Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ship-shape and rissole fashion

“THE SEAFOOD of Venice and the Adriatic coast,” reckons renowned food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, “is easily the best I have ever tasted.” I have no reason to dispute this claim, although personally I also rate the piscine residents of the Cornish coast and whatever delights my mother-in-law’s fish man brings to her home most days, freshly pulled from the Philippine Sea. Steingarten, having been at the top of the food journalism tree for the best part of three decades, knows his stuff. Any claim he makes should be taken fairly seriously.

Besides, I have a strong memory of two amazing hours in Rimini, spent eating the freshest, most wonderful seafood I had ever tasted. I had arrived early on the train, equipped with two pretty, English female friends – fellow exchange students at the University of Bologna. At the same time the local fishing fleet was docking, and largely thanks to the girls I breakfasted with the boatmen, who set up a brazier on the dock, topped it with a paella pan and threw in morsels as they cleaned their catch, plus garlic, onion, stock and white wine, to create first a stir-fry and then a fish stew. Hooked out of the fire on bits of bread it was ambrosial, and promptly spawned in me the kind of hankering for frutti di mare an upbringing in the landlocked hills of Worcestershire had done little to prepare me for.

Twenty years later and living just two hours down the same coast from Rimini, I have somehow managed to visit not a single restaurant in my home town. I’m not quite sure how this has happened, although to be fair, most places have been shut for much of the winter. Still, all that changed today. I arrived home from Abruzzo at one o’clock, starving, and was overjoyed to find that my wife had booked us and visiting friends into a local place for lunch. The Chalet San Marco is famous locally for its seafood, supplied by the proprietor’s very own fishing vessel. Even better, it is about 200 metres from our front door. Our visit was epiphanic. We had fish antipasti cold and hot, frittata and arrosto misti, mussels, clams, a plate of pasta and beautifully-fried curls of potato. Lord knows how, but the children even managed ice cream as we bolted espresso coffee in an attempt to jump-start our digestive systems. We staggered back along the beach nearly three hours later, vowing to return at the earliest opportunity.

Under my arm was a foil-wrapped box containing quite a bit of roasted fish, the overspill from our feast. Adriatic fish tends to be smaller than most, but the species variation is incredible. Not one of the pieces in our doggy bag was the same, ranging from bits of large flat fish to entire, smaller, ugly things. They were fried in breadcrumbs, which rather hampered identification.

But what did I care? The flesh, I had already decided, was destined to become fish cakes. This is a delicacy that occupies a peculiarly divided place in my heart. On the one hand I have become a complete fan of Thai food in recent years, thanks to several brilliant restaurants in the UK and a period of cohabitation with a British/Thai couple. The Thai half was the better cook, and I learned a great deal from watching her at work. Of course, a staple starter at any Thai joint is the fish cake, a light, spicy creation combining herbs, spice and fish in an incredibly satisfying way.

A survey of my life reveals a 15-year, on-off relationship with the marvellous city of Sheffield. I have lived in several other places during that time, but have always maintained some form of reason to either visit Steel City or call it home. I love the place for its easygoing – if a tad morose – locals, its position at the epicentre of the British rock climbing scene and a cosy, villagey feel completely at odds with its status as one of the biggest cities in Britain. These and the fact that many of my mates live there. What fails to draw me is Sheffield’s unique take – it has a unique take on many things, and this isn’t one of its better ones – on the fishcake.

To most Brits a fishcake is pretty much a de-orientalised version of the Thai one, having as its principle component, well, fish. There may be a disguise of breadcrumbs on the outside, but you know that within lies a soft core of fish flesh and seasoning. It is simple, effective and goes really rather well with salt ’n vinegary chips. Stroll into a Sheffield chippie and demand a fish cake, and the hapless outsider will receive what can only be described as two massive slabs of potato, sandwiching a smear of fish and deep fried in batter. If you want a fishcake as the civilised world knows it, you have to use the word “rissole”. You will be regarded as a deviant by all your fellow fish supper shoppers, but at least you won't have to endure what has to be one of the vilest creations in all gastronomy.

I pried open my laptop to see what the Web might have to say on the matter of the Sheffield Fishcake and its foreign rival, as the home of The Full Monty is notoriously happy to give its two pennorth when its culinary peculiarities are under discussion. The best available comes from Sheffield Forum, allegedly the busiest community forum in the country. I quote it in its entirety:

Remember when they used to write on the chip shop windows in something that goes white? probably Windowleen. Well I was in my local chippie one night when somebody had been messing about rubbing some of the writing off. A man asked for chips and a pissole. The woman behind the counter said " That P is supposed to be an R". "OK" said the man "Chips and an Rsole".

Armed as I was with the wonders of the Adriatic and a deep-seated horror of South Yorkshire’s version, I determined that my fishcakes would tend towards the Thai way of thinking.  Besides, there are no potatoes in the house today. I stripped the leftovers of flesh, then paused for a moment. What exactly goes into a fishcake? I wondered. Delia Smith is an obvious initial point of enquiry It’s interesting to chart Delia’s evolution, as it provides a fine barometer for that of the British palate. She started writing cookery books in 1971, and her all-time classic Cookery Course first turned up seven years later. It has evolved and updated itself constantly since, and has a central place in my kitchen. I rarely actually use a Delia recipe in its entirety, but tend to consult her for basics. Can’t remember the proportion of egg to flour in a crèpe? Ask Delia. Need an idea of the fundamental ingredients in a fish cake? You know where to look. The current (I’ve got through three) Delia on my shelf is the 1989 edition, reprinted in 2000. Fish cakes are obviously on Delia’s radar as it contains two recipes – kipper and salmon-based, with capers enlivening the latter. But for a Thai version I need to come forward a few years and delve into her Internet output.

Delia’s shopping list includes: fish, which I obviously have; Thai red curry paste, also present in the fridge; lime juice and green chillis, which I don’t possess. As usual, it’s time to improvise a little. Into the liquidizer goes the fish, bulked out by some tuna as our dogs look resentfully on. They love tuna, and assume instantly that opening a tin heralds a feast for them. Then I added a tablespoonful of red curry paste, four of my Thai friend Kannika’s mother’s ferocious home-grown red chillis – a bag of which lives in the freezer, a good shake of freeze-dried lemongrass (the fresh version is impossible to find on the Adriatic Coast, for reasons of culinary patrimony that are discussed elsewhere in this blog), the juice of several Sicilian lemons (plentifully available for reasons of culinary patrimony…), some fresh coriander which improbably survived the winter in pots on our rear balcony and a tablespoonful or so of nam pla, the South-East Asian fish sauce which I tend to throw into dishes with abandon.

The mix doesn’t need to be incredibly smooth, so after just a little liquidizer action it was formed into patties, which I rolled in breadcrumbs and a dangerously generous shake of lemon chilli powder – found by my friend Neil in a Pakistani-run shop in Leicester. The result was fried in hot vegetable oil. In case the centres needed a little extra cooking, I threw the cakes into the oven for ten minutes while I cooked some rice and steamed matchstick-shaped chippings of courghette above it. When the latter were nearly done I gave them a  quick fry in the pan vacated by the fishcakes. Perhaps they would catch a little Thai flavour that way, I thought.

In the end I did little more than sample this dish. Still replete from the Chalet San Marco, my wife and I had a small plate each. Friend Neil however, had been toiling through house-restoration duties as we frolicked on the beach. He had cycled 15 kilometres home and was ravenous. He finished the lot in lip-smacking style, giving a huge thumbs-up to this fusion of Italian and Asian flavours. I’m thinking of sending the recipe round to San Marco, although culinary patrimony means it is sadly unlikely to find house room there. Should anybody in Sheffield fancy printing it out and pasting it to the door of their local chippy, be my guest.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hic Transit Gloria: Oddbins – a love poem

THE MANAGER brightened visibly. Not only was the pretty girl buying champagne, but she was also asking if he had any jobs available. He did, it seems. “Not for me,” she declared, tossing her head in my direction. “For him.” Girlfriend was light-years ahead of me. I was twisted backwards, surveying a ceiling made entirely of advertising posters, stapled in fantastic disarray on top of each other. Fortunately, Oddbins managers are unfazed by contortionism. “Come in tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll have a chat.”

Never having undergone a job interview before, I had no real expectations of this encounter. The manager however, was highly experienced in these matters. He had honed his appraisal technique to two main questions: “do you take sugar?” and “when can you start?”. My career in wine retail was underway.

This was around 1995, and it turned out that I had joined a remarkable British institution enjoying what was pretty much its heyday. Oddbins was started in 1963 by one Ahmed Pochee, who had the wizard wheeze of buying the remnants of wine shipments – odd bins – and selling them, at the beginning quite literally out of the back of a van. It passed into other hands during the 1970s, and a few years before I got there had become the property of Canadian drinks giant Seagram.

Normally, corporate ownership is a death sentence for maverick retail, but Seagram had a remarkable approach to Oddbins. As long as it turned some kind of profit, and provided a funky shop window for Seagram product, it was allowed to do pretty much what it liked. This gave its buyers freedom to stock some truly brilliant products, alongside well-known brands. In many ways, Oddbins invented eclectic British wine retail, providing a model that the supermarkets were wise to follow.

The company at that point had some 200 stores, each of which operated autonomously. There was a core stock list, but in addition the managers could order things they thought customers locally would buy, or which they just fancied having in. Some point-of-sale material would be sent by Head Office, but most of the labels and all of the displays were created individually by the staff at each shop. The result was that no Oddbins was quite like any other. What I didn’t know was that the one I had stumbled into was already notorious, both locally and within the company. How many wine shops do you know that have a rowing boat in one corner, filled with sand and bottles?

Whether by accident or design, retail companies tend to attract staff that reflect their attitudes and values. Oddbins at this point seemed to be a kind of career beach, upon which would wash up shoals of overqualified, talented yet directionless young people. Most of us in my shop had at least one degree. One bloke had a PhD, for crying out loud. Whatever our academic resume we all shared two core skills: drinking and learning. A great many tasks awaited us when we opened up the shop, including keeping it stocked, getting orders out for delivery, actually serving customers and keeping the place clean and tidy. We tended to eschew the latter for reading about wine and spirits. This was an age before wi-fi Internet, so we had a library of reference books in one corner.

As a result, the place was unbelievably filthy, but we really knew our stuff. The aim of the place was to match the product with a customer’s needs and price expectations, and we were very good at this. We weren’t so talented at dusting and tidying, but few of the customers seemed to mind. They were too busy reading the talkers.

Talkers are those labels that hang around the neck of bottles on the shelf, bearing important information such as the name and price of the product. They were also supposed to contain a nicely-reasoned description of how it tastes, who made it, what one might find interesting about it. Often though, our talkers would feature cartoons, limericks or not-hugely-helpful comments. The dreadful, generic Liebfraumilch for instance, bore a talker on which one clown was shooting another with a pistol. The word “cak!” burst forth from the gun’s muzzle, and as a cork flew out it was followed by the word “whine”. Cack wine, £1.99. Marvellous. Or not, depending upon your palate.

What customers didn’t get to read was the Witticism Books, a series of at least ten small notebooks in which we recorded our shop life in cartoons and poems rather more scatalogical than the talkers. It was like being back at school, a hot-house environment where we developed and portrayed our own world, by and for ourselves. That sort of madness takes hold when you spend successions of twelve-hour days with the same few people, then go out drinking with them afterwards.

But then there was much to put down. The shop occupied a corner plot, with a counter opposite the door. There were two large windows, but these were obscured by shelving, so the outside world was viewed mainly through the door frame. This created a theatre of the absurd, into which those who lived out there would stroll to perform for our entertainment. This cast of characters was enormous and ever-changing, but some of them tread the boards of my memory to this day.

Brian was a large man in his Sixties. He had evident learning difficulties, and rather than being an actual customer used Oddbins as a telephone kiosk to coordinate his love life. He would loom up to counter and ask to use the phone. He didn’t know the number for the local care home, but we had it on speed dial for him. “Is Mary there?” he would ask. “Aye, it’s me. I’m in Ogdens. I’ll be round.” Brian would replace the receiver, always upside-down, then loom away to meet his paramour. As he whisked her by the door a few minutes later in her wheelchair, the couple would wave cheerily. The manager once caught them in flagrante delicto, on a Sunday afternoon, propped on the bumper of his Land Rover outside the shop. He walked home that day.

Mr Smelly, the man shunned by skunks
It took a short while to become aware of Mr Smelly, a raincoat-wearing gentleman who would slide unobtrusively into the shop and head for the Bulgarian wine section. If he was spotted, long-serving staff would melt away, leaving the newest arrival alone to approach the customer and help him choose his wine. Little did I know, when my turn came, that my colleagues were bunched round the CCTV monitor in the back room, sniggering. Mr Smelly really only drank cheap Bulgarian red, but any new assistant would at first earnestly try to get him to spend his £2.99 on something slightly less toxic. They would only do it once however, because up close a terrible, fetid, deathlike stench would steal into their nostrils and begin to burn all their senses to a crisp. To watch the newbie paralysed, torn between the obligation to assist and the desire to run out into the street to heave into the gutter was a delicious pleasure for old hands. Eventually the £2.99 Bulgarian bore a talker featuring simply the name, the price and a drawing of a skunk, saying “Oh Christ, I’m off!”

Mrs Drool
A cohabitee with Brian’s Mary at the local care home, Mrs Drool would come for our expert advice on cigarette selection. She had arthritic hands and usually-unworn false teeth, which proved an unfortunate combination. Mrs Drool would frequently drop her change. When she bent down to pick it up large quantities of dribble would escape from her unshod mouth. This in itself was no great problem, unless you happened to be closing a large champagne deal further down the counter. It did cause us to mop the floor afterwards, however, something that was usually long overdue.

Underage drinkers
Friday night would bring entertainment to Oddbins. The inebriated and plainly unentitled to buy alchohol legally would stop by on their way between the pubs of the suburbs and the nightclubs of the city centre. Their requirements were simple: a pack of cigarettes and a couple of alcopops – which were invented around that time – to make the walk into town bearable. Most under-age customers would accept our message that without proof of age they were unlikely to become Oddbins customers, but my favourite would-be wino had different ideas. He may have been nearly six and a half feet tall, but he lacked the necessary paperwork to get pissed on my watch. His response was to lean over the counter and pat me paternally on the head. “I mean,” he asked, illogically, “how tall are you, eh?” The air was thin, aloft.

Those of felonious intent
Naturally, things would occasionally go missing from a store rammed with boozy goodies. We loathed thieves, especially those known to carry weapons. We were advised that in most cases of theft we were not to apprehend the suspect, instead leaving CCTV and the local police to do their work. A report would have to be issued to the long-suffering officers. The best of these read: “the man picked up a bottle of sparkling wine and asked me ‘is this any good?’ I replied that it was exceptional at the price, and that I had enjoyed it myself just two nights before. ‘Brilliant,’ he replied, ‘I’ll take two.’ At which point he picked up another and ran out into the night.” A robbery is no more than a robbery unless done with style.

Street-fighting man
Alchohol and pugilistic desire go hand in glove, so fights in off-licences are not unexpected. After one particularly nasty Friday night encounter, the manager made a tactically brilliant move. He gave a part-time contract to Psycho Sam, a well-constructed student with borderline bipolar tendencies and significant anger issues. From then, if you wanted to start a fight in the shop you were invited to leave. Should you refuse, you would be shoved bodily out into the street and again invited to leave. Should you wish to take things further you would be thrown around like a sack of potatoes until Sam had swayed you towards his point of view. Oddbins was known for being a cut above the rest. In our case it was an upper-cut.

Deluded people
Once a month she would bustle into Oddbins, stare wildly around, fix her gimlet eye on the person behind the counter and yell: “used to be a pet shop this, you know.” She would then leave, as suddenly as she arrived. Odd. We never did know this lady’s name, but her sporadic insights into local history served as a timely reminder that Things Change. Still, at least she recognised what the shop was all about at that point. Others found it hard to grasp the concept of a decent wine and spirits retailer. With depressing frequency we would be asked “where do you keep the right cheap wine?” The answer of course, was “Threshers, sir”. Not stocking a wide range of snacks was also held by many as a failing on our part. “If you just sold crisps and pies I’d come in here more often,” barked one flammably-clad member of the public, blind to the fact that we omitted these things from our retail proposition precisely because we didn’t want him among our client base. Public expectations are sometimes downright unfathomable. “Do you not sell cheap babbies’ nappies?” demanded one man, looking up and down the serried ranks of bottles on our shelves. We did not.

The customer may always be right, but if you were in my Oddbins between 1995 and 1997 and were in any way pompous, stupid or annoying, know this: while the dishevelled fellow behind the counter might have been outwardly pleasant to you he was glancing occasionally below it for inspiration. Taped to the middle shelf was a motivational message which read: “oh F***k right off, you painful t**t”. It worked for us. Suffering fools is no easy task.

Time, tide and liver condition wait for no man, and after two years I swapped wine retail for another enjoyable job on mediocre pay. Motoring journalism was light on opportunities to gorge on the greatest booze on the planet, but offered pleasure of a different kind. It turned out also to be about the right time to quit Oddbins, as its glory years were soon to be over. A French company took it over in 2002, and it entered an uneasy alliance with its counterpart brand Nicholas. The manager left a few months after I did, and our shop became gradually cleaner, lighter, blander. Cartoons, customer abuse and borderline swearing disappeared from talkers and the life seemed gradually to ebb out of the place. I gradually ceased to feel wistful about my days there.

I myself have a curious legacy of my Oddbins years, even 15 years on. I still find myself facing up – bringing a bottle to the front of the shelf – when I buy wine, even in supermarkets. I still find myself selling decent booze to innocent bystanders. Two weeks ago I was to be found in a West Country Waitrose, explaining to a Romanian why a Bowmore single malt on offer would make a much better souvenir of his trip to Britain than a bottle of generic Irish whisky. I still seek out work that is pleasurable rather than hugely remunerative.

Today we hear that Oddbins is to enter administration, having had a large contratemps with the Inland Revenue over its debts. This is a terrible shame, and the landscape of the British high street will be distinctly poorer for its departure. However, I would like you all to raise a glass to the memory of this once-great icon of left-field retail. The good ship Oddbins steered an unsteady course, but I for one am tremendously glad of the time I spent aboard.