"The age of gastronomic chic is upon us", Vogue has declared. The proof of that pudding can be found in a once-neglected pocket of London's West End, which has reinvented itself as the capital's gourmet village. With the recent arrival of the biggest farmers' market in the city, Marylebone has become the place where the Jamie Oliver generation goes to get its goodies.
Less than 10 years ago, the neighbourhood's main claim to fame was an unrivalled number of charity shops. Marylebone had an air of neglect, like the mistresses for whom its mansion-block flats were the equivalent of being put out to pasture. A few remaining window displays of flouncy underwear and peignoirs bear witness to its residential history.
Their days must be numbered, because the population's getting younger, richer and cooler. They're converts to so-called village life, and when the living is relatively easy, the good-lifers go shopping for food.
Marylebone, marooned between Tube stations, yet only a few hundred yards from the malodorous maelstrom of Oxford Street, really is more like a village than many country parishes (which these days are often bereft of shops, bus stops, primary schools and community spirit).
Here, you can hear the church bells ring; see the schoolchildren on the rooftop playground; and the gutted ground floor of an 18th-century terrace where a butcher's shop is due to open; the bakers, the Victorian fishmonger; the Art Deco chippie; the grocer, hardware store, bookshop and newsagent. But being an exclusive quartier of London, the grocer is Waitrose, the baker's Maison Blanc, and there's a Conran épicerie, Italian deli, and not just any old cheese shop, but La Fromagerie, probably the finest in London.
On a Sunday morning in the High Street, anyone with a basket overflowing with frondy-topped carrots and a punnet of strawberries is likely to be stopped and asked the way to the farmers' market. In its first week, the butcher, called Food for Thought, selling "sympathetically produced food for people who care", found so many caring customers that it sold out of legs of lamb. Three Sundays later, the recreational hunter-gatherers are out in even greater force: French couples, Americans, the young, the old, and infants in pushchairs swarmed round the 30-odd stalls, bumping their designer shopping-trolleys (Orla Kiely's version is de rigueur) and top-of-the-range baby buggies over the rutted ground of the decommissioned car park.
To fill their baskets there are figs and muscat grapes grown this side of the M25; oysters from Maldon; wines from Battle; tarts and focaccia made by the local Caffe Caldesi using stallholders' seasonal ingredients. Dress code: linen for women, polo shirts for men. It's the ultimate rus in urbe experience. And no matter what it costs. Two women are having a conversation about escarole, the only lettuce the stallholder doesn't seem to grow. A bunch of carrots costs £1.80.
Back on the High Street, under Maison Sagne's awning, croissants and coffees are the order of the day; outside Providores, it's steamed asparagus with boiled eggs and yuzu mayonnaise. A couple of doors up, Waitrose is enjoying another of the record-breaking Sunday mornings it's been having since the market arrived in June.
Jonathan Glanz, chairman of the Marylebone Association, representing the residential and commercial community, says that not so long ago, you could have fired a cannon down Marylebone High Street on a Saturday afternoon and not hit anyone. Try it now and there'd be terrible human casualties, and dozens of broken free-range eggs, squashed farmhouse cheeses, and bruised organic fruit and vegetables. Even, or perhaps especially, on a Sunday.
When he was looking for somewhere to open his own restaurant, after making his reputation as the only pukka practitioner of fusion cooking, Peter Gordon and his co-chef Anna Hansen earmarked Marylebone. "Even though people told us, 'Marylebone is dead at night', it was the only part of the West End we could afford." That was less than two years ago. For a weekend table at Providores, you'd better book well ahead. At 10am on Sundays, there's a queue outside, and 300 people regularly turn up for lunch on Saturdays.
Over the road, at a Divertimenti cookery class, those who manage to book can catch one of Peter Gordon's occasional cooking demonstrations. Having outgrown its Wigmore Street shop, the legendary kitchen store made a dazzling arrival on the High Street just over a year ago, complete with a café and demonstration kitchen. Leith's-trained Camilla Schneideman put together a programme of 30 cookery classes, and waited to see what the response would be. Within days of their being announced, classes by the River Cafe chefs, and Alastair Little and Peter Gordon sell out.
Students can buy all the ingredients on the doorstep for Camilla's sweet potato (Waitrose), preserved lemon (La Fromagerie) and Swiss chard (farmers' market) risotto (arborio rice from the deli, Speck). "To think," says her mother Suzy Schneideman, who opened Divertimenti 35 years ago, "it is such a brilliant central- London site, but it used to seem so grotty and depressing."
Maison Sagne, the patisserie, opened in 1926. The fishmonger, Blagden's, has been in the same family since 1954. Then, until Conran came six years ago, Marylebone was a shabby backwater. More shops closed than opened, and the remaining greengrocer sold its last pound of veg in the 1980s.
Until the 1960s, according to David Blagden, this was the larder of the West End. There were three fish shops, two greengrocers, several bakers. He's seen the area's fortunes and food shops through the troughs of the 1980s and 1990s to its new gastronomic peak. "It's always been known for it, and it's great to have it back," says the welcoming neighbour. "Blagden's wrote us a lovely letter when we opened," Sarah Bilney at La Fromagerie confirms.
After Waitrose arrived in 1999, food shops followed thick and fast: Paul, the rustically beamed French baker; Maison Blanc, the spick and span patisserie; Speck, the Italian deli. Conran added its épicerie, and, most recently, La Fromagerie, the ne plus ultra of cheese shops, wafted into the neighbourhood exuding artisanal chic. In the temperature-controlled, glass-walled room, the cheeses, their lava-like rinds and chalky cliff-faces displayed like geological exhibits, are separated from the café and a collection of other delectables.
It's as beautiful a way of presenting and selling food as Blagden's, the family fishmonger, is a traditional one. In 1890, the north-facing fish shop was purpose-built. "We're like figures out of Camberwick Green," says David Blagden, who has worked there since 1979, and whose 17-year-old son works with him. "People like us - independent, specialist retailers - are like rocking-horse shit."
Not any longer. Not in Marylebone.
Such a charming, neighbourly and appetising scene didn't develop by chance. Like many of the best-preserved villages (and some of the most run-down) there's a powerful landlord behind it. The squire has the whip hand in Marylebone village, and that's why it has gone up in the world. Just under 100 acres between the Marylebone Road, Oxford Street, Wigmore Street and Portland Place, belong to the Howard de Walden estate. It is one of the few private, family-owned estates that still, by an extraordinary anachronism, owns large and almost immeasurably valuable chunks of London. Others are the Duke of Westminster's Grosvenor estate, covering Mayfair and Belgravia, the Cadogan in Chelsea, and the neighbouring Portman estate in Marylebone. They can control the appearance and fortunes of a whole area and - if they invest well - reap the benefits in the commercial and residential rents of a neighbourhood with cachet.
Going gastro is part of the landlord's imaginative, if not altogether altruistic, scheme to improve the area. Once Waitrose had joined the ever-canny Conran, and the locals could buy their basic food there, suitable food shops were invited to join them. "We wanted to concentrate on getting traditional high-street uses back, to create a unique shopping environment that doesn't look like every other high street in the country," says Stephen Bateman, the estate manager in charge of the retail portfolio.
The estate managers courted the organisers of the farmers' markets, and handpicked the retailers needed to fill the gaps left in the 1980s. Some of these, according to David Blagden (whose landlord is not the estate), wouldn't have occurred if rents hadn't risen at the time.
But even good neighbours can have reservations about the way things are going. As one of the traders who predates the current influx of luxury food shops, Mr Blagden isn't as upbeat as recent converts. The congestion charge is a sore point. His trade has dropped by a fifth since it was introduced. His Fridays can be quiet, and the farmers' market, on a Sunday, has just shunted trade to the weekend. Should he open on Sunday? "It seems irreverent."
Fish is fashionable. In theory. Blagden used to sell coley to old ladies for their cats. "We're not élitist in any shape or form," he insists, "but you have to adapt to the market around you, and that large, indigenous working-class population has moved out. Now, I sell wild salmon, trout, lobster..." Still, it takes a little know-how to cook fish. "The prevalence of ready meals is staggering," sighs the fishmonger.
Ask Waitrose. This branch is in the group's Top 10 for numbers of customers through the door, yet there are 199 larger Waitroses elsewhere. It sells more takeaway meals than any other in the chain.
Its prestigious independent neighbours, La Fromagerie, Providores and Divertimenti, were all approached as tenants, and are all understandably appreciative of their landlord. "The estate has gone out of its way to find good businesses, and it understands how the small ones work," says La Fromagerie's Sarah Bilney. But that doesn't mean that they got knock-down rents. "We're a property company. We're not going to protect people," admits Bateman. But the estate is so large, it has a range of properties into which it can steer tenants.
La Fromagerie was offered a site round the corner from the more expensive High Street. Now the next-door building is being restored, and Ginger Pig, a Midlands organic-meat producer, is likely to take it on. Next, Bateman would like to recruit a greengrocer. Any takers? He's talking to market stallholders. Providores also has plans for a deli up its sleeve.
When Ginger Pig opens, says Jonathan Glanz, "we'll have the butcher, the bakers, and the candlestick-maker. Even if the candlestick-maker is Conran." Some village.
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