London is an amazing place, culinarily speaking. When I first arrived I thought I’d made a terrible mistake: I was shocked by the limp, wilting, week old peppers on display at the mini markets on every local high street, completely exposed to passing bus fumes and worse. Eating out was was a trial of outrageously expensive mediocre food.
But I was wrong. Over time I discovered new cuisines, new ingredients and whole new food cultures – and excellent places where one can eat exceptionally well for the price of a day’s travel card. Below are ten things I will miss about food in London and the UK.
1) Islington farmer’s market.
Related to point (2) below, the Islington farmer’s market has strict rules about the provenance of the produce sold there. Certainly not all of it is organic, although some is, but it is local. In general, I was pleasantly surprised at the prices; avoiding the cheeses, pre-prepared goodies or bakery confections, it’s entirely possible to spend less than in a supermarket and is particularly good value for meat.
A few of my favourite stalls include the fish lady from Hastings – two boats that catch and sell whatever’s available in The Channel the day previous. She introduced me to huss, an incredibly useful (& cheap!) fish that isn’t pretty but can be treated like a cut of meat. From her I also developed a bit of a mackeral habit – a bit stinky to cook in a flat but o so good!
Another favourite is the very seasonal nightshades man. He has a small holding in Cambridgeshire and is only at the markets in summer but his tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and variety of chillis are the best. The Man, being from the Balkans, takes his peppers very seriously and we can easily walk away with 10 of all different shapes and colours.
A third fave is also from Cabridgeshire, Perry Farm. I like the fact that we’re served by the same old bloke/ young fella and that buying veg from them isn’t some glamourised ‘lifestyle’ statement, it just really is better quality and cheaper than the supermarket. In summer I can’t not get too much soft fruit and frequently bring my own plastic tubs so that the precious raspberries and currants (white, red and black) don’t get squashed. Not keen on arrivistes not understanding the queuing system though. Humph!
Honourable mention finally, to the grumpy baker. His rye and light sourdough – and ‘customer service’ – are particular favourites.
2) Organic, free range, local, food miles etc.
The UK is admirably ahead of the game when it comes to ethics, sustainability and food. Issues around the provenance and conditions in which food is produced have had a high profile for some time and many supermarkets specifically highlight UK origins, Kentish this or Gloucestershire that.
This is also the country of Jamie’s school dinners, BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks so not all is dandy, but the availability of organic or free range options is entirely normal in the (well stocked, see point 3 below) supermarkets.
3) Big, shiny, well stocked supermarkets.
I should have shares in Waitrose, I’ve spent so much money there over the years. Saying you do your regular shop there invites scorn and accusations of la-di-da-ness but oh, it’s lovely! For any Aussies reading this, Waitrose is owned by John Lewis, which is the equivalent to David Jones – so it’s definitely at the upper end of the groceries market.
But it’s not just posh supermarkets. We used to go to the big Sainsburys on Green Lanes and the Morrisons near us is very well stocked. It even has VB! And one time we went to the hangar-like Tesco in Edmonton which has just about everything anyone could want in the world -ever. We bought milk, wine, sticky tape and a yoga mat. As you do.
My recent visits to supermarkets in Aus were disappointing by comparison. Lift your game Woolies, Coles and… oh yeah, I forgot, there’s really only two… so much for a competitive market.
4) Famous restaurants.
I’m not a food snob, I promise, but sometimes there is a bit of a buzz about going to a famous restaurant. I can never quite believe I’m actually there.
We’ve been to Locanda Locatelli, Moro, The River Cafe, Murano and St John. Not all of them are stuffed shirt kinda places and some have been better than others, but all are recognised chefs, which is kinda cool sometimes. I actually got star struck when I saw Angela Hartnett (Gordon Ramsey protege) with an apron on in the front room of her place, Murano, like she really cooks there!
I could eat at Ottolenghi every day of the year. It is precisely the kind of food I like to eat now: a little bit mediterranean, a bit middle eastern, mostly vegetarian and really, really good. It reflects Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s backgrounds, as Jewish and Arab Israelis. It makes you feel better for having eaten it.
I am extremely lucky to have the sit-down branch near me and treated myself to a plate of their salads as often as possible. I have both the books and already they are spattered in tahini and olive oil from frequent use.
6) Asian food.
I was quite ignorant about Asian food (ie, food from the Indian subcontinent, not SE Asia) before living in London. Although I am still far from knowledgeable, at least now I know the name of some of the key ingredients (saag, ghosht etc) and recognise the north-south differences.
Brick Lane is famous for its curry houses, but they’re decidedly dodgy and generally crap so best avoided. Through trial and error (oh, so much error!) and recommendations we found Tayyab’s, which is well known in London as one of the best Pakistani grill houses. Not for vegetarians or secluded first dates; it’s always chaos.
Outside of zone 2, the Lahore Kebab House in suburban Hendon is excellent. We were taken there by Pakistani friends and each dish tastes distinctly of itself, not generic ‘brown curry sauce’. It was a revelation.
I didn’t even know there were regional variations in Indian cooking so going to Rasa, a small chain of Keralan restaurants, was educational. Their use of coconut as a base ingredient makes their food very interesting, with some similarities to Thai, and completely different to the meat heavy food of the north.
7) Mini markets.
Yeah, I know I bagged them in the introduction but we couldn’t function without them because they’re open nearly 24 hours. In our area, they’re run by Turkish people, which means an excellent selection of pulses, pickles and multiple choices of feta. They also have proper bunches of mint, parsley and coriander, not the aenemic garnishes sold in packets at the supermarkets. And because they’re on every high street, you’re never more than a block or two from a pint of milk or a last minute onion.
8 ) Sandwich shops.
Perhaps an odd one because most of the sandwich shops are part of two dominant chains, Pret a Manger or Eat. However, one of these two is vastly preferable to most independent sandwich shops. Although nominally independent, the more trad lunch bars all serve the same mediocre selection of mayonnaise based sandwiches. Coronation chicken is alive and well. By comparison, Pret and Eat are far more interesting and no more expensive.
Please do correct me if I’m wrong on this, but my observation during my last trip to Aus was that lunch options are as uninspiring as they were when I lived there. I hate the plague of Starbucks (see 9 below) and am not keen on chains in general, but I think there’s a need for an Eat or Pret for workers in Aus.
Equally an odd one because it is a frequent source of shocked amazement that in a city as worldly as London, it is nigh impossible to get good coffee. I started drinking tea because the coffee was so dire. Indeed, some say that, although coffee’s now outstripped tea as the dominant drink, culturally the Brits are still a nation of tea drinkers and either don’t know or don’t value good coffee. Either way, it’s usually rubbish so save yourself the bitter aftertaste and have tea. And, just to rub salt in the wound, the big chains are opressive. Starbucks, Nero’s, Costa are like a fungus on the high street.
However, long searching and a coffee obsessed colleague have revealed a few places where very good coffee indeed can be had. These include Dose in Clerkenwell, Lantana in Bloomsbury, Flat White in Soho, and Monmouth in Covent Garden. Interestingly, three of those four above are run but Antipodeans. My personal fave is Good for Food on Blackstock Rd in Finsbury Park. I’m biased because I lived opposite, but it’s the best coffee in London. Really. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. These places are worth treasuring all the more because they are rarities in a sea of iced-choco-mocha-frappe-lattecinos or caffeinated dirty dish water.
What would the UK be without its pubs? Single for one thing, I bet. There’s no better way to get to know colleagues than Friday night pints when people really do overcome a certain British reserve through the medium of alcohol.
Pubs are everywhere. Every street, every corner, even every village. While organisations like Campaign for Real Ale highlight the increasing rate at which pubs are closing, they are still the cornerstone of the high street.
I love the names: The White Hart, The Hope and Anchor, The King’s Arms, The Queen’s Head, The Famous Cock, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (yes really). I love the old fashioned decor of carved wood, smelly velveteen banquettes and Victorian cut glass. A pub with modern decor is not to be trusted.
After much, much practice, I can now tell a well kept from a stale pint of ale and understand why it’s served at room temperature. Which isn’t to say I like ale, but at least I’ve made a reasonably informed choice to not drink it.