On The European Road With Sean Heather

March 2, 2009.

Sean Heather, owner of Salt Tasting Room, The Irish Heather, The Shebeen, and The Salty Tongue, is taking the reins tonight. He will be guest-blogging his way through London, Ireland, and Spain, searching for ideas and inspiration for his new restaurant in Gastown’s Blood Alley. This is his first entry, detailing his days in London, Limerick, and Dublin. His adventures in San Sebastián are still to come…

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London

Arrived in London at lunchtime and got to the hotel just in time to freshen up and then head out for a late lunch.

Canteen “is committed to providing honest food, nationally sourced, skillfully prepared and reasonably priced.” That’s what their website says. I can’t disagree with their claim.

As I was tired and hungry, I chose the safe option of Bangers & Mash. It tasted great save for the char on one side of each of the bangers. Thankfully, the very sweet onion gravy balanced the char. So, after comfort food and a cup of tea I felt restored and ready to head out to Borough Market, one of London’s better food markets.

Bacon, anybody?
I think they're all dead...
Mmm, goose fat...

After ambling round the market for a while I headed over to Neal’s Yard cheese store for a meeting with their sales rep, Jane.

Normally when a Canadian restaurant/store purchases imported cheese they must go through a broker. There is a quota on how much Imported cheese is allowed into Canada each year and only brokers who have inherited or purchased quota can bring cheese in. Since the quota system was implemented in the 70’s, the quotas have not been increased.

Most of the time, the selection of imported cheeses is based on what a broker believes will absolutely sell, i.e. they are not inclined to use up their quota on unusual, risky cheeses that may not sell. So if you have ever wondered why the selection of foreign cheese is so limited in Vancouver, it’s because brokers are unwilling to take a risk. And really, who can blame them?

Vancouver company Dovre Imports has some of this quota and a refreshingly different attitude to ordering. When it comes to unusual cheese they allow sellers like me to place our order directly with the European cheese sellers. Neal’s Yard is one such cheese seller and Jane calls me once a month to talk about her favorites, what’s good and what’s not. I then place my order. The first time Dovre knows about this is when they receive confirmation from Neal’s Yard that an order has been sent.

Today I am going to place my order in person.

Store manager Toby and sales rep Jane help me taste my way through 20+ cheeses. When it is over I have ordered Lincolnshire Poacher, Isle of Mull, Cashel Blue, Gubbeen and Dawes Weslydale.

Jane
Wall of cheese...

Tired and feeling a “cheese coma” coming on, I head for my hotel.

Next day I had breakfast in an English Café called The Regency Café.

Film buffs might recognize the Regency as the scene of a brutal assault in the movie “Layer Cake”.

The café is busy and runs like a well-oiled machine. Everybody lines up to place their order, and you must not take your seat until your order has been placed. The lady, who takes your money, also makes your tea, puts your toast down and calls out your order when it is ready for you to collect. Between “to go” and “to stay” business, she processes over 90 people in the 30 minutes that I am there. I get my tea when I place my order, and as I settle in my seat the lady bellows “White Toast”. I collect my toast and settle back in my seat only to hear “bacon, egg, sausage and tomato” roared again.

The big booming voice does not match the small lady, so much so that I at first thought that there was a burly cook shouting from the kitchen. But no, she is a small lady with a big booming voice. Nonetheless, each time she bellowed it was like something out of Poltergeist. The truth is that if she didn’t shout, a customer might not hear her and the food would start to pile up in front of her, etc. The breakfast was great, with the tomatoes being a welcome change from the usual baked beans.

Content, I head to Covent Garden to visit the store of Irish designer Orla Kiely. My wife was gracious enough to hold the fort (business/home) so that I could go on this trip, this despite the fact that all 3 children and my wife had been sick the day before I left. I would be killed if I went to London and didn’t buy an Orla Kiely item. Just like Isaac Mizrahi, Orla Kiely has been commissioned by Target to design a line of goods.

Purchase made, I made my way to “The Cow” gastropub in Notting Hill for lunch. It is arguably London’s first gastropub and as such is considered to have led the gasatropub revolution. It has been a major influence on the Irish Heather and I always try to visit whenever I am in London.

The Cow is owned by Ton Conran, whose dad is Sir Terrance Conran, the founder of Habitat (Britain’s version of IKEA) and owner of 30+ restaurants. Tom appears to have passed on the family business in favour of building his own empire. Tom also has a deli, “Toms Deli”, a diner, “Lucky 7”, and a Mexican cantina, “Crazy Homies”.

I ordered the chicken liver paté, fruit chutney and toast with a beautiful pint of Guinness. The guy beside me had a whole Dorset crab that was as big as his head.

There were two reasons for this trip. First, to check out the tapas culture of Spain. Second, to attend the Ireland versus England game in the Six Nations international rugby tournament in Dublin. I next headed out to Stansted airport to catch a flight to Ireland.

Ireland

After an overnight in my hometown of Limerick, myself and Brian (pals since we were 12 years old) drove to Dublin on Saturday morning. The scene of the rugby game was Croke Park. This stadium is located in the city and with a sold out capacity of 82,000 people, all roads leading to it are clogged beyond belief.

We parked our car at my uncles house in the ‘burbs and he gave us a lift into the city center in his vintage Rolls Royce. Riding in this old boy was like floating on a cloud…

Once downtown we headed to Bentleys Oyster Bar & Grill for a pre-game late luncheon. Bentleys is the first Irish-based restaurant from Irish-born, UK-based celebrity chef Richard Corrigan. Chef Richard has a Michelin star restaurant in London’s Soho (Lindsay House), and Bentleys is a casual seafood restaurant in the center of Dublin.

With Corrigan’s following in Britain and his Irish roots, Bentleys was an obvious choice for Brits and Irish folk in Dublin for the game, and it was packed. The mirror above the fireplace was draped in the British Union Jack and the Irish Tricolor.

I had an in-house smoked haddock with soft poached egg and Brian had the fish and chips. Both were superb, and so with two hours to go we walked to the stadium.

Ireland carried the day and there was much celebrating that night, though ours was muted slightly as we had to fly out to Spain at 6am the next morning.

Next installment – Eating Pintxos in San Sebastian

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