London is a mercurial city and that is part of its charm. The skyline changes, districts alter their character as different kinds of people move in and out. The Olympics, and Cross Rail will shift the balance in the East End, and finally connect the East End and West End, or what used to be Poverty London with Posh London.
Ten years ago I bought a collapsing house in the heart of Poverty London. Spitalfields had rats the size of Scottie dogs. When I first shone a torch into the basement of my house, right opposite the old fruit and veg market, I thought I was hallucinating the hold of a ship. Hundreds of shiny little eyes stared back at me.
At night, the tramps used to collect old pallets from the market and roar up a petrol-soaked inferno. The only people who lived in the area were artists, like Gilbert and George who have been there since the 1960’s, and Pakistanis and Bengalis, who had taken over the sweatshops from the Jewish rag trade.
The houses are 1720’s big-boned Georgian weaver’s houses, like Tracy Emin’s, or hugger-mugger 1780’s terraces with shops on the ground floor, like mine. I knew there had been a fruit and veg shop in my place since 1805, and one of the things I hoped to do was to open a shop again – and I was determined that it wouldn’t be a gentrified cushions and candlesticks life style shop, but something useful as well as beautiful.
Useful and beautiful needs a gay man. Enter Harvey Cabaniss, top chef with an American Can Do attitude, who wanted to start a continental deli, serving only the best foods, and adding an espresso bar to help you concentrate while you choose between pumpkin or rocket tortellini.
Harvey secured the services of Taffy Jones, sandwich supremo, who has taught us all that chicken in bread is a Zen experience, but only with the right dressing. ‘ It’s all about pickle, my love’, she tells me in an accent as Welsh as a giant leek.
‘It’s all about chocolate’, says Harvey, showing me the figures on the Pierre Marcollini sales. He is right, chocolate is king. It is astonishing to me, that people who say that our organic veg is a bit expensive will pay five quid for a bar of chocolate. But, it is fantastic stuff, not for what’s in it, but for what’s not in it. This is chocolate made from the best cocoa beans, tiny amounts of sugar, and natural vanilla. It has a shelf life of about two weeks, and people queue round the block to buy it. London is still rich, whatever the rumbles about recession, or maybe we’re just a bunch of Maria Antoinettes, watching consumer debt rise out of control, and crying ‘Let them eat chocolate.’
The great thing about VERDE’S is that everyone from the neighbourhood comes here. Mums bring their kids for old fashioned jelly babies and ginger beer. Tracy wanders in for one of Taffy’s Limited Edition sandwiches – I think we should go into partnership and get Tracy to sign them. Looking round at people milling about yesterday, I realised we cater for locals and celebrities. A very smart American woman swept in yesterday and leapt on a well-heeled Harvard-style pair quizzing Harvey about his homemade puddings. ‘What are you two doing here?’ she said. They laughed, ‘We were just in town, and we heard about this place from Barbara Streisand.’
Spitalfields has come a long way from the days of the rats.