Friday, June 13, 2014

A Foodie In London

from Jacqueline

When I arrived in London last Thursday, I banished my jet-lag and met up with fellow mystery writer – and all-round gem of a person – Deborah Crombie.  And it was her birthday!  Deb spends a lot of time in London doing research for her series featuring Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. We went along to The Mitre, a “gastro pub” on Holland Park Avenue.  Their fish and chips was to die for, served with fresh minty mushy peas, and washed down with the bottle of Prosecco that her lovely daughter had arranged to have waiting for us!

 After dinner – during which we talked about how great London’s food scene is – we walked along the avenue, with Deb trying to remember which of the grand houses was the home of Dame Phyllis of Holland Park – that would be PD James to mystery fans.

But our conversation about London’s food lingered, and that’s what I’m writing about this week.

Despite a poor post-WW2 culinary reputation that remains in some quarters, Britain has become the foodie capital of the world. Frankly, London knocks Paris into a cocked hat – and, to be fair, so do certain other cities in the United Kingdom.   And it seems that, in every way, right now …. 

Samuel Johnson famously said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."  There have been times when I would have completely contradicted his opinion (the early 90’s spring to mind), but now is not one of them. And in case you think I don’t take account of the dark side that exists in any city, this post is only about the food, and the good stuff.

There was good reason for Britain to have garnered that age-old reputation for bad food.  At a time when tourism boomed following WW2 – when Americans were starting to flood across Europe in the 50’s and 60’s with back pockets full of bulging wallets, and Europeans were still reeling from being bombed to smithereens – the British, for the most part, were suffering from the effects of rationing that continued until 1954.  Books had been published throughout the war with advice to the housewife on how to make limited supplies last longer – Woolton Pie, for example, named for the Minister of Food.

Ingredients were often boiled to the point of disintegrating in an effort to get any dish to go around more people, who had lost a taste for food because anything would do. I remember, when I was 16, asking my mother what she did at my age to “diet.”  She rolled up laughing. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said.  “It was all I could do to get enough to eat!”  So, that was that.  You didn’t want to mention the word “diet” in our house.

No one threw out leftovers.  The remains of the Sunday “joint” (beef, lamb or pork) were sliced and baked in gravy on Monday, and if there was more left over, the meat was put through a grinder, and vegetables added for a pie on Tuesday. My dad’s favorite was “bubble and squeak” – leftover soggy veggies (particularly cabbage) fried up and served, perhaps, with sausage.  Offal was big – it was cheap.  Stuffed lambs hearts, liver and bacon with gravy- UGH!  We only had pudding (dessert) on Sundays, and it was invariably apple pie or tinned peaches with custard.

 Then along came a few TV chefs who did their best to bring British food up to scratch.  There was Elizabeth David, Britain’s answer to Julia Child (with an equally fascinating background); the throaty Fanny Cradock and her husband Johnnie; Australian Graham Kerr, and of course Robert “first take your marble slab, then your parsley from the Dordogne …” Carrier – an American who decided to settle in Britain.

That's Fanny & Johnnie

But the fact remained, if you wanted good British food, you had to go to a pub, and you had to know which one.  There were Italian and Greek restaurants and – on every street corner – the Indian eat-in or take-away.  I still remember when Tangs Chinese restaurant opened in a local village – you would have thought Martians had invaded.  By the way, one of the very best Indian restaurants I have ever been to was in Glasgow – now another foodie powerhouse.

One of the early boulders on the path to rehabilitation of Britain’s gastronomic reputation was an ingrained belief that restaurants could not be trusted because you didn’t know what went into their food. With a fish and chip shop, or a pie and mash shop (a London favorite) there was an element of trust.  The idea that food had to be cooked by mother in the kitchen took a while to banish – and was probably helped along by mother getting a bit fed up with it.

 When I worked in London in the 80’s, we knew where to go for good food.  There were great ethnic restaurants all over the place.  But what has put London on the map in recent years is the re-imagining of traditional dishes, bringing them bang up to date with contemporary tastes, and not only on the tongue, but in presentation and with fresh organic ingredients. 

The day after my dinner with Deb, I had a meeting with my UK publisher, then met my pal Corinne.  We had a great afternoon, with lunch at Muriel’s Kitchen, a small eatery next to South Kensington tube – the quiche with feta, broccoli and butternut squash was amazing! For dessert we skipped across the road to Scoop for gelato – the tiny shop was packed. And that’s another thing – weather or no weather; London has become an alfresco dining city, which adds to the up-tempo vibe.

 That evening we had dinner at The Summerhouse alongside the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice. Fresh baked cod with organic green beans and lovely little new potatoes – the perfect dish to eat while watching the narrowboats ply their way back and forth along the waterway.

 Finally, the following morning before going down to Sussex to stay with my mother (and get back to work on my next book!), Corinne and I had breakfast at The Wolesley on Piccadilly.

 Originally built in 1921 to house the Wolesley motor showroom, the building later became a branch of Barclays Bank, before being remodeled into a restaurant in 2003.  The architecture is grand without being intimidating, and the staff incredibly welcoming – and let me tell you, the French toast with blueberry compote is not to be missed (I had the gluten-free version!).

This week my mother and I will have lunch in a few favorite places – I could go on about them, but it might make you drool, especially the café at Pashley Manor Gardens.  Their ploughman’s lunch with all local ingredients and their home made chutney is the best, ever. The quintessential British treat!
Here's the cafe at Pashley Manor.

And now it's back to work ....

Have a lovely weekend.  While you're reading this, I'll be en route to the USA, on my way home. 


  1. Now I'm hungry. Thanks for the restaurant tour, it was fun and the closest I'll get to London.

    1. from Jacqueline: Writing about food makes you hungry too! And you never know - you might get to London ...

  2. I will definitely try Muriel's Kitchen. I love the area around the South Kensington tube. Thanks!

    1. from Jacqueline: Muriel's Kitchen is not a big place, although I think they have another couple of cafes in London - but the food was very good! And that area has a lot going for it, just steps away from the Tube!

  3. Your foodie stories brought back fond memories for me. When I was in London several years ago, I had lunch in the cafe at the Gainsborough Museum. The food was wonderful I think I had salmon. As I recall, each time I have visited London, the vegetables are always wonderful, I never liked bell peppers until I visited England and came home with a new taste for bell peppers. My Mom remembers "milk bars" in 1962 when she visited London. I also love the tea rooms with the English tea, the sandwiches and the sweets. When I was in England and Scotland in 1994, I tried tandoori (Indian speciality) for the first time. I always look for places to eat that are smoke-FREE since I am allergic. If I could not, I would buy a sandwich at Boots then sit on a bench in one of the beautiful parks. I also liked the fish and chips.

    Thank you for sharing your foodie stories.

    Have a wonderful weekend,

    1. from Jacqueline: Milk bars used to be a big thing (I think the Beatles had their first gigs in a milk bar!) - sort of trendy places in their day. Most places are now smoke free now (otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat in them!), though in some places the smokers have just moved outside. But even the sandwiches in Boots are great, and have you ever seen potato chips in so many flavors??

  4. Enjoyed a couple good London pubs two summers ago plus decent Middle Eastern food. Top restaurants pricey in a New York sort of way.

    1. from Jacqueline: Yes the top restaurants seem to cost a lot wherever you go, but sometimes a special treat is worth shelling out for.

  5. Like all good food posts, you're making me hungry.

    1. from Jacqueline: I make myself hungry even thinking about food!