Balham High Street: during the war

Regular commuters and users of Balham underground station can’t fail to notice a plaque fixed discreetly to the wall between the escalators and barriers, commemorating those who died during the bomb attacks in World War II.

 

Copyright tezzer57 (flickr.com)

 

Then I came across this article of new pictures found from the devastating era, including two from Balham high street picturing the aftermath of the aforementioned bomb. It had happened in the dark and a double decker bus, not seeing the devastation, drove into the black hole created by the bomb.

The pictures make pretty horrifying viewing to say the least – the hundreds of businesses and lives ruined. Yet it’s also a fascinating scene of what Balham used to look like over 70 years ago. All very humbling.

Dee Light Bakery, Ritherdon Road, Balham

Since its opening last December Dee’s Bakery has enjoyed a strong, regular trade. Every Saturday their bread flies off the shelves – one recent visit for a cup of tea saw several customers being told to come back shortly while they were baking their umpteenth batch. The array is impressive; multi seed, brioche, focaccia, plus the old favourite white and wholemeal. Carbaphobes, look away now. Dee’s team work hard throughout the week to ensure everything is ready for 7am when the bakery opens As you can see, their efforts haven’t gone to waste. (Above: what is to be our next conquest. Why oh why didn’t we purchase a slice?!) We indulged in their sweet treats at the weekend. Cheesecake brownies, banana and walnut bread – deliciously moist with an occasional hit of chunky walnut, lemon cake, muffins, plus they have wheat-free options too which still satisfy a sweet tooth without feeling like you’re missing out on any of the fun stuff. Pay around £2.50 for a generous slice of cake.

Reviewed: Brunch at The French Cafe

That little strip on Ritherdon Road is almost like a Balham sub-culture; far enough from the centre of town to have its own core audience. On our continual quest to find our favourite brunch in Balham, SwishJunction sloped over on a very cold Saturday morning to The French Cafe.

The cafe extends quite far back but retains a cosy feel, and the decor is simple but effective. Everywhere you turn there’s an added detail, from the grand mirrors to the wooden boxes holding napkins and other kitchenware. Almost like an extension of someone’s countryside kitchen, but with posher chairs (no rickety furniture here).

One thing we noted is the adequate amount of space between tables. Cosiness is great (see Lavish Habit; you get a seat where you can but it just works) but this is the sort of place where you want to eat with just your intended company and really stretch out.

The menu is brief, sticking to one side of A4 – always a good sign in our books. A busy menu always feels a little stressful; impossible to choose from and how can you know what the real signature dish is? It was still tricky to choose, but we opted for les oeufs, French-style (well, when in Rome, or, whatever) and good old classic Benedict-style.

Ouefs Francais – that’s soft-boiled eggs on shallot potatoes, bacon lardons and hollandaise sauce – was a great mixture of salty foodstuffs. The yolk was an eye-popping orange hue and we loved the mixture of soft and crispy textures. The portion was modest but enough, although the owner of the dish admitted to food envy when eyeing up the Eggs Benedict ordered. Fat, fluffy muffins lightly toasted (hurrah, no burnt bits vaguely concealed in hollandaise sauce) topped with very crispy bacon (no chewy fatty bits here either), two springy poached eggs that popped and oozed yolk in a very satisfying fashion, mixing with the generous dollop of hollandaise.

You can see by the description our favourite dish, ironically not the French one. We eyed up the English breakfast but figured that would be a pointless exercise. However when served to our neighbours we can report that the portions are generous and they serve HASH BROWNS. Happiness.

The fresh orange juice was zingy without too much acidity and the tea perfectly lovely. Our bill came to around £26 including service; not bad for something that will keep you going until afternoon tea (well we’re only human). All in all a great mid-market option which operated a sleek service, no bustling around or chaotic environment.

 

Enq: The French Cafe, 16-18 Ritherdon Road, SW17 8QD.

Reviewed: The Lounge Bar, Balham

We wish The Lounge Bar was open during the day at the weekends, because we’d go there all the time. It used to be; a few years ago our favourite thing to do would be to turn up with the Sunday papers in tow and pick at tapas all afternoon long. Alas, the owners have a life too, and need some rest time of their own.

The Lounge Bar opened 9 years ago and has been consistently successful ever since. Run by a husband and wife team, Philippe cooks up a storm in the kitchen while Manuela holts the fort in the dining area. They are, so far, the friendliest restaurant team we know. They welcome everyone, new or regular, with the same warmth you’d offer to a family member. The restaurant decor is simplistic but warm and cosy, like a family dining room. There isn’t the biggest array of lagers and wine but plenty enough. Besides, they make their own sangria and it’s definitely worth a taste.

We’re creatures of habit when we visit, ordering pretty much the same thing every time; patatas bravas, chorizo in wine, meatballs, panna catalana, occasionally opting for garlic chilli prawns. We know what we like there and it always tastes good. In particular, the patatas bravas, a plate of potatoes topped with a spicy tomato sauce that we actually took for granted until we saw what most tapas places in Spain offered. Their version consisted of potatoes with ketchup and mayo squirted on top. Tasteless and utterly boring. Who knew that we could get better tapas ten minutes walk from our home?

The last few times we’ve visited we’ll be greeted with a sample dish to try out; Philippe is always experimenting and coming up with new dishes, and quite frankly we’re willing guinea pigs. They’ve recently introduced a specials board to boost their menu, too.

We decided to mix up our usual choices with some new ones. First up, the specials board; pigs trotters. Not to everyone’s taste, but we were willing to give it a go. Between the two of us, opinion was split. They’d been slow cooked, so the fat and meat was soft and tender. The soft nature of the fat wasn’t personally to my taste but our date for the night couldn’t get enough of them. My favourite part of it? The sauce. You might think that’s a bit of a cop out but it was delicious; spicy and full of depth.

Next up, mushrooms with mince and cheese. A random combination but it worked for us. Two portobello mushrooms with a layer of tender mince, coated in cream cheese with herbs. Perhaps the nearest to vegetarian we’re going to get. Our other mushroom offering were quartered and soaked in a sauce of garlic, olive oil and parsley. The mushrooms were really substantial; they hadn’t shrunk in size and had retained their texture instead of shrivelling up, plus the mushrooms soaked up plenty of the sauce giving a usually blank canvas a whole lot of flavour. Our last dish, an old favourite: chorizo. Plump discs of the spicy meat soaked in red wine, we often fight over the last slice. When the main bits of tapas are gone, we’re always left with plenty of rich sauces to mop up – always ask for bread when ordering.

Prices vary according to each dish but expect to pay between £4-5 per tapas plate. We recommend you book to avoid disappointment at the weekend, as they fill up fast. They’ll always accommodate where they can though; they were happy to seat our table of 16 with 15 minutes notice on a Saturday night once!

Balham Farmers’ Market – dinner for a fiver

Being budget conscious and enjoying good food needn’t be mutually exclusive, as we found out during another trip to the Balham Farmers’ Market (held by the London Farmers’ Market, every Saturday, 9am-2pm). Much as they are delicious and tempting, food markets often have reputations for being on the expensive side, left for treats and showing off at dinner parties. We decided to see how far our five pound note for dinner time would go. We wanted rich, comfort food to satisfy us during the cold snap.

Our first craving? Sausages. Forever a winter staple, they largely remind us of fireworks night, served with jacket potatoes and baked beans. We stopped by Priors Hall Farm for our meat, where they displayed all manner of pork. We went for the original classic pork sausages, £2.30 for a pack of 4. We picked up red potatoes and purple sprouting broccoli from Ivy’s Farm Shop for £1 (4 potatoes, more than enough) and £1.50 respectively.

 

Cooking took about thirty minutes in total. The sausages weren’t pierced and actually plumped out in the oven. We added about 1/2 tbsp of butter and a splash of milk to the potatoes to help it form a creamy mash. The result? Dinner for two, farmers’ market style, for under a fiver. Lush.