Favourite Shops

Fortitude Bakehouse

Sticky Bun
at Fortitude Bakehouse

The aroma of melting cheese and warm Bara Brith is wafting from the open door of Fortitude Bakehouse on a soggy spring morning.  It's a beguiling fusion of savoury and sweet on the nose. Spiced-up dried fruit and the right cheese have a harmonious relationship - Eccles Cake and Lancashire; Christmas fruitcake and Wensleydale; Malt Loaf and, well, take your pick but I'd go for tangy Cheshire.  I've come across a Christmas Cake flavoured cheese, but best not to go there!  At Fortitude today it's, maybe, fortuitous timing that sees me walking through the door to find Eccles Cakes on the counter, just-out-of-the-oven Bara Brith cooling in its loaf tin and Cheese & Leek Batons reaching peak aroma point in the oven.  Symphonic scents.

Fortitude Bakehouse is the new venture of Jorge Fernandez, founder of Fernandez & Wells and Dee Retalli, founder of Patisserie Organic and until recently Operations Manager for Fernandez & Wells.
Slow ferment Sourdough craft-baking, sweet and savoury, and single-farm coffee is their usp but there are gluten-free and vegan bakes too.  Wholesale and take-away is their focus but a strip of the small bakehouse is given over to those who can't wait to tuck-in and there is bench outside too.  A Victoria Arduino coffee machine expresses the single-farm coffee and there is stone-rolled tea from the excellent Postcard Teas.

Fortitude Bakehouse

As far as the waistline goes, it's a dangerous place to linger.  All the preparation and all the results are in full view, and smell.  There's a constantly changing parade of bakes - Dee Retalli clearly has quite a repertoire to place before us - but a slice of that Bara Brith is a good starting point.  Lightly spiced, good dried fruit and a great, satisfyingly chewy (in the best way) texture thanks to the sourdough ferment.  The Sticky Buns are irresistible and the muffins are what you always hope they will be but seldom are.  I've ordered enough bad ones to last a lifetime but my faith is restored by Dee's Carrot and Almond Muffin, not to mention the Bilberry version.  And don't miss the Boiled Orange & Almond  Cake - moist, sharp, sweet, bitter and fragrant.  Or the Bostock, which until now has always failed to hit the spot for me.

at Fortitude Bakehouse

Early-morning means a bowl of yogurt with granola (nut-free and delicious) with honey;  you may find a Berber omelette stuffed into a Breakfast Batbout (Moroccan Pitta bread).  There's an unmistakable Moorish influence in the Bakehouse.  By mid-day expect to see a soup on offer, a seasonal salad like a bowl of grains, herbs and roast vegetables, and a Ryebread Tartine.  Bread, right now, is not too much in the frame, - though rye, soda bread and flatbreads make an appearance.  There's a customer appetite for it.  Can they resist?

Carrot and almond muffin
at Fortitude Bakehouse

There are plans for baking classes and workshops and I, for one, can't wait.

You'll find Fortitude Bakehouse right behind Russell Square Tube Station.  The Bloomsbury Mews setting is just right - nicely tucked away and not too prettified.  The old 'Horse Hospital', now an arts venue, occupies the corner site right next door and is the signpost that you need to look for.  Or follow your nose to those harmonious scents of dried fruit, spice and cheese.

Fortitude Bakehouse
35 Colonnade
London WC1N

General Store

General Store

The opening of any independent grocery store is something to be celebrated.  Almost 4 years ago to the day I wrote about Leila's Shop in Spitalfields and said "every neighbourhood should have a shop like this".  Back then, as much as I wanted to see it happen, it seemed a bit of a forlorn hope. The grip of the supermarkets was vice-like and becoming ever-more insidious as they moved into corner-shop territory with smaller neighbourhood stores.  Now the big 3 are facing their own competition and shoppers are realising there are alternatives involving not only other multiples but small and local too.

Small independents are never going to be able to compete line-by-line with supermarkets on price, but that doesn't mean they can't have better prices on individual items.  With good quality they can offer better value.  They can also identify and form close personal relationships with local producers and specialist suppliers and this is the direction that General Store in Peckham has chosen. Actively seeking out the locally produced wherever possible, there's a commitment to supporting other small business allied with a commitment to quality and provenance.

On the shelves
at General Store

So, what is on the shelves?  London produce includes sourdough Cafone loaves from Bridget Hugo's BreadBread bakery in Brixton; breads and pastries from Bermondsey-based The Little Bread Pedlar; Coffee from the Clerkenwell roastery of Workshop Coffee; fine British and French cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy and Mons Cheesemongers, matured under railway arches in South London; jars of honey from Bermondsey's The London Honey Company; some of the best preserves in the capital from Lily O'Brien's Hackney-based London Borough of Jam; and bottled beers from Kernel Brewery who were at the vanguard of London's recent micro-brewery movement; and natural wines are now available from Gergovie Wines too. Then, there's a good range of Spanish foods from importer Brindisa; rice from The Real Basmati Rice Co; organic flours from Shipton Mill; chocolate from bean-to-bar makers Pump Street Bakery in Suffolk sit alongside bars from influential Mast Brothers of Brooklyn; and, always, a selection of top quality seasonal fruit and vegetables.

at General Store

Then there's the service.  The young owners, Merlin and Genevieve, get the balance just right.  If you're happy to browse, that's fine.  If you want help or advice, it's knowledgeable, and friendly. Look out for their 'Meet the Supplier' events.  As see from a flyer that in the run-up to Christmas you'll find Neal's Yard Dairy setting up table outside on 6th December, followed by Mons Cheesemongers on the 7th.  Christmas orders can be placed up to the 15th December with specials like smoked salmon from Hansen & Lydersen's Stoke Newington smokery; Melrose & Morgan Christmas Puddings and Cakes; and special prices on wines and beers by the case.

Peckham is up-and-coming but still rough around the edges so perfect hunting ground for those looking for more bang for their buck property-wise.  The General Store is a great addition to the Asian, African and Caribbean stores. Shops like Persepolis, bring A taste of Persia to Peckham. There is also traditional British butchers Flock and Herd.  For more about food shops in Peckham, The Skint Foodie has a great list.

Fruit & vegetables
at General Store

Trying to compete directly with supermarkets is still a road to nowhere.  Independent grocery stores are a different breed from what they used to be but, little by little, they are returning to a neighbourhood near you - grocers for the way we live now.

General Store
174 Bellenden Road
London SE15 4BW
Tel: 0207 642 2129

John & Elena Fruit & Veg Co

Lemons at
John & Elena
Fruit & Veg Company

If you already shop at Spa Terminus on Saturdays you'll be pleased to hear that two familiar faces from nearby Druid Street have arrived.  For those who miss Tony Booth's fruit and veg arch, which closed its doors a couple of weeks ago, this is very good news.  John & Elena, who between them have years of experience in the business, are ready to raise the shutters and welcome old and new customers to their new arch at Spa.

As well as being the base for their new  wholesale fruit and veg business, they will open at the arch for retail trade 8-2pm every Saturday.  Expect top quality fruit and veg staples along with highly seasonal produce and store cupboard must-haves.  You'll find John & Elena trading close by existing Spa Terminus traders Carrington Brown Flowers.  It's great to see another new business putting down roots in the area.

John & Elena
Fruit & Veg Company
5 Voyager Estate South
Spa Road/Rouel Road
London SE16 4RP
Spa Terminus Map

Update 27 April 2014: Open 3 weeks now and living up to promise and a regular destination on my Saturday shop.

The Quality Chop House Shop

The Quality Chop House Shop 1

From its new incarnation towards the end of 2012, The Quality Chop House (QCH) has had a 'shop' incorporated into the wine bar side of the business.  Lack of space restricted this to the opportunity to buy kitchen-made produce such as pork pie, sausage roll or sandwich, and pick up a bottle of wine.  The ambition to offer more has now been realised with the acquisition of a shop next door to the restaurant.  Opening without fanfare on the run-up to Christmas, I noticed its lights spilling out welcomingly onto the Farringdon Road pavement.

The Quality Chop House Shop 2

Now, not only can you buy those wonderful pies or a hot sausage roll without weaving through a sea of diners, but there's all manner of other good things coming out of one of my favourite London restaurant kitchens.  It starts with the butchery occupying one half of the shop where Oliver Seabright, formerly at The Ginger Pig and Barbecoa, is in charge.  Right now, alongside the sides of British beef, pork, lamb, veal and venison, butchered how you want it, are game birds such as woodcock, snipe, widgeon, pheasant and mallard. There may even be a hare or two.  Having their own butcher, of course, means head chef Sean Searley has a ready source of quality meats for the restaurant, they can offer a butchery service and add value by producing cooked meats, pies and pates for the shop.  Other good things coming out of the kitchen might include tubs of smoked cod roe, remoulade or mayonnaise.  There could also be a treacle tart being sold by the slice, a tray of chocolate brownies or custard tarts on the counter.  QCH jams, chutneys, pickles and marmalades have shelf space alongside a small selection of the wines available.

The Quality Chop House Shop 3

Bread comes from Elliot's Bakery producing one of the very best sourdoughs in the capital.  Until recently, to get my hands on a loaf, I had to go to Elliot's Cafe on Stoney Street, Borough Market, and ask one of the staff to fetch one from the kitchen.  In the new QCH shop you'll find British cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy and Blackwoods Cheese Company, British, Italian and Basque charcuterie, Hanson & Lydersen smoked salmon and Nardin smoked anchovies alongside the staples of milk and eggs.  There'll be a few seasonal fruits and vegetables too as well as some lovely little treats like chocolate from The Pump Street Bakery and, maybe, a bag of honeycomb or marshmallows.

The Quality Chop House Shop
Vegetable crisps

The shop is still evolving so it's well worth keeping an eye on it.  Now if they could only fit in a fish counter and spare me some of that fabulous fish they manage to get for the restaurant ….

The Quality Chop House Shop
90 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3EA
Open 7 days a week


Le Sousbois

One of the great joys of living in London is that it is a magnet for the best producers and traders. That's not to say there aren't parts of the country where you can find a great mix of local producers. Because the market in London is vast, producers want to trade here and the competition tends to drive up quality.  When it comes to cheese, this is something I particularly appreciate.  

There are some great cheese shops around the UK now, but in London I can buy the best British and Irish cheeses at Neal's Yard Dairy; try out the new from Kappacasein; choose from the great range of French cheeses at Mons; and the best the Dutch have to offer from Boerenkaas. All of these businesses trade within a couple of hundred metres of each other.  Alongside them is the outstanding Swiss cheese importer KäseSwiss.  Each business sells its cheeses wholesale, some around the world, so you may be buying it in your local specialist cheese shop but being able to buy directly from the maker, importer or maturer every week is a real treat.  And then, of course, there's the 'cheese chat' - but maybe you have to have worked in a cheese shop to enjoy that!

Before I encountered Rachael Sills, the founder of KäseSwiss, my knowledge of Swiss cheese extended little beyond Gruyère and Vacherin Mont d'Or (which is made from pasteurised milk as opposed to the French version which is generally unpasteurised).  Both admirable cheeses but, as I now know, it's a shame to stop there.  Rachael started her career in cheese in 1995 at Neal's Yard Dairy.  A move to Zurich saw her seeking out the best Swiss cheeses and then in 2005 she formed KäseSwiss to bring traditional artisan cheese to the UK.  For the past three years Rachael has judged the World Cheese Awards and this year she formed the British Cheesemongers Guild.

Appenzeller, L'Etivaz, Emmentaler and Stilsitzer had not previously attracted me.  There being so many fantastic British hard cheeses around they'd have to be really good to impress.  Quality and expert maturing matter hugely, of course, and the ones KäseSwiss source are right up there on both counts.  Apart from these, and the best selection of Gruyères, you may find a deliciously sticky textured Vacherin Fribourgeois or a creamy Tomme Fleurette on the counter.  Right now you can get a punchy little cow's milk Le Sousbois, matured in a pine-bark collar.

KäseSwiss open the shutters on Druid Street, Bermondsey every Saturday 09.00-2pm to sell alongside like-minded businesses.  If you miss that opportunity, you can buy their cheeses from Patricia Michelson's excellent Marylebone branch of La Fromagerie (which also stocks some Neal's Yard Dairy and Mons cheeses).

If you aren't impressed with the Swiss cheeses you're tasting, try KäseSwiss.

104 Druid Street

England Preserves

Seasonal Specials
at England Preserves

The renewed interest in home preserving is a trend I hope will long continue.  A desire to be more self-sufficient and, hopefully, a little less wasteful has in recent years sent many more of us foraging and gleaning, reaching for the jam pan and bottling our finds.  Eliza Acton, Constance Spry, Jane Grigson and the Women's Institute were where most of us turned for guidance when faced with a hedgerow harvest or a glut on the allotment.  Often, these days, the first port of call is the internet. However, some good preserving books have hit the shelves over the past couple of years.  Diana Henry's Salt Sugar Smoke is one of the best I've found.

Allotment harvest

Having an old tried and tested recipe for strawberry jam is a wonderful thing, but, in the pages of these more recent books lies inspiration for preserving the less obvious pickings.  These recipes are also more likely to retain the flavour of the prime ingredient at the forefront.  This may mean the preserve won't keep so long.  Times change and our tastes change too.

Bergeron Apricot Jam
from England Preserves
Preserving is not all about jams.  However, as the fruit:sugar ratio of that preserve has excited so much debate recently, I will come off that particularly sticky fence and declare myself in favour of using less sugar.  I'm more interested in tasting the fruit than having jars of sweet unidentifiable spreads lining my larder.  My level of preserving is modest so I'm no expert and I'm always on the look-out to see who's doing it well.  It's a crowded market and I've tried and tested aplenty before settling on a personal favourite.

Sky Cracknell and Kai Knutsen began making jams in their home kitchen in 2001.  Selling initially on Farmers' Markets, their England Preserves are now stocked by an impressive list of food shops, cafes and restaurants.  Fruits are sourced as close to their Bermondsey base as possible.  At this time the focus of their attention is the apple, pear and quince harvest.  They take full advantage of the fantastic crops from Brogdale in Kent.  Fruit butters such as 'Salcott Pippin & Cinnamon' and 'Beurre de Beugny Pear butter with Vanilla' are favourites in our house right now.  We are also just coming to the end of our stock of Bergeron Apricot Jam.  The vibrant colour and stunning apricot taste of this jam convinced me I'd found my favourite preserve-maker.  Jams, fruit-butters and fruit-cheeses (Damson, first this season, and now Quince) are made in small batches, cooking the fruit gently to retain "flavour and colour" and using as little sugar as possible.  It's a sympathetic approach which I can relate to.  When my own fruit harvests are exhausted, England Preserves is my larder.

England Preserves
See website for list of stockists.
Also open Saturdays for direct retail sales from their production unit at:
Arch 4 Spa North
London SE16 4EJ

My Cup of Tea

Lime Blossom
My Cup of Tea

I've always enjoyed a nice cup of tea.  My tastes were unsophisticated, mostly involving a tea bag, a mug and a splash of milk.  Sometimes a spoonful of black leaf tea, maybe with a little bergamot, brewed in a pot and taken as it came.  But those ubiquitous cloying 'flavoured' teas and stale tasting herbal infusions have always made me recoil.  I was going to take some persuading that teas and infusions don't have to be like that.   

Then, one day, I noticed a new trader at my weekly shopping haunt.   A trestle table appeared.  A small display of teas and herbs.  I walked on by, several times.  After all, it was just tea.  Over the following weeks the display grew and was so beautifully laid out.  Finally, I could no longer resist taking a look.  Little pots of Green and Black teas and finely rolled Sencha leaves sat alongside dishes of vibrant Lime Blossom and Camomile and hand-tied muslin teabags containing ginger and lemongrass.  A few exquisite little teapots and drinking bowls dressed the table.  So it was that I put myself in the hands of an expert to see if my prejudices could be overcome. 

Orange blossom
at My Cup of Tea

My Cup of Tea is a modern, artisan, tea specialist established in 2008.  The recipes are inspired by tradition and the rich and varied cultures of the world.  The attention to detail is clear, from the quality of the teas, herbs, blossoms and fruits which go into the blends through to the delicate china cups customers taste from.    

Ausra Burg and her team do more than just import teas. They make their own superior quality blends and herbal infusions.  Ingredients are sourced direct from growers who have to meet strict specifications to become My Cup of Tea suppliers.  They work with tea makers of many generations who have direct ties to Estates and share a commitment to quality.  

Rooibos, blackcurrant & blackcurrant leaf
at My Cup of Tea

Ausra picked wild herbs from the fields with her mother, who recorded every detail year by year in her 'Bible' of herbs.  This instilled in her a passion for their benefits.  That 'Bible' now plays a very important part in My Cup of Tea.  For me, this small business stands out from the crowd by sourcing herbs which are grown naturally, specifying when and what parts of the plants are harvested, how they are dried, separated and packaged.  Then there's the hand-cutting and expert blending when they reach My Cup of Tea's Workshop.  The quality of the ingredients on display there is impressive.  The display of covetable thick glass apothecary jars is not just for show but serves to keep the ingredients in optimum conditions.  

The blending process is extensive, starting with a base to which herbs and, sometimes, fruits are added.  In the herbal teas, sometimes several parts of the plant are able to be used, such as the leaf, fruit and stem, each imparting subtly different aromas and taste.  There are no artificial flavourings here, no unnaturally perfumed brews or muddy tasting infusions made from dessicated herbs.  Ausra told me "we refuse to compromise because we believe if we love what we make then our customers will love it too".

Inhale, then try a cup of black tea, subtly flavoured with cassis and vanilla; a delicate White Jasmine green tea, the uppermost tips having been dried scattered with Jasmine flowers; a fragrant, clean tasting Orange Blossom or Lime Blossom tea.  Based on past experience, I almost ignored an infusion containing fruits but by now I was prepared to try anything.  Raspberry leaf and fruit makes use of the leaf, immature fruits and stem, each imparting subtly different flavours, and it was astonishingly good.  Rosehip, apple, hibiscus flowers, natural strawberry and raspberry flavours go into the Wild Berry teabags.     

You don't have to take my word for it.  Go into the My Cup of Tea Workshop on Saturdays and see and taste for yourself. Ausra and Emiko will even help you put together your own personal blend.  I came away with a bag of Green Rooibos with blackcurrant leaf and fruit.  Yes, me, the "teabag in a cup" tea maker.  Well, not any more .  A mug of black tea with a splash of milk will always go with a bacon sandwich, for me, but a visit to My Cup of Tea's Workshop has changed my tea drinking habits for ever.

My Cup of Tea
96 Druid Street
London  SE1 2HQ

Open: 09.00-17.00
Workshop Open: Saturdays only 09.00-14.00

Fabrique Bakery

Fabrique London

I’d almost given up hope of finding a really good baguette in London. You know the kind I mean; like the ones you take for granted in France, crusty outside, soft and springy inside.  Rather than a commercial yeast version, I prefer a pain au levain, or sourdough, to impart sweet, nutty notes to the bake.   These days, any number of bakeries in London are turning out decent sourdough loaves so it’s a puzzle why a good baguette eludes them.  Fortunately I've never given up looking and, finally, I’ve found that perfect pain au levain baguette, baked in the French style by Swedes - in East London.  Fabrique is a small bakery set-up in a railway arch next to Hoxton Station, just behind The Geffrye Museum.  After opening 7 bakeries in Stockholm in the past 5 years, this is Fabrique's first venture outside Sweden.  Now I have to say, I've been a little resistant to the charms of Nordic food.  An ill-advised purchase of a 'cinnamon bun', from an acclaimed bakery, resulted in an experience I can only liken to chewing on damp cardboard.  Fabrique, however, from my perspective, clearly know what they're about.  Not only do they bake superb cinnamon buns, but also delicious cardamom buns, a few tempting tray-bakes, biscuits and other fantastic-looking breads including a rye.  Sandwiches are available and there's a small cafe area in the bakery where they serve very good coffee specially blended in Sweden for them by Johan & Nyström.

Arch 385 Geffrye Street
London E2 8HZ
(Closed Mondays)

The Butchery Ltd

Nathan at
The Buchery, Bermondsey

A version of this article appears in The Foodie Bugle (Winner of the Guild of Food Writers New Media of the year Award 2012)

The last railway arch in the row which houses a little enclave of artisan food businesses is rather hidden. A raised-bed of herbs and a butcher’s block outside alerts you to what lies within. OK, so it’s a butchery, The Butchery in fact, but Nathan Mills is no ordinary butcher. Sourcing rare-breed, free-range animals from small farms, either direct or via the Traditional Breeds Meat Market, the emphasis is on pasture-fed native breeds. These include White Park, Red Poll, Hereford or Dexter beef, Tamworth or Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Llanwenog lamb, hogget and mutton when in season. Sourcing from farmers such as Michael Bancroft in the Midlands for Dexter cattle; Sue Money-Kyrle farming Llanwenog lamb in the Wye Valley bordering Wales; and Nick Ball and Jacob Sykes of Fosse Meadows Farms in Leicestershire for free-range chickens.

The Butchery is about more than ticking the ‘careful sourcing’ boxes. They buy whole carcasses, taking seriously the traditional practice of ‘nose-to-tail’ or whole-carcass butchery. This means every part of the animal is valued, not just the prime cuts, for, as Fergus Henderson puts it in his seminal book ‘Nose to Tail Eating’, “… it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast …”. This commitment to respecting the animal is at the core of The Butchery. It requires the customer, or chef, to approach the counter with an open mind. Of course we can buy fillet and loin but rather than insisting on a Rib-Eye steak, maybe we should try a Pope’s Eye and if there’s no shin beef left opt for some Bolar (from deep within the shoulder).

The Cold Room at
The Butchery
Being brought up in a family immersed in the art of butchery in his native Australia, Nathan has 20 years’ experience at every level of the meat trade from abattoir to counter. This means he knows exactly how long, and under what conditions, he should age (or not) his carefully raised meats as well as all the ‘sneaky butchers cuts’ he can get from them. Cuts you may never have heard of include Teres Major, Goose Neck, Pope’s Eye, and Bolar. The blog page of The Butchery website explains all.

Arriving in London in 2005, Nathan’s experience includes spells at the highly respected Ginger Pig, Jamie Oliver & Adam Perry Lang’s Barbecoa Butchers and Whole Foods UK flagship store in Kensington. Nathan and partner Ruth Siwinski opened the doors to The Butchery in 2011, initially from a temporary home amongst the Maltby Street group of businesses. All these award-winning enterprises are gradually moving to their new location, the little centre of excellence off Spa Road, Bermondsey, known as Spa Terminus, where The Butchery is established. All the businesses here sell directly to restaurants, cafes and other outlets, opening their doors for retail trade on Saturdays.

The plan for The Butchery is to allow the business to grow organically, gradually and steadily without any compromises to the ethos. Ruth and Nathan cite Joshua and Jessica Applestone, who in 2004 opened their own uncompromising butchery store in New York State, as an inspiration for The Butchery. Their book ‘The Butcher’s Guide to Well–Raised Meat’ tells the story of how and why, against all the odds, they came to do it and is packed with helpful advice.
The Butchery arch

The Butchery arch is also the location for popular courses where you can learn everything from knife sharpening or sausage wrangling to how to butcher a whole pig, lamb, or even, a whole cow. It’s a great opportunity for chefs, customers and enthusiasts to learn more about the meat they cook and eat. You can take your cuts away with you or leave some of them for a while in the perfect conditions of Nathan’s ageing room. Nathan and Ruth also cure bacon, make their own sausages, and their burgers are 100% beef. They even stock sustainably produced British charcoal to cook them over.

Debate is currently raging over how to increase food security whilst reducing the environmental impact of its production. Some argue that raising cattle intensively on a cereal-based diet results in a reduction of methane gas production. However, recent studies carried out at 10 National Trust farms in the UK have reached a quite different conclusion. The National Trust report, ‘What’s your beef?’, issued this month concludes that feeding cattle on grass throughout their lifecycle is the most environmentally sustainable way to rear beef. The report states "The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population.” You can read more about this on their websitewww.nationaltrust.org.uk

Studies have shown that lamb and beef raised slowly on pasture have higher vitamin content than intensively-reared meat. A report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council states that “Cattle and sheep raised on natural grasslands help maintain biodiversity and produce tastier, healthier meat”. It’s known that higher rates of Omega 3 fatty acids, essential for physical and mental development, and lower levels of saturated fat are present in pasture-fed beef and lamb.

An old recipe book from William Douglas & Sons
butchers shop Farringdon Road, London
If you are going to follow the sustainable ‘nose to tail’ approach to eating you need to develop a relationship with your butcher. It’s interesting to hear the customers at The Butchery debate the merits of particular breeds. We all have our preferences, in my case I love Dexter beef and when Rib-Eye is available I will home-in on that, but because I trust Nathan I will try other cuts from the same animal. Nathan and Ruth are more than happy to give advice on cooking and if you need more help, try Fergus Henderson’s books ‘Nose to Tail’ and ‘Beyond Nose to Tail’. Another useful book is ‘OddBits: how to cook the rest of the animal’ by American author Jennifer McLagan. The writer concentrates on “all animal parts we have forgotten not only how to cook but also how to eat” and poses the question “Why is it stranger to eat a beef cheek than a cow’s back?” There’s also a rather wonderful blog out there at www.nosetotailathome.com

Purebred Certification
If you care about well-raised British meat and you’re shopping for a good butcher in London, I recommend you check out The Butchery. They’re bringing the best of British farming to London.

Short Q&A with Nath the Butcher:

A “Banter with customers and watching a progression of meat from a chat with a farmer about their breeds and raising methods to delivery of a whole carcass, aging in my coolroom to cutting up a beast, then having a customer come back and say how much they enjoyed it.”

A “What breed is it ? What has it eaten and where was it killed ? Do you know the real history of your meat in other words. In the UK meat is stamped with a number that can give you all this information and more if you want to know.”
Nb. The website www.tracingpaper.org.uk is where to go to make sense of these codes

The Butchery
Arch 13 Dockley Road
Spa Terminus
London SE16 3SF

Paul A Young - chocolate nirvana in Soho

Paul A Young
Passing through Soho a couple of weeks ago I was stopped in my tracks.  There on the corner of Wardour and Broadwick Street was a window display you just don't expect in this uninhibited part of London.   Words like 'beautiful' and 'sophisticated' wouldn't normally enter my head here.  Paul A Young (a chocolatier I know refers to him as PAY, so, for ease, I will too), chocolatier and patissier has brought more than a touch of class to Soho  

Just looking in the window is a treat but stepping inside is like stepping inside a cocoa bean.  All is dark wood and polished glass.  The chocolates are simply, but effectively, displayed on dishes in the middle of the shop rather than behind a counter, and very handsome they look.  But it's the production and development kitchen in the basement, which turns this shop into a chocolate lover's olfactory heaven.  Some concoctions are surprising, like Marmite Truffle or Port and Stilton but there's often an established association behind the thinking.  One of the latest flavours is a domed 'Bakewell Pudding, based on the famous Derbyshire dessert.  I'm not generally a fan of fruit chocolate - too many memories of being left the 'strawberry cream' in the Christmas chocolate box perhaps.  In this case an enrobed creamy ganache and sharp raspberry puree crowned with a marzipan cream and toasted almonds was fabulous.  On the other hand I adore sea-salted caramel, and PAY's 64% Madagascan version is wonderfully silky with just the right hint of burnt sugar.  A truffle flavoured with Kernel Brewery stout and muscovado sugar works brilliantly too.  Only a classic truffle failed to impress, being surprisingly liquid and lacking in flavour.  A Classic Fudge Brownie (an actual brownie this time) was the best I've ever tasted and I'm straining at the leash to get my hands on another. 

There's a large range of in-house chocolate bars, from a 40% Milk to a 100% Dark, as well as flavoured bars such as 70% Dark with Lavender and 72% Venezuelan Dark with Green Peppercorns.  Drinking chocolates and pavés can also be bought.  PAY also keeps the Lincolnshire-based brand Duffy single origin chocolate bars.  This artisan bean to bar producer sources cocoa beans from around the world, carrying out each process in-house to produce small batches.  PAY also sells bars from Mast Brothers, a Brooklyn, New York outfit who are producing real chocolate in the USA (I'm sorry, but I have to say it's been a long time coming).  They are producing their chocolate without additives and, seemingly, as artisan as it could possibly be.  Their philosophy and practices puts me in mind of the natural wine movement which is burgeoning in Europe.  Take a look at their website and love those beards!  Both of these bars I've yet to try so whilst I applaud their values, I can't give an opinion yet. 

These are high-end chocolates with a matching price tag.  In-house 50g Artisan Bars are mostly priced around £3.85, individual chocolates are £2.00 a piece, but less if you buy a box.  There are three kinds of brownie at £3.75 to £4.50, and they are perfect for sharing between two.  At this price and for this quality they are not chocolates to gobble but to savour individually.  Mostly made using Valrhona couvertures, they are clean tasting, mostly beautifully balanced and undeniably interesting, and I'd certainly go out of my way to get them.  Soho just got classy.

Paul A Young
143 Wardour Street
London W1F 8WA
Tel:  +44 (0)20 7437 0011
Mon-Fri 10.00-8pm
Sat Noon-7pm 
(Shops also in N1and EC3)

Christophe Vasseur's Du Pains et des Idées

Pain des amis

It's fitting that Christophe Vasseur's signature bread is his pain des amis as the welcome at this remarkable bakery must be the friendliest in Paris.  Two happy ladies preside over wooden racks supporting these moist, nutty, (and to me dark treacle flavoured), crusty square-cut breads along with soft sugared and unsugared North African brioche la mouna perfumed with orange blossom water, crusty boules aux céréales and pain pagnol.  Mini-pavés filled with, maybe, spinach and goat cheese or green olives sit alongside large, decorated, earthenware dishes of various catherine-wheel shaped viennoiserietarte fine aux pommes, tiny chouquettes (creamy filled choux buns) and my favourite apple turnovers, chaussons aux pommes.  This is a celebration of what can be achieved with flour, yeast, salt, water and a little alchemy. 

Christophe Vasseur turned from businessman to boulanger nine years ago, learning on the job rather than paying for formal training.  In doing so he has learned the old ways and married them with his own ideas to come up with the pefect boulangerie.  So good is the pain des amis that these days even the chef Alain Ducasse sends a car daily  for supplies to serve in his restaurant at the Plaza Athénée.

The aroma of great baking hits you from several doors away.  Sacks of flour are piled in a corner contrasting with the opulence of the painted ceilings, large gilded mirrors and gold paint, celebrating its 1889 origins.  The shop is so perfectly over the top and the smell is so divine you don't want to leave.  I can't resist lingering at the communal table, set up outside, with my little apple turnover watching the steady stream of regulars arriving for their daily bread. 

The shop is located at the corner of rue Yves Toudic and rue de Marseille in the 10th arrondisement.  It's very close to the Canal St Martin, the fantastic Picasso Museum is nearby, as is  l'Hôtel Carnavalet where you can find the full history of Paris.  The now infamous La Perle bar is hereabouts too!

I first found this boulangerie over three years ago thanks to a Jamie Cahill's beautiful little pistachio-coloured book 'Pâtisseries of Paris'.  A gorgeous handy-sized tome broken down into arrondissements so that wherever you find yourself in Paris it will guide you to the best boulangerie or pâtisserie.

Du Pains et des Idées
34 rue Yves Toudic
Paris (10th)
Nearest Metro: Jacques Bonsergent
Open: Monday-Friday 06.45-20.00

Pierre Cluizel's Un Dimanche à Paris

Un Dimanche à Paris
Our latest trip to Paris did not start well.  Nothing to do with Eurostar, which for me remains the best way to reach France.  It was the jaw-dropping exchange we witnessed en-route.  A fiery French red-head, irritated by the 20-something Brit gobbling crisps in the seat opposite, finally exploded.  With exquisite rudeness she informed the, rather slim, girl that if she continued she would triple her size by the time she was 40!   The whole carriage was now on fight alert.  Presumably in shock, the Brit flounced off to the buffet - perhaps not the best choice in the circumstances.  I'm sure she spent the rest of the day thinking up pithy responses she could have made, rather than the predictable "ugly" and "old" adjectives she tossed over her shoulder.  We, meanwhile, sucked in our tummies as we thought of our plans for a gastronomic blow-out day in Paris.

We visited some old friends and found some new.  This is a new one, and what a find.  For me the old, venerable Parisian chocolate shops can be a bit stuffy and predictable.  The new generation can be style over substance, but this one delivers on all levels.  I was alerted to Un Dimanche à Paris by the Paris-based pastry chef and writer David Lebovitz.  Having worked at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, he knows a good thing when he tastes it.  Pierre Cluizel, son of Michel, has spread his wings and opened what is best described as an all-about-chocolate store, or "concept store" if you must. 

On the ground floor is a chocolate shop/bar/pâtisserie where you can enjoy a daily changing hot chocolate while you narrow down what you want to take away.  A glass-fronted kitchen sits alongside where the chocolatiers demonstrate their technique.  Service in the shop is utterly charming and seductive. There is also a restaurant with a chocolate themed menu and upstairs a salon for coffee and teas, and that chocolat chaud served in china pitchers, if you want to linger over the delicate pâtisserie.  To top it off you can order a cocktail mixed to help you better appreciate the subtleties of chocolate. Oh, I almost forgot, and a teaching kitchen offering courses in working with chocolate.

Having enjoyed the superb hot chocolate at the Bar and sampled the truffles we moved on to a Macaron Cassis.  I can now vouch for how good the pâtisserie is, though the exquisite filling was perhaps a little too generous.  Les gâteaux looked amazing but would have to wait for another visit.  It was the simple truffes au chocolat rolled in cocoa powder which truly seduced us.  Mindful of Madame's warning and with memories of a delicious lunch, our petit paquet de truffes remained on the luggage rack until we could eat them at home ... in private ... and sparingly of course.

Un Dimanche à Paris
4-8 Cour du Commerce Saint André
Paris 6ème (Metro: Odéon)

Lina Stores

Lina Stores
Lina Stores is one of the best reasons I can think of for visiting Soho, though some would have other reasons for an outing.  This Italian deli is right in the heart of lively Soho, surrounded by flashing neon and haunts such as Taboo and Madame Jojo's.  However, even the old red-light district has a villagey side to it, and Lina's personifies that aspect of the area.  In fact, Brewer Street is being talked up as a residential hot spot right now, and a few unexpected shops are here, like Fresh and Wild, Anything Left Handed, and Cox Cookies & Cakes.

Ask anyone for the place to buy Italian ingredients in the area and they'll either send you to Camisa or Lina Stores.  Of the two I'd have to come down in favour of Lina's.  Very much a family business, Lina's has been on Brewer Street since the 1930's and is currently run by the 3rd generation of the same family. 

The shop's closure last August caused some dismay until shoppers realised it was only for refurbishment.  What a lovely job they did of it too, echoing the 50's green-tiled exterior inside with lovely paler green tiling relieved by natural wood and a white marble counter.  Still absolutely recognisable as the much-loved Lina's but the space has been opened up.  You no longer feel anxious that you might brush something off a shelf as you move around.  A freshen-up, clear-out and re-focus has rejuvenated the place but retained its friendly, welcome-to-browse feel.  In fact I was there today, looking for the hard to find Garganelli pasta which I know Lina's stocks.  They had run out but, without my having to ask, they made a call and told me they'd have it later this week.  That's what I call service, and it's Lina's way.

You'll find hessian sacks of rice, lentils and pulses, spices sold by weight, honeys including the excellent Seggiano, cured meats, a great range of dried pastas, polenta, pestos, cheeses, olives, truffles, pannetone and biscotti.  What makes it particularly special for me is that Lina's keeps the more difficult to find things like good filled pastas such as veal-filled tortellini, squid ink pasta filled with crab, Spinach and ricotta Tortolloni.  Then there's the practically impossible to find things such as fresh yeast, chestnut flour and veal stock.  Whether you want to pick up some roasted peppers, anchovies mozzarella and fresh plum tomatoes for an easy to prepare meal, or some double O flour to make your own pasta, you'll find it here.  Long live Lina's.

18 Brewer Street
Soho, London W1F 0SH
Tel:  020 7437 6482
Monday-Friday 09.00-6.30pm
Saturday 09.00-5.30pm
(Site under construction)


Saffron strands

Brindisa has long been the place to shop in the UK for the best choice of ingredients from Spain.  Starting with a small warehouse in The Borough area of London, they would throw open the doors to shoppers on a Saturday morning.  Some weeks they would set up a tiny barbecue outside to offer free tastings of their cooking Chorizo.  These were the early days of Borough Market's retail trade, and how things have changed.  These days you can find Brindisa in a large retail space in the Market fronting Stoney Street, and you can buy a spicy barbecued Chorizo sandwich from the Chorizo grill.  At the London Bridge end of the street, on the corner with Southwark Street, you can find Tapas Brindisa.  On Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings it does a good market breakfast with a Spanish twist before the tapas gets underway.  Jose Pizarro was the chef behind the launch of this great little tapas bar which has spawned a couple of offshoots.   Sadly Pizarro has moved on, but the good news is he is planning his own place - more of this later.  (See my Favourite Books section for a review of Pizarro's first book).

So, a photograph of saffron to head up this piece.  An obvious choice given the subject matter of a Spanish food shop and the name of my blog.  But there was a third reason for choosing to write on this topic now.  The market in this most expensive spice has been hit by scandal.  The Spanish newspaper El Pais recently revealed that although Spain produced around 1,500 kilos of saffron in 2010, it managed to export 190,000 kilos!  Most of the Crocus sativus flowers from which saffron is derived are grown in the La Mancha region and its quality is renowned.   Saffron is also produced in Iran, and some companies have been importing and passing off this inferior Iranian grown saffron as Spanish.  It is currently not illegal to do this - for labelling purposes it is where the product is processed that counts - but Spanish authorities are under pressure to act to protect their lucrative market.

Good quality saffron takes time to release its colour and aroma but when it does so your patience is rewarded with a golden glow and sweet taste.  Inferior saffron can sometimes contain more of the flower than just the essential stigma.  That's not to say carefully sourced Iranian saffron does not have its place.  As long as you are confident that what you are buying has been carefully sourced and labelled, a cheaper, lower quality, saffron may be adequate for what you want to use it for.  Brindisa keeps two saffrons - one I am assured is a carefully sourced Iranian grown one, and the other is a La Mancha grown saffron.  The Iranian one is labelled honestly (product of Iran, packaged in Spain) and sells for £2.95 for 0.5 gram, and the Spanish one bears its DO (Denomination of Origin) and sells for £9.99 for 1 gram.

In Brindisa's shop you'll also find Serrano and Iberico hams being hand-carved, cooking and cured Chorizo, a great range of artisan Spanish cheeses, Arbequina olive oil, Calasparra rice, salt cod, Ortiz Atun Claro tinned tuna and anchovies, Catalan Alemany honeys, almonds, delicious turrons and much more.  Whatever you do, don't miss the amazing smoked anchovies from Nardin.


Monmouth Coffee

Wathenge Coffee
from Monmouth Coffee Company
OK, so Monmouth Coffee is far from a secret, but my aim is to bring you quality, not novelty.  A recent refit, and the arrival of some delicious Lemon Madeleines, is the only excuse I need to remind you what a great place for coffee this Covent Garden resident is.  The shop occupies a tiny space, and there's nothing they can do to change that - I doubt they'd want to.  If you don't fancy take-away (and doesn't coffee taste all the better out of porcelain), the lovely young, knowledgable, mostly arts student, staff will do their best to squeeze you into one of the booths at the back. 
The original treacly wood interior has been stripped out and replaced with untreated oak and some new lighting, making the space much lighter and at least look roomier.  The place has lost none of its charm in the process.  You still get cosy with your neighbours.  If you don't like that, don't go.  Maybe it's the stimulating effect of the drink but, along with a few grumpy encounters, I've had many fascinating conversations whilst knee-to-knee with perfect strangers in here.  True, I've also had to put up with some annoying food bloggers trying to get the perfect photo of a cup of coffee.  I agree with Giles Coren - Stop it!

For my money, Monmouth still sells the best coffee in London.  Owner Anita Le Roy has been running Monmouth for 33 years and is  very much hands-on and as enthusiastic as ever.  She created a vibrant, independent and distinctive coffee company, and it still is.  It shows in the attention to detail and, not least, in the excellent coffee.  There is a growing trend for making a great fuss of the brewing process, generally involving test-tube-like equipment which puts you in mind of a laboratory rather than a coffee shop.  You won't find that here.  No amount of time spent faffing over the beans will compensate for a poor product.  Monmouth source all their coffees personally on regular buying trips around the world.  They make no extravagant claims for their business but personally source from single farms, estates and cooperatives, travelling extensively to do so.  They believe by investing time in building relationships, an equal, fair and sustainable trading policy is achievable.

My favourite filter coffee right know is the Kenyan Wathenge, produced by the New Gaturi Farmers Cooperative Society which has around 1200 members from four villages in the area.  Monmouth's espresso is currently a mix of two Brasilian Fazenda beans, Tunje Grande from Colombia and the Guatemalan Pasajquim.  To take home, you can buy the the freshly roasted beans or have it ground to your requirements.

If you want something to eat with your coffee there is a selection of pastries, Sally Clarke's gorgeous chocolate truffles and, on Thursdays only, the special treat of delicious Lemon Madeleines.  Monmouth  also has a cafe at 2 Park Street, Borough and they open their roasting arch at 34 Maltby Street, Bermondsey as a cafe on Saturdays from 9-2pm.  Now remember, if you go be prepared to share your space and leave room for me.




Following another strand from 'The Bermondsey Trail’ (my post of 16 Sept 2010) 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 of Leila's Shop.
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

Leila's also now supplies weekly veg boxes - here's the link http://vegboxers.com/

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.

Neal's Yard Dairy

Neal's Yard Dairy, Covent Garden
Having shopped at Neal's Yard Dairy for many years, I'm confident this is the place for the best in British and Irish cheeses.  No only do they carefully source and hand-pick the cheeses, but they often buy them young and invest considerable time, effort and expertise in maturing them to the point of perfection before they reach the customer.  If you've ever been in either the Borough or Covent Garden shops in London you'll know you're encouraged to taste before buying.  It's important to them that you have excellent cheeses to unwrap when you get home.  You will also have appreciated the knowledge, and friendliness of the staff.  Well now I can vouch for just how genuine their enthusiasm is.

Each year, in early December, the ranks of cheesemongers begin to swell and reach a peak mid-month.  This is the build-up to Christmas at Neal's Yard Dairy and this year I am part of it.  For the past two weeks I have been on a steep learning curve, immersed in the world of the artisan producer and specialist food retailer.  I've met some of the producers, toured the maturing rooms, unloaded vans, cleaned, displayed, cut, wrapped and sold, and seen just what it takes to get that amazing piece of Stichelton, Montgomery's Cheddar, Lancashire or St James into the hands of the customer.  It's no wonder the cheesemongers want to tell you about the product and advise you how to keep it when you get home.  Every cheese is precious, not just for how much money can be made out of it but for the effort that has gone into selecting the milk, making the cheese, maturing it and offering it to the customer.

We Christmas cheesemongers may only be around for 2-4 weeks, or, as many do, we may decide to stay on, but we all receive the same great education from the permanent staff.  I can't think of anywhere else where you can get such total immersion in artisan food production, retailing, customer relations and how to work as a team.  We expect to be totally exhausted by the time we close the doors on our last customer on Christmas Eve and go for a hard-earned drink at the pub on the corner.  We're sure to be red-knuckled from the constant cleaning regime, stiff-backed from being on our feet all day, and sore-footed from wearing our fetching white wellies.  So, please bear with us if you are in the queue, we really do want to send you home with a great piece of cheese for Christmas.

Here's a recipe for my version of raclette based on the dish you can buy from Bill Oglethorpe's stall, Kappacasein, on Borough Market's Green Market, along with fantastic toasted cheese Poilane sandwiches.  Incidentally, Bill was involved in the development of Ogleshield, hence the name.  It's a peasant dish comprising potatoes, pickles and cheese and, in my opinion, nothing save a grinding of black pepper should be added.

(for 4 people)

1kg (2.2lbs) potatoes (Ratte or Charlottes are good)
400g (14oz) *Ogleshield or Raclette cheese
200g (7oz) cornichon (or mix of cornichon and white pearl onions
Black pepper

Boil the potatoes in their skins in salted water until just cooked, drain and crush lightly.  Assuming you do not have a racette iron, cut the cheese into fairly thin slices and either fry in a non-stick pan until just melted before scraping it onto the potatoes, or place on top of the potatoes and grill until just melted.  Add a good grinding of black pepper and serve hot with the pickles alongside.

* An English washed-rind, unpasteurised cow's milk cheese made by Jamie Montgomery and Wayne Mitchell in Somerset.  Rich, long-lasting, fruity wine-like flavours with a creamy and pliant texture.

 Pierre Hermé

Pierre Hermé's Rose Macarons
and Pietra Macarons
It looks like our Gallic neighbours are determined to wean us off our love for the ubiquitious cupcake by seducing us with the more grown-up macaron.  They could hardly have sent over The Channel two finer examples of the art of macaron making than Parisians Ladurée and, mostly recently, Pierre Hermé. Not satisfied with their iconic status in France, both have now spread their wings to London and are fighting for our attention.  Hermé's credentials for the title of best Pâtissier are impressive, being apprenticed to Gaston Lenôtre at the age of 14 and and having worked for Ladurée before going solo.  For delicacy of macaron, Pierre Hermé wins hands down but flavour combinations are crucial for these featherlight morsels.  Personally I find two flavours irresistible - Salted Caramel and Rose.  Laduree has the edge on flavour in the caramel stakes, I think, but the perfect Rose macaron has to be that made by Pierre Hermé.  Embued with the the subtlest essence of rose petal, it's the one that does it for me.

Hermé's inventiveness seems unstoppable, constantly coming up with new flavour pairings.  Not all to my taste.  Now, I can get excited by more exotic combinations - Chestnut and Matcha Green Tea for one - but White Truffle & Hazelnut?  It's a step too far for me, Pierre, though I'm told by another macaron lover that I couldn't be more wrong about that one.  As for Quince and Rose, I can see where you're coming from with this as quince is a member of the rose family but I find the flower is entirely overpowered by the fruit.  

If you want to try them for yourself you can find a small Pierre Hermé outlet in Selfridges Food Hall, and a sleek new shop in SW1 where he's had the freedom to recreate the look of his Paris shops.  Ladurée has an outlet in Harrods, but the real character can be found in their tiny but eye-catching gilded shop in Burlington Arcade, with the added benefit of a few tables in the arcade.  

If you want kiddies food, stick to cupcakes and leave the macarons to the grown-ups.

Ladurée, Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, London W1
Pierre Hermé, 13 Lowndes Street, London SW1X

The Ham & Cheese Co

The Ham & Cheese Co.
For many years now I've been buying chunks of creamy parmesan, wafer-thin slices of Prosciutto and soft, glistening globes of mozzarella from Alison and Elliott at The Ham & Cheese Co. stall on Borough Market.  Though these days, thanks to Borough Market Management's bizarre decision to evict some of the best of their traders, I shop at the railway arch maturing rooms at in Bermondsey(currently Saturdays only).  It's taken me a while to get around to posting on them because I've got to know Alison and Elliott over the years and, well, it's  very easy to lose your objectivity.  A good time then to step back and take a long cool look at the range of products they now sell, which has grown over the years.

Starting out as The Parmesan Cheese Company, it was with a single-herd parmesan that they established a reputation for carefully sourcing a top quality product.  The Swiss Brown cows producing the milk are pastured in the foothills of the Apennines by the Avanzini family.  Fed on GM-free cereals and alfalfa grown organically on the farm, the cows produce enough milk for only 3-4 wheels of parmesan a day.  The aged finished product is rich and creamy but with a satisfying slightly-salty crunch to the texture.  It's still, I think, the best you will find in the UK.

After three years of searching, a Prosciutto di Parma finally met Alison and Elliott's high standards and the business turned into 'The Ham & Cheese Co'.  The Parma hams are produced by the Montali family using traditional methods which have largely been abandoned by mass producers.  Demand far outstrips production of this lean, tender and sweet meat.

The Mozzarella di Bufala is sourced from Campania but from the river plain of Piana del Sele.  South of Naples, this is still a largely agricultural area, rather than the more industrial plain north of the city.  Using unpasteurised milk, the production process is mostly by hand, creating creamy, velvety 100g and 250g globes.

Recently a Culatello de Zibello has been added to the table.  The Culatello ("little backside") is the most prized part of the pig and, therefore, the most expensive.  The Po river valley of Bassa Parmensa is renowned for its Culatello production.  The ham is matured in Polesine by l’Antica Corte Pallavicina.  This 14th century estate where the hams are cured is perfectly placed to take advantage of the fogs which roll across the river plain.  The specially constructed medieval cellar ensures perfect levels of humidity and allows for the longest ageing process of any Culatello produced today. With a drier texture and fuller flavour than Prosciutto, the 30-month aged ham selected by The Ham and Cheese Co is very special.

There is also a range of Basque country salamis made by Pierre Oteiza in the Aldudes Valley.  Having worked with local farmers to save the once endangered Cochon Basque, Oteiza raises his pigs outside all year round.  Foraging on the wooded hillsides for nuts and roots, their diet is supplemented by grains and beans to encourage them to remain close to the farm where they are brought down to straw-covered huts to farrow.  The Jésus du Pays Basque is a particular favourite.  Its moist texture and deep flavour is enhanced by the addition of peppercorns.

From buying a weekly hunk of parmesan I'm now spoilt for choice when shopping here.  The range has grown over the years but what you can be sure of is that each addition has been sourced with the greatest of care.  See the informative website below for the full range and to locate a market stall where you can taste and buy.  Look out for The Ham & Cheese Co at some of the best food fairs too.  If you can't go to them, they do mail order.

The Ham and Cheese Co