I have been been increasingly preoccupied with bread for some time now; what makes a good loaf, the importance of a sourdough starter, slow fermentation and the quality of flour, why or how it ever became the case that most of loaves that much of the country eat can barely be classified as bread. It’s a complicated business, and to my mind highly political. Which is partly why e5 bakehouse was not only a very exiting addition to our neighbourhood when it opened in 2010 but it’s increasing popularity and the wide availability of its bread is having an impact on the lives of all who eat it. I have been so exited to be serving it Railroad for the past couple of months or so. Not only the ‘Hackney Wild’ sourdough that provoked the lovely Gizzi Erskine to describe her Railroad breakfast one Saturday morning as being a ‘bacon sarnie of dreams’, but also the beautiful knobbly baguettes that make our Vietnamese baguettes more chewy, give them a greater depth of flavour and are now generally more delicious than they were before. E5′s Hackney Wild is the best bread I have ever had the pleasure of eating or serving: it’s crumb is chewy, sour, open, it’s crust is crunchy and moreish and is altogether a perfectly balanced and ultimately sustaining loaf. We love it.
There is no shortage of locally produced food and drink that we feel compelled to spread the word about. Railroad is proud to stock The Kernel brewery, E5 Bakehouse, Yeast and very soon the Camden Town Brewery. Ears always to the ground for emerging local entrepreneurs.
A new addition, Zorokovich 1917, deserves and needs attention.
Homerton based Film maker Dan Edelstyn, along with his wife and team, worked ridiculously hard for years to bring a new vodka into the London Market. A vodka that puts profits back into the economically depressed Ukrainian town where it is made. A vodka with a story and a brilliant film. A vodka with a recipe created and approved by the UK’s highest level vodka experts.
Ethically sound, competitively priced and delicious.
Please see the film. Please stock and/or drink the vodka. Spread the word.
Maltese and Gozotan culture receives less attention than most of its Mediterranean peers from British media. Less often illuminated by newspaper travel sections than Sicily is, or the Greek Islands. Less fashionable as a destination. More unknown.
“It hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s, even the prices. Its warm in winter”
A friend had told us this.
Rabbits and fish to eat. Bright yellow, red and white buses that from photographs look as suitably destined for a shelf in miniature model form as the roads that service an entire country.
An Arriva bus from the airport to the ferry crossing, then another Arriva on the other side to Xaghra, Gozo, more rural and less affected by time than the mainland.
“What happened to the [yellow] buses?”
“Gone. It’s controversial, people are quite upset”
“There were 600 yellow buses but now only 100 Arriva buses. They used to run all the time but now only once an hour.”
Noel informed us of this when we arrived at his guesthouse. Rest in peace yellow buses, along with half of what I knew about Malta. Surely rabbit and fish still exist. Noel disagrees.
“You’ll only find frozen fish at this time of year.”
Maltese (Malti) is the official language, deriving influence profoundly from Arabic, and notably Italian, French and English. English is widely spoken. I knew this, but hadn’t great thought as to why. The reason being that Malta was a part of the British Empire from 1814-1964. Serving as a vital stop on the spice trade route to Asia.
On the south side of the main square in Xaghra, the shop facias are faded. Coffee Diamond Jubilee in brown and white saloon font. Coronation store, or, a lounge room for sale. A table display with faded postcards that makes the blue of the Mediterranean bluer and more exotic, a dusty bottle of Cinzano, random birthday cards, playing cards and various pieces of fabric. The kind of display you find across London in retro stores, except this one is not for effect, not considered. Rubble Bar, ales, wines, spirits. The classic red phone box. A petrol pump assistant kid.
“It hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s”
Perhaps. But the bells ring. All the time. Relentless chiming from the basilica that reminds you that you are somewhere far away. The red domed sandstone church is large enough to swallow the main street if it wished to.
The farmers are also discernibly Mediterranean. They congregate in the middle of the road to chat, a mix of flannelette colours and patterns making obstacles for cars. No one seems to mind.
The farmers don’t seem to take holidays. They service the stores and the portable shop that parks in the square. Fruit and vegetables are sold good and dirty. Minimal time lapsed between the ground and the shop. You can buy delicious local artichokes for 60c and big bunches of Swiss chard for a euro. Enormous spring onions and leeks.
But the shop will drive away. Supplies should be bought on the spot when you see something you like, as opening hours are malleable in Gozo. You could be walking down the main street kicking stones and looking for a shop that’s open mid-afternoon, and once you have passed the strip of commerce, the shop keepers could all switch there signs from closed to open in unison without you realising.
Aside from portable enterprise, which also includes a bread van and an elusive fish van, there seems to be little in the way of street vendors, and nothing in the way of street food. It is winter in a summer holiday destination.
A man sells local fish, two kinds, on a roundabout in Victoria. Swordfish and a small fish that looks very similar to sardines but not at all in taste. At the right time of year, Bonito tuna is hauled in to Malsaforn bay, occasionally a Marlin.
A rooftop conversation with our neighbour had its translation issues, but he talked about fishing in Gozo. Only occasionally did we meet on common grounds when naming fish. He is a cook at the hospital and has an enviable orange tree in his back garden.
Xaghra is distinctly Mediterranean with its scattered citrus trees. The cactus and the dirt under your boots while you walk can give a feeling of dryness, but if you look around you see some of the greenest and most fertile land of any Mediterranean Island. Notably the hills that surround Calypso’s cave, leading down to the ocean.
But you see this everywhere when you walk from town to town. Most villages in Gozo sit on a hill, and if you have looked at a map you can point them out from one to the other like an astronomer would stars, from the numerous vantage points of the Island. It is an Island for walking.
It is winter in a summer holiday destination, but Gozo hasn’t suffered from over development. It’s full of villages where locals live all year round. Only occasionally there is a ghost town feeling. A restaurant owner appears to be the only other person on the ocean front in Malsaforn. Almost completely dark due to insufficient street light. He approaches us in an illegal business kind of way. He offers us a free drink if we were to eat in his empty restaurant. Our attention was drawn to a child under a street light, possibly the restauratuer’s child, there didn’t appear to be any other adults in sight. The child began to make a kind of shrill animal noise, made intermittent by hammering a cupped hand over his mouth. A kind of territorial warning. It was the start of a long spell of wind. Real wind, for days on end. It was time to stay in doors.
Jimmy the butcher is another man who you catch while he is open. When the wind set in we defrosting a rabbit we had purchased the day before. More than half of his business was frozen. A way to get through the winter. While guessing how to make a Maltese rabbit stew, we wondered if anyone else on the Triq ta’ April 1866 was cooking a rabbit stew that night. What did it look like? How did rabbit stews look in the 1950’s?
“It hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s”
The 50’s. Ta’ Kola windmill in Xaghra was still fully functioning and probably would be today if Guiseppi Gretch was still alive, or had he children to inherit it the way he had from his father. The windmill was intrinsic to Xaghra’s bread making. When conditions were good and the wind was high a bell would sound, telling people of the community to bring in their wheat to be ground into flour. This was superseded by British grinding contraptions in the 19th Century, but not made obsolete. Guiseppe lived in and operated the windmill alone until his death at age 87 in 1987. His carpentry tools look archaic but they were used by him to make beautiful things. A disregard for modern conveniences. A man close to Gozo’s heart.
Gozo retains more than a little of its English history, which is a little disconcerting at first. But it is a unique place with many charming idiosyncrasies. Gozitan people seem to have a real affection for tourists, or at least a general kindness towards them.
There was some confusion between ourselves and a local man, who thought we had asked him for a lift to Victoria. We were merely asking for general direction. You could see him compromised. He needed the shop that was just about to close. Had we not corrected the situation, I am almost certain he would have driven us.
Today is the 8th of January, the feast of the epiphany. Three wise men. Parents hurry their children to the square, all in Sunday best. Traditonal black Meditreraean Catholic wear. In Malsaforn, Bo Jangles pub is showing the FA cup. City vs United.
The anniversary of the three wise men and the return of Paul Scholes.
Our latest edition to the bookshop is convenient because it gives me a chance to answer the FAQ “Who is that guy in the picture?” You know, the bearded man in an unthreatening boxing stance, sporting a large wrist watch and a lazy smile while he watches you drink your coffee at Railroad. He is a not a mountain climber or alas, a close relation to myself. He is David Berman, a poet and ex-frontman of the Silver Jews, the band that he co-founded in the early 90’s and called an end to in 2008.
Actual Air, Berman’s first published collection of poems was released in 1999 by Open City. We now have it in our bookshop, and it’s about time. It’s a brilliant collection of Berman’s abstract thoughts and ideas concerning life in American suburbs, replica cities, and imagined bar room situations where eccentrics meet. A true staff recommendation.
Also on the walls at Railroad is Kate Cox’s exhibition ‘See you for Dust’. There are seven beautiful photographs of both the people and landscapes of the Californian desert scattered throughout the café. There are a mixture of black & white and colour prints (all are a series of 9 only). They have just gone up and will be up for the next two months.
Good news, we saw the beginnings of some daffodils today at Hackney Marshes. Which means spring. Which means some great vegetables, lots of mackerel and possibly some outdoor seating, but I may be getting ahead of myself on that last one.
What I’m trying to say is things are looking good. We are beginning to work with some great promoters and great people. There are some rumours that my favorite musician will be playing the Railroad basement in March. His name is Ish Marquez and everybody should check him out (nothing is better than seeing him live though).
We have also started to work with Exiled Ink, a group that puts on nights where writers and poets who are living in exile in London read passages from their books or poems. The first night is on the 24th Feb, and there is a really high calibre of published writers participating in the night.
More soon, very soon, not in 4 months time, sorry about that, I’ve been in the kitchen making Bahn Mi the whole time, now I’m out.
Here we are… Ok, I’m not going to get emotional about our first ever post. What I will say is, we are very excited about being here online, and about being in our shop on Morning Lane. So many cool things have happened. Highlights so far being the first ever Railroad music performance by FaceOmeter, who runs ‘Bright Idea’ every Wednesday, my favorite night of the week to be in the Railroad basement!
Other highlights include Max’s pumpkin, and local residents of the Vietnamese community repeatedly coming to Railroad and eating ‘Bahn Mi’ while rapidly smoking and drinking cold ones in the sun. Very cool. I think the Vietnamese baguettes will be staying on the menu for a while to come.