Food: Counter culture
Simon Hopkinson Whatever happened to old-fashioned grocers? Well, there is still one great food hall left, but even that won't help if you're shopping for schmaltz
Saturday 03 April 1999
I have always found joy inside the high-class grocer.
I behaved in Peacock's as if in an Aladdin's cave. The place had lovely scrubbed plank flooring and those fantastically exciting tube things that grabbed mum's money and whizzed it across the ceiling as fast and noisy as an angry hornet. After two minutes the little capsule would come whizzing back, complete with change and receipt. Meanwhile, our Fru-Grains, waxed- paper-wrapped smoked back (sliced on No. 5) and sundry groceries would have been neatly packed into a cardboard box. No other shop had this service in Bury, so I felt dead privileged. "Hmmm," I said to myself, "I shall pop into Peacock's when I'm a grown-up."
Sadly, not to be, as Peacock's suddenly vanished, just a few months before my 16th birthday. The only other "high-class grocer" was to be found in Manchester, at the department store, Kendal Milne & Co. Although a fair trek, its basement delicatessen (I write the word in italics only because it was then a very new word to us Lancastrians) was frequented by my discerning, posh when necessary, and choosy mum - and mostly during the January and summer sales, it has to be said.
Kendal's, you will be interested to know, had an updated version of Peacock's whizzer thing. Instead of the insane ceiling-insect transaction, this hugely swish store had a "shlup-whoosh-fizz-zip" suction tube masterpiece beside each and every pay station. When the change, receipt etc, arrived back from Kendal's cash central, the tube would land with a great "whop". Even though you knew its arrival was imminent, its final thump would always make everyone - even the familiar Mancunian till operative - jump.
Well, those days of whiz-whoosh-zip and Mr Peacock's nice cardboard boxes are, poignantly, a thing of the past. Now fully grown-up for some years, the last 21 of them spent in London, I initially found myself grandly drawn to the food halls of Harrods of Knightsbridge in the late Seventies, almost before I had bothered to find myself somewhere to live. Whether I had a stove to cook on, a fridge in which to store perishables or a table to eat at, I first had to see these wondrous pavilions of high grocery, absurdly arranged fish and game and costly cuts of meats.
In those easier days, I would relish many an early Saturday morning drive to Harrods (parking, then, was a cinch ... you just had to find a jammed meter and the car was safe for the rest of the day). My visit would begin with a linger alongside the fish display, the curled, bent and tightly fitted fish all wet with spray. Then I would have a butcher's at row upon row of immaculately cut portions of impossibly expensive fillet steaks, rarely seen (then) whole calf's kidneys still attached to their creamy white suet, and many serried ranks of superbly trimmed best ends of lamb, almost military in their arrangement, as if on parade. The vegetables and fruits too, both common or garden and exotic, never failed to intoxicate me with their mix of odours and vivid spectrum of colours. Needless to say, I rarely bought anything. It was more a case of window-shopping on the inside. I did once buy a bonsai tree for my mother's birthday, but she let it die. It was an expensive death.
I have long felt, however, that in recent years my Harrods, the one I used to know and love, is not the shop it once was. Its majestic halls are no less impressive to walk around, admire and perchance to buy a little best back bacon - which I hear is still very good indeed. But if I now need gastro-therapy in central London, the finest array of choicest foods is to be found within Selfridges Food Hall. Unlike those halcyon days of the regularly abused Knightsbridge parking meter, I now safely take the tube to Marble Arch and gently saunter along the northern back of Oxford Street to score some gourmet treats.
The Selfridges Food Hall is much smaller than Harrods', allowing one not to become all of a dither when deciding on what to have for supper. Everything also seems so much fresher and better looking there (the display of fish is one of London's finest; there was even a whole pike there the other day). There are also better butchered meats (the nicest small veal chops, tongues and veal tails that I have ever seen) and it is here that you will always find a nice piece of salt brisket to take home to boil - I also happen to be quite good at cooking Jewish food.
In fact, it was in Selfridges that I first saw "schmaltz" for sale. Now I knew the word schmaltzy had always meant something sloppy and sentimental, usually with reference to a song sung by, say, Vic Damone, Mel Torme or Perry Como (I'm older than you think). But, up until then, I had been ignorant of the Yiddish term for small lumps of chicken fat, or that they could possibly have anything to do with the mellow tones of a practised crooner. So, for those who didn't know, it is the melted schmaltz that is the most important ingredient of chopped liver, adding essential lubrication in the same way that butter does to a chicken liver pate in the non-kosher kitchen. Come on, you just need to know these things.
But this was my only serious disappointment with the Selfridges of the late Nineties: where was my schmaltz? Had I missed it, along with all the other related giblets which I couldn't find (livers, gizzards, necks and hearts) and which are ever more relevant now that we are forced into buying empty birds? No, I don't think I had missed it. I do feel happy doing my shopping in Selfridges, but it moves me to say that the days of the shlup-whoosh-fizz-zip, a cardboard box and wide choice of chicken innards were, truly, "Magic Moments". (The B-side was "Catch a Falling Star", by the way)
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