Where Kwik Save’s go to die – Foraging for food in Birkenhead

On a drive around Tranmere or the North End of Birkenhead do not be surprised if you come across an old Kwik Save store still open for business, forgotten to close down and doors standing open to half empty shelves stacked with rusty tins of No Frills Baked Beans selling at 7p a tin, no longer stacking it high but still selling it cheap, red and white labelled plastic bags flapping by the dust covered tills and old cardboard boxes waiting to take your shopping home. The Kwik Saves have gone of course, boarded up and closed for business, another decline in a part of the country where blasts of economic cold air follow quickly after each other.

Sat at a desk five days a week in the centre of Liverpool across the water there is little or no opportunity to shop for good food. So Saturday mornings at home in Birkenhead take on a special importance, the few hours in the week when I have a chance to root through boxes of vegetables and fruit, speak to butchers and fishmongers and furtle over shelves of harissa, chickpeas and rice.

Around Birkenhead the end of terraces still carry the faded lettering of old painted adverts, sometimes half blocked by a new building, Morgan’s Spiced Gin, CHEMIST, Fothergills Haberdashery  in faded white paint on a slate roof, raised tiled lettering in red :BAKERY 1900: on Balls Road next to the brash sign for Strippers You Name It! We’ll Strip It!!

These kinks in the landscape catch at the corner of the eye as I travel a worn path along the northside of the Wirral, where Birkenhead sits opposite its bigger and more imposing sister Liverpool, a regular weekend mission to fill my bags with the ingredients for the soup for Saturday lunch, evening supper and a late lunch on Sunday.

The journey starts down Oxton Road past the motorcycle shop bearing two terracotta panels announcing that this was the site of the  ‘BIRKENHEAD BREWERY COMPANY LTD … 1896’. Almost directly opposite is K & N Fresh Vegetable & Fruit. A 1970’s small business unit set back from the main road forming part of the Quarry Bank Workshops.

Nader and Kazim are originally from Iran but have lived in and around Liverpool and Birkenhead for the last 30 years. Kaz started the grocery off as a whole-sale business selling fruit and vegetables to restaurants around the Wirral. Five years ago Nader joined the business and they decided to open up to the public punching out a space in the front of their small warehouse to spill onto Oxton Road, erecting a canopy and pilling their boxes of wares out over the pavement.

They are up every morning to be at the wholesale market off Edge Lane in Liverpool although some of the more esoteric stock is delivered from Manchester and Bradford.

The shop is stripped back to basics, a red concrete floor, two rows of shelving down each side, two small fridges and a central area filed with boxes of apples, banana, pears.

Pick up a basket from the untidy stack in the corner and fill it with dirty beetroot, potatoes and carrots, tomatoes that look like they have seen some sun, £2.99 for a cardboard tray – cooked down for a couple of hours on a bed of sweet onion and garlic they will make a sauce that will last the week. Or a soup – fry off some red peppers and aubergine with onions until they start to sugar, add the chopped tomatoes and cook until they have given their juices, flavour with cumin and sieve well, squeezing out each last drop of goodness from the pulp with the back of a wooden spoon.

Four different shapes of aubergine – great black bulbs as thick as a fist, smaller ones as long as a finger, thin purple and white stripped – grill them on the barbeque until their skin is burnt crisp and allow to cool for a few minutes before splitting in half and scooping out the pale giving flesh and mixing with Greek yogurt and mashed garlic or turned into a roast ratatouille mixed with red peppers, tomatoes and onions also roasted and skinned, crushed cumin seeds, garlic and olive oil.

Bags of English apples and proper green spinach grown down the road in Hoylake done up with string, in bunches of hard green metallic flavour.

Behind the counter there is a broken radio tied to the wall playing Classic FM. As the bags are packed to the sound of light classics Nader is careful to put the hard stuff at the bottom so the more delicate tomatoes and soft fruit are not squashed. Next to the till a petition for the council to plant some trees down Oxton Road, to do something to bring some more cheer. The council have blown hot and cold about it although more recently someone new has come down to talk to Kaz and sounded more positive.

As Kerem says it wouldn’t take much to plant a few trees and their blossom in Spring would help to transform the road. 2000 people signed the petition. If the look of the road could be improved it would attract more people and then maybe some shops would open and the roller shutters could be pushed up. A grocer needs a butcher, fish-monger and baker to be next to it and then people would come rather than relying on Tesco or Sainsbury’s.

Listening to Kaz talk a new Saturday girl through what she has to do. It is all in the look, the piles of fresh veg and fruit on the shelves, nothing brown and faded, as soon as that happens it needs to be taken off and as far as possible the shelves should be kept full, no empty spaces. The old stuff is not thrown away but bagged up and put on the 50p shelf where bargains can be had if you are careful.

Early on a Saturday morning loaves of brown bread baked by a German baker from Speke, ducks eggs, sold by the half dozen, fresh asparagus tips, downy figs wrapped in tissue paper, cherries and in season mangoes from Pakistan. These mangoes are not the hard green monsters sold by the supermarkets, they are smaller and yellow, the skin slightly wrinkled and sold wrapped in tissue paper in boxes of 4. They smell of honey. Later, skinned and sliced off the stone their orange flesh will be slippy and sweet tasting, perfect after a heavy, spiced meal.

They have a good mix of customers and more people are coming out of their way to shop there, old Chinese ladies gently prodding with an experienced thumb each item of fruit before it is put into the basket and clucking over the quality, Saturday men out for their shop of the week clutching their recyclable bags, people walking past pulled in by the punnets of strawberries, currents and raspberries from the racks outside and the cheap good food, the availability of it all on their doorstep.

Drop the first bag of shopping in the car parked in the deserted car park at the back of the casino, one of the few new buildings on Oxton Road where the only colour to be found is in the different shades of grey in the roller shutters and the shop front to Norman E Marriott  “Brushes &mops, buckets & bowls”. Bright green, caged windows hung with the same three hard brushes that have been there for the 10 years I have been driving past, a hardware store selling toilet tissue by the roll, clutter and dust, and one window looking into tables of dried flowers, old board games amongst the bric and brac for sale. Norman Marriott still sits behind his hand-cranked till, occasionally standing to shuffle his stock around before sitting back down and waiting for his next customer.

The only signs of life a drunk on the steps in the corner and the open door to a garage workshop – every week the same three men in their black overalls and steel boots pulling apart the battered wrecks of cars left outside.

Carry on down Oxton Road to Charing Cross and the Grange Shopping Centre.  Grange Electrical on the right, a blizzard of dated white goods, piles of proper light bulbs in the window. Next door and round the corner boarded up pubs the Richmond and the Observatory closed to the road and emptied of life and the Saturday night roll. The Warwick Castle is still open and has the name of the original brewery Yates Castle Brewery Limited in green and white tiles across the front. Once they would have been on each corner and the proper shops lined up in-between but they have been shunned for the questionable delights of the concrete grey of the shopping centre only a few hundred yards away.

Sadly Siam the small Thai shop has closed. The lady who ran it may never have got over mistaking my 16 year old daughter for my wife. They always had a fridge cabinet of Thai veg, red shallots, lemon grass, beans three foot long, galangal, pea sized aubergines and packets of strange greens that I always ended up buying without being sure what it was. It always tasted good chopped and thrown into a stir fry.

Past Skeleton Records and the shriek of the dance studio on the first floor above the nail salon and over Charing Cross, where the pubs open at 10.00 in the morning with windows that open out to the road so you can lean out with your pint and elbows watching the world whorl by in a cask of carling and black lager, a full McDonald’s on the corner and into the murk of the Grange Precinct, an old man in a flowery shirt sat on a plastic chair, taking tips for plucking along to a tennis racket to a tinny cassette, on the walk down to Birkenhead Market. They have built a new Asda in the precinct and it now rises over the dreary concrete, silver, shiny and new as if to rescue the people from the poundshops, the lack of choice and imagination.

The original market opened in 1835 and was to serve the town’s population of 2569. By 1841 the population had grown to 8223, and so they opened the ‘Old Market’, then Europe’s second largest market (St John’s in Liverpool being the biggest). It was supposedly fireproof, but that didn’t stop the fire when it eventually came on 9th November 1974 razing the market to the ground.

Another new market has been built now but there was a painting in the old Liverpool Museum of Life of the market as it was before the fire, lit up with gas lamps and rows of stalls. The picture was filled with browns and yellows and there was the presence of the weather, a smog, pressing down outside. Despite this oppression and fug there was a sense that you get from a European food markets filled with the obscene delight, stalls filling over, shoppers and stallholders coming together over the abundance.

Marks & Spencer had one of their first stalls there. Hard to think now that there was a first stall but you never know there may be something going on amid the kiosks selling cheap shoes, foam, pet food, bright clothes for a Saturday night and always the biggest queue at the stall doing school uniforms.

The New Market still has that Victorian flavour with the obscure everyday tucked behind the precinct down side alleys and round the back of the bus station.

There is still a small corner given over to food and that is where I am heading,

Fishmonger’s Aisle  just down from Billy’s Corner.

Beryl’s Plaice

Beryl has had 32 years of experience in the fish trade. Fresh Scottish Fish delivered every day. Fish can be skinned and boned to suit any requirements. Suppliers to Nursing Homes and restaurants.

Ward’s Fish is in the middle of a row of 4 fish stalls. They have been up since early in the morning to the wholesale fish market on Edge Lane, a great Victorian barn, hanging on in the 21st century. They still get their fish from Craig Balfour, David Ibison’s old company who played rugby with my dad and would drink nothing but champagne offering a glass at 6.00 in the morning as the market wound down from its days business who whispered in my ear and told me the secrets for keeping the unsold fish looking fresh for when it went on sale again the following day in its bed of cold ice and once sent me as a solicitor to the small claims court in Rhyl to pursue a debt from a fishermen who insisted to the judge that the debt had been paid through the handing over of a box of whelks. We won the case and there was a glass of champagne to celebrate although we never recovered the money.

Ward’s Fish are now Nigel and Simon, Peter and Jackson – names on the front of their white aprons. You can sense an anxiety from some of the customers to be served by either Nigel or Simon, they are the true sons of Wards and their customers crowd round for their throwback and chat

How did they find out my name?  The first few times it was easy I handed in a card to pay and Mr Bullivant it was. But after a few weeks it slipped into Ralph – but I hadn’t given that away and now complain about my tatty, grey beard, and they quiz me on the fish that I had last week at a friend’s house, bought from Wards.

The business has been in the family generations and was started by Simon and Nigel’s great-grandmother. It has followed the mothers through the years until its present incarnation. They have always had a stall in the market, first in the original market and when that burnt in the new market. There used to be a shop on Borough Road around the corner from the library but business was too tight and that closed and is now a newsagent.

There is a good mix of trade people passing through the day and on Fridays and Saturdays the weekend trade such as me, coming especially into the town and the market to get their fresh fish.

They work at it 7 days a week with Sundays being given over to doing the books. They salt cod and dress their own crab within the tight confines of the stall. Some of this work goes on in the early part of the week before trade picks up for the weekend.  Each day and week is a struggle to achieve the careful balance of making sure that the fresh fish is sold through, gently pushing customers towards the fish that needs to be sold.

They have expanded what they sell to include sauces for the fish, Black Bacon, cuts of meat from Edge’s the Butchers, sapphire and sea spinach in season- the green taste of iodine.

If I am making fish soup it always does to get there early for a bag of bones and a good fish head, hake with its awful leopard teeth or halibut that Victorian giant of the Icelandic deep.

Most of the fish is sold from a large cabinet in the centre of the stall. Clams, mussels, crab, prawns and scallops to the front. Behind them squid, they could be deep fried and given some crunch by adding semolina to the flour mixed with paprika.

Monkfish, red mullet – the most beautiful of fish, so cook it for someone you love. It does not have the slick metallic sheen of mackerel, but there is dirty gold in the pink skin and part of the trick in cooking it is to try and preserve some of that skin for its colour on the plate. Flat fish, Dover and Lemon Sole and plaice pearly white bottom and grey green top mottled with orange – always a favourite for the kids, sliced into fingers, floured and fried.

Hake, either in thick steaks or filleted, line caught cod and haddock. Now that the restaurants in London are buying less of the smarter fish they often have some brill or turbot – a treat for Saturday night.

On the right of the fridge cabinet for the fish there is usually a great silver tray of salt cod. They were making their own years ago but could never quite sell enough to make it worthwhile. Then Peter Kinsella opened Lunya in Liverpool One cooking up some of the best Catalan food in the country and he needed good salt cod for his Saltcodbuñuelos a tapas bar favourite, salt cod, parsley, garlic and mashed potato, deep fried and served with allioli. They also use it in their own version of a Spanish spring roll – filo pastry stuffed with a mixture of salt cod and potato, deep fried and brought to the table.

Once I have a bag of fish from Wards I start on the walk back up Oxton Road to the International Store.

Here there is flat bread and proper pitta on the wire racks on the right as you walk in, on the left shelves of vegetables some of them you have to ask to find out what they are, my favourite thin green peppers, clean, crisp  and hot, no plate of mezze works without them or chopped and tossed in a salad and then into the depths of the shop, four or five rows of shelving neatly ordered, glass jars of chick peas fat and bulbous Garrdo Garbanzos from Spain, and butter beans, pickled lemons and limes, bags of rice and noodles, shelves of herbs and spices, dried limes and barberry from Iran, couscous and nuts, a butchers at the back, chickens with the head and feet still on, trays of chillies and ginger, swathes of coriander and parsley, tins of sour cheese from Turkey. Small golden tins of harrisa Le Phare du Cap Bon Harissa de piment rouge fort Sauce piquante de Tunisia to be smeared on a chicken for roasting the following day and eaten with fried potatoes and tomato sauce. Ghormeh Sabzi, a mixture of dried parsley, chives, fenugreek and coriander leaves used in the making of a rich Iranian beef stew.

Strange drinks from Thailand Ta Ra Basil Seed Drink with Honey, looking like frog spawn in an Orangina bottle, Jogo de Tamarindo, tamarind juice. Normally you only come across tamarind as a background note in Thai cooking. In the drink it comes to the fore, its sour musty taste diluted by sugar.

On a Saturday morning there is invariably a van parked on the double yellow lines outside, boxes being unloaded into a crush at the front, on the counter to pay more boxes of honeyed mango, cosseted in tissue paper, each yellow one wrapped in a pink ribbon. Behind the counter more shelves, strange packets of dye, chipped pestles and morter, packets of cups and glasses marked in faded brown Arabic. Pea green packets of Psyllium Husk Sat-Isabgol from The Siddhpur Sat-Isabgol Factory on Bindu Sarover Road Our’s 65th Year excessive consumption may produce laxative effects.

Then back to the car for the short drive to New Ferry and Edge’s the butchers. Down Whetstone Lane and up the hill over Tranmere past St Catherine’s Hospital. The height takes you up over the water, the metal towers of the docks and the Mersey and the view, across to the two cathedrals on their hill looking out over the city and its neighbour. There is something medieval in the way they dominate over the landscape, such brooding presence you almost wish that god had sufficient 21st century presence of mind to be able to make us feel sufficiently humble.

Park in the Community Hall car park and walk down to the Old Chester Road past the closed Strut Yr Stuff clothes shop, pawnbrokers with their gold signs and more pubs that open at 10.00 in the morning and start on a steady trade, computer shops selling second hand black boxes wires loose and reaching out, keeping your head down. Karaoke with David Stevens as Justin Bubier.

One of the pubs is called The John Masefield after the poet laureate who wrote Sea Fever – ‘I must go down to the sea again’.  He spent time in New Ferry before he set off on his travels on the sea. God knows what he would make of New Ferry now. The pub sign has given him an unfortunate moustache so it is nicknamed the Adolf.

Edge & Sons, the butchers, sticking out like an old and sore thumb, they have been there for 6 generations and were established in 1844 so John Masefield must have walked under their striped awning on The Old Chester Road as he made his way off to sea. The Co-Operative Store that stands on the opposite side of the road used to be a Kwik Save and the old Kwik Save footprint survives notwithstanding the healthy glow of the Co-Op green logo.

Edges feels out of place, customers are still called Sir or Madam; they would be more at home on the high street of an old Cheshire village or on the other side of the Wirral, in West Kirby or Heswall which puts their backs to Liverpool and Birkenhead and try to pretend they are not there. But Edges’ stick it out and like Wards, there is a steady stream of customers beating a path to their door culminating in the eager rush of Saturday men clutching their bags and eyeing up the Sunday roast.

Any relationship with a good butcher should start with their bacon and sausages. Edge & Sons make their own, home cured back and middle, sweet cured streaky, and thirteen (the last time I counted) varieties of sausage.  They source their meat from three breeds of pig British Saddleback, Gloucester Old Spot and Middle White. Reassuringly they operate their own abattoir so if you were to ask they could almost give a name to the animal you are buying your meat from.

So whatever I am there for I will always pick up some bacon, sweet cured for breakfast on Sunday morning dabbed with brown sauce. There is always a good supply of trotters and the occasional pigs ear which are worth throwing in at 50p a time to add some heft and depth to a stew or if I feel like challenging the guests on Sunday to have a go at a pigs ear terrine out of one of the St Johns cookbook. All the rest that they have is what you could hope for in a very good butchers. Well hung and looked after meat you can feel confident in. We still treat meat as a luxury and I am there more often through the summer when I can cook outside on a barbeque, open air and charcoal always adds a better flavour to good meat, get it right and you are better able to achieve that holy grail of crust and juice, slabs of pork or lamb cooked on an open fire with good flavour and friends. Once a year the horseradish plant in the corner of the garden gives up its roots and in the deepening gloom of a late Sunday afternoon we will have roast beef.

Once I am out of Edge’s it is a quick rush back to the car and the drive back home listening to something loud and unpleasant on the stereo in the hope there is enough time to be squeezed out before lunch to make the pan-full of soup I promised so we can eat before getting in the car again to take kids to their activities.

It would have been easier to have done all that in the convenience of one the supermarkets, time would have been saved and perhaps less money spent although that is a toss up against the more expensive meat and fish against the cheaper fruit and veg. but there would not have been so much fun, there would have been less chat and no opportunity to furtle along a shelf and pick up something unexpected – like the fiery red dragon fruit I am eating now, split in half and scooping out the pale grey flesh speckled with small poppy like seeds, subtly sweet before I go to bed.

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