Sweet Argentina

Argentinians have a very sweet tooth. Correction: a whole mouthful of them. Never have I known a nation more in love with sugar, caramel, chocolate, cake, pastries, icing and anything syrupy, sticky or sickly sweet. Their famous Dulce de Leche caramel sauce can be found in the UK only in the premium aisle at Waitrose, high-end delicatessens and Borough market. But here in Argentina, super-size tubs of it are sold in every supermarket.

If you like sweet things, you needn´t go far here to find them. There´s a confituria on every corner, every third shop is a kiosco brimming with bars of sweetened chocolate and candy, street vendors offer sugar-roasted peanuts, salesmen pace up and down the markets with baskets of churros, and on every long-distance bus ride you´re given complimentary sweets, biscuits and cakes. And meet the Alfajor, a snack consisting of two big fat sweet crumbly biscuits, sandwiched together with gooey Dulce de Leche, before being dipped in chocolate, allowed to harden and then sometimes decorated or dipped again. It´s a beast alright.

The trouble comes when you’ve had enough sugar and you´re craving something — anything — savoury or plain. Bad news, the sweet stuff just cannot be avoided. Order a black coffee and a hefty sugar lump gets dropped in as standard. The French would be horrified by the way their croissants are doused in thick gloopy syrup. A loaf of bread tastes suspiciously saccharine. I was served chicken and tuna empanadas with a bizarre frosting of what could only be icing sugar.

So it´s a sweet way of life here (especially for dentists, I imagine). If you want to rid yourself of the sticky residue of Argentinian cuisine, wetwipes and a toothbrush are essential.

A rather modest alfajor…they get far crazier

Sarnies in Spain

I suspect any Spaniards reading this are laughing. Why, they ask, would someone bother to write a review of Cervecería 100 Montaditos? It’s the type of laugh I’d give on discovering a foreign blogger had wasted 700 words describing Subway or GBK. But let them laugh; for its novelty value if nothing else, this place gets a write-up.

Now, who doesn’t like a good sandwich? The benefits of this simple snack are endless. It’s versatile enough to suit every appetite, from a dieter nibbling on a wholemeal tuna-and-low-fat mayo to a ravenous lad feasting on a triple club. The sandwich can cater for any occasion, posing one minute as a sophisticated cucumber-filled triangle, the next as a rough-and-ready doorstop with hunks of Cheddar cheese. It can sum up an entire meal in a single bready package – the egg-and-bacon breakfast sarnie for example, or the annual Christmas special, crammed with turkey and all the trimmings. There’s no better snack for munching on the hoof but it is just as often ordered sit-down with a side of chips.

And it is constantly reinvented, morphing into all manner of shapes and forms: rolls, wraps, baguettes, toasted sandwiches, open sandwiches, and even – for those who can’t (or won’t) eat wheat, breadless sandwiches, courtesy of Pret. Famous enough to be known by acronym alone (I refer of course to the BLT), the humble sandwich could perhaps be credited with bringing back M&S from the brink of insolvency. Finally, what higher culinary praise than this: the French – food snobs that they are – have adopted the noun le sandwich as a certified member of their very own language. Earl Sandwich would be proud. Continue reading

A bit of a tragedy: Henry VIII at the Globe

The Globe, 24th May 2010


What better place to take in Shakespeare than his Globe? You’d struggle to suggest somewhere, wouldn’t you? And indeed, the first half-hour of Monday night’s visit lived up to its romantic notion. It began with a jaunty little stroll across Millennium Bridge, bursting with ‘I-live-in-this-city’ smugness. We sashayed into the swish theatre foyer, collected our ‘press passes’ (media, dahling), sidled through to the courtyard, oooohed at the Elizabethan exterior – all whitewash and timber ­– aaaahed at the interior with its three tiers of beamed seating and decadent canopied stage decorated with gilt, sculpted lions and strips of plush red carpet. Our seats were good; we were lucky enough to be at the rear, where we had the privilege of a wall to lean against, unlike others who perched on backless benches or the ‘paupers’ milling about in the ‘yard’. A fanfare of trumpets heralded the entrance of the players, and Henry VIII began.  

And that, my friends, is where the good stuff ended.  To return to a phrase I used earlier – ‘take in’ – can it really be termed taking something in, when you’re watching and listening, but not understanding one goddamn word? When you’re seeing the actors’ mouths move, but thinking only about how your behind is really rather sore after three hours on a stiff, unyielding wooden plank. When you’re tapping your feet not in time to the harps and pipes, but rather to drown out the loudly protesting stomach of the OAP sat next to you, the rustling crisp packets from the gaggle of Japanese tourists and the sound of the whole audience repositioning their posteriors or shifting their weight to the opposite foot. Heed this advice: if you want to properly ‘take in’ the bard from the authenticity of this historic theatre, it’s an awfully good idea to read the play before you go (or, better, a diluted summary – remember Spark Notes?) and it’s an even better idea to bring a cushion.     

Having said all of the above, there are some things at the Globe that you can ‘take in’ quite easily. I certainly ‘took in’ the interval snacks. I also ‘took in’ the prices of said snacks: that is, in mild disbelief and not-so-mild horror. I wasn’t myself ‘taken in’ by the tat that is the gift shop merchandise, though  I’m sure some clowns – tourists and groups of impressionable schoolchildren – are quite magnificently taken in by the Manga editions of Hamlet and Macbeth, the Capulet boxer shorts and the pencils fashioned to look like quills.  

They say that Henry VIII is a play of spectacle. And spectacle there was, with a divorce, a wedding, a coronation, a Christening, a birth, a death, a song and a dance, and some codpieces of pretty spectacular proportion. Catherine of Aragon made a right old spectacle of herself, screaming histrionically in a tiresome and unconvincing Spanish accent. Even more spectacular was the mess made of Anne Boleyn’s lady-in-waiting, whose nationality lapsed from Russian to Eastern European to Czech, until she mentioned Carmarthenshire and I realised, OH MY GOD, she’s supposed to be Welsh.    

How symbolic that this was the play during which the original Globe burnt down, when it was staged in 1613. I’m sure there were audience members on Monday who might happily have taken a match to the place again if it meant escaping Acts Four and Five. Worth noting, too, is that Henry VIII was one of Shakespeare’s very last plays, and one whose authorship is disputed, with suspicions that it was co-authored or heavily revised by John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as playwright for the King’s Men. It is also one of the most seldom-performed of his plays. I am not surprised. These facts all taken together make me feel much less guilty about criticising one of our county’s most-admired historical figures and one of London’s most-revered landmarks. This time, alas, it was not for me.    

Henry VIII runs until 21 August 2010Buy Tickets
Other, slightly better, reviews:

The Times
The Telegraph
The Independent
The Guardian
Evening Standard

The first post …

When asked a few times recently, ‘If you could do any job, what it be?’ my habitual answer is always ‘I’d like to write’. Which got me thinking: writing is something I never actually do. Yes, I update my Facebook status. I tweet nonsensically. I write cake ingredients on the back of my hand and scribble down lists of cultural places I really should visit. I write vast emails on dry topics like schedules and budgets and word-counts and page dimensions. And I’m surrounded by other people’s writing every day. Hell, I even tell some of them how to write. But I never take the opportunity to write for myself.

And why not? If it’s what I want to do, why shouldn’t I just do it? Par example, look how easy it just was to get on here and type 150 words. But here’s the rub: what the hell does one write about?

Continue reading