Sunday, 24 January 2010

The St John Bacon Sandwich

St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields is the younger sibling of the original St John in Smithfield.  Although following the same philosophy of nose-to-tail eating and simple dishes made from impeccable ingredients it's not just a clone of the mothership, the most obvious difference being the menu style.  Rather than dividing their food up into starters and mains there's just one big daily changing list of dishes, the majority of them smaller ones chiming in around £5-8 with a handful of larger ones usually in the £12-15 bracket encouraging a more relaxed, mix-and-match-and-sharing approach to ordering and the atmosphere and service is accordingly more informal than back at base.  They tend to be a bit more experimental here too, but the biggest difference is that for an hour or two each morning B&W opens for breakfast.  There are always a few different things on the breakfast menu but you don't need to bother reading it, the one thing that's always on it is their monumental bacon sandwich.

If you know anything about St John and Fergus Henderson then your expectations for the humble bacon butty will probably be extremely high and at £5.40 a go if you didn't have any expectations you will now, mainly along the lines of "this had better be bloody good".  Happily what turns up is not only the best bacon sarnie you're likely to find in London it's also about the size of your head.

Three reasons it's this good: the bacon, the bread and how they cook it.  It almost goes without saying that the bacon is as good as it gets, proper slices of Old Spot back bacon that are juicy and extremely tasty, not the dry shrivelled vehicles for delivering vast quantities of salt and preservatives that often pass for bacon.  The bread is fresh from their own on-site open bakery that you can peer into from the restaurant.  Proper bakeries aren't too common in London unfortunately, there are a few good ones around but to my mind nothing beats the fantastic bread produced here, especially the sourdoughs.  You can wander in just to buy individual loaves and other goodies over the counter.

The bacon's cooked and the bread toasted on big open flame grill; you can see the pleasing scorch marks on the meat and the bread, and you can taste the satisfying gentle charred smokeyness.  They make it look so simple, but if you've ever tried toasting bread on a bbq you'll probably know how easy it is to get it all wrong, you either get the outside black and burnt and the inside barely warm or if it's spent too long on a non-incinerating part of the grill then it becomes dessicated just when you're not looking, your slice of bread suddenly takes on the texture of a brittle biscuit.

When Canteen opened up across the road from B&W in Spitalfields market they tried to ape the St John bacon sandwich - quality bacon, posh bread, all on an open grill - and they couldn't get the bread right, it kept turning up with that biscuity thing going on.  Biting into your bacon butty to have the bread shatter into hard, sharp pieces, half of it on the table with bits of bacon and sauce, the other half cutting up the insides of your mouth is not pleasant.  They seem to have gone the other way now, the last bacon sandwich I had in Canteen was made with 'plastic' ready-sliced bread with streaky bacon (not properly crisped up, argh) which some people will tell you is how a bacon sandwich should be made.  These are people who have never had the St John bacon sandwich.

The other vital ingredient for a bacon sandwich is the sauce to go with it, and at B&W you get a little pot on the side of home-made tomato ketchup.  The lack of HP sauce may make some people want to cry but you should try it, it works fabulously.  You don't want so much on that it gets in the way of the sandwich, I think the only reason there's such a tradition of dousing HP sauce everywhere is to try and make sandwiches made with the aforementioned shitty bacon actually taste of something.  There's always Canteen over the road if you can't eat one without HP.

The bacon sandwich window only exists between 9 and 11am weekdays, 10-11 at weekends.  I did hear a rumour that they were going to expand this and open a bit earlier but that doesn't seem to have happened.  At 11 all the staff sit down in the restaurant and have a big communal lunch which is fun to watch.  It does mean however that they're not shy about slamming shut the bacon butty window with the apparently starving chefs seeming to have their watches set a few minutes fast.  Between 11 and 12 they serve an elevenses menu which usually consists of seed cake and a glass of Madeira which is very pleasant but it's no substitute for a bacon sandwich if you're 5 minutes late.

Most hangovers are pretty powerless against such a beast, but if you're really struggling ask for a Dr Henderson.  It's not on the menu, it's a drink made with Fernet Branca - an Italian liquer full of herbs - and creme de menthe named after Fergus Henderson's father.  It's the last thing you want to see - it's bright green - let alone drink if you're suffering from the previous night's excesses but oh boy does it work.  Drink it all down in as few goes as possible then just give it a minute or two to get your sight back and for the shaking and spasms and facial tics to stop, once the colour's returned to your cheeks you'll be ready to meet the rest of the day with a smile on your face.  Although don't try driving or operating machinery.  You'll occasionally see a Dr Henderson Ice Cream on the dessert menu which I find somewhat terrifying.


  1. That does look like a really top bunny bacon sandwich, even better than Fuzzy's Grub efforts ( A top bacon sandwich is one of the great pleasures of life; simple ingredients skilfully prepared will always put a smile on the faces of lovers of fine things.

    Clearly, HP Sauce is generally used to hide the shameful use of poor-quality bacon and bread. I like the idea of home-made tomato sauce very much. To StJ B&W I go!

  2. I'm a fan of Fuzzy's too although I've never tried their breakfast sandwiches, just lunchtime roasted meats which are mighty fine once you get past the queues. Will have to remember them next time I'm heading into the office with a sore head in the morning!

  3. It looks like exactly the kind of bacon sanger I would expect from St. John B and W - excellent! My most favourite of pigs too. I have to disagree on the sauce though. I eat top notch bacon sangers all the time and I never 'douse' mine in brown sauce to smother the taste. I eat it because I like the taste of it! Too much though and you are in trouble.

    I had the worst ever sandwich of my life at Fuzzy's though - I'm not surprised they closed. The quality of the ingredients was shockingly bad.

  4. Hadn't thought of ever doing breakfast at St J's. Great idea.

  5. That looks like a proper bacon sandwich.

  6. FoodStories - Ah, 'sangers', that's the word I was trying to think of when I was writing this when I kept recycling butty and sarnie! I use brown sauce at home, I expect the brown/red sauce debate will rage for as long as there's bacon. Glad you're not a 'douser' though. Which Fuzzy's was that? There's loads of them in the City now, even one on Tooley St and they're queueing-out-the-door popular.

    Caroline/Tom - thanks, get there early if you're going on a Sunday!

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