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East London Food

This week I hoped to be driving around France. I was going south, via Tours, Poitiers and Bordeaux. Then west, through Provence, over to Lyon, north again, and home. By the time I’d return my car boot, and, I hoped, my stomach, too, would be full. But there’s a blockade of oil refineries, or something, and I had a picture of being stranded on a distant country lane with no petrol or phone reception. Distant French country lanes can be very distant, you probably won’t find a pub and a Macdonalds on a roundabout 200m away. Plus, there’s a three-month ban on foie gras because of fears of avian flu. So it was settled: I’m at home and my tour de France has been postponed, maybe until next year. Désolé.

For compensation I have a copy of East London Food. It’s a sort of guidebook that you can keep on your coffee table. You can pick a dove grey or minty green cover, but my choice of pink may tell you all you’ll ever need to know about me. It’s something local for the locavores of East London;  a tour of some of the most interesting independent suppliers, producers, shops and restaurants between, roughly, Stoke Newington to the west and Upton Park to the east, and it’s quite my thing. So much so that I wish I’d had the idea, written it and taken the pictures. As it is those things have been done very well by Rosie Burkett, (words), and Helen Cathcart, (photography).

East London is our Brooklyn, complete with small scale production, Victorian facial hair for men and the word artisan applied like hand-churned butter. The book covers restaurants I’ve been to, like Lyle’s and St John’s, both of which I like tremendously. You wouldn’t call Bagel Bake a restaurant, or even a café, really, but what they do, including making bagels on the premises, is fine enough for a queue to form. There is Lillie at the London Borough of Jam, where, four or five times a year, I drive eight miles to because I like her and her jam so much. We are now, I’m happy to say, on hugging terms. I met John the Poacher there, once, and a fine and interesting fellow he is. Maybe he should be called John the Forager, I’m certain he poaches nothing, not even a tern’s egg on a bright Sunday morning.

There are also, of course, many places I’ve never been. Camilla has been telling me the virtues of the Rochelle Canteen for some time, and The Clove Club, which man-about-town and FT columnist, Janan Ganesh says serves the best food in London. I should push past the ‘book your experience’ arseyness of their website just so I can experience the experience, I suppose, just so I’ll know.

This book is is an exploration of what the new British cooking is, a style of food that I like very much, which is found on virtually every street corner in east London. This is the part of town where the new swims out to the the mainstream before joining the tide of the quotidian. Cold-pressed coffee may not yet have made it into Sainsbury’s, but cold-pressed almond milk has, as has craft beer and a named breed of pig on your packet of sausages. The restaurant plates of East London would be a lot emptier without foraged leaves and roots, but I noticed the other day that Waitrose now sells plastic packets of fresh sea vegetables. The more on-trend chefs of East London will have to search elsewhere, inland, maybe, for esoteric garnishes. Maybe they’ll look to the deep ocean. It will be exciting to see.

There are also Gujarati, Turkish and Vietnamese businesses in here, and a few pages on allotments, but the book is more interested in the new. Of course, many cultures rub shoulders in the area. East London has, for centuries, been a community of immigrants, landing at the docks and settling close to where they disembarked. Mix them with all the creatives who moved here at the end of the last century, the architects and the fashion stylists, and all the rest, who have reached their late 30s and 40s, prime restaurant-going age, who want the new and the interesting and want it to look right, too. The contemporary often references the traditional to make something original. It is a circle with much virtue.

I live in a different part of London, but I love east London food style, actually, I find it all quite thrilling. It often makes food look austere in the way that only Michelin-starred chefs can. I like the fermented vegetables, the pine salt, the agretti fritters. I think Epping Forest has been stripped of wild garlic for a good cause.  I’m spending the time I expected to be in France exploring the exciting food spots of East London with this book as a guide. Recommended.

East London Food by Rosie Birkett and Helen Cathcart, published by Hoxton Mini Press, £26


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