Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Ludwig van offers up a culinary ode to joy

After a difficult year, a pre-Christmas trip to Vienna for some culture and shopping seemed like the perfect way to bring 2017 to a climax.

Food would, of course, feature and, in a perfect example of serendipity, just a few weeks before we flew out, a friend pointed out that Rick Stein’s recent series of food-oriented weekend breaks included the Austrian capital.

Thus, with the aid of iPlayer, we began the trip with culinary expectations that went beyond the iconic Wiener schnitzel and the apple strudel to include such delights as Viennese goulash and tafelspitz – the latter being but one among the many versions of boiled beef in Germanic cuisine.

In the event, our first meal – lunch on a grey, drizzly afternoon, in a café on the legendary Naschmarkt – saw The Other Half try the goulash, while I opted for sliced liver that came in a big, rich gravy and was utterly scrummy.

Goulash followed again during the trip, giving evidence (were it needed) that like so many other dishes, there are as many variations on the way it can be made as there are people who make it. Varying amounts of paprika and little or lots of onion are just two of the possible variables.

But just as we’d settled into such hearty, down-to-earth eating, The Other Half spotted an interesting-looking establishment not far from our hotel.

Ludwig van, we were to learn, only opened its doors in January this year, but it’s already essential to book.

Presumably, our looking genuinely upset at there being no tables available, our instantly asking if we could make a reservation for the following evening (and trying this in German) produced sympathy – and with amazing good fortune, a table in the bar area.

It’s a snug space in an old, old building, with dark wood everywhere and a feeling of being an inn.

Host Oliver Jauk found us a corner and guided us through the menu.

Such was the briefness of what was listed – with so much that tempted – that we both decided to go down the route of the tasting menu.

After gorgeous bread, with the best butter I’ve ever tasted and wafer thin slices of a sausage from a 10-year-old “calf” that were packed with flavor but still tender, our taste buds were further tickled by a tiny dish of kimchee-style vegetables, accompanied by a local wine infused with herbs.

The first of our ‘proper’ courses was salsify, with butternut, parsley and hazelnut. Lovely tastes – the parsley, for instance, was a perfect illustration of being so much more than a garnish, while fresh tomato shot through a light-as-silk sauce.

The bar was set high.

Next up was trout with cauliflower, grapefruit and chervil.

Standards maintained.

Then a dish of oatmeal ‘risotto’, with chanterelle mushrooms, that called up the autumn forest as though by sourcery rather than saucery.

Pike-perch (zander) from Lake Neusiedl followed, perched atop red cabbage, followed by a noisette of calf, with a rich gravy and spinach leaves that burst with flavour.

Elvis van
To finish, we were served ‘Elvis van’ – a dessert that combined banana, a peanut mousse and bacon wafers and somehow worked.

This was simply fabulous food: rich, yet light, with great textures and astounding flavour. Head chef Walter Leidenfrost and sous chef Julia Pimingstorfer are reinventing traditional Austrian cuisine in a thrilling way.

Ludwig van’s ethos means that drinks are sourced from smaller producers who might well be less-known producers and as locally as possible. We enjoyed a variety of white wines – all of which were exemplary, but which displayed an astonishing variety of tastes.

At the end, with most other diners having finished and left, Oliver offered us a choice of schnapps from unlabelled bottles.

We both chose one flavoured with pine: it was a smooth delight – and continued that underlying sense of the forest.

Ludwig van is far from cheap – but it was worth every cent. This place is going to win awards and I wouldn’t hesitate to dine there again – though I’d certainly book well in advance!

Find out more at www.ludwigvan.wien. For information and booking, contact info@ludwigvan.wien.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Salt Room – winning deserved recognition

Pig's head
For the last couple of years, a trip to Brighton has meant one non-working thing: a visit to The Salt Room for a top-class meal.

Many eateries could learn a great deal from this place – menus that change regularly to reflect the alchemical fusion of season and place are an unfailing incentive to revisit.

After arriving in time to watch a stunning sunset that saw the sky to the west slashed with red and the magical sight of a murmuration of starlings fluidly circling over the silhouetted skeleton of the West Pier, it was time to get ready for dinner.

There are occasions when I wonder when, why or how Britain lost its understanding of seasonality in food.

We have the ridiculousness of asparagus and strawberries all year round, and people have simply come to expect that, apparently little noticing what that means for actual taste.

In October, The Salt Room was named as the UK winner in the 2017 Seafood Restaurant of the Year competition, organized by Seafish and The Caterer.

The competition, in its third year, was launched to highlight creative use of seafood and businesses’ knowledge of often under-used species in all types of restaurants.

Such recognition could hardly be more deserved.

A number of times when visiting, I’ve plumped for a mackerel dish to start – a fish that is so often ignored, but is always impeccably fresh here and cooked superbly, with innovative accompaniments.

However, this time I began with pig’s head, salt-baked parsnip, plum and miso.

The pork was soft and flaky, sitting atop a fat slice of parsnip that had just enough bite. Half a plum added a hint of tartness and firmer texture, while plum purée continued the theme. The miso was a little thread of flavor below.

Tiny pieces of nut on the side had somehow been given a light texture that made them a divine nut popcorn. Simply gorgeous and absolutely full of warm autumnal flavours.

This was accompanied by a glass of Tandem Ars Nova from Spain – a combination of Tempranillo, Cabernet, Merlot – which continued the earthy themes.

Next up was a superb piece of hake, with cauliflower presented in a number of ways, with chanterelles and lightly pickled chestnuts – a dish that illustrates perfectly why The Salt Room picked up that award.

A blackberry delight
It was accompanied by a very pleasant Sancerre, Domaine de la Rossignole.

For dessert, a blackberry meringue ball that opened to reveal a quenelle of crème fraîche, with fresh blackberries, lemon curd and lemon thyme.

This was positively a symphony of richness, tartness and texture – incredible flavours. And yet again, totally in keeping with the season.

The Salt Room is not cheap – but you get what you pay for and given that, just a few doors down the road, a plate of frozen scampi, frozen chips and mushy peas with a soft drink costs over £12, real quality is bound to cost more.

Very helpfully, they have an excellent range of wines that are available by the glass.

So there you have it: once again, The Salt Rooms illustrates the joy of seasonal food, locally sourced and cooked flawlessly. That is why it has been named the top fish restaurant in the UK. And why I think it is only a matter of time before it wins yet more plaudits.

If you’re in Brighton do visit – but booking is essential.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Follies is simply a bittersweet masterpiece

In the last 30 years, London’s West End has seen all too many musical follies and, in a previous life as a regular theatre reviewer, I’ve had the misfortune to see a few – Children of Eden and the execrable Robin, Prince of Sherwood spring all-too-rapidly to mind.

But 29 years ago, as a birthday present, I took my mother to the Shaftsbury Theatre to see the star-studded first London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.

Diana Rigg, Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, Eartha Kitt, Lynda Baron, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson – I said it was a glittering array of talent.

This introduction to Sondheim catapulted him into my pantheon of household gods, where he has remained ever since.

In the years since, A Little Night Music introduced The Other Half to his work – and to the idea that the musical theatre might not be totally naff after all.

I’ve had the fortune to catch a rare production of Frogs in a south London public baths and seen Imelda Staunton in the West End production of Into the Woods. There was the utterly magnificent National Theatre production of Sweeney Todd as a Cottesloe chamber opera, with McKenzie once more and Alun Armstrong, and Staunton in the recent Gypsy.

But as the clock ticked down to my visit to the National Theatre’s revival of Follies, it is hard to describe the excitement that was mixed with slight trepidation at the fear that it might prove a disappointment.

Pared back to the original one-act version and with the overly optimistic 1987 ending ditched, it is better than ever.

James Goldman’s book has often been criticised as lacking much of a story. He continued revising it until his death and it’s noted that, of the relatively limited number of productions that there have been, no two are the same. For that 1987 London production, for instance, Sondheim wrote two replacement songs on the basis of the casting – Diana Rigg not being a dancer was the reason behind one of these.

Certainly there’s little story, but within the context of this work, that actually helps.

The hook on which Follies hangs is a party that is being thrown in a decrepit old Broadway theatre that’s about to be demolished. In the interwar years, it had played host to the Weismann Follies (based on the Ziegfeld Follies) and the guests on this final night are mainly former showgirls.

The two central former chorines, Sally and Phyllis, had been good friends, but with WWII they had drifted apart, marrying Buddy and Ben respectively – friends who had courted them when they were on stage.

But neither couple is happy, with Sally having spent years nursing a flame for Ben that threatens to consume her.

At the theatre once more, as the ghosts of their young selves mill around them, the tensions come to a head.

So, that’s the ‘plot’. In which case, how does the show as a whole  overcome such a slender storyline to be such a masterpiece?

Simply because, in removing any distraction of a more complex plot, it becomes a meditation on age, regret, missed opportunities, lost dreams, middle-aged cynicism and more.

And this is also why we’re drawn to the characters and why Follies demands such a top-notch cast.

Here, Dominic Cooke has given each present-day character a ghost – not just the central two couples – and it gives greater emphasis to this sense of being haunted by our pasts.

But of course the other thing that makes this such a masterpiece is the music. There are essentially two scores: the first features the numbers Sondheim wrote for the women to sing, reprising their glory days.

They are fabulous pastiches of various composers’ styles – pastiche, but never, ever parody – and Sondheim’s genius shines through in both music and lyrics. There are several showstoppers here.

Stella’s Who’s That Woman, with most of the other women, is one. Hattie’s Broadway Baby another and, of course, Carlotta’s I’m Still Here, given further poignancy in this production as the character starts singing it to various other party guests, almost as amusing anecdote, before they leave her and she is left to finish it alone, more brittle than ever.

But for me, the goosebumps really come as the elderly Heidi sings her Leharesque old hit, One More Kiss. Her voice quakes, but is then joined to the crystal clear coloratura of her younger self. It’s enough to make the eyes prick even thinking about it.

The second score is the book songs – classic Sondheim numbers such as Losing My Mind.

As the show moves to it’s finale, the differences between these two scores blur a little.

Follies, quite simply, leaves most other musical theatre mired in Earthbound mud as it soars above.

Cooke’s direction is superb, as is Vicki Mortimer’s design.

The cast is flawless. Staunton as Sally does, as always these days, hit the heights. But this is no solo piece. Janie Dee is a wonderfully acerbic Phyllis, Philip Quast is excellent as a man realising that his life is utterly lacking in any depth and Peter Forbes is every bit his equal as the confused and sad Buddy.

Alex Young, Zizi Strallen, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig all deserve praise as their respective ghosts.

It seems almost churlish not simply to reel off the rest of the cast. But particular standouts from the rest of what is, in so many ways, an ensemble, include Di Botcher as Hattie, Tracie Bennett as Carlotta and Dawn Hope as Stella.

And absolutely not forgetting operatic soprano Josephine Barstow – who has worked with the likes of Herbert von Karajan – as Heidi, with Alison Langer as her younger self.

The orchestra, under Nigel Lilley, is also excellent.

And if you want one final indicator of just how good this is – I’ve managed to get tickets to see it once again.

If you can’t make it to the theatre – it’s on until 3 January – then there is a live cinema screening next week, on 16 November; find your nearest venue here. I simply cannot recommend this enough.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Music – and musicianship – to take the breath away

Veronika Eberle
Every so often, a great work of art comes up for sale and people gasp when it goes for a huge sum – the sort of sum that is pretty unimaginable for most of us.

It’s fair to say that Stradivarius instruments are works of art – and they go for millions too, but while I’ve seen plenty of works of art that have been bought for a great deal of money or are insured for incredible amounts, I have not heard a Strad being played – well, not in the flesh, that is.

Or not until Thursday night, that is.

Back at the Barbican for our first concert since 1 June, when we left the Barbican after being delighted by the London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink and Mitsuko Uchida, playing Beethoven and Bruckner, this was for Haitink conducting the LSAO once more.

In this case, we started with Three Studies from Couperin by Thomas Adès (2006). The Other Half had not heard any of the British composer’s music before, while I’d not heard only a limited amount: both of us were fascinated.

Baroque composer Couperin was particularly fond of repetition and Adès’s adaptations are striking in their successful fusing of the old with the new and how they retain a sense of the Baroque while also bringing to mind something as modern and minimalistic as John Adams’s Shaker Loops.

Beautifully played and conducted, as a result, The Other Half uploaded my only recording of an Adès work to his digital collection – and I ordered copies of an anthology of his works, plus the opera, The Tempest.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor and out came German violinist Veronica Eberle – with that violin, the ‘Dragonetti’, made in 1700 at the start of the ‘Golden Age’ of Stradivarius. She plays it courtesy of the Nippon Music Foundation, which owns a number of great instruments and ‘loans’ them out to musicians.

But make no bones about it – the greatest violin in the world cannot make a mediocre player sound great: Eberle is exceptional and makes it sing.

Oh, my goodness. Almost from the beginning, I was leaning forward – drawn to the utterly sublime playing. At times, she almost dances while playing; like other truly great musicians, she makes the music come alive and rescues it from any sense of polite drawing rooms.

My view of Mendelssohn has been marred by ‘Here Comes the Bride’ – this rescued it.

At the end, it was like an orgasm: I burst into tears while bursting into applause. A sublime sound – like a soaring bird, on occasions: the clarity of the notes was simply other-worldly. This is why puritans of any stripe distrust (at best) music – because the experience of it can be like sex and, of course, like religious ecstasy.

After the interval, we returned for Brahms’s Symphony No2 in D major, a light piece that beautifully illustrates the composer’s link to Beethoven.

It’s not difficult to see why programmes work in such a manner, but it’s a shame that the Mendelssohn and Eberle were not the climax to the evening.

If June reminded me of just how good live music can be – this took it new heights. Utter bliss – and serious food for the spirit.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Time to care

Over on Facebook, someone started a very serious and sensible discussion about integration of health and social care services. Because of family events in the last six months, I now have personal experience of some of the issues, so replied at length.

But it struck me that what I have observed might help to inform a wider audience of some of the issues – a post here didn’t sound like a waste of time.

What follows is essentially my comments on the issue of integration of these services – based on my personal experience of the last six months. I think it’s clear why I have become drawn into the day-to-day reality of the situation.

This is most certainly not about condemning staff working in really difficult situations. Nor is about condemning any specific council or region, so I am not specifying those.

Indeed, I recommend reading the Ethical Care Charter – a document from trade union UNISON, which addresses a lot of what I have observed in the last half a year. Disclaimer – these days, I work for UNISON, but was not involved,ved in putting this document together, although I have reported since on councils signing up to it.

In the last six months, Ive become a carer (one of several, in effect) for my father. I have power of attorney for his financial affairs (but not health) and increasingly – albeit erratically – adult social services in his area talk to me, since while my father is not ga-ga, he is increasingly divorced from a sort of gritty reality and certainly very forgetful.

The Start team from social services looked after him to begin with. Hed had a fall and a heart attack at the beginning of April, was released from hospital almost a month later and became a widower five days after that.

However, at the time, he said he had no ‘personal care’ needs – he could get himself up in the morning, dress etc and do the reverse in the evening. This impacted on what he was considered to need, within the parameters of some pretty strict rules that are based on funding.

I was asked (told) by adult social services to get a toaster so he could make his own breakfast. He’ll make himself toast occasionally, but it’s not guaranteed. I have attempted a form of bribery to get him to use it – the sort where you tell him that he can toast his own crumpets and slather as much butter on them as he wants, without my mother being censorious about him having “butter with bread”.

In the summer, social services decided he didn’t need them: he could have meals on wheels for lunch (with a sarnie in a bag delivered for his tea) and have visits from district nurses bookending the days to ensure he took his medication.

In the meantime, he has been going deaf, due to wax build up. The carers cannot apply unprescribed ear drops. The doctor hasn’t prescribed any. He had a GP visit him at home a couple of weeks ago – but not to do his ears, even though the GP themselves couldn’t get entry to the house because my dad can’t hear the doorbell at present. The GP had to ring someone to get the safe key code. Yet my father has now been ‘referred’ to some other ‘community practice’(?) to do his ears.

The district nurses couldn’t do that, and indeed, complained to an Age UK carer that he pays for, that his is not the sort of case to justify their £150-a-visit cost.

I had his head case worker on the phone a week or so ago saying that the district nurses had noticed that he is dehydrated. He doesn’t drink enough. Since then, she’s put two carers a day back on – and the district nurses have now disappeared into the mists of memory.

This is a classic case of people being bounced between budgets – between the NHS (district nurses) and local government (carers).

She told me the other day that she is confused by my father. She doesn’t want him to be so dependent, yet apparently cannot comprehend why he won’t get himself a drink.

Frankly, he’s not even eating much more than his breakfast (sometimes) and his meals on wheels lunch at present. I arrived at 10am on Tuesday: he hadn’t even had a drink, let alone anything else, since lunch on Monday. His first carer (who is wonderful) arrived just as I was making him tea and toast.

But I have realised that, for him, drinking is inherently social. Tea is a drink to share over a chat with someone. In the past (he’s a retired clergyman), he’d visit the local Catholic priest where they’d gossip over whisky; he was no stranger to the local pub (that was a down-to-earth social life away from the church); he spent his days in pastoral visiting (much of that to elderly women who would make him a cuppa or pour a cream sherry into a delicate little glass).

When I ask him if he wants a cuppa, his first response is to ask back if I’ll have one too.

The clues are there.


What carers need to really do their jobs, is time: time to chat, time for a cuppa. One of the biggest problems that the elderly face is loneliness. This is no secret: this isn’t rocket science.

They also need a properly-funded NHS that doesn’t palm off something like ear syringing so that a vulnerable, frail person cannot even hear the fire alarm for weeks.

They also do not need the piss-poor excuse that passes for tea from my Dad’s meals on wheels service. Every time I go, I find uneaten sandwiches (which we pay for, incidentally – its not free) in the fridge. And I cannot blame him – they look awful. Utterly unappetising.

Just as we feed hospital patients dross, because we have forgotten the connection between health, recovery etc and proper food (or have conveniently decided to forget it for the sake of cost) the elderly don’t lose their taste buds – but they do need to have them tickled.

On Tuesday, I heard a groan as he looked inside the paper bag that contained his ‘tea’. It was a meat paste sandwich – so unappetising that it would make supermarkets’ own-brand sarnies look like haute cuisine. I nipped back to the shops and bought a few things – ready-to-eat Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, cream cakes (I can guarantee those will never be left to moulder) and Cornish clotted cream and Golden Syrup.

Back in the house, I made ‘thunder and lightening’. It’s an old Cornish treat that I remember my (non-Cornish) mother making when anyone sent us a tub of clotted cream from the south west.

Take a couple of slices of plain white bread. Butter both. Add a sheen of syrup to one side and then spread clotted cream on top of that. Put the other slice of bread atop. Cut as needed. Eat.

My (Cornish) father didn’t remember having it before, but at the first taste, his face lit up. I have passed on the recipe to his Age UK carer, at his request.

Now, you can tell me ’til the cows come home that this is not ‘healthy’ – but between ‘Dad won’t eat’ and ‘Dad will eat’, which do you think is healthier?

So, in short: proper funding for all. Time is a serious time: time for carers to care, with proper recognition that actually, company is a genuine health issue for the elderly.

I can most certainly see advantages in services being linked – but it is far from the major problem that social care faces.

Why have we, as a society, apparently stopped seeing the bleedin obvious?