Elise Eats Europe 3: Bath
Bath is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Not only does the River Avon run through it, but the city was designed by a single architect so that the buildings all flow together instead of the hodge-podge you find in most cities. The guidebooks tell me it is classic Georgian, but an architect we met at a dinner party later clarified that since there were three King Georges, that's kind of a meaningless term. I was really excited to show the city to Bob, and it was even worth the 6-hour trip to get there on Monday.
We had dinner at No. 5. The last time I had been through Bath, I had my nose figuratively pressed up against the window of No. 5, so it was thrilling to actually be able to eat there. We ordered a rib of beef for two, and they brought us an entire chateaubriand, plus a rib for good measure. It was a ridiculous amount of meat. I said, "This is the kind of thing my brother Glen would serve us," and I knew that Glen would be immeasurably pleased by that observation. Half-way through the meal, I felt like we were in "Le Grand Boeuf", a movie where a group of people decide to eat themselves to death (Which we had just watched at ATP, courtesy of Mudhoney).
Tuesday we toured the Roman Baths. At one time it was a temple to Minerva. People used to scratch curses into lead and throw the metal into the water to summon her wrath. Some of the ancient curses have been translated, and they are fantastic in their intensity and pettiness:
"MAY HE WHO HAS STOLEN VIBLA FROM ME BECOME AS LIQUID AS WATER"
"DOCI MEDIS HAS LOST TWO GLOVES. HE ASKS THAT THE PERSON WHO HAS STOLEN THEM SHOULD LOSE HIS MIND AND HIS EYES IN THE TEMPLE WHERE SHE APPOINTS"
You can't actually bathe in the hot springs (or curse anyone, I would assume). They are supposed to open a spa nearby called Thermae Bath Spa, but disappointingly, it still wasn't open during our stay. You can drink a glass of the water for about 50-pence, but it smells like sulpher and people drinking it always make the nastiest faces.
We did have cream tea in the Roman Bath's "Pump Room", another seminal nose-pressed-against-the-glass experience. It was well worth it just to sit in the elegant dining room listening to a pianist playing Chopin.
Bob wanted fish and chips, so we went to a "chippie" called Seafood Fish and Chips. The "medium" cod was as long as my arm, so we ordered one to split. Out of curiosity, I ordered a pea fritter. I thought it would be dough studded with little peas. Ha! It was a big handful of mushy peas, battered and deep-fried. It was an atrocity.
Even though the fish was good, it was too greasy for me, so I decided to get a kebab, (pronounced Keh-BABB) next-door. They take half a pita and fill it with "doner". No one has yet been able to tell me what donner meat is. It is meat cooked on a vertical spit, like shwarma. Then they fill it with some kind of sauce. I had been warned against "chili sauce" so I ordered "garlic sauce." This actually meant "mayonnaise". I took about 2 huge bites of mayo before tossing the whole thing over a fence into a dumpster.
Wednesday it was raining really hard. We took "The Mad Max Tour". The first stop was Stonehenge. It was hard not to hear Spinal Tap in my head, "...No one knows who they were or what they were doing..." The first time I saw Stonehenge I was very moved. It was almost deserted, and it felt like a mystical experience. This time it was very crowded, and just kind of an interesting spectacle.
Our guide told us that the modern Druids are upset because a replica of Stonehenge will be built in London. They are angry that it will just be built for financial gain, for tourists. But no one really knows why Stonehenge was built. Sure, it's probably an observatory. But how do we know ancient people didn't charge a dozen eggs, or a sheep to see Stonehenge? Maybe the answer to the mystery of Stonehenge is that it was the world's first tourist attraction.
Next we went to the Avebury stone circle. It is better than Stonehenge in a way, because you can walk around and touch the giant stones. Just try not to walk in sheep dip. One of the stones is called The Barber Stone because when they were putting the stones back in their original position, they found a dead barber under it.
Next we went to Lacock, which is a village owned by the National Trust. It is all charming and old-fashioned. We had lunch in a pub there called the George. They have one of the few remaining "dog wheels" there (not in use of course). It is a large wheel, like for hamsters, which is attached to a an axle that turns a spit in the fire. The wheel is really narrow, and they bred special dogs called "Spit-turns" just for this purpose. They kind of look like cocker-spaniel weiner dogs. At some point people realized the dogs were not exactly happy running in such proximity to a giant fire for 5 hours a day, and public outcry stopped the practice.
The George had a pretty modern menu for being so charming and old-fashioned (and for being renowned for a medieval dog torture device). I had a fried brie salad with a beef and ale pie. Bob had lemon sole. I had an exceptionally strong ale called 6x, which almost caused me to buy a really weird cat-toy-looking hat at the shop next-door, but sanity prevailed.
We passed by two white horses. The hills in that part of England are chalk, so ancient peoples used to creatively clear the grass from hillsides to make giant white horses. Right this way, that will be a dozen eggs, please.
Our last stop for the day was Castle Combe, where they filmed the original Dr. Doolittle. It's very beautiful and picturesque. We ooh-ed and aah-ed and got back on the bus.
The guide filled the silence of the long trip back by playing mystical, screedley Celtic music. "...and oh, how they danced, the little people of Stonehenge..."
That evening we decided to eat at a Nepalese restaurant we had been noticing in Bath. I didn't know when the opportunity to eat Sherpa food would arise again, so I had to try it. The spice trade (and a brisk potato trade, according to our server) brought culinary influences from neighboring Tibet, China and Thailand, making Nepalese an early "fusion" cuisine. It tasted to me like a mixture of Thai and Indian food. When the waiter repeated our order, he said, "...and you want Yak Yeti Yak beef?" All of a sudden I heard the Coasters, "Yakkety Yak, don't talk back!" I started laughing really hard, because I'd been passing that sign for three days and had not gotten the joke.
We started with Momos: “Steamed spiced dumplings (vegetable or pork), served with fresh hemp seed chutney, a classic dish from the high Himalaya.” We ordered pork dumplings, and the meat was reminiscent of Lebanese kafta meatballs, heavy with cilantro and parsley. For main dishes, we ordered Bhutuwa: “Select pieces of chicken marinated in our own mix of freshly ground spices, and stir-fried with tomato, onion, garlic, and ginger.” This dish was very similar to Chinese food, and was my favorite. Also Yak Yeti Yak Beef: “Beef marinated in our own special blend of spices, then stir-fried with onion, sweet pepper, and tomato.” This dish reminded us of Thai food. We also had Hario Simi Ra Aloo, “Fresh green beans and new potatoes stir-fried in our own blend of spices.” This was almost exactly like Indian food. On the side we had basmati rice (Bhat) and Maasko Dal: Split black lentil cooked with traditional spices and finished with Himalayan herbs fried in butter.” This was the one dish that made me make a moue. The intense butteriness just didn’t seem right. But eaten in combination with the other foods, it began to make more sense.
The proprieter walked around greeting people. We talked about how the hippies "riding the Marrakesh Express" in the 60s influenced cooking in Nepal. He told me that the hippies introduced the Nepalese to apple tarts, then they just stopped coming. I said, "Well, then they all saw Midnight Express" and that was kind of a conversation killer.
No. 5 Bistro 5 Argyle Street, Bath 01225 444499
Pump Room, Stall Street
Seafoods Traditional Fish and Chips Kingsmead Square, Bath
The George Inn Lacock NR, Chippenham, Wiltshire 01249 730263
Yak Yeti Yak 12 Argyle Street, Bath 01225 442299
Mad Max Tours 01225 464323 www.madmaxtours.co.uk