Portobello: where food takes you on a journey across the world
London’s famous precinct is a melting pot of cultures — with a spot of time travel thrown in for good measure
Portobello Road is one of London’s most vibrant streets. Hosting a famous antiques market on Saturdays, the long street buzzes with vegetable and vintage-clothing stalls, street food and bric-a-brac. Bars, restaurants, delis and pubs jostle for attention.
The surrounding area of Notting Hill, with its pastel-coloured buildings and trendy shops, is home to many celebrities.
While the markets make a great day out for locals and visitors, the streets leading off Portobello Road are not to be missed either.
One of the most multicultural is Golborne Road, where one can traverse the globe from Europe to the Middle East and North Africa.
Overlooked by architect Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower – either the ugliest or most desirable building in London, depending on your appreciation of Brutalist architecture – Golborne Road has begun to cater for a trendier crowd. Stella McCartney has an outlet, gastro-pubs and boutiques abound.
Yet the street retains its wonderful mix of cultures.
At one end is Lisboa Patisserie, where devotees queue for the unrivalled pastéis de nata. Be warned, these Portuguese custard tarts sell out despite being baked in huge quantities. It’s enough to spoil one’s day if the shelves are bare.
Keep space for lunch over the road at Maramia Café, one of the few Palestinian restaurants in the UK. We ordered a range of hot and cold mezze: Gaza salad, a smoky moutabal, lentil soup, and sujuk — homemade lamb sausages served with tomatoes and garlic.
The star of the show was the chicken mousakhan, a traditional dish of grilled chicken, caramelised onion and pine nuts sandwiched between freshly baked flatbread.
Zigzagging across Golborne Road, we had dessert at the Moroccan pastry shop, L’Etoile de Sous, where an irresistible array of delicacies was laid out on trays in the window.
While Britain’s weather might not be as warm as North Africa, Le Marrakech brings Morocco to London. Part halaal butchery and part grocer, the tiled shop brims with vats of preserved lemons, harissa and olives. Couscous is sold in 10kg and smaller bags, and the shelves are filled with spices, nuts, dried fruits and the best pistachio halva I have eaten.
Back on the street, there are several food vans selling grilled fish and tagines. My favourite is identifiable by a sign: Eat First Food Van. In 2012, it won the BBC Food and Farming award for Best Street Food in the UK.
Having eaten there repeatedly before its rise to national fame, I was concerned it might have lost its no-frills appeal, not to mention the fabulous fish, lamb or chicken tagines.
I need not have worried. The proprietor, Az Mohamed, reported that, aside from an increased number of customers, nothing had changed.
I noticed the plastic buckets which used to serve as seating had been upgraded to bar stools. For £7, you can sit at the counter and tuck into a generous bowl of tagine served with couscous.
The same price will buy a three-course meal at Books For Cooks on Blenheim Crescent, a side street off Portobello Road.
This is a shop one wishes to be locked into overnight. The small room is crammed floor-to-ceiling with every imaginable cookbook that food lovers, chefs, historians and aficionados could ever need.
Established in 1983, it is a minor miracle that this gem has survived in an era of online shopping and closure of independent bookshops.
Luckily, for those in the know, cookbooks come to life daily in the tiny test kitchen at the rear end of the store, where owner Eric Treuille prepares lunch. Each morning, a tweet announces the lunch menu, which showcases one of the books on sale.
There is no booking system and the 30 seats fill quickly from 11.30am. It’s not a space for claustrophobes or those wanting a discreet private meal; guests are intimately close. We sat at a lilac café table below the Spanish and Italian books.
At noon, Treuille dipped a plastic jug into a large pot and poured out helpings of celeriac and mustard soup, which he anointed with puddles of grassy olive oil and served with home-baked bread.
Next, a tray of roasted kale emerged from the oven while Treuille ladled polenta onto dinner plates, followed by well flavoured poulet aux olives.
An array of cakes graced the counter from which guests could choose. We opted for a slice of plum cake topped with caramelised plums and a giant wedge of Victoria sponge filled with cream and strawberries.
Treuille, wearing red trousers and a black Polo shirt, his greying hair stylishly cut, has a French accent that perfectly complemented the lunch he had prepared. He varies the flavours of the daily meals, testing out recipes from the books he sells.
While he serves a vegetarian lunch on Tuesdays, he has no patience for the current fashion for gluten-free or vegan meals.
If you have a more expansive budget, one of the finest restaurants in the area is The Ledbury. Sporting two Michelin stars, head chef Brett Graham hails from Australia, yet has made an enviable reputation in modern British cuisine.
While the tasting menu will set you back £120, the four-course set lunch is half that. The restaurant is smart but unstuffy, the food is beautiful and fabulous, and the staff are friendly to children, which is not always the case at this level of fine dining.
In search of some cultural stimulation to work off a day of eating, we visited the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising. Situated on Lancaster Road, yet another side street off Portobello, the museum’s "Time Tunnel" transports visitors from the Victorian era into the present via a series of display cases packed with merchandise, toys, games, fashion items and other memorabilia.
My favourite item of the early 20th century was the Wembley Empire Game – a board game consisting of the British colonies. SA was situated at the right-hand bottom corner of the board, below Nigeria and the Gold Coast. Presumably the object was to buy as many colonies as possible, all the while learning about the might of the British Empire.
I experienced a frisson of nostalgia in the 1970s, where I found my mother’s high-heeled boots, tall coffee pot and Beatles albums. Rocket models of the Apollo X Moon Challenger revealed how toys reflect the world we inhabit.
There was Lego, Barbie dolls, Thunderbirds and Twister. But the best item of all was a yellow Chopper bike. The technology of the 1980s was a hoot — remember the first home computer and the Walkman?
As a lesson in social history, the museum is engrossing as it uncovers the origins of so much of what we consume.
It evokes emotional memory by presenting viewers with our personal history — what we once ate, drank, watched, read and played with.
In the 1950s section, two women reminisced about how, aged 14, they had wept at school the day Buddy Holly died.
They peered at the merchandise on display and swapped stories of their youth. One turned to her friend and said wistfully, "I still like Babycham." They then rounded a corner and disappeared into the 1960s.