Unpacked A Study Abroad Guide for Students Like Me
A Culinary Journey Through London
Hello everyone! My name is Jessica Carlson and I will be taking over IFSA’s Instagram with photographs from my time abroad in London, England last fall. I studied as an affiliate student in the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London. I am currently a senior at Wesleyan University studying psychology with an interest in education and a love for food. My time abroad was nourished and enriched by London’s diverse cuisines, and I can’t wait to share my culinary journey with you all!
Mimi’s Cupcakes from Camden Lock – I stumbled upon Mimi’s mini cupcakes as I was browsing the vintage clothing and retro art posters at Camden Lock on a Saturday morning. The Union Flag and tube sign cupcakes were my touristy picks – iconic images of British culture and history. I chose the bumblebee, bunny and mushroom, because they reminded me of Beatrix Potter and her creature friendly stories. Potter wrote many children’s books based on the nature and wildlife she saw around her in the Lake District in Northern England. It wasn’t until the IFSA Butler weekend excursion to the Lake District that I really understood the inspiration and tranquility of the countryside. It gave me an opportunity to reflect, to take a minute to breathe and really digest my abroad experience. I had chosen to study in the lively city of London, but being in the country gave me a different perspective of England. It reminded me that this country is far more complex and diverse than the city and neighborhood I was living in. There exists a spectrum of people and places, some excitingly hectic and others refreshingly calm. Experiencing both types allowed me to settle with the two parts of myself – the quiet side longing for reflection and serenity, and the active side craving excitement and energy. Spending time in the country and the city helped me find the settings and mindsets conducive for both.
Swiss Chard from Borough Market – Being in London was the first time I was in charge of my own food – buying it, preparing it, cooking it. I entered my new culinary adventure with taste buds ready to explore everything London could offer. And the first offer I found was Borough Market, one of London’s best produce markets. I spent over an hour roaming around the stalls. At first I wasn’t even looking with an eye for cooking, but with an eye for color. This rainbow of Swiss chard was just one of many produce displays that turned my eyes from hungry to amazed. I was driven deeper into my own culinary exploration by this newfound awe of food. Over the course of my semester, I found myself branching out and finding foods I’d never cooked before with spices I’d never tasted. At school in the States, I was always on a meal plan. At home with my family, I was never involved in cooking. But when I was finally on my own abroad, responsible for my kitchen, shopping and meals, I felt a thrilling sense of individuality and independence. It was the first time I recognized my ability and the excitement of living on my own.
Desserts from Borough Market – In addition to providing London with fresh, organic produce, Borough Market houses food trucks, juice bars and sweet treat stalls. All the vendors are different and each one represents the culinary diversity within the city. There is a Scottish egg stand next to an Indian buffet. There are French cheeses beside Hungarian smoked sausages. There are traditional British scones beside Middle Eastern desserts. The Baklava and Turkish Delights pictured here had my stomach growling just looking over the different flavors. Every region, every culture, every cuisine has a place in the market. I was surprised and ever so thankful to see so much variety, so many different types of food coming together in one market; my culinary experience reached beyond the English border. Traveling to the market became a weekend routine, not only to pick up fresh food, but to ensure I spent as much time exploring the city as I could. I wanted to know the streets, the bus lines, the market stalls. I wanted to build memories of the city so that every time I left for the market, I felt a little more comfortable and at home than I did the weekend before. The markets took me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one –I was able to navigate the city unafraid, trying different cuisines at every turn.
Belgian Chocolate Crosstown Doughnut – As a committed foodie, I frequently scanned the vendor lists for weekend markets near my accommodations in Kings Cross. I flipped through photos online of decadent doughnuts besides steaming cups of coffee, the iconic “x” iced onto every pastry. The further I looked, the deeper I feel into the world of Crosstown Doughnuts. They had flavors I’d never conceived of—chocolate cinnamon and passion fruit; flavors that reminded me of home– peanut butter with raspberry compote; flavors based on traditional British desserts – summer fruit crumble. They had the widest and most inviting selection – I had to try one. I found their stall at Leather Lane Market a few blocks from my dorm. The clerk recommended the Belgian Chocolate doughnut – a soft pastry filled with Belgian chocolate mousse and rolled in cane sugar. Crosstown Doughnuts had me going back to try all their flavors, which changed seasonally, drawing on local traditions and international delicacies. Being abroad sharpened my gaze for the hidden secrets of the city. I wanted to dig below the surface to fully immerse myself in a new culture, and it was because of my drive for depth that I was able to find such distinct and delicious London treats.
Afternoon Tea at the Charlotte Hotel – I knew that England had a long and close relationship with tea so while I was in London I picked up the habit of drinking it in the mornings and afternoons. Something about the warm beverage helped to wake me up and wind me down. It was a major part of social interaction, too – friends didn’t grab coffee, they sat down to chat over tea. Tea could be formal or informal, a quick cup on the way to work or a full teapot on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t until my aunt came to London on a business trip that I indulged in the very British, very traditional Afternoon Tea experience. Historically afternoon tea served as a mini meal to hold people over until their supper. Today, however, afternoon tea is reserved for special occasions and celebrations. My aunt took me to the Charlotte Hotel where we sat on floral couches and picked at the tiered stand that held finger sandwiches, scones, pastries and tiny cakes. We sipped on black tea with a splash of milk and a drop of sugar. The warm tea and decadent treats were delicious. The company of my aunt was great. And the opportunity to participate in the unique, iconic and luxurious British tradition was brilliant – it was the icing on my afternoon teacake!
Assortment of Chocolate in Regents Park – There’s no better way to get a taste of all of Britain’s finest Cadbury chocolate than to buy the Heroes carton of assorted mini chocolates. These were the chocolates that lined the shelves at every corner store and super market. One weekend early in the semester my friends and I picked up some snacks and headed to Regents Park for a picnic on the grass. It was still fall then so the flowers all around us were blasting with color. We spent the afternoon trying every chocolate, taking votes on our favorites and discussing which we would have to buy in full size. Everyone had a different favorite, which made splitting up the carton easy and enjoyable for us all. This picnic was our way of taking advantage of the fresh air in a peaceful park within the bustling city. It was our way of experiencing London by being present and active in it, by getting to know it hands on. In just one afternoon we had conquered the British chocolate hierarchy, found the best lawn of grass in Regent’s park and discovered the simplicity of a Saturday spent outdoors with friends.
Hummus Bros lunch! During my first day of classes I met up with an IFSA friend to grab lunch. We hadn’t explored the area around our university yet so we took this opportunity to explore and seek out a place to eat. Walking past the British Museum we stopped as soon as we saw the sign: Hummus Bros. A chain restaurant serving Levantine cuisine that’s main dish was hummus. Finally, my favorite food was being given the attention it deserved. Hummus Bros gives you a bowl of hummus, made on-site in the kitchen, with a choice of toppings and a side of pita. The fact that such a restaurant exists speaks to the immense variety of foods and regional cuisines that are represented in the London culinary scene. Such a selection is reflective of the diversity within London’s population too– it’s a melting pot of cultures and traditions that manifests in the city’s food. Hummus Bros became my favorite lunch spot for a quick bite between classes. I soon realized that having a favorite spot, a place I wanted to show friends where I had a regular order, made me feel like I was a local. I wasn’t just a study abroad student anymore, I was a Londoner.
Pick ‘N Mix at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland – As the holidays approached, Hyde Park was transformed into a Winter Wonderland. Crowds of people funneled through the big arches decorated with snow falling, children sledding, and reindeer galloping behind them. There were amusement park rides, market stalls, food vendors and ice-skating rinks. Every building and ride was wrapped in lights and blasting music to keep people in the holiday spirit. My friends and I stopped at the Pick ‘N Mix stall when we saw the incredibly vast selection. Our mouths dropped and our eyes grew wide as we scanned the array of candy before us. There were gummies, chocolates, fudges, candy ropes. Bizarre items like gummy eggs and sharks. Familiar picks like twizzlers and malt balls. We each grabbed a bag and started scooping. My time abroad was definitely one of academic and personal growth; I felt more independent and knowledgeable, as if I was edging closer to true adulthood. But it was experiences like this Winter Wonderland that kept me linked to the excitement and joviality of being a kid. I recognized that there as a time and place for each. Even though I was a university student, with essays and classes to attend to when the weekend was over, at that moment, I truly felt like a kid in a candy store.
Full English Breakfast at the IFSA Weekend Excursion – On the IFSA Butler weekend excursion to the Lake District we were served the contents of a full English breakfast every morning. The variety of food on my plate satisfied my hunger and energized me for a day full of dragon boat racing and ghyll scrambling. A Full English Breakfast includes eggs, thick cut bacon, baked beans, sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. Traditionally it was developed as a display of wealth and culinary prosperity among country elites, but it soon became common breakfast practice within the working class as well. Today this hearty meal is still enjoyed on a regular basis. During the excursion, I developed a taste for baked beans over eggs with bacon and a morning coffee. It wasn’t just the energy it gave me to get through my day, or the delicious combination of flavors on one plate. It was the way the full English breakfast made me feel connected to British tradition. It wasn’t until I returned back to London that I set out to perfect my own version of the full English. I wanted to preserve my love and connection to this iconic breakfast. Now back in the States, when I invite friends and family over for brunch, the full English always makes an appearance.
Huevos al Benny at The Breakfast Club – Although The Breakfast Club is fairly well known among tourists, I was unaware of its fame when I stumbled upon it one late afternoon. Its neon yellow exterior made it pop out from the other storefronts around it. I was drawn in first by its name– the movie being one of my favorites—and secondly by the witty puns riddled across the menu– “ham so eggsited” and “when haloumi met salad wrap.” I chose to order the huevos al benny, a take on eggs Benedict with chorizo, avocado, spicy hollandaise and chilies. The leaning egg tower that arrived before me was unreal. The restaurant itself was incredible too– top of the pops throwbacks played throughout the restaurant and 80s & 90s movie posters hung on every wall. It felt like a time warp into the previous era of punk and pop. Brunch became a lesson in London pop culture of the past – music, clothing, movies, and slang. Studying abroad was about experiencing a different culture, but this particular meal took me across time as well, adding another dimension to my experience. The popularity of the brekky club does make it difficult to just stroll into for brunch, but the food and atmosphere are always worth the wait– it’s truly eggcellent.
Campus Pub lunch with classic British chips! Pubs are an essential component to British culture. It’s not so much about the bar or the beer, but about the communal liveliness and social atmosphere. The UCL campus pub was always crowded with students unwinding on their way home from the library. On weekends, I went to the karaoke nights and spent afternoons competing in their trivia nights. Between classes my friends and I would meet there to chat and grab lunch. My favorite dish to order was the Peri-Peri grilled chicken sandwich with chips. I wasn’t always a fan of thick cut chips, so when I saw that they served them this way, as most traditional British eateries do, I almost opted out. But I decided to order them, lean into new culinary experience and lean out of my comfort zone. To my surprise they were crispy and fluffy and entirely delicious. I even drizzled vinegar and salt on them, a British preference I’d seen at surrounding tables. The campus pub was the perfect place to indulge in traditional British foods and beverages, to explore the social atmosphere of the university, and to pass the time with friends in an informal and relaxed environment.
Biscuit and Jam at Cake Hole Cafe (inside Vintage Heaven) – On my last day in London my mind was scattered trying to digest the past 4 months and figure out how to say goodbye to such an incredible experience. I had just finished packing the majority of my clothes when I got a call from a friend inviting me to catch the end of the Columbia Road Flower Market and have my final cup of tea in celebration of a semester well spent. I hopped on the bus and met her outside Vintage Heaven, a quirky antique shop right at the opening of the market. We walked through to the back where the best kept secret on Columbia Road is located, the Cake Hole Café. We ordered a pot of tea and a scone to share. It was a simple, peaceful end to my time in London – a warm cup of tea and a sweet scone topped with just the right amount of clotted cream and raspberry jam. It was the last cup of tea I would drink in London, the last traditional British treat I would indulge in, but I took my time and let every bite and every sip sink in. My time abroad had come to an end, but my experiences would travel back home with me, coming alive again each time I unpacked the memories.
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