London’s ‘octopus card’ for dining

PolpoGiven the bewildering choice in this greatest of English speaking cities I find it amusing that one of the best options for great food at a great price should be Italian in name and nature.

It’s the result of the most recent Norman conquest of Great Britain. Inspired by his passion for the Italian city and in particular for chiceti (Venetian-style tapas), Russell Norman created his first Venetian-style bacaro in Soho’s Beak Street. Called Polpo, it’s serendipitously housed in an old building that was once home to the famous Italian painter Canaletto.

The Polpo empire has since expanded its tentacles beyond Soho, exporting its bare brick and raw timber rustic cool to Covent Garden, Smithfield and Notting Hill, while its offspring Polpetto, originally squashed into a teensy location in Dean Street, has reopened as a larger location in nearby Berwick Street. Put together, these restaurants are my London “octopus card” to fine food at a fine price.

The Polpo menu suits those wanting to graze lightly as well as those who are ravenous. Best of all, with dishes ranging between £3 and £10, it’s easy to shape a meal to suit your wallet.

The chiceti include salami butter and broad bean crostini and the ever popular potato and parmesan crocchetta. Wafer-thin pizzetta have toppings such as spicy clam and wild garlic or cured pork shoulder and picked pepper. Polpo’s famous meatballs come in five varieties.

Seafood includes octopus (naturally) and a prawn and artichoke linguini. Wines are from top northern Italian producers. Polpetto’s more adventurous, seasonal menu currently features hare papardelle, veal cheeks and game faggots, yet it’s no more expensive an experience. And three of these restaurants have popular wine bars in their basements.

covent garden piazza# Polpo in Covent Garden is a top option for pre-show dining should you have tickets for a performance at the nearby Royal Opera House.


Salute to the London Tube

Shard 2Every time I return to the British capital I’m reminded just how colossal a city it is. From the top of The Shard (right) I can see dense urban development stretching every which way for miles and miles. This is a city so large that if it weren’t for what lay below –  the Tube – I doubt that I’d venture all that far.

But London’s oft-maligned main transport system is, in reality, a daily miracle. I’d go so far as to suggest it’s why London consistently ranks among the world’s top cities for tourists.

There’s hardly anywhere in this vast, sprawling metropolis that you can’t reach using London’s extensive network of underground subway, overground train, light rail and bus. And travel times are quite often remarkable.

When the Tube gets going it simply flies.  I literally shot downtown from East Finchley to Oxford Circus in about 30 minutes, including a change from the Northern Line to Central Line at the revamped Tottenham Court Road tube station. Admittedly, this journey was made after nine in the morning so I avoided the rush hour and also took advantage of a cheaper one-day ticket.

Given its age and tlondon_underground_logohe pressures upon the Tube, what’s even more remarkable is that the whole system doesn’t simply implode. And when things do go wrong, as they do quite often, there are regular announcements keeping travellers well informed. Most weekends there are closures on various lines as essential maintenance work or upgrades are done. That’s why the system still works as well as it does.

Often I prefer to ride London’s red double-decker buses, sitting at the front up top for the view. It’s a great way to see the city and there are bus routes that pass some of the city’s great landmarks. Using the Oyster Card a London bus ride is arguably the cheapest visitor attraction.

bus londonThe design of these red London icons keeps changing. A recent incarnation (right) saw the reintroduction of an open deck at the rear, which means passengers may hop off and on at will just as in the old days. Apparently this is far more effective in helping buses keep to a timetable. Driver-controlled doors slow everything, as anyone hearing the lament “back door, Driver!” will testify.

Travel costs keep rising and it can be confusing for a visitor to assess the cheapest way to get around. Read the advice on the London Toolkit website site to find out the best travel card for your purposes.

Anyone intending visitor should also take a look at City Dashboard. Not only does it give an instant update on how the trains are running but also lots of info of a more subtle nature such as air quality, plus mood and radiation levels, what’s trending on Twitter and even the current depth of the Thames. Ah London, you simply gotta love this city!


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Tasting a perfectly edible island

spud vodka T-shirt

PEI vodka T-shirt

Prince Edward Island is not just all about lobster. Yes, there sure is lots of lobster talk and the local crustacean is indeed a fabulous specimen. Live ones can be had for as little as $7.50 lb (454g), which is good enough reason in itself to visit Canada’s smallest province. But this fascinatingly productive island punches way above its weight in many other gustatory aspects.

Take vodka for example, potato vodka in particular. Prince Edward Island is famous for spuds. Commercial farmers grow russet burbanks on a massive scale, destined to end up as chips beside Big Macs or in McCain frozen packs. But in the north of the island I meet effervescent and enterprising Julie Shore. She’s put a whole new spin on the humble mashed tuber with a signature spud vodka from her tiny Hermanville distillery.

Julia Gin

Vodka queen Julie Shore

Julie’s an independent, learn-as-you-go sort of gal. Quite remarkably she assembled her imported German still and got it working without the help of an instruction book. Her standout island tipple has won awards and is making ripples beyond the island shores. She also distills a wild blueberry vodka and a show stopper gin, which might explain her almost permanent grin.

Another big island surprise was chocolate. I expected to find another cute tourist sweet shop in picturesque Victoria by the Sea. Instead I met the delightful Gilbert family, mum Linda, son Eric and daughter Emma, crafting the most voluptuous chocolates in their willy wonka factory on Russell Street.

Even better, they use chocolate made from cacao beans sourced directly from growers in Ecuador, a supply chain project fostered by Eric on regular trips to the South American country. The project aims at eliminating the middleman and now involves 23 communities. That’s finger lickin’ good to hear

PEI Eric chocolate

Chocolate man Eric Gilbert

Many a fine local restaurant will serve up Prince Edward Island on a plate. Or you can forage for your supper by digging for clams with Ron Perry, an exercise that gets in touch with the kid lurking in each of us. Within a few minutes of stalking the beach west of Summerside in search of tell-tale holes in the sand we’d unearthed an abundance of fat, juicy soft shell clams. Diggers can take up to 300 clams a day and size is regulated. Soon we’d dug up more than enough. Back at Ron’s caboose he  steamed them in garlic, butter, onion and beer. A simple, delicious feast. Book Ron’s clam tour

By now you’ll realise that few go really hungry on the island and that local produce is a primary reason for making a journey to the Canadian Maritimes. For a tutored experience of PEI’s bounty you can sign up for a “boot camp” at Holland College Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, the island’s charming capital.

These “mini-masterchef” classes are hands-on in the kitchen working with locally-sourced foods. My Seafood 101 “camp” culminated in a self-produced feast that included tutor chef Jeff McCourt’s prize-winning chowder, along with freshly-shucked oysters, steamed mussels and butter-poached lobster. Don’t forget to pack extra napkins because you’ll need them.

Useful links:

Follow the PEI Flavour Trail

Island Chocolates

Hermanville distillery

Book Ron’s clam tour

Seafood 101 classes