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  Cara De Silva is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about food, travel, culture, and ethnicity. [More about Cara]
 

A Fork in the Road
is Cara's regular feature on traveling and dining. She will also list any culinary points of interest in the featured region.

Cara De Silva's A Fork in the Road:
Letters on Traveling and Dining


LONDON, ENGLAND

Tasting of fire, crisp, slightly charred, with smoke its only seasoning, the duck was sublime, one morsel enough to produce a moan. Roasted by my friend Alice Ross--who teaches historical cooking on Long Island--its perfection had been achieved by hanging it from a bottle jack (or vertical spit) that turned it slowly in front of the flames on her hearth. But lusciousness is only one of the reasons the memory of that duck is with me still.

Far more important is that when I bit into it, I felt transported to a different time, one when that singular ingredient--fireplace smoke--was a familiar accent in most of the cooked foods a family ate. The texture and flavor of the duck were subtly different from that of any bird I had ever eaten before, and, by providing a taste of the past, they opened my eyes--and mouth--to the idea of what I now think of as edible history.

And that is how I came to begin this "A Fork in the Road" on London with the story of a meal eaten in the United States.

Yes, I had been interested in the history of American food before that. But Alice's duck made me understand that I could learn about it not only by reading, but by eating, by using my senses and my mouth. That, in turn, made me see that I could learn to understand more about less-familiar cultures in the same way. Traditional foods and flavors chronicle a country's past. (That may seem obvious, but not all of us realize it.) Think, for example, of fish and chips, jellied eel, and curries, each, in their own way, a traditional English food with some historical heft.

I wanted to do a column about these dishes. But, on the assumption that playgoing is on the must list of any of you who visits this great theater city--its oldest standing playhouse, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, was first opened in 1663--I also wanted to write about eating in the West End, London's major theater area. Finally, I combined the two.

Therefore, it was to the Marquess of Angelesey, a Covent Garden pub, that we headed in search of food after an evening show, wanting to calm our hunger with that famous English specialty, fish and chips (the English refer to the latter as "chipped potatoes"; we call them "french fries"). There, overlooking the area where George Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle hawked her flowers in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, close to the Royal Opera House, St.Paul's (the exquisite 17th-century Inigo Jones church), as well as myriad boutiques and restaurants, we were served perfectly fried pieces of fresh cod in beer batter accompanied by an equally well-prepared heap of crunchy chips. Lightly sprinkled with salt and a little malt vinegar, every mouthful was a pleasure.

Long a traditional combination, fish and chips is said to have had its beginnings in the second half of the 19th century among the English working class in the industrial North, as well as in London. (Malin's, thought to have been the city's oldest fish-and-chips shop, was founded in London's East End in 1868.) Though probably better now than it was back then, when the frying oil was likely to be overused and the fish possibly not the best, this is still humble fare. But when it is good it is more satisfying than one would ever imagine it to be. Try it accompanied by a Young's Lager.

Marquess of Anglesey, 39 Bow Street, WC2E, (0171) 240-3216.

Anguilla Anguilla, the common eel, may not be a food to make most Americans lick their lips. In fact, few of us will even try this succulent fish. But how wrong we are. As the English know well, eel, properly cooked, is among the tastiest of all water creatures. (Improperly cooked, this delicacy, which begins its life as tiny spawn near the Sargasso Sea, can bounce like a rubber ball and taste like one, too.)

There are a variety of British eel preparations--eel pie, eel and mash (eel and mashed potatoes), and eel stew--but it is jellied eel that concerns us here. Long popular with Cockneys, as well as other eel-loving types, in its heyday it was generally hawked from street stalls or bought in special shops.

Made from little more than the fish itself, and perhaps an onion, some parsley, and water that according to an e-mail from Philippa Davenport, esteemed food writer for the London Financial Times, was in the 19th century often flavored with "chilli vinegar," it, too, is a very simple preparation. Fancier versions, says Davenport, might be cooked with cider, or fish stock, or wine. Most often, the eel gels naturally.

Today, when old-style street fare is less readily had and the specialized shops are fewer in number, it is more difficult to find examples of this good dish. I did discover some, however, at Sheekey's, a recently redone Edwardian fish restaurant that specializes in traditional British seafood dishes. According to Alan Davidson, editor of the eagerly-awaited, soon-to-be-published Oxford Companion to Food, jellied eel found in a restaurant instead of a street stall, is usually suspect, "a gimmick." But I was lucky. The glistening eel, an appetizer, was toothsome, lusty, and truly evocative of times gone by. Try this restaurant, too, for its potted shrimp, fish pies, and mackerel in mustard sauce.

Sheekey's, 28-32 St. Martin's Court, WC2, tel 0171-240-2565.

Though slightly farther afield, Veeraswamy, is still within walking distance of the theaters of the West End. Founded in 1927 by Edward Palmer, a descendant of an English Lieutenant General, and a Mughal Princess, the establishment, now modernized, is the oldest Indian restaurant in London.

Of course, the history of the British and India goes back centuries before that, beginning with the spice trade and reaching its apex during the period of the Raj, the days of Empire. As a result, the colonial British became accustomed to eating the foods of the subcontinent. Inevitably, therefore, when the Raj began to fade and many of the crown's subjects found themselves returning to England, they carried back with them not only clothes and memories, but a taste for the spicy local fare. Indian restaurants were one of the results.

An appealing second-floor establishment, Veeraswamy has yellow, green, pumpkin, and purple walls and, among many other decorative notes, wonderful wooden temple doors. It isn't difficult to look at some of the objects here and imagine the Indian and Anglo-Indian worlds in which they were common.

The food at Veeraswamy is drawn largely from what was once the Kingdom of Hyderabad--a wealthy former state, the largest in all India, and one famous for its sumptuous cuisine. Among the curries we sampled and loved were the Malabar Prawn Curry with a sauce of coconut, fresh tamarind, chiles and chunks of green mango, and a pineapple curry with mustard seeds that came as a side dish but that we would happily have eaten as a main course. Also delicious were the crunchy and excellent lali puri, a kind of wheaten "biscuit" with herbs, potatoes, and tamarind, mint and chiles, and a great ginger sorbet, very icy, but with the hot "shock" of the ginger so powerful that it blasted right through the cold.

Veeraswamy, Victory House, 99 Regent Street, London W1R 8RS, tel 0171- 734-1401

SIGNPOSTS

Oldways Italia.

Readers who have a professional involvement with food will be delighted with the following news. K. Dun Gifford, president of the Cambridge-based Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, has announced the formation of a new educational collaboration. Called Oldways Italia, it is the first of several similar offshoots of Oldways that will be formed in Europe, and, ultimately elsewhere, with the purpose of establishing exchange programs to "enable writers, artists, physicians, nutritionists, retailers, and importers to visit and learn about traditional foods, wines, and cooking from their counterparts abroad." It is hoped that such exchanges will help sustain increasingly threatened "old ways," particularly those that relate to healthy cuisines.

Headquarters are in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, because it is an area in which many old customs are still intact. This beautiful region is home to foods such as the bread of Altamura (possibly the best bread I have ever eaten), orecchiette, a small, ear-shaped pasta whose indentation is perfect for catching sauce; lampusciuni, bulbs of the wild tassel hyacinth, a specialty; lusty combinations such as fava beans with chicory; good olive oil and wine; and a dizzyingly sensuous cheese called burrata--imagine a little balloon made of fresh mozzarella and filled with cheese curds in heavy cream. It is also the land of trulli (houses with conical roofs); of a magnificent style of architecture called "Apulian Romanesque"; of fields of jewel-green grass strewn with jewel-red poppies; of centuries-old farmhouses fortified to hold off brigands; of countryscapes divided by pale gray dry-stone walls; and of subtle Greek influences (this was part of Magna Graecia, greater Greece).

The chairman of Oldways-Italia is Luciano Sardelli, Minister of Tourism for the Region of Puglia. Gifford and Sara Baer-Sinnott, executive vice president of Oldways, also have key roles. For information, write to Francie King at Oldways@tiac.net. .

The Food Lover's Guide to Paris

The fourth edition of Patricia Wells' The Food Lover's Guide to Paris has recently been issued. Surely, one of the best of all gastronomic handbooks, this indispensable compendium of restaurants, food shops, recipes, and esprit is as much a guide to the food of dreams as ever. Published by Workman at $16.95, it is 432 pages long, and every single one of those pages will seduce you. Even the index makes one's mouth water. If you don't need to read this wonderful book for practical purposes (a trip in the offing), then read it for pure pleasure. Wells is a fine writer and her ability to bring to life for her readers the places she describes is one of the great joys of this book. When you have done reading, you can find even more current news of the Parisian eating scene at Wells' Website--www.patriciawells.com.

Cybercafes: A Worldwide Guide for Travelers

Published by Ten Speed Press, Cybercafes: A Worldwide Guide for Travelers has just appeared in its third edition. The book is light, small, 350-pages-long, costs $9.95, and lists 650 cybercafes. The author, whose name is given only as cyberkath@traveltales.com., evaluates each cafe, gives you some sense of its size, and lists its address, phone number, fax number, and e-mail address. Unfortunately, if understandably, only cybercafes that responded to the author's e-mail inquiries were included. Venice, for example, which has no listings, in fact does have a place--not a cybercafe, but a software and video disc store--where you can check your e-mail. That would have been valuable information in a city so popular with tourists. The shop is located in the Calle Lunga alongside Campo Santa Maria Formosa.

That's it for this time

See you down the road.

Cara

MORE of A Fork in the Road: Liguria, Italy; part I

  Alice Ross Hearth Studio
15 Prospect Street
Smithtown, Long Island
(tel) 516-265-9335



Marquess of Anglesey
39 Bow Street
London, WC2E,
(tel) 0171-240-3216



Sheekey's
28-32 St. Martin's Court
London,WC2
(tel) 0171-240-2565



Veeraswamy
Victory House
99 Regent Street
London, W1R 8RS
(tel) 0171- 734-1401



Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust
25 First Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141
(tel) 617-621-3000
Francie King
Oldways@tiac.net



The Food Lover's Guide to Paris
by Patricia Wells
Workman Books
New York City



Cybercafes: A Worldwide Guide for Travelers
by cyberkath@
traveltales.com
Ten Speed Press
Berkeley, CA
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