A guest post by Cristen Caine
Despite some of the reservations expressed by the English papers, I had high hopes for Whole Foods Market, in Kensington High Street. Since I moved from Devon to London a few years ago, I have never quite found a suitable replacement for the delightful food shop that is Griffin’s Yard, just off the A361 in North Devon. There are plenty of delis, organic food shops and farmer’s markets if you go to the right places, but no one place unites the huge range of high quality food, ethical trading and friendly atmosphere that I have missed since living here.
Whole Foods is the most amazing food experience I have had in my life: rows upon rows of massive, brightly coloured peppers, stacks upon stacks of rich, full-coloured cheeses, shelves eight feet high and groaning under the weight of every whole or organic food you can imagine, often in two or three varieties apiece.
The balsamic vinegar tasting station was a true gem: about ten open bottles alongside dipping bowls and a mug of crispy breadsticks, unsupervised so as to allow full enjoyment of the tasting session. I didn’t buy any, largely because the bottles on the shelf above were unpriced in that ?well, if you have to ask, sir.. sort of way. One of them was sealed with wax, for crying out loud!
I can’t fault Whole Foods on its gourmet appeal. I have no doubt that if your budget is unlimited, and you are planning a fancy dinner party, you will get the finest of everything without needing to set foot in another store. My problem, in short, is this: Lust.
Whole Foods is not about organics, its about lust. Every inch of the store is a tangible version of what is known in the publishing industry as food pornography, i.e. where some guy comes in and paints a cherry with nail polish to sex it up for the camera. You don’t suspect anything when you pick up your beautifully fresh lettuce, but if you hang around for long enough you hear the faint hiss of the automated water spray misting the salads to keep their youthful appeal. I don’t know, maybe it’s just practicality, but there does seem to be an element of the plastic surgeon about it. There’s something a bit reassuring about the slight imperfections in organic food, and you won’t find them here.
The tone for my visit was set when I crossed the threshold, to be faced with what I can only describe as a female bouncer. I asked if I could take one or two pictures, and this was received with a firm, non-negotiable negative. I chatted to another member of staff later, who thought that this might be because of the high number of celebrities in store on that particular day, but I still feel that a warmer welcome and gentler rebuke may have made the atmosphere a little less tense. I was almost afraid to touch things in case I did something wrong.
As for the rest of the staff, I am going to reserve judgement because this was the first week the store had been open, none of them had had a day off yet, and the previous Saturday the doors had actually had to be closed, the place was so crammed with Kensington’s rich and curious (and this is a big, three-floor store). They appeared exhausted, and hugely overwrought, but two of them still answered my questions cheerily.
This is not a place for traditional wholefood customers: the entire deer’s hoof sitting on the meat counter next to the pork belly and suckling pig is enough to scare most veggies away, and the anti-capitalists must have long ago fainted at news of the immigration of another American hyper-business. Neither is it a place for the Nouveaux Organiques the prices are shocking enough to allow only the most resilient wholefooders to shop here regularly. I couldn’t find a piece of quality cheese for less than £5, in the dedicated cheese ageing room or on the cheese counters. I believe there may have been something in the ‘normal’ fridges downstairs, but still, Planet Organic in Westbourne Grove strikes a much more sensible balance, financially speaking, and it’s got a better atmosphere too.
I find it hard to imagine that this Kensington store’s regular clientele will be anything other than the residents of the borough; they have already struck a deal with the NCP car park behind the store, so expect it to be filled with Lexus 4×4 hybrids any day now.
I guess it’s fair to say that Whole Foods adds an ethical touch to the gourmet food experience, but I don’t think it adds much of value to London’s organic experience, or to tempt in those who don’t usually shop organic.
I’m sure I will pop in now and again, but my regular shopping will have to stay elsewhere, and I felt little guilt at popping into Sainsbury’s for a £1.29 piece of organic brie on my way home.