Starting this piece I was excited to talk up the thrill of journeying into Soho from all the various places I’ve lived in London to find food ingredients largely unavailable elsewhere. When I went independent, my first office was an attic in D’Arblay Street – there was still a tiled Welsh dairy opposite. Soho always had a strong pull since arriving in London in the late 1960′s as a jazz and blues loving teenager who’d begun work in Liverpool and was out to begin another life in London.
This is not a place to talk about jazz or the blues, but it’s the blues I have as I find that Soho’s food heritage has not only gone, but even worse, it has been air brushed out of the capital’s history. Bar Italia on Frith Street is exhibiting a series of monochrome prints of a Soho many us hold dear to our hearts. Soho was one of many villages in London where a food culture was at the heart.
“I had a deep flirtation (with Soho) at the end of the 1970′s when I was at St Martin’s and used to go for lunch when I could afford it, or buy bits and pieces from the special Soho shops.”
In her book she writes: “As a family we made trips into Soho to buy exotic ingredients like packets of the half-metre long Neapolitan spaghetti wrapped in thick deep blue paper – and the real high point for me was being given a small matchbox-sized Torrone wrapped in rice paper by the kind Italian family who ran Parmigiani e Fili.”
Italians more than most, but other good retailers too, to this day will pass you a slice of fresh cut salami or prosciutto and invite reaction. Young children will be offered little sweets just like the young Chantal Coady. Often there’s a coffee machine and a caffé is offered too. These stores are social centres where buying goods is only part of the reason for visiting. Thankfully such places still exist in London, but they need hunting down and relationships have to be built between customer and shop-keeper.
Soho’s Old Compton Street (above as it was) as recent as the early 1980′s was mostly food shops, wine merchants, butchers, pâtissiers and inexpensive family restaurants. Italian held the most cards, but here we found French and Spanish too. Elizabeth David was not alone in her early texts in always pointing her readers to Soho to find the then more unusual ingredients. Today’s Old Compton Street is a different place.
Top of the street and actually on Wardour, not Old Compton was the Épicèrie Française (now an Ann Summers shop), then came A.Gomez Ortega (Spanish), Camisa, Parmigiani e Fili – and, mentioned by ED who has done more than anyone to change the eating habits of the British, L.Roche (herbs and spices) and King Bomba (both in the 1955 edition of ‘Mediterannean Food’). These last two were unknown to me.
“Don’t forget Delmonico’s and Randall & Aubin,” added Jill Norman, the food writer and editor who published some of Elizabeth David’s writing.
In Brewer Street, there was Lina Stores at no 18, next door was Randall & Aubin (formerly Morin & Cavereau), across the street was Richard’s (fish & game dealers) and further along were the butcher’s with the longest name, Slater & Cooke, Disney & Jones.
Their double fronted shop was a splendid palace of meat in gleaming stainless steel, staffed by real butchers skilled in the elegant continental seam cutting as well as the traditional British butchery. Here I first came upon the terms ‘Asparagus’ and ‘Blackberry‘ for chicken.
These were free range farm chickens – what else – so quaintly named because they were ready for slaughter around the time asparagus came in season and blackberries were ready for picking. I thank food writer Michael Raffael for these two real chicken nuggets.
Wet fish, always so fresh as still in rigor-mortis, and live shellfish were sold off the white tiled slabs of Richard’s. I think they had fresh water crayfish in a tank as well. My boss in the 1970′s before my going solo, would tour the office in Maddox Street to show off a pair of live lobsters, Dover sole, turbot, or some fish beyond our means, before catching an early train home to St Margaret’s dreaming of the evening to come.
I can find no photographs of any of these first class food shops. This article uses all I could source.
Across central Soho – assuming Old Compton and Wardour to mark this patch, there were the trattoria’s and cafés, along with the more eclectic restaurants like the original L’Escargot, the Gay Hussar, Quo Vadis and Bianchi’s at 21a Frith Street – right opposite Ronnie Scott’s and next door to Bar Italia. There were many more and I name only these few. Bianchi’s, with Elena Salvoni as front of house, was always my favourite until it closed. Elena, now in her 90′s, became known by the media as the Queen of Soho, having been forcibly retired from Elena’s L’Étoile in Charlotte Street (Fitzrovia).
Her husband, Aldo, would sit behind a high desk all evening in old Bianchi’s doing the bills. We used to joke about him having no legs – but never within ear shot of Elena herself. I’d say polenta came to London through the kitchen at Bianchi’s – decades before Islington and the River Café were to make it and New Labour’s symbol of sun-dried tomatoes famous, if cliché’d.
Stores like Lina at no 18 Brewer Street sold everything and the family were there to offer tastes and suggestions of how to prepare this dish or that. London’s very best of all Parmigiano-Reggiano was found at Lina – and stored in the cool downstairs where the pasta was made. Today there’s frittata on the counter – what joy.
Tony, when younger, would carry them up and downstairs, one wheel on each shoulder. Polenta (medium and fine), flour from chestnuts or chickpeas, fagioli of all types, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh breads, fresh porcini and truffles in season, cotecchino, zampone, fresh sausage and salume – always a culatello – etc were stock in trade at Lina Stores. The family came from near Piacenza, so salume from Emilia-Romagna came as second nature – it even led one year to Tony being invited to Ferrari’s Fiorano test track. He sat next to Michael Schumacher for the lunch that followed in Maranello.
Many, like Da Pollo on Old Compton Street, offered fresh made pasta, risotto as well as veal and fish dishes which were affordable for three courses, a carafe of wine and mineral water. Mineral water entered the UK via Soho. People knew to order San Pellegrino (then only ever in a 90cl bottle with a crown cap) with Italian and Perrier with French as to show off their savvy. Both brands became generic for sparkling water and missed out as restaurateurs back then were given free mineral water with the wine orders by the importers who in turn bought whatever was best priced back home.
Still waters like Panna and Evian took an age to catch on as they had less added value being flat. Vichy was there for the dispeptic who knew their waters – it was also like a non-alcoholic Fernet-Branca for many. Signs for Campari, Cinzano, Martini Rossi seemed to adorn every Soho main street, as if one was in Italy itself. On the street during the day one heard as much Italian, Maltese and Spanish as one did English.
By now, Colin MacInnes had already had the first of his London trilogies published, ‘Absolute Beginners’ with many a reference to Soho of the late 1950′s -rich in jazz, blues, drugs and racial tensions (forget the dreadful film). The Marquee, 100 Club and later the Arts Lab took music into new levels with regulars including the early Stones, Hendrix, Georgie Fame, Zoot Money, Alexis Korner, Rory Gallagher (then with Taste) and others. London’s Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, was a short hop away across Charing Cross Road. One rarely walked through without spotting a famous face.
Da Pollo was a favourite with St Martin’s art students and served fresh gnocchi almost before gnocchi arrived from Italy. Those that knew him tell me that the great Richard Olney was very fond of lunch at Da Pollo.
The food shops were mostly busy all week, but especially bustling on Saturday when long queues formed as we waited to be served by experts. We could ask for cooking tips and they would be shared with generosity with probably a couple more thrown in for good measure. Many of us honed our stove skills via Soho’s shops.
Shopping then for food was exciting, thrilling, social and never the compromise it has become for us today. For sure we have lost more than we have gained and what we have lost is a crying shame. Major retailers should bow their heads at that statement, not preen themselves about their latest ready-meal take on a paella, risotto, couscous or confit.
With the shops came the barrows - Rupert Street was the upscale end of the rowdier Berwick Street where we also had the Fratelli Camisa shop. Only the flower stall and the produce stall at the start of the market have any Soho history – and it shows.
Under the ugly post-war block of flats along the west side of Berwick used to be yet another good butcher where house made merguez and boudin, delicacies like sweetbreads, brains and tongues, sat alongside game birds, imported French poulets fermiers and Garenne rabbits, aged Scotch beef, seasonal lamb – and always veal. How we took all this for granted never imaging such simple and essential pleasure would end.
“Soho – it’s finished. C’est fini,” sad a sad Grégoire at Berwick Street’s Bar du Marché. A relative newcomer to the area – he came here from Martinique via Lille where he learned part of his skills from a chef / traiteur who had links with the original Véritable Lucullus of Valenciennes. Again Soho shows patrimonie and friendships driven by food.
Bar du Marché has to now compete daily with the food carts selling food in boxes to go – the inevitable Thai, Jerusalem Falafel, Malay, Vegetarian, etc.
“So few people eat at a table for their lunch any more. They take a box to their office and go on Facebook. It’s just not a healthy way for their bodies or minds,” sighs Grégoire as he chalks the day’s three course menu, all fresh made and cooked to order for £14.95 – maybe not a daily table, but once a week it’s a destination that those working in Soho today should protect before it too becomes another ersatz coffee shop.
It seems like coffee shops are killing Soho even though it was in 1950′s Soho that the coffee bar was born, and with it the music scene that went on to rock the world. The pubs have changed hands too, with only the French House having any semblance to real Soho even if the photos on the walls are copies of the originals collected by the son of the original landlord, Gaston Berlemont, the patron who made a traditional pub into a French bar still celebrating the Free French of WW2 which had their HQ upstairs. To this day beer is only sold in half pint glasses and pastis is on the optic. Bravo The French House (Dean Street).
Real Soho, Gaston and characters like Jack Milroy, Jeffrey Bernard, Allen Hall, Francis Bacon, the Private Eye founders, et al are already the stuff of legend. All the food shops have gone bar Lina Stores and Camisa. There are no butchers anywhere and only few barrows on Berwick Street.
Back to Chantal Coady: “I once spent an evening pairing malt whiskies and chocolates with Jack Milroy soon after I started Rococco. What a guy.”
Visiting Rococco’s Motcomb Street (Belgravia) shop recently, I like to think that Coady’s early days of shopping in Soho help create her model, just has she insists, her family life helped developed her palate.
Meanwhile we Blue Collar Gastronauts© must campaign on against the ‘Compromise Shopping’ enforced on us by major retailers who could do so much to make their shops more interestingly stocked with foods so many of us want to buy and cook.
As another said to me about this sad demise, supermarkets may offer a variant of Parmesan, Mozzarella, Mostarda, Pasta, Prosciutto, Porcini, Salume and more we found in Soho – but it’s never, ever to the quality, range and source these original shops provided. If we are reclaim any land lost, we have a steep mountain to climb. I am ready to lead a search party. So are others I know. We could begin with veal and poulets fermiers, instead of hybrid chickens fed on GM soya.
Anywhere could be a start point. Anywhere is better than nowhere when it comes to having to compromise when shopping.