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There are certain things I have always be drawn to. A few of those are travel, food and history – which are closely intertwined when you come to think of it. Every place has a story to tell and food is the basis of our culture and community.
The Gastronomic London tour from Context combined aspects all three in a personalized walking tour through central London which highlighted how food, eating and restaurants had evolved throughout the city and country. I had thought about looking into a London food tour before my recent trip, so was excited when one happened to find me. Though the tour premise was interesting, it was even more appealing since the guide wasn’t just your average tour guide, but a historian and chef and I came away with some fun facts about the city and country including:
London has food shops that have been around for centuries. Two examples are Fortnum & Mason, a specialty food and department shop that has long had ties to the royal family, and Paxton & Whitfield, a cheese shop specializing in small-produced batches of English cheeses which began in 1742 and has been located in the same building across from St. James Church for more than 200 years. Coming from a place where the oldest buildings may be just over a hundred years old, I find this fascinating.
Starting in the Victorian era when people were traveling more, quintessential English foods, such as tea, biscuits, pâtés, honey and jams, were packed and sold in ceramic pots to be sent off and protected during travel. They also came in handy when used for the popular English tradition of picnicking. The relish pictured above is a type of ‘gentleman’s relish’ made of anchovies, butter and herbs keeping the tradition alive in a ceramic pot…I encourage you to read the description on the lid – copywriting these days just isn’t the same…
Fortnum & Mason also creates a special tea blend for every important royal occasion such as weddings and births. For example, there’s a new Christening Blend Tea to commemorate the christening of HRH Prince George of Cambridge.
The strong English blue cheese was traditionally eaten at Christmastime and is a still a favorite around the holidays. Creamy stilton, which was usually aged to the perfect degree close to Christmastime, used to be scooped into pots that families would bring into the cheese shops to have refilled. Now, while the pots are probably sold more to tourists than locals, stilton is still incredibly popular around the holidays. The tiny cheese shop of Paxton & Whitfield sells literally tons in December.
Traditional meat and veg pies had a thick (kind of bland) crust for a reason – it was an early form of Tupperware. Workers wouldn’t have the time or means to wash their dirty hands before lunch so the pie crust acted as a wrapper and handle to help eat the hearty fillings.
Technically, cheddar cheese only comes from the village of Cheddar (really) just like champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. The village is located in Somerset in Southwest England which is home to caves that provide the perfect temperature and humidity for aging the cheese.
The days of bland English food are gone and you can get almost anything you want to eat in London – as you should in one of the world’s greatest cities. English chefs are reinvigorating traditional meals while restaurants serving cuisine from all countries (Peruvian is quite popular at the moment) can be found throughout the city.
Central London is incredibly gentrified and expensive. With higher end restaurants and chains seemingly filling every block, pop up restaurants and street foodstalls are also becoming more common as entrepreneurs try to go against the tide. In the SoHo neighborhood, an area that used to be known for its seedy reputation and now has Michelin starred restaurants, tents selling Mexican and Thai food for a good deal can be found for lunch in the afternoons.
The longstanding English pub and tea traditions are still going strong. While many pubs have become more mainstream and commercialized, there are still a number that make you feel like you’re walking back through time when you step in the door for a pint. Afternoon tea services can also be found at shops and hotels throughout the city. Even more specifically, there are places that remain primarily unchanged from the time that some of the country’s most prominent figures frequented them – at the Hotel Café Royal you can still sip champagne in the room where Oscar Wilde and other artists used to drink absinthe. (The hotel has also seen the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill, and was where David Bowie retired his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.)
Admittedly, I had never heard of Context before…probably because they’re a little out of my normal budget. At £80 (about $125 USD) – the tour was not cheap. (That said, London is just ridiculous no matter what. A similar tour in Athens costs about $25 less.) Relatively, they’re actually not much more expensive than other companies, especially considering that the tours have a cap at six people – just six! They’re also run by guides who have extensive personal and professional knowledge of the topic at hand. The company prides itself on their “docents” who are scholars or specialists in their fields of study. It doesn’t feel like you’re walking around with a tour guide because, really, you aren’t. Instead you’re spending time getting to know the area with someone who lives and works within the area and topic you’re discovering. Additionally, many of the tours aren’t set to a strict schedule or itinerary meaning what you do, where you go and what you focus on depends on the group’s background and interests – it’s not a one size fits all thing and I would certainly look into the company’s other offerings throughout Europe.
*Note: I was a special guest of Context but all opinions are my own.*