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Uncle Phil's Anecdotes

Lot 30: Feed me with food convenient.

Move over, AA Gill. Take your overcrafted wordplay and slink homeward, a beaten man. Grovel, Jonathan Meades. Insert your longiloquent prolixities into your proctological orifice and avaunt! We have no further requirement for your turgid promulgations. Eat shit, Winner. As, if one is to believe your Sabbath pronouncements, ordure is what you frequently do eat, and vastly over-priced ordure, to b........
Shut up and get on with it, James! You're not here to enjoy yourself. This is serious business.
You see, I've decided to branch out, to set up shop as a jobbing gastro-journalist. I've done my research, identified my niche market, sharpened the firm's pencil, trousered the firm's Rennies, and I'm limber for lunch. I'm not going to cater for trendy metropolitan poseurs with wallets full of plastic cornucopia, brains stultified with smartspeak buzzwords, cellphones surgically grafted to ears, shattered tastebuds, terminally pickled livers and impressionable womenfolk. [Substitute 'poseuses' and/or 'menfolk' as required - we pride ourselves on being an equal-opportunity piss-taker.]
My output will be for the benefit of real people, straightforward, sensible souls to whom the concept of slinging a hundred-odd hard-earned oncers into the coffers of some smug restaurateur or bolshie 'celebrity' cook for an overcomplicated meal for two reeks not so much of incandescent social brilliance as of barking insanity, especially when there'll be half-a-dozen places nearby where one can cobble body to soul for under a fiver or lay on a feast fit for a Euro-MP for a tenner. Provided that he's prepared to forego the travelling exes, to eschew his usual up-market froggy grog in order to sop up a bottle of his wine lake. Aahh well. Only a thought.
What are the lad's qualifications, you ask. Nothing remotely cuisine-related illumines his CV. A forgetful Wine and Food Society has somehow omitted to honour him with a Life Fellowship. The Guide Michelin knows him not. No diploma from the Egon Ronay Correspondence College graces his chimneypiece. No creased, well thumbed secret photograph of the divine and delicious Delia embracing a marmite or fondling a wok lurks guiltily under his pillow. He doesn't even have a Ronald McDonald badge in his lapel and a free lollipop clasped in his sticky. So what does he know from food, the fat fool? Who's he to pontificate?

You must remember two things. First, that the fat fool didn't acquire his trademark rotundity by sticking to a regime of abstemious self-denial for the last six decades; and second, that us dealers, engaged in our never-ending search for stock or our constant circumnavigations of the Fairs circuit, are forced to travel long distances around This Blessed Plot. We spend too much time away from home, often at hours so unsociable that in any other line of work our employers would be hauled up before the European Court of Human Rights for flagrant and massive abuse. But our employers are us, so reluctantly we turn a blind 'un to our cynical exploitation of our downtrodden workforce.
However, wherever and whenever, we have to eat. As in "out". So over thirty-odd years I reckon I've 'done the knowledge', caffwise. I've travelled highways, byways, even motorways, and investigated more restaurants, brasseries, bistros, bars, pubs, chippies, chinkies, curry houses, steak houses, trattorias, pizzerias, salt beef bars, kebabbles and assorted nosheramas of every lineage, price and persuasion, than I've had hot dinners. I cherish the good ones (a criterion that has nothing to do with how much they charge) and avoid the rest like the plague.
Which isn't an inapt simile, as it happens. Hand-wrought in our own workshops, especially to be recalled while at a car boot in a muddy field, when the Circean allurement of bacon, onions and gristleburgers gently chafing in last Saturday's grease winds across the morning meadow and assails the nostrils, heralding tidings that the mobile Ptomaine Grill has fired up on the other side of the venue, over by the Portaloos. By installing a chute straight from the griddle into said conveniences, they could cut out the middleman, thus circumventing a major health risk. Remember, and commend yourself for your forethought in making sure that your partner has made (and remembered to pack!!) a family size flask of good coffee and a supply of bulging sarnies, home made pies, and other gustatory delights. It's worth kicking her out of bed half-an-hour early, believe me. You couldn't? She wouldn't? She told you to what? Never mind. Chop her in for a new one when you get home. But don't get tempted. Don't get listerical. Get thee behind me, Salmonella. Burger off, you Mad Cow. Stay hungry, old son. You know it makes sense.
Generally, things are a lot better than they used to be. There was a time, before the provinces discovered eating out, when the only hot pub grub you could get outside the inner cities would be pies, bought-in, allegedly steak-and-kidney, and warmed in a glass-fronted hot cabinet on the bar counter. Desperation measures, but any port in a storm. The trick with these was to get the timing right. Too early in the day, and you'd be dished out yesterday's re-heated gastritis kits; too late, and you'd find that the piecrusts had case-hardened in the heat, and eating one would be like trying to skewer a terrapin skittering about on your plate. You'd have to drown the beast in brown sauce to slow it down enough to prong it with the eating irons. Things have changed. Nowadays, pub food, particularly country pub food, can be wholesome, tasty, inventive and incomparable value for money.
The worst meal out I ever had, far and away, was in an Indian that my then girlfriend and I stumbled across one wet Wednesday night in Maidstone. We went through a spate of doing weekday antique fairs in Kent; being based between Dorking and Reigate at that time, the fairs were easy for us to reach, and complemented our usual Friday [Bermondsey] Saturday [Portobello] Sunday [London Hotel] circuit; We usually took a few quid, rarely anything spectacular, but we could usually buy quite well so as to top up the stock for the weekend. But somehow, on our way home in the dark, probably because the driver had had a couple and had no idea of where she was going, and the navigator had had more than a couple and couldn't read (or even find) the map, we invariably seemed to end up lost and in Maidstone, which was then hot favourite for the UK's Worst Signposted Town award, a trophy jointly sponsored by Esso and Broadmoor. This recurring directional fault tended to cause either helpless hysteria or World War III, depending on the sort of day we'd had and the amount of wine Her Ladyship had ingested. Anyway, we'd been to Canterbury or somewhere, ended up willy-nilly in the middle of bloody Maidstone as usual, were tired, hungry and fed up with driving around in ever-decreasing circles, and when we saw this Curry House at the epicentre where we could park outside and with an empty window-table where we could keep an eye on a car full of silver and jewellery, suddenly some exotic scoff seemed like a good idea.
At the time. An hour and several aperitifs later, when we still hadn't been served our meal by the solitary waiter, a surly cove built like a bad-tempered pipe-cleaner with gold teeth and a thick Peter Sellers accent, I was beginning to voice my doubts.
"Don't worry - they're obviously cooking it fresh," the love of my life said, with surprising and untypical tolerance. "Have another drink and stop fussing."
"I don't like my bloody curry fresh - It's much better cooked the day before and reheated. I thought everybody knew that. 'Specially Indians." I turned to beckon the waiter for a refill. He totally ignored me, in Gujarati. It's not as if he was busy, just rude and idle - we were the only customers in the place.
And when the food finally arrived, we realised why we were. First of all, the offering bore no relation to what we'd ordered. My lamb kurma arrived disguised as some anonymous curried something with bits of egg and other extracurricular lumps in it; and the forefathers of the Tandoori king prawns that Madame had ordered had obviously got drunk and ended up in bed with an elderly chicken of easy virtue, the resultant offspring taking after their mother. But we accepted what they gave us, because we were starving and neither of us could face going through the waiting process again, but also because the waiter didn't own (or own up to) enough English to understand our complaint. And by now it was too late in the evening to leave them with it and go elsewhere. And after a long hard day, we couldn't really be bothered.
Whatever it was, the food was almost inedible. And to quote the old Jewish joke, served in such small portions. My curried enigmas were over-chillied, under-warmed and swimming in ghee; her Tandoori chicken looked, and tasted, she said, as if it had died from dehydration; the nan was undercooked and doughy, the ladies-fingers were wizened, welded to their stainless steel dish and giving us V-signs from an arid lake-bed of dried-up gravy, and the pilau rice was overcooked to mush. Even the poppadums were cold, limp and greasy. But we were ravenous, so we grimly hacked through it, with, in my case, the help of another couple of large ones. I shouldn't be surprised if even that was watered.
"Let's get outa here," I said, making ready to toss some coin onto the table. "I've had enough." She put a hand on my arm.
"No, love, let's have a coffee. They can't possibly get that wrong. It'll help to sober us up."
Good thinking, O wise and tasty one. I ordered two black coffees. Elected to go to the loo, and on my way back stopped at the bar to settle up for this gastronomic cataclysm. I idly watched the waiter as he prepared our coffee. He took a bottle of Camp, measured out a couple of small cupfuls into a saucepan, heated it, neat, on a spirit stove behind the bar and then decanted it back into the cups.
We made our excuses and left. One was reminded of the old story, attributed as I remember to Sam Johnson - and if it wasn't him it should have been, who when asked whether he had dined well the previous evening, replied to the effect that:
"Had the soup been as warm as the wine, the wine as old as the fish, the fish as fresh as the maid, and the maid as willing as the hostess, it would have been a perfect repast."
I have to say that that meal, while woeful, was untypically so, for in any human settlement big enough to support a church and/or five pubs you'll always find, day or night, some industrious ethnic minority with his eatery open for business, scratching a deserved living where his more conventional indigenous competition have long since shut up shop and retreated to their beds.
Take Llandudno. I used to visit Llandudno regularly, many years ago, because I could buy very, very well at a saleroom there. Period Welsh dressers, deudarns, tridarns, longcase clocks, lovely old oak chests and coffers, country furniture to drool over. I'll tell you what - I'll give you a rare freebie - I don't need to travel that far these days, so it's no skin off mine. They're called Ball & Boyd's, and last time I leafed through the Antiques Trade Gazette they were still gavelling away. Mind you - prices may have changed a bit, possibly even in an upward direction, since the days when they used to take bids in sixpenny increments (threepence, if pushed - that's three old pence, and you can guess who was doing the pushing) and I don't think I ever paid more than a tenner for the best lot in the sale. Or needed to. Good luck, and remember - you heard it here first.
The sale kicked off at 10am, and I had to view, so I really needed to be there when they opened at 8. Which meant yet another long night rocked in the tender embrace of the Beast, droning westward over the Horseshoe Pass in the small hours and peeking in my cracked wing mirrors at a rosy-fingered Aurora at her toilette. There's poet-tical, forr-you.
I drove into Llandudno for the very first time at about 6-45 one morning, a Wednesday as I recall, red-eyed, stiff-backed, in urgent need of a pee, and ab-so-lute-ly ra-ven-ous. But this was pre-renaissance North Wales. The twentieth century wasn't expected here for another ten years, and couldn't count on an unqualified welcome even then. Chapel country, hidebound to the point of ossification. where men's minds and girls legs were kept hermetically shut. As, on Sundays, were the pubs. One would have to be the ultimate optimist or plain certifiable to seriously expect anywhere to be open and serving breakfast at that time of day. Decent honest Welsh folk had perfectly good homes to breakfast in - they didn't need to embrace new-fangled English habits. I drove around the town. Nothing. Not a workman's caff. Not even a Station Buffet, albeit one would have to be on the suicidal side of desperate to contemplate patronising a Welsh Station Buffet in 1966. Do you remember Spam, Carnation milk, Nimble bread, Dream Topping and Kup Kakes? Have you got the Samaritans' phone number handy?
Surprisingly, the public loos were open, which solved one pressing problem. Relieved, I parked the Beast round the back of the saleroom, and decided to go for a wander to stretch my aching joints, and possessed of a flickering hope of finding a paper shop where I could buy a Mars Bar. Then, as I turned a corner, I saw it. A red and green neon sign flashing away at the other end of the short street, a street far too narrow for the Beast to negotiate. Chungs Golden Palace - OPEN, or some such, it informed me. "It can't be !" I reasoned." Not here. Not now."
But it was, by cracky, it was. I opened the door and went in. There was a pretty, flat-faced, raven-haired Chinese girl fossicking about behind the bar - presumably Mr Chung the Chop-Suey Man's number one girl-child. I timidly enquired if she was in truth open, expecting the Response Negative, if not the Countercheck Quarrelsome. Not a bit of it. I got the Grin Cheeky and the Welcome Courteous.
"Of course we are, lovey." In a perfect Welsh accent, a musical if singular incongruity, issuing as it did from her small smiling snub-nosed Cantonese face. "I'm yer, aren't I ? Sitt you down - shan'tt be a mo-ment." And she wasn't. And the food wasn't much longer.
I must tell you that chilli chicken with black bean sauce, prawns in ginger, sweet and sour pork and Singapore rice noodles would not at that time have been my first choice as fit and proper breakfast fare. And Jasmine tea, which as an after dinner digestif borders on the nonpareil, I would have expected to prove a poor, thin substitute for my normal robust morning Blue Mountain. But the vittles, once hunger and expediency had reprogrammed the timer on the critical faculties, were dee-licious. I tipped up at the saleroom door an hour later, a happier, fuller and wiser junk dealer. And not really a poorer one - the whole lot didn't set me back much more than half-a-note. From then on I looked forward to my fortnightly Chinese brekkie. The only two things I was never able to work out were why they were open at that hour, and how they managed for early-morning customers when I wasn't there to make up a quorum. Certainly no-one else ever came in while I was there, and frankly I'd have been astonished if they had.
I love Chinese food. Cantonese, Pekingese, especially Szechuan. You name it, I'll get chopstuck into it. The whole bang, bean and bamboo shoot. The only cuisine I enjoy more is Japanese, but their prices are such that it has to have been a very good day for me to plonk myself onto their tatami, and besides, I've never eaten Nipnosh outside of London, so it's beyond the scope of this provincial ramble.
I once had an interesting little tickle in a Chinese Restaurant. We used to go up to Shropshire in Gloria (so called because it was a sick Transit) on a Sunday once a month or so, to collect Brass Beds from a regular supplier and good friend near Shrewsbury. It made a pleasant change from doing a fair. We'd pile the kids into the van, leave early to arrive about midday, adjourn for a pub lunch with our friends, then load up and head home at about four-thirty. Rather than trundle across Birmingham and down the M1, we used to take the scenic route, down to Ludlow (for my money, the prettiest town in England - years later I was to live nearby and work the market there) and across the Clee to Tenbury and Worcester, through the Vale of Evesham, over the Cotswolds via Broadway and Fish Hill to Moreton and Chipping Norton; Woodstock, Oxford, and down the new M40 home to Gerrards Cross. Pleasant, on a summer's evening. But by about half-six we'd all be starving, and so we always used to stop at the Chinese in Evesham, not only because the kids loved Chinese food and wouldn't let me drive past it, but because the restaurant was on the first floor, and they gave us a table next to the window overlooking the street so that I could keep an eye on the van and its overloaded and undersecured roof-rack.
We ordered, (or rather, over-ordered, once we'd chosen 3 or 4 dishes each - no matter, there were doggie bags and I'd developed a taste for Chinese breakfast - see above) and I asked for the usual House Red; nondescript, allegedly Italian and under £2 a bottle.
Supper arrived, and with it Lee, the owner, looking worried and wringing his hands.
"So so'y, Missa Jame. We no got house led. Is finis. I go cella see if can fin' you 'notha bottah sumthun"
He was back within a couple of minutes, clutching a dusty bottle.
"So so'y, ony dis lubbish in cella. Was theya when we bort lestlant. Look velly ol'. Velly dirt'. I ony charge you poun' if you wan'. I go wipe dus' off. So so'y..........."
My dealer's sixth sense took over. I caught hold of his sleeve, cutting his apologies short. Took the bottle from him, very, very gingerly. Turned it slowly over. Looked at the engrimed label.
And put the bottle carefully onto the table. Held my hand out.
"Corkscrew!" With a surgeon's authority.
He looked puzzled, but passed it over as commanded, and I slowly removed the lead capsule, wiped the neck and gently drew the cork. Sniffed. Poured a little into a glass. Sniffed again. Tasted. Nectar! And I wasn't going to spit it out, either, no matter what they say in the Wine and Food Society.
"Yeah, Lee. A pound, you said?" He nodded, eagerly. You could see "Stupid Gwai-loh" written all over his supposedly inscrutable face. I took another sip. Carefully poured my wife a glass, and gave her our well-practised signal that we used when one of us was onto something, warning her to keep her face shut and to take her cues from me. Even the kids knew this game, and subsided into giggles. Daddy's at it again.
"It'll have to do. No more in the cellar, I s'pose? I can always use it for cooking, at that price, if you want rid of it." Keep the tone conversational, James.
"Yeah. Much moh bottahs down cella. You wan' I go count?" Again I restrained him. I didn't want him to shake them up, in his eagerness to flog off some dead stock, any more than was absolutely necessary
"Why don't I come with you? You never know - there might be some more old stuff I can take off your hands."
I followed him through the kitchen and down to the cellar, full mostly of orange-coloured wooden crates full of soda-syphons or bottled beer. He pointed to a rack in the rear left hand corner. I conducted a census. There were thirty-eight bottles in total. Each the same name, rank and number as the one upstairs. Chateau Calon-Segur 1945.
"How much if I take the lot, Lee? Cash - not credit card. Bearing in mind that I'm taking a risk. Some of these are probably vinegar by now, they're that old."
We dealt at a pony, and Lee was happy in the knowledge that he'd conned the barbarian foreign devil rotten. After we'd eaten, (and imbibed, beautifully, albeit I didn't dare ask for a decanter, or even a filter) I carefully loaded my treasure into boxes, ferried them over to the van, made room somehow amongst a tangle of sleepy children and ancient metalwork, and we started home. Did you ever see that old French film about a chap driving a load of Nitro-Glycerine around in a lorry. [Called Le Salaire du Peur, or The Wages of Fear, starring Yves Montand and Subtitles.] That's how I drove the wine home, as if I was expecting the slightest bump to set it off. Took us hours, but what a result! It was probably worth a ton a bottle, even then. Nearly four grand's worth, for an outlay of £25......
......But bottles sold we none.
And this was scarcely odd, because
we drank them, every one.
Special occasions only, of course, over the next few years, once I'd given them time to settle. Well - I'd paid less than £8 the dozen, and couldn't have bought Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon for that. Basic economics, really. And not one bad bottle amongst the lot.
The Phil James Golden Burp for my all-time favourite roadside eatery goes to a transport cafe on Bodmin Moor, which rejoiced in the prosaic appellation of "Tom's". There's chic!. There's catchy for you!. There's a name that'll stop trendy foodies in their tracks all the way from Battersea to Holland Park. Mosiman - eat dust. Nico - quake in your boots!
I used to call in at Tom's for a much-needed breakfast on my way down to (and back from, if I could work it) the toe of Cornwall in the Beast. Breakfast? I'll show you breakfast. Forget your Little Eater or your Happy Chef, flogging a rubber fried egg, a limp rasher, a greasy hash brown and a polystyrene sausage to a captive and compliant clientele at a fiver a head. That's banditry, not breakfast.
For five bob in real money Tom or his cheery missus would dole you out a plate the size of a Viking shield, piled high with rashers of crisp, tasty home-cured long back or gammon, proper coarse-cut herby butcher's sausages - and I mean 'sausages', in the several. With butter-fried farm eggs, in sets of three, a lump of steak insouciantly hacked out of most of a cow, a few succulent kidneys, some big flat field mushrooms, fried tomatoes ad libitum, a lamb loin chop or two, or maybe a pork chop, thick as an airport best-seller and complete with crackly rind and its own bit of kidney, a mound of Mr Heinz's finest on a deck of fried slices, and (naturally) a pile as high as your hat of sizzling, crisp, golden chips, the whole fragrantly steaming edifice ready to be anointed with HP, Tomato or Lea and Perrins. With a couple of breeze-block sized hunks of warm newly baked crusty bread, lashings of yellow, salty Cornish butter and tawny, solid, bittersweet home-made marmalade, (I'm getting hungry just writing this, but that's an occupational hazard amongst us food critics) and a pint mug of tea so muscular and tannin-potent you could've stained a draw-leaf table with it and had enough left over for the chairs. They probably served coffee, if pushed, but I never dared push - this was a proper breakfast, craftsman-built to refuel hungry Englishmen who'd been wrestling petulant pantechnicons or titanic tankers through the night, not a calorie-controlled pit stop designed for some effete Continental cafe-au-lait and croissant performer, picky American tourist, or decaffeinated, cholesterol-free Morris Minor muesli-muncher. The tea came as standard, and you accepted it gratefully. Rumour had it that seconds were available free to those who were still hungry after ingesting that lot, but I never saw anyone with the intestinal fortitude, let alone capacity, to Twist the redoubtable Tom into a refill.
Set you up nicely, did Tom's Victorianesque breakfast. Perfick. No wonder we English ruled the world, until our morning glory was hijacked by health freaks and emasculated by shredded wheaters. Mighty Albion conned into flatulent mediocrity by a misanthropic Mr Kellogg.
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang, but a snap, crackle and pop.
I haven't been that far West for years, since the supply of cheap stock dried up, but I doubt that the cafe's still there. The eponymous Tom has probably long since left our area of operations and opened a pull-up for phantom carmen at Cloud Nine Service Area on the trunk road to Paradise, his earthly enterprise having been bought for a song from his grieving widow by a rapacious multi-national leisure conglomerate and turned into a theme restaurant, run as a very tight ship by a cadaverous suit in accountancy (whose idea of a blowout is a sinful extra half-slice of Spam surreptitiously slid between the polyunsaturated linings of his lunchtime Ryvita by his good lady in rare mischievous or affectionate mood) and serving computer-controlled dollops of flavourless europap ordered at vast expense to the consumer from a physically unmanageable menu constructed from enough timber and/or cowhide to build a small coracle, and laid out in fake DTP-generated calligraphy and that deathless caterer's prose known as 'blushing virgins.' [....and may we suggest for the further enjoyment of your meal with us a side order of tasty (insert here whatever over-hyped comestible takes your fancy] morning-gathered by laughing, blushing virgins from dew-laden, sun-drenched Tuscan hillsides, lovingly caressed by a balmy Mediterranean breeze resonant of the heady aroma of wild rosemary, rushed field-fresh to our door and brought to the peak of culinary perfection by our expert chef for your special delectation.] [Transl: Intensely factory-farmed in a battery house or an overworked fieldful of noxious chemicals and then slung together in a sterile food-processing plant resonant of the heady stink of diesel oil on a windswept industrial estate in Milton Keynes by menopausal harridans in hairnets, and if you're stupid enough to plump for it, bunged in the microwave by some spotty slattern with a grade 3 City and Guilds in domestic science.]
If of course he hasn't, or it wasn't, and if standards haven't slipped over the years, please, O worthy and aged Tom, or your heirs successors and assigns, please accept my humble apologies, my heartfelt congratulations, this free plug with my compliments, and my solemn promise of a visit next time I'm in the area. I might even make a special pilgrimage. And I'd even be prepared to lash out more than the traditional two chinking half-crowns, if pushed. Three, or even four wouldn't be out of the way these days. You can't say I don't move with the times



Further Anecdotes

A Cynic's Philosophy
Scripture for His Purpose
All Greek to Me
Beef and Mustard
The Day the Music Died
Unconsidered Trifles
For Such is the Kingom of Heaven
Laid on with a Trowel
De minimis curat lex.


©Uncle Phil's Books 2004