Monday, April 06, 2015

Spanish corruption; Tapas in Liverpool; The Camino; Stupendous goal; & British pubs.

Here's a sentence I read last night which struck me as having the ring of truth:-Political accountability in matters of corruption in Spain is extremely rare. Drawing blood from a stone is an easier task.

To Liverpool again this morning and to a Catalan tapas bar for lunch with my sister and brother-in-law. I was drawn to the place by the menu item 'Catalan Scouse', which rather intrigued me. The place - with its attached deli - was pleasant and our Barcelona waitress, Monica, was charming, but the Catalan Scouse was a bit of a disappointment. For it was essentially 'blind'(meatless) Scouse with a bit of spicey chorizo added. 'Fusion' at its simplest, I suppose. An even more intriguing item - not tried - was Mackerel Semen with Eggs on Toast. I thought 'Semen' might be a mistake for 'Roe' but Monica assured me it wasn't. Catalan readers, if any, are free to comment. Failing that, Trevor the Baldie.

Needless to say, Monica was a university graduate who'd come to the UK, in the absence of work back home, to improve her English, so that she could then returne and apply for one of the better jobs. Or even any job in Spain these days. But, naturally, this might not happen as Liverpool was had its appeal for her.

Request for help: Can anybody erstwhile pilgrim tell me how much the the Camino stage between Salamanca and El Cubo de la Tierra del Vino involves walking alongside the N-630? If it's most of it, is it boring and noisy? I'm taking a group of friends along the Vía de la Plata in May and we're undecided about this leg.

For those who missed this goal of the season - or possibly a lifetime - here's the fine effort of Charlie Adams at the weekend.

Finally . . . Here's one of my favourite commentators - A A Gill - on something I've touched on twice in the last 3 weeks - the conversion of British pubs into gastro-pubs. As it's behind a paywall, I can't just give you the citation:-

I was in Dublin the day the banks collapsed and the Irish were looking at a long walk uphill with the fiscal wind in their faces. I got a taxi back to the airport and a loquacious northside driver kept up a soft drizzle of complaint. And then, with a ragged philanthropy, exclaimed it was the publicans he felt sorry for, sitting all alone in their bars while the penniless feckers went home, drowning the moaning of their women with supermarket lager. (Cheaper but more efficacious than holy water.) It is the cross and curse of cabbies the world over to know all the facts and draw exactly the wrong conclusion.

Pubs are one of the handful of businesses that were stuffed by prosperity. The better off we got, the less we needed or wanted pubs. In 1917, the price of a pint was about 7d, and a labourer’s wage approximately £1/10s/6d for a 54-hour week. It would have taken more than an hour to earn your pint. Today, on a minimum wage for a 40-hour week, a pint takes less than half an hour to earn.

The first half of the 20th century was the golden age of pubs. They were the working man’s front room, his gentlemen’s club, citizens’ advice, labour exchange and mate reserve. Pubs looked like a collective drawing room fit for the manufacturers of empire. Flickering cut glass, glistening brass, gilt, plush and mahogany: the triumph of success, and plenty of coal in the grate. The pub had its own class system, with snugs, saloons, ladies’ bars and lock-ins. It was a fulcrum of our leisure and culture, the mine of jokes, the set for novels, plays and films.

There were pubs for everyone: for dockers and for miners, for closet gays, for actors and aristos and journalists, and pubs just for hopeless, garrulous, spoofing drunks like me.

The pub never judged or criticised; pubs were us. Now they’re slipping away, they’re not the heart of the nation any more. Everything about affluence empties them: central heating, television, computers, phones, cheap sofas, ready meals, smoking bans, diet fads, slabs of loss-leader beer and drugs.

The pubs served, loved and nurtured a nation that grew up to never leave home. Breweries discovered they were running failing hostelry businesses, but booming property ones. So, over the past three decades, hundreds of boozers have been gussied up into gastropubs, the hybrid that was supposed to remake their fortunes and improve the nature of our tippling, introducing napkins, blackboards and the Sunday papers to encourage us to sip like Frenchmen.

In much of the country, the gastropub is the only alternative to generic fast food or international chains. They are the new Labour, third way, third place, and most of them are third rate. Pubs make unsatisfactory restaurants: their kitchens are never big enough, the division of space is awkward, diners and drinkers want very different things in terms of atmosphere and licence. The apartheid of tables is fraught with complaint and they never have enough ventilation; the carpets and curtains stink of frying oil and customers don’t want to spend restaurant money in a boozer, so we are offered the nastiness of the five-quid Sunday lunch with all the trite trimmings. That’s not to say there haven’t been some exceptional successes, but they are rare and usually turn out to be restaurants with a bit of a bar; and they don’t do well in London, where they have to compete with lots of drinking establishments and lots of restaurants.

The Cross Keys was an old Chelsea pub in the prettiest corner of the royal borough. It was closed a couple of years back by a developer who wanted to turn it into a £10m house. But the council refused and now another property company has permission to make a couple of flats and has leased the ground floor to a gobble-and-gargle company with form. The old pub served pints to the Rolling Stones, Turner, Whistler, Sargent, Dylan Thomas, Bob Marley and Agatha Christie, though not all on the same quiz night. That may sound like heritage, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any central London pub that hasn’t propped up a clutch of literary, artistic, musical and celebrity enlarged livers. The makeover is, frankly, dispiriting. The ghosts will have dashed for the exit at yet another Williamsburg hipster joint with exposed bricks, reclaimed wood, mismatched tables and chairs, a bit of taxidermy and a lot of irony. This is as over as pork belly and sticky toffee pudding. But it is light. They have liquor in the front and hot sausage rolls at the rear.

The menu makes up for the soulless decor: it’s as smart and appetising as I can remember in a pub. There are excellent scotch eggs and sausage rolls; a baked haddock and cheese omelette; a smoked-salmon and cream-cheese sandwich with white garlic soup; ham-hock salad with fried potatoes; pork chops; cumberland sausages and mash. Or there’s foie gras and chicken parfait, and a roast breast of guinea fowl.

Altogether, this is a very good example of the push-me-pull-you breed. A better use of a venerable old hostelry than some oligarch’s mistress’s empty investment nest, and it suits the expensively rakish locals. This isn’t an area that has supported fine dining, but it does like something unpretentious that knows its business and how to be discreet.

On this afternoon, I didn’t miss pubs because their associations are all grim for me, and I don’t miss drinking. And anyway, they’re all done up with nostalgia and despair now. The Cross Keys did feel like the way we are today; well, the way the comfortably upholstered and generously remunerated are, who designed, built and invested in all the things that made pubs obsolete in the first place.

1 comment:

Barcelona's Singing Organ-Grinder said...

Selling semen, of mackerel, alive, alive, oh, but I'd be worried about provenance, what with that what Hull trawlermen used to do to their cod.

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