Monday, 24 February 2014

The Walk Eat Talk Eat Tour: come on an empty stomach

I should begin by first making my excuses for this being a tour taken well over a week ago that has only now made it online. I relocated to Beijing while writing this one up and this blog is blocked there along with a great many other seditious online publications, so it has taken a little while to figure out how to get around this impasse. I couldn’t pass this tour off as yesterday’s as it began with a topical sales pitch in Shoreditch Station, where I had arranged to meet my guide. A young man and woman from Beauty Group were stopping passers by and telling them they were lucky enough to be one of the first 25 customers of the morning and could thus take advantage of a tremendous cosmetics offer. Yes, for just £35 I could have walked away with a little black bag bristling with cosmetics that would otherwise have cost me over £100, a perfect Valentine’s Day present, etc. She did her best and I watched as she demonstrated the various pastes, powders, glosses and pencils but my heart wasn’t in it. It was still a £35 sale and when I saw the two of them still there over two hours later I started to doubt the ‘first 25 customers’ line and suspected it was more a device to inject a sense of urgency and exclusivity into what, for me, was at best an only moderately interesting offer.

The station was not only animated by Beauty Group, there was also a tour group assembling there and it was only after they departed that I found my guide Charli who was sporting a purple Walk Eat Talk Eat jacket. She led me out, past the group who had now descended fully into the history of old Shoreditch, and onto Bethnal Green Road. We introduced ourselves and it turned out I had some choices and options of where my tour would take me. Not eating meat this meant avoiding some places but with so many other options available I was not short of places to talk and eat.

Our first stop was bunnychow a South African themed fast-food outlet in Box Park. We got started straight away ordering a ‘Boston Beans’, a hollowed-out bread roll filled with beans, spinach and halloumi cheese served in a box. It was rather good and I started to regret having eaten that porridge for breakfast as I was only slightly hungry and if we were setting out at this pace and there were still 4 or 5 stops to come I knew I’d be struggling soon. This was not symbolic food or light tasting to accompany a story, this was the real deal and I was tucking into a second breakfast.

We then got talking to the chef who told us about the food, its origins, how he came to be making it and about the business here in Shoreditch. This got us onto the crossover between street food and restaurants, the festival circuit and much more besides. It was a pleasure to drop briefly into his world and hear in detail about something I might only otherwise miss entirely. There is something quite nice in general about this structure of tour where you get picked up and dropped in front of a number of people who stop and talk to you for a minute and then carry on about their business while your guide whisks you to the next one.   

Our next stop however did not feature any interviews; we ducked into Albion and I was invited to choose an item from the bakery table. The selection was of familiar British items like scones, macaroons and bakewell tarts but somewhat unfamiliar in that these had been well made elevating them above the Mr Kipling’s box of six. I plumped for the bourbon biscuit.

For a place that is branded as British, Albion seemed surprisingly continental European in tone which, I should add, I see as no bad thing. The espresso machine jumped out at me and made me have to ask, “what is British food?” Coffee, as I heard in a previous tour, has a longer history in Britain than tea so in a sense coffee is a very solid part of the British tradition as it has been consumed in this country for many hundreds of years. On the other hand, the beans are grown far away with packets sporting labels like ‘Produce of Kenya’ and coffee culture has only recently been re-embraced here in the UK where until fifteen years ago, it was pretty much instant coffee or nothing. What’s more, the idea of Britain is itself a historical construct; in the stone age, people ate and drank, not cappuccinos I suppose, but our Neolithic tribes consumed something and people were not busy with the idea of Britain let alone British food, that came much later. The idea of Britain that seems to be most in circulation today is one that is historically located in the period of the British Empire. Here in Albion they were improvising upon this theme but doing so in a contemporary way, a far cry from the Britain of the 1970s and 80s that I grew up in, a land of luncheon meat, spam and inedible school dinners. Today’s spam is electronic and today’s Britain articulated in relation to Europe.

Stopping outside on the street the focus of the tour now switched to history and I was told about Jack London’s visit here at the turn of the century and how Thomas Cook refused to offer him a tour so much was this considered a no go zone for respectable persons. Yes, at the height of empire some parts of the capital remained in desperate poverty. Indeed even the police, so Charli told me, would not venture into this cesspool of crime and deprivation. Times have changed! It is a designer shopping and creative industries hub with tour guides a plenty and now, with the Tour of All Tours focused here, it even has its conceptual tour guide, guiding the visitor around the guides. A sign of the beginning of the end? As we went further into The Boundary Estate and I was told about the efforts of early reformers to improve the district I munched on my quite delicious bourbon biscuit and tried to find sense in these multiple impressions and stories. This evaded me as the place IS as ruptured and in flux as all that and a tour that works off this premise will inevitably have to both feed them and tell them some of the stories.

We stopped for street art around Brick Lane but did not linger too long or get deep into the street art scene as the more dedicated tours of it do.

Next stop was a new chocolate shop on Brick Lane. We were meant to talk to the owner but she was in the midst of an involved business call (i.e. an argument) so we simply admired the high-end chocolates and ordered a chilli hot chocolate. This turned out to be another calorie hit with just enough chilli to wake the mouth up but not so much as to destroy the flavour of the chocolate.

Next came the piadina. This is an Italian fast food served up in a van behind Truman’s brewery. This seemed to be a family run outfit with fresh ingredients brought back from Italy every week, I was told.

What made this stop interesting for me was watching the food being made in front of us. It can be fascinating to watch somebody skilled in preparing fast food at work and while this was not so challenging a dish to make it was good to watch the process all the same. There is a rather tasty Beijing egg pancake with coriander, chilli paste and a dried tofu sheet that is made fresh in front of you here and it sends me into the same low-level hypnosis watching the vendors at work.

We made the near obligatory stop outside the mosque to hear about multiculturalism and were stood beside the Bangladeshi sweet shop to check out their offerings. The man in the background is arriving there carrying two trays laden with brightly coloured spirals of sugar and fat. We could have gotten some but I declined already knowing these sweets and feeling rather full from the onslaught so far. It would be interesting to make a calorie count of the tour and see what it came to, to then subtract the amount exerted in walking and discover the net balance. Applying this logic, what would be required to make a calorific neutral walking and eating tour? A stick of celery every 200 meters?  I guess that wouldn’t take on, not even with hardened vegans. This idea of neutrality is nonetheless an appealing one with carbon neutral travel and carbon neutral companies making much of their balancing equations, or I sometimes suspect, cooking of the books.

We sheltered under a coffee stall outside Spitalfields Church as the weather turned properly grim and I got some historical stories about the church and surrounding area. Stepping over the road I ran into Bill Gee by chance, Bill who is co-curating Inside Out Festival in South Dorset where I’m also making a tour for this Summer. It was funny for him to catch me hard at work researching one of my other tours. Walking through the gastronomically homogenized Spitalfields Market (over-run by chain restaurants like Giraffe and Leon) we arrived at another British themed food store A. Gold on Brushfield Street which caters to city workers and proudly displays all the old brands. I got half a scotch egg which I prudently saved for later. One of the themes of the walk is that ‘British food is not half as bad as people make it out to be’ and on the basis of this tour you could definitely agree with this sentiment. Granted, there are horror kitchens up and down the country, millions of people buy ready to microwave slops from supermarkets and you can still pick up a deep fried mars bar, if you know where to look, but that does not change the fact that there is a quality British cuisine and that it is not indelibly bland but actually rather good. The tour used food as the principal hook to get you from place to place and tell stories not just about food but also about the area on the way. While it can sometimes feel a bit split between these two focuses, for most visitors they are only going to ever take one tour of Brick Lane and combining food and local history is a way to make the experience as a whole an agreeable one. I felt that the history of empire and social class loomed large over what I experienced, yet a tour that articulated this in depth would be a very different sort of tour and quite probably not so enjoyable a one. My one piece of advice for would be tourists taking the Walk Eat Talk Eat Tour is to approach this one on an empty stomach, there’s a lot to take in.

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