London is full of restaurants which are without any doubt “worth a detour” in Michelin parlance, and despite the pressures on our economy they continue to open, for now. What with trying to keep up, which I am failing miserably to do (yet to get to Leroy and Brat, both unforgivable omissions), old favourites get left by the wayside. Not that I’ve been enough times for it to really count as an “old favourite”, but two years had passed since I’d visited 40 Maltby Street when I met a couple of friends there at the end of September, and that was around twenty-three months too long. The surroundings may be far from plush, but the standard of food here is pretty remarkable.
40 Maltby Street isn’t the easiest place to find if you’ve never been, sitting between London Bridge and Bermondsey Stations, among the bars, breweries, distillery, bakers and wine merchants which have congregated around the narrow streets and railway arches south of the London Bridge terminus. It’s a tiny place too, or at least the bit you eat in. The restaurant is actually part of the original warehouse (since moved, I think) for its sister wine merchant, Gergovie Wines.
Gergovie is the icing on the cake here for lovers of natural wines. It’s not just that they specialise in natural wines, but Gergovie only sell wines which are wholly of that genre, shunning all additives including sulphur. It is worth noting that as a consequence the wines here will be suitable for vegans. The Gergovie range is available to purchase on site, and can also be sampled in the restaurant.
Explosive Materials Brut Nature, L’Égrappille, Auvergne
This just seemed the obvious place to start here, what with Gergovie Wines being named after an Auvergne plateau ten kilometres south of Clermont-Ferrand. We have a sparkling Gamay from the most happening wine region in France, made in the same locale, near Blanzat, on the edge of Clermont.
This producer is quite typical of the region, having taken time to amass just 3.5 ha of vines on the rich basalt which underpins the rugged hills here. The Auvergne was once an enormous viticultural area, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, but rural depopulation did for the Auvergne as it did for much of France’s sources of cheap wine. That left great opportunities for those seeking cheaper vineyards in many such regions, but the spanner in the works here has been the growth of Clermont-Ferrand.
Although Michelin is no longer the great employer it once was (at one time Michelin employed 30,000 people in Clermont), the city has diversified, and its engineering industries still thrive. This means that there are always pressures on land prices, and if you are an older ex-vigneron with a hectare or two of vines, you’ll get a lot more money from a developer than from a young couple hoping to start a vineyard.
I only mention this history because it is important to realise that those who are making a go of wine in the Auvergne are doing so facing many difficulties, and it puts their hard work in context. Those lucky enough to get hold of a hectare or two are able to benefit from very old vine stock, especially probably the best Gamay outside of Beaujolais. At least there is also a local market, although the wines of the Auvergne are now reaching places those original old timers could only have dreamed of.
Explosive Materials is a delicious sparkling Gamay from Chateaugay, one of the best known (at least among wine obsessives) of the communes of the Côtes d’Auvergne appellation, which just bursts with life…and fun. Auvergnat Gamay often tastes quite different to what we are used to from this variety, with more strawberry and raspberry fruit than cherry. There’s a lightness here, coupled with just 11% alcohol, which makes this a genuinely delicious aperitif. The bottle had 2016 stamped on it, and yet it still seemed remarkably fresh. Highly recommended.
L’Éphémère Blanc 2016, Julien Peyras, Languedoc
Julien Peyras has been farming at Paulhan, in L’Hérault, just a little to the northeast of Beziers, since 2007, family vineyards whose fruit previously went to the local co-op. From the outset Julien ditched the chemicals. In fact he’s a member of several organisations which promote fully natural production methods, including zero sulphur.
The grape mix here is Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Roussanne, which is one of the classic white blends of the region. Rather than pure fruit flavours, you get a wine that’s more in the mineral spectrum with herby notes dominating, along with some stone fruit. That doesn’t mean that the wine itself doesn’t taste pure, because it does, remarkably so. It’s quite dark in colour, showing the patina of some bottle age, but it doesn’t fall into the oxidised camp. Instead, the flavours are complex and elusive as the wine changes in the glass. An impressive wine, made by a man who by all accounts is one of the region’s most thoughtful. As Gergovie say on their web site, Julien’s wines show a maturity beyond his years.
Brân “L-16”, Raisin et L’Ange, Ardèche
Raisin et L’Ange is the name of the small negociant business run by Gilles, and his son, Antonin, Azzoni. They are based, with a small vignoble of their own, in the Vallée de L’Ibie in the Ardèche. I’ve actually been not too far from here, the closest town being Aubenas, and it feels pretty remote, west of the Rhône, more or less on a level with Montélimar.
Antonin has pretty much taken over making the wines from his father now. They buy in most of their needs, all organic, and as you will now have come to expect, eschew all additives in the winemaking process. Brân, which presumably is not named after the Giant in Welsh mythology, is a blend of Merlot and Gamay off schist. Winemaking is as simple as possible, with spontaneous fermentation in stainless steel, but the wine’s own simplicity is its major plus point.
There’s a mix of red fruits with cherry here, plus a touch of bitter pepper, a little weight (13% abv) and a silky texture. A lovely wine which just slips down nicely. I’m not sure of the exact percentages in the grape mix, but there does seem to me a little more Gamay coming through, with Merlot (or at least typical Merlot) playing a supporting role.
That’s three wines which fall into the category of “drinkers”. I know you’ll read restaurant reviews in which people order smart wines, for which they pay three times retail price, to go with their justifiably lauded Michelin-starred cuisine, but the food here seems to cry out for wines which “accompany”, rather than fight for supremacy. There was also no doubt about it, three of us demolished these wines without any problem. In fact I think we had a glass of something else afterwards, but I have no notes and no recollection, so the wines I’ve listed obviously went down very well indeed.
Well, I won’t say a lot about the food. I mean, I’m here to tell you about the wines, but the food as I have said was more than excellent. In fact before I went to 40MS this time I was reading around and came across a review by that most reliable of restaurant critics, Marina O’Loughlin. Writing in The Guardian back in 2014, she said “The food that issues from the postage-stamp-sized kitchen is all pretty much faultless”, and I can say without caveat that the same is true today.
There were highlights, of course, and I’d say that the game sausage roll was unmissable, but the long menu chalked up by the bar has the sort of selection where even with a few people sharing, you never exhaust the possibilities. That is especially true of the desserts, which are certainly not an afterthought here, so leave some room. The menu also changes pretty much daily, so there’s little chance of getting bored.
The cooking style here is what I’d call “East London Small Plates”. Sometimes the small plates concept is just annoying, especially when sharing, as there’s never enough and whatever the number dining, if you share there’s always a dish or two with too few pieces. But here, the dishes are substantial enough, so long as your friends are not too greedy. Selecting as many as you can eat soon becomes the main consideration.
With such quality on offer there is a down side, and that is that 40 Maltby Street soon gets packed. I don’t just mean at the weekend, when the surrounding area is a buzz of food and drink lovers and the place is rammed. Even in the week it gets full, the answer being to get in early before all the hard working people fall out of their offices and studios.
Open Wednesday to Sunday, but check times on their basic web site here. No reservations are accepted, so bear in mind what I said about dining early, or at least turning up for a bottle before you order food.