The Small Pleasures of London
Written by Mary Jane Grant
The truly grand cities of the world – London, Paris, New York and others – can overwhelm you with an endless number and variety of amazing things to do and see. “Too much of a good thing,” I found myself saying to friends, as I tried to plan my trip to London.
I wanted to find the balance between seeing the sites and being sufficiently relaxed to enjoy myself. I also wanted to make sure that I devoted enough time to really experience the place and what it had to offer. Then I had an idea.
Instead of casting a wide net and trying to do it all – what if I zoomed in primarily on one neighborhood and explored it close up? This approach might give me a chance to live more like a local, at a pace that resembled normal life rather than the typical tourist frenzy. From a tranquil home base, I’d make time to see and savor the smaller pleasures that London had to offer.
With this idea in mind, I found a flat in Primrose Hill. Nestled between hip and edgy Camden Town and elegant Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill is known for its bohemian vibe. In recent years, it has become more chic than shabby, as celebrities and other achievers have been drawn to this charming enclave. Squares and crescents of pastel-painted Victorian townhouses define the residential area, while independent boutiques, designer shops and gourmet food establishments line the lovely high street.
Upon arrival, I spent a few leisurely days strolling through my adopted neighborhood. I climbed to the top of Primrose Hill itself, and marveled at the view of London below. I poked around the local library and read about the many duels that had been fought on top of Primrose Hill through the centuries.
After my orientation, I started to dive a little deeper. It was time to sample the offerings of local shops and restaurants.
A Tuscan Experience Tucked into London
My first stop was Negozio Classica, a charming establishment in the heart of the Primrose Hill village. Negozio Classica is a food and wine importer, wine shop, tasting bar and restaurant with a purist’s focus on bringing the best of Tuscany to London. It has two London locations – one in Notting Hill and one in Primrose Hill.
General manager Derek Morrison is a Canadian who found his way to London via a sabbatical in Tuscany. While in Italy, Morrison fell in love with the food, culture and mainly, the wine. He earned his Italian sommelier credentials while immersing himself in the people and products of Umbria and Tuscany.
“I am blown away by the distinctive nature of the wines of this region,” Morrison said. “Not only are the wines unlike anything in the world, but they are unique as you move from one small vineyard to the next. I can’t think of a place that can match Tuscany for endless variety and subtle nuance.”
Variety is also at the heart of the fantastic menu offered in the casual 20-seat restaurant behind the store and tasting bar. We were seated and started our meal the best way possible – with a glass of bubbly. The Col Dorato Extra Dry Prosecco on offer at Negozio Classica is surprisingly refreshing for its crisp, dry character.
A procession of Tuscan treasures came next – cured meats, parma ham and rustic specialty prosciuttos made from wild boar, venison and elk. Cheeses came too – particularly notable was the Fagottino di Pecorino, a light puff pastry filled with warm pecorino cheese. To complement the appetizers, Morrison poured an Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, 2010. This signature wine from the Avignonesi winery, which is linked to Negozio Classica, is a lively, light fruity red.
“Over 80 percent of our wines are exclusive to our shop,” Morrison said. “You won’t taste these anywhere else. They are the authentic, handcrafted wines from small producers – all of whom we count as friends.”
In traditional Italian style, pasta was served on its own, before the main course. Negozio Classica’s take on the traditional Bolognese dish Tagliatelle al Ragu is a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce served over handmade tagliatelle noodles. The deep flavor was complemented beautifully with a full-bodied, 2008 Brunello di Montalcino, under the label “Le Ragnaie, Fornace.”
Their main courses range from vegetarian ribollita stew and pumpkin ravioli to hearty meat dishes. We had Stufato di Cinghiale, wild boar marinated in red wine for 16 to 24 hours and then slow-cooked in a rich dark sauce with root vegetables. We also tried the organic beef tenderloin, which was cooked to rare perfection, and served alongside gorgonzola mashed potatoes. Morrison saved one of their biggest red wines for this course, and it was matched to perfection. The incredibly rich tones of the 2008 Umbrian wine, Tabarrini “Colle Grimaldesco” Sagrantino di Montefalco, were a worthy match to the meal.
Another opportunity to try a spectacular wine was offered before dessert. “It’s from our own winery, and it’s called Avignonesi Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo,” Morrison said.
After pouring the 1999 vintage, he tilted the glass onto its side and rolled it back and forth against the backdrop of the white linen napkin. The dark burgundy viscous liquid coated the side of the glass.
“We call it the Chateau d’Yquem of Italy,” he said, making a comparison to the exclusive dessert wine from France. The flavor was an intense, complex balance of dark fruit, warm spice, and aromatic incense. In Tuscany this wine is known as ‘meditation’ wine, and the name seems apt, as the wine inspires a feeling of peaceful bliss.
When you go to Negozio Classica, make time for these small pleasures from some of the best food and wine from Tuscany. It’s a journey you’ll want to repeat again and again.
A Sidewalk Surprise in Primrose Hill
On my first Sunday, I decided to make the uphill hike to Hampstead Village. Barely two blocks from my flat, I came upon a cheery French fellow in front of his little fish shop, La Petite Poissonerie. Squarely on the sidewalk, he had positioned a small table holding a wide-mouthed stainless steel bowl brimming with ice, seaweed and fresh oysters. Several bottles of cold Muscadet Sur Lie stood to the side.
The fellow, who turned out to be Nic the owner, was offering tastes of both. A local Englishman carrying a small dog was tucking into his third oyster. Before I came to a full stop, Nic gave me large Irish ‘rock’ oyster and a generous sample of wine. The oyster was fat and salty and tasted of cold minerals. But this oyster was so meaty and one of the best I have ever had! The wine was a perfect complement, especially at 11:30 on a Sunday morning before a bracing walk up the hill to Hampstead!
I peered into the shop, which was swarming with customers. “Almost all of our staff members are also chefs,” Nic explained. “When someone comes looking for fish, our staff will ask them what they are planning, and will advise not only what fish to buy, but how to prepare it, including the most subtle tips for success. That’s what people have come to expect and it’s what makes us different.”
Nic and his team hope one day to earn a royal seal of approval, as they continually strive to be the best fishmonger in London. “We are fishmongers first and foremost,” Nic said. “But we’ll always do more. You can buy the fish here and we’ll advise you on what to do; or you can come to a class and learn new and different methods; or, we’ll make your meal for you and your friends and bring it to your table.”
A French Bistro That Puts Locals First
On a corner, in the residential heart of Primrose Hill, I found the lovely French bistro L’Absinthe. I booked a table for two, and my son and I went for dinner. The owner met us and talked about his dream.
“People warned us when we took over this location in 2007,” said Jean-Christophe. “A number of restaurants came and went quickly. But I was confident that if we stuck to good, honest French food and if we provided excellent service, especially to the locals, we’d be fine.”
L’Absinthe has been more than fine, thriving with a loyal clientele of local regulars as well as visitors from London and beyond.
“Several times we’ve been swamped because of a rave review in a major newspaper,” Jean-Christophe said, adding, “But we’ve always kept seats open for our regulars.”
The ambience in the small restaurant is casual and relaxed. Guests are encouraged to linger, and Jean-Christophe does not believe in scheduling more than one sitting in an evening.
We came on a Monday night, and the bistro was full of people, chatting with the staff and calling out greetings to one another.
“Champagne to start,” declared our amiable host, as he filled our glasses and took our orders – French onion soup, green salad, duck confit and baked cod. All this was accompanied by a light red Rhone from Ventoux. Dessert had to be Crème Brulee L’Absinthe, which was served in a generous dish with just a hint of absinthe in the creamy custard below the perfect brulee crust.
L’Absinthe has a recipe for success, indeed. Offer honest French fare, made expertly with fresh ingredients, at an extremely fair price, serve it in a warm and friendly setting, and never turn away a local. The restaurant radiates with good cheer that comes when neighbors share delicious food in a convivial setting.
As I packed to leave Primrose Hill, I reflected on my approach. Because I spent much of my time in one neighborhood, doing what the locals do, I discovered a wonderful corner of London, one small pleasure at a time.
Discover these London small pleasures in London’s Primrose Hill: