They say a workman is only as good as his tools and while I think natural talent and practice play a part too, there’s a lot of truth in that statement. And for people who cook, their tools are the ingredients they use. Great food doesn’t always need specialist equipment but it does need something to create it with, preferably better quality ingredients.
We’ve all tried to cook a meal and been thwarted by our ingredients: the bacon that spewed out white water and refused to crisp at all, the tomatoes that were woolly and flavourless, the pulses that simply wouldn’t soften. Often it’s less about the price of the products and more about where they come from. Those tomatoes might have been Finest or Taste the Difference and still been nothing more than red water while the bag of cheap chickpeas from the corner shop might have been been more velvety than the branded ones.
Learning how and where to shop for your food is as important a part of learning to cook as how to prepare the ingredients once you get them home, but is an element that rarely gets talked about beyond a certain amount of showing off these days. I had a Ladybird book as a child that probably seems incredibly quaint now with a mummy and housewife popping to her greengrocer, butcher, baker and probably candlestick maker. But it acknowledged the link between where the food is farmed and where it is cooked. Good shops matter.
We lived close to an independent supermarket in south Belfast when I was a child before the big branded chains moved into Northern Ireland. Both my parents took turns to shop and I loved accompanying them to Supermac. It was an excellent shop, able to interact with its customers to suggest new items to them as well as stock what they wanted. It was here that I learned to buy potatoes with the dirt still on to make them last longer, look at where food came from and not buy South African apples during the apartheid era and about terribly exotic things such as soy yoghurt and Clamato.
The weekly shop was as much a social sciences and life lesson as stocking up to me. I’m sure my very busy parents don’t remember it quite as fondly as I can’t rose tint the fact that shopping anywhere can be time consuming and feel like a chore at times. I also wasn’t the one keeping an eye on the purse strings which can also make shopping seem stressful when you’re a grown up, but I learned some pretty good skills there that served me well when I left home.
The first few years I lived in Brighton and London I relied heavily on supermarkets for my food, but thanks to Ladybird, I knew to take a list and when and where to stick to it and learned where suited my budget. (Oddly as I ate a lot of eggs and pulses in those days, Waitrose on Western Road was much more economical than either Somerfield in Brighton.) I dabbled with the nearby market on Lower Marsh when I moved to London but the opening hours weren’t terribly compatible with my working life.
I did discover the importance of independent shops pretty early on. Armed with a copy of How to Eat and a desire to get to know the areas I was living in, I wandered round them using shops as my reference point, buying bags of spices from Infinity Foods and frozen dumplings from the little Chinese supermarket in North Laine for much less than any supermarket could have provided. That fascination with small shops and markets wavered a bit when I moved to Brixton though.
The seemingly huge market here was too full of choice and items I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t used to having to ask for my food and interact to get the right deal. My first few trips to Brixton Market didn’t go that well between street harassment from some of the less progressive traders, getting laughed at for not knowing what things were and not being sure what amounts to ask for. I gave up for a while and just went to Tesco instead.
I didn’t get back into the swing of it until I started blogging. It seemed silly at that point not to at least try and use this amazing resource on my doorstep and something about having the blog gave it a purpose. Plus I suspected my money would go further that way. I didn’t quite expect to fall in love with my local shops and for them to be the thing that allowed me to become part of the community here.
I started small, a trip to the Portuguese deli here, the odd bit of fresh fish there and worked my way along Atlantic Road and into Brixton Village and into Electric Avenue and Market Row. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time I didn’t know a single other person who lived in Brixton or which stall sold what. The cheeky traders of the first few trips were the minority and everyone was welcoming and helpful, starting to recognise me the more I came in and chatting.
I got used to a little gossip with my groceries and enjoyed the interaction as well as the fact the quality of the produce was much better and I got to know the rhythms of the area well enough to literally know which stall was best for citrus fruit and which was best for herbs and where to buy tomatoes. I started to feel at home here and my cooking improved hugely. Those chats were teaching me what to use things for and how as well as what such and such was up to.
A few months of this and my confidence in cooking and my desire to know Brixton even better was high enough to start writing for the Brixton Blog and slowly I discovered that people thought I was an expert on shopping in the local area. Then the opportunity to write Recipes from Brixton Village came from that and in part because of that and the skills I’d learned to make my budget go so far, so did the opportunity to write Slow Cooked.
Both books gave me even more reason and chance to use the local independent stalls and stores and I realised that by accident rather than design, I hadn’t set foot in a supermarket for over a year and I was eating better than ever before. I knew just how lucky I was that these shops existed and joked that I’d cry or have to move house if they ever closed…
Turns out it wasn’t a joke. This week brought news that Network Rail wants to redevelop the railway arches on Atlantic Road as far up as Pope’s Road. The business learned that they must vacate by May 2015 and they wouldn’t be guaranteed first refusal to return in 2017 when the development is completed. Not would they get full relocation costs.
Businesses that been there for over 70 years like L&S Mash Fishmongers would go and the A&C Deli which every single person I know in Brixton shops in would close after 40 years*. We’d lose the nail bars, cab office, hair salons and the tiny quarter of an arch businesses that fit one person at a time and sell shoes, shape wear and the music that blares out as you walk up the road. The cavernous hair and beauty shop filled with lotions, potions and wigs would shut.
These are businesses that people in Brixton use. They are constantly busy and more to the point they are filled with the kind of people we now think of as ‘old Brixton’. The shapewear stall is popular with Spanish speaking South Americans, the Afro Caribbean community buys its music, shoes and hair products on Atlantic Road. Everyone gets coffee there as they go to the station. These shops make Brixton more than the Ritzy or the Academy or the fashionable restaurants of the Village and they are under threat from the desire to bring Pret or Waitrose to the area. An area made famous for food is going to lose its independent food retailers to a swathe of chains.
If that had happened five years, I wouldn’t be blogging or writing books or be able to walk out of my house and always see someone I know as I go about my day to day business. I wouldn’t feel so safe in my area and I’d have missed so much in making friends and developing a life in a big bustling city. Those independent shops might sell me smoked paprika and seafood at great prices but they mean more than that. They create community and inclusivity. They bring people to an area and they keep money, skills and resources here for everyone to use. They make good food and kitchen equipment affordable to all and even the smallest ones are more likely to pay tax than big chains.
They are the day to day life lesson while we feed ourselves. When I heard this week that we might lose these shops I was genuinely close to tears. They are the manifestation of gentrification and loss of community and like the best things in life, most people won’t realise it until they are gone. So if you live in an area where there are still local shops, start using them more. You don’t have to do every shop there (hell, even I buy milk and toilet roll in a supermarket) but even stocking your freezer every few months from the local butcher or buying some fruit from a greengrocer on your lunch break instead of paying the mark up in Pret or Eat counts.
You can also join over 12 thousand other people by signing the petition here to save the arches and follow Brixton Blog as we find up more how the traders and community are going to fight this threat and you can continue to use the shops, speak to the traders and show support that way. Brixton almost lost another invaluable shop, the Nour Cash and Carry, a few years ago but pressure and petitioning helped ensure its continued survival. If you use local and independent shops, you really do have the excuse to shop for the good of the community!
What shops do you value and recommend to other people? And what would you miss if the shops you use closed?
*After I wrote this piece, the A&C Deli did close partly due to Network Rail and for personal reasons. I miss it every single time I walk past and seeing the photo on this post made me genuinely sad wondering what the staff are doing now.