Wednesday, October 24, 2012

London Actually

When we moved to Paris, I informed Mr. Oil that I did not care if we went to London at all while we were living in Europe.  "I've been to London," I said, utterly convinced that there was nothing more that London could offer me.  Yet when deciding where to take a long weekend this fall, we ended up choosing London primarily based on the fact that a) it's an easy 2.5 hour train ride and b) they speak English.

I'm happy to own up to my own ignorance and stupidity, and be the first to admit that London is a fantastic city with a tremendous amount to offer.  Our London holiday was a smashing success.  And I say that with my best British accent on (though, to be fair, as with all of my accents, I end up sounding like a scary person from nowhere in particular).

We arrived in London to cold, gray rain.  So we did what any parent would do - fill up on vegetarian Indian food and head straight for the toy store.   In this case, that meant Hamley's on Regent Street.  Being London,  this is a toy store that has been around since 1760, but what really makes it fun is that there are a large number of toys for kids to play with in the store.  This didn't stop Baby Oil from pulling half of the Thomas trains off the shelf (sorry, Hamley's staff) but it mean we could spend a nice chunk of time inside without buying anything.  Of course we still bought stuff - one stuffed Paddington bear and three Thomas books - yet we could have left without purchasing a thing.
Baby Oil chows down on the papadam at Sagar
Still raining, we headed down to Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly.   This store exemplifies words like "gentrified", "aristocratic", and, basically, "British."  Dating from the mid-18th century, Fortnum's began as a grocery store and has always been highly regarded for its tea selection.  In 1886, Fortnum & Mason became the first store in Britain to stock canned baked beans - which might take away from the aristocratic theme I was going for, but it's such a fun fact that I can't not include it.    On the train out of London, we sat next to an elderly woman who told Mr. Oil that she had been a "gift attendant" at Fortnum's in the 1950s, and that she remembered fondly as the highlight of the Christmas season the day that the Queen would do her Christmas shopping at the store.

Living in Europe has turned me into more of a tea drinker than I ever have been, but I'd like to think that Fortnum & Mason's tea would have done the job on its own - genuinely the best tea I've ever had.  I'm also pretty stoked about the jar of mincemeat (it's not a meat, silly) I bought in order to make my own mince pies!

We hit our travel groove the next day, making it to Westminster Abbey, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (to be fair, that was entirely by accident), Harrod's, the Natural History Museum and a walk through Kensington.  No trip to the UK is complete without a pint of ale, so we stopped at a pub for Mr. Oil to enjoy a Guinness.  And apparently it's never too early to start your child on beer appreciation...
"What is this stuff?"
"Yummy! More!" - uh oh.
 A happy surprise at the end of the day was the discovery of the Ottolenghi shop in Kensington.  Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli-chef with two gorgeous cookbooks and several shops in London.  I first heard about Ottolonghi from my friend Rivka at Not Derby Pie but neither Mr. Oil or myself realized about the London stores.

Thank heavens we had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus or we never would have stumbled on the Kensington outpost, and the gastronomic delights awaiting us there.  Roasted squash with seeds, soft cheese, and herbs - oh yum.  Roasted eggplant with chili yogurt - spicy yum.  Dense, gooey chocolate cupcake filled with light, airy cream and topped with coconut shavings - oh dear.  Insert British for "best thing I ate all weekend".

The following day we explored Camden Lock Market, as it was just up the street from our rented flat.  Having heard that this was a "cool" place we were not quite expecting the incense and punk/grunge-filled scene that awaited us.  Though if you want to buy a graphic t-shirt, this may be the place.   And I think if you want to buy illegal substances, this would also be the place.
Down the canal from the market - much more scenic

Determining quickly that we are more comfortable in a slightly more upper-crust setting, we headed to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park followed by an amazing, if upper crust, fish and chips experience at Geales.  This is not your wrapped-in-newspaper fish n chip, but rather a high-end sit-down restaurant offering four types of fried fish among other seafood options.  And it was worth every pence.
Toddler food coma after fish and chips - though to be fair, he only ate the chips
 Baby Oil made himself right at home at Queen Victoria's Privy Council table in Kensington Palace (though our favorite part of the palace were the bathroom signs.)
"I've got this monarchy thing down."

A definite highlight of the weekend was the moment when Baby Oil spotted a Picasso painting in the Tate Modern, pointed to it, and loudly said, "Sheep! Baaaa!"  The painting was "Bust of a Woman."

Borough Market, near the London Bridge tube station, was another favorite discovery.  And not only for the incredible cinnamon danish and Chelsea bun that we acquired from Konditor & Cook.   Or the smooth, delicious coffee we had at Monmouth.  Or the scrumptious cheese we sampled at Neal's Dairy Yard. On second thought, it probably was those things, along with the promise of future deliciousness on a next trip to London.  I've learned my lesson, you see, and I will be happy to go to London as many times as possible throughout my life.