Monday, November 26, 2007

By the time my early flight touched down at Heathrow, I had suffered the interminable wait for my bags and the equally long journey back to the flat by tube, I was, as you can imagine, shattered.

So, it would have made sense to use the four days I had before the next stage of the journey to rest up a bit and, to an extent I did. I mean, I only ate out twice, I did a little bit of exercise and on one day, I lay in until nearly 8am. Not bad for me

Still, by the time I was heading off on the next stage of the journey it seemed like I had hardly been home at all.

Where to next? Well, America of course.

I am going to make no bones about it. I adore America and I adore Americans. I think there is in that extraordinary country, to misquote Johnson “all that human life can afford” and for better or for worse, I was about to head off and find out.

First stop, Kansas City MO.

“What” I hear a collective exclamation “not New York or San Fransisco, or even New Orleans?” Well, of course I was going to go there don’t you worry your pretty little heads. But, I had a very special reason to head first to Kansas City MO and it can be summed up in one word. MEAT.

Let me retrace my steps a bit. A few years back, work brought me into contact with the good people of Hallmark and their book division. This necessitated a number of visits over the next few years to Kansas City, where they are based and also introduced me to my dear friend, Mr Mark Cordes.

For the last few years he has been tantalising me with stories of The American Royal BBQ competition which, despite his invitations, I was unable to attend because it coincided with the equally huge Frankfurt Book Fair.

This year, however, being unemployed, I had no such excuse and it just had to be the very first stop on the US leg of EAT MY GLOBE

OK, before we go any further let’s stop for a moment and talk about BBQ in general and The American Royal in particular.

BBQ in the US is a far cry from what we consider to be BBQ in Europe. In the UK for example, it is, to all intents and purposes, throwing a limp hamburger on the grill until it is charred on the outside and still raw in the middle.

In the US however, BBQ has nothing to do with a grill. It is all about the smoke. In fact it is all about the long slow smoking of meat that has be prepared by rubbing it with a variety of herbs and spiced. After the meat is cooked, it can then be served as it is or with sauces of different varieties.

Sounds simple enough, however, in the US, people have been known to shoot each other in arguments about cooking times, spice rubs and, most of all whether a sauce should be used.

Here in KCM, they use a sweet sauce whereas, as I was to find out later in the journey, in Texas they say “ if you need a sauce then there is something wrong with your BBQ” This is, as you can see, a very serious business indeed.

The American Royal too is a very serious business with over 500 teams taking part and over, wait for it, 400,000lbs of meat being eaten and consumed in, wait for it again, two days.

There are two levels to the competition. The Open which is, er open to anyone who books a space and The Invitational to which you have to be, er Invited by having won a championship elsewhere.

I had been invited, via Mark, to join a team called “Burn Rate” which comprised eleven of his friends from Kansas City and, a couple of days after I arrived in town via Chicago, I was collected by his friend, Paul and put to work with the set up for the large space they had rented for the event.

Now, it has to be said that this is a not inconsiderable task. They had rented a large truck ,which would provide not only transport but also accommodation for everyone during the three day event, and it was soon filled to bursting with all the things we would need to create a kitchen and party space too.

There was, of course, the food too of course. Not just the meat of which there was nearly 600lbs, but also, mustard and spicing for the rubs, vegetables for salads, breads, chips and heaven knows what else. Add to this, ridiculous amounts of booze and you begin to get the picture, particularly when you realise that this was only one of 500 teams.

This is very much a “guy” event. The wives of the various members of the team are “Q widows” for the duration of the American Royal and, although they come down to the party each night you can feel a sense of bewilderment amongst them as to why their men folk get quite so excited about this time of year.

As a man, it is easy to see. This is, in effect, the biggest tailgate party you can ever imagine. An opportunity for men to get away by themselves and hang out with other guys, drink copious amounts of booze and be generally disgusting.

I was all for it, although the soft London nancy boy in me persuaded me that sharing a truck with ten other men none of whom had bathed and all of whom were farting bourbon fumes, would not fare well in comparison to a soft comfortable bed and a hot shower back at Mark’s house. He, thankfully, was in complete agreement and, after set up was finished and we had rubbed some ribs and pork butt, we headed back to his place and crashed out.

The next morning, the smoker was in full effect

and the first of the day’s offerings was ready to be sampled. Some juicy, meaty, dense ribs provided the perfect breakfast particularly when washed down with the first, and certainly not the last, of the day’s beers.

It is a family affair too with the children of the team members coming along to help rub ribs and pork butt.

Mark had kindly organised for me to go on the VIP tour, so later than morning, I headed off with a group of other willing victims to visit half a dozen teams on The Invitational side of the showground.

Now, these are the real deal. Burn Rate took things seriously, but at the end of the day, this was a chance to get together and have fun. Not so for the competitive sorts on the Invitational. These are the pro’s. These are the guys who travel around the country every weekend to compete against each other and who can win cash prizes significant enough to keep them almost permanently on the road.

Mind you, it is not so serious that they don’t take the opportunity to give themselves great names too. Names which include, Motley Q, Morning Wood and my own particular favourite, The Master Basters. Fabulous.

We got tastes too, man we got tastes, ribs, pulled pork and brisket along with as much beer as we could handle. What we prepared at Burn Rate was great, but when you taste the championship stuff, you begin to see why people all over the US become so obsessed with this stuff. The ribs were so good that one booth even wrapped a whole bunch in foil for me to take back with me. I thought for one brief second about sharing them with my new friends, but then the evil god of porky goodness took over and I scoffed them all in about thirty seconds and arrived back at the Burn Rate booth burping and denying all knowledge of any ribs but their own. I think they bought it.

By now, the party was getting into full swing and I headed off to the fetid shower block to clean up a little. I had been put to hard work all day building a fence out of hay bails and wooden panels and, quite frankly, I stunk like a dead dog.

Showered and changed, I settled down to enjoy the night’s activities. I think, over the two days, we fed well over 500 people. Friends, sponsors and family all descended and chowed down on slices of fatty moist brisket, smokey ribs and, best of all, pork, slow smoked and then pulled apart before being tossed in a sweet sauce. There were some salads for the ladies and even some bits of chicken but I was concentrating on the main event.

Mind you, I had spent so much of the day eating ( remember those 8am ribs) that I was already pretty full and, like many of the organisers, shattered so much of the food was left to the guests to finish off as we sat around, drank and watched unfathomable American sport on TV.

And finish off the food they did. By midnight, it was if a plague of locusts had descended upon us and there was barely a morsel left.

It would be fair to say that most of us were “in our cups” by this time and, after the guests had departed, the guys began to fashion rudimentary sleeping places around our area. Hay bails for mattresses and inflatable beds in the truck which was already beginning to smell like Satan’s arsehole.

It was at this point that Mark and I decided to bail out and head back to his luxurious gaff for a decent shower and a soft bed ( soft jessies, remember?)

The organisers of the American Royal had decided to add another day to the event, primarily, I think to increase sponsorship. I think it would be fair to say that the idea did not meet with wholesale enthusiasm as people dragged themselves up the next morning and prepared for another day of the same.

But, like troopers we were all ready and prepared for another day of meaty goodness (see how we suffer for you?) by 9am and setting up for another party that night.

I had the chance to go on another tour so leapt at the opportunity only to find that the organiser had to drop out and handed me the itinerary and a flag and said “you can lead the tour, you’re a Brit. They will believe anything you tell them with that accent”

Which led to the unlikely sight of said Brit slaphead, that’ll be me then folks, leading a group of Americans (mostly wearing Stetsons with no hint of irony) around the showground feeding them any old bollocks I could think of.

And they did buy it

“ The American Royal began in 1875 after a visit from Queen Victoria who announced she fancied a bit of brisket for tea”

“over one million cows are killed to provide meat for teams” Er, this may well be true

“BBQ originated in Rotherham, England where coal miners used to smoke sparrows down the mines of a Saturday”

All complete garbage of course, but they fell for it hook, line and sinker. The accent really does have its uses.

By then, it was back to party number two, which was, thankfully, much more sedate than the night before and gave me the chance to talk more to my incredible hosts.

To get on a team for The American Royal is an amazing thing. To be invited back individually by each member in turn (even if the combo of booze and Midwestern accents did make me ask them to repeat if a number of times) was even more special.

In a few short days, I truly believe that I made some friends I will know for a very long time and, even if they did not mean it, I have every intention of coming back next year and every year after that until they take out a restraining order against me.

Top marks, however, go to Mr Mark Cordes who had been telling me about this event for years. He was not wrong. This was not only one of the highlights of my trip, but of my life. I cannot ever recall an experience like it

I have a mantra as I travel around the world and do extraordinary things.

“when would a nice middle class boy like me from London ever get to do X?”

Well, this nice, middle class boy from London went to The American Royal BBQ competition this year and, you know what? I’ll be back.

Thank Q Kansas City MO and thank you, Mr Mark Cordes

Sunday, November 25, 2007

So, that was just about it.

After the extraordinary few days up at the country house, I came back to Helsinki with Paola and Maija and spent the next couple of days pottering around the city doing nothing in particular.

On one day, I did try to repay even a little of the Rydman's incredible kindness by whipping up an Indian meal for them and a few of their friends. It seemed to go down well, but it was the very least I could do.

And, then it hit me. The day after I cooked for them, I awoke in my hostel bed to find that I could barely move. My body, after nearly three hard months on the road had decided to shut down. I had a temperature, my eyes and nose were running and I ached all over. These things are, as you may imagine, rarely a good sign. So, I stayed in bed and watched Finland’s rather bizarre TV channels all day as I dipped in and out of a fever filled sleep.

By the next day, I was feeling somewhat recovered and certainly hungry enough o get out of bed, shower and make my way to the market square for a plate of fried sprats and some berries I had been eyeing hungrily on a previous wander.

I had a quiet and very pleasant supper with Paola that evening and went to bed early in anticpipation of a 4.30am wake up call for my cab to the airport.

It had, as you can read, been quite a journey. Japan, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, Russia and Finland. Some memorable moments and some I would like to forget (oh the horror of those Chinese toilets) and some memorable people who I know I shall stay in touch with for a long time to come.

I had only a few days in London before I headed out on the next stage of EAT MY GLOBE to the USA and South America. But more of that later

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The next morning, Henry and Niko had threatened to take me out hunting and I promised that, if I was awake at 6am when they were leaving, I would join them.

I opened my eyes at about 8am pleased to find out that they had not bothered to raise me from my slumbers. My makeshift bed was incredibly warm and comfortable and I suspect that I would have turned their own guns on them if they had tried to make me leave it at that point.

Still, while the rest of the house slumbered, I toddled out to the sauna and washed myself in the water that was still warm from the night before and,after a breakfast of karelian pies, got ready for my big day.

The “big day” as it turned out involved me being deposited back at Pertii’s house to spend the morning with his wife, Kitti, or as she is known by one and all “ The Princessa”

I can, hand on heart, say that The Princessa is one of the most remarkable women I have ever encountered. I got a taster the night before, when we drove Pertii back to his house to find The Princessa and her daughter, Joanna busy preparing some food for a church social. Not, in this case a few sandwiches, but rows upon rows of tarts and pies.

Those of you who have ever read The Darling Buds Of May will know what I mean when I say that Pertii and The Princessa have an element of Ma & Pa Larkin about them, Their house always seems to be filled with people and the incredible smells of Princessa’s cooking seem to permanently fill the air.

That morning when I arrived, she was already hard at work preparing for a Sunday meal to which eleven or so people had been invited. First though, a little tour of their house, which, again, is like something out of a storybook with every nook and every cranny filled with stuff that she has collected. She looked shamefaced when she admitted to being a bit of a hoarder, but their home is a magical place with books tumbling from shelves and knick knacks littering every spare inch of mantelpiece.

The cellar in particular was a wonder to behold. Fileld with jar upon jar of cordials, jams and chutneys joined by birds hanging in one corner and spare pots and pans in another.

The Princessa is as close to perpetual motion as I have ever met and, as we talked she cooked. She ,of course, gave me something to eat and some fresh ginger and rhubarb juice that she had made that morning.

First we talked about the wild ducks that she was going to cook for lunch. Pertii took me outside to help him singe the last of the feathers off them before The Princessa stuffed them with apples, and browned them in a little butter before adding in a little stock and cream and allowing them to cook slowly.

Then we turned to the mushrooms which she was going to produce in three ways, pickled, in a salad with apples, cream and onions and cooked in cream as we had eaten the night before.

At this point, she was going to get really busy, so I left her to her own devices and headed out with Pertii and the Rydman’s who had joined us by now, to go and do a bit more foraging on the hills adjacent to the farm. I have to admit to doing precious little foraging and much eating of the lygon berries that were strewn everywhere. Amazing little things, tart but delicious and holding a special place in the hearts of the fins because of the part they played in keeping people alive in times of post war famine.

The laws in Finland, or at least this part, say that anyone is allowed to forage on any piece of land within a certain distance of the owners property. You need permission to hunt, but otherwise, it is open house.

A few buckets full of precious fungi and berries later and we headed back the house where dinner was about to be served. First, however, Pertii, as head of the household gave a speech in the form of an extract from a book. I did not understand a word, of course, but was told that he spoke about the respect man should have for the land that provides his food. Hats off to that is all I can say.

And, hats off to The Princessa who proceeded to fill a table with food until, I am pretty sure, I could see it sagging under the weight of the ducks, the mushrooms (three ways remember, there will be a test later) salads, a carpaccio made of elk, poached fish and home made breads.

In a traditional manner, we went with separate plates, first for fish dishes and then for meat.

It was all good. In fact, it was all wonderously tasty and I went back to the table more times than good manners dictated, but I didn’t care. This was the kind of meal you did not think existed anymore. Food that tasted like it was meant to.

A prime example was a bowl of potatoes. Martina had told me these were good, but she was being too modest by far. These are easily the best potatoes I have ever eaten, small and sweet needing nothing on them at all. No salt, no butter, nothing. I ate well over twenty of them and kept sneaking back to get another finally popping the last one into my mouth as I helped clear up.

After the meal, we retired to the drawing room and had tea with the merest slice of apple tart to keep the hunger pangs at bay.

By now it was late afternoon and it was time for people to head home including Henry and Niko who had to head back to the city.

That left me alone with Maija and Paola which was just fine by me and didn’t seem to phase them too unduly.

We returned to their own house where I was given orders to get the sauna going so I could take first dibs before they did.

I sat on my own in the increasing heat as I fuelled the furnace and took the time to ponder on what had happened on the journey so far. It had been an incredible experience and I had met some incredible people who had displayed astonishing hospitality.

But, I can truly say, that I have never met two people like Pertii and The Princessa before.

And, on that note, I headed off to my deep, comfortable couch to sleep the sleep of the righteous. I am not ashamed to admit, I dreamed of potatoes.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I did not really have time to think about the fact that I would probably never set eyes on most of my travelling companions ever again. With hindsight, I am sure some of them will be absolutely thrilled with that arrangement.

I had to be up at 5.30 the next morning to catch my train across the border from Russia to Finland.

I had my ticket, at last and, after a brief cab ride, found myself on my own in a first class compartment for the easy peasy five hour train ride.

Border crossing was a cinch and, after the oddities of border crossing in China, Mongolia and Russia, just waving my EU passport at the Finnish immigration officer was a breath of fresh air. A sort of "welcome back to Europe" if you will.

I passed the time by watching a couple of movies on my computer and, by the time and aging Bruce Willis had saved the world once again, it was time for me to get off and meet my latest new chums.

It may surprise a lot of people, given my ability to annoy, that I do actually have some people in this life who profess a certain level of affection for me. One of them is my rather splendid Finnish friend, Martina Rydman whom I met when I pointed out to her that coming into the gym and doing bugger all every day was a total waste of time.

Despite that unlikely beginning, she has become one of my closest, if most annoying, friends and was determined that I head to Finland when I announced plans for EAT MY GLOBE.

So, she recruited her poor unsuspecting family too and, there I was, standing outside Helsinki station in the pouring rain trying to find her sister, Paola.

Despite the fact that most of Helsinki’s streets had been closed down for some international “no car” day, the ever determined Paola had managed to get close enough for me to lug “Big Red” over to her car and get out of the rain before I was totally drenched.

A quick detour to my hostel to check in and drop off my luggage and we were soon speeding up on Finland’s almost deserted motorways towards the Rydman’s splendid little country pile about one hundred and forty miles to the north of the capital.

Unsurprisingly, I was pretty exhausted by this stage, but was perked up immeasurably by the smells of pea and ham soup bubbling agreeably on the hob and within about two minutes, I was made to feel entirely one of the family and was headfirst into my second bowl of very necessary pottage.

I could, by this point, easily have slept until my name was changed by deed poll to Rip Van Majumdar, but the Rydman’s had other plans for me.

Plans which included me putting on a pair of Wellington boots. Now, I am not sure about you, but I don’t have much call to ever put on a pair of wellies and certainly can’t think of a reason why I would own any. The Rydman’s have hundreds of pairs and I was soon standing outside the house, resplendent in a borrowed thick sweater, thick Finnish walking socks and the aforementioned gumboots. Personally, I think I looked a bit simple, but they all made sympathetic noises at my obvious discomfort.

The reasons for my new found use of rubber were two fold. First of all, we were about to head into the woods near their house to go in search of the wild mushrooms which proved to be so much of a staple in the local diet and, secondly, and even more fun for me, we were about to go hunting.

In my original plans, I had wanted to join the locals during the elk hunting season. A season, during which, I was told, they kill over 50,000 of the massive beasts. But, by a disagreeable twist of fate, the short season for this happened to coincide with my trip to Kansas city for the American Royal BBQ competition where just about as many animals would be cooked.

So, I had to settle for wild duck hunting which was just fine by me.

Not everybody thinks that hunting is “just fine” and I can certainly understand why. In the UK, much of the shooting I have encountered is the sterile execution of thousands of birds for sport with precious few of them ending up in anybody’s stomach. I would be as anti that as anybody. If all you want is a target, then shoot clays, not something which had a mom and a pop.

On the other hand, the hunting in Finland is quite different. Here, they shoot to kill and kill to eat. Wild birds, elk, deer, rabbit are all, er, fair game and all for the pot. I don’t have and never will have a problem with that. It would be slightly disingenuous given how much I like to eat the end result.

But first, the altogether less controversial matter of foraging for mushrooms and berries as we spent a good hour rummaging around on the forest floor looking for clumps of the incredible wild chanterelles and lygonberries.

We soon had buckets of the mushrooms which Maija, Martina’s mother had promised to cook up for us that evening. I could hardly wait, but it was, by now time for me to go off with Henry and chum, Niko and to meet Pertii.

Pertii is one of those men who you didn’t believe existed anymore. Literally, King of the Hill, he owned the over 125 hectares of land on which we were foraging and has been living off the abundance of the land for most of his nearly seventy five years.

We split into groups, Niko and Pertii went off in one direction and I followed Henry in another. I think we got the bum deal. I stood a respectful distance, as I always tend to from people with guns and Henry set himself up and made like a wild duck with a little kazoo type thing designed just for that purpose.

As the sun began to fall, it got progressively colder and I became progressively more grateful for the warm clothes I had borrowed.

We, much to Henry’s disgust, caught nothing, not even a cold. But, as I came closer to him ( after he had broken his gun, of course) he said

“the others got a couple”

How did he know? I pondered on some instinctive method of communication that men of the woods have developed after being in these environs for so long. Or, perhaps it was a calling system developed for the purpose handed down from generation to generation.

“oh no” Henry explained, digging out his Nokia “Niko just texted me". So there you go. Doh.

And, Niko and Pertii had indeed bagged a couple of beauties which would be ready for the pot after a couple of day’s hanging.

By now, it was pitch black so, after dropping Pertii back at his farm (more of this in the next post) we headed back to our own place to indulge in two more Finnish traditions.

First up, a sauna. Much like the one in Lake Baikal in Russia, this involved stripping down, sitting in an increasingly hot room for about half an hour and then throwing oneself in the nearby lake. Despite the fact that the temperature of the water had dropped to “for fuck’s sake” levels, it was a great way to clean up after the day and I was, by this time, starving.

So, when I saw Niko and Henry nailing a bit of fish to a plank of wood, I was intrigued to say the least.

Loimu, is, apparently a traditional Finnish dish made from, well you heard me, nailing a bit of fish to a bit of wood and dangling it over a fire.

It doesn’t sound so promising, but, when you have fish of the quality of the salmon being prepared and the glowing embers of a fire, the results can only be good and they were. The fish cooked through in the residual heat of the dying fire until it is medium which leaves it juicy and brings out all those bubbly salmon oils that are suipposed to do us so much good.

With a big pot of those mushrooms cooked down in cream and a local beer, it was the perfect meal and the perfect end to a day that I had been looking forward to for a long time. I kept on telling myself there had to be a good reason I knew Martina and, here it was.

The house was full, so my resting place had been made up on a large and deeply luxurious couch. It too was perfect and, as soon as my head………… Well you can guess the rest.