Lined with mundane shops and restaurants, the grey dusty area around Hendon Central station is the last place you’d expect to find a smart Romanian deli — but this is where Ileana Artisan Food and Butcher opened earlier this year. The venue was once a long-established Jewish catering company, but has been completely refitted with handmade Italian tiles and attractive wooden display cabinets.
The owner Ileana Florea is from a financial background, but switched over to food because she has a huge passion for it: “Our aim is to sell the best of Romanian organic produce,” she enthuses. “We try to be different — we really do focus on quality. We don’t want to sell mass-produced stuff; we want to revive lost tastes. And we sell only fresh, very seasonal” — she emphasises the word seasonal — “organic fruit and vegetables from Romania, and customers have noticed that they taste different.”
“The same goes for cheese”, she continues. “For instance, caş (a fresh, semi-soft cow’s or sheep’s milk cheese) is only made in April and May, so you won’t find it in our shop now.” The cheeses you will find right now include brânză de burduf, a soft salty cheese made from sheep's milk — originally produced from caș in fact — from south-eastern Transylvania. It’s piled into a wooden barrel in rustic fashion and tastes sharp, strong and resinous. Even more intriguing is bradut, a smoked yellow cheese that’s attractively braided like challah bread; and there are also Romanian goat’s cheddar and barrel-aged feta.
In addition to Romanian produce, there are Italian cheeses, meats and antipasti, French groceries and Polish products — and some of the suppliers are British, too. So you’ll find Sapori D’Italia olives — alongside Romanian ones — in wooden barrels priced from £6.99/kg to £14.99/kg. In addition to pastas, olive oils, biscuits, snacks, chocolates, hessian sacks filled with dried beans and jars of mostarda, there are also Romanian pickled roasted peppers and red peppers in balsamic vinegar. Romanian vegetable spreads known as zacuscă, made from yet more colourful peppers, as well as aubergines and onions (£2.89 small jar/£4.99 large): all guaranteed to perk up your sandwiches.
Romanian cured meats, we’re told, “have no water; they’re simply dried, salted and aged”. These sit in large glass cabinets alongside Romanian turkey pastrami, salami (£4.79/100g) and bresaola (£3.83/100g). To wash down the cheeses, meats and antipasti, there are several award-winning Romanian wines priced from £6 to £30, beers, spirits, soft drinks and mineral water — in particular, the prestigious Aqua Carpatica, said to be the only naturally sparkling mineral water in the world.
Also notable is a wide selection of attractively-packaged Romanian jams in flavours such as rose, wild raspberry and rosehip (£3.49-£3.99). Topoloveni plum jam (£5.99) gets its own small display and no wonder, because this legendary almost-black preserve enjoys EU’s Protected Geographical Indication status. Made from several varieties of local Romanian plums and cooked slowly for 10 hours with no added sugar, it tastes deliciously dense yet subtle, and has a beautifully balanced sweet-sour flavour. Other curiosities include Carpathian Treasure bee pollen “produced up in the mountains”, speciality salts such as Hawaiian pink and blue Persian, and oils in flavours like porcini mushroom and black truffle.
But it’s not only dried goods. The deli also sells food freshly cooked in the neat, spacious, well-equipped kitchen at the back. Popular global dishes are available to takeaway, such as lamb moussaka, vegetable lasagne, grilled vegetable frittata, pesto and sundried tomato linguine, spinach and feta pie, asparagus and mushroom quiches, and best-selling fresh fruit salad.
Freshly baked cakes and biscuits include gluten-free cheese biscuits (65p each), gluten-free vegan carrot cake (£4.50 small/£7.50 large) and even gluten-free sachertorte. Their gluten-free dark chocolate cake, made from tapioca flour, is deliciously moist and crumbly. Like the previous Jewish owners, the shop also runs a catering business: Florea and Abraham recently cooked a mixture of Romanian and international dishes for a function at the Romanian Embassy. Who knew that an unassuming part of north London hid such a sparkling culinary gem?
Ileana Artisan Food & Butcher, 12 Watford Way, NW4 3AD. Tel: 020 8202 4408. Photos kindly supplied by Ileana.
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Note: businesses featured in this series are chosen editorially, and not as part of a promotion.