07 June, 2007

to Whole Foods, or not to Whole Foods?

But before I get to that pressing dilemma, I must tell you we had an incredible lunch at E & O yesterday, which I had visited earlier this year with my New York friend Julia, in Notting Hill. Because I like doing the same things over and over, I did order several of the same things I had had in the wintertime, so that John could taste what I had raving and reminiscing about ever since. Divinely light soft-shell crab tempura (and this time I found out the dipping sauce was vinegar-based, with a parsley edge to it), beef san choi bau, with its mysterious spicy sauce, and tantalizing bits of mushroom and tender beef. In our new relatively carb-light diet (must I keep these ten pounds I don't want?), we ordered fried-rice to share and in the end left most of it behind, but it was a nice little bed for what we both agreed was the best dish of the day: a little side order of something called tau miu. I've done a bit of research, and it seems to be a snow-pea leaf. Tiny, tender, a little bitter. I must ask my Hong Kong friend Amy where I can get them here. Just a little wilted pile of leaves in soy and garlic. Sublime.

We walked off lunch by heading to what we thought was going to be our... new house. Alas, in less than the time it took me to come here to blog about it, it's sold to someone else. We are in a bit of a state. We had gone so far as to see an architect, imagine where the furniture would go, plan how to stop up the fence holes so the kitties couldn't escape the garden, and... someone else bought it. If you can believe this, the current owner is the former Nanny to the Royal Family, and apparently the other buyers are Lord and Lady Something Or Other, so you can imagine how pleased the seller was to sell to some of her own, as opposed to nasty Americans like us. We are a bit heartbroken, in the way you are about something that really isn't that important, and yet it is. Where are we going to live?

Then it was off, for me, to the Event of the Day (even more thrilling than possibly buying a house). It was the Grand Opening of the Whole Foods in Kensington High Street, in the former Barkers building (a masterpiece of art deco design). Now, mind you, not everyone in London is thrilled by the event. I ran into serious opposition at school pickup from my friend Diana, who is passionate about two things: organic food, and small businesses. She was not at all keen on the idea of an enormous American supermarket, however organic it is, taking over 80,000 square feet in South Kensington. And it's true, Whole Foods did buy out a UK-owned company called Fresh & Wild in 2004 and just in the last two months closed down its enormously popular branch in Westbourne Grove. My friend Sarah, later in the day, concurred with Diana's skepticism. "They can't just put all the other organic food shops out of business," she objected. "Well, they can if they buy them out," I said reasonably. "The key word being 'buy.' After all, they didn't just close Fresh & Wild, they bought them out. Fresh & Wild didn't have to let them."

Now, is that true? Can a small outfit really resist an acquisition? When does an acquisition become a takeover, surely two different things? Yes, John explains, Fresh & Wild was a privately held company and the owners sold up. Voluntarily.

I have to think more about that. John likes to prick both Diana's and Sarah's righteous bubbles when he can, and also being the Compleat Capitalist, he feels that in the end, stores like Whole Foods are doing what Diana and Sarah would like: making buying and eating organic easier and more affordable for the masses. Well, ish. The prices while not exorbitant were not on a par with Tesco, certainly (and we all know I've racked my conscience about THAT store). It's a dilemma, this food-buying situation.

Well, in the end I thumbed my nose at all nay-saying, wet-blanket killjoys, even if some of them are my closest friends, and off I went. Mind you, Sarah had a shopping request from the evil, wicked store: an obscure Romanian honey that I was kind enough to forgive her judging me as superficial and buy for her. I am just that good a friend.

And dear readers, it was a glorious experience. I didn't get through even a third of the place and I spent over an hour there. Massive! Words cannot convey. Three storeys of nearly 30,000 square feet EACH. I had to get Sarah's honey, and tomatoes for Becky, so I headed downstairs to the groceries and produce (and everything else under the sun, can't imagine what occupies the two floors I didn't get to! Now, all sorts of editorials in London are whingeing about the probable waste involved in the perishables, since one can hardly imagine they can sell it all (although with 30 tills and everyone of them occupied at every moment perhaps they can). Whole Foods themselves say they cook the things that don't sell at the end of whatever period, and that's their prepared foods. Fair enough, I believe them. But in general I think the newspapers and other objectors are objecting to the undoubted Americanness of the entire project. It's unabashedly enormous, filled to the brim with more choices than you can ever imagine, and everyone on the staff is smiling, optimistic, very can-do. Now, as anti-American as I can sometimes be, I can't fault those qualities. I guess it is silly to imagine that one needs 47 types of mustard to choose from. It is very self-indulgent. I can see that.

But here's the flip side. Isn't it nice to give 47 different mustard-purveying concerns a chance to succeed? And while all the editorial writers are madly poking fun at the notion that cheese can need a room of its own to age in, isn't it nice that there are people in this world still caring enough to age their cheeses? I like the idea that lots of farmers are finding markets for the heirloom varieties of tomatoes that so many nay-sayers are mocking. Of course it's elitist. Not everyone can afford to get to South Kensington, pay for organic lamb and the organic rosemary to put on it. But as long as there are people who can, I can't complain about a company deciding to supply them with all these choices. Let me tell you some of the things I came away with.

Most memorable, I think, was the fillet of beef. Not any special kind, specially aged or coming from Japan or anything like that. Just nice English fillet, 27 pounds a kilo which I think is fair game, albeit a special purchase. I went all gourmet and rolled it in a mixture of Turkish Aleppo pepper (which I already had from the box of Penzeys spices I told you about once before, from my darling brother in law Joel), and some other yummy bits.

Roast Fillet of Beef With Herbs and Spices
(serves 4 hungry people easily)

1 kilo beef fillet, rolled and tied
1 tbsp each: Aleppo pepper (it's very mild but flavourful)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp lemon pepper
1 tbsp sea salt (Maldon is and always will be the best)
lots of freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsps vegetable oil (not olive, it smokes too easily)

Rinse your fillet to make sure it can pick up the herb mixture, which you've mixed together and placed on a cookie sheet. Roll the fillet all over, helping the bits adhere if they don't go on their own, making sure the coating is even. Heat the oil in a large skillet until nearly smoking and sear the fillet all over, holding it with tongs (don't pierce it with a fork!) and turning it over till the whole thing is nicely browned. Then place in a baking dish and roast at around 350-375 degrees for about 35 minutes for rare, 45 for medium. Don't even think about cooking it any longer than that.


Absolute perfection. So tender and tasty.

Then I'm looking here at a tin of "sustainably-fished tuna fillets in organic sunflower oil," from a lovely company called Fish 4 Ever, and distributed by another lovely company called Organico Realfoods, in Reading. Now don't you think that tuna will just taste better, when you know that no sea mammals were caught in its eco-friendly "purse seiner net"? And it did taste better.

A lovely English lady in the prepared foods aisle laughed with me over the jars of "authentic smooth French mustard" we were buying, from a very English company called Stokes. Normally I do buy real French mustard, but I fell for the very austere and pretty label. Embarrassing, I know. And it made marvelous vinaigrette. Also quite remarkable for my vinaigrette was the not-expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar from Seggiano that I couldn't resist, having sampled it in the aisle with a bit of breadstick. Rich, dark, sweet and puckery, perfect.

Well, I have to come down on the side of liking Whole Foods. They consistently make Fortune Magazine's list of best companies to work for. I will go back and see the bits I didn't see, like the cafe upstairs with deck chair designs by British artists, and whatever else is up there. But chances are you'll still find me at Blandford Fruit Stores on the way home from school, where there's always a completely barking mad political discussion going on among the staff. And I won't neglect any of my farmers' markets on Sunday, and the halal butcher in Portobello Road, and if John lets me, the Fromagerie in Moxon Street for some divine Doddington cheese (pricey but lovely). And frankly, I'll never get tired of Selfridges Food Hall. Variety, it's the spice of... well, you know!


Anonymous said...

I went to Whole Foods this past weekend - I loved it! What a relief to get good service, find people who actually can help you search for something and clean aisles.

andrea said...

I went to the opening of Whole Foods as well, and I can honestly say I was thrilled! I am sure many British people won't love it, and I talked to a few who were worried it would put the smaller stores out of business, but I will definitely be back!