Simple pleasures

Yesterday I wandered through the café kitchen on my way out to work thinking, thank God it’s Friday. I can’t say I was looking forward to another day pondering the multi faceted uses for a vintage 1970s shag pile rug. As you can tell there’s never a dull day at the office for a South London interior designer.

“You know,” said Guido staring at the stove flame whilst holding his spoon in the air pensively, “sometimes it’s the simple things in life you derive most pleasure from.”

It wasn’t clear if he was talking to me or the spatula.

“Strip off. Be bold. Get down to the bare bones.”

Then he made a worrying sort of, Mmm… noise.

I looked at my watch. It was nine thirty a.m. and let’s just say I didn’t have the time or the inclination to start taking all of my clothes off. Trust me, Guido’s epiphanies are time consuming.

“Never before have three little words – less is more – seemed so appropriate to me.”

Guido’s eyes started to mist up.

“I see,” I said, seeing nothing at all, “I’ll tell you what Einstein, perhaps we could continue this very interesting conversation when I get home, “but unfortunately,” I said, “I’ve got a client waiting for me in Islington who has a weird but very expensive fetish for Italian polished marble.”

The clock was ticking on that one, trust me. But Guido certainly did get me thinking.

As I dodged other commuters across the concourse at London Bridge Train Station I wondered why on earth I was struggling to balance two satchels and an oversized portfolio when probably only one of them would do. Then down on a Northern Line tube train I sat opposite a guy wearing a Burberry tie and a big man scarf knotted with a flourish and a hat and I thought – aha! That’s actually all I can remember thinking at the time, but it definitely was fashion overkill. Whilst extremely cute, I resisted the temptation to lean over and point out to him that in my opinion the combination of a beard and only a cocked hat really was totally acceptable.

Later last night at home I got real quick to where Guido had been coming from.

Roman food with only 3 ingredients.

I’m telling you, pasta really does taste best almost naked. Oh and, it’s on the specials board tonight. We still have tables if you want to stop by. If you can’t then here’s the recipe. But just one thing, remember, strip off.

Cacio e Pepe

Bring a deep pan of water to a boil and season with salt; add spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes before it’s tender. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup pasta cooking water. Meanwhile, melt 2 chopped tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add a teaspoon of cracked pepper and cook, until toasted. Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and one table spoon of chopped butter. Reduce heat to low and add 3/4 cup of Grana Padano, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. Remove pan from heat; add 1/3 cup of Pecorino, stirring and tossing until the cheese melts, and coats the pasta. Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry. Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.

Advertisements

The twisted grape vine

Thursday night we ate out in Covent Garden and, just as I was ordering the wine, Guido explained to me that I’m not exactly the cheap date I always thought I was.

“You do know that there’s a weird psychology going on when it comes to drawing up a wine list?” said Guido scrutinising the food menu. I could see his finger stop at the line with deep fried calamari on it.

Whenever the two of us sit down in a restaurant something strange happens.  The waiter always hands Guido the food menu and I always get passed the wine list. I like to think these guys have a sixth sense. An other worldly and boozy professionalism only sommeliers can have, where they’re able to suss out which one of us is the foodie and which one of us is – the complete lush.

“What are you talking about?” I said, slipping on my spectacles.

I always slip on my spectacles when I read a wine list. I think this makes me look more intelligent. I go through the silly charade of slowly pondering as if I’m someone who knows what he’s looking at. Sometimes I’ll even throw in sound effects by sucking my finger nail and making an extended hmmm… sort of noise. I think this adds gravitas to the process of weighing up the subtle nuisances between a flinty French sauvignon and a fruity Chilean one. The spectacle thing is a waste of time. I’m actually short sighted rather than long sighted. This means when I’m concentrating hard to read anything for real (particularly the price I might add) it all looks blurred and out of focus and back to front like I’ve just developed dyslexia.

Trust me, white wine is always on the left hand page and red wine is always on the right hand page. If you flip it over, the poor old blush is usually hovering all lonely on the back whilst the expensive fizzy stuff is right down at the bottom. It’s there as a sort of hopeful after thought for customers on a desperate first date or a boring Valentines Day meal when splashing the cash is going to bolster you’re chances of some sex later.

“Establishments don’t really list the cheapest wine from the top down you know,” Guido whispered. He was still mentally debating about the squid I think. “The second wine listed has actually got the highest mark up. That means in reality it’s way, way, more expensive than the cheap house wine at the top,” said Guido.

Now he tells me, I thought. I’ve been playing this wine game for years. I always order the second one listed. This is so I don’t appear to be a complete cheap skate by picking the first one, but apparently the restaurant will already have worked this out using a twisted kind of reverse psychology.

Suddenly the staff wearing aprons, scribbling orders into note pads and juggling plates had all just become mini Einsteins.

“Are you ready to order?” the waiter smiled, his pen poised, ready to analyse.

“We’ll both have the deep fried calamari,” I said, “and bring us the cheapest bottle of plonk you sell. I don’t mind where on the list it is.”

The squid was outstanding, and after the second bottle, so was the wine. Whatever it was.

The next big thing

These days it’s getting ever harder to keep ahead of the curve.

“Did you know it was a pastry chef in Greenwich Village who hit upon the novel idea of deep frying croissant dough without causing it to go lumpy?” asked Guido toying with his spaghetti at dinner last night.

It does make you think that people who roll pastry for a living really do need to get out a bit more.

“He succeeded where so many before him failed,” said Guido in all seriousness. He called this hybrid invention the Cronut. “Apparently queues formed outside his café at dawn when the word got round.”

Which just goes to show what sort of people live in Greenwich Village.

There are very few things in life I’d happily stand in a line for. I tried to think of one reason why I might do that at dawn and quickly reached the conclusion it wouldn’t be for a croissant.

“My initial plan was to cook exactly what I’m doing here at The Spanish Onion and then replicate the menu at the new café in Denmark Hill,” said Guido. He twisted his spaghetti pensively. “But I’m beginning to think I ought to be more ambitious. Maybe I should try to get ahead of the curve like everybody else.”

Into this manic food reinvention frenzy I give you Kristen Tomlan, a former interior designer (there’s hope for me yet folks). Kristen has long thought that the best part about making cookies is the dough. I’m only with her up to a point. I don’t make cookies myself but I’ve always found licking out Guido’s bowl rather appealing. A few years ago Kristen bought a tub of raw cookie dough at the supermarket. Whilst passing the sticky goo around between friends she had an epiphany. She worked out a brilliant recipe using pasteurised eggs and heat treated flour which meant it was safe to eat the batter in large quantities. I’m so relieved I never made this discovery myself otherwise I’d probably be the size of a small house. Now she’s selling it on-line and is about to open her first shop.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” I said to Guido. “Nobody fries French toast like you do but I’m not sure the people of South London are ready for the raw version.”

Now I’ve gotten over the initial shock, I’ve started referring to the Denmark Hill café as, The Denmark Hill Project. This should not in any way be confused with The Blair Witch Project although I predict it too may involve a considerable amount of screaming. We went to have a look at the premises on Tuesday. At the moment it looks like exactly what it is, which is an abandoned Turkish kebab shop.

“Don’t worry, we’re all looking for the new and the exciting and the innovative,” I said to Guido later in bed, “so it really doesn’t matter if you’ve not yet thought of the next big culinary thing.”

Guido kissed me and switched out the lamp. I lay there thinking immoral thoughts about what the two of us could get up to with some cookie dough. And whilst I wasn’t exactly sure where that placed us both on the curve of life – I was just happy I was somewhere on it with Guido.

Tell it like it is

Regular readers will know it’s usually me who throws the occasional bomb shell into my relationship. But last night, over a particularly delicious moussaka I might add, it was Guido’s turn to drop one.

I always get very suspicious when he suggests we dine out on Greek food. There’s usually something fishy going on and I’m not referring to grilled sardines. It means he’s been mulling over thoughts. Thinking which words he wants to get off his chest.

And talking of Greeks, Guido and I have history with them. One of our first dates involved meatballs. Years ago we discovered a little faux taverna tucked away in Soho where there’s music and the waiter taught us to dance syrtaki and smash a plate and drink ouzo. Then more recently, of course, Guido proposed on one knee in The Real Greek on Bankside. So when I found myself sitting opposite him last night with a bowl of taramasalata something had to give.

“Pass the olive oil, would you?” he asked. “Oh and by the way I’ve seen a vacant café site for sale in Denmark Hill,” he said casually grinding some black pepper from the mill. “It’s looking a bit dilapidated right now but its a terrific price in a great location so I think we really should give it some serious consideration.” He dunked his pitta bread. “But anyways, how was your day?”

Guido does this. He feels obliged to verbally sandwich life changing ideas neatly between the plain old hum drum in the hope that the distraction means that whatever he’s breaking to me, he hopes I take it better. It’s a bit like tuning into your favourite TV show only to find the episode you’re watching gets substituted midway through a plot line. So when he said pass the olive oil and how as your day, what he really meant was how do you feel about packing up and starting our lives over on the other side of Southwark. Denmark Hill? He might as well have suggested Outer Mongolia. He’s obviously never been stuck in traffic there.

I wiggled my finger in my ear just to make sure that I hadn’t only been hearing the maitre’d playing his off key mandolin.

I stayed cool. I pretended to read the label on the back of the wine bottle. Take a leaf out of Guido’s book I thought. Play him at his own game. Do just what he would do by layering what you really want to say between the unimportant.

“This wine is completely delicious”,” I said, taking the tiniest of sips. I dabbed my mouth with my napkin. I cleared my throat.

 “YOU SERIOUSLY MEAN MOVE BUSINESS AND HOME? AS IN LOCK STOCK AND BARREL AND COULD YOU NOT HAVE BROKEN THIS TO ME A BIT MORE GENTLY WITHOUT THE NEED TO SANDWICH IT BETWEEN A STUPID SUB TEXT AND SOME OILY GREEK CUISINE? ARE YOU INSANE?” I yelled.

As you can tell I remained perfectly calm.

When we got home Guido suggested that I get more practice in sandwiching my words between sub text. Especially the bit where you slip in the important part between the hum drum. I totally got his point.

And I can assure you I told him exactly what I thought of that.

 

Food for thought

If you’re fortunate enough, as I am, to enjoy eating sweet and salted popcorn in bed then you’ve probably had to accept one of the unpleasant side effects. Unavoidable food residue between the sheets. Let’s not get hysterical; we’ll call them bits. Any I discover I’ll happily throw into my mouth without a second thought. This is despite the fact that I already know they’ve potentially been stuck at some point, and some place, to my naked husband. But in my opinion it’s the sugar and the salt that’s more problematic. Bad for your blood pressure? Trust me, that’s nothing compared to the havoc a few grains can do in your pyjama bottoms.

“I think I’m going to have to issue an urgent Directive,” I explained to Guido. “My Directive will seek to ban all dangerous food substances from our bed,” I propped up my pillow for added emphasis. “Obviously not all food, just the ones guaranteed to cause serious trouble in the dead of night.”

“Like what?” said Guido. He looked worried. As well he might, as he was holding an opened jar of olive tapenade and a packet of crackers in his hand at the time.

“Well, I’m still working out the detail but off the top of my head I’m considering anything which involves crumbs or hot gravy,” I said.

I noticed there was a moment of noisy and defiant crunching from Guido’s side of the bed.

“You mean you’re probably ruling out, all bread types?” he said whilst liberally spreading a biscuit. “But, but…” he said stuttering.

He said the word but twice as in, incredulous, which I’m guessing was how he must have felt at the time.

“But… you, me, and a stuffed ciabatta, we go way back. We’ve got history together.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. Suddenly saying everything twice was catching. But just because you love a sandwich filling doesn’t mean to say you have to get into bed with it.

“But do you remember what happened right on this spot when we ate French brioche?” I asked.

I can always tell when Guido’s thinking. He stops chewing.

“Well if I cast my mind back,” he said, “I recall it wasn’t the brioche that was the problem, though I will concede that it was an overly runny gruyere on the toasted side that ended up staining our blanket.”

Guido was splitting hairs. I could tell there was the potential for my Directive to be challenged at a later date. It was going to have to be cast iron solid in its drafting. I made a mental note to reluctantly change the wording from hot gravy singular to include hot gravy slash melted cheese plural.

“Well you know what happens to unpopular Directives,” said Guido, “the people protest, they mobilise, they rise up.”

I was momentarily distracted by the thought of Guido rising.

“Then before you know it they’re eating a Hawaiian pizza wherever they damn please and to hell with the consequences.”

Guido was becoming positively Churchillian. Give him an inch and he’d soon be eating a full roast and giving me the V sign.

“You wouldn’t want your Directive to be seen as rash, illogical, or open to criticism would you?” said Guido stuffing his face.

I found myself inexplicably nibbling his cracker. Anything for a quiet life..

Nude

Last night our friends Gary and Ted came round to the café after closing time to eat linguine and play poker. Just to clarify. The linguine and the sauce was homemade. The poker was much more messy. Gary and Ted shuffle ruthlessly and constantly win. Ted makes Cool Hand Luke look like a pathetic loser.

“Did you know,” I said, “being naked surrounded by a group of people makes you feel good?”

Everybody stopped staring at their cards. If you’re ever looking for a conversation stopper, do try it.

“Honest to God,” I said, “I heard it on the radio earlier whilst I was in the bath.”

There’s been a serious study. It’s been published in (and I’m not making this up) the Journal of Happiness Studies. They’ve come to the conclusion that taking off your clothes around strangers is probably good for you.

“You’re making this baloney up,” said Ted. I could tell by his nonchalant use of the word baloney that he had the makings of a great hand.

“No, honestly,” I said. I made a cross my heart sign with my spoon. “Anyway, if it’s in the Journal of Happiness then it’s got to be true, right?”

I’ve never actually read anything published in that Journal before but I definitely do like the sound of it. The next time I’m having a down day I’m going to look it up and start thumbing through it enthusiastically to see where I’ve been going wrong. Putting clothes on in the morning, by the sounds of it.

“Apparently 850 British people were asked to fill out an online survey,” I said, “and it was found that those who spent more time naked were happier with their bodies.”

I thought this was terrific news. Who cares that the rest of the world is going down the pan. Just strip off and everything will be fine. Shout it from the roofs I say!

“Wow,” said Gary. “Perhaps the next time we come over to play cards everybody should take all their clothes off before the first round.” He paused. I think he was weighing up the pros and cons of how this might affect any winning streak. “Though I do realise this could make it difficult to concentrate if any one of us was holding a Straight Flush in their hand at the time.”

“It’s possible,” said Guido sagely, “that the people who were surveyed were happier with their bodies in the first place so were more likely to spend time naked, and it’s not that being naked made them any more happier.”

I don’t know about you but I had to get Guido to repeat that sentence three times before I understood what the hell he was going about. Maybe it’s just me, but I think he should just stick to linguine.

“Okay,” I said, “it’s fine for you, Mr Einstein with a six-pack. But what about the rest of  us who spend half our lives on The Banana Diet, and the other half sucking everything in.”

Relax. There is light at the end of this tunnel of nudity. Apparently the findings also suggested that seeing other people naked could be even more beneficial than being seen naked yourself. A brief surf of the net, for purely scientific purposes, confirms this is correct.

These guys at The Happiness Institute really know what they’re talking about.

The Beefcake Appreciation Society

Last night Ted and Gary came round to the cafe and over a bowl of Guido’s creamy spaghetti pesto the four of us had another one of our highly intellectual debates.

No, we weren’t talking the Middle East, the collapse of the £ against the $, nor that terrifying hurricane whipping through the Atlantic. We weren’t even arguing about Hillary Clinton’s next colour choice of trouser suit. Over here at The Spanish Onion we don’t waste time over such trifling issues. We only discuss important and high brow topics like – Rafael Nadal or Juan Martin Del Potro, who has the most squeezable butt?

“If I was going for muscular density then it’s got to be Rafa,” said Ted sucking in a mouthful, “I like to get my hands on something tight and sassy but still with some give to it.”

Poor Gary, I thought. He must spend his entire life trying to avoid bending over.

“Jamie Oliver was such a cutie when he started out on TV as The Naked Chef,” said Guido. He had this really weird glazed expression in his eyes. “I used to fantasise about him massaging me roughly with those big thick fingers of his. Rubbing me, kneading me, in the style of a wet bread dough.”

Whilst this was utterly fascinating to imagine it reminded me that, soon after Guido and I met, he very quickly seduced me with a lamp chop. I’m not sure that says too much about Guido and, if I’m honest, I think it says even less about me.

“Bradley Cooper, said Gary suddenly. “American sniper. Army fatigues. Dark glasses. Inverted baseball cap.” He sat holding his fork with a piece of spaghetti dangling perilously from the end of it. “Just shoot me.”

“I wonder what they’d say if they knew four guys in a South London cafe were drooling over the individual merits of their anatomies?” said Ted pensively, still sucking.

“I have zero problem with that,” I said dismissively, “it’s always been a big ambition of mine to be thought of as a complete sex object.”

Everybody looked at me but nobody said anything.

“What I’m saying,” I said, “is I would be more than happy to be thought of as brawn rather than brains. I mean, if you had the choice of rolling in the hay with one of the greatest minds who ever lived, or say, Chris Pine, which would it be?”

“Chris Pine was once a passenger on one of my flights,” said Gary. He still hadn’t swallowed. “As a professional flight attendant it was a total pleasure to drape a hot steamy towel over his brow on that bumpy flight above the English Channel towards France.”

“And you’ll always have Paris,” I said.

After the fourth bottle of Prosecco we agreed to form a club. A place where serious and unbiased discussion takes place about chest sizes and torsos and abs and the perfect physique.

“But there must be strict rules,” I said, “we will not tolerate anything, or any body, that does not drive us into utter fits of sexual ecstasy.”

So those are our only ground rules. Membership is now open. If you’d like to join please do leave a message to express your interest. Oh, and if David Gandy reads this, we meet monthly. Feel free to drop by.