Clare Finney talks to some of Borough’s primary producers about the impact of Covid-19 on their work, and discovers an inspiring show of resilience in the face of some of the toughest circumstances many have had to face
“Am I keeping my head above water? I would say I’m at snorkel level,” laughs Darren Brown, owner of Shellseekers Fish and Game (pictured below). The analogy is a pertinent one—Darren is a man who spends much of his time diving for the plump, meaty Devon scallops for which his stall is famed. When the effects of the pandemic first hit, it was “like a bomb going off,” he says. “It was terrible.” Yet six weeks on, with Borough Market Online flourishing and local residents and workers coming out to shop in person, it feels like while normality is still some way off, the new reality might not prove as devastating as many traders first feared.
Indeed, there have even been some positives—let’s start with those; we need to count our blessings where we can find them. One is that the lockdown-fuelled surge in people cooking at home from scratch has prompted a revitalisation of the produce shopping that has historically been at the Market’s core. “It’s like we’ve gone back to our roots a bit,” says Darren. “Selling good produce to customers who appreciate the provenance of their food, and connecting to local people.” Kath Dawson at Ted’s Veg (pictured top) agrees: “We’ve definitely noticed a rise in people shopping to cook and asking for recommendations.” They’re buying their basics, she says, but they are also “looking to try different things. If it’s not too busy, we give them suggestions. I hope it is changing how people eat for the better.”
Darren and Kath are lucky—well, as lucky as any small business can be in such a time—in that they weren’t overly reliant on wholesale customers. Every Borough Market trader who regularly supplied restaurants, cafes and catering businesses has seen that market collapse more or less overnight. “You have to turn on a sixpence,” Kath says of the rapidity with which she has had to redirect produce intended for wholesale, or indeed for sale on the stall—which, since social distancing rules have come into force in the Market, has had a fraction of the amount of traffic it would otherwise see, resulting into a new emphasis on digital platforms. “But we’re a good team and were able to hire a few more staff to cope with the number of web orders, so we’ve coped. When you’re running your own business, you don’t have much choice.”
This pragmatic, sleeves-up attitude is typical not just of Kath but of all the traders at Borough Market. Ginger Pig has re-employed all drivers previously involved in restaurant deliveries to handle home deliveries instead. Over at Bread Ahead, the lockdown has skewered both the wholesale business and the in-house baking classes—but the bakery’s Instagram following has reached a whole new level, thanks to owner and founder Matt Jones’s live tutorials. “We’ve got another 60,000 followers in just three and a half weeks,” he whistles. His classes, combined with his quick-witted decision to add packed flour and yeast to his online delivery offering, has widened his reach among born-again bakers and sourdough stalwarts frustrated by the national shortage of both.
But gaining more social media followers does not immediately equate with better finances, and Bread Ahead is still facing “a commercial nightmare”. The surge in sales online “does not begin to make up for the shortfall”. But despite the financial struggles, these traders are heartened by the renewed interest in ‘real’ produce and the people behind it. “We’re getting bread into people’s lives, and that’s an essential, joyful component,” says Matt. Tim Wilson, owner of Ginger Pig (pictured below), agrees: “People are more open to butchers’ suggestions. That’s not changing for the worse,” he says.
Tim has used Ginger Pig’s relatively sizeable reach to support the farmers who now more than ever struggle to find outlets. “A good friend of mine has a farm up in Cumbria farming a very specific style of Galloway cows, for a particular wholesale butcher,” he says. “After the lockdown, the butcher rang up and said he didn’t want any more—and that is a real problem that a lot of farmers will be struggling with.” They can’t stop feeding the cows and they can’t sell them either. Larger abattoirs are also closing, due in part to the struggles of social distancing and in part to their inability to balance the carcasses now that so many of the country’s burger joints (which took all the mince from the less valuable cuts of the animal) are no longer operating. Ginger Pig can’t do much for the intensive farms that are bearing the brunt of these consequences, but it can support those farmers who meet its own exacting welfare and quality standards. Tim’s Cumbrian friend is now supplying Ginger Pig, and Tim is inviting any struggling farmer who has supplied him in the past to come back into the fold. “There are a lot of people we wouldn’t take meat from, but we need good meat. We’re keen to help.”
In light of the supply chain problems exposed by this pandemic, what is interesting to note is just how much better able small producers are at managing their stocks and supplies than mass production facilities. “It’s not unusual for an abattoir to be killing and processing 500 or 600 heads of cattle a week,” says Tim. “We take 20, and we don’t buy them cut. They go to our three shops in London for butchering.” It makes the abattoir a safer place—there aren’t whole teams of butchers processing the carcass on the same site, a social distancing nightmare—and the Ginger Pig butchers, knowing their local audience, are far better equipped to balance the carcasses out. “Anyone can sell fillet steak or bacon all year long, but you can’t keep killing pigs for bacon,” Tim says. A good butcher has the “knowledge of his stock and his customers” to nudge them toward purchases that meet their needs, while ensuring the whole carcass is sold. Over Easter, Ginger Pig sold loins or half legs of lamb and pork chops, rather than shoulders, “because people weren’t having big feasts. They were catering for one, two, four people max.” With strong sales in both prime cuts and pies, lasagnes and other deli meals “that use up a lot of that forequarter meat in a delicious way”, Ginger Pig has succeeded in balancing carcasses “pretty well”.
Tim’s hope is that “when we go back to normal, some of the better practices around supply chains, abattoirs and farming will endure”. It’s not impossible. Across the board at Borough Market and beyond, on veg boxes and farm deliveries, traders have seen a rise in the number of people looking to spend more on quality food. “Quality fish is seen as a luxury. It is not cheap anymore,” says Darren—a point echoed by Matt at Bread Ahead. “We’ve barely talked about doughnuts or cinnamon buns. It is bread people are interested in”—and they’ve all the more appreciation for good bread, now they’re baking it themselves.
An absolute lifeline
One of the most extraordinary stories to have emerged since lockdown began born of one of the most upsetting: the plight of British farmhouse cheesemakers. Just three weeks ago Neal’s Yard Dairy’s director Jason Hinds spoke of the dozens of cheesemakers who, left with mountains of cheese intended for wholesale, “faced the prospect of throwing away cheese and pouring milk down the drain”. The future of British cheesemaking hung in the balance. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and a direct appeal from Jamie Oliver to his legion of Instagram followers, which enabled the Dairy to sell thousands of boxes of cheese—so much so that like-minded cheesemongers around the country had to be drafted in to help fill all the orders. It’s proving “an absolute lifeline” to cheesemakers like Todd Trethowan of Trethowan’s Dairy, who had to furlough staff and stop making cheese almost overnight when the lockdown hit. “It’s not even about the sales, though that is a massive help to our business—it’s the fact so many people care about British cheese. We’re just delighted.” Equally reassuring has been the backing of Borough Market, which “has been in touch every week, and been incredibly supportive,” he says feelingly—a sentiment echoed by the other producers I speak to, who have been as reassured by the Market’s emotional and practical backing as they have by Borough Market Online sales.
“At the end of the day, these are local economies that businesses like mine support,” says Darren. “The lads I employ in Dorset, the lads up here in London, they need us to survive. There is so much riding on it.” From Tim’s farmers in Yorkshire and Cumbria, to the Trethowans’ cheesemakers and farmers in Somerset, it’s a similar tale. Borough Market doesn’t just feed the community and economy of SE1: it is part of a far larger web of producers, and the people who are employed by them. In this time of deep uncertainty, with the future of British food hanging in the balance, the Market is set—and primed—to play a vital role.