For the school holidays, I took Sam to London to brush up his English. Well, that was the official excuse. I was dreaming of Fortnum & Mason pickle to go with crumbly aged cheddar from Neal's Yard Dairy, curries that would blow my head off and - perhaps my greatest weakness of all - butter mints from Marks & Spencer (oh, how I miss the Paris shop that closed a few years ago!).
With a seven-year-old in tow, I didn't have any illusions that our trip would be a nonstop gastronomic adventure. Sam is getting old enough to figure out that there is more to sightseeing that schlepping from restaurant to restaurant, so we spent more time riding double-decker buses and standing in interminable (but always civilized) queues than traipsing through luxury food halls and markets. Still, ever the gourmand, Sam saw fit to spend part of his holiday allowance at M&S on the most incredible chocolate-caramel marshmallows with a crunchy almond topping. It warms my heart that he willingly shared them with me.
We did make it to both Fortnum & Mason and Harrods Food Hall, and though Harrods was probably more spectacular (and crowded), F&M is where I would be more likely to spend my money. Its products seemed more original, less the kind of things I could find elsewhere (say, in France) at a lower price; plus, I love the packaging. Not wanting to get carried away, I settled for a jar each of pickle and sweet chilli jam, both perfect complements to British cheeses.
Almost as enchanting were my trips to Waitrose to pick up supplies - what a clean, inviting supermarket, so different than the chaotic and sometimes smelly French ones. It may be a little disturbing that absolutely everything, even the produce, is sold under plastic, but again the friendly packaging wins me over. I love it that on the back of a package of salt were the gentle words "You may want to keep an eye on your salt consumption," and I love it that at Waitrose you can choose from a dozen types of flour, while in French supermarkets there is only white.
Thanks to my food-loving 12-year-old nephew Harold, I also discovered intense pure origin chocolate from Willie Harcourt-Cooze, who has his own chocolate plantation in Venezuela. Harold, already a discriminating chocolate-lover, put it into a sophisticated pudding that we ate warm out of the oven in one of the trip's best food moments (the recipe was from this month's Food & Travel magazine chocolate issue).
I know you are wondering, what restaurants did you try? To tell you the truth, while in London we mostly ate at Prêt à Manger. I know Prêt is not that great, but it's pretty good for a sandwich chain and sometimes it was all we could fit into our busy days (like most of the other people in London, it seemed). What struck me on this trip was how difficult it was in London to avoid chains. When I did venture beyond Prêt, it was never to a small, independent restaurant. We ate at the popular Wahaca, had lunch at the Victoria & Albert museum's café, where the surprisingly good food was catered by Benugo, and quickly slurped some noodles at Wagamama before seeing the musical Oliver!, which we adored.
The only meal worth describing in more detail was the one at Wahaca, the brainchild of former Masterchef winner turned TV chef Tomasina Miers. She had the original idea of adapting Mexican street food with British ingredients, so instead of using a specific Mexican cheese, for instance, she will find a suitable homegrown substitute. Overall, the food works quite well: we started with some well-above-average guacamole and salsa, then tried the sampler menu, which brought us multiple plates to share - most of them somewhere between good and delicious - for the bargain price of £19.95. It was advertised as being for two, but there was even enough for Sam. With a cavernous dining room and dozens of staff it did feel a tiny bit soulless, but over the years I have got used to little family-run French restaurants where you actually forget the aim is to make a profit.
If there is one meal from the trip that I'll remember years from now, though, it will be the one at the King's Head pub outside Norwich, where my sister lives. Here, both Sam and I ordered the monster hamburger topped with Norfolk Dapple cheese and served with thick-cut French fries cooked three times to make them extra-crispy. I don't know where they get their beef or how they season it, but for once it seemed that the meat was the point rather than the condiments that topped it. And who says the British can't cook?
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Rosa: Funny you should mention "Pret a Manger." Margaret and I were in Edinburgh for a few days this July past where, across the street from the George Hotel where we stayed we came upon a PAM. A chain, I quickly realized, but a chain with choices, healthy choices, and with a French name, how could the place be bad? It wasn't. The pastries were wonderful unlike the scones-cum-doorstops sold at Starbucks, about our only choice in the states. I certainly hope the patisseries never disappear but I would certainly tolerate a few Pret a Mangers.
Jim, in Paris Cojean is the closest thing we have to Prêt à Manger, and it's pretty good, though it seems a bit pricier.
I wish Cojean was more like P-A-M. Sure, it's not the most amazing sandwicherie ever, but their selection certainly would put Cojean to shame. All for opening a Pret-a-Manger in Paris!
--CHIC news from Paris--
Hmmm. Rosa, Mexican food in London. Oh my. It sounds interesting. Though I haven't yet found a place outside of the Southwest and California and Mexico of course that makes really good Mexican. I tried Mexican in London once and have never ventured that direction again.
You are coming to New York. I think the next stop in your gastronomic adventures needs to be Dallas.
Thanks for the splendid tips. I am heading to England in about a month and a half with my wife. We will have to check out some of these places. This makes me with the trip were already here, or that I had one of those King's Head hamburgers and a pint in front of me.
Chicsetera, when I taste baguette like the one at Le Grenier à Pain in rue des Abbesses, I think I just might be able to live without Prêt in Paris!
Denise, it really wasn't a disaster, though I'm sure it wouldn't bowl you over either. Dallas, why not?
Hope you enjoy your trip, Daniel! There is certainly good food to be had in London - it just takes a bit of time and research to find it.
Your trip looks lovely. I have been looking at the Fortnum & Mason site and can't believe how beautiful their store and their product are.
Next time you are in London try to get to the Selfridges food hall - it is a happy compromise between Fortnum & Mason and Harrods but with better prices overall than both.
For British food on the go, try the Fuzzy's Grub or Fuzzy's Express - they are a chain as well, but smaller (I think only 3 or 4 stores so far) and they serve English/British food. Something a bit different and very nice.