I’ve got food on the brain at the end of this week, so spurred on by yesterday’s farmers’ markets, today I’ll touch yet again on where you can buy yourself some nourishment to stock the kitchen of your London apartment:
“G” is for GROCERIES!
Belinda and I have both written on this topic multiple times before, but it always bears repeating as folks relocating to London continually wonder where to shop. It’s the everyday practical matters that come to forefront once you live in London and are no longer just visiting, and, as with any relocation anywhere, it can be a disorienting process replacing your old favorites at home with the new and unfamiliar. Hence, here is a primer, if you will, on grocery shopping in London.
The London Grocery Stores
Unlike the American suburbia where I hail from, the one-stop-shopping megastore that really puts the “super” in supermarket is not prevalent here. When you move to London, then, it becomes a matter of shifting habits and scoping out what stores are in close proximity to your London flat and familiarizing yourself with which ones have which staples so you can strategize efficiently.
My personal favorites are Marks & Spencer and Tesco. Though Marks & Spencer itself is also a department store that sells clothing and housewares, its ‘Simply Food’ stores offer groceries—relatively higher-end products that promise good quality and freshness in nice packaging. Its prepared dinners are ideal for working singles or couples that don’t have the time to cook; rather than preservative-packed and frozen, they’re fresh and refrigerated, and made for consumption within only a few days. Comparable in quality and pricing is Waitrose, which has fairly spacious stores. And if you love Whole Foods at home, the world’s second-largest Whole Foods store is located right here in London, on High Street Kensington. If you want more for your pound, however, try Tesco. They have Tesco Express stores on most high streets, and, in west London at least, there’s a huge superstore version located in Earl’s Court. I do my bulk-shopping on their website–you can schedule deliveries online for only £3-5 extra. They’ll even climb the stairs to bring your food to your unit door.
Other reasonably-priced options include Sainsbury’s and The Co-operative (the latter being a consumer cooperative in which its members are its owners). A super low-cost store is Iceland, which specializes in frozen foods; good for the budget, though perhaps brutal for the body. I personally don’t find their adverts appetizing, but, hey, if hotdog pizza is your bag, go for it. Otherwise, if you’re really craving some familiar American foods from home (most expats desperately miss Kraft Mac-n-Cheese and Jif peanut butter), try Partridges and the USA Food Store!
The Grocery Culture
London locals have a ‘shop light, shop often’ mentality that is preferable when you need to walk your groceries home or tote them on the tube. So one thing you’ll notice when you start grocery shopping in London is the absence of large shopping carts (called “trolleys”) piled high with a quantity of groceries only a minivan or SUV could haul home. Rather, most people carry the small basket, filling it simply with what they need for that evening’s meal. If you do need to carry more and don’t have a car nor want to go the delivery-route, consider purchasing a personal trolley to cart along the sidewalk. You’ll also note how many shoppers opt to go green and bring their own environmentally-friendly, reusable grocery tote in lieu of disposable plastic bags. The grocery stores themselves usually sell them.
And just as there’s a different word for “shopping cart,” you’ll find some foods get lost in translation as well. Below is a brief glossary of food terminology so you’ll know what to look for in those aisles:
aubergine = eggplant
beef mince = ground beef
biscuit = similar to a cracker or cookie
coriander = cilantro
courgette = zucchini
crumpet = while visually resembling an English muffin, the crumpet is almost more pancakey in texture.
custard = pudding
digestive = semi-sweet biscuit with a dense, graham-cracker-ish quality, nice with tea or as an after-dinner stomach-settler.
flapjack = nope, they aren’t pancakes. They’re more like a thick, chewy granola bar of nuts, grains, and dried fruits.
jelly = Jell-O
pancake = like a French crepe. If you want American-style pancakes, look for “Scotch pancakes” in stores or restaurants (though some may indeed advertise “American pancakes”). Or make your own: American food import stores sell Bisquick; otherwise, you’ll have to make the batter from scratch, as London stores don’t sell such mixes.
porridge = oatmeal
prawn = shrimp
pudding = bready, spongy, sometimes cake-like desserts (examples: sticky toffee and spotted dick). And often on restaurant menus, the word “pudding” is used to denote “dessert” in general.
rocket = arugula
swede = rutabaga
I will not be giving you a quiz on this later. Rather, you’ll be facing the practical exam the second you move into your London apartment rental and see tumbleweed blowing through your cabinets and fridge. So shop on, London expats, shop on!