How they beefed up the burger

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It's gone from takeaway staple to full-blown foodie fetish. What's all the fuss about? Alice-Azania Jarvis joins the quest for bliss in a bun

The anticipation, the slight ache as your jaw stretches beyond its normal limits, the first bite, bread slowly giving way, pickle being decisively crunched, well-seasoned meat spilling juices down your chin, arms, on to your (hopefully not white) shirt. Eating a proper burger is that rare thing: luxurious, extravagant, and open to all. Everyone has had a burger. Well, everyone who has at some stage of their life eaten meat – and even the most lifelong of lifelong vegetarians are likely to have indulged in some plant-based equivalent (the bean, the beetroot, the mushroom). More than that, though, everyone has a story about a burger: the time they had the Best Burger Ever, the place they know which grills them like no one else.

Lately, the sound of these boasts, this smug carnivorous bragging, has got louder. A lot louder. Part of the blame lies with Yianni Papoutsis who, when he founded the Meat Wagon in London, created a cheeseburger with such a strong following – first cult, then not so cult – that it wasn't long before it was being written about both here and abroad. His van lured customers from across the country to a car park in Peckham, south London, in search of beef. Freshly ground, carefully sourced, expertly seasoned beef. When his truck was stolen, Papoutsis opened a temporary restaurant, the MeatEasy in New Cross, which drew similarly rapturous reviews. The resulting profits were poured into a new van, which started operations earlier this month. "I wanted to introduce a good honest burger to Britain. Travelling across America, I've stopped at a lot of diners. They grind their own meat every day, and each one had a distinct balance of taste and texture: the burgers are delicious."

Papoutsis isn't alone in his enthusiasm for the simple pattie. Russell Norman, proprietor of Soho's small-plate restaurants Polpo, Polpetto and, more recently, Spuntino, is equally evangelical. The burger at Spuntino – not on the menu, but available to those who ask for it – has drummed up corresponding levels of excitement. "People are describing it as a 'secret burger' but that's not what we're going for," he explains. "It's more that, if you go to any of those classic New York diners, the burgers often aren't on the menu, because everyone knows you can always get one. In the same way, Spuntino always has a burger." Add the sound surrounding these two patties to the buzz around Ladbroke Grove's Lucky Chip (another van; this one founded by Ben Campbell) and the Opera Tavern's Iberico pork offering, and you've got a cacophony.

So why the fuss? The burger, a fast-food staple, has never really gone out of fashion. But why are we so passionate about it now? "It's a sign of the times," says Ben Tish, head chef at the Opera Tavern. "It's a case of back to basics – comfort food. Having a burger harks back to childhood, so there's an element of nostalgia. And depending on what you put in it, you can give it that high-end twist." Papoutsis agrees: "A burger is a great affordable luxury. It's a classic, and we've seen a massive trend for that recently, from traditional English puddings to things like burgers. People revisit them and realise how good they can be. Not just good but healthy – a burger doesn't have to be junk food."

Indeed it doesn't. On the high street, the Above Average Burger Chain has been making steady progress for some time. Gourmet Burger Kitchen opened its doors in the early Noughties; since then, Grand Union, The Diner and Byron Burgers have followed suit, establishing a clear-cut niche in the market. Making your own burgers at home has become increasingly de rigueur; both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have included recipes in recent books, while Waitrose has just begun selling Heston Blumenthal-designed "Ulti-mate Burgers," available in lamb and cucumber or veal and tartare sauce.

There have been signs of the burger's rise elsewhere, too. The Wolseley in Piccadilly included a hamburger in its array of pseudo-casual dinner fare. Under Jason Atherton, the Maze Grill started dishing them up to those willing to pay double digits for a bite. And in New York, the cult burger – the kind that MeatEasy, Lucky Chip and Spuntino have given us – has been causing queues for several years, spawning blogs such as A New Burger a Day and exhaustive magazine features seeking "The Best Burger In Manhattan". So perhaps it's about time we got our own version.

But which one's the right one? Among burger aficionados, the debate over what should – or shouldn't – be included in the perfect burger rages ferociously. By using pork instead of beef, Tish already departs from convention, all the more so with the addition of shaved foie gras, aged Manchego, aioli and onion jam. Served medium-rare in a brioche bun with butter head lettuce and a selection of pickled guindilla peppers, it is, in many ways, the ultimate posh burger: "That's the irony," explains Tish. "It's opulent, but a burger. It was a risk – but it's absolutely taken off." It certainly has. Now the Opera Tavern's signature dish, the burger's combined ability to be juicy, rich and not in the slightest bit sickly inspires hushed tones from visiting diners – and Tish has been asked to recreate it for visitors to the Taste of London festival later this month.

At the other end of the spectrum is Spuntino's firmly purist interpretation. Encased in a soft white bun, it comes two ways: with cheese or without. The inside is left a bloody pink, it's dished up along with some gherkins and some slices onions, and that's that. "My strong opinion is that a proper burger should be ground beef, and that's all," says Norman. Spuntino does offer more elaborate bun-based snacks – stuffed, variously, with spicy mackerel, ground beef and bone marrow, and salt beef – but these, Norman stresses, are "sliders" not burgers. "A burger is a democratic food. It's a quick, affordable way of getting protein, fat and carbohydrate down you. I hate seeing the word 'gourmet' tagged on to it. It's pretentious."

Indeed, on this point he's in fine company. Like Norman, Papoutsis prefers his patties unadorned; the Meatwagon offers a cheeseburger, a bacon cheeseburger and a green chilli number: "For me its not about showing off with fancy ingredients – there's definitely a market for that, but it's not what the Meatwagon is about. The reason the standard cheeseburger has been so successful for so long is that it's a classic. It's got the holy trinity of bread, meat, and dairy."

What Papoutsis' burgers lack in high-end add ons, they make up for in specifics. Made using 28-day aged chuck steak, they are minced thickly for texture and have a fat level of 15 per cent. His bun is sourdough – it must, he says, be "strong enough to hold up under the juices and offer a bit of flavour to compliment the meat" – and his cheese is famously top-secret. "My favourite type of roll is one you get in the States called a potato roll – but you can't bring it over, so this is the closest thing."

Ben Campbell of Lucky Chip is similarly exacting. Having experimented with different suppliers, he has finally settled on London butchers, the Ginger Pig. Bread is part brioche, part sourdough, part plain old white, and cheese must be "nothing too aged, something gooey, something that will melt well."

It's fast food – but it's a far cry from the flimsy, defrosted patties of countless faceless fryeries. In tribute to the burger renaissance, food writer Daniel Young, of www.youngandfoodish.com has begun hosting a series of pop-ups ("Burger Mondays") at Andrew's, a greasy spoon in London. "Growing up in New York I fondly remember burger drive-ins from the pre-McDonald's era that made outstanding burgers," he explains.

His standards are high – guest chefs must "respect the integral beauty of the chopped steak even as they approach it with imagination" – but, he insists, it's not the specifics that make the burger, it's the whole: "A great burger is not limited to one burger class, size or genre. But all – whether £5 or £15 – have one characteristic in common: they are untidy, thrilling, implosive sandwiches you shouldn't eat without a stack of napkins at the ready. " And that, perhaps, is the anatomy of a classic.

The Taste of London takes place at London's Regent's Park on 16-19 June www.tastefestivals.com/london

The best of British

It's not just London that has experienced a burger renaissance. Try one of these highly rated eateries outside the capital.

Schwartz Brothers, Bath – has a devoted local following. The Schwartz burger doesn't look like much, but wins points for its "addictive" garlic mayo.

Chilled Red, Dorset – just off Swanage High Street, Chilled Red burgers come highly recommended.

Burger Off, Hove – They once created a burger so spicy it came with a disclaimer – but don't let that put you off.

Star Inn, North Yorkshire – Renowned for its fresh take, its burger comes with Yorkshire relish and sweet onions.

Opera Tavern Iberico burger with Manchego

Ingredients, serves 1

75g iberico pork shoulder
3g breadcrumbs
10ml milk
5 g fresh foie gras – frozen
Salt and pepper
2g finely chopped shallots, sweated in olive oil
8cm burger bun cut in half
Home-made garlic aioli (eggs, olive oil garlic),
Red onion marmalade (red onions cooked with red wine vinegar and brown sugar)
Fried red onions in harina di trigo and smoked paprika
5g aged Manchego cheese, grated
1 small leaf of butter head lettuce
2 guindilla peppers for garnish
Olive oil for cooking

Method

Heat a char grill to maximum heat.

Mince the Iberico pork shoulder and then mix with the milk, breadcrumbs, shallots and season with salt and pepper. Quickly grate in the frozen foie gras and mix again. Shape into a patty and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Drizzle some olive oil on to both sides of the burger and season. Grill for 3 minutes on each side until browned and pink in the centre. Rest the burger for a minute or so in a warm spot and sprinkle on some grated Manchego so the heat of the burger melts it slightly. Grill the burger bun on both sides to lightly char.

To assemble the burger: spoon on some aioli on to the burger bun base. Top with the lettuce and then a spoon of onion marmalade. Place the burger on top of this followed by two crispy onion rings and then the burger bun top. Slide a skewer through the middle of the burger to hold in place and then serve with the guindilla peppers on the side.

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