Celia Brooks Brown’s new tour around one of London’s culinary hotspots – report by Peter Morrell
A group of us gathered outside Covent Garden station and, after a round of introductions, we got our first foodie treat, a macaron from probably one of the most famous makers, Ladurée, whose shop we would pass later in the tour. We were all impressed that Celia could remember all sixteen or so flavours in the box and with varieties like pistachio and salted caramel they quickly disappeared.
We were soon on our way, first stop being Neal’s Yard Dairy, the cheese shop in Shorts Gardens. This is now almost an institution, evolving from hippie commune beginnings around the corner in Neals Yard, to a showcase for British and Irish artisan cheeses.
The staff are ultra knowledgeable about their products and our party squeezed into the shop to be given samples of Hafod and Montgomery cheddar, goat’s cheese and stilton together with some background information on each of the producers.
We then went into Neals Yard itself where, in the late 1970s, an almost derelict group of old vegetable warehouses became a thriving group of shops that included the dairy we had just visited, a miller and baker and the now world renown Neals Yard Remedies. This small courtyard has a fascinating history and still has a charming homespun atmosphere about it.
The yard is aptly the home of Slow Food UK and we paid their shop a visit. This not for profit organisation evangelises about retaining heritage food products and natural food production methods. It also helps to raise the awareness of healthy food to children, their parents and to college students.
In their ‘Taste Space’ we tried fruit juices, cider and perry (made with pears) from Burrow Hill and Celia had bought two cheeses from the dairy to try with some Dove’s Farm biscuits. The two cheeses were a pasteurised stilton and Stichelon, an unpasteurised stilton like cheese, the difference between them was amazing.
We then wandered back to the Piazza in Covent Garden itself where Celia gave us a history of the market from its Inigo Jones design origins to its present day role as one of London’s most popular tourist destination.
But we had primarily come for the food and it was this part of the tour where the proof of London’s culinary vibrancy was most evident. Stalls that reflect the current ethnic mix of the capital line the outer part of the market. Our first tasting was at a stall selling Slovenian food, the offerings were a riot of the unusual, cabbage strudel, savoury potted bread and muffins and a unique eight layer cake. The stall was also selling bottles of pumpkin seed oil which had an intense nutty taste.
We swiftly moved from Europe to Latin America with a stop at a Venezuelan stall cooking Capachas, crushed corn kernel pancakes filled with spicy beef or chicken, guacamole and cheese. These were delicious, with the corn playing a large part in both the taste and the texture of this traditional dish.
There was a final trip back to Europe, with a sampling of ostrich kabanos, a thin dried sausage from the stand next door selling a whole range of Polish delicacies.
Our final stop before leaving market was to go down into the well inside the market that, because of the acoustics, is a beloved spot for busking opera singers and classical musicians. Set into the arches is Cafe Chutney where we had a tasting of their very healthy Indian street dish Bhel Puri. This is a mix of puffed rice, stick like noodles, flavourings and tamarind sauce, another appetising snack.
Our legs told us it was time to sit down and Celia had arranged a wine and food sampling in a charming new Italian wine bar, Dalla Terra which means ‘From the Earth’. The wine bar is based on the Enotica or local wine shop which is popular in Italy. The bar is in the peaceful St Martin’s Courtyard, just off Long Acre and almost back at our starting point.
A warm welcome from general manager Giuseppe Gullo was the start of an intriguing trip through Italian regional cuisine. The chef from Puglia had prepared some unique, peasant dishes (La Cucina Povera) based on a combination of traditional and foraged ingredients. Puntarella, or green chicory in English, on a bed of truffle oil dressed fava bean mash was a good example of the dishes on offer. Another stand out was the ham hock terrine with Lampascione, Hyacinth bulbs with a crunchy texture.
The accompanying wines were equally luscious. Black to White, a wine that the grower had morphed, by selective pruning, from a red to a white grape was aromatic while the Etna Rosso, a red grown on the slopes of Mount Etna had deep, earthy tones on the palate.
The tour was just as enjoyable as the Borough Market one. The defining feature is that Celia knows where to go and what to sample. She is extremely well versed about food and has a good relationship with the shop and stall owners. It is this inside knowledge that really enriches the experience.
The tour which costs £60 lasts for about three hours and includes all the tastings. Dates are available from May to August.
This would be an ideal gift for a foodie relative or, if you have got visitors from overseas for the Olympics or the Jubilee, a great way of showing them the diversity of the capital’s culinary offerings in one of London’s most historic areas.
For more information or to book a gastrotour, which are also run in Borough Market, Marylebone and Portobello Road, go to www.celiabrooksbrown.com