Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Le Mistral

There is nowt special about Wirksworth. It's a reasonably picturesque Derbyshire village with a kebab shop, a chippy, and a couple of bog-standard pubs. It's not like Hebden Bridge or Hathersage, where you can buy lucques olives on every corner and munch organic free-range special breed pork sausages with herb and mustard mash in a gastropub surrounded by people who moved there from the South when the commute and the fetid stench of rampant Toryism got too much.

It's just a normal little town in Great Britain.

That is why Le Mistral on Wirksworth high street is such a little gem. A metropolitan reviewer might sneer at its Mediterranean/Bistro stylings, wince at the fridge cold butter,

or raise an eyebrow at the friendly informality of service. They'd be missing the point, and missing a treat. Jarek Ossowicki has put together a reasonably priced, interesting menu, and an unpretentious wine list, in a relaxed setting that works in a variety of ways. I'd go to Le Mistral for a mid-week treat, or a valentine's dinner, or

even for a glass of wine on a Friday night as a more grown up alternative to the Sky sports dominated pub scene.

A mixed antipasti plate for two almost fills us up with perhaps not the finest quality jamon iberico, but certainly value for money. Duck and pork mains from the special board come roasted with generous smooth mash and rich herby gravy.

The bill isn't very much, and we finish our wine while listening with a sense of recognition and nostalgia to the Waitress telling her mother's friends about how she has been

saving up for a trip to do volunteer work in South America before she goes to university. We leave a good tip.

Peak Pudding

(Sorry... been away with work...)

Despite the best efforts of the rude and incompetent staff at Hertz car hire, we manage to escape the capital for a few days in the Peak District with Mr and Mrs Jiffler Senior. A smart cottage on the outskirts of Wirksworth becomes the venue for some robust roast dinners and a takeaway balti munched in front of what passes for television in the UK ('The dog whisperer'... come on...).

Bakewell pudding Being Easter weekend, and sunny, Bakewell is heaving with visitors. We amble around, checking out the fantastic independent Bakewell Books' great selection of natural history and travel literature, munch a couple of bhajis from an impromptu curry stall, and marvel at the queues outside the chippies.

You can't come to Bakewell without sampling a Bakewell pudding, and the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop invites us to try the, er, original.

You can, of course, buy Bakewell tarts in pretty much any bakery in the UK. Bakewell puddings on the other hand are endemic to Bakewell, with three bakeries producing them, two of which claim to be producing the original recipe. The story goes that the Bakewell tart was invented at the Rutland Arms, Bakewell, after a chef forgot to mix the eggs and almonds into the pastry mix for a jam tart, instead mixing the whole lot with the jam and spreading it on top of the pastry. The resulting rather ugly looking pudding seemed to catch on. My guess is its because the pub sold the first batch off cheap, and folks like a bargain don't they?

Whether their origins are disputed or not, Bakewell puddings must be famous across the pond as the bakery is packed solid with with badly dressed American tourists. Being somewhat, ahem, "large", they block our progress to the pudding counter and Jiffler Senior and I start getting a little claustraphobic. Unable to squeeze our barrel chests between the lard-armed masses we send Mrs Jiffler (Senior), who is slight of build and as nimble as a scrum-half, into the melee.

Having tried the shambolic upstairs cafe on a previous visit, we opt to enjoy our puddings on a bench (again spotted and quickly bagged by the nimble Mrs Jiffler senior) overlooking the canal.

This is what a slightly blurred bakewell pudding should look like:

Not like one of those Mr Kipling's monstrosities. An almondy nose, jammy sweetness at the sides of the mouth, buttery aftertaste. Would make a fine accompaniment to a cup of tea and a sit down.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

In that London

You know, there are sometimes in life when only a well made Scotch egg will do.

I'm not talking about those monstrosities common to most British newsagents and motorway service stations, all overcooked rubbery egg rattling around in a sphere of breezeblock grey offal coated in an unappetising orange fur. No, I mean a proper hand made Scotch egg, where the yolk is still a bit soft in the middle, the meat is made from actual bits of actual pig rolled in breadcrumbs and fried until amber brown.

The Scotch egg at Canteen on Baker street in London hits the spot. While the accompanying pickle lacks punch, each quarter of scotch egg is a taste of Great Britain. A taste of mum's kitchen, long summer evenings sitting outside the pub drinking ale, jumpers for goalposts...

Yeah, OK, it's been a while since I had a decent Scotch egg. It's a bit of a shame that Canteen is so, well, canteeny. The food served up here has got decent British pub written all over it, and is priced to suit.

It suits me and my Oldest Friend though, as they have a nice spicy drop of Meantime Pale Ale on tap. Our waitress is friendly too, showing enthusiasm for the spicy meat pies on the specials board, and enjoying a spot of banter. Showing us to our table by the window she warns us that a large party are about to take the table for 12 adjacent to us.

"It's OK, we won't disturb them" notes OF.

This appalling bit of humour actually provokes a smile. From a waitress. In London. Did I miss a meeting?

Being growing thirty-something men we both opt for the special of spicy lamb pie. There is the risk with 'spicy lamb pie' of being presented with some sort of horrific car-crash of Anglo-Jamaican fusion food, but thankfully that wasn't the case. The kitchen at Canteen stayed within the tried and tested traditional pie format. A spot of gravy, a fringe of cabbage, gutsy lamb, a soft pastry hat. Excellent.

OF finishes off with trifle of the kind that neither of us has seen since childhood, while I take on a well balanced plate of Neal's Yard English cheeses, just as the large table adjacent fills up with jovial foreign students wondering what the hell a Scotch egg is.

Canteen has two other branches on the South Bank and in Spitalfields, and I'd recommend visiting for something straightforward and quick. As a visiting ex-pat the menu really cheered me up and reminded me that British food is worth missing. Whether this is a unique thing or not I don't know - perhaps London is packed with places knocking out the kind of food that makes me nostalgic these days?

55 Baker Street
London W1U 8EW
(+44) 0845 686 1122
8am-11pm Weekdays, 9am-11pm Weekends

Del'aziz Fulham
I wake up the following morning at a fancy hotel at the Chelsea football stadium to discover that somehow, by some astonishing luck, I've escaped any serious drinking injury. Mrs Jiffler is slightly more worse for wear though, having been learning how to cook chicken kiev at The Kitchen in Parsons Green. Judging by the hangover, I think the cookery lesson leaned more towards the supping of white wine and chatting than actual cooking. A fry up is in order.

The staff at Del'aziz in Fulham deserve credit for accommodating our wet umbrellas, large suitcases, and my arsing around nipping out to the post office as soon as we get settled. The place itself is one of those unselfconciously smug establishments, all gourmet coffee, bare wooden tables and fancy cakes in the window. A choice of yoghurts and alpine muesli. The sort of place I secretly enjoy going to even though they make me feel like a class traitor.

despite this, their £8.50 (£8.50!!!) full breakfast is ungreasy and both sausages and bacon are well up to scratch. Fried eggs could do with another 20 seconds to firm up to the white, but it didn't kill me.

Dining is at shared communal tables, so everyone pretends to ignore each other while secretly listening. To our right are a family of V-necked Times reading bores while sharing our table are a group of young Australian women who are naturally louder and more obnoxious. One of the women is talking loudly into a mobile phone to family back in Australia, clearly nobody has explained to her that self-amplification is unnecessary with pay as you go.

"Yeah, we're flying to Austria this afternoon"


"No Austria. In Germany. We're going skiing"

Another pause, slightly longer.

"Yeah, that's the best thing about London. It's so close to Europe".

Indeed. Actually the best thing about London is that it's pretty bloody far from Australia.

Del'aziz Fulham
24-32 Vanston Place
Tel. 020 7386 0086

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


If the British broadsheets are to be believed, a truly relaxing weekend should involve handing over enormous amounts of money in exchange for a stay at some beige hotel close to a major road where you will be subject to any number of dubious 'spa treatments'. I love a massage as much as anyone, but I can't seem to get excited about making it the focus of a weekend.

The Collines de Niassam lodge in Palmarin is more my style. Here you can relax without having to apply slices of cucumber and listen to new age forest dolphin music in a room smelling of pot pourri. There is nothing to do at Collines de Niassam. You are a bumpy drive away from the nearest anything, so all that is left is to indulge in a bit of sunbathing, perhaps have a pootle around the lagoon in a canoe or, for the more energetic, a spot of birdwatching among the baobabs. You can choose a hut suspended over the lagoon, or perhaps a pokey little treehouse. There are no TV's, radios or car rapides at Collines de Niassam, just fresh air, fresh food, and a fresh breeze.

The staff lay on three meals a day, each using ingredients sourced locally. This is not for any high-minded eco-friendly middle-class crusading reason, but out of practicality. Making the trip to the city, and preserving imported chilled or frozen goods w
ould just be too much of a hassle. When you run exerything off solar power and scrapyard assembled wind turbines, you have to make sure every joule of energy is spent wisely.

Bread and Jam for breakfast was a bit tight. It was nice bread, and great jam, but it was the same nice bread and great jam every day. Any chance of a boiled egg? Things perked up at lunch and dinner time though (there, I've done it, used the words 'lunch and dinner' instead of 'dinner and tea'. It's a slippery slope.), when
more substantial meals are presented to us - crisp salads, smoked fish, smooth desserts, and healthy measures of home made fruit-flavoured rum to wash it all down with.

One night we kick off with boulettes of zebu on cabbage.

These get the ball rolling for a number of jokes ("I didn't know Zebu's had three balls" etc etc).

Curried monkfish with taglietelle comes next:

We'll overlook the pasta for a moment (this is a weird francophone thing, serving pasta with curry. Perhaps they just think it's all 'Orientale' and therefore the same thing), and focus on the meaty chunks of monkfish, one of my favourite fishes for throwing in a curry (expensive in the UK, but ten a penny round these parts). While the curry itself was mild, it didn't suffer the usual Senegalese fate of being loaded with jumbo stock cubes. It tasted clear and sharp, and let the subtle (some might say bland) flavour of the fish speak for itself.

But my word, they just knock you out with dessert:

A whipped, creamy chocolate ganache with alternating layers of white and dark chocolate. Richer than Roman Abramovitch and thicker than Wayne Rooney. This one even beat Mrs Jiffler, and left us with our eyes rolling in our heads in need of a stiff glass of rum to sort us out.

I tried to pop my head in the kitchen for a nosey around and to give my congratulations, but was chased away by laughing ladies. Perhaps I caught them licking the chocolate off their spoons.

Lodge des Collines de Niassam
Palmarin Ngallou, BP 08 JOAL - Sénégal

Tel: 77 639 06 39


Monday, June 29, 2009

Les Huitres

How to eat oysters:

Freshly picked from the mangrove, gently smoked, and then guzzled with fingers on a beach in Senegal's Sine Saloum delta.

How not to pick oysters:

For mangrove conservation reasons, it is forbidden for oyster collectors to cut mangroves in order to collect their bounty. The people who collect oysters are almost always women, who wade out chin deep into the creeks, and must use sharp knives to cut the oysters from the mangroves. It takes longer this way, but it means that there will be mangroves, and oysters, for tomorrow.

Our guide explained this to us. Then he and the boatman drew our pirogue up to the mangroves, and promptly uprooted a couple of branches. Apparently it's OK to destroy the habitat if you have a boatload of white people and are in a hurry...

Mangroves are an important habitat for a number of species, including humans. So, if you go to the Sine Saloum delta and see the guides tearing up the mangroves, let them know.

For more on mangroves visit Wetlands International.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jiffling reshuffle

After my recent hiatus, I thought it might be time for a bit of reformatting chez Jiffler. The previous layout looked rather serious, so I've tarted it up a bit with a picture of an orange and a friendlier template.

The links on the right have changed too. A few old favourites remain, but some of the more, ahem, career minded, freebie tasting blogs have been banished. Previous favourite Dos Hermanos is also out, as there are only so many times one can read about eating expensive steaks in London, then complaining that they are not as good as at Hawksmoor. The Guardian food page is out as well (where did Jay Rayner go?), and the RSPCA will be sent round later on to have a word with them about the flogging of dead horses.

Welcome though to Around the World in 80 dinners, the story of one man's quest to taste 80 different world cuisines, mostly in Manchester. Also check out Khymos, an exploration of molecular gastronomy by a Scandinavian kitchen mentalist.

Finally, I'd like to give a push to The Great British Kitchen website. Next time a poorly educated American turns his nose up at British food you don't have to resort to violence, just point them in the direction of this website, maintained by the British Food Trust.

Back soon with some more tasty far flung stories.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shifting the backblog

The backblog has reached Himalayan heights now. I need to get things moving a little, which sadly involves cutting the rest of the Istanbul trip into bite sized chunks, to be consumed at one sitting. Rather like tapas.

So, without further ado, here are some tasty street scenes:

Baklava? My favourites are the ones that filled with milk and honey that burst open when you pop them (whole) into your mouth.

Or perhaps some Turkish Delight? None of that dodgy Fry's stuff either, this is a serious business. Those nutty rolls along the bottom shelf are specifically designed for the removal of fillings.

Check out these jars of preserved vegetables. How cool would a bunch of those look on your kitchen shelves?

One of the friendlier stalls in Beyoglu (Sahne Sk, Balik Pazari No:3/A). I stocked up on apple tea here and the owner, Murat, gave me a little bag of mixed nuts to munch on as I tramped around the wet city.

It's far too easy to get lured into the tourist traps in Istanbul, but there are some great little places out there. Little cafes where you can buy strong tea and munch heavy slabs of borek (preferably for breakfast) are everywhere.

My top pick for Istanbul is the Sultanahmet Fishhouse (http://www.sultanahmetfishhouse.com/ , Te: +90 212 527 44 41) in the old part of town. The welcome here is super-friendly, the wine list is good (check out the Corvus Estate Okuzgozu Bogazkere 2005, pictured below) and it's the kind of place you can stop for a few tasty nibbles or a full on seafood extravaganza that smells like a good day at the beach.

Another oddity I came across, and thoroughly enjoyed, was a small place with a name I couldn't comprehend in Beyoglu. Wandering the streets alone one Sunday night I pressed my nose up against the window of a place filled with laughing Turkish families under strip lighting tucking into massive salads and skewered meat.

After finding myself a seat it quickly became clear that none of the staff spoke a word of English (unusual in an Istanbul restaurant) and the familiar game of smiles and hand gestures ensued. A can of Diet Coke in hand I observed my fellow diners - the place was packed with families and groups of young students, who all seemed to be eating the same thing and chatting away noisily. As the only none Turkish person there I realised I'd finally, and happily, escaped the tourist traps.

Plates of flatbread arrived, along with yoghurt, lemon slices, fresh parsley, mint, and coriander, spring onions, tomatoes and lettuce, and a chap brandishing thin skewers of lamb and beef. Self-assembly kebabs then? I haven't been able to find another word to describe this style of eating, but the food was zinging fresh, and it was very informal, and lots of fun. The whole lot, with a cup of tea at the end, came to about 5 euro. Happy days.

That concludes Istanbul Jifflings, rather too briskly I'm sorry to say. I think some reformatting of Jifflings is in order, so watch out soon for a new look blog, with some more reports from Senegal, the UK, Lisbon, and Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More Istanbul

Where were we before that brief hiatus? Ah, yes Istanbul, about two months ago.

Istanbul in Feburary is like Manchester in February. Grey up, grey down. It's just as wet, but has more mosques, and fewer children dressed like security guards.

It's easily done. You arrive in a new city, one that is throbbing with eating potential, all confident and well travelled, ready to take on the best that Istanbul has to offer.

Then you end up in a tourist trap. Twice.

Our first foray into the aforementioned TT occurred in the Cicek Pasaji just off the Istiklal Caddesi. At a cellar restaurant filled with a mix of tourists and young locals where we're promised multiple courses plus all we can drink for about 30 Euro. I can drink a lot, so this seems like a good deal. There is entertainment as well. Goody.

The food is unremarkable, as I should've expected. A variety of fridge-cold dips and mezze introduce an overcooked Bream, followed by a plate of pale fruit for dessert. The drink flows liberally though, which adds to my sense of well-being.

Entertainment is in the form of a drunken band. Perhaps a shambolic act, or perhaps just a general shambles, I'm not sure. They periodically interrupt their routine to argue threateningly with each other as they make their way between tables. The sweating guitarist grimaces at me and indicates his top pocket. I cotton on sharpish, fill his pocket with the green folding stuff, and mutter a gentle instruction to shut up and piss off.

A belly dancer arrives, her torso tight as a drum, her face like a rucksack full of broken bells, hips alternating between "drugged snake", "angry wasp" and "malarial cat". I blew the last of my baksheesh on the band, so she goes in search of a more generous/drunk target.

Thankfully there are some good bars in Beyoglu, playing old fashioned rock and roll.

The next evening is Valentine's night. Can there be anything more depressing than walking up the Istiklal Caddesi in the pissing rain, fighting against a tide of umbrella wielding couples (while your valentine is on a different continent)? Yes there can. You could go to the Haci Abdullah restaurant, which looks alright from the outside - all jars of preserves and air of authenticity. It's not until you're inside and seated that you discover that it does not serve alcohol.

This time the entertainment comes from an adjacent table filled with British IT contractors. We listen in to their awkward stories and tedious anecdotes about mobile phones and facebook. One man announces that it is his birthday, and his colleagues look at the ground and mutter happy birthday. The food is grimly unmemorable. I may have had meatballs. And maybe some things wrapped in vine leaves. My colleague remarks that the conversation of one the gentlemen on the adjacent table (blessed with a foghorn voice) was so stupid and inarticulate that she worried that he might have been bitten by a zombie. The Dawn of the Dumb.

Things got better in Istanbul though...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Look at these crunchy little chaps:
Deep fried mussels on a stick, midye tava in Turkish. How good is that?

So, for the price of some sort of fashionable bucket of coffee in London you can get a plate piled high with these little fellas, a bready/garlicy sauce to dip them in, a glass of strong tea, and still have enough money for the bus home.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some Dutch Cheese

Mrs Jiffler managed to nab a couple of cheeses while in the Netherlands recently. Sourced from Albert Heijn supermarket, a slightly less insidious Dutch version of Tesco.

Here they are, on a plate:

The creamy yellow cheese is Kernhem, from the Kernhem estate, local to where Mrs Jiffler sometimes works in Ede. The estate is also known for ghosts, mysterious extraterrestrial activity, and light orbs (has anybody ever seen one of these?). Not that this has anything to do with the cheese, which is gourmet effort with a little added cream. Not a typical Dutch cheese, I suspect Mrs Jiffler selected it based on it's similarity to Saint Paulin,or Port Salut. I rather prefer Kernhem to it's French equivalents, which are a little too bland and casual for my tastes. Kernhem is somewhat nuttier, and makes the cheesebox smell a bit.

The white cheese is a hard Geitenkaas (goat's cheese) which is belegen (mature). It is hard and sharp, but not astringent. Uncooked it pairs up well with fruit, and cheap Senegalese lager. I like the texture, which is solid without being brittle, making it particularly suitable for mid-afternoon nibbling, when one can stand in front of the fridge shaving bits off with a steak knife. It holds it's shape and texture when grated as well, making it ideal for mixing with eggs, flour, and grated courgette, and frying up into little pancakes.

Dutch cheese. In Dakar. I'm not sure where all this is heading... next thing I'll be blithering on about eating mussels in Constantinople or something...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Catching up

You wouldn't believe the backblog. I've just been away, eating as always, so things are starting to pile up. Here are some bits and bobs, just to clear the decks.

Moules a la Popenguine.

Fine dining is, er, fine, but you can't beat a bit of improvised big fisted cooking. A recent visit to Popenguine with friends required exactly that.

An itinerant fish saleswoman delivered on her promise of a sack full of fresh mussels from the Somone estuary, and we set to work rinsing and scraping off the beards. To hell with the barnacles. These were artisanal moules.

A few minutes in a pan with a couple of bottles of beer (one for me, one for the mussels) et voila:

How did that crab claw get in there?

Lobster a la Ngor
Once again, some friends, a beach, some seafood. This time a (slightly burnt) rock lobster:

And before anybody asks another time why you can't eat the gills ("Dead man's fingers") they are not poisonous apparently, but are tough, taste horrible, are indigestable, and according to Jiffler senior "might give you the shits if you're really unlucky".

Steak Jiffleur
Look, I've got a new camera OK. I'm just getting to grips with food photography. A faux tournedos steak with tomatoes cooked in balsmaic vinegar:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Paris. Sort of.

“Charles de Gaulle is a disgrace … it’s like a third-world airport.”
—Michel-Yves Labbé, president of French travel company Directours, Aug. 14, 2007

Flying from Dakar to Europe inevitably involves consuming some sort of heated filth from a tray. If you're paying for your own ticket then you're flying with either TAP or Iberia. TAP offer a breakfast best emptied directly into the sick bag, while Iberia present the hungry traveller with a foil container filled with warm elastic bands underneath a red gash of generic 'pasta sauce' that smells slightly of bins.

If someone else is paying, you might get to fly with Airfrance, who charge about 50% more for a marginally less miserable experience. With Airfrance you get a slightly better standard of barely edible sludge, with a glass of cheap champagne to ensure you wake up with stinking breath. A little wedge of President brand camembert might normally cheer you up, but this just brings back memories of once falling asleep on a cross-channel ferry while holding a wedge of said cheese, only to wake up with sticky melted camembert all over my hands. What a disgrace (me, not the cheese).

At Paris I have a few hours to spare. Enough, I've calculated, to escape the grubby tunnels and overpriced fast food of Charles de Gaulle and make a quick trip on the train into town. Grab a quick salade nicoise and steak frites in a cosy bistro and make it back to the airport in time for my onward connection.

But I didn't bank on Charles de Gaulle airport being such an absolute pit of misery and misdirection. For a start the airport map that came with my tickets is wildly inaccurate and inadequate. I make maps for a living, so if I can't understand what the hell is going on, what hope has the average jettlagged traveller got? There are no proper signposts, and the staff are scruffy, incompetent and rude.

Just when I think I've made it in time, with only one last hurdle to jump, a bored looking customs official cocks his finger at me. Bobbins.

Me: Moi..? D'accord. Bonjour Monsieur (attempted smile)

Customs official (in English, after clocking my British accent): Please stand behind the table and present your passport.

So I stand there, with my passport in my hand and my bag on the table. For 15 minutes. I stare at the roof, wondering if it might collapse.

The official returns, takes my passport,and stares at me. I notice a resemblence to Pepe the King Prawn from the muppets and have to bite my lip to stifle a grin.

"Do you have anything to declare?" he asks.

"No" I almost draw blood on my lip, showing admirable restraint by not going down the Oscar Wilde route.

"Please open your bag"

So I do, slowly spreading out the contents of my handluggage on the table.

"What is the purpose of your visit to France?" asks Pepe.

"I'm just here for lunch" I reply.

"For lunch?" Pepe, looks incredulous.

"Yes. I hear there are some nice restaurants in Paris."

"Are you telling me a joke?"


He looks pissed off now. I was only being honest.

By this point my bags are empty, and passerby crane their necks in a combination of sympathy, relief, and curiosity. There isn't much to see: some camera stuff, a laptop, a pencil case, a gps, a cellphone, wallet, my spare t-shirt, socks and underpants, some work documents, a dog-earred copy of 'Scoop'. I switch on the camera and computer as requested, my pencil case is rifled through, socks unbundled in case they contain who knows what.

Pepe tosses back my passport, nods and says "Bon", before sauntering off to chat with his colleagues. I've missed my bistro window.

I meander over to another terminal and buy a dismal cheese and ham sandwich, a so-so tarte au chocolat, and a bottle of Orangina for too much money at Paul. Lunch in Paris.

Monday, March 09, 2009


What a mighty name for a restaurant. Mogador sounds like a baddy from Lord of the rings, played by an 18 foot hammer-fisted Brian Blessed on PCP. Mogador eats cats, smokes children, and does very unpleasant things to those naughty Hobbits.

A swift google reveals that Mogador is many things:
  • The Portuguese name for the south west coastal region of Morocco
  • An ancient Phoenician fort in Morocco
  • A small hamlet near Margery Wood (would she?) in Surrey, UK.
The Mogador in Dakar is a fine dining establishment with a snow white interior and some neat outdoor furniture for the summer. I'm told that the ladies loos are 'the most luxurious in Dakar'. So make sure you spend a penny.

The menu sticks to very creative French stylings with none of the miserable ethnic diversions common to Dakar fine dining. While the wine list offers the usual suspects at not too outrageous prices. We stick with the usual suspects - beers and Beaujolais - and I make another mental note to remember to bother to learn more about wine.

Amuses are a delicate diversion from the usual mini-crostini type annoyances, but nowt special. Mrs jiffler's potato gratine starter disappears quickly, although the truffle oil didn't really assert itself. My starter demonstrates that some creative thinking is going on in the kitchen. A neat pastry feuillette comes bursting with smooth melted Bresse Bleu, accompanied by a camembert ice cream. The competing yet strangely complementary flavours and temperatures of these two cheesy components form a whole far greater than the sum of it's parts. A slightly odd bush of salad on the side appears irrelevant at first, before it's intended purpose as a bitter mop for the unctuous bleu presents itself. My word. In Dakar.

We could have continued on this creative trajectory through main courses and desserts, but decided to test the chef's hand with straightforward steak frites. Over poncification of steak frites spells disaster, but Mogador serves it straight up and smoky, rare as requested, and hung like a horse. A five pepper sauce, and proper chips are simple perfection.

No dessert. That steak will take some digesting. Petits Fours Secs are made in-house and amuse Mrs Jiffler over good coffee.

Two courses, a beer, water, bottle of brouilly, coffee comes to 51,000Fcfa for two. Not cheap, but better value than most upmarket places in Dakar. We're not talking molecular gastronomy here, but I'm glad somebody in Dakar is taking things a little further than the usual French school dinners with a token selection of mediocre sushi. I await the day when the chef at Mogador gets hold of a sous vide cooker. Then those pesky Hobbits had better watch out.

More from Dakar at Dakar Restaurant Reviews

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dakar. The Vegetable Lady

The vegetable lady has gone. I never knew her name, which is an appalling oversight on my part, we simply addressed each other as 'Monsieur' and 'Madame'.

She was a large lady, of advanced years, and was a formidable presence among the vegetable ladies of Boulevard de l'est. Her stall was always the neatest of the eight or so that sit in a shambolic little row, and she always kept the perkiest selection of fresh parsley.

Our relationship developed over a period of several months, beginning furtively with a few pleasantries, the exchange of too much money for poor quality vegetables, cautious stilted Franco-Wolof conversation. Over time her attitude to me softened; realising my repeat custom was worthwhile, the prices dropped, the best stuff started to appear in my bag, along with the occasional "cadeau" of a scotch bonnet, or a lime. I introduced her to my 'wife', and she glowed with matriachal approval. One afternoon, she even delighted me with a brave 'Good Monning Sah'.

But now she is gone. I saw her earlier in the week while on the way home from the bank, sitting stall-less under a vast bou bou by the side of the road. She waved enthusiastically and greeted me with a smile. I waved back and gave her a wink: "Prochaine fois, Madame". But there wasn't going to be a next time.

Her quick replacement, a younger, hard-faced lady, has already started with the old tricks. Fiddling me out of my change. Sneaking in the odd manky onion. The whole process will have to start all over again.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Bishkek Restaurant Reviews

I can't see Bishkek becoming another addition to the Jiffler empire of obscure city guides, especially since the good people at the Spektator are doing such a good job of reporting on the restaurant and nightlife scene. I should be back here later in the year so I might give the editorial team at the Spektator a call, see if they'll take me out on the town.

I've had a run of bad luck with Chinese restaurants lately (see Dakar Restaurant Reviews for the latest disaster) and my first meal out in Kyrgystan was to prove no exception. Exhausted from two nights in the air and a days work my colleague and I cast out for the nearest restaurant.

It looked popular, and we were led into a back room crammed with smoking Russian teenagers in various states of inebriation. Somewhere nearby there had been a fashion explosion. Girls with crimped fringes sported diamond print sweaters paired with leggings and fuck-me boots, while the boys, shaven haired and pale, dressed as if they were at work on a Welsh sheep farm circa 1983.

With an English menu finally procured we managed to order three dishes and settled back to drink lukewarm tea from dirty bowls. As our dishes came out of the kitchen it became clear that we'd over ordered. First, an enormous bowl of "Meat with aubergines" which was in fact "Tripe with boiled cucumbers and whole garlic cloves". I don't care what people say, tripe is not my idea of easy eating. I've tried it many times, and will no doubt eat it again, but once every two years is probably enough. Next up was a large and murky puddle of bizarrely textured mushrooms served with greens, before we were served the house speciality, that old Chinese classic "Chicken with potatoes".

We ate about a third of what was in front of us. Felt a bit guilty, and left.


Adriatico on the other hand is a smashing place. Rated by many as Bishkek's best Italian restaurant the menu promises Pizzas, pastas and the usual meat dishes. Service is swift, if a little fussy, and once again we over order. This time we eat the lot though.

Greek salad lacks punch, and olive oil, but the selection of salumi more than makes up for this. cheesy ravioli all round comes with what appears to be a super generous serving of grated truffle. Judging by the mildness of smell and flavour. and the paleness of colour, these must be Chinese truffles, bit still, nice to have truffles innit, perigord or not.

Decent coffee, so-so gelato and tiramisu wrap things up. This may end up being the default comfort eating restaurant for my future sojourns to Bishkek. One of those restaurants that fit the bill when you're hungry, worn out and just need something pleasing and familiar.

Adriatico Restaurant
219 Chui Avenue
Tel: (+996) 312 61 46 09 (Take away service available)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Manti, Nan and Plov

Manti, Nan and Plov are the three principle characters in a deranged saturday morning kid's TV show. Manti, the lead character, is an undefinable creature of vaguely Bonobo origin. His naive sense of childlike wonder often gets the trio into mild scrapes involving magic umbrellas and other such devious plot devices. Manti's foil is Nan, a bossy female penguin who tries to keep the threesome on the straight and narrow but invariably gets drawn into the adventure. Her unrequited love for Manti doesn't go unnoticed by adult viewers, whose bored imagination occasionally leads them to feel slight unease at the prospect of a chimp-penguin union. Plov is a ponderous lump of a bear, who on the surface appears to be a total clunking doofus, but deep down he is the beating moral heart of the show.

This is what happens when I drink too much Vimto. I could go on for pages and pages, but let's face it, I'm not going to get into the Times Online's list of the World's Top 50 Best Food Blogs by rambling on about about chimps. No, in order to achieve that I shall have to adopt a self-effacing tone, punctuated by professional quality photography taken in my Martha Stewart kitchen in North America/Western Europe. Like some sort of commercial webshite, complete with books to sell and sponsored links to click. They'll be haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.

Manti, Nan and Plov.
I was warned not to expect too much from the food of Central Asia, particularly in the winter, so went with expectations lowered. In retrospect though, just because food doesn't come in the colours of the Italian flag, or with a whizz and a bang and a sizzle, doesn't mean to say it's any less interesting. Kyrgyz people I met were proud of their food, eager to share it, and in touch with the way it is produced. That is all it takes for me to admire it.

It seems Manti are popular across Central Asia and the Turkic regions (I spotted a variation of them being prepared in Istanbul recently). In Kyrgyzstan they resemble large dumplings, filled with meat, potatoes, the all important lump of fat, and if you're lucky, some bits of pumpkin. These parcels are steamed or boiled and served with more fat - butter - melted on top with a little fringe of dill. At one place I was offered a vinegary chilli-sauce accompaniment quite unlike any other I've tried on my travels, which added a little poke to the bland meatiness.

Accompanying Manti, and many other Kyrgyz dishes, are Nan breads. A cousin of the Naan breads found in India, and popular in Indian restaurants in the UK, nan is a soft disc of flat bread, usually made with white flour. In Kyrgyzstan they sometimes add a little smooth yoghurt to give the bread a little density. I looked forward to nan at mealtimes, usually tearing up a warm loaf roughly the size of a 7" record to dip into whatever juices I found leaking from my Manti.

Sadly my photographs of both manti and nan didn't turn out in the gloom of the Batken evenings. I did manage to capture a plate of Plov though:

Plov is the Turkic cousin of what most people recognise as pilau, or pilaf (I'm happy to be corrected on this though, my sources are a bit mixed). A simple rice dish cooked in a stock. Pretty much every culture has something similar (risotto, paella, nasi goreng - even jollof rice in West Africa) to plov, which is regarded as something of a national dish. Generally made with Kyrgyz long grain rice, with various vegetables and fruits thrown in according to season. The dish in the photograph contained mutton and what was described to me as 'yellow carrot' - a new one on me. According to my translator, the best version of this dish is made in Osh. She is from Osh by the way.

Of course Kyrgyz cuisine stretches further than manti, nan, and plov. How about dried apricots as bright as jewels, or rice pudding with baked pumpkins for breakfast? I'll be lifting my expecations when I return in the summer.

Friday, February 20, 2009


The morning has passed by in a blur of cold meetings and chilly handshakes. The translator's voice a monotonous soundtrack to our huddled gatherings in freezing offices, hands in fingerless gloves wrapped around steaming bowls of sugarless black tea. At least it's easier to stay awake when when every sentence forms clouds of steam.

I'm starving. We're all starving, and we have another meeting in five minutes. This time it's a forester with a weather beaten face and a twinkle in his eye. We invite him to take tea and samsi with us, and his whole face lights up.

With a carrier bag full of hot, dense samsi procured from the roadside we head back to our makeshift headquarters in the hope of finding warmth.

Samsi are essentially a Central Asian cousin of the humble pasty. They are a favourite street snack in Kyrgyzstan and come with a variety of fillings - mutton, beef, cheese. The Samsi here in Batken are less refined than their urban equivalents. Expect tough old mutton and, most famously, a thumb sized nugget of fat in the middle "because the men like it that way".

I keep my scarf on to eat, but the grease leaking from the Samsi necessitates sleeves being rolled up. Hot fat shoots out with every bite, making it's way quickly down my wrist before finally congealing in the cold close to my elbow.

The forester speaks up, the translator translates:

"Do you like our samsi?"

I look at the oily puddle on my plate, and think of the hard ball of greasy mutton fat making it's way to my stomach.

"Yes" I say, and help myself to another.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tales from Kyrgyzstan

The Road to Osh

My back is aching as we drive the seven uncomfortable hours from Batken to Osh. The rust bucket flight out of Batken has been cancelled due to the dirty fog lurking too low across the runway. Now the only way back to Bishkek is to set off on a seven hour race skirting the southern side of the Ferghana valley and hope that flying conditions at Osh are favourable to the launching of aging riveted tubes of metal into the clouds.

Maybe it's a beautiful drive through the mountains. One day I may find out. This February Tuesday it seems bleak and unforgiving, walls of snow covered rock briefly intruding out of the steel grey fog. Tough looking men on horseback appear and disappear like shadows.

"Who is this?" my colleague asks, indicating the earphones she is sharing with me.

"Salif Keita. He's from Mali".

"It's great".

I nod and smile my agreement. My baladeur skips to a song called 'Madan', and our heads bob loosely to the beat as the car makes its descent down another broken mountain pass.

"It's a bit incongruous" she says quizzically, indicating the grey miasma of fog outside the car window.

"That's what I hoped".


5 Gerzen str, Bishkek
Tel: 29 33 01 / 68 02 70

There is no need to spend time and money on murder mystery weekends, or going abseiling. The secret to good professional team building is simple: a large plate of sausages and copious amounts of beer.

Bishkek's Steinbrau brasserie welcomes us with a bright and warming atmosphere. Coats off and hands rubbed we take in the Bavarian beer hall styling and the magnificent copper kettle brewery that forms the centrepiece of the barroom. Apparently a couple German fellas decided to set up shop here years ago, and revolutionised beer in Bishkek. It's certainly the place to be judging by the weekday crowds tucking into mugs a Steinbrau and huge plates of meat.

Several German style beers are brewed on the premises, and I opt for a light Helles style beer that reminds me a little of Lowenbrau. To be honest, I'm pretty ignorant of beers outside of the British Isles, so I'll be glad to return to Steinbrau in the summer time. I imagine a couple of afternoons spent sampling the beers in the garden outside will be educational.

They also make their own wurst, or 'firm German sausages' as they are described on the menu. Everyone loves a firm German sausage, and each of our team selects a different wurst,before haggling over who gets to swap with who. I try simple pork wurst, and do a swap for one of my neighbour's kabanosy. Both are classic sausages, tight in their skins and bursting with flavoursome fat, served up with sauerkraut, smooth mashed potato, and punchy, grown up mustard.

If sausages aren't enough, give the kitchen a couple of days notice and they will prepare you a whole suckling pig (or 'sucking pig' according to the menu).

A whole suckling pig! You know I'll be back.


The Cowboy Club

N says the Cowboy Club is the place to go after a good sausage feast. He says he doesn't like the modern style places in Bishkek as they are too clinical and pretentious. I suspect he has other motivations too, when we arrive to find that female guests outnumber males at least 8 to 1.

"What's with all the girls?" I ask N.

"I think they come to meet rich guys. The sons of politicians, wealthy Russians, that kind of thing".

They did seem to be enjoying themselves though, dancing and giggling enthusiastically in little groups. It all seemed quite innocent, more like wannabe WAGs on a night out than the pouting, jaded bar-girl culture I'm more accustomed to in the tropics.

It takes a few more Russian beers before I can be coaxed onto the dancefloor. The sexagenarian bleached-blonde DJ is spinning a mix of eighties western pop, new to the young ears of Bishkek, and bad Euro dance. She cues up "La Bamba". I'm not a sailor, or a captain, but at least this has some sort of groove I can shake self consciously to.

And then a pause, a stilted electronic stutter, and a familiar wave of five female voices:

"O lakka lamma le......."

My colleague points at the ceiling and mouths the words "Salif Keita?" with a grin. I nod, and loosen my limbs into the disco-remixed groove.

The dancing girls look confused. It's a bit incongruous.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


Back in Dakar, the tree in our backyard is bulging with oranges. Not the sort of oranges you'd want to eat, all pithy and thich, but the sort of oranges you might make into orange juice, if you could be bothered. Say you had Friday afternoon off work. And a four metre wooden curtain rail just lying around.

The technique is simple; stand on the roof of the flat and thwack away at the oranges with the wooden pole. Half an hour and 100 or so oranges later and you have this:

They're a bit grubby perhaps, but will do for juice. A few are even good enough for marmalade.

Much squeezing later, et voila: My first glass of juice made from Point E oranges.

Very satisfying. I can't wait for mango season.

There might be a brief hiatus in posting as I'm off on a short job to an unusual place where I'm not quite sure there will be much in the way of internet access. Will do my best to get one or two posts out. More to come from Dakar, plus three (!) new countries.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chinese Chain Reaction

That last post started a chain reaction in my head, leading to this post, which I hope celebrates some great Chinese food. It also clears up the last of my notes from Hong Kong.

(Yes, I keep notes)

Yi Jiang Nan, 33-35 Staunton Street, Central, Hong Kong.
The first and only time I've had the pleasure of drinking cold beer out of a chilled bowl was at Yi Jiang Nan. It didn't make me drink any slower mind you, such a receptacle has not yet been invented. Despite this, I also managed to find room to try a few delicious brews from the extensive tea menu.

The punters here were a mix of foreigners and small groups of Hong Kong Chinese, while the decor stretched to pleasant 'scenes of rural China', with no over the top jade monstrosities. All was calm, but I'm not sure if the atmosphere was spoiled or improved by the Irish "traveller" on the adjacent table loudly trying to impress a group of American "travellers" with his 15 words of Mandarin. I didn't realise quite how many ways there are to wordlessly communicate the words "this bloke is a tosser" without resorting to the internationally recognised hand signal.

For an upmarket Szechuan place, it's not a million miles away from what gets served up in the better places in UK, albeit less sweet, with more heat, and more of an emphasis on the danglier bits of the animal. The food here is surprisingly light, and a large bowl of minced chicken wrapped in lettuce disappears quickly. The real speciality though is the crispy roast mutton with garlic sauce,.As masculine as a plate of food can possibly be, this revels in the oft-ignored robustness of mutton and pairs it with dedicated finger sucking garlickery. That is how to distract me from my beer.

Yi jiang Nan made me want to explore more Szechuan cooking, not so easy in a world of "internationalised" Chinese restaurants. Recommendations welcome.

Dims Sums at Eighteen Brook Cantonese Cuisine, 8/F, Convention Plaza , 1 Harbour Road , Wan Chai , Hong Kong
Certain people may tell you that the best dim sum are served in grotty little street cafes with dead animals hanging in the window and the smell of drains outside. Only by sitting among the ordinary folk with their bad haircuts and cheap plimsoles will you get the real authentic dim sum deal, in between slurps of tepid green tea and bouts of diarrheal anxiety.

All a load of complete lopsided bollocks of course. Street markets and backstreet cafes have their place, but where dim sum are concerned, I prefer air-conditioning and glass fish tanks over greasy windows and the scent of sweaty arses anyday.

Eighteen Brook Cantonese Cuisine in Wan Chai fits the bill alright. On the 43568th floor of some sort of swanky office building/ghastly exhibition centre, you'll find glacial A/C, Bond-villain style fish tankery and robot-ninja waitering staff. Orders are taken via some sort of bingo card system and smoothly delivered to the kitchen. The atmosphere is that of zen-like calm and precision despite the 100+ diners, which can only mean that the kitchen is like some sort of shouty, sweltering temple of doom.

Green tea comes piping hot and poured to electron microscope precision by the robot waiters. Dim sums come as delicate as dandelions, none too sticky or too greasy. Roast pork puffs are as light as clouds with a core of hot, sweet, unctuous pork. Fresh shrimp dumplings practically leap across the table to do battle with baby scallops rolled in rice sheets. Even pan-fried turnip cake is better than it sounds.

Ho's Bakery, 44 Faulkner Street, Manchester
The taste of those roast pork puffs takes me back to one of my favourite lunchtime stops in Manchester - Ho's Bakery on Faulkner Street. Ho's has a little upstairs restaurant that does a cheap and filling lunch. But the real magic is in the downstairs bakery, which churns out the best sweet and savoury pastries in Manchester.

The roast pork crisp pastries are the the most fun you can have for less than a quid. It gives me a warm glow to reminisce about how lucky I was to be able to shop in Chinatown (try the Wing Fat supermarket) once a week, and pick up something small from Ho's bakery on the way home.

The best time to go is just before seven o'clock on a winter morning, before the city has really woken up. Bleak skies, damp streets and the occasional rattle of a tram leave you feeling as though you've stepped into an Anton Corbijn photoshoot. Dodging the delivery vans and streetsweepers you can duck into the bright, scented warmth of Ho's bakery and treat yourself to a soft, golden honey bun fresh from the oven.