No more fighting through curtains of jangling bells or clouds of incense. Michael Bateman meets the two young and trendy forerunners of the organic supermarket revolution
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Would you be more comfortable buying organic food if it wasn't so morally superior? And we're not talking about the shop assistants selling the stuff, some of whom are on an altoge-ther higher spiritual plane.

The coffee and cocoa, the labels assure us, come from politically correct sources. The grapes have never en-gaged in insecticidal warfare. Carrots, lettuce and potatoes arrive at the shop in a state of grace, never having been exposed to the evil of artificial fertilisers. At the meat counter, to be sure, are cuts of meat from animals who were themselves vegetarians, if not actually conscientious objectors.

So what, if you pay through the nose for these righteous and moral assurances? So what, if the carrots weigh in with clumps of earth attached to them? So what, if the organic wholemeal flour tastes bitter because it has been hanging around for six months (wheat germ oils go rancid in time, as oils do in nuts).

To be fair, organic food has much to be said in its favour, or rather, in its flavour. Produced in small quantities by dedicated people, adhering to traditional skills, it is usually very tasty, especially the fruit and vegetables. Dried fruit and nuts are mostly reassuringly good. Meat and chicken are often superior, if expensive, due to the cost of giving animals organic feed.

Another big plus with organic wholefood shops is their policy of stocking a whole range of products largely ignored by the big supermarkets, much of it dedicated to vegetarians; pulses, whole- grains (wheat, barley, rye) and a wide variety of flours (white, wholemeal, gluten-free and maize).

And there are always shelves devoted to derivatives of the soy bean: soy milk, soy flour, tofu, miso pastes, soy sauces. And alongside them interesting Japanese items: unusual seaweeds (nori, kombu), sesame seeds, pickled vegetables.

It can be an Aladdin's cave for the food-lover who's prepared to run the gauntlet of moral disapproval. White sugar did I hear you say? Go, wash your mouth out with whale-fat-free soap.

And don't you, as a lover of food rather than pills and powders, resent the intrusion of aisles of vitamin and mineral supplements? A few jars of Vitamin C are surely in order (it being an essential vitamin which the body doesn't synthesise), but a range of many hundreds is surely more appropriate to a chemist.

It's in this context that a very welcome newcomer to the organic scene celebrates today its first year in business. Planet Organic, in the Bayswater area of London.

First of all, it's the biggest organic shop in the UK packing in 5,000sq ft behind its modest frontage in West-bourne Grove. Big for Britain, maybe. It's run by partners, Americans Jonathan Dwek, and Renee Elliott. She is from Boston which sports an organic store, Bread and Circus, some eight times larger than theirs (40,000sq ft).

However, it's not so much the size as the sophistication which impresses. The colour, the flowers, the juice bar serving specials of the day - such as Zinger, an ice-cold tumbler of apple, orange, carrot juice and ginger.

And more to the point is the range of really interesting, superb fruit and veg; fine dairy products, cheeses, yoghurts, goats' and sheeps' milk (sheeps' milk butter is a revelation). Lovely juices, salsas, chutneys, French sugar-free jams. Great flours, super-fresh nuts (it takes an American to get New Orleans pecans to you as fresh as this) and dried fruit. And meat - so good it could reverse the trend towards vegetarianism - and fish so fresh it doesn't smell of fish, which is as fresh as fish can get (the mackerel is caught on day boats, and is probably not 12 hours out of the sea).

There is a wine section with a range of 150 organic products, the largest selection in the country. "Ten years ago, most organic wine was poor," says Renee Elliott, a former wine journalist, "but it's come on in leaps and bounds in quality and price. There are still some poor ones, but we don't stock them."

Planet Organic is run with the easy efficiency of a modern supermarket. This is deliberate, says Renee. "Some wholefood shops are cluttered and dusty. They are patronised by the beads-and-sandals fraternity. I spoke to a woman who said of a shop in Brighton, if she was wearing lipstick and pearls she felt she couldn't go in."

Well, if you wanted, you could shop in a Holland & Barrett store in your lipstick and pearls. But then it has drifted away from wholefoods and into health supplements, so it's not so very different from shopping in a chemist.

Big as the wholefood and health food movement is in the UK, isn't opening an organic superstore a bit of a high-risk venture? "We felt the time was right and customers have proved it," says Renee. "I wanted to take the food out of a niche and put it into the mainstream, in a professional setting. After all, organic food is healthy food, it's the purest, the cleanest, the tastiest."

Renee Elliott was a student in Boston when she met her husband, who is English. They married and she came to England, eventually settling into a job on Wine Magazine. "It was very int-eresting and I learned a lot about wine (and wine writers) but I wasn't satisfied. I'd thought all my life, what am I going to do? What did God put me here for?"

God wanted you to open an organic supermarket? More or less. The first step was innocent enough. She went off meat five years ago, though not on moral grounds, simply finding it too heavy to digest. Then there was the salmonella-in-chickens scare. Then she went off fish.

Back in Boston with her husband, she visited Bread and Circus and suddenly she knew her destiny. With enviable single-mindedness she got herself a job as manager of the wholefood store Wild Oats in Portobello Road. "I knew I'd done the right thing. I loved every bag of rice and can of beans."

A chance meeting with Jonathan Dwek convinced her that if he didn't become her partner he would soon be her rival, and they teamed up. For experience, he went to work in one of Cali-fornia's biggest organic superstores.

Planet Organic is not obviously messianic, but Renee has an almost religious devotion to the cause, holding that excessive use of additives and preservatives, insecticides and pesticides, may be responsible for a number of illnesses in modern society, certainly for many cancers.

She believes white sugar is used excessively and unnecessarily in the food industry to the detriment of health, so it's barred from her store, along with anything made from hydrogenated fat (used to make, so-called, healthy margarines).

"Hydrogenated fat is not a food found anywhere in nature. Vegetable oil is mixed with hydrogen and heated to a very high temperature to form globules. This substance occurs no-where in nature. The human body doesn't know what to do with it. But it suits the food industry. It's easy to handle, it's cheaper than other fats."

The newest anxiety, she says, is genetic engineering. "It is being rushed through by scientists. We haven't even got the right to label it yet. The new soy bean crop from the US has five per cent genetic material mixed in with it."

She feels their time has come. Certainly organic vegetables, meat and poultry increasingly figure on the shopping lists of the more discriminating chefs, notably Anton Mosimann.

When Prince Charles delivered a lecture in September on organic farming, the organic dinner was cooked by Mosimann who is an energetic supporter of the cause. "So much is going on left and right," explains Mosimann. "People are now saying that enough is enough. I always look to work with the best possible ingredients and organic food tastes good."

The recipes opposite are two dishes he cooked for the organic Prince.

! Planet Organic, 42 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5FH. Tel: 0171 221 7171


Serves 4

750g/1lb 8oz large spinach leaves, washed and tough stalks removed

240g/8oz vegetables according to taste (carrots, leeks, celery, green courgettes, yellow courgettes, bean shoots)

25g/1oz clarified butter

2 small shallots, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

115g/4oz strudel leaves (filo pastry) (usually four leaves weigh about 115g)

30ml/2 tablespoons olive oil

90g/3oz Fontina cheese, cut into six slices

3 hard-boiled eggs

25g/1oz pine kernels

25g/1oz alfalfa sprouts

50g/2oz butter, melted

180ml/6fl oz fresh tomato coulis (strained fresh or tinned tomatoes)

coriander leaves

For the filling: blanch the spinach for approximately 20 seconds in boiling, salted water. Rinse in cold water and allow to dry on a cloth.

Prepare vegetables as appropriate, then cut into thin strips and blanch quickly in boiling salted water. Drain.

Melt the butter and sweat the shallots until softened, add the vegetable strips and saute for a few minutes. Season with salt, ground pepper and nutmeg. Spread the vegetables on a tray and allow to cool.

Lay out a sheet of filo pastry flat on the work surface. Brush lightly with olive oil. Repeat the process using four leaves (one for each portion).

Put half of the cheese slices on to the spinach followed by half of the vegetable strips. Cover with the whole peeled eggs, the pine kernels and sprouts. Top with the remaining vegetables, cheese slices and spinach.

Roll the pastry up into a Swiss roll shape with the filling inside. Brush the metled butter over the strudel. Bake for about 40 minutes in the oven preheated to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

Serve warm with fresh tomato coulis. Garnish with coriander leaves.


Serves 4

4 x 150g/5oz chicken breast, trimmed of sinew

150ml/5fl oz plain yoghurt

10g/1 tablespoon turmeric

10g/14oz fresh ginger, grated

2 sprigs rosemary

2 sprigs thyme

salt and freshly ground pepper

Mix the yoghurt with the turmeric, ginger, rosemary and thyme and pour over the chicken. Cover with clingfilm and place in the refrigerator. Allow to marinate for at least two hours. Remove the excess marinade and the ginger.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Grill the chicken for three to four minutes on each side or until golden. Remove and place on a tray.

Place in the oven preheated to 180C/ 350F/Gas 4 for another five to eight minutes depending on the thickness of the breasts. Remove and serve with couscous salad or stir-fried vegetables.