“I really believe that the small decisions we take profoundly influence the bigger picture.” (Jeanette Winterson, author and Spitalfields local)
Through its many cycles of death and rebirth, the area of London that we know as Spitalfields, has always displayed a somewhat awkward stance of dichotomy, – fruitful, diverse and abundant, yet grubby, deficient and unforgiving. Currently we are seeing the spillover of steel and glass high-rises of the city swelling menacingly close to the Georgian charms of Fournier, Princelet and Folgate Street. London tends to grow in such a feral and organic manner yet what little logic or uncommon lure it does display is now endangered by corporate money and opinions. For centuries you would go to Covent Garden for flowers, Smithfields for meat, Billingsgate for fish and Spitalfields for your fruit and veg. The recent regeneration of the area has smartened it up to make it look like, well, just like every other high street. You won’t find any apples or pears neither, unless, of course, you walk into the Tesco’s on Bishopsgate. Yet if you do allow yourself the privilege to wander, you will appreciate that there are a few still fighting against total modernization: at 18 Folgate Street, the late artist Dennis Severs disavowed modern comforts in his 18th century time capsule of a house; local conservationist, architectural historian and Georgian fanatic Dan Cruickshank resides a stone’s throw away from artists Tracy Emin, Stuart Brisley and Gilbert & George; there’s the non-profit contemporary arts centre, Raven Row and the Whitechapel art gallery; and then there’s the author Jeanette Winterson, owner of one modestly gorgeous Georgian building and restored shop front, ‘Verde’s’ on Brushfield Street. Forswearing the lucrative offers from big coffee companies, Jeanette instead followed her heart and recruited American chef Harvey Cabaniss (who trained under Fergus Henderson) in her mission for responsible food and preserving the slowly dissipating authentic aura of Spitalfields.
When I think of ‘Spitalfields’, I surmise this melting pot of transient communities, a microcosm of this polyglot city, a wealth of cultures and lifestyles. Amble down Brick Lane on any given day and your custom will be fought over by the young Bangladeshi boys outside the countless curry houses, you can brave the mile-long queues of the salt beef and 24-hour bagel shops, and observe at close hand the tinkering of the watch menders, textile cutters, leather warehouses, – laboring in much the same fashion as they have done for centuries. The French Huguenots brought their textile and silk-weaving skills over in 1685, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that nullified the substantial rights of the Calvinist Protestants. It was in that same year that Charles II granted John Balch a Royal Charter to hold a market every Thursdays and Saturdays in Spital Square. Situated just outside the City walls meant locals mostly avoided the restrictive legislations of the City Guilds, thus making it less of a challenge for immigrants to settle and make a living. The Great Irish Famine in 1740 saw the influx of Irish weavers in the area, and then the pogroms against the Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 1800’s saw the inundation of Jewish settlers. By this time, however, the weaving industry in Spitalfields had seen a dramatic decline following imports of cheaper French silk, degenerating the area to a mass slum and even becoming a by-word for urban ruin. It was a “land of beer and blood”, where the idle, vagrant, loose and disorderly surged the run-down and cheap lodging houses, brothels and pubs. Jack the Ripper couldn’t have found a better playground. Yet despite the more recent emergence of the Bengali community and clean-up of it’s rathole past, there still lurks the haunting echoes within the shadows.
Jeanette Winterson recounts, “when I first came to Spitalfields in 1990, the Ten Bells pub was still an all-nighter, and about four in the morning, when the market was in full swing loading up for the coming day, the place would be packed with night workers. Tarts off-shift used to come in for a gin and a bag of veg. Market porters had a pint of beer and a round of figs. It was strange, because among the drunk, the destitute, the damned, the disguised celebrities, con men and crooks were the market men who always seemed to bring their fruit and veg with them. There was one who drank Guinness and ate raw onions. He said they were better than antibiotics. No one who lived round the market when Spitalfields was slummy and hard working paid for fruit and veg. And the endless tramps building fires from chucked pallets roasted potatoes in tins and made mishmash soups from anything going. The market has moved out to Leyton now, and the pyramids of oranges, gassed lemons, King Kong-size bananas, forests of parsley, potato towers and crates of peas, red tomatoes, pink grapefruit, deep-stacked beetroot, all as creatively piled as anything in the Tate Modern, have made room for bankers and lawyers and sharp, urban trendies.” When Jeanette moved into Brushfield Street, the building had been on the market for 15 years, “it had been the offices of an oranges importer – which seemed auspicious, as my first novel was Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Then I found out that the business had been called JW Fruits – so I had to buy it, didn’t I?” After 2 years of hard graft in renovation, Jeanette had to figure out how she was going to fill the shop space. The offers from big coffee companies looked good on paper, but somehow didn’t ring true. It was both the wrong coffee and the wrong politics. Jeanette has long been concerned about sourcing and eating food that has been grown responsibly, to the point that she even became vegetarian for 9 years solely due to her objection to factory farming. The coffee offer actually turned out to be a valuable life lesson, for the easy option would have led Jeanette to passive acceptance, yet the hard option would be to search further and find someone with the vigor, adeptness and similar ethics to her own. And she found just that with Harvey Cabaniss. Harvey, who is ironically of French Huguenot descent, is as spirited as most New Yorkers seem to come. He came to London having turned his back on a Law degree with the whole-hearted intention of starting a career in food. He began at the bottom rung of the ladder by washing dishes at Fergus Henderson’s Restaurant at the French House in Soho. Being very good at cakes, Harvey often stepped in to ‘save the day’ and so it was not long before Fergus promoted him to cooking in the kitchen. He stayed with Fergus for 3 years before doing stints with Pierre Koffman and catering companies Rhubarb, Mustard and Urban Productions. Doing events meant he had up to 60 chefs working under him, so after 3 years of extreme stress he felt he needed to slacken the pace a bit. Which is when he was introduced to Jeanette. The rest as they say, is history.
The name Verde’s came about because the sign and shop frontage is listed and therefore can not be deviated from its former reincarnation. Since taking over, Harvey has tirelessly transformed the tiny space of Verde’s, enhancing its Georgian roots with all his American can-do and dynamic enthusiasm that us English can only dream of mustering up – with a kitchen and storage space to feed the hundreds of bankers that troop through daily, a coffee station complete with trained baristas, an eating area that squeezes in roughly 8, shelves stacked to the last inch with the choicest groceries that will make you wonder whether there be any need to schlep over to Fortnum & Mason’s ever again. The jams and marmalades are home-made by chefs and people Harvey personally knows, the cakes are from Clarke’s, the bread from St. John and the chocolates by the world renowned Pierre Marcolini, The food is so freshly prepared here that rarely do I see the meat slicer pause. The space is of bijoux proportions, but Harvey and his colleagues dance around each other with graceful and almost balletic gestures. The antediluvian light makes you half expect to find Mrs. Lovett bartering a hot Sweeney Todd pie across the counter. Thankfully, however, the staff here are genuinely warmer and much more hospitable. It is clear that Verde’s has become something of a social hub for locals, – I am lucky to grab 5 minutes of chat with Harvey, yet within that time he manages to have conversations with about a dozen more around me. I sit back and observe the mile long queue of hungry bank traders and locals to the aroma of my excellent cappuccino, when a member of staff apologizes in that they now only have white bread, then pausing before pulling out the,” but it’s ‘St. John’ white bread” line. The whole place erupts in laughter.
This neat little shop of Spitalfields might not dent upon or cause concern for the likes of Starbuck’s or Tesco’s, but I definitely know where I’d prefer to get my sandwich and coffee from. A place that knows your name and a place where you can ask exactly where the meat came from, or just who made that amazing marmalade and please could you get Monsieur Marcolini to design for me a bespoke cake. To remember Jeanette’s words, – these small decisions really can affect the bigger picture. How you buy your food is more important than you think. Verde’s is a member of Slow Food, a world-wide organisation who promotes a better appreciation of food in its flavor, quality and manufacture. It understands that farmers need to be paid properly in order to maintain their land, produce and animals effectively. In short, members of Slow Food stand for everything that fast food is not. So the next time you pat yourself on the back for saving a few pennies in the supermarket, just imagine who’s being underpaid – the cashier, the person who ordered the produce, the person who transported it and the person who manufactured it. The quality can’t be that great either. We need to be paying that little bit extra in order to give both the food and its maker more gratitude. The world also needs more people like Harvey, a man who appreciates what has gone before in order to take it into the future and having returned to the land of his forefather’s has helped bring it’s essence back to life.