Café Proper hosted The London Magazine’s recent reception on a night of confidential dark and cold. Away down Maiden lane the buildings reared as pale and gaunt as retired ambassadors. Rules, that most louche of old restaurants winks across the street at Café Proper, in a kind of prelapsarian culinary wantonness.


For there was a time (betwixt and between these two Covent Garden eateries), when British food was something of a joke. So much so, that many Britons often felt it prudent to laugh along when others mocked the victuals of these damp and hemmed islands. However, we are now poised on the cusp of a resurgence in British eating and Café Proper is among its most confident outriders; proud of the produce, gracious in its hospitality and accomplished in the execution.


I like the juxtaposition of Café and Proper – a playfulconjuration, with the imperative declension hinting at the honesty and percolation of the food. It is unashamedly a bijou café, geared towards an informal celebration of artisanal food.


I had met Maureen the owner once before. She had explained the defining motifs of the place, cider, and sausages. She told me of the English tapas idea and her desire to welcome pre theatre diners. So, on the night of the reception I arrived with my copy of Hillaire Belloc’s The Four Men deliberately tucked under my arm. This tome has the tang of frost to it and is surely the Gospel of the South Country. Belloc was half French, yet also truly of Sussex. I am sure he would have liked Café Proper.


The guests arrived muffled. They were the crowd we have come to love at London Mag receptions. Friends all, they pressed into Proper. It is an intimate place. There were poets, diplomats, bankers, cardiologists, a monk, art critics, art dealers, artists, a few MPs and the odd professor. It was like Fezziwig’s party, but with more velvet. Maureen came amongst us with the sausages and the cider.


Now I know these sausages. They are O’Hagan’s of Fishbourne. When the Roman came they built King Cogidubnus a palace at Fishbourne. I presume a great grandfather of Mr O’Hagan must have made him sausages. For these links are cunning, inventive and true (as is everything in the South Country). The specimens that Maureen offered would suit a client king. The flavours sang – pork and honey, beef and guinness, pear and stilton, chicken and garlic. You will know all about finger food -dry satay chicken and claggy sushi offered at parties. These triflings have become as hackneyed as the cheese and pineapple of the seventies. Well, our guests are as cosmopolitan a bunch as you are likely to meet and, I presume, well used to the usual tingle of such morsels. So it was interesting to witness their behaviour when the sausages came round.


I saw well-heeled ladies and a Russian impresario take the samples. I saw a sudden light come into their eyes and their fingers reach again for the sausages. I saw my local MP pause in mid flow (and that is something), and take another three portions. Pretty soon, the ecstasy of tasting resembled nothing short of scrumping.


The French have long been alive to the mythic charge of food. Proust remembered things past. In England, I believe, we seek something else – a food memory we think we have had. If it was true of the sausages it was more so with the cider that evening. Hitherto, I had generally shunned cider, considering it the early morning tipple of certain Scottish gentlemen who hang around King’s Cross Station.


The Kentish ciders Maureen gave us were of a different genus. Nettle, strawberry and blackberry, pure apple. Memories I had never known flashed on my tongue – picnics in sunny orchards, lying under the sun on chalky downlands, dozing behind bee loud brambles – all these sparkled in Jake Husheath’s cider. This man must be an alchemist. This cider tasted like a mild champagne, or as cider would if it had one French grandmother. I like winter but this cider, drunk in winter, ignited a desire for the ease of warm, long days.


So it was with a cheeky sense of homage that I opened my Belloc to read to the assembled guests. Homage to the food, to the season and to Maureen of Café Proper. I read the extract that relates to Belloc’s last night on his imaginary wander across Sussex in 1902, where, at the Three Horsehoes, at Elstead he and his companions ate such perfection in the way of bacon and eggs that none of us had thought possible on this side of the grave.


At last I found that I had finished my nettle cider and made for the long train journey home. Yet just like Belloc I carried the thought of new memories before me and knew this Café to be proper.

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