No, it’s not that I’ve been holding out on you and slipped off on a secret weekend in Boston… The truth is that this is the final post in my series on our trip to the USA last year. Only 12 short months after we got back. I weep…
Anyhow. After our lovely stay in Stonington, we hopped back into our trusty PT Cruiser and set off north for Boston. The drive went very smoothly as it was all Interstate, lined with trees that got steadily redder/yellower and more spectacular as we drove north. Once near Boston we easily found the Sheraton hotel in Braintree. It’s hard to miss the only building for miles around with a crenellated roof. I kid you not. Clearly some architect had a sense of irony that was working overtime. Check in to find we officially had The Biggest Room In Boston! Wasted no time in dumping our stuff and driving to the station to catch a train into town. Hopped on the T in Braintree and in no time we emerged in student and tourist central (or so it seemed) – on the Cambridge side of the river. For those of you who don’t know, Boston and Cambridge, home of Harvard University, are separated only by the Charles River. Although we were almost an hour late, my friends from South Africa, Neil and Ronel, were still patiently waiting with their 2 kids. Once introductions were over we set off for the river where the Head of the Charles regatta was in full swing. This is the American equivalent of London’s Head of the River regatta held in March every year and is extremely well-attended. If I hadn’t had my fill of lycra-clad men in Henley, I was certainly getting it now! Walked up and down the course, idly watching the rowing but mostly catching up with my friends and taking pictures of the lovely autumn colours.
Eventually, after probably 2 hours of walking, Nick had had his fill of rowing and the kids were getting restless, so we headed off to find some food. After asking a random passer-by for a recommendation (not my preferred method but there you go!) we ended up in the John Harvard’s Brewhouse in Cambridge which is rather like a Spur (a South African steakhouse chain), but kid-friendly. The food was textbook American – burgers, Tex-Mex, steaks, and all in impressively gigantic portions. My burger was properly meaty and hit the spot, together with some of the beer brewed on the premises at their microbrewery, and Ronel’s plate of faijitas looked enough to feed a small family! By the time we had eaten lunch, had coffee and pored over photos of the yacht that Neil and Ronel are going to be living on for the next couple of years while they sail all over the world (yes, really), it was about 6pm and dark, so we took our leave and Nick, ever the pioneer, decided to walk back into Boston.
After about 10 minutes it looks to me as if we are totally in the sticks…and as it turns out WE ARE – almost off the map and heading the wrong way. Nothing else for it but to hail a cab, which gets us back downtown in about 10 minutes. Decide to stroll the city a bit – walked down Newbury street which is wall-to-wall shops but all in old buildings with bay windows, and all the trees have fairy lights in them. It’s more European than Europe and really, really lovely, but by then I was cold and tired and had the sniffles, so I wanted to get out of the chill. Headed for the Prudential Centre and discovered that there’s a mall at the base – yipppeee! Wandered through the shops and saw a branch of the famous Legal Seafoods – the queue outside was ASTONISHING. In fact, everywhere in Boston that we saw that night was packed to the rafters. Don’t know if this is just how Boston looks on a Sat night or whether the regatta was causing it, but it was just heaving. This, combined with my sniffles, meant that I voted not to go to a restaurant for dinner so we just popped into a huge supermarket and grabbed some stuff to eat at the hotel. After a huge seafood salad and a movie, we were happily tucked up in bed which was just possibly the nicest bed I have ever ever slept on. If I could have fitted it into my suitcase, I would have 😉
The next day we were up bright and early, checked out and headed off to see the city. We managed to find cheap parking in the docks area and then strolled into town, marvelling again at how very European the city feels. The first order of business was to do at least part of the Freedom Trail, the 2.5 mile walking trail that winds through Boston and takes you past 16 sites of national historic significance, mostly centred on Boston’s pivotal role in rebelling against British rule. We started on Boston Common, a lovely green lung in the centre of the city, full of vibrantly coloured autumn trees and strolling citizens. From there, we also walked past the Park Street Church (built in 1809 and reminiscent – to me – of Hawksmoor’s London churches), the Granary Burying Ground (which includes the graves of Paul Revere and Mother Goose – really!), the Kings Chapel, the First Public School (the first public school in America, established by Puritan settlers in 1635 – Benjamin Franklin and Louis Farrakhan are famous dropouts), the Old South Meeting House (where the Boston Tea Party was planned), the Old State House Museum (built in 1713 and the oldest surviving public building in Boston) and the Massachusetts State House (current seat of government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) – the latter two are pictured below.
By this time, we were getting pretty hungry, so we made our way down towards Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, the last things I had wanted to see on our whistle-stop tour of Boston. The two handsome buildings stand side by side and were completed in 1742 and 1822 respectively as indoor market pavilions housing mainly produce stalls (although Faneuil Hall also had assembly rooms). On top of Faneuil Hall is an unusual weathervane: a 52 inch 38 pound metal grasshopper! It is modelled on the grasshopper weathervane atop the Royal Exchange in London to draw a parallel between the two buildings as centres of commerce but, even more quirkily, it was also used as a lie detector in the American War of Independence. A suspected spy would be asked “what sits atop Faneuil Hall?” and if the swift reply was not “a grasshopper, of course!” then he might be in a lot of trouble! First we walked through Faneuil Hall, filled with an intriguing mix of artisans, pushcart vendors and street performers – it’s gift shopping central. From there we moved on to Quincy Market which remains to this day dominated by food. I must say that I was impressed at how few chains (or large chains, anyway) seemed to be represented there. In England, a food court like this would in all likelihood be filled with Burger King, McDonalds and the like, but this did not seem to be the case here – lots of unfamiliar names and quirky products. For example the bunch pictured on the left, who were selling big round white loaves. These loaves had the top cut off, the interior scooped out and filled with chowder, after which the top is carefully replaced and you buy your soup in an edible bowl.
I am not kidding. At least nobody is going to accuse them of using too much disposable packaging!!
Nick was about ready to eat the bread chowder bowl, his own limbs or anything else that took his fancy, but still I led him onwards. I had made a resolution to sample at least one great raw bar while in Boston and had done some homework. Yes, Legal Seafoods is all over the place and very popular, but somehow I am mistrustful of chains. And then there is the Union Oyster House which features in all the guidebooks – but again, I don’t trust a place that has to do no work to win clients. I had other ideas. Ideas that ran to Neptune Oyster, which according to some reviews has the best raw bar in town.
It’s a little tucked away, around the corner from the Union Oyster House, but it’s well worth the detour. It’s a small space and it looks like it’s been there forever with beautiful pressed tin ceiling, tiled walls and and etched mirrors. There are a limited number of booths, but we chose to sit at the rather lovely bar. The wine list is interesting, featuring a number of Alsace wines – a wise choice when you are dealing with premium seafood! But on this occasion I went for a glass of prosecco and Nick went for a beer. We started with oyster stew for Nick and clam chowder for me. The clam chowder was everything that you might want it to be – rich, creamy and with clam bits jostling for space in the bowl. Fabulous. But this was just the start. From there we moved on to the Main Event: the raw bar. The menu of oysters and clams available that day (and what state they were harvested in) is written on the huge mirror behind the bar and in addition, tasting notes are provided. Seeing as the only oysters we had ever had fresh are South African coastal, we had no idea what we were getting into, so relied heavily on the tasting notes and the very friendly and knowledgeable staff. In the end we made our choice and then got to watch as the lady who does the shucking did so expertly at one end of the bar and in full view of the customers. No performance anxiety here! Before I tell you how they all tasted, let me also assure you that these were the best shucked oysters I have ever had in my life. There was not one molecule of shell in any of them – truly impressive. They were also astonishingly fresh and plump. Although there was a traditional accompaniment of shallots in red wine vinegar, we kept it simple with lemon juice and black pepper. Here’s what we had, clockwise from the lemon wedges in the picture:
2 Katama Bay (MA) $2.70. Large, very salty throughout, plump, buttery, popcorn hints
2 Nauset (MA) 1.90 Medium-small, high-salt start, sweeter finish, rich, buttery
2 Falmouth (MA) $1.90 med large, med salt, plump, meaty, earthy mushroom finish
2 Pemaquid (ME) $2.10 large, med-low salt, juicy, crisp seaweed finish
4 littleneck clams (MA) $1.10 small, salty
The Katama Bay and Nausets were our favourites of the day, but the Littleneck clams were also an eye-opener and very moreish. All through the meal we kept congratulating ourselves on our excellent choice and chatting with the very pleasant staff. The total bill came to $61 without service which I though pretty reasonable for the standard of food. And what better way is there to leave Boston but with the salty-sweet taste of fresh oysters on your tongue?
63 Salem Street
Tel. 617 742 3474