Tuesday, September 27, 2005

London Food Halls

It is Fashion Week in London and I want to go shopping, but not for clothes. As the fashionistas check out Top Shop on Oxford Street, I make my way to the food halls of London’s renowned department stores in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, to scratch a retail itch of a different kind. London has some of the best department store food halls in the world and I’m off to see how they rate as destinations for visitors.

In the battle of the food departments, for sheer magnificence, you can’t beat Harrods. I hadn’t been there for years, not liking the owner or his creepy security guards but with that said, the food halls are fabulous, vast, and filled with the most wonderful tiling and decorations to match the food on offer. The range and selection of meat, fish, poultry, game, prepared foods, sauces, and condiments boggles the mind.

And so do the prices. Harrods charges such a premium that it never fails to titillate the tourists. In every conceivable language they gasp and shriek, “Did you see the price of that fish!” or “$50 for jelly beans!” In fact, sticker shock has become such a part of the experience that most visitors end up meandering through, enjoying the old fashioned richness of it all and then end up purchasing a Harrods’ branded package of tea, jam or biscuits. I can’t recommend doing this when the “souvenir” food selection is so much better at Fortnum and Mason. More on that later.

What did look inviting was the amazing number of in-store eating opportunities. Every possible kind of restaurant can be found in the Food Halls including an Oyster Bar, a Fish Bar that cooks what you choose from the counter, a Rotisserie, a Fromagerie featuring inventive dishes focussed on dairy products, a Pizzeria, a sandwich and ice cream bar and a good looking Tapas Bar in the basement that, because it was in the basement, was peaceful and quiet. The prices were no worse than what you would pay at other informal restaurants in Knightsbridge, about £15 to £20 and the atmosphere was lively and people seemed to be having lots of fun. A less expensive option on a good day is to buy the fixings for a picnic which you can eat in Hyde Park, only a few minutes walk away.

So what is the verdict on Harrod’s Food Halls? I enjoyed my visit but bought nothing. I did see some interesting British producers, learned something about choosing olives and smoking guinea fowl. I had the opportunity to sample lots of delicious products and if you are shameless about it, you can almost eat lunch on what they give away. In short, a feast for the eyes, but keep your credit card firmly in your wallet.

From Harrods to Harvey Nichols is a five minute walk but at least 100 years apart in atmosphere. While Harrods celebrates the abundance of the belle époque, Harvey Nics ( as everyone ends up calling it sooner or later) is a showcase for fashionable 21st century food in sleek packaging and a hip and modern environment. This is food for people who live in lofts or would live in lofts if it weren’t for the kids.

I arrived at lunchtime and there were crowds eating at the in-store outlet of “Yo Sushi”, a conveyor belt sushi chain which was novel and amusing a few years ago, but in actual fact, serves up pretty mediocre sushi. For a serious and lengthy lunch, the Fifth Floor Restaurant has always been a good if expensive option.

From the food shopping perspective, I saw nothing at Harvey Nics that I couldn’t live without. There was a small but good selection of just about everything. The products were well presented and the store is bright, clean and attractive. If you like looking at chic shoppers, this is the place. I suppose if you were in buying shoes and a dress and needed things for dinner, it might be a good alternative or if you wanted modern packaging to match your modern kitchen but as a food shopping destination, it left me cold.

If Harrods is 19th century and Harvey Nics the 21st, Fortnum & Mason will take you back 300 years to the time of the Georgians, when two grocers set up shop on the south side of Piccadilly in 1707. With its wonderful window displays, chandeliers, staff in livery, thick carpeting and royal warrants, it looks and feels like the England of our imagination, filled with British products acquired through the very British activities of hunting, shooting and fishing. Ironically, it is packed with people, none of whom look or sound English.

The staff is well trained and solicitous. They happily will give you a mini master class in tea (they have 67 varieties) or any other product that interests you. The shelves are groaning with amazing condiments, including their famous “gentlemen’s relish”. I even broke down and bought some fabulous looking bottarga (mullet roe from Sardinia) which is almost impossible to get even at the best Italian delicatessen. At £140 the kilo, it’s not surprising that there are few stockist. Happily, you only need a very small amount to make the best spaghetti you’ve ever eaten.

I also was impressed with the sandwiches on offer. These are no ordinary looking sandwiches using all kinds of exotic products and combinations ranging in price from £4.75 - £7.50. With Green Park right down the road, this is another good picnic option. As well, within the store are 3 restaurants featuring very British menus where tourists mix happily with well attired older ladies enjoying their Welsh rarebit or smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. I’ve eaten many satisfying and pleasant lunches at Fortnums. They also serve tea in the afternoon.

For the London visitor even remotely interested in food, Fortnum & Mason is a classy destination. Certainly, the place is filled with tourists but there is more than enough staff and tills (cash registers) that they manage the numbers very effectively. This is the best place in town to buy food souvenirs to take back to your friends. The products are high quality and the packaging looks impressive.

In fact, my idea of a perfect half day in London, all within a 5 minute walk of each other, would include a tour and lunch at Fortnums, an exhibition at the Royal Academy across the road and a trip to Hatchards, the oldest surviving bookshop in London, established in 1797 and frequented by the likes of Wellington, Kipling and Lord Byron. And if you still have not yet had your fill of food shopping, head for Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street, a 200 year old atmospheric cheese shop that Winston Churchill claimed was the only place a “gentleman buys his cheese”.

Finally, we come to Selfridges, arguably the least famous and perhaps the best all around food hall in London. In contrast to the “recherchez du temps perdu” feel of Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, these food halls are white, gleaming and fabulous but unlike Harvey Nics, Selfridges has an unbelievably huge range of product. Every possible cuisine is well represented for both raw ingredients and prepared foods. If you want an excellent German Weisswurst, pigs trotters or sweetbreads, a complete Chinese or Indian or Middle Eastern meal, or some Spanish ham from pigs who only eat acorns, you will find all these things, and much more, at Selfridges.

If you are a serious cook or just love to eat and look at food, you’ll have a fine time here. Just as Selfridges has transformed itself into the “it” department store, this attitude informs the food halls which make every attempt to be on top of the latest food trends which are marketed through demonstrations and tastings. Like all the other food halls, there were lots of places to eat including Oddono’s which claimed to serve real Italian gelato. I tested this claim on the Pistachio and it stood the test admirably. Finally, it can be said that visiting Selfridge’s Food Halls is made even better by the opportunity to visit the department store which offers one of the most exciting and up-to-the-moment shopping experiences in London. And, if you’ve had enough of the craziness of Oxford Street, take 5 minutes to head over to Hertford House on Manchester Square to see the serene and stately Wallace Collection one of the finest collections of 18th and 19th century art ever assembled by a single family.

Having conducted a whirlwind survey of department stores and food, I can make the case that visiting food halls is one of the best ways to experience the London paradox, where the city is, simultaneously, living history and cutting edge modern. While Harrods and Fortnum & Mason give you the opportunity to revel in the way we used to buy provisions before the industrialisation and mass marketing of food, Selfridges and Harvey Nics demonstrate how far we have come in the preparation and presentation of the best things to eat from all over the world. In London Food Halls, you can find history, sociology, poetry and some lovely small gifts to take back to your friends. All of these places are spotless, fragrant and a very pleasant place to spend time. If you are on a budget, they even give you things to eat. Forget handbags and shoes, when in London, go for the food.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

How Far is Dulwich?

What an idiot I am. Yesterday, after ten years of living in London, I finally made it to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was one of those places I had every intention of visiting and never did. It seemed so far away. Sometimes distance is all in your head. In fact, Dulwich is a mere 4 miles from central London and only an 11 minute train ride from Victoria Station. After a 10 minute scenic walk from the station to the gallery, I found myself in one of the most perfect small museums I have ever visited.

To begin with, the gallery’s setting is an excellent antidote to congested central London. Take the National Gallery, improve the building, shrink it down and then place it in a prosperous, leafy Georgian village, and you about have the feel of the place. Unlike staff at most heavily trafficked museums, this staff, including the guards, seemed so pleased that I had come to see their pictures. And what magnificent pictures they are, representing a virtual greatest hits list of the 16th and 17th century with Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canalleto and Gainsborough to name a few.

Sir John Soane designed the Gallery in 1811 as the first purpose built public gallery in England to house the collection of two Georgian art dealers. These founders, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, can still be found in the Gallery, buried in the Mausoleum in the centre. It has been said that the iconic building became the basis for all galleries that came after, so if you want to see the “mother of all public museums”, head for Dulwich.

I arrived at the Gallery during the late morning of a lovely autumn day. At that time the place was full of school groups and ordinarily this is not good news. But there was something different about these children. Instead of the usual bored and noisy groups, some of the magic of the place seemed to have rubbed off and the children were actually interested in what they were seeing. In fact, watching the education staff at work gave a big boost to my belief in the benefits of arts education and by listening in, I learned something too.

After about an hour, I decided to visit the Picture Gallery Café for some lunch. This is a busy place, frequented by both visitors and locals, probably because the setting is so attractive. As the wait for tables can be long, if possible, call ahead on 020 8299 8711 to reserve. The food was OK, not great, but good by museum standards. Service was friendly and attentive and the price was correct. I paid £12 for a large piece of poached salmon, salad and beverage including service. Although I’ve never eaten there, right down the road, is Belair House, a serious restaurant in an imposing Georgian house romantically positioned overlooking a park which is another good, if much more expensive, option.

After lunch I went back to the Gallery for a second look. This time, the school children
had departed and I relished the pleasure of having masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s “A Girl at the Window” pictured above all to myself. After another hour, it was time to walk to Dulwich College for the start of my son’s rugby match against the venerable public school. Standing on the rugby pitch of the school founded in 1619 by the actor Edward Alleyn, I thought about what a brilliant “No Crowds” day it had been. All would have been completely perfect had my son not lost his match, but never mind, I will be forever grateful to him for finally getting me to Dulwich.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Dogs, Buses and Ava Gardner

Reading newspapers is one of the great pleasures of living or travelling in the UK. In this weekend’s Daily Telegraph, and having just written about my visit to the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, I was excited to find a reference to Ava in the obituary of the society real estate agent, Bertie Hope-Davis. In the reference to Ava, Hope Davies, who lived off Sloane Square with his dog, Ben, had taught the dog to let himself in and out for walks on his own. “On one occasion, the dog took himself to Hyde Park on the Number 19 bus and, according to Hope-Davies, was returned to the flat by Ava Gardner."

So for those of you who are contemplating a visit London in the near future, I ask you to consider this, where else in the world will you find a dog who takes himself to the park on a bus and is returned by a film goddess?

Full obituary of Bertie Hope-Davies in the Daily Telegraph

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A No Hassle Drive to Spain

We had a fine time this summer driving the 1600 miles from London to Cadaques on the Costa Brava in Spain and back. I found the whole trip vastly superior to our usual budget airline experience and so here are some of our roadtrip key learnings:

1. If you need to get your car from the UK to the continent, Speed Ferries is a good deal.

This relatively new discount ferry service operating between the ports of Dover and Boulogne is cheap and efficient. We paid £25 to cross the channel on a trip taking 50 minutes on a giant catamaran once owned by the Australian Navy. The service was friendly, running almost to schedule on a busy travel weekend in the height of the summer.

2. Boulogne is a much nicer port than Calais.

Smaller, prettier and filled with history. Right across from the harbour where you dock is the French National Sea Experience Center, Nausicaa, an amazing place which could happily keep an entire family entertained and educated for a full day. The restaurant in Nausicaa serves a very good lunch exceeded only by La Matelote, the one star offering across the road. From the harbour, there is easy access to the A16 motorway.

3. Check the colours before you go

The French travel on highly predictable days and that being the case, the government has instituted a colour coding system. On green days, no heavy traffic is expected, moving from orange to red to the ominous “black”. On a recent black day, traffic jams of up to 100 miles were recorded. If you speak even a little French, you can check out the expected conditions at the website of the Ministry of Transportation and plan your trip accordingly.

4. The Loire is a good place to spend your first night but forget the chateaux

We stopped the first night in the Loire Valley at a delightful, family run hotel La Tonnellerie in the small village of Tavers near the medieval city of Beaugency. The atmosphere in this former wine merchant’s manor house is charming. The rooms, which range in price from €82 to €232 are comfortable and well decorated. Our family room provided much appreciated privacy for all. There is a lovely courtyard and pool which was perfect for our young daughter and we had an excellent dinner “au plein air” which included regional wines and specialties as well as a beautifully presented breakfast. Staff was attentive and seemed genuinely concerned about the quality of our experience. I’m trying to think of something I didn’t like about this hotel – well, our bathroom was a little dark and cramped - but it mattered not a bit given the warmth and attractiveness of the place. I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Inspired by such a lovely evening in the Loire, we elected the next morning to pay a visit to the chateau, Chambord which was a 20 minute drive from La Tonnellerie. In many ways it was a fine idea but not a fine “no crowds” experience. The 440 room castle is spectacular and we thought it would appeal to our daughter’s interest in princesses and all things royal. So far, so good, but even though we arrived close to the opening, the parking lot was full and the place was heaving with tour groups. It’s a big chateau and absorbs an awful lot of people but based the lines to buy tickets, lines at the bathrooms and endless numbers of competing tour groups, I would save visiting the chateaux of the Loire for off season, probably February.

5. Troyes is a vastly superior medival experience to Carcassone

Carcassonne is a perfectly restored medieval city and world heritage site that is also to be avoided at all costs in summer as the crowds are unbelievable. By contrast, on the drive back from Spain to London we had a first class “No Crowds” experience in the wonderful city of Troyes in Champagne and the equally wonderful hotel, Le Champ des Oiseaux which can be found near the cathedral in a collection of beautifully restored buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Unlike so many of the places I’ve just described, this city, so important during the middle ages, is beautifully preserved, charming, uncrowded and packed with museums, shops, interesting architecture and good restaurants. We had a seriously delicious dinner at La Mignardise which can be found at 1, rue des Chats. And finally, after all the history and culture, Troyes seems to be the discount capital of France with factory outlet stores for big time French brands such as Lacoste and Petite Bateau and the savings were huge.

6. Provence is better on a bike

On the return journey, we spent the night in Provence with our friend Patrick who recently left a highly successful career in banking to pursue a love of motorcycles, biking and the open road. Patrick has a motorcycle and bicycle rental company in the fascinating city of Avignon and anyone who is considering biking in southern France should be in touch with Patrick. Why? First, because the many pleasures of Provence are best experienced on the back of a bike. Second, because Patrick is a knowledgeable and charming guy who will give you good advice and rent you an excellent bike or motorcycle at a fair price, and most importantly, because any man who has the chutzpah to trade boring old banking for motorcycles deserves everyone’s undying support.

Patrick can be found near the train station in Avignon at Holiday Bikes Provence, 20 Boulevard St. Roch or by phone on +33 (0)6 70 95 04 72 or hbprovence@wanadoo.fr.