pho the love of God

I’m very excited today.  When I’m this giddy, it has to do with one of the following: food, eating, or the anticipation of food and eating.


Tonight, I’m giong up the road, away from the delectable cool of the Northern Quarter’s restaurants, away from the big beefy steakhouses of Deansgate, away from the lovely continental snippets on offer all over central Manchester.  I’m going in the opposite direction, towards a little hole in the wall, a bring your own charmpot that more  convinces me that I don’t need to pay the airfare to get a taste of Vietnam.


Granted, V-Nam on the Oldham Road doesn’t look like much.  It’s slap bang in the middle of a row of what used to be shops when this part of town was cheefully considered a community, but is now replaced by a few high rises and busy stretch of dual carriageway and a place that no-one calls home.  The restaurant itself is really a cafe and they haven’t wasted any effort on making you think otherwise; it’s adornement-free, unless you count un-used plug sockets and undistinguishable marks on the wall.  The music is always, gratifyingly R n B (think Boyz to Men, not Beyonce) and the whole thing is perfect if you don’t want to be bothered by staff or have your water topped up every two minutes.  But, the food, ah the food!


I watched a programme on making pho, which is the national dish of Vietnam, a kind of soupy herby, sweet and sour broth with noodles.  In it, Rick Stein had a minor aneurysm perfecting his stock, which involved roasting and boiling bones and herbs for hours.  He fussed over the balance of fresh spices, the ratio of noodle to meat.  He was happy with the results and gave it, beaming, to a vietnamese woman who took one slurp and declared it ‘too salty’.  Stein was crestfallen, but held it together.  At least he had come close to slaying the pho dragon.


But the programme convinced me that to make pho, specifically the soup mix, is not something that you can do for two people.  You need to make mass quantities to make it worth your while.  Which conveniently means that I can go to V-Nam to sample it, where they must make a bath load everyday and leave it simmering on a low heat for me to bathe in.  So here’s what I’ll have.


I’ll have hands down the best salt and pepper squid that man has ever tried.  Forget about your calamari or your fritto misto; V-Nam serves its squid in big boisterous wedges, battered and seasoned and chilli-d to perfection.  Then I’ll have the prawn pho, a cauldron of soup dotted with bouncy pink shrimp, the size of a 50p coin.  Most seafood places in Manchester urge you to remortgage your house to eat shellfish, but at V-Nam, they produce wonders for under a tenner.  I will add to my soup some noodles, fresh coriander and mint, lime and chilli. Easy on the beansprouts (a personal thing).  I will slurp until soup runs freely down my chin.

Then I will sit back and muse on Stein’s efforts, and maybe even feel a little sorry for him.  I’ll enjoy it, too: it’s perhaps the only time I’ll ever be able to feel pity for a man who travels the world eating and cooking kick-ass food. 

Countdown conundrum

So, I’m finally leaving London.  Things in this respect have become increasingly real over the last few weeks – getting a job up North, looking at flats, thinking about how we are going to jooj up our flat for rental.  Although I know it’s going to happen, I am going to leave London, I can’t stop getting thick and tight throated just writing it down.

I love London.  I’ve lived here for over twelve years, it represented the centre of my world back then and it still does now.  Nowhere tops it, nowhere and though I understand the reasons why we are leaving and that practically it makes sense, I just feel so unbearably sad, so undone by the fact that I am slowly marching towards the leave date.

Having had some time off recently, my thoughts have turned to lasting London memories.  I read an article by Harriet Walker in the Indie, in which she claimed to remember where she had been every Friday night since her teens.  I envy her – at least I wish I had kept a diary so I could have logged all the places I have been, all the strange encounters, bad food, good laughs I have had since I first moved here, an arrogant 21 year old destined for stardom.  But I don’t have the luxury of  (nor do I have the willpower to keep) a journal, so I am stuck with spidermaps and scribbled notes, remnants from sudden flashbacks to Polish restaurants in Clapham or Ethiopian nosh in Notting Hill just before I fall asleep.

I don’t know why I am logging this as I don’t imagine anyone is particularly interested apart from me, but London is such a massive part of my life and one that I have taken for granted for a long time. Hopefully, my thoughts on departing will take some shape over the next few weeks (please don’t ask me to work out exactly how long I have left, that’s too painful, hence the countdown conundrum of the title) I feel very very fortunate and very very sad.

My other combative tactic is to do the things that I have always said that I would do in London but never got round to.  Like my memory flashes, these tend to revolve around food.  But today, I crossed three off the list.

I think I started thinking about Eel Pie Island when I first came to London.  I moved here to start my first acting job, a production of All For Love at Battersea Arts Centre.  It was directed by a very genteel opera director and we rehearsed in St Margarets, a super rich and super boho patch of Londinium – I’m sure it has its own pyramid but I can’t find anything on the web about it – but it sounds right – it’s exactly the kind of place to house an expensive individualist folly.  Next door is Eel Pie Island, which really is an island, the nomenclature has something to do with Henery the Eightf, I think.  During the 60s, its was rock and roll central – the Yardbirds, the Stones, the Who, George Melly and Ivor Cutler all played there.  It  has also housed a commune, continues to be a vibrant artist community and home of a new breed which I am going to call ‘theurban jaunty’; inventors, actors and indie bands.  Always fascinated by this place, I put it out of my mind for convenience sake – it’s the other side of London when did I have the time?  But when the weather is fine and I can afford the luxury of work avoidance, I can break my duck and make it to the mystical isle of the urban jaunty folk.

Stepping off at Twickenham rail station, I’m disappointed by its lack of semblance to Middle Earth- I am greeted by generic high street, differentiated only by the choice of charity shops (not Oxfam, but Princess Alice Hospice).  But I fight my way through the consumerist hubris to the footbridge.  Fellow moochers are making a similar pilgramage and I am surprised at how quickly they retrace their footsteps back over the bridge.  But Eel Pie Island is bijou, one thin path cuts through the middle of the land – it takes about five minutes to follow it to the other side and back.  On either side are a succession of private houses, some more extravagant than others, painted tin or wooden shacks with all the signs of the urban jaunty, shop dummies in the garden, old tin letterboxes, kitsch house names.  the waterfront properties have a jetties and boats tethered outside – to be honest on a beautiful day like today, there are few places as conveniently and pleasantly cut off as this.An Eel Pie Residence

On my way back across the path, I decide that I like Twickenham,  a decision that I think one has to be in their thirties to arrive at.  I walk the Thames path over to Richmond, taking the time to meander and follw my own curiousity – I take in the incredible terrace of Montpellier Row, Turners’ pad, , Sandycombe Lodge and Marble Hill House, home to George II’s mistress.  Crossing the bridge at Richmond I could be in Paris suddenly – until the doppelganger high street looms up on the horizon.  I breathe in, lower my gaze for the first time in hours and make it to the train station.

And my third off the list – I tried pho for the first time and Vietnamese summer rolls at the aptly named pho in Wardour Street.  Delicious.

I already miss London.

Pho at Pho
Pho at Pho