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Blog post: Heaven is a cloying mass of rubbery stodge

My fifth attempt is as close to perfect as I’ve managed. The spaghetti is beautifully overcooked mush, but I’ve resisted stirring it with a fork, so that every now and then I find some strands still fused together into a thick, woody mass. The cheese is spot on too – a pleasing result of seeking out the most rubbery, least cheese-like cheese I could find. Even the seasoning is right – deliciously overpowering stale herbs and just a little too much salt.

In fact, all that’s letting this dish down is that the clumps of bacon are far too consistently cooked. For my next attempt, I’ll add them to the pan in two batches so that some are all-but cremated and the rest are dangerously close to raw. But for now I have more important things to attend to – helping myself to a third bowl.

Budget supermarket cheddar: the anti-cheese

Budget supermarket cheddar: the anti-cheese

I’ve been trying to recreate this dish for about a month now. It’s easily the fondest memory of school food I have, and possibly the reason that I still can’t make a bowl of spaghetti without over-catering by at least 300%.

Catholic school in the late eighties was not, as you can probably imagine, at the forefront of culinary progression. Fish and chips Friday promised much but was always a soggy disappointment, and although chocolate brick (a sort of dry, budget brownie, served with a grey-brown custard) always raised a smile, there was very little to write home about.

St Richard's Catholic school. Lovely to look at, not to eat at.

St Richard's Catholic school. Lovely to look at, not to eat at.

In fact, I find it hard to recall the actual taste of any other dish from school. I remember the tubes in the stewed beef, and the fact that the school nurse’s false teeth once fell into the banana custard, but the flavours themselves elude me. Not so with the aforementioned and imaginatively named “Spaghetti with Cheese and Herbs”.

Attempt number one was appalling. I was going for a more upmarket approach, hoping the combination of flavours would be enough to remind me of the original. I made a roux, melted in a mixture of good quality cheddar and parmesan, stirred in the cooked spaghetti and scattered the plate with smoked pancetta and fresh parsley. The result was creamy, comforting, delicious and bitterly disappointing. A kind of resentment carbonara.

Over the next few efforts I learn to fight the temptation to improve on the original, either through technique or the sourcing of ingredients. I resist buying decent cheese, shun quality bacon and finally, forget everything I know about cooking pasta. And so finally I arrive at this near-perfect mass of cloying salt and rubber and am left wondering why I love it so much.

As a child, I was a horrifically fussy eater. At school I would reject almost every offering, then fill up on biscuits and fruit whenever possible. At home, there was so little I could eat without retching that my mum would supplement my diet with Complan – a nutrition shake designed primarily for people unable to eat for medical reasons.

Complan: for people with dietary issues and fussy bastards

Complan: for people with dietary issues and fussy bastards

These days, my relationship with food couldn’t be more different, but is only marginally healthier. I think about food almost constantly and will eat practically anything. I spend hours every day imagining what I’m going to cook for dinner, only to demolish it in a matter of minutes and refill my plate until I’m bloated to the point of nausea. I spoil restaurant trips with my wife by looking up the menu online and deciding what I’m going to order hours – sometimes days – before arriving at the venue. I pile my children’s plates far higher than necessary so that I can gorge on their leftovers. Every time I get a take-away I have a nervous panic that I’ve not over-ordered, and a brief look at my Deliveroo history (and appending receipts) quickly reveals why I can’t afford luxuries like a third pair of trousers.

To put it another way, I’ve not just become more adventurous with age, I’ve become greedy.

Scanning a few articles about food and nostalgia, I notice most focus on particular tastes bringing back memories – usually positive but sometimes less so. Nigel Slater writes passionately about every detail of a long-forgotten woman’s face coming back to him upon biting into a particularly juicy mango, but also how the smell of egg yolks unwillingly brings back painful images of my father's weekly force-feeding sessions.”

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I find all this fascinating, but it doesn’t explain my irrational love for the bowl of over-seasoned stodge in front of me. Neither the smell nor the taste brings back any particular memory – more a feeling of relief that here was a dish I could not only enjoy, but do so to the point of feeling sick. It tastes like the beginning of my obsession with food. The origin of my gluttony. It doesn’t remind me of school dinners so much as all the experiences of food that have come since. It tastes like the near pornographic joy I now derive from gawping at food photography, and the child-like excitement with which I scan restaurant menus. It tastes like the duck hearts I barbecued in France last summer and the fried chicken sandwiches I make for my wife. It tastes like fish tacos, steak sandwiches and spring rolls. Craft beer and exotic cheese. Christmas dinner and Sunday brunch. It tastes like all the joy, guilt (another product of catholic school) and fascination that I get from food in all its forms.

Not bad for a few quid’s worth of cheap spaghetti, springy cheese and watery bacon.

Review: Mange Tout (Restaurants Brighton)

A Jewel in the Laine

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Between Brighton Station and North Street is a network of interconnecting streets that even most locals struggle to correctly name. Is it the North Lanes, or North Laine? North Laines or the North Lane? Whatever you call it, the area is home to dozens of cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants, serving everything from instagram-friendly flat whites to Nepalese beef stews.

But among the many hip and varied venues – several of which are excellent choices themselves – Mange Tout stands out as an authentic and assured choice that has long been a firm favourite among those who live and work in the North Laine area (following extensive research I can confirm this is the correct name and spelling).

Open 9am to 5pm Sunday to Wednesday, and 9am to 9.30pm Thursday to Saturday, Mange Tout serves French bistro style breakfast, brunch and lunch every day. But if you want to try the dinner menu as we did, you’ll have to visit on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night.

Biodynamic wines

An orange wine from Mange Tout's biodynamic range

An orange wine from Mange Tout's biodynamic range

Just like its sister restaurant, Plateau, Mange Tout has a healthy obsession with biodynamic and natural wines. The knowledgeable waiters will be able to give you a much better idea of exactly what that means, but essentially, it’s organic – and some. In other words, if you don’t like the idea of chemicals going anywhere near your tipple, biodynamic is your thing.

Personally, I’m much more interested in the taste than the method of farming or fermentation. And on that count, Mange Tout seem to have it nailed.

The waiter's first recommendation was something I’ve never even heard of before – an orange wine (that’s the colour orange, not the fruit), that sits somewhere between a rosé and a red. It was slightly cloudy in appearance, but had an incredible balance of hearty spice and pithy fruit. If you’ve not tried an orange wine before, I’d highly recommend giving this one – the Baglio Bianco Catarratoa go.

Spoilt for choice on starters

Mackerel with Kimchi and Salsa Verde

Mackerel with Kimchi and Salsa Verde

In all we tried three different starters, all with their own merits. The duck livers with tarragon were perfectly cooked and beautifully rich, nestled between some lovely gnocchi and crisp kale, in a creamy wild mushroom sauce.

Also delicious, albeit at the other end of the flavour spectrum, was the mackerel fillet with kimchi and salsa verde. Fresh and spicy with a delicious acid bite that cut through the fish, it couldn’t be further from the aforementioned liver dish, but was just as memorable.

For me though, the undeniable star of the starters was the harissa squid with babaganoush and dukkah on a flat bread.

Full disclosure: I absolutely love squid in any form. Even a rubbery frozen calamari makes me happy, but this dish is something really special.

The squid itself was beautifully tender and delicately spiced; the babaganoush was creamy and smoky; the dukkah spices were perfectly balanced. Finished with a scattering of pomegranate seeds, this was genuinely as good a dish as I’ve had in Brighton.

Rich and hearty mains

Pork to the power of pork

Pork to the power of pork

As always, we found it tricky to decide on the mains and, on finally making a decision, immediately felt anxious it was the wrong one, though we needn’t have worried.

The pork belly with morteau sausage and ham hock was a rich and indulgent affair, which I decided would be better named pork3.

Yes, the gravy was rich and smoky and yes, the lentils added an earthy bite, but this really was all about the pig. Each element amplified the next, creating a delicious trio of meat flavours and textures that would satisfy any hardened carnivore (though I’d not recommend it for someone with a preference for lighter dishes).

We also tried the confit red mullet with bouillabaisse and saffron new potatoes. Again loads of rich smoky flavours, but with a lighter touch than the pork and some sweet and juicy clams on the side.

Indulgent desserts

Blood orange Bakewell

Blood orange Bakewell

With little room left after pigging out on starters and mains, we bravely soldiered on, ordering a comté from the cheese menu, which came delightfully drizzled with honey, and served with sourdough, truffle shavings and a nut crumb.

We also couldn’t resist the blood orange bakewell, which had a lovely bitterness to the filling, a crumbly pastry casing and was served with a sweet honeycomb ice cream. An aptly indulgent end to the meal, washed down with a Jurancon dessert wine.

Summary

Big, bold flavours, generous portion sizes, an eclectic menu and friendly staff. Mange Tout’s dinner menu may not be for the faint hearted, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the area that has this much character and authenticity. And if you do have a preference for lighter dishes, their breakfast and lunch menu is a great option too. Highly recommended.