Watching Sam Bompas and Harry Parr feasting in the street on exquisite slices of Norwegian smoked salmon, it seems that pleasure comes in no finer form than food. In fact, it’s indisputable. At least it is on a sunny Saturday morning in the gastronomic Bermondsey enclave that is Maltby Street.
This was once a murky corner of Southeast London, home to slum dwellers, leather workers, coal porters and river rats. With boatloads of exotic food imports chugging through, however, you could still stand on the banks of the River Thames and smell the world.
Today Bermondsey has a different spirit. A sense of that industrial, watery history lingers, as does the evocative old architecture. But a tide of culinary intent has been rising in the area, and this morning on Maltby Street the wares of butchers, bakers and baristas are spilling out from beneath brown-brick railway arches.
Bermondsey locals, jelly makers and self-proclaimed “architectural foodsmiths” Bompas and Parr are out for a spin in the new MINI Cooper S Paceman, a sporty yet elegant car, perfect for jaunts about town. Running their food installation and events business from a studio up the road, they’re well versed in the gastronomy of the area, and knew about the inconspicuous three-year-old Maltby Street market long before you or I did.
Bompas and Parr browse the stalls and shops of Maltby Street, picking up fresh herbs and seafood for a meal with friends the next day.
It’s a rare weekend off for them from their business of making jelly. “Not just jelly in a bowl as you know it,” explains Bompas, “but glow-in-the-dark jelly, jelly moats, entire jelly lakes to row a boat through.” (Not to mention business side-lines of chocolate climbing walls, cake-based golf courses and walk-in clouds of gin and tonic.) “We don’t just make pudding,” adds Parr. “We’re food experimenters, manipulating people’s perceptions of food and exploring its possibilities through science, setting and performance.”
They, too, are part of that performance, expressing their own unique style. Rarely seen without their trademark bow ties on, Bompas and Parr are quirky, playful and ambitious, animated by abstract ideas, creatively driven. “If I was a fictional character, I’d be Brigadier Gerard,” says Bompas, “for his swagger and dash, while Harry would be Captain Nemo, an enigmatic scientific mastermind.” Their MINI Cooper S Paceman in Starlight Blue – an urban, energetic two-door, distinct in design, fun to drive – fits their aesthetic as perfectly as liquid jelly in a freshly cast mould.
Bompas unloads boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables from the spacious boot of the MINI Cooper S Paceman.
Parking up near Maltby Street, where Union flags flutter between the railway arches and aromas of baked bread and sweet basil mingle in the morning air, they begin their day with cappuccinos from Monmouth Coffee, which roasts its high-grade beans on-site.
A stone’s throw from Monmouth is St. John Bakery, peddling custard doughnuts from Archway 72. Anyone who knows anything about London gastronomy has heard of Fergus Henderson, and the bakery is an offshoot of his St. John restaurant, which serves sweetbreads and ox tongue from an old Smithfield smokehouse. “We exploded St. John’s doughnuts as the culmination of a meal for the Brighton Festival,” explains Parr matter-of-factly.
On a mission to pick up ingredients for a Sunday lunch with friends, the boys don’t linger. They move with purpose from stall to stall, buying slices of jamón ibérico de bellota from Tozino, vine tomatoes from GreenFly, mozzarella from the Ham & Cheese Co. and sustainably sourced Faroe Island salmon from their friend on the Hansen & Lydersen stand.
“Such pleasure!” exclaims Bompas, over a wafer-thin slice of prosciutto. But real pleasure, sadly, is fleeting. Maltby Street traders open to the public for just four hours each week, devoting the rest of the time to sourcing produce and supplying it to top London restaurants.
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The last two stops before a slap-up lunch are LASSCO Architectural Salvage and the nearby Bermondsey Farmers’ Market. LASSCO sells architectural relics from a bygone London, while the farmers’ market descends on Bermondsey Square once a week to supply locals with walnut loaves and sausage sandwiches.
Slap-up lunch comes in the form of traditional pie and mash, and not from just any old pie joint. M. Manze on Tower Bridge Road – with its servers dressed in pea-green aprons and recipes unchanged since the 1900s – is a step back to another era. Besides the pies, it does the best jellied eels this side of the river, and you can’t get more typically British than that.
Close to M. Manze is Hartley’s Jam Factory, a link between old and new Bermondsey. “Once devoted to large-scale industry, such as ship-building, the wharves bought into food processing as an industrial spin-off,” explains Parr. Hartley’s, established in 1903, earned Bermondsey the nickname of Biscuit Town.
Bompas leans in to discuss plans for the rest of the afternoon with Parr.
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Bellies full, Bompas and Parr make their way back to the MINI Cooper S Paceman, stopping off at Fine Foods on Long Lane and for a quick espresso at The Garrison. Back at the car, they load it up with their purchases. Boot closed, it appears purposeful from the rear, with a wide track and sloping roof. A sporty, coupé-like silhouette means it certainly looks the part, but when the engine is fired up, the car is punchy to drive, too.
Bompas and Parr zip through the streets with windows down, parking up at their studio to drop off goods in the fridge. The sky softens, late afternoon approaches, but the boys’ energy is not yet waning. “A show at the Architecture Foundation?” suggests Parr. “Ten-pin bowling!” is Bompas’s retort, and soon they’re off to Palace Superbowl, a kitsch old hallway in a local shop-ping centre.
Considering the number of bookings Bompas and Parr take for their food installations, it’s a wonder they have found time to perfect their bowling skills. And bowling isn’t the only sport they indulge in. “I like to go bouldering at the Arch Climbing Wall,” says Bompas. “It’s in the old Bermondsey biscuit factory, and the cakes in the café are sublime.”
Overall, if this Saturday day out were a cake, it would be a bakewell tart, and the cherry on top would be Zucca. Zucca is a modern Italian restaurant – light-filled, airy and the perfect spot for an early dinner. It’s Bompas and Parr’s favourite restaurant in the area, and – watching them feast on plates of taglierini with peas and grilled lamb with cianfotta – who could blame them?
They polish off the meal with a feather-light panna cotta before returning to their studio to collect their MINI. It’s been an indulgent day out, for sure, but one that’s left them happy, satiated and sound in the knowledge that Bermondsey is more than matching up to its culinary reputation.
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As the sun sets and Bompas and Parr drive home, the MINI Paceman and these two creators of colourful culinary curiosities couldn’t be more at home in the neighbourhood. With its shadowy archways, wharves, workers’ yards and factories, it’s a richly historical place, but with a contemporary, fresh and distinctly food-orientated spirit.