Borough market tour

When I first moved to London, Borough Market was one of the first places I visited. However, I hadn’t been for a while when Celia Brooks-Brown invited me on one of her tours of Borough Market. The market is constantly changing, especially with the redevelopment around London Bridge (Europe’s tallest building, anyone?) so I thought it would be interesting to go around the market with someone who knew it a lot better than I did.

We started off with breakfast (toast and fruit salad) at Roast, a restaurant that lives upstairs at the market, overlooking the market floor. I had never actually been before, and it was a nice way to start the day.

Between that, a wine tasting at Bedales, and finishing up at The Turkish Deli, Celia took us to all her favourite stalls, where there was plenty of food and drink to taste and hidden gems to discover.

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We had some (cooked) scallops

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Trying an acai smoothie for the first time

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I bought some amazing methode champenoise cider from these guys at New Forest Cider. It was really tasty – I think I’ll be buying some again come Christmas time.

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Bumped into my friend Emily selling Parmesan.

I won’t go through everywhere we went and everything we tried as a real tour is better than a virtual one! I will however share one new product Celia introduced me to as it may well be life-changing:

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Belper Knolle. The picture and the name still don’t give much away, do they? Belper Knolle actually means “the tuber from Belp”. Inside you find this:

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It comes from a creamery in Switzerland, where they make a soft cheese which is rolled in garlic, black pepper and salt before being dried for several weeks. At that point it is perfect for shaving over pasta, salads or anything else that needs a flavour hit. You can use it in place of Parmesan, although it has a very different flavour. I love it and have been eating far too much pasta lately as a delivery vehicle for this unique cheese. With its lovely packaging I think it would make a fantastic gift for the foodie who has everything (I’m quite willing to receive one for every birthday and Christmas).

There were plenty of other hidden gems on the tour, so I really recommend giving it a go whether you are just visiting London or if you are an old hand! Celia is the only person licensed to take tours around the market, and she knows absolutely everyone there – and, it would seem, every product on offer too. Go hungry – you will not need breakfast or lunch!

I was a guest of Celia Brooks Brown on the tour. Tours cost £70 and include a LOT of food and drink. Bookings can be made here.

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Billingsgate Market

A few weeks ago some classmates and I went on a field trip to Billingsgate Market.  It’s one of those London things I’ve always wanted to do.

My alarm woke me at 4:45am and I shuffled off to the tube station – I didn’t even know the tube ran that early. Being summer though the dawn had already broken, it was warm outside, and made me want to get up at that time every day.

I bumped into a few of my classmates at Canary Wharf and we wandered through the deserted concrete jungle to the market, in sharp juxtaposition to the high finance surrounds.

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We met with the chief inspector Chris Leftwich, who told us about the history of the market and gave us the grand tour. Although the market is now outside the City it is still owned by the City of London. It is an open market, meaning anyone can shop there – it’s not just a wholesale market and members of the public do shop there.

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The market floor. Market porters wheel heavy loads down the aisles, shouting “mind your backs” – and something ruder if you don’t move out of the way sharpish!

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Chief inspector Chris Leftwich showing us around the market. The inspectors have the power to remove anything from sale if it has gone off. This is a quality standard rather than a health one – fish are susceptible to different pathogens to humans so eating off fish won’t harm you, it just changes the taste and texture of the fish. This makes sense when I think of the Surströmming (rotten herring) I ate in Sweden, and other cultures around the world of eating fermented/rotten fish.

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Fish on display. The market used to sell just whole fish but a lot of fish is sold as fillets now. Tuna is sold cut into pieces and vacuum packed – it is too expensive to sell whole.

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I love razor clams with their lolling tongues.

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Live eels – the market used to only sell jellied eels but over the years its clientèle has evolved and so have the products on offer. A lot of products are either flown in or flown out to buyers around the world.

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A female lobster with roe. Chris said he wished the fishers would return these to the sea in order to preserve stocks. But at the moment there are no regulations requiring this.

On the way around we bought some fish to take with us for a post-Billingsgate lunch. I’ll save that for my next post but for now I’ll leave you with this:

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Billingsgate language – can you translate?

Lessons learned

Really, this one should have been obvious: Never go to anything organised by TFL. If they can’t organise the transport system, they can’t organise anything else either.

However, the Thames Tunnel Walkthrough and Underwater Fancy Fair sounded like good fun, so I booked tickets for myself and my friend Yusuf to go last night. The Thames Tunnel was the first ever underwater tunnel, constructed by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, between Rotherhithe and Wapping.

It was a little difficult to get tickets, as at first I couldn’t find any mention of it on the Transport Museum’s website (this was where the first bit of publicity I received told me I could get tickets), and then when I finally received an invitation with a working link, the link promptly stopped working. The event is still running today but when I clicked the ticket link it was broken entirely. Anyway, I did eventually manage to buy tickets.

I turned up the Brunel Museum to pick up the tickets, and was told to go to Rotherhithe Station for the tunnel tour at 6:50 (the entry time stated on our tickets). I texted Yusuf to tell him I’d be at the station. 6:50 was approaching rapidly so I called him – it went straight to voicemail. I got a text to say he was at the museum. I called again… and again. Turns out Rotherhithe is a mobile reception blackspot. As a North Londoner going south of the river tends to make me twitchy and I was already longing to be back up North. My GPS told me I was in Wapping, but this was no comfort. Hopefully I’d be in Wapping in a few minutes’ time anyway – preferably via the tunnel.

I finally managed to rendezvous with Yusuf and we showed our tickets to a man at the station, only to be told that our tickets weren’t valid. Apparently what we’d been told by the website and the woman who’d just handed me the tickets was all wrong. Our tickets were only valid for the Fancy Fair, which was not in fact Underwater, but at the Brunel Museum. By now there was a bit of a crowd forming, all complaining that they weren’t able to get into the tunnel as that’s what we’d bought tickets for after all.

So back to the museum we went, with the intention of demanding our money back. I stormed past the queue only to be intercepted by a woman in a fluoro jacket, who apologised, offered to give me an email address I could complain to, said that our tickets were valid for the shaft tour which we could go on right now if we wanted, and I found myself apologising to her for being shouty as I knew it wasn’t her fault the event was poorly organised. So in we went. “That woman is an expert at conflict resolution”, Yusuf remarked. “Yes, I want to learn how she did that!” I said. I resolved to be cheerful from now on.

So, on to the shaft tour. Entry was by a crawl-through that really was as close as we got to a tunnel all evening (I was still struggling with the “cheerful” bit), and then down a staircase to a concrete floor that had just been installed over the rest of the shaft, which continued down to the actual tunnel. This was the original entrance to the Thames Tunnel, and you could see where the original spiral staircase had been.

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A man gave us an interesting talk about the history and construction of the tunnel. Working conditions sounded absolutely dire. Work was by lamplight, and the lamps had a habit of igniting pockets of marsh gas in the boggy ground. The Thames was used as an open sewer at the time and water was constantly leaking into the tunnel. Men worked until they collapsed (usually two hours) and were replaced by more men. The constructions was supposed to take three years but took eighteen. When it was finished, it was used as an underground shopping arcade, with shops, attractions, and souvenirs for visitors.

We emerged back into the Underwater Fancy Fair. We had been promised Victorian Strongmen, Jugglers, Acrobats and Fire Eaters, Brunel Cocktails and Jellies, and Steam Organs. Let’s see…

The Victorian Strongmen did not disappoint:

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They were definitely strong, braving the bitterly cold weather to perform handstands and pick up children.

Jugglers? No sign of any.

Acrobats? Yes:

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These girls put on an impressive show.

Fire Eaters? No. Steam Organs? No. And most disappointing of all, NO COCKTAILS! There were a couple of empty stands where it looked as though food and drink should go, but the only refreshment available was tea in the museum’s tiny cafe.

We did get a blurry photograph of ourselves standing in front of a background picture of the tunnel, so if you squint a bit it kind of looks like we were there… but to be honest I can’t be bothered scanning it in.

Was it a fiver’s worth? No.

Having had enough of the bitter disappointment cold we hopped on a bus up to Shoreditch, where we had dinner at Que Viet and the evening took a turn for the better.

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Vegetarian starter platter followed by sea bass which had been cut up, deep fried and reassembled. It really was excellent. The restaurant itself was ok. Overzealous waiters kept trying to take away the dipping sauces we had with the starters, even though Yusuf had told them we wanted to keep them on the table. The acoustics of the place were also terrible, perhaps not surprising for a busy Friday night but although there was no music playing (which always encourages people to talk louder) it was very noisy in there. The bill came to £32 including service and two non-alcoholic drinks, which was very reasonable (and the sea bass was the most expensive thing on the menu). I’d go back, but probably on a weeknight.

Photographic evidence

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My brother and his girlfriend managed to book on to a coach from Paris, and got in at 10 on Monday night (they were due in at 7), only a day and a half after they were supposed to arrive by Eurostar.

It’s been really nice showing him around and I’m starting to wish I didn’t have to leave the country on the 27th, as they’ve decided to stay a couple of extra days in London to make up for the time they’ve missed. Oh well, I will be lying on a beach getting over my jetlag. Then… well, stay tuned.

Photo walk

A friend of mine invited me along to a photo walk around Holborn last weekend. Basically it involved a few of us walking around taking photos. It’s a nice way to get a bit of practice in and look at the city from a different angle.

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We found this apple tree in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and managed to pick a few. The skin was tough (once we’d rubbed the smog off) but the flesh was delicious. There should be more fruit trees in public spaces.

Hidden Gardens

Last week I decided to do something a little different. I’ve recently joined “Mrs Coots’ Quirky Outings”, a meetup group dedicated to doing things that are, well, a little different.

On Wednesday I turned up at Moorgate Station ready for my first outing: the Hidden Garden city tour. I love the City for all of its strange juxtapositions. The City is a place where history, mystery, high finance, and religion all seem to ooze out of its pores. Echoes of Roman and Medieval London exist next to concrete and glass office towers, and although the City is only a square mile there is a high potential for getting lost in its twisty-turny maze of streets, alleyways, highwalks, and pedestrian subways. Some of its mysteries will always remain closed to me, so I jump at any offer to learn more.

We started the tour with a not-so-hidden garden but one that was new to me – Finsbury Circus, which has a bowling green in the middle. Our guide explained how the bowling green is very hard to play on as it is slightly undulating due to the Tube line running under it.

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We had a brief stop at the Draper’s Hall garden which sadly we did not have access to. It looked rather run down and uncared for with bits of construction debris around the place. This was all the more sad given that the garden contained mulberry trees laden with ripe mulberries that were left to fall on the purple-stained ground. I’d love to go back there with a ladder! The Hall belongs to the Worshipful Company of Drapers, which comes third in precedence among the Great Twelve City Livery Companies. We learned an interesting fact – the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners could never decide who should come sixth and seventh in the order of precedence, so every year they alternate. This is where we get the phrase “at sixes and sevens”.

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I’ve seen a lot of debt clocks before so assumed this was another, but it is actually a death clock, counting how many deaths there have been in the world this year (about two per second).

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A beautiful old church right next to the Gherkin.

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Gherkin cake, anyone?

The highlight of the tour was seeing St Dunstan’s, a church that was burnt down in the Great Fire, rebuilt, rebuilt again in the 18th century, and then destroyed in the Blitz by an incendiary bomb. Instead of rebuilding it for the third time it has been turned into a public garden. The garden is quite stunning and seems to exist in a microclimate of its own where a banana palm and fig tree thrive.

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It was lovely to take time out in the middle of a very busy week (I have a few projects afoot, of which more later) and discover some peace and tranquillity in the middle of the busiest part of London. I can thoroughly recommend the walk, especially given the modest £5 fee goes to charity.

Toast NZ

Now, I must admit that the thought of going to expat events is usually enough to bring me out in hives.  Toast NZ is meant to be a celebration of New Zealand food, drink and music.  It’s also held on Clapham Common, which makes sense as Clapham has the largest concentration of New Zealanders in London.  I don’t live in or anywhere near Clapham.  But I had been offered a free ticket instead of the normal entry price of £25, and as I’d never been before I decided to check it out.

As soon as I stepped off the tube I was surrounded by New Zealand and Australian accents.  Beer bellies abounded.  It was a stinking hot day, the kind of weather that would normally see me sheltering indoors, but it meant that Clapham Common with its burnt off grass and complete lack of any kind of sheltering trees, was very effectively transformed into New Zealand Town for the day (Flight of the Conchords in-joke).

The two restaurants with top billing were Suze in Mayfair and Smith’s of Smithfield.  Smith’s is run by John Torode and is in the middle of the Smithfields meat market.  So even if you’ve never heard of them before you can guess what they specialise in.  And it is always spoken of very highly by my meat-loving friends.  They were actually offering a vegetarian option of falafel, but to tell you the truth that just seemed wrong!

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Suze is apparently a New Zealand restaurant and was offering up NZ mussels, prawns, “lambwiches” and pavlova.  I decided to try a small plate of mussels with a white wine-celery-type sauce.  The sauce was served up from a huge soup tureen and I have to say it did not look that appetising.  A bit too thick and gloopy.  The taste wasn’t anything special either, and while the mussels were your usual delicious greenlipped NZ variety, they hadn’t been debearded which put me off even further.  A girl came up to me and asked if they were any good.  When I said no she tried to engage me in a long conversation about them!  I’d forgotten some New Zealanders are completely unreserved when it comes to talking with strangers!  This actually happened a few times and I felt like if I wanted to I could have made new friends quite easily.  Maybe I’ve been in London too long but this just scared me a little.

The place was unfortunately also full of loud, obnoxious, drunken Kiwi types.  I was queuing for some wine when a group to the left of me, who had been loud and annoying the whole time I’d been queuing (one guy had a particularly ear-piercing laugh) jumped the queue, demanded beer, and when there was no beer bought wine instead.  Really enough to make my blood boil.  However as soon as I got my wine, more of the O:Tu Sauvignon Blanc I first tried at Taste last weekend, I found my happy place.  Yes, that wine really is as good as I thought it was.  It’s available from various places online or direct from O:Tu by the half case (£53 as I recall) with free delivery.  I suspect it’ll probably win a slew of awards so buy it now, ok?

Some of the best food I ate was some prawns and tempura prawns with fried noodles. This was just proper, honest street food, looking at it being cooked I knew exactly what it was going to taste like and I wasn’t disappointed. I grew up eating street food from market vendors on hot, sunny days so this just took me right back. A far cry from the food I had at Taste last weekend but the right food at the right time.

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My alarm has just rung three times to tell me it is time to go to Italy now, so I will leave you with this, which is just wrong wrong WRONG:

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A crime against strawberries!!!