I can’t say I came to Britain for the food, but since food is one of the most fundamental ways we experience new places I’ve been interested to note some differences – mainly in London where I’ve spent the majority of my time.
London has an abundance of options when it comes to eating out. You can easily find classic French or contemporary Vietnamese or gourmet pub food, and the best quality at that. Plenty of fast food options too, although usually of the greasy spoon variety.
No surprises there.
What I didn’t expect was take away places offering the most unlikely of pairings. Asian fusion I’m used to; a trendy menu with a bit of this and that, pesto pasta alongside pho, sticky rice alongside sticky date. Sure. But “Andy’s Kitchen: Chinese and Caribbean”? Not so much.
There’s also an easy way to enjoy these cuisine combinations: Just Eat. One of many perks in a country packed full of people is the demand for convenience, and Just Eat is a prime example. It’s a website where you can browse thousands of restaurants, order online and have them deliver to your door. Choice and convenience – in a bag. I was pretty excited when I discovered this.
Convenience is the watchword in London. You’re never more than a ten minute walk from a Tesco Express or a Sainsbury’s supermarket. Groceries in the supermarkets are over-packaged: sometimes you’ll find half a cucumber neatly sealed in an individual bag, and if you want to pick out a few loose potatoes you’ll have to go elsewhere.
Recently I counted all the supermarket chains in the UK and realised there are nine: Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose. This doesn’t include Iceland, frozen food specialist, and Whole Foods, organic food market, and probably a few regional chains.
On the one hand this is great for customer choice. On the other hand I can’t recall seeing a single butcher shop in London. I’m sure somebody will tell me I’m mistaken, but hand on heart I have not seen one in all my explorations. There are plenty of bakeries and also street-side fruit and veg markets – one of my favourite things ever about the London grocery scene (is that a thing? Can we make groceries cool enough to have their own “scene”?). But the Big Four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have 73% of market share, and I can’t help wondering how this affects producers and local communities. Of course this is much better than Australia where just two control close to 80% of the market. The UK is a different landscape, and I suspect more competitive, but chains are incredibly prevalent here in every area of food and retail.
The exception is the local corner store. Another product of cramming lots of people together in an urban environment, the London off-licence is on a residential street, owned and run independently, and more often than not specialising in regional food depending on the borough: Turkish, Caribbean, Romanian, Indian. The fruit and veg display butts onto the street and the shelves inside are packed to the ceiling with toilet paper, cans of beans, kefir milk, ballpoint pens, chocolate. One day I decided to play “grocery roulette” amongst the packets of soup with Polish labels and I’m still not entirely sure what I ate.
But there is one thing Britain does well no matter where you shop: cheese. I have discovered cheeses I’d never heard of before arriving on this milky little isle. Wensleydale. Double Gloucester. Tunworth. Durrus. Cheshire Blue. Derby. Wigmore. Isle of Mull Cheddar. Last week we went to the Burrough Market near London Bridge and oh! What a foodie heaven. Apart from artisan Scotch eggs and steaming platters of paella and handmade fudge and Swiss Raclette sandwiches and crusty loaves of bread and mounds of colourful veggies and… wait… what was I talking about again? Oh yes. Cheese. The most magnificent of all: the Neal’s Yard store. Shelves of cheese rounds bigger than your head and a long, long counter with the most kinds of cheese I’ve ever seen, all of them British.
I have decided that I like cheese – good cheese – a lot, and if there is one reason to return to the UK this could be it. Perhaps if I find a cheese takeaway on Just Eat I’ll never leave.