At the very start of February, I found myself in London. And it was magnificent.
I love this city for all that it is. Even my first ever visit here felt like home. The beauty of London is unquestionably affecting. Rich with history and heritage, a never ending warren of discovery. Modest as it is majestic. Royal, though not contrived. It’s busy, but even among the bustle there is always an escape route not too far away to slow down and enjoy the cities quieter moments.
One of my most favourite parts of the city is its abundance of year round, fresh outdoor markets. London does this well. It makes the finely tuned rhythm of cooking with and appreciating the season’s simple to follow. The produce, the purveyors - a trust to all that can be found just beyond the cities walls. If you've ever been, you’ll know what I mean. Flowers? Columbia Road will melt you. An intoxicating array of delicious food? Borough market will hold you hostage for hours. And then there are the quieter, less crowded and somewhat more local markets, like Broadway Market, found just a short walk away from Kate’s house.
Kate has been a dear friend of mine for years now. We went to uni together. She was then, and still remains now, one of the most inspirational and driven women I know. Although the most brilliant producer of youth theatre to roam around London town, her true talent (I willingly believe) can be found in the kitchen. This lady can cook. Kate has the sweet food blog, The Little Library Café. It is here that Kate bakes and creates, bringing fictional food to life in the most delicious, clever and heartwarming way there is. I adore it. I think you will too.
I was lucky enough to cozy up in Kate’s Hackney flat during my four day visit to the city. Seeing that we had a Saturday to spend together it seemed the most fitting idea to spend our morning surrounded by food. Of course. We made a simple plan to wander Kate’s neighbourhood and the Broadway Markets, collecting ingredients to then take back to her home to cook something traditionally and seasonally British. It was important for us both to cook a traditional dish that showed off the best part of any well-made English meal. Simple, but so comforting, flavourful and hearty. Particularly seeing as it was winter. It didn’t take Kate long to come up with a plan. Mussels. Paired with leeks, cider and London’s best crusty sourdough bread.
We began our morning with a walk across London Fields to E5 bake house - nestled into old railway arches and very well known for its authentic, traditional sourdough. A short wait in line, a crusty loaf and a lost pair of mittens later, we were on our way back across the fields to Broadway Market. The markets were bustling. The air was genuine with local folk who frequent weekly to stock up on their produce. We stopped briefly at Fin and Flounder for our mussels. Easily the most inviting and friendly fish monger I have stepped into. Then it was onto a bunch of leeks, a geezer at the flowers and a most important market treat by East London’s smoked salmon kings, Hansen and Lydersen. We took our market finds back to Kate’s home for nothing short of a warming and classic afternoon lunch.
The best part of travel, I find, is to relish in the back streets and get lost in the quieter, more locally driven moments. To experience the way the city residents spend their weekends. This time I didn’t see Big Ben. Westminster. I didn’t shop along Oxford St or ride in a red double-decker bus. Not that these experiences can't be genuine and quiet. But I made a choice to get lost at the market instead. I spent magic time in the company of my dearest London friend doing things that she would typically do and enjoys most on her weekend. I watched as Kate cleverly spun our market takings into the most delicious Saturday lunch. I watched the grey winter day disappear behind a window on the fourth floor behind the biggest steaming bowl of leek and cider mussels. That’s what I sought this time round. A more authentic experience. The beauty in the banality. If even you'd ever call it that. To me, it is extraordinarily simple. What is real.
To me, it’s the food and people that make a city. And London is quite a place.
Kate's Mussels For 2
cook time: 10 minutes total
yields: 2 servings
2 large leeks
300ml cider (we used some from the West Country)
40ml double cream
1 scant (1/4/) teaspoon hot English mustard
1 generous teaspoon grain mustard
Parsley, to serve
Clean and de-beard your mussels, getting rid of any large barnacles. Discard any that stay resolutely open when you give them a tap with a spoon.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over a medium heat and tip in the leeks. Cook until translucent, stirring regularly, as you don't want them to brown.
Tip the mussels into the pan, followed by the cider, then clamp the lid down on top. Allow the mussels to steam for a couple of minutes, until most of them have opened up. Do give the pan a little shake now and then to move the mussels around. Resist the temptation to take a peek too often (a glass lidded saucepan can help with this) as you don't want to lose all the steam.
Once the mussels have opened up, remove the lid and turn off the heat. Pour the cream over the mussels, and stir the mustards through too. Spoon the mussels into a serving bowl (discarding any that have refused to open) and pour the liquid over the top. Add a generous handful of chopped parsley and serve with lots of crusty bread.