July 2, 2009

Episode 3: London - blessed are the cheese makers... and bean roasters...

The House of Commons, the Thames
The third and final leg of Team Pretty Bake's European sojourn took place in the imperial London, and although I embarked on this particular section of the journey without the pleasant company of the delightful Miss Rose, I arrived directly into the charming and well-organised hands of Miss Sally and Mr Saint.
I have spent a number of days contemplating how best to present episode. You see, having the benefit of two like-minded quasi-Londoners being in charge of proceedings meant that this was ten days crammed full of absolute awesomeness, and if you thought the previous posts were long this runs the risk of being positively scary. After all, within hours of my arrival I was washing down a pint of sausage rolls with a pint of cider at the BFI - and things only got better! So rather than follow my usual preference for chronological presentation, here instead is a list of the more notable culinary highlights, and a brief explanation of why they were just so…

Pint of sausage rolls - BFI
Blessed are the bean roasters – Having spent two weeks in a vacant coffee wilderness, the cafes of London were an absolute blessing. At present there are two roasteries proffering their wares in central London who we caffeine addicts are particularly excited about, and it was by no means a coincidence that the best establishments I frequented were brewing with either Square Mile or Monmouth beans. My first stop was Milkbar, the delightful younger sibling of Flat White, where at long last I was finally able to relax with a cupful of deliciousness.

Milkbar – Bateman street, SoHo
The nearby Fernandez & Wells was equally delightful, and the square mile-fuelled Taste of Bitter Love near Columbia road not only had a fantastic name but produced a worthy coffee to match. Attempts to have my coffee made by the now world-renowned Gwilym Davies were sadly thwarted, but I did get to see him making coffee for others, if that counts. My ultimate London coffee experience was completed with a trip to the Monmouth Roastery and café in Southwark, where not only was the coffee excellent, but the fortuitous coinciding of our visit with that of their main buyer resulted in an impromptu tasting session accompanying a discussion of their favourite farms currently operating in Guatemala.

Monmouth Coffee Company – Maltby street, Southwark
Lantana – This gorgeous little café-cum-bar in Fitzrovia was everything I desire in a breakfast venue; small and unassuming, a dedicated clientele with similar dispositions to those of my own, excellent coffee and a number of scrumptious brunch options. The cinnamon-sugar-encrusted brioche French toast served with stewed plums, berries and pistachio ricotta was simply divine, and repeated visitations would most certainly have occurred had there been more time.
Borough Markets – I don't care that getting excited about markets probably makes me a sad person, for those in London are simply spectacular. The produce available is wonderful, and everyone wants you to try their wares; not simply as a marketing gimmick, but because each stallholder is involved in the production of their goods, so they're genuinely excited to share things with you and actually care what you think. Gorgeous and frenetic, it was easy to fall in love with Borough, but my highlight would have to be Neal's Yard Dairy, to my mind the most wonderful cheese shop in the world.

Neal's Yard Dairy – Borough Markets
St John Bar and Restaurant – A Fergus Henderson creation renowned for instilling the virtues of nose-to-tail eating, St John's was selected as our special occasion dining establishment and performed above and beyond all expectations. Any eatery where the waiter describes the daily menu as "porktastic" is just fine by me. The wealth of British pig breeds on offer in the standard forms of chops and roasts meant we were perhaps a little less adventurous when it came to the offal offerings, but we did manage to enjoy a hearty spleen, and the bath chaps were thoroughly delicious. Watching a fine young waiter dissect our neighbour's suckling pig with the finesse of a raving lunatic was an absolute delight, and that a restaurant famed for their meat could finish with such spectacular desserts was pure heaven. Bravo to you, St John, and all that you stand for.
Broadway market – Another speciality farmers-style market, this delightful bazaar inhabiting the streets of Hackney had quality produce abounds. Climpton & Sons provided a perfectly civilised flat white, and Violet a delectable dark molasses ginger cake accompanied by a gorgeous cupcake display, but most notable of all were Sporeboys and their perhaps greatest-of-all-time breakfast sandwich:

Sporeboys – Broadway Market, Hackney
Beigel Bake – Open 24 hours, selling a dozen beigels for £2,40 and producing an astoundingly scrumptious salt beef beigel, Beigel Bake on Brick lane is a resounding demonstration of why sometimes the simple things are often the best.

Salt beef beigel – Beigel Bake, Brick lane
High tea at the Wolseley – Every lady deserves a moment of sheer decadence every once in a while, so one fine afternoon, Miss Sally and I called on all the pomp and ceremony we could muster to indulge ourselves with afternoon tea at The Wolseley. Elegant and decadent, the experience was sublime, and while I'm afraid custom prohibited the acquisition of photographic evidence, the tower of finger sandwiches, assorted pastries and fruit scones lathered with homemade jam and clotted cream were consumed with gay abandon, such was the whimsy of the Hart ladies.
Cupcakes aplenty – I know they're the current "it" item in baking circles which always lowers their desirability in my world, but the charm of the cupcakes from Hummingbird Bakery was damned hard to ignore.

Cupcakes – Hummingbird Bakery, Portobello road
The Company Shed – Already recounted by Miss Sally with stunning proficiency and far superior photographic talents than my own (or indeed lack thereof), this nondescript shack in West Mersea was the perfect day trip dining destination. Arrive with bread and wine in hand, have patience, and ultimately you will be treated to a seafood extravaganza that is cheap, extraordinarily yummy and fresh from the sea. Need I reiterate that good things done simply…

The Company Shed – West Mersea, Colchester
Ottolenghi – Earlier this year, Miss Sally and Mr Saint sent me birthday tidings in the form of a wondrous cookbook from this delightful little eatery, so it was only natural that my expedition to ye olde London towne included a visit down Islington way. Ottolenghi has the sexiest window display ever, and if I can come even close to creating edible luxuries of this standard then I will be one happy baker. Communal dining is so hot right now, and when it involves mid-table toasters it is absolute bliss. The coffee was lovely, their breakfast enchanting, and Miss Sally did well to exercise such patience as I fretted over which tempting treat to take home. I want an Ottolenghi of my own, and I want to be them, but will happily to settle to have them all as my friends. Oh glorious Ottolenghi, swoon!

Ottolenghi – Upper street, Islington

Ottolenghi breakfast

Ottolenghi treats
Now in the interests of maintaining your sanity, I shall attempt to curtail this marathon posting and wrap it up in a flurry of non-foodie highlights:
Thornhill square, Islington – Sounds sappy, I know, but the thing I enjoyed most about London was hanging out with Sally and Simon doing the things I used to love doing. That and it was the scene for one of the greatest cat vs. squirrel battles in human history. Mental images of second squirrel to the rescue still make me smile…
London's museums – The more astute among you will by now have noticed a theme to the things I enjoy, but it must be said that the museums of London are awesome. The British Museum houses the Rosetta stone, Greece's Parthenon marbles and a wicked clock exhibition to name but a few, and the Wellcome Collection just down the road offers many incurable curiosities. Add to that the Science Museum with Babbage's difference engine (as well as half his brain!), the first atomic clock, 'Consul' the educated monkey and George III's scientific instrument collection and you have a world of fun, quite literally.

British Museum
Greenwich - Home to the Royal Naval College, National Maritime Museum, and Royal Observatory with its planetarium, camera obscura and the Prime Meridian; Greenwich was the highlight of highlights. To actually see Harrison's timepieces H1 to H4 was incredible, and the anticlimactic ball drop was quite simply hilarious.

Royal Naval College; Prime Meridian; Flamsteed House – Royal Observatory
Bath – An exemplary depiction of Georgian architecture, the city of Bath is absurdly beautiful. Featuring the Roman Baths, Bath Abbey and Pulteney bridge – one of only four in the world to have shops spanning the full length across both sides – the entire city is wondrously crafted from Bath Stone. Architects' John Wood the elder and younger's vision to recreate a Palladian architectural landscape is executed with extravagant finesse and epitomised by the panoramic magnificence of the Circus and Royal Crescent. When in Bath, one indeed gets the impression of classical decorum on a palatial scale.

Pulteney bridge; Roman Baths; Bath Abbey
So there are a number of things I have missed. Seeing Daniel Kitson in his native surrounds was excellent but has already been recounted elsewhere; and I didn't get tell you about our cooking exploits as hosts of Miss Sally and Mr Saint's first Out-Rage event. Sadly I was too busy explaining how a Japanese quiff allowed entry to my top five to stop and take pictures, but it was mighty fine, believe me.
I loved London, and I know Shane would have loved it too. In fact, he would have loved the whole trip, and it most certainly would have been better with him there and sharing the excitement of things which only he could appreciate. But it was still a wonderful adventure, made special by those who took part, and I presume he would have been proud to know that I did it.
While the trip did its best to distract us from the saddest anniversary we will forever have to endure, it also marked a year of significant battles for mum. She has done it without fuss, and selflessly accepted that while for most, breast cancer should be their greatest challenge in life, for us it was not. It is therefore with much happiness and relief that the yearly report has been passed with a resounding all clear, and that, at least, is deserving of a hurrah.
And so on that rare good note, I will thank you for sharing this time with me and bid you good night. We shall return to regular programming in a few weeks, and I will do my best to try and keep it short…

Stonehenge, naturally

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