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.

Surprises

When you go somewhere, there are things that you expect are going to be there.  There is a picture in your mind, a set idea of what the world you’re entering will look like. With me, I do a lot of research on places, so my expectations are usually fairly accurate. It sometimes means spoiling surprises for myself, but it does mean that I most know what is coming.

In arriving in London, most of my expectations have been met. There have, however, been a few things that have shocked. They are just little surprises, small things that have struck me based on, to be honest, not a lot of observation.

So accept them with a grain of salt, but here are my three biggest surprises about the London food scene.

 

There are some amazingly good noodles around

I expected good Indian food (though I’m not convinced I’ve found it yet). I expected good French food. I expected pretty decent kebabs, reasonable Italian, and maybe some ok US barbecue.

For some reason, though, there were some cuisines that I wasn’t particularly expecting to be great in London. One of the ones at the top of the list was Japanese.

Turns out, that expectation was very wrong. It’s not just that there is some good Japanese food in London. It’s that some of the best food in London at the moment is Japanese.

There are two restaurants in Soho causing all the stir. Each have taken a style of noodles and worked at making them as well as they possibly can.

The first, Koya, is all about udon noodles. Thick and meaty, served with or without broth and a number of different toppings, it’s an exciting bowl of food. Some options are traditional Japanese flavours, and others are more British in origin, such as the special of roast pheasant, mushrooms and cabbage that I ate.

The other has a very small menu, and specialises in ramen. Tonkotsu has made a huge impact on this city, with the rich, deep pork ‘tonkotsu’ broth in their trademark bowl of noodles delivering an unbelievable depth of flavour. With only four bowls of house made noodles to choose from, plus a few sides (including some stunning fried chicken pieces), this is fast becoming one of London’s favourite cheap eats.

I don’t know why I didn’t expect great Japanese. Noodles are a global trend right now, so this city was sure to be right in the middle of things, but for some reason it didn’t click with me. It was certainly a happy surprise.

 

There are only three pub menus in London

When I first went into a pub here, the menu looked pretty good. It was a nice looking, quiet, local pub type of place, serving cider and tarragon battered fish, pork and chorizo burger, sausages and mash, chicken and ham hock pies, and so forth. All were good, simple pub dishes.

The second pub I went into impressed me a lot less. Clearly a cookie-cutter chain style pub, the menu had their larger fish’n’chips plate called “the Codfather”, and a “Big Ben Burger”. Very much a tourist operation, it was pretty dull. When I wandered past another pub advertising the same badly named dishes, it was to be expected.

The third pub I went into, however, again looked like a small, independent place. Cute, cosy, with some interesting beers on tap and boardgames behind the bar, it seemed like a place with its own spirit. But then, I looked at the menu.

Cider and tarragon battered fish. Pork and chorizo burger. Chicken and ham hock pies. The whole menu was identical, even down to the descriptors used on each dish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good menu, and I understand that pubs have good reasons for using menu consultants.

What surprised me was the lack of a desire to be individual. The pubs have so much character in terms of décor, or atmosphere, but then the food is identical. I look forward to finding the places that do their own thing.

 

The organic pig is winning

In Hyde Park there is a tiny little sausage stall. They sell a basic sausage in a bun, with some caramelised onion. Condiments are on the side, so you can choose what else you want on it. It’s all a very simple operation, with one slightly surprising factor.

The sausages are organic.

Yes, in a park-side sausage stall, they’re using meat from organic, boutique farm raised pigs. It’s not just there, either. From pubs to restaurants to back street cafes, organic pork seems to be served everywhere. The message is clearly getting through.

I don’t know why the success here has been so much greater than at home. Maybe it’s the influence of chefs like Fergus Henderson who for many years have focused on only cooking happy pigs, and serving every part of them. Maybe it is the continued TV work of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and even Jamie Oliver, championing organics and ethical eating. Or perhaps it is the central place of pigs in British cuisine, where is seems to me to hold some of the same romantic position that lamb does in Australia.

Which is great for so many reasons. It shows that ethical eating can be commercially viable, and that people who go out to eat do care about the welfare of the animals. From the gastronomic side it’s exciting as well, because it means that everywhere the bacon, the sausages and the other pork dishes are almost universally excellent.

That is something that deserves celebration.

Treat yourself: An anthropological study of the dining habits of hostel dwellers

Sometimes, things just fall into place. You meet someone who happens to have a room available for a steal. Your first job application gets met with a rousing approval and a decent wage. Everything moves smoothly and, within a week, your life is up and running.

Though, of course, that never really happens. Getting a house and a job both take serious work, and while some people do get lucky, for most of us it takes weeks or more to get settled. Which means experiencing one thing:

Hostel living.

For the plague of Aussies and Kiwis that swarm into London every year, the first real experience of the place is through the lens of dorm rooms and relative poverty. Some stay for a few weeks, while others use it as home for a longer term, but either way most will experience the unique lifestyle.

The hostel diet can be dangerous. Similar to the diet of university students and any other groups of people at the intersection of youth, low income, and lack of responsibilities, it isn’t known for its nutritional content.

It is, first of all, largely liquid based. The hostel dweller is a thirsty creature, especially after dark. Developing a close relationship with their local off license, they are able to keep well stocked with large cans of Fosters, Stella and Carlsberg, or perhaps some strangely potent cider. While this does not supply much sustenance, it does form a major part of hostel entertainment, particularly when drunk as part of a game. Beer pong and Kings Cup seem to be the main favourites, though there is something to be said for “riding the bus”.

Following alcohol, the main food group seems to be carbs. Regularly appearing are large piles of pasta with very basic sauces, about as cheap as food can be. Cooked using rudimentary tools, these vast plates of simple starches often provide the sustenance for the aforementioned drinking.

Pizza is the other main option, usually of the delivered type. These allow reasonable flavour and laziness to combine, with delivery people arriving at the door all hours of the day.

If a hostel dweller is really in the mood to treat themselves, they might head out for a meal. It seems that most hostels have a nearby restaurant that is reasonably cheap and provides decent food for these special occasions. In the hostel I am staying in here in Kensington, this is Da Mario, the Italian joint around the corner that was reportedly Princess Diana’s favourite.

It seems that the Queen of Hearts had some taste, as this is some surprisingly good Italian, considering it’s served amongst the most out-of-date, op-shop chic jumble of pictures and knickknacks that I’ve seen in years. The whole place is ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter when the pizza comes out, unsliced and topped with quality ingredients. The cheese in particular, flown in from Naples, is spectacular. Although they need a rethink on how they serve desserts.

The hostel dweller life is a good one, and the rotating door of new friends that come from around the world is wonderful. But it takes its toll. There are only so many days in your life you can live on just booze and carbohydrates, and I used most of mine up at university.

I am making sure to supplement my hostel living with some other dining habits. It may cost a little more to do your research and eat out at a few more interesting places, but I know my body appreciates the variety.

Soon, with a little luck, I will find somewhere else to live, somewhere where the kitchen is a little better and beer pong is not a weekday activity. But until then, it’s time for a trip to the off license. I’m going to treat myself.

The Deport List

You’ve just arrived in London. After surviving the 26-hour transit, taking a brief crowded tube trip, trudging your heavy pack up the four flights of stairs to your room in the hostel, and washing all the travel sweat off you, what do you do?

For me the answer was pretty simple. You go to the pub.

So around the corner I went to the local tavern. Once I pushed past the crowds to the bar I ordered a pint and my first plate of food on British soil: bangers and mash.

There’s something so evocative about that as a dish, so English. This was a pretty exemplary version, too, with fat, sweet free-range pork sausages and rich gravy over sharp, mustardy mash. It was a perfect introduction to the Kingdom’s cuisine.

Britain seems to have a number of these classic dishes, of foods that are so inherently tied up with how people see the country that they verge on cliché. And I intend to try as many of them as I can.

As such, I have written up my Deport List, which is like a Bucket List for those on limited visas. These are ten experiences that sum up the stereotype of the UK that has formed in my head after years of TV and films. I will endeavour to do all of them before I get kicked out of the country.

 

The Deport List

1.     A Cornish pasty in Cornwall

The perfect self-contained meal. This parcel of meat and veggies wrapped in pastry became the standard lunch fare for Cornish tin miners in the 18th century, cementing this as one of the great working class foods.

Reason enough to head west and lunch on one of these glorious golden pasties, eaten end to end as they are intended, right on the Cornish beaches.

 

2.     Cucumber sandwiches and Pimms at a garden party

From a stalwart of the British working class to the ultimate upper-class cliché, I want to eat cucumber sandwiches. Sliced, salted cucumber and butter on soft white bread with the crusts cut off, a morsel of food with next to no nutritional content, is so clearly connected with the British ruling class in my mind that just one bite makes me feel like a colonial overlord.

This is the food of people who made leisure their life. Eaten with a glass of Pimms Cup outside in the English summer, it’s enough to make anyone give a hearty “pip-pip”.

 

3.     Strawberries and Cream at Wimbledon

Speaking of summer, when the boys and girls in white hit the grass to play some tennis, thoughts turn to strawberries. Top quality berries from Kent, picked the day before and shipped down to be sold at outrageous prices to the hordes of people hoping for a glimpse of Federer or the Williams sisters, this dish is as much a part of the Wimbledon tournament as the tennis itself.

People have warned me off this one, though. They say that it’s too early in the season, that the strawberries are bland, and that you can get the exact same thing outside the tournament grounds for a fraction of the price. Given the seemingly absurd process involved in getting in to Wimbledon, eating the cheaper ones outside might be an option, but the intention is still there.

 

4.     Fish’n’chips, by the water, wrapped in newspaper

Few things say England more than fish’n’chips. Even if it is now a staple around the world, it still seems particularly English, particularly when malt vinegar or mushy peas are involved. The Brits may not have been the first people in the world to batter and fry a piece of cod, but they do seem to have been the first to serve it with fried potatoes, wrapped in piece of newspaper, and thus made the world a better place.

To me, though, fish’n’chips is always better in sight of the ocean. Even if the fish is just as fresh at the local city chipper, there’s something about the whiff of salt spray from the waves that enhance the flavour. It was an obvious choice for this list.

 

5.     Haggis, tatties and neeps in Scotland

The Scots get a bad wrap when it comes to food. They are universally known for one dish that a large number of people wouldn’t even consider eating. Haggis is a pretty serious dish of offal, with sheep heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, fat, spices, salt and stock, then stuffed into the sheep’s stomach, then simmered for a few hours.

To some, it sounds awful. But me, I love that stuff. I can’t wait to head north of Hadrian’s Wall to get that rich, savoury goodness, served with mashed potato and turnips. Maybe a dram of whiskey, too. Who wouldn’t love that?

 

6.     Go to the home of Stilton in the Vale of Belvoir

There are not many things in the world as wonderful as a great blue cheese, and Stilton is one of best. So when I discovered that five of the six places legally allowed to make Stilton are located in a region that sounds like it’s from a George RR Martin novel, there was no way I could resist.

Evocative name aside, the Vale of Belvoir seems like a typical piece of the English countryside, but one that happens to produce one of the world’s great cheeses. Also, there is a town in the Vale called Melton Mowbray, famous for a particular type of pork pie, which doesn’t hurt either.

 

7.     A perfect trifle

I love trifle. Layers of boozy sponge, jelly, fruit and custard make for a simple but eminently enjoyably way to end a meal. And, given that the Brits have been making some form of it since the late 16th century, it seems like a good fit for the list.

But just any trifle would be too easy, so the search for a perfect version is on. Though what makes a perfect trifle? To me, it’s all to do with getting the balance of the levels right, as well as the quality of the custard. It’s going to be a fun search.

 

8.     “Support” the Campaign for Real Ale

Back in 1971 a bunch of Irish guys started getting annoyed at the British beer industry. They felt that the choice of beer was being limited, that brews were becoming mass produced, homogenous and dull. So they began an organisation, the Campaign for Real Ale (or CAMRA) to champion traditional British ales, made in casks and served without carbonisation. Now, more than 40 years later, they are the largest single issue UK consumer group, and has facilitated a revitalisation of great, limited production beers.

It’s hard not to approve of such excellent goals. Maintaining tradition, choice and quality are all things I strongly approve of. As such, I am going to make sure I support CAMRA in the best way you can in our free market world: by buying real ales in abundance.

 

9.     Chicken tikka masala at a late night curry house

I love the story of chicken tikka masala. As a nominally Indian dish, supposedly created in Glasgow, that became one of the UK’s most popular plates of food, there’s something so unlikely about it that it’s almost romantic. It is chicken tikka in a spiced tomato sauce and often served with near fluorescent colours, and this nation loves it.

It does seem a little wrong in a nation with such a history of food from the sub-continent to go with what is arguably a bastardisation of the cuisine, but it is a list of British clichés. I’ve watched a lot of UK cop shows and they always go to the curry house after the pubs closed and order this. There was no way I could leave it out.

 

10.  A Brick Lane salt beef beigel after midnight

Every city has their late night drunk food. In Melbourne, a night on the turps is never complete without a souvalaki dripping with garlic sauce. Here in London I am told that the position is filled by the salt beef beigel. Hot salt beef, a cooked, brined beef brisket, is sold as a hot sandwich in traditional beigels (alternative spelling to ‘bagel’). This classic of the Jewish community is served in various locations, most notably Brick Lane, 24 hours a day.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard much about them until a friend was living here, but a hot beef sandwich after midnight sounded like an ideal way to round out this list.

Starting young

When I was young I always intended to go and live overseas. A prospective expat from way back, I had all sorts of plans that I never quite got around to.

After seeing the film ‘The Spanish Apartment’ I was absolutely going to do an exchange year in Barcelona and have adventures with a kooky group of people from all around Europe. Sadly, my university didn’t have any deals with Spanish universities.

I started looking at other countries. UK, US, France, Japan: everywhere sounded great, but I never quite got around to doing the paperwork.

The years ticked by and I continued not getting around to it. I spent six years in Canberra, plodding through the public service, and wasting my youth.

Waste might seem like a strong word, of course. I’ve generally enjoyed myself, even in Canberra. But your youth should be for adventure!

But thankfully, I’m still young, at least according to the government of the United Kingdom. So with my Youth Mobility Visa in hand I am off to do my kind of adventuring.

The kind with food.

“But why England?” you might ask. “Surely a gastronomic adventure would fit better in Paris, or Barcelona, or the many ramen stores of Tokyo?” And it’s a fair question.

I could be cynical and say that it comes entirely down to better visa conditions, but in reality that is only part of the story. While the UK has, over the years, had a pretty poor reputation in the kitchen, things have changed more recently. Even when French President Jacques Chirac claimed in 2005 that British cuisine was second only to Finnish in its awfulness, London was already becoming one of the world’s great food cities.

The last 15 years has seen the UK become a centre of gastronomic innovation (thank you Heston). It has had a resurgence of classic British food, particularly solidifying its position as one of the foremost cookers of meat (thank you Fergus). On top of all that, as one of the most multicultural cities in the world, London has become a place where you can find great food from around the world. From French to Vietnamese to Colombian to Israeli, there are options somewhere in this city.

At least, this is what I am told, and over the coming two years I’ll be finding out for myself.

I intend to dive headlong into what this country has to offer. While mostly this will mean the food of London, I will also get out to the rolling green hills, head over to Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and try some of the other cities (particularly excited about Birmingham, if I’m being honest). I’m going to experience the clichés and the reality, the old and the new, the cheap and (when I get a job) the fancy.

Not that I will ignore the continent. With so much only a brief plane ride away, short trips to Europe are also on the agenda. From Aalborg to Zurich, I’m going eat the best.

And I am going to share all of it with you.