A haven for kitchen classics

A family business and a cookshop that represents the way our cooking and kitchens have changed in the past four decades, Divertimenti has a spectacular new home. meets the family that brought us the Magimix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

That's a man's toy," says Suzy Schneideman, looking down at a gigantic, granite pestle and mortar that could double as a sculpture in a minimalist's apartment. Thanks to Delia and Jamie, "people are buying pestles and mortars like you wouldn't believe. Everything has to be pummelled and ground." And chopped, drizzled, blitzed, whizzed, stewed, steamed and baked in the frenzy of cooking, aspirational and actual, that has gripped us for the past two decades. Whatever the serious cook needs for any of these, Divertimenti of London will have. It will probably be gorgeous, gleaming and lasting; combining the two qualities that William Morris believed everyday objects should possess: beauty and usefulness. You will search Divertimenti in vain for the spindly legged lemon squeezer, calorie-counting deep-fat fryer, or matching toaster'n'crumpet warmer.

Keeping cooks supplied with these most covetable, essential (at least that's what we tell ourselves) kitchen utensils and equipment has been Mike and Suzy Schneideman's business for some 35 years. As well as setting off paroxysms of consumer desire, Divertimenti embodies the ways cooking and kitchens have – and haven't – changed in this time. Much of the stock has been the same since their first shop opened in the 1960s and, returning from holiday with straw-filled suitcases of Italian china, they were waylaid by customers as they unpacked on the Marylebone pavement.

Twenty years later, when they opened a second shop in London's Fulham Road, British kitchens – once Cinderella's domain – were unrecognisable. "They became the focal point of the house and everyone wanted beautiful things in there," says Suzy. Until then, aluminium pots and chipped enamel pans did the job. By the 1980s, stainless steel was a pre-requisite of an exposed kitchen. Japanese knives had joined the sets of Sabatiers, earthenware was up against lustrous Oriental tableware, and the food processor had transformed our cooking.

By last year, their Wigmore Street shop was overflowing and the lease about to expire. Sound the trumpets and rattle the pots and pans, then, for their new, larger shop, with a skylit café at the back and a demonstration kitchen underneath. Now, with their daughter Camilla running the café and cooking courses, the family business extends to teaching, informing and feeding as well as selling.

How to account for such longevity when cooking is so prone to fluctuations in fashion? "Stupidity," replies Mike. No, on second thoughts, their enthusiasm for cooking must have more to do with it. His family has always been involved with food. His sister Greta is a well-known food writer in Australia. "I'm fascinated by the paraphernalia of cooking."

But the well-designed basics have changed little. "You could walk round the shop and find the things Mrs Beeton said a good kitchen should have: skillets, whisks, copper pans and knives," says Mike. "If you want to brown something crisply and evenly, you can't do better than a copper sauté pan," he adds. "Men love copper pans," says Suzy. "But I don't know if they're quite so keen on cleaning them."

Although able to steel themselves against the temptations of gimmickry gadgetry, they're always looking for innovative equipment – especially, notes Suzy, if it's labour-saving. "But most modern design takes something perfectly serviceable and embellishes it uselessly," believes Mike. An exception is Cristel stainless-steel pans, a new design from a French family company. With detachable handles that you can clip on with one hand, they save storage space when not effortlessly switching from hob to oven. "It's such fun when you know it will work, and it's a serious product," Suzy enthuses. "We try everything to make sure whatever we sell works."

It took them a while to accept non-stick. "We resisted until we found these wonderful SKK pans at a trade fair in Germany, and were the first to import them. Then Delia took them up..."

When Divertimenti began, porcelain soufflé dishes had only been available to commercial kitchens. They still stock the white Pillivuyt French porcelain that they were the first to sell to amateurs. At the time, British middle-class cooks were looking wistfully from their stripped-pine kitchens towards the Mediterranean. Divertimenti shipped in traditional French earthenware pots for daubes, coqs au vins and boeuf bourguignonne. "We were totally inspired by Elizabeth David," says Suzy. They have kept the faith long enough to see France come back into favour, stocking the funnel-topped daubières made by a firm in the south of France for 35 years.

Another French find was the Magimix. Mike became the sole importer and still sells no other food processor. "When the first ones arrived, word got out – everyone wanted one. It sold itself," says Mike.

Once allowed in to Divertimenti, things tend to stay. "We hate to give up anything once we start selling it," says Suzy. Which is why, even though they don't leap at every new piece of kit that comes along, the new shop "will probably be too small by next year".

Divertimenti, 33-34 Marylebone High St, London W1 (020-7935 0689) and 139-141 Fulham Rd, London SW3 (020-7581 8065). www.divertimenti.co.uk for online catalogue and sales

From crocks to woks and back again

"When we first opened in the 1960s, people cooked with enormous quantities of cream, butter and rich sauces," says Mike. Since the early Nineties, grill pans, woks and non-stick SKK pans have been flying off the shelves. Olive-oil sales also rocketed in the early Nineties, while drizzlers and pourers sold by the basketful. The fondue set has made a well-documented comeback; and more informal and ethnic-influenced entertaining translates into sales of cataplanas, tagines and daube pots, so that hosts can recreate Moroccan, French and Asian dishes. The cataplana is a beaten copper pan with a removable lid and hinge, which can be sealed to cook a whole chicken. Mike observes that people are becoming more keen on Asian cooking, particularly Thai and Indian. But some Oriental influences have proved a passing fad: a few years ago, everybody wanted square plates and bamboo mats. "We've still got some if you want any," Suzy says.

The sturdy favourites that are as popular now as they were 30 years ago, Le Creuset pans are indestructible stalwarts. While the Magimix is still a feature of every wedding list, the Kitchen Aid has enjoyed a re-birth and is again top of the UK's shopping lists.

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