Monday, December 31, 2012

The beauty of a barter economy

Our neighbor, Sean, is an expert mushroom forager, and we've benefited from his generosity before, when he showed us how to forage for chanterelles in an undisclosed Topanga location. But how to pay him back?

When I read Sean's blog post about a bumper crop of wild mushrooms he gathered in Northern California, I made what I hoped would be an offer he couldn't refuse - trade some wild mushrooms for an assortment of weird British snack food and candy. Irresistible!

For your inner faun

Here's a pair of cloven-hooved booties seen in London's Brick Lane. Wear them for your Dionysian New Years' Eve revels!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Back home again

 We're back home again. It's nice to have a few more days to adjust our body clocks before going back to work.

One of the more unexpected adjustments we're dealing with is the climate. We bundled up for our trip to London, with boots and coats and warm mufflers; sweaters and wooly socks. But as it turns out, we feel colder in our Los Angeles home than we did in London.

In fact, the temperature is about the same - in LA it's been in the 40's, dipping into the 30s at night. London temperatures are actually a little warmer than Topanga is right now.

The English tend to overheat their homes and buildings - we were always shedding coats and scarves and layers to keep from sweating indoors. By contrast, our California houses are not built to keep out the cold, with our big windows, our uninsulated walls, our flat and beamed roofs. We're keeping warm as best we can with a wood fire.

Jack is back with us, and settling in happily. The kennel - more like a combination doggy spa and play camp - sent him home with a holiday bandana round his neck.

He seems happy to be back with the hairless pink monkeys that control his food supply.

At least it looks that way to me.

From the fire

The word "mangal" in Turkish means grill, and it refers to the kind of open charcoal grill used for the kebabs that are much loved in Turkish cuisine. The word has spread all over the regions of the world that love grilled skewered meats, from Afghanistan to Russia.

The other night our son took us to Mangal 1 Ocakbasi, a Turkish restaurant in Dalston, northeast London, a place that some in the press have dubbed one of the best places in London for kebabs.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Boxing Day madness

Regent Street on Boxing Day morning
 Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. As traditions go, it's the day that servants and other service workers would receive a 'Christmas box' from their employers or betters. We Americans don't really go in much for this class based culture (although don't kid yourself that class isn't part of American culture..) Yet we can certainly embrace what Boxing Day has evolved into here in the UK - a mad shopping day where everyone scrambles for bargains.

The Lamb

Live blogging from the historic Lamb pub in Bloomsbury. Lunch then the British Museum.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Relax, it's Chinatown

When you think of London, going to Chinatown is not the first thing that pops into your mind.

However, London has a thriving Chinatown, and since it's in the heart of Leicester Square, Soho and the theatre district, it's just as kitschy and filled with Chinese restaurants as any Chinatown you might find in the United States, with pagoda-like architecture and bright signs in red and gold.

It was Boxing Day, and we were looking for something to eat. [The Man I Love] and our son met me in a small pub off Regent Street after I'd finished my shopping, but the pub's kitchen was closed. What to do for lunch?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Salmon & Ball pub

Live blogging from an historic Bethnal Green pub on Boxing Day, during a football match.

There are no restaurants open tonight, but we've got cold ale, packets of crisps, and one another.

Maybe the donner kebab joint will still be open when we hit the street.

UPDATE: yes, the donner kebab joint was open. We got two dinners - a piece of pita bread topped with fried potatoes (chips), then a generous helping of thin slices of preformed lamb meat (donner, or what we call gyros in the US), topped with shredded cabbage and onions - and two pepperoncini!

hot sauce on the left, ketchup on the right
 The counterman asked if we wanted it spicy, and we said yes. The slices of meat were infused with chilli! Then, we got a little pot each of ketchup and a deceptively creamy-looking hot sauce. The hot sauce was seriously nuclear!

This was our Boxing Day dinner - and we were glad for it!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

East End sights

Mural on Grimsby Street
Even on a normal Sunday, Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market in East London are buzzing, but on a busy holiday Sunday things are really hopping.

The rain had let up; it was grey but the skies were holding.  We had a reservation for Sunday roast at the noted Hawksmoor restaurant near Spitalfields Market, but we wanted to see the sights first.


Click to "embiggen"

I could really go for some hot jellied eels - how about you?

Christmas shopping on the Columbia Road

Mistletoe for sale
The Columbia Road is known for its Sunday street market where plants and flowers are sold, but during the Christmas holiday season, the merchants whose shops line the narrow street open their doors on Wednesday nights for shoppers. It's a merry and crowded crush, even on a rainy night.

Any last minute gift-shopping? Here are some holiday sights to tempt you!

 Glass Christmas ornaments

More ornaments - sparkly glass double decker buses, red phone booths, black cabs and Big Ben!

Old fashioned candy at the provocatively named candy store Suck and Chew.

Cosmetics and girly things!

Have a happy leather Christmas!

If you get tired, there's always the pub to retreat to!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Thematic Photographic - Industrial disease

Carmi at the blog "Written, Inc." posts a photographic challenge each week at Thematic Photographic. This week, the theme is "Industrial disease."

What is industrial disease? And what's your take on it? Share it at "Written, Inc."
Click to "embiggen"
 We were walking from our hotel on Cambridge Heath Road in Bethnal Green toward the Broadway Market in Hackney, and as we walked through the neighborhood that ranged from council apartments to older townhouses and industrial warehouses, we came upon the sight of two huge circular iron structures.

Our first sight of the structures
Just beside the Regents Canal, they loom over the filthy water, the industrial landscape, and the shabby old barges. What are they, I wondered. The ironwork is functional yet surprisingly decorative, a tracery of iron against the sky. They looked very 19th century, and very "steampunk."

From the Broadway Market
 After our market visit, we walked back alongside the Canal, and asked a dog-walker passing by whether he could tell us what these things were. "They're gas-holders," he said. In the old days, these structures held giant membranes that stored fuel gas.

Near the First Avenue Bridge, 1920s LA Public Library photo
I remembered seeing similar structures in historic photos of Los Angeles and wondering what they were. So I did some quick research.

The gasholders here in Bethnal Green were built by the Imperial Gas Company in around 1856. Also called "gasometers," the structures that remain today are an external frame for telescoping storage tanks for fuel gas. The tank's base is in a reservoir of water, which creates the seal to keep the gas from escaping. When more gas is pumped into the tank,  it expands; when demand from users depletes the gas, the tank collapses. This assures that the gas is always maintained at the correct pressure.

Far from being diseased, the ironwork is quite beautiful if you look closely. As with the ironwork arcades of Paris, the cast-iron buildings of New York's SoHo, and the great railroad stations of the 19th century, the makers of these structures did not omit beauty from their designs, despite the industrial and commercial purpose.

Seen at night, from the Hackney Road
Technological changes in the way gas was processed and distributed made these tanks obsolete. There are still several abandoned gasometers in Britain and Europe, although the ones in Los Angeles are long gone. In Bethnal Green, where an increasing infusion of artists have moved to the neighborhood, the delicate tracery and cylindrical shapes seem to transcend their industrial origin and lend an eerie sculptural beauty to the urban landscape.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Local chip shop, Hackney style

Perfect fish and chips, homemade tartar sauce and tomato sauce

The local fish-and-chip shop - or chippie - is a fixture of British neighborhoods. I've walked past hundreds, looking all the same, fluorescent-lit, smelling of stale frying oil and not so fresh fish, and not been tempted.

But fish and chips is extremely popular, and our son promised that we'd enjoy his latest gastronomic discovery.

The Broadway Market takes place on Saturday in Hackney near the Regents Canal. And even though it was pouring down rain, the market was thriving. We strolled the length of Broadway, marveling at the food and goods for sale, and then our son veered off on a side street, walking past the London Fields Primary School and toward the railway overpass.

He turned into a gate, and we found ourselves in a fenced, smallish yard full of more stalls and vendors. The Netil Market is a wee off-shoot of the Broadway Market, started to provide opportunities for local designers and craftspeople.

It was a little bit of a shambles, even more so in the rain. Shaky tarpaulin-covered frames sheltered tables of cluttered merchandise, and small wooden shacks housed more permanent vendors. One vendor sold shakes from a VW bus.

The Fin & Flounder fish and chip stand was between a florist and a burger stand. The cheerful young man behind the counter fried our lunch to order, putting fresh fillets of haddock into the batter, then dipping them carefully into the fryer basket, all the while keeping up a steady conversation.

We carried our fish and chips over to the cluster of mis-matched tables and chairs arranged beneath sagging tarps, taking care to dry off the seats before sitting down. It was cold and wet, and every once in a while a pool of water would overflow the edge of the tarps, bringing down a stream.

Cheerful snowflake decorations in the eating area
Even so, the battered fish was golden and piping hot, and the perfect crispness gave way to creamy pure white flesh beneath. A squeeze of lemon and a dunk into the home-made tartar sauce made it even better.

I could hardly believe I was eating something so perfectly delicious while shivering with cold feet on rain-puddled asphalt, but it was one of the best meals I've ever had.

[The Man I Love] enjoyed his, too, and I think he managed to stay dryer than I did!

Now can we go find a pub?

A Christmas panto

One British holiday tradition we Americans are unfamiliar with is the Christmas panto. Panto - or pantomime - is a popular theatre presentation that includes singing, dancing, slapstick, audience participation, and buffoonery.

We went to see the panto "Dick Whittington and His Cat" at the Hackney Empire Theatre. The theatre, which was built in 1901, is a stunningly restored classic music hall, and I couldn't stop marveling at its beauty. With its multiple curved balconies and opera boxes, it seats 1000 people in a space that's both intimate and majestic.

Theatre lobby
Pantos also have a long tradition of including transvestism as a convention of the performance. The young male hero is played by an actress, in what is known as a "breeches role."  Another stock character is an older female, played by a male actor in drag. Nowadays, many Christmas pantos take this convention to its logical extension and the productions have become gay-themed drag shows, but "Dick Whittington and His Cat" played it relatively straight.

Balcony and stalls
Pantos are family entertainment, despite the saucy innuendo, and the audience was full of children. A crusty old vendor outside sold flashing LED novelties like bunny ears and magic wands.

Audience participation is a big part of the tradition, and the performers kept the audience engaged, calling for responses, encouraging cat-calls and shout-outs to "look out behind you!" or "wake up!" We were pulled to our feet for sing-alongs, and encouraged to boo the villains loudly.

The beautiful painted ceiling
Though conventional, with a few simple special effects, the production showed a relatively lavish budget. The scenery was old fashioned painted drops, wings and borders. A full stage scene was followed by an 'in one" transition scene while the sets changed behind a scrim. Even so, each scene was nicely done and imaginative. There was a scene set on board a ship; a scene under the ocean; a scene on a jungle island. Steve Elias, as the star of the show in drag, had an elaborate new costume in every scene, complete with flamboyant hats and props.

Publicity photo of Steve Elias, the star of the show
Pantos tell traditional stories, but update them with contemporary details from popular culture. The Fairy Bowbells, striving to earn her fairy wings for a good deed, was a plump little Bollywood cutie, flying in on visible wires from the wings. The King Rat sported rasta-style dreadlocks, and the ingenue rocked it like Mariah Carey. We were treated to "gangnam-style" dance numbers, and in the jungle scene a giant costumed gorilla danced to the reggae tune "Monkey Man."  There were political jokes that went right over our American heads, but it was clear that the rest of the audience got them. The give-and-take was localized, with references to the Hackney audience and disparaging comments about rival neighborhoods.

The plot was simple and, as the evening progressed, mattered little in comparison with the gags and the visuals. The show lasted for two hours and forty-five minutes - and, surprising me, the audience of young children remained engaged. We got just as involved, heartily booing and cheering with the rest of them!

What a fun tradition for the holidays. Would it go over in America?

Friday, December 21, 2012

A rare pearl

The Hackney Pearl
 Like a lot of young people trying to find the path their lives will follow, our friend Alex has a job at a restaurant. The way she tells it, she walked into the place shortly after moving to the neighborhood, got a cup of coffee, and liked the place. When she found out they were hiring, she applied.

The Hackney Pearl is located in Hackney Wick, an East London neighborhood that is becoming a haven for artists and other alternative life-style folks looking for inexpensive digs. Owned by artist/chef James Morgan, it's a neighborhood joint where you can get a cup of tea and hang out - and it's also a place where Londoners in the know come for great food.

Sign of the day

Seen in the Tottenham Court Road tube station.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Art critics

Today, we went to the Tate Britian, one of England's oldest and most venerable art galleries. Located along the Thames River in Milbank, it holds a permanent collection of British art from the year 1500 to the present day.

This season, there are two exhibits that are attracting crowds - one is an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art, and the other showing competitors for the Turner Prize.

Entrance to the Turner Prize exhibition

The Turner Prize features four young artists, and beginning in October, the chosen artists' work is displayed and then the winner of the prize is announced in December. Part of the exhibition included a bulletin board wall where viewers could post their comments on notes.

Click to "embiggen"
This was my favorite.

Everybody's a critic.