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
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
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
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-
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'
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 firstname.lastname@example.org., 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
That's it for this time
See you down the road.