On a blisteringly blustery and snow whipped Saturday the last thing I fancied was a trip to Maltby Street. Blissful as it is to navigate the meandering path of traders creeping increasingly further up towards Terminus Spa on a perfectly peachy, balmy bright and languid day, today was categorically not that day. Last weekend a small group of us rallied against the cold for a clandestine exchange of sourdough starter (thanks Ian) and that now cliched prize of custard doughnuts from St John, exploding with vanilla flecked custard, which we ate huddled on the edge of the Little Bread Pedlars outpost sipping cups of filter coffee from Colemans as much to glean benefit from it’s warmth as it’s caffeinating qualities. The Butchery in the same estate provides excellent meatage, there’s honey, Kernel brewery beer, Monmouth coffee and ham and cheese from the company of the same name, if you’re so inclined. We push against fierce wind to the Rope Walk runway, stopping briefly to share a moment around a thoroughly delicious burger from African Volcano cradled between the most astonishing cake like enriched bread bun. There’s a cake stand that in more clement weather would have stopped us in our tracks, but already cake sated and weather blasted we bid farewell to fellow adventurer Rocket & Squash and pile into 40 Maltby Street for a warming glass of the red stuff as any sensible person would.
No sooner had we scored a length of bar under soothing heater did we realise our schoolboy error. Maltby St market, as lovely as it is in the flush of spring and full blown glory of Summer, is not the place to be fannying around in what is quite frankly a poor excuse for this time of year. As we watch beautifully plated meals glide past us, eyes inevitably settle on a handsome joint of meat that taunts us cruelly from the bar, it’s at that moment we vow to return the following weekend to do this thing properly.
True to our word, we turn up the following week at half past one to find 40 Maltby St is in full lunch service swing, full to the railway rafters with smug folk quaffing glasses of natural wine and tucking into what I can only imagine hungrily are plates of heaven. We make the only sensible decision in this situation and decamp to Bar Tozino. I’m secretly pleased about this turnaround of affairs as I’ve been meaning to try the jamon bar ever since I heard of it’s existence and so this stolen opportunity is fallen upon with zeal as I lead our party with confident strut.
We push open a heavy door that feels full of promise and seems intent on preserving it’s contents whilst keeping out any hint of the outside, for what is inside is like entering another world; a darkened cave bustling with pork lusty punters and adorned with the objects of their infatuation. It’s how I imagine those wonderful little Spanish bars must be, all lined up ready to offer a sherry and ham in one, followed by more of the same in the second and so on and on, ad infinitum. There’s an unholy glow that illuminates the room and casts a slightly morbid air to those limbs strung from every surface. The heady and intoxicating smell of cured pork brings on a slight feeling of sickness, bringing to mind as it immediately does the time one Christmas the boy brought home a whole leg of ham from Lidl and strung it to one of our kitchen cupboards. What started off as, let’s face it, a bit of a challenge, and the inevitable sneaky nibble every time we entered the kitchen descended into fevered hacking at gnarly spots, as neither of us embodied the skills of the carvers here. In the end we were defeated by that immense lump of meat; where once creeping into the kitchen in the dead of night for a glass of water also meant a forbidden slither of salty pig, towards the end all I smelt was that sickening sweetness, and became convinced we were haunted by the porcine owner of that once heavenly leg, expecting a snorting, trotting spectre to appear around the doorway any second. Alas, it had to be gifted to the foxes.
It’s a fleeting moment and it doesn’t take long before I’m ready to eye up the list of plates of ham with a greedy eye. We forgo sherry on this occasion for a concensus in favour of cava, it’s a delightful bottle of complex fruitiness and a terracotta bowl placed before us holding lusciously plump and salty green olives goes fantastically well. Amongst a menu of various hams is a short list of tapas dishes, but resisting temptation we plump for purely appetite stimulant this time as we settle on a large plate of their house jamon to share. Neat squares are served on a wooden board, slightly chewy, rich with fat and deeply sweet, these are interspersed with bites of tomato topped bread sharply spiked with salt. I intend to return to do justice to more of that menu, I wonder momentarily if they’ll allow some of their essence be contaminated in warmer months to enable some of the bustling to spill into the rope walk, converting a portion of the market into a little piece of Spain…?
Appetiser consumed we do battle with bitter wind once more, walking the short distance to 40 Maltby Street, thankfully the bar has thinned out enough for us to claim a space at one of the central tables. Although the dining style is similar to that of Bar Tozino; grab a patch of table or ledge, order drink and food at the bar and settle in for the endurance, the atmosphere is quite different. 40 Maltby St is a bright contrast to Bar Tozino’s shadowy corners, it’s honest and open, rattling from trains above and furnished practically, perhaps a little naive to the Spanish bar’s sultry, secretive and faintly sinister vibe, it’s very much more than a sum of it’s parts however, and the relaxed and happy chatting, mingling, sipping and scoffing elevates it to another level.
We arrive at the tail end of lunch service and so what would normally be a leisurely ordering of dishes as and when one fancies, aquires an edge of urgency as items on the chalked up menu are crossed out ominously before us. The menu changes daily and is, sadly for me, heavy on fish today, I would be hankering after last weeks ham had we not fed that craving a few moments earlier. Today I have eyes only for the poached duck egg, that I’ve watched lustfully on another customers plate spilling it’s load, I hasten to place my order lest they run out. Splashing a gutsy red into four receptive glasses we wait for our lunch and feel cheered we’re doing a gloomy Saturday well.
With such a tiny open kitchen located literally at the end of the bar, dishes are brought out as and when they’re ready which means that our dining is highly disjointed, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest (umm, mine may have been amongst the first dishes to arrive…) but one of our party’s plate doesn’t arrive for quite some time meaning she’s eating alone, bar our eager forks, and drinking the dregs of her wine. A dish of mussel and leek gratin is hoovered up quickly as is a plate of cheeses that I don’t see a whiff of. However I can confirm that on previous visits, at wine tastings here, I’ve been most impressed with their selections of charcuterie and British cheeses that have included one of my very favourites, St James; a particularly robust flavoured washed rind ewes milk cheese that is pleasingly pungent with that sweetness and creaminess common of sheep’s cheeses. Complimentary slices of brown baguette are served piping hot straight out of the oven with a proper sized portion of butter.
I love when I win with my chosen dish. Not that I’m competitive *cough*, but my deep fried duck egg is glorious. The room, in my imagination, holds it’s collective breath as I plunge my knife through receptive skin, then breathes a sigh of contended relief as it’s sunny yellow yolk spills out onto sweetly creamed onion and sorrel, it’s a near perfect brunch dish and banishes the grim weather from my thoughts. The dish we’ve been waiting for is certainly worth it; tender kid and black cabbage sit on a bed of chickpeas in a fragrant broth, it’s delicate and sings gently and surely of Spring.
We forgo dessert today in favour of a walk over to the South Bank and to The Chocolate Festival.
This is surely proof that a great meal needn’t go hand in hand with table service and posh table wear and I for one am the biggest fan of this leisurely style of dining. Collectively we can’t help but congratulate ourselves again on beating an otherwise shocker of an afternoon into submission by bar hopping our way under the Maltby Street arches to Saturday Nirvana.