Leila’s Shop Report
Every Monday night, Leila McAlister goes to New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms in to buy fruit and vegetables, and when I arrived at her shop on Tuesday morning, she had just finished packing up the weekly vegetable boxes that she delivers to her customers in the neighbourhood. The whole place was filled with enough spellbinding fragrances and astounding vivid colours of fresh Spring produce to lift the spirits of the saddest March day.
“At the end of Winter when you feel you are living in a black and white film, you need to eat lots of oranges!” declared Leila authoritatively, with a delighted smile – standing in her blue twill jacket amongst the stacks of boxes of oranges from Sicily that were just a fraction of her exciting night’s haul which she had driven back to Arnold Circus in the dawn.
As an adult in the thrall of a passion for fresh vegetables, Leila’s Shop gives me a comparable thrill to that I once received as a child entering a sweet shop, I really want to eat everything – from the humble varieties of English potatoes to the exotic delicacies from the Mediterranean. Fortunately, Leila has a liberal policy of allowing her customers to taste anything that can be consumed raw. You do not have to drop a heavy hint, you simply have to ask, “What’s this?” in a leading tone and usually a leaf or a slice will be forthcoming.
Among the crates of citrus from Italy were unwaxed leafy lemons and Moro, Tarocco and Sanguinello blood oranges. And in response to my query about the respective varieties, Leila seized the opportunity immediately to slice up a couple with a sharp knife to reveal the juicy ruby-red flesh, and we were able to savour the relative qualities of the Sanguinello and the Moro - the Sanguinello possessing a deep, almost pomegranate flavour with a strong citrus kick, while the Moro orange was a lighter, more scented fruit. We stood in silence for a moment of contemplative pleasure, with our mouths full of orange, as momentarily the spirit of the Mediterranean made its presence felt in Shoreditch.
Also from Italy, Leila has the most spectacular radicchios I ever saw – Castello Franco, a pale yellow rose-shaped plant and Tardivo, a purple bud-shaped plant – both available now in very limited supplies for a short season, through the markets of Verona. It is difficult to imagine a more delicious Spring salad leaf than these and I love to eat them with a simple dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, but Leila told me that the Italians, for whom bitter leaves are a national passion, like to grill them. These varieties are highly regionalised, and by law Tardivo can only be grown in the region around Traviso. “It’s a serious business in Italy,” confirmed Leila, casting her eyes affectionately upon her astonishing display of crisp yellow and purple leaves that cause her customers to gasp in wonder, and which I have seen nowhere else in London.
Wild English garlic is in season now and Leila buys bags of their smooth green leaves from traders at the market who have been out foraging to make some extra cash. She was quite surprised when I admitted that I like to put these pungently flavoured leaves raw into my ham sandwiches, because she prefers to braise them and add them to pasta or risotto, recounting their success as an unexpected addition in Bechamel sauce to liven up cauliflower cheese.
From nibbling these sharp green leaves, we moved on to thin peppery slices of French black radish, a vegetable grown with such loving care to the regular size and shape of salami. “With a lemon dressing, capers and chopped parsley, it would be heaven,” speculated Leila, her eyes glazing over in a day dream. Next we tried Jerusalem artichokes raw, at Olha’s suggestion, who informed us that they were known as “underground pears” in her native Ukraine, and surprisingly they do possess an attractive chestnut flavour. Since it was time for admissions, Leila revealed they were called “fartychokes” in her family - “We used to die laughing waiting for the farting to begin!” she confessed, rolling her eyes in happy reminiscence, and she confirmed that artichoke soup will be on the menu at Leila’s Cafe this weekend.
Yet we had only begun to explore the range of what is at its best this week. I must leave it to you to go along and try the forced rhubarb, the purple sprouting, the leeks, the fennel, the cabbages, the creamy avocados from Malaga and all the other goodies that are available now, as Spring moves inexorably North through Europe from the Mediterranean, encouraging new life in the fields, and bringing us the first crops of the year.
I used to have an eighty-four year old friend with whom I stayed in her apartment on the Upper West Side for many years, whenever I visited Manhattan. “If only they would invent something new to eat!” she used to lament endlessly in a humorous tone, as one of the trials of her advanced years. I wish I could have taken her to Leila’s Shop, because she would have discovered plenty of delicious things to inspire her appetite, not “new” at all – but simply Leila’s pick of the very best that is in season.
Leila’s weekly vegetable boxes are available for delivery throughout Shoreditch, Dalston, London Fields, Bethnal Green, Spitalfields and Whitechapel.
Sanguinello – blood oranges from Sicily.
Market day at Leila’s Shop.
Black French Radishes.
The bandstand at Arnold Circus.
Corner table at Leila’s Cafe
Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
Spring sunlight at Leila’s Cafe.
Castello Franco and Tardivo, radicchio from Northern Italy.
Paintings copyright © Olha Pryymak
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