Journalism

Once upon a Shop

July 9th, 2010

I opened my first fruit and veg shop in Spitalfields in 1805…
At least that is how it feels to me because my 1790’s tiny London townhouse plus shop started selling Kent cabbages and Irish potatoes during the Napoleonic Wars and the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. While Nelson was gunning the French, we were selling onions the size of cannonballs.

My shop is right opposite Spitalfields Market, now full of chic shops and funky stalls, but formally the fruit and veg market for London, just as Covent Garden was the flower market, Smithfield the meat market, and Billingsgate, the fishmarket.

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Spitalfields – named after the Priory hospital for lepers that stood on the market site in the Middle Ages – was outside the old city wall, and something of a lawless land. The costermongers who carted their veg in from Essex and Kent were known for fighting and thievery, and when the Intoxicating Liquor Act was first introduced in 1872, market taverns were available to avoid restricted opening hours.

When I first came to Spitalfields, The Ten Bells pub was still an all-nighter, and about four in the morning, when the market was in full swing loading up for the coming day, the place was packed with night-workers. Tarts off-shift used to come in for a gin and a bag of veg. Market porters had a pint of beer and a round of figs. It was strange, because among the drunk, the destitute, the damned, the disguised celebrities, con-men and crooks, were the market men who always seemed to bring their fruit and veg with them. There was one who drank Guinness and ate raw onions. He said it was better than antibiotics.

No one who lived round the market when Spitalfields was slummy and hard-working paid for fruit and veg. And the endless tramps building fires from chucked pallets, roasted potatoes in tins and made mish-mash soups from anything going.

The market has moved out to Nine Elms now, and the pyramids of oranges, gassed lemons, King Kong-size bananas, forests of parsley, potato towers and crates of peas, red tomatoes, pink grapefruit, deep-stacked beetroot, all as creatively piled as anything in Tate Modern, have made room for bankers and lawyers and sharp urban trendies.
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So much so, that in 2005 my modest Georgian building with its restored shop front but no shop, was targeted by a coffee company who wanted a long lease for a lot of money. Suddenly I was going into trade…

It looked great on paper; I would keep the upper floors for my own use, and the ground floor and basement would be for coffee. I like coffee, and I liked the historical neatness of returning a shop to the building, but as I researched the company, who I can’t name because I signed a confidentiality agreement, I realised that, for me, it was the wrong coffee and the wrong politics.
I really believe that the small decisions we take profoundly influence the bigger picture. I was vegetarian for nine years, not because I object to eating animals, but because I object to factory farming. Long before the organic movement made it possible to easily buy humane meats and veg grown without pesticides, I was bartering with ageing hippies on smallholdings, trying to get my own food supply sorted out.

I learned about the politics of food through eating it. I got curious about where everything had come from and how it was grown and harvested. I was one of those mad people who did early recycling by unpacking it all at the supermarket till – so annoying for everyone behind you. I wasn’t a saint or a do-gooder, or even much of an activist, but it seemed to me that food was more important than anything.

For a while we had hens in London and our long back garden was a veggie plot. When I left London and moved to the Cotswolds, the first thing I did was plant potatoes.

That move to the country was the reason for buying the little house and shop in Spitalfields. The place had been for sale for fifteen years because nobody except Gilbert and George and Dan Cruickshank wanted to live in the falling apart houses huddled round the noisy rat infested veg market.

My house had been the offices of an oranges importer – which seemed auspicious as my first novel was Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Then I found out that the business had been called JW Fruits – so I had to buy it didn’t I?

Immediately after the money had exchanged hands, the Council slapped a Dangerous Structure on the front door and wrapped the building in an orange net. The next two years of my life were about fixing the building and finding out about food chains and food supplies – that’s what happens if you hang round a working market all night.

It never occurred to me open a food shop. The coffee offer forced me to focus on what I would really like to happen, instead of either doing nothing, or passively accepting what someone else would like to happen – so it was a pretty good life lesson too.

A friend took me down to the famous St John’s Restaurant in Smithfield – the nose to tail eating started by chef supremo Fergus Henderson. There, among the pig’s ears and whelk punnets, I started a plan with Harvey Cabaniss, a food loving New Yorker trained by Fergus, with all the can-do and brio that makes Americans so endearing. Harvey wanted to run his own food shop and deli, with catering on the side, but rents were a problem.

I had the building. Harvey had the skills and the energy. We had a deal….
The shop front had been restored by me back to the original, but with the 1930’s signage above the door. VERDE’S it says, and we decided that VERDE’S it should stay.

Harvey set about installing a grand espresso machine so that you can have some coffee while your peas are being weighed. As we do the best coffee in London, with the possible exception of the London Review of Books café, we get a lot of Italians coming by, so much so that Harvey has now hired his own flamboyant Italian baristas. Go into Verde any morning and it sounds like, and tastes like, Naples.
Harvey and I are of the same mind about the quality of food, though he doesn’t see eye to eye with me on organics for their own sake. I accept that I am purist. He accepts that I will moan about selling fancy eggs and any asparagus not from the Vale of Evesham.

I love his energy and the fact that the shop is always changing. Now you can eat lunch there, and the food is always seasonal and inspired and it changes every day. In winter you might get a pheasant soup. Today it could be early broadbeans with new season English lamb.
In the UK running a small food shop is really hard work. We do not do as other countries in Europe do, and implement a sliding-scale business rate – so Verde’s has to pay the same money as an estate agent or a mobile phone outlet. I think this is wrong. If we want the delightful sustainable small shops we all adore in France or Italy, we have to persuade government to be realistic about the rates.
There is no such thing as cheap food – there is the real cost, and then there are subsidies or mark-ups. It is as simple as that.

Supermarkets endless re-route the sustainability argument into an argument about affordable food for the poor. But this is misleading. Good food need not be expensive, but it cannot be so cheap that the land is degraded, the workers underpaid and the animals reared and slaughtered in a way that would make any decent person sick with disgust.

Ethical eating means factoring in real costs and real conditions.
Ethical eating is also a question of how we want to shop and what kind of shops we would like to support. Questions about what makes a neighbourhood better? Questions about pleasure as well as utility.

I like a neighbourhood – and that is not the same as a road leading to a supermarket. Verde’s is a corner shop where everyone drops in. People who live in Spitalfields come to us for a gossip and a cake. Kids stop by on their way home from school for sweets. We are in a terrace of shops and cafes that serves the offices and visitors, of course, but that is integral to the street life of the neighbourhood.
Harvey sells good food, and he makes things look beautiful. I walk by in the morning and he is putting out foxgloves in pots to set off the baskets of vegetables. He chats to everyone – if he knows you, the coffee is free. Warm food smells bubble up from the pans of soup and the Parma ham is sliced fresh and see-through from a hand-operated bright red Italian slicer, Buy something or don’t, walking past VERDE makes you feel better. There isn’t a way of pricing that.

I worry that everything we do is about price. The things that give us pleasure can’t be costed in a straightforward balance sheet way. The bottom line isn’t profit; it is being human.
We are just coming through an experiment in turning the whole planet and all of its resources and all of its people into a money-making machine. We de-regulated everything, and what has happened? Global economic melt-down and the Gulf of Mexico.

Now we are told that there is no money and we will have to live differently – but the difference is not being offered as sustainability or new values – it will be the same old unelected big business interests. As people we will have even less power.

What can we do?

I started the shop because I believe that working from the bottom up is a good idea. VERDE’S can’t tackle Tesco round the corner, nor can it change the fixed supply chains and discounting that make it so hard for small shops to compete with big business.

But I think of us, and others like us as a pocket of air in an upturned boat. We are a breathing space.
I don’t like the chilly world of corporate retail – not the foodshops, not the bookshops, not the chainstores. I prefer individuality and eccentricity and self-determination – all the things the free market is supposed to deliver, and never does, because markets soon become homogenous and anti-competitive.

We live in a cloned world where there is no real choice – so when I see Verde on the corner, and there’s Harvey sweeping the street or cleaning his windows before starting the day, and he’s been up since five because he wanted to roast a suckling pig, I know he’s doing all this not for big money but because it is his own life in his own way.

What is the point of being human if you cannot live your own life in your way? It is such a simple obvious ambition – and so hard to achieve.

I am glad I didn’t take the money for the coffee shop. I would have been just another anonymous space spin-doctored into a ‘friendly’ brand. I don’t want to add yet another brand – yet another bit of cosy fakery all about money while pretending to be about ‘you’.

There’s a lot of talk about re-vitalising the High Street. There’s a lot of nostalgia for little shops – especially food shops that sell lovely things to eat. We call it niche, we think of it as a bit toy-town, just as people say that organic and sustainable farming can’t feed the world.

My view is that if we want things to be different we should use all our effort and ingenuity to make things different. Sustainable farming is viable. Small shops could be well-supplied and profitable – just because Britain used to have the worst food and the worst food shops in Europe doesn’t mean that we do any more, or that only supermarkets offer variety.

The politics of food – the everyday politics of what we put on our plates, affect the whole world at one end of the scale, and the boarded up High street with no butcher or baker at the other end of the scale, We can let big business bamboozle us into believing that small is self-indulgent and ineffective, or we can look closer, and take back some power.

Everyday from now on, in new austerity Britain, where the Post Office can’t be subsidised but banks can, and where we all have to pay more, except the big businesses who are going to be allowed tax breaks to ‘re-vitalise’ the economy – there is even talk of giving Tesco tax breaks to open stores – every day we will be told how things have to be – but why?

Small, sustainable, ethical, modestly profitably, local, co-operative. Go on – open your own shop…

PUBLISHED IN THE OBSERVER JUNE 2010