Thursday, 7 January 2010

James Lowe on the best bacon sandwich in London

It's a bright December morning, crisp and clear; the kind that smacks you on both cheeks the moment you step out of the front door. Winter sun swathes Spitalfields in the kind of low light that gives everything a sheen of pure, brilliant white, catching on your breath as it all but crystallises with each exhalation, and turning every car windscreen into a beacon so bright it could guide wise men to Bethlehem.

It's quiet outside, and it feels like Commercial Street has yet to come to life this morning. But as I arrive at my destination, I find a hive of activity. A morning's graft in the kitchen is already well underway. It's 8.30am, and there is business to attend to – business in the shape of a bacon sandwich – the best in London, at that.

I'm by no means the first to write about what makes a good bacon sandwich. Many before me have debated the merits of grilling versus frying, at home versus the local greasy spoon, red sauce or brown, white bread or (controversially) wholemeal... There's even a scientific formula which explains exactly how to make one, according to Leeds University.

But scientific formula or not, in my opinion the debate is already over, for there is one establishment which has succeeded in creating by far and away the best example of a bacon sandwich that I've ever tasted. And for that reason, this morning I'm at St John Bread & Wine, where I have arranged to meet Head Chef, James Lowe to discuss the matter over a cup of tea and one of their outstanding bacon sandwiches.

This will be my fourth Bread & Wine bacon sandwich. The first was an opportunistic visit at 11.01am. The kitchen had officially shut for family breakfast, and I almost didn't get anything. As I ordered without looking at the menu I must have momentarily bonded with the chef at the grill over a shared love of sizzling pork. Thank god, I just about squeezed it. The second was just before heading to Stansted to embark on a culinary tour of Bordeaux. We ate very well on that trip, but nothing came close to breakfast on day one. The third was with two friends, as fuel for a meeting about the logo for this very blog. What better stimulus for three men who love to eat? So, I know full well what to expect from my breakfast this morning, but even so, I feel a flutter of excitement which I put down to more than just my tummy rumbling.

I take a seat at the side of the stark, minimalist dining room, in anticipation of the head chef's arrival. A distinct, almost industrial hum emanates from the kitchen, audible above the clink of metal on metal, as pots and pans are shifted from stove top to surface, knives are sharpened, and trays full of plump, crusty loaves are turned out on to their cooling racks. The whole of the restaurant is filled with the scent of freshly baked bread, still hot from the oven.

Behind the pass, there are half a dozen white-coated chefs with heads down, busily prepping their stations for the day to come. They all look so studious that I'm almost surprised when one of the chefs emerges from the kitchen, strides purposefully towards my table, and takes a seat. “You're here to talk about the bacon sandwich”, he says, more as a statement than a question. Lowe has barely introduced himself before launching into a thorough and passionate description of not just the sandwich in question, but his thoughts on what breakfast is all about, his approach to cooking, and a concise history of his career, influences and inspirations. Everything he says is backed by the kind of enthusiasm that shows love for what he is doing, even when discussing such a modest dish. But he's direct and to the point – there's a sense that he will say this only once – as you would expect from the head of such a well regarded kitchen.

Our conversation is punctuated only by the flitting to and fro of the waiting staff, and the occasional comings and goings of delivery men with trolleys stacked so high it's as if there's a Christmas banquet booking for the five thousand.

All the peripheral activity is soon forgotten once breakfast arrives, however. A sandwich almost big enough to fill a dinner plate: Two huge slabs of perfectly toasted bread, crisp on one side, slathered in butter on the other. Thick folds of char-grilled bacon nestled in between. A generous bowlful of smooth, deep red ketchup. A pot of loose leaf tea, getting stronger with every second that passes. If only every day began this way.

The first bight has everything; the crispy outer layer of toasted bread, light, open-textured dough underneath; moist, juicy bacon, soft and plump in parts, charred and caramelised in others; fruity, tangy ketchup that explodes in the mouth. All at once it's salty, sweet, meaty, smooth, crispy, spongy, soft, slightly – unapologetically - greasy, and completely, utterly delightful. The perfect combination of textures and flavours. Who needs molecular gastronomy?

But perhaps this bacon sandwich bears closer relation to molecular gastronomy than you might at first think. James Lowe started his career at La Trompette in Chiswick, before going on to work at The Fat Duck. Despite the paired down style at Bread & Wine, The Fat Duck is still a big influence on Lowe's cooking today. The menu has been meticulously constructed with each dish having been obsessively tested, re-tested, and tested again – just to make absolutely sure. Every ingredient and method that is used in his kitchen, even in dishes as simple as the bacon sarnie, are subject to just as much scrutiny as anything he ever created at The Fat Duck. He tells me, for example, about occasions when ten or more rashers of bacon, each from different cuts, cures and breeds have been lined up against one another for side by side testing, to ensure the finished product reaches absolute perfection.

This exactitude is a direct influence of his time under Heston Blumenthal, an exactitude which according to James is side-stepped all too willingly in many a professional kitchen. Too many London chefs forego precision in their cooking, he says, giving the excuse that their cramped working environments, quick turnover of covers, and scarce resources leave little time for concentrating on the minutiae of detail, each and every time. This goes hand in hand, he says, with London kitchens generally being anti-technology.

High technology, particularly of the sort that one would associate with the Fat Duck, seems at odds with the old English-influenced dishes that are served at both St John and sister restaurant Bread & Wine. But in actual fact, it is the technology that allows for more measured and cared for cooking methods, such as the roast leg of mutton, which is cooked at exactly 100 degrees C – not a percentile more or less – for upwards of six hours, until the meat literally falls off the bone.

Clearly The Fat Duck is not the only influence here, however. Before he started at Bread & Wine, Lowe spent time at the River Cafe – a standard bearer in the resurgence of top restaurants focusing on market-influenced, seasonal produce. He's keen to tell me on a number of occasions that he doesn't like to “play around with things” too much. He'd rather let better ingredients come across more clearly on the plate. His cooking relies on simple, considered flavour exchanges, highlighting what occurs naturally, not masking existing flavours with unnecessary new ones. “It's a tastier way of eating”, as he puts it. And I couldn't agree more.

This approach can certainly been seen, and more importantly tasted, in the bacon sandwich. Much effort has gone into getting each element absolutely right: “I've tried more bacon for our sandwiches than I can possibly begin to remember” - well, it's a hard life, James - “and you quickly come to realise that the best bacon for the breakfast table is not necessarily the best bacon for the sandwich”. The bacon in question is from rare breed Old Spot pigs, from Butts Farm in Cirencester. It's tank cured and unsmoked - a relatively modern method which purists may curl their tails at – but Lowe insists that it is the brining, which gives their bacon it's irresistable moist-yet-charred characteristics. Tank curing means the pork retains more natural liquid in the curing process than a more traditional dry cure, and the delicate salt / sugar solution in the brine brings out far more flavour on the char grill.

The bread is a classic yeast-risen sandwich tin white, baked on site everyday. Almost all of the other breads they bake at Bread & Wine are sourdough leavans, but its vital for Lowe that the bread for the bacon sandwiches tastes just like white bread should: “A big part of this dish is nostalgia” he says, “it has to taste like all of the best bacon sandwiches you've ever had in your life... And I guess I have a lot to compare against, as I've virtually lived on them for three meals a day, seven days a week, at some points”.

And the ketchup? How nostalgic can this sandwich really be if the ketchup isn't Heinz? “I had originally said we would use Heinz, but we tried this recipe for the sauce and immediately that was it. In fact, it's the only thing about the sandwich which hasn't ever changed.” It certainly works - a simple concoction of tomato, onion, apple and spices – fruity, zingy, subtly aromatic, and when compared with standard shop-bought ketchups, much more natural, and infinitely more flavoursome. The perfect complement to a faultless bacon sandwich.

It's good to know that such a humble dish gets due care and attention in such a revered kitchen. “I just think breakfast is such an important meal... When I finish my breakfast I want to feel completely satisfied. I hope you do too...” And this morning, James, I most certainly do.

1 comment:

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