How Food Shapes London

For most of us, working in London means that you never actually see the city unless you make the effort at the weekend. This means that every Saturday morning I become a tourist, heading straight to Southbank, Borough Market or, if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, Green Park. No prizes for guessing that I live on the Jubilee Line.

Every weekend another layer of London’s rich history is revealed. Whether it is through architecture, art or culture, there are complexities that you only fully realise when you allow yourself to wander, rather than rush, around the capital. The way the city has been sculpted by it’s inhabitants over hundreds of years is fascinating. The streets of London are desire lines, trodden between tourist sites, shopping destinations and travel links.

It began with London’s main trade systems, where fresh produce and products were imported to feed the city. These ports and harbours have geographically shaped our urban environment and we still find ourselves gathered in corners of the city that were originally designed for ancient London. Essentially, our way of urban living is directed by food and the systems that get food to our plates. You may not know it; but food shapes our city. This is such a simple concept, and yet, it is one that is sooften overlooked as we completely remove ourselves from the process, blindly picking things off the supermarket shelves without a second thought as to how it got there. I still can’t get my head around how bananas can travel over 3000 miles and only just be ripening in my kitchen!

I’m curious; if food has shaped our city, and our shopping/eating habits are ever-changing, what affect does this have on our landscape? I decided to go back to where it all began, the genesis of London’s trade story; Borough Market.

Borough Market began with London Bridge. It was the only route into the City of London from anywhere south of the river, and so acted as the first port of call for imported goods to be sold. The bridge was very different to how we see it today; it was quirky and chaotic with rickety buildings balanced precariously amongst masses of people and animals. Borough Market was born here, encouraging people to share their wealth and skills by buying and selling food and other goods. The Market still has an essence of this beginning, lively and colourful: a true, traditional, medieval marketplace. However, over the years it has become a middle-class metropolis with small bags of gluten-free, ‘home-baked’ granola easily setting you back a fiver. It seems odd that such a simple, traditional and natural experience has become considered something of a luxury. Borough Market fosters a very different culture to the one we see breeding in today’s supermarkets where convenience, ignorance and disconnectedness have become second nature.

The Market is alive with noise, fantastic smells and happy faces of people talking about their surroundings, discussing goods and sharing knowledge. It is this multi-sensory experience of food markets that attracts us to them and what encourages us to keep returning… and not just for the free tasters! If these places are so beloved, then it seems baffling how far removed supermarkets have become. Although they share the same history, supermarkets have spiralled into a world of unsustainable over-consumption and speed, monopolising the food industry.

As I wander round the Market, I realise what is missing from the starkly lit warehouses of Tesco and Sainsbury’s; it’s the hustle and bustle, the sense of sharing and community. It’s the hot chocolate made from the bean to the cup right in front of you. Simply, it’s the feeling of connectivity. This experience and involvement in the production of what we eat enhances the taste of our food. Think how delicious a fresh loaf of bread smells and tastes, when you have cooked it yourself on a Sunday afternoon. Increasingly, our experience is boiled down to peeling back plastic film and the ping of a microwave.

This begs the question: how does this cultural shift shape our city? Well, this is what I was asking myself as I call eating a pistachio flavoured Turkish delight ‘research’.

Supermarkets like Morrison’s still use the concept of a marketplace to design their stores. In an almost desperate attempt to claw back history, they build fake market stalls, providing us with the scenery but none of the atmosphere that truly enriches our experience. It seems like everything has just gone a bit too far.

Even so, we remove ourselves once again by shopping online. Avoiding supermarket queues, self-serving checkouts and conversations with strangers – or even those we know! This suggests that we do desire more than what supermarkets offer. However, we ignore the reality that by doing this we risk losing our towns altogether, and along with it any sense of community. The news is filled with headlines of shops closing; accountancy firm PwC commented that the high street is ‘running out of time’.  It seems a shame, and yet, if shopping from home is what we are inherently more comfortable doing then is it really a problem?

One thing is certain; our experience of the world is being re-shaped by our new habits. Whatever these may be, we should individually make an effort to ensure that we are shaping the future into one we enjoy inhabiting and not solely designed for convenience. For me, it’s a future where we share, converse and experience the vibrancy of the city – and we can’t quite get that with clicks onscreen. If only for the excuse to meet friends for a cup of mulled wine and a walk along London Bridge, we still need the satisfaction of a space like Borough Market.

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Photography curtesy of Sheila McKinney, a London based photographer who lives part-time in Canada.

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