The Other Side of the Pond

Over my school’s spring break, I had the privilege of going to London to see a friend studying there. Since the timing was fortuitous, we also spent a few days in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. We arrived in London early in the morning, which allowed us to clear customs and so on and get to central London (Kings Cross) by mid morning. The friend we were staying with met us and brought us to her dorm, and we took a mini nap before having lunch at a local sandwich shop. Then we toured the engineering building at University College London (UCL). I was somewhat underwhelmed. I will suggest that the facilities the engineers have at most schools in the States seem a bit nicer. While my friend was in class, my traveling companion and I went to the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square.

Okay. This whole thing isn’t working out too well. We need names. We’ll call the friend I’m staying with Jane, and the girl I traveled with Katie.

Now then, after the National Gallery, we rolled over to the 2008 London Beer & Cider Festival. It’s sponsored by CAMRA: The Campaign for Real Ale. For those of you who don’t know about CAMRA, they are the largest consumer advocacy groups in the UK. They advocate on beer issues. It restores my faith in humanity that the UK the biggest consumer advocacy group advocates in favor of beer. I’ll talk about the festival for my post for next month’s edition of The Session, since that happens to be the topic.

The festival was a blast, but we could only stay for two hours or so before we had to leave for dinner at one of Jane’s friends’ house. It was here that I was introduced to the English style of drinking whisky: in a shot glass neat. Now I am from a family that drinks our whisk(e)y on the rocks…Did I just alienate another reader? I think I just did. Too bad…Anyway, being used to drinking spirits on the rocks in a short tumbler, drinking whisky from a shot glass was an eye opener, literally and figuratively. I believe what we drank was Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old single malt. It’s quite a good dram. I found it quite spicy. In fact the spiciness overcame the alcohol. I wouldn’t say that this was particularly smooth, per say. However, the alcoholic bite was not bad at all. I found the spiciness frankly a bit overpowering, and by far the dominant note in the drink. This is a drink that needs to be paired, I think, with some other element. Perhaps sharp cheddar or a creamy brie would be a nice foil, or, as we drank with dinner, a more complex counterpoint could be chosen. However, the meal we had made this a less than stellar choice. I did appreciate the fact that he gave us something slightly more special than a simple glass of whatever the day-to-day Scotch was, and I think that idea of doing something special for a guest was perhaps more important to our host than an ideal pairing.

The next day, we sight saw around the south bank of the Thames. We saw a protest of the headquarters of Scientology. The protesters were wearing Guy Fawkes masks to conceal their identities. We also hit up the Tate Modern and the old HMS Belfast…Well we planned to hit up Belfast, but for an admission price of £14 (GBP), or around $30 (USD), I, as the one most eager to see her, decided that I had seen many World War II warships and perhaps didn’t need to see this one. We also went to Borough Market. Now Borough Market was perhaps one of the highlights of the trip. I, for one, really like public food markets, and whether it’s Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, or any of dozens of others, I find them a lot of fun. Borough Market, however, was special, even among its own kind. First off, almost everyone was offering samples, and most of those samples were really good. Second, they had every conceivable sort of edible or drinkable. We sampled everything from cheeses, to hummus, to white truffle oil (and yes, free samples of white truffle oil is…amazing), to venison, to mulled (soft) cider, to beer. And almost all of it was yummy.

The beer, in particular was interesting. I went up to the nice lady offering out beer samples. I asked what she was offering, and she answered me by asking what sort of beer I liked. When I responded that I liked dark beers, in general, her thought process went something like “He’s a Yank. Yank beer is like making love in a canoe: It’s *ehem* close to water. He can’t possibly like beer that’s actually dark. I’ll give him an medium ale, and see if he’s for real.” After offering me said medium ale, and my comment that I generally preferred darker beers, she slowly took me darker into their product line, showing me first a darker ale, then a brown ale, and finally their imperial stout. I don’t remember the brewery, but I will say that the offerings were all quite nice, and I wouldn’t mind trying them again. We also tasted wine nearby, and cider. One of the stalls even offered Harpoon, which was quite surprising to me, since it’s hard to get even State-side outside New England.

That evening we went out for Ethiopian food to a place called Addis. Really, really good food. They also had an Ethiopian beer. It was on their menu simply as “Ethiopian lager” and had Ethiopian script on the outside, so I have no idea what it is. However, we all sipped it, and basically all simultaneously said “Sam Adams.” We then stopped at Tesco for rum and cider. One really weird thing over there is the fact that you’ll be looking at mixers in two litre bottles: Coke, Sprite, Strongbow, Pepsi…Wait! Strongbow? In a two litre bottle? With all the sodas? Yeah. It’s a shock. Though it seems appropriate after drinking a a fair bit of it, since the stuff is basically identical to soda with a shot of vodka. Also, Tesco brand rum? Big mistake, and at approximately $16/bottle, you’d think there would be something better. Gosling’s for example.

Anywho, after pregaming we rolled over to the student union. Can I just say how amazing these buildings are? Notwithstanding that we were there on £1.50 drink night, when everything was £1.50, it’s a great concept. It’s really good that there is a controlled place for students to drink. Further since the drinking age is lower, all the students can drink at controlled bars, as opposed to in the uncontrolled environment of a frat. I won’t get on my drinking age soapbox, but it was a pleasant contrast to what exists in the States. We whiled away the evening singing karaoke. Some of the people were really into it, including one guy who wore full evening dress for a Frank Sinatra number.

Well, that was the first half of my trip, the next two halves will be coming up. However, in the interim, I will be taking a trip next door and around the world. The blog should be set up to post automatically while I’m gone, at least until June 15th. If I’m still gone, well, the blog might take a little break.
Thanks for your patience,
The Scribe

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