In February half-term Raffaele and I travelled to London for a few days. We were staying in Convent Garden and I didn't want to do a huge amount of travelling about, so planned a lot of exploring that we could do on foot. Although I had done some pre-planning and booking (Some West End shows were on our must-do list!), I made sure not to overpack our timetable so that we didn't need to rush about too much. These turned out to be great decisions as we were able to take our time to enjoy the neighbourhood, and discovered some fabulous places in doing so.
The Cambridge Theatre sits right on the Seven Dials. Originally the grounds of a hospital, the Seven Dials was set out by Thomas Neale in 1693, following a unique star shaped plan that would maximise the rental income that could be generated by new housing built there, with a grand sundial pillar at their meeting point. Covent garden was a recent success and the hope was that Seven Dials would be equally fashionable.
As society tastes changed though, the layout came to be seen as confused and cramped more than novel. Over time dwellings were split into smaller spaces, often used commercially and industrially, with printing presses and gin houses becoming a feature. Meanwhile the area was also sliding into infamy, with 39 night watchman required at one point, as keepers of peace. The sundial was pulled down in 1773, allegedly by a mob in search of buried gold beneath it, but in fact by the Paving Commissioners, and was not re-erected until 1989.
In London, 1842 Charles Knight described the streets not as gloomy however, but enlivened by song birds hanging in cages on the walls, and abundant plants on shop front ledges and doorways. He commented 'this part of the parish has ever "worn its dirt with a difference". There is an air of shabby gentility about it'
Surviving the Second World War largely unscathed, it was declared a Conservation Area in 1974 since when it has gradually been restored.
A little along Earlham Street sits Thomas Neale's warehouse. Historically home to a Victorian banana and cucumber storage facility, the building was relaunched in 2019 as a food market. Here we were delighted to discover a cheese conveyer belt as part of The Cheese Bar London.
Opposite, you can find the entrance to the beautifully decorated Neal's Yard, which really started to come alive in the 1970's, thanks to Nicholas Saunders who opened his Whole Food Warehouse there and had the vision of a creating a village community within the yard. Over time came a cheesemaker, bakery, coffee roastery and modern apothecary. More than 45 years on, the area has remained true to its spirit of independent, ethical business.
We were thrilled to discover one of these, Casanova and Daughters, occupying a corner of the yard.
After an international career in the circus as a tightrope walker, owner Cedric Casanova returned to his Sicilian roots, where he is now collaborating with small local producers to select and grow the finest Sicilian products. With olives as a speciality, Casanova is particularly interested in studying in an experimental and systematic way the behaviour of each olive variety within the mixed groves, to understand the organoleptic behaviour and its variations.
Casanova’s unique range of olive oils is appreciated by some of the best chefs in Paris and London. Each type of oil is the culmination of a careful and bespoke process of olive cultivation and selection.
Inside the building you will discover a selection of deli produce mainly from Sicily, small tables downstairs and a larger one upstairs upon which you can enjoy a selection from their beautifully simple early evening menu. We were met with, characteristic of an Italian home, warm and accommodating hospitality. Raffaele chose to sit upstairs, a little to my initial disappointment as I was looking forward to browsing the shelves while we awaited dinner! However, it turned out to be a great choice for gaining a peep of the view out over Neal's Yard whilst we dined. The Pasta of the Day was Casarecce with tomato and sliced caper berries which Raffaele didn't fancy so they were very kind in making him a Pasta Bianco instead.
The rest of our food was also delightful, nocellara olives and vegetarian bruschetta with an Aperol Spritz and Sicilian Limonata. A very relaxing setting and just perfect for a pre-theatre nourish.
Since our return we have been in touch to learn more about their product range and are excited to now have shampoo bars created from their olive oil and blends of fruits, flowers and leaves grown in Sicily. We have chosen the Orange and Honey and the Fresh Fig Leaf varieties.
We are very much looking forward to our next trip to the capital, when hopefully I might get an even better look at that lovely downstairs deli!
Additional images from Casanova and Daughters, with many thanks.