This week Murray tries out some food boxes from small local companies…
I’m a food obsessive but right now in the evenings I just can’t be bothered thinking about cooking.
This is perplexing for someone who enjoys all the rituals of food, from the shopping to the cooking and the licking of the bowl.
There is nothing I like more than a wander around a good food shop, taking my time, chatting to the owners, touching the produce and trying to concoct a recipe on the spot from what’s seasonal and fresh.
Much of that has gone now of course. Even a weekly trip to the supermarket has to be planned for a time when there’s no queue and it will be relatively empty. The first time I saw a supermarket queue in lockdown I was reminded so strongly of the concept of rationing (Brexit was nothing if not alarmist, and in most cases rightfully so) that I could easily imagine myself as an OAP in Soviet Russia in 1982, queuing to buy a potato in a snowstorm.
This nightmare scenario was prompted by a very real memory of working on tour with the Pet Shop Boys in 1991. A sightseeing walk through Prague with Neil Tennant became all the more exciting when we spotted a single cauliflower displayed forlornly outside a run-down grocery shop – not quite as aesthetically pleasing as seeing the Charles Bridge but still a noble sight, especially if you were faced with the prospect of no fresh vegetables on the table that night.
I mainly use small local shops right now and I try to restrict it to Nicola Sturgeon’s recommended one visit a week. No more is needed really – I’m making my own bread in a long-disused bread-maker, I only have milk as a treat for the cat and I buy enough eggs to last a week. I have plenty of wine because I did a bulk order from Berry Bros which helpfully arrived on the day I stopped drinking.
I firmly believe that small, local shops are the future and life became more enriched this week with the opening of the Urban Grocery in Newport, in the building where the Rio thrift shop used to be. It’s a very welcome addition to the food scene here and will go some way to replace Starr’s, the pioneering organic shop that was situated a bit further down the street when I first bought my house 16 years ago.
That shop was so welcome and seemed to be a bridge between my former rather rarefied life in London and a new chapter opening up for me back in Scotland. Oh look, organic baked beans and Ecover! I will survive!
Starr’s sold a great selection of organic and fair-trade produce and their cafe was excellent, but my abiding, grateful memory of them is that they very graciously trusted me to leave without paying on the day I moved into my house – the day every single bank card in my wallet was declined.
That day I’d driven up from London, got the keys for the house – my first ever house bought for and by myself – and sped over the river with Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry booming from the CD player. Yes, it was a different age in every way! I arrived to find the door of my new house wide open and the previous owner’s possessions seemingly abandoned in the hallway and strewn on the path outside.
It was like entering the Marie Celeste and then realising that you owned it. I sat for a few hours with nothing to do and nothing to sit on. There was no furniture to move simply because I had none – for the first week I slept on a sun lounger.
After a few hours sitting in bemusement at the fact I now owned a house still full of the previous owner’s furniture, I did what any good Brit would do – secured my small castle and took myself off for tea, not knowing that the bank had stopped all my cards.
It seems buying the house had overextended even the credit on my library card and I was effectively cancelled by Nat West in the most humiliating way possible.
I couldn’t get a penny from the cash machine and panic started to rise. Had that Prague cauliflower been left on Newport High Street that day I might have been tempted to “borrow” it for dinner.
In the end I found a bank in Dundee that could exchange some dollars I found lurking at the back of my wallet, thus meaning I could go back and pay for my tea at Starr’s and buy some petrol to get me back to London.
Sixteen years later and with my credit rating restored and some PIN numbers in my pocket, I find myself able to contemplate buying extravagant walnut oil and artichokes from the Urban Grocery on a visit I made on just their second day of trading.
It’s a lovely shop, albeit compromised by an odd layout in that the entrance is long and narrow and the main shop quite compact and box-like. But there are lots of jewels in that box and the shop is a real treasure trove of great ingredients, both pantry staples and more unusual products.
On a very quick recce, I discovered lots to delight, including a great selection of A L’Olivier olive oils from Nice. I tend to shy away from flavoured oils, preferring to make my own, but these are so good and it was great to find them locally – the last time I bought them was in a very beautiful rustic shop in France, back when we were all still European.
This time I bought the delicious basil-infused oil (£9.95) and some walnut oil (£14.95) to remind me of my old French house with the walnut grove.
For lunch today I simply boiled some Puy lentils with a few bay leaves and a chilli, drizzled them with walnut oil and was instantly transported to sunnier climes in the 20 minutes it took to cook.
Another huge hit was Willy’s live apple cider vinegar which I bought because of its name – fire cider. Here, raw and unpasteurised cider vinegar is mixed with turmeric, ginger, garlic and horseradish and it’s fantastic.
I have to say that I now drink it neat, but maybe this is a step too far for everyone. All I can say is that a swig from the bottle cured a sore throat in hours – since I’m the kind of hypochondriac who can elevate a sore throat to Covid-19 in seconds then what price is £5.95 for reassurance?
Incidentally, my friend Anne tells me that the Urban Grocery also sells the best marmalade she’s ever tasted, from Pittenweem Preserves, and I only hope it’s not sold out when I go back to get some.
Further elevation in a bit of a meh week was provided by two boxes or, more honestly, one-and-a-half. The first, from London’s legendary River Cafe, took more than a week to arrive and was eventually declared lost in action by hapless, hopeless delivery company DPD.
As it contained fresh Alpine butter, cheese and a few other perishables, the restaurant were forced to send a replacement when it became obvious that DPD – my new parlour game is making up words for what those letters stand for – had just given up on a box that had been sitting in their Dundee warehouse for a week.
Milk Tray man
While the produce from the River Cafe is good and they dealt with my issue courteously and speedily, I wouldn’t risk ordering from them again until they could guarantee an easier delivery process.
If I’d ordered their fabled chocolate nemesis (an eye-popping £60 for a chocolate cake) I’d probably want it to arrive by private plane or on jet skis via the Milk Tray man for me to feel it was worth it.
Much closer to home, the second box came from the Harbour Cafe in Elie and was a much more joyful endeavour. What a great thing this was to receive on a Friday! Their Harbour Cafe box for two (£70) contains everything you’d need for a delicious dinner and, although it’s meant to be shared, I spread it over dinner and next day lunch and thus dined like a King twice.
Firstly, everything is beautifully presented, arriving in a box that ensures the fish is kept chilled. The fish – sourced locally – was of excellent quality, and there was lots of it. The box included six langoustines, two dressed half-lobsters with aioli and lemon, Andalucian potato salad (which I shamelessly fried), East Neuk Market Garden green leaf salad with house dressing, a wonderful tarta de Santiago (Spanish almond tart), sourdough and butter and even Atlantic wakame salt.
I couldn’t fault a thing in this box and loved that it also came with bibs, placemats, rocks from Elie beach to bash the lobster shell, wooden picks to unpick every piece of delicious lobster meat and two hand wipes.
Everything felt like a delicious treat and, most importantly, it felt like a DIFFERENT experience to eating in a restaurant, as opposed to a lesser one. Great minds are at work here – the attention to detail is stunning, and the food wonderful. Top stuff and hugely recommended.
The Urban Grocery, 52 High Street, Newport-on-Tay, Fife, DD6 8AD theurbangrocery.co.uk
The Harbour Cafe at Home, Elie Harbour, Elie KY9 1DT. (cafe closed). Online menus and delivery info: theharbourcafe.co.uk