Boy meets girl: dining in Bradford

BRADFORD IN YORKSHIRE is a vibrant multi-ethnic city. Many of its inhabitants have their roots in the Indian subcontinent. We found that many of these people with subcontinental ancestry regard themselves as neither Pakistani nor Indian, but Kashmiri.

International restaurant in Bradford

When we first visited Bradford a few years ago, we were itching to try the local restaurants serving what is generally called “Indian food”, regardless of whether it has been cooked by an Indian, or a Pakistani, or a Bangladeshi, or even a Kashmiri. As we drove from the station to our hotel in a taxi, we asked the driver, who was of Kashmiri descent, where he thought we would get good Indian food. He recommended ‘X’ in Bradford and ‘Y’ in nearby Shipley. A couple of other people, of whom we asked the same question, both recommended X. With three different recommendations for X, we decided to book it for that evening.

When I phoned the restaurant, a lady answered. I asked to book a table for two. Then, she asked:

“Is it two males or a male and a female?”

Puzzled, I replied:

“A male and a female.”

When we reached the restaurant, we were given a nice table. We had arrived at X with high expectations and good appetites. It was a pleasant restaurant with obliging staff. However, we were served one of the worst meals I have ever eaten in a restaurant serving Indian food. After this experience, we did not try another ‘Indian’ restaurant in Bradford.

During that unsatisfactory meal, the head waiter or manager came up to our table to ask if all was well. Politely, we replied that it was, but my Indian wife, who had seen ladies entering the restaurant but disappearing up a flight of stairs, remarked:

“I have noticed that apart from those little girls with their father, I am the only woman in this room. It does not bother me, but it is a bit strange.”

The head waiter looked perturbed and said:

“Sorry, so very sorry. You should not have been given a table in here. I was not aware of your arrival. Had I greeted you, I would not have seated you in here. It is reserved for men, and sometimes they can get rowdy. Can I move you to another table?”

We said that we were happy where we were. After the man left, we wondered how it was possible that men could get rowdy in a halal restaurant that clearly did not serve alcohol. At the end of the meal, we noticed that there was another section of the restaurant where men and women could dine together, a sort of ‘family room’. We also noticed that groups of women unaccompanied by men were directed to another part of the restaurant on the floor above. While the food at X was memorably poor, the experience was far from dull.

Recently, in September 2021, we revisited Bradford. There, we met our Polish host. Remembering our unfortunate experience at X, we thought it would be fun to try something different, a Polish restaurant perhaps. We asked Pavel if he could recommend one. To which he replied:

“There used to be a Polish restaurant here, but it’s closed. Anyway, I don’t like Polish food. You should eat curry here. Try the International. It’s just around the corner and gets good reviews on Tripadvisor.”

In view of our previous ‘Indian’ meal in Bradford, we entered the bustling International with some trepidation. When the food arrived, our fears evaporated rapidly. We were served some of the best ‘Indian’ food we have ever eaten in the UK. The portions were enormous, and we noticed that at every other table, diners were taking home the remains of their meals in packages. We also noticed that at almost every table, diners had ordered chips (French fries) with their ‘Indian’ dishes. The restaurant’s owner, the son of its founder who opened it 50 years ago, told us that in Bradford:

“These young people eat chips, pizzas, and burgers all the time; sometimes they don’t even eat curry.”

We asked him whether the International was an Indian or a Pakistani restaurant. He told us that it is the latter, but he and most of his staff are Kashmiri.

Tandoori king prawns at the International

We enjoyed the International so much that we returned there for dinner on the following day. Once again, we enjoyed first class food served in huge portions. Thinking of the tandoori king prawns and lamb chops makes my mouth water as I write this piece.

On both occasions, we sat at tables on the ground floor. On the second evening, our table was next to a staircase leading to an upper floor, which we were told was used for parties. Both waiters bearing trays loaded with dishes of food and also customers continuously dashed up and down the stairs. At one point in the evening, a group of heavily bearded Asian men dressed in loose fitting robes, Pathan suits or similar, began ascending the stairs. One of them looked down at us, an Asian and European dining together, and we saw him smile and then heard him say:

“Boy meets girl.”

Eating securely at Baltic Amber

HAVERHILL IS IN SUFFOLK, close to where this county’s border meets those of Cambridgeshire and Essex. It is not a place that is near the top of Suffolk’s list of attractions. It does not rival, for example, Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds, Long Melford, and Southwold, to name but a few. However, we chose to spend a couple of nights there. When exploring the town’s dining opportunities, one place caught my attention. It is a restaurant/bar named Baltic Amber.

On the establishment’s website (www.balticamberrestaurant.com/), there is a pair of sample menus. One is in English and the other in Lithuanian. The restaurant was established by a Lithuanian family in March 2020. Despite this, there are only a few Lithuanian dishes on the menu. When we visited, of the five Lithuanian dishes, one must be ordered a day in advance, and, sadly, another was unavailable.

On arrival at this modern place next door to a large Travelodge hotel, we were met at the entrance by two burly but extremely friendly uniformed security guards. One of them checked our names on a list which was attached to a clip board. We asked them if they were expecting trouble. They answered, half jokingly, that they were there to “… keep out the riff-raff to allow diners to enjoy their meals peacefully.” Then, we were led inside and met by a waitress, to whom the security guard said: “table 24”. We were greeted by the lady, who turned out to be Lithuanian and she showed us to our table. I practised the three words of Lithuanian, which I know, on her and later on the owner. Both seemed pleased with my efforts.  The interior is modern and almost Scandinavian in design. The chairs at the tables were comfortable. Outside the restaurant, there are tables and chairs as well as a couple of fire-pits around which diners can be seated and kept warm.

Lithuanian potato pancakes with soured cream

We sampled Mead Vilnius, and aromatic spirit, rather like the Czech Becherovka. We also tried a Lithuanian beer. We ordered one of the Lithuanian dishes to share as a starter. Made of grated potatoes, which were fried and served with thick soured cream, they had a great resemblance to the Jewish dish, ‘latkes’. We followed that with Beef Stroganoff and Duck in an orange sauce. Both were above average both in quality and quantity.

The restaurant was full. The other diners, probably locals, were all having a good time, as did we. The place has good service and a pleasantly lively atmosphere. I am glad that I ‘discovered’ this place and would happily go again.

Dining in a church

A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.

The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:

“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”

The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.

Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.

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

blog cake

 

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.

BLOG HAMP 1

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.