London: Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates

The Islington shopThere are now two locations.

Ever since Ann and Jonathan moved to the other side of north London, I’ve gotten to know Islington better and better. One store that I insist on returning to each time I pass through is this little treasure box of chocolates, located on a cobblestone pedestrian side street off of Upper Street. The hours the store stays open are frustratingly few, but well worth the accommodation of my schedule.

Chocolates spiced with all sorts of strange flavors — chilies, cinnamon, lime, salt, lavender, ginger, to name a few — sit in neat little piles on pedestals placed around the cream-colored shop. They don’t offer as many samples as I would like, but I’m willing to take a chance on some of the options, like saffron and honey.

According to the website, a shop has recently opened up in the east end. Since most visitors to London tend not to make the effort to find Islington, the shop in the City is worth the effort to find.

London: Algerian Coffee Stores

img_9741.jpgLiving in northern California, I take pride in having easy access to Peet’s Coffee. My pride crumbles to dust when I’m in London — not, you might reasonably think, the first city that comes to mind when you think coffee. The Algerian Coffee Stores (I’m not sure why the store’s name is in the plural) sells the best coffee and the best tea I’ve ever bought. Bear in mind that I’ve spent the monthly equivalent of years in Italy and Greece and still maintain that stance. I’m partial to Indonesian beans. At Peet’s, I buy either the Aged Sumatra or Garuda. At ACS, only Indian Monsoon Malabar will do. Its flavor is deep, earthy, and comforting in the morning.

The teas seem to be better than anything I can casually find in northern California. As a gift for Gary in Oakland, Ann usually buys a variety of teas — one part Darjeeling, one part Earl Grey, two parts English Breakfast or Ceylon, with a generous pinch of Lapasang — and mixes them. I’ve brought back this time some Darjeeling, first blush, and some Assam, whose delicacy I can’t find replicated at least at moderate expensive here in the U.S.

You’ll find the small shop on Old Compton Street in SoHo. Even if you’re just passing through London, stop in for an espresso. It’s a cozy, welcoming spot.

London: Good Italian Grocery in Soho

img_9739.jpgAlmost no one takes my word when I say the best food shopping in Europe can be found in the United Kingdom. You have to go to Britain and discover it for yourself. The British understand sustainable agriculture and organic food better than any other European people and better than Americans. I am amazed at the quality and variety of food to be found even in mainstream — albeit up-market — supermarkets like Waitrose. It’s only there that you’ll understand how well the British have mastered the mass production of tasty, healthy take-out food.

But shopping on a small scale remains the single most appealing aspect of food culture in London. Farmers’ markets in Marylebone and Church St. make me wonder why our farmers’ markets at home don’t offer a similar variety of fresh cheeses, pork, lamb, and vegetables. Borough Market, a huge open-air food hall open on Friday afternoons and all day Saturdays, located on the south bank between London Bridge and Southwark, fits anyone’s idea of a fantasy food market: acres of tables covered with oysters, breads, cheeses, vegetables, and prepared food with samples available everywhere. The mushroom stall alone makes the visit worthwhile. It’s a foodie’s Disneyland.

The neighborhood of Soho mixes old respected food shops like the Italian grocer, Lina Stores Ltd., with sex shops, cafés, and jazz clubs. When I accompany Ann here for veal-stuffed ravioli, polenta, cured meats, and parmesan, the Italian owners always bring an ameretto biscotto around to the front of the counter for one-year-old Ava. Lina’s is by no means the only Italian grocer in Soho, but Ann has to come to prefer it to the others.

You’ll find Lina & Co. on Brewer St. near Wardour St.