I lie by the dockside, just down from the factory whose clanking machinery created my lines and sides and corners and spaces. Freshly painted across my frontage, an array of industrial hieroglyphics – China International Marine Containers, Hapag-Lloyd, HLXU2003419, 22G1, Max Payload 29,230kg – numbers defining who I am, numbers defining what I can be.
Shanghai sprawls resolutely behind the harbour-front; its forest of cranes and concrete criss-cross the dawn sky, soaring totems to the gods of a new world.
Through Pudong’s early morning haze, neon lights pulse green and red, beacons dancing to the relentless beat of the metropolis. And just beyond, the grand old facades of the Bund, still resplendent in their neoclassical and art-deco finery, their stories written over a century ago.
But my future lies in the other direction, not inland but out across the East China Sea. The dawn horizon calls out to me, whispering promises of marvels and adventure.
My first consignment is a cargo of high-tech computer equipment, loaded up by the dock-handlers on the 4am shift. I hear their banter as they work. Their calloused nicotine-stained hands speak of years on the dockside, whilst this passage of time has perfected their collective operations into a balletic choreography. They know each other well; they are like family.
A crane hoists me up high into the sky, a lofty leap towards those skyscraper peaks, wondering when I’ll next see them again. Next week? Next month? Never?.. And then down onto the foredeck, where the stevedores lower me onto a maze of containers, each with their own voyages and destinies.
And so on this day, my work begins. I’m a missionary, whose belly carries the new Chinese economy across the world.
Many seasons have turned, and many oceans crossed, and I’m now journeying under a different sky. For miles around there’s hardly a building in sight, save for the red-roofed corn silos that sporadically whir past – a blur of solitary scarlet smudged against the sweeping yellow canvas of the vast Saskatchewan plains.
The Canadian Pacific railroad cuts across the prairie straight and true, a single line that stretches for a thousand lonely miles, forever catching the distant horizon. And on either side lie those immense fields, tended to by great hulking agricultural machines making their slow meticulous passage across the earth, like mechanical giants on a Sunday stroll.
My freight is wheat – Canadian prairie spring wheat, to be precise. And my destination? The railroad will take me westwards and on to the Pacific, where a ship will carry me to the faraway islands of Indonesia, where my cargo will be ground up into flour, mixed with water, and kneaded and pulled into noodles, all to be slurped up by hungry locals.
But first I must travel.
Westwards we go, always west. We follow the sun as it descends, until it melts into the wheat, staining their swaying fronds orange, pink, then crimson. At night, myriad crystalline stars watch over my journey, the silence interrupted only by the deep rhythmic thrum of the carriages pounding the railroad.
Eventually, the flat plains incline upwards. The freight-train’s valves and pistons strain as we clamber up and over the Rockies, whose soaring snow-capped peaks cut into the sky. The air is cool and crisp. Then finally we plunge down to our destination port: the city of Vancouver, lying resplendent below, a patchwork of green and blue, islands and inlets. And just beyond, the majestic Pacific waits patiently for our next voyage.
I’ve seen the world over and over again. My steel planes may have dulled, and my lines and contours may be rippled with minute dents, but my adventures never cease. For now I’m transporting the heady rich wines of Piedmont – Barolos, Barberas, Barbarescos – over the Alps from Asti to Frankfurt.
The stretch I savour most are the foothills where the hills are lush, the summer sun shines hot, and theatrical storms light up the afternoon sky. Here, the air drips with the Mediterranean scents of oleander and orange blossom, lemon trees and verbena. Pink and purple bougainvillea sweep down from wrought-iron balconies, palm trees soar to the heavens.
A succession of medieval cobble-street towns sweep by. We pass pastel-washed palazzi adorned with their elegant porticos; their corridors and colonnades whisper stories of intrigue from centuries gone by. Hanging above me, ornate baroque churches hug vertiginous cliff edges like sure-footed mountain-goats, their bells reverberate through the ancient valleys.
The train winds its way north past the dreamy sapphire waters of Lago D’Orta, with its little Isola San Giulio, an oyster pearl gleaming in the shimmering sunlight, an island once home to mythical dragons and serpents.
The sun dips beyond those Alpine peaks, and I steal a final moment in its warming rays. Ah, la dolce vita!
Now suddenly I’m back on a train again. We don’t stop in Frankfurt, but unexpectedly continue westwards. Past Belgium, through France, on another boat over another sea, past Kentish castles and gardens, and finally to London’s great river, its buildings and parks, and its markets, peoples and communities.
At last I am lowered into a South London suburb. Surrounding me are streets spilling over with market stalls – Caribbean fruits, West African roots, a cacophony of traders selling hats and shoes; reggae beats dance all around me.
Where once I carried computers, wheat sheaves, and fine wines, now sitting inside me there’s a stove and a chef, and customers talking about their day, about their work, about the expected and unexpected, and about how everything changes.
And things do change. For I’m no longer shipping cargo over seas, and my spaces no longer contain things, but verbs – cooking, eating, talking, meeting. The world no longer passes around me, but inside me, where people’s lives now dance and flow over my cuboid stage. I am not a shipping container any more. My life is reborn. I am now Smoke and Salt.
I’ve talked about Pop Brixton before, that architecturally-innovative development where shipping containers house various retail outlets, food venues and community projects. I’ve even talked about this actual shipping container before, with the very same lines and sides and corners and spaces. Back then it was Kricket. But that venture has since moved on to the bright lights and gold-paved streets of Soho, its fortune well deserved.
In its stead is Smoke and Salt, the dream of two supper-club adventurers, Remi and Aaron. They introduced themselves shortly after I sat down, and then later related to me their love of food. This is indeed a place of endeavour, of story, of living a dream. And their love of food is plain to see.
Chickpea fritters practically float off the plate, like little angels en route to their celestial home, their insides the lightest of pillows, barely contained by their crisp gossamer-thin shells. Beside these heavenly emissaries sits a pot of fiery red ketchup, a smoldering portal to the underworld. And just to remind us of our own mortal place on earth, little green flecks of thyme speckle the dish, grounding our taste buds with their herbaceous tones.
Smoke pervades other dishes too – hence the venue’s name – like in a silky smooth lamb tartare, where the heat and tang of harissa and roasted sumac are carefully balanced by a cooling pool of labneh; charcoaled flatbread fingers lie enticingly on hand to scoop it all up.
All the dishes are beautifully balanced. And none more so than a grown-up dish of surprisingly-tender slivers of Wiltshire beef heart, served up like a warm salad with crispy new potatoes, creamy gorgonzola sauce, and tangy chimichurri – an orchestra of texture and flavour.
And finally their ‘London Mess’ – a marvellous melange of crunchy meringue, rose-infused hung yoghurt, sweet fragrant cherries and berries, tangy dehydrated raspberries, citrusy lemon thyme, and berry syrup drizzle. A dish of cherry orchards and rose gardens, redolent of a fine English summer.
The dishes are both simple yet clever, serious yet playful, informal yet exquisite, British but with a dash of the Mediterranean.
There’s a palpable sense of adventure, as befitting its shipping container setting. Although, with cooking this good, it’d be no surprise if it too journeys some day to a prime Soho spot, just like it’s predecessor. And what then for this shipping container, what more stories can lie in store?..
If you enjoyed this post, you may like another fusion of fiction and restaurant review: ‘Plot Kitchen, Flash Fiction and the Future of Food‘.
Smoke and Salt