After spending three years in the quiet atmosphere of a small Cambridge college, my moving to London constituted quite a shock. A maze of busy streets and car-clogged roads, the city can be overwhelming to even the hardiest of city dwellers.
Pining for the more intimate environment in which I previously worked and lived encouraged me to wander off the busy maelstrom of the King’s Road onto the quieter streets which form the back-bone of the Kensington and Chelsea borough. It is here that I found Chelsea Green, a small patch of grass encircled by a selection of small independent shops. With a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker, it is a hard-working, quaint community. Finns of Chelsea Green, a delicatessen and coffee shop, forms the hub of this charming, little quasi-village.
Finns was established twenty seven years ago by Julia Bannister. She still runs the delicatessen with her niece, Milly Bagot, and the shop exudes the warmth created by family life and personal service. For nearly three decades the team of staff has been preparing ready meals for taking away – from perfect and comforting fish pies to sweet, delicate compôtes and everything in between. Since August 2011 they have served as a coffee shop too, where coffee beans are freshly ground throughout the day.
The shop is intimate. Four green marble tables are enclosed by asparagus coloured walls. The shelves are filled with jams and vinaigrettes, biscuits and honey and a melée of gifts, from glassware to hand-painted ceramics and hand-blocked tablecloths. There is a bar at the window overlooking a tiny triangle of grass, a reminder that this area used to play host to the large Chelsea Heath on which residents were able to keep livestock. An enormous cherry blossom tree explodes with pink petals in Spring. During the busy lunchtime rush, Finns customers overflow onto this patch of grass to eat their hot lunch or soup on the slatted wooden benches.
Each day different dishes are prepared in the kitchen behind the shop. From 8.30am until 6pm, the cooks wander from the hob to the shop floor with veal wrapped in Parma ham covered in a Madeira sauce, salmon with asparagus and hollandaise, lentils with sun-blushed tomatoes, feta and sweet red onions, large quiches and sticky sausages. In pride of place sits a large honey baked ham. There are seasonal soups and salads: in the summer a mange tout, mushroom and grilled broccoli salad with ginger rests on a large white platter next to roasted beetroot with pistachio nut pesto and goat’s cheese. It is a restful, light and airy place to have a mid-week lunch.
Most of the dishes sold on the premises are cooked in the kitchen at the back, the girls’ chatter and the hum of the coffee machine filling the shop. The hot lunches range from British favourites like kedgeree to chicken with lemon and tarragon vinaigrette and orzo pasta. The fridges are filled with dishes designed to make simple family suppers easy for busy working parents.
A recent development has been the publication of the Finns recipe book. “Finns 27 Years on Chelsea Green” details the history of the shop and showcases ninety two recipes from the kitchen. Written by Julia Bannister, she charts the early years of her business, when delicatessens in London were few and far between and ready-made food was treated with suspicion. The book contains vignettes of the early years: slicing ham for Elizabeth David herself; catering for the opening nights of shows such as “Les Misérables” and “Cats; facing the wrath of bank managers as optimistic cash flow forecasts failed to materialise and, a turning point in Finns’s history, a review by the food writer Philippa Davenport for the Weekend Financial Times in 1987. The book is a joyous celebration of Finns, the people who work and shop there, bringing readers up to the present day of Chelsea Green, its comings and goings, the cultural changes the business has seen and those things that have remained the same through time.
The book has a distinctive old-fashioned feel, with pen and ink drawings punctuating the story and colour photographs charting the changing face and faces of Finns. Printed and hand bound in England by The Logan Press and The Fine Book Bindery, the book is a testament to the quality Finns has come to epitomise.
I always leave reluctantly, usually with a little something for dinner packed away in their distinctive green ‘bag for life’, the proceeds of which go to The Amber Foundation, a residential charity which helps the young and unemployed to gain the skills they need to find work. I journey from the west end of this city, which is still so new to me, back to my home in the east. I dream of the next espresso I will drink there: short and bitter in contrast to the long and happy history of this unique and very special shop.
Finns website: www.finnsofchelseagreen.com
The book can be purchased by e-mailing: [email protected]
Follow Julia Bannister on Twitter: @JBannisterFinns