“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” – Samuel Johnson
This is a quote my sister once told me and it never quite left my consciousness. Trying to apply it to cities besides London, as I’d like to think there is excitement in just about any corner of the world. But London truly does embody every intention of this phrase, and a reminder in general that we have so much around us to experience.
London holds a truly special place in my heart. I remember as a teen hanging with my older sister, singing along to the Beatles and learning other Brit bits of culture as she had just returned from a period of living and working in London and in Ireland. She brought me back lemon curd and marmite, “just try the marmite- as you’d either love it or hate it!” At 13 years old, guess which emotion I leaned towards.
Fast forward to 19 years old, on the track to study naturopathic medicine, my mother encourages me to do what my sister did, to get a working permit through BUNAC and do some adventures before I got hunkered down with heavy duty science coursework and eventually medical school. I took her advice pretty blindly, I applied for a working holiday visa, told everyone I knew, quit my job and flew over to London with pretty much nothing. I had responded to probably about 100 job announcements with my resume and had 3 interviews lined up when I arrived. When the nightmare of job & flat hunting was over, It was one of the most delightful times in my life. I’d work as a receptionist in the morning and a barmaid by night. I made loads of friends and beautiful memories. At the end of my working holiday, me and a friend decide to go traveling- Southern France and Florence was chosen. As soon as I arrived in Florence, I had that a-ha moment. Something in my brain clicked and said I wanted to live here one day. I called my mother and said “we have Italian heritage, right? Are we eligible for citizenship? Because I want to live here.”
The rest is history. I came home, I hated my science classes and all I wanted to do was study Italian. I finished the first semester and applied to the University of Washington’s Italian Studies program. I got accepted- and so began my quest to fulfill this little idea that got in my head.
Despite visiting several times since, every trip brings something new. I never run out of things to discover- and the energy that exists here is addicting. Not only a gateway to my wanderlust, it’s a place that is totally wonderful.
I’ve been up and down regarding my attitude towards the British lifestyle, especially involving food and drink, and at times my visits to London only solidified my convictions about Italian food and drink culture. But this time, as we are never the same in one year or the next, I left feeling inspired and in fact, a bit critical towards Italy.
For the longest time, I’ve sung the praises of Italian food culture and boasting how intuitive and balanced it is. But after writing this piece for Eater on the current state of the dining art in Florence, I realize how frustrating eating in Florence can be. There is good, satisfying food but the scene as a whole is dreadfully behind. Meaning, it’s extremely traditional, repetitive, lacks creativity and at times pretty bad quality. The sake of “the habit” trumps the sake of quality. In Florence, I have a list of restaurants, which could probably fit on 2 pages that I don’t feel disappointed spending money in. There are over 2000 restaurants in Florence. I feel like Florence is a war-zone for getting food. And if the food is good, there is a 50/50 chance the service is not offensive. When a place gets famous, like Nerbone, then the quality dips down south. It’s a fail-proof formula in most cases.
In the Duomo area, I can count about 3 restaurants I would happily eat at. And there are dozens of restaurants around. I understand this is because it’s a touristy area and there are pretty tragic eateries in just about any touristic center of most cities. But in a country like Italy, renowned for its food, these restaurants should really be better (and may I add ashamed of themselves!). While the city municipalities around Italy are so concerned with international food muddying up the local food identity, they should instead force tourist trap eateries to stop serving complete crap- I think these restaurants are more of a danger for polluting the image of regional food than the kebab shops!
Recently, I took a long weekend trip to London to hit the re-set button for a minute. I was charmed by the amount of things happening around food. The amount of restaurants who are doing interesting things with seasonal foods was impressive. Of course, there is a certain level of pretension which I have now learned to read between the lines of. The fact is, people in London are passionate about food, they are getting creative with strange ingredients and an insane amount of food businesses are flourishing. I was relieved by the amount of young people writing books, doing pop-up dinners and those who are in impressive positions- plus the system is allowing for it. Not that I am comparing one tiny village to a massive cosmopolitan and expecting it to be fair, these are just observations as someone living in Florence as an American.
In Florence (I say Florence because I should speak on where I observe and not on Italy as a whole but a lot of this surely can be applied to “Italy”), there is a painful amount of bureaucracy (and costs) for anything you want to do. Perhaps these prohibitive measures and lack of prosperous opportunity is partly why people are leaving. The system is shooting itself not only in the foot, but in the heart. This country is loosing some of the most passionate and talented people.
There are some truly dedicated, resilient and determined people in Italy that are hell bent on making their businesses work- and I have an incredible amount of admiration for them. There are some glimmers of hope here and there, but I think as a whole it’s pretty much in a whole lot of trouble. The birthrate is so low that the state is now offering incentive “bonuses” to families who have additional children. Believe me, I am the first one to be chipper and positive about Italy. In fact, I think you can prosper here, especially if you manage to carve out a niche for yourself and make something happen. And that’s pretty great. Otherwise, it’s the nonni economy. I don’t think what I do here would be as interesting if I had stayed in Seattle, where you can make it working in tech (did I mention I hated my science classes so much that I opted to study one of the world’s least functional languages?!).
In London, I was charmed by some of my architect friends, working on truly creative and limitless projects. I came back to Florence, and was disturbed that the major creative works are finding new ways to entertain tourists, like opera singing cooking classes. There is a bit of irony, as I work in tourism myself. (and actually this idea sounds quite cool) But the message here is that there should not only be tourism affording people expansive careers.
So while I have ranted about the dark heart of Italy, I’ll leave you some finishing bites regarding my favorite tastes in London. Enjoy!
@Scotchtails Borough Market: Artisan scotch eggs- ground pork sausage, soft boiled egg, coated in panko and fried.
@Quality Chop House in Clerkenwell: Diver-caught scallop in a fermented porcini butter. Note: this place was interesting- they revisit British comfort food classics (including a mince and beef dripping toast) in kind of a rustic cabin feel but I thought it was a bit over-priced and the service a bit lacking. But hopefully I went in on an off-night!
@Nopi (Ottolenghi) in Soho: Roasted eggplant, sorrel yogurt, puntarelle and slivered toasted almonds
@Nopi still, This grilled trout was heavenly. Perfectly flavored and all the green stuff toothsome, unlike Italy’s cooked to death veggies. And a labneh cheese with a touch of heat. Loved this moment.
@Lyle’s in Shoreditch. This was my favorite meal in London. Kicked off with some oysters with a rhubarb granita. In the back is their super tangy sourdough smelling bread (you can tell mother yeast was used here) and their homemade butter. Take that, Italy. Bread and butter- that’s right. And it was amazing.
@Lyle’s Soft roe from Herring, jersey potatoes, a heavenly cream sauce and topped with herby purple sorrel. What a fascinating mix of textures and flavors. Brav-o!
@Lyle’s: Fantastic, comforting dessert: treacle pudding with raw goat’s milk ice cream and a caramel coffee creme.
@Lyle’s: Are you wondering why dessert isn’t last? Because THIS was the BEST plate I have had in not only in several months (hey, I eat for a living- that says a lot) but it was phenomenal. Dehydrated beet and smoked eel with grated horseradish and these crunchy bitter sweet pink radicchio was just WOW! I mean- it was a totally symphony of flavors, from sweet to umami flashes to meaty smokey eel and earthy. This is something- pay attention to it.
MEGA MEGA thanks to the massively sweet Clerkenwell Boy (awesome anonymous food blogger @clerkenwellboyec1 on Instagram and who contributes to a myriad of food publications on London). It was thanks to him that I experienced Lyle’s. This guide on Suitecase Magazine with The Curious Pear will steer you well on your next trip to London.
I swear guys, I’ll be a bit more positive on the next post. Just going through a London withdrawal! I have a sneaking suspicion this won’t be my last trip there of the year- stay tuned!
In a never ending affair with the English,
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