Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Food! Glorious food! - London

Tea with the Queen??
Me outside Buckingham Palace -
HRH was in residence and I didn't even get so much as an Iced Vo-Vo!

When I announced that I was going to spend a few days in London on the way up to Scotland, and that I was looking forward to checking out the food there, a lot of people gasped, clutched their pearls and warned me of the supposed horrors of British cuisine. Lots of people seemed to have tales of either how hideous the food was, or how expensive - or both - and I was regaled with lurid stories of "Chippies" (purveyors of all things fried) , vats of rancid cooking oil, stodgy, bland gluey concoctions, grey mince and soggy cabbage. I certainly arrived in Old Blighty with low expectations. Whilst I had no intention of hitting the posh end of town and sampling the really high end establishments (budget was a factor, so there were definitely no Michelin stars on my horizon!) being a first time visitor I didn't know what lay between a degustation menu at Claridges and a deep fried Mars Bar at the local Chippie. I have to say that I was delighted to find a whole range of well priced, frankly delicious options.

The myth of British food being mad, bad and dangerous to know was blown out of the water for this culinary traveller. I didn't eat a bad meal the whole time and was impressed with the range of fresh ingredients available and the accessability of good quality food at reasonable cost. Like anywhere, the second you find yourself amongst the tourist traps, you know that your chances of finding anything decent to eat drop dramatically. In my opinion, if you eat at a place less than a couple of kilometers away from a famous landmark/monument/tourist spot , you get what you deserve - which will in all probability be something mass produced, overpriced and disappointing. My top foodie travel tip would be - observe where the tourists are heading and then set your course in the opposite direction.

Admittedly, I had a little inside foodie information in the form of my gracious hosts, Mark and Francis - who pointed me in the right direction of what I might like and who also kindly allowed me to stay in their gorgeous home in Stoke Newington. Thanks boys , your hospitality was treasured and I felt very spoiled, having somewhere to really call home during my visit. I was also treated to delicious home cooked Nigerian cuisine, courtesy of Francis' lovely mother (who was also visting) who cooked enough goat, creamed yams, baked fish, spiced fried chicken and delicious vegetable stews to feed the EU. All lip smackingly good I might add - her oxtail braise was to die for! (Even if that second serving required a little lie down afterwards - I ate FAR too much!)

Anyway, I thought I would share a few of my favourite meals from my time in London with you all. Bear in mind that all of these selections are from cafe style establishments, pubs or high street venues - I did not do any fine dining at all. As you will see, there were some great dishes - some that would give a few fine dining restaurants I've visited a run for their money. Here are my top 7 tasty London treats....

Scallops are my very favourite seafood, so I jumped at this delicious entree from a pub on Church Street, Stoke Newington. The black pudding and the scallops together were a match made in heaven - rich and delicious - and the fresh tasting pea puree balanced the dish perfectly and stopped it from becoming too cloying. I really wished they did this as a main course - just three scallops and black pud slices just weren't enough - so moreish!

Hand dived scallops with black pudding and pea puree

The next dish also came from a pub - their house made piccallili relish was perfect with the sweet and salty pork terrine. I love a terrine of any kind and this one was just delicious. The pork was lean and lovely and full of flavour and the different textures - the cruch of the sourdough, the tang and creaminess of the piccalilli and the bite of the terrine made this dish a real delight.

Free range pork terrine with sourdough toast and house made piccallili relish

Who remembers when lamb shanks were the bits that you gave to the dog and that butchers would often give you for free? Well, now we know better than to give this flavour packed cut of meat away gratis and some folks, like the fine people at The Three Crowns Hotel on the Stoke Newington High Street know how to treat their shanks right. And oh my..... do they do it right. Slow cooked meat that literally falls from the bone at a touch, moist, full of aromatics. Lip smacking, unctuous goodness served with a superb cassuolet in a fetching copper serving pot. Pure heaven.

Slow braised lamb shanks with cassuolet

For something a little lighter, this beautiful fresh salad really hit the spot - the spatchcock was so moist and beautifully cooked. It just melted in your mouth.Teamed with the citrus, watercress and fennel, it just screamed "welcome spring!" (which it is in England right now) and it was just lovely.

Roasted spatchcock salad with orange, fennel and watercress

How could I go to England and not have pork sausages at least once? Well, I had them more than once I admit, they were so damn good - and what is it about English bacon? So much better than any bacon I've eaten anywhere! Anyway, I digress - this delicious specimen came from Banger Brothers on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, who specialise in free range, english pork sausages. They don't try and tart them up too much - it is just a first class free range banger in a freshly baked roll with plenty of yummy condiments and a side order of freshly cooked chips with salt and a good dose of vinegar. Very old school and just what I needed to build up my strength for shopping at the Portobello Road Market. Banger Brothers of Notting Hill, we salute you.

Free range British pork sausages with dijon mustard/ chips and vinegar

I love crab meat, and I love it even more when I don't have to spend precious eating time picking out all that sweet, succulent flesh from the shell myself. These crab cakes that I enjoyed not only saved me that pesky and fiddly task, but also delivered the fresh crab meat in a lovely light, crunchy shell of its own. Teamed with a house made pickled cucumber and poppyseed salad, a beautiful saffron aoili on the side and a wedge of lime, it was crabby heaven.

Crab cake with pickled cucumber and saffron aoili

Who would have thought that I would experience the best huevos rancheros I've ever eaten on a blustery grey morning in Shoreditch, London? "Foodhall" in Old Street, Shoreditch is a specialty food store that includes a little cafe at the back and a cheese room 'round the side. It is a also a veritable treasure trove of foodie delights - organic bread, baked goods and milk, a great selection of oils, glazes, wine, spices and dry goods. They also serve the best coffee I had in London. What's not to like? Their huevos rancheros was served with slivers of spicy chorizo, avocado and a char grilled chilli and it was just so, so good! All future forays into huevos rancheros territory will be forever judged by this one. I used to think that my own interpretation of this classic dish was pretty good, (spicy, warming, all those lovely textures) but the "Foodhall" version just blows it out of the water.

Huevos rancheros

So, as you can see, London yielded up lots of culinary treasures and I didn't have to resort to the horrors of a "Chippie" once. Nor did I spend wads of cash to get delicious food. It was all there if you knew where to look. A couple of other delights that deserve a mention (but alas I have no pictures of!) are the spectacular bagels from the 24hour bagel shop "Beigel Bake" at 159 Brick Lane (also in Shoreditch). The constant queue out the door tells you that these people know how to bake a bagel! I enjoyed a freshly baked bagel filled with warm, tender salted beef (We call it corned beef in Australia) and a creamy mustard sauce that literally had me sighing with pleasure. The price will blow you away too - bagels range from about 15 pence to one pound fifty depending on the fillings you choose.

My final recommendation is reserved for what is reputedly the best kebab shop in London (and conveniently located a five minute walk from where I was staying in Stoke Newington) And yes, the store is literally called "The Best Kebab" and you will find it at number 125 on the Stoke Newington High Street. Again, the queue out the door will give you a hint that their kebabs are indeed the best. Frequented by chefs and punters alike (Ainsley Harriot is a regular) this no frills establishment serves up a range of beef, lamb and chicken kebabs cooked to order and served with fresh salads and delicious pickled cabbage that is so delicious. I sampled both the beef and the lamb during my stay. I decided on the lamb option as my last meal in London, and it was a worthy send off. (They even have their own Facebook group full of fans, which I have of course joined)

I will be very excited to explore more food options on my return to London (and yes, I certainly will be returning - particularly to concentrate on some of the great looking food stalls I saw along the canal in Camden, that I didn't get the time to try. And who knows, next time I might also go a bit upmarket and visit some of the swankier food establishments) But let's just clear up once and for all that myth that English food is all heart attack inducing fry ups and stodge. As you can see, I had some fantastic food and didn't have to pay a fortune for it either. Rule Brittania!


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