I chose to come to England at a very interesting time: 3 members of the British cabinet resigned the weekend I arrived, followed by the arrival (and subsequent street protests) of U.S. President Trump. The heat wave was a nightmare for Underground commuting (the temperature outside was still pleasant for a tropical native like myself, of course). Wimbledon was in full swing (which my tennis aficionado friends lambasted for losing the greats, such as Williams and Nadal), along with the World Cup (England’s loss was felt all over London). The RAF celebrated 100 years (with an amazing tricoloured fly-by). There was also a fabulous, colourful celebration of London Pride.
After worrying about simply learning when not to go to London (apart from knowing when to go to learn how to properly teach using the WSET standards, which was the reason I went to city in the first place), I took a deep breath and decided to immerse myself in what the city has to offer in terms of libations (given my limited time).
Frantic to get over jet lag, I decided to spend my first day in London gathering my bearings and exploring the area near WSET. This involved a trip to the nearby Borough market. Before I went, I took mental note of something a couple of friends told me: Monmouth Coffee.
I was impressed. They have a vast (and I mean VAST) collection of beans from different corners of the globe. My sleep deprived self needed a recommendation, and after the barista narrowed the options down for me, I settled on the Fazenda Santa Inês from Brazil. It’s a creamy, mildly sweet, smooth brew from the Carmo de Minas municipality. The family managing the coffee farm in Fazenda Santa Inês, headed by Francisco Isidro Dias Pereira, has been in the coffee growing business since 1979. They took the plantation from consistently facing challenges in terms of quality, to being capable of producing award-winning, export quality coffee by applying what they’ve learned through extensive study, planting different varieties and updating the work model.
England, however, has a stronger tea culture, and I knew that a trip to the Borough Market would not be complete without getting myself a bag of tea. I’m known to occasionally be persuaded by a little bit of marketing, so it was no surprise that I got myself a bag of Darjeeling 1st Flush tea from Tea2You. Its claim to fame is that it is Prince Harry’s favourite tea (complete with photos of him in the store), and having a post royal wedding hangover, I had to try some. It’s mild, floral, and refreshing.
The best surprise in the market came to me by way of discovering the love child of an Islay whisky and gin, in the form of Barrel Aged Gin by East London Liquor Company. I’ve never had anything like it before, and the tasting notes I made seem so far off the left field, I wouldn’t be able to use it in passing a spirits exam. But it is what it is: A very pale tawny spirit with notes of smoke, charcoal, and juniper. I tried it with a little Folkington’s tonic water and an orange to garnish, which ended up being perfect.
One experience I share with a lot of people who go into wine academia is the intense desire to have beer after a wine exam. London, of course, has no shortage of pubs, from the “naff” to the fancy. As we needed a pint immediately after our last day (bright and early at 3:30 pm, of course), we hit Tanner & Co., which was directly across our school. Not content and eager to maximise having a classmate with a proper MW, we went to Londrino and sampled really obscure wines from Portugal (which was both a sensory and intellectual treat).
My colleague Bel Castro (Assistant Dean, College of Hospitality Management, Enderun Colleges) gave an astounding (and controversial) talk on the history of Philippine coffee in the Oxford Food Symposium (trivia: Bel is only the third Filipino to do a talk in the prestigious Oxford university, and it was her third time to do so). Based on years of research gathering irrefutable evidence, her findings challenge the seemingly mythical origins of Philippine coffee.
After her talk, I got myself a wine book from the Oxford store, and as I told her I was about to leave, Bel told me to pay a visit to Queen’s Lane Coffee House. Dating back to 1654, it claims to be the longest continually serving coffee house in Europe.
Speaking of history, I promised myself I would visit Hampton Court when I had the chance. I went because of my fascination with the infamous Henry VIII (and his many wives), but I was surprised to see a few drinks as well. In the gift shop, I found “real ale” (no doubt an homage to the medieval roots of the castle), cider, mead, and sloe gin… All of which I wanted to take home (for research, of course) but found impossible to lug around in my backpack. I had to content myself with a pack of Whisky Toddy mix, and planned to pretend to be royalty and indulge myself in a spicy mug the moment I get home and find myself in the middle of yet another rainy evening.
I also learned that Henry VIII, fond of excess and lavish parties, had his own wine cellar in Hampton Court (naturally). People who work in the kitchens have a ration of beer, and the people who roast game in the massive rotisseries are supplied with unlimited amounts.
Clearly, I learned a lot during this trip to London, but if one asks what my most important lesson was (apart from, again, learning how to teach WSET style), well… I think it could be summed up by a quote by Anthony Bourdain (whose annotated version of Kitchen Confidential I found in what should be a mecca for foodies and drink aficionados, Books for Cooks in Notting Hill):
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
I don’t think the scholastic challenges of the trip were heart breaking, and I don’t know if I left something good behind… I do know I took a lot of new information and fond memories home, and hopefully, I left behind fun ones with fellow wine scholars from different parts of the world.