Continuing our European visit, we were off to London. The travel and weather gods were not particularly kind to us on this trip, as our Eurostar train to London was delayed because of the presence on the train of a “suspicious package.” There was some excitement at Gare du Nord at the arrival of the bomb squad, but after an hour delay, we were able to depart.
Not without some confusion, however, that almost caused us to miss the train we had shown up for well over an hour in advance. The Eurostar (the so-called “Chunnel” train) is set up a lot like the U.S. East Coast airline shuttles, without a lot of consideration (or space) for waiting for departure. Hence, we wound up in a crowd of people who were traveling on our train, plus those arriving for the next hourly departure. There was little organization (or segregation) in place to sort everything out, and we were delayed by people who thought our departure was actually their hour later train, actually only a few minutes after our actual departure.
Once we were on board, having been assured our train would not leave without us, our trip was fast, smooth and comfortable. Our London hosts, our friends, Jenny and Paul Aynsley, were at St. Pancras to meet us. We had befriended them during their five-year expatriate stay in New York. Paul retired last year, and since their return to their London home, we had been eager to visit them.
They live in East Sheen, almost at the southwestern edge of London. It’s a great location, about a half-hour by train to Central London, and very near to Richmond Park, the largest of the eight Royal Parks, originally owned by the monarchy. This walled park is about three times the size of Central Park and is the site of several “plantations,” areas of cultivated flowering plants. We strolled though Isabella Plantation on one of our few sunny days, Spring bank holiday in the UK, coinciding with Memorial Day in the United States. Thousands took advantage of the break in the unseasonably cold and damp Spring weather to admire the spectacular ornamental gardens, featuring huge displays of flowering azaleas, with magnificent rhododendrons hinting at more significant flowering to come.
Our UK visit included two wonderful opera experiences. One night, we attended Rossini’s La donna del lago at The Royal Opera Covent Garden. In the leading roles, we heard American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, and Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, both of whom gave spectacular performances. The Royal Opera House is about half the size of the Met, so our dead-center seats in the orchestra stalls afforded us a much more intimate view of the proceedings than we are used to. The other soloists and the orchestra and chorus all contributed to an excellent production of this infrequently performed opera, based on Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake.
We had not visited the Royal Opera House since it underwent a two-and-a-half-year, 300-million-dollar redevelopment that ended in 1999. While the auditorium and the exterior facade of this grand house appear little changed, the technical capacity of the company has been dramatically improved. A great deal of effort was undertaken to integrate the opera house’s surroundings. For instance, the adjoining Floral Hall atrium, a large iron and glass structure that was a part of the original Covent Garden flower market, and was used for years for scenery storage, has become a thriving restaurant and bar, now called Paul Hamlyn Hall after a philanthropic benefactor. The soaring ceiling and a sort of perch high up on one wall that offers a bird’s eye view of the activity below make this a unique and exciting space.
And, how civilized the British are. While at the Met in New York, you can barely scrounge a mediocre sandwich or an overpriced glass of Champagne, here at the ROH, you can have a drink or more before the performance and reserve a bottle of Champagne to be ready for you by name at intermission. More on this sort of thing in a bit.
Our other opera experience during this visit was an evening at The Glyndebourne Festival, about two-and-a-half hours by car south of London near the town of Lewes in East Sussex. Glyndebourne presents a half-dozen operas a year in a 1200-seat jewel box of a theater, built in 1994. While the damp weather prevented us from touring the adjacent gardens, we saw enough to get a taste of what the place would be like in sunshine.
We saw Verdi’s Falstaff, his last opera and only comedy, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It was wonderful—beautifully sung, hilariously acted and accompanied by The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing on period instruments from Verdi’s time under conductor Sir Mark Elder. There were many comic touches that enhanced the plot, including the appearance of young Brownies who were seen mending the “embroidered” curtain before the opera began. Or, the appearance of a crew of scullers out of nowhere. Or, the presence of lifelike animatronic cats who followed the action in every act.
Tradition dictates that men wear formal attire to Glyndebourne performances, meaning that women, while not “formally” attired, also dress to the nines. I happen to like to dress up, and the overall feeling of watching opera while wearing a tuxedo made schlepping mine across the Atlantic worth any negligible inconvenience. (Parenthetically, except for New Year’s Eve galas and such, I’ve never worn a tux to the Met.) Tradition also dictates a long, I mean an hour-and-a-half, interval between the first and second halves of the opera. It’s during this period that the oh, so civilized Brits repair to dinner. There are a variety of venues, from the Middle & Over Wallop to the Nether Wallop (these three named for The Wallops, villages situated about one hundred miles west of Glyndebourne—don’t ask!), to the Mildmay, to, weather permitting, picnics. Our friends, the Aynsleys, had arranged for us to dine in the Middle & Over Wallop, the Festival’s premier restaurant, operated in partnership with Albert Roux, who used to run Le Gavroche in London, the UK’s first three-Michelin-star restaurant. Curious connection: We dined at Le Gavroche years ago, when the Maitre d’ was Jean-Claude, a fellow we had known years earlier than that as a head waiter at l’Auberge Gourmande in Grand Case, Saint Martin, in the Caribbean.
Particularly considering that this dining experience had the makings of a catered affair, where several hundred guests need to be served on a strict time schedule, the actual dinner was absolutely nothing of the sort. The four of us, along with everyone else, had pre-ordered our three-course dinner and wine, and, when we arrived, our first course awaited us, already served. English asparagus with king prawns, truffle vinaigrette and a vegetable crouton were presented in an opened tin (anchovies? sardines? … caviar?) specially designed for this service and decorated with Glyndebourne insignia. Absolutely first-rate. Next, but without rushing, came Noisettes of lobster Parmentière, served with courgette gratin and Bearnaise sauce. Can you say, “Spectacular"? We had little difficulty with a couple of bottles of Albariño, and, while the others each had Spiced baked banana with coconut macaroon and rum-raisin ice cream, I managed to satisfy myself with Gateau Opera with coffee ice cream and mocha sauce. A really extraordinary dinner, given the circumstances, made the more so by the 43 Swarovski crystal chandeliers and by my view out a window of a sheep meadow inhabited by four-legged “residents” who looked like they had been painted in just for the occasion.
One could say that the remainder of Falstaff was anti-climactic after this, but, fortunately, that was definitely not the case, and the frivolity and great music maintained their high standard throughout. A perfectly arranged evening at Glyndebourne!
Middle & Over Wallop wasn’t our only great dining experience, not by a long shot. Jenny and Paul are fortunate to have a one-Michelin-star restaurant, The Glasshouse, only a mile or so away from their home, in Kew, where we indulged in a delicious three-course prix-fixe dinner. And, as part of our visit to Oxford, where Paul attended college, we headed to the nearby village of Bray to have dinner at chef Heston Blumenthal’s one-star pub(!), The Hinds Head. The key to this place is that the menu is chock-full of what you might call standard pub fare, such as Scotch Eggs or Shepherd’s Pie or Oxtail and Kidney Pudding, but each dish is executed and presented perfectly. Two dessert highlights of note: A chilled English strawberry soup with fresh berries and sorbet, and Banana and custard Quaking Pudding, so named because it quakes and shakes, jelly-like, as it is served.
As we walked back to the car after our delectable meal, we were almost bowled over by a fellow, obviously, by his attire, a chef, scurrying from the back door of a nearby building toward an unmarked door. When we asked him why he was in such a hurry, he replied that he was headed to Chef Blumenthal’s experimental kitchen, and, oh, by the way, would we like to see it. Up a flight of stairs behind the almost hidden door, we found ourselves in what could only be called a laboratory, where recipes and presentations are constantly tested and refined (or rejected) before becoming part of the menus at The Hinds Head or The Fat Duck, Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-star place, also in Bray. We spent maybe fifteen minutes chatting with this fellow and his associate, both of whom clearly relished their roles in this extraordinarily high-line enterprise. Incidentally, this tiny village is the home of two of the four UK three-Michelin-star restaurants. The other is The Waterside Inn, currently operated by Alain Roux. Recognize the name? He’s the nephew of Albert Roux, of Le Gavroche and Middle & Over Wallop fame.
One day, we took the train into Waterloo Station in London. They run every fifteen minutes virtually all day on weekdays, a far cry from our measly hourly service into New York from Madison. Our destination was The Shard, a less than year-old, 1,000-foot tall skyscraper, the tallest in Western Europe, shaped like a shard of glass. From its observation decks, we were afforded a panoramic view of London and its environs. Although we had a fairly gloomy day, all of London’s major landmarks and very busy rail trunk lines were clearly visible, enhanced, when necessary, by cleverly designed viewing devices that substituted daytime, sunset and evening views for live images in the inevitable event of poor weather. We had walked along the south bank of the Thames for about a mile, passing beneath no fewer than eight bridges, from Waterloo to Blackfriars to London to Tower Bridge. (What must the Arizonans, who figured they were getting the iconic Tower Bridge, have thought when the old London Bridge—not quite falling down—showed up?) We did a bit of pub-crawling, finding ourselves in a busy place that had been a hops cellar in a prior incarnation. Ultimately, we arrived at Le Pont de la Tour, a beautiful place resembling nothing so much as a 1930s private yacht, “anchored,” so to speak, right next to the floodlit Tower Bridge. Perhaps proving the exception to the rule, despite the great view, our dinner was excellent. Food having been merely a third of the tab, we took a cab home!
A couple of other dining mentions: After the opera at Covent Garden, we stopped for late supper at J. Sheekey, a venerable London seafooder and oyster bar. Needless to say, our fish dishes were great, and now I know why the famous Philadelphia seafood houses I used to go to with my parents when I was growing up look the way they do. And, last, but certainly not least, was the home-cooked dinner Jenny and Paul made for us, an occasion to invite two other couples to their home. We had met one couple when they visited the Aynsleys in New York, and were pleased to meet the others for the first time. Our friends surpassed themselves, with traditional English fare that included a massive hunk of beef (eight of us couldn’t finish it!), Jenny’s signature roasted (in duck fat, I believe) Jersey Royal potatoes (so named for their origin on the island of Jersey), Yorkshire pudding, among much else including free-flowing wines, and enlivened by great conversation around the table and in their garden. I think I will forever remember Paul and his friends’ persistent but futile attempts to educate this Yank about the fine points of cricket, a sport which is spoken of in some foreign version of English: Imagine the word “innings” as a singular noun. I restrained myself from attempting to explain baseball’s infield fly rule.
And a final word about sport: Every time we stayed overnight with the Aynsleys in New York, Paul made a point of ensuring that I saw a copy of “Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please?” by British journalist Julian Norridge, and subtitled “How the British Invented Sport (and then almost forgot how to play it).” It humorously codifies the British proclivity to declare that virtually every sport known to man was invented by the British, obvious to the Brits, not so much to this American. Knowing of my sometimes skeptical view of all of this, Paul presented me with a copy of the book autographed by the author and inscribed, “To Burt, Maybe don’t read the chapter on baseball ….” It’s a funny book and I highly recommend it to sports fans everywhere.
And my last point: Our friends, Jenny and Paul, went out of their way to make our six days with them a rewarding experience—musically, gustatorily, horticulturally and geographically. We couldn’t have been more pleased and thankful.