Save our corner shops

Save our corner shops / NO to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington!!!

 

This is an old rant on corner shops, but surprisingly or rather NOT surprisingly, nothing changes, please say no to Sainsbury’s in Stoke Newington by signing this petition,just click here

Last week, I heard somewhere that if trends carry on as they are, the corner shop will disappear in a few years… I remember now, I heard this on Radio 4.  There was a slightly sarcastic comment saying that it will be a ‘shame’ to loose those shops that sell overpriced and dusty tins of rice pudding…

…the corner shop contains features that makes us remember dusty, half empty shelves of expensive items that are near their sell by date, and maybe the owners  of these shops will need to review their stock in more ways than one in order to keep their shop and not to sell it to a developer that will transform it to a ‘charming flat with a shop front feature’.

However there are other kinds of corner shops, and these are the ones that I feel we should support.  I happen to live in an area that thankfully has not yet been invaded by hypermarkets, supermarkets or their ‘city/express’ equivalent.  My nearest supermarket -if it can be called that, is an organic one where we can find fabulous produce and all eco-friendly-organic goodies that cost a lot of money.  There are as well a myriad of small shops that sell produce aimed at the local Turkish community, and it is these type of shops that I think we should try to support.  In my part of London these are mainly Turkish, but depending on the area where we live, these shops can be Indian, Bangladeshi, Greek or Portuguese.

What I like of these shops is obviously the things they sell, in my case we can find large chunks of fetta cheese, wonderful yoghurt, freshly baked flat breads and the usual basket containing bunches of fresh dill, coriander, parsley, basil, mint and spinach.  These goodies sit happily next to neat rows of dried pulses, nuts and rice, Turkish tea and coffee as well as the usual -often dusty, packets of breakfast cereal and digestive biscuits.

The staff at these shops are usually friendly and welcoming, sometimes they give me free chillies, other times they let me pay later, once I was even able to use their fridge! These guys are always there, 365 days open from 9 to 9, many times they are glued to the blasting Turkish version of the Oprah show; other times they are just chatting to their mates and -especially in the summer, this seems an OK existence.  However what we don’t see is that in order to keep their shops running, they have to get up at 4 am and buy fruits, veg and herbs.  I have been to Spitalfields to buy fruit and veg at that time in the winter and I know that is not exactly fun.  Then they have to be there in the shops all year round.  For the place to look open, they need to have their doors fully open too and that means living in the cold for half the year.

Then, there is also the problem of prices, at markets like Spitalfields, the price of the produce varies everyday, so our friendly shopkeepers are constantly having to juggle with prices, often making very little money if any at all.  As an example, my local shop sells avocados at 70p each, he buys at 50p so his profit is hardly what we can call a profit.  The bullets that resemble an avocado in a supermarket -the ones that have obviously not been ‘ripened for flavour’ cost the same amount.  I wonder how much to they get these at? it is certainly not 50p, otherwise the profits would not be so healthy for these guys.

There is the question of choice, for some strange reason, we are led to believe that a large supermarket has a large range of items, well think again; next time you go into a supermarket look into the stock and ask yourself the question if there is really a large selection, or are you really being sold what they are telling you what you buy… I don’t want to portray large supermarket chains as evil guys that are planning your life, dictating what you should consume; however, it is extremely annoying to go to these places and then find that the only kind of cocoa powder they sell is their own brand, that you can only find ‘the most popular’ of meat cuts i.e. mince and two others, that their fish counter looks like a fishmonger but they cannot sell you the heads of the fish to make stock.  Instead they have oversized rows where they sell oversized ‘family’ bags of all kinds of flavoured crisps… if we are not careful our families will be oversized in a very short time.

We complain and mock that the stock at local shops is nearly out of date and that they don’t often have what we want, and the reason for this is exactly because we don’t buy enough stuff from them. It is very difficult to always have the same selection of produce if half of it goes to waste, when there is really no need for that to be so.  If we bought more from these shops, then the stock rotates more often and we will find more choice and fresher stuff as well.  Regarding choice, well, my local shop does not sell 27 varieties of tortilla chips but they sell amongst other things medjool dates, white onions, shallots and large white eggs by the piece (10p each), and frankly I prefer this kind of choice, I like my ‘totopos’ (Mexican for tortilla chips) plain thank you.

What I am trying to say here is that I think there is enough room for both kinds of shops to survive, yes it is nice and comfy to take the car and buy a whole year load of dishwasher tablets and toilet paper, yes it is nice to buy two for the price of one items like chicken breasts… although we should ask if this is actually an ethical thing to do… and yes it is nice to be able to get cashback when we pay and to buy very cheap wine.  But it is also nice, very nice to be greeted by the local shopkeeper and to feel like a human being there.  It is nice to find weird and wonderful seasonal produce, pomegranates in September for instance, but it is nicer to feel that one is contributing directly to keep somebody in business.  Next time you think that your local shop is a weird place packed with dusty and expensive items, think again, yes things might cost a little more, but not much more and also think that this extra price keeps these guys in business and this includes the community feel that these shops bring.

Yes, there is the question of lifestyle, of living busy, of our life being made easier by doing all the shopping in one go, but have we actually stopped and thought how little we need to buy in a week? how much waste we create by buying lots of veg in one go and then spending all week eating out or eating take aways? Maybe, just maybe if we divide our shopping and spend 10 minutes at the local shop we will end up buying things that we did not know existed and we are prompted to use our imagination, we might find things that we have not seen in years -white eggs for instance.  Just doing a little bit of shopping at these places will help save them.  So why don’t we do it?

Last Saturday pm I had the misfortune to go to a large supermarket and just when I was feeling lost in the family size crisp department, amongst many upset people that looked more like lost robots than actual human beings; there was a cute Spanish girl having a fit, she said to her mother: ‘there is nothing I like about this shop and the only thing I like you won’t buy’.  Obviously she wanted to get some crisps, but what I thought interesting is that she did not like that place, and it seemed that most of us seemed unhappy there.  Then the question is, why do we carry on buying like if there is no tomorrow, when there is an option to buy stuff from our local shop? if we carry on like this, there won’t be a tomorrow for our little shops and we might come to regret that.

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The best tortillas this side of the atlantic

Freshly made tortillas using an ancient 'metate' in the island of Patzcuaro in Michoacan, Mexico

The ancient art of making fresh corn tortillas is no easy task, to do that in a place like London is actually a real challenge.  Cool Chile Company are the people who have undertaken such a task and finally they have their brand new tortilla making machine in place!  This is good news for tortilla lovers all over the UK.

On an grey, icy and cold January morning Mexican friend Gicela and myself, went to northwest London to meet Dodie who was going to show us her new tortilla machine.  When we arrived to the place, we had no idea that we were going to be transported directly back to the days when –napkin in hand; we used to queue at the local artisan tortilla maker to buy fresh and soft tortillas in Queretaro for Gicela and in Mexico City for me.  For any person who has been to one of these tortilla shops, you will know exactly what I mean by the evocative smell of fresh maize dough being cooked and the rickety sounds that emanate from an over used tortilla machine.

Of course that things are slightly different at Cool Chile, the machine is brand new and the process follows all the rigorous food safety and hygiene standards required by the industry over here.

First there is the mixing process, where water and dehydrated masa harina meet to make the dough or masa.

Then the dough is fed into the machine, cut into identical rounds and then taken through a heated conveyor belt that cooks the tortillas to perfection.

Then fresh tortillas are ready to be packed.

This operation seems very simple, but maybe because of this  simplicity, it is that the whole thing is actually very complicated.  For a start it is very important to access the right masa –by this I mean one which is fine enough for making tortillas with the right texture and of course one that is GMO free.  Then there is the business of the water –a crucial element here.  London water is really hard and I reckon that this is a reason why tortillas over here can turn from soft and pliable to solid cardboard discs in a matter of seconds –in my next post some tips on how to avoid this… And then there is the issue of packaging them under the right conditions so that they arrive to customers still soft and yummy.

Dodie and all the staff at Cool Chile Co., do their best efforts to ensure you get good tortillas over here.  Of course they are not going to be identical to the ones you get off from a stall or a tortilleria in Mexico, simply because conditions are very different: weather, logistics, water etc., however these tortillas are good and very tasty.

When you buy a packet, consume them as soon as possible, warm them up inside a plastic bag in a lower setting in the microwave for just a few seconds until warmed through; if you put a glass of water in the microwave at the same time, the tortillas retain their moisture.

If you are not using them all in one go, wrap them tightly in cling film and keep in the fridge but for no longer than a day or two, otherwise they will go stale.  Tortillas are made to be consumed on the day of purchase.

Leftover tortillas are not good for making soft tacos because they dry up quite quickly.  However there are lots of things you can do with them, you can turn them into totopos or tortilla chips: cut them into triangles and bake them until crispy or fry them in a little oil.  These are good for chilaquiles or tortilla soup.

Leftover tortillas are also very good for making a dish from northern Mexico called Migas.

The recipe will follow in my next post, watch this space…

If you want to buy soft corn tortillas go to http://www.coolchile.co.uk

*With thanks to Dodie Miller and Cool Chile Co. for allowing us the experience of seeing the only tortilla machine in London

Mexican street markets or tianguis

Mexican street markets…

Or ‘el tianguis’ as it is commonly known is the Nahuatl word for the various colourful markets which populate the streets of Mexico, here you can find all the things you need, thought you needed and things you would not even imagined existed but are sold, from wedding dresses to plants and baskets, these markets sell all kinds of stuff and it is lovely to see people buying all kinds of things.

A tianguis in Polanco, Mexico City

A particularly nice thing to do is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables; courgette flowers, tomatillos, cactus leaves, ripe guavas, mamey fruit and avocados, sweet mangoes and juicy pineapples, all sit happily waiting to be tested, tasted and bought. For those who fancy a snack, just stop at any of the many street stalls, where you can taste a hand made quesadilla with fresh hot salsa or a ‘tlacoyo’ which is a tortilla filled with beans, usually made with blue corn and topped with a delicious salad of cactus leaves, tomatoes, coriander and crumbled cheese.

If in Mexico look for the classic green or pink canopies characteristic of these markets and delight in watching people offering their wares, haggling and buying. Try the various exotic fruits and vegetables and stop for some food. Don’t forget to take a hand made bag or basket or better still buy it there. If you like Mexican cooking implements look for them at the stalls, you can get tortilla presses, lime squeezers and gorgeous enamel pots and pans at very good prices. Of course if you feel eccentric, you can always bargain for some silver jewellery, a banana plant, fake designer shoes or even a wedding dress, the choice is yours. Whatever your taste choices a ‘tianguis’ is really fun!

… the lesson here, if you don’t want to wipe off your past, remember to back things up!