With the weekend comes a certain magic. Waking up on Saturday morning without any plans, it stretches out before us like a blank canvas. “The world is our oyster, what shall we do?” Perhaps it’s too cold to go to sit in the park, but too sunny to stay indoors, what then? Wander. Be it London or New York, your downtown district or your village high street. Go catch the sunlight, enjoy the city and another’s company. The key is where you go. Here in our fair city, any Londoner will tell you to avoid the destinations overrun with tourists – obvious instructions in my opinion. That isn’t the only thing. It is essential to know and to seek the best your city has to offer. Life is too short for mediocrity.
That said, it is reassuring to know that at weekends, tucked away quietly behind Tower Bridge, is the remarkable Maltby Street Market. Londoners have slowly fled there in recent years now that Borough Market has become a bazaar of overpriced vegetables, organic meat and amplified North American accents. Maltby Street is now a place to see, smell, taste, enjoy and listen. A year and a half ago, I first visited on a cold, quiet day in November. There were fewer market stalls on that particular Saturday, and only a handful of people were negotiating their way through the street. We stopped for a glass of wine to warm ourselves, then moved on to buy some marvellous smelly French cheeses and some purple and golden beetroot. The cheese we ate that night with some hearty red wine and crackers. The beetroot I roasted with fresh thyme and garlic; a rainbow of colours served alongside a whole roasted chicken for Sunday lunch. At the time, the place seemed as it if it was on the cusp of becoming great. 40 Maltby Street was already selling incredible food and spectacular wine and the market itself was garnering interest, slowly and confidently. More and more shops, stalls and traders moved in and the place began to come into its own.
A recent pilgrimage there for me was simply because I was on a quest for a doughnut. St John, a restaurant famous for its nose to tail eating, also runs a bakery under the rail arches that run between Druid and Maltby Streets. Self-confessed baking evangelicals – their love of bread is equal to that of offal – these doughnuts are sold from 9am until they disappear. Midday is too late. That particular day’s special chocolate custard doughnuts happened to all be sold by 11am and our mission to taste the famous doughnuts was put on hold for another weekend. Their brownies, slabs of intense, rich and nutty chocolate decadence, would have to act as a temporary salve, and they did, but only just.
Around the corner from St John sees the lunchtime crowd out in full force. The rail arches are filled with sounds and smells of sizzling meat and the buzzing patter of the market traders and customers. We watched as Tozino tapas bar produced plate after plate of appropriately unctuous tomato bread and thick strips of jamón. Small tables filled any available space and wine flowed, it would be a sin if it hadn’t. A stall selling preserves offers samples to a man and his daughter. After a small taste of apricot jam, the little girl smiles and does a little dance, surely the finest praise available. We walk along slowly, enamoured with the sights, lustily eyeing up the patisserie. Another stall sells a brunch-style hash, with eggs and bacon. The cook cracks an egg slowly, carefully sliding it out onto the griddle so the white doesn’t spread too far. The smell of bacon is enough to make a vegetarian blush. Across the way, with a merited love affair with pastrami, Monty’s Jewish deli is serving up matzo ball soup and Reubens with sizeable gherkins and coleslaw. All this we tasted with our eyes.
Too often we put our emphasis on just the action of eating, and, at times, it is completely justified. But the beauty of markets like this existing is that eating becomes more than putting food into our mouths. The mixture of sunlight, the sounds around us, the flavours of the wine and the food, all these things come together to ignite our senses, and we truly taste. Maltby Street is not a place for gastronomic tourism, it is a place to experience the greatness that one facet of being alive offers. Seek and you will find. Wander and you will live.
The Debt to Pleasure describes the smell of spring air as “more a texture than an odour”. Such an interesting and poetic illustration, yet considering it came from an English writer, I am highly suspect of such a romantic portrayal. It is true, there is a subtle electricity pulsating through the UK in the Springtime. But in reality it’s slow to start and intermittent at best. Here in London, when Spring begins to show itself, an almost visible and vibrating change comes over even the most curmudgeonly of individuals. I suppose that is the “texture” John Lanchester means, although in truth, it is muted and fleeting.
I am in my eleventh year of living in London. When I moved here, it took me many, many months to understand how precious and rare good weather is. I specifically recall a day when I had made arrangements to visit an art museum on a Saturday only to have them completely and emphatically dismissed because the weather had hit 19C (66F). I had never understood that if the weather in Britain decided to comply, all original plans were off and all there was to do is to go outside. It didn’t matter what we did once we got there, we just needed to be outdoors to take advantage of whatever gift the gods were bestowing upon us. There is a reason that the weather is a topic of conversation between most people, every day, all year. It occupies us constantly; its changeability toys with us and forces us to pander to its random and often seemingly obtuse behaviour.
And now we are in March, an awkward month. Some years it is warm and wonderful, others it is miserable. This year, March has chosen to be cold. In fact, it has been so cold that there were blizzards in the Channel Islands last week, an incredible and almost unheard of meteorological occurrence for this time of year. We are still waiting for the hints of Spring to come en force. So far, there has been a day, or an afternoon perhaps, where we can go outside without hats, scarves and gloves. The light is changing and the days are slowly getting longer, but still we wait.
What must it be like to live in a place that is so welcoming to the seasons? Even winter is met with anticipation, knowing that it won’t last too long so can be enjoyed for what it is. What it must be like to be where Spring comes along confidently and with it the colours, tastes and textures it promises. But here, in the UK, all we do is wait. Winter is long and we tolerate it just enough to get by. We hope for the best and keep optimistic when deep down we know we are sure to be disappointed again. Our almost abusive relationship with the weather keeps us hoping one day it’ll change but blizzards in March suggest that no, it probably won’t.
I am tired of eating stodgy food and desperately crave light meals, tomatoes, fresh salads and some other fruit than apples and pears. I’ve extended to Jaffa oranges from Spain because any break from the monotony of British winter fruit is welcome at this point. Forced rhubarb should be crawling into the market soon, which is only a minor respite for the palate. I refuse to purchase fruit and berries imported from Northern Africa or South America; perhaps an ironic decision considering the Spanish oranges. Even if I had no scruples about importing out of season, the fact it’s freezing outside renders eating them incongruous. I want a cool strawberry on a warm day, not a cold one. And so I wait.
London is one of the greatest cities in the world. Those of us privileged to live here know it’s a million things, all specific and idiosyncratic that add up to make it so. Despite this, the weather is always in the background, dictating our actions. What those who live here know is that the few days when the weather actually turns in our favour are like none other. The city becomes blanketed in golden light that glistens off the buildings; the view down the Thames reminds us why London is remarkable. The green of the trees and grass in the parks against the blue skies and the sunshine are almost blinding in their beauty and we dash outside in a frenzy to soak up any rays that we can find.
But until then, we continue to wait and hope for these days. We wait for the magnificent produce to arrive in our markets and continue to hope for consistent warmth. We itch for them to appear soon to sate our sunlight-starved souls with freshness and flavour. We wait for the sparks of Spring in the hope that this year, maybe, will finally be the year we can really, truly, go outside.
As the main artery between Brixton and Clapham, and accessible only by foot or bus, Acre Lane may seem like a culinary no-man’s land. The Tesco and Access Storage bookend a strange mix of businesses between them and “dining” seems limited to a number of caffs and a few takeaways. But appearances can be deceiving and Acre Lane is also home to two particularly fantastic restaurants: the elegantly understated stalwart, Upstairs, and the relative newbie, Boqueria. Already establishing itself as a formidable addition to the Brixton dining scene after being voted Time Out’s Best New Cheap Eats 2012, Boqueria continues to make a name for itself both in and outside Brixton, and deservedly so.
We ate there on a Tuesday night, a tumbleweed scenario in many restaurants outside the centre of Town, but Boqueria was busy. Its sleek bar mostly filled with urbanites enjoying cool glasses of sherry and nibbles; the back dining room noisy in a good way and filled with couples and friends enjoying a night out, safe from the freezing temperatures outside. Their menu is comparatively large and full of traditional tapas dishes like tortilla, croquettas and chorizo, but goes further with its profferings of paella and jamon, among other things. On this particular evening, two specials called to me: calçots in tempura with romescu sauce and quails eggs in ratatouille. We added roasted Padrón peppers, carrillada Ibérica (pork cheek braised in red wine), and arroz negro (black rice with squid and mussels) to our order, all of which was accompanied by dry Tio Pepe and followed by a medium-bodied Rioja.
The calçots, a type of spring onion that hails from Catalonia, were fried in a light tempura batter and served with romescu sauce on the side. I found the tempura a bit unnecessary but enjoyable all the same. The romescu sauce was good but tasted more of tomatoes than red peppers and lacked the piquancy I’d hoped for.
The quail’s eggs were a revelation. Fried and a bit wobbly, they gleamed up at us, perched on a flavourful ratatouille. Everything in the dish worked together beautifully. The roasted Padrón peppers, although a touch too bitter, were brought back to life by sea salt and good olive oil.
Carrillada Ibérica was hearty and deeply wintery. The pork was tender and delicious; the red wine sauce was rich and intensely flavoured. It all tasted as if it had been cooked for hours, exactly as it should have. Finally, came the arroz negro. The black paella-like rice dish had a nice backbone of seafood flavours, enhanced by bits of squid and mussels nestled within. Accompanied by a nice dollop of aïoli and garnished with a beautiful grilled prawn set into the dish like a crustacean Venus, it was well worth the pre-warned 25-minute wait. We finished with a decent crema catalana, then rolled our happily sated selves home.
Boqueria is delicious, relatively inexpensive and all within walking distance for us Brixtonites. Whilst Brixton Village continues to attract diners with its excellent diversity of restaurants, Acre Lane is proving to be a marvellous collaborator. From Caribbean to Catalan, great dining on our doorsteps now exists in even greater abundance. Why would you want to live anywhere else?
Boqueria, 192 Acre Lane, Brixton. Tel 020 7733 4408.
Meal for two, including drinks and service £50.
I have been trying to eat more fruit whilst pregnant. It’s clearly very good for me, and obviously for the wee one as well. Yet I have always had a rather fraught relationship with fruit. Of course, the tastes and varieties are miraculous, I’m not going to deny that, but it seems to me that you have to be so committed to the action of ripening and eating them that I often avoid doing so. I am forever reminded of Eddie Izzard’s brilliant bit of standup on fruit in Definite Article, which sums it up nicely for me.
I think my problem is efficiency. An apple monopolises your hand. After the first bite and the juice starts, it becomes so sticky the hand cannot do anything else. You must eat the apple quickly so you can go back to whatever you were doing. Slicing them is an option, but the risk of oxidation is greater. Pears will never ripen when you need them and render multi-tasking impossible as well. Oranges or similar make your hands smell so unpleasant. It gives me flashbacks to my school lunch boxes when eau-de-pre-sliced-orange permeated every single other item in the box, rendering everything else, according to my 10-year-old self, inedible. I will never forget the taste of crackers with orange smell as long as I live. Ugh. Bananas are fine I guess, but I’m suspicious of their texture – almost too hard or too soft, rarely exactly right and usually complete with a few off-putting blemishes. Bear in mind, I know I’m vastly simplifying what is available to us, but you get my point, so regardless I persevere on grudgingly. Mind over matter etc.
British pears and apples are in season right now, so I was hopeful that if I had some to keep at home in the fruit bowl, seeing them everyday would inspire me to eat them. Not so. I was a little over-enthusiastic about exactly how many pears I’d eat out of a bag of six (one) but I did better with the apples and only left a couple behind. Pears are tricky. As Eddie says, they are hard as rocks for seemingly forever, ripen for about a day, then turn to mush. Nightmare. I refuse to have such a co-dependant relationship with a fruit. But I also hate waste. A weekend away beckoned, so I needed to do something with them in order to avoid throwing them away. The now slightly pathetic apples needed using too.
A tart was out of the question. Too obvious. I thought a derivation of banana bread could work, and found a recipe online for pear and chocolate tea bread which I thought I could play with a bit. I was also pleasantly pleased to see that the recipe needed applesauce too, so I’d be able to use the apples up as well.
There are, however, some things to note. The recipe seems to have been adapted from another cookbook, and features measurements in both imperial and metric, yet not all the metric measurements accurately convert to the imperial ones given. I think it is best to stick to only metric in this particular case. Also, as there is only 100g of butter, which isn’t too bad as tea breads go fat-wise, it is worth noting that after you cream it with the sugar and start adding eggs, the butter begins to panic a bit and looks like it’s about to separate. Don’t stress because once you add the flour it’ll come back together again, but you could probably get away with using just a single egg, in my opinion, as the butter seemed to be fine with the first, but seemed rather annoyed by the second. Or perhaps add another 15g or so of butter, which could also work, your choice. I also added some cinnamon and nutmeg to the batter and went easy on the chocolate. Pear and chocolate are amazing together, but chocolate can overpower a bit so it’s best to use restraint; I used a small bag of plain chocolate chips. For decoration, a thinly-sliced pear was fanned out on the top and sprinkled with demerara sugar.
The result was a slightly carmelised topping, and a moist inside which was exactly sweet enough. It had lovely subtle pear flavours, with a hit of warming spice, essential as it’s February and flipping cold, and a nice rounded smoothness from the chocolate. Clearly not as healthy as eating the fruit in its virgin form, but nothing got wasted, which surely is as successful a result the overly ripe pears could have asked for. And anyway, eating them this way is much easier: multi-tasking with a pear is finally possible, although with one slice of the bread and cuppa, you probably won’t feel like it.
Before Betty Crocker became synonymous with Devil’s Food Cake mix and General Mills, its cookbook, first published in 1950, was one of my mother’s and grandmother’s default cookery reference guides. At the time, my mother’s dog-eared edition, pages loose and some undoubtedly lost forever, held for me the mysteries of cooking in its bounty of recipes, but today I mostly remember it as a baking bible. I managed to track down a updated edition about 6 years ago and was thrilled to find the old favourites were there, plus many more which I will never begin to crack the surface of. Naturally, as it is an American cookbook, all the recipes are in frustrating imperial measurements, but it has been redesigned as a binder which makes it easy to remove pages, convert the measurements yourself and continue on your merry way.
The book had a seemingly fool-proof recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies (that has since been usurped by David Liebovitz), as well as other American classics like Buttermilk Biscuits, where the dough makes an effervescent whisper of protest as a dough cutter weighs down upon it, Lemon Bars that remind me of my grandmother and Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting, which seems to hold a certain cakey romance in my mind, although I am sure I could count on one hand how many times we made it. But Peanut Butter Cookies still, after all this time, stand out to me as supremely easy and entirely memorable even with such minor effort.
Marvellous thing, this book was and still is.
In honour of the Brixton Blog’s first birthday party, I was asked to prepare some little treats and figured it was as good a time as ever to give the delightful Peanut Butter Cookies another crack. Not only are they are slightly crumbly, there is a nice little give in the dough so they stay nice and chewy. And with only about 225g (1 cup) of sugar, the sweetness is nicely tempered by the salty peanut butter, making them rather addictive and not at all sickly. A recipe as straightforward as this can be built on quite easily and I have often toyed with the idea of adding orange zest or some spice. But this time, I went for plain chocolate chips as really, chocolate and peanut butter are one of the most glorious couplings of all time.
One trick the original recipe doesn’t allow for is chilling time in fridge. I have made these before and often when it comes to pressing them into their little flat crisscrossed shapes, the dough sticks to the fork and ends up making them a bit mushed and sticky. After preparing the dough, it is advisable to give the fats and flours a chance to get to know each other and have a rest before moulding them into shape. I chilled the dough for about 3 hours, but that was purely due to circumstance. I imagine half an hour to an hour would do the trick nicely.
Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 115g or 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 115g or 1/2 cup brown sugar – if using cups be sure the sugar is packed
- 115g or 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
- 55g or 1/4 cup suet (shortening)
- 55g or 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 1 large egg
- 140g plain flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 100g or 1/3 cup of plain (semi-sweet) chocolate chips
In a glass bowl, beat both sugars, peanut butter, suet or shortening, butter and egg together with an electric mixer. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Once all the ingredients are mixed thoroughly, add the chocolate chips and mix well with a wooden spoon. The dough may seem a little stiff and the chips tricky to amalgamate, but stick at it, they’ll get there eventually. Your goal is to have them evenly dispersed throughout the dough.
Chill in refrigerator for at least 1/2hr. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F and line baking tray with baking paper.
Once baked, these marks will add to the nice crumbly character of the cookie.
Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, depending on the speed and intensity of your oven, until light brown.
Remove cookies from baking sheet and transfer to a cooling rack. Let them chill out there for a few minutes. You can see in the photo on the left that I left one batch in for a little longer than 10 minutes so they were a little more toasted. Don’t worry if that happens; they won’t dry out and they still taste delightful.
Makes about 24. Perfect with a cup of tea or a glass of cold milk.
Recipe adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Bonus Edition, pg 180.
I’m becoming reacquainted with inexpensive cuts of meat. Oxtail, which I made a few weeks ago for the first time, is delicious and rich, and was a dish my mother used to make during the colder months. Last week’s chill factor called for something similar: the days demanded comfort food and red wine. I had a large piece of rolled brisket that needed to be used up and I had been mulling over what to do with it. I’ve seen it made with ketchup, or served in a broth, and perhaps could have tried my hand at salt beef, but all of these seemed not quite right for the weather and really, not quite British enough.
I first tried brisket when I was 17. I had heard of the cut, of course, but I considered it quite different and almost exotic in my ignorance. It was a dish with romantic connotations associated with New York and the cultural stereotypes more widely associated with the Jewish culture. Growing up in Oregon, where the Jewish population is of the minority (approximately 1%), I thought if I ever did try it, a severe woman with greying hair and an overarching desire to feed me would be the first to do so, should I ever make it as far as that glittering City in the East. As it turned out, it would be a kindly greying woman in a city thirty minutes north of my hometown who would be first to make the introduction.
In school, I was a member of Youth and Government, a sort of a mock political club in which high schoolers met to “debate” issues. Every year, teenagers from all across Oregon would descend on our state capital in Salem, for four days to play grown-up politicians, complete with mock-lobbyists, mock-representatives and mock-senators. It was great, wholesome fun and I’m quite sure in reality it wasn’t too far off from what the real politicians were up to. Local Salem residents would offer to house students from out of town and my friend, Heidi, and I were set up with an elderly Jewish couple who lived not too far away from the centre of town. I wish I could remember their names. They reminded me of our Jewish family friends from California, Max and Goldie Chirlin, whom I adored and were the first to acquaint me as a child to the glories of bagels, lox and cream cheese. To my 17-year-old self, this new couple seemed so familiar to the Chirlin’s, yet so very different. I was nervous to stay with them; an unfounded notion as there was nothing to set them apart from any other elderly couple. Perhaps it was the glaring difference of youth set against age that caused such apprehension.
We arrived to their house quite late in the evening. They showed us to our room, a small spare bedroom with two single beds. Their house was filled with knick-knacks, 70s furniture, and many family photos of children and grandchildren. The eager wife asked us if we were hungry, which of course we were. She smiled at our response and went to prepare something. I was terrified. As a teenager, I loved food, but anything out of the ordinary I feared. I had hoped she’d make us something safe like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, but it was not to be. Set before us was a sinuous and tender hunk of beef, with a flavourful sauce, which to this day I am sure was comprised of a derivation of ketchup and stock, and served with a bit of mashed potato. I didn’t even know that it was brisket. It wasn’t until she told us what it was that I realised that the brisket in my mind was nothing compared to the real thing. As a 17-year-old meat and potato obsessive, I had hit the motherload. It was rich, sweet and salty and utterly beefy. The rest of the week debating issues passed unremarkably, but that first taste has stayed with me for 15 years.
From that point onwards, I reconsidered my relationship with brisket (if one can say one has a relationship with a particular cut of meat). From then on I knew what I was dealing with and this delightful woman had set the bar. As I grew older and delved further into a borderline obsession with food, I discovered there was more to brisket than its association with Jewish culture. Koreans boil it, compress it, then serve it thinly sliced. It is used in Vietnamese pho and in Thailand, the dish Suea Rong Hai (Crying Tiger) looks spectacularly good, with bits of grilled meat served with an atomic chilli sauce for dipping (although this recipe suggests using a rib eye or similar). All these adoptions are quite distinct from the slow-cooked version, soused in ketchup. I suppose many of the Asian climates do not require such Westernised notions of comfort food.
In the end, I simply unrolled and braised the kilo of brisket for two and a half hours in beef stock and lots of red wine, with carrots, celery, onions, garlic and some herbs. The final result was tender and moreish, the beef and vegetables cushioned in a sticky reduction. Served with toasts with melted Comté, it certainly hit the spot. A far cry from the terrified tomato-soup craving 17-year-old, brisket now holds for me associations of comfort and warmth. The weather this week seems to be toying with warming up but I am sure the cold is not far from returning. In the mean time, what are your winter comfort foods? Do you have a traditional recipe for brisket?