Falling for London and Cottage Pie

Big Ben By Night- Chris Ciolli

London is a change of pace from Barcelo­na, the city I’ve been living in for four years. In Bar­celona, being in a hurry is quite the hassle as I have to avoid bumping into people as I speed-walk and pass them on narrow sidewalks crowded with terrace cafes. In London, it seems I can’t keep up
with the swift flow of Londonites coming and going. Fall here is lovely and everything it should be– changing leaves, and crisp cold air.

Of course, it would be even love­lier if I’d thought to bring a decent coat. The cold, damp air seems to seep into my bones, and after the first day, I decide to dress in layers. After getting into various pairs of socks, tights, two pairs of jeans one, over the other, a couple of t-shirts, and a sweater and gloves, I feel bulky and look at least 10 lbs heavier. But I’m not cold and that’s something.

Map in gloved fingers, it’s time to explore. My hotel is a tiny place, a row house in a residential part of King’s Cross surrounded by 24-hour diners, pizza places, and assorted Asian and Middle-Eastern restaurants. My tiny room has a bed crowded into one corner, a radiator, a little sink in the entry-way and a miniscule water closet stuffed full with a tiny shower stall and a toilet. This place to rest my head cost five times more than my 20 euro flight from Bar­celona with a low-cost airline, but for London, it’s cheap and relative­ly clean, and the heat works, so I won’t complain.

London is divided into boroughs that radiate around the original city, founded during the Roman empire (then known as Lond­inium). As I am operating out of King’s Cross, an area half in the borough of Islington and half in the borough of Camden, I decided to visit the Camden Market straight away (right away in Brit-speak).

Here there is a wide array of al­ternative youth culture on display, hippies, punks and Goths (Oh my!) selling their wares. After  shelling out a few pounds for a pair of earrings I’m almost com­pletely sure were made from old soda cans, I’m Camden Market-ed out, and ready to explore London’s more traditional landmarks.

The London Underground–how to get around in Londontown.

Out into the chilly fall air I go, off to catch the tube, London’s subway system, to Trafalgar Square. Com­ing out of the tube station, Nelson’s tower looms, guiding me to the huge square designed by John Nash in the 1820s. On the north side of the square lies my first stop, TheNational Gallery, England’s first public art collection, unusual for Europe in that it was founded upon private collections acquired by its government, and not by national­izing a royal collection. And in the effort of making art free and avail­able to everyone, it is strategically placed between poorer east end and wealthier west end London, and charges no admission. It’s also well-heated, and my layers for the outside weather are causing me to melt in the climate-controlled galleries. I search carefully, pass­ing works of DaVinci, Titian and Van Gogh before I find my target, Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, a bril­liant painting of Venus reclining, and looking into a mirror held up to her by Cupid. Luckily for me, although the collection is wide ranging, it is also relatively small, and before I know it, I’m back out in the frosty air, and grateful for the temperature change. 

After being indoors for a time, I’m ready to explore all the out­door sites London has to offer. Of London’s many architectural won­ders, I must confess my preference for Westminster in all its gothic glory. Its vertical spires reaching towards the heavens, Westminster Abbey is every bit as astounding as Notre Dame in Paris. I am also partial to Westminster Palace at sunset, its great halls and towers, among them the Big Ben clock and bell tower, reflected in the dark waters of the River Thames.

While I’m wandering around, I visit the Tower of London, where Queen Elizabeth was once im­prisoned, and Buckingham Palace to watch the tourist’s favorite, the ceremonial changing of the guard. The guards, in their fuzzy caterpil­lar hats and tin soldier uniforms, don’t seem real. Of course I don’t go inside any of the monuments, as entry fees are stiff, and I’m on a tight budget. Limited funding on my mind, I spend a completely free and very entertaining hour or so chasing geese around with my camera in Hyde Park, one of the many beautiful (and enormous) green spaces in London.

After such a satisfying and full day sightseeing in London, I am excited about dinner. Despite all the awful things people say about British cuisine other than the typi­cal fish and chips, I’m hope­ful. Once seated in a lovely gastro-pub in Camden, having nixed the idea of the traditional east-end jel­lied eels, I decide on Cottage Pie, a traditional British dish. Hot, rich and filling, perfect for cool fall and cold winter weather, this home-style dish was so good, I decided to try to recreate it at home. 

London Phone Booths…

To make Cottage Pie, you will need the following:
A 5 to 6 quart casserole or ov­enproof dish
2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil (whatever you have on hand)
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
one large carrot diced
about 1 lb lean ground beef or finely minced leftover pot roast
1 tbsp tomato paste
 3 cups beef broth
2 tbsp Worces­tershire sauce
a few Thyme leaves (fresh, if possible)
3 medium sized boiled or baked potatoes
1-2 boiled parsnips (substitute turnips if necessary)
A cup or peas or green beans.
1 tbsp milk

First sauté your onions and car­rots and peas or green beans in the 2 tbsp vegetable oil for around five minutes, then add in the beef, sauté it until browned and add in tomato paste, stock, Worcestershire and thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil and then cover the pan and reduce heat, al­lowing the mixture to simmer for about half an hour. Then uncover the pan and continue cooking un­til the meat and vegetables have absorbed most of the liquid. Then spoon it all into your 5 to 6 quart casserole dish, salt, and put aside.

To make the “crust” of your cottage pie, you will need to take your boiled or baked potatoes and parsnips and mash them with milk and nutmeg. Make sure there is no excess liquid and spread the mash over the pie filling in your cas­serole dish. Give it some texture by making fork marks in the top layer, and then sprinkle on grated Cheddar Cheese (a strongly fla­vored variety is best).

Slide your cottage pie into a 250o oven until the potato and parsnip curst is golden brown and crisp around the edges. Easy, cheap and filling, this is a recipe that can be made from leftovers (think pot roast or even pork roast and leftover potatoes).

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