Jimi Famurewa reviews The Shoap by Auld Hag: Scots deli too proud for deep-fried punchlines

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

The phrase “proud Scot” has always struck me as vaguely tautologous. Every Scottish person that I have ever known and loved has regarded their heritage with an infectious mix of fierce pride and healthy cynicism; to be a displaced London Scot, it seems, is to be both a woad-smeared revolutionary behind enemy lines, and an inveterate piss-taker afforded the clarity of distance.

I will never forget the friend whose Fife-born dad had turned the family’s downstairs toilet into his own cultural fallout shelter: a meticulous shrine to Dunfermline Athletic called “The Jock Stein Suite”.

The Shoap by Auld Hag springs from this same well of playful patriotism. Founded by Glaswegian former economist Gregg Boyd, it is a kind of hybrid cafe, food shop and bar that bills itself as “London’s first Scottish deli” and is already subject to frenzied queues, internet hysteria, and diners making long pilgrimages from as far afield as the Cotswolds. A lot of this, of course, can be attributed to the expert monetisation of homesickness.

Yet what makes Boyd’s creation brilliant — and it really is, in an invigorating, daft and wholly original way — is that its wry commitment to an unlikely culinary idea, and desire to fly the saltire for a grievously misunderstood food culture, genuinely transcends ancestry.

Square sausage (Adrian Lourie)
Square sausage (Adrian Lourie)

Right from the start, there’s a gentle subversiveness. Set south of Angel Tube station, The Shoap is a faintly industrial, whitewashed fiefdom comprising shelves and fridges heaving with Irn-Bru, Lorne square sausage, Gordon and Durward tablet and more. There’s a handful of dine-in tables, massed Tennent’s kegs, indie drifting from the speakers, and a central counter dominated by whatever baked goods haven’t been claimed by increasingly rabid morning crowds (the house-baked breakfast rolls are basically a Nessie-level myth unless you arrive before 10am). The vibe, if I had to isolate it, is of an incongruously hip airport concession.

Boyd began Auld Hag (The Shoap’s umbrella brand) as a lockdown-era riposte to the idea that Scottish food could only be grand Michelin-bait or a deep-fried gastronomic punchline. Exploration of that same gleefully calorific, everyday vernacular imbues the best of the short menu here. In the daytime this means pies: finely-wrought, sturdy toques of warm pastry filled with either a vigorously peppered wodge of mutton or pacifying macaroni cheese, fired on the top to an intense crisp. It means an East Neuk smoked salmon and mozzarella toastie — perhaps lacking some defining oomph — and righteous brown butter cookies that come over like creatine-chugging Hobnobs.

I sat there with my Tennent’s, amid lone diners putting away gravy-drowned pies and a group of lads building towards a big night

Jimi Famurewa

Returning on a later evening I found darkened lights, a raised BPM on the stereo and, as cued by diners picking at plates of smoked mussels in garlic cream sauce, a subtle ratcheting up of culinary ambition. Yes, some of the fried “tatties”, beside a stupendously good black pepper mayo, were oddly chewy. But this was pushed aside by the gonzo glory of Scottish tacos: two Archbold’s potato scones, heaped with punchy veggie haggis and roused by blobs of hot sauce from Edinburgh’s Leithal.

Was it essentially like something prepared and eaten at 3am in a post-sesh haze? Oh aye. But its irrepressible deliciousness encapsulated so much of what The Shoap is about. I sat there with my Tennent’s, amid lone diners putting away gravy-drowned pies and a group of lads building towards a big night. Boyd has, as he joked during one visit, given London Scots a “community centre”. But he has also created a new category of hospitality business that has caught the prevailing mood of unfussy cultural authenticity that can be seen in everything from Guinness fetishisation to English caff revivalism.

Maybe you descend from an unbroken line of Aberdonian shipbuilders. Maybe your only previous engagement with Scottish culture is a dog-eared copy of Trainspotting. Either way, there will be something here to make you laugh, smile and leave, laden with as much square sausage as you can carry, plotting an immediate return.

The Shoap by Auld Hag, 406 St John Street, EC1V 4ND. Meal for two plus drinks about £50. Open Wednesday to Saturday from 8am-8pm; auldhag.co.uk