Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Culinary Adventure in London

The English get recognition for a lot of things—the Beatles, some of the best Romantic poets, losing the American Revolution…but something most people overlook and even scoff at is English food. During a recent trip to London where I visited my sister Tara I found that I ate well, very well, so I’d like to take you on a little culinary adventure through London.

After waking up very early and flying out of Albany International Airport and transferring at Newark, I eventually made it to London late on a Tuesday night. After an hour-long tube ride from Heathrow to King’s Cross, there was only thing on my mind—fish and chips. Most pubs close pretty early in London, but luckily there were lots of options for food near my sister’s place. We went to a basic kebab joint that also served fish and chips—nothing classy, just good and greasy fish and chips. For those of you who aren’t in the know about English terms, chips is their word for fries. And what we call potato chips, they call crisps. The fish and chips was drizzled with vinegar, salt, and mayonnaise. I’d heard of dipping fries in mayonnaise before my trip and was skeptical, but one bite converted me. The meal was great—exactly what I needed and an ideal way to start my week-long trip.

The next morning Tara took me out to a traditional English breakfast. The meal consisted on eggs, boiled beans, grilled tomato, ham, sausage, toast, and chips. The eggs, toast, ham, and chips were pretty much what you would expect in America, though I’ve never been offered chips at breakfast. Tara informed me that beans on toast was a popular snack in London. The beans were pretty good, but I’ll probably never pick up the habit of eating them at breakfast. The sausage was actually quite different than breakfast sausage in America—instead of thin links or patties, the sausage was a large link and apparently mostly fat. I definitely preferred the ham. All in all, it was very satisfying and the perfect way to start a long day of touring London.

After a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and a walk along the Thames it was time to eat again. We planned on going to Harrods but needed to eat something before venturing into this Victorian department store. Across the street from Harrods was a little French bistro. I enjoyed a glass of white wine and a plate of mussels steamed in garlic, cream, and white wine—the mussels were succulent and tasty. Tara had a cappuccino and a tomato tart. Then we were refreshed and ready for some exploring of Harrods.

That night we hit the pubs with Tara’s wonderful roommate Allie. We enjoyed pints of London Pride and a hard cider called Strongbow. Both were delicious. I don’t drink beer very often these days, generally preferring wine, but when in London

London Pride is brewed by Fuller’s who describes the beer as “a smooth and astonishingly complex beer with a distinctive malty base complemented by a rich balance of well-developed hop flavors.” Yum. Hard cider, such as Strongbow, is also usually available on tap at pubs. It’s bubbly, sweet, and contains more alcohol than you would expect! Cider is little too sweet for me in general but definitely a nice treat on occasion.

The next morning we had late start and decided to go right for lunch. Tara and Allie took me to one of their favorite spots—Indian Veg. It was a vegetarian Indian buffet that was delicious and, most importantly, cheap. The cost of living can run pretty high in London so for students studying abroad, like Tara and Allie, places like Indian Veg are a good way to make a few pounds last a long time. The restaurant also had an interesting ambience to say the least. Instead of the typical Indian décor, the walls of the restaurant were mostly covered in posters with statements declaring the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Everywhere you looked was another reason to become a vegetarian—it didn’t convince me even though the food was good. I’m still not sure what any of the food was since it wasn’t labeled, but there were tasty potatoes, veggies, crispy things, rice, and a ton of delicious sauces.

We spent the afternoon at the British National Museum—you could seriously lose yourself for weeks in that place, but we managed to see a lot in just a few hours. Then it was time for afternoon tea! My excitement for a real, English afternoon tea had been growing since I bought my plane ticket months before the trip, and now it was finally time for tea, scones, and finger sandwiches. We saw a sign outside a little restaurant advertising afternoon tea so we ventured inside—before we were even seated I was telling the server that we were getting afternoon tea. It was beautiful. We got scones and clotted cream—oh, clotted cream, how I love you! It’s like butter but better—smooth, creamy, amazing little spoonfuls that you spread thickly onto scones. So good. There was also a pot of black tea, of course, a variety of finger sandwiches with fillings like tuna salad, salami, and egg salad, and a big slice of chocolate cake. In my mind I had imagined that I would go to tea at a fancy, Victorian-style tea room, but this simple afternoon tea in an everyday restaurant was truly perfect.

That night it was her majesty’s mojitos, a fight club reenactment, and a dance party to music by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and Jackson 5 at The Old Blue Last. Enough said.

The next morning Tara and I woke up early for a day trip to Winchester, which was about a two hour bus ride from London. At the Victoria bus station I grabbed a cup of Earl Grey tea and tried a Cornish pasty, which is basically a meat-filled pastry. It was warm, filling, and satisfying on the rainy London morning.

When we arrived in Winchester Tara got a sandwich at a shop called the Earl of Sandwich. The bread was fresh and tasty with a generous portion of cheese, brie I believe, and greens.

We were in Winchester to pay our respects to one of our ancestors—King Alfred the Great. He was buried at the edge of town so we went in search of his grave, which now has a public park built around it. We found the grave…it was a solemn moment.

Then we continued to explore the town, visiting Winchester Cathedral where Jane Austen is buried. They also have an amazingly creepy crypt and a monument to a scuba diver who saved the cathedral from collapsing.

I like Winchester—it’s a town where I could see myself living someday, especially after eating at the next restaurant we tried. It was a seafood restaurant that had a beautiful display when we walked in of all their fresh fish and shellfish. As soon as I saw the oysters I knew I had to try them. They were from Loch Fyne Bay in Scotland and they were heavenly—probably the best oysters I have ever tried. Eating each one was an ineffable experience. I would go all the way back to Winchester or wherever else these oysters are served in the United Kingdom just to be able to eat them again. I also tried the appetizer special of the day—fried King Prawns, which came complete with their heads. The prawns could never match the beauty of the oysters, but they were still quite tasty. Everyone on television always sucks “the best part” out of the heads of prawns. I tried and there was nothing there—either I’m missing something or everyone on television is just pretending.

Back in London the next day, it was the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oxford Circus (a shopping area), and then dinner at Rules, London’s oldest restaurant. Established in 1798 by Thomas Rules, the restaurant still serves traditional English fare. The ambience inside definitely says high class, and the walls are covered with an array of paintings, photographs, and various animal heads. Tara and I both started out with the soup of the day—creamy mushroom soup. The server brought it over and served us right out of a silver soup tureen. It was smooth and decadent and drizzled with truffle oil. For the main course I had a rack of West Sussex lamb with creamy potatoes and vegetables. The lamb was cooked perfectly and the flavor was so rich it barely needed the seasoning it was cooked with. Tara opted for the fish and chips, which came complete with mashed peas and was nestled in newspaper.

Sunday, my last full day in London, was the perfect day. Tara and I started off by going to a big market that was open every Sunday where you could buy clothing, jewelry, food, and other random items of interest. We browsed and ate—snacking on bagels with cream cheese (though the sign of the bagel shop was spelled begels for some reason), vegetarian spring rolls, and Tibetan momos (beef dumplings) with a chili sauce.

Allie joined us and we headed off in search of a pub where we could get a Sunday roast. We finally found one at Dirty Dick’s. We simply couldn’t resist eating at a restaurant with that name! Being a bit full from the snacking at Sunday Market, we went for the child-size portion of the Sunday roast, which came with beef, Yorkshire pudding, vegetables, and potatoes cooked in the drippings of the roast—so traditional and so good. The best part was the Yorkshire pudding, which is a puff pastry that is cooked in a tin beneath the roast so it can catch all the delicious drippings. Tara, being a vegetarian, went for a cheesy potato—a nice big baked potato loaded with cheese and beans.

Next we headed for a lazy walk around Hyde Park and then to Chelsea in search of a tea room in a garden I had read about. On the way we spotted a shop that served Flake cones. Tara had been raving about flake cones for the past few days so we stopped in to treat ourselves. A Flake cone is a soft-serve vanilla ice-cream cone with a Cadbury Flake chocolate bar stuck in it. The Flake bar is made of thinly molded milk chocolate that is, well, flaky. It adds the perfect amount of a chocolate crunch to the vanilla ice-cream.

We finally arrived in Chelsea and found the location of the tea room, only to find out that it was about to close and that we had to pay a pretty high fee to get into the garden so we could access the tea room. We opted to find another location for afternoon tea. Luckily there was a beautiful little spot on a pleasant Chelsea street where we got a pot of Earl Grey tea and a delicious plate of scones and clotted cream. The scones were warm and came with a dusting of powdered sugar, a dish of clotted cream, and a little jar of strawberry jam. It was another satisfying afternoon tea and a great way to celebrate a lovely last day in London.

That night the three of us spent the night walking along the River Thames. The city was glorious in the evening—calm and beautiful with just a slight chill in the air. We sat by the river drinking wine and eating crackers with brie and simply soaking in the magic of London. In the words of Samuel Johnson, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” and the same goes for London food as well.

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