Sometimes you have to leave London to understand it better.
I was walking through FavershamMarket on Tuesday when I decided it might be a good idea to stock up on food for the long walk ahead. I walked quickly past the artisan bread stall, but I was swiftly drawn to one particular stall stacked with homemade baked-goods. Here were cakes and pies and rolls and puffs, of a size I'm not used to seeing elsewhere, slotted into the display like an edible mosaic. I plumped for a Ham and Chicken Slice, cold, at the very reasonable price of £1.50. But the true target of my quest was a particularly oversized concoction, a thick glistening Bath Bun, the finest specimen of which the lady behind the table bagged and handed over.
This was truly a behemoth amongst Bath Buns. Twice as wide as your average square bun, hence four times the volume, it lay appreciatively heavily in my hand. The irregular surface was twisted with convincing home-baked browning, liberally scattered with more sugar chunks than my dentist would appreciate. Several juicy sultanas and glacé cherries lurked within the light and flaky dough, and the whole thing tasted just as good as it looked, over a dozen plus bites. I took a photo before I devoured it, the better to share my delight afterwards, although I realise now I forgot to include any comparable object for scale so the magnificence of its dimensions is lost.
And it only cost £1.30. Wow that's damned good value, I thought, as I wandered away from the stall. In London you'd be hard pushed to find something of comparable quality a quarter the size of that, and for double the price. And I sighed, because I live in the place where things that are less good cost more.
Last month BestMate and I ended up at Kenwood House after a hike across Hampstead Heath. We decided to go into the cafe there, the Brew House, for a cup of tea and maybe a nice piece of cake. The tea was fine, and we got a pot of that and put it on our tray, and then we went to look at the cake. The cake was pristine and rich, neatly sliced into thin slivers. Alongside were oaty cuboids and chocolate-topped mini-bricks, and a selection of twisty croissants and moist pastries. All tasty enough, at least until we saw the price. Two or even three pounds something for a four-bite portion isn't my idea of good value, not taking pennies per cubic centimetre into account, so we passed. Others sat around us enjoying a light salad, or the kind of breakfast where the egg is free range and a portion of button mushrooms adds two pound twenty-five. We simply enjoyed our tea, and gave the overpriced 'homemade' cake a miss.
Then earlier this month my dad and I ended up at the Barbican. Again we'd been for a bit of a walk and so a cup of tea and cake was in order. Again we bought the tea, although two pounds fifty for a pot made us wince for what is essentially a bag of leaves in water plus do it yourself milk. And again we looked at the table of cakes, neatly arrayed across several layers, and decided that no, they really weren't worth the asking price. I always find it instructive in these cases to multiply up the cost of a single slice by the apparent number of portions the original was cut into, and gasp at the sheer impudence of the total amount. So we completely skipped the cake, and just took the tea, and the cafe ended up with less of our money as a result. But that's Benugo for you.
Back on Hampstead Heath, the same company are about to make unwelcome inroads at two other cafes currently independently run. The D’Auria family have run the Parliament Hill bandstand cafe for more than thirty years but are about to be kicked out, the City of London having just awarded the new franchise to Benugo instead. Something similar is lined up for the cafe in Golders Hill Park, another characterful and chirpy bolthole now facing a wholesale Benugo remake. The new food line-up will be fresh and locally sourced, but less flexible or diverse than the menu it replaces, and with a commensurate hike in the cost of a visit. Local residents, unsurprisingly, are not happy.
What's happening in London, indeed has been happening for some time, is the gradual snuffing out of originality in the food we sit down to eat with teas and coffees, and its replacement by something with considerably less soul. You can see it in Starbucks, Costa and Pret, a cabinet of overpriced biscuits and stodgy treats that punters snap up without a thought. It's evident in the dry muffins and tiny brownies that now pass for cakes in the majority of dining establishments, along with thin slivers of some mass-produced gateau that the owner whipped out of the freezer a couple of hours ago. It's there in the Searcys at Kenwood House and the Benugo at the Barbican, delivering identikit 'portions' rather than crafted delight.
More to the point, it's the unstoppable advance of duller food at a higher price, because the market in London will always bear it. The City of London know they'll get a higher return for their money on Parliament Hill if a posh chain takes over from a family enterprise, so pan-fried salmon and creme fraiche lemon tarts will oust pasta and homemade cake, and the original clientèle can jolly well eat elsewhere. Small chocolate squares and four quid sponge slices are becoming the default, rather than a luxury treat, as coffeetime becomes a conveyor belt to minimise human input and maximise profit. That's the snack future we're sleepwalking into, or indeed already have, no longer something to delight but an excuse to bleed your wallet in bitesize chunks.
Yes, I know this is nothing new. Yes, I know that the cost of producing baked goods for a market stall isn't directly comparable to a cafe with overheads. And yes, I know there are plenty of high streets in London where fabulous cakes and pastries are still served at reasonable prices, just as there are plenty of rip-off locations in the counties outside. But that chunky Bath bun I devoured in Faversham was so good, and so large, and so cheap, that it made me yearn for a homespun quality that London is increasing throwing away. The Benugo-isation of the capital isn't something to celebrate, but something to mourn.