A few weeks ago my Saturday turned out to be a bit of a sprawling adventure, that took in just a few of my favourite food haunts…
It started innocently enough with a quick Jedi mission down to the Kernel Brewery on Maltby Street. It was Jedi in that it was supposed to be the sort of easy-in, easy-out operation that has you imagining Obi Wan slipping effortlessly into Bermondsey, before gliding home with the goods quicker than you can say ‘these are not the doughnuts you’re looking for’.
But they were the doughnuts I was looking for! Herein lies the problem with this neck of the woods, it’s very difficult to resist the offerings of Maltby Street. I was quickly loaded down with a loaf of St John bread, those devilish doughnuts, a bag of Monmouth coffee and of course a dozen of London’s finest beers. Suddenly I had very heavy bags and I needed food. A pitstop at the newly relocated Kappacasein would provide sustenance and be a handy stopover on my way back to Bermondsey tube station.
The new location, only a few minutes walk from Maltby street is a peaceful corner of Old Jamaica road within view of the impressive front of St James’s church. Picnic tables have been set out so you can relax and enjoy your cheesy delight of choice. On offer are toasted cheese sandwiches made with Monterey Jack cheese on grilled Poilane bread, but I’d decided to go for the raclette, lashings of melted ogleshield cheese over tender new potatoes, a few spiky little gherkins and silverskin onions to help cut through the richness of the cheese. I shared my table with a man called Sandy. He’d come over to London in 1965 to set up an office to be Peter Sellers agent, intending to only stay a year… he’s been here ever since. We talked about food in London, beer and wine in Washington and Portland’s free public transport. It turns out he was also the Producer of Performance and Rita, Sue and Bob too, a couple of great British films.
After dropping my groceries home, I dashed back out for my next stop – Look Mum No Hands, the cyclist cafe, bar and workshop on Old Street. I really have fallen in love with this place, whether on foot or bike it’s a great bar. Carrying all those Kernel beers home had given me quite the gentlemen’s thirst and I knew they had some of the Pale Ale’s chilling in their fridges. I arranged to meet up with the Missus, who had been having a girly lunch with one of her friends. I bought the St John Doughnuts along as an afternoon tea time treat.
So finally, we arrived at our destination for the day – the 2011 Smithfield Nocturne – the annual cycling race around the Smithfield meat market. Sadly, we’d been too busy drinking coffee and eating doughnuts that we missed the folding bike race, but we did arrive just in time for the amazing Penny Farthing sprint, which was followed by the graded road races. All around the closed roads, local pubs and restaurants had thrown up their doors and windows, offering a great selection of food and drink – but for me and the Missus we only had one thing in mind: a trip to Smithfield market means St John restaurant.
With a michelin star and a place in the San Pellegrino Top 50, surely you can’t just walk into St John and expect to get fed without a booking. However, St John’s large bar area with a few dozen seats and a comprehensive bar menu, means that St John addicts like myself never need to wait too long for a fix. When in Smithfields it’s very hard to resist popping in for a bite and a little tipple.
The menu at St John changes daily. When I study it I begin to form a picture in my mind of the journey that the seasonal produce and meat takes through their kitchen, on it’s way to creating the many dishes which encapsulate the nose-to-tail eating philosophy of co-founder Fergus Henderson.
One constant on the menu is the utterly wonderful roast bone marrow on toast. If I had to pick a top three favourite things to eat in the world – this dish would be on the list. But on recent visits I have eschewed it in favour of exploring some of the other options on offer. But today I was not content to merely have a bite of the missus’s plate (a creature of habit, she always orders the bone marrow), I wanted a whole plate of the bones to myself.
The dish has a distinctly primeval look to it – those scraped shin bones standing tall on the plate, like the menhirs of an ancient druid holy site. But don’t be put off by the sinister appearance, there’s work to do. Armed with a lobster pick there’s the task of releasing the unctuous marrow from the hot roasted bones. I generally go for upending the lot on to the two slices of toasted sourdough bread – this can be a bit of a lottery, some bones contain enough marrow for an entire slice, while occasionally you get a bit of a dry one.
The real secret to this dish lies in the accompaniments – a small mound of moist sel gris, a French sea salt from Brittany, and a salad of flat leaf parsley, sliced shallots, capers and a vinaigrette. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a just a bit of garnish to dress up the bones – the combination of the juicy meaty marrow soaking into the sourdough toast with a little mound of the iron-laced parsley salad and acidic sharpness of the lemon dressing are a marriage made in food heaven.
The initial plan was to have a quick plate of the marrow on toast and get back to the cycling. But with our bellies merely appetised this proved impossible. The escalation began by sharing a plate of braised breast of veal and some English asparagus and butter. I was expecting a bowlful of casseroled veal, so when a giant rib bone arrived draped in moist falling-off-the-bone meat, we were back in caveman land again. I think the dish had a mild spicing to it which I couldn’t identify, that combined with the chickpeas, it reminded us both of the pork belly and lentil dish that my mother-in-law cooks (which is also delicious).
It was in for a penny, in for a pound by now, this meant another quick peek at the menu board to choose puddings. The missus stuck with ‘the classics’ and plumped for the other mainstay of St John – the Eccles Cake with Lancashire cheese. I went for a strawberry trifle. The Eccles cake is made with buttery puff pastry rather than using a traditional lard based one, it is packed with a fistful of delicately spiced currants. As with the marrow though, it’s the combination of two English classics that really shine. The crumbly texture and creamy saltiness of the cheese is a treat – you get a nice citrus note from Lancashire and the salt really enhances the flavours in a similar way to salted caramel.
My trifle was a much simpler affair – some delicious ripe strawberries covered in sponge cake soaked in sherry topped with St John’s amazing creme anglais, whipped cream and toasted almonds. It was deliciously refreshing and with a bit of bite from the fresh fruit to prevent it becoming that bowl of gloop that a lot of trifles can often be.
It became apparent that we’d gotten a bit distracted at St John, at least a couple of hours had been stolen and thoughts of cycling had in truth slipped from our minds, perhaps the lovely aroma of roasting food had worked it’s magic on us. Truthfully though, despite the austere decor, the bar is a great place to hang out, come for a quick drink, meet up with friends or even slip in a cheeky full meal. The atmosphere is always friendly and laid back and seeing some of the food making its way up into the main dining room is always a treat and makes me hanker to book a table real soon.