The East Enders

“Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete attention. Standing in front of the modern car park at White’s Row, we silently contemplate Mary Jane Kelly’s gruesome end.

In London’s East End, there is no getting away from the Ripper legend.

Jack the Ripper was by no means the world’s scariest or most prolific serial killer, but he was certainly one of the most famous during his time and remains so after all these years. This is largely due to East End’s reputation by the mid 19th century for being a hotbed of vice and villainy.

London’s East End has gone through extremely tumultuous changes in London’s recent history. Today, it is one of the most vibrant, Bohemian districts I have visited, in a city that promises a delight in every corner. Yet, the streets of East End remain off the radar for most tourists and even locals.

East End

Nicole Monaco of Eating London Tours initially explored various London boroughs before settling on this neighbourhood for their first food walk. She says, “While each was unique in its own right, I couldn’t go past the East End. It is an area so rich in its roots and so culturally diverse that I knew there was no other choice!”

The walk begins at Spitalfields market, one of the oldest in London and most prominent landmarks of this borough. At 10.30 am, Spitalfields is buzzing, with sellers of antiques and bric-a-brac, artisanal cupcakes and organic soups, handmade jewellery and designer clothes, setting up shop.

Spitalfields

I find the Eating London walk fascinating not just for the food – after all, nobody equates Britain with gourmet meals – but for the passion Emily brings to her stories of East End’s intense history.

The East End has always been welcoming of immigrants and many of them have left a mark on its food scene. First, the Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing France came in around 1685. On our way to Brick Lane, we walk past the grand houses of these fine silk weavers on streets which still bear French names. Then the Irish workers arrived in the mid 1700s seeking employment in the London docks and later on, escaping the local potato famine.

The East European Jewish community fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia found this area a safe haven and stayed there for almost a century from 1880 to 1970, making it one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Emily points out the grand ‘Soup kitchen set up for the Jewish poor’ building that fed over 130,000 Jews even in the beginning of the 20th century.

Soup kitchen

BagelsWe come across remnants of the area’s Jewish heritage later on in the walk at Beigel Bake – where bagels are boiled before being baked in traditional Jewish style – in Brick Lane, famous for staying open 24 hours a day.

Brick Lane

Thanks to popular culture, any mention of Brick Lane immediately brings to mind its Bangladeshi community. Here, it does feel a bit like walking in a market in Mumbai’s Dadar or Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar; the tall tower of Jamme Masjid in the distance, little money transfer kiosks with names like Deshforex and shops selling colourful quick-dry saris. We are here to taste curry – and Britain’s national dish of Chicken Tikka Masala – at Aladin.

Desi shopping

Desh Forex

For me, the highlight of Brick Lane is the stunning street art, including UK’s own Banksy and Eine, Belgian artist ROA and Chilean Otto Schade. And the cheerful chaos. If the main street is home to conservative Bangladeshis, the narrow lanes surrounding it attract hipster Londoners with their quirky cafés and trendy boutiques.

Street art

Graffiti

Boutique

PuddingAnd what is a London food walk without the usual suspects? So, we have bread and butter pudding served piping hot, with generous lashings of vanilla custard, at The English Restaurant.

There is ‘fish and chips’ at Poppies, which is no ordinary cod but a winner at the National Fish and Chip awards. In a country with over 10000 “chippies,” this is no mean feat. I find Poppies enormously charming: the jukebox, the waitresses in cutesy red costumes and the wall posters with Cockney rhyming slang (brown bread for dead, pen and ink for stink).

Chippie

An interesting stop is St John Bread and Wine, which prides itself on its “nose to tail” philosophy. Simply put, its popular chefs follow a democratic – if queasy for me – cooking policy of “no body part left behind.” Luckily, that morning, we are offered only a cured bacon sandwich or poached pear in yoghurt sauce.

My favourite is the final stop at the super tony Pizza East, which I think is the perfect metaphor for this neighbourhood’s gentrification. Sitting on the uncomfortable high stool, I muse on the fact that, from pudding made from stale bread to salted caramel chocolate tart, the East End has come a very long way in just over a hundred years.

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~ This was published in the Mumbai Mirror on Sunday, September 28, 2014 as ‘Community Meals’ – read it in pdf form here

~ For more information on this fun food walk in the East End, check out the Eating London Tours website. I went on a food walk with them in Rome a couple of years ago and found that fascinating too. Here is what I wrote about it then – Roman Banquet for Outlook Traveller

High up in Heidiland

As I peel off a jacket and then a sweater on my hike up from Maienfeld village towards Heididorf, I am reminded of an initial scene from the book. Heidi is clambering up the Alps behind her aunt Dete, and as it gets warmer and warmer, off comes one layer of clothing after another. I must have read the book nearly three decades ago, yet I remember that scene vividly. And I remember rooting for the impish, rebellious little orphan that moment on.

Me, I am not rebelling; I am just not clad for the warm weather. The last few days had been unseasonably wet and cold for August, and I had fully expected more of the same.

Hike up to Heidiland

The signs for Heididorf – Heidi’s village where her home has been recreated for her fans – start as soon as you get off at Maienfeld’s railway station. And why not? It is one of the region’s star attractions, drawing visitors from as far as Japan. But more on that later.

Heididorf is an easy hour’s walk from the station, through the pretty village of Maienfeld and up hilly roads lined with vineyards. A dozen photo stops, a bit of huffing and a lot of puffing later, I pull up at tiny Heididorf.

Maienfeld

So, here’s the thing. In Heidiland, it is easy to forget that Heidi is a fictional character. There is a museum dedicated to her life; to author Johanna Spyri really, and the innumerable Heidi adaptations. It comes with a souvenir shop that sells, yes, Heidi-themed things from chocolates to fridge magnets, school bags and water bottles. Close to it is a model of Heidi’s home, the one she would have shared with her grumpy grandpa.

Heidi's home

Heidi and Peter

I am ambivalent about this experience, when I overhear someone say in a breathless voice, “This is a dream come true for me.” When I mention this later to Tabhitha Forrer from Heidiland Tourism, she says this is a common sentiment expressed by Heididorf visitors.

What makes Heidi, written in 1880 by an unknown Swiss, so popular even today? It remains one of the largest selling books in the world, translated into over 50 languages. There are five known movie versions, including a blockbuster with Shirley Temple, of golden locks and puppy eyes fame. Spyri, in her book, of course, describes Heidi as having short, black curly hair, but that’s Hollywood for you.

And it has been televised in several languages, from Arabic to Japanese. And friends tell me that Heidi is still as fascinating as Doraemon (or is it Pokemon – forgive my ignorance) is to young viewers of animated television. According to Tabitha, Swiss children who had stopped reading – as did children of successive video game and iPad generations all over the world – rediscovered Heidi with these translated animation series.

Japanese men and women (especially the latter, I suspect) of a certain age, who grew up watching the 1974 anime Heidi, Girl of the Alps make up a large proportion of visitors of Heididorf. Every year, half a dozen Japanese couples make their way to the village to get married. Surely enough, there is a Japanese wedding planning website called Heidiwedding.com and this is what I can make out from Google’s quirky translation: Take your wedding vows in the Heidi Alps, in a world you have dreamed of as a child.

Heidiwedding

I have to admit, even without the Heidi motif, it is a beautiful spot to get hitched in. The lulling sound of cowbells. The crisp mountain air. The uninterrupted views of distant mountain peaks.

Later at lunch, I meet Hitsch Möhr, ex-Mayor of Maienfeld. His claim to fame in my eyes is that he featured in a local production of the movie in 1953. It is initially difficult to imagine this charming, bald man as a ten-year-old on the sets. Then he grins as he talks about going for auditions just to get a day off from school, and the years fall away. Hobnobbing with a film star (almost) over some melt-in-the-mouth nusstorte, the region’s special nut pastry, is the ideal end to my Heidi morning.

nusstorte

That afternoon, I am let into a Swiss secret, and it has nothing to do with bank accounts. In the neighbouring village of Malans, I meet fifth generation wine-maker Martin Donatsch, who has trained in Australia, South Africa, France and Spain. Martin – whose mother’s name is Heidi – has been winning awards for his Pinot Noir. But what wins me over during the tasting session, is the intense Completer, a grape unique to Switzerland.

Swiss vineyards

Martin Donatsch

And then I wonder what other secrets the Swiss hold close to their hearts.

Things to do

Maienfeld in the Graubünden Canton in Eastern Switzerland is a two-hour train ride from Zurich. While in Graubünden, hike and ski in Flumserberg and Pizol, or indulge in a thermal spa treatment at Bad Ragaz. Also go sightseeing at Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, which also calls itself The Alpine City.

More information on Heididorf

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This story, based on a recent Switzerland trip, was published in Mumbai Mirror on November 10, 2013 as Rooting for Heidi

Death by dessert

Eat it. Breathe it. Or snort it. Visit a museum that is a paean to the pleasures of chocolate – the Choco Story in Bruges. For, if there is one thing you cannot escape in Belgium, it is chocolate. Belgians discovered chocolate in the 17th century when cocoa was first shipped from South America by their Spanish masters. Two centuries later, when they colonised Congo themselves, their access to cocoa was unlimited, and there began a great story.

Bermuda triangle

Today, some of the world’s most loved chocolate brands come from Belgium – Godiva, Neuhaus, Côte d’Or, Leonidas, Guylian – and have outlets in all major towns. At Antwerp, step into the Tintin memorabilia shop right opposite the Cathedral of Our Lady for some Cachet chocolates with unique flavor combinations like Lemon and Pepper, Blackberry and Ginger, Orange and Almonds. Now, what do they say about sugar and spice and all things nice?

The snorterAmong the other shops to definitely visit is The Chocolate Line, present in Bruges and Antwerp. Apart from a range of chocolates with interesting flavours like Cola, chilli, mint, olives, bacon and cannabis (acquired tastes, you will agree), chocolatier (or shock-a-latier, as he likes to call himself) Dominique Persoone is famous for inventing the ‘chocolate shooter.’ Enjoy the not unpleasant sensation of cocoa powder with raspberry or the stronger ginger flavour going straight up through your nose straight to your brain. Persoone is said to have created this specially for The Rolling Stones during their visit to Brussels a few years ago.

The snortee

Exotic fillings

And if you are an incurable chocoholic, then buy some to apply on your lips and body. The Chocolate Line also sells cosmetic chocolate products including an edible chocolate massage cream and lipstick – no fear of lead here, only all the wholesome flavonoids.

Noses and hands to chomp on

Speaking of body parts, do not miss the local specialties: Ghent’s rode neuzen (red noses) and Antwerp’s handjes (hands).

Red noses

The neuzen are small, conical (at a stretch, nose-shaped) soft sweets with a fruit jelly core and are the pride of Ghent. Pick them up from street carts whose friendly vendors will offer you a taste if you ask nicely. Or buy them at Temmerman’s candy shop (Kraanlei 79) where they are known by their official name, cuberdons.

The legend behind the handjes has to do with an evil giant who was vanquished by a local hero and had his hand chopped off and thrown into the river Scheldt. Don’t let this gory story deter you from trying these delightful hand-shaped chocolates and thin almond cookies. Some stretch the legend further to say that the name Antwerp (locally Antwerpen) comes from “hand-werpen” or hand-throwing.

A way with Waffles

Waffle with whipped creamOther than chocolate, the aroma of fresh waffles is in the air in Flanders. There are two main types – the Brussels version, the standard everywhere in the world for Belgian waffles, and the lesser known Liège version. The former is served with a variety of toppings, from dusted sugar to whipped cream to chocolate syrup and rum. Try one – or three – at the Max at Ghent; they call themselves the inventors of the Belgian waffle. Liège waffles are comparatively denser, sweeter and chewier, with a caramelised crust and without toppings. And the best are to be found at Belgaufra at several locations in Brussels, Antwerp and Liège or Vitalgaufre at 23-29 rue Neuve in Brussels.

At Max

Spicy Specculaas

Different from all other cookies you have known, specculaas (also known as specculoos) are spicy, with subtle flavours of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and brown sugar. It is so popular in Belgium that it is now available as a spread (Nutella, be gone!) and in ice-creams. La Maison Dandoy at the Grand Place in Brussels has the freshest specculaas, in various shapes and forms.

Then, there are the thin and crunchy Florentines, said to originate from Florence. The Belgian version comes coated with nuts and chocolate (no surprise there) and just melt in the mouth. Be sure to pick up a box of Jules Destrooper Florentines on your way out at the airport duty-free shop. The brand is also known for their other thin cookies, including almond, apple and chocolate flavours.

So, while in Belgium, push away all thoughts of a healthy diet and give in to temptation. And anyway, who says chocolate is not healthy?

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A slightly edited version of this was published in Mumbai Mirror, May 05, 2013.

Where the ‘roos rule

Untouched by ‘civilization’, this exotic island is an explorer’s getaway

“So are there kangaroos on Kangaroo Island?” I asked hopefully as soon I stepped into the car at the airport. Tim from Exceptional Kangaroo Island Tours, my guide for the next two days gave me a withering look. I was all set to tell him defensively about how Bombay duck is not a duck and how there is no Mysore in the Mysore masala dosa, but then I decided to save my breath. We were already on the road by then, and Tim was talking about going koala spotting. He had keen ears and eyes and extensive knowledge of the island: 20 years of doing this and a lifetime of living there.

We duly spotted koalas clinging for dear life high up on the trees and inside the Lathami Conservation Park. “Tread very carefully and make no noise,” Tim said, seeing an adult and baby kangaroo snoozing in the mild Australian sun. If I still had any doubts whether Kangaroo Islanders loved their fauna, the Lathami Park, an area set aside and maintained entirely for the survival of one kind of the cockatoo, dispelled them. On this large island, seven times the size of Singapore, conservation is a keyword.

The two roos

Koala bear

Seals sunning themselves

Islander WineryA quick tour and tasting session at the Islander winery later, I made my (slightly tipsy) way to the picnic lunch that Tim had set up inside a gazebo in an open farm. Out came the bread, cheese, pasta, salads and dessert and of course, local wines to go with all this. After lunch, we headed to Seal Bay, home to thousands of Australian seals. It was hot by then and the seals were all spread out on the beach, the males keeping half an eye open for competition and ears closed to the cacophony of the seagulls.

Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island and just a short flight away (or is the word ‘hop’) from Adelaide. And so far, thankfully, it has managed to stay away from the tourist radar and therefore preserve its natural wild habitats. We drove for miles and hours on the first day on the inner roads without spotting another vehicle although several wallabies kept running across the road. It does have a stunning coastline but the main attraction here is its rugged beauty and chance encounters with local wildlife (there are ‘kangaroo crossing’ boards everywhere on the roads).

Dinner was at the super-luxury Southern Ocean Lodge where I was staying. It was a pleasant experience to have the entire staff remember and greet you by first name each time but then, there are only 21 suites on this property. The lodge, indeed the entire island, prides itself on using as much local produce as possible (they sneer when they say ‘mainland’) – honey, wines, seafood, cheese. My guide Tim himself is a beekeeper and kept stopping to check his hives all along the way.

The next morning, we drove through the Flinders Chase National Park heading to the accurately, if unimaginatively named Remarkable Rocks. These are reddish brown granite rocks of intriguing shapes formed over 500 million years of exposure to the elements. Next on the whirlwind tour agenda was the other spot where seals – these ones from New Zealand – sunbathed, down near Admiral’s Arch where the rocks formed, well, an arch. I was done with seals very soon this time (really, how long can you watch them?) and lunch beckoned.

Remarkable Rocks

Cliffs near Admiral's Arch

Clifftop lunchThis time Tim (I never did learn his full name) pulled out an absolute wonder from his hat, a hidden spot high in the cliff nearby, looking down at the aquamarine waters. Food does taste better alfresco and the wine headier. Lots more to do and see on Kangaroo Island, I am told – coastal hikes, sailing, surfing and scuba diving, exploring old caves and new nature trails but there are others for all that. Me, it was time for a nap.

For more information, visit Tourism Kangaroo Island.

INFORMATION

Getting there and around: Fly into Adelaide on Qantas or Singapore Airlines, and then take the Regional Express (Rex) flight to KI. It is best to book through a local tour company, which would provide a vehicle and guide through your trip.

Stay: Indulge with a room at the Southern Ocean Lodge, set on the cliff with dramatic views of the sea. There are also homestays and B&Bs scattered through the island at much lesser rates.

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Published in Bangalore Mirror, December 02, 2012