Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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A Toast to 2013: Postcards to Myself

I don’t usually go in for rambling, retrospective, year-end posts, mainly because I think the Web groans under the weight of them at this time of year. What I do is this…….a photo roundup of personal memories of my year.

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2013 was a delightful year for me – seeing both my sons enjoying their chosen paths and having some wonderful visits with them; catching up with dear friends, long overdue; memorable times with friends who were geographically closer ; a beginning to the  more nomadic existence I’ve been craving; an acceptable upswing in the amount of travel, compared to recent years….and a quality of travel which still takes my breath away when I think about it.  Key words for the year: spring flowers, cheese, France, Ireland, amazing food adventures, mountains, greenery, London, La Gomera, Asturias.

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Eating London is About More Than Just Eating!

I’m ambivalent about guided tours. I suspect that the locals are sniggering at us as we are herded around city streets, and I always want to linger longer than time allows at each stop. Yet I also like having all the information in situ, which would take hours to research myself, and wouldn’t have the same impact as when I am standing on the spot as, say, where one of Jack the Ripper’s victims was found – which is where I was during the fabulous Eating London Tour last month.

Eating London is a lovely combination of food and history –  how could I refuse an invitation to indulge in both?  Along with tantalizing tastes of some of the foods, which have helped to make London’s East End the melting pot it is today, we were fed tidbits of history by our lively guide, Nicole. Despite a steady drizzle most of the morning, both my mind and my body were engaged and well fed, so that the weather really didn’t matter. Nicole’s wide smile substituted quite nicely for the sunshine, and as she’s Australian, you can tell that her passion for the area and its bounty was really genuine….I think you can tell from this snatch of video (I’m hopeless at video!)

After our eclectic group assembled in Spitalfields Market and we all introduced ourselves, we were off for what I can, hand on heart, say is the best bacon butty of my life……and I promise you that’s saying something – bacon butties are an addiction of mine (one day I may reveal how I overcame my bacon butty habit of some years back!)  St. John Bread and Wine, on Commercial Street, uses specially cured bacon, and bread made to their own, secret recipe. The bread is light, the dipping sauce was perfect, and my taste buds cried out for more, but  knowing an entire morning of munching was ahead of me, I made a note to breakfast there the next time I’m in London! See how that bread absorbs the flavors in the pic below?

The BEST bacon butty EVER!

The BEST bacon butty EVER!

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PJs Covent Garden: Dining as it Used to Be.

In a trip which was heavy on foodie delights and new dining experiences I have to tell you about the one which really stood out. I’ve been saving it until last because, well, it deserves its own post!

On a personal note, this London trip was the first time that my sons and I had been all together in pushing two years, so it was always going to be special for me on that account. The last time we’d all been in London together was in the early 90s, and that was a holiday to remember – the first time the boys had romped through crisy, golden, fallen leaves in the parks; thrill of visiting the wee Nickelodeon Studios in Trocadero Centre; first meal in Chinatown; the enthralling Museum of Natural History and the Imperial War Museum, and the trip on the open-top bus pointing out the famous sites known from movies and TV…….in other words, much of the usual tourist stuff!  By now we all know London better, especially Guy, of course, and it was Guy who decided our farewell meal would be at PJs in Covent Garden.

Covent Garden looking festive already

We were eating quite early because Austin was flying out the next morning, so we booked. PJs is famous amongst theater-goers as the place to go before or after a show, so eating early didn’t mean avoiding crowds. Covent Garden is a fine area to stroll around before or after a meal, even if you aren’t going to the theater, and especially at this time of year. The Christmas decorations had gone up, buskers were performing outside the main entrance, and inside was all good-humored hustle and bustle, as tourists snapped photos, locals began their annual festive shopping and an impressive lady sang her heart out in the South Courtyard.

We approached PJs in high anticipation, and ducked inside out of the Autumn chill to a warm welcome. I was entranced from the start. I felt as if I had stepped into a dream from my teens – the one where Frank Sinatra is waiting for me at a discreet corner table with a pristine linen cloth, and a piano tinkles in the background. We snagged a couple of seats at the bar to order drinks, and I drank in the very English atmosphere. PJs has been in this same location since the early 80s, so you know they have got the ratio of service to food to atmosphere just right!

PJs’ hot tuna niçoise

Although diners weren’t especially in formal attire, the room said, “Classy,” as we were shown to our table. Warm, wooden paneling glowed and the place had a discreet and animated buzz, not the deafening chatter and hum you find in so many restaurants these days. Conversation was easy without having to say, “Pardon?” all the time.

PJs’ Sea Bass on Cornish Crab hash

Then the menu arrived. From burgers (which looked like super-burgers) to 8-Hour Braised Rib of Beef there really is something for every taste. I’m an awful ditherer when it comes to selecting from a menu, but my decision was helped by a little bird whispering to me that the chocolate mousse was to-die-for – clearly I had to leave room for that!

PJs’ swordfish with mango salsa

In the end all three of us chose fish, Guy the swordfish with mango salsa and lobster bisque, Austin the tuna niçoise and I the pan-roasted sea bass with Cornish crab hash, to ensure that we didn’t miss out on the chocolate mousse, which was utterly, as-described, heavenly! I started with the goats’ cheese and beetroot tart …. and was well into it before I realized I’d forgotten to do the compulsory blogger thing and take a photo – so you’ll have to take my word for it! I’m not really into describing every taste sensation of a dish, so I will let the photos I did take, and the fact I’m writing this speak for the food. As for the service? Perfectly attentive and friendly without being intrusive, just as it should be!

PJs’ heavenly chocolate mousse!

This is the point where one usually says something like, “Just one thing,” or ” a minor niggle,” but, honestly I can’t think of one thing. I can only say that it will be my first port-of-call and not my last the next time I’m in London!

And not forgetting how easy getting around London was from the great apartment in Hackney which came via HomeAway.co.uk


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What Happened to Britain’s Awful Food?

My very first travel memory might concern food. I am, I think, about six years old and visiting London for the first time, and I think that maybe my tastes were already running to fine cuisine. I’m sitting in Lyons Corner House with my parents, and being force fed greasy chips, which I hate, and I’m pouting and protesting that I don’t want them.

Looking back now to my most recent London visit, I  realize that my memories fall into three categories. Most important, of course, are the personal ones, time spent with family and friends I hadn’t seen in too long, and meeting new folk amongst whom, surely, there are embryo friendships – so let’s call the category “people.” Third I’ll christen “work” – that’s all the fascinating stuff at WTM, wee thrill of my first press pass and all the new stuff I’ve learned and the hopes for the future. So, what, you might ask, is in second place? It comes as a surprise to name this category “food.”

When I left the UK for warmer shores in 1987 the thing I didn’t miss was the food, which is not to knock fish and chips, steak & kidney pies or lovely pub grub, but, overall,  great food wasn’t the norm. Perhaps that’s still true to some extent, but far less I think. For one thing there are plenty of decent chains around now, as I’ve discovered in the last couple of years.

Camden Market’s food stalls. As colorful in presentation as they are in taste!

However!!! I have to declare my most recent London visit an unexpected foodie delight…..and most of it wasn’t even sit-down meals, but food grabbed whilst wandering around, like the eclectic and quirky food stalls at Camden Market, where I dithered over pork jerk, tagine, jian bing (from the Mei Mei street cart – sublime!), noodles and pizza, I finally settled on a kangaroo burger, partly out of curiosity and partly because, well, I like burgers (there are other exotic meats to choose from depending on the season, including bison and emu)…..and note to the guy selling them, whose name I sadly forgot to ask – nice chatting with you! I will definitely be back to sample another kind of burger next time in London!

Nor was my sweet tooth un-catered for – I feasted on tablet in flavors un-imagined (to my Scottish friends, never having tasted it “in situ” I don’t know how authentic it was, but it melted in the mouth and I could almost cry now thinking about it!); churros not only con chocolate but filled with dulce de leche and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar (….I did go twice, I hasten to add that not all of this was consumed in one day!); and rainbow-colored macaroons, which tasted and smelled like fresh fruits and whose slightly crispy outsides melted into a sweet, chewiness inside, which then simply disintegrated onto the tongue – now, I’ve never rated macaroons much, but these changed my mind – however, note to the lady selling them – if you’d been a bit less pushy I might have bought more and would certainly have taken photos which would have been posted all over the internet – your loss,  but your product is delicious.

And to warm the toes and wash down all that decadent consumption? What else but a seasonal cup of mulled wine or apple with cinnamon? Ah – now I truly want to cry just remembering.

But Camden Market wasn’t all! The previous weekend we had gone to a Tea and Coffee Festival on the South Bank. Big coffee fan here, so that was sufficient draw for me, so the yummy foods were a huge bonus….including my very first, ever cupcake! Can you believe that I have reached this advanced age without a cupcake ever passing my lips? The advantage is that it was all the sweeter and more appreciated for the delay, is all I can say! This festival was the third of four this Autumn, two previous being Real Bread and Cheese and Wine and the remaining one, December 7th to 9th is The Chocolate Festival! Oh that I could be there for that! But I have memories of light-as-air quiche and cookies my son declared to be “the best in the world” to feast on!

After South Bank we trotted down to Covent Garden……and more mulled wine. Cheers!!

Perhaps it’s down to the amazing ethnic mix that is now London, perhaps that mix harks back to the days of Empire and the cultural exchanges which resulted, because I appreciate that many of the foods I relished weren’t English in origin. In fact, without traveling too far I had my first bubble tea too (yummy and more-ish) and my first egg waffles in Chinatown…..at least there was plenty of walking involved in this feasting to ease the guilt!

Sitting here, feeling bloated just thinking about the deliciousness makes me want to dash down to the airport and get back to London, and I never would have thought that it would be the food which would draw me back – the city has come a long way from greasy chips!

And another nod to HomeAway.co.uk who eased my stay in London and added to my comfort!


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A Little Cockney Warmth on a Cold Day

Chestnut season is approaching here in Tenerife. It’s a time which usually makes me nostalgic, remembering the sellers on the streets of London and Manchester in the England of my youth.

This year, however, my nostalgia is sated, and in all of London’s hustle and bustle I have a lovely memory of Gus, who is acclaimed by non other than Antonio Carluccio as the city’s best chestnut seller!

Gus’s stand was outside the Excel Center during WTM, but on the first two days I was rushing around like everyone else. On the third day I stopped to ask him if he would be there tomorrow – I wanted to take a snap for friends in Tenerife, but my camera was buried deep in my backpack and I didn’t want to mess about looking for it.

“Sure I will,” he said. “I’m here every day. Here, take a bag and you can pay me tomorrow.”

I protested that it wasn’t lack of money which had prompted my question, but he insisted so cheerfully that I accepted, and rushed off to nurse my sore throat. I was disappointed to arrive on Thursday and see he wasn’t there, but, sure enough, when I emerged mid-afternoon there he was on his usual corner.

I reminded him that I owed him money, though he clearly had forgotten, and we bantered for a while. He told me that he sold chestnuts at most big events, including movie premieres at Leicester Square, and that I should Google “The best chestnut seller in London” and I would find him. No Facebook page, but coming! When I bought a second bag of chestnuts, he pressed a third one on me “for my honesty in coming back to pay”……..I wonder how many folk don’t respect his kindness or forget to go back when he gives his goods away?

It was a bleak kind of afternoon, warmed by both his delicious chestnuts and his cheerfulness…..my only regret is that I didn’t chat for longer – when I checked out that Google link it made me think he would have had a whole host of stories to tell!

For my visit to WTM I stayed in a delightful apartment in Hackney supplied by HomeAwayUK. My thanks to them for making my stay so much better :=)


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When You Need a Home from Home in London try Homeaway UK

I was delighted when Katrina from TourAbsurd asked me if I wanted to share an apartment with her this week in London. We’re both here for the World Travel Market 2012 (more about that another time), and this evening I am even more pleased. After coming down with the sniffles this afternoon it was soooo nice to come back to an apartment, make a hot drink and put my feet up, instead of hiding under the covers in a anonymous hotel room. How is this for comfy?

We have lacked for nothing. The apartment has full cooking facilities, including an oven…..if we had had the energy to cook it would have been easy – there is a Tesco Express three minutes walk away, and that’s just around the corner from the Haggerston London overground station. When I look out of the window in the morning, this is my view:

Yes, my friends, I DID run down there the other morning. The canal towpath is the perfect place! I’m hoping to do it at least once more before I move on on Thursday, but if anything has caused grumbles this week it has been the British weather. Still the apartment has been more than warm enough, so no grumbles when indoors!

We have to thank Homeaway UK for arranging the apartment…..whilst Katrina did all the booking she kept me informed and I know they were exceptionally helpful, checking on transport etc for us. It’s important how those touches improve a travel experience, especially in somewhere as potentially confusing as London!

In fact, I felt at home in no time at all. Whilst I do enjoy to be spoiled from time to time by hotels, staying in an apartment, especially when you are working is a much better experience. We both arrived on Thursday, and the apartment owner was here to meet us with keys. By Friday evening I felt like a local, shopping at Tesco, riding the Tube and the Overground to the manner born (or at least that’s how I felt!). I’ve never lived in London, so never really needed to travel in rush hour before…..quite the experience, and doubly crowded because of WTM apparently!

Our only problem was with the wifi, which was what Brits call ” a dongle” – a USB connection, which meant that only one person could use it at a time. Fortunately Katrina could connect via her phone, but when that went down over the weekend it proved a bit difficult. It’s a minor thing compared to the comfort of the apartment, its convenience for getting to Excel or into the City and that “at home” feeling, and, it goes without saying that sharing an apartment is much more economical than hotels. Though we are only two people, this apartment does sleep four, which would make it an extraordinary bargain so close to so much of London.

No doubt I will be reluctant to leave tomorrow, but I will have no hesitation in using Homeaway UK’s services in the future! And just to finish…….you know how crazy I am about sunrises? Here was this week’s……maybe not over the ocean and a tad early (it turned fiery pink a bit later) but still…..it was the lovely beginning of a great day!

 

 


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What can you say about London?

Maybe it’s because I live on a small island, which boasts only two cities (which are so close together that really they are one) that I seem to write more about the countryside or the coast – simply, there is more coast and more mountains than there is city life. It isn’t that I don’t like cities.  Often I ache for the energy of a big city.

What’s left to say about London? Honestly, what can you say about London which hasn’t already been said?  I have friends who loathe cities, London included. Me? I love ‘em. I love cities, but in a totally different way to the way I love the mountains and the coasts.

I’m a slave to the beauty and the majesty of ocean, mountains, sky and trees, but there is  vitality and zest in cities, which comes from the rubbing together of so much humanity, the pooling of their enthusiasms and enterprise. If I go to Nature for renewal, to wind up my mind and energy, and then the city uses and drains it,  and there is a satisfaction in that being drained too.

Whilst I prize solitude in the countryside, if green spaces in the city are thronging with people I prize the variety and energy that produces also. So a walk in Hyde Park the other week, though beautiful, bursting with the new growth of Spring and easy on the eye, was filled with people too; people walking, running, skating, skateboarding, cycling, sitting, strolling, eating, reading and enjoying the warmth of the sunniest March I ever remember.

 

Look closer at the picture above. At the bottom of the wall you can see swans building a nest. In the midst of folk rambling about, kids shouting and the general cacophony of man they were serenely going about their task, apparently oblivious to all else around them.

On the other hand, in other parts of the park’s animal kingdom, not all was so serene, there was definitely some vying for attention going on!

And the warm weather brought an additional surprise for me – this is the first time in over 25 years that I’ve seen bluebells.

And whilst I was surprised that the craze for gelato seemed missing in Britain’s capital, the Mr Whippy went down a treat! Is there anything quite like it on a hot day? :=)

 

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