London gastro pubs get a gold medal for organic fare
By John Henderson
The Denver Postdenverpost.com
LONDON — When I first started coming to London I saw a pub on about every other corner, kind of like McDonald’s in America except pub food was worse. Lousy pub food and warm beer. This is the birthplace of the British Empire?
No wonder half the Caribbean wanted out.
Arguably the worst food I’ve had in my life has been in Mongolia, Hooters and London pubs, not necessarily in that order. In London, smartly dressed men and women came to the pub before the theahtah and dined like prisoners of war.
Cold sausage and greasy French fries. Baked beans and dry bread. Did you know Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” wasn’t a comedy about a failed wedding?
It was a tragedy about pub food.
However, just like London weather, pub food has changed. London pubs have gone high-end. They’ve gone healthy. They’ve gone for a customer who no longer views food as mere fuel.
During the maniacal times I’ve worked chasing Missy Franklin around these Olympic Games — 93 hours last week — I had two meals out in two weeks. Two.
Both have been terrific affairs in pubs where I had to make sure they served beer and not just exquisite meals.
They’re called gastropubs. Initially that sounds like a contradiction in terms like “sunny London.” But in the mid-’90s, London pubs upgraded their food to match their atmosphere and brought in chefs who didn’t get their training on a dock somewhere.
Arguably the queen of healthy pub food is Geetie Singh, owner of the first and only organic gastropub in London. The Duke of Cambridge sits at the corner of a quiet street in Islington, a middle-class retail area lined with local bakeries and blockish brick apartment buildings in northeast London.
It serves dishes such as rack of lamb with jersey royals, whole lemon sole and pan-fried cuttlefish. Bangers and mash don’t stand a chance on this menu.
Singh is a walking advertisement for the benefits of organic gastropub. Tall and elegant, she could pass for one of the goddesses you see in Hindu temples.
She’s half Indian by descent, but she’s as English as a cricketer and just as proud. Her journey toward making London healthy again began while growing up on a commune in the Midlands, north of London.
“There were hardly any of my people around,” she said, sitting in her empty restaurant before opening one morning. “So my whole childhood people were saying, ‘Where are you from?’ So I had to fight for my British identity. I became very attached to all things British.
“That’s where my passion for pubs came from.”
It also helped that communes are communes for a reason. They don’t revolt against society. They just make their own little society better through better health.
“We were self-sufficient,” Singh said. “It was politically driven so we’d sit around at night and talk about the politics of life. Everything we produced was organic. We just thought about the impact we were having on society and environment.”
When Singh entered the real world in 1991, she wanted to make her own impact in London restaurants. What she found disgusted her more than the customers. Glassware thrown away every night. Lamb from New Zealand tossed. Bleach poured down the sink.
It was like being in the triage of a war zone.
Then she discovered The Eagle, London’s first gastropub, in 1994. It served things like chicken and chorizo stew and sardines with salsa verde along with some high-end wines. Finally, the London pub scene had its gastronomical breakthrough.
“Having grown up in the countryside, that was our life,” she said. “I was very passionate about pubs and loved them. Combining a pub with providence-driven, values-driven food, there was no doubt that’s what I wanted to do.”
So she opened the Duke of Cambridge in 1998. Her idea was to buy everything local and make sure it was as organic as possible. Eighty percent of the fresh produce is from the Home Counties surrounding London.
Her pub is the only one certified by the strict Soil Association. It was the first restaurant approved by the Marine Conservation Society.
When she labeled it an “organic gastropub,” the London media swooped in. They heralded the Duke of Cambridge like the discovery of chocolate. She broke even after only one month.
As I approached the pub my first time, I could see the words “I’M LOVING IT ORGANIC” scribbled in tape on the windows. Inside, it’s illuminated mostly by sunlight. A series of crude wooden tables gives it a casual, old-fashioned feel but the organic flair is represented on a chalkboard next to the pub.
Next to each dish on the menu, which changes daily, is a little explanation of its organic nature and its origins.
“Venison: Wild hung no less than 7 days. Tunbridge Wells, Kent.”
“Whiting: Line caught. Lizard Peninsula. Cornwall.”
“Pork: Large white breed, hung max 1 week, Hastings, East Sussex.”
I don’t know how much better organic food tastes than regular food. I was always suspicious of paying $1.50 for a tomato at Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods.
But Singh’s organic venison is pub paradise. It was thick, juicy and tasted like it was freshly killed and prepared at your campsite.
Sunday night, my lone day off in the Olympics, I tried a gastropub. The Drapers Arms, just north of the Duke of Cambridge, is an old brick pub with crude wooden tables and a romantic outdoor patio surrounded by hedges and plants.
Lamb leg, courgettes with saffron and garlic, duck head kebab and whole gray mullet with mussels. I had an appetizer of pickled mackerel with crème fraiche and capers that was basically a small, pickled mackerel with no head or tail. It was served cold but no cold pub food I’ve ever had came with crème fraiche and capers.
I then had cider-braised rabbit with bacon, shallots and capers. It might have been the best rabbit I’ve ever had. It actually tasted like rabbit and not some mystery meat. The chunks of bacon and shallots gave it a nice twist.
Healthy pub food. Talk about Olympic ideals.
If you goDuke of Cambridge Organic Pub, 44-(0)20-7359-3066, www.dukeorganic.co.uk, 30 St. Peter’s St.; The Drapers Arms, 44-(0)20-7619-0348, www.thedrapersarms.com, 44 Barnsbury St.John Henderson: 303-954-1299, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/johnhendersondp
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