Sunday, 17 January 2016

ROUND ENGLAND WITH A SCOTSMAN

Gorbals was woefully ignorant about England.  The boy has had an (ahem) 'progressive' education and apart from a few months in Hampshire his only impressions of England have been gleaned from books and the television, so he thinks London is a Dickensian nightmare full of cutthroats, murderers, oom-pah-pah wenches and toffs in top hats with Dick Van Dyke accents, and the North is full of dark satanic mills and madwomen screaming on moors.   I was determined to show him the real England in the manner of Boswell to Dr Johnson, only in reverse, and we set off last July to complete the boy's education. 


Borough Market
Our first stop was of course the great metropolis, where we would also terminate our grand boucle.  We started on the East Side, in trendy Shoreditch, close to Brick Lane which constitutes the boundary between hipsters and Moslems.  In some cases it was quite hard to tell the difference.  We had a curry on Brick Lane of course, but on the second evening a much better one a bit further away, in the Lahore Kebab House, which is a noisy, BYOB canteen where the food is cooked in a huge open kitchen and by 8 p.m. there is a queue for tables.    In between the two curries we tried to have a sightseeing walk but the rain started and after taking shelter for a while in Borough Market where we sampled cheeses like Bleu de Tottenham, we ended up digging in at The Sugar Loaf near Mansion House, where we had beefy sausages with mustard and watched the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters final on telly, which got more entertaining as the beers slipped down. I am now a great fan of Phil 'The Power' Taylor.  



The last of the old East End

Brick Lane is notoriously short on pubs but there is a wonderful 24-hour bagel bakery at the top of the road, the last bastion of London's East End Jewish community who once occupied the area.  The bagels - or beigels, as they call them - are made before your very eyes, and sold in dozens and half-dozens for a few pounds.  A salt beef bagel sandwich was slapped together as we peered through the window, about half a pound of salt beef was hacked off a joint, slapped inside a bagel and thrown unceremoniously onto the counter.  ₤3.90.  

        

London is much too expensive to hang about for long, and so we picked up a jalopy at Paddington and headed out on the M40 towards Oxford.  It was Saturday and Oxford was heaving with Chinese tourists and graduation ceremonies.   Slightly embarrassed graduates in gowns were escorting their beaming parents around the colleges.  It was too crowded and we only had a few hours before we had to head off to Midsomer Dibley, where we were staying with my cousin Vera Slapp and her husband Cyril.  They took us for Sunday lunch at the Fleur de Lys in picturesque Dorchester-on-Thames, where Gorbals came face to face with Yorkshire Pudding for the first time.  Judging by his plate at the end of the meal, it was not an altogether unpleasant experience.




After a few stops to visit friends in the West Midlands and Cheshire, we headed for the Peak District.  In Buxton we stayed at the delightfully old fashioned Buckingham Hotel, which has a photo of Basil Fawlty on the front door and a cracking bar with a telly showing vintage.tv - I was soon singing away to David Bowie.  We had dinner at The Old Club House opposite the Opera House.  It was one of these pubco places, with one of those menus we were to encounter again and again.  I think we had steak and ale pie. Fashions change in pub grub don't they?  I was hoping for breaded garlic mushrooms somewhere, but they seem to have been phased out in favour of halloumi nachos or some such street food craze.  




The next day we drove to Chatsworth House, and walked around the free bits, while Gorbals whistled The Red Flag.   We declined to add to the massive wealth of their Lordships by eating in the cafeteria - although I did admire the chairs.  The restaurant is situated in the stable block which is the size of a medium sized palace itself.


After Chatsworth, Gorbals insisted we visit the opposite end of the social spectrum, Hadfield.  The reason for this was somewhat obscure.  Something to do with the village being featured in the opening credits of a programme called "The League of Gentlemen".    It was a ghastly place, and almost deserted.  There were two pubs, one of which was closed.  All the restaurants closed at 2.00 p.m.  We ended up buying something horrible  and gristly from a shop and eating it in the car.

Our ultimate destination that day was Manchester. This was a new experience for both of us. I had been to the old Granada studios to see the set of Corrie (Harold's mother's choice) but had never seen the city centre. Of course it was raining.  We stayed two nights in Manchester and I'm glad we did, there was a lot to see.  The John Rylands library, the People's History Museum, the Chopin monument, not to mention Chinatown and the Gay Village with the touching statue of Alan Turing.  Once again, our eating habits didn't fit in with English opening times, and we often arrived at a gastropub just after 8 p.m. to find the chef had just gone home.  Thank God for Chinatown where they will welcome you at all hours.




Gorbals gaying it up.






Me showing Alan Turing an i-Pad.

Friday we were heading for the Lake District but managed to fit in a few hours in Liverpool, don't ask me why.  We walked through the fabulous new docklands area although didn't have time to visit Tate Liverpool.   Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is, had to be done.  We posed merrily for photos with the statue of John Lennon, unaware that Our Cilla was about to imbibe her last G and T over in Spain.  We did not have time to see the Cathedral or the famous Adelphi Hotel,   but we did see the inside of the scuzziest gay bar I have ever encountered (another of Gorbals' great ideas).   My whistlestop scheduling is famous, ever since the days of working for the Folies Bergere, where my boss said you needed a liver of iron and the driving skills of Alain Prost to keep up with my regional tours.

And so to Cumbria, where the scenery makes up for the lack of haute cuisine.  Not that you can't eat well in Cumbria, but there is so much else to do.  Climbing fells (small ones),  driving over passes, looking down on lakes, forging through undergrowth, we had a very active week and food was restricted to local takeaways and picnics.   However a lot of pubs were visited, and a lot of beers with funny names were sampled.







The weather was somewhere between poor and appalling for most of the time, but on the very last day we did a trip round the south end of Lake Windermere and back up through Coniston and Ambleside, and the skies smiled on us.  We lingered as long as possible on the shores of Lake Windermere watching an impossibly dramatic sunset.

A week was all too short, and before long it was time to start heading south.  We set off towards the Yorkshire dales in search of the Last of the Summer Wine, and some sunshine.








Monday, 31 August 2015

MAS QUE NATA - PORTUGAL, FOODIE PARADISE (PART TWO: PORTO)




After a resounding triumph in Lisbon with the KNOB* (applause) I made it to Porto with the aid of a Tomtom that Jurgen loaned me. I would never have found my way to the hotel in time for dinner with Cynthia and Angus otherwise. But the stupid thing can't figure out that 'rua Dom Carlos II' is not pronounced 'rua Dom Carlos eye eye'.  

*Kurt Nachtnebel Oompah Band


I made it to the Majestic Cafe in Porto, where I RV'd with Cynthia and Angus, a mere 20 minutes after the prearranged time.  We had a drink on the terrace and then moved inside to eat.  The Majestic is a piece of olde worlde grandeur, with chandeliers and lots of mirrors, and waiters in bow ties.  I had cod loin which was sumptuous. Angus had some kind of pasta with prawns, and Cynthia had cod cooked in one of the 1,000 ways they boast over there.












On our first full day in Porto we walked down through the town, past magnificent buildings and statues of Henry the Explorer, and over the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, commonly known as "Gaia", which is technically a separate town from Porto.  A bit like Manchester and Salford.  Although not much. 
There I was persuaded by Cynthia and Angus to try a Francesinha for lunch - it's like a steak inside an all-day breakfast inside a croque monsieur - while Cynthia and Angus, having already tried this bellybusting marvel of Portuguese cuisine, opted for more sensible dishes.






 


As a pre-birthday treat, my dear friends invited me for a tour of Graham's port lodge, followed by a tasting of three vintage ports - 1983, 2003 and 2007.  We returned via cable car over the rooftops of Gaia. I normally hate being separated from planet Earth buy anything less robust than a 747, but thanks to the port, I was not remotely bothered about hanging in the air suspended by a wire.




 ...














Porto is not very big, once you've covered the waterfront on both sides and done your port-tasting, you've more or less done the town.  So on day 2 we went on the 'historic' tram to Foz do Douro, the seaside resort closest to Porto. The tram is tiny and packed and takes ages, and is also quite expensive, so I would recommend the bus which takes the same route only in a fraction of the time and more comfortably.  We were somewhat puzzled on arrival in Foz, as there seemed to be no restaurants overlooking the sea.  We found one eventually, where the food was superb but the clientele seemed to be wealthy trustafarians who double parked their Porsches on the street. Being neither rich nor young, and on foot, we felt a little out of place.  On the walk back to the bus terminus we found that all the beach restaurants were tucked away under the promenade, sheltered from the wind.

On our third day 'oop north' we went for a drive up into the hills and through stunning scenery to Amarante, picture-postcard village on the Tamega river, where the hermit saint Gonçalo is buried.  Zé da Calçada is a delightfully old-fashioned family-run restaurant on the river in Amarante, where we had a smashing lunch with Portuguese bubbly and everything. The amuse-gueule was almost a meal in itself, and I was so pleased to find a restaurant that still uses the proper cutlery.   Dessert was an all-you-can-eat pudding buffet where you help yourself. We couldn't trust ourselves to be sensible, so we demurred. Angus' massive plate of ham-stuffed trout was billed as a half-portion. 









Below us people pootled about on pedalos on the river. It was reminiscent of somewhere like Shiplake on the Thames, or Bouillon in southern Belgium, only considerably warmer.  Cynthia lost her head, and bought shoes.



   Angus and Cynthia, in silhouette, in Amarante




On our last night we had dinner on the Ribeiro, the Porto side of the Douro.  By this time we'd worked out that there is a cable car that takes you down to the riverside and back up again, giving you a spectacular view of the bridge and a stomach-churning drop on the last stretch. It's very touristy down by the river, and most of the restaurants on that side are much of a muchness, and not much to write home about.  The restaurants in Gaia, across the bridge, are better, and afford one the opportunity of crossing the spectacular bridge on the lower level, returning on the higher level if one wishes.

Portugal was a gastronomic nirvana.  There are more ways to cook salt cod than you could get through in a month.  The desserts are deadly, but what a beautiful death!  The coffee is good enough to turn a lifelong tea drinker like me.  The wines are light and pleasant and prices of both food and wine are democratic.  The service is efficient, fast, and charming, and the restaurants are often a bit old-fashioned, which is quite to my liking. Fish knives are still A Thing in Portugal.  

Oh, and the waiters are very handsome and flirty.  Which is quite important to Ladies of a Certain Age.  I am seriously thinking of retiring to Portugal.  Death by custard tart seems a suitably decadent way to go.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

MAS QUE NATA: PORTUGAL, FOODIE PARADISE (PART ONE: LISBON)


I put on 3 kilos in Portugal.  Basically, I ate everything I saw.  It was all divine. 

On day one, I set out in the jalopy to Sintra. If you imagine what the Garden of Eden would look like, with hordes of tourists, that's Sintra.  I went to see gardens.  Boy, has Sintra got gardens.  Huge ones.  They take hours and hours to visit.  As a result, come lunchtime I found myself in the gardens of the Montserrat estate, where the victuals were sparse and served in a kind of National Trust type tearoom.   I had a soda and a sausage roll.  The man behind the counter told me to go and sit down and he would warm up the sausage roll and bring it to me.  When it appeared, it had been daintily cut in two and served with a paper serviette.    The bill was 3,90 euros which was certainly not a National Trust price.




That evening I ventured into Estoril, the resort where I was staying just outside of Lisbon.  There were a number of unpromising looking restaurants either side of the esplanade in front of the casino (the very same casino that inspired Ian Fleming to write Casino Royale) and I was starving, so I went into Pinto's, a simple looking pizzeria.  This being Portugal, of course, there was more on offer than pizza.  I had an absolutely delicious veal steak with bacon, with a couple of glasses of white wine and a dessert.



The next day I took the local train into Lisbon, where I totally fell in love.  I had been to Lisbon before, for a New Year weekend, but now it was warm, people were eating outside, and Harold wasn't with me.  I felt my boxes being ticked all down the line.  I ate lunch at a small corner restaurant called A Campesinho off Agusta in the Caixa (shopping district) where I had a salt fish croqueta from the shop on the corner where they were made, with a salad and a glass of wine.  A gipsy accordionist was providing the ambient music.  I had just bought two pairs of divinely beautiful and comfortable sandals at a very democratic price.  Life was good.


The old vegetable market in Lisbon has been transformed into a trendy food court called Mercado.  The top restaurants in Lisbon have outlets here where you can sample their menus seated on high stools at long tables.  It was packed on Saturday evening.  Better to come with some friends though, you'd feel a bit of a gooseberry sitting there on your own, unless you are of a particularly gregarious nature.


Opposite my hotel was a cake shop called Zenith, outside which I found a sweet spot to park the car.  (Sweet spot - ha ha - geddit?)  It was a modern style cake shop, and I noticed they did have pasteis de nata.  It would have been rude not to.  I bought 4 which were daintily packaged up in a box, for me to take back to my hotel room, for a furtive afternoon delight.  Oooh missus.  The man in the cake shop told me that their pasteis were better than those from Belem, as they didn't have to make them in industrial quantities.  He could have been right.










On the Sunday it was scorchio so I went to the beach at Carcavelos.  Toda Lisboa was there.  I strolled along the promenade with an independent air, humming "Copacabana", and ended up sitting down for lunch in Ondo Grande (Big Wave) where I had garlic prawns with a tomato salad, a glass of wine and a pudding.  Nearby some young men were playing beach volleyball in shorts, so I lingered over a coffee, and then another one, taking in the view.  






On my last night on the Estoril coast I went into Cascais.  The main square is a mass of tables, so that you can't see where one restaurant ends and the next begins.  I took a table in a sidestreet, since the main square was rather awash with celebrating football fans, Benfica having just won the Portuguese league.  I ordered sardines, which came with boiled potatoes.  As I was taking the photograph you see above, I noticed the chap at the next table whisper something to his wife.  I knew they were English, and thought "Oh no they think I'm one of those hipsters who's always photographing their food!"  so I looked straight at him and said "I'm a food writer."    He looked quite delighted.  "I just said to my wife," he declared, "I bet she's a food writer!"  I smiled indulgently, waiting for the predictable question.  "I say," he began, "You're not that .. Daphne Wayne-Bough, are you?  Yes, you are!  You're our favorite food writer!  Can we have a selfie with you?"    I get this all the time.  Jay Rayner would kill for my retweets.
My next port of call was Lisbon proper, where the KNOB* were performing, but I had time to swing by Sesimbra on the way.  By this time I had managed to figure out how to use my phone as a GPS, and hence drove straight there and not via Madrid!   What an absolute godsend that GPS is.  I was quite hostile to it for years, but have realized the error of my ways.   In Sesimbra I finally got to try the famous bifana steak sandwich - not necessarily beef, despite the name.  I could hear the chef bashing the life out of it in the kitchen. Next time I'm having the piglet sandwich. Sesimbra is a quiet seaside town with half a dozen or so decent restaurants and no tourist traps. 

* Kurt Nachtnebel Oompah Band




After the brass band competition we were invited to a buffet dinner for all the bands at Restaurante Clara.  It was a set menu, so we weren't expecting anything exciting.  After a fairly dull soup, we had Bacalhau a braz: comfort food. So comforting I had two helpings. Followed by a tasting of as many of 10 desserts on offer as I could get on my plate. I now feel extremely comforted. The restaurant had a gorgeous garden, but it was quite windy that night and a bit cold, so had to photograph it through the window. And PROPER FISH KNIVES! And silver service ... a bit old fashioned but frightfully elegant - so moi.  The dessert buffet is very common in Portuguese restaurants.  Reminiscent of the sweet trolley in our own restaurants of the 1970s.





We were all staying in the Hotel Sana Lisboa, in the upmarket part of town.   I must say it is an excellent hotel.  The staff were highly efficient and charming with it, particularly the doorman who was the spitting image of Cristiano Ronaldo.  I must however compliment the pastry chef, whose creations were the jewel in the crown of the buffet lunches. As you can see, they were too good to have just one.



Wednesday, 27 May 2015

ICH BIN EIN HAMBURGER


"Try our succulent quarter-pounder, freshly made with a generous six ounces of prime ground beef from Black Angus cattle fed on the lush grasslands of North Dakota, seasoned with Tahitian rock salt and cracked black pepper from the slopes of Mount Popocatapetl, lovingly barbecued over a hickory-wood charcoal fire and laid on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and shavings of white salad onion fresh from our organic kitchen garden, layered with thin slices of juicy plum tomato flown in this morning from Italy, and lightly drizzled with homemade low-cholesterol mayonnaise made personally by our Chef , all of this encased in a warm sesame bun and served to you courteously by our charming staff specially imported from Guadalajara."  

It takes you 20 minutes to read the menu, and another 20 minutes to decide what you want.

And when you get your food, it's just a burger.

That's why Americans are all in therapy - they're all suffering from chronic disappointment.


The gourmet burger craze has finally hit Brussels in the past couple of years.  The Belgians have got over their abhorrence of American cuisine:  a burger is nothing more than a chargrilled steak américain, after all.   And they have the edge on the core ingredient, with prime Belgian "blanc-bleu-Belge" beef.   Ellis Gourmet Burger at Place Sainte Catherine was the first to announce itself as such (although Les Super Filles du Tram have been doing gourmet burgers for years) and now has seven establishments in Belgium and two in the Netherlands. They are experimenting with new burgers, such as the Bollywood Delight or the trio of mini burgers.   Cowfish and Cowfish Burger at Porte de Namur are the Brussels outlets of a Texan-Japanese chain fusing burgers and sushi which offers an original way of ordering. You choose your core ingredient - beef, fish, chicken or veggie - then the style - Classic, Belgian, Smoky, Forestier, Tuscan, Jap, or Texas - and the side dish - coleslaw or green salad.   By the way, did you know the word coleslaw came from the Dutch koolsla (cabbage salad)?    OK it's an eating-by-numbers experience but the burgers are handmade and perfectly cooked.  

After the demise of the excellent Pablo's on Rue de Namur, the American cuisine scene was absent for a couple of years.  But it soon bounced back.  

Hemgie's has been around for a couple of years now and its success expanded to two establishments in Brussels, at rue du Bailli and 12 rue des Dominicains.  It's all posh burgers, minimalist decor, hipster vibe.  They also lay claim to fusion food, and boast that their "prime Scottish beef" is supplied by someone called Alec Jarrett who they cheekily advertise as being in Scotland, although he is in fact in Bristol, is a meat processor not a farmer and his meat comes mostly from the West Country and Wales.  Nul points for forgetting that everything can be checked on the internet, guys.  The rue des Dominicains restaurant has been renamed BB's (Brussels Burgers) and the Hemgie's website declares it is a quite separate establishment but the website blurb is identical including the Alec Jarrett connection which tells us nothing about the quality of the meat. 

Manhattn's (sic) Burgers on avenue Louise has a range of American-inspired burgers - Gatsby, Rockefeller, Gotham, etc. and a few interesting twists - the Gotham features Reblochon cheese, for example, and you can order imported American lager, which is the comedy feature on the drinks menu.  In Belgium, guys?  Seriously?
 

Chez Rachel on rue du Marché au Charbon is run by a Belgian who grew up in Boston and therefore knows his stuff.  From the classic ’Chuck’, a 130 gram, 100 percent pure Belgian beef patty burger with sliced pickles and tomatoes, cheddar cheese, ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard, held together by an authentic soft burger bun topped with sesame seeds and served with nachos and green salad, to the quirky "Speedy Gonzalez" (with guacamole), although the term could not be applied to the service, which can be rather slow.  They also do lamb burgers.  Average price around 15 euros.

Rachelburger - plates are small, service a bit slow

Houtsiplou also does a good classic burger for around the same price (14,80 euros).

Cool Bun is another "concept burger" establishment with two outlets, at Place Stephanie and Schuman.   Key words CRAFTED, LOCALLY RAISED, ORGANIC, ARTISANAL and HANDMADE.    Good choice of burgers, including fish burger and veggie burger.  Alison at Cheeseweb reckons it's the perfect burger.

Mustn't forget the legendary Hard Rock Cafe, where the burgers are - apparently -  legendary.  Looking at this picture, the only way to eat it would be .... carefully.   This would need deconstructing before attempting to eat it.  Weekends are usually packed, but not every burger joint has got a gift shop.



Marcel Burger Bar at Rue Américaine 87 is a new kid on the block which might be worth checking out.  The French chef does a variant on regular Belgian fries made with sweet potato, which might work.  The Foodalist classes it as "quality junk food". 

Le Balmoral at Place Brugmann is perfect for Uccle yummy mummies to take their little Tarquins for weekend brunch, a perfect replica US diner in pastel colours - why they gave it the incongruous name Le Balmoral will remain an eternal mystery.   A 200g burger goes for between 13,20 and 15,80, served with mixed salad and potato wedges.

Ultimately, as far as I'm concerned, a burger is a burger is a burger.   I'm not against them, but it's just a cooked sandwich.  Constructing a burger is not CUISINE.  Most of your Irish pubs will offer a burger on the menu - proving that it doesn't require Heston Blumenthal to cook it.  De Valera's at Place Flagey offers prime Irish beef, lamb, chicken fish or veggie burgers at 10-12 euros.    The Funky Monkey and The Old Oak do decent burgers at similar prices, as do most of the Anglo-American bars in town such as Fatboy's, Michael Collins, The Wild Geese, Kitty O'Shea's.  And frankly, that's as much as I'm prepared to pay for what is essentially a minced meat sandwich.  

That said, tomorrow is, apparently, International Hamburger Day, so fill yer boots.

Update

B34 Steak and Burger House, Rue St Boniface 34, Ixelles

De Valera's
Delecta   2 rue Lannoy, 1050 Ixelles (off Flagey)  
Les Super Filles du Tram
Burger Republic, Chaussée de Vleurgat 7  (off Flagey)
The Black Sheep
Café Gudule (owned by Super Filles du Tram), rue du Gentilhomme 11-13 - weekdays only 12h-15h
King Kong, chaussée de Charleroi 227, St Gilles
Tram de Boitsfort  Place Payfa, Watermael-Boitsfort
Jack O’Shea Chophouse. rue Sainte Catherine 32
Lou Boire et Manger rue du Page 7-9, Ixelles (Chatelain)
Schievelavabo, chaussée de Wavre 344, Etterbeek (Place Jourdan)
Chicago (owned by Houtsiplou), rue de Flandre 45
L'Amour Fou chaussee de Wavre (opposite Ixelles town hall)
le Train, 1st floor, Sheraton Hotel, Place Rogier  12 euros single, 18-19 euros double burgers. Why fork out that kind of money to eat in what is basically a corridor, when you could just go downstairs to:
Brussels Grill   (XXL burger 14,20 euros)  5 Brussels restaurants at Grand'Place, Place Brouckère, Boulevard de la Botanique (underneath Sheraton hotel),  and Porte de Namur - or its sister establishment Boston Steakhouse (all burgers around 12-14 euros)  Place Rogier and Porte de Namur


Check out Frédéric Solvel's tour of Brussels burger bars and S Marks the Spots' burger joints







Thursday, 2 April 2015

MUSHY PEAS

My dear old friend Imelda, Dowager Duchess of Southend, passed away recently.  Some of you will remember her as a character in my previous blogs, with her signature Brentford-nylons-and-ermine dressing gown and odd slippers.  And that was just her going-out clothes.  

So I set off for London to see the old girl off.  It transpired that The Aunt was travelling to London on the same Eurostar, after a bit of online adjustment we managed to sit together.  We were discussing a piece we had seen on Facebook about the possible future changes to the traditional English restaurant Simpson's-in-the-Strand, which we both deplored.  It is the Last of England.  In a moment of spontaneous jingoism, we decided to go and have dinner there.  Aunty phoned  Mr Bloke, who obediently booked a table for three and waited for us in the bar.  It was pouring with rain when we arrived at St Pancras, and we decanted ourselves into a taxi to my hotel, and then another one to the Strand.  Extravagant, I know, but I was celebrating my return to my home town after a rather long absence.

We arrived a little late and flustered at Simpson's, but a large Sipsmith's and Fever Tree each soon relaxed us.  Mr Bloke was looking suitably relaxed after his third poncey cocktail.  In the dining room I insisted on Ye Roste Beefe of Olde England, which was carved at the table.  A massive portion of succulent roast beef slices were served on a plate smothered in gravy and alongside a large puffy Yorkshire Pudding and a dollop of horseradish.  It was totally, totally delicious.  The waiter informed us that our worries were unnecessary, that the restaurant was not going to change its style and become a Mexican cantina or a dim sum emporium.  You heard it here first.  Aunty foisted herself upon a group of unsuspecting Japanese diners and became their photographer for the evening. 




The following day I took the train down to leafy Oxfordshire to spend a few days with my cousin, Vera Slapp, and her husband Cyril. They live in Midsomer Dibley, a picturesque chocolate-box village in South Oxfordshire with a listed post office and its own Abbey, no less. There are many picturesque country pubs in the area, one of which, the Fleur-de-Lys, or "Fleur" in Dorchester-on-Thames, serves up a pretty decent Saturday lunch.  




Vera volunteered to accompany me to the funeral, and Cyril drove us to Tooting, birthplace of Wolfie Smith, Britain's once great revolutionary leader and precursor of Russell Brand.  Before the funeral we went for lunch at the Charles Holden gastropub in Colliers Wood, where we had a very passable beer-battered haddock with chips and mushy peas served by an agreeable young man with an Australian accent. 

The funeral went off well, considering.   The funeral procession set off from her ancestral council flat, where we the mourners reminisced about her colourful life over a bottle of navy-strength gin. She had been a great supporter of Gay Pride, and a trio of drag queens turned up in full mourning regalia - black veils, wailing, rending of garments, etc. I hadn't seen anything like it since Lindsay Kemp's production of Jean Genet's "Notre Dame des Roses".  



Channelling everyone from Queen Victoria to Jackie Kennedy, via Morticia Adams


Imelda came from very humble beginnings, starting out as a lavatory cleaner in the House of Lords where she met the 14th Duke of Southend. The old duke passed on many years ago, but Imelda (as she liked to be known, although her real name was Maureen) was a well known character in the locality, dressed in her trademark odd slippers and ermine-trimmed Brentford nylons dressing gown.

I don't know who chose the music, but we all jumped when a loud rendition of "Tequila!" blared out just as the hearse drew up to the front of the crem.  The vicar managed to say diplomatic things about the old trout, and we all repaired to the Leather Bottle in Garratt Lane afterwards for the traditional drink and exchanging of photographs, memories, etc.  

Later I called in on another old fogey, Arthur Smith, who lives in nearby Balham.  He took me to The French Café.  Balham is very up and coming.  Well it couldn't really have gone down any further than it was.  I peeked in an estate agent's window - small Victorian terraced houses going for over a million!   Madness.  We both had Boeuf Bourgignon with mashed potato.  Arthur is the messiest eater I have ever known.  He always was famous for throwing his food all over the tablecloth - when he left a Chinese restaurant it looked like there had just been a wedding - but he has got worse with old age. 


The next day I had arranged to meet my recently-ennobled friend Tarquin La Folle, now Lord Folle of New Ham.  He invited me to lunch at the House.  No, not his house.  The House of Lords.  I got a brief tour of the Palace of Westminster - Westminster Great Hall and the octagonal lobby where Nick Robinson lives - before being led down interminable carpeted corridors to the Barry Room, where I was treated to a very nice lunch.  Haddock and salmon fishcake - with mushy peas! - and for pudding pear poached in port, with vanilla ice cream.  The Noble Lords have recently complained about the food in the House, but I thought it was excellent and as it was only friends and relatives of the staff who were eating in the restaurant, with Milords being on recess, there was no risk of the cooks spitting in the food.   Lord La Folle looked lovely in his ermine, and wore his robe all the way home on the tube.





Pears poached in port, with vanilla ice cream.  What's not to like?

We didn't go out for dinner because it was That Week on EastEnders, so we ordered in delicious Indian food and ate it on House of Lords trays in front of the telly.  As Tarquin lives out the other side of Stratford - almost in Essex to be honest - the choice of Indian food is vast, and we feasted on a selection of meat and vegetable dishes of varying degrees of spiciness.  11-year-old Bobby Beale had been the bookies' favourite for the murder of Lucy, but I'd assumed it was a joke.  Tarquin and I nearly dropped our poppadoms when it turned out to be true! 

On the Friday I had promised to take Vi Hornblower out for a belated 50th birthday lunch (50 - ha! who is she kidding?) and we met her at Brasserie Zédel in Sherwood Street, just off Piccadilly Circus.  It is a beautiful art deco basement restaurant, with a massive dining room very reminiscent of Paris.  It was once the ballroom of the Regent Palace Hotel, which was known for its cheap rooms and even cheaper clientele.






Vi had egg mayonnaise to start, Tarquin had quiche Lorraine and I had endives salad with walnuts and Roquefort.  For main course, I had grilled sole - with mushy peas! - Vi had the confit of duck in cassoulet, and Tarquin had coq au vin.  He's always liked a nice coq.  The food was delicious, and my guests got along famously with each other.  Vi admired Tarquin's ermine robe, and he admired her leopardskin shoes.  I chatted with the man at the next table while they were stroking each other's dead animals.  For pudding I had profiteroles, Vi had something wonderful involving ice cream and meringue and Tarquin had a coffee.  The bill was extremely reasonable, apart from the 15% service charge which bumped it up to about 33 a head.



Crispy duck lunch for one, Lotus Leaf, Westfield

A little light shopping was on the cards, and Tarquin lives conveniently close to the Westfield Centre at Stratford.  I made my usual beeline for Marks, Boots and John Lewis.   Westfield has no less than 82 places to sit down and eat.  I had eaten there once before at Pho, the Vietnamese place in the food court, so this time I plumped for Chinese and had crispy duck pancakes at Lotus Leaf.  Talk about spoilt for choice!   It would take you years to eat your way round Westfield.  It was packed due to half term and I was impressed by the sophisticated choices of the diners, who were mostly schoolkids.  Eating sushi expertly with chopsticks - in my day it was a bag of chips on the street, and a pickled egg if you really wanted to push the boat out.



On the day of my return to Brussels I arrived at St Pancras early, so that I could indulge myself in a Full English Breakfast at Cafe Pompidou, my favourite greasy spoon.  The owner is a super efficient chap called Karim, who hails from the Atlas mountains of Algeria.  Thanks to a previous liaison with a Son of the Desert, I was able to order in his native tongue.  "Full English, hold the beans, extra tomato and a cuppa tea", I said in fluent Kabyle.  "Coming up, darling," he replied in fluent Cockney.  Prices have gone up a bit since I was last there - it's about  7.45 for a full English now, but the food is served promptly, beautifully cooked, and washed down with a pot of tea.  Other diners - or brunchers, given the early hour - were having marshmallow float coffees, croissants, beans on toast, chai lattes, it seems nothing is impossible at Cafe Pompidou.  I can't bear those hipster places serving overpriced poncey coffees and cinnamon buns.   I like to leave England on a Full English stomach.




I made a last-minute raid on Tesco, stocking up on bacon, sausages, pork pies, Scotch eggs, Cheddar cheese and Cornish pasties, and staggered onto the Eurostar clutching bulging shopping bags, The Observer and a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk.  In less than 2 hours I was back at Gare du Midi, clambering into a taxi.   I really should do this more often.

Anyways, in memory of dear Imelda, please bow your heads, put your hands together and say a little prayer for her withered old soul.