Sunday, 26 October 2008

The city that sleeps

For a city as crowded, fast-paced and intense as London, early mornings are almost eerily quiet and still.

I love being up at this time of the day, cycling to the café along near empty streets, hearing sounds other than sirens and buses, watching the city slowly come to life as it prepares for the thousands of workers, shoppers and tourists who pour into it each day.

The most glorious morning is Sunday - when the city wakes without me.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

God's waiting room

Last Monday one of our regulars came in for a late breakfast. “How is your day going?” I asked. “Well I’ve just been reading your latest rant about British food on your blog. Seems I’m to blame.”

Oops. If this Australian has offended it is without malice or intent. As Russell Davies so politely put it, I’m simply trying to understand “Britain's peculiar food culture”.

I have discovered that British peculiarities can also be lovely.

For the last few months I have been cycling past a curious green hut in the middle of Kensington Park Road in West London.

I could never work out what it was but assumed it was some sort of council shed used to store street cleaning equipment and road signs. It was when I was watching Marco Pierre White’s Great British Feast that I learned that it is in fact a café for cab drivers called a Cabman’s Shelter.

These huts were built in the 1800s with funding from philanthropists to enable cab drivers to park their cabs on the public highway and have a hot meal and a cup of tea without having to pay for parking or for someone to watch their cab. 13 of the 61 built are still operating as cafes but getting to see one in operation is no easy feat, especially if you are not a cab driver and therefore don’t have The Knowledge which presumably includes the locations and opening hours of these exclusive members’ clubs.

I am too early on my way to work, and there are no signs of life on my way home.

I asked one of the locals walking her dog one night whether she knew when I could find it open. “Sorry, I’m not a cab driver”. So next time I was in a cab I asked the driver but he said he didn't know anything about them either.

"I never go there. It’s really just for the old guys.”

"How do you manage to grab a meal while you are on duty?"

"I eat at The Wolseley. There’s a cab rank right outside".

Finally I got my timing right when I managed to get away from the café just before lunchtime and was allowed a glimpse into the secret world of the cabman’s shelter on Russell Square .

What I saw was one of the finest displays of camaraderie around a shared table that I have seen.

8 cab drivers squeezed along narrow benches talking about the football, having a meal and a cup of tea and a rest from the chaos of London traffic. I got the impression that this was the highlight of their day - a ritual they have been following for years with familiar faces coming and going.

A sign that was erected after a period when the drivers were "dropping like flies".

Maureen, who has been cooking meals for the drivers in the tiny galley kitchen for 32 years, tells me that most of them order a fry up which costs £4.25 and comes with a cup of tea and two slices of white bread.

They were interested to hear about my café but when I told them that poached eggs on toast cost £5 they roared with laughter. “Time for prices to go up boys!” Maureen shouted.

I made a quick exit before I was lynched.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Every crunch has a silver lining

There is nothing more soul destroying than watching people file past the café as they quickly make their way back to their offices holding a chain store coffee or sandwich.

If only they took the time to look at what they are walking past.

I never could understand why Britain, a country surrounded by such gastronomic meccas as Italy, Spain and France, managed to develop such a chain store food culture. It seems bizarre that anyone could find it acceptable, even preferable, to eat highly processed, pre packaged food and patronise bland formulaic food and coffee chains.

Chains exist in Australia too but they are largely confined to the lower end of the market, shopping malls and airports and are overshadowed by a multitude of independents that offer a better product and a unique experience.

A couple of months ago, on a grim, rainy Friday night I went to hear Carolyn Steel, architect, academic and author of the book Hungry City, talk about how the production and consumption of food has shaped London. As I listened to her talk, I wanted to leap out of my seat and hug her. Finally, someone was offering an explanation as to why chain stores are so dominant in Britain and why many people actually prefer processed and tinned food to fresh.

Steel argues that, unlike France and Italy where local food traditions and cooking are an integral part of life and fiercely protected if ever threatened (the opening of the first McDonald’s in Rome sparked a global Slow Food Movement), Britain underwent rapid mass urbanisation that severed British cooking from its roots. From very early on, the majority of the population became reliant on imported processed food and disconnected from the processes involved in food production.

Most urban dwellers have no knowledge, and no desire to know, where their food comes from: how it is reared, grown, slaughtered, harvested, transported, cooked, packaged and disposed of. It simply appears, as if by magic, on supermarket shelves and on restaurant plates. The legacy of this disconnected and industrialised food culture, Steel argues, is that “food is not valued or understood and is therefore open to abuse”.

You can see this as you walk down any high street.

Mass market supermarkets and restaurants are continually reinforcing the message that food is plentiful and cheap, consistent and quick, something to grab, reheat and eat, often alone. The impact that this fast and cheap food culture has on farmers, producers and the environment is conveniently ignored and invisible.

Could the credit crunch be what we need to make people reconnect with food? Eat less, eat local and put a higher value on what and how we eat. I heard on the radio this morning that growing vegetables at home and in allotments is becoming increasingly popular as people try to save money. With more and more people losing their jobs, maybe they’ll also have the time to sit down and share food at a table with friends.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

It's for real

“Are these all real people?” Geoff asked suspiciously as he arrived for his shift at 11.30 on Saturday morning. So far its been mainly friends and family coming to Lantana but on Saturday morning the café was nearly full of people that none of us knew. It was brilliant - especially considering that we were worried that Saturdays would be quiet without all the office workers around.

The locals came to try us out and, at the risk of this blog becoming a shameless PR tool, the feedback was incredibly positive. “Best breakfast I’ve ever eaten by a country mile”, was one customer’s verdict and the plates I took down to the kitchen were virtually licked clean.

I didn’t want scare off the customers by photographing them so I took some of the food on our counter instead.



OK there were still a few family members lurking around.

The word is also starting to spread about our coffee which might have something to do with the fact that Lantana has become the latest hangout for the coffee super couple

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Here's looking up your address

Sorry, it may help people to come and try Lantana if I tell you where it is.

13 Charlotte Place, W1T1SN

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The full menu

Breakfast 8-12 (All day Saturday)

Toasted muesli w banana, yoghurt and honey 4.5

Bircher muesli w apple and berries 4.5

Poached fruit w greek yoghurt + pistachios 4

Fresh fruit salad w mint and sweet ginger dressing 4.5

Toasted banana bread w date and pecan butter 4

Sourdough toast w vegemite or jam 2.5

Lantana baked beans w crumbled feta, sautéed spinach and sausages on sourdough toast 8.5

Field mushrooms sauteed w parsley and garlic served with
grated parmesan on sour dough toast 7.6

Pancakes w greek yoghurt and baked fruit 7

Poached eggs on toast 5

Scrambled eggs w smoked salmon on brioche w
fresh tomato salad 8

Corn fritters w crispy bacon, rocket, oven roasted tomatoes and
lime aioli 8

Baked eggs w buttered baby spinach and mushrooms served w tomato and red pepper chutney toasted sourdough 8

Bacon 2.4
Lantana baked beans 2
Slow roast tomatoes 2
HG Walter’s sausages 3
Sautéed spinach 2
Mushrooms 2

Lunch from 12pm

Open sandwich w bacon, rocket, sliced tomato, & fried egg w aioli 6.5

Corn fritters w layers of crisp bacon, rocket, oven roasted tomatoes, drizzled w roast garlic & lime aioli 8.5

Tart of the day served w choice of two salads from the counter 8

Salad plate of your choice of three from the counter 7.8

Steak sandwich w rocket, fresh tomato, caramelised onion relish and horseradish crème friache 8.5

Moroccan lamb skewers w flat bread and mint yoghurt served w bulgur, walnut, celery and pomegranate salad 8.7

Lemon & coriander infused chicken skewers served w served with salad from the salad bar and tomato and red pepper chutney 8.7

Sharing plate w bruschetta, olives, dips and prosciutto (for 2) 10

To Drink


Fresh orange juice
Virgin mary
Belu Still (750ml)
Belu Sparkling (750ml)
San Peligrino Limonato, Orangina
Bundaberg ginger beer

Bloody Mary
Di Valdo bbiadene Proseco

St Roch grenache blanc
Bird in Hand sauvignon blanc
Camplazens rose
St Roch merlot
Bird in Hand shiraz

Coopers pale ale
Coopers sparkling ale

Coffee (extra shot 30p, Soy milk 50p)
Long black
Hot Chocolate
Pot of Tea: English breakfast/Earl grey/Rooibos/Chai/Peppermint/Green