January 10th, 2005

times1When Napoleon called Britain ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, he intended it to be an insult, forgetting another of his famous phrases, ‘an army marches on its stomach.’ John Bull beef proved superior to French boeuf, and Napoleon met his Waterloo. How times have changed in the food wars.I am passionate about food. I would rather not eat than eat badly. My friends have a joke about how I always take my own cooked sausages and an apple on the plane, but it was when I took my sausages in my Prada handbag to the Bridget Jones premier that they began to worry. My reasoning was that I would have to leave my house in the country at five pm, and that I wouldn’t get anything to eat until the party at eleven pm. One of my rules is never to buy commercially made sandwiches or snacks; you might as well eat a plastic carrier bag.

My attitude to food is simple; A) Life is too short to eat badly. B) What you eat is the most political thing you do every day.

My choices are about pleasure and responsibility; I want the best ingredients, simply cooked, because there is no need to disguise good food, and I want to be use my spending power in a way that supports sustainable agriculture, and doesn’t pander to the profits of big business.

Farmers in Britain are going bust; every week for the last fifty years, three hundred and fifty farmworkers have had to leave the land – some willingly, many not. If a supermarket chain were cutting jobs at that rate, it would be a national scandal. Yet, I would argue that it is the supermarkets and their near-monopolies on food production that are be-deviling British farms.

This autumn I checked how many English apples were on sale in my local Waitrose and Tesco – the answer was one variety, in one of those stores. At the height of our own apple season, we were importing our apples from New Zealand and the USA.

The label on the lone UK apples said ‘ripened on the tree.’ Are we going mad, or is it just me?

I went to my local organic shop, and there were eight English eating apples on sale, and two cookers. All were sourced from nearby Worcestershire farms, and all had the delicious taste of a true apple.

Sadly, only 4% of the fruit we eat in the UK, is produced here; the supermarkets say it can’t be done cheaply enough.

Meanwhile, Tesco who has a staggering 25% market share of all food sold in the UK, has just announced profits of two billion. For my money, this just doesn’t add up.

I don’t shop at supermarkets – not least because I hate the sensory deprivation. Supermarkets have lost us the tastes, textures, scents and excitements of real food. The bright lights and packaging are there to hide the fact that there are no wonderful smells, no chances to pick up lovely earthy potatoes, or find mushrooms that hit the nostrils with the whiff of warm straw, The wet fish counters in supermarkets are dismal affairs of farmed and previously frozen products, with dull sunken eyes and flabby flesh.

I have always shopped locally – both in London and in the country, and if I go out without my purse, nobody minds, because they know I’ll pay next week. Try that at Tesco and you will be arrested.

Of course, Britain is not alone in the supermarket monopoly; there are plenty of supermarkets in Europe. Carrefour, the French giant, is bigger than any supermarket chain here. The difference is that much of Europe still enjoys and supports its local markets and shops. I was at a market in France recently, where they were selling six different grades of tomatoes, from the best for salads, through to mis-shappen harlequins for sauces. All were cheaper than anything at Carrefour, and there was a queue to buy them.

In Britain, farmer’s markets are staging a come-back, but on nothing like the European scale. Local shops here continue to close just like the farms that could supply them.

Britain is no longer a nation of shopkeepers, especially not grocers, butchers and bakers. Our friends abroad, particularly in Italy and France, have fiercely protected their family-run food businesses, so much so that even remote villages sell fresh produce locally produced.

The differences are not economic, they are cultural.

European food culture is not about the cheapest and the fastest, but about quality and enjoyment. We have gone the American way, into snacks and fast food, grazing and the microwave. Most Britishers say they hate going to the supermarket, and yet they all go.

We moan about the loss of family life and the breakdown of communities, yet we never ask ourselves how much our shopping and eating habits have played a part in all this.

When you shop local, you get to know people and have a gossip.

You become part of a community, not part of a check-out queue.

The hollowing out of our towns and villages has been a social disaster. What economics never costs is the human factor; who pays for increases in crime as people become alienated from each other and their surroundings? Who pays for the welfare costs of the unemployed as their town folds around them? Who pays for the misery of driving to out of town superstores on clogged roads? The answer is that we all do – that is the hidden cost of the way we are living.

It is well known that sitting down to a good meal with family and friends is the most relaxing and bonding thing you can do. The success of TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson has been the success of recognition – we in Britain suddenly remembered the pleasures of eating properly, and eating with people we love. Europeans do it regularly. Americans and Brits have got out of the habit.

Supermarkets will vigorously fight back and say that all people want is cheap food. I do not think that devastating farming, here and in the Third World, is cheap. Everything has a true cost – to the planet and to its people, it is the true cost that we have to count when it comes to food pricing.We can buy food that exploits the workforce – such as the salad scandal in Spain, where immigrants are paid 2 euro an hour (about £1:40) to pick over the bags of 99p salad for our leading supermarkets. We can buy bananas grown in Equador, ariel-sprayed with chemicals and pesticides that degrade the land for miles around. We can buy dwarf beans flown from Africa, when we could be buying seasonal greens from the UK.

There is the horror of factory farmed meat and battery eggs.

What we in Britain spend most of our money on though, is the rendered, re-constituted, fat laden, frozen, convenience and packaged food, which is more like chemicals and filler than food.

In real terms, this costs a fortune. The rendered flesh and chicken skin in Chicken Nuggets begins life at 40p a kilo, and ends up on the shelf at a whopping £15 a kilo. Manufacturers and supermarkets call this ‘adding value’ to the raw material.

Check-out any trolley at the tills; the food budget is not being spent on fresh produce – in Britain around 70% of our weekly spend in on packaged foods of one kind or another. In France it is 40%.

Decent food, properly farmed, seasonal, and with a short shelf life, is delicious, good for you, good for the planet, saves billions in health costs, but it will never be cheap, which is not the same as saying we can’t afford it. It’s a matter of priorities.

As we get fatter and sicker, and 61% of Americans are overweight, compared to 35% of British people, and just 10% of French people, we could do with eating less and eating better.

I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and open a shop on the ground floor of my house in London. There’s a fabulous deli next door to me selling only British foodstuff, and I was delighted by the quality and freshness of their produce. I had no intention of putting them out of business by opening a direct rival – thought amazingly, that’s what a marketing consultant told me to do when I was sounding out the finances.

I was offered an astronomical amount of money by an American coffee franchise, but I reckoned that America might rule the world, but not the little bit I own. I refused a commercial sandwich outlet too, because I hated their fake fat-filled food, and I will not sell what I will not buy.

I put the word out, and through friends, I met Harvey Cabaniss, a top chef with Urban Kitchen, and a friend of Jamie Oliver.

Harvey had a vision of a Continental- style deli, selling family-produced food, not commercial imitations. He wanted the best olive oil, cold meats, and dry goods, plus fresh vegetables sourced from organic growers or extensive farms with good labour and land practices. He planned to cook his own ‘ready meals’, without additives or E-numbers, and to make sandwiches with real bread and proper filling – no pastes and no rubber cheese.

We had to work around the quirks of my Listed Building, which I restored from derelict, including the original shop-front. The first shop opened on my ground floor in 1810, and while I am delighted with the leadwork, wooden floors, and glossed shutters, some of them with TO LET notices from the 1930’s, not everyone would want to call their shop VERDE’S.

For Harvey, part Italian himself, VERDE, Italian for Green was perfect, and so English Heritage were happy that the original sign stays in place.

Yes, it is a tiny shop, and some would say just niche marketing, with it’s antique meat slicer flown in from Rome, and it’s strings of red onions hanging from the green awning.

I say that if we are going to be a nation of shopkeepers again, we have to start somewhere. If beautiful shops selling fabulous food attract customers away from the supermarkets and towards a friendly more balanced approach to what we buy and what we eat, that can only be a good thing.

It is twenty two years since Marks and Spencer introduced the first Ready Meal onto our shelves. I accept that we can’t give up the convenience, but we could give up the pretence. Read the back of any ready-meal and what you are eating is mainly water, fat, sugar and additives.

A little less of that, and a little more real food could tip the balance back towards sustainable farming and healthier people. The saddest thing of all is that shopping and eating should be about pleasure, which is why the Brits love going abroad for holidays.

I said that what you eat is the most political thing you can do every day – it should also be the most pleasurable thing we do every day. The way we eat can change the world – what could be better than that?

VERDE’S is at 40 Brushfield St, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1. Liverpool St Tube. Hours are 8am-8pm 7 days a week.

A GOLD is at 42 Brushfield St. Open Sunday through Friday, 11am to 8pm. Internet