Middle Road, next to Northfield Farms stall #50, Borough Market, London, UK; map); boroughmarket.org.uk
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order:Griddle-cooked grass fed beef served on a large bap achieves a decent flavor but is not textural balance
Want Fries with That? Not available, but there are plenty of fish 'n' chip shops in the area
Notes: Thurs., 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Fri., 12 p.m. - 6 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Walking through a very busy Borough Market on a chilly Saturday afternoon in the late fall, I came across not one but two very long lines stretching out from stalls serving burgers. I managed to walk by the first one without distraction, but by the time I had reached the second one, located next to Northfield Farms butcher in stall #50 on Middle Road, curiosity got the better of me and I joined the line. There are many delicacies available in Borough Market to feed the hungry omnivore—wild boar sausage, pork pies the size of a baby's head, roast beef sandwiches, bangers smoked with thyme, not to mention a slew of ethnic treats such as bratwurst and chorizo. Can the burger stand amongst them?
The patty is formed from grass fed "heritage" beef from Leicestershire. Heritage beef refers to cattle that is indigenous to the British Isles, such as Belted Galloway and other "rare" breeds. The beef has a tangy, herbaceous flavor that is a result of the grass feed. While not necessarily unpleasant, it lacks the rich mouthfeel that one gets from fattier grain-fed beef. The dense patty is well seasoned with a strong, peppery flavor and is so finely ground that it might better be described as minced.
Unfortunately, due to the fine grind and the relative leanness of the patty, its texture trends toward the rubbery. The tightly packed meat fibers cause the patty to distort and become concave since the meat fibers constrict during cooking and don't have enough room to move. A looser pack would insure against this, as would not cooking the patty through. Surprisingly, the burger is juicy enough, although obviously not the last word in succulence.
The billowing smoke from the grill indicates a scalding surface—indeed, the patty does have a decent char. It is also cooked ahead of time and sits in a metal container off to the side of the griddle. Although it doesn't sit for long because of the line of hungry shoppers, it's a curious practice that doesn't help the finished product.
The burger is served on a bap, a large white roll that that traditionally includes butter or shortening in the recipe, but rarely does these days. The sharp English cheddar is strewn about the bap in small shards and doesn't melt. While the cheese is wonderful, it may be a bit too pungent for a burger. The stingy smattering of griddled onions makes no significant contribution to the flavor—there just aren't enough of them.
The bap is hand-split and briefly griddled, allowing it to soak up some flattop grease, but not long enough to burnish it. The small five to six-ounce burger is somewhat lost in the puffy bun and is stuffed in like a falafel, resulting in a less than ideal bread-to-beef ratio. After the patty is gone, one is left with a semi-circular ring of bread. But between the cheese and beef the burger achieves a pleasing synergy flavor-wise, if not texturally.
This hamburger is ultimately an exulted version of the notorious British burger van method of preparation: The burgers are cooked ahead of time and usually sit around before being stuffed into large baps. Quality ingredients—Heritage beef and artisanal cheese—are an improvement over the traditionally inferior ones, but it is still not the ideal way to make a burger. The Borough Market burger stands as the finest example of a uniquely British method of burger preparation, a cultural curiosity that has hopefully hit an evolutionary cul de sac.
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