Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What is it?

Who'd like to take a guess?


Gamble Room, ceiling detail
I am having a wonderful but very full time here in London. We are overwhelmed - whether it's the crush of tourists in Covent Garden, or the noise and cacaphony of the Brick Lane market in the East End, there are so many sights and sounds it has been hard to do more than just take it all in.

Everything is full of detail and meaning, and resonates its history and place in popular culture.

You know how you can get overwhelmed while visiting a museum? And you decide you have to take it in one or two wings at a time, and save the rest for another day. Well, the city of London is a little like that.

And speaking of museums - we visited the Victoria & Albert Museum yesterday. Even the museum cafe is overwhelming.

The V & A, as far as anyone can tell, was the first museum ever to have a restaurant inside for hungry patrons to rest and eat. The cafe was decorated in a style to showcase current decorative design.

So here is the Gamble Room at the V & A. It was designed by James Gamble and built around 1865. You can enjoy your tuna salad on baguette beneath the ceramic-encrusted columns and arches and the enameled tin ceiling.

And that's just one of the rooms. Another was designed by William Morris.

Victoria and Albert Museum, Morris Room detail
You have a sandwich lunch in there and try not to feel overwhelmed!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Vaults and vines

In the 17th century, the area around Villiers Street was part of an estate owned by the Duke of Buckingham. Number 47 was a respectable house occupied by a bookish fellow named Samuel Pepys, who kept a diary of his daily activities. He lived here until 1701.

By 1792, the Pepys house had been demolished and the site was home to a warehouse for a firm of seedsmen called Minier, Minier & Fair, who found it convenient for loading and unloading cargo from the docks along the Thames river.

But in the 19th century, the area was drastically changed by commercial development. Charing Cross railroad station was built in the 1850s, and the Thames was pent up between stone embankments, bridged and bolstered by railway lines and, finally, by Tube stations, streets, shops and commercial development.

The seed warehouse, now landlocked, became a rooming house of dubious respectability - it may have been a brothel in the 1920s. On the ground floor, in 1890, a wine merchant named Angus Stafford Gordon set up shop.But even then, it retained its literary heritage, housing Rudyard Kipling in the parlour room above the wine bar.

Enter through a narrow doorway, and descend a steep stairway to the lower bar, where huge casks are ranged behind the bar, and tapped by the barman for your order.

Gordon's is said to be the oldest continually operating wineshop in London - and probably in the world. It is family owned and operated. Only wine is sold, no beer, ale, or liquor. Sherries, Madeiras and ports are served directly from the cask.

Once you have your drink, you'll need to find a table in the dark cellar seating area. If you're tall, stoop and mind your head on the low arching stone vaults, lit only by candle light.

Sit and sip your tawny port or gold-brown amontillado.

You can't do this anywhere in the world but London.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cheese it

When you step into the Neal's Yard shop at Borough Market, the first thing that hits you is the smell.

Although the shop is wide open to the circulating air of the surrounding streets, when you walk under the dark blue awning, you are enveloped in the odor of......stinky cheese.

A salesperson standing at the entry hands out dabs of creamy Berkswell sheep's milk cheese to sample. You enter the shop past cases filled with tubs of rich country creams and butter, past rows of chutney and jams and relishes, crackers and oatcakes and loaves of crusty bread - to a slate-topped board where small rounds of soft washed-rind cheese sends out plumes of cheesy redolence so strong it's almost visible.

This is Milleen's cow's milk cheese from County Cork in Ireland. Try some.

Here, everyone loves the smell of stinky cheese. A side room is a long narrow space with a counter on one side, where half a dozen salespeople preside, and shelves on the other stacked with huge moldy cylinders of English farm cheddars.

Only in my wildest dreams could I imagine an actual tower of Stilton - but it's real! And this is Colston Bassett Stilton, from Nottinghamshire.

You can ask for a taste of anything you like - the salespeople scrape a bit off each wheel and hold it out to you for your taste.

The biggest problem is making a decision - and limiting yourself to a reasonable number of selections. We tasted. We exclaimed. We smacked our lips. We bought!

Blogging note - we're seeing lots of wonderful things, but our internet access is somewhat iffy. So posts will be brief, but I'll keep trying.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Pink Saturday - Street signs

Pink Saturday - Beverly at the blog "How Sweet the Sound" hosts Pink Saturday. Let the color pink inspire you!

We're in London this week, exploring the city. For this Pink Saturday, I'm sharing interesting street sights. And what better introduction than this sign advertising Pinks Scaffolding, as a nineteenth century building in Wapping gets its brickwork spruced up.

And speaking of brickwork, this old pub, now a wine shop, has incredible built-in signage.

 More street signs

Bottlecap in cobblestones

Moss on a bridge's ironwork

Tobacco Dock sign against setting sun

Life size figures above the entrance to a school -

We will, I promise.

Well, so much for this little diversion. Have a great Pink Saturday!

Friday, June 24, 2011


The view from the window at the Prospect of Whitby Pub

Someone else is making better use of it than I am.

More later!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Arrived in London

We've arrived in London. The weather was rainy when we landed, and over the next couple hours as we drove to our flat, the rain really poured down. Here's a view of the Big Ben tower in the rain.

Once we got settled, though, the rain let up a bit. We are staying in Wapping, in East London. Wapping used to be an industrial area on the banks of the Thames; then it became a run-down slum, and now it's becoming gentrified.

The buildings are a mix of old warehouses and docks along with new structures built to mimic them in style.

The names of the streets and signs on the building evoke the former industrial heritage of the neighborhood.

Jet-lagged, we wandered out in the streets to meet our son.

Here he is with his proud Dad above the banks of the Thames.

We were also searching for a meal. As an historical working class neighborhood, Wapping is home to several well-known pubs.

We found The Prospect of Whitby, an historical pub right on the river, which dates from the 16th century.

Our son and I placed the order at the bar. Isn't he gracious?  How many young men of 23 accompany their moms up to the bar? (and how many moms are comfortably at home in said bars?)

We had a delicious pub meal. I had soup; our son had steak-and-ale-pie, and [The Man I Love] had a delicious Moroccan-style salad with grilled chicken, couscous and spiced carrots.

We stumbled back through the streets, picking up coffee and milk for tomorrow. And now we are ready to fall into a deep, jet-lagged sleep. Talk to you all later.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bringing gifts

Valeria spice merchant
 We're off to London, and we're bringing gifts from Los Angeles for our son. He is becoming an accomplished cook, and one of his Christmas gifts was a Rick Bayless cookbook on Mexican cuisine.

This weekend, we took a quick trip to the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, for an LA care package.

Assorted spices - click to"embiggen"
There are three merchants in the market that sell spices and dry goods in bulk. We visited each of them, enjoying the colorful displays. We bought three varieties of dried chiles - ancho, guajillo, and chipotle morita. They are packed in plastic bags inside yet more plastic bags, and despite that, our luggage is redolent with them!

We bought mexican chocolate and cones of piloncillo sugar.

This is mole made with sesame seeds
We bought two small tubs of pre-made mole - again, double-packed in plastic. A few tablespoons of this paste diluted with broth makes an incredibly flavorful sauce for chicken or pork in a matter of minutes. We also brought him a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce. That should be enough to bring a taste of Los Angeles to the Thames!

We couldn't bring him everything we saw, but here are some sights and tastes we enjoyed on his behalf:

Carnitas tacos from the Las Morelianos stall.

Here's the source of the carnitas - roasted pork shoulder.

Wonderful ripe vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes. Great prices, too.

A colorful display of Mexican candy.

Of course, the markets of London are said to be wonderful, too, so I'm sure we'll see a lot of beautiful displays there.

So this time tomorrow, British customs officials willing, we will be unpacking suitcases with our gifts safely stowed - the only trace will be the amazing scent of dried chiles clinging to our t-shirts and underwear!  If you are in London, and in some museum, theatre, or market you happen to pass an American looking woman who smells like smoky and essential chipotle chiles - stop and say hello to me!

Monday, June 20, 2011

No place like London

"I have sailed the world
beheld its wonders
from the Dardanelles,
to the mountains of Peru,
But there's no place like London!"

        - from "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" by Stephen Sondheim

We are flying off to London. We'll see our son, and spend time with my brother-in-law and his wife. We'll explore the city - and share it with you!

A visit to Ray's house

High on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, hidden in a grove of eucalyptus trees, is one of America's finest architectural treasures.

It's simple - just two boxes facing one another across a patio, one a working studio for two talented designers, the other a residence.

It's modest - the residence is just 1500 square feet; the studio 1000. It was made with off-the-shelf materials, to be affordable. The designers wrote "The house must make no insistent demands for itself, but rather aid as background for life in work."

From Christmas Eve, 1949 and for the rest of their lives, Charles and Ray Eames lived in the house they designed. Ray died in 1988. The house has been kept by their grandchildren exactly as Ray left it.

We visited the house two years ago, and you can read my earlier post about it HERE.

When you think about modern architecture and modern furniture, it's easy to stereotype it as sleek, cold, and inhuman. But the Eames' approach to modern living was anything but. Houses were designed to accommodate work and play, at an affordable cost. They were fascinated with science, nature, and other cultures. Collectors of objects and images, the Eames gathered thousands of beautiful objects. Ray Eames created arrangements that were pleasing to her - whether on the kitchen table, on living room shelves, or in the garden. You can see one of these "shelfscapes" HERE at the Library of Congress.  Her garden was as important to her as the house - the potted plants in the patios are arranged as she arranged them.

click to "embiggen"

This photograph by Julius Shulman, from the Library of Congress, shows the Eames in their double-height living room. The  room looks very much like this today. The seating nook with built in couches is a warm and cozy hideaway, piled with pillows and soft throws, while the main part of the room is soaring and filled with light, opening onto a sheltered patio.

You can see that they incorporated warmth, fabrics and texture, plants, toys, books and objects into their daily life, belying the stereotype of modern architecture as cold, empty, and uncluttered.
Eucalyptus trees on the site
When we toured the house this weekend - as guests of a dear friend who is a member of the Eames Foundation - we were mindful of the prohibition of interior photography. But the intricacy of the space so enchanted me I wanted to record it. So I wrote down a list of what I saw displayed there, to help me remember it all.

Candlesticks in blue, yellow and green glass
Blue onion plates
Oranges cut like flowers
A china figurine of two birds
Salt cellars
Small pillows in checkered fabric
A cookie tin
Books stacked on a bentwood chair
Japanese wooden dolls
Balinese carved masks
African violets in pots
Abalone shells
Ficus trees
A gold-topped coffee table
Pillows made of quilted blocks
Brass bowls
Carved wooden animals
Kachina dolls
A stuffed toy elephant
Polished stones
Indian corn in a basket
A feather fan
Crystal faceted spheres
Pine cones
Walnuts in a basket
Tumbleweed hung from the ceiling
A walrus carved from dark wood, with ivory tusks
Vases with snapdragons, lilies, and ranunculus

If you're in Los Angeles and you want to see the Eames House, you can make an appointment through the Eames Foundation.  Regular visits of the grounds are scheduled by appointment, with a $10 admission fee. Some people enjoy simply visiting the site, lying on a blanket in the meadow, and reading a book.

Visits to the house do not include a tour of the interior. These tours occur once a year, on Member Appreciation Day in June. But soon, there will be another way to see how Charles and Ray lived, inside the house Charles once decribed as "life in a Chinese kite."

We learned that in the fall of 2011 as part of the upcoming Los Angeles art event Pacific Standard Time  the contents of living room of the Eames House will be carefully moved to LACMA and recreated as an exhibit. This will give a wider audience the opportunity to see this "space for living," and give the Eames Foundation a chance to repair and restore the living room's floors.

Learn more about the Eames' work at this great Library of Congress site.