Green Baron

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The green baron


When I arrive at the Woodstock Road Delicatessen I scan the room for Baron Robert Pouget, looking for a suave dandy dressed in tweed, cords and a cravat.

Then out of the corner of my eye I notice a larger-than-life character clambering about in the window, erecting a new sign, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that, although he looks nothing like I'd expected, that this is my man.

And I'm right. He catches my eye, strides over and shakes me firmly by the hand, before inviting me for lunch next door.

But I want to see the Baron at home, in this veggie oasis he has created, and it's most likely to be the best place to figure out what makes him tick.

He's a robust character brimming with enthusiasm and anecdotes, and is hugely convivial into the bargain. He could charm the hind legs off a donkey and with plummier vowels than Boris Johnson, you'd expect to find him tucked away in some gentleman's club off Pall Mall, rather than sat in his flat cap among the tables of this, his latest business venture.

But ask why he has shunned the stereotypical hunting, shooting and fishing lifestyle and he raises an eyebrow, stares you straight in the eye and gently points out that's rather a clich├ęd vision of society and surely life's not really like that anymore. It was a gentle message but a firm one, and I immediately respect him for it and decide I like him even more.

advertisementBut then the Baron is the very antithesis of everything you would expect. Instead of being one of the establishment, animal welfare and sustainable food are what get him going. "It's all about sticking to your guns," he said without a whiff of irony. "The deli is vegetarian and where possible organic, and while some people say I'm losing sales by not selling salami, sometimes you just have to say 'no sorry'."

Judging by the regulars queueing at the counter for his wonderful array of healthy salads, sandwiches and soups, word has already got around that if you want to eat well with a conscience this is a good place to start, with students mingling happily with the yoga mums.

It helps that the 67-year-old already owns kitchens in Oxfordshire which produce food for his son William's Alpha Bar in the Covered Market, St Mary's Vaults and of course the secret ingredients for another new venture, the launch of Oxford Sauce, which has a wonderful spicy Worcester Sauce taste.

The Baron is also campaigning to have a healthy food van alongside the city's kebab vans to give our arteries a chance. Add the Oxford Cheese Company to his bow, and it doesn't take Houdini to work out that the Baron has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies. Sweeney Todd eat your heart out.

His four sons were all raised with the same ethics and have, as a result, also chosen a more alternative way of life, William being the most obvious chip-off-the-old-block.

But however much the Baron has achieved, he still looks like he should be a judge or something in The City, so why food and why Oxford, especially as he lives in Cheltenham with his second wife and their 10 year old daughter.

"Cheltenham is a solid English middle-class place and will never budge, while Oxford is much more multi-racial. Cheltenham is a ghastly place actually, devoid of interest, while Oxford is so vibrant. I love it here. There really is nowhere else quite like it.

"And people know I'm not just out to make money, it's also about principals and a commitment to the veggie cause. Besides it's bloody hard to eat out at lunchtimes if you're a veggie or vegan sometimes."

And while the Baron is keen to discuss all things close to his heart, from overpopulation and the poverty trap to free range benefits and organic food, his conversation is riddled with some wonderfully risque stories. He may work and think hard, but boy he played hard too and would be the perfect person to sit next to at a dinner party.

As for the ethical tangent, he talks about a couple of life-changing books he read in the 60s predicting the demise of food thanks to mass producing and factory farming. "What's happening now was all prophesied, which got me thinking in ecological terms from an early age," he explains.

The Baron's first venture was called Veggie Heaven, and included setting a stall up in delicatessens throughout London selling great veggie produce and a good alternative to snack food - veggie sausage rolls and samosas when nut cutlets were the only alternative.

But Baron Robert was an immediate victim of his own success and just couldn't keep up with demand, going spectacularly broke in the process. "It was an absolute bloody disaster," he chuckled. "I went bankrupt and had to start all over again aged 40. And it really takes it out of you," he pauses for a moment. "I mean I laugh about it now but it was tragic. So then I slipped into cheese," he says modestly.

Once the Oxford Cheese Company was up-and-running Baron Robert changed tack and disappeared off to France to make documentaries. He's an entrepreneur and an ideas man but as soon as things get too cosy he's off, trying something else out.

"By 1989 business was doing well and I got a bit bored, so I went off to Paris until 1994 to make movies. It was tremendous fun but a financial drag because whatever I was making at home I was spending. So I decided I better concentrate on making money for a while and pull my socks up," he explains. Which brought him back to Oxford and the Woodstock Road Delicatessen.

And with plans to open a similar delicatessen in London, run along the same lines, the Baron still has plenty of ideas up his sleeve, although having been burnt once, he's keen not to make the same mistakes again. "We have got to be careful because the next step is crucial," he agrees.

"And while in the general scheme of things what we are doing here may seem a bit prissy, we are doing our bit. If we were just in it for the money we would have opened a fish and chip shop or something," he says chuckling again.

"The thing is, I'm as interested in making a movie or a documentary as I am about food and I have a lot of hobbies. I love painting and drawing, so I'm not quite as committed as I could be." I'm quite sure that everyone who knows him wouldn't have it any other way.