Beer and biryani in Hampstead High Street

MANY PEOPLE HAVE FAVOURITE restaurants. My parents were no exceptions. Amongst the restaurants they frequented often in London during the early 1960s were Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street; Otello in Soho; Cellier du Midi in Hampstead; and the Tung Hsing in Golders Green, one of the first restaurants in London to serve ‘Pekinese’ cuisine. For Indian food, they patronised the Shahbhag in Hampstead High Street. 135 feet west of that still extant restaurant there is an archway decorated with sculptures depicting sheaves of barley and an inscription that reads:

“Established 1720. BREWERY. Rebuilt 1869”

The archway is at the street entrance of a covered cobbled lane that leads to a converted Victorian industrial building, now named ‘Clive House’, within a yard of varying width. The yard contains a well-head covering a well that looks quite old, and certainly not of recent construction.

The brewery was that of the ‘Hampstead Brewery Co. Ltd’ founded in 1720 by John Vincent (died 1755).  In about 1713, Vincent, already a landowner, acquired the Jack Straws Castle pub near Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp66-71). He founded the brewery behind a pub called the “King of Bohemia’s Head” in 1720. In 1733, he was granted a 33-year lease of a spring by the trustees of an estate in Hampstead, which contained it and other wells including those with curative mineral waters. It was:

“…used only to supply the Vincents’ brewery in High Street and a few adjoining houses, was of little value to anyone other than the brewer.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).

Thomas J Barratt, a historian of Hampstead, wrote (in 1912) that Vincent selfishly believed that:

“… he could utilise the water to his own profit and the benefit of some of his neighbours; therefore, with the leave of the trustees, he laid down pipes and conveyed water from the pond not only to his brewery but also to a number of better-class houses in the town. He charged the householders for the water, and no doubt did well out of the transaction; but when, after many years, the Chancery decree brought about a day of reckoning he was ordered to pay £322 for arrears of rent, and the water was advertised to be let to the highest bidder. When Gayton Road, a thoroughfare now connecting Well Walk with High Street, was being formed, remains of the pipes conveying this water to the brewery were discovered a few feet below the surface.”

In addition to the brewery, Vincent acquired much other property in Hampstead including several pubs. On his death in 1755, Vincent’s brewery and other properties passed to his younger son Robert, who is thought to have continued running the brewery with his elder brother Richard (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp111-130). Richard entered Wadham College, Oxford, in April 1736 and became a barrister (Inner Temple) in 1743 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Alumni_Oxoniensis_(1715-1886)_volume_4.djvu/270).

In 1787, Robert’s widow Elizabeth became involved in running the business and some of the Vincents’ pubs in Hampstead including the ‘George’, the ‘Black Boy’, and the ‘Coach and Horses’. She retained an interest in the brewery until 1812, which is well after it was taken over by Messrs Shepheard and Buckland in 1797. The brewery was rebuilt in 1869 with two shopfronts on the High Street, and by the 1880s, it was owned by Mure & Co. In 1928, the company had 184 employees, but it closed in about 1931. Reffell’s Bexley Brewery acquired it in 1931 (https://builtforbrewing.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/on-hampstead-high-street/).  

The brewery buildings had become quite dilapidated by 1959 when they were being used for motor repairs. Later, the structure was converted for use as office space and an attractive group of residences were built within its compound.  The main brewery building is now named Clive House. It is currently the offices of the Pears Foundation, which is:

“…an independent, British family foundation, rooted in Jewish values, that takes £15 ‐ 20 million of private money every year and invests it in good causes.” (https://pearsfoundation.org.uk/who-we-are/).

The Brewery’s grounds were adjacent to the grounds of a church, which has been converted into residential dwellings, which retain some of the original windows topped with ogival arches. This building is labelled as ‘Trinity Presbyterian Church’ on a map surveyed in 1866. It was founded in 1844 and had its roots in Calvinist theology. The church’s story is as follows (https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail/REFD+LMA~2F4352?SESSIONSEARCH):

“Trinity Presbyterian Church began after a report by the Presbyterian district visitor for Hampstead that Scottish inhabitants needed a preaching station … By the end of 1845 the average attendance was 130 in the morning and 80 in the evening … The congregation moved to Well Walk Chapel in 1853, however, the building was dilapidated, so a site at 2 High Street, on the corner of Willoughby Road, was bought in 1861. The new church opened in 1862. It was demolished in 1962 … Shops were built on the site and the hall was converted into Trinity Close.”

So, what can be seen today was the church hall.

All this history is making me hungry. So, let us return to the Shahbhag, which my parents enjoyed back when I was a youngster. I went there once in the early 1970s and had a pleasant meal. Then, I did not return to it until the mid- to late 1990s.  It looked different to what I remembered of it, but its location was the same as of old. I sat down and ordered a meal. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I looked around at what was arriving on the plates being served to other diners and I did not like what I saw. It looked and smelled far less attractive than the food that I was used to having in other Indian restaurants at the time. I was beginning to regret having entered this restaurant, mainly for nostalgic reasons. I waited and waited for an extremely long time, but my food did not arrive. I looked at the time, almost 45 minutes had elapsed since giving my order, and realised that soon I had to meet my wife and some friends. I called the waiter and told him that I could wait no longer and that I would be cancelling my order. He seemed undismayed as I walked out of the restaurant.

Recently (January 2020) when I explored the grounds of the former Hampstead Brewery, I noticed that the Shahbhag was still in existence but closed for the time being because of the current viral pandemic. I am glad it still exists as it is something that reminds me of my parents, but I doubt I will be entering it again when it reopens. When restrictions relating to covid19 ease up, I would rather have a beer than a biryani in Hampstead.

Scottish reels

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BOXING DAY IS the day after Christmas Day (25th of December), the 26th of December. Traditionally, it is the day on which money or gifts are given to persons in need or those offering services, for example servants.

For many years, I used to spend the Christmas Season with my old (and now sadly deceased) friends Robert and Margaret at their large country home outside London. The first time I was invited to do this, Margaret checked with my mother that she did not mind me being ‘dragged’ away from our family festivities. My mother had no objections because by then, in the late 1970s, we never celebrated Christmas ‘en-famille’.

Robert and Margaret celebrated Boxing Day on the 26th of December, whether it was a weekday or not, in an especially enjoyable way. They invited friends to their home for an evening of Scottish dancing. The living room at their home was large but filled with furniture. Beneath the carpets, there was a wooden parquet floor that my friends laid down as a dance floor when they moved into the house many years before I met them.

After breakfast on the 26th of December, everyone staying with Robert and Margaret over Christmas began working. In the kitchen, vast amounts of food were prepared for the evening:  goulash or curry and accompanying rice and vegetables; meringues; fruit trifles; peppermint creams and homemade fudge; mince pies; a cheese platter etc. Also, Robert spent hours at one of the stoves, stirring ingredients for concocting two different alcoholic punches, guided by the recipes scribbled in his almost illegible handwriting in one of his numerous notebooks. The kitchen was a hive of activity.

A few yards away from the kitchen, heavy physical work was underway. Almost every item of furniture had to be moved from the living room into either a room called ‘the library’ or into the long corridor between it and the living room. We used to shift heavy armchairs and even heavier sofas, smaller chairs (some of them quite fragile), occasional tables, oriental rugs, framed photographs, and ornament cases containing fragile objects including an ostrich egg. Fortunately, we did not have to carry the family’s upright pianoforte or the large decorated Christmas tree out of the room. After almost all the furniture had been removed, the two enormous floor carpets had to be rolled up tightly. One of them had to be carried into the library and the other was rolled up to remain in front of the huge Christmas tree at one end of the room.

With the floor cleared, the beautiful parquet floor became exposed to view. Floor polish was then sprinkled on to the wood and rubbed into it with an electric floor polisher, a job I often performed after helping to shift furniture. The floor had to be polished until it was shiny, which was easy to achieve with the machine.  

The dining room also required preparation. The heavy large antique wooden dining table that had been acquired from University College London when they were discarding it had to be shifted to one side of the room, where it would serve as the place on which the evening buffet was to be laid out. Dining room and other chairs were arranged for those who were sitting out from the dancing and for those who preferred being seated whilst eating. Also, cutlery, plates, various kinds of glasses, and coffee cups with saucers and spoons had to be placed in readiness for the evening.

After lunch, there was a short period of ‘calm before the storm’. Afternoon tea was served as usual in the living room, but we took it seated on the floor instead of on the comfortable furniture which had been moved earlier. Margaret retrieved her two books of dance instructions, one of which made little sense to me. She also made sure that the records with Scottish dance music were near to the gramophone turntable and explained to me which record was suitable for each dance. For, usually I was to be responsible for finding the right tracks on the LPs (including music performed by Jimmy Shand and his band and by Jimmy Mc Cleod) and playing them on the turntable before dashing back to join the dance.

Guests began arriving in the early evening. Everyone was handed a glass of one of Robert’s special warmed punches on arrival and was invited to help themselves to mince pies and other confectionery. When there were sufficient people to perform at least one eightsome, the dancing commenced. The evening’s proceedings continued with dancing the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, a good warm-up routine. It was not that people needed warming up because there would be a good fire burning in the hearth at one end of the living room.

For about an hour and a half, we danced the ‘Eightsome Reel’, The ‘Duke of Perth’, ‘The Reel of The 51st’, ‘Petronella’, and others whose names I cannot recall. The “Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh” was too complicated for us to master. The dancers varied in skill from expert to almost clueless. Margaret issued instructions, other guests contradicted her, but we all had much fun. As for me, I usually knew where I was supposed to be at any instant during a dance and got there, but without being able to execute my dance movements with any degree of elegance.

By 9 pm, everyone, up to thirty people, was exhausted and hungry, but feeling exhilarated. The hot food was brought from the kitchen to the dining room, which in true English tradition was further away from the kitchen than any other room in the house. It was wheeled on a rickety trolley held together in places with string. People helped themselves to servings of the meat dish and accompanying vegetables and washed this down with glasses of the second punch that Robert had mixed earlier. Then fresh plates were supplied for the trifles and pairs of meringues stuck together with whipped cream. Coffee was served.

Then, it was back to the dance floor. You would have thought after such a hearty supper that it would have been impossible to resume dancing, but this was not the case. However, by then the living room was getting quite warm and it was necessary to open a door that led to the draughty conservatory next to the living room. Dancing continued, sometimes as late as midnight. For me, the highlight of the second part of the evening was a riotous dance called ‘Strip the Willow’. Margaret was usually my partner in this potentially energetic dance. To see her in action either in this dance or on a tennis court, one would not be able to believe that she was as old as she was. In fact, until the last few years of her life, she was a perfect example of a ‘live wire’.

All too quickly, the evening drew to an end. The guests stumbled out into the darkness and retrieved their vehicles from the large gravelly car park. We, the house party, breathed a sigh of relief because the party had been successful; it always was. When I first attended these parties, we used to retire to bed and leave rearranging the furniture to the next morning. However, after a few years Margaret’s son-in-law and I agreed that it was dreadful waking up the next morning with the prospect of furniture shifting. So, we agreed that despite being tired, it was best to do this awful job before retiring for the night and while the excess adrenaline we had generated during the dancing was still flowing through our blood vessels. This proved to be a real improvement.

All of this was long ago. The house where it happened has been demolished and Robert and Margaret are no more than wonderfully warm memories. I am eternally grateful that I knew them and was able to partake in their memorable celebrations and other activities. I am pleased that they did not have to experience this covid19 pandemic, which we are enduring this year. I dread to think what their reaction would have been had they been around when the British Government had effectively ‘cancelled Christmas’ this year. Although they were not deeply religious, Christmas and the day following meant a great deal to them, as it does to many of us who have survived them.

Mahatma Gandhi ate in Notting Hill

Today, 36 Ledbury Road (illustrated) in London’s trendy Notting Hill district (made famous by the 1999 film Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) gives nothing away about its colourful past. It was once the home of the Indian Catering Company, a restaurant run by Nizam-ud-Din, who also owned the Eastern Café near Chancery Lane.

The Indian Catering Company, which was serving customers during the reign of Edward VII (1901-10) was not the first Indian restaurant to have been opened in London. The first curry house in London was opened by Sake Dean Mahomet (born in India in the 18th century). An employee of the East India Company, which he joined in 1769, he arrived in London in 1807. Two years later, he opened his Hindostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street near Portman Square. Although it was called a ‘coffee house’, it was actually a restaurant serving curries and other examples of Indian cuisine. The restaurant thrived until 1833, when it was closed. There is much more information about this establishment in Star of India, a book by Jo Monroe.

By the time that the restaurant at 36 Ledbury Road was serving customers, the Indian Catering Company was one of many Indian restaurants in early twentieth century London. The reason for my interest in this former eatery is that it was a meeting place for extremist Indian independence fighters in Edwardian London. I discovered this while researching my recently published book IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS.

Although he cannot be considered an ‘extremist’, the famous Mahatma Gandhi partook of a meal at the Indian Catering Company in Ledbury Road in October 1909. Here is an excerpt from my book:

In October, the festival of Dussehra was celebrated at Nizam-ud-Din’s restaurant, The Indian Catering Company, at 36 Ledbury Road in Bayswater. Gandhi had been invited to chair the proceedings. He had accepted the invitation on condition that the food would be pure vegetarian and that discussion of controversial politics was avoided. The food was served by Savarkar’s followers: VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and TSS Rajan, all sometime members of India House.”

Whereas Gandhi both preached and practised non-violence, the same cannot be said of VVS Aiyar, Tirimul Acharya, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar ( a ‘father’ of Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva), who also attended the meal.

Although there is no plaque recording the interesting history of 36 Ledbury Road so near to Portobello Road, whenever I pass this house I feel a tingle when I remember the famous Indian freedom fighters who once entered it and ate there.

A SMALL house cover

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” is by Adam YAMEY

ISBN: 9780244203870

The book is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookdepository.com, and lulu.com

It may also be ordered from bookshops

There is an e-book edition on Kindle

 

Table for two…

I lived and practised dentistry in the Medway Towns (Chatham, Gillingham, and Rochester) for eleven years beginning in 1982. These towns in north Kent coalesce with each other to form a straggling urban belt along the right bank of the River Medway. When I lived in the area, there were many restaurants serving what was described as “Indian food”. Before reaching the area, Indian friends had helped me to appreciate what good Indian food should taste like. None of the many restaurants I tried in the Medway Towns ever provided Indian food that could be described as good. However, as there was not much else to do in the area when I first arrived there, before making friends locally, I sampled many of the eateries that served Indian food.

 

curry

 

One autumn evening, I entered a small establishment in Gillingham. I was its only customer for the duration of my meal. The restaurant was literally freezing cold, unheated. It was so cold that I ate my meal without removing my fleece filled anorak. Before the food arrived, the waiter placed a candle-powered plate warmer in the middle of the table to keep my dishes warm and another one in front of me to keep my plate warm while I was eating. The items, which I ordered, had the names of Indian dishes that I had tasted before. Sadly, none of them had any taste at all.

In another Indian restaurant that I visited one evening, I was not the only customer. There was a couple at another table within earshot. While I was eating, I could listen to my neighbours’ conversation. I remember nothing of the food I ate, but I do recall one small snatch of the other customers’ chatting. One of them said:

“… well, of course, you know, Gillingham is the armpit of Kent…”

having recently moved to the town, I was not happy to hear that.

There was an Indian restaurant close to the synagogue in Rochester. This place was slightly superior to the other Indian eateries in the area. One evening, while I was eating there, I was intrigued by the music being played through the establishment’s speaker system. Although I knew nothing about it then, I now realise that they were playing a soundtrack from a Bollywood film. I asked the waiter about the music. He answered:

“It is Indian music”

“I like it,” I told him, “where can you buy it?”

“We borrow the records from the public library, sir.”

Some months later, on a cold winter’s evening, I visited the restaurant near the synagogue with a female cousin and a male friend. We ordered a large meal and were served by only one Asian (Indian or of another sub-continental origin) waiter throughout. We were the only diners that evening. No one else entered the restaurant, even for take-away food. At the end of the meal, my friend went to the toilet. My cousin and I put on our winter coats and waited for him by the entrance door. Within a few seconds of reaching the door, the waiter, who had been serving us all night, came up to us and said:

“Table for two, is it?”

Either the waiter had not looked at us all evening, or all Europeans looked the same to him.