In Praise of the Knife

                  

It’s 7.30am and I’m thinking about using a knife. Your murderous assumptions aside, cutlery is really what’s on my mind (which I’m sure is clearly normal at this time of the morning). I used to consider my knife as merely a piece to be used on the periphery of the meal. It was more of a “swap fork for  knife, cut with stronger hand, put knife down, use fork, repeat as necessary, if necessary” kind of process. Now, of course, you Brits have shown me the light.

Our parents or guardians tend to be the main teachers of these skills. They instruct, they guide, we watch and we do. Mine use their knife and fork as the above, so of course I followed suit and spent the next 22 years ineptly wandering around my plate, unbeknownst as to what I was missing out on. In fact, this way of eating is more obvious to me now when they come to visit as a fair portion of our activities revolve around food. But I have seen them go through entire meals without using their knives and now, with my baptism into British culture basically complete, I find it rather curious.

Of course, it may seem ridiculous to comment on this; maybe it’s a West Coast thing. Maybe in Denver, Baton Rouge and New York they are as ambidextrous as the English, but I don’t know; I kind of doubt it. I’ve seen a fair amount of my compatriots eat in this manner. In any case, the thing I’ve not been able to impart to my parents is how much they are missing out by feeding themselves this way. Don’t get me wrong; it was a slow process learning to use my knife properly. And even when I did, with my fork in my right hand and knife in my left, I’m still arse backwards, but at least a lot closer than many others from the homeland.

Of course, eating without a knife is inefficient. It creates an additional unnecessary step that could be avoided and thus keeping the flow of one’s meal intact and as the cook intended. But most importantly, without it actual tasting becomes disjointed. It is impossible to try all the flavours of a dish, be it a roast dinner, spaghetti Bolognese, or poached eggs on toast, if you are just stabbing at it with your fork. A little bit of roast potato loses its impact when eaten separately to its neighbouring slice of beef, where it only receives a token drenching of gravy. The meat in your ragú goes from being the star of the show to playing second fiddle, and my god, don’t get me started on missing every little bit of the precious runny egg yolk which saturates your sourdough. That damn knife needs to be there. It is essential.  

Perhaps I am overanalysing this. Maybe I should just assume everyone eats the best way they know how. Surely Asians are not frustrated by runny egg yolks and their futile attempts to eat them with chopsticks. But then again….they very well might be.

Arm yourselves, people. Use that knife for a purpose higher than just cutting and don’t miss out on getting the very best out of a meal. You’ve been supplied with the easiest of tools to make it possible and your palate will be forever grateful.


Post script: My mom emailed me earlier this week. Turns out she is converted. Now, only to get my dad on board….

Flavours of Brixton at Cafe Max

Itumblr_m86nf6BRVg1qjcl1qn my mind, Café Max has always existed in Brixton though for some reason I’ve never been. Perhaps when I first moved to here 10 years ago, my “fresh off the boat” mentality meant I was less adventurous to visit the more local haunts and so stuck with what I felt more comfortable.  But as Brixton has become my adopted Home, surely I cannot consider myself a Local without trying local places.

I came hoping for a proper Portuguese breakfast but the menu board, filled with a huge variety of sandwiches, only proffered a full English – not what I wanted. I asked the proprietress what she’d suggest for a true Portuguese breakfast. She smiled and said traditionally, it was a ham and cheese sandwich, and a cup a coffee. Perfect.

tumblr_m86ngbgEfg1qjcl1q

An enormous sandwich and a latte arrived at my table, and I ate whilst watching a steady stream of patrons coming in and out, necking espresso at the bar, or stopping for a chat with someone they knew at a neighbouring table. These people are locals in the truest sense of the word; they’ve been here in good times and in bad and they will likely be here when hipsters decide that Brixton isn’t cool anymore.

The sandwich didn’t blow my mind, but it probably didn’t expect to either. Portuguese breakfasts seem to be fairly unadventurous, and further research suggests that indeed they try to keep it simple: bread/sandwiches, cereal, yoghurt, fruit and maybe some pastries. However, the coffee was great and of course, what I was most interested in trying were the wonderful delights residing in the pastry case.

tumblr_m86nhqhUEW1qjcl1q

She gave me a pasteis de nata (custard tart) and a bola de bacalao (fried salt cod ball). The bolas, made in-house, consist of mashed potato, salt cod, parsley and garlic. They are then moulded into little balls and fried. The salt cod gave great flavour to the fluffy, garlicky mash, and whilst not typically a breakfast food, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Next time, I’m thinking a couple of those with an ice-cold Sagres might really hit the spot.

tumblr_m86nirAPYx1qjcl1q

The pasteis was also wonderful – lovely creamy custard; carmelised sugar giving off fantastic brulée after notes; the pastry was flaky, delightfully crunchy, and utterly perfect. Whilst these little goodies are delivered from a local bakery, the proprietress makes the rest of the cakes in-house. Two had just come out of the oven when I was there: one resembling a bundt cake and another, an almond tart, which she took particular pride in. She said that everyone loves this cake, and offered me a slice to try. Still warm, and despite her protesting it tasted better completely cooled, I can see why she can confidently claim such praise. The base was wonderfully light vanilla sponge; the topping sticky, crunchy and lightly toasted slivered almonds.

tumblr_m86nlkWS1j1qjcl1q

Café Max really seems to gives off a proper flavour of Brixton, both figuratively and literally. Its patrons mirroring Brixton’s diversity with a mesh of Portuguese, Jamaican, English and now American; the Portuguese food proudly served side-by-side with full Englishes. I cannot vouch for the lunch fare, but if anything, a slice of almond tart with a cup of coffee could really make one’s morning. I know it did mine.

£8 for sandwich, coffee, bola, pasteis and almond cake, including service

Café Max,18 Brixton Station Road, SW9 8PD

An edited version of this review can be found on http://www.brixtonblog.com/flavours-of-brixton-at-cafe-max/6072