We are not grouse people. Seems like a strange way to start off our London trip recap, but here it is. We tried it, and we’ve decided it’s just not for us. This is strange for me to write because it’s so rare that I try something new and absolutely, without any doubt, dislike it. The feeling back at the restaurant was much stronger at the time. I wanted to do the five-year old thing and push the plate away from me, fold my arms across my chest, and shake my head side to side. I didn’t want to take another bite. I didn’t want to try it with wine, or with the parsnip puree on which it rested. I simply wanted to eat around it, push it from side to side on my plate and create the illusion that I made a dent in the meat. I certainly didn’t look forward to finishing a whole plate of it. There it was. Grouse. Staring back at me. Pink and tender and gamy. But Andrew was sitting across from me, fork and knife in hand, looking rather pleased with his grouse, and our friends were happy digging into their lamb. So I said nothing, and just took another bite. It wasn’t until Andrew and I tucked ourselves in for the night that we confessed to one another – we thought grouse was lousy.
It’s hard to write a recap days after our trip. It seems so far away – like a distant memory. And yet – so vivid. England, I miss you – you’ve captured my heart. We went during some kind of alert advisory. The US State Department was urging its citizens to be alert. So we were. We stayed vigilant and aware of our surroundings. We were encouraged by the signs as well.
London offers so much to anyone who is willing to explore it. The famed Borough Market overwhelmed our senses. The cheeses, the charcuteries, pies, sandwiches, game, jams, juice – it was all around us. Crowded, loud, full of smells and sights as a busy market should be. It’s the kind of place that no matter who you talk to, everyone is so proud of what they’re offering. The mozarella in my prociutto sandwich was the freshest I’ve tasted in awhile, and I almost got tears in my eyes – it was creamy, tangy, with a slight chewiness, before it dissolved in my mouth in a creamy cloud. It was as if I had imagined that bite, as if it didn’t happen. So I took another bite, and then another, until it was gone.
We saw old friends, walked through many parks, and reveled in the most incredible weather. It didn’t rain a single day while we were in England. Meanwhile, New York was getting soaked, and Brooklyn was getting some hail. We were blessed not only with sunny days, but sunny warm days. When I just threw on a light blazer over a t-shirt, leaving my scarf and warm coat behind. No umbrellas, no trench coats. Just camera, backpack, and a map. No plans set besides where to eat – it was good just to take long walks and get a little lost in the city, find freshly made churros, and watch a kid on a leash chase pigeons.
And of course, what is London without endless cups of tea, scones, clotted cream, more tea, more scones, cake, and a macaron or two? We felt indulgent – it was our vacation, after all – and I couldn’t get enough of the English clotted cream. The US version isn’t the same.
We stayed in Marylebone with wonderful, generous friends, who have a guest-room. They might as well be running a B&B out of their home because they catered to our every need, down to the Oyster Cards they loaned us for use in the city. And I was smitten with the quiet charm of Marylebone – it’s got the best of both worlds being both central and residential. So much of central London is heavily tourist-oriented, that you get somewhat overwhelmed. And though I am no stranger to the Times Square pedestrian traffic, it is precisely because I am so exposed to it, that I wanted to avoid it as much as possible. On Sundays, Marylebone’s farmer’s market takes place, and it’s a thing of beauty. There are gourmet prepared foods, butchers, fishmongers, cheese mongers, local produce, baked goods, and stunning, lush flowers. I wanted to find out everyone’s story, how they got started in their trade, what their life was like. I wanted to go and spend a day with each of the vendors, get a feel for how their days were like.
And other days while taking a walk along the Thames, on a beautiful, sunny day, we encountered dogs in funny outfits, retro food trucks, bright graffiti, and sand sculpting.
And then we proceeded with your day by getting lost in Notting Hill while looking for a well-loved restaurant. When I say lost, I don’t mean that in a romantic sense of getting lost. I mean – really getting lost. As in you have nary an idea of how to get to your destination and all you can do is just go back to the starting point. And while retracing our steps, tired, hungry, having walked all day long, Andrew (whom I had roped into this search) in a stroke of brilliance, actually figured out a way. We found ourselves standing in front of Ottolenghi, a little nervous if the hype would match the experience. It did. And then some. It was exceptional – everything was fresh, lush, flavorful. The spices were nuanced, balanced, expertly picked. And the cupcake we split just might be the best cupcake I’ve ever tasted – lemon blueberry – with a lemon flavor so bright, it’s like a thousand lemons were compressed into one single cupcake.
And everywhere we turned, we found a lovely, thoughtful meal. Something that nurtured the body and the soul. And everywhere we ate, people who worked there, were beaming with pride for the work they do, the quality of their offerings, the gentle attention they bestow on their customers. They could tell us, to the most minute detail, how the dish was prepared (step by step), where it was sourced, and why it was made a certain way.
We wanted more time to walk this magnificent, historic city. We wanted to find more quirky details and soak them in. Decorative finishes on buildings, mosses growing in between concrete tiles, funny artifacts in museums. We wanted more of these elusive details. Things that skip your eye when you’re seeing something for the first time, but things you notice along the way, that make moments unforgettable and filled with beauty.
And we wanted more time in Whitstable and Cantenbury, small, historic towns in Kent. More time in lush, English gardens. More time to sit on benches. More time to spend with Andrew’s family friends – who so were so generous and hospitable, taking time not only to show us around the area, feed us most stunning fish and chips with mushy peas, but also drop us off at Heathrow, a trip so far out of their way, that we can’t thank them enough.
And just like that, in a blink of an eye, we were settling into our seats en route back home. It was marvelous and, as all good trips go, all too short. Writing about it feels like a distant event, when, in reality, we haven’t even been back for a week. I had plans to smuggle in some English butter and just plain forgot. By the time I remembered, the plane was circling over Heathrow, reaching higher and higher into the sky. To my right, Andrew was observing our ascent. In my hand was a Virgin care pack with the famed socks. I looked through my wallet and found a few twenty pound notes. I looked back at Andrew. Great food, wonderful friends, leftover money, forgotten butter – it could only mean one thing – we’d just have to come back. And soon.