Go Outside

Screen shot 2013-03-19 at 17.57.42The Debt to Pleasure describes the smell of spring air as “more a texture than an odour”. Such an interesting and poetic illustration, yet considering it came from an English writer, I am highly suspect of such a romantic portrayal. It is true, there is a subtle electricity pulsating through the UK in the Springtime. But in reality it’s slow to start and intermittent at best. Here in London, when Spring begins to show itself, an almost visible and vibrating change comes over even the most curmudgeonly of individuals. I suppose that is the “texture” John Lanchester means, although in truth, it is muted and fleeting.

I am in my eleventh year of living in London. When I moved here, it took me many, many months to understand how precious and rare good weather is. I specifically recall a day when I had made arrangements to visit an art museum on a Saturday only to have them completely and emphatically dismissed because the weather had hit 19C (66F). I had never understood that if the weather in Britain decided to comply, all original plans were off and all there was to do is to go outside. It didn’t matter what we did once we got there, we just needed to be outdoors to take advantage of whatever gift the gods were bestowing upon us. There is a reason that the weather is a topic of conversation between most people, every day, all year. It occupies us constantly; its changeability toys with us and forces us to pander to its random and often seemingly obtuse behaviour.

And now we are in March, an awkward month. Some years it is warm and wonderful, others it is miserable. This year, March has chosen to be cold. In fact, it has been so cold that there were blizzards in the Channel Islands last week, an incredible and almost unheard of meteorological occurrence for this time of year. We are still waiting for the hints of Spring to come en force. So far, there has been a day, or an afternoon perhaps, where we can go outside without hats, scarves and gloves. The light is changing and the days are slowly getting longer, but still we wait.

What must it be like to live in a place that is so welcoming to the seasons? Even winter is met with anticipation, knowing that it won’t last too long so can be enjoyed for what it is. What it must be like to be where Spring comes along confidently and with it the colours, tastes and textures it promises. But here, in the UK, all we do is wait. Winter is long and we tolerate it just enough to get by. We hope for the best and keep optimistic when deep down we know we are sure to be disappointed again. Our almost abusive relationship with the weather keeps us hoping one day it’ll change but blizzards in March suggest that no, it probably won’t.

I am tired of eating stodgy food and desperately crave light meals, tomatoes, fresh salads and some other fruit than apples and pears. I’ve extended to Jaffa oranges from Spain because any break from the monotony of British winter fruit is welcome at this point. Forced rhubarb should be crawling into the market soon, which is only a minor respite for the palate. I refuse to purchase fruit and berries imported from Northern Africa or South America; perhaps an ironic decision considering the Spanish oranges. Even if I had no scruples about importing out of season, the fact it’s freezing outside renders eating them incongruous. I want a cool strawberry on a warm day, not a cold one. And so I wait.

London is one of the greatest cities in the world. Those of us privileged to live here know it’s a million things, all specific and idiosyncratic that add up to make it so. Despite this, the weather is always in the background, dictating our actions. What those who live here know is that the few days when the weather actually turns in our favour are like none other. The city becomes blanketed in golden light that glistens off the buildings; the view down the Thames reminds us why London is remarkable. The green of the trees and grass in the parks against the blue skies and the sunshine are almost blinding in their beauty and we dash outside in a frenzy to soak up any rays that we can find.

But until then, we continue to wait and hope for these days. We wait for the magnificent produce to arrive in our markets and continue to hope for consistent warmth. We itch for them to appear soon to sate our sunlight-starved souls with freshness and flavour. We wait for the sparks of Spring in the hope that this year, maybe, will finally be the year we can really, truly, go outside.

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A Taste of Catalan in the Heart of Brixton

Boqueria-tapas-restaurant-and-bar-opens-in-South-London_dnm_largeAs the main artery between Brixton and Clapham, and accessible only by foot or bus, Acre Lane may seem like a culinary no-man’s land. The Tesco and Access Storage bookend a strange mix of businesses between them and “dining” seems limited to a number of caffs and a few takeaways. But appearances can be deceiving and Acre Lane is also home to two particularly fantastic restaurants: the elegantly understated stalwart, Upstairs, and the relative newbie, Boqueria. Already establishing itself as a formidable addition to the Brixton dining scene after being voted Time Out’s Best New Cheap Eats 2012, Boqueria continues to make a name for itself both in and outside Brixton, and deservedly so.

We ate there on a Tuesday night, a tumbleweed scenario in many restaurants outside the centre of Town, but Boqueria was busy. Its sleek bar mostly filled with urbanites enjoying cool glasses of sherry and nibbles; the back dining room noisy in a good way and filled with couples and friends enjoying a night out, safe from the freezing temperatures outside. Their menu is comparatively large and full of traditional tapas dishes like tortilla, croquettas and chorizo, but goes further with its profferings of paella and jamon, among other things. On this particular evening, two specials called to me: calçots in tempura with romescu sauce and quails eggs in ratatouille. We added roasted Padrón peppers, carrillada Ibérica (pork cheek braised in red wine), and arroz negro (black rice with squid and mussels) to our order, all of which was accompanied by dry Tio Pepe and followed by a medium-bodied Rioja.

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The calçots, a type of spring onion that hails from Catalonia, were fried in a light tempura batter and served with romescu sauce on the side. I found the tempura a bit unnecessary but enjoyable all the same. The romescu sauce was good but tasted more of tomatoes than red peppers and lacked the piquancy I’d hoped for.

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The quail’s eggs were a revelation. Fried and a bit wobbly, they gleamed up at us, perched on a flavourful ratatouille. Everything in the dish worked together beautifully. The roasted Padrón peppers, although a touch too bitter, were brought back to life by sea salt and good olive oil.

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Carrillada Ibérica was hearty and deeply wintery. The pork was tender and delicious; the red wine sauce was rich and intensely flavoured. It all tasted as if it had been cooked for hours, exactly as it should have. Finally, came the arroz negro. The black paella-like rice dish had a nice backbone of seafood flavours, enhanced by bits of squid and mussels nestled within. Accompanied by a nice dollop of aïoli and garnished with a beautiful grilled prawn set into the dish like a crustacean Venus, it was well worth the pre-warned 25-minute wait. We finished with a decent crema catalana, then rolled our happily sated selves home.

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Boqueria is delicious, relatively inexpensive and all within walking distance for us Brixtonites. Whilst Brixton Village continues to attract diners with its excellent diversity of restaurants, Acre Lane is proving to be a marvellous collaborator. From Caribbean to Catalan, great dining on our doorsteps now exists in even greater abundance. Why would you want to live anywhere else?

Boqueria, 192 Acre Lane, Brixton. Tel 020 7733 4408.

Meal for two, including drinks and service £50.

A version of this was printed in the Brixton Bugle, Edition 8, March 2013. You can read an online version here.