Mr Pernickety has yet to make a serious foray into reviewing the plethora of eating houses that line the streets of London Town, although he is required from time to time slip his head into one or other of the capital’s finer nose-bags. Last Sunday, for example, he enjoyed lunch in the dining-room at that last bastion of metropolitan Bohemia, the Chelsea Arts Club. Unfortunately, although an exciting new chef wields the skillet in the kitchen there and it was a fine meal, there is little point in Mr P reviewing what is, in effect, a restricted establishment, but if you’re lucky enough to be a member, you will enjoy it.
He was reminded on Tuesday evening of a more publicly accessible London eating house in the gloomy canyon of Battersea High Street – an exotic, faux Pay d’Oc brasserie, the Quecumbar.
The Quecumbar is an absolutely enjoyable place for aficionados of the sound of Le Hot Club (say: ‘ott clube) de France and Gypsy Jazz. For aficionados of cuisine occitane or, indeed, any other kind of cuisine, it is less obviously attractive. For a place that owes so much of its appearance and douce ambiance to the gypsy lands of Southern France, the food served there is quite distressingly awful.
Sited not far from those tidal reaches of the Thames, where low tides reveal acres of slimy, dirty green sludge, one could easily imagine core elements of some of their dishes had been found floundering as they expired of natural causes on those muddy margins. In two dinners eaten there, Mr P can aver that not a single dish would have been allowed to survive in the Pernickety household, whatever French names may have embellished it.
However, it is not for the cuisine that one visits the Quecumbar – it is for the music. This is a shrine to the genius of the late, digitally disadvantaged Django Reinhardt, his gypsy band and his fiddler supreme, Stephane Grappelli.
Members of the Django community from across the country and several seas make a point of dropping in to listen and, very often, to play (those in the know having eaten first.)
On Tuesday nights in particular there is a free for all jam session, when as many as fifteen ersatz Djangos can be on stage at one time, all strumming away with the vigour and intensity of a troop of masturbating monkeys. All play the special style of guitar favoured by the great gypsy, with the petite bouche, a cutaway on a slim acoustic body and a brass heel anchored to the base of the guitar to take the extra-taut stringing that gives the distinctive, ringing Django sound.
Some skilfully pick the unmistakable melodies – Nouages, Douce Ambiance – others strum the subtle chord changes. And occasionally, in a ratio of c.1 Stephane:17 Djangos, a violinist appears. That’s a tough call; Mr P is pretty picky about Grappelli imitators.
Which brings this rambling non-review back to last Tuesday and one of the Marches’ more charmingly bizarre musical venues.
At The Hatch near Tenbury, musician Ben Salmon (who also runs a studio there) puts on small gigs for lesser-known but always quite special performers in what is more or less the living room of his house, with overflow seating in the kitchen.
This week, an American Blue Grass 5-piece, Amy Gallatin and Stillwater were described as being from Alabama. This sounded authentic to Mr P, who likes authenticity – gastronomic or musical, and (more importantly) they were being supported by regional Djangoistes, the Remi Harris Trio and (this was new) virtuoso violinist, Ben Holder, of whom Mr P had never heard. A new Grappelli to inspect, so close to Ludlow, was worth a journey, so it was with some excitement that Mr P and the Lovely Companion headed east along the Teme Valley.
Mr P had previously heard Remi’s skilled mastery (with his advantage of a full complement of digits) of great Django arpeggios and plaintiff gypsy tremolo and had formed the view that this Herefordshire native could outplay any of the Quecumbar mob, any day of the week – in itself enough reason to roll out the guzzling rust-bucket.
On Tuesday evening, the audience (a very full house) didn’t hear as much of Remi as they might have liked, but they were treated to a magical performance by fiddler Ben Holder.
Ben is a classically trained violinist still in his early 20s who performs with the engaging charm of an Andrex puppy doing tricks. The dexterity and fluid sensitivity with which he plays his instrument are wonderful. The sweetness of tone and passion he extracted from for the Django classics and jazz greats were astonishing and truly exciting, even to a hoary-headed critic like Mr P.
In All the Things You Are, delivered as a tender bossa nova, an improvisation between fiddle and bass (Tom Moor) took a wander as if around the outer reaches of The Hatch’s bucolic purlieus, which was quite mesmerising, before returning to the melody. Ben Salmon, host and impresario for the night and a regular player with Remi, also provided a solid ’ott clube rhythm on his petite bouche.
Mr P who’d had a great evening (and it was the LC’s birthday) left with only one cavil – that fiddler Ben was so high on his own performance he couldn’t come down enough to let his colleagues in on the act and, merited though it may have been by the sheer quality and exuberance of his playing, the set shouldn’t have become a Ben Holder Does Grappelli show.
If he were a puppy, he would need one of those lead harnesses that one sees on cheerful young Staffies, with straps across the torso and both sides of the front legs, so he could be curbed without being choked. But Mr P can’t wait to hear him and the Remi Harris Trio playing again – with a little more Remi next time, please?
On a gastro note, the lemon drizzle cake served up at The Hatch at half time was delicious.