Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Babylonstoren: A nod to the Cape's first gardens

"I think this car is about to fall apart!"

I shouted it matter-of-factly, as it seemed like this result would soon be upon us.

Ever since we had left the tar of the motorway for the gravel road we were now travelling on, it sounded like every component of the car was rattling. From the windows in their panes to the pebbles bouncing off the exterior to the boot, which currently sounded as though we were transporting a cargo of heavy chains and metal armour - the noise was deafening.

To be fair, we were taking on a questionably long stretch of gravel with the first car I'd ever owned: a bright-yellow number that saved loads of cash on petrol but was laden with flaws in every other facet.

I looked over at my companion, Lance, whose face looked as horrified as mine.

Over the next 25 minutes, we would proceed in setting a new world record for the slowest journey on this road. Any attempt to go faster just resulted in more clattering and, at one point, a Jeep raced past us, showering our car with gravel as it went.

Eventually, our shock transformed into tears - tears of laughter. We must have looked ridiculous. There were the two of us, crawling along this road at what can only be described as a pace even slower than a below-average garden snail's, and we were shaking with silent laughter as we went.

Luckily, there are other ways to get to our final destination - we just happened to take the very worst one.

After what felt like an eternity, we saw Babylonstoren at the end of our drive.

The first sighting of Babylonstoren.

Even with that first glimpse, I knew that the comical, emotionally scarring and internal organ-jostling drive had been completely worth it.


Babylonstoren is one of the most well-preserved Cape Dutch werfs (farm yards) in the Western Cape. An hour's drive from Cape Town, the property still has many of the 17th Century structures from when it was first founded.

The farm was built by Pieter van der Byl and has endured until today. I had heard of Babylonstoren from the enthusiastic reviews of friends and family, so I coerced Lance, one of my closest friends, to join me on this adventure during my last trip to Cape Town.

Paying the admission fee of ZAR 10 per person (£0.50), we parked the much-abused car and perused our maps of the farm. Very quickly, we realised that there was much to see.

But, since we hadn't eaten yet, that was our first priority. Having just missed the breakfast timeslot, we settled for freshly made sandwiches in the farm's aptly named Green House. Why was the name so apt, you ask? See below for clarification!

Babylonstoren's Green House restaurant.

Newly nourished, we decided to get on to the business of exploring the grounds. 

Since the gardens alone span eight hectares, we had a lot of walking ahead of us.

The gardens of Babylonstoren.

To explain the gardens, the real focal point of Babylonstoren, we need to rewind back to when the Cape attracted its first European settlers. Along with the buildings they put up in the area currently occupied by the city of Cape Town, these settlers also introduced the Company's Garden. 

The modern-day Company's Garden is filled with tree-lined avenues, many inquisitive squirrels and some spectacular rose gardens. This is where people stroll during their lunch break, take wedding photos and go for a run. 

In the 1650s, however, its role was a much more practical one. With Cape Town serving as the midway point for shipping voyages between Europe and Asia, this is where ships would stop to take on more food supplies. And so it was that the Company's Garden really started out as an extensive vegetable garden.

Babylonstoren has tried to recreate this on its property. With a nod towards the Cape's first official vegetable garden, as well as the mythical gardens of Babylon, over 300 varieties of plantlife here are edible. And, as you may have already guessed, much of the produce is used in Babylonstoren's two restaurants.

At Babylonstoren, we found vegetables both familiar...

...And wholly alien in appearance!

The garden is divided into 15 different clusters, including types of vegetables and berries, as well as areas for farm animals, such as chickens, ducks and bees.

Since I'm allergic to bees, I thought it best to leave this door unopened.

Monday, 15 December 2014

A #ZomatoMeetup at Chotto Matte, Soho

Never has a single event prompted such rapid Googling.

When the lovely folk of Zomato invited me to attend their latest foodie meetup at Chotto Matte, my response was an immediate yes.

Why? Apart from the ever-appealing opportunity to meet fellow bloggers, a few years ago, I had the pleasure of trying Peruvian cuisine for the first time. Served at a little restaurant in central Cape Town, I remember being captivated by the fresh flavours and bright colours of the dishes. That was also the first time I had tried a Pisco sour, which is now easily one of my favourite drinks.

Fast forward to the present in London, Chotto Matte not only features Peruvian flavours, but has its focus firmly on Nikkei cuisine.

And this is where my search engine entanglement began.

Determined to have unlocked the meaning of Nikkei before I got to Chotto Matte, I ended up finding out about the history of this particular cuisine, which was accompanied by some inevitable drooling as images of tostaditas and sushi flashed before my eyes.

Given the fact that Peru happens to be home to the second-biggest ethic Japanese population on the South American continent, it was only a matter of time that influences would begin to show in any number of facets. 

And, truth be told, when it comes to the food, the Nikkei fusion has been around for almost a century.

South American flavours have gained a firm foothold in London's restaurant and pop-up scene, with a number of new openings in the city in the past year. Centrally located in Soho's Frith Street, Chotto Matte - which translates to 'please wait a minute' - has been receiving rave reviews since its opening last year.

I couldn't wait to check it out for myself.

Arriving just as the overly familiar London rain was making an appearance, I ducked in through the doors of Chotto Matte.

My first impressions of the restaurant was of a sophisticated yet airy space. With partitions between different seating areas and bars, there's enough privacy for diners without becoming too claustrophobic. As I made my way over to the area set aside for our #Zomatomeetup, I noticed the graffiti-like paintings on the walls, which added a splash of colour to the setting.

With an ongoing demonstration of both cocktail-making and the preparation of key Chotto Matte dishes, we were in for a treat.

Munching on canchas, a Peruvian snack of puffed corn, we were introduced to some key players in the running of the restaurant.

Head chef Michael Paul and head bar chef Fabiano Latham gave us an introduction to the very best of Nikkei food and drink.

On the liquid side, we merrily (increasingly so as the night proceeded) sampled four different drinks. From the classic Pisco Sour to the refreshing Chicano de tonka to Perfecto amor, a fortified wine, each glass differed completely from the next. My favourite was the Cuatro Uvas, a pretty little number featuring Pisco, sake, elderflower, red grapes, lime and celery bitters.

Pisco and its variations were also explained. A type of brandy made by the distilling of wine, this spirit is highly versatile, and I may have walked away with a small bottle of my own by the end of the evening!

Monday, 8 December 2014

How to travel the world without leaving London

I first heard about World in London while I was at a travel event a few weeks back. The brainchild of Ed Gillespie and Ed Hewitt, the World in London project was borne out of a desire to get people to 'travel the world in their own city'. 

Since I still feel like I'm getting to know my new hometown and all of its secrets, I asked Ed Hewitt, former travel blogger turned entrepreneur, to share his top five recommendations for those who want to have a unique, global experience in London.

1. Hang out with Latin Americans in Pueblito Paisa

Ed celebrates the World Cup with Colombians in London. Photo credit: Ed Hewitt.

For something completely different, try the authentically South American market in Seven Sisters. It's known locally as Pueblito Paisa and has been the beating heart of London's South American community for decades. Stepping inside feels like you've actually been transported to Bogota. Latin beats blare, buzzing restaurants serve up hearty Colombian soups, meats and empanadas, ladies get their nails done, guys drink beer while watching the football direct from South America. Spanish is spoken everywhere. The market is mainly Colombian, although other Latin countries are also represented.

2. Marvel at the wonder that is Neasden temple

The stunning Neasden Temple. Photo credit: Ed Hewitt.

For the largest Hindu temple outside of India, head to Neasden Temple - it's hand-carved from Italian marble and is an incredible work of art. I've travelled around India extensively and I can genuinely say it rivals the most beautiful temples there. Set against an industrial British backdrop and the Wembley stadium arch close by, its quite a surreal experience!

3. Get some multicultural vibes down Ridley Road

Ridley Road market in Dalston. Photo credit: Ed Hewitt.

For its sheer 'rawness', Ridley Road (Dalston) is my favourite market in London. If you fancy seeing charred sheep heads, cowfoot and all manner of other exotic produce, then this is your place. It's a great mix of multicultural London, including Ghanian, Nigerian, Jamaican, Colombian, Bangladeshi and Turkish stores aplenty. Don't just go to have a little peep at novelty butchery though. There is some beautiful fresh fruit to be purchased for some of the cheapest prices in London as well as really colourful African cloth. It's a vibrant mix that makes you realise what a special city London is.  

4. Get wrapped in birch leaves and pummelled in an authentic Russian Banya

You don't have to brace the colds of the Moscow winter to experience something authentically Russian. London has its very own Russian 'Banya'. My favourite treatment is called 'venik' and involves being covered in a bundle of leafy birch before you get a good pummelling. 

5. Go to a supper club from anywhere in the world

Supper clubs (the fancy name for dinner parties with strangers) have become increasingly popular over the last few years. And authentic cuisine from all over the world has been at the forefront of that. You can find Italian, Argentine, Malaysian, Ghanaian, Texan, Brazilian and just about any other type of supper club. My personal favourite, however, is Burmese. It's a delicious mix of Thai, Indian and Chinese and is cooked beautifully by Burmese chef Thuzar Kyi. You can go on one by claiming it as a reward for our crowdfund.  

Ready to start your own explorations of London?

Ed's told me of these and so many other hidden multicultural gems in London, and you'll be able to find them all in the World in London app which is currently being created. The app will curate the top ten experiences from each nationality in London and will even feature little journeys for you to follow. To make it even more fun and interactive, the app will be themed like a passport, where you'll develop a collection of stamps as you go around London trying different experiences from different cultures. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

The London Pass: Becoming a tourist for a day

A little while ago, I celebrated the fact that I've been living in London for two years. In my mind, 'two years' sounds very long, especially when I feel like there's still so much to discover in my new home. 

Ever one to be willing to play tourist in London, I couldn't be happier when I was contacted by the lovely folk of the London Pass. The task: Grab a 24-hour London Pass, drag the boyfriend out into the rain and explore as much of the city as possible.

And, on an especially wintry Saturday, that's exactly what I decided to do.

What is the London Pass?

Like equivalents in other major cities around the world, the London Pass is a sightseeing card. The idea is to buy the card and then have access to a multitude of attractions within the city without having to pay entrance fees.

Currently, there are over 60 attractions to which you can get free (or, in some cases, discounted) access. The attractions include the major tourist hotspots, including the likes of Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and London Zoo, but also some lesser-known locations like Chislehurst Caves and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

You can buy passes for 1, 2, 3, 6 or ten days; the 24-hour pass costs £49. You can also opt in for transport discounts.

A one-day Pass is capped at £90, meaning that the combined normal entry fees of the sites you visit can't exceed that total.

Way too excited - ready to go for our day of sightseeing in London.

Become a planner

Upon receiving my London Pass, I started leafing through the booklet that accompanied it. 

Filled with details on all of the included attractions, along with opening days/time and maps, I realised that, to get the most out of my Pass, I needed to do some planning.

This is especially the case when it comes to the one-day Pass. It would make no sense if we chose far-flung locations like Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens or Windsor Castle. The travel alone would eat up massive amounts of our limited time.

Instead, we chose attractions that were close to each other to maximise the amount of sightseeing. I strongly recommend triple-checking opening times, as many attractions close for at least one day per week.

For us, we decided to concentrate our time around London Bridge and the river, with a final stop at a place we both really wanted to see in Greenwich. To get to the latter, we used the Thames River Boat Cruise, which is included in the London Pass.

The attractions

We started the day with a visit to somewhere we hadn't been to before: the Old Operating Theatre.

Located right by London Bridge station and Borough Market, this is not only a museum of surgical history - it also, as the name suggests, houses one of the oldest operating theatres in the world.

The first section of the museum runs through the discoveries of natural remedies as well as the first surgeries, while the true gem is the operating theatre itself.

The Old Operating Theatre.

Surgery was not a fun experience in the 17th and 18th centuries, given that anaesthetic was only used much later, and some of the descriptions (and paintings) are rather gory. 

That said, there is something fascinating about this wooden operating theatre, complete with observation deck so that medical trainees of the time could see the action, and the fact that it's survived all this time so that we can still visit today.

Admission normally costs £6.50, opening times are Monday to Sunday, 10:30 to 17:00.

Since we were in the vicinity, we decided to stop by Borough Market. One of the largest and oldest markets in all of London, Borough hosts stalls selling all manner of street food, as well as items for the pantry. I love walking through this busy place, seeing the different fare on offer and doing a bit of people-watching as I go.

I don't know how, since we had just visited a museum of surgery, but we managed to grab some food before heading along to our next attraction for the day.

I'd seen a show at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre before, but the London Pass allowed us to take a historical guided tour. After having a brief look at the in-house museum, our guide introduced himself and gave us some background on the theatre.

Out of all of the attractions we visited that day, this was my favourite. A lot of this had to do with our guide; the ever-witty Matthew ensured that our hour learning about the Globe was an entertaining one. 

Inside the Globe Theatre.

The elaborate decoration of the stage.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a reconstruction of the 16th Century original.

The current theatre is a modern one; the previous two theatres that stood here were destroyed (one by fire, the other was demolished). Yet this is a faithful reconstruction of the original 16th Century Globe Theatre, a project dreamed up by American actor and director (and, arguably, the biggest Shakespeare fan that ever lived) Sam Wanamaker. 

Visiting the interior of the theatre and learning about its acoustics, design and history only worked to make me want to see another production here, and I plan to do just that once 2015 rolls around.

Guided tours normally cost £13.50; it's open Monday to Friday, yet times vary.

Since the South Bank is one of my all-time favourite parts of London, I'll admit that we took some time just strolling alongside the river. 

We didn't linger too long, though, as our river cruise awaited us. Full-day access to the Thames River Boat Cruise is available with the London Pass, and it was the ideal way to get to our last attraction for the day.

There are four different hop-on/off locations for the cruise: Westminster, London Eye, Tower Bridge and Greenwich. Cruises can last anywhere between 30 minutes to three hours; whatever your choice, you're guaranteed spectacular views of London's skyline.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Food art at Bethnal Green's INK restaurant

Tucked away in a building complex down a side street up some stairs next to a canal in Bethnal Green... you'll be forgiven if you haven't quite come across INK restaurant during your London explorations.

Obscure location aside, we were lured to this establishment thanks to Zomato, glowing reviews and the promise of some of the most inventive food in London. We arrived at the Bethnal Green tube station and embarked on our 15-minute walk to the restaurant.

To be honest, it's not the easiest place to find. I'd recommend keeping a sharp eye on your Google Maps app and, once you get to the end of Palmers Road, which appears to lead to nowhere, clamber up the steps and look to your left. If my directions are any good, you should see the encircled INK logo not too far away. (If not, I totally apologise in advance!)

It was a chilly, rainy night, so we stepped through the doors as quickly as possible.

With its neutral tones and lack of decoration, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the space before me at first. 

INK restaurant.

The long room features soft lighting and generously spaced tables. Outside, there's a veranda with extra seating. With the canal-side location, I imagine that this must be a beautiful spot during the summer months.

Back inside, we sat down at our table and were presented with our menus.

The a la carte selection is relatively small, where there was only one option for dessert, but all of the options sounded appealing.

For those wanting to splash out, there is a 72-hour tasting menu available: for £72 and with 72 hours' notice, INK will create a seven-course meal for you - with each course matched to a glass of wine.

After some indecision on our part, the waiter came to our rescue by making some recommendations.

It was also during this conversation that we learned more about INK. 

The brainchild of Lithuanian-born chef Martyn Meid, this restaurant is all about simplicity - stripping back dishes so that they celebrate the distinct textures and flavours of particular ingredients. While this may suggest that dishes are overly simplified, this is hardly the case. Instead, we were told that each meal would have some sort of unexpected, artistic flourish. With this context in mind, the minimalist decor of INK was starting to make sense.

Add the fact that Martyn takes pride in the way his restaurant's meats are cured, smoked or pickled, and we were now truly looking forward to the food that would soon arrive.

Putting aside our glasses of Portuguese Fonte De Nico Vin Branco to admire them, our starters looked like miniature works of art.

Scallops have become a favourite of mine, and INK's version only accentuated my attachment. Served with burnt onion, peach and pork crackling - simultaneously soft yet crunchy - this was a strong start for our evening.

A good start: Scallops with peach, burnt onion and pork crackling (£11).

Being the unapologetic meat lover that he is, Chris favoured the venison starter, which consisted of strips of cured venison, as well as beetroot prepared in three different ways.

Cured venison with beetroot textures (£10).

I'll add a disclaimer here: I love any dish where beetroot is the champion. I blame my Polish heritage for this, but I was delighted that this delicious vegetable was the star in two of our dishes at INK.

As both starters were on the small side, our appetites had been awakened and it wasn't long before our mains made their appearance.

The first: Pan-fried duck breast with vanilla and beetroot, accompanied by some spiced couscous. 

Perfectly cooked duck, served with spiced couscous and beetroot (£18).

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