There are certain areas of London where inhabitants are as oblivious to the financial turmoil enveloping the world as a snail wearing headphones and dark glasses is to the large green wellington boot of fate. Horrifying amounts of cash are still being splashed across Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, and in that unpleasant mecca to monetary vulgarity, Harrods. Luxury goods still fly from designer shelves, and restaurants which charge diners laughable amounts for a tiny dollop of pea ice cream and a single prawn are still packed. Should a Fendi-clad, AmEx-flashing darling however develop a conscience and realise that thrift is the watchword of the day, there is still an option for those who are too precious for Tesco or Sainsbury's; Whole Foods.
Across London there are now 5 of these food superstores for the rich and pretentious, exported from the US, which is where I first experienced the wonder of Whole Foods. In America everything is bigger and better. Tomatoes are redder, fatter and rounder, steaks are the size of chopping boards, a cupcake could feed a small family. I adore the adventure of food shopping in the States; nipping out for milk is a half-day's activity. And now us Brits can enjoy a similar experience without the transatlantic flight. You can merely pop along to High Street Kensington or Soho and indulge all your extravagant grocery-shopping desires.
Meeting a friend for a wander around the Kensington store was both educative and mind-boggling. High-ceilinged room after high-ceilinged room, filled with beautiful shiny vegetables (I swear they must polish them), carefully flour-dusted loaves, and aisles of organic baby-food, British eco-charcoal and handcrafted chocolates. We entered past an adoring crowd of shoppers, gripped watching a man demonstrate a horrifyingly expensive juicing device, and were rendered speechless (and covetous) of the staggering range of chocolate brownies in the bakery hall. Vast cakes, delicate tartlets, bread of every variety imaginable, even huge purple meringues, which I found strangely bewitching.
Besides catering for the standard obscenely-wealthy customer (freshly-made pistachio butter and rare truffles of the non-chocolatey variety), Whole Foods also provides for the horrifyingly lazy. If the beautiful ingredients on offer are too much of a challenge, there is an amazing array of ready-made food, and even half-prepared meal ingredients. You can buy ready-mashed potato, both hot and cold. Pre-cooked sausages you simply have to warm through, pots of cream with added strawberries, tubs of ready-mixed custard, even diced onions for those too anti-kitchen to lift a chopping knife.
Searching for a gift for that eco-friendly yummy mummy friend of yours? Why not buy her some baby clothes made of hemp? Or the world's first fair-trade basketball? If you're feeling really flush, maybe some exclusive beauty products made from all organic ingredients - all in microscopic square pots for the same price you might pay for a decent pair of shoes. The store is evidently designed with the yummy mummy in mind. The elevators are vast (I have seen smaller industrial lifts), purely so more than one buggy can fit in at a time. Plus who else would have the time to spend wandering the aisles in search of £30 green tea bags? A weekly shop in this place would take a full day's commitment; you simply couldn't have time for a job as well! For us normal people, Whole Foods, is like a museum of affluence and culture. A stunning reminder of how, not the other half maybe, but at least 1% of the others, really do live. A place to aspire to shop, or simply to remind yourself (when you're broke and trying to justify buying a new handbag/expensive dress/takeaway dinner) that there is always someone spending more extravagantly than you.