Rainy Saturday at Whole Foods on Kensington High Street.
A Whole Foods Team Member restocks the melons.
My vegan loot, including price-your-own tempeh.
If you've been watching Wimbledon, you know my outings lately have been rained out. On Saturday, facing another forecast deluge, we headed into London, where you can visit the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum sans umbrella, via a pedestrian subway from South Kensington tube stop.
Conveniently, the new Whole Foods is located not too far away, on Kensington High Street. Let's face it, it was not the thought of moldy fossils or ancient computers that brought me into London on a rainy Saturday, it was the opportunity to roam the aisles of a well stocked American health food store.
Let me clarify: to me, U.S. stores such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Vitamin Cottage (in the West) are not grocery stores; they're health food stores on growth hormones. They're a necessity for vegans and vegetarians, who can't find dairy and meat alternatives at regular grocery stores like Kroger and Safeway. (That's getting better, but the selection of vegan products is still minimal at most supermarkets.) Stores such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods offer bulk foods, where you can bag your own nutritional yeast, wheat gluten, aduki beans, or dozens of other exciting products. They stock more than one brand of seitan and tempeh, which offer vegetarians intriguing variations on tofu.
These enhanced health food stores not only carry a wide variety of health supplements, teas and herbs, they also sell cosmetics and lotions which are far better than the perfumy products available at department stores.
There are plenty of health food shops in Britain, but they're tiny, containing about two short aisles each, and, if you're lucky, a refrigerator/freezer case. When I asked for tempeh at one, the clerk had no idea what I was talking about. When I asked for gluten at another, the clueless clerk first directed me to the gluten-free products, then called over a manager, who told me health food stores in Britain were about five years behind HFSs in the States.
More like ten, I thought.
There is some consolation: there's usually a pretty good supply of meat alternatives at regular grocery stores, that is if you like Quorn, which is not 100% vegan. Stores like Tesco and Sainsbury's have their own range of vegetarian products and ready-meals, which I suppose are a great benefit to vegetarians who haven't learned to cook yet. But I shop regularly at the largest Super Tesco in the UK, or at Waitrose, considered the most gourmand of all the grocery chains, and they cannot begin to compete with even the smallest Wild Oats. Us crunchy granola shoppers are looking for something other than organic beetroot and Quorn patties.
Up to now, I've had to satisfy my HFS cravings during trips to the U.S., where I stock up on products I can't find here, or at least can't find at good prices. (The hyaluronic night cream I buy at Whole Foods for $25 is a fraction of the cost it would be here, for instance, and it prevents me from looking like one of those fossils at the museum.) Unfortunately, I can't bring refrigerated products home with me on the plane, so there's been no tempeh on my plate in ages.
Now you understand why I couldn't wait to dump the teenagers at the IMax and head down Kensington to a real health food store, albeit a rather upscale HFS, complete with handmade tarts and a liquor license. It's located in the old Barker's department store building, which was like M&S without the excitement. (That's sarcasm, for those of you not familiar with M&S.) I found my heart beating faster as I withdrew cash at the bank next door: I could already smell the familiar Whole Foods aroma, which got stronger as I entered the doors. That was no doubt due to the main floor bakery, oozing its yeasty odor toward High Street, but there's also that unmistakable crunchy-granola scent that can't be masked by stinky limburger and sustainably sourced fish.
I breathed it in, like a wild animal sensing its natural habitat in the concrete jungles of London.
There are three floors of goodness. The ground level houses the bakery, the cheese shop, the wine shop, and the deli, salad bar and hot food bar you're used to at Whole Foods. I sniffed around the main floor, grateful the stinky cheese shop was nearly contained behind a glass wall, and then headed downstairs, where the promised produce was located, along with all the provisions you'd normally find in Whole Foods.
There was far more produce here, in quantity and variety, than the recently refurbished Waitrose where I normally shop. It was far more attractive, and better lit, than at Super Tesco. There were more heirloom tomatoes than at Borough Market, and to my shock, it was all competitively priced. 15p for a lemon? Bottled water under a pound? £1.99 for two punnets of raspberries? At this rate, I'd leave with cash in my pocket, not to mention my paycheck.
There was a selection of bulk foods, though sadly, not as many as you'd find at a U.S. store. Most of the dry goods were British or European products, though I noticed they carried the Amy's line of frozen foods and soups, and several Mexican (and New Mexican) food items I hadn't been able to find here. There were some surprising inconsistencies: only one brand of tahini? Prices on items that the supermarkets carry, like Seeds of Change organic soups, were generally about 10% more than at the suburban shops I frequent. But that's true of anything you buy in London, where rents are twice what they are in Slough.
I found items I'd never seen before: Soyatoo whipped "cream" in a canister, and the Sheese non-dairy cheese everyone is talking about. I didn't see any seitan, though there were several meat alternatives, unfortunately of the already-flavoured variety, which seem to be more popular here. I prefer using the raw product to make my own dishes.
At first I didn't see any tempeh either, but when I saw a Team Member restocking the yoghurt, I asked. She got a strange look on her face, and motioned me over to her trolley. There were two boxes of tempeh inside, but there was a problem, she confided to me: they didn't contain a UP barcode, thus couldn't be scanned at the checkout. Also, she had no idea where to shelve them, so she was planning to ask for guidance from her Team Captain. I told her I'd usually found them in the soy foods section, near the tofu, but there was no room among the tofu-stuffed shelves. I took two blocks, despite her warning that I might have trouble at the checkout. Who better to establish the price of tempeh than me, I figured?
And that's exactly what I did: at the till, the clerk had no idea what it was, or how much it costs. "How much do you think it should cost?" he asked me. I gave a good guess, based on my memory of prices in the States. "£1.49," I said, effectively doubling the U.S. dollar price. He seemed to think that was fair, and so did I.
If this is an example of John Mackay's libertarian trade policy, then fine by me.
Upstairs is the café, where you can buy recycled sneakers, organic cotton goods, and food and drinks. There's a drinks bar, a sushi bar, and a fake "pub", plus a cafeteria area and a separate line for waffles and crepes. I tried a vegan meal at the cafeteria, and it was delicious. I'm already planning to meet my husband for lunch here one day, when he can help me carry my shopping to the train station.
That's really the only drawback with the London Whole Foods. I can only buy as much as I can carry, since parking is very limited on K. High Street. The other drawback is the crowds, at least on the rainy Saturday I visited. (Though some were just gawking: I noticed one bemused older couple leaving the store empty handed, the woman shaking her head. "That's quite a store," she said, with obvious disappointment.)
I suspect the grumbling I've read in the papers here is simply sour organic grapes: Face it, Americans do health food much better than the British, despite all the overweight American jokes Brits are so fond of. Paradoxically, Americans are also obsessed with health. The average American health nut can go one-on-one with the average hooked-on-organics Brit and come out the winner every time.
So score one big one for the home team. Whole Foods in Kensington is, indeed, quite a store.