As the great Games get going, what can — and should — you taste? Anoothi Vishal finds out at Taste of London, a unique pop-up festival of some of the biggest restaurants and chefs.
It’s a colder-than-usual summer day in London, not that uncommon, as we stroll across central London, umbrellas swinging from our arms, trench coats all belted up, to the picturesque Regent’s Park. It’s been raining sporadically through the morning but for once that doesn’t seem to have dampened local enthusiasm at all: Cheerful families, toddlers in tow, couples out to spend a day outdoors, and, yes, girls in colourful boots with the Union Jack painted over are all queuing up, sniffing at the aromas already wafting up to us on the balmy day, waiting their turn to get inside that corner of the Park where quaint white tents flap in the wind.
Welcome to the Taste of London, “the world’s greatest restaurant festival”, as a sign post reads, one of those magnificent summer events that only this bustling, gastronomic metropolis can host.
A one-of-its-kind pop-up festival, the Taste of London, is an annual, much-loved summer ritual, spread across three days, where some of the best chefs and top restaurants set up (temporary or “pop-up”) kitchens in this corner of the Park and showcase their best, most cutting-edge bites, served up to an eager audience in tasting-sized portions.
This year, 40 of London’s top restaurants are participating. There are to be hot discussions on cuisine trends and techniques, displays by local farmers and artisans making everything from cheese to honey to floral tea (with buds that actually open up as you pour out the hot water on them), and master classes held by top chefs, mixologists and bartenders. But without doubt, what makes the festival so special this year for me is that I expect it to give me a sampling of all the diverse, unique flavours to expect in London, one of the world’s food capitals, ahead of the Big Games.
The Olympics, of course, is on everyone’s minds as they walk across the park, hopping from one tent to another sampling the startling new concoctions like toffee-flavoured vodka, protein bread and croissants and pastry made entirely from spelt, an ancient European grain back in foodie fashion and, well, Jamie Oliver’s gourmet take on the burger (with a pickle that resembles the Indian red chilli one, but without the pungent bite, on the side). But nowhere are the flavours of the Games as evident as at the British Airways pavilion.
Umami is the big buzzword at the moment for chef Simon Hulstone, handpicked after a nationwide competition, to do this special menu for the airline, and his mentor Fat Duck’s fabled Heston Blumenthal. The concept of the “fifth taste” may be Japanese but has been doing the rounds in the world of gastronomy more recently.
What it really means is that some ingredients like tomatoes or wasabi or salty fish are deemed full of “umami” because they make food more flavourful (beyond the traditional four tastes that we can experience on our palates, vis-à-vis sweet, sour, salty and bitter).
For the benefit of the Olympic travellers, Hulstone & Co have thus come up with an umami-rich menu and that’s exactly what we sample, with the to-die-for dish being unanimously voted as a chocolate mousse dessert, oozing with salted caramel. You should just fly down to the Games for this!
The other noticeable trend is the back-to-British food movement. Chefs at Taste of London have been debating the superiority of grass-fed British beef versus the gamey American one and Hulstone himself has presented before us solid British classic dishes reworked from the older Olympic menus — the likes of the 1940s classic braised beef chausseur, a dish popular in the restrictive war years because it used cheaper cuts, that has been turned into “potted braised beef with potato and horseradish”. Delicious and retro with a touch of umami, of course, thanks to the horseradish.
Taste of London also incorporates other flavours deemed trendy or popular in this melting pot of a city — from Tiki bars serving up fresh tropical cocktails in pineapple shells to the immensely popular Thai pavilion, where stir fried squid and fresh fruit carvings compete for attention. There are also our very own Indian chefs like Atul Kochchar of Benares holding forth on cuisine philosophies and equally on menu specials during the Games (the chef believes that Indian restaurants will focus on dishes that are “comfort food” such as street food, since these will bring back memories of home — albeit in fancier settings such as at the Michelin-starred Benares — for guests from the Subcontinent).
Then, there are places like Asia de Cuba (serving up a mix of Asian and Cuban flavours) and Ceviche in Soho, offering the trendiest bite of this season — the south American marinated seafood that has overtaken sushi as far as discerning palates go. If you are in the city this month, try out both. Besides, there are always those other elevated experiences that can come only in this epicurean haven.
There’s more than one reason to live it up in this city, after all!