A FRENCH REVOLUTION

The most stylish grocer's-cum-cafe in Britain moves to new premises next month. Michael Bateman reports on how Villandry spearheaded a fresh approach to food retailing on the French model
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The Independent Culture
For seven years Villandry has been one of the smallest, pokiest, most uncomfortable, noisiest -and loveliest - places in London in which to eat. This corner of a foreign field (well, Marylebone High Street) that was forever France shut up shop in August. But it is about to be resurrected, on a larger scale, a few blocks away.

Marylebone High Street is a tasteful oasis between two of the most awful tourist sites in London: the rude, loud, ugly, crowded Oxford Street and Madame Tussaud's, a magnet for the seething masses. The street is a model of restrained good taste; it has galleries showing art of all sorts, it has one of the best and prettiest bookshops in the country, Daunt Books.

Villandry was a mecca of sophisticated food shopping. Its sign was understated, faded gold lettering on a dull blue background. Its window displays were like art works too, combining teapots or bottletops, even brown paper, with walnuts or wine or bread. The olives for sale, the pasta, conserves, oils, and so on, were the best of their kind in the world.

Stepping inside, you were confronted by a wooden counter, rather like a village shop in the Thirties. There was takeaway food, pastries both savoury and sweet. There were lovely breads on sale, not a lot, just the best of their kind; such as the real baguettes they sell in Paris, fashioned for quick consumption, not long shelf-life. Wooden shelves contained a few dozen wines of excellent value. Nothing was cheap.

A nest of tables blocked entry to the dining-room at the back, making it impossible to get in without bumping diners as you went by. The back room was like a schoolroom, the wooden floor worn threadbare by use, kindergarten tables pushed next to each other, hard chairs, and all the diners touching elbows, involuntarily sharing each other's conversations.

The decor? Ah, you must mean the dozen brass hooks on the walls, to facilitate the hanging of coats. Or the frieze of ex-Poilane loaves, mounted on a high shelf around the four walls. (Not any old Poilane loaves. You know about the pains de compagne, the slow-risen country breads, from the Parisian master-baker Lionel Poilane? Well, these weren't his, but those of his lesser-known elder brother, Max, also a baker, albeit on a small scale. Max is a poet as well. Very Villandry.)

So why did so many people choose to crowd into this uncomfortable space? For it soon became clear from the manner of dress and the level of conversation, this was a centre of style, culture and intelligence.

Regular customers (and most were) boasted about its discomfort and the time they could wait between courses to be served. It was a non-smoking zone, and smokers chewed till they had no nails. A friend of mine, having waited eternally for his coffee, gently asked the whereabouts of his waitress. "Oh, she went home half an hour ago."

It has to be said the food was marvellous, pure and fresh-tasting; whether it was a warm tart of chevre cheese with salad leaves, or a pan-fried piece of the freshest, melting halibut which might come with sweet oven-baked Italian baby tomatoes, and crackling, expertly made rosti.

Villandry was the creation of an unusual couple from the design and fashion world, Jean-Charles (JC) Carrarnini (French mother, Italian father) and his South African-born wife, Rosalind, who trained at Camberwell College of Art. She's the cook.

Bored with fashion, they decided to open a shop where you could get the kind of food it's so easy to buy in France and impossible to find in one place in Britain. With a cafe at the back. They found this site - and opened in 1988.

Villandry is a chateau on the Loire they visited - the name delighted them. And its customers, too, for it quickly became a cult among diners and discriminating food-shoppers alike. Prices were on the high side; though burdened by a high rent, they had decided not to compromise on quality. "Villandry has been very expensive, too expensive," says JC. "Embarrassingly expensive."

He remembers the occasion in Villandry's early days when restaurant critic Fay Maschler came and, picking up a bottle of balsamic vinegar, remarked that pounds 29 was an outrageous price for it. "Had she picked up the one next to it," says JC ruefully, "she would have seen it had a price tag of pounds 2.90."

(Just a minute. There are some balsamic vinegars like ancient wines, aged for a century or more, as concentrated in intense flavour as surely as a claret like Chateau Petrus which sells for hundreds of pounds. Using a rare balsamic vinegar as a seasoning, drop by drop, is arguably better value than the Petrus and will last for years.)

Prices apart, Villandry was also tiny. "It was too small from day one," says JC. It took two years before planning permission was granted for the little restaurant and then they felt trapped. The dream was to open a larger place with a lower rent, service more people and bring down prices.

Then they found a building at the top of the high street which was scheduled for demolition, and persuaded the landlords it could be turned into a large food market-cum-restaurant. The landlords liked the idea of raising the profile of the area, and offered to help finance it. "But 10 days before we were to sign the agreement," says JC, "a new managing director was appointed. If I didn't have any money, he argued, they should offer it to someone who did.''

Enter Sir Terence Conran. "They felt with his proven track record he'd bring something to the area. I talked to him about my ideas, asking if I could be involved, but he didn't respond."

Actually, JC was rather startled when Conran opened his Bluebird complex on the same lines in Chelsea, a food market with restaurants, a shop. But he is unstinting in his praise for Conran and the contribution he's made to modernising the restaurant world. Now his own plans are complete, he's delighted that Conran will open an 80-seater restaurant, The Orrery, on the Marylebone site in October, since it will draw attention to the area.

The Villandry phoenix rises from the ashes in a month's time just a few streets away. Within the ample site of architect Sir Norman Foster's old offices at 170 Great Portland Street it will be six times bigger, with a huge kitchen in the basement for the restaurant (60 covers) and takeaway foods. The food market will emphasise vegetables and fruit, but will also sell home-baked bread; there will be a Jewish deli counter, a large charcuterie and cheese section, wines, oils, pastas, rices, the lot.

They can't promise that the service will be as slow, or the restaurant chairs as uncomfortable. They can't even promise the prices will be as high. "It'll sell a pounds 6 camembert, the best, but alongside it a reasonably priced one." There will be foods at pounds 50, yes, but apples at 5p. Flour may cost pounds 5 for l.5kg of American organic, but fresh yeast will be free. Heinz Tomato Ketchup will be found beside rare balsamic vinegars.

It's the Villandry claim that British food retailing has always been in a bad way. And it's their belief that the tide is turning and we are ready to pay more for good food. Conran will be watching. Marks & Spencer will be watching. We'll all be watching. We hope they are right.

VILLANDRY'S ROASTED TOMATO AND GOAT'S CHEESE TART

Serves 8

For the pastry:

6oz plain flour

3oz cold unsweetened butter

1 cup cold water

1 egg yolk

pinch of salt

For the filling:

8-10 ripe red tomatoes

1 pint single cream

3 medium eggs

2 egg yolks

salt, pepper and sugar to taste

2 crottin de chavignol or well-flavoured goat's cheese

First, cut the tomatoes in half, take out the seeds and core. Place the tomatoes skin side up on a tray and bake in a slow oven for about one and a half hours, until all the liquid has gone. Take the skins off and season with salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Put aside to cool.

Put flour and salt in a bowl. Add butter and, with your hands, mix until mixture resembles rough breadcrumbs. Add the water slowly with the egg yolk as you might not need all the water: until the pastry just comes together. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for about 30 minutes. On a floured surface roll out the dough to a 35cm (14in) circle about 18in thick. Place the dough carefully into a buttered 30cm (12in) tart tin and put some dried beans in to bake it blind.

Put the tin into a pre-heated oven 350F/180C/Gas 4 and bake for about 20 mins or until pastry is golden and cook-ed underneath. Mix the cream with the eggs and yolks and a little seasoning.

Place the tomatoes in the tart. Pour over the cream and slice the goat's cheese thinly over the top. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cream has set.

POACHED CHICKEN BREAST IN HERB AND GINGER SAUCE

Serves 4

4 chicken breasts without skins

approx 500ml/1 pint homemade chicken stock

vegetables of your choice (eg carrots, broccoli, leeks, celery) cut into bite-size pieces

For the sauce:

2cm/1in fresh ginger

1 clove garlic

pinch of salt and pinch of chilli flakes

4 spring onions, finely chopped

teaspoonful chives, finely chopped

approx 150ml/14 pint arachide/groundnut oil

Simmer gently the chicken breasts and vegetables in the stock for about seven to 10 minutes until just done. Take off the heat. Peel and grate the ginger finely and add to the rest of the ingredients except the oil. Pound or process until you get a paste. Heat the oil until quite hot but not boiling, and pour it slowly over the paste mixture, adding just enough until a smooth, but not too oily, sauce is achieved. Cool.

Place the chicken in a soup bowl with the vegetables as desired and pour a little stock over. Serve with the sauce on the side separately in a little bowl.

ROASTED FIGS WITH ALMONDS

Serves 4

8 ripe black figs

100g/4oz unsalted butter

50g/2oz caster sugar

100g/4oz roasted and ground almonds

Cut the heads off the figs, about 3cm (1/4in) in diameter. Scoop out about one teaspoonful of the pulp and put aside. Keep the heads. Beat the butter and the sugar until light. Fold in the ground almonds and mashed fig pulp. Stuff figs and place the heads on top. Bake in a moderate oven for about seven to 10 minutes until soft to the touch. Serve figs with either a red fruit syrup, creme fraiche or plain yogurt.

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