London September 007
Forget what you think you know about the English and English food. England has some of the best restaurants in the world, great markets with beautiful — often local — produce, and has taken over New York’s long-held position as the financial and arts center of the world.
Mikel and I spent the last two weeks of September visiting our friend David Evans in London. The city is so expensive, especially when converting the weak dollar into the strong pound, that there’s no way we could have afforded so many rich experiences without David’s hospitality and generosity. I’ve known David for 20 years, since he first walked into my bookstore in Charleston. He’s a self-made man, having built up several businesses from scratch, and now he’s a member of Parliament, granted peerage as Lord Evans of Watford by Tony Blair. His flat overlooks the Thames, just across the river from MI6, the British Secret Service building, and we found that wifi signals are scrambled because of it!
David took us to two private dining clubs, Anton Mosimann’s in Belgrave Square and The George Club in Mayfair, both of which I had been to with him back in January. At Mosimann’s we drink the lovely house wines — the pink champagne and their excellent Burgundy — and where everyone but me always orders his famous bread and butter pudding for dessert. Mosimann was an early proponent of natural foods, further refining the ideas of nouvelle cuisine and concentrating on the absolute finest ingredients. His books Cuisine a la Carte and Cuisine Naturelle, published in the mid-80s, called for a purity and simplicity in a decade of overwrought muddlings by many chefs.
Mosimann’s is often called “The Belfry.”It’s an early 19th-century Presbyterian chapel that has been converted into several posh dining rooms. Mosimann made a name for himself when he earned two Michelin stars for The Dorchester, at 28, the youngest ever Maitre Chef de Cuisine. He left the Dorchester to open his first private dining room in 1988. His cooking and his dining rooms may seem a bit dated, but I had my first taste of grouse in the elegant room, and I could taste the delicious, bittersweet hint of rot in the wing joint that the bird obtains, I knew, only from being properly hung to age. The bread and butter pudding I had sampled back in January. It’s more of a souffle, but is much lighter and healthier than the Creole version served in New Orleans at Commander’s Palace. Typical of Mosimann’s cuisine, it has all of the flavors of bread pudding with none of the heft.
The George is equally refined, but a bit more hip. A young man next to us, ordering a $400 bottle of wine, wore his bespoke shirt with open collar. Prints of David Hockney dogs cover the walls. It’s owned by the same guys who own Harry’s Bar, also operated as a private club in London, but it’s got a very casual feel about it. There’s an intimate bar downstairs where you have drinks and slowly peruse the menu. Since two of us ordered red meat and two of us ordered fish, David let the Maitre D’ choose the wines — a Graves for the first course and a St. Emilion for the main. I must say that Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are not my favorite grapes, but the French know how to blend them so well — the Sauvignon with a little Semillon and the Merlot with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon — that I can’t imagine better choices with our meals. Both wines perfectly matched my food, the 2005 Domaine de Chevalier Graves with a citrusy undertone that underscored the richness of my scallops and the Chateau Vieux Sarpe 2000, a Grand Cru, unctuous and fruity with my Mediterranean-style fish.
One day we went out to Kew to the Royal Botanic Gardens, the largest public garden in the world. Other gardens have more acreage (Montreal’s Jardin Botanique and Pennsylvania’s Longwood, for example), but none can boast the 40,000 species of plants that grow at Kew. There was an outdoor exhibition of 28 of Henry Moore’s large-scale sculptures throughout the garden, which perked up the end-of-summer drabness.
The indoor pavilions are great, including several enormous greenhouses, one housing the world’s tallest indoor plant.
Though you’d never know it from these photos, London was mostly sunny the entire two weeks we were there, with mild breezes and temperatures in the low 60s: near perfect, in my opinion! In fact, the only time it rained was the one afternoon I stayed inside to prepare dinner.
Kew has never been known as a culinary destination, and I tend to avoid restaurants on the main street between the train station and a tourist destination such as the Royal Botanic Garden. But if you go — and if you’re into gardening at all, you really should — you will find yourself hungry after three or four hours wandering the grounds and exhibits, as we did. There is an excellent, I hear, old tea room, a pub, and a grill room, but nothing really caught my eye until I spied some of the freshest-looking fish and shellfish I’ve ever seen in the newly-opened Kew Fish. It’s really a fish market with an oyster bar, a sister to Ma Cuisine, a French bistro, next door. I noticed that there were a couple of chairs on the sidewalk in addition to the stools at the oyster bar, so I asked the young fishmongers (Kevin Yaxley and Dean Bennett, pictured here) if we could eat outside. We ordered some Premier Cru Chablis by the glass ($15 for a large serving, which nearly all the restaurants in London now offer) and couldn’t resist the bargain Plat de Fruits de Mer, an enormous platter of oysters, mussels, smoked salmon, prawns, shrimp, anchovies, rollmops,and crabmeat — all for $30 for the two of us. (In February at Borough Market I had paid $5 for ONE Colchester oyster just like the four on this platter.) The mignonette served with the briny oysters was unlike any I’ve ever had, and I loved it: red wine vinegar and shallots, of course, with the tiniest pinch of sugar. I asked the 23-year-old Yaxley about his training as a chef and he admitted that he has none; but as a fishmonger, he’s been on the job since he was 16. The only cooking he does is boiling the lobsters and crabs (Cancer pagurus, that is, the common crab of England and Europe), smoking the fish (slowly, over oak), and preparing the sauces.
Fishmongers have been getting the runaround in London for several years. I guess it was inevitable that the Fulton Fish Market would finally be pushed out of Manhattan, but it seems unbelievable that the Billingsgate Market in London is probably going to be moved again. The City of London — called simply “The City” — is the oldest part of London, built on the site of the original Roman settlement. It is now the financial district. A fish market was based there, just east of London Bridge and west of the Tower, on the Thames, for over 900 years. 100 years ago, 500 pounds of fish were sold there daily. Billingsgate moved to the Isle of Dogs, three miles down the river, in 1982. Now it’s threatened again as the bustling Canary Wharf business district has grown up around it, rivalling even The City. Britain’s three tallest buildings hover over the market, and, while I was there, a penthouse apartment in one of the buildings went on the market for $38million. The market is closed on Mondays, but Kevin offered to take me along on one of his thrice-weekly early morning buying trips the following Tuesday.
At 4 am I set out walking the two miles along the Thames to where I was to meet Kevin (he leaves home at 3 am, drives a half hour to get to Kew and pick up the refrigerated van, then drives to the market). Along the way, I passed British Airways’ London Eye. Built for the Millenium and as a temporary attraction, it now earns more for the airline than do their flights. A stunning 450′ tall, it’s the world’s largest of its kind.
The market did not astound me (I’ve toured the Fulton Fish Market at 4 am), but I was impressed by the variety of the fish and shellfish offered and the attention to detail (where, when, and how harvested). Here, Kevin is buying crabs to supplement the regular shipments he gets directly from Colchester. I even saw some marlin for sale (caught three days prior on a line in the Indian Ocean), the first I’ve seen since the summer of 1958 in Panama!
I bought two kilos of gorgeous, fresh, heads-on shrimp from Madagascar ($34 was the wholesale cost for about 4 pounds), and made a shrimp pilau that evening for dinner.
This dish of rice and shrimp is a classic in the Lowcountry. You will need a rich shellfish stock for an authentic flavor. Put the bacon in a Dutch oven that has a tight-fitting lid on top of the stove and cook until crisp. Remove the bacon, set aside to drain, and pour off all of the grease except about 3 tablespoons, or enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onion and cook over medium low for 5 to 10 minutes, until clear. Add the tomatoes, red pepper, and parsley, and cook for another five minutes. Add the rice, the salt, and the stock, raise the heat for a moment or two, bring to a simmer, and lower the heat again and cover, allowing to simmer twenty minutes, without lifting the lid. In the meantime, prepare After twenty minutes, lift the lid and fluff the rice with a big fork while tossing in the shrimp. Cover the pot again, and turn off the heat. The pilau will be ready in 5 to 10 minutes, and the shrimp will not overcook. Crumble the reserved bacon and garnish the pilau with it and chopped parsley. Serve with tossed salad and cornbread. 2 pounds extremely fresh, heads-on shrimp Head and peel the shrimp, dropping the heads and shells into an enameled or stainless steel stock pot. Cover the shrimp bodies with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for use later.
4 strips thick-sliced bacon
1 large onion, peeled and chopped (about 1/2 pound)
4 red ripe tomatoes (about 1-1/2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (more or less to taste)
3 teaspoons dried or 3 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley, plus some more fresh parsley for garnish
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups long-grain white rice, not the converted kind
3 cups shrimp stock made from the heads and/or shells of the shrimp (see below)
shrimp (bodies from 2 pounds heads-on shrimp, or 1-1/2 pounds headless)
Yield: 4-6 servings.
I make shrimp stock with the heads and shells of freshly caught shrimp. If you do not live where you can obtain fresh shrimp, by all means use the shells, but add some crab and/or lobster shells to the stock to make up for the missing shrimp heads.
2 small or one large carrot
2 ribs celery
handful of fresh herbs
1 medium onion, unpeeled and quartered
3 quarts water
Add the rest of the ingredients and cook the stock at a low boil until the onions are transparent and the carrots are soft, and the stock is pleasantly infused with the shrimp flavor. It will take 45 minutes, and the liquid will be reduced to 2 quarts. Strain out the solids. Cool, then freeze what you don’t plan to use immediately.
This dish of rice and shrimp is a classic in the Lowcountry. You will need a rich shellfish stock for an authentic flavor.
Put the bacon in a Dutch oven that has a tight-fitting lid on top of the stove and cook until crisp. Remove the bacon, set aside to drain, and pour off all of the grease except about 3 tablespoons, or enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onion and cook over medium low for 5 to 10 minutes, until clear. Add the tomatoes, red pepper, and parsley, and cook for another five minutes. Add the rice, the salt, and the stock, raise the heat for a moment or two, bring to a simmer, and lower the heat again and cover, allowing to simmer twenty minutes, without lifting the lid. In the meantime, preparecornbread, a perfect accompaniment to the pilau.
After twenty minutes, lift the lid and fluff the rice with a big fork while tossing in the shrimp. Cover the pot again, and turn off the heat. The pilau will be ready in 5 to 10 minutes, and the shrimp will not overcook.
Crumble the reserved bacon and garnish the pilau with it and chopped parsley. Serve with tossed salad and cornbread.
2 pounds extremely fresh, heads-on shrimp
Head and peel the shrimp, dropping the heads and shells into an enameled or stainless steel stock pot. Cover the shrimp bodies with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for use later.