Tuesday, 18 August 2009
When I first moved down to London all those years ago I made it a personal mission to work my way through as many of the (literally) hundreds of food delivery flyers that drop through my letterbox every month as I could, with the intention of impressing friends and visiting family members with the best that Battersea takeaway joints had to offer. Unfortunately only a tiny handful are any good. Spice Fusion impressed early on with their strong flavours and generous portions of poppadums, as did the Bombay Bicycle Club, which I'm told Gordon Ramsay is/was a regular customer of, if that's any recommendation. I have however come to the sad conclusion that there are no good Chinese or Thai delivery places, that only the two mentioned out of around 20 Indian deliveries are any good, and it's never a good idea to get a donner kebab delivered, sober or otherwise.
As for pizza, happily there are two excellent options, both on Lavender Hill. My current favourite is Firezza, which as well as delivering piping hot pizzas with excellent bubbly crusts has the most brilliant mobile ordering system: with literally 3 clicks you can send a pizza to your front door - it's dangerously easy. And then there's Basilico, who make actually pretty good Italian-style pizzas and were my favourite pizza suppliers until very recently. In fact, the Basilico Pizza Funghi au Truffle was almost a regular feature in my house, until one day something occurred to me that had been bothering me for a while. There's no truffle in it.
I don't mean just no real truffle - I wouldn't expect a £15 delivery pizza to be scattered with Alba's finest whites, nor even the preserved variety at a push (which has a horrible texture anyway). But truffle oil is incredibly potent and can be picked up from Tescos for not much more than a couple of quid, and even a few drops would lend an unmistakable familiar earthy aroma to a pizza. And yet, time after time, the Basilico Pizza Funghi au Truffle would arrive without even so much of a hint of truffle. So one day, I set off up the road to find out what on earth was going on.
The staff in Basilico Lavender Hill were lovely - helpful and friendly and eager to show me round their little branch. God knows what they thought of the strange man demanding to see their truffle oil but if they were put out they didn't show it. And although I half expected them to make some excuses or even admit they didn't put any truffle oil on the pizzas, they soon produced a couple of bottles - one half-used - of what the label proudly proclaimed was "Italian White Truffle Oil". With their permission, I opened the bottle and took a sniff.
Nothing. No truffle aroma at all - not even the faintest scent. The oil literally smelled of nothing - and not even olive oil, just completely inert. I offered the bottle to the guy behind the counter, who agreed with me that it smelled of nothing. I tasted a bit from my fingers - again nothing, just oil.
Now, if Basilico are deliberately using fake truffle oil and advertising the pizza as au truffle, then I'm pretty sure that's against the law. If they're being diddled by their suppliers, paying a premium for ordinary vegetable oil that has a 'Truffle' lable on the front, then their suppliers are in breach of the law. If on the other hand - and this is probably the most likely scenario - that Basilico are deliberately using a 'truffle' oil containing such undetectably tiny amounts of the raw ingredient that it's not technically in breach of the law but they're able to use the word 'truffle' on the menu without being sued, then that's just cynical.
To give Basilico a fair hearing, I called their franchise manager on the phone, who explained that he'd look into the matter and get back to me. After a couple of weeks, having heard nothing, I called him back and we had a bit of a chat about the fact that I'm pretty sure the truffle oil they were using had no truffle in, and he very unconvincingly maintained that he could smell a "very subtle" odour of truffle in the Basilico oil. I challenged him to tell the difference between that and a normal bottle of vegetable oil. I also offered to meet him at the Lavender Hill branch, and I would bring a little bottle of my own truffle oil by way of a comparison. That was a few weeks ago, and I still haven't heard anything. Something tells me he's not that confident he can tell the difference after all.
The result of all this to-ing and fro-ing is simply that they have lost me as a regular customer, which admittedly won't give them too much to worry about in the long-term. But it got me wondering how many other delivery places in London are guilty of embellishments on their menus. There's an Indian takeaway near me that advertises itself as organic - if you ordered a balti from there and the chicken wasn't really organic, would you be able to tell? I certainly wouldn't. Or what if KFC used only 10 different herbs and spices in their "secret" coating instead of 11? Would there be rioting in the streets?
As a light-hearted footnote to this post I was going to tell you about the Gourmet Chocolate Pizza Company, who kindly offered to send over a sample of their... unique... product to review. I was as you can imagine slightly sceptical, but still interested to see what on earth this crazy concept would be like up close. Unfortunately, thanks to the heavy hand of the Royal Mail, what arrived was basically a little plastic bag full of chocolate chippings:
It would take quite an imagination to reconstruct the neat little wedge of chocolate pizza that I'm assured this pile started off as at the beginning of its journey, but I'll have to take their word for it. I'm also afraid it's not an idea I can wholeheartedly endorse - if you eat a chocolate pizza like you would a real pizza you'd end up having a LOT of chocolate in one go, and if you didn't, well, what's the point in it being pizza-shaped? But perhaps I'm missing something. The chocolate tasted nice, so, yeah. Good luck to 'em.
As for Basilico, I've probably taken it as far as I can without going to the authorities, which given that I have a full-time job and I'm not 100% sure of the legal situation anyway, I'm not about to do. Plus, given that I'm lucky enough to live in London, I can just go and order a different pizza. Basilico's loss is Firezza's gain - I was tucking into their Chorizo pizza just last night. Except, hang on - come to think of it, that chorizo tasted an awful lot like ordinary sausage....
Photo courtesy of Food Stories