The London Diaries

Let loose in London town, former F&HE food editor Leila Saffarian and contributing writer Jenny Handley got down to some seriously grand dining, chef mingling and Borough Market meandering

London’s reputation as a global foodie capital is there for a reason and although Leila firmly believes that “street food is the best food – it’s super-tasty, has loads of personality and will remain one of my reasons for loving food as much as I do” – it was the great chef Raymond Blanc who reminded her that there is more to simply picking a strawberry and eating it. “You can transform it into anything you wish. You can make a person smile by placing something on a plate that is so beautiful you almost think twice about eating it,” he says.

Leila was on a three-part food mission in one of her favourite cities. Part one: to attend the über-elegant Relais & Châteaux Diner des Grands Chefs at Old Billingsgate; part two: to meet Grand Chef Raymond Blanc, and enjoy a one-night, media group stay at his exquisite Le Manoir; and part three: to meander London’s mother of all food markets, the Borough Market, for a quick recce on what hipsters are eating.

GASTRONOMIC EATING ON THE THAMES
“Relais & Châteaux – a family of unique hotels and chefs across the globe – brings together some of its Grands Chefs to create meals that combine their trademark flavours and styles. London was the destination this year and Old Billingsgate – The World’s Kitchen By The Thames – was the stage. The 2013 event was held in conjunction with a live auction for Action Against Hunger and the London elite flocked to be fed by the world’s best. Two of the chefs were South Africa’s much-loved Peter Tempelhoff for The Collection by Liz McGrath and Margot Janse of Le Quartier Française (the only Grands Chefs in Africa). I was lucky to be seated alongside Peter’s chef station. With 80 tables to feed, the chefs were divided into teams around the dining hall, and tuxedos and ballgowns galore transformed it into a scene from a Bond film. Peter’s dish of charred Scottish beef fillet served with seasonal morels, red wine birch, sap gel and broad beans, and Margot’s biltong-cured Aberdeen Angus beef fillet, sorghum, parsnip and lovage purée with wild greens and African sour fig jus were very well received. We’re on the culinary world map for a reason – our chefs are electric to watch and the flavour combinations so good that I do believe it would even make one 007 weep – if only a little.”

OXFORD SHOWS OFF ITS BEAUTY
“On to part two of my food mission – to meet the gracious and delightful Raymond Blanc. In fact, not only meet but also be a guest at Mr Blanc’s exquisite and world-renowned Le Manoir, which forms part of the Relais & Châteaux stable of international hotels. Together with eight French journalists, I set off for Oxford by train. The English countryside has a reputation for being excessively pretty for a reason – it was extreme: all sorts of green and lush meadows. But our first impression on arriving at Le Manoir was breathtaking: English gardens stretching for miles, stone buildings standing proud, and chefs bustling about in what has to be one of the most professional and wellequipped kitchens in the world. It was dinnertime at Le Manoir with Mr Raymond Blanc and a five-course delight awaited… The first course could only be described as a plated artwork. Who said colour blocking only ever happened in the fashion world? Terrine of baby beetroots and horseradish sorbet – I gasped when the pink colour palette was placed before me: one dish consisting of all sorts of beetroot, whipped into various forms all complementing each other. I stole a quick glance at Raymond, who was in full conversation about a meal he had made for the Queen Mum. This was followed by plancha-seared Scottish lobster with red pepper and cardamom, then roasted Pyrenean lamb with spring vegetables, English asparagus and pea purée. Course four was La Gariguette – a theme on the French strawberry – and we ended with Calvados soufflé baked in a Jonagold apple, and served with a Granny Smith sorbet. I was coaxed by Mr Blanc to say at least one course in French… being a trooper, I soldiered through and got the nod of approval.”

GETTING ALL UP IN MY BOROUGH
“Back to London, four stops on the Tube and ‘Hello Borough Market, I have missed you!’ Bread, bicycles and bearded hipsters eating gourmet street burgers – if this is what I was placed on Earth to do, I’m a very happy little food editor. I was secretly hoping Jamie Oliver would be market hopping on the same day – it is his fave market after all! – but he wasn’t. So, these hipster burger eaters… I needed in on this action and assumed it was coming from the queue forming around the block. I took my place and five minutes later was ordering a lamb and mint
burger. ‘That’s a fiver love. Where you from?’ ‘South Africa!’ ‘Aaaah, that Karoo lamb – wouldn’t mind some of that.’ Despite being smitten, there was more to see: tomatoes galore sat pretty among the masses of veg; enough mushroom varieties to ensure an interesting risotto every night of the week; a stall dedicated to truffles, where you are actually encouraged to sniff the earthy delights… The butchery section made me happy too – pheasants and rabbits were literally hanging about and nobody batted an eyelid; counters of game, Cornish hens and pork all ready to be turned into that British classic – the pie. Cheeses, olives, soups, what I hope will soon be appearing on SA breakfast tables – soft-boiled goose egg and soldiers anybody? Borough Market, you know exactly how to get a girl excited.”

Leila’s visit to London was hosted by Relais & Châteaux. www.relaischateaux.com

THE CLASSIC LE GAVROCHE
While Leila was savouring street food, Jenny visited restaurants that South African foodie followersare familiar with…

“Dining in opulent splendour at two Michelinstarred Le Gavroche could be justified as the sole reason for visiting London. You feel you’ve ‘arrived’ when you enter a discreetly marked doorway in the heart of Mayfair that opens into what can only be described as a timeless haven of classic elegance. Michel Roux Jr became chef de cuisine at this world-famous gourmet institution in 1991, and has won numerous awards and a Grand Chef title for his talent. It is matched by his team of professionals who display the equivalent passion for food, service and excellence. My unforgettable experience started with a delicious amuse-bouche and a light yet tantalisingly piquant consommé. I then allowed myself to be led on a joyous culinary journey of artichoke filled with foie gras, truffles and chicken mousse. My roast saddle of rabbit with crispy potatoes and Parmesan followed by the hot passion fruit soufflé with white chocolate ice cream delicately spooned into the soufflé was served with grace and aplomb. Food lovers worldwide dream of meeting Michel Roux Jr and when he appeared to find out whether I was enjoying my meal, I was delighted. I felt privileged to experience a meal of this calibre, but to meet the maestro himself too was an absolute honour.”

DINING WITH THE STARS
“It’s at Fifteen, the most unique of Jamie Oliver’s many restaurants, where he gives underprivileged people the chance to carve their careers. Fifteen is the number of graduates they produced in year one and it whet both my appetite and sense of community spirit. My friend kicked off our culinary afternoon with marinated wild mushrooms, shaved Florence
fennel, capers, wild rocket and fennel. I chose burrata with Italian figs, almonds, mixed autumn leaves and 12-year aged balsamic. When observing our ecstasy during our main course (pan-fried royal bream with Jerusalem artichokes, spinach and crispy shallots for me, and the roasted fillet of Shetland pollock with green beans, capers, olives, anchovies and grilled chilli-balsamic dressing for my fellow diner), the friendly Italian maitre d’ discovered we were South African.

He introduced us to the bar manager, who left Joburg a decade ago when Jamie opened this restaurant. Two courses cost £24 (R337) per person and adding a glass of house wine each meant that we escaped with a palatable bill.

 After a short tube ride from Oxford Circus to Notting Hill, I discovered a wonderful organic food store called Friends, the Daylesford Organic Farm outlet. Fresh produce and handmade gifts galore, it was a brief distraction on the way to my long-awaited destination of Ottolenghi. Congregating with strangers around a small and intimate 10-seater communal table, the restaurant exceeded all expectations. I consoled myself by thinking that the effort of deliberating over the delectable array of salads and mains was surely burning up kilojoules, before feasting on unforgettable medleys of fresh and seasonal flavour. Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty was the perfect London takeaway.

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