Nowhere is that choice greater, and more potentially overwhelming, than London's Soho. Jenny Linford, author of Food Lovers' London, is making the most of this consumer confusion by offering two-hour guided tours of Soho's finest international food shops that nestle among the numerous sex shops, cafes and boutiques of what has become known, since the arrival of the gay community in the late Eighties, as the pink village.
Seasoned Londoners may be familiar with the area's numerous international eateries and delicatessens. But for the uninitiated, Soho's range of choice can be overwhelming. I was the only Londoner in a small group that met for the tour on a snowy morning in January in Gerrard Street. Easily identifiable as Chinatown's main thoroughfare by its Chinese arches, pagoda-style phone boxes and bilingual street signs, the street presents a culinary challenge, even to Soho regulars. Sylvia and her daughter Gill (up from Brighton for the day), an ex-pat American couple and two young women from the home counties were eager to find out.
First port of call was Loon Fung Supermarket. Catering for a largely Chinese clientele, Loon Fung sells a huge range of ingredients, many of which never find their way on to restaurant menus. Jenny kicked off by describing, and identifying,the impressively fresh-looking - but unfamiliar - vegetables, adding cooking tips and shopping advice. We peered at the extravagantly lush greens, sniffed at the Chinese chives, inspected the ready-to-eat chickens' feet and nodded at the won ton skins. The tour itinerary came with recipes and cooking advice, but still we constantly thought, and then asked aloud, "What is this?" and "What do you do with that?"
Jenny, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tutor, paused periodically to point out bundles of sausages hung on twine or flattened air-dried duck, before leading us into cookware. I, for one, always thought a wok was a wok, and was amazed to see more than a dozen different kinds stacked on the shelves. It would have been nice if we had had time to hear what the various implements were for. However, we made do with the discovery that the large piece of metalwork that would not look out of place in a blacksmith's was actually for hanging a whole pig.
Back outside on Gerrard Street, we spied through the steamy windows of other establishments. First, a Chinese bakery ("Some of the sponges are the same as you'd get at any Women's Institute. I stick to the sticky glazed char-siu buns," advised Jenny) and then a takeaway displaying barbecued pigs' intestines and hearts.
As we crossed Shaftesbury Avenue and entered European Soho, so the foodie credentials of the group began to emerge. Talk of seeing a snake cooked at the roadside in Hong Kong mixed with anecdotes about the River Cafe, the renowned London restaurant.
Then we consumed a quick coffee and pastry at the defiantly un-renovated Forties-style Maison Bertaux (the best pastries in Soho, according to Jenny), before descending on the 300 different whiskies in Milroy's.
As the owner poured us a 12-year-old Speyside, attention was drawn to a bottle of Dallas Dhu, distilled in 1921 and bottled in 1985, which was on sale for pounds 6,700. "It's the last bottle left in the world," said Mr Milroy, as if that explained anything, before telling us how he had recently sold a bottle for pounds 5,000 to a Japanese businessman. Upon leaving, Sylvia, finishing off her dram of Speyburn, mentioned that she was not usually a whisky drinker. "However...."
Next stop, Angelucci's, a tiny coffee shop on Frith Street with an ancient coffee grinder, weighing scales and cash register, followed by the Italian delicatessen I Camisa, whose gorgeously ripe pungency of cheeses and salamis lingered with us well after we left the shop. What should have been our next stop, Randall & Aubin, the Anglo-French grocery store, recently stopped trading. We contented ourselves by squinting through the painted window panes to see what remained of the tiled walls and huge wooden fridges, before moving next door to Lina Stores, which still features great boulders of parmigiano piled up like a breakwater, along with open sacks of beans, rice and polenta nestling by the door.
Its speciality, the daily produced superb fresh pasta, is laid out in slabs on the counter. Intended for daily consumption, it rather begs the question of supermarket "fresh" pasta that can be kept for up to a month.
The tour finished up at Simply Sausages in Berwick Street, which operates on the revolutionary notion that if you make sausages with real meat, people will buy them. It is this belief in quality control that has helped Soho's specialist retail outlets survive. "As late as 1990," Jenny recalled, "I had to come to Soho for ingredients that you can now get at every supermarket. But the quality and service in Soho are still excellent. Even mortadella, the most bog-standard Italian sausage, is better at I Camisa than at any supermarket."
Proof, if one were needed, that while there is good quality at a good price to be had somewhere, it does no harm to have a guide to help you find it - and then tell you what you can do with it. Even this Londoner learnt something.Reuse content