A London Lunch
May 13, 2020
Hispi, Samphire, Aubergine, Courgette, Rocket, Mangetout... the Brits have a way with vegetable naming. Silly, yet serious, a little whimsical, and all said with a smirk. Yes, I'm surely charmed by their foreignness, but objectively "Hispi" rolls off the tongue much better than "Caraflex". A side of buttery sea asparagus, no thank you, make mine samphire, please.
I first discovered the bizarro system of British food names as a 20-year-old studying abroad in Copenhagen. My program was teeming with Erasmus Brits and in an effort to economize we cooked, a lot. They introduced me to proper curries, kedgerees, and oh so many puddings and all their accompanying titles. It wasn't one of their Banoffee's that lured me to London twice that year, but was the side of banter that came with it.
I boarded my nearly free easyJet flight to Gatwick and was smitten on arrival. Its restraint, quiet confidence, and as a Canadian, the uncanny familiarity. My classmates were all on about Berlin, Barcelona or some Eastern European capital, but for me it was London. If I had it my way, I'd go twice a year.
Now with a disposable income that is slightly higher, I've had the privilege of learning that it is also a great food city. Exceptional Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian to be had, but oddly, It's the British food that I crave. Not the chips, crisps, or pies, that I ate as a student, but those vegetables with the funny names. Prepared with that British confident modesty, austerity and restraint. Far from boring, but simply steamed, boiled or lightly sautéed. A rare bit of spice might come from a fleck of black pepper, not a fiery red chili. A heat that isn't missed, because it isn't missing.
I'm spoiled to have a flexible job that allows me to travel and eat well. All these trips have amounted to some special food experiences, enough, that I now have a running list of best meals of all time. It includes; a dinner on a farm in Baja Norte, a splurge-y celebratory tasting menu in Copenhagen, and a family-style feast in Puglia, but the experience I crave most is a simple lunch at Rochelle Canteen.
My love for the Canteen isn't unique, it's a well-beloved new institution. It's tucked off of Arnold Circus in the still charming part of Shoreditch, in an impossible to find courtyard that requires research. When you have found it, the ringing of that buzzer will transport you to the most perfect retreat from the city's bustle.
You walk in to find rainbow-colored mailboxes, a perfectly landscaped lawn and if timed right, a patio buzzing with a mid-lunch rush. On the blisteringly sunny day we arrived, yes this can exist even in Britain, we were greeted with straw hats to shade ourselves. We laughed, put on the hats, and sat amongst the locals. When it came time, we ordered all the vegetables, with a side of crab for good measure. Boiled new potatoes topped with a mountain of Maldon, a leafy salad with the pepperiest rocket, delicately steamed asparagus with iridescent green olive oil, and my all-time favorite a mound of braised hispi cabbage. It was all so simple, but perfect in that artful British restraint. We ate, drank too much for lunchtime, and got sunburnt. We didn't want to leave, ever. It was the place, and there is always a place, that finds you on vacation that when it comes to deciding where to eat, the question is "Should we just go back to...". Rochelle and the Hispi had my heart.
I'm not going to London this summer, maybe not even next. I'll likely be confined to my East Village block for the foreseeable future and that's okay, but when the weather finally turns I will be transforming my garden into Rochelle as best as I can. The potatoes might be called Pee Wee, the cabbage might be Caraflex and my salad might be made with arugula, but if I close my eyes, I might for a minute believe that I'm back in that perfect, secret courtyard.