Monday, 15 November 2010

Leila's - a Spitalfields jewel

Leila's Shop & Cafe

Following another strand from The Bermondsey Trail brought me to Leila's shop and cafe on Calvert Avenue, which runs between Arnold Circus and Shoreditch High Street but falls within the Spitalfields are of London.  Leila McAlister first came to my attention several years ago with her Polish sausages and pickles stall on Borough Market, and now also trading on Druid Street, Bermondsey.  Her shop on Calvert Avenue is a jewel. 
In fact the shop has a history as a grocers at least as far back as 1900 when Albert Raymond opened his fruit and vegetable shop, and was succeeded by his son Alfred until his death in 1966.   Follow this link and you’ll find a wonderful photograph dated to 1902 by Joan Rose, the granddaughter of Albert, and more on the history
To describe Leila’s as a grocery store really wouldn’t do it justice, yet essentially it is a grocers but for the way we live now.  In the age of the supermarket, what Leila’s doesn’t try to do is carry a small stock of a large range of goods.   Instead it offers an eclectic range of foods from the best individual sources.  A browse around the shop leaves you feeling a great deal of thought is given to the sourcing and the display and most of the produce hasn't travelled far.  The fruits and vegetables on offer are absolutely seasonal.  For example, at the moment you can find 3 varieties of quince – an English one, a French coing, and a variety brought round by a neighbour from their garden.  For those who think you can get better value in a supermarket, how about autumn purple sprouting broccoli at £1 a bunch?  That’s around £4.00 a kg as compared to £8.95 a kilo at my local waitrose, and even if it was British grown (it wasn't), I wonder how many food miles were involved in putting it on the supermarket shelf.  Of course if I could get my act together I wouldn't have to buy autumn brocolli at all but I've never yet managed to ensure I plant more than the spring sprouting varieties. 

Fresh herbs and strings of whole dried chillies are arranged alongside the Porters' baskets of fruit and vegetables.  Incidentally, the baskets are the same as the ones you can see in the 1902 photograph.  Leila's also stocks a few top quality cheeses, breads from nearby St John, excellent meats including lamb from Montague Farm, as well as the Topolski range of Polish foods.  Preserves are from the excellent Portuguese Rainha Santa, jars of Mel de Cana Sacarina, the hard to find dark and luscious liquid mollases, as well as locally made jams.  There is a dry-goods section with intriguing deep pots containing lentils, pulses, rice and more, all sold by weight, as well as vanilla pods, and chunks of chocolate crying out to be melted into mugs of hot milk.  Every neighbourhood should have a shop like this
As for the cafe next door, you feel like you've just stepped into someone's kitchen.  The kitchen is open to the seating area.  Slightly disconcerting at first as although most of us have by now experienced "open kitchens" in restaurants, there is usually at least the demarcation line of a bar.  Here the cook will rustle up a pan of fried eggs and Serrano ham within a few paces of your table and bring it over to you in the pan when it's ready.  Served with good bread and a generous slab of butter, this is really just good home cooking, as they freely admit, but you'll leave feeling like you've been fed well by your favourite Auntie, or Uncle, in a well-used room just made for company.  You'll also find a soup of the day, brownies and cakes and Monmouth coffee. 
It has to be said that not everyone gets it.  Some people find the place underwhelming, some unwelcoming.  Others would like to move in.  The whole set-up puts me in mind of the original Villandry shop and cafe run by Rose and Jean-Charles Cararini which used to be on Marylebone High Street, before the street became over-gentrified.  I used to almost live there.  I'm told weekends at Leila's are very busy - I'd definitely avoid Sunday mornings as it is too close to Columbia Road flower market for comfort.
Leila's Shop & Cafe
17 Calvert Avenue
London E2 7JP
Tues-Sat 9-6pm
Sun 11-5pm
Nearest Tube: Old Street

UPDATE MAY 2012: Leila's now provides weekly veg boxes

If you can't get to Leila's, here's my take on ham and eggs:

Fried Eggs with Cured Ham for 2
Take a cast-iron pan (around 25cm), add a knob of butter and a tablespoon or two of olive oil.  Heat until bubbling.  Crack two or more eggs into the pan and cook over a moderate heat until the whites are are almost set.  Add slices of Serrano or other cured ham, nestling them between the eggs, and cook, turning once, for another minute.  Spoon some of the fat over the yolks to set lightly.  Take the pan to the table and share.