When I announced my planned trip to London, the funniest reaction I got was “What are you going to do about eating? I hear the food is terrible over there!” As if London, one of the most cosmopolitan and multicultural cities on the planet, could offer only boiled beef and suet pudding to visitors. I just replied that as we were staying in a private home, we’d probably do a lot of our own cooking.
I was excited to be staying with friends instead of in a hotel, because as much fun as touristing is, I really wanted to see a slice of everyday life in London. To my hosts’ amusement, I asked to be taken to a major supermarket; grocery stores can give you such a sense of a place. We also visited a few neighborhood convenience stores, run by the same big grocery chains (Waitrose, Sainsburys, Marks & Spencer), but in small shop fronts and focused on staple items. Imagine a Hy-Vee or Safeway-branded convenience store: milk, eggs, bread, etc.
As when tourists visit us, portion size stands out as a major difference. London is a lot like New York in that properly is very dear, so living spaces are compact. With small kitchens come small refrigerators, and packaging designed accordingly. Look at this milk case:
That’s pints, quarts, and half-gallons (or their metric equivalents). I didn’t see a gallon of milk in any of the shops we visited. The family we stayed with bought several quart bottles at a time, as they were just the right size to fit in their fridge door. And after a few days, they’d stop in at a corner market and buy a few more–limited space makes it hard to do one weekly shop and be done. We were forever stopping in on our way home from sight-seeing to grab something we were low on at home–juice or milk or bread. (I think that’s common to big city life, wherever it may be, not specific to London.)
Another portion-size shot–the two-liter bottles are taller and slimmer than the ones we get, but comparable. Next to it, though, is a large bag of crisps.
No wonder our Costco-sized bags of snacks leave visitors speechless (if not openly horrified)!
I found it odd that most of the fresh produce was individually wrapped:
I wish I’d gotten a picture of the individually shrink-wrapped cucumbers. They didn’t have open bins of fruit and vegetables to pick through and choose from–the apples, for instance, came six to a plastic tray. The banana bunches were bagged up. I wish now I’d looked around more to see how other produce was packaged.
We were looking forward to trying some wacky flavors of crisps, and in this, Pret-a-Manger was happy to oblige. There are “Prets” all over London like there are McDonald’s all over…well, all over. Rather than fried fast food, though, they serve up lovely, fresh, high-quality ready-made sandwiches. They saved our starving little selves many a time over over the week–drop in, grab a nice club sandwich to share and a bag of crisps, and you’re set for several more hours of sight-seeing. I think the most adventurous flavor we tried was the curry lime pickle–and it was good! Pret has a cute approach to its food, too:
The sandwiches are triangular:
And those instances when we did encounter stereotypical British food, well, we didn’t mind so much:
Steak and Guinness pie with chips and peas…mmmmm….I wish I could just go on eating this lunch!