[Chris writes: It was always going to be tough going up against Jacob’s Perfect Day in London in our informal London competition. I’ve taken the tactical decision to throw not just one of my perfect days in London into the ring – I’m throwing them all in.]
Day One: Epicurean London
The Poms have, for years, endured as the world, and the French in particular, snorted and stuck their noses up at even the accidental placement of the word ‘England” in the vicinity of the word “cuisine”. Said the French President, Jacques Chirac;
“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad”.
France has moved on from Chirac, but I suspect he still speaks for many of us when we contemplate English food. And how wrong we all are.
One only has to look at the constellation of British chefs and cooks dominating the television, the bookstore, the supermarket ailes, and your stomach, to know that this attitude towards British food cannot last long, if indeed it is an opinion still held at all. From Heston to Gordon to Jamie to Nigella to Rick to Antonio to Delia, there is no shortage of chefs promoting new cuisine in the country, and there are truly exciting places in Britain where artisanal isn’t a word artlessly tacked on by a hipster in marketing – it truly is.
We start our morning at one of those places, and my favourite place in London. We’re going to Borough Market.
Food Heaven is Borough Market.
Borough Market has been in operation, in some form or another, since the 13th Century, and possibly earlier. It recently earned a blue plaque as “London’s Oldest Fruit and Veg Market”.
Today, it is spread over several blocks, showcasing fresh and preserved produce made by individuals who make things the old-fashioned way.
It is hard to believe how varied and exciting the produce is at Borough. From specialist cheese producers, to rare breed pig farmers, to the one guy who smokes his own salmon and scallops up near the Scottish border, you’ll not only find the ingredients of your dreams but usually be talking to the person who made them.
There’s lots to eat and drink, so don’t muck about.
First – go to the Monmouth coffee stand and get in the queue when you arrive at Borough. Even if it looks quite long now, it will get longer still at the day progresses.
Once you’ve grabbed your coffee fix, head over to the Jubilee Market to look at food producers selling everything from jams and preserves, to spices, to handmade dips and dukkah, and their own family recipe for salami and smallgoods. Circle back into Green Market for bread, pastry, and don’t forget to grab an empanada before you go.
It Is Always Time For Tea
Tea and the English will, possibly forevermore, be inextricably linked.
Can you believe that, each evening when The EastEnders finishes (a popular soap on television), the surge in electricity is so great that the company must actively manage the electricity supply, even gathering in electricity supply from France.
What is causing this massive electricity surge? Says the BBC;
No other country in the world switches on some many kettles in so short a time.
Each evening around 7 PM, 1.75 million kettles are switched on.
Thomas Twining, fighting a brave rearguard action against the overwhelming popularity of coffee houses, bought this coffee house back in 1706. In the early part of the 18th Century, tea began to rise in popularity and soon sales of tea from this store eclipsed the coffee business and Twinings was set on the path to tea-time domination.
Here you can buy the regular Twinings tea brands as well as shop from the Loose Lea Tea bar and individual teas for those famous Twinings compartments.
On to Marylebone for Brunch and Cheese
The Providores in Marylebone is one of those places you hear about in whispers and backchannels, because no-one wants to let the secret out – but this place is just too good. You only have to visit The Providores on a weekend for brunch to see the size of the queue and feel the crushing disappoint at forgetting to have booked.
An airy, modern cafe cum restaurant, there are two parts to The Providores – the Tapa Room downstairs, which is a busy free-for-all, and the quieter, slightly more formal dining room upstairs.
Both serve an increbile, eclectic ‘fusion’ menu that showcases the irreverence on the Kiwis and the cosmopolitan spirit of London. Current dishes on the lunch menu is a Smoked Dutch eel with butternut squash star anise puree, edamame, blood orange and macadamia nut salad and Sri Lankan spiced beef short-rib with pearl barley, raisins, almonds, mango chutney and coconut.
Remember to book your place.
Once satisfied, head out onto the Marylebone High Street and wander a bit further up towards Regents Park. You’ll smell our next destination before you see it, and depending on your palate you may love it or may find it slightly offputting.
The first time I entered the Cheese Room at La Fromagerie, I couldn’t quite take it all in. I was found standing in a corner of the room, gazing fondly at a block of Parmesan and inhaling deeply the potent scent of what I think was called ‘Stinking Bishop’.
With cheeses from Buffalo, Cow, Goat, and Sheep, and from all across England, the United Kingdom, and Europe, there just has to be a cheese here that you will find mind-blowing. Brie, Camembert, Aged Cheddar, Pecorino, Ricotta – breathe deeply and you’ll be entranced just like I was.
And before you leave this little slice of food paradise, pop into Patisserie Valerie for a raspberry tart fix.
Breast Milk Ice Cream
Yes – that threw me the first time I read about it too. It is hard to determine whether choosing to sample this particular variety of ice cream goes one the ‘have-to-try-it-once’ list or on the ‘are’you-blooming-crazy’ list.
If you were up for it, we’d head to the Icecreamists shop in Covent Garden and have a red hot go. If it isn’t really your cup of tea (and let’s be honest, that’s probably 99% of you) then we’ll head to another Icecream treasure of London – unconventional too, though not in the same way.
Freggo, located just away from the ridiculous hustle and bustle of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, is an icecreamery par-excellence. You really will not be able to think of icecream the same way once you try their Malbec and Berries icecream in combination with a dark chocolate icecream. Yes, that’s wine in icecream and it works. Don’t miss this.
Come the Raw Prawn at Harrods
How are we doing for time? Quick – get in that tube!
Harrods, house of all things gaudy and excessive, happens to also have a very fine Food Hall. If you can get past the crowds and the over the top memorials and the purveyors of perfume, you’ll find yourself in something very closely resembling a playground for grownups.
Look at the size of those prawns!
Ok – it will be overpriced. But just sit yourself down at that counter and stuff yourself with jamon freshly carved from the bone with a razor-sharp knife by a smiling gentleman in an apron and enjoy it. You only live once.
More Tea, and a moment to regather
By now we’re feeling the afternoon dip hit hard, so it’s time for the citrus pep of a cup of Lady Grey and maybe a moment to catch our breath. At Claridge’s Afternoon Tea, they serve the ‘quintessential’ English afternoon tea, and having been practising the art for over 150 years, we’re sure to enjoy the full experience. As Spencer Tracey once said;
I’d rather go to Claridge’s than to heaven.
The Grand Finale, by the Master of Illusion
As if we have any room left in us by now. But we must, we must find some – a hollow leg perhaps. For tonight we dine at Heston’s.
Dinner, his restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, is Heston Blumenthal’s first entry into the London market. With The Fat Duck solidly booked out months in advance, Dinner is our best chance to sample the cooking that has earned the self-taught chef three Michelin stars and to trade the Best Restaurant in the World title with Noma and El Bulli, depending on who you ask.
The restaurant’s dishes are based on Heston’s deep research into historical cooking in English culture, and the dish at Dinner is the Meat Fruit. To all appearances, a mandarin, inside is a special surprise and I won’t be the one to spoil it for you. See if you can guess.
Day Two: Museum London
One of the benefits of being an Empire is being able to amass, legitimately or otherwise, enormous collections of historical artefacts and trophies from across the world. England, being a particularly potent Empire, has quite the collection.
Start at the British Museum. Of course, everyone else is starting there too, and there will be a big rush to get inside to the Rosetta Stone first. You can join the rush or head on upstairs to the Egyptian collection instead, and find your inner Indiana Jones amongst the mummies and hieroglyphs.
Next, head to the London Museum. This place is little mentioned by most ‘travel experts’ and yet it tells a definitive story of the history of London, from ancient times through the Blitz, and to the heady days of Beatlemania and beyond, in entertaining and creative ways.
Once you’ve finished the tour you’ll have a greater appreciation for just how central this city has been in the making of the world as we know it today.
Head across the river to the Tate Modern.
This titan of the art world, made from an old powerplant and solidly sitting across the Thames from the grand dome of St Paul’s, is a temple to modern and contemporary art and will have you up to speed on all your Modernisms and Post-Modernisms and Post-Modern-Pre-Minimalisms in no time at all.
Just near the Tate is the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.There are tours available, but why not come back when there is a play on. Standing tickets near the front of the stage as cheap as chips, although you will be exposed should the weather turn inclement, which in London is ‘frequently’.
Finally, and it is a bit out of the way, but how could you miss the Museum of Natural History. For any adult who, as a kid, fantasised about becoming an archaeologist (so, all of you) this is the Aladdin’s Cave, the Nirvana, the Mecca of dinosaur-nerdery.
Day Three: Countryside London
Are you a nature lover, perhaps?
If so, let’s grab the DLR and get on out of London. Head out to Richmond Park, where we can gambol to our heart’s content in a massive greenbelt of forest, rivers, and fields.
We’ll take time to track down the deer herds that populate the Park, making sure not to get too close – especially in rutting season.
After we have all the fresh air we need, we’ll make our way to the Petersham Nursery. Not only a nursery full of beautiful flowers like you can only grow in England’s mild and gentle climes, there’s also an amazing restaurant attached. If the restaurant isn’t open, head up to the Petersham Hotel for afternoon tea overlooking the upstream Thames.
On your way back into London, hop off and explore Kew Gardens.
There’s an exotic greenhouse there full of endless varieties of butterflies, and the photos you take will be beautiful.
Day Four: Get way out of Town
Your perfect day in London may actually be a day trip out of the city. There are plenty of coach tours to places like Bath, Warwick Castle, Stonehenge, and other little satellites around this city, but why not go self-guided. We’ll have a better time.
One possibility is Canterbury, which is only an hour by train and will fulfil all your fantasies about how a medieval English town may have looked and felt.
Another option, if eclectic and alternative if your thing, is Brighton. Full of people who look at the world a little differently, Brighton also contains perhaps the most incredible palace in all of England, if by incredible we mean ‘absolutely-completely-over-the-top’. Playboy George, Prince of Wales, turned the Royal Pavilion into the most fashionable seaside retreat for high-society members of the time, and it has the the most extravagant chinoiserie interiors ever executed in the British Isles.
Brighton Pier will satiate your need to have a traditional English carnival pier experience, and if the stars align and the planets tilt and the world turns upside down, you may just might just may be able to go for a swim and not freeze to death.
But don’t count on it.
So, there it is. Not one, not two, not three, but four different versions of what might constitute a perfect day in London.