In a dimly-lit room, a dozen twenty-somethings gather around a large table to relax, “reconnect” and learn.
But this group is not learning a new language, setting up a book club or planning a business venture. They are attending a workshop – taking place in the basement of Selfridges, one of London’s swankiest department stores – to learn how to peel potatoes.
For most people, peeling spuds is an everyday chore. But for some of those attending the workshop it is apparently close to a religious experience.
“I’ve never peeled a potato before in my life” declares Antonio Pignone, as peel curls from the blade of his wooden-handled paring knife. “I’m from an Italian family so maybe that’s not that surprising. But now I am finally doing it I am really enjoying it. I’m finding it a very meditative experience.”
Andy Stanford, a 26-year-old who works in social media, was employing a deft right-hand style. “I’ve just lost sense of all time”, he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it and forgotten about checking my emails – because I can’t.”
The potato peeling workshop is part of a new programme which aims to help stressed-out consumers calm down and “reconnect” with themselves.
The peeling is supervised by food anthropologists and hosts Suzy Webb and Bea Farrell. Participants have the choice of a old-fashioned paring knife, or a traditional metal potato or vegetable peeler.
“Some people were clearly not used to using a knife so we have shown them how to use that safely” said Webb. “We have also shown how to peel carefully, without wasting too much of the potato. The key thing is to look carefully what you are doing. Once you have got the knack you can do it quite quickly.”
Workshop attendees could select from three types of potato: standard Maris Pipers, new potatoes – which guests were helpfully informed could be lightly scrubbed rather than peeled – and an exotic French purple variety.
For one attendee the event rekindled happy memories. Jessica Swan from Australia recalled how she and her brother used to have a competition to peel an entire potato without breaking the peel. “It reminded me of happy family times”, she laughed. “It all came flooding back to me.”
The peel-in is part of a project – dubbed Our House – that Selfridges says explores the subject of home and what it means to people now, given problems like the millions of people displaced across the world, spiralling house prices and increased homelessness.
And it’s not just about potatoes. The department store reckons that people can find solace and contentment from other basic activities and rituals, so there are other group activities planned, like lessons in how to grind spices by hand, tie herb bundles, and even make tea, using leaves rather than a teabag. .
It all takes place in a semi-darkened “conceptual farmhouse” in the shop’s basement. Participants gain admission by ringing a cow bell, and have to remove their shoes and put away their mobile phones. Those feeling a tad tired can lie down and have a nap on a straw bed.
Obviously, there are also a few things on sale, and not potato peelers. The project is a collaboration with a neighbouring Mayfair shop called The New Craftsmen, which stocks the work of independent designers in the luxury homewares and furnishings sector, like ceramicists, textile designersand furniture makers.
So newly competent spud bashers can snap up an incense stick for £20, or a decorative wooden bowl for £1,000.
“We are increasingly disconnected from crafts and making and doing things because the world is becoming more and more virtual” said Catherine Lock, founder of The New Craftsmen, who helped curate the ambient activities on offer. “At the same time goods being produced are homogenised and bland. We hope this project will show people that crafts are hands-on, visceral, sensory activities which are very satisfying and grounding.”
Linda Hewson, creative director of Selfridges, said the potato-peeling workshop was all about getting pleasure out of simple tasks: “We are not expecting potato peeling to become a hobby. But the idea is to draw attention to those habitual tasks you would not normally notice or appreciate, and find a renewed value in them. It’s about a simple enjoyment and awareness of daily life – and taking the time appreciate it. ”