Baker & Spice is a first class addition to Little Venice

Our food critic Victoria Prever is delighted by her new neighbour Clifton Road in Little Venice is fast becoming a hive of gourmet activity. The most recent addition to this epicurean honey pot is the fourth Baker & Spice, which has moved into the site l

Our food critic Victoria Prever is delighted by her new neighbour

Clifton Road in Little Venice is fast becoming a hive of gourmet activity. The most recent addition to this epicurean honey pot is the fourth Baker & Spice, which has moved into the site last occupied by the

post office.

Prior to the opening, the excitement of local foodies was marred by a certain amount of unenthusiastic moaning and groaning (from those more interested in their stamps then their stomachs) about losing yet another local service to an upmarket, niche food store.

As Gail Mejia, the forthright and plain speaking founder of Baker & Spice, told me when we met, the fact is that this site had, in fact, been empty for a good two years before they were approached to take it over. "I didn't close the post office. The post office closed the post office - it went two years ago. No doubt not everyone will adore us but, hopefully, we'll be a nice addition

to the neighbourhood."

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Baker & Spice is an Aladdin's cave of bread, patisserie and fresh, colourful, delicious home-cooked food. Trays of light crisp vienoisserie, plump shiny fruit flans, creamy cheesecakes, gooey brownies and monster-sized meringues tantalise passers-by.

Once lured inside, the drooling customer is tempted by huge bowls of spiced, roasted nuts, toasted granola, ruby oranges and pomegranates. Refrigerated counters are packed with a rainbow of fresh, interesting salads with clear Middle Eastern influence. Racks of different artisan breads and shelves of oils, pickles and preserves complete the gastronomic onslaught.

Gail tells me that 28 years ago, she came to England from Israel to study and "got stuck" (or married) "three times". Now happily "stuck" to Vince - who's also her head chef and a "leading light" in the development of new dishes - she has no immediate plans to return to the country she still regards as home.

Seventeen of those years have been spent running her own business in the food industry. Bread distribution (Gail Force) led to a bakery - The Bread Factory - very successfully operating in West Hendon. In her role as a supplier to food retailers, she could see a gap in the food market. As a consumer, she missed the variety of interesting, colourful food she'd taken for granted in her home country and so began the idea for Baker & Spice. The first store opened in Chelsea after she happened to see a site available in Walton Street.

When asked why food, Gail, not someone to mince her words,

shrugs: "Because it's something I'm exceptionally good at - as it turns out, not that I knew." It wasn't born of a desperate (but now clichéd) passion to work with food - it

didn't follow "30 years dreaming about food".

Her business premise was " a food shop where you could eat" - selling interesting, fresh, attractive food, tasting as good as it looked. It is essentially to be devoured at home. But if you really can't wait (and can find a seat) it can be served to you at one of their communal tables. This was Gail's idea - the first was at Queen's Park. "I've always wanted one, we were the first ones in town and now everybody's at it." The intention is to give the feel of eating in a cook's kitchen. Not a "chef's table" - where, like puffed-up peacocks, top chefs allow mere mortals to pay top dollar to eat in spitting distance of their stoves. No, more of a home kitchen - in the home of the most accomplished cook you know - but one who's asked rather too many people over for lunch, that is.

Three more stores have followed the first one, Queen's Park in 2000

- a second Chelsea site (to replace Walton Street where the lease expired) in 2003 and in 2004, Belgravia. The newest addition is our very own Little Venice branch. Growth has been at a measured pace so that Gail and her team of (all female) directors can ensure what is sold in each store is the best quality.

Now with four sites to stock, Gail's a busy lady. "Never a great supporter of the easy life" - six days a week she's scouring New Covent Garden Market as well as organic suppliers for the best fruit and vegetables she can find. She then loads up her car and delivers them to her four stores. Her hardworking chefs - who start work at 5am (4am for the pastry chefs) then face a "ready steady cook" style challenge to create that day's dishes from the produce in front of them.

So you won't find the same dishes, day in, day out at Baker & Spice. Pastries, breads and cakes are fairly consistent but, of the deli dishes, the menu varies daily - reflecting what Gail has found at the market. Even the much requested favourite dishes, like their chicken pie, won't appear if they've run out of the quality-assured chicken they prefer to use.

Gail's priority is to seek out the best ingredients, ensuring she can be certain of selling the freshest and most tasty food every day. The only way she feels she can guarantee this is to touch, feel and smell the ingredients herself.

It may seem a lot trouble to do things this way, but Gail's view is that "if we cannot produce it exceptionally, we will not do it". Once she has returned from the market with prime produce, she then spends much of her day in her stores, keeping an eye on the quality of the dishes served.

It's not just the fruit and veg. The provenance of everything is carefully evaluated - meats are sourced directly from farms. The beef they sell - organically farmed Angus/Jersey cross-breed from Somerset - is bred uniquely for them. The same farmer supplies them with the Jersey milk they use and sell in store. Chicken, pork and salt marsh lamb, mutton and hogget are all purchased from carefully sourced, individual suppliers. Fish is wild, never farmed.

Everything you see in a Baker & Spice store has been hand produced - much in the sizeable kitchen attached to each store - although certain items, such as doughs for breads and pastries, are made in their central kitchen in Ladbroke Grove.

It's the domestic goddess's dream - without all that tiresome clearing up.

If Gail finds a glut of high quality fruit, then she'll deliver it to the central kitchen where they make vats of seasonal jam - jars of which line the shelves for purchase and more still that sit on the tables alongside huge hunks of creamy butter for guests to slather onto buttery brioches or chewy sourdough bread.

One regular criticism made of them - and of the various similar food retailers that have followed in Gail's tracks - is their steep pricing. It's truly premium priced nosh. Some joke you'd need much of the gold from Aladdin's cave to pay for these treasures. On this subject, Gail's view is that it "has everything to do with people's understanding of what they're eating". For her, what they're producing is all about quality -

hand-made food from the finest ingredients - and their prices

reflect that.

The Little Venice store is, for Gail, the culmination of her experience to date. In the future, she hopes to offer cooking to classes from guest chefs in the shiny, state-of-the art-kitchen in the store's basement. "We used to have classes in Walton Street and we're still being nagged 10 years later to resurrect them."

I ask Gail what the future holds. Will we be seeing a Baker & Spice on every street corner? "Once we've bedded things down (at Little Venice), when everyone's happy with what they're doing and it's working, then we'll look." There will be more stores - but not hundreds. If Gail says so, I don't doubt it.