The most enduring memory from my first trip to London is of my skinflint parents packing an entire suitcase full of breakfast cereal and toilet rolls before we left. I was six years old then. They had been told that London's prices were atrocious. I thought at the time that they were just being cheap.
Twenty years later, on my second trip into the city, I took a train from Heathrow to meet a friend for an unremarkable lunch of pizza and Portuguese wine during a six-hour stopover. Altogether, those six hours cost me $350. London's prices were atrocious. I took pains to avoid the city after that.
Yet as London's food scene transformed in the past decade from a wasteland of mushy vegetables and overcooked beef into one of the world's more interesting dining capitals, my personal little England fatwa became progressively less defensible; I like to pass myself off as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan food lover, after all.
Then I heard that London was booming with a wave of innovative food trucks and farmers markets – with cheap, delicious eats, that is.
The currency also fell, from a high of around $2.40 per British pound nearly a decade ago to $1.58 today. Effectively, Britain was having a 35 per cent off sale. The place had never been so cheap.
My father grew up in England. I am a British citizen. I was starting to feel ridiculous that I hadn't gone back. So, this past February, I booked a ticket. I left the breakfast cereal and toilet rolls at home.
At lunchtime on a cold but bright Wednesday, thousands of office and construction workers stream past a row of food trucks and stalls in East London. They're lined up near King's Cross and St. Pancras stations, at the British terminus of the Eurostar chunnel train from France. The pop-up market runs Wednesdays through Fridays here, and the food ranges many days from smoked meat and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches to Korean hamburgers and cassoulet made with rare-breed pork, Aylesbury duck legs and confit garlic toast.
The market, like much of the neighbourhood, is still in its infancy. All around is an enormous construction site, with 27 hectares under development and 23 new office buildings on the go. “They're gentrifying the whole area,” a 32-year-old paella vendor named Douglas Robertson-Ritchie tells me as he ladles fragrant saffron rice with sausage, clams and shrimp into a paper bowl.
“It used to be known as an area of vice and prostitution.” Where in many North American cities, bricks and mortar businesses view food trucks with suspicion, here the area's developer asked them to set up, in hope of inspiring some life in the newly laid streets. London has gone crazy for street eats in the past two years.
Jez Felwick, the cheery owner-operator of a meatball truck called The Bowler – Gourmet Balls, has been in the business since last summer. “At the weekends, me and my mates started doing this,” says Felwick, who developed television shows before turning to food. Felwick's meatballs are large, like cue balls, and blend pork shoulder and beef. “I put a bit of cheeky ricotta, too, that's the secret,” he says with a wink. They taste delicious: tender, juicy and savoury from the beef. He sells them over arugula and a bit of pasta, with a squirt of cumin-scented yogurt, at £6 ($9) for three.
The next day, I stop for lunch at the Borough Market, a mix of permanent and seasonal vendors that has been running since the 13th century in the shadow of the London Bridge. Though it's a Thursday and unseasonably cold out, the market is mobbed. There are lines at the counter selling bangers made from wild game and harissa, the North African spice, and at the raclette and toasted cheese sandwich stall, and at the one selling potted partridge and wood pigeon. The shucker at seventh-generation Mersea Island oysterman Richard Haward's little table is flying through bivalves, and the charcutier selling wild Scottish venison chorizo is backed up for nearly 10 minutes before I can grab a taste.
This is the quietest day at the market, a few of the traders tell me. On Saturdays, they say, it can take 10 minutes to move more than a few feet.
I graze around the stalls, half-stunned at the quality and variety, tasting jams (the gooseberry ones are mind-blowing; North Americans need to eat more gooseberries) and farmhouse cheddars and peppery Devil's Pokers – sausages made near Cornwall, to the south-west. At a little pasty shop across from the craft beer store, I decide to go traditional and order a chicken and mushroom pie. It's perfect: flaky, hot, delicious.
I do a little food-world star-spotting, also, at my hotel over breakfast the next day. The place where I'm staying is the St. John Hotel, owned by Fergus Henderson, the pioneering chef whose St. John Bar & Restaurant in London first brought the term nose-to-tail to the modern world. I'm enough of a Henderson groupie that I've already made the pilgrimage to the original location in Smithfield, where I had a plate of roasted bone marrow and parsley salad with my beer. (I nearly wept it was so good.)
But at breakfast, as I'm piling into a sturdy heap of mushrooms and gravy on toast, I watch Henderson himself walk in and down an enormous plate of kidneys with a glass of Guinness (it's 9 a.m.).
Once he's done, he pulls a red paisley handkerchief from his pocket and proudly blows his nose. It's the foodie equivalent of seeing Bono and the lads play a pub gig. I have to stop myself from sprinting to his table to give him a hug.
Between meals, I walk and gawk. It's the simple things that grab me: an old stoveworks still operating at the edge of Soho, the newspaper hawkers pushing the Evening Standard into commuters' hands at twilight, a cast-metal ship at full sail, as if from a Horatio Hornblower potboiler. And even though I am prepared to find a city packed with art and architecture and high (and low) culture, the scale of it still astonishes me. London makes New York – a city I love – look like a hillbilly town. Admission to England's public museums is free, which is handy. I start to find room in my budget for a splurge or two.
Dinner By Heston Blumenthal is one of London's most important new restaurants. Its namesake is the chef-autodidact who was a pioneer of modernist cooking; who built The Fat Duck, a small, unknown eatery outside the city, into one of the world's greatest restaurants. Blumenthal's new restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel looks out through a glass curtain wall onto Hyde Park. The show, however, is indoors.
Though Blumenthal uses modernist techniques, his inspiration is British history; the chef even worked with a royal culinary historian on some of the menu. The first dish I have is a trompe l'oeil called Meat Fruit, a mandarin orange, complete with stem and leaves. The peel is dimpled and glossy; as you put your nose to it, it smells like orange too. The peel is a gel, however, and the interior is the creamiest chicken liver parfait imaginable. I'd seen pictures and read about the dish months earlier, and knew what I was getting, but my amazement wasn't any less.
The rest of the dinner was just as captivating: I had porridge made with escargots (delicious) and halibut with a “ketchup” that's made from gelled cockle jus. When I mentioned to the sommelier, who was extremely French and kind, that I was on a budget, he set up pairings of esoteric and inexpensive wines.
Dessert, however, made the meal for me. It brought back another memory from that first trip to London with my parents; one I'd forgotten all these years. The dish was called Taffety Tart: a perfect triangle of pastry, cream and jelly layers, with flavours of apple, rose petals and fennel seed. On the side was a quenelle of black currant sorbet. Thirty years after that first trip, I tasted the sharp, just sour, slightly tannic bite of those currants – another fruit that is chronically overlooked in North America – and remembered being in a musty flat as it poured outside, dressed in a cape and a fox stole and a witch's hat (one of our relatives had a costume box), and drinking Ribena, a popular black currant drink.
I'm still not sure whether it was that distant memory of being a kid on vacation with my family, or the Taffety Tart that made me tear up more. I remember being contented then, and happy, and as now, a little amazed. It was a far more durable memory, it turns out, than the skinflint one.
For more information see VisitBritain.com.