I’ve just spent a foodie afternoon in the middle of Regent’s Park which, in a quick floral aside, I’d like to note is looking stunning. Colour-coded flower-beds no less and zingy green lawns. Thank you rain. But back to affairs of the palate, Taste of London (an annual food fest) has certainly gone into overdrive with a line-up of over 40 top restaurants beside an army of food and drink producers. All these have escaped from their usual settings to man swish little stands under huge tents. One stand even housed repro Chesterfield sofas, maybe a sop for the exorbitant £25 entrance fee.
Having been at a similarly tented affair, the Hay Book Festival, only a few weeks ago, I did experience a few waves of déja vu – only this time without the Welsh deluges and with chefs supplanting authors. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a bookshop (thank you Waterstones) or author’s signings (Charles Campion was autographing a mountain of copies of his London restaurant guide – and seemed a pleasant, knowledgeable chap), but there are above all demos by chefs (I spotted Vivek Singh from the Cinnamon Club), beer and wine-tastings, even an incongruous Chinese massage and more. Unfortunately the festival has gained a strong corporate side to it (ah, the lure of manna) in the form of an obtrusive row of private enclosures as if it were Ascot or Seville’s Feria de Abril. Not quite.
As you wander around the vast enclosure, taste buds a-tingle, trays are pushed in front of you with baby tastings, or you come across a stall with samples – which could be pieces of delectable cake or thimbles of estate-bottled cider. Near the end of my circuit, as my energy faded, I was accosted by a pleasant young man with a tank of beer strapped to his back which he kindly hosed into a plastic beaker for me. I think it was Cobra. Perfect.
Chocolate tasting offered some pretty unusual flavours, whether pink pepper, lavender or lemon chocolate-bars from a Belgian company called Newtree, or Britian’s finest, Paul A.Young. This man makes obscure, complex and fearless combinations . Definitely someone to follow up – or rather his products which are made on the spot in his two London shops.
But it was the mini-feasts that had me hooked. Each restaurant offered tastings of three different dishes (starter, main, dessert) in mini-portions at not so mini prices. The quaint idea was to pay in ‘crowns’, a paper money that had the advantage of making you feel rich – and reckless. Monopoly money basically. At the ‘exchange booth’ £10 suddenly became 20 crowns, so a portion of braised pig’s head with mashed potato and caramelised onion at 8 crowns seemed like a snip (that was courtesy of Arbutus, big brother of Wild Honey where coincidentally I lunched divinely yesterday for all of £25 – fantastic value). But some were better than others. Salt Yard’s Confit of Old Spot pork belly with rosemary-scented cannellini was so-so – the beans were cold & tasted like they were straight out of a tin while the pork was hardly confit.
My high point came at Le Gavroche. Here I went for a Terrine de volaille fumé and foie gras aux lentilles avec vinaigrette aux truffes. You can always rely on top French cuisine – what an assault of taste and texture. This cost all of 8 crowns, and I was ready for another serving. Here it is, in all its unassuming, yet rich and subtle glory.
But I was also eyeing a Viennese stall serving sachertorte freshly dipped in chocolate with whipped cream – all for 6 crowns. A bargain! Hard at it, the Viennese had no time for chat or smiles…
But I was not the only one to discover it, so off I trotted to greener, emptier pastures. That was when I came across a true English tradition, not a Canteen or a Tom Aikens remake of a classic, both of which I had passed by, but THE classic itself: Fortnum & Mason. With understated elegance, they produced a Burnt honey and buttermilk pudding with diced strawberries. If I’d ever had nursery food, that would have been it. Exquisite, comforting and only 8 crowns. Unfortunately I devoured it before I could take a snap. However I did catch this wonderful array of fungi on a nearby stand devoted to just that, though the others were vacuum-packed.
It was at this point that I discovered a large and extremely enticing Chinese section. Woks fizzed and sizzled and aromas of ginger, chile and garlic stirred me deeply. After a quick slug of Harbin beer (excellent & it reminded me of a documentary about that town’s inhabitants busily carving gigantic ice sculptures). These restaurant stands were packed, another sign, if it’s needed, that British tastes veer to the strong and punchy. But too damned late! I’d run out of crowns and no one was accepting real money… those chilli prawns would have to wait for another day. And by then I was ready to amble off to a quiet bench between leafy shrubs to sit and digest – with a full-on view of London’s iconic 1960s masterpiece, the Post Office Tower.