Andrew Unsworth visited London to taste it, did a lot of eating and found a city transforming itself
Time was when the idea of typical London food included such delicacies as jellied eels, pease pudding and jam roly poly with custard.
No longer, for today the British capital is anything but British: its population, restaurants and food stores reflect its status as a world city. And so you are more likely to find a bruschetta with buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes than a Welsh rarebit for lunch, and many pubs seem more interested in serving gastro-food than alcohol.
This is now a city seemingly obsessed with innovation in food, in its quality and where it came from, and with the chefs who conjure up the exotic. Add to that food miles, that is, how far it has travelled to reach your plate. The more food miles, the less PC the food. That created a huge dilemma for trendies eager to support Kenyan green-bean farmers and Caribbean banana growers, but we all have our problems.
I went to London to eat, ruining my carbon footprint for the year. That sounds a bit decadent, and yes, I also sneaked off to the Miró exhibition at Tate Modern as soon as I could, and bought a ticket to Simon Boccanegra at the Coliseum. But I had been invited to the annual Taste of London festival in Regent's Park, and that meant the priority was grub - lots of it.
The opening evening function was ominous - most of the champagne-quaffing guests were eating huge rolls with slices of pork off the spit. I thought the pork underdone and tough, so discreetly binned it and found a polystyrene plate of black bream served with celeriac coleslaw and beetroot, far more palatable. I noticed that the impeccably dressed London Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill and his mate, Jeremy Clarkson (in scruffy jeans and just wrong jacket) didn't take to the pork either, preferring to smoke outside someone's hospitality stand. I was tempted to escape to Queen Mary's Rose Garden over the road, which was looking spectacular.
A fee of £22 gives you admission to a four-hour session of the actual Taste of London, as in the Cape Town event. No money changes hands over food counters; you buy coupons or crowns which cost 50p each and exchange them for samples of menus from 31 London restaurants. You can also do a fair amount of nibbling for free.
Four hours is not that much in a busy showground, so we set to it with some urgency, skipping cooking demonstrations and courses in favour of the grub itself. Rows of marquees and stalls made this a sort of cross between the Chelsea Flower Show and Borough Market, a combination of two favourite London venues.
Le Gavroche offered a ballotine of chicken, pickled mushroom and truffle dressing. BoccaDiLupo trumped that with three fried balls: olive, stuffed with veal and pork, mozzarella bocconcino, and suppli, a tomato risotto.
The Best in Taste Award had gone to Club Gascon for a foie gras burger with summer truffle. Oozing grease, it was too rich by far and I had to force myself to eat it. For the record, second place went to a warm smoked salmon and lemon verbena jelly with pickled cucumber and sweet rye; and third to a rice pudding souffle with raspberry sauce.
The nibbles from other exhibitors were as interesting: Trinidad and Tobago offered a signature bread pudding, cassava and pumpkin pone, and tamarind balls and fudge. There were crisps made from Jersey Royal potatoes; Penderyn single-malt whisky (spelt "wysgi") from Wales, single-estate chocolate and Angostura rum from Bermuda, black-and-white pudding from Ireland, buffalo mozzarella and wheels of Parmesan from Italy, chilli sauces made from Peruvian Ají chillies, and even American sauces and relishes, and Chang beer from Thailand and Estrella beer from Barcelona.
British Airways, the festival sponsors, were promoting their high-altitude food created with the help of Heston Blumenthal, no stranger to manipulating food. Our taste buds, they argue, operate differently at 10000m, so food must be created and selected accordingly to compensate.
I love any old airline food, because it's like a picnic on a journey to somewhere, and I'm travelling, but BA has a point. On the First Class flight home I had Gressingham duckling with marinated cherries and a potato and celeriac rosti, which certainly came close to a restaurant meal.
Blumenthal has also helped the Waitrose supermarket chain create his version of a "boerewors sausage", and some days later I visited a friend who had bought some and insisted I try it. Apart from a hint of coriander it was no boerewors.
Real boerewors has become another taste of London, anyway, as I found it from Bow Lane and Borough Market to a butcher shop in deepest Devon.
There was no wors in sight that night at London's oldest grand hotel, the Langham, where we dined at Roux at The Landau, run by father and son Albert and Michel Roux Jr. Kent asparagus with bone marrow, morel crumb and shaved Serrano ham (£14.50), a grilled Dover sole with Jersey Royal potatoes and wilted spinach (£42), and a sour cherry souffle with Amaretto ice cream and an almond crumb (£8.50) seemed a pretty perfect choice to represent London food. With generous amuse-bouche, silver service and Tom Jones at a table across the room, it was easily one of the grandest meals I have had in London.
Left to my own devices after BA had finished hosting me, I had more mixed luck. The Borough Market, once the Holy Grail for London foodies and once my weekly shop, is a sad reflection of its former self. Some of the rail viaducts under which it shelters are being rebuilt and half the market is a building site: the rest seems to be more eating stalls than a real produce market.
I was determined to return to StJohn, Fergus Henderson's flagship restaurant promoting real English food. The phone clerk booked us into St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields, a new addition, instead of the restaurant near Smithfield Market, and we had to walk the distance between the two in a summer downpour. Perhaps our wet entrance did not impress, but we found the service arrogant to rude (my London guest used a stronger word) and the food less impressive than I remembered.
He had roast bone marrow and parsley salad (£7.10) and pot-roasted smoked Gloucester Old Spot and chicory (£21.80). The bones on toast were delicious, the Old Spot was pork chops known elsewhere as kassler chops, here served with roast garlic and onions.
I had pig's head, radishes and white beans (£6.90) which was something like a warm brawn, not nearly as gruesome as it sounds, but delicate to the point of bland. Then the braised rabbit with peas and bacon (£17.80) which I enjoyed, despite being convinced the peas were dried or came out of a can. That could, of course be the intention: London's mushy peas are certainly made with dried peas, so the taste is authentic.
We shared sides of Cornish potatoes ("potatoes from Cornwall", the waitress explained, helpfully,) and green beans nicely sliced at an angle, like our mums used to do (both £4.20).
We finished with an apricot sorbet with Russian vodka, which was great, and an Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese, just because St John is famous for their version: it's more a massive mince pie with a lot of raisins in puff pastry than a rolled flat cake. The bill for two with wine and coffees came to £129.35, but you can taste London for a lot less: pub meals cost about £10 to £15, Italian pastas less, and I got through a fair number of Cornish pasties at £3.20.
I never quite got round to jellied eels or bangers and mash, but then London is another country now.
l Unsworth visited London as a guest of British Airways.