To watch someone else doing your job is an interesting experience. Equal parts intrigue, jealousy, malice and learning. As a stand up comic at a comedy night, tour guides have their own style and will inevitably analyse, learn from, or rip apart others in the same field on observing them. Fortunately however, I work in the food tour industry; more of a club of like-minded food-obsessed gluttons than a one-upmanship parade. We enjoy taking food tours, and, as travel is the key, we take them in other countries. This eliminates any needling desire to think too much and frees us to be babies, ignorant tourists, gleeful idiots who are happy to be whisked around whatever place we have decided to fly to and have our bellies and minds filled to bursting. It’s an honour to meet our international peers, never a chore.
I was lucky enough to be invited on two separate tours by one of the more smoothly run and flashy food tour companies: Eating Europe. First, during a well-earned break in filming, I was taken on the Eating Rome tour and secondly, on holiday in the UK, was allowed to bring my brother and mother on one of their Eating London Tours. What follows is somewhat an honest review of their work and food and a condensed exploration of these two behemoth cities.
Every food tour experience is broken down into three parts:
- The food
- The information
- The guide
I had never visited Rome prior to this tour. I had never visited Italy prior to filming Finding Little Italy. I had, however, eaten Italian food before, or at any rate the British pastiche of the cuisine that one finds in every town: pasta, pizza, tiramisu. I thought I knew Italian food, but then I came to Italy and found out I didn’t. I mean they put a lot of importance on pasta - too much if you ask me - but the variety of shapes and sauces was impressive. But it was in the realm of second courses where I found the more interesting dishes: baked aubergines covered in parmesan and tomato sauce, rolled up pork loin stuffed with fennel seeds and oregano and roasted in the oven, wild boar stews, spit-roast pigeon. I was keen to see what Eating Rome would add to my roster.
The old city shone as I strolled away from the colourful and rather beautiful Trastevere district, over that ancient Tiber, and into the Testaccio neighbourhood to await our tour guide. There she was, bang on time, with her folder and pen ready to tick off the tourists. And a free coupon to grab a coffee beforehand. I had become addicted to the macchiato so I was glad of this generous touch. Alexandra was attractive, full of energy, quick-witted and very smart. I liked her immediately and felt safe under her tutelage.
Introductions over we headed out into the pre-explained neighbourhood with our nice glossy maps. Testaccio wasn’t pretty and, at times, was rather ugly. But it was fascinating, and that was the point. Alexandra delicately built up our expectations to ready ourselves for an area away from the tourist hordes - which it was - and whose importance and interest outweighed its visual appeal. Testaccio - the heart of Rome - is where the city’s food culture began, simmering and bubbling around this old working class area.
The first stop, Barberini, took in a rather underwhelming mini croissant called a cornetto - not an ice cream after all - and an utterly delicious little cup made entirely of chocolate and filled with tiramisu. Decadence for breakfast.
The blue skies took us off the busy road and round some indistinct corner to Volpetti Più. Now was the moment for one of Italy’s star turns: pizza. Now I like pizza. Anyone with functioning taste buds and teeth likes pizza. These were delicious: unsurprising since the pizzas here are some of the top voted in the entire city. Two slices: margherita and patate. The former accompanied with that lovely story of how Queen Margherita, on travelling south, was presented pizzas for her delectation. Her favourite? The pizza of basil, tomato and mozzarella: the colours of the Italian flag. The pizza didn’t put a foot wrong and the little tavola with its old boys serving up slices of colourful dough was atmospheric enough to beg a return.
Then round the corner again to Volpetti, the original; a little deli bustling with shoppers and old ladies. Cheeses, hams, artisan products. We tried pecorino with truffle, parmigiano reggiano, salami infused with Barolo wine and prosciutto. Again, couldn’t fault the products, but, as usual when travelling, I would forever be comparing cheeses to the Brits and cured meats to the Spaniards: arguably the kings. That parmesan though…
We then had a cultural stop that affected me somewhat: the tomb of John Keats, set in a verdant protestant cemetery. To see where writers I enjoyed were buried always made me feel funny. And to find Keats - and also Percy Bysshe Shelley - sleeping the eternal sleep in this out of the way graveyard in Rome was rather stirring.
But onward, to more food!
The Mercato Testaccio, with over one hundred vendors, would be the next stop. We ate well here: DIY bruschetta with a tomato mix followed by a caprese salad (mozzarella di bufala bought from Lina & Enzo who had been at the market for 28 years, and that same tomato mixture from the bruschetta), and then something sweet and divine that stopped me in my tracks. A canolo, filled with sweet ricotta and dipped in pistachio nuts.
Much like any good market, it was not attractive yet it was vibrant, busy and Alexandra took the time to introduce us to the vendors - always a nice touch - and gave us stories. For example I never knew that Rome and Madrid shared a common history and love of tripe. We didn’t eat tripe. Shame.
And then more culture and history as we digested. The old slaughterhouse converted into an art museum and learning space - similar to Madrid’s Matadero - and then to Monte Testaccio, a hill comprised of compacted chunks of Roman amphorae that had come from what is now modern day Andalucía. The Romans providing a link between my adopted home and this new beast I was walking around.
For lunch we entered the terracotta hill and ate ‘the holy trinity’ of Roman pasta dishes, as Alexandra put it: carbonara (very nice), amatriciana (not bad I suppose) and cacio e pepe (delicious). All this was served with red and white wine. I didn’t hold back. There was no use being shy. That was the Spaniard in me taking hold.
After a slightly disappointing suppli' of beef and parmesan (not bad, just a bit bland) we finished up with some disgracefully nice gelato at Giolliti and all wheezed, belched and burped accordingly.
It was my first food tour. So, the three points.
Apart from a couple of ‘meh’ things, the food was to a very high standard. I’m fairly easy to please so I was really trying to be harsh in my review of them. Even so it was all pretty lovely. If I had one complaint, I would have liked more surprises. But that’s a personal desire. It was Italy’s greatest hits with a couple of bonuses.
- Cornetto (3/10) and chocolate tiramisu cup (10/10)
- Margherita and patate pizza (9/10)
- Hams and cheeses (7/10)
- Bruschetta al pomodoro (7/10)
- Caprese with bufala (7/10)
- Canoli (10/10)
- Carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe pastas and wine (8/10)
- Suppli' (6.5/10)
- Gelato (9.5/10)
Frankly brilliant. Eating Rome has taken a neighbourhood of not much visual appeal and really brought it to life. Given that I usually, what with my addiction to photography, look for ‘pretty’ places, I was over the moon at this tourist-free and pleasingly off the track area. From the cultural and historic stops to the shopkeepers and variety of eateries we went to, I can safely say that their content was flawless.
Exceptional. And it’s not just because she was pretty. Alexandra was everything I would look for in a guide. Bubbly and affable, she was adept at balancing people’s needs and wants while at the same time whisking us on professionally and smoothly.
One down, one to go.
I had a very different set of expectations for this tour. I didn’t expect to be surprised by the food. I am British of course. But I was looking forward to learning about the neighbourhood. East London was somewhere I had never been. And if the food was good, then that was a bonus.
Unlike Rome, London wasn’t bursting with sunshine as, arriving slightly late due to problems with the Tube, my mother, brother and I met our guide Olli and our ragtag group at Spitalfields market. A doughy sky of clouds that, over the morning, peppered us with drops, would be our day’s ceiling.
Olli was theatrical, ever so slightly scripty in his discourse, but was immediately likeable.
‘I bet he’s an actor,’ I whispered to my mother. As he told us at the end, he was. He had boundless energy and panache and kept it up the whole tour. Furthermore, his off-script knowledge of the East End was astounding.
I hadn’t had breakfast so I was ravenous by the first stop. St John Bread and Wine: probably the best bacon sandwich I have ever had. Strips of bacon kept in salted water for two weeks and then sweet brine for another two weeks and then smoked, put between homemade bread and accompanied with a blob of also homemade tomato and apple ketchup. Well, it was quite the entrance for London’s food.
Then under those daunting clouds we scurried past the market to The English Restaurant: cue sniggers of sarcastic derision. A wooden affair in business since the 18th century. A mini bread and butter pudding with custard greeted us. My mother cooed and said it was one of the best she had tasted. It was the best I had ever tasted. The tour was already impressing me with its quality. I now was excited for the food as well as enjoying Olli’s tales of Kings and artisans.
We then headed into Spitalfields Market - the name a historic compaction of Hospital Fields - and made for Androuet: tucked away in a corner of this grand stone and iron girded hangar. They served us a couple of cheeses, a tangy Somerset cheddar and a creamy stilton. I would have preferred a stronger stilton and they could have offered more variety, but the quality was fine.
Then, as with Rome’s pizza, it was time for the first British superstar to arrive. Fish and chips. We made for Poppie’s. Pop has recreated a fish and chip bar of the 1945-1955 period. Sadly, as with a lot of the London places, Pop wasn’t in and there wasn’t any intercourse with the vendors. But the fish and chips, served in little newspaper cones with a side pot of mushy peas, were bloody good. The batter was light and the chips were chunky buggers. Great mushy peas too, though the American clients remained suspicious. I called them big girls blouses.
Then to the Pride of Spitalfields: ‘a real pub’. Lenny the cat waddled around the padded carpet floor whilst a few locals stood at the old wooden bar having their ales pulled out of taps. We shared a jug of beer and another of cider, divvied out into shot glasses. Olli’s history of pubs was a little more interesting than the drinks themselves, but them I’m British, so I don’t count. I was glad that the young couple from Colorado were drinking as much as they could.
After our boozing we entered a zone famous for hipsters and pretentious arty arses; Olli’s set up prepared us. Shoreditch. Where all the worst people are. Some introductions and very neat real-world presentations of street art - Banksy was present - led us to the mythical Brick Lane. Land of the Bangladeshi. The curry mile.
At Aladin we tried three curries: a vegetable bhuna, a mild and fruity lamb pathia and a fiery chicken madras. I was happy as a fat kid with free cake. I love curry. Most of the others enjoyed it, but they were more impressed by the fact that curry is Britain’s most popular foodstuff.
The rain sprayed the capital and then backed down as we followed Olli’s very brisk pace to another highlight. The Beigel Bake: a 24/7 Jewish bagel bakery. One of only two left. Generous hunks of moist salt beef in a soft bagel with some pickles and hot English mustard. I was in heaven.
And finally to the tour’s only surprise. Up until this point I had mostly just been impressed at the quality of food and fascinated by the content of the tour. But then, at Pizza East - no idea why it’s called that - I had a salted caramel chocolate slice with a pot of tea and nearly wet myself with happiness. Creamy, smooth, and with that touch of salt flirting with the flavour: it was something I had never had before.
Apart from the final stop there were no surprises. It was a sort of edible greatest hits album. But, again, I’m British. I was astounded - as was my hard to please mother (she’s a damn good cook) and my ridiculously easy to please brother (he’s happy with boiled chicken breast and white rice) - by the high quality of the food. Yes, the streets lacked the colour and vibrancy of Rome, but, dare I be controversial and insinuate that perhaps the food was slightly better? Complaints can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bacon sandwich with homemade tomato ketchup (9/10)
- Bread and butter pudding (10/10)
- Cheddar and stilton (7/10)
- Fish and chips (9/10)
- Beer and cider (6.5/10)
- Curries (8/10)
- Salt beef bagel (10/10)
- Salted caramel chocolate slice and tea (10/10)
Very good. I was perhaps more fascinated by Rome as I had no idea about anything and we were a little more ‘in the sticks’. But I had never been to East London so as a first visit it was second to none. Olli delivered all the facts and stories with gusto and seemed to know everything. From Jack the Ripper’s little stabbing jaunts to immigration and artistic communities changing the area completely, the tour did a good of showing a London far removed from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. If I had one complaint it was that there wasn’t a lot of interaction with the vendors. Perhaps that’s the fault of us Brits being less open to strangers.
Another winner for Eating Europe. Olli was great. He seemingly knew everything and was very communicable. Less attractive than Rome’s guide, of course, and perhaps could be a little more chatty between stops, but otherwise pretty flawless. He even dealt with my brother’s awful jokes with grace and manners.
In conclusion, Eating Europe is a tour outfit who’s modus operandi seems to be quality food and quality guides. I’m now very keen to see what they’ve got going down in Prague and Amsterdam. Both tours were exceptional and I would frankly encourage everybody to do them. If you like food, or discovering new areas in general, you’ll like these tours. I love food and I loved these tours. If you don’t like food you can go drown yourself in the Tiber or the Thames for all I care.
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