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Leila’s Shop Report 2

April 13, 2011
by the gentle author

Leila’s Shop

In spite of these warm bright days of April sunshine, in the early hours of Monday night Leila and I were shivering at the Covent Garden Market – where I had accompanied her on the weekly trip to buy fresh produce for her shop. Yet the passage of just a month since my last report and the advance in the weather has delivered such a wealth of seasonal fruit and vegetables into the market that it warmed our spirits to discover some magnificent new arrivals, still fresh from the fields.

But it was no straightforward matter to seek out these prizes because the market is a labyrinth without signs. You arrive in a dark car park, as if you were on the periphery of a large airport or an industrial estate. Then you enter through any of the myriad doors to find yourself inside a warren of interconnected premises belonging to the different wholesalers, all stacked with produce. And each one of these backs onto the car park and also faces in the other direction onto the narrow market aisles, where the traders display their wares beneath harsh halogens.

Several times, I asked Leila, “Were we here before?” as she lead me on an elaborate journey, weaving and criss-crossing through the market she has come to know intimately over twelve years buying at Covent Garden. In and out of gloomy warehouses where vast towers of vegetables loomed over us in the half-light, into chilled white rooms where small batches of choice crops awaited, and out to the car park again to probe newly arrived pallets, Leila followed her instinct, gently checking the consistency of the vegetables, expertly shelling peas in one hand and swallowing them, absent-mindedly chewing scraps of asparagus, tasting tarragon, and all done with the preoccupied expression of one on a quest.

Amongst the profusion of bland industrially farmed fruit and vegetables dominating the market, grown to achieve consistency of size, shape, colour and flavour, and be available all year round, Leila is seeking produce from traditional or small growers that may come in limited quantities for just a few weeks when the crop is in season  –“I am looking for things that come from somewhere and taste of something,” as she puts it, with succinct and delicate irony.

Leila’s van was the lone small vehicle in a line of large white trucks in the car park, and Leila was the only female customer in a market that is staffed by men, yet Leila herself is not intimidated by this enclave of querulous masculinity. “They don’t make any allowances,” she granted with a weary smile, “but they know their stuff and they work really hard. And though I am an insignificant customer in terms of quantity, they do respect that I come down myself each week and pick what’s good.”

“I bought some lovely radishes here last week and they were joking because they were muddy and they said, ‘We knew you’d buy these.'” Leila revealed to me with a cheeky grin as we approached a counter, before turning to the trader and asking with a complete lack of self-consciousness, “Got any dirty potatoes?”

Muddy vegetables are at a scarcity because clean ones sell better, when the truth is that mud keeps vegetables fresher longer by protecting them from sunlight and drying out – especially true of root vegetables that are less likely to turn green and sprout if they are covered in mud. Yet mud is the enemy of the clean refrigerators where many shops store their vegetables, and the benign dark earth which is the source of these plants is commonly perceived as mere dirt. “Washed vegetables need more refrigeration but we don’t have that,” explained Leila, “we rely upon the natural cooling of the shop due to the brilliance of the Victorian design and its venting system.”And she was lucky that night, because we carried away a sack of beautiful muddy Maris Piper potatoes, grown in England, in triumph.

There are half a dozen wholesalers where Leila gets the majority of her stock but she always takes an eagle-eyed sweep around the market too. “After years and years, I have come to recognise the growers – “the mark” as they call it at the market. And I write to them if I like what they grow.” she admitted, “I am always on the lookout for interesting new producers whose crop I can buy through the market.”

Early on Tuesday, Leila drives her new stock back along the river and up to Arnold Circus, where, first thing, you will see the weekly spectacle of the vegetable boxes being made up upon the pavement in Calvert Avenue, ready for distribution with some of the freshest vegetables in London, while the handsome displays which characterise Leila’s Shop are renewed with the latest arrivals from the market. Any other shop with Leila’s small turnover would purchase their stock indirectly, through a distributor, but Leila McAlister chooses to give up one night every week and search the market personally, applying her experience and critical faculties to get the fruit and vegetables herself, because it is her pleasure and her passion.

Superceding the forced rhubarb of March, the first outdoor-grown English rhubarb is now ready.

“Among the early carrots, these bushed Italian carrots are good and fresh and tasty.”

“Of the many varieties of artichokes in season now, this French variety is good for braising.”

“Delicious Corsican blushed grapefruit.”

The first broad beans from Italy – “so sweet you can eat them raw with a shaving of Pecorino cheese.”

Lovely red Spring onions for salad.

Organic Italian new potatoes – “I had them last week and they were so delicious, I couldn’t resist getting them again.”

The first Italian peas – “tiny and sweet, and definitely to be eaten from the pod.”

Large red Spring onions – “sweet and good for cooking or slicing into salads.”

Rougette lettuces – “lovely French lettuces, crisp and tasty and also very pretty.”

Fresh bunched beetroots  -“the leaves are delicious blanched in boiling salt water for a minute, and then tossed in olive oil with salt and pepper.”

The first English cucumbers, grown under glass in Worcestershire.

2:00 am, buying rhubarb…

3:00 am packing the van…

You may also like to read

Leila’s Shop Report 1

How Raymond’s Shop became Leila’s Shop

Joan Rose at Leila’s Shop

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Adrienne permalink
    April 13, 2011

    I love Spitalfields Life; you paint a wonderful picture of your part of London. Read it every day!

  2. April 13, 2011

    I read you everyday with a lot of pleasure, before I start to work. And, today, because of your colorful and yummy photos, I m thinking about cooking myself an enormous salad with fresh potatoes and red onions for dinner. Thanks -from France- for all your posts! 🙂

  3. Eliza S permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Amazing writing, you bring everything and everyone to vivid life before our eyes and open our eyes to things around us…. I have visited Leila’s shop and the nice cafe next door. The beautiful fresh vegetables and other groceries in her shop all displayed to tempt you to buy, which I did. Garlic leaves in a salad, fresh rhubarb and pieces of dried mango I chewed as I explored the area. Thanks to you and your marvellous blog….

  4. Vicky permalink
    May 13, 2011

    Stunning photographs!

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