Introduction

Introduction

By
Jorge Fernandez and Rick Wells
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781784880118

First, there was the smell of coffee. Proper coffee. Ten years ago, believe it or not, there were few, if any, places to get such a thing in London. One of these, Monmouth Coffee, in Monmouth Street, Covent Garden, stood out as a beacon of excellence, with an old 1930s Whitmee roaster on site, large hessian sacks of single-estate beans from around the world (sometimes used as alternative seating in the tiny space) and a single-minded dedication to produce flavoursome filter coffee. It was magical, and the cramped wooden seating booths encouraged conversation with strangers – an experience less prevalent today perhaps in the age of the smartphone.

It was at this rather unique coffee shop on Monmouth Street that we first met, some time in 2005. Jorge was manager there; I was working as a journalist for the BBC World Service and based at Bush House on the Strand.

Snatched conversations over time and enthusiasms in common (plus the discovery that our respective wives both had roots in the same Greek island), led to Jorge’s mention in passing one day that a certain Nick Lander, food writer and consultant, had asked him if he’d be interested in opening a place on London’s newly developed South Bank. Egged on by me, a visit and subsequent pitch for the space was made by the fledgling Fernandez & Wells partnership. The ‘business plan’ consisted of a cardboard box of what we saw as the core products: a bag of coffee, a slice of plain butter cake, a loaf of crusty sourdough bread, a salami, a hunk of English Cheddar and a bottle of wine. Needless to say we didn’t get the South Bank site, but it sowed the seeds and the idea of a few key products, of certain quality and provenance, at the heart of the Fernandez & Wells offer, which has remained our guiding principle.

Much discussion and many more cups of coffee, and we decided the time was right for both of us to head in a new direction and open up our own place. Quite what this was going to be or where took a while to hone, but that it would be a success was never in doubt. The reasoning behind this blind confidence was simple: we would create a place that was stylish but homely with an offer that reflected a taste for timeless quality produce: bread, cheese, cured meats, wine and of course excellent coffee, and a small selection of ‘home-baked’ cakes. What more could anyone want?

After six months or so of wandering the streets, exploring potential sites and deciding on a name, it became clear, that, for a first site, making an impact was vital. And with its central location, longstanding connection to the world of film and advertising, its still slightly seedy allure and surprisingly reasonable rents, Soho ticked all the boxes.

Once that was decided, attention fairly quickly homed in on the area around Lexington Street and Beak Street, both of which contained some charming but run-down eighteenth-century townhouses with shops beneath. In fact, bang on the corner of the two, one such place was temporary home to a very dubious ‘all-you-can-eat for £3’ Thai buffet. Standing on the opposite corner, we imagined this becoming our wine bar, and then the little raggedy clothes boutique up for sale a few doors away on Lexington Street would be the café/deli. Attempts to negotiate a deal with the landlord on the corner proved fruitless, however, and attention focussed on the place on Lexington Street, at number 43, almost opposite Andrew Edmunds’ eponymous restaurant and print shop.

Having secured a ten-year lease for what seemed like a reasonable rent, with the help of architect and friend William Tozer, we set about turning the ground floor and basement into a food and wine bar that had the feel of a continental market stall. This entailed stripping it back to the original Georgian wood panelling, painting it white (RAL 9010 with a touch of flat oil), finding some large planks of French oak for the bar and laying York stone paving slabs on the floor.

Keeping it simple was key to reflecting the offerings, which in the first instance were bread, large hunks of cheese, cured meats and wine. The little basement ‘kitchen’ was used to prepare chunky sandwiches that were piled high on the counter, and since we were in the middle of winter, soups and stews were also added to the menu. By hanging several large legs of jambon noir de bigorre ham from the French Pyrenees in the window before our first day of opening, local curiosity was aroused and ensured a decent showing of customers from the start.

The only downside was that there was no room to do coffee! The gods of Soho smiled on us, however, when two months later a newsagent around the corner at 73 Beak Street came up for sale. A similar Georgian building with a wonderful Soho street view, once stripped back to its original panelling and floorboards, allowed us to complete the Fernandez & Wells offer with some excellent coffee, sandwiches and cake.

Thus began the Fernandez & Wells journey. From these original two little Soho ‘shops’ have sprung another four siblings, all driven by the same desire to serve simple food of the best possible quality in spaces that are uncluttered and maintain the integrity of the buildings they occupy.

Soho

To mark the occasion of the first Fernandez & Wells opening in Lexington Street in January 2007, I bought Jorge a copy of Soho Night & Day by Frank Norman and Jeffrey Bernard. Published in 1966, with its black-and-white photos and first-person journalistic meanderings, it captured the essence of Soho of a particular era, an era that continued to have a certain nostalgic appeal.

In the 1970s, a decade later than the publication of Soho Night & Day, my own experience of Soho was informed by a school outing to the British Museum. After a brief survey of ancient Greek pottery, and perhaps stirred by the erotic poses of some of the silhouetted figures, my friends and I bunked off in search of ‘a little vice’ in Soho, as Frank Norman would have it. As with so many before and since, the experience of pushing through heavy velvet curtains to the grubby inner sanctum of a strip joint to catch a glimpse of forbidden fruit proved both disappointingly dull and expensive.

Jorge’s schoolboy reminiscences echo my own, although his earliest Soho memories stem from visits to Berwick Street market with his father.

A few years on and the changes in Soho, while marked, had not been as dramatic as elsewhere in London. Ironically, this was largely thanks to the sex industry. As long as it remained in many people’s eyes an undesirable place to live, the developers were not interested. It was only in the 1980s, with the exposure of police corruption and the closure of dozens of illicit clubs and drinking dens, that the real transformation started.

When we arrived in early 2007 Soho was already quite a different place. While a lot of retail spaces were still fairly shabby, like those we had occupied, new faces of international tech and telecom companies had already set up shop in sleek offices sporting ubiquitous international architecture, adding to the mix of advertising agencies and film production houses that have long been associated with the area. Carnaby Street might have been given an institutionalised facelift, with all the usual high-street suspects, but other corners of Soho managed to resist, nowhere more so than Andrew Edmunds opposite us on Lexington Street. The dark peeling paintwork on the handsome double-fronted Georgian townhouse stands like a bulwark against change, behind which the eponymous restaurant and print shop, the rickety staircase ascending to the writer’s watering hole, the Academy Club, and the offices of the Literary Review somehow still hark back to an era that William Hogarth would have recognised.

Many of the traditional trades – the gunsmiths, tailors, lace-makers and printers – have long since disappeared, but a few remain. One such is our near neighbour Bela Pasztor, who has been in his basement metal workshop since 1960, and whose work is still much in demand. And the Cloth House, now in Berwick Street, was an obvious place to source fabric for our first batch of aprons, knocked up by Jorge’s mum and Aunt Neli. Memories of Soho’s Italian connection linger on, just; with family-run Italian delis like Lina Stores and I Camisa & Son still attracting a loyal clientele.

As for the sex industry, there may still be significant happenings underground but visible remnants, such as the neon-lit alleyway beneath the old Raymond Revuebar sign, are few. Rising rents, changing habits and creeping gentrification have put paid to many of the old clubs and music venues, the legendary Madame Jojo’s being just the latest to go.

Perhaps it was the ethos of the small shopkeeper, the artisan trades, so central to Soho that really helped us create in our minds what Fernandez & Wells should be. In the almost ten years that have passed since our arrival, the pace of change has accelerated; cafés, bars and restaurants have proliferated, bringing in a whole new generation of ‘hipster’ foodies that pack the narrow pavements, alongside Soho’s workers and residents, almost every night of the week. It undoubtedly has a great buzz and still retains its diversity and corners of quirky charm, but it’s hard not to feel a certain nostalgia for the old Soho, as depicted in the black-and-white photos of Soho Night & Day, alongside some apprehension for what lies ahead.

Our Food

Looking back, it is hard to remember which came first – the simple, rustic fare or the shepherd’s knapsack. Whatever the case, the latter is often brought to mind when asked about the origins of the food on offer at Fernandez & Wells. Quite where this mythical mountain shepherd came from is not entirely clear; a relative of Jorge’s perhaps, living in the foothills of Los Picos mountains in north-western Spain? The point though is that what goes into the knapsack has to be robust, flavoursome and nourishing – a good crusty loaf, a sausage, a hunk of cheese, a slice of butter cake perhaps and a bottle of wine.

Such hearty fare was not always to Jorge’s taste. As a young boy he recalls visits to an aunt and uncle in the village of Aleje, in northern León, where, after a long coach journey from Madrid, they would be given a traditional meal of home-made chorizo, farm eggs fried in olive oil and rustic bread, which, along with strong-smelling water pumped from the well, seemed more like a punishment than a treat. But the seeds were sown and from such gustatory memories emerged some of the essence of Fernandez & Wells.

In later years a spell at London’s Borough Market developed the instinct for provenance and real quality, which have remained key to selecting Fernandez & Wells products and suppliers. Early friendships there with the likes of Elliott and Alison at the Ham & Cheese Company, Jon Thrupp at Mons Cheesemongers, Neal’s Yard Dairy and Monmouth Coffee, have stood the test of time.

That’s not to say that the direction Fernandez & Wells has taken was always obvious. A lot of what we do was born out of discovery – apart from coffee, which was a given. The original intention was to set up a café doing espresso really well, accompanied by equally delicious food, in a space that revealed itself. The best example was 73 Beak Street: a former newsagent with fake walls and ceiling, and lino on the floor. All that was required was to strip out the lot, and there, in all their glorious heritage, were the original Georgian wall panelling and wooden floorboards. Using the Fernandez & Wells elements of choice – wood, stone and white paint – with the addition of simple metal stools and blackboards, the transformation into café was simple architectural alchemy.

The same could be said of 43 Lexington Street, although the original offer there was more typical of a classic deli: cheese and meats for sale on the counter, and, bizarrely, a ‘tasting glass’ of wine, which was all that we were originally permitted to serve under the terms of our license. An unanticipated feature that would prove to be key were the legs of ham hanging in the window. The inspiration for this came from a cycling trip I had made to the Pyrenees, not far from one of the famous Tour de France climbs, the Col du Tourmalet. Lodging nearby in a small hotel, the chef/patron there based his entire menu around the noir de bigorre, a rare-breed black pig native to the region. The foraged diet of nuts and roots give this meat a lovely deep flavour, similar to the Spanish bellota hams. The fact it contains a lot of health-giving oleic acid is an added bonus. Over time, the wine element increased and, apart from the soups and stews at lunchtime, it was the boards of cheese and cured meats that gave it more of a wine-bar feel.

These original two shops, the wine bar at Lexington Street and the café at Beak Street, reflected the split personality of Fernandez & Wells, and it the took a number of years and further sites to bring the two concepts together into what Fernandez & Wells is today: an all-day café bar where you are welcome to come in for food and refreshment from early morning until late at night.

Along the way, whenever things have gone a bit ‘off-piste’, when ideas are suggested that veer too far from the original path, the spirit of ‘Shep’ is conjured up and things are swiftly brought back in line. Long may it be so.

Bread

At the start, when we launched Fernandez & Wells, our ideal bread was not that easy to come by. We knew what we wanted: artisan made, preferably organic sourdough with a good crust, which would provide a perfect foil for the sort of cheeses and meats we had in mind for our sandwiches. This might seem straightforward enough nowadays, especially in London, but at the time it proved quite a challenge to source.

One option was the large, round, dark-crusted sourdough loaf made by the French bakery Poilâne, which involved early morning trips to their first London outpost in Chelsea to pick up the few loaves we needed. If you were lucky, your arrival might coincide with a warm croissant or pain au chocolat being taken from the oven, or the occasional bag of ‘punitions’, delicious small butter cookies. To this day we still use this amazing bread for our toasted cheese sandwich.

As things developed, and despite using a number of different suppliers, we still felt we needed a baker to work with us to develop exactly the sort of style and variety of bread we had in mind. It is hard to remember precisely when we became aware of Syd’s presence, but it was some time in 2010 that a shaggy-haired Welshman was seen lurking in the vicinity of the Soho shops. Like a peculiar culinary stalker, he would surreptitiously pop in for a sniff or brief taste of our current sandwich offering. Once contact had been made and his story told, it was obvious that we would go with this baker’s bread. Just two of many unique features that made Syd’s bread exceptional were the fact his sourdough starter – made from a mix of rye, wholemeal and white organic flours – had been going for an uninterrupted 27 years. The other was that he had hit upon the idea of using buffalo milk whey in his ciabatta mix, simply because a neighbouring stall at the market he frequented had a surplus. This gave them an amazing dark, sweet crust, like no other we had tasted.

Our ideal has always been the most traditional of breads – hard baked so it has a good thick crust with plenty of flavour; a bread you can happily munch away at on its own or with a slab of butter.

With Syd came Dee, an Irish bundle of energy married to a Moroccan chef who seemed to immediately gauge what we were up to at Fernandez & Wells, and who started developing for us her now famous sourdough-based range of cakes. Unfortunately, her parting of the ways with Syd led to us breaking away from him too, but after much soul-searching and tasting we renewed contact with Aleem, a young entrepreneur whose idea of bread again chimed with our own and, just as importantly, who seemed happy to work with us to develop a range exclusively suited to our particular needs. His first tasting tray of viennoiserie was a revelation: the croissant dark and crisp, with a sheen of egg yolk, which harked back to a bygone era.

When we consider sourdough, several things strike us as important: for example, using natural yeasts, not commercial ones, for the starter and using a three-day ferment means the resulting bread is much easier for the body to digest. A lot of digestive problems and allergies stem from the speed with which much modern commercial bread is made today.

Dee would say she has never known any other way. Growing up in Ireland she lived beside a mill that her grandfather had worked in on the Blackwater River near Cork. They always used stone-ground flour to bake loaves on the griddle pan over the fire and there certainly wasn’t such a thing as commercial yeast available, so the sourdough effect came by default. Using the same basic principles for her cakes, or what her grandmother would have called ‘sweetbreads’, Dee now uses a starter of ground almonds, white organic flour and milk, to which you add flour and watch it grow. If it looks like it’s dying you add a little sugar to ‘feed’ it. We feel the taste and texture of these cakes is unique, and fits with our notion of the ideal cake: not too sweet or fancy, but firm and buttery; as fitting to pack for a picnic on a riverbank as with a cup of coffee in Soho.

Cured meats

The fact we hung legs of ham in the window at Lexington Street before we even opened, meant we had an association with jamon in people’s minds from the outset. But it was actually the other cured meats, in particular the saucissons and salamis, that we envisaged being tucked into our notional shepherd’s knapsack. One of the first such products we had was the so-called ‘there-and-back’, by Pierre Oteiza, a champion of the French Basque pig. A long, thin two-piece salami, attached by string, it was given this name simply because such ‘saucisse sèche’ was traditionally seen as the ideal snack for a journey, one to be eaten on the way there, the other on the way back. This was robust and honest food, fit for the fields, and in many places still being made with the artisanal skills and passion passed on from generation to generation.

But we were no experts, and sourcing the real thing was the key. Again the Borough Market connection proved invaluable, with Brindisa, excellent importer of Spanish goods, and Elliott and his wife Alison at the Ham & Cheese Company. Their tireless efforts and enthusiasm in seeking out some of the best small producers in France and Italy hugely assisted our aim of offering simple quality food that needs no fussing with, that speaks for itself. Choosing wines to complement these products has added to the pleasure.

Clearly though, there was a demand for jamon and it wasn’t long before we added a top notch Ibérico in the window alongside the jambon noir de bigorre. The choice was made for us when we were approached by the family firm of Juan Pedro Domecq, whose 36 month cured Ibérico de bellota hams, from lampiño pigs, hit the mark. But finding the right meat is one thing, finding the right people to train to look after and carve them properly is another.

They tend to fall into two categories: those who come with it in their blood and those who combine dexterity with a keen eye for detail. Carving put simply requires really good knife skills to cut perfect slivers from all sections of the leg, in order to achieve the ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ sensation that jamon is so famed for. Also, given that over 50 per cent of the leg is bone, rind and non-edible fat, it is paramount from a commercial point of view that a leg costing several hundred pounds yields maximum value.

Indeed the value of such prized jamon is not lost on our employees. On one occasion at the end of a long evening at Lexington Street, a young lad who had sauntered in with his friend took it upon himself to grab a whole leg of jamon from the window and make off with it. Whether out of loyalty or foolhardiness, a member of staff gave chase up Beak Street and caught up with him, retrieving the jamon intact and receiving a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd of drinkers on the pavement outside the Sun & 13 Cantons.

After some judicious enquiries the following day it turned out that the lad was, perhaps appropriately, employed as a ‘runner’ for a nearby media production house and he’d done it for a bet.

Unlike myself, Jorge was brought up in a culture of cured meats, with members of his family curing their own chorizo and suchlike. A particular memory is the smell of his aunt’s home-cured cecina in the old stone house in León. While all of our cured meat products are from pig, the cecina de León is the notable exception. This traditional cut of air-dried hind leg of beef, when sliced thinly, has great depth of flavour and is hugely popular on its own or with a plate of fried eggs.

In the Britain of my childhood it seemed that cold cuts of cooked meat were the norm, and cured sausage something of a curiosity, to be found in specialist delicatessens. Attitudes have changed hugely though with travel abroad on the continent and the increased availability of such foods. Also, more and more farms and smallholdings in Britain are experimenting with curing meats, making their own version of salamis and prosciutto. Jorge even had a go himself, having been given a leg of rare-breed pig by Peter Gott from Sillfield Farm, in the early days of Borough Market. Although ‘home grown’ is a very different product from the continental equivalent, it will be interesting to see how this trend develops in the years to come.

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again