Continuing on the recap of my honeymoon, today’s post of The Global Glutton heads southwest from Glasgow to London. Considering that we did spend an entire week there, I will spare you all seven days of highlights to focus on why you’re reading this: the geeky stuff and the food.
We took the train down from Glasgow to Euston station, and then the tube to where our Airbnb hosts lived in Notting Hill. The charm of the neighborhood only grew in how conveniently close the house was to two tube stations within a 10-15 minute walk, and a bus stop 5 minutes away. I cannot recommend enough to use public transit when you are in London. Trains consistently arrive every two minutes and buses every six, most of the time. Coming from Atlanta where trains arrive every 15-20 minutes, and buses to who knows where, and who knows when, I don’t understand why Londoners are in such a rush to squeeze onto the next train. Time is relative, I suppose.
Near the Notting Hill tube station, we found Jamie Oliver’s Recipease (a food and cooking supply store great for browsing), a sushi restaurant that has fresh-to-go sushi platters, and one of the biggest money-savers of our trip: Tesco. Tesco is a chain of grocery stores in the UK with a pretty decent selection of prepared foods and fresh baked bread, and late hours good for the late-night returning tourist or pub patron with the munchies. Now say this with me: three-pound meal deal. For three pounds at Tesco (and similar prices at other grocery store chains like Waitrose), you can get a gourmet sandwich or salad, a bag of crisps or sliced fruit, and a drink. I know, we have similar things back at home, but not at this quality. Their Chicken Tikka Sandwich with Mango Chutney was moist, spicy and delightful on malted wheat bread – simple, but much better than anything you can get at Panera for a little more than half the price. Their Egg, Sausage, and Bacon Triple Sandwich had honey cured bacon, sage-heavy sausage, and sweet tomato relish – and was enough food to split for a quick breakfast between two people.
Another thing you need to keep in mind, especially if you are staying at a house with a kitchen through Airbnb, Tesco also has a ten-pound meal deal that comes with an entree, side, dessert, and beverage. For ten pounds and a short period in the oven, we were treated to a delicious meal in the form of a Chicken an Leek Phyllo Pie, Pesto Pasta Salad with Pine Nuts, Salted Caramel Chocolate Pudding, and a nice bottle of Rosé. They do not skimp on their portions either. We actually had enough food leftover for breakfast the following day. Really though, it’s perfect for a romantic dinner at home when you are thoroughly sick of wading through tourists and rush-hour crowds during the day.
Just on the corner of Pembridge and Portobello Road in Notting Hill, we found The Sun in Splendour, an old world eclectic pub, just in time for Burger Night. It was rather nice and close to where we were staying, a good neighborhood pub with a decent draft and menu selection.
We decided to try the West County Beef Burger with Cornish Brie and Bacon Jam, and the Pork and Chorizo Burger with Caramelized Onion Jam. Note to those new in the UK: Any time you order a burger or steak it will be cooked well done by default due to the mad cow scares in the eighties and nineties. If you want it cooked any other way, you will have to ask specifically. We discovered this the hard way with our beef burger, but it was still tasty and filling with the taste of maple and bacon taking prevalence.
The onion jam on the pork and chorizo was sweet and smoky and paired well with the spice in the meat. For 10 pounds, each of these delicious burgers came with a pint of beer or cider and a side. The onion rings were perfect – light, crispy, and not too heavy on the oil.
Not in Notting Hill, but a few bus stops away, was the real reason for staying in this neighborhood in London — Holland Park. Holland Park is a small, but beautiful park with winding paths and gardens. The real star, however, is the castle open-air theater home of Opera Holland Park. Rated the best opera company in the country, this is also where my husband spent three summers as their props builder and manager. It was a delight to finally make the trip to meet his friends and coworkers. They were kind to hook us up with some complimentary tickets to their current show, Aida, and even invited us up to the loft for a champagne reception with the cast, crew, and investors.
If you happen to be in London during the summer, they are certainly worth a look. Their interpretation of Aida, as unorthodox as it was since elephants are expensive to rent out, was certainly fun. The setting takes place in an Egyptology Museum exhibit where the upper crust bankers, investors, and curators get high on a number of substances, believe themselves to be the Ancient Egyptians, and declare an all-out Lord of the Flies-style war with the “Ethiopian” museum cleaning and maintenance staff members. Keep in mind that since OHP is an open-air theater, their season only runs during the summer and tickets can sell out quickly.
On Saturday we hit Portobello Road and if you’re a fan of antiques, you’re in for a treat. You can find just about anything old, interesting, and on sale in the many shops and stands that line the tourist-saturated streets. If you have crowd anxiety, this place is not for you on a weekend, but it is worth the risk. The book nerd in me alone was gawking over antique novel sets and cookbooks. Unfortunately by this point I had already stretched the weight limits of luggage and could not sacrifice any more space for the thick, hardcover of French recipes from the 1800’s. That said, as long as you’re respectful, you can even cut a pretty good deal. We picked up a copy of Scottish Faerie Tales and Folklore from 1901 for about twelve pounds.
Portobello Road is certainly not devoid of culinary delights, however. We happened upon The Portabello Star, a contemporary bar serving up historical cocktails and tasting lessons at their “Ginstitute” upstairs. The cocktail menu alone is worth coming for as it is a beautifully printed pamphlet with the history(whether real or creatively fabricated) of the drinks as well as their descriptions. We opted to try two of their signature drinks using London dry gin: The Portobello Road Martini and Soyer’s Nectar.
The martini, was described as being made with Portobello Road Gin, Lillet Blanc wine, Danish digestif, Bob Abbot’s Bitters, and a grapefruit twist. It was fragrant and mellow with a smooth bitterness from the grapefruit that had been rubbed on the edge of the glass, the stem, and squeezed into the drink. Soyer’s Nectar is historically known to be the first blue cocktail ever. Created by the world’s first celebrity chef, Alexis Benoist Soyer, in the 1850s, this drink is composed of raspberry, quince, apple, lemon and cinnamon. It was nothing short of delicious – refreshing, fruity, but definitely not a stereotypical girly drink as the flavors blends harmoniously with the juniper for a classic touch. Having skipped lunch, we decided to order a snack of artisan breads as well. We were served up a surprisingly sweet but really good onion bread, a naturally sweet raisin bread, a wonderfully tart green olive bread, and a generous pat of English butter with salt crystals.
If you have a 120 pounds and an entire afternoon to spare, I would recommend booking a tasting class experience with the Portobello Star’s Ginstitute. The class includes several tastings, the history of gin, as well as a bottle of your own custom-created blend of Portobello Road Gin to take home.
The further northwest you go on Portobello Road, you’ll find rows and rows of food and grocery stands. I had to keep myself from drooling over the full-sized pans of simmering paella and loaves of artisan bread. Everything was fresh or freshly made. I was a little sad that it was our last day in London, otherwise I would have picked up some ingredients to cook something in our host’s kitchen.
Eventually, you can make a left turn onto Blenheim Crescent where you can find not one, but two culinary paradises. The first one is The Spice Shop, home to over 2500 types of herbs, spices, and spice blends. They had practically everything you could possibly want to season your food from black garlic to aji Amarillo, to even ras el hanout.
And right across the street is the shop Books for Cooks, which is exactly what it says it is. Photography was not allowed in the shop, so you’ll just have to be satisfied with my storefront photos. This shop bears wall to wall shelves holding cookbooks of all types. They even publish their own series of cookbooks with inspired recipes such as Braised Chicken with Orzo, Saffron Onions & Date Chutney, and Corn Soup with Red Pepper Purée.
If you are looking for a good souvenir or gift for your favorite cook back at home, I really can’t recommend these books enough as you will not be able to find them anywhere else in the world. They also have a test-kitchen and workshops that you can pre-book classes for when you’re in town. I sort of wish I had known this place existed before coming to the UK, but that is why I am passing this knowledge onto you. If you have the chance to take a class there, please let me know how it was so I could book it next time.
So thank you for taking the time to read this admittedly lengthy account. While these areas are just a small fraction of our trip to London, I wanted to highlight some places you might not know to look for while here. This city has so much to offer for those willing to step away from the main tourist attractions and experience the local culture. I hope I’ve inspired you to try a few of them.
Stay hungry, my friends!