Leila’s Shop Report 5
Each Monday night throughout the year, Leila McAlister goes to Covent Garden Market to buy vegetables and drives back in the early hours with the pick of the season. Each Tuesday morning, Norman Hyams arrives at seven thirty to make up the weekly delivery boxes from Leila’s purchases and thereby supply some of the freshest fruit and vegetables in the East End. With the assistance of Lindsay Sekulowicz, who organises the displays in the shop, he lays out the green plastic crates under the brown awning in Calvert Avenue and together they distribute the produce between the boxes and, by eleven o’clock, he is on the road making his deliveries.
If you are lucky enough to receive one of these, then it turns Tuesday morning into one of the highlights of the week, and the contents of the box becomes a regular indicator of the changing seasons as different fruit and vegetables appear in each new crate. It never fails to excite me, as I search through the contents when it arrives, popping the bunches of parsley and mint in water, and assessing the possibilities for the days ahead. As a point of honour, I always eat all the vegetables within the week, which increases my consumption of greens, and makes shopping for meals easy, because I simply buy meat or fish to accompany what is in the box. In fact, such is the beauty of these lush colourful boxes of vegetables, and such is my fascination with the progress of the year, that I photograph the box each week to create an informal vegetable calendar – you can see the last few months below.
“I’ve been doing it for two years, and Leila did it for at least three years before me, “explained Norman enthusiastically, as we set off in the van together this week on the round, spiralling around the streets from Arnold Circus, “And it just gets bigger and bigger!”
“I was born opposite Leila’s Shop, in Shiplake House,” he volunteered, “that’s what made me come back.” Norman is a painter who lives in Ladbroke Grove and commutes to his studio in Bow – except for one day a week, when he does the deliveries for Leila.“I left when I was an infant so I don’t have any memories of it, but I remember my mother telling me she was was keen to get out of the Boundary Estate.” he revealed, shaking his head in bemusement, “In those days nobody wanted to live here. My mum and dad both lived in Shoreditch when they were young, and we moved around quite a lot when I was a child. Council flats were easy to get in those days, so every time they had another baby, we got a new place to live, and I have two brothers and two sisters.”
I thought I had the cushy job, ticking off the names on a clipboard for Norman while he carried the boxes in to the make the deliveries, but then I realised that on each call he was welcomed so eagerly by the recipients, and I became so intrigued by the different worlds he entered, that I leapt out of the van and accompanied him inside. Curious eyes peered hungrily over laptops at the Abake studio where the designers sat round a table working at their computers as if at a meal, and once we left our vegetable box – we presume – they swapped their devices for the serious business of lunch. Equally, at the Boudicca fashion label, where furious preparations for London Fashion Week were underway, the same roving eyes followed the box as we carried it in and put it down.
Norman delights in all the fleeting conversations in these worlds where he is the vegetable envoy. “I used to work a couple of days a week for my brother in hospitality and it was doing my head in,” he confessed to me with a frown as we walked back to the van, “So I thought it would nice to work for Leila and I texted her asking her if she needed anyone to do washing up, but there was nothing doing – instead she offered me the vegetable round.” And he gave me a smile of triumph, which indicated that he couldn’t believe his luck.
By now we were almost done, yet I had become at home with the constant fragrance of fresh parsley as we drove around the East End. “When you get basil in the delivery boxes, the whole van smells of basil,” Norman said, with a broad smile, breathing in with a sigh of pleasure, half-lowering his eyelids in illustration of the intensity of his delight.
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Leila’s weekly vegetable boxes are available for delivery throughout Shoreditch, Dalston, London Fields, Bethnal Green, Spitalfields and Whitechapel.
You can find the vegetable box blog by clicking here.