The Essence of Time

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Sophie Hart-Walsh takes a tour round the culinary hotspots of Soho with Jenny Linford author of a book about the complexities of time in food production

Jenny Linford, is the author of countless food books including the much-loved gastronomic bible Food Lovers’ London – an exhaustive directory of the city’s food stores and restaurants. She also hosts walking tours of the capital for small groups. To celebrate the arrival of her latest book, The Missing Ingredient, a passionately written anthology of food and drinks which attempts to explain, via chapters entitled Seconds, Minutes, Hours and so on, the common factor in the gestation, production and subsequent consumption of all foodstuffs – time, she invited me to join her on one of her truffle-hunts around Soho.

Our tour begins at the Algerian coffee stores, the Soho stalwart founded in 1887 which resides under a red and white striped awning on Old Compton Street. Despite its jaunty appearance, many of our party had walked past a hundred times and never spotted it.

Coffee is a good place for Jenny to illustrate the premise of The Missing Ingredient, as the picking, drying and grinding of beans can involve countless complexities of time. Coffee first appears in The Missing Ingredient in “Seconds” since, thanks to Achille Gaggia’s breakthrough technology, a coffee machine that uses a piston mechanism to fire hot water through coffee at great pressure, it only takes 30 of them to make an espresso. His is an astonishing piece of inventive engineering that I have, until now, been taking advantage of without a second thought.

These days, we are conditioned to believe that slow is good: things that have been labored over for longer, must be better quality. But this hasn’t stopped us searching for ways to speed everything up. Coffee is a case in point: we want it fast, but a good cup of coffee needs to have been properly sourced and nurtured “from bean to cup” before it can deliver the necessary hit to the busy, busy, busy city dweller trapped in her codependent caffeinated speed-cycle.

As we taste a delicious cup of ACS’s house blend “Formula Rossa” Jenny explains the different processes involved in getting the coffee into the cup. In no time, everyone is pinging off the walls. The Algerian Coffee House is beautifully aromatic and the air feels thick with high intensity caffeine – a warm spicy pungency that evokes the stout feeling of history and tradition. They stock coffee beans from all over the world and will grind them for you on site according to preference. Each variety has a story. One that particularly strikes me is that Ethiopian coffee drinkers burn frankincense while they wait for their drink to be ready – a complimentary aroma that adds an extra layer of sensory opulence to the proceedings. The roasting/grinding and brewing is a long drawn out process, and as such makes a good excuse to stop for a chat while it is being prepared. Apparently they enjoy popcorn with their coffee too.

Next stop is i Camisa, a delicatessen that makes some of the greatest sandwiches in Soho, and in that effusive Italian way, is terrifically stern about what goes into them. Jenny has fond memories of being taken to i Camisa by her mother, and in turn used to take her son when he was small. He would be compensated each time by a bag of exactly 3 sugared almonds by the staff. As with coffee, the concept of food and time is well illustrated by the cured Salami and hams hanging over the counter above our heads. They’ve been air-dried, smoked or cured and hung for weeks or months to improve their flavor and help to fight the negative effects of time on fresh ingredients by preventing the onslaught of harmful bacteria. Linford orders a waxed paper platter of heavenly prosciutto and we’re immediately transfixed.

The shop also stocks myriad shapes of fresh and dried pasta which brilliantly come with 2 cooking instructions on the back so that you may cook it “how you like” or “correctly”. I love being put in my place by packaging. Artisanal pasta, such as the brands on offer here, are dried more slowly than a cheap industrial version, to simulate the traditional technique of hanging your pasta out to dry in the Italian sun.

With its enormous range of pasta, as well as bottled and fresh delicacies, i Camisa is ideal for picking up the bare bones of a quick dinner, the brilliance of Italian ingredients being that the oceans of care and attention paid in advance, means you can enjoy a luxurious meal with next to no prep time. For Italians this kind of culinary maths is second nature, which was made clear when Linford once enthused to Sr Camisa that this was her ‘favourite food shop in London”. “Jenny, you are mad” he replied drily…

After I Camisa, it’s on to Paul A Young, master chocolatier, the best in England according to Linford because his flavour profiles are so varied, clever, and playful. This is the climax of our tour – a chance to try truffles from the new season’s collection. The glory of chocolate is in the flirtatious way it gives up any pretense at solidity and melts in a matter of seconds in the warmth of your mouth, at which point a raft of flavours will suddenly assault your senses. In The Missing Ingredient, chocolate has entries under “Seconds” and “Minutes” to drive home this point.

While the rest of the group disperse, Linford takes me on to Chinatown for a chaperoned guide of the New Loon Moon supermarket. I am keen to knock up my own Southeast Asian Laksa and Jenny whizzes me around Loon Moon’s dazzling array of stock. Under her tutelage I select; tamarind pulp, rather than paste (soak in warm water, squeeze, mix and sieve), Vietnamese coriander, blachan – a pungent dried shrimp flavouring, a specific width of dried rice noodles. She then – brilliantly – tells me which brand of instant paste to use if it all goes tits up, and explains a few other items I’ve never seen before: Yardlong beans, AKA the long podded cowpea (that really are a yard long, making them hard to stack on a supermarket shelf, and you’d never know anyway as they usually get finely chopped before cooking), Doubanjiang – fermented spicy bean paste, Gula melaka or palm sugar (chop or shave into small pieces and melt into a syrup with hot water), and dried shitake mushrooms to rehydrate and fry in sherry with star anise (cut the stalks off, they do not get softer.)

Jenny is an invaluable encyclopedia of gastronomic knowledge, and you couldn’t hope to be standing in a mile long queue in a Chinatown supermarket with a better guide, apart from, maybe, Ken Hom.

Jenny Linford’s  top five items to buy in an Italian deli

  • A chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano for grating over pasta is essential.. Store it wrapped in waxed paper in the fridge
  • A packet of good quality Italian dried pasta – the range of shapes on offer in an Italian deli is always excellent, from tiny soup pasta shapes to ridged penne
  • A bottle of decent Italian olive oil – I am biased towards Tuscan olive oil as I lived in Florence for three years as a teenager
  • A good thick piece of pancetta, which I cut into chunks myself at home and use in cooking to flavour dishes like pasta sauces or meat stews
  • Freshly sliced Parma ham – an easy starter or lunch, always a treat

Jenny’s Singapore Laksa

The recipe for this rich, spicy seafood noodle soup was given to me by my Singaporean uncle, Kim Bong. He was a hospitable, cheerful man – a good cook, who enjoyed nothing more than cooking meals for large family groups.

For an authentic laksa, you need to buy dried shrimps, galangal, blachan and Chinese fish balls, which can all be bought in Chinatown in one of the well-stocked supermarkets there

Serves 4

3 stalks of lemongrass

2 small onions, peeled and chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

a 5 cm piece of galangal, peeled and chopped (can substitute ginger)

1 tsp blachan (dried shrimp paste)

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground chilli

4 tsp ground coriander

225g of bean sprouts, blanched

450g fresh thick round Chinese noodles (found in chilled section)

4 tbsp oil

2 x 400ml tins of coconut milk

75g dried shrimps, finely ground (found in chilled section)

200g Chinese white fish balls (found in chilled section)

8 raw peeled tiger prawns


Fish stock or water, to taste

1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into short fine strips

a handful of Vietnamese coriander leaves, finely chopped, or coriander sprigs

Peel the tough outer casing from lemon grass and finely chop the white bulbous part of the stalks. Blend together the lemon grass, onion, garlic, galingal, blachan, turmeric, chilli and ground coriander into a paste.

Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among four deep serving bowls.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Mix in the spice paste and fry, stirring constantly for a good 15-20 minutes till fragrant. At first, the mixture thickens into an oily porridge paste and at the end of the frying process, the oil begins to seep out. It’s important to take time at this stage to really cook the spice paste properly, otherwise your laksa will taste harsh and raw.

Mix in the coconut milk and, stirring, bring to the boil over a medium-low heat. Mix in the ground dried shrimps and simmer for 5 minutes. Add in the fish balls and tiger prawns. Simmer gently until the fish balls are heated through and the prawns cooked; a matter of minutes. Thin with a little fish stock or water, as desired and season with salt.

Pour the coconut soup over the noodles and bean sprouts. Top with cucumber shreds and Vietnamese coriander (if you can find it) or coriander leaves and serve at once

The Missing Ingredient by Jenny Linford is published by Penguin Press, £9.99;