Sunday, August 30, 2009

"One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad." - Jacques Chirac

St Paul's Cathedral"I'll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal." - Martha Harrison.

"Before the Sunday roast is placed in the oven the vegetables are put on to boil." - Anonymous

How long have British food jokes been around? Since the first World War? That's nearly a 100 years. It's no wonder the fallacy is so hard to dispel. But I'm happy to report that the State of Food in the United Kingdom is healthy, strong and tasty. For the past decade or so there's been a resurgence in demand for quality products. The appetite is growing for local produce. Britain produces more regional cheeses than France. It has 600 varieties of apples. One hundred twenty-five species of fish and shellfish live in its waters. Statistics like that can make for a seriously impressive menu. With the help of a good friend, a map, and a London Travelcard, I set out to discover what all the fuss was about.
My buddy J-Mac had been talking about my upcoming visit for months. I think he was more excited about my trip than I was. He'd been extolling the virtues of the new British cookery and couldn't wait to show off some his finds. After a walk around the financial district and a proper pint of ale (maybe it was two), I met him at Liverpool Station for the short walk to Hawksmoor.
Insidious cocktails - HawksmoorThe charcoal grill - Hawksmoor
Chef Jason Wallace - HawksmoorPorterhouse steak, medium-rare - Hawksmoor
J-Mac is something of a fixture at Hawksmoor. Pete, the fiendish bartender not only knows him by name, but by his preferred cocktail. Pete did his level best to get us shit-faced throughout dinner. Like me, J-Mac is a firm believer of sitting at the bar, so Pete had every opportunity to ply us with his newest concoctions. Manager, Will Beckett, was one of the coolest guys. He's the kind of restaurateur who gets it. His credo is: keep things simple, send the customer on his way fat & happy, and to serve the public is a noble calling. From my understanding, he's also quite the beer connoisseur. Once he figured out I wrote a food blog back in the States, he couldn't have been more accommodating or forthcoming. I liked him a lot.
Hawksmoor - 157 Commercial Street, London E1 6BJ, is first and foremost a steakhouse in the oldest sense of the word. Yorkshire Longhorn beef is simply cooked on a charcoal grill. The meat is some of the best you'll ever have. The service is flawless. Brits understand hospitality in a way most of their American counterparts find demeaning. They are attentive, uncomplaining and ever ready to oblige. They have unfairly (or wholly the opposite, really) raised the bar for restaurants here at home.
Double-decker bussesShaftesbury Memorial Fountain, Piccadilly Circus
Next morning, and on my own again, I rode a double-decker bus into the heart of London getting off at Piccadilly Circus, not as cliché as it sounds. Five major roads converge at Piccadilly. In 1819 King George IV commissioned John Nash to create a junction that would connect Carlton House with Regent's Park. Nash envisioned a circus (derived from the Latin word meaning circle, and having nothing whatsoever to do with lion taming or bearded ladies) roundabout for the flow of carriage traffic. You can walk just about anywhere from Piccadilly.
There is one place I go without fail on any trip to London, the National Portrait Gallery. It is home to Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and just about every other British monarch and noble since the Norman invasion. There is also some lovely portraiture of modern day notables. Alessandro Raho has a massive painting of Dame Judith Dench hanging in one of the lower galleries. He has, I think, brilliantly captured Ms. Dench.  Gay Icons was currently showing when I arrived at the gallery. Ten prominent gay figures were asked to select six historic and modern icons in their own lives. The submissions were inspired and moving. I caught myself misty-eyed on several occasions. 
Revived culturally and fueled with another proper ale, it was time to continue my investigative gastronomic reporting. Next stop, Neal's Yard Dairy for all things cheese.
Montgomery's cheddar cheese - Neal's Yard DairyEnglish cheddar - Neal's Yard Dairy
"Sparkenhoe" Leicester Cheese - Neal's Yard DairyHafod Welsh Organic cheedar cheese - Neal's Yard Dairy
Imported Parmigiano-Reggiano - Neal's Yard DairyImported Parmigiano-Reggiano - Neal's Yard Dairy
Cornish Yarg wrapped in wild nettle leaves - Neal's Yard DairyStrathdon blue cheese - Neal's Yard Dairy
Neal's Yard is a company after my own heart. These folks are excited by cheese. From humble beginnings in the 1980s, they've grown conscientiously, never losing the heart of their business model, matching the tastes of consumers with cheeses made regionally and by traditional methods. They buy cheeses from farms all over the British Isles. They have two shops in London and also ship to restaurants and stores all over the world.
There are no poems written about cheese. No flowery prose, nor devoted sonnets. My closest friend, surfing & golf partner and fellow foodie Matty O'Food and I came up with some lines of our own one summer. We put them to the melody of "Girls" by the Beastie Boys:
And all I really want is
And in the morning it's
Two at a time it's just

I love the way that it melts...
It goes on in that vein for several verses. Calculated silliness; the best kind.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

1 comment:

Jeff (UK) said...

BoF, the reason that traveling with you is so much fun is that you 'eat it up'. You live life the way that you write, with a great deal of joyful abandon. You're a consummate guest - and one visit's just not enough.
Best, J-mac