Friday, 22 July 2011
We are being invaded by the French! Well, it’s not really an invasion, it’s more of an infiltration……and it’s not actually the French, but it is something very, very French.
In recent years we have become much more of an outdoor society. Perhaps it’s global warming or possibly we’re just becoming more “European” in our approach to life, but whatever the reason we are enjoying outdoor socialising more than ever. This has led to the proliferation of outdoor eateries and pavement cafes. It has also resulted in a serious improvement in the standard of mobile food vendors. Of course, the humble burger van is still out there and is, I am sure, still doing very well, but it is also now possible to get a decent cup of coffee and a snack or light meal from a café on wheels.
Many of these are served from imported vehicles, such as Piaggio three wheelers (just enough room for a coffee machine, but little else) and Airstream trailers (I do love an Airstream!) but the subject of this rambling is the vehicle that seems to have become the current weapon of choice in the street food wars. It is, of course, the Citroen H Van.
Perhaps not the prettiest of vehicles, with its boxy shape, snub nose and corrugated panels, but it certainly does exude a certain Gallic charm. You can easily imagine it sitting in a shady corner of the car park, sipping a pastis and smoking a Gauloise. In production from 1947 to 1981, it is a slow but eminently practical van with its low floor and high roof (most people would be able to stand upright in an H Van), its square lines have enabled it to be converted to suit just about any purpose, without resorting to an expensive, bespoke, coachbuilt body........and it is perfectly suited to the mobile food trade.
For many years they have been catering for the needs of French travellers, parked at the side of the road, surrounded by plastic chairs and tables sheltering under Pernod and Ricard umbrellas. Overseen by portly chaps in stained aprons, there never seemed to be a shortage of punters prepared to lay down their francs and euros for a generous plate of steak frites before continuing their journey.
Now, they are here and, to my mind at least, are a very welcome addition to London’s al fresco scene. Serving everything from booze to crepes, they are cropping up at popular locations all over the Capital and beyond and long may that continue.
Of course, not all H Vans are used for catering, the black, short wheelbase model below, is a (rarely driven) mobile advert, pointing prospective buyers towards the slightly off the beaten track Temperley store in Notting Hill.
More information on the vans can be found here and here.