‘Mustard macarons anyone?’ - I hesitate as Mustard Sommelier Harry Lalousis hands me a plate, but not for long.
Intrigued, I savour the caramel-coloured shells as my palate picks up honey and a hint of sweet Sauternes, two of the many gourmet mustard flavours available I am told – my curiosity is piqued at the myriad possibilities of bringing mustard into my cooking.
For I am at the gorgeous La Maison Maille in Piccadilly Arcade, at a tasting session that will teach me a thing or two about mustard. But more on this eye-opening event later, as the boutique is just the first of many stops on a day spent Christmas shopping and eating my way around the district of St James in Westminster.
I enjoy the brisk autumnal air as I walk down Jermyn Street, one of my favourite in St James. Whenever I am here, I feel a sense of occasion, walking along one of the most quintessentially British streets, an address with over 300 years of history.
The street derives its name from Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans, who in 1661 was granted this plot of Crown land by Charles II to develop a residential neighbourhood in the area then known as St James’ Field. It has been a sought-after address ever since, with some illustrious former residents including Gladstone, Thackeray and Sir Isaac Newton.
Today, the street is famous for its gentlemen’s tailoring, with shops like Alfred Dunhill, Daks, Hackett and Hawes & Curtis to name just a few. But it is also home to some fantastic specialist food outlets like Fortnum & Mason, Franco’s and Paxton & Whitfield.
And it is here, at cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, that I make another of my stops. This St James institution originated in 1797, gaining its first Royal Warrant to Queen Victoria in 1850, and a few others since then including Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II.
I reckon that what’s good enough for Her Maj is good enough for me, and my visit to the shop did not prove me wrong. I spend a heavenly hour sampling a selection of artisan cheeses made on a small scale at local farms and with minimal mechanization, and for which Paxton & Whitfield is known.
The cheese counter has a mind-boggling array of hard and soft, blue and washed-rind cheeses from the UK and abroad. With over 200 years in the business, the staff have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their produce, and will go out of their way to help find the right cheese for you.
And what a great opportunity to come to a shop like Paxton & Whitfield to discover some unique British cheeses you are not likely to find anywhere else in the country, unless you are a local.
One such cheese is The Goddess from Somerset, made from Guernsey cows milk, the rind washed in Somerset cider. This is utterly delectable, creamy and one of those very special items you may be lucky enough to have on your cheese platter this Christmas.
With my cheese platter now sorted, I head over to Berry Brothers & Rudd on nearby St James Street to find the perfect wine to accompany it.
Founded in 1698, the head office is still in the original building at no.3 St James, which has changed little in over 300 years. Today Berry Brothers & Rudd is a thoroughly modern business with a strong on-line presence.
The store is deceptively large, with a number of floors and private rooms behind the narrow street front. It hosts a huge variety of events, including masterclasses, courses run by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, as well as private and corporate entertainment, lunches, dinners and wine tastings.
I must admit, after 25 years living in London, and having walked past the shop many occasions, this is the first time I have set foot in it. This is because the name Berry Brothers & Rudd always made me think of a stuffy, old-fashioned and expensive wine merchants’ store.
But despite their long heritage supplying wine to the aristocracy, the rich and the famous, they welcome everyone even if they just want to buy one bottle starting from as little as £5. So I am pleased to find friendly and approachable staff who show me around, pointing out some great buys.
One of these is Berry Bros & Rudd’s entry-level Bordeaux, their Good Ordinary Claret (GOC) priced at £9 per bottle, or £19 for a magnum. And if you buy on-line in cases of 12, there are discounts, so that for example GOC retails at £8.10 per bottle, with free delivery on orders over £100.
Another delicious tipple unique to the merchants is the The King’s Ginger, specifically formulated by Berry Bros & Rudd in 1903 for King Edward VII, to revive him after long morning rides on his new-fangled Daimler horseless carriage.
|King's Ginger Liqueur at Berry Brothers & Rudd|
But one of the most fascinating discoveries for me at St James this year is at La Maison Maille in Piccadilly Arcade. How excited can you be over mustard, you may ask. And I’m telling you – a lot!
Maille is about much more than just mustard, as Harry Lalousis, the Head Mustard Sommelier explains to me – “we propose a new concept of flavoured mustard combinations, and the art of cooking with mustard to further enhance the flavours of base ingredients”.
Well if that mustard macaron is anything to go by, I am totally sold.
Originally from Dijon, La Maison Maille still makes its base vinegars in Burgundy, and flavours its mustards with a dazzling array of luxury products that make it the mustard of choice for top chefs such as the 2 Michelin-starred Helene Darroze and Bruno Loubet.
But you don’t need to be a Michelin-starred chef to use Maille mustards. There are many mouthwatering recipe cards available in the shop or on the website, and there is even a Maille cookbook for anyone to try. Who knew that you could use mustard to make salmon sashimi with herb salad and Parmesan using honey and balsamic vinegar Maille mustard, or pan-fried cod steaks with lemon and garlic mustard glaze, or even chocolate fondant for which Maille mustard with honey and whipped cream makes a stunning filling?
There are currently 38 out of a total of 84 flavours available in the shop in St James, including some lovely combinations like saffron and Isigny crème fraiche, or hazelnut and black chanterelle mushrooms, or coconut and Colombo spices, costing as little as £5.50 per jar.
Several of their mustards are available fresh from the pump, including Sauternes or Chardonnay mustards, and of these I get to taste and take home the lovely Black Truffle and Chablis mustard.
This combines Provençal winter black truffles with Chablis, which can transform anything from mashed potato or risotto to new heights of deliciousness. I am enjoying it these days over scrambled eggs, or as a posh dipping sauce for my triple-cooked home-made chips.
For foodies the world over, I can’t imagine a better present than one of La Maison Mailles’ mustard gift sets this Christmas, starting from £10. I have my eye on the Discovery Selection Gourmet set of four bottles of luxury mustard for £22.80 (hint hint).
All this shopping gets me thirsty, so I stroll across to the Swan Bar at the fabulous Maison Assouline on Piccadilly. A luxury French publishing house opened in 1994 by Prosper and Martine Assouline, Maison Assouline today has boutiques all over the world, including this one in London opened in 2014.
Maison Assouline publishes glossy coffee table books on fashion, art, architecture, design and travel, hosts art exhibitions, and houses a number of high-end antiques, artworks and furniture, which are all for sale.
All these beautiful artifacts make a stunning setting for the Swan Bar at Maison Assouline Piccadilly. Here, I recharge my batteries with a couple of cocktails and a platter of delectable canapés.
I love their Rat Pack cocktail, which combines Bourbon, Grand Marnier and Vermouth with a dash of Angostura bitters – it is strong with hints of orange and just a touch of sweetness. All cocktails are priced at £14.50, and are served with a 50ml standard measure of spirit.
The food menu at Maison Assouline offers a small but well thought-out list of dishes, including a very reasonable three-course set lunch menu for £25. I have a platter of bocconcini mozzarella with basil and cherry tomatoes, as well as slices of crispy baguette topped with Tolstoy smoked salmon, foie gras and cranberry, and Iberico ham with fresh figs.
|The Swan Bar at Maison Assouline|
The top room at Maison Assouline is a hidden gem, and I know of nowhere better in St James for a quiet drink and a catch-up with friends, in the lap of luxury.
Maison Assouline is one of the many new businesses opening up in St James recently. It is well known that the district is home to businesses that have been in the area for hundreds of years, but in the last couple of years, St James has seen a number of new restaurants, shops and other establishments arriving.
One such place is St James Market. This is a new West End destination created to reinvigorate the area, with seven new restaurants, five retail stores and a specially commissioned public art programme.
Among these are Japanese brasserie Anzu (by Emma Reynolds of Tonkotsu fame), Nordic Aquavit, Danish bakers Ole & Steen Lagkagehuset and Veneta by the Salt Yard Group. And a second branch of Duck & Waffle is rumoured to have taken up one of the last remaining units.
Nearby on St James St, Café Murano is another of these new kids on the block. Opened in 2014, this is Angela Hartnett’s offshoot of her Michelin-starred Murano, intended as a more affordable, informal and approachable eatery.
Lunch times are super busy at Café Murano, and it is not surprising – Hartnett’s Northern Italian cooking is reputedly some of the best in the country, and with an excellent value set lunch menu available between 12-3pm for £19 or £23 for 2 and 3 courses respectively, you will be lucky to get one of the coveted tables without a prior reservation. The same menu is also available for dinner as a pre- or post- theatre menu at 5:30-7pm or 10-11pm.
I have a marvelous lunch here kicking off with their signature ‘truffle arancini’ (£4.50) from the cichetti section of the menu – small balls of joy made of risotto rice and truffles, covered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, they are wonderful.
|Truffle Arancini at Cafe Murano|
Equally good is the primo of ‘papardelle with venison ragu’ (£11.5) – rich, and with an incredible depth of flavour that only properly made, time-consuming ragu sauces achieve. I make a mental note to order this again on a future visit.
The secondo, or main course, is the ‘halibut, Autumn vegetables and coco beans’ (£25) accompanied by a generous portion of ‘courgette fritti’ (£3.75). It is always such a joy to see halibut on a menu, I love the dense and firm white flesh, and there is no better way to appreciate it than simply pan-fried. This is deceptively simple but marvelous main that really hits the spot.
Satisfied though I am, I cannot resist ordering a slice of Hartnett’s ‘olive oil cake with Pistacchio di Bronte ice cream’ (£7). Pistacchio di Bronte is the Rolls Royce of the pistacchio world – intensely flavoured, fragant and with a vibrant green colour. Pistacchio di Bronte only comes from Sicily and has recently obtained its DOP (2009). This is the first time I have seen it on a UK menu, so if you would like to try it (along with the rest of the excellent menu), I strongly recommend a visit to Café Murano.
|Pistacchio di Bronte Ice Cream at Cafe Murano|
I love soaking up the gorgeous artwork and culture at The Royal Academy of Arts or the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), being pampered at the ultra-lux spa at the Sofitel, not to mention spending time in the verdant parks of St James or Green Park. I have lived in London for many years but still discover old and new places to visit whenever I am in St James.
As you plan your day out at St James in the run-up to Christmas, I strongly recommend a visit to St James’ informative website for a full list of the retailers, art galleries, restaurants and bars in the area - http://stjameslondon.co.uk/occupiers
La Maison Maille
2 Piccadilly Arcade
Paxton & Whitfield
93 Jermyn Street
Berry Bros & Rudd
3 St James’ Street
33 St James’ Street