It is easy to be suspicious of all the changes occurring in Brixton these days. We worry the uniqueness of the area could be lost to high street stores, global coffee shops and moneyed hipsters, so it is understandable that we scrutinise outsiders for capitalising on the recent popularity of the area, the most obvious of which is the ‘foodie’ scene. When we on the food team at the Brixton Blog heard that there were companies offering ‘food walks’ of Brixton, we guffawed. Surely this was another blatant example of someone jumping on the foodie bandwagon? We decided to check out one particular tour; I was to review it for the Blog, undercover as a punter unfamiliar with the area to see how much effort was made to know the real Brixton.
We booked with Fox and Squirrel, a company that hosts a variety of guided walks around London. Their website describes Brixton Market as “one of the most exotic, eclectic and unusual markets in England”, and guests will experience “a coffee tasting, Caribbean dishes reimagined, exquisite gelato made in front of [our] eyes, British cheese, charcuterie and more…” Our instant response was to roll our eyes and assume the worst.
On the day, a group of about 12 of us met outside the Tube. No one was local and seemed a little shocked at the pandemonium that is Saturday midday in Brixton. Street preachers competing over each other’s voices, steel drums playing recognisable pop tunes, shouts of greeting all combined to make the cacophony of sound that is so familiar to Brixtonites. Our group was led by one of the founders of Fox and Squirrel, Penelope Sacorafou, and Simon Wroe, chef turned writer and our guide for the day.
We started at the bottom of Brixton Station Road where the Saturday Market was on in full force, and made our way to our first stop: coffee. I had assumed our destination was going to be Federation, but in fact it was Shawl Café, where owner Mohammad and his wife Elsa took us through an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Mo explained the history and the traditions around the service, whilst Elsa roasted coffee beans over hot embers. As the smell of the roasting beans and the sounds of the market filled the air, frankincense burned and popcorn was nibbled. This service seemed a far cry from what our group expected, myself included, many arriving with Starbucks in hand. Elsa’s coffee was delicious: strong but light, floral, clean and smooth. Next, we moved on to Las Americas on Pope’s Road, where were given the opportunity to try lechona, a traditional Columbian dish made from whole side of pork, which is then stuffed with rice and green peas, and slow roasted for several hours. It is only served on Saturdays at Las Americas and it was the first time I’d tried it. Slathered with their delicious homemade salsa, it was a revelation.
We wandered into Brixton Village and made a stop at Kumasi Market, the Ghanaian grocery store. Simon went through some of items that were sold there before we continued on to the Sierra Leone shop, with its array of seemingly foreign herbs and spices, where he explained their role in Bush medicine. It is worth saying at this point that my initial assumptions and my prejudices were crumbling. I was impressed with Simon’s local knowledge, and it was clear that he and Fox and Squirrel had done their research. Not only that, Simon has developed genuine relationships with the traders. Our presence wasn’t viewed as suspicious or invasive; everyone we visited welcomed us.
Our next stop was to Fish, Wing n Tings, where my cover was subsequently blown. It became impossible for me to continue the pretence of being an outsider when faced with the warmth and friendliness of Brian Danclair, who I’m lucky enough to know. He serves sensational jerk chicken, curries, and rotis, as well as making his own cheek-tingling hot sauces. I could no longer feign local ignorance and in my embarrassment at being caught out, I blushingly revealed who I was. But I also felt at this point that I could recommend this walk to outsiders wishing to get a taste of the real Brixton food scene. The walk did not have the quality of yuppie middle-class gastro-tourism; it seemed genuinely supportive of local business.
The tour continued to Lab G to watch Giovanni make his famous salted caramel gelato and to taste the fruits of his labours. All of his gelato is carefully made upstairs in his tiny kitchen above the shop, the results of which are some of the best I’ve tried outside of Italy. On we went to Market Row to visit Noor Cash and Carry, where Simon touched on the recent issue of rent hikes that has plagued the Noor and other business due to the popularity of the area. The group wandered around the shop, and whilst I think many were surprised at the range of items on offer, I overheard someone saying they would have never thought to shop there if they’d seen it from the outside. We continued through Market Row, past Wishbone, past Franco Manca, and into the Reliance Arcade. We stopped at the tiny Ethiopian shop inside, where we could purchase the beans and frankincense to do our own coffee ceremony then exited the Arcade, turning right onto Electric Avenue, where we wandered back slowly towards Market Row and the walk finished with cocktails at Seven@Brixton.
It is absolutely right to be suspect of those attempting to do business in Brixton under the guise of being local, but in the case of Fox and Squirrel’s food walk, it seemed less interested in capitalising on the recent popularity and more about introducing outsiders to local flavour in a respectful manner. Granted, the cost of the ticket is pricey (£50), but I was informed that once costs were covered, the remaining money went directly to the traders. The walk is a decent introduction to the diversity of cultures here, all of which have meshed together to create a solid community. Well done Fox and Squirrel. Humble pie has now been served.
Photography by Stuart Beesley
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