UK, or writing about my travels when I'm in the US. I hope no one feels this is too schizophrenic!

So where have we been? Well, it all started in Las Vegas, with a meal at Gordon Ramsey's BURGR at Planet Hollywood. Now, I was very excited about this before we arrived, being only the second time I've eaten at a Ramsey establishment (the first being the Claridges, ten years ago). However it's telling that, only a fortnight after, I'm struggling to know what to say.

[Paris, Las Vegas]
Yes, it was a very nice burger. I had the 'American', and I couldn't fault it - and my family enjoyed theirs too. The portion of fries was ridiculously (and inexplicably) large, and could have served all three of us. But ... somehow, Vegas changes things. 

The fact you're barely partitioned off from the casino, dare I say it, makes it feel like you're eating in a mall. The huge TV screens were distracting, and the ridiculously short skirts on the waitresses were just unnecessary. Nothing seemed to have class. There was no connection to the balletic quality of service I experienced in Claridges. Perhaps that just sums up Vegas.

Next we went to that temple of artifice, Paris, to eat at Mon Ami Gabi. Here it was a little easier to suspend disbelief - with our back to the casino, no views of the outside, it's possible to imagine oneself in a dark, wood panelled brasserie. Although when the food arrives, you're instantly reminded you're in the US - the vast portion sizes confirm that. However, the bone in ribeye steak was superb.

[Bellagio Buffet - Puddings!]
Finally, we ended up at Bellagio, to do what Vegas does best - the buffet! Is there something about getting one over on Vegas that makes them so popular? Even if you can't win on the gambling tables, does trying to eat all their crab and prawn salad make up for it?

Allegedly, Bellagio does the best buffet, and I can certainly vouch for the breadth and quality - seafood, sushi, roast beef, ravioli, chinese and charcuterie, it's all covered. Sometimes you even see it all on the same plate (this year, the strangest combo I saw being carried was noodles and croissants). I was restrained, backing out after just eight courses - lightweight.

This is when I warm to Las Vegas - when it's doing what it does best, being brash, piling it high and selling it cheap, putting on a show, dazzling you with choice. It may host some of the world's best chefs (and their smiling faces - well, except for Gordon's scowl - are everywhere) and many of top restaurant brands - but me, I'm happiest when I'm planning my third plate of patisserie ...

Wednesday 6 August 2014

New Orleans - First isn't always best!

[Fire and Water is Classy]
I must start by telling you we've had some fantastic meals here in New Orleans - and I'll tell you all about those soon. We've also had some, well, interesting experiences here too.

Like all good foodies, I'm both a sucker for local specialities and a bit of food history. If somewhere that tells me it's the 'home of the original ...', then it's going on my 'must visit' list.

We started ourselves off gently, with Pat 'home of the original hurricane' O'Brien's. Now, we like our cocktails, but the hurricane was new to us. We should have guessed we weren't on for a subtle experience when we arrived in the courtyard to be presented with a flaming fountain. Yup, both water and fire - and both awesome and tacky.

The drink itself? Simply fruit juice and a lot of rum (apparently, it was invented to use up cheap rum imports from the Caribbean) - and remarkably popular. Much too sweet for my tastes, and potentially deadly. It comes in a special glass you're allowed to take home. Hmm.

Staying on the theme of cocktails, we also went to Napoleon House - a bar that epitomises New Orlean's shabby, gloomy chic. Here we're after their Pimms and lemonade - a popular drink in the UK, but unusual in the US outside of New Orleans. And - darn it - we weren't impressed. Their Pimms Cup is made with fresh lemonade - which might sound like a good idea, but the bitterness completely drowns out the subtle taste of the Pimms. I guess if you're after alcoholic fresh lemonade, it kind of works, but it didn't work for us. (Best Pimms Cup? We reckon Tableau on Jackson Square).

From there we went to the Hermes Bar, part of Antoine's, home of the Oyster Rockefeller. Now, not only is this the home, but it's the only place in the world you can get this delicacy. The recipe is apparently a closely guarded secret. All they'll tell is that it doesn't contain spinach (err, okay). Apparently, imitators have used laboratories to analyse the ingredients - and over three million of them have been sold.

[Oysters Rockefeller. Hmm]
Well, I hate to say this, but I don't think they'll be selling any more to us. On top of our oysters there was a large pile of piped green gloop. I'm struggling to find a pleasant metaphor to use here. Instead I'll just tell you it was bitter, salty and actually rather unpleasant. We're obviously completely missing something here. It also produced probably the most dreadful photo of the trip so far!

(The best oysters? For us, it was Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street).

But trust us, there's lots of delicious food here in New Orleans - just remember that first isn't always best, and unique isn't always good!

Tuesday 5 August 2014

It's a hard life food blogging here in New Orleans!

[Brown food at the Gumbo Shop]
You might have noticed that I'm finding it much harder to blog here in New Orleans. So maybe now is a good time to trot out some lame excuses - and perhaps my other fellow bloggers can relate to this.

My first problem is that New Orleans restaurants are atmospheric - or dare I say gloomy? Twice now I've found myself reading menus by the light of my mobile, and that's not really conducive to quality food photography. Trust me, flash never helps, unless you're prepared to set up a whole lighting rig in the restaurant. Strangely, that can cause problems with the management.

[Cocktails are hard to photograph]
Secondly, I'm no longer dining alone. It can be hard to interrupt the flow of conversation to start rummaging in for the SLR, asking your companion to 'just hold this lens', move their dinner to the right to improve the composition, decide that their dinner would actually make a better picture than yours, so you swap the plates round - and so on.

There's also a risk when you're with someone else that you just start eating when the food arrives - and realise halfway through you're supposed to take a picture. Occasionally, I've resorted to rearranging the plate to hide the bite marks, but normally, it's too late.

Also, the food here often shares a problem with the dishes I discovered on my Tex Mex road trip - it's mostly brown. Sorry, but red beans and rice, gumbo and jambalaya don't really photograph that well. It's all a bit, well, monochromatic. And sloppy.

We've also been exploring the world of the cocktail here - and again, glasses of similarly coloured liquids rarely photograph well.

[Fried chicken is also brown, if very tasty]
Now, that's not to say I haven't taken a few good pictures here in New Orleans - I have steamboats, Mardi Gras floats, balconies, bands and graveyards. If you'd like to pop over to my Flickr account, you can see those there. But food? not so good!

However, I have one awful picture that I won't share with you here - that's going to need a post all to itself. I'm not sure even perfect lighting could have saved that one. I'll explain all very soon ...

Friday 1 August 2014

Greetings from New Orleans! Anyone for alligator in a bun?

[The French Market]
Okay, I admit it, I've been slow to write about New Orleans.

The problem is that there's too many distractions - last night I was distracted by a remarkably strong, bright red cocktail with a cherry in it, a fountain that burst into flames and a bagpiper playing Jesus Christ Superstar. So hopefully you'll forgive me.

So, anyone for alligator in a bun?

I came to New Orleans knowing surprisingly little about the cuisine - but what I did know is that the French influence meant they took their food very seriously here.

My big book of clich├ęs suggests I call the city a 'melting pot', and it's very tempting to do so. There are influences of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Native American and African cuisines. The two main cuisines are Creole and Cajun, and I'm only just learning the difference.

You could say it's as simple as a tomato. Creole food has them, Cajun doesn't. Equally, you could say that Creole food is 'city' food and Cajun food is 'country'.

[A Gumbo]
It's also worth noting that although Cajun food is Louisianian in origin, I've read that it only arrived on the New Orleans restaurant scene in the 1980s.

What ever the truth is, dishes from both cuisines seem readily available in the city - a slight bias to Creole in the upmarket restaurants and to Cajun in the market stalls.

So, time to build the checklist - from Creole, there's Gumbo, the classic dark fish stew. There's Jambalaya, the Creole cousin of paella. There's red beans and rice.

In the Cajun camp, we have blackened catfish, the spicy boudin and andouille sausages and, of course, the alligator.

Finally, we have dishes that seem to be to be more of New Orleans itself - for example, the po'boy, a variation on the sub / baguette with a light, crispy roll.

[Beignets at Cafe Du Monde]
Or there's the muffaletta, an Italian influenced cheese, ham and olive sandwich designed to feed a family of four.

Oh and we mustn't forget the beignet - the light doughnut served with mountains of icing sugar, classically served at the Cafe Du Monde (which, conveniently, is just moments from our apartment).

So, New Orleans, you're going to do nothing for my diet, post-Texas, but we're definitely going to have fun. And I haven't even got round to talking about the cocktails yet!

More reading:
Cajun vs Creole food.
Cajun vs Creole - what's the difference?

Wednesday 30 July 2014

American food is just burgers and pizzas?

[White Pie with Spinach, Home Slice, Austin]
When I'm at home in England, talking about American food, there are three words I love to say - 'biscuits and gravy'. It always gets a shudder.

Here in the UK, a biscuit is a small cookie, like a digestive or a hob-nob. Gravy is always brown and very meaty. The idea of mixing the two - and even my American readers will agree here - is quite repulsive.

I then explain that in the US a biscuit is a type of scone, and that gravy can also be pale - that it's basically what we call 'white sauce', with some meat pan juices and pepper added. It's still a bit strange - scones are really meant for cream and jam - and a good illustration that there's more to American food than just burgers and pizzas.

Then I'd say 'shrimp and grits' (prawns with small stones to us English) and off we'd go again.

[Pizza frisbee, Home Slice, Austin]
But although American food isn't all about pizza and burgers, we must admit it is something you do seriously well - and I love to seek out the best examples when I'm over there.

This year I made a pilgrimage to Home Slice Pizza in Austin. Now, they claim to be authentic New York pizza, and I claim to not to really understand what means. I just know it's some of the best pizza I've ever had.

It's not just that it's a perfect thin crust pizza with a range of imaginative toppings (including white pizzas, without tomato, which I'd not had before). It's also got the buzz right. The place is small, dark and noisy. The staff are friendly, cute and tattooed. They gave my daughter a ball of dough to play with, and she's been in love with the place ever since.

It's also pizza you eat with your hands - they even give you a guide on how to fold it (take a triangular slice, and fold in half from centre to edge - insert pointed end into mouth), and that too makes it a more sensual experience. Just thinking about it makes me happy.

[The Porter Burger, Porter's, Austin]
To illustrate what a difference the atmosphere can make to the enjoyment of food, I also went to Porter's Ale House Gastropub on South 1st St. I'd agonised about this place recently, as it was a long walk from my hotel but I didn't want to drive (in the end, I caught the bus). I had some rather nice beer, and their signature burger with brie, pancetta and kettle chips. A bit rich, but what do you expect?

Now, I could get a bit cynical here. Let's say you're a new restaurant, in an area that's outside the main food districts. How do you get discovered? Well, one good route would be to a design a burger that's going to get noticed by the food writers and burger blogs. Like one with unusual ingredients. That perhaps gets you mentioned in the list of the 15 most splurge worth burgers in America on Zagat for example? Which lands in the mailbox of an Englishman who's off to Austin soon?

Well, I'll never object to a bit of publicity and marketing - the burger was tasty - but what I needed was a bit of buzz and atmosphere to make it a truly incredible burger. And I didn't get that being the only diner in your restaurant. I know it's not your fault.

The next night I walked to Guero's, just up from my hotel. It's standard Mexican fare, in a big fun restaurant with plenty of people watching opportunities.  I hate to say it, I had a better evening.