“IT’S in the details,” said Dave Bull, the caretaker of a former military bunker on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. He heaved open a cast-iron door and ran a hand over its bolts and heavy wrench-like handle. “This was all built by slave labor, by prisoners the Nazis marched here from Europe.”
The bunker in question is located on the ground floor of a radio tower on Jersey, erected by occupying German forces during World War II. The stout concrete structure still keeps a quiet vigil over the channel.
Today, though, it serves a different, and far more festive, function: as a holiday home for travelers. The top floor, which once served as a Nazi watchtower, is now a 360-degree observation deck cum living room.
The Radio Tower is one of 10 historic fortifications, built between the mid-1800s and the mid-20th century, to be renovated by Jersey Heritage, a local organization dedicated to preserving the island’s history and culture. Profits from the rentals are then put toward further restoration.
“It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time because there are so many of these amazing buildings which the public can’t see,” Jonathan Carter, director of Jersey Heritage, said of the restorations. The latest was of an 18th-century battery tower called La Tour Cârrée, inaugurated at the end of last summer.
Then there are the Martello towers, 24 small defensive forts that dot the Jersey coast, a testament to the geopolitical allure of an island caught between long-warring English and French naval forces. The most striking is the red-and-white-striped Archirondel Tower, which stands guard over France’s once-menacing horizon, visible from Jersey’s east coast.
Inside, the tower is fairly pared down: the circular granite interior spans three floors and is bare except for a handful of wooden beds and mattresses. There is electricity, but guests must use the adjacent cafe for a bathroom and running water, and are expected to bring their own sleeping bags.
Michael McGlynn, a Dubliner, spent a week with his wife, children and dog at the better-provisioned Fort Leicester at Bouley Bay on the island’s north coast. “When I think of paradise I’ll always conjure up an image of Bouley Bay,” he said. “It’s remote and yet has everything you might require.” Split across three levels, the 19th-century fort contains two large furnished bedrooms, a living room and fully fitted kitchen area with a view over the bay.
Visitors looking to take the experience up a notch can make the mile-and-a-half-long trek at low tide to the 223-year-old Seymour Tower in the parish of Grouville; the hike is led by a guide, who stays overnight. This boxy little fortress becomes completely surrounded by water when the tide comes in and is an excellent spot for clamming when it goes back out again.
“It’s basic accommodation,” acknowledged Mr. Carter, the Heritage director, “but you are sharing an experience people have enjoyed for hundreds of years.”
Weekly rental prices for the furnished properties, like Fort Leicester, are £360 to £1,680 ($587 to $2,740 at $1.63 to the pound), depending on the season. The unfurnished stone huts, like Archirondel Tower, start at £140 for a minimum two-night stay. Bookings are made through Jersey Heritage (44-1534-633-304; jerseyheritage.org).
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.
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 – Englishcuisine. 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.”