For me, “travelling” really means “traipsing-from-carefully-researched-eating-or-drinking-establishment-to-carefully-researched-eating-or-drinking-establishment in a particular locale”. While some may mock the level of planning I go to (yes, there are spreadsheets and clearfiles involved), I am unashamedly OCD in this respect, and it optimises the quality of calorific intake immeasurably. There’s nothing I regret more than bad meal when travelling: it represents a meal wasted, a flaw in my carefully-calibrated algorithm.
A recent Christmas trip to London, with weekends in Edinburgh and Paris for good measure, was a case in point. Upon return, my grandfather (who grew up in 1930s and ’40s London) could hardly believe it when I commented on how well we ate in a city that he remembered for its stodgy, unappetising fare. Oh, how times have changed.
We ticked off some of the motherland’s big-ticket items, of course: a pub lunch; fish and chips at The Laughing Halibut; a meal at a Jamie Oliver restaurant (trading on its name in my opinion – the food was enjoyable, but didn’t justify the steep price tag); sandwiches at the café in the Victoria and Albert Musuem (worth visiting for the decor alone). A highlight for me, in no small part thanks to the cheese puns adorning the walls, was cheese toasties for lunch at Meltroom, welcome respite from shopping on Oxford Street on Christmas Eve (the toasted sandwiches highly recommended, the timing of our shopping less so).
To be fair to my grandfather, he would have been hard-pressed to find many of our London dining highlights in the city he knew. Take, for example, an Israeli-inspired feast at Ottolenghi’s NOPI in Soho; “Bombay café style” Indian at Dishoom on Carnaby Street; Taiwanese steamed buns at BAO in Fitzrovia; a communal Italian feast at Forza Win in Peckham Rye; typically American portion sizes at Electric Diner on Portobello Road; and slurpy ramen at Bone Daddies before a show on the West End. Culinarily, London really is an international city.
As for Paris, we thoroughly enjoyed bagels at Shakespeare & Co, Jewish deli fare at Chez Marianne in the Marais, fatally addictive fondue savoyarde at Pain Vin Fromages (translation: Bread Wine Cheese a.k.a the Happiest Place on Earth), black rice porridge at painfully hip new Melbournian brunch joint Holybelly in Belleville (apparently there can be an up-to-three-hour wait for a table on the weekends), and a four-course set menu at Bistroy Les Papilles.
But unlike in London, my Parisian dining highlights were the things Paris does best: pain au chocolat from a pâtisserie on a Sunday morning; a late supper of cheese and egg crêpes after an evening boat ride on the Seine; a ham and cheese baguette from a boulangerie enjoyed on a park bench outside the Louvre; a picnic of bread, cheese and tomatoes washed down with a bottle of red wine on the Eurostar (admittedly purchased from an M&S on the English-speaking side of the Channel).
And in Edinburgh, my favourite foodie moments were just as flagrantly stereotypical, if not more so. We went in search of the city’s best porridge on not one, but two occasions; although it’s my go-to for breakfast of a normal work week, on holiday an abundance of cream transformed it into an indulgence. We fitted in what is surely compulsory – a visit to a whisky bar – opting for the appropriately-named Scotch at The Balmoral Hotel. (For my sins, I swapped out whisky for red wine, and as a result am presumably banned from Scotland for life.) To everyone’s surprise, the national dish of haggis, neeps and tatties was much enjoyed by all at a pub called The Last Drop, so-named because of its proximity to the historic site of the hangman’s noose. Describing something as tasting “like coarse sausage meat mixed with oats” is not often a compliment, but in this case I swear it was. In fact, I enjoyed the haggis so much that I almost ordered a second helping in place of dessert, which hopefully made up for my whisky faux pas.
However, notwithstanding the generally excellent culinary standards we enjoyed on our European winter escape, you’ll forgive me a moment’s patriotism when I say that we have returned, a few kilos heavier to be sure, with a renewed sense that Auckland is a real contender on the world gastronomic stage. And without the time pressure of a militant travel itinerary, we have all the opportunity in the world to enjoy its bounty. God help our waistlines.