Letter from London: Great British dining
London’s food scene is heating up. Jane Eggington reports…
Provenance is the latest buzzword to hit the London food scene and chefs all over the city are not only keen to source produce locally and seasonally, but from the very best possible supplier for each individual item. “In Britain we have some of the best ingredients around and London’s greatest chefs are really capitalising on this,” Lee Streeton, executive chef of HIX Albermale at Browns (London’s oldest hotel), tells me.
Stretton changes his menu every two weeks and speaks to his suppliers daily. This is to make the best use of local and seasonal British ingredients – whether gulls eggs one week or St George’s mushrooms the next – in addition to keeping his customers excited. Foraged food – sea buckthorn berries, ancient herbs and flowers – are also featured. Yet he still does the old fashioned trolley with different cuts of meat: “For me that’s really sexy and the customers love it.”
After decades of being the poor relation of the culinary world, British dining in its highest form is finally being put on the map. We have a wealth of high quality seasonal produce on both land and shore in this country that is finally being given the recognition it deserves – in the UK and not just as an export to continental Europe. It was Gary Rhodes who can be thanked for this phenomena. The spiky haired, squeaky voiced TV chef may not be an obvious choice as a British food ambassador but way back during the nouvelle cuisine 1980s, Rhodes was a torch bearer for classic British dishes.
The role of Rhodes is one that Ricky McMenemy, managing director of Rules (London’s oldest restaurant, established in 1798), is the first to acknowledge. “For many years British food has been under the radar, regarded as old fashioned, fossilised even.” The British public themselves have in tandem had a growing interest, knowledge and appreciation of good food which has encouraged the growth of British Restaurants in this country.
“Look at the success of restaurants such as Canteen, ‘nose to tail’ eating in St John, or Marcus Wareing at the Gilbert Scott, all of which realise the wealth of excellent food we have and should be showcasing to the world.” McMenemy acknowledges that Rules has been fortunate enough through its history to be one of the greatest exponents of game and while it is no longer sourced from their own estate, Rules still sells more game throughout the season than any other single restaurant in Britain.
“I think we now do seasonality and provenance as well, if not better, than any other country in the world”, declares Iqbal Wahhab, founder of Roast restaurant. “We go mad for rhubarb, elderflower, asparagus, gulls eggs, spring lamb when they appear. Around the country restaurants are emerging that celebrate their own region’s produce, which is great to see and even better to taste.”
Roast’s base in Borough Market means that Wahhab’s vision is set – as he puts it – in a delicious context. ‘There is no excuse for us not keeping up with the seasons and finding what is best and when it is available. When you start with the best ingredients, then have a beautiful building in the heart of Britain’s oldest food market, you have a great head start over others.”
Head chef, Marcus Verbene, previously at Brown’s Hotel has – according to Wahhab – added a new level of finesse to the cooking and presentation and brought in more foraged and rare ingredients like chickweed and samphire. And although nobody believes Bangladesh-born Wahhab, it was his chef’s idea and not his to put a curry on the menu. It is, as he says, so quintessentially British after all.
In a flower shop in East London, Olivia Malan de Mérindol is putting the final touches to her pop up restaurant. Olivia is founder of Parlour Tricks which was inspired by twisting lost feasting traditions back into British society, showcasing the finest wild and fresh British ingredients using Michelin trained chefs. Olivia believes it is a real golden age for British restaurants in London, thanks to a national food obsession that has been gathering pace over the last 15 years. A real thrill for her and others like her is that there is not one single dominating force and Britain has finally broken out of the shackles of French ‘feen deening’ that has defined its cuisine for so long.
“Although in London we have long been accustomed to having the best of all cuisines within easy reach, what’s inspirational now is that British food has found it’s own language and has world class ingredients and products,” Phillip Granell, co-founder and chef explains. “Nowhere is this more visible than in London, with many top chefs, Marcus Waring for example, producing an entirely British tasting menu complete with matching English wines.”
Also I think we’re part of a new generation of foodies that have the confidence to cook and create exactly what we want and what we believe in, which happens to be the produce of this land. In many ways I always think that in England we’re almost culinary orphans in that throughout France, Spain and Germany they have such a rich, uninterrupted tradition that really doesn’t exist for us in England. And it’s only now that people are having the confidence to investigate our traditions and to believe that it’ll be any good. And luckily we have the ingredients to do it with.
‘The variety, vibrancy and quality are what makes dining in London so exciting”, Alexa Perrin, founder of the Experimental Food Society, tells me. The Society showcases some of the most talented and pioneering culinary creatives in the UK: on her books are food magicians, jellymongers, cake sculptors and gastronomic tailors.
These tastemakers of the culinary arts industry have an exciting and challenging act as our experience and understanding of food in Britain is progressing so quickly. As Perrin puts it: “Picking up a fork has never been so stimulating. London has a staggering 55 Michelin stars making its culinary offering one of the strongest in the world.”