In his fascinating book “An Edible History Of Humanity” Tom Standage identifies the origins of the Black Death in the lucrative fourteenth century spice trade. He deftly recaptures the way in which Jani Beg, the khan of the Golden Horde attempted to deter Genoese traders from exploiting the port of Caffa for trading slaves by catapulting them with the plague ridden corpses of his own army. As the few remaining survivors fled westwards they carried the plague home with them in their ships. (For some reason this struck a particular chord with me, quite possibly because my mother’s maiden name is Beg).
Ironically, popular Western belief dictated that spices or “splinters of Paradise” as they were called, could also purify the corrupted air and offer protection from the plague. Standage discusses the Muslim curtain which blocked European access to the East and the aggressive race to bust around this stronghold and be the first to form a direct link with precious exotica such as cloves and cinnamon. He recounts the way in which Vasco da Gama and his crew of thugs savagely looted unarmed Muslim ships off the coast of India, and used the prisoners for crossbow practice. How the hands, noses and ears of these prisoners were cut off and sent ashore while the mutilated captives were bound and burnt to death in their own ships. It’s so easy for us today to just stroll casually past the glorious technicolour bounty of little screw top jars on our supermarket shelves and forget that their relationship with these shores has a long and blood-seeped history.
I’ve been ordered out of bed on a Saturday morning to conjure up a Bengali feast for a posse of aunts, uncles, cousins and their adorable yet eternally hyperactive progeny. I usually relish these big messy get togethers; the preparation even more so.
This takes place with a casual sort of precision, all the women in the kitchen gossiping and joking at once. My aunt surveys me over her glasses whilst hacking at some pui saag (otherwise known as Malabar Spinach) and gives me the usual “so when are you going to start having babies then?” ribbing. I test the dhal and mutter something about one thing at a time but they feign deafness and chatter pointedly about my cousin Mitthu in Bangladesh who’s just had a beautiful baby girl. My other aunt tells me I look a lot more attractive now that I’m finally getting a bit of meat on my bones. What none of them can work out though, is why on earth I insist on cutting my hair short like a little boy. I turn a delicate shade of plum and defensively stroke my shorn occipital bone. They talk about how beautiful, plump and “fair” Mitthu is – “she has hair down to here!” my aunt pauses mid chop to hold the knife against her sari clad arse while everyone murmurs approvingly.
A very traditional Bengali feast consists of several courses, beginning with something bitter (to wake up the palate), followed by the lentil and vegetable dishes. Next comes fish, followed by meat or chicken and finally dessert. We aren’t that formal today, but nonetheless fry up crisp slivers of bitter melon simply adorned with cumin, turmeric and plenty of garlic to start. This is followed by the Malabar spinach sautéed in panch phoran (Bengali five spice) and smoked aubergine dahl, then a coconut prawn curry, a slow cooked beef curry and kitchuri. (the word “kedgeree” originates from kitchuri but instead of fish or egg, it’s made with a mixture of lentils, rice and spices). It’s more standard to make a biryani for these big gatherings, but there’s something informal and comforting about kitchuri and it goes perfectly with the beef. We finish with some Payesh, a rich, cardamom scented Bengali rice pudding.
It’s all finger licking good and even the fussiest child eats every last loving handful. There’s much boisterous laughter and yelling over one another, the little ones surge around, fuelled up on Vimto, while the uncles tease them and talk shop – everyone sated on the rich juices of family life.
Over the next week I’ll put up all the recipes, but for starters, here’s that smoked aubergine dhal…
I fear the gout.
It all starts on Tuesday. One of those swan song days of summer when the sun drips golden Tate & Lyle tendrils and the air shimmers above the juddering road works in its glittering, maudlin way. I slip into Racine and am transported to Parisian bistro chic. The staff are kind and pretend not to notice that I have a man’s tartan tie in lieu of a proper belt for my Oxfam coat. PR and publishing women beam at one another in the private dining area and the air tinkles with light, pleasant conversation, as bubbly and sanguine as the citrus peel-infused champagne we delicately sip upon. I talk to Clotilde Dusoulier who has recently updated Ginette Mathiot’s tome “I Know How to Cook”. She is utterly lovely, and without a smidge of the jealous measuring up, so prolific in some of the more seasoned British food bloggers I have had the vile misfortune to come across. As we sit around the table Henry Harris talks us through what we are about to receive. I’ve heard much of his culinary prowess but this is the first time I’ve had the honour. As he describes veal bones simmered for long meaty days, I get the impression that eating here could well be the culinary equivalent of reading an Ian McEwan novel, i.e. I know I’m in safe and capable hands. He is reassuringly spattered with caramel sauce. There are ten of us – an assortment of broadsheet journalists and the fabulous women from Sauce and Phaidon. I am sat opposite Tim Hayward and next to Susan Smillie from the Guardian; I haven’t seen Susan for yonks and I suddenly realise half way through the meal how incredibly loud we are being compared to everyone else. At one point I am vaguely horrified to hear my own braying Sid James-esque laugh booming above the polite murmurs of conversation around me. As gout winks at me from the opposite table I blank him and eagerly sup down the most intense fish soup, deep, briny and a fine burnt orange hue. The bourguignon is served and as I spoon the soft, wine-blackened flesh into my cosseted cakehole I swear I can feel the purine begin its stealthy calcification in my joints. I finish with crème caramel and someone else’s apple tart – I’m a firm believer in rushing selflessly to the aide of my fellow diners when they appear to be struggling (I’m nice like that). My requests to take my leftover stew home (Susan’s encouragement fuels me on) are met with bafflement and “why not?” smiles, but I brazen it out as I cannot abide waste; especially not when the pickings are this rich. Gout grins at me as I leave, waggles his crystalline fingers.
A mobile of Fray Bentos pies gently twirls in the white high-ceilinged room as David Hasslehoff tucks into his hanger steak with baked bone marrow. A fluorescent finger part-designed by Sue Webster points the way to “Mark’s Bar” downstairs where Nicky Clarke, James Nesbitt, Joe Warwick and Monica Brown rub shoulders on mahogany leather sofas. They’re all sipping outrageously sippable negronis crafted by that mixological wizard Nick Strangeway. Mummified fish, that Damien Hirst has trapped in formaldehyde dangle from the ceiling of the Martin Brudnizki designed interior. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a private members’ club, or an art gallery perhaps. This is in fact Mark Hix’s latest venture on Brewer Street, and it’s bloody brilliant.
It’s the third time I’ve been here in the past week and the place only officially opens to the public on Saturday. But when I drop in on Wednesday evening, the place is saturated with friends and family. Tonight it’s Friday and everything is half price, because they’re still not open, but nonetheless, it’s packed to the rafters. The menu reads a like a love letter to food, think Manx queenies (scallops) with wild boar bacon and herbs, ox cheek with mixed beets, horseradish and chickweed or pheasant, chanterelle and chestnut soup. And those are just the starters. Mark advises on a selection and we are soon tucking in to a luxurious Cornish fish soup, heaving with gurnard and red mullet and replete with Julian Temperley’s cider brandy. Even the bread and butter is spot on, a big rustic hug of warmth. Our cod’s cheeks, tongues and throats with girolles arrives and it is astonishingly tasty. It somehow manages to combine incredible delicacy with a meaty clout; the whole dish embroidered with a silky spring onion-flecked sauce. I shamelessly lick the plate clean.
We have “heaven and earth” which turns out to be a gigantic fluffy meatball of black pudding with apples and potatoes, it breaks open in a fug of steamy herbal goodness. Wild duck with salsify and elderberries is pure sex on toast, and my lamb and oyster pie is easily the best I’ve ever had. The salt marsh mutton, kidney and oysters combine to magnificent effect, the meat sits dense and tender in its intensely lamby gravy, under a flaky, buttery lid. It immediately falls apart upon contact with the spoon, the oysters dripping with Neptunian juices and the plump kidneys making the whole dish rock. I am temporarily possessed by the ghost of the former restaurant that occupied this site, Aaya, and find myself wanting to down the gravy from the bottom of my pie dish ramen style. The deep fried Pollack with chips and mushy peas is crisp, greaseless and spankingly fresh. It’s served with a boat of home made tartare sauce and a bottle of Sarson’s vinegar. I love that. It’s the tiny touches like this that make it feel personal and not like just another stuffy restaurant.
We drink Les Foulards Rouges, Soif du Mal, which is 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 100% delicious. It’s rough and cloudy with some incredible strains of apple and pear. Stuffed to eruption point, we order pudding. The stomach is begging me to stop but my tastebuds are demanding that I press on to culinary Moscow. The lemon trifle is lush, creamy and light, the limoncello notes sashay over the tongue. Defeated, we head downstairs where people are chilling out, drinking gorgeous cocktails and generally having a ball.
It’s here that we pick up on one very major problem with this place and it’s a rather serious predicament that I very much doubt they are ever going to be able to iron out. In fact, I can predict that this fault will only gradually worsen… You see, the thing is, there’s a definite hex about Hix, and once you’re in there, I’m afraid it’s very, very difficult, if not impossible to ever leave.….just don’t say I didn’t warn you.