The London Pub, Hazli Aslanov 105 (corner of Samad Vergun), Baku. Tel.: (+994) 55 302 67 74
When I was a little girl, shortly after my father died one July morning from a heart attack at the ridiculously young age of 38, we moved to Germany, my mother’s home country. There I attended school, lost my English accent and settled into life as a German child. Eventually my mother, worried that I’d forget the ability to speak English completely, arranged for me to stay with UK families of her acquaintance during my summer holidays.
So there I was, from about eight years old, being sent off to the Eastwoods or the Reads for three or four weeks every summer, joining their children at school. I hated staying with the Eastwoods. Tiggy, Bridget and Timmy gave me a pretty hard time, not least because they buried all my Barbie dolls in the garden. I took my revenge by spraying them with the garden hose. Unfortunately, they were in their bedrooms at the time! I hadn’t factored in that water vendettas indoors weren’t exactly going to endear me to their mother, so I got the telling off of a life time. But I also remember some very good fun times, loads of us children being piled in the back of a Mini Clubman, picnics by the river and skinny dipping, pink tutus at ballet and a Brownie (scout) uniform I later insisted on wearing to German school, midnight feasts consisting of cheese triangles, crisps and Crunchie bars and a restaurant meal with my first ever artichoke, the fleshy leaves drenched in melted butter, which seemed wildly sophisticated.
I was a little older and of a prepuberty age when I stayed at the Reads. There Helen, Virginia and I went on endless bike rides through the idyllic Sussex countryside and swung on meadow gates for hours, reading Jackie (preteen magazine) and talking girl talk. Then we’d get back in time for tea where we were each allowed one piece of homemade Victoria sponge and a couple of biscuits, no more, no less. Most intriguing of all, they knew boys! I took a particular shine to Rory, a 13 year old ginger headed cool dude. I didn’t speak to him much, I just blushed a lot. I was an only child with not much contact to the opposite sex, so when Rory and his brothers were invited over to tea one day, presumably because I had inadvertently mentioned his name in every other sentence, I was so overwhelmed by the thought of spending the entire afternoon with four boys, some of them teenagers, God forbid, that I hid out in my bedroom under the pretext of a headache, missing out on cake and secretly curtain twitching, enviously watching the teatime picnic going on in the garden. I am happy to say that in the intervening years I have recovered my composure and have lost my shyness.
One wonderful thing these long stays in the homes of English families had in common, was the typical Sunday roast lunch. At home we were more bohemian. My mother, a weekday workaholic, liked a long lie-in on a Sunday, so I’d stay quietly put in my room until she woke up late in the morning. In fact, that’s when I first started writing to pass the time; the adventures of a school girl called Monica. Then my mother would call me and we’d have the most delicious and extensive Sunday brunch, still in our dressing gowns, with fruit and pastries, eggs, cold meat and cheese but never a roast. There’s something so very solid and English about a Sunday roast lunch. It’s a lovely way to gather your loved ones around you and chat about the week past and the plans for the week ahead. Often it lasts long into the afternoon, everyone feeling stuffed to the gills and possibly slightly tipsy, before it breaks up just in time for last minute chores in readiness for a new working week and a relaxed evening in front of the TV.
I was told that here in Baku the best, most English Sunday Roast goes down at The London Pub on the corner of Hazli Aslanov and Samad Vergun, where they fly in the roast ingredients as well as the fresh fish for typical fish and chips once weekly, so four of us, all Brits, two from the North and us two from London, headed off there one cold sunny Sunday. The pub itself is not that easy to locate since it has no sign on the outside and doesn’t look open. Inside, it’s warm and pleasant in a, shall we say, unpretentious way. In other words, it’s plain and basic and doesn’t actually look much like a pub but it’s got a nice enough atmosphere, magnolia walls, giant Sports channel projection and a slightly strangely painted telephone box simulation not withstanding. The menu is short and straightforward covering many of the usual pub grub favourites, including fish and chips and proper full English breakfasts, and, on Sundays, the four classic different roasts, beef, lamb, pork and chicken with all the trimmings. This was exciting news, promising a true taste of home!
Now, between you, me and the gatepost, British cuisine is not exactly known for its gourmet qualities. While nowadays there are many quite phenomenal restaurants in the UK, TV chefs have inspired people to cook well and palates have become very much more sophisticated, this is a relatively recent development and mostly due to the culinary influences of the immigrant population from all over the world rather than inherently British. Overcooked vegetables, grey meat, greasy watery gravy, coupled with sweet Blue Nun wine to drink were quite the normal fare until things took a turn for the better from about the 1980s onwards. Herbs, spices and most especially garlic were considered ‘foreign muck’ and any food containing them was eyed with distaste and suspicion. Until, of course, Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish which nods to Indian cuisine but is, in fact, a British invention, took centre stage on beer fuelled Friday nights and opened the flood gates to an altogether more discerning food culture. Still, the Brits are a funny lot. Mention ‘school dinners’, traditionally concoctions of grossness, in my memory involving gristly meat and lots of tinned prunes with lumpy custard, and they go dreamy eyed. ‘Nursery food’ has a similar effect and is equated with childhood comfort and feeling loved. I often wonder whether their reputation for having lousy teeth, now thankfully a thing of the past, has influenced their love for mushy food. The Scots, some reluctantly part of the UK, eat deep fried Mars Bars, Northerners swear by their chip butties, essentially thick cut French fry sandwiches in soft squishy white bread with ketchup. The mind boggles! So it is against this background that typical pub grub has to be understood. You want gourmet food, you go to a decent restaurant. You want something plain, hot, filling and possibly satisfying to line your stomach, you eat at the pub. End of.
Back to Baku’s London Pub and the four of us salivating in anticipation. The two Northerners predictably ordered fish and chips, us other two a lamb and chicken roast respectively. The fish and chips came with tartar sauce, mushy peas (don’t ask, another weird Brit predeliction…) and thick cut chips and was pronounced to be very enjoyable, with the tartar sauce nice and tangy, though, I was told, the batter could have been a little crispier. The lovely husband had the lamb roast, served with mint sauce, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, two Yorkshire puddings, peas, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage and gravy. The lamb was not pink as it should be but, nonetheless, tender and tasty, the vegetables were good and the gravy nice too, he said, but the Yorkshire puddings were a bit on the squishy side. My roast chicken consisted of two breast and wing quarters, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and gravy. Now I like the skin on my roast chicken to be crispy and the meat to be succulent and marinated before cooking. It wasn’t. I also like my roast potatoes to be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They weren’t. I don’t quite get why there were two different types of potato on my plate. Is this for people who can’t make up their mind? The vegetables were fine, if a fraction tasteless and the same with the gravy. Sadly, the food wasn’t hot and I missed chipolatas, bacon, stuffing and bread sauce, the traditional accompaniments of roast chicken.
Hmmmm, there’s a pattern emerging here, three out of four Brits were perfectly happy with their food, the fourth was a moaning Minnie. I blame it on my 50% German genes. Anyway, then it was pudding time. And the Brits do the best stodgy calorie and cholesterol bombs imaginable! We had a sticky toffee pudding with icecream and an apple crumble with custard and my, they were good! I was in seventh heaven! Okay, they were probably not the finest I’ve ever had, the crumble could have had more apple in it, but the crumbly bits were nicely, well, crumbly and the sticky toffee might have been a tad more moistly spongy but it was nonetheless lovely. Definitely an 8 out of 10 for those! All the portions were generous and the bill for four lunches with three Efes beers, two glasses of South African white, a small bottle of sparkling water and two not very nice weak instant coffees came to a most acceptable AZN90. Not bad at all.
In conclusion, I’d say that, for me, as a Sunday roast, the meal wasn’t up to scratch and I’d rather cook my own in future but judging by the pub’s popularity, mine is possibly a lone squeaky fusspot voice. I will, however, go back next time I feel the need for a sweet treat. Talking of which, I wonder whatever happened to Rory?