London: Unabashed Food Hedonism

I spend most of my year cooking home grown food or foraged wild meat and fish at home on North Uist, therefore, when we do get away for a trip, there tends to be a focus on eating the best food we can access/afford wherever we head. This could be Michelin star dining; The Kitchin and Martin Wishart in Edinburgh being our two Scottish favourites, or, as in our trip to London this week, more relaxed, less austere and affordable eating experiences.

I love cooking and preparing food but even I need a break from cooking from scratch on a daily basis. The perfect antidote to ‘Cook’s Fatigue’ is to recharge the batteries with a visit to London, one of my favourite cities in the world and, of course, I had accumulated a list of places I had to eat and some foody items I had to purchase while there. Some of you who read my blog will not be surprised to learn this predictably included a visit to Ottolenghi and Wahaca but this also extended to indulging in some street food and Portuguese food nostalgia, both of which I have been dreaming of for some months.

Bear with me, this is inevitably a long post, so feel free to cut to the chase of the tagine recipe.

Our reason for visiting London was primarily work-related in that The Man Named Sous, (elevated to his real name Eric for this post, given the redundancy of his nom de blog for our London trip) was displaying instruments at the British Violin Making Association annual violin makers event.  I was certainly required as a porter for the event, as we arrived from Edinburgh by train with various instruments including cello, violin and viola.

He had been working very long hours to finish a new cello for this event and another last week in Glasgow where it and other instruments he made were played in the Violin Makers Scotland showcase concert at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. So new is the cello, pictures of it have been posted in his Facebook page, but have not yet made to his website, Eric Jackson Violins (shameless plugging here, but I am proud of his skill to produce very fine instruments as well as his commitment to his profession).

The event at Old Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green was a success and it was good for both of us to catch up with people we had not seen for a few years, such as flatmates Eric shared a house with while studying at the Newark School of Violin Making. After the event, we had a few pints in the delightful The Crown Tavern across the road from the venue with violin maker and musician pals and rounded the night off with a curry at Cafe Saffron, Aylesbury Street, which was excellent, good value and service too.

We were staying at a friend’s flat in Highgate, North London, except our friend was not there but in transit back from Algiers, although we did make the acquaintance of his Hungarian friend also staying at the flat. It was nice to be able to spend time with him of an evening, exchanging tales of London, Hungary and the Hebrides, and he also cooked us up a fine Hungarian Goulash as well as kindly gifting me some Hungarian sweet paprika, which I had long ran out of, but used to pick up when I worked in Hungary during my PhD.  I included some of this distinctive spice in my tagine recipe at the end of this post.

paprika

After so much intensity and immersion in the violin making world, we delighted in spending a couple of well-earned days snatching time to explore some of London’s culinary and cultural offerings, although, must it be said it was a bit manic, cramming as much in as we could in so little time.

Street food is currently very much in vogue in the UK and the best place to find a diverse selection is London.  We had heard about the Moroccan Soup Stand in Golbourne Road, which recently won a BBC Radio 4 Food Award. I then read a great post by Craig at Mad Dog TV Dinners, who has great local knowledge of the best markets to visit in London.  He wrote an inspiring and enlightening post about Golbourne Road where I learned about the Portuguese community and associated shops there. Thanks to Craig for the info, his comprehensive post should be read in conjunction with this one to get the full flavour of the experience.

This made a visit to the area mandatory as I was in need of some Portuguese food nostalgia after my recent post about living in the Algarve.  On arrival at Golbourne Road, we found Lisboa Patisserie first (don’t know why it isn’t called Lisboa Pastelaria), so we had to start our afternoon with coffee and pastels de nata.  These were the most authentic I have eaten in the UK. Delicious crisp flaky pastry layers, perfect deep wobbly but steadfast custard within and a deep dark caramelisation on top.  One would never have been enough, and had I not been planning to visit the Moroccan soup stand further down the road, I could have eaten a third!

pastel de nata

The award winning Moroccan soup stand was next. It wasn’t excessively busy and we got a table and were quickly served by the very friendly and helpful proprietors. I had Bissara (green split pea) soup and Eric had Harira.  It was lovely to sit outside sharing a table with Portuguese customers on a beautifully clear crisp afternoon. The soup was really delicious and we decided to go for a tagine next, opting to share a chicken one. Needless to say it was delightful and came with bread to mop up the deliciously aromatic gravy.  A bargain for such authentic cuisine at £6.00.

tagine

Afterwards, we naturally gravitated towards the unmistakable smell of bacalau (salt cod) emanating enticingly from the Lisboa Deli.  I wanted to buy some to take home as it has been many years since I have eaten it and I don’t know of anywhere in Scotland that sells it. At the back of the shop, in a room dedicated to bacalau, stood a stack of huge sides of dried cod so loved by the Portuguese, next to a bandsaw on which my kilo of bacalau was cut for me.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of this unique set up. I bought some other nostalgic items including quince marmalade and chorizo, becoming aware that if I bought much more, we would not be able to carry it home, given we were already laden on the way down, and I had not yet visited other shops in the street.

As it was, by the time we got to the end of the block, we had bought olives, harissa, an array of herbs and spices and a large bag of rose petals.  We just had to and would worry about how we would carry the stuff back to Scotland later.  We had a fantastic relaxing afternoon in Golbourne Road and I will certainly be returning for supplies and great food next time I am down in London, not to mention to buy a tagine dish, which I simply couldn’t carry this time.

Later that evening, we dropped in at Wahaca at Covent Garden for some Mexican tapas and cocktails.  The restaurant had been recently refurbished and was vibrant and friendly.  We enjoyed a couple of margharitas – the passion fruit version was great, along with a snack of fennel pork scratchings with guacamole, lovely, although I didn’t sense much fennel.  We shared a small selection of tapas dishes including chicken tinga tacos, chicken guajillo tostadas and chipotle chicken quesadillas, then realised everything we ordered contained chicken!.  I also ate them before I realised I should have perhaps photographed them (oops!). Pretty tasty they were too, and surprisingly, not too hot.

wahaca snacks

We could not leave London without a visit to Ottolenghi, but rather than going for lunch or dinner, we opted for brunch at Islington.  As readers will know, I adore the Ottolenghi ethos, flavour combinations and recipes.  Although Ottolenghi sits on a pedestal as high as The Shard, I was not at all apprehensive that a visit may not live up to my expectations.  In fact, the experience was indeed sublime and the food, service and experience utterly flawless.  We both opted for shakshuka.  It had enormous depth of flavour and the perfect balance of heat and richness while still allowing the flavour of the egg yolks to shine through.  The labneh was a a perfect foil to the warmth and richness of the peppers and tomatoes.

shakshuka

This was served with a perfect cappuccino, one of the best I have had in London (no mean feat since we always seek out the best coffee shops, especially those revered NZ places in Soho).  A second cappuccino accompanied the grand finale of the famous Ottolenghi cakes.  It took us a considerable time to choose, the selection was mesmerising.

Otto coffee

otto cakes

In the end I went for a passion fruit meringue tart. In truth, I can’t resist anything containing passion fruit.  I was not disappointed.  This was genuinely one of the best cakes I have ever eaten. Crisp light pastry, oozing passion fruit custard with the perfect balance of sharpness to match the uber light and not too sweet soft, delectable meringue. I was smitten.  Eric chose the rhubarb and ginger cheesecake, which was gargantuan and delicious.

otto meringue

meringue open

otto cheesecake

The display of salads looked so enticing and if there was anyway I could have squeezed in another mouthful, I would have tried some.  At least there’s an excuse to return next time we are in London.

otto salads

In order to recover from our brunch, we visited the Courtauld Gallery to see the ‘Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901’ exhibition.  This was a wonderful opportunity to see a unique exhibition reuniting major paintings from his debut exhibition. Picasso was only 19 years old and this prolific year of his life shaped his future career, notably in the second half of 1901, when Picasso quite radically changed the direction of his work at what was the beginning of his now famous Blue period.

Picasso is undoubtedly one of my favourite artists and when I visited the Picasso museum in Paris over 20 years ago, his work left a huge impression on me. I feel very fortunate to have viewed so many of his early works in one place. It was delightful to see the steps of transformation before the progression to his most famous works which went on to define him as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

No visit to London is complete without an afternoon/evening in Soho. There is always a great buzz and an enormous choice of great coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Top coffee shops include Flat White and Sacred, where we stopped for a cappuccino.

We stopped by at Fernandez and Wells to indulge in some charcuterie and prosecco choosing a three meat platter for £12, consisting of Limoto Iberico de Bellota, Schiena (an Italian version of speck from Trentino) and Cecina de Leon (beef air cured and oak smoked, an interesting alternative to bresaola).

fenandez and wells

charcuterie

Of course, we always dwell for a while in The Crobar. This small, friendly bar is well known in rock and metal circles and has the best classic rock and metal jukebox you will find nowadays (I just realised I make myself sound very old by adding the word nowadays). Everything from classic thrash like Slayer to contemporary heavyweights Mastodon as well as classic and some stoner rock is blasted out.

Staff and patrons are very friendly and it has an exceptionally long happy hour. On arrival, we were deliberating about what to drink and the barman asked where we were from.  ‘Scotland’ we stated blandly and generically.  Turns out he was from Dundee and gave us the rather weird shots we chose on the house.  It is also one of these places that occasionally attracts rock stars and journalists. The night we were in, legendary rock journalists Malcolm Dome and Jerry Ewing were standing at the bar.  I would never have noticed, but Eric has a brilliant memory for names and faces, especially anyone related to music or film.

Crobar

We eventually caught up with our friend, who returned from Algeria sans luggage and had himself been so busy on return, we had only a few hours to see him and his partner (also a friend) for dinner at her home in Kentish Town before we returned to Edinburgh next morning.  It was great to catch up with them and hope we can reciprocate when they visit our Hebridean home.

Lamb Tagine

Inspired by our visit to London and pulling together some experiences from the Moroccan Soup Stand, Portuguese cooking, visit to Ottolenghi and my Hungarian paprika gift, I made this tagine while visiting my parents on our return from London.  The lamb shoulder was purchased from an excellent local butcher. The preserved lemons included in the recipe were some I made and gave to my mum as a gift at Christmas and are so simple and easy to make. I serve this with Portuguese broa bread, my recipe described in a previous post.

Ingredients

600g lamb shoulder, diced

2 onions

5 small tomatoes

skin of 1/2 a preserved lemon, chopped

2 bay leaves

large pinch of saffron

60g dried apricots

80g green olives

600 ml vegetable stock

400g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

40g toasted flaked almonds

1 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

For spice rub:

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground all spice

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

3 green cardamom pods, contents ground

1/4 tsp Hungarian sweet paprika

1 tsp harissa

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

Method

  • Combine all the ingredients for the spice rub with the oil and rub into the lamb pieces.  Leave to marinade for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
  • Add a splash of olive oil to a casserole dish and brown the pieces of lamb.
  • Remove the lamb and add the onion, soften and caramelise slightly.  Return the lamb to the casserole dish or place both in tagine, if you have one.
  • Add the tomatoes, saffron, olives, bay leaves, apricots, chick peas and vegetable stock.  Slow cook in a low oven about 150C for 2 1/2 hours, add the potatoes and preserved lemon with one hour to go, scatter the toasted almonds over the top and serve with bread and /or salads.

tagine

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47 thoughts on “London: Unabashed Food Hedonism

  1. What a great trip! It brought London flooding back, spanning the 12-month absence in an instant. Clerkenwell, one of my favourite areas, and Golbourne Road too! This was the actual location for much of my ambulance career, and some of my posts refer to (undisclosed) addresses along it. Luckily, I am still able to buy the delicious custard tarts in Dereham, which has a vibrant, if small, Portuguese community. I don’t know Ottolenghi’s from personal experience, but it looks delicious. As a double espresso man, I favoured Bar Italia in Soho, but I know the other places well.
    Thanks for taking me ‘home’ for a few minutes Tracey, and good luck to Eric with his sales of violins and cellos. (Making those, that IS talent.) Regards as ever, Pete. x

  2. I’m glad you had a good time in Goldborne Road 🙂
    Ottolenghi’s shakshuka looks amazing, as do the cakes.
    Thanks for the links – you should have popped in for coffee here – I live in Kentish Town too!

  3. What a brilliant trip – it’s making even a country bumpkin like me feel like I need a trip to the big city! Love the sound of Ottolenghi and the Moroccan street food. I need to buy a new tagine pot too as my treasured souk buy that lasted years has recently cracked, and can’t believe the price in kitchen shops – I bet the ones on Goldborne Road are much better. Planning chicken tagine for tomorrow funnily enough. But your lamb version looks wonderful.

  4. Thank you for letting me be an armchair passenger. I have lovely memories of visiting London in 2003 when my daughter lived there. Portugese custard tarts were a revelation to me as was tapas. Thoroughly enjoyed this informative post.

  5. Hi Tracey,
    It was a pleasure to meet you. You are a wonderful and admirable couple. I wish you all the best and more from my heart.
    Gyula

  6. So good to know that we’re not the only ones who plan a trip to London based on which cafes to visit, and not which museums! Goldbourne Road is now on my list for the next visit. Ottolenghi is a firm favourite – we always come away with a box of salad and a box of cakes to bring home.

    • It’s true we have a habit of going on the food trail whenever we get off the island. I must admit visiting Ottolenghi has only served to amplify my obsession with their food, no bad thing, I might end up taking a salad box and cakes away next time too, it would help to prolong the experience 🙂 Thanks, T

  7. You certainly know how to pack it in; the food, the sights and the shopping 🙂 I have just discovered Ottolenghi on the TV and I’m looking forward to the visiting the Turkish market in Beverwijk, Holland when I head over at the end of the month; the preserved lemons look like a must have item in at lot of his recipes. Fantastic write up as ever, and this time more than ever I feel hungry; thanks Tracey 🙂

    • Thanks Eddy, it was very action packed. I use preserved lemons all the time, they are so easy and cheap to prepare at home ( I buy the close to sell by bags for 20p)and just need time to mature. Hope you can write a post about the Turkish market in Holland, sounds great, enjoy, T

  8. – What a fabulous post! Brings back so many memories, too. I used to live near Golbourne Road for about 4 years in my twenties so I know it really well. And, although one of my best friends (from Glasgow) husband was from the Algarve we seldom hung out there together. I used to go to the same café as you did and totally agree about the custard tarts or pastels de nata. Incidentally the first time I had them was in the Santa Maria de Belém area of Lisbon. Amazing!
    – It’s funny that the street food, that I’ve read so much about, is a new fad since I’ve moved out of Central London. One of the fascinating aspects of a great city that’s always changing.

  9. Wow! Eric’s website is fantastic. I didn’t even know there was a school to learn how to make musical instruments. Must be wonderful to be able to create something that beautiful with your hands. And seeing your creation on a stage, played by a musician? Priceless. I know…people say that cooking is a form of art too but, to be perfectly honest, that’s not the kind of art I was aspiring to. Who knows? Maybe in my next life. In this one, I’m totally jealous of him and the rest of the artists on the planet! 😉

  10. Ai know exactly what you mean by cook’s fatigue, with poultry exams at school and general day to day life (my remedy shall be) a Taste/food festival in Sydney in the latter week. How very wonderful to trowel those incredible food spots in London, street food and local cuisine for £6 incredible! I love the salt cod fritters and (living in an italian centric area,) am quite lucky that they stock it in tie local deli’s here.

    You’ll be pleased to know I recently purchased ‘Plenty’ by Ottolenghi, having read so much on how fabulous it is. Loved the labnah & Shakshouka and equally love that delicious looking tagine, with the green olives and the wonderful homage of spices!

    • Thanks, yes, Alice, though your fatigue will be the real deal – I am a mere amateur! You are lucky to live in an Italian area – salt cod fritters sound good. Plenty is great, although I must lay off it for a while, or my blog will end up like a homage to Ottolenghi 🙂

  11. Wonderful post about your travels, business, music and food. I think it is great that you usually cook and enjoy all the local foods at home and also truly appreciate the multicultural delights you sometime experience.It all sounds rather exciting! ( Biggest food excitement around here is that it is maple syrup season, but no complaints!)

    • Thank you! Yes, I think I am lucky home and away, although I do miss the multiculturalism of our cities – not enough on Uist, I must admit! I would be very excited about the maple syrup season. I get excited just picking up bottle from the local supermarket 😉

  12. Sounds like you had a fantastic trip and you brought back enough to make sure the trip is more than just a memory. This sounds like a wonderful way to prepare lamb. And here I sit with a few jars of freshly made, preserved lemons. Thanks for taking the time to blog about your trip, thereby giving us a chance to travel there with you, and thanks for sharing a great recipe.

    • I did, thank you very much for your kind comments. We had a great trip and will enjoy the recipe aftermath at home. Hope you will post some recipes including your preserved lemons, I’m always looking for new ideas to use them, Tracey.

  13. This was a fantastic armchair journey. We have vague plans of visiting Britain, I am already planning the trip around visiting expat friends and Ottolenghi.

    And making violins – it sounds like such a difficult but rewarding job. Having played the piano, I’ve seen tuners at work and some of them really seem to ‘get’ each instrument. Making the instrument would be getting to know the instrument on another level.

    • Thanks, and you might guess that I can’t recommend Ottolenghi highly enough 🙂 I agree about getting each instrument – piano tuners are incredible. Eric plays violin too and can hear so much detail that I wouldn’t pick up, but it’s so important for the creative journey – and to make the correct adjustments to get the best out of an instrument.

    • Thank you! The Kitchin is certainly one of the best and most exciting places I have eaten, won’t be long before he gets a second Michelin star, I’m sure. It’s also pretty relaxed, not too austere and the ethos of seasonal/local is spot on.

  14. Agree with Francesca,and a good many other people, above re art and the art of life, so I won’t be boring and repeat what’s already been said. Another compliment, on top of the thanks for this very lovely armchair blog journey: you seem to observe and write as well as you prep and cook, no mean feat. It’s good to be a hedonist, violins and all …

    • Thanks for your generous comments – I really don’t consider myself to be much of a writer, unless we are talking about the formulaic world of scientific writing, my clinical comfort zone, but I do enjoy the contrast and lack of constraint (indulgence?) in the blogosphere. My motto for blogging should probably be ‘Why use 10 words when you can use 100?’ 🙂

  15. I’m from Kentish Town and as much as I love being in the countryside now, I do miss the food outlets that London offers. I’m actually drooling at your post and photos at the moment…..Glad you enjoyed your trip!

  16. It certainly sounds as though you made the most of being in London! Definitely some good recommendations for my next visit. And the tagine recipe looks wonderful too.

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