I recently moved to London and am enjoying having a bit more time to spend on my blog; to take a little more time for the various steps & to cook in a slower, more thoughtful way than I usually can when I’m trying to a fit a blog post into an already action-packed weekend after a busy week, getting stressed as the light starts to dip & the cake’s still not yet cool enough to ice.
This means more time to research the ingredients & cooking techniques that I’m planning to use; more time to read recipes & cookbooks and more time to visit food shops that I’ve always wanted to visit or that I’d never heard of before I came here. And there’s a lot of this to soak up in London. Ingredients I’ve never seen before in markets; short-season produce that never manages to make it to Dublin; cafés & restaurants I’ve grown up reading about in The Telegraph; world class food shops I’d only ever come across in the pages of my favourite cookbooks; hidden deli gems in secret corners that only appear when you’re on your way to meet someone… London is a veritable paradise for food lovers.
But it is also huge. With an intimidating number of ‘must-trys’, where do you start? The first couple of weeks I was here, I couldn’t work out what way to proceed; what angle I wanted to take on such a megalopolis; how to make sense of any of it. Then, thankfully, I found an incredibly helpful handbook called ‘Eat London: All About Food’ by Peter Prescott & Terence Conran in a charity shop, which as well as humorously detailing London’s finest dining establishments (most of which are well beyond my budget, sadly) also offers a guide to the city’s best food shops, including recommendations from top chefs on where they do both their specialist & off-duty weekend shopping.
It occurred to me that visiting this catalogue of shops in a semi-structured way (ie, sort of planning a trip, or making a note to visit when I was in a particular area; buying a couple of choice ingredients and then doing a blog post about what I’d found) would be a great way to properly explore the city and also to broaden my knowledge about ingredients & cooking techniques that may or may not be familiar to me. At the very least, I would have something in the bag for dinner.
[Note: I should probably say at this point that not all the posts that I put up will be structured this way, as the supermarkets here sell pretty interesting produce too, but it’ll be clear which posts are the result of retail or gastronomic location inspiration as there will likely be lots of slightly crooked, slyly taken snaps accompanying the undoubtedly breathless descriptions. If you have any recommendations for me please let me know also – I’d love to hear them.]
The first place on my list was La Fromagerie, a specialist cheesemongers that has been in Marylebone since 2002 which as well featuring a maturing cellar, a cheese room & a dedicated affineur (a cheese expert), also sells cured meats & beautiful tranches of smoked salmon; famous Poilâne sourdough bread; house-made deli additions; top quality dairy; stylish tableware; exquisite fruit & veg – knobbly lemons, wet garlic bulbs & Datterini tomatoes (Londoners are mad for Datterini tomatoes) to name a few of the delights on offer when I visited. There’s also a café/restaurant attached, which offers lots of cheese based dishes, predictably enough, as well as other café standards.
On La Fromagerie, Conran & Prescott note, ‘As you enter the shop your olfactory sense is accosted by the pungent smell of the innumerable cheeses stocked at Patricia Mitchelson’s homage to perfectly conditioned fromage. Inside the actual cheese room (also the name of Patricia’s remarkable & passionately written book about discovering and cooking with the world’s best cheeses) the affineur ensures the ripeness & perfect storage of a mainly continental collection…they even ask when your cheese will be consumed so that they can advise on the storage conditions and whether it will be ready or not…The stock changes regularly so you need to visit every month or so just to keep abreast of what’s seasonal.
La Fromagerie is a complete treasure trove for food lovers, and I was as rapt by the deli & grocery items as I was by the cheese. It is fairly pricey though, so I had to limit myself to a beautiful lemon (with leaves), a bulb of young wet garlic, a box of eggs, a ball of burrata, a tub of double crème fraîche and, finally, some ricotta salata, which I’d never seen before & decided I had to try.
Ricotta salata is a salted, aged version of the soft, damp, milky ricotta most of us would be more familiar with. Made in southern Italy with sheep ewes’ milk as part of the pecorino production process, ricotta salata has a semi-firm texture, and a sharper, more fragrant, nutty flavour than ricotta; in fact the only similarities between the two are the pale colour & a certain milky freshness that is present in both. It’s a little like feta, a little like halloumi, and a little like something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. It slices, grates & crumbles easily, making it particularly suited to being used in salads or on top of pasta.
When I got it home from the shop, the first thing I did was to try a sliver of it, using a vegetable peeler to slice it (I was hungry, okay?), and I noticed what an unusual texture it had, coming away in feathery, elegant, perfect slices. I decided to make a whole salad in this way, layering wafer-thin peelings of delicate, equally pale springlike ingredients like fennel bulb, wet garlic & raw courgette which I would then dress simply with just black pepper, lemon juice, good quality olive oil & herbs to allow the ricotta salata to reveal its beautiful bright white sharpness against a subtle backdrop.
SPRING VEGETABLE SALAD with ricotta salata & lemon
‘Vegetable Peeler Salad’
To make the salad, simply slice strips of the ricotta salata with a vegetable peeler, making them as thin and long as possible. Do the same with a raw bulb of fennel, wet garlic, three baby courgettes, and layer all the strips on a serving plate, drizzling with olive oil, black pepper, lemon zest, cress, mint leaves, the leafy fronds from the fennel, thyme and a little fresh lemon juice as you build the layers up. Set aside for 30 minutes to allow the flavours to gently meld before serving.
Later, I tried the ricotta salata for dinner crumbled into spaghetti with roasted fennel bulb, herbs & roast chicken and it worked just as wonderfully, adding a gorgeously rounded savouriness to the dish. Indeed, as The Kitchn notes, ricotta salata is a cheese ‘whose merits, more than anything else, lie in its ability to complement other foods… It’s a welcome addition to your refrigerated pantry, not only because of its price, but because of its ability to bridge the gap between the seasons.’