the early bird gets the doughnut at Maltby Street Market
I am almost immune to fashion. If you met me you’d know this. I nearly always wear navy or black and have a selection of tops and skirts in wool and linen that have become, over the years, pretty much a kind of uniform. This is partly because I can’t be bothered thinking about clothes and partly because it’s practical. Every day I don an apron – in fact I’ve recently noticed that I feel better writing in an apron as well as cooking in one (I’ll no doubt be buried in one) – so my clothes are covered up anyway. Comfort is what’s needed. But I’m also quite suspicious of fashion generally. I tend to think that if something is good it will last. Thirty years ago most people in their twenties were not interested in food. It wasn’t fashionable. In fact it was regarded as a preoccupation of the middle-aged or those with sufficient money (it was the 1980s, remember) to chuck it around in Michelin-starred restaurants.
Now food is cool, which has its upside and its downside. When I recently sat in 10 Greek St and watched the six guys at the next table – they couldn’t have been more than 26 – share each others’ plates and rave about the beef/ lamb/ monkfish liver, it touched me. Conversely, when someone asks me if coq au vin is ‘in’ I want to weep. (Coq au vin is not a MiuMiu handbag.) Genuinely good dishes don’t have ‘a moment’. I keep up with food ‘trends’ because it’s part of my job (occasionally they show the beginning of a fundamental change) but mostly I want to know about – and make – real food, the food people cook at home (wherever they are in the world) and go to honest restaurants (in whatever price bracket) that care about quality. There’s a new gaff in Dalston I ‘have’ to try? Well, if it’s good it’ll still be there in six months’ time and their deep-fried testicles with kimchee can wait. It’s great that food seems to be more important than it used to be but we won’t really have a healthy food culture until we resemble, say, the Italians: they care about food, they look forward to the next meal, but it isn’t a barometer of their hipness, just a natural part of life.
So I used to look at Tweeted pictures of Saturday mornings in Maltby Street Market and Spa Terminus with mixed feelings. This is the new hip shopping area for food lovers. Every week would bring giddily captured snaps of St John’s doughnuts (probably the most lauded ‘must-eat’ in the area); gin and tonics from Little Bird (with pictures of gin cocktails appearing as early as 11am, something that rather shocked my Northern Irish sensibilities); and the day’s menu, newly chalked-up, from the restaurant 40 Maltby Street.
I have friends who cross London to go to Maltby Street. Actually I have friends who come from Bristol to spend the day there. Though the doughnuts looked good (especially the praline version that featured just before Christmas) I suspected it was all, well, just a little bit hyped.
And isn’t supporting local markets part of the point of the whole market movement? Maltby Street is quite a trip on the Northern Line from my home, it isn’t on the doorstep. I also know what happens when markets become popular. I used to be a big fan of Borough Market, but rarely go now. This isn’t because it’s ‘full of tourists’ (the negative cry of every foodie; most of us are tourists at one time or another and it seems snobbish to feel yourself above that), but because it’s heaving.
There’s also the laziness quotient. It’s Saturday morning. I’m sleepy. Will I dawdle over croissants, my own home-made jam, coffee and the book review pages, or will I schlep over to Bermondsey for one of those doughnuts? Evil Tweeters even suggested I needed to get to Maltby St for 9am if I was to catch the full range of them. Food-loving friends (mostly younger) cried ‘Go!’ Cynical friends (mostly older) said ‘You want to fight through a load of hipsters for overpriced coffee that you can’t even sit down to drink?’ But the ‘yes’ camp won.
I’m quite anal when it comes to food. I don’t leave much to serendipity. I like a plan. So I printed off the map. I, rather old-fashionedly, still like using them. Then I checked out the background on some of the food producers and got on the Northern Line, taking an appetite.
When you arrive, you immediately wonder what the fuss is about. There are arches housing food units – some open, some not – but there don’t appear to be many people, just a limited sprawl of garden furniture and a few (middle-aged) people eating salt beef sandwiches and doughnuts in the sun. First I panicked (my sister was crossing London for this?), then my nose drew me round the corner, under the arches and on to a street called The Ropewalk. Instead of being confronted by a kind of über-cool throng competing for the biggest sourdough loaf, I was seduced, like a child on the verge of something surprising and lovely, into a narrow street hung with bunting and lined with stalls, food shops and a couple of restaurants.
I was immediately struck by its Britishness… I don’t mean that there were Union Jacks and jellied eel stalls (there were neither of those) but that it was somehow gentle, unlike a food market in Italy or Spain, and that the food wasn’t just ‘British’ but a mixture of all the things that make up our food culture here nowadays. In fact I could actually smell the cultural mishmash: old-fashioned English breakfast fry-ups, sizzling chorizo, the earthy scent of cumin from a stall of Middle Eastern food, smoked salmon, vanilla, freshly baked bread, strong coffee, they all mingled. The street had a party atmosphere, too. Borough Market has always been full of people with a definite sense of purpose. Shoppers there want to get the best fruit and veg, they’re after a particular kind of mutton or a bit of aged Comté cheese. Here, people don’t so much shop – though they do – as ‘be’.
My sister and I, middle-aged both, were actually rather louder than the young ‘uns with whom we were rubbing shoulders as we kept exclaiming in delight. There are flowers, wonderful fruit and veg, surprising interiors (I’m not quite sure how they’ve managed to make Bar Tozino – a gloriously dusty tapas place – look like a corner of Seville, but they have), small oases of laughter and chilledness (Little Bird distills its own gin and is, as you might expect, the happiness hub here… and yes, I did want a gin cocktail at 11am) and loads that you want to eat. This isn’t just because you’re hungry, but because the quality is so high. Rye bread with fabulous Norwegian salmon smoked in north London (from Hansen & Lydersen) and a dollop of sour cream? Oh yes. And I’d like to take some home too, please. Charcuterie from Cobble Lane Cured? I’d heard of these guys and didn’t know even know they sold their stuff here, so I stocked up.
Wine, bread, cheese, pastries, salt beef, Greek specialities, it’s all here. And it’s offered with real enthusiasm and sincerity. We got our doughnuts – Bramley apple and cream in one, lemon curd in the other - and sat on a kerb at the end of the street, balancing our coffees (it’s true that there is a shortage of places to sit down to eat if you’re buying take-away stuff).
I’ve wanted to eat at 40 Maltby Street – a no-reservations restaurant where they cook the kind of unpretentious food I love – for some time, and was told to be there for 12.15 if I wanted a table. But by the time you’ve eaten doughnuts, had a gin cocktail and sampled the smoked salmon you really aren’t that hungry. So my only really serious bit of advice about visiting the area is to come in time to get a table here at lunch, then shop and sample later. Or come one week for shopping and sampling and another week for a table and some serious lunch.
My sister and I headed off to the other bit of Spa Terminus (it’s on two sites) which is a 15-minute walk away. This is a yard (with a few little off-shoots in neighbouring streets), a home to food producers, not with stalls but in permanent workshops. Skye Cracknell’s England Preserves are worth buying (I love her flavour combinations) and there are regional honeys (and candles) at The London Honey Company. You’ll also find Little Bread Pedlar, fantastic fruit and vegetables at Natoora and the mad, ravishingly beautiful works of art that are Poppy and Sebastian’s patisserie creations. The highlight for me, though, has to be Kitty Travers’s La Grotta Ices. I’d been hearing raves about Kitty’s ice creams for ages (her spot was one of those ‘I must get to’ places). I love the way she thinks. It’s out of the box. She doesn’t just do good individual flavours (and what flavours they are – peach leaf ice cream, elderflower, cucumber and sour cream ice cream…) she also makes her own choc ices, layering flavours and dipping the resulting bars in chocolate. Nougat ice-cream with a layer of blood orange sorbet wrapped in dark chocolate? It was the best thing I ate the whole day.
So, I’d say go. Go if you’re young, go if you’re middle-aged, go if you’re old. It’s a warm, welcoming, friendly place (in fact a nice lady asked me to join the local community choir before I left). If you care about and love food you’ll have a smile on your face the whole time you’re there and you’ll leave happy and uplifted. I only hope it doesn’t become too busy. I don’t want people sticking their elbows in my doughnut. Oh, I forgot to tell you about the doughnuts… Best. Frigging. Doughnuts. Ever. Worth getting out of bed for? Abso-bloody-lutely.
Thanks to Lesley Henry and La Grotta Ices for the photos.