Tag Archives: Food

WHEN ROSE MET LOUIS THEROUX FINALLY

I’ve known for at least the past five years that the ever so quizzical and now apparently sexy – the other day, a 20 something data designer told me that the gig audience her friend had been part of the previous evening, was a sea of  Louis’ which was a very desirable thing – documentary maker, Louis Theroux was a neighbour of mine. Not close close, but I had spotted him at my local newsagents, the one where British Asian Dar (he came over from Pakistan in the 60s) calls himself Danny and sells boxing gloves as well as newspapers. And I’d heard that Louis was a member of the Neighbourhood Watch in my area.

So for the past few months, I’ve been trying to persuade him to walk with me. Via his agent and emails. At first, he declined. However, he declined in a way that made me think that he would eventually agree. He took a typically ‘Louis’ softly, softly approach. ‘I don’t think I can help you,’ he wrote indicating to me that there was at least a small part of him that thought he could.

I persisted in a slow, lightly determined manner. A few weeks ago, he relented politely. Always finishing his emails with ‘Best Regards’ as though he is deliberately adhering to a time warp. I suggested we meet down Park Parade. He had other ideas. “Dora’s Delights,” he wrote, “at 9 15am.” The delightfully named Dora’s Delights is a new café that has recently opened right next to the Jubilee Clock.

And there he is, reading The Sun. That’s a surprise. Initially, I nearly fall into a seductive trap. Louis, of course, starts to ask me questions about myself. I suddenly hear myself talking about The Face and interviewing sculptor and in the 1960s dubbed Scotland’s most violent man, Jimmy Boyle, and stop myself. Otherwise, I won’t find anything out about Louis.

It’s all a bit polite at the beginning. He’s lived here for nine years, he’d like to be even more active locally (he’s pretty active already, he was out on the streets earlier this year promoting the shop locally campaign), the negative press that Harlesden attracts, the regeneration project, (which I haven’t explored yet), the Keep Harlesden Clean campaign and the local shops.

“I do try to shop locally,” he says, “I’ve become a bit of a mango snob since living here. There are at least three different types including honey mangos.” And then, there’s his list of good local fishmongers and restaurants.  Oh dear, I’m in danger of getting bored with Louis Theroux already.

Does he get recognised here, I ask? “Less than elsewhere,” he says, “for instance, my Polish neighbour, Ryzard, has just got back from a trip home. He got really excited because he’d seen me over there on TV, he hadn’t realised what I did before that. A lot of people in Harlesden are watching their own national TV by satellite so they wouldn’t see me.”

It soon becomes clear that Louis’ head really is full of questions. He is wont – as we see in his TV documentaries on everything from medicating children to interviewing the inmates of San Quentin prison or sex workers in Nevada – to ponder possibilities endlessly. He has been accused of being faux-naïve, but I experience him as just eternally wanting to find out more. “I am curious to know,” he says uttering one of his favourite phrases, “how the demographics evolved here. It was posh wasn’t it at the turn of the century, so how did it change?”

I explain badly about the railways, then the industrialisation, for instance, McVities then the arrival of cheap housing for the workers. And the departure of the middle classes in the 1920s and 30s. Later I read that Louis has a first in history from Oxford University. Oh, the satisfaction of not even getting an O level in it and being able to lecture Louis!

But before long, we’re onto to shopping again. Louis reckons – is he right? – that Harlesden is the only place in London where you can buy black beans in a tin. I do like his quirky adherence to such little known ‘facts’. Apparently, he – he has two young boys, Albert and Frederick, and a partner called Nancy – cooked a Nigella dish last night which included one of those remarkable tins of black beans, plus Thai fish sauce and lime.

We talk about shops like Harlesden Fresh Fish – my local fish shop, which is owned by a large smiling Afghan man – opposite Iceland, when Louis demonstrates one of his most charming attributes. “I worry about the shops in the week,” he says and I think he genuinely does, “they might be busy at the weekend but they’re almost empty in the week.” There’s something deeply ok about a man who worries about the livelihood of his local shopkeepers.

I’d planned to take Louis on a walk to Stonebridge. I wanted to know what he thought of all the architectural changes. But he had a slightly different idea. “Have you ever been to that hotel up there?” he says eagerly, “I’m curious to know what goes on there. Who stays there? Why do they stay there?”

In fact, I’ve been meaning to go to this Victorian hotel. Right in the middle of Stonebridge – the estates, the towers – stands this vestige of another era. It is weird. Out-of-place. Faintly ridiculous. The Stonebridge Park  Hotel – it was built when commuters from the City stayed there in the mid 19th century.

And so we’re walking at last. Past Subway, and Wrights photography and lingerie – “What’s all that about?” he laughs – and the old Mean Fiddler. “I read your piece about Vince Power,” he says, “but he can’t really be soft can he? He runs nightclubs and music venues.” Afterwards, I think about this and decide that actually he can be soft as well as tough. Do people have to be just either one or the other? The questions are evidently infectious.

Now we’re outside another fresh fish shop window in the High Street and we witness a crab moving. It’s still alive. “Do you think that’s cruel?” he asks. I turn the question back on him. And he’s not sure. There are a lot of different fish on display here. “Can you name many of them,” he asks. I don’t think I can. These constant questions make me realise what a permanent state of inexactness I live in.

Outside the newly refurbished library, a little group have gathered waiting for it to open. Our communal gaze is immediately drawn to a couple of shaven headed men who are sitting on the steps and falling slowly and drunkenly into one another in a very intimate way for 10 o’clock in the morning. Of course, Louis, the documentary maker isn’t a teensy bit fazed by staring at them for quite a long time. Past most people’s comfort threshold. “It’s funny they look as though they are cuddling,” he says. And they are. “They’re probably Eastern European,” he adds.

He points out Odeon Court – a row of bland, 1990s houses. Like Barrett homes. Of course, it’s where the Odeon, which originally opened in 1937, once was. In fact, this is also where Vince Power meant when he was talking about the location of the famous Harlesden Roxy  where The Clash rehearsed in the 70s.

“I find myself lamenting the demise of the Odeon,” says Louis admitting a kind of longing for a lack of change, “but I do have neo-phobic tendencies so I just have to stop myself.”

I can feel his neo-phobic tendencies almost constantly. They settle in the relentless pondering and the almost comical grimace that so often appears on his face.

As we look down Hillside and onto the new Stonebridge estates, I ask him if he’s ever thought about doing a documentary on Harlesden?  “I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but it’s good to keep work and home separate. There are so many questions that I haven’t asked about Harlesden in the nine years that I’ve been here, that I would have asked in the first hour out on the street with a camera crew.”

The strangely out of place Stonebridge Park Hotel is before us now. Only it’s changed its name to the Bridge Park Hotel. Obviously because Stonebridge has too many crime, gangs and shootings connotations.  It has wrought iron balconies and a feeling of distant grandeur turned into nouveau tackiness. We push open the door and somehow Louis transforms into his documentary maker self. Newly assertive, he takes the lead.

“Can we see a room?” he asks and he won’t take ‘No’ for an answer when the blonde (maybe Slavic) receptionist informs us that the rooms have yet to be cleaned. Suddenly, I’m in a situation where Louis and I are pretending to need a room together. At least, he asks to see a twin one which would cost us £60 for the night.

In the meantime – we wait to see whether we will be allowed in – we survey the reception area. There’s a huge, Argos catalogue-type chandelier, a souvenir display case and lots of brochures about Paris and Wembley, then some decorative 19th century posters.  Louis is bizarrely impressed and incredibly enthusiastic. He’s come alive in some way that wasn’t there earlier.

“Someone has obviously spent some money on this hotel recently,” he says, “there’s a feeling of it being taken care of. It looks clean and looked after.” And he says it quite a number of times. “Am I going overboard?” he asks. He is.

Finally, we triumph. We wander down back corridors crammed with kitsch pictures of elephants, storks and crying women with peculiar little words of wisdom. For instance – To Be Happy, We Must Not Be Too Concerned With Others. “That’s odd, isn’t it,” he says and I agree it is very odd.

The room is small and unremarkable. Louis is far better than me at making small talk about this frankly unimpressive twin room. “Do you have non-smoking and smoking rooms?” he asks as though he is making a vitally important enquiry. I can tell he is enjoying himself. It’s the thrill of the chase of ‘the genuinely odd in the most ordinary setting’ that drives him.  I’m not sure how odd this is though. “I think I can smell smoke,” he observes in a detective-like manner. The receptionist concurs but adds that it probably is from a few nights ago rather than the previous evening.

On the way back, we look out of the back door on to one of the two remaining Stonebridge tower blocks. Confusingly, it has scaffolding around it. We’re fooled into thinking that they are re-furbishing the façade. My son puts me right when I get back. “That’s because they take it down bit by bit,” he explains to his ignorant mother.

As we walk away from the Bridge Park Hotel, I wonder aloud about the dramatic changes in architecture around here, and whether the low rise buildings will encourage more community and less crime. “I think Corbusier said something like ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter, they shape us’,” he says.

You were sounding rather anti-smoking back at the hotel? “No, I’m a smoker,” he smiles, “I smoke about three cigarettes a week.”

At this point, he produces a shopping list on the back of an envelope and we end up at Blue Mountain Peak Cash And Carry, the quintessentially Caribbean food shop, searching out very English ingredients for the Theroux family dinner. But Louis is unabashed. “Can you see the broccoli?” he says amid the mountains of yams and cassavas. I can. But definitely not the crème fraiche. Oh, and he has a very cute shopping bag with him!

“I’m so glad we went to that hotel,” he says seeming genuinely pleased. “Why?” I laugh. “Because now I can speak with authority about it,” he explains.

Hilarious. Why would you want to? “Well, it would make a great place to disappear in,” he adds tellingly, “haven’t you wanted to totally disappear?”

Ending on a series of questions seems only right and proper after an encounter with Louis…

PS His next BBC documentary is called Law and Disorder In Lagos. It’s about the city’s civic structure or lack of it. “I spent a month there,” he says, “it is dangerous but not as much as you would expect. Nigeria is not really far away. It’s much closer than the US, and there is so many connections with the UK.  So many Nigerians who live here, families who send money back there. I like that.”

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MADAME CURLY TAKES ME ON A FOOD TOUR

This is a bit bizarre. I’m walking with a close friend for the first time. And we’re in a bit of a ‘wow’ place. Writer, Monique Roffey – has just been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction with her sensually evocative, second novel, White Woman On A Green Bicycle, which is based on her family who moved to Trinidad in 1956 just before it became independent, and as she says ‘it’s big deal, I didn’t get reviewed nationally, and now this’ – has recently moved from Harlesden to Kensal Rise. There may less than a mile between them, but  – from the noise, the mishmash of cultures, the sheer vibrancy to the quiet, middle-class and leafy – in reality, it’s a million miles away.

Monique is also my first co-walker to have planned her own walk! She’s taking me on a Jamaican and Trinidadian food tour. I disrupt her plans temporarily by suggesting we rescue some guerrilla planting that I noticed on my walk with Vince. The guerrilla gardeners – people who take digging action onto public wasteland – have planted cowslips and pansies in an area of urban deadland on Manor Park Rd. Unfortunately, they haven’t planned how they will survive and I noticed they were wilting badly. I decide we need to water them.

The staff at the Misty Moon are bemused that anyone cares enough to ask for water for this purpose. But the barman mentions he’s seen yet more recently planted spring flowers under a tree nearby. They provide a jug of water. Monique gives those thirsty pansies and cowslips temporary relief.

Our first stop is the Jam Down bakery, which I’ve never visited before. For 28 years, it’s been a traditional Jamaican bakery and takeaway. Mon used to be a regular. “If I couldn’t be bothered to cook on a Sunday,” she says, “I’d pop round for their jerk chicken and rice n’peas. It was the perfect solution. The food here is so well-cooked.”

We’ve ordered a mutton meatloaf. It’s lamb encased in bread. And it’s very tasty and very meaty. It is a sexy mixture despite there not being a vegetable in sight. And the bread is sweet. It’s delicious and very filling. “I would often come and get one, and give half to Mr Campbell who begs every day outside the HSBC bank,” she says. “I’m rather fond of him.”

The shop is pure Jamaican kitsch. Lots of biblical scenes in frames and a clock surrounded by red plastic flowers.  There’s also a handwritten notice promoting their Mannish Water. What is Mannish Water, I wonder? “Do you remember that Rolling Stones album called Goat’s Head Soup,” says Madame Caribbean Expert, “they’d just visited Jamaica and obviously had some Mannish Water, it’s great soup which is made of goat tripe.”

“And good for your daughter,” adds in the gentleman behind the counter evidently alluding to the fertility aspects to this soup.

Mon is then tempted by the callaloo. “It’s a soup made from dasheen bush, dasheen is a root vegetable with green bush, and you add okra to it,” she says referring to the Trinidadian dish, but when it appears Jamaican-style, it’s actually not soup, but the green leaves fried with salt fish. Very salty, very tasty. “In Trinidad,” she says, “we have callaloo, but it’s not like this. This isn’t dasheen either, our soup is slimy with okra, pork knuckle and cream of coconut. It’s like drinking a swamp. We also do a stewed chicken with brown sugar, you will have tasted that at my house.”

Next we’re outside the Afghan-run Bilah Hilal butchers shop and she’s feeling the avocadoes. “These are Pollack avocadoes, they’re so big. My mother wouldn’t accept anything else,” she says. “We used to have them in our garden.”

And these yams and cassavas? “In Trinidad, we call all those roots, blue food or provisions,” she says, “it’s complicated but the Africans who came to Trinidad came as slaves and they adapted their food to what was available there. But the plantains, they’re always better, the blacker they are. That means they’re ripe.”

Mon’s picked up a fresh bunch of thyme and she’s pointing out the bottles of Green Seasoning as well as all the tins of condensed milk. “Thyme and Green Seasoning are the basis of Caribbean food,” she says, “and condensed milk appears all over the place. I have a theory about cow’s milk and humans not being supposed to drink it. Why should we? Many people in Africa are lactose intolerant and I am as well.”

Whoops, I hear the voice of Mr Campbell. “Have you got a pound?” he says in the insistent tone I’ve heard so often. Which is why he is known locally as ‘Poundman’. A year or so ago, he was asking for two pounds, but as a result of the global financial collapse, Mr Campbell seems to have reduced his expectations.

Mon starts to ask him questions about his life. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years, “ he says, “I come down from Wembley on the number 18 bus. But I used to live here at Stonebridge Park,” he says. We don’t get much of the story before his ‘pounding’ starts again.

We pop into Ali Baba, that serves part Arab and part Indian food, it’s another Monique favourite. “I’d come in and have a lamb kofte kebab and watch Al Jazeera,” she admits, “I’d catch what ex Channel 4 news reporter, Ragi Omagh was up to.” The owner has apparently gone to see his family in Iraq for a holiday. What about the club over the road above Iceland? “ I’ve seen several people slumped in the doorway having been shot,” says the manager here, “we don’t really encourage those clubbers to come here.”

Norman’s, the hairdressers, was also a frequent haunt. “I’d get a cut for £10,” says Monique, “I have frizzy hair and it is tricky. There is always the danger of getting a frizz ball, which is like having a huge hairy dog on your head,” she says, always drawn to the drama of hyperbole. “You have to have a grooming routine. I plait my hair when I’ve washed it but it’s also down to hair products. I’m wearing it out today because I’ve found some good products. It’s interesting because black women probably look at my hair and wonder what the fuss is about. White women with frizzy hair are pretty much left on their own to deal with it.”

Incredibly, Mon has two close friends who have frizzy hair. They bond over hair care. In fact, I’ve never really talked to her about it because I’ve got straight hair. I’m not a part of her curly society.

Now we’re walking down Nicholl Road past the 1930s Catholic Church, Our Lady of Willesden. And Mon is talking about her Harlesden experiences. “At first, it was really exciting,” she says, “and my two flat mates and I totally embraced it. We’d have shopping expeditions to the International Supermarket in the High Street. It definitely has the best olive and feta counter in London. They also have a brilliant selection of juices too from cactus to coconut water. Matthew once went out for a pint of milk and didn’t come back for two hours. He was lost in food choice over there.” Interestingly, she says ‘at first’ here, because what she means is that at the end of three years in Wendover Road, which attracts a constant stream of street drinkers and drug-takers, she was understandably ready to move to a quieter area.

Mon also had an infamous – as in it has appeared in many Harlesden tales around the table – altercation with be-suited, militant members of the Nation of Islam who are wont to gather at the Jubilee Clock on Saturdays. “They wouldn’t sell me one of their newspapers,” she says, “they said it wasn’t for people like me. I replied: ‘You mean white? Or a woman?  How do you know I’m not black?’ We had a row. But the one who was in charge must have had a word with this particular guy, because they next time I passed, they offered me one. But it was too late.” One of her flamboyant characteristics, is that she is not afraid of conflict or defending vociferously what she thinks is right and proper.

Now we’ve arrived at our final destination – the Trinidad Roti Shop. I have to confess that I’ve never had a roti. Despite the fact, that I lived around Portobello Road for 12 years. As it happens, Mon has never made it to this shop. The Jam Down Bakery was too near to her former flat, she couldn’t quite find the motivation to make the trek up here to her homeland food shop. However, she is now getting excited at the prospect of a roti. “Boneless chicken, pumpkin, and spinach, chana, and no pepper,” she orders. “And a grape solo. In Trini, we ask for sweet drinks not soft drinks.”

She’s laughing about nature of Trini food, in that it’s often high in sugar and fat. Not to mention fried. “I only have to look at a roti,” she erupts, “and I pile on the pounds.” The roti arrives and it’s that rich mixture of chicken and vegetables wrapped in a roti skin which is like Indian nan bread. “Forty five percent of the indentured work force in Trinidad were Indian,” she explains, “while the other forty five percent were African, so that’s why we have a mixture of their cuisine. Rice n’peas is African, nan is Indian.”

In the meantime, Mon has noticed that there’s something called doubles on the menu. “Oh, we have to have one of those,” she exclaims. “When you come to Trinidad, that’s what you will have for breakfast.” What is it? It’s a fried piece of dough containing ‘chana’ or chickpeas in a curry sauce. It’s good but it is very fried and it doesn’t taste like afternoon food to me. Oh little English woman, that I am.

And there’s always the pepper question with Caribbean food. Plenty pepper or small pepper? In other words, do you want hot chilli pepper sauce with it? And Mon doesn’t. “I struggle with spicy food,” she says surprisingly.

Pig foot souse and goat curry, they’re all on there. But where do they get the goats, I wonder out loud? “From farms in Ireland,” says the gentleman behind the counter who informs us that he is actually from Grenada, “but they taste different to the ones at home. Those goats live on the rocks and don’t eat anything that grows on the ground. That makes all the difference.”

Tucking into her roti, Mon is impressed. “That’s what I know to be a roti,” she says nodding her head. “You should see the ones they serve at Notting Hill carnival, they’re tiny. I grew up on this food. The best food in Trinidad is from St James.”

The shopkeeper concurs. But where is St James? “It’s a red light district in the Port of Spain with a very lively street culture. In White Woman On A Green Bicycle, George goes to pick up a prostitute there. They have the best rotis in Trinidad.”

So at least I’ll know where to go for rotis as well as the redlight district.

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