I’m a sucker for a good cityscape so when my friend suggested we spend the day on Hampstead Heath and take in the panorama of London from the park’s Parliament Hill I didn’t have to be asked twice.
The day’s culinary adventures started pretty badly; I was feeling unexplainably dehydrated and had a curiously strong urge for salt so our first stop on arriving in Hampstead village at lunchtime was for a large bottle of water and a shared portion of large fries from McDonald’s. There. Confession and excuse over. Thankfully a few doors down there is a branch of Paul, a decent chain of patisseries which are scattered throughout London and I’ve even visited one here in Barcelona. We redeemed our earlier misdemeanour there by picking up a nice sandwich, some breads and a frangipane to pick at whilst we wandered the Heath. Surprisingly for Hampstead the snack food/take-away lunch choices are limited and the village suffers from that very British syndrome of high street chain domination.
Hampstead itself, however, is a delight.
It’s narrow, cobbled streets, 18th and 19th century houses and gas lamp style street lights give the borough a Dickensian air and whisk you away from the reality of actually being in the heart of one of the world’s metropolises.
After soaking up the village we made our way onto the Heath and strolled amongst the many ponds scattered throughout the park, including outdoor bathing ponds for those brave souls who can tolerate the chilly waters, although undoubtably the setting more than makes up for the cold fingers and toes.
We decided to abandon our plans for a detour to nearby Highgate Cemetary, lured instead by the prospect of lazing with our hastily bought picnic in the warm, late afternoon sun that bathed the grassland in front of Kenwood House. Oh and mourning the lack of frangipane that the assistant at Paul had forgot to put in the bag.
As the sun dipped behind the trees it was time to get to Parliament Hill before the light meant we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the view at it’s best. There are few places in London, save for the London Eye which will leave you £20 lighter, where you can get a good, elevated view of the city. Parliament Hill is a gem, busy, but not crowdedly so, with others who’d made the walk up there, the hill gives an amazing vista stretching from Canary Wharf in the east across to (if you squint very hard) Big Ben at Westminster to the west.
With our fill of the view and a contented sigh at what a glorious day we’d had it was time to go for a fill of our stomachs, so we headed down to the well reviewed gastropub The Bull & Last on the Highgate side of the Heath.
From the outset the staff were extremely friendly, making sure we were happy at the bar as we waited for some space to come free and even warning us that some of the bottled beers were “pricey” before we chose. This had a cosy pub feel and as we waited we took in the information above the bar about their suppliers, salivated over the menu and decided that as we were going to share the ‘Duck Cassoulet for Two’ we would just sample a few of the bar snacks for starters.
Once a table came free the first of the bar snacks arrived, a delicious, meaty and herby Scotch Egg with a lovely half set yolk, as if made me for, hater of dy, hard boiled egg yolk. Straight out of the fridge this was slightly too cold but this is a bar snack and I’d prefer it’d come straight from the fridge than warm and soggy from sitting on the bar all day, which I hasten to add I’m sure the Bull & Last would never do.
We followed this with a ‘Colchester Rock Oyster with Shallot Vinegar’ each, my friend losing his oyster virginity and enjoying it immensely. I really like oysters and always chew them, I can’t understand just throwing it down your throat, I want to taste it.
Our final snack was new territory for both of us with the ‘Crispy Pigs Ears, Head Meat, Apples, Radish and Capers’, where we dug through the pile of fruity, tangy salad with the crispy bits to the unctuous, delicious head meat sitting in the bottom of the dish. It was really, really good and yet another occasion where I’ve been offally surprised.
And then the main event, the cassoulet of confited duck legs with slices of boudin noir and toulouse sausages nestling in the white bean ragu. As soon as it was put on the table I said a small prayer of thanks to the assistant at Paul for forgetting that frangipane, she’d done us a huge favour. I’ve never had cassoulet before and imagined breaking a fatty crust to reveal the meats underneath but here the legs sat on top of the ragu, whether this is usual or their take on it I have no idea as have nothing to compare it to.
Whatever, despite the duck legs being ever so slightly dry on the outside the dish was fantastic and really needs no more comment other than my friend’s words at the end of the meal, who with a few forkfuls left and an almost bursting belly said something along the lines of “I’m finishing this no matter what”.
Dessert was beyond us but the truffles of White Chocolate & Pistachio and Salted Caramel made their way into my bag to be tasted another time (the salted caramel ones were very moreish), we settled the bill, headed out onto the street, loosened our belts and groaned with pleasure the whole walk home.
The Bull & Last, 168 Highgate Road, London NW5 (non-smoking)