One feature of my 1970s childhood in suburban Liverpool was the steady disappearance from our local high street – universally referred to as "the village", for no obvious reason – of the traditional grocer, with its cooked meat and cheese counters. Maypole, on the corner of Legion Lane, which did my favourite haslet by the slice, was the last one to go, leaving us to the untender mercies of ever-bigger supermarkets with their standardised stock and rubbery cheddar.
Bromborough, my home town, wasn't unusual in embracing wholesale homogenised, industrial food. By 1969, records show there was not a single free-range egg sold commercially in Britain. Cheesemaking likewise became something done only in factories not farms. Local butchers, traditional producers of their own trademark sausages and pies, were displaced by the Dewhurst chain, and fishmongers by the corporate might of Mac Fisheries.
In these dark days for our collective taste buds, there was, however, a flicker of hope when, in the early 1970s, Justin de Blank set up his eponymous delicatessen in central London using locally sourced ingredients to cook and sell delicious food on the premises. He had an artisan bakery and the sort of continental foodstuffs on his shelves that were only otherwise available back then in Harrods or Fortnum & Mason.
Soon, De Blank expanded into other outlets and inspired a generation of budding cooks who joined his staff and ' who are today at the top of their game – Nigel Slater, Rose Prince, Sybil Kapoor, Vanessa Lam and Alan Porter. He was one starting point for the food revolution that has swept aside everything in its path in recent years, as the new breed of celebrity chefs have educated us all in hitherto unknown, discarded or long-forgotten culinary delights. That, in its turn, has created such an appetite for good, fresh ingredients and food that the supermarkets have been left standing. Into the gap have stepped small, independent delis, organic shops and farmers' markets in many small towns.
Indeed, they have become so ubiquitous that it is now hard to remember the time when they weren't there (the first farmers' market is said to have taken place in Bath in 1991). But Justin de Blank wasn't the only food pioneer fighting to loosen the desensitising grip of industrial food, revive fast-disappearing traditional food-making skills, or widen our horizons to such delights as organic produce or "fancy" foreign delicacies.
If he deserves more credit than he is given today, then there are also others who fought the good fight for "real" food in less promising territory than the swankier quarters of London that De Blank colonised. And on these pages you'll find stories of some of the unsung heroes who set up and sustained shops in unlikely locations and were similarly ahead of their time. n
The Olive Tree
Kilburn, north-west London
"At times I have felt like a lonely goat climbing a mountain," reflects Costas Papantoniou of his organic health-food store which, he admits, has become as much a mission as a business for him. "My Greek grandfather was a priest," says the 48-year-old, "and I sometimes hear myself speaking to customers and think, 'I'm turning into a preacher.'"
It was his mother's long-term illness that first brought Papantoniou to a tiny health-food shop in a shabby parade off the busy but down-at-heel Kilburn High Road. "It was called Keshava and it was the true pioneer. It had been there for 17 years, but was in the process of closing down." He decided to take it on, renaming it The Olive Tree. "I inherited 200 glass jars of loose herbs and a book that told me how to mix them to answer specific problems customers came in with. My degree was in electronics, so I knew nothing, but I really enjoyed it and wanted to know more. I have spent the past 17 years with my nose in various health books."
That burgeoning interest in promoting wellbeing soon led him to organic foodstuffs, including fruit, veg and fish. "This was long before supermarkets had organic ranges. There were only two wholesalers I could find – one had been around for a year or two and the other had just started." Slowly, he built a dedicated following – some living in the nest of residential streets around the shop; the majority, people who passed by the shop on their way to or from work. Five years ago he moved out of his original cramped premises and into a larger shop just up the road with room for a juice bar and coffee shop.
His clients are ultra-loyal, as confirmed by several customers who come in while we are talking and greet Papantoniou as part old friend, part health guru. But how has he managed to keep going now organic is so readily available? "People recognise real commitment," he replies. "The supermarkets are all cutting back on their organic ranges in the current downturn. All that matters to them is the bottom line."
The shop's location, in an unfashionable bit of London, has helped. "Had I opened in a parade of shops that is 'up-and-coming', the rent would have been so much higher and I'm not sure I could have made it work. Organic food is so much more expensive, so there are no big profit margins. I know of four organic shops in recent years that have opened up in this area, on smarter streets, and had to close."
"I accepted long ago that I was never going to make my million," he adds, "but having this shop and what we have done with it since 1993 makes me feel like a millionaire."
The Olive Tree is at 152 Willesden Lane, London NW6, tel: 020 7328 9078
Burnham Market, Norfolk
"I'm not sure where I got the idea for Humble Pie," says Sue Elston. "It was the late 1970s and I was a Cordon Bleu-trained cook. I had admired Justin de Blank's new gourmet-food shop in London, selling fresh food made on the premises using the best ingredients." But in rural Norfolk? "When you're in your twenties, you don't think like that. You give it a go."
Elston was working in a local restaurant and had met her husband, Raymond, a designer and gallery owner. "I wanted normal hours so I could be with him, but not a normal job. Some friends told me the lease on the butcher's on the green in Burnham Market was coming up. It was tiny, but I could imagine a shop where I could sell what I cooked."
Elston's many fans, who queue round the block on Saturdays to squeeze in to what is still the same tiny shop, know her default setting is self-effacement, so her almost-by-accident description of the origins of Humble Pie needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. She deserves to be acclaimed as a food pioneer. Burnham Market may today be labelled "Chelsea-on-Sea" as it has become so fashionable with London second-homers, but when she opened in 1980, "It was," she recalls, "a dusty village where farm-workers played dominos in the pub."
So dusty that even had she wanted to import ingredients from London, she couldn't. "The suppliers weren't interested in coming to a backwater." It gave a practical edge to Humble Pie's core commitment to local producers. It is commonplace now, but Elston had to conjure out of nowhere fledgling artisan bakers, cheesemakers and a group she calls "the chutney ladies". Stuart Oetzmann, for example, was working as a chef in a pub in a nearby town. He used the ovens in his spare time to make pies and tarts for Elston – the first step on a road that saw his Metfield Bakery supply Fortnum's and Harvey Nichols.
Humble Pie is at Market Place, Burnham Market, Norfolk, tel: 01328 738 581, humble-pie.com '
"When my father and his brother took over this business from their father in 1963," recalls Steven Salamon, the third generation of a family of food pioneers in south Wales, "he had the words 'Continental Delicatessen' painted on the front window in letters that started small and got bigger and bigger. It looked fantastic. Nothing he was selling was available in supermarkets back then. We had panettone imported from Italy and stollen from Germany long before anyone here knew what they were."
The origins of Wally's go back to Steve Salamon's grandfather, Ivor, a Polish Jew who fled from Austria in 1939 as the Nazis advanced, and set up Bridge Street Stores in Cardiff in 1947. "His plan was for a greengrocer, but soon he began catering for eastern European immigrants who wanted the food they had grown up with.
"He had run a shop near Vienna before the war and somehow managed to source continental charcuterie, pickles and sauerkraut. That was the business my father and his brother took on, and once again they were ahead of the game, anticipating the health-food craze of the 1970s, selling loose muesli, cereals and pulses, and even some of their own mixes."
In 1981, the business had to move because it was in the way of a council redevelopment plan. Salamon's father set up on his own in Cardiff's Royal Arcade and named the shop after himself – Wally's Delicatessen. "I was a schoolboy at the time and tried to explain why it wasn't a good name, but he wouldn't listen. And it has stuck." The staples remained health foods and continental meats – though now with Italian and Spanish varieties joining the German and eastern European cuts – but there was a new emphasis on oriental foodstuffs and curries. "We have always managed to anticipate people's tastes," says Salamon. "If you don't, you won't survive."
He joined the family firm in 1993 – and his teenage children now help out at weekends. Salamon made sure Wally's was one of the first delis to embrace the internet. As its original core group of customers died out, the original global specialities gave way to new lines from other continents – South African foodstuffs are currently popular. But the roots of the business have not been lost.
The premises have expanded into neighbouring shops several times – and into a second location in a new shopping precinct built on the site of the original Bridge Street Stores. "Our next project is to open a coffee shop, not an Italian-style one like everyone else, but a proper Viennese coffee shop, with open sandwiches, relishes and charcuterie."
Wally's Delicatessen is at 38-46 Royal Arcade, Cardiff, tel: 02920 229 265, wallysdeli.co.uk
Lewis & Cooper
Northallerton, North Yorkshire
"There was a time, before my dad Tony took over in the early 1980s, when Lewis & Cooper might have closed down," admits Victoria Howard who, with her twin sister, Bettina Bell, now runs this 111-year-old grocer. "It had become a bit old in its ways and the customers were thinning out."
Lewis & Cooper started out as a traditional grocer on the high street of Northallerton — "We're not particularly known even now as a 'foodie' town," says Howard. "Round here that's more Helmsley" – but with the advent of the supermarkets it faced extinction like many other small grocers. So Tony Howard came up with a new model of what a local food shop could be.
"We do still do some traditional grocery," says his daughter, "making up people's weekly orders and delivering them, but that's a smaller and smaller part. We just can't compete on price with Tesco, Morrisons, Netto and M&S, which have all turned up in Northallerton." Instead, Lewis & Cooper has over the past three decades transformed itself into a mecca for what Howard describes as "luxuries, extras and special bits".
The premises have been opened up to include what were once store-rooms. The old-fashioned grocer's counter at the front, where people used to queue to place their orders, has been relegated to the back to be replaced by self-service chiller units. "We stock something like 200 marmalades, and herbs and spices you wouldn't get anywhere else. And we've developed the things we are known for – like our hampers, which used to be just at Christmas but now are year-round. The plum puddings we stocked were so popular, we bought the local business that made them and became wholesalers ourselves."
It is hard, Howard acknowledges, to keep a deli distinctive. "We work closely with our suppliers to put on festivals and tastings. You can never stand still if you want to keep ahead of the supermarkets." Paradoxically, though, it is Lewis & Cooper's unchanging nature that many locals value most – or at least the familiar faces running it. Howard and her sister began working alongside their dad as 13-year-old Saturday girls.
Lewis & Cooper is at 92 High Street, Northallerton, tel: 01609 772 880, lewisandcooper.co.uk