Saturday, 13 December 2014

Culinary Curiosity and the Urchin

Saturday morning is my favourite time to go to food market in Menton.

It's the one day of the week when the market swells with local producers who bring their delicious, fresh products from the countryside to town to sell to appreciative customers like me. It's also cheaper than my regular market in Monaco and always a great opportunity to people watch.

A typical crowded Saturday in the Menton market
On Saturdays the market closes at 1:00 so if you arrive after 10:00, the crowds are thick and the side walks are narrow so you get pushed and shoved, squished, and elbowed like a bargain hunter on Black Friday.  And believe me, older French women take no prisoners when it comes to scooping up the last handful of spinach or bunch of carrots even if its not their turn.
The line up to buy sea urchins

Today, one of the Poissonnerie (fish and seafood specialist) was selling oysters and sea urchins for the first time this season so his stand was 3 deep with customers for most of the morning.  I squeezed on by, thinking I'd wait until the crowd thinned.

After I'd finished my shopping, I looped back and saw that there was a lull in the crowd so I scooted over for a closer look and to take some photos.  I'm a vegetarian, so for me seafood is purely a curiosity and photo opp.

It didn't disappoint. To me, sea urchins seem like the artichokes of the seafood world, their nasty spikes guarding their luscious interiors.  Unless you understand how to prepare them, you avoid them.

While I was taking photos, head down, I heard a young boy behind me in the crowd asking the Poissonnier in perfect French, "would it be at all possible to have a demonstration of how to open them?"  What an enlightened child, I thought, me snapping and clicking away, eyes down.  And what a great chance for me to get some interesting photos.

I kept my attention on the poissonnier's voice and hands as he deftly grabbed a spiky urchin in his palm, and ignoring the sharp spikes, cut it in half through the middle with heavy metal scissors.  As he progressed through each step of the process, he described his technique to the young boy who had moved closer to the front of the little crowd that had gathered behind us and now stood right beside me.

When the Poissonnier had finished opening the sea urchin, he put down his scissors, shook the sea water out of both halves and pulled out a spoon.  He scooped out some of the orange paste from the inside and held the spoon out to the boy.

I turned to see the boy's reaction to the moment of truth and it was then I recognized him.  He was the young son of a dear friend of mine.  With this distraction, another member of the audience shot out his hand so he was the lucky one who got to sample the sea urchin.

We went off in search of his mum and while we chatted, I got the rest of the story. It seems he was trying to convince his mum to buy him some sea urchins and wanted to gather a bit of knowledge so he could prepare them himself.  I felt obliged to champion his cause.

What I loved about this tableau was that my friend's son is barely 10 years old. I think he showed considerable culinary maturity to want to try something as unusual and singular as sea urchin.  They aren't the prettiest of things to eat, an acquired taste I've been told.  It made me wonder if adventurous taste in children can be nurtured or it's more nature?

I think with my friend's son it was nature.  His mum tells me he's always been open to trying new things.

The boy his mum and I retreated to a nearby café for tea.  Nurture, nature and adventurous palates aside, he was still a 10 year old boy so in between sips of his hot chocolate he announced that although he was keen on trying sea urchins, he hated foie gras.  Ah youth...

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Food and Factory Merge at the Maltby Street Market

I don't know about you, but when I think of a food market, I usually picture rows of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables in the sunshine with a sprinkling of craft stalls and prepared food vendors thrown in for good measure.

London's Maltby Street Market at Ropewalk isn't that. 

Ropewalk is a narrow alley, about the length of a city block, situated in Bermondsey, steps from the Thames and within eye-shot of the Shard.  

At one end is Jensen's Gin Distillery and at the other, Buddy's Buyz, a junk shop filled with an eclectic jumble of second hand vintage treasures.  While I was there having a browse, Buddy was humming along to a Beatles record playing on a turntable.  After a few minutes I joined in.

Lost luggage, coffee sack cushions and a 16th century ladder - a few of the re-purposed treasures at LASSCO

On one side of the alley is a huge warehouse and retail space owned by architectural  salvaging specialist LASSCO. Their shop is beautifully organized and filled with interesting re-purposed goods making it a destination unto itself.  

Opposite LASSCO and spanning the length of Ropewalk is a succession of 6 metre high, arch-fronted weathered brick barrel vaults.  Above the barrel vaults is a railway bridge.  Altogether the opposite of a pretty Farmers' Market scene.

During the week, LASSCO stockpiles reclaimed wood, floorboards, and industrial equipment within the barrel vaults. But on the weekends, food vendors arrive to create pop-up cafes, complete with cooking equipment, tables, chairs, and food displays, transforming the space from industrial stockyard to the Maltby Street Market.

And why not?  The stockyard is closed on the weekends and given London's often wet weather, the arches are a perfect place to keep dry and set up dining and food prep areas. 

I'd be the first to admit that it sounds odd on paper but this unlikely union creates a unique, vibrant, and completely enchanting place.  Photographically it was a gem.

Having lived in Monaco and France for almost 15 years, a collaboration of this sort would be unlikely here.  Interdit!  Pas possible!  Complètement fous!  (Not allowed!, not possible!, completely crazy!)  But here it was in London, it was genius, and by 10 o'clock it was completely packed and buzzing with customers.

If you're looking to buy fruits and vegetables you'd probably be better off fighting the crowds at the Borough MarketIf, on the other hand, you're looking for a place to meet friends, do a bit of shopping and enjoy a meal of sustainable foods prepared by passionate British food artisans, in an unusual and inspired setting, this would be it.

Bring your camera, an appetite and arrive early.


One fresh food vendor and a Focaccia craftsman
Oysters with herb butter, spinakopita and beautiful bread
Salmon, vendors, and forklift
The menu at Comptoir Gourmand

Friday, 17 October 2014

Mare's Milk

Even though I never drink milk of any kind other than a wee spoon of foam stirred into my Caffè d'orzo when I'm in Italy, I couldn't resist buying a bottle of mare's milk or Lait de Jument when I spotted it in the cooler at my local natural foods shop. Milk from a horse?  How strange is that?  Of course I had to try it.

Cow's milk on the left, horse milk on the right.  The horse milk is a lot whiter
From that same cooler in recent years I've had sheep milk, goat milk and unpasteurized cow's milk, all of which were delicious and made excellent fresh cheeses when I didn't know what to do with the rest of it after I'd had a few sips. The French seem to excel at dairy products of all kinds.  If you've ever seen the football-field length of the dairy section at any Carrefour Supermarché you'd know what I mean.

I had an idea of what the goat and sheep milk would taste like because I eat fresh goat and sheep milk cheeses now and again but I had no such clue for mare's milk.

I cracked the seal and poured a bit of it into a glass and without further ado, down the hatch it went.

It tasted surprisingly plain and watery, like a skimmed cow's milk with a bit of chestnut honey added. There was no single prominent flavour like you find with a goat's milk for instance.

I can't say it would ever replace cow's milk but the producer, Chevalait, lists numerous health benefits on its website and Facebook page.  

In their farm just west of Paris, the Belgian owners, a husband and wife team, keep about 180 mares who collectively produce about 90,000 litres of milk per year.  They ship the fresh milk to health food shops within France, Belgium and Germany.  They also manufacture other mare's milk products such as soap, cosmetics, and powdered milk.
If you're a mare's milk lover and you have €2,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you can adopt one of their mares and earn 5.5% interest paid out as €110 worth of milk every year.  Not a bad return for betting on a horse!

Would I buy horse milk again?  Probably not.  But speaking of benefits, I did find my daily run curiously easier than usual the following day.