Tag: food and travel

Story of the week: A balti break in Birmingham


* Image from meetup.com

The word means ‘bucket’ and reflects the style of cooking.

It’s one of Birmingham’s proudest inventions and, recently, the inspiration for new culinary tours that celebrate the city’s best-loved dish.

It is the Balti and, in time for British Food Fortnight, I’m in Birmingham on a blustery day to see the city through the prism of its Balti heritage.

For the first leg of my Balti Break, I join Tabriz ‘Tabs’ Hussain of the Asian Balti Association for a tour of Birmingham’s so-called Balti Triangle, more precisely three streets in the city’s Sparkbrook district, home to around 40 Balti restaurants and communities of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Yemeni families.

“The Balti was invented here around 1980, adapting a Pakistani recipe for the Western palette,” explains Tabs, as we head down Ladypool Road, stopping to admire exotic fruit and vegetables for sale outside the Raja Brothers store.

“It has helped bring prosperity to a previously deprived area.”

“Tourists never came here until a few years ago,” he adds. “Now the restaurants are packed with visitors to Birmingham,” he explains, highlighting some of the unfamiliar vegetables used in traditional Balti recipes.

Down the road at the Lahore Sweat Centre, we marvel at the vibrant rows of brightly coloured sweats, including chum chum made from semolina and milk, and coconut barfi.

The owners hands us samples and we relish the sugar hit.

The tour complete, we then stroll over to the Royal Naim restaurant on Stratford Road for the final ingredient in our Balti experience: dinner.

An informal, no-frills eatery, we sit at glass-topped tables with paintings of Kashmir adorning the walls.

As I tuck into my chicken and aubergine Balti, using the naan bread to scoop up morsels of chicken, co-diner Andy Munro, author of the Essential Street Balti Guide, explains his rationale behind the tours.

“It’s about unlocking the secrets of the area to foster cultural understanding via its cuisine,” explains Andy, who claims to have eaten over 2,000 Baltis and never once had a bad stomach.

Most of all, it’s about celebrating great flavours.

“A Balti is cooked in five minutes over a high flame and served in the same flat-bottomed wok to preserve the flavour of the spices,” grins Andy, dipping his naan hungrily.

“It’s cleaner and healthier than a typical curry – and it’s proudly Brummie.”

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This story first appeared in The Weekend FT in 2008. Liked this? Try also Raising a glass to British Food Fortnight in Cumbria.

Just back: Copenhagen cooking with Kids


Copenhagen really gets food this days.

What with Noma and all that foraging, not to mention all those Michelin stars.

But there’s a higher purpose beyond the hyperbole. A slew of initiatives from local chefs, NGOs and government agencies are helping Danes to educate their kids about food, tackling social issues in the process.

That’s why Olivia [above left], Maya [above right] and myself are just back from a long weekend in Copenhagen.

It wasn’t all hotdogs and fairground rides at Tivoli. We also rolled up our sleeves and joined a cookery class at Meyer’s Madhus, the cooking school founder Claus Meyer, a leading light in the New Nordic Kitchen movement.

The full article will appear in Family Traveller magazine in July to preview child-freindly events at the Copenhagen Cooking Festival in August.

But here’s a sneak preview:

Back in the kitchen, things were hotting up. With 30 minutes to complete the two-course meal, Maya was busily adding lemon juice to the simmering rhubarb while Olivia helped head chef Matte to thicken the sauce for the chicken.

Across the kitchen, 12-year-old Tobias, a veteran of Meyer Madhus’ cookery classes, was chastising his team of three teenage boys for burning the butter with a fiery flourish worthy of the young Marco Pierre White.

“Yes, I’d like to be a chef,” he tells me, taking a temper-cooling breather on the terrace outside. “I love to cook and I love to eat.”

But, just like a scene from the kitchen at Noma, the service comes together at the last moment and we all sit down to eat around a large, communal table and toast our success with glasses of organic juice.

Plus you can find a set of images from the trip at my Flickr page.

And watch a video of the cookery class for kids at Meyer’s Madhus in Copenhagen on Vimeo:

Liked this? Try also The Holy Grail of Hotdogs in Copenhagen.

What do you think of this story? Post your comments below.


Visit Copenhagen

Meyers Madhus

Copenhagen Cooking 

Family Traveller

Story of the week: Going in search of the perfect chips in Antwerp, Flanders


It’s a wintry night in Antwerp as I arrive off a late flight with a growling stomach.

Wandering the cobblestone streets of the old town in search of a snack, my eye is drawn to the Art Deco-style sign for Frituur No 1 [pictured above], a small fast-food restaurant just off one of the main squares, Grote Markt.

The aesthetics may be simple and the cutlery plastic, but my first taste of genuine Belgian fries comes as a revelation.

A glorious juxtaposition of crispy exterior and a buttery-soft inside, the fried potato strips are hearty, comforting and deliciously tangy, served with a dizzying array of dipping sauces. I am instantly hooked.

Local institution

While the British may be savouring a fish-and-chip supper to mark the forthcoming National Chip Week in the UK, the Belgians celebrate their fries, or ‘frieten’ in Flemish, the entire year round.

The Dutch-speaking Flanders region of northern Belgium is home to the very finest frituur, a simple, informal eatery and a Belgian institution, where master friars prepare superior fries and serve them in a paper cone.

The best fries are prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness.

Antwerp alone boasts over 200 frituurs and they are seen as a place where people from walks of life can come together amongst Formica tables and plastic sauce dispensers to chew the fat.

Every town in Belgium has a frituur and many Belgians will still eat a take-away supper from the frituur at least once a week, with Thursday night and Sunday lunchtimes the most popular times to visit.

Belgium may be divided along linguistic and political divides, but all people are equal when it comes to standing in line at their local frituur.

Historical context 

Paul Ilegems, an art historian, who has devoted 25 years of his life to collecting images of the fried potato throughout history, explains:

“As a country with no obvious symbols of nationalism, the humble and improvised frituur is our only symbol. It reflects the ad-hoc nature of the Belgian personality, our indifference to aesthetics.”

We meet in his dark Antwerp study, where old paintings are stacked against the wall and a selection of dusty books scattered across the coffee table.

“There were already street kiosks selling fries as food for the poor when Belgium was founded in 1820. But all the kiosks (frietkot) have since been replaced by small cafes (frituur),” he explains, handing me copies of his books to browse, amongst them Frietgeheimen (Secrets of the Fries) and Het Volkomen Frietboek (The Complete Fries Book).

He adds: “Fries are originally Belgian with the term ‘French fries’ a corruption of the word.”

“The American slang term ‘to French’, meaning to cut into thin strips, was only brought to Europe by American troops after World War I.”

Master fryer

To learn the secret of cooking the perfect Belgian fries, I head for De Twee Vuistjes (The Two Fists), a name whispered in reverential, hushed tones amongst Antwerp’s chip-eating cognoscenti.

Here, against the garish backdrop of posters advertising such exotic delights as the berepoot, a meat kebab, vlampijpen, a spicy beef sausage resembling a small dumb bell and bitterballen, meat-filled fried balls, Kosovo-born Uka Gashi is busy heating the oil for the first batch of chips of the day.

The frying process hinges, he insists, on the fact that the fries are cooked twice, the first time for eight minutes at 130 degrees C, then for four minutes at 160 degrees C. He says:

“When the fries are singing, that is when the oil is sizzling, the fries are ready.” IMG_0117

After a second dip in the hot oil, Uka sets me loose on the fries for the final, crucial stage: tossing.

Under his watchful eye, I flip the fries in a stainless-steel cullender to drain off the excess fat and leave a perfect batch of crispy fries ready to be devoured.

They are accompanied by a meaty snack and dipped into one of 15 available sauces, ranging from mayonnaise to tartar via a selection of Belgian pickles.

Local sites

After a snack lunch of fries and bitterballen with Uka, my tour of Antwerp’s frites-frying hotspots continues with a visit to Frietkot Max on Groenplaats.

It’s the oldest frituur in town, dating from 1842.

Here the tiny, upstairs dining room is devoted to artworks celebrating the history of fries with the current exhibition featuring a cheeky update of Antwerp-born Rubens’ 1597 painting of Adam and Eve.

The modern-day take on the Baroque painting features Adam seeking to tempt Eve with a cone-shaped bag of chips.

The last stop is Hauta Frituur on in the fashionable Het Zuid district. A new breed of frituur, this eatery aims for a higher-end clientele with Arne Jacobsen-style chairs, funky plastic tables and modernist artworks on the walls.

“We have a culture of uniformity with globalisation sweeping across Europe, hence I love the frituur for its aesthetics and its sense of individual freedom,” says Paul Ilegems, as we sit with cones of piping-hot fries in a neighbourhood frituur, watching the world go by.

“But then, I guess,” he smiles, “I’m just a fries-loving free thinker.”

National Chip Week runs February 16-22 in the UK.

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This article was first published in the Weekend FT in January 2008.

Liked this? Try also Antwerp: opening of the Red Star Line Museum.

Story of the week: Following the Dutch cheese trail


* We’re back. Back-end technical issues kept us offline for a few weeks but Story of the Week returns today.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

Think cheese. You probably think of artisan producers in France or the Alpine-pasture produce of Switzerland – but Holland?

All those plastic-wrapped blocks of supermarket Edam are hardly going to whet your appetite. Yet a Dutch producer is currently the world’s big cheese.

Vermeer, a Gouda cheese produced by the company FrieslandCampina, took the top prize at the last World Championship Cheese Contest in America (the next contest is 2014).

“Sadly, much of our exported cheese is young and lacking in flavour,” says leading Dutch cheesemaker Henri Willig, himself a former winner of the contest for his Polder Gold goats cheese.

“Yet proper Dutch cheese has a unique flavour given the soil, the grass the Fresian cows feed on, and the milk they produce. It is creamy with a hint of sourness.”

 Cheese trail

There are currently some 150 cheesemakers along Holland’s burgeoning cheese trail, ranging from big companies like Willig and Cono to small-scale artisan producers.

Much like travelling the route des grands crus in French wine country, you can drop in and visit the farm (it’s good form to buy some produce to take home). Larger producers offer tours and gift shops for cheesy souvenirs.

I’ve come to the rural heartland of North Holland, a region traditionally associated with dairy, sheep and flower farming, to follow the trail.

During a self-drive weekend of bucolic villages, slow-paced life and a chance to consume my own body weight in cheese, I want to explore the rural traditions that are the cornerstone of cheese making in Holland.

Driving north from Amsterdam, the countryside opens up to reveal a steam-ironed landscape of grazing pasture, demarcated by slow-flowing dikes and polders, land beneath sea level pumped dry of water by windmills.

Monks invented the pumping technique and farmers developed it for agriculture from the 16th century. Colourful village festivals, based around the agricultural calendar, developed soon after and, by the time Vermeer painted The Milkmaid in 1658, many towns across northern Holland had their very own cheese market.

My first stop is the city of Edam, home to a historic cheese-weighing hall.

William of Orange first granted Edam the right to trade cheese in 1576 and the town still hosts a cheese market during summer months, although these days it’s more about show than trade.

Cheese shops around town [pictured above] stock examples of the three traditional Dutch varieties of cheese, namely Edam, Gouda and cumin-spiced Leiden. Local restaurants also support the cheese-chomping mania with my dinner that night featuring a Messenklever Edam and a Bergens Blonde, all served with fig compote.

The next day I head to Beemster, the oldest polder in northern Holland, dating from 1612. The reclaimed region, parceled out in a rectangular grid and dotted with farms and merchants’ stately mansions, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Farming Museum highlights the importance of traditional technology in man’s battle with the water to maintain the quality the diary-farming pasture, using dykes and windmills to control the water level.

Pilgrimage site 

The Holy Grail for the cheese cognoscenti, however, remains the town of Alkmaar, where Waagplein, the central square, has hosted Holland’s most important cheese market for centuries.

Alkmaar had a weighing house for cheese as early as 1365. On a single day in 1917, some 365,000kg of cheese were sold at Alkmaar with trade lasting into the early hours of the morning. The market survives only on Fridays between March and September these days, combining an element of visitor-drawing theatre with genuine trade.

The members of the Cheese Carrier’s Guild, dressed in starched-white uniforms and sporting jaunty straw boaters with rival colour sashes, compete to showcase their cheese-lifting skills.

Responsible for weighing and transporting the cheese, they run through the crowd with handcarts, drawing whoops form the crowd as they manhandle a huge round-shaped Edam in an elaborate show of strength.

Around the perimeter of the square, meanwhile, pairs of cheese traders bargain according to a complex ancient ritual. They exchange a series of singsong handclaps while negotiating the price, slapping each other’s hands in turn during the trade and only stopping to clinch a normal handshake once the final price has been agreed.

After the show, I explore the traditional weighing hall, now a museum dedicated to the story of cheese making with displays tracing the history of cheese making from medieval agriculture to 20th-century artefacts. Pride of place is given to a series of ancient kaasschaaf, thin, cheese slicers used to cut into and slice the cheese for sampling.

No self-respecting cheese connoisseur round these parts would be seen using a knife to slice their cheese.

Ancient cheese warehouses still survive amongst the wood-panelled buildings, medieval courtyards and quiet canals around town. A series of bright, cheery posters plastered across ancient buildings encourage people to consider cow wellbeing at all times.

“Allow them to roam free in the pasture,” they proclaim.

Cheese shops on side streets off the main square ply the traditional styles of Dutch cheese, but also increasingly sell an array of the new flavours currently en vogue amongst next-generation cheese-consumers – pesto, stinging nettle and paprika amongst them.

New flavours

“Personally, I prefer the creamier flavour of Dutch cheese to other European cheeses, such as French or English,” says Helen de Gier, a sales assistant at the Notenbranderij shop, talking me through a counter heaving under the waxy skins of brightly coloured cheeses.

“It’s the combination of softness with sourness.”

I come away with several varieties to take home, including an exotic black truffle cheese. Better still, after a tranquil weekend exploring rural Holland and sampling the new breed of artisan flavours, I’ve seen the light about the true taste of Dutch cheese.

I’ll never buy another plastic pack of supermarket Edam again.

* This story was first published in the Independent on April 16, 2014. Read the edited version at Follow the cheese trail across the Netherlands. Liked this? A similar piece won a travel-writing award in 2013. Read more at Dutch Lifestyle Travel Writing Awards.