Monster Jibes

Esquire Latinoamerica

ITS A SCORCHING HOT DAY in Rio de Janeiro and I’m crouching down the roasting bowels of il mostro, a Volvo Open 70 monohull bathed in the red and black insignia of its sponsor, Puma. A state-of-the-art racing yacht and one of the world’s fastest, it leaves me a little perplexed as to how, if it’s so damn cutting-edge, it does not have an ultra-modern A/C system to boot?

The answer, I’m soon to discover, is that this is no pansy pleasure boat. Its sole purpose in this world is to race – and win – the Volvo Round-the-World Ocean Race. The contest is a 60,000km slog around the globe from Alicante to St Petersburg – the long way round – in a three-yearly event that’s hailed by sailing enthusiasts as the Everest of the sport. Any considerations for the comfort of its innards or conveniences for its crew come a very distant second to il mostro’s one goal: speed. In the words of Matias Wolff, Puma’s Latin America marketing manager, “It’s not people sipping champagne on deck; this is extreme.”

Extremely hot, for starters. Sweat is running in rivulets down my forehead and back as I’m given a tour of the spartan carbon-fiber interior of the boat that is home to a crew of 11 men for the 9-month period of the race. Lurching around the low-ceilinged space, I’m frankly astounded by the thought that anyone could spend more than five minutes in this murky inferno.

Even just calmly floating on the glassy waters of the Baía de Guanabara, I’m getting some idea of the intensity of the crew’s experience. Inside the stuffy cabin, their beds, upon which they sleep a maximum of four hours at any given time, are nothing but aluminium frames attached to the wall like shelving with stretched elastic nets for comfort. Less than a metre away are the blinking screens, knobs and dials of the navigation station and a nearby two-hob gas stove, while the front cabin, used for stowing sails, contains one tiny cubicle with a curtain for a door that is the ship’s ‘head’, or toilet, as we landlubbers call it.

And that is quite basically it. Maintaining a low overall weight is of the essence in long-haul ocean racing, and every tiny detail of the boat is designed with lightness in mind. Which means that air conditioning units, personal possessions, fresh food, and even a coat of paint to brighten the place up a bit are stoically foregone in favour of greater performance and speed at sea.

il mostro’s Brazillian pad is the Marina da Gloria in Rio de Janeiro which it shares with the six other racing boats competing in the Volvo race, all of whom arrived here a week ago after a gruelling 41-day journey from Qingao in China that turned out to be one of the longest legs in the race’s history.

The setting couldn’t be more perfect: Rio’s dramatic undulating landscape and vast Guanabara Bay are the ideal location for the In-Port races that take place during the stopovers and give the public a taste of what the boats are capable of.

The city is the 6th on a list of 11 exotic stops on the course of the race which have so far included South Africa’s Cape Town, Kochi in India and Singapore. Every place the boats dock the sailors are treated as visiting kings, despite cutting an unlikely royal ensemble. Puma’s crew arrived in Rio on 30th March grizzled, weathered and unshaven, only to face an ecstatic flourish of waiting press, fans and family members. The sail had been arduous to say the least, long and stormy, resulting in a broken boom. The crew hadn’t washed for 7 weeks (a bathroom on board would, after all, be an unnecessary luxury), and had each lost an average of 7kg after getting by on an exclusive diet of freeze-dried sustenance, the rations of which had to be cut a few days before the end of the sail.

I’m handed an example of the on-board nourishment, a 32g packet of rather aptly named ‘Gu’; a sickly-sweet strawberry and banana-flavoured energy paste weighing in at around 100 calories. But man cannot survive on Gu alone – if he did he’d need to eat it in gargantuan quantities; every crew member has to ingest between 6,000 and 7,000 calories per day to compensate for the massive physical strain of ocean racing. Each four-hour shift requires constant trimming of the sails and grinding of the winches as well as the energy-draining effort of bracing one’s body against the force of the movement of the boat, a process that continues even while the crew are asleep.

These guys are hard; hard to their bonkers cores. Reading about their experiences before I actually met them, I imagined a band of 11 titan barbarians approximately resembling the cast of the movie ‘300’. So you can imagine my suprise upon boarding il mostro on the day of the Pro Am races in Rio to find that in addition to being world-class sailors and colossi of endurance, they were also an extremely affable, lovable bunch; courteous and gentlemanly; staunch and robust; practical and down-to-earth. These, I absent-mindedly mused, while drifting into a cheesy, soft-focus reverie inspired by the sight of tanned muscular arms hauling ropes around deck, these are real men.

The sound of a pistol firing brings me back down to earth. It’s five minutes to the beginning of the race and the boats need to get to the starting line. Today’s heat is a friendly – a Pro Am event when the professionals invite amateur sailors aboard to help them navigate the course up and down the Baía de Guanabara from the Rio-Niteroi bridge to the Pao de Azucar and back.

Despite the congenial nature of the day’s racing, the spirit of competition is nonetheless rife, as the boats begin to jostle around the starter line for the best kick-off position. Every second counts in such a short race, and getting off to a good start is an essential part of forging ahead for the rest of the heat.


Will Oxley, the ship’s navigator for the In-Port races, counts down the minutes and seconds to the starter horn. He’s clutching a computerised portable navigator the size of a small laptop and reading the prepared course from its cracked digital screen. The gadget is the 21st century alternative to sitting below deck with maps, charts and a pair of compasses, and is one of an ensemble of on-board technologies that have transformed ocean racing’s erstwhile periods of mysterious absence out at sea to something resembling a spectator sport.

It is the sole charge of one of the eleven crew members on each of the competing boats to be entirely responsible for the team’s media output. Puma’s guy is sailor-cum-media whizzkid Rick Deppe, who spends his days on the high seas photographing and filming his fellow crew members as well as posting blog entries on the team’s website. il mostro can be followed on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, by RSS feeds and podcast, as well as through a rather impressive 3D real-time race simulator on the Volvo Ocean Race website. Top-notch satellite technology means the racers can not only beam their position directly to the watching world, but they in turn can also be reached by email, whatever the weather. Never was this technology put to such good use as when the Puma boat’s bowman Michi Mueller received the first jpegs of his newborn child as the team were hurtling through the waters of the South Pacific, passing somewhere near Fiji. A very rare feast of cigars and rum reportedly ensued.


The ship’s skipper, 47-year-old Rhode Islander Ken Read, is poised at the helm. Graceful and debonair with an impish twinkle in his eye, in appearance at least he’s the antithesis of the ruddy sea-dog. Ken hand-picked his crew, whom he frequently refers to as his ‘children’, from six different countries worldwide, and much like a father, he considers the men’s physical and psychological wellbeing his top priority.

Conditions at sea can get pretty bad after all: I’m regaled by tales of the infamous ‘Fireman’s hose’, the nautical phenomenon of extremely high water pressure created by boats lunging into oncoming waves so fast that instead of sailing over them, they actually tunnel through them. The force of the water hitting the decks at these times is roughly equated with that of a fireman’s hose, and can sweep an unharnessed sailor from his feet and into the water at the drop of a hat. In fact, 32-year-old Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets was killed in similar conditions in 2006 as he was swept off the ABN Amro 2 boat in the Atlantic Ocean, a tragedy that lurks at the back of Ken and all the other skippers’ minds as they work to end the race with their crew entirely intact.

Then there are the psychological pitfalls. Ken talks of the peaks and valleys of moods and morale aboard il mostro during the longer stretches spent at sea: “When you see a high or a low, you have to confront it head-on,” he explains. “If you let bad feelings linger, they’ll spread through the crew like wildfire.” Like a school councillor, the captain has to keep a very watchful eye on the humours of his crew in this extremely compact living space, and ensure a sense of harmony to sail his boat on an emotionally even keel.


From a distance, the Volvo Open 70s appear to glide effortlessly through the water as if carried by an unseen mist, so what I’m not prepared for are the terrifyingly loud creaks and thuds il mostro makes as her sails are raised and ropes are hauled and tightened. The sheer power of the vessel is manifest as the gentle breeze in the bay fills her sheets and the giant black puma bellows outward with a sound equivalent to the crack of a hundred whips. Looking up, I’m dizzy from the sheer height of the mast – 30 metres in total, with a special rigging system to eliminate as much extra weight as possible. To give you some idea, il mostro is approximately 10,000kg lighter than the current America’s Cup-class vessels. However, the most important and impressive feature of this generation of Volvo Open 70 boats is hidden from view and lies below the surface of the water. Spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by sailors worldwide, the canting keel is the key to il mostro’s lightning speed: with the ability to swing to an angle of 40 degrees on the windward side of the boat, it allows the vessel a great deal more stability at high speeds.


The crew are at their stations, apparently oblivious to the harsh beating of the sun on their shoulders. Antiguan hunk Shannon Falcone applies a little white sunscreen on his lips before readying himself at the winch grinder next to muscular Joe Fanelli, also known as Joe-rilla for his larger-than-life stature. The winch grinder’s sleek black surface has been embellished with a few pieces of tape upon which is hand-written the sombre warning ‘DON’T SLEEP’.  Ken laughs, “I put that there for Erle, to keep him alert.” Kiwi Erle Williams is the boat’s 51-year-old driver and trimmer. A former winner of the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, he is one of many sailing heavyweights aboard il mostro which can count among its crew a slew of Olympic gold medalists as well as Volvo, Whitbread and America’s Cup winners. Here I know I am in the presence of sailing royalty.

A heightened sense of anticipation is running laps around the boat until finally the gun sounds and we’re off. There’s a general hive of activity on deck, with ropes of different colours and sizes being pulled, spun, tied and tightened. I decide to observe the scene from a safe distance at the stern of the boat from behind the captain, far from the hazards of swinging booms and fast-moving lines.

Ken calls out the command to jibe and turns the boat’s angle so quickly that the foresail switches sides with vehement thunder and the boom swings across the deck, narrowly missing the tops of the quick-witted sailors’ heads by about 5cm. Almost ripping off the satellite hub in my enthusiasm to hang the hell on, I can only begin to imagine the potential of the steed when really put to the test in ocean conditions.

The next jibe is even more hair-raising: bowman Jerry Kirby calls me from my comfort zone at the back and directs me to the bows, as that’s where we need the weight in order to move faster through the water. Picking my way through the tapestry of coiled lines and folded sails on deck, I make it to the front just in time for Ken’s next jibe call. The boat tilts violently from its right side to its left as I throw myself to the ground in a most un-sailorlike way, and feel the ferocious woosh of the foresail whip over me as it changes sides. I rise shakily from the beating seconds later only to find the rest of the crew calm as Hindu cows, strapping ropes into place and squinting silently at the horizon.

For sailors accustomed to 12-metre ocean waves, today’s calm waters at the Baía de Guanabara are a picnic. But for this landlubber, with her hulking camera and notebook, they are enough to induce mild sensations of abject fear followed by exhilerating surges of euphoria produced by the skill and minute accuracy involved in sailing such a gargantuan vessel.

While zig-zagging our way across the bay, we casually pass the other boats with such butt-clenching closeness as to make it a marvel that these racers don’t collide with eachother the whole time. At one point, Ericsson 3 is cutting a perpendicular path across our course and as we both lunge forward towards what seems like an inevitable common crash site, we appear to be engaged in some nautical game of chicken. My visual-spatial capacities are screaming that we will at best clip them at the stern, at worst finish our lives in a disaster of jagged carbon fiber and wrangled sails. Not even the lilting keels can save us now.

Meanwhile, Jerry Kirby calmly surveys the same scene from the bowsprit, and with seconds to spare calls to Ken. “It’s OK,” he shouts, “we’ll make it.” Containing my inner mix of incredulousness and fear with a monk’s self-possessedness, I can only watch as Ericsson 3 comes surging towards us, whooshing ahead of our bow with a magnificent fluster of sails, and we in turn cross its path within centimetres of its stern, missing the several-million-dollar baby by a very well calculated hair’s breadth. Just as I was mentally reviewing the smallprint of my health insurance.

il mostro rounds the marker at the end of the course and performs a swift 180º turn to retrace its criss-cross course back down the bay. Around an hour later, we sail over the finish line and come in fourth. If the result is a disappointment for Ken and the crew, they don’t show it: their performance in the overall race so far has been outstanding. It’s Puma’s first time to enter a boat in the Volvo Ocean Race, an undertaking that is costing the company somewhere in the region of $35 million Euros in equipment, logistics and marketing, and it seems to be paying off.

When the brand initially approached Ken to skipper the boat, the first question they asked was “can you win this race?” Ken jokingly recounts that he lied and said yes, and yet his superb team pick and unfailing mastership of the boat have landed Puma overall second place in the race so far, with a fighting chance of coming in first when the boats finish their final leg into St Petersburg in June.

But, as they tell you at primary school, it’s not the winning that counts. To even finish the race is a undeniable achievement, and it’s clear on the faces of the guys in the Puma team that despite the tough conditions, extreme endurance and absence from their families, they are living their lives’ dreams. Ken got his first taste of the round-the-world race in 2006, and has been hooked ever since. He recalls: “We hit a terrible storm in the Atlantic, and I thought to myself, ‘Is there any normal sailing in this race?’”

Normal? Firemen’s hoses and 12-metre waves? A broken boom and a cut-ration diet of Gu? 9 months at sea in storms, winds and blazing sun? Normal? Apparently not, Cap’n.

Cruising the Bosphorus

National Geographic Traveler

CAPTAIN MEHMET CLIMBS UP ON DECK and hands me a beer. It’s a wind-down moment: he’s just steered our schooner through the precarious currents around the promontory of Akıntı Burnu, and now he’s leaving the plain sailing up to to one of his numerous more youthful crew. Although the evening waters are relatively calm on this summer evening, the apparent serenity of the tide can be dangerously deceiving: currents around this particular stretch of water can reach up to five knots in the worst conditions, and are legendary among sea dogs in the area.

For my part, I feel like a latter-day Cleopatra, propped up by my elbows on a mass of cushions provided by one of Mehmet’s boys to protect my delicate rump from the hard wood of the deck. Soothed by the bottle of cold beer, I am being steered like a queen, feet-first, along one of the world’s most hotly-contested waterways; the Bosphorus.

This 34 kilometre channel, sparkling azure when the sun’s shining and a dark foreboding grey under overcast skies, connects the centre of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea and Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Georgia to the north. Streaming past the palaces and mosques of Old Constantinople, it cleaves modern Istanbul in two, a natural continental divide separating Europe and Asia.

It’s 7pm and the light is beginning to fade. Istanbul’s archaic pandemonium is behind us, the Bosphorus stretches generously ahead. We are sailing close to the European shore and I can see fishing rods in sillhouette against the darkeneing sky as men stand solitary or gather in groups of three, four and five to watch their lines with unwavering composure. Fishing is the strait’s oldest tradition and was for centuries the sole livelihood of Greek, Turkish and even Albanian villages that lined the shore from Constantinople to the Black Sea. Today it’s the favourite passtime of scores of Turks who spend their mornings, afternoons and evenings routinely casting baited lines into the water below.

I’m jolted out of my regal repose by the sight of a levithian hunk of steel coursing towards with the stern severity of an unstoppable funeral march. I spin round to see the captain and his young crew relatively nonplussed by the sight of the bohemoth oil tanker that just rounded the headland and appeared to be smack in the middle of our course. One of the 5,000 oil tankers annually that make the journey to and from the oil fields of the Black Sea, it’s hardly a rare sight; still, we darken in the shadow of its giant hull and rock madly on its wake.

The captain is unpeturbed. He’s been navigating the strait for years. For him, it’s a companion, an adversary and a kindred spirit. He knows each cape, bay and peninsula by heart; every erratic swirl and eddy is inscribed in his extensive mental log. Aparently, I’m in safe hands.

“The Bosphorus has two main currents,” he tells me, miming the movements with his hands. “There’s a surface current that flows from the Black Sea towards the city, and a deeper one underneath that moves in the other direction”. The lower one is so strong that legend tells of fishermen who used to put down their nets to harness its power to propel them against the force of the surface current.

I met the equable captain quite by chance, walking to Arnavutköy from the neighbouring village of Kuruçeşme. He was sat on the rear deck of his schooner drinking tea under a giant ‘for rent’ sign. On the boat next to him, two men were struggling to attach a satellite dish to the vessel’s sterm pulpit while a third was signalling to them from inside the cabin as to the clarity of the signal as a football game buzzed into life on his TV screen. Mehmet noticed my amusement at the farcical sight and smilingly lowered a gangplank for me to board his boat. Within minutes we had sealed a plan for an evening’s cruise along the strait.

Mehmet’s sailer is one of dozens moored along sections of the stunning 7km stretch of coast road that runs from the village of Kuruçeşme all the way up to Emirgan on the European shore of the Bosphorus. Vessels of all shapes and classes bob shoulder to shoulder, innocent of their vast social differences. Decrepit fishing boats loaded with swathes of orange netting partially submerged in seawater puddles on their wooden floors and invigorated by a coat of spring paint nestle next to grandeoise fibreglass yachts whose shining white sterns bob and bounce off the cut-off tyres tied with thick rope to the concrete walkway.

It’s ironic that I am sat at one of the most romantic tables along the Bosphorus and my date for the evening is an A5 spiral bound notebook. Nonetheless, I’m having the time of my life. The restaurant, Körfez is one of Istanbul’s best kept secrets; a restaurant nestled into a bay between the villages of Kanlıca and Anadolu Hisarı on the Asian shore, and a favourite among the city’s well-heeled fish lovers. Diners are ferried across to this remote location by way of a private shuttle that runs from the castle of Rumeli Hisarı on the European side, sailing under the stars and the giant metal underbelly of the second Bosphorus bridge. The whole experience is indisputably spellbinding, a must-do for any visitor to Istanbul.

Waiters with large mezze trays balanced on one shoulder weave their way through a sea of brass-buttoned blazers and designer dresses with calamari, shrimp and scallop starters to offer their clientele. When asked what they recommend for a main dish, the answer is instantaneous: “the sea bass.” And so follows a flurry of action as the entire fish encrusted in a shell of sea salt is brought to the side of your table and set alight before being hammered from its casing and served on your plate. It’s a lot of fish for me and my notebook, but I’ll willingly attest to the fact that its among the best I’ve ever tasted.

This is the life, I think. It’s not hard to see why the Bosphorus is popular with so many Istanbullus looking for a break from the city. In fact, these shores that run the entire length of the strait are all considered part of Istanbul, and are easily accessible from the centre of town by car or ferry. And still, it’s far enough away to afford some greenery, silence, good food and stunning views of the variety that I’m contemplating from my waterside seat in Körfez. This particular restaurant may be catering for the high-end crowd, but between here and the Black Sea there is something for every pocket: from $10 Sunday family outings to the far-flung Genoese castle at Anadolu Kavağı, or a $1,000 night on the tiles for a gaggle of heiresses at one of the notorious Bosphorus super-clubs. One of which happens to be my next stop.

The spectacle of a giant crystal chandelier hanging over my head in the open night sky momentarily distracts my attention from my hard-fought mission to the bar. Armed with only my bare elbows, I’m pushing my way through the thick crowd of jetset revellers clutching flamboyant cocktails and displaying for the world to see how Istanbul’s upper crust really live it up. Caravaggio himself would marvel at the composition of the richly-loaded fruit plates adorning the private tables to the side of the club, while anyone who believes Turkey is a country blanketed by conservatism will have their eyes opened by the scantily clad young girls shaking their well-toned booty in skimpy D&G dresses.

This is Reina, waterside nightclub extraordinaire, home to no less than ten outdoor restaurants and a large central dance floor, and domain of Istanbul’s glitterati; the rich, famous and fabulous make this extraordinary Bosphorus nightspot their summer haunt. Getting in is not easy; near-impossible for single men unaccompanied by women, and a crapshoot for anybody arriving without a reservation or the bling factor of their own private yacht.

In contrast to the rustic quaintness of its fishing villages, the Bosphorus is also no stranger to shows of extravagance. In fact, its shores have been colonized by bling for centuries now. In the later days of the Ottoman Empire, pashas, viziers and wealthy families living inside the cramped conditions of the rapidly growing and condensing Istanbul looked to the Bosphorus for relief. One by one, houses, mansions and palaces began to go up along the shoreline that had previously been the domain of a handful of fishing villages. And so was born the yalı, the seaside mansion that is the architectural progeny of the Bosphorus. Typically a multi-storey house made from finely worked wood built at the water’s edge, this structural tradition flourished along the waterway from the end of the 17th century onwards. More than 620 yalıs were built over the years on the Bosphorus shore, and many still survive today, having been renovated into restaurants, pricey boutique hotels and homes for the city’s elite.

And then there are the ornate palaces, reminders of the final vestiges of the Ottoman Empire: Dolmabahçe, the last residence of the Sultans, built near the mouth of the Bosphorus in a flamboyant French style; the baroque Beylerbeyi, an erstwhile guest-house for esteemed visitors of the state; the compact Küçüksu, originally a summer house for the Sultans; all are jaw-dropping in their unrestrained opulence. All three are open to visitors, who shuffle in tour groups around its decaying interiors in plastic-covered feet with a kind of reverent silence you feel is kept in check for fear of waking the dead.

If Beverly Hills moved to the Bosphorus, it’d be thrilled to settle in Bebek. One of Istanbul’s more upscale neighbourhoods, Bebek is a hotbed for ladies who lunch, professionals who coffee, and yuppies who aperitif. Home to posh specialist bakeries, delicatessens and a pint-sized branch of the local swanky department store Beymen, Bebek can also boast what is widely recognized as The Best Starbucks in Istanbul, Turkey, and possibly even the world. The coffee shop’s reputation is entirely based on the strength of its stunning view across the waters of the Bosphorus, and I’ve sat there for hours myself, nursing a mocha frapp and staring riveted at the tankers criss-crossing the strait as streams of excited high-school kids chattering in Turkish flowed around me at a steady rate.

Arriving at Bebek on Captain Mehmet’s schooner just after sunset, I disembark and cross the little park to see the lights coming on inside Lucca, the hippest after-work destination for the more affluent local office force. The sound of popping corks marks the beginning of a night’s session, and the bar is fast filling with suited yuppie-types getting ready to decompress after a day behind the desk.

At that same moment, something completely different occurs: the fluorescent tubes of the waterside Bebek Mosque just across the road buzz into life. The ear-splitting sound of the muezzin’s stentorian call to prayer siphoned through tinny loudspeakers temporarily drowns out Lucca’s jazzy lounge soundtrack. For the devout, this is Maghrib Adhan, the twilight call to prayer that brings scores of men, likely local shop assistants and waiters from the surrounding cafes and restaurants, filing inside the mosque and prostrating themselves in unison over their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca.

As a city, Istanbul has an incredible propensity for the snapshot; a passing instant that contains all the divergent elements of society, belief and culture in one single pitch. This evening in Bebek is one of them.

Less than one kilometre downstream in Arnavutköy, the vibe is a little different. The lights are coming on one by one in Abracadabra, a quirky seedbed of experimental cooking set over the four floors of a burgundy-coloured yalı overlooking the Bosphorus. “We’re here for the people who are tired of the chic, expensive, pretentious places,” owner and chef Dilara Erbay tells me from behind several hanging garlands of garlic and chilli peppers. Her hair is wrapped in a blue scarf and her skin covered in a thin film of moisture, a mixture of steam from the boiling pots and her own perspiration as she rushes around the kitchen of this cosy eatery whose open cooking spaces and pine trimmings have all the intimacy of a domestic dining room. “My husband and I wanted to create a homely, artistic and joyful venue,” she explains, “just like our home.”

Weekend dinner times and Sunday brunch see Abracadabra fill out with clientele come to feast on Dilara’s distinctive creative recipes; singular dishes like mihlama, a black sea region fondue, or deep fried snails in a hot shrimp sauce. The favourite is the ‘1’ börek, a pastry made with pastrami and dried fruit and served with a rosehip sauce, washed down with a tamarind-flavoured drink that can be fortified with a shot or two of vodka.

Dilara moved Abracadabra from Beyoğlu in the centre of Istanbul to Arnavutköy about a year ago, and hasn’t looked back. Business is booming, despite the financial crisis, and the this creaky 100-year-old yalı that was once home to an Armenian family is the perfect setting for her inventive and wholesome cuisine. For confirmation, you need look no further than the charming scene just out of the window: outside, by a small white lighthouse on the tip of Arnavutköy’s promonitory, a group of boys are throwing themselves into the water. One by one, they let the burly current sweep them upstream, where they hoist themselves up dripping onto the cement jetty and repeat the process tirelessly with ebullient shouts and screams.

Across the Bosphorus in tiny Kanlıca on the Asian shore, the pace of life slows down by yet another few notches: a smudge on the map, the village consists of a small ferry landing flanked by two wooden cafes at the water’s edge and a square containing a miniature mosque built by Ottoman wunder-architect Sinan in the 16th century. It’s just past lunchtime, and a couple of old men in flatcaps are sitting watchfully on a bench at the waters’ edge, their fishing rods bobbing in the Bosphorus while they smoke and exchange the odd word. I ask one of them about the day’s catch and he cheerfully shakes his head: “We lost a sea bass a earlier this afternoon,” he tells me. “Now it’s quiet. There’ll probably be nothing till evening.” Nonetheless, he returns dutifully to the vigil of his line.

To Istanbullus, Kanlıca is a place synonymous with one thing: yoghurt. Heading straight for the wooden cafe perched right next to the boat dock of this tiny village, I beeline for a table by the window for maximum float-on-water effect. The tall, white-shirted waiter brings me the menu, a dog-eared one-pager cataloguing variations on size and sweetness of yoghurt and the odd side dish to accompany. I order a medium sized option with extra sugar and a karışık tost, a hot cheese and pepperoni sandwich that’s more ubiquitous on the streets of Istanbul than even the time-honoured kebab. My passion for this most unsophisticated local snack is one of my best-kept secrets.

Here I meet Elif, a teaching assistant at the city’s Bilgi university who flees to Kanlıca at the first opportunity for a little respite from the urban mayhem. “Here you can enjoy a lifestyle that doesn’t suffer from over-commercialisation,” she says. Gesturing towards the European shore in the direction of Bebek and the nightclub Reina, she adds, “The European side became the easy part of the lifestyle package for modern yuppies because it’s so close to the modern residential and business districts.” She has a point. Istanbul’s European side is where the action is. With the exception of a couple of historical and commercial neighbourhoods like Üsküdar and Kadıköy, the Asian half of this bi-continental metropolitan sprawl is far more suburban in character. And at the edge of the Bosphorus it’s positively serene.

Looking at the ferry timetable, I see that the next public boat to service this little outpost isn’t due for another hour and a half, so I decide to walk down the coast towards Anadolu Hisarı, an early Ottoman castle about a kilometre down the coast from here. It was built in 1390, in the days when this land was still under Byzantine rule, and the domes of Christianity had not yet been replaced by the soaring minarets of Islam. The Ottomans had repeatedly failed to take the well-protected Constantinople, and the construction of two castles at either side of the Bosphorus’ narrowest point was part of their subsequently successful strategy to control trade in and out of the city, thus creating a commercial seige and weakening the Byzantines into eventual defeat.

The remains of the castle at Anadolu Hisarı are scant, but a walk around its tumbledown ramparts, and a stroll around its quiet harbour, stopping in at the small fish restaurant and continuing on to Küçüksu Palace, a few hundred metres downstream, is a lofty and reflective afternoon’s activity.

It’s now completely dark as Captain Mehmet’s wooden boat creaks into position at its mooring spot and his lively crew jump up and secure ropes and fenders for another night docked outside the village of Kuruçeşme. The village lights have blinked into life, winking tungsten sentinels heralding the advent of another evening along the strait.

The sea air blows onto the shore and ignites orange the coals on the tiny makeshift barbequeues grilling the day’s catch, which is to be served up in crusty bread rolls as balık ekmek. It’s a wildly popular snack that Istanbullus associate with the sea air and the squawking seagulls of their home, and I buy one, despite not being in the least bit hungry. It’s a symbolic act.

Somewhere in the distance are the glittering explosions of a firework display, most likely marking a wedding. To my far right, the fairy-lit Boğaziçi Köprüsü, the 36-year-old Bosphorus suspension bridge, sweeps for 1,500 metres into the darkness, connecting with the fronting Asian shore whose undulating obsidian landscape is layered over the lime-infused charcoal of a darkening full-moon night. The peace in the air is tangible and it’s hard to believe we’re only a 20 minute ride along the coast road back to the traffic-saturated chaos of Taksim Square and the tourist throngs in Sultanahmet.

What contrasts. I think of Mercan Dede, a local musician here and Sufi aficionado whom I spoke to some time ago about his love of the Bosphorus. He told me “Istanbul is where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.” Tonight, on the inky waters of the heaving strait, giddy with the swell of the water and a stomach over-full with fish, I think I know what he means.

On Kipling’s Trail

National Geographic Traveler

The tiger was close: a fact that had finally managed to pierce the clouds of my pharmaceutical fog. Having just bolted at gut-churning speed over a series of dirt tracks in an eight-seater, open-top Gypsy, our ranger Kaustubh suddenly cut the engine and brought the vehicle to a stop next to the source of the noise we had been chasing. A tribe of Langur monkeys were going nuts, jumping between branches and emitting the shrieks and growls of their alarm call. It was a warning signal to other potential prey that there was a predator very close by and a clear cross-species message to me that there was ample cause to be very afraid.

 ‘They’re seeing something we can’t,’ said Kaustubh with Jurassic Park-like intensity. ‘It’s either a leopard or a tiger.’

I stood up to try and dispel the sleepiness. I was learning the drowsy way that drugs do not enhance the safari experience. At least not the kind of drugs I was taking. My last-ditch, self-administered dose of Diphenhydramine, a multi-faceted miracle med sold as variously as an antihistamine, an antiemetic and a sleep medication, was giving me all the benefits of bumpy-drive nausea relief but also adding intense somnolence into the bargain. Such were the perils of an adventure holiday mixed with chronic and embarrassing motion sickness: all afternoon, my husband had been prodding me as I dozed off in my seat while we passed a host of once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings including Spotted and Sambar deer, wild boars, peacocks, a jackal and several ominous birds of prey in a holding pattern overhead. Now, through the diphenhydramine haze, I was faintly aware of a mounting buzz stemming from the anticipation that seven hours of bumpy off-roading was about to come to a dramatic crescendo. This mixed with the sobering awareness that, should the drama become too intense, we were most vulnerably exposed in an open vehicle with not so much as a water pistol to protect us from the jaws of a hungry Shere Khan.

The Pench National Park – situated in the Seoni district in the middle of India across the state lines of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – is Jungle Book territory. These are the forests where the contentious poet and literary voice of the British Overseas Empire, Rudyard Kipling, had his man-cub Mowgli fostered by a family of wolves. As a child raised more on the Disneyfied version of Kipling’s tale, and as an Anglo-Indophile adult fascinated by the author’s accounts of the British Raj, I had long harboured a desire to visit the place where men and beasts mingled in an all-singing, dancing, morally instructive kind of way. And though in seven hours we hadn’t seen as much as the swipe of a wolf’s tail (nor that of a snake nor a bear, not to mention the elusive large cats), there was one group of characters that were out in force: the screeching grey Langurs, the reprehensible Bandar-Log, the Monkey People cast as evil, dirty, shameless outcasts and reviled by Mowgli’s mentors, Baloo and Bagheera.

Maybe it was the drugs, but looking at the little guys up close, it seemed like Kipling’s was a harsh assessment. As far I could see, the Bandar-Log were a pretty cool bunch: they hung out in groups, often clinging to one another in pairs, grooming, fiddling with stuff on the ground, eating leaves up in the trees and shaking the branches enough to send a few pickings down for the deer who waited expectantly below. In addition to this, the Langurs played a vital role in every other paying human’s raison d’être in the park, namely a much-coveted glimpse of a large, striped, carnivorous cat.

The tiger-spotters need all the help they can get: like most safari parks in India designed to simultaneously protect and make a buck from the animal, Pench is home to a mere smattering of them. Its 881 square kilometres houses only about 60 of the cats, around 12 of which live in the much smaller area apportioned to visitors. It works out at roughly one tiger per 10 square kilometres, which, when I did the maths (about six hours into the drive, as it slowly began to dawn on me that the odds were very much against us), turned out to be a feline needle in a huge jungle haystack. Still, our guides did an excellent job of remaining animated and buoyant throughout. This game of safari hide and seek that was their bread and butter was actually also their passion, and as soon as I verified this, the chase took on another dimension.

 To a punter, the jungle seems like a hostile place: it’s dense and dry and rife with teaks, frankincense, banyans and the ghost-trees whose sinister white branches radiate like the fingers of the undead through the otherwise greeny-brown vegetation. All I could see around us were vertical stripes, bark piled on bark and lots of foliage. How could someone pick out anything through all this visual noise? The trick, as Baloo taught Mowgli, and Kaustubh subsequently tried to teach me, was to learn junglespeak.

It was a language in which Kaustubh and Subash, a professional tracker riding up front with him, were highly proficient, both aurally and orally; after every few minutes of trundling over rough, bile-invoking hillocks in the heavy-footed Gypsy, Kaustubh stopped the car and switched off the engine (a mercy call for my nausea). He and Subash rose out of their seats and listened while scanning the minute gaps between trees for the tiniest sign of movement. The moment was so still and they were listening so hard, I felt like I could almost see their ears twitching. I tried to do the same: to me the noise of the jungle was the backdrop of birdsong and other unknown sounds that comprised the cacophony of feral gobbledegook. To the guides, however, it was a complete syntax, ready to be deciphered, followed and more impressively, replicated. Kaustubh had an extensive and quite entertaining repertoire of animal sounds, from Langur cries to various birdcalls and even tiger noises. As he methodically identified and repeated each sound to me, I started to recognise the noises myself. The mating cries and alarm calls were the most easily discernible: deep hoots emanating from the monkeys turned out to be the calling card of a primate in search of some tail. (It was a sound I initially took to be one of distress, a misreading that leads to me suspect some psycho-sadistic element in the animals’ sexual makeup.) The monkeys’ actual alarm call sounded more like an old man hocking up a loogie, while the spotted deer made a noise like a deep klaxon. The rhythms were quite particular – long periods of silence followed by a barely perceptible ruckus among some distant trees that jolted our guides back into action. Kaustubh restarted the Gypsy and we sped off in the direction of the disturbance, though again and again we kept losing the thread of the chase.

Still, Kaustubh (or KT as he had us call him in the national tradition of reducing to acronyms names that were challenging or tiring to pronounce) was skilled at softening the disappointment after a false tiger lead by way of maintaining a contagious zeal for every other aspect of the park: from the shrubs and smallest flowers to the benign deer that stared out from among the trees before scuttling off at the first sound of a motor engine. He brought us to an abrupt stop to point out a tiny owl camouflaged against patchwork grey bark, an osprey perched on a dead tree protruding from a watering hole, a drongo sitting on a branch above our heads or a green bee-eater, barely visible on a far-off fence post.

After the intense commotion, the Langurs started to lose interest. The noises they were making died down and it no longer sounded like we were visiting an emphysema ward.

‘That means whatever it is, it’s moving away from us,’ Kaustubh said, trying to follow the monkeys’ gazes as they slowly scattered off into the green murk. ‘It’s probably headed for the watering hole. Let’s go.’

The house where Rudyard Kipling spent his earliest years is hidden among a clutch of dense greenery in the grounds of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. Unknown to most of the city’s residents, it’s an elegant, green wooden structure with slender columns and dispersed latticework. Under the close scrutiny of the art school’s security guard, who is bemused by visits from the occasional intrepid Kipling acolyte, I peered in through darkened windows to see evidence of modest habitation despite the general exterior air of neglect. A bust of the author’s head is situated on a plinth on the front porch with a plaque that wrongly states he was born in this house (actually it was constructed a few months later, in 1866). Due to his father’s posting as a professor of sculpture at the school, it was here that he spent a his pre-school years, frolicking through the tropical shrubbery with his little sister and in the care of their Indian ayah, whose vernacular language initially came more naturally to the young Kipling than English. In his biography, the author refers to this period as a kind of unbounded Dream Time when even such horrors as finding a child’s severed hand in the back garden, did little to detract from the magic of innocence.

The current state of Kipling’s house in Mumbai is in some ways representative of a wider ambivalence towards the author. Depending on which side of the fence you fall, either he was an imperialist, racist and orientalist in the worse sense of Edward Said’s definition of the terms, or he was a devoted product of India’s great melting pot with an insuperable fascination for the country that spawned him.

1860s India was a curious place for its population of Anglo-Indians: the Colonial Administration was really digging in its heels following a national uprising in 1857, and expat life was often difficult, distrustful and downright hot. Those who could escaped the worst of the heat by heading to the hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas where, reinvigorated by the mountain air, the Brits bred all manner of scandal within high-society circles. Kipling, who from the age of 16 worked as a journalist first in Lahore, then in Allahabad, was witness to this strange society in summer exile – whose capital was the very English-looking town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh – and wrote copious stories of its exploits in a volume called Plain Tales from the Hills.

Despite earnest claims to the contrary by locals invested in pushing the Kipling buck as far as they can, the writer never actually visited the Seoni Hills. All the detail he included in his Jungle Book stories came, as he himself stated, from something called the Sterndale’s Gazetteer, and in fact he didn’t write the Jungle Books until five years after he left India. If it wasn’t clear to readers already, it needs to be reiterated that The Jungle Book is a work of pure imagination.  Which made sense. If not, where were the bears, wolves and lumbering elephants?

About 10km from the entrance of the park, the mud-and-brick village of Amajhiri straddles a concrete road that disappears into dust at its edges where it meets the rounded whitewashed walls of the village compound houses. The doorways and courtyards are spotlessly clean and still bear the fresh rake-marks of a broom’s bristle. We were there on the invitation of Raj. Born and bred in Amajhiri, father of one-and-counting Raj works at the Baghvan Safari Resort, the place where we were staying. Upon our arrival there, he was assigned to us as a general granter of wishes and organiser of whims, as well as local oracle. As such, I had one huge favour to ask of him: could we take a few hours break from the safari and go and check out his village?

Tea on Raj’s mum’s front porch was enamel-strippingly sweet, and served in the midst of the dozen or so children that had gathered around us to eye the proceedings with cautious curiosity. A flock of geese waddled down the high street, while a gang of kids (*baby goats*) teetered nearby on shaky, barely functional legs. Kaustubh, who was accompanying us on our visit, sighed.

‘I’d love to live in a place like this,’ he said, holding one of the baby goats up into the nape of his neck. ‘It feels like such ideal living.’

Perhaps. But now, as in Kipling’s time, village life also had its drawbacks: on the way back that night, as the Gypsy’s giant treads threw the road’s dust up into the beam of our headlights, Raj recounted a couple of incidents of latter-day tiger sightings that were too close to home: one night he actually saw the eyes of a tiger reflected in his motorbike’s headlight, just metres away in a field. He was understandably less than cool with the idea of a Shere Khan padding around the peripheries of his own habitat.

In Kipling’s day, tigers were for hunting. The British Raj’s insuperable taste for gunning down the cats has carried into modern-day poaching, since China especially provides a hungry market for Indian tiger body parts. A century ago, India was home to around 42,000 tigers; today there are a mere 1,800. But even this number may be too large, given that the animals’ territories and the corridors between them are also shrinking and altogether disappearing.

Tigers are solitary creatures. They live alone, hunt alone and only really get together with other tigers for mating or child-rearing purposes. The rest of it is a very unsociable game, to the point of hostility: if a tiger catches another on its own territory, it’s liable to fight its rival to the death. And if it is pushed out of its hunting grounds, it will wander into human settlements and pounce on whatever it can find: a cow, a goat, a dog, or – if particularly hungry – a person. (At the time of writing, there’s a hunt on for a man-eater who’s picked off ten humans to date around the peripheries of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the northern state of Uttarkhand.)

That night, we slept on the Machan (a rooftop terrace) of our bungalow at the Baghvan lodge. It was a daring opportunity to bed down under the stars and foliage of the jungle within the relative safety of a netted, curtained tree house.

‘Are you sure tigers can’t jump this high?’ I asked my husband as we both clutched at the hot water bottle placed between the chilly sheets. It wasn’t an altogether ridiculous question, given Raj’s story and Kaustubh’s earlier disclosure of a recent photo of a tiger paw print in the dust just metres away from our room.

The tigers were always close – but when you were actually looking for one, they were nowhere to be seen.

We arrived at the watering hole, and I was still toting a little tiger anxiety. On the way, we had spotted an enormous paw print in the dust, as well as the hair-curling sight of a set of claw marks ripping through the bark of a tree that a tiger had been using as a scratching post and had left like a beastly mark of Zorro to chart its passage.

Two other Gypsies were already pulled up on the same spot, having deciphered the same set of signs as we had. You could have cut the silence with a knife. Kaustubh was standing like a sensory beacon on the Gypsy’s bonnet, raising and lowering his binoculars and scanning the sound spectrum for the slightest rustle of a nearby kitty.

Then the apotheosis: KT shot out a finger in the direction of the trees in front of us, a gesture that carried in a silent wave over to the other two vehicles. In the tiny gap between the trees about fifty metres ahead, I made out a flash of a pattern that flickered between the sedentary barks. But those weren’t stripes; they were spots.

Kaustubh fixed the animal with his binoculars. ‘It’s a leopard.’ He gasped like it was his first sighting.

I thought I’d be disappointed; Bagheera in the place of Shere Khan. Somehow seeing a tiger was supposed to be the point of the whole thing. But as we watched the leopard move cautiously through the forest, it was like following a vision. And when he came to the roadside, only a few feet away from the Gypsy, I felt like I was in the presence of royalty. He put one foot very tentatively in front of the other as he felt out the ground of the road and slowly crossed, never for a second taking his eyes off us. I completely forgot about the diphenhydramine, my urge to vomit, and even my fear of large cats charging the Gypsy; all I could do was watch Bagheera, (‘as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo’, but thankfully this time not ‘as reckless as the wounded elephant’), as he receded into the distance on the other side of the road, and out towards the watering hole.

And then he was gone and all that was left behind was a bushed void of satisfaction. Everybody exhaled and it was all we could do not to high-five each other. The sky began to darken as we trundled our way back out of the park and I felt the last traces of the diphenhydramine give way to a more lofty euphoria. Some of the Bandar Log lined the trail and eyeballed us nonchalantly as we returned back out to the realm of the humans, of the rectangular fields, the villages, the fires and fences, the domesticated dogs and cows and herds of buffalo also slowly making their way back home.

A chill prickled the back of my neck as I gauged that Shere Khan was still out there. We hadn’t found him, but I figured he knew where we were, and that he would decide when and where he wanted to be found.

Drool Britannia

National Geographic Traveler

Globally ridiculed for the likes of its greasy fish and chips and soggy scampi, England has long been a nation with a severely deflated culinary mojo. But in the last few years, there have been rumblings of revolution in the air, led mostly by a generation of young chefs and restaurateurs bent on reviving the best of the Olde English kitchen and the art of nose-to-tail eating. Vanessa Able hits the food trail in London to discover what this revolution tastes like and whether it entails more than just entrails.

IT’S AN HOUR BEFORE SERVICE at St John’s restaurant in London’s Smithfields, and a London Porker, also known as a Middle White pig, is getting a shave. Cleansed and disemboweled, it lies peacefully with a half-smile on the counter top while the last remaining strands of black wiry hair are scraped from its ears, cheeks and snout. The sound of the knife blade scouring the skin sets my teeth on edge, but the kitchen’s porcine barber, a fly-in American chef from New York’s Gramercy Tavern called Ben, is oblivious to the rasping noise. He picks the beast up by grabbing all four trotters and lovingly turns it on its side, exposing the giant slit down its middle from where all its intestines have been removed.

“This is the glamorous part,” Ben remarks dryly, adding: “I don’t even shave myself, and here I am shaving a pig.”

Set in a former smokehouse around the corner from London’s largest meat market at Smithfields, the St John restaurant has become a London institution. Extolled by ‘Kitchen Confidential’ chef Anthony Bourdain as “an eye-opening, inspiring, thoroughly pleasurable yet stripped down adventure in dining,” the place opened in 1994 as a no-frills establishment serving up good, simple British food. Since then, it has risen to become a symbol of what is being called the revival of English cuisine.

Yes – English cuisine. No, it’s not an oxymoron, and there’ll be no sniggering at the back, please. It’s true that for centuries Britain has been lampooned the world over for the pitiful state of its national dishes: food critic Bill Marsano once wrote that, “the British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.” Comedian Jackie Mason joked “Britain is the only country in the world where the food is more dangerous than the sex,” while more recently, former French President Jacques Chirac somewhat un-diplomatically observed of the British, “You cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine. It is the country with the worst food after Finland.”

Ouch. And as an Englishwoman, it hurts my national pride to admit that such derision has not been not entirely unjustified over the last few decades: after all, think of a good British meal, and what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Most likely the cholesterol-and-fat banquet of a full English breakfast: runny eggs, singed bacon, oily sausage, blackened tomato and (ugh!) tepid baked beans.

Over at St John, however, the revolution is in full swing. There’s not a tepid baked bean in sight as the barman chalks up today’s ‘Elevenses’ menu, a bill of bar snacks: Welsh Rarebit; Bone Marrow Toast; Snails and Oakleaf; Eccles Cake; Mackerel; Globe Artichokes; Lamb, Bread and Green Sauce; Peach and Champagne Jelly. Next door in the office, the lunch docket is rolling off the printer: Rolled Pig’s Spleen and Bacon; Venison Saddle, Beetroot and Pickled Walnut; Grouse; Stinking Bishop and Potatoes; Chitterlings; Lamb Sweetbreads; Smoked Eel; and of course the shaved and roasted Middlewhite, served with marrow and parsley sauce.

You’ll be forgiven for feeling like you’ve fallen down the culinary rabbit hole into a medieval English cookhouse: St John espouses a vigorously imaginative style of cooking that goes beyond the fine cuts and filets to include the whole animal – ears, cheeks, trotters and all- onto the menu, drawing from old English traditions and recipes that were based on seasonality and thrift.

Over in the kitchen, a tray of roasted shallots is being pulled out of the oven. One of the chefs eagerly explains to me their destiny: “you get a piece of toast, and you squeeze the shallots out of their skin while they’re still warm. They’re nice and sweet: you spread them on the toast and eat them with goats curd and chopped mint. Such a simple thing, and it just works,” he enthuses, feeding me a spoonful of the goat curd to demonstrate his point.

Simplicity is one of the buzzwords of the revolution. This became outstandingly clear to me after an evening’s ‘research’ spent hemorrhaging my wallet in the company of stiff suited businessmen at 24, glitzy restaurant of celebrity wunder-chef and self-proclaimed ‘ambassador of British cuisine’, Gary Rhodes. The self-conscious minimalist serving of the food (try 3 small lettuce leaves passed off as a £10 salad) and the stuffy, forced-fancy atmosphere (I felt like I was sitting on a spike all night), combined with the SWAT-style security check upon entering the building all combined to feel so unnecessary.

Here, among the whitewashed walls of St John, where everything from the phrasing of the menu to the actual preparation of the food, unpretentiousness is next to godliness. The idea being that the less fuss that is injected into geometric chopping, fussy presentation and complicated sauces, the more the diner’s attention focuses on the inherent quality of the foodstuffs they are ingesting.

Sounds sensible, and so pragmatically English. But head chef Chris Gillard, fingers black with the sticky tar-like goo of cuttlefish ink, quickly corrects me: “Food here is not so much English as it is Fergus.

The Fergus he is referring to is Fergus Henderson, the restaurant’s chef-founder who has been extolled as one of the frontrunners of the movement to invigorate English cooking. Famously self-effacing and commonsensical, Fergus usually shuns all such accolade, and yet his bold no-nonsense approach to cooking English food has inspired a new generation of chefs in the country, including Chris.

Fergus, whose battle with Parkinson’s disease has cut down his kitchen hours over recent years, is not in the restaurant today. I’m disappointed not to be able to meet him, and so I start grilling Chris about him. I ask him how he finds the experience of working with Fergus and he replies, “inspiring”, citing his love of simplicity and “passion and love of a good lunch” as what set him apart.

“It probably comes from the fact that he never had a formal training; he never learned to cut things into cubes,” Chris explains. He points over at a pot of boiling carrots: “Those are going to be served as they are,” he says. “Why cut them?” He studies my face for a sign of recognition. “Does that make sense?”

Yes, I suppose it does. Fergus’ cookbook, “Nose to Tail Eating – A Kind of British Cooking” contains all sorts of pearls of wisdom of this uncomplicated, all-inclusive nature including how to eat radishes at their peak and theories of jugged hare, as well as the skills of making everything from pressed potatoes and mushy courgettes to the more daring deep-fried lambs brains and pig’s cheek and tongue.  

Which is precisely what I’m tucking into just over a mile away on Commercial Road in Spitalfields. This east-end neighbourhood has recently undergone a facelift after years as one of the city’s more salubrious areas, and is today home to St John’s other branch, Bread and Wine. This joint is considered the more casual of the two, with the menu featuring smaller dishes, better fit for sharing. The lunch list today includes pigeon, smoked sprats and puffballs, but being in adventurous mood, I am more excited by the pig’s cheeks. They lie before me on a white plate, a three-layered pear-shape of tongue, cheek fat and skin.

This particular pig doesn’t seem to have had as good a shave as its counterpart in Smithfields.

“Eeeuwww, it’s all hairy!” exclaims my 19-year-old godson and dining companion, whose eyes nearly popped out of his head when I ordered the dish to come with an ox heart salad. An architecture student, Alex is by no means a culinary heathen – in fact I’m constantly surprised by the delicacy of his teenage palate. And yet here we are, two children of the British Isles, born and raised on British soil, neither of us having ever sampled half of these long-forgotten delicacies our country has to offer.

Offal has always played a major part at the British dinner table, especially in the north of the country. The UK has seen a staggering rise of 67% in the sales of offal since 2003, a figure that shows suggests a return to old traditions that took a particularly hard blow with the modernization of eating habits of the past 50 years, and during the mad cow disease crisis in the 1990s when a lot of offal, especially cows brains, was banned.

I’ll admit I’m amazed to discover that the pig’s cheeks are extremely tasty, though the alarm bells of guilt do ring out with every mouthful of hairy fat. The ox-heart, mercifully un-fatty, is sliced into thin strips, slightly charred and served with a watercress and pickled walnut salad. I expected a novelty flavour requiring some kind of acquired taste, but it is, in fact, delicious. Even Alex is a convert…

“It’s not for the squeamish,” warns Tom Pemberton, presumably catching the perturbed look on my face as I peer into a simmering pot of pigs’ heads. There are four of them in total, turning and waving gently with the action of the boiling water with all the tormented dismay of a Hammer Horror. Tom reaches in with a knife to poke at the meat. “The bones are still in there. Look, there are the teeth,” he demonstrates by pulling back the now flaccid meat of the jowl to reveal a set of blackened gnashers.

Tom is making brawn. “It’s something people have often heard of, but they don’t know what it is,” he explains. “The meat is quite gelatinous, and you take it off after you’ve cooked it. It falls off very easily. Then you pack it into a terrine mould, straining the water that you cooked it in, but the jelly that comes from the bones sets and makes a terrine and that’s called brawn.”

Tom is the head chef and owner of the Hereford Road restaurant in Bayswater, and today he’s giving me a beginners guide to English kitchen essentials. Next up I’m shivering in the cold room of the prep area in the basement of the restaurant as he excitedly pulls various ingredients off the shelves to demonstrate the variety of his daily fare. Smoked eels hang off the edge of the rack next to a tray of Cornish mackerel and wild sea bass. On a lower shelf are the tiny, plucked bodies of wood pigeons and English quails, calves kidneys, the heart of a pig and a bunch of duck breasts that are being salted. Tom holds a pot of razor clams up to my face and one of them bulges out and lunges towards me, making me jump. “People find these a bit freaky,” Tom assures me, explaining that they have to be cooked alive for optimum freshness.

“It’s an interesting thing that in Britain everyone can cook a good pasta, but no one can make a good Shepherds Pie any more,” Tom laments as we sit among the white walls, wooden tables and red leather booths of his restaurant. “I started cooking in 1994, and the really popular thing then was a misnomer of ‘Modern British’, which wasn’t British at all but just a mixture of Italian and French.”

“People spoke about peasant Italian and French cooking with this kind of received knowledge, and you kind of felt like saying, ‘Well, hang on mate; you’re from Suffolk. You’ve only been to France once!’”

So is there a revival going on? Tom seems to think so. The sweetbreads, calf’s kidney, ox liver and deep-fried calf’s brain on the menu today hark back to his own roots: “As a child, I really liked offal, which,” he admits, “is unusual.” His father came from the north of England and was raised on a cheap and practical diet of tripe, kidneys and black pudding, which were very common household dishes before the rationing of the Second World War and the supermarket revolution in convenience and microwave meals that followed.

Tom particularly prides himself on his restaurant’s braised oxtail, positing that Hereford Road might be the only place in London that prepares the appendage whole. As far as he is concerned, the use of offal in the kitchen is not a novelty, but a cracker-barrel staple. “British food is simple and it gets to the point. I really like that side of it.”

There’s still room for schoolboy humour, however. It’s 3pm, the quiet hour just after a hectic lunch service and before preparation begins for dinner; I’m taking a break with the jocular Peter Woods, and we’re giggling over lamb’s testicles. “They taste very similar to sweetbreads,” he says, “very soft, very delicate, and slightly creamy…” and with that we both descend into chuckles. “They didn’t go down so well,” he recounts of one of his less popular dishes with a chortle. “I think it was the wording more than anything.”

Peter, who previously trained at the Savoy Hotel and Marco Pierre White’s Belvedere restaurant, is the head chef at The Northbank restaurant just next to London’s Millenium Bridge. Opened in 2007, it has a more formal, business-like air than the understated St Johns and Hereford Road restaurants, combined with a spectacular view of the Thames and the brown-brick behemoth that is the Tate Modern. Braised Beef Cheeks, Vegetable Wellington, Honey Roast Quail and Pork Belly are served on white tablecloths against a background of quirky, rather hypnotizing toile de jouy wallpaper depicting scenes of modern London.

Despite the darkness of the cloudy August sky shadowing St Paul’s Cathedral at our backs and the former residence of its architect Sir Christopher Wren just across the river, Peter reminds me that today is nonetheless the Glorious Twelfth (of August), otherwise known as the first day of grouse season. “And next month we’ll be getting pheasants and partridges,” he continues, enthused at the prospect, “but no oysters, not yet. You can only get oysters in months that end with an ‘r’.”

Seasonal cooking and local sourcing are the second and third commandments of the English cooking revival, and a subject that seems to light a fire in the eyes of every English chef that I talk to. It means that the menus are in constant flux, with ideas and dishes changing depending upon the time of year and what their local suppliers have in stock. All quite mind-boggling for a generation raised on supermarket imports that don’t think twice about eating asparagus at Christmas, or figs in the spring.

“It’s refreshing to see English chefs going back to a more traditional way of cooking and doing more research into what we’re using,” says Peter, as he leads me into the kitchen to show me a box of (in season) girolle mushrooms. “They’re lovely, real nice. Lovely, lovely mushrooms,” he eulogizes, almost a bit misty-eyed.

As emphasis shifts from exotic global ingredients to seasonal items grown on British soil, so local farming has also undergone a boost in recent years as demand for special gourmet ingredients has flourished. Farmers markets are burgeoning all over the country, but if you’re in London, then best place to start any hunt for local products is at one of the great city markets: Smithfields in Farringdon for meat, Billingsgate near Canary Wharf for fish, and the gorgeous Borough market at London Bridge for all that and more besides.

Locals will grumble (as locals are wont to do) that Borough Market has been overrun by tourists in recent years, but if anything the new wave of interest in the market and its products has helped to invigorate its original spirit. Set within a network of alleys and high-ceilinged warehouse-type spaces in the brown-brick backstreets of the city’s south bank, the market is a weekly convention. It’s an orgy of gourmet fare, with blackboards and hand-written signs at every few paces proclaiming venison, boar and pheasant pies, black pudding loaves, hot and spicy cider, Whitby cod and haddock, Isle of Manx kippers, Cumberland bacon and wild mushrooms, to name but a few.

Anyone skeptical of Britain’s cheese prowess should head down Park Street to Neal’s Yard Dairy for a mind-boggling selection of British cheeses. Heavy-duty shelves holding hefty cylinders of matured cheese line the walls in a shop where cheery, knowledgeable staff thrust pieces of cheddar or goat’s cheese at you, and hold lengthy court as to what’s in season, recommending the best cheeses of the month. The collection is impressive: 63 varieties in total, with only five sourced from outside the UK. It’s enough to make me want to roll out a Union Jack.

The word is spreading. You don’t even have to go out as far as the fields of East Anglia to feel the swelling consciousness about local sourcing. Chef Tom Aikens, who runs two restaurants in Chelsea, is a socially engaged cook who takes an active role in working with organizations like Project Dirt and Capital Growth who are aiming to create over 2,000 community food growing spaces in London by 2012, and End of the Line, a campaign aiming to curb destructive global fishing habits.

I meet with Tom at Tom’s Kitchen, his gourmet café that’s a regular haunt of London’s upscale Chelsea crowd, after a lunch of beetroot, feta cheese and pomegranate salad and a plate of pan-fried scallops. Though not as ardently English as the other stops on my gourmet tour, what’s attractive about Tom’s Kitchen is the effortless English warmth exuded by the wooden tables and white tiled walls, and the extensive menu that just about covers every food craving from waffles to steak tartar, but nonetheless leaves room for a host of British classics like beer battered cod and 7-hour braised lamb shoulder. 

“The average customer is more in tune with what they should be eating, asking questions about food, where it comes from, etc,” says Tom. “It’s great because it means restaurants and chefs have to buck their ideas up as well.” Part of that process, according to Tom, involves striking a balance between producing a varied and affordable menu, a comfortable and congenial atmosphere and garnering a responsible code of practice in terms of food suppliers. “To me, food is not just about what we eat, it defines our values, health, status, environment, as well as our culture, politics and economy.”

The revolution is simple, it’s locally sourced, its organic and responsible; it’s slow-cooked and seasonal and it wastes nothing, and it’s not for the easily nauseated. It’s characterized by classics such as St John’s now signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad (Anthony Bourdain’s death row meal, according to his ebullient introduction to Fergus Henderson’s ‘Nose to Tail’), Hereford Road’s braised oxtail, Northbank’s hog’s pudding and Tom’s Kitchen’s 7-hour braised lamb shoulder. And in the spirit of true British-ness it’s obstinately humble, self-denying, and right on time.

“We don’t do revival,” Trevor Gulliver, co-owner of St John, modestly assures me. “We did not set out to be some kind of movement, we are just very happy when folk decide to come eat with us for the particular way we go about our restaurant,” he says, dropping in the little secret to their success: “you must simply do today that what you think is right and continue that way.”

Pig’s trotters anyone?