I found myself in Kensington yesterday, after walking from St James's Park to Kensington Gardens (ooo, get me) and took the opportunity to pop into Whole Foods. You might remember the hoo-haa that accompanied the launch of the store last summer, all the middle-class cooing over the lovely organic produce and the amount of choice, and other, dark, mutterings about the closure of the local Whole Foods-owned Fresh and Wild and an emerging US backlash.
The last time I was in a food shop that made my mouth hang open was my first trip to Harrods as a non-cooking 18 year old, raised on meat-n-two-veg. The sight of the hams hanging from the ceiling, the rows of exquisite preserves, the cheeses I'd never even heard of blew me away. Whole Foods makes it look like my local offie.
It is… obscene. I can't decide if it's obscene in a good or bad way. It's ginormous. It has counter upon counter of prepared foods, ready-packaged but also in vats for you to box up your own and eat elsewhere or in their own restaurant. You can tell just by looking at it that it's decent food too; good ingredients, fresh (no soggy broccoli, crisp macaroni cheese topping) and not bulked up with crap (no pools of grease conjealing at the bottom of the thai curry tray). If you had the money and lived nearby (and let's face it, if you lived in Kensington you'd have the money) you wouldn't need to cook ever again.
There's one huge counter of ready-cut cheeses and another, even bigger, for selecting your own. Types of olive oil that humanity surely can't possibly need. Shelves of top quality chocolate. Tubs and tubs of fresh coffee beans and loose leaf tea. Vats of pulses that you can pour yourself to get just the amount you want. An entire aisle of organic juices. Their own cheese ageing room.
I didn't even go through the entire store, I was too dazed. It would have been easy to wander around peacefully though because it was empty – admittedly, it was 3pm on a Monday afternoon, but the word is that Whole Foods are losing millions on the Kensington store as shoppers tighten their belts. Credit crunch and all that. Price labels can be hard to find on the shelves and half the cheeses on the main counter weren't priced at all. Bars of single estate François Pralus chocolate were retailing at 75p more than in Fortnum and Mason! (Why yes, I had picked up a bar last week – 75% Madagascan Criollo since you ask.) In the end, all I bought was a tub of tiramisu for a bargain 99p.
Whole Foods is the Concorde of food shopping. It's the shiny peak of progress for the enjoyment of the privileged few. It's absolutely fantastic with an undercurrent of revulsion at the pure, unabashed consumerism. I don't know. I may have to go back with a totally empty shopping bag to make up my mind completely…