In trying to explain the merits of living in France versus living in England, I once heard a friend say, “In England you can’t even get a decent loaf of bread.”
His point being, that amongst other, more culturally advanced things available to the French public, this was a symbolic shortcoming: something as elemental as the combining off lour and water, with a degree of know-how, was beyond the wit of the average English baker.
Never mind cheese, never mind wine: this was bread!
Gratefully, it is fair to say his statement no longer rings true, at least not in London.
Over the last half-decade, thanks not only to the import of a measure of continental best practice, but also the rediscovery of a lost British tradition and the rebirth of sourdough baking, the capital has enjoyed a proliferation of artisan bakeries.
And this seems a more fitting situation for a country that has a world-famous affection for the sandwich. Here are four places to tuck in and remind us that we can do bread as well as anyone else.
Fernandez & Wells – the eponymous mini-chain created in 2007 by Jorge Fernandez and Rick Wells – has outposts dotted across central London, including at Somerset House and on Denmark Street.
But it is at one of the two original and best sites – on a corner in Soho – that their rustic sandwiches, baked goods and charcuterie are best enjoyed.
The Beak and Lexington Street shops are, whether knowingly or not, the stylistic inspiration for many of London’s third-wave cafés, coffee shops and wine bars.
They were pioneers of the stark, utilitarian chic that breathed new life and style into the accessible, quality-focused hospitality industry we now customarily enjoy.
Lexington Street opens in time for lunch when onto the countertop are balanced an abundance of freshly made sandwiches: some in sourdough, others on baguette, focaccia or ciabatta-style rolls.
They’re known for their egg mayonnaise – a house special, made daily and studded with chopped chives and lifted by the addition of English mustard powder.
It comes with either black pudding (a cult classic) or crispy grilled pancetta. But arguably Fernandez & Wells’s greatest creation is the ham, cheddar and piccalilli whose enduring deliciousness is thanks in equal parts to generous slices of roast ham, unpasteurised Somerset cheddar and a sharp slick of bright yellow pickle.
This is a Swedish import, and it is here – at either the spacious warehouse-y site under the railway arches in Haggerston or at the cosy little shop in Seven Dials (there’s a third location in Notting Hill) – that the best rendition of a Nordic bakery can be experienced in London.
Specifically, Fabrique are specialists at what the Swedish call “fika” – a reassuring and restorative morning or afternoon ritual that usually involves coffee and a pastry. Although their kanelbullar (cinnamon bun) is better known and crowd pleasing, the slightly moregrown-up kardemummabullar (cardamom bun) is better matched to a warm cup of black coffee, such is the more complex and near savoury spicing.
Choose a bun that is well-done and dark brown at its edges and, if possible, one that has attached to it a surfeit of the spiced buttery glaze – this grainy toffee is sweet treasure.
And then there’s the breads: Mr and Mrs Toast are fine loaves, the former a wonderfully textbook white loaf, the latter, 30% rye, perfect for melted cheese.
For a more rustic, all-purpose loaf that is great on the side of a homemade soup, opt for a hunk of the straight-up Levain.
Conveniently, all loaves can be bought either in thirds, halves or as a whole.
This is the epitome of the London Fields revival and the centre around which so many ambitious bars, restaurants, breweries, shops and producers have sprung up in recent years.
E5 is known best for its Hackney Wild sourdough – a dark loaf that is all blistered crust and yielding, chewy crumb – yet lesser-known, more interesting bakes are proof of their range and expertise as bread makers.
The ciabatta (which they seldom make enough of) and heritage rolls are more accomplished breads – high- moistures our doughs that are more indulgent, tastier when fresh and have longer lives.
Throughout the week there is a short, daily-changing lunch menu, usually comprising imaginative salads, solid sandwiches, healthy soups and hearty stews.
At weekends, if you can stand the queues, there are mini sourdough pizzas on the menu. In true Neapolitan style, these come with a thick charred crust and decent toppings.
If baking bread is something you want to learn how to do, then get yourself to one of E5’s breadmaking courses.
Not only will you learn the craft, including the art of kneading, proving and shaping different loaves, the cost of the class includes a take- home sourdough starter.
All you have to do is feed it!
At £9.50 a pop, the expectations for Jeremy Lee’s smoked eel sandwich are rightly high.
This, though, is a cult sandwich – one that has followed Jeremy Lee and his reputation at the forefront of British culinary revivalism since his days at the Blueprint Café in Shad Thames.
It is not much bigger than a canapé-sized sandwich, but size isn’t everything: this is Champions League-level finger food. Two neatly trimmed slices of toasted bread, liberally buttered, only just hold together a plump tranche of still warm smoked eel – topped with a layer of delicately creamed, grated fresh horseradish root.
To counter the salty richness, a small mound of sharp, thinly sliced, pickled red onions are arranged on the side, but are crying out to be stuffed inside.
This sandwich is expertly crafted – a triumph in umami, where no taste or texture is left unexplored.
So unctuously moreish, it has everything: bite, warmth, acidity and sweetness, and its ever-presence on both the bar and restaurant menus is reason enough to make Quo Vadis a must-visit restaurant.
In three or four memorable bites it also quickly and eloquently answers the question so often asked: “What is British food...?”