Friday 26 February 2010

La comida casera

No cooking classes at Gato Dumas this week. Instead, we have two evenings at the home of a cocinera named Merecedes, who is showing us some Argentinian home cooking. She is a warm and friendly lady, who you can't help but love.

Mercedes and her daughter Viki

Last night we made pastel de papas. Pastel de papas is, it would seem, Spanish for Cottage Pie. The only difference being that there is a layer of mashed papas on the top and the bottom. Otherwise it is the same, with the addition of a few extra toppings beneath the last layer of potato, namely huevos, raisins and olives. The piping bag stays in the drawer.

Assembling the alfajores

I hadn’t heard of alfajores before yesterday, but Hannah seemed pretty excited about them. Made all over Latin America, everyone has their own interpretation, but all are sweet biscuits made with cornflour(!). Once baked, we sandwich dulce de leche between them and roll the outsides in desiccated coconut. Dulce de leche, in case you don’t know, is caramelised sweet milk. Caramelised until it forms a thick, unbelievably sweet, gooey paste, that Argentinos devour with gusto. It is impossible not to like them, and easy to overindulge.

On Tuesday, we made puchero, a stew named after the pot it is cooked in. There's nothing particularly complicated about it - you slowly cook braising beef in water with vegetables. We use spuds (patatas, or papas), sweet potatoes (batatas), squash (zapallos), carrots (zanahorias) and onions (cebollas). Towards the end we add cabbage (repollo) and sweetcorn (chocla). In a separate pot we cook sausage and black pudding (morcilla), as they are too fatty to go in the main puchero.

For dessert we made pasta flora, a sweet pastry tart. Hannah and I sit at the table and make the masa, or pastry, which we roll and flatten with our hands and push into the tin. Sweet quince paste (membrillo) goes on next, and s topped with a lattice. It is hardly a work of art, hand rolled, uneven and lumpy as it is. My mind wandered back to the coeliac lecture at Ballymaloe and the painful lattice demonstration that took about an hour and had me reaching for my revolver. I guess that wasn't real home cooking. You certainly couldn't sell what we made on Tuesday, but you can definitely eat it. And we did.

I can’t say I learnt anything new about cooking this week, but as an insight into home food and family life it was a wonderful experience. I did nothing but (attempt to) speak Spanish all the time, and had no choice but to listen. It was a privilege to sit and eat round the table with Mercedes and her family. Rocket science it might not have been but the food was, irregardless, as some might say, Simply Delicious.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Bienvenida a Buenos Aires

After far too many e-mails, false starts and misunderstandings, at around 9pm on Monday, I finally took possession of my new apartment. A few blocks north of the last one; a few thousand miles better. I've harked on about the annoyances of the last place, but it was more than that. It didn't feel like a home -maybe because it was the scene of those first, long, dark hours of my time in Buenos Aires, and it couldn't shake off the stains.

The new place is home. It's on a bustling and lively little street. The bed is comfortable, there's plenty of space, a kitchen, a balcony and a pool on the roof. Walking to the tube (I really must start calling it the subte to stop Americans looking at me blankly, though they probably still will) I experienced a peculiar sensation. Suddenly, I feel comfortable, like I belong here (though obviously not a porteño just yet).

When I was in Melbourne for a spell last year, I felt inspired to photograph things wherever I went. Back in London, I resolved to do the same. I took a photo walk around town one sunny June day, and came back with three pictures. Nothing caught my eye; or rather my eye caught nothing. A place has to interest and excite you before you see those things. You have to breathe in time with it, or else they escape. Last week, I was quietly scouting, thinking how and where and why I would take photos. I didn't come up with much.

This week, I am seeing, thinking and understanding and feel inspired. Alive again, and excited, walking in step, the city has blossomed right before my eyes.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Sin Mente Argentina

I booked my programme in Buenos Aires through a company called Mente Argentina. Mente is Spanish for mind. They arrange everything for you: a four week cooking course and a language course running neatly alongside. They provide you with an apartment - a luxury single apartment in my case. They loan you a cellphone, gym pass, offer 24 hour support should you need it, and lay on activities and excursions. Hell, they even meet you from the airport.

Well. They met me from the airport. The apartment might well have been considered a luxury pad in Stalinist Russia, but at no point since would it qualify for such lofty status. Apart from the wafer thin walls, the tiny kitchen and the wobbly bed, I am now sin agua caliente and have been taking cold showers all weekend.

The cooking course isn't actually a course. What they mean is they book you classes for four weeks. So there is no real cohesion. I lucked out with the tartas, pizzas y empanadas gig in the first week. Next week he has me down for some individual lessons, which could be promising. Hopefully the profesor will speak English, so I can actually ask some meaningful questions. After that I have Mediterranean (check the map), and then he's signed me up for something called ABC de la cocina. I've declined that, but God only knows what alternatives he will produce. Something Argentinian wouldn't go amiss.

The Spanish classes are very good. But because he is trying to fit them around the cooking, I won't be doing level 2 straight after level 1, in the time honoured tradition, but will have individual classes instead. So to complete level 2, I will have to cough up for an extra week. None of this makes any sense to me.

Opting for the path of least resistance has caused me a lot more hassle than I had hoped. It would have been a whole lot cheaper and easier just to sort it out myself. Oh, and I'm still waiting for my gym pass. But to cap it all off, my fucking cellphone just stopped working. I was about to hurl it against the wall when it occured to me that it would almost certainly penetrate the flimsy partition, probably catching my neighbour a glancing blow on the temple as he takes his fiftieth piss of the day.

Mente my arse.

Saturday 20 February 2010

La primera semana

Exactly one week ago today I was embarking upon my first outing in Buenos Aires. With great trepidation and sweating prodigiously in the cloying heat, I wandered around aimlessly, conjuring up the most infirm excuses to prevent me from venturing into any bar or restaurant threatening to take my fancy, so scared was I of having to stand and stutter and attempt to excuse my ignorance with incomprehensible mumblings.

Technically it was a week but last weekend was an aberration: purgatory from which I was mercifully expunged. The last five days flew by. Spanish from 9am until 1pm. Cooking from 6pm until 9pm. Three o'clock. Three o'clock in the afternoon is always too late and too early for anything you want to do. And so, with the odd moment wedged firmly in the middle, there was precious little to do with my short interregnum.

On Thursday I passed it in San Telmo. Four of us from Spanish class had lunch, after which Roy (an Israeli kid) and I found a bookstore. In the last year or so, I have been making an effort to re-read books I first encountered when I was too young to appreciate them, so was thrilled to find a copy of Demian by Hermann Hesse, which I first read as a teenager.

I made a decision earlier in the week to move to a different apartment. It’s going to cost me, but this place is basically shit. The kitchen is scarcely big enough to facilitate kettle boiling, let alone cooking.

Cup of tea anyone?

But worst of all, the sound of my neighbour flushing the john in the middle of the night is deafening. Since he is an octogenarian, this happens fairly regularly. I found myself propped up in bed in the small hours reading Demian once more. I move on Monday, insha’Allah.

Long after dawn, I switched on the laptop and read of the collapsed minaret in Meknes. It saddened me so very much. Just a few weeks ago I was there; completely enamoured by the people; their warmth, spirit and kindness. There is something especially terrifying about tragedy when suffered by those at prayer. That a benign God is unable to prevent their demise, only serves to remind us of our frailty and impermanence.

As if we need reminding...

Friday 19 February 2010

Pan Relleno

It was the last class of the Tartas, pizzas y empanadas course last night, and we made pan relleno, or stuffed bread. There are three fillings; a salty mix of onions, leeks, tomato and mozzarella; corn in butter, flour and milk; and caramelized sweeet potato and quince.

Los profesores prepare the dough and the fillings as we watch

We make three different types of dough; one with olive oil for the corn; one with milk for the onion and tomato; and one with sugar for the sweet pastries. It's all pretty straightforward, until it comes to assembling the bloody things. They didn't show us exactly how to assemble them until we had already rolled our dough out, so my sweet ones were too rolled too thin, and I cut the squares too big. You have to spray them with a fair amount of water to help the dough stick too - there was definitely too much flour kicking around, and plenty of mine started flopping open once I'd pinched the corners. But you live and learn.

Me and my little tarts

The onion and tomato one is nothing special. But the corn is incredibly good. With practice, I guess you master the art of preventing the filling from spilling out of the horn shaped bread, and when that happens, you'd have a pretty good trick up your sleeve. The sweet ones are great too - our batch was a little over cooked, but they work in principle, and knowing what they're supposed to look like now, I'd be fairly confident of nailing them next time. All I need to do now is move to an apartment with a proper kitchen, and I can start.

At tasting time, the other guys in the class crack open bottles of champagne, and one of them even produces a couple of strawberry daiquiris, though no-one is quite sure where from. they hand out certificates, which is hilarious - the guy from Tucumán, Juan Martin, insists that the profesor puts his hat on when he gives them out - and everyone cheers and claps. Didn't get that at Ballymaloe.

Wednesday 17 February 2010


Gato Dumas Colegio de Cocineros, Buenos Aires

The fact that there is a verb in Spanish, empanar, meaning to wrap in bread, should tell you all you need to know.

We make our pastry in the prescribed manner. Some of us are using suet, or grasa, instead of butter. Others are using salvado, or bran, as well as the usual harina de trigo flour. I am using butter, and before the final folding, I must lay basil leaves on the pastry.

We have three different fillings. First up, onions sauteed in butter, thickened with flour and mixed with milk. To this we add spinach and mozzarella. They go in the masa de salvado pastry, and are closed on top with pinches on alternate sides(the method of sealing an empanada denotes its filling). In the basil (albahaca) pastry is going a tomato, dried tomato and mozzarella mix. They are folded like giant cappelletti and bushed with paprika oil.

The final filling we make ourselves - it is as close to a Cornish Pasty one can get this side of the equator. Onions and spring onions are sweated in a ton of beef dripping. Then minced beef is added, browned, and cooked under a lid. They add cumin and paprika, and when it has cooled, chopped boiled huevos. The empanada is formed just like a pasty, with the rope to hold it by as you eat.

The guy to my left, Juan Martin, is, by the looks of things, a most accomplished cook. He speaks reasonable English so we can chat as we tuck in to our work. He is from the home of empanadas, he tells me (Tucumán in north-west Argentina) and explains how he makes them. They chop the beef by hand and blanche it, before cooking it in broth along with the onions, cooked in oil, not fat. They layer the ingredients in the pastry rather than mixing them together. He's going to email me a recipe. I think I could probably learn as much from him as I could from our profesoros.

Juan Martin de Tucumán

Which kind of gets me thinking. It's one thing mincing around the world going to cooking schools, and another learning about their food. I need to tap into the Juan Martins of this world, get local intel, local secrets, to really make this work. I think the best thing to do is to throw everything into the Spanish for a month, and hopefully use the two that follow to really learn about the food.

And after that? Well there's always Mexico, and it's just a short walk from Texas…

Small acorns

Today I had my first conversation in Spanish. I noticed an illy sign in a place downstairs from the language school, so propped up the bar and ordered an espresso. The lady to my left started speaking to me. She asked where I was from; I told her. At first I thought maybe she was a plant - asking questions straight out of the textbook. Maybe she was just being sympathetic, who knows.

She told me she has a daughter who studies English, and proceeded to produce a picture from her purse. "Ah, muy linda," I politely remark. She points out that she looks like Gabriela Sabatini (she's kind of a big deal round here) and I agree - "si, su pelo es muy enrulado." She likes that. Not many gringos comment on your daughter's curly hair on their third day of speaking Spanish.

She clears off and I see her on her way with an encantado which I mean from the bottom of my heart. Meanwhile, the barista starts talking to me.
"Es ingles?"
"Si. Soy Ingles, de Londres."
"Manchester United?"
(Here we go)
"No, West Ham."
"Ah si si, West Ham"
(Eyes light up)
"Si. Carlitos Tevez. Muy, muy bueno."
And with that, I make another friend. I'll be back in my break every day for the next four weeks. And the coffee was excellent, which helps.

After class I head home and eat the calzone I made last night. It's not bad, but it precipitates a sudden and dramatic slump in my energy levels and I have no choice but to crash out. I come to an hour later, alarm screaming, utterly delirious. I take a Bond shower and head round the corner to get my pelo chopped. I do a bit of homework while I wait, and even manage to ask if they have a pen or pencil I can use.

In the chair, and the barber starts talking. I throw him the usual apologies, soy ingles, and he starts talking a bit slower (they speak machine gun quick in this city). I kind of understand him, too, and at times, am even able to express things that he comprehends. And amidst all the excitement of my haircut, we hold what a generous person might just about manage to call a conversation. In the excitement, I forget to tip him. I think I'll just wait till next time and tip him double. I might even be able to explain myself by then.

Monday Night: The Great Flood

Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Cooking classes started on Monday at Gato Dumas Colegia de Cocineros in Belgrano. It's a great little school, pretty well equipped, though not up to Ballymaloe standards. But the classes are in Spanish. Completely in Spanish. Still, it's surprising what you learn; your eyes tell you what's happening and you begin to piece together and understand things as you go.

On Monday we made Tartas - vegetable, tuna and spinach. The most interesting part of this was the pastry method - the flour is shaped into a giant ring, the butter is very soft and the dough is brought together in the centre. It is then rolled in the same way as puff pastry, in thirds and layered, but using melted butter and a lot of flour along the way.

The other pastry is much shorter and crumblier, and in the heat was almost impossible to roll. Fillings were spinach and ricotta (good), tuna with tomatoes (not great) and the crumbly one was a medley of vegetables topped with egg and cream (good). The only slightly worrying thing about all this is they are not really teaching people. They're not going round watching and pointing and showing. They demonstrate; you cook. Nor do they teach people to taste, meaning things are coming out either over or under seasoned.

Anyway I get by, and actually really enjoy it. The class is half men and half womenThey crack the wine open as soon as you get in, and a few of the guys, very jolly anyway, avail themselves of as much as they can. They are all locals with the exception of Hannah, an American who speaks fluent Spanish and helps me out when I am completely confused.

We finally leave around half nine, and are confronted by the most Almighty rainstorm I have ever seen. There are rivers of water rushing down the streets. Hannah and I are heading for the tube, but we don't even reach the end of the block. We later discover that all the lines were flooded anyway. After about half an hour, we manage to hail a cab. It's ten o'clock and we're only four miles from home.

Taxis in Buenos Aires are unbelievably cheap. But that's when the journey isn't interrupted by flooding. In Palermo the water is well over a metre deep in places. The drains are blocked with rubbish, and there is nowhere for the rain to go. The city grinds to an abrupt halt and, completely gridlocked, we are stranded a couple of miles from home. We could walk, but it would involve a lot of swimming. And praying that it was only rainwater we were swimming through. So we decide to sit it out in the cab. It stopped raining for a bit and we stood outside, until our saturated clothes brought on a chill. In the end, it took three and a half hours to get home, and the ride cost 120 pesos, which must be some kind of record for this place.

At half one in the morning then, deliriously tired yet unable to stop myself laughing, I lay my head upon the pillow.

The world screamed out loud at me, and I smiled and screamed right back.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Yo soy estudiante de Español

I had my first Spanish lesson yesterday morning and it couldn't have come a minute sooner. You don't learn a lot in your first four hours of a new language. It is a huge flashback to being twelve years old, and tip-toeing through the fundamentally alien concept of learning to communicate in a completely different language from that which you have grown up with. If that's hard when you're twelve, what's it like when you're thirty two and your tiny brain has been addled by twenty years of extraneous and often pointless learning, washed away with various cocktails of drink and other noxious substances, and emaciated by the emotional rigours of life? Actually, it seems a lot easier.

People bang on about the capacity of children to learn things quickly. Watching my two year old niece's vocabulary double every week, and now reaching the stage where she is more than capable of outwitting and taunting me should she so wish (she's too nice to do so I think), I would tend to agree. But you know what, when you're twelve, you've got a lot of other stuff to learn and, well, you're twelve, for crying out loud. You know nothing.

In my eight years as a bookmaker, I could probably have named over 50% of the UK population of racehorses, their trainers and jockeys. Half of them I could probably tell you their last run, or at least what they'd won. Half again, I could probably tell you what ground they like, their best trip, which tracks they'd go best on, which races I'd aim for if I trained them, who I'd get to ride them and, most crucially, what kind of price they should be. I no longer need to know this information. So I figure, letting all that drift slowly from my mind, I must have created a hell of a lot of room up there, even accounting for the self assisted decline in grey matter that must surely claim us all eventually. So filling it with a few choice words of Spanish can't be that hard. Surely?

I have many friends who have taught English as a second language. I could never really understand how you can teach someone a language if you don't speak theirs. But now I do. You adjust to listening, you pick up notebooks full of new words every hour, and you are forced to think and express yourself in the language you're learning. The upshot of this - confidence. Before yesterday's lesson, I was afraid to even order a coffee. Now I'm sipping tea and getting shirty about how I like my toast, even if I'm not deploying my newly acquired linguistic skills and telling people via a giant speech bubble "Yo soy Tom Cruise. Soy actor, y soy muy bajo..."

Lo siento, no entiendo

I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien. And the only words I am confident enough to say in Spanish mean I'm sorry, I don't understand. And I am perfecting the sorrowful expression of profound stupidity and helplessness that accompanies my predicament. At least when Sting hit the Big Apple, everyone else spoke English. I don't know how to order a cup of tea, my dear, let alone start worrying about my preferred method of toasting bread. I don't necessarily look foreign, so no-one accounts for my ignorance or inability to communicate. And I don't know anyone, so I can't talk to anyone about it. And that makes you feel a long, long way from home. My flat, that seemed all right when I arrived, fully gripped by cabin fever after the fifteen and a half hour flight, is starting to resemble the kind of place where people are kept under 'house arrest.'

Saturday and Sunday were two long days when all this began to weigh me down, and I couldn't help asking what the fuck I was doing. Running away from making a decision about what to do with the rest of my life? Definitely. Crazy? No doubt. Gonna buy a ticket home and ditch the round the worlder? Maybe.

What a difference a day makes; twenty four little hours.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Plane Food, Heathrow Terminal 5

I recently endured one of the most depressing culinary experiences of my life at the inexplicably named Dining Street Restaurant in Heathrow Terminal 4. This time round I try and erase the memory by dining at Plane Food, Gordon Ramsey’s joint in Terminal 5. It is neatly distanced from the main drag. I decline to sit at the bar (no-one else is) and opt for a better view of the reasonably pleasant surroundings.

I don’t want a starter, but five spiced potted duck with pear and saffron chutney can’t be missed. It is perfectly seasoned - the five spice dances around without dominating. The toast is good but not great. Pear chutney the same. I can’t help thinking that a little more acidity might have helped. Maybe some orange in there to slice through the fattiness? If the capers and cornichons were meant to be the acid at the party, they were a bit of an overdose.

I opt for the salmon and haddock fishcakes with harisssa mayonnaise to follow. Fishcakes are somewhat ubiquitous, but I am always curious to see how good chefs cook them. Perfectly poached salmon and haddock, a lovely milkiness to the potato (not creamy) and beautifully seasoned. The harissa mayonnaise is equally good. The rocket garnish is over dressed and a little pointless.

Service is fairly slick - they are all guys, with very precisely trimmed facial hair (read UK garage beards) and have got all the chat. Looking about myself, I see plenty of people craning their necks in search of them, but they always seem to arrive just in time.

Good then. Better than any airport restaurant I have dined in before, but the competition is not stiff, and you’d have been disappointed if old leather face couldn’t pull this one off.

Friday 12 February 2010


Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport, London

Halfway through December last year I was sat in pretty much the same seat I am now, sinking miniature cans of Grolsch and waiting to board an aircraft for an impossibly long flight. At the time, I felt that the tingle of anticipation and excitement that should have accompanied a five month jaunt to Australia was curiously absent. If that was the case then, what the fuck is happening now?

The few possessions I have deemed worthy of accompanying me on my year long round the world adventure have been checked in. I've said my goodbyes, sent a consolation text to my mum, and refuelled at Gordon Ramsey's Plane Food (which I will talk about later). I'm here, all set, ready to go. On the cusp of a great adventure. But, somehow, it doesn't quite feel like it.

I can only think that I am half scared. Or nervous, or anxious. Something must be stopping me from embracing that which, at my own behest, is about to embrace me. Or maybe I am just hopelessly unprepared for spending a whole year on my own, on the far side of the world from all the people I hold dear. Either way, it makes little difference now. This time tomorrow I will be in Buenos Aires; my Latin American Spanish phrasebook tucked in one pocket, a few pesos in the other.

In the past I would have allowed myself to paint over the nerves, but of course they are there. They are part of what is going to make it all so magical, and the cause of that moment, whenever it comes, when the enormity of it all sinks in; when the world screams out loud at me, and I smile and scream right back.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Booked it, packed it...

London - Buenos Aires - Santiago - La Paz - Lima - Quito - Miami - Houston - Los Angeles - Tokyo - Hong Kong - Bangkok - Singapore - Melbourne - Auckland - Sydney - London

And more than a few places in between I should think.

Friday 5 February 2010

Yauatcha, Soho, London

Yauatcha. I can't help thinking that it thinks it's a little bit cooler than it actually is.

I had lunch there yesterday and it was nowhere near as packed as it used to be. I can live with that. But did they always have wooden chopsticks? And how can a Michelin starred dim sum restaurant run out of jasmine tea? And that only came to light after I had ordered about three pots of it off the same guy, who kept staring at me as though I were speaking in tongues. Just a hint of that aloofness and carefree attitude that is the hallmark of a place that has gotten up itself.

I console myself with a blanket order of all my favourites. Shock horror: the Chilean sea bass mooli rolls are gone from the menu. What possible reason could they have for taking them off? Food miles? I decided to have a look on their website to email in protest. It is the shittest website I have ever seen. Of all the restaurants in London that should have a cool website, surely this is it? Don't, whatever you do, look at it.

Thank the Lord above that the baked venison puffs survived this latest cull. The rich and crumbly pastry hides the meatiest, juiciest venison you can imagine. Somehow it remains incredibly delicate yet properly meaty, in a true pie sense. If they dropped this from the menu I think they would be buggered.

Everything else was good, of course. But it's not that good. Not Michelin star good anyway. Maybe the inspectors should head down to China Palace above the carpet shop on South Street in Worthing of a Sunday lunchtime, and try their dim sum. Crazy I know, but it's not so far behind. And the staff are human, and they smile, and they never run out of jasmine tea.

Monday 1 February 2010

An exercise in planning

Morocco was like a little trailer for me. A glimpse of what might be to come. Whilst there, and without really thinking about it too much, I booked myself on a four week cooking course in Buenos Aires.

As well as the cooking I have a month of Spanish lessons, and my own apartment in Palermo that I am taking for an extra month. The plan, if you can call it that, was to travel South America eating, writing and taking photographs. I like the idea of a one way ticket - no end in sight, just a rambling adventure from one place to the next; a bit like Huckleberry Finn, but without the river.

So I go in Trailfinders to book my one way Huck Finn ticket, and it turns out that there is no such thing. I can book a one way to Buenos Aires, but that is ridiculously expensive. What are my other options? Well, there's the one world alliance's round trip ticket - sixteen flights in five continents. Clearly this is going to take a little more planning than I had anticipated.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Presented with these practical options, it seems that the best thing to do would be to just go round the world for a year. I have to nominate sixteen flights to take over the next twelve months. I can change the dates as and when I like, but the route is pretty much set. Not quite the carefree ambling odyssey I had thought then, but as second prizes go, I'm not about to hand it back. But I do have to book it, and with my first class starting in BA two weeks today, it's about time I got on the case.

As for the cooking schools, I am on the lookout for ideas in Chile, Mexico, Tokyo, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. If anyone has been to one, I'd love to hear about it...