I am in one of the many late-night shops in London's less than salubrious Holloway Road. Grim isn't in it. This is the polar opposite of the feeling you get from a day at a spa. The only remarkable things about this bit of London is the sparkling new Waitrose, Joe Orton's famous cottage and the near certainty of spotting Tony Parsons. Not, I hasten to add, in the latter. Dubious reasons for its existence, I agree. But I have always been a tart of a shopper, picking stuff up anywhere. Anyway, sometimes a guy just finds himself scouring the shelves of a grubby all-nighter.
True, most of the trade in these shops is for king-size Rizlas, top-shelf magazines and six-packs of Fosters. But there is one thing you can be sure of: the guaranteed availability of neat packs of whiter-than-white feta cheese. Round here even the newsagents seem to sell this clean-tasting Greek sheep's cheese. Like crummy corner shops, a packet of feta can get you out of a mess.
Although farm-made feta cheese can be available from specialist cheese shops (noticeably creamier, softer and more silky on the tongue, a real treat), one feta is much like another. Its USP is its clean, salty piquancy. Match that to a slice of watermelon or a tomato, and you're in business. The list of feta's friends is endless: Turkish figs, cucumber, mint, olives, lettuce, olive oil, lemon juice - I could go on. As cheeses go, this is by far the most useful to find in the back of your fridge.
Tomorrow, friends are meeting at my place before we go out to eat.
I could pop a tube of Pringles, but they will no doubt expect me to make an effort. Sure, I could deep-fry some sesame prawn toasts, but it's not really me. Much less trouble is to marinate a lump of cheese with olive oil, mixed dried herbs (yes, they do have a use) and whole leaves of fresh mint. I will put them on the table in hunks with folds of warm Lebanese flatbread. You tear off pieces of bread and scoop up pieces of cheese in between mouthfuls of cold beer. Beats a prissy cheese straw any day.
Salty cheese, olive oil and warm bread is welcome enough. The small watermelon in the fridge will be the perfect partner for this up-front cheese. One of the great salads of all time is the two ingredients tossed around with finely sliced red onions, chopped flat-leafed parsley and sticky black olives. Try it with grilled lamb chops and you'll never look a jar of mint sauce in the face again.
In the Cypriot and Greek shops in north London's Green Lanes you will find blocks of cheese sitting in plastic bowls of brine. They cut off a chunk to order. This is cheaper, but only if you can manage to escape without being tempted by the boxes of rose and lemon lokum - Turkish delight - and chewy dried figs.
Brine is also what pours from the plastic packets at the grocer's. Some packets say to quickly rinse the cheese under cold water to rid it of its saltiness - most is salted twice during manufacture - but I can't say it makes much difference. This inherent salinity is why it needs something in the way of juicy fruit to cut it. Try it with a drippingly ripe pear some time.
Feta doesn't ooze when heated like camembert or fontina. But I do cook with it. You can use it in a Greek pasty - I mash the cheese with dill and a splash of beaten egg and sometimes sultanas before sandwiching it between thin slices of puff pastry. A fragrant and blissful mouthful. But then we are getting a long way from the corner shop.
Feta and puy lentil salad
I hope you are watching Nigella's new series, Forever Summer (C4, Thursdays 8.30pm). Bold, sassy and unapologetically sexy, this is as good as food on TV gets. Believe me when I tell you there is no one else in the world who could get me to salivate over a pineapple kebab. The accompanying book (£20, Chatto and Windus) is everything you want a cookbook to be, and with more than 100 extra recipes not in the series, so much more than the usual TV tie-in. Nigella does a great recipe with goat's cheese, lentils and mint, which is where I got the idea for this one. Serves 3-4.
juice of 1 large lemon
4-5 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
300g Puy lentils
3 cloves of garlic, flattened but not peeled
2 bay leaves
bunch fresh mint, chopped
Break up the the feta and let it sit in the lemon juice and half the olive oil.
Tip the lentils in a large saucepan of water, add the garlic and bay leaves, and cook for 20-25 minutes or until tender. They mustn't be soft.
Drain the lentils, discard the bay and pour the remaining oil over them while they are still warm. Season with black pepper. Add the marinated feta and sprinkle over the fresh chopped mint.
Baked feta with warm flatbread
Middle-Eastern flatbreads, soft and warm as a baby's skin, are well known for scooping up dips of aubergine and cod's roe, but you can use them for so much more. I have been known to eat an entire stew with them, and often serve them with roast vegetables. Pitta, lavash and Italian focaccia all perform the same task. I bring them out for this warm, herbed feta recipe. Unwrap the hot cheese at the table so everyone gets to smell its lactic, deeply herbal scent. Some cold beers would be good here, too. Serves 2 as part of a mezze.
3-4 tbsps olive oil
several sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of rosemary
a few short sprigs of oregano
1 tbsp bottled green peppercorns
1 clove of garlic
1 small red chilli
warm flatbread such as Iranian lavash or Turkish pitta
Pour the olive oil into a mixing bowl. Hold the herbs over the bowl and strip off the leaves, letting them fall into the oil. Stir in the peppercorns and a coarse grinding of black pepper. Peel the garlic and crush it so it resembles a thick paste, and stir that in, too.
Cut the chilli in half, scrape out the seeds and chop the flesh finely. Stir it into the oil and herbs. Tip the mixture on to a piece of baking foil and fold into a loose parcel. Bake for 15 minutes at 200°C/gas mark 6.
Warm the breads, then serve them with the hot feta. This is best done by scooping up the fragrant cheesy mush with the soft warm bread.