Friday, 10 April 2009

A pilgrimage across the Thames

It's a gray and damp day in London town, but the sight of the first Jersey Royals this morning put the springiest spring imaginable in my step. These lovely new potatoes are heaven-sent bites of gorgeousness from the soil of Jersey – and there is no surer sign that spring really is here.

Since it isn't a working day, I went down to Borough Market, just over the Thames from the City. Spread out between an old Victorian ironwork covered market and the railway bridge, sitting comfortably next to Southwark Cathedral, it's a delightful pilgrimage for a gourmet.

This remarkable market – now twinned with the legendary La Boqueria of Barcelona – is a statement of the best that British food can offer: it's a cathedral, if you will, to what is sometimes called 'the food movement'.

Artisan bakers and cheesemakers and chocolatiers are crammed into wonderfully anarchic spaces – just one of the reasons that Borough is a fabulous antidote to the sanitised, industrialised experience of supermarket shopping. There's fabulous wet fish, and game and an incredible variety of meats, plus a wonderful Spanish deli and ... well, so much more.

There are disadvantages – it was absolutely heaving. And a substantial percentage of the crowd isn't there to buy food, but because it's become a stop on the tourist trail, so there are times that you find yourself fighting for space at a stall with a camera-touting individual, pointing excitedly to something novel, such as a stick of celery.

They probably don't realise just what a fascinating area the market stands in. Borough itself was, at the end of the 19th century, like something straight out of Dickens (probably Oliver Twist). An estimated 50,000 lived in the vicinity (it's around 5,000 nowadays), and it was a complete police no-go area.

Today, it's a food heaven – so arguably a bit trendy and middle class – and part of the tourist trail. Times have changed a great deal.

I found real Spanish anchovies (not the tinned ones) and padron peppers at Brindisi, the Spanish deli, and springbok steaks for Monday at another shop (which also had crocodile meat available). I bought salmon for tomorrow and scallops for myself tonight (The Other Half is away 'Ooop North' watching Rugby League again), plus a great wedge of 77% cocoa chocolate for cooking with.

There were beautiful red chillies, with skins shining as though they'd been individually polished, and the first broad beans of the season (already consumed with goat's cheese, toasted walnuts, green olives and good bread for lunch). And those Jersey Royals – those fabulous harbingers of the warmth and sun to come. I'll keep them for Sunday to serve with a slow-roasted chicken.

The scallops will be seared fleetingly on both sides, in oil that will have been heated slowly with chillies and garlic. They'll be served with lime, and with lamb's lettuce and borlotti beans, which will be puréed and heated gently with lemon juice and a little virgin oil. A bottle of French chardonnay grenache is chilling in the fridge.

And a ginger cake is in the oven, as the first evidence of my promise to bake again this weekend. It's an old recipe from my mother, and is in a notebook in which I'd jotted a grand total of four recipes over 25 years ago, when about to leave for college.

The measurements are imperial – which sent me straight to a conversion chart to make sense of them: at school, we were taught imperial measurements one week, before switching to metric the next. Or that's what it seemed like. So I never got the hang of weights and measures – well, I never really needed them either.

And then, when I started cooking, I was buying a set of scales – the old-fashioned type, with individuals weights to add as required. And I was faced with a choice: I could buy the imperial weights – or the metric ones. I went metric. Looking at that old recipe was like looking at an ancient code.

That done, I decided to adjust the ingredients. The original called for margarine and ordinary sugar. I substituted unsalted butter and a good, golden sugar. The only other things are ground ginger (there was a bag of organic, fair trade stuff in the cupboard), self-raising flour (oops! Not enough and out-of-date – run around to the corner shop to get some more), a little milk, a single beaten egg and quite a lot of golden syrup.

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup. Pop the flour, ginger and a pinch of salt into a mixing bowl, then add the milk and the beaten egg, then the melted butter, sugar and syrup.

Grease a cake tin, pour in the mixture and pop on the lowest shelf of the oven for 45 minutes at 170˚. That really isn't difficult cake making – which is probably why it was in that notebook in the first place. The smell alone is divine.

And staying rather thematic, I'm nearly at the end of Joanne Harris's Chocolat, and have also been reading bits of the wonderful Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

But more of all that another time. If you'll excuse me now, a ginger cake is crying out to be tasted.


  1. Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

    Sounds good to me! The book, I mean. Well - both, I guess.

  2. ~~LOL~~

    I'd recommend it any time (the book!). It's indicative of the general culture around food in the UK that's it hasn't been in print for some time – my copy, although originally published in the UK, had to be ordered from New York. A collection of many of her newspaper and magazine articles, it's a perfect book to dip into. Great stuff.