And then, there was dim sum and dumplings

OUR FAVOURITE CHINESE restaurant is Golden Dragon in Gerrard Street, which is the heart of London’s Chinatown. It is particularly enjoyable to order dim sum dishes there at lunchtime or in the mid-afternoon. Amongst these delicious small plates, allow me to recommend steamed tripe with ginger and chilli, which contains tripe cooked to perfection. The other larger dishes, available during the place’s opening hours are excellent. Chinatown is rich in eateries serving Chinese food. Although we have tried several of them, we keep on returning to Golden Dragon. A visit to Gerrard Street is never complete without entering the excellently stocked Loon Fung supermarket. Between the Golden Dragon and the supermarket, there is often a street stall where followers of the Falun Gong movement, which is frowned upon by the government in China (PRC), issue propaganda material. For anyone wishing to experience a Chinatown district, Gerrard Street and its environs will not disappoint. Recently, when walking along Gerrard Street during the Chinese New Year, I wondered about the street before it became a vibrant centre of London’s Chinese community.

Gerrard Street, which was named after the soldier and courtier Charles Gerrard First Earl of Macclesfield (c1618-1694) who provided a bodyguard for William of Orange during his journey from Torbay to London in 1688, was built in about 1681 (Chinese Year of the Rooster from 18th February 1681). Gerrard built a house, which according to a map drawn in 1870 stood on the south side of Gerrard Street opposite the southern end of the present Macclesfield Street. The north side of Gerrard street, according to the map, used to be a ‘Military Garden’. This was a walled in area for military exercises using arms. This was covered with buildings by 1746, when John Rocque drew his detailed map of London.

Gerrard House occupied the site of numbers 34 and 35 Gerrard Street and was built between 1677 and 1682 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp384-411). In 1708, it was owned by the well-known rake, duellist, and politician Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun of Okehampton (c1675-1712), who was killed whilst fighting a duel (probably about matters both political and financial) with James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658-1712) in Hyde Park. Both participants of the duel were mortally wounded and each of them died soon after the fight. In the 1760s, the house was divided into two dwellings by its then owner, Commodore Sir William James (c1721-1783), who had served with the East India Company. He had been commodore of the Bombay marine and retired to England in 1759 with a huge fortune. James had been involved in various major naval fights against Indian forces along the Konkan coast of Western India.  The house was destroyed by fire in 1887.

Apart from Lord Mohun and William James, many other  well-known people lived along Gerrard Street. These include, to mention but a few: the poet John Dryden (1631-1700); the philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797); the antiquary Peter Le Neve (1661-1729); the Dutch painter William Sonmans (died 1708); the biographer and diarist James Boswell (1740-1795); one of the first British balloonists, John Money (1752-1817); and the theatre-manager Charles Killigrew (1655-1725). The street was also home to the ‘Literary Club’ that was founded in 1764 by Dr Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Meetings were held in the Turks Head Tavern, which might have been located roughly where Loon Fung stands today. It was one of at least three pubs that used to exist in Gerrard Street. Between 1794 and 1801, number 39 housed first the ‘Westminster One-Penny Post Office’, which became the ‘Two-penny Post Office’, when postal charges were increased.

In the early twentieth century, Gerrard Street was home to various restaurants serving European food and some clubs of historical importance:

“Irish proprietor Kate Meyrick ran the notorious roaring twenties 43 Club at 43 Gerrard Street and legendary jazz maverick Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).

However, the area was rather run-down. In addition to restaurants and other businesses, there were also some brothels.

All of this is interesting enough, but I was curious to know about Gerrard Street’s evolution into a Chinese area. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_London), London’s first Chinatown was in the Limehouse district of the East End close to the London Docks. After the Blitz and WW2, the Chinese people began leaving the East End for other parts of London. The Chinese began moving into the part of Soho surrounding Gerrard Street in the 1970s, beginning with Lisle Street that runs parallel to Gerrard. However, I can remember Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street even in the late 1960s. I recall one example in particular, The Dumpling Inn, which has long been closed. By the 1980s:

“… the area got the full Chinatown treatment; Chinese gates, street furniture and a pavilion were added, plus Gerrard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street became pedestrianised.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).

In addition, street signs are bilingual, both in English lettering and Chinese (Mandarin) characters.

An area that began to be built-up during London’s expansion soon after the Great Fire of London (1666), has evolved from being a residential street in the late 17th century to an area known for its coffee houses and taverns in the 18th century, Gerrard Street has become world famous for its thriving Chinese activity and wonderful restaurants. Yesterday, 13th of February 2020, despite the pandemic, there were long lines of people, both Chinese and others, who were waiting to celebrate Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox, by purchasing Chinese cakes from the several Chinese pastry shops in and around Gerrard Street. All that remains is for me to wish you all: “Kong hei fat choy” (which means something like ‘congratulations and be prosperous’.)

Cholera in Hampstead and spread of disease

THIS IS NOT ABOUT our current plague, the covid19 pandemic, but an earlier one that occurred occasionally in the 19th century. In many countries today, millions of people live with plague and disease and might even accept it as a part of daily life. Fortunately, until recently this was not the case in the UK. However, in the 19th century when diseases and their transmission were less well understood than currently, living conditions in the UK were considerably less healthy than today, disease was rife, and life expectancy was not great. While walking amongst the picturesque steeply sloping back streets of Hampstead village in North London in late November 2020, we spotted a carved stone plaque high on a wall of a house, currently Heathside Preparatory School, on New End (at the point where the street makes a right angle and becomes north-south instead of east-west).

The plaque reads:

“This building was erected by voluntary contributions for a dispensary and soup kitchen. It was intended as a thank-offering to Almighty God for his special mercy in sparing this parish during the visitation of cholera in the year 1849. The site was purchased in 1850 and the building completed in 1853.

He shall deliver thee from the noisome pestilence. Thomas Ainger M.A. incumbent”

As you will discover soon, not everyone in Hampstead was spared from cholera in 1849. One of those, who was afflicted, not in 1849 but five years later, unwittingly made a great contribution to science.

Thomas Ainger (1799-1863), who was born in Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire and studied at Cambridge University, was awarded ‘perpetual curacy’ of St Mary’s Hampstead in 1841, a position he held until his death (http://hampsteadparishchurch.org.uk/data/magazines_2013.php?id=897). He was:

“An energetic parish priest and poor-law guardian; helped to found schools and a dispensary; enlarged his church and promoted the building of new churches in the district around Hampstead.” (https://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/).

Today, we can have injections that radically reduce the chances of suffering from cholera, but that was not the case back in 1849, when the mechanism by which the disease spreads was not yet understood. One case of the disease that significantly helped to further knowledge of its spread occurred in Hampstead in 1854.

Dr John Snow (1813-1858), who led the way in hygiene and anaesthesia, suspected that cholera was spread via drinking water. He demonstrated that cases of the disease were clustered around particular water sources. During an outbreak of cholera in 1854 in London’s Soho district, which was centred around a pump in Broad Street, now Broadwick Street, he found that by removing the handle from the pump so that the locals could no longer draw their drinking water from there, the local outbreak of cholera was brought to an end. The pump in Broad Street was only three feet away from a leaking cess pit and its water was contaminated by waste matter (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/broadstreetpump.html). Snow theorised that the cause of cholera was not as previously thought a ‘miasma’ in the air, but something in drinking water. Now, let Stephanie Snow continue the story (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2002; vol.31: pp 908–911):

“In 1849, the London Medical Gazette had suggested that in regard to Snow’s theory, the experimentum crucis [i.e. critical experiment] would be that the water conveyed to a distant locality where cholera had been hitherto unknown produced the disease in all who used it. One of the cholera victims Snow had traced through his Broad Street investigation was a widow who lived in Hampstead. She had a regular delivery of water from the Broad Street pump as she preferred its taste. Her last delivery was made on 31 August and by 2 September, having drunk the water, she had died from cholera. Snow regarded this as ‘the most conclusive’ of circumstances in proving the connection between the water pump and the cholera outbreak.”

The widow had lived at ‘West End’, which until the 19th century was that name of what is now West Hampstead.

The plaque in New End suggests that Hampstead Parish was ‘spared’ from the cholera in 1849. That was almost true. In that year, Hampstead had 8 deaths from cholera per 10,000, whereas many areas of London reported between 100 and 200 deaths from cholera per 10,000 (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/publichealth118_387_394_2004.pdf). The rate of cholera fatalities in its area was determined by the location of its drinking water supply.  The uppermost rates of deaths from cholera in 1849 were exceedingly high compared with even the highest rates of covid19 infection anywhere in the UK during the second half of 2020.  

John Snow had been alerted to the existence of the widow in Hampstead by Reverend Henry Whitehead (1825-1896), a vicar in London’s Soho district, who was at first sceptical of Snow’s theory of the water-borne transmission of cholera (http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/whitehead.html) and favoured the idea that cholera existed as an airborne ‘miasma’. Although Snow and Whitehead differed on their ideas on the transmission of cholera, they decided to work together. Peter Daniell and David Markoff provide more detail (www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-soho/) about the widow in Hampstead:

“Whitehead was able to tell Snow about a widow living in Hampstead, who had died of cholera on the …  2nd September [i.e. 1854], and her niece, who lived in Islington, who had succumbed with the same symptoms the following day. Since neither of these women had been near Soho for a long time, it was impossible that they could have contracted the disease through breathing in the polluted air of the area. Intrigued, Dr Snow rode up to Hampstead to interview the widow’s son. He discovered from him that the widow had once lived in Broad Street, and that she had liked the taste of the well-water there so much that she had sent her servant down to Soho every day to bring back a large bottle of it for her by cart. The last bottle of water—which her niece had also drunk from—had been fetched on 31st August, at the very start of the Soho epidemic. This was just the sort of evidence he needed to prove the argument of the miasmatists wrong.”

If we had not noticed the plaque in Hampstead, I doubt that I would have become aware of the West End widow’s role in the unravelling of the method of transmission of cholera. Below the plaque and on the same wall, there is a pink granite object, which looks like a broken drinking fountain. This bears the date ‘1859’, five years after the large outbreak in Soho, and I hope that people did not contract cholera by drinking from it. It was in that year, that Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) began his programme of improving London’s sewerage system. This helped to reduce the out breaks of cholera, but there was at least one more in the East End of London in 1866.

So long Soho

SOHO BAR ITALIA

IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.

My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.

In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.

We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.

After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.

Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago. 

Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.

Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho.  Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.

One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.

My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!

The Gay Hussar

THE USAGE OF THE WORD ‘GAY’ to refer to same sex relationships dates back to the 1960s.

Before this time, back in 1953, Victor Sassie opened a Hungarian restaurant in Greek Street in London’s Soho district. It closed a few years ago in 2018.

Apart from serving Hungarian specialities, the Gay Hussar was a popular meeting place for politicians.

My father was often invited to meet his colleague, friend, and occasional co-author the Hungarian born (Lord) Peter Bauer at the Gay Hussar. Dad was not too keen on the fare at the restaurant because he found it too rich and a bit heavy. I only ate there once. I thought that the cooking in Hungary was better than that on offer in Greek Street.

The Gay Hussar was not the only Hungarian eatery in Soho. The other was Csarda in Dean Street. This closed long before the Gay Hussar. It is one of my few minor regrets that I was never able to eat at the Csarda.

The ‘unearthing’ of an ashtray from the Gay Hussar is what prompted me to write about this no longer existing restaurant.