In the 18 years that I lived in Dublin, I saw every independent food shop in my neighbourhood close down, to be replaced by a combination of mediocre supermarkets and expensive specialist delis. With that change came fewer opportunities to chat to shop owners and other customers, and more trips in the car to supermarkets. My circle of friends and acquaintances and my food influences became narrower; everyone I knew seemed to be a middle-class, working parent and if we were cooking at all we were all preparing the same recipes from the same celebrity chef cookbooks.
Towards the end of 2012 I moved back to London. Previously I’d been a confirmed west Londoner, but in my absence someone had turned Notting Hill into a caricature of itself – I could neither afford to live there, nor would I have felt at home. So I found myself living in Islington, close to Essex Road and just around the corner from 4 of London’s best food shops; Steve Hatt the fishmonger, The Market Garden greengrocers, James Elliott the butcher and Raab’s Bakery, as well as a proper pub; The New Rose, and an excellent Italian deli and restaurant; Saponara.
My day job is to help organisations to be more agile and improvisational in their thinking and communications, and, inspired by these shops, I started to practice in my own cooking what I have been teaching clients to do in their businesses. Rather than looking for a recipe and shopping for the ingredients, I began to reverse that process; putting ingredients first, talking to the staff and other customers about what was good and interesting to them, and then improvising recipes around that.
Having been brought up in a working-class family in Sheffield in the 1950s, I was trained from an early age to abhor waste, and I still do, not only for financial reasons but now also for environmental reasons. Shopping local means that I can buy only what I need for a day or 2 – so less wasted food and less wasted money. I hear people say that they find local independent shops expensive, but I’m not sure about that. I think that supermarkets have done a very good job of persuading us that they are cheaper, and of persuading us to buy more than we need.
Of course I understand that it’s just not practical for everyone to shop local all the time. Supermarkets’ longer opening hours are essential for “hard working families” (to quote every single bloody politician in this interminable election campaign). I know that I’m very lucky to be able to work from home much of the time, and pop out to the shops whenever I need something. Those with precious little free time can be put off by the long queues outside the Essex Road shops on Saturdays. For me, though, the lines are an opportunity to enjoy the banter between the people who work there and their customers, and to listen to and chat with people about what and how they’ll be cooking this weekend.
About the recipes.
Throughout 2014, I made the recipe cards old school and limited edition; only available on paper in the shops. I’m taking the project online now because I know it will reach more people and I believe that this idea needs to take root in other places. Once you get the hang of it, you can start to improvise your own menus. I hope that if you’re reading this in another part of London, England or the world you will go on to start a similar project in your own neighbourhood.
All recipes are for about 4 people. They’re not written for complete beginners, nor am I a professional chef or cookery writer, so I’ve been approximate and poetic with measurements, times, weights and instructions.
Most of the other ingredients, including spices and oils, are available from the convenience stores between the New Rose and Raab’s. Pasta, risotto rice and really good oils and wines are to be found in Saponara on Prebend Street which also serves the best fresh pasta and pizza in the neighbourhood.
Kay’s Essex Road Recipes – The Blog starts here and now, with a bit of a cheat. It’s a recipe I wrote this time a year ago, as the very first of the English asparagus arrived at the Market Garden. From now on I’ll be posting new ideas whenever I’m inspired by the lovely people in the shops and by my fellow customers here in Essex Road.
The Facebook page is also still up. Take a look for local shop and food news.