I couldn’t help going back to spend a few days in London, which is nothing less than my favourite city on earth. Indeed, there is one big mistake in my life, which is not to be born British. I’m French from southern roots (Mediterranean bassin – eg. Spain, Morocco, Algeria), born and bred in a sunny culture with roasted paprikas and couscous as favourite dishes. And then came my greatest birthday present at the age of eight: three days in London. I remember how proud I was posing in front of Westminster Abbey, chasing the crows or walking in Hyde Park. Imagine that I even had the chance to buy a blue velvet hat, embroidered with tiny blue and pink flowers and some lovely green leaves. It was a sudden and unexpected love that grew even bigger with every Monty Python episode and movie I watched, cookbooks by Nigel, Nigella & cie, the discovery of the Liberty shop and the Hamlet recitation by Alan Rickman.
So here we are again, totally eager to jump in a cup of britishness with a dash of milk, starting with the delightful culture of baking they got over there. First, a good thing to know if you prefer reading Keats in Hampstead Heath rather than spending hours in shops: John Lewis. Located on Oxford Street, often busy but with a great order and pick-up service. That means you can order everything you need on the internet from home, even before you arrive in London, and collect it the next day in a Waitrose supermarket or in their original branch. Our spoil: a cake stand. How can you ever make a proper cake picture without this one, I ask you? And it’s the regular argument to use against a doubtful Mr G. No it’s not a crush or a compulsive buy, it’s a need, a need, I tell you.
Some Christmas decoration, because we’re never too early to get ready, a blackbird pie funnel, for releasing steam from your pie to obtain the perfect crispy crust, must-have, isn’t it? Plates, pattern, grass, ladybug, flowers… What else to add? A Victoria & Albert Museum Chinese pattern tray, perfect to serve a summer cocktail on the terrace.
For basics you can drop in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Perfect for good quality bakewares such as bun trays or roasting trays. You might not find anything too specific though – no crumpet ring here, it’s rather a good classic shop. And really affordable too (3 roasting trays for 3£). About ingredients, they do have several kinds of sprinkles, royal icing, ready-to-roll icing (including some coloured versions). Plus the following in 100g boxes: Baker’s yeast, baking powder, xanthan gum. For you, dear British & American readers, it might sound normal but you should know in the countries called France & Belgium, we sell those ingredients in tiny 10g individual bags. Not to speak of the xanthan only in 2g bags and only in really specialized shops, at the “molecular cooking” department. Needless to say it’s also much more expensive.
Now it’s time to talk about the widely famous Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly Street. Tea purveyor for the Crown, this shop is a legend. When I came in I didn’t know if I should love it or hate it.
Let’s start with the cons:
– Too many tourists – yes, I’m part of it too. It’s quite a contrast to see the employees with charming old-world tailor-made suits and lovely accents serving a more middle-class backpack and trainer-wearing crowd. Not that I have anything against it but it’s just that it seems less special. As if it would live on its former glory.
– Prices. Oh my god. I’m the kind of person that can easily splurge on food goods. Even happily. But 2,50£ for 100g of rice, come on.
And now, the plus:
– I was complaining, being slightly disappointed when came the Preserve and Marmelade section. And then I lost my head. Started to fill my basket with one pot, two pots, three pots. Not thinking about the weight or the price, no it was a deep need. Did you know they make more than 40 types of marmalade? You can choose if you prefer skin on or off, thin or thick cut. Are you more a Sir Nigel or a Coronation type? Blood orange, non pareil, dark lime or bergamot? Pimped up with whiskey, rum or champagne? Or maybe you prefer some gold leaves for the ideal vibrancy? Ask for a type and I’m sure they make it, it’s amazing. Even Mr G. spent some time looking at those perfectly arranged pots, totally fascinated. We left with a sloe and damson curd. For a non-native English speaker like me, those four words put together sound obsoletely charming. Was also in the bag: a lemon-gin-angostura bitters jam, a mulled wine with gold leaf jelly, and last but not least, an elderflower and gooseberry jam. In this little hysteria, we stopped by the tea place to buy some Irish Breakfast, some Smoked Earl Grey and some Elderflower green tea. We left emotionally exhausted thinking that finally, we understood why this place is still a legend.
And now for something completly different. The larch. The larch. The larch. If you watched the Great-British-bake-off-expert-Paul-Hollywood bread series, you might have seen an episode where he bakes a dough containing malt extract. He seemed using it as if it was a normal product everybody knows, but it was not my case. So we needed to bring some back, logically. And none of the supermarkets had it but they stocked our precious sesame in the Holland & Barret health store (plenty of branches around). Now you can bite in this malt loaf ! Decorating time with: The Jane Asher shop devoted only to help you make your cakes look gorgeous: sprinkles, glazes, tiny decorations, and an amazing quantity of cookie cutters and piping accessories. We left with one holly leaf and three ivy leaves cutters.
The Columbia Road flower market. Not only is it one of the most idyllic and charming places in town, filled with freshly cut blossom smells, but it’s also hosting some great shops, gardening-baking oriented. I couldn’t name one specifically as they are all worth a stop. From vintage plates to robin-printed flower pot shops, it’s like diving in a world of Victorian era fantasies.
Gill Wing is yet another place with trays and molds. With a wider choice as you can even find Yorkshire pudding trays. Plus, they have another shop next door, less about cooking, more about serving and hosting. And it’s filled up with Neal’s Yard Remedies products plus Hope & Greenwood retro candies.
Divertimenti – Two big shops, one in Marylebone, the other in King’s Road. A bit pricey but it has high standards. They do have a good selection of cookbooks though. Some individual jelly molds you just have to leave with (this summer, a rhubarb jelly with some pieces of strawberry). As this year’s challenge is to master bread, we almost left with a pizza stone but sadly it was a bit too big and heavy to carry around in town.
Liberty – Could fit in the fashion category, in the stationery category and even in the architecture one. What’s not to love about this place? The price tags maybe but anyway, you do have to visit it at least for inspiration. We bought a few plates that you might see soon on this blog and we’re now seriously thinking about buying a few tyres to turn them into ivy pots the way they did.
Anthropologie – Yes it’s mainly retro dresses and outfits you’d love to wear on a cycling trip through the Hamptons, New York, not so 100% Brit but as it’s the only store in Europe, it’s still a must-see. Add a vegetal wall, super plates and bowls, great design and food books to discover and you’ll understand why you will enjoy wandering there.
To finish, here is the list of what you have to / should / might want (choose regarding your level of addiction to British culture) to bring back home:
– Maldon salt and smoked maldon salt: the most beautiful flakes ever. Perfect for caramel too.
– Pickles: From big juicy capers to dark walnuts.
– Chutneys: Roasted vegetables, caramelized onions, etc.
– Suet: for real puddings.
– Alcohol: from IPA to brandy, from ginger wine to sloe gin.
– Non alcohol: elderflower cordial, elderflower presse, anything with elderflower will do, actually.
– Vanilla paste: for generously plunging your spoon into, the way Nigella Lawson does.
– Rennet essence: to make cheese but also perfect for a retro pudding, the junket.
– Golden syrup: black treacle.
– Sausages – Cumberland, with roasted apples, with sage, you have plenty of choice.
– Cheese. I’m still mourning the fact we didn’t find the time to stop by Neal’s Yard Dairy or Paxton & Whitfield but it’s another excuse to come back to the city.
– Tea, marmalade and baking stuff but this is already quite clear.
– Pie dish, crumpet rings, roasting trays.