There’s something about the sight of the Union Jack that conjures up images of low-lit gastro pubs, pints of ale and hearty fare. While pot pies and Bakewell tarts prove a powerful culinary drawcard – as do the fine-dining offerings of the Heston Blumenthals and Gordon Ramsays of the region – no foodie tour of London is complete without visiting the city’s buzzing marketplaces.
Situated in South West London, Brixton is known for its chequered history – most notoriously for the race riots of the 1980s and later a bombing in 1999. The district is home to Electric Avenue, made famous in Eddy Grant’s 1982 song, and played host to some of the city’s first African and Caribbean immigrants. Brixton brings to London what Harlem does to New York: a melting pot of social classes and cultures. Today, it’s a go-to haunt for foodies, artists and rockers alike.
Unlike the more pruned Borough Market, Brixton Market is a wild, sensory fiesta. Most of the restaurants here, like Pakistani street-food eatery Elephant, source their ingredients from shops and stallholders within a 60-second walk; one glance at the fishmongers, fresh-food grocers and bakeries that spill out of the arcades and it’s easy to see why.
Start off by sampling the Caribbean flavours on offer at First Choice Bakers (Shop 40, Atlantic Rd). Their queue-worthy specialty is saltfish-and-callaloo buns: a dense, buttery, golden crust envelops hunks of smoky fish, leeks and the leafy Caribbean greens. Wash it down with housemade Jamaican Guinness Punch – a syrupy medley of Guinness, nutmeg, vanilla and condensed milk – for a meal you won’t forget in a hurry.
For a sweet pit stop, head to the retro-tastic Ms. Cupcake vegan bakery (408 Coldharbour Lane) for a decadent baked treat. While you question the absence of butter and milk from your Peanut Butter and Jam Cookie Sandwich, grab a brew from Brixton institution Federation Coffee and make your way to artisan food store, Cannon & Cannon (18 Market Row). Here, you can load up on some of the best British cheese and charcuterie in town – think Dorset air-dried mutton and nine-year-old pig-and-fennel salami – before wandering upstairs to a charming 26-seater, The Salon. The eatery offers a stellar four-course set menu for around $52 ($41 extra for matching wines), with head chef Nicholas Balfe getting experimental with the best produce he can lay his hands on.
TO MARKET, TO MARKET
It’s time to jump on a bus and head into the town’s centre for another market experience. Borough Market (known in its heyday as “London’s Larder”) is a must-visit while in the United Kingdom’s capital. The oldest of its kind in the city (it dates back to the 13th century), Borough Market is situated next to London Bridge and rewards visitors with an eye-popping array of beautifully displayed produce, artisan chocolates, truffles, charcuterie and mulled wine stands.
Cruise the aisles with a hot New Forest apple cider before visiting oyster suppliers to the stars, the Wright Brothers. Their Oyster & Porter House restaurant sources seafood from the best producers in the British Isles and France. Nearby, a breakfast bacon-and-squeak bap at Maria’s Market Café comes highly recommended, as does a scoop of Greedy Goat’s freshly churned goat’s-milk ice-cream.
For lunch, let your nose guide you to Brindisa sandwich shop. Hop in line for a hot ciabatta packed with sizzling chorizo, piquillo peppers and rocket leaves. Ten years in the game has ensured these chaps have perfected the formula.
Sample quintessentially British treats such as quail scotch eggs, steak and crackling, and hot sausage rolls at Borough Market’s Ginger Pig before quelling any sugar cravings with a Bread Ahead honeycomb doughnut. Or if chocolate’s your thing, play Russian roulette with the misshapen specials at Artisan du Chocolat.
Mind the Gap offers gourmet walking tours of Brixton and London, sprinkled with historical notes about the regions (mindthegaptours.com).
England is home to some of the most celebrated Michelin-starred chefs in the world, with Gordon Ramsay, Joël Robuchon and Heston Blumenthal all putting their name to restaurants in London.
Our white tablecloth dinner venue of choice is Marcus Wareing’s acclaimed The Gilbert Scott. A protégé of Ramsay before their infamous – and inevitable – falling out, Wareing is widely considered one of the best British chefs of his generation. Situated in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, his elegant British brasserie takes its cues from the historic building it calls home – it was the masterpiece of great Gothic Revival architect George Gilbert Scott. Soaring ceilings, huge windows and romantic charm fill the space, and the menu reflects this old-world feel, as original yet traditional British dishes let local produce shine.
Start with the Crispy Pig’s Head served with pickled cockles, laverbread mayonnaise and sea vegetables. If you overindulged during the day, the Dorset Crab with pink grapefruit, radish and fennel is a fresh and delicate alternative.
Despite any jet lag, you’ll be hard-pressed forgetting where you are with mains such as London Pride Battered Haddock and Slow-Cooked Herdwick Lamb Shank, offering refined takes on retro British fare. We order the house favourite, Mrs Beeton’s Snow Egg, for dessert. It’s a sterling English version of îles flottantes (floating islands) with egg white, burned honey custard, peanuts and toffee.
Before the introduction of high tea into Britain, in the early 1800s, the English had two main meals: breakfast and dinner. It was no wonder that Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, is said to have experienced a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon. Inviting friends to join her at four o’clock daily, Anna and her group dined on small cakes, bread and butter, assorted sweets and tea. The meal soon became known as afternoon, or high, tea, or so the story goes.
Today, most hotels in London offer an afternoon tea experience. We pay respect to the ritual at The Montague on the Gardens. In the ornately furnished conservatory, freshly baked scones with Devonshire cream, pastries and artisan tea blends arrive, but – unlike the duchess – we enhance the experience further with a flute of champagne.
Gone are the days when a European weekender involved lengthy commutes to the airport and bad airline food. Rail Europe (raileurope.com.au) makes tea in London followed by an afternoon café crème and madeleine in Paris a seamless reality. St Pancras International station, with its newly renovated Victorian architecture, shops, restaurants and bars, is home to Eurostar, but also a destination in its own right – here you can enjoy a glass of bubbly at Searcys, billed as the longest champagne bar in Europe. After you’re done, head to the departure (or, depending on your ticket, the Business Premier) lounge for another beverage. If you’re unwinding at the latter, you can help yourself to pastries, power sockets and wi-fi access before embarking. There are additional green benefits to travelling on the Eurostar, with independent research claiming that journeying between London and Paris this way rather than flying cuts CO2 emissions per passenger by up to 90 per cent.
Once on board, it’s time to recline and watch the English countryside become the rolling hills of France. If you’ve opted to travel Business Premier, you’ll be treated to a three-course menu celebrating the best of France and Britain delivered to your seat, created by Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc. We start with a glass of wine, before a locally sourced entrée of Poached Pear, with red wine braised chicory and Cheshire cheese, followed by Roast British Chicken, served with new potatoes with thyme and marjoram, and finally Apple And Pistachio Tatin. It’s the ideal way for foodies to travel. After a blink-and-drink-wine-and-you’ll-miss-it two hours and 15 minutes, you’ll arrive at Gare du Nord in the heart of Paris. It’s time to break baguette and celebrate.
In the Opera district of the city is the chic Hôtel de Nell, a fitting home for the third restaurant of famed chef Bruno Doucet’s Régalades: La Régalade Conservatoire. As you ponder the prix fixe menu, a generous complimentary house terrine (the flavour rotates daily) will arrive to keep you company until your meal arrives. The menu is packed with French staples, but seeing as we’re in the confit capital, it’s hard to look past the Confit Salmon with olive oil, lamb’s lettuce, cauliflower and hazelnuts.
Paris is a city best explored (and eaten through) by foot, but if it’s a one-stop food shop you’re after, visit Lafayette Gourmet. The luxury food hall is located at one of the world’s most famed department stores, Galeries Lafayette, and will not just satisfy your every food desire – it is here at Lafayette where you’ll stumble across the shrine-like Bordeauxthèque. The largest cellar of Bordeaux wines in the world houses the latest vintages plus drops from legendary years starting from 1919.
Not only is it a great way to see the city, walking through Paris lets you muster up an insatiable appetite. While the lavish window art and big culinary names of Saint Germain des Prés makes it the food haunt of choice for many tourists (it’s here you’ll find macaron maestros Ladurée and chocolatier to the stars, Patrick Roger), the 5th arrondissement is where you’ll unearth some of the city’s finer, lesser-known artisans.
FOOD AND BEAUTY
An important lesson in the French art-as-food movement can be had at Carl Marletti (51 Rue Censier). Marletti’s bright and whimsical creations, adorned with flowers and spun sugar art, will attract the greediest of aesthetes. French classics such as Paris-Brest, Eclair and Mille-feuille are almost too pretty to eat, but the pâtissier’s signature sweet, the Lily Valley, steals the show.
A violet-scented Saint Honoré cake accented with delicate violet cream, Lily Valley was inspired, like all great things, by love (the pastry is in honour of Marletti’s partner, a nearby florist).
Ernest Hemingway described Rue Mouffetard as a “wonderful, narrow crowded market street” in A Moveable Feast. The street name loosely translates as “the stinky street” (mouffetard derives from mofettes, which referred to the stench that skinned and gutted animals of the furriers on the street produced).
Today Rue Mouffetard is smelly in a positive, culinary sense: aged cheese, chickens cooking on rotisserie, and ducks and geese hanging from hooks. In the spring, pyramids of strawberries, cherries and white asparagus pile outside grocers, while buskers fill the narrow space with music.
Get your fromage fix at Androuet (134 Rue Mouffetard). Established in 1909, the deli’s master cheesemakers offer wheels of camembert, comté, reblochon, brandy-soaked langres and hundreds more varieties. If you need help sifting through the intimidating number of rinds, the staff are friendly and knowledgeable. End the day on a sweet note at the charming Chocolats Mococha (89 Rue Mouffetard), known for selling some of the finest artisan chocolates produced in France.
Now it’s back to the hotel – by foot of course, so you can work up an appetite for dinner. I find a glass of Rhône red helps. And maybe a wafer-thin slice of chèvre.
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