I know my favourite places to eat, drink and shop for any eating occasion, any Londoner worth their salt (Maldon, of course) knows that we have available a plethora of ever-evolving worldwide cuisine choices, suitable for all pallets and pockets. So what could An Adventure in Good Taste teach me?
After cooling down in the basement Games Room of the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell with water drawn from the old Clerks' Well, we set off to tour the Zetter Townhouse restaurant and rooms, proprietor Tony Conigliaro showed us a building crammed with upholstery and objects collected by the travelling eccentric (and imaginary) Aunt Wilhelmina, looking not unlike Vivienne Westwood in her portrait. The aesthetic questioned the idea of taste as something more than Dr Johnson's 'gustatory', defining the faculty of tasting with the mouth. The Latin gustus, meaning taste, fits pleasantly into the zest and vigour of 'gusto', which the house was certainly full of. It’s not surprising it’s been voted as amongst the coolest hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveller.
After seeing the depths of the medieval priory walls in the shell of the building, we headed out over to St John's Gate to begin a walking tour on a history of taste. The painter William Hogarth lived here, and his well-known prints 'Gin Street' and 'Beer Lane' were responsible for turning the predilections of the masses away from ruinous Dutch gin towards the merits of English beer. This piece of propaganda, created to boost beer sales, suggests Hogarth as an early tastemaker, capable of polarising taste into definitions of good and bad. And doing so via the medium of alcohol rather than food.
We walked through sunbathers in hidden Islington parks, looking for Hogarth's 'line of beauty', an aesthetic s-curve to define a pleasing sight, on our way to meet Tony again, this time at his experimental laboratory. The award-winning 'bar with no name' at 69 Colebrooke Row, provides the perfect clandestine spot for cocktail aficionados, transporting you once again through historical narrative like at the Zetter Townhouse. All creations begin in the lab, with equipment and machines adopted from various non-catering industries; a centrifuge spinning the life out of organic matter destined for pure assimilation, a bubbling still which harvests the liquid the NHS classifies as the waste product.
These are not just drinks, these are stories hoarded from personal experience, narrative dioramas like the Woodland Martini, utilising processes from perfumery as layers of taste are manipulated via flavour, effect and aroma. We're each handed the dramatic Prairie Oyster, a fusion of the original cocktail crossed with the recipe of a bloody mary. I picked up the 'egg yolk' suspiciously, painstakingly created from clarified tomato juice, reformulated to resemble a real egg yolk. The horseradish vodka, Worcester sauce, shallots and red wine vinegar surprised me as I trepidatiously gulped it down in one as instructed, and the 'egg yolk' popped in my throat. This synergy between food and drink left me unsure whether I'd just eaten or drank for some time.
Later at the bar, we gathered to watch Tony's team create the Barbershop Fizz for twenty people. A flurry of arms mixing pine gin, birch syrup and patchouli-infused mint, the precision process seemed at odds with large drinks brands who tailor their products to appeal to the masses. In such a way taste as in trend becomes defined by mass appreciation, not the unique experience created here. Tony's prized drink took two years to hone, infusing a sugar cube with essential oils which when dropped into a glass of champagne, lends The Rose the air of walking through a rose garden. After questions and samples and demonstration martinis and margaritas, my notes suddenly become a bit sparse...
We headed back out onto the sunny street, passing essayist Charles Lamb's cottage at the end of the row. Shrouded by disreputable familial histories, the writer's popularity has been resurrected by way of The Charles Lamb Pub. This renamed pub, standing on Elia Street (named itself after his best known essays), was the perfect place for a conversation meal hosted by curator Cathy Haynes, to expand our hazy thoughts. Yet more drinks arrived as landlord Hobby Limon told us all about "the London lush" that was Charles Lamb. Over dinner of Scotch broth and rhubarb Eton mess, followed by manchego and piccalilli, we argued whether refined appreciation in both food and aesthetics can sometimes be restrictive, if rarity directs taste, and how good taste has become a formula for the uninventive. I was very pleased to make it through the day without mention of the dreaded ‘foodie’.
Zoe Langdell is a writer and manages the shop at The School of Life. Details of our upcoming Conversation Meals and Drinks events can be found here, including Midsummer Drinks With Tove Jansson hosted by Esther Freud, on 18 June.