The terrorist attacks on innocent people at Borough Market also were a major blow to its many food business and those employed in them. Some will probably have lost thousands of pounds or even contracts with hotels and restaurants who have found new suppliers.
Last night my daughter and I were chatting about when when she mentioned a dish I’d never heard of: poutine. She told me that had eaten it several times when she had visited Montreal.
Poutine, she explained, was chips, gravy and cheese. ‘It might not sound much, but it’s absolutely delicious.’
Her description reminded me that when I was growing up in Derbyshire chips and gravy was a popular request at my local chippie.
I did a bit of research about poutine and, apparently, poutine translates from French-Canadian to either ‘pudding’ or ‘mess’. The dish has been a staple at Québecois greasy spoons since the 1950s, keeping French-Canadians going through unbearably cold winters. Now it can be found everywhere across the province from roadside truck stops and McDonald’s to high-end Montreal restaurants.
Poutine is usually made with cheese curds, the solid bits left from acidifying milk which have a chewy, squeaky texture halfway between mozzarella and halloumi. When combined with fries and a traditional Canadian brown gravy, they semi-melt, making for the perfect winter warmer, drunken dinner or hangover cure.
Some chefs in Canada and the US, have updated poutine with fancy toppings such as pulled pork, lobster or jerk chicken.
I gather there are several places in London serving poutine, so I intend to go and try it.
I’ve thought for a long time that there’s too much hype about how good restaurants and pubs are supposed to be. When it comes to hype, restaurants and pubs can be up there with the best of them. Their web sites often make exaggerated claims about the food on offer. Menus are sprinkled with words such as “artisan”, “aged” and “hand-made”, and contain words or phrases you’ve never come across before (“tonkatsu-inspired”, “nduja sausage”, “basil pistou). And you are informed that your crab is from Norfolk, your cheese from Yorkshire, and your Kale from Lincolnshire.
You will often be told the “story” behind the restaurant to make you feel that you are visiting a place where the owners really care about the food, the service and you, the customer.
And to drive home just how good a place considers itself to be, its door will be festooned with stickers from Trip Advisor, Square Table or one of the other countless organisations that market themselves by handing out stars or awards to restaurants, who grab them greedily.
But, of course, when you use so much hype, the customer’s expectations increase. And the fact is that there are far too many restaurants where the hype far exceeds the quality of food and service provided.
This week, I’ve encountered two gastro pubs where the food and service didn’t match the hype.
The order mix up
The first was in a pretty village in Kent, where I went with my wife and son on Sunday afternoon. I was told 40 minutes after placing our order at the bar that, sorry, I couldn’t have fish and chips. That’s right, 40 minutes later.
“There was a bit of a mix up. We had two table 52s down,” said a young guy coming up to the table. “Would you like to order something else?”
I gritted my teeth and ordered burger and fries instead. When it arrived 15 minutes later it turned out to be pretty average, although at £13.50 the price was above average. Remember, this is rural Kent, not London’s West End.
Fish with bones
The second villain was a pub near Tower Bridge. Having been denied fish and chips in Kent, I decided I’d have them here. I knew the pub quite well and the quality of the food had always been very good. However, it had been over three years since my last visit. But the pub still had the same two owners, so I figured the standards would be the same.
I was wrong. My friend discovered his fish contained numerous bones. I complained to one of the bar staff and asked him to tell one of the co-owners, who was sitting at the bar having a drink. He came over to see what the problem was. Here’s the conversation:
Me: There’s quite a few bones in my friend’s fish, although, so far, I haven’t found any in mine.
Co-owner: You do get bones on fish.
Me: Shouldn’t the fish be pin-boned properly in the kitchen?
Co-owner [Pointing to the menu]: It does say that fish might contain bones.’
Me: Yes, but shouldn’t the kitchen staff do a better job in removing them. Imagine if a child was eating this fish. They might end up in hospital.
Co-owner: Well, you’ve not found any bones in yours.
Me: No, not yet. But there might be some. Look, my friend’s just found another one.
Co-owner: The kitchen gets busy sometimes.
Me: When I go to my local fishmonger I always ask for the pin bones to be removed. And when I get him I check it to make sure this has happened. If not, I remove them with tweasers or scissors.
Co-owner: Yeah, well, the kitchen staff don’t always have the time.
Me: But I’ve always thought that removing pin bones from fish was a basic task for staff in any restaurant kitchen.
He shrugged and offered my friend another piece of fish, but my friend declined, thinking there was no guarantee that it would be any better.
I should add that the fish and chips were mediocre. The batter was soggy and the chips (about a dozen of them) dry. And this cost a whopping £14.
What disappointed me most about this experience was the attitude of the co-owner. He didn’t seem particularly bothered about the bones. Well, I have my standards when it comes to fish. If I served fish with bones still in it to friends who came for a meal, I would be embarrassed and I would be annoyed with myself.
As my friend and I left the pub, we noticed an A board on the pavement. It said, “Best fish and chips in the area.” As I said earlier, too many restaurants go in for too much hype.
Coming up with the right business model for a restaurant must be one of the hardest things. We can all think of places where, for one reason or another, the owners have got so much of it wrong. Yes, the food scene in London is unrecognisable from twenty years ago, but there are still many very mediocre restaurants as well as some truly awful ones.
London is, of course, awash with pizza restaurants, and many of them pretty good, I’m happy to say. For example, I’m a big fan of Ask, whose branches never disappoint either in the quality of food or the service. Some people can be sniffy about chains. I have no such qualms, provided they are good.
At the weekend, I visited Franco Manca in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. Franco Manca started out in Brixton in 2008 when Giuseppe Mascoli, who came to London in 1989 as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics, started offering sour dough pizzas. Unlike now, they were a bit of a novelty back then.
The pizzas are cooked for 40 seconds in a wood-burning oven at 500 degrees. They are prepared by pizzaiolos using the traditional method that Mascoli learned at his family home in Naples.
His Brixton restaurant turned out to be a roaring success, and Giuseppe went on to open other branches across London. In 2015 he sold the business to Fulham Shore, which has opened restaurants across the UK.
One of the things that makes Franca Manco different from many restaurants is its menu. It only has six pizzas on offer. There’s no pasta or anything else, other than a choice between two salads. I’ve always been a great believer in short menus. With just a few items to choose from, there’s a good chance that the food will be very good. And Franca Manca’s pizzas are delicious.
And the prices at Franco Manca take some beating: tomato, garlic and oregano (£4.95), tomato, mozzarella, and basil (£6.40) and, the most expensive, tomato, cured organic chorizo and mozzarella (£7.55).
With their short menu, low prices, delicious pizzas, and, just as importantly, good service, Franco Manca has created a winning business model. I can think of a few places that could learn a thing or two from it.
Finding good fish and chips in London is one of life’s challenges. So it’s great news that Rick Stein has opened a restaurant in Barnes, his first in London.
Despite previously saying he would never open a restaurant in London, Stein has taken over The Depot in Barnes. As this is one of the poshest parts of the capital, paying £16.95 for cod and chips or £8.95 for three oysters is unlikely to concern the locals.
The inclusion on the menu of dishes such as Singapore chilli crab, wasabi, and Indonesian seafood curry reflects Stein’s travels around the Far East for his excellent BBC TV series.
Of course, Stein won’t be cooking himself. The days when he would be sweating away in a hot kitchen have long gone. What diners going to The Depot will expect is some of the best fish and seafood they have ever eaten, as this is what Stein specialises in.
I’m planning to visit soon. Given Stein’s reputation, I will book in advance, as I’m sure The Depot will become one of London’s most popular restaurants.
I can’t think what to write, but I need to write something, as I haven’t posted anything this year. Well, what’s on my mind is the varying quality of food and service – and therefore disappointing – in so many restaurants around London that are deemed to be very good. Here’s some I’ve visited recently:
500 Degrees, Crystal Palace: the pizza was okay, but the service abysmal. As this was the third disappointing experience at this restaurant, I won’t be going again.
Lorenzo’s, Crystal Palace: good pizza and service pretty good. My wife had a pasta dish, but wasn’t impressed.
Ask, Beckenham: excellent pizza and crayfish pasta, but, unusually for Ask, hit and miss service (the manager said some staff were on holiday).
Iberica, The Zig-Zag Building, Victoria, The food was average. The staff seemed very inexperienced and kept dropping glasses. The food was all the more disappointing, as Iberica’s menus are designed by a three-star Michelin chef. But perhaps the clue is in the word “designed”.
Joanna’s, Crystal Palace: fantastic food and great service. The staff seemed to be enjoying their work.
I’m delighted that my recent book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London has won the UK category of Best Foreign-International Cuisine in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. It will now go to the finals in Yantai, China, in May, where it will compete against winners from other countries in the Best of the World category.
I was recently given a tour of the Allied Bakeries flour mill inside the port of Tilbury in Essex to see how wheat was turned into flour to produce all those Kingsmill and Allinson loaves you see on the shelves in shops.
If I had an image of a flour mill in my mind, then it was probably one of large silver vats standing in rooms coated with white dust and lots of people in white coats walking around. Or it was of a building by a stream with a water wheel turning around. To be honest, I had never given a second though to flour mills when I bought a loaf of bread.
When I entered the mill with Phil, the miller and site manager, I was greeted with the sight of all sorts of strange looking machines connected together with a bewildering array of pipes and chutes. Some of them had small Perspex windows so you could see the grain passing through. The dust I had expected to see was non existent. The mill was spotless.
The most striking – and unsettling – thing was the throbbing machines that sieved the flour. These resembled the portaloos you find at festivals, those square boxes with doors. What made them unsettling was that they were all shaking violently. They were shaking so much that I felt that at any moment one might tear itself free and hurl itself around the room.
Given the mill’s size, it’s amazing that only a a few people work in it. It’s all run by computers, like so many things nowadays. On one of the floors, we passed three men in greasy overalls were dismantling some of the rollers that grind the grain. Rollers, one working at a faster speed to the other, don’t technically grind the wheat, as was the case traditionally; they shear it, separating the white inner portion from the outer skins.
‘What if something gets stuck in one of the machines or pipes?’ I asked the manager over the noise. ‘I mean, how do you know which part of the machinery isn’t working?’
‘We’ll know where the problem has occurred, but we won’t know immediately what’s caused it,’ he said with the air of a man who has been involved in milling flour for 30 years.
I was struggling to take in all this technical information flowing from Phil, because I didn’t have my tape recorder or notebook with me. My mind raced to try and make sense all that he was telling me and form some sort of coherent picture about the milling process. I managed to work out the process of turning wheat into flour involves cleaning, softening it with water, and then much grinding, or shearing, and sieving. The mill works 24/7 only being shut down for maintenance, which, unsurprisingly, has to be carried out regularly. Each one of the sifter machines takes three hours to clean.
Phil pointed to some machines and explained that they contained large magnets inside them that they detect any pieces of metal that might be mixed up with the grain and then extract them.
‘How does the metal get into the grain?’ I asked, looking at a bucket under a machine that contained some nuts, coins, other metal objects, and bits of weeds.
‘When the farmers are harvesting it in the fields,’ he said, adding casually that sometimes he might find a dead pigeon or rodent in a batch.
Wheat is the most common crop in England and much of it is grown on farms in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Over the last forty years, there have been big improvements in the quality of wheat produced, meaning that around 80% of the wheat arriving at the mill comes from British farmers. In the late 1970s British wheat accounted for less than 40%.
Much of the flour produced at the mill is transported a few miles up the road to Walthamstow, where Allied Bakeries has a huge bakery that can turn out 10,000 loaves an hour.
I came away from the mill with a new appreciation of bread and a piece of advice from Phil: don’t use 00 flour when you make pizza; use durum.
This is a short film explaining what my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate is about and how I started running pop-up kitchens at Beer Rebellion, a quirky bar in Sydenham, south-east London..
Londoners are growing more food, in private gardens, on allotments, in community spaces, on rooftops, on urban and peri-urban farms, and even at Overground railway stations.
Capital Growth, the food growing network set up by the Mayor of London, has supported over 2,500 food growing spaces, which have produced 40 tonnes of food. Food growing is not just about fruit and veg. Some farms are now providing fish, chickens and eggs.
Last week, I visited Sutton Community Farm, near Wallington, which grows around 150 types of organic vegetables, including aubergines, onions, tomatoes, courgettes, and potatoes. After being harvested most of the produce goes into veg boxes to provide people with fresh food. Some of it is supplied to a small number of restaurants.
All of these small food growing projects are fantastic for London. We should all be eating more food that is fresh and that is grown locally.
Yet when you look at what’s happening in housing construction across London, the idea of owners or tenants being able to grow their own food doesn’t seem to be one the planners or architects have given much thought to. Everywhere I go I see blocks of flats springing up. For example, they are building hundreds of them at Nine Elms. Over 1,000 flats have been recently built around Jamaica Road in Bermondsey. Pack ‘em and stack ‘em seems to be the thinking.
What Capital Growth is doing is brilliant. But there needs to be more joined up thinking at City Hall when it comes to the kind of housing being built in London. If we want more Londoners to grow their own food, then they need to be provided with space at home to do it. This, like the lack of affordable housing in London, is an issue Sadiq Khan needs to tackle.
I’ve always loved going to Crystal Palace, which, with its park and Eifel tower-like TV transmitter, often feels a little bit like holiday resort. Crystal Palace also occupies one of the highest points in London and offers some fantastic views of the London’s ever changing skyline. And if you are hungry, Crystal Palace won’t disappoint you. You can find restaurants specialising in over a dozen cuisines, including Portuguese, Venezuelan, Iranian, and French/Algerian, not to mention some great pizza places and decent gastro pubs. And you can also buy top class burgers from Roti Brothers, whose truck is now a permanent feature in Westow Street.