London’s “Edible Cocktails” And Why New Orleans Doesn’t Need Them

There’s a new trend in London: edible cocktails. Obviously, we’ve had the Bloody Mary for a while now, just like everyone else. But in skyscraper Heron Tower’s branch of Sushisamba you can now sample a range of “culinary cocktails”, the pick of which, I’d say, is the Tom Yam, a mix of coriander, ginger, lime leaf, chili and vodka, and served with an turbot nigiri.

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Over at the new branch of Ottolenghi in Spitalfields, where the food is inspired by a number of Middle Eastern cultures that I would say were always more about the food than the drink anyway, Yotam Ottolenghi has deliberately instituted a cocktail menu for, he says, people who “don’t normally order a cocktail”, where the drinks have the same flavours as his dishes. You could choose a martini flavoured with sumac or sage, a saffron take on a champagne cocktail, or a chili and hazelnut Old Fashioned.

There seems to be a particularly large number of breakfast cocktails out there at the moment in London. Perhaps this trend has something to do with Londoners’ bizarre mix of brazenness and guilt when it comes to all kinds of sin, and how we tend to see breakfast as both a redemptive recovery process and another dose of naughtiness.

I remember hearing about marmalade martinis being served at an illicit, yet bright and early, pre-Field Day party a few years ago, and now we have the Walk of Shame from the bar at The Jetty (which I wrote about in my last post) which is described on the menu as, “a London breakfast, infused smoky rum shaken with strawberry jam”. I tried it, and I can confirm it’ll certainly fix you up and mess you up, all at the same time.

Then there’s the most extreme breakfast-inspired food cocktail option which, thinking about it, was always going to happen, given all the faffing around with albumen for Pisco Sours there’s been here in recent years, and everybody’s longstanding obsession with bacon (bacon and maple syrup cupcake anyone?). Yes, it’s the bacon and egg martini. Invented at the London Cocktail Club, it’s a mix of smoked bacon-infused Jack Daniels, egg white, maple syrup, lemon juice and bitters. Yum.

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Now, wouldn’t it be good, you might be thinking, if there were food cocktails like this in New Orleans? (There may well be already, and I’m just not looking hard enough…) It’s the birthplace of the cocktail, after all, with the best food in the world. How about a Bananas Foster daiquiri? A spicy gumbo martini? Or, I don’t know, a po-boy…something?

In my view, no. Some things shouldn’t be changed. A Sazerac at the Carousel Bar. $0.25 lunchtime martinis at Commander’s Palace. A Bleeding Heart at Bacchanal. And food in New Orleans is generally good the way it is already, and doesn’t need to be shaken up.

I love London, but I sometimes find it stressful that here, unlike in New Orleans, it feels like people want things to change all the time – house prices have probably gone up, and probably by enough to buy a good few of those lunchtime martinis, just while I’ve been writing this. Yet at the same time nothing changes. We’re all engaged in a constant treasure hunt for the newest and best thing, that is usually also supposed to somehow also be the most authentic and simplest thing, but all too often turns out to be quite similar to whatever the last newest and best thing was, and not simple or authentic at all.

Recently I’ve found myself going back to the same old places, trying some things twice, and hoping to see the same people. This more circular way of life – I don’t regard it as necessarily “slower”, though that doesn’t need to be pejorative – is what some of the New Orleans residents I’ve known over the years have sometimes told me life in the city is like. Having never lived in New Orleans, I wouldn’t know. But if the stars ever align to put me in a position to find out, I don’t think I’ll be pining for a bacon and egg martini.

Images: Rob Greig/London Cocktail Club

On How New Orleans and London Can Heal Broken Hearts

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Bizarre as this might sound given the name of my blog, I sometimes think that I don’t write enough about what I love about New Orleans and why.

So here’s one reason why: it can heal broken hearts. To explain, I have to backtrack. Last week I went to a new play here in London: Heartbreak Hotel at The Jetty, an waterside arts venue in north Greenwich, out where the river bends and close to what was formerly east London’s shipping heartland.

The experience reminded me of being in New Orleans. Spending a hot night by the river, with the presence of the past strong and the nearby strangely sculptural Thames Barrier a reminder of how vulnerable my city’s future is to water. Seeing a play whose name is a reference, of course, to the song made famous by Southern boy Elvis Presley and first performed in Louisiana. And maybe having one or two cocktails too many.

The play itself took the form of taking “guests” through a series of rooms in what appeared to be a ramshackle pierside hotel, presenting a series of interlinked pieces about heartbreak – an unhappy marriage, the death of a child, a tour of a museum of love affair mementos – and concluding with a cathartic singalong finale in the early evening sun on the roof.

And New Orleans too has always felt to me to be a place where you can bring your past experiences, be forgiven and forgive, and get put back together again.

If you want to get theoretical, New Orleans – like London and all great cities – is built on the ebb and flow of new people, ideas and experiences that its geography makes inevitable. And, as we’re all new arrivals in our own future lives, these cities give us a pattern for surviving and living, where the past can be acknowledged but refashioned.

Put more simply: if I’m feeling blue, I think of New Orleans, and instantly feel better.

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What’s In The Name of A London Or New Orleans Neighbourhood?

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London has a rich tradition of renaming its neighbourhoods. Around five years ago, technology companies started moving to the Old Street area of London, on the edge of once white-hot trendy Shoreditch and London’s financial district, the City. Someone joked that the area would start getting called “Silicon Roundabout” soon. And hey presto, that’s what it’s now known as – and it’s now enjoying all the hoo-ha that the “Silicon” tag inevitably brings.

Now it’s the turn of Tottenham, just a little bit north of where I live, and the site of some of the most extreme disturbances of the summer 2011 riots. A year and a bit ago, I heard someone born and brought up there speculate, half-jokingly, about whether gentrification would ever start lapping at the lower fringes of Tottenham, or “SoTo” (short for South Tottenham) as, he said, it would then no doubt be dubbed. Well guess what? London magazine Time Out has just heralded “SoTo” as the next hotspot in its “Property Predictor” section.

As the above suggests, mapping the tectonic shifts in London through its district monikers is a favourite activity of mine, which is why I was fascinated to hear about the Times-Picayune/Nola.com “NOLA Neighborhoods” project, “an interactive journalistic partnership” with its stated mission to “examine New Orleans area neighborhoods in depth – their boundaries, histories and changing cultures”.

There’s so much of interest here, but I was particularly fascinated to read that the names of NOLA neighbourhoods too are by no means set in stone and, just as in London, indicate social currents and changes. A great case study for the project centres around Pigeon Town – or is it Pension Town? Like Tottenham/SoTo, this area is experiencing tidal waves of gentrification and is the subject of intense debates about its present identity, its past, and its future, manifested in debates about its name.

When thing start to get heated, the desire to find, and/or retain, a neighbourhood’s “true” or “right” name can be strong. Robert McClendon, the Times-Picayune journalist who wrote the Pigeon Town/Pension Town piece says in the comments section that he’s, “still kind of mad that I couldn’t get to the bottom of this”, and I sympathise with him. In cities with turbulent histories like London and New Orleans, getting everyone to settle on one name for an area can seem like a route to cohesion and stability.

But soon after this impulse comes, you realise it’s a bad one. In the FAQ section for the NOLA Neighborhood project’s crowdsourced “Yat Map”, one question reads: “What if all the dots in my neighborhood are different colors, indicating that my neighbors and I don’t agree on the name of our neighborhood? In the great spirit of community building, will you at NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune facilitate a meeting for my neighbors to hash out our differences until we arrive at consensus?” “No,” comes the sensible answer.

The always perceptive New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella says in Eve Abrams’ fascinating radio documentary “Along St Claude” that, “people living in NOLA today, particularly transplants, read too much into the names”. He goes on to say that he thinks getting too hung up on them undermines “the messy richness that is the real story”. And if he’s right, and a “messy richness” of names means stories, then it looks like London and New Orleans’ neighbourhoods have plenty to tell. But I think you and I knew that already.