I started my performing career as a street entertainer, first in Greenwich next to the Cutty Sark and then a year or so later, when after a tragically short-sighted move by the local council street entertaining was banned, I moved over to Covent Garden. It was on the street, busking, performing a show to strangers, that I learnt the ropes. From passing the hat I graduated to paid work; and everything from horrible council-funded gigs in shopping centres to brilliant festivals like Glastonbury (still do that one). It also opened the door to work abroad. In the early nineties there was a thriving international street entertaining scene. I performed my show on the streets of mainland Europe and on stage too. Having lots of props, and (in the early days) not much talking meant that I was invited to perform at some incredible events in some amazing locations; Moers Comedy Arts Festival, the Blaue Biwel in Koblenz, Limburg Festival in Holland to name just a few.
After a time though I started to ‘move indoors’. I wanted to perform on the comedy circuit and it was hard playing both arenas. A street entertaining show is all about doing one trick and stretching your whole show out to lead up to that trick (so as to keep your audience there for the entirety of the piece – if they’re there for the whole thing they’ll feel part of the show and therefore much more likely to put their hands in their pockets at the end), but a comedy club gig requires the opposite approach. You need to be satisfying your audiences appetite right from the off. They’re already there, they’re already warmed up (usually) and they need ‘gags’ immediately. I was starting to get told that my street show was getting a bit too ‘adult’ and at the same time the stand-up venues that I was trying to get work at were telling me that I was just ‘too much of a street entertainer’. So I decided to focus on the indoor work and some time around the mid nineties I made a conscious decision to stop being a street performer. The comedy circuit work picked up and my show gradually developed into something that worked in the clubs, and after a decade or so the idea of performing either on the streets or in those international festival environments seemed a long-distant memory.
But then, out of the blue, four or so years ago I got an email from a man who long ago had booked my show for a street performing festival in Nordhorn, Germany. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the festival and they wanted to invite back some of their favourite acts. I was reticent, and I told him that I’d not done the street for years and that my show had developed into a much more vocal set with a lot of stuff that I didn’t think his German audience would get. But he was still keen and asked instead that I come and do the gala – a variety night in a circus big top. So I agreed. I put together a more international set, resurrected some old ideas and came up with some new ones (including a piece with a rocket-launcher that I made out of drain-pipes – and there was an anxious moment when the car was searched at Dover before boarding the boat, but they didn’t go through the prop bags thoroughly enough to find it).
Returning to Nordhorn (I brought my son Jem with me too) I was reminded of just how nice those days had been. I’d long since grown accustom to the rather shoddy treatment we comedians get on the UK circuit. Of course some gigs provide a meal and a few drinks, but nowhere in this country matches the hospitality afforded to performers on the continent. They’re genuinely honoured to have you perform and they show it with food, drink, accommodation and, well, respect! And the show is run as a whole piece, so rather than just a bunch of acts doing their own thing, at the end there’s a curtain call all together and sometimes even a song (though I dare say that really was stepping out of my comfort zone!). But best of all, at the end of the night when everyone has packed away their props and the audience have left, the crew erect long tables and benches in the performance space and in come caterers who set up an immense buffet along the edge of the stage with beer and wine. And then the performers and crew all sit together and eat. And it’s really good food too.
One dish in particular stuck in my memory, and Jem’s memory. It was a bit like macaroni cheese but seemed to be made with broken spaghetti shards and there were other tastes that I couldn’t place but which gave it a whole new dimension setting it apart from the English version we were used to. It wasn’t until some years later that I stumbled across a bag of spätzle in Lidl during one of their speciality weeks that I realised that’s what it was. I then searched for recipes online and discovered that the additional flavour I’d been trying to place was low and slow-cooked onions.
I’ve made it many times since, and enhanced it further, but every time I take it out of the oven and slop it onto the plate I’m taken back to the long trestle tables and benches in the big top in Nordhorn, and the communal friendly atmosphere of the European cabaret scene.
Käsespätzle with Onions, Leeks and Mushrooms
500g Dried Spätzle
110g plain flour
1.3 litres milk
200g cheese (experiment with different ones, I used about half cheddar and half St Agur)
1 teaspoon mustard powder
big pinch chilli powder
lots of black pepper
about half a grated nutmeg
3 large onions (finely sliced)
1 leek (thickly sliced)
200g mushrooms (any sort)
breadcrumbs (a big handful, the nicer the better, sourdough ones would be perfect)
thyme (if you have some)
First make a béchamel sauce by melting the butter, adding the flour and beating the two together into a roux and cooking that for 3-4 mins before gradually adding and beating in the milk, avoiding lumps and keeping it smooth. It wants to be really quite thin and runny, the consistency of single cream, so add more milk once it’s thickened to slacken it if you need to.
Add the mustard, nutmeg, lots of pepper, chilli powder and a generous amount of salt (about half a teaspoon – but don’t add it all at once, rather add a bit, mix and taste and so on until it tastes right). Then let it cook for a few more minutes, turn of the heat and beat in the cheese (reserving a handful of hard cheese for the top).
Next turn your attention to the vegetables. Gently fry the onions in oil until they start to turn golden. This will take a good 30 mins or so, but keep the heat low. In another pan, slowly and lowly sweat the leeks in a little oil or butter and a splash of water, until they’re soft and cooked through. You don’t want them to brown at all like the onions, but once the onions and leeks are done they can be mixed together. The mushrooms just want slicing and frying off to get rid of lots of their moisture and to enhance those deep umami flavours.
Finally, cook the pasta until it’s just done, then drain and add it to the sauce.
In a large lasagne dish or deep baking tray, generously buttered, pour half the pasta/sauce mixture, cover that with a layer of onions and leeks and then scatter over the mushrooms before covering with the rest of the pasta and sauce. Finally drench with breadcrumbs* and the rest of the cheese, and maybe a bit of extra parmesan, black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil before baking at 200 degrees for about 40 mins.
I served it with sauerkraut for extra Germanness and some very finely sliced raw cauliflower mixed with parsley, lemon juice and olive oil, and salt and pepper.
* to make breadcrumbs put a torn up slice of bread into a food processor with some black pepper, salt, and a bit of thyme if you have it. Turn it on and trickle in a bit of oil too so they’re nicely coated and will crisp up all golden rather than drying out and burning