Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
Over the last few weeks, several of my friends have accused me of being brainwashed by the French women of Chelsea. You are stuck on page 64 of the A-Z, they say. There are French people all over London. They’re in Chalk Farm! They’re in Clapham! They’re in Brook Green! They’re in Ealing!
The most vocal of the anti-Chelsea brigade is Daisy (left), a childhood friend who lives in Hackney with a French architect called François who she found in a Sussex field (the occasion was a festival called Lost Vagueness). Daisy is the antithesis of the French women of South Ken. She’s one of those outdoorsy zero-maquillage English girls who’s happy to swim in the Channel, dry off on the shingle, cycle home in the rain and cook a fabulous dinner for 20.
Daisy posts a message on my blog. Do I know about ‘the world famous E5 Bakehouse which is actually in E8?’ ‘Have I ever tried their mini crème brûlées with pears snuggling inside?’ And, while she’s on the subject, would I like a quick tour of the bars, cafés, delis and studios of Hackney?
East London, says Daisy, is where it’s all happening. This is where hip French people live, not just families but singletons doing arty jobs in the capital. Can she show me round? And can we please, please avoid the word chic?
Dressed in a vintage coat with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, Daisy takes me on a whistle stop tour of the haunts frequented by French people. We start at Spitalfields Market and end at the E5 Bakehouse in London Fields.
Here is Daisy’s version of the day:
Can the French outside France sniff each other out on sight? Can they identify each other from the way a cup is brought to the lips, the way a wallet is produced from a bag or a telltale shrug? Casilda and I took in my favourite spots of inner East London from Bishopsgate, through Shoreditch and up to London Fields. Some of these are French owned, others French frequented.
Our first stop was among the hairy baskets outside novelist Jeanette Winterson’s café, Verde. We were both tempted by the Saturday job on offer there, not for the minimum wage it would provide, but for the opportunity for pleasing interface with the general public. And the Pierre Marcolini chocolate. He’s isn’t French, but nor is he Italian. Can you guess?
Next we headed through Old Spitalfields, past Truman Brewery, up Brick Lane and past the vintage shops of Cheshire Street. We just had to stop for Ghanaian chocolates at Dark Sugars, a chocolate shop that’s earthy, generous and doesn’t go in for fancy packaging. Truffles and pralines are heaped into curvaceous wooden basins, and slabs of the stuff piled high like books in a library. (Dark Sugars Chocolate, Brick Lane, East London, E1).
We lingered at the remarkable Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. Just seeing that salt-beef and gherkin combination makes me feel that all is well. For me, this is the last place in the whole world where you can buy leaf tea from a five-pint pot strong enough to trot a mouse on top of. I often spot French folk vying for the cheesecake, but I come for the tea. (Beigel Bake, 159 Brick Lane, E1. I wish the one next to Aldgate East tube would re-open. It now sells Menswear)
We try to talk to Olivier Geoffroy, the French founder of furniture workshop Unto This Last (pictured above) but apparently he is “in a meeting” – it must be a euphemism. Few are the stylish French homes of East London that don’t have something from here. The curve bookshelf is popular and I have my eye on the petal-like hanging lamp of translucent birch so fine it looks like drum-skin. Everything is made at the back of the shop on a digital router. François designed these table mats (£7, as shown).
As it is a Monday, Columbia Road flower market is sleeping off its weekend hangover but we barge our way into Brawn which is decidedly fermé, hoping someone might pour us a glass of vin biodynamique just for the hell of it. Brawn gets its sourdough bread from the E5 Bakehouse (see final entry) and is the petite soeur of Terroirs near Charing Cross.
Late lunch is at L’Eau à la Bouche, a bustling French deli-café on Broadway Market that’s a comparative old-timer for this street of dodgy dogs, pies, reiki healers, prams, Turkish grocers and bad haircuts. In other words, très Hackney in that it’s all mashed up. The tasty pastillas are finished so we have another kind of lamb flatbread with the ingredients of the Ibérique option turned into a salad. Stef, the proprietor, is from Lyons, and I think the shelves of gorgeous jars of fancy stuff are more for atmosphere than for anything else.
Our final pit stop is the E5 Bakehouse and café in the railway arch. Someone in here really knows how to put pastries and dough together. Nuggets of poached pear in tiny crème brûlée is about the apotheosis. Nigel Slater, Michel Roux and other food luminaries come here for the celebrated ‘Hackney Wild’ sourdough.