Amid the shortcuts and alleys, the bright lights and dark doorways Soho still exists. At least a kind of Soho that is a familiar memory. There are still a few run down shops that they couldn’t buy from owners who refused to move. They have built around them.
Now it’s a sad walk along Berwick street, past the space where the market used to be, the road now in the shadow of architectural boredom. But it soon and often pops with a little reminder of what this place used to be like. An edge of seediness, a bit of excitement at the underground current. A slight nervousness that you don’t really belong there. It helps the atmosphere that it’s dark in the early winter evening and the rain has started to half fall here and there. There are puddles gathering and people dodge in and out of each others path, though these days so many are walking along looking at their phones.
There is still the occasional sighting of a dapper chap, well dressed and slightly flamboyant, a bright and large scarf around his neck, a smart but floppy hat, red trousers, a tailored coat. You know the old theatrical type with a dash of Bacon about him. A man with a dog on a long, solid looking lead stops in the middle of the path to roll a cigarette and people trip past, off the kerb, between the cars and around.
The old pubs are still here, and they are still full. People standing outside smoking cigarettes or vapes in hand, shouting over pints. Some of the old cafes still survive, thanks no doubt to not being subject to sweating and wide-eyed landlords, and they look welcoming, the windows slightly steaming up and the light buzzing gently within.
I walked through Chinatown to get here, peeling off just before Gerrard Street and cutting up Frith Street. There used to be a cafe I came to here on occasion, drinking espressos and smoking. Reading books and writing notes, thinking I was the young bohemian. People do all that behind laptop screens these days, disconnected and connected at the same time. The cafe’s been replaced by a brightly lit cocktail room filled with plastic leather and LED lights like a crappy version of Peppa pig’s 18th birthday disco party.
Soho is cleaner now. Sanitised to attract the suited corporate cash, cleaner so the tourists come and spend money on hot almond milkshakes flavoured with a tiny bit of coffee. Baby adults with their giant cups of mother’s milk. It’s Costa coffee cups and sourdough pizza receipts that litter the streets rather than foil wraps and ring pulls, and that’s probably for the best.
The Algerian Coffee stores is still there, plumply wafting it’s rich ground coffee smells out onto Old Compton Street. That’s been going since 1887, all the new coffee shops are spring chickens compared to this one. Even Bar Italia, neon bright and shining loudly onto Frith Street has been here only since 1946. And I don’t think the decor has changed in either since they opened. There is no doubt that the food and choice is much better than ever though. Many an evening I spent eating terrible meals in Pollo, but at least I wasn’t charged the earth for it. I had the temerity to complain once that my avocado starter was harder than the stone in the centre and was almost removed from the premises. Now you can eat terribly for four times the price. To be fair, you can also eat very well for four times the price.
But along Brewer street, just when you pop out of one of those alleys after getting a little directionally confused –distracted possibly by recalled teenage dreams of wonder about Raymond’s Revue bar and what it could possibly contain– sits Lina stores. 75 years on from when it opened it’s still selling the same pasta and salami it always has. And that, among the relentless change is beautiful. Soho may be different now, but different doesn’t mean better. Sometimes, same is better than change.
And in this Italian refuge, I found the sausages I had come for. Sausages made in Tuscany, the fat, solid ones packed with meat and flavour. Proper Italian ones that would go into the evening meal. A little discussion about the quantity ended with me insisting on buying more than was necessary. Sadly, it’s not a weekly visit so stocking up is vital. While she weighed my meat and sliced my salami (the fennel studded one that’s a favourite in our house), I loaded packets of pasta onto the counter and a long, clear plastic envelope of dried oregano, still on it’s long stems as if petrified by the heat of the sun and snapped off to be put into a display case.
That night I cooked the sausage quickly under the grill until just done, the skin blistering slightly. It was sliced and tossed with broccoli florets, olive oil, chilli flakes and lemon zest. While that sat, warm on the counter next to the hob, the orecchiette bubbled furiously. I poured the juices from the sausages into the bowl with the broccoli and grated in Parmesan and squeezed in the juice from the naked lemon. The cheese melting with the heat and mixing into the olive oil and juice. For luck, more olive oil and some salt and pepper went in. If you’re not careful, the olive oil and cheese can disappear, sucked up somehow. After draining the orrichette really well (each one seems to be able to hold a litre of water in its pocket) it went in to the bowl and everything was gently mixed before being served steaming hot in bowls with more olive oil and more Parmesan. A simple and delicious meal, and full of much more than just ingredients.