Posts Tagged ‘great food’

In all the world, there’s no place like London. I love the  city. I love the people,  museums,  tube, galleries, high streets, parks, restaurants , pubs and all the things that describe England as a quintessentially unique culture in the expanding homogeneity of a globalizing world. But what I love best about London is Camden Town. If London is a distillation of all things  British then Camden Town in North London, is the essential oil of everything English.

I have tested the charm of London’s many area’s during my visit’s to the city both for business and pleasure over the years . Every neighborhood has  unique charms that continue to draw special favor from repeat visitors to this magnificent city. To satisfy my particular tastes I head straight to Camden after arriving at Heathrow. When it comes to travel I am an admitted convenience nut. I want to access as many things as can be in the easiest manner  over the shortest time and cheapest way possible. I like to be at the center of things.

The Borough of Camden is most famous  for the world renowned Camden Market that straddles both sides of trendy Camden High Street between Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A more eccentric or eclectic High Street and market mix in Britain you will never find. The street  is where Goth and Glamor have married to form the perfect union of fashion eccentricity. Londoners are fashionista’s with a flair, they fear no trend nor do they hesitate to create  their own. Styles may be for  personal entertainment or designed to spark an international fever over fascinating hats, glittering belts or crisp crinolines worn under T-shirts to be carried around the world by awestruck aficionado’s. Some trends last mere moments on Camden High Street.

Enter the crowded covered, and uncovered, Camden market from any of the gates and  find yourself in an Ali Baba’s cave of merchandise from around the world. There is no specific logic to the mix, it’s eclectic by design, there are collectable furniture shops  beside  high end clothing boutiques or old vinyl records. My stop always includes the vintage leather jacket shop in the basement of ‘The Stables’ that sells everything for ten pounds regardless of condition. The market blends centuries of product, from verifyably antique to just plain tired,  fashion forward styles to ever so practical house ware brick a brac.

There are several  food courts that are not to be missed. The highly charged and competitive take away counters offer generous portions of international cuisine for three pounds a plate. Austin Powers must have designed the seating. Rows of motor scooter seats are lined along the canal for the perfect view of Camden Lock water way to watch a constant stream of barges , walkers, joggers and general passers by. The food choices don’t stop at the market walls , they spill out into the street where restaurants and pubs line  surrounding area lanes and roads offering fabulous selection.  Thai and Japanese,  traditional English and some of the best Italian food anywhere are found within the radius of a few blocks in any direction. Each block of this neighborhood deserves a foodies attention.

The canal  is always in use by commercial and residential barges. They ply their way into the lock, rise up to the next level and off they go. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the comings and goings of this heavily  touristed  area. Don’t let the idea of wildly diverse crowds put you off, that’s what makes Camden as charming as it is. This street scene is a parade as you may have never witnessed,  not one to be missed. You’ll  mingle with colourful Mohawked punks promoting the area’s  tattoo parlours and music venues , tittering groups of Italian school girls on a weekend shopping junket, local families out for a stroll and everything in between.

There is a dreamy iron bridge that steps over the lock anchored by a gorgeous Weeping Willow on one side and the market on the other. In fact, you may have unknowingly seen this  view when watching a news story out of London  by your local affiliate reporting from there. The CBC News World building is a fixture of the lock-side . Reporters often use the Camden Bridge for a back shot. Every afternoon, young people meet on a cobblestone platform under that Weeping Willow to party. The custom is to bring cans of beer to consume away from the  pub because the price is lower that way.

I have my favorite places in Camden, as  many others have over the centuries who’ve been attracted by it’s inimitable and understated charms. I am one writer in a long line who finds the neighborhood inspiring in some unwitting way. Poet Dylan Thomas lived there, a stately blue plaque rests on the heritage listed house where he once resided and has always been a place of pilgrimage for me whenever I’m in town. Charles Dickens once lived here and placed  ‘A Christmas Carols’  Bob Crachit’s family in Camden as well as the Micawbers of David Copperfield and passages of Dombey and Son. Amy Winehouse was found deceased in her Camden Square home.

I’ve always stayed at the Holiday Inn Camden Locks for the brilliant location and modern suites. Where ever I travel these days I opt to stay fewer days  so that I can enjoy better quality food and lodgings . This is a personal choice. For my taste there is no fun  in ending the day in a less than satisfactory room for the sake of one or two extra days on the road. A full week of comfort is much more restful than two weeks where I’m not entirely comfortable. It’s one of those quality vs quantity arguments you can only have with yourself and your visa card.

I  like to ‘wander’ whenever I’m in Camden to refresh my love of the neighborhood. From the Holiday Inn on Jamestown Avenue I head down Arlington that runs parallel to the High Street. I like to relive past experiences when I can, I feel I get more out of a place that way. The original fresh fruit and vegetable market on Inverness Street is still a going concern albeit with fewer stalls than there were earlier in the century. It’s nice to know that many of the small shops are still in place, I wave, they don’t recognize me, I don’t care, it makes me feel good to buy a pomegranate and have a short conversation with the barrow man about the weather.

At the end of the block on Arlington at Parkway is the Good Fare restaurant run by the nicest Italian family. It’s a great place for a full English breakfast and a cup of tea, really bright and cozy. If I was to turn right I would visit the London Zoo two blocks up the road. A friendly cab driver named Tony told me that Neil Gallagher of Oasis fame lives in the street. There are some rather nice houses for the rich mixed in with rather ordinary Council Flats for the less famous. You can never be sure who you’ll rub shoulders with in one of the local shops. Across the street from the Good Fare stands a vacant shop that has a banner sign above the empty front window advertising monkeys for sale on one corner and a Tandoori franchise on the other. Camden has often been described as a place to find an ‘alternative lifestyle’. So far so good.

The High Street is an endless fascination, I like to walk up and down either side poking into the incredibly diverse shops. I’ll always find an excuse to ‘pop in’ to a new shop or one I have visited before. On my last trip I went into a general merchandise store catering to  Indian merchandise. I found the coolest shoes, I bought two pair, along with a little ceramic tea pot to use in the hotel room. I still send post cards to my friends stuck at home so I visit the post office for stamps, it’s also a bank. I collect metal cookie tins , the place for that fix is Marks and Spencers, ‘Marks and Sparks’ to ‘insiders’.

I’ve never met a cafe I didn’t like and Camden High Street is lined with every variety from ‘ mom and pop’ bistro’s to global franchises,  side by side. Quick food outlets like  Pret a Porte are easy on the wallet and serve reasonably good snacks and sandwiches. If you’re wanting something  substantial try a pub lunch in any of the famous pubs in the street. There’s a McDonald’s and a Burger King.

I  adore the ‘Worlds End’ pub  across  from the Camden tube station. It’s been in operation since the 1600’s. It reeks with character. ‘The End’ is a popular music venue  that hosts famous artists like ‘The Cranberries’. I have ended two  novels , The Bloody Oath’ and ‘The Enablers’ with the protagonist sitting at the rail of this fantastic  pub watching the world go by. The bar food is not half bad with a lager and lime . The Black Cap across the street is  a vintage  pub  dedicated to famous British drag entertainers.

Whether you’re walking down the High Street or decide to stroll the passage along the canal between Kentish Town and Regents Park, there’s always something to see or do around Camden. It’s one of the least boring places in the world as far as I’m concerned. Walk down to Abbey Road where the Beatles took the famous picture of themselves crossing the street in front of Abbey Road Studio’s, it’s a few blocks. The Rolling Stones sang about St. Johns Wood in the song ‘Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown’,  not far away. You can ‘get away from it all’ and overlook Camden Town by walking up the hill  towards Kentish Town on Chalk Farm Road. There’s some great little cafe’s up there.

Getting out at night is easy, you walk a few blocks . Try the retro Vinyl Bar on Inverness, it’s central and  lively.  Belushi’s on the High Street is top rated for  live rock bands ,  always fully loaded and ready to go.  ‘The Blue’s Kitchen’ on the High Street  is for the blues lovers, straight ahead good music and atmosphere, great staff.

I found  the staff in all the pubs, cafe’s and restaurants I have visited over the years  fun loving and hospitable . Bar tending and serving is a great job in London and  people  give off a really welcoming vibe,  nice when people are so cool. If you get lucky and score a ticket on the street or book ahead you might see a major band playing an intimate venue like ‘The Roundhouse’ or ‘The Underworld’ as often happens in London. Camden is considered one the main arteries for London’s music scene.

London is an expensive destination for most people, expensive but not impossible. I forget about the old days  when we would afford travel for extended periods of time by staying in flops and eating little. Today I enjoy London on a shoestring budget with a place like Camden as my focus for a shorter time. This area is so packed with inexpensive entertainment and excitement that a weeks vacation is exhausting and soul filling enough to make it seem  like I’ve been there  a month.

If you feel that you must see ‘the rest of London’,  remember, Piccadilly Circus is free, Trafalgar Square is free, the top museums are free to enter as are the fantastic parks and famous markets spread throughout the city. It costs nothing to window shop  through Selfriges on Oxford Street or Harrods in Knightsbridge. There is no charge for walking down ‘The Mall’ and gawking through the wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace. For great entertainment on the cheap, walk down Camden High Street and tell me if you didn’t have the best time of your life.

When Patricia suggested that we  visit Helsinki, I think my first reaction was , ‘Why’? With her inimitable smile she said simply , “It looks charming”. I can attest to Patricia’s instinctive appreciation of everything ‘charming’ , after all, she married me. I answered , “Let’s take a look?” As it turns out, her instincts were  correct, Finland is charming, Helsinki is  under rated , under visited, a northern gem.

What  I liked  most about Finland and  Finnish people was the  experience of visiting a country and interacting with a people who are both so absolutely understated. Finland is a  place for  experienced and sophisticated travelers to enjoy. The fact that none of the usual tourist hype is evident is truly refreshing.

There is no Disneyland atmosphere . There are no crowds, no  streets lined with multinational food franchises.  There is no mind numbing list of ‘must see before you die’ hot spots with hours long line ups of desperate ‘bucketeers’. Helsinki has it’s own distinct vibe, self assured,  that’s cool, as cool as the weather.

You’re not going to Helsinki to sun tan. They have a brief summer in late July  but it’s generally chilly and windblown. Pack sweaters and windbreakers. I’ve had enough beach vacations to appreciate the weather in Scandinavia as equally  inviting. Arriving in Helsinki airport was my first introduction to a people who are referred to as  ‘ Silent Finn’s’ . The immigration officers were stereotypically stoic, but that’s where it ended. We weren’t met with any ‘attitude’ after  hopping into our taxi  or checking into our hotel. The ‘Silent Finn’ is a myth.

Everyone we met was delighted  we’d chosen Finland as a tourist destination  We’re a rare breed apparently. Most visitors fall into the category of commercial travelers. People we met were  proud to regale us with stories about the homeland. Fins are  proud  in the quintessentially understated Finnish way . I found it charming that  conversation was about home and family rather than possessions and positions.

I was an instant fan of the  Finnish breakfast. I woke up to tables laden with fresh and prepared fish, salted, smoked, baked, fried, pickled, rolled , pasted and marinated .  It must be the Scandinavian  in me but I love fish for breakfast. There were baskets of fresh breads and rolls, pastries and crackers. The kitchen presented a fantastic selection of gluten free breads .

I loved the offerings of cheeses, yogurt and nuts. The ‘piece de resistance’ were the  wild berries and  forest mushrooms , an obsession in Finland . Where else could someone breakfast on ‘cloud berries’? I found  I had to cut back on the Finnish coffee. They brew it  strong , a  caffeine sensitive novice wouldn’t sleep for days after two cups .

Well fortified, Patricia and I walked out of our ex-dairy  hotel on the lower harbour  and headed ‘up town’. A stiff wind was in our face , we muffled into scarves and pushed  uphill towards the Esplanadi .  ‘Kave’ or coffee shops dot each block as you progress through the quaint city. People had developed the custom of ‘popping in’ to  warm nooks during the coldest months to count their fingers and toes. Helsinki’s Russian designers chose to lay out the city streets on a grid.

We walked across town in  twenty minutes, from  lower commercial harbour to the older  harbour, on which the city was originally founded . Boulevardi Street  takes a walker through the ‘design district’ where  city fathers  group business licenses to display art, clothing, furniture, photography and other artistic endeavors in one area. There are plenty of  hair dressing salons,  ubiquitous throughout the city. Finns enjoy having their hair cut by the look of it.

We came across a flea market  and couldn’t resist joining the crowd. Tables and chairs snugged around a wooden building called a ‘Kaupahalli’ which in Finland is a covered market place to shop during the bitter days of winter. Trinkets , baubles, dishes , clothing and Soviet era  posters were in  abundance ;  souvenirs unique to this part of the world. Polite bargaining was allowed,  we purchased  keepsakes  fit for carry on luggage.

Finns are  fluent in English . It’s easy to interact with people ,  Finnish  is a challenge. Learn to say good morning ‘ Paiva’, and thank you ‘Kiito’s,’ people will love you. We  engaged in conversation, mostly about the weather. Finns have a thousand expressions for ‘inclement’.

It began to get  chilly after a couple of hours , we decided to do the Finnish thing and ‘pop inside’ to  ‘count our fingers and toes’. By good fortune we chose the most interesting cafe in Helsinki, the Fazer Cafe,  flagship shop of the  Fazer Company, makers of the delicious chocolate Finland is famous for

The interior was dreamy, stacked  with chocolate boxes, pastries under glass and  cakes on revolving pedestals.   I thought I had taken a  step into Willie Wonka  factory. We were welcomed  with impeccable manners and service. The hot chocolate was to die for. European cafe’s have an understated vibe about them, places of ambient calm,  conversation , unhurried, homey.

Out the door we spied the imposing Lutheran Cathedral, a vision in white  atop the highest point in the city. Helsinki is not a city of skyscrapers. The tallest building  is the Torni Hotel at fourteen stories,  built in 1931 and never bested. We chanced upon several small museums and galleries that caught our interest ,  free to enter.

Craft furniture galleries  show a creative drive among Fins. The picture galleries present  interpretive  art and express a love of colour that one doesn’t immediately match to the inconstant weather. Travel agencies are popular fixtures. Apparently Finns love to flee a dull winter as much as anyone.

The war history of Finland is represented in stark terms at the museum. The  territory was historically coveted by two competing empires ,  autocratic Swedes and  czarist Russians. Finnish  life was unenviable in the early days. The villages and towns were  sacked and burned,  crops razed , people slaughtered or enslaved. The  history of the country’s Medieval period  was wiped out by  bitter rivalry .

That doe’s not mean that Finland is devoid of Finnish architecture, you just won’t find it in Helsinki. The capital more resembles St.Petersburg  than  Espoo, Tempere , Turku or Oulu, cities  too far removed from  trade routes and the Baltic to be of any interest to the imperialists. An interesting legacy is the polyglot nature of  Finnish people. No matter which store you  go into, clerks wear flag pins  identifying which languages they speak, Russian and Swedish figure prominently.

Helsinki harbour is steps away from the shopping concourse of Esplanadi  which ends at the entrance to the Lutheran Cathedral Square,  the nexus of tourism, such as it is, in Helsinki. This intimate pocket of water is  large enough for only one cruise ship at a time. Cruise lines stop in Helsinki,  part of the Scandinavian tour which includes Tallinn,  and St. Petersburg . While  I was there the  National Geographic research vessel was docked. Had I been younger I may have stowed away for an adventure.

The weather is challenging in Helsinki,  few cruise tourists venture far from the dock. The icy  wind can set you back on your heels unless you’re dressed for the assault. A   group of hardy dockside vendors wait patiently for trade, local and foreign, in the cold and  rain, along seawall . They sell  uniquely Finnish handicrafts of woven wool and leather , fresh fruits, vegetables and  fish of great variety. Salt herring  is popular. A short walk away there are masted wooden sailing vessels tied to the dock that work  the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.

I took a seat under a tarpaulin  fitted with gas heaters for a cup of thick steaming coffee ( to heck with sleep,  the arctic sun doesn’t set this time of year) and get out of the incessant wind. On the other side of the pier , I spied another antique Kaupahalli and realized it might be more comfortable to go inside. The Finns may be weatherproof and hardy but I am not. We made a dash.

This Kaupahalli was  different from the last. This was a cornucopia of fabulous foods.  I compare it to a  deli counter with  eighty individual vendors selling  unique Finnish favorites and specialty regional foods. These Kaupahalli’s are reminiscent of a time in Finland before supermarkets ,  they have a boutique atmosphere.

People crowd under the  turn of the century arches to get in touch with themselves. The seating in a Kaupahalli is quite un-Finnish, who can be sticklers for line ups and appointment times, instead the festival seating of egalitarianism  predominates. This is something I  observed   traveling around the country;  rules pertaining to personal time are different from those of the workplace. When it’s time to relax, Finn’s relax. As  I entered the market through the heavy iron clad double doors I was met with thick slabs of fresh and cured Atlantic salmon prominently on display.

Cheese , coffee , candy, pickles ,  baked breads, cafeteria nooks ,  charcuterie style meats  , butchers,   canned or jarred, were all in a line on  two parallel concourses of this  foodie’s paradise. I sat for a delicious bowl of hearty soup with thick dark bread smothered in creamy butter, just the thing after  hours in the cold. For dessert I tried a piece of Finland’s famous black liquorish , Salmiakki,  actually not candy but salt ammonium chloride coloured with liquorice syrup for a ‘tougher image’. Salmiakki is an acquired taste and  hard acidic agent on tooth enamel. It is  popular among Scandinavians. The heartland of this bitter tasting cult is Finland.

Once warmed, Patricia and I performed what we call a ‘wander’. We walked the city, found little lanes leading to  surprises and nothing. We ‘popped in’ and engaged in conversation with locals and immigrants,  asked  their stories ,  told them ours. In department stores we discovered  ‘blondering . Finnish women are fanatic about blond. We chanced on a book shop giving away pieces of poster art to passers by. The more we ‘wandered’, the more we were intrigued about this  under rated  city and it’s inhabitants.

I enjoyed the sedate security implied by peoples active stoicism  towards the quirks of living in this northern latitude and rugged geography. My last night in Helsinki was spent in a  local restaurant we were assured we would find  Lappi foods. Lappi  are the indigenous peoples of Finland’s arctic. We took a ‘when in Rome’ approach to the ‘new to us’  cuisine and ordered  reindeer steak prepared with red onion and blueberry sauce settled on a mountain of mashed potato’s. The flavours were  unique, unexpected , delicious.

During our meal a delightfully inebriated older gentleman, , insisted on telling us a story in Finnish , of which we couldn’t understand a word .  I surmised that the sudden appearance of foreigners in a local establishment  inspired him . He spoke sincerely  , as if we were long lost friends.

The Finns are famous for their love of drinking vodka, this man was far  from objectionable  . I’m a story teller myself, I’ve listened to stories in tongues and gestures I didn’t understand. Sometimes it’s the presentation of a story where the true impart of the tale is projected . I saw the waiter coming over  , perhaps to ‘shoo’ the old man away, I waved him off and let the guy speak.  He was certainly animated while  in full flight.

When I thought it appropriate I applauded the tipsy mans efforts . I broke the  alcoholic trance as I knew I could, with a simple gesture. He laughed and winked , sauntered back to his seat and plate of herring. He’d given me a glimpse into the heart of  Finnish people . I caught the eye of several patrons , they nodded  and smiled, I suppose for the respectful patience   shown to an old man out for a lonely meal. I felt as if I had done something a Finn would do . The storyteller had become lost in his plate of fish.

Helsinki is quiet and reserved. It doesn’t bombast with bellicose jingoism. People go about their busy lives with a sense of self confidence. I found Helsinki to be worth the effort it took to go there. The city of Helsinki is charming.  It took patience  to unlock a few of the hidden secrets of this pleasant  city. Patricia and I were convinced by this first trip to Helsinki to revisit and travel inland to discover more of the country. We have subsequently returned to Finland several times .