Photo essay by Johan van der Merwe & Tanya Houghton
‘Foragers of the Ballinskelligs’ is the first collaboration between London-based photographer Tanya Houghton and food stylist Johan van der Merwe. Having bonded over a shared passion for wild landscapes and the bounty they offer, the duo set out to produce a body of work that focuses on foraging along the Kerry coastline in Ireland.
Ballinskelligs (originally Baile en Sceilg, which translates to ‘place or village on the craggy rock’) has a wilderness-rich landscape, an amalgamation of coastline, mountains and huge areas of undisturbed bog land and forest. In awe of the landscape’s history and inspired by the diets of early settlers, van der Merwe and Houghton combined their knowledge and set out to forage for and catalogue some of the area’s edible flora and fauna, which includes shellfish (clams, mussels and oysters) and a wide range of highly nutritious seaweed.
Van der Merwe creates his recipes for the project using only the ingredients found foraging, while drawing on his rich culinary background. These dishes are one of the focal points of Houghton’s images, sitting alongside photographs of the landscape in which they were found. The resulting body of work is the first chapter in a continuing series by the duo to catalogue a year’s worth of seasonal foraging in this wild Irish landscape.
You can view more of Tanya’s work here and catch Johan’s food styling here.
Tucked beneath the Thames Link Bridge in central London lies one of the most intriguing food markets I have ever had the chance to visit. This place, caught between the modern world and what I imagine a medieval London would have once looked like (although much, much cleaner) has, in many ways, captured everything I love about food. It is a culinary oasis in the heart of the city that continually draws me back. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Borough Market.
I was first introduced to Borough Market by a friend who took me there to cure our jet lag with some good eats. Walking the small, winding paths that guided us from stall to stall, I was overcome by the variety of beautiful smelling food on offer. Pork sandwiches, vegetable curries, pad thais, Spanish paellas, freshly baked breads and, of course, mountains of warm pastries. There was something to make your mouth water at every turn.
Now, most people who have been to Borough understand that making a decision about what to eat isn’t always an easy task. And they’re not exaggerating. I could literally spend a week there and not have the same food twice; that was my experience on this most recent visit to London.
Waking up early to battle the morning commute to London Bridge was a necessary evil, given what awaited me at Borough. Wandering around as the merchants set up for the midday rush revealed why this market feels so different to the many I’ve encountered on my travels. Mixed in with the sounds of whistling coffee machines and the smells of aromatic spices was a deep appreciation of and respect for food and tradition. There isn’t a rush to set up stalls. Instead there is a sense of thoughtfulness and purpose. It was these instances, during my mornings at Borough, that made me recognise how much this London market values the food it offers and how this in turn helps to create the energy and atmosphere that makes it unique.
Come lunchtime, the market’s energy changes from quiet reverence to organised chaos. As I made my way through the crowd of people pondering what to enjoy, freshly cooked delicacies enticed me from one stall to the next. This game of culinary tiki-taka quickly overwhelmed my senses, before I realised that I too could not decide what I wanted to eat.
When you get a chance to sit back and take in the Borough Market atmosphere you’ll be taken with the buzz, friendliness and foodie adoration. There is something about this place that makes people slow down and enjoy the time they spend eating; something that isn’t very common in a large metropolis. Most importantly, it is in places like this that one can witness the true power of food – where issues are set aside and a sense of community is created through a collective need. That is where Borough Market has found its strength, by bringing people together through food and a passion for doing it right.
I’ve come back to Ortygia to eat. It’s been a year since I first visited this the historical centre of Syracuse, arguably the prettiest city in all of Sicily. Back then I was here for the history, stomping around the impressive Duomo, replete with its mishmash of Greek and Baroque styles, and the ubiquitous archeological sites whose ruins tell the story of the Italian city’s lengthy and chequered past.
This time, however, I am here to imbibe – and imbibe I did: mind, body and soul. I visit the daily food market and bite into a tomato as if it were an apple, the juice running down my chin. I watch in awe as the purveyor of sea urchins makes like work of his product, cutting open each spiny creature with a pair of rusty scissors to reveal the delicacy within. Freshly caught squid and octopus squirm and glisten. Salted fish, spiced olives and oranges as bright as the centre of the sun draw my attention in equal measure.
I walk along the ancient walls spooning gelati into my mouth. I sip a negroni as the sun sets over the water. I pester a chef to teach me how to make the perfect spaghetti ai vongole. His secret: crushed garlic, fresh clams and cherry tomatoes (when they’re season) flash fried in a pan with olive oil his wife’s family make and some salt water from the pasta pot. Try as I might and despite its simplicity, this perfect dish is something I’ll struggle to recreate at home. Looks like I’ll have to come back.
If you’d like to read more of our Italian adventures, you can order our Italy Issue here.
Given its underwhelming popularity, it would be easy for Faro, the capital of Portugal’s Algarve, to have an inferiority complex, but it continues to hold its own. At the airport, as the hoards to tourists head west, lured by the region’s epic beaches and resort towns, I breathe a sigh of relief and take a short taxi ride into the sleepy port town that is to be my home for the next three days.
I’d been to Faro before, so when it popped up as a relatively cheap destination for a few days of spring sunshine following a fairly dismal London winter, I didn’t hesitate. With memories of clams cooked in butter, white wine and garlic, and endless blue skies, I knew it would be the perfect salve.
With its broken cobbled streets, ubiquitous graffiti and decaying buildings, it’s hard to call Faro pretty. The town has the rundown feeling of a place forgotten, but there are pockets of beauty if you take the time to look. On the pedestrianised streets by the marina, I eat freshly baked pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) while inside Faro’s ancient walls, I walk past the fruiting orange trees by the cathedral to drink a glass of vinho verde as the sun sets over the water. I eat the aforementioned clams at every meal they’re offered – invariably prawns, octopus and chorizo (barbecued at the table over a mini spit) join them.
Before heading home, I take a short ferry ride to Baretta Island. Also known as Ilha Deserta, this small parcel of sand has a single restaurant, a few fishing huts and nothing much else – unless you count the seagulls and other birdlife I encountered on the 2km boarded walk I took before heading back to the mainland.
And here lies the reason I returned to Faro – sun, sand and peaceful moments. An unusual find in this part of the world.
Beyond the basics of sustenance and gluttony, food is emotional – closely linked to memory, imagination, and travel. Supper clubs have cosily diversified the capital’s dining-out options, in which strangers come together along big wooden tables to break bread and share conversation. It is the experience of the intimate dinner party, expanded out, and unlike a restaurant, you know you’re never going to have that evening, those people, this menu in combination again.
Out of London’s growing vogue for supper clubs come two in particular that understand this irresistible lure of food and culture. The Literary Hour, which originated out of a group of friends’ Haringey kitchen, lays on suppers inspired by classic writers and books. Kino Vino, a cinema supper club, puts on stylish evenings of feasting from the national cuisine of the particular film screened at the beginning of the night. This is cooking which inspires nostalgia, whilst also sparking visions of unfamiliar places and flavours.
The Literary Hour has been going strong for nearly two years now. Head chef Jude Skipwith started exploring culinary possibilities with her housemates in the summer of 2015. Thumbing through childhood copies of Roald Dahl stories, they dreamed of snozzcumbers, edible wallpaper, and luscious giant peaches. They put together their first menu, and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ golden ticket chocolate bars were sent out to their guests in the post as invitations. Since then, they’ve done ‘Silence of the Lambs’ for Halloween (duck hearts, lamb shanks, and blood-like gazpacho), and then moved on to the stories of the Brothers Grimm, using pumpkins leftover from Cinderella’s carriage, and peas that rolled out from under the Princess’s mattress, presumably. Beatrix Potter inspired last year’s spring supper club, with their dining table laid with an edible vegetable patch of seeds and olive tapenade ‘soil’, and tiny blue felt Peter Rabbit jackets as table settings.
Over Christmas they made the decision to upscale, moving their pots, pans, knives and pile of battered paperbacks to Styx. The multi-purpose arts venue in Tottenham gave them the space for their most inventive and ambitious supper club to date. Diners found themselves in an everlasting Narnian winter, complete with an indoor forest of fir trees with sprayed-on ‘snow’ and frequent belchings of dry ice. Warming up with steaming cocktails and hot water bottles, we sat down to feast under the most beautiful canopy of branches and fairy lights. I found myself taken back to childhood evenings reading ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ as the courses began to roll out. To start: a deliciously smooth celeriac velouté in a teacup, served with a black pepper scone and horseradish butter to warm our bellies. As we listened to the words of the Pevensies fleeing the wrath of the White Witch (readings between courses continue to be The Literary Hour’s signature touch), we tucked into an adorable ‘ham on the run’ picnic spread of the sort the beavers might have packed for them, although perhaps their version wouldn’t have had the beaver salami we sampled. Of course, there was handmade Turkish Delight. After some boozy hot chocolate and pudding with marmalade vodka, we were ready for home.
Speaking to The Literary Hour’s founder Jude, it is evident that she is utterly obsessed with food, a highly talented amateur chef learning new techniques as she goes. She remembers in particular the challenge of making gorgeously fresh duck egg ravioli, ensuring the pasta was cooked whilst the egg yolk inside remained runny. Upcoming menus are often researched at the bottom of her garden with a picnic basket of cold prosecco and crisp salad, and she has been to every corner of London in her quest for the best ingredients. While her cooking remains essentially local and European, she’s a dedicated foodie traveller, and starts reminiscing about dishes of currywurst in Berlin and chicken heart kebabs in Thailand during our conversation. In her opinion, “Food is such a fantastic way to begin understanding a different country and their different culture. When language might be a barrier, it is the easiest – and most delicious – way to connect to people.”
This is a sentiment shared by Alissa Timoshkina, and put into mouthwatering practice with her supper club Kino Vino. She brings her genius curation skills to pair chefs with a particular film of her choice. Travelling thematically from nation to nation with each individual supper club, last month was all about India. Handed glasses of prosecco at the door, we started with a screening of ‘The Lunchbox’, the charming Indian film in which a pair of strangers fall in love over a misdelivered packed lunch. India, perhaps more than any other country, really comes to life on the screen: the streets of Mumbai rammed with dabbawalas on their bicycles, office workers inhaling spices from the lifted lid of a tiffin tin as ceiling fans whirl overhead, smoking on one’s balcony at sunset. And the food: rich pulpy aubergines in baingan bharta, perfectly simple dal, and stuffed bitter gourd, with fresh chapatis to mop everything up. The heroine of ‘The Lunchbox’ licks her fingers at her stove, and the unlikely hero’s days are transformed as he falls in love with firstly her cooking, and then her (despite some outrageously ungrateful complaints about one lunch being too salty).
While we were watching, we snacked on our first course from Bengal-born guest chef Romy Gill – deep-fried potato balls with flavours of ginger, chilli and mint zinging alive in our mouths. Then, dinner, on the scrubbed wooden tables next door, surrounded by palms, candles and flower garlands. It was the kind of fresh, inspired Indian menu which is a world away from the average British high street curry house – stand-out dishes were the deliciously tangy octopus tentacles with a cool apple, fennel and dill salad, and the hugely comforting goat curry that followed. There were also plates of pork and cabbage momos to be rolled luxuriantly around in a soy and spring onion dipping sauce and stuffed, whole, into our mouths. As the guests opposite me told tales of trips to India, we finished up with perfectly creamy shrikhand flavoured delicately with saffron and cardamom, as live sitar played in the background. Oh, and there were mouthfuls of ruby jewelled pomegranate seeds – on everything!
As Alissa prepares for her next dinner, a Polish feast from chef Zuza Zak, I ask about her particular connection with food, film and travel. “It is the concept of a journey – sensual, emotional, intellectual – that has always attracted me to viewing a film,” she told me. “You start with a blank screen and by the end of the film, your life is no longer the same. This is not too dissimilar to a journey one takes during a good meal – an empty plate is your passport to a unique world of flavours that lifts you out of your seat. The idea of people gathering around a beautifully set table, and embarking on a journey through a film-inspired meal was the foundation for my supper club.”
Northumberland, in North East England, is where my husband, and fellow Lodestars Anthology contributor, Tom Bland is from – and without our paths crossing, I doubt I would have known this place existed. You may have heard of Newcastle upon Tyne, Lindisfarne, Hadrian’s Wall or maybe Bamburgh Castle, but if you don’t call Great Britain home, odds are that Northumberland and its adjacent counties are not known to you. We like it this way, of course, and coming here is a welcome respite from our day-to-day life a stone’s throw from New York City.
A vast and sparsely populated county of moorland, farmland, and forests bound by stone walls and rugged coastline, Northumberland was easy to appreciate from my first visit seven years ago. I have traveled here often in the years since, fortunate to enjoy repeated visits in different seasons that reveal new viewpoints and greater understanding. This winter in particular has been a chance to see this part of England anew, with unusually calm days full of low-hanging sunshine made for leisurely walks in Hexhamshire or venturing further afield into County Durham, Cumbria, Teesdale and even into the ‘debatable lands’ in the Scottish borders – all of which are part of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. These lands are home to complex layers of history and today are a spectacular setting for natural beauty. This landscape can be extreme and wild, bleak and isolated, lush and bucolic in turn, changing by the season and sometimes by the hour.
Located on the first floor of the Great Northern Hotel at Kings Cross St. Pancras, Plum + Spilt Milk is bringing the glamour back to railway dining. The décor in the dining area feels like a modern twist on railway carriage interiors typical of the twenties and thirties, with wood panelled walls, luxurious cream and brown booths, shining tables and a fantastical light feature of glass-encased bulbs hanging from copper rods in a shimmering arrangement. A feast for the senses before you even try the food.
We were welcomed to our table in style with several cocktails – a delicious berry concoction for me and a Lady Violet for my dining companion (trainspotters will be enthused by the presence of the Oriental Express cocktail on the menu). An appreciative pause gave us the opportunity to examine the a la carte menu at our leisure, which showcased a mix of core favourites and seasonal specialties. As the weather outside was frosty, I gave in to the urge to inject some colour into my evening and plumped for the Atlantic prawn, shaved fennel and orange salad followed by the Orkney scallops, while my companion went for the creamed smoked haddock, poached hen’s egg and hollandaise, along with the loin of venison and sloe gin main. The seafood was fresh as could be, and beautifully presented, as was the venison, which had a rich, warming flavour. Neither of us chose from the vegetarian menu, but rest assured, there is one, as tempting as the meat and fish menus with its selection of dishes such as Sharpham Estate spelt, squash and chanterelles.
The restaurant’s name refers to the livery worn by the dining cars that the Flying Scotsman pulled out of Kings Cross, and also features on the dessert menu. A mouth-wateringly sweet construction of tangy plums on top of deep-fried milk custard, this signature dish was matched only by my companion’s choice of dark chocolate mousse, praline and pecans. I would recommend ordering, as we did, the accompanying dessert wines; my glass of Tokaji slid down my throat like liquid gold.
If you’re in the Kings Cross area, or if you’re on the opposite side of London, there’s simply no reason not to visit this jewel of a restaurant. Stylish interiors, good food, good wine and good opportunities for people watching, this is lovely place to begin, or end your journey from. And with spring in the air, the menu promises to deliver yet more delicious dishes to help you on your way.