The Small Pleasures of London

Tuesday, 15 October 2013
Photo: MJ Grant

The Small Pleasures of London

The truly grand cities of the world – London, Paris, New York and others – can overwhelm you with an endless number and variety of amazing things to do and see. "Too much of a good thing," I found myself saying to friends, as I tried to plan my trip to London. I wanted to find the balance between seeing the sights and being sufficiently relaxed to enjoy myself. I also wanted to make sure that I devoted enough time to really experience the place and what it had to offer. I didn't want to skate over the surface in a rush to see more and more. Then I had an idea. Instead of casting a wide net and trying to do it all – what if I zoomed in primarily on one neighborhood and explored it close up? This approach might give me a chance to live more like a local, at a pace that resembled normal life rather than the typical tourist frenzy. From a tranquil home base, I'd make time to see and savor the smaller pleasures that London had to offer.

With this idea in mind, I found a flat in Primrose Hill. Nestled between hip and edgy Camden Town and elegant Regent's Park, Primrose Hill is known for its bohemian vibe. In recent years, it has become more chic than shabby, as celebrities and other achievers have been drawn to this charming enclave. Squares and crescents of pastel-painted Victorian townhouses define the residential area, while independent boutiques, designer shops and gourmet food establishments line the lovely high street. Upon arrival, I spent a few leisurely days strolling through my adopted neighborhood. I climbed to the top of Primrose Hill itself, and marveled at the view of London below. I poked around the local library and read about the forty duels that had been fought on top of Primrose Hill through the centuries - seven to the death!

Before long, I was a 'regular' at the local Triyoga center, Greenberry's Café, Prim the nail salon and Mowgli the hair salon, getting to know the staff and feeling their warm welcome as they came to recognize me.

After my orientation, I started to dive a little deeper. It was time to sample the offerings of local shops and restaurants. My first stop was Negozio Classica, a charming establishment in the heart of the Primrose Hill village. Negozio Classica is a food and wine importer, wine shop, tasting bar and restaurant with a purist's focus on bringing the best of Tuscany to London. It has two London locations – one in Notting Hill and one in Primrose Hill.


General manager Derek Morrison is a Canadian who found his way to London via a sabbatical in Tuscany. While in Italy, Derek fell in love with the food, culture and mainly, the wine. He earned his Italian sommelier credentials while immersing himself in the people and products of Umbria and Tuscany.

"I am blown away by the distinctive nature of the wines of this region," says Derek. "Not only are the wines unlike anything in the world, but they are unique as you move from one small vineyard to the next. I can't think of a place that can match Tuscany for endless variety and subtle nuance."

Variety is also at the heart of the fantastic menu offered in the casual 20-seat restaurant behind the store and tasting bar. We were seated and started our meal the best way possible - with a glass of bubbly. The Col Dorato Extra Dry Prosecco on offer at Negozio Classica is surprisingly refreshing for its crisp, dry character.

A procession of Tuscan treasures came next - cured meats, parma ham and rustic specialty prosciuttos made from wild boar, venison and elk. Cheeses came too – particularly notable was the Fagottino di Pecorino, a light puff pastry filled with warm pecorino cheese. To complement the appetizers, Derek poured an Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, 2010. This signature wine from the Avignonesi winery, which is linked to Negozio Classica, is a lively, light fruity red.

"Over 80% of our wines are exclusive to our shop," says Derek. "You won't taste these anywhere else. They are the authentic, hand-crafted wines from small producers – all of whom we count as friends."

In traditional Italian style, pasta was served on its own, before the main course. Negozio Classica's unique take on the traditional bolognaise dish Tagliatelle al Ragu is a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce served over handmade tagliatelle noodles. The deep flavour was complemented beautifully with a full-bodied, 2008 Brunello di Montalcino, under the label "Le Ragnaie, Fornace."

Their main courses range from vegetarian ribollita stew and pumpkin ravioli to hearty meat dishes. We had Stufato di Cinghiale, wild boar marinated in red wine for 16-24 hours and then slow-cooked in a rich dark sauce with root vegetables. We also tried the organic beef tenderloin, which was cooked to rare perfection, and served alongside gorgonzola mashed potatoes. Derek saved one of their biggest red wines for this course, and it was matched to perfection. The incredibly rich tones of the 2008 Umbrian wine, Tabarrini "Colle Grimaldesco" Sagrantino di Montefalco, were a worthy match to the meal.

Before dessert, the opportunity to try a spectacular wine was offered.

"It's from our own winery, and it's called Avignonesi Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo," Derek said. After pouring the 1999 vintage, Derek tilted the glass onto its side and rolled it back and forth against the backdrop of the white linen napkin. The dark burgundy viscous liquid coated the side of the glass. "We call it the Chateau d'Yquem of Italy," said Derek, making a comparison to the exclusive dessert wine from France. The flavour was an intense, complex balance of dark fruit, warm spice, and aromatic incense. In Tuscany this wine is known as 'meditation' wine, and the name seems apt, as the wine inspires a feeling of peaceful bliss.

When you go to Negozio Classica, I urge you to take the time for a leisurely experience of the small pleasures from the small producers of some of the best food and wine from Tuscany. It's a journey you'll want to repeat again and again.

I continued my local life in Primrose Hill and on my first Sunday, I decided to make the uphill hike from Primrose Hill to Hampstead Village. Barely two blocks from my flat, I came upon a cheery French fellow out in front of his little fish shop, La Petite Poissonerie. Squarely on the sidewalk, he had positioned a small table holding a wide-mouthed stainless steel bowl brimming with ice, seaweed and fresh oysters. Several bottles of cold Muscadet Sur Lie stood to the side. The fellow, who turned out to be Nic the owner, was offering tastes of both. A local Englishman carrying a small dog was tucking into his third oyster. Before I came to a full stop, Nic gave me large Irish 'rock' oyster and a generous sample of wine. The oyster was fat and salty and tasted of cold minerals. It took me more than my usual one-two chomp – more life four or five, as this oyster was so meaty! But it was one of the best I have ever had. And the wine was a perfect complement – especially at 11:30 on a Sunday morning before a bracing walk up the hill to Hampstead!


I peered into the shop, which was swarming with customers, buying fresh fish for their Sunday supper, while chatting with the staff.

"Almost all our staff members are also chefs," Nic explained. "When someone comes looking for fish, our staff will ask them what they are planning, and then will advise not only what fish to buy, but how to prepare it, including the most subtle tips for success. That's what people have come to expect and it's what makes us different."

Nic and his team hope one day to earn a royal seal of approval, as they continually strive to be the best fishmonger in London. "We are fishmongers first and foremost," Nic says. "But we'll always do more. You can buy the fish here and we'll advise you on what to do; or you can come to a class and learn new and different methods; or, we'll make your meal for you and your friends and bring it to your table."

After this lovely surprise, I carried on up Gloucester Avenue along Eton College Road and over to the continuation of Camden High Street as it turned into Haverstock Hill. Ascending the hill, I passed through smaller neighbourhoods such as Haverstock Hill, Rosslyn Hill... then reached Hampstead which is actually a very large village and very 'posh' as the English would say.

Most of the shops represented high-end brands that could be found in any chic neighbourhood, but tucked into a corner beside a pub just off the Hampstead High Street was a little trailer that made and sold crepes. La Creperie de Hampstead inspired a queue that stretched around the corner, and I took that as a good sign. I popped to the back of the line, and thirty minutes later, I watched the chefs prepare my crepe. The French-speaking couple worked with a rhythm that comes only after making hundreds of crepes. Two hot circular griddles sat side by side. She ladled a precise amount of batter on the first one and while it cooked, she finished crepes on a hot grill behind her. When the crepe neared a golden brown she flipped a knob of butter onto the round griddle in front of him, and popped her crepe over to his side, where he spread cheese and ham for me. He waited until it was just right, then folded the crepe expertly into its cardboard cone, wrapping that in several layers of napkins whose necessity became apparent before long. I walked back down the hill, nibbling the light crisp crepe on the outside, to reach the warm, rich and gooey filling on the inside.

A few days later, I ventured further afield, but maintained my focus on the 'small pleasures' of London. After a bit of research, I found myself in a street called Lamb's Conduit – one long block, pedestrian only, lined with young UK designer clothing shops, wine bars, pubs, storefronts boasting the latest in French cookware, and my personal favourite, the Persephone Book Shop.


Persephone is both a bookshop and a publisher, printing mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women. The 104 titles in their shop and catalog have been carefully chosen to appeal primarily to women and Persephone guarantees their books will be 'readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.'
It is the design of a Persephone book that is so satisfying. With their distinctive dove-grey jackets and cream 'labels' for the title, all the books look the same from the outside. Inside, each is different, with the endpapers and matching bookmark chosen especially to match the date and mood of the book. The Persephone philosophy is that books should be beautiful, because it is important to get pleasure from how they look and feel. There may be nothing more elegant than a tall stand of Persephone books. The Irish Times said, "There are cute books, there are beautiful books, and there are Persephone Books."

The shop is a cozy room with well-worn wooden floorboards, comfy chairs, cluttered tables, vases of flowers, and low light from china lamps. The grey books line the bookcases, stacked by title. The employees, (I've only seen women working here, usually pretty girls dressed in serious clothes), sit at desks toward the back of the shop, and they are always helpful. Persephone Books is an elegant personal library caught in just the right time warp, back when surroundings were simple and beautiful, tones were hushed, and humor was light and witty.

After Persephone Books, I felt an urge to experience more of traditional London, and I thought the best way to do that would be to have afternoon tea. In my mind, "taking tea" represents the quintessential small pleasure – when you and a friend can steal away from the rigors of your daily schedule and sink into a time and place that is suspended between day and evening, past and present.

One of the loveliest places to experience this special treat is Brown's Hotel – a small pleasure in its own right. Not only is it London's oldest hotel (founded in 1837 by Lord and Lady Byron's butler and maid with money left by their employer), Brown's is among the most exclusive, and its guests consider themselves to be in on London's best kept secret. Entering the front door, you find yourself in an intimate foyer leading to a compact lobby. No soaring ceilings, huge open spaces here. Rather, the hotel is laid out in a series of small spaces, one opening to the next, in a continuous path of discovery and delight.

In keeping with the design philosophy of the hotel, the English Tea Room is comprised of three distinct, intimate spaces. Oakwood paneling, soft lighting and fireplaces envelop you in comfort. Low chairs and tables, as well as contemporary design touches, add an air of modern ease to the experience.

It is not a surprise that Brown's was bestowed the honor of 'Top London Afternoon Tea 2009' by The Tea Guild. The best way to begin the experience is with a glass of crisp, dry Ruinart champagne. As you sip the champagne, you can peruse the tea menu and choose from seventeen teas, selected from top growers worldwide. Brown's own blend is a rich and aromatic black tea – a perfect complement to sandwiches and pastries, as suggested by the exceptionally helpful waiters. The triple tea tower has a bottom plate for sandwiches, a top plate for pastries and a middle space, thoughtfully left blank until the last moment, when warm scones wrapped in a linen napkin are slipped into place. You begin with the sandwiches – fresh and delicate rectangles, snuggled tightly together in an array that includes for each person - egg salad, smoked salmon, lightly curried chicken salad, ham, and cucumber. As you finish your champagne, the waiter brings the teas – one pot per person, plus pots of hot water and milk. Tea is poured into generous cups through silver strainers. You can take a moment to savor the aroma of the tea while you admire the beauty of your small table resplendent in sterling silver accoutrements. When the sandwiches are gone, and not a moment before, the waiter slips the warm scones into place and sets down pots of Cornwall clotted cream and homemade strawberry preserves. Break open a flaky hot scone to reveal a soft centre. Layer on the thick cream and top it with sweet preserve. If there is a heaven, it serves these scones, just so. Alternating between plain and fruit scones, you prolong the pleasure and peek back inside the linen napkin to ensure that more scones await. (You never need to worry, actually, because the staff is pleased to replenish the plates as often as you'd like.) When you have enjoyed your scones, you may wish to take a short pause and might even want to change the flavor of your tea, before proceeding to the delicate pastries that sit atop the tea tower. Our selection featured a mousse of dark and white chocolate, an almond tart with a liqueur-steeped cherry, a deep berry crumble, a light lemon cake and a smooth white macaroon with a rich and delicate green tea flavored filling. Depending on your stamina, you may also choose from a selection of freshly baked cakes on the cake trolley.

When you are ready to get up from the tea table, you'll want to continue your exploration of the hotel. Carry through the tearooms to discover, in a back corner of the hotel, Donovan's Bar. Here, energy levels ascend, voices mingle, and the gender balance swings back toward 50/50. The Donovan Bar features the work of celebrated British photographer Terence Donovan. Off to one side is a seating nook for up to 12 guests, in what has become known as 'the naughty corner,' as it is surrounded by some of Terence's more risque photographs. Donovan's offers innovative signature cocktails as well as wines and Champagnes by the glass.

If you are lucky enough to be an overnight guest of the hotel, you'll relax in contemporary comfort in a uniquely decorated room or suite. The rooms are large by London standards, and include roomy seating areas and work areas in addition to beautifully appointed bathrooms. The "Kipling Suite," is named after Rudyard Kipling who was a frequent guest of the hotel and is believed to have penned The Jungle Book while staying at the hotel. The suite includes an oversized sitting room with a wooden floor and huge windows. It's a wonderful way to entertain in a private space that feels very much like home.

"Home" may be the best way to describe Brown's Hotel – a discreet, intimate hotel tucked into a quiet corner of Mayfair. And afternoon tea at Brown's may be one of the greatest small pleasures London has to offer.

For the balance of my stay, I split my time between Primrose Hill and greater London. I spent a wonderful day at the British Library, where over 150 million original items from manuscripts to maps, musical scores to stamps, are collected and stored. The place is brimming with students and scholars of all ages, coming to work with the materials in one of the greatest archives in the world. Original specimens, from the Magna Carta to Da Vinci's notebooks to scribbled Beatles' lyrics, are on display. All this is housed in the largest building constructed in the UK during the 20th century. And yet, there are countless corners and nooks and where you can sit and read or work, in the company of hundreds of others working in concert with you. This shared endeavor, centered on learning and discovery, lends an air of camaraderie and even intimacy to this large institution.

At the British Museum, I came face-to-face with the Rosetta Stone, and its three translations of a single decree from hieroglyphs to Demotic script to Greek. In a single instant, I felt the awe and excitement that must have washed over its discoverers as they realized this one stone unlocked the mystery of language and opened a torrent of understanding into our ancient past. It was one small moment, and it contained a world of insight.

I met my friends and family all over London in cafes, fish and chip joints, Indian food establishments, and of course, pubs. Early on, I decreed that my favorite meal was the Sunday British pub lunch. And every time, I felt happily obliged to order the roast beef, which came with a big shiny Yorkshire pudding and a side of hot gravy. No matter where the pub might be, Sunday afternoon means a long, leisurely time shared by families and friends of all ages, often with a dog or two under the table.

On my final night in Primrose Hill, I elected to stay local. On a corner, in the residential heart of Primrose Hill, I found the lovely French bistro L'Absinthe. I booked a table for two, and my son and I went for dinner. The owner met us and talked about his dream.


"People warned us when we took over this location in 2007," said Jean-Christophe. "A number of restaurants came and went quickly. But I was confident that if we stuck to good, honest French food and if we provided excellent service, especially to the locals, we'd be fine."

L'Absinthe has been more than fine, thriving with a loyal clientele of local regulars as well as visitors from across London and beyond.

"Several times we've been swamped because of a rave review in a major newspaper," JC says. "But we've always kept seats open for our regulars."

The ambience in the small restaurant is casual and relaxed. Guests are encouraged to linger, and Jean-Christophe does not believe in scheduling more than one sitting in an evening.

We came on a Monday night, and the bistro was full of people, chatting with the staff and calling out greetings to one another.

"Champagne to start," declared our amiable host, as he filled our glasses and took our orders – French onion soup, green salad, duck confit and baked cod. The starters were excellent. The soup was a rich, dark broth crammed with caramelized onions and gooey cheese. For the salad, pert greens were dressed in a faultless French tarragon vinaigrette. Duck confit was served on a bed of wilted winter greens and roasted vegetables. And the fat, juicy cod sat on roast garlic and potatoes in a rich buttery sauce that made it all glisten and glow.

All this was accompanied by a light red Rhone from Ventoux. Dessert had to be Crème Brulee L'Absinthe, which was served in a generous dish with just a hint of absinthe in the creamy custard below the perfect brulee crust.

L'Absinthe has a recipe for success. Offer honest French fare, made expertly with fresh ingredients, at an extremely fair price, serve it in a warm and friendly setting, and never turn a local regular away. The restaurant radiates the good cheer that comes when neighbors share delicious food in a convivial setting.


As I packed to leave Primrose Hill, I reflected on my approach, which had been to experience things slowly and purposefully, instead of rushing across a broad spectrum of activities. I spent much of my time in one neighborhood, doing what the locals do. I ventured further afield to see and experience London, but even then, I tried to carve out the time and space for a deeper experience. I tightened the focus and slowed down the clock, and in so doing, I discovered a wonderful side of London, one small pleasure at a time.


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