Welcome to our series exploring London’s finest food shops, from butchers and bakers to delicatessens and department stores.
Where in London can you buy toppings for your bruschetta individually hand-made by an Italian grandmother? Or large, lush bunches of San Marzano tomatoes, widely considered to be the best for making pasta sauce?
Much of what we buy as ‘Italian food’ is made elsewhere, using raw ingredients from other countries. This is currently a hot topic in Italy, where the highly respected farmers’ union Coldiretti has been campaigning against counterfeit products in favour of genuine Italian food. Together with Campagna Amica, which promotes local agriculture, and Made In Italy, part of the Italian Trade Agency, their aim is to source eco-friendly food produced by small farmers around Italy.
Campagna Amica owns several shops and farmers’ markets around Italy – and now it’s opened its first outpost outside the home country, in Stroud Green where there’s a large ex-pat community. With brick walls and stone floors in shades of cream and brown, the venue boasts rustic good looks.
And those tomatoes! They’re perched on shelves laden with a variety of sauces and spreads, olive oils, jams, biscuits, jars of tuna and salmon in oil, rice, grains, olives, honeys, capers and pickled vegetables – many of them organic.
Costing £3.50 for half a kilo, or £12.15 for 1.5 kilo, they look like miniature balloons with nipples, and taste like heaven. San Marzano are grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius, and their thick skin means they keep fresh for up to six months (should they last that long). Their fleshiness makes them the ‘world’s best’ for making sauces – though we were perfectly happy with little flavour bombs of crostini that staff member Eliana Campo whipped up for us to sample.
You can pair the tomatoes with cheeses, such as mozzarella, burrata, gorgonzola and sweet, nutty pecorino romano attractively wrapped in hay (£30 per kilo). It looks like over-sized hairy coconuts. There are also top-quality wild boar sausages, salame in flavours like truffle, mortadella, and coppiette (dry pork meat).
Also available are hard-to-find items such as Italian sea salt, good quality 00 flour, and bronze-cast pasta with rougher texture all the better for sauce to cling to. It’s essential for the quality of olive oil in which vegetables are marinated to be absolutely first-class – and here it is. Everything is delivered from Italy once a week on Thursdays, including large, round crusty bread casereccio from Rome.
Along with carefully selected regional wines, craft beers, soft drinks with high fruit content, and a small section of truffle products at the back of the shop, there’s also a large hunk of porchetta on a prominently laid table, shreds of which can be added to panini, or nibbled as aperitivo.
Nestled against the back wall is a tiny counter with a few seats; but more seating is added on Friday and Saturday nights, when special events take place between 6pm and 10pm. In an informal party atmosphere, you can have a glass of wine with aperitivo for £9, including meats, cheeses and deli products; share food, mingle, practise your Italian and, as Campo pointed out, “help staff improve our English”.
On other days of the week, surprisingly cheap coffee (£1-£1.30) and freshly made sandwiches (£4) are available to eat in or takeaway. Staff are on hand to give tastings, recipes, recommendations and cooking tips. As Campo says: “We like engaging with customers; it’s not just about buying and selling.” Indeed the place has an old-fashioned community feel that you’d expect in an Italian village shop. There are plans to expand into a chain, just like in Italy.
However, Italian Farmers is not without its flaws. Not all products have ingredients listed in English; and there’s little information in English about Campagna Amica and Coldiretti for Londoners curious to find out more. The shop’s website is not yet up and running – its only internet presence is a Facebook page – so products are not available to buy online.
There’s also the thorny question of food miles: the products are local to Italians, but the concept can’t really translate to the UK. This leads to the next big issue: that everything is expensive. Indeed, on our visit, a customer left empty-handed after discovering that the pesto she’d come in for cost £7.50 for an 180g jar.
But good food is never cheap. Would you prefer buy bog-standard supermarket pesto, made in a factory, sometimes containing inauthentic ingredients like apple juice and cashew nuts for a couple of quid; or treat yourself to the real deal, hand-made by an Italian, with quality ingredients grown on the Italian soil? You decide.
Italian Farmers, 186 Stroud Green Road, London N4 3RN. Tel: 020 3719 6525.
By Sejal Sukhadwala
Editorial note: entries in this series are chosen independently and are not part of any promotion. We welcome suggestions for future instalments.