Destination: Hampstead, London
Mode of Transport: Beef Wellington
The taxi pulled up to 17 Barrow Street, in the heart of the West Village in New York City . Through pre-war doors, we entered, One if by Land, Two if by Sea, a restaurant that was at its height of popularity in the late 90’s. It was early in our relationship, and our first real Christmas together.
The pianist played traditional carols, the Christmas Trees lit, and the fireplaces ablaze. The menu was fairly easy for two young people, just making it in the world, to navigate. We purchased a mid-range priced wine, pre-ordered the souffle (as required) and ordered the dish we were there to have, the Beef Wellington. With dialogue that was enhanced both by wine on empty stomachs and amorous affection, she promised me that she would make the dish for me one day.
She kept her promise; and many successful Beef Wellingtons later, it has become a Christmas Eve family tradition.
This Yuletide, we happen to be in England, the nation accredited to be the founders of the dish via Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, who led his troops to defeat Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. Though away from home, through the kindness of a friend, we are at a proper household with a proper kitchen and utensils, enabling us to continue our tradition.
With the weather having been unseasonably warm as of late, the dip in the temperature was embraced by all, and the feeling in the streets more akin to how we always pictured Christmas to be in an English Village. The people of Hampstead were abuzz and we joined in the anticipation of the big days to come. Almost as if the scene were created for our entertainment, all the shops were filled, Christmas music was playing everywhere, and families hauled trees through the small streets, It was the day before Christmas Eve, the day my family and I purchased everything we needed for our feast.
Our daughter deemed a hot drink and a pastry short of being a sustainable breakfast, which led us to keep up with another one of our family made Christmas traditions, an English Breakfast. Which we would have done on a day like this if we were at home in New York, at a restaurant named, Balthazar. It was quite the treat to have had an authentic one at a local favorite called, Mani’s.
The eatery, with an aesthetic akin to some of the seafood shacks I grew accustomed to seeing in New England, was set in a beautiful cobblestoned street with a large Christmas Tree in the center. The place was packed, and we were seated at a table under a heat lamp and given blankets to keep warm. The bacon thick, the sausages firm to the knife and moist in the center, was accompanied by perfect fried eggs, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, baked beans and buttered white toast. Thanks to Bailey’s persistence, we had the energy for our day of shopping.
In our time as visitors to Hampstead, we had grown an affinity to certain establishments. In respect to our Christmas Feast, just about everything we needed was within a 3 block radius of each other. The epicenter being the Community Market, an outdoor mini-market with a few choice stalls. It’s here that we enjoy having grilled breakfast sandwiches with a man named Bill and his mother on most mornings. We also like picking out some select vegetables and fruit from a young man who has a vocabulary as select as his produce. Lastly, there is, the butcher.
Meat Naturally offers organic meats and poultry sourced exclusively from small British Farmers. The stand, small, humble and yet sophisticated in their offerings, is always busy with locals putting in orders. There are two lovely, yet taciturn, butchers behind the counter who have reserved for us the most beautiful cut of beef fillet for our Wellington.
Adjacent to it is the Community Center which also serves as a venue for other merchants to show and sell their goods. It’s here that we bought our cheeses and sausages from a giddy young man, named Quinten from the Normandy Region, who not only knows how to promote his fine selection from Une Normande à Londres, but also himself. He has energy in abundance and was a joy to have purchased from.
Down a few blocks on High Street is the Hampstead Butcher, who have a lively young staff along with professional butchers wearing white aprons and straw hats. This butchery not only sells top grade meats, it also offers gourmet food items from all over Europe. They have the most beautiful window on the block, showcasing pheasant and the most beautiful aged cuts of steak. It’s straight out of any Dickens novel.
It is here that we found the foie gras that is an essential part of the Wellington recipe. They have good offerings in this category as the neighborhood have many French inhabitants. Sort of an irony considering the history that inspired the naming of this British dish being enhanced by a product largely connected to French cuisine.
There were, of course, the odds and ends which I won’t bore you with, but there are a few most worthy of a mention. One, a store called Melrose and Morgan, where we purchased our Christmas Plum Pudding and Brandy Custard. This place is as English as it gets. Though I won’t be steaming the pudding in cheese cloth, as Mrs. Cratchit did in “A Christmas Carol”, I will certainly be enjoying it as much as the Tiny Tim had.
Another is a produce grocer called, Artichoke. Everything here is beautiful, local and organic. The staff is the most lively of the lot. It’s here that we got, even more, produce, fruit, and nuts for the feast.
“By Appointment to his Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, Cheesemongers, Jeroboams, London”, is what the signs and bags read. This was where we purchased our wines and sherry. There was a knowledgeable staff that was unintrusive but always there to give a hand. They were busy putting together orders as I perused through the shelves. By the end, I walked out with six bottles ranging from wines from Spain’s Ribera del Duero to France’s Burgundy Region.Its Royal Appointment does not stop it from offering good value for good wine, which pleased me very much.
In the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, “I’m as Giddy as a Schoolboy”. We were chasing Christmas from where we were, far away, and now we got it. For a brief second, we were thinking of cooking a rib roast in lieu of the Wellington as it would be much easier to prepare, but my wife had promised our daughter and could not disappoint her. As always she will keep her promise. The tradition continues.
The beef Wellington recipe Brenda has used all these years is this one from Martha Stewart. Make sure you read the directions carefully because it is a 2-day job. Also, make sure to buy the best ingredients, this is the key to a good wellington. If you use this recipe, don’t forget to let us know what you think.
Short travel guide to Hampstead, London.
We flew one way into Heathrow Airport from Bangkok via KLM at $300 per person.
Getting to Hampstead:
We took the Heathrow Express from Heathrow to Paddington Station. The price for adults was £21.50 one-way and takes about 15 minutes. It would cheaper to purchase the round-trip ticket at £35.00 but the return must be used within a month. Bailey was free (Children under 15 are free to ride) We are staying longer.
From Paddington Station, we took a black taxi cab to Hampstead, which cost us £20.00. Do check online for discounts on 7, 30 and 90-day advance tickets (which we will be doing on our return).
Where to Stay:
We were so blessed to have stayed with a friend in Hampstead. It is only a few stops from Central London on the tube and it was great to come home to a very beautiful and quiet village. We recommend staying in an Airbnb, which we’ve had great experience with all throughout Southeast Asia.
To help you save some money here is a $20 credit.