It’s official: London’s best pizza is a teeny tiny establishment hidden away in the ’burbs – and I helped bring it to the masses.
To help find London’s best pizza, I worked my way through Naples’ finest export for six days in a row, as part of a team of reviewers eating their way across the city. I don’t know about the other participants, but my behind still resembles an enthusiastic pizzaiolo’s mound of dough as a result of my endeavours. But my greed was all for the greater good, so I consider my new freeform posterior an act of physical altruism.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve taken on a pizza-related challenge. When I was an angular-limbed, stick-thin 12-year-old, I beat a grown man in a pizza-eating contest. (Come to think of it, he could well have been grooming me for future gluttony, though it all seemed quite innocent at the time.)
I was at his daughter’s birthday party and we were going down the All You Can Eat route at one of those places that serve pizzas whose deep-fried bases can double as yoga mats. He asked me which of us – him or I – could eat the most slices, and I answered truthfully. He raised an eyebrow and upped the stakes by telling me he’d give me a fiver if I did manage to beat him. Whereupon I coolly proceeded to match him slice for slice…
…Thirteen slices later, I ordered a cheeky dessert while my opponent collapsed face-down on the table, banging his hand on it repeatedly to signify surrender. I sauntered out, crisp fiver in hand; he staggered home a changed – and more cautious – man. It has been ever thus.
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I used to have a problem with the bottle, but I’ve been dry for years. In fact, I haven’t drunk a drop of milk since 1991.
As with most traumas, this all goes back to my childhood. At infant school, we had two choices: bring fruit juice from home to drink during our morning break or suffer one of the third-pint bottles of milk that the school provided. Always a sucker for a freebie, my mother flat-out refused to provide me with the fruity get-out-of-jail-free card I begged her for. Instead, I was doomed to drink school milk.
The memory of that milk clings to me like charred remains stick to a burnt saucepan. I remember seeing the crates of bottles sat on the porch of the school as I arrived in the morning and the certainty that when their contents were served at 10.30 they would be sun-warmed and faintly soured. I remember piercing the heavy foil lid with the cobalt blue, rigid, vermicelli-like straw and trying to force the liquid up through it. And I still gag when I remember the taste.
Whenever I tried to leave any of the vile cow juice in the bottle, or attempted to mount a lonely protest, a no-nonsense teacher would promptly quash my resolve and force me to drink up. I soon learned that the more I toyed with the milk, blowing bubbles in it and shaking it around while the others sucked it up, the less appetising it became. And the longer that milk stayed in the bottle, the warmer and smellier it got.
Why is it that whenever I offer anything up for human consumption I have to voice a loud disclaimer before people tuck in? Am I alone in this self-sabotage? I know I can’t be, because I learnt this bad behaviour from my mum, whose verbal apéritif to anything she’s prepared is flavoured with tremulous uncertainty. I in turn have become a similar kind of Hugh Grant figure in the kitchen, babbling self-justification and wobbling like jelly as soon as I have to share my creations.
Even when I invite unsuspecting friends in for a simple cuppa, I can’t seem to get by without exclaiming in surprise at the lack of clean mugs instead of giving the offending crockery a surreptitious cosmetic rinse, or voicing my misgivings over how long we’ve had that bottle of milk instead of keeping schtum. And heaven help me if I’ve run out of biscuits to offer round.
Worse still, when I bring homemade goodies into work, my colleagues have to endure the long and tedious back story that comes with them. Before tucking in, they must listen patiently to my concerns over whether I used the right type of cream cheese for the frosting on those muffins, whether that cake could have done with an extra five minutes in the oven, and whether we’ll notice that I forgot to add the sugar to that tart. Sometimes I’ll announce that I’ve brought in a treat, then dash everybody’s enthusiasm by adding that I don’t think it will be very nice, leaving my guinea pigs wondering in exasperation why I bothered in the first place. Happily, advertising wasn’t my career of choice, though God knows applying a little brand management to my products wouldn’t do any harm.
Some people have the chutzpah to present their food without untoward comment, sensibly leaving the recipients to judge the results for themselves. These people also have the quiet cunning that turns tragedy into opportunity – burnt brownies are deftly trimmed of their offending edges and dusted with sugar, sunken cakes are levelled off and elaborately iced, and dry sponges are swiftly doused in booze, plunged into softly whipped cream, sprinkled with nuts and berries and transformed into a decadent dessert, with no one any the wiser.
It’s a simple concept, yet so difficult for transparency-crazed neurotics like me to follow in practice. For example, if you come for dinner at mine we won’t say grace. Instead, before every meal I’ll bow my head and religiously repeat the words, ‘Here it is, I’m not sure if it’s OK or not. If you don’t like any of it, just leave it, I won’t be offended’ – the better to dampen any appetites that have been prematurely whetted.
Posted in daily bread
Tagged aperitif, biscuits, brownies, cake, cream, frosting, Hugh Grant, jelly, muffins, sugar, tart, tea
We’ve just spent the Easter weekend in Prague, and what an unexpectedly delectable trip it turned out to be. Even the humdrum hotel breakfast had dense bread rife with pumpkin seeds (bread that went some way to excusing the square sheets of yellow rubber, glistening pink ham and dubious-looking pâté laid out for us to put on it).
I’d been told that eating out in Prague is tricky – any place on a main road is to be avoided, bills need to combed acutely for mysterious additions and special tourist prices sometimes apply. Our Czech friends gave it to us straight: if they don’t smile at you as you enter, turn around and walk back out. Luckily, they also gave us a list of fail-safe places to try.
First up was a museum café, Klub Arkitektu. I was expecting a National Trust-style clattering canteen and imagined us in a queue holding wet trays, waiting for ladles of hot food, then choosing from a stodgy selection of solid-looking cakes before reaching the till. (You never know how close others’ version of ‘a nice meal’ is to your own unless you’ve eaten out with them, and in the case of these friends, we hadn’t.) However, I was proved decidedly wrong when we walked into a trendily furnished, dimly lit, low-ceilinged stone cavern and were served two hearty courses each for ₤16 all-in: a pungent cream of garlic soup with smoked cheese on toast and honey and almond cake for me, a spicy and tender beef goulash with (the first of many helpings of) dumplings, then apple strüdel for my date.
Posted in gluttony, restaurants
Tagged beef goulash, bread, breakfast, cake, duck, dumplings, garlic soup, lamb, Nutella, Prague, salad, sauerkraut, smoked cheese, strudel, sugar