“What’s the purpose of your stay?”
“I’m on a food tour of the U.K.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, I have a food blog.”
“I was thinking of starting me one of those too. Me ‘n my partner, we had a name for it, ‘The Wobbly Table’. That’s the worst part of a restaurant experience isn’t it? The wobbly table. The name was taken though. What’s the name of yours?”
“Feed Me Dearly.”
“You got a card on ya?”
I rooted around my 20-year old blue canvas passport wallet, the one that still carries a yellowed love note from my husband, and passed him my information in pseudo-laminate form: website name, email address, social details.
The passport control agent looked at it, smiled at the three mischievous toeheads staring up from his palm, and let me through.
“Welcome to London.”
Three weeks before my trip I’d received an innocuous-looking email:
“Hope you’re well. I wanted to introduce myself…. we’re looking specifically at 4 food hubs…” I kept skimming, my eyes scanning for the part where I’m invited to dine at a New York restaurant specializing in British cuisine.
“You would first land in London….”
While I’ve done a few press trips within the US, namely to Oregon and New Mexico, I’ve never traveled internationally for food work. It’s something that I’ve only dreamed about.
This fall has been challenging, with some glorious highs (note: Feast Portland and my trip to the Oregon coast), and some frustrating lows. In due time I may summon the courage and speak more publicly about events that happened earlier this year, because yes, it happened to #metoo and we need to share our voices and stories.
But I’ll park that for now with the important punch line: I got on that plane. I knew that Britain would be good for me. I needed a break from life-as-usual, to clear my head, to get some space, to eat well, and to butcher some wild game (true story, more on this another time).
So we’re talking food today. And travel….and the uncanny English sunshine that nearly ruined my trip. Where were those November clouds that everyone speaks of? I brought galoshes! (Or maybe that’s the UK’s dirty little secret…keep the tourists at bay with tales of a rainy season so vicious that no human or hunting dog could survive without a case of the croup. Keep the dales wide open, the moors clear and the Yorkshire puddings all for themselves.)
I visited two primary locations on my trip: London and Yorkshire. City and Country. Such wildly different experiences that they felt like separate countries unto themselves. This post recounts some of my city-based adventures, and I’ll tackle the de-boning of wild game in a follow-up post.
Our itinerary was jam-packed (and by jam-packed, I mean that I ate toast with jam nearly every day, along with more eggs benedicts than I can count on one hand, two of them eaten at two different restaurants before noon on a single day). 12 pages in all. It was planes, trains and automobiles, the Yorkshire portion of my trip chauffeured by the loveliest tour guide Alan who looks and sounds just like the character Alan from Yorkshire’s own “Last Tango in Halifax”. Thank you Britain for providing me with the most authentic experience of all, minus the rain.
I spent three nights total in London at the Knightsbridge Hotel, part of the Firmdale Hotel Group, which aside from managing some swinging properties in New York including the Crosby Hotel and the newly-opened The Whitby, stocks its rooms with the most stunningly-packaged sweetly-scented products.
I’m not one of those people who stashes hotel soaps and mini shampoo bottles in her bag, collecting them each day with the hope of seizing the next day’s replacement. You know who you are. But if all hotels stocked toiletries that look, smell and feel as good as Firmdale toiletries, I’d include myself as part of that dodgy lot. (UK friends, please tell me if that sounded too Australian).
The Knightsbridge Hotel, this may surprise you, is located in Knightsbridge. Which, if you’ve never been to London, is one of the hippest places in all of London to stay. You’ve got Harrods around the corner, where, if so inclined, you can pick up one of their world-renowned Christmas fruitcakes (insert the raising hand emoji; my cake was safely wedged into my suitcase and flown back to the US where it now sits on my counter in its handsome tin, waiting for its post-Thanksgiving debut).
Harrods also sells equally-handsome gifts for your dog. I’m certain that my 2-year-old vizsla was thrilled to receive her navy quilted winter coat with matching leather collar and leash, accented with baby blue and gold hardware. “Happy you look so SUCCESSFUL!” one of the managers raved as Happy blazed into daycare, a flash of navy and gold, lunging for the bucket of dog treats that sits on the counter.
But the most memorable experiences of this trip centered on the food.
On our first night in London, we (the other three women from our media tour plus our hosts) met at the Mandarin Hotel’s “Dinner by Heston Blumenthal” before scattering to various parts of the country. I would go to Yorkshire, Jackie to Devon, and Laura to Scotland; Lina stayed in London eating her way through a few too many English teas before tapping out with a sudden bout of what I’ll gently call “too much rich food for a dainty girl” on a tube station platform. Hopefully she’ll see the humor in it at this point, it’s not her fault that no garbage cans were in sight; in solidarity I shared my story of speaking to my husband by phone one evening from Yorkshire, laid out on a sturdy tweed sofa, belly extended, wearing not a stitch of clothing because even a gauzy nightshirt would have been too constricting.
So yes, we ate well. Incredibly well. The richest, most soul-satisfying autumnal food you could imagine. Chestnuts and game and puddings and gravies. Crisp-tender green vegetables on the side. I had cheese for dessert most nights, English blues, sweet ports, thick onion jams, sliced apples for levity. This was not a week for my gluten and dairy-free diet. I indulged with with every cubic inch that my stomach could provide.
Heston’s restaurant was out of this world. Based on centuries-old recipes, the menu featured items such as “Meat Fruit”, “Roast Marrowbone”, and “Frumenty” (which, although it’s likely on the tip of your tongue, I’ll remind you is grilled octopus and smoked sea broth, inspired by a dish from 1390.)
I was urged to try the “Meat Fruit”, a cloak of mandarin jelly made to look just like a real orange, stuffed with chicken liver and foie gras parfait. It was unctuous yet balanced with its tender citrus shell; the perfect schmear for some olive oil-drizzled salted grilled bread. Hands down one of the most playful dishes I’ve ever come across.
But nothing quite impressed like the theatrics of tableside ice cream. Envision a 6-foot movable table, mounted with a hulking liquid nitrogen-based contraption that when poured with cream and spun with a wheel, produces silken frozen custard à la minute. It was elegant and whimsical and delicious and fun, an apt description for his restaurant experience as a whole.
Our other city stops were York and Harrogate. While both are nestled in the Yorkshire countryside, they both have an urban feel. York’s skyline, punctuated by the spires of York Minster; Harrogate surrounded by the stone remains of wells, water fountains and gardens, a nod to its rich history as a center for hydrotherapy.
I ate Yorkshire puddings of two different styles – the Yorky Pud wrap (imagine: pillowy Yorkshire puddings wrapped around roast pork, stuffing, gravy, soft potatoes and roasted apples) and a more traditional version at Yorkshire Tapas in Harrogate. Piled high with brisket, gravy, potatoes and crushed pork cracklings.
I had my first proper English tea at world-famous Betty’s. Please note that my afternoon visit to Betty’s for tea (and by tea, I mean tea, champagne and a three-tier stacked tower of nibbles from tea sandwiches, to petit fours and clotted cream biscuits) was was preceded by the now-infamous double-eggs Benedict breakfast, and Yorkshire pudding lunch. This, only three hours before the crescendo, a four-course meal at Swinton Park Estate with a 6-cheese dessert chaser. How I avoided Lina’s tube station fate is a mystery, although my day did result in that aforementioned late-night tweed sofa/birthday suit-wearing/beached whale-enacting situation.
It was one for the record books, in more ways than one. London, York, Harrogate, I will be back. Hopefully with husband and kids in tow.
Next time, the English countryside….stay tuned.