Tea

And sometimes it’s tea that counts! London days always began with early morning tea, waiting for daylight and the young people to wake. And tea through out the day sustained me – a “cuppa” welcomed in any number of settings.

On Christmas Eve afternoon a quiet tea at a deserted neighborhood bakery, watching last minute shoppers hustle by outside and the bakery door repeatedly open to customers destined to be disappointed by the nearly empty shelves, tea with the sweet bride while seated on tall stools at a little place on Portobello Road (while the others descended to a basement café serving full English breakfasts), and cups of tea perched at the edge of a table in another crowded place, enjoying a series of conversations with shoppers who were into the city for the day.

Nowadays there are countless Pret-a-Manager restaurants in London – popular and ubiquitous and so useful to tourists. Their size and style varies with the neighborhood, but they offer fresh ready-made sandwiches to grab – when tables are full or time’s too short to sit – food fuel critical for our constant walking.

I took to having the same sandwich – egg salad and cress – whether standing under the shadow of Big Ben outside a hole-in-the wall place across from the Houses of Parliament, or at museum cafes.

Hot tea made that sandwich work in the winter, I clutched a paper cup, while the tea steamed and warmed my hands. Twice we carried cups when we joined walking tours (tours in winter provide heat, people clustered together like penguins, trapping a little warm air).

My favorite tea was at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich – a wordsmith-recommended destination – and a place we all enjoyed. To get there, you ride the Docklands Light Rail out of London proper, and because the rail is elevated, pass rapidly over and through abandoned wharf areas now repopulated with the tall steel and glass office buildings of modern prosperity. It looks a cleaned up “Blade Runner” vista.

But Greenwich itself is old England – with village-size buildings and the beautiful structures of the old Naval College now housing the Maritime Museum. We found a huge “Turner and the Sea” exhibition, and ships and sagas galore with tales of exploration, trade, piracy, and famous mariners.

In the café, they serve tea properly – a pretty china cup with plenty of hot water in an accompanying pot – just right for an egg and cress sandwich.

tea with salt

Thoughts of Socks, Socks and Thoughts

At one of the London Undergound stations, maybe Knightsbridge, across the tracks from the platform, a huge sign advertized the famous bookshop Foyles. That poster stuck out in the midst of countless images of handsome men and glamorous women sporting very white teeth, coiffed hair, and heaving bosoms promoting whiskey or airlines or movies.

The Foyles ad (or advert as the Brits would say) was about gift buying – more text than image – two fat paragraphs and the image of a row of books against a green background.

You could read some of the titles: Donna Tartt’s new book “The Goldfinch,” a Bill Bryson book “One Summer,” a book with a title, “Demon Dentist,” I didn’t want to consider too carefully. Something by Neil Gaiman, “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, and “Sounds Like London,” which I am curious about. Appropriately, the front cover of the last book reads: “The Novel Cure.”

The poster pushes books, of course, but the fat paragraphs discuss the giving of socks as a gift, and offers “interesting things you ought to know about socks.” (Somebody clever at Foyles – or its ad agency – had a really good time.)

“No sock groups meet on a Tuesday night over wine and nibbles,” “A sock has never been turned into an Oscar-winning film.” “The greatest minds in history have not expressed the contents of their heads and souls in a sock, nor do you recognize your own life in a sock.” “You don’t place socks on your coffee table to impress your guests.” There are many more. “You do not think about a sock long after, perhaps even years after, you’ve put it down.”

All these familiar and well-known phrases turned on their heads (or heels). Just under the row of books, it takes you a minute to catch on, is the cliché most associated with gift giving.

At first glance it says: “It’s the thought that counts.” But it doesn’t say that, it’s talking about why we cherish books beyond all the sock-suggested reasons. A red strike-through eliminates the “the,” so it reads: “It’s thought that counts.”

life's socks

This Baby

You have heard about Baby Girl and Baby Boy, long-time favorite dolls of Lady Baby. But a third baby doll, one less often the chosen, has always been part of the scene.

The staff at Downtown sometimes called her by the surname of the family whose gift she was, but when Lady Baby wanted a doll to go in the stroller or sit with us to read, we’d pick up a doll and ask: “Do you want Girl Baby? Boy Baby? – Oh – you want this baby?”

She is now formally known as This Baby (I’m told). Further I can tell you (thanks to Mrs. Hughes) that she is two-years old, likes purple, and shoes – proclivities she shares with Lady Baby.

She probably doesn’t speak as well though. Because I also heard that one morning, after watching a garbage truck, Lady Baby retreated to the hall closet where several small trucks are garaged. After nattering and making siren sounds with them for a while, she finally said to Mrs. Hughes: “My guys drive dump trucks and cement trucks and pick-up trucks.”

“They do?”

“Sometimes.”

Much as I love these stories, I am more sorry than you know to be telling them secondhand!

This Baby and friend Bunny

Pasta Alla Puttanesca

It used to be that food was not a reason to go to England. That’s so different now in London. We had an easy time of that dangerous-to-travelers early evening period, when hunger sets in along with restaurant uncertainty. By happenstance, we twice ate at restaurants belonging to the chef Jamie Oliver.

Near the flat we rented in Notting Hill, Oliver’s Recipease is a cook’s store and a restaurant where chefs teach partygoer groups how to make a dish. We sat at a big wooden table, watched the chef and his students, and ate the best guacamole ever, along with other delicious things.

But my favorite Oliver night came in Covent Garden. We approached Oliver’s Italian restaurant to find a huge line at 5 p.m. We stood in it – more out of indecision and fatigue than anything – and were rewarded as people as people quickly disappeared into a surprisingly commodious, bustling place smelling like garlic and fresh bread.

The special board listed spaghetti alla puttanesca and it was terrific. A Jamie Oliver recipe for Gennaro’s spaghetti alla puttanesca is (here), and I was surprised to read that it contained anchovies!

     I came home reminded of that favorite and so easy dish, and will make it this weekend for company. I’ll leave the anchovies out, so it won’t be the same, but capers and olives seem the trademark ingredients. I’ll sauté onions in olive oil, add garlic, red chilies or our Rome spices, and canned tomatoes. Then toss in olives, capers, and cherry tomatoes.

     It will be fun to spoon it over strozzapreti, serve it with crusty bread and wine, and talk to friends about trips. For sure we’ll have London weather – wet and very dark – but the memories will be bright!

ingredient - pasta puttanesca

London Called

Our younger son and his sweet bride most often come north to us for the Christmas holiday. But this last Christmas we met in London!

In the clear days of January, when we are all looking ahead, it hasn’t seemed right to write about the holiday past, but I know London thoughts that cycle in my head will find their way into posts. (With pleasure I will save the Christmas bits for the blog next December, and just say that from a “Love Actually” beginning at Heathrow Arrivals Hall to a Charles Dickens walk on Christmas Day, it was so much fun to be in London for the holiday!)

Anglophile I am – and my fondness just grows. Mrs. Hughes summed up part of why in a text message from home: “all those literary references and everyone dressed like a page from a Boden catalogue!” Especially in the winter!

People appeared in countless variations of the same winter theme: black wool coats or black down coats, short black boots or tall black boots, scarves of festive red or – the scarf of the moment – a trendy hound’s-tooth check. Stylish young men and women with briefcases, scarves wrapped about their necks, and open overcoats flying behind. Hats or hoods, mittens or gloves, grannies and toddlers – all bundled for London days. Riding down to the Tube, the escalator opposite was a fashion parade.

Inclement weather prompted all that layered dressing – cold clear days with sunshine of sorts, or wet, blustery days with wool gone damp and umbrellas turned inside out. Just enough adversity to make coming in from the cold and wet a huge pleasure. Nights were early dark – by 4 p.m. the lights of the city began to glitter in the wet.

And by that time of day we were looking for food!

winter hat of the sweet bride