The autumn equinox
is but two days old when I find myself in a short-sleeve top cycling along the
Regent’s Canal west London-bound. My destination? Acklam Village, on Portobello
Road. More than my two feet pedalling me forward, what drives me towards this
street food heaven is a Proustian madeleine: a long-held desire to sink my
teeth into a well-cooked Cuban sandwich again. The waterway is
teeming with sun-seekers, willing to soak up the last drop of warmth this
surprising, still-lingering summer has gifted us. It is like watching bees and
butterflies feasting on late flowers in back gardens. I arrive at Acklam
Village desperate for some heart-filling nosh and Leximan, le chef at Taste of Cuba*
is happy to oblige. Here is a man who not so long ago was trying to build his
own musical career only to realise that his future lay in the kitchen. Good for
him, we need more cooks like Leximan. His signature dish is the Cuban sandwich,
Santiago-style, and he certainly brings a personal touch to it. Roasted for
approximately seven hours, the meat looks soft and tender. I go for the whole
gallimaufry: the meat, diced finely and de-boned, a few pieces of skin, two
slices of ham and cheese, plenty of salad, a dollop of chilli sauce and a bit
of ketchup and mustard. The latter two are not really necessary and too much of
the red and yellow stuff can mar a tasty dish. I would describe
myself as a “first bite/last bite” type of eater. This is easy to explain. The first
mouthful sets the mood, tests the taste buds and asks questions. The last
morsel on the plate is the one you want to savour slowly and take home with you.
That last spoonful or forkful guarantees the return ticket to the restaurant or
café. Leximan does not disappoint
at all. The only comparison I can draw is to the final scene of Ratatouille when the food critic Anton
Ego eats the eponymous dish prepared by Remy the rat. Just like Anton and the childhood
memories the rodent’s recipe triggers in him, Leximan’s Cuban sandwich reminds
me of my much-loved, much-missed, late grandmother. She was the one in charge
of cooking the pork in my house.
Wood and coal were transported along the river Lea, in Edmonton, north London, in the 19th century. Coach-building featured highly amongst the industries that made this manufacturing area popular. This is the reason why back in the summer I cycled up the River Lee Navigation to meet Alejandro, one of the co-founders of Building Bloqs, one of those forward-thinking organisations that make London one of the main hubs of creative power in the world. But instead of me telling you the story of Building Bloqs, I will let Alejandro do it. My thanks to both Alejandro, Andrew and the rest of the team for allowing me to disrupt their very busy working day (and it was busy the day I went!) to do this interview. I hope you enjoy it.
There's a funny moment in our lives (funny, both ha-ha and strange) when we realise that we have fallen for what we used to mock before. This Augenblick can only be interpreted as a journey from a carefree, fun-filled summer day to the crepuscular beauty of an autumn evening in no more than twenty-four hours. This is that moment in our lives when a "bolero", a “fado” or a "tango" calls to a part of us that had hitherto lain hidden. Or dormant. Or unexplored. Or covered up by layers and layers of identity markers. Those markers we pick up from the shop we call life. There we are, little, hopping, skipping creatures, barely able to reach the dinner table, entering the shop stage right and many years later, exiting stage left, carrying with us multiple transformations, disguises and masks. It is that time of the year when rain-soaked, dark-inked pavements trigger off feelings of nostalgia in me. This time around, a wet summer, combined with the early onset of autumn has unleashed a deluge of memories. Not just any memories, mind. In November it will be 20 years since I landed in the UK. To stay. To set down roots. To throw my lot in with the people of this country. But the question that has arisen in the last half decade is: have I succeeded? Succeeded at what could be the swift response.Perhaps, I should rephrase that question: has it been a fulfilling life for me so far?
With the rain still hanging over the low-rise flats in my neck of the woods and weak sunrays spearing through eastbound, grey clouds, I recently pulled up just outside my house after another long bike ride around London. Whilst catching my breath back, I paused to ask myself that question: has my life been fulfilling so far? The short answer is yes, above all personally and professionally. The long one would be: it’s a work in progress (I haven't even developed the immigrant's usual love-hate relationship with their new home). It is easy to relocate to another place and not have a sense of belonging to it. I believe that the process of settling in another country is a two-way system: you give and take in equal measure. I looked at my bicycle and retraced my steps all the way back to that morning. It had caught me in east London interviewing a guy who can only be described as an essential part of the incredible, creative power this city has. The afternoon had seen me have my lunch in west London in a beautiful park; the dry grass a provocation to the gathering clouds. Trafalgar Square was a sight to cycle past, not a tourist stop. The downpour caught me not long after. It gave me time to think. Unlike running, when most of the time I listen to music, whenever I am pedalling my way around London my ears remain earphone-free. Instead I focus on the sounds of the city: the loud-revving car engines revealing impatient drivers, the voices (with their various accents), the beeping, the swearing, the muzak blaring out of cafes and restaurants, the R'n'B/reggae/rock/grime blasting out of open windows, the football chants, the soft, swishing sound of the closing doors of a double-decker, the whispered plea, "Can you spare some change, please?" Part of the progress I have made in these 20 years is figuring out what the pattern of this city is. All cities have one, especially metropolises. Havana’s is laid-back, London is a rush-hour one, with a nowadays added screen-facing, neck-bent population. During the next few weeks, up until November, when I will be celebrating my second decade in this country, my posts will be even more London-centric, if that’s possible. I will be posting interviews I conducted during the summer holidays with some of the makers and shakers of this city’s incredible entrepreneurial might. There will be plenty of autumn-coloured reflections, impressionistic in their design with perhaps a surrealist touch in their delivery. After all, another element in London’s pattern is how often it confounds expectations. Here is a city that is not afraid to wear its eccentricity on its sleeve. A city in which anyone can end up being bathed in nostalgia-scented memories by the power of a fado or a bolero.