Back in 1998, Borough Market reinvented itself in a way that captured the zeitgeist, and it continues to evolve as the world around it changes
Trust in the system
In 1998, British farming was in the grip of an existential crisis. The spread of BSE—so-called ‘mad cow’s disease’—had led to a worldwide export ban on British beef and brought the rural economy to its knees. Consumer confidence, too, had reached a nadir with the revelation that intensively reared cows had been routinely fed the brains and spinal cords of other cattle. When Borough Market’s retail operation began to take shape, its popularity was in part a response to a growing sense of unease among shoppers. What the Market offered, by allowing for direct conversations between passionate, small-scale producers and wary shoppers, was not just good food but a sense of trust. The importance of that trust was emphasised in 2013, when horse meat was discovered in supermarket ‘beef’ burgers. This time, fault lay with the long, complex and worryingly opaque supply chains used by food manufacturers and giant food retailers and the inadequacy of labelling laws. The supermarkets didn’t know that eastern European horsemeat had inveigled its way into their fridges—but that in itself is problematic. Borough Market, by contrast, remains a place where supply chains are as short and simple as can be—the trader selling to you either is the producer or knows the producer well. This is a market where, if someone wanted to sell you horsemeat—and while no one currently does, it’s by no means implausible—it would be clearly labelled as horse and the trader would be able to tell you its breed, about the place it was raised, and how best to cook it.
Until quite recently, most people would throw away an empty plastic water bottle as blithely as they would an apple core. Now, thanks to a steady trickle of alarming information about the damage done to animals, ecosystems and human health both by the plastic objects themselves and by their breakdown into microplastics—a flow that finally broke through the dam of public indifference in the wake of the BBC’s Blue Planet II in 2018—things have changed. We can’t hide from how damaging plastic is, or from the inadequacy of the country’s plastic recycling capacity. Borough Market’s response to the plastic crisis has been both forceful and influential. Single-use plastic bottles are no longer sold anywhere on the estate, and the three water fountains that were installed here in 2017 have been supplying a volume equivalent to 1,750 standard bottles per day—a fourth fountain has just been installed. Plastic bags have been replaced with fully biodegradable cornstarch alternatives, which can be disposed of with a clear conscience. Most of the food in the Market is sold loose, which both reduces the potential for food waste and cuts down on plastic. The Borough Market Store has even added to its offering a plastic-free alternative to clingfilm, made from beeswax-infused cotton.
Before there was street food there were legions of kebab vans, parked up in the wee small hours in any spot where the possibility of hungry drunk people passing was sufficiently high to offset the risk of a visit from environmental health. When the street food phenomenon began to take off in the mid-noughties, though, it transformed kerbside eating from something health-endangering and mildly shameful to something genuinely exciting. As recession bit, creative young cooks who didn’t have the money to lease a building suddenly found an outlet. Rather than needing the crowds to come to them, they could go looking for the crowds, and wherever they popped up nascent social media platforms helped them build a buzz. From the start, Borough Market was quick to embrace the energy, inventiveness and ethnic diversity of the street food scene. Now it’s taking it to a different level of sophistication, moving beyond street food. The new Borough Market Kitchen is about outdoor cookery, but its setting—located right beside a produce market and filled with communal tables—slows down the pace, encourages interaction, and emphasises the connection between the food on the plate and the high quality ingredients that went into it, many of which are supplied by the Market’s produce traders.
As is true of almost every aspect of life, social media has had a transformative effect on the food world, for good or ill. By offering routes by which like-minded people can share ideas, opinions, experiences and recipes, its platforms have sparked endless conversations—in which Borough Market, part of the role of which is to educate and engage, is a willing participant. It has opened doors for creative people—lots of chefs, writers and producers who lack the social connections that smooth the career paths of the more fortunate are now able to build their own audiences and create their own opportunities at very little cost. It has also turned Borough Market into one of London’s most photographed places. Back in 1998, you only really saw pictures of food in cookbooks (and not always in them) or on the laminated menus of greasy spoon cafes and Chinese takeaways. Now, about half the internet is taken up with food images and videos, and people can build whole careers from just photographing their breakfast. Borough’s compelling atmosphere and striking aesthetic help draw in visitors and inform their purchases—Bread Ahead doughnuts, Padella’s pasta and Shellseekers’ scallops are, without question, utterly exceptional, but the long queues that snake towards them on a daily basis are a reflection not just of the craftmanship of their production but of their visual pull. The Market’s stalls now look much more appealing now than they ever used to—it’s a basic requirement in this visual age. Our challenge, by engaging with people through social media as well as out in the marketplace, spreading the expert knowledge of our traders and encouraging people to cook with seasonal produce, is to prove to the world that unphotogenic food can taste good too.
In 1998, it was already clear that the internet was the future. The online sphere glowed with the glorious promise of a new, convenient way of selling things, while still being uniformly bad at selling anything at all. This led to the rapid inflation of a giant financial bubble filled with hot air and technobabble, which popped as the dotcom boom came to its inglorious end. Now, the commercial potential of the internet is being realised to a degree that even those giddy early investors would probably have thought unrealistic. Borough Market’s response has been to embrace the fact that, while there’s clearly no substitute for visiting a market in person, the convenience of online shopping can increase the accessibility of high quality produce and provide valuable support to its community of independent traders. The new Borough Market Online service offers produce from dozens of the Market’s traders, which customers can either collect from a hub in the Green Market or, if they’re based within a mile and a half of Borough, have dispatched to their door by our partners, Good Sixty, via state of the art zero-emission electric cargo bikes.
The ethical and environmental concerns of shoppers have informed the appeal of Borough’s retail market since day one. Those first visitors came here not only because the food tasted good, but because high welfare meat, organic produce and fairly traded imports weren’t widely available elsewhere. As every year has passed, the iniquity, wastefulness and environmental damage that flow from the world’s industrialised food systems have become both more acute and widely understood. The climate crisis and the role that food production plays in it—particularly the rapacious demand for energy and land from the meat and dairy industries—has fuelled a growing belief that animal products should not be seen as cheap, everyday staples. At Borough Market, vegetarians and vegans are well catered for, while our butchers and cheesemongers support low-intensity systems of husbandry in which the animals are a valuable part of the landscape, not a threat to it. We shout loudly about the pleasures and environmental benefits of eating produce that’s in season and at its best—the joy of waiting eagerly for the English asparagus season to start, rather than making do with less tasty versions shipped from Peru. We have stallholders who promote forms of fishing that protect fish stocks and sea beds. Others are committed to ethical honey production, agroforestry and the sale of wild meats. Our hundred-plus traders take many different approaches to addressing the problems inherent to the food system, but all of them are, one way or another, working to be part of the solution.