Saturday, 16 November 2013

Come Back to Camden

Under slate grey Victorian sky 
Here you'll find, my heart and I, 
And still we say come back, 
Come back to Camden
And I'll be good, I'll be good, 
I'll be good, I'll be good....

Dear old Camden; its streets thick with danger and the scent of patchouli; its gutters littered with cheap noodles, vomit and regret. I remember it best from the hazy days of my youth, back in the mid 90’s, after my friends and I had tired of the bustle of Oxford Street and the glitz of Covent Garden. We’d go up and hang around the market in our oversized surplus army shirts, bags covered in Tippex and DM boots, or go to gigs at the Barfly or drinking at the Black Cap, rushing for the last tube (or sometimes being lucky enough to blag a lift from a friend’s Dad, who’d wait on the forecourt what is now Morrison’s petrol station to drive a gaggle of hysterical, sweaty teenagers home). 
I even remember a trip en famile, for my 17th birthday, where I slouched about Camden lock while pretending not to know my parents and then blew my birthday money on bootleg Radiohead albums and a copy of Strangeways, Here We Come.
Of course, the excitement soon palled - along with my love of ‘cannabis’ scented joss sticks and bad hippy jewellery - and we quickly moved on to the delights of SoHo and the dingy arches of Charring Cross, only returning back North for gigs at the Koko or revamped Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. And while modern day Camden may be grubby, noisy, smelly, overrun with tourists and full of people trying to sell you knock off t-shirts with Kurt Cobain’s face on them, I, like many who spent their time there during those heady teenage days, still find something inescapably appealing about the place.

First stop was Chin Chin Laboratorists, Camden’s very own nitro ice cream parlour. I had been wanted to visit here for a while, keen to sample some of their crazy-flavoured ice cream that is frozen in front of your eyes by the magic of dry ice.

Thankfully it didn’t disappoint; while ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen may seem like a lot of bells and whistles just for a bowl of frozen dairy, the rapid cooling of the liquid base means the finished product remains free of large ice crystals, making this some of the smoothest ice cream you can get down your neck.

It also has a pleasing denseness to it, but thanks to the smaller ice crystals the ice cream can also be made with around half the usual fat and sugar than standard products. While fluffy cones of Mr Whippy from the ice cream van have their place this feels ‘proper’ ice cream, with that delicious fudgy ‘bite’, without feeling heavy or greasy in your mouth.

I chose Hay Milk Infused Caramel, made with a caramel base that, surprise surprise, had been made from milk infused with hay. This gave the finished ice cream a nutty, smoky note that encapsulated the nostalgic ideal of harvest time, but without the itching eyes, red nose and fits of sneezing.

The mix ins were also superlative; a little moat of dense and bitter Vahlrona chocolate sauce, and, just to gild the lily, some caramelised white chocolate chunks which had a lovely sweet nuttiness. They also offer further unusual options such as a truffle crunch, made with freeze dried chocolate and porcini mushrooms; candied pretzels; chocolate covered potato chips; and heather honeycomb.

Chin Chin Laboratorists on Urbanspoon

Next stop was Ruby Dock, a café and takeaway from the people behind Lantana in Fitzrovia and Salvation Jane in Shoreditch. Here you can find Square Mile coffee, alongside freshly baked cakes and sandwiches, many with an Antipodean slant. I enjoyed the jolt from my double macchiato, while also picking up a slice of cherry, chocolate and coconut based Cherry Ripe Slice, a take on the ever popular Australian candy bar, to scarf on the train home later.

By the eponymous lock in the market's name is the Global Kitchen area, a huge variety of stalls ranging from the Frenchie, selling huge, butter-slicked, toasted sourdough a cheese toasties - with extra salami if you don't value unblocked arteries too highly - to jerk chicken, to sushi, to fish and chips with a side of deep fried Mars Bar. There's also some more brinks and mortar places to grab some grub, including a bijou branch of Honest Burger; a French and Grace 'hatch' serving wraps stuffed with Middle Eastern goodies; Kim's Vietnamese hut, and a branch of Yumchaa for liquid refreshment.

Sugar and caffeine-fueled and starting to grow giddy with the overwhelming choice and huge crowds at Camden Lock, I walked up the Chalk Farm Road, via the concentric circles of hell, aka the Camden Stables Market. 

If you want to be accosted by flabby slices of pizza for a pound, luminous troughs of radioactive sweet and sour sludge or piles of greasy samosas and spring rolls then you're certainly in the right place. Strangely, like the rest of Camden High Street, it manages to be brash and charmless, yet strangely enticing all at once.

As I reached the fork in the High road, and was ready to cross the bridge over the Regent’s Canal and through Primrose Hill Village, I spied Marathon kebabs; once known for the live music events held in the small backroom restaurant (Jack White once stopped off to play a late-night set on his way home from the Barfly), While the live bands no longer perform, Marathon is still here, providing ballast to the drunken souls of North London.

While I always frequented Marine Ices (now, sadly, taken over by Pontis) for my pre-gig pizza and post-gig ice cream, on this visit Marathon seemed a fitting choice, being that the death of Kadir Nurman, the man credited with inventing the doner kebab, had been reported just the day before.

I can’t remember the last time I ate a kebab, and certainly not sober, but I awaited my illicit parcel, tightly wrapped in fish shop paper and breathed in the scent of hot vinegar and grilling meat I felt strangely nostalgic for the days queuing outside Okabasi of Kent, on Canterbury High Street, after a big night out.

Opting to take my haul away (there are still tables to eat in at the back, and even mid-Sunday afternoon the place was buzzing), I continued my walk up to the top of Primrose Hill, attempting to burn off at least a few of the calories contained in my fatty lamb and chilli sauce-soaked dinner (I did opt for ‘all salad, please’ in a hopeful attempt the vegetables would negate some of the saturated fat).

Marathon Kebab on Urbanspoon

Take a drive to Primrose Hill. It's windy there, and the view's so nice. London ice can freeze your toes, like anyone, I suppose. You’re holding on for tomorrow.

Climbing to the top Primrose Hill on the eve of the St Jude’s storm, while most sensible souls were battening down the hatches, may not have been one of the best ideas I have had (nor the family next to me, who were kindly assisted by a stranger in a fit of bravado when there kite became tangled in a tree). But standing up there, with the whole of London spread out in miniature in front of me, made the wind burn and smarting eyes seem worth it.

It actually turned out to be no more blustery than a normal November afternoon, and once I’d filled my lungs with some of the Big Smoke’s more rarefied air I made my way down the hill, and although my descent wasn’t quite as fun as Damon Alban’s in the Blur video, I did have my kebab to look forward to at the end of it.

And while the doner didn’t taste quite as majestic as it probably would have after 5 pints of lager, the fatty strips of salty meat, chunky pile of salad, fresh and smoky chilli sauce and the bed of half crispy, half soggy pitta made a rather decent late lunch, even if I did garner plenty of unwelcome attention from every dog in Regent’s Park.

With the remains of my congealing kebab abandoned and the taste of garlicky lamb fat still in my mouth, I took one last walk through the leaves on my way to catch the 274 bus from outside London Zoo. Nostalgically reminiscing about how beautiful, yet maudlin an English park feels in autumn.

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