A perfect place for food lovers
On the corner of Mill Road and Tenison Road sits Culinaris. This intimate little deli is the first UK venture for a small Hungarian business, whose only other outlets are in Budapest. Since opening in December 2015 it has become an important local fixture under the guiding hand of manager, Sam Ryan. Sam is a passionate food lover dedicated to finding exquisite and sometime quite niche products from around the world. I met with Sam to find out more about the Culinaris ethos.
The unassuming entrance to this corner shop opens onto a treasure trove of delights. “We now offer around 2,500 products” says Sam. There are numerous (though carefully chosen) Mediterranean and French staples, as well as more obscure products from further afield.
“We like to experiment” says Sam “and we love to try out new flavours and products that reflect trends as well as our own interests and curiosity. We’ve expanded our range of Japanese foods to challenge the more familiar Korean or Chinese equivalents.” Sam only brings in new products based on in-depth research. “The Japanese culture is something that I am only just getting into. Their approach to food processes like fermentation is very different to a European style. So, we are selling lots of things like good miso, ponzu sauce, organic rice vinegar, and proper sushi rice, as well as more obscure dried yuzu peel and a soya sauce made with abalone liver”.
If Culinaris specializes in anything, it is probably chocolate. Their large range is the first thing you see when you enter the shop. “The chocolate world has really taken off, just like coffee a few years ago. Our chocolates offer a lot more than a little sweet treat. Today more and more people are interested in the provenance of things, especially fair trade chocolate. We select our chocolates because they are unique, specialist and something to celebrate.”
“Before I worked here, I had no idea about the processes and work of a chocolatier. Many of our chocolates are exquisite and top of their range. Expensive perhaps, but a totally different experience and a real treat.” Sam recommends the Lithuanian made Naïve Chocolate. They are made by Domantas Užpalis: “A visionary with a deep-rooted connection to his ingredients”
The Culinaris team share Sam’s passion and, like their products, they present a cosmopolitan mix. Sam is a local lad, and gave up his life as a sound engineer to devote himself to a passion nurtured by his Italian nonna. Dominic, behind the counter, has a passion for cheese and over 15 years working with it all over the world. Guiseppe draws on his Sardinian heritage in developing some of the product lines, and has provided Sam with a wealth of knowledge. “He slices the best ham.” Janet is South African, a fantastic baker and a great organizer. And Australian Kate comes from Midsummer House and is trained in French cuisine.
I always find them to be helpful. And their interest in and love for food is obvious. I’m always encouraged to try before I buy from the meat and cheese counter. Culinaris is a convivial place that invites conversation and experimentation
Culinaris recently acquired a license to sell wine. With so much competition along Mill Road, and with a natural inside track, they are focusing primarily on more niche, Hungarian wine. Sam tells me “Hungarian wine is fairly unknown in the UK aside from the Tokaji dessert wines. But with 35 different wine regions in the country, there is much to offer. We expect our first pallet of wine from our Hungarian shop to go down well. Of course we have some great wines from the rest of the world, but I really want to bring some excellent Hungarian bottles to a bigger market.”
A food enthusiasm
When Sam talks about food, he is passionate. “Food always makes me feel something. On a personal level it brings a family together. On a professional level, food and tastes are constantly evolving and there are always new products and suppliers.”
Sam is loving bringing this passion to his home town through Culinaris. I love Cambridge, with such a mixture of people and styles. “Our customers are always keen to experiment, and we in turn are always open to suggestions for new products. It doesn’t take much to get us looking for new and unusual products.
Like so many independent companies in Cambridge, Culinaris has forged local relationships. They are wholesale partners with Thirsty, Restaurant 22 and Oak Bistro. Sam explains, “We like to make connections with simpatico businesses. We only partner people who are purveyors of flavours and textures of products that can’t easily be replicated because this is very important to us.”
As with the rest of the immediate community Culinaris will open its doors to visitors old and new during the Mill Road Winter Fair, and look forward to doing what they do best, enthusing people.
Sam’s top five picks for Christmas
- Loison panettone (Italian cake)
- Rozsavolgyi (internationally renowned Hungarian chocolate)
- Xavier David (Toulouse Affineur cheese)
- Neals Yard Dairy products
- Zhaozhou teas