Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Paul Wheeler of Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies
Words: Victoria Brown
“My mum’s idea of spaghetti bolognese years ago was cooking spaghetti with loads of tomato puree and minced meat. That was it. There were no bay leaves, no carrots, no nothing. But those things have become normal now,” says Paul Wheeler of Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies, who was born in London and grew up around Caledonian Road.
This story reminds me of the wonderful scene in Nigel Slater’s Toast, where his father cooks spaghetti for the first time: “He drains the slithery lengths of spaghetti in a colander in the sink. Some are escaping through the holes and curling up in the sink like nests of worms. ‘Quick, get the plates, they’re getting away.’ We all sit there staring at our tumbling piles of pasta on our glass pyrex plates. ‘Oh, Kathleen, I don’t think I can,’ sobs Auntie Fanny.”
Both Paul and Nigel Slater were kids in the 1960s and 1970s, when pasta was still considered “exotic”. One of Paul’s earliest food memories is of the new and bizarre smells he encountered in a shop on Caledonian Road owned “by a little Greek lady”, Angela’s Continental Grocers. “I’d never smelt anything like it. There were olives, coriander—which was like it was from another land. English people didn’t know what coriander was.”
Britain’s culinary landscape
British food has always had foreign influences—the empire was built on imports from the colonies—so it is difficult to speak of a particular time when foreign influences became more ubiquitous. Tomatoes, potatoes, sugar and tea were all at one time considered exotic. Still, the range and extent of foreign influence has increased hugely since the 1950s, and the sixties and seventies are often cited as a turning point in Britain’s culinary landscape.
Immigration is one reason that is often given for this, but migrant entrepreneurs were involved in the food industry from as early as 1850. Influential food writers, like Elizabeth David, often get credit, but foreign recipes appear in cookbooks long before then, so what else? Overseas travel, increasing affluence and the countercultural movement of the 1960s may also have opened up British palates to foreign influences.
Paul mentions several of these theories without prompt. “I suppose cheap travel started in the seventies,” he ponders. “People started to go abroad and they sampled new food, like paella etc, and wanted to recreate it at home.” In more recent years, he suggests that TV chefs have played a big role—“It’s like the new rock ‘n’ roll now. It’s become much more accessible”—which in turn has made specialty products more widely available.
Grandad’s flower stall
If anyone could provide an eyewitness account, it’s Paul. He started working on his grandad’s flower stall outside Charing Cross station at the age of seven or eight. “I couldn’t wait for the summer holidays. We’d walk around the market listening and talking, buying the flowers and bidding. It was fantastic.”
As a teenager he helped out on a fruit stall owned by a family friend. He later went into business with his father-in-law, a greengrocer, and in 2000 he and his partner, Harriet, started their own stall at Borough Market. They’ve been here ever since.
When I ask Paul about the foods that remind him of his childhood, it is his nan’s cooking that brings back the fondest memories. “My nan was a fantastic cook. You know, old school, proper cooked dinners.” Boiled bacon, cabbage and potatoes; pie and mash; casseroles. On Sunday his nan always baked cakes and made a “proper roast dinner”, such as chicken or milk-fed lamb with roast potatoes and vegetables.
Ultimate comfort food
One of his favourite dishes was his nan’s trifle—“it’s still the best”—and his ultimate comfort food is rhubarb crumble with custard made from scratch.
Paul and Harriet both love cooking, but he has cooked less since they had their daughter, Violet. Nowadays, he eats a wider variety of vegetables, the occasional stir-fry, and pasta is a staple family dinner, “but I would say we eat predominantly traditional English food.” His favourite meal of the week is Sunday breakfast, a typical English fry-up, “because it’s the only time we eat breakfast together”.
Food is the focus of Paul’s life, round the clock—”I don’t think anyone that works here and who’s been here any amount of time isn’t interested in food”—but I get the sense that more important for him than what is on the plate is the people around the table. “It’s important that at the end of the day, families all sit down and eat together. You should eat properly and eat together. I think that’s a big thing.”