Wednesday, May 4, 2016

White Pepper and Cardamom Shortbreads

The first thing one realizes when one sets foot in London is that there is a significant probability that one might get hit by a car. Most probably Bentley or Maybach, given the concentration of wealth in the capital of Great Britain. That's about the second thing one realizes, as soon as one attempts a stroll through Mayfair, Kensington or Belgravia, or God forbid, the parking garage at Harrods. Until we arrived to London, I operated under misconception that all the billionaires, and all the magnates, and all the moguls of this world have flocked to the Gotham City of ours -- and I was about 3,459 miles wrong, which, in case you failed to observe, is the distance between the two cities. But back to the first issue. Londoners do not excel at traffic lights and zebra crossings, and decent crosswalks are a rare luxury. Add to it the crazy traffic coming from the wrong side of the road, and one realizes that a stroll in the British capital is about the same as playing Russian roulette.

It goes without saying that our weeklong spring-break stay in London proved to be a real adventure. But we survived, and we have a story to tell. A lot of stories.

London and moi have a very special relationship. Almost three decades ago, as I enrolled in college and embraced adulthood, I decided to become a "women of the world" and do some traveling abroad. Destination London. For a month or two. A summer-long stay in London was an expensive value proposition for a student from an impoverished communist country, and to spare Mom and Dad the expense, I decided to fund the enterprise myself and get a summer job. In London! Accompanied by my best pals, Jelena and Gordan, I boarded a bus from Belgrade to London, all two days worth of travel, and on a late and unusually sunny British afternoon we arrived proudly to the Capital. We had no place to stay, and finding one within our budget turned a bit challenging, so we spent a night on a bench somewhere around Hammersmith, until next morning Gordan finally remembered that there is a friend of a friend of a friend who lived in Shepherd's Bush, and in a London moment we found ourselves living in a ninety square feet room with two beds and no bathroom. The cost of accommodation - twenty pounds per week! Divided by three!!!

Finding a place to work in the pre-European Union Great Britain proved to be far less challenging. The city craved cheap laborers, yet without the free influx of workers from other European countries the supply could not match up to the demand, and restaurants, shops, construction businesses and alike welcomed illegal laborers with opened hands. After a good night sleep in our Shepherd’s Bush home, the three of us took a stroll down the Tottenham Court Road and within a couple of blocks found ourselves employed in an electronics store owned by a Pakistani man named Parviz. Parviz personally conducted a lengthy interview, and having established that we spoke decent English, and that we knew how to operate a walkman and a camera, gave us a job on the spot. Gordan, who was a hi-fi aficionado, landed a coveted position at the audio station, selling high-end Sony, Marantz and TEAC amplifiers, while J and I took turns selling walkmans, moping the store and cleaning the basement.

"How much did you make," Dr. V asked me fifteen years ago when we visited London together for the first time and I told him the story.

"Fifty pounds a week," I answered. I recently applied the time value of money calculation to my very first earnings -- it amounted to about hundred and twenty pounds per week in today's money, which is about 2.2 times less than the current minimum wage in Britain.

Dr. V still likes to tease me about it.

"Mama was an undocumented worker Darling," he told Miss Pain as we embarked on a stroll from our hotel to the Buckingham Palace.

Speaking of the Buckingham Palace... Even if one is not into the royals, and one hates attractions, and piles of historic stuff give one goose bumps in a not-so-pleasant-kind-of-way, not seeing Her Majesty the Queen's official abode represents a crime of the first degree. Like coming to New York and failing to see the Empire State Building. The whole thing becomes even more essential if one happens to arrive on HM's 90th birthday, accompanied with an eight year old child who still believes in princesses, castles, white horses and alike. As Miss Pain swooned over the size of the building, I surrendered to the memories of my very first London summer.

Two point two times less than the minimum wage does not take one very far away in a city like London, and the three of us worked hard to stretch our earnings in every possible way. To make extra ten pounds a week, at mornings, evenings and weekends we distributed fliers at the entrance to the Hammersmith train station; they advertised performances, events, concerts and restaurants -- all those amazing places we could not afford -- and in turn we walked around West End theaters wondering what happens inside; we stared at lavish store displays on Bond Street and peaked inside Mayfair's posh restaurants trying to picture people who ate inside, while ourselves we ate at McDonalds, frequently replacing lunch with heavily sweetened coffee to keep the tummies full.

(On an up side, the McDonalds diet allowed me to save enough money to buy a pair of black Levis 501, size 26. Those who go back long enough will most certainly remember "Laundrette", the iconic Nik Kamen Levis commercial, which created a cosmic level hysteria around both the brand and its ambassador. That was the first time I owned 501, and the first and only time in my life I wore size twenty-six, and I enjoyed my new look immensely. Sadly, the look lasted only a couple of months, until back at home and in Mom's kitchen, I returned to my normal twenty eight self and had to relinquish the 501s to my cousin.)

I will always remember the day I had to give up the Levis, just as I will always remember how it felt looking at life from the other side of the coin.

I returned to London many times after my very first summer there. Every time I visited, I found myself a bit more on the other, more fortunate side of the coin, and London a bit further away from the city I remember. Shepherd's Bush acquired a new-found level of respectability, the tangle of busy roads around King's Cross became less grubby, King's Road counterculture disappeared, and a little shop in Covent Garden I bought my very first tin of English Breakfast is now a cosmetics store.

I am almost inclined to think that London is looking more and more like New York! But, there are million ways London City is different from New York. For example:

#1 On the London tube everyone reads papers. I mean real papers, printed on paper. On the New York subway, everyone reads papers too. But in digital. On an iPad.

#2 In London Dr Faustus is Kit Harrington. In New York, Chris Noth.

#3 New York City has yet to acquire a food store that will match the food halls of Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.

#4 London flower shops sell lily of the valley.

#5 London handles tourists with grace. Much better than New York, with its constant flow of shoppers, much better than Paris where museums lines are two hours too long, and waaaaay better than Rome, where they sell plastic Pope souvenirs at every single corner. Even in the midst of Queen's 90th birthday, London maintained its royal dignity. And yes, the souvenirs kind of followed us around, but in a keep-calm-and-carry-on kind of way. And one has to admit that Diana wallpaper at the entrance to the Kensington Palace loo is kind of cute! Even though it would be hard to say the same for Diana and Dodi memorial at the Harrods. But, as we all know, de gustibus non est disputandum.

#6 And then, there are the blossoms... In London blossoms follow you around, every step of the way, and every once in a while, with all-of-a-sudden blow of the wind, they start falling down on you like a confetti dust.

The confetti dust made us rethink the original plan for the visit, and we followed the blossom magic to the neighborhoods less explored, and into the lesser-known London, the enticing web of small off-the-radar places that do not quite find its way into the tourist guides, despite having so much to offer. The kind of London I rarely bothered to notice before, too busy going down the must-see route. So let me share the top ten discoveries we made along the way:

#1 Bermondsay. The food lovers among us loved the Borough Market and all the artisanal products it had to offer, but we fell in love with the gems hidden under the railway arches along Maltby, Ropewalk and Druid Street in Bermondsey.

#2 Golborne Road. The flea market enthusiasts in our family did their duty at the Portobello Market, but we fell in love with the area's real treasure, Golborne Road.

# 3 Columbia Road. The shoppers among us did pay a worship visit to Harrods and Liberty, but we fell in love with magical little shops on Columbia Road.

#4 Holland Park. The outdoor adventurers among us did their share of explorations in Hyde Park, we walked along the Serpentine and fed the swans, but we fell in love with Holland Park and its Kyoto Garden, an oasis of Zen and piece in the big city.

#5 Clerkenwell. The urban dwellers among us did our share of dwelling in Mayfair and South Kensington, but we fell in love with the cobbled laneways of Clerkenwell. As a bonus point, street food at the Exmouth Market stalls is to die for, and so are the little shops in the neighborhood.

#6 Shoreditch. The hipsters among us could not help it -- East End has always been our favorite neighborhood -- so we hopped on the tube, and then hopped again and again to the Shoreditch High Street Station (tubewise Shoredtich is not the easiest-to-reach neighborhood), and we awarded ourselves with an afternoon of world class street art, quirky shops and people watching. It felt magnificent, in a weirdly deja vu kind of way, like a visit to Dumbo before it became Dumbo.

#7 Cardamom. Speaking of hipster, let us not forget cardamom. Cardamom appears to be all the rave in London these days. It was in shortbreads Miss Pain demolished at the East India Company store, and in the qahwa we sampled at Harrods. At Rococo store on King's Road I picked up chocolates adorned in old botanical prints and infused with cardamom, and at NOPI, we dipped courgette and manouri fritters into cardamom yogurt.

#8 Travel Guides for Children. Now this is a major, major discovery, so please read carefully. Travel guides for children are a world of treasure!!! I somehow managed to overlook this important fact, fortunately Miss Pain kept on quoting her Lonely Planet Not-for-Parents London and Kids' Kensington guides, throwing invaluable trivia at us non-stop, and I have to tell you that travel books for children are the most illuminating material, and I will never ever buy a grown up guide again. Did you know that London Bridge is actually in Arizona? And that fat dripping from a burning piece of bacon caused the Great Fire! I also discovered that my childhood hero Lord Horatio Nelson suffered from seasickness, and that despite the street names, Monopoly was invented in the US. How about this: Victoria and Albert's wedding cake was the first to have a tiny model of the happy couple on top, thereby setting fashion for newlyweds for centuries to come. Didn't I tell ya?!

#9 London Eye. I admit it, at first I declined to be a real tourist and join the crowds, but the crowds were not that big and the rest of the family insisted, and I took a ride. And what a ride it was! A moment of perfection, one big quiet moment of solitude in the sky on top of a big city. And as a bonus point, it was the day of the London marathon and we looked at the runners from the sky, crossing the finish line, honoring the moment of their big achievement.

And last, but not the least:

#10 NOPI. We ate at NOPI! It was one Ottolenghi-worthy plate of food and since I am not in a business of reviewing restaurants I will leave it at that. It was one Ottolenghi-worthy plate of food. Although, I kept wondering if perhaps there is someone outside, someone from the other side of the coin, standing in front of the glass, looking in, trying to imagine how it feels being us.

On our last day in London, I sat at the window of our very nice and very spacious hotel room, with three beds for three people and a bathroom to die for, and I looked down from the twenty-fifth floor and the City of London unraveled itself as if on a palm of my hand. And I remembered how I once stood down there at the edge of Hyde Park, looking up, imagining... And then I looked up, into the vastness of the London sky, remembering the tiny room in Shephard's Bush, amazed at how far I have traveled.

White Pepper and Cardamom Shortbreads

* 4 oz butter
* 1/4 cup turbinado or demerara sugar
* 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
* 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
* 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
* 1/2 tsp salt

Beat the butter with sugar until creamy. Sift in the flour, salt, pepper and cardamom. Mix on low speed until the dough begins to come together. This is a very crumbly dough so you will need to scrape it out onto a work surface, gather it and compress with your hands. Pat the dough into a log about 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Wrap up the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until very firm, at least four hours, but preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325°F convection (or 350°F regular bake). Slice the dough into 1/4 inch thick slices and arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. If you like to, prick the top of the shortbreads with a fork or knife.

Bake for about 20 minutes. Take the shortbreads out of the oven before they start to brown around the edges. Slide the parchment onto a wire rack and let the shortbreads cool. (Be gentle, these are tender little souls.) The shortbreads can be kept in an airtight container for about a week.

Note: The amount of cardamom and white pepper in this recipe will yield very, very gently spiced cookies. If you like more robust flavor, increase the quantities to about 1 tsp, or up to taste. Also, I like to taste salt in shortbreads, if you prefer a more traditional version, reduce the salt to 1/4 tsp.

Makes about 20 cookies


  1. I have never seen London so close, only from the air. Thanks for sharing very special pictures and reflections.

  2. Thank's for sharing: travel guides for children! Opens up a new perspective. Great!


    1. Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately they do not have them for many cities, Not For Parents covers only London, Paris, Rome and NYC. But they are just splendid!!!

  3. Im heading to London from Australia in September. Your article was wonderful and my excitement has just taken a huge leap. As someone who is happy to let the Brits keep the Queen but not so much Australia I have taken your tp about the palace on board.

    1. Ann, I hope these tips serve you well -- have a wonderful time in London!!!


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