London’s best single-product restaurants

Turkey salad starter at Strut & Cluck in London - photo by Rob McFarland

Turkey salad starter at Strut & Cluck in London – photo by Rob McFarland

Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, Australia – November 12, 2016

Ever woken up with a craving for turkey? Me neither. But should that occur, and you happen to be in the London suburb of Shoreditch, you’re in luck. In June husband-and-wife team Amir and Limor Chen opened Strut & Cluck, a restaurant specialising in turkey. They claim it’s leaner and healthier than chicken and is packed with proteins, amino acids, zinc and magnesium. They use free-range birds sourced from farms in East Anglia and marinate the meat for 24 hours before slow cooking it in a secret family blend of herbs and spices

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Review of British Airways i360, Brighton

British Airways i360 - photo by Rob McFarland

British Airways i360 – photo by Rob McFarland

Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, Australia – September 10, 2016

When the architects behind the London Eye, arguably Britain’s most successful tourist development this century, unveil a new £46 million attraction, it’s kind of a big deal. Not only is the 162-metre-tall British Airways i360 the world’s tallest moving observation tower but it’s also the world’s most slender tower (a fact you may not want to be reminded of just before you go up it on a windy day).

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England – Europe’s unlikely wine capital

Lunch at Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex - photo by Rob McFarland

Lunch at Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex – photo by Rob McFarland

Sydney Morning Herald & The Age, Australia – May 30, 2015

“English wine”, much like “English summer”, is an expression normally followed by a punchline. I spent my formative years in England and can’t ever recall seeing English wine on a restaurant menu.

So it was with genuine astonishment that I discovered during a recent visit that England and Wales are home to 470 wineries. Even more surprising is that a lot of the wine is bloody good. So good it’s winning awards and being exported all over the world.

The majority of vineyards are clustered within the southern counties of Kent and Sussex, creating the intriguing possibility of an English wine tour. Here are six to wet your whistle.

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Floris Perfumer, London

 

Floris perfumer in London - photo by Rob McFarland

Floris perfumer in London – photo by Rob McFarland

The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia – May 18, 2013

Unsurprisingly, the first thing that hits me when I enter Floris is the smell. It’s as if ribbons of fragrance are being twirled around my head – a delicate aromatic dance of floral and citrus tones, offset by sharper notes of spices and wood. For a few seconds I pause, sniffing the air like a basset hound.

It’s a fitting introduction to the second-oldest perfumer in the world.

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Europe by train

Thalys and Eurostar in Paris - photo by Rob McFarland

Thalys and Eurostar in Paris - photo by Rob McFarland

It sounds like a challenge from Mission: Impossible – travel more than 2500 kilometres, visiting nine cities in four countries in seven days. And all without setting foot on a plane.

In most continents such a feat would be impossible but Europe has a high-speed rail network that is the envy of the world. From Paris its tendrils reach up into Britain, Germany and the Netherlands and down into the south of Spain and Italy. Overnight trains mean you can leave London one afternoon and wake up the following morning in Venice. Or Madrid or Milan or Rome.

The advantages of rail over air travel are compelling. No more trekking to airports miles outside the city. No more liquid/gel/clear plastic bag shenanigans at customs. Trains depart from and arrive in city centres. They’re rarely late. They have comfortable seats, tables and dining cars. Some even have special family areas and Wi-Fi access. And, of course, you get to see some of the country you’re whizzing through at 300km/h.

On paper, there seems to be little contest. But what’s it really like? Is it really that easy? Do the trains run on time? Are they clean? And, most importantly of all, does it feel like a holiday? On a whistle-stop tour of Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, I found out.

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Staying inside Hampton Court Palace, UK

Mural on the ceiling of the Queen's Bedchamber - photo by Rob McFarland

Mural on the ceiling of the Queen's Bedchamber - photo by Rob McFarland

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. After spending all afternoon reading about Hampton Court Palace’s supernatural residents, I’ve decided in a wine-fuelled act of uncharacteristic bravery to venture inside the palace grounds at midnight.

The moon has bathed everything in a ghostly half-light as I creep across the uneven cobblestones of the palace’s main courtyard. I pass through a narrow brick archway and enter a dimly lit alley. It is eerily still and unnervingly quiet.

My imagination kicks into overdrive. I start to wonder how I’d react to hearing the “piercing and unearthly shrieks” of Catherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, who was dragged away by guards after being sentenced to death for adultery. Or to seeing the pallid form of his third wife, Jane Seymour, who has been spotted hanging around staircases dressed all in white and holding a lit taper.

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Mexican standoff at Lower Slaughter

Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds - photo by Rob McFarland

Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds – photo by Rob McFarland

Winner, 2010 ASTW Best International Story (under 1000 words)

It is the driving equivalent of a Mexican standoff. Two of us are travelling in opposite directions on a narrow, single track road. One of us will have to back up. It’s a battle of wills. I’ve already lost two of these this morning. I need a win.

With narrowed eyes I attempt to stare down my adversary. He seems unfazed. Five seconds pass. It feels like a lifetime.

Finally, my female passenger says to me: “Aren’t you going to back up?”

“No,” I reply. “Why can’t he?”

She sighs. “Because he’s on a horse.”

Read the rest of this story here: Cotswolds (PDF)

Bristol’s re-birth

Bristol Harbour - photo by Rob McFarland

Bristol Harbour - photo by Rob McFarland

I creep along a narrow, dimly-lit corridor lined with four-bunk berths. I can hear the ship’s timbers creaking and there is the musty smell of unwashed travellers. Most of the berths are empty but I notice that one has a curtain covering its entrance. Tentatively I draw it back, revealing a sight that makes me jump back in fright. Inside is a woman giving birth. The room is tiny, the conditions are grim and there is little in the way of medical assistance. Welcome to life aboard the SS Great Britain in 1852.

An estimated 2 per cent of Australians are descended from immigrants who were ferried from England aboard the SS Great Britain, a ship designed by daring engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The ship made 32 voyages between 1852 and 1875, transporting 15,000 people looking for a better life. The trip took about 60 days and, for the poor souls travelling in steerage, it was no cruise.

I’ve been assured that giving birth can hurt at the best of times; doing so on a ship in a force eight gale while crossing oceans must have been horrendous.

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Gourmet Bray

Inside The Hind's Head Hotel - photo by Rob McFarland

Inside The Hind's Head Hotel - photo by Rob McFarland

Few cities, let alone villages, can boast two restaurants awarded three Michelin stars but the quaint 16th-century British hamlet of Bray near Windsor is a veritable cauldron of culinary creativity.

Not only is it home to The Waterside Inn, Michel Roux’s multi-award-winning restaurant that has received three Michelin stars for an astounding 23 years running, but just round the corner is Heston Blumenthal’s equally well-known The Fat Duck.

Blumenthal is famous for his use of molecular gastronomy – a process whereby ingredients are matched according to their chemical make-up. It certainly makes for some unusual pairings – on his tasting menu you’ll find snail porridge, salmon poached in liquorice and egg and bacon ice-cream.

Not that the critics are complaining. The Fat Duck was named best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2005 and came second in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t just pitch up to either of these establishments and expect to get a table. They’re booked out for months in advance and there is the matter of the cost – The Waterside Inn’s tasting menu costs £95 ($241) and The Fat Duck’s is £125.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative.

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Touring the new Wembley Stadium

Replica FA Cup in Wembley Stadium - photo by Rob McFarland

Replica FA Cup in Wembley Stadium - photo by Rob McFarland

I leave the England changing room and turn right into the players’ tunnel. I’m now only metres from Wembley’s hallowed turf and my nerves are jangling. The roar of the crowd is deafening – 90,000 people cheering and singing. I take a deep breath and sprint out on to the pitch. The crowd goes wild. In one voice they scream: “Give us an R, give us an O, give us a B …”

OK, so maybe there aren’t 90,000 people and maybe I haven’t just sprinted out on to the pitch but even just walking from the players’ tunnel out into the yawning, cavernous new Wembley Stadium gives you goosebumps.

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