- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

LONDON — Traditional England is being reborn, and I’ve just had a sample on my plate.

I began with breakfast at the 4-1/2-acre Borough Market near London Bridge in Southwark: a vegetarian omelet, green with fresh herbs and stuffed with ripe tomatoes, peppers and tangy cheddar cheese, washed down with a brisk espresso from a choice among nearly 40 beans.

Across the way, the aroma of frying sausages at Sillfield Farms is irresistible, the choice including a mixture of pheasant and venison, lamb with mint, wild boar with Chianti, and Spanish chorizo. Plain sausages are made with pork from rare breeds such as Middle White and Saddleback, organically raised.

“They taste like the old days,” beams Robert Burton from beneath his brown derby hat. “And they won’t burst with a bang — we’ve added no bread fillers here.”

This is no ordinary farmers market. Dating to the Roman days, Borough now shelters beneath Victorian railroad arches in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral on the banks of the Thames. In the past 10 years, it has become a center for international produce, all of it artisanal.

At Brindisa, Roger Cortina imports the real Serrano ham made from Iberico pigs. “There’s a strong sense here of looking for artisan stuff, for the real thing,” he says.

I pass golden mounds of Echire butter from the Loire in France, awarded an official guarantee of quality.

Cheese vendors, each with their own stand, come from all over England and Wales. One vendor even came from Normandy, across the English Channel.

I stop to chat with Maja Binder, a cheese maker from Germany who has lived in Ireland for 16 years. “There are more and more good cheese makers in Ireland now,” she says. “At the start, it was hard, like mission work.” She had to wait for a place among the more than 50 stalls in the market and now comes once a month to sell both cheese and the seaweed products made by her husband, Olbeier Beaujouan, a native of Toulon, France.

The merchants at Borough are an eclectic bunch. I see my friend Prue Leith, a star of the British food scene. Her latest project is the Hoxton Apprentice, a restaurant that trains troubled young people, sponsored by the charity Training for Life.

Participants at Hoxton Apprentice stay only six months, working both in the kitchen and out front with professional staff in a proportion of one to one. A social worker also keeps an eye on the group of a dozen.

“This first group is almost done, and we’ve had only three dropouts,” Prue says. “Not bad. We’re aiming to turn out employable youngsters — they are not chefs, not yet, though they may be one day.” The Apprentice is in Hoxton Square, near the city financial district, and already it buzzes every night with diners who are young and local, attracted by the modest prices and imaginative menu.

Given the inexperienced staff, the Apprentice’s menu must be foolproof, Prue says. It includes simple cold plates such as a refreshing Cambodian seafood salad of crab and shrimp with pomegranate and a white bean salad with chorizo and mint.

I tuck into a giant pork rib bathed in honey, soy and garlic after passing over a salmon cake with hollandaise sauce. “We had a runaround with that,” says Prue, “but now they can all make real hollandaise.”

After a substantial breakfast and a three-course lunch, I cannot seriously think I have room for afternoon tea — but we are in England, after all.

Out in the countryside near Oxford, we turn down a country lane to the immaculately restored complex of Daylesford Farms. Daylesford is everything an artisan farmer would love to build but so often lacks the capital to achieve. The pedigree dairy herd grazes on organic grass and lives in stone barns with doors of a soft Cotswold green.

The cheddar cheese made from Daylesford’s unpasteurized milk is aged for nine months in ideal climate-controlled conditions before being released for sale in the farm shop with a wide selection of local and international organic foods.

Heritage tomatoes come from the Daylesford organic garden, and a master baker oversees dozens of breads, fruit tarts and cakes. I opt for a slice of deliciously moist carrot cake with raisins, flanked by a chunk of cheddar. In Yorkshire, where I was born, it is said, “A slice of cake without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze.” If this is the new England, perhaps I made a mistake leaving it behind.

For more information, visit www.boroughmarket.org.uk or daylesfordorganic.com, or telephone Hoxton Apprentice at 020-7749-2828.

Cambodian seafood salad

This refreshing salad is from London’s Hoxton Apprentice restaurant.

½ small melon

1 small papaya

½ of an English cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced

4 medium white radishes (about 4 ounces), trimmed and diced

DRESSING:

4 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)

4 tablespoons canned (unsweetened) coconut milk

1 lime, both grated zest and juice

1 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

1 2-inch piece lemon grass, peeled and finely chopped

Salt and pepper

SEAFOOD:

1 6½-ounce can crabmeat, drained

4 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

4 mint sprigs

20 large cooked and peeled shrimp (about 3/4 pound)

1 pomegranate

Prepare 4 1-cup ramekins or bowls. Discard seeds from melon and scoop flesh into small balls. Halve papaya, discard seeds, and scoop flesh into balls. Put melon and papaya balls in a bowl with cucumber and radish dice.

Make the dressing by whisking together fish sauce, coconut milk, lime zest and juice, ginger root, lemon grass, and salt and pepper to taste.

Mix crabmeat with fruit (except pomegranate seeds) and vegetables and chopped mint, tossing together with two forks.

Mix with dressing. Press salad into 4 1-cup ramekins or bowls, cover and refrigerate up to 2 hours.

Unmold salads onto 4 plates and top with mint sprigs. Arrange shrimp around edge of the plates, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. (To extract pomegranate seeds, score skin in quarters and break fruit open along the cuts. Push skin with your thumbs so seeds pop out into a bowl. Pick out any bits of pith.) Makes 4 servings as a main course, or 6 servings as an appetizer.

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