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The pursuit of happiness

Giulia Crouch on why the act of buying food at a food market can add to your happiness as well as your fridge


Words: Giulia Crouch / Imagery: Sophia Spring, Orlando Gili

I’ve been thinking a lot about food and happiness lately; what does it really mean to eat well?

In fact, it’s the question I explore in my new book, The Happiest Diet in the World, in which I examine the eating habits of the longest-living populations on the planet – places known as the ‘blue zones’. It’s not a diet in the modern sense – a short-term period of unsustainable restriction that’s supposed to result in weight loss but usually results in misery – but instead pertains to the original meaning of the word: the Greek ‘diaita’, meaning ‘a way of life’.

It’s a way of life because food isn’t simply about feeding yourself – we’re not cars and our dinner isn’t fuel. Instead, it can be many things: a creative outlet, a way to relax, a source of comfort and excitement. Eating a great meal is an undeniably fun thing to do.

Giulia Crouch shopping at Olivier’s Bakery

But primarily I think food is about connection. Cooking for someone is a way to bond with them and making a recipe is a way to connect with its writer. Then, there’s the act of buying food – a transaction of money for goods but also an exchange of ideas, a connection between trader and consumer.

In a supermarket it’s hard to access this feeling. Faceless, uniform and impersonal, produce is presented in plastic-wrapped trays from giant, buzzing fridges. But outdoor markets? Outdoor markets feel alive. These dynamic, ever-changing, playgrounds of food offer knowledge, inspiration and an experience that’s guaranteed to make you smile.

As a Londoner and someone who’s lived and worked within its proximity for many years, I think there is no finer example of this than Borough Market. Dating back around 1,000 years, Borough is composed of a huge host of independent traders selling everything from French cheese to Iraqi street food. It’s run by a charity, overseen by a board of volunteer trustees, which places a huge amount of importance on the wellbeing of the whole community – shoppers, traders and neighbours. I think you can feel this in the friendly, collegial atmosphere.

To me it’s always been a joyful place. I skip the crowds and visit on quiet weekday mornings or afternoons and take great pleasure in browsing without a shopping list, seeing what takes my fancy and what novelties I might discover. I come away with all sorts: jarred tuna in olive oil like you’ve never tasted before, a niche type of dense, nutty, German rye bread that you can’t buy anywhere else, mozzarella di bufala from my nonna’s Italian region of Campania, and some mushroom pâté too delicious to leave behind.

I love the feeling of closeness I get to the food. I can pick up and inspect the cabbages, I can squeeze a tomato to check its ripeness, I can smell the lemons and oranges as my mum’s voice chimes in my head: “If it smells of nothing, leave it behind.” And I can ask the seller where the produce has come from, what’s really fresh, what’s really good right now. Shopping like this leaves me feeling enlivened and full of ideas about what to cook.

While I’m always pleased with my purchases, it’s the interactions I’ve had in the market that leave me feeling so happy. I love food but I love the human stories behind food even more and Borough Market is chock-full of them. There are brilliant characters around every corner, each one of them a passionate expert in their speciality – nuts, British cheese, Calabrian ingredients, smoked fish, bread, you name it.

Marianna Kolokotroni of Oliveology offers a taste of honey to a shopper

Marianna Kolokotroni, founder of Oliveology, is a font of knowledge about the Greek products she sells. She can speak at length about provenance, the varying tasting notes of olive oil and explain the difference between commercial olive production and her naturally cured ones. Then there’s Steve Hook behind Hook & Son, a stand selling organic, unpasteurised dairy products, who has endless entertaining and informative anecdotes. Who knew milk could be so fascinating?

There is always something delightful about people who are really enthusiastic about what they do and when what they do is food there’s an added element of generosity to it. These people want you to be well fed. Sophie Bertucat, manager of Olivier’s Bakery, epitomises this. “I could just say customers are coming because it’s bread and everybody needs bread … but no, it’s much more than that,” she says. “We’re passionate about baking. To be able to serve such quality products, you must be in love with and believe in what you are doing. It’s the love of food you feel here. You take a bite of wonderful fresh bread or a fresh pastry, and you feel the love of who made it. It makes you feel at home.”

You can taste the care that’s gone into the food and you can see the friendly and familiar faces of the people behind it. Philip Crouch (no relation!), owner of The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand, says that what’s so special is you’re often buying the product from the person who actually made it. “Where else do you get that?” he says. It feels more personal because it is.

“I would say that people come for the exchange with the traders,” says Philip. “My daughter Esther is a fantastic asset to the business because she’s friendly, she’s knowledgeable and she’s there – you don’t get that consistency when you go to a supermarket. You don’t see the same faces. All the stalls have impeccable products and are impeccably curated but I think it’s the relationships that are created between trader and customer that keeps people coming back.”

Happy customers at Borough Market

Nicholas Fitzgerald, owner of Mexican street food stall Padre, thinks it’s also the variety of food and people at Borough Market that makes it so captivating. “It’s a kind of microcosm of London,” he says. “And what’s the best thing about London? It’s the diversity – it’s definitely not the house prices or the traffic. At Borough Market there’s such a wide range of traders selling such a wide range of things. You can get Indian food, Japanese food and Iraqi food. It’s a representation of what’s going on in London.”

Of course, there’s the beauty of the market too but more than that, with its twists and turns it offers a sense of mystery, of intrigue. “It’s the kind of space where you’re constantly discovering and exploring,” says Nicholas. “It’s not a symmetrical space like other retail offerings. Each alleyway is different and there’s something new and surprising on every corner. It’s unusual to navigate and it gives it a sense of adventure.”

Finally, if you visit with friends you can share plates with them, try new foods together and compare notes. Eating food in company, as I learnt in my book, is scientifically proven to make you feel happier than eating it alone and what a marvellous place to do it; a true hub of eating well. Now that is the diaita for me.

The Happiest Diet in the World by Giulia Crouch (New River, £16.99) is available now