So what else has changed since I last blogged?
Well probably the biggest dining trend to emerge during the recession has been the rise of street food, not only served at bricks and mortar restaurants, but also from mobile food vans. It has been written about extensively elsewhere so I'm not going to go over the whys and wherefores of its popularity but suffice to say that two years ago I felt it was time that the WI embraced street food and so I developed a cookery course on the subject.
I was a bit nervous that the WI, known for its traditional approach to cookery (think tea tents at county shows,Victoria sandwiches, jam and scones) might not jump at the opportunity to learn about the world of tacos, satay, empanadillas and the like. And I was right. The first course had 6 bookings, only half full, and I was disappointed that my worries about the conservatism of WI cooks might be proved true. For those six pioneers though, the course was a rip roaring success and I had such fun teaching it that I decided to put in on the course programme again. The second time round it filled quickly, and now World Street Food is our most popular subject, with a waiting list for every course. Think you know the WI, well think again.
Last year a WI group from up north asked me to do my World Street Food course for them, but to include a trip to visit some street food markets in London as part of the course. As their visit to the cookery school would be running in May 2014 I decided to jump on the train to the capital for a recce, to see for myself how the street food scene has developed since I left.
My first stop was Whitecross Street Market which is located just off Old Street, north of the City. It's an area I know very well having previously worked a stones throw away towards Farringdon in one direction and Shoreditch in the other. It was a beautiful spring morning when I jumped off the number 55 bus and arrived at the market around 11.15am.
The minute I stepped foot down Whitecross Street I was filled with excitement because ahead of me I could see a line of stalls as far as the eye could see. Wonderful smells were beginning to fill the air, and sizzles and shouts conveyed the bustle of final preparations as each stall holder got ready for the Friday lunch rush. With most stalls starting to serve at 12pm and the street relatively quiet, I had the opportunity to walk up and down and chat with some of the owners. The range of food available is astonishing and what's even more exciting is that the food on offer is so unique. Neighbouring stalls sell game burgers, Mexican burritos, Indian thalis, French duck filled brioches, bratwurst from Germany, Lahmacun from Turkey, chorizo rolls from Spain, noodle soups from Vietnam, even delicate patisserie and the list goes on.
Deciding what to have for lunch was a real dilemma because I basically wanted everything.
I opted to return to Frenchie, a stall that had caught my eye at the Old Street end of the street. Their offer - a puffy light brioche filled with duck confit, crispy skin, caramelised onion relish, mustard mayo and your choice of melted cheese was too tempting to miss. I opted for raclette cheese as I just love the way it melts into a stringy mess but you can choose a goats cheese or a blue cheese if that's your thing.
It was utterly sublime, one of the best things I've tasted in a while. Rich, decadent and filling. At £6 it was on the pricier side of the options available elsewhere down the street, but I thought it fair value given the quality of ingredients. Give me this style of French food over a £40 plate of 3 michelin star finery any day.
My original plan had been to grab tastings at lots of the stalls, however the duck bun was so filling I soon realised that this wouldn't be possible. Nevertheless I decided I still had space to follow it up with a Lahmacun, a Turkish 'pizza' topped with minced lamb and other goodies such as chilli, salad and garlic sauce, which is then rolled to make portable and edible on the go.
I took it and sat on a bench in a local park where city boys, office workers, locals and tourists were all tucking into different take aways, sunning themselves before the Easter weekend break. At £3 my Lahmacun was no more expensive than a boring Pret sandwich, and it made me think that if I still worked in London then I would eschew the chains for a bite of street food everyday. Would I have to travel to Whitecross St everyday for that I hear you ask? Well no, because street food is popping up all over the place.
I jumped on the Northern Line and headed down to tourist favourite Borough Market. Aside from the lovely but pricey fresh produce on offer, there are more street food stalls to try. Why not try Brindisa's famous chorizo rolls, or pop to the row of stalls opposite Southwark Catherdral selling felafels, salt beef bagels, pies, in short a massive variety of things to stuff your face with.
My final stop of the day was Kerb in Granary Square, Kings Cross. Kerb is one of the organisations that is spearheading the development of official street food markets and they have grown from a few vans in Kings Cross to several sites across London, including one in the City at the Gherkin, UCL, and The Southbank. Each site has a different selection of traders at any one time, and the traders move around to keep things fresh. The day I visited Kings Cross there were five traders selling between them Japanese katsu, Vietnamese goodies,frozen yoghurt, Greek souvlaki and pulled pork rolls, and just like at Whitecross St and Borough, local punters were flocking to taste their food.
I may have only be able to spend a few hours in London but I certainly got a flavour of what modern street food culture is all about. Vibrant, exciting, entrepreneurial, it even got me thinking about getting a van of my own. In addition to the markets themselves there are now large street food festivals, innovative night markets such as Street Feast's Hawker House , bloggers to follow and websites to read, and if someone visiting London from abroad asked me for a recommendation of somewhere to eat I would certainly send them to one of these places. This is modern British food culture at its best, reflecting the cultural diversity of the people who live here and our hunger to try new things.