I’m still in New York, and hacking up and down the streets for a few days has reminded me just how much I love good food stores. I can browse in these places for hours, even if I have no intention of buying — doing so with almost the same level of beatific absorption I attain in bookstores. A quality food purveyor reminds you just how wonderful it is that we have to eat (and also how lucky we are to live in privileged countries, where what we eat can be an existential choice, rather than a matter of bitter existence). Finding an awesome food emporium is like discovering a tiny, wood-paneled and coffee-infused independent bookstore that somehow happens to stock as much as a big chain, only in far more interesting ways, and studded with prizes the big guns don’t even know exist. Wandering around these places is a kind of meditation, and time spent there will find your heart rate slowing and brain waves settling into a contented hum.
Or… maybe I’m just a pig.
Either way, my top choices in this very provisional list come from America, possibly controversially. The rest of the world — and even many Americans, it seems, certainly the ones living near the coasts — tend to portray the United States as a country where the ill-informed and massively-sized chow merrily down on any old crap, so long as it comes by the bucket-load, and are never happier than when stuffing a burger into every orifice. Yet the average Publix or Ralphs will have deli and meat and fish counters that would put European specialty stores to shame, not to mention acres of choice in more prosaic departments. No self-respecting American supermarket is going to offer you just one of something, be it a tin or jar or packet: they will have a choice of nineteen different brands, and many of them will be good. Unless you’re specifically looking for patés, cassoulet and the like, you’re a lot better off here than in the average French hypermarket…
1. The Westside Market on 7th Avenue (at 10th), NYC
New York is, of course, one of the great food cities, with food supplies in breadth and depth. An unassuming deli can turn out to have hot and cold food choices stretching for ten yards, not to mention a perfectly competent sushi chef beavering away in the corner. The Westside Market actually did my head in (more so than the oft-lauded Garden of Eden chain, excellent though they are). I went into near-catatonia with Opportunity Cost Anxiety at Westside, wandering round open-mouthed, like someone in town not so much from the sticks, as from the 8th century — painfully aware that I’ve only got one stomach and only had so many self-catered meals ahead of me. So I settled for buying merely seven times what I needed, and walking with a pronounced list for most of the time. It was worth it.
2. The Broadway Market, Seattle
A big, spacious store, this doesn’t have quite the sense of lunatic crammed-in cornucopia as the best New York markets, but you still want to check it out. As an added but unrelated bonus, in side streets nearby there are some extremely attractive Arts & Crafts bungalows, if you know where to look (or, like me, wander around like a lost dog until you accidently come upon them). Broadway is a bit of a hike from downtown, but it’s worth it. While you’re in the city, don’t forget Pike Place Market. It doesn’t count as a food shop, but is a cool place to walk around (especially early in the morning, watching tough-looking guys bellowing weirdly about fish) — and there’s lots of other food-related goodness in the surrounding alleyways. Seattle’s not just about depressed bands and perpetual drizzle: the food there is good.
3. Hédiard, Paris
I find the much-vaunted Fauchon (just across the Place de la Madelaine) a bit pretentious: there’s a lot of nice food there, of course, but it’s too mannered and arch, packaged as if to be part of some grandstanding gift basket. Hédiard feels more homely and comfortable, and has more game on the savoury stuff, too. There’s another great general food store in Paris, just the other side of St Germain, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Feel free to remind me. And yes, if I was including food markets, then France would move up the list, as it would if I was talking about the effortless ability of just about anywhere to chuck together a simple meal of greatness. But I’m not. Nor am I talking about indoor multi-outlet food markets of the kind Toronto has, fan of these places though I am (and I’m receptive to tips as to where to find others, too). I’m just talking about food shops here. Read the title of the blog, and don’t give me grief.
4. Selfridges Food Hall, London
It’s very good — by all accounts Harrods’ is even better, but that’s too far West for me, and I find the whole idea of Harrods obscurely annoying, for some reason — but it’s not really a patch on any of the above: and oh my God it’s expensive. Deciding to buy a picnic in Selfridges Food Hall is like picking up a copy of the Guttenberg Bible to read while you have a poo. It does have European items like rillettes, however, which can be tough to find in American stores. Though not in France, obviously. Duh.
Four is a weird place to stop, but I’m missing a number 5 for the list — not to mention 6 through 173. So — what have I missed or not yet encountered? How have I been stupid and wrong-headed and completely like a nutbag fool? If I should be in your (or any other) neck of the woods, where should I go to stare longingly at stuff?
Tell me. And be quick about it.