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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Two Elegant London Pubs! The Old Bank of England and The Counting House

Two more London pubs ya gotta see.  I know, you’re thinking:  More pubs?  Can’t count any more! Already got my shoes off and running out of digits!

I offer this simple truth:  You cannot visit too many pubs.  Even a couple of lifetimes might not even do the trick.  But, I see your problem and I’m sympathetic.

How often does a person get to London?  In my case, the answer is EVERY CHANCE I FREAKING GET!  But then, I’ve been going there for some forty years and I get back an average of three times a year.  When my brother and I meet in London, every two years, we manage to hit about thirty pubs in a week and I still carry a list of “must go to” pubs we haven’t set foot in.

So, when I bother to stoop to your amateur-pub-experience-level, do yourself a favor and pay attention!  Here are two names to jot down:

The Old Bank of England

The Counting House

Both are owned by Fuller Brewery and both went through years of refurbishment before any barkeep pulled a pint.  I’m talking about refurbishment in the grand sense of the word.  Soaring, intricately festooned ceilings, carefully carved dark wood, sparkling chandeliers, majestic windows, and of course, fabulous ales, pulled from the cask by hand pumps.

What’s with the hand pumps? you may well ask.   Not easy to say in one sentence, so allow me time to explain.  Let’s start with the difference between English ales and American and Continental style beers.  Most American and European beers are either lager, or lager-style.  In a phrase:  for lagers, yeast falls to the bottom of the vat and that’s where the sugar turns to alcohol and carbon dioxide bubbles its way to the top.  It’s called bottom fermentation and the result is a light colored, carbonated beverage.  To keep the carbonation, the beer is either bottled, or stored in pressurized kegs.  Additionally, commercial gas is used to pull the beer from the keg to your glass./

English ales, on the other hand, are a product of top fermentation.  Few to no bubbles.  Ale is placed in kegs for a secondary fermentation and storage.  There’s almost no carbonation to pump it out, so the ale must be hand-pumped directly from the keg.  In some cases it’s called cask conditioned, or gravity ale.  As the name implies, gravity ale flows directly from the spigot in the cask, with no pumping required.

Ok, it’s a bit more complicated, but those are the basics.  The result is (in my considered opinion!) a different beverage from the beer Americans’ taste buds are used to.  Sometimes the English beverage is derided as warm, flat beer.  No so.  Normally, kegs are kept in a pub’s cellar, where the temperature is about 55-60ºF.  Cool, not warm.

And with top fermentation, the result is deeper, amber color, and robust flavor, not the same thing you’d get if you let an American beer go flat.

Lest you think I’m knocking American and European beers, I’ll confess that an ice cold, fizzy brewski, after mowing the lawn on a sweaty summer’s day, is just the thing to bring you back to life. Time and place for everything.
But, I’d much rather be ensconced in an English pub, sipping an English pint.  There’s something about the sheer romance of hand-pulled ale and the atmosphere of an old and wonderful watering hole, that’s the thing of comfort and dreams. Plus, the rich, complex flavors of English ale are to be sipped and savored. 

Check out the photos of The Old Bank of England and The Counting House and see if you don’t yearn to join me for some polite chat over a pint.

Inside The Old Bank of England

All you really need to know

The Old Bank of England (194 Fleet Street) is in what once was the bank branch in the Courts of Law.  Don’t miss the gallery, which gives a magnificent view of the entire pub.  And don’t just come here to drink.  It’s famous for it’s English fare, including heavenly meat pies.

Inside the Counting House

The Counting House (50 Cornhill) dates from 1893 and as the name implies, was once a Victorian banking hall.  As with The Old Bank of EnglandThe Counting House gleams and glows with 19th Century luxury and charm.  It also sports a wondrous gallery that allows you to observe the full sway of the crowds while you calmly sip your ale.
Attention to Elegant detail 

Ready to pull a pint?

Both pubs are spectacularly adored and spaciously comfortable.  The perfect spots for gentlemen and their ladies to while away a few hours in the almost magical atmosphere of old London.

Make sure you check the opening hours on these pubs before you go.

Next blog, I'm going to treat you to a Brewery tour!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why read Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard?  We already know the story, right?   No, we don’t.    Mostly what we know came from a short paragraph in a middle school history book that summed up the entire American Civil War in one page.  We memorized enough clichés to answer three multiple questions on the test, and moved on to the next chapter.

If you want to know American history, you’ve got to dig deeper.  Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have done that for you. And, my prejudice is that every American should be able to recount America’s major events, with depth and understanding.

Killing Lincoln is history, couched in a thriller that brings the story to life.  The characters involved in this drama were flesh and blood, with families, fears, hopes, dreams, and often dreadful shortcomings.

This is not the history you remember, but a well-told tale that has the pages flapping and new questions running as fast as deer through a dark forest.

Picture the bloodiest war in American history coming to an end on Virginia’s bloody battlefields.  Lee’s army is finally defeated, the south subjugated, the slaves freed. 

Yet, Lincoln still cannot rest.  There’s a nation to rebuild.  His cold-blooded murder by a southern sympathizer will lead the United States in a different direction than the one Mr. Lincoln imaged.  The starting point will be marked in blood in Ford’s Theater, within walking distance of the White House. What followed left a deeper wound that even impacts today’s America.

What was America like on the day of the fatal shot?  Lincoln’s America is one you and I would not recognize.  The District of Columbia is a sprawl of dirt streets, galloping horses, and saloons on every corner.  Want to talk to President Lincoln?  Stroll into the White House and wait your turn, or spend the night in a hallway and catch him in the morning.  If you want to hear him speak, just gather with the multitudes on the White House lawn.  Get as close as the crowds will allow.  Security?  Well, sure, but let’s not let it interfere with strolling to the closest bar and tipping a cool one.

The war is over.  Why not celebrate with a little gunfire and a lot of whiskey.  And what about John Wilkes Booth?  What was he like and how did he think he could possibly get away with killing a victorious President?  What did he hope to accomplish?

Just in case you have strong Liberal leanings, and flinch at the mention of Bill O’Reilly’s name, have no fear.  Killing Lincoln, written in the style of a novelist telling a story, is straight with the facts, including an array of colorful asides that bring the characters to you in brilliant, living color.

This is no ideologue’s slanted, slash and burn, feeble attempt at a rewrite.  It’s a dynamic retelling of events leading to the first American President being assassinated, couched in his life and times, and adorned with the hopes and dreams that all ended with the crack of a pistol shot.

Part thriller and all history, just pour yourself a glass of your favorite, pick up Killing Lincoln, and you’ll be drawn into an America you never knew, and an event that changed the shape of America forever.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Murder Man: A Max Wolfe Thriller by Tony Parsons

This novel isn’t just a page-turner.  The pages will be flipping so fast you’ll feel the wind in your face.  Part of it is the blazing plot, wrapped around a horrible rape from years ago.  Life moves on, until finally, vengeance comes back to life in a murderous rampage.  Shifting the plot into high gear is a sharply etched detective, certain to become an icon.

Max Wolfe is an English cop who’s given the job of sorting things out.   He sees things clearly.  While others hesitate, Wolfe acts, regardless of politics, or personal feelings.  That can piss people off, especially Wolfe’s superiors, and especially when he’s right.

It’s not a question of shooting first and asking questions later.  Wolfe’s a thinker, a careful observer.  Nor is it ever a case of Wolfe covering his ass.  His ass hangs out all the time.  It doesn’t make him comfortable, or well liked.  And, he’s not a lone Wolfe!  (pun intended) He has a lot to lose.  No wife.  She walked out on him and his young daughter.  Those are difficult dynamics that lead to an even stronger attachment between the ones left behind.  Wolfe feels those ties that bind.  They cut into his concentration, they put his emotions to the test, but they don’t stop him.

It’s worth mentioning what I don’t like in a detective/mystery novel.  A tear dripping, double portion of angst.  Drinking problems and wife problems are such clichés that only a master writer (such as Robert B Parker) can use them to good effect.  In my opinion, even some well known craftsmen spend too much time dwelling in depths of simpering worry, like the friend we all know who can’t stop crying in his beer over the marriage that died five years ago.  We get it.  You still love the bitch who broke your heart and head.  Shift that plot into sixth gear and move our asses down the road.

The Murder Man skillfully weaves personal trials into the matters at hand:  the search for a killer who kills with a purpose and leaves no clues.  The suspects are many, the reasons a wriggling mass of snakes, and it sometimes seems Wolfe will be the next one bitten.

One of the things that draws me to this English crime thriller is empathy.  Not that I’ve wrestled with similar circumstances, but the author writes with such a keen edge that the reader is always at the center of the action, surrounded by possibilities and subject to vicious thrusts of the knife.

I began to read this book, standing in a library, waiting for my significant other to select her armload of Scottish kilted, wronged heroine, quest for ancestral lands romances.  When I picked up The Murder Man, I got lost in Wolfe’s world and had to be jogged back to reality.

“Honey?”……”HONEY?”  ….. “HELL-O!  Anybody home???”

“Oh…yeah…I mean…just one more page…”

Foot patting.  Impatiently waiting….”HONEY?”

The Murder Man is that kind of twisty-turny-mystery that lets you ignore the scary scorn of a wife who is ready to go….and I mean now! Just gotta get to the end of this chapter…

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sip Some Tea and History at Twining’s in London

Why bother to find London’s oldest teashop?  Tea is tea.

Ah, my lads and lassies, there’s more to tea than meets the lips. History.  Romance. Wars. A clash of societies and turmoil within societies. Tea gathers the story of humanity in a tiny cup.

Think I’m overstating the case?  Take another sip and picture Charles II wooing a Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza.  While she may not have introduced tea to England, her own addiction to the beverage, and it’s subsequent wide spread popularity at court, made tea the drink of choice among the English aristocracy.  From there it spread, slowly, but constantly.  For a while, due to its extreme expense (a pound could cost a laborer nine months wages), only the wealthy enjoyed it.

Take another sip and contemplate the English-China tea trade and the Opium Wars.  After the Chinese emperor decreed that all foreign trade must be paid in silver, the English began importing opium from India and Afghanistan to sell in China and generate a flow of silver back to Britain.  Over the course of years (why burden my readers with one date after another?) the Chinese concern over the problems of opium addiction led to its ban.  By that time the British government had become dependent on the tax levied on tea in England.  Naturally they couldn’t sit idly by while the tea trade dried up. Hence the Britain vs China Opium Wars.

Think also of the Tea Act of 1773, which led directly to the American Revolution. We often think of it as a tax on tea, but it was not.  The circumstances are fascinating.

Since the happenstance of fragrant leaves falling into a Chinese Emperor’s cup twenty-five hundred years ago, tea’s journey has encompassed one-hell-of-a-lot more than foliage steeped in hot water.

Twining's in verse

Back to present day London and my quest.

Not sure how many tea companies there are.  Possibly thousands when you count the rivers of tea that flow through Asia.  But tea has become so associated with England that it’s hard to think of the country without picturing a teapot. Packaged in colorful tins, tea is sold in every souvenir shop. One brand you’ll find on nearly every shelf:  Twining’s.

But, popularity isn’t why I rode the Underground and strolled the slick, rainy streets of London, scurrying past the Royal Courts of Justice, and ignoring some delightful looking pubs.  I wanted to see and taste the storied beverage at the beating heart of English tea  - and the brand the Queen drinks.  Yes, Twining’s has a Royal Warrant.

The Royal Courts of Justice

The half-timbered building that looks Elizabethan, but isn't is a fine pub:  The George
The narrow tearoom, proudly sits at 216 Strand, on the original site. It’s the oldest tea purveyor in London and a success story beyond most people’s dreams.

 Thomas Twining bought Tom’s Coffee House in 1706 and began selling bulk tea and coffee in 1717.  Twining’s still sports the fabulous white and gold entrance that was installed in 1787 by Thomas Twining’s grandson, Richard Twining.  Richard also changed the name of the shop to The Golden Lyon.  It’s is believed to be the oldest company to have traded at the same place and used the same logo. 

Yes, Twining’s was purchased by a conglomerate, but descendants of the family are still involved and Twining’s is still run like a family business.  There are only nine master blenders responsible for the buying and blending of all Twining teas.  So wherever in the world you drink Twining’s, it will taste the same.  But, I didn’t want to taste Twining’s just anywhere in the world!   

On your next trip to London, try it yourself.  Walk through the door and become enveloped by wild and exotic perfumes.  White teas. Green teas.  Black teas (accounting for 90% of the market).  Fruit teas.  Teas old and young, bundled and chopped, twisted, and poured.

 Drift toward the back of the shop, passing more jars and cupboards than you can count.  Stop and sniff a few.  In short order, you’ll reach the nirvana of tea: the tea bar.  A sweet young woman will enchant you with sips of this and that.  She may ask what flavors and aromas you like, whether you drink tea during the morning or at night, and if you prefer gentleness or bone-shaking strength.

Which brings us to caffeine.  Coffee or tea?  Tea leaves have more caffeine than coffee beans, however because tea is more diluted, a cup of tea has less caffeine than a cup of coffee.  Also, different teas have different amounts of caffeine.  The longer it is steeped, the stronger and more caffeinated it becomes.  Here’re some rules of thumb:  2 cups of tea = 1 cup of coffee.  2 normal colas = 1 cup of tea.  Black tea has about twice as much caffeine as green tea.  Only rules of thumb, folks!  Teas vary greatly.

Back to the tea Barista.  Based on your tastes, she’ll happily gather any combination of teas you request.  You can take a bag home of your own special blend.  Meanwhile, I suggest you do some more tasting.  After all, how often will you visit the oldest teashop in England?

***A little known, but interesting fact:  tea bags are an American invention. About 1908, Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, sent his customers samples in small, silk bags.  You can guess the rest.