Gone to parts unknown




As it did to many people, the news three days ago that the New York chef, author, journalist and TV personality Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life came as a shock to me.  Bourdain seemed, in his TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-2018), to exhibit an endless curiosity for the world and to relish exploring its varied cultures.  Ostensibly he roamed the continents to sample their food, but you got the impression that the culinary focus was really a means for Bourdain to meet as many different, interesting people and experience as many different, interesting places as possible.  So with this apparent zest for life he was the last person you’d expect to depart in this fashion.  Which, I guess, shows that you can never judge what’s going on in someone’s soul just by observing their surface.


Bourdain was for my money the best TV chef since the great Keith Floyd, though he went about his business in a more diplomatic and less kamikaze manner than Floyd did.  What made Bourdain special was that there was no snobbery in him.  During his travels, he enjoyed lowbrow as well as highbrow cuisine and treated the stuff that ordinary, local people liked eating with genuine respect and enthusiasm.


This was demonstrated, for instance, when he turned up in Scotland.  Whilst sneering at the Scottish diet is a way to get easy laughs in the wider world, Bourdain was happy to tuck into and savour Caledonian grub.  That was whether he was scoffing chips, cheese and curry sauce and washing it down with Irn Bru in Glasgow’s University Café (“I’m pretty sure God is against this”) or checking out the produce of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk in the company of local crime writer Ian Rankin.  He had a soft spot for haggis too and once described it epically as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”


Bourdain had a way with words and since his passing I’ve seen quite a few of his memorable quotes posted on the Internet – such as his musings about travel: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”


But for me his finest words came in reaction to a visit to Cambodia and concerned a certain American ex-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor named Henry Kissinger: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.  You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.  Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at the Hague next to Milosevic.  While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”


A heartfelt obituary for Bourdain penned by the food writer Tim Hayward can be read here in the Guardian.


Glorious international foodstuffs 1: haggis


From donaldrussell.com


Food is something I’d like to write more about on this blog – especially since I’ve eaten a lot of unusual and occasionally mind-bogglingly strange varieties of food in different parts of the world.


And where better to start this new series of postings about glorious international foodstuffs than with Scotland’s national dish, haggis?  After all, today is January 25th, 2017: the 258th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard.  And tonight, the devouring of haggis will be one of the main activities (alongside the reciting of Scots-dialect poetry, the playing of bagpipes and the downing of industrial quantities of Scotch whisky) at Burns suppers held in honour of the great man the world over.


Haggis is a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver, traditionally (though not normally these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  The fact that the main ingredients of haggis are offal has earned it a lot of abuse over the centuries.  For example, someone called Lils Emslie once wrote a famous piece of doggerel that went: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  More recently, in the 1990s, I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis inelegantly as ‘a bag of shite’.


Well, the ignorant may sneer.  But in my experience anyone adventurous enough to try haggis for the first time usually ends up enjoying it.  The Wikipedia entry on it describes its taste as being ‘nutty’ (as in ‘nut-like’, not ‘crazy’); but I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it like that.  ‘Spicy’ is the adjective I’d use – though spicy in a dark, subtle, slightly teasing way.


Culinary historians have argued about where haggis originated, although I’m sure it wasn’t in Scotland itself.  I’ve seen the invention of the dish attributed to northern England, to medieval Scandinavia and to ancient Rome and Greece.  Personally, I suspect the basic format of haggis dates back in history to soon after humans started hunting and killing their food.  Once you’d tracked down and slain a big animal like, say, a stag and removed the best cuts of meat, there’d still be a fair amount of flesh in the carcass that you couldn’t let go to waste – especially not when there was no guarantee when you’d be getting your next meal.  So you’d gather up the squelchy bits too – the heart, lungs, intestines – and find something to put them in.  And handily, there was another squelchy bit you could use as a container – the stomach.  Then you’d cook all this before the contents went off.  Hence, haggis.


And that’s one reason to cherish it.  Haggis, or the original concept of haggis, is the meat dish of the common man.  You can bet that by feudal times it was the aristocrat or wealthy landowner who was carting off the best meat from the big game animals he’d hunted down.  Whereas it was the serfs – who’d done all the hard work, looking after his horses and hounds, carrying his weapons, chasing the wild animals out into the open – who’d be stashing the left-behind offal into left-behind stomachs, boiling them and tucking into them afterwards.


© Daily Record


Appropriately, Robert Burns, of humble origins himself, appreciated a good haggis and wrote a poem in honour of the dish – Address to the Haggis, customarily the first poem to be recited at a Burns Supper, with the carrying in and cutting of haggis the first thing on the schedule.  It begins: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” Though it’s usually around the third verse that things get exciting and the reciter-cum-haggis-cutter starts waving a big blade in the air: “His knife sees rustic labour dight / An’ cut you up wi ready slight / Trenching your gushing entrails bright / Like onie ditch / And then, o what a glorious sight / Warm-reekin’, rich!


Not that haggis has remained unchanged since the time of Burns.  It’s evolved.  As culinary tastes and habits have developed, so has the way it’s been eaten.  It’s possible now to get haggis burgers, haggis pakora and haggis-topped pizza.  Vegetarian haggis – with the squelchy meaty bits replaced by nuts, lentils, beans and other vegetables – has been on sale for many years and it’s also been a long time since I munched my first-ever bag of haggis-flavoured crisps.  If someone hasn’t already invented haggis-flavoured ice cream, I’m sure they’re working on it.


From guff.com


And of course, the deep-fried haggis supper has long been a fixture of Scotland’s many fish-and-chip shops.  One admirer of haggis in its deep-fried form is New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  In one episode where he visited Scotland, he identified it as his favourite Scottish dish and described it as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”


A tribute to haggis that’s almost worthy of Robert Burns in its eloquence.


Insult our national food at your peril


From www.fluidlondon.co.uk


In the news this past week has been a Scotsman called Michael Mcfeat, who works for a gold-mining firm in Kyrgyzstan and who faces deportation from that country because, it’s alleged, he posted an unflattering comment on his Facebook page about its national dish, a type of sausage called chuchuk.


What hurt the feelings of the Kyrgyzstanis – from his co-workers, who were so angry that they staged a brief strike at their goldmine, up to the Kyrgyzstani authorities, who supposedly considered imprisoning him for five years for ‘racial hatred’ before opting to deport him – was his likening of their beloved chuchuk to a horse’s penis.


I find it ironic that a Scotsman should be thrown out someone else’s country for bad-mouthing the food there.  After all, if Scotland ever becomes independent and adopts a policy of deporting and banning everybody who insults its food, then the Scottish Immigration Service and Scottish Homeland Security will be very busy indeed.


There’s been a long tradition of outsiders slagging off Scottish food.  The essay A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland, which was published in 1659 and may have been penned by English courtier and politician (and hater of Scottish King James VI) Sir Anthony Weldon, observes that the Scots “have a good store of fish, and good for those that eat it raw; but if it comes once into their hands it is worse (than) if it were three days old.”  Scottish butter and cheese are not to be sampled by any man “that loves his life.”  And fruit is not a fixture on Scottish menus because “for their Grandsire Adam’s sake, they never planted any.”


A century later, in his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language, crusty Englishman Dr Samuel Johnson gave this definition for that mainstay of Scottish porridge, the oat: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”


From www.examiner.com


Outsiders’ opinions of Scottish food and the Scottish diet generally have been no less harsh in the supposedly politically correct 21st century.  In 2010, Sidcup-born Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle wrote: “an estimated 57% of Scotland’s GDP is expended on beer, smack and those pies composed of boiled sheep’s gizzards with a hole in the top where you put the ketchup.”  A year later, Michael Hanlon, who comes from Bristol and is the Daily Mail’s science editor – the Daily Mail’s science editor?  Now that’s a contradiction in terms – wrote: “I was at university in Scotland in the mid-1980s and I remember the canteen food, dominated by deep-fried meat, overcooked vegetables and far, far too much salt.”


And notoriously snobbish food critic A. A. Gill – like Liddle, another member of the Sunday Times’ rogue’s gallery of obnoxious columnists – once described Scotland as “unquestionably the worst country in Europe to eat out in – or the worst country that didn’t once have a communist dictator.  The place is hoaching with some of the best raw ingredients in the world, yet finding a scallop on a menu is like trying to go dogging in Riyadh.  Scots die younger not just because of the cholesterol, but, in the end, because they can’t face another dinner.”  Gill, incidentally, was born in Edinburgh, which is maybe why he tried to show his Scottish street-credibility by using a Scots word like ‘hoaching’ (meaning ‘full’ or ‘infested’); but he’s lived in England from the age of one and displays all the attributes of a stereotypical snotty upper-class Englishman.


I suppose it doesn’t help that Scotland’s most famous culinary item is the haggis, a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver traditionally (though not usually these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  This has inspired a million jibes and sneers – like, for example, the famous piece of doggerel by someone called Lils Emslie: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  Or as I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis less poetically in the 1990s, it’s ‘a bag of shite’.


Things got even worse some years ago when the world’s media discovered that certain chip-shops in Scotland were offering punters the experience of eating deep-fried Mars bars.  This didn’t go down well with the confectioner Mars, Inc. who warned that “deep-frying one of our products would go against our commitment to promoting healthy, active lifestyles.”  Definitely not a fan of Scotland’s deep-fried Mars bars is New Zealander Monica Galleti, one of the presenters of the TV show Masterchef: The Professionals and until last year the senior souschef at La Gavroche in London, who’s confessed: “I had a deep-fried Mars bar once and if I was giving it a score, it’d be a zero.  It wasn’t great.  The taste was awful.  In fact, everything about it was wrong so I definitely don’t want to be near another one.”


Well, for the record, let me say that personally I love Scottish food.  I love scoffing haggis, stovies, mince-and-tatties, neeps-and-tatties, cock-a-leekie soup, Scotch broth, Arbroath smokies, oatcakes and tattie scones.  And I fully believe porridge to be the Breakfast of Kings and Cullen skink to be the Soup of the Gods.  And even the less healthy stuff, the black puddings, white puddings, Lorne sausage, bridies, Scotch pies and Scotch eggs, is delicious if you eat it once in a while and if you buy it in a place that cooks it properly.  So as far as I’m concerned, anyone who claims that Scottish food is uneatable is a bigger horse’s penis than the most equinely phallic-looking chuchuk in Kyrgyzstan.


Thankfully, the value of Scottish food is recognised by at least one authority from foreign parts.  That wise and honourable person is the New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  Bourdain is no food snob.  During his culinary travels, he treats the stuff that ordinary, local people like to eat with genuine respect and enthusiasm.


Here is a youtube clip of Bourdain sampling the joys of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, in the company of Scottish crime writer Iain Rankin.




And in this clip he identifies deep-fried haggis as “his personal favourite”.  He also rhapsodises about Scottish fried haddock: “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”




For that comment alone, I think a future independent Scotland ought to make Bourdain an honorary Scottish citizen.  Come to think of it, an independent Scotland ought to make him its National Bard.


(c) The Herald


Scottish cuisine


An American friend recently introduced me to the television work of New York chef and writer Anthony Bourdain.  I wouldn’t say Bourdain is the most entertaining TV chef I’ve ever watched – he’s not in the same league as the mighty Keith Floyd, though who is? – but I certainly prefer him to the slew of British tele-cooks who followed in Floyd’s wake, such as Anthony Worrel-Thompson, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.  (Such people, Floyd once said in his inimitable fashion, deserved to be ‘napalmed’.)

Bourdain makes a laudable effort to hang out with ordinary folk in his shows, which usually have him travelling to an exotic or off-the-beaten-track place and sampling the local cuisine.  For example, during his visits to Scotland, he hasn’t spent all his time loitering on Highland estates owned by the landed gentry and foreign billionaires, dining on freshly slaughtered venison, pheasant and salmon – the rich-people’s delicacies that the taste-buds of 99.9% of the Scottish population only rarely encounter.

No, Bourdain hasn’t flinched from trying the more extreme examples of the common Scottish diet.  He’s eaten things that you’d find lurking on the fringes of a menu in a housing-scheme chippie and you’d only consider eating late on a Saturday night when you’re really pished.

To  his credit too, he hasn’t sermonised about how horribly unhealthy it is to eat a dollop of dead animal’s offal that’s just spent 10 minutes gestating in a deep-fat fryer.  In fact, Bourdain has the honesty to admit that something that’s been fried to buggery can occasionally taste brilliant.

Here is a clip of Bourdain checking out the best that the Mermaid Fish Bar in Leith has to offer, with crime novelist Iain Rankin in tow:


And here is some footage of Bourdain in Glasgow, getting his chomps around the legendary and fearsome deep-fried Mars bar:



In fact, after watching the above, I felt an urge to search my neighbourhood shops here in Tunis and find something approximating a haggis, or a black pudding, or a white pudding, and deep-fry it to hell and devour it.

Finally, when I was looking over the wares in the meats section of my local branch of Carrefour, I saw at the end of the refrigerator a display of large, fat, offally-looking sausages.  I lifted one out and was about to take it to the checkout when I noticed the following words on its wrapping:

“Pour chiens.”  In English, that means: “for dogs.”

So there you are.  Something that in Scotland keeps a good part of the human population alive is, in Tunisia, fed to the dogs.