Missing ingredients

For the past few years, in the week before Christmas, I’ve done a big cook up for my friends. Large cuts of meat cooked slowly, sides, desserts, and whatever else I feel like serving those people that I like. While I may be on the other side of the world this year, I felt that the traditional pre-Christmas feast was still worth doing.

I went for a bit of a classic. Roast lamb, potato gratin, honeyed carrots, and sautéed kale, followed by apple and rhubarb crumble with custard. Crowd pleasers seemed the way to go.

There were always going to be some challenges with putting a meal like this together while travelling, of course. Not least being the state of the hostel’s kitchen. While better than what you usually get in a hostel, it certainly lacks some of the sophistication of what I had back home. Lacks quite a lot of the utensils, too.

The larger challenge, though, is ingredient shopping. At the best of times I struggle with shopping for an event like this. Not being one for half measures, I like to get really good quality produce. The meat should be ethically produced and as good as can be found.

Vegetables and fruit, too, need to be of the highest standards, which means I need to be able to look at them myself before choosing.

In any new city it can be hard to find places you trust to sell you food. In a big city like London, caught in the grip of warring supermarkets, it can be even worse. Don’t get me wrong, supermarkets have their place, and with the tiered variety of chains here, some of them are quite good.

But even in the supposedly higher end supermarkets there is an upsetting trend away from choosing your own produce. At the local Waitrose nearly everything is in plastic wrappers. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, but it all just leaves me a bit cold. Is it so odd to want to feel my leeks before I buy them? I would always prefer a small, local grocers or butchers, but they are increasingly difficult to find.

Through the wonders of the internet I did manage to find a family owned organic butchers a mere two tube stops away. HG Walter’s is a dream of a butcher. Along with the usual cuts there was game and offal of every sort, plus some stunning looking house made sausages. The meat was displayed beautifully, the staff knew what they were talking about, and it was a challenge to choose what to take.

Even with the help of the internet, though, decent greengrocers have been near impossible to find. In desperate need of good veggies I did what I would do in most cities and headed for the markets.

When deciding on which market to visit, it’s good to stick to those that are large, old, and central. Barcelona’s La Boqueria are a good example, as are Melbourne’s own Queen Victoria Markets. In London, this meant Borough Markets. With a very long history, including 160 years in the current location, Borough Markets is one of London’s largest, and located right by London Bridge. It hit the brief on all three counts.

That it seemed so likely to be one of the great markets of the world might explain why I came away feeling so disappointed.

Don’t’get me wrong. There is a lot to be impressed about at Borough Markets. If you’re looking for cured meats and cheeses there is a seriously impressive selection. Some of the meat available looked wonderful, too, especially the game meat. And there looked to be some beautiful seafood, too.

But there was a significant lack of fruit and vegetables. Across the whole market I think I counted 5 fruit and veg stalls, most of which were really rather small. Some did have good produce, for example I got some lovely organic carrots for an absurd 10p a kilo. But there just wasn’t the selection I expect from a great market.

Maybe my expectations are too high, and I’ve been spoilt by some of the Australian markets. In Melbourne alone, not only is there the indomitable Queen Vic, but also Prahran. Adelaide’s Central Markets are equally impressive. Even the Belconnen and Fyshwick markets in Canberra aren’t too bad when it comes to the range and quality of fresh vegetables.

To me, Borough Markets just didn’t live up to expectations. I did manage to get what I required, and my pre-Christmas dinner was a huge success. The lamb shoulder spent 6 hours in the oven and fell off the bone, the potato gratin was rich and creamy, and the crumble was sweet and warming. Everyone was left delighted, but I just want it to be easier next time.

Looking online, farmers markets seem to be the best suggestions for fresh produce, but they’re mostly on the weekend.

In the meantime, perhaps I’m stuck with plastic-wrapped leeks.

The street food riddle

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What came first, the chicken or the egg? If my grandfather’s axe had its handle replaced by my father, and its head replaced by me, is it still my grandfather’s axe?

To these ancient puzzles, I add one more.

Is street food still street food if neither sold nor eaten on the streets?

This deep philosophical question was running through my head as I wandered through the dark, smoky party that was Street Feast at Hawker House. Ten food stalls and four bars, housed in a old factory now full of cheap tables and chairs, this was the first winter market put on by the Street Feast team.

It felt like an underground warehouse rave for middle class hipster foodies. And it was fabulous. From the sticky, smoked pork ribs to the luxury of a lobster roll, the food was all pretty excellent, and the whisky bar really knew how to make a Boulvadier. I was in my element.

But the entire event was inside, under a roof. Bao, tacos and chicken wings may be thought of as street food, but here the closest you could get to the street was to head out for a smoke. You were more likely to be sitting up in a rickety little loft than seeing anything resembling a road. In that case, does it still count as street food?

Perhaps my idea of street food is a little too romantic, though. Maybe it’s too proscriptive to think that the street is a major part of it. No longer do we have the tiny little cart selling oysters or smoked fish on the corner. That’s an image of the long past, kept in my head from books and movies.

Even the food truck culture seems to have moved on, though. You read about the early days of Kogi, Roi Choi’s Korean taco truck from LA that was one of the first big stars in the field, and they talk about pulling up to a parking lot alone until someone saw the cops and they fled. There was something special about that, and if you kept an eye on Twitter you could really get an experience. That was only in 2008, too!

Here in London, I’ve seen many food trucks, but none of them by themselves. They seem to live in clusters, forming little market squares on a set day in a set location, the same few options every week. In a little square off Brick Lane that had some great little vans, some of them looked like they weren’t able to move at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The street food markets and convoys are great fun. You get to choose between a number of different options, all at reasonable prices, all generally pretty good quality. It’s just that it feels like a food court more than a street stall. An exceptionally good food court, for sure, but still.

Which brings me back to my question. Is the term “street food” even useful in a city like London? This is a city where nearly every food is sold from a van or a stall somewhere, but also served on a white tablecloth. When you can get roast chicken by the roadside and fried chicken at fine dining it makes the distinction a little meaningless.

So I don’t know if the sliders and sorbets and Hot Toddies being sold at Hawker House really are street food. What I do know is that it is really, really good food. This is a group of businesses at the top of their game, coming together to create an atmosphere of celebration. It’s worth the smoke and crowds and hipsters.

They have two more weeks before they pack up shop. If anyone is in London, you should get yourself there. Take the party off the streets.