The question

There are a few questions that seem to come up regularly when you’re an Australian away from our island’s shores. “Why would you ever leave Australia?” is one that is asked quite a lot, particularly in the UK, and even more so if it is raining. And while I have never been asked the famous, “Do you ride kangaroos?”, questions about our wildlife are extremely common.

These questions are all pretty easy to answer. I leave Australia to get new experiences, and, while our unique fauna isn’t often found in the city, I have seen plenty of kangaroos and koalas in my life. However, there is one question that I have been asked a lot, given my interests, which I found less simple.

“What is Australian food?”

The existence of a particular Australian cuisine is often debated, with many people seeing our food culture as not having a specific identity, rather simply stealing from the rest of the world. I have always rejected this, though.

My answer to this question has always been a little long and muddled, but it has been an instinctive defense of an Australian culinary identity based on my experiences.

The first thing that most Aussies seem to do when asked this question is reel off a list of specific items, foods that we claim as our own, even if there may be issues with this sense of ownership. There are dishes that were created elsewhere but are an integral part of growing up in Australia, such as meat pies, roast lamb or sausage sizzles, where the Australian versions are often unique but in a way that may not be apparent to the rest of the world. Then you have sweets and cakes like Pavlova, lamingtons and ANZAC biscuits, all of which have a shared heritage with our friends in New Zealand, a trans-Tasman culinary rivalry that makes it difficult to argue for a distinct Australian identity. You have things that were created here, like Vegemite. You also have Aussie variations on international favourites, such as the addition of beetroot to burgers.

All of these are important touch-points, and they paint part of the picture, but a list of common foods doesn’t go to answering the deeper question. A cuisine is more than a catalogue of individual foods. It is a philosophical concept, an underlining idea as to what defines the food of a region.

Take a look at some of the great cuisines of the world. Italian food is typified by a reverence of beautiful ingredients, using superb produce to create dishes with only a few key flavours, based on a long history of home cooking. Fresh, simple food made by Nonna. Thai food, on the other hand, is again about freshness, but is focused on the intricate balance between hot, sweet, salty and sour. Indian cuisine is all about complex blending of spices to create something coherent and full of flavour.

They all have distinct identities, and if you were to come across a dish from one of these cuisines that you had never seen before, you would likely have some idea of origin. To me, that’s the real idea of a regional or national cuisine.

To see whether Australia has a coherent idea like this, you need to look at both what we cook at home and eat at restaurants. You also need to examine two fundamental characteristics that influence any cuisine: what ingredients are available, and where the ideas have come from.

Our native ingredients are certainly a part of the conversation, even if, for a lot of the past 200 years, all but a few have been largely ignored. Outside of our outstanding seafood even our most iconic indigenous produce, such as kangaroo meat, is still not that widely eaten. A greater influence on our food culture has been the produce that thrived here when Europeans arrived.

Pumpkin, for example, is a hugely significant part of Australian cuisines, simply because it was one of the easiest things to grow when settlers arrived. That is why pumpkin is more common as a savoury in Australia than almost anywhere in the world, and why pumpkin scones have a good argument as being a uniquely Australian dish. Equally, the importance of sheep as an Australian industry created the ubiquity of lamb in our cultural identity.

When it comes to the origin of our culinary history, we are an immigrant nation. Rightly or wrongly, Australian cuisine today has little if any relationship to the food of indigenous Australians. We are starting to have chefs look back as a source of inspiration, but it is a very recent development. Instead, our food history is based in that of British settlement, influenced by the various waves of immigration.

For the decades from Federation to the post war Mediterranean influx, the White Australia policy meant that there was not a lot of outside ideas coming in to our food. Even the Chinese families that were here had been here for generations by that point, leading to the Australian form of Chinese food that was found in every town across the map. In general, though, our plates were not that different to what was found in the UK, even if the heat made them less appropriate.

The arrival of Italian and Greek migrants after the war began to change this, bringing in new vegetables and herbs and flavours. Just as you can’t look at food in the US without at least mentioning pizza, the influence that these communities had on our food culture is unquestionable. Things like Melbourne’s coffee culture, the wide availability of every type of pasta, and the use of olive oil as our main cooking fat are directly related to these new Australians.

The end of White Australia in the 1970s led to more changes. As Asian immigrants came, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants started to pop up, and new ingredients started appearing in supermarkets. Middle eastern flavours started appearing, and we started looking to other parts of the world for inspiration.

It is this access to new flavours by home cooks that is most important to explore. Even before the Masterchef effect meant everyone with a pan tried to do something exotic, every household that cooked regularly probably had, at least, a pasta dish, a stir-fry, and a Thai green curry on regular rotation alongside the more traditional roasts. They are not likely to be exactly authentic, but that is somewhat the point.

Australian cuisine at home is an adaptive cuisine, not bound by tradition. We take inspiration from everywhere, and alter it to fit our tastes and the ingredients that are available. Whether that means bringing down the spice of a Thai curry, or throwing extra ingredients into a Bolognaise sauce that would horrify some Italians, we end up with food that is ours.

In restaurants I believe the idea of a specific Australian cuisine is even more distinct. During the 90s and 2000s, restaurant guidebooks would use the horrible term “Mod-Oz” (these days it has been replaced by “contemporary”). It referred to a style of food that didn’t clearly fit into any existing national cuisine, and, while it covered a wide range of food, there were some common threads.

We would use classic European technique, but the food would be lighter than most French or English dishes. Ingredients would range widely, basically anything that would grow here. This included Asian vegetables alongside European ones, Middle Eastern flavours and South American chillies. Lastly, we cooked with a sensibility influenced largely by the Mediterranean cuisines, where freshness and simplicity of flavour were forefront.

That, to me, is what Australian cuisine is. I’ve always referred to it in shorthand as French technique, Asian ingredients and a Mediterranean sensibility, a natural entwining of all those influences.

—–

This, more or less, has always been my answer to the question of Australian food. It is rambling and inexact, and possibly a little hard for people to understand without experiencing it, but it is heartfelt.

Though I feel it can be expanded on and refined. Now that I am back in Australia, and a blog about the experience of an Australian travelling the world makes little sense, I am going to change the direction of the Raw Prawn to explore this question. By looking at individual products, restaurant and recipe trends, and talking to people with different experiences of our culinary landscape I will use this blog to delve deeper into what makes Australian food Australian.

I am not going to promise a definitive answer, but I am sure it will be an interesting journey.

Stick the bucket

It’s all about the stickiness. That thick, viscous film that coats the mouth is what makes me go back fork after fork. It’s what makes this cassoulet so exciting.

But then there is so much to love about a cassoulet, a dish so vital to the culture of southern France that it is known as “the God of Occitan cuisine”. There’s the crust, deep and dark from hours of baking. There’s the creaminess of perfectly tender white beans, and the bite of a dense, fatty Toulouse sausage. And of course there’s the silken meatiness of confit duck leg and braised pork in amongst everything.

All of these elements are delicious, and they are all vital in making such an exiting dish. Though for me, the broth stands above as something special, not only because of the depth of flavour that comes from building it over multiple days, but because of the texture.

It is a lengthy process to make cassoulet, the best ones taking three days. At Chateau St. Martin, a beautiful stone restaurant outside of Carcassone, it all starts with those underutilized parts of the pig – the head, the feet, great swathes of the skin. This is simmered for hours, letting the fat and gelatin seep into the stock, creating the basis of that wonderful broth.

I get that not everyone will be as excited by this description as I am. A rich bean and meat stew made with a pork broth so gelatinous that it sticks to the top of your mouth is certainly going to be too heavy for a lot of people in these health conscious days. But it is known as one of the great dishes of the world, which is why I travelled to France and walked for an hour outside of the town to an empty restaurant just to try it.

I had to. I mean, it is on my bucket list.

The idea of a bucket list is pretty ridiculous, really. There’s something a little morbid about creating a list of things to do before you die, especially when they are, and almost should be, unnecessary activities. It is, however, a fun activity, if not taken too seriously. It allows you to think about the experiences that you really want to have, one day, when the opportunity arises.

I wrote my bucket list on a whim one day. When putting together an application for something I mentioned an activity as being on my bucket list. I decided that it made sense to actually create one, and to make it all about food. So I wracked my mind for things that I had read about or heard about, experiences that I imagined would be amazing, things to taste, places to visit, and skills to learn. Things that I wanted to do sometime in my life.

Then, as is often the case, I did nothing for a while. Even when I got to the UK, in visiting distance of so many of my items, I procrastinated and didn’t get around to doing any. So for my final trip home, I made sure to hit a few items. One of those was to try a real cassoulet in Languedoc, and I booked my train to Carcassonne.

Cassoulet was always going to be on this list, and not just because of my love of beans, pork and confit duck.

I have always been attracted to dishes with history. Ritualism and tradition are important when it comes to food, to contextualising what, how and why we eat. Cassoulet has more tradition than most, with a history of at least six or seven hundred years, and an origin story involving a siege in the Hundred Years War that is almost certainly apocryphal. There is a specific earthenware pot that it is cooked in, a particular bean that must be used, and some very particular rules on how to make it that are debated over in earnest depending on which city you come from, but that always include breaking the crust 7 times while it cooks. There is even an academy set up to protect the dish and its history, complete with annual processions wearing bright red robes.

But more even than this, to me cassoulet is representative of an entire school of cooking. People refer to it as peasant food, but that is a flawed concept, as what peasant could ever have taken three days to make a meal? What it is, though, is food of necessity that has, over hundreds of years, been refined into something beautiful.

In that origin story, when the English had the castle town of Castelnaudary surrounded and the townspeople were almost out of food, they threw together their last stores into a stew to share. That’s the whole point of cassoulet, that all the main ingredients – haricot beans, sausage, confit duck – are things that can last a long time.

But time and history and the romance and culinary brilliance of the Occitan people didn’t leave it there. They took this basic stew and made it one of the most celebrated dishes of France, a hearty counterpoint to the finesse of much of stereotypical French cuisine.

That’s why I love cassoulet. That’s why it was on my bucket list. And at the end of the day, despite all the craziness in getting there, it was absolutely worth it. Because, philosophy aside, it was delicious.

 

For those who are interested, here is my Culinary Bucket List:

  1. Drink a glass (or bottle) of Champagne in Champagne
  2. Attend a crawfish boil in Louisiana
  3. Eat traditional dumplings in Hong Kong
  4. Witness a tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market
  5. Eat chaat on the street in India
  6. Visit the ancient Roquefort caves
  7. Hunt and eat a wild boar
  8. Indulge in a proper Quebecois poutine
  9. Smell and taste fresh durian
  10. Have the Canard à la presse at La Tour d’Argent
  11. Burn and numb my mouth in Sichuan province
  12. Eat seafood tostadas on the street/beach in Baja
  13. Make my own salumi
  14. Taste many a microbrew in Portland
  15. Have roast young suckling pig and drink rioja alta upstairs at Botin
  16. Go foraging in Scandinavia
  17. Eat pearl meat taken straight from the water
  18. Have the best of BBQ: brisket in Texas, and whole hog in NC
  19. Drink tea on a tea plantation
  20. Eat the best oyster in the world
  21. Taste real tequilas in Jalisco
  22. Try a real cassoulet in Languedoc
  23. Learn how to toss noodles by hand
  24. Hunt for white truffle in Northern Italy
  25. Make a pulled sugar sculpture
  26. Taste well aged fermented tofu
  27. Eat top quality Edo style sushi in Tokyo
  28. Dig into haggis, neeps and tatties in Scotland on Burns Night
  29. Take part in a saffron harvest
  30. Sit on a pristine beach, eating fish cooked over a fire, and drinking from a coconut

Traditions

         I really like Christmas

         It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it.

With that simple statement, the always entertaining Tim Minchin starts what is one of the best modern Christmas songs. For those of you who haven’t heard White wine in the sun, in it Minchin goes on to explain why he really likes Christmas. Why, despite not being religious and having issues with certain problematic aspects of the holiday, he still loves it because, “I’ll be seeing my dad, my brothers and sisters my gran and my mum. We’ll be drinking white wine in the sun”.

It’s an interpretation of Christmas that really resonates with me. For me, the religious origins of the day are nothing but historical context, and a story that makes for some nice lyrics. But I still love the holidays, for the same reasons that Minchin does. Because it’s about family, and the traditions they hold true.

In my family we have a number of these traditions, little rituals that really make Christmas feel like Christmas. There’s the way the tree is loaded up with the dozens of beautiful wooden decorations my parents bought in Germany in the late 70s. It is next to that tree that we gather to hand out presents, always with a glass of champagne, and always after breakfast (a wait that was torture as a child).

When we get to lunch, the real centerpiece of the day, the table is laid with our best silverware and plates, along with the obligatory Christmas crackers that are pulled open to reveal their ridiculous paper crowns and terrible jokes. The food for us is always roasted, despite the heat outside. We play around with the exact details, but pork is always on the menu, with perfect crackling the most longed for thing on the plate. Then, after lunch, a game or two of Scrabble.

Those are the things that make a family Christmas as my house. But there is one tradition that stands above them in my eyes. One thing that, if everything else didn’t happen, would still make it feel like Christmas.

Pudding.

I’ve always found that people are very protective of their Christmas pudding rituals, whether it involves a traditional steamed pudding or not. They do what they do, and they aren’t going to let anyone convince them that another way is better. I have to admit that I fall into that category exactly, but then, the way we do it really is the best.

It’s not so much about the pudding itself. I mean, of course it is important, but over the years we have experimented with pudding recipes a lot, continually improving. This year’s version, a traditional suet pudding, was particularly good. Instead, the pudding is more a base for the things that go with it. And these never change.

Hard sauce, lemon sauce, and cream. They make up the triumvirate of accompaniments that make our Christmas dessert so perfect.

Hard sauce, also known as brandy butter or rum butter (depending on what booze is added), is a thing of simple beauty. You beat together two parts brown sugar to one part butter, then drip in the alcohol until it can’t absorb any more. Most recipes out there ask for icing sugar, for reasons that I simply can’t fathom. For both flavour and texture, the rich, dark grittiness of the brown sugar adds so much.

The lemon sauce is also pretty simple. Sugar and water, thickened with a little cornflower, is swirled with lemon juice, lemon zest, and a touch of nutmeg. It provides the sharpness needed to cut through the fat and sweetness of everything else. Adding cream to these two is then pretty self explanatory, and these three together on top of a plum pudding is delicious. For me, it is the essence of Christmas.

All my life, this is how I have eaten Christmas pudding, as my mother has before me. It has been a part of our family for around 65 years, ever since my grandmother found it in Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook, given to her by my grandfather on their wedding day. For those who don’t know Fannie Farmer’s, it was originally called the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in 1896. It has been a hugely influential cookbook, even introducing the idea of standard measuring cups. But in my family, it is best known for these hard and lemon sauce recipes.

The tattered book that we pull out every Christmas isn’t that same wedding day copy. Even though the book was replaced, we still turn to that same page.

In the late 70s my parents were in London. In fact, it’s where they met. One year they had a big Christmas dinner with a bunch of other expats. My mum rang home to get these recipes from my grandmother, intent on introducing her friends to this excellent way to eat pudding, but when the sauces were put on the table, they were ignored by most of the diners. Everyone just wanted custard. My dad, however, was willing to try something new, and as far as I know he has never turned back.

When I was younger, I didn’t like the pudding much. My perfect Christmas dessert was just the hard sauce, lemon sauce and cream. I was never allowed to eat just that, of course. My parents rightly felt that dessert needed to consist of something more than just butter and sugar. Over the years my tastes matured and I learnt to love the depth of the pudding itself. But I still loved those sides.

Last Christmas, my second one in London, my parents sent me a Christmas care package. It had a few gifts, special Australian products, things like that. The usual bits and pieces that parents send. But alongside the Tim Tams and some new socks was a tiny little Christmas pudding, and two cards with those two recipes, copied from Fannie’s. I made the sauces, heated the pudding, and dug in. Eating that was the most homesick moment of my two years away.

Now that I am home again, it was wonderful to have a family Christmas for the first time in years. Everything was the way it should be, with the tree, the champagne, the crackers, the pork, the Scrabble. But nothing made me feel like I am home more than that dessert.

Even though it is something that I only eat once a year, there is nothing that connects me to my family more. And one day, if I am lucky enough to have a family of my own, every Christmas I will be pulling out that tattered copy of Fannie Farmer’s, beating together some butter and brown sugar, and passing on this tradition. My family will learn about my Christmas, the way I love it.

It’s sentimental, I know. But I just really like it.

Granada: With your drink

If I lived in Granada, I’d be a raging alcoholic.

Not to say that wouldn’t be true in other places as well. The drinks certainly flowed well in cities like Budapest, and in New Orleans there was a go-cup in my hand from breakfast until, well, nearly breakfast again. But this part of the south of Spain is a special case.

It’s not because of the quality of the booze, either. While some of that Spanish wine is pretty decent, more often than not you’re just knocking back a fairly ordinary lager. Nor is it really a constant party like some other cities, with every individual moment of revelry staying relatively tame.

No, the potential damage to my liver in Granada would be thanks to one simple fact: In this town, drinking is the best way to eat.

“Tapas” has become one of the most overused words in the world of food. It has inexplicably morphed into a catchall term for any small plate, regardless of cuisine or style. But in this corner of Andalucía, they do tapas as it is meant to be done. That is to say, free with your drink.

That’s right. The bars and restaurants of Granada give you free food with every drink, all through the day. It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

And, to be honest, more often than not it is. A lot of the food is simply terrible. Just think about the sort of dishes that would be out for free by every tourist-trap beer barn, where everything is deep-fried in the same old oil. There are plenty of bars where free tapas is a horrible thing, but then they aren’t the bars that I go to.

If you ignore them, though, and go to the classic places, the neighbourhood places, and the places that take some time with their food, then it can be a great experience. Take, for example, Bar Casa Julio. A tiny hole in the wall bar down a tiny laneway off one of the main tourist squares, Bar Casa Julio has maybe eight items on the menu. With your drink you might get some salty, crunchy fried anchovies or squid, a fresh octopus salad, or some simply luxurious croquettes. And be sure to get the berenjenas, fried slices of eggplant drizzled with a thick, dark honey, one of the best vegetarian snacks I’ve come across.

Everything at Bar Casa Julio was simple and delicious, the way bar food should be. How could anyone stick to just one drink?

If you listen to locals, or do a bit of research, you can find bars like this across the city. There was a little neighbourhood joint called Bar Axia, suggested to me by a barber, which was wonderful. It was a warm day and people spilled out into the square, knocking back glasses of cold beer and plates of cured meats, sardines, fried seafood and deliciously silky potato salad. I didn’t want to leave.

Nor did I want to walk out the door at La Tana, where surprisingly bright slices of tomato on bread accompanied a killer wine list and a room buzzing with people enjoying themselves. The place was so packed that it was hard to move, random artifacts covered the wall, and it felt like a place that people wanted to be. I certainly did.

And that’s the thing about Granada. It’s not that the food is the best you will eat, or even the best tapas (Seville takes the cake there. I could spend ages talking about the pork cheek at Bodeguita Romero). It’s the conviviality of the culture that makes it special.

I love good food and drink. I think that is pretty clear. But as much as the quality of the food matters to me, food is at its best when it brings people together. The way they eat in Granada, with small plates and lots of drinks, works well for getting people talking. It’s no wonder that the rest of the world has borrowed tapas culture, even if much of the world hasn’t mastered the art yet.

Granada is a town fully immersed in the idea of eating and drinking together. That’s why I had to leave. I don’t know how much togetherness my liver could handle.

Snacks for the end of the world

What will you do if the apocalypse comes? When the seas boil, hordes of zombies sweep across the planet and all order collapses, what will you do to survive?

If the fall begins while I am here in Lisbon, it is pretty clear what my first step would be.

I would loot Sol e Pesca.

This tiny bar/tackle shop/canned fish emporium is a dream for the gourmet survivalist, showcasing the best of the Portuguese ocean preserved for the long haul. After the fresh food has run out, the high quality tinned morsels found in this Lisbon hotspot would be more valuable than gold.

Until then, however, you can ignore the looting and just enjoy the place for what it is. The tables are tiny and the room is small and dark, as any good bar should be. Along one wall, opposite a few remaining rods and reels, is a long cabinet full of brightly coloured tins, a feature wall more exciting than most. In these cans, adorned with pictures ranging from Roman goddesses to fish in skirts, are expertly preserved morsels of Portuguese seafood. Sardines, tuna and mackerel are the most common, but many other options are available.

Fish canning has happened in this country for over 150 years, and while it has often been considered “poor people’s food”, it is a popular way to have a healthy, cheap snack. Sol e Pesca is far from the only place to buy these tins of glory, but it is a perfect place to taste them. The fish is released from their metal confines and served with bread and wine or beer, providing a quick, tasty meal. The tins of sardines in olive oil and mackerel in tomato that I tried were highly satisfying, if possibly wanting a grain of salt. Even better were the thin slices of muxama, or dried and cured tuna (which, while not technically canned, are still preserved). It was a meal of ultimate simplicity.

I am not aware of anywhere doing this style of eating in Australia or the UK. Thoughts on canned fish seem to be stuck with ideas of tuna bakes and snack packs in school lunches, and with a few exceptions (particularly in the realm of anchovies) they have yet to reach the restaurant table in any significant way. This is a shame.

When you think about it, this basically the seafood equivalent of charcuterie. Just as there is no comparing supermarket sandwich ham to a great prosciutto, it is wrong to think of these quality products in the same way as you do the cut-price tin of “dolphin free” tuna stashed at the back of the pantry.

Imagine starting your next dinner party by opening up a few tins of beautiful, plump Portuguese sardines, or some rich tuna lightly spiced in oil. Or think of having a gourmet snack ready to go if someone comes over unexpectedly. If the quality of canned fish created by companies such as Minerva and Ramirez can be bought in Australia, I will certainly be stocking up.

I think my friends will appreciate it. Even without an apocalypse.

Sorry, and the next thing

I have failed you, my dear readers. For more than a year, more than half of my time in the UK, I have not written a word. And that is really inexcusable.

I could blame it on having a job, and it is true the long hours I have spent toiling behind a bar have taken up a lot of time, but in truth it is my own laziness that is at fault. Nothing has been written because, to put it simply, I have not been bothered to write. So I am sorry.

But now is not the time to look back at the year that has gone. One day I may revisit my UK experiences, but not yet. For I have moved on from London, having left the shores of the motherland to head back home, and I am taking a few stops on the way. I intend (although we have seen what my intentions count for) to document this long way home, and I will endeavour to do a better job this time.

So look out for word of my new adventures. They will appear here soon, I promise.

A birthday in a basket

One of the undeniable truths of the world is that time moves onwards. The clock ticks, the planets move, and that unstoppable march from past to future continues. As part of this constant movement, every now and then this rock we stand on completes yet another revolution of the sun, and you get nominally older.

Yes, I’m talking about birthdays, because I just had one. I have been on this planet for 30 trips around the sun. Due to the human race’s innate preference for round numbers, many people consider to be a moment of significance.

I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, though. The move from twenty-something into thirty-something doesn’t seem to come with any real change, and I can think of better options for checking where you are on your life plan. (For the record, my life plan is probably lost behind a fridge somewhere). For me, it’s just another birthday.

But that’s still a good reason to party.

Over the years I have celebrated my birthday in many different ways. House parties and pub nights, all with good friends and many drinks have generally been the way to go, with or without karaoke. The five-hour multi-course dinner for 7 people in the wine room of one of my favourite Canberra restaurants was a particularly memorable way to spend my 27th year.

This year, though, I had something that I haven’t had before. This time, my birthday was during spring. This made the party idea obvious for me. It was time for a picnic.

I love a good picnic. There’s something delightful about sitting outside in the sun, eating and drinking, maybe while someone plays guitar. Everyone just seems to be relaxed and happy on a picnic, provided the flies and mozzies aren’t too bad (though that’s not as much of a problem here as it can be back home).

There are a lot of considerations when picnicking, such as how glam you want to go. Some people go all out with fine china and those dainty tower stands that you put cupcakes on, basically just taking an afternoon tea set and putting it on the ground. That is all fine, and it can look beautiful, but it is also a lot of effort. Plus you sometimes feel like you’re sitting on a giant doily, and who really wants that?

No, for me a picnic is best at the simple end. A blanket is good, though not totally necessary if the grass is dry, but that’s about as fancy as I will go when it comes to décor. I don’t spend too much time on making things pretty. I’m much more interested in the food.

There are a few rules for picnic food. Firstly, it needs to be eaten easily with your hands, because you don’t want to walk away from the park with sauce all over your shirt. Small, compact bites that you can pick up and eat without really needing to worry about serviettes are by far the best, which is why sandwiches and cold pies are so successful.

I like to go with sandwiches. There is something about putting food inside bread that makes it better. I remember as a child, sitting down at the beach with a soft white roll filled with ham and salad, or salami and cheese. Simple, clean and easy, it’s perfect for eating outside.

These days I lean towards chicken sandwiches in particular, and my chicken sandwiches are rightly celebrated. They are always fairly simple, and a variation of a theme. A chicken salad, made with chicken, mayonnaise, some type of onion, some type of nut, and some other flavour, in classic white bread. But there are some secrets to making them perfect.

Firstly, it’s all about the quality of the chicken. Buy a whole chicken, preferably organic (they taste better) from somewhere you trust. Then poach it whole to keep it moist, and strip the thing. Don’t forget all the little bits of meat near the bone. They’re the best part. The other secret is even easier: use Japanese mayonnaise. I don’t know what it is, but it just makes things better. It’s probably the MSG.

For my birthday I went for French style chicken sandwiches, with caramelised onion, slivered almonds and thyme. They were unquestionably excellent. We are talking the sort of sandwiches that make people say, “Damn, those are amazing sandwiches”.

With a cold cocktail in hand, sun above, grass below and friends around, anything can taste good. But with sandwiches like that? It makes for a very happy birthday.

It’s never sunny in London…?

The sun. When talked about in relation to England, most of the world would assume you’re talking about the tabloid and not the giant ball of burning gas in the sky, because we all know that this country never sees the sun.

If there is one fairly constant belief about the UK, and London in particular, it is that the weather is constantly terrible. Grey and rainy is how the city is pictured, with dour black umbrellas eternally held above every head. Sunshine couldn’t be further from anyone’s imagination.

However, no one seems to have told London this.

In recent weeks the spring weather here has been glorious. Blue skies have graced us daily, with warmth from the sun licking our skin. It has been weather for being outside, for picnics in the park or long walks through leafy streets. And, for me, it has been ideal for hitting up the markets.

London does markets well, which is good as they also do them a lot. From the permanent mega-bazaars like Camden, through to suburban four-tent farmers markets, there is a style to suit every taste.

For me, though, it is the smaller street food markets that most entice. I’m not really talking about the really slick ones, where all the big-name street sellers hock bite sized restaurant food to trendy people in scarves in some inner-east courtyard, although those do have their charm. Rather, I’m talking the more neighbourhood version of these, where the food of the world is served from rickety little tents.

At these markets, the owners are less likely to be professionally trained, and aren’t just jumping on the latest street food trend. Yes, you’ll probably find a burger or two, but they’ll be nestled beside someone selling a traditional Malay curry, or proper Polish sausage with rich cabbage accompaniments. The people selling them will most likely from Malaysia and Poland, as well.

This is food learnt in home kitchens, made exotic by the fact that they aren’t cooked in our homes. You can travel the world in a carpark, all under a warm sun. Is there a better way to spend a spring Sunday afternoon?

On a recent Sunday wander through Notting Hill I wandered past the antiques of Portobello Road, and posted on various poles down the street were printed A4 sheets of paper. These pointed further down the road with three words: Acklam Village Market.

I walked further with no expectations, and found a huge, slightly ratty looking banner, under which was a slightly ratty looking market. An old caravan was selling wine from a big bowl of ice as soon as you walked in, followed by a winding maze of stalls. Wafting from every stall were wonderful spicy, sweet aromas, mixing together in the air.

There were Thai salads, Cuban desserts, Argentinean empanadas, Moroccan tagines and more. I went to the Venezuelan stall, Guasacaca, where the t-shirts reading “Keep Calm and Eat Arepas” proved to be good advice. Arepas are disc shaped pieces of cornbread, cooked on the grill before being split and filled. Taking the recommendation of the server, mine was filled with tender pork, black beans and cheese, topped with a sweet avocado sauce.

It was warm and messy and delicious, exactly what street food should be. Eaten in the makeshift market bar, with a glass of Pimms cup and some live music in the background, it was a delightful experience.

Places like Acklam Village Market exist across this city, and they deserve to be packed for as long as the weather holds.

Sadly, as I write this a mere week after that visit, rain is bucketing down outside. Today, the stereotype holds, so the markets may be a little less well attended. But I have faith that on a day soon those black umbrellas will be put away, and the London sun will throw out those expectations once again.

And when it does, another arepa might be in order.

Magic Beans

We all know the story. Jack went to sell his cow but was convinced to trade it for a handful of “magic” beans. His mother, angry at his blatant stupidity, throws the beans out the window into the dirt. Overnight, an enormous beanstalk grows higher than the eye could see. Jack climbs it, finds some giants, and the female giant helps him steal amazing treasures from the male giant, until the male giant chases him down the beanstalk. He then chops down the beanstalk, letting the giant fall to his death.

It is a classic fairy tale, one we were all told in our youth. Thinking about it now, though, I’m not really sure what the purpose of the tale is. Jack was rewarded for making a number of, quite frankly, terrible decisions. Not to mention the whole theft and murder with no consequences part of the story.

The moral of Jack and the Beanstalk does seem to be that blind naivety and amoral opportunism will lead to prosperity, which isn’t really what we should be telling kids.

Regardless, there is one very clear message that comes out of the story.  It’s a message about beans.

They’re magic.

I don’t mean that beans will really create staircases to castles in the sky, of course. My blind naivety is of a very different sort. In fact, my innocent belief that a job would suddenly appear for me is exactly what forced me to rediscover the beauty of the bean. No, beans are magic because of the way a few of these small, dried legumes can feed a man for a whole week.

As my last post told you, many months into my adventures over here I am still lacking an income, so my spending has been constrained. Meals out and food delivered have been replaced by large cook-ups that last as long as I can make them.

So, down at the supermarket, I turned to the beans aisle. For a little over four pounds I bought a kilo and a half of beans. Some were berlotti, some haricot, and some pinto. All were thrown in my basket. Other than that, an onion, a carrot, a baby fennel and some olive oil was all that I needed. My total spend? A mere £5.60.

I have spent enough time in London to know that £5.60 doesn’t get you a lot. It’s more than most coffees, but less than a lot of sandwiches. It is, really, an incredibly minor amount of money.

But this minor spending, when thrown together in a pot with a few other odds and ends (such as the end of a piece of parmesan cheese), can feed a kingdom. My pot of beans stretched to an amazing 12 meals. I ate them nearly every lunch and dinner from Saturday night through Thursday night, and gave some away. And it always tasted great.

Of course, I made some changes each meal. Sometimes I mixed it with some pasta, mashing a bit up to thicken the sauce. Other times, I just spooned it cold into a buttered bread roll and topped it with a dash of hot sauce. On my last day I even used the beans as the filling for a lasagne, uping the luxury of it with a decadent white sauce, all made from the hostel’s free ingredients. It was enough variety to stave off the boredom that could come from 6 days of beans.

But even by themselves, the beans were exceptional. I used to be a little afraid of cooking beans. Actually, afraid might be the wrong word. I was drastically uninspired by cooking beans. Far too often they were too tough or too mealy, lacking any real flavour. I would love them in something like chilli con carne, but just a large bowl of beans would send me running.

This changed when I read one article. It was a ‘How to live well’ by Tamar E. Adler, reproduced in the ‘Best Food Writing 2012’ compilation. A treatise on how cooking beans is one of the great pleasures of life, it inspired me to put the pulses in the pot and try it for myself.

Few articles have so revolutionised my thinking of an ingredient in the way this piece did. Every tip Tamar included, from how much fennel and parmesan rinds enhance the broth, to the way you can test a bean’s readiness by seeing if you can blow the skin off it, has helped me make outstanding beans ever since.

It helped me recognise that the broth the beans are cooked in, like a slightly thickened, insanely rich stock, is one of the most pleasing things to come out of a kitchen. For that alone, Tamar should be celebrated.

So find the article, read it, learn from it, and buy some beans. If you are travelling and have a pot, but not a lot of cash, it is all that you need.

You will never eat so much, so well, for so little. And if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Work/life dreaming

It is one of those sad truths of life that if you are going to spend money, at some point you are going to need to make some money. This is the basic idea of a working holiday. That you work in order to support your holiday.

As of yet, I have got the balance of this concept completely wrong. For four months, I have been having an amazing time in London, emptying out my carefully amassed savings, and it has been wonderful. I have partied and wandered and eaten and just generally enjoyed myself. What I haven’t done, however, is busy myself with that whole “getting a job” thing.

In hindsight, this was probably a mistake.

Now those dual beasts of reality and poverty are screaming up behind me at great pace, threatening to overtake me and send me back home. Which means it is now unquestionably time to get a job.

But what job to get? The obvious answer is “anything that pays”, but that’s surprisingly hard to apply for. You do need to have some idea of what you’re going for before you can start really looking. And, at the moment, I really don’t.

As you can probably tell, job searching is far from my favourite activity. I look through the jobs on offer and daydream about what I would actually like to be doing. I fantasise about people paying me to do the things I really love. For example, “Why won’t anyone give me a job where I can talk about food all day? Where’s that career path!”

As it turns out, here in London you can get paid for just talking about food all day! In my search I came across a position that was perfect for me: a food tour guide.

The role was a pretty simple one. Between two and five times a week you would take groups of 12 or smaller around the East End, showing them some key food experiences and giving them a potted history of the area. Brick Lane curries and London’s best bacon sandwich were all part of the day involved. The talking was a mix of scripted work and improvising to suit the participants.

And I would be great at it. I know this, and those of you who know me or have read my work over the years would, I hope, agree.

Sadly, though, it seems that my clear aptitude for such a role did not come across in my interview. I did not get the job, and I can’t help but feeling that the company made a huge mistake. Similar to the mistakes that Masterchef Australia made by not casting me those two times.

Because this is exactly what I am good at. Nearly everyone I have ever met has, at some point, been regaled with some sort of food related lecture. I speak with vast knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm, and people at least appear to be interested when I do. I need to find some way to take advantage of this!

So dear readers, while I continue searching for any job that will pay me, please help me think of some way I can do this. What roles can I take on in London where my natural talents and interests will make me money? Give me suggestions in the comments below. If you know of any actual opportunities, that would be even better.

I know that talking about food for a living is a bit of a pipe dream, but dreaming is what a holiday is for, isn’t it?

In the mean time, though, back to the job sites. Let’s hold off reality just a little longer.