Previously, on The Upstart Kitchen: yours truly and husband roast a heritage chicken and prepare confit tomatoes in the dark, using a wood-fired brick oven and a long stick, without burning down a 500 year-old property in the south of France. Good times.
One five-hour drive to Barcelona, one French air traffic control strike, and one exceptionally inconvenient rush-hour Tube strike later, we arrived in central London, ready to take in the excellent British culinary scene. That’s not actually why we went to London – we were meeting up with my dad and then I was going to sit a panel on international economic crime at Cambridge late in the week – but still and all. If you’ve not been to Britain in the past twenty years, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. After all, it long ago established a reputation for humorously named mush like spotted dick, the gratuitous use of kidneys, and vegetables boiled beyond recognition. Well, that’s true. My first trips to Britain were memorable only in that I ate lots of jacket potatoes with butter because they were more appetizing than the alternative. My husband’s father, who was English until the day he died, apparently displayed great aptitude in the kitchen when Julia Child provided the inspiration, but was prone to boiling vegetables for days before serving and attempting to pass off kidneys as mushrooms in the steak pie – unsuccessfully, by the way, because, unlike mushrooms, kidneys taste like urine however long you soak them.
But times change, and Britain has changed. Welcome to the “Best of Britain” – the products that make hearty, wholesome, fresh-tasting synonymous with British food. In fairness, many of these items are nothing new. There’s British dairy – thick, faintly golden milk from Jersey, fine wheels of craft Stilton and Cheddar, Devon cream and delicate butter. For many years, if you knew where to look, you satisfied yourself with juicy, sage-scented Lincolnshire sausage and rich Melton Mowbray pork pies. In summer, the red currants, strawberries, and raspberries formed the basis for classic summer pudding and trifles. But in recent years, British pride in seasonal homegrown products has surged. The evidence abounds – fish pies lightly binding moist smoked haddock with garden peas and cream; proprietary bangers and buttery pureed potatoes; scotch eggs encased in venison sausage and encased in a light, crispy crumb.
Nowhere is this revival in more spectacular evidence than at Borough Market, on the southern bank of the Thames River in London. Borough has existed in its present location since 1756, after an act of Parliament declared it a public nuisance and mandated its closure. As a well-situated market by both London Bridge and the Thames, Borough plays host to a wholesale market every day, but its primary appeal for Londoners and tourists alike is the weekly public market on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. On those days, a staggering variety of British produce, local heritage meat and poultry, and artisanal food products cater to the crowds of food crazies toting eco-friendly canvas bags in one hand while feasting with the other.
Every year, when I visit London, I do the circuit – late summer fruit to eat during the week; cold smoked haddock from the Orkneys, pint of cider, check out the seeds, why not a pork pie. The lineup changes somewhat from year to year, and although some of the change is down to consumer demand, other changes have provoked controversy. We’re seeing more prepared food, like grilled cheese sandwiches and Cumberland sausage, and less fresh product. In fact, a number of fruit and vegetable merchangs are suing the Borough Market trustees, claiming that the trustees are attempting to force them out, whereas the trustees counter that the addition of more prepared food stalls merely reflects the changes in consumer demand. Earlier, the proposed construction of the certain upgrades to Network Rail, partly in preparation for the 2012 Olympics in London and partly to ease existing congestion, led to concerns about the market’s viability.
But anyway – the market’s still around, and when we went in September – twice! – it was completely packed with happy gluttons. Fruit and veg stands, as well as the meat and fish guys, were all in evidence. If you’re in London at the end of a week, go to Borough.
Grilled cheese sandwich, à la Kappacasein
I know what you’re thinking – Really? A grilled cheese sandwich? All I can say is that you need to try this particular sandwich before getting all judgmental about my recipe choices. I recommend you go to Borough Market and have one from the Kappacasein stand (if you can resist the raclette potatoes), but airfare to London being what it is even in the low season, this is the next best thing.
Kappacasein doesn’t keep the makeup of their sandwiches any big secret. In fact, the ingredients are marked off on a chalkboard right in front of their stand. As with so many other things, technique makes a simple dish extraordinary. The Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar (perhaps from the shop right across the street) is grated into large shreds that melt evenly; the poilâne sourdough bread is just tart enough to be interesting, not overpowering; and the addition of browned onion, leek, and garlic add a note of sweetness and savor to the sandwich. Don’t stint on the butter. That would just be dumb, since the sandwich isn’t diet food in the first place.
I was excited to make this the other day when, on a walk with my husband through Washington, I stopped at Cowgirl Creamery and discovered they have Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar. You say you can’t get Neal’s Yard cheeses or artisanal poilâne where you are? Improvise, using the finest Cheddar and rustic, crusty bread you can manage. Even at the Safeway you can find fine loaves of crusty bread resembling pain de campagne and mature Cheddar from Vermont and Wisconsin.
one loaf of poilâne or another rustic white sourdough like pain de campagne or a levain, not too sour, sliced 1/2″
6-8 oz mature Cheddar, such as Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
one small red onion, peeled and diced 1/4″
one leek, white and light green only, washed very well and diced 1/4″
one clove garlic, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
Grate the cheese, using the large holes on a grater. Set aside.
Place a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. When hot, add a knob of butter and a little olive oil if necessary. Add the leeks and onion and sauté until golden and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and cook several minutes more, taking care that the garlic does not brown and become acrid. Remove from heat, cool, and when cool, toss with the grated cheese.
Butter each slice of bread on the outside only. Put about 1.5 to 2 oz grated cheese (a decent handful) between the slices to form sandwiches (buttered side out). Place a large skillet or griddle over medium heat and, when hot, add the sandwiches. Press down with a grill press if you have one; otherwise, press from time to time with a spatula. Flip the sandwiches over when deep golden brown and crisp on one side; repeat. [Note: if you have a sandwich press or panino grill, you can use that.] Any cheese that oozes or falls out of the sandwich onto the pan and turns bubbly and brown is good stuff; make sure to scoop it onto the sandwich.
To pretend you’re at Borough, wrap the sandwich in waxed paper and enjoy with a pint of cider. Otherwise, slice in half and enjoy with some pickles (and your beverage of choice).