London has some amazing food from small boutique grocers to M&S, to casual cafes, pubs and fine diners. It is almost a city defined by food of which the food defines and is defined by time, history and the willingness of the city and indeed the country to embrace new ideas, foods and cultures. Every single cabbie will ask you about food, tell you about food and discuss nothing but food. History, cultures, climate and geography all influence the food, and even more so in London. London is an incredibly addictive city with a vibrant food scene. The old and new mixed together. In some ways, it is the opposite of Sydney, yet similar enough to feel at home. Spending a lot of time in London makes me understand Australia better. Anywhere in summer is an uplifting experience but summer in London is different. This city can be cold, standing in Westminster on a winter’s day with the cold that eats though you one can understand why the summer is so special. The parks are full spilling over with BBQ’s in the long grass.
The following are some thought bubbles of this addictive city.
If I think of the food I love to eat then it has to be Italian food, London has some amazing Italian restaurants from the simple Carluccio’s near my flat to the brutal honesty of Bucca di Lupo in Soho to the polished simplicity of the ever young River Cafe. Italian food has almost been with me for most of my life, I loved my mums Spaghetti Bolognaise as a child and was heart broken when I discovered that this wasn’t Italian at all but in fact Antipodean. My first real cookbook was Marcella Hassan’s essentials of Italian Food which i read over and over not really knowing what Italian food was. To me at the time it was something magical that I needed to learn. I still remember my amazement at the differing tomato sauce recipes slowly cooking down the onion in olive oil until sweet then adding fresh tomato and cook slowly. I can still remember cooking this in my mum’s stainless steel pot, I was only 12 or 13 at the time. I was taken with the strangeness, the taste and the simplicity of the sauce. I still have the book and thumb though it on occasion. So simple, how could it be so simple I thought to myself? But as I have learned this is the paradox of Italian food. Simple yet complicated. The perfect ingredients, perfect cooking, perfect table, the wine, the oil, the salt and vinegar, and bread. All comes together to create the complicated simplicity of the Italian meal. To make the simple spectacular takes skill.
The River Cafe
The food here is rustic yet elegant, simple yet complex and plated in such a way as to defy the logic that anything this simple could look so good on a simple white plate. This is not the raw and brutal Italian, of Bucca di Lupo or the elegance of Giorgio Locatelli in Westminster. It is a combination of the two, the original. Feminine, beautiful, balanced and perfectly simple. Impeccable ingredients, impeccably cooked and plated. There is a true feeling of inclusiveness and love in this restaurant that comes though with each plate, the service and the staff. Dining here was timeless. Food and wine came at a steady pace, almost without effort, a gentle warmness encompassed the room, the world meandered along the Thames, off duty staff could be glimpsed in the garden eating the staff meal. The true joy of the Italian table.
On my first visit to London the autumn had arrived and the weather was cool. I had a Saturday lunch booking at one of my favourite Italian chefs and authors Giorgio Locatelli. His restaurant is in Westminster and thus I found myself walking up and down the freezing bleak streets of central London, quite lost albeit with a touch of excitement. The room itself was sleek and dark in a casual modern lounge bar kind of way. My table was pulled out and I sat in a semi circular booth. The most over the top bread basket was delivered piled high. Over whelmed with bread and my primi, a bowl of razor clams with fregola and tomato. Deep red, steaming hot and filled with mysterious bits of seafood. The deep flavour deep, salty and sweet like putting the north Atlantic on your mouth. This was a refined version of Italian food at its best.
This was my second visit to London. My one and only previous week in the UK was spent in the rain. I was tried and worn out having just spent the better part of seven weeks working in a villa in Canne, near Fregus and St Raphael in the South of France. I arrived in London exhausted not really wanting to be there. I was home sick and wanted to return back to Australia. Glamorous you say travelling the world cooking. Well yes it is but it is also exhausting.
Berry and Black Fig tart.
I just love Hampstead Heath, a remarkable green space in the centre of north London. The surrounding villages around the heath are charming dotted with the residences of famous poets, writers and artists. Constable, Yeats and, my favourite George Orwell. Whose blue plaque now hangs above the door of a French inspired bakery franchise, which I guess is somewhat ironic in context. The Heath its self-dates back to around 960 and is famous for Boudicca’s grave (possibly) the viewing area for the gunpowder conspirators (Parliament Hill). It is cross crossed with an impossible maze of unsigned posted paths, wild with nettles, huge old trees and blackberry bushes. The heath is a popular destination for Londoners particularly in the summer when the sun comes and the queues in M&S Food spill over almost on to the street as the BBQ season gets into full swing. Springtime brings out the stinging nettles, burdock and blackberries. Having watched the marathon of the River Cottage I became somewhat of a mediocre expert on foraging, with particular interest the afore mentioned blackberries that grow wild though out the expanse. However, watching, far more experienced locals, struggle in the midst of wild canes I opted for the much simpler task of procurement from the local green grocer.
The blackberries are good but English strawberries are a joy, nowhere in the world comes close to the extraordinary flavour that these little orbs possess, from the street vendors, green grocers and even the supermarkets the quality across the board is simply amazing. They are the perfume of the English summer, sweet, flavoursome but rarely watery and bland. I have no idea why this is but I’m putting this down to the long and slow ripening season, the gradual spread of sunshine, warmth, deep rich soils and plenty of that English rain water. Walking in to the small local grocer, Artichoke on the high street just near my flat my senses are immediately accosted by the fragrance of the new seasons strawberries. This single note becomes a symphony when joined with the delicious and delicate French Raspberries, cherries, blue berries, blackberries and ever sweet and hedonistic black figs. The late summer figs are especially plump and ripe almost bursting with sweetness. With such a glut of talent I love to make a classic almond tart. The frangipane mixture is of French origin yet with all great culinary there is a little conjecture from the Italians. None the less this is one of my favorite desserts. Once you have the techniques of the short crust pastry perfected then the rest of the tart becomes a breeze.
Pate Sucre or Sweet Short Crust Pastry
250grams plain flour
100grams good cultured butter (cold)
100 grams icing sugar
1 organic free range egg
half a vanilla pod scraped out.
One quarter of finely grated lemon rind
Combine all the dry ingredients with the butter and lemon rind. Rub in with your fingers or use an electric mixer with a paddle or food processor. Process until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add eggs and carefully mix until the pastry just comes together. Be careful not to over work as this will cause the pastry to shrink in the oven. Form in to a disk and rest in the fridge for several hours. Bring the pastry out and allow to slightly soften. Roll out evenly on a floured work surface until it is around 3 to 5mm thick. Line a 28cm fluted flan tin, trimming off the excess pastry. Rest in the fridge or freezer for a least one hour. Blind bake at 175 degrees until just cooked.
200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
3 large free range eggs
200g almond meal
vanilla pod scraped out
30g plain flour.
Cream the butter and the sugar together with the vanilla.
When pale add the beaten eggs about one egg at a time.
Fold in the almond meal and the plain flour.
To assemble the tart, spoon the almond mixture in to the blind baked tart. Arrange sliced figs around the outside and scatter berries in between. Bake in a 180-degree oven until, risen and golden brown. Serve with a little Chantilly cream.