My conservative and rather serious grandfather once described a lemon meringue pie my mum had made as tasting so good he could plant his face in it. The thought of our grandfather face-planting anything sent my sisters and I into fits of laughter. While I didn't inherit pa's sweet-tooth, some recent sugary encounters in London did give me pause to remember his words rather fondly. In the country that invented sticky toffee pudding, banoffee pie and Eton mess, those with even the most savoury of palates can have trouble staring down a sweet treat.
The English Restaurant (theenglishrestaurant.com), across the road from Spitalfields Market in East London, is a snug of a pub with shiny draft beer taps, polished floors and wood-paneled walls. Traditional British cuisine, as the patriotic moniker suggests, is the order of the day and the menu boasts favourites such as farmhouse pork terrine with homemade piccalilli, beer battered cod with triple-cooked chips, and oyster fritters with tartare sauce. The dish that lingers most, however, is its bread and butter pudding, the kind my grandma, who was well-versed in frugal British comfort foods, tried to make but couldn't.
This traditional working-class dish, also known as poor man's pudding, came into being in the 13th century as a way to use slices of stale leftover bread. It is made by layering buttered bread, jam, and custard in an oven dish, then sprinkling it with sultanas and baking it.
My childhood experiences with bread and butter pudding were largely underwhelming. Common dinner table complaints ran along these lines: "the bread top/bottom is too dry/soggy", "there's not enough custard", "the sultanas are burnt" and "why do we have to eat this?". The English Restaurant's version hints at the original recipe but gives it a contemporary and much adored spin. Instead of stale bread, delicate spongy brioche, layered with sugar, butter and cinnamon, is soaked in eggy custard then finished with a crack-able caramelised top layer, similar to that of a crème brulee. It comes to our booth in a black ramekin on a dainty dish and is served with a little extra jug of warm custard, an indulgence for already satiated guests.
Not far from here, another Spitalfields eatery competes for a sweet-tooth smile. St John Bread and Wine stjohnrestaurant.com is the bakery-cum-eatery of Fergus Henderson, the chef responsible for putting nose-to-tale fodder – offal, heads, snouts, brains etc – back on the menu in London two decades ago. His fare has also been given the thumbs up by the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain, who once claimed Henderson's roast bone marrow and parsley salad would be his death-row dinner.
I visit early in the day for another English dish known colloquially as a bacon sarnie. St John's version has been voted one of the best in the country. The bacon, which comes from rare Gloucester Old Spots pigs, is sandwiched between house-made door-stop-thick bread which is grilled to give it a smoky flavour. The hot bread is then slathered in butter and served with an in-house organic tomato ketchup laced with apple and pear. Given how cup-bangingly satisfying it is, it's perhaps not surprising that the dozen or so doughnuts sitting on the kitchen counter like wall flowers also attract my attention.
St John's kitchen is known to play around with a "doughnut of the day" and today's is strawberry cream and butterscotch. These dark round parcels with a light stretch-mark around their middle from rising during cooking are covered in a fine finger-licking sugar. A single strawberry plugs a hole in the top that oozes creamy custard with brown sugar, caramel and vanilla notes. It's the ultimate up-sell not only for me but for locals coming in to buy their daily loaf of bread.
British cuisine has been elevated to lofty new heights this century, and the world's most multicultural city also reaps the culinary rewards of a global population. In the leafy high-end enclave of Notting Hill, chef Martin Morales, known for having introduced Londoners to Peruvian cuisine, has this year opened the city's first Peruvian bakery, Andina Panaderia, alongside another of his new restaurants, Andina Picanteria (cevichefamily.com).
Wafting with the yeasty smells of comfort cooking, Andina Panaderia is devoted to the slow-fermented, handcrafted Peruvian baking tradition which, Morales says, fuses Andean and colonial baking techniques. Stacked on a dining-table-sized counter are braided anise-flavoured rosquitas, triangle-shaped savoury tres puntas rolls that originated in Arequipa, chancay bread, a cinnamon-scented take on brioche, and black mint and sweet potato sourdough. In the restaurant, guests can taste the bread while chowing down on a delicious Peruvian chicharron fried pork belly sandwich. The staff will then pop next door to the bakery if you fancy something sweet.
I order a pastel de lúcuma to accompany my short macchiato. This Andean spin on the famed Portuguese custard tart is made from the native Andean lúcuma, a yellow fruit that resembles a mango, has a pip like an avocado, and tastes like neither of these. The Andean treat doesn't look as inviting as a custard tart but bite through the baked chewy sugar-topped crust and you're hit with a flavour combo resembling maple syrup and butterscotch. It's actually better than a custard tart.
Another London bakery with epicurean roots from elsewhere is Fabrique (fabrique.co.uk), which originated in Stockholm, Sweden, and now feeds London's cool Fitzrovia, Hoxton and Notting Hill neighbourhoods. Fabrique's enormous (two shoeboxes, end-to-end) artisanal sourdough loaves, made with fresh natural ingredients and baked traditionally in a stone oven, are stacked on shelves behind the cafe-style counter, but it's the waft of the traditional Swedish pastries that attracts the early morning queue.
Fabrique's cinnamon buns, known as kanelbullar in the Swedish fika tradition of enjoying coffee, pastry and conversation, are the city's finest. The light and flakey knots of buttery dough are moist with a caramelised filling but sturdy enough to carry off a dousing of sugar crystals. The bun's only competition is its cardamom bun counterpart, a similarly sticky coil of doughy goodness with lingering spice notes and a light sugar coat. Lined up next to each other behind the glass counter, they make a formidable edible duo.
London's sweet treats might make great fodder for culinary expeditions, but they're not the kind of thing that will easily travel home. Enter Rococo Chocolates (rococochocolates.com), a gorgeously charismatic blue-shuttered chocolate shop in a heritage building in Covent Garden. Its founder, Chantal Coady, has been selling artisan single-origin chocolate since 1983. Such is her dedication to the cocoa craft, she became the first to receive an OBE for "Services to Chocolate Making".
If that sounds like something out of a Roald Dahl book, then it's entirely fitting. On the Rococo shelves is a range of bars inspired by the famous author, with flavour profiles taken from his children's books, both "phizwhizzing and filthsome alike". There's a scrumptious peach-flavoured white chocolate bar, a la James and the Giant Peach, and a decadent Bruce Bogtrotter's fudge flavoured dark chocolate bar, a la Matilda. The bars are beautifully packaged and make tasteful and tasty gifts for sweet-toothed friends and family. I might just take one back home for grandpa.