Where seven streets meet

SEVEN ROADS MEET at a point in London called Seven Dials. A column with seven sundials attached to it stands in the middle of the circle where they meet. Long ago, on the 5th of October 1694, the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) noted that he went:

“…to see the building beginning near St. Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.”

The pillar with sundials facing in seven directions was erected in 1694 by Edward Pierce (1630-1695) and Thomas Neale (1641-1699). Pierce was a sculptor, architect, and stonemason. Neale was a Member of Parliament for 30 years; Master of the Mint; gambler; and entrepreneur. His achievements included:

“…development of Seven Dials, Shadwell (including brewing and Navy victualling), East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England. The extent of his interests – as a prominent Hampshire figure, as a member of the Royal Household, as a long-standing MP serving on dozens of Committees and as the promoter of an extraordinary plethora of projects” (www.sevendials.com/history/thomas-neale-1641-1699).

In July 1773, the column bearing the seven dials was removed because it was believed that there was a substantial amount of money hidden beneath it, so wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London (1850). None was found. Another theory suggests that the pillar was removed:

“… to rid the area of the undesirables who congregated around it. The remains of the column were later moved to the garden of the architect James Paine (Junior) at Sayes Court, Addlestone, but not re-erected.” (www.sevendials.com/resources/Seven_Dials_History_of_the_Area_by_Dr_John_Martin_Robinson.pdf)

It was not until 1989 that the demolished column was replaced. It was reconstructed according to Pierce’s original design that is lodged in the British Library. The new column was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the 29th of June 1989.

The entrepreneur Thomas Neale would have approved of a venture that commenced in his Seven Dials district in 1976. That year, Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) opened his Whole Food Warehouse in a disused warehouse in Neal’s Yard (formerly ‘Kings Head Court’), named in memory of Thomas Neale. In Saunder’s words:

“I decided to start a wholefood shop which I would like myself – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad because they could not recognise a mung bean. At that time wholefood shops were mostly of the hippy style – folksy looking with open sacks and used paper bags; nice meeting places for the in-groups but hopelessly inefficient, expensive and tending to make ordinary people feel like intruders.” (https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/).

His venture proved successful. Various other businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Casanova & daughters, and Wild Food Café, opened nearby. Saunders wrote:

“The Yard has developed into a social scene. Even though the businesses are each independent, everyone who works in them, and many of the regular customers, identify with the place. In fact most of the workers are customers who had asked for a job. My old idea of a village community has manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. It is rather like a family, with me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.”

Although we made our last visit to Neal’s Yard in the middle of the covid19 pandemic, when the place was empty and closed, it is safe to say that the Yard continues to be a vibrant ‘social scene’ and its shops are still thriving despite the fact that shops supplying ‘whole foods’ have multiplied considerably since Neal’s Yard was established. Saunders is commemorated in the Yard by a wall mounted plaque.

Apart from selling food and remedies, Neal’s Yard was home to the film studio run by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam between 1976 and 1987. It was here that they edited the Monty Python series of films.

One of the entrances to Neals Yard is an alleyway leading from Monmouth Street (formerly ‘Great St Andrew Street’), one of the seven streets leading to the Seven Dials. The street is home to one of London’s older still existing French restaurants, Mon Plaisir, which is close to Neals Yard and was founded long before Saunders established his venture. The brothers David and Jean Viala started the eatery in the 1940s.

My parents moved from South Africa and settled in London in the late 1940s, by which time Mon Plaisir was serving customers. I do not know when my parents first ate there, but during my childhood I remember it as being one of their favourite places at which to to eat out. Until 1972, when new management took over the restaurant, Mon Plaisir occupied one shopfront. Its characteristic quirky décor rich in everyday French posters and other ephemera remains substantially unchanged since the 1940s. As a child during the 1960s, I was taken there infrequently. I remember liking it. One thing that I recall was that the toilets were approached through a doorway at the end of the restaurant furthest away from the street. An artist’s palette was nailed above the doorway. It bore the words “Le Pipi Room”. On a visit made this century to the enlarged restaurant, I noted that the sign had disappeared. When life returns to ‘normal’ again, another meal at Mon Plaisir is on our ‘to do’ menu.

During my childhood, the Seven Dials did not make any impression on me. I knew about Mon Plaisir, but never ventured south the few yards to the Dials. With the opening of the Donmar Theatre on Earlham Street, another of the roads leading to the Dials, in 1977, which we have visited often, the Seven Dials entered my London radar.

Before ending this somewhat rambling piece, here is a true story about the theatre. Soon after it opened, an American friend, a keen theatregoer who was midway in age between my parents and me, invited me to join her at a performance at the Donmar. It was a play with a Chinese theme. We were seated in the front row, literally on the stage. My friend who had long legs, stretched them out onto the stage and the actors had to take care not to trip over them. Halfway through one of the acts, my friend began fumbling in her large bag and withdrew a thermos flask. She removed the lid, which served as a cup, and gave it to me to hold. Then, she filled the cup with hot soup, which she proceeded to drink whilst the drama unfolded in front of us. I often wonder what the actors, who were so near us, thought when they saw a member of the audience enjoying her picnic in front of them.

The Seven Dials and the streets radiating from the column are full of fascinating buildings, some old and others new and there are plenty of shops to explore apart from those pioneering wholefood shops in Neals Yard. If you can manage to get a ticket to the Donmar, and this is quite hard if you are not on their advance booking scheme, then it is often worth watching a performance there.

This time last year

WE MARRIED TWICE. That is to say that Lopa and I had a civil marriage in a registry office in October 1993 in London’s Chelsea Town Hall and then a religious marriage in mid-January 1994 in my in-law’s garden in Koramangala, a district south of central Bangalore. Both ceremonies were memorable and meaningful but the one in Bangalore was more colourful, and far lengthier than that in London.

Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, we were in India. Just before leaving for India in November 2019, we celebrated our English anniversary with our daughter at a French restaurant in London, the Poule au Pot, where one can enjoy typical classic French cuisine in a dimly lit but pleasant environment.

Mid-January 2020 found us near the port of Mandvi in Kutch, formerly an independent princely state, a largely arid, desert region, now part of the Indian State of Gujarat. We were staying with Lopa’s cousin and his wife in their lovely remote and spacious 150-year old farm house, which has been in his family for several generations. Informed of our anniversary, they decided to treat us to dinner at a nearby resort close to the sea. After the meal, we walked to the car under a star-filled clear sky and returned home. There, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed a dessert that Lopa’s cousin’s wife, an accomplished cook, had made specially for us.

A year later, a few days ago, we celebrated our ‘Indian’ anniversary in London. Interestingly, the temperature in wintry London was higher than it was when we were in Kutch (at night), but there was far less sunshine. This year, in the midst of strict ‘lockdown’ conditions necessitated by the covid19 pandemic, we celebrated alone, and not at a restaurant. We had a celebratory cup of coffee outdoors and enjoyed a good home-cooked meal prefaced by gin and tonics. Had we been in India as we often are in January, but not in Gujarat, which is teetotal, we would most probably also have celebrated with ‘g and t’ but sitting outside under the stars on a warm evening in southern India.

Little did we know when we were enjoying ourselves in Kutch last January, that a year later, the idea of visiting India, let alone leaving London, would be out of the question. Well, as my late father used to say, rather annoyingly when misfortune struck:

“Such is life”, or “These things happen.”

Christmas at home this year

WILL BAXTER WAS a teacher at the University of Cape Town, whilst my late father was studying for a BComm degree before WW2. Will, recognising my father’s academic excellence, persuaded my father’s mother that she and her family would do well to subsidize my father continuing his studies in London. When he presented his case to Dad’s mother, my grandmother was at first surprised and said that my father’s siblings were even brighter than him. By all accounts, my father and his three siblings were well-endowed with brain power. My grandmother agreed, but before Dad was able to set off for London, there was another hurdle. Dad had become articled to an accountancy firm in Cape Town. Leaving this would have involved breaking a legal contract between him and the firm. Will spoke to the senior partners and managed to get Dad released from his contract. Then, the year before WW2 started, Dad sailed to England and enrolled for higher studies at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). With the exception of a few of the war years and one year in Montreal (Canada), Dad spent the rest of his life in London, where I was born.

Will Baxter returned to the UK and taught at the LSE and became a firm family friend. My earliest reminiscences of him were at Christmas time. Until I was in my mid-teens, we used to visit Will and his wife at his home in the Ridgeway in Golders Green on Christmas morning. We used to have warm drinks in the living room in which there was always a large, decorated Christmas tree.  Will always had wrapped presents ready for my sister and me, always books. I cannot remember which books I was given, but I do recall that every year my sister always received a beautiful hardback edition of one of the classic British novels by authors such as Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.

The Baxters’ front garden had a gate supported by brick pillars. When I was about 3 or 4, we visited the Baxters one morning (not on Christmas Day), soon after the mortar between the bricks had been renewed. It was still wet, and Will inscribed a small ‘A’ in the mortar to record how high I was on that day. Year after year when we visited the Baxters, the letter was there in the set mortar, but my height had increased considerably. After many years, several decades, it disappeared after Will and his second wife, his first having died many years previously, had had the pillars refurbished.

Always after our Christmas morning visit to the Baxters, we walked or drove over to my mother’s sisters’s home, where we ate a festive lunch, often featuring roast goose. In addition to my close family and my aunts, other people attended this party. These included my aunt’s in-laws, various people we knew who had no close family in London, and my uncle Felix, my mother’s brother.

Felix, more than many of the other adults, truly enjoyed our Christmas lunches. He entertained us kids, my two cousins, my sister, and me, by tales of ‘Turkey Lurky’, ‘Goosey Lucy’, ‘Ducky Lucky’, and similarly named fowl. However, as we grew older, he failed to realise that we had become a little more sophisticated and blasé to enjoy this type of entertainment. At the end of the main course, he used to interrupt the adults’ conversation by standing up, thumping the table, and singing a song about bringing us some ‘figgy pudding’. I noticed that it always annoyed the adults and especially my aunt who was already stressed enough already, having produced a magnificent meal for 15 or more people.

After lunch, we retired to the living room to open presents, and always enjoyed. Felix always felt it necessary to entertain us, his nieces, and nephews, after lunch. To this end, he brought along packets of coloured inflatable balloons. He inflated them and asked one of us to hold them at their necks whilst he knotted them. Next, he twisted and tied the balloons together to make sculptures of animals. I hated these balloons because I could not tolerate the goose-pimples that the squeaking of the balloons set off in me, and still do today. One of my cousins did not enjoy this balloon experience because of the risk that a balloon might pop noisily. It is probably to our credit that none of us, his nephews, ever told him how much we disliked the balloons that Felix always brought with him.

Christmas lunches at my aunt’s house ceased many years ago. For many years, I spent Christmas enjoyably with the family of my PhD supervisor and his wife, with whom I became close friends. Then later, we often spent Christmas in India, in Bangalore where my in-laws live. This year, we had planned to do the same, but, in common with everyone else, this plan had to be abandoned for reasons that need no explanation.

I have celebrated Christmas Day at my aunt’s house, in Paris, in Méribel-les-Allues, in Manhattan, in Bangalore, in Stoke Poges, in Belgrade, in Wrocław, on a ‘plane to Sri Lanka, in Cornwall,  and in Cochin, but until this year, never at home. So, this year is a first for me: Christmas at home.

A piece of cake

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EVERYONE HAS WEAKNESSES. One of mine is a liking for coffee and walnut cake. According to Wikipedia, Robert Mullis “stumbled” upon the recipe of this cake whilst studying catering at West Somerset College in 1994. However, I am sure that I first ate this confection long before that date. I remember enjoying slices of this cake while I was working as a dentist in a practice in the small town of Rainham in north Kent.

Just outside Rainham on the road that leads to Sittingbourne (the old A2), there was (and still is) a farm shop called Gore Farm. Its premises included a pleasant dining room where for a modest price you could eat a very fresh tasting ploughman’s lunch that included cheeses made locally. Various cakes were displayed along a shelf in the eating area. These always included a coffee and walnut cake, a slice of which invariably rounded off my luncheons there. As I practised in Rainham between 1982 and 1992, and ate the cake during that period, someone other than Robert Mullis must also have ‘stumbled’ upon its recipe, but before he did. This would not be at all surprising because the cake in question is simply a sponge cake flavoured with coffee and both iced and filled with butter icing and topped with walnut halves.

Does it really matter when the coffee and walnut cake was first created? The answer in ‘no’. The important thing is that it exists to give pleasure to people like me. Today, a friend offered me a slice of it. It was extremely delicious as she had substituted some of the flour with ground almond. It was while savouring this that I wondered about the history of the cake, but so far, I am not entirely satisfied with what little I have discovered. Clearly, the answer might not be a ‘piece of cake’.

Hummus in Hampi (south India)

MANY PEOPLE WILL HAVE EATEN HUMMUS, the chickpea-based dip, but far fewer will be familiar with Hampi, which is the location of an extensive archaeological site in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The village of Hampi contains the fantastic ruins of what was once one of the world’s greatest cities, rivalling Ancient Rome and second in size to Beijing, the world’s largest city in the 16th century. The metropolis, known as ‘Vijayanagara’, now in ruins, was the fabulously prosperous capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which thrived between about 1336 AD and 1565 AD, when it was defeated by a group of Moslem sultanates. After this, the city began to decay, leaving the spectacular ruins that can be explored by visitors today.

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The ruins of Vijayanagara lie mainly on one side of the River Tungabadra. They are distributed over a large rocky area rich in huge boulders – almost a lunar landscape. We first visited Hampi in about 1997, when there were relatively few tourists clambering amongst the ruins of temples, palaces, stepwells, and miscellaneous other buildings. Since then, we have visited the place another four times. On each successive visit, we have noticed an increase in fellow visitors, both Indians and foreigners. With the increased visitor footfall, there has been ever growing deterioration and damage to the ruins. This is especially noticeable at the Vitthala Temple. It was intact in 1997, but when we last visited a few years ago, it was in a miserable state, with plenty of damaged carvings and being propped up by ugly pillars of grey concrete blocks. Sad as this is, this is not what I want to dwell on in this piece.

India has become a popular destination for Israelis, particularly the younger ones. India is probably a complete contrast to Israel, which I have never visited. In brief, to Israelis India must seem far more ‘laid back’ than their highly organised country. Many Israeli visitors to India visit Hampi to ‘chill out’ and relax.

During one of our stays in Hampi, we took a walk along one bank of the River Tungabadra. We came across a couple of riverside eateries advertising that they served Israeli food. As it was near lunchtime and our daughter and I love hummus, we entered one of these establishments, whose menu included the chickpea paste that we enjoy so much. Also, I was curious to try hummus in India. It was then not a food item I was expecting to see on sale a few years ago. Now, it is becoming available in select food stores such as branches of the upmarket chain Nature’s Basket.

We sat down on a rickety looking terrace overlooking the river and, with mouths watering, and ordered a portion of hummus with pitta bread. It took quite a while to arrive as the hummus was made fresh whilst we waited. When it arrived, the pitta looked remarkably similar to an Indian chapati, rather than an Arabic or Turkish pitta. As for the hummus, this was disappointing to say the least. Its colour was acceptable, but its texture resembled lumpy rice pudding rather than even the coarsest hummus. As for the taste, there was little to report: it was unseasoned and tasteless. I dread to think  what a direct Israeli guest would have made of, or said about, the hummus we were served at Hampi. I had not the heart to send it back to the charming locals who had produced it, but neither was I hungry enough to finish it.

Some like it hot

MANY VARIETIES OF CHILLI, differing in size, shape, and colour, can be seen growing in London’s Chelsea Physic Garden. Seeing them recently, whetted my appetite to write something about these fiery food items and their relationship to Indian cuisine.

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Chilli is widely used in the multitude of different foods consumed in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is most likely that before the 15th century, this hot-tasting food ingredient was unknown in this part of the world.  Before its introduction to India, black pepper was used to add pungency to food. It was the European’s great yearning for valuable spices like pepper that brought them to the shores of the India, beginning with the Portuguese. It was these same seekers of spice who are believed to have introduced chillies to India from far away Latin America.

In early 1994, I made my first of many trips to India. In Bangalore, where I spent most of my time, I discovered the wonderful bookshops that the city still possesses. In one of these, I bought a book that has proved to be a useful mine of scholarly information about Indian food and its history, “Indian Food – A Historical Companion” by KT Achaya. Published in 1994, it cost 750 Rupees (about £12 in those days), which was quite expensive for a book back in 1994, but it has proved to be a valuable and useful addition to our book collection.  Much of the information that follows derives from the pages of this book.

One of the most interesting things I have learnt from Achaya’s book is that in ancient times, the inhabitants of the subcontinent, such as the Harappans and the Vedic Aryans, were keen meat eaters. Achaya wrote:

“No less than 250 animals are referred to in the Vedas, and 50 of these were deemed fit for sacrifice, and by inference eating.”

He added later:

“The abattoirs for domestic animals had specific names, like garaghatanam (beef), and shukarasnam (swine) … In the Rigveda, horses, bulls, buffaloes, rams, and goats were all described as being sacrificed for food… The Jataka tales list the flesh of the pigeon, partridge, monkey and elephant as edible. To this, the Brhat Samhita (6th century) adds buffaloes and lizards. At a shraddha ceremony, use of meat was very meritorious according to the Vishnu Purana (3rd or 4th century), and the meats listed are those of the hare, hog, goat, antelope, deer, gayal and sheep; both priest and performer partook of the meal.”

However, from the earliest of times, there were thoughtful Aryans who questioned the taking of animal’s lives for food, and gradually the trend towards vegetarianism grew.

Returning to chillies, Achaya suggests that they must have entered India quite early, but many centuries after the ‘creation’ of the Vedas. He quotes lines by the south Indian composer of Carnatic music Purandaradas, who lived between 1480 and 1564, which indicate that he was aware of the effects of chilli. The Portuguese, who introduced chillies to India, first landed on the subcontinent (near Calicut) on the 20th May 1498. So, they must have been quite a novelty when the composer wrote the lines (quoted by Achaya):

“I saw you green, then turning redder as you ripened, nice to look at and tasty in a dish, but too hot if an excess is used … fiery when bitten …”

Chilli was well received in India because, unlike pepper, it could be grown almost anywhere and had a pungency far greater than pepper. Unlike the Portuguese and later European invaders, chilli in its various forms was a welcome visitor to the Indian subcontinent.

Thus far, I have not written anything that is remarkably new to the well-informed. Now, I will describe something that fascinated me most in Achaya’s wonderful book. The author dedicates several hundred words including references to scholarly works about this topic. In brief, there is evidence that the continent of South America was visited by predecessors of today’s Indians long before Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492.

Amongst the wealth of evidence that Achaya describes, here is a sample. Indian deities feature in pre-Columbian sculpture: Ganesha with his rat; Vishnu’s tortoise ‘kurma’; two elephant heads with typical Indian ceremonial trappings; elephants with ‘mahouts’ wearing turbans; and a portrait of the last ruler of the Incas depicts him wearing a sacred thread the way that Brahmins do. A manuscript discovered in the Yucatan (Mexico) was written in the Kavi dialect of Java, which is derived from the Sanskrit and Pali languages. It records that a merchant, Vusulana, explored the coastline of what we now know as ‘South America’ in 923 AD, that is 569 years before Columbus made his discovery and a few years before Leif Erikson landed in Vinland (probably Newfoundland and New Brunswick). If we accept this and other evidence that there were interactions between the Indian subcontinent and pre-Columbian America, then we should not be surprised if the travellers who crossed the Pacific might have brought foodstuffs back to India.  

Some of these pre-Columbian imports might have been members of the Annona family: the sitaphal and ramphal. Convention dictates that these were imported from Latin America via the Cape of Good Hope, but some archaeological findings suggest that they might have been in India long before the arrival of the Europeans. Achaya cites the  discovery of sculptures of Bharhut (2nd century BC) and frescos painted at Ajanta (about 7th century AD) that depict a fruit looking very similar to custard apple (sitaphal), but points out that George Watt (1851-1930), the Scottish physician and botanist who worked in India, felt that it might be native Indian plants that were being depicted.

More convincing than the Annona fruits is the evidence that maize, a cereal that originated in Central America, was also being grown in India in the pre-Columbian age. Some of the evidence for this is the finding of maize pollen grains in ancient archaeological sites in the Kashmir Valley. Another intriguing discovery was made at the 12th century temple in Somnathpur near Mysore, where 92 female sculptures are all holding in their right hands “… an object looking remarkably like a corn cob.”

What I have written is based on a summary of knowledge published in 1994 in one book. It is likely that since then there has been further research on connections between India and America before Columbus, but I have not yet been able to access it.

  

Intriguing as the possible relationship between India and pre-Columbian America is, there is little doubt that the chilli, like the potato and the tomato,  only found its way into the Indian diet via the Portuguese and other European colonisers of the New World. So next time, you burn your tongue on a chilli lurking in a curry, you know who to blame.

Is the duck ok?

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THERE WAS A LOVELY restaurant on the estuary of the River Medway in the 1980s. Once, I took a friend, ‘P’, to lunch there. We sat down, and a waitress brought us some slices of baguette. When the owner of the restaurant came to hand us the menus, P said:

“This bread is delicious.”

The owner replied:

“We get it freshly baked from France every day.”

We were impressed. P ordered duck and I ordered something else.

As soon as the restaurant’s owner disappeared, the waitress reappeared. She came to our table and said in a low voice:

“Actually, the bread comes from Tesco in Chatham.”

We became less impressed by the owner.

Our food arrived. It was more than satisfactory. As we were finishing, the restaurant’s owner came to our table. He asked P in a manner that reminded me of John Cleese on “Fawlty Towers”:

“Duck ok?”

“Delicious,” P replied.

“That’s good … we’ve had a few complaints about our duck today,” the owner said, wandering off nonchalantly.

Love at first bite

I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.

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My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier.  Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.

Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.

During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.

My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.

In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry.   As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.

Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”

“You will not like them.”

“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”

“You won’t like them”

“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”

The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”

The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.  

Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill