Last week we got all the dire warnings — including a “code red” evacuation order that was issued by an over-eager emergency management pin head — regarding the havoc which would be wrought upon the Isle of Long when Hurricane Hermine blew our way. But as you might already know, the old girl veered east, out to sea, after she hit the Carolinas, so what else could Top Cat and I do but throw ourselves a little Hurricane Party? We headed out to the nearest tiki bar on the Long Island Sound and I had my first ever Long Island Iced Tea (see above).
We all know that Yours Truly is not much of a “foodie”. I’m more of a “drinkie”. So, when I travel, eating out is not a high priority. . . but drinking out is huge.
Naturally I put some serious designated drinking on my 4-page To Do List for London (see last week’s post to catch up) — as well as a few Must Eats. This week’s post is all about how I dang near accomplished everything I set out To Eat and Drink in the UK, in true epicurean style. Starting with breakfast.
If you look carefully at the photo below, you will see my dear Top Cat doing some food prep for his salmon baguette while I, on the other side of the table, indulge in my favorite English breakfast of Eggs and Beans on Toast:
We were sitting in our Earl’s Court cafe, on the morning of Day Two, when I observed my dear Top Cat pull a small Tupperware container from his daypack. He pulled off the top, removed a tomato from the vessel, and proceeded to cut it into fat, juicy slices.
I furrowed my brow. “Is that. . .”, I began, but stopped because the idea was too stupid to articulate. But then I decided to go through with it: “Is that from our tomato patch at home? That you brought to London?”
Of course he had. The tomatoes were peaking when we left Long Island and Top Cat couldn’t bear to let them all rot on the vine while we were away. So he packed one for exactly this occasion. I like a man who has priorities.
BTW, I would recommend this breakfast spot to all travelers:
See how the nice guy behind the counter is smiling for my photo? THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN PARIS.
Our breakfast spot is called Gusto and you can see its red awning cosying up to the massive Prince of Teck pub next door:
Ah, the Prince of Teck. I have known this pub since 1976, when Earl’s Court was so packed with Australian ex-pats that it used to be called Kangaroo Court, and the Prince of Teck was the neighborhood dive bar. I mean, it used to be really divey; full of of boisterous Aussies and grungy back packers from the nearby youth hostel and the bums who pretty much lived in the tube station a few yards away. The pub smelled very strongly of stale beer and very faintly of puke. But things have changed, even from when it had got slightly less crummy by 2001 (the last time I popped in for a drink, see below):
I stopped in at the Prince of Teck after our Gusto breakfast and holy cow, was I shocked by what I saw:
I don’t ever recall seeing sunlight in the Prince of Teck before. Or anything close to decor. Or such blinding cleanliness. I don’t even remember ever seeing the floor — this place always used to be crowded with low lifes. See that banquette way in the back, on the right? In the late ’70s I watched a drunk (or stoned) Australian pass out and slump over that table, which attracted absolutely no special notice in those days.
As I stood in the 2016 Prince of Teck all I could do was exhale, “Wow.” I asked the sweet bar maid if I could take a photo, and she said “Of course” and she even smiled for me. THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN PARIS.
I couldn’t help myself: I then said to her, “I remember this place from the seventies, when there used to be a stuffed kangaroo hanging from the ceiling right there,” and I pointed to a space at the far end of the bar. (How many years did I watch that stuffed kangaroo molt, year after year, and shed its ears and become so threadbare that it looked as if it had mange, which it might have, considering the context? Way many years.)
The sweet girl just kept smiling. And then I shut up because, really, do I seriously think that this sweet girl wants to hear what The Prince of Teck was like 20 years before she was born? No. (P.S. to my Aussie Dear Readers: Does anyone else remember Kangaroo Court? Or Ye Olde Prince of Teck? How about the youth hostel that used to be urther down on Earl’s Court Road, near Bolton Gardens?)
BTW, the urge to exclaim to clearly uninterested present-day people, such as Top Cat, what a certain place used to look like 40 years ago is something that I had to reign in, often, during this trip.
I have already mentioned that it was later on, on Day Two, when we went to the top of the weirdly-shaped sky scraper Walkie-Talkie building, at 20 Fenchurch, for lunch at their sky-top brasserie called Darwin’s (here’s a view of it from the foot of Tower Bridge):
Top Cat and I met up with my sister and her husband to hear all about Oxford and their ramble through the Scottish Highlands — fun lunch! The cocktails were super cute:
I didn’t have a drink because I wasn’t here for the booze: I was here to cross off Item #1 on my Must Eat List, Darwin’s Red Onion Tarte Tatin:
That’s a carmelized red onion baked in a pastry shell topped with a hunk of Rollright cheese from the Cotswolds (mild, soft-rind; this cheese won Supreme Champion at the 2016 Artisan Cheese Awards), served atop a salad of wild rocket and walnuts drizzled with two dressings: one balsamic, the other a creamy garlic. It was heavenly, and a bargain at £11.25.
P.S. When Top Cat was about to sign the credit card receipt he noticed that the server had rung up the £115 tab as £155. Travel Tip: always read your food and bev receipts.
For Item #2 on my Must Eat List, Top Cat and I had to head to the Borough Market south of the Thames in Southwark:
What brought us to Borough Market was this: If you love grilled cheese sandwiches as much as I do, then you’ve heard of Kappacasein, home of the most outrageously delicious grilled cheese sandwich IN THE WORLD:
That’s a big hunk of an Ogleshield cheese wheel there (above), in prep for the raclette. The grilled cheese sarnies are made by scooping the 4-cheese shred (see: below) between two slices of artisanal bread:
I have to confess that I wimped out on the famous Kappacasein toastie because the fragrance of the Ogleshield was so overpowering that I lost my appetite. I just don’t care for stinky cheese at all. You might be thinking that only a real dope would pass up a taste in a lifetime: I totally agree. But, seeing as I’m not much of a “foodie” anyway, I think I can live with being a dope. I just couldn’t get past that Ogleshield.
The third and final item on my Must Eat List was Authentic Fish and Chips. Lucky for me, our AirBnB room in Hampstead was just around the corner from The Flask:
A Yelp reviewer from Australia wrote: My partner is still raving about the fish and chips he got here a year and a half ago/ I think it was the mushy peas that made it particularly special for him.
This is cod, deep fat fried in a batter made with a premium ale called London Pride, served red hot with pea purée, chips, and home-made tartare sauce (£13), served on artisanal newsprint, and it is delicious. P.S. I discovered that I DO NOT LIKE mushy peas.
And so it was that on my last night in London I was able to fulfill my Fish and Chips fantasy. But wait, there’s more:
Top Cat and I spent Sunday morning wandering around crazy Camden Town where, at the Camden Market we could have had a beigle. . .
. . . or a bowl of cereal at the Cereal Killer Cafe:
Cereal Killer Cafe is the world’s first international cereal cafe, which only serves cold cereal. Fun, right?
Meanwhile, out on Camden High Street, the Mad Hatter was holding his Tea Party:
Mad Hatter, Tea Party: This is how I will segue to the part of this blog post that I call: The Must Have Teas.
My #1 Must Have Tea was going to be at the Victoria & Albert Museum:
I used to be a paid member of this museum through most of the 1980s, back when the strict economic policies of Margaret Thatcher repudiated the socialist system of yore and cut back on government aid to national museums. Because of this, all the previously free museums had to start charging admission for the first time in their history. During those Thatcher years, museum attendance dropped by as much as 55% and I was totally fine with that. I mean, the admission was only a pound or two — cheap! — but it was enough to keep out tons of people who really should not be visiting museums in the first place and no, I’m not being snotty. You know exactly what I mean. Young parents with screaming kids in strollers! Single dads who don’t know what else to do with their tear-away kids on custodial weekends. Grubby backpackers, bored teenagers, entire clans of foreign tourists herding through the galleries in a daze, etc. These are the people who now clog up all the museums, now that they are all free again.
So I set out to the inner sanctum of the V&A, my heart full of fond memories of all those nearly-empty galleries and cafes spared of the 55% of people who didn’t want to pay a lousy pound to get into the V&A, and a keen, heart-pounding anticipation at seeing, for my first time, the finely renovated grand tea rooms by Gamble, Pointer, and Morris:
These photos can not convey the din and fury of the V&A on a Saturday afternoon during the tail end of the school holidays in August. The rooms were as welcoming as a Chicago O’Hare airport lounge during a fire drill. Oblivious parents with screaming kids, herds of tourists, and one severely annoyed V. Swift. It was a nightmare. So I admired the appointments of these great rooms and got the hell out, hot-footing it back to the peace and quiet of the Piccadilly Line.
My #2 Must Have Tea would have taken place in Oxford, where I wanted to take a table in the “Garden” bit at the Vaults & Garden Cafe where I would sit with Top Cat and our Pot of Tea for Two and gaze upon the Radcliffe Camera (reading room):
But it was drizzly and chilly, and neither of us felt like sitting in the somewhat cramped “Vaults” of this 14th century church building:
So we just walked around the town for a bit and got on our tour bus for our special private inner-circle Sun Set at Stonehenge encounter.
Sun set at Stonehenge was very cool. But that’s another story.
So, as for tea: I had one cup of tea each morning with my eggs and beans on toast, and it was perfection. But I never found a place for a nice afternoon sit down, due to the infestation of people everywhere and the fullness of my To Do List. If I had had one more day, I would have made a bee line to The Muffin Man near the High Street Kensington tube, on 12 Wrights Lane:
This is the self same Muffin Man that was featured in my Tea Time Memoir in Five Minuscule Chapters in When Wanderers Cease to Roam:
I also would have stopped in at The Ritz.
There are several Afternoon Tea experiences to choose from at The Ritz, starting at £52 per person. However, I don’t care for sugary cakes, or any kind of meat sandwich, or an undue amount of unctuous pomp that hints, ever so slightly, of insult — and you get all of that at Afternoon Tea at The Ritz. Used to be that you could sit in the lobby and order a fairly inexpensive pot of tea and enjoy being at The Ritz without the shenanigans of their Afternoon Tea, which is of the kind that I can’t stand, but I didn’t get the chance to check out that possibility because I never found myself in the neighborhood.
At least The Ritz hasn’t capitulated to calling it High Tea. High Tea sounds fancy, but it’s not: High Tea refers to the height of the table on which it is served, in this case a kitchen table. High Tea is the working class name for their evening meal, usually served at the un-chic hour of 5 PM. But because so many tourists (it’s usually blamed on the Americans) want a High Tea, thinking it’s the fancy one, many English outlets have started calling the Low Tea “High”.
The really fancy afternoon tea, Low Tea, used to be served on a low table in a lady’s drawing room at 4 o’clock. There would be only very light snacks served with the tea, in order to ward off hunger until one dressed for dinner, usually dished up at 8 PM.
When I worked for an English company (Christie’s auction house) I was shocked, at first, to hear my fancy co-workers call their evening meal “suppah”. Yeeesh. Where I come from, only hicks call it “supper”. But then I learned that that’s what the upper classes call the meal after lunch; only the dreaded middle class calls it “dinner”.
High Tea, Low Tea, Supper, Dinner . . . class-climbing in the UK is hard. Julian Fellowes ( that is, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, the creator/writer of Downton Abbey) explains it all in his irresistible novel, Snobs; A Novel of Modern Manners.
I hope Snobs will tide you over until we meet back here next week, when I tell you about the cocktails I hunted down in London, in underground speakeasies and roof top apothecaries and garment store basements. There’s more than one cat involved.
Have a great weekend, my Wonder Ones. I hope a hurricane, or a hurricane party, is heading your way!