40 Maltby Street

Maltby Street” is a group of businesses trading out of a number of railway arches at the Tower Bridge end of Bermondsey. On Saturday mornings they open up to the public. You may have heard of it. In fact, given you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you read other food blogs and / or the Guardian and Observer, so you’ve almost certainly seen reference to Maltby Street at some point. Apologies for the duplication (and the massive assumption).

It is incorrect to call this collection of stalls and warehouses a market (yet). Maltby Street is, at this stage, limited to a small number of stalls and is in fact spread out over a couple of streets. Those of you whose normal market habit is to fight your way through tourist scrums to get to the free bits of brownies and cheese before heading to lunch at Pizza Express will probably find a journey to this part of SE1 a little disappointing.

This view is not meant to dissuade people from visiting Maltby Street; I’m just managing expectations.

If, however, you are a local or are still thinking of a trip, here are 3 different ways to spend your time and money (they’re not mutually exclusive – I’m just thinking of your waistline):

1. Head to the area for an early to mid morning custard doughnut from the St John Bakery and a Monmouth coffee. The doughnuts are fantastic and the queue for a coffee is not nearly so outrageous as at the Borough Market branch.

2. Buy some cold meats, cheeses and bread and some bottles of Kernel brewery beer and sit for a tramp’s picnic on the reclaimed church pews, railway sleepers and old tables outside the brewary’s arch.

3. Visit 40 Maltby Street for a glass or two of wine and some simple but excellent food.

Of the 3 suggestions, only 40 Maltby Street is properly inside. A little hint for you if it’s raining. You are welcome.

Open on Thursday and Friday evenings as well as for lunch on Saturdays, 40 Maltby Street is the bar and kitchen front of the curiously named Gergovie wines who, I think, sell natural wines both wholesale and to us mere retail muggles.

When I say it’s inside, it’s in a railway arch and is enclosed. They’re going to need some serious 3 bar heaters over the next few months.  Decor is spartan and as such it has an industrial charm: the kind of place architects will come to rip off ideas and charge their clients for the privilege. At least that’s what my brother was doing.

The menu is short and scrawled on a blackboard with Fergus Henderson-esque economy: “Peppers and egg”; “Buttered leeks and walnuts”; “Sea bass baked in salt”. But there’s a lot more to the menu and the cooking than meets the eye.

Our first plate was roasted Delica pumpkin with sage butter and pine nuts. We got two decent sized wedges and were pleased with our choice: sweet and nutty flesh, caramelised dark green skin (which you should eat) sprinkled with pine nuts for texture and a brilliant salty sage butter drizzled over for interest. It was really well done.

Watching the peppers and egg and buttered leeks and walnuts go past, I suspect we would have been pleased with those too.

We also ordered a couple of bovine things: calves brains and beef cheeks (I can’t remember whether they were cow or ox?).

A portion of calves brains at 40 Maltby Street equated to two lobes deep fried in bread crumbs and served with a well balanced sauce ravigote (cornichons, capers, parsley etc). They were excellent but offaly rich – I certainly couldn’t have managed more than my lobe.

The vinegary tang of the ravigote was essential and calves brains are probably not for everyone. I’m glad we had them though, not least because it’s now clear to me that it’s not just because cows can’t walk downstairs that they don’t rule the world – a significant clue to their inability to talk, write, organise or engineer is that the brains of their young folk appear to basically consist of something akin to creamy burrata. Look:

There’s much more substance and sinew to a cow / ox’s cheek. Which is why they’re good slow cooked in red wine, as the cheek we were given had been. Served in its stewing sauce with some well cooked new potatoes, it was a nice, no frills, Autumnal dish. We mopped up the sauces with some quality bread and it all went down rather well with a glass of the same Chianti it had been cooked in.

We didn’t feel the need for dessert, but the persimmon and cream looked particularly good.

40 Maltby Street is the kind of place to dip into rather than eat a complete meal: have some oysters and a glass of something fizzy; or a some cold meats and cheeses or maybe a few plates of seasonal veg and offal washed down with red wine. I’ve been past a few times now and the menu has always been different. On the evidence of my one eating visit, the cooking seems sorted so it’s likely whatever’s on will be good.

What’s is not yet so sorted is the service and, in particular, the welcome. There were a fair number of people (including us) who walked in and stood hovering for quite some time, not really knowing what the score was. Some walked away. One group turned up with their own table. Later on another group cleared their plates themselves. No one was ever greeted, shown a seat or somewhere to lean, or asked to wait.

Once we’d found somewhere to perch, and definitely once we’d got food and passionate wine recommendations, this was forgotten. But it was actually a pretty big negative at the time. Had eating there not been the sole purpose of my 30 min bike ride that Saturday, I would have left for a Kernel or headed round the corner to José.

The lack of welcome and reticent service might have been due to being stretched for staff at the busiest time of day. But it might also be due to a natural shyness on the part of the guys that run the place. They need to get over that and out from behind the counter, because when they did attend, they were affable and their passion and knowledge (and therefore selling power) was evident.

If they sort service, and if they purchase a few more stools and tables, they’ll make a killing.

40 Maltby Street in 3 words

Under the arches.

The Bill

Dishes are between about £5-£10. 2 of us shared 3 and were very satisfied and with 2 glasses of red walked out with spending only £17.50 including a tip.

www.40maltbystreet.com – 40 Maltby Street (duh), SE1 3PA – 0207 237 9247

Varied opening times, Wednesday – Saturday.

Postscript, December 2012: Maltby Street has changed massively since this post was published: the lane outside 40 Maltby Street is now known as the Lassco Ropewalk and is populated by a plethora of great street food options. Some of these now have their own arches, including the very enjoyable Bar Tozino (what started as one man carving a hunk of ham, is now a super little sherry and jamon stall); Monmouth have moved their shop to a new area, further East along the railway, known as Bermondsey Spa terminus, where you can find the best butcher in London, some incredible cheese and ham, the Kernal brewery, fantastic honey … basically the wholesalers and producers that Maltby Street was originally intended for. Use this map for guidance. I recommend going to both sites, probably the Spa end first, before ending up having food on the Rope Walk or, better still, at 40 Maltby Street, which goes from strength to strength.