The London Diaries 2: Chasing Memories of England…Westminster, Anchor & The Hope, Greasy Spoons, Borough Market, Lord’s
As a kid I would not touch ‘Indian’ food.
Growing up in the 70s in Canterbury in the UK, which a friend told me recently was quite a ‘white town’ then, and Liverpool and then in a small Persian town on the Caspian sea called Rasht, there wasn’t much of Indian influences around us. Curry was not as big in those days as it is in England today.
My parents would give me whatever was local food and I was quite happy with that. So even when I came to India in the early 80s my diet was that of fish and chips, chicken and chips, chicken fried rice, Spanish omelettes and chelo kebabs that my mom would make. Coke was not available in India then though and I had to wait for my college days before Coke and Pepsi were allowed back in.
When I recently visited the UK, 34 years since I was last there, I was keen to get a taste of what I knew of as ‘British food’.
Being a food blogger from India I was inundated with recommendations on Indian food restaurants. I was told that you get the best Indian outside of India in London but that is not what I was looking for. When I landed there @hermanoprimero, one of the earliest food bloggers in London, tweeted to me saying something to the effect that ‘typical’ London food today is all about burgers and ramen.
This post is about my search for my notion of ‘Ye Olde English meal’ as I remembered it.
The Stranger’s Dining Room…A Westminster tour with a walking, talking, real life Member of Parliament
Well, my first evening in London couldn’t get more British than a dinner at the British Parliament could it?
I’d gone to meet with our friends Sue and Nathan who had just returned to London from Bandra.
They were at Westminster, the British Parliament, to meet their friend, Liberal Democrat MP & Indophile, Martin Horwood, and invited me to join them.
So there I was, just landed in London, back in the country of my birth after 34 years, received on the streets, no sirens or lal battis around him, by a member of parliament, and then escorted in by him.
All I could think of through the evening was of the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister trio of Jim Hacker, Humphrey Appleby and Bernard.
Martin, Sue, Nathan and I had a lovely three course dinner at the Strangers Dining Room where MPs can invite guests. There I was sitting in a parka, tee shirt, jeans and keds surrounded by folks in three piece suits. The only other Indian around, looking very dapper, was Vikram Seth.
Starters of fried duck wontons, nice crunch, well flavoured meat and lovely Asian sauce. Some good that came out of the Opium War. For my mains I chose a steak, medium raw as Bourdain has taught us. Very juicy and thick plump chips which could have easily made it big in South Indian cinema.
Offered a choice of ketchup and mustard wit my steak, I chose mustard. French or English? English.
God did you guys have an idea of the sort of sting that English mustard has? The steak was juicer than the leaks Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby would initiate to checkmate each other.
For desserts there was an English trifle which was served in a deconstructed manner where the plating was reminiscent of the early rounds of the Masterchef Australia Junior.
If the dinner was quite pristine and seems like it could not be topped then listen to what followed.
Martin took us to the House of Lords and we went to the galleries and saw the MPs debate things out. Very prim and proper and no storming of the well a la Lok Sabha. Martin told me that the term ‘well’ doesn’t exist here. I guess British MPs use words here to heckle each other rather than slippers and microphones. We then went to the House of Commons where the MPs were done for the day so we actually walked into the Parliament, stood in front of where the Prime Minister sits, saw where Martin sits (he is a front bencher). Helped that Martin loves his history as he showed us around the the Parliament, pointed out the spots where various traditions unfurl…showed us a dent on the door and explained how the bruise was a result of the queen’s marshal (or someone) hits it with a staff while the MPs shut it from inside at the start of every session…and the stories behind these rituals.
Martin then took us into the hall which was the original parliament and showed us the steps from where folks like Obama and the Dalai Lama had given speeches. My offer to make the presentation which I had just made at the International Congress of Tourism in Barcelona didn’t have much takers!
From there the three of us went to the bar which had a great collection of Malts and was packed with MPs and their guests unwinding at the end of the day. Unlike in the dining room, only the MPs are allowed to pick the tab here. We took our malts and stouts and headed to the Commons Terrace as I toasted my surreal first night at London standing by the Thames.
Breakfast Fried Up
Looking for a ‘traditional’ British breakfast I went to Daisy Cafe at Islington where I was staying at the first half of the trip.
Daisy Cafe is an example of what is referred to as ‘greasy spoons’ here. Spartan places where everything is fried, hence the term ‘fry up’, and served. I went for the real deal. Black (blood sausage) pudding, bacon, baked beans, toast (white of course) and butter and I upgraded myself to a cappuccino over the coffee which came with the combo. The meal sumptuous and filling only as an unapologetically non-artisanal, non-pretentious, non-posh meal can be. The mood languorous.
I felt completely at ease as I poured over the Lonely Planet London that I had borrowed from my host in Islington, talented cook and food writer, Meera Sodha. Most of the folks around were either middle aged working folks or grannies with their grandkids. The guy at the counter seem to know his customers and the place reminded me of Candies back home as the possibly Turkish gentlemen greeted the ladies who were his regular customers with an exaggerated cockney accent…’how are you my love’…’have a lovely day my darling’…’here’s your coffee sweetheart’.
He readily took a picture of me at my request, the service competent and courteous…the terms of endearment reserved for the grannies though.
The Public Houses of London
Every evening in London I would see crowds forming on the streets as people hung out with mugs of beer there. Turned out that these were the pubs…many of them seem to be chains based on the famous pubs of London…the most prolific of these seemed to be the Red Lion.
Looking for fish and chips one day, I couldn’t leave London without trying that, I stepped into Taylor Walkers, a pub recommended by bystanders. This is at Carnaby Street near the Oxford Street Station at a corner called Shakespeare’s Head.
The batter of the fish in the had a nice crunch but the fish needed all the sauces on the table to get some sort of taste and flavour to the plate and were complete unseasoned. Imagine going to a high end chain restaurant in India and ordering a street food dish such as a chaat or a roll…imagine how sanitised and tasteless it would be…that’s what it was.
I must say though that the service here and all over London was pretty good. At every place the wait staff would come and ask ‘everything all right”, with a smile, after they had served you and after you had begun eating. The exaggerated but warm courteous service in the restaurants, shops or in the London Underground was an eye opener for me as I had expected England to be figuratively cold and damp. It was the very opposite.
Going to a corner chip shop and having fish and chips served in a newspaper would have been a greater idea but sometimes when on the road practicalities take over and this was my only free option in the trip to try out some fish and chips.
The pic below is of me having fish and chips as a kid and evidently happy about it.
The Anchor & Hope with Sue & Nathan
Well our friends Sue and Nathan came to my rescue after the disappointing meal at Taylor Walker.
Nathan wanted to take me to a traditional English pub in the outskirts of London where they stay. Since I couldn’t fit this in, Sue and Nathan came took me to their favourite pub in London…The Anchor & Hope…near the Old Vic Theatre.
Once a wild neighbourhood, Nathan explained, this is now quite a genteel locality as it has developed itself around the theatre crowd. Sue simultaneously took out some slates which she had brought for us. These are now the latest in food plating and I just can’t wait for Sue and Nathan to return to Mumbai so that I can cook for them at our place and serve the food on the very chic grey slates.
The dinner that followed was certified as ‘traditional’ by Sue and Nathan and all other Londoners I later spoke to. For me it was one of the most memorable dishes starting with the starters of fried peg heads which were cutlets made with shredded pork. The other starter was brown shrimps cooked with leeks and butter. Used as fish bait in the rest of Europe, Nathan explained, in England brown shrimps make for a nifty snack.
Our mains was lamb cooked for seven hours which brought back the ‘l’ in luscious and were served with potatoes… creamy and indulgent…the sort that would probably be served by ‘cookie’ when the kids from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Claire’s came home at the end of term.
For dessert Sue insisted that I must try rhubarb which I had never had before. Rhubarb is as English a it gets according to her. The rhubarb had a slight tanginess which was reminiscent of the Bengali kacha aamer (raw mango) chutney but then Sue does have some Bengali blood in her too.
Well belated happy birthday Nathan and hope to see you and Sue soon
To Market … To Market…To Borough Market
A good place to get a flavour of British produce is Borough Market. The trick is to go on a weekday as it is packed with tourists and locals on weekends I was told.
Zoe Perett, a young British food writer who is crazy about Indian food, took me there unlike my earlier apprehensions that she would only make me eat Indian food in London. I am yet to come across anyone as much in love with Indian food as Zoe whom you can follow on twitter at @thespicescribe and this is the link to her blog
Zoe took me through the market as we tasted some lovely British cheese, cured meats, game meat, desserts and then even passed by a Bengali gentleman selling Darjeeling tea and some young and chirpy folks running an Indian Cart called Horn OK Please amongst some delightful Thai, Lebanese and British fast food stall. The share range and intensity of flavours that I tried that afternoon was stupendous. An afternoon which ended well with a coffee at Monmouth as my friend Sneha suggested.
I will have to go back some day though as I missed a taste of the famed Ginger Pig pork pies.
At Mecca…of the world of cricket
I know this is a post on food but I have to tell you about the most British of British experiences that I had. The tour at the Mecca of Cricket…the Lord’s Cricket Ground.
This wasn’t on my agenda but an Irish gentleman that I met at Morito while having lunch with Meera suggested that I go there when he heard that I am from Mumbai. Turned out the gentleman was cricket crazy himself and was getting ready for the cricket season.
So a few days later, as instructed by the Paul, the friendly concierge at the South Place Hotel, I made my way from the Liverpool Street Station to the St John’s Wood Station. I walked down and reached just as the tour group was setting off (about 13 or so GBP each).
What followed was probably the best tour that I have ever attended. For someone who has grown up reading about and watching cricket and played a bit, rather badly, as a kid, Lord was full of legends and stories that came alive through the walk…and yes the three Indians with me in the group all mouthed ‘Ganguly’ in unison as we approached the visitors guest room.
What made the tour so memorable was the two gentlemen who conducted it. Sample a bit of what we heard from the gentleman who led our group:
“If you have any questions aske me. If I don’t know the answers I will make them up”
“Please don’t photograph in this building. If they catch you they will just shout at you but they will take me to the third floor and throw me down. My wife hates it when I come home covered with blood. I find it rather difficult to wash my shirt when I am dead.”
“Ajit Agarkar is a lovely fellow but if you brought his mother here even she would be surprised to find her son’s name on the centurion’s board”
All said with the same deadpan expression. All very British. Very dry. It was almost as if you were part of a live audience in a classic BBC comedy of the sixties…very Fawlty Towers and Yes Prime Minister if you get what I mean.
This tour is not to be missed and I must thank the kind Irish gentleman for this.
Chasing Old Blighty
Yes, London today is all about curry, ramen burgers and sushi but sometimes its not a bad idea to get a feel of what the city was built on. After all, it’s not good form to pack your meal and bring it over when invited to someone’s house for dinner innit?
Did London seem any different from what I expected it to be? Did it live up to the image of England that I had based on the sepia tinted stories of the seventies and the yellowed family albums?
Yes, I know I was there for just a week. Yes, I know that I was a tourist. Yes, I know that I had to return home…and yet I was made to feel so at home.
I hope that my next trip back doesn’t take so long.