My trip to London in September 2015 was for the Food Blogger Connect conference, but also to explore and eat in parts of the city I had not seen when I lived in the UK more than a decade and a half earlier. I suspected that 7 days in London, a city that has undergone a food renaissance over the past fifteen years would be cutting it close, especially since a chunk of it would be devoted to the blogger conference.
For once my suitcase was packed a day before I was due to travel from Dubai. However, I still spent most of the night tossing and turning, and fitful sleep was peppered with dreams about lost baggage and passports.
I set off for the airport with unaccustomed nervousness. I remembered the news reports of the Emirati sisters who had been viciously attacked in their London hotel, and a shiver of apprehension coursed down my spine. I had decided to forego wearing my abaya in the interests of my personal safety.
I spent most of the seven hour flight watching movies and television drama series and by the time the flight landed I was eager to get going. I have heard tales of woe from travelers who had endured embarrassing immigration procedures and waits. Alhamdulillah, I had a very pleasant experience, even after asking the immigration officer to clean the finger print scanner of the greasy outlines I could see, before recording my own.
After walking down a tunnel from the airport arrivals terminal for what seemed like forever, I finally reached the underground station for the District line. In the train I had my first view of the British sky, and was reminded how dull it could be when the weather was cold and the sky heavy with dark clouds.
I had decided to travel to Leicester Square first to collect the London Travel pass and Oyster card that I had pre-purchased on the London Pass website. The delivery charges to the UAE would have made any savings negligible so I chose to collect it from their collection point instead. It boggles my mind that they do not have a London Pass collection centre or redemption booth at Heathrow airport, where buyers would be able to use the Oyster card immediately for onward travel from the airport.
Getting off the train with my suitcase was no problem, but then I saw the two sets of stairs up to the ground level exit at Leicester Square underground station, and my heart sank. I straightened my spine and told myself to woman up as I started my ascent, but had gotten no further than the second step when I heard a man say ‘Need some help there love?’. He promptly took my bag and carried it up two flights of stairs, before depositing it at the exit. In response to my words of gratitude, he merely said ‘It’s no problem’ and went on his way.
I followed the directions and landmarks given for collection of the London pass from the Redemption booth and finally found the kiosk. More stairs, but fortunately, the attendant told me to leave the bag and collect the items from downstairs. An American couple who arrived a minute later were not impressed with the location as they had been looking for it for hours, and taken quite a few wrong turns before finding it. In addition, the spiral staircase was steep and not very kind to arthritic knees.
I collected the London Pass and Oyster card but found that the order for the Dining pass had not been processed, even though it had been charged to my pay pal account and I had the invoice and bank text message to prove it. The supervisor checked and informed me in a very haughty tone that my bank had not released the funds. Urghhh! (I received an apology from London Pass for the delay a few days later, and the charges have been refunded to me since then).
I took my passes and made my way back to the station, not stopping along the way, even though I could smell baking bread and melting cheese wafting through the air and enticing me to find it’s hiding place. Pulling my suitcase across the street I imagined it would be easier going down the stairs to catch the underground train to my hotel.
As it was, I lifted the bag to drop it down one step when I heard someone ask ‘Can I help you with that?’. A smiling gentleman carried my bag down two flights of stairs and in response to my thanks replied ‘you’re welcome’, and went on his way. And so it was, that wherever I encountered a flight of stairs on the journey to my hotel, a different strange man would offer his assistance to get it up or down the stairs. Alhamdulillah for small mercies.
In the late afternoon I finally reached the suburb of Chiswick, where my hotel was located. With directions from a grumpy old man at the station exit, I was on my way towards the Chiswich High Road. I passed a brasserie that I would return to a few times over the next week, and finally found the Best Western Chiswick Palace suites, only a ten minute walk from Turnham Green station.
By the time I reached it I was ready to drop. Alhamdulillah, the check-in process was smooth and I was ensconced in my room within 10 minutes. A full review of the Best Western Chiswick Palace and Suites may be found here.
DAY 2 – BOROUGH MARKET, LONDON BRIDGE, TOWER OF LONDON
I had originally booked a Street Photography Walk for my first guided excursion through the website of the Darling Collective. However, when I emailed the vendor Fox and Squirrel to confirm the booking, I was told that they don’t offer it on Wednesdays. They promised a full refund that I have since received. Fox and Squirrel offer creative walks in Art, Fashion, Food and Street photography as well as customized walks tailored to individual interests. I would recommend booking directly on their website for accurate information and availability.
I must confess that for the past few years I have been following Borough Market on Facebook, and the non-event photography walk meant that I could spend more time perusing the market and it’s surrounding areas. Borough market is the 1000 years old fruit and vegetable wholesale market and world renowned artisanal food market, that was first established near London Bridge in the 11th century.
After a good night’s rest I felt refreshed and eager to go exploring London (mostly on foot). My arrival day had been dull and grey and I expected it to be much the same on the second day. However, I stepped out into a clear day with blue skies and wispy clouds (realizing at the station that I had forgotten to wear sunblock when I felt the sting of heat on my cheeks) 🙁
I took the District line underground from Turnham Green to Westminster and changed there to the Jubilee line, that took me east to London Bridge station. The closest entrance to the Borough market is on the opposite side of the road across from the station exit. I spent a fascinating few hours tasting, eating and talking to stall holders in the various sections of the market. You can read a detailed account of my visit to Borough market soon in shaa ALLAH.
Heaving my Borough market purchases behind me a few hours later, I decided to take a walk along the South bank in the direction of the Tower of London. I did so via a circuitous route passing Winchester Palace ruins (as much due to curiosity as being in unfamiliar surroundings). After reading social media recommendations about them I stopped at a Pret á Manger for coffee and a 20 minute break. The flavored coffee was possibly one of the worst I have had in a while, but at least the surroundings were pleasant and they had a clean toilet. I only noticed a branch of La Pain Quotidien on my way back. 🙁
I finally made my way across London Bridge (on foot of course, how else could I take a photo of the Tower of London), and navigated around construction demolition sites to the Monument station from where I took a short ride to Tower Hill. A few steps and I was in the surrounds of the Tower of London (formally known as Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress, The Tower of London).
Even after all these years it still has an elegance about it and seems curiously at home amongst the newly erected ultra modern buildings in the surrounding areas. I had considered taking one of the tours which would have been included in the London Pass experience, but decided that I would rather sit and admire the view than look at other people’s old things. I know, I may sound like an incredibly uncultured philistine, but in this day and at my age I am not particularly interested in seeing relics of dubious aesthetic value.
After a short stop at the curio shop to pick up mementoes for the kids, I moved on to the riverside to take a Thames River cruise. The cruise was also included in the London Pass attractions that I could utilize without additional payment. The cruise boat had indoor seating as well as outdoor seating on the upper deck. I chose to sit inside as a chilly breeze had come up. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but it turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. This cruise did have an onboard cafeteria serving snacks and drinks. The captain did the commentary himself, in lieu of the canned commentary provided by the cruise operator. It was alternately humorous, entertaining and informative and I loved every minute of it.
The boat disembarked at Westminster (where there was a handy water refill station) and I made my way back to Chiswick by underground. I was exhausted and knew I would not be inclined to come out to eat once I was back at the hotel. Instead I bought a Brie and grape sandwich, pain au raisin and sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps at the Sainsbury’s en route to the hotel, just in case I felt peckish.
DAY 3 – east end food tour
In response to my question about where to eat and what to do in London, a few of the members of the Facebook group of UAE food bloggers had provided recommendations. This included halal friendly options from Beela Bakes for food spots in Knightsbridge, Notting Hill and Mayfair to mostly non halal food and drink options from FooDiva. My favorite recommendations however came from My Custard Pie, where I found the Darling Collective link as well as the East End food tour operated by Eating London Tours. You can read about my experience on the East End Food Tour here.
The East End food tour lasted for 4 hours, after which I took the Central Line underground from Liverpool street station to Mile End where I was collected by my cousin’s daughter. I spent a lovely Eid afternoon with them Alhamdulillah, and I felt blessed to be with family even though we were thousands of miles away from home. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit my other cousin’s family on that day as they live a distance outside of the city.
My cousin and her daughter had prepared a feast of roasted leg of lamb and accompaniments as well as curry and roti. I joined them for a late lunch and tea with cookies from home. We are tea lovers, so tea and cookies were served a few times during the course of the afternoon :). Later that evening we travelled by bus to the Mile End station where I went west back to Chiswick with cookies in hand (my barakat) that my cousin had insisted I take with me, and they went east to watch the rugby.
DAY 4 TO 6 – FOOD BLOGGER CONNECT CONFERENCE
The first day of Food Blogger Connect had me on edge as I had never attended a food and travel bloggers conference before and had no idea what to expect. I left the hotel early and took the bus to the Chiswick House and Gardens, a journey of about 20 minutes. I disembarked at the entrance to the grounds closest to the bus stop and took a leisurely walk to the Manor house.
The start of registration for the event was delayed due to a logistic issue with the furniture delivery encountered that morning, so I had a toasted cheese sandwich and coffee for breakfast while waiting for them to get set up. Possibly the most expensive sandwich ever 🙂
We started the first workshop on Food Styling and Photography very shortly after it’s appointed time. The workshop was held outside under a marquee and though it was great for photography lighting, it was not so great for seeing the images or the presentation on a projector screen.
It was interesting watching the professional photographer William Reavell and stylist Tara Sura at work. They seemed to be perfectly in tune with each other, and the end result was amazing. William abandoned his presentation and did a hands on tutorial instead. With the number of participants it was not always possible to get a great shot of the items being styled, but he explained every step in detail to ensure we could grasp what he was doing.
The second significant workshop for the day was a talk by veteran cook and food culture historian, Claudia Roden. You may recall that I posted my version of her Orange and Almond cake recipe recently. Her account of the expulsion of Egyptian Jews from Egypt following the invasion by Israel, Britain and France to regain control of the Suez canal was matter of fact, but it was a sharp reminder of how minority rights are often stripped during times of conflict.
I loved listening to her stories and the constant refrain throughout was this: ‘Tell me, how does your mother do it’. It applied to recipes from her youth as well as to deconstructed recipes she encounters from young chefs today.
On the second day of the conference I attended another Photography and Styling workshop, this time presented by prop stylist Lucy Harvey, food stylist Emily Jonzen and photographer Ria Osbourne. The ladies were very helpful in their tips and tricks, especially the food stylist. Unfortunately, due to the number of participants and consequent interaction they didn’t get further than the first dish.
The Travel and Lifestyle photography workshop was cancelled on the third day and instead we had a Creative writing workshop with Mary-Denise Smith, a retired corporate trainer and public speaker who now proof reads and edits for food and garden bloggers. This was really an eye opening experience, in more ways than one. Mary-Denise put us through a few writing exercises that seemed deceptively simple. However, each one explored a different outlet for creativity. After completing each exercise we were required to read it out loud to the class.
When it came to my turn, I was told to raise my voice and be heard. I didn’t give it a second thought and obliged and we continued with the programme. After the workshop Mary-Denise approached me and apologized if she had offended me in any way. I had the feeling that she assumed that as a Muslim woman who dresses modestly and wears a head cover, I am somehow oppressed into silence and submission… but I digress, and will go into this in another post in shaa ALLAH.
Other interesting speakers over the course of the conference were Sasha Wilkins from the lifestyle blog Liberty London Girl, as well as Kirsten Rogers from the food blog Ms. Marmite Lover. One of my favorite speakers was French mum Hélène from the food blog Croque-Maman. Her workshop on branding was unfortunately held at the end of the conference on the third day, and I think we would have benefitted more if it had been held earlier and had a longer time slot.
Although the Street Feasts (lunch and dinner) part of the conference was billed as the highlight of the day, I must say that I was not really impressed by the daily line up. On the first day the only thing I could eat was the vegetable soup (two mouthful size portion) and the mushroom and crackers.
A few of the sponsors and feeders that did catch my eye were Glorious Foods who provided piping hot hearty soups (in two mouthful size portions mentioned above) every day.
Another standout was Churros Garcia, a second generation family run business operating street food stalls at events in and around London. Their crispy delicious churros are made with a semolina textured artisanal flour obtained from Eastern Europe, and served with the most delicious chocolate sauce.
Pandan Bakery specialize in Malaysian inspired delicious cakes and desserts incorporating pan dan leaves. My favorites at the street feasts were the pancakes with coconut (reminds me of home) and the peanut cookies.
Also on offer was delicious, freshly cooked hand made pasta (in man size portions) by Crazy for Pasta who usually have a street food stall at the Camden Lock Market.
One of my favorite snacks was definitely the Sexy Shrimp rolls from Roll ‘n Rock who specialize in Vietnamese street food. I loved the zesty crunch in every bite.
La Belle Assiette are a private chef service cooking meals in homes all over the UK. They had a pop dining room on all three days of the conference and featured a different chef and tasting small plate every day. I enjoyed the Mushrooms on crackers (mushroom mousse on homemade crackers) and the Salmon gravlax cured with shiso and yuzu on different days.
Last but not least was Duke of Delhi confectioners who were introducing their Delhi Mix chocolate bars. I sampled a few, but my favorite by far was the cardamom and vanilla.
I was happy to meet so many bloggers from around the world, but curiously enough found that the most approachable were those who were foreigners like myself. This includes Elena Paravantes (Greek) from the Mediterranean food blog Olive Tomato; Teresa Sousa (Portuguese) from Tasting Portugal and Jennifer Eremeeva, an American expat author living in Moscow.
At the end of the conference all the bloggers were sent off back home with a goodie bag filled with drinks, snacks, baking utensils and other items. My favorites are the microplane and the mini madeleine silicone baking sheet.
As I scanned my bags for the last time before checking out of the Best Western Chiswick Palace and suites, I knew that I would have to visit this city again in shaa ALLAH. There was so much of it left to explore and so many of the fabulous food places that I had not had the time or opportunity to visit.
I had behaved myself and not bought too many unnecessary items, but the goodie bag from the conference as well as the gifts that I had purchased required an additional bag. Alhamdulillah, I had thought to buy a fold up hold all at the mall a week earlier.
With my backpack strapped on, the suitcase and hold all in tow, I set off on my journey to the airport. I didn’t get any further than the reception desk though, where I had to collect my invoice. I looked at the bags and imagined myself trudging down to the station on my 10 minute walk (probably longer with the bags), then hauling them up two flights of steps to the platform… and promptly asked the hotel reception if they could order a taxi to Heathrow airport.
I know, I know. I could have done the walk and the heavy lifting, but by that stage of the journey a £27.50 taxi ride seemed like a well-deserved luxury I could treat myself to. A 20 minute taxi ride later, and I was dropped off at the entrance to Terminal 3 and the start of my journey back to Dubai.
I had heard of the security precautions at Heathrow airport, but must admit that I did not find them onerous. They appeared to be well organized and methodical. All liquid items to be placed in transparent bags and all electronic devices to be displayed. There was no immigration desk to pass through at departure and I am assuming this is taken care of with the self scanning of boarding passes at the security checkpoint.
As usual the flight was delayed, and we boarded more than 30 minutes late. The flight was uneventful and I arrived back in Dubai tired but content, Alhamdulillah.
Update: Apparently iPhone photos taken in Portrait mode and uploaded to WordPress are rotated when viewed on a mobile phone or tablet device. A fellow blogger has informed me that most of the photos on here look wonky when viewed on google chrome although I see it in the correct orientation in IE and Safari on web browsers. This will be fixed as soon as possible, and I want to apologize in advance for the inconvenience.