Spring. The season of rebirth. Revered by world religions with festivals of joy, hope and redemption: Easter, Passover, Spring Equinox. Even Jedi-ism marks the sacred season with holidays such as Ewok Monday and Luke-I-Am-Your-Father’s Day. And if ever there was a season where the Force reveals, surely it is Spring. Life erupting from the Earth’s very crust, green shoots exploding from the ground to greet the sun’s rays.
London. This city of brick and bustle. Once plagued by the putrid stench of medieval road-side sewerage and smothered blind by blankets of thick tarry smog. But in this century, Spring’s tendrils emerge across London’s parks and squares, heaths and commons, gardens and window-boxes, blossoming into fields of resplendent colour. Daffodils so copious in number that one wonders how local councils prioritised floral park embellishment against such fiscal austerity…
Council Chief executive: The financial projections are frankly dire. Cuts in government funding have brought us to our knees. Costs are spiralling out of control. We can barely afford refuse collection. We need to make some tough choices.
Council minion: Let’s buy more daffodils
Council Chief executive: Good plan. 20,000 more bulbs it is. And don’t stint on those little ones with frilly orange spouts.
Council minion: Coronas, sir. Right away sir…
And so, in this season of new life, I ventured across Clapham Common, deciding that London needs another food-blog like it needs another daffodil. But I’m going to write one anyway, examining one dish from one eatery at a time. A gimmick? Hell yes, but let’s blow the wisps of cynicism away and enjoy this glorious season.
After all, the Common lay resplendent in new Spring finery: pink-tinged blossom trees framed by a deep blue sky, warmed by the gentle rays of Spring sunshine, swaying in winds still cool from Atlantic sea-breezes. I venture quietly past the crowd of fishermen amassing hopefully on the banks of the fish pond, walk past workmen dismantling the remains of scaffolding from some recent gig, and head towards the target of my first food-blog.
Trying to navigate myself across the expanse of Clapham Common, clutching Google Maps like a modern-day David Livingstone, The Dairy proved quite an elusive target. Although it sits overlooking the Common, there always appeared to be a tree or a lamp-post along the line-of-sight where I expected it to be. Google Maps was telling me I was practically opposite, but all I could see was a road-sign, until the very last moment, when its frontage suddenly emerged.
It’s a narrow spot, yet the room stretches into a murky darkness; after half-an-hour of bright sunshine and verdant scenery, it felt like crawling into a cave. It was midday, few tables were taken, but I was immediately affronted by very loud music reverberating around this confined space. The Dairy certainly captures the London food zeitgeist: bone marrow, distressed furniture, rooftop vegetable garden, small plates, seasonal food, cool playlists, and unusual crockery. (Most dishes, including the butter, were served on huge slabs of rock. Caveman crockery served in a cave. Three weeks serving in a place like this, and one could easily apply for the British Olympic weightlifting team).
The lunch-time deal, £25 for four courses from the menu, was stunning. I could tell you about the other three courses, not to mention the warm sourdough loaf (whose crust breaks crisply to release a delightful puff of steam and the enticing moist bread underneath) served with bone marrow butter. I could tell you about the Brie-de-meaux melting on toast, drizzled in acacia honey and truffled flakes. Or the Onglet that was umami on a plate, lusciously smothered in savoury blue cheese sauce, neatly offset by sweet but tangy (balsamic?) cubes of butternut squash.
And for desert, don’t get me started on the salted caramel chocolate composition whose cocoa-charged hit was like being steam-rollered by a chocolate tractor, before lovingly catching you on a pillow of homely malted barley ice-cream: sweet, bitter, salty, earthy and creamy all beautifully balanced.
No, I want to talk about peas. This was the dish that kicked my arse and got me to write a blog. I mean, I do like peas. Who doesn’t? Accompanying a fish-finger buttie, this constitutes my perfect TV dinner. But I never thought I could be so wowed by a dish where peas are the main event. Big fat green globules, their skins taught, the gentlest of bites bursting their Spring loveliness inside my mouth.
But this is just the beginning. Nestled higgleldy-piggledly on the plate lay crunchy herbaceous slivers of celery, the smoothest of pea purees, chewy jellied citrus hits, cool shavings of iced mint, and crunchy nutty toasted breadcrumbs. I didn’t know which way to turn, every combination melding so beautifully and surprisingly together, tears formed in my eyes. The balance of flavour, texture, colour and temperature was phenomenal. It was late-Spring on a plate.