Borough Market is rich with history, but it remains as relevant now as it has ever been. As London’s oldest food market, it has been serving the people of Southwark for 1,000 years, and that extraordinary heritage is an important part of its appeal.
But this is not a museum piece—it is a dynamic, ever-changing institution; a participant in the wider debates around what we eat and where it comes from; a place where food is talked about almost as enthusiastically as it is consumed.
First and foremost, though, it is a source of genuinely exceptional produce. Many of the Market’s stallholders are themselves producers: the farmer who reared the animal, the fisherman who caught the fish, the baker who baked the bread. Other traders have built their reputations on seeking out small-scale artisan producers and bringing their wares to Borough. Together, the Market’s stalls, shops and restaurants reflect London’s status as a truly global city, with traditional British produce sitting alongside regional specialities from around the world.
Borough Market is a riot of colours, smells and human engagement. The traders—a vast repository of culinary knowledge—are only too happy to share their expertise with shoppers, or else just pass the time of day. Their voices are added to by the chefs, food writers, campaigners and teachers who help make the Market’s cookery demonstrations, publications, public debates and educational programmes so highly regarded.
The Act of Parliament from 1754 that helped establish Borough Market in its current form was very clear about the period of time over which this important institution would be expected to operate. The Market would, it was written, remain “an estate for the use and benefit” of the local community “for ever”. Not for weeks or months or even centuries, but for all eternity.
The body responsible for fulfilling this rather daunting remit is a charitable trust, run by a board of volunteer trustees. For generation after generation, the Market’s trustees have had to overcome some significant challenges—from the arrival of the railway line in the 1860s, to the bombs that fell in the 1940s, to the slow decline of fruit and veg wholesale in the 80s and 90s—but so far, so good. As the city it serves has changed, this famous London institution has continued to evolve.
While the management team is responsible for the day to day running of the Market, the trust oversees its strategic governance. Trustees are drawn from a variety of related sectors and are chosen for the breadth and relevance of their skills and experience. Their job is to ensure that the Market continues to adapt to changes in the world of food production and consumption, and to use its influence to help shape those changes. Ultimately, their responsibility is to pass on the Market to the next generation in the best possible shape. And so on down the line.
Adrian Bunnis is chairman of Greycoat, a property development company. He specialises in the commercial real estate market in central London and has been involved in the assembly of sites for a number of high-profile City of London commercial schemes.
Ann Ball has worked in social housing and community regeneration for over 30 years becoming managing director of a housing association in east London and chief executive of a New Deal for Communities Programme in New Cross. More recently she has been working with housing providers supporting improvement in their operations and asset management services.
David Lyon, has 17 years’ experience as a charity accountant helping charities and other not-for-profit organisations make the most of their resources – physical, human and financial. He is also a founding trustee of the Forces in Mind Trust, a lottery-funded initiative which aims to improve the life experience of those leaving the armed services.
Bengü Said is a scientist working in health protection. Her research interests include gastrointestinal and zoonotic diseases and she provides expert advice on managing and preventing public health threats. Bengü is also chair of the exclusion and admissions appeals committees for a London Education Authority.
Drew Cullen has over 25 years experience of working in professional publishing, charities and the not-for-profit sector. He is currently director of corporate communications and marketing of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and brings a wide range of experience from marketing, brand management, communications, media relations, and public affairs.
Claire Pritchard is CEO of the Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency, a social enterprise. Food has played an important part in her work, with urban growing, school food projects, community cookery clubs and street markets all featuring prominently. She currently sits on the London Food Board.
Borough Market’s approach to sustainability goes far beyond the usual platitudes. Its mission is to explore methods of production, consumption and waste disposal that have a positive impact on the wider environment, while using its national profile to encourage others to do the same.
The Market’s aim is to put every leftover piece of food or packaging to the best possible use—to see raw materials where others see refuse. Nothing goes to landfill. All cardboard, paper, plastic, glass or wood is recycled. Borough’s partnership with the charity Plan Zheroes means that surplus produce from many of the stalls ends up being distributed to local charities, rather than being thrown in the bin. Around 600kg of spent coffee grounds are collected each month to be transformed into biofuels and fertiliser, some of which is put to use in the Market Hall’s planting beds. All remaining food waste is sent to an anaerobic digestion plant—a facility that uses microorganisms to break down organic material and turn it into power, fertiliser and water.
The eradication of single-use plastic from the Market has been a particular focus in recent years. Single-use plastic bottles are no longer sold anywhere on the estate, and the three water fountains that were installed in 2017 are now being used by visitors to supply a volume of water equivalent to 1,750 standard bottles per day—a fourth fountain is on its way in 2020. In 2019, Borough became the first food market in the UK to replace plastic carrier bags with a fully biodegradable alternative, made from GM-free cornstarch. It is even possible to buy cling film made from local beeswax rather than plastic at the Borough Market Store.
Throughout the Market, traders use as little packaging as possible, and when it is needed it is often either biodegradable or compostable. Most of the produce is sold loose—an approach that reduces food waste as well as cutting down on plastic—and many traders actively encourage customers to bring their own bags, cups, cutlery and containers. Even granola can now be bought at the Market free of packaging.
Demonstrating the sustainability of their work is one of the main challenges for any business wishing to trade at Borough, but the Market is not prescriptive in dictating how they go about this. Instead, traders are given the latitude to take their own direction and tell their own stories, many of which you will find on this website. The common thread is that all of them, in one form or another, promote alternatives to mainstream methods of food production and consumption that can make a real difference to the planet. For producers, this means using approaches that value quality and sustainability over profit. For consumers, it means eating with the seasons, questioning the provenance of ingredients, favouring pasture-fed meat, prizing meat and fish as items of value rather than everyday staples, buying only what’s needed and eating every bit of it.
Borough market and Slow food
Borough Market has transformed since I first knew it, but it has always been one of the best examples in the world of not just good produce, but of culture and a growing, sustainable economy.
Slow Food is a worldwide movement that supports a low impact approach to food production, with an emphasis on localised traditions and customs. Its philosophy closely mirrors that of Borough Market, and in recent years the ties between these two organisations have become increasingly close.
The Market is filled with traders whose approach to producing or sourcing has gained them official accreditation from Slow Food UK. Many of the products sold here have also been recognised by Slow Food as distinctive local foodstuffs whose survival would be at risk if it weren’t for a small number of artisans working hard to keep them relevant.