I made it one of my resolutions at the start of the year to visit a few places in the UK which are new to me. I haven’t actually been very good at this, but did manage to co-opt a few friends into joining me on a trip to Bath, which we selected after a five-minute discussion almost at random.
Bath is a smallish spa town, distinguished for its Georgian architecture and the extensive use of Bath stone, which gives the buildings a tawny, yellowed look (I’m sure you’re not meant to think this, but it actually reminded me a little of smokers’ fingers…forgive me) and has contributed to the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since, on a more charitable note, the colour of Bath stone also recalls sepia and aged newspapers, it contributes to an overall sense of genteel eighteenth-century elegance. The town’s history as a fashionable, expensive, buzzing Georgian town (name-checked by Jane Austen, Bath is the setting of Persuasion, her romance of longing and second chances) is both reinforced and challenged by the hordes of tourists from every part of the globe who throng the streets and the many tea rooms made to look like period pieces (or at least our televisual idea of such). The many people tramping about the city centre give it a sense of real vibrancy, recalling it as the bustling epicentre of fashionable life, and also generates the impetus to preserve the look and feel of Georgian Bath. However, tourism inherently engenders a range of tensions and contradictions: it leads to competing claims over space and geography, and to the sometimes artificial preservation of the old at the expense of the evolution of the new; and of course the need to build the kind of infrastructure to accommodate all those out-of-town visitors can sometimes undercut the supposed authenticity offered up to the tourist. In the case of Bath, one minute you can be looking at a lace-curtained tea room with its (female) staff in long skirts, shawls, and bonnets; the next moment you’ll see a row of bins, each printed in a different language – French, Chinese, Spanish – with instructions to avoid feeding pigeons and mind the seagulls.
In addition, Bath is a university town, with the campuses of the University of Bath and Bath Spa University a short drive away, which means that in addition to elegant and/or touristy places to eat and drink (both types of place are found in my which my reviews below!) you can find some very good, hearty, decently-priced food
The trip to Bath was a bit disorganised and we didn’t plan out things as well as we could have, resulting in a few things being missed – if we went again I would like to visit the Roman baths, for example – but we did see a lot of the city, including the famous Royal Crescent of posh Georgian houses overlooking the parks, which were also soothing to walk in. I also enjoyed wandering round the cathedral, gazing up at the scallop-shaped ceiling and reading the many memorial plaques, some of them very touching. All in all, it’s a good place for a quick weekend away if you fancy.
On the first day, we had lunch at The Circus, which my friend Juliet arranged for us (you will need to make advance reservations, especially for dinner). The restaurant serves a seasonal menu with beautiful British produce – it describes its food as ‘modern European’ but I thought the food was in many ways very British, in the best way: fresh, eclectic, driven by European technique for sure but with an adventurous, internationalist outlook rather than one excessively hide-bound by tradition. As the menu changes regularly with the seasons you wouldn’t be served the exact same food, but all was delicious and exquisitely prepared and I’d be fully confident in going back.
We shared a starter of a Parma (or at least Parma-style, since I think it was British) ham, nectarine and tomato and mozzarella salad. Such composed salads are not necessarily about originality but about delicious ingredients who are respected by allowing their quality to shine…and this salad hit the mark. The tomatoes were bursting with ripe, juicy flavour; the nectarines were the perfect ripeness to serve in a salad, still firm and crisp but juicy and honeyed, not underripe; the ham was excellent, with that silk-stocking texture you get from good-quality fat from a pig that has eaten a nourishing diet and a mouth-filling, nutty flavour of its own that isn’t just saltiness. The mozzarella was the necessary third element, all soft milk and cream. It was a wonder with the Bertinet bakery sourdough we were served to start.
Easter came late this year and a late Easter (and consequently a late break from work) corresponds easily with a sense of general weariness, frayed tempers and impatience. I don’t tend to notice it much at the time but in retrospect concede I was probably at my snappish worst throughout late March and early April…
Once April hit, however, I felt like I was barely in the office or in this country. Firstly I was off to Girona, as written up here; then, thanks to a craftily-timed stretch of annual leave, I was off work and visiting Israel for around ten days (more on which soon, I hope!). It was an interesting holiday: Israel offers a lot in terms of history, beauty and, in Tel Aviv at least, sheer, indulgent relaxation (I also appreciate, as a destination, Israel is not without its controversies. But I’ll leave it at that). As ever when I go on holiday, I certainly felt the intense weight of my great fortune.
The consequence of course is all the catching up and sorting out that returning from holiday entails, but luckily April is a quiet time at work (in some ways less hectic than the summer, which always promises to be quiet but rarely is). The quiet of April is paid for with a quickening pace in the months thereafter, and before I knew it, May was over in a flash. They’ve not been months for reflection and adherence to resolutions – I know I’ve failed on some counts over the past two months – but overall I think it’s been okay.
1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week
This target was certainly not met in April – I don’t think I ate any fish while in Israel – and I barely scraped it in May, with only a single serving per week.
2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week
I was hardly at work in April, as above but, apart from that, I have been doing pretty well on this resolution so far this year, and April and May were no exceptions. Although I sometimes feel less than enthusiastic about whipping something up on a Sunday evening, it usually pays dividends – especially when the weather has been as windy and changeable as it has been recently, enabling me to avoid being caught in a lunchtime downpour in search of a sandwich.
3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week
I definitely achieved this goal while I was in London, but I’m a little less certain about the time spent in Israel, unless I count breakfast in the mix (which, when tallying this up, I usually don’t as breakfast is typically vegetarian for me by default). While I did eat a few meals of hummus and falafel in Israel (obvs) I also know I ate much more meat than I usually do, from spiced lamb kofta kebabs to barely-cooked chicken liver (not great).
4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes
I haven’t been relying on bookmarked recipes lately mostly because, on return from Israel, I felt the need to, er, recalibrate my food intake a little and eat healthier meals after several enjoyable, guilt-free weeks of indulgence. I’ve therefore turned to some of my reliable ‘diet’ cookbooks to feed myself since I came back. I will be returning to the never-ending bookmarks in due course…
5) Celebrate my heritage more
Not a chance, really…although…
When we were at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Centre), a guide kindly told me to look out for some of the Belgian names in the memorial garden of the Righteous Among the Nations when we were there, which was really nice of her to mention (the Righteous Among the Nations are people who protected and saved Jewish people during the Holocaust; the most famous among them is probably Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand people, but the memorials also remember many of those who saved smaller numbers of people, sometimes one or two, usually by hiding them in their homes). It wasn’t a ‘celebration’ of my heritage, but provided an opportunity to reflect on European history and Belgium’s place within that, and to consider the inherent complexities associated with both the ideas of heritage and the celebration thereof – the things that are left out as well as left in.
6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine
I slept pretty well while on holiday – free from stress and being forced awake for work regardless of when ready to be or not, but admittedly things haven’t been going so well since I’ve been back. More effort needed – started with going to bed at a fixed time in the evenings rather than knocking around the flat until past midnight for no fathomable reason.
7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London
Obviously this wasn’t achieved, BUT I have actually planned a trip to Bath with some friends at the very end of June/start of July. I am absolutely thrilled.
8) Read at least one book a month
I’ve been doing really well on this front actually. I’ve started re-reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries, starting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles and going forward in order. They’re quick and breezy, which is a plus: perfect for the commute. I read this work by Helen McPhail about the German occupation of the north of France during the First World War (much less widely known about than the more widespread occupation of the Second World War). I also read Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last for my book group: it’s a dystopian work of speculative fiction (so far so Atwood) with an intriguing promise that ultimately tipped into the absurd and proved greatly disappointing. The significant contrast between the beginning, which chilled me deeply, and the end, which irritated me significantly, was marked. The characters were poorly drawn and their choices stretched credibility. The patchiness of this particular work is explained by the fact that it started off life as an e-book serial; it showcases Atwood at her best (the beginning) and quite possibly worst, quite unlike her seminal work The Handmaid’s Tale, which is uniformly excellent throughout.
We live in an era where occasionally you can take off to Europe at a moment’s notice and spend a long weekend in another country and, recently (just before Easter), that’s just what I did. A friend was visiting from Australia and suggested a European adventure, and shortly after we had booked tickets to visit Girona. Spain is such a classic British holiday destination (and Belgian one, for that matter) that it was hard for some of my colleagues to understand that this was my very first visit, ever.
Girona, which is close to Barcelona, is considered one of Catalonia’s major cities, but it’s population is – compared to London – tiny, with just under 100,000 people living there at last count. This accounts for the peacefulness and quiet of the town which I experienced; even at busy points it was pleasant and easy to walk around. Although the narrow alleyways and winding streets can make it confusing to navigate – all the stone walls merging into one – the size of the place makes it manageable (although I readily admit that I was entirely dependent on my friend, who had a homing pigeon’s instinct for finding our AirBnB).
It’s also easy to get to and from other areas – Barcelona is obviously close by, but we opted to take a day trip to Salvador Dali’s birthplace Figueres and visit the museum which he helped design (the entrance pictured just above). Dali is a somewhat controversial figure in the art world – the genius of his works is not doubted, but his changeable politics, which verged on outright support for Franco, can certainly be considered questionable – but the museum helped me to appreciate his body of work much more. His strange inventiveness, delicate skill and exquisite tenderness of his paintings was so much more than melting clocks.
In terms of food, there were, predictably, a lot of tapas. On the first night we ate a restaurant at the steps of the San Felix church, which made for an atmospheric setting but markedly average food which in some cases seemed extremely Americanised – think stodgy cheese batter studded with mild chilliest, served with a barbecue-style sauce (we expected jalapeños stuffed with cheese from the description of it). We also ate at a branch of König, a mini-chain with branches around the city which we had actually avoided on the first night there on account of its Germanic name and long and mostly not very local menu. However, during a walking tour the next day, our guide mentioned it had won an award for the best patatas bravas in Catalonia. The tour ended just outside one of their branches, so the small group (four of us were on the tour) ate some decent bravas – chunky and without excess grease – and some average, but decent, seafood croquetas, and also slightly better ham croquetas. None of it was revelatory but it was satisfying. We cooled off with ice cream from Candela afterwards. They had some innovative (and not, to my palate, successful) flavours such as tomato ice cream, but also more delicious classics such as coffee, chocolate and pistachio. I had a lovely local walnut ice cream completely studded with chopped nuts – no mimsy sprinkle here. They were happy to provide samples before we bought our cones, too – always a bonus.
We also had some excellent coffee at Espresso Mafia, an elegantly minimalist cafe where they roast the coffee beans in-house. The friend I was with, who is Australian and therefore highly attuned to quality coffee, approved heartily. The flat whites were delicious; the chai latte was spicy and flavourful with a good gingery kick, but a little cold. They also serve a ‘dirty chai’, which is a chai latte with a shot of espresso; not my cup of tea but interesting enough. The baked goods were tasty standards – coconut, chocolate and Oreo cakes, banana breads and a range of oatmeal-based cookies, as well as a vegan option.
The second time we went to Espresso Mafia, coffees in hand, I purchased a handful of churros (picture at the top) from the Montse l’Artesana, a small churreria just opposite, to nibble on during our walk to the train station. The churros are sold by weight so I was able to request only three, which was sufficient for a (shared) mid-morning snackette. They were not freshly fried to order and served with thick chocolate, as you might expect, but were fried in advance, some plain, some covered in a chocolate glaze and some in a veil of white icing. I chose plain ones sprinkled with granulated sugar. They were more like a crunchy cookie than a tender, moist fritter with cakey insides, but this actually meant they went well with the coffee. I don’t think they were exceptional, probably, and yet I really enjoyed them, and eating the last of the sugar from the tip of the cone with a moistened finger.
Over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I visited Dublin with my boyfriend. I’ve wanted to go to Ireland for a long time – I’m fairly sure this longing was based on reading Marita Conlon-McKenna’s ‘Wildflower Girl’ over and over as a child. This, and the commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising, made a trip irresistible to the historian in me. My interest is not just in the past, but in its use, commemoration, and sanctification by the state, popular culture, media, and corporations. Events are remembered (and, equally crucially, forgotten) and reworked all the time, and how we use the past says more about our own concerns, fears and hopes as a society than it does about the events themselves.
In addition to observing and (seeking to) understand the significance of the Easter Rising in Ireland’s national story – as someone with an interest in the First World War I’ve only ever really understood the Rising within a wartime, rather than a national, context – we also ate plenty of food at various Dublin establishments. The city was packed out and we didn’t manage to get to all the places on my list, but from a culinary perspective the trip was a great success.
If you’re interested in knowing more about history and its use in society – that is, outside of academic settings – then you absolutely must read Ludmilla Jordanova’s ‘History in Practice’. If, however, you’d like to know more about the food I tried in Dublin, then please stay and read on here!
After watching the commemoration ceremony and laying of the wreaths in central Dublin (on screens just outside the beautiful Trinity College), we were both absolutely starving, but the centre of Dublin was utterly rammed. I suggested we make our way to Slice, which had come recommended by a forum I frequent and had the advantage of being a little bit further out (so further from the crowds). But as we made our way there, we came across Wuff and, well, with a name like that, how could we not decide to go there? As soon as we entered, a table for two cleared, and within minutes of sitting down it started pouring with rain outside. Just meant to be, I reckon.
The ambience is not unlike slightly more hipster-ish, trendy brunch places in London: lots of wood and repurposed tin cans holding cutlery, although there were also, appropriately, lots of bright paintings of dogs dotted around the room.
Starving and somewhat cold, we both went for the full Irish (we really needed something warm!), although I forewent the serving of baked beans. On the plate: a couple of pieces of toast and two pats of butter; well-cooked bacon, a nice mix of crispy and softer pieces; a fried egg; black and white pudding (which I think is what makes this truly distinctive from the full English); and a gloriously cooked sausage, golden and appetising. And baked beans, should you want them. A traditional cooked breakfast is of course not the most exciting of food but it was executed well and the individual elements were delicious. The egg had a nicely runny yolk, which I like; the discs of pudding were scrumptious and it was a revelation to me. I had always thought I wasn’t fond of black pudding, but I realise now I just don’t like it in the incarnation of Belgian bloedpens, which is heavy and fatty. The black and white puddings were more like haggis, meaty, salty and crumbly with oatmeal. The standout, though, was the sausage: densely meaty (always a good sign), with good, porky flavour and pleasantly studded with leeks. My only real surprise was that we had white farmhouse bread instead of soda bread. The tea, an Irish breakfast blend, was also good: Irish breakfast tea blends are more weighted towards stronger, malty Assam tea than English breakfast, which includes a higher proportion of Ceylon and Kenyan tea. The Irish blend results in a stronger cup, which suits me to the ground.
Obviously, as I only had the one meal there I can’t comment broadly, but it was very good, and there are plenty of modish options if you’d like – lots of elegant women were ordering platefuls of the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, which sounds like the lighter option if you ignore the generous puddles of buttery hollandaise poured around the English muffins. They looked great.
Avoca was another recommendation and when we arrived, shortly before it opened, there was a small queue forming outside. The cafe, which is situated above a gleaming shop of edited homewares, clothes, and books, became packed within minutes of it opening, so I’d recommend joining the pre-opening queue. Avoca, with its clean wood lines, on-trend rows of baked goods and jugs of cucumber and mint water, is clearly the place to be, and it’s also a place to be seen.
The breakfast menu is a typically brunchy mix of classics (the full Irish, pancakes) and trend-led superfood-y stuff – power porridge, green juice. Incidentally, the printed menu we received was not exactly the same as the one online. I ordered a fruit scone, which appears on the online menu (and the scones were visible in baskets), but didn’t appear in print. My boyfriend hesitated over the power porridge before, somewhat shamefacedly, going for his second full Irish in two days.
His verdict on the Avoca full Irish, though, was that it was ‘nice’ but not particularly striking. The sausages didn’t appear as good as the one we had at Wuff and he confirmed this was the case (even though they are advertised as coming with leeks, as the Wuff sausages did). The Avoca cooked breakfast came with bacon and sauteed mushrooms, a pile of rocket salad, scrambled eggs (you could replace it with a poached or fried egg though) and a bit of tomato: lacking the black or white pudding, it didn’t seem particularly different to an English breakfast, and, given the pile of rocket, was definitely a modernised version.
My scone came with cream, jam and butter, which was heaps of fun. The size of a fist or two, it was beautifully light and with an exceptionally fluffy interior, which made me wonder if it had been made with cream. The rocky, slightly sweet crust provided a textural contrast to the delicate interior without being tooth-breakingly hard. The scone was studded with raspberries but I would have preferred a more generous handful. The raspberry jam the scone was served with was exceptional, though: so sharp and really perfectly preserving the acidic bite of the fresh fruit, tempered by just enough sweetness.
Verdict: The scone was lovely, the cooked breakfast only so-so. Instead of breakfast, pop in for a cup of tea and cake – baked goods are clearly where this place shines.
I was in a fairly grumpy mood when we popped into this tiny, centrally-located cafe, mostly from sheer hunger. Although going to a Parisien-themed cafe seemed a bit of a waste of an opportunity to seek out a more locally-flavoured option, quite a few of our listed alternatives were actually closed on the bank holiday. I perked up, however, at the sight of the croque monsieur, a weakness of mine, which I ordered along with a pecan tart. David ordered a lemon tart.
Service here was broadly friendly but erratic, and somewhat slow. A French couple sitting near us left, slightly huffily, without ordering, because they had not been served since their arrival (they did say to a passing waitress that they had to go to the airport soon but this did not result in speeded-up service). The pecan and lemon tarts arrived. I waited for the croque monsieur, and reminded the waitress I’d ordered it. I waited some more. It never arrived and I ate my pecan tart, which was excellent: crumbly, sandy pastry, gooey-sweet caramel filling with enough burnt sugar edge to stop it from being sickly, pecans with their fattiness cutting through it. The lemon tart had qually good pastry and a light, creamy filling which, for me, lacked enough lemon flavour and sharpness to hit the mark. Both were served with squirty whipped cream. Cheered up (though slightly missing the croque), we went to pay – we got up to pay at the counter rather than wait and it still took a while to get the bill, which, of course, had the croque monsieur listed. The staff were apologetic about having forgotten and it’s not the end of the world, and waitering is a thankless job, though obviously it’s not great business practice to miss people’s orders. Apparently something was wrong with the till that day so if you pop in your experience may vary.
Verdict: The tarts were very nice but honestly I could have given this one a miss, and you should only go if you have the time to spare on slightly slower service.
Spoiler alert: dinner at this centrally-located fine-dining restaurant was the foodie highlight of the Dublin trip for me (I even mentioned it in my March Food Favourites video). I would advise booking because we were turned away one evening when it was packed to the rafters. On the day we went, though, it was quieter and had a cosy feel; we were tired and happy to be tucked in the corner of the window in two enormous velvety armchairs.
The menu was one of those agonising ones where everything looks amazing and it’s painfully difficult to choose; as both of us dithered lengthily, we had to send the conscientious waitress back a few times when she enquired if we were ready; fortunately, she took this with good grace. David agonised between the rib eye of beef, which came with chips and salad, and the wild mushroom gnocchi, while I mentally flitted between the slow cooked pig’s cheeks with roast autumn vegetables, pomme puree and horseradish foam (I have yet to eat foam!) and a special of braised lamb with colcannon mash and carrot puree. I always struggle with whether I should ordered a special because there’s a school of thought which says a one-off menu item will never be as good as the ones the chef practices and perfects night after night. But in the end, the ‘Irishness’ of a dish of lamb, potatoes and cabbage won the day, and the boy was won over by the steak, which he ordered medium-well.
Lamb, potatoes, cabbage and carrots it may have been, but the dish which was served up was no rustic peasant food but was elegantly refined, though not overly-fussy; the perfect balance. The lamb fell apart at the slight prod of the fork and was just meltingly perfect: sweet, with a strongly-flavoured glaze that didn’t compete with the lamb but brought out its essence. The lamb croquette had the perfect interplay of textures: crisp, robust crust and tender inside. Although the idea of carrot puree artfully decorating the plate might be a turn-off for some, the concentric circles of sweet carrot provided a lovely counterpoint on the plate and was a more imaginative way of presenting cooked carrot. The colcannon was deliciously creamy and buttery and perfectly smooth.
My boyfriend’s steak was perfectly cooked according to his request: it was exactly as you’d want a medium-well steak to be, slightly pink but not bloody, and still retaining a delicate, tender texture. The cafe de Paris butter was well-flavoured and the chips were robust and well cooked: crisp exterior, fluffy interior, and enough of them (there’s nothing so annoying as parsimony with respect to chips at a restaurant, no matter how refined).
We didn’t have dessert (on account of the Easter eggs waiting for us back at the hotel), but I did indulge in an Irish coffee. It was deliciously balanced: hot coffee, the background burn of whiskey warming my throat and stomach, and the cool, aerated cream adding a lactic sweetness to balance the heat of the coffee and alcohol. In truth I would have preferred it a tiny bit sweeter – I like my coffee sweet – but this was admittedly perfectly executed.
Verdict: Centrally located, beautifully cooked food. As far as I’m concerned it’s a must-try. Book in advance.
There’s a slightly Scandi-hipster vibe at Green19: clean wood and soothing green tones (even the menu cover is wood – I accidentally scorched it by placing it over the tealight in the centre of the table), friendly, bearded waiters, and minimalist, clean type. It’s a smallish place; although we might have gotten away with dropping in I think it’s best to book in advance.
They’d run out of a few items on the menu when we at there (no chicken wings, mackerel, or hake), so if you’re going with your heart set on something, it might be worth checking in advance (though I don’t know how typical it is for the kitchen to run low). I ordered the pork belly, which came with spinach, green beans (it was meant to be butternut squash as per the menu but…they’d run out) and mustard mash, and David, staggering a little under the weight of numerous Irish breakfasts and steak meals, went for a vegetarian main in the form of the gnocchi, which came with a creamy mushroom sauce.
The gnocchi were lovely and bouncy and the rich sauce had a smooth, supple flavour, full of that slightly dusty, woodsy, meaty mushroom taste. The sauce was also studded with pumpkin, lending its sweetness, and dusted with parmesan. It was rich, filling and indulgent, which is always nice in a vegetarian dish.
The pork belly I had was fabulous. The belly was cooked shy of falling-apart tender, but it was soft and unctuous. The mustard mash was sharply tangy, which was an interesting contrast to its creamy texture, and of course provided the necessary counterpart to the rich pork. The beans were cooked until crunchy and bright green, the way I most prefer them. But the star of my dish was really the flat slab of pork belly skin which topped the plate: crisp and puffed, it shattered in the mouth, salty and brittle.
We also ordered dessert at the end of the meal; I went for the spiced apple crumble and David for the chocolate brownie. Both came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’d characterise both desserts as good, solid, though not groundbreaking versions of the classics. The apple crumble came in a crumbly pastry case, which is a bit different, and the spicing leaned more towards clove and star anise than to cinnamon, which was a nice change. The brownie was moist and cakey rather than fudgy, and although light in texture was rich in chocolate flavour. The teas were served with a skinny stick of dark Valrhona chocolate, which was a nice touch.
Verdict: I liked the food here a lot: give it a go. It’s classic comfort food, rendered well.