Friday, April 10, 2009

emperor's clothes

I have spent a delightful week in London, my favorite city, and despite the challenges and physical exhaustion that come with a 2.5 year old on an urban vacation, everybody had a good time. Daughter at Coram's Fields and the zoo , mom at the Tate and dad in Jermyn Street .
London is a great place for food and fragrance and like anywhere else in the world, there are renowned locations or products considered the epitome of quality and refinement. Sometimes these institutions are quite old and they have stuck to their principles and remain beacons of a past time. Others are merely facades behind which principles have been corrupted - or haven't kept up with new quality standards. This is all way too abstract, so let's make it practical: Fortnum&Mason is an inevitable address in every London tourist guide and I am not sure whether any native has been seen, on the ground floor at least, as a customer in the last twenty years - it's all full of Germans, Americans and Japanese eagerly buying tea, orange marmalade and other typically British fare at Francis Draconian prices. But just how good are these gold-plated foods? Well, to give you one example, F&M shortbread is not even pure butter, it contains cheap vegetable oils. Good old M&S , on the other hand, does pure butter shortbread (at a fraction of the price). They even have an organic version now and it's pretty tasty, if not quite Walker's.
The Fortnum approach is reminiscent of certain ultra-niche lines, which sell fragrant banalities in a fancy crystal bottle for astronomical prices to people who want to purchase prestige rather than smell good. Clive Christian is the F&M of English perfume - which one could care less about, if he hadn't bought and gutted the very fine Crown Perfumery for the purpose of using their bottle designs, while ending production of their truly well-made classic fragrances.
How refreshing, on the other hand, is the sobriety of Taylor of Old Bond Street, a classical men's grooming establishment that offers a range of simple and effective aftershaves and colognes with no other purpose but to equip the gentleman with the low key smell of the same - at an unpretentious 15 or17 quid a pop. I chose a bottle of Shaving Shop cologne as my souvenir - a fragrance which will remind every man of his father: aromatic citrus, with notable grapefruit and rosemary notes, and a mossy musky wood base - simple and yet strangely alluring, in other words, perfectly masculine.
Let me conclude by saying that we had some wonderful fish dinners at an unpretentious family run place, the North Sea Fish Restaurant in Leigh St., while the definite bummer of the trip was a disastrously bad & expensive meal at renowned eating institution St. John - I should have known that when Brits advertise "simple pared-down" cooking you don't get some kind of ingenious nouvelle cuisine a l'Anglaise, but ineptly boiled (i.e. half-raw) unseasoned cabbage.

Image: Our daughter's giraffe and a typical London view.