My Secret Life adventure this week was another sharp reminder about how many key tourist attractions in London I have actually never visited. Hard to believe that as a fan of the London underground to the point of producing my 'nnoodl' jewellery collection, that I have never been to the London Transport Museum. I know, shocking, I think it was the thought of all of the ankle biting visitors that out me off. Ah, but like all good museums and galleries, the LTM has bought into the idea of the 'Friday Late' for adults, which they call Illuminate. This particular week featured a talk and tasting called the 'Scent and Spirit of London'. This sensory experience was hosted by Odette Toilette, aka Lizzie Ostrom, purveyor of olfactory adventures, and special guest Alice Lascelles, journalist, author, and hard liquor expert. Our first stop was to the Belle Époque era, and a glimpse at London via the legendary Cafe Royal, where the drink of choice was Pierre Jouet. As we sipped our own glass of the sparkling stuff, Alice gave us a flavour of this era of optimism. A glimpse inside the Oscar Wilde Room at Cafe Royal which itself has remained steeped in this feeling of decadence. Lizzie then introduced us to one of the scents of the time, coming from one of the oldest and most revered perfume house, Grossmith. The scent Phul-Nana means 'lovely flower' in Hindi. First created in 1891, the fragrance was unusual for its time mixing traditional feminine floral notes with herbaceous and aromatic notes, a precursor to later Oriental fragrances. This was a really heady fragrance, which you could hardly imagine wearing nowadays, but which Grossmith do continue to produce.
The next decade was the 1920s, and a foray into the world of the world renowned Savoy cocktail bar. Here, the bartender, Harry Craddock was responsible for making this one of the most iconic cocktail bars in the world, where he created cocktails forming the Savoy Cocktail book, still a must for barmen everywhere. He was the creator of the next drink we were to sample, which was the Corpse Reviver #2, aptly named, this concoction of gin, Cointreau, absinthe, and lemon definitely had a medicinal feel to it. To accompany this drink Lizzie talked is through an equal unusual scent of the day, Habanita. This was originally produced as a scent for cigarettes for ladies, and came in small thin phials which slipped inside cigarette cases. It came with a strange almost underground club culture, almost sinister. This is another very head scent, with floral notes backed by the feel of scented tobacco paper and tinges of leather.
As we ventured into the 1940s we were reminded that we were straddling war time. To talk about the scent first, we were shown posters of the now legendary Yardley Lavender perfume. Ah this is the stuff of old ladies, reminiscent of my grandmas bathroom, and those knitted doll toilet roll covers. Wartime posted depicted women supporting the war effort, who were reminded to keep up their standards of make up and perfume. Perhaps the idea was to overcome the enemy?! The drink passed around was Spitfire ale. This was the coming of the 'local' bar in the real sense - a place of community and camaraderie. Alice told us how the Second World War could not put a stop to the enjoyment of Westerham’s ales, which were popular with young airmen stationed at nearby RAF Biggin Hill. Indeed, following the D-Day landings, Westerham Ales were exported to troops in Normandy inside the auxiliary fuel tanks of Spitfires!
Spirits were definitely high in the audience by this point, with the heady mix of drinks and scents filling the air. Our last stop on this journey was to the 1970s. This, Lizzie explained was a key time for Goya perfumes, and especially Aqua Manda, which every young female of the time would purchase in the form of perfume, talc, soap and so on. Such is its iconic status that thee has been a Facebook campaign since 2008 to resurrect it. This was a time of celebration, and the Queens Silver Jubilee. I was surprised to learn that the now Jubilee tube line had actually originally been called the Fleet Line. The dinner party came into being as women everywhere aspired to be the perfect hostess, serving an array of bizarre looking dishes. We were shown the Cinzano adverts which featured Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. I did remember how we laughed at those on our tiny TV sets. We were handed out cheese and pineapple on a stick, obviously from a melon hedgehog - pure quality! The drink to accompany this was vermouth. Although this was a drink that I remembered as a teenager being the one at the back of my parents drinks cabinet, and most likely to be drunk only out of desperation at the end of a party. However, it is now back into popular culture featuring in one of my favourite cocktails, the Negroni, and apparently the one we were sampling was called Sacred and is actually produced in Highgate in London. I am discovering a lot about hidden London breweries in the Secret Life!
All too soon the talk was over, but of course we had access to the Museum and so it was time for a vibrant cocktail as we looked around the London buses and got probably over excited by the ever appearing miniature motorised vehicles whizzing around the venue.
'Food and drink' was the category chosen for me for this little adventure. Not too much of a challenge there I hear you say, but actually I still always feel some apprehension around dining alone, which I know a lot of my solo friends feel. Fear not though, no food involved here - 'Visit a Vineyard' was the card which I drew out. However, it turned out that the biggest challenge here was to find a vineyard near London that was actually open to the public in January. I knew of a vineyard in Sussex, but no, it wasn't open to the public until spring. Ah but the power of Google,as against the odds I stumbled upon an 'urban winery' called London Cru, which bizarrely is located beside West Brompton station! They appeared to run tours and tastings every Saturday and so I was in. The location of this little gem really couldn't be more urban, as I arrived down a little side street to find this understated sign heading down a tiny alley. In fact the site itself is so compact that fellow wine enthusiasts were waiting outside as they didn't have room to take us all in until the allotted time.
Once inside, however, we felt like we were party to a miniature Wonka type world of wine. Alex introduced himself as our guide for the day and swiftly made sure we had a sample of wine to start with - nice touch. He explained that the winery was an idea that was formed in 2012, with the business starting in 2013. The obvious question of course was where do the grapes come from, there is no vineyard in urban west London? He explained that they purchase grapes from over all Europe - France, Spain, Italy. The precedent for this way of working had been set apparently by a winery in Manhattan who buy their grapes from California, a five day drive away. The wine we were tasting at this point, the Bacchus, did derive from a lot closer to home and the vineyard in Kent. When the grapes arrive in the London Cru winery they are sorted by hand to discard leakage, underripe vines and other foreign bodies. Next the grapes go to the huge press. The photo really doesn't do this piece of kit justice, it really is a monster. After this the juice is transferred into huge steel fermenting tanks, which themselves have been transported from Slovenia.
Alex then explained the difference between the fermentation processes with white and red wine. This was an education indeed, as someone who thought they knew a lot about (drinking!) wine. He explained the different types of yeasts used, and how the red grapes are fermented twice in a much longer process to ensure the skins mix with the grapes. This involves agitating the juice inside the fermentation tanks with a large plunger like stick. Or alternatively, as Alex explained, by the good old fashioned human foot pressing method which he had been subject to inside these giant tanks. This process comes with its own risk from the large amounts of carbon dioxide which are released from the bubbles, apparently a health hazard to traditional rural wine producers. We were then led into the temperature controlled cellar where oak barrels lined the walls. These barrels cost between 800 and 3000 euros each - it was becoming ever clearer how expensive this wine producing business was.
And finally we were introduced to the full array of London Cru wines for a tasting. From the Chardonnay from one of their French producers grapes, through to the Italian Barbera and the amazing Syrah and Grenache from Spanish vines, I really was hard pressed (excuse the accidental wine pun) to pick a favourite. Well that coupled with the state of euphoria I was now in after sampling 7 wines on a post-run, empty stomach. I felt like part of a small, privileged club to have been part of this underworld tour. I was almost hesitant to share this adventure with you, and in fact keep it very secret. However, this is a. wonderful business that I would love to see do well. Although with some key restaurants such as the Hawksmoor, The Bleeding Heart and The Gilbert Scott selling their wines, I am confident that word will continue to spread about this hidden treasure in the heart of Zone 2.
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.