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.
We ordered another glass of wine and one of the crabs that Dean highly recommended, perfectly cooked and picked before our eyes, not one speck of shell, served with mayonnaise, still glistening with the telltale glossy sheen of having just been made.
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.
Shrimp Pilau (from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
This dish of rice and shrimp is a classic in the Lowcountry. You will need a rich shellfish stock for an authentic flavor.
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)
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 cornbread, 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.
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 pounds extremely fresh, heads-on shrimp
2 small or one large carrot
2 ribs celery
handful of fresh herbs
1 medium onion, unpeeled and quartered
3 quarts water
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.
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.
Fergus Henderson’s St John restaurants
Two of my favorite things to do in London are to eat at Fergus Henderson’s joyous St. John restaurants. I had eaten at St. John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields back in February, but hadn’t yet eaten at the original, in Smithfield.
We met our friend Vicki Fagg, who is President of the College of Northwest London, for lunch one day when David was out of town. We were there for several hours, eating our way through the offal as though it were candy. Vicki (pictured here at Borough Market back in February) had ordered the grilled puffball with green sauce (which we all wanted to try), but the last order had just gone out of the kitchen, so she got a salsify, leek, and watercress salad to begin. I’ve always loved salsify, which was a favorite in colonial America, but fell out of favor sometime in the early twentieth century. I’m glad to see it re-appearing in kitchen gardens and on restaurant menus here. The Brits, French, and Italians have always loved it.
But whole-hog cookery is what Henderson is known for, and what we came to sample. I began with roast bone marrow (the New York Times ran the recipe a month after I wrote this column!) and parsley salad — four 3″ to 4″ cuts of roasted beef shanks and a salad I’ve added to my repertoire (parsley leaves, mild onions, capers, olive oil, and mild vinegar). Mikel started with veal heart, served with green beans brightened with anchovies — thin, lightly grilled slices of the heart. For my main course, I couldn’t resist the devilled lamb’s kidneys. I’ve never been a kidney fan, but these were delicious, served on toast made from the hearty country bread that Henderson’s baker and co-author Justin Piers Gellatly provides daily to both restaurants. (Some of Justin’s breads are pictured below.) Vicki’s venison liver was my favorite dish of the day. In a nod to the lowcountry, and curious about the dish on its home turf, Mikel ordered Kedgeree, served with piccalilli.
Kedgeree was the favored breakfast dish of the Edwardian sideboard in England. Sources disagree about its ingredients. (Vicki says it always includes rice and eggs; apples are also common.) The word is borrowed from India, where the dish is made with rice, lentils, spices, and eggs. In England, smoked fish is often added (in which case it might simply be called curried haddie — smoked haddock — and rice). In the Lowcountry, the dish is also a curried rice pie, to which I add shrimp. Piccalilli recipes and uses are similar on both sides of the Atlantic: it’s a pickle relish, often including green tomatoes, to be served alongside roast meats and vegetables as well as with rice dishes.
So much of the oft-maligned English cooking translated directly to the South, where it’s revered. Our roasts, condiments, and desserts are frequently direct descendants of classic English cookery. The side dish of greens we ordered to round out at meal at St. John — I think it was smooth or black kale, both of which I had seen at Borough Market that week — could easily have come right off either of my grandmothers’ buffets.
Our last full day in London I insisted we go to Henderson’s second restaurant, St John Bread & Wine. Celebrity chef and world-traveler Anthony Bourdain has called Henderson his favorite chef and St John, his favorite restaurant in the world. If I had to choose, though, I’d choose St John Bread & Wine. While the food is very similar at both, the crowd and the wait staff at Bread & Wine are a bit funkier, and we had no trouble getting a table without reservations. The waitresses were, in fact, downright friendly — not overly so — and went to great lengths to answer my myriad questions about the chefs, the ingredients, and the wines. The sand eels pictured here, we were told, were sold in only three restaurants in London. When I asked what the others were, the waitress told me, “The other St John and the Anchor & Hope gastropub in Waterloo.” (Note to self: go to the Anchor & Hope next trip!)
Sand eels, or sand-lances, are tiny silvery fish of several species, common to the inshore waters of Europe. The reason that they are scarce in restaurants, delicious as they are (especially when barely dusted with flour and perfectly fried and served with aioli, as they were at SJB&W), is that they burrow themselves in the sand, to a depth of a foot or more “for hours on end, unless,” as Alan Davidson has written, “a human being (or, occasionally, a porpoise) comes to dig them up.” Rakes are used on the beaches of the Essex estuaries at low tide. Harvests are small.
We couldn’t resist the Duck Egg & Smoked Anchovies on the menu, which changes daily: buttered homemade rye bread grilled and topped with a sunny-side-up duck egg and 4 smoked anchovy filets: simply perfect. When James Lowe, the talented young chef, found out that I was a food writer who shares several mutual friends with Henderson, he sent us a bowl of his scrumptious white bean soup garnished with a raft of sauteed snails. The menu at SJB&W seems a bit more varied to me, perhaps because they offer so many small dishes to graze on, which I like to do, especially if I’m awaiting the slowly-roasted dishes that become available only after 1pm. We shared several plates including two that featured heirloom breeds of pork — Cold Welsh with Piccalilli, and Lamb’s Sweetbreads with Old Spot & Grelots. (The Welsh and Old Spot are the breeds. Grelots is the French for jingle bells, but here refers to small round local onions.) Everything we tried was delicious, and the entire crew of the restaurant seem to be having the time of their lives. Above, Chef Lowe (in striped apron) jokes with sous chef Lee and with Gellatly (in motorcycle gear). The pastry chef Lillie O’Brian is busy in the rear. I promised the waitresses, Sara James and Eileen Cooney, that I wouldn’t use their photos on the blog, but I do want to thank them again for enduring my endless questions and for their good humor. Or should I say “humour”?!
Not Your Parents’ England
I can’t emphasize enough how much England has changed in the past twenty years. Everywhere you look there are art galleries, modern architecture, upscale food shops, and young people in business suits cutting deals over lunch in the hip new gastropubs and restaurants all over the city. We went to an “off-West End” play out in Hammersmith, and it was excellent. We wouldn’t have even known about it if we hadn’t picked up the TIME OUT magazine, which is an invaluable guide to what is going on in the city. Vicki had warned us that there’s simply too much going on to try to keep up with it all, so she suggested we get a copy of the weekly and cull from their favorites. One week, they rated two plays with 5 stars, their top ranking, and we chose one of them and were not disappointed.
Foremost, however, is the food revolution that seems to have gripped even the most stalwart pub owners. Markets are filled with every kind of fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, charcuterie, bread, and sweet you can imagine. Pubs proudly display the provenance of their steaks and even their burgers. Some even brag of the heirloom local potatoes used in their “mash.”
When we approached the Crazy Bear, which is housed in a 17th century coaching inn, I was afraid that we would be in for a much more formal dining experience, not unlike Blanc’s Michelin two-star establishment, whose grounds we had toured earlier. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. As we pulled into the parking lot behind the inn, I saw an old London double-decker bus with a bright red neon sign proclaiming it RECEPTION. In the cozy, low-celinged bar, an irresistable pitcher of bloody marys was a clever Sunday morning touch. Aretha was singing the soundtrack to Curtis Mayfield’s Sparkle in the background: not your average pub music, and a fairly obscure Aretha album at that. We climbed the stairs to the dining room: one of the wackiest versions of posh I’ve ever encountered, with its leopard print rug, white ostrich skin walls, wine bottle ceiling, and crystal chandeliers ensconced in modern topaz sheaths. Amazingly, the inn also runs an authentic, separate Thai restaurant as well. David and I both went for the Sunday roast of rare aged Aberdeen Angus beef, but Mikel ordered the roasted tranche of calf’s liver. The vegetables could not have been fresher, the Yorkshire pudding was moist inside, and the beef and liver were cooked perfectly medium rare, as we ordered them.
Every restaurant we ate in seemed to have their own farmers, fishermen, and suppliers who would supplement their own potagers, often on the properties. Blanc’s gardens are world-renowned, of course, but even small country inns and taverns had their gardens out back. And the markets throughout the London area are some of the best I’ve ever been to, where I could easily buy obscure pork parts and caul fat, a world of baked goods, dozens of varieties of oysters and other shellfish, and just about any fruit or vegetable you can imagine. So cut it out with the griping about English food! Like their economy, it’s in much, much better shape than most of what is happening Stateside.
A Walk through Borough Market
I’ve got some friends in London who won’t go to Borough Market. They say it’s too expensive and too crowded. But I love it. It’s only open on Thursday and Friday afternoons and on Saturday mornings, but whenever you go, you best go early or it does become unbearably crowded. At Borough, I’ve bought rare Moroccan argan oil and amlou; eaten huge, briny oysters from Colchester; seen men in kilts and freshly killed pheasants; drooled over diver scallops, still in their shell with their roe; and eaten classic fish and chips at Fish, the popular new restaurant there.
I’ve bought sausages from Poland, Sardinia, and Cumberland. Cox apples. And all sorts of cheeses from nearby Neal’s Yard. Every vendor was anxious to proudly tell me his or her story, time permitting. The sausage vendor, above, is from Desulo, Sardinia. His gluten- and lactose-free dried sausage is very moist, and is made from free roaming, very lean “razza sarda” pigs, which cross breed in the mountains with wild boar.
We tend to think of France as a premier producer of cheeses, but, in fact, England boasts over 700 varieties, more than twice the French number. Most are excellent and artisanal, and only available locally or in markets such as Borough and Neal’s Yard. Each boasts its own distinct regional characteristics. Some, like Montgomery’s Cheddar, which is made using unpasteurized cow’s milk and traditional methods, have become legend.
My current fave is a blue cheese from Collingthwaite Farm on Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. It’s a fairly new stilton-style cheese that is creamy and buttery, with a strong bite that lingers, begging for a glass of Burgundy or Claret. Made by the cheese wizards Randolph Hodgson and Joe Schneider, it cannot be labelled stilton because it is made with unpasteurized milk. Since the EU has granted stilton its own “protected designation origin” status, they’re calling it Stichelton. (P.S. 12/05/07: Once again, I’m ahead of the curve: the New York Times lauds this cheese today!) I’m also crazy about all of Jamie Montgomery’s (of cheddar fame) cheeses. And the unpasteurized goat’s milk St Tola, from County Clare in Ireland…
All I’m saying is that it really gets my goat when Americans talk about bad food in England when, here under one roof, I saw fresh octopus and squid, diver scallops with their roe, dozens of varieties of just-baked breads, handmade chocolates, dried fruits from the Middle East, pheasants, rabbits, any cut of grass-fed beef and any pig part, the most beautiful local and imported produce, and hundreds of dairy products that we will probably never see the likes of here. London is hip, happening, sophisticated, and fun, albeit expensive.
From Borough Market we walked home several miles along the amazing Thames Walks, past book fairs and mimes, through the exciting South Bank with the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe sharing the bank with the brutal National Theatre, the spacious Jubilee Gardens, and the great London Eye. Save up and go! You won’t be disappointed.