“I do feel that food shops are the unsung heroes of our food scene. The sheer amount of hard work that goes into running a shop – sourcing ingredients, maintaining stock range and quality, recruiting and maintaining staff, staying open for longer and longer hours, offering good, knowledgeable service – deserves our respect”.
Jenny Linford, “Food Lovers’ London”, published by Metro Publications
Jenny Linford first wrote her comprehensive London food shop directory in 1991, before the age of the Internet, food blogs, social media and Google. Through word of mouth and contacting well known food writers and producers, she walked her way through miles and miles of London, finding the very best bakeries, butcheries, food halls, delicatessens, fishmongers, spice shops and tea rooms. A labour of love, fuelled by human curiosity and an appreciation of authentic, regional cuisines, it is now in its seventh edition, updated and refreshed at the same speed with which new shops are created and developed.
“Normally writers focus on restaurants and chefs, but I wanted to showcase the great diversity multi-cultural food shops that we have all over London. Great cooking starts with good ingredients, and right under our noses is such a huge array of excellent shops, many of which are undiscovered by cooks,” Jenny told me, during the course of one of the gastro-tours she organises for keen foodies to learn more about London’s food and drink shop treasures.
Her husband, the photographer Chris Windsor, accompanied Jenny on many of her forays, photo shooting the various stall holders, bakers, grocers, cooks and deli owners in the book. Jenny is the author of “The London Cookbook” and “Great British Cheeses”, as well as being a freelance food journalist for magazines, newspapers and the British Library Food Stories website. Finding great food shops is her passion and love.
Armed with our copy of the guide book, my husband John-Paul and I spent a day with Jenny travelling by foot and buses meeting shopkeepers, looking at produce and sampling treats from one shop to another.
We started with coffee in a Lebanese restaurant called Beirut Express near Paddington train station, and made our way to Green Valley, Claudia Roden’s favourite Lebanese grocery store in Berkeley Street, just off the Edgeware Road. Here we tasted flat breads with a salty za’atar filling and admired the beautiful piles of handmade cakes, pastries and sweets in the window counter as well as fresh Middle Eastern produce in the fruit and vegetable racks. We saw 22 varieties of dates in Bateel in New Bond Street, perused mountains of spices in The Indian Spice Shop in Drummond Street, marvelled at the variety of coffee beans at the Algerian Coffee Stores in Old Compton Street, envied the charcuterie, fresh pasta and breads at Italian shops such as Camisa and Lina Stores, and, jaws dropped and eyes wide, were taken round China Town’s food highlights, including New Loon Moon Supermarket, in the centre of Gerrard Street.
Jenny has lived in Ghana, Singapore, Italy and Trinidad, and her curiosity and interest in the culture, communities and creativity that abound in these London streets is formidable. In “Food Lovers’ London” she describes how settlers, including Jewish, Polish, Portuguese, African and French migrants came to live in London, why they created ghettos in certain areas, and how they created food hubs which are now of interest to cooks who want to experiment with a wide range of cuisines.
“Religion and food are the only two things you can take with you when you migrate,” Jenny told us. “Often ingredients and recipes were the ways in which immigrants could keep their culture and identity alive in their new land.”
Onwards and upwards we carried on our tour, into Maison Bertaux in Greek Street, founded in 1871, a patisserie that embodies Soho’s link to the 19th century French community. We admired carefully crafted cream cakes, millefeuilles, eclairs and cakes, as the Manager Michelle proudly showed us her bijou shop. Her smile was as broad as that of the Indian shopkeeper at Ambala, the sweet and treat shop that was as clean and chic as the most upmarket deli. Behind spotless glass counters we could see a colourful array of Indian confectionery, rainbow colours of delicious sweetness tempting us to yet another sampling. In many of the streets we ventured we would have walked straight past secret entrances or narrow lanes, completely ignorant of the treasures that lay just a few feet away, had it not been for Jenny’s guidance.
Struggling under the weight of ever-increasing rental charges and rates, many of London’s best food purveyors have had to shut shop, sadly, making way for the ubiquitous chains that now inhabit our streetscapes. It is Jenny’s mission to raise awareness of this plight, so that as many people as possible spend as much money as possible in the small, family-owned businesses.
“Without these food shops London would be infinitely less enticing and considerably less appetising.”
There were two highlights of the day. Firstly, our visit to Postcard Teas in Dering Street, owned by the cool and hip Tim d’Offey, an enthusiast for delicate, specialist teas from far flung places. This shop is a calm, stylish oasis of precious gifts, tea caddies, porcelain and textiles. You can sit and sample the teas before you buy, and learn how to get the very best infusion from your tea leaves. A “must see” destination for all tea lovers, they also sell online.
Our second highlight of the day was lunch at Honey & Co, the diminutive Middle Eastern restaurant on Warren Street. Tired and hot from our day of walking, talking and discovering, we relaxed and chatted over homemade lemonade, iced tea and beer and ate delicious mezze, Yemeni style falafel with fresh herbs and tahini sauce, roasted octopus with chilli, carrot and butternut fritters and lamb shawarma with charred pitta.
It is interesting to learn from the book how the various Middle Eastern communities came to live in London: from the Egyptians who came there in the 1940s and 1950s for education and work, to the Arabs who came with their petro-dollars in the 1970s, to the Iranians, Lebanese and Iraqis who fled wars and conflicts, the spread and influence of this gastronomy is fast creating an imprint in so many British kitchens.
If you are a keen cook just visiting London as a tourist, or indeed already live there but are not aware of the presence of so many specialist food emporia, this book and tour are your encyclopaedic references for a journey of discovery you will never forget. A rich part of the social tapestry of Britain’s multicultural history begins in the larder: Jenny Linford guides you through the past, present and future of London’s shop larders and markets with scholarly depth and exhaustive research. Both book and tour are enriching and captivating. Wear comfortable shoes and elasticated trousers.
Follow on Twitter: @jennylinford
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