Sunday, July 29, 2007


I am not the first, and I am sure I wont be the last to compare Tokyo’s subway map to a plate of colourful noodles, but it is certainly true that, at first, it looks impossibly daunting and you approach the metro stations with a certain amount of trepidation.

However, once you get over the initial fear, Tokyo’s main method of public transport turns out to be an absolute delight. Even, as is often the case, when it is heaving with people and you have to stand.

For one thing, it is air conditioned, which for someone coming from London, is enough to make you refuse to get off, ever, take off most of your clothing, perhaps pack a picnic and make a day of it.

Also, unlike its London counterpart, it is impossibly punctual as indeed are all the trains in Japan.

So, I spent the next three days taking advantage of the fantastic value Passnet metro card and whizzing from district to district trying to cram in as much as possible

First stop on Friday, Shibuya which is a pleasant enough district of Tokyo, but really just an also ran compared to some of its more famous neighbourhoods like the ritzy Ginza or the notorious Shu-Jinku. I would probably not have headed over there but for one reason, The Tokyo Food Show, perhaps the best of Tokyo’s impressive selection of food halls.

As I was to find out, just about every department store in Tokyo devotes the basement floors to food. On one floor, a food hall and below that, a range of restaurants that would make any lover of food swoon.

Of all, The Tokyo Food Show was the one I wanted to see. Considered by many to be one of the best in the city. About the size of a couple of football pitches, the range of products on offer was staggering. From stands selling smarter versions of yakitori to those selling steamed and grilled unagi over rice to western cake stalls and chocolate stalls. I spent a good hour wandering around slightly heartbroken that I did not have the opportunity to buy more than a few bits and pieces to eat as I wandered along.

After a brief wander around the rest of the area, I headed to the altogether more upmarket area of Ginza where many of Tokyo’s well to do head to shop. I was not there for the shopping though, apart from anything else, I didn’t have a single cubic cm in my rucksack for even a wafer thin mint let alone a kimono with a large dragon on the back. I was here to literally head to the wrong side of the tracks to the Yakatori alley where yet another array of rather challenging shop fronts and stalls offered workers on a break or commuters on their way home the chance of a plate of something grilled.

For once, matters meat were at the back of my head as I wanted to try Unagi, eel. The eel, in this case, is grilled, then steamed to reduce the fat content, then grilled again before being basted in a slightly sweet sauce and served over rice or on skewers.

It is a speciality of Tokyo and there are places in town that have been serving it for well over a century. In my case, I just popped into a local fast food joint, sat at the counter, did a bit of my pointing, at which by now, I was becoming a bit of a Yokazuna, and got my plate of Unagi over rice three minutes later. It may not have been the finest example of the art, but it did for me and as by now the jet lag was back in full effect, I headed back to the hotel.

The evening saw me feeling more fit for the fight, so I decided to head the twenty minutes or so South of my accommodation to the lunacy of Akihabara, which by all accounts has the highest density of electronic goods on offer anywhere in the world. That would be all well and good, but wandering around looking at laptops with odd keyboard configurations is not something that really gets my rocks off.

The real attraction was Manga and Anime. Akihabara has become the unofficial Mecca of all matters related to this most Japanese of art forms and, in the three or so city blocks which make up the district you can find everything from shops offering impressive models for the geeks who collect, build and paint them, cinemas showing 24 hour loops of all the latest animations and stores offering videos, computer games and CD’s of theme music.

Manga is a wide church and it ranges from the relatively benign Pokemon, to some incredibly disturbing pornographic versions known as “Hentai” where scenes of rape and paedophilia seem to be, if not compulsory, certainly not frowned upon. All very strange.

So strange that I had to calm myself with some more Yakitori before heading back to the hotel.

Saturday saw me lose my virginity, so to speak. I had never tried the Japanese way of bathing, but those who had told me that after a shower and a soak, they had never felt so clean.

Just about every hotel and inn has its own bathing area with a shower area and a large bath, often filled with spring water. A shower first to clean you off followed by a soak in the hot bath, followed by a cold shower. So, I donned a rather fetching kimono ( pictures available ladies) and a pair of slippers with bunnies on them and headed up to the top floor.

Some bathrooms are communal with separate areas for men and women. This one was private so I was able to lock myself in as I came to grips with the whole affair. Jolly good fun it was too and I can certainly see why it is so popular in a country with a climate so horrifically humid.

Clean as a whistle, I headed out for yet more subway fun. This time to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Well, if truth be told, I didn’t head out to see that, worthwhile though it was. I, in fact, headed out to Kappabashi about two blocks to the West of the shrine. Why? Well, it is the area of Tokyo which houses stores supplying the restaurant trade. Not with food but with all the other bits and bobs you would need from menu stands to kitchen equipment to displays ( including a human size model of The Statue of Liberty)

Best of all, however, it is home to two stores which specialise in supplying plastic models of food for Japanese restaurants to put on display outside their premises as a guide for potential customers.

I am told that the practice began during the occupation when local restaurant owners needed to explain food to British and American soldiers and to show that they had dishes those far from home might crave.

The shops are just fabulous, offering everything from plastic dumplings to complete meals with miso soup, rice and noodles. Incredibly realistic too and, if I was not on the road for another three months, I would be carrying a plate of egg & chips in my pack right now.

More wandering before heading back to the hotel including the small but utterly fabulous Yebisu Beer Museum.

Not that I understood much of the information being offered, but I sure understood the four beer tasting at the end for a mere 400yen.

I had decided to join a group at this point for a bit of a tour around some of the cities outside Japan, so, after a quick lunch at a Kai-ten sushi joint,

I had to pack up all my stuff and move from my small single room to a twin which I would be sharing with God knows who.

The group turned out to be an agreeable mix of Australians, New Zealanders and Brits with one unfortunate American who drew the short straw and got to call me “roomie” for the next two weeks.

After the initial tour briefing, the assorted throng headed out for a local supper. I had other plans though. I was going to eat like a sumo.

The Ryogoku area of Tokyo is best know as the Sumo district. There is a large stadium and surrounding it stores selling everything any self respecting stable of fatties could need.

In the same area, there are also a huge number of restaurants offering up that staple of the Sumo’s diet, Chanko-nabe, a one pot meal containing, well just about anything you can imagine.

Often these restaurant are run by ex sumo and precious little help is given to anyone who does not speak English when searching for the best places.

Our rather charming guide, Yuka had written Chanko down in script for me so I could recognise it when signed outside a restaurant and, while the rest of the group headed out to Ueno, I headed off to eat hotpot.

A short train ride later, I was opposite the Tokyo Edo museum and peering in the window of any number of places in search of Chanko. As I said, they don’t give you much help. The restaurants are dark and the sliding doors prevent you peering in, so all but the most inquisitive might pass them by.

One place looked promising and I slid back the door and stepped hesitantly inside. A rather severe looking chap came over and said something entirely incomprehensible to me. It sounded rather fearsome, but then most times people have spoken to me in Japanese, they sound a bit cross.

“Chanko?” I said hopefully.

“Chanko?” He replied as if it was the first time he had ever encountered the word

“Chanko” I nodded

“Chanko?” He countered again with not the slightest sign that he knew what I was talking about.

This could, obviously, have gone on for some time, particularly as it never crossed my mind to show him the piece of paper on which Yuka had written my heart's desire, if it was not for the fact that one other table in the small room was occupied by a family whose father came over to see what the commotion was.

He looked at me quizzically so I said the only work I knew

“ Chanko” I tried to say it in the style that a character from The Water Margin might use to try and give it more authentic flavour, but I was beginning to lose hope.

The man turned to the owner and said


“Ah, Chanko” replied the owner as if the scales had fallen from his eyes. “ Chanko, Chanko, Chanko” he said it a few times more as if the word was getting good to him and then he gestured for me to take off my shoes and pointed to a table in the corner.

He brought over a menu all in Japanese and pointed to three vertical lines of lettering with the words “ Chanko” He obviously just loves saying that word now. You could hardly stop the bugger.

Well, I had not clue number one what was in each one, so just pointed at random and sat back hoping for the best.

An elderly lady appeared with a large cooking pot filled with broth and a burner alongside some oversized cooking chopsticks and a ladle.

She went off and re appeared with a plate the size of a radar dish filled with seafood and fish and a mound of white cabbage and began to place them in pot of broth with the cabbage on top before pottering off and leaving me to my own devices.

After about five minutes, she came back and began to serve me, filling my bowl with a little of the soup and a small amount of each of the included ingredients.

After that, I was on my own.

It is little surprise that sumo attain enormous girth eating like this every day. I could barely make a dent in it and the elderly woman looked most disapproving when, after about half an hour, I gave up the ghost with Chanko sweat pouring from my brow.

It is really meant to be shared by at least two people which is reflected both in the size of the meal and the price ( about 3,000yen) so, I think I gave it a good try.

As I left to head back to Ueno, the owner, whose pictures of him in his sumo heyday lines the walls, gave me a cheery wave, a thumbs up and a goodbye in the form of the word “chanko”

Monday, July 23, 2007



In Tokyo, I got it made.
In Tokyo, I am on The Hit Parade
In Tokyo, they know who I am
In Tokyo, I gotta million fans.
(Gruppo Sportivo: Tokyo)

In 1978, I bought an album called PS 78 by a now legendary but long defunct, Dutch band called Gruppo Sportivo. On it was a track called Tokyo which contained the verse above.

It was not, of course, the first time this fourteen year old boy had heard of Tokyo, but it was probably the first time I thought about it as somewhere other than a destination for Hawkeye and Trapper to go for a wangled 48 hour furlough.

I suddenly thought it may be a cool place, a view further re-enforced by further additions to my nascent record collection. Cheap Trick were “Live at The Budokan” and the impossibly ugly Scorpions were being “Live and Dagerous” in front of a crowd of scared looking Japanese schoolgirls.

It was, for once, nothing to do with food and everything to do with a hormonally challenged teenager wanting to develop his own (however horrific) musical tastes that owed nothing to his brothers hand me downs of unfeasibly horrible prog’ rock.

I wanted to go to Tokyo. I just didn’t realise that it was going to take me another 30 years to fulfil that ambition. Thirty years in which, Cheap Trick and The Scorpions had been consigned to the bargain bin of my life and even P.S 78 laid untouched for the best part of twenty years.

By the time I decided to EAT MY GLOBE, there was little chance that Tokyo and Japan would not be on the itinerary. By now, I had developed a real yen ( sorry!) for Japanese food, through my own stuttering attempts and also with the help of more expert friends in London and NYC who helped me distinguish my Yakitori from my Unagi.

I decided that Japan would make the ideal starting point for a journey that would also take in Hong Kong, China, Mongolia and Russia and I also decided that, for once, rather than travel independently, I would join a group. Not a large group mind, I had no great desire to walk behind someone waving an umbrella in a re-enactment of “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium” (whatever unsavoury thoughts I may have about Tuesday Weld in said film) but I did think that in a country where the language would be as unfamiliar to me as a warm welcome home from a loving partner, it would be better to er on the side of caution.

A company called Intrepid seemed to fit the bill. Decent itineraries, groups no bigger that twelve people and just expensive enough that people on gap years would avoid it like soap on a Sunday.

I had to organise my own flights, though and decided that it would be worth getting into Tokyo a few days earlier than everyone else so I could go and explore. That was, as it turned out, a very good idea. What was not such a good idea was choosing Lufthansa for my mode of transport. 14 hours of sheer purgatory involving a flight to Munich, a delay in that drab little airport with little to recommend it other than a rather fun porn shop ( where I was tempted to buy something called a “Large Ass Stuffer” just to see if I could get it through security) and turbulence that lasted from Kiev to Japanese air space which resulted in the whole plane taking on a vague odour of vomit from the resulting bouts of air sickness.

Me, well I have a reasonably strong stomach, but even I could not face the little plate of slightly greying airline sushi the determined young attendants brought round.

By the time I landed, I was feeling sorry for myself and slightly apprehensive about the journey from Narita to my hotel in Ueno. The description on the tour notes made it seem more likely that I would find Atlantis than my hotel, but, they turned out to be dead on the money ( they must do this for a living ) and about an hour after landing I found myself checking into the basic but clean and comfortable Kunaya Hotel.

Or, at least I would have done, had I not encountered the first of instances that displayed how we are a world separated by cultural differences.

“ Is my room ready?” I asked the young woman behind the counter.

“Yes” She replied “check in time is 1 o’ Clock”

It was now 12.55pm.

“ Well, it’s nearly 1 o’ Clock” can I go to my room?”

She smiled “ Check in time is 1 o’clock”

So, I had to sit down by the side of reception until exactly check in time, all of five minutes later until she gave me my key with a big smile.

Welcome to Japan.

Still, a minor inconvenience and, half an hour later, I was showered and shaved and ready to go out and explore.

When I say “explore” I, of course, mean wander the neighbourhood a few blocks around my hotel until I got my bearings. But, that turned out to be no bad thing as the ward of Ueno turned out not only to be home to some of the best loved parks, temples and shrines in Tokyo but also to some of the best food I had in my few days there.

Just after the end of the war and at the beginning of the occupation period, Ueno was home to the biggest of the black markets selling people who had been subject to severe rationing things that some of them had only read about in books. That did not last long as the occupying forces closed the markets down, but the area still survives and, just behind the JR station and under the tracks (as seems to be the case all around Tokyo) remains a labyrinth of alleyways and passages that house market stalls selling fish, fruits and vegetables alongside any number of small restaurants including some enticing looking Yakitori places where tables were pieces of wood on top of beer crates and chairs were more of the crates along side a mis-matched assortment of old school chairs.

My stomach had not quite settled down yet, so I decided to go easy for my first meal in Japan and find the comfort in some good frying.

Now, my Japanese is, to say the least a bit rusty. In fact, non-existent. I don’t know my “Konichiwa” from my “Domo Arigato” but that does not seem to be much of a problem in Tokyo. The majority of restaurants seem to have picture menus and, even better large displays of the dishes on offer inside lovingly crafted out of moulded plastic. This is, I was told by our guide later on, a legacy of the arrival of western style dishes to Japan which needed to be explained which, they felt was best done by way of models made of wax which then, for matters of ease and cost became plastic.

For a Japan rube like me it does make things very easy. A quick point at a picture on a menu or a model of something noodly and uttering the word “Birru” soon had me sitting in front of a plate of excellent tempura, some cold soba noodles and a bowl of rice. Cheap and filling, it was exactly what I needed before the jet lag hit and I had to wobble back to the hotel and crash out until the early evening.

By then, I was recovered enough from the flight to be a bit more adventurous. Still, keeping to the local neighbourhood, I set off in search of Yakitori.

I am told, it literally translates as “fowl on sticks” but I am sure some expert out there will correct me. In effect, Yakitori is a range of items on skewers that are grilled to order and either sprinkled with salt or dipped in sauce and served with a cold draft beer or soschu (a rather fierce little spirit that a lot of locals mix with appallingly sweet juices to take away the raw taste)

They seem primarily to be the haunt of salarymen on their way home from a hard day at the office and, as I chose one at random, I had to squeeze my ample frame in between two men deep in conversation on their mobile phones before gesturing for a beer.

A rather frighteningly sized bottle of Sapporo appeared and, after my journey, I was about ready to dive face deep and wash myself all over in its hoppy goodness. But, just as I reached out for it, the man on my left reached over and took hold of my bottle. Now, I don’t know about you, but where I was brought up, in Yorkshire, touching someone else’s beer is worse that goosing their wife. It will inevitably lead to a fight and there may well be broken glass in.

Fortunately, a lot of research about Japanese culture enabled me to contain my inner Yorkshireman and understand that in this country of etiquette and superstitions, pouring your own beer is a no no. At best, it just means you are Billy no mates. At worst, it is a harbinger of ill fortune.

Well, anyone who has seen what I look like will realise that I have had all the bad luck I can handle so I was not desperately well disposed to bring down even more misfortune, so I allowed my new friend, Koji to pour my beer and we began a very faltering conversation.

My skewers appeared, so did his. The inevitable swapping followed so I sampled crispy Chicken skin, Chicken hearts & livers, beef tendon, roasted garlic, leeks and a whole load more all while I got to know my new friend over half a dozen oil tanker sized bottles of beer.

Not a bad way to start the trip

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


You want to know if there is a God? You want to know if he is a good God? You want to know if he is a loving God?

Well, yes there is and yes he is, and yes he does.

How do I know?

Well, I will tell you.

How, if the world was not watched over by a loving God, could someone like me get invited to an event like Beefeater Gin’s “24 Hour in London”

Although this was only the second one, this event is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends in the bar world and, when I was fortunate enough to spend time in the company of the estimable Sue Leckie at The London bar Show, she was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to join the proper writers and journo’s next time the event was held.

As luck would have it, the next “24 Hours in London” was going to be just a few days before I headed off to Japan on the next leg of the trip. Just what I needed to get the old motors running after the last few weeks of virus induced misery.

The idea originated from the fact that Beefeater, unlike any other gin, allows the botanicals to steep in the spirit used for 24 hours before it is distilled into gin. So, the brainwave went, you could bring some people in to the distillery, show give them the tour, let them help in the steeping of the botanicals and then, take them on a 24 hour tour of things that make London special before bringing them back, weary and bedraggled the next day, to open the stills and begin the distilling process.

It must have seemed like a good idea to Sue at the time and, indeed, for those on the receiving end of the largess of the good people of Beefeater, it is a splendid idea. For Sue and her organising colleagues however, it must be the stuff of nightmares. A handful of journalists expecting to be kept entertained for a whole day. Personally, I would rather have Larry Olivier work on my teeth.

Still, as ever, she and her chum, Abi approached the whole event with admirable enthusiasm and determination and, as the day approached, I kept getting little whiffs (no giggling at the back) from various sources about what was to come. I was a good boy though and made sure that, whenever anybody wanted to talk about it, I put my hands over my considerable ears and went “LA LA LA” at high volume. I wanted this to be a surprise.

Well, if it was surprises I wanted, I got plenty of those.

The morning of the 12th arrived with me already up and at ‘em by 6am, bags packed and ready like a six year old waiting to go off to Disneyland. My cab arrived at 7.30am to take me to the start of what was going to be one of the most fun days I can recall for a long time.

First stop, the distillery itself. Nestled next to The Oval Cricket Ground, The Beefeater Distillery has been here since the 1950’s when it moved from Chelsea and it remains the only major gin still to be distilled in London.

It has quite a history and, after we were treated to the first of many meals, in this case some excellent eggs Benedict

accompanied by some “Red Snapper” the gin original of The Bloody Mary, we were taken on a tour of the plant by Beefeater Master Distiller, Desmond Payne.

Now to say that Desmond has been doing this for some time is like saying that paris Hilton has trouble keeping her nipples under cover. Twenty Five years at rivals, Plymouth and a further twelve here, he is considered one of the finest in the business.

Gin, he explained is simply a base spirit to which botanicals (bits of plants to you and me) are added, the only compulsory one being Juniper which gives gin that unmistakeable aroma and taste.

Within those regulations, all sorts of things are possible. Modern distillers such as Hendricks use cucumber which imparts that wonderful summery note that makes it the perfect BBQ gin & Tonic. And, around the world, people are using all sorts of things in their gins to give it a different spin.

Beefeater, though is sticking to its original recipe. A recipe decided by the founder, Mr Burroughs back in the 19th century. Of course, Desmond was not going to let us in on family secrets, but he did take us down to the room where the botanicals are kept and show us the range from which they choose. Perhaps, most unusually, is the use of the dried peel of oranges and lemons from Seville which are handpicked and peeled by farmers specifically for Beefeater every year. Tons and tons of them.

It is this peel which gives Beefeater its unique citrus notes, notes that are retained because, unlike some of their competitors, Beefeater did not lower their strength to 37.5% to avoid duty but kept it at 40% because, as Desmond explained, as strength reduces aromas are lost and at 37.5%, the predominant aroma is nothing but Juniper.

It has had a few problems over the years, mainly of the image variety where people still thought of it as being the gin the Queen Mum had mixed with Dubonnet. But, that is all changing. An ultra-hip marketing campaign and a huge effort to win over the Mixologists of the World has seen Beefeater right back up there where it belongs to be as the gin of choice both at home and in any self respecting back bar.

And, they have done this without throwing the baby out with the bathtub gin by sticking to their traditional recipe one that has served them for over a century.

Now, it was our turn.

We were each given a rather fetching apron and a bucket and told to go and scoop up a range of botanicals. Then to the stills to add them to the base spirit, and that was it.

To see the difference it makes, Desmond talked us through a "noseing" and then a tasting of a variety of gins including the competition and a supermarket value brand. The results were very interesting with Beefeater standing up well against its rivals

Our work done for the day. Now the fun could begin.

And, how does a day’s fun begin with the good people of Beefeater? You may well ask. It begins with a drink in their well appointed bar. But these were not any old drinks. These were drinks prepared by Dan Warner and Charles Vexenat, the last two year’s Theme Magazine Bartender of The Year winners. Each took it in turn showing us classic cocktails for which Beefeater is perfectly suited. From a proper Cosmopolitan ( from the 1930’s for those of you who think it was created by Dale DeGroff for Sex in The City) made with fresh raspberries to the legendary Bramble, the creation of Dick Bradsell.

I was being good at this point ( it was after all, barely ten in the morning) so merely took a taste of each although I could have quite easily started knocking them back until the whole thing ended in tears.

After cocktails, it was time for lunch, we we had not eaten for a good couple of hours and we were ushered down the steps to the back of the factory to where two of the most beautiful vintage Rolls Royce Phantoms and one glorious 1932 Bentley were waiting to take us for a bite to eat.

I grabbed shotgun in The Bentley and cannot remember a time when I have been photographed so much since I last had a set of mug shots taken. Everytime we stopped at a set of lights, hordes of tourists and locals alike gathered, whipped out their cameras and mobile phones and started clicking away. There is not, nor will there ever be a car as magical as an old Roller and it was for me on e of the great thrills of the day to be able to ride in one.

If that was one of the thrills, then one of the surprises was that lunch was rather good too. Not because I thought that Beefeater would organise it badly, but because it was at The Inn in The Park in St James’ Park. It is run by Oliver Peyton whose restaurants I usually dislike intensely without visiting because it saves time.

In this case, however, a simple meal of grilled meats and salads was very enjoyable indeed, particularly when they offered more of Brambles to wash them down with and followed that up with the largest selection of puddings I have ever seen on one table in my entire lifetime.

I may say this again during the course of this post, but, if that had been the end of the day, I would have still considered it huge fun. But, of course, this was “24 hours in London” and we were only five hours in by this point.

Back in the vintage cars then to take us to Covent Garden and into the inimitable hands of “H.B” H.B is one of London’s more eccentric tour guides and that is saying something. But, he is known for his knowledge of matters gin and, for the next hour or so, he gave us a tour of Covent Garden and St Giles explaining the Hogarthian history of mother’s ruin, Gin Alley and the growth of the gin palaces.

I thought I knew a lot about London, but H.B showed us more thinks in eighty minutes than even I would have thought possible. All I can say is, be sure to look up the next time you pass Hawkmoor’s St George’s church in Bloomsbury.

So, we had done Rolls Royce’s, so what was going to be next? Well, what could be more London than a double decker bus? Not one of these modern pieces of junk either, a good old fashioned route master and all for we happy few.

Everyone seemed to be getting jolly excited by this point, so I knew something good was going to be happening soon. My heart sunk a bit when we pulled up next to The London Eye. Don’t get me wrong, it is a thing of beauty and has been the five or so times I have been on it, but it was cloudy and, well, been there done that.

How wrong I was. We detoured around The Eye and I found myself in the unlikely situation of having to put a lifejacket on as we prepared to step into a rather flimsy looking boat. Called, a “RIB” apparently, it appeared to be made almost entirely out of one sheet of plastic and it bounced most worringly as I took my first step from solid ground to water. I was even more alarmed when the captain’s only words of advice were “don’t fall in”

When it set off, I was thrown back in my seat and washed with spray from the lovely Thames. At least it woke me up which was no mean feat as, by 4pm, I was flagging and beginning to realise that we were only half way through the day.

I also realised that, as fast as this boat was going, it was only a means to an end, the end being a mo’ fo’ of a powerboat which awaited us under Tower Bridge.

No one said anything about speedboats. Well, if they did, they never said anything about them to me. They also never said anything about me being first up so the rest of them could see “ how bad it is”

Bloody hell. Bloody hell. First of all was the improbable sight of me squeezing my lugs into a crash helmet, then the equally improbable sight of my considerable arse squeezing into a small boat which was, to all intents and purposes, a tea tray attached to a jet engine.

Four minutes later, I returned, drenched in adrenalin sweat and very close to tears. What can I tell you. It was probably the very best fun I have had that did not involve the words ‘leave the money on the counter deary”

While the rest of them took their turns and went out in trepidation and came back in pant wetting excitement, I sat and caught my breath and also tried to catch a sneaky 40 winks. Not a chance. We have places to go and people to meet.

The bus picked us up again and whizzed us up to The Zetter Hotel where rooms had been booked for us all. Not that we were going to get much chance to use them, but we all took the opportunity to go and hose ourselves off and change before heading out again. I showered, did my obligatory naked version of Rick James’ “superfreak” in front of the mirror and got dressed. I looked at the bed. I looked at it longingly. As longingly as if it were a black pudding sandwich. But, I knew I had to be strong. If I had laid down for even a second, it would have taken more than a swift peck on the chops from someone calling himself Charming to wake me up.

So, I staggered down to the lobby where the rest of the weary throng were gathered, cleansed but withering inside.

However, the mention of more cocktails cheered us all up no end and we whizzed by taxi over to Hawksmoor, currently one of my bars of choice where half of us would have supper while the other half would do a bit of time travel before meeting up and reversing the process.

Time travel?

Well, if you did not know the history of 18 Folgate St and somehow stumbled across it by accident, you would be convinced that you had stumbled into the 18th Century by mistake. Either that, or you would be appearing in a series of Dr Who and would probably be killed off by episode 4.

18 Folgate St was the passion, obsession and folly of an American, one Dennis Severs. He bought the ancient old house in Spitalfields and proceeded to turn it into a home that looked as if an 18th Century family of weavers have just left. Food on the table, fires alight, wine in the cups. It was no museum though, he lived this way and now, even though he has been dead for some eight years, friends and trustees open the house once a week so people can come in and experience the madness of it all.

It is a freaky experience. Sound loops play giving the feeling that the family is still around. There is no electricity and everything is lit as it would have been in a house of the day.

There is a guide, but you are not guided nor are there any written aids. You merely experience it as if you were walking around someone’s home.

As an intense experience as that was, it pales next to the guide himself. A friend of Sever’s he really lived the part referring to the 18th Century as if it were the present. So much did he freak us out that, when we emerged blinking into the daylight, we all agreed that we had been huddling together for safety. A very, very strange experience made even more so by coming out into the bright light of a summer’s evening and walking the short distance to the ever bustling Hawksmoor for supper and a much needed stiff drink.

There is no need to dwell on supper at Hawksmoor. Superlative as ever. Great steaks, good chips, lovely wines and, this time complimented by some Neal’s Yard cheeses. My idea of perfection.

The group split up again at this point. For some, the lure of the cocktail was too strong and they headed back West to The Dorchester. Me? I had my tourist head on and joined Desmond and a few of the gang to go and see the Ceremony of the Keys at The Tower of London. In all my years in London, I had never been. In fact, I had not set foot in the Tower itself for over 20 years. Great fun it was too. The link with Beefeater means that Desmond has a very special relationship with the Yeoman Warders so we got to sneak in early and have a little chat before the ceremony itself.

A very fun little diversion and one added to by the next mode of transport. Karma Kabs. Perhaps the maddest form of transport in London. Three old Hindustans which looked like they had come straight of the set of a Bollywood film set. Equipped with loudspeakers playing bollywoods finest wailing at the tops of their voices we got even more attention than those beautiful vintage cars had done in the morning.

I was rather pleased when they plopped us out by our next port of call, the newly opened Pinchito. A lovely, small, hip Spanish bar where the Co-owner, Jason was going to instruct us on the ways of the “thrown” Martini. Inspired by the bars of Barcelona, Jason has been working on this new technique for some time now. It involves tipping your drink from a great height rather than mixing or stirring.

I am not convinced about the end result, but the process is fun to watch and, as I found out, fun to do. In fact, we all had a go with greater or lesser success. I like to think I did quite well. I think it may have been the bartender’s waistcoat I was wearing or it may have been that no one was looking. In any case, I managed to get most of it in the glass and little of it on me, Jason or the floor.

By now, I was dead. The rest of them seemed still full of beans, but me? I was ready to drop. So, to my shame, I cried off and headed back to the hotel for an all too brief three hour sleep while the rest of them headed off to Shoreditch House for even more cocktails and, rather worryingly, a bit of a swim in their rooftop pool.

It may be a cliché, but it is true that the moment my head hit the pillow, I was out like a light and just as soon as I put my head down, my alarm went off and I had to get up again.

It was time for breakfast and a very good one it was too. Smiths of Smithfield is the brainchild of chef, John Turode (now well known too for hosting Masterchef) and they have become very well known for their breakfasts. Well, I can see why.

To say that we were a weary crowd by this point would be the understatement of the, well, you get the picture. Some of us were head in hands. Others still seemed to be dressed in their bathrobes and some were still missing in action. It tells you all you need to know that I was one of the more sprightly of the throng and wolfed down my scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding and toast along with a large cup of tea without batting an eyelid. Bloody amateurs, the lot of them.

So, what was our final mode of transport? It probably wont come as any surprise to you when I use the words, Horse & carriage with liveried drivers.

Yep, to top it all, we headed outside and climbed into some rather lovely looking carriages and headed back to the distillery the old fashioned way. Also, the long way. It must have taken a good hour as we went all the way through town as tourists looked on bemused as a group of rather grubby looking folk many of whom were snoring, slumbered in the back of their regal looking transport.

Back at the distillery, our 24 hours were up and we stood by the stills and turned the valves to begin the distilling process which takes up to seven hours. We could have waited I suppose, but by this point, I am sure Desmond never wanted us to darken his distillery again. So, we left with promised of a bottle of our batch to be sent on afterwards.

What a day. Great fun, hugely well organised and efficient in showing a disparate group of mixers and journalists alike that Beefeater is both a true London gin, but also a gin for all tastes and seasons

Mind you, I have always loved it so they were preaching to the converted. But, as sermons go, it was one of the best

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time

Me - “ Once I get back from Australia, I’ll come down and see you, if that’s OK”

Adrian Oliver ( Chef PatronMargot’s Bistrot, Padstow) – “ sounds good. We’ll get you on a lobster boat with a Murt ( Murt, apparently is not a single person, but a Padstownian clan) then you can come and help me in the kitchen”

Easy Peasy, no?

Well of course not. It never bloody is.

It began badly too. I had made the fatal mistake of ignoring big brother, The Great Salami, and booking a standard class ticket for the journey there and back. Another £20, and I could have been in first class with young women massaging my aching limbs with exotic ungences and feeding me grapes and that. Instead, because of some “man of the people meets budgetary sense” stupidity, I found myself in the midst of what I can only describe as a reworking of The Island of Dr Moreau.

On one side of me, was the whooping of four public school “dudes” who were going down to sample the apparently “ awesome” surfing of the South West. They were obviously enjoying their first beer, well ever and, at 10am in the morning, were on the first train to slapsville given the looks of some of my other travelling companions.

They had not bought tickets either and were full of “let’s go and hide when the ticket collector comes round” bravery which made my increasingly reactionary hackles rise almost to the point where I wanted to go and find said collector, drag him back to the carriage and point them out.

Ah, but there is a just God. When Mr ticket man did arrive he politely informed them that, as they had not bought tickets before their journey, they would have to pay the full single fair to Penzance, a paltry £180 each. Tee and indeed hee. The rest of the carriage looked on gleefully as their pale chinless faces fell and the awesome surfer dudes vanished to be replaced by terrified little oiks calling their respective “mummies” to bale them out.

One of them offered up “my father’s a judge” by way of threat to the Inspector who replied “ unless it’s Simon Cowell, I’m not impressed”

They finally slunk off the train at Exeter to be replaced by a shrieking group of girlies who were heading down to Cornwall before heading back up to something called “Glasto” They had decided that our carriage was going to be Party Central and they were going to provide the music. Now, young people’s music is officially awful and I truly believe that the day the music died was the day Frank Zappa did, but they took this to new limits.

In between guitar bands of no discernable talent and R&B singers practicing their scales in lieu of songs, they had those extended conversations about matters of real import that only teenager girls can have including the perennial “ is Jacob’s Creek or Blossom Hill the best wine in the world” I ask you, this is our future we are looking at.

Mind you, all of this grumpiness may well have been compounded by one of the girls saying that she was worried her dad was getting a bit forgetful as he got older and she was not looking forward to, wait for it, his forty fifth birthday. Damn them all to hell.

As all this was going on, I got a voicemail from Adrian saying “ The weather’s crap down here. Murt’s not sure he is going out” So, all of this travelling Hell and no lobster boat at the end of it. I could have turned around there and then but for the fact we were about to pull into Bodmin and I had promised to split a cab with the poor unfortunate opposite me.

He wasn’t wrong. The weather was crap. Bucketing down in fact and it looked increasingly unlikely that I would ever get out on one of the lobster boats the next morning. So, I did what any self respecting person would do in a similar situation and having endured the journey I just had. I set out to get totally and utterly arsholed.

It’s not too hard either in Padstow when one of your chums owns a restaurant and the other owns a wine merchant and bar. I spent the next four or five hours flip flopping on increasingly unsteady legs between Margot’s Bistro and Bin Two Wine Merchants filling up each leg in turn with good wine (wine for which I am not entirely sure I paid) scaring the young women who worked in both and then sitting against a wall and beginning to snore loud enough to scare the locals until David was ready to show me back to my digs for the night in his lovely little house in Wadebridge.

And, we carried on drinking. Oh God did we carry on drinking. I managed to punctuate it with a little bleary eyed curry cooking, but that only served to make David open a bottle of gin. In fact, I can’t think of many things that don’t make David want to open a bottle of gin.

“ your cat’s died. Oh, I am sorry, do have a gin”

“the way to Polzeath? Of course, but do have a gin first”

“ Take That, reformed you say? That calls for a gin”

And David’s gins are not ordinary gins. These are three to four fingers of neat booze with, if you are lucky, a slice of lime

By midnight we had already received a “thank you” text from Hendricks and wobbled up the wooden stairs with me praying to God on high that the weather would suddenly not get better and allow me to go out on the lobster boat.

I awoke at 6am with the pleasing sound of rain lashing against my bedroom window. “No lobster boats for this bunny” I thought as my dry tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and my head began playing the theme music to Zulu.

I called Murt though, just in case and made all the right disappointed noises when he told me it was not going to be happening.


Apparently, such excursions are stomach challenging at the best of times, but on top of half a bottle plus of gin, it did not promise to be a pretty sight for me or my companions.

So, I went back to sleep and I slept the sleep of the righteous until nearly 10 am when David wandered in looking as rough as I felt and plonked down a welcome cup of tea. Almost as welcome as if he had bothered to tie up his dressing gown properly rather that leave his meat & two veg dangling at unhappily close to face level.

Despite that early morning stomach heaver, I was soon up, showered and at ‘em. I decided to do what any sane person would do when it is lashing with rain and they have the most dreadful hangover. I decided to go hiking. Well, of course I did.

But I didn’t just go for a little stroll. I went for a good old ‘where’s my compass and Kagoul?” type hike, the sort for which Kendal Mint Cake was invented.

First up, the relatively benign six miles or so into Padstow along The Camel Path which, bar the hordes of kids in mini bikes threw nothing up of any great danger.

Then after a quick pop into Margot’s to arrange my shift for the evening, the real walking. A ferry across to Rock and then the best part of 30 kms in search of the grave of Sir John Betjeman at St Enodoc’s Church in his beloved Trebetherick.

Ah, Sir John, his witty and accessible poetry is treated as rather unfashionable now, but I have always had a soft spot for a man who referred to himself in “ Who’s Who” as “ a poet and a hack”

Unfortunately, his glorious England was not really shown to its best effect that day and as I walked, it poured and I got drenched. So wet in fact that you feel like someone has to pick you up and wring you out bit by bit for you to ever get dry again. There was no stopping me however and I finally found myself by the small, discrete grave stone of one of Britain’s national treasures just as a band of sunlight broke through and cast its gleam on me and a proper writer.

As I mentioned below, it was also at this point that my otherwise useless mobile sprang into life and my agent called to say that we had agreed a deal for EAT MY GLOBE with John Murray, the publisher of Betjeman.

By now it was time to head back to Padstow in time for the last ferry from Rock. Yes, of course I got even more wet and, by the time I reached Margot’s I was fit for nothing and beginning to develop the cold which would lay me low for the next ten days. But, hey, I had those joys to follow.

Tonight? Well tonight Matthew, I am going to be Adrian’s bitch. Well, not Adrian alone. Margot’s is propelled along its merry way by Adrian and his cohort, Claire.

Funny story about Claire & me. We used to know each other about fifteen years ago in different lives altogether. We lost touch until earlier this year when Adrian was reading Dos Hermanos and chortling ( as one is of course bound to do) at the witty musings of the hugely handsome Simon who is “ something in publishing” Claire, by this time, was working with Adrian after having lived opposite Margot’s for a couple of years knew that there was only one gorgeous, witty Simon in publishing and we got to meet up again after all these years.

Not that this meant they would take it easy on me. I mean, they made me wear an apron and obey the “ Employees must wash hands” sign in the bathroom.

They put me where I could do least harm and I was given the important title of “Executive Dish Washing Appliance Operative” which meant I was in charge of the vital task of filling and emptying the large, rather scary commercial dishwasher, ever four minutes or so through the long service.

It’s bloody hard work this kitchen business and only re-enforced my view that I prefer to be on the other side of the swinging doors that to get involved myself. It also made me realise that the service is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Long before Johnny punter darkens the door, Adrian is in there prepping, reducing, simmering and steaming while Claire is chopping, prepping and storing.

I have written about Margot’s over on DOS HERMANOS so I wont go on about the food here. Just take it as read that it’s great. Mind you, on this visit, I got to try precious little of it which is the way of all workers during a busy service. A few bits of squid left in a pan here, a sliver of cheesecake there and that was about it.

The rest of the time, I hunkered down over my dish washer like a man possessed. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet as you know. But, God I was good. Dishes in, press button, wait four minutes, open door avoiding steam, dishes out. Start all over again. Seldom can dishes have been washed and rewashed with such accuracy, professionalism and, let’s not deny it, love. By the end of service, it would be fair to say that man and machine had become one. Acting as one unit to bring clean utensils to a utensil hungry kitchen. When, finally, end of service came and it was time to hang up my pinny, I mean apron, there was a little tear from the corner of my eye and, a little dribble of steam from the washer as if to say ‘ we done well mate”

I sat down in front of house with a weary “ the tools are on the bar” and watched as the rest carried on with the preparations for the next day.

It’s worth remembering, next time you are in a small restaurant and you are tempted to whine about little inconsistencies like dry sticky toffee pudding or the lack of an all day breakfast menu that Adrian bundles up for duty about 9am in the morning to check deliveries and start prepping and his day doesn’t stop until early the following morning when he finishes with the oh so glamorous task of depositing his bags of squelching rubbish in the commercial bins and his linens with the overnight cleaners.

Me, one night was fun, but from now on I am going to leave it to the experts.

I slept well that night, but awoke the next morning with a dry mouth. Not this time from booze but from a combination of the onset of a cold and the dread fear of that “cabbage” class journey back up to civilisation. It was every bit as dreadful as I had anticipated as indeed was the cold from which I am only just recovering

Oh well, I may not have gone out on the lobster boats, but at least I caught something.