From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Thursday, 8 March 2012


Restaurant: The Corrib Rest
Location: Kilburn

By Boeing: 3775 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.9 miles

Iraq to Ireland, it promised to be quite a culture shock, though in my London journey it was but a couple of tube stops from Edgeware Road to Kilburn.

To be an Englishman in London on Saint Patrick’s day is like being a boy locked in his bedroom looking through the keyhole as others enjoy his birthday party without him. Such is the Celtic fervour stirred up on that headiest of drinking days that attested Angles and embattled Brits dance to the whistle, don green felt hats and lark around like Leprechauns. There is something mystical and magical about Ireland that captures the English imagination. If the myth be believed it is a land of mirth and merriment where everybody smiles, jokes and dances through a life that is so tough for the rest of the world.

Should we begrudge our neighbours’ carefree craic, or embrace it as a colourful, Celtic part of London’s culture? Not wanting to be a killjoy I headed to Kilburn, that Guinness dripping district of the capital, to judge for myself. The Irish don’t have restaurants as such, well at least their British ex-pats don’t, instead the pub provides their solace, their soul and their sustenance. The Corrib Rest was a typical example. Dimly lit, traditional and packed to the rafters with a cornucopia of cultural clutter it was at once welcoming and intriguing.

Seemingly almost the size of a football pitch the room was divided into several sections, each itself partitioned by oak screens and raised sections. The initial room was intimate at first, with stained glass topped wooden screens and benches around an open fire. Beyond that was a dance-floor of sorts surrounded by leather booths. A poster outside suggested come Wednesday night this would be crowded with Irish jigs.

Through the door to the other side of the bar I was confronted with several glass cabinets. The first proudly displayed an Irish jacket of an unexplained sporting denomination. The second contained a number of silver, crystal and bronze trophies, presumably for hurling or Gaelic football or some-such pastime of the homeland. Beyond the bar was a pool table and back towards the window another open fire with two heavy oak partitions creating vestibules in which several families could sit.

I sat in one of the compartments, feeling a little like I was in confessional and a little like Mr Poirot may sit next to me and ask when we were due to arrive in the Orient. Two metres or so below the ceiling was a broad shelf filled with an array of objects. I spotted trowels, lamps, tricycles and tennis rackets. There was, it seemed, no logic to their selection. None struck me as particularly Irish. But somehow the clutter itself seemed in keeping, the polar opposite to the modernist minimalism of a Scandinavian bar. It was somewhere people clearly spend a lot of time, drinking of course, catching up with friends, watching sport on the plasma screens that covered almost every inch of wallspace and, perhaps, wistfully dreaming of the old country, which they chose to leave.

To begin I ordered, what else, a Guinness. The thick, noxious black liquid has become the symbol of Ireland and its greatest import. They say it tastes better on the banks of the Liffy in the same way, presumably, as London Pride tastes better on the banks of the Thames. You can taste the calorific intake with each sip and wonder whether food will be necessary. It is like Slim-fast milkshakes for those with no intention of dieting. Alongside my black pint I ordered a side of soda bread. This Irish staple is very dry, so dry in fact that it would be more effective than a hand towel. I’ve heard people make a case for adding olives to bread and I myself have championed the cause for cheese to included in the mix but I'm not sure what soda adds. Perhaps it merely causes thirst and therefore forces someone to buy the next round of Guinness?

One of the earliest known culinary traditions in Ireland was the Fulacht Fiadh, which was a method of cooking deer by filling a hole with water and adding hot stones. Sadly boiled venison wasn’t on the menu so I chose the classic Boiled Bacon and cabbage in a parsley sauce. This was of course served with potato, the ubiquitous vegetable of the Irish menu. It is said that the Irish poor of the early eighteenth survived solely on a diet of potato and buttermilk, as potatoes were they only crop able to feed a family from a quarter of an acre plot. The potato and kale dish of colcannon can now be found in many gastro-pubs but other Irish staples like Goody (boiled bread) and Crubeens (pig’s trotters) are seen less frequently on menus.

For many Ireland has become a symbol of a rural idyll, a romanticised isle where time has stood still, where people still have time to entertain and enjoy the simple things in life. As I walked back onto a London street i thought how frantic life in the capital can be. Perhaps we all need some of Ireland’s laid back charm in our lives.