Thursday, February 13, 2014

Guided Food Walk through Brixton- A review of Fox & Squirrel

A few weeks ago, I was invited to be a part of a guided food tour hosted by the very innovative and unique tour guide company Fox & Squirrel. The tour I participated in was called "Eating your way through Brixton", a guided food walk into one of the most culturally significant neighbourhoods in London.  As you might remember, I have previously posted about Brixton in my London Markets post. Brett and I frequent Brixton quite often to shop for our weekly groceries on the Electric Avenue, therefore, when I was approached by Fox & Squirrel to participate in this tour, I was very excited to find out more about the market and neighbourhood.

Fox & Squirrel are an independent tour guide company, with just five expert guides that focus on creating a unique and innovative view to expose the lesser known aspects of London. The guides are experts in their fields, providing a well researched knowledge of the cultural impact behind each tour, whether it be on food, photography or architecture.

The Brixton food walk includes a 7 course taster menu on some of the best street food in London. Our expert guide for the walking tour was the founder of the company, Penelope Sacorafos. In order to not give away the whole tour, I will highlight 3 of the 7 courses we experienced.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony:
Elsa, owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Shawl's Café, showed us the traditional way to prepare coffee. Coffee originated in Ethiopia and traditionally was prepared by the women of the tribe who wore traditional garments during each ceremony. Elsa was definitely my favourite part of this tour, watching her prepare the coffee with such grace, her beautiful poise immolated through the experience. She started with raw coffee beans which before roasting are green in colour. She used a ladle to roast the coffee beans over an open flame until they were a dark chocolate colour. The whole ceremony the smell of frankincense permeated the tent we sat in, as it is traditional to burn frankincense during these ceremonies (to me, it reminded me of church).  Once the coffee was ground and steeped in hot water, she used a makeshift filter of what looked like crumbled up seaweed to pour the coffee.

The most interesting part of this experience was that the coffee was served with a spoonful of ground ginger and popcorn on the side. And the coffee itself was the purest, smoothest coffee I have ever had. Often times, the "Ethiopia" coffee served at Starbucks is bitter and very offensive on the pallet. This is mainly due to over-roasting. Coffee when done properly should remind you of a quality piece of dark chocolate, a smooth, rich flavour without the chalky aftertaste that most supermarket coffee leaves you with.

Ethiopian Mixed Platter:
After our coffee, we headed inside to Elsa's restaurant, the Shawl's Café, for my first experience with Ethiopian cuisine. We were served the mixed platter which consisted of many varieties of vegetable and spicy meat "wats" or stews served atop "injera", a large sourdough flatbread. Utensils were not served as a part of this meal, therefore the six of us were forced to get close, quickly, as we all competed for "a piece of the pie" if you will. We used the injera as the base to scoop everything up, and the objective was to keep one hand clean and wait until the end to clean off your other hand.

Columbian Restaurant: Las Americas
The last part of the tour that I wanted to highlight was the Columbian restaurant/ butcher shop/ money transfer/ travel agency that we went to. This shop had all of those things combined into one. The shop is very narrow and on Saturdays the place is packed, mainly with people of Columbian decent, gathering at this shop to get a piece of their heritage. We were lucky enough to speak with one of the chefs, Danny. His parents own the restaurant and moved to London a few decades ago. We dined on Lechona (Columbian style pork belly), Empanadas, and the most amazing salsa I have ever had! We asked Danny how he made the salsa, but after he said tomatoes, onion and chillies, I lost him on all the ingredients. There must have been over 30 ingredients in this salsa. We were able to take home a few samples and Brett and I used the salsa on scrambled eggs the following week- a must try if you have never done it!

What I loved so much about this tour was the knowledge Penelope had on the restaurants and shop owners in Brixton. While developing this tour, she interviewed many shop owners throughout the Brixton area to identify the most culturally significant chefs, owners and restaurants in the Brixton area to highlight on her tour. The places we visited were not trendy. They did not have a rustic chic ambiance with mason jars as wine glasses to draw you in from the outside. These restaurants were modest in appearance, but with the most profound cultural influence and delicious food. 

After visiting these restaurants, I couldn't help but think what a shame it is that most people these days would choose a restaurant with the perfect ambiance- exposed brick, chalkboards and low lighting, without any knowledge of the chef's background, over a restaurant with a modest appearance but with a chef who is an expert in their cuisine. These restaurants are using the recipes passed down from generation to generation, traditional restaurants that are lost on the foodie population looking for items like kale or lamb shank to identify the hot restaurant of the moment.

The last food for thought that I will leave with you today is that physiologist say that you will get more satisfaction out of an experience, such a tour, concert or play, than you would any tangible item, like a hat or a new outfit. One of the people on the tour told us that in regards to why they were on the tour, indicating that this was their Christmas gift to each other, and that sharing this experience together would be more enjoyable and memorable than any one particular tangible item. I hope to use this piece of advice in the future, as I definitely believe that is true.