February 5, 2011
The first day in London poured cold rain, making it highly pleasurable to spend the day in bed, lazily acclimating to the time change. The second day finds me venturing out into a breathtakingly cold, clear day - completely bundled for winter. Now only slightly jetlagged, but still in desperate need of strong, short coffee and a buttery croissant, I tuck into a communal table at Monmouth, the wonderfully rustic (read: lots of old wood and iron) coffee bar in London’s Borough Market. Wrapped in their tweeds and caps against the city’s deep chill, dozens of Brits are escaping their offices to join me for a late-morning caffeine hit. The coffee bar’s barn doors are always wide open to the market beyond, which now proudly exhibits winter produce from across Europe. A typically patient queue snakes out the door from Neal’s Yard, it’s counters piled high with winter cheeses. Stalls with cured salumi from Seville, fresh bread from Paris’ Pouliane, and jars of spicy Indian chutneys are set alongside butcher’s stands, now dense with hanging birds, winking pigs, and fat, furry rabbits from the English countryside.
Fueled and considerably warmer, I stroll the city in search of a few antique shops and unusual galleries. I’m aiming to see incredible pieces of Victorian and Sheffield silver, an English specialty. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Sheffield Silver Plate was an affordable, quality alternative to sterling silver. Today, it’s not just a collectible, but highly sought after.
This carving set has delightful detailing on the handles. It consists of a sharpening steel and a carving knife and fork. I also found a Sheffield serrated bread knife in the same shop that is not an exact pattern match to the carving set, but certainly a lovely compliment to the carving set, so I am including it. The four pieces date to the early 1900s, are all Sheffield, and are in great condition. ($185) Sheffield also produces extraordinary pewter pieces. I couldn’t resist this tankard with the naked lady handle. Is there a more ideal mug in which to drink beer? Unfortunately, there is only one, so you’ll have to pass her ‘round. ($85)
And incredible pieces of sterling silver abound in London! A salt cellar with a colbalt blue liner and its own sterling spoon is matched with a sterling pepper shaker. Both pieces are balanced on three ornate feet, with the elaborate culmination of a lion’s head at the top of each foot. The three pieces are clean and polished and quite impressive. ($165)
I’m a nut for figural pieces and immediately bought these amazing sugar tongs. Made from sterling silver and marked ‘Germany,’ it is a heavy and fully functional piece. The detailing on his hands, feet and face is quite precise. I’ll miss him when he’s gone. ($385)
Wandering a small alley, I happened upon a curious shop with all kinds of old wood, shiny brass and various hunting accoutrements. I was ecstatic to find a Clockwork Spit, also referred to as a ‘spitjack.’ What an ingenious design! The meat hangs on the hook over the fireplace’s embers to slowly roast. The clockwork mechanism slowly causes the meat to revolve, rotating one revolution one way, then back the other way, and then back again. A cast-iron wheel and four, adjustable hanging loops are suspended by a brass clockwork rotating mechanism. Marked 30 Salter Warranted. From England, late 19th century, it measures 16” long and 7” diameter. ($325)
I also scored a fabulous brass kettle, polished to a high sheen. It sits proudly on a brass stand and has a warmer below. The piece bears a circular mark enclosing conjoined “WS&S” for William Soutter & Sons of Birmingham, England. The height overall is 13.25” ($210)
The final piece of brass I scored is a brandy warmer with a spout. Who wouldn’t want such a fine tool, particularly on a cold winter’s night? The bottom of the piece is woven into place, signifying its age into the mid-1800s. The condition is marvelous, as it is spirit ready. ($155)
With warm brandy on the brain, I took a break and warmed myself in the afternoon sun at a table along the Thames, daydreaming about the previous evening’s sublime dinner at The River Cafe. Wood fired roasted squid, explosive with flavors of the sea, was followed by a salad of thinly shaved Puntarelle tossed with fresh anchovy and accompanied by an unctuous Soave. Locally hunted roasted whole grouse still managed to sing when paired with a mature Chianti, its rose petal and cherry notes perfectly playing against the gamey bird. Affogatos with homemade vanilla bean ice cream and Nonnino grappas punctuated the evening. The dining room’s convivial spirit added to the divinity of this seasonal meal. Even the grass-green olive oil on the table was small production, freshly pressed and spicy as hell. Opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, the dining room brought fresh, seasonal flavors to the then drab London cooking scene. The restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1988, but quite sadly, the world lost Ruth Rogers in early 2010.
Awoke late to a smattering of rain, an all-too familiar London sight. Quickly packed a small bag and located a Volkswagon reserved through Zipcar. Acting as navigator to the countryside town of Somerset, three hours south of the city, meant sitting white-knuckled, neck veins bulging, screaming directions at my pilot while she drove the dark, winding, tiny, and often one-way roads in the rain - on the wrong side of the street from the wrong side of the car!!!!! We finally arrived into the sweet Somerset village of West Coker and to The Lanes Hotel. This little hotel is housed in a former rectory whose old stone and wood structure has been made new again; restored to a highly modern sheen incorporating glass, colorful paintings, art, and warm lighting. I took a seat in the lobby in front of a mod gas fireplace, cleverly tucked inside an enormous old stone hearth, and found that a bottle of Meursault and a terrine made from local, wild game helped to soothe my frazzled nerves.
Even in the chilly rain, the hotel was full, but I never saw more than a few people. I soaked in the spa, sans garments, for nearly an hour and didn’t encounter a soul. It was late and I was hungry. Darted across the lawns and through a couple of stonewalls to an ancient pub, only to be told that the kitchen was closed, but they’d accommodate us with chips. Platters of greasy, salty, thick-cut fries were washed down with never-ending pints of beer. A neighborhood gang of old British men sang local dirges and played every instrument imaginable, showing off for the couple of Americans fortunate enough to have wandered in off the wet, cobbled street. The next morning found us on a too early train to the historic city of Bath. I made the pilgrimage into the imposing stone Abbey, which dates to 675 AD, and sat for a long while in the creaking wood pews. I was mesmerized watching tourists from all over the world slowly read the highly descriptive epitaphs on tombs located inside the sanctuary. “Here lies Anne Mann; she lived an old maid and died an old Mann.” Indeed, the walls do talk… Blinking into the sunlight outside, I skipped the tour of Bath’s baths and headed to the antiques market, where the old men were properly attired against the frigid morning. I was immediately attracted to a gentleman with a bushy salt and pepper beard who was manning a table laden with early pieces of copper, wood and porcelain.
This impressive copper funnel is 15 inches tall with a great tin lining. And like the desirable French belle that she is, her fine condition belies her turn-of-the-century age. ($310)
I grew excited to find a box of six bone spoons. Dating to the late 1800s from England, the custard hue and lines are compelling. Perfect for bone marrow, salt or caviar. Maybe ceviche? ($85 each or all six for $435).
I indulged my senses with two porcelain creamers, both produced by Royal Bayreuth in the early 1920s in Bavaria, Germany. The figural fish head ($245) has warm coloring, an enormous mouth, and measures 4 inches tall. Unflawed. I always smile at the St. Bernard’s woeful expression. He measures 3.5 inches, has great hues of gray and brown, and remains in brilliant condition ($245).
Careening the back roads of the English countryside, only slightly stoned from half an old joint I lucked across in my toiletry bag. Having chatted up the hotelier, we got the skinny on the area. Green slopes. Black and white cows. Red barns and gray skies that shifted shade. Late morning found us in an empty pub with a fireplace the size of a child’s room for a coffee, before making a detour into the little town of Axminster. We fortuitously happened into The River Cottage Canteen, a project by English Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I’ve always been a big fan of his books, which are not merely cookbooks but rather ethos on eating. His casual, comfortable dining room, with its locally produced foodstuffs and rich beers held the promise of a fine lunch. A duck pate made from the contents of a generous neighbor’s hunting bag was so dense and rich, so incredibly dark, gamey, livery, minerally… that surprisingly, I couldn’t take more than three bites. The lack of indulgence left plenty of appetite for grilled sardines, pulled from waters off the Dorset coast and dressed simply with lemon and chopped parsley. The beer was a local affair, full of hops and spice. A slice of gooey goat cheese made on a nearby farm and a salad of hearty winter lettuces left me refreshed. Pushed on to the coastal town of Lyme Regis; its claim to fame having been the location for the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I was more impressed to find the stellar Town Mill Bakery. We took refuge from the angry, spitting sky with large steaming mugs of ‘Workman’s Tea’ (also known as Builder’s Tea) doused with local honey and accompanied by dense lemon cakes. We watched from the communal tables of the warm bakery as the wind blew salt from the crashing surf. I was glad I ventured into the few shops which remained open. I found a very heavy, brass mortar and oversized 5” brass pestle. It screams to be on a wood counter to grind herbs and spices. ($225)
My last find in the UK was quite special: a pair of salt and pepper shakers, with superbly detailed silver elephant heads made from the Victorian period. The crystal bodies are heavy and in very fine condition. English from the mid-1800s, and measuring 3 inches from trunk to base. Highly unusual. ($285)
My treasures and I made it home unharmed. The U.S. Customs Officers, however, managed to locate most of my contraband salumi. Ah, well. It was a fine trip. Always love traveling. Always love returning home. Until the next adventure…
Lisa Minucci | Heritage Culinary Artifacts
Oxbow Public Market | 610 First Street, Stall 14
Napa, CA 94559 |