Thanks to one of life’s surprising detours, I found myself back in one of my old London haunts for the first time in a while, and what I discovered made me feel compelled to write about and share some of my finds.
The plan was to spend a morning capturing images and chatting to a few of the stallholders, but with the sunlight filtering through on the brightest of days I was drawn in. The more I talked and listened, the more I became infected by their enthusiasm. The planned few hours gave way to a couple of days, and a quick blog evolved into a somewhat feature length-post.
Brixton Village is the new incarnation of Granville Arcade, a once a ‘grand’ 1930’s indoor market that formed part of the sprawling labyrinth of Brixton Market. Escape out of the arcade, sidestepping Electric Avenue, and you’ll find yourself in Market Row, another covered avenue that retains a slightly more authentic, eclectic, mix of the long-established stalls (Caribbean fruit and vegetables, fishmongers, butchers, wig shops & hair salons) dotted amongst the new vendors of vintage clothing stores, delis and restaurants.
One of the first in the new mix of pop-up and permanent vendors was Anne Fairbrother, a Brixton resident of 20-years. Anne stands behind the counter of her Cornercopia Kitchen & Larder and reminisces about the cold November night just over three-years ago, when, after receiving word via various social networking channels, around 300 people gathered under the roof of the arcade. ‘It was a mess, a mass of empty units, some for 10-years or more, plastered with graffiti, but yet the level of excitement and energy was palpable. It was a moment of pure social innovation with an abundance of living ideas and enthusiasm for the potential laid out before us.’
At the time there was clear criteria for applications, they had to be environmentally and economically sustainable, sociable and with a clear link to the market itself e.g. ways to benefit the wider community with traders of 45-years plus who were struggling for survival. Proposals to Space Makers (a community regeneration agency) came flooding in and within weeks applicants were given the green light to move in, those successful being offered a rent free unit for the first three months to help kick-start trading.
‘We became a kind of micro-market economy – exchanging and swapping produce and goods, especially in the early days when we were all trying to establish ourselves. It was an exciting period with artists and community groups; it was constantly changing with each new story or workshop bringing a new audience into the space.’
These days they even have their own currency, the Brixton Pound (£B), to encourage more money to circulate locally. Each note plays host to the face of a Brixton icon voted on by the people of Brixton; from historians, scientists, and politicians to artists and musicians like David Bowie. Bowie lived with his family in Brixton in the late 40′s, early 50’s.
And so you have it. Two ageing market halls, in one of South London’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, transformed into culinary melting-pots, that in 2011 even won the accolade of Time Out Magazine’s Best Eating and Drinking destination. And below (prepare to scroll please) are just a few of my highlights.
Cornercopia Kitchen & Larder
65 Brixton Village
Cornercopia Kitchen & Larder has been described as ‘a tiny neighbourhood restaurant and new kind of cornershop’. On starting out they literally had one or two tables nestled in the store where they would serve up meals to a select few. It’s not so tiny anymore – now spread over three units with an ever growing fan-base. When they describe their food as seasonal and ultra-local they truly mean it, with honey from Herne Hill, Damson Jam from the fruits of Brockwell park, and award-winning English white wines, ciders and beers from a micro brewery in SE1.
They have established what Anne refers to as ‘digital foraging’, they tweet (@brixcornercopia) to encourage members of the community to forage for specific items like nettles, crab apples, elderberries and edible flowers such as wild garlic. These are then exchanged for produce, or in some cases a meal. ‘The only problem being, sometimes, people just don’t quite understand the quantities involved to make a nettle pesto, or a reasonable quantity of nettle soup for example – it literally necessitates a sackful of nettles!’.
They have also been working with Invisible Food in Lambeth who organise walks around the borough to find wild foods and teach people how to make things with them. Most recently a group of young people foraged, produced, branded and launched a nettle & ginger beer which was then sold, at a profit to them, in the Cornercopia larder – genius idea.
77-78 Brixton Village
Along the way from Cornercopia sits another of the original success stories. Federation Coffee, co-owned by New Zealanders Nick Coates and George Wallace. Federation started out life in early 2010 with a unit half the size of their current, apparently with little other than a bar and one state-of-the-art coffee machine. They are now roasting their very own coffee in their very own Brixton Roastery, whilst serving-up delectable coffee and Anzac biscuits to what is an undoubtedly more contented morning crowd.
87 Brixton Village
Around the next corner you will find Heritage Deli, one of the newest Village ventures. Daniel Fiteni, Australian born of Maltese descent opened his savoury pastry deli just 6-weeks ago to serve up ‘ballsy’ unusual flavours of Maltese specialities like the Pastizzi and the Qassatat all made completely from scratch on site. If you get the chance I would highly recommend trying the rabbit & pea stew Qassatat – deliciously deep flavours with just a hint of spice in a light, baked short-crust style pastry.
12 Brixton Village
The meat for Honest, and a few of the other ventures I spoke to locally, is supplied by Ginger Pig whose ‘non-mission statement’ is so Yorkshire (county of my birth) it made me smile. I quote: ‘we simply raise the best animals, in the happiest of circumstances, on the finest stretch of Yorkshire Moors we could find’. Ooh the Yorkshire Moors – it’s true, you too would be pretty happy to roam there… anyway, I digress, it was a wonderful burger!
They are obviously very talented ladies with a clear passion for food, an Observer Food Monthly award-winning blog and an upcoming cookbook to boot – I shall be following with interest.
18 Brixton Village
Oh to the Beijing dumplings on the corner! Ning Ma of Mama Lan describes her food as home cooking from her Beijing family upbringing and not what people would generally expect Chinese food to be. Mama Lan is, in its name, dedicated to Ning’s mother who taught her how to cook and handed down techniques from past generations. It’s worth mentioning Mama Lan is still to be found inventing and working her magic with Ning behind the scenes in the new Brixton kitchen. It’s somehow quite hypnotic to watch the dumplings being prepared… filled, folded, pinched and lined up at speed.
I plan to go back with a bottle of wine under my arm (it’s BYO or mocktails at the moment) and work my way through the ever changing menu of dumplings starting with the newly announced Woodear mushroom, chinese leaf and carrot option, whilst remembering not to make any mention of Dim Sum – refer to Ning’s very honest and humorous blog if you have a moment.
67-68 Brixton Village
I only had the chance to meet Paola fleetingly, the bustle of lunch had just died down and before the hungry hoards were due to descend again for dinner she was busily prepping. Casa Sibilla is a delicatessen and restaurant serving and selling authentic Italian produce. Paola, a graduate of the School of High Italian Culinary Art, opened her new venture in the Village 18-months ago to serve up her family recipes of Southern Italian food – she grew up ‘in’ and was undoubtedly inspired by her parent’s restaurant in Puglia. And as if that’s not enough to keep her busy she’s also offering cooking lessons in several languages.
So far I have only had chance to sample one of their sweet delicacies; a lemon crème Sfogliatelle (a Neapolitan speciality) which Paola insisted I take home with me – it was met post-dinner with a smile and much appreciative sighing.
11a Market Row
Meet Bridget Hugo (pictured below), founder of Wild Caper, café and producer of fresh organic produce and artisan foods. I get the impression Bridget is one incredibly busy, highly motivated lady. Co-founder of the acclaimed Franco Manca pizzeria (also in Market Row) and the new Shoreditch-based Bukowski Grill. Bridget very generously takes the time to chat and encourages me to sample a few of the many delights created and served up at Wild Caper, even as she’s on her way out the door for an afternoon in the company of Gordon Ramsay. I’m literally still savouring a large teaspoonful of lemon curd (her Grandmother’s recipe) as she approaches with the next offering.
The deli serves up freshly made salads, sandwiches and pastries and has a wonderful range of bread – you have to try the slow-rising sourdough, baked across the way in Franco Manca’s wood burning pizza ovens for a minimum of 20-hours! I took some home and lavished it with buffalo mozzarella, avocado, beef tomatoes, basil and olive oil – soo good.
As I walk into Seven (what used to be an old luggage shop – take note the clever use of suitcases for shelving behind the bar) it feels good… Plates of Pintxos line the bar following the traditional Basque way of helping yourself and counting up the cocktail sticks when you’ve had your fill – I love this way of eating, but it can be costly, especially if like me you find it hard to stop when openly presented with such an array of colourful, freshly stacked foodie delights.
I was greeted by the friendly face of Glen (pictured above). Liam and Jonny, the owners, were upstairs with renovations to the overhead art gallery and bar area well underway; the art installations here evolve every few months.
From their Tapas menu I can so far recommend the Bravas, Escalivada, the Russian roulette of Pimientos de Padrón (I always manage to pick the hotties), Chorizo and of course the Jamón Ibérico carved daily by a well-trained hand. They had a master carver come in from Madrid to train them in the art – I even have a 13-minute recording of Glen talking with a passion about the Jamón as he’s expertly taking fine slice after slice from the leg… and moving gently around the hip bone. Ibérico is known as the king of Spanish hams, cured for a minimum of three years and fed on a free-range diet of nutty sweet acorns and it tastes amazing!
Seven also offer traditional Spanish desserts such as Tarte de Santiago (one of my all time favourites) and Cinnamon Churros to dunk in hot chocolate should you so wish. And with their now late licence you can wash it all down with a £5 cocktail of your choice, an Old Fashioned, Ginger Beer & Basil Mojito or perhaps a Vanilla Julep for those fast approaching English summer nights (ahem).
[In Brighton I am regularly to be found seated in Solera D Tapa (Cala and Arrobas) practicing a little Spanish and feasting on Manchego and Jamón Iberico with a bottle of Tinto Joven on the side.]
How to finish this? I have no idea. I went back to get a solo missing burger shot last Saturday (the perfectionist in me just wasn’t happy with the first) and found myself discovering more new places and wanting to take yet more photos… Bellantoni’s Artisan Pasta & Kitchen, The Breadroom (patisserie), Elephant (Imran’s authentic Pakistani street food), and the list goes on.
As I said at the start (which now feels like a pretty long time ago) it’s an addictive place, full of characters, life and atmosphere behind a very unassuming facade, and I was greeted with such warmth and generosity – it’s a place you just can’t help but want to spend time - Lorna.
(And did I already mention the cake stall outside Sweet Tooth? With Red Velvet cake that may just send you spiraling into the highest of sugar highs, but oh in the moment it’s just a moist chunk of divineness!)