Disappearing Kentish Town
Posted: 2nd April 2019
When I first moved to Kentish Town in central North London twenty-four years ago there were plenty of high street wine merchants. There were two branches of Victoria Wine within easy walking distance (not that you ever wanted to buy anything there except fags and I had stopped smoking long before); two Unwins’ shops, one in Camden Town and another on the Mansfield Road, and there was Soapy Sam (‘Corks’) in Swaine’s Lane, in those pre-Earl of Listowel-days when that street still offered the full panoply of butchers, bakers and greengrocers; plus the two lovely Spanish chaps with their dogs in Highgate Village. Even the encyclopaedic beer shop in York Way has been redeveloped, but in mitigation there are two new swillers’ merchants in Kentish Town itself.
Then there was Oddbins. Oddbins was the last of our local high street merchants to go belly-up, and I suppose they will never come again. I know it wasn’t the same Oddbins. The place had already gone through a variety of incarnations since I first frequented the branch on the corner of the High and Oriel Street. That was the real Oddbins, before it was bought by Seagrams. I remember a rich friend buying a double-magnum of an off-vintage of Château Lafite and our sitting down and drinking it with a piece of beef we had purchased in the Covered Market. The man who ran the shop was called Richard. I still used to run into him until quite recently. He ended up working for Stevens Garnier, a subsidiary of the Portuguese company Sogrape but I see that’s gone too. I wonder what he does now? He has probably retired.
There were the specialists of course and some of them are still with us. The Wine Cellar used to have an impressive range of Portuguese wines and was the source of much of our everyday wine, but the owner, Nuno sold up after the Referendum and went back to the Beira where he came from. The current owners seem less interested in wine. There is still Lisboa in Plender Street in Camden Town, but its selection is minute in comparison. Salvino in Brecknock Road has some good things, mostly from Sicily, Sardinia and southern Italy, but they can’t command the discounts supermarkets obtain and their prices are naturally higher. More recently an excellent little Italian grocer has opened in the Kentish Town Road called Lo Sfizio, and they have a small range of wines too. There is an excellent selection of French wines to be had from the Authentique Epicerie and Bar in Fortess Road; but if you want a proper wine merchant now, you have to slog up the hill to Nicolas in Highgate Village, or go to the excellent Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park.
Other gastronomic amenities have also disappeared. The last one down was the Café Tolli, where until recently local poets met to compare verse or worse. They made wonderful fiorentini and torte delle nonna. In their place have come Costa and Prêt and the usual chains but to be fair there have been a few improvements. Apart from Salvino, two dozen years ago there was just one grocer, Charlie and Maria at Paradise Foods, catering for anyone who wanted anything out of the usual. Now there is a lot of competition from the Earth (which put Charlie and Maria out of business) and Natural Foods, the rather sparse Naturally delicatessen (decent bread) and of course Lo Sfizio which has the pleasing smell of a shop that has been there forever, even though it opened under than a year ago.
About twenty years ago I wrote a piece for the Evening Standard in which I said Kentish Town was heaven because we had no supermarkets. I think the marketing people must have read it, for now we can’t move for supermarkets, institutions that kill high streets, encourage cars and diminish choice. We have two Sainsburys now (and a whacking great one on the canal in Camden Town where there is also Marks & Spencer), a Tesco, two Co-ops and Lidls in both Kentish Town and Camden Town. I use the Co-op for small things and occasionally wine and am always charmed by the politeness of the staff. I go to Lidl in Camden Town because unlike the place in Kentish Town I don’t have to tot up my bill myself. I might add in Kentish Town there is a huge amount of quite blatant theft, and several people have to be stationed by the door to catch the thieves. In Camden Town people in the queue quite often scoff part of their shopping before they reach the tills. I suppose they shove the empty packets in among the taters.
Lidl’s wines are not only good, they are excellent value for money, but in Camden Town at least they are limited to about a dozen lines and far fewer good things than there were. Waitrose, the upper middle-class supermarket, seems to have foundered in Camden Town. Its departure may have had something to do with the opening of an ultra-chic branch on the canal behind King’s Cross Station. Waitrose’s site in Camden High Street is being prepared for the arrival of that other German discounter Aldi. Aware that I might soon be rummaging around for bargains on their shelves I went to their spring tasting. This is what I found:
Veuve Monsigny Champagne Brut Grand Reserve NV (£14.99): pleasant baked apple character, good length.
Philizot Organic Champagne NV (£26.99): Decent stuff, limes and apples – nearly twice the price of the Veuve Monsigny, mind you.
Exquisite Collection Lyme Block English Wine 2018 (£9.99): I was surprised by the complexity here. It had a lot more to say than most of Aldi’s white wines. It is chiefly Bacchus, a grape variety I would usually cross the road to avoid.
Hive and Honey Gewurztraminer 2017 (£6.99): from Monterey in California and quite pleasant in a merely sweet sort of way.
‘Gym’ Dão red 2017 (£5.69): with a name like that it should be lively. It had a convincing nose but was a bit short on body.
Baron de las viñas rioja gran reserva 2010 (£9.99): one of the better wines in the tasting, has typicity, appeal and convincing length.
The Fire Tree Sicilian Nero d’Avola 2018 (£4.99): very good value for money here, there is a touch of sweetness too it, but body too. The Riserva version is £3 more and not worth the extra money.
Nero di Troia 2016 (£5.99): again a bit of sweetness but a decent everyday wine with body – ideal for your midweek pasta.
Exquisite Collection organic Malbec 2018 (£6.99): quite meaty, almost stinky on the nose, but a wine with more character than you’d expect at this price.
Château Jean Gue Cuvée La Rose, Lalande de Pomerol 2015 (£11.99): a proper little claret for Sunday lunch. 100% Merlot.
Moulins de Citran Haut Médoc 2009 (£13.99): probably my favourite wine of the tasting – second wine of Château de Citran and with plenty of blackcurran