The corner shop chronicles

Go for the milk, hang around for the crisps and snacks, and get waylaid by the condiments. 

By Jess Carter

There’s a new story I’ve been telling down the pub. Don’t get excited; lockdown has seen anecdotes decline hugely in entertainment value. There’s only so much material you can harvest from 12 weeks spent staring at the same four walls.

It involves apricot jam. I needed the rather niche preserve for a pretty niche reason – I was baking a South African dessert which calls for it (malva pudding, thanks for your on-going interest). Having forgotten to pick some up while I was out during the day, I slipped into the corner shop on my way home, shaking my head and cursing myself for eschewing the task of shopping list-writing once again. 

Mine is the holy grail of corner shops. Windmill Hill Convenience Store promises everything from aubergine pickle and Jasmine rice to tubes of Millions, instant noodles and organic eggs. All of that within a three-minute walk of your front door is all anyone can ask for from life. 

Apricot jam, though? Surely I was asking too much.

But lo! This Aladdin’s cave of groceries had an entire shelf of alternative preserves. Of course it did. In fact, it had everything I needed to make this pudding from the other side of the world. 

(Yes, that is the pub story, and, actually, it went down pretty well at the weekend I’ll have you know.) 

If you believe everything you hear, the death of the corner shop has been imminent for decades. But here they still are, in 2020. In the midst of a global pandemic. If anything, they’ve been busier than ever.

UK corner shops and small indie grocers have seen sales increase by 59.5% over the last three months, with almost a quarter of us customers having used our small local shops more than usual during the pandemic.

This makes total sense; lockdown reined the parameters of our individual worlds, so we saw our lives become localised in a way they haven’t been for years. When I ask long-term residents of my neighbourhood how the area has changed over the decades (generally what I get up to at the local pub), the disappearance of shops always comes up. Our residential streets, at one point in time, didn’t just have the odd newsagent – they had tonnes of them, as well as greengrocers, butchers, bakers and all kinds. Getting in the car and driving to a different part of the city to do our shopping is a rather new habit.

For lots of us, the walk to the corner shop was the first we were allowed to do on our own as kids, with no adult supervision. (Hence why my mum and sister would get identical snowglobes from me each year for Christmas.) In lockdown, though, it was about as far as lots of us wanted to go for our shopping. And, luckily for us, when we needed them there they were, patiently waiting with all the chickpeas, pasta and flour that we could wish for. 

Local independent shops were the only places we could pick up those store cupboard essentials, when panic buying left the larger stores looking like they’d hosted a Supermarket Sweep comeback series.

The government deemed corner shops essential during lockdown, allowing them to stay open for the duration – and a recent survey found 80% of us considered them vital, too. Owners and staff, then, have been toiling away as rather unsung key workers, facing long hours of work with no PPE to speak of. 

Not only did they keep their shops going in the face of a global pandemic, but they also somehow kept up with our rocketing demands, expanding their ranges to cater for whatever we needed to complete our new tinned pulse collection or couldn't find at the supermarket. Shelves of pasta started to appear, more boxes of eggs that you could have imagined in your wildest dreams. Rice. Tinned tomatoes. The food that had, overnight, become the stuff of urban legend. 

This adaptability is no doubt key to the corner shop’s staying power. These owner-managed stores can change tack at the drop of a hat when it comes to stock, and have the customer-facing benefit of finding out what it is that we’re all after. That’s unlike the small, local incarnations of the big supermarkets whose proliferation induced the aforementioned rumours surrounding their collective impending death. (As it goes, as of 2018, those big brands still only made up around 1,500 of the UK's 50,000 convenience stores.)

Most of us, then, have come to see these local shops in a new light. While the pub is often thought of as the cornerstone of a community, I’d argue the indie corner shop is just as vital and just as worth protecting. If I remember rightly from my university soap opera-watching days (there’s not a whole lot of contact time when you study English, surprisingly), the corner shop was always one of the main locations for gossip/breakups/crimes/general life dramas – along with the greasy spoon (that’s a whole other feature– and pub. 

Think about the huge range of domestic dramas (“who finished the milk?!), everyday requirements (“If we’re watching a film we’ll need snacks”) and big-shop fails (“You should have put it on the list!”) that they cater for. They have customers who prefer a craft ale, and others who want a cold Strongbow, ta. Some come in for a Pot Noodle for lunch, while others are looking for bloody apricot jam. They somehow manage to nail it. 

I mean, what you’re looking for might not be where you think it is. It might not even be anywhere near. It could very reasonably be nestled at the other end of the store among items that are, in your eyes, entirely unrelated. But, for the most part, it’ll be inside those trustworthy walls that happen to have limited space for displaying goods in what you might consider linear groupings, okay?

That’s part of the joy. And it means you’ll go in for a packet of chocolate digestives and return home cradling armfuls of food you didn’t even know you needed. But you do need it. You really do. 

Spamen, or spam ramen

For a treat, we’ve got a corner shop-inspired recipe for you. If you’ve ever wondered whether people still buy those tins of spam, they do – and now maybe you will too. (We just this moment learnt that Hawaii can’t get enough of the stuff – seriously, look it up.)

½ red chilli
½ leek
½ garlic clove
1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
1 x 200g tin spam
½ chicken stock cube or jelly stock pot
620ml boiling water
1 packet (around 80-90g) instant ramen noodles
1.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated
½ tsp fish sauce
1 boiled egg, cooled slightly, then peeled and halved, to serve
garlic chilli oil, to serve

Seed and thinly slice the chilli, thinly slice the leek and mince or crush the garlic. Combine the chilli, garlic, 1 tbsp of the soy sauce and the sesame oil in a dish. Remove the spam from its tin (follow the instructions on the side, or, if you’re anything like us, you may end up frantically beating the tin with a rolling pin to try and coax the meat out). Cut off three 1cm-thick slices of spam (keep the rest in the fridge for later), add to the chilli mix and turn to coat all over, then leave to marinate for 15 minutes. Place a frying pan on medium heat and fry the spam slices in the marinade until crisp and browned on both sides.

Meanwhile, add the chicken stock cube and boiling water to a small-ish saucepan along with the noodles, and cook on a medium to high heat. When the noodles begin to collapse out of their block form, add the sliced leek and grated ginger. Cook until the noodles are fully done and the stock has reduced a little – a few minutes. Season with the remaining soy sauce and the fish sauce. Add to a bowl and top with the crispy spam, the halved egg, and some garlic chilli oil.

Recipe from The Cornershop Cookbook (Square Peg, £16.99); text copyright Sophie Missing and Caroline Craig, 2015; photography copyright Charlotte Bland, 2015

What’s new?

News, good reads and general goings-on

  • Jess listened to the BBC Food Programme’s episode on corner shops when writing this month’s post – if you’re keen for some further listening on the subject, it’s right here.

  • All the way from Brighton and The Big Smoke, the vegan pizza aficionados of Purezza are opening a brand spanking new site on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Expect plant-based pizzas, unique cocktails and a dedicated gluten-free menu. Slice, slice baby!

  • It’s the end of an era on Chandos Road, as Bristol’s much-loved Michelin starred joint Wilks has confirmed it’s permanently closing its doors. The darn fine restaurant was originally put up for sale in October 2019, but has now confirmed it will not be reopening. All the love to James and Christine – thank you for the belt-busting memories! 

  • If, like us, over the past four months you have missed the flurry of Bristol food and drink activity, then what a way to get back into the swing of things than Peter Sanchez-Iglesias and Jan Ostle cooking your dinner over fire. Two of Bristol’s most tip-top chefs offering a tasting menu with paired wines. And, oh yeah, it’s only taking place at the fancy Belmont Estate. The event is Sunday 26th July and tickets are available here.

We’d love to hear from you – whether it’s to tell us what you’d like us to cover, give us your thoughts on what we’re doing or let us know what you had for dinner last night (genuinely interested). So don’t be shy, hit reply. And tell your pals about us, yes?