My lovely friend Linda is over from Spain for a few days and staying with me. When friends move far away (she and George used to live in Twickenham), the disappointment of seeing them less frequently is offset by a more intense period of ‘togetherness’ when visits take place, either to their home or mine. While I spend a lot of time chilling out by the pool at their Spanish home, Linda has family and friends to catch up with here and is constantly on the go. However, we always make time to do something special together and yesterday set off into central London around lunchtime. We wanted to look round the Christmas market on the Southbank, had tickets for the Schiele exhibition at The Courtauld and were then going on to Joe Allen for an early supper. The weather was kind to us. After days of grey, the clouds lifted to reveal a gorgeous sunny winter’s day, the sun hanging low in the sky as it does at this time of year and bathing the world in a warm glow as it began to sink for its night’s rest. Even Waterloo bridge (above) looked quite pretty!
Crossing York Road from Waterloo station and cutting through Sutton Walk, I suggested we take a look at The Real Food Market, which is set up at the back of The Royal Festival Hall every weekend. I’ve often taken a brief look as this is a regular route when I come into central London, but I’ve always been in a hurry and not stopped to take photos and add to the blog. It’s a brilliant food market: wonderful stalls selling top-quality food. Most of it is street food – prepared in front of you and ready to eat straight away. They’ve even set up some tables and chairs in a central area now. There’s food from round the world, from curries, to Moroccan wraps, Ethiopian coffee, French cheeses and there was a huge dish of chorizo and rice bubbling away.
I almost bought some honey but decided it would be silly to carry jars around for the rest of the day. However, my resolve not to buy faltered at the sight of a wonderful display of Comte cheese.
Comte is one of my favourite cheeses. I buy it regularly but never as good as this. The taste was full with a nutty, slightly caramel flavour and gorgeously smooth and creamy. This was the best Comte I’ve ever tasted. How could I go without buying some? But carrying around cheese all evening? Mmm. Not such a good idea. Can you vacuum pack it? asked Linda. Thus the helpful Tom got out their little used machine and vacuum packed two chunks for me (one a gift for my son). Meanwhile two guys had stopped by the stall too. We all got talking. After a few minutes Tom handed over the beautifully packed cheese in a bag and it was time to go. Look out for The Borough Cheese Company‘s stall. Their cheese is fantastic!
Moving on closer to the Thames, we found the Christmas market had been relocated. In previous years, the stalls had spread along the edge of the embankment but now they were clustered in a space between Hungerford bridge and the London Eye. It was horrendously crowded and very disappointing. There were more food and drink stalls than there used to be and not as wonderful as those we’d just seen at The Real Food Market; there were very few craft stalls. Once this market had been a source of some fun and interesting goods, you might even do some Christmas shopping, but now it wasn’t interesting at all. We decided to make our way along to Waterloo Bridge, passing under Hungerford Bridge, towards our next destination.
Arriving at The Courtauld Gallery for our 4.00pm entry, we found a very long queue stretching out into The Strand. I queued while Linda checked whether, with our prepaid and printed tickets, we could go straight in. We could.
There are some wonderful art exhibitions in London at the moment: the stunningly beautiful and moving Rembrandt at The National Gallery; the popular Late Turner at Tate Britain, about which there is extra fuss because of Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner (which Linda and I are seeing tonight). I was alerted to the Schiele by my friend Jane who sent a link to William Boyd’s piece in the Guardian about the artist (click here). The works on display here date from 1910 to 1918 – the year of Schiele’s untimely death aged just 28 from Spanish flu. The erotic nature of his nudes shocked Vienna and even landed him a brief spell in prison. There’s a noticeable shift in the earlier works to the ones in his final year, showing a greater confidence and sensuality. They are incredibly powerful and show quite remarkable draughtsmanship.
The Schiele is a small exhibition and we were in there for just under an hour. When we emerged into the dark and bustling Strand, it was just before 5pm. We decided to find a coffee somewhere then look around the crafts market in the Covent Garden piazza before our meal. I took us to Notes, a little way up Wellington Street. They serve excellent coffee and it’s a lively, friendly place. We sat for a while talking then headed into our third market of the day: Apple Market.
This daily market in the piazza had inevitably taken on a Christmas theme and huge, wonderful baubles hung from the ceiling. The stalls change daily; I’m always finding different ones on the different days I’m in London. I like buying things from art and craft stalls where you can actually talk to the person who made what you’re buying. Linda managed a bit of Christmas shopping and we had a nice time wandering around before finally ending up at Joe Allen. Now my favourite JA is always busy but with all the Christmas excitement around, there was even more of a lively buzz in the air last night. I’d thought we’d have the early evening set menu – a great deal at £14.75 for 2 courses; £17.50 for 3. However, Linda (who was kindly treating me as a thank-you for giving her a bed for five nights) said we should go à la carte. We both had a gorgeous Crab & Avocado Salad with Bloody Mary Dressing. It looked so pretty, I took a photo but unfortunately it didn’t come out well. The photo of my Chopped Chilli Beef with guacamole and sour cream isn’t great either but I promise you it tasted fantastic!
Linda thought she’d been there many years ago and was pleased to be reintroduced. As for me, and as you well know, I just love going to Joe Allen anytime. What a great ending to a lovely day.