Sunday, May 20, 2007

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe: Miles of Isles in Middletown

Missing milk chocolate McVittie’s or mushy peas? Pining for pickled onions or Prawn Cocktail crisps?

Whether you’re one of the thousands of nostalgic U.K. expatriates living in San Diego County or simply an anglophile who can’t live without Devon custard, Christmas pudding or pork pies, Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe can ease your existential pain.

While the shop is located in that marvelous strip of India St., off Washington and the I-5 which is also home to El Indio, Shakespeare’s Pub, Gelato Vero and Saffron, once inside you could just as easily think you’re in a little neighborhood corner shop in Putney or Hammersmith or some other London suburb. Owner Selina Pearce tends to know customers by name and desire. Other than the fact that prices are in dollars not pounds, and afternoon tea is on a deck built around two broad eucalyptus trees, shopping at Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe is strictly a United Kingdom experience.

The shop has been owned for about a year by Pearce, who managed it since its inception in 2001 for Shakespeare’s Pub. Pearce, who is from Surrey, came to the States in 1992 after traveling around Europe. She waitressed at the pub for years before getting the idea for a little shop, which the pub owners lit on. Despite her lack of retail experience, they put her in charge. “I walked in blind,” she recalls with a laugh. “I drew and redrew plans for the health department. I didn’t even know what to order so I just ordered what I liked. Now I order what I like but also base a lot of my orders on customer requests.”

The shop became a success but as Pearce began to get a little restless and interested in starting a family with her new husband, whom she met at the pub, the pub owners surprised her by offering to sell her the shop. She took them up on the offer and hasn’t looked back. Not even with the birth of her strapping blond son Alfie nine months ago.

I first learned about Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe from the young Irish woman giving me a facial last winter. She and her boyfriend frequently shop there for crisps—potato chips—as well as biscuits, tea, ale and familiar brands of soaps and lotions. On my first visit, I ducked in briefly following a day at Art Walk last month with my friend Debra, who bought a variety of Cadbury chocolates and a jar of Fred’s Favorites Korma, a curry sauce made with tomato, onion, yogurt and coconut milk. She had the grand idea of stopping at a local market, picking up U.S. Cadbury bars and some chicken and doing a taste test at my house.

I have to say that the Korma sauce was quite good with chicken, mushrooms, broccoli and green onions. It’s very mild and I wanted more of a kick so I also added some hot sauce, which perked it right up.

After our curry, we pulled out the chocolates. Cadbury licensed Hershey’s to make chocolates in the U.S. under their brand—but the staff at Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe is quick to tell American customers that it tastes completely different from the British version. Did it? We just had to find out. Debra bought Dairy Milk with Caramel and Bournville (original plain chocolate) bars at the shop. At Albertson’s we picked up Cadbury Carmello and Royal Dark bars.

The caramel in the Dairy Milk with Caramel had a burnt sugar flavor and was nice and thick, while the Cadbury Carmello’s caramel was runnier and the chocolate had a chalky aftertaste. Debra’s verdict was that the British bar had both superior texture and flavor.

The Bournville bar had a smooth, more subtle chocolate flavor. Debra found it had honey overtones. The Royal Dark? To me, it tasted like chocolate chips. Debra thought it was stale and waxy.

So, if you want a Cadbury bar that tastes like what you bought in a vending machine at an underground station in London, get the British version.

Of course, Cadbury is far from the only candy Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe carries. There’s a rose-flavored, jelly-like Turkish delight covered in milk chocolate that, as the wrapped claims, is “full of eastern promise.” There’s Scottish Tablet, a small chalky looking bar that crumbles in the mouth and fills it with sugar. There’s Thornton’s Special Toffee, chunks of delectable brown-sugar creaminess that is just a little chewy—nothing to pull out the fillings. Pearce is especially proud of carrying this candy because Thorntons only sells it in their own shops in Britain. She gets it in twice a year—at Christmas and Easter—so get it while you can.

She’s also keen on Flakes, a crumbly chocolate stick that comes in plain milk chocolate, dipped dark and praline flavors. In Britian, you can ask for a “Flake 99” at an ice cream shop to get a couple of scoops of ice cream with a Flake stuck into it.

A customer favorite is the Cadbury Crunchie—milk chocolate with a honeycomb center. It’s stunning. It makes a wonderful crunchy sound when you take a bite and you get a punch of chocolate and honeycomb that come together as you chew. Of course, if you’re Australian you might prefer the Violet Crumble, a similar bar made by Nestle in Australia. The honeycomb theme continues with Maltesers, the British version of malted milk balls.

Finally, there’s the Fry’s Chocolate Cream, a dark chocolate bar with a “fondant” in the center. I expected a mint flavor from this white cream, but it’s just sweet. It’s very nice but I wished for more from one of Britain’s first chocolate companies.

But we get ahead of ourselves with dessert first. Among the most popular items sold at Shakespeare’s Corner Shop is, of all things, Heinz Beans with tomato sauce.

In fact, it’s their number one seller, followed closely behind by Batchelors Mushy peas. Following my experience with Debra, I decided to get a group of friends together to taste these and other products I bought there on Friday. So, I took a picnic basket filled with items to my buddies at my local dog park. I had heated up the beans and the peas and, well, I think these are the kinds of things you have to grow up with. One friend said that the beans taste just like Heinz’s American cans of vegetarian baked beans. They’re sweet and dominated by a tomato flavor.

The peas, a stunning chartreuse, tasted like bland split pea soup, according to one taster. One of us adored them. The rest of us lived happily with our spoonful before moving on.

And, what did we move on to? I brought a jar of Hayward's pickled onions, a British favorite served as a snack with cheese and crackers.

They were also a favorite among the tasters, especially since someone else did bring cheese and bread. We also shared a bunch of bags of different crisps. The pickled onion flavor tasted just like the real pickled onions we had at the table, almost like salt and vinegar chips. Excellent. The Wuster Sauce crisps had a very subtle sweet flavor—they were okay.

The Walkers Prawn Cocktail crisps in the bright pink package tasted less like prawns than tomato (the cocktail sauce?). Eh. Quavers, a cheese-flavored puff potato curlicue was nice and crunchy, and could be addictive. The most unique of the snacks bag offerings were baked Twiglets. As one friend said, these were a snack Euell Gibbons would love. Slim, knobby brown wheat sticks, they taste like what you’d think a twig tastes like. They’re crunchy but not salty and have a real unprocessed wheat flavor.

The tasting session ended with Eccles Cakes, little biscuit-looking pastries that have a raisin filling. They’re okay at room temperature but delicious heated up with some Dover Cream. And, I brought a can of Spotted Dick and two versions of Christmas pudding (very dense fruit cake)—regular, made with cider and sherry, and Luxury, made with brandy and rum.

Despite the guffaws and inevitable protests from the guys, Spotted Dick, a sponge pudding with raisins and currants (the “spots”), was a hit. The Christmas puddings were a mixed bag. I found the regular to be truly vile in texture and taste. The Luxury not only had a better flavor but also a better texture and I enjoyed it so much more as did the others in my group.

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe also has a wide variety of jarred curries, biscuits—McVittie’s Ginger Nuts are a customer favorite—treacle (a molasses syrup), Marmite, Bovril, lovely teas from Ireland, England and even South Africa, and very popular cordials—syrups added to water.

The black currant is very popular, according to Pearce. Altogether, it’s a treasure trove of British goods—and you can also purchase baked treats like pasties and sausage rolls, as well as British cheeses, Somerville Butter, scotch eggs, kippers, haddock and pork bangers.

The shop is also a destination for afternoon tea. This is where Pearce’s staff shines. The pastries—from moist, flaky scones served with double Devon cream and jam, to mild flavored marzipan cake, heavenly double layer Bonneville chocolate fudge and a sweetly tart vanilla lemon sponge—are all made in the shop. You’ll enjoy the typical array of finger sandwiches—cucumber, salmon salad, egg salad, mature English cheddar and ham—as well as a lovely little sausage roll, a flaky pastry surrounding a sweet pork sausage made by a local British butcher. This is served with the famous Branston pickle, a sweet relish of carrots, onions, gherkins, cucumbers, cauliflower and rutabaga dressed in a tomato paste flavored with dates, barley, apples and vinegar. All this on elegant floral bone china (which Pearce sells in the store). And, of course, there's the tea. I tried four types: Cedar Life Rooibos, an delectable amber-colored, naturally decaffeinated redbush tea; Christmas Spiced, a black tea with subtle undertones of orange, lemon peel and cinnamon; Yorkshire Gold, a strong yet smooth black tea; and Gunpowder, a smoky green China tea. All were lovely in their unique way.

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe serves afternoon tea from noon to 4 Thursday through Sunday. The adult tea is $17.95 per person, but they also have a Child’s Afternoon Tea, almost the same as the adult but $9.95. And, if you just want to savor a pot of tea with a home-baked scone and their amazing double Devon cream, you can indulge for $7.95.

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe is located at 3719 India St.

Have some thoughts about Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below: