Author: Jim Preen

The Oval Cook Book

The Oval Cook Book

Fed up with Brexit Britain? Had enough of Little England? Well here’s an idea, go buy a cookbook, more specifically The Oval Cook Book. As the author, Veronica Parker, says in her introduction: ‘In 2016 when we voted very narrowly to leave the EU, it felt as if all sorts of divisions had been opened up in our society.’ She wanted to heal those divisions where she could and set about creating a diversity cookbook which celebrates the lives and recipes of Kennington residents who have come from the four corners of the world.

Meet Akin Mustafa, originally from Cyprus, who runs the electrical shop on Clapham Road. He studied electrical engineering but fled the island after partition. Akin can fix anything from a toaster to an old VHS video machine and he can also fix a ‘Turkish Bean Salad’.

There’s a fine picture of Jasvir Singh receiving an OBE from Prince William for his services to social cohesion. His parents are both Punjabi Sikhs and the recipe he contributes to the book is ‘Turka Dhal’, that wonderful Indian dish with red lentils at its heart.

Walk down Coney Lane and you’ll come to Ashmole Stores run by the Patel brothers Bav and Prash. They came to the UK when Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. The brother’s parents, together with their two sisters, moved to Leicester, then came to London and set up their shop in 1984. Bav is a Millwall supporter but don’t hold that against him. Their recipe is for ‘Curried Meatballs’.

Now you’re already getting hungry and wondering where this nourishing book can be found, which leads me to Jeanne Joyce who runs the gift shop Max & Melia. Jeanne was brought up in Normandy, came to England as an au pair and made London her home. Her recipe is for ‘Tomato, Onion and Hearts of Palm Salad’.

In 2018 Max & Melia was named London Gift Retailer of the Year. The book is on sale at their store and costs eight pounds. Five pounds of every copy sold is donated to the Triangle Adventure Playground just off Claylands Road. So far £1400 has been raised to support this excellent cause.

There are fascinating life stories in this book, which go into far more detail than is contained here. Find out more about the lives of immigrants who have made Lambeth their home. We are lucky to have them, and now we are lucky to have their recipes.

Sparrows are back

Sparrows are back

I remember reading articles a few years back about the disappearance of that most common London bird, the sparrow. No one seemed to be able to account for their disappearance, but one day they were here in their millions and the next day they were gone.

I don’t know if it’s just my advancing age, but I never gave birds much thought in my youth, but I do now; they seem like little packets of magic. I grew up in rural Northamptonshire so can name all the common species, which always comes as a shock to my family as they only know me as a metropolitan type with little love for the countryside.

Just over a year ago we lost our cat Ziggy to some vile feline disease and we now have Bucket the Battersea Terrier. Sad as we were to lose Ziggy, it meant I was able to place a bird feeder in our small south London garden a few weeks ago. It hangs from a potted maple tree just outside our kitchen window and we waited to see who might stop by.

I don’t know where the little buggers have been hiding but we are now awash with sparrows. It’s quite common for there to be ten of them in the tree above the feeder, where they sit stropping their beaks, acting like meerkats keeping a lookout while a couple of them dive down to feed. These avian hoodlums are tough guys and the pair of blue tits that nest close by are given short shrift when they duck in to feed.

The winter has been so mild so far that birds don’t really need a free feed yet, but I’m happy to make their life easier as I have a guilty secret.

I’m ashamed to say, and this is genuine shame, that when I was twelve, I begged my parents for an air rifle. They didn’t like the idea, but I persisted and eventually got my way. And what did this vile twelve-year-old do? Why, he went shooting and killing sparrows in the family garden. I’m now a reformed character.

I mourned the apparent passing of these most London of birds and am delighted so many can be seen from my kitchen window. No guns this time little sparrows you’re safe with us, but watch out for the neighbour’s cat.


 

Oslo Court Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

I love the crazy places of London. The places that seem improbable but exist anyway. How come a flying saucer with mushrooms in the ceiling landed in Knightsbridge was named Albert Hall and became one of our favourite concert venues?

Why are men currently throwing themselves into the icy grip of Hampstead Men’s Pond when they could be tucked up at home with a hot drink and a good book? Who knows but I’m glad they do even though I’m going nowhere near the place until the Spring.

I want to introduce you to another crazy place that I’d never heard of until friends took me there last Friday. It’s the Oslo Court Restaurant in St John’ Wood.

Its location is, to say the least, unusual. Walk down Prince Albert Road and turn into Charlbert Street and you’re met with a handsome art deco apartment block. Build in 1937 it boasts 125 one-bedroom flats many with balconies on to the park. Out front there’s a small sign that gives a clue that it also boasts a restaurant. Apparently in days gone by posh blocks often had restaurants but that fashion has disappeared.

Walking into reception a smartly dressed attendant directs you through a small unmarked door and suddenly you are in the pinkest restaurant in the world. It’s like falling into flock of flamingos and is something of a psychedelic shock as you reel towards your table. You are at a pink festival on Pink Day in Pinkland.

The owner, Tony Sanchez, has been running the joint for more than 35 years. The place definitely has a period feel. The single rose in the silver vases, the rich fabrics, the melba toast with vegetable croutons creates a time-machine that catapults you back to the 70s. There is nothing minimalist about Oslo Court. There’s no steel and glass here; it’s sumptuous.

Now describing a restaurant as having a 70s vibe will be about as welcome to the management as an outbreak of norovirus. Food in 70’s London was terrible, I know I lived through it, but I was poor at the time and I guess places like this must have existed for those with money.

Let’s get to the food. I started looking at the menu which as you’ll see has Dover Sole, Crab and Prawn Salad, Duck and Chicken Liver Pate, Salmon with Hollandaise sauce and sundry other 70’s delights though not (Tut Tut) Black Forest Gateaux or Prawn Cocktails. Suddenly a waiter arrived bearing news of at least twenty specials. I love a special.

Oslo Court RestaurantI opted for six oysters to start, served with an excellent sauce of Balsamic vinegar and garlic, then Beef Wellington (perfectly cooked and this is not an easy dish to get right) and for afters Lemon Meringue Pie with a side order of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. To finish up we had Petits Fours and coffee. A moment ago I described the atmosphere as sumptuous; the same goes for the portions. I then ordered a wheelbarrow to get me out of the place.

In the seventies, in between leaving school and going to University, I worked in a restaurant that boasted silver service. This is when the waiter serves your vegetables from a silver salver grasping the spuds and cauli between a spoon and fork and placing it effortlessly on your plate. Frankly I found it tricky and carrots typically ended up in the lap of some unsuspecting patron.

Silver service is now about as rare as a dodo, but not at Oslo Court where the waiters are dishing out the veg left and right while dressed in natty bow ties and dinner jackets.

This is a destination restaurant and if your destination factors in power cuts, a 3-day week, Ted Heath as PM it’s the place for you. The food is generally excellent but it’s not cheap; lunch comes in at £36 and Dinner £47. My only quibble was the vegetables were overcooked, but hey that’s the way we liked them 40 years ago.


Reservations: 020 7722 8795

Chalbert Street, NW8 7EN


 

Barking Mad

Barking Mad

Do you think Brexit is Barking Mad? Are you against being hounded out of the EU? Do you refuse to roll over and demand Walkies not Porkies? Well the chances are you were on the Wooferendum March with Bucket, me  and a bunch of terrible puns.

It was the most English event I’ve ever attended. As English as rain on a bank holiday and guessing the weight of the vicar at a village fete. It was Mr Bean or for those with a longer memory, an Ealing Comedy: Passport to Pimlico with dogs.

All of which was odd because the whole point of the march was an attempt to reverse our current little England tendencies and stay in the EU.

Bollocks to Brexit
Bucket and me on the way

Leaving the tube at Charing Cross we made our way to Waterloo Place where the dog pack was gathering. The organisers had organised pee stations, with pictures of the Bad Boys of Brexit taped to bollards at doggie height.

There was a surprising number of snappers present and you could tell they really relished the moment when a bulldog unloaded a quite spectacular amount of urine over Boris Johnson’s head. This is where you need a large male dog, that lifts its leg and lets go a Niagara Falls of piss. Bucket is female and quite small, so she just made Dr Liam Fox MP a little damp. Good effort though.

And of course being English everyone was incredibly polite scolding their dogs if they got a bit snappy and apologising profusely. This is entirely unscientific, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say there were around 5,000 people on the march and slightly fewer dogs.

Making for Trafalgar Square we were suddenly caught in the cross-fire of a Brazilian demonstration. Brazil is in the middle of a very hard-fought election campaign with the far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro stabbed during a recent election rally. His supporters were on our right (well of course they were) and those of his rival the Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad were on our left. In total I suppose there were about two hundred protesters, but I have to say they put us lot to shame.

We were all shambling along politely with our mutts, while they were screaming shouting, singing, gesticulating and generally tearing the lid off the thing. Us Brits, we’re just not good at being demonstrative, which is kind of a pity when you’re on a demo.

Walking on down Whitehall past Downing Street I came across Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor and fervent anti-Brexit activist, who had brought along his five-month-old King Charles Spaniel Skye.

I asked him if he missed being at Number 10. He poo-pooed the idea but looked a little wistful, I thought.

Our final destination was Parliament Square. There were various speakers including Campbell, actor Peter Egan and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy. Frankly, by now Bucket’s heart wasn’t in it and so opted for a poo on Parliament Square. I thought this might have been a pawlitical act on her part but on balance I think she just needed a dump.

So there I am bag in hand cleaning up the mess when out of nowhere a march organiser descends and says don’t worry I’ll take care of that and scoops up Bucket’s poop and departs. Bet you don’t get that in Brazil.

Vauxhall Park Lavender Harvest

Vauxhall Park Lavender Harvest

Walking down Fentiman Road SW8 and the smell hits you. Suddenly you’re not in Lambeth you’re in Provence; the smell of lavender is everywhere. Turning into Vauxhall Park there’s a hive of activity with locals harvesting great rows of lavender plants.  Almost twenty years ago an unused bowling green that sat on the west side of this much-loved local park, was turned into a lavender field.

One of the hottest London summers on record means this year there’s a bumper crop and this weekend the locals are bringing it in under the watchful eye of Ruth and Polly from Friends of Vauxhall Park. Usually you are encouraged not to pick the flowers; this is the exception.

Volunteers are cutting down the plants and then snipping the flowerheads into baskets. These will be taken to the distillery tomorrow and turned into lavender oil and ironing spray, which will be on sale at Italo on Bonnington Square. A 10 millilitre bottle costs £8 and all proceeds are ploughed back into the upkeep of the park.

Distillery owner, Laurie from Carshalton, who’s in charge of the distilling process takes out his magnifying glass and shows me where the oil is contained in the flower buds. Last year the crop produced 5 litres of lavender oil, but he tells me excitedly that this year could see almost double that amount.

Ruth explains the old lavender plants must be replaced. So, pop into Italo and buy a pot, you’ll be part of making sure that we all enjoy the lavender harvest next year.

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.

The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.

Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.

In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.

In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.

Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.

Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.

In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.

I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.

It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.

To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.

Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.

Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.

Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.

Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.

A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.

Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?

So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’

Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.

In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

A bivalve pilgrimage

Regular readers will know this blog recently decamped to France for a short break. Kicking the regal Biarritz dust from our heels the Preen family are on the road north to Arcachon.

Like Biarritz, Arcachon Bay is on the Atlantic coast and is known to the locals as Le Bassin or The Basin. The beaches are spectacularly beautiful, some of which can be viewed from a massive sand dune called the Dune of Pilat. It’s more like a mountain than a dune and something you’d expect to see in the Sahara rather than at a French tourist resort. Camels should have featured somewhere. From its summit you can gaze in wonder at the beaches and hang glide down to them if you’re brave enough.

But this isn’t a tourist blog, so get Googling if you want to know more. What we’re here for are the oysters as Arcachon is the oyster capital of France. We are on a bivalve pilgrimage.

Most French towns of any size have a covered market often called Les Halles where all kinds of fresh, French yumminess can be found from cheeses to hams to sausages, breads, fruit and vegetables. The French just take food more seriously than we do. Think of the words the English use to describe food, ‘grub’ ‘nosh’ and ‘chow’ spring to mind. We don’t like food getting above itself, so we put it in its place. Depending on your point of view, the French either exalt and treasure food or have a slightly bonkers obsession with it.

France’s local oyster, the European oyster, is now farmed and no longer harvested in the wild. After reaching two or three years of age, oysters are taken to so-called fattening grounds, typically in river estuaries and marshes. There they become plump and juicy and ready for the table by gorging on algae and other nutrients that are very appealing to the hungry bivalve. Thereafter they are graded for taste and texture. Little do they know what’s coming next.

At the back of the market in Arcachon we found the Bar à Huîtres where we ordered twelve of their best. While waiting for our order to appear and to the annoyance of the daughter I read aloud the Lewis Carroll poem the Walrus and the Carpenter. Spoiler Alert: Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens to the oysters at the end of the poem. Here’s an edited version, just an hors d’oeuvre, click here for the Full English.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech.

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each.’

 

But four young Oysters hurried up,

All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,

Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,

They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,

And scrambling to the shore.

 

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock

Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood

And waited in a row.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.”

All around us men where shucking oysters, splitting the shells with a twist of the wrist in one deft move. Very quickly our plate arrived with the oysters set on ice and draped in seaweed fronds. They may have spent months being fattened in river reedbeds but at La Table de Preen they were gone in 60 seconds, well perhaps a little longer. I’m hopeless at describing food, I’m English for goodness sake, but they were plump and salty and slithered down with great ease. I could have ordered another dozen.

The next day part of the family spent the day at Aqualand , but not being the world’s best swimmer, I was given the morning off to mooch. Staying just outside Arcachon in a village called Le Teich, I wandered into the centre to get some lunch. There in front of the local bar I found Hercule selling oysters from a cart.

‘Douze huîtres s’il vous plait’ I said in my best ‘O’ level French and twelve were duly slung into a plastic bag in exchange for a few Euros. I headed back to the apartment, put the bag in the fridge and waited for the family to arrive.

How hard could it be to shuck a few oysters? Well let’s just say, I recommend gardening gloves and a police issue stab vest if you want to keep safe.

As you can see from the picture, the knife looks like something which would be of interest to the police if you were caught with it in one of the seedier parts of London.

The BBC’s Good Food describes the shucking process like this:

  • Wrap a tea towel over one hand and use it to hold the oyster firmly.
  • Using an oyster shucking knife in the other hand, place the tip of the shucking knife at the base of the hinge, twist the knife using pressure, then without the pressure, lever the knife upwards, or twist it to prise the hinge open.
  • Slide the knife under the top shell to release the oyster and remove the shell.

Sound so easy doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, my oysters were no pushover. All that gorging on algae had made them tough little buggers who weren’t going to give up without a struggle.

What the BBC fails to mention is the bit where you inadvertently stab yourself in the hand because it’s so damn difficult to get the knife into the hinge. Or when you twist the knife and a bit of oyster shell flies off and hits you in the eye, the shell remaining tightly shut.

It’s a tricky business but eventually all twelve were opened, eaten and pronounced delicious. I guess all good things come after a bit of a struggle and oysters are no exception. Thanks Hercule, we’ll see you tomorrow.