Escape games, Budapest

In the Claustrophilia flat, Oliver studies a stamp collection in his desperate search for clues

In the Claustrophilia flat, Oliver studies a stamp collection in his desperate search for clues

In the Hungarian capital, ‘escape games’ are all the rage. Can Oliver Thring find the exit?

The shuttered address is on a quiet street that smells of petrol. I press the buzzer. There’s an unintelligible mumble and an electric drone, then I shove the door open to reveal a stairwell with peeling paint and some stuffed, smelly bins. Up a flight, the door to one flat is ajar. I walk, unescorted, into the apartment and shut the door behind me, whereupon it locks. A key dangles on an adjacent chain, padlocked in such a way that it just fails to reach the hole. A ticking clock gives the time as 12.02pm. I have 58 minutes to get out.

Escape games, in which contestants are locked into a room, or a series of rooms, and have to solve puzzles to leave them, have rapidly taken hold in Budapest. The city now has dozens, and the best designers and creators are being hired to develop games around Europe and in America. Although their origins are obscure, possibly Japanese, the games suit the grubby boulevards and mouldering stucco of this cultured, faded city better than anywhere else. Rents on flats in central Budapest can be as low as £164 a month: this is one of the few ways to make money from a crumbling asset.

In the room, stalked by incipient panic, I look around. Two doors lead to adjacent rooms: one of the doors opens a few inches on a chain, giving an unsettling glimpse of the space beyond, which appears to be divided by chicken wire. The second door, padlocked, has three nuts screwed into it, the kind a spanner might fit, with arithmetical signs drawn cryptically between them. My new, and hopefully temporary, home is also found to contain: a cupboard, holding an incongruous hairdryer; a large trunk, locked; an intercom, which I press to hear a Mitteleuropean accent rasp, “You have one hour”; and — aha! — a little old suitcase, which contains a few open-ended spanners. You’ve probably worked out the next step.

Being locked in an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar city, carries an instant and jarring feeling of alienation. The weirdness is automatic, bolstered by low ceilings, communist-era wallpaper and unreadable books. A printed A4 page in broken English playfully advises drunk people not to take part. The injunction serves as a reminder that Budapest is a young, back-of-the-bus party city — one reason these games have become so popular is the flow of InterRailing students and stag weekends. Yet I can’t think of anything more annoying than trying to fiddle with magnets, stamps and Allen keys in a locked, looless flat after 17 pints of Pecsi Sorfozde.

Eventually, I manage to open the door to the next room, which contains more tests reminiscent of the ones to which Richard O’Brien used to provide a harmonica soundtrack on the 1990s Channel 4 show The Crystal Maze. It contains locked desk drawers, old bookshelves, an ancient birdcage and a vintage train set, some of it inaccessible behind glass.

The adventure continues at The Sunday Times (£)

 

Hello, I’m your kettle – fancy a cuppa?

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They call it the internet of things: washing machines you turn on remotely, lawnmowers controlled by iPhone, fridges that order your milk. Oliver Thring moves into the iHome

“In real life” — IRL — is the coy internet slogan that was once used to distinguish online interaction from actual existence. People used the web to write messages to each other, to speak and to share photos, but IRL dealings were somehow different.

Not so long ago, you had to sit at a computer to “surf the web”, as the quaint mixed metaphor went. But a study last week found that teenagers essentially see online and real life as the same thing. Weirdly but wondrously, the ordinary things we use in everyday life are joining the internet — and now, at last, you can talk to your washing machine.

This week Samsung’s “smart” washing machine will go on sale in Britain, a £1,700 gleaming vanity appliance. You can control it remotely from your phone, telling it to switch itself on while you’re sitting in the office — potentially useful if you don’t know when you’re coming home — and it somehow senses how dirty your washing is, adjusting its cycle accordingly.

After years of fitful starts and failures, this “internet of things” is becoming reality.

I went to a house in Croydon last week to witness the future: a man controlling a lawnmower with an iPhone. The Robomow, a quietly whirring piece of Israeli engineering, works like one of those robot vacuum cleaners that pootles around a sitting room of its own accord. Some patches of grass are too fiddly for it to work on its own, so you can steer the machine using your phone.

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Ah yes, you can feel the pile of gold in this one

Oliver Thring handles one of the sturgeons farmed for Exmoor Caviar; the venture has seven species of the fish (Stuart Clarke)

Oliver Thring handles one of the sturgeons farmed for Exmoor Caviar; the venture has seven species of the fish (Stuart Clarke)

As Britain’s first farmed caviar goes on sale at £2,000 a kilo, Oliver Thring gets his hands on the producers

Go down the little hill in the thatched, white-painted village. Pass between two cottages and follow the bendy lane. You’ll hear lapping water and the occasional splash of a fin. Nine million gallons of the River Mole pass gently through this Devon farm every day.

Swimming in that water, in concrete tanks, are about 30,000 sturgeon: seven species, including the Siberian, sevruga and some ghostly albinos.

They are between a few weeks and more than 12 years old. Some species of sturgeon can hold 40,000 eggs — a cargo worth thousands of pounds. But as I stand on the slippery floor of one tank, in borrowed, muddy waders, with these expressionless beasts circling round me like sharks round a kiddie canoe — money is the last thing on my mind.

Ken Benning hands me a 3ft fish, and I clamp her to my chest in an uneasy embrace. Eel-like and firm, she is a cone-nosed, bottom-feeding, prehistoric throwback. She predates the dinosaurs, and her protesting tail is as muscled and taut as a cyclist’s calf. Four barbels dangle like bum fluff before her gaping mouth. Gloop-gloop, it goes.

“Don’t worry: they don’t bite,” says Benning, who left a £200,000- a-year job in publishing to set up in caviar a few years ago.

I do a weak Bear Grylls gurn for the camera and the PR shrieks with laughter. Her skin is slimy (the fish’s, not the PR’s): I lower her into the tank and, as she kicks away, she slaps at the water with her tail. “Ooh, she’s angry now!” Benning chortles.

Last Friday, tins of Exmoor Caviar went on sale in Selfridges department store: the first time farmed British caviar has been in the shops here. It costs £2,000 a kilo: the smallest tin, a 10g tiddler, is yours for £20. Caviar is probably only worth eating if you’re eating a lot of it, and Exmoor’s is cheap by the product’s preposterous standards. Some beluga, the most prized variety, can cost almost £30,000 a kilo.

It may still be early days, but Benning’s outfit has a charming English ropiness. After manhandling the sturgeon, I am led into what he calls “the giant sink”: a metallic hose-down room separated with plastic sheeting, where we pull on hospital overalls. Two recently killed sturgeon — bashed on the head with a “priest” and dripping blood into a drain — swing from a dressing hanger.

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The Dish: Sacré bleu!

Clove Club’s buttermilk chicken with pine salt (Manuel Vazquez)

Clove Club’s buttermilk chicken with pine salt (Manuel Vazquez)

Alain Ducasse, high priest of French cuisine, has written his first book about British food

Alain Ducasse, who may be the richest chef in the world, used to be French but became a citizen of Monaco a few years ago, finding its tax system surprisingly agreeable. He still quacks like a Frenchman, though, which makes his pronouncements about modern British food all the more surprising.

His new book, J’aime London, recommends 100 places to eat in the capital, showing off the burgeoning range of British restaurants today. Our three recipes this week, chosen in consultation with Ducasse, are signature dishes from kitchens that help to illustrate that range.

The Clove Club is a modern, no-choice and relaxed venue from one of Britain’s most talented young chefs, the softly spoken Scot, Isaac McHale. He dredges tender pieces of chicken thigh in a fluffy batter and flavours them with pine needles: the dish sounds cheffy but is surprisingly easy. Spuntino restaurant is part of the influential Polpo group, which launched in 2008 and has led to its founder, Russell Norman, taking over from Gordon Ramsay as Britain’s chief telly restaurant consultant. Its sexed-up cheese on toast would make an astonishing Sunday-night supper. Jeremy Lee’s pudding of shortcakes with marmalade and goat’s curd is, Ducasse told me as he devoured it at 11 o’clock in the morning, the kind of dish that could only exist in Britain.

I meet Ducasse in Quo Vadis, Lee’s restaurant in Soho, central London. He is almost an hour late and, in his grey suit, round tortoiseshell specs and naffly monogrammed white shirt, looks like a lost shipping broker. “The traffique was terry-bull,” he wheezes by way of apology.

In many ways, he implies, London has become a more interesting place to eat than Paris. “There is a larger range of concepts here, more diversity, more design, more novelty,” he says. “Paris has a lot of young talented chefs, but  it’s very different. London is an incredible, extraordinary city for food.”

Ducasse’s 28 restaurants in eight countries share at least 21 Michelin stars. For years, largely as a branding exercise, astronauts on the International Space Station have enjoyed dishes of his, including duck breast with capers, and organic quinoa with seaweed puree.

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Sorry, Apple, I’m giving up iPhones as a bad Jobs

Steve Jobs launches the iPhone, Apple’s most earth-shaking invention (Paul Sakuma)

Steve Jobs launches the iPhone, Apple’s most earth-shaking invention (Paul Sakuma)

Since the death of its visionary leader, the company has not come up with a single must-have gadget

In kiddie trainers and dad jeans, Steve Jobs stood before the crowd of whooping San Francisco nerds. It was 2007. “Today we’re introducing three revolutionary products,” the leader piped.

“A widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough internet communications device.” The joke, of course, was that they were all the same thing.

Even though, as we now know, Apple was barely ready to launch the iPhone at that “keynote speech”, the machine was a delight. Nothing in consumer technology had come close to its smooth and sparkling elegance. I bought the first model shortly after it came out. With the iPod in 2001, 2007’s iPhone and the iPad of 2010, Apple under Jobs’s leadership did not merely create new products but also generated entire categories of stuff to sell.

Now I find myself considering other options. Insofar as you can ever love a company, I’ve fallen out of love with Apple. How long ago that keynote speech seems. Last week the Taiwanese company HTC launched its newest smartphone with the strange stunt of installing a skateboard park in the old Selfridges hotel in London.

The manufacturer’s previous model, the HTC One, had won lots of awards, and more than a year after it had come out — aeons in technology time — it was still the most recommended smartphone on dozens of geek websites.

The new model is very much of our times, designed particularly for taking selfies. HTC makes much of the five-megapixel front-facing vanity camera, whose pictures you can primp and airbrush to widen your eyes, smooth your skin and raise your cheekbones.

The best feature is a customisable feed of news, Twitter messages, Instagram pictures, birthday notifications, incoming emails and whatever else you want on it. The phone is about £500 to buy outright; you’d comfortably pay more than a grand to use it on a 24-month contract.

Jobs died from pancreatic cancer in 2011. Some doctors said he had almost certainly shortened his life by refusing conventional medicine at first and treating himself with fruit diets, acupuncture and assorted mumbo-jumbo. Since then, under the grey functionary Tim Cook, Apple’s new chief executive, every development from the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, has been trumpeted more noisily and seems to have delivered less.

Apple Maps, launched in 2012, was catastrophic. Greenland bobbed in the Indian Ocean and Dublin airport appeared to be a farm. In September last year allegations emerged that Apple’s suppliers’ factories in China were still using child labour, forced overtime and illegal 66-hour working weeks. (This followed the suicides of 14 workers in 2010 at Foxconn, a manufacturer that supplies Apple and has been described as a “labour camp” by 20 Chinese universities.) Apple has a fondness for spending billions of dollars on fighting patent wars to nobble its rivals, instead of outcompeting them with its products.

Continue reading at The Sunday Times (£)

The Dish: In llama land

Virgilio Martinez’s scallop and passion fruit salad (Gareth Sambidge)

Virgilio Martinez’s scallop and passion fruit salad (Gareth Sambidge)

Peruvian food — especially ceviche — manages to be hot and cool at the same time

The rolls are fat with pork. Thinly sliced, roasted leg has been marinated in lime juice and spices, sloshed in mild chilli sauce flecked with coriander, and given crunch and lift by red onions steeped in lime juice. It’s 9am and I’m on my third sandwich. Ferran Adria, one of the most famous chefs in the world, and who until 2011 ran elBulli on the Costa Brava, is sweating nearby in the sub-equatorial summer.

Last spring, Adria opened Pakta, a Barcelona restaurant that specialises in Peruvian-Japanese dishes. Now he is here in Lima to mark a new restaurant from Gaston Acurio, Peru’s most famous chef by miles. The gentle, burly, bouffanted Acurio has relaunched his Lima venue Astrid y Gaston in a 19th-century farmhouse that is all but swallowed by the smoggy sprawl of the capital. This summer, with compatriot Virgilio Martínez, he will open his first restaurant in Britain.

Peruvian food is growing in popularity. London has seen an explosion in Peruvian restaurants recently. Coya is the most expensive and refined; Lima, overseen by Martinez, gained a Michelin star last year, while Martin Morales, a great spokesman for Peruvian food in Britain, founded Ceviche and last summer toured it in a series of pop-ups. One importer of pisco, the brutal, grappa-like national spirit, says sales have increased fivefold in the past two years; and Manchester-based online retailer Viva Peru has recently started selling many popular Peruvian ingredients, including the characteristic aji chilli.

Long before Australian cooks meshed flavours from Asia and Europe, immigration and colonialism worked on Peru’s coastal, Andean and Amazonian cuisines to create something complex and individual. To the domestic bedrock of potatoes, beans, native fruits, corn, tomatoes and chilli peppers, the Spanish added garlic and onions, beef, pork and lamb, limes and wheat. With the Chinese came soy and stir-frys and a greater emphasis on rice. Finally, the Japanese applied a refined sensitivity to the local cooking, not least in their knife skills.

Ceviche is often called Peru’s national dish but that is largely a first-world description. The acidity in “tiger’s milk” (the misleading Peruvian term for a citrus-based, dairy-free marinade) “cooks” the proteins of raw fish in a way vaguely comparable to heat. Enhanced by onions, sweet potato and kernels of corn, ceviche is probably the best thing to eat in Peru, although the vastly popular roast chicken marinated in cumin, soy and garlic runs a close second.

In a city called Arequipa I found myself walking around an old and almost deserted monastery. Exploring a little corner, I heard some loud squeaks. The sociable and chatty guinea pigs lived in cool stone hutches. Along with lean and venison-like llamas and alpacas, they were the main source of pre-colonial protein. I tried them a couple of times — the rodents remain popular at festivals and as a gringo dare. Fittingly, they taste like pork.

Some of the food is odder still. One popular dish is the freshwater dragon fish, open-mawed and sharp-toothed: Acurio serves it roasted, slathered in an umami-rich glaze. I remain impervious to Peru’s extensive repertoire of stodgy cold potato dishes and 1970s stuffed peppers. But the best meal I had by far (albeit the most divorced from the experience of ordinary Peruvians) was at Virgilio Martinez’s Central in Lima. It’s one of the world’s 50 best restaurants, according to a controversial list sponsored by San Pellegrino; the scallop and passion fruit recipe on the previous page is based on one of its most popular dishes. (Chia seeds are minty, nutritious and quite trendy in Britain.)

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Grubs up! Insects are the taste of tomorrow

Thring finds his new diet hard to swallow (Ray Wells)

Thring finds his new diet hard to swallow (Ray Wells)

David Faure is a wheedling, pouty, square-plates chef from Nice. Last week, he was complaining that he had recently lost his Michelin star thanks to his wheeze of serving customers insects and worms. “We were the first starred restaurant in France to dare to create a menu based around insects,” he preened, adding that he would not “bow to any diktat”.

No doubt “crickets in a whisky bubble with cubes of French toast and pears” was the work of an unparalleled culinary genius. But I suspect the inspectors took against Faure’s restaurant, Aphrodite, not because he used insects, but because of how he used them. Europeans seem to be developing a new interest in entomophagy: at least two British companies have been launched in recent months, selling freeze-dried arthropods to a nose-wrinkling public. The Mexican chain Wahaca hosted a gimmicky grasshopper dinner last year, and other insects have popped up at pop-ups and supper clubs. Never put anything in your mouth as a joke or a dare, runs the credo of one food critic. But grubs are increasingly grub.

Last autumn at Noma, the pioneering Copenhagen gastro-temple that, until recently, topped one list of the world’s best places to eat, I ate butter that had been flavoured and flecked with bashed-up wood ants. They tasted mouth-puckeringly tart, like unripe berries, but carried an inviting exoskeletal crunch. The almost-as-famous DOM restaurant in Sao Paulo in Brazil serves guests a single freezer-cold Amazonian ant on a cube of pineapple. It’s an uplifting dish — a nutty note of lemongrass on juicy yellow flesh.

Those chefs do not do this to shock — or, at least, not only to shock. About 2bn people around the world, mostly in Asia and Africa, eat insects regularly. The western proscription against the activity is relatively modern: as hominids, we probably spent millions of years eating insects and at most a few thousand developing taboos against them. “Even these of them ye may eat”, affirms the elsewhere picky Leviticus, “the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.”

Reassured, I ordered a kind of grasshopper. And buffalo worms, mealworms and crickets. This plague descended on the Sunday Times offices in transparent vacuum packs from a British company called Eat Grub and had been grown on a Dutch farm. (Pause, if you will, to consider the hissing, buzzing, terrifying writhe of the place.) The mealworms smelt of dust and almonds, with a strange savour of instant mashed potato that outstayed itself on the palate.

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Pull the udder one: ‘filks’ haven’t gotta lotta bottle

Natali Stajcic and Chi-san Wan sell almond milk for £4.80 a litre

Natali Stajcic and Chi-san Wan sell almond milk for £4.80 a litre

Sales of ‘fake’ or non-cow’s milk are rising but it lacks the comfort of the white stuff

We drink less milk in Britain than we used to. Food scares, the rise of veganism and the demonisation of fat have led to a 10% fall in consumption in the past 10 years.

Conversely, we seem to be drinking a lot more fake milks, or “filks” — made from rice, almond, hemp and flax. Sales of “other milks” were up almost 40% last year in a market thought to be worth more than £100m.

They aren’t true milks, of course, but off-white filtered, watered-down mush. Soy was once the favourite but is now embroiled in claims that it is unsuitable for young children and upsets men’s hormones. Sales are down this year.

Earlier this month Britain’s first cold-press almond squisher opened for business. The Pressery in east London sells high-end unpasteurised almond milk at £4.80 a litre. It’s delicate, delicious and nothing like milk.

Meanwhile, Rebel Kitchen offers “dairy-free coconut goodness” in little cartons aimed at kids. Brooklyn hipsters are reportedly drinking cashew milk.

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The Dish: Vegging out

(Aparna Jayakumar)

(Aparna Jayakumar)

Eat, pray, love it: Anjum Anand travels to the Punjab to show Oliver Thring the best of India’s street food

I’m watching a man make bread. He’s wearing a checked lumberjack shirt, dusty jeans, flip-flops and, incongruously, a vinyl pinny spotted with daisies, like a 1950s housewife. He works from a low-roofed stall in a hot, flyblown market; near him, motorbikes toot and dodge the skinny cattle. A hand-painted sign in Hindi serves as a short menu, but seems unnecessary. This guy cooks only one thing.

With long, oil-licked fingers he quickly kneads wet dough, flipping, turning, pressing and shaping it into a stubby, squidgy coil. He’s making kulcha, the folded Punjabi bread that’s stuffed with a paste of coriander leaves and spices, including cardamom and cumin. At last, in his own time, he flattens the little roll and presses it by hand against the scorching sides of the tandoor. The oven roars at about 400C and the bread bakes and rises in seconds, patterning itself in charred leopardskin spots.

“The French claim they invented puff pastry,” says Anjum Anand, standing next to me. “I think not.” This is Anand’s first visit to Punjab, although, 50 years ago, her family lived in this part of northern India. Anand recently finished her second cookery series on BBC2 and is about to publish her seventh book. An earlier cookbook, Indian Food Made Easy, knocked Harry Potter from the top of the Amazon chart.

Punjab is India’s most fertile state, and thus one of its richest. Vegetables grow in abundance, not least mustard greens, a spicy leaf that tastes like spinach. The dairy industry is thriving and the yoghurt and butter are the best on the subcontinent. Amritsar, where we’ve come, is the holiest place in Sikhism. More than 100,000 pilgrims a day visit the Golden Temple, the site of a notorious massacre in 1984. Twenty-four hours a day, its monks feed a similar number of people a simple vegetarian meal. Nobody goes hungry here.

Surjit Food Plaza is one of the town’s most famous restaurants and — by local standards — it’s relatively grand, which is to say it has chairs made from something other than plastic. Surjit himself, extravagantly bearded, wears his capacious turban like a crown. When he realises a celebrity is in his restaurant, he shoos the chefs from the tandoor and ostentatiously begins roasting kebabs of green-herbed freshwater fish himself. They roast and colour in an instant — when he takes them out, hot fragrant steam escapes from them in wisps.

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Q&A-plus for the brainbox Facebook

Stephen Fry was an early fan of Quora (Getty)

Stephen Fry was an early fan of Quora (Getty)

One sign of a good education is the recognition that questions are often more interesting than answers. A website called Quora increasingly illustrates this principle. It was launched in 2010 by a couple of twentysomething Facebook executives, with an initial valuation of $86m (£51m) — and now a figure in the billions. Stephen Fry and the actor Ashton Kutcher were early fans, but the initial response from many British users was rather muted.

This seems to have changed in recent months. Quora has ripened into one of the most consistently engaging and enlightening spaces on the internet. Its premise is simple. Using their real names, people post questions for others to answer. You vote an answer up or down according to whether or not you like it; the most popular rise to the top.

Some questions, such as “What are some of the most epic photographs ever taken?”, offer nothing more than standard and enjoyable internet procrastination. Others, such as “What’s it like to be a geek in prison?” or “How does Apple keep secrets so well?”, allow people with specialist knowledge of a subject to explain. One of the most-viewed questions is “What’s it like to be a drug dealer?”. The “best” answer is a fascinating 3,000-word account from a self-professed “mid-level trafficker” who sold more than $1m-worth of marijuana and cocaine after leaving university — and got away with it.

The best questions are the ones with no right answer. In response to “What is/are the most startling discoveries made by the human race?”, users have argued for electricity, money, the wheel, antimatter, antibiotics, the heliocentric model and cooking. The current leader is mathematics.

What is the most underrated piece of art? Quora thinks it is Harry Beck’s 1931 map of the London Underground. This could be because most of Quora’s users are in America, though as many as a third are thought to live in India.

Continue reading at The Sunday Times (£)