Good Housekeeping

May 9th, 2005

times1It doesn’t take a genius to work out that children love to play shop; they never say ‘Let’s play supermarkets!’

Some kids have never been inside a small old-fashioned grocer or deli, and yet their imaginations tell them to set up a makeshift counter, sell goods on one side, and buy them on the other side. It’s so deep within us that science might discover a gene for it.

Supermarket moguls insist that they only give us what we want – though nobody I have ever met actually enjoys shopping in a supermarket. I suppose that we want, or think we want, is cheap food. As someone who never shops in a supermarket, I think differently. That’s why I made a deal with top chef and entrepreneur, Harvey Cabaniss, to open a Continental deli on the ground floor of a property I own in London’s trendy Spitalfields Market.

To start at the beginning – it wasn’t trendy when I first bought the place. Spitalfields, scene of the Jack the Ripper murders, and the Krays favourite watering hole, was a derelict, rat-infested slum as late as 1996. The old fruit and veg market rumbled into life every morning at 4am, and by 4pm, the tramps were lighting their evening bonfires out of abandoned pallets roared up with petrol.

Even my close friends said ‘Why are you buying that place?’ Now everyone says ‘How did you manage to get this?’

The answer to both questions is love. I fell in love with the neglected Georgian building and paid cash for it. By cash I mean Securicor in a van outside the solicitors. Then the owner went to Spain carrying a small suitcase.

The deal had been Buy as Seen, no survey, no nothing, and the next day the District Surveyor came round and glued a Dangerous Structure Notice to the front door.

Never mind. Love is not daunted by obstacles. We opened up a standpipe in the basement, and drilled a hole through the wall to connect to the electricity supply of my artist friend next door. Don’t imagine we just needed a re-wiring job; the supply was so antiquated that the Electricity Board took the Voltmeter away to their museum.

For two years I painstakingly put the five floors of the house back together, including entirely rebuilding the flank wall from basement to chimney stack.

The ground floor had first opened as a shop in1805. My building, known as Verde’s, had been a fruit importer, and the place was pasted with ancient posters urging me to ‘Eat More Oranges.’ One day, when I was sitting gloomily stirring a spitting bath of lime plaster, a little old man appeared hobgoblin-like and asked if he could take a trip down ‘memory lane’. ‘I used to work here as a lad in the ’40’s’ ‘What, for Verde’s?’ I asked. ‘No’, he replied, ‘this was my office here, where you sit now. We was JW FRUITS.’

So the house really did have my name on it.

For some years after the renovation I used the upper floors as my London apartment. The ground floor and basement were waiting for a new life, especially as I had restored the shop-front to its original glory, and even had hand-made lead corbels cast with pineapple motifs. (One of my books, Sexing the Cherry, is loaded with the arrival of the first pineapple in England – yes, it’s true I do a lot of fruit).

As soon as word went out that I was ready to open a shop, I was besieged with suitors, and like most suitors, they were all of the wrong kind. Remember, this building began as a love affair; for the shop I needed romance as well as finance.

Out went all the applications for cushions and candlesticks ‘lifestyle shops. Out went the Japanese Beauty Parlour. Out went the astronomical amount offered by an American coffee chain, and out went the Plastic Sandwich Company. That wasn’t their trading name, but that’s what they sold.

I realised I wanted a place where I would like to do my own shopping. A place that was a little island in the sea of corporate retailing.

Food felt right for the building and for the neighbourhood. There is a wonderful English deli next door selling only UK speciality foods, and I didn’t want to compete with them, or have a futile price war where we both ended up out of business. I thought how great it would be to buy fresh fishcakes and unpasturised British cheese from A Gold next door, then come to me for a homemade tomato sauce and organic green chard to make the perfect supper.

Harvey Cabaniss has been a top chef at several London restaurants, but what he wanted was to run his own deli, selling fabulous food in a beautiful building. When he approached me with a proposal, I knew he was the one for me.

Harvey is passionate about flavour and quality, and everything on sale at Verde’s comes from small co-operatives or family-run firms, except for the Pierre Marcollini chocolates, which are the finest in the world. One chocolate will cost you about the same as a king size Mars Bar, but it doesn’t contain 600 calories, transfats and glucose syrup.

We are eating too much and we are paying too little for our food.

My philosophy is to eat modestly and buy the best you can afford. In our crazy world a chicken costs less than a cinema ticket. Our obsession with cheap food has destabilised farming throughout the world, polluted our soils, driven small producers and small shops into the ground, allowed the supermarkets to monopolise our lives, and made us fat.

Look at any shopping trolley; it is stacked with convenience foods, processed foods, crisps, biscuits, bloated bread, cheese that tastes like soap, and meat that has been reared in conditions that would make you retch. Factory farming and factory food is disgusting. No wonder it has to be plastic-wrapped and disguised with every kind of flavouring and E-number.

Real food has taste, and it is good for you and good for the planet. Of course, it means cooking, but how much better to sit down to a proper meal with family and friends, than to microwave a tray of rubber pasta in fake tomato sauce.

Life is too short to eat badly. A bit of planning ahead makes it possible to eat well even when we are at work all day. A slow cooker will casserole your chicken for you or simmer your hearty vegetable stew. I make stacks of my own fishcakes and freeze them. Sauces for pasta can be stored in the fridge for up to five days. Nothing is faster than an omelette and salad, or Eggs Benedict on toast. Fillet steak, fresh spinach and grilled tomatoes can be on the plate in fifteen minutes. Sunday beef can become Monday beef curry, with fresh ginger, garlic, chilli, onions and spices, in the time it takes to cook the brown basmati – yes, twenty minutes. The rice cooks while you prepare the rest, enjoying a drink, listening to the radio, and winding down at the end of the day.

Convenience food is a con. Fast food is a fib. We need pleasure in our lives, and one of life’s true pleasures is real food. What’s the big hurry to slump in front of the TV with a plate of factory gloop?

Set the table, take the time, enjoy your food.

My shop isn’t going to worry Tesco, and I won’t change the eating habits of Britain, though I’d like to try. What I am doing is using the opportunities available to me to make a difference, however small, and to put my money where my mouth is.

Anyway, when I walk down my street at night and I see my neighbours getting their supper from Verde’s, and I hear Harvey talking about his home-made pumpkin pasta and his hand-made Parmesan, I know I am not crazy, There is more to life than living it as quickly and as cheaply as possible. To me, that’s not living life at all.

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

A GOLD. 42 Brushfield St. 11-8pm Sunday-Fri.