Newington Green[s]

When I first moved to London about 5 years ago I lived up in Newington Green – the bit of Islington that’s too far up the Essex Road to say it’s Angel, yet has too few prams and Guardian readers to officially be part of Stoke Newington.

I have many fond memories of living there: waiting for the mythical 341; not having to wait for the rather more frequent 73; the fantastically stocked and convenient convenience shop, Lena Stores (just beware of the best before lottery); rolling out of bed and over to breakfast in the sun outside the Acoustic café; the Met’s undercover surveillance and eventual fully armed storming of the crack den next door. All good stuff.

My fondest memory of all, however, is of Newington Green fruit and vegetable store. I don’t like to make unqualified statements of praise. But Newington Greens (as it is surely affectionately called by everyone who uses it) is hands down the greatest food shop, nay, retail shop, of any kind, in the whole of London.

The place is the very model of the perfect fruit and veg store. It appears to follow a fairly simple equation: stacks of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables at unfathomably reasonable prices, open 08:00 – 22:00, 7 days a week. Yet I’ve seen nowhere else that even comes close to it. If Rick Stein featured it on one of his programmes, he would exclaim “WHY can’t we do it like this in the rest of Britain?” in his exasperated West Country way.

I suspect the answer to Rick’s question might be something to do with the fact that, in reality, it’s not easy running a small business like this. Back then I was a trainee solicitor and regularly postured that there could be no job in the world with crappier hours and a worse work/life balance (oh, to still have the hours and work/life balance of a trainee…). But actually, most days, the dude at the veg shop was up well before me, receiving and checking stock and opening up; and he was still there close to midnight, serving customers whilst packing away. Seriously impressive and very humbling.

Food waste in London would probably be halved if everyone had this place round the corner; it allows you to buy the exact quantity of food you need, when you need it. There’d be no peppers, onions or courgettes shriveling, browning and moulding away, having originally been bought in the naive belief that they’d be used during the week, or simply because they only come cellophane packed and in threes. There’d be a far greater variety of fresh stuff in people’s lives too – not just those peppers, onions and courgettes.

I’ve been pining for Newington Greens for about 2 and a half years now. Rather desperately, I’ve taken to getting on my bike and making the 30 (or a sweaty 25) minute commute just to pick up some vegetables. On one occasion I needed to work to a mildly irritating budget for a cooking competition. I bought all the fresh fruit and vegetables I needed for 3 courses for £1.11. Last week, the base ingredients for enough coleslaw and a beautiful tomato and basil salad to feed 30 cost a couple of coppers over £10. I reckon the tomatoes alone would have come to £20 elsewhere. Makes you wonder about supermarket price fixing…

It was no surprise to me, but I was very happy to see on my return that the shop is flourishing. It has moved to a bigger premises, with the old place next door now a mere store room. The stock is even more plentiful and fresh and stays that way because of the continuous stream of customers queuing-up to hand pick both staple and exotic fruits and vegetables throughout the day. If you live even remotely close, you must use it. You lucky, lucky people. There is no better retail experience and I long for their expansion across London. Or at least to somewhere near wherever I am.

[Click on the pictures for a slide show. I’m afraid most of the leaves, brassicas and root shots were a bit fuzzy and subsequently deleted. You should really see the place in 3D anyway.]

Postscript.  It’s been pointed out to me that there’s a well informed piece on the shop, and an interview with the owner, on the website Eating East.  Check it out here.