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Europe’s diversity is perfectly showcased by the Eurovision Song Contest – a super-camp soirée of flashing lights, fixed smiles and false notes, spiced up with a mixture of cross-border nepotism and tension. This year's contest is hosted by Azerbaijan (whose 2011 entry, Arash and AySel, pictured, clinched them the title). Whether you’re backing the UK or giving douze points to an adopted European country, get into the spirit of the annual songfest with a European tour of London’s restaurants. Square Meal shows you how.
The far-flung nation won 2011’s competition with Running Scared by Ell and Nikki, a catchy pop ballad that earned Azerbaijan 221 points from the juries of the contest’s 43 participating countries. It falls to the winner to host the 2012 event – so get in the mood with a trip to London’s first Azerbaijani restaurant, Baku. Enter an opulent world of Persian rugs, stained-glass panels, chandeliers and iPad menus and feast on widely loved exports such as Caspian caviar, homely comfort food such as arishta soup with meatballs, or fragrant desserts including saffron rice pudding with rose water. Be warned: the restaurant is proudly screening the final live in the restaurant on the night.
Every Eurovision fanatic plays along in front of the TV with a home-made scorecard… don’t they? If you’re preparing for a themed party, refuel beforehand with the cuisine of one of this year’s favourites. Here are the countries the bookies have their eye on – plus restaurant suggestions:
It’s tipped as a possible winner this year – and there will be celebrations in the Scandinavian country if singer Loreen’s dance tune Euphoria makes it all the way to the top. For total immersion in Swedish culture, try Madsen in South Kensington (pictured, left) – a clean-lined, minimalist dining room complete with akvavit cocktails, game with Hasselback potatoes, and wild-berry desserts.
Another strong Scandinavian contender, Denmark is pinning its hopes on Shakira-esque singer Soluna Samay and her catchy pop-ballad Should’ve Known Better. If its musical reputation is anything like its culinary one, Denmark will be celebrating another number-one spot on an international list. Those who want a taste of Denmark in London and who didn’t get tickets to A Taste of Noma at Claridge’s should head to North Road for inspired yet unfamiliar flavours and textures in the Noma mould.
Inexplicably on the favourite list, Russia’s entry is one of the quirks that Eurovision throws up every year – a bunch of eight grandmothers originally from the Udmurt Republic who write and perform their own songs. Their entry is called Buranovskiye Babushki (Party For Everybody) and somehow sends Russian fans wild. For a more classical approach to Russia, try Knightsbridge newcomer Mari Vanna, which serves traditional dishes in the supposed living room of its own fictional babushka.
Nina Zilli is the candidate for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest; her piled-up dark hair and throaty voice bring to mind the late Amy Winehouse, but her boppy, cheeky song, L'Amore È Femmina (Out Of Love), is much lighter than the heartbroken lamentations of the UK’s Engelbert Humperdinck. To dip into the best Italy has to offer on the food front, try Locanda Locatelli – a riot of simple pleasures such as lovingly folded tortellini in crystal-clear broth, or exquisite scallops with celery purée and saffron vinaigrette.
For a more tongue-in-cheek homage to the kitschest competition on telly, head to Bunga Bunga (pictured, right), which is providing revellers with themed cocktails, a dressing-up box, and memorable tunes from the contest’s 56-year history.
A Sevillian singer who has enjoyed a successful career in Spain, Pastora Soler is unleashing a big, soppy ballad – and her sultry, powerful vocals – on Europe this Saturday. Quédate Conmigo (Stay With Me) might be in with a shot of the 2012 title. For a taste of Andalucia, try Morito’s Moorish-influenced dishes, from a smooth and spiky ajo blanco to chicharrones de Cadiz (succulent cubes of pork belly with cumin and lemon) – all washed down with ice-cold sherry.
Ready to eject any country who gives the UK nul points from the Euro? If you’re feeling patriotic, make sure you get some good old-fashioned British grub down you during the day of the contest. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from in London – here are a few ideas.
The United Kingdom’s entry is, of course, crooner legend Engelbert Humperdinck, who will sing flamenco-tinged waltz Love Will Set You Free. Will his rich voice, which has sold his records in the hundreds of millions during his 45-year career, win Britain it’s first Eurovision contest since 1997, when Katrina and the Waves stormed the stage with Love Shine a Light?
Canteen: austerity-chic rules at this nattily designed, no-frills chain. Tuck into dishes straight out of an Enid Blyton tale, from devilled kidneys on toast and shepherd’s pie, to rice pudding with a splodge of jam.
Dean Street Townhouse: luxed-up old-school dishes in the heart of Soho. Expect hearty renditions of good old-fashioned English grub, from crumpets with preserves, to mince and potatoes and pear cobbler with clotted cream.
The Gilbert Scott: the grandiose setting of Marcus Wareing’s St Pancras venture sweeps diners back in time, while the menu plunders England’s cookbooks, taking in 19th-century food writer Florence White and Mrs Beeton.
Hix (pictured, left): Mark Hix’s highly seasonal offering stretches from asparagus salad with spider crab and oyster leaf in spring, to roast partridge with curly kale and rowan jelly in autumn.
Roast: Perhaps due to its location just above foodie mecca Borough Market, Roast’s menu pays serious attention to provenance – to winning effect. A great selection of English wines, too.