Following the extremely unexpected success of our first turn on the No Such Thing freebie-go-round, we were inundated with requests from London eateries, clamouring for a chance to give us a free lunch in exchange for a similarly sprightly write up. We were, however, faced with a dilemma. Namely, Ed Cumming’s piece was really good – so good, in fact, that any attempt to simply replicate what he’d achieved risked lapsing into diminishing returns. So, we decided to double down by adding that essential extra ingredient to any British cultural unit – the cold, shallow splash of celebrity, baby!
Luckily for us, friend of The Fence, Annie Mac is quite (a) famous and (b) fond of free lunches, so she and I set off for an Irish-themed trip to Daffodil Mulligan to do some prating about praties in a spud-friendly safe space.
Daffodil Mulligan is a progressive slice of Irish culture in Shoreditch, right beside that massive, demented roundabout on City Road, the one with the great, big, vaunting lawnmower blades, which I imagine being switched on at night to take down small birds and, one presumes, drones controlled by other, competing tech companies operating from other, competing roundabouts. Annie and I arrive at the same time, but from different doors, and as we stride toward each other, it feels a little like we’re being introduced on an uplifting reality show that arranges dates for the recklessly pale.
I first met Annie last May, to interview her about her excellent debut novel, Mother Mother. Like all Irish people working in London media, we’ve since bonded over the fact that we’re not giant freaks. A few months later, after seventeen years at the Beeb, Annie withdrew from presenting her huge Radio 1 show to write full time, and is currently at work on her second novel. It centres on two flavours of the Irish immigrant experience in London; the upwardly mobile transit of young people in the noughties, and the more hard-trodden path of the Irish who came to work as navvies and railwaymen in the fifties and sixties. Like most Irish people, I’d heard lurid tales from family friends, that if you died on the job in London, they just built more London around you. Annie’s research appears to bear this out.
‘If you fell into the cement of the Victoria Line while it was being built, you’d be buried in the cement. I spoke to a navvie who was like, ‘oh yeah we know those guys – we called them the Tunnel Tigers, because they got paid for every yard they dug’.’ She pauses. ‘There’s a real contrast between these old guys who came over in the fifties and sixties in order to feed their families back home and are still here, and then these – us – who came over in the nineties and noughties and get jobs in the fucking media, like let’s go, the world belongs to me!'
As if to underscore this difference, we survey the fancy wares on the menu in front of us, full of reassuringly Irish-sounding elements (oysters, potato cakes, black pudding) – shot through with pleasingly exotic flourishes (everything else). The first to arrive is a stunning curlicue of octopus, served with tarragon hummus and soft, small nubs of blood orange. It’s a great big tentacle, wonderfully purple and deliciously crispy, chargrilled so that the meat slides apart like BBQ pork, justifying the horror of upsetting its delightful, horror movie presentation.
Annie, who’s been a pescatarian for the last ten years, leaves me alone to eat the superb mangalitza black pudding, topped with a draped awning of durrus, it’s plopped in a little pat of mushy smoked tomato. The whole thing crumbles as I prong it into my mouth, and it feels earthy, in the sense that it has something like the colour and texture of the most delicious soil you’ve ever eaten. That doesn’t sound as nice it as it was, but food writing is hard, I guess.
I mention, quietly, that the Irish food of my childhood wasn’t exactly expansive, with bacon, spuds and cabbage about as exotic as it got. Annie tells a similar tale.
'My mam' she says, 'bless her, I wouldn’t want to denounce her cooking in the public sphere, but she had four kids in five years and she doesn’t enjoy cooking. One night we’d have pizza, one night chips, eggs and beans, and then one night something she called Mexican stew.'
I squint at this, braced for the revelation of what this meal comprised. A Beckettian silence descends as she scrolls through her family WhatsApp to look up its ingredients.
'Found it – it was Campbell’s chicken soup with boiled potatoes mixed in.'
Our server arrives just in time to overhear this insult to food, sense, and the people and culture of Mexico, and says 'oh that sounds like such a good idea.' We relax in the knowledge we’ve come to a kind and forgiving place.
I had originally intended to scour the wine list, and even went to the trouble of sending it to The Fence’s resident sot, Kieran, who gave me an excellent tour through what I should ask for, with just enough additional detail that I could repeat it and seem fancy. My attitude to wine is basically 'yes', so this would have been a welcome trip to the world of purloined expertise. But, since Annie prefers white and I red, we stuck to single glasses, for her the Radford Dale chardonnay, and for me the Naciente pinot noir, both of which we enjoyed very much.
I won’t lie that part of my hesitancy to bilk them for Grand Cru claret is on account of our server, Cliodhna, who is so disarmingly down-to-earth that the thought of demanding a very expensive and very free bottle of wine, just for myself, at 2pm, seems further outside the Pale’s reaches than I’m willing to stray. She charms us by patiently answering our questions about the menu, and – most delightfully – offers full disclosure on dishes she herself might not care for.
'It’s not for me now, it’s a bit hot' she says of the bass ceviche with bergamot, monk’s beard and smoked mascarpone. As a reward for her honesty, we order it anyway, extending the grand tradition of what might be the longest running reverse psychology scam in the proud history of Irish hospitality. When it comes, we find it delicious; sweet, tart and possessing a kick we enjoy, since our tastebuds have been steeled with forewarning.
After this come the smoked leeks. 'I went to ROVI recently' Annie says, like a massive fucking diva, 'Ottolenghi’s place – I had leeks. I hate leeks but it showed me leeks could be nice. Now, I’m like-', she opens her hands in the manner of Daniel O’Connell, 'LEEKS. Gimme what you’ve got.'
They taste like leeks. If you’ve ever tasted leeks, they taste like that. But they’re huge, dusted with sunflower seeds and sprinkled with leek ash, so that they resemble nothing so much as the thick, freckled fingers of a lorry-driving uncle. They are magnificent, and so firm and juicy that they don’t last long on the plate. It turns out this marks another stop along Annie’s Damascene tour with [looks up fancy food terms so I don’t have to re-use the word leek] big, long onions.
For her main, Annie gets the roast brill with Jerusalem artichoke and smoked bearnaise. It comes adorned with salsify, my favourite among the vegetables that sound like apps. 'I’ve just been reading Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy,' she tells me. 'It’s excellent in terms of an Irish perspective of England. A very republican perspective of England, but gas in terms of dialects. It’s all written phonetically, and there’s also a lot of Irish in it.'
Like all those raised in the Republic of Ireland, Annie received 13 years of Irish language classes, throughout her primary and secondary schooling. As a poor, suffering Northerner, my only years of Irish instruction came from choosing it as one of my foreign language picks in secondary school, before discarding it in favour of German at GCSE. We both lament the fact that neither path has furnished us with a workable command of the language.
'I did higher level Irish in school’ she tells me. ‘Behan sings loads of old rebel songs in the book, with the lyrics in Irish and then English, so I thought I’d test myself. I couldn’t remember a thing. It was so sad. But it's nearly twenty years since I spoke it. My friends here who can still speak it make me really jealous because when they get on the tube, they just switch to Irish and no one can understand them.' We nod in mutual regret – longing, perhaps, to be foreign.
I cheer myself up by attacking the sugar pit pork with prawn spring roll and salted cabbage. The pork is glistening, massive and so cartoonishly streaked it looks like a Van Gogh painting of some oversized bacon. It’s exquisitely tender, and pairs beautifully with the side of smoked butter and bone marrow crumb mash. It is only on reflection that I realise the best dish I’ve eaten in many months is, effectively, bacon, spuds and cabbage.
Before we can share a dessert, Annie begins making her goodbyes, likely fearing I’ll cajole her into a pub run for more stout and rebel songs than she’s comfortable with at 4pm on a rainy Wednesday. I have a coffee and begin an excellent, delicately flavoured ice cream sandwich until I’m forced to finally admit defeat myself. Before I step back out into London with my belly full and my purse unmolested, I freeze. I could say it was to slap myself out of the pleasant food coma, or to savour the ambience of the place for just a few moments longer, but the truth is I don’t know how to leave. For all my gauche, London ways, asking for the bill and reflexively feigning our intent to pay for the whole thing, is the only dining exit strategy I’ve ever known.
Luckily, our server spots my paralysis and approaches. She thanks me for coming, and shows me to the door, a nice gesture since I’ve just eaten her workplace out of bacon and spuds and done so without paying a brass farthing. Or, perhaps, she was just checking to see if I was still alive.
This is London, after all. If you die here, they might just build more restaurant on top of you.