And so we finally made it. After many months of being taunted by Twitter photos of the infamous 'ejaculating' custard doughnuts, I managed to set my alarm stupidly early for a Saturday morning, round up the troops (made easier by staying at my friend, Stealth's, in nearby E&C) and make it down to Druid street's railway arches to sample one for myself.
Needless to say it was quite the best thing I have put in my mouth for a while. As much as I adore custard it's never really cut it as a doughnut filling for me, but this was in another league; a sugar-coated, rich, creamy and vanilla-speckled joy. Stealth tried the seeded raspberry jam variety, which was, again, pretty marvellous, and they were also offering a blueberry and apple version (keep your eyes peeled on the website for the rare salted caramel or fruit and custard combos).
It seemed a shame to leave having only bought doughnuts, so we grabbed a couple of their mince pies (flaky, crispy pastry crammed to the gills with plump fruit), and some shiny glazed burger buns for our dinner later. The Ewing had her eye on one of their beef suet Christmas puddings, in Mason and Cash pudding basins, but sadly we failed to get back in time to pick one up (FAO all pudding aficionados, they can also be ordered from their restaurants).
The Malby Street/Spa Terminus/Ropewalk originally had it's genesis in a handful of renegade traders who moved from Borough Market a few miles up the road. (For more details of their history, and addresses for all the traders check out this useful piece in Time Out online.) Ever since it's inception the area has been evolving and expanding further, so we put on our gloves and bobble hats, loosened our belts, and continued on our journey.
Luckily we didn't have far to go as our next stop, Bea's Diner, was handily situated next door. This is an offshoot of the popular cake shop, Bea's of Bloomsbury, which, I believe, was originally intended as a pop up; but, despite it's rather ramshackle and half-finished look, it seems it's here to stay.
The entrance is, even with the chalk board outside, deceptively easy to pass by. Just a small blue metal door under the arches. After passing through the Alice in Wonderland-esque entrance we found ourselves a rather sparse room, replete with a few rickety communal benches and the glorious smell of warm syrup thick in the air. After cosily butting up with our neighbours, it was time to let the great Saturday morning soundtrack and glasses of fresh OJ blast away those Friday night cobwebs while we perused the menu.
Their simple and hearty diner fare was inspired by a trip to America; as a non-egg eater it's pretty much my ideal breakfast menu, offering pancakes, french toast, and bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon. They also have poached eggs with muffins, and granola with fruit and yogurt for those who are more health-minded. (As much as I enjoy a little mix and match, the half eggs Benedict, half blueberry pancake combo may seem like a bridge too far, although our neighbours were happily wolfing it down.)
The food was really good. Served heaped in huge portions there is nothing fancy about the presentation, but that was more than made up for with the execution and big flavours. My pancakes were pillowy-soft and studded with tart fruit, the bacon crispy ands smoky - huge jugs of syrup were provided on each table for further anointment. Stealth's perfect poached eggs oozed gloriously over the Flour Station muffins, mingling with the pools of buttery, lemony hollandaise.
A special mention must go to the Ewing's brioche french toast, with walnuts and bananas. While not much of a looker, this behemoth could cause your insulin levels to soar by merely looking at it. A fabulous springy mattress of soft sweet bread, drowning in bitter caramel, crunchy nuts and fruit. A pile of whipped cream was there to guild the lily.
Bea's Diner is the sort of place I would like to eat breakfast at every weekend (my doctor, and dentist, might disagree). Charming service, bargain prices and a great, informal atmosphere. It's somewhere that gives you a happy buzz, and that's not just all the syrup talking. If you are planning a visit then you may want to aim to be there early, as the chalkboard outside states the opening times from 9 until we run out, and this place is deservedly popular.
After staggering out of Bea's, I insisted the next stop should be coffee, reasoning caffeine could be the panacea we needed to get us through the rest of the morning. As we headed down Druid Street and towards the Spa Terminal, I spotted this curious sign, sitting in the middle of the road, through a gap in the railway arches. Our curiosity well and truly piqued, we just had to follow the arrow.
And this is where it lead us to, the Ropewalk Market; Ropwalk is the latest addition to the area, described as 'a lively street market with a combination of stalls, under-arch shops, pop-up bars and eateries' that runs between Maltby and Millstream Road. Although this was supposed to be the last stop on my, oft mocked, itinerary, we were soon lured in for a quick look by the heady mixture of copious amounts of Union Flag bunting and wonderful seafood smells.
We made it as far as the entrance of Bar Tozino, where passing through yet another fairytale-like door - this time all heavy wood and velvet drapes - and into a wondrous cavern of ham, bringing to mind some of the best Iberian boltholes I have visited (having been to Madrid alone several times with my aunt, I can confirm this totals many).
We started with a round of Moritz beers from Catalonia, and some ham and anchovy pinxtos. The menu also offers a great range of sherries - tempting but it was still barely past midday and I was trying to keep something in the tank for later.
I couldn't pass up the opportunity for a plate of Serrano, one of my very favourite foodstuffs (yes, there are many). We sampled a board of the 'house ham', Jamon Teurel, but they offer a selection of five, including a Joselito Gran Reserva at £24 for 100g (to takeaway). There's a selection of lomo, chorizo, and sobrasada, as well as Spanish cheeses and a small choice of hot and cold tapas. Also look out for the house cocido, with Iberico bone marrow, which is a winter special.
We left the temptations of the Ropwalk at this point and made our way down to the Spa Terminus end of the Maltby Street Market, ably assisted by the Stealth's peerless navigational skills. Our ext stop was La Grotta ices, little more than a hole in the wall, where I couldn't fail to be tempted by the charming sign and a board offering, amongst other things, both quince and marron glacé choc ices and Barbados Custard and Leafy Clementine ice creams.
We were served by the lovely Kitty Travers, owner of La Grotta, herself. On explaining my predicament of having already consumed multiple pancakes, ham and doughnuts, she suggested a scoop of the milk based Chestnut Cremolata. This was festively fabulous; sweet and smooth and mined with little nuggets of bitter chocolate.
Despite the Ewing protesting she could never eat again she was swayed by a scoop of rosehip sorbet, - offered gratis as Kitty thought it wasn't flavour some enough to be sold. All I can say is she can't have tried most mass produced efforts, as this like cup of pink loveliness was juicy, bright and astringent.
Next stop was the Kernel Brewery, started by Irishman Evin O'Riordain and darlings of the London craft beer scene. I really like the Kernel's brews (well, all I have supped so far); not only do they taste good, but they also come in great no nonsense brown bottles with the same printed labels. There's something very appealing about such plain and straight forward simplicity in such an overstimulated world.
The ales are anything but simple, ranging from their 'table beer' - the only one they produce under 5% - right up to their complex stouts and porters, via a range of pale ales and IPAs. Every week you'll find something different, as they are constantly experimenting to find the right balance and ratio of hops.
Whatever hops are in the mix, you can be pretty sure it's going to taste good, so we could sample a few we picked a selection of a dozen ales for £29 - well eleven, as the monster Imperial Brown Stout counted as two choices. I went for the pales ales, while Stealth preferred the NZ pilsner and the Ewing went for her favourite porters and stout.
If you want to drink in there is a communal bar area, rather like a miniaturised bierkeller, next door where you can drink all the beers on offer for a rather bargainous thee pounds a pop. They are also available at several other pubs and bars in the area, including at the rather nice Draft House, Tower Bridge. Not too far to walk for an afternoon tipple (and rather good burgers) when the arches close.
I tried a trio of their pales ales, brewed with Columbus, Tomahawk, Zeus; Galaxy, Stella and Topaz; and A.C.T.S hops. Apart from having great names that sound a bit like the offspring of a footballer, they were all equally lovely, and not too headache-inducing at around 5.5% each. Their beers are 'bottled alive, to give them time to grow', so pour carefully if you don't like sediment and drink them fresh for the best flavour.
If you want something a bit more beefy, then they make a great range of high-powered stouts that are perfect for the winter weather. The punchiest of these is their Imperial Brown, at 10% I have to say I found this a little too much, but Stealth and the Ewing loved the raisin-y, chocolate-y notes that bought to mind a good port. The LBA Collaboration Stout was a cracker though, and rather tame at only 6.8%....
Finally, our caffeine fix! The Ewing had a double macchiato, while I went with their filter coffee of the day, with a little frothed milk - a Costa Rican number, if your interested.
I've written before about how the heavenly smell of fresh coffee very rarely lives up to its promise when you actually come to drink it; the cup from Monmouth was very close. Bright and smooth, with a little bit of green fruit flavour, it puts all the mugs of terrible, bitter brown water, drunk just to keep your eyes open, to shame.
The staff at Monmouth are, as well as making very good coffee, extra friendly and helpful, too. Our server gave the Ewing a tasting guide to peruse, before making us a couple of different selections of filter coffee to try. I was feeling pretty wired by then, but I can tell you they all tasted lovely and the Ewing has been making some great espressos from the beans she bought (I'm hoping to try and use some in an attempt to make a coffee liqueur at some point, too).
On our way back to the Ropewalk we had to pay a visit to Kappacasin, cheesemakers in London for over twenty years. Happily/sadly (attempting to eat any more at this point would have been nigh on impossible) they don't serve their infamous toasted cheese sandwiches on Saturdays at the dairy (you can still pick one up from Borough), but there was a range of cheeses - made and matured in the very same arch they are sold from, the real definition of local - to sample and buy.
We chose half a round of the mild and soft Spalactic, and a chunk of the hallumi-esque Bermondsey Frier. The latter was recommended to be gently pan fried, before seasoning and eating warm. Later Stealth had the great idea of melting a thick slice of it over each of the burgers we had planned to eat for dinner that evening. Perfect topped with crunchy pickles and housed in one of our sweet St John brioche burger buns.
Back to the Ropewalk, and immediately we were lured in as we passed by huge sides of Norwegian smoked salmon from Hansen and Lyderson. Offering nothing but open sandwiches and waxed packages of freshly cut fish, with a product as simple and beautiful as this you don't need gimmicks.
Sometimes I think the thing I really love most about Christmas - if I can look past all the pate, and port and net bags of clementines and mince pies and glazed ham - is smoked salmon, and I would certainly be very happy to get a side of this in my stocking. (£70 from here if you're reading darling...).
As we arrived the side that was being sliced was nearly finished, so the nice chap carving offered us a package of the offcuts to takeaway for three quid. A bit of a bargain (not that you'd argue with someone brandishing a knife like that), and perfect in Sunday afternoon bagels the next day along with a schmear of cream cheese and a few sprigs of dill.
Our next, and final stop was a trip to The Little Bird bar to sample some of their 'small batch gin lovingly distilled in London'. The interior is rather like a cosy and ramshackle workshop, despite the freezing temperatures outside. The seating and tables are comprised of variously mismatched items, ranging from canvas deckchairs and the sort of family heirlooms you expect to see at your nan's.
Our trio of very nice, and very different, cocktails; my Breakfast Martini, The Ewing's Warming Winter Remedy, and Stealth's Flight To Recovery. Luckily we all seemed to prefer our own, which stopped any squabbling.
My martini was particular astringent, with a nice bitterness, and the Warming Remedy certainly did the job on a such a bitterly cold and bright afternoon. At only a fiver, I could have drunk myself through the list, but the unfreezing of Stealth's toes, and the lure of an afternoon nap was too strong to resist.
On the way out we passed this tray of burnished pastel de nata from Poppy Smadja. While I would have loved to end our adventure with some custardy goodness, the same way we had started it, even I had to concede defeat. Oh well, one more reason for a next visit.
In the words of Phil Daniel's, it gives me an enormous sense of well-being getting out and about in an unexplored corner of my home town. It really was the perfect morning, from the blue skies to the great company, and there was a genuine sense of adventure and excitement as we dodged in and out of the arches, following the path of the railway line on our magical munching tour.
It helped that everyone we met was utterly charming; the couple we shared maps with over breakfast; the great guy at the furniture warehouse who, very kindly, let us use his staff loo (a godsend after copious amounts of cocktails and coffee); the chap who helped direct us all the way back to E&C on foot; and finally every single staff member we encountered who were, justifiably, proud of their produce and genuinely happy to chat (and answer silly questions) about cheese, cakes and choc ices with us with a real interest and enthusiasm that is becoming sadly all too absent.
Good news is parts of the Ropewalk are now opening on Friday evenings and Sundays too, meaning hopefully more people will have a chance to come and visit this very lovely and vibrant place. It may not be the little hidden 'foodie' enclave it once was, and it would be a shame to see it swamped and commercialised like the more famous market that originally spawned Maltby, but I still can't help feeling somewhere this fab still deserves to be better known (even if that means getting up even earlier for my fried dough and gin-based libations).