I once saw an insert on one of those awful travelogue-type programs that typically feature some ruggedly handsome, but still somehow inescapably smarmy, type person swanning around in Gondolas and musing endlessly about ‘faded glamour’ or some other crap. My usual reaction to these shows is to immediately attempt a recreation of the time my somewhat addled granddad beat the shit out of his TV with an 8-iron because he didn’t like the newsreader’s face (which, come to think about it, is probably the sanest reaction to the news I’ve heard in a while). The only problem being that this time I was actually intrigued enough to pause with the golf-club in hand because for once, the guy-with-a-face-like-a-cartoon-fish was actually saying something interesting. Balls.
It turns out that in the Czech republic, one of the more typical bar-snacks is called ‘beer cheese’. What happens is that a lump of cheese is brought to the bar in a saucer with some hunks of bread, beer is poured into the saucer and then the cheese is mashed up into it with a fork to make kind of a cheese/beer paste, which is then spread on the bread. No sucky old peanuts for these hardened Czech men. And then they drink the night away and sing songs of the old country where men were men and wrestled wolves naked by moonlight.
I couldn’t help it. I too wanted to be a man and wrestle, if not wolves, then at the very least an angry cat. And probably not naked either. Subsequently I never forgot the idea of ‘beer cheese’, and remembered those Czech men fondly. Which prompted, on a recent trip to Capetown where a couple of friends and I decided to take the afternoon off at the excellent Brewers & Union where there is both beer and cheese in abundance, the idea that it was time to try it.
Big. Fucking. Mistake. I wasted some good cheese, half my expensive lager and ended up with something that tasted like being sick on some bread, just about everyone laughed, and no-one went out to Tokai forest for a friendly wrestle. Plus, Colin Moss was there. Which just made the whole experience a miserable fail on just about every level.
Clearly, those Czech men are fucked in the head and someone needs to show them a pretzel, because all that wolf-grappling has obviously done lasting damage.
However, not all not-peanut Euro bar snacks are a heinous mess that taste like the floor of a bar after a 48-hour vomiting festival. And we have the Spanish to thank for it. Having recently become obsessed with Tapas – I’ve been introduced to the ultimate bar snack/dinner-in-a-hurry/simple meal accompaniment – Patatas Bravas, which thankfully knocks beer cheese into a cocked hat.
Now this is totally one of those meals that, on the surface, doesn’t look like anything special. If you’re a cynical, joyless, glass-half-empty type (like the beer-cheese men, clearly) – then yes, it’s just roast potato with tomatoes. But by the same token, the Great Pyramid of Giza is just an annoying pile of rubble blocking up an otherwise perfectly serviceable desert, so those people can just bugger off.
However, sometimes a thing is more than just the sum of its parts – and this is one of those moments. The smoked paprika, aioli, crispy potatoes, tomato and chives all somehow just come out right, and left an impression lasting enough for me to want to put it up here. And so, having cast around for a decent recipe and adapting something I found on the website for the Guardian (strangely enough) – I wound up up with:
Patatas Bravas (for 4) – or, spicy tomato relish with potatoes and garlic aioli.
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp smoked paprika (this is the key to the whole thing really, don’t use normal or sweet paprika – it won’t be the same)
2 tbsp malt vinegar
for the aioli
300ml olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
a dash of lemon juice
Chives, to serve
What to do
Get your oven to 200C while you get some other poor sucker to peel all the potatoes, because that bit is a real pain in the ass. Once they’re peeled, cut them into smallish cubes about an inch across or so. Bung a roasting tray with a healthy splash of olive oil into your hot oven and leave it to heat through. This should take about five minutes, or there and thereabouts. Take it out, toss the potatoes in the hot oil, sprinkle with a bit of salt and bake for about 45 minutes until crisp and golden.
While that’s on the go, it’s time for the sauces. Put two tablespoons of oil into a largish pan on a medium heat, and start frying the chopped red onion. After about about seven minutes when they’ve just started to crisp around the edges, put in the chilli, and cook for another few minutes, then adding the tomatoes, sugar, salt and smoked paprika. Stir it up like a champ, bring it to a boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes until rich and darker in colour. Take off the heat, add a tablespoon of the malt vinegar, and sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper if needed.
To make the aioli, put the egg in a bowl along with the garlic and the other tablespoon of malt vinegar. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and either with a hand-beater or a blending stick, whizz until incorporated. Then, this is the bit where you’ve got to be careful – start adding in the rest of the olive oil while beating all the time until you’ve got a creamy mayonnaise-style sauce. Like everything, taste it! Then you can add salt accordingly, and finally finish it off with a good dash of lemon juice .
Take the potatoes out of the oven, spread the tomato sauce on to the plates, put the potatoes on top, then add a dollop of aioli and a sprinkle of chives, turn on the rugby and serve immediately with a cold beer or some strong red wine.