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Life in the big smoke

I might not remember you, but I will remember the meal

So here is the thing. I’ve realised what hooks anything memorable in the vast and messy attic that is my brain is food. If I think back to any travelling I’ve done in my life, the first thing that pops into my head is what I ate.

I went on a holiday to Cyprus with my family when I was eleven or twelve (more than twenty years ago!) and I still have a really clear memory of sitting in a small neighbourhood restaurant with plastic garden furniture tables on a shaded patio, the tables had a white and red checked waxy table cloth, trying dolmades for the first time. I can even recall the taste of the slightly sour and salty vine leaf wrapped around a chewy rich filling. I remember the bread, white, sweet and fluffy, soft and dense at the same time.

What set me down on this particular path was realising that Gerry and I are travelling abroad fairly soon. And thinking about travelling made me think of the food we’ve eaten on our travels.

There was Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village. We lived in an Airbnb nearby and walked over almost every day to pick up a salad, cheese and a few beers. There was this one blue cheese, so salty and tangy that it tasted almost like salty liquorice. OMG. If I lived nearby I would probably spend all my money on cheese.

There was also Tensuke, a tiny tempura place in Koenji in Tokyo. Every lunchtime there was a queue outside. The restaurant was just a bar disk, big enough for about half a dozen people. The chefs stood in front of a vat of boiling oil. The head chef chopped various vegetables at lightning speed, dipped them in batter and threw them into the oil. We were presented with piping hot, crispy and freshly fried dish after dish. The best one was the starter. A quickly deep fried egg, melting over some sticky rice and served up with an almost chocolatey and salty broth.

Then there is the Oyster Shed on Skye, this cold barn on the hill above Talisker Distillery where you can purchase all the shellfish of your dreams. I remember ordering some scallops, struggling to get my freezing fingers to pierce them with a miniature wooden fork. They were hot, sweet and tender, served with scalding chips and a sweet chilli sauce. Just perfect.

So there we are. I pretty much use nice meals as bookmarks in my life. They help me remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done and these memories are so vivid. If I think about a good meal I’m transported back to that place, to the smells and sounds, I can even recall the taste. It’s an odd skill, considering I make a living as a reporter I’m incredibly bad at remembering names and faces. But I do remember food.

*I also seem to get so engrossed in actually eating that I hardly ever take photographs of food. And that’s why I’m sharing this lovely photo of some beaujolais on a messy table in the cute, but tiny apartment we stayed in in Tokyo. You’re welcome.

Some thoughts for the equinox

At the end of our holiday in Finland earlier this year we spent a couple of days in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. We hiked through forests and spent several kilometers staring at the narrows paths between the bilberry bushes and the moss, trying not to stumble over any of the red pine roots criss-crossing the ground. We climbed up watch towers and looked out over a never ending forest. The air was so clean it felt thick and satisfying, like a fine meal for the lungs.

The days were cloud-covered and sometimes it rained. The temperature hovered around ten degrees centigrade. We stopped by a cold and windy lake on one of our hikes and watched three otters playing in the grey waves, slinky shadows underneath the water. Every now and then a head popped up, watching us watching them.

For a bit more than a week after we came back to London I dreamed of these forests. When I woke up in the morning the only thing on my mind were the trees. Every year I feel more and more homesick when I come back to London. It’s as if I miss the land itself, the forests and the air and the water. And I kept dreaming about trees.

lapland forest

Little by little the memory fades and I sink back into the reality here in London. We have a house to renovate and decorate and there is a lot of other work to do. We’re in the process of emptying two rooms upstairs and have set up camp in the living room downstairs for the first time since we moved in. These last few weeks are the first we’ve been able to use the fire place we installed at the beginning of the year. We found some boxes of old wood at the studio and have been keeping the fire going most nights. That reminds me of home. Even though this is a tame fire, in a perfect and sealed modern stove, a different beast to the smoky, fierce flames in the open fire place at the summer house.

Yesterday we had a fire. Yesterday was the equinox and the days will grow shorter now. That made me think of this Sami story I read while we were in Lapland. It’s about a pagan woman, Mariska, and the priest who tries to convert her. I found the story on this blog.

The priest says, “My poor child, you are now the only pagan left in this region”. Mariska agrees and turns around and sends a kiss to the Sun. She answers, “When you are old like me, you will like the warm Gods”. The priest continues: “But what happens, when the Sun disappears in the winter, behind the clouds?” “One of Beaivvás´ sons sits upon my wood oven. I give him firewood to eat.”, replies Mariska.
“I thought that wood is also one of your Gods. I have seen how respectfully you treat the bark and use it in your handcrafts. How can you put your God in the fire?”, asks the priest. “Only a God is worthy to be food for another God”, answered Mariska, and then she explained that she prefers a God that can be cut down, like a tree, instead of a God she cannot see nor touch.

So this winter I will keep feeding the fire, thinking of home.

My escape to Dartmoor

After the fire and the terror attacks I needed to leave London. I had to get away form people and traffic and cars and noise. I found an Airbnb near Dartmoor. I booked the cottage, I booked a train and I left for a week. Gerry was working, so I spent the first few days on my own.

I was going to write, but instead I walked. There were many maps in the cottage, some were old, some were new, some were laminated. I picked a smallish, laminated one and I picked a path. Then I walked.

I walked through fields covered in chest-height ferns, through forests where old oak trees lined the path and the Holy Brook bubbled alongside me. I walked on ancient bridleways and on small winding roads. I walked away from people and toward any place I could find that was green and quiet. I stopped and smelled the soil, the sunshine on the leaves, the growth and the decay.

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I sat on an old drystone wall, a bridlepath behind me, the ground falling away from me on the other side. There was a small brook in the valley below and I wanted to spend some time near it. The trees were heavy and green above. My phone and the map were resting on the wall next to me. Out of nowhere a happy spaniel appeared, jumped up on the wall and pushed the phone over the edge. I patted the dog, then scrambled down the stone wall, down the slope and crawled underneath a fallen tree covered in ivy to retrieve my phone. It’s still not working properly. I take that as a sign. Slow down.

Gerry joined me for the last few days and we walked some more. We walked to the most famous Tors on Dartmoor, we hiked to an old stone circle and had lunch among the standing stones.

standing stones, devon

I’m back in London now. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, but the paths I walked stayed with me. They were made by feet and hooves over many centuries, perhaps over many millennia, and they can be walked still. That’s what keeps me loving this country. It’s old, its paths are old and there are many left to explore.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

What to do if you only have one day in London

This weekend a couple of friends came over to London from Finland. Some of them had been in London before, one of them hadn’t. It got me thinking. What would be the best way to spend a day in London if you’ve never seen the city before? Here is what I would do.

Morning

Start at London Bridge. Check if Borough Market is open and grab breakfast and a coffee somewhere in the bustling food market. It’s worth going early as it can get busy in the afternoon. If it’s closed go to one of the chain cafés around Hay’s Galleria.

When fed and caffeinated start strolling west, follow the Thames along the southbank. Along the way pass The Globe, Tate Modern and the London Eye.

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Eventually the Houses of Parliament will appear on the other side of the river. Cross Westminster Bridge and explore the area. If the queue isn’t too long and you have money in your pocket have a look at Westminster Abbey.

Afternoon

Walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square, passing 10 Downing Street on the way. Have a look at Trafalgar Square and keep heading north on to Charing Cross road. On the way there’ll be a chance to see Leicester Square and its theatres.

At Shaftesbury Avenue turn right and head towards the Seven Dials near Covent Garden. There will plenty of nice places to have lunch around there. I would go to one of the vegetarian places in or around Neal’s Yard.

There are lots of shops around the Seven Dials and Covent Garden. Many of these shops will be the same ones you’ll find on Oxford Street, but they’ll be less busy.

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Spend the afternoon exploring Covent Garden and Soho. Stop for a tea at Maison Bertaux on Greek Street in Soho. They have amazing pastries. If you fancy coffee instead go to Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in the Seven Dials.

Evening

Take the 24 bus from Charing Cross Road to its final stop (The Royal Free Hospital in Kentish Town). From there it’s a really short walk to Hampstead Heath. The bus will go past Camden, which is great to see from a bus window, but less interesting to walk around (unless you’re a 14-year-old with stripy tights).

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Walk up to Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath, admire the skyline, take a couple of photographs. Stroll around the park and then walk back down to Camden. If the feet feel tired stop and have a green smoothie at Inspiral or a pint at The Lock Tavern.

Take the overground from Camden Junction to Dalston, grab something to eat at The White Rabbit and then go for a drink in the nearby pub Farr’s School of Dancing. On an adventurous night take a bus to Shoreditch and sampel a few cocktails at Callooh Callay.

Top image by Alessia Clauderio all other pictures are mine.